Whenever I see Atlanta’s super phenom Jason Heyward, the odds-on favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year, I think of Claudell Washington. Although Heyward is actually four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier, they have similar body types: they are both long and lean in the mold of a Darryl Strawberry, both left-handed hitters, and both right fielders. Additionally, of course, they are both African American. Heyward is more hyped–he is generally considered the top prospect among position players in today’s game–but Washington was also a highly touted prospect with the A’s in the early to mid-1970s.
Washington also possessed the perfect sporting body. He featured shoulders so broad that one sportswriter claimed he looked like someone who had stuffed a wire hanger into his jersey. From there, his torso tapered off to the slimmest of waists, making him look like a male model. Muscular enough to hit home runs, Washington remained lean enough to run the bases as if he were running track, the ideal combination of speed and power.
The A’s certainly liked what they saw, to the point that they brought him to the major leagues at the age of 19. At one time, the A’s regarded Washington as the new Reggie Jackson, only with more footspeed and better defensive ability. Well, it never quite happened that way. Disappointed in his development and his attitude, Oakland owner Charlie Finley dealt Washington to the Rangers for the paltry package of Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott and left-hander Jim Umbarger. From there, Claudell went to Chicago as part of a package for Bobby Bonds. Washington patrolled right field for Bill Veeck’s White Sox, but Chicago fans did not take to the lackadaisical Washington. One disgusted bleacherite brought a banner to Comiskey Park, infamously displaying it in the right field stands. The banner pronounced three succinct but memorable words: “Washington Slept Here.” Given the way that Washington seemed to sleepwalk through games in Chicago, no one could reasonably argue with the sentiment.
The Mets eventually did the White Sox a favor by taking Washington off their hands, but only by giving up the measly return of minor league pitcher Jesse Anderson, who would never play in a major league game. Washington played one lackluster season in Queens before realizing the benefits of baseball’s newly created free agency. In one of the most puzzling contracts ever doled out in the free agent era, the Braves rewarded the mediocre Washington with a five-year deal worth $3 million. That might not sound like much in today’s baseball economy, but in 1980 it was the kind of money given to a superstar. While talented and still reeking of potential, Washington was several levels shy of superstar caliber. For all of his talent, he had never hit more than 13 home runs, and had never drawn more than 32 walks in a single season.
Other than his career year of 1984, Washington played no more spectacularly in Atlanta than he had in either Chicago or Texas. He also used cocaine, becoming a part of the infamous Pittsburgh drug trial of 1985. So it must have been with some trepidation that the Yankees made a trade in the middle of the 1986 season, sending the elder Ken Griffey and a damaged Andre Robertson to the Braves for Washington and a smooth fielding shortstop named Paul Zuvella. Yet, I found myself excited about the trade. I had become tired of Griffey’s frequent complaints, whether he was grousing about the manager or his latest position switch. And as a fan of Finley’s dynastic A’s of the early seventies, I remembered the pure athletic talent that Washington carried with him. I thought, perhaps wishfully, that a change of scenery would be just the spark that he needed to reach some of those elusive expectations that had come with his initial big league arrival.
Washington did not become a star with the Yankees, but he did undergo an unexpected epiphany.
After years of treating professional baseball like a slumber party, Washington became dedicated to his craft. He started to play the game hard, hustling all of the time, both on the bases and in the field. No longer a user of drugs, he became a role model to younger players on the Yankees. In perhaps the most stunning development, he actually became one of the leaders in the Yankee clubhouse, something seen as an outrageous impossibility in Texas and Chicago.
Although Washington still didn’t hit with the 30-home run power that the A’s once envisioned and didn’t draw nearly enough walks, he became a solid platoon center fielder for the Yankees. In 1988, with most of his playing time coming against right-handed pitching, he put together one of his finest all-around seasons. He batted .308, stole 15 bases, and drove in 64 runs. In addition to better-than-average offensive numbers, he played an excellent center field, especially considering the lofty demands of the renovated Yankee Stadium. With Washington playing center field, the Yankees no longer had to consider moving Rickey Henderson or Dave Winfield to the middle of the outfield, something that neither of those high-maintenance players wanted to do anyway.
Then, as it so often happens in baseball, the seeming solution hit a roadblock the size of baseball’s growing collusion scandal. In fact, the roadblock was collusion. As part of an arbitrator’s resolution to the charges of collusion among owners, recent free agents were given a second chance at the free market. The list of players included Washington. When the Yankees failed to make an aggressive move to re-sign Washington, the Angels swooped in and inked him to a three-year deal. And just that quickly, center field again became a sore point in the Bronx.
Two years later, the Yankees tried to rectify their mistake, but only ended up exacerbating their problems. In need of massive rebuilding, the Yankees traded a young, promising Luis Polonia to the Angels for the aging Washington. But by then, the Yankees had turned center field over to a young Roberto Kelly, leaving Washington in a bench role. Now 35 years of age, Washington was no longer the player he had been three years earlier. He ended up hitting a dismal .163 with no home runs, one of many failures for a wretched 1990 Yankee team. Washington played so poorly that he drew his release on October 4, bringing his major league career to a sudden and sad ending.
In many ways, Washington’s career encompassed a series of contradictions. Though considered a disappointment, he managed to last 17 seasons in the major leagues, the kind of career length that most players would kill to have. He also reversed the career paths of so many other players by struggling in his twenties, before enjoying his best seasons in his thirties.
Washington’s career embodied the old saying that my parents often repeated to me, “Youth is wasted on the young.” As a youthful player, full of power and speed, Washington lacked the dedication and work ethic he needed to achieve his potential. By the time he found maturity and wisdom and professionalism, he soon discovered that the clock had run out.
Bruce Markusen collects baseball cards in Cooperstown, NY.