Reflections on Robin Yount: The One that Almost Got Away

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In the history of baseball, there are certain players who simply seem destined to be all-time greats at a very young age. You know who I’m talking about—the Mel Otts, Al Kalines, and Mike Trouts of the world. Robin Yount came into the majors at age 18, yet he is not one of them. If anything, Yount seemed like the kind of player who was almost certainly not destined for baseball greatness.

Yount was a multi-sport phenomenon who, early on in life, seemed too split between different interests to achieve greatness in any one of them. He was also a top-notch golfer. In spring training of 1978, 22-year-old Yount threatened to walk away from baseball and join the PGA golf tour. Although he made $80,000 the year before, he wasn’t particularly happy playing for the Brewers. According to the Milwaukee Journal, Yount said: “I can’t say I’ve enjoyed baseball that much. It’s not as fun as it should be.”[1]

The 22-year-old was also unhappy about an up-and-coming prospect expected to replace him at shortstop. That prospect was Paul Molitor.

When Yount Held Out and Caused a Media Fracas

Yount held out for the beginning of the 1978 season, toying with a career in golf and a career in racecar driving. Even though he came back to the Brewers on May 6th, the rumors that he would quit still abounded. Naturally, newspapers ate this drama right up. A Chicago Tribune piece by Rick Talley said: “Under normal conditions, Yount would bring plenty on the trade market—but teams have to be wary because of his pronouncements that he’d rather try his swing against Jack Niklaus and Bob Watson.”[2] Other sportswriters were a little more sympathetic. Bob Wolf of the Milwaukee Journal wrote that Yount was an “unusual young man, one who supposedly is more interested in contentment than money.”[3]

As admirable as Yount’s disinterest in money may have been, his indecisiveness didn’t seem to be doing him any favors. Let’s just say that the Brewers weren’t exactly yearning to have him back. Brewers general manager Harry Dalton said he was not encouraged about the prospect of Yount returning. Several of Yount’s teammates told the press that he wouldn’t come back at all the next season.[4]

The situation was especially strange for Paul Molitor. Regarding an encounter between the two of them in a hotel, Molitor said: “It was really awkward. I mean, my career is hanging on Robin’s fingers. If he comes back, I’m gone.”[5] The whole ordeal was awkward for everyone—Molitor, Dalton, and of course Yount himself. If anything, it didn’t seem like the beginning of a hall of fame career.

What Didn’t Seem Like a Promising Career Blossomed into a Spectacular One

Thankfully, we all know how this story ended. Yount didn’t just become a superstar—he became one of the greatest shortstops in the history of the game. When Yount returned in 1978, he managed to play in 127 games and set career highs in home runs, triples, RBIs, batting average, and slugging average.

The rest is history. He became a full-fledged star in 1980, putting up his first 20-20 season and leading the National League with 49 doubles. Two years later, he won AL MVP and paced the league in hits, doubles, total bases, and slugging average. He was worth 10.5 Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) according to Baseball-Reference and 9.8 Wins Above Replacement according to Fangraphs (fWAR), totals far ahead of anyone else in baseball.[6] [7]

Altogether, Yount won two MVPs, amassed over 3,000 hits, retired with a 77.3 rWAR and 66.5 fWAR, and made the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. Although the Brewers never won a World Series in his career, Yount made the most of his opportunities on the big stage. In 17 postseason games, he slashed .344/.419/.469. He hit .414 in his lone World Series appearance. And for what it’s worth, he and Molitor became good friends. Fittingly enough, they would often golf together in their spare time.[8]

Yount’s Place in the Upper Echelon of Baseball Immortals

What’s the lesson to be learned from Robin Yount’s career? It’s that commitment isn’t always as easy to discern as it seems. At 22, Yount was a young man still finding his way in life. People mistook his uncertainty for lack of commitment. It’s easy to laugh at his fleeting interests in golf and racecar driving, as many sportswriters did. But if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us have felt torn between different career paths in life as well. Yount was an incredibly hard-working young man—but like many of us, he didn’t find the right outlet for his gifts right away.

Looking back, the chaotic opening to Yount’s career makes it all the more remarkable. Playing for the small-market Brewers, he never had the aura surrounding him that shortstops like Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter had. But when you evaluate his accomplishments, it’s undeniable that he belongs in the upper echelon of baseball immortals—perhaps even among the 40 or 50 best players in the history of the game.

Many Brewers’ fans may not have wanted Robin Yount to come back in 1978, but more than four decades later, it’s fair to say that everyone’s glad he did. He is the one that almost got away, a franchise player who succeeded when many people didn’t want him to.

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