Profile written by BCB reader gauchodirk
Let's play a little game called "guess the players". In one corner we have this stat line from a single season:
136 G, 446 AB, 78 R, 135 H, 23 2B, 30 HR, 73 RBI, .303/.376/.561
In the other corner we have this stat line:
149 G, 547 AB, 81 R, 174 H, 24 2B, 35 HR, 112 RBI, .318/.370/.561
Pretty similar, aren't they? Both lines were posted during the 1993 season. Both players were catchers. Both played in the National League. However, one of the lines belongs to a player who has won the NL Rookie of the Year award, been named to 12 All Star teams, and finished second in NL MVP voting twice. The other line belongs to a player who... (searching for something positive to say) ...well... (still can't think of anything) ...um... (ah, forget it) never posted an average better than .243 for a full season the rest of his career. So who are the players, and which line belongs to which player?
(Giving everyone the chance to ponder this one...)
Okay, answer time. The first player is former Dodger, Marlin, Met, and current Padre Mike Piazza, who is obviously still playing, and he owns the second line. The second player is former Cub, Astro, Giant, Mariner, Met, Dodger, Cardinal, and (whew!) Padre Rick Wilkins, the subject of this biography, who played his last game in 2001; he owns the first line. Piazza was 24 years old in 1993 when the above season earned him the Rookie of the Year award. Wilkins was 25 when he became the first Cub catcher to hit 30 home runs in a season since Gabby Hartnett hit 37 in 1930 (the infamous "juiced ball" year). To this day, Hartnett and Wilkins are the ONLY Cub catchers to have a 30-HR season. After 1993, the Cubs looked like they had a keeper at catcher for the rest of the decade, and he hit left-handed to boot. So what went wrong?
As with any story, we must start at the beginning. Rick Wilkins was born on June 4, 1967 in Jacksonville, Florida, stood six feet, two inches tall, and weighed 210 pounds. He played high school baseball at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, a school that also produced Chipper Jones, and was selected by the Cubs in the 23rd round of the 1986 draft (#582 overall). Instead of immediately signing with the Cubs, he attended Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where he ostensibly played baseball, though there is nary a mention of his name anywhere on their website. With his college career finished after one year (if he ever had one at all), he finally signed with the Cubs on May 28, 1987, about a week before his 20th birthday.
The Cubs wasted no time in beginning Wilkins' professional career, sending him to the Geneva (N.Y.) Cubs of the short-season Class A New York-Penn League, where he hit .251 in 75 games; that team, which also gave Frank Castillo one start, won the 1987 league championship. His next stop, in 1988, was Peoria, Illinois to play for the Chiefs of the Class A Midwest League (a team managed by current Pirates skipper Jim Tracy). He hit .243 in 137 games there.
Despite his Peoria numbers not exactly calling for a promotion, Wilkins spent the 1989 season playing for the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Spirits of the Class A Carolina League, where he hit .249 in 132 games. Again, the numbers didn't demand a promotion, but Wilkins found himself in Double A for the 1990 season, staying in North Carolina to play for the Charlotte Knights. Somewhat predictably, his numbers were even worse in Double A: he hit .227 in 127 games, though he did manage to hit 17 home runs, his professional high thus far in his career.
If it was a new season, it must have meant a promotion for Wilkins, and 1991 was no exception: he began the season playing for the Triple A Iowa Cubs. He hit .271 in 38 games and was called up to make his major league debut at Wrigley Field on June 6, 1991 against the San Diego Padres, going 0-4. He ended up catching the majority of games (82) for the Cubs in 1991; Hector Villanueva, Damon Berryhill, Joe Girardi, and Erik Pappas were all also behind the plate at some point. Wilkins finished the season hitting .222 with six home runs and 22 RBI in 86 games.
Wilkins' 1992 season wasn't a huge improvement, but it was better, as he hit .270 in 83 games. He only caught in 73 of those, with 27-year-old Girardi catching the majority of Cubs games, with 86. (Why the Cubs had two catchers who were almost the same age more or less sharing time behind the plate is a mystery, plus 27-year-old Villanueva also saw time at catcher. Both Villanueva and Girardi were gone after the season ended: the former was released, and the latter was left unprotected in the NL expansion draft.)
Two quite mediocre seasons bring us to 1993. To recap, going into the 1993 season, Wilkins had hit .248 and slugged .387 in 169 career games; he also had 14 home runs and 44 RBI. So, essentially, there was absolutely no way to predict that he would hit .303 and post a slugging percentage of .561 in 136 games in 1993, hitting 30 home runs along the way (see above for the rest of his stats). In what is quite shocking (or maybe not, depending on your stance on Sosa), his 30 homers were only three behind Sammy Sosa's team leading 33. Wilkins' .561 slugging percentage easily led the team (Dwight Smith was next with a .494 in 111 games, and Sosa posted a .485 in 159 games), and it ranked fifth in the National League. Most astonishingly of all, his OPS of .937 was third in the league, behind a couple guys you may have heard of: Barry Bonds and Andres Galarraga.
Wilkins' salary jumped to $350,000 in 1994 from $212,500 the previous year; whether the $137,500 raise was due to his 1993 performance is not known for sure, but it probably was. Unfortunately for Wilkins, if it was a raise, he sure didn't earn it in 1994, somehow actually regressing below his mean with a .227/.317/.387, seven home runs, and 39 RBI in 100 games (though he did lead the team with 25 doubles). His .227 average was the worst of any player on the team with over 100 at bats (Steve Buechele came closest, hitting .242 in 104 games).
We all recognize that 1994 was a lost season for pretty much everything, especially for the Cubs (who were 49-64 when the strike stopped play), so Wilkins had the chance to rebound in 1995 and prove that his '93 season was not a fluke. This was not to be, however, as he posted a .191/.340/.315 (no, that's not a typo) in 50 games. Obviously fed up with his inept performance, newly hired General Manager Ed Lynch jettisoned Wilkins to the Houston Astros in exchange for Scott Servais and Luis Gonzalez on June 28, 1995.Say what you will about Lynch, but he took the Astros for a ride on this trade. Wilkins played only 99 games total over two seasons in Houston, hitting .218 in the process, before he was traded to the San Francisco Giants with cash for Kirt Manwaring in July 1996. On the flip side, Servais posted respectable numbers in three and a half seasons in Chicago and was the starting catcher for the 1998 wild card team, and Gonzalez performed well in left field in his season and a half with the Cubs.
This ends Wilkins' tale with the Cubs, and his future performance indicated that his '93 season was indeed a fluke. As mentioned, he was traded to San Francisco in the middle of the '96 season; he spent a year there, playing 118 games. The Giants released him in August 1997, and the Seattle Mariners signed him two weeks later. He played 60 games over two seasons in Seattle before he was traded to the New York Mets in early 1998 for a minor leaguer. He only played in five games in New York the rest of the season before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent before the 1999 season. He played three games there in '99, four games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000, and 12 games with the San Diego Padres in 2001, playing his last game on October 3 of that year.
His career numbers: .244/.332/.410 with 81 home runs and 275 RBI. As a Cub, he hit .254 with 57 home runs and 170 RBI in 455 games. The only season other than 1993 when he hit double digit home runs was 1996: 14 between Houston and San Francisco.
What makes Wilkins' career so puzzling was that he posted one of the greatest offensive seasons ever by a Cubs catcher (and a decent argument can be made that it was one of the best ever by a catcher in major league history), yet his other seasons gave no indication that it was anything but an aberration. Players who have one great season are not uncommon, but after 1993 it looked like the Cubs had their catcher for the rest of the decade. Instead, he was gone before the All-Star break in 1995. But even though his '93 season appears to be one of the biggest fluke seasons in baseball history, he must be recognized as one of the top Cubs just for having it. (I don't know where he is on the list as I write this, so draw your own conclusions as to what it says about the history of this franchise that one good season, and absolutely nothing else, earns a player a spot as one of the 100 greatest Cubs ever.)
I will finish with an anecdote because Al encourages this sort of thing, and because of the bios that I'm writing, Wilkins is the only player I actually remember seeing play. I was 12 years old and living outside of Chicago in Kane County during the 1994 season, and entering that season I had seen exactly two Cubs games in person: one at Wrigley in 1992, and one at Mile High Stadium in Denver in 1993. For some reason I can't explain now, seeing a Cub hit a home run was tops on my priority list when I saw them in person; I know I wanted them to win, but I really wanted to see a homer. It didn't happen during those first two games, and it didn't happen in the first three games I saw at Wrigley in 1994. So I guess it was fitting that on my 13th birthday, August 6th, Rick Wilkins hit the first Cubs homer I ever saw in person in the bottom of the first against the Padres. (The Cubs won that game 7-1, and the strike ended the season a week later. Incidentally, it was also a Saturday night game, one of only 15 the Cubs have ever played at Wrigley during the regular season. For the curious, the last regular season Saturday night game was June 20, 1998 against the Phillies; the Cubs won 9-4. Game 3 of the '98 NLDS is the only playoff game thus far to be played on a Saturday night; more recently, Game 3 of the 2003 NLDS was on a Friday night, and Game 4 was played on Saturday afternoon. All other Wrigley night playoff games have been played during the week. Until they get back to the playoffs, we won't be seeing another Saturday night game anytime soon, as the agreement the Cubs have with the city forbids it except for the playoffs.)
I've seen many Cubs home runs since, but Wilkins' will always be my first, it will always stand out in my mind, and I will always remember him for it, if nothing else. That doesn't do any of the rest of you much good, but let's face it, except for his 1993 season, there's not much to say about the far-from-illustrious career of Rick Wilkins.
Note from Al: Rick is currently involved with a sports website called SportsAvengers.com, which is where I found the photo of him that appears at the top of this profile.