Had you asked me a few months ago, I would've said Justin Leone, because he was barely ever a Mariner but he was the guy after whom I named my first baseball blog. Now, though, there's no question in my mind; it's Munenori Kawasaki. It is, hands down, Munenori Kawasaki, and this isn't present-day favoritism. There has never before been a player like Munenori Kawasaki. He is a mascot that's on the 25-man roster.
Quick background: Kawasaki played in Japan and, last offseason, said he wanted to play in the majors, but only for the Mariners, so he could play alongside buddy Ichiro. Nobody expected much and Kawasaki immediately became known as an energy guy. During drills in spring training he would never shut up. He's always doing something. Used to be that, when he was on base and the pitcher attempted a pick-off throw, he'd dive back to the bag and do push-ups. In between pitches he wiggles his hands. After games are over he waves enthusiastically to the crowd. One time he bluffed a steal by running in place. Another time he danced in the dugout for a good 30 seconds, mimicking Safeco's dancing groundskeepers. He's grown a terrible mustache. He's just pure energy. Pure, lovable energy. He's never going to die; he's simply going to return to the stars.
And also he blows. I mean, his defense is fine, but he can't hit a lick. This season he had a .202 slugging percentage. Munenori Kawasaki is not a good major league baseball player. But the 2012 Mariners season wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without him. I think a lot of fans of a lot of teams fall in love with utility infielders, but they don't fall in love as deeply as we have with Kawasaki, and the other beloved utility infielders generally aren't as bad at baseball. It's a very odd situation to be aware of.
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The name that springs to mind for my favorite “cult” player is definitely Gerald Laird. Laird came over from the A’s as part of the Carlos Pena-Mario Ramos trade at the start of the 2002 season, and while he was seen as the least significant of the four players the Rangers got (Ramos, Ryan Ludwick, and Jason Hart being the other three), when I looked at his performance, I thought he might possibly be a quality under-the-radar guy. He performed well in the Rangers' system, and then won the starting catching job out of camp in 2004 before an injured thumb landed him on the disabled list.
He fell out of favor later in 2004 with manager Buck Showalter and GM John Hart afterwards when, with the Rangers lacking a quality backup catcher, he returned prematurely, couldn’t hit with his thumb still bothering him, then refused to go to play winter ball, preferring to allow his thumb to heal. As a consequence, the Rangers acquired Sandy Alomar, Jr. to be the backup to Rod Barajas and banished Laird to the minors for the 2005 season. Laird has had an up-and-down career since then, but he was always someone I liked and rooted for, in no small part because I thought he got a raw deal from the people running the Rangers at the time.
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Los Angeles Angels — Darrell Miller
In the late 1980s I played the dice-and-card game Pursue The Pennant, a cousin of Strat-O-Matic baseball with a few more whistles and bells. My co-players and I agreed that one change to the rules would be to not mandate players be bound to the number of plate appearances they made. Backup scrubs who were hot in a small-sample-size late-September call-up could be the centerpiece of your lineup.
In 1985, Darrell Miller had 50 plate appearances for the then-California Angels. I barely remember his as a player. He batted .400 with a .983 OPS. He played the outfield primarily but he caught four innings behind the plate. I will never forget him as a presence in our Pursue The Pennant league. Imagine a catcher with a 166 OPS+. When he would come to bat it was with a hushed tone. His nickname: The Great One. He never caught on with the Angels but in his few games in the late 80s I stopped everything I was doing to listen to the radio, to hear the call of "The Great One" at bat.
Years later I am walking toward the ticket window at Anaheim Stadium and front office employee Darrell Miller is walking the other way with a good-looking female companion. I stop and stare and shout, "DARRELL MILLER!" He looks my way. It is not the typical jock look, the knowing stare you get when a current player is walking to his car or a former great is at some autograph event. It was the look of a front office employee who thought for a minute he couldn't remember the name of an intern. I on the other hand was speechless. It was like seeing Babe Ruth in the flesh with nobody else around even giving the guy a glimpse.
This was a guy who destroyed every pitcher, who held every record, who dominated every category in the league. Not in the majors, mind you, but in the Pursue The Pennant league in an apartment on Virgil Avenue in Mid-City Los Angeles. I raised both thumbs and said, "Go Angels." He half-smiled and kept walking, never breaking stride on the other side of the car between us in the parking lot. The girl with him was thrilled, though. "See, they remember you!" she told him as I watched her walk away with The Great One.
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I've always had a soft spot for Rajai Davis. Talk about a cult player who "wasn't very good": Rajai routinely struggles to keep his on-base percentage above .300, takes poor routes on fly balls, usually throws to the wrong base, and has a penchant for getting picked off for no reason.
The A's traded Rajai Davis after the 2010 season, and he now intermittently exasperates, and exhilarates, Toronto Blue Jays fans. This past season he had a .309 OBP and 46 steals.
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