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Rooting for superstars is a no-brainer. As often as not, though, your favorite player emerges not from a pile of year-end awards, but from somewhere a little more special. We asked our bloggers to talk about their cult favorite players.
There's a question, framed as a joke, that goes around Wrigley Field during many batting practices when we see a human being of slight build, with high socks, running around the outfield. It goes: "Tony Campana? Or batboy?" If you can't see Campana's No. 1 shirt (worn because, in theory, wearing No. 1 makes you look taller), you might not be able to tell. Campana is listed at 5-foot-7, but in reality is a couple inches shorter than that, and looks like your kid brother who got cut from the "B" baseball team in high school.
He's about the unlikeliest major-league player you could imagine. He's a survivor of Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which he had as a child; after 10 years of treatment he went into remission, and starred on the baseball team at the University of Cincinnati. He hit well enough in the minor leagues to make the Cubs in 2010, and has played parts of the last three years with the team.
Truth be told, Campana's not a very good player. Despite his small stature — and thus strike zone — he doesn't walk much. He has no power — nine extra-base hits in 310 career at-bats — and his only home run was an inside-the-park job that bounced away from Yonder Alonso, who had no business being in left field in the first place.
But Campana can run. Fast. Very fast. Every time he's on base he's a threat to steal; he's been successful in 91% of his career attempts, and with 30 steals in 2012 he was tied for ninth in the NL despite having hundreds of plate appearances fewer than anyone in the top 20 in steals.
He's fun to watch. He plays the game with infectious enthusiasm and knows how lucky he is to be a major-league player. What's not to like?
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While it's hard to pick out a true "irrational" hatred for a former Brewers player, there are plenty of players whom many fans of the team absolutely loved despite a middling on-the-field performance at best. Guys like Craig Counsell, Brooks Kieschnick, Seth McClung, Brady Clark, Brian Shouse, and so many more. But to me, one guy stands out above the rest. There is one man who became almost a figure of myth among Brewers fans. He is the man who hit the longest home run in Miller Park history, a 480-foot goliath shot to dead center that there appears to be no video of anywhere.
I'm speaking, of course, of Russell "The Muscle" Branyan. Branyan, a former top prospect, started off his career with the Indians and Reds, and showed fantastic power potential. In fact, in 2000, when he first received substantial playing time in the majors, he hit 16 home runs in just 67 games. Unfortunately, he did not receive nearly enough playing time in Milwaukee and had just 280 at-bats in his first two-year stint with the Brewers. He came back to Milwaukee in 2008 and played in just 50 games but hit 12 homers!. Branyan was the essence of a three-true-outcomes player: He struck out a lot, had a good on-base percentage, and, of course, could hit the long ball. He may not have made contact very often, but when he did...well, when he did he hit the ball longer than anyone ever has in Miller Park.
For more Brewers coverage, please visit SB Nation's Brew Crew Ball.
Cincinnati Reds — Corky Miller
As he did Tampa Bay and now Oakland, Jonny Gomes had a lot of cred with Reds fans, even after his stat line started to tank. Nevertheless, Corky Miller is probably the reigning cult favorite in Cincinnati. Like Grover Cleveland, he has robust facial hair — recently, a fu manchu. Also like Grover Cleveland, he's served non-consecutive terms. He's had three separate stints with the Reds and has evolved into something of an organization sage down in Louisville — a less grizzled, less surly take on Crash Davis. Among his quotable moments was his response to players complaining about autographs: “If you don’t like it, play worse.”
He also recently pitched an inning of relief at AAA. I imagine if they showed the video — which we have on our Red Reporter YouTube channel — at midnight in an art house theater, college kids would show up to act it out and throw mustache combs at the screen or something.
For more Reds coverage, please visit SB Nation's Red Reporter.
Houston Astros — Billy Spiers
Looking for a Houston Astros cult favorite player? That guy was definitely Billy Spiers. He was always a role player; he never really started for an entire season for the Astros and he only had one good season in Houston. But he seemed to be involved in so many big games, hitting walkoff home runs, filling in at third base, and doing so many things that fans are drawn to.
Of course, Sean Berry was probably the better option at third base, but I can remember thinking every time Berry got the start that it should be Spiers in there instead. It helped that Spiers played on some very good Astros teams that were going to the playoffs and sustaining success for the first time in franchise history.
The funny thing is, Spiers was sort of at the end of his career at the time. If he were added to the team today, I'd probably rail against him playing to no end. But, back then? He was right up there with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
For more Astros coverage, please visit SB Nation's Crawfish Boxes.
I'll take Craig Wilson here, who in the early part of the last decade seemed to me to be the yin to Jack Wilson's — no relation — yang. Jack was handed a starting job in 2001 even though he clearly wasn't ready; Craig joined the team the same year and didn't get a starting job despite hitting 33 homers in Class AAA the previous season and looking like he was ready to mash at the big league level.
Wilson continued to ride the bench in 2001 and ended up tying the Major League record for pinch-hit home runs. That the team continued to use him as a bench player throughout the season even though he was a hot-hitting 24-year-old on a 100-loss team struck me as nothing short of amazing. Wilson continued to toil as a bench player through most of his five-plus years in Pittsburgh, usually rotting behind inferior veterans like Kevin Young, Randall Simon, and Jeromy Burnitz.
In retrospect, Wilson wasn't nearly as good as his fanboys thought he was, and our enthusiasm for him was a byproduct of an era when sabermetrics-oriented fans didn't care about defense. But he still deserved better from the Pirates, and the team's bizarre treatment of him typified a time when the Pirates just didn't seem to care about winning.
For more Pirates coverage, please visit SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.
Viva El Birdos — Ray Lankford
Like a lot of bloggers who started circa Baseball Prospectus and Moneyball and all that, my cult-favorite player wasn't a lovable loser or a scrappy hustler but a guy who did a lot of things well that the people around me at the stadium consistently failed to notice. For the Cardinals in the early aughts, that was Ray Lankford, one of the best Cardinals of all time, and one of the least popular Cardinals in the history of Busch Stadium II.
Ray the K (a nickname angry fans all seemed to discover, spontaneously and independently, after their third $7 beer) was a Whiteyball-style speedy outfielder who by 2000 or so had gotten a little fat-looking and turned into a three-true-outcomes left fielder. He was underrated in his prime, when he was one of the best center fielders in baseball, so by the turn of the millenium, hitting .250 or so with a bunch of walks nobody cared about and some insufficiently Whiteyball home runs, he was a pariah.
My certainty that he was being undervalued by the drunks behind us at Busch eventually led me to a Rob Neyer article about his surprisingly solid OPS, which led me to be very interested in what OPS was, which led me to sabermetrics and blogging and everything else I've done for the last 12 years or so.
For more Cardinals coverage, please visit SB Nation's Viva El Birdos.