Sunday, September 30, 2012

#253 Dann Bilardello

Card thoughts: What’s the deal with the extra “N” on Dan? Always unusual to see a catcher at bat. It’s such an interesting position, that generally the shots (especially in this set) show the catcher in full crouch. Bilardello’s 1984 and 1985 cards are much more exciting catching action shots.

The player: Bilardello is the second of the trio of catchers the Reds used in 1985 (#143 Dave Van Gorder was covered earlier in this blog).

Drafted by the Reds in the Rule V minor league draft in 1983, Bilardello was forced onto the major league squad the entire year, skipping AAA. For a catcher, he had a decent offensive season. He hit his first major league home run off Tom Seaver, and added 8 more to go with a .238 average, while starting the majority of games at catcher (in another three way split with Alex Trevino and Alan Knicely).

Bilardello really made his mark on defense coming fourth in fielding percentage in his rookie year (.991), and catching over 40% of base stealers in both 1984 and 1985 (leading the league in that category in 1984, despite being a backup catcher).

His hitting, even allowing for the lower expectations at the catching position, was too poor to make up for his stellar defense, and he began to losing playing time to the other catchers on the Reds roster. Only 17 hits and a .167 average in the year shown on this card convinced the Reds to add him in a package deal with the Expos. Bilardello’s 212 plate appearances with the Montreal club were the most he had since his rookie season, but he still hit only .194, albeit with good power (out of 37 hits, 5 were doubles and 4 were homers).

Bilardello’s fate for the rest of his career would be the insurance, third string catcher, who spent most of the season at AAA, only to be brought up at the end of the season to give the regular catchers on the major league squad a break in September.  He filled this role with the Pirates (1987; 1989-1990), Royals (1989-1988), and Padres (1991-1992), and Mets (1993). His averages in his last four years in the majors from 1989-1992 were .225, .054, .269, and .121.

As the case with many marginal catchers, Bilardello was a natural coaching and managing candidate. From 2002-2005, and again from 2010-2011, he managed A and Short-season ball in the Dodgers and Mets organizations.

Rear guard: Bilardello was involved with much of the scoring action in the Reds 5-1 win over the Cubs on April 11. Bilardello first big league double drove in #65 Dan Driessen and Ron Oester for the first two runs. He later scored in the inning on #224 Cesar Cedeno's home run.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

#252 Bobby Castillo

Card thoughts: There’s nothing sadder than getting a card with a pitcher pitching all alone. Especially on a cloudy day in Florida. No doubt, Topps caught Castillo in a simulated game or workout session. This is the second last Topps card of a player in row. That mustache may be Castillo’s most defining characteristic as it jumps out at you on every card in his career.

The player: Castillo was drafted in 1974 by the Royals as a third baseman/outfielder. After hitting just .253 in rookie ball, he transitioned to being a pitcher. Apparently, he was loaned to the Mexican League for two seasons to hone his craft. The Dodgers eventually bought him from the Royals and assigned him to AAA Albuquerque. Castillo made his debut in relief in September and gave up 2 runs in an inning and a third.

Bouncing between Albuquerque and the big club for the next two seasons, Castillo finally made an impression in 1979 when he went 2-0 with a 1.11 ERA in 19 relief appearances. He even saved 7 games in limited opportunities. This earned Castillo a full time look, and he would have his best season as a reliever in 1980, appearing in 61 games, saving 5, and sporting a fine 2.75 ERA. The key to Castillo’s success was his mastery of the screwball, a pitch very few pitchers threw, thus making it even more baffling to hitters.

Castillo would teach his screwball to Fernando Valenzuela, thus helping launch an extraordinary career. Castillo’s took a turn for the worse, however, as he was unable to help the World Series Champion Dodgers much in ’81 as he held a plus-5 ERA. This poor performance encouraged the Dodgers to trade Castillo to the Twins in the off season for Scotti Madison, a third baseman who had torn up the California League but who never made the majors with the Dodgers.

The Twins decided to have Castillo start, and he split the 1982 season between the ‘pen and the rotation, in the process going 13-11 and winning Twins pitcher of the year honors. He was made a full time starter the following season, but it didn’t go so well, as he lost as many as he had won the previous year, but with only 8 wins. Back to relief in ’84, he was once again effective with a 1.78 ERA, but Castillo was injured most of the year.

Castillo signed as a free agent with the Dodgers in 1985, and in his final season he failed to match his early relief magic with the team as he had a 5.43 ERA as a starter and reliever. That was it for Castillo’s major league career, although he resurfaced in 1987 with Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Baseball League.

Since his retirement, Castillo has been involved with in a history project archiving Mexican-American baseball players.

Rear guard: Kind of surprised that there is no "Talkin' Baseball" on here, as some of these firsts are pretty pedestrian. Castillo's debut has already been discussed. His first win came in the 10th inning in a Padres-Dodgers game, after Mike Garman had given up a double and hit a batter. Castillo came in, walked a guy to load the bases, gave up an RBI groundout, and then got #190 George Hendrick to pop out. Ron Cey his a game winning 2-run home run in the bottom of the inning off #185 Rollie Fingers to win the game.

Monday, September 24, 2012

#251 Rich Dauer

Card thoughts: This would be Dauer’s last Topps card. He had spent his entire career with the Orioles. And with the hat off, Dauer looks like one of the coaches.

The player: Dauer was a good contact hitter, and a steady fielder at both second and third. In fact, at second he set an American League record with the most straight errorless games at second (long since broken). Dauer’s skill set bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Cubs’ second baseman Darwin Barney.

Dauer was an All-American who led his college team, USC, to two straight College World Series wins. Drafted in the first round by the Orioles, he was sent directly to AA Asheville where he hit over .300.  In ’75 he was mediocre at AAA, but repeating the league in 1976, Dauer won the International League MVP award in an odd three-way tie.

Although he debuted with the Orioles that season, and he was the opening day second baseman, Dauer ceded a substantial amount of playing time to fellow youngster Billy Smith as his average of .259 was not deemed high enough for an everyday player by manager Earl Weaver. In 1978, he finally became the regular second baseman (although he also backed up Doug Decinces at third) and hit .264, striking out only 22 times. For the 1979 Pennant Winners, Dauer hit a career high 9 home runs and drove in 61. In the World Series he hit .294, and his solo home run was the only run the Orioles would score in their Game 7 loss.

As the eighties dawned, Dauer was a mainstay at second, anchoring the Orioles infield while also filling in at third and the outfield. His best season in this stretch was in 1982 when he played in a career high 158 games and also reached highs in hits (156), and runs (75),  while hitting .280. The next season, the Orioles reached the World Series and won it this time, with Dauer contributing 3 RBIs in the effort.

Dauer’s playing time declined steadily until a weak .202 average in the year represented by this card convinced him to retire. He became a third base coach with the Royals and Indians. This is the position Dauer currently holds with the Rockies.

Rear guard: Dauer's first hit came in his first major league at bat facing the Brewers. Pitcher Jim Colborn served up a single to left. Dauer later in the game drove in Bob Bailor on a groundout to second.

Monday, September 17, 2012

#250 Dwight Gooden

Card thoughts: As a batter this season, this was the most fearsome thing you could ever imagine. Dwight Gooden, about to hurl a pitch--most likely past you. Much better shot than one taken as a rookie in the dark.

The player: As a kid, I saw Gooden throw a gem against the Cubs at Wrigley. He struck out a ton of guys, and I doubt if the Cubs even scored off him. Gooden, or "Doctor K" as he was known in his prime, was one of the most exciting young pitchers ever, comparable to Bob Feller and Kerry Wood in his success at a very young age. But with that success came a price. A heavy workload as a youngster ruined his arm, and he did not handle the early fame well, ending up as a drug addict within a few years. He truly went, as the Sports Illustrated cover story said, from phenom to phantom.

But for a three year period, before he was even 21 years old, Gooden dominated like few other pitchers in history. Featuring a nasty curve and n almost unhittable fastball, he made his first start at age 19 in 1984, and he went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, leading the league with 276 strikeouts, and easily winning the Rookie of the Year, nearly winning the Cy Young Award, and making the all star team where he struck out the side.

It was only a taste, however, of one of the most thoroughly dominating pitching seasons in baseball history. When this card was issued, Gooden was coming off a year when he would win the pitching equivalent of the Triple Crown. His league leading 1.53 ERA was second lowest in the "live ball" era (Gibson's 1.12 in the dead ball year of 1968 holds the record), he struck out 268 batters, won 24 games (completing 16), and pitched 276 2/3 innings---leading the league in all categories. It still wasn't enough to propel the Mets into the playoffs, however.

Gooden's numbers fell off a bit in 1986, as he went 17-9 with a 2.84 ERA. He did become the youngest pitcher to start an all star game at age 21. He didn't pitch well, however, giving up 2 runs in 3 innings and getting the loss. Gooden was good in the ALCS that year, but couldn't make it out of the fifth inning in any of his World Series starts, an indication that the amount of innings on Gooden's young arm was beginning to effect his performance. Another warning sign was that he missed the Mets victory parade. This was because he was too hungover after going on an all night cocaine and alcohol bender. Gooden ended up watching the game on TV at his dealer's apartment.

Gooden's cocaine troubles came to the surface in the off-season when he was arrested for the first, of many times, DWI by the Tampa police. He still did lots of cocaine all off-season, and he was suspended in spring training when it was found in his system. Gooden managed to start 25 games and go 15-7 with a respectable 3.21 ERA. The 1988 season would be a comeback year, as he went 18-9, made the all-star team, and pitch over 200 innings.

After an injury to his shoulder in 1989 limited him to 17 starts, Gooden would have one last dominant season, going 19-7 and 223 strikeouts, second n the league. Another injury in 1991 finished out the dominant period of Gooden's career. Although he went 13-7, he no longer could strikeout almost a batter an inning, and his walks and ERA climbed. a 10-13 and 12-15 record got the Mets in the subsequent two seasons led many to conclude that Gooden was done. And his behavior became more erratic. Testing positive twice for cocaine in 1994, he only made 7 starts that year, and was suspended the following season after again testing postive during his first suspension. During this time, Gooden attempted suicide.

Gooden was not resigned by the Mets, and George Steinbrenner who, whatever his faults, was always willing to give "damaged goods" another changed, signed him to pitch for the Yankees in 1996. He managed to go 11-7, and even no-hit the Mariners on May 14. But he had to be shut down at the end of the season because of arm fatigue, and his ERA was an awful 5.01.

Another mediocre season with the Yankees followed, and Gooden started for the Indians in 1998 and 1999, and pitched for the Astros, Devil Rays, and Yankees in 2000. He ended his career, mopping up in two playoff games for the Yankees.

Despite all of the troubles, Gooden ended up pitching 16 seasons. He won over 100 games by the age of 25, and only 75 after, finishing with a career record of 194-112. What could have been.

As you can probably guess, Gooden's alcohol and drug problems became even worse after his retirement, without the structure of baseball to rein him in. He even chose to go to jail for a time to kick his habits, but to no avail. If you are one of those sick people who enjoy watching the suffering of others, you can catch Gooden on the 2011 season of Celebrity Rehab.

Rear guard: Look at that. His first shutout was only a month after his first win. Gooden pitched a 4-hitter, striking out 11 in a duel against the Dodger great Fernando Valenzuela.

Ooh! 2 sacrifice flies in one game! Now I know for most of the Mets history they were seen as a kind of a loser franchise, but they did win in '69. Give em a break with the pathetic stats! Jesse Gonder (shown here on his 1964 card), was a backup catcher the Mets acquired in July for Charlie Neal and Sammy Taylor (sent to the Reds). He had only 6 sacrifice flies in his career, and his 2 in that August game were his only 2 of the year. They drove in Duke Snider with the Mets' fourth run, and Ron Hunt with the sixth.

This date in baseball history: Well, whaddya know. Our featured attraction, Dwight Gooden, strikes out 16 Phillies in 1984 to set a two game strikeout record.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

#249 Rob Deer

Card thoughts: I forgot that Deer played for the Giants. I remember him mainly as a Brewer or Tiger. This picture is taken before a game at Candlestick Park . . . which looks chilly as always. This is Deer's first base Topps card, and only one as a Giant.

The player: While Deer was not a particularly good player, he is an important harbinger of the type of player much more common today. This type of player is attempt at achieving on of the so-called Three True Outcomes. You see, when Deer came the plate, he either hit a home run, struck out, or walked. Of his 853 career hits, over a quarter were home runs. He struck out over 30% of the time in his career as well. Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, and a myriad of other high strikeout/low average power hitters now in the league: Meet your God.

Deer was already whiffing at a league leading rate in the minors, leading the California, Texas (twice), and Pacific Coast League in strikeouts for 4 years before making his debut with the Giants in 1984. Of course, he also led in home runs in 3 of those years.

He hit only 8 home runs in his first full season with 71 strikeouts and a .185 average. The Giants, feeling he would never hit with enough power at home to make up for his poor average, shipped him to the Brewers for two players who never made the majors. It turned out to be a steal for the Brewers, as Deer was the spark plug for a very successful 1987 team that won a record 12 in a row to start the season. He even made the cover of Sports Illustrated after hitting the home run that won the 12th game. For the rest of the season, Deer hit .232 with 33 homers and his usual astronomically high strikeout totals, this time not leading the league. But Deer was not just a one dimensional player, as he patrolled right field with great verve.

After four more seasons with the Brewers, where he never again hit more than 30 homers [and led the league in strikeouts in 1987 (186--then a record) and 1988 (153)], Deer signed with the Tigers. Tiger Stadium, with its short upper deck porch, was very inviting for someone with Deer's power, but he may have been too eager in 1991, his first season with the club. He hit .179, the lowest ever average for someone with enough at bats for the batting title.  Deer bounced back the next year, hitting 32 home runs (with only 64 RBIs!), and respectable .247 average. But a .217 average in 1993 was enough for the Tigers to sell him to the Red Sox. Between the two teams, he hit .210 with 21 home runs, 54 RBIs, and a league leading 169 strikeouts.

Deer went to Japan for a year, and then attempted a comeback with the Padres where he hit only .180 in 50 at bats, but with an incredible .480 slugging percentage.

Deer is now a roving batting instructor with his first team, the Giants and owns the oddly named Viz-U-Bat company, which does something I don't quite understand.

Rear guard: Deer's first homer came off Braves pitcher Rick Camp. His line that day can be a summary of his entire career: in his 3 at bats, 1 homer, 1 walk, 1 strikeout.

This date in baseball history: Huh. Before 1931 in the National League, a ball that bounced over the fence was considered a home run. Al Lopez of the Dodgers hit the last of these "bounce" homeruns in Ebbets Field in 1930.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

#248 Spike Owen

Card thoughts: “Spike” and “Butch”: Always nicknames of the “tough” kids in juvenile adventure stories. But for Spike Owen, Spike was his real name.

The player: Spike Owen was a number 1 draft pick by the Mariners after starring at the University of Texas. He sped through the minors in two years, not necessarily because he excelled (he hit only .266 over 150 games), but more because the Mariners were a terrible team that really needed a good shortstop. Owen took over in 1983 for Todd Cruz as the starting shortstop, but he only hit .196. The next year was better, as he had a career high 530 at bats and hit .249, to go with 16 steals. The next two seasons saw similar numbers for Owen, but they liked the Red Sox starting shortstop, Rey Quinones better, so the two were swapped for each other near the end of the 1986 season.

Neither player hit particularly well for their new teams, but Owen redeemed himself in the playoffs, hitting .429 in the ALCS and .300 in the World Series. In the subsequent 2 seasons as a starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, Owen performed to his norms, hitting about .245 a year and playing a good shortstop.

In 1989, Owen was once again traded for a younger shortstop (this time Luis Rivera of the Expos). He was well suited to the National League. As the eighth place hitter, Owen walked at least 70 times in both 1989 and 1990, and rarely struck out. This somewhat made up for batting around .230 both seasons. The move back to artificial turf also improved his fielding—Owen established a National League record by having 63 straight errorless games at shortstop in 1990.

Although his average improved to .269 (his career high at that point), and he continued to be an above average fielder, the Expos did not resign him after the 1992 season. For yet another time, Owen was replaced by a younger option with more potential, this time by Wil Cordero (who was a wife beater, and became one of the all-time loathed baseball players).

Owen signed a three year, highly paid contract with the Yankees, when they gave those out to every willing veteran. But he only lasted one season with the Bronx Bombers, and had to fight for playing time at short with a motley collection of spare parts, including Mike Gallego and Randy Valarde. Wanting to dump the very expensive, and rapidly aging, Owen, the Yanks pawned him off on the Angels for anonymous minor leaguer Jose Musset (21 saves at Midland that year, but a 5.49 ERA—never made the majors).

Owen had a good capstone to the last two years of his career, hitting a career best .310 in 1993 while starting at third base for the first time. A .229 average in 1995, and the expiration of his contract, signaled the end of the line for Owen.

Owen coached for many years with the Round Rock Express, the AA farm club Astros, and later the AAA club for the Rangers. He has a baseball stadium named after him in Bay View, Ohio.

Rear guard: Owen's first home run came off Doug Bird and accounted for the final tally in the Mariners 6-4 win over the Red Sox.

Bill Laxton only had 3 wins in his entire career, which was a spotty one, as he lost 10 games. His win came in relief of Tommy Moore who blew a save, although Laxton's 2 walks led to that blown save. I believe Laxton only had one card in 1977 that showed him airbrushed into a Mariners hat.

#247 Terry Harper

Card thoughts: A rare, in action Braves shot. Very sunny all around.

The player: It took Harper 11 years to reach the majors. Although he was never expected to become anything more than a spare outfielder when he came up in 1982, Harper won a starting role in left field in 1985 (when Gerald Perry moved to first base) and he made the most of it, hitting a surprising 17 home runs and 72 RBIs.

Harper was displaced as a starter for some reason in 1986 by ancient, creaky #40 Ken Griffey. Although he would play over 100 games that season, Harper only played one more in the majors after that, splitting the 1987 season between the Tigers and Pirates, hitting .246 in 130 at bats. He did play one season in Japan after his major league career was over.

Harper is now a private hitting instructor at Sports-A-Rama in East Cobb, GA.

Rear guard: The ever present gum stain. I'm not sure At-lanta needed to be put on 2 lines. Poor Tommie Aaron, always playing in the shadow of big brother Hank.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

#246 Phillies Leaders

Card thoughts: The Phillies had an off year in 1985, as they went 75-87, finishing 5th. They would rebound the subsequent season to finish in the 1st division in the NL East.

The player: #120 Steve Carlton is discussed in great length earlier in this blog. He was nearing the end of his career, and did not lead the Phillies in any pitching category. The 2nd longest tenured Phillie was fellow hall-of-famer Mike Schmidt.

Rear guard: About what you would expect on the hitting side of the leader board, except the astonishing fact that Glenn Wilson, having a career year, would lead the team in RBIs. Wilson would never again come close to 100 RBIs, and was better known for his awesome arm in right field than his hitting.

On the pitching side, a bunch of unmemorable names other than Kent Tekulve, nearing the end of a great career, and Kevin Gross, who was suspended for scuffing the ball in 1986.

This date in baseball history: Milt Pappas of the Cubs loses a perfect game in 1972 on a controversial call by the home plate umpire in 1972. After Larry Stahl walks on a 3-2 pitch, Pappas retires Gary Jestadt to get a no-hitter.