Thursday, April 24, 2014

#410 Dave Kingman

Card thoughts: Dave Kingman was not known for his sunny demeanor, so I’m guessing that is a smirk and not a smile on his face. Kingman, along with Bill Buckner, were my “Favorite” players as a five year old. So says the vague mist of my Bruner Street memories.

The player: Kingman was nicknamed “Kong” because his titanic home runs, especially at Wrigley Field. He legendarily hit a ball out of the stadium 550 feet, landing on a porch three doors down from Waveland on Kenmore Avenue.

A tall, gangly man, Kingman was not much of a fielder, runner, or hitter, other than home runs. With a long, looping, uppercut swing, Kingman generally would only hit home runs or singles, but he often struck out too, which led to low RBI countsand batting averages, despite the home runs.

As a kid, Kingman moved around a lot, as the family followed the patriarch in his career as a United Airlines executive, eventually ending up in Chicago. In high school (not surprising due to his lean, tall frame) Kingman lettered in basketball, but was not known as a baseball player (although he did play American Legion ball).

At USC, he began as a pitcher in 1969, but switched to the outfield a year later, hitting .355 and slugging .702. This led to him being drafted in the first round by the Giants. Assigned to AA Amarillo, Kingman slugged 15 home runs in just 210 at bats. Moving up to Phoenix the next year, he apparently got the nickname “The Hammer” while leading the PCL in home runs with 29.

Believe it or not, the lanky Kingman began his major league career as a third baseman.  Called up near the end of ’71 season, he hit his first “moon shot” off of a parked car in the lot outside Shea Stadium. He also suffered through a bout of appendicitis, leading to emergency surgery.

In 1972, he started at third, but his fielding was so atrocious, Steve Ontiveros had to take over after about 60 games. Reduced a utility role the following season, Kingman continued to hit for low average, and field terribly. The only tool her really had was his power . . . but that was mega-plus tool, as his slugging percentage was consistently 200 points higher than his batting average.

The power wasn’t enough for the Giants however, and he was sold to the Mets in 1974. This is where Kingman really blossomed, hitting 36 home runs in 1975, and another 39 in 1976, where he was named the starting rightfielder in the All-Star game. In 1977, everything fell apart for Kingman, as he eventually played for four teams (the Mets, Padres, Angels, and Yankees). Among all the stops, Kingman managed to hit 26 home runs and drive in 78.

Kingman became a star again for the Cubs in 1978, where he would have his best seasons. Kingman and Wrigley Field was a match made in heaven, especially when the wind was blowing out. Kingman hit above .250 for the first time all three years he spent with the Cubs, which led to his monstrous 1979 season, where he led the majors in home runs (48) and slugging percentage. He also twice hit three home runs in a game, and hit five home runs in two games.

Kingman once again went from hero to goat in 1980, as he was injured most of the year, and he dumped a bucket of ice on a reporter. Perhaps Kingman was jealous. His nearly unreadable (ghost-written) column ran for a time in the Chicago Tribune, prompting famous writer Mike Royko to write a parody column with the byline “Dave Dingdong.” A private person, Kingman asked his teammates not to comment on his private life, and stated he didn’t think about baseball after the game was over.

The Cubs tired of his surly attitude, and he was sent back to the Mets for Steve Henderson. New owner Nelson Doubleday was reacquiring all of the stars they traded away in the 70s (unfortunately, all were well past their prime). Kingman proved to be unpopular in his return, and dubiously led the league in home runs in 1982 while hitting just .204, less than Cy Young award winner #120 Steve Carlton.

With the arrival of Keith Hernandez, Kingman played sparingly at the end of 1983. He was gone to the American League by 1984, in his Natural role as designated hitter, one he would fill the rest of his career with Oakland. He hit over 30 home runs each of the three years he played with the A’s, his best season being 1984 when he hit .268 with 35 home runs and 118 RBIs. 1987 was his last year, despite hitting 35 home runs and driving in 94 (but hitting .210).

With a career total of 442 home runs, Kingman was the first person with over 400 home runs not to make the Hall of Fame (steroid-era players will probably break that mark). Part of the problem was his 1800 or so strikeouts, fourth all time when he retired, and .236 career average. His home run total, however, is really impressive when you consider he played in a low home run era.

Rear guard: Miscut! Highlights of Kingman's 1985 season include hitting his 400th home run on August 10th against Seattle. The blast came off of Matt Young. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#409 Paul Runge

Card thoughts: Remember that Seinfeld episode when Elaine was dating a guy named Joel Rifkin, who apparently was also the name of some famous serial killer in New York City? Pity Paul Runge, who has the similar fate. His namesake killed 7 people in the Chicago area. He is also NOT the same person as major league umpire Paul Runge.

Otherwise, I love it when Topps gives a forgettable player (if not name) a great action shot on his card. Honestly, whether a star like Nolan Ryan is just sitting there, with his boring head filling the card, doesn’t matter to a kid. I mean, you’ve got a Nolan Ryan card! But this Paul Runge card is a joy to own, simply because of the artistry. On a cloudy spring training day, Runge, playing short, forces Hubie Brooks out at second in an attempt to complete a double play. Was he successful? Who knows? Only the first part of the play is immortalized for all time.

The player:  Runge is that most “common” baseball player, the utility infielder (maybe the third string catcher comes close). Unlike most guys like this that make the majors, he was a more offensively than defensively gifted player. After piling up the errors at short, Runge was moved to second base by his second year of AAA. His best year in the minors came at Richmond, where he scored 106 runs, and had an .836 OPS.

While he would get small pieces of action in the majors from 1981-1984, the season shown on this card was the first in which he stayed the whole year on the club. Mostly playing as a backup to third baseman Ken Oberkfell, he hit just .218 in 110 at bats.

Runge was back in the minors most of the next season, as #107 Rafael Ramirez and Andres Thomas gobbled up most of the middle infield action. Runge was once again up for an entire season in 1988, once again playing mostly at third, but the results were similar to ’85.

After a few more years as a veteran presence at AAA with the Padres and Blue Jays organizations, Runge went into the minor league managing game, managing various Braves teams, mostly the short-season Danville Braves where he won two league championships. He’s now the minor league infield coordinator for the Astros organization.

Rear guard: Amazingly, three of Runge's four career homers came in just 54 at bats during the 1987 season. His other, and first, homer came off Phillies pitcher Jerry Koosman.

Ralph Garr was a great line drive hitter as a young man, but never had much power. With just 9 home runs in 1971, almost a quarter of his home runs came in the 10th and 12th innings of that game on May 17th. Here's Garr's card representing that season.

Monday, April 7, 2014

#408 Dave Smith

Card thoughts: When the Cubs were bad, boring, and flailing in the early 90s, one of the mistakes they made over and over again was paying too much money to over the hill closers. This is one of their worst signings.

The player: There was no indication (other than age) that Smith would bomb with the Cubs. For 11 years, Smith was an awesome reliever, and still holds the Astros all time record for appearances, wins in relief, relief innings, and games finished.

Smith came up to the Astros in the days when closer duties were shared. With Frank LaCorte and Joe Sambito also closing, rookie Smith’s 1.93 ERA was the best of the trio. His out pitch was the changeup, said to be unhittable even when batters knew it was coming.  In the playoffs that year and the next, he was inconsistent in middle relief.

Smith would pitch mostly in middle relief from 1981-1984 with the Astros rotating through the likes of #26 Frank DiPino and Bill Dawley as closers. By 1985, he was closing most games, and saved over 20 games for the first time in his career.

Off the field, Smith was known as a laid-back “California dude” who tipped generously and was a mentor to younger pitchers. His change-up was well suited to the spacious Astrodome, where flyballs went to die. Smith would not have an ERA above 3 from 1984 to 1990, and he made the all star team after saving 33 games in 1986, and 23 in 1990.

The Cubs ignored Smith’s age (35 at the time) and the fact that his home field (and division) aided his pitching when they signed him to a lucrative 2-year contract in the 1990 offseason (it was a horrible off-season for the Cubs—they also signed Danny Jackson (29) and #338 George Bell (31) well past their primes). After going 4 for 4 in save opportunities in April, Smith promptly started blowing saves left and right in May. He righted himself a bit in June then lost the closer’s job to Paul Assenmacher in July. Mercifully, Smith was shut down with an injury soon after (how he managed to save 17 games with an ERA north of 6, I’ll never know).

He would pitch well in briefly 1991, but was once again limited by injury, effectively ending his career. In retirement, Smith was the pitching coach for a time for the Padres. He died at the relatively young age of 53 of a heart attack in 2008.

Rear guard: Bob Watson later became the vice president of major league baseball. He scored 802 runs in his career, 640 with the Astros.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

#407 Sal Butera

Card thoughts: I hate the T-Shirt look. Along with the casual way Butera is swinging his bat, I feel like I’m witnessing a beer-league softball game. This is Butera’s first Topps card since the 1983 set.

The player: The classic backup catcher, Butera moved around a lot in an era when that wasn’t as common as today. Despite only playing 9 years in the majors, Butera played with 5 different teams. Butera was signed by the Twins in 1972 as an undrafted free agent, although it appears he was loaned to both the White Sox and Yankees his first two pro years. At any rate, Butera couldn’t hit, and often backed up better prospects in the minors including  John Lochnar and Ray Smith. But despite this, Butera had a better career than both of these guys and 8 years after he was signed, he finally made his major league debut in 1980.

Butera was the starting catcher in 1981, but #184 Tim Laudner was coming on strong in the minors, so he was relegated to a backup role once again in 1982, where he hit .254 with a .617 OPS.

The Twins found themselves with a surplus of catchers in 1983, with Dave Engle shifting there from the outfield. So Butera was shipped to the Tigers for the unforgettably named Stine Poole. He only played 4 major league games with the Tigers before he was released. Once again, he played mostly in the minors for the Expos, his new team, before catching on with the big club as the third catcher for the 1985 season. In his full-time return to the majors, Butera hit just .200.

As part of a big deal after the season, Butera was sent to the Reds where he hit a little better (.239 in 56 games). After just 5 games the following year, he was released, which fortuitous for Sal, as the team that signed him (the Twins, once gain) won the World Series that year. Butera started one game in the ALCS going 2 for 3, and came in as a defensive replacement for Tim Laudner in Game 4.

After not being able to make up their mind on whether to keep Butera (he was resigned but released before the 1988 season), his career ended with a whimper, as he hit just .233 in 23 games with Toronto.

After his playing days Butera, like many other good field no hit catchers, went into managing. He helmed several Astros minor league clubs and spent his final year managing the Twins AA club, going 65-77. His son, Drew Butera, has caught in the majors for the Twins and the Dodgers and is an even worse hitter than his dad (career OPS: .491). 

Rear guard: Ron LeFlore was famously signed out of prison by the Tigers. He was one of the best base stealers in the game before Rickey Henderson emerged in the late 70s. He stole 97 bases in 1980, but after being signed by the White Sox the next season, his career went into rapid decline (perhaps because he had lied about his age . . . he always claimed to be 4 years younger than he was). Here's LeFlore's 1981 card.

Friday, April 4, 2014

#406 Scott Sanderson

Card thoughts: Scott Sanderson was always one of my favorite Cubs. I remember this season, when he was perhaps the only effective Cubs starter.

The player: A local boy (in terms of the Cubs), as an amateur he pitched for the United States nation team, especially excelling the 1975 International Cup (ERA 0.60). After just one full season in the minors, Sanderson was called up to the Expos mid way into the 1978 season. His 4-2 record and 2.51 ERA augured great things for the young Sanderson.

But the next season, he lost his starting job for a bit, and was sent to the bullpen—a pattern that would repeat itself for the rest of his career. In 1980, with the Expos challenging the Phillies for the division title, Sanderson went 16-11 with a 3.11 ERA. He continued his strong pitching in the strike-shortened 1981 season (9-7 with a career best 2.95 ERA), but stamina was always an issue with Scott, and he tended to fade down the stretch. He also tended to give up home runs, and in 1982 he gave them up to three consecutive Giants on July 11th. Somewhat redeeming himself, he later hit a grand slam at Wrigley Field.

A collision with Bill Buckner at first (again, with a Cub), wrecked his knee in ’83, and began several injury filled years. But the Cubs didn’t know that at the time, and they sent their top third base prospect (Fritz Connally), first base prospect (Carmelo Martinez), and a serviceable reliever (Craig Lefferts) to the Padres as a part of a three team deal to acquire him. Sanderson spent great portions of 1984 and 1985 on the DL, but when he started, he was effective.

Finally healthy in 1986, he was not as effective with more exposure, and he was bounced from the rotation after going 7-11 with a 4.47 ERA. In relief, he was much more effective, putting up a 2-0 record with a 1.23 ERA. In 1987, 1988, 1989, the same story prevailed: Effective as a starter at first, then injury, then, losing his spot in the rotation. Even with an 11-9 record in 1989, Sanderson wasn’t allowed to start any games in the NLCS, reduced to a two inning relief stint in Game 4.

It was clear Sanderson needed a change of scenery. He left as a free agent in 1989, signed with Oakland, and started a three year renaissance in the American League. With the powerful A’s backing him, Sanderson won a career high 17 games, despite having 3.88 ERA while pitching in pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum. Despite being the #3 starter during the season, Sanderson would not get to start in either the ALCS or World Series that year, as Tony LaRussa elected to go with Matt Moore.

Seeing his options limited in Oakland, Sanderson next signed with the Yankees. Once again, a powerful offense masked some of his ineffectiveness. Despite going 16-10, and making the all-star team, Sanderson was still a pitcher with a high ERA, and a tendency to give up gopher balls. This was dramatically shown in 1992, when he gave up four straight home runs to Kent Hrbek, Shane Mack, Kirby Puckett, and Randy Bush to tie a major league record.

With a 4.93 ERA in 1992, and a long injury history, Sanderson found it hard to latch onto a club in 1993, but finally signed with the Angels, going 7-11 with a 4.46 ERA. The Giants picked him up late in the season after he was released, and he pitched better for them (4-2, 3.51 ERA in 11 starts), but his manager Dusty Baker seemingly had no confidence in him, as he was passed over as a starter on the final day of the season with the playoffs on the line in favor of rookie Salmon Torres.

Signing with the White Sox in 1994, he had an 8-4 record and a 5.06 ERA when the season ended early by the strike. Signing with the Angels, he was ineffective and injured in 1995 and 1996, his last two seasons. Sanderson managed to have a 19 year career, and won more (163) than he lost. In retirement, he has mostly worked as a sports agent, representing Frank Thomas, Josh Beckett, and Lance Berkman, among others.

Rear guard: Vic Saier was considered a slugger by 1910s standards. But by 1916, injuries had begun limiting his effectiveness (he was out of baseball at age 28 after suffering a bad leg injury). Wrigley Field was used (and built by) by the Chicago Whales before the Cubs moved in in 1916. Saier's RBI came on a sacrifice fly in the 11th inning off Al Schulz. It was the Cubs home opener at Wrigley that year. Coincidentally, the Cubs will be playing their 98th home opener there later this afternoon.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

#405 Turn Back the Clock: 1961

Card thoughts:  For years, Maris had an “asterix” affixed to his 61 home runs, because they came in 162 games, rather than 154, like Babe Ruth’s 60. ‘Course with Barry Bonds,  Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire all surpassing that single season record with the aid of steroids, such a big caveat has been added to the single season home run record to almost render it meaningless.

Rear guard: More home runs were hit in 1961 than any season ever. Previously in the 50s, the league generally averaged about 2000 home runs a season; in 1961, it was 2730, only partially because of expansion (only the AL played 162 games that year; the NL still played 154). The record was surpassed the next year, with over 3000 home runs hit.

It wasn’t just the big time sluggers who were whacking the ball out of the park. The Yankees, who hit a major league best 240 home runs (mostly because Maris hit 61, and Mickey Mantle hit 54), also had Bill Skowhorn (28), Elston Howard (21), Yogi Berra (22) and Johnny Blanchard (21) hit over 20 home runs.