Every September when MLB rosters expand from 25 men to 40 there is a chance for young players that have been stashed in the minor leagues all season to come up and make an impression. Sometimes that impression is so brilliant that it's impossible to keep expectations in check over what amounts to a minuscule sample size. That impression can be a precursor to a successful professional career, or only amount to a flash in the pan that fizzles out before it ever really gets started. In September of 1998, Yankees fans were treated to a call-up that arrived with guns blazing in the form of outfielder Shane Spencer.
Spencer was a 28th-round draft pick by the Yankees in 1990 when I was barely a year old. It took him nine seasons to crack the big league level in 1998.
He briefly appeared in two games in April of '98 to replace the injured Chili Davis before he was called up off-and-on four times during the season and ultimately rejoined the team in September for the remainder of the season through the Yankees' World Series run.
As you know, the 1998 Yankees team was special, but Spencer managed to put his name on the map with an incredibly impressive stretch of games that would seal his place on one of the greatest Yankees teams ever.
The 14 regular season September games that Spencer spent in the big leagues with the Yankees in '98 saw the Yankees only lose three times. Spencer lit the baseball world on fire with a .421/.476/1.105 batting line that included three grand slams, eight home runs, and five go-ahead hits. He reached base in eight consecutive games and strung together a six-game hitting streak. As the Yankees charged through the ALDS and ALCS on their way to their World Series championship over the San Diego Padres, Spencer kept hitting. He homered in his first postseason at-bat against the Texas Rangers in the ALDS before stumbling a bit in the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians. In his lone World Series game, Spencer doubled and struck out twice.
Unfortunately, Spencer never found the same success he had in 1998 again. His next best season by OPS was 2000 when he batted .282/.330/.460 in 73 games for the Yankees. The team let Spencer walk as a free agent before the 2003 season when he signed on with the Indians before bouncing around with the New York Mets and a second stint with the Yankees briefly in 2004. He briefly tried to play in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers, but was cut before the 2006 season.
The three-time World Series champion ran into trouble off the baseball field all too often after his brilliant September in New York, which further took a bit of the shine off what he accomplished on the field. Spencer's playing days are behind him now, but he is still involved with baseball as the hitting coach of the Somerset Patriots of the Independent League. On a team of stars that were the best in the game that year like the '98 club, Spencer managed to hold his own as the Yankees put up one of the most impressive seasons in MLB on their way to their 24th championship. It is disappointing that even some of Spencer's success couldn't be sustained so that his September could be seen as the beginning of a successful career instead of a brief memory that Yankees fans can recall from one of the best seasons in our generation's memory. Being a part of three teams that won the World Series isn't a terrible consolation prize, though.
Another batch of September call-ups will make their way to the Bronx in a week with the goal of making even half the impression that Spencer did in his 14 games. Everyone has a chance to be that, even if that success can only be fleeting.