Monday, June 30, 2014

#418 Alan Knicely

Card thoughts: Knicely looks pretty glum. He had just been traded to the Phillies when this photo was taken, and it looks like he knows this would be his last Topps card.

The player: The classic 4A player, Knicely could hit, and hit with power, all through the minors. But his lack of defensive prowess at catcher meant he would never play much there in the majors. Luckily, Knicely played in an era when carrying three catchers was commonplace, so it ensured he did get some playing time up top.

Knicely didn’t really blossom until he was in this third season at AA in the Astros system. Drafted as a pitcher, Knicely posted average ERAs is his first three minor league seasons, while struggling to stay healthy (he started in the field each of those years as well, mainly at first). After beginning the 1977 season 1-5 with a 5.14 ERA, Knicely switched to the outfield, and hit .264. The next year, along with teammate Danny Heep, he was named the Southern League MVP after slugging .950 with 33 home runs. This was also his first year as a full time catcher.

But Knicely’s catching, like his fielding at third and in the outfield, left much to be desired. This not prevent him from starting at that position for two straight AAA season, where he hit over .300, and slugged over .500 each year.

Despite his destruction of minor league pitching, Knicely was only granted a year long stay with the Astros in 1982. Backing up superior defenders #331 Alan Ashby and Luis Pujols, he only caught 23 games (2 passed balls, a league average caught stealing percentage), and spent most of his time as a pinch hitter or in the outfielder. Unfortunately, the only reason Knicely was in the majors was his powerful right handed bat, and he hit just .188.

The Reds, with veteran Johnny Bench at the end of his career, were panicking and stockpiling all the young catchers they could in the hopes that one of them would be an adequate replacement. Knicely shared about equal playing time with #253 Dann Bilardello and Alex Trevino, but none of them could hit, although Alan raised his average above the Mendoza Line (.224).

Back to the minors once again in 1984, Knicely showed he had nothing to prove down there, as he obliterated AAA pitching while starting at first base for Wichita.  He hit 33 home runs and drove in 126 for the team, while garnering 190 hits and 94 runs. For his efforts, he was named the American Association’s MVP.

This was enough to bring him back to the majors, this time as a second string catchers. Although he finally hit decently in the majors (.727 OPS, good for a catcher), the Reds ended up shipping him to the Phillies near the end of the season for far superior catcher Bo Diaz. Topps really got lucky to get a picture a Knicely in a Phillies uniform, as he only had 7 hitless at bats for them.

Knicely was released after the season, picked up by the Cardinals, and used as the starting first baseman after #350 Jack Clark went on the DL in 1986. But it was the same old story: he hit just .195, and found himself back in his true home, AAA. Perhaps discouraged that all that minor league hitting wasn't working in the majors,  Knicely retired at age 32, after one last try in the Rangers organization.

Rear guard: Knicely really didn't get much of a chance early in his career. But he did manage to get a hit in one of the 3 games he played in 1981.And it was in his first at bat of the year, pinch hitting for Terry Puhl.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

#417 R.J. Reynolds

Card thoughts: One of a long line of product placements/ball players including Coco Crisp and Milton Bradley. His real first name is Robert.

The player: Reynolds broke in with the Dodgers at the end of the 1983 season, and a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the ninth helped the Dodgers win an important game against Atlanta. The next two seasons, Reynolds courted anonymity as a reserve outfielder. However, in a deal that helped both teams, the Pirates acquired him late in the 1985 season with Sid Bream and Cecil Espy for Bill Madlock.

Although still a reserve outfielder, Reynolds got a lot more playing time with the far inferior Pirates. He consistently got over 300 at bats from 1986-1989 and ended up playing in every game in the 1990 NLCS.

After that season, he went over to Japan and played for three seasons where he hit for good power Taiyo and Kinetsu. He never returned to the majors, and retired at age 34.

Rear guard: Reynolds' first hit was a three run homer as a pinch hitter off #15 Ed Whitson.

Glenn Wright drove in over 100 runs four times, but injuries affected his career, and he barely played after age 32.

Friday, June 20, 2014

#416 Denny Martinez

Card thoughts: “Denny” is better known as “Dennis.” And that is a beautiful thick head of hair!

The player: Up until this point, Martinez was an inconsistent starter, whose high win totals were more of a function of his durability (lots of innings pitched, hence lots of decisions) and the Orioles team success, rather than his ERAs (consistently average or below). That all changed later in his career – he was much more effective in his mid-30s once he came to the National League.

The first Nicaraguan to pitch in the majors, Martinez came from a relatively wealthy family (his parents owned a farm). But his father drank, and his son was a “baseball” bum. Baseball was not unknown in the country (there was a winter league there in the 60s), but there were no professional teams by the time Dennis was playing. Instead, he pitched for an amateur league, and was noticed by scouts after going 13-2 and leading the Nicaraguan national team to the title in the 1972 amateur World Series.

Signed (secretly) by the Orioles after the 1973 series (to enable him to continue playing as an “amateur” in Nicaragua), Martinez made it to the States in 1975. Due to his experience pitching under pressure for the Nicaraguan team, Martinez wasn’t cowed by the minors. He excelled at every stop, jumping quickly from Miami (15-6, 2.06 ERA) to Rochester, where he led the league in wins (14), strikeouts (140) and ERA (2.50) in 1976. There were also reports that Martinez  partied a lot, which would nearly derail his career later.

Like most young pitchers in that era, Martinez apprenticed as a “swing man” with the Orioles in 1977, but he managed to win 14 games in that role (13 starts, 29 relief appearances). He was finally made a full time starter in 1978, where he used his curve and change to set up his fastball. But he only achieved modest success that year (16-11), and the next (15-16). Martinez was durable, however. In each of the years, he pitched over 275 innings, leading the league in starts (39), complete games (18), and innings pitched (291.2) in the latter year.

Part of his poor performance in 1979 was that he was tipping his pitches. Apparently, the combination of chewing gum and chaw Martinez routinely used contributed to distinct facial expressions, depending on what pitch was going to be thrown. Whatever the reason, the Orioles had a deep staff that year, and Martinez only started one World Series game, getting knocked out of the box in the second inning.

A sore shoulder limited him in 1980, but he led the league in wins during the strike shortened 1981 season (14). This led to a large contract after the season. However, personal problems began to intrude on Martinez’ baseball life. His father was killed while drunk at the end of 1982 season. And Dennis began drinking more and more as well. An abysmal 1983 season (7-16, and ERA well above 5), followed by a drunk driving arrest in the off season, convinced Martinez to quit drinking. Even so, it would take many years for Martinez to return to form.

Injured for the first part of the 1986 season, Martinez was traded to Expos for Rene Gonzales. But he found it hard to crack the Expos rotation, and he spent part of the year in the minors.  When he pitched in the majors, Dennis was mediocre, and he considered retiring. He was even more down in the dumps in 1987, when he was a free agent, and no one picked him up (of course, this was the height of collusion). Instead, he had to wait until May to resign with the Expos.  But somehow, Martinez was about to begin the best stretch of his career at age 33. In the next six years, he would win 97 games, win the ERA title in 1991, and became to oldest player to debut in an all star game in 1990.

The secret was that old adage: Martinez had become a pitcher, rather than a thrower. Relying on guile rather than speed, he would set up hitters better than he had in his youth, and work on their weaknesses. It helped that Martinez’ command improved: He rarely walked more than 2 batters per 9 innings. That control helped him pitch a perfect game in 1992.

After the 1993 season, despite being 38, he signed a good contract with the Indians, and up and coming team at the time. Martinez’ veteran presence helped stabilize the locker room, and the rotation. Pitching less often, he still won at least 9 games every year he was with the Indians, and never lost more than he won.

A sore elbow led to him pitching sparingly in 1997 (just 9 starts with the Mariners). Martinez ended his career at age 44 for the Braves, where he actually pitched in a career high 53 games. His 245 career wins is the most ever by a Latino pitcher.

In retirement, Martinez worked to promote tourism to Nicaragua and coached in the minors with the Cardinals, Orioles and in the majors with the Astros. 

Rear guard: You wouldn't have known from these stats (.537 winning percentage; 4.15 ERA), that Martinez would soon become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. 

Less than 4,000 fans saw Martinez pitch a starters worth of relief innings (5 2/3), beating the Tigers when the Orioles roared back from an early 6-0 deficit.

Friday, June 13, 2014

#415 Hal McRae

Card thoughts: McRae generally has a happy smile on his cards, although he’s been known to get a little surly.

The player: The Big Red Machine had so many great hitters in the 70s, even their rejects became stars for other teams.

McRae started out as a second baseman, but a broken leg in winter ball sent him to the outfield. Formerly a speedster, he was now just adequate in the outfield. The injury leads to a story where his manager, Dave Bristol, shamed McRae by pointing out that Harry Carey was doing his job (across the field, interviewing players), despite getting hit by a car in the off season, while McRae was still in a cast.

Despite motivating McRae to get back on the field quicker, he still could not break into the starting lineup. His continual moaning about a lack of playing time got him a trade to the Royals after the 1972 season, which turned out to be his salvation. The Royals at the time were a down-and-out former expansion team with plenty of opportunities for a player like McRae. Especially since the American League had just instituted the DH rule.

An aggressive player, McRae ran hard on every hit, perhaps making up for the speed he was robbed of by the broken leg. He would go so hard into second, that a new rule requiring players to slide into second base on a double play attempt was instituted because of him. Also, McRae’s defensive shortcomings were masked in the American League, as he spent most of his time DHing.

McRae first really big year was 1976, when #300 George Brett barely edged him out for the batting title. He still ended up leading the league in on base percentage (.407) and OPS (.868). But there was some controversy on how Brett won the title. The hit that edged him out was an inside-the-park home run Twins outfielder Steve Brye misplayed.  McRae began making obscene gestures to the Twins dugout, accusing them of intentionally giving Brett the title because they were racist.

McRae sacrificed some his batting average for power, and he slugged above .500 for the first time the following year, on the strength of his league leading 54 doubles.

With McRae a constant force in the middle of the lineup, the Royals went to the World Series in 1980 and 1985, and the ALCS from 1976-1978, 1980, and 1984. But it was 1982, one of the rare years the Royals didn’t advance to the post season, where McRae would have his only MVP caliber season. He led in doubles with 46, and RBIs with 133. He also reached career highs in home runs (27) and OPS (.910).

Although he would have another good season in 1983, McRae was aging, and by the time this picture was taken, he was splitting DH duties with a similarly ancient Jorge Orta. Although he started in the ALCS at the end of the 1985 season, in the World Series the DH wasn’t being used that year (it used to alternate every other year), so he was hitless in three pinch hit at bats.

McRae finished his career as perhaps the best all-time designated hitter up that point—at least until Edgar Martinez came around. He appeared in the third most games all time in that role, and ended up hitting .294. And all of his DHing prepared him to be a hitting coach with the Expos, Reds, Phillies, and Cardinals. He also managed the Royals (1991-1994), where he had one winning season, finishing third in 1993, the year of this famous rant. McRae went on to replace original Devil Rays manager Larry Rothchild for two seasons (2000-2001), when that club was perpetually in last place.

McRae's son, Brian, was a solid major league player for over a decade. 

Rear guard: McRae's first grand slam came off of Astros starter Jerry Reuss. He was pinch hitting for pitcher Ed Sprague and it drove in a litany or Reds stars: #195 Dave Concepcion, #85 Tony Perez, and Dennis Menke.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

#414 Tom Gorman

Card thoughts: There have been three major league players named Tom Gorman, all pitchers.  This one was nicknamed Gorfax (note: short for Goose Koufax, even more inexplicable) for some reason. This is his last Topps card.

The player: Although Gorman wasn’t a big winner for the Mets, he figured in several memorable games.

Gorman had yet to establish himself other than a “generic struggling lefty” before being traded from the Expos to the Mets for #177 Joel Youngblood. He ended up winning eight straight decisions, mostly in relief, for the Mets between 1983 and 1985, including a win on Opening Day the latter year (which he had predicted to Davey Johnson earlier that day). Despite the wins, Gorman only really had one good year, 1984, when he was undefeated (6-0) with a 2.97 ERA.

By 1985, he was used mainly in a mop-up role, where he was the winner in the marathon 19-inning Mets-Braves game which light-hitting pitcher #419 Rick Camp famously tied with a home run (that came off Gorman). He also was the winner in an 18 inning game against the Pirates that occurred a few weeks before. And finally, Gorman was the losing pitcher in a 26-7 blowout against the Phillies. Gorman, an emergency starter, gave up 6 runs in 1/3 of an inning. #210 Calvin Schiraldi, who followed him to the mound, gave up 10 runs in an inning and a half.

With the Mets having a stacked bullpen in 1986, Gorman was cut on the last day of spring training. A few remaining games for the Phillies and Padres the following two years, and stops in the Twins and A’s minor league systems finished off his career. Gorman now coaches baseball in Oregon City, OR, and is a high school sales rep for Nike.

Rear guard: Gorman's first win came as the fourth reliever in an 8-7 win over the Padres. He struck out three and gave up two hits.

"Clouted": an awkward verb. Cleon Jones was a decent hitter for the late 60s/early 70s Mets, but the most home runs he ever hit was 14. Here's his 1972 card.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

#413 Tim Flannery

Card thoughts: Tim Flannery: The “Augie Ojeda” of San Diego. There’s something about light hitting utility infielders that makes them the perennial “fan favorite.”

The player: The legend of Flannery in San Diego probably stems from the fact that he hit the ball Leon Durham booted to allow the tying run to score in Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS. It certainly wasn’t his hitting prowess.

Flannery, although a poor major league hitter, feasted on minor league pitching. He hit .350, .345, and .346 his first three years in the minors. He finally called up for good in 1982, where he became the Padres starting second baseman, hitting .240 with little power (.646 OPS).

The Padres wanted more offense out of the second base position, so for the next few years they tried Juan Bonilla (.605 OPS) and Alan Wiggins (.671 OPS, but with 70 steals) there. Flannery spent 1983 and 1984 backing these guys up, as well as #103 Luis Salazar (who was a good hitter but poor fielder at third).

Flannery did get some backup action in the NLCS, where he scored 2 runs in three plate appearances. With the departure of Wiggins in 1985 (mainly due to drug problems), Flannery once again became the starting second baseman, a position he held until 1988. His OPS during 1985-1986 actually was better than the league average, but he slumped badly in 1987 (a .228/.332/.254 line).

It was back to riding the pines for the rest of his Padre career, a fact that did not make him any less endearing to the local fans. Flannery would come to the plate to the strains of The Ride of the Valkyries, and his final game in 1989 caused a prolonged standing ovation.

In retirement, Flannery managed in the Padres system, and has become Bruce Bochy’s right hand man, coaching third for him with the Padres and Giants. Flannery also plays music leading a hardcore band called Flannery’s Flannel. You may have heard their angry stomper “The Raging Circle”, or caught their infamous You Tube video where they burst a water pipe at a basement show in Little Village . . . naw, just kidding. Flannery plays generic, MOR music that, while not offensive or without talent, is certainly not too challenging.

Rear guard: Here's Flannery's first Topps card. As for the other guys on this card, Brian Greer was a former #1 draft pick who played just 5 major league games. Amazing he got to the majors at all. Greer struck out an astronomical amount, leading the Texas League in 1979 with 153 while hitting just .229. Jim Wilhelm got in 39 games in 1979, his last year as a pro. Some prospects.