Thursday, October 31, 2013

#370 Vince Coleman

Card thoughts: On the verge of one of the most spectacular rookie seasons ever, I remember just being completely afraid, everytime Coleman was on base. You just knew he’d steal at least second (and probably third), and no one was going to catch him. Think: Billy Hamilton

The player:  What is it about champion base stealers? Like Rickey Henderson, Coleman’s arrogance eventually alienated many of his teammates. Unlike Rickey, he didn‘t have the all-around talent to back up his lofty pronouncements of his talent.

Coleman began setting base stealing records in college, and he continued while in the minors. Despite missing a month with a broken hand, Coleman stole an incredible 145 bases at Macon (South Atlantic League) in 113 games in 1983, which was the minor league record before Billy Hamilton broke it a year ago. He stole another 101 bases at Louisville, as he bounced up two and half levels in 1984.

Coleman came up with the Cardinals when Tito Landrum was injured early in 1985, and he immediately started stealing up a storm, ending up with a rookie record 110 steals (and the third highest total in major league history). Coleman was a perfect fit for spacious, astroturfed Busch Stadium, although, despite his great speed, he wasn't much of a left fielder.

However, there were some bumps on the way to his unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year. When he was compared  to Jackie Robinson, he claimed not to know who he was. And the speed masked the fact that Coleman was just an average hitter, who didn’t walk much for a guy with no power (his 115 strikeouts were sixth in the league).

Another pitfall that was not Coleman’s fault occurred when he was stretching in the outfield during the NLCS. While he was stretching, the automatic tarp unrolling machine started up, and rolled over his leg, incapacitating him for the World Series. Tito Landrum, Coleman’s replacement, hit .360 in the series, but they missed his speed.

Coleman would go on to lead the league in steals for all six seasons he was with the Cardinals, including having over 100 steals in each of his first three seasons. He finally made the all star team in both 1989 and 1990. A highlight of this period was Coleman’s 50 straight steals in 1990.

As one of the top leadoff men in baseball, Coleman was highly sought after when he declared free agency after the 1990 season. He eventually signed a four-year contract with the Mets. The Mets were in their most dysfunction phase in the early 90s, with former stars #250 Dwight Gooden and #80 Daryl Strawberry dealing with substance abuse issues and injuries. Unfortunately, the addition of Coleman added to this dysfunction (although he did replace Strawberry). A myriad of injuries kept Coleman from playing in more than 100 games in any of the years for played for the Mets. Even worse, leg injuries sapped his speed, which was his only plus tool. When Coleman was on the field, he caused a myriad of problems including:

--Ignoring coaches’ steal signals on the basepaths
--Fighting with coach Mike Cubbage (and thereby showing up manager Bud Harrelson) when he hit out of order in batting practice
--Claiming that the poor playing surface at Shea Stadium was keeping him out of the Hall of Fame (since he couldn’t steal)
--Recklessly swinging a golf club in the Mets clubhouse, injuring Dwight Gooden’s arm
--And most notoriously, hurling a firecracker into a crowd of autograph seekers at Dodger Stadium, injuring three people including a little girl.

Tiring of Coleman’s antics, the Mets sent him to the Royals in 1994 for way more than they should have gotten, slugger Kevin McReynolds. Although he was able to play in more games with the Royals, and stole 50 bases, Coleman was now viewed as damaged goods, a mercurial, arrogant player prone to injury. He did seem to clean up his act once he got to Kansas City, but he was on the move often in his last few years in baseball, going from the Royals, to the Mariners, to the Tigers, and to the Reds as little more than a backup outfielder. He ended his career at AAA Louisville in 1998 when he didn’t get called up by the Cardinals.

Despite his career as a regular basically being over at age 28, Coleman still ranks sixth all-time in stolen bases, and had a remarkable career steal rate of 80%. Since retirement, he has been a minor league base stealing instructor for the Cubs and other teams.

Rear guard: Coleman would only hit 28 career home runs, and his first was an inside-the-park home run off #24 Len Barker

Everyone knows about Joe Cunningham right? Well, Joe seemed like a good prospect, but he never really panned out. He only hit 9 more home runs the rest of 1954, and only 64 over a 12-year career with the Cardinals, White Sox, and Senators. Here's his "collage" card from 1955.

Monday, October 28, 2013

#369 Al Holland

Card thoughts: This would be Al Holland's only card as an Angel, and last Topps card. Interestingly, I believe this photo was taken on the same day as the players he was traded with.

The player: Holland was a dominant reliever in 1982 and 1983, winning the Rolaids Fireman of the Year award in 1983 (I miss the prominence this award once had—it tallied saves, wins, and losses in relief, in a more complete assessment of a reliever). But like many players who happened to play on the Phillies or Pirates in the mid-80s, he was caught up in the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985, forever tarnishing his name.

A rare fireballing lefty, Holland was an intimidating presence on the mound. Nicknamed “Mr.T” (for the amount of gold chains?), Holland burst on the scene in 1980, posting a 1.75 ERA in 82+ relief innings with the Giants. Although his ERA rose about a run each year he was a Giant, in 1982 at least, it was because he was tried as a starter early in the season, which didn’t go too well (2-3, 1.487 WHIP in 7 starts).

Despite his dominance, Holland wasn’t used much as a closer with the Giants. That all changed when he was sent to the Phillies in a block buster deal (with Joe Morgan) for #135 Mark Davis and Mike Krukow. The deal was a win for both teams, especially when Holland saved 25 games for the World Series bound Phillies in 1983. In the postseason, he gave up no earned runs, although a costly error behind him in Game 3 of the World Series led to a Phillie loss, which would turn out to be Holland’s last post season game.

Arguably even better in 1984 (29 saves, selection to an all star game), it all fell apart for Holland the season shown on this card. The Pirates were dumping salary, and he was sent to them for veteran #326 Kent Tekulve.  The Pirates had been awash in cocaine for the past several seasons, and Holland got caught up in the drug culture while there for 38 games (although, he’d apparently been using since his Giant days). Whether it was drug abuse, or the team’s realization that they were going nowhere in 1985, he was traded a second time to the Angels in another huge deal, involving previous blog subjects #140 John Candelaria, #190 George Hendrick and #114 Mike Brown.  

This turned out to be a bad deal, with regards to Holland, for the Angels (although he had a 1.48 ERA in 15 games). Perhaps aware of his drug use, they didn’t attempt to sign him in 1986. The Yankees had that misfortune, and was suspended for 60 games at the beginning of the season. This prompted the Yankees to release and sign Holland 2 more times that season.

Through all the turmoil, Holland put up bad numbers in both 1986, and a brief spell in 1987. By August, he was through, his career derailed by addiction.

Holland has remained in baseball, last serving as a minor league pitching coach for the Johnson City, the Cardinals rookie league team.

Rear guard: Strange, that Topps would cite a 9 strikeout game. Commonly, games of 10 or more strikeouts are considered "special". After being used as a reliever most of the year, Holland was put in the 4-man rotation at the end of the year. His 9 strikeouts came in an 8 inning no-decision against the Padres. Holland's final strikeout victim was pinch hitter Steve Swisher.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

#368 Greg Brock

Card thoughts: Brock reminds me a little of #180 Don Mattingly in this picture.

The player:  Greg Brock unenviably had to fill Steve Garvey’s shoes after the former departed via free agency. And for a while, it looked like he would. In early 1983, Brock was hitting everything in sight, posting a .988 OPS the first month of the season. Unfortunately, Brock never hit that well again, ending up as a serviceable, but not spectacular, starting first baseman.

Like many Dodgers hitting prospects before him, Brock tore up the minors. Part of the reason was the top Dodger farm clubs were in the hitter friendly cities of San Antonio and Albuquerque. Brock never had a OPS under .900 in his four year minor league career, topping out with a .310/.432/.663 line at Albuquerque in 1982. But Dodger stadium (and the West Coast) is not the desert, and Brock’s power disappeared in the cool night air of LA.

He actually wasn’t terrible as a rookie, hitting 21 homers, and earning some votes for Rookie of the Year. But Brock was overhyped by manager Tommy Lasorda and announcer Vin Scully, perhaps to take some of the sting off the Garvey departure. This was unfair to Brock, and something he would never live down in Los Angeles. In the end, his .224 average didn’t remind anyone of Garvey (although his 83 walks were impressive).

A wrist injury in 1984 cut his playing time. When he recovered, Brock was sent to Albuquerque for a while due to a prolonged slump, but he was fully healthy by the time this card was issued. He did raise his average above .250 in 1985, but his power numbers were just barely above average for a first baseman (19 2B, 21 HR). Brock also hit terribly in the NLCS, swatting .083.

Brock was not with the Dodgers by the time they made it back to the playoffs in 1988, as he was traded to the Brewers for two key components of that team, pitchers Tim Crews and Tim Leary. Perhaps relieved to be out from under the shadow of Garvey, Brock turned in best major league season in 1987, with career highs in runs (81), hits (159), doubles (29), runs batted in (85) and batting average (.299). But ’87 was a hitters’ year, and Brock slumped to his career norms the following season.

Brock would spend the rest of his Brewer career as a replacement level player, battling injuries, and never again showing the potential he had finally realized in 1987. His days were numbered as a player when star #267 Paul Molitor was moved to first in 1991. Brock requested a trade, but there were no takers. Finally released a few months into the season, he spent a bit of time with the White Sox AAA club, where he had just 1 hit in 7 at bats before retiring.  The man that would be Garvey ended his career with a .248 average and a .737 OPS, poor numbers for a power position like first base.

Rear guard: That grand slam was recently referenced on this Dodger blog, as a comparison to similarly touted prospect Jerry Sands, who also has struggled to live up to his billing as a Dodger.

Maury Wills should need no introduction. One of the premier leadoff men (and base stealers) of the 1960s, he never hit over 6 home runs in a season, and had only 20 in a 14-year career. But everything was going his way in 1962, when he won the MVP award. Of course, the hapless expansion Mets were his victims. Both of his home runs were solo shots, and one was an inside-the-park job. Oh, and Sandy Koufax was starting and gave up 6 runs and 13 hits in a complete game. That kind of overuse really killed his career.

Okay, this is kind of crazy. I was unaware that Maury Wills had not been issued a Topps card prior to 1967. The story goes that Topps didn't sign him to a "$5" card contract as a minor leaguer, because they felt there was no way he'd ever make the majors. By the time they realized their mistake, he had signed an "exclusive" contract with Fleer, resulting in this card. Which makes Topps "Turn Back the Clock" card from 1987, doubly hilarious, as they created a pretend card of Maury Wills from 1962 for use on the card!

Monday, October 21, 2013

#367 Auerlio Lopez

Card thought: This is the last time Lopez was appear as a Tiger on a Topps card. He was an Astro by the following season. Interesting note: Lopez’ previous two Topps cards show him in almost identical poses.

The player: Lopez was a star in the Mexican League way before he made it to the majors for good at age 30.  There’s even a statue of him in his hometown.

Lopez started in the Mexican minor leagues, but was soon promoted the “majors" in 1968, at age 19. He had several outstanding seasons in the Mexican League, leading the Mexico City Reds to the World Series in 1974, and winning 19 games in 1977 (as a closer!), earning MVP honors along the way. He was known in Mexico as The Vulture of Tecamachalco.

Lopez was first brought to the American “major leagues” while on loan from Mexico City to the Royals in 1974. Used for the stretch drive that season, he had a mediocre 5.63 ERA in 8 games. His contract was bought back by Mexico City, and he wouldn’t again appear stateside until the Cardinals bought him in 1978.

Permanently a major leaguer now, he was swifty traded to the Tigers after the season with Jerry Morales for Jack Murphy (never made the majors) and Bob Sykes (three mediocre years as a Cardinal). With the Tigers, Lopez’ career really took off. A 10-5 record in 1979 (to go along with 21 saves) earned him consideration in the Cy Young award race. He had a nearly identical year in 1980, establishing himself as one of the top relievers in baseball.

Despite his closing prowess, he shared closing duties with Kevin Saucier in 1981. It was good that the Tigers had Saucier in reserve, because Lopez was felled by shoulder problems for much of 1982. At one point, he quit the team after being sent to the minors for much of the year. One of the reasons Lopez gave was the Mexican economic situation, thought to have referred to the cratering of the Mexican peso, which led to the government to pressure Mexican nationals living abroad to retain their resources in the home country.

Regretting his decision, he returned to the Tigers 1983, despite being the first player to ever get his pay cut in arbitration. Lopez didn’t let that set him back, as he returned to form, going 9-8 with 18 saves. He was even more spectacular the following season. Considering that Willie Hernandez won the Cy Young as the Tigers closer that year, Lopez record of 10-1 with 14 saves and a 2.94 ERA really shows how strong their bullpen was.  In the playoffs, he pitched in three games and didn’t give up a run. Confusingly, Auerlio was referred to as Señor Smoke, the same nickname later given to teammate #47 Juan Berenguer.

But Lopez was now 36, and his arm was growing tired. The Tigers stumbled to a 84-77 record in 1985, and lack of bullpen depth was one reason. With Hernandez taking more and more closing opportunities, the aging Lopez was given middle relief duties and he struggled, putting up a 4.80 ERA. Granted free agency, he signed with the Astros and pitched two more seasons with them before retiring in 1987. During spring training of his last season, he got a DUI.

Lopez was so popular in Mexico, that he was elected mayor of his hometown of  Tecamachalco. During his stewardship, a municipal water and sewer system was developed. In the rough and tumble world of Mexican politics, the previous mayor’s loyalists shot up his house a couple of times, but Lopez remained mayor until his death in a car accident in 1992. Eerily, all three Auerlios in major league history died in car accidents in their mid 40s or early 50s. After his death, he was named to the Mexican Hall of Fame.

Still remembered fondly in Detroit, local band Electric Six named their 2006 album Señor Smoke in a tribute to him.

Rear guard: Note that the Mexico City "Reds" are correctly referred to as "Rojos" as the team that signed him first in 1967. Lopez' debut was a poor one. He pitched 2 2/3 innings and gave up 4 hits and 2 runs in relief of Steve Busby.

Monday, October 14, 2013

#366 Reds Leaders

Card thoughts: The Reds were a team that finished second in the AL West in 1985 (89-72). Part of that is attributable to Rose's skill as a manager, as they had only a few standout players. But they were a well constructed team.

The player: Very dirty corners on this card. Of course, #1 Pete Rose and  #85 Tony Perez predate Davey Concepcion as Reds, but they left the team for a spell in the late 70s/early 80s.

Rear guard: Dave Parker completely dominated the offense: He finished second in MVP voting, and he led the league in RBIs (most of his other totals were in the top ten as well).

Beyond the 1-2 punch of Tom Browning (who won 20 as a rookie despite a league average ERA) and Mario Soto (who would go on to have a much better career than browning), only #176 Jay Tibbs started more than 30 games. Kind of surprising to see #54 John Franco, who would go on to record over 400 saves, play second fiddle to #108 Ted Power.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

#365 Mike Flanagan

Card thoughts: Flanagan was one of those Orioles starters in the 80s (like #110 Scott McGregor or Mike Boddicker) who, unlike Orioles pitching stalwarts of old, seemed to have a triumvirate of peak years surrounded by years of injury/inconsistency.

The player: A star at the University of Massachusetts, Flanagan’s out pitch was the curve ball, which he threw sidearm to lefties. Although he was never known for low ERAs, his durability led to many wins for Mike, especially in the late 70s.
After making 10 starts the previous season, by 1977 Flanagan was a mainstay in the Orioles rotation, pitching the first of 5 straight years (excluding the shortened 1981 season) of pitching over 225 innings. His 15 wins that season, were followed by 19 the next year, as the durable Flanagan led the league in starts, and made his only all-star team on the strength of a strong first half (12-6, 3.53 ERA). Unfortunately, he faded down the stretch and despite the wins, he led the league in earned runs given up and his ERA was above the average.

The 23 wins he earned the next season (leading the league) were more aligned with his peripherals (his 3.08 ERA was a career best), as he helped power the Orioles to the World Series. For his efforts, he won the Cy Young award. In the World Series, he won Game 1 with a complete game, although he gave up 11 hits and four runs. Flanagan didn’t have as much luck in Game 5, although he pitched better overall, giving up just 2 runs in 6 innings.

The success continued for Flanagan in 1980, although it is debatable if he was an excellent starting pitcher, or just a decent one who got a lot of run support. In fact, his 16-13 record belied the fact that he gave up more than a hit per inning (278 in 251+ innings), and was giving up a lot of walks and wild pitches as well.

In his personal life during this time, came a bit of a milestone, as his daughter was only the eighth baby born in the United States using in-vitro fertilization in 1982 (and was the first to be born naturally, not via Cesaerian section).

Flanagan would be a pitcher who today would have trouble getting past the sixth inning, what with the high pitch counts and all, so the wins are a little deceiving. But Flanagan would remain a just-above-.500 pitcher, with greater than 10 wins a year until the season represented by this card, when he managed just 15 starts, and had an ERA over 5.
As went the Orioles fortunes, so did Flanagan’s. A star pitcher for a star laden team, by the late 80s the team was bad, and so was he. After a couple more years of inconsistency, he was shipped to the Blue Jays midway through the 1987 season for Jose Mesa and Oswaldo Peraza (who?). Down the stretch, he was 3-2 with a 2.37 ERA, but his acquisition did not propel the Blue Jays into the playoffs. In his first full Blue Jay season, Flanagan would go 13-13 and pitch over 200 innings for the last time. The Jays would finally make the playoffs during Flanagan’s tenure in 1989, but he was terrible in his only start, going 4+ innings and giving up 5 runs.

Released by the Blue Jays after the 1990 season (when he only made 5 starts), Flanagan had a last hurrah for the Orioles, as he made the team as reliever out of Spring Training. He got into 64 games and had a fine 2.38 ERA. Flanagan struck out Travis Fryman at the end of the year to record the last out in Memorial Stadium history. But in 42 games the next year, he had an atrocious 8.05 ERA, convincing him to retire.

After retirement, he held a variety of roles with the Orioles, including pitching coach, general manager, and broadcaster (a role held for three non-consecutive times). Here’s an example of his insight (note the New England accent).

Despite his success, it was noted early on that Flanagan had a sullen demeanor, and when he left the mound, whether the inning was good or bad, he would be brooding. Apparently, he never felt like a success, and his trademark self-effacing humor masked a constant feeling of insecurity. In proper proportion, this self-doubt can be a goad for an athlete to constantly push his or herself to greater heights. But it is dangerous to have too much self-doubt in baseball, because, as has been said, even the greatest hitters fail about 70% of the time, and pitchers will make at least 5 or more mistakes every start.

Struggling with depression for most his adult life, and facing an uncertain financial future (his intermittent employment with the Orioles being the cause of some of this angst), Flanagan tragically shot himself last year. Here’s a pretty good explanation of what led up to the suicide.

Rear guard: Flanagan's first win was against the Royals. He went the full 9, his only mistake was giving up a sacrifice fly to #344 Jim Wohlford in the fifth inning that scored Dave Nelson.