Feb
08

When Prospects Bust: Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens

By

Hensley Meulens, right, with Alvaro Espinoza (photo by Andrea Modica, andreamodica.com)

Among the many wonderful things about being a baseball fan are the bizarre attachments one tends to form — generally as a youngster — toward relatively obscure players who don’t end up doing anything noteworthy. Yet because you were seven years old and had their baseball card, they’re indelibly seared in your mind.

As a young Yankee fan whose earliest memories of the team begin around the 1988 season, I had to not only contend with scores of my Met-fan peers deriding me (it seems crazy now, but the Mets actually did at one time rule the baseball landscape in New York City), but also grow fond of an incredibly uninspiring and lackluster group of players. The franchise’s nadir (the 1990 squad is among the worst in team history, with the third-most losses of any Yankee team; and the 1989 through 1992 seasons represents arguably the worst consecutive four-year stretch in franchise history) coincided with my burgeoning obsession with the team.

Now, not everyone who played for the Yankees during the dark years was terrible. Like most Yankee fans my age, Don Mattingly was my favorite player growing up, and we were also treated to…um…hmm…well, at least we had Donnie Baseball. Rickey Henderson actually posted several incredible years for the Yanks (from 1985-1988 he was actually better than D. Baseball, with a .405 wOBA, 154 wRC+ and 28.4 fWAR across nearly 2,500 plate appearances), though given his non-homegrown-ness I don’t recall ever truly warming up to ol’ Rickey. Willie Randolph showed impressive plate discipline before walks were even in vogue, but no pop at all; while Dave Winfield, though offensively robust, seemed aloof and unrelatable. Outside of these stalwarts, the talent level of the Yankee offensive corps around this time ranged from reasonable (Jack Clark, Andy Stankiewicz, Jesse Barfield) to wholly unacceptable (Alvaro Espinoza, Pat Kelly, Randy Velarde, Bob Geren).

At some point within that 1989-1992 four-year period my dad took me to a Yankees-Mets exhibition game at Yankee Stadium. Back in the day the Yankees and Mets played an annual set of exhibition games under several different banners (among them “Big Apple Series,” “Mayor’s Trophy Game” and “Mayor’s Challenge”), and being that the Mets were the superior team at the time I remember thinking that these contests were a pretty big deal. Given how poor the Yankees’ plight was at the time, something as silly as bragging rights based on the outcome of a couple of exhibition games actually held some meaning. I have tried in vain to locate the actual date and boxscore of the game I attended, but as this was pre-internet there doesn’t seem to be anything definitive regarding the Yankees’ old spring training schedules out there. (Note: The Yankees and Mets are actually playing each other this spring on April 3rd and 4th, marking the first time the teams will have met in spring training since 1996).

The one thing I can tell you is that I distinctly remember being beyond excited to get to see Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens play in person. At the time I seem to recall Meulens — signed by the Yankees as an undrafted free agent in 1985 — was being hyped as the Yankees’ next big homegrown power bat, in case you couldn’t tell by the fact that his nickname was “Bam Bam.” Based on Meulens’ 1990 season, in which he obliterated AAA to the tune of a .285/.376/.510 line over 559 PAs and earned him a September call-up (not to mention the International League MVP) that saw him hit a slightly more modest-but-still-reasonable .241/.337/.434 (115 OPS+) in 95 PAs, I’m almost certain the Yankee-Met game I attended would have been held in the spring of 1991, on the heels of Meulens’ breakout year. Otherwise I have no idea how I’d have even been aware of him.

Anyway, the only thing I remember from the game is that Meulens did in fact hit a home run (I think the Yankees won, but again, we’re talking over 20 years ago), seemingly cementing his status — along with, of course, Kevin Maas, who also broke out in the latter half of 1990 — as the next big homegrown Yankee player.

Unfortunately for Meulens (and Yankee fans), his first full season in pinstripes was a disaster. After breaking camp with the team, Meulens stayed in the bigs the entire year, but his wretched .222/.276/.319 (65 OPS+) line across 313 PAs limited him to action in only 96 team games (in a move right out of the Joe Torre managing handbook, the right-handed Meulens’ struggles against right-handed pitching — which apparently dominated the American League in 1991 — opened the door for more playing time for veteran Mel Hall). Meulens was demoted to Columbus for the 1992 season and, despite hitting .275/.352/.481 in 603 AAA plate appearances, stayed in the minors the entire year save two late September games in the Bronx. I suppose the team was pleased with Charlie Hayes’ .257/.297/.409 line (97 OPS+) at the hot corner that season, although Meulens must have really fallen out of favor to have languished in AAA the entire year.

Meulens never recovered. In 1993 he again began the year at AAA, got called to the Bronx in late May, hit .170/.279/.340 over 61 PAs, and was demoted again two months later. Meulens finished the 1993 season at AAA Columbus, ultimately posting the weakest line of his min0r-league career. The Yankees released him in November of 1993, and he played in Japan from 1994-1996. Meulens headed back to the U.S. prior to the 1997 season, signing with the Braves, who released him during spring training, and then latching on with the Expos.

Meulens again spent most of the 1997 season at AAA, putting up a fine .274/.369/.501 line, and did the most he could with very limited playing time in another September call-up (.292/.379/.583 in 29 PAs), but was released at the end of the year. He spent most of the 1998 season with the Diamondbacks’ AAA squad before being traded to the White Sox at the 1998 trade deadline. However, for reasons I can’t sort out, he only played in two games for Chicago’s AAA affiliate after the trade, so presumably he was injured for the majority of the remainder of the season.

Hensley Meulens never stepped to the plate in the Major Leagues again after May 14, 1998, thus closing the book on the MLB career of a man whose power was supposed to have been legend but who ultimately only swatted 15 big league home runs. Per Wikipedia, Meulens subsequently spent time with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League in 1999; made one last stop in Asia, playing 14 games with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization and batting only .196; then headed to the Mexican League with the Saraperos de Saltillo in 2001; and finally retired, in 2002, after a mid-season injury while playing with the Pericos de Puebla. In the ensuing years Meulens has since carved out a successful career as a Minor and Major League coach, and currently serves as the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, with whom he won a ring in 2010.

Happily, Meulens seems to be at peace with his place as a hitter in a baseball history. Last July he was quoted in the aforelinked Wall Street Journal story:

Meulens, meanwhile, met a similar fate. A native of Curacao, he was nicknamed “Bam Bam” for the staggering power that produced—legend has it—500-foot home runs in varied minor-league towns. “That’s no exaggeration,” says Ralph Kraus, Meulens’s teammate at Class A Prince William in 1987. “I’d never seen anyone hit balls as far as he did.”

Yet for all his oomph, Meulens never adjusted to major-league pitching. In 288 at-bats in 1991, he hit six home runs while striking out 97 times. “It was my fault,” says Meulens, who now works—somewhat ironically—as the San Francisco Giants’ hitting coach. “I was a highly touted prospect who never figured it all out. That’s on me.” Like (Kevin) Maas, he was eventually released.

Not that you ever want to see anyone fail, but it’s refreshing to see Meulens own up to his struggles, and I’m glad he’s found his calling back in the big leagues.

Categories : Days of Yore
  • JohnC

    Wish we had traded Muelens instead of Jay Buhner

  • Urban

    Is it just me, or are Bam Bam and Alvaro uncomfortably close in that picture?

    Nice write-up. As for Meulens, perhaps it’s not his fault. MLB pitchers have an ability to find that one flaw that minor leaguers do not. Perhaps no amount of adjustments would have fixed it.

    A Bam Bam article. Where’s TSJC?!

    • Jeff

      certainly a creepy picture

      • Urban

        Photographers are always trying to come up with something different, and I’m sure if Bam Bam wasn’t a rookie, he would have basically said something like:

        F*ck, no, I will not cuddle Alvaro and we will not stare back at you with our best bedroom, dreamy eyes.

        Yes, creepy.

  • JoeyA

    “Among the many wonderful things about being a baseball fan are the bizarre attachments one tends to form — generally as a youngster — toward relatively obscure players who don’t end up doing anything noteworthy” = Bubba Crosby

  • coolerking101

    Ah, Bam Bam. If memory serves, he was the first “can’t miss” prospect hyped by the Yanks following the Dan Pasqua debacle. I recall that the Yanks turned down Eric Davis and other big name folks so that they could have Pasqua all to themselves. That worked out well.

  • DanElmaleh

    I remember articles in the Daily News as early as ’87 comparing him to Greg Jefferies, the jewel of the Mets system. This is back when they had a Greg Jefferies watch in the paper. Unfortunately, the debate’s real answer went the wrong way fot the Yankees; like much of the late 80s/early 90s. But I prefer not to talk about “those times”.

  • Dale Mohorcic

    I probably still have 30 bam bam baseball cards somewhere in a closet at my parents house.

  • bpdelia

    You were aware of him because he was the.first hyped prospect for the Yankees. The news and poat both ran stories on him and he was frequently memtioned on the tv game broadcasts. Muelens wss supposed to be a star and the team was awful so he was treasured as a savior we, were all waiting for

  • viridiana

    Meulens was always considered a suspect more than a prospect by scouts. He may have been hyped as a youngster coming up in a youth-starved Yankee system but the real warnings signs were there for anyone to see. He was simply incapable of making contact consistently in the minor leagues. Would have to check but I believe he fanned almost one in every three at bats. Guys like that aren’t really prospects. Bam Bam was the JoVa of his era.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      The very definition of an “AAAA” player. (Both of them)

  • Owen Two

    Mike:

    That exhibition game seems to have been played on April 4th, 1992. This is all I’ve found so far:

    Game 1 of Mayor Challenge – NY Yankees beat NY Mets 6-4 at Yank Stad

    For perspective, that was two days before Windows 3.1 was announced.

    Ref: http://www.historyorb.com/date/1992/april/4

    /Feeling-old’d

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      I didn’t write the article!

      • Plank

        Excuses, excuses.

      • Owen Two

        Right, I didn’t have my reading glasses on.

        /Feeling-older’d

      • jsbrendog

        i think my favorite new RAB meme is how every poster thinks Mike writes everything. hardest working man in RABusines. even when he isnt.
        ahahaha

        • Plank

          Well said Mike.

    • noseeum

      Here’s a summary of the game from NYT:
      http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04.....038;st=nyt

      No mention of Hensley though.

  • Bean Tooth

    Semi-related to the post, I have to disagree with the passing reference to Winfield as “unrelatable.” I freaking loved that guy. He was my absolute favorite Yankee during that period. Even when he killed that bird during a game, the guy was the balls. It’s funny I don’t look back on the teams in the ’80s and early ’90s as being bad. That’s what’s great about being a kid. You’re so excited about the game, it almost doesn’t matter if they suck. Not to date myself too much here, but one of my favorite memories of baseball was listening to Rizzuto and White do the Columbus Clippers games on the radio during the ’84 strike. I should’ve been pissed the season had been shot at that point, but I was too little and loved baseball too much to be all that broken up. Damn I can’t wait for this season to begin.

    • Larry Koestler

      I think part of my issue with Winfield was that there seemed to be this unspoken rivalry between he and Donnie Baseball, perhaps due in part to the 1985 batting title chase, and being a Donnie guy, I had to support my horse. At least, this seemed to make sense within the context of seven-year-old logic.

      However, modern-day me would’ve been quite fond of Winfield and the .373 wOBA he hit to during the first eight years of his Yankee career.

      • http://musicaldaddy.blogspot.com Chuck M

        I agree with you on both accounts – about Winfield being unrelatable, and about loving him now. I was such a Don Mattingly fan when I was younger that there were times I really, really disliked Winfield because of the rivalry. I still don’t like Wade Boggs because of the ’86 batting title thing.

        • Darren

          I’m sure the relationship between the fans and Winfield would have been different if he was white.

          • Cris Pengiucci

            Or if he had played at a different time than Don Mattingly. Many of us were Mattingly fans and, since he was the home-grown guy, wanted to see him do just a little bit better than the “bought” guy.

    • DanElmaleh

      #31 was my favorite Yankee during those years. After #44 left anyway… I was too young to really remember #15 but I carried his baseball card in my back pocket in little league games.

      The toughest thing about watching the Yankees during the 80s: the bad pitching and the revolving door at SS. Many of those mid 80s teams were one starter away from being awesome (and a decent SS).

  • Chesser

    And the Russel Branyon era begins. May his rule be long and merciless.

  • TomH

    I’m all for these articles on the recent past, but we need a few on the more distant past, to stretch out our collective Yankee memories. I mean the past, as in past. How about those old Yankee pitching staffs that ruled the roost in the 50s, or on guys like Henrich, and Keller, and Lazzeri, and Combs–guys who get a bit lost in the PR machines that keep us up to date on the Ruths et al.?

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I greatly enjoy the articles on the losing years, actually. There are names from this era which would otherwise rarely be spoken of. I feel like these guys took the bullet for a franchise that would soon reverse their fortunes.

  • Dave

    My first game at Yankee Stadium was this one where Bam Bam scored from first on a botched pick-off (Mo Vaughn couldn’t move to make the catch, then threw it into left-field, and then Mike Greenwell overthrew 3rd – see the top play in the Top 5 plays section). As a Yankee fan growing up in CT in the 80’s, it gave me great delight to not only see the Yanks beat the Sox, but see the Sox play like little leaguers.

  • Michael

    Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni was actually the first hyped Yankee prospect that I can remember. The Rizzuto/White/Messer broadcast team mentioned him frequently and gave updates on his AAA games. That had to have been the late ’70s/early ’80s. Balboni actually ended up having a decent career with the Royals and Mariners, before returning to the Yanks in 1989-90.

    • Sweet Lou

      Tucker Ashford was the first prospect I remember that was super-hyped. Too good for Triple A, not good enough for the majors.

      I went to a Yankees/Mets preseason game at Shea before the regular season began in 1989. If I remember it correctly, the game was sold out and John Candelaria started for the Yankees. The crowd was very intense and the Mets clearly were the superior team. I think that Dallas Green pitched the Candyman for 7 innings.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Thank you for retrieving the memory of Tucker Ashford, which had been lost somewhere in my brain.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          I also pretty much only remember Otto Velez from a Toronto Blue Jay baseball card.

    • toad

      I saw Balboni play in Nashville, and he definitely deserved the nickname.

      Man, he could pound the ball in (what I think was) AA. The stands would go silent when Balboni came up, and he hit some magnificent HR’s. I remember one in particular that went out over the centerfield fence (405 feet), still rising.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    We need a “Deion Sanders: That Actually Happened” post.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tcordones Thelmo Cordones

    i agree about this comment: “The toughest thing about watching the Yankees during the 80s: the bad pitching and the revolving door at SS.” It was tough to be a Yankees fan back in those days!

    • Robinson Tilapia

      The issue with the revolving door was that it led to mere existence of Bobby Meacham, which should have never occurred in a civil, rational society.

      If you thought he was a bad third base coach….

      • Sweet Lou

        Billy Martin should’ve been choking Meacham instead of Ed Whitson. Every time he threw over to Mattingly you’d hold your breath. Truly, one of the worst everyday players in Yankees history.

  • AdamC

    Fun article on Hensley. I too became attached to the Yanks when they were hitting bottom in 88-89-90.

    Must have been about 1992, Meulens was in left field in an early season game against Baltimore. Late in the game, score is tied and the Yanks have an Oriole on 3rd caught in a rundown. Mike Stanley (I think) overthrows the 3b and the Oriole starts trotting home, but low and behold, Meulens had backed up the play and throws a strike to Stanley, who continues the rundown, only to AGAIN overthrow 3rd….and Meulens AGAIN is on the spot to gun down the runner at home!

    Go Hensley!

    • CarolK

      I love this memory. Thanks! Go Hensley!

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Yup. Remember that well.

  • CarolK

    I was a regular bleacher creature back in those days. I loved Bam Bam and was really disappointed he didn’t make it. I still have his card safely enclosed in a protective case on my dresser. Thanks for the story. He’s a sweet guy.

    Those were lean years but that meant we all had a lot of room to spread out in the bleachers at those games (a seat to sit on, one for your feet, one for your bag, one for your drink, etc.) and Jesse Barfield was really great to us out there…so was Roberto Kelly. In spite of all of the losing, I remember those days fondly. I pretty much lived there from May until September.

  • http://fendersonandhampton.com Cuso

    Great post. This era was my wheelhouse growing up and watching Yankee Baseball.

    Hensley “Bam-Bam!” I remembered thinking that Hensley would carry us offensively and Brien Taylor would lead our pitching staff throughout the 1990s. Then everyone though Sam Militello was our next big thing (for 5 minutes). Then the Pascual – Melido shuffle.

    Ugh. Those years were hard to watch – especially when Donnie went down for most of the season with the back injury in ’90. Maas was the toast of the town for a little while – but truth is he was just a flash in the pan. Strange parallel between Maas and Shane Spencer….

    …my bad. The stream of consciousness narrative is over. I thought it was 1989 again for a second.

    • CarolK

      Remember Domingo Jean running across the GW to get to his Yankee Stadium pitching debut? Those were crazy days.

  • http://clydes-stalecards.blogspot.com DaClyde

    Always love seeing articles on Bam Bam! I started collecting cards of him back in 1989 and thought he was going to be my gold mine, with a stack of something like 90 of his 1989 Donruss cards. But he never “happened”. Never one to take advice from hitting coaches (who were mostly terrible back then anyway), he just never figured out Major League pitching. Yet for some reason, I never stopped collecting his cards, and now have over 120 different for him from around the world. He had sort of a parallel career with Bernardo Brito, who languished in the Indians and Twins minor league systems, except where Brito only got three, brief late-season call ups after 10 years of destroying the ball in the minors (though also compiling a fair amount of whiffs), Meulens was given the starting job and couldn’t hold on to it.

    Meulens was recently announced as the manager for the Bravos de Margarita for next year’s Venezuelan Winter League season, after filling in that spot the last two seasons after the original manager had been dismissed. I’m interested to see how he does in his first full winter league season at the helm. The verdict is still out on his abilities as a Major League hitting coach, but the Giants are practically hopeless when it comes to plate discipline. It would be interesting to see how he would do on a team with players that actually listen.

  • Holly Sanders

    Love the fact that he can speak so many languages (6 I think)fluently.
    Curacao, where’s that? Its easy for us to talk about MLB but the competition is tough so Im glad to see that Meulens is a true go-getter with perseverance that found his way in the majors.