If there’s a baseball participant who was ever one of the best at being the worst, it’s Ray Oyler. Virtually each one in every of his batting statistics from his six-year profession that ran from 1965 to 1970 are horrendously anemic, even at a time when pitchers had been the dominant drive within the sport. His career-high season common was .207 in 1967, his solely yr above the Mendoza line. His OPS by no means even touched .560. Per OPS+ he was, on the absolute peak of his powers, 61 % pretty much as good as the everyday major-league hitter. His profession common of .175 (with 15 residence runs!) is the second-lowest in historical past by any place participant with a minimum of 1,000 at-bats, after the dead-ball period’s Invoice Bergen.
And but regardless of a legendary incompetence on the plate, Oyler holds a particular place within the historical past of not only one, however two baseball cities. As each a fan favourite on a failed growth experiment in Seattle and an important character within the Detroit Tigers’ 1968 World Sequence story, Oyler was a lot greater than a man who swung a twig for a bat.
Oyler, who’s listed on his 1968 Topps card as standing 5-foot-10 and weighing simply 165 kilos, captained the baseball crew and quarterbacked the soccer crew as a highschool child in Indianapolis, then handed by way of the Marine Corps earlier than being signed by a Tigers scout in 1960. Within the minors, he managed to hit adequately for a shortstop, however he left an impression on everybody along with his magic glove. Footage of him enjoying isn’t simply accessible, and his metrics, whereas fairly good, aren’t unparalleled. However a lot of Oyler’s contemporaries have attested to a sort of understated, constant craftmanship in the way in which he performed quick. When he introduced the 27-year-old Oyler as much as the present in 1965, Tigers supervisor Charlie Dressen stated, “A number of scouts have instructed me he’s one of the best fielding shortstop they’ve seen. Not our personal, however Pittsburgh and New York scouts.”
However although his defensive abilities carried over to the best degree, the hitting by no means improved just like the Tigers hoped it will. In his first season in Detroit, Oyler slashed simply .186/.265/.294 in 217 plate appearances. In 237 PAs the subsequent yr, he slumped to .171/.263/.252. Oyler reportedly tried something he might to step up this aspect of his recreation, together with modified stances, switch-hitting trials, and even carrying glasses. However none of it appeared to work.
Tigers pitcher Denny McLain as soon as remarked that Oyler “couldn’t hit his means out of a room full of bathroom paper with a crowbar. However the way in which he might subject, I’d maintain him on my membership if he couldn’t hit his weight.”
Apart from a knack for the sac bunt, every little thing about Oyler’s offense was a legal responsibility, and his repute turned such that by 1968 pissed off Tigers followers would sarcastically cheer his foul balls, as a result of a minimum of he had made contact. (“I hated to see them making enjoyable of Ray,” supervisor Mayo Smith stated.) Although the Tigers dominated the AL in ’68, Oyler’s play solely bought worse because the yr went on. After hitting .220 within the month of April, he dropped off to really unacceptable ranges, and he ended the yr with a .135/.213/.186 line. Because the crew cruised to the pennant, the concept of Oyler having to step into the field towards Bob Gibson of the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals felt extra like a merciless joke than a viable lineup.
Detroit was not quick on good hitting. The difficulty was simply the place to place all of it, notably after proper fielder Al Kaline returned from a damaged arm he had suffered in Could. In left subject the Tigers had Willie Horton and his 36 residence runs. In proper that they had Jim Northrup and his team-best 90 RBI. At heart was Mickey Stanley, their greatest all-around athlete. And at first was Norm Money, second on the Tigers in slugging. Seemingly each place the veteran Kaline might play was accounted for, so Mayo Smith gambled that uncooked expertise might make up for inexperience, and within the ultimate stretch of the common season he moved Stanley to a brand-new place at shortstop whereas placing Northrup in heart and sticking Kaline in proper. Ray Oyler was demoted to late-game defensive substitute.
The Tigers’ unorthodox fielding set-up dominated the chatter within the construct to the World Sequence, however it turned out to be a genius name by Smith. Stanley answered all of the questions requested of him, and Kaline, the person for whom this transfer was meant to accommodate, responded with a monster, career-defining collection to cap off an uneven yr. The Tigers misplaced three of the primary 4, and confronted elimination with a 3-2 deficit within the seventh inning of Sport 5, however a clutch Kaline single with the bases loaded pulled out the victory. Within the subsequent recreation he went 3-for-4 with 4 runs pushed in. And within the deciding recreation, the Tigers earned their first championship since 1945. It may not have been attainable with out (or “with,” relying on the way you select to take a look at it) Ray Oyler.
Oyler’s benching was his swan track in Detroit. He was drafted by essentially the most ill-fated of the 4 growth groups coming into MLB in 1969, the Seattle Pilots. This was a franchise in hassle from the beginning: paid for with borrowed cash from former Cleveland proprietor Invoice Daley, rushed into its first season as a result of Kansas Metropolis was impatient to get the Royals up and working and the AL wished a good variety of groups, and caught within the aptly named Sicks’ Stadium whereas they waited in useless for what finally turned the Kingdome.
The Pilots lasted only one season earlier than they ran out of cash and had been bought to Bud Selig, who turned them into the Brewers. However as a misfit participant on a misfit crew, their beginning shortstop briefly discovered a sort of acceptance that had escaped him in Detroit.
It started with Pilots supervisor Joe Schultz’s analysis of Oyler’s skills. Requested at spring coaching in regards to the considerations surrounding his shortstop’s bat, Schultz responded, “Ah, hell. Ray Oyler will bat .300 for us along with his glove.”
A passionate group of Seattle baseball followers, nevertheless, believed that metaphorically hitting .300 wasn’t sufficient, and native DJ Bob Hardwick determined forward of the season to start out a Ray Oyler fan membership. Taking part in off the catchphrase of the TV present Snigger-In, it was known as the “S.O.C. I.T. T.O. M.E. .300” Membership, or “Slugger Oyler Can, In Time, High Our Supervisor’s Estimate and hit .300.” There have been official membership playing cards and every little thing! The membership wasn’t only a tossed-off gag: Its members reportedly gave Oyler a automobile and a canine, vocally cheered for him at video games with the “Sock It” rallying cry, and made him the clear-cut favourite participant on a crew of cast-offs.
Wrote Eric Whitehead, Vancouver columnist, “The Seattle followers, like followers wherever, are hero-hungry, and in some unusual match of perversity they picked Oyler as their man.”
Time Journal claimed that 15,000 followers signed up for the membership, or almost twice as many individuals as the typical attendance at a Pilots residence recreation that yr. “If you need to ask, you’ll by no means perceive,” Hardwick stated of why he singled out Oyler.
“Gee,” Oyler instructed UPI forward of Opening Day. “Nothing like this has ever occurred to me earlier than. However I’ll be in there attempting.”
The fan membership, at first, appeared to have a Midas contact, as Oyler began the ’69 season hitting .350 in his first six video games and even walloped a uncommon residence run. Whitehead was fairly involved by this flip of occasions. If Oyler might hit a lick, would he nonetheless be lovable?
As one awed and pensive fan within the grandstand pews was heard to narrate by way of a mouthful of hot-dog: “Oh, what a miracle is it right here that we’ve got wrought!”
A good form of soliloquy, forsooth.
An odd and wondrous factor has occurred. Oyler, who actually ought to know higher, is plainly starting to assume he’s pretty much as good a hitter as he’s not imagined to be. He’s drunk with the ability of suggestion. He was picked as a folk-hero due to his basic ineptitude, as a result of he couldn’t hit a lick, and thus actually cried for love.
Now it seems to be as if the man would possibly flip into an honest form of hitter and wreck the entire humanitarian idea of the Ray Oyler Fan Membership, which can quickly be no extra, May very well be that the troubled members have created a monster, and when will we ever study to not fiddle with nature?
He needn’t have apprehensive. By the top of April, Oyler was again right down to .220. By the top of Could, his common was .190. After June: .176, and the ground stored dropping. However even whereas most of Seattle confirmed a plain disinterest within the woeful Pilots and their crummy ballpark, the Ray Oyler Fan Membership stayed alive. When Oyler took a punch that gave him a black eye throughout a brawl with the Royals, Hardwick took it upon himself to ship a telegram to Kansas Metropolis’s GM demanding an apology and warning him that “Sock It To Ray Oyler” was not meant to be taken actually. (“Oyler Fan Membership Mad Over Mouse” was the headline within the Kansas Metropolis Occasions.)
Fists apart, Oyler’s native fame additionally made him a goal for ribs from opposing dugouts.
“They’ll holler one thing like, ‘How in hell can a .160 hitter have 11,000 followers?’ However I don’t let ’em hassle me with their yelling,” Oyler stated in August. “I at all times reply ’em the identical means. ‘Simply fortunate,’ I inform ’em.”
Sadly, neither the Pilots, the fan membership, and even Oyler’s profession might survive far past this one weird yr. Oyler was shuffled from Seattle to the A’s to the Angels after the 1969 season, and he completed out his MLB run going 2-for-24 with California. He hung across the Pacific Coast League for a number of years as a player-coach, however after retiring from baseball, he and his spouse Joanne determined to make their residence within the metropolis that had made him really feel welcome. The Oylers purchased a home in Redmond, Wash., and Ray labored at Safeway after which Boeing. He performed softball, pitched batting observe when the Tigers got here to city, and raised two ladies. In 1981, at simply 43 years outdated, Ray Oyler died of a coronary heart assault.
The close to half-century of baseball that the Seattle Mariners have performed since 1977 has dramatically overshadowed the Pilots, making them a footnote way more fascinating for his or her messy administration than any on-field accomplishments. Although postseason success has eluded them, the Mariners have however rostered a number of the most iconic ballplayers of the previous few many years, together with Randy Johnson, Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr., and Félix Hernández. These had been all superstars, beloved and appreciated not simply regionally however internationally. Even in the present day these are nonetheless the names that populate the backs of jerseys in Mariners crowds.
However lengthy earlier than any of those males made their mark on baseball within the Pacific Northwest, Seattle had a distinct favourite participant. He wasn’t a lot of a hitter, and his crew wasn’t a lot of a winner. However they cherished him anyway.