There's a familiar line early in Major League just before the first pitch in the bottom of the 1st of Cleveland's Opening Day, when fictional announcer Harry Doyle proclaims, "A lotta people say you can tell how the season's gonna go by the first hitter of the year." Well, that's a silly thing to say, an even sillier thing to believe, and something I pegged as nonsensical at the age of ten or eleven when I saw this wonderful movie for the first time. (Major League is rated R and I was at a friend's house whose parents were cooler than mine.)
And yet, because baseball can make us believe silly things, I bought into this sort of schmaltz on April 3, 1994, when Ray Lankford christened the season with a leadoff home run to centerfield.
A supposed spark was lit for more than just the Cardinals' season though. This was Opening Night in Cincinnati (when that was still a thing), so Lankford was the very first batter for all of MLB. Good things had to await not just the Cardinals, but baseball, too. Right? Nah. The Cardinals were lousy and the World Series was later cancelled due to the players' strike. I should have relied on my initial instinct which told me that Harry Doyle was a loon.
Another reason to remain suspect: It may not have been entirely clear by 1994, but we'd soon grow used to Lankford doing fun things for mostly not-so-fun teams. I don't want to oversell him and say he was the epitome of a 5-tool player, because he was never what you would call elite, but he had certainly shown those flashes. Particularly in 1992, his second full season and breakout campaign, when he hit 20 home runs, almost batted .300, and stole over 40 bases (I'd use today's terms of .851 OPS, 143 wRC+, nearly 5-fWAR but obviously we had no clue what any of that meant back then).
You see, the Cardinals needed that. Especially the home runs (and Lankford would go on to hit more home runs at old Busch Stadium than any other player). Between 1988 and 1991, Cardinals players combined for just eight double-digit home run seasons, including four 15+ home run seasons and only two (both from Tom Brunansky) of 20 or more. And Brunansky maxed out for the team at 22 home runs in 1988. It was a far cry from 2016 when the Cardinals had eight players with 15 or more home runs and a ninth (Jeremy Hazelbaker) with 12. But that's not how the Cardinals played in the post-Jack Clark, pre-Lankford days, and it was way less endearing once the team stopped winning the old NL East.
So that's what Lankford was - a promising distraction. One I first heard about in 1988 when he was about 20 miles down the road at old dumpy Lanphier Park, acting as one of the stars for the now defunct Single-A Springfield (IL) Cardinals, along with future MLB teammate Bernard Gilkey. That promise coalesced in 1997, when Lankford had the fifth highest OPS (.996) in the National League behind four guys named Walker, Piazza, Bonds, and Bagwell. That was the first Cardinals season since 1981 without Ozzie Smith, and also the season Mark McGwire showed up. And that's necessary information when explaining Lankford's legacy: He was perpetually good and perpetually overshadowed.
The reason any of this is relevant in 2018, other than the fact that this is a Cardinals blog, is that Lankford was just named one of seven finalists for the Cardinals' Hall of Fame. It's an honor that was overdue, but one still worth celebrating. And if the early returns on Twitter mean anything, Lankford is likely to be one of the two to be inducted when the official announcement is made in May.
Around this time last year, I wrote a post at Viva El Birdos bemoaning Lankford's exclusion from the team's Hall of Fame ballot. It was mostly stat-driven and I don't want to regurgitate too much of it here, but I do want to hit this part:
The purpose of the Cardinals Hall of Fame is to recognize a player’s contribution to the team itself (rather than across the league) and in that regard Lankford stands very high. Similar to Bob Gibson owning the ‘60s, Ted Simmons the ‘70s, Ozzie Smith the ‘80s, and Albert Pujols the ‘00s, as far as the Cardinals are concerned, Lankford was the ‘90s. Between 1990-1999, here’s how Lankford’s accumulative stats rank for the team:
5,269 plate appearances - 1st
1,267 hits - 1st
781 runs - 1st
703 RBIs - 1st
291 doubles - 1st
45 triples - 1st
181 home runs - 1st
637 walks - 1st
239 stolen bases - 1st
36.0 bWAR - 1st
35.2 fWAR - 1st
That tells you all you need to know about Ray Lankford and what he meant to the organization. His opening day home run in 1994 didn't foreshadow any sort of team greatness, or that Lankford was about to embark on an MVP-caliber season. It was just another reminder that we were all witness to a damn fine baseball player.