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Lambeth’s Dream Team: Our picks for the best UVA major leaguers of all time

Ryan Zimmerman (Col ’06) has called it a career, but with eight ’Hoos on opening day rosters this spring, UVA baseball continues to make its mark in the major leagues.

Ryan Zimmerman baseball card
UVA Athletics

It was not always thus. For most of the history of a program started in 1889, only a mere trickle of talent made it from Charlottesville to The Show. Under current coach Brian O’Connor, who has been on the job since the 2004 season and has led the program to unprecedented success, including an NCAA championship in 2015, that trickle has turned into a torrent. Of the 53 players from UVA to play in the majors, 29 played for O’Connor.

All of which got us to wondering: Who would be on a Wahoo-only major league dream team? Given the pipeline established under O’Connor, it would be skewed toward recent players. Zimmerman, the best of the recent bunch, played 16 seasons with the Washington Nationals, accumulating 1,846 hits for a .277 career batting average and slugging 284 home runs, including 11 game-winning “walk-off’ homers, tied for third best of all time. Nicknamed “Mr. National,” he’s considered the greatest player in franchise history.

Good as he was, Zimmerman did not have the most-celebrated major league career among former UVA players. That honor goes to pitcher Eppa Rixey (Col 1914, Grad 1920), a lanky (6-foot-5) left-hander from a prominent Culpeper family. A craftsman on the mound and a scholar off it, Rixey pitched 21 seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds and won 266 games, a record for a left-hander at the time. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963.

The gentlemanly Rixey never pitched in the minor leagues, going straight from UVA to the Phillies on the recommendation of Charles “Cy” Rigler, a national league umpire who coached the UVA team. Even after a promising rookie season in 1912, he wasn’t entirely convinced that he wouldn’t rather be a chemist. Few college men played major league baseball at the time.

“If the Phillies want my services this year, they will have to accede to my demands for more money and allow me to complete my course at college,” he wrote the team in 1913, according to The Washington Post. “I am going to complete my work at the University of Virginia, remaining at Charlottesville until June.”

The Phillies waited. Rixey earned a B.S. and an M.S. in chemistry, and taught Latin at Episcopal High in Alexandria, Virginia, in the off season. Though he won 266 games, he also lost 251, a product of toiling for bad teams. Upon learning he’d been elected to the Hall of Fame, he responded with his characteristically dry wit.

“I guess they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he said , according to a 2012 article written for the Society for American Baseball Research.

We disagree. We’ll give Rixey the ball and put Zimmerman in the cleanup spot on our dream team:

Eppa Rixey baseball card

Pitcher: Eppa Rixey (Col 1914 , Grad 1920). Who needs a bullpen? Rixey was an ironman who pitched 290 complete games in his career. (By way of comparison, in the 2021 season no pitcher had more than two). Not a hard thrower by major league standards, he had excellent control and liked to work deep into the count to “make the batter hit a bad ball,” he once said.

Catcher: John Hicks (Col ’13). Catchers are said to don the “tools of ignorance.” Uh, not Hicks, a foreign affairs major who played 264 career games in six seasons from 2015-2021 with Seattle, Detroit and Texas, mostly at catcher and first base and is currently with the Iowa Cubs, the Chicago Cubs Triple-A affiliate.

First base: Mark Reynolds (Col ’05). The free-swinging Reynolds was an all-or-nothing hitter known for his power, blasting 298 home runs in 13 seasons from 2007-2019. He also led the league in strikeouts four times and set a major league record by fanning 223 times in 2009. Reynolds was a versatile fielder who played first and third.

Mike Cubbage baseball card

Second base: Mike Cubbage (Educ ’72). Cubbage played mostly third base in his big-league career, but Zimmerman has that spot locked down on our team. Cubbage played 53 games at second base in eight seasons, and once hit for the cycle, getting a single, double, triple and home run in one game. He was also a cerebral player who briefly managed the New York Mets and was a coach from 1990 to 2003.

Third base: Ryan Zimmerman (Col ’06): The No. 4 pick in the 2005 Major League draft, Zimmerman spent just two months in the minors before making his debut with the Washington Nationals on Sept. 1, 2005, at age 20. Among his accomplishments are two All-Star Game appearances; two Silver Slugger awards, given to the best hitter at each position; and a Gold Glove. In his first career World Series at-bat, in 2019, he hit a home run.

Shortstop: Chris Taylor (Col ’13): With Zimmerman retired, Taylor, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the top active major-leaguer from UVA. He played in the 2021 All-Star Game, was co-most valuable player of the 2017 National League Championship Series and won a World Series ring in 2020. Now an outfielder, he’s played 258 career games at shortstop, and is our choice at this important infield position.

Left field: Phil Gosselin (Col ’11). The ultimate utility man, the versatile and well-traveled Gosselin is a career .261 hitter in 463 games over nine seasons with seven different teams. He was a regular in the lineup for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the second half of the 2021 season and began 2022 with the Gwinnet Braves, the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. Primarily an infielder, he’s also logged time in left field, and we’ll slot him in the lineup there.

Center field: Brandon Guyer (Col ’08). Guyer’s penchant for getting hit by pitches—he led the American League twice—earned him the nickname “La Pinata.” He also hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat, one of just 130 players in big league history to do so. In seven seasons from 2011-2018 he was a productive platoon player with decent power who played all three outfield positions.

Right field: Pavin Smith (Col ’18). Smith played 145 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2021 and began the 2022 season as the regular right-fielder. He was the No. 7 pick in the 2017 MLB draft, and, at age 26, appears to be a solid prospect.