Sunday, November 2, 2014

#429 Greg Booker

Card thoughts: Greg Booker looks really young in this picture, but on his earlier cards, he looks really old. Probably because he aced the mustache.

The player: Greg Booker was a man with a dynamite arm, but man did he have control issues. In 1982, while pitching at Class-A Reno, the guy walked an incredible 157 batters in 161 or so innings (against 87 strikeouts). That season would be Booker’s last full time as a starter, as he moved up the ladder steadily, despite ERAs that never went below 5, and walks galore. Somehow making the majors at age 23 (11 2/3 innings pitched, 9 walks), he was a stellar contributor to the Padres pennant run in 1984, keeping his ERA below 3 throughout July and August.

It was good enough for a roster spot in the postseason, where pitched fine against the Cubs, but then lost his control in Game 3 of the World Series, walking 4 in one inning.

Booker got a card in this set, perhaps because he pitched in the World Series, because he barely pitched at all in ’85 (22 1/3 innings pitched, and ugly 6.85 ERA). He finally righted the ship in 1987 (after an ’86 season mostly in the minors), and had a decent year as a middle reliever (while marrying his future boss’s daughter—Kristi McKeon).

But ironically, once his father-in-law, Jack McKeon, took over as manager (in addition to his GM duties) in 1988, he barely pitched. Booker was booed mercilessly, while he often went two weeks between relief appearances. While his ERA doesn’t seem all that bad (3.39), he had become the team goat. By the middle of the 1989 season, Booker was gone, traded to the Twins for Terrible Freddie Toliver. Invited to spring training by the Cubs in 1990, he was cut before the season began, and ended up pitching his last 2 games with the Giants that season.

Booker still works in baseball (as a scouts), after previously working for a long time as a pitching coach (including from 1997-2003 for the Padres). He has no hard feelings for his father-in-law: He lived next door to him for several years.

Rear guard: Back before pitching prospects were protected like rare jewels, it was common to see a 19-year phenom appear in the majors. Expansion teams especially had the propensity to rush first round draft picks to the majors in order to create some buzz. Little did Franklin know that he would never pitch again the majors after 1971. The poor guy couldn't buy a ticket out of Alexandria (Texas League) for three years, and he missed the entire 1972 season after injuring his elbow. Even sadder, after never making it back to the pros, Franklin's wife left him, his father committed suicide, and he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. His mental illness caused him to overeat and chain smoke. He blames baseball for his problemsFranklin currently resides in a group home. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#428 Max Venable

Card thoughts: I always wondered how ball players, especially base stealing types, wore glasses. You would think the glare would get to you.

The player: Despite the awesome name (although his given name is William), Venable was not much of a baseball player. In high school, he was known more as a football star, and he turned down scholarships to sign with the Dodgers. He became, however, a surplus minor leaguer with them, despite once driving in over 100 runs as a leadoff hitter while at Lodi (California League). The Giants drafted him in the Rule 5 draft in 1978, and he spent ’79 as a defensive replacement and pinch runner, hitting just .165. 1980 was a bit better as he hit .268 and he ended up starting a few more games in the outfield. But in ’81, he spent most of the year at Pheonix, only getting into 18 games in the majors.

Venable once again played the role of the late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-runner in 1982, but by 1983 he was the primary back up outfielder. Despite the confidence the Giants had in him, he ended up hitting just .219. He did, however, come in second in stolen base percentage, swiping 15 bags while only being caught twice.

After a quick stop in Montreal (he was a throw-in in the Al Oliver deal), Venable landed in Cincinnati where he had his best season in 1985, hitting .289 and stealing 11 bases in 77 games. This impressed the Reds, and they made him their primary left-handed pinch hitter the following year. But he didn’t hit well in the clutch (.175 in high-leverage situations) or much overall (.211).

The Reds gave on Venable, and he spent almost the entire 1987 season at AAA Nashville, appearing in just 7 major league games. 1988 found him exiled to the Mexican League, where he hit .319 in 13 games.

Against the odds, he once again became a steady contributor with the Angels in 1990 and 1991, where he hit around .250 and played solid defense. Another two years in a foreign country (in Japan, where he hit well for the Chiba Lotte Marines), and there would not be a third chance, as his career ended in 1993.

Venable immediately became a manager in the Braves minor league system, but he couldn’t win at Idaho Falls (1994) or Danville (1995), as the talent at those levels consisted of Bruce Chen (who is still pitching), and that is about it. He was relegated to a coaching role, which he performed ably in America and Korea. Venable’s most recent gig was as the hitting coach for High Desert in the California League.

Yes, Wil Venable, long time outfielder for the Padres, is Max’s son. Another son plays in the Canadian Football League.

Rear guard: Palindromes? A frustrated English major wrote this trivia question! In World War II, Kazak was part of the D-Day operation, where he was bayoneted, and his elbow shattered by shrapnel. Despite this, he persevered and became an all-star in 1949. By 1952, he was already done in the majors. Kazak had just 1 hit in those 13 Red games that year. But Kazak didn’t give up: He played another 7 years in the minors, retiring at age 40. Kazak would never play for the Tigers, despite being shown with them on his ’53 card. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

#427 Joe Cowley

Card thoughts: I thought this Joe Cowley was this jerky Sun-times columnist, but apparently I was wrong.

The player: Cowley spent 9 years in the Braves system, but never pitched much with them in the majors—which is telling, because from 1981-1984 (when Cowley was at AAA), their major league pitching staff was no great shakes.

After essentially being released by the Braves in 1983, Cowley was picked up by the Yankees as AAA insurance for their starters. But the Yankees only had Ron Guidry and Phil Neikro as regular starters that year, and Cowley was rotated into the rotation in July. He performed surprisingly well, going 9-2 with a 3.68 ERA.

Cowley was even better in the season shown on this card. With a 12-6 record, with winning percentage was in the top ten in the league. He was helped by the Yankees high power offense, however, as his peripherals that season were pretty bad: 85 walks to 97 strikeouts, and 29 home runs given up in just over 159 innings. Cowley couldn’t even field well.

Realizing they had lightning in the bottle, the Yankees made a rare wise trade (for the time), and sent Cowley to the White Sox for Britt Burns and a few minor leaguers. With the Sox, he continued to walk tons of guys, although his strikeouts were up a tad. His 11-11 record wasn’t so great, however, although some of that can be attributed to the poor White Sox offense backing him up.

But notably, Cowley threw one of the more improbable no-hitters in major league history. You usually think of no-hitters as a crisp, well-thrown game. This was decidedly not. Cowley was in trouble all game, and at one point walked three batters in a row (with no outs). However, he got out of it by just giving up a sacrifice fly. Those three walks were out of seven on the day, and he won the game 7-1.

Cowley would never win another major league game. He went 0-2 the rest of the season, and then gave up 17 hits and 21 walks in just 11 2/3 innings with the Phillies in 1987 (he only made it past the fifth inning in one of those four starts. He gave up 7, 5, 5 and 6 runs in those starts. ). So Cowley is the last pitcher to have his last win be a no-hitter.

Rear guard: You might think Cowley was a veteran by looking at this card back, but no. Those are almost all minor league teams. Topps standard back then was if a player had less than 3 years experience, they showed the minor league record. If you squint hard, you can see he played with the Braves (tucked away in there in 1982).

As a kid, though, all those unknown towns were exciting. Cowley’s best minor league year as a starter was with Greenwood in 1978, where he went 11-7. Greenwood was part of the now defunct Western Carolinas League (which changed its name in 1979 to the South Atlantic League). Greenwood had been a Braves affiliate since 1969, but didn’t survive the initial transition to the South Atlantic League (they later had three years as a Pirates affiliate).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

#426 Brewers Leaders

Card thoughts: The Brewers finished in 6th place in the AL East with 90 losses. They were an aging team, still trying to hold on to the veteran hitters than brought them the pennant in '82. Unfortunately, they never developed many young pitchers in the intervening years.

The player: Another prominent Brewer to make their debut in 1973: Gorman Thomas.

Rear guard: The surprise here is that Robin Yount didn't lead the team in any offensive category. A shoulder problem limited him to just 122 games. Teddy Higuera, a 27-year old rookie from the Mexican League, made a big splash with the Brewers in '85. And I do not remember Danny Darwin being on the Brewers.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

#425 Larry McWilliams

Card thoughts: Topps did a good job capturing what made McWilliams effective: A deceptive delivery.

The player: McWilliams was the Braves’ #1 draft pick in 1974 (in January—there used to be two drafts a year). Most of the guys in that draft didn't make it to the majors, and Roy Smalley was the only player better than McWilliams that was chosen.

A starter for the first part of his career, McWilliams 9-3 record as a rookie (with a 2.82 ERA) showed promise. In addition, he was one of the pitchers that stopped Pete Rose's 44 game hitting streak that year. But he would struggle as a starter as he made just 13 starts in 1979 while getting injured, and when healthy in 1980, went 9-14. Seemingly in desperation, he went to a quick no wind-up, pitching motion that served to make hitters uncomfortable at the plate. This made McWilliams’ forkball even more devastating, although it wasn't until a trade to the Pirates that it began to show.

After year in 1981 that he spent almost entirely at AAA (he made just 5 starts), McWilliams began the year with the Braves, but as a reliever, rather than a starter. His 6.21 ERA was the highest in his career, so the Braves gave up on him, shipping him to the Pirates for Pascual Perez.

With the Pirates, McWilliams had a great season as a starter, going 6-5 with a 3.11 ERA. The next year, his 15 wins were sixth in the league, and that year he was in the top ten in many other pitching categories as well. McWilliams last year as a full time starter was 1984, where his numbers slipped to 12-11, more because of the poor play of the Pirates.

By the time this picture was taken, McWilliams was a swingman, starting only 2/3 of the games he pitched. He was less effective in this role, and his 3-11 record in 1986 (1-8 as a starter), told that tale. In 1987 he pitched so badly, he was a briefly out of baseball. But the Cardinals took a chance on him the following year, and he was a durable, if not spectacular, spot starter and long reliever for them. Another year followed with another abysmal winning percentage, this time for the Phillies (.154). McWilliams would end his career with the Royals in 1990 on May 12. He threw just one pitch in that game, and it was stroked for a RBI double by Lance Johnson.

Rear guard: McWilliams' first win came against the Mets in his major league debut. He gave up no runs, and five hits in 7 innings, walking 2 and striking out 2.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

#424 Rick Miller

Card thoughts: Rick Miller is not a pitcher, although he looks like he’s warming up one in the bullpen before a game.

The player: Rick Miller was on a team for one reason: His defense. Although he hit righthanders well enough to be platooned occasionally, his real value was as fourth outfielder who you could count on not to blow the big play.

Miller won a basketball scholarship to Michigan State, but when he injured his ankle, he turned to baseball, where he was converted from a pitcher into an outfielder. After winning the Big Ten batting title, Miller was drafted by the Red Sox. In the minors, he showed good defense, but his tendency to try for home runs, despite his small size, led to mediocre batting averages. Despite this, he was called up to the Red Sox at the end of the 1972 season as a defensive replacement for their lumbering outfield. In 15 games, Miller hit .333, including a double in his first at bat.

Playing more in 1973, usually backing up Tommy Harper in center, he hit just .214. Slated for the same role in 1974, injuries to Reggie Smith, and lackluster play by #60 Dwight Evans, allowed Miller to get into 143 games (a career high) and steal 12 bases. Miller also married #290 CarltonFisk’s sister after the season.

The next 3 seasons saw Miller’s playing time decline, as youngsters Jim Rice and Fred Lynn needed less defensive backup than their forbears. In addition, they rarely came out of the lineup, meaning Miller had to be content in a pinch hitting role. The low point in his career was in 1975, when he hit just .194. While his number rebounded some the following seasons, it looked like his days as a regular player were over.

But then came free agency, and the owners didn’t really know how to lavish their money in those days. For some reason, the Angels chose to sign Rick Miller, a 30 year old reserve outfielder as their starting centerfielder after the 1977 season. As the team’s leadoff hitter, he hit .263, with an on base percentage of .341. On the other hand he was caught stealing 13 times, while stealing just 3 bases. But in the field, he was as good as ever, winning the Gold Glove.

1979 was Miller’s best year, as he hit .291 in the regular season, and .250 in the ALCS. After another year with the Angels, Miller came back to the Red Sox, this time as their starting center fielder. But as he was always a stopgap solution, Miller was perpetually in danger of losing his job when someone better came around. This time, it was #255 Tony Armas in 1984.

The rest of his career was uneventful on the field, as he mostly pinch hit. But in his last season, Miller ended up going after some fans in the stands in Anaheim after they spent the game heckling his family.

Rear guard: Miller's 1,000th hit came off the Angels' Ken Forsch, and was a pinch hit double (Miller was pinch hitting for #35 Glenn Hoffman). Furthermore, the hit score the first run of the game in the eighth inning. Unfortunately, Miller was thrown out at the plate by Gary Pettis while attempting to score on a single to center by Jerry Remy. The Red Sox could have used that run as Bob Stanley couldn't hold the lead in the ninth,

Saturday, August 2, 2014

#423 Dan Spillner

Card thoughts: It was a cold day at Tiger Stadium when this photo was taken. And Spillner is in the twilight of his career, as his gray hair attests.

The player: Spillner was a hard thrower who initially must relied on his fastball to get people out. This wasn't conducive to starting, and in each of his first three seasons starting for the Padres, he last more than 10 games. Spillner did, however, toss a one-hitter in 1974, his rookie year.

Figuring a flamethrower was better suited in the bullpen, Spillner was moved there in 1977. The 76 games he threw were second in the league, and he saved 6 games.

A mid-season trade to the Indians in 1978 (for Dennis Kinney) would lead to his greatest successes. He was put back into the rotation for good in early August the following season, and he won 4 out of 7 starts. The next year, he had a career year, going 16-11 while starting 30 games. But he came down with a bad back the next year, and he was put back into the bullpen, where he would stay the rest of his career.

After recording 21 saves (with 12 wins) in 1982, the Indians thought they had stumbled upon a reliable bullpen arm. But a 5.07 ERA the next year disabused them of that notion, and he was shipped off to the White Sox midway through the 1984 season.

Despite a good year represented by this card (4-3, 1 save, 3.44 ERA), when Spillner became a free agent after the season, the owners were colluding against signing players, and he couldn't find a job. Forced into retirement, he later won $486,000 in a judgment against the owners.

Spillner now works in construction in the Seattle area. Maybe he’ll build your house if you live out there.

Rear guard: Those are Spillner's career numbers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

#422 Mike Jorgensen

Card thoughts: Jorgensen is an example of a player that was around a lot in baseball in my youth, but has virtually disappeared: The late-inning defensive replacement. He was an even rarer breed: The late inning, defensive first baseman replacement. In this case, he backed up Jack Clark, never a great fielder. Here, he sits in an aquarium for the Topps photographer, looking rough and old (he was 35).

The player: Jorgensen came up with the Mets during their glory years in the late 60s/early 70s. He began his career much the way he ended it: Backing up a poor fielding, good hitting first baseman, in this case Donn Clendenon. After an initial two seasons where he rarely started a game, Jorgensen was traded to the Expos and became their starting first baseman. Although he was a great fielder, and even won a gold glove in 1973, he didn’t hit for enough power to be a first baseman (although, he had a fine batting eye, good enough to earn him an OPS above .900 in 1974).

The Expos were willing to trade hitting for fielding, so when they acquired Tony Perez, Jorgensen played sparingly, and he was soon traded to the A’s. This effectively ended his career as a starter. After this, it was a rare year that he averaged more than 1 ½ at bats per game.

What really affected Jorgensen’s ability as a hitter, however, was a terrible beaning he got when he was a Ranger. Andy Hassler beaned him early in the 1979 season. After attempting to come back, it was found that he had a blood clot in his head that could have killed him.

Jorgensen was sent back to the Mets in 1980 for Willie Montanez (who had been sent to the Rangers in a mid-season deal). He was more of a super utility guy for the Mets, playing first and all three outfield positions. Eventually, the Mets acquired Keith Hernandez, who was a great hitter and fielder, leaving Jorgensen’s role superfluous. After playing about 80 games with the Braves over parts of two seasons, backing up Chris Chambliss, Jorgensen landed in his final spot, St. Louis. In the post season, he pinch hit three times and played left field once, without doing anything of note.

I did not remember this, but Jorgensen managed the Cardinals for part of the 1995 season, replacing Joe Torre. He now works as a scout for the organization.

Rear guard: "Squint tighter. And they're (the stats) gone." -- Aaron Stauffer

Thursday, July 17, 2014

#421 Dave Palmer

Card thoughts: Dave Palmer looks like a very linear man. Straight and narrow. On all his Fleer and Donruss cards, Dave is always identified by his full first name, David.

The player: Dave Palmer pitched in the same high school rotation as future major league pitcher Dave LaPoint. He made the majors just two years out of high school, making his debut at the age of 20. In 1979 and 1980, Palmer apprenticed as a swing man, with his best season coming in the former year where he was 10-2, including being unbeaten in seven starting decisions (among 11 starts).

Unfortunately, arm troubles hit Palmer in 1981, and he didn’t pitch in the majors that year. 1982 saw him come back for 13 starts, where he was fairly effective (6-4, 3.18 ERA). Unfortunately, 1983 saw him miss time once again, this time for the whole season with an elbow injury (it’s likely that today, Palmer would have been a candidate for Tommy John surgery).

With his history of injury, the Expos were hesitant about putting him in the rotation early in the 1984 season. After a long relief stint, Palmer was selected to pitch the second game of a doubleheader. He pitched 5 perfect innings, before rain halted the game. Although Palmer got the win, as the game was official, he was not credited with a perfect game. But the injuries were taking a toll, and the rest of the season Palmer struggled, with his ERA rising by almost half a run over the previous season (he also missed the entire month of August). Missing August again the following year, Palmer made just 23 starts, but his ERA (3.71) was high for low-scoring Olympic Stadium, and he had his first losing record (7-10).

Given his inability to stay healthy, and his slowly declining effectiveness, it wasn’t surprising that Palmer wasn't resigned by the Expos. Signing with the Braves, Palmer finally had a season where he was able to make all of his scheduled starts. Pitching at homer happy Fulton County stadium (aka “The Launching Pad”), Palmer saw his ERA climb, and an increase in walks showed his home stadium was getting to him (107 walks in 209 2/3 innings). But his 11-10 record was pretty good for a last place team, and his better health had the Braves expecting they could rely on him the following year. However, his arm was still fragile, and he reverted back missing significant chunks of the season. When healthy, he was ineffective, as his ERA shot up to 4.90, and he won only 8 games against 11 losses.

Palmer was not signed after the season, and went to the Phillies, where the familiar story emerged: Couldn't stay healthy, and a losing record and high ERA when he pitched. He did memorably have quite a blooper, tripping over third base and landing on his face while advancing on a wild pitch thrown by Cubs pitcher #330 Rick Sutcliffe.

A cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1990 (5 starts, 7.79 ERA), and a few minor league appearances for the Indians, and Palmer was done. He is currently the pitching coach for a suburban Atlanta high school.

Rear guard: All I can say about that factoid is this. Manny Mota is better known as being a great pinch hitter, especially with the Dodgers. But when the Expos drafted him, he was a high-average hitting, fourth outfielder. He had a card as an Expo in 1969, but he was badly airbrushed on that one. The Expos only held on to him for a few months in 1969 before he was traded to the Dodgers for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich (Popovich was traded later in the day to the Cubs for Adolfo Phillips and Jack Lamabe). Here Mota's 1970 card, his first with the Dodgers.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

#420 Von Hayes

Card thoughts: This would be the last season for awhile that Hayes would be a full time outfielder. He would move to first in 1986. Also, Von Hayes, seems like a last name in search of a first name. “Von”, or “Van” were often appended to famility names in Germanic speaking countries (much like “De” or “Di” in Romantic speaking countries) to denote aristocratic origins.

The player: I always thought that Von Hayes was going to be a superstar. But other than the 1986 season, he never seemed to translate his awesome hitting skills into consistent results. I was probably blinded by wishful thinking: On my favorite cards was his rookie card and I hoped it would go up in value.

Hayes was one of the few, good young hitters the Indians got rid of in the 80s . . . but the Indians got five players in exchange (conversely, Hayes was one of the few, good young hitters the Phillies acquired instead off shipping off to the Cubs).

After coming in 7th in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 1982, Hayes was considered one of the best young hitters in the game. He could hit with some power, take a walk, and steal a base. He had yet to be able to do that consistently, however, as his OPS was just average. The Phillies coveted him, however, and were willing to give up five major leaguers, including useful veteran Manny Trillo, future starting right fielder George Vukovich, catcher #273 Jerry Willard, and future star #391 Julio Franco.

At first, the trade looked like a bust. Phillies fans, appalled by the cost of the Hayes trade and turned off by his aloof demeanor, never really liked him. Expecting a superstar, they cringed as he drove in just 32 runs in 124 games in 1983. He bounced back in ’84 and ’85, where his production was solid, but not spectacular. 1985 did see Hayes hit a remarkable two home runs the first inning (including a grand slam) in a 26-7 slaughter of the Mets.

He really shone, however, in 1986, when the promise seemed to finally be fulfilled. Moved into the middle of the lineup, Hayes reached career highs in runs (107-led the league); hits (186); doubles (46-also led the league); RBIs (98); and batting average (.305). Despite being top ten in the MVP vote, Hayes didn’t make the all-star team. Perhaps his shoddy defense at first was the answer.

Hayes would finally make the all-star team in 1989, after having a year that modern sabermetricians salivate over (5.1 WAR, 15% walk rate, 28 steals with a 80% success rate, an OPS+ of 140). Another good season would follow, but in 1991, Tom Browning broke his arm with a pitch, causing to miss much of the season (and hit a career low .225).

After a trade to the Angels, Hayes couldn't return to form. The broken arm was still troubling him (he hit another .225), thus leading to conclusion that the broken bone took about 40 points off his career average.

After retiring, Hayes managed in the Diamondbacks and A’s organizations (he led three straight teams to first place finishes). His last gigs were with Independent League teams.

He’s also inspired the name of a decent indie rock band, who appear to play mid 90s east coast style indie rock (here’s the story of the choosing of the name – no word if they ever met Von Hayes).

Card thoughts: I linked to Hayes rookie card earlier in the post. It was a "Rookie Stars" card: Chris Bando, was the much younger brother of Sal Bando. He has a card in this set, where his career will be explored in greater depth. Pitcher Tom Brennan was hardly a prospect, as he was 28 before he made it to the majors. Maybe Topps took pity on him because he had been drafted in the first round in 1974.

Larry Bowa hit a lot of triples, mostly of the hustle varierty. In fact, he reached double digits in triples three times. Here's his 1972 card.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

#419 Frank Wills

Card thoughts: The photo in the dusk. The five-a-clock shadow. The lowering, thick black eyebrows. The man looks like a mechanic. It is worth noting that this does not look like any of the other card photos of Wills, where he sports a mustache and is considerably less beady-eyed and swarthy.

Perhaps this odd photo can be attributed to the fact that Willis is obviously airbrushed into a Mariners uniform, as he spent spring training with the Mets in 1985.

The player: Not to be confused with the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in, Wills was emblematic of the awful starting pitching the Mariners had had pretty much from their inception. A talented star in both baseball and football at Tulane University, he led the team to their first ever NCAA title, and was the punter on the football team that went to the Liberty Bowl (1979).

Wills was drafted in the first round by the Royals in 1980, but his college success did not translate to pro ball. As a starter in the minors, Willis struggled with his control, and eventually was moved to a swingman role in AAA, a spot usually reserved for “organization” men. But he was a first round pick, and the Royals presumably wanted to prove he wasn’t a bust, so he was called up early in the 1983 season, when he started the year 5-2 at Jacksonville (Southern League).

In the majors, Wills averaged 6 innings per start, and pitched decently enough (2-1 with a 4.15 ERA overall, including 4 starts). But it was soon back to the minors for Wills, where he struggled once again at AAA. Another brief call up for 10 games in 1984 (half in relief, half starting) led to a 5.11 ERA, and a loss in confidence that their former first round pick would ever pan out.

In an insanely complicated four-team team between the Mets, Royals, Rangers, and Brewers, players were flying everywhere. The Royals eventually ended up with Jim Sundberg, and Wills made it to the Mets, where he was DFA’d after spring training and eventually sent to the Mariners for forgettable Midwest League pitcher Wray Bergendahl (another former first round pick).

With the Mariners being thin on pitching, Willis finally got a chance to prove himself, but he only proved the Royals were right in letting him go. A 5-11 record with a 6.00 ERA wasn’t going to cut it, even with the lowly Mariners. Released at the end of the season, he hooked on with the Indians, where he wound up as their closer during the end of the 1986 season (4 saves in 6 opportunities).

Willis would have his best seasons with the Blue Jays, with whom he spent four years, two of them as a serviceable middle reliever in 1989 and 1990.  He was not used in the 1989 post-season, however.

Apparently, Wills was working as a limousine driver when he died at age 53, after complaining about feeling ill a week earlier. Despite not being very successful in the majors, he remains a legend in New Orleans for both his high school and college exploits.

Rear guard: Wills first win was against the Twins and he was fairly effective, giving up just 1 run and striking out 3.

Monday, June 30, 2014

#418 Alan Knicely

Card thoughts: Knicely looks pretty glum. He had just been traded to the Phillies when this photo was taken, and it looks like he knows this would be his last Topps card.

The player: The classic 4A player, Knicely could hit, and hit with power, all through the minors. But his lack of defensive prowess at catcher meant he would never play much there in the majors. Luckily, Knicely played in an era when carrying three catchers was commonplace, so it ensured he did get some playing time up top.

Knicely didn’t really blossom until he was in this third season at AA in the Astros system. Drafted as a pitcher, Knicely posted average ERAs is his first three minor league seasons, while struggling to stay healthy (he started in the field each of those years as well, mainly at first). After beginning the 1977 season 1-5 with a 5.14 ERA, Knicely switched to the outfield, and hit .264. The next year, along with teammate Danny Heep, he was named the Southern League MVP after slugging .950 with 33 home runs. This was also his first year as a full time catcher.

But Knicely’s catching, like his fielding at third and in the outfield, left much to be desired. This not prevent him from starting at that position for two straight AAA season, where he hit over .300, and slugged over .500 each year.

Despite his destruction of minor league pitching, Knicely was only granted a year long stay with the Astros in 1982. Backing up superior defenders #331 Alan Ashby and Luis Pujols, he only caught 23 games (2 passed balls, a league average caught stealing percentage), and spent most of his time as a pinch hitter or in the outfielder. Unfortunately, the only reason Knicely was in the majors was his powerful right handed bat, and he hit just .188.

The Reds, with veteran Johnny Bench at the end of his career, were panicking and stockpiling all the young catchers they could in the hopes that one of them would be an adequate replacement. Knicely shared about equal playing time with #253 Dann Bilardello and Alex Trevino, but none of them could hit, although Alan raised his average above the Mendoza Line (.224).

Back to the minors once again in 1984, Knicely showed he had nothing to prove down there, as he obliterated AAA pitching while starting at first base for Wichita.  He hit 33 home runs and drove in 126 for the team, while garnering 190 hits and 94 runs. For his efforts, he was named the American Association’s MVP.

This was enough to bring him back to the majors, this time as a second string catchers. Although he finally hit decently in the majors (.727 OPS, good for a catcher), the Reds ended up shipping him to the Phillies near the end of the season for far superior catcher Bo Diaz. Topps really got lucky to get a picture a Knicely in a Phillies uniform, as he only had 7 hitless at bats for them.

Knicely was released after the season, picked up by the Cardinals, and used as the starting first baseman after #350 Jack Clark went on the DL in 1986. But it was the same old story: he hit just .195, and found himself back in his true home, AAA. Perhaps discouraged that all that minor league hitting wasn't working in the majors,  Knicely retired at age 32, after one last try in the Rangers organization.

Rear guard: Knicely really didn't get much of a chance early in his career. But he did manage to get a hit in one of the 3 games he played in 1981.And it was in his first at bat of the year, pinch hitting for Terry Puhl.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

#417 R.J. Reynolds

Card thoughts: One of a long line of product placements/ball players including Coco Crisp and Milton Bradley. His real first name is Robert.

The player: Reynolds broke in with the Dodgers at the end of the 1983 season, and a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the ninth helped the Dodgers win an important game against Atlanta. The next two seasons, Reynolds courted anonymity as a reserve outfielder. However, in a deal that helped both teams, the Pirates acquired him late in the 1985 season with Sid Bream and Cecil Espy for Bill Madlock.

Although still a reserve outfielder, Reynolds got a lot more playing time with the far inferior Pirates. He consistently got over 300 at bats from 1986-1989 and ended up playing in every game in the 1990 NLCS.

After that season, he went over to Japan and played for three seasons where he hit for good power Taiyo and Kinetsu. He never returned to the majors, and retired at age 34.

Rear guard: Reynolds' first hit was a three run homer as a pinch hitter off #15 Ed Whitson.

Glenn Wright drove in over 100 runs four times, but injuries affected his career, and he barely played after age 32.

Friday, June 20, 2014

#416 Denny Martinez

Card thoughts: “Denny” is better known as “Dennis.” And that is a beautiful thick head of hair!

The player: Up until this point, Martinez was an inconsistent starter, whose high win totals were more of a function of his durability (lots of innings pitched, hence lots of decisions) and the Orioles team success, rather than his ERAs (consistently average or below). That all changed later in his career – he was much more effective in his mid-30s once he came to the National League.

The first Nicaraguan to pitch in the majors, Martinez came from a relatively wealthy family (his parents owned a farm). But his father drank, and his son was a “baseball” bum. Baseball was not unknown in the country (there was a winter league there in the 60s), but there were no professional teams by the time Dennis was playing. Instead, he pitched for an amateur league, and was noticed by scouts after going 13-2 and leading the Nicaraguan national team to the title in the 1972 amateur World Series.

Signed (secretly) by the Orioles after the 1973 series (to enable him to continue playing as an “amateur” in Nicaragua), Martinez made it to the States in 1975. Due to his experience pitching under pressure for the Nicaraguan team, Martinez wasn’t cowed by the minors. He excelled at every stop, jumping quickly from Miami (15-6, 2.06 ERA) to Rochester, where he led the league in wins (14), strikeouts (140) and ERA (2.50) in 1976. There were also reports that Martinez  partied a lot, which would nearly derail his career later.

Like most young pitchers in that era, Martinez apprenticed as a “swing man” with the Orioles in 1977, but he managed to win 14 games in that role (13 starts, 29 relief appearances). He was finally made a full time starter in 1978, where he used his curve and change to set up his fastball. But he only achieved modest success that year (16-11), and the next (15-16). Martinez was durable, however. In each of the years, he pitched over 275 innings, leading the league in starts (39), complete games (18), and innings pitched (291.2) in the latter year.

Part of his poor performance in 1979 was that he was tipping his pitches. Apparently, the combination of chewing gum and chaw Martinez routinely used contributed to distinct facial expressions, depending on what pitch was going to be thrown. Whatever the reason, the Orioles had a deep staff that year, and Martinez only started one World Series game, getting knocked out of the box in the second inning.

A sore shoulder limited him in 1980, but he led the league in wins during the strike shortened 1981 season (14). This led to a large contract after the season. However, personal problems began to intrude on Martinez’ baseball life. His father was killed while drunk at the end of 1982 season. And Dennis began drinking more and more as well. An abysmal 1983 season (7-16, and ERA well above 5), followed by a drunk driving arrest in the off season, convinced Martinez to quit drinking. Even so, it would take many years for Martinez to return to form.

Injured for the first part of the 1986 season, Martinez was traded to Expos for Rene Gonzales. But he found it hard to crack the Expos rotation, and he spent part of the year in the minors.  When he pitched in the majors, Dennis was mediocre, and he considered retiring. He was even more down in the dumps in 1987, when he was a free agent, and no one picked him up (of course, this was the height of collusion). Instead, he had to wait until May to resign with the Expos.  But somehow, Martinez was about to begin the best stretch of his career at age 33. In the next six years, he would win 97 games, win the ERA title in 1991, and became to oldest player to debut in an all star game in 1990.

The secret was that old adage: Martinez had become a pitcher, rather than a thrower. Relying on guile rather than speed, he would set up hitters better than he had in his youth, and work on their weaknesses. It helped that Martinez’ command improved: He rarely walked more than 2 batters per 9 innings. That control helped him pitch a perfect game in 1992.

After the 1993 season, despite being 38, he signed a good contract with the Indians, and up and coming team at the time. Martinez’ veteran presence helped stabilize the locker room, and the rotation. Pitching less often, he still won at least 9 games every year he was with the Indians, and never lost more than he won.

A sore elbow led to him pitching sparingly in 1997 (just 9 starts with the Mariners). Martinez ended his career at age 44 for the Braves, where he actually pitched in a career high 53 games. His 245 career wins is the most ever by a Latino pitcher.

In retirement, Martinez worked to promote tourism to Nicaragua and coached in the minors with the Cardinals, Orioles and in the majors with the Astros. 

Rear guard: You wouldn't have known from these stats (.537 winning percentage; 4.15 ERA), that Martinez would soon become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. 

Less than 4,000 fans saw Martinez pitch a starters worth of relief innings (5 2/3), beating the Tigers when the Orioles roared back from an early 6-0 deficit.