Players who spend their entire careers with one team seem to be going the way of the Dodo bird. Since the advent of free agency and the improvement in medical technology that has allowed players to remain useful into their late 30’s and early 40’s, the likelihood that someone will play their entire career in one place has greatly diminished from year to year. Salary demands, payroll restrictions and the opportunity to go to other teams where the chances of winning a championship or getting more playing time means that more and more ballplayers find themselves moving on at least once in their careers, and usually more often than that. Because of that, it makes the fact that these players stayed with one team their entire careers that much more remarkable.
In an exclusive five-part series, Baseball Magazine looks at the top players and the ultimate same-team duo of the past 25 years. In order to qualify for this list, players had to meet the following criteria:
- Played their entire career with the same team Major League team (they may have started in a different organization, such as Jeff Bagwell who spent most of his minor league career in the Red Sox organization but did not play with a Major League team other than the Houston Astros.)
- Played until at least the end of the 1990 season.
- Played at least 10 Major League seasons.
- Was a primary starter for their team throughout their career, though position changes are allowed.
- The player cannot be a currently active player as it’s possible that they may move to another team at some point in the future.
An examination of baseball records shows that in the past 25 years, only 38 total players have achieved this and one, Mike Norris of the Oakland Athletics, only did so after not playing the 1984 through 1989 seasons, returning briefly in 1990.
Of course, the decision-making process was not easy and some of these players can be subject to debate. To acknowledge the achievements of some people who didn’t make the list, we make these honorable mentions:
Barry Larkin, Cincinnati Reds – Larkin was the primary shortstop for the Reds for 19 seasons from 1986 through 2004. Always a crowd favorite, Larkin was known as a smooth defender and a superior offensive player as well. Larkin was a mainstay atop the Reds order, hitting .295 while hitting 198 home runs, collecting 2,340 hits, driving in 960 runs and stealing 379 bases. Larkin won a championship with the Reds in 1990, was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1995, made the All-Star team 12 times, won 3 Gold Glove awards, and was a 9-time Silver Slugger.
Jorge Posada, Yankees– What made Posada particularly remarkable is that he played so well for so long at a position with a great amount of history. Filling the shoes of men like Yogi Berra and Thurman Munson is not an easy task, but Posada handled the job with skill and class for 17 seasons between 1995 and 2011, helping to lead the Yankees to four World Championships, as well as spending some time with the team during the 1996 season though not appearing on the postseason roster. Sharing the headlines with other career Yankees such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams, Posada’s contributions could be easily missed. Still, while playing baseball’s most physically demanding position, Posada put up a .273 career batting average while hitting 275 home runs and driving across 1,065 RBIs. Posada’s efforts were recognized in the form of 5 All-Star appearances and 5 Silver Slugger awards.
Jason Varitek, Red Sox – Varitek’s Boston career timeline virtually mirrors Posada’s, and the divisional rival warrants discussion of his own. Though his career numbers are not as impressive as Posada’s, Varitek provided a stable presence behind home plate, helping guide the Red Sox to 2004 and 2007 World Series wins (their first since 1918) and his workman-like approach to the game made him a fan favorite in Boston, a steadying presence in contrast to the team’s bigger stars such as Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. While taking on the demands of handling the pitching staff and the physical demands that are put on a catcher’s body, Varitek posted a respectable .256 career batting average, hitting 193 homers and picking up 757 RBI’s. Varitek was also named Team Captain from 2005 through his retirement in 2011, appeared in 3 All-Star games, and won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at his position in 2005.
Todd Helton, Rockies – Helton is arguably the greatest player in Colorado Rockies history, and is certainly the most respected among the fan base. A potential Hall of Famer, Helton closed his career out with a .316 batting average, 369 homers, 2,519 hits and 1,406 RBIs, numbers that should garner some Hall of Fame consideration when Helton becomes eligible in 2018. One of the best first basemen of his era, Helton was named to five All-Star teams, won 3 Gold Gloves awards and 4 Silver Sluggers, and won the National League Hank Aaron Award in 2000 as the league’s best hitter when he won both the NL batting title and the NL RBI title. Even more remarkable: Todd Helton was briefly the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee, losing his job only after a knee injury in his Junior year forced him to give way to a young Freshman by the name of Peyton Manning. While some may knock Helton for playing 81 home games a year at Coors Field and benefiting from the Mile High altitude, it should be noted that while Coors Field’s park factors did serve to inflate Helton’s numbers, he still hit a respectable .287 on the road while hitting 142 of his 369 home runs, meaning he likely would have hit around 300 career home runs even without the benefit of playing 81 home games a year at Coors Field.
Jeff Bagwell, Astros – Part of the Houston Astros’ “Killer B’s” along with Craig Biggio (and at various times Derek Bell, Lance Berkman, and seemingly any other player that the Astros acquired during that era who’s name started with a “B,”) Bagwell was an Astros mainstay at first base for 15 seasons. A product of the Red Sox organization, a 1990 trade deadline move kept Bagwell from ever appearing in a game in Boston (likely because the Red Sox had another top first base prospect in Mo Vaughn coming up around the same time and Bagwell was blocked at third base, where he primarily played in the minor leagues, by Wade Boggs,) and netted the Red Sox Larry Anderson. As a side note of history, while Anderson’s 1.23 ERA in 15 relief appearances for Boston down the stretch in 1990 helped the team get to the ALCS where they would be defeated by the Oakland Athletics, Bagwell went on to hit 449 career homes and drive in 1,529 runs while hitting .297 and, despite an arthritic condition that limited his defensive abilities toward the end of his career, helping Houston to its only World Series appearance in 2005 and acting as the Designated Hitter during their two games in Chicago against the eventual World Champion White Sox. Bagwell would also win the Rookie of the Year award in 1991, the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1994, a Gold Glove award, 3 Silver Sluggers, and made 4 All-Star teams.
Don Mattingly, Yankees – “Donnie Baseball” frequently finds himself underappreciated because he played during one of the few periods of history where the New York Yankees failed to win a championship, and may have found his way even higher up this list if a back injury had not sapped him of a good amount of his power later in his career. Still, the Yankee Captain put up some solid career numbers in 14 seasons, batting .307 with 222 home runs, 2,153 hits and 1,097 RBIs while playing spectacular defense. Mattingly was selected to the All-Star Game six times, won 9 Gold Glove awards, 3 Silver Sluggers, the 1985 American League MVP Award, the 1984 batting title and the 1985 RBI title. His number 23 has been retired by the Yankees. He has also found some success as a manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers, posting a 405-332 record as of July 28th, 2015, and leading the Dodgers to back-to-back National League West Division Titles, including a 50 game stretch in 2013 when the team went 42-8.
Bernie Williams, Yankees – It’s easy to lose sight of the kind of player Bernie Williams was when guys like Jeter, Posada and Rivera shared a field with him throughout his career and given the media circus that New York could be. In the midst of it all, Bernie Williams played the game in a way that likely would have stood out with just about any franchise, and he staked his legend in New York of making big plays and coming up with big at-bats in big situations. Over 15 seasons, Williams compiled a .297 batting average, 287 home runs, 2,336 hits and 1,257 RBIs. Williams also holds the record for career post-season RBI’s with 80, and is second in career post-season home runs with 22. Williams was a 4-time World Champion and a 5-time All Star, was named ALCS MVP in 1996, picked up 4 Gold Glove awards and a Silver Slugger and was the American League batting champion in 1998. His number 51 is among those retired at Yankee Stadium.
Edgar Martinez, Mariners – Leaving Edgar Martinez out of the Top 10 list is difficult because Edgar was such a good hitter. However, the criteria for the list was player, not hitter, and Edgar’s inclusion on the list is hurt by the fact that he spent the majority of his career as a Designated Hitter. That said, Edgar Martinez made the DH an art form. The only designated hitter to ever win a batting title, Martinez put up a career line of a .312 average, hitting 309 home runs, getting 2,247 hits and driving in 1,261 RBI’s. He won the American League batting title twice, was named to seven All-Star teams, won 5 silver slugger awards, and also won the American League RBI title in the year 2000. His performance in 1995 as part of a lineup that included Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jay Buhner helped the Mariners overcome an 11 1/2 game deficit on August 16th to force a one game playoff with the Angels for the American League West title, which the Mariners won 9-1 to make their first-ever playoff appearance.
By themselves, both Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker garner consideration for this list, but the fact that a double play combination played their entire careers together from the end of the 1977 season through 1995 (Trammell played one more season, 1996, without Whitaker before retiring) in the era of free agency is truly remarkable. Because of this, we’ve opted to list them together.
Both players had remarkable careers: Trammell was a career .285 hitter with 185 homers, 2,365 hits and 1,003 RBIs while appearing in six All-Star games, winning the 1984 World Series MVP Award, collecting 4 Silver Sluggers and 3 Gold Gloves, even more remarkable considering his career largely paralleled that of Cal Ripken, Jr. Whitaker served as the perfect compliment, hitting .276 throughout his career with 244 homers, 2,369 hits and 1,084 RBI’s. Whitaker also won the Rookie of the Year award in 1978 and went on to appear in five All-Star Games, 3 Gold Gloves and 4 Silver Slugger awards.
The tandem’s primary success came during the mid-1980’s. Whitaker and Trammell seemed to break out around the same time. During the 1983 season, Whitaker hit .320 with 12 homers, 72 RBI’s and 94 runs scored. Trammell meanwhile hit .319 with 14 homers, 66 RBI’s and 30 stolen bases. With both players having remarkable seasons, they even got to go a little Hollywood, appearing on Magnum, PI with actor Tom Selleck during the 1983 season.
The duo appeared on an even bigger stage during the 1984 season as they helped fuel the Tigers to the World Series. While many fans will associate the iconic moment of that series as Kirk Gibson hitting against Goose Gossage in the clincher, Sparky Anderson shouting “he don’t want to pitch to you” at Gibson, and Gibson crushing a series-sealer into the second deck at Tiger Stadium, it was Trammell who walked away with the World Series MVP Award by hitting .450 (9-for-20) and coming up with a pair of two run home runs in Game 4 that put the Tigers up on the Padres in the series 3 games to 1. Whitaker hit .278 and celebrated the birth of his second child on the day that the Tigers clinched the World Series.
While various injuries prevented the two players from ever having a season as good as their 1983 seasons ever again, both rank high in numerous categories in the Detroit Tigers record books. During an era where middle infielders rarely accounted for much power, both players had multiple 20 home run seasons, and Trammell even hit cleanup in 1987, a year in which he hit a career-high 28 home runs. Not to be outdone, Lou Whitaker hit 28 in 1989. All told, Trammell hit 20 or more homers twice, and Whitaker did so four times, a lot of pop from a middle infield during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Given the continuing changes in free agency and the increased frequency with which teams make trades, it is unlikely that another double play duo will ever spend nearly two decades playing together ever again. The fact that Trammell and Whitaker did so for so long at such a high level deserves to be recognized.
We’re only scratching the surface. In the next part of our series, we’ll begin to examine our Top 10 Single-Team Players of the past 25 years.