Remembering Ken Phelps

My fifth installment for the series is Ken Phelps. Wait, who? Old school Mariners fans know exactly who. And it’s not so much for what he did as a Mariner, but the extremely interesting parallels that came from his career. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Ken Phelps was born on August 6, 1954 in Seattle, WA and would attend high school at Ingraham High School in Seattle. He was a local product that went to Washington State University (Go Cougs!) for one year, followed by Mesa Community College and eventually what Phelps deemed his “dream college”, Arizona State University (much like “ReMembering” comrade Floyd Bannister).

Phelps had a very interesting MLB draft history:
– He was initially drafted in 1972 by the Atlanta Braves in the 8th round but did not sign.

– He was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 1st round (11th pick) of the 1974 amateur draft (January), but did not sign.

– Five months later he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1st round (19th pick) of the 1974 amateur draft (June Secondary), but did not sign.

– Finally, on June 8, 1976, when he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 15th round of the amateur draft… he signed.

Ken Phelps’ time in Kansas City was almost non-existent. Despite showing some great power in the minor leagues with two 20+ HR seasons (1979 and ’80), he would only receive two short call-ups with the Kansas City Royals in 1980 and ’81; 26 at-bats, 15 strikeouts. The Royals moved Phelps to the Montreal Expos on January 14, 1982 for pitcher Grant Jackson.

Phelps’ one and only minor league season with the Expos was simply sensational! A stunning line included a .333 AVG, 46 HR and 141 RBI including 108 walks. The incredible season eventually led to a late season call-up that led to… two hits in eight at-bats. Unfortunately for Phelps, despite the incredible numbers in the minors, the Expos were well stocked on their MLB roster and had no room for his services. It was time to move on once again.

The Expos sold, yes SOLD, the mashing lefty to his hometown team in the offseason. Phelps was out to prove his monster season was not a fluke. In 1983, he hit .341 in the Pacific Coast League. At this time in their history, the M’s were hungry for any sign of a power bat. Phelps delivered a small but impressive jolt in his mid-season call-up by blasting 7 HR in 127 at-bats.

1983 with Mariners: 50 games, .236 AVG, 7 HR, 16 RBI, 13 walks, 25 K

Despite turning 30 in August of that year, the Mariners upper management was sold on Phelps. The team went to Spring Training with all the intentions of having him be their everyday first baseman. Phelps lived up to the lofty expectations. Unfortunately, tragedy struck and this was the first time Phelps would make a lasting effect on the franchise.

Phelps broke his finger in the first week of the season, and prospect Alvin Davis (and fellow ASU Sun Devil) stepped in to win the job. Davis went on to win the 1984 American League Rookie of the Year award. What about Ken? He ended up in a part-time role as DH, pinch-hitter, and backup first baseman, yet still slugged 24 bombs in just 290 at-bats.

If Phelps never gets hurt, what happens to Alvin Davis? Does he ever get a chance to play in Seattle? If so, does his career still blossom the way it did in Seattle or does he get shipped elsewhere? We’ll never know.

Phelps was known as a very selective batter. He hit for power, struckout often (many on “called” strikes) and walked regularly, leading to a very good on-base percentage. Current Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane and his vision of “Moneyball” would have loved Phelps if he played in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s.

————————————————————————
The rest of Phelps’ career with Seattle:
1984 with Mariners: 101 games (290 AB), .241 AVG, 24 HR, 51 RBI, 61 walks, 73 K

1985 with Mariners: 61 games (116 AB), .207 AVG, 9 HR, 24 RBI, 24 walks, 33 K

1986 with Mariners: 125 games (344 AB), .247 AVG, 24 HR, 64 RBI, 88 walks, 96 K

1987 with Mariners: 120 games (332 AB), .259 AVG, 27 HR, 68 RBI, 80 walks, 75 K

1988 with Mariners: 72 games (190 AB), .284 AVG, 14 HR, 32 RBI, 51 walks, 35 K
————————————————————————

In 1988, Ken Phelps was having a great season for the Mariners. He was getting steady playing time, he was hitting in the middle of the order, and MLB started to take notice of the home run threat that he had become. Finding themselves only a few games out of leading the division, the power hungry New York Yankees came calling. The Mariners were not going anywhere in 1988 and decided to “sell high” on Phelps. What was the trade? One that impacted the Mariners for years to come!

July 21, 1988: Ken Phelps traded by the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees for a PTBNL (Troy Evers), Rich Balabon (minors) and Jay Buhner.

Jay Buhner! Yes folks, Bone was once a Yankees farmhand and he was coming off of an amazing Triple-A season in 1987 where he hit .279 with 35 HR and 85 RBI. Buhner went on to have an incredible career with the Mariners. Spanning 14 seasons, Buhner’s numbers with Seattle: crushed 307 HR, 951 RBI, 1997 All-Star and finally winning a Gold Glove in 1997 with his cannon of an arm in right field.

On the other hand, Phelps only played 131 games spanning the rest of 1987, 1988, and up until August 29th of ’89 for the Bronx Bombers. He would only hit 17 HR during this time. Ironically, one of those HR was a walk-off blast against the Mariners in New York in extra innings; Pro-Mariners: Jay Buhner homered in this game as well.

(Game box score: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA198808191.shtml)

Pundits criticized the Buhner/Phelps trade for years to come (especially from the difficult/demanding New York press) but reached cult status thanks to a special scene in an episode of the comedy show “Seinfeld”. (Here’s the link!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUwSxqnRW-8

Not knowing it at the time, this eventually became the second time Phelps parlayed the Mariners into creating a young talent in the Emerald City. First it was “Mr. Mariner” Alvin Davis and now Jay Buhner. Unfortunately the third unique memorable moment Ken Phelps had for/with/against the Mariners is not a happy story. Quite frankly it’s one of, if not the most, tragic Mariner moments of all-time. I’ll get there shortly.

Ken Phelps was released during the 1989 season and signed with the Oakland Athletics. Nice pick by Phelps because later on that season they were hoisting the World Series trophy. Unfortunately for Phelps, he had very little to do with it. Granted free agency at the end of 1989, Phelps would eventually come back to the A’s for the 1990 season.

The A’s were still known as the “Bash Brothers” at this time and Phelps was believed to still have some thunder left in his bat, leading to an occasional start and some pinch-hitting. It was the 10th game of the 1990 season when Phelps hit his first HR as an Athletic. Unfortunately, it had to be against the Seattle Mariners.

Over those two seasons with the A’s, Phelps would only play a grand total of 43 games, with 68 at-bats, 1 HR and 6 RBI. He was released by the A’s on June 14th and signed by the Cleveland Indians. He would never hit another HR again.

April 20th, 1990: Ken Phelps’ final home run

Phelps’ final home run might have been his most notable. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Mariners, in a 6-0 game, Phelps was called upon in the dugout to pinch hit for light-hitting Mike Gallego. Starting pitcher Brian Holman had retired the first 26 batters in succession. It was the bottom of the 9th, there were two outs, it was a dry 58-degree night in Oakland. Holman was one out away from not only the Mariners first no-hitter in franchise history, but also a PERFECT GAME!

As I mentioned before, Phelps was a very selective hitter who liked to see a lot of pitches, leading to his high walk and strikeout totals. Well, on this night, Phelps waited for nothing. His nickname was “Digger” and he did just that. He dug the first pitch he saw and homered to deep right field to ruin a perfect game. The man whose injury allowed us to see Alvin Davis play everyday and acquire/build with a cornerstone right fielder named Jay Buhner, stuck a knife in Mariners Nation’s heart that night. One out away from baseball immortality… not to be had.

Brian Holman & Ken Phelps... in a friendly photo.

Years later, Phelps said he wanted to hit it out because he did not want to watch himself on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” all season long making the final out of Holman’s amazing feat. And oh by the way, Holman finished off the game by striking out the next batter swinging. That batter? Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson.

(Box Score link — http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/OAK/OAK199004200.shtml)

Brian Holman note: He was involved in two very historic Mariners moments. First, he was part of the trade for Mark Langston that brought him and Randy Johnson to Seattle from Montreal and the second was the aforementioned Phelps bomb.

Ken Phelps was an exciting Mariner. Whether it be for his power, his giant 80’s glasses, or his amazing mustache, he was fan-friendly. I still have his “Starting Lineup” action figure amongst my baseball memorabilia. He was a local guy that you rooted for. He will never have his jersey number retired or get a street named after him, but there will never be a player that had such a deep impact for the Mariners, while not playing for them. This simply is Ken Phelps the baseball player.

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