Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Card #104: Rance Mulliniks

Who Can It Be Now?
Stephen Rance Mulliniks was born on January 15, 1956 in Tulare, California.  Tulare is basically a suburb of Visalia, which itself is not much more than a suburb of Fresno. Mulliniks grew up in nearby Woodville and attended Monache High School in Porterville. He played both basketball and baseball there, but baseball was where his passion was.

A week after he graduated high school in 1974, the California Angels selected Mulliniks in the third round of the 1974 June Amateur Draft with the 58th overall pick. He signed shortly thereafter and was assigned to Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League for his first professional experience. 

Perhaps it just took him a while to get acclimated to being a pro ball player, or maybe it was nothing more than league context and the parks in which he was playing, but Mulliniks seemed to do better with every step up he took in the Angels system. His 1974 season at Idaho Falls was not stellar -- .218/.329/.287 in 242 plate appearances with no homers and fourteen SB (7 CS). His bat control was very good, however -- 31 BB, 41 K -- and improved with each step of advancement.  

Similarly, his fielding was pretty atrocious at first -- 33 errors at Idaho Falls in 66 games at shortstop -- but that, too, improved as he progressed. That may be due to his fielding or due to playing on better fields, but he definitely showed improvement as he went along.

He played in two Single-A leagues (California and Midwest) in 1975, and his hitting improved to .263/.361/.316 and made 31 errors in 111 games at shortstop. His 1976 season was spent in Double-A El Paso -- where pitchers' careers went to die -- and he hit slightly above average for his team -- .315/.427/.468 for Mulliniks versus .299/.379/.455 for the team.

When 1977 dawned, Mulliniks went to spring training and was assigned to Triple-A Salt Lake City. In all likelihood, he probably could not have envisioned himself being a regular on the California Angels that season since the Angels had signed a new shortstop, Bobby Grich, in free agency. But, in mid-June, Grich went on the disabled list due to an ailing back that required surgery. Mulliniks was called up at the age of 21 and played fairly regularly.  After a slow start, he ended up hitting .269/.329/.365 in 271 at-bats. 

Grich came back in 1978, and in an effort to help with his back, the Angels traded away second baseman Jerry Remy to clear a spot. Mulliniks was handed the job as starting shortstop for the Angels out of spring training. Unfortunately for him, however, he fumbled the opportunity -- hitting .143/.215/.186 in 22 games in the first month of the season (10-70 with 6 BB) before being supplanted as the regular shortstop by Dave Chalk. The Angels kept him in the majors as a reserve and sometime starter until June 30, when apparently they recognized that getting their 22-year-old shortstop some additional time in Triple-A would be a good idea.

In 1979, Mulliniks beat out Chalk for the shortstop job in the spring. Once again, he started out the season hitting extremely poorly -- hitting .138/.191/.190 in 18 games before getting sent back down to Salt Lake City. This time, the Angels chose to fill their shortstop need by trading Chalk to Texas for 37-year-old Bert Campaneris who, along with 22-year-old Jim Anderson, filled in accordingly.

Once a younger and apparently better option for a team appears, a team can do a few things. They can keep both players and have them compete with one another for the job. They can trade one away to get something for their effort while letting the other one play. Or, they can do as the Angels did (and as the 1980s Yankees tended to do) -- signing old free agents to fill the slot for a year and trade away the younger guys.  

The Angels signed the 35-year-old Fred Patek from the Royals in the offseason after 1979 to be paired with Bert Campaneris. Then, they traded Mulliniks along with Willie Mays Aikens to the Royals for Craig Eaton, Todd Cruz, and Al Cowens. The Royals had U.L. Washington at shortstop -- who was a year older than Mulliniks and was thought to be the guy there for the next decade. 

Mulliniks became the backup to Frank White at second and Washington at short, and, as a result, he played just 36 games all season in 1980 despite being on the roster all year. Granted, his team went to a World Series, but he did not play in either the ALCS or the World Series. 1981 was more of the same for him -- just 24 games played. 

In the 1981 offseason, Mulliniks recognized that he would not have much of a major league career if he stayed in Kansas City. After all, third base was manned by George Brett, shortstop and second were spoken for, and Jim Frey and Dick Howser did not like using their bench players all that much. So, Mulliniks asked the Royals to trade him. The Royals accommodated his request by sending him to Toronto in exchange for pitcher Phil Huffman, a move which occurred on the same day as the Blue Jays sending future Washington QB Jay Schroeder to Double-A.

In Toronto, he got an opportunity to play reasonably regularly. Bobby Cox employed the best-named platoon in the history of baseball.  By 1985, when Toronto was in the midst of winning its first ever AL East title, many writers decided to highlight Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg as a great platoon -- or, as SI put it, Gance Mullinorg. Cox decided to use his backup middle infielders as third basemen, and it worked out extremely well for both players. 

Mulliniks spent 11 seasons in Toronto as a DH and third baseman.  He never played in more than 129 games -- which he did twice -- and he never played in a playoff series that his team won. He played 5 games in 1985 against Kansas City, 1 game against Oakland in 1989, and 5 games against the Twins in 1991 -- all losses to the eventual World Series Champion.  

In 1992, Mulliniks spent most of the year on the disabled list for his back. He rehabilitated it in Knoxville for a few games, and then closed out his career with the Blue Jays with three September at-bats. His final at bat ever was a pinch-hit appearance on September 18, 1992. Mulliniks hit for future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and singled to left field in a 13-0 rout of the Texas Rangers. He closed out his career on the bench during the 1992 World Series in which the Blue Jays finally won their first World Championship.

Mustache Check: Mulliniks is sporting his mustache here. According to this interview in 2008, he started growing the mustache when he was 21.

This Is Radio Clash
After his career as a player ended, Mulliniks spent several years as a part-time television analyst, first for the Montreal Expos in 2004 and then for the Toronto Blue Jays. Mulliniks generally provided color commentary for Blue Jays games on the West Coast, and he was let go by Rogers Communications after the 2010 season. Mulliniks spent five years as a commentator for the Blue Jays.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Every team has their version of a Rance Mulliniks -- a guy with limited abilities compared to his contemporaries but who fills a role well and plays a fairly long time with that club. These guys seem to tend to be middle-infielder types -- think Jim Gantner, Rich Dauer, or Mark Lemke, for example -- or catchers like Jody Davis, Javy Lopez, or Charlie Moore (and yes, I used the Braves and Brewers as examples because I am most familiar with those two clubs). These guys are legends in the city in which they played, but for the most part they are remembered little outside of their home city.

An example of this phenomenon with Mulliniks can be found at Batter's Box Canada from a forum posted back in 2006, when Rance turned 50. Lots of chatter about Rance, lots of limericks in his honor. 

He still lives in the California area where he grew up. When the Blue Jays pulled the plug on his broadcasting career, he was not left flat footed. Indeed, he is a real estate agent in Visalia. I'm not sure about that blue-background Glamour Shot that he's using for his photo on his Century 21 website, but he's the one who has to live with that photo. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm always amazed how guys like him can stick around. Look at John McDonald for the Angels. He has been a back up shortstop for something like 14 years. I don't think he has hit the ball out of the infield since 2008.