Sammy Sosa ended his MLB career with 609 home runs. Rick Wilkins ended his MLB career with 81 home runs. As teammates on the 1993 Cubs, Sosa only out-homered Wilkins by three, as the two led the team. Wilkins’ 30 home runs in 1993 were more than twice the number he had any any other one year of his career. In fact, if you combine Wilkins’ home run totals in any other three years in the MLB, those totals won’t add up to 30. Rick Wilkins pulled a Brady Anderson three years before Brady Anderson did it himself. For one year, Wilkins was an elite catcher. And for his other years in a Cub uniform, he wasn’t complete crap, which is more than you can say for the rest of Wilkins’ career stops. For that reason, Wilkins handles the pitching staff for the Best Bad Cubs Team of My Time.
Wilkins’ professional career began when the Cubs selected him in the 23rd round of the 1986 amateur draft. In the minors, Wilkins hit like you’d expect every non-1993 version of Wilkins to hit. He walked sometimes, he had a very little bit of power, and he hit for a backup catcher’s average. But the Cubs started the 1991 season cycling through Damon Berryhill, Joe Girardi, Erik Pappas, and Hector Villanueva. Shockingly, none of them had laid claim to the starting catcher’s spot. Jim Essian having the foresight that he did gave Wilkins his first MLB start on June 6, 1991 against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field. Wilkins went 0-4 with a strikeout, but starter Greg Maddux pitched the Cubs to a 6-2 win. Maddux also out-hit Wilkins, as he was 1-3 with a run scored. Because Greg Maddux is fucking awesome, you see. Wilkins made 54 starts that year, hitting .222/.307/.355 with six home runs and 22 RBIs.
The Cubs carried three catchers going at the start of the 1992 season. And as everyone knows, if you have three starting catchers, you don’t have a starting catcher. Wilkins was part of a three-headed monster with Girardi and Villanueva. He got 274 plate appearance that year and hit a respectable, .270/.344/.414, with eight home runs and 22 more RBIs, far better numbers than any other catcher on the roster.
Because of his solid 1992 season, Wilkins entered the 1993 season as the starting catcher. He rewarded manager Jim Lefebvre with a ludicrous 1993 campaign. In exactly 500 plate appearance, Wilkins posted a .303/.376/.561 slash line with 30 home runs and 73 RBIs. He was legitimately the best hitter on the Cubs that season over Mark Grace, Sosa, Ryne Sandberg, and even STEVE BUECHELE. THERE, I SAID IT. Wilkins was so good that year, opposing pitchers walked him intentionally thirteen times. That’s right. Twenty years ago, NL pitchers were sort of afraid of Rick Wilkins. WHERE WAS THIS PRODUCTION FOR JIM ESSIAN???
After spending the first half of the 1990s with the Cubs, Wilkins was traded to the Houston Astros for Luis Gonzalez and Scott Servais. Yes, Rick Wilkins was once thought so valuable, it cost the Astros an additional player PLUS a five-time All-Star and World Series champion to land him. Or maybe something else was involved, because after Wilkins hit .218/.339/.333 for the Astros in a calendar year, they traded him to the San Francisco Giants for the unfortunately-named Kirt Manwaring.
Wilkins was a Giant…disappointment. Hey-o! In a season and a half with the Giants, he batted .239/.308/.403 with 38 walks and 105 whiffs. Wilkins was released by the Giants near the end of the 1997 season and picked up by the Seattle Mariners. He fared even worse up north, to the tune of a .208/.267/.396 slash line in 60 plate appearances with the M’s in 1997 and 1998. In May of 1998, the Mariners sent Wilkins as far away as possible, trading him to the New York Mets for some chick named Lindsay Gulin.
Wilkins played in only 24 games toward the end of his career with the Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, and San Diego Padres before calling it quits after the 2001 season. When the sun set on his career, Wilkins’s Cub OPS was at least 66 points higher than it was at any other waypoint in his 11-year career. Seventy percent of his 81 career home runs came with the Cubs, and 62% of his 275 RBIs. In baseball history, Wilkins is a little blip on the radar. But in Cub lore, he had one of the greatest single seasons a catcher has ever put together.
Nowadays, there’s a thing called the Rick Wilkins Academy of Baseball, where budding baseball players will hear such lectures as “Steroids: It’s Okay if Pitchers are Doing it, Too”, “Skeletors in the Closet: Replacing Joe Girardi”, and “One Day in May: Surviving the Joe Altobelli Era.”
Greatest Cub Moment: As watchable as Wilkins was during the 1993 season, the Cubs weren’t easy on the eyes. They were 38-40 when they went to Colorado on July 5 to take on the Rockies. Wilkins was batting sixth, between Sosa and Buechele, and Mike Harkey was on the mound for the Cubs. In Wilkins’ first three at bats, he hit a single and two, two-run homers en route to a 10-1 Cubs rout. He finished the day 3-5 with four RBIs and nine total bases. Surprisingly, it was Wilkins’ only multi-homer game for the Cubs. Wait, is that surprising?
Worst Moment as a Human: June 23, 1995. Jaime Navarro was locked in a pitchers’ duel with Mike Hampton at the Astrodome and was leading 2-1 when Randy Myers blew a save in the bottom of the ninth. Wilkins pinch hit for Todd Pratt with two outs and a man on third in the top of the tenth. He struck out on four pitches. But never fear, he had a chance to redeem himself in the top of the twelfth. Wilkins was at the plate with one out and Dolan-favorite Scott Bullett on first. Bullett stole second, then took third on an errant throw by Houston catcher Scott Servais. So, Wilkins had the go-ahead run at third for the second time, this time with only one out. He struck out again. The Astros rallied for a run off Mike Walker in the bottom of the twelfth to beat the Cubs 3-2.