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.
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.
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.”
By 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.
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.
Another 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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Dan Epstein and Doug Wilson literally wrote the book(s) on Mark Fidrych.
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
But 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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
It took the Milwaukee Brewers all of 11 innings to assert themselves as one of the top offensive teams of the early 1980s. After beating the Boston Red Sox 9-5 on Opening Day of the 1980 season, they treated their fans to an offensive explosion in the second game of the new decade.
When Mike Torrez took the mound in the bottom of the 2nd inning on April 12th he was trailing 2-0 and he had only himself to blame. His two first-inning errors were key in Milwaukee grabbing an early lead, but what happened next was the stuff of nightmares.
The Carnage Begins
Robin Yount led off the inning with a single and then stole 2nd. Catcher Buck Martinez walked and Paul Molitor laid down a bunt single down the third base line. The fact that there were no outs in the 2nd inning and Molitor had already reached base twice in the game was a sure sign it wasn’t going to be Torrez’s day.
Cecil Cooper stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and unloaded on a Torrez offering. His grand slam gave the Brewers a 6-0 lead and ended Torrez’s afternoon.
Then it got worse.
Chuck Rainey relieved Torrez and walked Larry Hisle. Ben Oglivie doubled and Gorman Thomas struck out. Milwaukee had two on with one out and Sixto Lezcano at the plate, whose sac fly in the 1st inning gave the Brewers their second run. Boston manager Don Zimmer decided to walk the left-handed-hitting Lezcano to set up a righty/righty matchup with Don Money with the bases loaded. A ground ball would get the Red Sox out of the inning with minimal damage.
But instead, Money hit the 2nd grand slam of the inning and the Brewers had a 10-0 lead. They also weren’t finished. Four pitches later, Yount homered off Rainey to make it a nine-run inning.
“My first granny and my first back-to-back jobs in the majors,” Rainey told the Boston Globe after the game. “I’d rather it be in a 6-0 cause than a close game, but I still don’t like it.”
The Carnage Continues
Milwaukee scored two more in the 5th inning off Rainey and an early-season blowout seemed like a good time for the big league debut of Boston’s top pitching prospect Bruce Hurst. The Brewers proved to be rude hosts once again. Yount walked to lead off the inning and Martinez flew out to center. Then Molitor singled to bring up Cooper with two on. In what would be his finest season, Cooper came through again, doubling to right field to score Molitor. Two batters later, Oglivie singled to score Molitor and Cooper before Gorman Thomas capped the afternoon with a two-run homer to make the score 18-1.
Zimmer called the loss an embarrassment but Fred Lynn took it in stride. “We’ve got to shore up our defensive secondary,” joked Lynn. “They’re bombing us.”
After two games, the Brewers were on pace to hit 729 homers and 243 grand slams while the Red Sox were on pace to allow 2,187 runs. The numbers didn’t quite hold up, but Milwaukee did lead all of baseball with 203 longballs in 1980.
“I’d always said that I’d never seen a team as awesome offensively as the one we had in Boston in ’77,” said Boston pitcher Reggie Cleveland. “But I’ve changed my mind. This team is.”
Not only was Tony Gwynn one of the top hitters in baseball history, he was also a pretty good hoopster. Tony actually skipped the baseball season in his freshman year at San Diego State to focus on basketball. During his time at SDSU he set the single game, single season and career assist record and in addition to being drafted by the Padres, he was also selected by the San Diego Clippers in the NBA Draft.
This is a pretty easy selection. Danny didn’t hit much in his time with the Toronto Blue Jays, but he did OK once he switched to basketball full-time. He finished his career with nearly 12,000 points, more than 4,000 assists and two NBA championships. He also authored one of the great moments in NCAA tournament history.
Reed’s path was the opposite of Danny Ainge. After a standout career at Notre Dame, the 6-5 Reed was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1965 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons. He spent two season in the NBA, scoring just shy of 1,000 points. Before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, Reed was playing two professional sports at the same time. After finishing the 1966 NBA season, he pitched in two games for the Braves and went back to the Pistons.
Winfield was just a phenomenal athlete. In addition to being a Hall of Fame baseball player, he was also a stud basketball player at the University of Minnesota. Over the course of his career, he averaged 10.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and was drafted by both the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Utah Stars of the ABA. Had he chosen the ABA, he could have teamed up with Moses Malone to form a pretty solid frontcourt.
Stoddard won a state title in high school, where he teamed up with future NBA player Junior Bridgeman, and then went to N.C. State where he teamed up with David Thompson and won an NCAA title by knocking off Bill Walton and UCLA. Not too shabby.
OK, Frank Howard was a coach in 1980, but he was also an incredibly talented basketball player. Howard went to Ohio State where he was an All-American in baseball and basketball in the 1950s. In a holiday tournament at Madison Square Garden, Howard once grabbed 32 rebounds in a single game. In addition to being drafted to play major league baseball, he also was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, which means he and Wilt Chamberlain could have potentially been twin towers in the NBA, predating Sampson and Olajuwon by decades.
“They know when to cheer and they know when to boo. And then know when to drink beer. They do it all the time.” –Gorman Thomas on Brewers fans
There are players who will always be associated with certain franchises. Gorman Thomas is one of those players. He spent time in Cleveland and Seattle, but Gorman will always be a Brewer.
One thing I didn’t realize until recently is that, for a brief time, Gorman Thomas was a Texas Ranger.
Thomas was a first-round draft pick in 1969 but he hadn’t been able to put it together at the major league level. He struggled in his first four seasons, hitting just .193 in 668 at-bats. By 1977, there were indications that Thomas may be the classic AAAA player. Too good for AAA but not good enough for the big leagues. He spent the entire season at AAA Spokane, where he hit .322 with 36 homers and 114 RBI. No one doubted his power but there were questions about his batting average and his propensity to strike out a lot. Then something strange happend.
On August 20th of 1977, the Texas Rangers were in a pennant race and needed to clear a roster spot to call up pitcher Len Barker, so they swapped Ed Kirkpatrick to the Brewers for a player to be named later.
Kirkpatrick served the Brewers well, batting .273 in 29 games but the timing of the move was odd. Why would the Brewers acquire a 16-year vet with a .188 batting average when they were 21 games off the pace? It wasn’t the kind of deal a team makes with an eye on the future.
Player to Be Named Later
“The Milwaukee Brewers officially gave up on Gorman Thomas Tuesday when they sent the once highly promising outfielder to the Texas Rangers.”
-Green Bay Press-Gazette · Oct 26, 1977
If trading for Ed Kirkpatrick in August en route to a 95 loss season didn’t make much sense, then sending a prospect, albeit struggling one, to complete the deal made even less sense.
Adding to the intrigue was that Thomas didn’t ever hear from the Rangers until December. “You always hear these stories about being traded. It was my first time and I didn’t hear a thing,” he said. “No ‘Good-Bye, it’s been nice knowing you’ or ‘Hello, it’s nice to see you.’ I felt like a batboy being switched around.”
Be that as it may, the Rangers had to be excited to get a young player with so much potential. Thomas was poised to put up big numbers in the Texas outfield for years to come. The Rangers were so happy to have Thomas that they went out and traded for Al Oliver, Bobby Bonds and Richie Zisk. By the beginning of February, the Rangers roster boasted eleven outfielders. Something was fishy.
No Place Like Home
As it turned out, Thomas’ stay in Texas was a short one. In February of 1978, the Rangers sold him back to Milwaukee. Immediately there were rumors of a side deal which were denied by both sides.
“I heard from (Texas general manager) Dan O’Brien that the Rangers were having trouble signing him and that their outfield situation had changed, ” said Brewers GM Harry Dalton, who wasn’t with Milwaukee when the original deal was made. “I don’t know anything about any arrangements when Thomas went to Texas.”
Back in Milwaukee, Gorman Thomas was a changed man. A Sporting News feature in spring training of 1978 noted that he was a lot more serious. He got married to a Milwaukee girl and had settled down.
Maybe it was the trade, maybe it was getting married or maybe it was maturing. Whatever it was, Thomas finally broke through. After hitting .193 with 22 homers in his first four seasons with the Brewers, Thomas hit .246 with 32 homers in 1978. He followed that up by becoming one of the top power hitters in the American League.
Brett was absolutely ridiculous in 1980 and this post tells the story of his remarkable season. If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to have a summer like George Brett did in 1980.
The most important day of the 1980 baseball season may very well have taken place in 1971. One decision would have put Mike Schmidt in a Royals uniform and given the 1980 World Series a completely different look.
Note: The following is a guest post from Matt Sammon.
I had always liked sports as a kid, although I was far from athletic, or a kid who needed to play sports 365 days a year. While I played tee ball as a youngster, and later soccer and bowling, I was perfectly content with playing with my Legos and MASK toys indoors. But around the age of 10, my interest in sports went from casual to incredibly in-depth. I suddenly had an appreciation for the rules, the history, the players, the uniforms, you name it. I absorbed everything like a sponge. And when it came to baseball, I quickly adopted the Toronto Blue Jays as my favorite team.
This was in the late 1980s, and I was living in Tampa, Florida. I had no good reason to like the Jays, especially since they were about 2,000 miles away, but like most 10-year-olds it probably had something to do with the cool 70s unis they were still wearing in the late 80s. And while most kids gravitated towards the home run hitters as their favorite players, I gravitated towards pitcher Dave Stieb, who to this day I think is one of the most underrated pitchers of the era. In a time where fastballers like Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden stole the spotlight, Stieb’s backdoor slider frustrated more than his fair share of batters.
A Magical Day
In 1991, I was able to go to a spring training game for the first time. I had been to many minor league games at Tampa’s Al Lopez Field before, but this was the first time I would see real live Major League players in front of my eyes. You have to remember before the internet, the only ways you saw your favorite team or players was on TV or in a stack of baseball cards. A family friend of ours drove me and my 11-year-old brother to Dunedin Stadium, where we would spend $6 (!) a ticket to watch the Jays play the Chicago White Sox.
Back then, the home clubhouse and dugout were on the 3rd base side, and in between the two on the end of the grandstand was a little “fan dugout” where fans could stand behind a chain linked fence to try to get autographs of players as they walked out to the field. Naturally, as a 13-year-old baseball nerd, I had my small binder of baseball cards ready to go. One of the first players to come out was the golden-mulleted Kelly Gruber, and while I was getting his autograph, a Blue Jays employee asked me how old I was. “Thirteen”, I said. The man then asked me, “Do you want to be a batboy today?”
I was stunned… this was totally unexpected. Of all the kids in that little space, why should I be the one that gets selected for such an honor? I replied, “Yeah… let me check…” My goodness, what a doofus. “Let me check?!?” Clearly I was in a state of shock. I wasn’t going to “check” with my adult guardian, I was going to tell him I was just selected to be a batboy and can you please hold on to my cards. He was as stunned as I was, and I dropped off my card book before making a beeline to the clubhouse.
Off to Work
So I’m in the clubhouse, and they give me a real spring training uniform. They give me a bag of baseballs, and tell me to sit down next to the White Sox dugout. I had no idea what to do. I had seen batboys before, and I had seen them retrieve a dropped bat, but I had never really watched what they did. So the staff informed me I had two jobs: 1) Retrieve and store the bats the players left at home plate, and 2) when the home plate umpire looked at me and put up some fingers, I was to give him that many new baseballs from the bag. Sounds simple, so of course, I screwed it up royally.
I quickly discovered the players not only didn’t have their names on the bat knobs, they didn’t even have their uniform numbers. It was the visitors’ dugout, so there were no name or even number plates on the bat rack. I asked White Sox manager Jeff Torborg what I should do with the used bats. “Ehhhhh… just lean up over there and the players will figure it out.” Suffice to say there was a pretty good stack of lumber rolling around one end of the dugout by the end of the game. But hey, at least I had a great seat to watch my favorite team and player that day. Stieb was starting, and in the first inning he caught Carlton Fisk looking with one of those backdoor sliders. The crowd goes wild, and I walk up to a retreating Fisk, waiting to take his bat and put it into the accumulating pile of unorganized bats. Fisk kept walking with his head down, gripping the bat. “Excuse me… Mr. Fisk… your bat…,” I weakly suggested. He wasn’t going to surrender, he kept walking. It was clear I was going to have to remove it from his cold dead hand.
Speaking of dead, Cory Snyder nearly decapitated me in the on-deck circle later in the game, as I heard the bat whiz next to my head while I was serving up new baseballs to the umpire. I could see the ump wince, and he told me I needed to be careful. In my dopey fan delirium, I said, “OK!”
Oldest Trick in the Book
A couple of members of the Jays’ staff saw the newbie barely getting by, and decided to have some fun. In the 5th or 6th inning, one of the staffers sat behind me and asked me to go to the Blue Jay dugout and “get the keys to the batter’s box”. Not even thinking, I went up and did it. The Jays’ players, and even manager Cito Gaston, played along. “Oh, I think the guys in the bullpen have the keys.” So of course, I jogged out to the bullpen in left field, all the while having White Sox players dig through a pile of bats and the home plate umpire getting his own baseballs. The bullpen played their part. “Are you sure they don’t have the keys in the dugout? Why don’t you go check again?” So I start heading back to the Jays dugout. “Nah, we don’t have them, we’ll look for them later.” So I trot back to my stool next to the dugout. Mission accomplished, the staffers say I did my best. Again, in my awestruck delirium, it never dawned on me that the batter’s box was the outlined box next to home plate. I totally crossed it up with the batter’s cage, which may or may not have needed keys but that was beyond the point.
I don’t remember much else of the game, other than Stieb got the win as the Jays prevailed, probably because the Sox batters were using the wrong bats. Afterwards, I went back towards the clubhouse, where my guardian gave me my card book back. I changed back into my regular clothes and was “paid” with a fitted Blue Jays ball cap (which doesn’t fit, but I still have) and a cracked game-used Joe Carter bat (which I still have), thinking I was batboy of the year. Nobody showed me the way out of the clubhouse, back to the public area of the stadium. So as I’m wandering around trying to find a door, sitting in his locker stall still basking in the win was Stieb. My favorite player, right there, a chance for me to meet him face-to-face.
He was talking to his teammates, loudly, and cursing up a storm. Let me tell you, it’s a bit of a shock when you’re 13 and your favorite athlete is cursing up a storm, even if they are words you’ve heard and said before. Stieb saw me, said “Hey what’s up?”, and I introduced myself to him. I said I was a big fan, and I was happy he finally got that no-hitter the season before. Oh, and by the way, can you sign a couple of cards for me? Stieb obliged, signing a 1988 Topps and 1991 Donruss Diamond Kings (pack fresh!) on the spot. I thanked him, finally found an exit to the concourse, and went home.
That was over 25 years ago, yet I still remember it all like it was yesterday. Stieb’s last good season was 1991, as he developed arm problems in 1992. When the Jays finally won the World Series that year, I noticed Stieb was one of the first guys out of the dugout at Fulton County Stadium heading towards the celebration pile in the infield. The former outfielder-turned-pitcher finally could celebrate after so many close calls in his career. Several days later, he was released. The next season, he was with the White Sox, probably telling his teammates about that one spring training game he won because the batboy was looking for keys to the batter’s box.
Stieb won’t get into the Hall of Fame, and it still baffles me the Jays haven’t retired his number 37. For many years, he was often the only half-decent pitcher on the team. But even though he still doesn’t get the honor he deserves, I’ll always remember the day I got to see him pitch a gem of a game and meet him in person. And it’s a constant reminder to me that especially the little things like a hat, a bat, or an autograph can make a kid’s day… and life for many years.
ABOUT MATT SAMMON: Matt Sammon is the Director of Broadcasting for the Tampa Bay Lightning and currently roots for the Tampa Bay Rays. He can be found on Twitter @SammonSez.