Tuesday, February 28, 2012

#341 - Dan Driessen

This is our first true rookie card in a long while. It also represents the first Topps 1973 Rookie All-Star Team honoree in over 100 cards. I love this card. You have the subject, Dan Driessen, in a posed shot way out of position. You have a billboard ad for Sunbeam in the background. You have Don Gullett looking huge on the mound in the background. And you have a beautiful sunny spring training day that looks like it was a great one in which to do even the tedious workout stuff. Dan had a fun year in '73 and filled a big hole for the Reds when he came up. Denis Menke, who'd been the starter at third completely stopped hitting and Cincy was in a jam. But they had this guy and his .409 average at Indianapolis and when they pulled him up and slotted him in the line-up he didn't disappoint. Dan went on to hit .301 and provide good enough D at third to make the Reds stop worrying. He also put in a bunch of games at first - and in fact played many games at both - which enable the Baseball Digest guys to throw him on their rookie team at that position (they picked Ron Cey for third). Dan came in third in NL ROY voting in a strong year for rookie third basemen (besides Cey, Ken Reitz was a rookie, as was Bill Madlock, Mike Schmidt, and Jerry Terrell) so copping the Topps spot was a pretty big deal.

Dan Driessen came out of what was back then a pretty rural Hilton Head, South Carolina, before the place turned into a resort vacation destination. His high school did not have a baseball team, so Dan - who was a catcher - and his older brother Bill both played for a rec league team many towns away. Since Dan had no real organized footing he flew under the radar and his rec coach wrote letters to every big league team advocating for both Bill and Dan. They both got tryouts with the Braves and Dan was the last guy cut. Then he had a Florida tryout for the Reds and made the cut. That year - 1970 - he got off to a rocky start in A ball by hitting only .223. But he played excellent D at his new position, first base, and was able to return the next year to add over 100 points to his average at the same level. In '72 he moved up to Double A and put in some time at third so the Reds must have known what was coming. Then to kick off '73 it was third base all the way at Triple A where he hit .409 and had a nearly .500 OBA before he was called up that June.

After his impressive debut, Driessen pretty much took over third the next year, hitting pretty well with a .281 average but having a bit of trouble defensively. In the meantime fellow '73 rookie Ken Griffey was stepping things up huge and George Foster was finally coming around so with Pete Rose and Cesar Geronimo Cincy had four starting outfielders. Beginning in '75 Dan would be the odd man out as Rose was moved to third and he backed up first base and the outfield. He hit .281 again in '75 but slid to .247 the next year, but both years put up nice OBA and power numbers. He got almost zero playoff time each year but in '76 they incorporated the DH in the Series for the first time and Dan was the Reds' guy, hitting .357. The next year Cincy let Tony Perez leave as a free agent and Dan took over first. He had a nice '77, continuing Doggie's run of 90-plus ribbie seasons by posting 91 himself while hitting .300. He also stole 31 bases that year. He then settled into a long run as the regular guy at first, excelling defensively and being a middling hitter for the position. In '80 he led the NL in walks and he continued as the number one guy midway through the '84 season when he was traded to the Expos for Andy McGaffigan and a minor leaguer. He then became a journeyman, moving to San Francisco and Houston before setlling in St. Louis in '87. He actually spent most of that season - as he had in '86 - in Triple A and was called up after Jack Clark got hurt. He had a couple key hits in the post-season that year but it was his last hurrah as he was released that November. Dan finished with a .267 average with 153 homers and 763 RBI's. He also stole 154 bases and had a .356 OBA. In the post-season he hit .212 with a homer and four RBI's in 23 games. Defensively he is 19th all-time with a .995 fielding average at first base.

Driessen had spent some winters playing ball in Mexico and even won a batting title there in the mid-Seventies. In '88 he played there during the regular season and then in '89 returned to the States to play in the Senior League which he did for both its seasons. He would eventually return to Hilton Head year-round where he started his own excavating and truck business and spent a bunch of years as the assistant baseball coach at the high school. This year he will be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.

Dan has one of the more qualitative card backs I have seen in this set. Topps needs to let us know in the first star bullet that he was "completely" overlooked in the draft. And the second part of the last star bullet is great. I guess that .327 average in '71 was done with a cricket paddle. The "Cobra" nickname came from Dan's habit of sort of unwinding into his swing.

Let's get the hookup with the '76 Series opponent now. The middle guy was already mentioned above:

1. Driessen and Don Gullett '73 to '76 Reds;
2. Gullett and Thurman Munson '77 to '78 Yankees.

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