Larry Bowa: Pride of Philadelphia and Sacramento

NOTE: This is a guest post from Marshall Garvey

It’s become something of a cliche to praise a modern player who shows any semblance of hustle as a “throwback”. Should one employ the term, though, Larry Bowa is the ideal litmus. In a year that’s seeing home runs fly at a historic rate (juiced ball or no), Bowa would be out of step, hitting a scant 15 in his entire career. His forte was instead pure defense, coupled with reliable contact hitting. He didn’t even look like a star ballplayer, with a small, skinny frame and a mug graced by a bulbous nose. Even more vintage than his playing style is his story, one of tenacity forged by doubts about his ability and later turning MLB’s lousiest franchise into a winner.

The Early Years

That story began in an unlikely place: Sacramento, California. While the River City might not come to mind as an eminent baseball city for most, it’s been the hometown and launching pad for players spanning from Stan Hack to Derrek Lee. Bowa was practically destined to join this group from birth; his father Paul played in the minor leagues (including the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League), and mother Mary excelled in softball. Larry first honed his skills under his father’s tutelage with a Land Park Little League team. Always the smallest kid on the squad, he learned not only the fundamentals of the game, but a fervent sense of determination to overcome any adversity he faced.

Larry Bowa
Bowa (colored sleeves) as a youth in Sacramento

This resilience was tested right away in his teens at C.K. McClatchy High School. The school coach derided Bowa for his size, telling him he was simply too short to excel in baseball. Bowa was cut from the team, only adding to his drive. His family, disheartened when he broke the news, avoided summer vacations from thereon to accommodate his playing in the Summer League. That dedication paid off when Sacramento City College coach Del Bandy spotted Bowa and asked him to join the school’s team, the Panthers. It was there his talent flourished, earning league MVP and the attention of Eddie Bockman, a major league scout from the Philadelphia Phillies.

However, that scout didn’t get to see the young prospect in action right away. In a moment that would become common in his later coaching days, Bowa managed to get ejected from both games of the doubleheader that served as his audition. Bockman would eventually see Bowa’s natural talent, signing him to a minor league deal. In 1970, the kid who was told he couldn’t succeed at McClatchy High School debuted as Philadelphia’s shortstop at Connie Mack Stadium.

To Philadelphia

It was perfect timing. The fiery, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality Bowa fomented in his youth suited him for 1970’s Philadelphia. It was a decade that saw the city face substantial adversity, as deindustrialization hollowed out its economy and “white flight” to the suburbs turned once vibrant neighborhoods into slums. Unbecoming of its nickname, the City of Brotherly Love was further torn apart by intense racial discord, exacerbated by police chief-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo’s clashes with black liberation groups.

Nothing embodied the gritty tribulation of the city during this time more than the Phillies, a franchise with much to prove. Despite almost an entire century of existence, the Phils were the embodiment of baseball futility. Of the original 16 teams in Major League Baseball, they were the only one without a World Series title, with just two intermittent pennants (1915 and 1950) to punctuate decades of grueling irrelevance. The Phold of 1964 still left a searing pain for fans, when the club squandered a 6½ game lead with only 12 left to play and missed out on what seemed a surefire NL pennant.

The first half of the 70’s were more of the same old, bottom-feeding Phillies. But the scrawny Sacramentan quickly distinguished himself as a premiere shortstop during that span. By 1972 he was already a Gold Glove winner, racking up assists, putouts and double plays with ease. Two years after that, he earned his first All Star selection. The team even came around and posted a winning record in 1975, augmented by Bowa’s career-best .305 average. When asked about his success, Bowa didn’t credit his trademark heart and hustle but rather…transcendental meditation.

Playoff Runs

1976, all too fittingly, was the year the Fightin’ Phils completed their renaissance. Philadelphia was thrust into the national spotlight anew by the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, and an unlikely smash hit at the movie theaters that became the city’s pop culture insignia. On Thanksgiving week, Americans packed into cinemas to watch a rudimentary but charming film about an Italian-American boxer named Rocky Balboa. With Philly’s blue collar neighborhoods as his training ground, Balboa went from an aimless club fighter to going the distance with champion Apollo Creed. Rocky conquered the box office, then improbably won the Academy Award for Best Picture against much-favored competition. Amidst the slog of stagflation, poverty and racial strife, the city could beam with pride at the success of a local underdog sports hero, albeit a fictional one.

Before Rocky conquered the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Phillies weaved their own rags-to-riches tale in ‘76. They won 101 games, giving the franchise its first postseason berth since the “Whiz Kids” of 1950. Bowa’s pristine fielding earned him his third straight All-Star selection, ranking in the NL top five in fielding percentage at shortstop. Alongside him was an ever-improving battery of stars: third baseman Mike Schmidt, equal parts slugger and defensive maestro; Greg Luzinski, a stocky outfielder with a penchant for monstrous homers; Steve Carlton, a crafty southpaw against whom hitting was like “drinking coffee with a fork” (in the words of Willie Stargell); and reliever Tug McGraw, who rallied the rival New York Mets to an impossible pennant in 1973 with the hokey yet galvanic phrase, “Ya gotta believe!”

Any hopes of ending the franchise’s title drought were quickly (and perhaps predictably) snuffed out in the NLCS by the Cincinnati Reds. “The Big Red Machine” were the defending World Series champions, in the midst of a two-year run that merited consideration for greatest team of all-time. Cincinnati swept Philadelphia in three games, but the nucleus for the most successful stretch in franchise history had been formed. For the first time since 1964, Philadelphia could reasonably envision a World Series on the horizon.

Being the Phillies, that World Series wouldn’t come without enduring some more macabre heartbreak. The 1977 squad won 101 games again to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. Philadelphia looked poised to take the series at home late in game three, holding a 5-3 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth. It was then that Bowa would be front and center for the devastation of “Black Friday”, the moment that led to more tears in the Delaware Valley than any other in Phillies history. (At least until Joe Carter, anyway.)

The Dodgers scored a run on two hits and an error to make it 5-4 with a runner on third. Davey Lopes then chopped a grounder that bounced off Schmidt’s knee, which Bowa swiftly grabbed and propelled to first. Lopes was called safe in what appeared to be a virtual tie, allowing the tying run to score. The Phillies argued, but to no avail. Los Angeles rallied to win the game, and easily beat the deflated Phils the next day to take the series. The teams met again in ‘78 with the same result, this time ending on a walk-off hit at Dodger Stadium.

1980

At the end of a step-back season in 1979, the front office selected Dallas Green as manager, hoping he could refine an already talented club into a championship one. Green implemented a no-nonsense clubhouse ethic, feeling the players had been too loose in recent years. Long-time stars were no longer guaranteed play time if a younger player was doing better, a “We, Not I” sign graced the clubhouse wall, and the door to Green’s office was frequently left open for verbal reamings.

This leadership style butted heads with many veterans, especially Bowa. The shortstop and new skipper frequently clashed in heated exchanges. One time, Bowa did manage to get in a rare last word. After a particularly dismal loss, Green left the door open again as he spoke to reporters, loudly questioning the team’s desire to win. Bowa instructed one writer to ask Green how many games he won in his career as a major league pitcher (the answer: 20). Green’s booming response from the office: “Touche, Bo. Touche.”

Green’s style wasn’t what the players wanted, but it was certainly what they needed. Unlike their dominant seasons in the 70’s, the Phils were locked in a multi-team race all throughout 1980, and it would take everything they had to win the NL East. Green’s patience was exhausted by an August slump that put them six games behind Montreal, leading to a clubhouse lecture so thunderous that reporters could hear it in the hallways outside. It did the trick, as the Phillies rattled off a bevy of one-run wins down the stretch and eked out a division title.

It was just the warm-up they needed for the NLCS against Houston, a white-knuckle battle that might still be the greatest series in NL history. Four of the five games went into extra innings, each one marked by miraculous comebacks and near-misses. In the deciding fifth game in Houston, the Phillies found themselves staring at yet another devastating postseason defeat as they trailed 5-2 in the eighth inning. Worse, the Astros had none other than Nolan Ryan patrolling the pitcher’s mound, making a rally seem all the more unlikely.

Once again, Bowa would be center stage for an indelible NLCS moment. Much unlike “Black Friday”, it was a triumphant one. He led off the eighth with a single against Ryan, keying a five-run rally that set up an 8-7, 10-inning win. The Phillies were finally back in the World Series, thanks in no small part to Bowa’s .315 average throughout the LCS. But their title drought wasn’t officially over unless they got through George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. In the first game, the unyielding shortstop came through yet again. The Royals staked a 4-0 lead early on when Bowa, just like a few nights before in Houston, started a five-run rally with a base hit, ending in a 7-6 victory.

The series saw Philly engaged in more one-run battles, but wouldn’t go the distance. It ended in game six, with Tug McGraw striking out Willie Wilson for the final out. As McGraw rotated his pitching hand into a celebratory fist pump, the team swarmed the mound as the franchise’s historic drought was finally laid to rest. For the veterans of the squad, it was a complete effort: Carlton won two games including the clincher, Schmidt took home World Series MVP honors, and the image of an exultant McGraw became the defining image of the series. Yet Bowa was hardly lost in the shuffle. He hit a muscular .375 (with a hit in every game), turned a WS-record seven double plays, and scored one of Philadelphia’s four runs in the clinching game.

Bowa’s heroics for 1980 were an apropos bookend to his full decade in a Phillies uniform. As he evolved into one of the game’s finest shortstops during that span, the Phils transformed from a perennial loser in 1970 to World Series champions in ‘80. They were also his veritable swan song: after a first round playoff exit in 1981, an aging Bowa was traded alongside budding infielder Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs. He hung up the cleats for good with the Mets in 1985, holding defensive records like career games at shortstop in the NL (2,222), career fielding percentage (.980) and fielding percentage for a single season (.991 in 1979).

Still a Phan Phavorite

Today, Bowa remains a source of pride for the oft-derided cities that shaped him, both of which honored him accordingly. He was enshrined in the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame in 1991, and the Sacramento Sports Hall of Fame in 2016. Even with those accolades, he hasn’t put baseball behind him just yet, currently serving his fourth stint in Philadelphia (this time as bench coach). The Phillies, like so many times before, languish in dead last, grinding out a much-needed rebuilding cycle. Whether Bowa sticks around for its payoff remains to be seen. Thanks to his direct contributions to their first title, and his help setting the stage for the second, it’s a wait he and Philly fans can afford to sit through a little more easily than before.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A graduate of UC Davis with a B.A. in history, Marshall Garvey serves on the board of directors for the Sacramento County Historical Society. He’s currently working on the forthcoming book The Hidden History of Sacramento Baseball, in which Bowa and many other local players are profiled. In 2010, he fused his love of history and the national pastime to create the Presidents Baseball card franchise, which imagines all of America’s Presidents as a baseball team. He’s also the lead editor of the popular Sacramento-based video game blog Last Token Gaming. An avid baseball fan since 2000, he roots for several teams and stresses out about the Dodgers way too much.

 

 

A Discussion with Sean Kane

Your average fan uses a baseball glove to, you know, catch baseballs. Sean Kane uses them to create amazing pieces of art.

For more than fifteen years, Sean Kane has been creating one-of-a-kind painted glove pieces that have earned him national recognition and a sizable following which includes many of the players he features. It all started in 2001 with a trip to spring training.

“The first glove had bright, playful images on it: a guy eating a giant ballpark hot dog, a pennant with ‘Play Ball’ on it, a ‘Hit it Here’ target and on the inside, a ball diamond scene with players and stadium,” Kane said.

“I left one painted finger on the glove blank where I hoped to get Tony Gwynn’s autograph. As luck would have it, I wasn’t there 5 minutes, walked up to a batting cage, and there was Tony talking to fans. I showed the glove to him, he laughed and said it was cool and he signed right where I imagined he would.”

From there, Kane began creating pieces that showcased his love of baseball stories, baseball graphics, and old baseball gloves. The process can be tedious and time-consuming, but the results are well worth the effort, both for Sean and his patrons. The first step is to acquire the appropriate glove.

Sean Kane Baseball Artist“I aim for gloves from the era to be represented, for the position the player played and for the hand they wore their glove on,” says Kane. “For my recent painting of Lou Gehrig, it took a few years to find a 1920s/30s first base mitt for a lefty, similar to a buckle-back glove I’ve seen a picture of him wearing. The glove is my little time machine, adding another layer to the story being told.”

“I then stare at the glove for what seems ages, looking for the spots where I can apply design and portrait elements. Each glove is unique in this way, with various creases to be avoided and sweet spots for portraits, etc., which complicates the creative process compared to working on a traditional canvas but also adds to my excitement at the possibilities.”

 

Kane spends hours poring over old photos, statistics, and career highlights, looking for just the right things to include. With limited space on each glove, sometimes deciding what to cut out is the most difficult part.

“I don’t always succeed with the ‘less is more’ approach –I’ve done some which seem like the back of a baseball card crammed with info. The editing process is a big part of the design decision-making, for sure,” says Kane.  “I try to highlight just enough info about the player to tell a simple story — enough meat on the bone for the casual fan to be interested and the big fan to have a jumping off point for their own stories about the player.”

Sean Kane Baseball ArtistThat’s the key to Kane’s work. Because the gloves often don’t depict a specific moment in time, viewing them on display can mean different things to different people. His Hank Aaron glove may elicit memories of the 1957 World Series to one person and memories of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record or getting an autograph as a kid to another. There are notable exceptions. Last fall, Sean unveiled a two-glove set to commemorate Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. But many of his pieces are celebrations of the player or players depicted. Sometimes it’s an entire team, and that can present its own issues.

Sean Kane Baseball Art“The painting featuring the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers was probably my most challenging,” Kane says. “Since it was featuring an entire team, I wanted to include the entire team, at least by name. Doing so in a way that wouldn’t be a total visual mess was tough and the five portraits wearing pinstripes were very tiny and difficult to paint. I’m pretty proud of that one.”

In the future, Sean will continue to do commissioned work, but he’s also researching stories and acquiring gloves for two different projects. One focuses on Indiana-related baseball history for an upcoming exhibit, and the other will feature Japanese ball players who have made a recent impact on the game in the U.S.

About Sean:

Sean’s paintings have been featured on ESPN. com, NBC Sports. com and MLB Network Radio and reside in the permanent collection of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, The National Pastime Museum, and private collections across the U.S. His paintings have been commissioned by the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers Fantasy Camp and have assisted in fundraising efforts for several charities. Glove paintings have been exhibited at The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and West Virginia University.

Sean Kane Baseball ArtistSean has been a professional artist for over 20 years, creating art for big hitters in the publishing and corporate worlds including The New York Times, Amazon. com, The Wall Street Journal, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Charles Schwab, and Target Stores, among others. He’s a Chicago native now residing near Toronto with his wife and two Little Leaguers. He is a graduate of Butler University and attended Herron School of Art.

Sean was recognized as an ‘Artist of the Month’ by the National Art Museum of Sport in 2016.

For more information, including a look at more of his work, please visit SeanKaneBaseballArt.com

A Discussion with Tim Carroll

Growing up, we learned to take care of our baseball cards because they would be valuable some day. We may even be able to sell them to pay for our kids’ college! Tim Carroll ignored that advice and the result is something wonderful.

Carroll cuts up baseball cards and turns them into unique works of art, which has gained him quite a bit of notoriety. Each piece takes between 45 to 60 hours to create, sometimes more. He recently took the time to talk with me about it.

’80s Baseball: I love your stuff. How did you get started and how did you come up with the idea to do what you do?

Tim Carroll: Thank you! I’ve always liked to draw, but a science conference trip to New Orleans with my wife back in 2009 changed my life.  We had spent the day walking through galleries in the Quarter, so art was on my mind.  It began to rain, and we walked into a convenience store.  I picked up a magazine that had a very small blurb about the 100th anniversary of the T206 Wagner.  I mentioned it to my wife, and let her know how amazing it would be to find one of those cards.  She told me I should take all of the cards that were in our closet (from my late ’80’s childhood) and trade them for one.  Obviously, it isn’t a quantity thing; it’s a quality issue.  That day stuck with me, and when I returned home, I decided to create a T206 Honus Wagner tribute, but I didn’t want to simply draw or paint it.

I pulled out my commons, started finding cards that resembled the background color, and began to cut and glue them down.  When the Wagner was finished, it was a nice sense of accomplishment.  Looking back now on my “prototype”, it was hideous, lol, but I LOVE it. I compare it to my work now and make my testimony of how it takes hard work and dedication to get better at something.

’80s Baseball: I see you used to be a teacher. What did you teach and how did you transition to being a full-time artist?

Tim Carroll: I created the Wagner two months before I graduated from Ole Miss with my degree in elementary education.  I had zero intent of it ever going past one piece. It was just something to do during a rainy spring back in 2009.

Tim Carroll ArtThen I made another, and another.  I began using other mediums, and people inquired about buying them.  I began to teach, but the supplemental income from the art I was producing was nice.  As I sharpened my skills, the workload increased. I was an elementary teacher for seven years, teaching everything from general 3rd grade to 2nd-5th grade mathematics. As time went on, I was taking on more and more commission work and it got to a point where I was spending every bit of my evenings and weekends working on art just to keep up.

I came to a career crossroads, so to speak, last year.  My wife and I had been discussing the proper time to transition. There had been some planning along the way, but when the moment came, it was a leap of faith.  I had been telling kids for many years to trust themselves, do what they love, (insert cliche here).  What I was telling them wasn’t empty, though I meant every word I was saying.

We live this physical life once, and when I reflect back on my life later I want to say I have no regrets.  Passing up the opportunity to use the talents and work ethic that He has given me would not have been the best move to make. So, I decided to practice what I was preaching to the kids, and with my wife’s unconditional blessing and support, I jumped.

Tim Carroll ArtIt has been an amazing last few months.  I get to have breakfast (and sometimes lunch) with my wife throughout the year without it being rushed.  I get to put everything away in the evenings and spend time with my kids like I wanted.  My weekends are free to take road trips, lazy days hanging out, going to ballgames, and just simply being where I’m supposed to be while they are young.  I loved teaching, and I miss having the direct positive impact on children’s lives that I did while I taught, but as a family-first guy…..this has been the coolest experience.

’80s Baseball: Upper Deck used your Ken Griffey Jr. piece. How did that happen? How cool was that to have a card company use your work that was made from their product?

Tim Carroll ArtTim Carroll: When I originally created the Griffey, Upper Deck shared it through their blog, and that was pretty much the extent of it, or so I thought.  A few years later, during the 25th-anniversary celebration, I received an email from them asking if I still had the piece. They brought it with them as they traveled to the Industry Summit in Las Vegas, and then to Florida where it was signed by Junior himself.

The reaction they were getting from the piece led them to commission several works from me, and I even had the pleasure of tagging along with them and working live at the Cleveland National in ’14, the Fall Expo in Toronto later that year, and even the NHL All-Star FanFair the following year in Columbus, OH.

For each event, I used Upper Deck cards to create pieces.  It was a treat each time, having people show up to the table on Day 1 of each event and then popping in periodically to see the progress.  I met so many people that I still converse with on social media. To boot, meeting Shaquille O’Neal at a bowling alley, Wayne Gretzky at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Pedro Martinez at the airport, Carey Price in downtown Columbus, among others (in non-signing environments, no less) was something that would’ve never happened without the Griffey piece.

 ’80s Baseball: Basic question but I need to ask: Where do you get all the cards? About how many do you have on hand at any given time?

Tim Carroll: I started with just the cards I had from my childhood, which was no more than 10-15 thousand.  Several people I met online offered, and continue to offer, support by sending cards should I need a specific set, brand, team, etc.

Tim Carroll ArtA local guy that once owned a card shop donated over 150 thousand at once, and a couple of collectors that needed to clear space also donated their junk era portions.  There have been several generous people that have given or offered smaller lots.  I appreciate each and every one of them.  Add that with a few cases of 87-90 Topps, Donruss, and Fleer that I bought, and I am now up to about 450K in my garage studio.  So, for anyone wondering, I’m good on commons for now!

’80s Baseball: Aside from commissioned work, what goes into your decision-making process as to who you’re going to work on next?

Tim Carroll ArtThat’s a great question and one that I’m not sure I have an answer for.  It’s more of a feeling or desire, I guess.  I have a list of pieces that I want to make, and cards get added to that list all the time.  I have even started several of them.  I try to finish one of those ‘just because’ pieces in-between finishing commissions.  I do that in an attempt to build my own collection of originals, although all are available.  I’ll begin something like a 1954 Topps Ernie Banks and then commission work will take over.  I’ll then start a Jackie Robinson Leaf rookie or another early Mickey Mantle.  Repeat.  I have so many that I have started that I need to finish!  That’s another bonus to doing this full-time.  I have the time to get to some of those non-commissioned pieces, and I have been able to strike a few off the list.

Find Tim Carroll

You can find Tim and more examples of his work on his website, on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.

But Wait, There’s More!

Lest you think Tim’s work is limited to just cutting up baseball cards, think again. He works with all different kinds of materials.

Tim Carroll Art
Pine Tar
Tim Carroll Art
Band aids for The Big Hurt
Tim Carroll Art
Shattered baseball bats for Bo
Tim Carroll Art
and 1941 toothpicks for The Splendid Splinter

 

 

 

 

 

Dream Season: Wade Boggs

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. This time I’ll take a look at Wade Boggs.

March/April 1983

Boggs hit a cool .349 as a rookie in 1982 and didn’t miss a beat heading into his second season. In 19 games, Wade recorded two or more hits ten times, including four different three-hit games. He also drew twelve walks to finish the month with a .378 batting average and a .471 on-base percentage.  He finished the season with a .361 batting average.

May 1986

Nineteen-Eighty-Six was Wade Boggs’ fifth season in the big leagues. It was also the year he won his 3rd batting title. When you hit .357 you’re going to have some big months and May of 1986 certainly was for Boggs.

In 27 games, Boggs hit .471 with three homers and 20 RBI. He also drew 24 walks for an on-base percentage of .567. Included in the month was a 5-6 performance against the Minnesota Twins on May 20th, the first five-hit game of his career. But like any pure hitter, Wade was looking for more.

“I was thinking about six,” Boggs told the Boston Globe. “But I’d never gone 5 for 5, so I didn’t really think much about going 6 for 6. The last time I did 5 for 5 was in high school.”

June 1987

Wade BoggsBy 1987, Boggs had fully established himself as one of the game’s top hitters. He’d won three straight batting titles and four overall. He was on his way to a 5th. In June of that month, Wade hit a cool .485 with an on-base percentage of .581. Boggs played in 26 games in June of 1987 and had at least one hit in 25 of them, including 15 games of two or more hits.

“I just swing, make contact and hope it falls in,” he said. It’s just that easy.

July 1983

Boggs began July of 1983 in a horrible slump. He went 0-4 against the Yankees on July 1st. After that, it was pretty much business as usual. He went 11-17 in a four-game series against the Oakland A’s and finished the month hitting .404.

August 1985

Wade BoggsAnother month, another 49 hits for Wade Boggs. Such was the case in August of 1985. Boggs went 49-123 in the month, good for a somewhat mortal .398 batting average.

In a one-week span, from August 8th through the 14th, Wade hit .485 against the White Sox, Yankees and Royals.

“A lot of luck,” Boggs said. “If the luck keeps up, I’m probably going to hit for a high average. Once I see a pitcher, I know exactly what he throws. And that’s not going to change. Whatever he throws, you know you’re going to see it again.”

It’a good to be lucky.

September/October 1988

A strong season requires a strong finish and Wade didn’t disappoint as he hit .423 to wrap up the 1988 season, one in which he led either the American League or the Major Leagues in plate appearances, doubles, runs scored, walks, intentional walks, batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. It’s all part of the challenge of playing the game.

“Once you get out there, it’s one on one,” he told the Boston Globe. “There’s no guy to set a pick for you. No guy to throw a block for you. No guy to shoot the puck over to you. When you get a hit, you’ve won. And the team wins, because you’ve contributed to a winning effort.

“It’s the same way with a pitcher. Why is he trying to get everybody out? To improve his record. But if he does, the team benefits.”

The Totals:

 

Teams benefitted from having Wade Boggs at 3rd base and his dream season comes to an end with some impressive numbers. Added up, it comes to 257 hits in 601 at-bats, good for a .428 batting average with 114 walks thrown in, giving him a tidy .516 on-base percentage.

Mark Fidrych Roundtable Discussion Part II

Note: This is the second part of a virtual “roundtable discussion” with baseball authors, and Mark Fidrych specialists, Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson about The Bird, his legacy and the sad end to his career. Read Part I here.

The Detroit Tigers sent Fidrych back to AAA during spring training in 1980 and The Bird wasn’t happy. After throwing just 36 total innings in 1978 and 1979, he finally appeared healthy. Still the Tigers weren’t convinced and they sent him to Evansville, IN where he played under Jim Leyland. He took some shots at the organization and Sparky Anderson in particular, including an incident where he felt slighted because Anderson didn’t watch him pitch in a minor league game.

Fidrych let his frustration show and took some shots in the media at the organization, and Sparky Anderson in particular, including an incident where he felt slighted because Anderson didn’t watch him pitch in a minor league game.

“I noticed Sparky wasn’t there,” Fidrych said. “I don’t know, maybe he’s off his feed. I could care less. All this is doing is cutting into my pension time. This thing is nothing but a business with them and it’s costing me money. I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t lost any money for the Detroit Tigers.”

Sparky was none too pleased and fired right back.

 “Evidently he drew big crowds when he pitched,” Anderson said. “and he feels he made the Tigers money, correct? Then, if that’s so, how many big crowds has he drawn in the last 2 ½ years? Have the Tigers paid him? Well, then, when does the balancing come out?”

In my research, it seems like Mark Fidrych became a bit jaded (at least towards Sparky & the Tigers) at the end of his career. Considering what he’d been through it’s understandable; but do you think it’s true, or am I misreading it?

Wilson:

He was certainly frustrated and struggling. People forget that he was an extremely competitive guy, and it was very frustrating because he couldn’t perform the way he wanted to because of the injury. The fact that no one had been able to diagnose the injury made it unbearable. He was doing what the doctors and so-called experts said to do, but nothing was working. Fans and the media wanted a repeat of the glory year—kept talking about it over and over–and that’s something he just couldn’t deliver.

Anderson was in a difficult situation, trying to move the franchise forward with the great young talent that he had at his disposal (Morris, Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish, Gibson), while inheriting a popular but unproductive player. They had some words in the media that were probably too emotional and both wished they had been more restrained.

From Fidrych’s standpoint, he had treated the Tigers very well on their investment in him; he had signed for much less than he could have, made a lot of money for the team at the turnstile and now had the feeling he was being thrown on the junk heap. That would lead to a certain amount of bitterness for anyone.

And he had been a little naïve in the ways of the world when he came up. As he got older, he learned that life, in general, is much more of a business than you think when you are 20 years old. Things like taxes, car payments and the future start to become more important.

EPSTEIN:

I’m not sure that “jaded” is the right word — “frustrated” would probably be a better choice. He’d had one magical season in 1976 and then was never able to pitch another full season after that, thanks to a series of injuries that (in some cases) baseball medicine wasn’t yet able to effectively diagnose or define. He’d pitched very well during his brief returns to the Tigers in ’77 and ’78, but by ’79 Fidrych looked nothing like the guy who’d won the AL Rookie of the Year award in ’76. Even for someone with such a naturally sunny and exuberant attitude, it must have been absolutely soul-crushing to experience such a precipitous decline and such debilitating physical issues, and not be able to pull yourself out of it. I can’t blame the guy for getting a bit testy at that point.

If he came along today would he have the same impact? Easy to say yes with the media saturation we have but on the other hand the whole story screams innocence to me, which is pretty much gone now.  I feel like he’d get ripped and get a lot of “respect the game” from “old school baseball” guys.

EPSTEIN:

Fidrych was actually ripped by some contemporary players and sportswriters at the time; the Yankees, in particular, didn’t take kindly to his particular brand of flamboyance. I do think he would have enjoyed the same kind of broad appeal today — after all, he was a talented, good-looking guy with an infectiously positive attitude — but he also would have been seriously picked at by sports TV and radio commentators, almost from the get-go. Today, if a rookie came up and pitched a shutout in his first start, while talking to the baseball, flapping his arms and dropping to his knees to smooth out the mound, footage from the game would immediately be all over the internet, ESPN, etc., and folks would be immediately weighing in on whether or not he was “disrespecting the game”. But in the pre-internet, pre-cable age, the legend of “The Bird” was allowed to grow organically; most baseball fans — hell, most baseball writers and sportscasters — didn’t get to see him in action until that Monday Night Baseball game, which was six weeks after his first major league start.

WILSON:

Some of the reaction to him would be muted because we have seen so many fake wannabes over the past few decades—things that people get excited about, and then they find out it was all a put-on just to try to get notoriety or make a buck. It’s the reality-TV show epidemic. So there would be a lot of people who would off-handedly dismiss him without really checking to find out if he was the real deal.

On the other hand, can you imagine how Facebook and Twitter would have lit up about an hour into his first start—and it would have stayed lit up the entire season, every time he did anything.  

The funny thing about the “respect the game” aspect is that the old-timers and hard-liners really liked Fidrych also. Those who got to know him understood that he was genuine and that it was not an act. Everyone enjoyed the enthusiasm he showed and the atmosphere of the sold-out crowds when he pitched. I don’t think he would get much negative feedback for that now. Ralph Houk was as old-school as you could get and he loved Fidrych. When I talked to Ralph about Mark, I could hear him chuckling on the other side of the line as he remembered those years.

Can you share some personal memories of watching him pitch or what he meant to you?

WILSON:

I remember as a teenager watching him on TV with my father, who was a big baseball fan but somewhat of a conservative guy, and we both loved it. I had never seen anything like the reaction that he got from fans everywhere he went. I also remember how sad it was watching his continued efforts to try to come back.

EPSTEIN:

Sadly, I never got to see The Bird pitch in person, at Tiger Stadium or anywhere else. Growing up in Ann Arbor, going to a Tigers game was the sort of treat my dad or my friends’ parents would only give us a couple of times a year, and my childhood visits to “The Corner” never synched up with a Fidrych start.

My friends and I absolutely loved The Bird, though, at least once we got past our initial cynicism about him. The last time the Tigers had been any good was 1972, which seemed an eon away to us (I turned ten in the spring of ’76). We were used to the Tigers being terrible — 1975 was one of the worst seasons in Tigers history — and as such were immediately suspicious that all the buzz surrounding this guy we’d never heard of before was simply an angle pushed by the team and the local media in an attempt to get people to care about the Tigers again. We thought he was a “fake,” and that he must be doing all that wacky stuff on the mound as a way to get attention. Ah, youth…

It wasn’t until I watched that now-legendary Monday Night Baseball game against the Yankees in late June — which was apparently blacked out in Ann Arbor/Detroit, but which I was able to watch from my grandparents’ living room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I was spending part of my summer vacation — that I realized he was the real deal. He wasn’t faking it, he could pitch, and he looked like he was having as much fun out there as my friends and I did when we were playing pickup ballgames against each other in our neighborhood park. He seemed somehow familiar to us; like, I had friends with older brothers who kind of looked like him, who had long curly hair and liked to smoke weed and listen to Led Zeppelin — and I could totally imagine Fidrych hanging out with them. From that point on, I was a Bird fan.

ABOUT DAN AND DOUG:

Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson literally wrote the book(s) on Mark Fidrych.

Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Mark Fidrych, Carlton Fisk, and Brooks Robinson as well as a book about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. He can be found online here.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and StrikesBig Hair and Plastic Grass, which give great insight into baseball in the 1970s. He also is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and other publications. He can be found online here and on Twitter here.

I am extremely grateful for their cooperation on this!

Mark Fidrych Roundtable Discussion Part I

Mark Fidrych walked off the mound at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto on October 1st, 1980 after throwing five innings against the Blue Jays. He surrendered five runs (four earned) on seven hits while walking three and striking out three. He also earned his 2nd win of the season. It wasn’t his best performance or his worst performance, but it was his last performance. Fidrych would never pitch in the big leagues again.

I recently had a virtual “roundtable discussion” with baseball authors, and Mark Fidrych specialists, Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson about The Bird, his legacy and the sad end to his career.

 How would you describe Fidrych as a cultural phenomenon to someone who didn’t experience Bird-Mania?

Epstein:

Within the context of 70s pop culture, I like to say that The Bird was cooler (and, for a year there, hotter) than Peter Frampton, Evel Knievel and the Fonz put together. It was a total “overnight sensation” thing: He was practically unknown when he made his first start for the Tigers on May 15, 1976; less than two months later, he’s the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game.

 His story and his personality resonated with people far beyond the realms of baseball fandom, to the point where even opposing teams could sell 10,000-20,000 extra seats when he took the mound for the Tigers — and wherever he pitched (but especially at Tiger Stadium), the fan reaction was so crazy and intense that it was like being at a rock concert. He was so naturally telegenic, Hollywood producers wanted him to cast him in their films, TV shows and commercials. People recorded songs about him, little leaguers wanted to pitch like him, and teenage girls across the country had his posters tacked to their walls. And best of all, he had the ability to back up all of the hype that surrounded him.

Wilson:

I talked to so many people who remembered that summer and the number one response to that question is, “You can’t describe it. You had to be there.”

I think the reason for that response is that there has never been anything close to it. People nowadays have absolutely no reference point to judge it.

You can get a little sense of it watching the youtube clip of the end of the famous Yankee game: 50,000 fans, on their feet, screaming “Bird, Bird, Bird,” the announcers struggling to come up with superlatives to describe what they were seeing, a huge smile on everyone’s face—and all for a meaningless June game played by a fifth-place team! And the thing about it was that he did that every single time out. It went on for four months. He never disappointed.

The cultural phenomenon exploded unlike anything baseball had ever had. It pulled in nonsports fans of all ages. People couldn’t get enough of the Bird. Overnight he went from an unknown quirky rookie to the most recognizable, and loved, person in the country.

Why do you think he still holds people’s interest to this day? Right place/right time or was it something inherently Fidrych that people still connect to?

Wilson:

For those who know the whole story, it still resonates because it was something totally unique and fun. It was definitely a right place/right time phenomena because the ‘70s was the perfect era for something like this. As I said in my book, if he had come up in the button-down ‘50s or the troublesome generation-gap ‘60s, he would have been popular with a lot of people, but the whole experience wouldn’t have been the same.

But I think Mark’s brilliantly unique personality would connect with anyone, anywhere. I talked to so many people who met him long before, and long after 1976 and they all loved the guy. He was just impossibly energetic, fun-loving, completely without guile or ulterior motives, and, I think, above all, one-hundred percent genuine. People respect that.

Epstein:

No one who experienced “Birdmania” will ever forget it, because it was such a magical moment in baseball history and popular culture. The joy that he radiated whenever he took the mound was absolutely infectious and completely genuine, and none of his quirky mound mannerisms — the “talking” to the ball, the grooming of the mound, the goofy celebrations after his teammates made great plays — were an “act”. They were just part of who he was.

 But I also think the fact that he never pitched another full season in the bigs has a lot to do with why Mark Fidrych continues to fascinate us. If his amazing first season had been followed by five or six solid-to-mediocre ones before his arm gave out, we likely wouldn’t care as much about him today. Even if he’d had a Vida Blue-like career, where he followed his early dominance with over a decade of sometimes great, sometimes not-so-hot seasons — and likely have some of his natural exuberance ground down in the process — I’m not sure that we’d remember him quite so fondly now.

 As it is, though, the Fidrych story is like Icarus with a baseball — he flew (or threw) too close to the sun for one brilliant season, and he paid the price for it. And that’s still compelling as all hell.

 Note:

Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson literally wrote the book(s) on Mark Fidrych.

Dan Epstein is the author of Stars and StrikesBig Hair and Plastic Grass, which give great insight into baseball in the 1970s. He also is a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and other publications. He can be found online here and on Twitter here.

Doug Wilson is the author of biographies of Mark Fidrych, Carlton Fisk, and Brooks Robinson as well as a book about Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. He can be found online here.

I am extremely grateful for their cooperation on this and click here for Part II.

(Mark) Clear as Mud

Not many guys can go from getting seriously knocked around in the Appy League to becoming a Major League All-Star in less than five years, but that’s exactly what Mark Clear did.

Clear was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 8th round in 1974 and spent his first professional summer with the Pulaski Phillies of the Appalachian League. To say it didn’t go well would be a gross understatement.

The 1974 Pulaski Phillies were, to be blunt, terrible. They finished the season with an 18-50 record, led the league in errors and passed balls and their team E.R.A. was 6.07, nearly a run-and-a-half higher than the next closest team.

The manager of this crew was a man named Frank Wren, who had recently left a very successful career as a college coach at Ohio University, where he had helped Mike Schmidt become an All-American. He had to be wondering what he had gotten himself into.

A Clear Problem

If the Pulaski had the worst pitching staff in the Appy League that season, Mark Clear was one of the reasons why. In fourteen appearances, Clear went 0-7 with an 8.65 ERA. He gave up 69 runs (49 earned) in 51 innings while allowing 71 hits, 43 walks and hitting 11 batters. He also threw six wild pitches. He was just 18 at the time, but it wasn’t a great way to begin your professional baseball career. The Phillies felt so too, and on April 2nd, 1975, less than a year after he was drafted, they released him.

Like a Phoenix

Mark ClearBut the California Angels saw something they thought they could work with, signed Clear as a free-agent in June and moved him to the bullpen. It worked. In the rookie Pioneer League, Mark Clear shaved more the six runs off his E.R.A. in 13 appearances. There were still a few rough patches on his ascent, but on April 4th, 1979, four years and two days after being released by the Phillies, Clear made his major league debut and threw two and one-third scoreless innings against the Seattle Mariners. Four days later, he got his first win. He would win eleven games in 1979, make the All-Star team, and finish third in the Rookie of the Year balloting behind John Castino and Alfredo Griffin.

Eleven Seasons

Mark Clear ended up spending eleven seasons in the major leagues with California, Boston and Milwaukee, compiling a 71-49 record and winning a career-high 14 games with the Red Sox in 1982. He’s a reminder to athletes to never give up and a reminder to teams not to give up too soon on athletes.

 

 

Cecil Cooper and the Forgotten Summer of 1980

Like the character in the movie Airplane!, who picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Cecil Cooper picked the wrong season to have a career year.

Like Jan exclaiming, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” on The Brady Bunch, Cooper was well within his rights to exclaim, “Brett, Brett, Brett!” That’s what happens when you have the best season of your career in the same summer someone else has one of the best seasons ever.

Overshadowed

Cecil Cooper
Coop got not respect

George Brett’s 1980 season was simply amazing, but Cecil Cooper put up numbers that likely would have won him the MVP in any other year. While Brett, and some of his teammates, were complaining about all the attention he was getting, Cooper was getting frustrated by the lack of attention he was getting.

“It’s my tough luck that the man’s having a hellacious year,” Cooper said. “But what can I do? All I can do is go out there and keep doing what I’m doing.”

What he was doing was very impressive. On September 1st, while newspapers across the country were running daily updates on Brett’s chase for .400, Cooper was quietly batting .359. The Royals hosted the Brewers for a three-game series at the beginning of the month and Cooper outhit Brett, going 5-12 in a Brewers sweep while Brett went 3-9. But the numbers that mattered were the batting averages and Brett finished the series at .401 to Cooper’s .360.

What Does a Guy Have to Do?

Cooper wasn’t bitter, nor was he jealous. “I wish George every ounce of luck,” he said. “The guy is hitting more than .400 and that’s terrific.” It just seemed that no matter what he did, George Brett was the story.

“I read the paper, ‘Ah, Coop got two hits and it’s no big deal,” he said. “As if to say I’m supposed to do that, I’m expected to do that. It just seems like nobody gives a (bleep), you know?”

“I’m not complaining. I’m obligated to go out and play, but it does bother me a bit. I mean, if I was in L.A. and having this kind of year, I’d be a celebrity. But then maybe I couldn’t handle that either. As long as my teammates and the fans here know what kind of year I’m having, I have to take satisfaction in that and keep doing my job.”

The Final Tally

Cecil CooperCecil Cooper finished the 1980 season with a .352 batting average, good for 2nd overall in the major leagues. He was 2nd in hits (219) and total bases (335). He led the big leagues in RBI with 122, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. His .352 average would have been tops in the major leagues in 12 of the previous 20 seasons. He finished 5th in the A.L. MVP voting.

“If I put the stats together, it’ll come,” he said. “It might come two years later than you expect it, but it’ll come.”

 

Wild One at the Vet

Sometimes mistakes can work in your favor. That was certainly the case for Tommy Lasorda and the L.A. Dodgers when they took on the Phillies at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on May 4th, 1980.

Prior to the game, Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton took the lineup care to home plate and handed it to umpire Paul Pryor. There was just one problem.  Bench coach Monty Basgall had two different versions of the lineup. He handed one to Sutton, but posted the other on the wall of the Dodgers dugout. Then the fun began.

Eventful 1st Inning

Davey Lopes led off with a single off Phillies starter Randy Lerch and Rudy Law reached on an error by 2nd baseman Luis Aguayo. Two batters later, Steve Garvey was up when Pete Rose noticed something was amiss. The lineup posted in the Dodgers dugout had Dusty Baker up after Garvey, while the one given to the umpires (and the Phillies) had Ron Cey as the next batter.

Rose noticed the Dodgers were out of order

“I’m out there on first and I see Baker on deck,” said Rose. “I said to (first base umpire John) McSherry, ‘They’re batting out of order. What do I do?’ He said, ‘Wait ’til he makes an out or something.”

So that’s what Pete did. Garvey singled to score Lopes and give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead and when Baker strode to the plate, he hit a ground ball to Aguayo for what looked to be an inning-ending double play. But the Phillies couldn’t turn it and Baker was safe on a fielder’s choice while Rudy Law scored the Dodgers’ second run.

“When I got to first, Pete Rose said, ‘You hit out of order,'” Baker told the media after the game. “I said, ‘Man, you’re crazy'”

But it turned out Pete was right. at least according to one of the lineup cards. Rose immediately told the Phillies dugout what had happened and the umpires were summoned. But then there was another problem. The rule book stated what happened when the batter got a hit or made an out but there was no specific mention of what happened if the batter hit into a fielder’s choice. A lengthy umpire conference ensued and the final decision was that Cey, who should have been hitting, was declared out, Law was returned to 3rd, Garvey returned to 1st and Baker was the batter. Phillies manager Dallas Green was furious.

“I didn’t make the mistake, yet I’m the one suffering the consequences,” he said. “The batter should be out because he did what he did. And the runner at second was out so he should be out. If the batter makes an out, I don’t say anything. If we turn a double play, I just let it go.”

But that’s not what happened and it was about to get even worse for Green and the Phillies. Baker stepped up to the plate to face Lerch for the second time in a row. But instead of grounding out, he hit a three-run homer.

“It was a weird game,” said Baker. “Weirdest I’ve ever been in.”

More Twists

It only got worse for the Phillies from there. The Dodgers tacked on one run in the 3rd and four more in the 6th. When the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the 6th, they trailed 9-0. But that’s when their bats came to life.

Bull got the Phillies on the board

Dodgers starter Dave Goltz was riding a scoreless streak of more than 20 innings when Del Unser singled and Mike Schmidt doubled to put runners on 2nd and 3rd. Greg Luzinski followed with a three-run homer, Bob Boone homered after that and suddenly it was 9-4. Philadelphia added three more in the 7th and two in the 8th. What was a 9-0 game was suddenly a 9-9 tie.

“I’m sitting there relaxed,” said Lasorda. “I’m feeling good. I’m winning 9-0. I’ve got a guy out there going for his 3rd straight shutout. All of a sudden I look up and I’ve used everybody on my (pitching) staff.”

Eventful 9th Inning

Green went with Dickie Noles, his 5th pitcher of the afternoon, for the 9th inning and things immediately went downhill. A Derrel Thomas single was followed by back-to-back broken-bat singles by Gary Thomasson and Garvey and a passed ball by substitute catcher Keith Moreland.  Mickey Hatcher then doubled to score Thomasson and Garvey and the Dodgers were up 12-9.

Lasorda called on Jerry Reuss, who would later throw the season’s only no-hitter, to close the game for the Dodgers. Two singles and another passed ball made it 12-10, but Reuss struck out Moreland to finally end the game.

It was a game that featured 36 players, 28 hits, 22 runs, 11 pitchers, four errors, three passed balls and two wild pitches. Just another day at the yard.

 

Barry Foote Day at Wrigley Field

Weird things happen at Wrigley Field. It’s baseball’s version of a box of chocolate; you never know what you’ll find. Tub slides in urinals, goats being denied admission, Barry Foote driving in eight; it’s a bizarre place.

On April 22nd, 1980 the bizarre occurrences began with the weather. Ask anyone who has attended April games in Wrigley Field and they’ll tell you to bundle up. Few places on earth can be colder than Wrigley Field at the beginning of the season. But the temperature on this day was a record-setting 92. That temperature also came with a slight wind to keep patrons comfortable at the Friendly Confines. That breeze was measured at 22 MPH blowing out to right field. Warm temps and high winds at Wrigley means lots of runs, and the Cubs and Cardinals didn’t disappoint.

The First Three

Things began innocently enough. The Cardinals scored two in the top of the 1st off Cubs starter Dennis Lamp on a hit by Bobby Bonds and an error by 3rd baseman Steve Ontiveros. Chicago got one back in the bottom of the frame when Ivan de Jesus homered off Cardinals starter Bob Forsch.

Each team added a run in the 2nd, and the Cardinals added three more in the top of the 3rd on homers by Bobby Bonds and Ken Reitz, but the Cubs ties it at 6 in the bottom of the frame on back-to-back hits by Jerry Martin and Barry Foote.

The Middle Three

Lamp’s afternoon was mercifully over after three innings and had he said he never wanted to pitch in Wrigley Field ever again no one could have blamed him. On this day, he surrendered seven runs on six hits and it wasn’t even his worst home start. Less than a year earlier he drew the start in another game with the wind blowing out. In that contest, Lamp faced the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the game 23-22. Lamp was the Cubs starter and gave up six runs in a third of an inning.

Lynn McLauglin followed Lamp and didn’t fare any better, giving up five runs on four hits and a walk in two-third of an inning. St. Louis added another run in the top of the fourth to grab a 12-6 lead, but the Cubs came storming back.

Four hits in the bottom of the 5th, including an RBI triple from Ivan DeJesus, gave Chicago three runs and chased Forsch from the game. Getting 12 runs through five innings is a pitcher’s dream. Not being able to last long enough to get the win is the stuff nightmares are made of.

The Final Three

The Man of the Hour

The Cubs loaded the bases in the bottom of the 7th, prompting St. Louis manager Ken Boyer to call on lefty Don Hood to face the left-handed batting Bill Buckner. Billy Buck was on his way to a batting title in 1980, so a lefty/lefty matchup didn’t bother him and his opposite-field single plated Mike Tyson to pull the Cubs a bit closer.

The Cardinals loaded the bases in the top of the 8th, but Bruce Sutter, in relief of Dick Tidrow, struck out Tony Scott to end the threat. In the bottom of the frame, Foote came through again with a solo home run off Roy Thomas to tie the game at 12. Sutter retired the Cardinals without incident in the top of the 9th to set up a dramatic finish.

A Dave Kingman single followed by walks to Buckner and Jerry Martin brought Foote up again in the bottom of the 9th inning against Mark Littell. With two outs, Littell hung a slider and Foote jumped on it, sending it into the basket in right-center field for a walk-off grand slam. Foote’s linescore looked pretty good at the end of the day: Four hits in six at-bats, with 2 homers, a double and 8 RBI.

Chicago manager Preston Gomez summed it up well. “Wrigley Field, that’s what you expect when you see the flag blowing out.”