Ruben Sierra's remarkable rise, fall and rise

April 13th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Previously in the series: Wally Joyner | Darrell Porter | Jason Varitek

Player: , OF
Career: TEX 1986-92, OAK 1992-95, NYY 1995-96, DET 1996, CIN 1997, TOR 1997, CWS 1998, TEX 2000-01, SEA 2002, TEX 2003, NYY 2003-05, MIN 2006
Accolades: All-Star 1989, 1991-92, 1994; American League Silver Slugger 1989

There is a common misconception about the children’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Many people, guided by its moral of “slow and steady wins the race,” think it is about the tortoise, that the lesson is that even if you are not swift, if you keep plodding forward, you will end up winning. That’s a nice idea, but it’s not really the point of the story.

“The Tortoise and the Hare” isn’t about what the tortoise does. It’s about what the hare doesn’t do. The hare is fast, so fast that he is unbeatable by any creature -- other than himself. He stops running, which is the only way the tortoise can win. The lesson isn’t that the tortoise crawls along just in case the hare stops; the lesson is that the hare shouldn’t waste the incredible gift he has been given.

Ruben Sierra had so much talent as a teenager that he was nearly bursting out of his uniform. He had just turned 17 years old when a Rangers scout saw him in Puerto Rico and saw a wiry, sleek uber-athlete who looked like he had the sort of body that could grow into the sort that could do anything. He was a quick learner, too, picking up switch-hitting sort of on the fly. At 20, he grew into that body and began smashing home runs in Triple-A, hitting nine in just 46 games and earning himself a callup. In only 113 Major League games in 1986, still just 20, he hit 16 homers and stole seven bases for a team that finished second in the American League West, and he finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.

He was regular for the next couple of years for the Rangers but didn’t truly bust out until 1989. He played all 162 games and led the Majors in triples (14) and the AL in RBIs (119), total bases (344) and slugging (.543), finishing second to in the extremely close AL MVP voting and establishing himself as the best player on a team that had , , and . He made the All-Star Game that year and, as many pointed out at the time, he was on pace to hit 500 homers. He was a Hall of Famer in the making.

But Sierra’s head wasn’t all there. He was young, too young, given too much at too tender an age. He also missed his family back in Puerto Rico -- he noted at that All-Star Game that his mother had still never seen him play, and he lashed out at voters who didn’t choose him for MVP over Yount. He began to bulk up to try to hit more home runs, and he lost some of what made him dynamic. Rangers fans never warmed up to him, and despite a couple more good seasons for Texas, in the summer of 1992 the Rangers traded Sierra (along with pitchers and ) for a player who had a reputation for being somewhat difficult himself: .

Sierra was good for the A’s, but never a superstar, and he clashed constantly with manager Tony La Russa, who called him “the village idiot,” even after Sierra signed a five-year, $30 million contract. They fought so often that the A’s traded Sierra to the Yankees, where he battled so much with Joe Torre, hardly the toughest manager to get along with, that Torre said in his autobiography that Sierra “was the toughest guy I ever had to coach.”

Later, Torre said, “I think sometimes when you have a lot of ability and are getting paid a lot of money, you think it's going to last forever.” The Yankees, like the A’s and Rangers before them, got fed up with him and traded him to Detroit for .

At the age of 30, Sierra, the supposed future Hall of Famer, was on his fourth team, with two Hall of Fame managers running him off. He may have had all the talent in the world, but it did him no good, because he didn’t value it. He was the hare who slept. Tortoises kept passing him.

It would get worse. The Tigers traded him to the Reds, who released him one month into the 1997 season. The Blue Jays gave him a chance, but he groused about playing in the Minors and was released again after a month. In ’98, the White Sox gave him a contract, but they cut him in May when he was hitting .216. The Mets tossed him a bone with a Minor League deal, but they never called him up. During that ’98 season, his sister and his brother both died. And no more big league teams wanted him. The Hall of Fame talent was now out of baseball.

Lacking much else to do, Sierra signed with the independent league Atlantic City Surf, where he hit 28 homers and made $3,000 a month. He then went to the Mexican League in 2000, and his old teammates and Palmeiro persuaded Rangers management to give him one more chance. Though Sierra struggled, humbled after the years away, the Rangers gave him another contract for 2001.

And suddenly he was the old Sierra again in 2001. He hit 23 homers in 94 games, becoming only the second player to go six years between 20-homer seasons in baseball history, and, amazingly, won the AL Comeback Player of the Year award. Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said, “The sense I got from Ruben was, he owed the Rangers fans something. It was almost like he wanted to apologize for letting them down in his prime."

He was a hare, realizing what he had lost. “I think I'm better than I was back then because of my mind,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I have the same ability, but now I also have the experience and knowledge."

Sierra was once a journeyman because teams couldn’t stand him. But in his 30s, he became a journeyman who teams brought in to help them win. After a year in Seattle in 2002, the Rangers signed him again but traded him to, of all the teams, the Yankees. Sierra immediately apologized to Torre, saying, “the years have passed and you understand the way things have to go, and now I'm a different guy.”

He then proved it by being a key cog of those Yankees teams, reaching the World Series in 2003. In ’04, Sierra helped the Yankees win the AL Division Series against the Twins with a key three-run homer in Game 4. He even had seven hits in the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox. He even hung around for a Twins team at the age of 40 before retiring in 2006.

Sierra, at the end of his career, became what he should have, could have, been at the beginning: a player getting the most out of his talent as he possibly could. He was finally reflective as he had his late-career renaissance.

“'I should have made the Hall of Fame,'' Sierra told the New York Times. ''I know I should have 2,600 hits right now or 400 home runs. I just want to play the best I can do right now. I know I can do it and finish strong in my career.''

Sierra ended his 20-year career with 2,152 hits and 306 homers, and it’s worth noting that just 95 players in history have surpassed 2,000 hits and 300 homers, which speaks to Sierra’s incredible talent despite being viewed in some circles as a disappointment.

During his career, Sierra was also an accomplished salsa singer, something he was even criticized for paying too much attention to. But he’s still out there making music today.

In the end, he may not have learned the true lesson of the tortoise and the hare in time to reach the Hall of Fame. But he got there in time to find peace and to win over managers and teammates who had once struggled to deal with him. Everybody makes mistakes when they are young. The trick is learning from them. The trick is heeding the correct lesson. And there is always time. It is never too late.