For some baseball players, it is not merely the precious opportunity to be on the field that is getting lost during the coronavirus shutdown. In certain instances, legacies will be impacted by the shortening of the 2020 season.
Even if the public health environment improves enough to allow some fraction of the season to be played — certainly not a given — its abbreviated structure will have ripples felt by some for decades.
Perhaps Ted Williams would have broken Babe Ruth’s career home run record had he not spent most of five years in the military during World War II and the Korean War. The same might have been true for Willie Mays, who served in the military for most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons.
Fred McGriff had similar career numbers to first-ballot Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, and after the final year of his career in 2004, he was tied with Lou Gehrig for 21st in all-time homers with 493. What would have happened if his 1994 season — in which he had 34 homers through Atlanta’s 114 games — hadn’t been truncated by a player strike?
McGriff was on pace for a career-high 48 homers, which would have pushed him over 500 for his career. Would such a milestone have altered his shot at the Hall of Fame? It’s impossible to say, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt the candidacy of a player who dropped off the ballot this year.
Dwight Evans likewise understands the what-if game. In 1981, Evans — to that point viewed as a great defensive player but just a solid offensive contributor — had a transformative start to the season. Through 56 games at age 29, he led the American League in average (.341), on-base percentage (.453), and slugging (.578) and was tied for second in homers (13) and fourth in RBIs (39). He was a force.
“I came to spring training and my first at-bat, I had something going," Evans said by phone. “I was clicking. I was leading the league in hitting. I was locked in. I really was.
“It’s the only time, I think, from the beginning of spring training to the end on June 12, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and my body was doing it.”
What could have been? Though Evans finished with very good numbers — .296/.415/.522 and tied for the AL lead in homers with 22 — he wasn’t able to sustain his dominance after a 59-day strike. When baseball resumed, he hit .249/.376/.463 over the last 52 games.
“When we came back after two months, I couldn’t find that feeling that I had,” said Evans.
Had the season not been interrupted, could he have remained competitive in all of the Triple Crown categories and perhaps elevated his status as an MVP candidate? (He finished third in AL MVP voting, behind Rollie Fingers and Rickey Henderson.) Would he have produced a season so memorable that it might have changed his career arc?
“I guess you could say I kind of daydreamed about that from time to time when I was younger,” said Evans. “It would have been really neat to go through a whole season like that.
“I look at what that would have done going forward the following year, going forward with the confidence coming off a year like that, what it would have done. There are a lot of ifs.”
Evans went on with an outstanding career, though he never replicated that brilliant start of 1981. At a time when the traditional Triple Crown stats and milestones had enormous influence over Hall of Fame voting, Evans finished with 385 homers and 2,446 hits.
When Evans was first on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1997, all 13 players who’d become eligible with at least 400 homers and 2,500 hits had been voted in. Perhaps Evans — whose greatest strengths of on-base skills and defense were undervalued for decades by voters — could have reached those round numbers in the absence of a strike.
If so, it’s possible that he would have gained greater consideration for Cooperstown rather than failing to reach the 5 percent threshold in his third year of eligibility.
Obviously, considerations of a player’s legacy in 10, 20, or 50 years pale in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic and the question of a society’s health and safety. Nonetheless, the gaps in past players’ careers suggest that any interruption represents lost opportunities that can impact how they are remembered.