Tuesday, August 20, 2013

#581 - Fred Norman

Not too many players had as dynamic a ’73 season as this guy had. After a promising ’72 season in which he finally demonstrated the promise for which he was signed over ten years earlier, Fred Norman was having a typical season for a Padres starter to open the ’73 season. He threw well in his first start against LA but didn’t get a decision. Then through early June he piched in only one game the team won, a complete game victory over Cincinnati. Then on June 13 things changed, decidedly for the better. The Reds were in a bit of a bind: picked to win the NL flag again, third base was messy, their outfielders outside of Pete Rose weren’t hitting, and the starting pitching was spotty. The team had lost four in a row and was in fourth place, six games back of LA. So they picked up Fred for some mound help and only had to give up a pinch hitter (Gene Locklear) and a minor leaguer to get him. So the next game Fred went up against Pittsburgh and shut them out. His next start he went up against the Giants and shut them out. His next start he went up against LA and shut them out through eight-plus innings. So not only did Fred resuscitate his season – and possibly his career – but he also helped do the same thing for Cincinnati. By early August he had gone 9-1 as a Red and Cincy had climbed to second place. He was the pitcher of record in the big July 1 win against LA won by Hal King and his walkoff homer. Fred would fade a bit down the stretch but his acquisition would prove a big catalyst as the Reds went 68-35 after that trade. And all that from such a little guy. He’s not helping his cause in this photo at Candlestick, in which he appears to be wearing Lee May’s old windbreaker under his jersey. Not a very dynamic card for such a dynamic year but in his new home there’d be lots of drama to come, most of it the good kind.

Fred Norman was born in San Antonio and moved to Florida as a kid where he attended Jackson High School where he played basketball and pitched. His senior year he threw a no-hitter in a big game in which he struck out 19 of 21 batters and that happened to be viewed by a bunch of scouts. A bunch of teams came calling and Fred signed with Kansas City in June of ’61 for a reported $65,000 bonus. He went right to Double A ball that summer but had control issues and went 1-7 with a 5.70 ERA and more than a walk an inning. A ball was still tough the next year – 3-5 with a 4.89 ERA but a much better K/BB ratio – so he was moved to B ball where things got better with a 7-5, 4.09 stint in 16 starts and his K’s zoomed to 147 in 95 innings. That September he made his debut for the A’s and did nice work in his few innings. Outside of a few unspectacular innings in KC ’63 was spent all at Double A where Fred put up his most consistent numbers to date: 13-14 with a 3.09 ERA and a fat 258 strikeouts in 198 innings. That December, though, he went to the Cubs for outfielder Nelson Matthews.

In ’64 Norman got his first Topps card, a rookie one on which he was paired with a guy with a great baseball name, Sterling Slaughter. Fred began the season in Chicago, had an excellent first start against Pittsburgh – no decision – but then sort of crashed and burned and by mid-May he was back in the minors, first at Triple A and then back down to Double A. But none of those stops went too well as he went a combined 3-14 with a 7.15 ERA and just had some terrible luck or bad fielding behind him. In his Double A stint he gave up 46 runs on only 55 hits! In ’65 he got another rookie card but no time in Chicago as he continued to fall, finishing the year in A ball where he had a 5.52 ERA but at least got back his control with 63 walks and 116 strikeouts in his 106 innings. He was also hurt a bunch that year but he came back in ’66 to Double A ball and his best season to date: 12-11 with a 2.73 ERA and 198 K’s in 191 innings. That got him a couple innings in Chicago and he stayed there to start the ’67 season when in late April he was sent to the Dodgers for pitcher Dick Calmus. Fred would spend the balance of that year in Triple A where his numbers were pretty good at 8-5 with a 3.71 ERA. He then did a back and forth the next two seasons, putting up a 6-8 season with a 4.39 ERA in Double A in ’68 and then a 13-6 with a 2.62 ERA back in Triple A in ’69. In ’70 he got his third Topps card as a Dodger, five years after his last one – a record? – and that year was all LA as Fred, a starter pretty much his whole career to date, took on a middle relief role with limited success. By the end of the season he was plucked off waivers by St. Louis with whom he ended the year.

Norman didn’t stay with the Cardinals too long and most of that time was in the minors, but it was there that the genesis of his new pitching career began. He began the ’71 season at Triple A Tulsa, a team that happened to have as its pitching coach a guy named Warren Spahn. Spahn told Fred that he thought his days as a power pitcher were over – and at 28 with barely 100 MLB innings under his belt Fred was impelled to listen – and that it was time to rethink his game. So he taught Fred a screwball which the little guy took to pretty immediately, going 6-1 in his seven starts with a 2.18 ERA and 72 K’s in 62 innings with his new pitch. The Cards brought him back up but, not crazy with the early results, sent him to San Diego for Al Santorini. With the Padres now, Fred finally got his big shot and while the resulting 3-12 record was pretty ugly, that 3.32 ERA was awfully good and his spot as a regular in an MLB line-up was finally assured. In ’72 came another unspectacular record but of his nine wins and six shutouts, three wins and two shutouts came against Cincinnati which was probably a big factor in the following year’s trade.

After the fun of ’73 Norman settled into a nice run as an above-average pitcher on an awfully good team. Through ’79 he would go 85-64 as a Red with a 3.43 ERA as generally the third starter. In ’75 he went 12-4 as the Reds returned to the playoffs and then won the Series and in ’76 he went 12-7 with his best ERA of 3.09 as his team repeated. In ’77 he won his most games in a season with 14 and then won eleven each of the next two years. In his seven seasons in Cincinnati the team went to the post-season four years. After that last season he left as a free agent and signed with Montreal for whom he had an OK year as a swing guy. He finished things up after that season with a record of 104-103 with a 3.64 ERA, 56 complete games, 15 shutouts, and eight saves. In the post-season he was 1-1 with a 5.01 ERA in six games.

After a year away from baseball Norman returned to the Cincinnati fold as a pitching coach in its minors system in ’82, which he did through at least ’84. After that I have been unable to find out what he has done professionally or otherwise. But he certainly hasn’t disappeared. There is a lengthy two-part interview done by Redleg Nation earlier this year that I have linked to here.

Fred gets some expected star bullets though I do think Topps could have been more specific in that second one. He’s another car-loving guy. Fred’s ’73 card was a great action shot in one of those all-yellow Padres uniforms. His cartoon that year indicated he was a bachelor and had the requisite female cartoon character chasing him. I wasn’t even able to determine in my research if that status ever changed.

Fred and Jim were almost always in different leagues so someone will have to hop. They both did time with the A’s but nearly two decades apart (!):

1. Norman and Don Gullett ’73 to ’76 Reds;
2. Gullett and Lou Piniella ’77 to ’78 Yankees;
3. Piniella and Jim Spencer ’78 to ’81 Yankees.

Gullet pitched less than 50 innings in ’78 and that’s my normal threshold. Dave Winfield would have been quicker but he came to the Padres from the University of Minnesota after Fred left.

No comments:

Post a Comment