The Ironic Jersey Omnibus Lives

Men with invisible torsos salute America. (via Airman Melissa Vanderwyst)

Men with invisible torsos salute America. (via Airman Melissa Vanderwyst)

The Ironic Jersey Omnibus returns after a lengthy but not uncharacteristic absence. For four years, its mission: to examine the culture of a baseball team, distill the essence of its fandom, and then to establish which jerseys, as worn by a fan, make the most self-aware and challenging statements to his or her comrades. The first 12 teams were catalogued via the electronic pages of NotGraphs; 17 remain. (The Yankees, who are too classy to allow names on the backs of any of their jerseys, are exempted from the exercise.) Today, we hop into our 1926 Hudson Super Six, head west to the Modern Dust Bowl, and examine two teams: the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants.

The Padres entry would have looked vastly different if I had written these in a timely manner: until last December, the Padres had a pleasantly consistent, tapioca-like texture to their history. Particularly in its Petco-branded phase, the franchise was perfectly suited to the beige that was for so long its dominant color. For nearly 50 years San Diego baseball has delivered all the pleasantness and drama of a warm sandy beach, hope cresting noisily on the horizon, the undertow lurking beneath.

After years of sunning itself on the rocks, the franchise suddenly bolted upright and Made its Move this offseason, selling off everyone in the organization not old enough to buy beer. The results so far are mixed, and new manager Pat Murphy is probably less than impressed by the balance on the roster, but the activity has fans thinking about winning – if perhaps from a distant, philosophical aspect – for the first time in ages. With that, there are many statements to be made.

1972 Nate Colbert: Only for the Padres could the team’s record holder for career home runs be considered indie. And yet Colbert, the team’s first star (and perhaps its only one for a decade) largely has been forgotten. Perhaps it’s because his tenure included nine consecutive last-place finishes, or because a back injury finished him by the age of 30. Perhaps Padres fans simply prefer to think the ’70s never existed. Regardless, Colbert deserves better. Or, alternatively, he can be used as a protest against the team trading away every star who approaches his outdated record.

1976 Enzo Hernandez: Numberelevenenzo Herrrrnandez was the Padre ancestor of Ozzie Smith, a prototype for him in nearly every way. Slick with the glove, Hernandez was a formality with the bat, posting a career 61 wRC+ over six seasons before he gave Colbert his back disease and retired. If Colbert was unjustly obscured by his team’s failure, Hernandez was symbolized by it. He is perhaps most famous today for having, in 618 leadoff plate appearances his rookie year, knocked in a scant 12 base runners. Added bonus with both of these jerseys: mustard!

1978 Mike Champion: Buy now and wait patiently.

1985 Gary Templeton: Bubble gum-blowing champion Kurt Bevacqua is the easy (lazy) name to celebrate the 1984 World Series team, so much so that the Petco team stores sell his shirseys alongside the Winfields and the Garveys. (Note: Garvey jerseys are not ironic, no matter how mainstream OBP gets.) Templeton played well in the 1984 playoffs, but more importantly, as Geoff Young of BP notes, “people still talk about how he fired up the home crowd in the ’84 NLCS and helped get the Padres back into that series.” Not a bad reputation for a guy traded straight up for a future Hall of Famer. Of course, as Young notes, “Ozzie hit like Brendan Ryan when he was here, and had fewer homers while wearing a Padres uniform than Calvin Schiraldi did.”

1988 Tim Flannery: A Flannery jersey isn’t a complicated gesture. The underpowered second baseman was a humongous fan favorite in his 11 years in San Diego. It’s hard not only to describe what he did on the field, but his fans’ admiration also contains a simple, powerful message: our affections for the men who arbitrarily represent us aren’t solely and cynically based on the amount of value they create.

1989 Ed Whitson: No player ever felt so at home in San Diego as Shirtless Ed, the prodigal son of the 1984 World Series team. Lured to the Big Apple by fortune and fame, Whitson’s tenure was a disaster. Broiled by the bright lights and the Yankees’ terrible defense, Whitson slumped early and never escaped the barbs of the fans or the sucker punch of Billy Martin, with whom he eventually traded a broken rib for a broken arm. Delivered back to the Padres a year and a half later with a handful of change for the bus fare, Whitson went on to post three of his four most successful seasons.

1998 Ken Caminiti: Considered around the country to be either a cheat or a tragic hero, the late Most Valuable Player represents a very different theme within the Gaslamp Quarter. The steroids do not impugn this legacy; if anything, they strengthen it. It was almost no surprise that he used them, in fact, because it was clear that Caminiti would use anything, do anything, that would let him play baseball. The most famous example of this is the Snickers game, in which Caminiti, dehydrated during a team trip to Mexico, had the IVs pulled from his arms, begged for a candy bar for the energy, and sprinted out to his spot at third base. He hit two home runs before getting replaced amidst a rout. It’s a kind of zealotry that is often dangerous but also often admirable: the same passion sought by many fans themselves.

2004 Akinori Otsuka: The lasting legacy of the Padres of the 2000s was their ability to forge an endless supply of excellent relievers to set up Trevor Hoffman: Luke Gregerson, Scott Linebrink, Heath Bell, Mike Adams. But Otsuka, 32-year-old closer signed for the near the league minimum under the shadow of inevitable Japanese megastar Kazuo Matsui, might have been the best among them. He spent only two years in San Diego, but his rookie season in particular (77.1 IP, 1.75 ERA) must have made Padres fans believe anything could be possible, assuming that anything involved holding a one-run lead in the seventh.

2005 Brian Giles: Giles had one of the most thankful, invisible great careers in baseball history. He finished with 54.9 fWAR – more than Todd Helton, more than Vladimir Guerrero and Jim Rice and Sandy Koufax – and yet he failed to earn even a single Hall of Fame vote. Aaron Sele got a vote. So did Randy Myers, Jim Deshaies and Walt Weiss. Not even the Padres beat writers could toss Giles a bone.

We’re talking about a player who for years had to go by Brian S. Giles because there was a terrible utility infielder named Brian Giles five years before. We’re talking about a four-win player who got traded for a middle reliever, Ricardo Rincon, most famous for eliciting a Jonah Hill fist pump. We’re talking about a guy whose park was so terrible in the end that he posted a 136 wRC+ in his last full season, one in which he hit 12 home runs. A Giles jersey is a testament to the value of history, the idea that a Giles is impossible to remember, and yet we should remember. We must remember. We must force ourselves by any means.

2009 Tony Gwynn: Okay, the only real reason to do this is to have a different number on your Gwynn jersey than everyone else. But Gwynn Jr. wasn’t actually too bad for the Padres in his two years there! It wasn’t base nepotism! Or it was, and it just happened to work out.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Honorable Mentions: 1969 Joe Niekro, 1969 Billy McCool, 1996 Rickey Henderson, 2004 Sean Burroughs, 2008 Dirk Hayhurst

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And then there is San Francisco. No franchise has spun so quickly on its philosophical axis as the Giants, once Charlie Brown’s baseball team of choice, now the symbols of repeated success. The 2014 champion edition in particular felt like overkill, a senseless accident, like a horse falling and crushing its rider under its weight. Yet we can hardly blame the fans for their good fortune. These are no Best Fans in Baseball, no haughty dilettantes.

Giants fandom is existentialism with a positive bent. Instead of rationalizing tornados and floods, or creating original sin to justify evil, they keep finding 20 bucks in their coat pocket. Other fan bases, beholden to process and reason, would create a belief system that justified their place as the Chosen Ones; Giants fans simply take the 20 bucks and go buy some nice beer.

1978 Jack Clark: As a rule, I try to avoid listing the same player on multiple omnibii. But the Other Clark’s offensive peak came with St. Louis. He combined All-Star level hitting with capable outfield defense to be a truly underrated star in a rare dark time in modern Giant history. Clark even managed to steal 15 bases in 1978 to go with his 25 home runs. At least, unlike Giles, he was able to collect seven whole Hall votes in his only year on the ballot. He was a star during a dark time, and all times, even the dark ones, deserve to be remembered.

1979 Johnnie LeMaster: The easiest call of this entire project, probably. A feckless and fruitless middle infielder of the late ’70s and early ’80s, “Johnny Disaster” had grown so appreciative of the negative feedback he’d been receiving that he had the equipment manager stitch up a uniform with the word “BOO” in place of his name. He wore it for one inning. The team’s general manager fired the equipment manager (temporarily) and fined LeMaster $500 for undermining the solemn dignity of the San Francisco Giants. It was money well spent, as the gesture won over the fans, who treated him with respect, or at least with reduced hostility, for the rest of his career.

1985 Scott Garrelts: No one ever quite knew what to do with Garrelts, a sculpture of eyeglass and mustache, a papier-mâché cannon. Batters certainly didn’t. For a while it looked like he was Nolan Ryan without the durability – and maybe a little less control. He made the All-Star team as a closer in 1985 and had his finest season as a starter for the 1989 NLCS club, posting a 148 ERA+ as a starter. He’s the patron saint of goofiness, baseball and otherwise. Bonus: you can pick just about any number you want. Garrelts wore seven different numbers in his career, all with the Giants, for no good reason.

1988 Tim Flannery: People might give you a frown if you wore a Padres jersey at a Giants game. Until they realized it was Flannery, at which point the frown would become a nod.

1989 Dave Dravecky: It’s impossible to avoid mention of Dravecky, member of the John Birch society and the Giants’ “God Squad,” who beat cancer in his pitching arm only to break it mid-pitch in the second start of his long comeback. He lost that arm to a staph infection after multiple surgeries and has devoted his life to writing and motivational speaking. Dravecky’s story is heartbreaking and stirring; his jersey, half a fish drawn in the sand.

1989 Rick Reuschel: “Big Daddy” isn’t really a Giant in the grand scheme; he joined the team at the age of 38 in a deadline deal and retired a few years later. But what years they were. Rueschel spent the first 16 years of his career posting decent numbers for terrible teams with terrible defenses, accumulating season after season with FIPs in the low threes. He was just short of the career totals that would be just shy of Hall consideration, but at least the Giants gave him his day in the postseason sun. A Reuschel jersey goes well with a burgeoning dad gut and a retreating hairline: it is a message of hope for the softening.

1997 Kirk Rueter: There’s no subtle way to describe it: Rueter was a position player pitching, without the position. His fastball was a New Age chord, his face compared to a Toy Story character. He was a human batting tee. And yet somehow, for reasons that make numbers themselves warp and melt, Rueter kept winning, kept collecting paychecks, kept wearing a Kirk Rueter jersey when doing so should, by all rights, condemn a man to prison. He won so often, and so badly, that he made winning itself feel cheap and pointless.  In other words, he’s pretty much the quintessential Brian Sabean tribute.

(Footnote: One Mr. Grant Brisbee adds that there’s an element of pathos to the Rueter: After winning Game Four of the 2002 World Series, fans called on Woody to pitch in the decisive seventh game. He did and delivered a gem, but it was too late: Livan Hernandez was given the start, and the hole he dug was too deep. I say pathos, but we’re talking about the Giants, so sympathize to the level you’re capable.)

2004 Ray Durham: It’s a little shocking, going back to the numbers, to find Durham was never great. Lackluster defense played a part, but most of it stemmed from his legs and his power trending the opposite direction with almost perfect symmetry. Despite never fulfilling expectations, he was, in fact, a spectacularly consistent performer and as such perfectly symbolizes the supporting cast for Barry Bonds during his greatest years. Other than Jeff Kent, the rest of the Giants dwelt far into the darkness of the big man’s shadow, never protecting enough, never scoring enough, just being as good as they were supposed to be, and never quite enough.

2010 Aubrey Huff: Perhaps the best example of general manager Sabean at work, trading for a washed-up former talent and watching him blossom, inexplicably, just in time for a playoff run. Huff “led” the league with a whopping -2.1 fWAR in 2009 for the Orioles and Tigers, and as a terrible defensive player at the easiest defensive position, he looked washed up at 33. Instead, he had the year of several lifetimes and helped the Giants win their first World Series in a hundred years, because Sabean. Also because Sabean, he was rewarded with a new contract and stank again until retiring.

2014 Travis Ishikawa: Winning is boring. The Giants are boring. Ishikawa is to the Bevacqua jersey as the Giants are to the Padres themselves. An Ishikawa jersey is predictable. It’s cliché. It’s perfect.

Honorable Mentions: 1982 Greg Minton, 1986 Steve Carlton, 1996 William Van Landingham, 2003 Jesse Foppert, 2012 Ryan Vogelsong

Next time, the Omnibus completes the National League by traveling to our nation’s capital, pausing halfway at the Second City. At the former, we’ll discuss what to do with the ghosts of Canadians, and at the latter, we’ll ignore how the Cubs were presented out of alphabetical order.


Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.
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Wildcard09
6 years ago

And here I had thought the Omnibus was gone for good with the demise of NotGraphs. Glad to see I was wrong, and can’t wait for the rest of the series.

cass
6 years ago

NotGraphs lives!

A wonderful surprise to see the Omnibus return and I am eagerly anticipating the next installment covering my hometown team. I figure it will arrive sometime just before 2017 since I’m feeling optimistic.

Should we expect next a Dayn Perry articles about a certain mobile-phone-wielding superstar at Hardball Times in the near future?

Wildcard09
6 years ago
Reply to  cass

You could just visit a certain mobile-phone-wielding superstar’s company website, linked in my name, and let shenanigans ensue.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

If you are going to throw in Steve Carlton as an honorable mention, might as well throw in Sam McDowell and Vida Blue.

darin
6 years ago

still haven’t seen a matching Aurilia #35 since I had one customized right before the 2001 season. Interestingly, Sports Fever in San Jose misspelled the nameplate twice before getting it right!

DENNIS BEDARD
6 years ago

Another interesting jersey would be Dave Kingman or John Montefusco.

Mac
6 years ago

Giles man. Always good for 30+ home runs in an era where you impressive unless you hit at least 40, which he never did. And he was an all-time great walker, which is the most boring way to be dominant. How amazing it must have been to start your career in the mid-90’s Cleveland playoff hunts. And then to be cursed to decades of playing for basement-dwelling NL teams that start with P.

He sure was a great 3rd/4th round pick in Yahoo fantasy drafts for years and years.