Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#409 Paul Runge

Card thoughts: Remember that Seinfeld episode when Elaine was dating a guy named Joel Rifkin, who apparently was also the name of some famous serial killer in New York City? Pity Paul Runge, who has the similar fate. His namesake killed 7 people in the Chicago area. He is also NOT the same person as major league umpire Paul Runge.

Otherwise, I love it when Topps gives a forgettable player (if not name) a great action shot on his card. Honestly, whether a star like Nolan Ryan is just sitting there, with his boring head filling the card, doesn’t matter to a kid. I mean, you’ve got a Nolan Ryan card! But this Paul Runge card is a joy to own, simply because of the artistry. On a cloudy spring training day, Runge, playing short, forces Hubie Brooks out at second in an attempt to complete a double play. Was he successful? Who knows? Only the first part of the play is immortalized for all time.

The player:  Runge is that most “common” baseball player, the utility infielder (maybe the third string catcher comes close). Unlike most guys like this that make the majors, he was a more offensively than defensively gifted player. After piling up the errors at short, Runge was moved to second base by his second year of AAA. His best year in the minors came at Richmond, where he scored 106 runs, and had an .836 OPS.

While he would get small pieces of action in the majors from 1981-1984, the season shown on this card was the first in which he stayed the whole year on the club. Mostly playing as a backup to third baseman Ken Oberkfell, he hit just .218 in 110 at bats.

Runge was back in the minors most of the next season, as #107 Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas gobbled up most of the middle infield action. Runge was once again up for an entire season in 1988, once again playing mostly at third, but the results were similar to ’85.

After a few more years as a veteran presence at AAA with the Padres and Blue Jays organizations, Runge went into the minor league managing game, managing various Braves teams, mostly the short-season Danville Braves where he won two league championships. He’s now the minor league infield coordinator for the Astros organization.

Rear guard: Amazingly, three of Runge's four career homers came in just 54 at bats during the 1987 season. His other, and first, homer came off Phillies pitcher Jerry Koosman.

Ralph Garr was a great line drive hitter as a young man, but never had much power. With just 9 home runs in 1971, almost a quarter of his home runs came in the 10th and 12th innings of that game on May 17th. Here's Garr's card representing that season.

Monday, April 7, 2014

#408 Dave Smith

Card thoughts: When the Cubs were bad, boring, and flailing in the early 90s, one of the mistakes they made over and over again was paying too much money to over the hill closers. This is one of their worst signings.

The player: There was no indication (other than age) that Smith would bomb with the Cubs. For 11 years, Smith was an awesome reliever, and still holds the Astros all time record for appearances, wins in relief, relief innings, and games finished.

Smith came up to the Astros in the days when closer duties were shared. With Frank LaCorte and Joe Sambito also closing, rookie Smith’s 1.93 ERA was the best of the trio. His out pitch was the changeup, said to be unhittable even when batters knew it was coming.  In the playoffs that year and the next, he was inconsistent in middle relief.

Smith would pitch mostly in middle relief from 1981-1984 with the Astros rotating through the likes of #26 Frank DiPino and Bill Dawley as closers. By 1985, he was closing most games, and saved over 20 games for the first time in his career.

Off the field, Smith was known as a laid-back “California dude” who tipped generously and was a mentor to younger pitchers. His change-up was well suited to the spacious Astrodome, where flyballs went to die. Smith would not have an ERA above 3 from 1984 to 1990, and he made the all star team after saving 33 games in 1986, and 23 in 1990.

The Cubs ignored Smith’s age (35 at the time) and the fact that his home field (and division) aided his pitching when they signed him to a lucrative 2-year contract in the 1990 offseason (it was a horrible off-season for the Cubs—they also signed Danny Jackson (29) and #338 George Bell (31) well past their primes). After going 4 for 4 in save opportunities in April, Smith promptly started blowing saves left and right in May. He righted himself a bit in June then lost the closer’s job to Paul Assenmacher in July. Mercifully, Smith was shut down with an injury soon after (how he managed to save 17 games with an ERA north of 6, I’ll never know).

He would pitch well in briefly 1991, but was once again limited by injury, effectively ending his career. In retirement, Smith was the pitching coach for a time for the Padres. He died at the relatively young age of 53 of a heart attack in 2008.

Rear guard: Bob Watson later became the vice president of major league baseball. He scored 802 runs in his career, 640 with the Astros.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

#407 Sal Butera

Card thoughts: I hate the T-Shirt look. Along with the casual way Butera is swinging his bat, I feel like I’m witnessing a beer-league softball game. This is Butera’s first Topps card since the 1983 set.

The player: The classic backup catcher, Butera moved around a lot in an era when that wasn’t as common as today. Despite only playing 9 years in the majors, Butera played with 5 different teams. Butera was signed by the Twins in 1972 as an undrafted free agent, although it appears he was loaned to both the White Sox and Yankees his first two pro years. At any rate, Butera couldn’t hit, and often backed up better prospects in the minors including  John Lochnar and Ray Smith. But despite this, Butera had a better career than both of these guys and 8 years after he was signed, he finally made his major league debut in 1980.

Butera was the starting catcher in 1981, but #184 Tim Laudner was coming on strong in the minors, so he was relegated to a backup role once again in 1982, where he hit .254 with a .617 OPS.

The Twins found themselves with a surplus of catchers in 1983, with Dave Engle shifting there from the outfield. So Butera was shipped to the Tigers for the unforgettably named Stine Poole. He only played 4 major league games with the Tigers before he was released. Once again, he played mostly in the minors for the Expos, his new team, before catching on with the big club as the third catcher for the 1985 season. In his full-time return to the majors, Butera hit just .200.

As part of a big deal after the season, Butera was sent to the Reds where he hit a little better (.239 in 56 games). After just 5 games the following year, he was released, which fortuitous for Sal, as the team that signed him (the Twins, once gain) won the World Series that year. Butera started one game in the ALCS going 2 for 3, and came in as a defensive replacement for Tim Laudner in Game 4.

After not being able to make up their mind on whether to keep Butera (he was resigned but released before the 1988 season), his career ended with a whimper, as he hit just .233 in 23 games with Toronto.

After his playing days Butera, like many other good field no hit catchers, went into managing. He helmed several Astros minor league clubs and spent his final year managing the Twins AA club, going 65-77. His son, Drew Butera, has caught in the majors for the Twins and the Dodgers and is an even worse hitter than his dad (career OPS: .491). 

Rear guard: Ron LeFlore was famously signed out of prison by the Tigers. He was one of the best base stealers in the game before Rickey Henderson emerged in the late 70s. He stole 97 bases in 1980, but after being signed by the White Sox the next season, his career went into rapid decline (perhaps because he had lied about his age . . . he always claimed to be 4 years younger than he was). Here's LeFlore's 1981 card.