- Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 7.41 (3/16/8)
- Seasons: 1999-2004
- Stats: 849 games, .278/.351/.500 = .851 OPS, 111 OPS+, 18.0 bWAR
- Best season: 1999 - 154 games, .264/.336/.525 = .861 OPS, 113 OPS+, 4.9 bWAR
There’s a case to be made that center field has been the position players’ spot on the diamond where Arizona has received the best and most consistent production. Between Finley (1999-2004), Chris Young (2006-12) and A.J. Pollock (2012-current), we’ve had an All-Star appearing at the position virtually every season since the D-backs started, all ranked in the top fifteen of this survey. Steve Finley was the best of them. He was a three-time Gold Glover (if you include his split year in 2004), who could also hit for both average and power, reaching 20+ home-runs in five of his six seasons here, and was a threat on the base-paths as well. He was a true five-tool player.
His time here began on Dec. 18, 1998 when he signed as a free-agent, but he already had 10 seasons under his belt, with the Orioles (drafted under GM Roland Hemond), Astros and Padres. He made an immediate impression: in his debut for Baltimore on Opening Day 1999, going to the DL just one PA into his major-league career. “I slammed into the outfield wall and made a catch and separated my shoulder,” he recalls. “All I can remember is that it was a packed house and everybody was on their feet for a standing ovation.” He left Baltimore in one of the more lopsided trades in baseball history, being sent with future team-mate Curt Schilling and Pete Harnish to Houston, for Glenn Davis.
After four years with the Astros, and four more in San Diego, Finley hit the free-agent market at the age of 33. With the team’s first everyday CF, Devon White, also a free-agent, Arizona needed a replacement, and blew past the three year, $12 million contract the Padres offered Finley to stay there. He signed a four-year contract worth $21.5 million with the Diamondbacks on December 18, 1999, completing a month where the team committed almost $120 million to six free agents. He said: ‘’I’m not a 22-year-old who’s going to play another 10 or 12 years and maybe have a couple of chances to go. I want to win now. When I saw they signed [Randy] Johnson, I wanted to be here then for sure.’’
That’s definitely the case. Johnson had been signed eight days previously, and on hearing the news, Finley got Jerry Colangelo’s number through mutual friend Danny Ainge, then coach of the Phoenix Suns. “Jerry and I had a conversation and I told him at that point that I wanted to be a Diamondback, and the rest is history,” Finley said, and Colangelo concurred: “Had he not taken the initiative because he wanted to be here, I don’t think we’d be here today.” A total of $7 million of the contract’s value was deferred for four years at 6% interest, meaning the total value was $23.7 million. 10 days later, the team traded Karim Garcia for Luis Gonzalez, and the pieces were in place.
Over the next two years, Finley batted .272 with 69 home-runs - only Ken Griffey and Brian Giles had more bombs among all center fielders in that time - and won the National League Gold Glove both years. He was an All-Star in 2000, his second appearance after making it as a Padre in 1997. Steve drove in five runs during the team’s only win in the 1999 Division Series against the Mets, setting a Diamondbacks’ post-season record for RBI in a single game which has still not been broken. He batted .365 with nine runs driven in during the 2001 playoffs: his 19 hits was most on the team, and also stands as the franchise mark for a single year. He later remembered the intensity of that experience.
After each game it feels like you’ve played 10 games in the playoffs. Every single moment matters. You need to have hypersensitive focus for the whole game. You might take a pitch off in the regular season, but never in the playoffs. After celebrating our World Series win in 2001, I wanted to go to sleep for a week.
-- Steve Finley
However, 2001 was also memorable for Finley in another way - it marked his MLB debut as a pitcher (above). That came on August 30 at Chase Field, against the San Francisco Giants, with the score 13-3 in favor of the visitors. While perhaps not as memorable as Mark Grace’s outing the following year, Finley did manage to do what Grace could not: put up a zero. He worked around a walk and hit batter, getting Shawon Dunston to hit into an inning-ending double-play, to give him a career ERA of 0.00. Said manager Bob Brenly, “When you’ve got Steve Finley on the mound in the ninth, it’s been one of those days.”
Finley continued to be valuable, putting up seasons of 3.9 and 3.2 bWAR in 2002 and 2003, all the more impressive beause they came at the ages of 37 and 38. There’s a reason the late Kevin Towers once described Finley as “the Dick Clark of baseball -- he never seems to age.” Part of that is the unusual training regime Finley adopted, his mentor since arriving in Arizona being Dr. Edythe Heus. She says, “You’re not training individual muscles, you’re working the body from the inside out. The concentration is far less on muscle and more on movement, function.” It helped Finley average 151 games a year over the 1999-2004 seasons he spent with the D-backs, without a single trip to the DL.
Finley had signed a two-year contract with Arizona in December 2002, worth $11.25 million. It was a re-signing that gained impetus after the proposed Matt Williams for Larry Walker swap we discussed earlier, fell through, and he actually signed here for $2 million less than the San Francisco Giants had offered. But as the horror which was 2004 unfolded, the team opted to go younger and cheaper. He was dealt at the deadline that year with Brent Mayne to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Reggie Abercrombie, Koyie Hill and Bill Murphy. Luis Terrero, best known for falling for the hidden-ball trick, then took over in center for Arizona the rest of the season, delivering a 72 OPS+
Yeah, I think that deal likely worked out better for LA, as Finley hit 13 homers in only 58 games, including a walk-off grand-slam as the Dodgers clinched the division. It was described by the LA Times as, “the most dramatic blow at Dodger Stadium since Kirk Gibson made his only appearance in the 1988 World Series.” He then stuck around out West, playing for the Angels, Giants and Rockies the next three seasons (fun fact: he and Matt Herges are the only two people to have appeared for all five NL West teams) before finally hanging up his cleats, Finley’s shoulder eventually proving too troublesome. His last appearance came for Colorado on June 3, 2007 at the age of 42.
Unlike many we’ve covered here, after retiring from the game, Finley didn’t go into coaching or management. Instead, he worked in insurance: he said in 2012, “It’s definitely not the pay check from baseball, but any paycheck is good; I like the fact that I’m not doing it for a paycheck... You know sitting around doing nothing is not a big enjoyment. A lot of guys are like, ‘I’m living the good life. I’m doing nothing just playing golf.’ But that gets boring after awhile. You have to develop relationships, stimulate your brain, stimulate your mind, stimulate your body.” He’s now a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley’s Global Sports & Entertainment, specializing in helping young athletes.
And when he got married in 2012, the wedding cake toppers had his wife, Meaghan, riding her horse, and Steve wearing his Diamondbacks’ uniform...