Usually, we think of designated hitters as lumbering old men who can’t play effectively in the field anymore.
Or maybe they’re all-around superstars who need an occasional night off without really being off — you know, to keep their bat in the lineup.
Very occasionally, a younger player will build a career around the DH slot because his bat is just too potent to keep on the farm (or the bench) or trade away, but it’s too dangerous for the team’s pitchers to have him take the field on a regular basis.
And then there are the flukes, the odd circumstances here or there, that afford a rising player the chance to break into a Major League lineup if even just briefly.
This latter was the case for Ted Cox and the Boston Red Sox in September of 1977.
After being drafted in the first round out of high school in 1973 by the BoSox, Cox spent the next four seasons working his way through the Boston chain. By the late summer of 1977, he had established himself as a strong hitting prospect with decent power at third base. That season, he hit .334 with 14 home runs and 81 runs batted in during 95 games with Triple-A Pawtucket.
So it was really no surprise when the Red Sox called him up to Boston for the stretch run, though it’s unlikely many expected him to see much playing time.
After all, the Sawx were in the middle of another battle for the AL East flag with the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, and there was no way they could leave their fate in the hands of a rookie.
But then one of their veteran hands took a tumble when Bernie Carbo sustained an injury running the bases on September 10. The diagnosis came two days later: a fractured hand, with six weeks on the shelf.
Despite this bad news, Carbo played most of the next week before manager Don Zimmer was finally forced to pull his right fielder from the lineup.
To fill the hole in the field, Zim pulled Jim Rice out of his customary DH slot and in his place inserted … rookie Ted Cox.
So, on September 18, 1977, Ted Cox made his Major League debut as the designated hitter for the mighty Boston Red Sox. It must have been a heady feeling, but that didn’t seem to affect young Mr. Cox.
On that Sunday afternoon, Cox went 4-for-4 with a double, three runs, and an RBI. That performance tied the record for the most hits in a Big League debut, putting Cox in the company of Casey Stengel, Willie McCovey, Mack Jones, and Forest Jacobs.
But Cox wasn’t done, because he banged out hits in his first two at-bats the next day. He’s the only player to begin a career with six hits in six at-bats.
Second Verse, (Almost) Same as the First — West Coast Edition
Five years to the day after Cox capped his big debut performance, Seattle Mariners rookie catcher Orlando Mercado was making his third Major League appearance.
Now, most of the time we don’t necessarily notice a player’s third game — we notice his first game if he’s got any hype around him, and we might notice his tenth or 30th or 162nd game if the guy is doing something special.
But in Mercado’s case, the third game was special because of what he hadn’t accomplished in his first two appearances … get a hit.
Mercado replaced Jim Essian behind the plate in the seventh inning of the M’s 8-0 skunking at the hands of the Kansas City Royals on September 13, but he didn’t come to bat.
Then, the rookie was a defensive replacement again in Seattle’s 10-4 loss to the Texas Rangers on September 18 and did get an at-bat that time — but he flied out to left field in the eighth.
Everything changed on September 19, though. On that day, manager Rene Lachemann inserted Mercado as his starting catcher, and Mercado finally recorded his first Major League hit. After grounding out in the second inning and flying out to lead off the fifth, Mercado sat on the bench as his teammates erupted for four runs before Dave Henderson struck out for the second out of the inning.
That brought up Bobby Brown, who singled to load the bases and extend the inning.
And that brought up Mercado — the team had batted around, and the rookie had a chance to redeem himself.
Redemption was his, courtesy of a grand slam home run off reliever Steve Comer that gave the Mariners a 9-1 lead. Mercado was just the third player to cash in so big with his first Major League hit, joining Bill Duggelby (1898) and Bobby Bonds (1968) as the only members as the Grand-Slam-as-First-Hit Club.
Seattle would need almost every bit of his heroics that day, too, since Texas scratched (nearly) all the way back, losing 9-7.
There is an additional bit of cosmic symmetry to the stories of Ted Cox and Orlando Mercado, who both had career moments in the early days of their MLB tenures, and both on September 19.
Namely, Cox wrapped up his five-year Major League career in October of 1981, just less than a year before Mercado began his own eight-year run.
And the team for whom Cox toiled in that last season?
The Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle’s expansion partners in 1976.
Oh, and the year before that, in 1980, when Mercado was working his way toward the Majors, Cox was a proud member of … the Seattle Mariners.
In fact, he began the 1981 season as part of the Mariners organization, logging time with the Spokane Indians:
Now, guess where Mercado played for 95 games that summer.
Ain’t baseball grand?