"Whatever happens, I'm man enough to deal with it. We all know the best way to shut up critics is to hit. If you hit, everything takes care of itself."
Ray Lankford, after signing a minor league deal with the St. Louis Cardinals in January, 2004.
Outfielder, St. Louis Cardinals (1990-2001, 2004), San Diego Padres (2001-2002)
Height: 5' 11"
Weight: 200 pounds
Ray Lankford was one of the premier center fielders of the 1990's, providing the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres with base stealing, home runs, and solid defense from 1990 to 2002, his career at its high points reminding one of a poor man's Bernie Williams or Bobby Bonds. So why did he not get the name recognition similarly valuable or inferior players, like Marquis Grissom early in his career and Garret Anderson later, received? Unlike Grissom's gaudy stolen base totals or Anderson's high batting average and RBI totals he had no "major" stat to hang his hat on, and he also had the misfortune of playing during Ozzie Smith's twilight and Mark McGwire's brilliant peak, which dimmed his star further.
Lankford's career began as the Cardinals' third round draft choice out of Modesto Junior College. Noted originally for his burning speed, his power manifested itself mainly in doubles and triples through the minors. In 1990 he saw his first major league action and didn't disappoint, providing a .805 OPS and stealing 8 bases in only 39 games.
The rookie's 1991 was a disappointment, as he failed to build on his solid first year. He stole 44 bases and led the majors with 15 triples, which would be a career highs, but his plate discipline and power seemingly disappeared. There were rumors that manager Joe Torre was alienating Lankford by playing up his faults and playing him inconsistently. 1992 silenced any critics he may have had, however.
Lankford produced a borderline MVP year in 1992, slamming 66 extra base hits in a surprise power boost, and improving both his batting average and walk rate, while turning in his second 40 steal season. After playing poorly through injuries in 1993 he was back to a solid level of production in strike shortened 1994.
In 1996 Lankford saw his first taste of the playoffs, as the Tony LaRussa-led Cardinals surprised many by winning the weak National League Central Division and coming within one game of the World Series before losing out to the Atlanta Braves. While right fielder Brian Jordan saw most of the MVP talk on the surprise club, finishing eighth in the voting, he was outhit and outfielded by Lankford, and most consider his campaign to have been based primarily on hype.
In 1997 the Cardinals missed the playoffs but acquired a superstar, as Mark McGwire's bursting onto the St. Louis scene for marginal pitching prospects and giving Roger Maris' single-season home run title a run for its money. The hubbub over McGwire's awesome year overshadowed Lankford's career year. In 133 games Lankford hit 31 home runs and made his only appearance in the all-star game.
The 1998 Cardinals are remembered primarily for McGwire's historic 70 home run season, but batting behind "Big Mac" in the order Lankford hit 31 home runs for the second consecutive season, and stole 26 bases in 31 chances, and also had his only 100 RBI season, driving in 105.
In 1999 Lankford was moved to left field to make way for vaunted prospect J.D. Drew, who had hit .417 in his September call-up. His power numbers dropped, although he hit .300 for the first time in his career, and played in only 122 games.
After a decline in 2000 and early 2001, The strikeouts that had been piling up steadily over his career were suddeenly an issue, and the Cardinals were looking to find a new home for Lankford and his $8,100,000 annual contract. Lankford, still an above-average left fielder by OPS, was given a "poor team player" label. Often booed in his final months with the team, things came to a head when Lankford, by then known by many St. Louis fans as "Ray the K", told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he felt he wasn't getting the respect he deserved. He left the team at the end of July for "personal reasons", and was traded to the San Diego Padres in August for pitcher Woody Williams. Hitting very well in his two months with the Padres, even playing some center field, he was expected to platoon with Bubba Trammell, who had hit 25 home runs the year before, to provide the young Padres with some power in the outfield. Both sides of the platoon disappointed, with Lankford having the worst season of his career in an injury plagued campaign. After not playing in 2003, it appeared the career of this former St. Louis Cardinal star was over.
Lankford, quietly, decided that he wanted another shot at baseball, and at 37 worked out in the Dominican Republic with Carlos Beltran and Moises Alou to try to get back into game shape. After the less-than-amiable conditions under which they parted, Lankford and the Cardinals surprisingly agreed to a minor league contract for the 2004 season.
BA OBP SLG G H 2B 3B HR SB RBI R
.272 .364 .478 1609 1510 342 53 232 256 852 932
Sources: Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia, www.baseball-reference.com, www.retrosheet.org, www.stltoday.com