Saturday, February 15, 2014

The center fielder and the sledder

Katie Uhlaender starts her fourth and final run in the
women's skeleton on Friday.
Katie Uhlaender fell just short of a medal -- four hundredths of a second -- in the women's skeleton Friday at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Her father, Ted Uhlaender, was a Minnesota Twins outfielder when I started paying attention to the game, and later a coach and scout before his death in 2009.

The bond between father and daughter was, by all accounts, deep. It's pretty much impossible to imagine Katie Uhlaender, world-class slider, without the influence of Ted Uhlaender, journeyman center fielder. And all the stories about the Uhlaenders and how his old baseball cohorts pulled her out of her depression after his death led me to review Ted's career.

Uhlaender the baseball player had eight seasons in the major leagues, five of them with the Twins. He hit .288 in the pitcher-dominated 1968 season, which was fourth in the American League (the league as a whole hit .230 that year). But hitting for average was pretty much the extent of Uhlaender's offense — he had little power and drew few walks, not that many people paid much attention to hitter's walks back then. 1968 was the only season in which Uhlaender's OPS+ was above league average.

I started paying attention to baseball the following year, 1969, Uhlaender's last with the Twins. It was, in retrospect, an interesting outfield Billy Martin had: One superstar and a lot of moving parts.

Right fielder Tony Oliva was the superstar and outfield anchor. Right field in 1969 was loaded: There were 24 teams, and the regulars included Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline. Oliva didn't last as long as any of those six legends, but in his brief prime (which definitely included 1969) he didn't take a back seat to any of them.

Cesar Tovar played all over the field — 20 games at third base, 41 at second base, 40 in left field, 69 in center, eight in right. His defensive value lay more in his versatility than in how well he actually played at a given spot. (According to Baseball Reference, Tovar only started three games in left, so the other 37 were in-game shifts.)

Uhlaender got the majority of the center field time and also played some in left. He was probably the best defensive outfielder on the roster and hit a fairly empty .273 in 150 games.

The young Craig Nettles, who would become better known for his prowess as a third baseman, got 53 games in left (and 21 at third). The veteran Bob Allison, winding down his illustrious career, had 58 games in left and a handful in right. Then there was Charlie Manuel, the future Indians and Phillies manager, who saw little action but became lifelong pals with Uhlaender. (It was Manuel who hired Uhlaender as a coach, and Manuel is prominent in the stories about Katie Uhlaender turning her life around after her father's death.)

Oliva, Tovar and Uhlaender each played in at least 150 games, but Martin also found more than 250 at-bats each for Nettles and Allison. (Remember, there was no designated hitter back then.) Part of it was Tovar and Nettles' ability to play in the infield, and part of it was Martin mixing and matching.

The Twins traded Uhlaender and Nettles that winter to Cleveland as part of a package that brought Luis Tiant and Stan Williams to Minnesota. The two veteran pitchers combined to go 17-4 for the Twins in 1970, but that was the only season they helped, while losing Nettles would hurt for a long time.

Uhlaender played two years with the Tribe, then played a bit role on the 1972 Cincinnati Reds, who went to the World Series and lost in seven games to the Oakland A's. That was Uhlaender's last season in the bigs.

Comperable recent Twins players to Uhlaender? Alex Presley seems like it as a hitter, but Uhlaender was probably superior as a defensive player.

Katie Uhlaender is 29, and says she's now going to focus on making the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. Ted Uhlaender, according to Baseball Reference, was 29 in his final season with the Twins.

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