Pitcher and Poet

pitchers & poets

The Man Who Couldn't Hit

On May 25, 1972, Frank Fernandez pinch hit for Cubs starter Bill Hands in the sixth inning, grounded out to third base, and returned to the dugout.  It was his final at-bat.  Because of it, he had unknowingly put himself in the record books.

The at-bat lowered his batting average from .1997 to .1994, thus cementing his career batting average below the Mendoza line.  If the ball had snuck through the infield, or hit a pebble in the dirt, he would be forgotten.  Instead, he is forgotten, but he holds an interesting title in baseball history.

Frank Fernandez is the greatest player in baseball history to hit below .200 for his career.

In 902 plate appearances over six seasons, Fernandez’s career was more valuable (in terms of wins above replacement) than Kenji Johjima, Eddie Taubensee, or Jose Guillen.  This despite never having a starting job or a regular role, seeing many of his plate appearances in a pinch-hitting role, and spending his entire career within the second deadball era of the sixties and early seventies.   His career walk rate is the seventh best of all time among players with 900 trips to the plate.  “I’d like to hit,” Fernandez once complained.  “But I don’t seem to get many pitches to hit.”  Fernandez obviously had a specific definition of what a good pitch was.

His finest season came in 1969, platooning with Joe Gibbs.  In 298 plate appearances, Fernandez hit a career-best .223/.399/.415, with 12 home runs and 65 walks.  Appearing in only half the games that year, he was the fourth-most valuable hitter on the team.

Playing for New York, under the weight of its heroes, Fernandez’s career was a disappointment.  He had dropped out of college at Villanova to play baseball, giving up not only school but his first love, basketball.  He was a busted prospect, flashing enough to whet the appetite of the fan without the singles to support it.  Once, Fernandez took a bases-loaded walk that scored the winning run of the ballgame.  Afterward, reporters asked if he’d been afraid to take the payoff pitch, saying that there’s nothing more embarrassing than taking a third strike with the bases loaded.  It could very well have cost his job.

“I was embarrassed all night long,” Fernandez replied, having made two errors.  “How much more embarrassed could I be?”

Fernandez is remembered today by a single anecdote.  When one is a .1994 hitter, one’s life is fraught with missed opportunities.  For Frank Fernandez, such a life came to a head on August 27, 1970.  Late in the game Fernandez hit a shot off Mike Cuellar down the third base line toward Brooks Robinson.  Usually, this would be fitting.  Instead, this time the ball was hit so sharply that Robinson had no time to react.  The ball hit his shin and ricocheted directly into the hands of shortstop Mark Belanger, who had ample time to make the throw to first.  He didn’t.  The throw sailed wide and Fernandez wound up at second base.  Over the intercom, Baltimore’s official scorer ruled the play an error.

For a man who spent his life desperate for base hits, this insult was enough.  Fernandez was caught in the middle of a philosophical argument: do we judge a man by what he does, or what happens to him?  When the ball left his bat, based on its force and trajectory, it was a base hit.  By the time it reached first, independent of his actions, it had become an error.  Ultimately, Fernandez had no control over his fate.  Upon scoring on a Campaneris single, he took the only thing he had, his batting helmet, and flung it at the heavens in protest.  As tends to be the case in these moments, the act was ultimately futile.  He was ejected, fined $250, and ridiculed.

“All Fernandez is making all the fuss about,” said Harry Caray in the booth, “is whether he hits .200 or .198 this season.”  In fact, it meant hitting .199 or .200 in his career. In the end, it’s a strange and arbitrary demarcation, and yet, like Mendoza, it came to define him.  But to diminish “all he was making a fuss about” is to take a man out of context, to separate his actions so as to filter the life from him.  We can’t judge that play without understanding eleven years of bad hops and diving catches that came before.  Baseball is a game of constant failure, where even the best of players succeed only 40% of the time.  For Fernandez, a backup on the World’s Greatest Baseball Team during one of its least great eras, the weight of that disappointment is all the more crushing.  At some point, it is enough.

(Sources for some of the material in this article include “Yanks’ Catcher in the Wry”, by Frank Dolson, in the October 1968 Baseball Digest, and “An Official Scorer Who Has Lived to Tell About It”, by Bill Christine, in the July 22 1979 issue of the New York Times.)