For too long, I used to think that Oscar Azocar epitomized the ineptitude of the Yankee teams of the early 1990s. A free swinger to the point of hapless extreme, Azocar struggled so much in trying to reach first base that I considered him synonymous with Yankee failure during that era. I felt bad about that continuing assessment this past June, when I learned that Azocar had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 45. I only felt worse when I started to read about Azocar, learning more about a hustling ballplayer, a fun-loving teammate, and a delightful guy.
As a rookie for the Yankees in 1990, Azocar stepped up to the plate 218 times. Swinging the bat from a pronounced crouch, he offered at almost any pitch within the general proximity of the batter’s boxes. In one stretch, he came to bat seven consecutive times without taking a single pitch. Not one! By season’s end, Azocar had coaxed a grand total of two walks. For awhile, he had more sacrifice flies than walks, which resulted in his batting average being temporarily higher than his on-base percentage.
While it’s true that Azocar didn’t walk and didn’t hit with any tangible power, he did play the game with a level of passion not normally exhibited by staid and stolid major leaguers. When Azocar played left field, he made sure to involve himself, even when the ball was not hit in his direction. On a batted ball to another outfielder or infielder, Azocar would make a hellish dash toward third base, so that he would be in position to back up his third baseman on a possible overthrow. It didn’t matter if the chances of there being a play at third were infinitesimal; Azocar wanted to be there, just in case. Azocar did something similar when runners from first base attempted to steal second base. If the catcher’s throw tricked into center field, Azocar would back up third base in the event of a second overthrow.
Some of the veteran Yankees noticed Azocar’s habit of running furiously toward third base. Perhaps unwilling to face their own mediocrity as ballplayers, they poked fun at Azocar. A few Yankees asked Azocar why he did this. Looking a bit bewildered, Azocar thought for a moment and then replied in his heavy Venezuelan accent: “Because that’s what I’m supposed to do.” And, you know what, Azocar was right. He didn’t have anything else to do on the play, so he might as well put himself to use–just in case.
In addition to his perpetual hustle, Azocar exhibited other good habits on defense. He tracked fly balls well and usually hit the cutoff man with his throws. Best utilized as a left fielder, Azocar had enough speed to dabble in center field, at least on a fill-in basis. He could also handle right field, though his arm strength was something less extraordinary than that of Jesse Barfield. Or even an injured Dave Winfield.
Azocar could run the bases, too. Though hardly a blazer, Azocar knew how to read pitchers and steal bases. Over parts of three major league seasons, including a pair with the Padres, Azocar stole ten times without being caught, setting an unofficial major league record.
Still, there was much more to Azocar. He loved to smile. He smiled during games. He smiled and laughed in the dugout. He smiled before games. Azocar simply loved playing baseball, along with the experience of being around the ballpark. With his upbeat and enthusiastic approach, Azocar became a wonderful teammate. He was no Mel Hall, who spent much of his time sticking pins in Bernie Williams dolls. Azocar just seemed delighted to be hanging around a major league setting, spending time with players ranging from Don Mattingly to Bye-Bye Balboni to Bam-Bam Meulens.
Azocar’s pleasantness extended to members of the media, apparently even to the Topps cameramen who came by each spring to photograph players for the next set of cards. I imagine that most players don’t give the Topps cameramen more than a cursory moment of cooperation. They’ll offer the usual pose, a batter pretending to swing his bat, a pitcher holding his glove in one hand and the ball in the other. But that clichéd kind of pose wasn’t enough for Azocar. For his 1991 Topps card, Azocar decided to do something special. He took two bats and a baseball, and decided to have some fun with them. Gripping the bats near the knob, Azocar held them extended upward, parallel to each other. He then placed a baseball between the barrels of the bats, somehow balancing the ball in place while keeping the bats extended. I’ve never seen thus done. I’ve never even seen this attempted. I don’t know how hard it is to do this, but it looks like it might take far more coordination than I naturally possess. I do know this: it’s pretty damn cool.
The creativity, the playfulness, and the joy of Azocar made this one of the most charming cards of all-time. Even though it’s probably worth only a few pennies, it’s an absolute classic.
I’ll never again regard Oscar Azocar as symbolic of Yankee futility in 1990. Let’s put that label on someone else. Yes, Azocar had to play too much and too often for a bad team, a team that had no one better to put in left field for part of the 1990 season. On a good team, Azocar might have been a decent fifth outfielder capable of playing all three positions, while serving as an able-bodied pinch-runner. Given his ability to make contact, he could have occasionally taken his swings as a pinch-hitter.
And even if his batting average exceeded his on-base percentage, he would have made everybody at the ballpark feel better.
Rest in peace, Oscar.
Bruce Markusen lives and works in Cooperstown, NY.