Before blogs, there was Warren Newson

Often times when I'm doing some research for a post or the book, I'll find someone or something from last century and think, "Man, it would've been fun to write about that real-time." Sometimes it's about a trade or controversy, but I find myself most interested in the rise of certain players.

After all, it's easy to figure out what happened after guys made it to the big leagues. But back when Geocities was but a glint in some guy's eye and the small-market teams weren't completely resigned to losing their best players, minor-league coverage was hard to find. Aside from the fleeting references to former outposts like Utica (where you can't buy steamed hams) and Hickory and the occasional stat boxes for Calgary in the agate pages of the sports section, players were largely irrelevant until they stuck in the big leagues.

I take the end results for granted most of the time, but sometimes I'll find a player on Baseball-Reference.com, click off his page, and then think, "Hey, wait a minute."

Today's subject is one of those players. And in fact, he might be the double-takeiest player of them all.

His name is Warren Newson, and he might have been born 15 years too early.

Warren Newson is a player to whom few can compare. He was listed at just 5'7" - the same height that got Harry Chappas on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He also received a sweet nickname ("The Deacon") from Hawk Harrelson, back before he just tagged "meister" onto the end of everything. The novelty items overshadowed a serious "what could have been" career.

He came to Chicago on March 31, 1991, from San Diego in the trade that made the also 5-foot-7-inch Joey Cora a White Sox. Newson was but a sidebar in the matter. In the Dave Van Dyck story from the Chicago Tribune, Newson actually got third billing, listed after Kevin Garner, who gets this rather bizarre one-paragraph write-up:

Garner, 25, missed all of 1990 with hepatitis. He played this winter for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian League.

After seven words, nothing about any of that is normal.

Anywhoozle, Newson was described by Ron Schueler as "a hitting machine who has put up numbers at every level he's played," but nobody elaborated on the matter. Part of it's because Newson was 26 and hadn't played in one major-league game, but there's more to the story. For one, Schueler used the word "young" to describe Garner -- and he was a year older than Newson. Plus, Newson did all he could in his only tours of the high minors:

Year Age Tm Lg Lev Aff G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
1989 24 Wichita TL AA SDP 128 536 427 94 130 20 6 18 70 20 9 103 99 .304 .436 .506 .941 216 0 1 5 10
1990 25 Las Vegas PCL AAA SDP 123 492 404 80 123 20 3 13 58 13 5 83 110 .304 .420 .465 .885 188 0 1 4 3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/6/2011.

 

Try to imagine a player with those walk rates relegated to "throw-in" status in a trade for two unimpressive pitchers (Adam Peterson and Steve Rosenberg) nowadays. We'd be searching Baseball America and Padres blogs to figure out if this guy had Elijah Dukes' criminal record. Instead, he was considered just a guy who should be mentioned after the guy coming back from hepatitis in Australia.

Newson starts his time in the White Sox organization playing for Triple-A Vancouver, and here's where it starts getting interesting. If South Side Sox or Sox Machine existed 20 years ago, we would have had WarrenWATCH campaigns, because while Sammy Sosa was hitting .221/.264/.379 over the first two months, Newson was hitting .369/.497/.550.

Sorry, that's .369/.497/.550.

It took Newson two months of getting on base half the time before he finally received his big break. And in his third game, he proved his value. Jeff Torborg sent him to hit for Sosa in the ninth, and he drew a walk to load the bases for Scott Fletcher, who hit a fly over Dave Henderson's head for the game-winner.

That walk kickstarted Newson's season, but even though his OBP never dropped below .382 after his first two weeks, he still had to ward off demotion on two different times. His performance as a part time player -- especially his pinch-hitting skills -- kept him around. His finest performance of the season came in a 15-1 victory over Milwaukee on July 14, and it was a line only Newson could provide:

1-for-2, 3 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 4 BB, 1 K

 

He finished his rookie season hitting .295/.419/.424 with a 137 OPS+. The problem? He only got 160 plate appearances. Yes, a team that started Sosa (.240 OBP), Fletcher (.262), Ozzie Guillen (.284), Carlton Fisk (.299) and Lance Johnson (.304) couldn't figure out how to get a guy with a .419 OBP more than 160 plate appearances over four full months.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Newson had to sit on the bench behind Dan Pasqua to start the 1992 season, and this series of events sums up Newson's uphill climb.

  • Pasqua, hitting .209/.298/.365, goes on the DL, and misses action from June 12 to July 1.
  • Newson, who was hitting .220/.333/.293 over 48 plate appearances at that point, hits .286/.423/.333 in Pasqua's absence.
  • Pasqua returns from the DL and immediately reclaims his starting job.

It's easiest to picture this situation if Newson were on the 2007 Sox, and he couldn't figure out how to plant himself in front of Darin Erstad, Scott Podsednik and Jerry Owens.

Intangibles weren't to blame. The Deacon was considered a very popular player. As the Chicago Tribune from April 17, 1995 put it, "Newson has a quick-trigger smile and an easygoing personality, and would no doubt be voted the most-liked player in the Sox clubhouse if a poll was taken."

Three factors played a part in Newson's permanently insecure status:

No. 1: Batting average. Newson posted a .387 OBP in 1992, which is incredible considering he hit just .221. Walks and OBP were rarely mentioned in stories about his performances.

No. 2: Build. If Newson started regularly in right field, the Sox would have started two 5-foot-7-inch outfielders (Tim Raines was the other).

No. 3: Bench performance. Newson was an outstanding pinch-hitter (.295 BA, 447 OBP in 88 AB), and his left-handedness made him even more of an asset.

Bad luck befell him, too. In 1993, Newson missed months to attend to his wife, who was involved in a life-threatening car accident. She broke both legs and suffered head injuries.The strike cut 1994 short, and Newson only spent one more half-season with the club.

Newson's 1995 season is just plain cruel. He had a .404 OBP in 101 plate appearances when the White Sox dealt him, and he still had to battle with the corpse of Chris Sabo for playing time. This Gene Lamont quote from the Daily Herald on May 11, 1995, sums up Newson's time with the White Sox pretty well:

" Warren 's not our DH, but he's swinging the bat real good now," said Sox manager Gene Lamont. "He's hot and I'd like to keep him in the lineup, but it's also nice to have him come off the bench."

While Lamont did say Sabo is the team's DH, he left the door slightly ajar.

"You never know," he said. " Warren 's gotten better and better every year. He can do a lot of things for you."

The Sox rewarded his play by trading him to Seattle for nobody of note (Jeff Darwin). Then, when he went to Seattle, he hit 292/.420/.403 over the rest of the season ... and the Mariners didn't feel compelled to retain him, either.

For his White Sox career, Newson owned a .394 OBP over 606 plate appearances, but he never had more than 173 PAs in a single season. But it's not just the Sox -- Newson's excellent on-base skills were regarded with a shrug by three different organizations, and few media reports listed his ability to work the count as a selling point. I can't pretend I knew more than they did, as I just liked that he was called "The Deacon" more than anything else.

I would have loved to see how a guy like Newson would have been treated, from his ascent in the minors through his fight to get regular playing time, if he hit the big leagues in 2005 instead of 1991. Would he be treated like a count-working god by the Sox, and given the same amount of PAs as Juan Pierre? Or would he be in the middle of a tug-of-war between the sabermetric folks and the baseball people who saw him only fit for part-time duties the decade before?

A career like Newson's leads us to so many great questions that it's a shame we'll never have answers until the next Newson comes along. As you can tell, there aren't many of him.

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