We were so tempted to put Yasiel Puig on this list. Is it time to declare a 26 year old who has two years left on his contract with one of the most storied franchises in sports in America’s second largest media market a “would-be superstar who wasted his potential?”
After finishing as the runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year, landing in the top 20 in MVP voting in each of his first two seasons, and making an All-Star team all before he turned 24, Puig has plunged into being practically a league-average player in two injury plagued seasons since.
Of course, on and off the field, Puig is far from average. His defection from Cuba was even more dramatic than usual, aided by a Mexican drug cartel that has made death threats against his life. He has been arrested twice. He has showed up for late for meetings and has consistently overthrown cutoff men on the field (an action which can, of course, prove highlight worthy). And as we write today, he has practically been a non-factor in the Dodgers 2016 Postseason run.
But Yasiel Puig did not make the list, as we are not yet sure if his potential will be wasted. Same with Pablo Sandoval, who has had a rough couple of years due to his weight control issues, but is already a three time champion and plays for a team still looking for steady play from third base. Nor did Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, the Cocaine Era poster-boys, for they actually did reach superstar status, however brief (12 All Star appearances and seven world championships between them.) Same goes for the Steroid Era line-up of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, even Jose Canseco. They don’t call it “performance enhancement” for nothing. Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose both blew their reputations gambling on baseball, but both did so far after becoming superstars.
Instead we dug into the history vault for some incredible stories of dumb injuries (involving a donut and an octopus), hard partiers, and, in one case, a crippling fear of flying. Most of these names you won’t know. Though you will probably know our #1, the only player on the list currently still active today.
Here are 15 would-be MLB Superstars who wasted their potential.
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15 Dave Parker (The Cocaine Era Star)
Since we decided Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were too successful to make this list, we gave Dave Parker a spot instead. With a career arguably as good as, if not better, than Gooden and Strawberry (he was a seven time All Star and five time top five finisher in MVP), Parker was a dangerous young hitter and a champion in his own right with the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates.
However, he then all but lost five years in the prime of his career, from 1980-1984, his age 30-34 seasons, when his numbers fell significantly. Along with Keith Hernandez, he was the center of the 1985 “Pittsburgh Drug Trials,” which were to cocaine what the 2005 congressional hearing was to steroids. He admitted to using the drug and to being a go-between a dealer and fellow players. Enjoying a renaissance after that period, he finished his long career with 2712 hits and 339 home runs, one would have to believe he would have easily passed the vaunted 3000 and 400 thresholds respectively without the drug use, making him a sure thing Hall-of-Famer.
14 Felix Millan (The Defeated Fighter)
Chase Utley broke the leg of the Mets Ruben Tejada in the playoffs last year with a hard slide into second base. As a result, this year, baseball instituted the “Utley Rule,” banning the “take out” slide.
Mets fans have been hurt before by this play. Indeed, their star second-baseman of the 1970s, Felix Millan (Pictured Right), would have enjoyed playing in 2016. When Pirates catcher Ed Ott slid hard into second base in 1977, despite being clearly physically overmatched, Millan threw a punch. Ott than body slammed the wiry 170 pound Millan to the ground, breaking his collar bone, and he was carried off in a stretcher. Millan took an offer to play in Japan the next season and never returned to the majors. The four time All-Star was perhaps not a superstar but he was well on his way to a career with more than 2000 hits at a position not known for its hitters.
13 J.D. Drew (The Overpaid Underperformer)
1997 was a special draft, for all the wrong reasons. Its second AND first pick (more on him later) ended up on this list. J.D. Drew was represented by the agent known for his big demands and his willingness to hold out his clients to get them: Scott Boras. Drew never played a game for the Phillies or any of their minor league affiliates. He went back into the draft, and in 1998 was picked fifth by the Cardinals.
By 2003, his manager, Tony LaRussa, was quoted as saying “a lot of young players fall into this trap where it’s uncomfortable to push yourself on a daily basis. They settle for some percent under their max… In the case of J.D., if you have the chance to be a twelve-million-to-fifteen-million-dollar-a-year player, you settle for 75 percent of that.”
Deserved or not, Drew was forever linked with caring more about money than the game. He was a fine major league baseball player with a long, fourteen year career, and will always have a place in the heart of Red Sox fans for his 2007 grand slam in Game Six of the World Series when they were facing elimination.
12 Kevin Mitchell (The Donut Eating Alleged Cat Killer)
At 27 years old, entering his prime in 1989, Kevin Mitchell was the MVP of the National League with the San Francisco Giant, leading the league with 47 home runs and 125 RBI. He would follow that up with a 35 HR and 93 RBI season. He famously made a barehanded catch to catch a fly ball off the bat of Ozzie Smith.
The odd behavior on the field was followed by odd behavior off the field. There is a widespread rumor he decapitated his girlfriend’s cat in the 1980s. In 1990 he reportedly got injured eating a donut. He was in a barroom ball in San Diego 1992. Rather than stick around following the 1994 strike he went and played in Japan for a season and a half. By 1995 while overseas, he had ballooned in weight by almost 50 pounds, to 255 overall. He made Cleveland Indians history in 1997 when he became the first player in franchise history who was unable to complete a 850-yard training run.
He retired after his age 36 season, out-of-shape and a colorful career behind him.
11 Bo Belinsky (The Playboy Pitcher)
Bo Belinsky drove a red cadillac and dated a who’s who of beautiful young actresses in Ann-Margret, Tina Louis, and Connie Stevens, was engaged to Mamie Van Doren, and later married Jo Collins, a former Playboy centerfold model. The FBI once brought him in for questioning about his late night adventures, only to find out it was all a joke perpetrated by famed journalist and friend Walter Winchell.
In between, Belinsky played baseball, where he won his first four games as a rookie culminating in the first no-hitter at newly opened Dodgers Stadium as a member of the Los Angeles Angels. Belinsky claimed his partying never influenced his performance, but he ended his career after eight seasons with a middling 4.10 ERA and a 28-51 record.
10 Mike Donlin (The Ballplayer Turned Thespian)
The captain of 1905 World Champion New York Giants and the two-time runner up to none other than Hall-of-Famer Honus Wagner as batting champion also happened to be a big time party-goer, who literally learned he was going to be a big league ballplayer while he was in lock-up for drunkeness. In 1907, he held out of signing his contract which would include a bonus if he stayed sober all year. Instead, he toured the country with his new wife, Broadway star Mabel Hite, performing a vaudeville act, and bragged "I can act. I'll break the hearts of all the gals in the country."
On October 26, 1908, after one year back on the diamond, their play “Stealing Home” opened in New York. It went on to performances around the country for two years. He played intermittently after that, and later went on to Hollywood, where, amongst others, he had a role in the great Buster Keaton’s silent comedy film, “The General.” He acted in films for almost twenty years.
9 Jackie Jensen (The MVP Who Was Afraid of Flying)
Jackie Jensen started playing baseball in the wrong decade. In the late 1940s, baseball teams began regularly flying to games, and beginning in 1953 with the Boston Braves move to Milwaukee, the league started expanding West. And that’s how the man who was to replace Joe Dimaggio as the Yankees star centerfielder ended up with a post-playing career article published in Sports Illustrated titled “A Fear of Flying.”
In 1950, the Yankees purchased Jackie Jensen’s contract from the Pacific Coast League, and after DiMaggio retired in 1951, a star young player named Mickey Mantle ended up picking up where his legend left off in centerfield, and Jensen was promptly traded to the Washington Senators just weeks into the 1952 season. But, in 1954, he caught his big break when he was traded to the Boston Red Sox and got to hit clean-up behind none other than… Ted Williams.
In 1958, he hit a career high 35 home runs and WON MVP of the American League. In 1959, Jensen retired, and after a brief return in 1961, retired for good.
8 Danny Goodwin (The Simple Under-Performer)
The only baseball player to be the number one pick in the draft… twice. He turned down the Chicago White Sox’ estimated $60,000 offer in 1971 to attend Southern University in Louisiana where he became a zoology major. The California Angels picked him first again in 1975 and then he promptly injured his shoulder, requiring a move from catcher to first base. This is the story of Danny Goodwin.
Suddenly playing a position expected to provide major offense to a lineup put a lot of pressure on Goodwin to hit early in his career. And he just… didn’t. And he didn’t make up for it in the field with limited agility and bad footwork. He played 252 games in the big leagues and hit .236 with 13 home runs.
7 Pete Reiser (The Batting Champion Who Played Too Hard)
In 1941, Pete Reiser hit .343 and won a batting championship. He also led the NL in doubles, triples, and runs scored and was second in the voting for MVP. Then in mid-July of 1942, in the 11th inning of a tie ball-game, he cut off a would-be extra-base hit from Enos Slaughter… than ran face first into a concrete wall. Slaughter ended up with an inside-the-park home run to end the game. Reiser was carried off on a stretcher, and despite advice from doctors, in an era before concussion regulations, came back to play shortly thereafter.
He enlisted in the army during World War II, and was almost released on a medical discharge for pneumonia, but instead was assigned to the Fort Riley baseball team, where he separated his shoulder after he went through a hedge acting as the outfield wall and down a ten-foot drainage pipe on the other side.
In 1947, he ran face first into a fence, fractured his skull, and read his last rites. He was never a regular player again. In all, he was injured 11 times by running into fences.
6 Clint Hartung (The Clint Hartung Award Winner)
If noted baseball historian Bill James names an award after you for most overhyped rookie of the decade, you deserve a place on this distinguished list. Hurting was a 6’ 4” monster of a pitcher that earned the headline “One Man Ballteam” from Life Magazine before he even pitched a game and told reporters he expected to win 30 games and hit 75 home runs in a season.
By 1951, however, he was getting different headlines, with the New York Times calling him “The Faded Phenom” and after six unremarkable seasons, in 1952, Hartung indeed faded into NY Giants sports fans memories.
An interesting little factoid about Hartung: he was on base for the famous “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” by Bobby Thompson to win the 1951 pennant against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
5 Steve Howe (The Wrong Player At The Wrong Time)
Steve Howe had the unfortunate timing of entering baseball in 1980, right when the Cocaine Era was at its height. The 16th overall pick of the 1979 draft, playing in the entertainment capital of the world in Los Angeles, CA, won a Rookie of the Year, made an All-Star appearance, and helped the Dodgers win the 1981 World Series, before undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction in the 1982 offseason. Just two months into the 1983 season he had to go back to the treatment center, and was suspended twice for showing up late to a game and missing a team flight. The latter suspension was accompanied by his refusal to take a drug test.
That off-season, Howe was one of four players suspended for one year for illegal drug use. He couldn’t stick with a team for a full season until he made a nice little comeback for the Yankees in the early '90s.
4 Brien Taylor (The Guy Who Wasn’t Derek Jeter)
It took 23 years for a team to draft a high school pitcher in the first round after the Yankees took Brien Taylor in 1991. That’s how much of a waste of potential he turned out to be. Legendary scout Bill Livesey said that Alex Rodriguez was the best amateur hitter he ever saw. Brien Taylor was the best amateur pitcher. He was Baseball America’s #1 prospect in baseball in 1992 and the #2 prospect in 1993.
Tragically, during the 1993 season he got a call that his brother was being beat up in a bar and he went over to protect him. The result, a horrible rotator cuff tear. He missed all of the 1994 season. He would never make it to the majors.
The Yankees first round pick the year after they took Taylor? Derek Jeter.
3 Matt Anderson (The Octopus Thrower)
As promised in our introduction to J.D. Drew, the #1 pick of the 1997 draft was a failed would-be superstar in his own right, for the most embarrassing of reasons. In 2002, he participated in an octopus throwing contest, a Detroit Red Wings tradition, and later that night, tore a muscle in his armpit while warming up in the bullpen. He claims the incidents were unrelated, but either way, gone were the days of his 100 mph fastball. After an ERA of 9.00 that season, Anderson never again could stick it out for a full season in the majors. The story of Matt Anderson should serve as a lesson to all future pitching prospects making their way through the Detroit Tigers system: avoid the octopus throw.
2 Jenrry Mejía (The How-Stupid-Can-You-Be Steroid User)
You would think in the post-Steroid Era, when players are tested extremely frequently and face harsh, very-public penalties for violation, that these guys wouldn’t be stupid enough to become repeat offenders. So how did Jenry Mejía violate the rule three TIMES and get suspended from baseball for life? Or was he a victim of a witch hunt from MLB as he claims?
We’ll never know for sure. We can say that after recording 28 of 31 saves in 2014 at the bright young age of 24 for the New York Mets, he perhaps had a long career of being a closer in the biggest media market in America ahead of him. Indeed, if Jeurys Familia becomes a Hall-of-Famer closing for the Mets, Majía will at least become a very interesting footnote in baseball history.
1 Josh Hamilton (The Would Be Natural)
A former #1 pick in the draft, after years of drug abuse including spending his nearly $4 million signing bonus on crack and cocaine, and missing three years of his professional career in the process, Josh Hamilton miraculously worked his way back from addiction and became a national hero in doing so. He became a five time All-Star in his prime with the Texas Rangers, and the 2010 MVP and Batting Champion, drawing comparisons to everyone from Mickey Mantle to the fictional Roy Hobbs in The Natural. He landed his dream deal to join Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in Anaheim for five years at $125 million, but was traded back to the Rangers after a disappointing and injury-prone two years. He had a subsequent relapse and was then released from Texas in late August of this year after season ending surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee. Certainly many athletes break down in their 30s, but its hard not to wonder what effects Hamilton’s addiction has had on his body. If his career had started earlier and not been stalled so quickly, it is easy to envision a 500 HR, Hall of Fame legacy.
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