A version of this story originally ran in April 2020.
It’s far too soon to know for sure who will be the stars of the 2020s, but what we can do is look back at decades of the past. Here then is the best player for every franchise in the 1980s.
We will use cumulative WAR (per Baseball Reference) as a guiding force, but just as a guide: We want to capture a team’s decade spiritually as much as statistically. Which player best represents your team’s decade?
Blue Jays: Dave Stieb, RHP
Key fact: Of the 47 pitchers who threw 1,500 innings in the 1980s, his 126 ERA+ was the best.
No offense to Jesse Barfield and George Bell, but Stieb remains one of the most underrated and underappreciated pitchers in baseball over the last 50 years.
Orioles: Cal Ripken Jr., SS
Key fact: Did not miss a game from June 5, 1982, through the rest of the decade (and beyond)
Ripken made his debut in 1981 and, well, he had a tendency to make himself a regular presence in everyone’s lives the rest of the decade, let’s just say.
The Rays didn’t arrive until 1998. I still feel like the spiritual answer here is Jose Canseco anyway.
Red Sox: Wade Boggs, 3B
Key fact: His MLB-best .443 OBP in the 1980s (minimum 2,500 plate appearances) was 40 points higher than the next player on the list
Boggs was so good, for so long, that it remains downright cruel that he finally got his World Series title … with the Yankees. (In the 1990s, no less!)
Yankees: Don Mattingly, 1B
Key fact: Won American League MVP Award in 1985, finished second in ’86
The Yankees actually won more games than any other team in the 1980s, but they ended up with only one World Series appearance and zero rings. They had plenty of stars during this time, such as Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson, but no player better represents this era than Mattingly, arguably the best player in Yankees history to never win a World Series.
Cleveland: Julio Franco, SS/2B
Key fact: Finished second to Ron Kittle for the 1983 AL Rookie of the Year Award
It was a rough, transitional decade for Cleveland, with not much permanence or success across the board. Apologies to Cory Snyder, but Franco — and that stance — is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the team in the 1980s.
Royals: George Brett, 3B/1B
Key fact: .521 slugging percentage tied for second among players with 3,000 PA in the 1980s
Brett led the AL in batting in 1980, finishing at .390 after spending the majority of the season chasing Ted Williams’ .406.
Tigers: Alan Trammell, SS
Key fact: 52.9 WAR in the 1980s was the most of any shortstop
Trammell and “Sweet Lou” Whitaker are the dual faces of this team until the end of time.
Twins: Kirby Puckett, CF
Key fact: 1,078 hits in the final five years of the 1980s were more than any other player
Kent Hrbek had a few more years in Minnesota than Kirby did, but Puckett was the smiling, charismatic face of these fun Twins teams.
White Sox: Harold Baines, RF/DH
Key fact: One of six hitters to notch at least 125 hits in each season in the 1980s
Whether or not you think he should be a Hall of Famer, nobody wore that White Sox uniform more comfortably than Baines did.
Angels: Bobby Grich, 2B
Key fact: Reached 71.1 career WAR in his final season (1986), which still ranks seventh all-time among second basemen and third among those who have played since integration
You can make an argument for Rod Carew or even Brian Downing, but Grich was always better than anyone realized he was. Though, thanks to “The Naked Gun” movie, the most visible Angel from this decade will always be Reggie Jackson.
Astros: Nolan Ryan, RHP
Key fact: Ended the decade by leading his league in strikeouts at ages 40, 41 and 42, then doing it again at 43 in 1990 for good measure.
Ryan pitched for 13 years (missed most of ’67 season) before this decade, and four afterwards, but in many ways he’ll also be an Astro first.
Athletics: Rickey Henderson, LF
Key fact: If you took only his stolen bases from this decade (838), he would still rank fourth all time.
So many potential names to choose from here, but Rickey is Rickey is always Rickey. Just ask him.
Mariners: Mark Langston, LHP
Key fact: Led the AL in strikeouts in 1984, ’86 and ’87, then closed out the decade by netting the Mariners another lefty by the name of Randy Johnson in a trade with the Expos in ’89
Know that it breaks our heart a little not to put Harold Reynolds here.
Rangers: Charlie Hough, RHP
Key fact: The last pitcher to start 40 games in a season, having reached the mark in 1987
The knuckleballer was already 32 when the decade started … and he’d pitch through 1994.
Braves: Dale Murphy, OF
Key fact: From 1982-85, played 162 games each year, led the National League in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage twice each and won back-to-back NL MVP Awards in ’82-83
For a couple of years there in the 1980s, it looked like Murphy might be the perfect baseball player.
The Marlins didn’t arrive until 1993, but it still kind of feels like the answer should be Jeff Conine, no?
Mets: Dwight Gooden, RHP
Key fact: Went a combined 41-13 with a 2.00 ERA and 544 strikeouts in 494 2/3 innings from 1984-85, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in ’84 and the Cy Young Award in ’85
There is no wrong answer between Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Take your pick. But Gooden’s first two seasons are about as good a first two years as we’ve ever seen in baseball history.
Nationals: Tim Raines, LF
Key fact: Stole 70-plus bases in six straight years from 1981-86 (Only Henderson had more 70-steal seasons in a career)
This is of course the Expos, though all told, Raines would look excellent in a Nationals uniform, too. But better in an Expos one, obviously.
Phillies: Mike Schmidt, 3B
Key fact: His 313 home runs and eight seasons of 30 or more led the Majors in the 1980s
Three decades later, it remains absolutely insane how much one of the greatest players in baseball history got booed by his hometown fans during this decade.
Brewers: Robin Yount, SS/CF
Key fact: Led all players in the 1980s with 1,731 hits and 337 doubles
Young Brewers fans … imagine having peak Christian Yelich for a full decade.
Cardinals: Ozzie Smith, SS
Key fact: Compiled 29.7 defensive WAR in the decade, far ahead of the next closest player, Alan Trammell (17.3)
Smith reached three World Series in the 1980s and provided so many moments imprinted on Cardinals fans’ memories that many associate the whole decade solely with him.
Cubs: Ryne Sandberg, 2B
Key fact: Ranked second among MLB second basemen in homers (139) and WAR (37.7) in the 1980s, despite not sticking in the Majors until ’82
Sandberg’s 15 seasons as a Cub are still the most since Billy Williams’ 16-year run ended in 1974.
Pirates: Barry Bonds, LF
Key fact: One of five players in history to notch at least 15 homers and 15 stolen bases in each season from ages 21-24 (1986-89 for Bonds)
This was before Barry Bonds 2.0 in San Francisco. Original Recipe Barry Bonds was pretty amazing, too.
Reds: Mario Soto, RHP
Key fact: Averaged 256 innings and spun 44 complete games at his peak from 1982-84. In contrast, no active pitcher has more than 26 career complete games.
Eric Davis is another good answer, but everybody remembers Eric Davis. Everyone should remember Mario Soto.
The D-backs didn’t arrive until 1998. Randy Johnson’s mullet would have worked in the ’80s, though.
Dodgers: Fernando Valenzuela, LHP
Key fact: Went 7-0 with a 0.29 ERA (63 innings, two earned runs) and 61 strikeouts over his first seven career starts in 1981, going nine innings in each and throwing five shutouts
Pedro Guerrero and (especially) Orel Hershiser are tough omissions here … but Fernandomania was Fernandomania.
Giants: Will Clark, 1B
Key fact: Took MVP honors in the 1989 NL Championship Series against the Cubs by going an incredible 13-for-20 (.650) with six extra-base hits and two walks. His 1.882 OPS is the highest produced by any player in a single LCS (minimum 20 PA).
There may have been no player who wore eye black better.
Padres: Tony Gwynn, RF
Key fact: In his first six full seasons (1984-89), he hit at least .313 each year, while winning four batting titles and also leading the NL in hits four times, crossing the 200 mark in each.
Gwynn is still a franchise icon 30 years later and surely will be 30 years from now.
The Rockies didn’t arrive until 1993, though some of those Blake Street Bombers feel like they could have been ’80s icons. I’m looking at you, Dante Bichette.