By Matthew Taylor
The Orioles aren’t the first team to have a hard-throwing right-hander who alternately frustrates with his control problems and tantalizes with his promise. A guy who sets a record for walks early one season and throws a one-hitter as the schedule winds down on another. The type of hurler who has fans cursing one moment and saying “Thank Youuuuuuu” the next.
Daniel Cabrera, meet Rex Barney.
Nearly six decades separate the careers of Rex Barney and Daniel Cabrera, but both pitchers have suffered from similar cases of baseball bipolarity. And thanks to the now-deceased Barney’s long-time role as Baltimore’s beloved public address announcer, the players share fewer than six degrees of Orioles separation.
Bird loyalists might believe there’s never been a major league pitcher as maddeningly inconsistent as Daniel Cabrera, but baseball history, just like the real thing, has a way of repeating itself.
Sportswriter Bob Cooke famously said of Barney that he “would be the league’s best pitcher if the plate were high and outside.” Much like Cabrera, Barney – who played in 1943 and from 1946 to 1950 with the Brooklyn Dodgers – struggled to harness his enormous potential on the mound, ultimately ending his injury-shortened career with more walks than strikeouts.
Think things have been bad with Cabrera? Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey once became so frustrated with Barney’s control problems that he hired a hypnotist to address the issue. Baltimore’s front office hasn’t taken to using pseudo-psychology on Cabrera, but many similarities still exist between the short career stories of Rex Barney and Daniel Cabrera.
On May 13, 1951, Barney walked a Texas League record-setting 16 batters in fewer than eight innings of work. The similarly erratic Cabrera issued six walks in the first inning of a game this season with the Red Sox. Barney, like Cabrera, had lights-out stuff when the switch was flipped on. He tossed a one-hitter on Aug. 18, 1948, only to do himself one better less than a month later with a no-hitter. Had the Orioles’ season ended just a few weeks later perhaps Cabrera would have likewise met with baseball providence.
No side-by-side comparison reveals the similarities between the mound work of Barney and Cabrera quite as effectively as does a look at Barney’s 1949 season up against Cabrera’s rookie campaign in 2004.
Rex Barney, then 24, finished the 1949 season with a 9-8 record and an ERA of 4.41. Cabrera, then 23, finished the 2004 season with a 12-8 record and an ERA of 5.00.
Barney (140.7) and Cabrera (147.7) pitched roughly the same amount of innings, had similar totals for home runs allowed (15 to 14), hit batters (3 to 2), and shutouts (2 to 1), and each saved a single game for their respective teams. Both players walked 89 batters, a number that eclipsed their strikeout totals (Barney – 80; Cabrera 76). There’s no precedent, however, for the dozen wild pitches Cabrera uncorked in 2004.
After 1949, Barney pitched just one additional major-league season. He got beaned by the baseball gods, retiring due to injury before the age of 30. Barney therefore never lived out the potential that left Dodger fans breathless with anticipation during his shortened career.
Cabrera, meanwhile, just finished his second full season since 2004 and has breathed new life into his own career after flirting with no-hit history at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28. Writers like The Sun’s Rick Maese are now suggesting that Cabrera’s going to be worth the wait after all. Hopefully, Maese is correct and Cabrera’s destiny on the diamond will turn out more favorably than did Barney’s.
It must be noted that Barney did create a meaningful legacy for himself after his career ended. He worked as the Orioles’ public address announcer for 25 years, delighting fans with his comforting cadence and familiar catch phrases. Listen when a looping foul ball enters the stands at Camden Yards and a spectator makes a clean grab; chances are you’ll still hear fans over the age of 30 mimicking Barney’s trademark, “Give that fan a contract.”
The announcer also penned two books about his baseball experiences. Of his career, he wrote in his autobiography, “I should have been up there with the greats. I should have gone right up the ladder in 1949, but too many rungs were missing.”
The Orioles offered a touching tribute to Barney after his passing on Aug. 12, 1997, by foregoing a public address announcer for their game with the Oakland A’s. Having been there that evening, I can say that the gesture revealed just how integral Barney was to a night of baseball in Baltimore.
If you’ve ever heard Daniel Cabrera give a post-game interview, you can fairly predict that he won’t match Barney’s legend behind the mic. However, Cabrera might still create a legacy of his own in Baltimore. His statement game in Yankee Stadium suggests that his career arc could be ready to head in a new direction once he takes a few more of those lanky 6-foot-7-inch strides to the mound. And, he’s willing to give back to the community, too: Cabrera volunteered to donate a game ball from his one-hitter to a Johns Hopkins charity auction.
But with the Orioles’ 2006 season in the books and Cabrera’s development on hold for another off-season, there’s room to establish one final link between the young hurler and his inconsistent predecessor while time, in a baseball sense, is frozen.
Fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers were known, among other things, for coining the phrase “Wait till next year.” O’s fans have adopted a similar line of thinking with Daniel Cabrera. Next year came in 1955 for the Dodger faithful. Could next year come in 2007 for Oriole fans?