Friday, June 27, 2014

#660 - Larry Dierker

And the final card of the ’74 set belongs to... Larry Dierker, showing his pitching form in spring training on that huge complex. Larry broke his hand right before the season opened in ’73 so this shot is taken earlier that season or is from a prior one. The season didn’t get much better. After returning in June for a couple starts Larry hurt his shoulder and wouldn’t return from that injury for another month, and then didn’t throw too well the balance of the season, nearly all of it in middle relief. It was pretty much a season to forget for him, but not for Topps apparently, since it gave Larry a pretty distinctive card number. Larry was an optimist, though, and things would turn around for him shortly and get way better down the road, except for that short run in ’99 that must have made ’73 look like a picnic.

Larry Dierker grew up in southern California and would get to be a big sought-after pitcher, already 6’4” and 200 pounds by his senior year at Taft High School. Though he went only 4-6 that season of ’64 he reportedly had 18 teams interested in him. That number was reduced to a bidding war of two: the Cubs and the Colt .45’s and Larry signed with the latter team for a $55,000 bonus. He was only 17 but he kicked off things pretty well that summer in Rookie ball, going 2-3 in nine starts with a 3.23 ERA and 61 strikeouts in his 39 innings. The Colt .45’s were always looking for a media event and so that late September Larry was pulled up to Houston to make his first MLB start on his 18th birthday. He took a loss, but he struck out Willie Mays in that game and would never return to the minors.

Dierker immediately joined the rotation in ’65 and that season and the next he would have a tough time getting decisions. In ’65 the now Astros would hold Larry to a 110 pitch count timit per game which kept him from completing too many but in ’66 he went deep in pretty much every start though  by the end of May he only had two decisions. Still, both years he posted strong second halves and overall threw well, cementing his rotation spot. He was enjoying a nice run in ’67 when in mid-June he was called to his military obligation and missed the rest of the year. Back on the mound in ’68 was a bit different and Larry would get a decision in all but five of his games that season. In both ’66 and ’68 he spent some short time on the DL in late July. In ’69 he used an early-season 10-3 run to become the first Houston pitcher to win 20, supporting it with an excellent ERA and his lifetime high in strikeouts as he made his first All-Star appearance. In ’70 his ERA got bloated a bit by a few too many gopher balls – he gave up 31 homers vs. only 18 in ’69 – and in ’71 his 10-4 start got him another All-Star nod before he suffered his first serious shoulder ailment and missed the season from early August on. It was, he would later claim, the beginning of his rotator cuff issues that would haunt his career going forward. Still, the rest he received in ’71 helped him produce another very good year in ’72 before everything sort of blew up in ’73. “74 would be much better and though Larry again pitched well, decisions would be elusive, especially early in the year. He finished with a record of 11-10 with a 2.90 ERA and followed that up in ’75 that resembled his ’70 season: 14-16 with a 4.00 ERA on a few too many homers. In ’76 another relatively fat ERA followed until a July game in which he no-hit the Expos set him on a 6-6/2.83 pace the rest of the way as he finished the season 13-14/3.69, his final one in Houston as a player. He was traded to St. Louis with Jerry DaVanon for catcher Joe Ferguson but by that time his shoulder was toast and after a 2-6/4.58 run in only 40 innings he retired with a record of 139-123 with a 3.31 ERA, 106 complete games, 25 shutouts, and a save.

Before 1977 ended, Dierker was back in Houston where he got a front office PR and sales job. In ’79 he began a long run as a color commentator on Astros broadcasts which would last through ’96 when he was talked into taking over as the Houston manager. The Astros had had three straight second-place finishes and though Larry had no experience on the coaching side, he would be the right guy to get the team over the hump. His first and second years Houston won its division. In ’99 the team was enjoying another nice run when Larry went down in the dugout with what would be called a grand mal seizure, from which he would require surgery to deal with a blood clot in his brain. He would return to lead the Astros to another first place finish. 2000 would be tough as a big injury bug decimated his team but in 2001 the Astros would win the division again. Despite the regular season successes, though, the Astros would go down fast in the playoffs each year and following the ’01 campaign – in which Larry won the second of his Manager of the Year titles – he would be either dismissed or resigned, depending on the source of the information. He finished with a record of 435-348. Since then he has written a couple books, contributed as a writer to a few sites, and had a loose community affiliation with the Astros. That changed in May of 2013 when he was hired as a full-time special assistant to the president, a title he still holds.

Larry’s star bullets are no-brainers and he has also been a big fan of golf according to his cartoons. He gets some great props in “Ball Four” since he was teammate of Jim Bouton’s after Bouton’s second-half trade to Houston. Bouton loved his arsenal of pitches: a great fastball and curve, and a money hard slider which Bouton said it hurt just to watch (and would later hurt Dierker as well). He was also very impressed with a no-no Larry took into the ninth, continued to pitch shutout ball to the 12th, and then had to watch as the bullpen blew in the 13th against the division-winning Braves. He just calmly took the loss and blamed nobody. Pretty classy.

For the final hook-up we stay all-NL:

1. Dierker and Jose Cruz ’75 to ’76 Astros;
2. Cruz and Tim McCarver ’73 to ’74 Cardinals;
3. McCarver and Joe Lis ’70 to ’72 Phillies.

Monday, June 23, 2014

#659 - Joe Lis

This mutton-chopped guy finally gets his first solo card, nearly ten years after being signed in ’64. Joe Lis had rookie cards in both the ’70 and ’71 set and then switched teams before reappearing on a sunny day in Oakland during batting practice. He got his first serious chunk of playing time in ’73 partly as a result of Harmon Killebrew’s injury, and put up some decent numbers while filling in at first base. Joe could hit, as some of the numbers on his card back attest, but up top he’d suffer from too little field time and way too many strikeouts and shortly after this card’s appearance he’d be on the move again. But he loved baseball and while it didn’t always love him back, he would parlay that love into a long career in a different venue.

Joe Lis was a big three sports star in New Jersey in the early Sixties and would end his high school baseball career with a .521 average and a total of 17 homers his junior and senior years before being signed by the Phillies in June of ’64. That summer and the next in A ball were a bit tough at the plate but the latter season he was one of his league’s best-fielding third basemen and in ’66 around some military time he got back his power stroke with 16 homers and 62 RBI’s in just 332 at bats. He remained at that level in ’67 and really cranked the power that season. Despite his improved numbers he remained in A ball in ’68, added 40 points to his average, and began putting in some serious outfield time. He made the big jump to Triple A in ’69, just in time for his first significant loss of time to injury via some hamstring and wrist problems, but still put up OK numbers. By then he was pretty much exclusively an outfielder and his ’70 season would be far better than OK as he seriously crushed the ball in Triple A and made his MLB debut in September with a few games in left field. In ’71 the Phillies didn’t have much of a team – they’d record 95 losses that season – but they had a bunch of young outfielders coming off excellent ’70 minor league seasons in Willie Montanez, Greg Luzinski, Roger Freed, Mike Anderson, and Joe. That competition was escalated by the presence of incumbent Larry Hisle, who was only 24, and the move of Don Money to the outfield. So despite making the Phillies out of camp and getting some early season starts in left, when Joe went into a bit of a slump marred by pretty high K totals, there was no shortage of guys to step in and his at bats declined as the season aged. He began the ’72 season back in Triple A where his monster stats included a .473 OBA and prompted his return to Philly in June. Now moved to first base, he improved his offensive numbers significantly, reducing his K totals and moving his OBA up to .380. But with Willie Montanez scheduled to take over first full-time, Joe and pitchers Ken Sanders and Ken Reynolds went to Minnesota for everyman Cesar Tovar.

Lis began the ’74 season on the Twins roster, but moved to third in the depth chart at first base behind The Killer and new kid Craig Kusick. Hitting .195 with zero power during his little plate time didn’t help things and early in June he was sold to Cleveland where he got some initial work subbing at third base for the injured Buddy Bell, but again played primarily at first. He added some RBI numbers but his offense overall wasn’t so hot as he posted a ’74 line of .200/6/19 in his 150 at bats. He then spent most of ’75 and ’76 in Triple A for the Tribe where he averaged lines of .290/24/86 with an OBA of .424 while playing  mostly first. He brought some of that magic to Cleveland as during that time he posted a .312 average with 15 RBI’s and a .420 OBA in his 64 at bats. That winter he was selected by Seattle in the expansion draft and for the Mariners he put in some early time at DH before he returned to Cleveland and Triple A and hit .267 with a .388 OBA for a couple teams. In ’78 he went to Japan – a common theme for recent post subjects – where he posted a disappointing .206/6/30 line in 262 at bats as a first baseman/DH. Then it was back to The States and one final shot for Detroit's Triple A club for whom he posted a ’79 line of .292/16/80/.384 in his final season. Joe closed things out with an MLB line of .233/32/92/.332 in his 709 at bats and a minor league line of .277/238/614/.382.  

Lis remained with the Detroit organization a couple additional years as a minor league coach, leaving pro ball following the ’81 season. He had begun doing the guest speaker route while in Cleveland which he continued after playing. He also set up a hitting school in his garage back in Indiana which eventually morphed into a business. His son Joe Jr. would be drafted by the Blue Jays and reach Triple A in the mid-Nineties before helping out at his dad’s school. This Joe continued to operate his hitting school until he was laid low by prostate cancer, from which he passed away in 2010. He was 64.

Joe’s card back shows off most of his better minor league work and showcases his slugging and defense in ’67. He had much better season as a slugger though, topping his .522 slugging average that year in ’70 (.616) and ’72 (.775). That second year he seemed an even money bet to break Tony Lazzeri’s PCL record home run total of 60 when he was called back to Philly. Joe had 26 homers with about two-thirds of the season still left. He has a pretty good SABR bio.

The colors are almost the same but the leagues aren’t so let’s see how we get these guys together:

1. Lis and Bill Robinson ’72 Phillies;
2. Robinson and Lee Lacy ’79 to ’82 Pirates.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

#658 - Lee Lacy

I really am stretching this thing out but, trust me, it’s not intentional. Too much work and other stuff. For our third-to-last card we get Lee Lacy at Shea looking very serious. That face could have something to do with what was going on at the time in the LA infield, then Lee’s professional stomping ground. ’73 saw the initiation of that long-lasting combo of Garvey/Lopes/Russell/Cey which meant that Lee’s playing time contracted considerably from his rookie season. For a while things would stay that way and barring injury it would be tough for Lee to get any field time. But his versatility would prove to be his saving grace and that ability to play just about anywhere in the field would help him have a long fruitful career.

Lee Lacy was born in Texas and relocated to Oakland before high school. He did the multi-sport thing and then went to nearby Laney College where he played both hoops and baseball. He was drafted midway through his second year there in January ’69 and then played mostly third while producing some pretty good offense that included a .402 OBA. In ’70 he moved up to A ball and over to shortstop where he produced more good plate numbers but had a super tough time in the field. His offense got him to Double A in ’71 where on top of another good offensive season he improved at both shortstop and third but actually spent most of his time at second, which seems to have been a better fit. Lee remained at that level and position for ’72 where he banged the ball super well, putting up a .417 OBA, continued to improve his defense, and got his call up in June.

The late Sixties and the early Seventies were sort of a transitional mess for the Dodgers outside of first base. There were lots of crash and burns at third – Bob Bailey, Bill Sudakis, and Billy Grabarkewitz – and for a little bit Ted Sizemore seemed to be the man at second after his ROY season in ’69. But he went to St. Louis to get Dick Allen, Jim Lefebvre got hurt and was needed to fill the gap at third, fellow young guy Bobby Valentine played everywhere, and converted outfielder Bill Russell eventually settled at shortstop. Into this stew came Lacy in the summer of ’72 to pretty much take over the regular job the rest of the way.while plugging the gap on defense and doing an OK job at the plate. He then began ’73 in the same role, got hurt in mid-May while hitting .195, and returned to see his spot taken by Davey Lopes, who wouldn’t give it up until Lee was long gone. In ’74 his at bats fell even further during the championship season though he hit .282 and got a bit of post-season time. In ’75 LA got hit big by the injury bug which killed their playoff chances but worked nicely for Lee, who posted a .314/7/40 line in 306 at bats while filling in at second and for the first time in the outfield. After that season he joined rapidly-aging Jimmy Wynn, Tom Paciorek, and Jerry Royster in a trade to Atlanta for Dusty Baker and Ed Goodson. With the Braves, Lee took over regular duties at second before a hitting slump and then an injury took him out of action a couple weeks. But he got his average up to .272 before he was traded again, this time back to LA with reliever Elias Sosa for Mike Marshall. The rest of the way for the Dodgers he spent the bulk of his time in center and hit .266 overall, with a .385 average as a pinch hitter in what would be his busiest year for a while. In both ’77 and ’78 he did his back-up thing in both the infield and outfield, averaging in the mid-.260’s. That first year he hit very well in a return to the post-season and in that second year he added some power, with a .261/13/40 line in 245 at bats. That winter he left LA as a free agent and signed with the Pirates.

In Pittsburgh Lacy again assumed a back-up role, but this time exclusively in the outfield and there nearly all the time in left. His stats – a .249 average with 15 RBI’s in 182 at bats – weren’t anything special but his timing sure was as he joined a Series champion. He then moved into a platoon role in left and hit a ton better in ’80 with a .335/7/33 line with 18 stolen bases and 45 runs in just 278 at bats. After an off season in the strike year of ’81 he hit his stride in ’82 with .312/5/31/40/66 numbers in 359 at bats. Then followed a ..302/4/13/31/40 ’82 in 288 at bats; and a .321/12/70/21/66 ’84 in 474 at bats in his final season in Pittsburgh. After that it was another departure via free agency, this time to Baltimore where he became the regular right fielder, averaging .290/10/48 seasons in ’85 and ’86 before ending things in ’87 when he was 39. Lee finished with a .286 average with 91 homers, 458 RBI’s, 185 stole bases, and a .340 OBA. In the post season he hit .241 in his 17 games.

Lacy got into a bit of trouble when he was named late in his playing career as one of the cocaine-using players during the Pittsburgh drug trials. By then he’d had his daughter Jennifer, who would grow up to be a star hoops player at Pepperdine and is still playing in the WNBA. Lee did the year-plus in the Senior League in ’89 –’90 and appears to have remained in the Southern California area since playing for LA. He is a regular at autograph and other events for the Dodgers though I haven’t been able to nail down what he’s done professionally since playing.

Lee’s star bullets give us a look at some of his achievements in high school and at Laney. His is also the final card that gives us a look at what he did during the off-season via the cartoon.

Getting these two together is relatively lengthy:

1. Lacy and Jerry Royster ’76 Braves;
2. Royster and Jeff Burroughs ’77 to ’80 Braves;
3. Burroughs and Jim Shellenback ’70 to ’73 Senators/Rangers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

#657 - Jim Shellenback

The book “Seasons in Hell” describes the Texas Rangers spring training site in Pompano Beach as about the ugliest complex ever ringed with palm trees covered with fungus. That looks about right in this final card shot of Jim Shellenback on what may be the mound. Jim has an impossibly long face which gets even more elongated by the placement of his eyes which are scrunched up way on his forehead (check out his ’70 card). ’73 wasn’t much of an MLB season for Jim, about whom we get no color in the above book. Pretty much all of it was spent in Triple A where, given the team’s dynamics, one would think his 13-7 season in the rotation and four shutouts would have made someone excited. But Jim was 29 then and his ERA was a bit fat at 4.31 and since Texas was in the midst of a youth movement for its rotation – both Jim Bibby and David Clyde were rookies – this Jim seems not to have had too many chips on his table. He’d get another couple shots up top, neither of which went too well. But like the former post subject, Adrian Garrett, Jim would come off his seldom-used MLB time into a super long coaching stretch.

Jim Shellenback was signed by the Yankees upon graduating Ramona High School in California – a school also attended by Steve Barber and Tom Hall in this set – in ’62. After a summer of D and C ball during which he went 1-5 with a 4.04 ERA but 57 K’s in 49 innings, Jim was selected by Pittsburgh in the first year draft. The Pirates moved Jim up to A ball where he had a very nice ’63: 17-3 with a 2.03 ERA and nearly a strikeout an inning. He continued pitching well the next few years, going 8-14/3.53 in Double A in ’64; 14-6/3.33 in a ’65 split between Double A and Triple A; and 11-13/3.09 with four shutouts in Triple A in ’66, the year he debuted for a few innings in Pittsburgh. He got his first rookie card in ’67, had a 7-10/3.16 season in Triple A and returned to a nice couple games in September, one being a complete game eleven-inning win over the Dodgers. But he then spent all of ’68 back in Triple A, partly as a recovery from a nasty car accident that broke his leg right after the prior season. He still had a pretty good half season, going 9-8 with a 2.85 ERA and a couple shutouts. In ’69 he got his second rookie card, started the season as a reliever for the Pirates, and knocked off some pretty good innings before a May trade had him in DC for pitcher Frank Kreutzer, by then a minor leaguer.

Shellenback joined the Senators and the team’s manager Ted Williams in what was a bit of an ironic twist. Years earlier Jim’s uncle Frank was Ted’s player-coach on the San Diego PCL team. Frank got props from Ted in Ted’s autobiography, “My Turn at Bat” and it had also been suggested that Frank was responsible for turning The Splendid Splinter from a pitcher into an outfielder during his PCL time, which may or may not have been the case. Either way, Jim would become more of a spot guy with Washington, getting eleven starts and a save the rest of the ’69 season for DC. In ’70 he had probably his best MLB season as he started 14 games and recorded a shutout. In ’71 all Jim’s numbers were pretty comparable to his prior season’s except his won/loss record which tumbled pretty hard. In ’72 he was pitching pretty effectively but with some bad luck when a shoulder injury took him out of action in early July for the rest of the year. '74 would work a lot like ’73 except his numbers weren’t nearly as good: a 5.48 ERA in 25 innings for the Rangers and a 4-4/3.78 season in Triple A. After that season he was sold to San Diego where he would spend a considerable amount of time the next two seasons in the Padres Triple A rotation, going a combined 17-11 with a 4.25 ERA and five saves. Then in ’77 he moved to Minnesota where he got some light work in Triple A – 2-1/3.90 with a save in 30 innings – and his final MLB work where he posted a high ERA in a few innings. That was his final season and Jim finished with an MLB line of 16-30 with a 3.81 ERA, eight complete games, two shutouts, and two saves. In the minors he went 103-82 with a 3.42 ERA.

Shellenback remained in the Minnesota system after playing as a pitching coach. In ’83 he served that role in Minnesota. He had an 18-year run for the team’s Class A franchise in Elizabethtown that ended with his retirement following the 2011 season.

Jim has a nice signature, especially for such a long surname. His career came very close to ending after that ’67 car crash. Those two wins from the second star bullet were successive and took nearly a run off Jim’s ERA that season: He gave up six hits and two earned runs against Milwaukee and threw a two-hit shutout against the Angels. The info regarding his uncle Frank’s guidance in Ted Williams’ career came from Jim’s ’70 card. His uncle has a SABR page and was born in 1898, the youngest in his family. So Jim’s dad was up there when Jim was born, at least in his late Forties. It’s too bad he got no notice in the “Seasons in Hell” book since his surname minus the S dovetails nicely with the title: Jim had been to Hell and back. But that’s just a bad joke.

A Canadian helps big with this hook-up:

1. Shellenback and Dave Nelson ’70 to ’74 Senators/Rangers;
2. Nelson and Fergie Jenkins ’74 to ’75 Rangers;
3. Jenkins and Adrian Garrett ’70 and ’73 Cubs.

Friday, May 16, 2014

#656 - Adrian Garrett

Technically, this is the third rookie card for Adrian Garrett, big brother to the Mets’ Wayne. Adrian had a rookie card in the ’71 set and also back in ’66, when he had one under his nickname, Pat. That’s a mighty long gap and I would bet that Adrian had about the longest one between his initial rookie card and his first solo one – eight years – but I have not the time to research that one. This card commemorates his busiest MLB season to date during his second go-round in Chicago. After returning via a sale from Oakland late in ’72, Adrian had a short .377/8/20 line with a .515 OBA in just 53 at bats in Triple A and was recalled for some back-up work. Despite his card’s designation most of his plate time came as either a catcher or pinch hitter; his best offensive work was in the latter role in which he hit .286. Despite the minimal plate appearances to date Adrian was in the midst of a very long baseball career at the time of this card, in which he appears to be squirreled away somewhere in Candlestick. He wouldn’t see another card until ’76 when he would get his final MLB one on a different team and plate appearance-wise he was still a rookie. That, too, has gotta be about the longest run for anyone with that many cards. So in his own way Adrian helps get to the end of the set with some record-type tidbits.

Adrian Garrett was a big deal halfback and baseball player at Sarasota High School when he was signed by the Braves in ’61 and began his career that summer in D ball, hitting .242 for a couple teams. After ramping that up the following year to a .254/19/87 line with a .385 OBA, he would begin a long run at stops with an A at the beginning. He split ’63 between A and Double A, recording a .249/13/60 line in his 277 at bats while missing half the season for his military commitment. ’64 was spent entirely at the higher level where his power was reduced a bunch but his average moved higher in a .280/7/48/.355 season in 477 at bats. In ’65 he moved up to Triple A and earned his first rookie card on the basis of his .224/20/63/.319 season in which he was one of the Braves’ system’s biggest homer producers. But that year, despite his debut in Atlanta, he slumped pretty hard - .196/16/40 in 342 at bats – and he spent most of ’67 in Double A. That year he put up much better numbers with a .257/28/92/.350 line and hit .310 in his few games up in Triple A and also began playing third base in addition to his outfield duties. ’68 was a bit messy as his line slid to .212/12/37 in 363 at bats at both levels. But he enjoyed a big bounce in a ’69 spent primarily in Double A, putting up a .254/24/77/.382 line. After the season he was released by the Braves, picked up and released by the Phillies, and picked up by the Cubs.

With Chicago in ’70 Garrett would get some more MLB at bats and would spend most of his time in Double A where he had a .277/29/86/.365 line while leading his league in homers. He then moved up to Triple A, where he enjoyed his biggest season, posting a .289/43/119/.406 line that drew attention from the vastly improving Oakland A’s. Late that August they picked up Adrian for catcher Frank Fernandez and Adrian spent the balance of the season doing some left field and pinch hitting work for the division champs. He also spent a bit of the summer with the team as well in ’72 but most of the year was spent in Triple A where he posted a .277/12/32.372 line in his 220 at bats. Then came the September sale to Chicago and after his work in ’73 he got a few more at bats up top but spent most of ’74 back in Triple A where he had another big season, in just 318 at bats posting a .280/26/83/.414 line. He pretty much mirrored that success in ’75 when he put up .321/12/48/.380 numbers in half a season before a sale to California, where he finished the year with his best MLB totals by far: a .262 average with six homers and 18 RBI’s in 107 at bats, nearly all at first base or DH. In ’76 he caught a few games for the Angels before a sale to San Diego landed him back in Triple A where he again hit well, with a .310/9/31/.360 line in 126 at bats. That would be it for his time in The States and Adrian finished with MLB totals of a .185 average, eleven homers and 37 RBI’s in his 276 at bats. He also had 87 strikeouts which helps explain why he never stuck. In the minors he hit .259 with 280 homers, 961 RBI’s, and a .360 OBA.

As has been a recent trend, Garrett moved on to Japan after his US playing time ended and had a pretty good run there, pretty much parallel with Gail Hopkins from a few posts back. He spent three seasons with Hiroshima where his first two were by far his best: a .279/35/91/.358 line in ’77; and a .271/40/97/.378 line in ’78. In ’79 his numbers fell to .225/27/59/.326 but that was the year he helped the Carp take the Japanese Series, a fitting way to go out as a player. He then returned to the US, spending a few years in the White Sox system, as a coach (’80-’81); minor league hitting instructor (’85); and manager (’82-’84), going a combined 169-150. After a year off he moved to the Kansas City system where he coached a season in the minors (’87) and then five in Kansas City (’88-’92). Then it was on to the Marlins where he was a minor league hitting coach (’93-’98) and hitting coordinator (’99-2001). After another year off he hooked up with Cincinnati where from 2003 through 2011 he served as the Triple A hitting coach. Since 2012 he has been employed by the Reds as a part time coach. Busy boy.

This being Adrian’s first solo card, he has yet another tidbit of never having his annual minor league stats appear on a Topps card. Expanding on the star bullets, he led four leagues in homers in the US and did so once in Japan. He got into catching in spring training of ’73 when Pete Reiser, a Cubs coach at the time, suggested he give it a shot to help him stick. So he did tons of bullpen and batting practice catching and it would be his primary position in three MLB seasons. Another brother Charlie also played pro ball but he only got as high as Double A as his career was interrupted by two full years of military duty. Adrian has a very expansive “Bullpen” tab on baseball-reference.

Sometimes for these guys with limited at bats these paths can be pretty long:

1. Garrett and Joe Lahoud ’75 to ’76 Angels;
2. Lahoud and Reggie Smith ’68 to ’71 Red Sox;
3. Smith and Mike Tyson ’74 to ’76 Cardinals.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

#655 - Mike Tyson

See how different this guy looked before that face tat? Before there was the ear-chewing Mike Tyson there was this guy, who gets a rookie card in this set partly due to good timing. The Dal Maxvill shortstop era had ended during the ’72 season as Dal finished up that year in Oakland as one of the many fill-ins for the injured Dick Green. In his wake came Ed Crosby, who didn’t have enough stick (that’s tough when you’re following a guy with a .217 lifetime average); and Dwain Anderson, who got a spot on that year’s Topps Rookie team on the basis of his .267 average (on only 134 at bats) but had a tough time in the field. Anderson went to San Diego early in ’73, Crosby had been sent to Cincinnati, and the Cards pinned their shortstop hopes on a kid they picked up from Houston, Ray Busse. Busse had hit pretty well in the minors but always had played shortstop as if he was doing so in a minefield so he was an interesting choice to inherit the reins from a Gold Glover. He imploded pretty quickly – the rumor was because of bad nerves – and St. Louis brought up a second baseman to take his place. It was a difficult progression but this Mike Tyson didn’t do that badly, posting some solid D while hitting way better that Dal ever had. Since in the early Seventies Ted Sizemore was pretty much a rock at second, Mike’s ability to move over worked out pretty well for him as well. Here he strikes a pose at Candlestick, letting us know that little guys with a bat – he was 5’9” – can be fearsome also.

Mike Tyson came out of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he was a serious deal middle infielder at Nash High, where a few sites out there have him graduating in ’70, when he would have been 20. That couldn’t have been the case, especially since he went to Indian River Community College, a JUCO baseball powerhouse in Florida (that’s redundant) from which he did graduate in ’70 after being selected in the January draft by the Cards. There was an overlap because Mike got in a full season that year in A ball as a shortstop. He stuck at that level the next year through some military time and a move to second base before jumping to Triple A in ’72, posting some nice defensive numbers, and then making his MLB debut in September. In ’74 he was hanging out at Mendoza levels most of the season before a late summer push got him up to his final average of .223. He did lead the NL in double plays at his position though. In ’75 he reported to camp overweight, lost his starting gig in spring training to pick-up Ed Brinkman, and rode the bench the first month-plus. But Brinkman wasn’t the answer and by early June Mike had re-obtained his starting shortstop role, posting a much improved line of .266/4/39 in his 368 at bats. In the last couple weeks he got a bunch of starts at second due to a Ted Sizemore injury. Those games proved harbingers since after Sizemore’s trade back to LA for the ’76 season Mike moved over permanently. The move worked, at least offensively, but it would be a frustrating year for him as two injuries – one in April and one in July – caused him to miss over two months of the season. That was too bad since he had by far his best offensive run: a .286/3/28 line in his 245 at bats. In ’77 he remained healthy and reported his best full-year power numbers but after some early season hitting challenges his average sunk a bit as his line came in at .246/7/57. He retained the starting job in ’78 but further compression of his numbers - .233/3/26 in 377 at bats – meant some lost starting time to Mike Phillips and new kid Ken Oberkfell. In ’79 Oberkfell took over with his .301 average, Mike fell to a reserve role - .221/5/20 in 190 at bats, and after the season he went to the Cubs for reliever Donnie Moore.

In Chicago Tyson reclaimed his starting role at second (ironically from Ted Sizemore) but barely, as he eked out Steve Dillard for playing time there. But the recently departed Manny Trillo had set a pretty high bar for offense at the position and Mike’s line of .238/3/23 in his 341 at bats wasn’t the answer. Neither was Dillard or new guy Pat Tabler in ’81, but Mike moved to a back-up role anyway and was done after the season. He finished with a .241 average with 27 homers and 269 RBI’s.

Trying to find dirt on the web regarding a guy named Mike Tyson who wasn’t a boxer has been nearly impossible. Two of Mike’s sons have played minor league ball and both were born in Kansas City so apparently this Mike spent some time there after baseball but I have found nothing else out there regarding him.

Mike certainly had the right nickname for sharing a name with a heavyweight champ. But Mike got his by virtue of his place of origin. He really could be a streaky hitter.
At one time the Cruz family was seemingly headed in the direction of the Alou one (four brothers made it to the MLB level) so this is a fitting hook-up:

1. Tyson and Jose Cruz ’72 to ’74 Cardinals;
2. Cruz and Jesus Alou ’79 to ’80 Astros.

Friday, May 9, 2014

#654 - Jesus Alou

The next card shows a placid guy in a placid setting – Yankee Stadium during early August, the only time Oakland was in town after Jesus Alou’s mid-season trade from the Astros. Jesus’ playing time had been in decline mode since early ’72 and most of his plate time during early ’73 was in the pinch. He started well enough in his limited role – he was hitting .409 by the end of May – but a June and July slump nearly halved his average and in early August he was sold to the A’s. In the AL his timing was actually quite good since he got lots of starts in left field the next month-plus due to an injury to regular Joe Rudi. Jesus did a nice job, too, posting a .300 average though he would continue to be the opposite of “the Walking Man” by putting up only two BB’s in his 100-plus at bats. Then Billy North got hurt right before the playoffs and Jesus took his spot in center, getting serious post-season time for the Series winners. That little smile on his face in the photo was there for a reason.

Jeses Alou was the youngest of the baseball-playing brothers and Jesus wasn’t really a fan of the game, much preferring soccer back in the DR. But he would be big, topping out at 6’2” and he got talked into giving pitching a shot by the guy that signed his brothers and he did well enough to get signed in late ’58 by the Giants, again following his brothers, Felipe and Matty. His first year he remained in the DR and threw batting practice for the Escogido team in winter ball – he was only 16 – before he got a short look in D ball in the summer of ’59. He didn’t throw too well and later he hurt his arm so that pitching career ended pretty fast. But the kid could hit and in D ball the next summer he did just that, posting a .352/11/91 line with 102 runs and 18 stolen bases before posting the same average a few games in B ball. In ’61 he stuck at the higher level and produced a .336/10/71 line. While he was hitting well his arm was still a bit of a liability from the injury and he would have some tough times in the outfield, regularly being near the top in errors. But he did continue to hit: in ’62 his line was .343/11/68 in Double A with 24 steals and his personal best .376 OBA; in ’63 in Triple A he put up a .324/11/69 line while stealing 18. Late that summer he made his debut in San Francisco.

That little bit of time Jesus Alou had up top in ’63 would be his only shot at playing stateside with his two brothers. Prior to the ’64 season, Felipe was traded to the Braves, and Jesus took over his spot in right field. There he cut down on his errors significantly and had a pretty good rookie year offensively, though it ended early when he got spiked and missed the last month of the season. He had a marked upgrade in ’65 but then in ’66 an early-season slump had him on the bench and then back in Triple A for a couple weeks in June. It seemed to have done the job as he raised his average over 30 points the rest of the way and then had a ’67 very similar to his ’65. In ’66 he began moving between both outfield corners which he would continue doing the next few seasons. In ’68 Jesus had a tough follow-up year while posting only nine walks and dropping some points off his average though it was still well ahead of the NL norm. After seeing the success of his brothers after departing Candlestick he’d been asking – quietly – for a trade as well the past couple seasons. Following the ’68 season he got his wish, soft of, when Montreal took him in the expansion draft.

Alou’s time with the new Expos was quite short and in January of ’69 he left via a trade with Donn Clendenon to Houston for Rusty Staub which got controversial when Clendenon refused to report to his new club (he didn’t want to play again for Astros manager Harry “The Hat” Walker). Eventually Donn was replaced by Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn and Jesus proceeded to sort of bottom out offense-wise with his new club that really hit the skids after he busted his jaw in a collision with shortstop Hector Torres and missed six weeks in the summer. The bright spot, though, was that much like ’66 he returned with better numbers, hitting .285 the rest of the way. In ’70 Jesus rode the pines a bit to start the season as new kid Cesar Cedeno pushed other guys around in the outfield. But Jesus got back his corner spots with some nice hitting and by year-end posted his best full season average. He retained his spots in ’71 on a hot start that cooled off a bit. By ’72 Bob Watson was getting too good to leave out of a regular spot and so Jesus became a bench guy though he did an awfully nice job in that role that year.

Alou remained in Oakland in ’74, spending most of his plate time in the DH role, and posting a .268/2/15 line in 220 at bats. He got limited post-season action that year but did pick up another ring. In spring training of ’75 he was released and picked up shortly thereafter by the Mets. With NY he did some reserve outfield work and pinch hitting and had a .265 average with eleven RBI’s in just over 100 at bats. Again released in spring training, this time Jesus decamped full-time to the DR where he played winter ball and tried to start a business manufacturing watches. When that enterprise didn’t get off the ground he returned to The States and Houston and in ’78 had a nice little comeback season, posting a .324/2/19 in 139 at bats as a reserve left fielder and pinch hitter. After a reduced role in the same spots in ’79 he was done. Jesus finished with a .280 average with 32 homers and 377 RBI’s. In the post-season he hit .222 with four RBI’s in 13 games.

Alou continued to play winter ball in his home country through the ’80 season and finished a 20-year run there with a .302 average. He then managed a bit, but in ’82 returned to MLB land as a scout for the Expos. He then moved on to the Marlins in the same role and in 2002 he became the director of Dominican League scouting for the Red Sox.

The Alous were unusual in that they didn’t have that parenthetical thing going with their name. Had they, the Alou would have been the name in parentheses since that was actually their mom’s family name. The true family name was Rojas. That was a pretty big game for a rookie. Jesus only had a .305 OBA which is pretty much the smallest differential I have seen in this set. He really almost never walked. Good trivia question: outside of San Francisco, for which team did all three Alou brothers play? See the front of the card. Jesus has a SABR bio.

These guys were Astros together in ’72 but neither had enough at bats that year:

1. Alou and Glenn Abbott ’73 to ’74 A’s;
2. Abbott and Bob Stinson ’77 to ’80 Mariners.

Friday, May 2, 2014

#653 - Bob Stinson

I’m certainly stretching things out here – work is still a monster and uses up all my computer time. For the for real last action card in the ’74 set we get Bob Stinson who appears to be jawing with either an umpire or a pitching coach at an away field that looks eerily empty. ’73 was more-or-less Bob’s rookie year though I believe he put enough bench time for either St. Louis or Houston to not be a true rookie. He stepped into the running menage of Expos catchers, most of whose surnames until then began with a B – Bateman, Boccabella, Brand – after being purchased by them late in spring training from the Astros. He pretty much split back-up time to Boccabella with Terry Humphrey, who was a bit of a better fielder but couldn’t touch Bob’s stick. Bob did a nice offensive job in limited work, adding a .374 OBA to his published stats. He had an interesting early Topps history with three rookie cards from ’70 to ’72, each with a different team (he’s up there with Lou Piniella). What’s going on here is hard to tell, but he sure does look concerned. He’d make up for that on his ’77 card when he seemed full of whimsy.

Bob Stinson was born in North Carolina and had relocated to Miami where in high school he was all-county as an outfielder his junior (.303) and senior (.402) years. Both Charlie Hough and Kurt Bevacqua were teammates on that county team. After graduating he was drafted by Kansas City but stayed local and switched to catcher for Miami-Dade for whom he played fall ball – and then was drafted in the first round by Washington but again passed – and then had a big season in spring ball. He was then taken by LA in the first round and this time he signed. He then spent most of that summer in Rookie ball as an outfielder hitting .282 with a little power. In ’67 he moved up to Double A where his average fell a bit to .243 and his strikeouts ratcheted up but he did a pretty good job in his first work behind the plate. Around his military time in ’68 he boosted his average at the same level to .285 and also upped his catching time considerably. He then moved up to Triple A in ’69 where he hit .281 with much better power, stole twelve bases, and for the first time put up more walks than strikeouts. He also made his debut in LA. After spending most of that season in the outfield he returned to Triple A and catching in ’70, putting up a .298/6/53 line in his 315 at bats but was now having to contend with fellow young guys Joe Ferguson and Steve Yeager. After the season he joined Ted Sizemore in going to St. Louis for Dick Allen.

For the Cardinals Stinson again spent most of the year in Triple A, where he had a nice line of .324/7/46 with a .438 OBA in 300 at bats. He did a little time up top but didn’t get into many games and after the season was on the road again, this time to Houston for infielder Marty Martinez. Bob then spent the whole season with the Astros but again got very little work, and then at the end of ’73 spring training was sold to the Expos. In ’74 John Boccabella went to San Francisco for his final season but new kid Barry Foote kept Bob back in the depth chart and he only got 87 at bats that year. In another spring training deal, Bob went to Kansas City for speedster Rodney Scott.

When Stinson got to KC the Royals had two incumbent catchers in Fran Healy and Buck Martinez so again Bob’s time was limited. But in ’75 he began a pretty consistent run of hitting in the .260’s with a pretty good OBA which was more offense than either of those guys would generally put up and after hitting .265 in 147 at bats that year he got 61 starts behind the plate in ’76 and upped his line to .263/2/25 in 209 at bats before seeing his only post-season action. That November he got nabbed by the new Mariners in the expansion draft and for the next three seasons Bob was the regular Seattle catcher, peaking in ’78 with a .258/11/55 line and a .346 OBA in 364 at bats. In ’79 he began losing starting time to Larry Cox, who was a better defender and a couple years younger. Then in ’80 new guy Jerry Narron showed up and Bob again became third in line in his final season. He finished with a .250 average with 33 homers, 120 RBI’s, and a .337 OBA. In the post-season he went hitless in his only at bat and in the minors he hit .279 with a .350 OBA.

After playing Stinson remained in the Northwest, working for Boeing a bunch of years as a mechanic and also playing in local leagues until the late Nineties when he was hurt at work and in a car accident. He remained with Boeing until his kids finished school and then relocated to Florida where he has been doing private instruction in hitting and golf ever since.

Bob got a lot of notoriety from that JUCO tournament and was a rarity: a catcher who switch-hit. On his cards in which he is in a hitting pose, the pose is always as a lefty. His card in ’80 looks like it was taken a couple seconds after this one. His given first name is pretty cool; this card was the last one on which he’d use it in his signature.

These guys missed being Royals together by just over a season:

1. Stinson and Amos Otis ’75 to ’76 Royals;
2. Otis and Gail Hopkins ’71 to ’73 Royals.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

#652- Gail Hopkins

In another final card post we get Gail Hopkins, who shares a couple career paths with the last post subject, Leron Lee. Like Leron, Gail would be in another league by the time of this card’s issuance; would spend his last MLB time with the Dodgers; and would play with a degree of success in Japan following his MLB career. Gail would then go on to bigger and better things back in the States, but at card time he is just enjoying a sunny day in Oakland while some teammates take infield behind him. Gail was in the midst of his third season in KC when this photo was shot, and his second since the acquisition of John Mayberry, who would play nearly every day at Gail’s favored position of first base. That meant that he – Gail – only had moderate playing time those two seasons. In ’73 the arrival of the DH doubled his plate time as he hit .209 with a .342 OBA in that role and did better as a pinch hitter with a .370 average with a .485 OBA. But KC was building itself through its system and the following spring Gail would be released and then do some brief pinch hitting work for LA in ’74. Then things got interesting.

Gail Hopkins was born in Oklahoma and as a kid relocated to Long Beach, California, where in high school he played the big three sports and was a catcher in baseball. He then got a hoops scholarship to Pepperdine where he eventually gave up that sport – too may shots to the head – but continued catching and was an All-American in ’63. He graduated the following year, played ball that summer in Canada, and then signed with the White Sox in ’65. He got off to a good start that year in A ball, leading his league’s catchers in pretty much all fielding stats while hitting .272 with 54 RBI’s. In ’66 he hit the crap out of the ball at that level with a .358/12/66 line in just 312 at bats, though why he wasn’t moved up is a mystery. In ’67, still in A ball, he hit well again, posting a .312/20/79 line with a .439 OBA while splitting time now between catching and first base, his new spot. In ’68 he finally moved up, hitting .324 in Double A and the same level in Triple A around a few at bats during his mid-year debut in Chicago. At both spots his OBA was above .400. Somehow during that season he also coached ball at his alma mater.

In ’69 Hopkins made the cut in spring training and as a rookie split time at first base with Tommy McCraw. Gail hit pretty well and put up a .351 OBA while providing some pretty good fielding. In ’70 he occupied the same role and boosted his average 20 points but missed some time with an injury. After that season he went to Kansas City with outfielder John Matias for Pat Kelly. With KC in ’71 Gail had his best offensive season as he split time at first again, now with Bob Oliver and Chuck Harrison. He actually began the season as a pinch hitter and performed well in that role, hitting .312 with a .500 OBA. That was good training for his future with the Royals because once they stole John Mayberry from Houston, Gail’s plate time declined significantly. In ’72 half his at bats came in the pinch - .219 with a .308 OBA – and per the above he had a nice ’73 in that role. By the time of this card’s issuance Gail had been released in late spring training and he hooked up with San Diego for some Triple A ball in Hawaii where he hit super well with a .308/12/54 line in 330 at bats. That got him a mid-season purchase by the Dodgers, who pulled him up to LA for some more pinch work that summer. After Gail hit .333 with a .429 OBA in that role he was released in late October.

In ’75 Hopkins did a Leron Lee – a year earlier than Lee did actually – and took his bat to Japan. There he hooked up with Hiroshima, where he became a slugger his first year (a line of .256/31/91) and a high-average guy his second (.329/20/69). In ’77 he moved to Nankai where he had a .266/16/69 line in his final season. Gail finished with an MLB average of .266 with 25 homers, 145 RBI’s, a .352 OBA, and about one strikeout per 16 plate appearances. He got shut out of any playoff time with LA but hit .312 with a .384 OBA in the minors.

Hopkins was a busy guy in academia during and after his playing career, earning a graduate degree in biology while playing and then four post-graduate degrees after baseball. One of those degrees was an MD and since the mid-Eighties he has been an orthopedic surgeon in both California and West Virginia, where he currently resides. He was inducted in Pepperdine’s hall of fame during his playing career and the Western Collegiate Conference one a couple years ago. He has also served on his alma mater’s Board of Regents for nearly twenty years. This is his final card.

Gail did some nice work in the minors and seemed capable of doing more up top if given more playing time. He earned undergrad degrees in biology and theology at Pepperdine and is a big bible guy. I have been super busy with work which is why there’s been such a delay between posts. Only eight more to go.

I can’t go through Japan for these two so let’s try this:

1. Hopkins and Rich Morales ’68 to ’70 White Sox;
2. Morales and Leron Lee ’73 Padres.

Monday, March 24, 2014

#651 - Leron Lee

Leron Lee casts a noble glance somewhere and if that somewhere is across that big pond just west of his home base in San Diego then that is an appropriate destination for his gaze. But that second career was still a few seasons away at the time of this card and ’73 was a transitional time for Leron but not in a good way. He began the season as the everyday San Diego left fielder and was doing well enough offensively with a .290 average through mid-May. But then a protracted slump led to shared starts with Gene Locklear and Jerry Morales who both had relatively hot bats. By the end of the season Leron was used mostly as a pinch hitter, a role in which he did pretty well with a .405 OBA, as new kid Dave Winfield took over left. By the time of this card’s arrival Leron was in another league with a moderately better team but still not in a great state career-wise. That would take a much bigger move.

Leron Lee was a big deal fullback and outfielder at his Sacramento high school and from there was a first round pick by the Cardinals in ’66. After hitting over .400 each of his varsity seasons in HS he remained in Sacramento that summer to play in the town’s Metropolitan League where he hit .457. In ’67 he began his pro career outright with a .297/22/67 line in A ball and then in ’68 moved up to Double A Arkansas where he hit OK - .266/13/65 – but had a tough time with his first experience of overt racism. He demanded to play elsewhere and the next season St. Louis obliged by sticking him in Triple A where he thrived with a .303/17/96 season with 92 runs that got him a late look up top. He remained there in ’70 and split time in right field with Carl Taylor where a few too many K’s kept him from matching his numbers at the lower levels. By the end of that season fellow rookie Jose Cruz was seen as a big comer and early the next June after losing his platoon spot Leron and Fred Norman went to San Diego for pitcher Al Santorini.

Things improved considerably for Lee with the Padres. He took over the starting role in left field, upped his average by nearly 100 points, and cut down on his strikeouts a bunch as his .273 average tied Ollie Brown’s for the best among regulars on the team. In ’72 he was going great guns until an injury took him out for over six weeks in the summer. Still, his .300 average led the team, and he seemed to be the first ever Padre not prone to elongated batting slumps. That lasted all of a year and after the ’73 season Leron went to Cleveland off waivers. With the Tribe he got off to a slow start as a pinch hitter before in mid-May taking over left field for John Lowenstein while he filled in other outfield spots. Leroy had a nice run and was hitting over .300 by mid-June when he cooled off and then didn’t get any appreciable starts until late in the year. His final numbers that season unfortunately mirrored his ’73 ones as he put up a .233/5/25 line in his 232 at bats. He then kicked off ’75 as a seldom-used outfielder and pinch hitter, was released, and then picked up by the Dodgers for whom he did pinch work the rest of the way, finishing the season with a .212 average in only 66 at bats. Around a similarly miserable time up top with LA in ’76 Leron spent most of his season in Mexico where he ended his North American career. He finished with a .250 average with 31 homers and 152 RBI’s and hit .303 in the minors.

Late in the ’76 season Lee was contacted by Jim Lefebvre, the former LA Rookie of the Year who had moved to Japan to play ball and then coach. Lefebvre was one of the few Americans who was able to work well in the disciplined Japanese system and he was able to hook Leron up with the Lotte Orions and give him useful tips on surviving professionally in Japanese baseball. Leron did a lot better than that and would become the most successful American player there. He would put in a total of eleven seasons all with the same club and by the time he finished he had a lifetime stat line of .320/283/912 with a .382 OBA. His average is the best for a career over there for anyone with over 4,000 at bats and his power numbers rank pretty highly also. After a while his brother Leon – dad to future MLB'er Derrek - joined him and did nearly as well, hitting .308 in his ten seasons. Since Leron retired following the ’87 season he has done some coaching and then lots of scouting both in the States and in Japan.

Leron got that fat bonus and had early success in the minors. In ’71 he set a San Diego record with five hits in a game. He was also a fan of model trains.

Here we hook up two Cali kids who played in different leagues:

1. Lee and Dick Bosman ’74 to ’75 Indians;
2. Bosman and Mike Epstein ’67 to ’71 and ’73 Senators/Rangers.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

#650 - Mike Epstein

And the penultimate action shot belongs to .... Mike Epstein on his last Topps card swinging away at Yankee Stadium and apparently connecting since it looks like Thurman Munson’s glove is empty. Mike got back to California the hard way – through the Texas Rangers – and by the time this card came out was pretty much done emotionally with his first go in baseball. According to the book “Seasons in Hell” Mike was admittedly mailing it in and was more interested in getting his pilot’s license than in anything going on on the field. Looking at this photo, though, he still seemed to have the ability to uncork a huge swing every now and then. This shot was taken in either early June or September since those were the only two times since Epstein’s acquisition he played in NY for California and I believe this shot is from the same game as the one of Vada Pinson. Mike got with the Angels via a May trade that moved him, Rick Stelmaszek, and Rich Hand for Jim Spencer and Lloyd Allen. That was after the trade that got him out of Oakland initially, when he was sent to Texas rather cheaply for reliever Horacio Pina. That trade was initiated by one of two events, depending on the source: Mike’s o-fer performance in the ’72 Series (A’s owner Charlie O); or Mike’s laying out of Reggie Jackson in the locker room (Epstein). Either way it led to a pretty fast decline for Mike who would go from getting some MVP votes for his ’72 work to being out of the game less tan two years later. But he wouldn’t stay away for too long...

Mike Epstein was a big kid born in the Bronx, NYC. Sometime after he was bar mitzvahed his family relocated to the west coast and Mike went to high school in LA where he was all-area as both a fullback and a first baseman. He then went to Berkeley where he continued to play both sports and after hitting .375 his sophomore year was wooed by the Dodgers via Tommy Lasorda but remained in school at his dad’s insistence. In ’64 he upped his average to nearly .400, made All-American, and was selected to the first ever US Olympic baseball team. He then signed with the Orioles, put in some IL time, and returned to Berkeley to finish his studies. In ’65 he broke in with a bang, putting up a .338/30/109 line in A ball while playing first. In ’66 he jumped to Triple A where his line of .302/29/102 earned him TSN’s Minor League Player of the Year and a brief end of season look in Baltimore. Around then Boog Powell had settled in at first base so Baltimore wanted to turn Mike into an outfielder, which would require more time in the minors. Mike balked and early in June of the ’67 season after barely playing he was sent to DC for pitcher Pete Richert.  He immediately took over first but he was putting up too many K’s and not enough power so by the end of the season he was splitting starts with Dick Nen. After winter ball and a good spring training Mike was back in as the regular guy in ’68 but by mid-May his average was still below .100 so he returned to Triple A for some hitting work where he put up a .400/5/13 line in just eleven games. He was back up top in June and hit .276 with twelve homers and 31 RBI’s the rest of the way.

In ’69 Washington named a new manager in Ted Williams and Epstein would become one of Ted’s star pupils. Pretty much all of Mike’s offensive numbers would rise significantly and that season he sported a .414 OBA as the Nats put up their first winning season in this rendition. Expansion probably contributed to those numbers, though, and the next year Mike fell back to earth a bit. The next year Oakland was looking for a power guy at first and Mike went to the A’s with reliever Darold Knowles for catcher Frank Fernandez, first baseman Don Mincher, and reliever Paul Lindblad that May. He got the lion’s share of work at first the rest of the way, continued to have pretty good OBA numbers, and got his first post-season action. Then in ’72 he led Oakland in homers and got his Series win though he didn’t have such a great time offensively. That November he was sent to Texas and he then finished things early in the ’74 season with California. For his career Mike hit .244 with 130 homers, 380 RBI’s, and a .358 OBA. In the post-season he hit .108 with a homer in his 13 games and in just over two minor league seasons he hit .325 with 64 homers and 224 RBI’s.

As mentioned above, Epstein had sort of moved away emotionally from baseball by the time he retired. He would relocate to Colorado where he had his own ranch and also his own precious metals company for a few years. But the baseball bug never left him entirely. By the early Nineties he was in the San Diego area and coaching, first for a big deal amateur team and then in the Milwaukee system (’93, when he also went 4-7 as an interim manager), for some independent teams (’96-’99), and in the San Diego system (2000). He also coached at San Diego High School in ’95. Since about ’94 he has also run his own hitting school which by now has a sort of national network and has developed a system called rotational hitting. Both Mike and his son are busily involved in the school and if that photo on the site is recent Mike looks damn good.

This is a good swan song card and has some serious star bullets. Per the cartoon, Mike was no Ron Hunt, but every season from ’68 to ’72 he was in the top four in the AL for HBP. After coming across the “Seasons in Hell” book for the Joe Lovitto post I had to hunt it down. It’s a hilarious book with lots of behind the scenes dope of the Rangers from ’73 to ’75. Though Epstein was barely there at the time, he gets lots of mention, especially in a bit in which he pissed off some former teammates after being traded to California by indicating none of them was incentivized to win. Texas then won its next three games against California to kick off its only real winning streak that year.

Another hook-up that takes us through the AL:

1. Epstein and Bernie Allen ’67 to ’71 Senators;
2. Allen and Roy White ’72 to ’73 Yankees;
3. White and Fernando Gonzolez ’74 Yankees.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#649 - Fernando Gonzalez

I know we’re coming down to the wire here and sometimes when that happened Topps was fishing for guys to put on the cards. But two cards for a guy with 51 MLB at bats? That’s a little crazy. In the ’76 set Topps gave rookie Willie Randolph a Traded card but that was actually pretty cool, plus Willie was an integral part of a pennant winner that year. Not so for Fernando here, though his path would sort of follow Willie’s in that he’d get with the Yankees eventually. Here he’s sort of hanging out in Pittsburgh as a seldom-used back-up at third base and a pinch hitter. Unlike Terry Crowley from the previous post Fernando wouldn’t develop into a franchise in that latter role but he would get some time as a regular elsewhere in the infield. Here he poses at Shea, most likely in September since that was the only series in which he played there. He was up top nearly the whole season except for a couple mid-summer months back in Triple A where he put up a nice average with zero power. On his Traded card he looks plain nasty, like he's ready to be cast in one of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. This one’s a spring training shot with Al Oliver in the background when hopes should have been high for Fernando since he was probably coming off a pretty good season when this shot was taken but I guess he’s showing his poker face. I think if I saw that mug in a game I’d just fold.

Fernando Gonzalez was signed out of Puerto Rico by the new Seattle Pilots in late ’68. For them he seemed to have hit well enough in A ball but his fielding at his primary middle infield positions was pretty awful and he was released. He spent ’70 playing semi-pro ball in Canada, returned to PR for winter ball where he was managed by Roberto Clemente, and did well enough to get signed by Pittsburgh at the star’s recommendation. Back in A ball he hit a ton and more importantly fielded significantly better while playing primarily shortstop. In ’72 he moved up to Double A where he had another big offensive year and moved to the hot corner on defense before making his debut with the Pirates. After the trade shown here he moved to Kansas City where he got some nominal field time before being sold to the Yankees in May. NY was sort of in a transition mode that year at second base as longtime regular Horace Clarke had been sent to San Diego and Sandy Alomar had yet to arrive from California. So Fernando got his first regular MLB gig at second before his low average allowed Alomar to take over the spot and get Fernando sent back to Triple A where his past offensive success at that level was elusive. During spring training in ’75 he was released.

Gonzalez hooked up with the Poza Rica team in the Mexican League the first half of the ’75 season and in July was re-acquired by Pittsburgh to finish out the season in Triple A, where he hit at a .279 clip while returning to third base. He remained there for all of ’76 where he posted a .321/13/70 line as the regular corner guy. He then returned to the big club in ’77 where he did back-up work at third and in the outfield and put up some respectable offensive numbers with a .276/4/27 line in his 181 at bats. He began ’78 in the same role but wasn’t getting nearly as much work before he was plucked off waivers by San Diego. The Padres were also in a bit of a jam at second as high profile kid Mike Champion didn’t work out and Fernando immediately stepped into the starting role, hitting .250 the rest of the way while providing some pretty good defense. In ’79 he was the starter early in the year and he started strongly with a .300 average the first month-plus but when his streak ran out it did so hard and by the end of the year displaced shortstop – by Ozzie Smith – Billy Almon moved over as the starting guy. Prior to the ’80 season the Padres picked up Dave Cash to take over second full time and Fernando was released. He hooked up with California and that year had a .311/16/70 line in Triple A while splitting time between second and third but didn’t get any call. In ’81 he began the season hitting .274 in the same role but was released and then returned to Mexico to play. He did that the next four years and then in mid-’84 returned to the States to coach and play for the Yankees Double A franchise, hitting .257 in 60 games. That was his final work as a player and Fernando finished with a .235 MLB average on top of his .297 minor league one.

Gonzalez played Senior League ball in ’89 and seems to have worked a bit in Mexico and Puerto Rico as a coach after he played but nothing specific is out there.

Maybe that big ’72 warranted the rookie double card thing. The cartoon was a big help for the bio since everywhere else it just said he was out of pro ball. Despite what I said above Fernando actually had some nice numbers as a pinch hitter. In ’77 he hit .370 in that role with a .429 OBA and nine RBI’s in his 27 pinch at bats and in ’78 he hit .444 with a .500 OBA in his ten plate appearances.

Fernando was part of a pretty big trade and all the other principals have the double cards as well. “Originally drafted by the A’s”, huh? That may be a typo because I have found no relationship between Fernando and Oakland in my research.

These two sure aren’t going to get linked by the teams on their Traded cards:

1. Gonzalez and Rick Dempsey ’74 Yankees;
2. Dempsey and Terry Crowley ’76 to ’82 Orioles.