It’s time to say good-bye to the Wonder Hamster once and for all, because Thursday Matt Stairs announced his retirement. The game’s poorer for it, as baseball’s all-time record-holder for pinch-hit home runs (with 23) shuffles off to card shows and perhaps coaching, memory and memorabilia.
The reasons why we’ll remember Stairs are easy enough to identify, because Stairs was a favorite player for so many and for so many different reasons. First, there’s just the simple image of seeing him step in to bat, because Stairs looks like somebody you know, whether it’s the guy who’s dating your cousin or one in a group of buddies at the bar. As a latter-day John Kruk, he was one of the guys on the diamond who didn’t look like a professional athlete -- instead, he was simply a pro ballplayer.
Of course, the other easy reason was that the well-traveled Stairs probably played for your team at one point or another. Stairs played for 12 different teams -- 13 if you’re given to separating the Expos franchise he debuted for from the Nationals team that he finished with. So you might have jumped on the Stairs bandwagon at any point during his career. The johnny-come-latelies noticed when he was the key pinch-hitter on the Phillies’ pennant-winning teams of 2008 and 2009, but he’d already gotten an introduction to postseason play as far back as 1995 as a pinch hitter for the Red Sox.
Stairs was a great example of what a minor-league player, wearing the sometimes left-handed compliment that he’s “a professional hitter,” can achieve. Stairs started out as an infielder in the Expos’ system in 1989. He lacked the arm for third or the range and footwork for second, occasionally putting up fielding percentages of Butch Hobson-level horror at the hot corner. But he hit for average, drew walks, and had better power and speed than you’d expect from his squat build -- ripping 53 extra-base hits, stealing 23 bases, and drawing 66 walks (against 47 strikeouts) in a full season for Double-A Harrisburg back in 1991. But breaking in with the Expos, creeping up on becoming one of baseball’s best teams, wasn’t easy, especially once he’d been necessarily moved to the outfield at a time when Montreal had Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker and Moises Alou starting, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire John Vander Wal behind them.
So Stairs wandered, getting initially sold to Japan and then to the Red Sox, and finally slipping away to the A’s after the ’95 season when Boston apparently decided they had other uses for his spot on the 40-man. It was in Oakland where Stairs’ legend really began, as he stepped into playing time in ’97 after Mark McGwire and Geronimo Berroa were dealt away, and once it had become obvious that Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi weren’t much use planted in either outfield corner. Stairs made the most of the opportunity, becoming one of the signature “out of nowhere” no-cost or low-cost stars of the franchise subsequently glorified in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. In his way, he was just the latest variation on Berroa, a professional hitter finally given a chance by a talent-desperate organization. His walk-off, game-winner hammered off of the White Sox’s Keith Foulke in the bottom of the ninth on August 8, 1999 is still one of my single favorite ballgames, even if nobody’s really sure if that obliterated changeup has re-entered orbit yet. It wasn’t the first or last, but it was a signature moment for a man who hit when you handed him a bat.
Stairs was also one of those players who provides evidence against those of us who want to wail about the present, usually to point to a happier past when things were better when they were younger. Bill James’ latest compilation, Solid Fool's Gold, is as thoughtful and interesting and worth owning as anything that springs from his keyboard. But his comments in the essay “The Minor League Pyramid” don’t exactly ring true when he talks about how farm systems today cut off “the Enos Slaughter/Pete Rose type of player ... who really didn’t seem to possess outstanding ability, and would never have been high draft picks or received large bonuses in the current system. What made these players stand out was not that they ran terribly fast or threw tremendously well or were big and strong, but that, when you put them in uniform and let them play, they succeeded.”
Well, maybe things really were better back in the day, but maybe Stairs just happened to be a pretty good example of exactly that kind of ballplayer, and with his retirement, it’s worth noting he wasn’t all that alone in this regard. Isn’t Ben Zobrist that kind of player right now? Or Daniel Murphy? Michael Young? Or even Shane Victorino? Heck, drawing from recent headlines Casey McGehee had been that kind of player before this season’s collapse.
At any rate, Stairs is now retired, and he’ll be missed. Given his remarkable career we certainly won’t see somebody exactly like him on a diamond any time soon. But we will continue to see surprise stars spring up within the game, not because it fails in some new way, but because talent can, and does, create its own opportunities.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.