Better than you remember: Terry Pendleton

May 17th, 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 and why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Career: STL 1984-90, ATL '91-94, FLA '95-96, ATL '96, CIN '97, KC '98
Accolades: All-Star (1992), MVP Award ('91), Gold Glove Awards ('87, '89, '92)

It is difficult to win an MVP in Major League Baseball, but all told, compared to other sports, it is not as difficult.

If you win an MVP in the NBA or the NFL, chances are, you are ticketed for the Hall of Fame. Of all the NBA MVPs since the award was instituted in 1956, every single one of them, with the likely exception of Derrick Rose, has either been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame or will soon after they retire. The NFL has a little more variance -- you shouldn’t hold your breath for Cam Newton or Rich Gannon to reach the Hall anytime soon -- but on the whole, the MVP Award is reserved for the best of the best.

This is not the case in Major League Baseball. Part of that is because there is an MVP awarded in each league, but one wonders if another reason is because we are just so enamored, in baseball, with the illusion of one man leading his team to victory. If you are the best quarterback in football, or the best basketball player, chances are, your team is going to be good simply because you are on it. But, as we’ve learned year after year with Mike Trout, you can be by far the best player in baseball and still play for an underachieving team. We are always looking for players to elevate their teams all by themselves. And sometimes, history shows us, MVP Award voters are willing to overlook small things like “actually being the best player in baseball.” In many ways, this makes the MVP Award in baseball more charming. Sometimes, particularly in years past, it’s not about being the best; it’s about being just good enough to make everybody feel good. And once you’re an MVP, you’re an MVP forever.

For the first seven years of his career in St. Louis, no one would have ever confused Pendleton with anything resembling an MVP candidate. Pendleton was an All-American at Fresno State in the early 1980s, but his relatively small size (5-foot-9) and unusual body type made Major League scouts skeptical. The Cardinals ended up drafting him in the seventh round and played him mostly at second base in the Minors, but he hit so well so quickly that, to make sure they had a spot for him in the Majors (where Tom Herr had second base nailed down), they moved him to third and traded away incumbent third baseman Ken Oberkfell.

Pendleton showed up in 1984 and, almost instantly, was the player he would be all seven years in St. Louis: a terrific fielding player who hit for a high average, not much power and wasn’t particularly prone to take many walks. He was good, not great, but that was OK, because the Cardinals had so many other great players. Pendleton would play for two World Series teams -- he had a huge three-run double in Game 2 of the '85 World Series, but an injury limited him to just seven at-bats in the '87 Series. He was the sort of solid player manager Whitey Herzog loved: consistent, clutch, not flashy, productive. But star? No one considered Pendleton a star. Even in his best year in St. Louis in '87, when he won a Gold Glove Award, hit .286 and finished 18th in MVP Award voting, he was only the team’s seventh-best player by WAR (per Baseball Reference), behind Ozzie Smith, Jack Clark, Greg Mathews, Todd Worrell, Bob Forsch and Joe Magrane.

But everybody loved Pendleton, and no one doubted his presence always made his teams better. For teams that were constantly contending for titles, like those 1980s Cardinals, that was perfect, but once the Cardinals began to fade after '87, Pendleton had less utility. He picked the worst time to have his worst season in '90: a .230 average with a .277 on-base percentage right as he hit free agency. (He actually lost his job to Todd Zeile at the end of that year.) Pendleton was 30 years old, and a glue guy on a team that had too many broken parts to fix.

That didn’t dissuade Braves general manager John Schuerholz from seeing precisely what Pendleton would mean to an up-and-coming team. The Braves signed him to a four-year deal worth $10.2 million that was at the time the biggest free-agent contract in team history. The Yankees wanted him, too, but Pendleton‘s wife told him, “You'll be going to New York alone [if you take that deal].” And he, the man who was the young guy with those veterans in St. Louis, became the elder statesman for a staggering collection of emerging talent.

That talent blossomed at the exact right time. The Braves went from a last-place team in 1990 to a first-place team in '91, not the least of which was because of Pendleton having, at last, his career year. Pendleton notched a career high in nearly every major statistical category, including a stunning 22 homers (he’d never hit more than 13 before). He led the NL in hits, batting average and total bases. He didn’t have to carry the load, with players like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Ron Gant, David Justice and Steve Avery emerging around him. But to outside observers, when you looked at the major difference between the '90 last-place Braves and the '91 first-place Braves, the major addition was Pendleton.

And those outside observers voted accordingly. There were many candidates for the NL MVP Award in 1991, including Bobby Bonilla (who’d finished as the runner-up the year before), Will Clark (who’d finished second in '89) and Barry Bonds (who had just won the previous year). Bonilla and Bonds split the Pirates' vote -- and neither of them were as beloved as Pendleton, anyway -- and the Giants finished under .500, 19 games behind the Braves. Pendleton still had a tight race with Bonds, who earned 10 of the first place votes to Pendleton’s 12, but ultimately, the voters went with the guy whom they perceived to have made the biggest difference for his team. It wasn’t that crazy of an idea: Pendleton actually had a higher slugging percentage than Bonds in '91. (That, uh, would never happen again.) Pendleton had his place in baseball history, alongside other oh-yeah-that-guy-won-an-MVP names like Justin Morneau, Willie McGee, Willie Hernandez and Ken Boyer.

Pendleton was not a one-hit wonder. In fact, he even finished second in 1992’s MVP Award voting, to Bonds, likely benefiting from the goodwill from the year before (his numbers were down across the board, though he did lead the NL in hits again).

By 1993, no one could convince themselves that the 32-year-old Pendleton was the real reason the Braves were always winning, and when he became a free agent after the truncated '94 season, he hit free agency again. The Marlins were the team looking for veteran leadership this time, but it didn’t turn out as well, as Florida traded him back to Atlanta (the year after the Braves won the World Series). He’d appear in one more Fall Classic with the Braves in '96 -- but he went 2-for-16 that postseason. He’d sign with the Reds in the offseason, get cut a few months later, appear in one final MLB season with the Royals in '98, and then retire, out of baseball just seven years after he bested Bonds for his lone MVP Award. Bonds, meanwhile, would win four consecutive MVP Awards from 2001-04.

Pendleton’s skills as someone who made his teams better would come in handy in the way you’d think they would: as a coach. He was with the Braves for a full decade and a half, and even up for managerial jobs in Washington, St. Louis and Atlanta, but his number never came up. He was bench coach for the Braves as recently as 2017, and he remains absolutely beloved in Atlanta, even throwing out the first pitch at the home opener in '19. Turns out Braves fans, like those MVP Award voters, saw him as the key difference of those last-to-first teams as well.

It is difficult to imagine someone like Pendleton being elected the MVP Award winner today. (In 1991, he was tied for fourth in NL bWAR, and second on his own team, behind Glavine.) Voters now, understandably, are more concerned with statistics and quantifiable impact than how much different a team’s record is after a player is signed. But that doesn’t make Pendleton’s MVP Award any less valid. He gets to have his name on that trophy just like Bonds, and Trout, and Albert Pujols, and all those superstars. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. He’s not a legend. But for one year, he was as important as anyone in the game. You can’t take that away from him, or any of them.