Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Phil Plantier and the Circle of Life

When you've watched baseball as long as this writer has, news about ball players, coaches, managers and executives all start to blur together into one big Elton John song called the Circle of Life. Just the other day, someone mentioned that Mickey Mantle would have been eighty years old this year. Eighty! Forever in this mind, he's a strapping Number 7 with rippling muscles and a swing that wrapped air around itself. Another reminder of how life itself can wrap around on you is the hiring of Phil Plantier as the new hitting coach of the San Diego Padres. It seemed like just yesterday he was the rookie sensation for the Boston Red Sox.

It wasn't yesterday, of course, but was twenty years ago. Twenty-one years ago, Phil Plantier got his first taste of major league baseball with a cup of coffee for the 1990 Boston Red Sox. The kid caught this writer's interest immediately because he was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, a city of fond memories. It was in Manchester that this writer spent three unprofitable years at New Hampshire College and had his first significant job working for Radio Shack in the downtown of that pretty city. Plantier was born in Manchester in 1969. His family moved away to Poway, California eventually because that's where Plantier went to high school. But for all this author knows, they might have passed each other during the years 1975 to 1977 when those college days occurred.

Plantier didn't do anything of note that first year. He was noticed because of his birthplace, but not for anything that happened during his brief appearances that season. There wasn't the information machine in place back then like there is now. So we wouldn't have known that he was a major force in the minors for his power numbers. Today, he would have a rating besides his name on the major baseball sites. Back then, he was just another unknown rookie getting his feet wet. The Red Sox came in first that season but were swept in the ALCS by the Oakland A's in the year of Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley and some guy named Tony LaRussa. Plantier was not on the post season roster.

Phil Plantier didn't make the opening day roster of the 1991 Red Sox. He started the season in Triple A but was called up to the big club and played eleven games in June. Not much happened. In those eleven games, his slash line was an unimpressive, .235/.278/.235. He'd only collected four hits with no extra base hits. He was sent back to the minors. He was recalled on August 10, 1991 and the rest of that season was a run of beauty.

On August 13, 1991 the Red Sox played a double header against Cleveland. Plantier played both games and went five for six with three walks and two doubles. He sat on the bench for two games and then on August 16, 1991, Phil Plantier hit his first major league homer, a two-run job off of the Royals' Storm Davis in the eight inning when the Red Sox had been down 2-1 in the game. 

The next game, Plantier hit a triple and drove in two more runs. His legend was growing. Plantier played just about every day the rest of the season and in those 131 at bats, he hit eleven homers, seven doubles and a triple and drove in 32 runs. His slash line during that run was .344/.436/.664, good for a 1.100 OPS in that time span. A new star was born.

Except it wasn't. Plantier was a starter for the Red Sox right out of the gate in 1992. It was a season of transition for the Red Sox. Butch Hobson was the manager. Dwight Evans was gone. Wade Boggs inexplicably hit just .259 and would soon find his way out of town. The Red Sox, after contending for several seasons, found themselves at the bottom of the division. Plantier wasn't of much help. The Red Sox thought they had found their next star. In 1991, Plantier had hit everything and everybody. His OPS was over one against both right-handed and left-handed pitching. Suddenly, in 1992, he couldn't hit lefties (he was a left-handed batter). And his power dried up as well. It was almost a blessing for him and the team when he got hurt and missed thirty games at the end of August. When he came back, he was only a part time player.

The Red Sox had seen enough and basically traded him for nothing after the 1992 season to the San Diego Padres. The Red Sox got Jose Melendez, a pitcher that pitched a handful of relief appearances for the Red Sox in 1993 and 1994 and was never seen again in the majors. But the trade was a boon for Phil Plantier. Getting traded close to home and back in California, Plantier had his best year in the majors for the Padres in 1993. He hit 34 homers and knocked in 100 runs. He didn't hit for average (.240), but he slugged over .500 and he quickly became a fan favorite in Jack Murphy Stadium. 

Unfortunately, 1993 was a really bad year for the Padres. Despite Plantier's season and despite having players like Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Tony Gwynn and Derek Bell, the Padres lost 101 games. The 101 losses were a full eleven games worse than their Pythagorean win-loss projection. That was a bad team led by Jim Riggleman as the manager.

1994 was no better for the Padres in that strike-shortened season. They were again a terrible team under Riggleman and the season is only noteworthy as the season that Tony Gwynn was just a few hits shy of hitting .400. Plantier battled injuries and hit 18 more homers in 96 games but his average fell down to .220. It was the beginning of the end for Plantier. He was traded to the Astros in the middle of the next season and was never again close to being a full time player. He hung around for a few more seasons but 1997 ended up as his last season in the majors.

To Plantier's credit, he didn't end his life there. He got a college degree, and started his career as an instructor and minor league manager. He succeeded and by 2010 was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Seattle Mariners. And now he is the hitting coach for the Padres at the major league level.

And Plantier will have his hands full. The Padres finished dead last in the National League in batting average, slugging and OPS in 2011. Plantier will need to change the hitting culture in San Diego. The odds are certainly against him, especially at Petco Park.

For this writer, Phil Plantier is just another spoke on that great cycle of being a Fan of Major League Baseball. This writer watched him cut his teeth as a rookie, become a sensation, fade, resurrect and then slowly fade out of baseball. Now he's just another player this writer has seen through an entire career come out on the other side and become a coach on the major league level. There will be many others, God willing, and this Fan will continue to root for them all.

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