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.
Note: This is a guest post from Christopher Zantow
I grew up in Wisconsin as a Milwaukee Brewers fan, but when I first started following the team in the mid-70’s, they were nothing to write home about. I probably started paying attention when Hank Aaron decided to do his two-year farewell tour with the Brewers. Beyond Hammerin’ Hank, they had a young kid named Robin Yount that didn’t quite look like he was ready for prime time just yet.
But everything changed in late 1977 when Bud Selig stepped in and cleaned house. Newspapers called his actions “The Saturday Night Massacre.” It sounded like a horror flick – but after all, he did axe the general manager, manager, and the entire coaching staff. Selig hired Harry Dalton as GM, and in turn, Dalton hired George Bamberger to manage the club. Suddenly fans had hope for something resembling a .500 team in 1978. We were all about to be pleasantly surprised at what Dalton and Bamberger could do with our Brew Crew.
George Bamberger was different than previous managers and had higher aspirations than finishing 81-81. Guys who came before him like Alex Grammas and Del Crandall also had long baseball careers, but Bambi was the pitching coach of the Baltimore Orioles for 10 years. Yup – for the team that won a hatful of pennants and the 1970 World Series. He turned the Milwaukee pitching staff around and it helped that his hitters started slugging homers and driving in runs like crazy.
You can well imagine the state of Wisconsin went nuts for “Bambi’s Bombers” after years of baseball futility. My friends and I dug the team and got a huge kick out of watching Bamberger run things with that huge smile. He fit in with Brewers fans too – especially since he was known to stop off at post-game tailgate parties in the County Stadium parking lot.
Spring Heart Attack
After proving the Crew could contend in the tough AL East with 95 wins in 1979, we all got ready for another great year in 1980. Bamberger had a heart attack in spring training that March and wasn’t going to be around for the season opener. He had a bypass surgery, was going to be hospitalized for a while, and it was expected he wouldn’t make it back into the dugout until June.
Local newspapers published where fans could write and wish Bamberger well. I kept a Brewers scrapbook in 1979-80 that somehow survives to this day, and I was able to locate that article plus some updates as Bamberger recovered. I remember asking my parents if I should write Bamberger, even though I figured he’d never see my letter. But they said that I should write and help cheer Bambi up (although they probably thought he’d never see the letter either).
I have no idea exactly what I wrote, but I’m sure I wished Bambi well in recovering and coming back to the team. I know for sure I didn’t ask for an autograph, so I was absolutely shocked a few weeks later when a photo arrived in the mail, complete with a message and signature.
Bamberger thanked the “thousands of fans that wrote me” after his hospital release. He also joked that “I’ve been cleared to drink all the beer I want.” He went on to say that it wasn’t so much the beer itself that was a problem – it was the calories in the beer!
The eleven-year-old me learned that George Bamberger truly was a class act, and I’ve treasured that photo and memory ever since.
ABOUT CHRISTOPHER ZANTOW: By day, Chris is a writer of training and resource materials. By night he’s finishing edits on a historical book about the Milwaukee Brewers. The book covers the backstory of eventsthat led to the Braves moving to Atlanta, and Bud Selig’s fight to bring baseball back to Milwaukee through numerous setbacks and disappointments and the early years of the new Milwaukee franchise. He blogs about the Brewers and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
I’ve been a collector for my entire life. You never know when you may need a 37-year-old pocket schedule and I don’t want to be unprepared. So I packed up my sons and headed to Chicago for the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular.
One of the big draws of shows like this is the autograph pavilion. There are always lots of big names with big price tags attached.
Since I spent some time working in baseball I’m pretty spoiled and I don’t like to pay for autographs but there were obviously plenty of people who were there specifically for that. Some of the bigger names on hand included Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Cal Ripken, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams. There were also plenty of members of the 2016 Cubs.
But I had two things on my mind: Soak in as much atmosphere and cool stuff as I possibly could and work on my 1972 Topps set.
Baseball cards form the bulk of my collection and my latest project is completing the 1972 set. It’s tough and expensive but I’m in no hurry. Had I been so inclined, I could have easily finished the set. There were multiple dealers there with binders of cards from 1972. The only thing stopping me was the expense of purchasing the cards and the expense of the subsequent divorce when I returned home.
But my favorite part of shows like this is all the oddball stuff you can find.
It was an outstanding afternoon with my kids and a few of their buddies. My youngest son bought his first T206 card and my older son picked up some relic cards. I got a bit closer to finishing my ’72 set and picked up a signed Bill Madlock photo.
As we were preparing to leave, I spotted one last item, a signed Dickie Noles warm up jacket.
Noles holds a special place in my heart as it was his pitch up and in to George Brett in the 1980 World Series that signaled the beginning of the end of the Royals in the series. Kansas City fans probably have different feelings on Mr. Noles.
If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend attending a similar show near you. You never know what you’ll find.
Note: This is a guest post from Christopher Zantow
I grew up watching Sixto Lezcano patrol the outfield for the Milwaukee Brewers in the late 1970’s. My Dad started to take me to games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1978 and liked to sit along the first base line, so we often got to see Sixto make a great defensive play close up. He quickly became my favorite player on a team of stars. I really wanted to meet him and get an autograph, but as a child it never happened, despite me trying to get into the front row of the box seats where he’d occasionally sign stuff before games.
My Dad took me to the concession stand at one of the games we attended and told me to pick out a souvenir. I really wanted a Sixto Lezcano poster, and that notion totally shocked Dad. I think he assumed I’d get either the Paul Molitor or Robin Yount poster. Sixto’s poster did have the pre-signed stamped autograph at the bottom, so it did look reasonably legit. He graced my wall for a few years until I got “too cool” for that sort of thing and rock band posters went up in his place.
Most kids try to imitate their baseball heroes at bat. I didn’t try to imitate Sixto at the plate. Instead, I did my best to play like him in the outfield. It was hard to hold a candle to his energy though. The one thing I could imitate was Brewers PA announcer Bob Betts when Sixto came to bat: “Right fielder Sixxxxxxtooooooo Lezcaaaannnnoooooooo!!!”
Hitting grand slams on Opening Day is the stuff of legend, and Sixto did it in 1978 and 1980 to set a major league record. He had already hit a homer earlier in the 1980 opener before he delivered the walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning. The image of him on TV circling the bases with his arms outstretched over his head is etched forever in my mind. I often think of that moment when I hear today’s players brag about how hard they play the game. It just seemed like a natural thing for Sixto Lezcano, and not something he talked about too much. If you don’t remember how good he could be, go back and look at his 1979 stats when he finished in the top ten of a lot of offensive categories and won a gold glove. Hard to argue with 28 homers, 101 RBI’s, and a .321 batting average.
Naturally I was bummed when Sixto was traded after the 1980 season, but couldn’t complain when the package brought Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich, and Rollie Fingers to Milwaukee. Sixto became one of the few ex-Brewers that I followed and continued to root for throughout his career. Unfortunately, the injuries that started up in Milwaukee before he was traded continued to plague him for the remainder of his time in the big leagues. After his playing days ended I lost track of him (it was the pre-internet age) but always figured he’d make a good coach. Later on when I had internet and could look him up, I found out he had in fact gone into coaching. But I never gave meeting him a second thought – at least until 2007 when he came to Miller Park for “Cerveceros Day.”
The Brewers had started the special Hispanic heritage day a couple seasons earlier, and usually brought a former player to Miller Park that could be part of the celebration. The team wears their alternate Cerveceros (Brewers in Spanish) jerseys for the game and there is often a promotional giveaway. It just so happened to be a Chorizo (racing sausage) Bobblehead giveaway to tie in with the heritage day. By chance I had tickets for the game that I purchased well before the promotional schedule came out. I actually didn’t find out Sixto was the guest of honor until the day of the game, so I had no time to get his poster out of storage (yup – still have it to this day!) and try to get a “real” signature on it.
I made sure to be there in time to see Sixto participate in the pre-game ceremony on the field. He was available in the lower level concourse after that for free autographs through the end of the first inning. I saw the line earlier when I headed to my seat and decided to wait it out and watch the first half inning, hoping the line would go down.
By the time I got out to the autograph table the line had really gone down – and most of the inning had been played. Some of the security people were trying to move things along and were prompting Sixto to wrap things up. I had a ball for him to sign but instead wound up with a player card, which was fine and still made my day. I at least got to tell Sixto thanks for a lot of great memories and snapped a photo of him before one of the security people blocked me out. The person behind me got the last autograph. Security led Sixto away and headed upstairs. I assumed he was going to spend the second inning on the air with Bob Uecker – which is pretty much a given anytime an old school player returns to Milwaukee.
Despite the themed day, the Chorizo did not win the sausage race. The Brew Crew won the game by a 4-3 score and had a 51-40 record after the victory. The pennant race was heating up and the Brewers found themselves in first place at that point of the season. All of that was secondary to me as I finally got to meet the first baseball player I really looked up to – Sixto Lezcano.
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ABOUT CHRISTOPHER ZANTOW: By day, Chris is a writer of training and resource materials. By night he’s finishing edits on a historical book about the Milwaukee Brewers. The book covers the backstory of eventsthat led to the Braves moving to Atlanta, and Bud Selig’s fight to bring baseball back to Milwaukee through numerous setbacks and disappointments and the early years of the new Milwaukee franchise. He blogs about the Brewers and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.