Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#469 - Joe Decker

From a couple stops in the Dominican Republic we return to the States with Joe Decker, who has about as down-home an American a name as you get. When this photo was snapped in '73 Joe was in the middle of his first season in the AL with Minnesota which was a considerable uptick to his days in that other league. Especially that day in June when he struck out 15 White Sox, setting a team record. Joe only gave up four hits and three walks that day and the Sox could hit that year and it was a pretty big win, starting off a five-game rally that briefly took the Twins from fifth to first place. Joe looks like he might be in Oakland and that broad smile might be him remembering that game or just contentment at finally being in a regular rotation.

Joe Decker was born in Iowa where his dad was a very popular barber who played a mean game of fast-pitch softball. While Joe was a teenager his dad passed away and the family moved to California where he was a big deal American Legion and high school pitcher at Petaluma High School. From there he was drafted in ’65 by the Cubs and went 5-4 in Rookie ball as a starter. From ’66 to ’68 he pitched around going to school at Arizona State – where he obviously didn’t play ball which is pretty ironic - going a couple games under .500 with relatively high ERA’s, mostly in A ball. That stopped when in the final month in ’68 he went 3-4 with a 1.86 ERA in nine starts in Triple A. He then went 10-10 at that level in ’69 with a 3.30 ERA and in September pitched very well in his few games in Chicago. In ’70 he began the year in the military and then had sort of a rough go in the rotation, returning to Double A at one point where he had a 0.50 ERA in a couple starts. He split ’71 between Triple A – 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA – and Chicago where he was sent to the pen and his ERA rose a couple pips. That got him sent to Leo Durocher’s doghouse and ’72 was nearly all Triple A where Joe’s 12-7 record and 2.26 ERA showed he had nothing left to prove at that level (although his walks total remained pretty high) and he performed nicely in his few games up top. After the season he and Bill Hands were sent to the Twins for Dave LaRoche.

After Decker’s revival in ’73 with Minnesota he took things up a notch in ’74 by going 16-14 with a 3.29 ERA. He cut his walks and hits down a bit and got better offensive support to become the Twins’ second-best starter behind Bert Blyleven. But the success was short-lived. Immediately after the start of the '75 season he came down with a glandular/mouth/stomach – depending on the source – virus that sapped his strength, made him lose twenty pounds, and wrecked his season. He went 1-3 with an 8.54 ERA and really didn’t get much better as all his mechanics were a hot mess. In ’76 he went 2-7 with a 5.28 ERA in twelve starts before he was sent back to Triple A. Joe refused to report and was released that June. Shortly thereafter he signed with Detroit, for whom he would pitch in Tripe A but not terribly well: 1-10 with a 6.95 ERA. He was released by the Tigers at the end of the season and then re-signed with the Cubs. For them, again in Triple A, he pitched much better, going 5-7 with a 4.70 ERA, but not well enough to be retained. After being released in July he pitched for Mexico City, who after the season sold him to Seattle. Again, Joe put up improved numbers, going 6-13 with five saves and a 3.93 ERA as a Triple A swing guy. After starting the season 3-2 with five more saves and a 3.02 ERA in ’79 he got called up to Seattle where he went 0-1 with a 4.28 ERA as a spot guy in 27 innings. That would be his final season up top and Joe finished with a record of 36-44 with a 4.17 ERA, 19 complete games, and four shutouts.

Decker returned to Mexico to pitch in 1980 and then to the Mariners organization in ’81 to become a pitching coach in their system. In ’82 and ’83 he was the pitching coach at Triple A Salt Lake City and threw in a few games over those seasons, although not particularly well. In the minors overall he was 70-77 with a 3.75 ERA. He remained in the Mariners franchise through ’86 and in ’87 became the pitching coach for the Boise Hawks, an A level unaffiliated team. He did that through ’88 and then the next couple summers pitched in the Senior League. After that league folded early in ’90 he became a coach in the Detroit organization. Around here the trail runs cold until in 2003 Joe passed away in Michigan after a fall down his basement stairs. He was 55.

Joe introduces a different kind of parentheses thing in his signature. In an interview he said he’d been called Joe since he was a kid and he had no idea why. Topps completely ignores his big strikeout game in ’73, instead opting for some inferior star bullets. This is the second cartoon in which Joe gets props for his drumming skills so I guess he was pretty good.

For the Twins, wining the ’65 AL pennant was the team’s contribution to the ’76 baseball centennial. It was the first time since 1933 that the franchise had reached the post-season. The Twins had a balanced attack that year as an injury to Harmon Killebrew paved the way to many offensive leaders and new pitching coach Johnny Sain took Mudcat Grant and Jim Kaat to new heights. Minnesota decided things relatively early, clinching in a 5-0 win on September 25th by Mudcat – his 20th of the season – over the Senators in DC. Mudcat gave up only one hit – a third-inning double to Don Blasingame – and two walks while striking out seven. The offensive stars were Zoilo Versalles, who went four for five with a homer and two RBI’s and was on his way to an MVP, and Sandy Valdespino, who stroked a two-run pinch single. The Twins went on to lose to LA in an exciting seven-game Series.

Joe played south of the border but Pepe was all-NL up here. I get to use one of my favorite relievers:

1. Decker and Rod Carew ’73 to ’76 Twins;
2. Carew and Mike Marshall ’78 Twins;
3. Marshall and Pepe Frias ’73 Expos.

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