Tuesday, June 25, 2013

#341 Frank Williams

Card thoughts: From a well-known player to one unknown. The magic of baseball card sets.

The player: Williams did not have a good start to his life. An orphan growing up in various foster homes in Seattle (along with a twin brother named Francis), he attended college and made it to the big leagues by age 26. Williams had an excellent rookie season in 1984, winning 9 games and pitching a shutout in his only start. 1985 was a bit of sophomore slump, as his ERA ballooned to 4.19, and he struck out only 54 batters in 73 innings.

He was sent to the Reds in an exceedingly minor deal after the 1986 season. Williams would post his best stats with the Reds, as his ERA did not go above 3. In fact, he had a 2.5 WAR in 1987, an unusually high number for a middle reliever. That season, he appeared in 85 games (sixth in the league), and had a 2.30 ERA in over 100 relief innings pitched. He was just as effective in ’88, although he pitched in about 40 less innings to save his arm.

Signing as a free agent with the Tigers, he had a poor year, possibly because he was pitching in the American League, at that time a way more homer happy league than the National League. But that wasn’t the worst of it. After the Tigers released him, he got in a car wreck and broke his collar bone. Then, his marriage fell apart.

Rootless, he went to Canada, to search out his biological father. In Victoria, Williams became a semi-homeless alcoholic. Bad luck seemed to follow him. Williams overdosed on heroin (thinking it was cocaine), and his twin brother died in a fire. He earned money by signing baseball cards at a card shop (which also picked up his mail for him), scavenging for scrap metal, and the Baseball Assistance Team. A few years ago, Williams tragic life came to an end, as he died of complications from pneumonia.

Rear guard: Winning both games of a doubleheader is still rare, even with the advent of the relief pitcher. The double header was against the Mets, and Williams won the first game by pitching one inning, despite giving up a run. In the second game, he finished off the 6th inning for starter Mark Grant with the Giants behind 4-3. A three run outburst in the sixth inning, highlighted by a triple by Chili Davis, gave Williams his second win of the day.

Friday, June 21, 2013

#340 Cal Ripken

Card thoughts: Does this man need any introduction? Transformed the shortstop position from one manned by ping hitters with slight builds, into a position where some power was expected. An interesting note about the picture: there’s a perfect white line of people filing into what I think is Memorial Stadium right behind Ripken. On a personal note, this Cal Ripken rookie card is one of my proudest baseball card possessions.

The player: I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Cal Ripken is one of the five best players in my lifetime. Set aside the fact that the man played every day for 16 seasons, Ripken was a local icon in Baltimore (he played his entire career with the Orioles), and unlike many of today’s star players, had a squeaky clean reputation. Oh, and Ripken, who came up as a third baseman, was considered too big at 6’4” 200 pounds to play shortstop. But while he never had the range or arm of many of his peers, he made up for it by positioning himself correctly, and rarely making mental or physical mistakes.

Cal grew up in baseball, as his father and namesake was a minor league catcher for the Orioles, and later became a coach and manager for the big club. Coming up to the majors at the end of 1981, he hit a paltry .129. Despite this, he earned the starting nod at third base for the 1982 season. But he didn’t stick there long. Longtime shortstop Mark Belanger could never hit a lick, but by 1982 he was old and allowed to leave via free agency. So when replacement Lenn Sakata was shifted to second base in July, Ripken moved left as well, and ended up winning the Rookie of the Year Award.

1983 is when Ripken really exploded, winning the MVP award with a league leading 121 runs, 211 hits, and 47 doubles. He led in both offensive and defensive WAR, showing that he was quickly mastering his new fielding position. Ripken became a hero to American League fans everywhere, as he started the first of  16 straight all-star games (his career all-star game numbers: 49 at bats, .757 OPS).

Although he would never have such spectacular numbers again, Ripken settled into a career remarkable for its consistency. Every year, you could pencil him in for about 25 home runs, 90-100 RBIs, and 90-100 runs scored. Ripken’s batting average did bounce around a bit. He hit around .250 for several years, but also could hit anywhere between that number and .300. A non-statistical highlight came in 1987, when Ripken was managed by his dad, and his brother Billy became his double play partner. This was also the season when his consecutive innings streak came to an end, when his dad decided to rest him in the late innings of a blowout loss to the Blue Jays.

Ripken was so well respected by the team, he would occasionally give pitchers advice on how to pitch to certain lineups (Ripken was drafted as a pitcher). Storm Davis reportedly used his advice, and pitched a shutout against the Red Sox. Ripken even called an entire game from the shortstop position when Chris Hoiles, a young backup catcher, was playing.

Occasionally, he would have a better than average (for him) year. One of those years, was 1991 when Ripken once again won the MVP award, hitting a career high 34 home runs and driving in 114. That season he also had a spectacular WAR of 11.5.

As he aged, Ripken’s shortstop range declined. But he still played every game, playing through an ankle sprain in 1985, another ankle injury in 1992. A fight in 1993 caused Ripken to sprain his knee, and the labor strike in 1994, where there was a threat to use replacement service, were further threats to the record. But in 1995, Ripken finally broke the record late in the season, a received a 22-minute standing ovation as he took a lap around the field. As impressive as the feat was, the adulation was really too over the top. I mean, records are great and all, but a game was being played.

By 1997, Ripken was wearing down, and at 36, shortstop became too taxing for a man who had played over 2,000 consecutive games there. With the signing of Mike Bordick (a traditional shortstop: good field, no hit), he went back to third base where he would spend the rest of his career.

For his career numbers in 2001: fourth all time in defensive WAR (34.60); eighth in games played (3,001); third in assists (8,214); and second in sacrifice flies (127). In addition, Ripken had over 3,000 hits, and over 1,500 runs scored and driven in. In retirement, Ripken continues to be a civic leader in Baltimore. He runs a foundation that gives disadvantaged kids a chance to play baseball, and he owns an Orioles minor league affiliate. 

Rear guard: Ripken's first grand slam came against Yankees pitcher #152 Mike Morgan. It gave the Orioles a lead they would not relinquish (or add to) in their 5-2 win.
I have never heard of the name "Jehosie." But he was better known as "Jay," and the reason why he was sold was because of racism. Heard had pitched for the Birmingham Black Barons before being signed by the Orioles at age 29. He only started playing the game while in the service during World War II, hence his late start. 

The two games Heard would pitch in 1954 were his only major league games. Yet he would still get a card in 1954.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

#339 Bruce Berenyi

Card thoughts: This is the second Met pitcher Topps found fit to issue a card for, who barely pitched in 1985 due to injury. Didn’t Topps have any flexibility in changing the cards during the season once it was apparent they weren’t going to play much?  Larry Bowa, who played 14 games at the end of the season for the Mets (and 72 with the Cubs earlier) could have been given a card, especially since it was the last season of a long, productive career. For once, I long for the days of airbrushing. At least, unlike #18 Brent Gaff, he did get another card.

The player: Berenyi wasn’t much of a pitcher, even when he played, although he had good genes: His uncle was Ned Garver who had 129 wins for the Browns, Tigers, A’s, and Angels. He was viewed as a phenom when he made the majors. In a time when this was rare, his fastball was regularly clocked at 96, and his slider and curve broke sharply as well. Today, he'd be moved into short relief so he could dominate. Think Carlos Marmol.

When he was young, with cheek of tan, he led several minor leagues in strikeouts. Called up to the Reds in 1981, he struck out a lot of guys, but also walked a lot (he led the league with 77 in 126 innings). In those days, where pitch counts were not closely monitored, no doubt the extreme number of pitches Berenyi needed to pitch deep into games contributed to his later shoulder problems.

Although Berenyi led the league with 18 losses, his ERA of 3.36 shows a lack of run support by the (Small) Red Engine of 1982, although he gave up over 5 runs in 6 of his starts, and he was still too wild (his 96 walks were 3rd in the league, and his 16 wild pitches were 4th). The Yankees tried to acquire him for Rick Cerone (after all, despite his losses his WAR was over 4), but Cerone refused to waive his no-trade clause. Another losing season followed (9-14, another 102 walks), and then, in 1984 with Berenyi’s ERA at 6, the Reds traded him to the Mets in June for a bunch of minor leaguers.

With the Mets, he had his first winning season since 1981 (9-6). But, he tore his rotator cuff two starts into the season, and was done for the year. He made the Mets squad in 1986 as a long reliever and spot starter, but his ineffectiveness banished him to AAA, so he didn’t make the Mets post-season roster. A year after, he pitched a few games for the Expos AAA affiliate before his release.

Rear guard: Tim Harkness had only 7 career stolen bases, and he stole 3/4 of his 4 steals in 1963 in just that one game. This was a strange game, as the Phillies used six pitchers to lose a 6-3 game (at the time, it was rare to see more than three pitchers in a game that wasn't a blowout). It must of been an experiment of #81 Gene Mauch's. Anyhow, the unlucky catcher was Clay Darlymple.

Monday, June 10, 2013

#338 Jorge Bell

Card thoughts: This is one my favorite cards in the set. As a kid, I wondered what was wrong with Bell. Was he simple minded, or a buffoon? Why on earth is he slouched in the corner with the mien of an overgrown rag doll? Apart from this, Topps, unlike every other card company, had “George Bell” as “Jorge.” In an unusual move, Topps actually corrected their mistake in 1986, making this the last of 4 Jorge Bell cards.

The player: Jorge Bell was a part of a talented young outfield that included Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby. Bell would end up being the most consistent star out of the bunch, although as a fielder he was below average.

Bell was signed by the Phillies, but was left unprotected in the minors after hitting .309 in 22 games at Reading. This allowed the Blue Jays to draft him the Rule 5 draft. Since they had to keep him in the majors the following season, Bell backed up in the outfield and hit .233. With the restriction not in effect in 1982, Bell was sent to the minors for the entire year for more seasoning. But when he came back up for good in 1984, Bell was installed as the starting left fielder for the Blue Jays and had and .824 OPS on the strength of 39 doubles (3rd in the league), 4 triples, and 26 home runs.

Starting in the season shown on this card, Bell became one of the bonfide stars in the mid to late 80s. But, although he was in the top ten in MVP voting for 4 out of 6 seasons, he was only selected for the all-star game once (1987), and that was courtesy of the fans.

1987 was his career year, however. He won the MVP award by leading the league in RBIs with 137, and total bases with 369. Other offensive highlights of that season include his home run numbers (47-2nd in the league); hits (188-6th); and slugging (.605). In a dubious honor, it was also the only season he did not lead the league in errors in left field between 1985-1989.  

Bell’s numbers fell off the next year, but the season looked promising when he cranked three opening day home runs off Bret Saberhagen (a record). Although he still drove in 97 runs, his OPS dropped 200 points. A bounce back year followed where his home runs declined to 18, but he drove in 104 runs (and he also hit a career high 41 doubles).

Bell was signed as a free agent in 1990 by the Cubs for a three-year deal worth $10 million. Although Bell was a star in Toronto, he was considered surly, and for years refused to do interviews (probably because Spanish was his first language). The fans began to ride him for his poor defense after 1987, and he told them to “kiss his purple (expletive).”

I remember thinking that this was a misguided signing by the Cubs. Bell was 31 and a statue in left, a severe liability when he was coming into a league without a DH. Although he hit 25 home runs and drove in 86, he was not beloved. It didn’t help that the other two big signings by the Cubs that off season (Danny Jackson and Dave Smith) were as awful as the team.

But in a silver lining, Bell was traded across town the next season for a young player named Sammy Sosa. Although Bell, now reduced to being a full-time DH for the White Sox, drove in 112 runs and Sosa struggled to hit major league pitching in 1992, it was one of the few good deals then GM Larry Himes pulled off.

His contract up in 1993, Bell didn’t find any takers for a 33-year old whose defensive liabilities forced him into a designated hitter role. His last game turned out to be October 2, 1993 when he started at DH and drove in Norberto Martin with a sacrifice fly. Although the White Sox won the division, he was not put on the post season roster.

Despite Bell’s often contentious relationship with the Toronto fans and media, he is enshrined in the upper deck of the Rogers Centre (the so-called Blue Jays Level of Excellence).

Rear guard: Bell's first of 265 home runs came off Orioles pitcher #110 Scott McGregor and was a solo shot. Bell also had two other hits off the Oriole starter.

Jim Clancy was the pitcher, John Mayberry the first baseman, and Luis Gomez the shortstop. Junior Moore of the White Sox popped up a bunt as the runners were going. Toronto has also turned triple plays against the Yankees and Indians (1979) and the Royals (2012).

Thursday, June 6, 2013

#337 Darnell Coles

Card thoughts: Where is this photo taken? I don’t believe there are verdant mountains in either Arizona or Florida. Wherever it is, Coles sure looks warm. There seem to be a lot sweaty pictures in this set.

The player: A first round draft pick by the Mariners, Darnell Coles never fulfilled his potential with the Mariners. After a trade to the Tigers, he showed some of the promise the Mariners saw in him. In the end, however, Coles was mainly a bench player who could play the corner outfield and infield spots and provide a replacement level power bat off the bench.

Coles minor league career saw him display some power, but a better ability to get on base, as he rarely struck out more than he walked. The Mariners didn’t really have a starting third baseman at the beginning of 1984, as Barry Bonnell, Larry Milbourne, and Jim Presley all spent time there. Coles was handed the job for about 6 weeks starting in May, but a .190 average got him shipped back to the minors. Coles once again split time between the AAA and the majors in 1985, playing all over the field from May until July, again hitting near the Mendoza Line.

With Jim Presley now established at third, and Coles not exhibiting much aptitude as a utility infielder, fielding terribly at short and third, and only showing some promise in the outfield. He was sent to the Tigers for journeyman minor league pitcher Rich Monteleone. But this turned out to be a blessing for Coles, as he had a career year, slugging 20 home runs and driving in 86 as the Tigers starting third baseman (he also battled chicken pox midseason). The next year, his average sunk to the more familiar .200 level. He was so frustrated, that he once hurled a baseball out of Tiger Stadium, earning a rebuke from manager Sparky Anderson, and Coles was traded soon after to the Pirates, whom he was supposed to help in the stretch run.

It is tough to track the myriad wanderings of Coles. He was back with the Mariners in 1988, and he became their starting right fielder in 1989. In both of these seasons, he returned to the form he showed with the Tigers (70 RBIs between the Pirates and Mariners in ’88, 59 in ’89). But yet another fall off in production in 1990 (.209 between the Mariners and, once again, the Tigers), meant that he would never be a starting player again. Coles would play with the Giants, Reds, Blue Jays, and Cardinals before going to Japan in 1996. After a short stint with the Rockies in 1997, his career would be over.

But like a lot of journeymen, Coles would stay active in the game after retirement. He has managed and coached in the Nationals and Brewers organizations. Coles is the current manager of the Huntsville Stars.

Rear guard: I don't believe that Topps has used the word "drilled" before in its "firsts." It livens up the dry nature of these facts, which usually cited by rote as if by a robot. The triple was Coles' only hit of the game. He later scored on a single by #13 Bob Kearney.