Tuesday, April 23, 2013

#329 Kirby Puckett

Card thoughts:  Kirby Puckett was not considered a star this early in his career, hence the non-0 issue. As you can see in the photo, Puckett does not have a baseball body, as he was short and portly. But he would be sent to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

The player: Puckett grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes (now demolished), perhaps the most notorious housing project in Chicago other than Cabrini Green. His size was always a deterrent to scouts, and he was neither drafted, nor offered many baseball scholarships after high school. While deciding what to do, Puckett worked on a Ford assembly line. Laid off after a few months, Puckett attended a major league tryout camp. Although he didn’t get signed, he was offered a scholarship to Bradley University in downstate Illinois.

A lot of luck was involved in Puckett’s rise from the projects to the majors. A scout went to see his son play in a summer college league game in Quincy, Illinois. Instead, he was impressed enough by Puckett in center field that he urged the Twins to draft him in the first round.

He zoomed through the minors, and ended up debuting in 1984. But like much else in Puckett’s career, even getting to his first major league game was a struggle. He was playing in Maine, and was supposed to join the Twins in Los Angeles. Puckett was delayed getting there because of mechanical problems on his plane, and ended up having to get his $83 taxi fare ($180 in today’s money) paid for by the team.

All is well that ends well, as he was able to play the next night and went 4 for 5. Puckett had only 17 extra base hits out of 165 and hit .296 the rest of the year, earning him a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year balloting. In the season that had just finished when this card issued, Puckett had nearly 200 hits, but he was still primarily singles hitter. That all changed in 1986. His home run total jumped from 4 to 31, and he drove in 96. Puckett also made the all star team for the first time, and he would continue to make the squad for the next nine years, starting in 1986, 1989, and 1992-1995.

From 1987-1989, Puckett led the league in hits each year, led in total bases in 1988, and won the batting title in 1989. He also won three of his six gold gloves for his play in center field. In the 1987 World Series he hit .357 and drove in three runs.

The years between the Twins 1987 and 1991 World Series wins, Puckett continued his consistent hitting, generally hitting above .300 and driving in between 80-100 runs. During this time, Puckett became the highest paid baseball player, and was the first to make over $3 million a year. He was great once again in the 1991 post-season, hitting .429 in the ALCS and driving in four in the World Series.

At 36, Puckett was still near the top of his game. In 1993, he hit .314 and drove in 99. But in spring training the next year, he woke up one morning with blurred vision in his right eye. After waiting half the 1994 season for the problem to correct itself, Puckett was forced into retirement.

Perhaps the most popular player in the game when he retired, that designation surely contributed to his first ballot selection to the Hall of Fame. Although Puckett was a great player in his time, I’d agree with many writers that he was voted in more from what could have been, rather than what was. He had less than 2,000 hits, only 207 home runs, and was never awarded the MVP award. Puckett’s numbers are most comparable to Don Mattingly and Cecil Cooper, and only a few people think they are Hall of Fame worthy. On the top ten comparable players, only Kiki Cuyler has made the Hall.

Even the reputation as a “good guy” that helped his election has been tainted. Puckett was revealed as being a serial abuser and cheater in the early 2000s. The demise of his reputation is chronicled at length in this article. In poor health (his weight had reportedly ballooned up over 300 pounds), Puckett, who had long been the “Face of the Twins,” withdrew from the public eye. He suffered a massive stroke caused by hypertension and died at age 45.

He still holds a soft spot in the hearts of Twins fans (judging by the variety of tribute videos out there) who remember the smiling, jovial Puckett leading their team to glory. And it is always difficult to celebrate the accomplishments of public figures, many who are less than saints in their private lives (see: Wade Boggs, Miles Davis, and pretty much every pop star who was a serial cheater, and/or misogynist). Jocks in high school were often the biggest jerks in person. The confidence and ego needed to make it to that high level of performance often have unpleasant side effects. I guess what I’m saying, is that Puckett is tough guy to judge. Do the subsequent revelations of his abusive relations with women, wipe out the good will earned on the baseball diamond? Or are the two mutually exclusive?

Rear guard: That first home run is significant as it took Puckett well over 600 plate appearances before he hit it. The homer came off Mariners pitcher Matt Young and drove in Tim Teufel and #184 Tim Laudner.

Technically, the Twins have been around since 1901 (they were the Senators until 1961). And, in fact, Ramos had won 67 games with Washington before the team moved to Minneapolis. It would be a mistake to consider Ramos much of a winner. He led the league in losses for four straight seasons, including 1961 when he lost 20. 

For his career, Ramos won 117 games, but ended up 43 games below .500. Here is his 1962 card where he is in a non-specific uniform, as he had been traded to the Indians by the time the card was issued.

Monday, April 22, 2013

#328 Pete O'Brien

Card thoughts: Second infield fielding card in a row! O’Brien appears to have a wrist injury on his left hand.

The player: O’Brien won the starting first base job with the Rangers due to his fielding prowess. He had great range at first, which allowed him to lead the league in assists twice. Only later did he become a solid hitter.

O’Brien had an orderly march to the majors, spending a year at each level (Rookie, A, AA, AAA) before reaching the majors for good in 1983. The power he showed in the minors deserted him that year, and he slugged just .347. But by the time this card was issued, O’Brien was putting up numbers similar to his minor league ones. In 1985, he hit 22 home runs and drove in 92 with a career high 34 doubles, good for a .452 slugging percentage. What always made O’Brien even more dangerous was his eye at the plate: After 1984, he rarely struck out more than he walked. In any other year, this would have given O’Brien a shot at the all star game, but he had the misfortune of playing against #30 Eddie Murray and #180 Don Mattingly that year, which somewhat obscured his accomplishments.

Solid years in 1986 (23 HR, 90 RBI, .854 OPS) and 1987 (23 HR, 88 RBI, .805 OPS) did little to elevate O’Brien to the level of elite first basemen in the public’s mind. It didn’t help matters much that back then the Rangers were a generally miserable team. After another season, O’Brien was traded in a big deal that included disappointing former prospects Jerry Browne and Oddibe McDowell to the Indians, for Julio Franco, who would go one to have several great years with the Rangers. Browne would somewhat fulfill his promise with the Indians, but McDowell wouldn’t even last the 1989 season. O’Brien would contribute not much better than average numbers offensively, although he did reach the top ten in walks (83). The problem was that he was getting pitched around a lot as the guy who hit ahead of him most of the year (Cory Snyder) wasn’t doing jack with the bat.

Missing the RBI opportunities that were so plentiful in the dry Dallas air, O’Brien opted for a similarly offense friendly the park, the Kingdome, in 1990.  The first year there didn’t go so well, as O’Brien was injured in early May. The problem was a broken left thumb, suffered in a game against the Angels. He came back in June, but never got it going offensively, driving a career low 27 runs as a starter, and never getting his average above .250.

1991 saw O’Brien return to form (17 HR, 88 RBI) but it would be his last good season.  He hit .222 the next year, and appeared in just 72 games in 1993, his final season. O’Brien gave up a year’s salary to retire, saying his family and God were more important than an extra two million in cash.

It is unclear whether Pete O’Brien ever entered the ministry, as he had intended after retiring. Perhaps his spiritual quest took a more new-age direction. He and his wife currently operate a relaxation spa outside of Dallas that offers floatation therapy, among other things.

Rear guard: Here's his first card. Pretty squinty. O'Brien was hitting second when he launched a solo shot off of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry for his first home run.

What a last name for Bill! I wonder if they called him "Goggles." He went 4-11 in 1972, although he game up less than a hit per inning. Here's his card from that season. Gogolewski looks sad.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

#327 Mike Pagliarulo

Card thoughts: For some reason, I didn’t think that Pagliarulo had a card in this set, despite being the Yankees starting third baseman. But it's good that it exists, as it is one of the rare infield fielding cards in the set. By the way, the “g” is silent and Mike’s last name is pronounced pah-li-a-ROO-lo.

The player: Pagliarulo had excellent power, but he rarely hit for a high average because of his propensity to swing at bad balls. So once his power left him, he had little to fall back on the offensive side. Luckily, he was a skilled defender at third who was in the top ten in fielding percentage three times.

After a rapid rise through the minors, Pagliarulo was called up to replace struggling veteran Toby Harrah at third in 1984. He quickly became a force in the middle of the lineup, blasting 19 home runs in 1985, 28 in 1986, and a high of 32 in 1987. Unfortunately, despite the power, Pagliarulo’s average dropped each year. By 1989, he was hitting below .200 before he was dealt to the Padres for Walt Terrell. Pagliarulo hit about the same the rest of the year.

Missing the cozy right field porch at Yankee stadium, Pagliarulo hit just 7 homers in 1989, but he raised his average above .250 for the first time in his career. He followed that up with a season almost as good as the year he hit 32 home runs. Contributing mostly with his glove, he helped the Twins win the World Series. His contribution included a two run home run Game 4.

After a down year in 1992, Pagliarulo played for both the Blue Jays and Orioles in 1993, hitting over .300 for the first time in his career. This attracted the attention of the Japanese League, whose Seibu club signed him to a one-year contract. Returning to the States as a backup third baseman for the Rangers, he played in 86 games. He retired in 1995.

In retirement, Pagliarulo has coached high school baseball and tried to start a baseball consulting business, which has some kind of proprietary formula for scouts to use when evaluating players. Here’s an interview where he expounds upon his evaluation methods.

Pagliarulo was hired recently as the hitting coach for the AAA Indianapolis Indians.

Rear guard: All of the great Yankees of the past, and they picked the first player with a palindrome name? Okay. Good ol' Truck Hannah. He was a 29-year old rookie when he joined the pre-dynastic Yankees. In three seasons, only in 1918 was he the starting catcher. The rest of the time, he backed up Muddy Ruel. He had drove in 66 runs and hit .235 in those three years.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

#326 Kent Tekulve

Card thoughts: You just don't see players sporting these kinds of shades anymore. Aside from that, you can see how tall and lanky Tekulve was, which made his sidearm delivery so effective. This was Tekulve's first base card in a Phillies uniform.

The player: Due to his submarine style of pitching, Tekulve was extremely durable, tying a major league record by appearing in over 90 games three times (he was the oldest to do so at age 40). His three saves in the 1979 tied the record (he tied fellow Pirate Roy Face). It has since been broken. Tekulve was a ground ball pitcher, and threw a sinking fastball most of the time. He also had a slider he would "show" a batter.

Tekulve is unusual in his era in that he never started a game in the majors. He was not treated well originally by the Pirates. Undrafted, despite a stellar college career, the old school scouts through he ran weird, so they wouldn't let him pitch with the other players during a tryout at Forbes Field. As made famous by the book "Moneyball," the lanky Tekulve did not look like a baseball player. But he was signed anyway after he had a private pitching session after everyone else had left.

The team still didn't have much confidence in him. In 1970, while in the minor league camp, he and Bruce Kison were told to stop throwing sidearm. Fortunately, both ignored the advice. He came up for good with the Pirates in 1975, and had an ERA below 3.5 for pretty much the rest of his 16-year career. Tekulve's first really great season as a reliever came in 1977 when he went 10-1 in relief. The Pirates had veteran Goose Gossage on the club that season, so Tekulve still wasn't finishing most games. But with Gossage gone the following season, Tekulve began to get more work.

Did he ever. Pitching in a league leading 91 games in 1978 (135 innings pitched), Tekulve saved 31 games; the next year, he pitched in 94 games (again leading the league) and saved another 31. To show how undervalued relievers were back then, he didn't make the all star team either of those years. However, he did get a World Series ring in 1979. He certainly earned it. He saved three series games and pitched in five. The World Series made Tekulve famous. He was mobbed at a local department store by autograph seekers while trying to buy diapers.

Perhaps because the he pitched an extra seven games in the post season (which put him over 100 for the year), Tekulve had an off year in 1980, going 8-12 with a 3.39 ERA, the highest in his career. But he still made the all star game, perhaps as a makeup for all the snubs in the seventies.

He was back to his old, effective self in 1981, and continued to pitch extremely well for the Pirates until the season represented by this card. The Pirates in 1985 were a long way from the great days of the 1970s, and the new ownership didn't want to pay the salaries of many of the high priced veterans on the team. Also, Tekulve started complaining that he wasn't used enough in save situations. So they traded him--after he had given up seven runs in three April innings--to the Phillies for Al Holland, who had led the Phillies in saves the year before but was not in the class of Tekulve.

With the Phillies, Tekulve once again excelled, posting a 2.99 ERA after the trade and saving 14 games. He relinquished the closer role to Steve Bedrosian the next year, but still kept busy, pitching in 73 games in 1986, and 90 in 1987.

Now over 40, he pitched one more season with the Phillies before being released. He pitched 37 games for the Reds in 1989 before retiring. He worked in the broadcast booth for the Philles from 1991 to 1997; managed in an Independent League a few years; and finally worked as an advance scout for the Pirates. He does some analysis post-game for the club as well.

Rear guard: Tekulve's first win came against the Padres after he blew a save by giving up two runs in the eighth and ninth innings and allowing two inherited runners to score. He was saved when Rich Hebner hit a two-run home run in the bottom the ninth to win it for the Pirates (this goes to show how little wins matter for a reliever).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

#325 Juan Beniquez

Card thoughts: Juan Beniquez was a utility player in 1985, but he played most of his games in the outfield. He is shown fielding his secondary position, first base, probably because they couldn’t get a long range shot of him in the outfield.  Beniquez sported a  well-manicured afro on his cards in the 1970s.

The player: Beniquez came up as a shortstop, spent a few years as an excellent starting centerfielder for the Rangers, but found his niche as a utility player/pinch hitter where he had his most consistent offensive success.

A poor fielding shortstop in the minors (he once committed 64 errors in a season), it took the Red Sox two seasons before they moved Beniquez to centerfield. He went down to Pawtucket to learn center for the entire 1973 season  and hit .298 with an .833 OPS. Up to the majors for good in 1974, he platooned with Rick Miller in center and got the majority of starts there. In a stark contrast to his butter finger approach at short, he held his own in center.

The arrival of #55 Fred Lynn in center in 1975 relegated Beniquez to the bench and ultimately made him expendable. The Red Sox sent him to the Rangers with Steve Barr and a minor leaguer for Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins who was only a year away from a 25 win season. What seemed like a lopsided deal at the time ending up being more even, as Jenkins struggled to stay healthy with the Red Sox, and Beniquez became a gold glove centerfielder with the Rangers.

In his first season with the team, Beniquez topped the league in many fielding categories, but he hit for absolutely no power (a .301 slugging percentage). In a turnaround, Beniquez began hitting the ball with more authority in 1977, belting 10 home runs and raising his slugging percentage over 100 points.  The offensive surge probably had as much to do with Beniquez winning a Gold Glove as his fielding, especially since, although still quite good in center, he wasn’t as spectacular as he had been the year before.

A similar season in 1978 followed, and it was enough to attract the Yankees, who got him as part of a huge trade (a bunch of youngsters went in both directions, but the key figures were Dave Righetti (to the Yankees) and Sparky Lyle (to the Rangers)).  Unfortunately, Beniquez broke a finger in spring training and only played 62 games for the Yankees before being traded to the Mariners.

A .228 season followed, and Beniquez hit just .181 in 1981 for the Angels. It looked like he had forgotten how to hit, and his career was in serious jeopardy.  But instead of regressing, Beniquez began to finally learn how to hit by studying pitchers and not trying to pull everything. He credited manager #81 Gene Mauch for instilling him with the confidence he needed to make this transition. After hitting .265 in 1982, Beniquez hit over .300 the next four years (three with the Angels, one with the Orioles). He was especially dangerous as a pinch hitter, hitting .300 (1984), and .474 (1986) in that role.

After his last .300 season with the Orioles, Beniquez was traded to the Royals for two minor leaguers. But by this time he was 37 and too old to contribute much in the field. The Blue Jays wanted him for the stretch run in 1987, and sent Luis Aquino, a very useful reliever, to the Royals for him. After 27 games in 1988, Beniquez was released, ending his career.

After his major league career was over, he continued to play winter ball in Puerto Rico until 1991.

Rear guard: My congressman, Luis Gutierrez (D) was born in Beniquez's home town.