Missed it by that Much – The Britt Burns story

“If that kid’s not Rookie of the Year, there’s no such thing,” said White Sox skipper Tony La Russa after Britt Burns made his final start of 1980.

“I think (Joe) Charboneau, (Dave) Stapleton and (Damaso) Garcia… had fine rookie years,” he continued. “But there’s no way anyone had a better year than Burns.”

Unfortunately for La Russa, voters didn’t agree as Burns finished 5th in the R.O.Y. voting, but that did nothing to diminish the fantastic season he had. In his first full season, Britt Burns won 15 games with a 2.84 ERA. He was a 6’5″ lefty and he was destined for stardom.

Early Dominance

Burns grew up in Alabama and established his dominance at an early age. He was a standout in Little League, owing in part to his tremendous size. A growth spurt resulted in him shooting up from 5’10 to 6’2 in less than 6 months. But spurt also caused problems. Growing so quickly resulted in damaged cartilage in his hips. The damage was severe enough that his femur would actually slip out of the socket. The problem eventually required surgery on both hips in which pins were inserted to stabilize the joints. Between the two surgeries he spent nearly a year on crutches and missed a year of school ball when he was 13.

When he finally returned to the diamond he didn’t miss a beat. He threw a no-hitter as a Freshman and he was so impressive that his high school his coach advised him to transfer to a bigger school where he would face better competition. His father worked for Allstate and was able to arrange a transfer to Birmingham so Burns could switch schools. He ended up at Huffman High School, a baseball factory. In the mid-1970s, the school was using videotape for pitchers to break down their deliveries. Burns thrived.

At Huffman he threw four no-hitters, struck out nearly 300 batters in 139 innings and allowed just two earned runs over a two year period. Scouts noticed. The White Sox chose selected him in the 3rd round of the 1978 draft and after 31 innings with Appleton in the Midwest League he made his big league debut. He got pounded. In two starts, he lasted a total of seven and a third innings and surrendered 11 earned runs.

Standout Rookie

Britt Burns
With Burns, Trout and Baumgarten, the Sox were seemingly set

After another brief stint in the big leagues in 1979, Burns made the team out of spring training in 1980 and quickly became a force. In three April starts, Burns allowed just one run while facing the Yankees twice and the Boston Red Sox. He flirted with a no-hitter against Seattle in mid-May and while the Mariners did scratch out four hits, Burns threw his first career shutout and ran his record to 5-2. A six start winless streak may have cost him Rookie of the Year honors. From July 21st through August 7th, Burns went 0-5 but still posted a respectable 3.40 ERA. The offense did him no favors during the stretch, scoring just nine runs.

While he didn’t win Rookie of the Year, Burns was named AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year, an award that was made more special because votes were cast by his fellow players.

“That’s a real honor to be voted by my peers,” he said. “But I’m not going to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I want to get better. This is going to give me incentive to work a little harder and pitch a little better.”

Injuries and Tragedy

Over the next four seasons, injuries to his shoulder, recurring hip problems and the 1981 death of his father in an auto accident plagued the talented lefty. He hit bottom in 1984 when he endured a disastrous 4-12 season. In 1985 he finally broke through, winning 18 games with 172 strikeouts in 227 innings. In December he was dealt to the Yankees in a deal that brought the Sox Ron Hassey and Joe Cowley.

With Burns and Ron Guidry, the 1986 Yankees had two lefties who put up a combined 40 wins the previous season and were thinking pennant. But then Burns’ hip problems flared up again. In two spring outings he posted a 10.80 ERA and his season was over before it began.

”The condition of Britt’s hip is such that it would do him an injustice to ask him to pitch this year inasmuch as it could have a serious effect on his ability to lead a normal life later on,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a press release. “We don’t want Britt walking around as a cripple later on in life.”

Burns underwent a procedure in which his femur was cut in half and re-positioned in order to fit correctly into his hip socket. A year later he was still hoping to return but the pain in his hip was too great. At 27 years-old he was finished.

It’s hard enough to play the game. It’s even more difficult when your body betrays you.

That Time I Met Johnny Bench (Twice)

If you were a kid in southwestern Ohio in the 1970s and you could eat anywhere you wanted,  the answer was clear: Johnny Bench‘s Home Plate.

Bench owned two restaurants in the Cincinnati area at the time and one of them was near the Northgate Mall, which was about 40 minutes from my house. I don’t remember a whole lot about the restaurant except that there was a HUGE catcher’s mitt chair in the lobby. At my age it could easily swallow me up and it was a must-do each time we visited.

Johnny Bench's Homeplate
A Baseball Fan’s Nirvana

I frequently asked to go there for my birthday and it often worked because my father liked their steaks. Worked for me, too. On one occasion we were there for dinner when in strolls Johnny himself.  I was in awe. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything with me for him to sign, but my mother was a college professor and was thus equipped with a piece of paper and a fountain pen. That’s right: A fountain pen. Johnny inked my piece of paper.

So Mr. Bench, We Meet Again

Years later, I worked at WCET-TV (PBS) in Cincinnati. The building had a large studio that we would rent occasionally. Parts of Rain Man and Little Man Tate were shot there. I came to work one day and was informed that Fifth Third Bank would be shooting a commercial in the studio and that Bench would be in the house. Johnny had been working with Fifth Third since the early ’70s and had done lots of commercials and print ads. Someone from our staff needed to be there in case the ad agency needed anything and since I was the resident baseball freak, they gave me the plum assignment. Basically my job was to sit there, watch the show and tell people where the bathroom was.

Once again I didn’t have anything for Bench to sign, but I did have a car. When the crew broke for lunch, I headed straight to Koch’s Sporting Goods in downtown Cincinnati and bought a baseball. When everyone came back I asked Johnny to sign it.

He was hesitant, probably it was a pretty serious breach of etiquette on my part to ask for an autograph while we were both working. I think he also figured I would sell it. Damage done on the first count, but not the second. He asked me my name and signed the ball to me, which worked out great.

A Treasured Keepsake

My Johnny Bench Autograph
My Johnny Bench Autograph

The ball now sits proudly on a shelf with others signed by Hall-of-Famers. Thanks, J.B!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missed it by that Much: The Dan Graham Story

If you happened to read the transactions section on December 8th, 1979 you probably would have missed it. The previous day, the Detroit Pistons fired their General Manager, a guy named Dick Vitale. At the winter meetings in Toronto, the Montreal Expos pulled off a big trade for Ron LeFlore, who would lead the N.L. in stolen bases in 1980.

Just after that was this note:

MINNESOTA (AL) – Traded infielder Dan Graham to

Baltimore for first baseman Tom Chism.

Between the two of them, Graham and Chism had a total of seven big league at-bats and zero hits.

“It looks like deals like this are the only ones you can make these days,” Orioles G.M. Hank Peters told the media. They’re unencumbered, uncomplicated.”

Graham was playing winter ball in Venezuela when he heard he news and he was thrilled. He was buried behind 1979 Rookie of the Year John Castino at 3rd, Ron Jackson at 1st and Butch Wynegar at catcher. A trade gave him a new start and he was ready to take advantage of it.

Dan Graham and Earl Weaver
Graham and Earl Weaver

Once Spring Training rolled around, Graham immediately impressed people with his bat. He put up 20 or more homers in three different seasons in the minor leagues, but after his batting average slipped to just .213 in 1979, the Twins felt he was expendable while the Orioles saw potential.

He hit .346 to begin the year in Rochester and got the call to the big leagues in May and collected nine hits in his first 16 at-bats, including home runs in his first two starts.

Player of the Week

After a rough June, he caught fire in July, hitting .302 and driving in 20 runs in just 15 games. The highlight of the month was a three game series against the Twins where he went 6-11 with two homers and 13 RBI, earning him Player of the Week honors.

Graham became so popular in Baltimore that among the items up for bid at the Orioles charity auction, along with a pair of jockey shorts signed by Jim Palmer, was a 30 minute fielding practice session with the new slugger.

The new star hit three more homers in just 13 August games, and as the Orioles battled the Yankees for the A.L. East flag, Graham hit .313 with six homers in 80 at bats down the stretch. He finished the year at .278 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs as a part-time player.

 

Dan Graham
It wasn’t meant to be

Baltimore seemed to be set with a platoon of Graham and Rick Dempsey behind the plate. But just as quickly as he burst onto the scene, Graham lost his mojo in 1981. He hit just .176 in 55 games. He spent 1982 in AAA and retired.

That Time I Met The Orioles

It’s tough to be the new kid. Having someone introduce you helps. Having someone introduce you to about half the Baltimore Orioles is another thing entirely.

In the summer of 1978, Rich Stanfill and his family moved to Cockeysville, Maryland, a small town whose claim to fame was a quarry that produced some of the marble used in the construction of the Washington Monument. In the late 1970s, it was also home to many of the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Colts.

Rich’s father worked for Chemlawn and was charged with turning around struggling franchises. They bounced around a bit, spending time in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and the latest stop brought them to Orioles country.

The family lived in an apartment building and it just so happened that Baltimore Colts wide receiver Roger Carr lived upstairs and Rich became friends with his son. Carr was a standout receiver in the 1970s. He was the favorite target of Colts QB Bert Jones and led the league in receiving yards in 1976 with 1,112 in a 14-game season. He also averaged an amazing 25.9 yards per catch and scored eleven touchdowns. If Fantasy Football existed in those days, Carr would have been a top pick.

As if star professional athletes living in relatively modest apartment complexes with “regular people” down the stairwell wasn’t unusual enough, it got even more surreal with the benefit of hindsight.

Roger Carr - Baltimore Colts
Roger Carr lived upstairs

“The first time I met Roger, his wife was sewing his pants,” Rich told me. “He was a tall receiver (6’3″) and the Colts didn’t have pants that fit him so he was constantly ripping his pants. His wife would sew them back together in their apartment.”

Carr wasn’t the only athlete living in the complex. Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey lived in the building next door and Rich became friends with his son, John. In fact, many of the Colts and Orioles lived nearby. It was less than a 30 minute drive straight down route 83 to Memorial Stadium.

On one summer day, Rich was hanging out with his buddies when John Dempsey said, “Hey. Let’s go get autographs! I know where the players live.”

Rich was just six years old and a chance to hobnob with big leaguers sounded like a good plan so off they went. Of course it made sense to get warmed up by nabbing the low hanging fruit, which in this case was Rick Dempsey. One down, lots more to go.

Rick Dempsey
Hey Dad, can you sign?

 

For the rest of the afternoon the boys simply knocked on doors. They got signatures from a number of the Colts players and also tracked down a lot of Orioles, including Mark Belanger, Rich Dauer, Dennis Martinez and Pat Kelly.

 

 

Lee May - Baltimore Orioles
Lee May was a bopper

A few doors down, they met Lee May, who was one of baseball’s most feared sluggers. Entering the 1978 season, May had clubbed 226 homers and driven in nearly 800 runs. He was on his way to another 25 homer season in 1978. He was also quite a large man at 6’3″ and weighing in at about 200 pounds. To a six-year-old, he must have been a giant. He’s also one of the nicer guys you’ll ever meet and he was happy to sign for the kid who lived around the corner.

 

Behind another door they found outfielder Al Bumbry. The 1973 Rookie of the Year, Bumbry was coming off a 1977 campaign in which he hit .317 with 19 stolen bases. Unfortunately for Bumbry, he had also suffered a gruesome ankle injury in May against the Texas Rangers. When the boys walked in, they found Bumbry sitting on the couch with his leg in a cast. Being six, Rich asked the normal question.

“Can I sign your cast?”

“Sure!” came the response.

<a rel=

The boys all signed Bumbry’s cast and he, in turn, signed for them as well.

For Rich, it was the beginning of his lifelong love of the game but he kinda did things backwards. Most kids follow games in the hopes of meeting their heroes. Rich met some of the biggest stars in the game first. He quickly made the transition from not knowing “about” the players to actually knowing the players. What began as a slow summer day turned into cruising around and becoming buddies with a bunch of big leaguers.

“We knocked on some doors and no one answered. Looking back, who lived there? Eddie Murray? Jim Palmer? I’ll never know, but I had all my autographs before I bought my first pack of baseball cards.”

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.

Missed it by that much: The Karl Pagel story

If there was a Futures Game in 1980 he would have been a headliner.

Karl Pagel was a can’t miss star. He was a high draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1976 and absolutely tore up the minor leagues.  He hit .344 in AA in 1977 with 28 homers and 104 RBI and was named the MVP of the Texas League. He followed that up by hitting another 23 homers in AAA in 1978 and earning a cup of coffee with the Cubs where he went hitless in two at-bats.

Karl Pagel
Pagel owned the American Association in 1979

Despite playing on a last-place team, Pagel led the American Association in homers (39) and RBI (123) in 1979, besting future big leaguers like Kevin Bass, Keith Moreland and Harold Baines. He earned minor league Player of the Year honors and a shot in the outfield for a mediocre Cubs team in 1980 seemed like a lock. The Wrigley Field faithful must have been salivating over the prospect of Pagel and Dave Kingman launching home runs out of the Friendly Confines.

But while Kingman and Pagel may have combined to hit 80 or more homers, they also would have made up one of the worst defensive outfields in the big leagues and the Cubs brass knew it.

“He’s not a good outfielder,” AAA Wichita Manager Jack Hiatt told the Chicago Tribune. “His future is at first base.”

That was a problem because Bill Buckner was locked in at first base for the Cubs and he wasn’t high on Pagel’s defense either.

“I can’t see Pagel and Kingman in the same outfield,” he said.

So despite proving he had nothing left to prove in AAA, Pagel was sent back to Wichita to begin 1980 where he struggled at the plate and then injured his shoulder and his back. He tried to stay optimistic, but it was difficult.

“This is one of the lowest times I ever had, he told the Tribune. “I was so close to making it. I said in the spring that I would rather sit on the Cubs bench than come back here (AAA) but the Cubs made the right move.”

Midway through the 1980 season, Pagel was dealt to the Cleveland Indians, which seemed like an even better fit. He could serve as a DH and send baseballs flying all over ballparks in the American League. Pencil Pagel and Charboneau into the middle of the Cleveland lineup for the rest of the decade.

But 1980 came and went and Pagel never made an appearance with the Indians. He hit .272 with 20 homers for AAA Charleston in 1981 and earned a September callup with the Indians.

On September 15th, Pagel pinch hit for Mike Fishlin with two outs in the bottom of the 9th against Dennis Martinez and hit his first big league homer. Unfortunately it was also his only homer. He finished his major league career in 1983 with Cleveland after playing in a total of 48 games.

Was he the perfect example of a AAAA player? One too good for AAA but not good enough for the big leagues? Possibly. It’s also possible he never got a shot to prove himself. He had a total of just 56 at-bats over five seasons and most of those were as a pinch-hitter or late-inning replacement.

Pagel isn’t unique. There are lots of guys who had great minor league careers and couldn’t put it together at the big league level and those stories always fascinate me. It just goes to show how difficult the game really is.

 

 

That Time I Met Nolan Ryan

Note: This is a guest post from Scott Ottenweller

In the late 70’s my family moved from New York to Columbus, Ohio. The Yankees had finally returned to prominence, winning the World Series in ‘77 and ‘78, I naturally became a Yankee fan. And I still am to this day. I was still relatively young at the time, so I didn’t get to watch many baseball games back then (except the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week!) but I remember “stealing” my Dad’s Sports Illustrated magazines and plastering my bedroom walls with pictures of my favorite Yankee players- especially Graig Nettles, my all-time favorite Yankee. When I was playing Little League I ALWAYS wanted to play third base, like my idol. I was officially hooked on baseball.

At that point, I also became an avid baseball card collector. I couldn’t get my hands on enough cards! I would try to collect all of the Yankee players of course, but I then became fixated on collecting an entire set of cards. As I would work on building a set, two things would happen. I would collect as many all-stars player cards as possible (like everyone else), but I would study the cards. I became fascinated with reading the player’s career stats, which led to learning more about the history of baseball, records that were broken and milestones hit. It was then that I realized that Nolan Ryan was in a class by himself when it came to starting pitching.

In the early 80’s, Nolan Ryan was THE strikeout king. No one came close to his stuff. In 1973 he set a record with 383 strikeouts in one season! By 1980, Ryan already had five seasons with 300+ strikeouts and had amassed nearly 3,000 career strikeouts. He had a legitimate chance of breaking Walter Johnson‘s record of 3,509 strikeouts, a mark that had stood since 1927. In 1983, he did indeed pass Johnson to become the all-time leader in career strikeouts (he ended his career with an astonishing 5,714 career strikeouts).

It was also 1983 when my family went to St. Petersburg, Florida for Spring Break. While the beach and sun was great, I was most excited to see a spring training game. The Cardinals’ spring training was held in St. Petersburg so my brother and I ventured over there one afternoon to watch a game and see if we could get some autographs. Before the game we managed to get a ton of autographs- guys like Dickie Thon, Denny Walling and Vern Ruhle among others. We then watched a rather boring affair as the Cardinals rolled to victory.

After the game, my brother and I stalked some players and coming out of the clubhouse we met Ozzie Smith! He was holding his son yet was still gracious enough to sign autographs for us as well as others. I was so pumped to meet “The Wizard”! But that wasn’t the highlight of the day.

As we were leaving the stadium, we noticed that the Astros players were out doing practice drills (batting, fielding, etc). I chalked it up to the coach being upset at the poor play of the day, but I was curious. So my brother and I walked around the stadium to a gate where we could look onto left field. We watched batting practice for a bit (ran down a BP homerun ball from Dickie Thon!) but then I saw a player doing calisthenics with the trainer. At first from a distance I couldn’t tell who it was but then I saw the number: ‘Ole #34. It was Nolan Ryan! My brother and I just watched- mesmerized. After a while, he finished up and started to come over. Nolan Ryan was coming our way!

Nolan Ryan Autograph
Ryan’s signature. The reward for their patience

It was just my brother and I and our patience was about to pay off. No one else was with us; other kids had taken off by then. Ryan gets to the gate and asks, “How are you boys doing today?” I could only muster one word: ”Good”. He then asks if we want him to sign the piece of paper we had in our hands. Another well thought out response: “Yes”. So I watched in amazement at the very moment I was getting Nolan Ryan’s autograph. Nolan-flipping-Ryan! A sure-fire Hall of Famer! One of the premier players in the league! And he was right in front of me. Just me and my brother. As he signed our papers, said goodbye to us and walked away, my brother and I looked at each other in astonishment. We just got Nolan Ryan’s autograph!! We gave each other a high-five and with huge smiles on our faces, took off to tell our parents and whomever else might be interested in our story. It was a moment I’ll cherish forever and is still my favorite autograph that I own to this day. Even better than the Derek Jeter autograph my Mom bought me for Christmas one year. That’s saying something…

Ozzie Smith, <a rel=

 

Scott Ottenweller lives in Columbus, OH where he roots for the OSU Buckeyes, Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Yankees.

 

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.

And Barfield in Right

NOTE: This is a guest post from Andrew Forbes

I recently attended a game with another writer whose task, appointed him by a Canadian newspaper, was to listen to me expounding for nine innings on why baseball was worth one’s attention. It’s something I’d have been happy to do, of course, even if I wasn’t promoting a book on the subject, and even if someone else hadn’t been paying for the tickets. As it happened the night was warm, the roof was open, the beer was cold, and the Blue Jays rolled over the Royals thanks largely to Josh Donaldson‘s pair of homers, so I didn’t have to work too hard to convince the writer of the game’s charms. But what seemed to me the most significant moment of the evening came when he – a longtime resident of Toronto, but not a baseball fan – told me that he hadn’t been to a game since the Jays’ Exhibition Stadium days, meaning since 1989.

I’m aware of the company I’m likely to have on this site, namely others who remember baseball as it was played in the ’80s, so it won’t damage my pride to let slip that I do recall with some clarity the time and place he sketched. What I remember of the place was that the Ex was a terrible spot for a ballgame, with its inelegant configuration, hard aluminum bleachers, and that awful, unyielding turf which essentially amounted to bright green plastic carpeting spread over a parking lot. It looked bad and it played worse; your knees hurt just looking at that stuff.

But I’m reminded, too, of what used to occur on that surface, specifically the broad space beyond the circular sliding pits, the expanse of ground from foul pole to foul pole, and of the men who for a handful of years stood sentinel over it, from left to right: Bell, Moseby, and Barfield.

George Bell
George Bell

 

 

George Bell was the thumper, a three-time All-Star and Silver Slugger whose best season came in ’87, for which he was named MVP. Bell was brash and sure.

 

 

Lloyd Moseby
Lloyd Moseby

Lloyd Moseby, in center, was smoothness personified, an easy-loping vacuum. Shaker was good for 20 homers and 75 RBI a year, give or take, but his greatest value lay in chasing down balls.

 

Jesse Barfield
Jesse Barfield

Jesse Barfield was, in my remembering, the most low-key member of the trio, though no less affable than his mates. Indeed it’s their smiles that shine still across the decades, a high-wattage triple beam display which hints at the optimism projected onto a team not yet a decade old when it captured its first division crown in ’85. But the thing about Barfield was his magnificent right arm – one of the best defensive weapons there ever was. He was a trebuchet erected in right field, his entire body functioning as counterweight to sling that arm at great velocity, releasing the ball to find its target with frightening accuracy. If you chose to run on Jesse Barfield, the odds were good he’d gun you down.

Barfield was also a gunner at the plate, though his precision there lacked, which is to say he struck out a lot. But when he connected, good things often happened. In 1986, he connected more than he ever had before, and more than he ever would again: 40 HR, 108 RBI, a .289 average. He was the Home Run King, an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glover, and recipient of the fifth-most votes for AL MVP.

When that season ended I was in the 5th grade, and my teacher was Ms. Delvillano who, though I was then incapable of assessing such things, it seems to me now was probably in her twenties. Tall, with extravagantly large blonde hair, often strict, with a big shouting voice, and large tinted eyeglasses, I could tell even from within the hot stew of pre-adolescence that she was beautiful. This was, you’ll understand, tremendously confusing for me.

Ms. Delvillano was also, as luck would have it, a baseball fan. And though she lived and taught in suburban Ottawa, some 250 miles from Toronto, she had some sort of connection to the Blue Jays’ front office. Whether that connection was romantic, platonic, or familial, it did not then occur to me to wonder. One way or another the result was that, in addition to bringing us outside on fine days to play soccer-baseball, and pulling out a radio so that we might listen to matinee games while doing busy work, she was able to bring in one of Barfield’s bats, which we pawed with reverence and tried unsuccessfully to swing, as well as a large Blue Jays logo printed on a plastic disc, roughly the size of those which used to rest near the on-deck circles of Astroturfed stadia, back when such things flourished across the landscape. The disc was tacked to the class bulletin board nearby a clipping from a sports section’s front page (the Toronto Star, I think) from which grinned a caricatured Barfield, beneath the words HOME RUN KING.

Barfield was my guy, then, if you’d asked me for a favorite. He was speed and, at least for that season, power. He was a salve to the sting of the ’85 ALCS loss in seven games to those same Royals. He was Ms. Delvillano’s favorite. She told me so.

Things end, invariably. That winter I accidentally hit Ms. Delvillano in the face with a snowball, and the ensuing week-long detention, which I’d briefly envisioned to be just me and her, alone in the portable, talking baseball, was instead silent and chilly. As the school year wrapped over into the ’87 season it was Bell, not Barfield, who provided the team’s pulse, while Barfield sunk back toward his career numbers. By the time I’d finished the 5th grade that June the Jays were in first; they’d eventually wind up thirty games over .500 but finish a disappointing second, two games back of the Tigers. They were a middle of the pack club in ’88 before storming back to a division title in ’89, but that was a feat done with a different outfield unit. The Jays’ vaunted trio met its demise when Barfield was dealt to the Yanks for Al Leiter early that season. Junior Felix took over in right.

Bell was a Cub for a season, in ’91, then took the Dan Ryan Expressway to the South Side, spending his last two years with the White Sox. Moseby left as a free agent after ’89 and wound up in Detroit. Barfield and Shaker reunited in Japan, improbably, playing in ’93 for the Yomiuri Giants. The Blue Jays were winning titles then, but it was at the SkyDome, not the Ex, and everything about them was different. They’d become big free agent spenders while attracting four million fans to a state of the art facility. It was the nineties, and I was in high school. Nothing was ever the same again.

 

The 1980 All-Star Game

 

There have been 87 All-Star games in major league history. Exactly one of them took place at Dodger Stadium.

Watching the game today on YouTube brings you right back to the era, complete with Keith Jackson, Don Drysdale and Howard Cosell in the booth. Love him or hate him, there’s nothing quite like listening to Cosell and his skills were on display immediately as he seamlessly transitioned from discussing A.L. leadoff hitter Willie Randolph’s OB% to Gregory Peck’s childhood vocation when Peck appeared on screen.

J.R. Richard on Display

J.R. Richard
Richard was dominant

The game also presents the opportunity to see J.R. Richard in his prime one last time. Richard left two of his June starts early after complaining of discomfort but doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. That fueled whispers about how he was faking an injury. That talk intensified after he handled the best the American League had to offer. Richard would make one more regular season start before heading to the disabled list and then suffering a stroke at the end of July that ended his career. But on this night he was brilliant.

Richard was incredibly difficult to face. Even more so when you’d never seen him before, as was the case for many A.L. hitters in the days before interleague play. Add the factor of squaring off against him in the twilight at Dodger Stadium and it appeared to be a mismatch.

Richard threw two scoreless innings and struck out three, but he did surrender a base hit as Bucky Dent singled to right in the top of the 2nd. As good as Richard was though, he was outdone by A.L. starter Steve Stone.

Steve Stone in the Spotlight

In July of 1979, Stone’s record was 6-7 with a robust 4.40 ERA, thanks in part to surrendering 21 home runs. This year he was in the midst of the defining season of his career as well as a run of 10 wins in 10 straight starts during the regular season. He ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant the day before the game and received a fortune cookie telling him he would reach a high level of intelligence.

Steve Stone
Stone was even better

“What I wanted it to say was that I was going to pitch three innings, allow no hits and strike out six,” he joked. Had the fortune cookie said that it wouldn’t have been too far off as Stone turned in one of the best starting performances in All-Star history.  He faced nine N.L. hitters and retired them all, including strikeouts of sluggers Dave Parker and Dave Kingman along with Dodger pitcher Bob Welch. Even more impressive was the fact that he accomplished this on just 24 pitches.

”I couldn’t look at this lineup as a group,” said Stone. ”I had to face each one as a single entity. As a group, it would have seemed too big a task but, one by one, I was able to handle nine guys.”

The A.L. grabbed a 2-0 lead in the top of the 5th when Rod Carew hit a 2-out single off Welch and Fred Lynn ran the count full before homering into the right field bleachers. Lynn was nursing a sore hamstring and considered skipping the game to rest, but he didn’t want to disappoint the fans so he made the trip.

Griffey Plays Hero

In the bottom of the 5th,  lefty Tommy John was on the mound for the A.L. when N.L. manager Chuck Tanner went off script and sent the left-handed hitting Ken Griffey to pinch hit for Kingman. The move was prompted by Tommy Lasorda, who recalled a time when Griffey had burned Lasorda when John was with the Dodgers. Just as Lasorda predicted, Griffey took John deep and the N.L. was on the board.

Ken Griffey
Griffey’s homer earned him MVP honors and a Stargell Star

“I wasn’t thinking home run,” Griffey told reporters after the game. “I was just looking for a good pitch to hit. I’ve always hit him pretty good. Everybody was pretty pumped up after the home run. Then we just took advantage of their mistakes.”

The mistakes mounted as the N.L. scored two more in the bottom of the 6th on a base hit by George Hendrick and an error on Randloph. They added one more in the 7th when Dave Concepcion scored on a Dave Stieb wild pitch.

The Streak Continues

1980 NL All-Stars
Champions once again

The Nationals came away with a 4-2 win, which marked the 17th time in the previous 18 seasons that the N.L. won the Mid-Summer Classic, a fact that was not lost on the American Leaguers.

“One more year we have to hear we’re inferior all over again,” said Paul Molitor. “That’s the hard part.”

 

Here’s the entire game. Enjoy!

That Time I Met Eric Davis

Note: This is a guest post from Nate Dunlevy

My love affair with baseball began with the same cliches that every child of the ’80s retells. I don’t know if it was staying up late to watch Bill Buckner make the same error I made a thousand times, or if it was the wood paneling, or just the sheer weight of cultural inevitability that forces smart kids of limited athletic ability to gravitate toward baseball and the infallibility of its countless numbers.  You can take those same basic myths, chop them up 28 different ways, and dust them with names of local heroes and you’ll have an origin story for most every baseball fan between the ages of 36 and 46.

My addiction to AM radio and 6:35 start times began with Eric Davis in 1987. For what amounts to a moment but feels like forever, he was the best player on the planet. Oddly enough, Davis wasn’t my favorite player (that was Buddy Bell, then Chris Sabo and then Barry Larkin), but he was the most captivating. I couldn’t name all five tools, but I knew he had them. Fast. Strong. Davis was the perfect athlete.

His greatness and my own dubious grasp of economics led me to horde dozens of his baseball cards. A friend’s mom heard I was a Reds fan and gave me a few old cards she had lying around. My glee at finding out one was a Fleer Eric Davis rookie card was containable. The fool! It was worth at least $20. She might as well have handed me a brick of gold.

Davis lit up baseball that thrilling summer. He was easily on pace to be the first 40-40 player, needing only three home runs in late August when the pursuit was cut short after he ran into a wall at Wrigley field. (The image of Cubs fans pouring beer on him as he writhed on the warning track birthed its own special kind of hate in my 10 year old heart against that franchise, one that still burns.) For the first of what would be too many times, injuries caused by playing the game without regard for his personal health robbed him of greatness.

The next summer, I begged my parents to take me to Cincinnati for baseball card day. I desperately wanted the first Sabo card ever printed (pictured below), but it was Davis that provided me the perfect memory. He hit the first home run I ever saw in person, a walk-off two-run shot to beat the Braves 2-1. (Technically, Jeff Tredway hit the first homerun I saw, an inside-the-park job earlier that game, but that hardly counts.)

Injuries took their toll on Davis. Sabo moved on from the Reds, and ultimately it was Barry Larkin who defined my fandom as I spent the 90s hanging on his every at bat. Years later, I was there at Cooperstown for his induction. One of my oldest friends, a Cubs fan of all things, came with me, and as we walked the village, we saw Eric Davis. I went up to him and asked if I could shake his hand to say thank you for giving a child a perfect day at the park so many years before. He was warm and gracious and friendly to us.

IMG_0183
Nate’s cache

To everyone who grew up a Reds fan in the 1980s, Davis was the great “what if?” In the end, he had a marvelous career and is much loved, if only for narrative re-writing homerun in the first inning of Game One of the 1990 World Series. It prompted one of the great headlines the next day: “Davis Stuns Goliath”.


It was fitting to meet him in Cooperstown, even if his body betrayed him ever getting there as an inductee. He suffered kidney damage diving for a ball in Game Four of that series and took years to fully recover.He sacrificed his health to win a World Championship, still the only one the Reds have won in my lifetime. Eric Davis made me a baseball fan.If that doesn’t deserve a handshake and a heartfelt thanks, then I don’t know what does.

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.

Invincible, Indiana by Nate Dunlevy
Invincible, Indiana
by Nate Dunlevy

ABOUT NATE DUNLEVY: Nate Dunlevy is the author of Invincible, Indiana a novel about basketball and small-town Indiana. His work can occasionally be found at ColtsAuthority.com and his books can be found at MadisonHousePublishing.com. He tweets @natedunlevy

Jimmy Piersall Loses It… Again

The summer of 1980 was brutal.

A heatwave swept across the southeast which resulted in nearly 150 deaths across seven states. From Alabama to Texas and up to Missouri, people looked for any relief they could find. The search became more difficult when temperatures caused roads to buckle in many states. Wichita Falls reached a record 113 degrees and Little Rock, Arkansas saw temps of more than 100 degrees as well, which was cited by the Poultry Foundation as the cause of death for nearly two and a half million chickens.

Perhaps the only thing hotter than the weather was the temper of White Sox broadcaster and part-time outfield coach Jimmy Piersall. Prior to the Sox July 2nd home game against the Angels, Piersall sought out Arlington Heights Daily Herald writer Bob Gallas to “discuss” his story about Piersall’s dismissal as the a part-time unpaid outfield coach.

As a player, Jimmy Piersall had a much-publicized mental breakdown that became the basis for the 1957 film, Fear Strikes Out, starring Anthony Perkins.  A two-time All-Star selection, Piersall’s mercurial behavior made him tough to deal with for both teammates and management.

Tony La Russa and the Sox felt it was a conflict of interest for Piersall to coach players and then go to the booth and criticize their play, so after polling the players he informed Piersall of the decision.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Sox Owner Bill Veeck had been trying to get rid of Piersall as a broadcaster because he felt he was too critical of the players. Piersall responded that he could say whatever he wanted, including taking shots at Veeck’s wife, Mary Frances, on a local radio show, calling her “a colossal bore” and suggesting she should stay in the kitchen.

Piersall was upset about losing his coaching position but when Gallas’ article made it public knowledge, Piersall confronted him in the clubhouse and the two exchanged words. Piersall backed away as if to leave, then spun and started choking Gallas.

“Jimmy jumped him; I saw it because it was right in front of the trainer’s room,” said Sox trainer Herm Schneider. “Gallas started turning blue in the face. Ross (Baumgarten)… and a security guard finally pulled Piersall off. Gallas certainly didn’t swing first. He was taken completely by surprise.”

Jimmy Piersall’s troubles didn’t end there. Once Veeck was informed of the incident, he sent his son, Mike to the broadcast booth to confront Piersall.

“When I walked in, I gave him a dedicated introductory statement as to my intentions,” said the younger Veeck. “I didn’t want it to look like Cowens’ sneak attack on Farmer. I said I wanted him to look at someone his own size.”

No sooner did Mike Veeck enter the booth and “announce his intentions” were he and Piersall involved in a scuffle that took Piersall’s broadcast partner Rich King and two writers to break up. In addition to potential embarrassment to his father’s baseball team, Mike Veeck’s intensity was most certainly ratcheted up by Piersall’s comments about his mother.

Piersall left the stadium and spent the night in a local hospital with what Sox officials termed, “exhaustion.”

The first half of the season was not kind to Daily Herald baseball writers. In spring training, Dave Kingman dumped a bucket of ice water on Daily Herald writer Don Friske. Kingman called the incident “a joke,” but Friske didn’t take it as such.

Ross Baumgarten

About the only person not affected by the pregame fracas was Baumgarten. After breaking up a fight in the clubhouse, he then threw a one-hit complete game shutout. The only hit Bumgarten surrendered was a seventh inning single off the bat of Rod Carew, who was given a reprieve after left fielder Wayne Nordhagen dropped his foul pop fly.

“It hit me in a bad spot,” said Nordhagen. “Right in the hand – U.S. Steel.”

The outing proved to be a highlight in an otherwise dismal season for Baumgarten, who finished the year 2-12. It wasn’t a good year for Veeck and the White Sox, but there was often a lot of excitement on the South Side.