By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
It was approaching the middle of May in the 1997 season and the Toronto Blue Jays’ offence was sputtering.
Joe Carter, in his final season with the club, had belted just two home runs in April. The club had resorted to using aging utility man Juan Samuel as a DH. And nobody in the Blue Jays’ starting lineup heading into their game against the Minnesota Twins on May 11 was hitting higher than .258.
To say the Blue Jays were looking for an offensive spark was an understatement.
So, you can hardly blame their Canadian general manager Gord Ash for rolling the dice on a 31-year-old outfielder who had been a four-time All-Star, Silver Slugger Award winner and had, at one time, been compared to Roberto Clemente.
So on May 11, Ash inked Ruben Sierra to a minor league contract, two days after the onetime MVP candidate was released by the Cincinnati Reds.
Sierra was sent to the triple-A Syracuse SkyChiefs to rediscover his batting stroke.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn’t look,” Ash told Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons, when asked about signing Sierra. “Who knows? We might get lucky. Ruben Sierra can be as good as he wants to be.”
How good did Sierra want to be?
The problem was that in recent years, Sierra didn’t appear to want to be that good.
Let’s be clear, the Blue Jays weren’t signing the 1989 version of Sierra that had finished second in the American League MVP voting after topping the AL in triples (14), RBIs (119), slugging percentage (.543) and total bases (344).
No, they were getting a sullen and thought-to-be declining Sierra who carried with him so much baggage that the Blue Jays represented his fourth major league organization in 22 months.
In recent years, Sierra had developed a reputation of being jealous, lackadaisical, headstrong, and, worst of all, narcissistic. Put it this way, the Rangers were so concerned about his negative influence in their clubhouse that in 1992 they dealt him to the Oakland A’s for Jose Canseco.
Just think about that for a moment, the Rangers preferred Canseco in their clubhouse to Sierra.
Life hadn’t been easy
But Sierra hadn’t always been this difficult. And to be fair to him, his life hadn’t been easy.
According to his SABR bio, his father died suddenly when he was four and his mother worked tirelessly as a janitor at a hospital to support him and his three siblings. He was raised in a crime-infested region of Puerto Rico called the Jardines Selles projects and Sierra made it his mission to get his mother out of that neighborhood.
And he knew that his baseball skills were his ticket out of the projects. Sierra honed his skills in the sandlots of Puerto Rico and by the time he was in high school, he was a star athlete that possessed all the tools – speed, power and arm strength – that made scouts drool.
The Rangers were the lucky club to sign him, securing his name on a contract on November 21, 1982 when he was just 17.
Quick rise through Rangers’ system
The switch-hitting outfielder made a relatively quick ascent through the Rangers’ system to make his big league debut in 1986. In 113 games in his rookie season, he finished with 16 home runs, 10 triples, seven stolen bases and seven outfield assists, good for a sixth-place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
He followed that up by clubbing 30 home runs and driving in 109 in his sophomore campaign and then adding 23 more homers in his third season. But, as noted earlier, it was his 1989 season that was his true breakout campaign.
Success went to his head
It was also around that time that his success began to go to his head.
“The Ruben who came up through our minor league system was a happy, funny, clever kid,” said former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve in a May 11, 1997 article published in The Dallas Morning News. “But the longer he was in the big leagues, the more sullen and sour he became. Ruben was jealous of Nolan [Ryan]. He was even jealous of Inky [Pete Incaviglia]. The change in him was scary.”
Also, by the early ’90s, Sierra amped up his weight training program in the off-season, which added about 30 pounds to his frame, but also slowed his bat speed. After a disappointing 1990 season, he rebounded to hit .307 with 25 home runs in 1991.
But by the middle of the following campaign, the Rangers felt like they couldn’t tolerate Sierra’s me-first attitude anymore, and on August 31, 1992, they shipped him to the A’s, along with pitchers Jeff Russell and Bobby Witt, for Canseco.
Sierra would bat third for the division-winning A’s that lost to the Blue Jays in the 1992 American League Championship Series and he impressed his new club enough to convince them to sign him to a five-year, $30-million contract that December.
It was a contract the A’s quickly grew to regret.
La Russa vs. Sierra
Though Sierra had his last 100-RBI season with the A’s in 1993, he also batted just .233 and his on-base percentage (OBP) was an anemic .288 – a stat that didn’t sit well with manager Tony La Russa or general manager Sandy Alderson.
His low OBP became a source of contention between the A’s and Sierra, and the dispute came to a head early in the 1995 season when Sierra criticized both Alderson and the organization for its emphasis on walks through the media. Sierra said his focus was on RBIs.
This provoked a heated response from La Russa that was documented in the June 1, 1995 edition of the San Francisco-Chronicle Examiner.
“The guy is clueless,” La Russa said about Sierra.
He also referred to Sierra as the “village idiot.”
“My answer to Ruben is, show me where you won, show me what you’ve won,” said La Russa. “From what I’ve seen, he doesn’t understand what winning is all about. He ought to get off his goddamn high horse and realize you’re accountable.”
“Toughest guy I ever had to coach”
Less than two months later, Sierra was dealt to the New York Yankees, where he tested the patience of Joe Torre, another Hall of Fame manager. The normally diplomatic Torre would write in his 1997 book, “Chasing the Dream,” that Sierra had “no clue what baseball was all about” and referred to the outfielder as the “toughest guy I ever had to coach.”
By this time, Sierra’s numbers (.263 with 19 home runs in 1995) were also in decline, but he still showed flashes of brilliance. That was enough to convince the Detroit Tigers to acquire him at the 1996 trade deadline in exchange for Cecil Fielder.
But Sierra’s numbers continued to plunge in Motown. He batted .222 with just one home run in 46 games with the Tigers before they traded him to the Reds.
With the Reds in 1997, he hit .244 and belted two home runs in 25 contests before he was released on May 9. As noted earlier, the Blue Jays signed Sierra to a minor league deal two days later.
“He’s the greatest talent wasted in 29 years I’ve been involved in baseball,” Luis Mayoral, a Puerto Rican broadcaster/executive hired by the Rangers, told the Toronto Sun after Sierra signed with the Blue Jays.
Sierra joins Blue Jays’ triple-A affiliate
But when Toronto Sun reporter Mike Zeisberger caught up with Sierra in triple-A Syracuse, the defiant outfielder defended his reputation.
“I’m not a troublemaker. I’m a humble guy,” Sierra told Zeisberger. “I can’t believe what’s happened to me.”
He blamed the media for his problems with the Yankees.
“In New York, the media loved to be controversial. I was labelled a troublemaker. How am I a troublemaker? They wanted me to play DH. I wanted to play the outfield. Now I’m a troublemaker?” he told Zeisberger. “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I just need a chance to play every day.”
The former all-star proceeded to bat .219 with a home run in eight games with the triple-A SkyChiefs before the Blue Jays called him up on May 24.
“We’re looking for more punch, more power,” Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston told reporters about Sierra. “He’s got the reputation of being able to drive in some runs.”
In his first game with the Blue Jays on May 24, Sierra batted fifth and played left field and went 0-for-4 in his club’s 3-1 loss to the Angels at SkyDome.
Two days later, Sierra, serving as DH, went 3-for-3 with a triple and two RBIs to help propel his team to an 8-1 win over the Rangers.
“I’m trying to be patient at the plate and use my hands,” Sierra told reporters after the game. “I know I can still do it. It’s just a matter of getting the at bats.”
Sierra had a triple in four at bats the next game, but he failed to be the consistent offensive threat the Blue Jays needed.
Playing Sierra over Shawn Green
Gaston, meanwhile, was being widely criticized for playing Sierra over young outfield prospect Shawn Green when the club was supposed to be in a youth movement.
Sierra launched his only home run as a Blue Jay on June 7 against the Oakland A’s. It was a solo shot in the sixth inning with two outs off ex-Blue Jays prospect Steve Karsay in a 3-1 Blue Jays’ victory.
Ten days later, after batting just .208 in 14 games with the club, Sierra was released.
“Unfortunately, Ruben didn’t get as many at bats (48) as he would’ve liked,” Gaston told reporters. “But I guess it was one of those situations where if you don’t come out real hot and quick then there’s no sense in keeping him around.”
Sierra failed to latch on with another big league club that season, but he did sign and suit up for 27 games with the Chicago White Sox in 1998.
He landed with the independent Atlantic League’s Atlantic City Surf for the ensuing season, where he belted 28 home runs in 112 games and rediscovered his power stroke.
Comeback Player of the Year
By 2000, he was 34 and humbled by his experiences and his attitude had improved by the time Rangers general manager Doug Melvin (Chatham, Ont.) signed him on May 1. In 2001, he returned to the Rangers and batted .291 with 23 home runs in 94 games to claim The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year honours.
He suited up with the Seattle Mariners in 2002 and the Rangers again in 2003 prior to being reunited with Torre and the Yankees in June of that year. Torre and Sierra patched up their differences and Sierra became a productive part-time player with the Bombers for almost three seasons prior to completing his career with the Minnesota Twins in 2006.
For many players, a resume boasting 2,152 hits, 306 home runs and 1,322 RBIs in 20 big league seasons would be considered a very successful major league career. But for Sierra, who was briefly a Blue Jay and had once been compared to Clemente, it feels like a disappointment.
“’I should have made the Hall of Fame,” Sierra told the New York Times in a June 17, 2003 interview.
Many baseball experts would agree.