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.

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