This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 16-Jan. 22, 1960

On January 29, 1960 Steve Sax was born. Sax’s career took him from Rookie of the Year to Simpsons guest star to “Steve Sax Syndrome.” Richard looks back on these moments and more.

I try—with mixed success—to keep myself out of these columns. But I have to make a confession: Sax is getting a column this week not only for his merits, but also because I remember him as my cousin’s favorite player growing up, and this column will serve as a (belated) Christmas present.

But fear not, I am not writing about the former Dodger and Yankee just because I couldn’t find any other gift. The Sacramento California-born infielder played fourteen seasons in the major leagues, won two World Series championships, was a five time All-Star and won the 1982 Rookie of the Year. Improbably enough, even all that fails to hit on the major story of Sax’s career. But we’ll start from the beginning.

Taken in the ninth round of the 1978 draft, Sax—whose brother Dave was signed as an amateur free agent that same year—moved quickly through the Dodgers’ minor league system and was called up to the big club in Aug. of 1981 without having played in Triple-A.

Subbing for long-time Dodger Davey Lopes, Sax hit .277 in limited action during time with the Dodgers, and played only sparingly as the team rallied from an 0-2 hole to defeat the Yankees in the World Series.

Sax took over the role full-time in 1982 and responded well. Hitting .282 with 49 steals in 68 tries—a 72% success rate—Sax won the Rookie of the Year award, beating out the likes of Chili Davis, Ryne Sandberg and Willie McGee. His best season with the Dodgers came in 1986. That year Sax batted .332, second in the NL, and ranked in the top ten in the NL in OBP, total bases, doubles, runs scored, steals and WAR.

Among those who saw two-thirds of their time at second base, Sax is still the Dodgers’ all-time leader in hits and second in stolen bases. He is in the Dodgers’ all-time top 20 for hits and runs, and behind only Maury Wills, Lopes and Willie Davis for steals.

After the 1988 season, a year in which Sax hit .300 in the Dodgers’ World Series victory, he signed as a free agent with the Yankees. The Yankees of that period were slipping into their weakest point since the Highlander days. Sax’s three years in New York saw the team average 91 losses. This was largely no fault of the second baseman, who hit .294 with 117 steals (while being caught just 37 times) in New York. In two of those years—’89 and ’91—he was arguably the Yankees’ best player.

Steve Sax and Don Mattingly(Icon/SMI)

(I happen to own the Yankees 1991 Yearbook, which contains a section on Sax so marvelously cliché-filled I wish I could quote the whole thing. Particularly impressive is the quote from the man himself, who notes that he “had a tendency to try too hard,” but “[tries] to keep focused every day.” Crash Davis would be proud.)

Sax was dealt to the White Sox after the ’91 season for a collection of players including Melido Perez and Bob Wickman, both of whom would serve the Yankees well in the future. This made the trade even better for the Yankees, as Sax was pretty much finished as a player. He would play just more than 200 games over the next three seasons, posting barely above a .600 OPS while batting .237.

Currently, Sax works as a motivational speaker and financial advisor; he has been published in the Wall Street Journal. According to Sax’s website, one of the topics he touches on is personal development, specifically “overcoming a career on the verge of collapse.”

In Sax’s case, this refers to the troubles that began to plague him in the field in 1983. Although Sax was never going to make anyone forget Bill Mazeroski, he was a serviceable second baseman. But in ’83 he lost the ability to make a routine throw to first base, a problem that would late plague another Yankee second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch.

By the end of the ’83 season, Sax had committed 30 errors and posted a .961 fielding percentage. Some went so far as to label his problem “Steve Sax Syndrome,” an apparent cousin of “Steve Blass Disease.” Sax’s problems reached the point that fans behind the first base line began wearing batting helmets.

As mysteriously as Sax’s problems began, he found his way out of them. By 1989 he had recovered his defensive ability to the point that he led the American League in fielding percentage. Obviously fielding percentage is not the preferred method of measuring defense, but given Sax’s past troubles, it is a noteworthy accomplishment.

Through his playing career, Sax took advantage of his fame and starred on a number of television shows. In fact, he appeared on something of a “Who’s Who” of 80s television with a resume that features shows like Square Pegs and Who’s the Boss?

For me, however, Sax’s acting career peaked during his appearance on The Simpsons. Initially recruited to play softball for Mr. Burns’ power plant while performing jazz with “The Steve Sax Trio,” Sax—like many of Mr. Burns’ players—would end up missing the game. In Sax’s case, he met his fate after a run-in with the notoriously ineffective Springfield Police Department.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

When last seen, Sax was sitting in a cell while Police Chief Wiggum declares he thinks they can “close the book on every unsolved crime in [their] fair city.” Sax’s request to contact a lawyer only earns him scorn as someone who watches too many movies.

Luckily for the real Sax, he did not meet the fate of his animated counterpart. For his career, Sax won two championships, the Rookie of the Year award, played for two of baseball’s marquee franchises—even if one was during its lesser years—and overcame a tremendous personal struggle to continue his career. Many players have done much less in their careers.

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Red Nichols
Red Nichols

Steve was a pretty darned good player.  Let’s respect him as such, throwing problems or not.  .  .