For a brief time, Wally was on top of the world

March 29th, 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].

Player: , 1B
Career: CAL 1986-91, KC 1992-95, SD 1996-99, ATL 2000, ANA 2001
Accolades: All-Star 1986

Five years after Fernandomania swept through Los Angeles and around the world -- a phenomenon that was so all-encompassing that the President of the United States got in on it -- Anaheim got its own little version of it. It wasn’t exactly Wallymania. But if you were there -- or if you were a 10-year-old kid obsessed with rookie cards -- it was close.

Wally Joyner was an unlikely candidate to inspire much of a fan stampede. A quiet, unassuming Mormon from Stone Mountain, Ga., Joyner played college ball for Brigham Young University, which was an unlikely event on its own. He was born with a skin condition that required him to have multiple blood transfusions minutes after birth, and as a child, he had a serious kidney disease.

Joyner was actually a bit lost on that BYU team, which also featured Cory Snyder, Rick Aguilera and Colby Ward, but he was still a second-team All-American and reached the NCAA Tournament, where the Cougars lost to Arizona State because of a big series from a guy named Barry Bonds.

Drafted in the third round by the Angels in 1983, Joyner was groomed as Rod Carew’s replacement, and throughout the Minors, he didn’t disappoint. In the spring of 1986, with Carew retired, Joyner earned the starting spot at first base. Replacing a Hall of Fame legend -- one who was still putting up a .371 on-base percentage at 39 -- could have proved daunting to Joyner, had he struggled early. But he absolutely did not, as he hit six home runs in April and 10 more in May.

In the first two months of his big league career, Joyner hit more homers than Carew had hit in any season of his whole career. He led the Majors in homers on May 25, leading to something nearly unprecedented for a player most fans hadn’t heard of 60 days earlier: A big feature in Sports Illustrated, titled, “The Wonderful World of Wally."

It was the perfect storm of factors. Joyner was hitting homers like crazy despite coming out of seemingly nowhere. He had the name, “Wally," which captured a certain sort of homespun cheerful yokelism. And only a few years before, "National Lampoon’s Vacation," with Chevy Chase and John Candy, introduced the world to a fictional theme park called, “Wally World.”

At the beginning of May, a fan at Anaheim Stadium unveiled a massive “WALLY WORLD” banner from the upper deck, and it was on: Wally Joyner was a sensation. He even got teammate Reggie Jackson excited ... and asking him for help.

“If I'm having a problem with something at the plate, I'll ask him what I'm doing," Jackson told Sports Illustrated at the time. "He and I are in tune with each other."

And Joyner seemed as bewildered by it as everyone else.

"It's all new to me, everywhere I go," Joyner said.

The Angels felt touched by magic.

"What's not to like?" Angels broadcaster Ron Fairly said. "He's such a good, All-American kid. You'd want to stand next to him in a rainstorm because you know lightning won't hit him."

Meanwhile, the Angels were having a terrific season and looked primed to win the American League West a year after falling short by one game. And Joyner was a primary reason why.

The excitement was such that Joyner became the first rookie voted to start in the All-Star Game. He batted once, popping out to Ozzie Smith off Dwight Gooden. And if you were a kid in rural Illinois who collected baseball cards, suddenly no one was more important than Joyner. This was a player no one knew who was suddenly the most popular player in the sport. Getting his rookie card was like the Shroud of Turin, the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction" or the Maltese Falcon. Nobody cared about Jackson, Cal Ripken Jr. or Mike Schmidt. Joyner was all that mattered.

And then it all turned. Well, that’s not right. It actually went fine. It was just no longer that.

After that early-season surge, Joyner hit only six more homers the rest of the season. In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising that Joyner finished second to Jose Canseco in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting that year, considering he had a 50-point edge in batting average (.290 to .240) and 100 RBIs. In an era in which those two stats were valued most highly, it’s surprising Joyner didn’t get the nod, especially when you factor in the folksiness.

The Angels made the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox, and Joyner hit .455 with a homer in the first three games. But then he developed inflammation in his right leg and had to be hospitalized, forcing him to miss the final two games of the series, including the infamous Dave Henderson-Donnie Moore Game 5.

And that would be it for the Angels. They didn't reach the postseason again for 16 years, until 2002 with the Rally Monkey team that won the World Series.

After 1986, Joyner did something that phenoms who break out in their rookie season but then tail off are never supposed to do: he just kept hanging around. He had an excellent, even better year in '87 (improving his OPS from .805 to .894 and hitting a career-high 34 homers), but his power waned in 1988 and '89, and a knee injury limited him to only 83 games in 1990. He had a bounce-back year in '91, hitting .301 with 21 homers, but an ongoing disagreement with Angels management pushed him to sign with the Royals in 1992.

For four years in Kansas City, he was .. fine. He was fine! You could rely on him for a .300 average or so with a good OBP, good defense and average power. He was the type of player who helped you win, but just a little. (He also had a cameo in the film "Little Big League.")

Joyner was never the superstar of his rookie year again. He kept hanging around deep into the ‘90s, playing for the Padres from 1996-99 and reaching his first and only World Series in '98. (He went 0-for-9 as the Yankees swept them.) He reached the postseason one last time with the Braves in 2000, before, at 38, returning for one last stint with the Angels in '01, the year before they won the World Series. He retired after the season.

Joyner hung around baseball for a while after that, working as a hitting coach for the Padres and Tigers and as a first-base coach for the Phillies. But mostly, Joyner just became a guy. A likable guy, a good guy, even an interesting guy. He has funded and starred in Mormon-focused films since retirement.

For 15 years, Joyner was just a baseball player. But for that wondrous rookie year, there was nothing like him. He was "Wally World," a modest kid who made such a splash that 10-year-olds in rural Illinois -- kids who were never allowed to stay up late enough to watch him play -- desperately needed his baseball cards.

Joyner is the exact opposite of the type of person who becomes a phenomenon. And yet, there he was. That at-bat against Gooden in the 1986 All-Star Game when he popped out to Smith? That was Joyner's only All-Star nod in 16 years in MLB. It was more than worth it.