- Posted: 9:54 AM, June 15, 2012
Harper is one of the most exciting rookies in recent memory, and the Angels' Mike Trout isn't far behind. And that begged the question: What rookies have captivated us the most?
This is my personal list, using my own memory and biases (rather than any sort of sabermetric research) as primary tools; keep in mind that I'm younger than Barack Obama and older than Brittney Spears .
1. Dwight Gooden, 1984 . Going back to the mention of biases, maybe he ranks first on my list because I was a youngster in New Jersey at the time. I attended one game (this one ) in person and probably watched at least 75 percent of the others on TV.
Every Gooden start was an event. On a suddenly exciting young Mets team, after so many years of bad baseball, he was the number one reason to watch. Opposing batters seemed helpless against the 1-2 combination of Doctor K's explosive fastball and curveball that was so good it had its own nickname, "Lord Charles."
We know what happened from there; Gooden followed with a masterful 1985 that made '84 look like kids' play, and then, while he still clocked some worthwhile seasons, he was never the same. Not incidentally, he dealt with massive substance abuse issues that kept him off the field and that have plagued him post-retirement, as well. His successes with the Yankees, first in 1996-97 and then in 2000, added a nice final chapter, but it was clear those were last stands, rather than renaissances.
It's fair to wonder what Gooden could've been had he stayed clean, but we'll always have the thrills of '84 and '85. The first year stands out for me just because of its novelty. Besides, he still owns the single-season rookie strikeouts record of 276.
2. Fernando Valenzuela, 1981 . Had I grown up in Southern California instead of the Garden State, perhaps this would be my number one. Because for sure, the same hype accompanied each Valenzuela start his first full season as it did for Gooden. There was an added cultural cache; Valenzuela's Mexican heritage made his surge in nearby L.A. all the more exciting. Shoot, the whole phenomenon had its own handle, "Fernandomania."
He's still the only person to win the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award in the same season, and he topped off that memorable campaign with a World Series Game 3 victory.
He proceeded to become a front-of-the-rotation, innings-eating horse for Tommy Lasorda over the next decade, although he never again reached the heights of '81, and then he hung around all the way through 1997, pitching for five different teams. Now, he's a Dodgers Spanish-language broadcaster, as he should be.
3. Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 . In the wake of hyped arrivals and different degrees of success by his countrymen, pitchers Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu, Ichiro became the first high-profile Japanese player to give Major League Baseball a try. It worked out pretty well for him.
Ichiro's 2001 numbers were terrific - they made him the second player to win both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP in the same season, after Boston's Fred Lynn in 1975 - but nowhere near what Harper is doing right now. What puts him on his list is not his substance, but his style: His unique swing, which made him look like a tennis player. His ridiculous speed, which made him a constant threat to get on base even with a standard groundball to shortstop. His tremendous arm from rightfield. His sunglasses. And that sly, mysterious smile, making him sort of a man of mystery.
As the years have passed, Ichiro has lost some of that mystique, amidst rumblings that he's a selfish player. He has slowed down considerably, too, since last year, and 2012 could be it for his run in Seattle, as he's an impending free agent.
Nevertheless, that rookie year begat many comparable seasons, and Ichiro has put himself in the Hall of Fame conversation.
4. Mark McGwire, 1987 . The year after Jose Canseco lit up Oakland with a Rookie of the Year season, McGwire provided quite the encore. By the end of June, he had 28 homers, inspiring chatter that we might see a rookie take a run at Roger Maris' single-season record.
McGwire slowed down in the second half, yet he still wound up with 49 homers, a rookie single-season record. And of course, 11 years later, he indeed passed Maris, with the help of some illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
I vote for McGwire on my Hall of Fame ballot annually, because there was no drug-testing during McGwire's career. The majority of the voters feel differently, or at least they feel his career wasn't Cooperstown-worthy for some reason.
In any case, McGwire has the unique case of being even more buzztastic as a retired player than he was as a rookie.
5. Kerry Wood, 1998 . He had the Texas upbringing, the mammoth size and the stuff to make us thing great things were ahead. And then, in his fifth major-league start, he struck out 20 Astros at Wrigley Field, tying the major-league, single-game record. Could it get any better than that?
Of course not. But he wound up with a very good career nonetheless. He rebounded from 1999 Tommy John surgery to put up mostly quality seasons as a Cubs starting pitcher from 2000 through 2004. Continued physical problems sent him to the bullpen, and he became a valuable closer and setup man, even making a terrific New York cameo with the 2010 Yankees.
He retired just earlier this year, back with the Cubs. And for all he accomplished, he'll be remembered the most by what he did in his very first month as a big-leaguer.
--Have a great day.