Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#428 Max Venable

Card thoughts: I always wondered how ball players, especially base stealing types, wore glasses. You would think the glare would get to you.

The player: Despite the awesome name (although his given name is William), Venable was not much of a baseball player. In high school, he was known more as a football star, and he turned down scholarships to sign with the Dodgers. He became, however, a surplus minor leaguer with them, despite once driving in over 100 runs as a leadoff hitter while at Lodi (California League). The Giants drafted him in the Rule 5 draft in 1978, and he spent ’79 as a defensive replacement and pinch runner, hitting just .165. 1980 was a bit better as he hit .268 and he ended up starting a few more games in the outfield. But in ’81, he spent most of the year at Pheonix, only getting into 18 games in the majors.

Venable once again played the role of the late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-runner in 1982, but by 1983 he was the primary back up outfielder. Despite the confidence the Giants had in him, he ended up hitting just .219. He did, however, come in second in stolen base percentage, swiping 15 bags while only being caught twice.

After a quick stop in Montreal (he was a throw-in in the Al Oliver deal), Venable landed in Cincinnati where he had his best season in 1985, hitting .289 and stealing 11 bases in 77 games. This impressed the Reds, and they made him their primary left-handed pinch hitter the following year. But he didn’t hit well in the clutch (.175 in high-leverage situations) or much overall (.211).

The Reds gave on Venable, and he spent almost the entire 1987 season at AAA Nashville, appearing in just 7 major league games. 1988 found him exiled to the Mexican League, where he hit .319 in 13 games.

Against the odds, he once again became a steady contributor with the Angels in 1990 and 1991, where he hit around .250 and played solid defense. Another two years in a foreign country (in Japan, where he hit well for the Chiba Lotte Marines), and there would not be a third chance, as his career ended in 1993.

Venable immediately became a manager in the Braves minor league system, but he couldn’t win at Idaho Falls (1994) or Danville (1995), as the talent at those levels consisted of Bruce Chen (who is still pitching), and that is about it. He was relegated to a coaching role, which he performed ably in America and Korea. Venable’s most recent gig was as the hitting coach for High Desert in the California League.

Yes, Wil Venable, long time outfielder for the Padres, is Max’s son. Another son plays in the Canadian Football League.

Rear guard: Palindromes? A frustrated English major wrote this trivia question! In World War II, Kazak was part of the D-Day operation, where he was bayoneted, and his elbow shattered by shrapnel. Despite this, he persevered and became an all-star in 1949. By 1952, he was already done in the majors. Kazak had just 1 hit in those 13 Red games that year. But Kazak didn’t give up: He played another 7 years in the minors, retiring at age 40. Kazak would never play for the Tigers, despite being shown with them on his ’53 card. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

#427 Joe Cowley

Card thoughts: I thought this Joe Cowley was this jerky Sun-times columnist, but apparently I was wrong.

The player: Cowley spent 9 years in the Braves system, but never pitched much with them in the majors—which is telling, because from 1981-1984 (when Cowley was at AAA), their major league pitching staff was no great shakes.

After essentially being released by the Braves in 1983, Cowley was picked up by the Yankees as AAA insurance for their starters. But the Yankees only had Ron Guidry and Phil Neikro as regular starters that year, and Cowley was rotated into the rotation in July. He performed surprisingly well, going 9-2 with a 3.68 ERA.

Cowley was even better in the season shown on this card. With a 12-6 record, with winning percentage was in the top ten in the league. He was helped by the Yankees high power offense, however, as his peripherals that season were pretty bad: 85 walks to 97 strikeouts, and 29 home runs given up in just over 159 innings. Cowley couldn’t even field well.

Realizing they had lightning in the bottle, the Yankees made a rare wise trade (for the time), and sent Cowley to the White Sox for Britt Burns and a few minor leaguers. With the Sox, he continued to walk tons of guys, although his strikeouts were up a tad. His 11-11 record wasn’t so great, however, although some of that can be attributed to the poor White Sox offense backing him up.

But notably, Cowley threw one of the more improbable no-hitters in major league history. You usually think of no-hitters as a crisp, well-thrown game. This was decidedly not. Cowley was in trouble all game, and at one point walked three batters in a row (with no outs). However, he got out of it by just giving up a sacrifice fly. Those three walks were out of seven on the day, and he won the game 7-1.

Cowley would never win another major league game. He went 0-2 the rest of the season, and then gave up 17 hits and 21 walks in just 11 2/3 innings with the Phillies in 1987 (he only made it past the fifth inning in one of those four starts. He gave up 7, 5, 5 and 6 runs in those starts. ). So Cowley is the last pitcher to have his last win be a no-hitter.

Rear guard: You might think Cowley was a veteran by looking at this card back, but no. Those are almost all minor league teams. Topps standard back then was if a player had less than 3 years experience, they showed the minor league record. If you squint hard, you can see he played with the Braves (tucked away in there in 1982).

As a kid, though, all those unknown towns were exciting. Cowley’s best minor league year as a starter was with Greenwood in 1978, where he went 11-7. Greenwood was part of the now defunct Western Carolinas League (which changed its name in 1979 to the South Atlantic League). Greenwood had been a Braves affiliate since 1969, but didn’t survive the initial transition to the South Atlantic League (they later had three years as a Pirates affiliate).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

#426 Brewers Leaders

Card thoughts: The Brewers finished in 6th place in the AL East with 90 losses. They were an aging team, still trying to hold on to the veteran hitters than brought them the pennant in '82. Unfortunately, they never developed many young pitchers in the intervening years.

The player: Another prominent Brewer to make their debut in 1973: Gorman Thomas.

Rear guard: The surprise here is that Robin Yount didn't lead the team in any offensive category. A shoulder problem limited him to just 122 games. Teddy Higuera, a 27-year old rookie from the Mexican League, made a big splash with the Brewers in '85. And I do not remember Danny Darwin being on the Brewers.