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 debut 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 Bobby 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 recording 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 his 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.

1 comment:

  1. Imagine how Reds' history (and a few players' careers) would have been different had Pete Rose been one of those "don't move me to another position" type of players. People can say what they will about Rose, but his willingness to switch positions to help the team really was a plus.