This post was inspired by a series of posts by the Athletic MLB. If you have a subscription and haven’t read it yet, I recommend it.
Growing up, I didn’t possess what one would call an “athletic frame.” I was undersized (not gaunt or anything, but ya know . . . wiry without being tall). I sported a less-than-graceful bowl-style haircut, thick glasses, and equally impressive dental braces that were required thanks to a childhood accident involving a younger sibling and a metal chair (it’s funnier than it sounds). Let’s just say if you were looking for a ‘poster child’ baseball player, a young Adam MacKinnon (or a present day one, for that matter) wouldn’t have made the cut.
I loved baseball though, and while I couldn’t hit for much of anything, I loved to play infield. While all of my teammates were in the dugout, commiserating over their last at bat and how they were going to hit a home run next time, I was visualizing the ground ball: into the glove, smooth transfer, and the flip to first. Memories of the baseball field are some of the most vivid of my childhood. They are often random snapshots, like my first triple play: a line drive over the second base bag, with a leap to snatch it from the air. I landed on second completely by accident, but my throw to first was a seed. I still remember the face of the runner, Dane Tjaden, as he realized he was dead in the water. It was fantastic.
Keep in mind this is the mid to late 1990s, and the “undersized-glove first middle infielder” wasn’t exactly something you could throw a rock at and hit in Major League Baseball. My head was too small for helmets, so I usually had to wear a hat underneath, which would press against the stems of the thick glasses I had to wear on the field due to my terrible vision.
I was lucky, though. I was born a Braves fan. And from New Castle, Delaware, I was able to turn on TBS and watch my favorite player:
Mark Lemke was five feet, seven inches, and 167 pounds. He was a light hitting and solid-albeit-unspectacular glove at second base for the Braves, during their best years in the 1990s. He never hit more than seven home runs in a season, and his career .641 OPS wasn’t exactly what anyone would call “quality.” He won exactly zero Gold Gloves, nor any other awards for that matter, but he was a dependable part of one of the greatest collection of teams ever assembled.
Most importantly, though? He played second base and wore thick glasses and an under-helmet hat when he played . . . For the BRAVES.
I mean, that was ME!
Drafted in the 27th round of the 1983 MLB draft, Lemke quickly moved his way up the minor league system of the Braves, getting his first shot in the show in 1989. As per the above description, the Lemmer didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but he had proven himself competent enough in the field to earn himself regular playing time at the keystone for the then-‘rebuilding’ Braves.
The 1991 World Series, against the Minnesota Twins, was when Lemke would find his stride. He batted .417, hit three triples, and drove in four runs during what may have been the greatest World Series of the modern era. The Twins would ultimately defeat the Braves after seven hard-fought games, and Jack Morris would take the MVP honors. Had the Braves been able to edge out that epic seventh game, many believe it would’ve been Lemke who took the MVP honors.
Fast forward to about 2017. I was driving in to work on a Saturday morning, listening to Lemke and Chris Dimino (friend of the podcast) during a ‘stump the host’ trivia segment. I decided to use a question from another friend named Chris to try to stump the hosts:
“Between 1991 and 1999, only three non-Braves players won Cy Young awards. Who were they?”
Dimino quickly named Pedro Martinez in 1997 and Randy Johnson in 1999. The third vexed them, and they gave up. The answer was Greg Maddux in 1992, when he was with the Chicago Cubs. The resulting prize would become my most precious piece of baseball memorabilia:
And that, my friends, is why Mark Lemke is my favorite player.