Monday, February 27, 2012

#175 Steve Sax

Card thoughts: Another card I remember vividly, all these years later. Probably because Sax is one of the few players I've ever seen on a card listening to the national anthem. Although I suspect Topps wanted to highlight the "Hollywood" good looks of Steve Sax for all the girls who collected cards at the time.

The player: Sax started off like a rocket, winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1982. However, he wasn't a complete player yet. He was a poor fielder, especially when turning the double play, and he had almost no power. What he did have was speed to burn: He stole 49 bases his rookie year.

The next year, Sax avoided the dreaded sophmore slump by nearly matching his rookie batting average, but stealing 56 bases (although he led the league in caught stealing) and scoring 94 runs. He made his second all star team as well. But in the field, Sax developed the mental block that prevented his from throwing the ball to first, one of the easiest throws on the infield from second. This caused  Sax to commit 30 errors, 13 more than an aging Joe Morgan. His throws were so erratic, box seat patrons behind first would wear batting helmets as a joke.

This condition would continue on and off throughout his times with the Dodgers. Sax's hitting regressed in 1984 and 1985, likely because he was concentrating so much on fielding. The season shown on this card was the worst in his career. Although he hit .279, he had a pathetic 16 extra base hits out of 136 overall hits. Sax also only stole 27 bases, a career low as a regular.

Sax would turn it around in 1986, having the best season of his career. He was the second leading hitter in the league, and also made the top ten in on base percentage (.390), runs scored (91), hits (210), doubles (43), and stolen bases (40). At this point, Sax was undoubtedly the second best second baseman in the league behind Ryne Sandberg.

After Sax's breakout season, he had two more good years as the Dodgers leadoff man. In the 1988 World Series he shone, hitting .300 and scoring 3 runs. Sax also parlayed his fame and good looks into being a guest star on several shows including Square Pegs, Who's the Boss, Hollywood Squares, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Most memorably, Sax was invited the be on the softball "ringer team" created by Mr. Burns on the Simpsons. He was prevented from playing when he was accused by Chief Wiggum of being the culprit in all the unsolved murders in New York City and thrown in jail.

Sax left the Dodgers in 1989 as a free agent and landed with the Yankees, where he had a season almost as good as his 1986 season, once again collecting over 200 hits, hitting over .300, and making the all star team. He had one more stellar season in him in 1991, when he hit a career high 10 home runs. But then, the White Sox made an ill-advised trade, sending Melido Perez and Bob Wickman, two of their better pitchers, to the Yankees for him. Sax never hit above .230 with the White Sox and was released in spring training in 1994. After 7 games with the A's that season, Sax was done.

After his playing days were over, Sax ran for state assembly but withdrew as his wife was dishing some nasty gossip about him when they were going through a bad divorce. He currently uses the overcoming of his throwing problems as a basis for his career as a motivational speaker.

Rear guard: Here's Sax's first Topps card. Mike Marshall would have a long productive career with the Dodgers and will be discussed at greater length later on this blog. #63 Ron Roenicke was already discussed.

No one uses the term "long hits". Try "extra base hits." Garvey's 5 hits were 3 doubles and 2 home runs. He drove in 5 and scored 5.

This day in baseball history: In 1946, Pie Traynor and Herb Pennock are elected to the Hall of Fame.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

#174 Brian Snyder

Card thoughts: This is Snyder’s only Topps card. It was likely taken at Tigers Stadium, the same day at the #61 Karl Best card.

The player:  Not a good rookie choice for Topps to pick for its set. Snyder had a really bad minor league career, where, as a starter, he couldn’t get his ERA below 5. As a reliever, he was average, with ERAs sitting at 4. Snyder was likely only called up because he was a lefty and the Mariners in the 1980s were a laughing stock. After 35 terrible innings (with an inexplicable 5 starts!) where his WHIP was 1.783 and his ERA a ghastly 6.37, Snyder was released by the Mariners.

Snyder signed with the Padres, and was effective as a left-handed reliever for their AAA club, but not effective enough to make it back to the majors. He got another shot with the A’s in 1989 when, after a 6-0 record with AAA Tacoma (and a 2.12 ERA), he was called back up to the majors in June. Snyder pitched 2/3 of the 13th inning against the Blue Jays, when he gave up a home run and struck out one; he couldn’t even get an out in his only other outing against the Twins.

After another minor league season with the Braves in 1990, Snyder called it quits. His son, Brandon Snyder, has made it to the majors with the Orioles as a catcher.

Rear guard: Larry Milbourne was a utility player, playing for 6 different teams in an 11 year career. Incredibly, he only hit 11 home runs overall, and never more than 2 in a season, which makes this feat as remarkable as it is rare. The Indians were the unlucky victims of Milbourne's day long power surge.

This date in baseball history: The demolition of Ebbets Field, the former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, begins in 1960, giving lazy Brooklyn born writers a sellable nostalgia story for years to come.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

#173 Wayne Gross

Card thoughts: Gross means “big” in German. Perfectly appropriate for Wayne, who was big by the day’s standards, weighing in at over 200 pounds. This was Gross’ last baseball card.

The player:  Gross was a dead pull hitter with good power. Unfortunately, since he only pulled the ball, he tried to hit a home run every time, which meant his average tended to suffer. Strangely enough, he did not strike out a lot and had a good batting eye. Despite a career batting average of .233, he finished with an OPS over .700 six times in his 11 year career.

As a rookie with the A’s, Gross made the all star team, despite batting only .233 (He also earned an all star rookie cup on his card). He showed good power, however, with 21 doubles, 22 home runs, and 63 RBIs. He also walked a career high 86 times (4th in the league). He was not a good fielder, however, and the led the league in errors by third basemen with 27.

The next few seasons, Gross struggled to hit above .200, while still displaying respectable power. He seemed to rejuvenate his career in 1980 when he hit a career high .281 and drove in 61 runs. But after that season, Gross continued to be poor in the clutch and in the field. He lost his starting third base job to newcomer #134 Carney Lansford in 1983, and spent that year platooning at first base with Dan Meyer.

No longer needing Gross at third, the A’s traded him the following season to the Orioles for Tim Stoddard. He had a bit of a comeback year the first year he played with his new team, hitting 22 home runs, matching his career high his rookie year, and driving in 64, a new career high. But he hit only .216, which boded ill for his future.

In his last full season in the majors, the one shown on this card, Gross had one of the oddest batting lines ever. Perhaps as a result of his diminished ability to hit, he was especially tentative at the plate. 20% of his 51 hits were home runs (11). However, Gross drove in only 18 runs with those 11 home runs. He also walked only 5 less times than he hit his way on base. This meant that Gross had his second highest OPS ever at .793, yet hit a very unproductive .235 and created very few runs.

Gross was released by the Orioles after being cut after spring training in 1986. He signed a minor league deal with the A’s and he spent much of the season at AAA Tacoma before getting called up in September for his last 3 major league plate appearances.

Rear guard: Gross' first Topps card was a "Rookie Outfielders" card. Which may explain why he was never a great third baseman. Check out especially the guy in upper left corner, Brian Asseltine. He looks like Prince Valiant. Asseltine and Mejias were reserve outfielders. Al Woods had a couple of good seasons as a regular, but only lasted until 1983. Wayne Gross was the only rookie outfielder who made any impact.

Gross' first hit came as a pinch hitter for catcher Larry Haney. It was off Red Sox pitcher Jim Willoughby.

This date in baseball history: Walter Johnson throws a ball across the Rapahannock River in 1936. This event is supposed to duplicate George Washington’s mythical toss of as silver dollar across the river.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

#172 Jerry Reed

Card thoughts: This is Jerry Reed’s rookie card.

Even though we’re in the modern era, with the ability to take action and in game shots, it’s nice to see a card with the pitcher doing the “follow through” pose down the right field line of some spring training field. Pretty much every pitcher card from the 60s either had the pitcher with his arms over his head, or doing this goofy follow through.And there's either a sleeping teammate behind Reed, or the equipment manager left some junk on the field.

Also, for years I thought Jerry Reed had a mole on his cheek. Turns out, it was just the black ink from the team name background bleeding into the picture.

The player:  I’ve spoken a lot about how deep the Dodgers and Phillie systems were in the early 80s. The minors were so deep for these guys, that they had the luxury of trading away future major leaguers (and sometimes, future stars), and still being consistent pennant contenders. Reed is a product who excelled in the Phillies system, consistently posting ERAs below 2 in the low minors. He never really got a chance with the Phillies, appearing in 11 games over two seasons with the team.

Reed was traded to the Indians in 1982, along with #9 Roy Smith for John Denny. But Reed never got much of a chance with the Indians either until the season shown on this card, where for the first time he spent the majority of the year in the majors. He rewarded the Indians with a solid, if not spectacular, 8 saves and a 4.11 ERA both as a starter and reliever.

Reed was released in spring training the next year, but was quickly scooped up by the Mariners, where he spent the next 5 seasons, and where he had his best seasons. With the Mariners, he went 13-11 with a 3.49 ERA with 8 saves over 311 2/3 innings. Reed’s best individual year was 1989, when he went 7-7 with a 3.19 ERA, and pitched a career high 101 2/3 inning.

Despite having a career year the previous season, he was released by the Mariners in 1990 after having a poor April. He finished out the year, and his major league career, with the Red Sox.

Rear guard:  Reed's first save wasn't easy: He had to pitch 4 innings in relief of Curt Wardle and he gave up 2 runs to the Orioles on home runs by #147 Larry Sheets and Wayne Gross (coincidentally, the next card reviewed on this blog).

Luke Easter spent many of his prime years in the Negro Leagues, where he was a feared power hitter, and second only to Buck Leonard as the best first baseman in that league's history. Easter didn't make it to the majors for good until he was 34, but he hit over 25 home runs and drove in over 90 runs the three seasons he was the Indians regular first baseman. Easter finished his career with 174 home runs. Tragically, Easter was murdered in 1979 in a payroll robbery while working as a union steward.

This date in baseball history: The first ever Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed between the players and owners in 1968. It established a minimum salary of $10,000 ($65,000 in today’s dollars) and a formal grievance procedure.

Monday, February 20, 2012

#171 Bob Rodgers

Card thoughts: Rodgers was generally known as “Buck,” but was never so named on any of his cards. The perspective of this card makes the bat Rodgers is holding look like a toy. Question: Does Topps use prop bats in some of it’s photos?

The player/manager: Buck Rodgers was fine defensive catcher who was strong in the clutch, but didn’t hit for a high average. His best season in his 9 seasons with the Angels was his first full season when he caught 150 games (a rookie record), hit 34 doubles, drove in 61, and hit .258. This was enough for Topps to give Rodgers an all star rookie card.

Immediately after retiring a player, Rodgers was hired by his former (and only) big league manager Bill Rigney as one of his coaches on the Twins. He remained in that role until 1974, and later coached the Giants (1976) and the Brewers (1978-80). Rodgers finally got his first chance as a major league manager with the Brewers when #21 George Bamberger had a heart attack near the beginning of the 1980 season. Bamberger attempted to come back, but left again before the end of the season, so Rodgers managed two different times in one season: He went 27-21 the first time around and then 13-10 the second. Rodgers managed the team full time in 1981, but the Brewers started slow in 1982, and he was replaced by Harvey Kuenn. Of course, that team would go to World Series as “Harvey’s Wallbangers.”

He next had a much longer run as the Expos manager from 1985 to 1991. Rodgers only finished below .500 one season of all the full seasons he managed north of the border, and he even won a career high 91 games in 1987 (for which he won Manager of the Year honors).

Rodgers finished his managerial career with his original team, the Angels, who he managed from 1991 to 1994. Another freak experience happened to him during this tenure. The Angels team bus was involved in an accident, and Rodgers was seriously injured, breaking his knee, his elbow, and a rib. He was confined to wheelchair for most of the season, with coach #128 John Wathan, taking over in midseason.

Rodgers finished his managerial career with a 784-774 record, a .503 winning percentage. He only made the playoffs once (in the split season of 1981) where his Brewers lost to the Yankees.

Rear guard: You can see there's another manager card error. Two managers share card #141: The other is Chuck Cottier. No glaring missing players, although in hindsight Andres Galarraga should have been chosen as the rookie representative, as he had more at bats than #131 Razor Shines. The lack of Miguel Dilone card, who played 51 games with the Expos before being released, will be discussed when the Padres manager card comes up.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

#170 Gary Carter

Card thoughts: Judging by Carter's facial expression and the position of his eyes, he's running out a ground ball to the second or first baseman. This post missed Carter's death by two days.

The player: Everyone remembers Carter for his offensive prowess. But he actually was an excellent receiver, especially in his younger days with the Expos. Some would consider Carter one of the top 5 catchers of all time, and it's hard to disagree with that assessment. Like Johnny Bench and Bob Boone he was exceptionally durable behind the plate. From 1977 to 1982, Carter led the league every year in defensive games at catcher and putouts.

But he did not originally come up as a catcher. Although he played that position in the minors, he was blocked at that position by Barry Foote for some reason (Foote hit .194 in 1975, Carter's rookie year). Instead, he was the starting right fielder that season, while also backing up Foote at catcher. Barry Foote also figures into the story of Carter's nickname "The Kid." Apparently, Foote's teammates kept razzing the light hitting catcher about this young phenom in the minors. They kept telling him "The Kid" would take his job--which he eventually did (there are other stories about the origin of this nickname, some say it was just because Carter was more emotional than most players). Even playing an unfamiliar position, he was good enough to make the all star team and finish second in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

The next season was uncharacteristic for Carter (but not for rookies in general). He only had 311 at bats (at total he would not sink to again until 1989), and hit a measly .219 while trying to adjust to the grind of being a starting catcher for the first time. But he came roaring back in 1977, hitting 31 home runs and driving in 84 (although he didn't make the all star team). By 1979, Carter was the heir apparent to Johnny Bench as the best all around catcher in the league, if not the game. Carter made the all star team every year from 1979 to 1988, and won gold gloves from 1980-1982. He had his first season with over 100 RBIs in that stretch, driving in 101 in 1980.

Along with Andre Dawson, Carter can be considered one of the greatest Expos players of all time. He led the league in runs batted in in 1984, but that didn't stop the Expos from stupidly trading him that year to the Mets in for a package of young players, with none except for Hubie Brooks ever amounting to much. The addition of a veteran, stabilizing presence to a young, talented, but wild team propelled the Mets to their dominating 1986 season. Despite Carter's talent (he drove in over 100 runs his first two seasons with the Mets), he was not popular with his teammates. Since most of them were jerks, I'm guessing they didn't like Carter because, as a born again Christian, he was pretty straight-laced and refused to join his teammates in their cocaine and alcohol fueled binges. They also resented his seeking of the spotlight, and perhaps were jealous of how quickly he became a sought after star by the New York media establishment. Their disdain makes me like Carter more than most other Mets.

After the 1986 season, Carter had one more good season, hitting 20 home runs and driving in 87 in 1987, before the years of catching took their toll on his production. 1988 was his last season as a starting catcher, but he didn't stand on pride like so many former stars do today. He played as a backup in his last four seasons as a player, one each with the Mets, Giants, Dodgers, and Expos.

Carter finished his career with over 2,000 hits, 1,000 runs scored and runs batted in, and a .439 slugging percentage, great numbers for a catcher. Despite this, Carter wasn't selected until the 6th ballot for the hall of fame.

After his playing days were over, Carter coached for awhile in the minors and for a small university in Florida. Most of the recent news about him has been about his struggle with brain cancer, which he finally succumbed to on Thursday. Obituaries and memorials can be found all over the 'net, but here's one from "the paper of record."

Rear guard: Even though Carter hit 3 home runs in that afternoon game, the Expos still lost 8-6 to the Pirates. All three home runs came off Jim Rooker. Two of the home runs were solo shots, but the third was a two run home run, which also plated Warren Cromartie.

This day in baseball history: In 1998, legendary Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray dies. His announcing was pretty spotty in his later years, but going back and listening his old broadcasts (including when he was with the Cardinals) make you realize how he was one of those rare announcers that could make a non-fan fall in love with the game. His voice was a big reason my allegiance as a kid was with the Cubs, not the White Sox.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

#169 George Wright

Card thoughts: #105 Gary Ward and George Wright must go to the same barber. And man, does Wright look pissed off.

The player: George Wright was a phenomenal young player, whose career got sidetracked in only two years due to injury. His career as a study in contrasts: He had great speed, but barely stole any bases. He had great range in center, but made some catastrophic errors.

Wright had a good start to his career. Not even expected to make the team out of spring training, he became the starting centerfielder for the 1982 Rangers. He had a respectable 11-50-.264 batting line in 150 games. The next season would be Wright’s best. Appearing in every game, he got 175 hits, hit 18 home runs, and drove in 80. Alas, it would be the last year Wright was any good. Injuries took their toll in 1984, and Wright’s average dropped 30 points. He also tied an American League record by stranding 11 players on the bases in a game against the Red Sox. He was even worse the next two seasons, hitting .190 and .202 as he relinquished his starting role to the aforementioned Gary Ward. He experienced further ignominy when his three base error (in a game in which Charlie Hough was pitching a no-hitter) cost the Rangers  the win, and (and Hough the no-hitter).

Wright was released by the Expos at the end of the 1986 season (he hit .188 in a half a season with them), and spent the rest of his baseball career cycling between AAA and Japan.

Rear guard: Wow, Wright's drop in offensive output is really apparent on the back of his card. His first home run came in his first major league game--opening day, 1982. The victim was pitcher Indians pitcher Rick Waits. He later had a double and a single, and went 3 for 4 with 2 runs scored and 3 runs batted in that game.

Boy, way to dredge up the excitement, Topps. The base on balls has got to be the most boring play in baseball. Well, if you were ever burning to know who was the first person to take a walk for the Rangers, now you know. Hal King had a pretty good batting eye, walking 104 times in 799 plate appearances in his 12 year career. He actually walked twice in that game.

This date in baseball history: Boston Braves third baseman Tony Boeckel was the first player killed in a car accident. Luckily, Bob Meusel, the Yankees star outfielder, escaped serious injury in the wreck that happened in 1924.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#168 Jeff Burroughs

Card thoughts: Burroughs looks old and fat. No surprise, this would be his last Topps card.

The player: Bill James considers Jeff Burroughs to be one of the better outfielders in the 1970s, comparable to the 70s careers of hall of fame outfielder Dave Winfield, and borderline hall of fame candidates Dave Parker, #60 Dwight Evans, and Cesar Cedeno. However, Burroughs really hit a wall in the early 80s, and was never an impact player again.

Burroughs was the overall #1 draft pick in 1969 by the second iteration of the Washington Senators and made his major league debut only a year later. After playing sparsely as a backup outfielder while team was in Washington, he became a star soon after the team moved to Dallas. In 1973, Burroughs’ first season as a regular player, he hit 30 home runs (2nd in the league) and drove in 85. But this was just a taste of his MVP season in 1974. Burroughs led the league with 118 runs batted in and he had a strong .901 OPS. He was also the starting left fielder on the all star team.

Burroughs must have been trying too hard to replicate his 1974 success the next season, as he struck out a league leading 155 times, 23% of the time. All of his numbers went down, which caused his batting average to plunge 70 points from the previous season. He still managed to drive in more than 90 runs, however. After another so-so season in 1976, Burroughs was traded to the Braves for six players. It was a good deal for Atlanta, as Burroughs had another MVP caliber season with the Braves, hitting a career high 41 home runs (2nd in the league) and 114 runs batted in. His average was back up to respectable levels too. By modern metrics, Burroughs’ next season may be considered his best. He led the league in walks and on base percentage and had a robust .961 OPS. But Burroughs power numbers were way down: He hit about half as many home runs as the year before, and he drove in only 77.

This would be a foreshadowing of the remainder of Burroughs career. He never again hit even 20 home runs, and would never again play more than 120 games. Burroughs was traded to the Mariners in 1980, and he spent one season with them as their starting rightfielder before moving on to Oakland. By the time he got to Oakland, Burroughs’ age and poor fielding limited him in the outfield so he started spending more time as a designated hitter. His best season in the 80s was his first year with A’s. Splitting time between designated hitter and the outfield, Burroughs hit 16 home runs and drove in 48, while sporting his highest OPS (.878) since 1978.

Burroughs was almost exclusively a designated hitter his last three seasons, which allowed him to play in 121 games in 1983, once again the most since 1978. Burroughs finished his career with the Blue Jays, where he was the right handed half of a designated/pinch hitting platoon with another veteran 70s masher, Al Oliver. His final major league at bat was his only at bat in Game 7 of the ALCS. In the bottom of the 9th inning with the Blue Jays down big, Burroughs grounded back weakly to the pitcher, an ironic ending for one of the most feared sluggers in the mid 70s.

Burroughs spent his post retirement days coaching little league baseball, including his son Sean who, like his dad, was a #1 draft pick. He also managed Phillies star Chase Utley as a kid.

Rear guard: I was always excited to see a team that no longer existed in a player’s statistics. If you squint real hard, you can see the Senators way at the top. Kids today are probably just excited at seeing the Expos on the back of a player’s card. 

Burroughs first home run came as he was pinch hitting for second baseman Bernie Allen. It was off Tigers pitcher, and future long time Dodgers pitching coach, Ron Perranoski. The three run blast drove in Larry Biitner and Dick Billings. The Senators used 4 pinch hitters other than Burroughs in the game.

This date in baseball history: Radio broadcast rights are granted to Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Cincinnati in 1933. WGN was one of the grantees, and still broadcasts Cubs games today.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

#167 Zane Smith

Card thoughts: I believe this picture was taken the same game as the #129 Jeff Dedmon photo in the Astrodome. This would be the June 27, 1985 game where Smith beat #100 Nolan Ryan 4-1. Dedmon relieved him in the 6th inning. Other than that, I always thought Zane Smith was one ugly player, but I may have been influenced by his hideous mullet. I sometimes have the same feelings about Randy Johnson. This was Zane Smith's first Topps card.

The player: Smith was an inconsistent pitcher who won exactly 100 games in his career, but finished with a sub .500 record. He is also the only major league player that I know of that was traded for former Rockford Expos two different times (Nate Minchey and Willie Greene). Smith began his career as a reliever. but the Braves lack of quality starters forced him into the rotation his rookie year. He had a 9-10 record, and lost another 16 games the next year. Like a lot of lefties, it took awhile for Smith to find his groove, but he turned it around in 1987, winning 15 games and leading the league in games started for a last place team. Unfortunately for Smith, he would not share in the Braves renaissance in the 1990s, as he was traded to Montreal in 1989 after going 1-12 for the Braves.

At the end of the next season, he was traded to the Pirates (for future star Moises Alou) who were in the midst of winning three consecutive NL East titles. Smith was phenomenal down the stretch, posting a 1.30 ERA over 10 starts. Overall, his 2.55 ERA was second in the league. His success did not carry over to the NLCS, as he lost both games he pitched in. The next season, Smith had a career year, winning 16 games against 10 losses with a 3.20 ERA. This time, he pulled his weight in the playoffs against his former team, winning and losing one 1-0 game.

Smith was injured the next couple of years, but managed a double digit win season one more time (1994) before he left the Pirates. He signed with the Red Sox in 1995, but he had a high ERA at 5.61. After coming back for one last season with the Pirates (and another ERA over 5), Smith retired when no one offered him a contract.

Rear guard: You can see Smith was inconsistent in the minors as well. Smith's first win came against the Astros. He gave up 6 hits and one run, and his mound opponent was Nolan Ryan in a game similar to the one pictured on the card.

A pitcher hitting two grand slams in a game is pretty incredible. As a pitcher, Cloninger had one 20 win season, but he was mediocre overall. But he was one of the better all time hitting pitchers. In 1966, Cloninger hit 5 home runs, drove in 23 runs, and hit .234. For his career, he hit .192 with 11 homers. Cloninger's 9 RBIs in that game is a record for pitchers. Here's his card from that season. He looks tough!

This day in baseball history: As a reminder that Jackie Robinson did not break all color barriers in baseball, the Georgia Senate banned blacks and whites playing baseball together unless it was a church gathering. Sadly, this was in 1957, not 1857.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

#166 Dickie Thon

Card thoughts: We used to make fun of this card as a kid, for obvious reasons. I feel kind of bad about it now, seeing Thon was attempting to come back from a horrible beaning.

The player: With a name like Dickie Thon, you'd assume he was American, but he actually is Puerto Rican. As a young man, Thon was a five-tool player as good as Cal Ripken or Robin Yount. He came up with the Angels in 1979, he never filled more than a utility role for them and was traded to the Astros for pitcher Ken Forsch. In 1982, Thon was handed the starting shortstop position, and led the league in triples with 10, to go along with 37 stolen bases. The next season was his breakout year. Thon made the all star team and hit 20 home runs and 79 runs batted in. But the next season, Thon was beaned by Mike Torrez five games into the season, which permanently damaged his right eye. A detailed account of that incident can be found here.

Thon came back the next season, but he was the never the same after the beaning. He was decent in the field, but no longer hit. The vision problems Thon continued to have forced him onto the disabled list for much of his remaining years with the Astros. He did have one more season in when his stats were similar to those before he was beaned. Thon hit 15 home runs and drove in 60 runs in 1989. The next two seasons, he managed to stay on the field most of the time and got his share of hits and RBIs. After stops in Texas and Milwaukee, Thon was forced to retire after the 1993 season due to vision problems. What might have been.

Rear guard: Thon's first Topps card was one of those future star cards. Of the other players Thon shared a card with, Ralph Botting only pitched 18 games in two seasons and had a career 7.39 ERA; and Bob Clark has a card in this set, but was never a star.

Thon's first home run was a leadoff home run against Phillies pitcher Bob Walk.

Friday, February 10, 2012

#165 Mike Davis

Card thoughts: "Ooh, what lovely bag of candy!  May I have a teensy, weensy, little piece." Or Davis could be ogling the photographer.

The player:  Davis had a short career, but over a three year span, he was a great power hitter. He came up originally with A's in 1980 as a backup outfielder but hit poorly in 51 games, and spent much of the next two seasons in the minors. He came up for good in 1983 and was named the A's starting right fielder. Davis showed good clutch hitting, driving in 62 runs despite having only 8 home runs. He showed he had good speed also, swiping 32 bases. The next year was a struggle, and Davis hit only .230 while leading the league in errors committed by an outfielder. But the season represented by this card, Davis really broke out. He started hitting the ball with more authority, hitting 24 home runs, 3 times his previous career high. His speed helped him score 92 runs. Based on WAR, Davis was the fifth most valuable outfielder in the league. In 1986, his numbers took a bit of a tumble but the power and speed ratio remained constant.

1987 was a season similar to Davis' 1985 campaign and netted him a big contract with the Dodgers. Here's where his career started to crater. Davis felt a lot of pressure to live up to him big contract in 1988 and he hit only .196, and Mike Marshall was moved from first to right field to replace him as a starter. But it wasn't all doom and gloom for Davis, as he relates here in his account of the greatest game of his life. He played an integral role in one of the greatest World Series comebacks of all time. In Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Davis walked ahead of Kirk Gibson's game winning home run off Dennis Eckersley, which is remarkable itself, in that Eckersley barely ever walked anyone. In Game 5, Davis hit a 2 run home run for his only hit in the series (although he did walk 4 times) to put the Dodgers in the lead for good in the deciding game.

The afterglow of World Series triumph did not help him the next season, when he hit .249 in a part time role. Davis would give up the game after that season at young age of 30.

Rear guard: Steals of home plate have become much rarer, due to the increasing prevalence of the sidestep. It was off of Gary Peters, and was against the White Sox, not the Tigers. Here's Cater's card from that season. He would have a 12 year career with the Phillies, White Sox, A's, Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals. He was not known as a speed guy, only averaging 3 steals a season. Cater's season high in stolen bases was only 8 happened to be the year he stole home--1968.

This date in baseball history: In 1971, former first baseman Bill White was hired by the Yankees broadcasting team, guaranteeing that he would become the first African American to do play by play regularly for a team.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

#164 Steve Balboni

Card thoughts:  Classic shot of Balboni at Tiger Stadium, gearing up to either hit a long bomb, or spectacularly whiff.

The player: Steve Balboni was one of many, many Yankee farmhands from the early 80s that went on to a productive career for another major league team. A fearsome slugger who was nicknamed “Bye Bye,” he was also an all or nothing type of hitter like Rob Deer or Dave Kingman. Despite hitting over 30 home runs for three straight minor league seasons (1980-1982), Balboni couldn’t crack the Yankee lineup because of his propensity to strike out. After playing a handful of games for the big club over three seasons, he was sent to the Royals in 1983 for a reliever and a minor leaguer. Balboni immediately made an impact in Kansas City, mashing 28 home runs in 1984. Unfortunately, he also led the league in errors at first, and only hit .244. The year shown on this card Balboni upped his home runs to 36 (a Royals record), but struck out at an alarming rate, leading the league with 166, 23 more than the 2nd place hitter on the leader board, Jesse Barfield. In the World Series that year, Balboni hit over .300 and drove in 3 runs.

Until 1988, Balboni would hit over 20 home runs every year for the Royals and Mariners, but his RBI totals kept declining, and his average dipped into the low .200s. After a brief stint with the Mariners, Balboni was traded to his original team, where he played the last two seasons as a semi-regular designated hitter. After returning to minors for a couple years, where he once again mashed over 30 home runs, Balboni reappeared for 2 games with the Rangers at the end of 1993 to finish his career. Although he hit 181 home runs, his career average was only .229.

Here’s a weird Web series based on Topps baseball cards somehow (which is actually surprisingly amusing) that uses Steve Balboni as the butt of a running joke in Episode 7: “Balboner”. In real life, Balboni has been a hitting coach for the Royals and Cardinals organizations. He's especially proud of the work he did with current catcher Yadier Molina who was 20 at the time.

Rear guard: Balboni's first home run came off A's starter Tom Underwood and drove in #70 Dave Winfield. He added a double in the 6th inning and went 3 for 4 in the game.

Oh the Game Winning RBI. This was a statistic used from 1980-1988 and credited the player who drove in the run that put the team ahead for good with the game winning RBI. Even if more runs were later needed to beat the other team. The wishy-washy nature of this statistic led to its demise. But Topps was still pumping the stat in 1986, even retroactively discovering previous game winning RBIs in the murky past. Joe Keough's single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 12th inning drove in Joe Foy with the winning run: An indisputable game winning RBI. Joe Keough played for 6 seasons, mostly as a utility player, although he did start for the Royals in right field in 1971. He drove in 81 runs in his career, and is the uncle of "ace pitcher turned town drunk" Matt Keough.

This date in baseball history:  Oscar Charleston, a Negro League star who is considered one of the best all time ball players, is inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976. He had a lifetime .354 batting average.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

#163 Pete Ladd

Card thoughts:  I was going to say that Ladd looks like a surly fisherman in this photo; however, it’s much better than his cards with the Mariners where he looks like a grade A doofus, or an understudy for Weird Al Yankovic. This was Ladd’s last card as a Brewer.

The player: It was a struggle for Ladd to stick in the majors. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 1977, then was sent to the Astros while he was in AA ball for future National League president Bob Watson. After a cup of coffee with the Astros in 1979, Ladd was sent to the Brewers for Rickey "Buster" Keeton who never pitched in the majors again. Ladd pitched down the stretch in 1982 for the Brewers, and was pressed into closer duty in the ALCS after Rollie Fingers was injured. He pitched well out of the pen in that series, saving two games, walking none and striking out five. In the World Series, he blew a lead and was never used again. Ladd expounds on the experience here (recommended if you want to hear some great Northern American accents!)

But there were no hard feelings, and the next season Ladd had a career year. Pressed into closer duty when Fingers missed the entire season, his 25 saves were in the top 10 in the league, and he also sported a career low 2.55 ERA. It was back to middle relief the next two seasons, and Ladd was mediocre, giving up way too many homers and featuring ERAs in the high 4’s and low 5s. The Brewers finally released him after the 1985 season, and he signed with the Mariners where he had another poor year, and then never resurfaced in the majors again.

Ladd has a pretty good singing voice, as evidenced by his parody of “Knocking on Heaven's (Gorman’s) Door” at a Brewers fantasy camp. He currently works in counter sales at the Hancock Lumber Company in Maine.

Rear guard: I don't think it's necessary to note Ladd's first American League Win; he only had one win in the National League. For his first win, Ladd pitched the 7th and part of the 8th inning to pick up the win in relief of Rick Williams. He struck out two Phillies, walked one, and gave up no runs.

Johnny Briggs was a steady first baseman with a little power, but he didn't hit for average. Most of his career was spent with the Phillies. The year he went 6 for 6, he only hit .246. Among the six hits were two doubles and four singles. The Indians starter that day, Dick Tidrow, managed to give up five of the hits (out of a total of 14!). Here's his card from that year.

This date in baseball history:  Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio signed the first $100,000 contract in baseball history in 1949. This would be $945,000 today.

Monday, February 6, 2012

#162 Greg Gagne

Card thoughts:  This is Gagne’s first Topps card. He had a “Rated Rookie” card issued by Donruss the previous year. Also, Gagne only played shortstop this year.

The player: Gagne (pronounced Gag-ni not Gan-yea) was originally drafted by the Yankees in 1979, but like a lot of prospects at the time, he was dealt in the early 80s for a proven player, in this case Twins shortstop Roy Smalley. Gagne, starting his rookie year, was a regular shortstop every year for the rest of his career. Besides being durable, he was a proficient, although sometimes erratic fielder. Gagne led the league in errors in 1986 and 1995, but also led in putouts, fielding percentage, and range factor on different occasions. He also once “fielded” a rat in a game at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.

Gagne was no great shakes with the bat, or as a base runner. He only had a career 53% success rate as a base stealer, and he struck out a lot and didn’t walk much, even though he had little power. He did once hit a record two inside-the-park home runs off #64 Floyd Bannister. Despite the one dimensional nature of Gagne’s game, he was a bit of a folk hero in Minnesota, mostly because he played well on both of the Twins World Series winning teams in 1987 and 1991. In 1987, he had a career high .740 OPS, on the strength of 28 doubles, 7 triples, and 10 home runs. He only hit .200 in the World Series that year, but drove in 3 runs. In 1991, he hit 8 home runs and drove in 42 with a .265 average.

Eventually, Gagne got too expensive for the Twins and he signed with the Royals in 1993. He responded with a career high 57 runs batted in and .280 average, but his average dropped each year the remainder of his career—two more years with the Royals and two with the Dodgers. Gagne finished in 1997 with a career .254 average and an abysmal .303 on base percentage. However, his fielding percentage as a shortstop was impressive at .972. Gagne currently coaches baseball at a Catholic high school in his hometown.

Rear guard: Gagne's first major league hit came against the Red Sox in his first major league game. It was a double off Doug Bird to lead off the 6th inning. He immediately scored the Twins' 6th run on a Mickey Hatcher double.

This date in baseball history: Ted Williams becomes the highest paid player in baseball history in 1958, signing a one-year contract for $135,000. This would be about a paltry 1 million dollars today, the same as a backup infielder makes.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

#161 Lee Tunnell

Card thoughts: These Pirates' spring training uniforms are really atrocious. Tunnell looks like he's on fire. He also looks just like my 7th grade algebra teacher, Mr. Lucido.

The player:  Tunnell started his career as a hot pitching prospect, finishing in the top ten in Rookie of the Year voting with a 11-6 record in 1983. He was also 5th in shutouts and 6th in winning percentage that year. But his promise didn't translate into continued success, and the rest of his career was spotty. Tunnell was shifted to long relief in 1984 and ERA climbed to 5.27. Then, in the season shown on this card, he was moved back to the rotation but was similarly unsuccessful, going 4-10 with a 4.01 ERA.

After being "banished" to the Hawaii AAA club for the 1986 season (and going 4-11 with a 6.01 ERA), Tunnell was signed by the Cardinals and resurfaced with them for the 1987 season, where he pitched okay in a long relief/spot starter role. He pitched better in the World Series, giving up only 1 run in 4 1/3 innings of work. Tunnell would pitch 10 more games with the Twins in 1989 before playing Japan for three years.

Tunnell has had a long career as a pitching coach in the Rangers minor league organization, and he was even the interim bullpen coach for the Reds for a season. He is now the Brewers minor league roving pitching instructor.

Rear guard: Tunnell's first and only major league save came in a three inning relief stint of #140 John Candelaria. He gave up no runs on two hits, walked one and struck out three. The game ended when Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter struck out.

Jim Russell was also the first player to homer on both sides of the plate in two different games in one season. Over his 10 year career with the Pirates, Braves, and Dodgers he hit 67 home runs.

This date in baseball history:  Minor leaguer Cecil Fielder, father of Prince, was traded on this day in 1983 from the Royals to the Blue Jays for reserve outfielder Leon Roberts. Fielder had led the short season Pioneer League in home runs and doubles the previous year, and of course would go on to have a stellar career, but not with the Blue Jays.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

#160 Chet Lemon

Card thoughts: I swear, every Tiger card shot was taken on a dismal cold cloudy day. "Chet" is one my favorite names, probably because I read a lot of Hardy Boys as a kid and their bumbling, rotund chum was named Chet Morton.

The player: Lemon was drafted in the first round by A's, but he was traded before he ever reached the majors with them. In the minors, Lemon was a third baseman and came to camp with the White Sox expecting to make the team in that capacity. But his fielding wasn't up to major league standards so he was put in center, where he excelled. In center, Lemon had tremendous range, setting an American League record with 512 putouts and 524 total chances in 1977. As a batter, Lemon leaned out over the plate, which meant he led the league in being hit by pitch 4 times. But he was also a consistent .300 hitter in the late 70s and early 80s, and was the White Sox lone all star representative in 1978 and 1979. His best season with the Sox came in 1979 when he led the league in doubles with 44, hit a career high .318, and drove in 86 runs.

In a straight up deal for another outfielder, Lemon was dealt to the Tigers for Steve Kemp after the 1981 season. With the Tigers, Lemon's average dropped, but his power numbers increased. Playing on a winning team for the first time in his career, Lemon his over 20 home runs three times in his 9 year Tiger career. After being hitless in the 1984 ALCS, Lemon hit a respectable .294 in the World Series. He was a popular player in Detroit, as evidenced by this promo spot.

Lemon eventually moved the right field when Gary Pettis arrived in 1988. The next season, he was stricken by a rare spleen disease and missed a significant number of games. After attempting a comeback in 1990, the disease forced him into retirement. The spleen has since been removed.

Lemon coaches high school baseball in Florida. His son was arrested for a bank robbery last year.

Rear guard: Here's his first card. As for his fellow rookie outfielders, Ellis Valentine would have several good years, including an all star game appearance, with Expos and would hit .278 over a 10 year career; Terry Whitfield will be discussed later in this blog; and Henry Cruz played 53 games for the Dodgers in 1975, which is a bit much or someone appearing on a prospect card. Anyhow, he only lasted 4 seasons and finished with a .229 average. Lemon would get a All Star Rookie Cup on his first solo card the next year.

Two of Lemon's five hits were doubles; he was also caught stealing once. He scored on a single by Jim Essian in the 8th inning, and drove in Oscar Gamble with a single in the 5th.

This date in baseball history:  In 1976, in a decision that changed baseball forever, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally successfully challenged the reserve clause after playing the 1975 season without a signed contract. They would be the fist ever "free agents." McNally ended up retiring and Messersmith, once a star pitcher, wasn't the same after signing with the Braves.

Friday, February 3, 2012

#159 Orel Hershiser

Card thoughts: Hershiser looks like the "boy next door" from one of those 60s sitcoms like My Three Sons. No doubt he's squinting because of the flash needed to illuminate this night shot.

The player: Nicknamed "Bulldog" by manager Tommy Lasorda in order to toughen him up, Hershiser is of course best known for breaking Don Drysdale's consecutive scoreless innings streak. But people have forgotten (including me) how consistently good Hershiser was before he injured his rotator cuff. As a pitcher he had a decent enough fastball, but the sinker was his out pitch, and he featured a good curve and slider as well. Another strength was his control: He rarely averaged more than 3 walks every nine innings.  He was also an excellent fielder and hitter (Hershiser once hit over .340 in a season).

A mediocre reliever in the minors, something seemed to click once Hershiser reached the majors. After coming in third in the Rookie of the Year award in 1984 on the strength of a league leading 4 shutouts and an 11-4 record, Hershiser dominated the year shown on this card. He went 19-3, easily leading the league with an .864 winning percentage. His ERA was a miniscule 2.03. The next couple of years he was a .500 pitcher (although he won 14 and 16 those years), mostly because his ERA rose by a run. In 1988, however, Hershiser had one of the greatest seasons all time by a pitcher. In addition to closing out the regular season with a record 59 scoreless innings, he led the league with 23 wins, 15 complete games, 8 shutouts, and 267 innings pitched. His ERA was once again barely above 2. Hershiser was the unanimous choice for the Cy Young Award. If anything, he topped himself in the playoffs that year, winning both the NLCS and World Series MVP. He had ERAs of 1.09 and 1.00 respectively, and even got a save against the Mets.

The next year, despite an ERA of 2.35, Hershiser once again had a .500 record, and even led the league in losses as the Dodgers didn't provide him much run support. But the next season was even worse, as he tore his rotator cuff early in the 1990 season. Some thought his career was over, but he battled back. But Hershiser would never again be a big winner for the Dodgers. His ERA rose by more than a run after the injury and he led the league in losses again in 1992.

But Hershiser was an intelligent pitcher and eventually learned to work within his limitations. After signing with the powerful Indians, who were in the midst of dominating the American League Central, he got his mojo back and won 16 games for the Tribe in 1995, despite having an ERA of 3.67. He would once again have a high winning percentage for the next three seasons, helped by the most powerful offense that had ever supported him. But after 1995, he was brutal in the playoffs, racking up high ERAs and losing big games, including 2 in the 1997 World Series.

Hershiser had brief stints with the Giants and Mets before ending his career with the Dodgers at age 41. He had a fine 204-150 career record, and would surely be in the hall of fame if some of those Dodger teams would have hit better. After his playing days were over, Hershiser was the pitching coach for the Rangers and worked for a time in the front office. He's currently the color analyst on ESPNs Sunday Night Baseball and also plays professional poker under the name "Bulldog."

Rear guard: This brother battery bit is getting a bit tired, Topps. In 1959, Sherry was a rookie who only had 3 at bats and one hit. But he is better known as the catcher who tamed Koufax into become a big winner. Sherry never was anything more than a backup catcher, and he hit only .215 in his career.  After his playing days were over, he had a long coaching and managerial career. I can recall him with the Giants in the mid 80s. His brother Larry was a much more successful pitcher, mostly as a reliever. He finished with a 53-46 record over 11 seasons. In 1959, Sherry had a sensational World Series and won the MVP award. In the regular season, he went 7-2 with a fine 2.19 ERA.

This date in baseball history:  In 1977, the special Negro League hall of fame committee dissolves after naming its last two inductees, pitcher/batter Martin Dihigo and shortstop John "Pop" Lloyd. After this, Negro League veterans will be considered by the Veterans committee.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

#158 Derrel Thomas

Card thoughts: I still remember being freaked out by this card as a child. Probably the ugliest photo in the set. This picture of Thomas makes him look like a sinister 75 year old man, but he was only 34 at the time. He looks like a completely different person when he was younger. This would be Thomas’ final card.

The player:  Thomas was a switch-hitting, versatile player who filled several different roles in his 15-year career: All around utility player, reserve infielder, starting centerfielder, starting second baseman, and starting shortstop. He ended up playing every position except pitcher at least once during his career. Known as a cocky, stubborn player, Thomas was involved in several controversies in his career.

But he was put in the lineup for his hitting, not for his glove or attitude. Thomas was drafted first overall in the 1969 draft by the Astros, but he only got a 5 game trial for them in 1971. He was dealt the following season to the Padres for pitcher Dave Roberts. Thomas was the Padres starting second baseman in 1972, and their starting shortstop the following year. But Thomas was a bad fielder at both positions, especially shortstop, where his career fielding percentage is a lowly .937. His hitting didn’t make up for it, as he hit about .230 every year with no power. His hitting improved enough in 1974 to be attractive to the Giants (and the move back to second improved his fielding), who sent Tito Fuentes (a much better hitter and defensive second baseman) and Butch Metzger (who won the Rookie of the Year in 1976) to acquire him.

The Giants wisely kept him at second base and, although he still made a lot of errors, Thomas began to hit the ball with more authority, getting his OPS above .700 for the first time. In his first year with the Giants, Thomas reached career highs in runs (99), hits (149), RBIs (48) and batting average (.276). But Giants decided they couldn’t continue to stomach his inconsistent fielding and he was switched to the outfield for the 1977 season. Relieved of the pressure of being an infielder, Thomas had one of his better seasons at the plate and in the field. Playing a career high 148 games, he was 5th in the league with 10 triples, while hitting 8 home runs, driving in 44, and hitting a respectable .267. He also made only 2 errors at his new position.

The Padres got him back for one season and the Dodgers signed him to a five year contract in 1979 to be their starting centerfielder to replace Bill North. Thomas had one of his typical seasons (except that he overslept for a game on July 11), but it would be his last as a starter—although it would not be the last strange incident in his career. In 1981, Thomas was caught by the FBI for piloting an impounded boat of a missing embezzler.

With his hitting in decline, he would be relegated to a utility role for the rest of his career. But more controversy followed him. When Thomas was released by the Expos in 1984, he accused the team of racism, but later angrily denied that he had said so; later that year, the Angels released him due to rumors of a drug problem, fueled by Dave Parker’s testimony at the Pittsburgh drug trials (Thomas denied he had a drug problem).

As an aging player with an increasingly bad reputation, no major league organization would touch Thomas. He was forced to play with the few independent teams that operated at the time. First, he was first cut by the independent San Jose Bees for having a bad attitude, and then was toiling in obscurity for the independent (not the major league team of today!) Miami Marlins in the Florida State League when the Phillies bought him on May 15. It was a short reprieve as that season would be his last in baseball.

Thomas managed in the minors briefly and for a time he was broke and got in trouble with the law. This column sums up the tribulations he went through after his baseball career. But Thomas eventually turned his life around and currently works in the Dodgers front office as a representative for the Dodger Legend Bureau (although I doubt any Dodger fan would consider him a legend, although he did hit .444 in the 1983 NLCS). 

Rear guard:  The home run was hit at Jarry Park, the old home of the Montreal Expos, which had an incredibly deep center field (417 to straightaway center and 380 in the alleys) where Thomas hit the ball. It drove in hall-of-famer Willie McCovey and Johnny Grubb. Thomas would later drive in McCovey again with a single.

This date in baseball history: (New feature!). In 1976, umpire Cal Hubbard, third baseman Fred Lindstrom and  first baseman Roger Connor were elected to the hall of fame. Hubbard holds the distinction of being the only person in two hall of fames (he's also in the football hall of fame as a player). Connor was the all time home run champ until Babe Ruth came around. He played solely in the 19th century, so his 138 home runs may not seem like much, but the record stood for 23 years. Lindstrom was a controversial pick for the hall of fame. This was in the Frankie Frisch dominated era of the veterans committee, and several players seem to have made it in based on the fact that they played with Frisch.