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|Designated hitter / First baseman|
August 6, 1954 |
|September 20, 1980, for the Kansas City Royals|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 8, 1990, for the Cleveland Indians|
|Runs batted in||313|
|Career highlights and awards|
Kenneth Allan Phelps, nicknamed "Digger", is a former Major League Baseball designated hitter and first baseman. During an 11-year baseball career, he played from 1980–1990 for six different teams, but he played primarily with the Seattle Mariners. He achieved lasting notice when the pioneering baseball statistician, Bill James made him an emblem for a class of Minor League Baseball players who are unfairly denied a chance to play in the Majors despite compiling Minor League Baseball statistics that would indicate an ability to succeed in the Majors. Phelps eventually played a major role on the 1984 Mariners and went on to enjoy a successful, if brief, career despite not becoming established until age 29.
Born and raised in Seattle, Phelps graduated from Ingraham High School in north Seattle in 1972. He played a year at Washington State in Pullman under Bobo Brayton, then headed south to Arizona to Mesa Community College, looking for an opportunity to play at Arizona State in Tempe.
Phelps gained national acclaim in his only season at MCC in 1974 and was named a junior college All American. At Mesa, he was drafted twice in the first round (January and June drafts) by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively. He had previously been drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the eighth round out of high school. All this earned Phelps a chance from Coach Jim Brock to play at ASU, where he was named to the College World Series All Star team in 1976, when the Sun Devils lost a heartbreaker to Arizona after having defeated the Wildcats seven times previously that season.
The left-hitting first baseman was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 15th round of the 1976 baseball amateur draft. Phelps became a feared minor league hitter, clubbing a combined 43 HR from 1980–81 for the Omaha Royals, KC's Triple-A affiliate in the American Association. Nonetheless, the Royals traded him to the Montreal Expos prior to 1982 season for pitcher Grant Jackson. Phelps proceeded to demolish the American Association in 1982, hitting .333 with 46 home runs and 141 RBI for the Wichita Aeros. However, the Expos still saw fit to give him only eight major league at-bats that year. That gave him a grand total of 32 in his career. There was no room on a very talented Montreal roster for Phelps to break in. Instead, Phelps' hometown club, Seattle, purchased him from the Expos after the 1982 season.
Phelps, an average defensive player, was better suited to play with Seattle in the American League, as he could serve as the designated hitter there. The struggling Mariners franchise also had plenty of room for advancement. Phelps split time in 1983 between Seattle and its Pacific Coast League affiliate in Salt Lake City. Again, he destroyed minor league pitching (.341 with 24 HR and 82 RBI in 74 games), but did not play much in the majors. In 1984, he played a bit more for Seattle, clobbering 24 HR in only 290 at-bats. Bad luck intervened that year when he broke his hand in the third game of the season after winning the regular first base job and hitting two home runs in his first three-game and five hits in his first 10 at-bats. The next season, he found himself behind Gorman Thomas who had been signed as a free agent, which limited Phelps to a mere 116 major league at-bats.
Finally, in 1986, at the age of 31, Phelps got into the major league lineup on a more-or-less regular basis. Although he was normally platooned against left-handed pitchers, Phelps still clocked 51 HR from 1986–87. It was at this time that Phelps' career travails inspired author Bill James to create the "Ken Phelps All-Star" team. As James described it:
Ken Phelpses are just available; if you want one, all you have to do is ask. They are players whose real limitations are exaggerated by baseball insiders, players who get stuck with a label -- the label of their limits, the label the things they can't do -- while those that they can do are overlooked... The Ken Phelps All-Stars [are] a whole teamful of guys who are wearing labels, but who nonetheless can play major-league baseball, and will prove it if they ever get the chance.
The Buhner Trade
Phelps hit 14 more home runs in half a season in 1988. Impressed, George Steinbrenner and his New York Yankees traded prospect Jay Buhner to Seattle in exchange for Phelps, who already had Don Mattingly and Jack Clark to play first base and DH. With limited playing time once again, Phelps found it difficult to maintain his production of the previous four-and-a-half seasons, while Buhner went on to become an All-Star and legendary Mariners player. A Seinfeld episode in 1996 depicted Yankee fan Frank Costanza (played by Jerry Stiller) as more upset about the Buhner trade than about the supposed death of his own son George. Phelps only hit 17 home runs for the Yankees before being traded to the Oakland Athletics in late August 1989. The A's won the World Series, but Phelps had just two at-bats in the post-season, including a double in the AL Championship Series.
Phelps' final home run might have been his most notable; it came before a sell-out crowd in 1990 on April 20, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Mariners (Phelps was playing for Oakland). Phelps was called out of the dugout to pinch hit against Brian Holman, who had retired the first 26 batters in succession; Phelps homered to ruin a perfect game. Years later, Phelps said he wanted to hit it out because he did not want to watch himself on ESPN's SportsCenter all season making the out to complete Holman's gem. He was dealt to Cleveland two months later in mid-June.
Phelps' career .239 batting average hides the things that, as James pointed out, he could do. Thanks to outstanding power and strike zone judgment, his career OPS is a strong .854. Phelps hit 123 home runs in 1854 career at-bats, the 28th best ratio in major league history through 2004 (min. 1500 plate appearances). Phelps hit 100 career home runs in 1330 at-bats (second fastest player in history behind Ryan Howard in 1141 at-bats). He also still holds the AL record for the fastest 100 home runs (1322 at-bats).
As of 2005, Phelps did color commentary on the radio for Arizona Diamondbacks baseball games. In 2006, Phelps was replaced as the Diamondbacks color analyst by former Major League pitcher Tom Candiotti. Today, he does baseball analysis for Fox Sports in Arizona along with community and media work he does for the state's largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service. Two of the programs in which he has been involved—the ABC's of Baseball and Life and Power Players—have gained national recognition for their positive impact on children.
- ^ James, Bill (1987). The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1987. Ballantine: New York. p. 233. ISBN 0-345-34180-5.
- "Records tumbled by Cougar squad". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Washington. May 24, 1973. p. 35.
- "Yanks get Phelps". The Day. New London, Connecticut. Associated Press. July 22, 1988. p. E7.
- "M's double deal". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. wire services. July 22, 1988. p. 35.
- Blanchette, John (October 11, 2001). "Bone carries torch into twilight". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. p. C1.
- Brown, Dave (March 18, 2015). "Watch: Jay Buhner and Ken Phelps reminisce about trade and 'Seinfeld'". CBS Sports. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
- Bertha, Mike (March 18, 2015). "Seinfeld reunion alert: Jay Buhner and Ken Phelps hang out at Mariners spring training". Major League Baseball. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
- LaRue, Larry (April 21, 1990). "Oh, no, no! Phelps ruins Holman bid". Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. McClatchey newspapers. p. B1.
- "M's Holman can't get any closer to perfection". Eugene Register-Guard. Oregon. Associated Press. April 21, 1990. p. 4B.
- April 20, 1990 Seattle vs. Oakland