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.