Friday, March 29, 2013

#321 Earl Weaver

Card thoughts: Weaver’s looking pretty old and grizzled in this picture. In fact, although he would only manage one more year, Weaver only just died this past year. Baseball will age you.

The player/manager: Two Hall of Famers in a row! Legendarily irascible, Weaver was thrown out of games almost 100 times (here’s a legendary tirade, where Earl was incredibly profane (but so was the ump)). It must have worked, as he finished his managerial career (all with the Orioles) with a .583 winning percentage. Weaver won three pennants and one World Series with the team.

A good fielding second baseman, Weaver never reached the majors because of his hitting. He must have seen the writing on the wall early, because he started managing at age 25 in the Sally League (Dick Bartel had to finish out the season after Weaver got called up to AA New Orleans). After sporting a winning record at every minor league stop, he was tapped to manage the Orioles in 1967, taking over for Hank Bauer in July. He would then spend the 15 straight seasons (and 17 overall) piloting the Orioles. The only year one of teams would finish under .500 was the last year he managed, 1986. Quite a remarkable run for a franchise not known today as a consistent winner.

Weaver’s managerial philosophy was centered on pitching (his Orioles always had an extremely strong pitching rotation), defense (Mark Belanger spent years as the starting shortstop, despite never hitting well), and the three-run home run. He was not down with stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, or other inside baseball maneuvers. This philosophy became perfectly suited to the designated hitter era, which started halfway through Weaver’s managerial career.

On offense, Weaver was a believer in “playing the matchups,” and was one of the first managers to use splits to determine where in the lineup a batter should bat (if he played at all) against a particular pitcher. Consequently, in the late 70s and early 80s, Weaver employed a variety of successful platoons, most famously in left field. In another innovation, Weaver used a radar gun in spring training in 1975, the first manager to do so.

An icon in Baltimore, he co-hosted a radio show called “Managers Corner.” Occasionally, he and co-host Tom Marr would do prank broadcasts for their own amusement (Warning: This is incredibly profane and offensive).

Weaver retired after a 1982 season where the Brewers defeated the Orioles 11-2 on the last day of the season to claim the AL East title. His replacement, Joe Altobelli, led the Orioles to their last World Series to date in 1983. Coaxed out of retirement the year shown by this card after Altobelli had started the season 29 and 26, Weaver’s magic was once again apparent, as he guided the Orioles to yet another above .500 record. But Weaver’s heart wasn’t in it, and he left for good after the 1986 season.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996, he died “at sea” earlier this year while on an Orioles nostalgia cruise.

Rear guard: I obviously got this card late in collecting the set. A player who should have gotten a card: Third baseman Fritzie Connally (who had 135 at bats, way more than Dan Ford who was issued a card). Connally never played in the majors after this season, and he never received a base card: Fleer issued a card of him in its update set of 1985.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

#320 Jim Rice

Card thoughts: An in-action shot on deck. Not often you see one of those, but a nice “quiet moment” in a game picture.

The player: You can make the case that Jim Rice has benefited as much as Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens from steroids. In his case, his borderline Hall of Fame power numbers looked pretty unimpressive when stacked against sluggers in the steroid era. But voters had to vote for someone to put in the Hall, and they had already sent in the obvious hitting stars of the 80s: (Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and um Kirby Puckett?). So Rice was chosen for the Hall in 2008, despite having numbers similar to Andres Galarraga and Carlos Lee.

Known as “Ed” growing up in the segregated south, he was one of the first African-Americans to attend a previous all white high school in Anderson, South Carolina. But Jim was not the aggressive type, despite his size, and his arrival did not seem to cause a lot of racial tension (well, it was the early 70s and attitudes were changing).

Drafted in the first round by the Red Sox out of high school, Rice showed a great power stroke at ever minor league stop. The leagues he played in (New York-Penn, Florida State, and Eastern) are notoriously pitcher friendly, so the numbers were even more impressive in context.  By the time Rice got to AAA Pawtucket in 1974, it was clear he was ready for the majors as he won the Triple Crown and MVP awards at that level.

In his first year as a regular (1975), Rice barely missed a step clubbing 22 home runs and driving in over 100 en route to a second place Rookie of the Year showing (his teammate #55 Fred Lynn won the award, in what must have been the best rookie outfield duo in history). Unfortunately for the Red Sox, a Vern Ruhle pitch broke his hand near the end of the season, keeping him out of the World Series. It took awhile for the hand to heal, and Rice endured a sophomore slump (although hitting 25 homers and driving in 85 is still pretty impressive). But that season highlighted Rice’s only weakness, as he led the league in strikeouts with 125. The other weakness was his lack of patience. Despite being a slugger, Rice generally only walked 50 times or less a season.

The lack of patience didn’t seem to affect him during a remarkable three year stretch (1977-1979) in which he led the league in total bases each time (a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since Ty Cobb) and won the MVP award in 1978, when the led the league in hits (213), triples (15), home runs (46), runs batted in (139), slugging (.600) and OPS (.970).

After that remarkable three year runs, Rice’s hand was injured again in 1980, leading to three straight years or good, not great, power numbers. However, in 1982 he might have saved a young boys life. A toddler was hit in the head by a foul ball, on Rice, in the on deck circle, leapt into the stands and carried him into the Red Sox club house to be seen by the team trainer.

1983 was a renaissance year for Rice, as he once again led the league in home runs (39) and RBIs (126) while hitting .305. Three more years of over 100 RBIs followed, but on the bad side, Rice was grounding into over 30 double plays a year (with a record 36 in 1984), one of the reasons that pitchers were so apt to pitch to the dangerous Rice with people on base.

After his last season with 200 hits (1986), Rice began to slow down. While still a fearsome presence at the plate, he would never again hit over 20 home runs or drive in over 100. The issue was eyesight, elbow, and knee problems.

Rice would play his entire 16 year career with the Red Sox. When he retired, he had 382 home runs, 2,452 hits, and 1,451 runs batted in with a .502 slugging percentage. His home run total was 10th best in American League history when he retired. 

Rear guard: Two of Rice's home runs were solos; the other drove in fellow Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#319 Rick Camp

Card thoughts:  Rick Camp would be a Brave his entire career, and would slowly add facial hair as the years progressed. This would be his last card.

The player: Camp featured a heavy sinking fastball and an exceptional slider, which made him an effective reliever. But a lack of a good third pitch made him a mediocre starter. But Camp is most famous for a particular game, known by Braves fans as the "Rick Camp Game".

A Georgia native, Camp must have been thrilled to have been drafted by the Braves in the 7th round. He progressed quickly in the minors, jumping all the way from Rookie ball to AA in just one year. Although a starter in the minors, Camp was used mostly as a reliever at first when got to the majors.

Despite being only an average reliever in 1977 and 1978, it surprising that Camp was banished to the minors for the entire 1979 season. He could have been recalled later in the year, but an arm injury shut his season down early. The injury may actually have helped Camp's sinker, and he came back better than ever in 1980 and 1981, completely shutting down the opposition in the late innings and sporting ERAs well under 2.  This was good enough to be recognized as one of the top 10 pitchers in the league, if one uses WAR as a metric.

It looked like Camp had a bright future as a closer. But there were still many managers in the early 80s who believed that a relief pitcher was just a starter in waiting. If a pitcher “proved” his success as a closer, why waste him in that position when he could be starting? Manager Joe Torre was of that school, and Camp was converted to a starter for the 1982 season. However, Camp’s game plan of letting hitters pound his sinker into the ground was not as effective when he was seeing the same guys several times in a game. His ERA ballooned over 2 full runs and he went 11-13 as a part time starter and reliever.  Only half of his starts were quality starts and he averaged just over 6 innings a start, poor for that time. Although he pitched a bit better in 1983 and 1984, the Braves still couldn’t decide whether Camp was a reliever or a starter.

By the time this card was issued, Camp once again became a full time reliever, although relief legend Bruce Sutter had now usurped his role as closer. But it wasn’t his pitching that was memorable that year. Rather, it was his role in extending one of the longest games (time-wise) in major league history. It was the 18th inning of a game between the Mets and the Braves, and the Braves had run out of position players. The Braves were down by a run that scored after Camp made an error in the top of the inning. There was no one on and Camp was down 0-2. As he had hit below .100 in his career with no homers (although he did hit .231 in 1985), there was little chance the Braves were going to win this one. Of course, on the next pitch, Camp cranked out a home run. This only tied the game and, after giving up another 5 runs to the Mets in the top of the inning, Camp struck out with the tying runs on base in the bottom of the 19th to lose the game.

Camp retired at the relatively young age of 32. In retirement, Camp became a health care lobbyist. In a completely morally bankrupt act, he conspired with several others to siphon $2 million away from a Community Mental Health center. Camp was sentenced to three years in jail in 2005 for his part in the crime. No doubt some of the poor people he was siphoning funds away from would have spent a lot longer in jail for stealing a hell of a lot less.

Rear guard: Aha! Obliquely, Topps references the "Rick Camp Game". Technically he hit the home run on July 5th, as it was about 3:00 AM. Little known fact: The team let off the post-game fireworks an hour later, freaking out the entire, sleeping neighborhood.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

#318 Terry Whitfield

Card thoughts: This is Whitfield’s last card. And he's wearing the old style batting helmet without the earflaps over a regular cap. (I believe there are a bunch of Braves behind him in the dugout).

The player: Terry Whitfield was a first round pick of the Yankees. While he showed good power in the minors, it didn’t really translate to the big club. After three years of miniscule opportunities to make the club, he was traded to the Giants in 1976 for Marty Perez (who played just one game for the Yankees).

The Giants of the late 70s were woeful and, despite his inability to hit the ball with any kind of authority, Whitfield was the starting left fielder for the next four years. He exhibited a great arm in left (top ten in assists (1979, 1980) and fielding percentage (1978, 1980), but a corner outfielder shouldn’t be third in sacrifice hits (1978).

As a run producer, Whitfield was a victim of lack of opportunities, as much as his lack of power. Despite batting in the middle of the order for most of these years, he drove in 36, 32, 44, and 26 runs.  However, Whitfield did hit over .280 each year.

In something you don’t see much of today Whitfield, despite being an established major league starter, left the Giants early in spring training in 1981 to play for Seibu Lions in Japan. Back then, Japan often offered more money for marginal starting players than the majors did (especially the cash poor Giants). With Seibu, Whitfield was a star, bashing well over 20 homers a year and becoming a big time RBI man in the three years he played there.

Wanting to be closer to his family (not sure if we’re talking immediate or extended here), Whitfield came back to the states and signed with the Dodgers. Offered a back-up position in the outfield, his Japanese power deserted him as he slugged just .356.  The next season he hit .260 and got into one playoff game as an “announced” pinch hitter, but was called back to the bench in favor of #87 Candy Maldonado after a pitching change, having never got to bat.

After 11 games in 1986, Whitfield retired. He coached some high school baseball and invented a ball tossing machine dubbed the Terry Toss that can be found at various indoor baseball facilities and at the Giants’ home stadium, AT&T Park.

Rear guard: Since I crabbed about Whitfield's poor RBI totals, it is only fitting that I celebrate his first 4-RBI game which came late in his career. He hit a three-run home run and RBI double off of Giants starter Mike Krukow to account for those four RBIs. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

#317 Ed Romero

Card thoughts: Finally, an action shot. Although, I’m not sure I can place the stadium. It isn’t Yankee or Tiger Stadium. I recall the old County Stadium had this color, but Romero’s wearing an away uniform. Any guesses?

The player: Romero had been a late inning defensive replacement for several years with the Brewers by the time this card was issued. His best position was second base, but he also played a little third and short. Romero couldn’t hit a lick, but relied on good range and an accurate arm to keep himself in the bigs.

In the minors, Romero primarily played shortstop. But of course Robin Yount had a lock on that position with the Brewers. So he needed to be versatile to stick in the majors.  Coming up initially in 1977, Romero didn’t play regularly until 1981 when he (barely) helped the Brewers to the Eastern Division crown by batting .198. He was on the ALDS roster, however, and he started at second for the deciding Game 5. Romero delivered a hit in two at bats and scored a run but it wasn’t enough as the Yankees defeated the Brewers 7 to 3.

Despite hitting better in 1982, Romero was left off the roster and did not participate in the World Series that year. By default, he was the starting third baseman in 1984, as three other players (#209 Randy Ready, Roy Howell, and Willie Lozado) also started at least 30 games there (Romero started only 40).

A big position player shuffle went on in 1985, with Paul Molitor moving to third, Earnie Riles taking over for Yount at short, and Yount moving to left field. Romero was the odd man out, and went back to the bench, hitting .251 in 251 at bats while playing shortstop, second base, and the outfield.

The Brewers traded Romero to the Red Sox after the season for pitcher Mark Clear, and, despite only hitting .210 during the regular season, he managed to make it onto the post-season roster. He mainly was there as a defensive replacement, and failed to get a hit in three post-season at bats. Romero hit much better in 1987, but barely played in 1988. He was hitting just .212 in 1989 and got into a running feud with manager Joe Morgan over playing time. The manager showed him up by pinch hitting for him after he had run the count to 3-0, and Romero hurled a Gatorade cooler onto the field in protest. He was released soon after and went to the Braves for 7 games, but was quickly acquired by the Brewers who were only 2 ½ back in the East at the time (the Brewers had lost both of their starting second basemen to injuries a week apart).

Despite being back where he was most comfortable, Romero continued to struggle at the plate, hitting only .200 the rest of the way. A 32 game stint in Detroit the following season ended a career where his WAR was -5.8; he never had a season where the average player couldn’t have taken his job and done it about the same.

After he stopped playing, Romero managed in the minors, and did some minor league infield instruction for a variety of teams. He coached for the Astros from 2008-2009.

Rear guard: 1970 would be the only year Danny Walton was a regular player. He was a good power hitter for the era, sporting a .790 OPS. But he would never again play in more than 40 games a season during his nine year career.

Walton also contributed a double to his power barrage. Both homers were off of a starter I've never heard of, Billy Wynne. Walton would only hit 28 homers in his career. Here's his card representing his 1970 season. He would show up as "John Ellis" on a later card by Donruss in the '81 set (those early Donruss sets were lousy with errors).