Tuesday, October 23, 2012

#450 - Rich Hebner


Here’s Richie Hebner – Topps liked to call him Rich – posing in spring training in front of what appears to be a bunch of fans checking out some action on one of the other fields, although that one guy in what I’m hoping is a yellow shirt seems to be checking out our subject. The shot also appears to have been taken in ’73 since that looks like a piece of electrical tape coming off his left shoulder (at this point my guess is that the Pirates put the tape on the sleeves in honor of Roberto Clemente before they were able to get the patches with his number). Judging by Richie’s card number Topps loved the guy since only thirteen guys in the set received his or a higher designation (cards ending in 50 or multiples of 100). I was certainly a big enough fan of the guy – he could be a pretty entertaining interview subject – and he did have a pretty good ’73, putting up until then personal bests in homers and RBI’s. He also hit an inside-the-park homer on Opening Day (I guess that should be capitalized). But I’m not terribly sure what he did to earn the honor. Then again, I’m just a guy with a blog, so what do I know.

Richie Hebner grew up outside Boston where at Norwood High he was a hockey and baseball star. In the latter sport he hit well over .400 in both his junior and senior years. The Bruins drafted him after his senior year – in which he had 29 goals and was an All-American – of ’66 but Richie opted for the other guys who drafted him, the Pirates, who selected him as a first round pick. He wasted little time in tagging the ball in the minors, hitting .359 with 20 RBI’s in 26 Rookie League games that summer. In ’67 he hit .336 in A ball and settled in at third base after being primarily a shortstop until then. In ’68 he hit .276 in Triple A and then made his debut that September. In his first MLB at bat he had to take over the count when the guy in the line-up ahead of him had been thrown out of the game for arguing the two strike calls against him. Richie went to the plate already down 1-2 and then watched as Freddie Patek, who was on first, got gunned down trying to steal second. That sounds like a no pressure introduction to MLB.

In ’69 Hebner started hot after being given the starting third base gig in spring training. He was hitting nearly .400 in mid-May and settled for being the only rookie in either league to hit over .300 that season. He probably would have made Topps Rookie team but Coco Laboy of Montreal showed a bit more power. The next year his numbers stayed roughly the same and he then hit .667 in the NL playoffs. In '71 he missed some weekends and about half a month mid-summer - military reserve? - but when around amped up his power considerably and then was a huge hand in winning his Series ring, knocking in eight runs in his seven post-season games. In ’72 he lost his first time to bad knees but he was able to keep his power elevated that year and the next few seasons. In ’74 he got his most at bats and hits of his career as his average rose 20 points. The next couple seasons he lost a bit more time to sore knees, his homers got reduced to single digits the second year, and both seasons he put up sub-.250 averages. Following the '76 season he went to the Phillies as a free agent.

For Philadelphia Hebner moved to first base, replacing the departed Dick Allen and Bobby Tolan. There he resumed his pre-'75 stat lines, averaging .284/18/66 seasons in just over 400 at bats per. He also returned to the post-season both years and in '77 hit .357 against the Dodgers. Then in ’79 when the Phillies picked up Pete Rose to play first, Richie went to the Mets with Jose Moreno for pitcher Nino Espinosa. There, for a crappy team, he became about the 500th third baseman in the New York history and put up nice numbers with a .268 average and 79 RBI’s. After that season he was on the move again, going to Detroit and the AL for Jerry Morales and Phil Mankowski.

Hebner had a bang-up first season in Detroit in ’80, hitting .290 with 82 RBI’s – his personal best – in only 341 at bats as he split time between first and third. But his follow-up season didn’t go so well as Richie, never a fast guy to begin with – was bedeviled by bad wheels and saw his numbers drop pretty significantly in the strike year. In ’82 he started about a third of the games at first and had revived his average almost 50 points when in August he got sold back to Pittsburgh. For the Pirates he hit .300 as mostly a right fielder during the stretch drive. He remained in Pittsburgh for the ’83 season, subbing mostly at third while he hit .265.  He then moved to the Cubs as a free agent where he spent two seasons backing up the corners and pinch-hitting. In '84 he helped win a division title by hitting .300 in the pinch and .333 overall and his second year he put up 22 RBI's in only 120 at bats. After the ’85 season he was done with a .276 average with 203 homers, 890 RBI’s, and a .352 OBA. He hit .270 with four homers and 16 RBI’s in 30 post-season games as well.

Hebner, who famously worked in his dad’s cemetery digging graves during off-seasons, moved into coaching once his playing career ended. In ’87 he coached a local American Legion team and somehow turned that into managing in the Toronto chain the next year (he did come in first place in ’88). He then went to Boston as hitting coach under Joe Morgan (’89-’91) before returning to the Toronto system as a roving hitting coach (’92-’94) and manager (’95-’96). He then hooked up with the Pittsburgh system as a coach (’97-’99) and manager (2000) before returning to the top as the Phillies hitting coach in 2001. He then began a long tenure with the Durham Bulls, then a Tampa Rays Triple A affiliate, as its hitting coach from ’02 to ’07. After that it was to the Orioles system for two years as a manager (’08-’09) and one as a coach. After not coaching in 2011 he was named the manager of the Norwood Navigators, a summer college league team, in 2012.  


Richie had to get a big bonus to compete with the hockey guys. His brother umped in the International League a bunch of years and was a pretty good hockey player himself.

Charlie Sands would work here but he rarely played so let’s try this:

1. Hebner and Milt Wilcox ’80 to ’82 Tigers;
2. Wilcox and Tommy McCraw 72 and ’74 Indians.

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