Monday, May 06, 2013

Saturday Night Baseball

When Ken Griffey Jr abruptly retired in the middle of the 2010 MLB season, in addition to marking the end of a Hall of Fame career, it also marked the end of the last active player that guest starred in the 1992 all time classic Simpsons episode "Homer at the Bat". The squad of major league ringers Mr. Burns assembled to play for the plant softball team contained an absolutely amazing collection of Hall of Famers, MVPs, and All-Stars.

When the likely retirement of another former Red, Scott Rolen (who as of now remains a free agent for the 2013 season), becomes official, it will also mark the end of the last active player that guest starred in the above, not so classic "Baseball Dreams" sketch from the Helen Hunt hosted December 13, 1997 episode of Saturday Night Live. Although, by virtue of the obvious needs of the sketch, the group of MLB talent assembled pales in comparison to "Homer at the Bat", it does surpass the former in terms of sheer numbers and depth of players.

The sketch itself is a simplistic one note affair and actually isn't all that funny. The whole thing would have been fairly forgettable if it weren't for the impressive drop ins from all the random major league players comprising a sort of bizarre tableau of mediocre to good late 90s baseball talent. I am utterly fascinated by the casting and wished I knew what kind of behind the scenes machinations when into getting everyone for this sketch. Since the premise of the sketch required a gradual decline in quality of players from the best to the worst, I would say that casting this sketch may have been more difficult than the Simpsons who had the narrower task of just rounding up superstars. To make the sketch work SNL had to pick an accurate sample of unheralded everyday pros, veterans, journeymen, and not yet established youngsters. So how did they end up with these 15 players from 9 different teams? Was there some player's union event going on in NY at the time or did they specifically fly everyone in for this one bit? Did any of the players being introduced in the bottom half know that they were supposed to be viewed as relative scrubs?

Breaking down the lineup in order of appearance:

Todd Hundley - Since the first player to appear is supposed to be a "star" that Danny would be excited to meet, the former Mets backstop was an ideal selection. First off he's part of the local team  and he had just come off his second consecutive All-Star year in 1997. Prior to that in 1996 he set the single season record for home runs by a catcher with 41. These two years were by far his best stretch in an otherwise good but not great career. Additionally, Hundley comes off as a pretty decent actor (it's a relative distinction since the whole sketch is a master class in wooden line delivery), which maybe why the writers gave him more lines.

Scott Rolen - The aforementioned Rolen is a nice progression. He had an impressive Rookie of the Year winning season playing 3B for the Phillies in 1997. Overall, Rolen had by far the best career out of all the players featured. His supporters would have an unlikely but not laughable argument for his induction into the Hall of Fame. His comic timing however could use a lot of work.

Mark Wohlers - Wohlers had just completed his third successful year as the Braves closer, racking up 33 saves in 1997 for another first place Atlanta team. He was an All-Star the year before so we're still in the realm of quality players. He is by far the best actor of the bunch and he seems to have been given the most lines because of it. From a historic perspective, his calling Danny a "fag" predate future Braves closer John Rocker's infamous politically incorrect Sports Illustrated interview in 1999. Unfortunately for Wohlers, he suffered a psychological block the following season that rendered him unable to control his pitches (the dreaded Steve Blass disease), essentially  derailing his career. Could the stress of his cameo on SNL have been responsible?

Marty Cordova and Jeff Fassero - Now we start to get players introduced in waves. Marty Cordova was still considered a potential star, he was AL Rookie of the Year in 1995 and had a career year in 1996. His injury plagued 1997 would be more representative of the rest of his career. He only gets one line. Jeff Fassero on the other hand is the worst performer of the whole bunch, his introduction of the next group of guys is particularly robotic; also it appears he can't be bothered to wear a full uniform (pretty sloppy Fassero). Baseball wise, 1997 was probably one of his best seasons, he went 16-9 with a 3.61 ERA. He is the oldest player of the bunch at 34, but he managed to outlast many of the other others, hanging around until 2006 and retiring at 43.

Gregg Jefferies, Rondell White, and Mark Grudzielanek - At this point Danny doesn't want or care about any more ballplayers, particularly Expos. Greg Jefferies was a serviceable outfielder for the Phillies at this point in his career, which was clearly on the downturn. He did fine as the spokesmen of the trio. CF Rondell White actually had probably his best year for the Expos in 1997. He may have one of the shorter lines but I thought he nailed it. Expos 2B Mark Grudzielanek also had himself a fine 1997 (apparently he led the league in doubles with 54) and was a year removed from an All-Star appearance. I feel White and Grudzielanek could have moved up above Cordova and Fassero but their lack of exposure playing for a fading Expos franchise (both of them don't even have full uniforms, White is just in a t-shirt for crying out loud) held them back. At least Grudzielanek got his choice moment with Helen Hunt ("I'm Mark Grudzielanek"), despite the lack of audience response I thought it was one of the funnier moments.

Todd Zeile, Russ Davis, and Cliff Floyd - One of the all time great baseball journeymen, Todd Zeile was entering the middle part of his career which would lead to him eventually playing for 11 different teams before he was through. At the time he had just finished up a productive full season as the Dodgers third baseman. A young Cliff Floyd was still a year away from begining his productive years as a full time OF, however he was the only person there from the then current World Series champions, the Marlins. Both Zeile and Floyd get minimal lines, though I appreciate Floyd's efforts to sell "where's the food". Russ Davis had just finished his first of three aggressively decent years as the Mariners' starting third baseman (a lot of representation for the hot corner in this sketch). He is one of three players who don't even get a single line in.

David Howard and Mike Sweeney - Poor Howard and Sweeney don't get any lines to introduce themselves or even adequate face time. Howard was just a unassuming utility player who fit well at this point in the sketch. Sweeney was just an underutilized young catcher and DH, however he would break out in 1999 and would go on to have great stretch for the Royals in the early 00s as their first baseman, making 5 All-Star teams in 6 years. Interesting fact, according the records Howard and Sweeney were teammates on the Royals in 1997 and Howard signed with the Cardinals as a free agent on Dec 4, just 9 days before the sketch.

Gerald Williams and Pedro Borbón - Mediocre utility outfielder Gerald Williams seems about right to play one of the final pair, though I think he had a better career than David Howard. Like Howard, Williams changed teams right before the sketch aired. After spending 1997 with the Brewers he was traded on December 11th to the Braves for Chad Fox. His introduction is about as uninspired as his play. Pedro Borbón (son of 70s Reds relief pitcher Pedro Borbón) was an all together forgettable relief pitcher of little consequence, quite apt to be one of the last introduced. I think he was playing up his lack of english abilities, his bio says he went to high school and college in the the US so it's not like he's some fresh off the boat Cuban defector or anything. That said, it was quite believable so perhaps he may be the best performer of all. 

To close I just have a few additional random points to make:
  • Helen Hunt has hardly aged at all in the 15 plus years since this sketch aired, amazing.
  • What team does Danny actually support? His room contains a confusing collection of both Mets and Yankee pennants plus a poster of Ken Griffey Jr.. Is he some weirdo who considers himself a fan of the game of baseball in general?
  • I am surprised that MLB would allow such a sketch to be aired. The main message is that baseball players are all uniformly terrible role models who are preoccupied only with drinking, smoking, girls, and partying; and any positive messages they say are just empty, banal, boilerplate.
  • Todd Zeile, Cliff Floyd, and Gerald Williams would all end up playing for the Mets in the 00s. Also Greg Jefferies was a former Met at the time of the sketch.
  • As a kid I thought they also trucked in real basketball players for that final punchline.

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