Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wasteland Hall of Fame Induction Time!!!

Normally, I would wait for a slow spot in the sports season to write this column, but it’s been kicking around in my head for about 24 hours so I figured I would get it out of the way now. I was editing an old column the other day and realized it’s been more than a year since anyone has been inducted into the Wasteland Hall of Fame. So I started thinking, who should join Michael Taylor in these hallowed halls?

All I know is that it had to be someone worthy. So I met with the Wasteland Hall Committee, which consists of me, The Whiteness and TimMAY. Seeing how The Whiteness and TimMAY are both cats I was able to bribe their votes with extra food (slow cooked BBQ Chicken to be exact).

Having happily sold their votes for human food they are now napping and I am writing this to announce that the newest member of the Tampa Sports Wasteland Hall of Fame is……

Joe Orsulak

Yes I know, quite a stunning selection.

Your first question, if you weren’t an O’s fan growing up in the 80’s and 90’s might be, “Who is Joe Orsulak, exactly?”

Well he was an erstwhile outfielder for Baltimore during the not so good days of 1988-1992. In his 14 year career he also spent time with the Pirates, Mets, Marlins and Expos. He wasn’t a flashy player, but you always had the sense that he tried his hardest. Few games went by where his uniform wasn’t dirty from hurling himself after a fly ball in the outfield.

It was that mind frame which endeared him to the blue collar fans in the Baltimore area. After all, look at the sports icons in that town - Cal Ripken (went to work everyday) and Johnny Unitas (rocked an awesome crew cut while redefining the modern day quarterback). It’s not a town that idolizes flash without substance. Even the current king of braggadocio, Ray Lewis, earned his keep by being among the elite linebackers of his generation.

Orsulak was the type of player who came into spring training every year fighting for his job, sure to be supplanted by Steve Finley, Chito Martinez or Stan Jefferson. While those aren’t household names to most fans, they were the prospects that were going to beat Smokin’ Joe O’ out of a spot in a given year.

Not only would he beat them out for the starting job, he would end up being one of the team’s better hitters during the season. “Better hitters” is a relative term for the O’s during his playing days.

Three times in the six seasons he was with the club the New Jersey native would lead the club in hitting. In 1988 he led with a .288 average, in 1989 he repeated the feat with a .285 average. In 1992, his last season with the club, he would lead the team with a .289 average. Not numbers that strike fear in hearts of opposing pitchers, but better than the more revered Ripken or Fruit Loop eating Mickey Tettleton.

He never played in an all-star game or led the league in any category. His name isn’t in the top 10 in any statistical stat in the O’s records book. Nor is he in the team’s hall of fame. The best stat I can find is that he gunned out 22 base runners in 1991. So why is he in this hall of fame?

Because he is was one of my favorite players when I was growing up and this is my blog. Simple isn’t it? I’m not sure why he was one of my favorites, he played the outfield and I abhorred the thought of playing out there. He was left-handed like I was, but he didn’t have the smooth swing that most southpaws display in the majors. In fact I believe John Lowenstein referred to his hitting style as a “man chopping wood, badly”.

I think it has more to do with the fact that he never played like he was entitled to anything. In this day in age where 18 year olds are handed tens of millions of dollars without recording an out in the major leagues, it’s nice to recognize a player who he had to perform his best to earn his paycheck, which according to was never more than $1.3 million in one season.

To a 12-year-old kid, why wouldn’t a guy who slammed into walls and dove after line drives in the gap be among his favorites? Perhaps he did something great in a random game during my childhood that captured my attention and that’s why I rank him up there with Ripken and Don Mattingly (yes I was a bit of a blood traitor growing up). Memory tends to glorify the deeds of past heroes while dimming their actual accomplishments. I seem to recall him getting clutch hits every time he came up to bat or making game saving catches every time the ball was hit to him.

While a quick perusal of his career stats crushes those childhood memories it doesn’t mean he should go unrecognized. He represents all of the other players that kids or adults latch on to for no obvious reason. To have Joe Orsulak or Toby Hall or Spike Owen as your favorite player begs questions from other fans. If you asked someone who their favorite player was and they said “Milt Thompson”, wouldn’t you ask them why?

It’s easy to say Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter is your favorite player. They provide plenty of reasons for a fan to like them. They’re superstars on the way to the hall of fame. To me fans who’s favorite players are among the semi-known are interesting to talk to because they always have a story as to why.

I don’t know if honoring someone because they represent the common player is noteworthy, but isn’t it what baseball is all about? The elite players may garner the most press, but most teams win because of the average guy. Wasn’t Jayson Werth a prime example in last season’s World Series? While superstars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard hit .167 and .286 respectively, the much traveled Werth (a former Orioles farmhand) bedeviled the Rays all series long with key hits and stolen bases.

Orsulak isn’t involved with baseball much these days, according to a 2008 Baltimore Sun article he doesn’t go to many games because he doesn’t want to become, “one of those guys who are experts way up in the stands”. He first wife passed away in 1994 from a brain tumor, he has since remarried and continued to live his life quietly in Maryland. But for me he represents what is good about baseball, what is fun about cheering for players on teams.

Congratulations Mr. Orsulak and welcome to the Wasteland Hall of Fame.

1 comment:

Mike said...

As the largest fan of Terry Dehere outside of his family members, I have to commend you for putting Joe into the HAll of Fame!