#41 -- The 50 Greatest Rangers of All Time

So, after much delay, with the offseason looming, we resume the list of the 50 greatest Rangers of all time.  You can see numbers 42 thru 50 listed here, and today, we pick up where we left off, at #41.

The forty first greatest Ranger of all time is probably the most well-known of any of the players who have been listed so far, a player who made his name and reputation with two other teams, but who finished his career with the Rangers.  He has two World Series rings, but is also legendary for his quotes and sense of humor.  While he wasn't great as a Ranger, his 1980 season was probably the best by any Ranger centerfielder prior to 2006.

As you have probably guessed, the 41st greatest Ranger is Mick the Quick, John Milton "Mickey" Rivers.

Mickey Rivers was born on October 31, 1948 (just a few days after my mother, come to think of it), in Miami, Florida.  Rivers came of age back when there were two baseball drafts -- a January draft, for players who dropped out and for Juco players, and the primary June draft -- and when there were two "phases" to each draft, a "primary" phase where players who had never been drafted were selected, and a "secondary" phase for players who had been drafted previously.

Rivers was drafted four times in a span of less than 18 months.  Attending Miami-Dade College, Rivers was selected with the ChiSox's first round pick (#13 overall) in the primary phase of the January, 1968, draft; in the 8th round of the June, 1968, secondary phase by Atlanta; and again in the first round (8th overall) by the Senators in the January, 1969 draft, but didn't sign to any of those teams.

Re-entering the draft again in June, 1969, Rivers was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 2nd round, and promptly signed with them.  Assigned to Magic Valley in the Rookie level Pioneer League, Rivers had an impressive debut, hitting .307 with 13 doubles, 6 triples and 7 homers just 225 at bats.

However, the Braves were involved in a tight race for the N.L. West title, and needing bullpen help, they packaged Rivers with lefty pitcher Clint Compton to acquire 46 year old Hoyt Wilhelm and journeyman swingman Bob Priddy from the California Angels on September 8, 1969.  Priddy barely pitched for the Angels, but Wilhelm was solid, giving up just one run for the Braves in 12 1/3 innings, and helping the Braves take the National League West before getting knocked off in the NLCS by the Miracle Mets.

Rivers started the 1970 season in AA El Paso, and had a terrific season, hitting .343, scoring 99 runs in just 117 games, and earning brief callup in August and then a cup of coffee at season's end, hitting .320 in 25 at bats in the majors that year.

The 1971 season saw Rivers in the PCL, playing for Salt Lake City, and he continued to put up great numbers, hitting .322 with 10 triples and 54 runs scored in just 72 games before being called up to the majors in late June.

Rivers was forced into action due to an injury to Ken Berry, who had been the Angels' primary centerfielder until getting hurt in mid-June, and he ended up taking over the centerfield role and hitting 2nd for the remainder of the season.  He ended up struggling in his first extended playing time at the major league level, however, putting up a .265/.316/.336 line for the season.

Rivers started the 1972 season as the Angels' regular centerfielder against righthanded pitchers, but continued to regress.  Throughout his career, Mickey Rivers' offensive skill set consisted of two things -- hitting for average and speed -- but he wasn't doing either well for California, and at the end of May was sporting a .236/.292/.270 line and was 2 for 4 on the bases, putting his job in jeopardy.  Rivers was even worse in June, hitting .135/.158/.189 in 37 ABs before the Angels decided they had seen enough, and sent him back to Salt Lake City, with Berry taking back over in center.

Rivers had success again in AAA, hitting .336 and scoring 50 runs in 56 games before getting recalled in September, but once again, his minor league success wasn't translating to the majors, and 1973 saw Rivers spend a full season in the PCL.  

Once again, Rivers was a terrific leadoff man in the minors, hitting .336 again while scoring 113 runs in 141 games.  Berry stayed healthy (albeit not terribly productive) in center for the Angels in 1973, and Rivers didn't get a shot in the majors for California until September roster expansion.

Finally, though, with the Angels out of contention, Rivers was able to play center every day in September, and was able to take advantage of his opportunity, posting a .349/.391/.457 line with 7 steals in 29 games.  Encouraged by this showing, the Angels dealt Berry to Milwaukee as part of a 9 player deal, and Rivers became the Angels starting centerfielder.

1974 was Rivers' first full season in the majors, and at age 25, he had a solid year, posting a .287 EQA, and finishing first in the A.L. in triples and sixth in the A.L. in steals despite a season-ending injury that cost him the last 6 weeks of the year.  He stayed healthy all of 1975, and finished 1st in the league in both steals and triples, along with third in singles, and posted a .283 EQA for the season.

Despite Rivers' success, the Angels continued to struggle, and California decided they needed an upgrade over Rivers in the outfield.  While Rivers could hit for average, had a ton of speed and could cover a lot of ground in center, he also had no power and a terrible throwing arm, and the Angels were worried about his durability.  Seeking more production from their outfield, the Angels traded Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa to the Yankees for rightfielder Bobby Bonds.

Rivers spent the next three seasons in New York, manning centerfield for the Yankees from 1976-78, playing in three World Series and becoming beloved by the New York media for a way with words that was reminiscent of Yogi Berra.  You can find a litany of Mickey quotations at this link, but I think my favorite is one that I read in Baseball Digest circa 1978, at the age of seven, that Mickey supposedly directed to one Reginald Martinez Jackson:

"Reginald Martinez Jackson...you've got a white man's first name, a Spanish man's second name and a black man's third name.  No wonder you are so mixed up.

Rivers' best season in his career was his first in New York, when he hit .312 with 40 steals, good for a .296 EQA, and finished third in the league in runs scored.  In an era where steals and batting average carried a lot of weight, along with playing for a winning team, Rivers finished 3rd in the MVP balloting that year for helping to lead the Yankees back to the World Series for the first time since 1964, finishing behind Thurmon Munson and George Brett.

The Reds swept the Yanks out of the World Series in 1976, but the Yankees topped the Dodgers in both 1977 and 1978, giving Mickey a pair of championship rings.  However, although Rivers had another solid season in 1977, his steal total dropped, and in 1978 he slumped to just a .265 average with a .302 OBP, good for just a .266 EQA.

Rivers continued to struggle in 1979, and in the Rangers, the Yankees found a potential trading partner that was in need of a centerfielder, and was willing to overpay for a big name.  With Billy Sample, Oscar Gamble, Al Oliver, John Ellis, Johnny Grubb and Richie Zisk all on the roster, the Rangers had plenty of options for their corner outfield and DH slots, but had no viable centerfielder.  Oliver manned center for most of the first half of the 1979 season, but he was clearly out of place there.

Thus, on August 1, 1979, with the Rangers in third place, 4.5 games out in the A.L. West, Texas pulled the trigger on a trade with the Yankees, seeking to deal from an area of strength to fill a weakness.  

Unfortunately for Rangers fans, Texas traded their best corner outfielder that year -- Gamble -- along with minor leaguer Amos Lewis to get Rivers.  Each team agreed to provide players to be named later, and while the players the Rangers got never made it to the majors, the Yankees ended up getting Ray Fontenot and Gene Nelson from the Rangers in the deal.

Texas agreed with Mick the Quick, as he seemed to get back on track after joining the Rangers, hitting .300 the rest of the season after the deal with a .270 EQA.  The Rangers slumped the rest of the way, however, and ended up the season 5 games out of first place, with Rivers' old team, the Angels, winning the division.  Rivers' other old team, the Yanks, ended up fourth in the A.L. East, 13.5 games back of Baltimore.

In 1980, Rivers looked like his old self for the Rangers, having a terrific year in center, posting a .333/.353/.437 line for the Rangers, good for a .280 EQA.  Still, at age 31, Rivers was clearly slowing down...he stole only 18 bases in 25 attempts, and had only 6 triples on the year, his second-lowest total of his career.

Rivers was one of the few bright spots for the Rangers in 1980, however...he, Buddy Bell and Oliver were the only consistent offensive forces the Rangers had, and the pitching was thoroughly mediocre.  The team hovered around .500 all season, ultimately finishing 4th in the West, with a 75-86 record.

The next year, of course, was the strike season, but even in the shortened year, it was obvious that Rivers had lost a step.  His batting average dropped to .286, his EQA fell to .271, and Rivers didn't even crack double-digits in steals, going 9 for 14 on the season in 99 games.  The Rangers finished a game and a half back of the A's in the first half of the strike-shortened season, but slumped to 2 games under .500 and 4.5 games out of first in the second half, coming short yet again.

Rivers spent three more years with the Rangers, but they were injury-plagued campaigns, with Rivers just a shadow of his former, exciting self.  Rivers missed almost the entire 1982 season, being relegated to the disabled list from the start of the season, coming off in May, but then going back on after just one at bat.  He returned on July 15, and tried to play, but made it only 18 games before returning to the disabled list.  Amazingly, Rivers drew not a single walk on the season, nor did he steal a base, putting up a .235/.232/.324 line on the year, while the Rangers plummeted to 6th place.

1983 and 1984 were better for Rivers, but he still was only able to post a .245 and a .258 EQA those two years, albeit with a .300 average on the nose in 1984.  Injuries limited his playing time both years, however, and Rivers was mostly relegated to left field, with George Wright taking over at center.  After the 1984 season, the Rangers released Rivers, and he did not play in the majors again.

Mickey Rivers is the type of player you don't see so much nowadays...little, fast, never walked, never struck out, zero power, no arm.  Jason Tyner, if he had panned out, would have turned into Rivers.  The Cards had several Mick-like players over the years, guys like Willie McGee and Vince Coleman and Lance Johnson.  He's a throwback to another era...

Rivers wasn't a Hall of Famer, by any stretch of the imagination, and injuries cut short his career.  But he still was a pretty nice player for quite a while, and before GMJ's remarkable 2006 campaign, Rivers was probably the best centerfielder in Ranger history.

I have one Rivers story, which I'll share, even though it doesn't portray him in the best light.  When I was a kid, my brother Sam and I went with our father on a trip to Kansas City for a weekend to watch the Rangers.  It was the last weekend of August, 1980, and Buddy Bell -- my favorite player -- hurt himself in the Friday game, and missed the rest of the season, which was a bummer.

Anyway, in the Kansas City airport, waiting for our flight back to D/FW, the Rangers were waiting in the same area as us, to take the same flight back (this is back when teams flew commercial, like regular folks).  

Sam and I each went around, a baseball apiece, asking players for their autograph.  When I asked Mickey Rivers for his autograph, he laughed and told me it would cost $20.  Confused, I said I didn't have $20, and wandered off...and then he signed Sam's ball, instead.

Anyway, I don't tell this to make him sound like a jackass or anything...I think he was just trying to be funny, and if I'd persisted, he would have given me his autograph.  But that's the tale of my one encounter with Mickey Rivers...the 41st Greatest Ranger of All Time.

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