September 23, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Rance Mulliniks always looked like the smartest player on the field.
And many of his former Toronto Blue Jays teammates will tell you that he was.
John Olerud and Jeff Kent have cited the bespectacled third baseman as one of the greatest influences on their baseball careers. And Ed Sprague gave Mulliniks credit for a spot-on scouting report prior to his momentum shifting, two-run home run against Atlanta Braves closer Jeff Reardon in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the 1992 World Series.
“Any time you hear your teammates talk about you in that way, it really is a great feeling and it’s something that I cherish because I think we all played for each other and did the best that we could to win, so it’s a great compliment,” said Mulliniks in a recent phone interview.
“I guess I just never realized that people felt that way about me because all I was trying to do was pass something along that might make a teammate a little better or help my teammate win.”
And there’s no question he helped his teammates win.
During his 11 seasons with the Blue Jays, from 1982 to 1992, he was a key part of four division-winning teams and one World Series winner. Mulliniks helped transform the team from perennial bottom-dwellers into perennial contenders.
All-Time Blue Jay
And when you crunch the numbers on his long tenure with the Blue Jays, you can understand why he was named to the club’s all-time team in 2001.
Mulliniks ranks first in franchise history in pinch-hits (58), seventh in walks (416), ninth in on-base percentage (.365) and 10th in doubles (204). He also topped the team in batting average with runners in scoring position in multiple seasons.
Defensively, he led American League third basemen in fielding percentage for three straight seasons from 1984 to 1986, even though shortstop and second base were his primary positions before landing with the Blue Jays.
And Mulliniks’ smarts, strengths and versatility would be highly valued in Major League Baseball today.
“Under [Blue Jays manager] Bobby Cox, I like to think I became much more than just a professional baseball player,” said Mulliniks. “I like to think I became a student of the game.”
He definitely succeeded at that, but it was a long journey to becoming that wise student.
Growing up in California
Born in 1956, Mulliniks grew up in Woodville, Calif. He was swinging a bat by the age of 3 and his father, Harvey, a former pitcher in the New York Yankees organization, began throwing to him a few years later.
“My dad started throwing batting practice to me when I was about seven years old,” said Mulliniks. “That’s how young I was when we started working to some degree with a purpose . . . and that continued all the way until I signed professionally in 1974.”
Mulliniks was a multisport star at Monache High School in Porterville, Calif. On top of being a standout pitcher, shortstop and centre fielder, he was also an excellent shooting guard on the basketball team.
“I had scholarship offers to play D1 basketball out of high school,” said Mulliniks. “And obviously that wasn’t anything that I had any interest in . . . If I was going to go to college, it would’ve been strictly just the one sport, which would’ve been baseball. But I really enjoyed basketball and had a lot of fun playing it.”
Drafted by the Angels
Mulliniks was selected by the California Angels as a shortstop in the third round of the 1974 MLB draft.
He enjoyed a breakout campaign in Double-A with El Paso in 1976 when he hit .315 and was named the Texas League’s All-Star shortstop. He was elevated to Triple-A Salt Lake City in 1977 where he played under future Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams. He was leading his team with 11 home runs and 51 RBIs when he was called up by the Angels in June. He spent much of the rest of the season as the Angels’ starting shortstop.
Unfortunately, Mulliniks was hampered by a back injury in 1978 and was dealt to the Kansas City Royals after the 1979 season. He appeared in 60 games for the Royals and went to the World Series with them in 1980 before he was dealt to the Blue Jays on March 25, 1982, for right-hander Phil Huffman.
Learning third base
With help from coach Jimy Williams, Mulliniks was converted into a third baseman.
“When I got traded to Toronto and moved over to third, I was learning a new position at the major league level,” said Mulliniks.
He counts Williams and Bobby Cox as two of the greatest influences on his career.
“Playing for Bobby Cox was a real pleasure,” said Mulliniks. “He was great to play for. All that Bobby ever asked was that you be prepared and that you give your best effort . . . He taught me how to really play to win at the major league level and how to be not just a major league baseball player, but how to be a professional in your approach.”
Starting in 1982, Mulliniks was the left-handed hitting member of a very productive platoon with Garth Iorg at third base.
“That was just another example of Bobby using the strengths of his players,” said Mulliniks.
Mulliniks had a breakout big league season in 1983 when he hit .275 with 10 home runs in 129 games. He gives much of the credit for his improvement at the plate to then Blue Jays batting coach Cito Gaston.
“Cito Gaston taught me how to hit mentally in the big leagues,” said Mulliniks. “If not for Cito Gaston, I wouldn’t have had the career that I did in Toronto.”
For an encore, Mulliniks hit a career-best .324 in 1984, before being a key player on the Blue Jays’ division-winning squad in 1985 when he had a career-high 57 RBIs.
“In my opinion, that was the most talented team I ever played on,” said Mulliniks. “Really when you looked around the field, we had no weaknesses.”
He believes the decision to call up closer Tom Henke in late July of that season was the key to the team finishing atop the American League East.
“If we hadn’t have had Tom, we don’t get to the post-season,” said Mulliniks.
The Blue Jays recorded a franchise-best 99 regular season wins but bowed out to the Royals in seven games in the American League Championship Series.
In 1986, Mulliniks and the Blue Jays slumped to an 86-76 record. He hit .259 and there were times during that season when he felt he wasn’t seeing the ball well. The following spring, he discovered he needed glasses.
And those glasses – which became one of his trademarks to Blue Jays fans – helped.
In 1987, he batted .310 to help the Blue Jays to 96 wins. Unfortunately, with season-ending injuries to Tony Fernandez and Ernie Whitt, they lost their final seven games and the division title to the Detroit Tigers.
“That was the toughest loss I ever absorbed,” said Mulliniks. “That was a hard one to take, it really was. I think as a team it took us a couple of years to recover from that.”
Mulliniks served mostly as a pinch-hitter/DH on the Blue Jays’ second division-winning team in 1989 and he’d be employed in a similar role in the next two seasons.
Mentor for young Blue Jays
The savvy veteran was hampered by a back injury and played just three games in 1992, but he was a valuable mentor for young players like Olerud, Kent and Sprague.
As noted earlier, Sprague has credited Mulliniks for his dramatic, two-run, pinch-hit home run against Braves closer Jeff Reardon in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the 1992 World Series. The Blue Jays had lost the first game and were trailing 4-3 when Sprague was sent in to pinch-hit.
“Basically, I told Ed, ‘Look if he flips you that little slider, he throws . . . don’t even think about that. Don’t let it get in your head,’” recalled Mulliniks of the advice he gave Sprague. “I said, ‘Spraguey, you look for one fastball and if you like it, you let it go.’ And that’s what he did.’”
That homer gave the Blue Jays a 5-4 win and shifted the momentum in the series that the Blue Jays eventually won in six games.
After his playing days
Mulliniks hung up his playing spikes after the 1992 season and began working as a hitting coach. He also served as an analyst on Blue Jays telecasts for CBC from 2006 to 2010.
More recently, he operated his own baseball school and has participated in Blue Jays alumni events.
“When people ask me my opinion about something in baseball, I tell them the three people I learned most from in the game are Jimy Williams, Bobby Cox and Cito Gaston . . . I was so fortunate and I’m so grateful that when I got traded to Toronto, they had those types of people there,” said Mulliniks.
These days, Mulliniks, who turned 67 this year, is working on a website that he hopes to launch within the next month. With that site, he plans to share a digitized photo book and start doing some motivational speaking.
“My goal with the site is to benefit and to help others overcome a few of the things that I went through after my [playing] career,” said Mulliniks. “It’s going to be motivational and educational and hopefully others will benefit from it.”
And you can bet others – like Olerud, Kent and Sprague before them – will benefit from Mulliniks’ wisdom – wisdom that would still make him one of the smartest people in any room.