When Rob Deer went full Tony Gwynn to win POTW

Detroit Tigers

The Week: September 21-27, 1992

My high school baseball coach hated Rob Deer. I bet a lot of high school baseball coaches in 1992 hated Rob Deer. Rob Deer represented exactly what high school baseball coaches in 1992, at least the ones I knew in Central Illinois, were trying to fight against.

Because Rob Deer was known not for his homers, though he hit a lot of them a very long way, and Rob Deer was known not for his on-base percentage, even though he put up an above average number his entire career, and Rob Deer was known not for his 1987 appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, even though he’d been there and nobody’s high school baseball coach had.

No: Rob Deer was known for striking out. And back then, that was all your average high school baseball coach cared about.

By September 1992, Deer had led the Majors in strikeouts three times: in 1987, 1988 and 1991. (He’d do it again in 1993.) His 186 strikeouts in 1987 was the third-most in Major League Baseball history, behind only Bobby Bonds’ marks of 189 in 1970 and 187 in 1969. Deer, more than any other player of the era, became synonymous with strikeouts. Not just strikeouts as the result of an at-bat, but strikeouts as a symptom of baseball somehow losing touch with what it was supposed to be played … and above all, taught. Even Deer himself, who later became a hitting instructor with the Padres when he retired, said he was no one to emulate. “I don’t teach the way I hit,” he said. “”I’ll be the first to admit I don’t want them to hit like I did.”

When Deer won his lone Player of the Week Award in September 1992, he won it by hitting like someone who wasn’t Rob Deer. The week ending Sept. 27, Deer only hit two homers, but he batted .351, raising his average a full nine points in the process. (It must have been weird to see Rob Deer turn into Tony Gwynn.) That was his second season with Detroit, where he was teammates with fellow sluggers Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton and Travis Fryman. Deer had a higher slugging percentage than all of them that season, at .547 … the highest of his career, as it turned out.

Deer would not be long for Detroit after that year. After a slower start to the 1993 season, Deer found himself trade bait for the struggling Tigers, and they shipped him to Boston at the Trade Deadline for a Minor Leaguer – or a “fringe prospect,” as the Tigers put it — to be named later. (Trading for Deer allowed the Red Sox, who would not end up making the playoffs anyway, to shift Andre Dawson to a full-time DH.)

Deer hit .196 with seven homers and solid defense for the Sox, and he went into free agency that offseason hoping for a raise. He ended up signing with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan instead. He struggled there, hitting eight homers in 70 games with a .151 average, and he spent the next two years rattling around Triple-A in the Angels and Padres organizations. (He somehow hit .291 for Las Vegas in 1995.) He got a callup in 1996 for the Padres, and he hit four more homers in 25 games. His .839 OPS would have been useful, had anyone been looking at OPS back then. He was out of baseball the next year and destined to be known forever as The Strikeout Guy.

When Deer retired, he held that third spot on the single-season strikeout list. But how much has the game changed since then? Now he is tied for 45th. Just last year, there were four players who had more strikeouts than Deer’s highest strikeout season … including Shohei Ohtani, the American League MVP. Your high school coach thought avoiding strikeouts was the future. He was very wrong.

The other Player of the Week that week was Bip Roberts, who made his lone All-Star team in 1992 and finished eighth in MVP voting for the Cincinnati Reds, who had traded Randy Myers to San Diego for him the previous offseason. (Bip would go ahead and sign back with the Padres two years later.) That week, Roberts hit over .500 … but with no homers.

That week, Magic Johnson, who had retired from the NBA less than a year earlier after announcing he was HIV-positive, proclaimed his intentions to return to the NBA. He played a few preseason games but decided not to un-retire, citing concern among players who played against him. He’d return for real three years later. Also, Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“End of the Road,” Boyz II Men

This song was the No. 1 song for three full months, a record they themselves would break two years later.

Michael Mann, known at the time mostly for his television show “Miami Vice,” topped the box office with “The Last of the Mohicans,” starring a surprisingly buff Daniel Day-Lewis.

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