Steve Carlton is unquestionably one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball, and may be the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.
Carlton won 329 games in his career, finished with an ERA of 3.22, won four Cy Young Awards, made 10 All-Star teams, and finished his career with a staggering 4,136 strikeouts.
He was great, great, great, and was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
And while most of the memories of Carlton’s career are happy ones, I wanted to spend some time examining the last two years of his journey through the baseball wilderness, as a cautionary tale of what happens when a player hangs on too long.
It gets sad, folks.
In 1985, at 40 years old, time finally caught up with Steve. He started only 16 games that year, going 1-8 with a 3.33 ERA (very 2012 Cliff Lee-esque) with just 48 strikeouts in 92 innings.
The writing was on the wall.
The following year, ’86, was when the sad times began. Carlton started the year with the Phillies but struggled, going 4-8 with a 6.18 ERA in 16 starts before being released by the Phils, just 18 strikeouts shy of 4,000.
At the time, Carlton was in a heated, back-and-forth battle with Nolan Ryan for the all-time strikeout lead. Carlton, gunning for that 4,000th strikeout and status as the all-time “K King,” did all he could to stick around.
He signed with the San Francisco Giants, but his struggles continued there. He did manage to record his 4,000th strikeout against Cincinnati’s Eric Davis, but went just 1-3 with a 5.10 ERA in six games with San Francisco. Seeing the writing on the wall, Carlton retired.
However, that writing must have been written in invisible ink, because almost immediately after retiring from the Giants, he un-retired and signed on to pitch for the Chicago White Sox for the rest of the ’86 season, going 4-3 with a 3.69 ERA in 10 starts. Overall, with three teams, Carlton went 9-14 with a 5.10 ERA with 120 strikeouts in 152.1 innings.
Obviously, Carlton would gracefully retire from the game, content with his 4,000 strikeouts and his legacy as the left-hander with the most strikeouts in Major League history.
But there was on problem. Nolan Ryan was still going strong, and Carlton did not want to abdicate the all-time “K King” legacy to Ryan just yet.
So, Lefty girded up his loins for another romp in the sun in 1987. And, at age 42, he found work with the Cleveland Indians. Once again, Carlton’s age was apparent, as he went just 5-9 with a 5.37 ERA in 14 starts. Increasingly, Carlton was being used out of the bullpen, summoned for nine games in relief.
He was traded to the Minnesota Twins mid-season, where his struggles continued, going 1-5 with a 6.70 ERA in just seven starts. The biggest kick in the pants, though, was the fact Minnesota actually went to the World Series that year and won it all, but did not place Carlton on the post-season roster.
That should have been it for ‘ol Lefty. Time to get ready for the Hall of Fame and get that pitching hand ready for those high-end card show signings.
However, in 1988, at 43, Carlton wanted to give it one more go. Like a punch-drunk boxer who doesn’t know when it’s time to leave the ring, Steve came back to Minnesota in ’88, but lasted just four games, going 0-1 with a 16.76 ERA before being released by Minnesota.
Whether it was a desire to beat Nolan Ryan for the all-time strikeout record, a desire to stay in the limelight, or just a sheer love of playing baseball and the need for the competition, Carlton’s late-career odyssey was bizarre for one main reason.
Seeing him in all those different jerseys was just jarring.
Steve Carlton was a Phillie. That’s how he is remembered. And this is how I want to remember him.
Yet there exists all this documented photographic proof that Carlton actually played for, and failed with, these other, lesser organizations.
Imagine Chase Utley wearing a Twins jersey. It just doesn’t seem right, does it?
That’s basically what this was.
Perhaps it would have been best had I not said anything.