Curse of the Springfield Nine: Did a Simpsons episode predict the fall of MLB stars?
- In the 1992 episode "Homer At The Bat," a team full of familiar major league faces must contend with some unexpectedly tough times, which in some ways foreshadowed the difficult seasons for the real-life players who took part.
In the summer of 1991, as staff writers for The Simpsons began working on the show's third season, co-creator Sam Simon pitched an idea for an episode featuring several real MLB players as guest stars. It was an ambitious undertaking for a still-young show that had already scored some big names in its first two seasons (Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson and Ringo Starr, to name a few) but never featured that many in one episode. Despite some logistical difficulties, nine players were eventually lined up, including future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ozzie Smith, to voice themselves in an episode in which they played expensive ringers brought on to replace titular patriarch Homer and his co-workers at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant on a company softball team for a championship game.
The resulting episode, “Homer at the Bat,” has long been recognized as one of the best in the show’s history. It helps that it's packed wall to wall with terrific jokes, many of them coming at the expense of the MLB super-team built to deliver a title for superannuated and super-wealthy plant owner C. Montgomery Burns—one that instead is laid low by a series of bizarre misfortunes, including a bar fight, hypnosis and a mysterious inter-dimensional vortex.
“Homer at the Bat” was a huge win for The Simpsons and its network, FOX; when it aired on Feb. 20, 1992, it became the first episode of the show to beat The Cosby Show in the ratings, a previously unimaginable victory over NBC’s comedy juggernaut. (For more on the making of “Homer at the Bat,” I highly recommend Erik Malinowski’s terrific history of the episode written on its 20th anniversary for Deadspin.) This year, it will even be honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame, which will hold a special ceremony in late May to mark its 25th anniversary, with a roundtable featuring Boggs and Smith, a Simpsons-themed display in the museum, and an “induction” of Homer for his contributions to the game.
But while The Simpsons would only rise to greater heights from that night forward, oddly enough, for the majority of the Springfield Nine, 1992 was a season to forget—or one that ruined them entirely. The only players who emerged relatively unscathed from their time on TV were Boggs, Griffey, Smith and Roger Clemens, though the latter would eventually see his career stained by PED-related scandals. For the rest—even though they may not have ended up literally being stricken with radiation poisoning or gigantism, as their animated counterparts were—their careers were never quite the same.
Mike Scioscia, C
Scioscia's playing career ended the same year that “Homer at the Bat” aired, putting a cap on a 13-year stint with the Dodgers that saw him win two World Series rings, make two All-Star teams and catch two no-hitters. A solid contact hitter with little power, Scioscia was renowned for his durability and his defense; he is still Los Angeles’ franchise leader in games caught with 1,395. But 1992 saw the veteran slump to a miserable .221/.286/.282 line in 389 plate appearances, and he became a free agent at season’s end. Latching on with the Padres, Scioscia tore his rotator cuff in spring training of 1993; despite a comeback attempt in '94 with Texas, his career was over. Fortunately for him, he had a second life as a big league manager, taking over the Angels in 2000 and leading the team to a world championship in ’02. It may not be a life as sweet or anonymous as hauling radioactive waste in a power plant (as he did in the episode), but at least he’s avoided a tragic illness.
Don Mattingly, 1B
The captain of the Yankees had already begun to stumble when he joined Mr. Burns’s super-squad; his 1990 and ’91 seasons saw him fall to league-average production after a six-year stretch where he made the All-Star team every season and won the AL MVP award in ’85. Nonetheless, Mattingly did rebound slightly in ’92 and put together solid seasons in ’93 and ’94, but persistent back pain forced him to call it quits after the ’95 season.
Perhaps the most memorable thing to happen to Mattingly in that lost 1991 season, however, came when Yankees manager Stump Merrill benched and fined him for refusing to cut his hair. Under team owner George Steinbrenner, New York had (and still has) a strict grooming policy forbidding beards and long hair. That mini-controversy in the Bronx was reflected in “Homer at the Bat,” when Mattingly is kicked off the team by Mr. Burns for refusing to get rid of his (non-existent) sideburns. Amazingly, that was a fortuitous coincidence: Mattingly’s dialogue had been recorded a full month before l’affaire hair, though his final line—a muttered “I still like him better than Steinbrenner” as he walks away from Burns and off the team—probably wasn’t too far from what he was thinking in the summer of 1991.
Steve Sax, 2B
The least famous of the Springfield Nine—the writers originally wanted Cubs superstar Ryne Sandberg at second but were unable to get him—ended up suffering arguably the worst fate, as he was inexplicably arrested by the incompetent Springfield Police and charged with every unsolved crime in the city of New York, where he lived and worked as the Yankees’ second baseman. Nonetheless, to that point in his career, Sax was best known for suffering through a bout of the yips as a fielder, resulting in wild throws that nearly ended his career in the 1980s. Sax’s career highlights included winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1982, making four NL All-Star teams and helping the Dodgers win the '88 World Series. But by the time “Homer at the Bat” aired, he had been dealt to the White Sox, for whom he put up a season and a half of awful stats before being released and eventually retiring after the ‘94 season.
Ozzie Smith, SS
The Wizard of Oz mostly avoided the Springfield Curse, as his 1992 season wasn’t markedly different from his career as a whole. He made his 12th of 15 All-Star teams that year and won the last of his 13 Gold Gloves, and his 105 OPS+ was tied for the second-best mark of his long career. He retired in 1996 at the age of 41 and was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 2002. It was a better end than what he got on the show, where he vanished into the Springfield Mystery Spot—a fate he says fans still approach him about today.
Wade Boggs, 3B
One of the best hitters of his time, Boggs’s 1992 was uncharacteristically dreadful, as the veteran Red Sox third baseman posted the lowest OPS (.711), OPS+ (96) and WAR (2.1) of his career to date; his .259 average also marked the first time he’d ever failed to hit .300 or better in a season. Maybe he was still feeling the effects of the haymaker that Barney Gumble gave him in Moe’s Tavern during their argument over who was the greatest prime minister in England’s history: Pitt the Elder (Boggs’s pick) or Lord Palmerston (Barney’s). Whatever it was, Boggs shook it off after signing with the Yankees as a free agent after the '92 season and hit a more representative .313 in five seasons in pinstripes, helping New York win the 1996 World Series.
Darryl Strawberry, RF
The only ringer who wasn’t sidelined for Springfield’s championship game against rival Shelbyville (to the ire of Homer, whose spot in the lineup he took), Strawberry acquitted himself well for Mr. Burns, crushing nine home runs. But with the bases loaded and the score tied at 43 in the ninth inning, Burns elected to remove the lefthanded-hitting Strawberry for a pinch-hitter because there was a southpaw on the mound. As Burns put it (apparently presaging “Moneyball”), “It’s called playing the percentages. It’s what smart managers do to win ballgames.” Instead, the righthanded Homer takes the at-bat and, distracted by Burns’s bizarre signs from third base, gets hit in the head by a pitch and knocked out, driving home the winning run.
Strawberry was the ultimate golden boy in the episode, soaring sky-high to catch fly balls and mostly having a blast (despite the familiar "Darrrr-ylllll" taunts from Bart and Lisa that drive him to tears). But there wasn't much to enjoy about his actual 1992 season: In his second year with the Dodgers after his terrific but tumultuous run with the Mets had ended, Strawberry played just 43 games and hit only five home runs. From there, his career turned into a mess of injuries, drug suspensions and other problems; he never again reached his Mets-era heights, though his brief stint with the Yankees at the end of the decade was productive for both him and the team.
Ken Griffey Jr., CF
Griffey was a star on the rise in 1992, in the midst of a stretch of 11 straight All-Star seasons that also saw him win the AL MVP in ’97. At the time of “Homer at the Bat,” though, he was still a fresh-faced 22-year-old kid merely on the verge of becoming an all-time great. His time in Springfield came to an ignominious end thanks to an addiction to an old-timey nerve tonic that made his head swell like a balloon, but the real injuries that would derail his career a decade later were nowhere in sight in 1992, when he he hit a then-career high 27 homers and won his third straight Gold Glove.
Jose Canseco, LF
Canseco, too, looked like the future of baseball in 1992: When he recorded his lines for the episode (a process that more than one Simpsons writer referred to during commentary for the Season 3 DVD as decidedly difficult) in '91, he was amid a season in which he hit an American League-high 44 home runs, drove in 122 runs and posted a 157 OPS+ and 5.2 WAR. Alas, that was Canseco’s last truly great season. In ’92, he slumped to 26 homers, lost 100 points off his slugging percentage and was traded from Oakland to Texas late in the season. From there, he began a peripatetic existence, bouncing to five more teams (and reuniting with the A’s for a season in 1997) over the next decade. Canseco’s career would eventually devolve into a true sideshow once his steroid-using past was revealed, and his life since retirement has become as much of a cartoon as The Simpsons ever was.
Roger Clemens, SP
Speaking of steroids: Like Griffey, Clemens was apparently unfazed by his time on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team, posting a 1992 season in which he led the AL with a 2.41 ERA and the majors with a 174 ERA+ and five shutouts in 246 2/3 innings, finishing third in the Cy Young voting. Clemens’s career kept on that track pretty consistently for the next decade, though like Canseco, his numbers fell under intense scrutiny once his performance-enhancing drug regimen came to light. Clemens has denied all wrongdoing, though Hall of Fame voters have been slow to come around on his candidacy due in large part to the controversy—or maybe it’s because he literally turned chicken ahead of the championship game against Shelbyville.