That Time I Met George Brett

NOTE: This is a guest post from Tim Harms.

Manners matter.

More on that in a moment as I share the story of meeting my baseball hero and getting his autograph.

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My formative years as a baseball fan came in Wichita, Kansas, in the late 1970s. Kansas City is a three-hour drive from Wichita, and the Royals were dominating baseball, winning four division titles in five years and making a trip to the World Series in 1980.

Could there be any doubt that George Brett was my favorite player? The man who flirted with .400 for much of the 1980 season before finishing at .390.

I became an avid collector of baseball cards that same summer and soon was hoping to score a Brett autograph.

I remember one family trip to Kansas City when I had my prized George Brett card in hand. As I waited along the wall near the dugout I got my card autographed – by Larry Gura.

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No offense to Larry Gura, but thinking back on that now, what was I thinking – my Brett card with a Gura autograph?!

We moved to Fresno, California, during the summer of 1981, but my love of the Royals didn’t die (and still hasn’t).

In June of 1982 we took a family trip to the Los Angeles area. On a Saturday evening, the entire family went to watch the Royals battle the Angels. Somehow my parents and my sisters hung in until the conclusion of a 12-inning loss.

The next day my mom and sisters went to Magic Mountain. My dad and I returned to Anaheim for a Sunday matinee.

The Royals lost again – this time 9-1 with Brett delivering the only run via an RBI triple.

But after the game, my manners helped me get Brett’s autograph!

As my dad and I left the stadium to head for the car, we walked past a tunnel entrance used by the team bus. A lone security guard stood at the top. My dad and I stopped and asked if there was any chance we could go down there and get some autographs.

The answer of course was “No.”

We decided to wait around at the top of the tunnel anyway.

As we waited, a number of fans tried to walk down into the tunnel, forcing the security guard to shoo them away.

The guard saw us patiently waiting.

He gave me a wave and said, “Go ahead and go down there.”

I was thrilled. I walked down and stood at the door of the team bus. I had Brett’s card along with top pitcher Dennis Leonard’s (who was injured and I later learned not traveling with the team).

After a few minutes, I saw Brett walking toward the bus.

George Brett Autograph
Mission Accomplished!

It was a simple, “Would you sign this?” and nothing more. But I got his autograph – and a lesson that manners matter.

Have you met one of your baseball heroes from the 1980s? I want to hear about it! Click here for details and tell me your story.

ABOUT TIM HARMS: Tim Harms has been a lifelong fan of the Kansas City Royals and happily celebrated their World Series title in 2015 after a 30-year drought. He was fortunate to work in minor league baseball for 12 seasons in a variety of roles. Currently he serves as communications director with the American Heart Association, an organization dedicated to fighting the leading cause of death in the United States. You can support their work via http://www.heart.org./ 

June 20th, 1980 was weird

Flea goes for 3 and other oddities

“Is it a full moon or somethin’?”

That’s what my mother-in-law says when weird stuff happens. June 20th, 1980 must have featured multiple full moons because some bizarre crap went down. On the field, it began in Boston when the Red Sox hosted the California Angels.

The Angels were decimated by injuries but the lineup still featured Rod Carew, Carney Lansford Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich, so Boston starter Steve Renko could be forgiven for looking past the Angels shortstop. Standing 5’5” and weighing just under 150 pounds, Freddie “The Flea” Patek wasnt the kind of player to strike fear in the heart of opposing pitchers, but that didn’t stop him from putting on a prodigious power display on this evening.

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Patek stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 3rd against Dick Drago (Renko had already been knocked out of the game) and hit a three run shot to give the Angels a 10-0 lead.

He homered again to lead off the Angels’ 5th, and after grounding into a double play in his next at bat, Patek came to the plate in the 8th inning, again with Harlow on base, and he homered again, this time off Jack Billingham, to give the Angels a 17-0 lead.

He had a chance to become just the eleventh player in major league history to hit four home runs in a game, joining the likes of Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt and Willie Mays, when he came up in the 9th inning, but Bill Campbell struck him out.

“The whole thing is just amazing to me but it happens,” Patek told reporters after the game. “The fourth time up I was just trying to hit the ball and stay with what I know. I just wanted to hit the ball somewhere, but I struck out.”

Al Cowens vs. Ed Farmer

On the same night that Patek was putting on a power hitting display at Fenway, Detroit outfielder Al Cowens put on a display of an entirely different sort in Chicago. The Tigers and White Sox were tied in the top of the 11th inning when Cowens stepped in against Chicago relief pitcher Ed Farmer.

Farmer was looking to keep the Tigers off the board in hopes of picking up a win. Cowens was looking for revenge. The two were facing each other for the first time since the previous May when a Farmer pitch sailed inside and shattered Cowens’ jaw.

Al Cowens
Cowens got lost on the way to 1st base

This time around Farmer’s pitch was over the plate and Cowens grounded out. But as the ball bounced to shortstop Todd Cruz, Cowens must have gotten lost on the way to first base and charged the pitcher’s mound, causing a bench-clearing brawl.

American League President Lee McPhail acted swiftly, suspending Cowens for seven games and fining him an undisclosed amount. But that wasn’t the only trouble he faced. Farmer filed charges in Cook County Circuit Court, and a judge issued a warrant for Cowens’ arrest on an assault-and-battery charge.

When the Tigers returned to Chicago in August for a two-game series Cowens did not make the trip due to the outstanding warrant. Ever the instigators, White Sox fans hung a huge banner in the outfield that read, “Cowens the Coward.”

The two eventually buried the hatchet in September when the White Sox traveled to Detroit. They met at home plate to exchange lineup cards and Cowens apologized for charging the mound. Farmer accepted and later dropped the criminal charges he had filed.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s over and done with,” Farmer told the media.

“I’m relieved,” said Cowens. “So much has been made of this. Every time I turned around there were headlines about it. The whole thing has been tough, but it’s a dead issue now.”

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Each Other

Nineteen-Eighty was a rough year for the St. Louis Cardinals. They began June 9.5 games out of first place and had just finished a two-game series against the Astros in which they scored zero runs when their team bus pulled up to the Stouffer’s Cincinnati Towers early in the morning of June 20th.

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A foul mood must have been prevalent because a shoving match broke out between pitcher John Fulgham and first baseman Keith Hernandez as they stepped off the bus. Fulgham had been out with a sore shoulder (which turned out to be a torn rotator cuff) and Hernandez had been giving him grief about it. There was also bad blood between the two because Hernandez reportedly had laughed after Fulgham gave up a home run in Montreal earlier in the season.

Teammates were able to separate the two before punches were thrown, though one report said the “brawl” spilled onto the sidewalk and involved as many as 10 members of the team.

Leonard-DuranIt was probably just a coincidence that the two baseball fights took place on the same day that Roberto Duran defeated Sugar Ray Leonard in front of more than 46,000 people at Olympic Stadium, home of the Montreal Expos.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t.

 

Super Joe Charboneau

Being an Indians fan is hard.

REALLY HARD.

But in the spring of 1980, there was a glimmer of hope and it came courtesy of an injury to one of their best players.

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During spring training, first baseman Andre Thornton, who led the team in home runs in 1979 with 26, tore cartilage in his right knee. The injury eventually required surgery and would keep Thornton out of the lineup for the entire season. Losing your top power threat is never good, but in some ways it made manager Dave Garcia’s job a bit easier because there was a 24 year-old kid who had never played above AA making a name for himself at Indians camp in Palm Springs.

“We can’t keep him out the way he’s playing,” said Garcia.” The kid is doing a job and we’re going to give him a shot at it. He’s earned it.”

Joe Charboneau began his career in the Phillies organization, but didn’t fit the way the Phillies thought a ballplayer should conduct himself. In 1976, he hit .298 for the Phillies Class A Spartanburg team and advanced to the Carolina League in 1977 with Peninsula. But after starting the season 3 for 17 at the plate, he found himself on the bench and on the outs with manager Jim Snyder and the organization. Fed up, Charboneau decided to leave the team and return home. But he was coaxed back and in 1978 the Phillies loaned him to the Minnesota Twins, who assigned him to Visalia in the California League. Given a chance to play regularly, Charbonneau responded with a .350 batting average, 18 home runs and 116 RBI.

Following the ’78 season, Charboneau was dealt to Cleveland for pitcher Cardell Camper. With his new organization, Charboneau won the batting title, hitting .352 with 21 homers and 78 RBI with the Indians’ AA club in Chattanooga, and set his sights on the big leagues.

When Thornton went down, the Indians moved Mike Hargrove from left field to first base and made Charboneau an everyday player. He responded by homering on Opening Day on the road against the Angels. But when the Tribe returned to Cleveland for their home opener he immediately gained the affection of Indians fans.

THE DEBUT

Joe Charboneau
Charboneau started hot

In front of nearly 62,000 fans at Municipal Stadium, Charboneau went 3-3 with a home run and drove in two as the Indians beat Toronto 8-1. The legend of “Super Joe” was born and it grew with each home run. But the stories of his exploits off the field gained him additional notoriety.

Charboneau participated in bare-fisted fights in boxcars as a teenager in Santa Clara, California. He suffered multiple broken noses, one of which he set by himself using a pair of pliers. The broken noses also resulted in lost cartilage, which allowed Joe to drink beer through his nose, always a useful skill. In the minor leagues he supposedly performed his own dental work using a razor blade and a pair of vice grips, cut out an ill-conceived tattoo with a razor blade, opened beer bottles with his eye socket, had a pet alligator that almost ate a teammates kitten, and stitched himself back together after another fight using fishing wire. He was also known to eat lit cigarettes. You know, just the normal stuff all of us do on occasion.

Perhaps the most bizarre incident came during spring training when the Indians were playing a series of exhibition games in Mexico City. Charboneau and two teammates were waiting outside the hotel for the team bus when a man approached them and asked Joe where he was from. Joe responded that he was from California. The man then took a pen knife and stabbed Charboneau. The knife went about four inches into the left side of Charboneau’s chest and struck a rib. Charboneau’s teammates subdued the man and the police arrived. About 45 minutes later, an ambulance showed up to take Charboneau to the hospital where the wound was stitched up. His assailant, Oscar Billalobos Martinez, was tried and fined 50 pesos. “That’s $2.27 for stabbing a person,” said Charboneau.

A LOVE AFFAIR

Joe Charboneau
Cleveland loved Super Joe

A band called Section 36 released a song called, Go Joe Charboneau. It was horrible, but it was about Super Joe and it climbed the charts on the local radio stations, eventually reaching No. 3 in Cleveland.

 

“Who’s the newest guy in town? Go Joe Charboneau.

Turns the ballpark upside down. Go Joe Charboneau.

Who do we appreciate? Go Joe Charboneau.

Fits right in with the other eight? Go Joe Charboneau.

Who’s the one to keep our hopes alive? Go Joe Charboneau.

Straight from the 7th to the  pennant drive? Go Joe Charboneau.

Raise your glass, let out a cheer. Go Joe Charboneau.

For Cleveland’s Rookie of the Year. Go Joe Charboneau.”

 

A May slump landed him on the bench, but he eventually worked his way back into the lineup and hit .326 with three homers in June. A late-season injury robbed him of playing time and the debate for the Rookie of the Year in the American League heated up.

In Chicago, Tony LaRussa lobbied hard for one of his pitchers, Britt Burns. “If that kid’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s no such thing,” LaRussa told The Sporting News. “There’s no way Charboneau had a better year.”

In Boston, Red Sox manager Don Zimmer made a case for second baseman Dave Stapleton. “The guy in Cleveland is going to be tough to beat because he hits more home runs,” said Zimmer. “There’s much more action at second base and it’s a much tougher position to play than the outfield. Charboneau plays left and is a designated hitter, but my guy has to be right there.”

Peter Gammons indicated he thought Blue Jays second baseman Damaso Garcia might be the leading candidate in his September 6th Sporting News column.

The fans had their say as well. In a September 27th letter to the editor in The Sporting News, one fan pled Super Joe’s case. “Charboneau is exciting and people are talking about him. How many people are talking about Garcia and Stapleton?”

IT DIDN’T LAST

In the end, Charboneau finished the season batting .289 with 23 homers and 87 RBI. Those numbers were enough to win the Rookie of the Year award in a landslide. The award, coupled with his huge popularity in Cleveland allowed him to triple his salary to $90,000 in 1981.

Unfortunately, a Spring Training back injury derailed his season in ’81 and he never recovered. After his magical rookie season, Charboneau would hit just six home runs over the next two years and retired in 1984 after a few comeback attempts. He holds the record for fewest games played in the Major Leagues by a Rookie of the Year, with just 201.

 

 

Schmidt, Carlton and the 1980 Phillies

 

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The poster hung on the wall of my bedroom in southwest Ohio for years. MVP and CY. Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. My guys. I was far from unique in worshiping the two future Hall-of-Famers, but to this day the site of this poster still makes me smile.

The Phillies were considered underachievers entering 1980 because they hadn’t been able to reach the World Series. NL East crowns in 1976, ’77 and ’78 had resulted in being bounced from the playoffs by the Reds (1976) and Dodgers (1977 & 78). Signing Pete Rose for the 1979 season was thought to be the answer but injuries decimated the roster. It was do or die in 1980 and the Phils struggled out of the gate, going 6-9 in late March and into April. Then MVP and CY took over.

Schmidt earned Player of the Month honors in May by hitting .305 with 12 home runs and 29 RBI to pace the offense, while Carlton earned the Pitcher of the Month award, turning in a 6-1 record with an E.R.A. of just 1.66. Carlton flirted with a no-hitter against Atlanta on May 5th, going seven and a third before yielding his first hit.

There was one game that served as a microcosm of the month for the Phillies. On May 23rd, Carlton was just dominant against Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros, throwing a complete game, four-hit shutout. The only runs he needed came in the 3rd inning when Schmidt homered with Rose and Bake McBride aboard.

Philadelphia went 17-9 in May and their 144 runs scored led the National League. It wasn’t enough to get them to the top of the division, but it was a much-needed step in the right direction. Another rough month early in the season coupled with strong play by the Pirates and the Montreal Expos could have spelled doom for the Phillies.

The NL East race went down to the final weekend of the season and the Phillies ultimately prevailed and went on to win their first World Series. But it may not have happened had their two best players not stepped up early in the year to get them back on track.

 

 

Schmidt & Brett in 1971

The most important day of the 1980 baseball season may very well have taken place in June of 1971.

Goodwin told Chicago no and went to Southern University
Goodwin told Chicago no and went to Southern University

June 8th was draft day. The Chicago White Sox held the #1 pick and chose a high school catcher named Danny Goodwin from Peoria Central High School. Goodwin was the consensus #1 choice, a 6′-2″ 195 lb school boy star. But the White Sox couldn’t sign him and he ended up going to college. He holds the distinction of being the first overall #1 choice not to sign AND the only player to be selected #1 overall twice. The Angels chose him at the top of the first round in 1975.

The first round was heavy on pitching and shortstops. Nineteen of the 24 first round picks fit into that category. One team bucking the trend was the Boston Red Sox who took an outfielder at #15 overall. His name was Jim Rice.

The Kansas City Royals held the 5th pick in the first round and chose a pitcher named Roy Brance who eventually appeared in two games with Seattle in 1979. The Philadelphia Phillies picked one spot behind the Royals and selected pitcher Roy Thomas from Lompoc, CA.

The Royals took Brett with the 5th pick of the 2nd round
The Royals took Brett with the 5th pick of the 2nd round

Having gotten their pitcher in the first round, the Royals were on the prowl for a shortstop and chose George Brett, a high schooler from El Segundo, CA,  who had impressed scouts by, among other things, playing all nine positions in a high-school all-star game including pitching both right and left handed in the 9th inning. Yet despite this, he was overshadowed by his older brother, Ken, who had always been the one destined for stardom and was pitching for the Red Sox when George was drafted.

With Brett off the board, the Phillies chose an All-American shortstop from Ohio University named Mike Schmidt with the next pick.

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

The Major League Baseball draft is an inexact science to say the least, but eight different shortstops were selected ahead of two of the best players ever to play the game. The most accomplished of them was Craig Reynolds. Three of them never played in the big leagues and the eight combined to hit 59 career, home runs, or eleven more than Schmidt alone hit in 1980. Hindsight is obviously a distinct advantage, but it does seem curious that the Cincinnati Reds would choose Mike Miley, a high school shortstop from Louisiana, over Mike Schmidt a Dayton native who played his college ball just a few hours away in Athens, OH.

Schmidt later recounted a story of a Phillies scout arriving at his house to negotiate a contract. He pulled a typewriter out of his trunk and offered a deal worth $25,000. Schmidt’s father, acting as his agent, said they wanted $40,000. A contract of $37,500 was eventually agreed upon and Schmidt immediately went out and purchased himself a Corvette.

Joe Theisman
Joe Theisman coulda been a Twin

There was one other shortstop of note selected on that day in 1971. In the 39th round, the Minnesota Twins selected a kid from Notre Dame named Joe Theisman.

How would the 1980 season have played out had the Royals taken Schmidt instead of Brett? What if the Reds had taken Schmidt in the first round instead of Miley? Can you imagine the Big Red Machine with another Hall-of-Famer in the lineup? How did every team in baseball pass on these two in the first round?

It’s Strawberry Season

The Pittsburgh Pirates sent a scout to look at him. He left after a few minutes. Not because he wasn’t impressed, but because he knew his there was no chance the kid would still be available when the Pirates pick rolled around. A Phillies scout called him, “the best prospect I’ve seen in 30 years.”

“I’d give up five of our picks if we could get that kid,” said an Expos scout.

The baseball draft is a crapshoot. At best, it can provide a team with a future superstar. At worst it can set a franchise back years, and the team with the first pick knew that all too well. The New York Mets had owned the overall number one selection twice before. In 1966, they chose a high school catcher named Steve Chilcott, passing on a young outfielder from Arizona St. named Reggie Jackson who was snapped up by Kansas City at #2. Two years later, the Mets selected infielder Tim Foli with the first pick. The cross town Yankees held the fourth selection and took a catcher from Kent St. named Thurman Munson. Such was the history the Mets were up against heading into the 1980 draft. They couldn’t miss this time.

Darryl Strawberry
The Mets picked Strawberry #1

The kid everyone had their eye on was 18 years-old, stood 6’4″, weighed just 180 pounds. His name was Darryl Strawberry and his mom wanted him to go to college; in fact, he had already signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Oklahoma State. But the prospect of big-league baseball, and big-league money, would be tough to turn down.

Strawberry attended Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, which was familiar territory for baseball scouts. Just a year before, they flocked to Crenshaw to see Chris Brown, a 2nd round selection who would later become an All-Star with the San Francisco Giants. Eight years earlier, Crenshaw had produced outfielder Ellis Valentine, who in 1980 was patrolling the Montreal Expos outfield alongside Andre Dawson and Ron LeFlore. This year, the Crenshaw player everyone wanted was Strawberry.

But as talented as he was, the Mets weren’t certain they would make him the top pick. He slumped at the beginning of his senior season, which concerned the New York front office. Strawberry led his Crenshaw basketball team to the city championship, then went straight from basketball to baseball with almost no break and his play suffered early on. But when draft day finally arrived, the Mets decided they simply couldn’t pass him up.

“Other players may have been more polished,” said Mets scout Harry Minor. “But he has great potential.”

“I knew the Mets were interested in me because they needed a power-hitting outfielder,” said Strawberry. “I’m just glad the ordeal is over. There has been a lot of pressure on me this spring.”

Strawberry eventually decided not to go to college and signed with the Mets for what General Manager Frank Cashen called, “a considerable” bonus. The Mets wanted to hold a press conference to announce the signing, but Strawberry declined, saying he wanted to start playing right away. He was assigned to the Mets Appalachian League farm club in Kingsport, TN, which was worlds away from Crenshaw.

“The furthest east I’ve ever been is Seattle,” he told the media.