After a much longer layoff than expected, we resume our 50 Greatest Rangers list with a profile of #45.
The player I ranked at #45 on the list is another one of these guys who probably isn't real familiar to some younger Rangers fans, and who was here for just three seasons. Like Jeff Zimmerman, he was someone who broke into the majors relatively late...unlike Zimmerman, though, he was able to stick in the majors into his late-30s.
For a lot of folks, he's probably best known for being the father of a current major leaguer, rather than a very good player in his own right, and a guy whose professionalism and class in the face of adversity helped the Rangers manage what could have been a very difficult situation in regards to playing time in his last year with the team.
So, cracking the list at #45 is outfielder Gary Ward.
Gary Ward was signed by the Minnesota Twins out of high school in 1972 as an undrafted free agent, and began what was to be a very long, slow climb to the major leagues. After putting up very solid offensive numbers in 1973 and 1974 in A-ball, Ward struggled with the jump to AA, posting OPSs of 734 and 671 in the Southern League. While he was drawing walks at a decent rate, he was also striking out a lot, and hitting for neither average nor power. Although he was 21 and 22 in his two years in AA - young for the level - his performance was underwhelming, and it looked like Ward would struggle to be anything more than an "organizational depth" guy for the Twins.
Despite his issues at AA, Ward started the 1977 season at Tacoma, getting a promotion to the AAA Pacific Coast League, in what would be the first of four straight seasons Ward would spend in AAA. After a poor 1977 season, Ward showed steady improvement at AAA, earning himself a cup of coffee at the major league level at roster expansion time in both 1979 and 1980, before finally breaking camp with the Twins in 1981, at age 27.
27 is late for a player to be making his major league debut - Oddibe McDowell, at that age, was in his last season as a regular with the Braves - and Ward didn't exactly hit the ground running with the Twins, posting a 595 April OPS and a 669 OPS in May, then recording just two singles and a walk in 14 plate appearances in June before the players strike put the season on hold.
On another team, Ward's playing time might have been in jeopardy, but the Twins were abysmal and rebuilding in 1981, going 17-39 in the first half of the season, and Ward was sharing playing time in the outfield with Dave Engle, Mickey Hatcher, and the immortal Hosken Powell, none of whom were hitting much better than Ward. On a bad, anonymous team (other regulars included Sal Butera, Danny Goodwin, Rob Wilfong, and Glenn Adams, and the rotation consisted of Pete Redfern, Albert Williams, Fernando Arroyo, Roger Erickson and Brad Havens), without many other viable options, the Twins had the luxury of giving the 27 year old career minor leaguer more time.
Ward rewarded the Twins for their patience by finishing the 1981 season strong, putting up an 810 September OPS and an 819 October OPS, and with Powell being dealt to the Blue Jays that offseason for a PTBNL, Ward was in position to establish himself as a starter in 1982.
The 1982 season saw Ward start the season as the Twins' starting left fielder, with 23 year old rookie Jim Eisenreich in center and Mickey Hatcher and Dave Engle sharing time in right. Eisenreich struggled throughout the first six weeks of the season with a mysterious ailment that was initially misdiagnosed as a form of stage fright, and was ultimately put on the d.l. in early May, with Bobby Mitchell taking over in center. A few years later, of course, Eisenreich would finally be diagnosed as having been suffering from Tourette's Syndrome, and after receiving treatment for the condition, was able to resume his career in 1987 with the Kansas City Royals.
Hatcher and Engle, meanwhile, were ultimately displaced by 21 year old Tom Brunansky. A former first round pick of the California Angels, Brunansky was deemed expendable by the pennant-contending Angels, who were looking for infield depth and relief help, and was dealt in May to the Twins for Rob Wilfong and Doug Corbett. Brunansky, who had been playing for the Twins' AAA affiliate, was immediately promoted to the Twins major league club and plugged into right field.
It was a season of change for the Twins, who were going with a full-fledged youth movement under manager Billy Gardner. Amazingly, the 28 year old Ward, in his sophomore season, was one of the oldest players on the team...only Larry Milbourne and Ron Washington, among position players, were 30 or older, and the only pitcher in his 30s to appear was Fernando Arroyo, a 30 year old reliever who appeared in 5 games. Along with the 21 year old Brunansky and the 23 year old Eisenreich, youngsters like Frank Viola (22 years old), Gary Gaetti (23), Kent Hrbek (22), Lenny Faedo (22), and Brad Havens (22) were getting their first real opportunities to play regularly and establish themselves in the major leagues.
And in this season of flux, of youth, Gary Ward was a source of stability for the Twins. He played in 152 games, the most on the team, and was one of only 3 players to appear in as many as 130 games for the Twins that season, while playing both the outfield corners, DH, and even a few innings in centerfield. After posting just a .259 EQA in his rookie season, he bounced back with a .295 EQA in 1982, and his 46.3 VORP was second on the team to Kent Hrbek, and 22nd in the A.L. (just behind LSB fave Bobby Grich).
Remarkably, Ward did this despite starting off the year in an awful slump. As late as June 21, 1982, Ward had a .230/.272/.378 line, and would have been in danger of losing his starting job if the Twins had a viable replacement available. Ward heated up as the summer progressed, though, and put together an incredible hot streak in the months of July and August. In a season where only one A.L. player (Dwight Evans) posted an OBP over .400, and the league leader in slugging (Robin Yount) had a .578 slugging percentage, Ward posted a .337/.362/.663 lined in July and an incredible .379/.422/.699 line in August, boosting him to a final line of .289/.330/.519, with 13 steals in 14 attempts to boot.
Ward followed up his breakout 1982 campaign with a solid season in 1983. Once again, Ward started off slowly in April, but soon found a groove and posted a 1007 OPS in June, paving the way for his first All-Star game appearance in 1983. Despite a bad September, Ward finished third on the team in VORP, and had a final .278/.326/.440 line with a .272 EQA.
The Twins had improved from 1982 to 1983, going from 60 to 70 wins, and had a solid group of young players they were building around, with the 31 year old Washington and the 29 year old Ward being the oldest positional players on the team. They were also faced with a quandry, however, heading into the offseason. The Twins had put together a nice cadre of positional players, with the latest, 22 year old Kirby Puckett, expected to vie for playing team in 1984, but they were bereft of quality pitching. With Ward, Hatcher, Brunansky, and Randy Bush, they had four players for three positions (RF, LF, and DH), meaning that the obvious solution would be to trade one of the veterans, Hatcher or Ward, for pitching help.
And thus, on December 3, 1983, the Twins sent Gary Ward to the Texas Rangers in exchange for pitchers Mike Smithson and John Butcher.
I was 12 when that trade went down, and I still remember my initial reaction...I hated it. Two good young pitchers, I thought, for an outfielder? You have to be kidding!!!
It must be pointed out that this was less than two years after Mazzilli-gate, when the Rangers traded two top pitching prospects, Ron Darling and Walt Terrell, for Lee Mazzilli. Mazzilli was a New Yorker, didn't want to leave the Mets, and proclaimed left field, the position the Rangers wanted him to play, an "idiot's position." The trade led to resignations in the Rangers' front office, and widespread criticism of management for getting rid of their two best young arms for a guy who was a decent, at best, addition.
To a 12 year old, this initially seemed to be the same sort of thing.
Of course, it wasn't really comparable. Smithson and Butcher were decent pitchers, but neither was that young - Smithson was 28, Butcher was 26 - and both had limited ceilings. The Rangers in 1983 had been next-to-last in the league in runs scored, but had a solid rotation, with Mike Mason ready to step in to take Smithson's slot in the rotation. Ward's addition would allow Larry Parrish to move from the outfield to DH, replacing the unproductive Dave Hostetler, upgrading both the offense and defense in one move.
Unfortunately for Ward, his first two seasons in Texas were a repeat of his previous two seasons in Minnesota...one of a handful of bright spots on otherwise bad teams. Ward was third on the team in VORP in 1984 and second in 1985, posting a .286 and .278 EQA in those two seasons, along with a career-high WARP3 of 7.1 in the 1984 season. He continued his history of slow starts and streakiness with the Rangers...the trade looked awful early in 1984 for the Rangers, as Ward was sitting on a .212/.279/.279 line on June 15, but as always, he heated up with the weather, culminating in a month of August that is amongst the greatest months ever by a Rangers hitter. Ward posted a .391/.441/.713 line in August, 1984, including 4-hit games against both Chicago and Milwaukee, to once again get him back to respectability by season's end, and in 1985, Ward made his second All-Star appearance, as the Rangers lone representative to the mid-season classic.
To me, though, the 1986 season is the one that really defined Gary Ward. Once again, Ward found himself as a veteran in the midst of a rebuilding process...one not quite as extreme as the one he witnessed with the Twins, of course, but Ward, along with Toby Harrah, Charlie Hough, and Larry Parrish, was one of only a handful of regulars over the age of 30. Ward started the season in the outfield with Oddibe McDowell and rookie Pete Incaviglia, but early in the year, the big story became the exploits of a 20 year old outfielder named Ruben Sierra, who was tearing up AAA pitching. The Rangers had made a commitment to youth, and Sierra was thought to be at least a year away from contributing on the major league level. But after putting up a .296/.352/.519 line in the first two months of the season, Sierra was promoted to the majors on June 1, 1986.
Obviously, you don't promote a 20 year old so he can sit on the bench. However, with Larry Parrish at DH, and McDowell, Ward and Incaviglia in the outfield, the Rangers were suddenly faced with 5 players for 4 positions. Ward and Parrish, it appeared, were the odd men out.
This was an especially tricky situation for Ward. He was the highest paid player on the team, making $875,000 for the 1986 season (Toby Harrah was the second-highest, at $700,000, and only two other players were making more than $350,000 for the season), and would be a free agent at the end of the year. For a high-priced veteran, finding out that you are going to lose playing time to a 20 year old rookie - particularly in a contract year - is the type of thing that leads to trade demands, tantrums in the press, and ugly situations in the locker room.
And maybe my memories are just playing tricks on me...but from what I recall, reading in the sports pages and listening to Sports At Six on WBAP at the time, it seemed that there was nothing but praise for the way Gary Ward handled the situation. He knew that he was on his way out after the season, he knew that, even though Bobby Valentine planned to try to allocate playing time to all his outfielders over the rest of the year, he was the one who would be on the bench most often. And yet, from what I recall, he didn't bitch, didn't complain...Ward, from all indications, handled the situation with grace and with class, and helped turn what could have been an ugly scenario into a plus, a way to break give Sierra and Incaviglia regular playing time without overwhelming them, why also ensuring that there was always a quality bat available on the bench.
Ward graded out to have a very good year in 1986, posting a .282 EQA and a WARP3 of 5.2, although he was just 8th on the team in ABs, even finishing behind Sierra, who missed the first two months of the season. And although the Rangers faded at the end, he was an important part of a team that, as I touched on when discussing Oddibe McDowell, was truly one of the really special teams in Rangers history.
Ward, as expected, left after the 1986 season as a free agent, signing with the New York Yankees. He struggled in New York, however, posting just a .244 EQA as a regular in 1987, and then a .238 EQA as a part-time player in 1988. Ward was released in April of 1989, and ended up signing with the Detroit Tigers, where he spent the next two years as a backup outfielder, sharing time amongst a crew of veterans that included Larry Sheets, Lloyd Moseby, Chet Lemon, and John Shelby, along with future ChiSox g.m. Kenny Williams, before retiring after the 1990 season.
Gary Ward wasn't a great player...he reminds me, statistically if not physically, of Kevin Mench, another streaky player without great on base skills, but with some pop, a guy who is okay defensively, can play either corner outfield slot, plus center in a pinch.
But he was a solid player, a good addition to the Texas Rangers, and someone who was a quality contributor to the organization.