Steve Sax had a lot to live up entering the 1982 season with the Dodgers.
Not only was Sax taking over the starting second base role for the defending World Series champs, but he pushed aside a team legend in order to claim that turf (er, dirt).
To wit, general manager Al Campanis sent Davey Lopes to the Oakland A’s just as Spring Training was set to start and after a nine-year run as the keystone starter in L.A, where he formed an almost impenetrable infield mix with Steve Garvey, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey.
Stepping into that hole would have been a daunting task for most mere mortals.
But Lopes’ wasn’t the only precedent Sax had to contend with, as the Dodgers had run off three straight National League Rookie of the Year awards, courtesy of Rick Sutcliffe (1980), Steve Howe (1980), and Fernando Valenzuela (1981).
Could Sax join that mound trio in the winner’s circle during his first full season in the majors?
Could he hold his own in the field and excel in spite of playing in the shadow of Lopes’ reputation?
Unfair questions, and unfair expectations, but such was Sax’s lot in baseball life.
As it turned out, though, the young infielder was up for the challenge after four seasons in the minors and a late-season callup in 1981 that eventually landed him a couple of brief appearances in the Fall Classic as the Dodgers downed the New York Yankees in six games.
The 31 games Sax played to end the ‘81 regular season left his rookie status intact, but it gave him enough time in the bigs to sort of settle in a bit.
The settle-in stuck for good in 1982, as Sax played 150 games at second and batted .282 with four home runs, 47 RBI, 88 runs scored, and 49 stolen bases (though, granted, he did get nabbed 19 times).
He also played a passable enough second base to rack up 3.3 WAR (Baseball Reference version) and garner NL Rookie of the Year awards.
Oh, and he made his first All-Star team.
All in all, a great start to an MLB career, and one that answered most of the questions folks had about him entering the season … and also fulfilling more expectations than a young dude should be asked to fulfill.
None of Sax’s goodness was lost on collectors, either, who were looking for their next dose of Fernandomania.
And, while Sax fell short of the hype and hysteria and downright excitement that his eyes-to-the-sky teammate had generated the year before, the hobby was heating up enough that Sax’s cards heated up through the summer, too.
By the time his first Topps solo card saw the light of day in that fall’s Traded set, Sax’s base issues from Fleer, Donruss, and Topps (shared with Mike Marshall and Ron Roenicke) sets were among the most popular of that year’s cards.
Over the next several seasons, Sax continued to hit for a decent average, steal a bunch of bases, score a lot of runs, and generally manage to hold down second in Chavez Ravine — aside from inventing Steve Sax Syndrome in 1983.
By dint of his steady play, and his playing for the Dodgers, Sax was more or less a star-level sort throughout his run in L.A.
The market for his baseball cards softened considerably over the years, though, as other youngsters made bigger splashes, and as it became apparent Sax would never do the things that really lit up the hobby — hit home runs, hit .350, throw a 100-mph fastball.
(Sax did come pretty close to a batting title in 1986, though, when his .332 fell short to Tim Raines’ .334 … but bested Tony Gwynn by three points.)
But, sort of like his consistent game, collectors came to expect sunny Sax cards in his bright Dodgers uniforms. We may not have gone out of our way to get them, but we’d have noticed if they weren’t there.
And then, one day … they weren’t.
That’s because, after eight seasons (if you count 1981) and two World Series titles with the Dodgers, Sax signed as a free agent with the Yankees in November of 1988.
Three years in the Bronx gave way to two more with the Chicago White Sox and then, a final hurrah in Oakland after the A’s signed him off the released-player scrapheap for the 1994 season.
As you might expect, Sax cards spent the first four years of the 1990s bouncing around between penny sleeves and the commons bin, all the while looking slightly off-kilter — pinstripes and black jerseys instead of Dodger Blue?
It was milquetoast blasphemy — not as jarring as finding Garvey in Padres Taos Taupe, but certainly more upsetting than pulling Dann Bilardello as an Expo.
Thankfully, since Sax played just seven games for the A’s and stepped on the field for the last time in early May of 1994, none of the card companies unleashed the cosmic dissonance that would have resulted from an alligator-and-cheap-mustard card of the former ROY.
But just because there was no card to “celebrate” his last season, that doesn’t meant that Sax missed out on a career-capper.
Because, in 1995, and on the heels of three more ROYs in a row (and with two more to follow shortly), the Dodgers and Topps teamed up to release a set featuring all of L.A.’s — and Brooklyn’s — rookie award winners to that point.
And, naturally, Mr. Sax made an appearance.
(Find Steve Sax cards on eBay — affiliate link)
But Sax didn’t just get to finish up his cardboard career back home with the Dodgers.
Because, if you flipped the thing over, you’d find that his stats line showed his 1982 numbers AND his career totals.
(Find Steve Sax cards on eBay — affiliate link)
And, thus, after a winding baseball road that never brought him back to Dodger Stadium as a hometown player, Sax got his career-capper card.
A real, true blue tribute to his shining moments in the sun.
Those early-career Sax cards, and that 1995 number above, seemed to always showcase his blazing white Dodgers uniform, like this one …
That’s a game-used Sax jersey from the early 1980s.
Check out the full eBay listing right here (affiliate link).