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Featured T.R.'s Memoirs

Boys of Arlington: Baseball immortality escaped Ruben Sierra

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back at the turbulent career of outfielder Ruben Sierra, who seemed to be on his way to greatness until it all came tumbling down.

 

Ruben Sierra was a switch-hitter, so the line drive could be either over the shortstop or second baseman’s head. Which one didn’t really matter in the summer of 1989 for a 23-year-old from Puerto Rico with extraordinary ability.

When the ball landed in front of the outfielder, 21st-century baseball analytics would have automatically assigned a 98 percent probability of being a single.

That wasn’t always the case with Sierra. That was the dynamic beauty of it all.

Sierra would bust out of the box, round first base hard as the outfielder was getting ready to field the routine hit and just keep on flying, sliding into second base easily for a double.

To me, that was Sierra’s signature at the height of his greatness, a legitimate “five-tool” player like the Rangers had never had before. He was fast, powerful, could run down balls in the outfield and had a strong throwing arm.

“He is one of the premier players in our league in all facets,” said Oakland manager Tony LaRussa when he named Sierra to the American League starting lineup for the 1989 All-Star Game.

Some 35 years later, Josh Hamilton is probably the only Rangers player who could compare to Sierra for his combination of physical ability and baseball talent. Not to mention their turbulent personalities and self-inflicted issues.

“When he first came up to the big leagues [at age 20], everything about Ruben was way above average,” former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve said. “He was just fun to watch, he just played with a flair. The way he carried himself, he was just exciting to watch. Everything about him. He could run, hit with power, his arm was solid and he had the speed to go get the ball in right field. Hit a triple, score from first base on a double, everything.”

The next Roberto Clemente

From the beginning, they dared compare him to the great Roberto Clemente, the legendary Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico. Sierra was also Puerto Rican and was aware of Clemente’s legacy. Manager Bobby Valentine fueled the comparisons by having Sierra wear No. 21, Clemente’s number.

That may seem a bit audacious, but the truth suggests otherwise. For the six years of their careers — ages 20-26 — Sierra was the better offensive player. Through his first six seasons, Sierra, from 1986 to 1991, had a .799 OPS, 139 home runs, 586 RBIs and 74 stolen bases. Clemente, from 1955 to 1960 for the Pirates, had a .727 OPS, 42 home runs, 331 and 22 stolen bases.

Sierra was “El Caballo” or “The Horse” because he showed up every day ready to play. At one point, he set a Rangers record by playing in 325 straight games before spraining his ankle on an escalator during the 1990 season. His second-longest streak was 240 straight games.

“The one thing Ruben knew was the more at-bats he got, the better his numbers would be,” Grieve said. “He never wanted to take a day off. He played with minor injuries. He wanted to be on the field as much as he could.

“It looked like he was on his way to the Hall of Fame.”

Never more so than in the summer of 1989 when Sierra was at his best. But then …

There was a flyball not caught, an MVP Award not won, contract negotiations, an inexplicable desire for more home runs, his obsession with “numbers” and finally a trade that stunned baseball. Ruben Sierra never made it to Cooperstown with Clemente, but he is in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame.

Sierra is a good person and was a good teammate. I enjoyed covering him and seemed to have a good relationship with him for the most part when he was with the Rangers.

He could be honest, but that could get him into trouble. So did his obsession to be the best and be treated like an elite player. For a while, Sierra was an elite player.

But in his later years, Sierra seemed to be fighting this endless tug of war with himself, trying to be a good player and a good person, but also demanding and expecting the treatment due to a one-time superstar who had slipped into a part-time role. His clashes with Hall of Fame managers created big headlines for newspapers.

It is also mind-boggling how many times he seemed done with the Rangers, only to keep showing back up eager for a chance to redeem himself. At times it was fun to watch his determination to regain his stature as a great player, other times it seemed tortuous.

But in the prime of his career?

It was exciting while it lasted.

The Golden Child

Sierra signed with the Rangers in November 1983 at age 17 and as a right-handed hitter. Orlando Gomez signed him at a time when the Rangers didn’t have a large presence in Latin America. Rudy Jaramillo was his rookie-league manager and suggested Sierra try switch-hitting. The first time he hit left-handed in a game, he doubled off the right-field wall.

Sierra was 20 when he was called up on June 1, 1986. In his second at-bat, he hit a three-run home run off Royals left-hander Charlie Leibrandt. He hit 16 homer in all, over 113 games with a .264 batting average. The next year, Sierra hit .263 with 30 home runs and 109 RBIs, which stood out as much as the gold jewelry he liked to wear.

The Golden Child was on his way.

“God gave me the ability to play baseball,” Sierra told Steve Campbell of the Star-Telegram. “I’m not playing to be good. I’m playing to go where the greatest players are.”

The Rangers, after two straight losing seasons, opened 1989 by winning three of their first four games. Then, on a Sunday afternoon at Arlington Stadium, they trailed 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth against the Blue Jays when Sierra hit a two-run walk-off home run off reliever Tom Henke.

On July 23 against the Yankees, a Sunday night also at Arlington Stadium, the Rangers trailed 4-0 into the bottom of the ninth when Sierra capped a game-tying rally with a two-out, two-run home run off Dave Righetti. The Rangers were 54-43 on the season and only 4 1/2 games out of first place with Sierra carrying the offense like a true superstar.

Then they hit a slump, losing 14 of their next 25 games, and were 9 1/2 games back when Nolan Ryan walked to the mound to face the Athletics at Arlington Stadium. There were 42,869 fans there because Ryan was closing in on his 5,000th career strikeout.

The magical moment came in the fifth when he struck out Rickey Henderson. But the Rangers lost 2-0 when Sierra had trouble with two fly balls in the lights that led to both runs.

After the game, a frustrated Valentine said, “Ruben just doesn’t run as hard in the outfield as he does on the bases. I don’t know why. It’s too bad.”

It was not a great thing for Valentine to say. The Rangers were in the national spotlight that night — a rare moment for them — and Sierra’s defensive mishaps were not overlooked.

The MVP vote

The Rangers finished 83-79 and in fourth place, but Sierra’s season was still superb with a .306 batting average, 29 home runs and 119 RBIs that led the league. So did his 14 triples and .543 slugging percentage. When the season was over, Sierra was named the American League Player of the Year by The Sporting News.

The announcement came at the end of October, and nobody cared. The Star-Telegram barely mentioned it. Everybody was waiting for the November announcement as to who would win the MVP Award from the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Especially in Puerto Rico. One thing that I learned in covering baseball is Latin American players have an oversized regard for the MVP. Every player wants to win the award, but for Latin players, it just seemed exceptionally important.

Sierra was a leading candidate, along with Brewers center fielder Robin Yount, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and Blue Jays outfielder George Bell. Sierra had no doubts about who deserved it the most.

“I think I am going to win,” Sierra said. “Nobody has the numbers I have. It’s not going to be fair if I don’t win.”

With Sierra, it was always “numbers.”

Sierra’s high hopes were crushed. Yount won by the margin of two first-place votes. He got eight first-place votes while Sierra got six. Ripken got six, Bell got four and A’s reliever Dennis Eckersley received three.

If you crunch the offensive numbers, Yount and Sierra were clearly the two best. Ripken was the best defensively, and the Orioles were the surprise team of the AL that season. But his offensive numbers were weak for an MVP candidate, and I specifically remember Orioles beat writers saying Ripken didn’t deserve the award. Bell and Eckersley, who was sixth in the Cy Young, had no business getting first-place votes. One writer left Sierra completely off his 10-player ballot, although that did not keep him from winning the award.

“I feel sad, but there is nothing I can do about it,” Sierra said afterward. “It surprised me a lot. I put up the numbers. He was better than me in only a few departments.”

Tony DeMarco covered the story in the Star-Telegram.

“I know other things made a difference, things I don’t want to talk about,” Sierra said.

He was asked about being black and from Puerto Rico while Yount was white.

“That’s one part,” Sierra said.

Yount was also a 16-year veteran who had won the award as a shortstop in 1982. He had the name recognition that Sierra lacked.

“That’s another part,” Sierra said. In Puerto Rico, according to Sports Illustrated, it was considered a larcenous miscarriage of justice.

Jim Reeves of the Star-Telegram, two days after the MVP was announced, wrote a column blaming Sierra because of what happened on the night of Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout.

“His defensive was spectacularly lackluster,” Reeves wrote. “In the Rangers’ biggest game of the season, he played with no heart.”

Lust for power and glory

That off-season, Sierra made a decision. It was not the right one.

“I think Ruben went home that winter and thought, ‘What can I do to be MVP?'” Grieve said. “The answer was he decided he needed to hit more home runs, so he decided to get bigger and stronger.”

Sierra showed up huge for spring training. The Rangers didn’t know what to make of it, and it certainly didn’t make a positive difference on the field. He hit 280 with 16 home runs and 96 RBIs, a rather mediocre encore from his near-MVP season. Most telling, he had just two triples.

The prevailing theory was he bulked up although he also had to play through a sore ankle.

“I think after he lost the MVP vote, Ruben said to himself, ‘What do I need to do?'” Grieve said. “And the answer was, get stronger and hit more home runs. That was a mistake, he wasn’t the streamlined gazelle that he was before. He just started looking older with that bigger body.”

His defense also didn’t get better. As one Rangers player told me, “Ruben Sierra the base runner would be hell on Ruben Sierra the outfielder.”

Sierra did have a great season in 1991, hitting .307 with 25 home runs and 116 RBIs. That was one of the best offensive teams in Rangers history. Julio Franco won the batting title, and both Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez had big years. Ivan Rodriguez was a rookie. The Rangers went 85-77 while being doomed by mediocre pitching.

Sierra was still recognized as the Rangers’ best offensive player, and he was also eligible for free agency after the upcoming 1992 season. The Rangers opened negotiations that winter on a long-term contract for Sierra. Club president Tom Schieffer led the discussions with Sierra’s agent, Chick Berry.

Signing Ruben

The whole damn thing just wore everybody out that winter, and it didn’t get done. Sierra wanted five years and $27.5 million. Or maybe $30 million, depending on who you believed. Sierra wanted five years guaranteed. The Rangers were reluctant to do that.

It didn’t get done. Sierra won $5 million in arbitration — a record at the time — and went into the season as a potential free agent. The Rangers, coming off three straight winning seasons, went into the season expecting to compete for a division title.

They didn’t. Valentine was fired after 85 games, and the team floundered in the second half under Toby Harrah. On Aug. 31, they opened a three-game series with the Royals in Kansas City. Back then, Aug. 31 was the big trade deadline.

At that point, the Rangers were 65-68 and 15 1/2 games out of first place. Sierra wasn’t even in Kansas City. He was home with chicken pox. He had played in 124 games and was hitting a disappointing .278 with 14 home runs and 78 RBIs.

There had been some talk about the possibility of a trade. Some rumors were out there but nothing remotely close to what really happened.

The blockbuster

On the night of Aug. 31, 1992, the Rangers announced they had traded Sierra and pitchers Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell to Oakland for Jose Canseco. The trade came out of the blue and shocked the entire baseball world.

It may not seem that way 33 years later, but back then? This trade was the true definition of a blockbuster. It all came down to this:

The Athletics had a 7 1/2-game lead in the AL West and were determined to win it all. Witt and Russell reinforced their pitching staff for the postseason, and Sierra replaced Canseco in right field. The Athletics really wanted Russell in their bullpen and dumped Canseco’s $16 million salary through 1995 in the process.

The Rangers saw that salary more appealing rather than pay Sierra $30 million over five years. Canseco had his issues, but owner George W. Bush gushed he “puts fannies in the seats.”

Sierra, eager to make a favorable impression with his new team, played well down the stretch, but the Athletics lost to the Blue Jays in the ALCS. He then went into free agency, and the Athletics — somewhat surprisingly — gave him five years and $28 million. He was 27 years old, and Oakland had reason to believe Sierra had plenty left. LaRussa was still a huge fan until …

Sierra had a couple of decent years with the Athletics, then ran afoul of both LaRussa and general manager Sandy Alderson midway through the 1995 season. The Athletics had grown frustrated with Sierra’s free-swinging ways. Sierra made it clear that he was interested in RBIs not walks.

Star becomes a nomad

On July 28, 1995, Sierra was traded to the Yankees, who were one of six teams within a couple of games of the wild card. Manager Buck Showalter put him at designated hitter, and Sierra hit .260 with seven home runs and 44 RBIs in 56 games, respectable numbers that helped the Yankees win the wild card. But they were beaten by the Mariners in the division series and Showalter resigned.

He was replaced by Joe Torre in 1996. It didn’t take long for the new manager to clash with Sierra, who was hoping to play the outfield again. Torre didn’t have a spot for him with Paul O’Neill in right field, and Sierra wasn’t happy.

He called Torre a “liar,” saying the manager didn’t give him a chance to play the outfield. Torre, enraged by Sierra’s insult and outsized view of his importance, told general manager Bob Watson to get rid of him.

On July 31, Sierra was traded to the Tigers for Cecil Fielder, who was quite happy to be the Yankees’ designated hitter. Sierra left New York with a bizarre parting shot.

“All they care about over there is winning,” Sierra said.

Sierra then became a shadow of his former greatness and descended into baseball purgatory: Detroit, Cincinnati, Toronto, plus Triple A stops in Syracuse and Norfolk. In 1999, the guy who once was bitter about losing the AL MVP vote 10 years earlier was playing for Atlantic City in the Atlantic League.

In 2000, he was released by the Indians in spring training and caught on with Cancun in the Mexican League. He lasted just 16 games there before the Rangers signed him to a Triple A contract at Oklahoma City.

He was outstanding in Oklahoma City, hitting .326/.398/.522 and earning a September call-up.

Hold on, it’s only starting to get complicated.

Sierra’s odyssey

Try to follow along:

Oct 30, 2000: The Rangers released Sierra, not wanting to waste a roster spot on a player who hit .233 with a .283 slugging percentage in 20 games.

Dec. 13, 2001: The Rangers signed Sierra to a minor-league contract with an invitation to camp. He didn’t make the team in spring training, accepted assignment to Oklahoma City and then got called up on May 3 when Chad Curtis was injured. Sierra was there just to be a pinch-hitter but ended up playing in 94 games, hitting .291 with 23 home runs, 67 RBIs and a .561 slugging percentage.

“I am a different person now because I lost the best years of my career,” Sierra told Mac Engel of the Star-Telegram. “This is where I belong. I was misunderstood a lot. People thought I was cocky or arrogant and a hard guy to get to know. I would make a mistake and people would laugh at me, and I am very emotional and was sensitive at the time.

“It took me a long time to adjust.”

He was named Comeback Player of the Year by everybody. Sierra was back, except the Rangers had fired general manager Doug Melvin and hired John Hart. Sierra was a free agent, but Hart wasn’t interested in re-signing him

Jan 3, 2002: Sierra signed with the Mariners and spent a full year in Seattle, hitting .270 with 13 home runs, 60 RBIs and a .418 slugging percentage. At this point, Sierra was splitting time between DH and the outfield. After the season, he became a free agent and …

Jan 30. 2003: Sierra was back with the Rangers on another minor-league contract with a spring training invite. Showalter was entering his first year as Rangers manager and had fond memories of their time together with the Yankees.

“A lot of people counted him out, but he has a lot of heart,” Showalter said.

Sierra made the team, playing in 43 games with a .263/.333/.398 slash line and then …

June 6, 2003: Sierra was traded from the Rangers, who were in last place, to the Yankees, who led the AL East. But Sierra wasn’t happy with the Rangers over his lack of playing time.

“The Texas Rangers organization isn’t what it used to be,” Sierra said. “They don’t know what they want. They never let me get in a groove. If they want to win …”

Showalter fired back, saying, “Can you say ‘thank you’ for bringing me to camp? Can you say, ‘thank you’ for trading me to the Yankees?”

Suddenly, Sierra was reunited with Torre, who probably wasn’t in favor of the acquisition but seemed willing to live with it.

“He said he’s learned a lot since he left the Yankees,” Torre said. “His perspective is different now. It’s all about where you are.”

Said Sierra: “The years pass, and you understand the way things have to go and now I am a different guy. This is a new Ruben. I’m older. I’m just more mature.”

Sierra spent 2 1/2 years with the Yankees in a part-time role and still splitting time between outfield and DH. He and Torre peacefully co-existed, and the Yankees won three division titles. Sierra played in his only World Series in 2003 against the Marlins.

He had a brief stint with the Twins in 2006, getting released in July. His 20-year career was over.

The Rangers inducted Sierra into their Hall of Fame in 2009. He was also on the ballot for National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, his first year of eligibility. He failed to get the necessary 5 percent of the vote to stay in for future elections.

It’s tragic in a baseball way. In the end, Sierra had an excellent career. It just wasn’t good enough for Cooperstown, and that’s what he wanted most.

All it would take, he thought, were numbers.

T.R. Sullivan

T.R. is a Military Brat and graduate of the University of San Francisco who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the Denison Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.Com. He covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years.

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