Today brought the sad -- for me -- baseball news item that the Washington Nationals had released Matt Stairs, who was hitting just .156 this season. This probably means the end of the 43-year-old Stairs' 19-year major league career; he holds one significant MLB record, for most pinch-hit home runs (23).
Normally, the release of a middle-aged bench player like this would be one line in the agate type of a transaction list in a newspaper (if you still even read one), or a throwaway tweet.
But Matt Stairs has always been a favorite of mine, for a number of reasons, so this is an ode to an implausible major leaguer who made the absolute most out of his talent -- even though, with a little luck, he could have been even better.
Matt Stairs was born in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. Right there, that makes him extremely unlikely to have had a major league career. Only 10 other men born in New Brunswick have ever played in the major leagues, and before Stairs arrived, there had been only one (Rheal Cormier) since the 1950s.
The Montreal Expos signed Stairs as a non-drafted free agent in 1989. He hit well enough to get a couple cups of coffee with the Expos in 1991 and 1992, but didn't really have a fielding position, so he was shunted to the Red Sox and then the Athletics, who didn't really give him a shot till he was 29.
And then he had three excellent years as the A's DH (though he played some outfield and first base too), finishing 17th in AL MVP voting in 1999. When he had a somewhat less-excellent year in 2000, the A's swapped him to the Cubs for a minor league pitcher.
At 33, Stairs did a credible job at first base and in the outfield for the Cubs -- and in a blowout game where Don Baylor somehow double-switched himself out of spare middle infielders, Stairs even played two innings at second base on June 13, 2001 at Arizona. He was flawless as a second baseman -- he'd played some second in the minors, believe it or not -- with no errors (OK, so he didn't handle the ball at all). He endeared himself to Cubs fans by hanging out with them at Bernie's bar, a block from Wrigley Field, but when the Cubs acquired Fred McGriff, Stairs was reduced to pinch-hitting and was let go at the end of the 2001 season. During Stairs' time in Chicago, though, I came to have a personal affinity for him, perhaps because we share a vague resemblance, both in facial hair and, um, physique.
And that, too, might have been the end of the line, except teams kept signing or trading for him: the Brewers, the Pirates, the Royals, the Rangers, the Tigers, the Blue Jays, the Phillies, the Padres, and finally the Nationals and as Baseball Nation's Grant Brisbee notes, if only one more team he hasn't played for would sign him, he'd set a record (13) for most teams played for.
Alas, that doesn't appear likely. If only one of those teams would have installed him as an everyday DH, maybe he'd have hit 400 or more career HR. Instead, he retires with 268 -- still, only 168 players in MLB history have hit more -- and a solid .832 OPS, 234th all time, so he had a better career than 95 percent of all major leaguers. And he also leaves us with this wonderful video, made during an interview after his game-winning home run in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS:
That one helped send the Phillies to the World Series, and Matt got himself a ring. Raise a glass -- he'd like that -- in admiration of his improbable 19-year career.