Saturday, March 31, 2012

#191 Wally Backman

Card thoughts: This photo was likely taken just after (as in: mere minutes) after the one on the #53 Len Dykstra card. That is also a very weird angle on Backman's follow through. He looks like he's going to hop on down to first base.

The player: Wally Backman was a short, scrappy second baseman who was part of one of the most productive platoons in baseball while with the Mets. The drawback Backman always had was that, even though he was a switch hitter, he couldn’t hit lefties, so much so that he gave up hitting right handed later in his career.Backman's post playing career as interesting as when he was a player.

Backman was one of the ’86 Mets who remembered much leaner times with the teams. Although he was a #1 draft pick, Backman wasn’t anything special in the minors, hitting with a fairly high average, but little power. He did have a knack for getting on base (and stealing when he got on), so he was perfect for the top of the order. After a brief appearance in 1980, Backman thought he had good chance to become a starter in 1981. But the Mets, like many other teams, made the mistake in acquiring Doug Flynn to play second, thus curtailing Backman’s playing time. After the Mets demoted him in June, Backman refused to go to Tidewater for 6 days.

This defiant episode didn’t hinder Backman from winning the starting second base job in 1982. Although he hit .272, Brian Giles, a better fielder than Backman, won the starting job in 1983. But Giles was pretty much another Wally Backman with more strikeouts and less walks, so the Mets went back with the latter as their starter the year shown on this card. Despite being a starting second baseman, and presumably making good money, Backman distrusted his good fortune and spent the season living with his family in a camper in a campground in New Jersey.

After a decent year with the bat in 1984, Backman played in a career-high 145 games the year shown on this card. He also reached highs in runs (77), hits (142), doubles (24), and runs batted in (38). Backman was no slouch in the field either, leading the league with a .989 fielding percentage. The only worrisome statistic was his strikeout to walk ratio, which was 2 to 1, when it was usually 1 to 1. Like many Mets, Backman had a career year in 1986. Although he was now in a platoon with Tim Tuefel, Backman hit a career high .320, and once again led the league in fielding percentage at second. Playing nearly every game in the playoffs, Backman hit .238 in the NLCS, and over .300 in the World Series, scoring 9 runs in 12 games.

In the years following 1986, Backman saw less and less playing time as Tuefel began taking over at second. He managed to hit over .300 again in 294 at bats in 1988, his last season with the Mets. Backman once again supplanted Tuefel as a starter in the playoffs, a rewarded the Mets’ confidence by hitting .273 in the NLCS.

Backman was traded that December to the Twins for three minor leaguers. An injury to his shoulder kept him from contributing much to the Twins, and he managed to get into only 87 games and hit .231.

The Twins didn’t have much interest in re-signing Backman, so he went to the Pirates. The problem was, the Pirates had flashy fielder Jose Lind at second, so he went to third to platoon with Jeff King. Backman would have his last good season with the 1990 Pirates, getting 315 at bats and hitting .292. He hit over 20 doubles for the second time in his career, but hit poorly as a backup in the playoffs.

Backman would sign with the Phillies for the 1991 season and played 136 games over two seasons with the team, hitting .249 as a backup second and third baseman. A 10 game swan song with the Mariners in 1993 ended his career.

Backman began managing in the independent leagues in 1997, which was notable only in that he got bit by a brown recluse spider in Bend, Oregon and nearly died. But Backman’s fiery managing style attracted the notice of the White Sox organization, and he had great success in their system. He was strongly considered for the managerial opening that Ozzie Guillen eventually got, but the Sox got word that Backman was openly rooting against the team in the hopes that incumbent manager Jerry Manuel would get fired. In what wouldn’t be the last time in his managerial career, Backman shot himself in the foot.

Despite his personality flaws (or perhaps because of them), Backman was still regarded as a great minor league manager, getting the most out of clubs who had little talent. After a season managing their A ball team, the Diamondbacks named him their major league manager. However, in one of the all time colossal screw ups, the Diamondbacks did not investigate Backman’s past, instead relying on his word that there was nothing embarrassing there. Big mistake. Backman had been convicted of a DUI and harassment, and accused of spousal abuse. He also declared bankruptcy in order to get out from under a tax judgement by the IRS. An embarrassed Diamondbacks owner rescinded the managerial offer, claiming that Backman lied to him.

Backman was once again back managing in the independent leagues, and was in a reality show about his experience called “Playing for Peanuts.” If you want to see Backman’s mercurial managing style, here’s a (NSFW) video of his epic meltdown over a player being ejected. There’s a bunch of Backman’s tirades online from this season.

As of 2012, Backman is back in organized ball, managing the Mets AAA affiliate.

Rear guard: In the hard up early days of the Mets, they rushed anyone with even a smidgen of talent into the majors, regardless of age or maturity level. 1965 was the only season Bethke pitched in the majors, and he went 2-0 with a 4.28 ERA in relief. He was a bit wild, however: He walked 22 against 19 strikeouts. Bethke would pitch 6 more seasons in the minors in the Mets and Royals organizations, retiring at 24. Bethke does not have a 1966 card, only one from 1965. Looking at this card, you could see the Mets were in for better things. Tug McGraw and Ron Swoboda were integral to the Mets '69 World Series win.

This date in baseball history: The nickname "Pilots" would be chosen as the Seattle expansion team's nickname in 1968. The team would play only the 1969 season in Seattle before moving to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

#190 George Hendrick

Card thoughts: I'm not really digging the upside down U Fu Manchu. It looks like he started growing it after he was traded to the Padres. The picture was taken during the Angels' September 2-4 series in Detroit, where they went 2-1. Hendrick only played in one game in the series, but almost 50% of all the hits he would get for Angels came in that game.

It's a crying shame that Rollie Fingers, a sure hall of famer, gets a card ending in "5" and Hendrick gets one ending in "0." Topps definitely had a position player bias when doling out these special "0" cards.

The player: For years, Hendrick was a reliable middle of the order hitter. Not too flashy, he just drove in 80-100 runs a year while playing for some bad teams. Like a lot of good RBI guys, Hendrick didn't walk or strike out much, and was known as a "cripple" hitter, who rarely missed a mistake pitch. His best seasons were with the Cardinals in the late 70s/early 80s. Hendrick was also the first major leaguer to wear his pants down to his ankles, a look that soon supplanted the socks-hiked-up-past-the-calf look. He was also nicknamed “Jogging George” and “Captain Easy” (for his reputation as a lackadaisical player) and “Silent George” for his longstanding refusal to speak to the media.

Hendrick began his career with the A’s (he was the first overall pick in the 1968 draft). But like a lot of young players, he found it hard to break into such a stacked lineup as the A’s sported in the early 70s. So the A’s shipped him off to the Indians with future pitching coach (then catcher) Dave Duncan for former all-star catcher Ray Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann. Given the opportunity to start for the first time, he showed good power, slugging 21 home runs in just 440 at bats. The next two seasons he made the all-star team, which was probably more a function of the lameness of the Indians (at least in 1974) than Hendrick’s skill. His 1975 campaign was more deserving, as he hit 24 home runs, drove in 86, and hit .258.

After a similar season in 1976, Hendrick was traded to the Padres where he had his best season to date, coming in 7th in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) among position players and finishing in the top 10 in batting average while hitting 23 home runs and driving in 81.

Despite his career year, Hendrick would only last 36 more games with the Padres. Although never accused as being a clubhouse cancer, owner Ray Kroc (who knew a thing or two about customer service) was miffed the Hendrick refused to talk to reporters, sign autographs, pose for photos, or even accept awards in person. He was traded in 1978 to the Cardinals for pitcher Eric Rasmussen in one of the worst trades in Padres history. With the Cardinals, Hendrick would finally become a bonafide star.

Within a couple of years, Hendrick was driving in 100 runs and hitting over .300 for the perennially contending Redbirds. In 1980, 81, and 83 he was in the top ten in OPS, and he was one of the leaders on the 1982 Cardinals team that won the World Series. After a season which saw Hendrick drive in over 100 runs again, he hit over .300 in both the NLCS and the World Series while driving in 7 runs. Completing an incredible run with the Cardinals, he drove in another 97 runs in 1983, and 69 more in 1984 at age 34.

At the beginning of the season shown on this card, Hendrick was traded to the Pirates for Brian Harper and John Tudor (who would win 20+ games the next season), the second time he had been involved in a lopsided trade--although this time Hendrick’s subsequent poor performance was the cause. Unfortunately for the Pirates, his bat had gone lame and he hit only .225 while driving in a meager 25 runs. The Pirates cut their losses in a deadline move, moving Hendrick along with #140 John Candelaria and Al Holland for bee look-alike #114 Mike Brown, Pat Clements, and Bob Kipper.

Hendrick wasn’t much better in his first go-round with the Angels, hitting a microscopic .122 in 16 games. He was a little better in 1986, the year the Angels nearly made the World Series. Getting into 102 games as part of a platoon in right field, some of Hendrick’s stroke came back and he hit .272 while bashing 14 home runs. But this would be his last as a regular player. Playing around 60 games in each of the next two seasons, he hit in the .240s while serving as a backup outfielder. Hendrick’s last game was on the final day of the 1988 season when he grounded out to shortstop pinch hitting for Devon White. 

Hendrick has coached for the Tampa Bay Rays since 2006. Prior to that, he coached for the Cardinals, Angels, and Dodgers.

Rear guard: Hendrick played so long, it's hard to see his numbers; it's even harder to see his miniscule Angels numbers.

This date in baseball history: Wow! An event that actually involves the player in this post. Charlie Finley, owner of the A's, suggested that the league try out some orange balls during an exhibition game in 1973. Our very own George Hendrick claimed that he couldn't pick up the ball (even though he hit 3 home runs during the game!) which basically killed the idea forever.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

#189 Mike Mason

Card thoughts: I find Mason’s smile extremely dopey and a little creepy. Also, the perspective of the picture makes his glove look way too big, compared to his head. Mason's picture in the 1986 set is almost the same.

The player:  Mike Mason was a first round draft pick of the Rangers, so they must have seen something in him. Unfortunately, he never showed it in the majors.

Mason had an unspectactular minor league career before making it to the majors for brief spells in 1982 and 1983. His rookie season was his best. Mason went 9-13, but had a career high 113 strikeouts in 184 plus innings. His ERA was also a career low 3.61. You know you’ve had a mediocre career when, in your best season, you didn’t even have a winning percentage above .500.

The season shown on this card was much worse for Mason. His 15 losses were 7th in the league and his ERA rocketed to 4.83. Mason righted the ship the next year, going 7-3 with a 4.33 ERA. But after a 5.56 ERA to start the 1987 season, he was shipped to the Cubs in May for Dave Pavlas, a pitcher who never even made the majors with the Rangers (however, the Cubs liked Pavlas so much, they bought him back from the Rangers three years later).

Mason was just as terrible for the Cubs, as he went 4-1 but with a terrible 5.68 ERA. He pitched 6 2/3 more innings for the Twins the next season before leaving the majors for good.

Inarguably, Mason has had a much bigger impact as an ex-player on baseball. Almost immediately after ending his baseball career, he began his second career as a minor league pitching coach with stops in Appleton, Memphis, Springfield, Lansing, Wichita, Scranton, and Des Moines. Mason is the current Iowa Cubs pitching coach. I guess in this case the old adage is true: Those who can’t do, teach.

Rear guard: A paltry 6,000 fans saw Mason shut out the Mariners while striking out 11. He gave up only 6 hits, none of them for extra bases.

Joe Lovitto, a former 1st round draft pick, only hit .224 in 1972 (his rookie year), and after his 6 straight hits, he was only hitting .212. Lovitto would only have 165 hits over a four year career, never more than 100 in any season. Here's his card from that year. And, woah, does Lovitto look like a weird dude! A lot of chin!

This date in baseball history: In one of the all time greatest hoax stories, George Plimpton wrote a fictitious article in Sports Illustrated about a pitcher who could throw 168 mph. Several Mets were quoted, which lent credence to the story. The cover date was April 1, 1985.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

#188 Bob Dernier

Card thoughts: "Was that a double, or a single and an error?"

The player: I had always considered Dernier to be kind of a star player. But he’s really a perfect example of one player riding on the coattails of the player hitting ahead of him, in this case, Ryne Sandberg.

Dernier’s calling card was speed. He stole over 70 bases twice in the minors and in his 1982 rookie season he stole over 40 bases, even though he was in a platoon with Gary Maddox in center field. Dernier was nicknamed “White Lightning” (a somewhat derogatory moniker, as it assumed all fast players must be black) and “The Deer” for his speed. He was in a platoon again in 1983, but lost playing time in the other outfield spots to Greg Gross, who hit .302 to his .232.

Dernier's sophmore slump had the Phillies rethinking that he was going to be their centerfielder of the future. They were more excited about newcomer Von Hayes, who was younger than Dernier and who was a better hitter. Without a spot on the club, he was offered to new Cubs (and former Phillies) GM Dallas Green, who ripped off the Phillies once again by getting Dernier and Gary Mathews for journeyman reliever #187 Bill Campbell and a pitcher who never made it. With Ryne Sandberg having an MVP season hitting ahead of him, Dernier scored over 90 runs, hit .278, and a gold glove in center. The two were nicknamed “The Daily Double.” In the playoffs that year, he hit .235 and scored 5 runs.

The season shown on this card was not quite as good for Dernier or the Cubs. The Daily Double’s numbers both dropped and Dernier battled injuries on the way to scoring only 63 runs. Further regression of his numbers followed the next season, but he had a revival in 1987, hitting over .300 in 97 games.

This would be his last season as regular. Dernier’s old team, the Phillies, hired him on as a reserve outfielder for two seasons, and he retired in 1989. He was the minor league outfield and base running coordinator for the Cubs from 2007-2010. Dernier took over as first base coach in 2011, but was fired along with most of Mike Quade’s staff after the season.

Rear guard: There were many previous Cubs who had had 4 hits in their home park. Keep in mind, that Wrigley Field was only two years old at that point, and it was the first season the Cubs had played there (the Chicago Whales, a federal league franchise, were the original tenants). Bill Fischer was a most forgettable Cub, having only logged one season and 68 games for the team (he had played in Wrigley the year before, however, as a member of the Whales). 

Fischer only hit .196 as the backup catcher in 1916, and was traded in July to the Pirates for another light hitting catcher, Art Wilson, and backup utility man Otto Knabe. Fischer only had 301 hits in his 5 year career.

This date in baseball history: The first known use of the nickname "The Cubs" is used in a 1902 headline referring to the Chicago National League ball club. The team was formerly known as the Orphans, the Colts, and the White Stockings.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

#187 Scott Fletcher

Card thoughts: Another picture a Tiger Stadium, although this one’s a bit more interesting than the others, as you can clearly see the scoreboard, and I guess the press box, behind Fletcher (although the press box seems pretty far down the line). The time says: 92:18?

The player:
Fletcher was the rare player who was involved in a trade between the Cubs and their southside rivals the White Sox. There have been only 6 trades between the teams in the last 20 years. He also holds the distinction of being drafted first by three different organizations (A’s, Astros and Cubs).

An excellent minor league shortstop, Fletcher was blocked by #178 Ivan De Jesus with the Cubs. After two September callups, he was dealt to the White Sox for Steve Trout and Warren Brusstar. Fletcher established himself as the White Sox primary shortstop in 1984, and hit around .250 with little power but good speed. The emergence of Ozzie Guillen the next season shoved Fletcher back into a utility role.

Now expendable, he was traded to the Rangers, where he would have his best offensive seasons. In his first year with his new team, Fletcher hit a career high .300, and even had a strong .400 slugging percentage on the strength of his 34 doubles. He had another strong offensive season in 1987, establishing career highs in hits (169) and runs batted in (63). In 1988, his average remained high, but his power numbers slipped badly: Only 16% of his 142 hits were for extra bases.

But the Rangers lost their head, and signed Fletcher to the first annual deal worth more than $1 million in team history. There were other people enamored with him. Future president (then Rangers owner) George W. Bush named his dog after him (Spot Fetcher Bush).

The Rangers soon regretted their decision (no word on whether Bush ever had any regrets on the dog’s name), and Fletcher was gone by the mid-season to following year. This may be one of the worst trades in Rangers history, as future all stars Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez came along to the White Sox for a washed up Harold Baines and a never was Fred Manrique. Fletcher moved back into a starting role, this time as a second baseman. In his first full year back with the Sox, he got into 151 games, the second most in his career, but could only manage a .242 average and 56 RBIs. The next season was the worst of his career, as he struggled with the bat all season, hitting only .206, eventually losing his starting job to Joey Cora.

Fletcher would have two more seasons as a regular second baseman, one each with the Brewers and Red Sox. In both cases, Fletcher had his typical season: Decent average, little power, double digits in steals. He did hit over 30 doubles with the Red Sox in 1993, probably due to the presence of the Green Monster.

After two more seasons as a backup (with the Red Sox and Tigers), Fletcher retired in 1995. Bill James rates him as one of the top 200 shortstops of all time, although he implies that Fletcher was little more than a lineup filler. He currently serves as the assistant hitting coach to former teammate #123 Greg Walker on the Atlanta Braves.

Rear guard: Fletcher's first home run came in 100-degree heat against the Twins; Fletcher also drove in three runs and had a single and a triple as well.

I always get Luke Appling mixed up with Luis Aparacio. Like Aparacio, Appling made the Hall of Fame as a shortstop with the White Sox. Appling had only 45 career home runs, but boy, could he hit. I find it amazing that it took 46 years for a White Sox player to hit an inside the park home run at Comiskey, considering how fast the White Sox teams generally were. Here's Luke Appling's 1950 Bowman card.

This date in baseball history: Tryouts are granted to Terris McDuffie and Dave Thomas, both black, at Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, as the first indication that the baseball color line was weakening.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

#186 Astros Leaders

Card thoughts: The Astros finished 3rd in 1985, ending up with a 83-79 record. The next season, with many of the same players, they would win the Western Division.

The player: Jose Cruz ended up playing 2 more seasons with the Astros. He started his Astros career with a bang, going 3 for 4 and hitting a 3 run home run off hall of fame pitcher Phil Neikro in the Astros 6-2 win against the Braves opening day, 1975.

The current dean of the Astros is Wandy Rodriguez with 7 seasons.

Rear guard:  Of the Astros league leaders on the offensive side, Jose Cruz ranked fifth in the league in doubles and Phil Garner was 4th in league in triples. On the pitching side, Dave Smith was in the top 10 in games pitched and saves; Mike Scott was 6th in wins; and Nolan Ryan, of course, was 3rd in strikeouts.

This date in baseball history: In their first ever meeting, the Mets beat the Yankees in a spring training game 4-3 in 1962.

Monday, March 19, 2012

#185 Rollie Fingers

Card thoughts:  This is Rollie Fingers’ last card. Here’s his first.

The player: Rollie Fingers, along with Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, and Sparky Lyle, was the pitcher who changed the role of the relief pitcher. Before Rollie, most teams did not have a closer. Sure, many pitchers reached double digits in saves, but that is because they just happened to pitch at the end of a game, not because they are assigned to that role. Closers were also considered to be on “temporary” assignment, a failed starter to be put back in the rotation once they became successful again in relief. Fingers changed this perception: Now, a player could be more valuable, only closing out games, then being made a starter. Fingers relied on control and guile, rather than pure heat or a trick pitch, to get batters out.

Like most relievers of the day, Fingers began in the minors as a starter. But there was no room initially in the starting rotation of the A’s, so he was put into the bullpen. In 1969, Fingers saved 12 games, but the next year the A’s tried him as a starter for 19 games. With a middling 7-9 record, it was back to the pen for the rest of his career.

In 1972, Fingers famous mustache was born. Eccentric owner Charlie Finley challenged everyone on the team to grow facial hair until the end of spring training. The best won $300. Fingers was the winner. Here’s his last card before the mustache.

1972 also started the A’s streak of three straight World Series wins. Fingers had ERAs below 2 in each World Series, winning the series MVP award in 1974 after saving 2 games. He had 21, 22, and 18 saves over those years while pitching in a league high 76 games in 1974. His save totals would have been higher, except the A’s pitchers were so good (Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter), that they tended to finish what they started.

Fingers only got better as he reached his 30s. He had 2 more good years with Oakland (he led the league in games pitched with 75 in 1975 and had 24 decisions (!) and 20 saves in 1976), but was involved in the infamous “fire sale” that voided by the American League. Finley was a real cheapskate, and attempted to trade a bunch of his star players at the trading deadline to avoid paying their contracts. But when the trades fell through, he tried to sell them for $1 million each, including Fingers, who was sold to the Red Sox. This deal, like the others, was voided.

But it did tell Fingers that if he stayed with the A’s, he would be getting paid. He instead signed with the Padres, where he would lead the league in saves for the first time with 35 in 1977 and 37 in 1978. This was perversely because the Padres were a much worse team than the A’s, and their starters couldn’t go as long.

After an off year in 1979, and a typical strong 1980 campaign (11-9, 23 saves, 2.80 ERA), Fingers was involved in two blockbuster trades at the winter meetings. He was first traded to the Cardinals, with longtime teammate with the A’s and Padres Gene Tenace and Bob Shirley for 7 players, the key being star catcher Terry Kennedy. The Padres also got two middle relievers (John Littlefield and John Urrea); a weak hitting utility infielder (Mike Phillips—only lasted 14 games with the Padres); a backup catcher (Steve Swisher); and some prospects who never panned out.

Fingers would never play a game with the Cardinals. He would be traded to the Brewers four days later, in a trade that worked out very well for the latter team. Fingers went with another star catcher, Ted Simmons, and soon to be star pitcher, Pete Vukovich for four marginal major leaguers, although Lary Sorenson was pretty good for the Brewers in the late 70s.

The next season, Fingers would become the first reliever to win the MVP award (he also won the Cy Young award). His numbers were Eckersley-esque (if that is a word). He went 6-3 in the strike shortened year, with a miniscule 1.04 ERA and led the league with 28 saves. He walked only 13 in 78 innings. He had another good season in the Brewers pennant winning 1982 campaign, but that season also heralded the end of Fingers effectiveness. He was unable to finish the season (and missed the playoffs) due to a torn forearm muscle; the next season, he missed entirely because of a bone spurs in his elbow.

When Fingers returned, he was effective as ever, saving 23 games and sporting a low, 1.96 ERA. The next season, the one shown on this card, was his worst. Only 17 saves and a high 5.04 ERA scared the Brewers away from re-signing him. The only other team that showed interest was the Reds, but the owner banned facial hair on the team, and Fingers would not sign there.

When Fingers retired, he was the all time saves leader with 341; he has since been passed by 9 other pitchers. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1992, only the second reliever at the time to be so honored (the other being Hoyt Wilhelm). Here’s a bio clip of Fingers.

A published author, Fingers has written 2 “digest” type of baseball books after his career ended. He has also appeared in an annoying Pepsi Max ad I must have seen 1,000 times last year while watching baseball. I will not torture you with a link.

Rear guard: Fingers' rookie card, which was linked to earlier, was a multi-player rookie card designated "American League Rookie Stars." Of the other players, Bob Floyd played for 7 years with the Orioles and Royals and only hit .219; and Larry Burchart didn't win a game in his only major league season, in 1969. I don't why these players, other than Fingers, were considered future stars. Burchart's only good season in the minors was in Rookie ball, and Floyd was a marginal .240 hitter with no power.

This date in baseball history: In a deal that has relevance to Fingers' career, Charlie Finley sells pitcher Paul Lindblad to the A's in 1977. Unlike the other fire sale deals, this one was not voided by the commissioner.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

#184 Tim Laudner

Card thoughts: This has got to be one of the worst pictures in this set. Here are the problems with this card:

1)      Laudner is photographed in a very dark light, almost as if in a close
2)   His right eye is closed in a sinister way 
3)     The green background is in terrible contrast to Laudner’s darkened mein: He looks like he’s disappearing
4)     Although this wouldn’t be applicable at the time, I can’t help but imagine Laudner as some grumpy extra in one of those bombastic CGI extravaganza with the green screen not filled in yet.

Lest you think this is an anomaly, his card the next year also shows Laudner against a strange, monochromatic background.

The player: Laudner always could hit for power, but never hit for a high enough average to start full-time.

He had a monster 1981 season at AA Orlando where he hit 42 home runs (and win the league MVP award), and he was called up to the Twins for good the next season, where he would spend his entire 9 year career.

Laudner would show good power and not much else from 1982-1986, hitting 10 home runs as a backup catcher in both 1984 and 1986. But he struggled to hit above .240, so his RBI totals never got above 35.

The Twins finally had enough confidence in Laudner to hand him the majority of starts at catcher in 1987, and he had a good year for the World Champion Twins, hitting 16 home runs and 43 RBIs, despite hitting only .191. After hitting .071 in the ALCS, he hit .318 in the World Series, including a crucial home run and 3 RBIs in the Twins 8-4 Game 2 win over the Cardinals.

Laudner had his best season in 1988, catching 109 games and having career highs in hits (94), doubles (18), RBIs (54), and batting average (.251). For this he was rewarded with his only all star berth. Laudner had a double in the 7th inning in the game off #138 Mark Davis.

Despite the fact that Laudner seemed to have finally put it all together, he lost his starting job and would only play one more season as a backup to Brian Harper, an inferior catcher but superior hitter. He failed to make the team out of spring training in 1989, when Junior Ortiz made the club. After going hitless in AAA, Laudner retired.

For a time, Laudner worked in the heating and air conditioning business, and currently in works as a co-director at his former teammate Dan Gladden’s Big League Baseball Camp. He also broadcasts some select Twins games, and is one of those various ex-jocks who give their insight from time to time on a regional Fox sports broadcast.

Rear guard: Laudner's first home run was off Tigers starter Dave Rozema and drove in #105 Gary Ward.

Wow. Fred Bruckbauer only faced 4 batters in the majors and didn't retire any of them. In a 20-2 loss to the Kansas City A's, future manager Dick Howser doubled; Jay Hankins singled, plating a run; Jerry Lumpe walked; and finally, Lou Klimchock drove them both in with a double. Bruckbauer's career ERA? Infinity!

You know what other pitcher pitched badly in that game? Paul Giel. He gave up 8 runs in a third of an inning. That probably contributed to his 9.78 ERA for the Twins in his final season. In half of Giel's 6 seasons, his ERA was over 8.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

#183 Larry Andersen

Card thoughts: I’ll say it again: Powder blue and maroon do NOT go together.

The player:  Larry Andersen was one of those pitchers who took forever to get going. Signing with the Indians at 18, he got a couple of brief looks with the major league club in 1975, 1977, and 1979. It wasn’t until 1981 (and at age of 28!) that Andersen spent the majority of the year in the majors.

Seattle was the team that liberated Andersen for the Indians’ minor league purgatory, and with the help of a devastating slider, he went 3-3 with a 2.66 ERA. In 1982, he was not as good, yet set a record having had no decisions in 79 2/3 innings pitched.

The Phillies “bought” Andersen in 1983 and he had some up and down seasons as a very durable middle reliever until 1986, when he was released after a poor start in May.

The Astros quickly snatched him up and he had his best seasons with that club, winning 22 games and saving 20 with a 2.57 ERA from 1986-1990. As evidence of his increasing effectiveness as he aged, Andersen had career low ERAs of 1.54 and 1.79 in consecutive seasons when he was 36 and 37.

It was the latter season which led to Andersen being involved in one of the worst deals in baseball history. Desperate to win the division, the Red Sox parted with top prospect Jeff Bagwell to “rent” him for 23 innings down the stretch in 1990. Although Andersen performed well (1.23 ERA and a 0.955 WHIP), Bagwell would go on to win the Rookie of the Year in 1991, and hit 449 home runs and score and drive in over 1,000 runs, all with the Astros.

And Andersen? He just kept plugging away until age 41, with 2 seasons in San Diego, and 2 more seasons back with the Phillies, where he pitched (albeit poorly) in the World Series for a second time. Andersen had ERAs below 3 in two of those years.

For 17 years, Andersen pitched in the majors: If he had pitched continuously from his debut in 1975, it would have been 20. He finished with a 40-39 record, a 3.14 ERA, and 49 saves.

After retirement as a player, Andersen coached for awhile in the minors, and then became the Phillies very colorful color man, known for his “Shallow Thoughts.” Here he is (the second voice) complaining about Ryan Howard’s ejection a couple of years ago.

Rear guard: A save at Veteran's Stadium? Pretty obscure! The April 10th game was the first Phillies' win at their new home stadium (their former home, Shibe Park, had previously hosted the Philadelphia Athletics, and was built in 1909). Hoerner went 1 2/3 of an inning in relief of winning starter Jim Bunning. He walked one and struck out 2. Hoerner had 99 saves in his 14 year career, mostly in the late 60s with the Cardinals. Here's his card from that season. Hoerner looks a little sickly!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

#182 Bobby Brown

Card thoughts: This is Brown's last Topps card. And boy, does he look old.

The player: Brown took about 8 years, and 5 organizations, before he broke into the big leagues with Toronto. His big skill was his speed. Brown twice placed in the top ten in steals, including 1982 when he only got 245 at bats.

Brown was only a regular for one year, with the Yankees in 1980. He was mostly used as a reserve outfielder. Brown did get to start in the 1984 World Series when Kevin McReynolds was injured. He only hit .067 with no steals, however.

The season represented by this card was Brown's last. He only got 91 at bats, and hit a miserable .155.

Rear guard: Oh, the dreaded gum stain. Brown's steals were off Twins pitchers Darrell Jackson and John Verhoeven. He only scored once for his efforts.

This date in baseball history: In 1901, John McGraw tried to get around the color line, by signing Charlie Grant, a black second baseman who he called a Cherokee Indian. The scheme didn't work when Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, recognized him.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

#181 Al Nipper

Card thoughts: Yeah, we know you don’t care what a crappy pitcher you are. Don’t rub it in by looking all slovenly at the end of the bench, Nipper.

The player: I hated Al Nipper, but it’s not really his fault. I hate Nipper because Jim Frey, who had to been one of the worst Cub GMs in recent history, traded (an admittedly) disgruntled Lee Smith, one of the top closers in baseball, to get Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi (another HUGE bust) from the Red Sox. And then he had the gall to call Nipper a “big winner”—a man who had never won more than 11 games and had a career ERA well north of 4 by that point. But don’t get me started . . .

(Sigh). Well, Nipper had a decent rookie year in 1984, coming in 7th in the Rookie of the Year voting by winning 11 games. He even got his ERA below 4, at 3.89. But for the subsequent 3 years before his trade to the Cubs, Nipper got worse and worse. Every year, his ERA climbed, and the amount of home runs he gave up increased. From 1985 to 1987, Nipper won 9, 10, and 11 games, but lost 12 each year as well.

He wasn’t even helpful in the 1986 World Series. In his one start, Nipper was decent, giving up only 3 runs in 6 innings; but in a relief appearance in the decisive Game 7, he got pounded, giving up 2 runs in a third of an inning, putting the game and the series out of reach for Red Sox. Most ignobly, reliever Jesse Orosco of the Mets, who rarely batted, got an RBI single off him.

Then came one of the worst trades in Cub history. Nipper actually wasn’t too bad for the Cubs, going 2-4 but with his best ERA since a 3 game cup of coffee with the Red Sox in 1983. But he hurt his elbow, and was released at the end of spring training in 1989. He was quoted as saying that “[The general manager] and [the manager] were underhanded and deceitful,” when they said his knee injury was suffered in the off-season, rather than in spring training (this was a difference between paying a full season salary, or severance pay). Nipper couldn’t get a team to sign him, and he sat out the entire season. The next year, he resurfaced for one last season with the Indians, where he went 2-3 with a 6.75 ERA over 5 starts and 4 relief appearances.

Since retiring, Nipper has worked as a pitching instructor in several systems, and was both the Red Sox (1995-1996) and Royals (2001-2002) pitching coach. He filled in as the Red Sox bullpen coach in 2006.

Rear guard: Nicknamed "Tioga George," Burns was a rare right handed hitting first baseman. He once set a record for most double plays turned by a first baseman. He was no slouch at the plate either, winning the MVP in 1926, when he hit a then record 64 doubles. The batter that hit into the triple play was Frank Brower.

This date in baseball history: In 1941, The Brooklyn Dodgers are the first team to require that batters wear a helmet.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

#180 Don Mattingly

Card thoughts: This was the last card I got to complete the set. And “Donnie Ballgame” was by far my favorite non-Cub growing up.

The player: For a five year stretch, Mattingly was arguably the best all around player in the game. A lefthanded hitter who hit in a severe crouch, he was adept at reaching the short left porch in Yankee stadium. Mattingly hit for power and average, and almost never struck out. But starting in 1990, after a back injury flared up, it prevented him from becoming a possible hall of famer. He spent his entire career with the Yankees, a remains one of the most popular Yankees of all time.

It’s hard to believe, but Mattingly was behind #164 Steve Balboni on the Yankees first base depth chart in the early 80s, despite being a better fielder and hitting well over .300 at each of his minor league stops. But the Yankees grew alarmed at Balboni’s propensity to strikeout and traded him away. This freed up a space for Mattingly.

In his first season with the club, he was a part time first baseman/outfielder and he hit about .283 with 4 home runs. The next season was the first of three straight MVP-type seasons. Mattingly led the league in hits (207), doubles (44), and batting average (.343). He also drove in 110 runs, and slugged .537. Mattingly made the first of 6 straight all-star squads, although he was voted in by the fans only once as a starter.

In the season represented by this card, Mattingly actually won the MVP award, by leading the league in doubles (48) and runs batted in (145). His RBIs were the most by an AL player since the mid-50s, and his 35 home runs was a career high. Mattingly also won the first of 9 gold gloves.

Mattingly’s amazing three year stretch culminated in what was his perhaps his best year, 1986. He led the league in hits (238), doubles (53), slugging percentage (.573) and OPS (.967). Mattingly’s .352 average was a career high.

The next two seasons, Mattingly was a star player, although not a super star. He still hit over .300, drove in a little over 100 runs, and scored about 90, but he wasn’t the top player in the league anymore. A highlight from this period is when he hit a home run in 8 consecutive games, tying a record held by Dale Long (and subsequently tied by Ken Griffey Jr.) in 1987. This was also the season he hit a record 6 grand slams, which curiously were only grand slams in his career. In 1989, Mattingly had his last season with over 100 RBIs, driving in 113.

The next season, his career started to decline. Mattingly had his worst overall season, while struggling to stay in the lineup because of an injured back. He hit a lowly .256 and hit only 5 homers. The subsequent seasons, Mattingly’s stats improved, but he became more of a slap hitter, still getting a good share of doubles and singles, but little power, although he did hit 14 and 17 home runs in 1992 and 1993. He also appeared in seminal Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat,” where he played a good-natured homemaker, who was kicked off the team by Mr. Burns after refusing the shave his sideburns. Mattingly was actually once benched for having too long of hair by George Steinbrenner, but it was after the episode had already been written. After the 1995 season (and his only playoff appearance where he hit .417), he retired, finishing with over 1,000 runs and runs batted in, over 2,000 hits and a .303 average.

Mattingly remained with the Yankees after retirement as a roving hitting instructor; he eventually was promoted to the big club as their hitting coach for the 2003 season. He was then promoted again to be bench coach under Joe Torre. Mattingly was widely assumed be Torre’s heir apparent in the manager’s seat when he retired, but the job went to Joe Giradi instead. He followed Torre to LA, where he finally took over for Torre as manager last year.

Rear guard: You can see why I was so excited when I got this card in 1986. You would have sworn that Mattingly was going to be one of the greats, with those gaudy numbers.

Mattingly's first home run was off the Red Sox pitcher John Tudor. It was a solo home run.

Red Ruffing is in the hall of fame for his pitching (although he holds the record for most earned runs and runs allowed), but he was known as a good hitter as well. He was sometimes used as a pinch hitter when wasn't pitching. Ruffing had a lifetime .269 batting average, and hit over .300 eight times in a 22 year career. He only had 36 home runs, however.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

#179 Stu Cliburn

Card thoughts: I call these pictures “heroic” shots. Not that Cliburn was ever much of a hero.But this is his rookie card.

The player: Cliburn was already the subject of a “Talkin’ Baseball” feature on the back of the #124 Luis Sanchez card. His twin brother, Stan Cliburn, also made the majors.

Cliburn took forever to get to the majors. He was drafted in 1977 by the Pirates, but didn’t make it to the majors until 1984 (and then only for 1 game). This was due to his consistently high ERAs in the high minors. The Pirates certainly gave up on him: After trying him as a starter in the minors, they released him in 1982. He hooked up with the Angels, who converted him to a short reliever where he was much more effective.

The year represented by this card is the peak for Cliburn’s brief, 3 year career. As a 28-year old rookie, he won 9 games, saved 6, and had a great 2.03 ERA coming out of the bullpen. On the strength of this performance, he placed 5th in the Rookie of the Year balloting. But then injuries limited Cliburn to only a handful of minor league games the next two seasons. He finally came all the way back in 1988, but was much less effective, with his ERA almost double his 1985 mark. The culprit was too many home runs allowed: 11 in 84 innings.

Cliburn never pitched in the majors after this season, as he continued battling injuries. He currently is a pitching instructor in the Twins minor league system.

Rear guard: Cliburn spent so long in the minors, there wasn't room to put any facts.

This date in baseball history: The first use of a designated hitter occurs in a spring training game in 1973. The batter is Larry Hisle of the Twins.

Monday, March 5, 2012

#178 Ivan De Jesus

Card thoughts: Another sea of red, with a nice, Groucho Marx-style mustache. The position circle should read 3B-SS. This would be De Jesus’ last Topps card.

The player: De Jesus was one of the better all-around shortstops in the league in the late 70s, but he is better remembered as the player involved in the trade that brought Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs.

As a young prospect in the Dodgers system in the mid 70s, De Jesus found himself blocked by Bill Russell. Although he had the potential to be a better all-around shortstop than Russell, the Dodgers were impatient, and made a very poor trade. Along with Bill Buckner (who became a minor star with the Cubs), the Dodgers sent De Jesus to the Cubs for Rick Monday, who never really hit again, and Mike Garman, who had one good season out the Dodgers bullpen.

With the Cubs, De Jesus was installed in the leadoff spot and was a productive hitter on several terrible teams. From 1977-1979, he scored over 90 runs each year, with a league leading 104 scored in 1978. De Jesus was a fast man, although not always that successful stealing, stole almost 100 bases in those years. De Jesus also showed great range and arm strength at short, solidifying a position for the Cubs that had been filled by light hitting Mick Kelleher after Don Kessinger left in 1976.

After 1980, De Jesus’ hitting began to decline, although his fielding remained strong. In 1981, he was atrocious, winning the “negative triple crown:” Having the least home runs (0), runs batted in (13), and average (.194) of any regular player (note that this was only over 108 games in a strike shortened season). The Philadelphia Phillies chose to think the previous four seasons were more indicative of his ability as they pursued De Jesus. The Phillies were concerned that their long time shortstop Larry Bowa was getting too old to handle the position, and they needed someone more athletic to play the deep short required on the artificial turf. Dallas Green, the Cubs general manager and the former manager of the Phillies, agreed to a deal, but only if a little regarded third base prospect named Ryne Sandberg was included. The rest is history.

With the Phillies, De Jesus still played a lot of games and handled a lot of chances at short, but he became the prototypical light hitting middle infielder. His average never rose above .260 in the three seasons he spent as the Phils’ regular shortstop, and he rarely hit a home run. Feeling a young Steve Jeltz was ready to take over the position, they traded De Jesus and #112 Bill Campbell to the Cardinals for #39 Dave Rucker at the end of spring training in 1985.

This was a curious move, as the Cardinals already had a long time star shortstop, Ozzie Smith manning the position. But the Cards envisioned De Jesus as a pinch hitter/runner and late inning defensive replacement (for Ozzie Smith? Were they crazy?). He mostly backed up Terry Pendleton at third, although out of the 59 games he played, only 33 were spent in the field at any position.

The next three years, De Jesus spent most of his time as an insurance policy at AAA for the Yankees, Giants, and Tigers. For a player who spent most of his career playing nearly every game, he would end his time playing less than 10 games for each of these clubs.

After his playing days were over, De Jesus became a coach and manager in the Dodgers, Mariners, Astros, and Cubs minor league systems. In 2010 and 2011, De Jesus finally became a major league coach for managers Lou Pinella and Mike Quade. Cubs fans will not miss De Jesus’ terrible third base coaching during the 2011 season.


Rear guard: One of the weird cards that has a miscut back, but the front is fine. 

De Jesus had 160 hits in 1980. 5 of those hits came in a 16-12 slugfest against the Cardinals. As a leadoff man, De Jesus hit for the cycle (which would be a better Topps citation). Amazingly, he hit for the cycle entirely off starting pitcher Bob Forsch (Forsch gave up 14 hits and 9 runs that day). Teammate Barry Foote, who never hit much in the majors, had the day of his life with 8 RBIs.

This day in baseball history: Marvin Miller, former official in the United Steelworkers Union, is elected as the first president of the baseball players union in 1966.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

#177 Joel Youngblood

Card thoughts: Another classic Topps pose for a batter, albeit Youngblood looks like he’s kneeling in a dirty aquarium. He’s in an almost identical position on his 1984 Topps card.

Youngblood was only an outfielder this season. He only got into one game at third. Perhaps these position circles are “aspirational.”

The player: Youngblood is one of those players common in baseball: The super-sub who can play several positions and can hit well, but whose versatility is too valuable for managers to waste making them a regular at any one position. Youngblood was constantly frustrated that he never became a regular player. He ended up playing most of his career in right or left field, but also played a significant amount of time at second and third.

Youngblood broke in with the Reds in 1976 as a pinch hitter, and hit a poor .193 in that role. Not finding a place for Youngblood’s bat in the powerful Reds lineup, they shipped him to the Cardinals for pitcher Bill Caudill; then the Cardinals shipped him after 20 some games to the Mets for infielder Mike Phillips.

This was the break Youngblood was looking for. Although he still wasn’t a regular at any one position, manager Joe Torre (who retired as a player to clear roster space for Youngblood) showed a lot of confidence in Youngblood, and the next year he got 266 at bats playing left, right, center, second, and third. In 1979, Youngblood would have a career year. He got into 158 games, mostly in the outfield filling in for rightfielder Elliot Maddox (jammed his foot) and left fielder Steve Henderson (also injured). In those games, Youngblood scored 90 runs on 162 hits and even hit 16 home runs and drove in 60. Even though Youngblood showed good speed, he was not very wise on the basepaths, stealing 18 but being caught 13 times. The Mets gave Youngblood a starting role in centerfield as a reward for that season (and a three year contract worth $900,000) and moved Lee Mazzilli to first base in 1980. At the 3:23 mark in this video, you can see Youngblood robbing a home run from a Cub on opening day that year. Although he drove in a career high 69 runs, the power from the year before disappeared and he became a singles hitter.

Youngblood was on his way to having a career year in 1981 before the players strike, hitting .350. On the strength of that average, he was named to his only all star game after play resumed in August. But soon after that, Youngblood badly injured his knee and was out for the season. The next year, increasingly disgruntled at his reserve role, he demanded a trade. The Mets accommodated him after a day game at Wrigley Field on August 4, 1982. Youngblood had a single and drove in 2 runs against hall of fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins. After the game, he was traded to the Expos who were playing a night game in Philadelphia. Youngblood raced to Philly in time to get a pinch hit for the team against another hall of fame pitcher, #120 Steve Carlton. This made him the first player to get a hit for two different teams on the same day.

This would be the highlight of Youngblood’s brief, 40 game career with the Expos. The next year he was with the Giants, where he played mostly second his first year with the team, and had a career high 17 home runs and .292 average. At long last, in 1984, Youngblood finally realized his goal of being an everyday player, as the Giants started him at third for most of the year. While his hitting was adequate, his fielding was erratic as he led the league in errors with 36 and had a poor .887 fielding percentage (in fact, Youngblood was only a consistent fielder in the outfield—at third, his career fielding percentage was .896, and at second it was .954). It was back to a Giants’ utility role for him from 1985-1988, where he generally hit about .250 with little power. 1989 was his last major league season and it was with the Reds, where he hit .212.

For a long time, Youngblood was a jack of all trades with a startup software company, selling and marketing the product to various companies. In the meantime, he managed in the minors for Kane County, an Orioles affiliate. Youngblood also worked as a coach for the Reds, Brewers, and Diamondbacks. He’s currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Rear guard: Youngblood's first home run was off the Dodgers' Burt Hooten in the 4th inning. It was a solo shot.

This date in baseball history:   In 1953, the St Louis Browns were blocked from moving to Milwaukee because the minor league team that was there objected. Curiously, the Browns were allowed to move to Baltimore, even though it was close to a major league city, Washington.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

#176 Jay Tibbs

Card thoughts: Nice high leg kick. I wonder if he had a problem preventing steals?

The player: Tibbs was highly regarded young pitcher for the Mets. He had good stuff, but failed to control it. His first few seasons in the Mets system, he bounced from level to level, never dominating any. Tibbs finally turned it around in 1983 for Lynchburg, the Mets High-A club. He won 14 games for a very strong club that also featured a young Dwight Gooden. This was enough to temp the Reds into trading for Tibbs the next year.

He made his debut in 1984, and had his best season, going 6-2 with a 2.86. This was enough to get him penciled in as the #2 starter for the season shown on this card, but it was disaster in the early going. Tibbs went 4-11 and walked way too many batters before being sent to minors. Upon his return to the Reds, he had a much better 6-5 record. Tibbs’ 16 losses were 3rd in the league.

The Expos looked on the bright side of things (his success later in the season), and traded their #1 starter Bruce Gullickson to get him, Dann Billardello, John Stuper, and #133 Andy McGaffigan to add depth to their rotation. Tibbs ended up having two middling years with the Expos, reaching a career high with 117 strikeouts in 1986. He was again traded in a multi-player deal to the Orioles in February in 1988.

Tibbs’ first season with the Orioles was probably his worst, as he was on the leader board for losses (15). His ERA was a bloated 5.39, and he lost his spot in the rotation. Tibbs’ 9 straight losses that year were then an Orioles record. Injuries the next year limited him to 10 starts but he pitched well, winning all his decisions and having a fine 2.82 ERA. But another year ineffectiveness and wildness occurred the following season, and Tibbs was exiled to the Pirates in September where he ended his career.

Rear guard: Tibbs pitched a fine game for his first win, giving up only 2 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings. However, as a foreshadowing of his career, he also walked 4 without striking out anyone.

This date in baseball history: Mickey Mantle announces his retirement in 1969.