Saturday, December 29, 2012

#289 Johnnie LeMaster

Card thoughts: This picture looks like it could have been taken in 1910. LeMaster bears a striking resemblance to many of the players featured on the “Old Judge” Tobacco cards. LeMaster also hit like a shortstop in the teens. It is pretty lucky that Topps got him in a Pirates uni, as it was the third team he played for that season (all finished last).

The player: How does a player like LeMaster play for 12 years in the majors, many of them as a starter? He hit only .222 in his career (and got on base at a morbid .277 clip while “slugging” .289), and had many seasons when he barely hit .200, despite getting over 400 plate appearances. But in the pitching dominated late 60s/70s/early 80s, it wasn’t expected that shortstop produce much with the bat, only that he could make the plays. 

Some still believe Johnnie was one of the worst players ever. Conversely, there is a Giants site named "The Sons of Johnnie LeMaster."

LeMaster played 11 seasons for the Giants during their most fallow period ever, when it came to post-season appearances. His first plate appearance would fool Giants fans into thinking that this was an exciting player. LeMaster tied a major league record by hitting an inside the park home run in his first at bat.

After showing absolutely nothing with the bat between 1975 and 1977 (low light: .149 in 135 at bats in 1977), the Giants inexplicably handed LeMaster the starting shortstop job in 1978. He soon became known as “Johnny Disaster” as he had a penchant for committing costly errors in close games. As such, LeMaster was soon a target of derision by the few Giants fans that were showing up to Candlestick in the late 70s. Showing he had a sense of humor, he wore “Boo” on his back in a game in 1979, mocking his detractors.

Despite rarely hitting above .215 and being an average to below average fielder, LeMaster continued to man the shortstop position for the Giants until 1985. Low lights include a .533 OPS in 1982, and not being able to manage over 100 hits until 1983, despite being a starter for much of that time. Although a terrible player, LeMaster had one brief moment when he was actually average. The Giants inserted him into the leadoff spot in 1983, and he responded with career highs in just about every offensive category. LeMaster even stole 39 bases, good for 7th in the league (he also scored 81 runs, almost 40 more than his next highest total).

Unfortunately, that success didn’t last. LeMaster slumped to a typical .217/.265/.282 line in ’84, and he was traded to the Indians early in the 1985 season (after going hitless in 16 at bats) for Mike Jeffcoat and Luis Quinones. LeMaster wasn’t much better for the Indians. He wasn’t versatile enough to become a utility man, and he wasn’t much use as a backup shortstop considering his below average fielding. A .150 average in May convinced the Tribe to quickly get rid of LeMaster, and they actually got a useful player from the Pirates for him (which just goes to show that poor personnel decisions are not just a modern Pirate phenomenon). He “raised” his average to .155, but even given how terrible the Pirates were at shortstop that season (Sam Khalifa and #48 Bill Almon also started a bunch of games at short), there was no way the they were going to retain his services after the season.

LeMaster ended up hitting .128 in 1985, including his last home run, an inside-the-park job like his first one. After a couple of years in AAA with the Expos, White Sox, and A’s, LeMaster resurfaced one last time in 1987 with the A’s and drowned in a .083/.120/.083 line.

LeMaster is an elder in the Church of Christ in his hometown of Paintsville, KY. He's a bit of a zealot, apparently, as he got the town to go dry. LeMaster tried to run for mayor as a write in candidate a couple of times but lost.

Rear guard: Most kids seeing these stats on the back of a card when opening a pack in 1986 would have immediately stuck it in the spokes of their bike. Me, I was a collector, so I valued any card I didn't yet have, no matter how crappy the player was (hence, the near mint condition of this card!).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

#288 Don Aase

Card thoughts: This is a really unfortunate card featuring Don Aase (Ah-see). His looming, too large head (and glove!) makes him look like an overfed chipmunk. Unfortunately, Topps decided to repeat this mistake on his two subsequent cards. Aase looks normal on his cards with the Angels.

The player: Aase’s career trajectory is similar to many players who came up in the 70s. A few years of ineffective starting, followed by a few years as closer (generally, by default), then finally, a career tailing off as a long reliever and/or mop up man.

With a name almost guaranteed to be near the beginning of any baseball player encyclopedia (David Aardsma now holds the spot), Aase was drafted by the Red Sox where he went 0-10 in his first pro season at short-season A-ball. He followed that up with a league leading 15 losses in the Florida State League. But he was a young man for the leagues he was pitching in, and at age 19, Aase turned it around with a dominant performance in the Carolina League where he led in wins (17), ERA (2.43), complete games (18), and innings pitched (230).

From there, it was a rapid rise to the majors, and Aase showed great promise as a rookie, going 6-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 13 starts. The Angels liked what they saw and traded their starting second baseman, Jerry Remy, to get him. Aase won 11 games for the Angels in 1978, the most he would win as a starter. The next two seasons, he was pretty bad, losing in double digits each year and being bumped out of the starting rotation both years because of ineffectiveness. Aase did record the first ever post-season win by an Angels, when he pitched in relief of Frank Tanana in game 3 of the ALCS. He blew the 2-1 lead he was handed, but won when the Angels came back in the bottom of the ninth.

Bumped out of the rotation for good in 1981, Aase began a second (and more successful) career as a late inning reliever. He put up 11 saves to lead the Angels that season. The following year, manager #81 GeneMauch went for a closer-by-committee, and Aase’s save total dropped to 5. He then spent 2 seasons battling elbow woes (he missed all of 1983).

Not confident in Aase’s full-strength return from the elbow injury, the Angels neglected to sign him after the 1984 season. The Orioles picked him up, and here he would have his most successful seasons. He reached the top 10 in winning percentage the season shown on this card (.625) and converted 14 save opportunities. Aase shared the closer role with incumbent Sammy Stewart, but when the latter was shipped to the Indians, the role was his for the 1986 season. Aase became one of the top closers in the American League that year, saving 34 games. He even got the save in the all star game by inducing Chris Brown (Brown was an all star?) to hit into a double play.

But injuries would mar the rest of his career. A shoulder injury shelved him for much of the 1987 season, and by the time he returned in ’88, #56 Tom Neidenfuer had taken over the closer role. Aase would finish his career as a middle reliever for the Mets (1989) and Dodgers (1990).

Rear guard: Aase's first win came in his major league debut against the Brewers, and was a complete game. He gave up a hit per inning, and struck out 11. Out of the three runs he allowed, only two were earned.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

#287 John Christensen

Card thoughts: A nice picture of Christensen getting ready to swing at Shea. The mustache makes him look older than the rookie he is in this picture. This is his rookie card, and he would have just one more Topps card.

The player: Another obscure Mets rookie from this season (the other being Kelvin Chapman). This guy was long gone before the Mets began their reign as the top NL team.

Christensen was drafted originally by the Angels but elected to go to California State University instead. He finally signed with the Mets after graduating, and was immediately sent to the South Atlantic League. As a 21 year old, he was a little advanced for low-A ball, and he dominated there, leading the league in runs batted in with 97, and scoring another 100. 

Although the rest of minor league numbers were not particularly impressive, Christensen was in the majors two years later, debuting on my sister’s sixth birthday as a pinch hitter (for #80 Daryl Strawberry no less!) in a game where the Mets were being blown out by the Pirates. For the rest of the 1984 season, he batted .273.

Christensen was featured in the famous mock article written by George Plimpton about Mets prospect Sidd Finch for Sports Illustrated.  But that would be the highlight of his 1985 season. Due to the poor health of George Foster and Daryl Strawberry, Christensen was part of a platoon with Danny Heep and the beginning of the year.  However, he hit an unimpressive .186 (although he showed a good eye at the plate—his on-base percentage was 100 points higher). Sent to the minors when Strawberry and Foster were healthy, he hit .212.

Still a top prospect despite his poor 1985 season, Christensen was packaged in the deal with #210 Calvin Schiraldi in the deal that brought #11 Bob Ojeda to the Mets. He was presumed to have the inside track as a platoon partner for aging designated hitter Mike Easler, however he never played in the majors that year after the Red Sox acquired Don Baylor to fill that role. Another bad year at AAA convinced the Red Sox to part with Christensen, but he was once again included in a big trade with playoff implications, as he was sent to the Mariners after the end of the 1986 season as the player to be named later for #221 Dave Henderson and #248 Spike Owen.

Christensen got another chance to prove he was major league caliber in 1987. After starting the year tearing up the Southern and Pacific Coast Leagues, he was called up to the Mariners where he hit decently enough (.242/.306/.654), but was no better than a generic replacement player.

He was hitting .300 at AAA Calgary before the Mariners released him in May of 1988. Five days later, he was signed by the Twins, where he saw his last major league action. In 38 at bats, he hit .263. His pro career ended after one last season at AAA.

Rear guard: Christensen was pinch hitting for Keith Hernandez in a blowout when he doubled off Phillies pitcher #120 Steve Carlton for his first major league hit.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#286 Luis DeLeon

Card thoughts: The dugout/mug shot pervades this set. I’d rather have the posed “action” shots of the 60s and 70s (or at least show DeLeon outdoors, not like he’s being shot in an office somewhere). Interestingly, two of the players he was involved with in a trade (#278 Sixto Lezcano and #281 Steve Mura) have recently been discussed here (and are both shot in the dugout). This would be DeLeon’s last Topps card.

The player:  Not to be confused with #75 Jose DeLeon, but probably confused many people as a child, as his other brothers were also named Luis (he was nicknamed “Mambo”). DeLeon, as a younger man, was a really good closer for the Padres. As a rookie, he saved 15 games, won 9, and had a 2.03 ERA. This got him ranked fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting that year. More of the same was in store in 1983. Although his ERA went up by half a run, he was still under 3. DeLeon saved another 13 games that season. His out pitch was a sweeping slider (he threw sidearm), which he had a tendency to hang.

But the Padres acquired veteran Goose Gossage to close out games in 184, so DeLeon was shifted into middle relief for the division winners. He did not take well to the role, and his ERA ballooned above 5. This got him left off the post season roster. DeLeon was not much better the season following, as he got little work (only 38 2/3 innings) and sported another mediocre ERA.

He was released by the Padres after the season, and that was the last regular major league work he got. DeLeon did hang around in pro ball until 1995, pitching a bit for the Orioles (20+ innings in 1987) and Mariners (1 game, his first start in the majors). But his real passion was the Puerto Rican Winter League. He represented the team a record 12 times in the Caribbean Series (career record: 4-2).

Rear guard: For his first save, DeLeon pitched 2 innings and gave up only 1 hit.  

Here are Jack Baldschun's wins: 

  • April 24: 3 shutout innings (in relief), 4-1 win over the Astros
  • April 26: 2 shutout innings (in relief), 5-2 win over the Reds
  • May 1:    3 more shutout innings, closing out a 4-3 win over the Braves
  • May 11:  1 2/3 shutout middle relief innings in a 4-2 win over the Cardinals.
  • May 30:  Dealt the Expos their 14 loss in a row, closing out a 3-2 victory.

Jack Baldschun was a really good long reliever for the Phillies in the mid 60s, twice winning over 10 games and leading the league in games pitched his rookie season. His card from that year would be his final one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#285 Buddy Bell

Card thoughts: I think all the night shots in this set are at Riverfront Stadium. I suspect that a Topps photographer was sent there to capture #206 Pete Rose’s record breaking hit (also a night shot), and took pictures of as many Reds players as he could (why not Padres players? I don’t know).

Also, a grown man still called Buddy? When anyone calls me “buddy,” I always feel demeaned.

The player: Buddy Bell was one of the premier third baseman in the 1970s/early 80s. But when this card was issued, he was having the worst year of his career.

The son of Gus Bell (and father of David and Mike Bell), Buddy broke in with the Indians as an outfielder in 1972 and hit well, for a rookie (.255/.310/.363).  Bell was moved the third base the next season, and soon became known as a standout fielder, and a decent hitter, for the Indians. Because of his range, Bell was able to play far off the line, enabling him to snag more balls than most third baseman. As recognition for his fielding (and .708 first half OPS), he was named the all star team for the first time where he got a hit in his only at bat.

The Indians teams in the 1970s were terrible, and Bell, while putting up solid batting averages, rarely had the opportunity to create  many runs (his high in runs scored with the Indians – 86 – came in 1973; his high in RBIs was a measly 64, achieved in 1977). The poor play of the Indians certainly hurt the recognition of Bell’s fielding talent, as he won no gold gloves with the Indians.

This all changed after Bell was traded to the Rangers for Toby Harrah. From 1979-1984, Bell won the gold glove each year. He also became a genuine hitting force for the first time in his career. Seemingly feeling liberated from escaping chilly, rusty Cleveland for the summery climes of Dallas, Bell exploded for career highs in runs (86), hits (200), doubles (42) and runs batted in (101) in 1979. The next season, he reached a career high in batting average (.329) and OPS (.877).

Every season Bell played with the Rangers he put up more solid offensive numbers than he ever had with the Indians, making the all-star team four times. It was during this period, that Bell was declared the second best fielding third baseman of all time behind Brooks Robinson.

In his last full season (1984) with the Rangers, Bell put up an 11-83-.315 line. But in 1985, he soured on playing for Texas (perhaps he clashed with #261 Bobby Valentine?), and asked for a trade to one of 10 pre-approved clubs. The Rangers obliged by shipping him to the Reds in July for #22 Duane Walker and Jeff Russell. Unfortunately, Bell’s slump with the Rangers (he hit in the .230s with them) continued with the Reds where he only hit .219.

There was bound to be some worry that Bell was close to being done. After all, he was 34 and, in the pre-steroid era, that was when players often declined precipitously. But Bell had two more good seasons in him, and actually reached a career high in home runs (20) in 1986. He drove in 75 runs as well, and continued his solid hitting at age 36 the next season.

Bell’s age caught up to him in 1988 when he stumbled to a .185 average out of the gate. A mid-season trade to the Astros brightened his prospects, as he was put back into a starting role at third and hit .253 the rest of the way. A complimentary swan song season with the Rangers the following year finished his career.

Since retiring, Bell had managed mostly mediocre teams to sub-.500 records. These include the Tigers (184-277), the Rockies (161-185), and the Royals (174-262). He is currently the special assistant to the White Sox general manager.

Rear guard: Bell's first homer came on a massive offensive day when he drove in 5 runs and also doubled as the Indians beat the Orioles  9-2.