The 1994-95 offseason was a time of chaos, both for the Rangers and for baseball in general. The baseball strike that began on August 11, 1994, resulted in the cancellation of the last two months of the season, along with the playoffs and World Series, giving the game a huge black eye. The winter was a fiasco, with negotiations between the owners and players over a new CBA going nowhere, owners rounding up replacement players to take the striking players' place, and threats of Congressional intervention if the two sides couldn't get things worked out amongst themselves. Only Federal District Judge Sonia Sotomayor's granting of a preliminary injunction against the owners implementing a new CBA and using replacement players ended what had been, for baseball fans, an eight month nightmare, and returned the game to a state of normalcy.
For the Rangers, however, the 1994-95 offseason was particularly chaotic, as well. Team president Tom Schieffer fired general manager Tom Grieve, who had just finished his 10th year as g.m. of the Rangers, along with manager Kevin Kennedy. A season that had started with promise and hopes of a playoff appearance ended sourly, not only due to the strike, but also because of the team's awful 52-62 record, the disappointing performances by team cornerstones Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer, and Kevin Brown, and the infighting and negativity which had taken over the clubhouse. Schieffer decided it was time to clean house, and brought in Baltimore director of player development Doug Melvin to be the new Rangers g.m.
Melvin, like most new general managers, made efforts to bring in guys he was familiar with. Early on in the offseason, he hired former Orioles manager Johnny Oates to take over as manager for the Rangers. And he signed a couple of role players he knew from his days with Baltimore as free agents, guys who were valued not just for what they did on the field, but for their work ethic, attitude, and presence in the clubhouse. One of them was utilityman Mark McLemore.
And the other was #49 on the list of the greatest Rangers of all time...Mickey Tettleton.
Tettleton came up as a catcher in the Oakland A's organization, as a 5th round draft pick out of Oklahoma State University. Tettleton spent 1984 through 1987 in the majors with the A's, backing up Mike Heath in 1984 and 1985, and splitting time with Jerry Willard in 1986 and Terry Steinbach in 1987. Tettleton struggled to stay healthy, however, and his production dropped his last couple of years in Oakland. Terry Steinbach had seized the catching job by the end of the 1987 season, and between Steinbach's performance and Tettleton's injury problems, the A's determined Tettleton was expendable, releasing him on the eve of the 1988 season.
The Baltimore Orioles (with Doug Melvin as director of player personnel) scooped Tettleton up days later, and he split the catching job in 1988 with veteran Terry Kennedy, while putting up solid numbers. Tettleton finally got a chance to play everyday in 1989, splitting time between catcher and designated hitter, and he responded with a breakout season, putting up a .258/.369/.509 line with a .318 EQA, winning the Silver Slugger and being named to the all-star team.
Tettleton had another solid season for the Orioles in 1990 before being traded to the Tigers, in exchange for pitcher Jeff Robinson, where from 1991 through 1994 he was a consistent middle-of-the-lineup threat for the Tigers while splitting time at catcher, first base, in the outfield, and at DH.
And thus we come to - Mickey Tettleton: The Rangers Years. Tettleton was signed to provide some pop from the DH position while providing some insurance at catcher behind Pudge Rodriguez and some leadership on a Rangers team that, it was hoped, would be a playoff contender. At age 34, Tettleton was no longer physically capable of doing much work behind the plate - he only caught three games for the Rangers, all in 1995 - but in everything else, he exceeded Doug Melvin's expectations.
Tettleton was an offensive force for the Rangers in 1995. By this time Tettleton, who had always been a Three True Outcomes type anyway, had taken that profile to the extreme...he only hit .238 on the season, with 110 strikeouts, but he still posted a .396 OBP and a .510 slugging percentage, helping propel him to a .310 EQA for the season. And with Juan Gonzalez continuing to have injury problems that limited him in the field, Tettleton was pressed into service in the outfield quite regularly, playing 61 games in right field so that the Rangers could get both he and Juan in the lineup at the same time.
Despite Tettleton's strong performance, 1995 was a disappointment for the Rangers...Juan Gonzalez couldn't stay healthy, Benji Gil was a bust, the offense was thoroughly mediocre (the team finished 10th or 11th in the A.L. in runs, doubles, triples, homers, OBP, and slugging), and Dean Palmer's career was derailed by a torn biceps muscle. The 1995 Rangers finished 74-70, 4.5 games back of division winner Seattle.
Nevertheless, the foundation had been laid for the first Rangers division winner, and as everyone knows, the 1996 team started fast, jumped out to a big lead in the A.L. West, and survived a late scare by the Mariners to win the division. Tettleton was the DH on that team, and while his numbers dropped from 1995 -- .246/.366/.450, with a .278 EQA - he was still a key contributor to the Rangers run, including hitting the game winning homer off of Aaron Small in a late September game in Oakland, which gave the Rangers a three-game lead over the Mariners and pretty much locked in the division title for the Rangers.
Like most of the Rangers, Tettleton struggled in the 1996 ALDS, going 1 for 12 (albeit with 5 walks) in what was essentially his last hurrah as a Ranger. Tettleton played only 17 more games with the Rangers after that, posting just a 485 OPS in April of 1997 before going on the disabled list with a knee sprain suffered running out a ground ball. Tettleton tried to rehabilitate after surgery and make a comeback, but it was to no avail, and on July 6, 1997, Tettleton announced his retirement from baseball.
Tettleton is one of the players I really struggled with whether to include in the rankings. He was only a Ranger for 2 ½ seasons, and spent most of the half season on the disabled list. He was legitimately a very good player, one of the types that tends to be underrated by traditionalists and coveted by statheads. Traditionalists looked at Tettleton, saw a guy with no speed, marginal defensive abilities behind the plate, a terrible batting average, and a ton of strikeouts, and wrote him off. For the stathead crowd, though, Tettleton was the perfect example of the "undervalued" player...he played a difficult defensive position well enough that he didn't have to be moved, he never grounded into double plays despite his lack of speed, and he drew a ton of walks and hit for power, so that he was a terrific offensive player despite the Ks and the low average. Tettleton, while not a Hall of Famer, was a legitimately great player for several seasons in the early-90s.
Still, that's not the main reason Tettleton, who was on the top-50 bubble, made the cut. What finally swayed me was that almost everyone associated with the Rangers from Tettleton's time credits him with being a tremendous influence in the clubhouse, being a leader who helped change the atmosphere and make the Rangers a winning organization.
As most of you probably know, I'm not a big "intangibles" guy. I don't think clubhouse chemistry is all that important. But the respect that folks have for Tettleton's influence and importance to the Rangers in 1996 is such that I feel comfortable giving it some weight. And the fact that he was one of a handful of former Rangers who made to back to TBIA for "Rusty Greer Day" in 2005 says a lot, to me, about the type of guy Mickey Tettleton was.
And so, for being one of the key contributors, both off and on the field, of the first playoff team in Rangers history, I'm putting Mickey Tettleton as #49 on my list of the all-time greatest Texas Rangers.