Monday, December 30, 2013

#384 Steve Trout

Card thoughts: Trout looks like a paunchy middle aged fantasy camp participant in this picture, as there is little to show that he’s an actual baseball player (save the striped pants). This was not the only card where Trout sported his poodle-fro to the fullest: He looks particularly hesher on his 1981 Topps card.

The player: Trout one of those guys that lazy broadcasters (like Joe Buck) like to describe in shorthand as a “flaky” lefty. Maybe flaky because the guy spouts things other than sports clich├ęs when quizzed after games in the clubhouse, or perhaps because his nickname is “Rainbow.” Or maybe it was because he would challenge teammates to burrito eating contests when they were on the West Coast.

A local boy who had the luck to play with both Chicago teams (Don Pall and Phil Cavaretta are the only other local players  I can recall who did that), Trout was the son of famed starter Dizzy Trout, who won 170 games, mostly with the Tigers. Not only that, his grandfather worked for Bill Veeck, who owned both the Cubs and the White Sox 9although not at the same time).

As was the custom of the time, Trout “apprenticed” his first full year in the majors as both a starter and a reliever, having more success in the former role (10-6, 1.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter) than the latter. Given a more substantial role in 1980, he foundered, ranking fourth in the league in losses (16) and leading in hit barters (9).

A couple of mediocre years followed, with Trout ineffective due to injury and increasing wildness. The White Sox finally gave up on him after the 1982 season, completing a rare big trade with their crosstown rival Cubs, with #187 Scott Fletcher, Pat Tabler, Randy Martz, and Dick Tidrow going the other direction.

While Trout’s first season with the Cubs was unmemorable (except for his notable disdain for signing autographs), he was a key part of the Cubs pennant drive in 1984 when he, like many players on that team, had a career year, going 13-7 with a 3.41 ERA. He continued his strong pitching in the division series, winning Game 2.

Trout started strong in 1985, but a nerve condition in shoulder sent him to the DL—along with what was basically the rest of the starting rotation—for half of the season. Although he had a winning record and low ERA (3.39), storm clouds were ahead. Trout for the first time walked more (63) than he struck out (44), a curse that would plague him the rest of his career. Trout ‘s alarming increase in wildness was upping his pitch count so much, he was having a hard time going deep into his starts. So much so, that he was bounced from the rotation in the middle of the following year.

It seemed, however, that Trout was making a comeback in 1987. He started strong once again, going 6-3 with a 3.00 ERA. His last two starts with the Cubs were shutouts, before he was traded to the Yankees for three young pitchers who never did squat for the Cubs (although Bob Tewksbury went on to have a flukily good couple of years with the Cardinals in the early 90s).

With the Yankees, his control problems returned with a vengeance. In just 46 1/3 innings, Trout threw 9 wild pitches and walked 37. He couldn’t get past the sixth inning in any of his 9 starts.

Feeling burned, the Yanks essentially paid for Trout to go away, sending him to the Mariners with a cool million for three more young pitchers. The Seattle team foolishly elected to make Trout their Number 2 starter, and his first start for the team (2/3 of an inning pitched, 5 walks, 2 wild pitches) was an prelude to the rest of his season (31 walks, 7 balks(!), and 5 wild pitches in 56 1/3 innings with an ERA over 7).

Trout barely pitched in ’89 (and badly at that), before being released in June for good. In retirement, he’s managed a baseball camp, done some indy league coaching, and once coached a high school baseball team in Hawaii after answering an ad in the paper.

He still lives in the Chicago area (and has a very Rainbow-brite looking Website), and oddly enough the site lists his home address (a tiny bungalow in a working class area of Hammond, IN), so maybe Trout will sign your autograph now that he’s retired.

Rear guard: Chick Tolson was a mighty minor league slugger (career slugging percentage: .621) who found it hard to crack the lineup during a time when Cubs teams regularly hit above .280. His grand slam came off Pirates starter Ray Kermer, and he was pinch hitting for long forgotten reliever Percy Jones. Tolson would hit just 4 home runs in a 5 year career.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

#383 Chris Brown

Card thoughts: Chris Brown in the #12 Jose Uribe pose. Note the initials on the underside of the bill of his hat. If Topps had returned to the “All-Star Rookie” cards just one year earlier, you’d be seeing a cup on this card.

The player: A high school teammate of Darryl Strawberry, Brown was a second round draft pick in the 1979 draft. Despite an ordinary minor league career, he made his debut in 1984, hitting .286 over 23 games.

The incumbent starter at third base, #177 Joel Youngblood, was really just there as an emergency measure. When he moved back to his customary utility role in 1985, Brown surprisingly earned the job out spring training. After hitting 16 home runs and driving in 61, he placed fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. If anything, his fielding at third stood out even more, as he led the league in fielding percentage, and showed excellent range at that position.

Brown continued his hot hitting in 1986, as he made the all star team after hitting .338, with an .877 OPS at the break. Despite finishing the year in the top ten in batting (.317), he barely played at all during September due to a shoulder injury. Initially, doctors could find nothing wrong with Brown, and he was accused of being a malingerer. But further examination revealed a problem, and he was sidelined for part of the next season.

Perhaps Brown enjoyed getting paid for not playingor he was resentful that his injury claim wasn’t believedbecause for the rest his career, he was noted for claiming bizarre injuries in order to get out of the lineup. That may have been why the Giants gave up on Brown so soon after his standout 1986 campaign, shipping him in a huge deal to the Padres in July of 1987.

Although he still hit for power, Brown’s average plummeted to .232, and he was in and out of the lineup that year and the next. The Padres, like the Giants, finally tired of Brown’s lackadaisical attitude (he was nicknamed the “Tin Man”—no heart) and sent him with #266 Keith Moreland to the Tigers for Walt Terrell. Sparky Anderson was a no-nonsense manager and, when Brown claimed he couldn’t play in a game because he slept on his eye wrong, that was the final straw and he was released. After a short stint with AAA Buffalo (Pirates), Brown retired from baseball at the young age of 28.

In retirement, Brown worked in construction where he was just as injury prone. While working on the Getty museum in LA, his cement mixer keeled over and Brown injured his back and neck. After relocating to Houston and operating a crane, he ended up driving a transport truck for Halliburton during the Iraq war where he was shot at multiple times. So ironically, the man who was considered “soft” while playing baseball ended up taking a job that required more courage than most of his “tough guy” teammates ever showed. Perhaps it wasn’t that Brown was a weakling. Maybe, despite his talent, he just didn’t like playing baseball and he just slacked off instead of quitting.

Brown died under mysterious circumstances in Sugar Land, Texas (a suburb of Houston) in 2006. After his tour of duty in Iraq, his life fell apart, and he burned to death in a vacant house he owned, and no one knows whether the fire was intentional or an accident.

Rear guard: Brown's first hit was a single leading off the fifth inning with the Giants getting slaughtered 10-1. He was soon erased at second on a ground ball to short by perennial Mendoza line flirter #289 Johnnie LeMaster.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

#382 Ivan Calderon

Card thoughts: This is not the follow through you want to see from a hitter. Calderon looks badly fooled.

The player: Calderon was a slugger in the minors, but found it hard to get playing time with the Mariners. A trade in late 1986 to the White Sox would make him a star—for a very brief period.

Finally afforded regular playing time with the Sox in 1987, Calderon reached career highs in runs (93), and home runs (28), while driving in 83. Although set back by an injured shoulder the following year, he rebounded in 1989, driving in a career high 87, although with his weakened shoulder, his power fell off.

Strangely enough, at age 28, Calderon’s game completely changed, and he began to steal bases and hit more doubles than home runs. His 44 doubles in 1990 were third in the league, and his 32 steals placed him in the top 10 in the American League. Calderon also was known to sacrifice and drop suicide squeezes down, even though he batted in the cleanup spot most of the time. He even improved his normally pedestrian play in the outfield.

Although he was a fan favorite in Chicago, with his flamboyant style of play and gold chain necklace (then a rarity among baseball players), he was shipped off the next year to Montreal, with Tim Raines the key player going back to White Sox.

Calderon would have one good season with the Expos. His line in 1991—19 home runs, 75 runs batted in, and 31 steals would be enough to earn his only all star game nod. But Calderon was a large man playing on artificial surface, and he wasn’t the best at taking care of himself. Leg injuries limited him to just 48 games in 1992, and by 1993, with short stops in Boston, and again Chicago, his career was done.

No more was heard from Calderon until he became a target in his native Puerto Rico. He was murdered at a notorious bar in Loiza by unknown gunmen who shot him multiple times in his back. After retirement, Calderon had apparently found work as a bail bondsman and loan shark, among other occupations (he also raised fighting cocks), but the likely motive for his killing was the fact that his son had apparently been involved in killing a member of a local drug gang. When Calderon refused to turn over the boy, they shot him instead. 

Rear guard: John Montague is neither the Irish poet who wrote "A Slow Dance," nor the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Rather, he was one of the few effective pitchers on the first Mariners team. Montague relieved Tom House in the third inning, and pitched perfectly the rest of the way. Furthermore, in the previous game, he had retired everyone from the 6th to the 9th inning. The streak of 33 consecutive batters retired ended on July 28, when he walked pinch hitter Craig Kucick in the 8th inning.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

#381 Ray Miller

Card thoughts: I liked this card as kid—Miller’s five o’clock shadow and working class demeanor reminded me of my dad. This would be Miller’s only manager card as a Twin. He would not last out the 1986 season.

The player/manager: Miller pitched 10 years in the minors, with the Indians and Orioles organizations, without ever making it to the majors. His best season was at Reno in 1968, when he went 16-8.

Miller was player coach at Rochester in 1973, his last as a player. He would remain in that role before being offered the pitching job for the Rangers for the 1978 season.  But #21 George Bamberger, the incumbent Orioles pitching coach, was hired unexpectedly as the Brewers manager that season, so Miller was allowed to accept the newly vacant Orioles job. Like George Bamberger before him, Miller was credited with keeping the Orioles pitching staff consistently strong, allowing the team to almost always be in contention in the late 70s and early 80s.

By 1985, Miller was considered the best pitching coach in the game. His philosophy was simple: "Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds" (with the greatest emphasis on changing speeds). He got a chance to manage the Twins after Billy Gardner went 27-35 early in the year. Although the team went 50-50 the rest of the season under Miller, the team was in a transition period, with terrible pitching. Even Miller’s presence couldn’t add depth behind Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola, and he was fired on September 12, 1986.

He returned as a pitching coach for the Pirates (1987-1996) and the Orioles again (1997) before getting another chance to manage after Oriole manager Davey Johnson resigned. Once again, Miller proved to be a better pitching coach that manager, as the team went 10 games below .500 when he was managing. A final stint as the Oriole pitching coach (2004-2005) ended when he had an aneurysm in 2005.

Rear guard: The glaring omission here is Dave Meier, who played 71 games with the Twins as a reserve outfielder. He played less games with the Twins in 1984, yet was assigned card #356 in the 1985 set.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

#380 LaMarr Hoyt

Card thoughts:  LaMarr Hoyt is smiling in this picture. But the burly pitcher was about to have a rough couple of years off the field.

The player: Hoyt was a late bloomer. He had an inconsistent minor league career, where he would pitch well seemingly only every other year. Drafted by the Yankees, Hoyt was traded with Oscar Gamble to the White Sox in 1977 for future Yankee hero Bucky Dent. With the White Sox, he was demoted from AA all the way down to the low-A Midwest League, where he won 18 games at Appleton. He finally stuck for good in the majors at age 25 (three years later), when he won 9 games in 1980 after being called up to the White Sox in early June.

Hoyt was sent to the pen in 1981, where he was the co-team leader in saves with 10. At this point, he just looked to be an average pitcher, who would probably just end up as a swingman. But in 1982, Hoyt would lead the league in wins with 19. He was even better the following season, as he won an astonishing 24 games, despite having an ERA just above league average. The key to his success was his control: He also led in WHIP (1.029), walks per 9 innings (1.1) and strikeouts to base on ball ratio (almost 5 to 1).

Hoyt’s superb pitching propelled the White Sox into the playoffs, where he beat Scott McGregor in a pitchers duel in Game 1 of the ALCS, 2-1. Although the Sox lost the series, Hoyt would win the Cy Young Award after the season.

The next year, both the Sox and Hoyt tumbled. Although his excellent control didn’t desert him, he was hitting the fat part of the plate too much, and Hoyt wound up leading the league in losses (18).

After a blockbuster trade to the Padres, Hoyt experienced a massive turnaround, going 16-8, and being named the starting pitcher for the 1985 All Star Game. He not only won the game, but was named the MVP.

But everything began falling apart for Hoyt after the season. A doctor told him his rotator cuff was shot, and it was unlikely he’d ever pitch again. He was arrested trying to smuggle marijuana, valium, and Quaaludes (possibly to self-medicate a problem he had with insomnia) across the Mexican border.  Sent to rehab, he missed all of spring training, a pitched poorly through the shoulder pain during the season (8-11, 5.15 ERA). Having not learned his lesson, Hoyt again attempted to smuggle valium and Quaaludes across the border and was again caught by Customs. This time, he went to jail and when released, he was suspended by the baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, under the “Just Say No” policy of baseball. When reinstated, he was promptly released by the Padres. Signed to a “make-good” contract with the White Sox, Hoyt was once again busted for drugs, this time intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana.

The drug problems effectively ended his career at 31. He apparently has gotten his life together, and has worked as a roving instructor for the White Sox.

Rear guard: Dave Roberts is NOT the more recent Dave Roberts (he also played two seasons in San Diego). There was also a pitcher named Dave Roberts who pitched for the Padres from 1969-1970). This Dave Roberts had a career year in 1973, belting a career high 21 home runs. Roberts would only hit 26 more in a 10 year career. Here's his 1974 card.