This series was originally published at the Redbird Daily, but is now proud to call Cards Conclave home. This installment was written by Kyle Reis of Birds on the Black.
The rankings roll on as we bring out another great St. Louis Cardinals’ player.
#15 – RAY LANKFORD, CF (Drafted in 1987, Played from 1990-2001 & 2004. 1x All-Star)
It’s only fitting that we start the process of highlighting individual players instead of groups with what, in my mind, is easily the most underappreciated Cardinal of all time: The Great Raymond Lewis Lankford.
As I start this article, I am inundated with a myriad of memories, emotions, and stats and I’m struggling to find the exact place to start.
I’m filled with memories because Ray Lankford was easily my favorite player growing up and I modeled my modest baseball career after him. As a matter of fact, all of my media, from Twitter to my various email addresses, utilize the number “16” because of Ray Lankford. All of these years later and I’m still basically a fanboy of his. As a matter of fact, with the omission of the UCB bloggers day at the ballpark, I still wear my 1993 Ray Lankford Spring Training jersey, which came off of his back, to every Cardinals game that I attend. My oldest brother Jim had a friend that passed it on to me. Or, at least, that’s how the legend goes. It’s my most prized piece of memorabilia.
The emotions that I am feel come from thinking about how snubbed he has been while never being added to the Cardinals Hall of Fame Ballot. We’ll get into the stats and his place in Cardinal history soon enough, but the gist is simple: he should already be in the Cardinals Hall of Fame and the fact that guys like Jason Isringhausen, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, and even Tim McCarver who was elected to the HoF this season, in all of their glory and success with the organization, is a slap in the face of this great Cardinal. His omission from the ballot should be an embarrassment to the Cardinals “Red Ribbon Committee”; the committee that decides who appears on the ballot. Speaking of the committee, feel free to hit them up on Twitter with #LankfordCardsHoF2018 and tell them how wrong they are. The committee is: Tom Ackerman, Frank Cusumano, Derrick Goold, Randy Karraker, Rick Hummel, Jennifer Langosch, Tony LaRussa, Bernie Miklasz, Joe Ostermeier, Mark Saxon, Martin Kilcoyne, and Brian Walton. Whitey Herzog is also a member of the committee but, believe it or not, he doesn’t have a Twitter handle. Click on their names, follow the link, and let them know that it’s time to stop forgetting and overlooking Ray Lankford.
The stats never really ever leave my mind. But before we get to that….
Let’s take a look at the beautiful essence of how Ray Lankford’s career with the Cardinals came to be. Yes, he was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1987 draft by the Cardinals. What gets lost is that he was drafted in the same round the prior season by the Chicago Cubs but did not sign with them. That pretty much makes him a Cardinals hero from the word “go”.
Also, we need to take a second to talk about this beautiful clip of Ray Lankford absolutely trucking Darren Daulton on April 21, 1991. It’s a call back to a bygone era, the essence of the grit and passion that Lankford brought to the Cardinals
But now is the time to get to how great Lankford was in regards to his time as a Cardinal. Lankford is 10th in Total Bases, 9th in doubles, 5th in homeruns, 8th in stolen bases, 2nd in strikeouts (just putting it out there), 5th in walks, 9th in RBI, 9th in runs, 8th in runs created, 7th in extra base hits, and 6th in sacrifice flies (OK, now I’m just digging) on the all-time Cardinals list. And those are only the times in which he appears in the organizational top 10 list. It doesn’t take into account that Lankford is in the top 20 of nearly ever statistical category in the history of the Cardinals. It could also be argued (successfully, I might add) that Lankford represents the greatest combo of speed in power in Cardinals history.
In 1990 he finished 3rd in the Rookie Of The Year voting. He was an all-star during the 1997 season. On two different occasions he finished in the top 20 in MVP voting. As a matter of fact, he was so consistently good as a Cardinal yet so undecorated that the lack of superlatives are the only thing that stops Lankford from being a top 10 player all time in this storied organization. He hit 20+ homeruns in 6 different season while providing a career OPS of .846, an OBP of .364, a bWAR of 37.5, and an fWAR 41.1 as a Cardinal, although his career fWAR is 39.8 thanks to near career-ending -1.3 fWAR 2002 season with the Padres. He did all of this while hitting more homeruns at Old Busch Stadium, the only stadium in Cardinals history that matters and the forefather to the aesthetically-copycat disgrace that is Busch III, than any other Cardinal in it’s 40 year history.
Lankford was so good that he was the lineup protection for Mark McGwire during his history making 1998 and 1999 seasons more often than not.
LANKFORD, Why No Hall?
Update: Many wrongs were righted when Ray Lankford was voted into the Cardinals Hall-of-Fame in 2018, joining Vince Coleman and Harry Brecheen.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to understand why he’s been overlooked for the Cardinals Hall of Fame and as an all-time great in Cardinals history, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to a few reasons (why his candidacy was delayed):
- Ray Lankford replaced fan favorite and beloved Cardinals icon Willie McGee as the CF. I think there is a portion of the fan base, albeit older, that would never accept Lankford’s success no matter what it looked like. If you don’t believe that’s a possibility, I’ll gladly point you in the direction of Royce Clayton
- Speaking of Willie McGee, it probably doesn’t help Ray’s case that he’s essentially sandwiched as a Cardinals CF between Willie and the great Jim Edmonds (spoiler alert: you’re going to be reading about Mr. Edmonds very soon). Lankford is the forgotten man of a relatively forgettable era of Cardinals baseball.
- It’s been rumored that “Ray Ray” didn’t have the best relationship with the media. If the rumors are to be believed (they are) then it makes perfect sense why a committee full of media members might omit him from the ballot
- He played on some really really bad teams. Between 1990 and 1997 the Cardinals Record was 600-624. In three of those seasons they were at least 15 games under .500. They only went to the playoffs once during that span. He was the best player on a lot of teams that didn’t do a lot of winning. The fan base wasn’t exactly the most engaged during his tenure. That is, until….
- Mark McGwire became a Cardinal. McGwire saved baseball and, more than likely, reintroduced baseball fans to the splendor that is St. Louis as a baseball town. Lankford rightfully played second fiddle to McGwire and it was even rumored that the two might not have gotten along. I don’t think that helped either.
- The pinnacle of Lankford as an exciting spark plug, the years when a fan base would fall in love with him, happened around the strike shortened 1994 season.
Ray Lankford is one of the greatest players in Cardinals history and it’s been a distinct pleasure to have had a chance to tell you how so. During the 2017 season Cardinals Nation fell in love with 29 year old Tommy Pham. During the season, Pham because the first player to hit 20 homeruns and steal 20 bases since Reggie Sanders in 2004 (also drafted in the 1987 draft, but in the 7th round by the Reds). It was a great season for Tommy. Of course, that was chump change for Lankford, who accomplished the 20/20 mark 5 different times in his career. He’s the only player in the history of the Cardinals to ever do it more than once, by the way.
From 1990-2001 the Cardinals had the most exciting and talented Cardinal of his generation. Thank You so much, Ray Lankford. As my colleague Rusty Groppel reminds me, it’s only fitting that the last official at-bat* in your career ended up being a homerun at Busch Stadium II, the stadium that you owned and captivated in. Thank you so much, Ray, for ushering an entire generation into Cardinals fandom with your amazing career!
Thanks for reading!
Come back tomorrow, as player #14 gets revealed.
*- While not an “official” at-bat Lankford’s last plate appearance was a walk.