As the Sully Baseball Daily Podcast winds down today and before I change the format to a weekly show, I figured it was a good time to honor Steve Garvey.
Remember the adulation that Cal Ripken got in 1995 when he passed Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game played streak? I remember some people poo pooing it, wondering how hard it was to play every day.
Those people were of course idiots. Playing every single day, especially a demanding position like shortstop, is tempting injuries every single day.
And the person whose name I would bring up was Steve Garvey. There was a point where Garvey looked like a lock to pass Gehrig.
From 1975 to 1983, he played day in and day out. And he did so in a less demanding position of first base (Gehrig’s position as well.) He broke the NL record of consecutive games played in 1983 and had his sights set on Gehrig’s 2130 mark.
Then he broke his hand in a home plate collision. And that was that. All those years and he was still 923 short. He would have to have played every game for the rest of 1983 and every day in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988 to pass Gehrig. He retired after 1987.
Makes you respect Ripken even more when you look at it like that.
The Sabermetrics crowd shakes their head at the popularity and overrating of Garvey, at least in terms of advanced metrics. At the time, however, he was the kind of star that got sports writers excited and hearts fluttering.
A two sport star at Michigan State, he chose baseball over football and was drafted by the Dodgers in 1968. A third baseman initially, he made his big league debut at age 20. By 1973, the 24 year old Garvey was a starter and the next year he made the move to first base.
Then his career took off. He joined Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Davey Lopes to form one of the most beloved infields in baseball history. The homegrown foursome would be teammates for 8 1/2 seasons, playing in 4 World Series together when all was said and done.
Garvey collected 200 hits in 1974, a mark he would reach 6 of the next 7 seasons. He batted .312, hit 21 homers and drove in 111 runs, which was all anyone really looked at in 1974. It was enough to win the NL MVP as the Dodgers cruised to the NL West title and ultimately the World Series. The Sabermetric fans would point out that Garvey would not even crack the top 15 in WAR for that season. His OPS was a good but hardly dominant .811 as his walk total was a microscopic 31 for the year.
But he was in fashion for the time. And he also was a good looking dude who was a natural on camera. He was grooming himself for either a star broadcasting career or even a run for office. Some of his teammates called him “Senator.”
Garvey was beloved in Los Angeles as he got a high average each year and had good pop and got big hit after big hit.
In 1978, Garvey was the MVP runner up to Dave Parker. (He finished 11th in WAR.) He homered 4 times in the NLCS, was named Series Most Valuable Player.
By 1981, he was one of the most popular players in the game, winning the Roberto Clemente Award for his off the field charity work. The Dodgers would finally win the World Series that year. He batted .417 in the World Series, posting a .920 OPS.
Garvey’s numbers dipped in 1982 and the Dodgers fell a game short of the post season. After the season, his contract was up and the Padres saw a chance to steal some of the Dodgers thunder.
San Diego locked up Garvey for 5 years to get him to drive down the 5 to Jack Murphy Stadium. He broke the NL consecutive games played streak in Dodger Stadium as a visiting player. Later he broke his hand.
He continued playing every day in 1984 and while his production was down, his flair for the dramatic was not. The Padres, buoyed by young stars like Tony Gwynn and experienced veterans like Garvey, Graig Nettles and Rich Gossage, won their first ever NL West title. They would face the Cubs, who clobbered them in Games 1 and 2 and only needed one more win to take the best of 5 series. With all of America rooting for the Cubs, the Padres participation in the NLCS seemed ceremonial at best.
The Padres won Game 3 but still faced elimination in Game 4. Garvey smacked an RBI double in the third, and RBI single in the 5th and another RBI single in the 7th.
The Cubs would tie the game in the 8th. With one on and one out and the game tied in the bottom of the 9th, Garvey faced Lee Smith. He launched a towering opposite field drive over the glove of a leaping Henry Cotto for the dramatic walk off homer. His one arm up trot became the signature image of his career.
In the Game 5 clincher, he provided an RBI single that knocked out Rick Sutcliffe and was the dagger in the heart of the Cubs. He won his second NLCS MVP as the Padres, won a startling pennant.
After the World Series loss to Detroit, Garvey’s career wound down until he played his final game in 1987. He would finish with 2,599 hits, far short of the 3,000 mark that would have given him a legit shot at Cooperstown. He would be on the ballot from 1993 to 2007 but he peaked in his first year at 41.6%.
When his career ended, his squeaky clean image took a hit. Reports of infidelity and paternity suits sabotaged any political aspirations. A David Letterman Top Ten list included an entry for “Top Ten Things Heard At The All Star Game.” “See all those kids in Section 28? Steve Garvey’s.”
His divorces put him at the point of bankruptcy but he has recovered, working for organizations that help big leaguers and Negro Leaguers through bad financial times.
He had a celebrated and dramatic career. He had some unreal highlights. And looked like he had Gehrig in his range. But it wasn’t to be.
Trust me, I know a little something about streaks.
Let’s enjoy his homer in the 1984 NLCS.