Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Cards 41-45

Card #41: Bo Diaz
1987 stats: .270, 15 HRs, 82 RBIs, .300 OBP, .421 SLG

Greg Brock’s struggles with the Dodgers might have proved true the old adage that it’s easier to be the guy that follows the guy. Diaz’s success with the Reds might have proved true the new adage (just made up by me) that it’s easier to be the guy that follows the guy who followed the guy who followed the guy who followed the guy. Got all that?

Diaz stopped the post-Johnny Bench revolving door at catcher for the Reds, who employed five different starting backstops in as many seasons before Diaz, whom Cincinnati acquired from the Phillies in August 1985, grabbed hold of the job in 1986. Playing under former teammate Pete Rose — the two were starters for the NL-winning Phillies in 1983, when Diaz hit a walk-off grand slam on Apr. 13 and delivered the game-winning RBI while catching Steve Carlton’s 300th career victory on Sept. 23 — Diaz played a whopping 274 games at catcher over the next two seasons (second-most among catchers, behind Terry Kennedy) and earned his second and final All-Star berth in 1987, when he finished with the second-most homers and RBIs of his career.

Chronic left knee injuries hampered Diaz over his final two big league seasons, but he was still harboring hope of signing with a club for the 1990 campaign when he was killed in a horrifying accident at his Venezuelan home on Nov. 23, 1989. Diaz was trying to install a satellite dish on the roof of his home when the dish slipped and crushed his neck and skull. He died instantly.

Card #42: Gary Redus
1987 stats (w/White Sox): .236, 12 HRs, 48 RBIs, 52 SBs, .328 OBP, .392 SLG

A trade late in spring training in 1987 worked out a little better for Redus than it did for Joe Cowley. While Cowley’s control betrayed him to the point where he’d never throw another major league pitch, Redus played a career-high 130 games, set a career-high in stolen bases and spent the season in the thick of the AL’s only Rickey Henderson-free stolen base race of the 1980s. Redus ended up finishing third behind Harold Reynolds and Willie Wilson and well ahead of Henderson, who was limited to 41 steals due to various leg injuries.

Despite the gaudy stolen base total, as well as the second-best homer and RBI total of his career, Redus was stretched as an everyday player, as indicated by an OPS+ of 89 and the fact he played in as many as 100 games just once over his final seven seasons. But he’s also a reminder of how much the game has changed in the last 30 years. Redus stole 223 bases between his major league debut in September 1982 and the end of the 1987 season. Guess how many players have stolen 223 bases in the last six seasons? None, though Rajai Davis (222) and Dee Gordon (218) came close. Nor did either Davis or Gordon ever hit for the highest single-season batting average in professional baseball history, which Redus did when he hit an absurd .462 for the Reds’ rookie-level Pioneer League club. According to that very entertaining ESPN.com story, as of 2013, Redus resided in his native Alabama.

Card #43: Gene Michael
1987: 68-68 before resigning Sept. 8

The second manager in the set is the second former Yankees manager. Detecting a trend here? While Dick Howser found a sane place to land following his firing by George Steinbrenner. Michael — who succeeded Howser as Yankees manager following the 1980 season and had two stints in the Bronx over the subsequent two seasons — traded one high-stress environment for another in 1986, when he accepted an offer to serve as the Cubs’ manager under boisterous general manager Dallas Green. The two battled almost immediately and Michael resigned — by telling the press before Green — on Sept. 8 after compiling a 114-124 record in one-plus seasons. 

Michael got the last laugh, in more ways than one. By 1989, Green was managing the Yankees under Steinbrenner, who fired him after a mere 121 games. Michael landed back with the Yankees in 1990, when Steinbrenner named him general manager in the owner’s last move before beginning a “permanent” ban (it lasted less than three years) for various nefarious activities that everybody conveniently forgot once the Yankees started winning again.

With the impulsive Steinbrenner out of the picture, Michael oversaw a complete rebuild that allowed the “Core Five” — Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and the perpetually forgotten Bernie Williams — to remain with the Yankees long enough to build the late-‘90s dynasty. Of course, Steinbrenner was still Steinbrenner and demoted Michael following the 1994 season. Michael is still an advisor to general manager Brian Cashman but inexplicably has yet to receive a plaque in Monument Park for putting together the greatest baseball team in the last 40 years. Get on that, Yankees.

Card #44: Greg Harris
1987 stats: 5-10, 4.86 ERA in 42 games (19 starts), 106 Ks, 1.51 WHIP

Long before Pat Verditte, there was Greg Harris. And long before Harris became the first “switch-pitcher” of the 20th century, he pulled off a feat nobody had achieved in more than a decade. Harris recorded 20 saves for the Rangers in 1986 before making a then-career high 19 starts in 1987. In a reminder that specialization was well under way by the Reagan years, Harris’ 19 starts were the most in the decade by a a pitcher immediately after a 20-save season. The previous pitcher to start at least 19 games following a 20-save season? Goose Gossage, who led the league with 26 saves (!!!!) for the White Sox in 1975 before making 29 starts in 1976 (and presumably griping that the pitchers of 1976 had it much easier than the pitchers of 1975).

(Trivia: One pitcher has matched Harris’ feat in the last 10 seasons. Name him!)

Harris’ semi-foray into the rotation interrupted a terrific six-year run of yeoman-like relief work. Even with his subpar 1987 included, Harris produced a 3.19 ERA from 1984 through 1989, which was 27 percent better than the league average. He threw more than 100 innings of relief in the two seasons before and after his rotation stint. Harris then spent the majority of the 1990 and 1991 seasons in the Red Sox’ rotation before re-re-emerging as a dominant reliever in his age-36 and age-37 seasons in 1992 and 1993, when he recorded a 3.15 ERA (that’s an ERA+ of 141!) over 220 innings. For good measure, he made two starts, one of which he completed.

Dude was a machine, never moreso than in his penultimate big league appearance on Sept. 28, 1995, when the right-hander pitched as both a lefty and a righty in the same scoreless inning against the Reds. Did I mention he did it while wearing an Expos jersey and glasses as big as the ones I wore back in the day? Swag. 

While Harris (who has a son, also named Greg, pitching in the minors for the Rays) capped his career by going ambidextrous, Verditte has made his career out of it. The natural right-hander began throwing with both hands as a seven-year-old and found encouragement in Harris’ ability to pull it off. According to this 2015 story at MLB.com, Harris and Verditte communicated regularly during Verditte’s seven-year minor league career. He finally made it to the bigs in 2015 and has appeared in 41 games with the Athletics, Blue Jays and Mariners. The Phillies acquired Verditte from the Mariners earlier this month. 

(Trivia answer: Brett Myers recorded 21 saves for the Phillies in 2007 before making 30 starts in 2008)

Card #45: Jim Presley
1987 stats: .247, 24 HRs, 88 RBIs, .296 OBP, .433 SLG

It’s impossible to explain the mysterious allure of the 1980s Seattle Mariners to anyone who wasn’t around in the ‘80s. Their boxscores, absorbed in print from 3,000 miles away, were filled with robust numbers produced by 20-somethings. They were the perfect team for rabid baseball card collectors on the search for the next big thing.

Except Presley and the Mariners never really turned into the next big thing. Presley looked like a perennial All-Star during his first two full season in 1985-86, when he hit 55 homers and collected 191 RBIs while batting a solid .270 (it was 1986 we didn’t know any better). But the 1986 season, during which Presley made his lone All-Star team and earned MVP votes, proved to be his peak. Presley had his third straight 20-homer, 80-RBI season in 1987, but he’d never hit either milestone again as his plate judgment (a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 859/210 in parts of eight big league campaigns) proved to be his undoing.

He continued to decline in 1988 and 1989 before being traded to the Braves, for whom he had a bit of a bounce-back season in 1990 before finishing his career by struggling in 20 games for the Padres in 1991. Presley was a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles from 2006 through 2014 and developed a reputation for overseeing a group of homer-happy free swingers, which seems appropriate.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Cards 36-40

Card #36: Eric King
1987 stats: 6-9, 4.89 ERA in 55 games (four starts), nine saves, 89 Ks, 1.47 WHIP

The fashion in which King began his career provides another reminder of how the game has changed in the last three decades. King’s first two major league appearances in 1986 were relief outings of 5 1/3 innings (on May 15, 1986) and six innings (on May 21). Remarkably, he allowed only one hit each time. Over the last three seasons, only five pitchers have two relief outings of at least 5 1/3 innings. Name them!

King never topped his rookie season, when he was utilized as a true Swiss army knife (he recorded three saves and three complete games for the Tigers) while trying to shake his Mark Fidrych-ian reputation as a flake. He set career highs in saves and strikeouts in 1987 and was very solid as a starter for the White Sox in 1989 and 1990, when he went 21-14 with a 3.34 ERA in 50 starts (and served up the first of Ken Griffey Jr.’s 630 homers on Apr. 10, 1989) before scuffling in his final two seasons with the Indians and Tigers. King holds the distinction of being traded for a current major league manager (Bob Melvin) and team president (Kenny Williams). 

Trivia answer: Scott Baker (four times, all in 2014), Steven Wright (three times—once in 2014 and twice in 2015), Vidal Nuno (twice in 2015), Dillon Gee (twice in 2016) and Luis Perdomo (twice in 2016).

Card #37: Marvell Wynne
1987 stats: .250, 2 HRs, 24 RBIs, 11 SBs, .321 OBP, .346 SLG

The 1987 season was the age-27 campaign for Wynne, but he was already established as a bit player who was durable but didn’t hit for much power or get on base. As a 24-year-old in 1984, he finished in the top 10 in the NL in hits and at-bats but had no homers and just 35 extra-base hits in 653 at-bats while being caught stealing 19 times in 43 attempts for the Pirates. 

Wynne produced at that rate as a part-timer for the Padres in 1987, though he garnered some headlines for his power when he homered leading off an Apr. 13 game against the Giants, Tony Gwynn and John Kruk followed with homers of their own as the Padres became the first team ever to begin a game with three straight homers. Alas, the Padres lost, 13-6.

Wynne had his best season as a big leaguer in 1988, when he hit 11 homers and recorded an OPS+ of 116 (the only time he had an OPS north of 100 in nine seasons). He was traded in August 1989 to the Cubs and went 1-for-6 in the NLCS before hitting .204 in his final major league action in 1990. Wynne played one more season in Japan in 2001 before retiring to raise his family, including his son Marvell, who was the first pick in the 2006 Major League Soccer draft and is currently with the San Jose Earthquakes.

Card #38: Dennis Leonard
1987 stats: Did not pitch (retired before spring training)

It’s easy to make fun of the world’s Goose Gossages, who rant and rave about how men were men back in their day. But holy smokes, Dennis Leonard was a man’s man back in his day. Great googly moogly, he sure earned his farewell baseball card.

Leonard threw 1776 2/3 innings from 1975 through 1981, a stretch in which he won more games (120) than any right-handed pitcher while throwing 95 complete games and 20 shutouts. Good God, they’d jail any manager who abused a pitcher like that today! Not surprisingly, no modern pitcher matches any of Leonard’s feats. Care to guess who has thrown the most innings, earned the most wins and thrown the most complete games and shutouts in the last seven years?

No stunner, then, that Leonard’s arm wore out from all that—oh wait, he missed nearly three full seasons with a knee injury suffered while pitching to Cal Ripken Jr. (that seems pretty cruelly ironic). Leonard came back to earn a World Series ring in 1985 by pitching in two games for the Royals before going 8-13 with a 4.44 ERA in his final season in 1986. Even then, he completed five games and tossed two shutouts, something achieved in 2016 by only Johnny Cueto. While his peak wasn’t Cooperstown-worthy, Leonard was deservedly inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame in 1989 and remains a popular presence during the franchise’s off-season caravans in the midwest. 

Trivia answers: David Price (1,529 1/3 innings), Max Scherzer (117 wins) and Clayton Kershaw (24 complete games and 15 shutouts).

Card #39: Marty Barrett
1987 stats: .293, 3 HRs, 43 RBIs, 15 SBs, .351 OBP, .351 SLG

Poor Marty Barrett. A whole spate of things, none of which he was responsible for, went wrong over the final 10 innings of the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox and now he’s stuck in highlight reel hell as the batter whom Jesse Orosco strikes out to clinch the World Series for the Mets. 

Barrett avoided the hangover that plagued the Red Sox in 1987, when he had his usual steady season (including a career-high 22 bunts) for a team that finished 78-84. It was the fourth year in a five-year span in which Barrett anchored the middle of the diamond with a Dustin Pedroia-esque spunk, if not with Pedroia-esque production. Barrett had an OPS+ of 91 from 1984 through 1988 but became known as a pest who did the little things to help the Sox, from delivering in the clutch (he was the MVP of the 1986 ALCS, hit .433 in the World Series and finished the postseason with a then-record 24 hits) to pulling off the hidden ball trick three times

Barrett suffered a torn ACL in 1989 (he eventually received $1.5 million in a lawsuit against Red Sox team doctor Arthur Pappas) and finished his career by appearing in 12 games for the Padres in 1991. His lone highlight with the Padres? A home run off the next player in the set. Barrett was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2012 and lives in Las Vegas.

Card #40: Dave Righetti
1987 stats: 8-6, 3.51 ERA in 60 games, 31 saves, 77 Ks, 1.46 WHIP

The first member of the “Record Breakers” club to get his own standalone card, Righetti continued in 1987 to morph into what we’d recognize today as the modern closer. He racked up 31 saves and was named to the All-Star team for the second and final time. But he also threw fewer innings than the year before for the third straight season, a streak he would continue for three more seasons. His innings count from 1984 through 1990: 107-106 2/3-95-87-69-53.

Righetti, a Bay Area native, signed a three-year deal with the Giants following the 1990 season but recorded just 28 saves for his hometown team as he began to show the wear-and-tear of a decade in the bigs. After bouncing between the Blue Jays and Athletics in 1994, Righetti finished his career as a starter with the White Sox in 1995, when, in one of my all-time favorite bits of arcane baseball trivia, he was the opposing pitcher when Yankees right-hander Jack McDowell flipped off the Yankee Stadium while being booed off the mound

Righetti’s second stint with the Giants has been far more successful. He’s been the team’s pitching coach since 2000, a stretch in which the Giants have won three World Series titles and Righetti has earned a reputation as one of the best coaches in baseball. He is also the father of 25-year-old triplets (two girls and one boy).

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cards 31-35

Card #31: Braves leaders

The second leaders card of the set has the second head-scratching picture. The Braves had five players lead the team in multiple categories listed on the back of the card, but how many times could you put Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Rick Mahler, Gene Garber or David Palmer on the front of a Braves leaders card?

And so Rafael Ramirez (right) leading the Braves with 19 stolen bases was enough to get him and his longtime double play partner, Glenn Hubbard, the picture honors, even though they combined to hit just .236 in 904 at-bats in 1986 as Atlanta suffered the third of seven straight losing seasons — the franchise’s longest stretch of sub-.500 finishes since it was located in Boston more than four decades earlier.

Of course, there was a pretty good light at the end of the tunnel for the Braves,who won the first of 14 straight division titles in 1991. Braves fans can only hope their current skid (three straight losing seasons) ends in similarly convincing fashion. 

Card #32: Tim Leary
1987 (w/Dodgers): 3-11, 4.76 ERA in 39 games (12 starts), 61 Ks, 1.46 WHIP

The second-most famous Tim Leary (sporting a uniform patch in honor of late Brewers equipment manager Bob Sullivan) is the second player in this set to be included in a December 1986 trade between the Brewers and Dodgers. That Leary was dealt for a player (Greg Brock) who appears a mere six cards earlier was appropriate for a player who was always near center stage, if not quite the most noticeable performer there.

The Mets selected Leary with the second pick in the 1979 draft, in between all-time bust Al Chambers and future NFL quarterback Jay Schroeder (and four picks before the next card in the set). Leary made his debut with the Mets in 1981 and ended his career with the Rangers in 1994, which makes him one of the handful of players to play during both strike-shattered seasons along with the likes of Hall of Famer Goose Gossage, borderline Hall of Famer Jack Morris and former all-time saves leader Jeff Reardon. He was part of a rare-four team trade in 1985, when he was included in a blockbuster that also saw Danny Darwin, Jim Sundberg and Don Slaught change teams.

Like many pitchers, Leary had a rough 1987, when he was demoted to the bullpen but finished the season with an ERA that was just 16 percent worse than the league average. And like many pitchers, Leary had a terrific 1988, when he finished with across-the-board career-best numbers and helped the Dodgers win the World Series, yet was overshadowed by teammate Orel Hershiser’s historic run. He avoided the spotlight for another entirely different reason in 1991, when Leary produced the fifth of 10 19-loss seasons between Brian Kingman and Mike Maroth joining the club no pitcher wanted to join. Leary has served as a coach for numerous high schools and colleges in California and regularly represents the 1988 Dodgers at alumni functions.

Card #33: Andy Van Slyke
1987 stats (w/Pirates): .293, 21 HRs, 82 RBIs, 34 SBs, .359 OBP, .507 SLG

If you are old enough to remember this baseball card, you are old enough to remember when you learned about out-of-town teams via weekly reports in The Sporting News. And if you are old enough to remember The Sporting News, you remember the seemingly weekly presence of amusing Andy Van Slyke quotes in the magazine. Look, I’m not kidding! The man was a quote machine.

And if you are old enough to remember Andy Van Slyke quotes, you are old enough to remember him being traded to the Cardinals in a veritable eve-of-season blockbuster on April 1, 1987. The trade paid dividends in 1987 for the Cardinals who reached Game 7 of the World Series with Tony Pena as their catcher, but the Pirates won the deal thanks to Van Slyke, who spent the next six years as arguably the best all-around centerfielder in baseball not named Ken Griffey Jr. He followed up the best season of his career in 1987 with five more just like it for the Pirates, who completed their transformation from 100-loss laughingstocks to three-time NL East winners (and three-time NLCS losers, each more agonizing than the last).

Van Slyke, who won five Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers in his six-year reign, slid along with the Pirates beginning in 1993 and split the final season of his career in 1995 with the Orioles and Cardinals. He came and went from the Hall of Fame ballot without receiving a vote in 2001. He later served as a coach with the Tigers (under Jim Leyland, his Pirates manager) and the Mariners (under Lloyd McClendon, his Pirates teammate). Van Slyke, whose son Scott plays for the Dodgers, has remained as quotable as ever, especially regarding the possible “help” Barry Bonds received in his twilight years, the role Robinson Cano played in the collapse of the 2015 Mariners and, well, just about anything, as this 2008 Q&A with Yahoo! proved.

(Also, if you think it’s eerie that Leary and Van Slyke, the sixth overall pick in the 1979 draft, were pictured one after the other in 1987, wait til you see card no. 35)

Card #34: Jose Rijo
1987: 2-7, 5.90 ERA in 21 games (14 starts), 67 Ks, 1.79 WHIP

Among the things I either forgot or foolishly didn’t know before deep diving into the 1987 Topps set: Holy smokes, Rijo was great. Not in 1986, though throwing 193 2/3 innings and recording 176 strikeouts at the age of 21 is an impressive feat bettered this century by only one pitcher. Name him!

Nor was Rijo great in 1987, when he posted the highest ERA of his career while bounding between the rotation and the bullpen and the majors and the minors. The Athletics, who acquired him from the Yankees in December 1984 in exchange for future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, dealt him to the Reds in December 1987 in exchange for should have been future Hall of Famer Dave Parker.

The deal arguably won the Athletics one World Series (Parker finished 11th in the MVP voting during Oakland’s championship season in 1989) and cost them another. The 1988 season marked the beginning of an insane seven-year run for Rijo, who went 87-53 with a 2.63 ERA that was 47 percent better than the league average. He saved his best for the 1990 World Series, when Rijo won MVP honors by going 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA in the Reds’ four-game sweep of…the Athletics. Oh the humanity.

Hall of Famers Tom Glavine, Gaylord Perry and John Smoltz never had seven-season runs as good as the one Rijo enjoyed from 1988 through 1994. Alas, arm woes ruined any shot Rijo had at reaching Cooperstown, and he underwent a whopping three Tommy John surgeries (and two other arm surgeries) while missing five full seasons. That was a long enough sabbatical to get Rijo on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2001. But Rijo, who PITCHED with Tommy John on the 1984 Yankees, authored one of the great comeback stories in baseball history by coming back to pitch for the Reds in 2001 and 2002 (and becoming eligible again for the Hall of Fame, though he received no votes in 2009).

Yet another elbow injury forced Rijo to retire for good in 2003. He worked for the Reds and Nationals before being fired by the Nationals in 2009 after prospects signed out of the team’s Dominican Republic facility (which was owned by Rijo) were revealed to be older than their listed age. Rijo was charged with laundering in the Dominican in 2012 but was reported to be in good spirits in 2015, when he attended the Reds’ 25th anniversary celebration of the 1990 champions.

(Trivia answer: Who else but Madison Bumgarner, who threw 204 2/3 innings and struck out 191 in 2011)

Card #35: Sid Bream
1987 stats: .275, 13 HRs, 65 RBIs, 9 SBs, .336 OBP, .411 SLG

This is a reminder that Pirates fans are fully entitled to think they are a hexed bunch destined to never experience true sporting joy ever again. Bream was a pretty good player for the Pirates as they rebuilt into a contender — he recorded an OPS+ of 108 while playing in all but 35 games from 1986 through 1988 — and recovered from a debilitating knee injury in 1989 to have his best big league season in 1990, when the Pirates won the first of three straight NL East crowns. 

Alas, first basemen who hit for a little bit of power and a little bit of average but not a lot of either are always on the verge of being replaced by someone younger and cheaper, so Bream — who built a home in Pittsburgh — reluctantly signed with the Braves following the 1990 season and had, statistically speaking, three quietly steady years as a part-timer in Atlanta.

Except, of course, for the seismic moment from which Pittsburgh sports fans may never truly recover. The gimpy-legged Bream was on second base with two outs and the Pirates nursing a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera singled to left field off Stan Belinda as David Justice raced home from third base with the tying run.

Braves third base coach Jimy Williams waved Bream around. Those watching in living rooms around the country first-guessed the decision in real time. There was no way Bream could beat the throw from Pirates Gold Glover Barry Bonds, right? Except Bonds didn’t heed Andy Van Slyke’s advice to play shallower and closer to center and Bream had a big head start thanks to a huge lead and he slid under the tag of former teammate Mike LaValliere with the pennant-winning run. 

Nearly a quarter-century later, Bream still lives in suburban Pittsburgh and draws dozens of corporate speaking engagements per year. Belinda lives in seclusion in a remote area of the Pittsburgh suburbs. Like everyone else with anything invested in that game, they are remained daily of what is, or haunted by what could have been.