Wednesday, January 30, 2013

#304 Mike Gallego

Card thoughts: Gallego looks like he's 14 in this picture.

The player: Gallego’s career was shows the value of being a good fielding utility infielder: Hang around long enough, and you might get a starting job. A very small man by baseball standards (standing just 5’8” and weighing in at 160 lbs), Gallego had a hard time driving the ball until later in his career.

Gallego was just starting his major league career when this card was issued. But he almost didn’t make it, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer as a 22-year-old minor leaguer. At this point in his career, he generally appeared in the late innings at shortstop or second base. He only played 10 entire games in 1985, all at second. The reason was probably his lack of extra base power and .208 average.

That average kept him in the minors for most of the following season, but his .701 OPS got him back to the majors for good by 1987. As part of the A’s dynasty of the late 80s/early 90s, Gallego’s role was generally to sacrifice guys over, or make productive outs, so the big RBI men on the club (Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire) could knock them in. He gained his first starting role in 1989, as he supplanted Walt Weiss at the position while the latter worked through his sophomore jinx.  Manager Tony LaRussa started him in the ALCS, but opted for Weiss in the World Series. Gallego hit .273 in the ALCS.

With Weiss back starting at short the following year, Gallego shifted back to a utility role, although he led the league with 17 sacrifice hits. With the collection of veterans the A’s had been starting at second the previous few years gone by 1991, Gallego was named starter at that position and he had his best season, reaching highs in games (159), runs (67), hits (119), home runs (12), and OPS (.712).

On the strength of that season, he signed a big three-year contract with the Yankees for over $5 million. But other than the 1993 season, when he set a career high with 51 RBIs, he never came close to 1991 again.  A broken wrist after being hit by a pitch in 1992 limited him to around 50 games, and he lost playing time to Randy Velarde in 1994.

After a year back with his original team (Oakland), Gallego signed with the Cardinals for the 1996 season. He set a dubious record that year, as he had the most straight hits without an extra base hit as a non-pitcher in the modern era.

Gallego played his last game July 23, 1997. He is currently the third base coach for the A’s, and can be found on twitter.

Rear guard: All the highlights are from the season just ended when this card was issued. Gallego broke camp with the A's, and made his debut subbing for Alfredo Griffin at short in the late innings in a blowout. Notice it would be another 4 months before he drove anyone in (it was Steve Henderson, and came in the 8th inning after he entered the game, once again, as a defensive replacement for Alfredo Griffin.) 

Monday, January 28, 2013

#303 Curt Wardle

Card thoughts:  Another player with a “cheeky” smile. This would be Wardle’s first--and last--Topps card. Fleer issued a card of him in 1985.

The player: Yet another of the terrible starting pitchers the Indians trotted out in 1985, Wardle was originally drafted by the Minnesota Twins (after being drafted by three other teams). Mostly a reliever in the minors, he caught their attention in 1984 with a 0.69 ERA and 17 saves at AA Orlando.

Wardle started the season represented on this card in the ‘pen for the Twins, but struggled mightily with a 5.51 ERA. In what turned out to be a really bad trade for the Indians, they traded future hall of fame pitcher Bert Blyleven to the Twins for Wardle, Jay Bell (who found success after being sent to the Pirates), Jim Weaver (never pitched in the majors for the Tribe), and Rich Yett (bad middle reliever). For some inexplicable reason, the Indians tried to make Wardle a starter for the rest of the season. The result was terrible, as his ERA was a stratospheric 6.68, and only a third of his starts were quality starts. Wardle was even AWOL for a time when, after a two-day player strike, he couldn’t be found.

Wardle’s last major league appearance came this season at age 24, when he pitched to one batter on the second to last day of the season (Kent Hrbek), who lined out. He hung around a few years in the minors with the Indians and A’s organizations, before exiting pro baseball at age 26.

Rear guard: The Indians were called the "Naps" in 1909 when Ball completed his unassisted triple play. It was against the Red Sox, and was the "standard" unassisted triple play behind second (caught a line drive as the runners were moving, stepped on second, and tagged the man advancing from first). The play was behind Cy Young, and was done so quickly, no one on the field or in the stands really knew what was happening. Young apparently asked Ball why he was leaving the field. The glove that made the play is now in the hall of fame. 

Here's a "pin" of Neal Ball that was inserted into American Tobacco pouches in 1910.

Friday, January 25, 2013

#302 Greg Gross

Card thoughts: This action shot is almost a mirror image of the one shown on Gross’ 1984 card. Also, for those with long memories, this is not a Garbage Pail Kid card (also manufactured by Topps). That is “Gross Greg.” For those still snickering, I remind you that "gross" means "large" in German, which is the etymology of Greg's surname.

The player: As an outfielder with absolutely no power and little strength (almost all of his hits were to the opposite field, and few went more than 250 feet), Gross’ usefulness was limited. But he made the most of his talent, playing good fundamental defense and becoming a valuable left-handed pinch hitter later in his career.

Gross peaked early. His rookie season (when he earned a Topps All Star Rookie card) was his best. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting on the strength of his 185 hits, .314 average, and .393 on base percentage. As the leadoff hitter, Gross was expected to steal bases. However, he really only had average speed, which explains how he was only successful 37% of the time. His 20 times caught stealing set a rookie record.

Gross continued to be a valuable leadoff hitter the next two seasons with the Astros, as he always got on base at a good clip. But the fact that he had no power and no speed meant that he was essentially a two-tool player. Seeking a more well-rounded outfielder, the Astros sent him to the Cubs for Julio Gonzalez. When Gross left the Astros he still had not hit a home run.

With the Cubs, Gross began his long career as a fourth outfielder/pinch hitter. The Cubs had a solid outfield with Jose Cardenal, Bobby Murcer, and Rick Monday so there wasn’t room for him to start. But he probably should have started, as he hit .322 and even slugged a respectable .460 (he hit his first 5 home runs that season).

Gross spent one more year with the Cubs (card here) before being traded once again, this time to the team he would be most associated with, the Phillies. He thought he should be starter, but acknowledged the fact that the Phillies had stars at every position. Despite once again losing most of his power (he would only hit one more home run in his career, in 1987), Gross had finally found a home. Highlights include getting 3 pinch hits in 4 at bats in the 1980 NLCS and hitting .358 as a pinch hitter in 1982.  He also pitched twice in blowouts, striking out two Expos in 1986, and after relieving another position player in 1989 (#298 Craig Reynolds), he gave up three runs against the Pirates.

Gross finished his career with the Astros in 1989, where he struggled as a pinch hitter, hitting only .187 in that role. After sitting out the 1990 season, he attempted a comeback with the Padres, and then the Red Sox. Looking back on his career, Gross was realistic. “I’ve enjoyed my career, I really have,” he said. “ . . . I wanted to play every day, sure, but it didn’t work out for me. But I found that niche and it worked out. I’d rather have the longevity [than starting everyday].”

Gross worked in the minors as a hitting coach, and was the bench coach for the Phillies in 2001, and their hitting coach from 2002 to 2004, and again from 2010 up through this past season (he was not retained for 2013). There is a golf tournament named after him (the Greg Gross Open) that is held annually in Northbrook, IL.

Rear guard: Gross had a typical season in 1985: Only 7 extra base hits in 169 at bats. His average was a little sub par (he had hit close to .300 his last 3 seasons), and his season ended in September when he broke his little finger.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

#301 Dennis Rasmussen

Card thoughts: Rasmussen looks like he’s wooing some baseball Betty in the stands. He’s got his glove over heart and a yearning, puppy dog expression on his face.

The player: Rasmussen followed the trajectory of many lefties. He showed a lot of promise in the minors, but high pitch counts and an inability to “finish off” batters, kept him in the minors longer than he would have done otherwise.

A first round draft pick by the Angels, he was traded straight up to the Yankees for Tommy John; the Yankees traded him a year later to the Padres for John “The Count” Montefusco; and then the Padres traded him back to the Yankees for Graig Nettles. The potential of Rasmussen must have been off the charts, because his minor league numbers certainly didn’t equal a Graig Nettles or Tommy John.

Rasmussen struggled with consistency the first few years of his major league career. He was involved in a war of words instigated by Bobby Cox after he brushed back Willie Upshaw after consecutive home runs by Jorge Bell and Jesse Barfield. Cox repeatedly used sexist terminology when describing Rasmussen’s actions, referring to him as “she.”

I found a mini card of Dennis Rasmussen from 1987, which means that he was considered a star pitcher that season. 1986 was certainly Rasmussen’s career year. He won 18 games (4th in the league) and had a .750 winning percentage. But Rasmussen was more of a beneficiary of good run support than doing anything differently than in the past.

The Yankees must have believed that year was a fluke as well, and they soon traded him to the Reds, after threatening to send him to the minors after a slow start. He improved considerably with the Reds, going 4-1 down the stretch.
But once again, Rasmussen struggled early in the season, and the Reds lost patience almost as fast as the Yankees, dealing him to the Padres just before he was supposed to make a start against them on June 8th. As was now a pattern, Rasmussen’s year revived after the trade, and he went 14-4 with a 2.55 ERA with the Padres, finishing the year a combined 16-10.

But in 1989, Rasmussen really started struggling with his control, and he was never more than an average pitcher afterwards. He walked (72) almost as many as he struck out (87) that season; even worse, the following year he gave up a league leading 28 home runs, despite pitching the majority of his games in the old National League West, where only Atlanta could be considered a hitter’s park.

After a 6-13 record in 1991, to all intents and purposes his major league career was done, as he spent the majority of 1992 to 1995 at AAA for a variety of clubs. (He was briefly a Cub, which I do not remember. In his only start for them on June 27th, he went only 4 innings and gave up 3 runs).

After his playing days were done, Rasmussen coached for a time in the minors.

Rear guard: Rasmussen's first major league win was also his first 10-strikeout performance.  He went 8 innings and didn't give up a run (and only 2 hits). Still, he was not allowed to complete the shutout (unusual in those days).

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

#300 George Brett

Another 100 cards down! Carlton Fisk has surpassed Steve Yeager as the most popular post, despite being only a month old. This is what happens when a post closely follows a news story about a player (in this case, Fisk's DUI).

Card thoughts: The last “100” card was also a Hall of Fame, third baseman.

The player: Brett is perhaps the best third baseman I’ve ever seen play. More of an all-around player than Schmidt, Brett was a gap hitter that ranked in the top ten in every offensive category one time or another in his career. He came from good genes: All of his brothers played pro ball.

With such a long and storied career, it might be best to carve it into 5 or so year chunks.

1973-1977: Drafted as a shortstop, Brett was moved to third and was named the starting third baseman in 1974, more as a testament to his strong arm and range than his bat. Struggling at the all-star break that season, he turned to hitting coach Charlie Lau who rebuilt his swing. He ended up hitting .282 and was third in rookie of the year voting.

Hitting third in the lineup, Brett showed great gap power in 1975 and 1976, leading the league both years in hits and triples. In 1976, George Brett, teammate Hal McRae and opponents Lyman Bostock and Rod Carew were all within percentage points of each other for the batting crown on the last day of the season. Each could have won it in that game, but Brett went 2 for 4, his last hit an inside the park home run. McRae was up next and grounded out. He had won the title by .001 points. Against the Yankees that year in the ALCS, he hit .444.

1978-1982: These were the most dramatic five years of Brett’s career. Brett led in doubles with 45 during the ’78 season, and in the ALCS, Brett hit three home runs and swatted .389 in a losing cause. After what was now a standard year for him (leading the league in hits (212) and triples (20)), he wowed the nation by almost hitting .400 in 1980, despite only playing in 117 cams. Brett ended up hitting .390 (and driving in a career high 118 runs) en route to his only MVP award.

1982-1986: This era started with the famous pine tar incident. In a game at Yankee Stadium, Brett hit what appeared to be a go ahead home run off Goose Gossage. However, manager Billy Martin complained that the pine tar on Brett’s bat was above the allowed amount. He was called out, the home run invalidated, and the win given to the Yankees. Brett went ballistic, and had to be restrained from decking home plate umpire Tim McClellan. Eventually, AL president Lee McPhail overruled the umpires, and the game was resumed at a later date (the Yankees lost). It was such a seminal moment in baseball history that Fleer made a card of it.

As Brett aged he continued to hit well, but he generally hit in the lower .300s, rather than the higher .300s earlier in his career. He had sacrificed some of his hitting for average for power hitting, and he led the league in slugging in 1983 (.563) and 1985 (.565).

1987-1993: Brett was still a great hitter in this era, although it was obvious he was slowing down. However, he did have on more great season in him, as he led the league in doubles (45) and hitting (.329) in 1990 at age 37. Even in his last season, he had 19 home runs and 75 RBIs while designated hitting.

Brett finished with over 3,000 hits and is 6th all-time in doubles (665). He was voted to the hall of fame on the first ballot in 1999. Brett continues his long time association with the Royals, serving as their vice president. He tried to buy the Royals in 1998, but had to settle for owning minor league baseball and hockey teams.

Rear guard: With all of Brett's accomplishments, he only hit over 30 home runs once in his career, and this card came out right after he's reached that mark.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

#299 Bryn Smith

Card thoughts: Return of the glowing Expo! “Bryn” almost rhymes with “grim” which is how he looked on most of his cards. Another word about the unusual first name: It is an acronym of his grandfather’s first and middle names.

The player: Smith was a .500 pitcher who had trouble staying healthy throughout an entire season. The season that Smith had just completed (1985) when this card was issued was by far his best.

Smith was originally drafted by the Orioles, but was advanced slowly in the minors, despite having three standout seasons. He was sent, along with Rudy May and Randy Miller to the Expos in 1977 for Joe Kerrigan, Gary Roenicke, and Don Stanhouse. 

With the Expos, the pattern repeated, with Bryn continuing to have great success in the minors, without getting much of a chance in the majors. Perhaps this is because he his out pitch was the little used palm ball, and his fastball was just average.

Finally, after 7 years, Smith got his chance in 1982. In that season and the following one, he was mainly a middle reliever. Smith finally got a chance as a full time starter in 1984, and although the win loss record (12-13) doesn’t reflect it, as he had a low 3.32 ERA.

He really came into his own in 1985, where he set career highs in wins (18-6th in the NL), innings pitched (222 1/3) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.02). In addition, he placed in the top ten in ERA (2.91) and home runs per nine innings (0.486). Despite this, Smith was not chosen for the all star game.

The next several seasons Smith pitched in Montreal were very consistent. He generally averaged about 20 decisions a year, and would win 10-12 games, with a near equivalent number of losses.

But Bryn had some issues with playing in Montreal, especially with the lack of Doritos which he would have to cross over the New York to buy (couldn’t he have just bought a case on a road trip?). Whether it was the poor Frito Lay (brand) variety available in Montreal, the wood fire roasted bagels, or the poutine, he became a free agent and signed with the Cardinals. He was injured a lot of 1990 (he went a standard 9-8), but had his last good season in 1991 when he managed to stay healthy much of the year. His 12-9 record and 3.85 ERA were the best numbers he had put up since 1988. But in 1992 he barely made it on the field, and was snapped up for some reason by the Rockies in the expansion draft.

One thing you don’t want to add to a Rockies staff is a soft tossing righty, and despite getting the first win in Rockies history (an 11-4 victory over his former team, the Expos), he was released in June with an 8.49 ERA and a 2-4 record.

He’s currently coaching in a summer wood bat league in California.

Rear guard: Smith's first major league shutout was a 6-hitter against the Giants. Despite it being 4-7 after this win, he had a 2.47 ERA. In the game, he walked none and struck out seven.

Adolfo Phillips' best years were behind him (as the centerfielder for the Cubs) before he came to the Expos in 1969 in exchange for light hitting first baseman Paul Popovich. Phillips scored only 270 runs in an eight year career, despite his great speed. Here's his 1970 card (number 666!).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

#298 Craig Reynolds

Card thoughts: Good shot of Reynolds’ front foot, slap hitting style.

The player: Reynolds had an unusual batting stance, much like many Japanese players. He would have all of his weight on his front foot, and slap at the ball. This may have been a result for Reynolds overcompensating for vertigo. Despite this, he had a good eye and was a good triples hitter.

Drafted by the Pirates, Reynolds hit for a high average in the minors, but with absolutely no power. Now, there are two types of shortstops that (generally) make it to the majors: The flashy guy who has incredible range and arm, but will make his share of errors (think #72 Shawon Dunston). And then there is the steady guy, who may not have the range and arm of the flashy player, but will make fewer mistakes. Reynolds fell into the latter category.

With speedy Frank Tavarez manning short for the Pirates, Reynolds didn’t get much of a chance to break into the lineup. He got his big break when he was traded to the expansion Seattle Mariners for Grant Jackson. Reynolds played in the first ever Mariners game in 1977 and got 2 hits. The next season, he was hitting over .300 at the All Star break and was selected to the team. He set many career highs that season including hits (160), batting average (.292), and OPS (.710).

In a good trade for both teams, Reynolds was sent to the Astros in 1979 for #64 Floyd Bannister. He proceeded to lead the league in sacrifice hits (with an astonishing 34), and make his second straight All Star Game when a disgruntled #90 Garry Templeton refused to take part. Reynolds is the only player in history to play shortstop in consecutive All Star games with different leagues.

Perhaps his finest season came in the strike shortened 1981 campaign, when he tied a record on my 6th birthday by hitting three triples in one game. Reynolds would tie for the league lead with 12.

When #166 Dickie Thon became the everyday shortstop in 1982, Reynolds was relegated to backup duty in 1982 and 1983. But with the beaning of Thon in 1984, Reynolds was once again called on to start. With Thom missing lots of time in the next several seasons, Reynolds shared the position with him until 1987. With the arrival of #107 Rafael Ramirez in 1988, he spent his last two years as a utility infielder.

Reynolds is currently a pastor at a mega church outside of Houston.

Rear guard: Reynolds' first hit was off a hall of famer Tom Seaver. He singled to left, but was out at second as left fielder John Milner prevented him from turning the single into a double.