A few weeks ago, I did a post about Willie Randolph. I had him in a Milwaukee Brewers uniform but mainly talked about his days with the New York Yankees.
This post about Steve Sax, shown wearing a White Sox uniform, seems like that post’s counterpart. They crossed paths at the same critical milestone of their career. And both had stints in the midwest that I am guessing most fans forgot about.
Everything about Sax screamed “California” and he was indeed a native of the Golden State. The Dodgers drafted him out of James Marshall High School in West Sacramento in the 1978 draft.
By the time he was called up in 1981, he was on a team with steady veterans like Burt Hooton and Dusty Baker as well as rising stars like Fernando Valenzuela. They also had the greatest home grown infield of all time. Ron Cey was at third, Bill Russell was at shortstop, Davey Lopes was at second and Steve Garvey was at first. Ever since the mid 1970’s, that group played together.
Sax filled in for an injured Lopes from time to time but the infield core remained intact. 21 year old Sax saw action in 31 games during that strike split season and played in 4 post season games, including 2 in the World Series victory over the Yankees.
By the time 22 year old Steve Sax arrived in 1982’s spring training camp, the great Dodger infield had been broken up. 37 year old Davey Lopes was dealt to Oakland for a minor leaguer. Second base was now wide open and Steve Sax was ready for his Hollywood close up.
Sax stole 49 bases his rookie year and batted .282. The Rookie of the Year race was a close one between Sax and Pittsburgh’s Johnny Ray. Sax took it, made the All Star team and helped lay down a new foundation of Dodger stars.
1983 saw Sax and the Dodgers return to the post season with the NL West title. It also saw Sax develop a serious case of the yips, interfering with his throws to first base. It was known as “Steve Sax Syndrome” as he threw way too many balls away to first.
In 1985, Sax helped the Dodgers win yet another NL West title and batted an even .300 in the NLCS loss to the Cardinals. Then came 1986.
The Dodgers seemed to be still reeling from their NLCS loss to St. Louis all throughout the 1986 season. But Sax put together his best offensive season.
He batted .332 and posted an .830 OPS, all the while stealing 40bases and smacking 43 doubles. His 704 plate appearances led the National League and he held his own in a time when National League second basemen were putting up solid numbers, like Ryne Sandberg, Juan Samuel and Bill Doran.
His 1987 numbers were solid but not as great as his 1986 season and in 1988, he remained reliable and durable but not All Star level.
However in 1988, the Dodgers stunned baseball by not only winning the NL West but upsetting the Mets in the NLCS. Sax contributed with 5 stolen bases in the series. In the World Series, Sax hit by a retaliation pitch in the first inning of Game 1. It backfired as he scored on Mickey Hatcher’s homer. Later he would be on deck when Kirk Gibson launched his famous home run.
In all Sax batted .300 in the World Series as the Dodgers completed the victory, 4-1 over the A’s.
And then he and Randolph crossed paths. George Steinbrenner, enamored with stars, signed Sax and let long time beloved co-captain Willie Randolph walk. The kid from Sacramento was going to the New York while the other kid who grew up in Brooklyn was heading to LA. Neither looked quite right in the other team’s uniform.
Surprisingly, both were named to the All Star Game in 1989. The fielding woes of Sax went away and he was durable in New York and made a second All Star team and was a terrific hitter.
But that didn’t seem to matter. The Yankees fortunes plummeted and Sax seemed to be representative of the team signing big named free agents instead of putting a winning product on the field. Before the 1992 season, (but AFTER he recorded his lines in the famous baseball episode of The Simpsons) the Yankees dealt Sax to the White Sox for 3 young pitchers including Melido Perez.
After starting one season, he was reduced to a role player in 1993 and did not play a single inning of the ALCS that year. After 7 games with the 1994 A’s, he was done, not returning to baseball after the strike.
Since his playing days ended, he has been a coach, an announcer and a radio host.
Most people think of him as a Dodger and most thought of Willie Randolph as a Yankee. Yet both had some of their best overall seasons playing for another team.
Maybe Sax should have stayed in LA and Randolph should have stayed in New York. They both seemed born to have those roles.