A Tribute to Nate Colbert
In the expansion era, the actual Expansion Draft itself had taken on less and less significance in building a competitive team. Three of the four expansion teams in the 90’s made the playoffs within five years of their startup team. The farther back you go, the more time it took to get a team on track (which makes Kansas City even more remarkable, and a good topic to examine further.)
The 1969 expansion, which was rather much ‘forced’ by the movement of the Kansas City Athletics to Oakland for 1968 and senator Stuart Symington’s bloviation that 1971 wasn’t quick enough, gave birth to four teams. The American League at least got the franchises going in late 1967. It wasn’t until May 27, 1968 that the National League added Montreal and San Diego.
Teams could protect 15 players each and the franchises could only draft from their league. The Padres had the first pick, and chose Ollie Brown, a solid outfielder, with their initial pick. The Padres’ ninth selection of the draft was Nate Colbert, a 22-year old first base prospect from the Astros who had struggled in two cups of coffee in the bigs.
The team, full of youngsters with no track record, or older players on their way to retirement, was going to be bad. Everyone knew it. But, it was major league baseball, so Colbert embraced the chance. Did he ever.
Bill Davis was the opening day starter for the Padres, and he manned first base for 11 of the first 14 games. Colbert stepped in at game 15, and Davis started just two more games before being traded away. From then on, if healthy, Colbert was the regular first baseman.
He led the 1969 squad in home runs, RBI, slugging and OPS+. He smacked 38 home runs in 1970, but was third in RBI and OPS+ as Brown, Cito Gaston and Ed Spiezio also had good years. There was a glimmer of hope that that foursome could have a few good seasons together.
That crashed and burned in 1971. Brown was just adequate, Spiezio mediocre, and Gaston was horrible. Colbert, though, kept on, smacking 27 home runs and driving in 84 runs for a team that scored just 486. Most of the season, he batted fourth behind players with OBPs of .295, .270 (or .299) and .264.
Then came 1972. Leron Lee provided some help as a platoon player, but besides him three was no one on the squad that had an OPS+ of over 100 except Big Nate. Sure, Nate hit just .250, but he slugged .508, smacked 38 home runs and stole 15 bases. He also had a historic day on August 1, hitting five home runs and driving in 13 runs during a doubleheader sweep of the Atlanta Braves.
Big Nate drove in 111 runs. The Padres scored just 488, so he drove in 22.7% of the runs they scored. (For grins, he also laid down 3 sac bunts, too. Of course, Don Zimmer managed the club most of the year, so…yeah.) Opposing teams intentionally waked him 14 times during the year, which seems awfully low considering that the players batting fifth and sixth didn’t have OBPs over .300 and didn’t slug over .340 all season.
Colbert slumped a little in 1973 – smacking just 22 home runs and driving in only 80. Johnny Grubb led the team in OPS+ with 136, but Colbert had a 128 and phenom Dave Roberts helped with 21 home runs and a 123 OPS+. The Padres were still last in runs, but scored sixty more.
After carrying the team on his shoulders for five seasons, Colbert had a poor 1974. San Diego acquired Willie McCovey and Nate split his time between first and left field, and then was Stretch’s defensive replacement. Colbert hadn’t played outfield since 1968, and just had an all around bad season. He then was traded to Detroit, then went to Montreal before finishing his career with five hitless at bats in Oakland in 1976. Poof, he was gone.
Yet for a stretch between 1969-1973 the San Diego Padres could count on only one player to consistently produce, and Nate Colbert produced for them heroically, yet seemingly quixotically. He also did his feat in front of friends, relatives, seagulls and basic trainees, as they seemed to be the only ones going to Padres games.
You wonder what damage Colbert could have done in his prime on a good team, like the Pirates, or Oakland, or Baltimore. You can only speculate what Nate could have done in a hitters park, and not in a stadium where hits and home runs were scarce.
Nate Colbert in Wrigley Field, or Fulton County, or Fenway Park, or Tigers Stadium? Yikes.
The Padres have had more lean years than not, and not too many long term heroes aside from Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and Trevor Hoffman. Nate Colbert is one, and he did it under the worst possible circumstances.
(Photo by Darryl Norenberg/WireImage)