The Year Of The Card–Jeff Conine, 1998

I admit up front, this is an unusual entry in this series. Today’s subject did not have a long and storied career in Kansas City, nor did he have a heroic postseason moment for the Royals. But this is a prime example of the old adage that a bad plan is better than no plan, and also a prime example of the directional shifts and, yes, some bad luck, that plagued the franchise in the late 1990s. For anyone who looks back and wonders how a proud organization turned into a laughingstock in the early 2000s, the story of Jeff Conine is a great illustration.

Jeffrey Guy Conine was born on June 27, 1966, in Tacoma, Washington. His father, Jerry Conine, played college football and also wrestled in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and moved on to become an excellent handball player, finishing in second place in the U.S. in 1976. So Conine had quite a bit of athletic ability in his genes. But that didn’t stop him from being a rather hefty child (hey, it happens to the best of us!); at age 13, Conine took up racquetball to help lose weight. It turned out to be a great decision; not only did Conine become good enough at the sport to win the U.S. Junior National Championship in 1985, he would eventually meet his future wife at a different tournament.

Of course, Conine was a pretty fair baseball player, too. After starring at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, California, Conine was recruited to UCLA…as a pitcher. In fact, Conine would have just one plate appearance in three seasons as a Bruin. But UCLA pitching coach Guy Hansen was hired by the Royals as a scout, and Hansen remembered the power displays Conine would provide during batting practice. He recommended the Royals draft his former pupil as a position player, and Kansas City did so in the 58th round of the 1987 draft (just think about that–Jarrod Dyson deservedly gets respect for beating long odds to make the majors after being selected in the 50th round).

Conine spent his first two professional seasons on the Royals’ Class A team at Baseball City (Florida)–remember when the Royals had spring training at an amusement park?–but you would never know he was not a hitter in college based on his numbers: a .272/.342/.443 season in 1988 and a .273/.338/.433 season in 1989. That got him promoted to Class AA Memphis, where he was a one-man wrecking crew: .320/.425/.522 in 590 plate appearances. The Chicks won the first-half title, struggled mightily in the second half, but recovered to win the league championship, with Conine being named league MVP.

Here I pause for a personal note: my wife (The Amazing Michelle) and her parents lived in Memphis and had season tickets for the Chicks for many years, including 1990. One of the charms of minor-league baseball is that it is much easier to get to know the players as individuals. At some point during that 1990 season, a group of fans including my in-laws decided to have a potluck/picnic and invite the players and even some Chicks staff. Then as now, minor-league ballplayers were in no financial position to turn down free food. So, for your enjoyment, here is a picture of the future 1990 Southern League MVP and my future 2005-present MVP:

Also, I credit my mother-in-law’s cookies for helping the Chicks win the title. 

Anyway, Conine’s monster season got him a September callup to Kansas City, bypassing Class AAA for the time being. He hit .250/.318/.350 in 22 plate appearances. However, Conine had apparently injured the hamate bone in his left wrist near the end of the 1990 season, then aggravated it playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. That led to a January surgery, and a setback in June led to two months of rest and ultimately a second surgery. Conine was limited to 51 games at Class AAA Omaha, hitting just .257/.359/.374. The injury was frustrating for Conine and for the Royals, who suffered a rash of injuries at first base that season and might have called Conine up if he had been fully healthy.

Conine returned to form in 1992, hitting .302/.383/.539 in 110 games for Omaha. Called up in August when a Kevin McReynolds injury opened up a spot in left field, Conine acquitted himself well enough, batting .260/.313/.364 while learning a new position on the fly. But he played sparingly in September, partially due to a rib injury, and finished the year with a .253/.313/.352 line.

Following the 1992 season, the Royals had a decision to make. With the expansion draft coming up, every team could protect 15 players. Kansas City’s list likely came down to two of these three players: Conine, shortstop David Howard, and pitcher Tom Gordon. The Royals chose to keep the latter two, only to go out and sign Greg Gagne to play shortstop later that winter. Even given Howard’s defensive ability, one wonders why the Royals bothered protecting a player who had not hit above .250 at any level in his professional career. Glove-first, not-much-hit shortstops are easy to find, as evidenced by practically every Royals team since 1990. The Royals had Wally Joyner at first base and McReynolds in left field (and it’s worth noting they didn’t protect McReynolds, either, at least until after the first round of the expansion draft). And they were rumored to be targeting Joe Carter in free agency. With George Brett returning for 1993 as well, perhaps the Royals felt like they could not afford to keep another corner bat. Also, apparently then-manager Hal McRae was not sold on Conine as a big-league hitter. Looking back, though, it certainly feels like the Royals did not have a clear plan other than spending lots of money to cover the farm system’s lack of production. And yet here was a case where they could have had a productive player for cheap.

Instead, Conine was off to Miami, where he wasted no time becoming one of the first stars in Marlins history. From 1993 to 1997, Conine hit .291/.360/.467 in 718 games for the expansion franchise. He was an All-Star twice, winning the game’s MVP award in 1995 after he hit the game-winning home run. When the Marlins made their first postseason appearance in 1997, Conine hit .364/.417/.455 in the NLDS against San Francisco, then drove in the game-winning run in Game Five of the NLCS against Atlanta. And while he had just three hits in the World Series, he picked up a ring when Florida defeated Cleveland in seven games.

Of course, the Marlins followed that title with an immediate dismantling of their title-winning team. Even the franchise leader in hits and RBI at the time wasn’t safe, and on November 20, 1997, Conine was traded back to the Royals for minor-league pitcher Blaine Mull.

“I’m happy to be a Royal again. I’m looking forward to going out there on that new grass field. It’s always been one of my favorite stadiums in all of baseball.”–Conine, quoted by Dick Kaegel, The Kansas City Star, November 21, 1997

Unfortunately, the feel-good story about Conine returning to the team that had drafted him and leading them back to the postseason didn’t materialize. The outfielder suffered an abdominal muscle injury in spring training and missed the first month of the season. By the time he returned to the lineup, the Royals were 12-18 and already 5.5 games out of first place. Conine then struggled through May, ending the month with a .213/.270/.375 mark. Meanwhile, the Royals had sunk to 21-32 and last place in the AL Central. Conine did enjoy a nice moment on May 22, when he hit the 100th home run of his career, but the milestone was overshadowed when Juan Gonzalez hit a three-run walkoff home run to give Texas a 13-10 win.

Conine began heating up in June, although a wrist injury sustained while making a diving catch cost him six games in the middle of the month. Conine hit .292/.346/.528 for the month, showing himself to be the middle-of-the-order bat the Royals had expected. Kansas City put together a 15-13 mark, climbing back up to third place in the division, although they were still 10.5 games out and just 36-45 on the year.

The hot hitting continued in July, as Conine hit .304/.347/.478. But a back injury forced him to the disabled list late in the month, and cost him roughly three weeks of games. Although he would not miss any more significant stretches of time, he would hit just .227/.296/.318 the rest of the season. He ended 1998 with a .256/.312/.417 line in 93 games, with eight home runs, 26 doubles, and 43 RBI. Kansas City ended the season with a 72-89 mark, in third place in the division but 16.5 games behind Cleveland. 

Conine worked hard in the offseason, dropping 17 pounds, and had a terrific spring training. And then, once again, he was a former Royal. Those directional shifts I mentioned? Here was another one. Under orders from the board of directors running the team to cut payroll, general manager Herk Robinson surprised everyone by trading Conine to Baltimore just days before the 1999 season started. The return was pitching prospect Chris Fussell, who would post a 5-8 mark and 6.79 ERA in 126 innings during his Royals career. 

“It’s a complete surprise. I was not expecting that. I felt I wasn’t able to show the organization I started with and the fans of Kansas City what I could do. I was hurt most of last year, and I couldn’t stay on the field long enough to put up some good numbers for them.”–Conine, quoted by Dick Kaegel, The Kansas City Star, April 3, 1999

Conine would enjoy more success in Baltimore, hitting .290/.345/.445 over four full seasons and .290/.338/.460 in 124 games for the Orioles in 2003, before he was traded back to Florida just in time to help the Marlins win their second World Series. Conine hit .367/.437/.483 in 71 plate appearances that postseason. Once again, the Marlins followed a title with a teardown, but this time Conine, now firmly cemented as “Mr. Marlin,” survived the purge. He played two more seasons in Miami, then split 2006 between Baltimore and Philadelphia and split 2007 between Cincinnati and the New York Mets. He signed a one-day contract with the Marlins and retired before the 2008 season, then went to work in Florida’s front office while also doing some TV work for the team. Conine’s long tenure with the Marlins came to an end when Derek Jeter’s ownership group took over in 2017. Conine and three other special assistants (Andre Dawson, Jack McKeon, and Tony Perez) were all let go before Jeter reached out a few weeks later to say he didn’t actually intend to fire them, he just wanted them to take a pay cut and do more ceremonial duties. Conine declined that offer. In early June of this year, he was hired by Florida International University’s baseball team as an associate head coach; FIU’s head coach is Mervyn Melendez, father of Royals prospect MJ Melendez. Conine himself has a son playing in the minors; Griffin was a second round pick by Toronto in the 2018 draft, but is now playing in the…you guessed it, Marlins organization.

Jeff Conine’s best games of 1998:
8/27 @ TOR: Went 3-4 with two doubles and run scored in 11-1 loss.
7/12 @ CHW: Picked up four hits, including double, and one RBI in 4-3 win.
7/13 @ DET: Broke 10th-inning tie with two-run double in 6-3 triumph.
7/1 @ STL: Drove in three runs in 6-4 victory.
6/25 vs. PIT: Homered and had two RBI in 6-1 win.

About the card:
Nothing like some jump rope time to get in shape for the season, I suppose. On the back, Conine’s racquetball ability always made for a good “fun fact” on cards, on TV/radio broadcasts, and in print. Conine actually dedicated plenty of time after his playing days to a wide variety of athletic pursuits; he ran marathons, competed in an Ironman triathlon (after breaking his collarbone during training!) and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m exhausted just thinking about all of that.

One thought on “The Year Of The Card–Jeff Conine, 1998

  1. Very interesting writing! And I read it from beginning to end. Darin Watson, you are a very talented young man. Thanks to Michelle for posting this for us to enjoy! So proud of you!

    Like

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