For 19 seasons, Dwight Evans was the one point of order in a locker room that was sometimes comic, frequently sad but seldom professional -- except for him. On Red Sox teams full of petty squabbles and cults of personality, he stood out like an unsore thumb. Evans was the normal guy trapped in a room with an avalanche of eccentric superstars.
It wasn't hard to overlook "Dewey." If Luis Tiant wasn't holding court in a black leather cap, cigar, cowboy boots (and nothing else), then Bill Lee was discussing hallucinogenic pancakes or his whole-earth blooper pitch. Sometimes Jim Rice knew all his teammates' names. Sometimes not. If Carl Yastrzemski was not lapsing into stoic melancholia, then Fred Lynn was nursing a mystery injury or Carlton Fisk was feuding with the dimwitted front office. If Roger Clemens wasn't going ballistic, then Dennis Eckersley was speaking in tongues. Or, maybe, Margo and Wade were just taking a few X-rated photos of teammates.
With the Spaceman, the Rocket Man and Oil Can, with Rooster, Yaz and Fragile Freddie, with the Eckmeister and the Wadester, it was always something. How does a guy dubbed Dewey get noticed?
That's why, after 379 home runs and eight Gold Gloves, the Red Sox just let Dwight Evans slip away last month. The Red Sox never appreciated what he did for them, so why should they notice he was leaving or pay any proper observance to his going? Evans got typical classy Sox treatment. "The meeting took about two minutes. 'We're not picking up your option year.' That was it. I was out of there," said Evans yesterday, less bitter than amazed. "I felt crushed."
On teams that seldom played much defense, Evans was so good in right field that hits came equipped with brakes. Nobody would dare to run on him. Yet he threw out 151 men anyway -- most of them guys who thought they were going to get where they were going standing up.
On teams that couldn't hit in the clutch, Evans drove in 14 runs in 14 World Series games -- including nine (a Red Sox record) in the '86 Series. Until recent years, he batted everywhere except the heart of the order. First, second, sixth. At 35, he got star positioning and was the only player to have 100 RBI in '87, '88 and '89 (123, 111 and 100).
Even now, it's doubtful the Red Sox have any idea what they just gave away. And it's equally unlikely the Orioles grasp what they got for peanuts. The Bosox think Evans is an old guy with a bad back who's washed up. The Orioles think he's a cheap gamble, a good clubhouse guy and a PR bone to disgruntled fans.
First, let's straighten something out. We're talking about a great player, probably a Hall of Famer. The players who've led the big leagues in extra base hits in each of this century's decades make quite a list. Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial (twice), Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson.
Who led the majors in the '80s?
Which outfielders have the most Gold Gloves?
Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Al Kaline and Evans.
How many active major leaguers have hit more home runs than Evans?
Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Harmon Killebrew are all recent Hall of Famers. How many of them produced as many runs as Evans? (That's runs, plus RBI, minus homers.)
Evans already has more than 100 more runs produced in 19 years (2,402) than Stargell, McCovey or Killebrew did in 21, 22 and 22 seasons, respectively.
If Evans, 39, plays two or three more years -- just old-coot, plenty-of-rest 350 at bat years -- this is where he will probably end up on the all-time lists.
Top 15 in extra-base hits and walks. Top 25 in homers, doubles and total bases. And top 35 in runs and RBI. Though his average is .272, his career on-base percentage (.371) is comparable to Hank Aaron and Pete Rose (.377).
Except for '90 (13 homers, 63 RBI, .249 in 123 games), Evans has improved with age more than any player since World War II. Unheralded at 25, he blossomed at 29, thanks to the weight-shift theories of Walt Hriniak. Then his best years arrived deep in his thirties.
Much about Evans seems misunderstood. For instance, he is not a Fenway Park hitter. "That Wall has hurt me so much," he says. In '87 through '89, he hit .299 at home with 33 homers and 170 RBI, but batted .290 with 167 RBI and 42 homers on the road. Of his favorite road parks, Memorial Stadium is, statistically, his best. In his last 40 games in Baltimore, he had 39 RBI.
"Good hitter's park. The power alleys are right for me. When I don't quite get it all, I still seem to reach the bullpens. The infield grass is quick. It's the truest ballpark in baseball."
The park Evans has always dreamed of is a mirror-image of Fenway -- a short wall in right, but fairly roomy in left. Cheap doubles to the opposite field. Room for liners to left to drop for hits. "And when you pull one deep, it's gone anywhere." How would you pitch a righty in that park? You couldn't. Just as premier lefty hitters have always been Fenway's real beneficiaries.
The Orioles are building exactly such a place at Camden Yards. "That park is me. I really want to play there," says Evans. "And watch Randy Milligan. He'll love it."
The Orioles were looking for a middle-of-the-order man when they got Evans. But they may not know just how much of one they got. It's doctrine that no Red Sox hits better with men in scoring position. But Evans batted .349 in such situations in '87, '88, '89 -- almost 100 points higher than he did without a man ready to score. "My biggest weakness is that I don't concentrate as well when it's not a clutch situation," he says.
Of course, all this is moot if Evans's back continues to hurt, as it did from mid-1989 until late '90. But, at the moment, it doesn't. Not at all. The bone spur which once dug into muscle has now "bridged its way back, curved around and rounded itself off," claims Evans. "The doctors say I have the disks and vertebra of a young man. It was just the spur. Now it's no problem."
Is Evans, a fitness buff, kidding himself? Or misleading others? Here's a hint. Evans surprised the Orioles by asking for a modest one-year deal loaded with rich incentives for good play, rather than accepting their two-year contract offer with a buy-out clause.
"An old guy with a bad back would take the guaranteed money we offered," said Orioles President Larry Lucchino. "A proud guy with a healthy back who thinks he's got some good years left would ask for exactly the deal Evans requested. That's when I got excited."
The Red Sox don't know it. And the Orioles are just beginning to guess. But Dwight Evans believes that "my days as a complete player may not be over yet."