I was back in my parents place for Thanksgiving and gave me a chance to rummage through my old cards.
I came across this 1990 Topps Card of Angels infielder and outfielder Johnny Ray.
He is a relatively obscure player and that is a shame. With a little bit of luck, he’d be beloved by at least one fan base.
A native of Oklahoma, Ray went to University of Arkansas before being drafted by the Astros in the 12th round of the 1979 draft. He never played in Houston as he was dealt to the Pirates in the fading months of the 1981 strike season for Phil Garner.
When he made his big league debut on September 2, 1981, Ray was on a club just 2 years removed from the “We Are Family” championship. 1979 champs Omar Moreno, Bill Madlock, Dave Parker, Mike Easler and Willie Stargell all played that day. So did Tim Foli, who Ray pinch hit for in the 7th. The Pirates lost that day to the eventual World Champion Dodgers.
Taking over for Garner full time in his rookie year of 1982, Ray flourished. He played all 162 games. He got 182 hits, good for 4th in the National League. At the time second base was not a power position. But he was a solid doubles hitter, collecting 30 over the year. He stole 16 bases and struck out only 34 times in 702 plate appearances.
The Sporting News chose him to be their Rookie of the Year. However nobody cares about THEIR pick.
The Baseball Writers of America bestowed the honor on Steve Sax.
Ray played in more games, got more hits, homers, RBI and had a higher slugging percentage than Sax. Rays’ average was one point lower than Sax.
Yet Sax was the winner.
The Pirates had a winning season in 1982 and in 1983, when Ray won the Silver Slugger for second basemen. He led the National League in doubles in 1983 and 1984. And twice he hit over .300.
But by 1984, the Pirates winning ways were over. Pittsburgh had been above .500 fifteen out of nineteen seasons. But they wouldn’t put a winning squad on the field until Ray was gone. (In fact since the end of the 1984 season, the Pirates would put a losing team on the field 24 out of the next 28 seasons.)
When Syd Thrift rebuilt the Pirates, he did so with some solid drafts and shrewd trades. Dealing All Star Tony Pena brought Andy Van Slyke and Mike LaVailliere to Pittsburgh. Rick Rhoden was sent packing to the Yankees bringing back eventual Cy Young winner Doug Drabek.
With Jose Lind ready to take over second base, Thrift tried to swing another franchise building move with the Angels. Johnny Ray was sent packing to Anaheim at the end of August 1987..
25 year old power hitting third baseman Billie Merrifeld came over to Pittsburgh in the deal. But injuries derailed his career and he never made it to the majors. Miguel Garcia also came over to the Pirates, but the reliever only appeared in 13 games over three different seasons and was not a factor.
Ray meanwhile arrived in Anaheim. The defending AL West champs were trying to make a run at another Division Title and Ray got his first and best shot to make the post season. The Angels played sub .500 ball the rest of the way and the Twins would go on to win it all.
In 1988, Ray’s defensive short comings at second base led him to playing more and more games in the outfield. His bat was strong, batting .306 and finally making it to the All Star team. In the 1988 All Star Game in Cincinnati, Ray came up as a pinch hitter in the 4th against Bob Knepper and lined out to left fielder Vince Coleman.
Two years later he played his final game on September 30, 1990. The Angels were hopelessly out of it when they played the Royals at home.
With the game tied at 1 in the 8th and a runner on second with 2 outs, Ray pinch hit for Gary Disarcina. Ray struck out to Kevin Appier, who 12 years later would win a World Series title as a member if the Angels.
It was Ray’s last at bat. He never did play in the post season. He played in Japan for a few years before returning home to Oklahoma.
It’s players like Ray that make me reflect what makes a player beloved.
Had Ray played for the Astros of the early 1980s, the Angels of the early to mid 1980s or the Pirates of the 1990s, would he had become a beloved member of those teams?
So much with being considered to be a champion or a fan favorite has to do with elements beyond a player’s control. Players like Mariano Duncan, Danny Jackson or Craig Counsell keep popping up on playoff teams. But are any one of them bigger winners than Ray?
Had Johnny Ray been given the chance to play in October, would HE have collected some big post season hits like Luis Sojo or Scott Spezio or Matt Stairs?
We’ll never know. Ray was caught in that neutral zone between successful years in Pittsburgh and with the Angels, thus making his career a makeshift barometer of fan loyalty.
“I was a Pirate fan back when Johnny Ray was at second base” means you are no front runner.
The same can be said with Ray in California.
Of course Ray could have done a few things that would turn a doubles hitter into a home run hitter. He could have enhanced himself in the manner that a later generation would have tacked on a few years to a 33 year old second baseman.
Instead he did his job, getting hits and not striking out.
The glory of October and the love of being a “Fan Favorite” may have eluded Johnny Ray in his 9 plus big league seasons. But he was a hard working solid player who, with a slightly different hand dealt to him, might have been a beloved player who happened to share a name with the singer who sang the song Cry.
And that is worth a salute.