Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Random Past Phillie: Steve Jeltz

Yes, at long last it's the Random Past Phillie many of you have been waiting for. Shout out to all of you who requested him!

Name
: Larry Steven Jeltz
Position: Infielder
Born: May 28, 1959 in Paris, France
Acquired: Selected in the 9th round of the 1980 Draft
Phillies Debut: July 17, 1983
Final Phillies Game: October 1, 1989
Uniform Numbers: 15, 30
Career Elsewhere: Royals (1990)

About Steve Jeltz: Regardless of how successfully or unsuccessfully a sports franchise has performed during a given period of time, there always seems to be one player who is perceived to be the "face" of the franchise. Generally, the team's best player assumes this role, as he's the guy the organization wants to market and build around. There are times when designating such a player isn't so clear-cut, though, and it could be years after the fact when such a player actually emerges. Considering the vast majority of his Philadelphia Phillies career was played alongside Mike Schmidt, one could never say that Steve Jeltz was truly the face of the organization. However, in the nearly quarter-century that has passed since he last donned a Phillies uniform, the light-hitting Jeltz has become sort of a mythical figure among a certain segment of the team's fans. From the Jheri curl hairstyle to the low batting averages (featuring a power outage that lasted the better part of five years), Jeltz has become somewhat representative of a time when the Phillies as a team were going nowhere fast, with little hope of better days ahead.

Born in Paris, France while his father was stationed there with the U.S. Army, Steve Jeltz grew up in Lawrence, Kansas and eventually attended the University of Kansas. After his junior year with the Jayhawks, Jeltz was selected by the Phillies in the ninth round of the 1980 Draft. He signed with the organization soon thereafter and hit .290 in 31 games for mid "A" level Spartanburg. Jeltz's average would dip to .232 and .242 over the next two seasons at high "A" Penninsula and "AA" Reading, respectively. He saw action at second base, third base, shortstop, and the outfield, and it was pretty clear that defense was going to be what got Jeltz to the big leagues. Promoted to "AAA" Portland for the 1983 season, he hit .265 and got his first taste Major League Baseball when he was called up to the parent club in mid-July.

Steve Jeltz made his MLB debut on July 17, 1983, appearing as a late-game defensive replacement at second base in a 5-2 Phillies loss to to the Cincinnati Reds at Veterans Stadium. He'd make three more appearances during his initial callup, with his lone at-bat being a groundout against the Atlanta Braves on July 24. Jeltz would appear in a total of 13 games over three stints for the eventual National League Champion Phillies in '83, collecting one hit in eight at-bats, an RBI triple off Jerry Reuss of the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 28.

Jeltz returned to Portland for the 1984 campaign, where he hit .220 in 134 games. He was recalled to the big club in September and became the starting shortstop for the Phils in that season's final month, hitting .206 in 28 games. On September 23, he hit his first career home run, a solo shot off John Tudor of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Defensively, Jeltz made just one error and it was decided that he'd remain the starting shortstop as the 1985 season got underway. Things couldn't have started more poorly for Jeltz or the Phillies, as he made three errors in a 6-0 Opening Night loss to the Braves en route to a 1-8 start for the team. It proved to be a harbinger of things to come for the '85 Phils, who suffered their first losing season since 1974 with a record of 75-87. Meanwhile, Jeltz remained the starter at short for the bulk of the season, but was finally sent back to Portland in early August. He'd be recalled in September, but ended the year with a .189 batting average and 14 errors in 89 games.

Using his poor 1985 season as motivation, Jeltz (a natural righthanded batter) decided to take up switch-hitting in an attempt to regain favor with an organization that appeared to be souring on him. For much of Spring Training in 1986, though, it didn't seem as it would make a difference, as the organization had decided Jeltz would start the year back in the minors with Tom Foley penciled in at shortstop. A broken wrist sustained by Foley late in the Grapefruit League schedule nixed those plans, and it was decided that Jeltz would be given another shot. He'd hang on to the starting job all season long, despite hitting .219 and making 22 errors in 145 games.

Jeltz was again the Opening Day starter at shortstop for the Phillies in 1987, and while his defense had steadied, his .179 average got him demoted to "AAA" Maine on June 22. It seemed to do the trick, as he was recalled a month later and brought his average up to .232 by season's end. His .971 fielding percentage was fifth among National League shortstops in '87, while his .976 clip placed him fourth the following year. Unfortunately, whatever momentum Jeltz gained at the plate after his 1987 recall was lost in 1988, as he batted a paltry .187 in what turned out to be a career-high 148 games. That was enough for the Phillies to give up on Jeltz as a starter once and for all, as Dickie Thon was signed to be the club's shortstop for 1989. Jeltz stayed with the Phils in a utility role, and what turned out to be his final season with the Phils was ironically his most productive. He hit .243 in 116 games, but the biggest story was the fact that he clubbed four home runs after going nearly five years without hitting any. The first came on May 21 at the Vet, a two-run shot off Walt Terrell of the San Diego Padres that broke a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning to give the Phillies a 3-1 lead they wouldn't relinquish. The next two homers, however, were the ones for which Jeltz is best remembered.

On June 8, 1989, the Phillies took on the Pirates at the Vet. Heading in, it was a seemingly nondescript matchup between the two teams at the bottom of the NL East standings. Two nights earlier, the Phils had snapped an 11-game losing streak with a 9-4 victory and were going for a sweep of the rain-shortened three-game series. The Pirates had something to say about that, though, as they went on a 10-run rampage in the top of the first. Two-run homers by Von Hayes off ex-Phillie Bob Walk in the first and third innings cut the deficit to 10-4. Jeltz (who entered the game in the second inning to replace Tom Herr at second base) waited only 18 days between home runs this time around, as his two-run roundtripper off the righty Walk in the fourth brought the Phils to within 10-6. Pittsburgh added a run in the fifth, but with two on and one out in the sixth, Jeltz sent a drive off lefty Bob Kipper over the wall in left-center for a three-run homer to make it an 11-9 game. In doing so, Jeltz became the first switch-hitter in Phillies history to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game (Tomas Perez became the second Phil to do it on July 24, 2001, while Jimmy Rollins achieved the feat on August 12, 2006 and again on July 20, 2011). Ricky Jordan added an RBI single in the sixth to make it 11-10 and the Phils completed their comeback with five runs in the eighth to post the final winning margin of 15-11. While his team was jumping out to what seemed to be an insurmountable lead, Buccos broadcaster Jim Rooker said on the air that if the Pirates ended up losing the game, he'd walk back to Pittsburgh. He didn't do it immediately after the game, but Rooker kept his word during the offseason and completed a walk from Veterans Stadium to Three Rivers Stadium with proceeds going to charity.

The June 8 game was no doubt Jeltz's finest hour as a Major League Baseball player. It also sent him on a hot streak of sorts, as he was hitting .246 prior to that night and raised his average to .294 by the Fourth of July before a late slump pushed his final mark down to .243. Jeltz hit one more home run, a solo shot off Scott Sanderson of the Chicago Cubs on August 12. Despite having his best season to date, Jeltz found himself fighting for a job during Spring Training in 1990. The Phillies ultimately decided to carry Rod Booker as their utility infielder, making Jeltz the odd man out. On March 31, 1990, the Steve Jeltz era officially ended, as he was traded to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for promising but erratic righthanded pitcher Jose DeJesus. Jeltz appeared in 74 games for the Royals in '90, but hit just .155 in what would be his last MLB season. He split the 1991 campaign between the organizations of the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, hitting just .188 in his final year as a pro.

Personal Recollection: Wow, where to begin... I've noted on here before that I first started to closely follow the Phillies during the 1987 season. I turned seven that summer and it was also my first year playing t-ball, so I started to develop an understanding of the game. Needless to say, this was right smack dab in the middle of the Steve Jeltz era. I guess I remember him the same way as many other Phillies fans my age do, as a guy who seemed decent enough in the field but just didn't hit nearly well enough to justify holding on to a starting spot as long as he did. The reality of the situation, of course, was the fact that there weren't any viable replacements in the organization. I kind of felt sorry for the guy. It wasn't like Jeltz wasn't trying out there, he just wasn't a good hitter.

Jeltz could be flashy in the field at times, though. In fact, I remember playing in a game one time during my first year in a live pitching league. I was playing shortstop and made a leaping grab on a line drive. When I got back to the bench, someone told me I looked like Steve Jeltz out there. It was meant as a compliment, I think.

You can probably gather that there weren't too many games I attended where Jeltz had a significant impact with the bat, though I do remember being at a game against the Cardinals late in the 1987 season that Jeltz won with a walkoff RBI triple in the 14th inning. He hit a drive to right that John Morris tried to make a leaping catch on, but was unable to and injured himself crashing into the fence, allowing Glenn Wilson to score the winning run in an 8-7 victory. St. Louis had taken a 7-6 lead in the top of the 14th, but another much-maligned Phillie, Lance Parrish tied it with a home run in the bottom of the inning.

I was also at the game in which Jeltz hit his first home run since 1984, a Sunday afternoon at the Vet. There was definitely a sense of disbelief at the Vet that day. Forgotten in all that pandemonium was the fact that Jeltz (batting leadoff that day) very nearly hit two home runs in the game, as he flied out to the wall in right-center his first time up. I can't recall the entire Harry Kalas call of that homer, but I do remember the standard, "It's got a chance...OUTTA HERE! HOME RUN, THE JET!" That was Harry's nickname for Jeltz. I'm not sure why he called him that. He did have decent speed, and maybe it had to do with his last name.

As if that wasn't surreal enough, there was the two-homer game against the Pirates. I missed his first home run, I believe because I had a game of my own that night. But I did hear the second one on the radio (as I've mentioned, my family didn't have cable at the time), and it produced one of my favorite Richie Ashburn calls ever: "Fly ball...is it...is it..IS IT? OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! THREE-RUN HOMER STEVE JELTZ! (A few seconds of audible laughing) His second home run of the ballgame! The Phillies now trail, 11-9!" After the game, we learned about the Jim Rooker comment. There was a segment about it on "(Not Necessarily) Another Day at the Yard," which was that season's Home Companion. Rooker, a former pitcher, chimed in with "I wish I was pitching that game. No way would he have hit two home runs. No way. Maybe a couple triples, but not two home runs" and "Steve Jeltz, I hope next year, wherever their AAA club is, you're managing the team!"

Hard as it was to fathom a year or two earlier, I was disappointed when the Phillies traded Jeltz to the Royals before the 1990 season as I felt that he was going to become a valuable utility man. As it was, Jeltz had a disastrous season in Kansas City and it looked like DeJesus was going to be a steal before having his career cut short due to injury.

It's kind of funny how after all these years, Jeltz is kind of looked at in a fond, almost sympathetic way. The success the Phillies have had in recent years has no doubt played a role in that, plus there's always that sense of nostalgia. You can never go wrong with Jheri curls, either, and in Jeltz and Juan Samuel, there was plenty of that in the 1980s middle infield. One year, Jeltz's Donruss card was a misprint and indeed it was Samuel in the picture. In those days, the Phils would sometimes put a player's baseball card on Phanavision when he was at the plate. The Jeltz/Samuel misprint was put up there one time and I remember a fan pointing out the error, to which someone else replied, "Yeah, you can tell it's not Jeltz. The guy on the card is hitting the ball." Ouch. Anyway, I don't know what Steve Jeltz is up to these days, but I'd like to see him come back for Alumni Weekend sometime. I bet he'd hear some applause that he never got during his career.

That's my story on Steve Jeltz. Feel free to share your own recollections. Given the requests to feature Jeltz I've gotten the past couple years, I'll be pretty disappointed if the comments are empty!

5 comments:

  1. Career stats for Steve Jeltz: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/J/Pjelts001.htm

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  2. This is the most complete article on Steve Jeltz I have ever read, and I thank you for it.

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    1. My pleasure. If there are any other past Phillies you'd like to see featured, don't hesitate to make a suggestion

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  3. It is so sad how he ended up, in 1991-92 he moved back to Lawrence Ks, and tried to throw money around at the clubs, but ended up being a crack head, and yes I said it a crack head. So sad...

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  4. Great write up on Jeltz. I was friends with Steve growing up in Lawrence, Kansas. He was a fine athlete. One of the best players in baseball, a decent sprinter in track (but not outrageously fast) and the point guard on our high school basketball team. He was gifted, but I have to admit I was a little suprised when he made the show. His older brother, Butch, was an even better athlete, and was drafted by the Royals, showed a lot of promise, but sustained a career ending injury while still in the minors. Sadly, he died very young in 1991.

    I understand that he blew all of his major league earnings in an ill advised manner, which is sad, as he's an intelligent guy, and had a decent upbringing by no-nonsense parents. His father was career army.

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