Welcome back to Baseball Magazine’s series on the top single-team players of the past twenty five years. In part two of our series, we examined three players who made undeniable impacts on their respective teams. Tim Salmon went from being the “other Rookie of the Year” in Southern California to being part of the team that hoisted the Angels’ only world championship. Chipper Jones was a steady offensive presence that played a big role in the Atlanta Braves’ consistent runs to the division title throughout the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s and won a title of his own. Craig Biggio might not have won a title, but he did help the Astros to their only World Series appearance, recorded over 3,000 career hits, and holds the modern baseball record for times hit by a pitch.
In the part three of our series, we’ll be examining the numbers 7, 6 and 5 players on our list: a member of the 3,000 hit club, a two-time World Champion with one of October’s most memorable moments, and the greatest closer of all-time.
7. Robin Yount, Milwaukee Brewers, 1974-1993. Hall of Fame Class of 1999
Another versatile Hall of Famer makes the list at number 7. Robin Yount managed to do something that very few players can lay claim to: winning MVP awards at two different positions (shortstop and center field.) Further, Yount was able to achieve superstar status and national recognition while playing in a smaller market in Milwaukee.
Yount broke into the Major Leagues in 1974, just a couple months past his 18th birthday, after being the third pick in the 1973 amateur draft, spending less than a full season in the minor leagues before making his Milwaukee Brewers debut. The young shortstop posted steady but unspectacular numbers his first three seasons, hitting .250, .267 and .252 before starting to break out and hitting .288 in his age-21 season in 1977 and .293 in 1978. After a slight regression in 1978, Yount began to show signs of becoming a star in 1979, leading the league with 49 doubles, batting .293 and being selected to his first All-Star game.
Yount and the Brewers took the American League by storm in 1982 and Yount became a nationally-recognized superstar. Yount led the Milwaukee attack, hitting .331 with a league-leading 210 hits and 46 doubles, also adding 12 triples and 29 homers to drive in a total of 114 runs and scoring 129 runs of his own. Yount won the American League MVP award as well as the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards at shortstop while being selected for the All-Star team. Yount continued his success into the post-season, hitting .414 for the Brewers in the World Series with a homer and 6 RBI’s, though his Brewers fell to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Yount’s Brewers, unfortunately, failed to make the playoffs again during the remainder of his career. However, Yount continued to star season in and season out. He switched from shortstop to center field in 1985 and continued to put up spectacular numbers. In all, Yount hit over .300 six times in his career, topped 20 homers four times, and managed 100+ RBIs on three occasions. Yount also won a second MVP award in 1989, this time as a center fielder, and became a member of the 3,000-hit club in 1993 along with another Hall of Fame contemporary, George Brett.
In total, Yount had a career batting average of .285, hitting 251 homers and driving in 1,406 runs white collecting 3,142 hits. He won two MVP awards, was selected to three All-Star teams, won three Silver Slugger awards and picked up a Gold Glove as a shortstop during his MVP season of 1982. Yount was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 and his number 19 has been retired by the Milwaukee Brewers.
6. Kirby Puckett, Minnesota Twins, 1984-1995. Hall of Fame Class of 2001
Kirby Puckett was and remains, arguably, the most significant player in Minnesota Twins’ lore. His extra innings walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series is one of baseball’s iconic moments, narrated by Jack Buck yelling “we will see you tomorrow night!” into the microphone as Puckett runs around the bases, yelling and pumping his fists as the Metrodome goes wild, setting up a Game 7 pitchers’ duel between Jack Morris and John Smoltz, that the Twins won in 10 innings on a walk-off hit by Gene Larkin, Dan Gladden representing the game’s lone run and the Twins’ second world championship in five years.
Puckett was larger than life in Minneapolis, not only in that World Series, but throughout his career. Breaking in with the Twins in 1984. Puckett’s first game was May 8th, 1984, a day on which he went 4-for-5 against the California Angels, while leading off and playing center field. Despite not playing a game for the Twins until a month had gone by in the season, Puckett finished fourth in the league in singles and put up a .295 batting average. He finished third in voting for American League Rookie of the Year. However, Puckett was not a power threat, failing to hit a single home run in 557 at-bats.
Puckett followed up his successful rookie campaign with a solid campaign in 1985, his average slipping only to .288, with 4 homers, 29 doubles and 13 triples to go with 74 runs batted in.
Puckett’s breakout year, however, was 1986. That year, Puckett burst onto the national scene by posting a .328 batting average, hitting 31 homers and driving in 96. Puckett also was awarded his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, finished sixth in the American League MVP vote, and was selected to his first All-Star Game.
1987 would prove to be a breakthrough year for the Twins, and Puckett was up to the task. Puckett hit .332 with 28 homers and 99 RBI’s. He led the league with 207 hits and was third in MVP voting, won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and was selected to his second All-Star team. The Twins rode Puckett’s performance to the World Series where they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, with Puckett hitting .357 in the series, driving in 3 runs and scoring 5 runs.
Perhaps Puckett’s finest season came in 1988. Puckett again led the league with 227 hits and hit a career-high .356. Puckett also hit 24 homers and drove in a career high 112 runs. He again finished third in the MVP vote, and once again went to the All-Star Game and won both the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove.
Although Puckett’s power numbers began to drop off after the 1988 season, he continued to be an offensive force for the Twins. He again led the league in hits in 1989 with 215 and led the American League with a .339 batting average. In total, Puckett hit over .300 eight times in his career, hit over 20 homers six times, and had over 200 hits five times and nearly six (he had 199 hits in 1985.)
Puckett’s finest World Series moments came in 1991. After posting a solid offensive season with a .319 batting average and winning another Gold Glove, Puckett had an October to remember, coming up big with a crucial catch and his famous walkoff homer in Game 6. Overall for the Series, Puckett hit only .250, but had 2 homers, 4 RBI’s, and scored 4 runs. He was also chosen as the ALCS MVP, hitting .429 with 2 homers and 5 RBI’s in that series.
Puckett was on his way to having his finest season in 1994 when the strike occurred and stopped play in August. When play stopped, Puckett was hitting .317 with 20 homers and won the American League RBI title with 112, on pace for nearly 150. Puckett’s stat lines were one of the big “what if…” story lines of the 1994 season.
Puckett’s career was cut short prior to the 1996 season after he was diagnosed with glaucoma. Puckett had been doing well in spring training, but woke up on March 28th unable to see out of his right eye. The condition forced Puckett to retire, leaving the Twins without their star outfielder and leaving fans to wonder if Puckett could have continued his stellar hitting and eventually joined the 3,000 hit club.
Puckett finished his career with a final batting average of .318, collected 2,304 hits, hit 207 homers and drove in 1,085 runs. During his 12 seasons, he was selected to 10 All-Star teams, won 6 Gold Gloves, 6 Silver Slugger awards and the 1993 All Star Game MVP Award. Puckett was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001 and his number 34 has been retired by the Twins. Unfortunately, Puckett passed away at age 45 of a stroke in Phoenix, Arizona on March 6th, 2004.
5. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees, 1995-2013
The indisputable greatest closer in Major League history and the all-time saves leader, Mariano Rivera at one time slotted as a potential Yankees starter. First called up in 1995, Rivera initially did not have the sort of devastating velocity that came to help make his biggest pitch, the cutter, one of the most unhittable pitches in the game and a thing of post-season legend.
First called up in 1995, Rivera made his debut as a starting pitcher, but couldn’t quite find the consistency necessary to stay in the Yankee rotation. Moved to the bullpen, Rivera found his niche, throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings in the 1995 American League Championship Series, asserting himself as John Wetteland‘s set up man and by 1997 he had convinced the team that he was ready to take over the closer role in the Bronx. A major factor into Rivera’s ascent into the closer role was his performance in the 1996 playoffs. Coming off a year in which he threw 107 2/3 innings and setting the Yankee reliever record for strikeouts in a season with 130, Rivera threw 14 1/3 innings during the playoffs and allowed only one run in helping the Yankees to win their first World Series since 1978, the longest championship drought the franchise had experienced since before 1920. As a result, the Yankees let Wetteland leave as a free agent and inserted Rivera into the closer role.
Rivera’s first season as a closer was a success. He converted 43 out of 52 save attempts, and posted a 1.88 ERA and was named to the American League All-Star team. Though his season ended with a blown save that prevented the Yankees from advancing past the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series (the Indians took the momentum from that Game 4 victory to win Game 5 and advance to the ALCS,) Rivera was gaining a reputation as one of the best closers in baseball, and 1998 saw him perform at an even higher level. Although he missed a month to open the season, Rivera still saved 36 games, posted a 1.91 ERA, and then dominated the opposition in the post-season. Rivera threw 14 1/3 shutout innings that Ocober, saving 6 games, and being on the mound when the Yankees clinched their World Series championship over the San Diego Padres.
Rivera continued his success into 1999. Entering the bullpen to the song “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, Rivera was one of the most dominating closers in the game. He led the Majors in saves, recording 45 in 49 opportunities to go with a 1.83 ERA, won the American League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award, and again helped the Yankees win the World Series, this time against the Atlanta Braves, winning one game and saving two others. Rivera finished third in the American League Cy Young Award vote during the season.
2000 was another banner year for both Rivera and the Yankees. Although his ERA shot up to 2.85, Rivera still saved 36 and the Yankees won a world championship. Rivera followed up with a league-leading 50 saves in 2001 as the Yankees went to the World Series for the fourth consecutive year. Rivera pitched well again in the post-season and found himself with an opportunity to close out Game 7 against the Arizona Diamondbacks when manager Joe Torre called on him to get a six-out save with the Yankees leading 2-1 in the eighth inning. Rivera was able to get out of the 8th, but as he tired, the Diamondbacks came back to tie the game. Torre stuck with Rivera, however, and Luis Gonzalez blooped a single with the bases loaded over a drawn-in infield as Rivera picked up a rare post-season blown save and the Diamondbacks won the World Series.
Rivera remained consistent after the 2001 season, but the next several seasons resulted in playoff meltdowns for the Yankees. Rivera did have a shining moment in the 2003 ALCS, pitching 3 scoreless innings against the Red Sox in Game 7 and picking up the win, though the Yankees would go on to lose the World Series to the Florida Marlins. Rivera had another opportunity to close out a series in 2004 with the Yankees leading the Boston Red Sox 3 games to 0 and taking a one-run lead into the 9th inning. However, crucial stolen bases by Dave Roberts on consecutive nights led to consecutive blown saves by Rivera as the Red Sox came back to win the ALCS and eventually their first World Series in 86 years.
Throughout the next several years, Rivera continued to save games and the Yankees continued to melt down in playoff series. He saved a career-high 53 games in 2004 and posted a career-low ERA of 1.38 in 2005. In total, Rivera saved 40 or more games 9 times in his career and posted an ERA under 2 on eleven different occasions. 2009 would prove to be a year of redemption, however.
During the 2009 season, at age 39, Rivera gave another excellent performance, recovering from some early season struggles to save 44 games and posting a 1.76 ERA. Meanwhile, the Yankees finally managed to hold together a solid post-season and made it back to the World Series, which they had not been in since 2003. The Yankees beat the Philadelphia Phillies for the title, and Rivera posted five saves in the post-season while giving up only one run.
Rivera’s excellence continued. Though retirement talks loomed, Rivera posted another sub-2 ERA in 2010 and again in 2011. Initially Rivera had hinted that he would retire following the 2012 season, but after an early season knee injury, decided to come back for one more year. In 2013, at age 43, Rivera proved that he was still one of the dominant closers in the game. He posted 43 saves and a 2.11 ERA while receiving recognition and admiration both at Yankee Stadium and at opposing ballparks that the Yankees traveled to throughout the season. Although there was some speculation that Rivera might return for one more season given his 2013 success, he walked away from baseball as its most storied closer.
Over the course of his career, Rivera established himself as Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader with 652. He pitched his way to an ERA of 2.21 and had a career record of 82-60. He also struck out 1,173 batters against only 286 walks. Rivera also recorded an ERA of 0.70 during the post-season while saving 42 games, both of which stand as post-season records. He was selected for the All-Star team 13 times, was the World Series MVP in 1999, the ALCS MVP in 2003, a 5-time Rolaids Relief Man of the Year, a 3-time Major League Baseball Delivery Man of the Year, led the league in saves during three different seasons, and after an injury shut him down early in 2012, won the 2013 American League Comeback Player of the Year Award. He was also the last player in Major League history to wear the number 42 (retired league-wide for Jackie Robinson) and in addition to recognizing Robinson’s contributions, the New York Yankees have also retired 42 for Rivera. It is expected that Rivera will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the Class of 2019.