Dream Season: Mike Schmidt

Every player longs for that dream season. The one where they stay healthy and just produce. I’m going to crunch the numbers and create dream seasons for notable 1980s stars. We’ll start with Mike Schmidt.

April 1986

Schmitty had some slow starts, but his final season was not among them. He went 2-4 with a homer off Mario Soto on Opening Day and kept going. Not a huge power month, but the batting average was solid. He ended April hitting .328 with 5 homers and 19 RBI with 10 runs scored. A great way to kick off the season.

May 1980

The Phillies first World Series season was Mike Schmidt‘s finest season as well and May was a huge month. Philadelphia entered May already 4.5 games behind in the National League East but by the end of the month, they were back in it. Schmidt hit .305 with 12 homers and 29 RBI to earn Player of the Month honors. His teammate Steve Carlton also had a pretty good month, going 6-1 with a 1.88 E.R.A. and was named Pitcher of the Month.

June 1977

After leading the National League in home runs for three consecutive seasons, Schmidt finished 4th in 1977, but he still hit 38 dingers and drove in 101 runs. He also raised his batting average and cut down on his strikeouts. In June, Schmitty hit .318 with 14 homers and 28 RBI.   His biggest day came on June 10th against Atlanta when he went 3-4 with two homers and 5 RBI, one of two multi-homer games that month.

July 1979

Once Pete Rose came to the Phillies, Schmidt’s career really took off. He hit 40 homers for the first time in 1979 and his July was something to remember. Mike hit .354 with 13 homers and drove in 32 runs in 28 games. During a four-game series against the San Francisco Giants from July 6-9 at The Vet, Schmidt went 8-14 with 6 homers and 13 RBI. The Giants never knew what hit ’em.

August 1981

Among the many tragedies of the strike season was what it took away from Mike Schmidt. He won his second consecutive MVP award that season and also had the best single-season batting average of his career, batting .316. When the players finally got back on the field Schmitty went off, hitting .380 with 9 homers and 24 RBI in 20 games.

September/October 1980

The stretch run in 1980 is something no Phillies phan will ever forget and Mike Schmidt played a huge role. For the month, he hit .298 with 13 homers and 28 RBI, but there’s one homer that stands out above the rest. On the next to last day of the season, his 11th inning homer in Montreal gave the Phillies the N.L. East division crown.

The Totals:

When you put it all together, it doesn’t look too bad. In Mike Schmidt’s dream season he hit .327 with 66 homers and 160 RBI while scoring 118 runs. I’ll take that.

Gorman Texas Ranger

“They know when to cheer and they know when to boo. And then know when to drink beer. They do it all the time.” –Gorman Thomas on Brewers fans

There are players who will always be associated with certain franchises. Gorman Thomas is one of those players. He spent time in Cleveland and Seattle, but Gorman will always be a Brewer.

One thing I didn’t realize until recently is that, for a brief time, Gorman Thomas was a Texas Ranger.

Thomas was a first-round draft pick in 1969 but he hadn’t been able to put it together at the major league level. He struggled in his first four seasons, hitting just .193 in 668 at-bats. By 1977, there were indications that Thomas may be the classic AAAA player. Too good for AAA but not good enough for the big leagues. He spent the entire season at AAA Spokane, where he hit .322 with 36 homers and 114 RBI. No one doubted his power but there were questions about his batting average and his propensity to strike out a lot. Then something strange happend.

On August 20th of 1977, the Texas Rangers were in a pennant race and needed to clear a roster spot to call up pitcher Len Barker, so they swapped Ed Kirkpatrick to the Brewers for a player to be named later.

Kirkpatrick served the Brewers well, batting .273 in 29 games but the timing of the move was odd. Why would the Brewers acquire a 16-year vet with a .188 batting average when they were 21 games off the pace? It wasn’t the kind of deal a team makes with an eye on the future.

Player to Be Named Later

“The Milwaukee Brewers officially gave up on Gorman Thomas Tuesday when they sent the once highly promising outfielder to the Texas Rangers.”

-Green Bay Press-Gazette ·  Oct 26, 1977

If trading for Ed Kirkpatrick in August en route to a 95 loss season didn’t make much sense, then sending a prospect, albeit struggling one, to complete the deal made even less sense.

Adding to the intrigue was that Thomas didn’t ever hear from the Rangers until December. “You always hear these stories about being traded. It was my first time and I didn’t hear a thing,” he said. “No ‘Good-Bye, it’s been nice knowing you’ or ‘Hello, it’s nice to see you.’ I felt like a batboy being switched around.”

Be that as it may, the Rangers had to be excited to get a young player with so much potential. Thomas was poised to put up big numbers in the Texas outfield for years to come. The Rangers were so happy to have Thomas that they went out and traded for Al Oliver, Bobby Bonds and Richie Zisk. By the beginning of February, the Rangers roster boasted eleven outfielders. Something was fishy.

No Place Like Home

As it turned out, Thomas’ stay in Texas was a short one. In February of 1978, the Rangers sold him back to Milwaukee. Immediately there were rumors of a side deal which were denied by both sides.

“I heard from (Texas general manager) Dan O’Brien that the Rangers were having trouble signing him and that their outfield situation had changed, ” said Brewers GM Harry Dalton, who wasn’t with Milwaukee when the original deal was made. “I don’t know anything about any arrangements when Thomas went to Texas.”

Gorman Thomas
Once a Brewer, always a Brewer

Back in Milwaukee, Gorman Thomas was a changed man. A Sporting News feature in spring training of 1978 noted that he was a lot more serious. He got married to a Milwaukee girl and had settled down.

Maybe it was the trade, maybe it was getting married or maybe it was maturing. Whatever it was, Thomas finally broke through.  After hitting .193 with 22 homers in his first four seasons with the Brewers, Thomas hit .246 with 32 homers in 1978.  He followed that up by becoming one of the top power hitters in the American League.

 

 

Best Baseball Weekend EVER

It was January of 1995 and Mike Schmidt had just been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I distinctly remember coming home that day and my girlfriend, now wife, could sense I was a bit down. She asked me what was wrong and I told her I had always told myself I would go to Cooperstown when Schmitty got in but I didn’t think it was going to happen.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Because I can’t?” I said

“Why not?” she asked again.

That was pretty much all it took. That night, I called around and finally found a hotel that had a room on induction weekend. The only problem was it was in Utica, about an hour away, but I didn’t care. I was going.

Hitting the Road

In Late July, me and a friend we rented a car and took off from Clearwater, FL on our way to Cooperstown, a scant 1,200 miles away. We didn’t have cell phones or satellite radio, but we did bring a baseball encyclopedia and spent a good part of the trip quizzing each other on lineups and all kinds of other minutiae to pass the time.

The trip went off without a hitch until we reached our hotel. In a horrible rookie move, I hadn’t reserved the room with a credit card and they had given it to someone else. So here we were, 1000+ miles from home with no place to stay. Good times. I don’t remember how, but by some miracle we were able to get a room and settle in.

Off to the Hall

My friend, Bob, and I worked in television and we were doing a documentary about Richie Ashburn, who was also being inducted that weekend. We secured press credentials through the Phillies and went to the Hall to pick them up. As soon as we stepped outside someone offered to buy my press pin. Sorry, dude. No go. This was the big time. I was a credentialed member of a HOF Induction weekend about to see my guy go in.

Mike Schmidt
Schmidt Locker display at the Hall of Fame

It was fantastic. We cruised up and down the main drag in Cooperstown and went inside the museum shooting video for the documentary. After a long day we hopped in the car for the drive back to the hotel. When we got back all we had to do was charge the batteries for our equipment and we were all set. Except we weren’t.

When we plugged in the charger it started to spark and pop. Turns out we left it on the air conditioning unit in the hotel room and condensation had built up while it ran during the day.  Another rookie move by me. We tried to dry the charger without much luck and figured we’d let it air dry deal with it in the morning.

The Big Day

The main order of business on Induction Day was finding a place to plug in our charger. After a while, I found a security person and explained our predicament. Amazingly, the guy took us into a building and showed us a place where we could plug in. Second miracle of the day; there were no sparks, no pops and the lights indicated the batteries were charging. We were all set.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I looked around the room and was dumbfounded.

Me: “Um Bob? Is that Stan Musial over there talking to Yogi Berra?”

Bob: “Sure looks like it.”

Whoever we asked to help us had apparently shown us into the room where all the Hall of Famers hang out before the induction ceremony. Fanboy in me was thrilled, but I quickly realized the best way to get kicked out of there was to start running up to guys and bothering them.

I spotted Roy Smalley, who was working for ESPN at the time, explained we were working on a documentary about Ashburn and asked if he thought it would be OK to interview some of his contemporaries. He said he wasn’t sure but that it probably wasn’t a good idea. Smart guy.

MIke Schmidt
Schmidt delivers his induction seech

We eventually we found a place to shoot the ceremony and get a really good sunburn before attending the post-induction press conference where I got what I needed for my documentary.

It’s All Good

The trip was a success despite everything I did to ruin it. The next day we woke up in Utica and prepared to drive back to Florida. I told Bob I’d start driving and then we could switch but if he got tired I’d help him out. Shortly after Bob started driving I fell asleep and by the time I woke up we were just outside of Tampa. I’d been asleep for about 6 hours, maybe more.

The moral of the story? Marry a baseball fan, and NEVER drive long distances with me. I’ll bag you every time. I also never finished the documentary.

The Best of 2016 on ’80s Baseball

I started this blog 364 days ago. Since then, I’ve published 64 posts, including guest posts, for which I’m very grateful.

It’s been a great year and I thought I’d take a look back at the Top 5 posts of 2016 based (unscientifically) on page views.

Number 5: George Brett’s amazing 1980

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Brett was absolutely ridiculous in 1980 and this post tells the story of his remarkable season. If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to have a summer like George Brett did in 1980.

 

Number 4: Schmidt and Brett in 1971

The Reds passed on a kid in their back yard. The Phillies snapped him up

The most important day of the 1980 baseball season may very well have taken place in 1971. One decision would have put Mike Schmidt in a Royals uniform and given the 1980 World Series a completely different look.

 

 

Number 3: Missed it by That Much: The Mike Parrott Story

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Mike Parrott was the opening day starter for the Seattle Mariners in 1980. Unfortunately for him, 1980 was just a horrible year, in more ways than one.

 

 

Number 2: You Forgot How Good J.R. Richard Was

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James Rodney Richard was absolutely dominant and 1980 was shaping up to be the best year of his career. Then tragedy struck and he never pitched again.

 

 

 

Number 1: Missed it By That Much: The Drungo Hazewood Story

<a rel=Drungo Hazewood had all the talent in the world. He was a can’t miss prospect for the Baltimore Orioles. Then he missed.

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much for reading and I look forward to 2017!

-J.D.

The Day I Worked for My Favorite Baseball Team (Oh, and I Was 13-Years-Old)

Note: The following is a guest post from Matt Sammon.

I had always liked sports as a kid, although I was far from athletic, or a kid who needed to play sports 365 days a year. While I played tee ball as a youngster, and later soccer and bowling, I was perfectly content with playing with my Legos and MASK toys indoors. But around the age of 10, my interest in sports went from casual to incredibly in-depth. I suddenly had an appreciation for the rules, the history, the players, the uniforms, you name it. I absorbed everything like a sponge. And when it came to baseball, I quickly adopted the Toronto Blue Jays as my favorite team.

This was in the late 1980s, and I was living in Tampa, Florida. I had no good reason to like the Jays, especially since they were about 2,000 miles away, but like most 10-year-olds it probably had something to do with the cool 70s unis they were still wearing in the late 80s. And while most kids gravitated towards the home run hitters as their favorite players, I gravitated towards pitcher Dave Stieb, who to this day I think is one of the most underrated pitchers of the era. In a time where fastballers like Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden stole the spotlight, Stieb’s backdoor slider frustrated more than his fair share of batters.

A Magical Day

In 1991, I was able to go to a spring training game for the first time. I had been to many minor league games at Tampa’s Al Lopez Field before, but this was the first time I would see real live Major League players in front of my eyes. You have to remember before the internet, the only ways you saw your favorite team or players was on TV or in a stack of baseball cards. A family friend of ours drove me and my 11-year-old brother to Dunedin Stadium, where we would spend $6 (!) a ticket to watch the Jays play the Chicago White Sox.

Back then, the home clubhouse and dugout were on the 3rd base side, and in between the two on the end of the grandstand was a little “fan dugout” where fans could stand behind a chain linked fence to try to get autographs of players as they walked out to the field. Naturally, as a 13-year-old baseball nerd, I had my small binder of baseball cards ready to go. One of the first players to come out was the golden-mulleted Kelly Gruber, and while I was getting his autograph, a Blue Jays employee asked me how old I was. “Thirteen”, I said. The man then asked me, “Do you want to be a batboy today?”

I was stunned… this was totally unexpected. Of all the kids in that little space, why should I be the one that gets selected for such an honor? I replied, “Yeah… let me check…” My goodness, what a doofus. “Let me check?!?” Clearly I was in a state of shock. I wasn’t going to “check” with my adult guardian, I was going to tell him I was just selected to be a batboy and can you please hold on to my cards. He was as stunned as I was, and I dropped off my card book before making a beeline to the clubhouse.

Off to Work

So I’m in the clubhouse, and they give me a real spring training uniform. They give me a bag of baseballs, and tell me to sit down next to the White Sox dugout. I had no idea what to do. I had seen batboys before, and I had seen them retrieve a dropped bat, but I had never really watched what they did. So the staff informed me I had two jobs: 1) Retrieve and store the bats the players left at home plate, and 2) when the home plate umpire looked at me and put up some fingers, I was to give him that many new baseballs from the bag. Sounds simple, so of course, I screwed it up royally.

Matt was ready to go
Matt was ready to go

I quickly discovered the players not only didn’t have their names on the bat knobs, they didn’t even have their uniform numbers. It was the visitors’ dugout, so there were no name or even number plates on the bat rack. I asked White Sox manager Jeff Torborg what I should do with the used bats. “Ehhhhh… just lean up over there and the players will figure it out.” Suffice to say there was a pretty good stack of lumber rolling around one end of the dugout by the end of the game. But hey, at least I had a great seat to watch my favorite team and player that day. Stieb was starting, and in the first inning he caught Carlton Fisk looking with one of those backdoor sliders. The crowd goes wild, and I walk up to a retreating Fisk, waiting to take his bat and put it into the accumulating pile of unorganized bats. Fisk kept walking with his head down, gripping the bat. “Excuse me… Mr. Fisk… your bat…,” I weakly suggested. He wasn’t going to surrender, he kept walking. It was clear I was going to have to remove it from his cold dead hand.

Speaking of dead, Cory Snyder nearly decapitated me in the on-deck circle later in the game, as I heard the bat whiz next to my head while I was serving up new baseballs to the umpire. I could see the ump wince, and he told me I needed to be careful. In my dopey fan delirium, I said, “OK!”

Oldest Trick in the Book

A couple of members of the Jays’ staff saw the newbie barely getting by, and decided to have some fun. In the 5th or 6th inning, one of the staffers sat behind me and asked me to go to the Blue Jay dugout and “get the keys to the batter’s box”. Not even thinking, I went up and did it. The Jays’ players, and even manager Cito Gaston, played along. “Oh, I think the guys in the bullpen have the keys.” So of course, I jogged out to the bullpen in left field, all the while having White Sox players dig through a pile of bats and the home plate umpire getting his own baseballs. The bullpen played their part. “Are you sure they don’t have the keys in the dugout? Why don’t you go check again?” So I start heading back to the Jays dugout. “Nah, we don’t have them, we’ll look for them later.” So I trot back to my stool next to the dugout. Mission accomplished, the staffers say I did my best. Again, in my awestruck delirium, it never dawned on me that the batter’s box was the outlined box next to home plate. I totally crossed it up with the batter’s cage, which may or may not have needed keys but that was beyond the point.

jays2I don’t remember much else of the game, other than Stieb got the win as the Jays prevailed, probably because the Sox batters were using the wrong bats. Afterwards, I went back towards the clubhouse, where my guardian gave me my card book back. I changed back into my regular clothes and was “paid” with a fitted Blue Jays ball cap (which doesn’t fit, but I still have) and a cracked game-used Joe Carter bat (which I still have), thinking I was batboy of the year. Nobody showed me the way out of the clubhouse, back to the public area of the stadium. So as I’m wandering around trying to find a door, sitting in his locker stall still basking in the win was Stieb. My favorite player, right there, a chance for me to meet him face-to-face.

Fringe Benefits

jays1He was talking to his teammates, loudly, and cursing up a storm. Let me tell you, it’s a bit of a shock when you’re 13 and your favorite athlete is cursing up a storm, even if they are words you’ve heard and said before. Stieb saw me, said “Hey what’s up?”, and I introduced myself to him. I said I was a big fan, and I was happy he finally got that no-hitter the season before. Oh, and by the way, can you sign a couple of cards for me? Stieb obliged, signing a 1988 Topps and 1991 Donruss Diamond Kings (pack fresh!) on the spot. I thanked him, finally found an exit to the concourse, and went home.

That was over 25 years ago, yet I still remember it all like it was yesterday. Stieb’s last good season was 1991, as he developed arm problems in 1992. When the Jays finally won the World Series that year, I noticed Stieb was one of the first guys out of the dugout at Fulton County Stadium heading towards the celebration pile in the infield. The former outfielder-turned-pitcher finally could celebrate after so many close calls in his career. Several days later, he was released. The next season, he was with the White Sox, probably telling his teammates about that one spring training game he won because the batboy was looking for keys to the batter’s box.

Stieb won’t get into the Hall of Fame, and it still baffles me the Jays haven’t retired his number 37. For many years, he was often the only half-decent pitcher on the team. But even though he still doesn’t get the honor he deserves, I’ll always remember the day I got to see him pitch a gem of a game and meet him in person. And it’s a constant reminder to me that especially the little things like a hat, a bat, or an autograph can make a kid’s day… and life for many years.

 

ABOUT MATT SAMMON: Matt Sammon is the Director of Broadcasting for the Tampa Bay Lightning and currently roots for the Tampa Bay Rays. He can be found on Twitter @SammonSez.

That Time I Wrote George Bamberger

Note: This is a guest post from Christopher Zantow

I grew up in Wisconsin as a Milwaukee Brewers fan, but when I first started following the team in the mid-70’s, they were nothing to write home about.  I probably started paying attention when Hank Aaron decided to do his two-year farewell tour with the Brewers.  Beyond Hammerin’ Hank, they had a young kid named Robin Yount that didn’t quite look like he was ready for prime time just yet.

But everything changed in late 1977 when Bud Selig stepped in and cleaned house.  Newspapers called his actions “The Saturday Night Massacre.”  It sounded like a horror flick – but after all, he did axe the general manager, manager, and the entire coaching staff.  Selig hired Harry Dalton as GM, and in turn, Dalton hired George Bamberger to manage the club.  Suddenly fans had hope for something resembling a .500 team in 1978.  We were all about to be pleasantly surprised at what Dalton and Bamberger could do with our Brew Crew.

George Bamberger watches <a rel=

George Bamberger was different than previous managers and had higher aspirations than finishing 81-81.  Guys who came before him like Alex Grammas and Del Crandall also had long baseball careers, but Bambi was the pitching coach of the Baltimore Orioles for 10 years.  Yup – for the team that won a hatful of pennants and the 1970 World Series.  He turned the Milwaukee pitching staff around and it helped that his hitters started slugging homers and driving in runs like crazy.

You can well imagine the state of Wisconsin went nuts for “Bambi’s Bombers” after years of baseball futility.  My friends and I dug the team and got a huge kick out of watching Bamberger run things with that huge smile.  He fit in with Brewers fans too – especially since he was known to stop off at post-game tailgate parties in the County Stadium parking lot.

Spring Heart Attack

After proving the Crew could contend in the tough AL East with 95 wins in 1979, we all got ready for another great year in 1980.  Bamberger had a heart attack in spring training that March and wasn’t going to be around for the season opener.  He had a bypass surgery, was going to be hospitalized for a while, and it was expected he wouldn’t make it back into the dugout until June.

bambiLocal newspapers published where fans could write and wish Bamberger well.  I kept a Brewers scrapbook in 1979-80 that somehow survives to this day, and I was able to locate that article plus some updates as Bamberger recovered.  I remember asking my parents if I should write Bamberger, even though I figured he’d never see my letter.  But they said that I should write and help cheer Bambi up (although they probably thought he’d never see the letter either).

I have no idea exactly what I wrote, but I’m sure I wished Bambi well in recovering and coming back to the team.  I know for sure I didn’t ask for an autograph, so I was absolutely shocked a few weeks later when a photo arrived in the mail, complete with a message and signature.

bambi-photoBamberger thanked the “thousands of fans that wrote me” after his hospital release.  He also joked that “I’ve been cleared to drink all the beer I want.”  He went on to say that it wasn’t so much the beer itself that was a problem – it was the calories in the beer!

The eleven-year-old me learned that George Bamberger truly was a class act, and I’ve treasured that photo and memory ever since.

 

ABOUT CHRISTOPHER ZANTOW: By day, Chris is a writer of training and resource materials.  By night he’s finishing edits on a historical book about the Milwaukee Brewers. The book covers the backstory of eventsthat led to the Braves moving to Atlanta, and Bud Selig’s fight to bring baseball back to Milwaukee through numerous setbacks and disappointments and the early years of the new Milwaukee franchise. He blogs about the Brewers and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Baseball Nivrana

I’ve been a collector for my entire life. You never know when you may need a 37-year-old pocket schedule and I don’t want to be unprepared. So I packed up my sons and headed to Chicago for the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular.

The autograph section was busy all day
The autograph section was busy all day

One of the big draws of shows like this is the autograph pavilion. There are always lots of big names with big price tags attached.

Since I spent some time working in baseball I’m pretty spoiled and I don’t like to pay for autographs but there were obviously plenty of people who were there specifically for that. Some of the bigger names on hand included Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Cal Ripken, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams. There were also plenty of members of the 2016 Cubs.

But I had two things on my mind: Soak in as much atmosphere and cool stuff as I possibly could and work on my 1972 Topps set.

1972 Topps Baseball
My White Whale

Baseball cards form the bulk of my collection and my latest project is completing the 1972 set. It’s tough and expensive but I’m in no hurry. Had I been so inclined, I could have easily finished the set. There were multiple dealers there with binders of cards from 1972. The only thing stopping me was the expense of purchasing the cards and the expense of the subsequent divorce when I returned home.

 

Aside from filling want lists, one of the big attractions for me  was just taking in all the show had to offer. Going to a card show is like visiting a museum where everything is for sale. Click To Tweet

Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron &amp; Roberto Clemente
Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Hank Aaron & Roberto Clemente

The ’80s were well represented, too.

Steve Garvey, Leon Durham, Willie Stargell
Steve Garvey, Leon Durham, Willie Stargell

Fans of Olde Tyme Baseball had something to see.

1935 Goudey Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth
Lou Gehrig & Babe Ruth

But my favorite part of shows like this is all the oddball stuff you can find.

Mickey Mantle & Willie Mays baseballs
Mickey Mantle & Willie Mays baseballs
1957 Milwaukee Braves Ashtray
1957 Milwaukee Braves Ashtray
1976 Phillies Phantom World Series Press Pin, 1970 Reds World Series Press Pin, 1980 All-Star Game Press Pin
1976 Phillies Phantom World Series Press Pin, 1970 Reds World Series Press Pin, 1980 All-Star Game Press Pin

It was an outstanding afternoon with my kids and a few of their buddies. My youngest son bought his first T206 card and my older son picked up some relic cards. I got a bit closer to finishing my ’72 set and picked up a signed Bill Madlock photo.

 

As we were preparing to leave, I spotted one last item, a signed Dickie Noles warm up jacket.

Dickie Noles warm up jacket
Dickie Noles warm up jacket

Noles holds a special place in my heart as it was his pitch up and in to George Brett in the 1980 World Series that signaled the beginning of the end of the Royals in the series. Kansas City fans probably have different feelings on Mr. Noles.

If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend attending a similar show near you. You never know what you’ll find.

1984 Topps Cello Packs
What I wouldn’t give to tear into these

Joe Morgan’s Mysterious Dodgers Connection

Joe Morgan made a career out of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The damage varied from beating L.A. in the regular season to knocking them out of the playoffs. Over a nine year span, Morgan’s teams ended the Dodgers season five times, including two defeats on final day of the season. But one thing many don’t know is that Joe Morgan nearly became a Dodger. Twice.

Mr. Red

Joe MorganDuring his eight seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds Morgan was one of the top players in the game. From 1972 through 1976 he was dominant. During that time he hit 108 homers, drove in more than 400 and drew nearly 600 walks while stealing 310 bases. After Morgan won his second consecutive MVP award in 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called him, “pound for pound the best player ever to play baseball.”

“What other guy 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds in any sport dominates the way Joe Morgan does?” Murray wrote in an October 1976 column. “It’s like a 4-9 guard in basketball throwing in 50 points a game.”

But by 1979 it was obvious his time in Cincinnati was over. Injuries and age limited him to just a .236 batting average in 1978. In 1979 his home run total slipped from a high of 27 to just nine. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Free Agency

Morgan entered the 1980 Free Agent Draft and was selected by the Rangers, Giants, Padres and the Dodgers. Morgan wanted to go to a winner and the Dodgers were at the top of his list. L.A. was set at 2nd base with Davey Lopes, who hit .265 with 28 homers the year before, but they weren’t set in center field. Derrel Thomas was the incumbent but the Dodgers weren’t sold on him offensively.

Signing Morgan would allow Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to move Lopes to the outfield and plug a future Hall of Famer into one of the best infields in the major leagues. There was just one small snag.

Morgan’s signing was predicated on Lopes agreeing to move to center field. But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club.

“I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat,” Lopes told the L.A. Times. “But I don’t want to throw all that work out the window.”

Joe MorganIt was clear the Dodgers longed to add Morgan to their lineup but not at the risk of upsetting Lopes and Morgan knew it. His agent, Tom Reich, did his best not to upset anyone by saying there were “no villains in  this matter, certainly not Davey Lopes. He’s the best second baseman in the league. Joe knows that.”

Morgan signed with the Houston Astros and beat the Dodgers in the N.L. West in a one game playoff.  In 1982, as a San Francisco Giant, Joe Morgan’s homer off Terry Forster on the final day of the season knocked L.A. out of the playoff hunt.

1983

The following year, Morgan moved to Philadelphia. Reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez Morgan did what he did best: beat the Dodgers. The “Wheeze Kids” beat L.A. in the NLCS before losing to Baltimore in the World Series.

At the conclusion of the ’83 season, Lasorda decided he was due a raise. He was fresh off leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win since 1965 along with back-to-back playoff appearances and he wanted to get paid.

In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Fred Claire described what happened next.

“Tommy and I met for breakfast at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I made my best pitch… Still Tommy knew Peter (O’Malley) was going to have the final say when it came to the manager of the Dodgers.”

The two returned to Dodger Stadium where Lasorda met with O’Malley. According to Claire the meeting didn’t last long and when it was over he went to O’Malley’s office while Lasorda headed to his office to make some phone calls.

When Claire arrived he was informed it was time to search for a new manager. In the room was Claire, O’Malley, G.M. Al Campanis and Scouting director Ben Wade. Claire suggested Morgan and there was soon consensus.

Morgan was still technically a member of the Phillies, so Claire called Phillies owner Bill Giles to request permission to speak to Morgan.

No sooner did O’Malley hang up with Giles did the phone ring again. It was Lasorda calling from his office asking if O’Malley’s previous offer was still on the table. Informed it was, Lasorda took it.

Joe Morgan spent 1984 with the Oakland A’s and then retired. According to Claire, he never realized how close he came to becoming Lasorda’s replacement.

 

The Remarkable Rookie Year of Mitchell Page

The Pirates bus sat waiting for a trip to Lakeland when someone told Mitchell Page to report to the team office.

“I knew I was being traded,” he said of the 1977 Spring Training deal. “I just prayed it wasn’t to a contender. I wanted to go somewhere that would offer me an opportunity to play.”

The Oakland A’s of 1977 were a perfect destination. They definitely weren’t contenders which meant Page would get a chance to play every day. The Pirates needed a third baseman and received Phil Garner as the centerpiece of the deal, but they paid a steep price. Along with Page, the Bucs shipped Tony Armas, Rick Langford, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti and Doc Medich to Oakland.

“Garner Prize Catch in 9-Player Buc Deal” read the headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next day. But the A’s were happy with their haul, too and Page began paying off immediately.

Hot Start

Mitchell Page wasted no time showing the Pirates he was ready for the major leagues, going 2-3 in his debut against the Twins.  A’s owner Charlie Finley was so impressed he gave his rookie outfielder a $10,000 raise after Page hit a cool .474 in his first five games.

The next day, as Langford prepared to make his first big league start, Page pulled him aside.

“Rick,” he said. “I’m gonna hit one out for you today. You can count on it.” He did more than that. Page went 3-5 with two homers and six RBI to help Langford get his first win.

“I think I’ve developed to the point where the other team can’t pitch me any one way for long,” Page told the media after the game. “Maybe a Nolan Ryan can throw just one kind of pitch at me but there aren’t many of those pitchers around.”

tsn-coverPage’s hot start landed him on the front of The Sporting News and earned him the respect of the American League.

“They told me I could get him out with an off speed pitch,” said Catfish Hunter after Mitchell homered off him at Yankee Stadium. “Then he showed me that was a lie.”

Hand Injury

Page had to cool off eventually, but a recurring hand injury hastened his fall. For years, Page battled a callus on his palm that made gripping a bat extremely painful. A’s trainers would trim the callus only to have it grow back again.  Surgery was the only solution to the problem but it would also mean missing significant time. That wasn’t an option for 25 year-old in his first big league season.

“I just made up my mind, (bleep) the pain,” he told reporters in May. “An operation… would put me out four or five weeks. So I play with pain and take a day off when it gets too much for me.”

After hitting .366 in April, Page hit just .256 in May and his average dipped again in June. The injury affected him at the plate to be sure, but there was another area where it didn’t seem to matter.

Steals Record

page_autoBy the end of June Page was a perfect 15-15 in stolen base attempts. Don Baylor‘s American League record of 25 was in reach and Page intended to get it. To do so, he enlisted the help of Matt Alexander, who had taken over for Herb Washington as Oakland’s designated pinch-runner. In two seasons with the A’s, Alexander stole 37 bases and had just two hits.

“Matt helped me out a lot,” said Page. “When I haven’t seen a pitcher before, I go straight to him.”

That strategy paid off when the two studied Angels pitcher Wayne Simpson in late July. Page was one steal away from tying the record and looked to his base stealing guru for advice.

“We decided to go on his back leg,” Page said of Simpson. “He takes a little dip. He takes the pressure off it when he goes to the plate.”

That nuance was all Page needed to tie Baylor, despite the fact that the Angels pitched out on the play. In his haste to get off the throw, California catcher Terry Humphrey  dropped the ball and Page was safe at 2nd.

“It seems to me a couple of times I’ve thrown strikes down there to 2nd base against him,” lamented Humphrey. “But he’s always safe.”

Two weeks later the record was all his when he stole 2nd against Mike Flanagan in Baltimore. The streak ended on August 15th when Rick Waits caught him leaning and he was out trying to advance to 2nd.

Check the Video

At about the time Page’s stolen base streak came to an end, his batting average began to climb.

During the season Page befriended a  man named Robert Ricardo who owned a restaurant. Ricardo often recorded sporting events to play in the background at his business. Video analysis was in its infancy in 1977, especially in Oakland as Finley wasn’t fond of spending extra money. But by comparing his stance to Rod Carew‘s, Page discovered a way to alter his stance to take some pressure off his injured hand.

The change paid off. Over a twelve game span, Page hit .487 with 7 homers. The hot streak raised his average by nearly 20 points and brought him back in the hunt for top rookie honors.

Rookie of the Year

As the season wound down, and the A’s fell out of the race the only suspense was whether Page could win Rookie of the Year honors. It was something he took seriously, perhaps too seriously at times.

After a reporter told him he didn’t have the home run numbers to win the award, Page hit three in two days. “That was for you,” he told the writer. “I didn’t like you saying that.”

He finished his rookie season with a .307 average, 21 homers, 75 RBI and 42 stolen bases. Those numbers were enough to earn him the respect of his peers, who named him The Sporting News Rookie of the Year. In the player vote, Page received 106 votes to Eddie Murray‘s 43.

“I didn’t think I’d win by that big a margin,” he said. “But that vote’s got to tell you something. They saw I had a complete game… and that I could beat them with a stolen base, a hit or the longball.”

Unfortunately for Page, Murray earned ROY honors from the baseball writers, despite playing only 42 games in the field. Be it east-coast bias or the fact the Baltimore won 36 more games than Oakland, the results were disappointing.

Take a look and the numbers and decide for yourself:

Player WAR Hits HR RBI Avg. SB
Murray 3.2 173 27 88 .283 0
Page 6.0 154 21 75 .307 42

 

Game Six

You never forget your first time. For me it was October 21st, 1980; the night I had my first championship experience.

I was a few months into 8th grade at a small school in Oxford, OH. By small, I mean really small. My graduating class had about 25 people. I was a little anxious about beginning high school the following year but none of that mattered now. What mattered was that my Phillies were about to win their first World Series title.

Phillies phans in southwest Ohio were pretty rare in the Big Red Machine era, but I was one of them. Call me an outlier if you like, I prefer to think of myself as a member of a very select club. One that was accustomed to heartbreak.

For me, it began in 1976 when the Reds swept the Phillies in the NLCS. In all honesty, my memories of that season are pretty sketchy since I was only eight at the time but the soul-crushing defeats at the hands of the Dodgers over the next two seasons still resonate, especially 1977.

I grew up in a college town and used to walk home from school. One day on my journey from McGuffey Laboratory School to our house on Beech St., I recounted the events of the horrible 9th inning of Game Three to some unsuspecting Miami University student. He seemed amused; though I don’t remember if it was by the story or because a nine year-old was lamenting the fact that Vic Davalillo, at age 40, actually beat out a bunt. Don’t get me started on Manny Mota’s drive to left and the ensuing Greg Luzinski incident.

But that was in the past and twelve year-old me was ready to move on. After enduring a gut-wrenching NLCS, in which four of the five games went extra innings, and a back-and-forth World Series against George Brett and the Royals, I sat on the edge of my bed in the 9th inning of Game 6 while Tug McGraw was putting on his usual show of loading the bases and then trying to get out of it.

A Defining Moment

With the Phillies leading 4-1 McGraw struck out Amos Otis to lead off the inning, but walked Willie Aikens and then surrendered singles to John Wathan and Jose Cardenal. On the mound at The Vet, McGraw was summoning the energy to record two more outs. In Ohio, I was sitting on the edge of my bed wearing one of those plastic Phillies batting helmets and holding two different Phillies pennants. Tugger needed me at this moment and there was no way I was going to let him down.

rose-backs-up-bob-booneWhat happened next was pure World Series magic. The infamous Frank White popup in foul territory that Bob Boone muffed but Pete Rose caught followed by McGraw striking out Willie Wilson to end the game. Pandemonium ensued both in Philadelphia and on Coulter Lane in Oxford as we all jumped for joy. It was nearly 11:30 at night on a Tuesday and I had school the next day. I can’t stay up that late anymore but I’m so glad I did then.

Years later, I met McGraw at an event and stupidly said something to the effect that I remembered that game, as if neither he nor anyone else there didn’t. I told him about sitting on the edge of my bed and how excited I was when he struck out Wilson.

“Ah, Willie Wilson,” Tugger said. “My favorite baseball player.”

It was perfect and so are my memories of that season and that moment. You never forget your first time.