Obituary: Lee Tinsley (1969-2023)

RIP to Lee Tinsley, an outfielder for 5 seasons in the 1990s with three different teams. He also had a lengthy coaching career. Tinsley died on January 12 in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 53. Tinsley played for the Seattle Mariners (1993, 1997), Boston Red Sox (1994-95, 1996) and Philadelphia Phillies (1996).

Lee Owen Tinsley was born in Shelbyville, Ky., on March 4, 1969. He became a talented quarterback for Shelbyville County High School; in one game from 1984, he scored a touchdown on a 90-yard kickoff return, ran 49 yards for another score and threw a 19-yard touchdown pass. He also made second-team All-State as a defensive back. Tinsley was offered a scholarship to continue playing football at Purdue University, but the hitch was that he was also a switch-hitting base-stealing center fielder who attracted numerous scouts whenever he played during his senior year of 1987. As a senior, Tinsley batted .569 with 15 home runs and 40 RBIs. “If everything goes right, I’d love to be drafted and play big-league baseball. Not everybody gets a chance to do that,” he told the Courier-Journal.

Lee Tinsley in Shelbyville County High School. Source: The Courier-Journal, May 8, 1987.

Tinsley was selected by the Oakland A’s in the First Round of the 1987 Amateur Draft, ahead of Delino DeShields, Craig Biggio, Pete Harnisch and Travis Fryman. Once he and the A’s agreed on a signing bonus and he signed a contract with A’s scout Mark Conkin, he said that baseball was always ahead of football in his mind. The 18-year-old started in Medford, Ore., of the low-A Northwest League. Progress was slow, as Tinsley hit under .200 in two of his first three seasons. In his first year with the Madison Muskies of the Midwest League in 1989, he batted .181 and set the league record with 177 strikeouts. He made a step forward in 1990 with Muskies, as he hit .251 with 12 triples and 12 home runs. He also stole 44 bases in 55 attempts. But his struggles showed how difficult the transition from high school to the pros can be. “I’ve had so much thrown at me since high school,” Tinsley said in a 1989 interview. “You really have no idea what professional ball is like until you actually play it.”

Tinsley finally advanced into Double-A ball in 1991 but was traded to Cleveland on July 26. He and another minor leaguer were dealt for veteran infielder Brook Jacoby. Tinsley hit better in the Cleveland organization that he had hit in Oakland. He batted .295 for Double-A Canton-Akron for the rest of 1991 and .287 for the first part of 1992. Cleveland promoted him to Triple-A Colorado Springs in late 1992, but his bat cooled off there. He was placed on waivers at the end of the season and was claimed by the Seattle Mariners.

Tinsley came to Seattle just as the team hired a new manager, Lou Piniella — who loved fast baserunners. Tinsley’s speed, as well as his switch-hitting and his ability to play all three outfield spots well, gave him a role as a backup to outfielders Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Mike Felder. “With the speed I have, I have to take advantage of it the best way I can, whether it’s in the outfield or on the bases… I can do a lot of things to help the team out a lot,” Tinsley said in spring training in 1993.

See Lee Tinsley at Baseball Almanac

Piniella put Tinsley into the Mariners’ Opening Day win over Toronto on April 6, 1993. He pinch-hit for Felder in the bottom of the fifth inning and drew a walk against reliever Ken Dayley. He struck out in his next at-bat against Danny Cox and then didn’t play again until April 11 against Baltimore. He pinch-hit for Henry Cotto in the bottom of the ninth and singled up the middle against closer Gregg Olson for his first major-league hit. He advanced to center on a deep fly ball to center by Griffey and scored on a Tino Martinez double to tie the game at 6. But Tinsley did a lot of sitting, which happens when two of the team’s three outfielders are superstars who didn’t rest often. He was sent to Triple-A Calgary in late April and played another handful of games for the Mariners in July. He homered off Yankees reliever Steve Farr in his first game back on July 21, but his time in the majors was short. Tinsley appeared in 11 games with Seattle that season and hit .158. While he was with Calgary, he batted over .300 and stole 34 bases. He added 53 extra-base hits (25 doubles, 18 triples, 10 home runs) and caught the eye of a Red Sox scout. Boston acquired him from Seattle in March of 1994 for a player to be named later and planned to use him as a bat off the bench.

Tinsley spent all of 1994 with the Red Sox and did everything that was asked of him. He played all three outfield spots. He pinch-ran frequently and stole 13 bases without getting caught. He also started to cut down on the high strikeout totals that marred his first seasons in the A’s system. Tinsley may have hit only .222, but he performed well in his first extended time in the majors. Teammate Otis Nixon sent that Tinsley reminded him of a young… Otis Nixon. “I watch Lee with all that speed, all that enthusiasm and all that potential, and I see Otis Nixon 10 years ago,” Nixon said. “Lee can be the kind of player that makes the whole defense tighten up when they see him reach for a bat.”

For his part, Tinsley was grateful that his sojourn through two organizations and a long line of minor-league teams resulted in something positive. “It’s been a long, long road from where I started to where I’m at. There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of good nights and a lot of bad nights, nights when I did a lot of thinking,” he explained. “But now that I’m here, and I look up at that big left field wall in Fenway Park, all I can say is it was worth it.”

Tinsley had his best year in the majors in 1995. His development allowed the Red Sox to trade Nixon to the Texas Rangers for DH Jose Canseco, and Tinsley was handed the center field role. Though he spent some time on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps and other nagging injuries, he appeared in 100 games and slashed .294/.359/.403. He started the season with a 14-game hitting streak, and once he came off the DL for the first time, he had a 15-game streak. Tinsley reached career highs with 17 doubles and 7 home runs. He scored 61 runs, drove in 41 runs and stole 18 bases. His development, plus the addition of Canseco to the lineup, helped Boston reach 85 wins and finish first in the AL East.

Tinsley said that he received a lot of support from his Boston teammates when he came to spring training in ’95. “Mo [Vaughn] and John Valentin said they thought I could be an everyday player, and Mike Greenwell told me the same thing. It made me feel really good that both young players and a veteran like Mike thought I could play,” Tinsley said. The Red Sox were swept out of the AL Division Series by Cleveland in three games. Tinsley started Game One and was hitless in 5 at-bats, with 2 strikeouts and an intentional walk. Dwayne Hosey, who had hit well in September when Tinsley was sidelined with injuries, started the other two games at center field for the Red Sox. Hosey’s emergence made Tinsley expendable to the Red Sox — just like Tinsley had done to Otis Nixon.

In January of 1996, Boston traded Tinsley, outfielder Glenn Murray and pitcher Ken Ryan to Philadelphia for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb and a couple of minor leaguers. Tinsley was once again used as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter, and by his own admission, he struggled in that role. He hit .135 in 31 games, with 7 singles in 52 at-bats. He also suffered a pulled ribcage muscle that required a stint on the DL and some rehab games in Clearwater. Unable to get on track with Philadelphia, the Phillies traded him back to Boston in June for a minor-leaguer. Tinsley hit .245 in 92 games with Boston and ended 1996 with a combined slash line in 123 games of .221/.277/.291. His batting average tailed off after he tore a ligament in his thumb while diving after a fly ball. The injury bothered him when he swung a bat, so the Red Sox kept him as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. Tinsley appeared in 22 games for Boston in September, but he never entered a game earlier than the seventh inning and had just 6 at-bats all month long.

The Mariners re-acquired Tinsley in an offseason deal and made him the Opening Day left fielder in 1997. Tinsley played regularly through the month of April and even filled in for Griffey in center field on April 11 when the Mariners star was ill with strep throat. He went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI and helped to ruin the Red Sox home opener with a 5-3 loss. “Obviously, there’s no way I can replace Junior,” Tinsley said. “But I felt good in center field and good about being with the Mariners again.”

Source: The Boston Globe, April 12, 1997.

Tinsley was injured for much of the summer and returned to play semi-regularly in August and September. He finished with a .197 batting average in 49 games. He was granted free agency after the season and spent several years playing on Triple-A teams for the Expos, Angels and Reds. He also played in the Mexican League and finished his playing career in 2000, as an outfielder for the Valley Vipers of the independent Western League. He led the league with a .379 batting average and slugged .551 as well.

Over 5 seasons in the majors, Tinsley played in 361 games and had a slash line of .241/.313/.334. His 210 hits included 34 doubles, 4 triples and 13 home runs, and he stole 41 bases in 61 attempts. He scored 131 times and drove in 79 runs, and Baseball Reference rates him as an above-average outfielder in both center field (.983 fielding percentage) and left field (.992). (Tinsley just played 66 innings in right field but never committed an error in 12 chances.) In 12 seasons in the minors, Tinsley batted .243 and stole 250 bases.

Tinsley’s coaching career began pretty much immediately after his playing career ended. The Arizona Diamondbacks had named Pete Incaviglia as the hitting coach of the Double-A El Paso Diablos. He ended up resigning before the season even started, and Tinsley was hired in his place. He later became an outfield, bunting and baserunning coordinator for the Diamondbacks organization and coached in the Arizona Fall League.

Tinsley returned to the major leagues in 2006 as Arizona’s first base coach. On April 15, 2007, he became one of the first ballplayers to change his uniform number to 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. While some whole teams adopted the number change, the only Diamondbacks to wear #42 were Tinsley, manager Bob Melvin and players Tony Clark, Orlando Hudson, Scott Hairston and Chris Young. Tinsley then was hired by the Mariners as first base coach and held that role from 2008 through 2010. When he was not rehired after the 2010 season, Tinsley worked as a roving outfield instructor for the Cubs organization. He was an assistant batting coach for the Cincinnati Reds in 2014 and 2015, and as recently as 2018, Tinsley was a coach in the Angels organization.

Tinsley is survived by his children, Kobie, Ethan and Nia.

Source: The Boston Globe, April 11, 1997

For more information:

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s