Vic Davalillo–Topps Company–1973
Little Vic Davalillo was one of my favorite players from my early years as a fan. Why did I like Davalillo so much? First, you have to love the name, pronounced DAV-AH-LEE-YO, which flows through the vocal chords. Then there is Davalillo’s Latin American heritage; as someone who is half-Puerto Rican, I’ve always felt special kinship with Latino ballplayers. And then there is Davalillo’s stature as a player; he was never quite the star that some predicted he would be, but he had a fine career as a role player and bench player. I’ve always liked such “supporting cast” type of players, in part because they have had to work so hard to overcome their everyman struggles, either to remain in the lineup or to merely stay on a major league roster. In Davalillo’s case, he regularly had to overcome the preconceived notion that someone five-feet, seven-inches tall couldn’t play the outfield or hit well enough to stay in the big leagues.
In 1965, Davalillo made the All-Star team while patrolling center field for the Indians. His newfound All-Star status, coupled with the Gold Glove he won in 1964, led some scouts to predict stardom for the native Venezuelan. Stardom never materialized, but Davalillo didn’t exactly flop either. During the first half of his career, he established himself as a fine defensive outfielder with a strong arm. And then in the second half, when his throwing arm became a liability due to injury, he became a smarter and more effective hitter, both in a platoon role and as one of the game’s great pinch-hitters. In 1970, Davalillo collected a league-leading 24 pinch-hits for the Cardinals, making him one of the game’s most dangerous clutch hitters in the late innings.
In 1971, Davalillo became a huge component of the Pirates’ World Championship run. Arguably the Pirates’ best bench player in 1971, Davalillo emerged as an effective backup to Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, giving the two Hall of Famers an occasional breather in the corners of the outfield. In 1972, Davalillo enjoyed an even more productive season–arguably the best of his career. Although Davalillo started the season on the bench, he moved into the lineup when manager Bill Virdon decided to shift Willie Stargell from the outfield to first base. Davalillo became the Pirates’ regular left fielder against right-handed pitching, batted .318 in 368 at-bats, and swiped 14 bases.
After a slow start in 1973, the Pirates sold Davalillo to the A’s, who were looking for a competent left-handed bat to use as a pinch-hitter and designated hitter. Davalillo batted only .188 in 64 regular season at-bats for the A’s, but played a key role in the American League Championship Series against the Orioles. In the decisive fifth game, Davalillo delivered a key RBI triple against Baltimore starter Doyle Alexander, helping the A’s to a clinching 3-0 victory. Davalillo also took part in Oakland’s World Series victory over the Mets.
In 1974, Davalillo batted only .174 through Oakland’s first 21 games, when the A’s decided to give him his unconditional release. Davalillo had long since gained a reputation for excessive drinking, which combined with his age and lack of hitting, led many to believe that his career had ended.
Fortunately, the pesky veteran hitter decided to continue his career in the Mexican League. Playing for Cordoba and Puebla, Davalillo batted .329 or better in each of his first three seasons south of the border. In 1977, Davalillo was leading the Mexican League in hitting with a sizzling .384 batting mark. Dodgers superscout Charlie Metro spotted Davalillo and recommended that general manager Al Campanis sign the veteran left-handed hitter for the stretch run. “I saw him in 20 official at-bats and he got nine hits,” Metro recalled. “But what really sold me was that in those 20 at-bats–and every single time I saw him take batting practice–he never once failed to hit the ball when he swung at it.”
Davalillo justified Metro’s scouting report by batting .313 for the Dodgers in 48 late season at-bats. Davalillo’s most memorable moment as a Dodger occurred in Game Three of the National League Championship Series against the Phillies. Davalillo laid down a surprise two-out bunt single that spearheaded a three-run comeback in the ninth inning. Davalillo’s bunt, perhaps the most important hit of his long career, served as the turning point of momentum in the playoff series. Spearheaded by Davalillo’s timely bunt, the Dodgers went on to beat the Phillies.
Davalillo’s major league career finally came to an end in 1980. He concluded a vagabond but productive career with a .279 batting average, 125 stolen bases, one All-Star Game berth, a single-season pinch-hitting record, World Series appearances with three different teams, and two championship rings. Never a star, he became a journeyman, a term that some unfairly treat with derision, but one that Davalillo made all the more respectable.
When the White Sox signed Alexei Ramirez over the winter, the move generated few headlines, even in the Windy City. By most counts, Ramirez was a project, a former Cuban League shortstop whom most scouts tabbed as not being ready for the major leagues. By most accounts, he was going to have to learn a new position–possibly the outfield–and would probably need to start the season in Class–AA ball. If Ramirez was to have an impact, it appeared that it would have to wait until at least 2009, possibly 2010.
Thankfully for the White Sox, Ramirez proved himself able ahead of the projected schedule. Though he started the season in a less defined utility role, he eventually became Chicago’s regular second baseman, played acceptable defense while learning a new position, and clubbed 21 home runs, including a crucial grand slam in Monday’s must-win over the Tigers. Ramirez’ sixth-inning blast broke a 2-all tie, pushing the White Sox to an 8-2 victory that will force a one-game tiebreaker against the Twins on Tuesday night. (With four grand slams on the season, Ramirez also established a record for major league rookies.)
On the surface, Ramirez doesn’t look all that impressive. Nicknamed the “Cuban Missile,” he’s listed as six-three, 165 pounds, but, in reality, he can’t possibly weigh an ounce above 150. He doesn’t appear to have lifted a single dumbbell (or even a ten-pound plate) in his young life. He’s also not very patient at the plate, having drawn only 16 walks all season. (His strike zone is about the same size as Manny Sanguillen’s. Translated: he’s a free swinger.) Well, only a nitpicker would make a major issue out of his lack of patience–or his 1960s middle infielder frame. Ramirez hits with power, steals bases, and flashes good range at second base, helping the White Sox solidify a position that had become a trouble spot since the trade of Tad Iguchi. Though he won’t win the AL Rookie of the Year–that will go to Evan Longoria–he may pick up a couple of votes. And thanks to his Monday night heroics, he has given the Sox a chance to play another day.
The White Sox will now face the Twins on Tuesday night, in a game that will decide the champion of the AL Central. The Sox appear to have the advantage on two counts–both the ballpark and the pitching matchup. Thanks to a coin toss, the Sox will host the tiebreaker at U.S. Cellular Field. They’ll also have John Danks pitching against Nick Blackburn, with the former’s ERA about seven-tenths of a run better than the latter. The fact that Danks throws left-handed is a bonus; perhaps he’ll be able to counteract Minnesota’s two MVP candidates, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
I also happen to think that the White Sox are the more talented team, though that will hardly matter in a one-game, winner-take-all situation. Heck, the Twins have been defying the odds all season long, showing us how they still know how to win games after the off-season departures of Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. They’d just better pitch carefully to Alexei Ramirez.
Frankly, the Mets should be ashamed of themselves.
It’s not just about losing one game either. It’s about playing embarrasingly bad baseball for two straight Septembers, about coughing up a three-and-a-game lead over your last 17 games, about losing six of your last nine to conclude a summer of disappointment, and about scoring a grand total of six runs in the final series of the season. Six runs. The Mets had everything to play for over the weekend, the Marlins had nothing to play for but pride, and yet the Mets could muster only one win–supplied almost single-handedly by the great Johan Santana on Saturday.
Other than Santana and Carlos Beltran, few of the Mets seemed to show up over the weekend. With the season hanging in the balance and capacity crowds on hand to bid farewell to Shea Stadium, the Mets played with all the intensity and effectiveness of a B-team in spring training. The main culprits? You can certainly point to the offense, which garnered a grand total of four hits in Sunday’s finale, and you can certainly point to that dreadful bullpen. At a time when the Mets needed two or three relievers to step up in the absence of Billy Wagner, only Subway Joe Smith provided a boost to Jerry Manuel, who tried just about everyone he could lay his hands on. As much as some observers want to pin goat horns on Omar Minaya for failing to acquire an effective reliever down the stretch, I’ll place most of the blame on Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano. If those two had pitched remotely close to their potential–let’s say the level we saw from them two years ago–the Mets, not the Brewers, would today be wild card winners.
A second straight September collapse must sting badly for Mets fans. I hope it stings just as badly for the players. After all, they are the ones responsible for this mess of underachievement. They blew it, plain and simple.
So who has the advantage between the Brewers and Mets, who are currently locked in a flat-footed tie for the National League wild card? Both teams will be at home for the final weekend, but both face potentially annoying competition. The Brewers will host the Cubs, the best team in the league this season, in a three-game weekend series at Miller Park. Even though they’ve already clinched a division title, the Cubs will field their A-lineup against the Brewers, but they really have no tangible incentive to play all-out this weekend. The same could be said of the already-eliminated Marlins, who will engage the Mets in their Shea Stadium swansong, but would love nothing better than to play the role of spoiler against New York. No one needs to remind the Mets that it was the Marlins, angered by the showboating of Jose Reyes, who eliminated them on the final day of the season in 2007. I see a different outcome this time, with Jerry Manuel providing a calm hand, Carlos Beltran delivering at least two big hits, and Luis Ayala emerging as a bullpen savior over the final weekend…
It’s amazing to me how many baseball bloggers–some of whom I enjoy reading frequently–simply can’t resist talking politics on the eve of the November elections. Will Carroll and Scott Long of Baseball Toaster, along with Steven Goldman of the YES Network, have regularly included political commentary relating to the Obama-McCain race for the White House. On the one hand, their decisions to mix politics with baseball talk are understandable; the blogs belong to them, and they can do what they want. On the other hand, they do bill themselves first and foremost as baseball writers. In a sense, it’s a kind of false advertising, creating an expectation of baseball conversation for the reader, then using a bait-and-switch and turning the talk over to politics. My opinion on this issue remains the same. There are plenty of avenues for political discourse across the Web, ranging from the Keith Olbermann side of the equation to the Bill O’Reilly perspective. I believe that the large majority of people want baseball from a baseball site, which is why I will continue to refrain from offering political sermons at MLB.com. I’m not pretending to be Ariana Huffington or Sean Hannity here. Besides, I’d much rather discuss the merits of Rico Carty, Tommy Davis, Robinson Cano, or David Wright…
Speaking of politics, there was no discussion of that topic–absolutely none–at last week’s Hall of Fame ”Voices of the Game” event featuring Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Robert Wuhl and Bull Durham director Ron Shelton. After film critic Jeffrey Lyons interviewed the four film notables, the Hall solicited questions from fans, who were asked to write down their questions. Several fans submitted written questions about the Hall’s 2003 boycott of Robbins over his anti-Iraq War stance, but those queries were not used during the program. There was also no opportunity for fans to converse with the actors one-on-one, since no photo session was held afterwards, as has often been the custom at such Hall of Fame events. Instead, Robbins, Sarandon, and company were whisked away to their cars immediately after the program.
I think the decision to avoid political discussion during the program was a smart one, but the Hall should have at least broached the subject at the beginning of the event. A Hall of Fame spokesman could have briefly explained the reasoning behind the 2003 boycott and how that rationale changed in 2008–and then be done with the issue. I believe that such an announcement, which would have effectively served as a disclaimer, would have satisfied most reasonable fans.
Originally taken by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the 1969 draft, Larry Gura arrived in the Windy City one year later. Pitching sporadically over his first four seasons, Gura failed to impress the Cubs and never gained the trust of manager Leo Durocher, who preferred veteran pitchers. With his major league resume spotty, the Cubs traded Gura to the Texas Rangers as the player to be named later for veteran lefty Mike Paul. Gura never actually appeared in a game for the Rangers, who traded him in May of 1974, sending him to the Yankees for washed up catcher Duke Sims. Much like the Cubs, the Rangers lacked patience with Gura, giving up on him quickly in part because of his lack of velocity and the absence of a dominating out-pitch.
In the midst of the 1974 season, the Yankees called Gura up from the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League. The Yankees gave Gura eight starts. He rewarded them with an ERA of 2.41, a record of 5-1, four complete games, and a mere 12 walks in 56 innings. With manager Bill Virdon and pitching coach Whitey Ford in his corner, no one seemed to mind that Gura struck out only 17 batters in those appearances.
Convinced that his 1974 performance was no fluke, the Yankees penciled in Gura as their fifth starter in 1975, behind a quartet of Jim “Catfish” Hunter, George “Doc” Medich, Rudy May, and Pat Dobson. Gura responded by pitching reasonably well, certainly better than the standard by which most No. 5 starters are judged. All of that began to change in August, when the Yankees fired Virdon and replaced him with Martin, who had just become available after being ousted by the Rangers. Martin was already somewhat familiar with Gura, having watched him pitch in one game during spring training of 1974, when both were still with the Rangers. Based on one inning of work, Martin had determined that Gura was not ready, saying that he lacked good control, and demoted him to the minor leagues. With those first impressions solidly entrenched, apparently based on the smallest of sample sizes, Martin had little interest in watching Gura pitch meaningful regular season games. Adopting a four-man rotation, Martin removed Gura from the starting staff and dumped him in the bullpen.
So why did Martin seemingly detest Gura? First, the manager didn’t believe that Gura had enough “stuff” to succeed in the major leagues. Martin regarded him as a junkballer who lacked the smarts or experience to overcome the absence of a dominating fastball or a powerhouse slider. In some ways, Martin’s assessment sounded reasonable. After all, the Cubs had given up on Gura for virtually the same rationale. But Martin’s secondary criticism of Gura bordered on the bizarre. For some reason, Martin didn’t like Gura’s fascination with physical fitness. Gura, who observed a strict diet and workout regimen and eventually became a green belt in tae kwon do, believed strongly in his personal conditioning program. Martin just found it weird, an unorthodox fad that had nothing to do with real preparation for playing baseball. And then there’s the infamous “tennis whites” story. Martin supposedly saw Gura wearing a white tennis outfit one day and didn’t like it–not at all. (Billy sure did have some strange pet peeves, didn’t he?)
Gura actually started the 1976 season on the Yankees’ 25-man roster, but that didn’t mean that Martin had to use him. In fact, he didn’t–not even once in the five weeks that marked the start of the season. Finally, the Yankee front office ended Martin’s siege by trading Gura. On May 16, the Yankees sent Gura to the Kansas City Royals in a giveaway that brought backup catcher Fran Healy to New York. Other than Reggie Jackson, who came to trust Healy as his sole ally on the Yankee teams of the late seventies, not a single person connected to the franchise would dare call this trade a victory for the pinstripes.
After first establishing himself as an able-bodied reliever, Gura would later emerge as the top left-hander in the Royals’ rotation. Leading with his curve ball and slider, Gura learned to mix his pitches, master the strike zone, and overcome his pedestrian fastball. From 1978 to 1983, he logged at least 200 innings a season. A two-time 18-game winner, Gura posted ERAs of less than 3.00 on four occasions. Now let’s project what his performance might have meant to the Yankees. In 1980, Gura might have helped the Yankees fare better in the postseason, when they lost three straight games to, you guessed it, the Royals. One of those Yankee losses involved a complete-game effort by Gura. Take Gura away from the Royals and put him on the Yankees, and things might have turned out differently. Gura also could have helped in the 1981 World Series, which saw the Yankees lose four straight games after claiming the first two games against Los Angeles. Additionally, Gura tormented the Yankees in regular season play throughout his career, winning 11 of 17 decisions against the Bombers.
Billy Martin knew a lot of things about baseball. He knew about strategy, about the running game, about staying three steps ahead of the opposing manager. He knew how to motivate players, including guys like Rickey Henderson. But he didn’t always know about evaluating talent. And he, along with the Cubs and Rangers, didn’t know what they had in Larry Gura.
We lost one of the good ones on Wednesday, when Mickey Vernon passed away at age 90, the victim of a stroke he suffered one week ago. I had the pleasure of meeting Mickey twice, most recently at a June event in the Philadelphia area in which he spoke about his tenure in the military during World War II. In 2006, I met Mickey for the first time, also in the Philadelphia area, as part of a program that celebrated accomplishments of Chester, PA native Danny Murtaugh. Both occasions proved uplifting, as I came away with the kind of graceful impression that Mickey had made on so many other people both during and after his career in baseball.
Mickey Vernon was a tremendous ballplayer, a two-time batting champion and a three-time All-Star who was once voted the greatest first baseman in the history of the Washington Senators’ franchise. Despite missing part of his career because of military service, Vernon played more games at first base than anyone during the 20th century. He was a slick defender, one of the finest fielding first basemen of all time, along with being a productive line-drive hitter who flashed power at various times during his four-decade career. He was good enough to have merited inclusion on the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee ballot, which features his name along with nine other players whose careers began prior to 1943.
As fine a player as Vernon was, he was a better man. Likeable throughout his playing days, Vernon continued to spread the wealth of his amiable personality as a manager, coach, scout, and after his retirement, as a frequent guest at baseball-related functions. If you wanted to add a touch of gentlemanly class and quiet intelligence to your event, you just made sure to send an invitation to Mickey Vernon.
Jim Vankoski, who arranges a number of baseball related events in the Philadelphia area, knew all about Mickey. He was the one who introduced me to Mickey, who told me what a wonderful guy that he was. Mickey certainly did not disappoint. He patiently answered questions that I interspersed throughout our conversations, while at the same time taking an interest in what I was doing. Thanks, Jim, for giving me the chance to meet this special man.
And thanks to Mickey for the way that he treated me–the way that he seemingly treated everyone. I only met him twice, but I feel like I knew him for a lifetime.
On Monday, the San Francisco Giants announced the formation of a “Wall of Fame” that would be displayed at AT&T Field beginning with the 2009 season. The inaugural class of Wall of Famers would include over 40 members. The criteria for making the Wall are simple: a retired player becomes automatically inducted if he has played at least nine seasons with San Francisco, or has been an All-Star who has played at least five seasons with the Giants.
This “Wall of Fame” sounds like a good idea, a noble concept, but it’s one that has gone awry. Now there’s no problem with the top end of the wall. The Giants, who have been celebrating their 50th year in San Francisco (yes, it’s been that long since the move west from the Polo Grounds), easily have an elite group of core players to form the upper tier of the wall: Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. Then you have a second tier of really good players who have been All-Star caliber performers, including the underrated Felipe Alou, the late Rod Beck, the late Bobby Bonds, Vida Blue, Will Clark, Chili Davis, Darrell Evans, the late Tom Haller, Jim Ray Hart, Gary Lavelle, Jeff Leonard, Greg “Moon Man” Minton, Kevin Mitchell, Robb Nen, and Matt Williams. And if you want to include a group of “common card” Giants, players who have been contributing foot soldiers over the years, you have a solid group formed by the likes of John Burkett, Dick Dietz, Scotty Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Mike Krukow, Mike McCormick, Stu Miller, John “The Count” Montefusco, Rick Reuschel, Chris Speier, and Robby Thompson. They were all decent players, or better in some cases. Some of them, like Montefusco, were also very popular with the fans. By all means, give them their places on the Wall.
But here’s where the Giants have gone wrong. When you start including players like Johnnie LeMaster, Tito Fuentes, and Kirt Manwaring, especially in the inaugural class of the Wall of Fame, I think you’ve lost all credibility. LeMaster, in particular, makes the Giants look like they’ve miscalculated their standards. He is one of the worst players to step onto a field in the last 40 years; he couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, couldn’t steal bases. He was a bad player who was best known for putting “Boo” on his uniform in response to angry fans at Candlestick Park.
As for Fuentes, he was a colorful performer who was a member of the 1971 team that claimed the National League West, but at his peak was never much more than an average player. And for much of his career, he was well below average, an iffy fielder who struggled to reach base. Finally, Manwaring was a little bit better, a good defensive catcher who couldn’t hit for either average or power. On the list of standout Giants catchers of the past 40 years, Manwaring would rate well below Haller, Dietz, Bob Brenly (also scheduled for Wall induction in 2009), and current Giants receiver Bengi Molina. I just don’t see where a one-dimensional catcher like Manwaring merits inclusion on this list.
The problem with the Giants Wall of Fame is quite simple: the standards for induction are way too low. Nine years of play with the Giants, or five years and one All-Star appearance with San Francisco, will open the floodgates too wide for mediocre or worse players to join the Wall of Fame. Do you really want light-hitting utility infielders, middle-of-the road platoon players, and interchangeable long relievers making your team’s Wall of Fame? The Giants would be far better off tightening the standards, perhaps by calling for a minimum of 12 years with the franchise, or perhaps by making the criteria more subjective, based on a player’s performance and popularity in San Francisco.
By all means, let’s honor the Jim Ray Harts, Count Montefuscos, and Rick Reuschels of the Giants’ baseball world. I love it when players who were good, but something less than immortal, receive their due. But when you’ve lowered the bar so far that you have to include the Johnnie LeMasters of years gone by, it’s time to shake up the formula, give it a good stir, and start over again.
Baseball has a remarkable symmetry that borders on the supernatural. On September 30, 1973, a fading, aging backup catcher named Duke Sims hit the final home run in the history of the original Yankee Stadium. On September 21, 2008, a light-hitting backup catcher, Jose Molina, perhaps the least likely longball threat on the entire Yankees’ roster, hit the final home run in the history of the renovated Stadium. On a team featuring the powerful likes of Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and Xavier Nady, among others, who would have figured that?…
In celebrating the final night of the Stadium’s baseball existence, the Yankees did a wonderful job honoring both the distant and recent past, parading a full range of icons onto the various positions on the field, from a sliding Willie Randolph to a standing Bernie Williams. Yet, I was more captivated by the postgame celebration, which seemed far more spontaneous than the highly orchestrated pre-game introductions. Derek Jeter’s impromptu but eloquent salute to the fans, followed by an emotional lap around the Stadium confines, involving all of the current Yankees, made for a sincere and softened finish to a night full of emotionally jagged moments. As Yankee players and fans lingered on the field and in the stands, the Stadium bowed out–respectfully and almost happily…
While the Yankees honored their Stadium, the Cubs basked in the aftermath of Saturday afternoon’s clinching, which puts them into the postseason for a second straight fall. It’s amazing the impact that manager Lou Piniella continues to have on his teams offensively, whether it’s in New York in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City in the 2000s. When Sweet Lou took over Chicago’s helm three winters ago, the Cubs found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs. In 2008, the contrast is stark. Aside from Alfonso Soriano, almost all of their hitters work the count capably. Youngsters like Geovany Soto (the clearcut NL Rookie of the Year) have thrived under Piniella, as have seemingly past-their-prime oldsters like Jim Edmonds. Even the bench’s role players, from Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson, make ample contributions when given their share of at-bats. It’s no wonder that the Cubs have scored over 800 runs, putting them well ahead of all remaining teams in the NL. Simply put, runs scored have translate into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.
My father first took me to Yankee Stadium in 1973, when I was all of eight years old. I didn’t realize it until last night–when I looked up the game on Retrosheet–that it was actually the final night game in the history of the old Yankee Stadium. More specificially, it was the night of September 28th, a Friday night, with the Yankees playing host to the venerable Detroit Tigers.
As I recall, we had seats somewhere down the left field line. Man, I loved that Stadium, from its classic facade, to the wonderful way the upper deck framed the ballpark, to the fading green color of the seats. It was both a stadium and a time machine. Though my father and I had an unobstructed view, some fans near us were positioned right behind one of the old Stadium’s columns, which must have completely blocked their view. Those old columns, while they looked regal on TV or from a long distance, were just about the only drawback to that terrific old Stadium.
Aside from those ever-present columns, I’ll always remember that game first and foremost for the fact that Woodie Fryman started for the Tigers. (For some reason, my father and I talked about Fryman a lot that night.) Fryman gave up all four Yankee runs over six innings, despite having pitched a shutout through the first five frames. The Yankees’ early offensive ineptitude against Fryman shouldn’t have been surprising considering that Celerino Sanchez batted fifth in manager Ralph Houk’s lineup. I haven’t bothered to do the research, but that might have been the only time that Sanchez batted fifth in anyone’s lineup.
In the bottom of the sixth, with the Tigers leading 1-0, Fryman encountered his first stumbling block of the night. Fittingly for me, he gave up a three-run homer to Bobby Murcer, who was one of my two favorite Yankees at the time, along with Thurman Munson. (Sadly, neither man will be around for Sunday night’s Stadium finale. But they will both be remembered.) The Yankees then tacked on another run in the bottom of the seventh on an RBI single by, of all people, Horace “Hoss” Clarke. That would prove to be plenty of run support for Yankee ace Mel Stottlemyre, who pitched a complete-game pseudo-shutout, allowing only one unearned run against a Tigers lineup that featured old favorites like Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Gates Brown, and Bill Freehan.
From the New York pespective, Stottlemyre, Munson, and Murcer were three of the rare bright spots for the Yankees of 1973. The team was highly mediocre, finishing just below break-even at 80-82. But none of that mattered. It was a comfortable late September night, my father giving me lessons in baseball, and an old-fashioned stadium providing an ideal setting to appreciate an early fall night. Yes, that old Stadium served its purpose very well.
Jose Cardenal–Topps Company–1973
“Bunt the ball, Jose,” the Topps cameraman might have yelled to Jose Cardenal as he sought just the right pose for his 1973 baseball card. Cardenal could bunt. Heck, he did seemingly everything well on the playing field, but ended up settling for a vagabond career that saw him cover the map of the United States over a span of nearly two decades.
A journeyman outfielder who broke into the big leagues in the 1960s, Cardenal came up through the San Francisco Giants’ system as a coveted prospect with five-tool talents. Scouts loved Cardenal’s speed, arm strength, and developing power. Sadly, the Giants did a poor job in evaluating their young players and prospects and didn’t always handle their Latino players fairly at the time; along those lines, they traded Cardenal to the Angels for fringe back-up catcher Jack Hiatt. The trade to the American League gave Cardenal a chance to play games head-to-head against his cousin, Kansas City A’s shortstop Bert “Campy” Campaneris. (In a rather remarkable coincidence, Cardenal became the first batter to step in against his cousin when Campy moved to the mound as part of Charlie Finley’s nine-positions-in-a-day stunt in 1965.) Showing promise in his first two seasons with the Angels, Cardenal then flopped in his third year, prompting a trade to the Cleveland Indians for utilityman Chuck Hinton. Cardenal played two seasons by the lake before packing his bags again; this time, the Indians traded him back to the National League, more specifically to the Cardinals.
The Cardinals, playing half of their games on the expansive artificial turf of Busch Stadium, seemed like an ideal fit for a fast flychaser like Cardenal. (He also became “Cardenal the Cardinal,” creating all sorts of marketing possibilities.) With Cardenal in center and Lou Brock in left field, the Cardinals featured speed galore in the outfield. Yet, the marriage between Cardenal and the Cardinals didn’t last. After a season and a half, the Redbirds dealt Cardenal to Milwaukee in a midsummer trade. It would not be until his next stop that Cardenal would find some long-term stability. After the 1971 season, the Cubs packaged right-hander Jim Colborn with two lesser players and sent them to the Brewers for Cardenal. Grouping him with Billy Williams (left field) and Rick Monday (center field), the Cubs formulated one of their best outfields in years, consisting of a Hall of Famer (Williams) and two players with the speed to cover center field (Cardenal and Monday). Cardenal, who would remain a fixture in front of the Wrigley Field ivy for six seasons, had finally found a home. (It would also be during his days in Chicago that Cardenal would develop his trademark king-sized Afro.)
Then came Cardenal’s decline phase. With the Cubs realizing that the 33-year-old Cardenal could no longer play every day, they traded him to the Phillies after the 1977 season. He struggled as a bench player with Philly, found himself traded to the Mets in the middle of a doubleheader, and endured two more half-seasons of utility play with the lowly Mets before enjoying a last hurrah with the 1980 Royals. Signed off the waiver wire in late August, Cardenal batted .340 in 53 at-bats and then delivered a pinch-hit in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series. Even though his hit against Tug McGraw ultimately didn’t matter in the Royals’ loss, it did allow Cardenal to leave his major league career on the high note of a World Series single.
So why did Cardenal, a solid ballplayer who hit for a decent average, stole bases aggressively, and played all three outfield positions to a capable level, find himself suiting up in nine different uniforms over a journeyman 18-year career? Two factors may have been at work. First, Cardenal didn’t hit with the kind of power that he had flashed as a prospect in the Giants’ system. Satisfied with spraying the ball from alley to alley, he never hit more than 17 home runs in a single season. Second, Cardenal may have aggravated some of his teams with his behavior, which was either quaint or bizarre, depending on your perspective. Some of his managers considered him moody, though that could have resulted from racial and ethnic misunderstanding. A free spirit with an odd sense of logic, Cardenal did frustrate his managers and front office bosses with his quirks and habits. Some of those habits damaged his reputation, while others were flat-out harmless, but all of them made Cardenal one of a kind:
*Cardenal liked to wear his uniform pants exceedingly tight at a time when most players preferred the baggier look of the late 1960s. According to former Seattle Pilots right-hander Fred Talbot, Cardenal once sat out three straight winter league games because he couldn’t find pants that were tight enough around his legs. And yes, that does sound like something out of a Seinfeld episode.
*As illustrated by Talbot, Cardenal became legendary for concocting strange excuses for an inability to play. In addition to the “tight pants” episode, there were bizarre eye injuries and nighttime distractions created by thoughtless crickets. In 1972, Cardenal claimed that he couldn’t see properly. The reason? He had woken up with his eyelid and his eyelashes stuck to his eyeball. “I woke up and my eye was swollen shut,” Cardenal explained to a reporter without snickering. “My eyelashes were stuck together. I couldn’t see, so I couldn’t play.” On another occasion, Cardenal told Cubs manager Jim Marshall that he couldn’t play in a 1972 spring training game because some particularly loud crickets had kept him up the entire night. Marshall didn’t believe him, but gave the veteran outfielder the day off. When it came to odd excuses not to play, Cardenal was the Chris Brown of the 1970s.
*Unlike many Latino players of his era, Cardenal spoke English well enough to give him a comfort level with reporters. Sometimes, his ability to handle interviews translated into too much irreverence for some people’s liking. When teammate Rick Monday rescued an American flag from two migrant workers in a 1976 game, Cardenal became one of the few players to react with a level of derision. He sarcastically wondered whether Monday would be regarded as much of an American patriot as Lincoln or Washington.
*Cardenal became well known for sporting one of the game’s largest Afros of the 1970s. In fact, other than Oscar Gamble, no one had an Afro the height or girth of Cardenal’s. As a result, Cardenal required caps and helmets that were appreciably larger than his head size–somewhere in the Bruce Bochy/Hideki Matsui range.
*According to Pete Rose (I guess you have to consider the source with this one), Cardenal corked bats blatantly during his days in Philadelphia. Rose says he could plainly hear the “sounds of the drill” in the Phillies’ clubhouse, as Cardenal plied his woodwork to a variety of bats. Rose claimed that he used one of Cardenal’s corked bats in batting practice, but never in an actual game.
In spite of his reputation for offbeat, sometimes daffy behavior, Cardenal went on to enjoy a long career as a coach, gaining respect for his knowledge of baserunning and outfield play. In 1996, Cardenal provided the Yankees, who employed him as their first base and outfield coach, with a key piece of strategy during the World Series. With the Yankees holding onto a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning of Game Five, the Braves threatened to tie the score–and possibly win the game. As Chipper Jones led off third base and Ryan Klesko took his lead at first base, Luis Polonia stepped into the batter’s box against Yankee closer John Wetteland. Moments before the at-bat, Cardenal noticed that Paul O’Neill was out of position in right field. From his perch in the dugout, Cardenal waved frantically at O’Neill, motioning him to move several steps toward right-center field. Surely enough, Polonia then swatted a Wetteland delivery toward the right-field alley, high and far, but short of home run distance. Racing toward the wall, O’Neill finally caught up with the drive, barely snaring it in the webbing of his glove before slapping his hands against the padded wall at Fulton County Stadium.
If Cardenal had not moved O’Neill several feet toward the gap, Polonia’s drive would have eluded him. At the very least, Jones would have scored, tying the game. Although it’s not a certainty, Klesko very possibly would have scored from first, giving the Braves a dramatic come-from-back victory.
And who knows if the Yankees would have even won the 1996 World Series without the sage advice of the man who once claimed that crickets kept him up all night long.