No one plays sports to just be decent. But not everyone can be superstars. In fact, relatively average players are the key to a lot of teams’ success. Guys who are willing to put in hard minutes or go in and rough it up a little are vital to every team.
And some of these average players are superstar average players. They all played for over a decade, sometimes two, and often they had a moment when they were even an All-Star. But whether it was their love of the sport or their love of the bank, they stuck it out past their prime when they were no longer the best at what they did, if they ever were. Presumably, they have to be likable dudes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep getting shots. And also they have to actually try hard, despite being usually very old at the end of their careers. These guys are the unsung heroes in sports.
Here are nine athletes who excelled at being average.
Played in five decades. 1969-1990 – Bill Buckner is mostly known for one thing: playing for five decades. And yeah, that time he cost the Red Sox the World Series, single-glovedly. Despite not being as bad as a guy who had one of the single worst moments in sports history, he also wasn’t that terrible. He even somehow won the 1980 batting title, hitting .324, which was somehow higher than everyone else in the National League. He even made the All-Star team the next year. But the rest of the time he was just average, if not slightly worse than average. His career high in home runs was 18, with an average of 11 for every 162 games. Not really anything special out of a first basemen. But he was noted for his solid fielding, good base and mustache.
Secret to his moderate success: Most grounders didn’t go through his legs.
Kerry Collins has what we like to call the “wait, didn’t you retire like 10 years ago” factor. You simply cannot keep Kerry Collins down. The dude actually did retire this offseason, saying, “The past several months have brought on much introspection, and I have decided that while my desire to compete on Sundays is still and always will be there, my willingness to commit to the preparation necessary to play another season has waned to a level that I feel is no longer adequate to meet the demands of the position.” Which the Colts must have saw and been like, “Sign him up!” Which they did, as he started Week 1 of the 2011 season.
When I was growing up, I had a Kerry Collins Starting Lineup Carolina Panthers action figure, despite the fact that he actually sucked. I had completely forgot he led the Giants to a Super Bowl as well. He’s basically a less-successful Trent Dilfer. He even made two Pro Bowls, including one in 2008, which really should have been the point in which all further Pro Bowls were cancelled.
Secret to moderate success: Plays quarterback, hasn’t made any super horrible racist statements for 14 years.
After being acquired from the Jets for $1, Kris Draper went on to win four Stanley Cups for the Red Wings although not really being a key to any of them. He once topped 20 goals in his career and even won the Selke Trophy in 2004 for best defensive forward, but otherwise was a role player who happened to be on one of the most dominant teams in sports for 17 years. I can’t sum up his average yet wildly successful career better than Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano did upon Draper announcing his retirement. “He made himself, in his heyday, into a very solid third-line player. Later in his career he went back to the fourth line and continued to do a good job.” On the bright side, he did get his face broken by Claude Lemieux which led to a super ton of fights between the Wings and Avs and made him a fan favorite.
Secret to moderate success: Played with guys way better than him for a long time, weak face.
Jim Marshall played in a then-NFL record 282 consecutive games, no easy feat for a defensive lineman. But an even greater feat for a guy who wasn’t particularly awesome. His most famous moment came when he returned a fumble 66-yards to the end zone, tossed the ball in the stands, and then the play was whistled dead for a safety since he ran the wrong way. But from 1960-1979, nothing could keep Marshall out of the lineup. This included the time he totally Plaxed and accidentally shot himself in the side while cleaning a shotgun and getting stuck in a blizzard in Wyoming when one of the members of his party froze to death and they were forced to burn money to keep warm. Marshall is the perfect image of the old NFL – tough guys who weren’t superstars with egos but just played the game for the love of it.
Secret to moderate success: Poor sense of direction made up for by being the toughest human who ever lived.
1986 – 2010 – Jamie Moyer made his debut in the majors before I was born. And after missing this season because of Tommy John Surgery, he’s attempting to make a comeback. And frankly, some team will probably give him a shot. The 48-year old has racked up 267 career wins over the four decades he’s been pitching, including a single All-Star appearance in 2003. But he has a very pedestrian 4.24 ERA over his career and is also the record-holder for most home runs given up ever. The last season he pitched he was barely topping 80 m.p.h. with his fastball. So why did teams let this old dude win 100 games after turning 40? He’s left handed and pitches a lot of innings, two of the most valued things in baseball. It wouldn’t shock me to see him pitch five more years. As long as he has that left arm.
Secret to his moderate success: Has a left arm, able to throw baseballs with it.
Mellanby had a couple of good years and a lot of very average years. Yet he will always be known as “that guy who killed that rat that caused a bunch of fans to throw plastic rats on the ice” while on the Florida Panthers (also will always be known as one of the three Panthers players in history anyone can name next to John Vanbiesbrouck and Ed Jovanovski). He made the All-Star game in 1996 but in his 21 season in the NHL, never won a Stanley Cup. A lot of this had to do with playing for some of the worst organizations in hockey, from the post-Gretzky Oilers to the Panthers to the post-everyone good Blues to finishing his career by captaining the Atlanta Thrashers, which isn’t even a thing anymore.
Secret to moderate success: Potential money he saved teams on exterminators, actually willing to be a Florida Panther/Atlanta Thrasher.
In his career, Matt Stairs played for 12 teams and can make a claim as the second best Canadian hitter ever after Larry Walker. In his 19 seasons he did mostly one thing – hit. The guy nearly always hit for good power numbers, even hitting 38 homers for the A’s in 1999 (which couldn’t possibly have been aided by steroids). In his career, he hit 20 or more homers six times. Yet he never made an All-Star team (although in 1999 he did finish 17th in MVP voting). But the real reason for Stairs long career of productive average-ness is he didn’t get a shot to start until he was 29 after playing behind Mark McGwire for years. His chance at ever being a star was already pretty much gone, but it didn’t stop him from putting together a very solid career. If he had started earlier in his career, it’s not a stretch to think he could have ended up with 500 homers. But instead, he never earned the “star” label and bounced around as a bench guy with pop for years.
Secret to his moderate success: Actually being good, being in bad situations. Really loving his teammates.
Failure has really been the key to Tim Wakefield’s whole career. After failing as a hitter and coaches seeing him tossing around a knuckleball, they gave him a shot as a pitcher. And just as the knuckleball goes, sometimes Wakefield was pretty good, sometimes pretty bad, and mostly he just sort of pitched so no one else had to. No one would ever want to build their team around a guy like Wakefield, but every team wants a guy like him who is capable of throwing up to 173 pitches in a game, which he did in 1993. They might not be great pitches, but they are pitches nonetheless.
Secret to moderate success: Not being successful, the ability to make a 70 mph fastball look fast.
When I was discussing this article with my friend Bill, he immediately blurted out “Kevin Willis” in a slightly-too-excited way. And that’s probably because the chance to talk about Kevin Willis doesn’t come up nearly enough. But he perfectly defines this list: a guy who played forever (oldest player to play more than one game in a season), played for a bunch of teams (eight), and put up solid, unspectacular numbers (career averages of 12.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 0.9 apg). Like most guys on the list, he had his token All-Star appearance in 1992 and won a NBA Championship in 2003. He never averaged 20 ppg over a whole season but was great to come in and do the dirty work – grabs some boards, play some defense, and be a third or fourth option on a team.
Secret to moderate success: Ability to make lifelong NBA fans visibly excited upon mention of his name, willingness to be 7-feet tall way past his prime.