Thursday, April 17, 2014

#652- Gail Hopkins

In another final card post we get Gail Hopkins, who shares a couple career paths with the last post subject, Leron Lee. Like Leron, Gail would be in another league by the time of this card’s issuance; would spend his last MLB time with the Dodgers; and would play with a degree of success in Japan following his MLB career. Gail would then go on to bigger and better things back in the States, but at card time he is just enjoying a sunny day in Oakland while some teammates take infield behind him. Gail was in the midst of his third season in KC when this photo was shot, and his second since the acquisition of John Mayberry, who would play nearly every day at Gail’s favored position of first base. That meant that he – Gail – only had moderate playing time those two seasons. In ’73 the arrival of the DH doubled his plate time as he hit .209 with a .342 OBA in that role and did better as a pinch hitter with a .370 average with a .485 OBA. But KC was building itself through its system and the following spring Gail would be released and then do some brief pinch hitting work for LA in ’74. Then things got interesting.

Gail Hopkins was born in Oklahoma and as a kid relocated to Long Beach, California, where in high school he played the big three sports and was a catcher in baseball. He then got a hoops scholarship to Pepperdine where he eventually gave up that sport – too may shots to the head – but continued catching and was an All-American in ’63. He graduated the following year, played ball that summer in Canada, and then signed with the White Sox in ’65. He got off to a good start that year in A ball, leading his league’s catchers in pretty much all fielding stats while hitting .272 with 54 RBI’s. In ’66 he hit the crap out of the ball at that level with a .358/12/66 line in just 312 at bats, though why he wasn’t moved up is a mystery. In ’67, still in A ball, he hit well again, posting a .312/20/79 line with a .439 OBA while splitting time now between catching and first base, his new spot. In ’68 he finally moved up, hitting .324 in Double A and the same level in Triple A around a few at bats during his mid-year debut in Chicago. At both spots his OBA was above .400. Somehow during that season he also coached ball at his alma mater.

In ’69 Hopkins made the cut in spring training and as a rookie split time at first base with Tommy McCraw. Gail hit pretty well and put up a .351 OBA while providing some pretty good fielding. In ’70 he occupied the same role and boosted his average 20 points but missed some time with an injury. After that season he went to Kansas City with outfielder John Matias for Pat Kelly. With KC in ’71 Gail had his best offensive season as he split time at first again, now with Bob Oliver and Chuck Harrison. He actually began the season as a pinch hitter and performed well in that role, hitting .312 with a .500 OBA. That was good training for his future with the Royals because once they stole John Mayberry from Houston, Gail’s plate time declined significantly. In ’72 half his at bats came in the pinch - .219 with a .308 OBA – and per the above he had a nice ’73 in that role. By the time of this card’s issuance Gail had been released in late spring training and he hooked up with San Diego for some Triple A ball in Hawaii where he hit super well with a .308/12/54 line in 330 at bats. That got him a mid-season purchase by the Dodgers, who pulled him up to LA for some more pinch work that summer. After Gail hit .333 with a .429 OBA in that role he was released in late October.

In ’75 Hopkins did a Leron Lee – a year earlier than Lee did actually – and took his bat to Japan. There he hooked up with Hiroshima, where he became a slugger his first year (a line of .256/31/91) and a high-average guy his second (.329/20/69). In ’77 he moved to Nankai wher he had a .266/16/69 line in his final season. Gail finished with an MLB average of .266 with 25 homers, 145 RBI’s, a .352 OBA, and about one strikeout per 16 plate appearances. He got shut out of any playoff time with LA but hit .312 with a .384 OBA in the minors.

Hopkins was a busy guy in academia during and after his playing career, earning a graduate degree in biology while playing and then four post-graduate degrees after baseball. One of those degrees was an MD and since the mid-Eighties he has been an orthopedic surgeon in both California and West Virginia, where he currently resides. He was inducted in Pepperdine’s hall of fame during his playing career and the Western Collegiate Conference one a couple years ago. He has also served on his alma mater’s Board of Regents for nearly twenty years. This is his final card.

Gail did some nice work in the minors and seemed capable of doing more up top if given more playing time. He earned undergrad degrees in biology and theology at Pepperdine and is a big bible guy. I have been super busy with work which is why there’s been such a delay between posts. Only eight more to go.

I can’t go through Japan for these two so let’s try this:

1. Hopkins and Rich Morales ’68 to ’70 White Sox;
2. Morales and Leron Lee ’73 Padres.

Monday, March 24, 2014

#651 - Leron Lee

Leron Lee casts a noble glance somewhere and if that somewhere is across that big pond just west of his home base in San Diego then that is an appropriate destination for his gaze. But that second career was still a few seasons away at the time of this card and ’73 was a transitional time for Leron but not in a good way. He began the season as the everyday San Diego left fielder and was doing well enough offensively with a .290 average through mid-May. But then a protracted slump led to shared starts with Gene Locklear and Jerry Morales who both had relatively hot bats. By the end of the season Leron was used mostly as a pinch hitter, a role in which he did pretty well with a .405 OBA, as new kid Dave Winfield took over left. By the time of this card’s arrival Leron was in another league with a moderately better team but still not in a great state career-wise. That would take a much bigger move.

Leron Lee was a big deal fullback and outfielder at his Sacramento high school and from there was a first round pick by the Cardinals in ’66. After hitting over .400 each of his varsity seasons in HS he remained in Sacramento that summer to play in the town’s Metropolitan League where he hit .457. In ’67 he began his pro career outright with a .297/22/67 line in A ball and then in ’68 moved up to Double A Arkansas where he hit OK - .266/13/65 – but had a tough time with his first experience of overt racism. He demanded to play elsewhere and the next season St. Louis obliged by sticking him in Triple A where he thrived with a .303/17/96 season with 92 runs that got him a late look up top. He remained there in ’70 and split time in right field with Carl Taylor where a few too many K’s kept him from matching his numbers at the lower levels. By the end of that season fellow rookie Jose Cruz was seen as a big comer and early the next June after losing his platoon spot Leron and Fred Norman went to San Diego for pitcher Al Santorini.

Things improved considerably for Lee with the Padres. He took over the starting role in left field, upped his average by nearly 100 points, and cut down on his strikeouts a bunch as his .273 average tied Ollie Brown’s for the best among regulars on the team. In ’72 he was going great guns until an injury took him out for over six weeks in the summer. Still, his .300 average led the team, and he seemed to be the first ever Padre not prone to elongated batting slumps. That lasted all of a year and after the ’73 season Leron went to Cleveland off waivers. With the Tribe he got off to a slow start as a pinch hitter before in mid-May taking over left field for John Lowenstein while he filled in other outfield spots. Leroy had a nice run and was hitting over .300 by mid-June when he cooled off and then didn’t get any appreciable starts until late in the year. His final numbers that season unfortunately mirrored his ’73 ones as he put up a .233/5/25 line in his 232 at bats. He then kicked off ’75 as a seldom-used outfielder and pinch hitter, was released, and then picked up by the Dodgers for whom he did pinch work the rest of the way, finishing the season with a .212 average in only 66 at bats. Around a similarly miserable time up top with LA in ’76 Leron spent most of his season in Mexico where he ended his North American career. He finished with a .250 average with 31 homers and 152 RBI’s and hit .303 in the minors.

Late in the ’76 season Lee was contacted by Jim Lefebvre, the former LA Rookie of the Year who had moved to Japan to play ball and then coach. Lefebvre was one of the few Americans who was able to work well in the disciplined Japanese system and he was able to hook Leron up with the Lotte Orions and give him useful tips on surviving professionally in Japanese baseball. Leron did a lot better than that and would become the most successful American player there. He would put in a total of eleven seasons all with the same club and by the time he finished he had a lifetime stat line of .320/283/912 with a .382 OBA. His average is the best for a career over there for anyone with over 4,000 at bats and his power numbers rank pretty highly also. After a while his brother Leon – dad to future MLB'er Derrek - joined him and did nearly as well, hitting .308 in his ten seasons. Since Leron retired following the ’87 season he has done some coaching and then lots of scouting both in the States and in Japan.

Leron got that fat bonus and had early success in the minors. In ’71 he set a San Diego record with five hits in a game. He was also a fan of model trains.

Here we hook up two Cali kids who played in different leagues:

1. Lee and Dick Bosman ’74 to ’75 Indians;
2. Bosman and Mike Epstein ’67 to ’71 and ’73 Senators/Rangers.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

#650 - Mike Epstein

And the penultimate action shot belongs to .... Mike Epstein on his last Topps card swinging away at Yankee Stadium and apparently connecting since it looks like Thurman Munson’s glove is empty. Mike got back to California the hard way – through the Texas Rangers – and by the time this card came out was pretty much done emotionally with his first go in baseball. According to the book “Seasons in Hell” Mike was admittedly mailing it in and was more interested in getting his pilot’s license than in anything going on on the field. Looking at this photo, though, he still seemed to have the ability to uncork a huge swing every now and then. This shot was taken in either early June or September since those were the only two times since Epstein’s acquisition he played in NY for California and I believe this shot is from the same game as the one of Vada Pinson. Mike got with the Angels via a May trade that moved him, Rick Stelmaszek, and Rich Hand for Jim Spencer and Lloyd Allen. That was after the trade that got him out of Oakland initially, when he was sent to Texas rather cheaply for reliever Horacio Pina. That trade was initiated by one of two events, depending on the source: Mike’s o-fer performance in the ’72 Series (A’s owner Charlie O); or Mike’s laying out of Reggie Jackson in the locker room (Epstein). Either way it led to a pretty fast decline for Mike who would go from getting some MVP votes for his ’72 work to being out of the game less tan two years later. But he wouldn’t stay away for too long...

Mike Epstein was a big kid born in the Bronx, NYC. Sometime after he was bar mitzvahed his family relocated to the west coast and Mike went to high school in LA where he was all-area as both a fullback and a first baseman. He then went to Berkeley where he continued to play both sports and after hitting .375 his sophomore year was wooed by the Dodgers via Tommy Lasorda but remained in school at his dad’s insistence. In ’64 he upped his average to nearly .400, made All-American, and was selected to the first ever US Olympic baseball team. He then signed with the Orioles, put in some IL time, and returned to Berkeley to finish his studies. In ’65 he broke in with a bang, putting up a .338/30/109 line in A ball while playing first. In ’66 he jumped to Triple A where his line of .302/29/102 earned him TSN’s Minor League Player of the Year and a brief end of season look in Baltimore. Around then Boog Powell had settled in at first base so Baltimore wanted to turn Mike into an outfielder, which would require more time in the minors. Mike balked and early in June of the ’67 season after barely playing he was sent to DC for pitcher Pete Richert.  He immediately took over first but he was putting up too many K’s and not enough power so by the end of the season he was splitting starts with Dick Nen. After winter ball and a good spring training Mike was back in as the regular guy in ’68 but by mid-May his average was still below .100 so he returned to Triple A for some hitting work where he put up a .400/5/13 line in just eleven games. He was back up top in June and hit .276 with twelve homers and 31 RBI’s the rest of the way.

In ’69 Washington named a new manager in Ted Williams and Epstein would become on of Ted’s star pupils. Pretty much all of Mike’s offensive numbers would rise significantly and that season he sported a .414 OBA as the Nats put up their first winning season in this rendition. Expansion probably contributed to those numbers, though, and the next year Mike fell back to earth a bit. The next year Oakland was looking for a power guy at first and Mike went to the A’s with reliever Darold Knowles for catcher Frank Fernandez, first baseman Don Mincher, and reliever Paul Lindblad that May. He got the lion’s share of work at first the rest of the way, continued to have pretty good OBA numbers, and got his first post-season action. Then in ’72 he led Oakland in homers and got his Series win though he didn’t have such a great time offensively. That November he was sent to Texas and he then finished things early in the ’74 season with California. For his career Mike hit .244 with 130 homers, 380 RBI’s, and a .358 OBA. In the post-season he hit .108 with a homer in his 13 games and in just over two minor league seasons he hit .325 with 64 homers and 224 RBI’s.

As mentioned above, Epstein had sort of moved away emotionally from baseball by the time he retired. He would relocate to Colorado where he had his own ranch and also his own precious metals company for a few years. But the baseball bug never left him entirely. By the early Nineties he was in the San Diego area and coaching, first for a big deal amateur team and then in the Milwaukee system (’93, when he also went 4-7 as an interim manager), for some independent teams (’96-’99), and in the San Diego system (2000). He also coached at San Diego High School in ’95. Since about ’94 he has also run his own hitting school which by now has a sort of national network and has developed a system called rotational hitting. Both Mike and his son are busily involved in the school and if that photo on the site is recent Mike looks damn good.

This is a good swan song card and has some serious star bullets. Per the cartoon, Mike was no Ron Hunt, but every season from ’68 to ’72 he was in the top four in the AL for HBP. After coming across the “Seasons in Hell” book for the Joe Lovitto post I had to hunt it down. It’s a hilarious book with lots of behind the scenes dope of the Rangers from ’73 to ’75. Though Epstein was barely there at the time, he gets lots of mention, especially in a bit in which he pissed off some former teammates after being traded to California by indicating none of them was incentivized to win. Texas then won its next three games against California to kick off its only real winning streak that year.

Another hook-up that takes us through the AL:

1. Epstein and Bernie Allen ’67 to ’71 Senators;
2. Allen and Roy White ’72 to ’73 Yankees;
3. White and Fernando Gonzolez ’74 Yankees.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#649 - Fernando Gonzalez

I know we’re coming down to the wire here and sometimes when that happened Topps was fishing for guys to put on the cards. But two cards for a guy with 51 MLB at bats? That’s a little crazy. In the ’76 set Topps gave rookie Willie Randolph a Traded card but that was actually pretty cool, plus Willie was an integral part of a pennant winner that year. Not so for Fernando here, though his path would sort of follow Willie’s in that he’d get with the Yankees eventually. Here he’s sort of hanging out in Pittsburgh as a seldom-used back-up at third base and a pinch hitter. Unlike Terry Crowley from the previous post Fernando wouldn’t develop into a franchise in that latter role but he would get some time as a regular elsewhere in the infield. Here he poses at Shea, most likely in September since that was the only series in which he played there. He was up top nearly the whole season except for a couple mid-summer months back in Triple A where he put up a nice average with zero power. On his Traded card he looks plain nasty, like hes ready to be cast in one of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. This one’s a spring training shot with Al Oliver in the background when hopes should have been high for Fernando since he was probably coming off a pretty good season when this shot was taken but I guess he’s showing his poker face. I think if I saw that mug in a game I’d just fold.

Fernando Gonzalez was signed out of Puerto Rico by the new Seattle Pilots in late ’68. For them he seemed to have hit well enough in A ball but his fielding at his primary middle infield positions was pretty awful and he was released. He spent ’70 playing semi-pro ball in Canada, returned to PR for winter ball where he was managed by Roberto Clemente, and did well enough to get signed by Pittsburgh at the star’s recommendation. Back in A ball he hit a ton and more importantly fielded significantly better while playing primarily shortstop. In ’72 he moved up to Double A where he had another big offensive year and moved to the hot corner on defense before making his debut with the Pirates. After the trade shown here he moved to Kansas City where he got some nominal field time before being sold to the Yankees in May. NY was sort of in a transition mode that year at second base as longtime regular Horace Clarke had been sent to San Diego and Sandy Alomar had yet to arrive from California. So Fernando got his first regular MLB gig at second before his low average allowed Alomar to take over the spot and get Fernando sent back to Triple A where his past offensive success at that level was elusive. During spring training in ’75 he was released.

Gonzalez hooked up with the Poza Rica team in the Mexican League the first half of the ’75 season and in July was re-acquired by Pittsburgh to finish out the season in Triple A, where he hit at a .279 clip while returning to third base. He remained there for all of ’76 where he posted a .321/13/70 line as the regular corner guy. He then returned to the big club in ’77 where he did back-up work at third and in the outfield and put up some respectable offensive numbers with a .276/4/27 line in his 181 at bats. He began ’78 in the same role but wasn’t getting nearly as much work before he was plucked off waivers by San Diego. The Padres were also in a bit of a jam at second as high profile kid Mike Champion didn’t work out and Fernando immediately stepped into the starting role, hitting .250 the rest of the way while providing some pretty good defense. In ’79 he was the starter early in the year and he started strongly with a .300 average the first month-plus but when his streak ran out it did so hard and by the end of the year displace shortstop – by Ozzie Smith – Billy Almon moved over as the starting guy. Prior to the ’80 season the Padres picked up Dave Cash to take over second full time and Fernando was released. He hooked up with California and that year had a .311/16/70 line in Triple A while splitting time between second and third but didn’t get any call. In ’81 he began the season hitting .274 in the same role but was released and then returned to Mexico to play. He did that the next four years and then in mid-’84 returned to the States to coach and play for the Yankees Double A franchise, hitting .257 in 60 games. That was his final work as a player and Fernando finished with a .235 MLB average on top of his .297 minor league one.

Gonzalez played Senior League ball in ’89 and seems to have worked a bit in Mexico and Puerto Rico as a coach after he played but nothing specific is out there.

Maybe that big ’72 warranted the rookie double card thing. The cartoon was a big help for the bio since everywhere else it just said he was out of pro ball. Despite what I said above Fernando actually had some nice numbers as a pinch hitter. In ’77 he hit .370 in that role with a .429 OBA and nine RBI’s in his 27 pinch at bats and in ’78 he hit .444 with a .500 OBA in his ten plate appearances.

Fernando was part of a pretty big trade and all the other principals have the double cards as well. “Originally drafted by the A’s”, huh? That may be a typo because I have found no relationship between Fernando and Oakland in my research.

These two sure aren’t going to get linked by the teams on their Traded cards:

1. Gonzalez and Rick Dempsey ’74 Yankees;
2. Dempsey and Terry Crowley ’76 to ’82 Orioles.

Monday, March 17, 2014

#648 - Terry Crowley

Here we have the subject of the penultimate Traded card in the set in Terry Crowley, who actually looks relieved in the hatless photo of the Traded card, which is usually why those photos were taken in the first place. Terry was actually itching for a trade as his usage in ’73 was way less than he thought was warranted. After being Baltimore’s Opening Day DH – and going 2 for 4 – he was pretty quickly supplanted by Tommie Davis after Terry’s average moved down to Mendoza levels by mid-April and never really recovered. The rest of the season he got a little outfield and first base work and also some as DH and pinch hitter. That last role would become sort of a double-edged sword for Terry since he would gain some notoriety for his performance in that role, but his degree of skill at it would limit his usage elsewhere. But all that wouldn’t happen until his second go-around in Baltimore. Regarding the trade – actually a sale – like some recent subjects, Terry wouldn’t actually play a regular season game for his new team and by the time these cards came out he’d be with a whole other team in a whole other league.

Terry Crowley grew up on Staten Island on NYC where he was a Yankees fan and a pitcher. He had acquired lots of MLB interest in that role in high school until he was injured his senior year and he had to leave pitching behind. When interest abated he decided to go to Long Island University where he relocated to the outfield and his sophomore year was an All-American. That performance got the scouts interested again and Baltimore drafted him that spring of ’66, but he took so long to sign that he only got some IL ball that year. In ’67 he played mostly first base in A ball where he hit .262 with some good power – ten triples - and stole 21 bases. He then split ’68 between Double A and Triple A, hitting a combined .265 while playing mostly outfield at the lower level and first base the latter part of the season. In ’69 he had a big year at the higher level with a .282/28/83 line before a September call-up got him in the middle of some division-run action. In ’70 he stayed with Baltimore as a reserve outfielder/first baseman and hit pretty well in his limited work, posting a .394 OBA. In ’71 he hurt his leg during spring training, missed some time, and was sent to Triple A for rehab. He had a big year, posting a .282/19/63 line with a .399 OBA in just 259 at bats while playing first, though his short time back up wasn’t too productive. But in ’72 a hot start got him a bunch of starts in right field in the wake of Frank Robinson’s trade to LA. By the end of May his average was at .378, but a sub-.200 the rest of the way would contribute to his return to the minors in ’73. In the meantime, though, he had a pretty good action card in that ’73 set.

Crowley did not make it out of spring training with Texas in ’74 and went to Cincinnati in a sale. In a prelude of things to come, he would get some outfield work, but the majority of his time was spent in the pinch. In ’74 he put up a .204/0/7 line in 59 plate appearances in that role and in the Series year of ’75 he upped it to .280/0/4 with a .357 OBA in 56 appearances. Following that year he went to Atlanta in a trade for pitcher Mike Thompson, but after just a couple games he was released. Shortly thereafter he was picked up by the Orioles and he initially put in some games at Triple A, where he hit .261, before returning to Baltimore for some games at DH but lots more in the pinch, hitting .246 overall in 61 at bats. In ’77 he was back in Triple A where he had another big year with a .308/30/80 line in just over 400 at bats before he made some late appearances with the O’s and hit .467 with nine RBI’s in just 15 at bats. That success pretty much sealed his fate the next few years as he rejoined the Earl Weaver platoon system as a sometime left-handed DH and mostly pinch hitter. He especially delivered the next two seasons with a line of .368/0/9 with a .372 OBA in 38 ’78 at bats and in ’79 of .302/1/7/.426 in 43 at bats. He became a fan favorite and was the subject of a pretty hilarious foul-mother Earl Weaver diatribe that can be heard on YouTube. That second year he helped Baltimore to its final pennant of the Seventies. In ’80 he got his most time at DH, putting up a line of .288/12/50 in just 233 at bats. His average came down a bit in the ’81 strike season, though his line of .246/4/25 with a .376 OBA was still impressive for just 134 at bats. He closed things out with another year as a pinch guy in ’82 before doing some time with Montreal in the same role in ’83. Terry finished with a .250 average, 42 homers, and 229 RBI’s and a pretty good .345 OBA. In the post-season he hit .273 with three RBI’s in 13 games.

After playing Crowley turned immediately to coaching for what would turn into a long run in that role. In ’84 he became Baltimore’s minor league hitting coach before joining the Orioles from ’85 to ’88. He then spent ’89 to ’90 in the Boston system as its hitting coordinator before joining Minnesota for a long successful run from ’91 to ’98. He then returned to the Orioles as the team’s hitting coach from ’99 to 2010 before giving up that role to become the system hitting evaluator, a position he still holds.

There are lots of one-liners in the star bullets. In ’70 Terry hit .310 as a pinch hitter with a .429 OBA. Regarding the homer, it won the game in the 10th inning to put the O’s only a game back. Unfortunately some under-.500 ball the rest of the way kept them in third place.

Well, that’s a nice headline. It makes Terry seem like a box of fruit. He was sold to Texas for $100,000, not a bad price back then. This post goes up on St. Patrick's Day; I gotta believe this guy has at least a little Irish in him.

The connection here could have been Texas, had things gone a bit differently:

1. Crowley and Bobby Grich ’70 to ’73 and ’76 Orioles;
2. Grich and Juan Beniquez ’81 to ’85 Angels.

Friday, March 14, 2014

#647 - Juan Beniquez

Yes, this guy used to be a shortstop. And on his rookie card he strikes a very shortstop-y pose in front of some spring training batting practice. Back then Juan Beniquez was being groomed as the heir apparent to Luis Aparicio, but by the time of this card’s arrival the switch had been made to the outfield. Seeds of that change had already been sown in a ’73 spent exclusively in Triple A where Juan had a nice season offensively, leading his league in hitting and recording 25 stolen bases. Defensively most of his time was spent in center field after some rough recent numbers at his listed position – see cartoon – as well as short runs at second and third. The shift worked and would help contribute to a nice long career for Juan, though position-wise his timing wasn’t too hot and most of that time would be spent elsewhere.

Juan Beniquez was signed by Boston out of a local Puerto Rican team in ’68, when he was 18. In A ball his first season he put up some good offensive and defensive numbers while playing exclusively at short, which would be his position the next few years as well. He then split ’70 between that level and Double A, topping out with a combined 43 stolen bases in the minors. In ’71 he kept his offense rocking with a big triples number and 30 steals in Triple A before his successful debut in Boston late that season. In ’72 he began the season in Triple A and after hitting nearly .300 with 20 steals in half a season he was pulled up to the Sox where he did some light duty while spelling Little Looie at short. After moving to the outfield in ’73 Juan returned to Boston full-time in ’74 where he hit .267 with 19 stolen bases while sharing time in center with Rick Miller. While he did well in that role and would seem to have had a future there, he was quickly trumped the next season when the arrival of all-everything rookie Fred Lynn pushed Juan into a reserve role that included time at the outfield corners, DH, and even third base. He hit .291 in that role and the worked regularly in the post-season after an injury laid other rookie phenom Jim Rice incapacitated. But the presence of those two plus other young outfielders Dwight Evans, Miller, and Bernie Carbo meant that playing time would be scarce for Juan, so following the season he went to Texas in the deal that made Fergie Jenkins a Red Sox.

With the Rangers the next three seasons Beniquez became the regular guy in center where he would supply very capable defense and won a Gold Glove in ’77. But his offense was sort of unspectacular with a .261 average, a high of 50 RBI’s, and middling stolen base numbers. After the ’78 season he was involved in another trade with a (future) big deal pitcher, this time joining Dave Righetti in going to the Yankees in a populated swap. With NY Juan suffered through a season of back-up work in which he hit .254 in only 142 at bats. Then it was on the road again, this time to Seattle in the deal that brought another soon-to-be disappointed Yankee outfielder to NY in Ruppert Jones. Juan’s numbers weren’t any better with the Mariners - .228 in 237 at bats – in another short stay. After the season he departed for California as a free agent.

Beniquez would enjoy his most successful MLB time with the Angels, though it sure didn’t start off that way. In the strike year of ’81 he bottomed out offensively with a .181 average in just 166 at bats. He was then moved to the outfield corners which seemed to contribute to an offensive revival as his average jumped to .265, his highest since ’77. Then in ’83 he surprised probably everyone by starting a three-year run of hitting over .300 while getting plenty of work as the California fourth outfielder. He topped out with a .336 in ’84 which got him some MVP votes, and in ’85 expanded his field work to first base. Then, in another example of bad timing, he left Anaheim for Baltimore as a free agent where in his one season he reprised his role as a fourth outfielder while hitting an even .300. He then went to Kansas City for a couple minor leaguers after that season and finished things up as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter in ’88 with Toronto, hitting .293. So 17 years in, Juan finished with a .274 average with 79 homers, 476 RBI’s, and over 100 stolen bases. In the post-season he hit .200 with a couple RBI’s in his eight games.

Juan gets some star bullet props for his glove and hitting work, but that cartoon is a killer. Those couple games were instrumental in that shift to the outfield.

Beniquez had played winter ball back in his native PR during his whole stateside career and for a bit thereafter, where he also did some coaching and managing. Outside of an ’89 spent in the Senior League, though, there is no specific information out there regarding what he did professionally after baseball. That’s almost always the case with the Latin guys.

So these two faced each other in that immortal ’75 Series:

1. Beniquez and Ellis Valentine ’83 Angels;
2. Valentine and George Foster ’82 Mets.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

#646 - George Foster

What we have here is a high-hatted George Foster looking concerned about something, perhaps his career? Two years after coming to Cincinnati to replace the injured Bobby Tolan in center George, bedeviled by a low average and many strikeouts, was in the minors for most of the ’73 season. While his Triple A numbers were by no means eye-popping – a .262 average with 15 homers, 60 RBI’s, and 109 K’s in 496 at bats – his time there certainly seemed to have done the trick. While those K totals weren’t exactly low they were a long way better than his ratio up until then in MLB at bats, which was more than one in four. After about a year-plus of settling in time George would become the biggest slugger in the mid- to late-Seventies version of the Big Red Machine and eventually earn himself a fat payday on the free agent market. So no need for concern, at least not for another decade.

George Foster was born in Alabama but had relocated to California by the time he was in high school. Cut from his freshman team he started lifting weights and made the roster the rest of his HS time and played football and ran track as well. After graduating in ’67 he tried out for the Dodgers but didn’t make the cut and instead went to nearby El Camino College, where he continued to participate in all three sports. In the meantime he’d been selected in the January ’68 draft by the Giants and once his college season ended he signed and hit .277 in A ball with not too much power. In ’69 he put up much better numbers at that level with a .321/14/85 line and a .381 OBA before his successful September debit in a couple games. In ’70 he played nearly the whole season in Triple A where his line was .308/8/66 before he again hit well in some short time in San Francisco. Back then the Giants were awash in young outfielders, fielding two spots on the ’68 Topps Rookie team in Barry Bonds and Dave Marshall, and also sporting a franchise roster that included Ken Henderson, Bernie Williams, Garry Maddox, and Gary Matthews. In ’71 George was pulled up to San Francisco as one of the bunch and while he hit OK while playing the outfield corners, the Giants decided they needed more help in the infield and traded George that May to Cincinnati for shortstop Frank Duffy and minor league pitcher Vern Geishert. Eventually it would turn into another monster deal for the Reds but at the time they were desperate for a center fielder to fill the spot made open by Bobby Tolan’s pre-season injury. George did not so bad defensively: he had a big arm and covered enough ground but he wasn’t the most accurate thrower. And offensively his power wasn’t too bad but he at times seemed overmatched at the plate and he wasn’t the offensive catalyst Bobby was in ’70. When Tolan returned in ’72 and the Machine made that big deal with Houston, the presence of Tolan and new guy Cesar Geronimo pushed George to a back-up role which didn’t really suit him as his average floundered and he struck out once every three at bats.

After the transitional year of ’73 Foster was back up for good. Tolan was gone, having experienced his own funk in ’73, and the outfield was populated by Pete Rose, off-season acquirees Merv Rettenmund and Terry Crowley, and a bunch of young guys including Geronimo, Ken Griffey, Dan Driessen, and George. For the ’74 season George shared time at the corner spots with Driessen and Griffey while Geronimo took over center field. George hit well enough, posting a .264/7/41 line in his 276 at bats. The Reds continued that system to start the ’75 season but then blew it up a bit in a good way by moving Rose to third base and giving Griffey and George the regular corner spots, Foster taking over left field. His numbers improved markedly to a .300/23/78 line, and he followed up his year with a nice post-season. In ’76, now a regular from day one, he became an All-Star by putting up a line of .306/29/121 while keeping the K’s relatively low and leading the NL in RBI’s which he would also do the next two years. ‘77 was his big MVP season with his .320/52/149 line with 124 runs and a .382 OBA. He led the NL with his totals in runs, homers, and RBI’s, becoming the first NL guy to post over 50 homers since Willie Mays in ’65 and the first NLer with that many RBI’s since Tommie Davis in ’62. In ’78 he again led the league in homers and RBI’s while recoding a .281/40/120 line as he continued to do well despite the loss the last two seasons of Tony Perez behind him in the line-up. The next few seasons George would continue to post excellent numbers though they would be discounts to his big three seasons due to various factors: .302/30/98 despite missing over a month in the summer of ’79 due to injury; .273/25/93 after the departure of Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench’s injury meant lots less protection in the line-up; and .295/22/90 while missing about a third of the season due to the strike. By then George was looking for the big bucks and though he departed Cincy in a trade to the Mets for Jim Kern, Alex Trevino, and Greg Harris, it was really sort of is departure to free agency.

The Mets of the late Seventies and early Eighties were a pretty sorry bunch and the acquisition of Foster was hailed as the beginning of a turnaround. But even the post-Morgan, Rose, and Perez line-up of the recent Reds teams was vastly superior to the one George joined in ’82. Young outfielder Mookie Wilson and third baseman Hubie Brooks showed promise but the rest of the batting order was nothing special and the dynamic mound staff was a thing of the past. George had a pretty terrible first year as he put up a line of .247/13/70 while overswinging helped pile up the strikeouts. That didn’t make too many NY fans happy and poor George was christened with the new last name of Flopster. He would recover a bit the next two years to lines of .241/28/90 in ’83 and .269/24/86 in ’84 as some key acquisitions and the development of the young guys put the Mets in the right direction. In ’85 he had a line of .263/21/77 as the Mets moved to the cusp of the playoffs with the acquisition of Gary Carter. Early in the ’86 season George was still getting starts in left but he began to be pushed for time by kids Lenny Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell. When his complaint about playing time – either on his own behalf or that of Mookie Wilson’s, depending on the source – took perceived racial overtones he was released and missed the post-season. After playing a couple weeks with the White Sox he was done. George finished with a .274 average with 348 homers and 1,239 RBI’s. He made five All-Star teams, was a Silver Slugger once, and in 23 post-season games hit .289 with three homers and twelve RBI’s.

Despite the tough times in NY after Foster retired he made the area his home and settled in Connecticut. There he began a ministry and worked with various levels of kids in team and private baseball coaching. He initially ran a non-profit in the Dayton area and since has started his own group that benefits children of military personnel. He continues to coach privately and also does motivational speaking.

An early playoff highlight occupies one star bullet and those four homers are pretty impressive for only 39 ’73 at bats.This card is really off center.

These two were a decade apart as Mets:

1. Foster and Tom Seaver ’83 Mets;
2. Seaver and Ken Boswell ’67 to ’74 Mets.