Sunday, January 22, 2017

Card #30: Hall of Famer Tim Raines

Card #30: Tim Raines
1987: .330, 18 HRs, 68 RBIs, 50 SBs, 123 runs scored, .429 OBP, .526 SLG

Of all the iconic performances produced by baseball players in 1987, none were more impressive — or more important to a player’s legacy — than Tim Raines cramming the best season of his life into a five-month span, a zenith that continues to resonate 30 years later. 

“I think it really played a big role,” Raines said Wednesday night, shortly after he learned he’d been elected to the Hall of Fame in his 10th and final year on the ballot. 

Despite not debuting until May 2 — he was one of the many free agents who returned to his 1986 club but had to sit out April after choosing not to sign a below-market contract at the height of the Collusion Era — Raines ended up setting career-highs in homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and stolen base percentage (91 percent) while leading the National League in runs scored.

“The things that I accomplished that year — especially after missing spring training and the first month, you know, that year, I didn’t see a major league pitcher from the end of September until April — I don’t think (anyone) expected that from me that year,” Raines said. “I don’t even know if I expected to do things I ended up doing that year.”

If anything, Raines undersold the rustiness he’d accumulated by his 1987 debut. Raines signed a three-year deal with the Expos on May 1 and played in an extended spring training league game hours later, when he said he batted leadoff in every inning and collected five hits and “ … stole about four or five bases.”

Afterward, the Expos sent Raines to New York, where Montreal was facing the Mets. Raines, already a veteran of 882 major league games, knew he was heading into an uncertainty unlike any he’d ever experienced.

“I wasn’t really sure where I was as far as playing — and was I ready to compete at the major league level, especially after it had been a month into the season?” Raines said. “I was just getting started without spring training, so I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been.”

Raines said he took about 50 swings during batting practice and “ … might have hit two or three balls out of the cage.” But whatever nerves Raines had disappeared when he stepped into the batter’s box for real in the first inning and tripled on the first pitch he saw from Mets starter David Cone.

“It kind of made me kind of relax (and say) OK, I was into the game,” Raines said. “Wasn’t sure what was going to happen the rest of the game.”

What happened was Raines, performing in front of 37,235 fans at Shea Stadium and millions more watching the NBC “Game of the Week,” went 4-for-5 with three runs scored, a stolen base and a grand slam off Jesse Orosco in the 11th inning that lifted the Expos to an 11-7 win. 

The decisive homer left Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola flabbergasted in the broadcast booth.

“That has to be one of the most incredible stories of the year in any sport,” Scully said. “The first day back!”

“That has to be one of those stories — if you wrote it for television, they’d say ‘That’s too corny, it’ll never work,” Garagiola said. “Can you imagine that?”

The dramatics were just beginning for Raines, whose 123 runs scored were the ninth-most of the decade and the most scored by anyone who played fewer than 140 games. His stolen base percentage was the sixth-best of the 1980s and the second-best by anyone who swiped at least 50 bases.

Raines had his second singular moment of the season on July 14, when he capped one of the most memorable All-Star Games in history by hitting the tie-breaking two-run triple in the 13th inning to give the National League a 2-0 win. In keeping with the theme of the season, Raines didn’t start the game but went 3-for-3 after entering the game in the sixth inning— no other player had more than one hit — in earning MVP honors. 

It was the last All-Star Game for Raines, whose age-27 season proved to be the last of his peak years. He remained a solid regular for the Expos and White Sox from 1988 through 1995 and was a valuable role player on the Yankees’ World Series-winning teams in 1996 and 1998 before a battle with lupus cut short his 1999 season with the Athletics and forced him to miss the 2000 season. Raines came back with the Expos in 2001 and spent his final two seasons as a pinch-hitter with three teams.

It appeared as if Raines’ long “wind-down” phase might obscure his era of dominance and keep him out of the Hall of Fame, especially when the Hall reduced a player’s time on the ballot from 15 years to 10 years in 2014. But that change following Raines’ seventh year on the ballot created an urgency for his candidacy, and he went from 46.1 percent of the vote in 2014 to 86 percent this year — 86 percent of the vote for a guy whose 1987 season will get the anniversary treatment it warrants in the months leading up to his induction.

“That year to me, out of all the years I played, that year was probably the most special year out of the 23,” Raines said.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cards 26-29

Card #26: Greg Brock
1987 (w/Brewers): .299, 13 HRs, 85 RBIs, .371 OBP, .438 SLG

You know what they say: Don’t be the guy replacing the guy. Brock had the unenviable ask of replacing Dodgers legend, and borderline Hall of Famer Steve Garvey, after Garvey signed with the Padres following the 1982 season. After four seasons in which Brock displayed pretty good power (71 homers) but hit just .234 with an OPS nine percent above that of a replacement-level player, he was dealt to the Brewers for pitchers Tim Crews and Tim Leary in December 1986.

Finally emerged from Garvey’s shadow, Brock had the best year of his career in 1987, when he set full-season career highs for batting average, RBIs, on-base percentage and OPS while manning first base for a team that traveled more highs and lows than any team I can ever remember watching. And give the guy credit: After going 4-for-5 in the penultimate game of the season to lift his average to .301, Brock could have sat out the season finale and preserved a .301 batting average, but he played and went 0-for-3 to fall under the magic number.

Brock declined from there and batted just .244 over the next three-plus seasons before retiring following the 1991 season. But he will always have his solid 1987 season, as well as one of the best back-of-card blurbs of all-time: “Greg once earned himself the free use of a car for a year by recording a hole-in-one in golf match.” Brock is now a championship-winning high school baseball coach in Colorado, and, one can presume, still pretty good on the links.

Card #27: Joe Cowley
1987 (w/Phillies): 0-4, 15.43 ERA in five games (four starts), 5 Ks, 3.26 WHIP

What if you could reach the pinnacle of your profession, only to immediately fall all the way to the bottom of it? That’s what happened to Cowley, whose final five big league games turned him into the bridge between Steve Blass and Rick Ankiel as the symbol of a pitcher who completely and helplessly loses the skills that made him great. 

Cowley’s final win as a big leaguer was a no-hitter on Sept. 19, 1986. In retrospect, his gem — in which he walked seven and struck out eight in an 8-1 victory over the California Angels — might have portended the issues that would envelope Cowley the next year. Cowley was a league-average pitcher despite scattershot control in his first four seasons, during which he posted a 3.91 ERA while issuing 215 walks and recording 327 strikeouts. 

But he lost it completely in 1987, when Cowley gave up a whopping 38 baserunners (including 17 walks) in just 11 2/3 innings before being demoted to Triple-A Maine, where he continued to struggle and bottomed out by walking 11 batters in 2 2/3 innings against Tidewater. Eventually, the Phillies and Cowley agreed a return to his Kentucky home would be best for all parties. He never pitched again.

Cowley, whose reputation as an easy-going free spirit made his struggles all the more stunning, spoke at length about his descent in this New York Times story, which hints that perhaps his issues stemmed from his desire to make the Phillies look good for acquiring him from the White Sox late in spring training. Regardless of what happened, Cowley’s downfall served as a reminder of how thin the line is between success and failure in the major leagues, and the helplessness that can accompany an inexplicable loss of skills.

Card #28: Rick Dempsey
1987 (w/Indians): .177, 1 HR, 9 RBIs, .295 OBP, .270 SLG

The fun thing about this project is re-learning things I’d somehow forgotten over the last 30 years. Like Dempsey playing for the Indians in 1987, or actually becoming a four-decade player despite collecting just 77 at-bats in his first five major league seasons and batting .207 over his final six seasons, a stretch that began in 1987. That’s impressive. (There’s another four-decade catcher coming up in this set, by the way)

Dempsey was the Pat Borders of his time, a journeyman catcher with an unlikely World Series MVP trophy hanging on his mantle. Unlike Borders, Dempsey won another ring (he was the backup for the 1988 Dodgers). Dempsey spent more than a decade as a minor league manager and major league coach before moving into his current position as a popular studio analyst on Orioles games.

Card #29: Jimmy Key
1987: 17-8, 2.76 ERA in 36 starts, 161 Ks, 1.06 WHIP

Another thing I learned revisiting this set: Key’s 1987 season is an all-time under-appreciated gem. First of all, anyone who won an ERA title in 1987 was doing something right, but Key’s American League-leading 2.76 mark was a whopping 64 percent better than the league average. And it wasn’t a fluke: He also led the league in WHIP while averaging 7.25 innings per start. Key finished second in the Cy Young Award balloting and probably would have won it if not for Roger Clemens’ second-half surge lifting him to the magical 20-win mark. 

This season proved to be Key’s peak as the diminutive crafty lefty battled some injuries over the next decade, but he was very good when he made it to the mound. He had an ERA+ of 119 or better in four of his final five 200-inning seasons. Key was also one of those quote unquote clutch postseason pitchers: He posted a 3.15 ERA in 10 series and earned the World Series-clinching win while serving in two different roles for two different teams. He won Game 6 as a reliever for the Blue Jays in 1992 and won Game 6 as a starter for the Yankees in 1996, when the Bronx Bombers notched their first title in 18 years behind a whole bunch of 1987 Topps alums. In retirement, Key has become a terrific golfer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Cards 21-25

Card #21: Mark Davis
1987 (w/Giants & Padres): 9-8, 3.99 ERA in 63 games (11 starts), 2 saves, 98 Ks, 1.37 WHIP

The first in-season trade involving a player in this set was a good old-fashioned blockbuster that benefited both teams. On July 5, the Giants traded Davis, along with third baseman Chris Davis and and pitchers Mark Grant and Keith Comstock, to the Padres in exchange for pitchers Dave Dravecky and Craig Lefferts and outfielder Kevin Mitchell. In 1989, Mitchell won the NL MVP while leading the Giants to the World Series while Davis won the NL Cy Young Award after racking up a major league-best 44 saves.

Davis’ transformation into a Cy Young Award winner began following the trade. After posting a 4.40 ERA as a swingman in parts of seven big league seasons, the Padres shifted Davis full-time to the bullpen, where he posted a 3.18 ERA and two saves the remainder of 1987 before making the All-Star team in 1988, when he went 5-10 with a 2.01 ERA, 28 saves and 92 strikeouts over 92 2/3 innings.

Davis won the Cy Young Award in his walk year and parlayed it into a four-year, $13 million deal with the Royals — the biggest contract in baseball history. Quaint, huh? But like so many closers, Davis fell as quickly as he rose. He quickly lost the closer’s job in Kansas City in 1990, when he recorded just six saves and a 5.11 ERA and became a popular target for booing fans. The Royals traded Davis during the 1992 season and he managed to bounce around until 1997, despite posting a 5.37 ERA following the award-winning season. Davis is now a minor league coach in the Royals’ organization.

Card #22: Doug DeCinces
1987 (w/Angels & Cardinals): .234, 16 HRs, 64 RBIs, .335 OBP, .392 SLG

Long before Kenny Lofton, there was Doug DeCinces, a very good player doomed to suffer a litany of postseason heartbreaks. DeCinces was a member of the 1979 Baltimore Orioles, who blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series, and the 1982 and 1986 Angels, who squandered 2-0 and 3-1 leads in the ALCS (the LCS was a best-of-five until 1985).

DeCinces finished 11th in the AL MVP voting in 1986, when he popped up with the bases loaded and a chance to send the Angels to the World Series in the fateful Game 5 of the ALCS, but tailed off during his age-37 season in 1987, when the Angels released him in late September. He signed with the playoff-bound Cardinals for the final week of the season, and though he was ineligible for the playoffs, his penchant for agonizing near-misses continued as the Cardinals blew a 3-2 lead against the Twins in the World Series.

DeCinces went to Japan in 1988 but suffered a career-ending back injury midway through the season. Per Wikipedia, which is never wrong, his experiences as an aging American baseball player in Japan served as the inspiration for the Tom Selleck movie Mr. Baseball. DeCinces went into the business world following his playing days but was indicted for insider trading in 2011, a charge he was still fighting as of 2016 (and one which makes this story from 2008 sort of cringe-worthy).

Card #23: Lee Smith
1987: 4-10, 3.12 ERA, 36 saves in 62 games, 1.39 WHIP

Man those multiple-of-five cards were hard to get. Smith was firmly established as a top-tier closer by 1986, when he recorded 31 saves. It was the fourth straight season in which he racked up at least 29 saves and the fourth season of a 14-year span in which he’d exceed 29 saves 13 times. Another fine season in 1987 was highlighted by Smith’s role in the best All-Star Game of my youth, a 13-inning affair in which Smith threw three innings (oh the humanity!) and earned the win when Tim Raines delivered the tie-breaking triple in the top of the 13th. 

But as for that card number— maybe, once again, Topps knew something we didn’t. Despite retiring as the all-time saves leader (478), Smith has never come close to earning the 75 percent of the vote necessary for induction into the Hall of Fame. This is his last year on the ballot — he’ll be the last player to get 15 years of consideration thanks to this rule change — and barring a miracle surge, he’ll fall short and be relegated to the dustbin of Veteran’s Committee hopefuls that will never get in because the Veteran’s Committee doesn’t want to let in any other players.

Smith, who spent the second half of his career as one of the first one-inning closers, suffered from the devaluation of the save as well as the emergence of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, each of whom obliterated his save total and finished with better peripheral stats. Fortunately for Smith, who is now a roving minor league instructor in the Giants chain, he seems to be non-plussed by his  near-miss status, as he colorfully told the Portland Press-Herald in the summer of 2015.

Card #24: Tony Walker
1987: Did not play in majors

The great thing about a 792-card set is there are always some guys who were as mysterious to you then as they are now. Not gonna lie, I have no recollection of Walker, whose minor league track record — 190 stolen bases and more walks (347) than strikeouts (325) — suggested someone who could have carved out a pretty good career as a bench player.

But perhaps Walker — signed, according to the back of his baseball card, by the Reds in 1981 as an undrafted free agent out of the Mexican League — was proof that opportunities are harder to earn and maintain for those who don’t receive the big signing bonuses. His big league career consists of the 1986 season in which he filled a reserve role for the NL West champion Astros. Still, a few cups of coffee are better than none at all, and Walker maximized his role by swiping nine of his 11 bases as a pinch-runner. He also played in the epic two-day Astros-Cubs game in which Davey Lopes set a record (that wasn’t really a record) for most stolen bases in a season by a 40-year-old.
Walker spent the 1987 season in the minors with the Astros and Pirates and finished his career in the Mexican League in 1988. A quick Google search did not reveal his current whereabouts.

Card #25: Bert Blyleven
1987: 15-12, 4.01 ERA in 37 starts, 196 Ks, 1.31 WHIP

What would you call a pitcher entering the 2017 season with 229 career wins, a 3.08 ERA and 3,090 strikeouts? Well, you couldn’t call him anything, because he doesn’t exist. But if he did, you’d probably dub him a future Hall of Famer, right?***

Yet Blyleven — who also had 216 complete games and 54 shutouts to his credit entering 1987 — ended up needing 14 years on the Hall of Fame ballot before he finally got inducted in 2011. Part of the reason for the delay is Blyleven was a peer of ten 300-game winners (though Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson were beginning their careers as Blyleven’s ended) whose average numbers were generally better than his. That 1987 season was uncannily close to his 162-game average (14-12, 3.31 ERA, 34 starts, 183 strikeouts, 1.20 WHIP). 

Blyleven also had the rep of a journeyman (five teams) who could be ornery to deal with. But while he demanded trades from the Indians and Pirates, it should also be noted that he liked to fart

I’ve long believed Blyleven — who went 17-5 with a 2.73 ERA and a league-leading five shutouts as a 38-year-old in 1989 — would have won 300 games and cruised into the Hall of Fame if he didn’t miss the 1991 season due to an shoulder injury. But still. All those wins (287), all those strikeouts (3,701), all those complete games (242), all those shutouts (60), plus two World Series rings. How’d he wait so long? No one is within 50 wins of 287 victories. The 10 active pitchers with the most complete games have combined to go the distance 257 times, while the five active pitchers with the most shutouts have combined for 61 blankings. It’s crazy to think how close Blyleven, who is a broadcaster with the Twins, came to not making the Hall of Fame.

***I bet you CC Sabathia — whose 223 wins, 3.70 ERA and 2,726 strikeouts make him the active pitcher closest to 1986 Blyleven — has an easier path to Cooperstown than Blyleven.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Cards 16-20

Card #16: Pat Clements
1987 (w/Yankees): 3-3, 4.95 ERA, 7 saves in 55 games, 1.53 WHIP

Poor Pat Clements. Not only was he the first member of the 1987 Topps set to have been traded the previous winter, but he didn’t even get a Traded card out of it. Just another reminder for Clements of the cruel bitch goddess tendencies of sports.

Clements was drafted by the Angels in 1983 and made his debut in 1985, shortly before he was traded from an up-and-coming contender to the 104-loss Pirates. The Pirates then dealt him following the 1986 season to the Yankees in a blockbuster that sent Doug Drabek to Pittsburgh. Good deal for Clements, right? Alas, while Drabek became the ace of a team that won three straight division titles from 1990-1992, Clements landed with a team entering season no. 6 of a 13-year playoff drought. Clements was the Yankees’ top left-handed set-up man in 1987 but appeared in just six big league games in 1988 before ending his career with the San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles. Per Wikipedia, he lives in California, where he is a member of Chico’s sports Hall of Fame.

Card #17: Pete O’Brien
1987: .286, 23 HRs, 88 RBIs, .348 OBP, .457 SLG

There were almost 80 “multiple of five”-numbered cards in a Topps set, but O’Brien getting saddled with no. 17 despite being in the middle of a fine career is evidence they were pretty hard to earn. O’Brien had his second straight 20-homer, 80-RBI season in 1986, when he finished 17th in the AL MVP voting (hmm, maybe that’s why he was no. 17). He put up almost the same numbers in 1987, which was the fourth of his four straight 80-RBI seasons and the fourth of six straight seasons in which he’d perform at a rate above that of the league-average first baseman.

Overall as a big leaguer, O’Brien had five 80-RBI seasons and three 20-homer seasons while playing in at least 130 games nine times. He also got traded for Julio Franco, which means we can pretty much trace his baseball lineage back to the dawn of time.

Alas, O’Brien struggled after signing a four-year deal with the Mariners prior to the 1990 season — the Seattle Times called him one of the biggest free agent busts in franchise history — and he retired after being released in July 1993. According to a Google search, he runs At Peace Float Manufacturing in Texas. (And he is not related to the Pete O’Brien who recently got traded to the Royals)

Card #18: Dick Howser
1987: Did not manage due to illness, died on June 17

The first of two sad (and eerily familiar) stories in this batch of cards. Howser, the one ex-Yankees manager to go somewhere else and prove George Steinbrenner wrong for firing him (or, if you would rather believe Steinbrenner, for choosing to go into real estate in Florida after a 103-win season ended with a sweep by the Royals in the 1980 ALCS), directed the Royals to an unlikely World Series title in 1985, when they came back from a pair of 3-1 series deficits to vanquish the Blue Jays and Cardinals.

But Howser never managed again after the 1986 All-Star Game. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor during the All-Star Break and underwent a pair of surgeries with the hope of returning in 1987. However, he retired after the first day of spring training and his condition quickly worsened. He was just 51 when he died at his home in Florida. Only 16 days later, the Royals retired his number 10 — the first number retired in franchise history. Shortly thereafter, the Dick Howser Award, presented to the best player in college baseball, was established. In 2009, the Royals built a statue in Howser’s honor at Kaufman Stadium.

Card #19: Matt Young
1987 (w/Dodgers): 5-8, 4.47 ERA, 11 saves in 47 games, 1.45 WHIP

Young, unlike Pat Clements, at least got a Traded card for being dealt to the Dodgers in a minor trade following the 1986 season. It was one of the few decent breaks ever granted to Young, who was generally followed by a black cloud during his decade-long big league career.

As a rookie with the Mariners in 1983, Young made the American League All-Star team — he threw a scoreless inning in the Midsummer Classic — and finished in the top 10 in ERA (3.27). But he posted a 4.86 ERA over the next three seasons before performing exclusively out of the bullpen for the only time in his career in 1987. He missed the 1988 season due to Tommy John surgery and won a World Series ring as a little-used swingman with the Athletics in 1989.

Three years later, in his season debut for the Red Sox, Young allowed no hits during a complete game against the indians but did not get credit for a no-hitter because the Indians won, 2-1, and thus did not have to bat in the ninth inning. (The Indians scored thanks to seven walks by Young and two Red Sox errors) Thanks Fay Vincent! Young won only one more big league game before retiring following the 1993 season. Matt Young is a pretty common name so there is no trace of him on the Googles. 

Card #20: Gary Carter
1987: .235, 20 HRs, 83 RBIs, .290 OBP, .392 SLG

Carter is the second tragic story in a three-card span. Carter spent the first 11 seasons of his career with the Expos before he was acquired as the missing piece for the emerging Mets following the 1984 season. He did exactly what he was acquired to do for the eventual world champions in 1986, when Carter finished third in the MVP voting and started the Mets’ miraculous World Series comeback with his two-out single in the 10th inning of Game 6.

He finally began to show the wear and tear of a decade-plus of catching in 1987, when he set single-season lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He was done as an everyday catcher following the 1988 season, but the 11-time All-Star had done enough to get inducted into the Hall of Fame (albeit as a member of the Expos) in his sixth year of eligibility in 2003.

Carter harbored hopes of becoming the Mets’ manager, but his relationship with the organization soured when he declined an offer to manage at Double-A Binghamton in 2007 after leading a pair of lower-level affiliates to first-place finishes the previous two seasons. In the spring of 2008, Carter appeared on a radio show on Sirius and said he’d contacted the Mets about replacing Willie Randolph, who was still the manager.

Carter managed the independent league Long Island Ducks in 2008 before spending two seasons as the baseball coach at Palm Beach Atlantic University. In the spring of 2011, he was diagnosed with four tumors on his brain. He underwent rigorous treatment but the tumors returned the following January and he died at the age of 57 on Feb. 16, 2012. The Mets’ 30th anniversary celebration of the 1986 world champions ended in touching fashion last May 28, when Jesse Orosco, who got the final out of the World Series, threw out the first pitch to Carter’s son D.J., who raced to Orosco and leaped into his arms just as his Dad did on Oct. 27, 1986.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Cards 11-15

Card #11: Indians leaders

I like to think this baseball card — with wizened catcher Chris Bando, ageless knuckleballer Phil Niekro and, I assume, manager Pat Corrales all conversing — inspired the mound visit scene in “Major League.”

Choosing a Bando/Niekro picture didn’t seem to make much sense for a card mentioning the leaders of one of baseball’s most exciting young teams. Fueled by a lineup loaded with 20-somethings all performing well above the league average, the Indians won 84 games in 1986, their most victories since 1968. Sports Illustrated not only put Joe Carter and Cory Snyder on the cover of its 1987 baseball preview, it predicted the Indians would end their epic 38-year championship drought.

Alas, perhaps Topps knew something the rest of us didn’t: The Indians had NO pitching (Niekro and fellow 300-game winner Steve Carlton combined to go 12-20 with a 5.66 ERA), most of their hitters fell off and they finished a baseball-worst 61-101. And that 38-year championship drought is now a 68-year championship drought, albeit one that came within a base hit of ending last November.

Card #12: Jeff Sellers
1987: 7-8, 5.28 ERA in 25 games (22 starts), 99 Ks, 1.59 WHIP

I’m going to do this a lot this year: Despite posting an ERA north of 5.00, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen and making fewer than 25 starts, Sellers threw four complete games and two shutouts. Do you know how many pitchers threw four complete games and two shutouts last season? ONE!!!! Name him.

Anyway, this went down as Sellers’ most extensive big league action. Sellers, who looks young enough to still be getting carded at the Fort Myers bars in a photo that appears to have been taken in spring training, went 1-7 with a 4.83 ERA in his final season in 1988. He at least ended his career in impressively hard-luck fashion on Oct. 1, 1988, when Sellers carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Indians but took the loss when that hit went over the fence in a 1-0 defeat. Sellers was traded after the season to the Cincinnati Reds — in exchange for, no kidding, the guy who follows him in this set — but never pitched again due to arm trouble. His son, Justin, played in the majors for the Dodgers and Indians.

(Trivia answer: Johnny Cueto, again)
Card #13: Nick Esasky 
1987: .272, 22 HRs, 59 RBIs, .327 OBP, .529 SLG

If you’re old enough to remember collecting this set, you remember Esasky as one of the decade’s most plaintive “what-if?” tales. Esasky had his best year yet in 1987 despite playing in just 100 games, leading people to wonder what he might do if he was ever healthy for a full season.

The Reds stopped wondering following the 1988 season, when they traded him to the Red Sox for a package that included JEFF SELLERS. Esasky finally had that full monstrous campaign in 1989, when he set career highs with a .277 average, 30 homers and 108 RBIs. He parlayed that into a three-year deal with the Braves, but played in just nine games in 1990 before suffering a career-ending bout of vertigo. According to this story from 2006, Esasky continued to battle vertigo in retirement. He also took up a far more serious fight as he tried to help his daughter recover from a meth addiction.

Card #14: Dave Stewart
1987: 20-13, 3.68 ERA in 37 starts, 205 Ks, 1.26 WHIP

Dennis Eckersley rightfully gets a lot of credit as a terrific low-cost pickup who helped fuel the Athletics’ mini-dynasty, but I’d argue Stewart was an even savvier pickup and more surprising superstar. Stewart, signed by the Athletics as a free agent after he was released by the Phillies in May 1986, had just 39 career wins entering 1987, when he emerged as an ace by recording the first of four straight 20-win seasons. Only one pitcher in the 21st century has won 20 games in as many as two straight seasons. Name him!

Stewart produced at a Hall of Fame level from 1987 through 1990, when he racked up 84 wins, 41 complete games and seven shutouts while producing a 3.21 ERA that was 20 percent better than the league average. He also earned a World Series ring in 1989 and won the ALCS MVP in 1990, when he capped a career’s worth of dominating Roger Clemens by driving the already-insane Rocket to melt down in the decisive game.

Of course, Stewart’s four best years came from ages 30 through 33, which meant he declined pretty quickly and he had no Hall of Fame case. But Stewart, who returned to work as a player agent after being fired as the Diamondbacks’ general manager following last season, would probably kick your ass if you said that to him.

(Trivia answer: Curt Schilling in 2001-2002)

Card #15: Claudell Washington
1987: .279, 9 HRs, 44 RBIs, 10 SBs, .336 OBP, .420 SLG

Washington was the baseball player version of a really good session musician who seems to pop up in every video you see. Had a pretty good career (16 seasons, 106 OPS+) in which he played for seven teams. He came up as a 19-year-old rookie in 1974 with the Athletics, who were on their way to a third straight World Series title. He offered a little bit of power and a lot of speed back in the days when 20/20 seasons were uncommon. He was on the Braves’ surprise division-winning team in 1982. He played twice for the Yankees, for whom he hit the 10,000th home run in franchise history. He got traded for Bobby Bonds and Ken Griffey and was a peer of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. He was struck out 39 times by all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan. He was disciplined for his role in the Pittsburgh drug trials. Most importantly, per Wikipedia, he was the guy who hit the foul ball Ferris Bueller caught on his day off. Not a bad run. 

While his 1987 wasn’t all that impressive, Washington bounced back with one of the best seasons of his career in 1988, when he recorded an OPS+ of 120 in his age-33 season. He retired following the 1990 season and was, as of 2004, running a construction company in his native California

Monday, January 9, 2017

Cards 8-10

Card #8: Terry Pendleton, Cardinals 3B
1987: .286 average, 12 homers, 96 RBIs, 19 SBs, .360 OBP, .412 SLG

The first true player card in the 1987 Topps set is a future MVP. But anyone who thought Terry Pendleton — shown here apparently after making contact at Shea Stadium — was going to win an MVP in 1991 for the Atlanta Braves was either lying, or failing to properly utilize his/her skills of clairvoyance. Pendleton was a solid everyday third baseman for the Cardinals who had the best season of his career in 1987, when he finished 18th in the MVP voting while setting across-the-board full-season bests in the counting stats. But he declined over the next two seasons before quietly signing with the Braves and sparking their worst-to-first resurgence.

Pendleton has served in a variety of coaching roles with the Braves since 2002. He is currently the bench coach for Brian Snitker.

Card #9: Jay Tibbs, Expos P
1987: 4-5, 4.99 ERA in 19 games (12 starts), 54 Ks, 1.55 WHIP 

Tibbs (pictured here in what looks to be a routine spring training posed photo) appeared to be emerging as a solid if unspectacular back-end rotation piece when he posted a 3.73 ERA and threw 11 complete games and five shutouts in his first three big league seasons. Fun fact: THREE pitchers have thrown A TOTAL of at least 11 complete games in the last three seasons. Guess them.

But Tibbs struggled in 1987, when he was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis for 12 starts. He sopped up some innings for the 107-loss Baltimore Orioles in 1988 before going 5-0 in 10 games (eight starts) in 1989 for the Orioles, who nearly went from worst-to-first. The Orioles traded him during the 1990 season to the Pittsburgh Pirates — described in this wire story as “ailing” — and he ended his career by going 1-0 in five appearances for the eventual NL East champs. A Google search of Jay didn’t reveal his post-career whereabouts, so Jay, if you’re out there, drop me a line!

Trivia answer: Clayton Kershaw (13), Madison Bumgarner (12) and Johnny Cueto (11).
Card #10: Cecil Cooper, Brewers 1B
1987: .248, 6 HRs, 36 RBIs, .293 OBP, .372 SLG

We get to our first “round number” card, a designation usually reserved for star players. Cooper, who looks to be waiting to take batting practice at Yankee Stadium in his photo, certainly earned said designation, as evidenced by the big numbers listed in tiny font on the back of his card. He was an absolute beast and a borderline Hall of Famer during his peak years with the Brewers, for whom he hit .300 in seven straight seasons from 1977 through 1983 while twice leading the American League in RBIs. He also would have won a batting title in 1980 if not for George Brett’s pursuit of .400, and a World Series if the Brewers could have closed out a 3-2 lead over the Cardinals in 1982. It felt like Cooper had two hits and two RBIs every time I read a Brewers boxscore in the newspaper.

Cooper was winding down in 1986, when he looked more like a coach in his card photo, and his career ended with an unceremonious benching by the Brewers that, per dead linked stories that appeared on this message board, lasted the entire second half of 1987. (He’d still make it into the 1988 Topps set, albeit at no. 769). Cooper, a member of the Brewers’Hall of Fame, spent two-plus seasons as the Houston Astros’ manager and continues to live in Houston. He is also on Twitter.