Monday, July 31, 2017

Lee May's Miserable Timing

Lee May was never in the right place at the right time (UPI)
Lee May was a good hitter for many years. He slugged 354 home runs -- more than Joe DiMaggio -- and had 11 straight seasons with at least 20. He played more than 2,000 games and amassed over 2,000 hits. A three-time All-Star, he received MVP consideration in six seasons, finishing in the top 10 twice. His career OPS+ was 116, which is equal to Barry Larkin's and Roberto Alomar's and Ken Boyer's, despite a mediocre .313 OBP.

Lee May was not good at reaching round numbers. He had three seasons with over 100 RBIs, but in four years he finished with either 98 or 99 and in another year, he had 94. He had one season with 39 home runs, and another with 38. Similarly, he had one year with 29 long balls, and another with 28. He usually missed 10-15 games per season, but with better luck he could have had a pair of 40-homer seasons on his resume and seven or eight 100-RBI campaigns.

Those are impressive numbers in any era, but they really would have stood out during his playing days. He debuted in 1965, during the heart of the Second Deadball Era, and had his breakout season in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. He came up with Cincinnati but was shipped out after the 1971 season, bringing back Joe Morgan in the trade that jump-started the Big Red Machine. He then spent three prime seasons in purgatory, playing half his games in the pitcher's paradise formerly known as the Astrodome. While the Reds won a pennant in their first season without him, May's Astros finished third, 10.5 games behind Cincinnati. The Reds repeated as division champs the following year and won 98 games in '74; meanwhile, the Astros barely reached .500 both years.

After that May was dealt to Baltimore, having just missed their dynastic run in the late '60s and early '70s. The Orioles made only one postseason appearance in his seven years there, losing to Pittsburgh in the 1979 Fall Classic. May began the decade on World Series losers in Cincinnati and ended it on World Series losers in Baltimore, failing to reach the playoffs in between.

By then May was 36 and had played his last full season as a regular. With his career winding down, he played sparingly over the next three seasons, the last two of which came with the Royals. He had missed their epic postseason clashes with the Yankees in the late '70s and their World Series appearance in 1980. Kansas City give him one last crack at October baseball in '81 but fell short, and May retired after '82.

Timing, they say, is everything in life. If you put May on the Orioles during his Cincinnati years, he wins two championships, and if you put him on the Reds during his Baltimore years, he wins two more. If that had happened, perhaps he'd be remembered a bit more fondly by fans in those cities, the way Tony Perez and Boog Powell are celebrated.

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