(Mark) Clear as Mud

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

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

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

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

A Clear Problem

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

Like a Phoenix

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

Eleven Seasons

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

 

 

Dream Season: George Brett

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. Next up is George Brett.

March/April 1983

There are quick starts and then there’s the jump George Brett got on the 1983 season. In the first week of the year, Brett hit .440 with a homer and 4 RBI. Then he got hot. He finished April with a .460 batting average, 5 homers and 20 RBI.

May 1979

Compared to April of ’83, Brett’s 1979 May was somewhat pedestrian. For a mortal, though, it was still a helluva month. How about sixteen multi-hit games, including a 5-7 effort against the Orioles on May 28th? Imagine posting 16 multi-hit games in a month and it not being the best month of your career. In May of 1979, Brett hit .388 with 5 homers and 20 RBI.

June 1982

In June of 1982, George Brett played in 27 games. He had at least one hit in 23 of them. He entered the month hitting .278 and finished the month hitting .317. It’s not easy to raise your batting average 39 points in mid-season but for George Brett, it’s no big deal. For the month, he hit .379 with 5 homers and 16 RBI.

July 1985

One of the things that are tougher than raising your batting average by 39 points in June is raising it by 31 points in July. That’s exactly what George Brett did in July of 1985, thanks in part to six different 3-hit games. Brett opened the month by going 8-12 with 2 homers and 8 RBI in a three-game series against Oakland and finished the month going 4-9 against Detroit. The final numbers? A cool .432 batting average with 7 homers and 24 RBI.

August 1980

Brett had his best season in 1980, batting .390 and winning the MVP. On August 17th at home against the Blue Jays, he wrapped up a three-game series by going 4-4 to raise his batting average to .401. He would flirt with the .400 mark for a month before fading at the end of the year but for that month he was on fire, hitting .430 with 6 homers and 30 RBI.

September/October 1981

It’s important to have a strong finish to your season and Brett certainly did that in 1981. Fourteen multi-hit games, five three-hit games and a .362 batting average with 3 homers and 20 RBI is a nice way to wrap up your year.

The Totals:

Add it all up and the totals for George Brett’s dream season look pretty good. He ends up hitting .404 with 31 homers and 130 RBI.

One of the most amazing things I saw when putting this together was the months that DIDN’T make the cut. Over the course of his career, George Brett had 17 different months in which he hit .350 or better.

I also intentionally used only one month from 1980 just to mix things up a bit. If you use his June, July & August numbers from 1980, Brett’s dream season batting average jumps to .423.

Gorman Texas Ranger

“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.”

Gorman Thomas
Once a Brewer, always a Brewer

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.

 

 

The Best of 2016 on ’80s Baseball

I started this blog 364 days ago. Since then, I’ve published 64 posts, including guest posts, for which I’m very grateful.

It’s been a great year and I thought I’d take a look back at the Top 5 posts of 2016 based (unscientifically) on page views.

Number 5: George Brett’s amazing 1980

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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.

 

Number 4: Schmidt and Brett in 1971

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

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.

 

 

Number 3: Missed it by That Much: The Mike Parrott Story

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Mike Parrott was the opening day starter for the Seattle Mariners in 1980. Unfortunately for him, 1980 was just a horrible year, in more ways than one.

 

 

Number 2: You Forgot How Good J.R. Richard Was

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James Rodney Richard was absolutely dominant and 1980 was shaping up to be the best year of his career. Then tragedy struck and he never pitched again.

 

 

 

Number 1: Missed it By That Much: The Drungo Hazewood Story

<a rel=Drungo Hazewood had all the talent in the world. He was a can’t miss prospect for the Baltimore Orioles. Then he missed.

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much for reading and I look forward to 2017!

-J.D.

The Remarkable Rookie Year of Mitchell Page

The Pirates bus sat waiting for a trip to Lakeland when someone told Mitchell Page to report to the team office.

“I knew I was being traded,” he said of the 1977 Spring Training deal. “I just prayed it wasn’t to a contender. I wanted to go somewhere that would offer me an opportunity to play.”

The Oakland A’s of 1977 were a perfect destination. They definitely weren’t contenders which meant Page would get a chance to play every day. The Pirates needed a third baseman and received Phil Garner as the centerpiece of the deal, but they paid a steep price. Along with Page, the Bucs shipped Tony Armas, Rick Langford, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti and Doc Medich to Oakland.

“Garner Prize Catch in 9-Player Buc Deal” read the headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the next day. But the A’s were happy with their haul, too and Page began paying off immediately.

Hot Start

Mitchell Page wasted no time showing the Pirates he was ready for the major leagues, going 2-3 in his debut against the Twins.  A’s owner Charlie Finley was so impressed he gave his rookie outfielder a $10,000 raise after Page hit a cool .474 in his first five games.

The next day, as Langford prepared to make his first big league start, Page pulled him aside.

“Rick,” he said. “I’m gonna hit one out for you today. You can count on it.” He did more than that. Page went 3-5 with two homers and six RBI to help Langford get his first win.

“I think I’ve developed to the point where the other team can’t pitch me any one way for long,” Page told the media after the game. “Maybe a Nolan Ryan can throw just one kind of pitch at me but there aren’t many of those pitchers around.”

tsn-coverPage’s hot start landed him on the front of The Sporting News and earned him the respect of the American League.

“They told me I could get him out with an off speed pitch,” said Catfish Hunter after Mitchell homered off him at Yankee Stadium. “Then he showed me that was a lie.”

Hand Injury

Page had to cool off eventually, but a recurring hand injury hastened his fall. For years, Page battled a callus on his palm that made gripping a bat extremely painful. A’s trainers would trim the callus only to have it grow back again.  Surgery was the only solution to the problem but it would also mean missing significant time. That wasn’t an option for 25 year-old in his first big league season.

“I just made up my mind, (bleep) the pain,” he told reporters in May. “An operation… would put me out four or five weeks. So I play with pain and take a day off when it gets too much for me.”

After hitting .366 in April, Page hit just .256 in May and his average dipped again in June. The injury affected him at the plate to be sure, but there was another area where it didn’t seem to matter.

Steals Record

page_autoBy the end of June Page was a perfect 15-15 in stolen base attempts. Don Baylor‘s American League record of 25 was in reach and Page intended to get it. To do so, he enlisted the help of Matt Alexander, who had taken over for Herb Washington as Oakland’s designated pinch-runner. In two seasons with the A’s, Alexander stole 37 bases and had just two hits.

“Matt helped me out a lot,” said Page. “When I haven’t seen a pitcher before, I go straight to him.”

That strategy paid off when the two studied Angels pitcher Wayne Simpson in late July. Page was one steal away from tying the record and looked to his base stealing guru for advice.

“We decided to go on his back leg,” Page said of Simpson. “He takes a little dip. He takes the pressure off it when he goes to the plate.”

That nuance was all Page needed to tie Baylor, despite the fact that the Angels pitched out on the play. In his haste to get off the throw, California catcher Terry Humphrey  dropped the ball and Page was safe at 2nd.

“It seems to me a couple of times I’ve thrown strikes down there to 2nd base against him,” lamented Humphrey. “But he’s always safe.”

Two weeks later the record was all his when he stole 2nd against Mike Flanagan in Baltimore. The streak ended on August 15th when Rick Waits caught him leaning and he was out trying to advance to 2nd.

Check the Video

At about the time Page’s stolen base streak came to an end, his batting average began to climb.

During the season Page befriended a  man named Robert Ricardo who owned a restaurant. Ricardo often recorded sporting events to play in the background at his business. Video analysis was in its infancy in 1977, especially in Oakland as Finley wasn’t fond of spending extra money. But by comparing his stance to Rod Carew‘s, Page discovered a way to alter his stance to take some pressure off his injured hand.

The change paid off. Over a twelve game span, Page hit .487 with 7 homers. The hot streak raised his average by nearly 20 points and brought him back in the hunt for top rookie honors.

Rookie of the Year

As the season wound down, and the A’s fell out of the race the only suspense was whether Page could win Rookie of the Year honors. It was something he took seriously, perhaps too seriously at times.

After a reporter told him he didn’t have the home run numbers to win the award, Page hit three in two days. “That was for you,” he told the writer. “I didn’t like you saying that.”

He finished his rookie season with a .307 average, 21 homers, 75 RBI and 42 stolen bases. Those numbers were enough to earn him the respect of his peers, who named him The Sporting News Rookie of the Year. In the player vote, Page received 106 votes to Eddie Murray‘s 43.

“I didn’t think I’d win by that big a margin,” he said. “But that vote’s got to tell you something. They saw I had a complete game… and that I could beat them with a stolen base, a hit or the longball.”

Unfortunately for Page, Murray earned ROY honors from the baseball writers, despite playing only 42 games in the field. Be it east-coast bias or the fact the Baltimore won 36 more games than Oakland, the results were disappointing.

Take a look and the numbers and decide for yourself:

Player WAR Hits HR RBI Avg. SB
Murray 3.2 173 27 88 .283 0
Page 6.0 154 21 75 .307 42

 

Missed it By That Much – The Mike Parrott story

Every baseball player has bad years. Both Cy Young and Walter Johnson posted 20-loss seasons. Mike Schmidt hit .196 in his first full year. But few players had a year as miserable as Mike Parrott‘s 1980.

Mike Parrott was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Orioles in 1973. He worked his way up to AAA two years later and won 15 games with the Rochester Red Wings in 1977.

“The guy is a major league pitcher,” said his AAA manager Ken Boyer, who spent 15 seasons in the big leagues as a player.

“Poise, character, relaxation, concentration, movement on the ball, velocity – when you break him down in all those areas he’s been outstanding.”

Those traits made him the 1977 International League Most Valuable Pitcher and earned him a September call up at the end of the year. But at the Winter Meetings, the Baltimore traded Parrott to Seattle. What looked like a career setback proved to be the break he needed and he became the ace of the Mariners pitching staff. By 1979, his 14 wins lead the team and as the 1980 season dawned Mike Parrott had his sights set on winning 20 games.

Nightmare Season

Mike Parrott Seattle Mariners
Parrot got the nod on Opening Day

Parrott was the Opening Day starter and despite giving up two home runs to John Mayberry, he picked up the win against the Toronto Blue Jays. But at the end of April his season took a turn for the worse.

On April 30th, Parrott was facing Roy Smalley in the bottom of the 5th inning in Minnesota. The Twins’ shortstop sent a hot shot back up the middle and Parrott was unable to defend himself. The ball hit him squarely in groin. He wasn’t wearing a cup. Parrott collapsed on the mound and was eventually taken off the field on a stretcher. Newspaper reports called the injury a “severe bruise.”

In Rochester, former teammate Ed Farmer advised Parrott that he should get used to wearing a cup because big league hitters are much better at hitting the ball up the middle than minor leaguers are. Parrott wore a cup once and pitched poorly.

“It wasn’t comfortable,” he told the Associated Press after the injury. “But I’m superstitious and I wanted to go back to the old way. Let’s just say I learned a lesson. A very good lesson.”

The injury kept Parrott out of action for a month. It would be tough for your season to get much worse after an incident like that, but for Parrott that’s exactly what happened.

He returned to the mound at the end of May to face the Brewers and didn’t last long. Milwaukee scored six runs on seven hits in just two innings and Parrott’s day was over. On top of that, Cecil Cooper hit a line drive up the middle that nearly hit him.

His next start came against the Cleveland Indians. Parrott allowed five runs in 4.1 innings but only two were earned. Unfortunately the unearned runs came as a result of his own throwing error. By the end of May Parrott’s record stood at 1-6.

Bad Pitching & Bad Luck

His June starts were maddening both for him and the Mariners. The Boston Red Sox knocked him out after just one inning on June 9th. On the 19th, he pitched well enough to win, but Bob Stanley shut out Seattle and Parrott was the losing pitcher. Six days later he gave up two first-inning runs against the Rangers, but then held them scoreless for four innings. Again the Mariners offense didn’t produce, and again Parrott got the loss. Five days after that, he was perfect through two innings but gave up six runs in the top of the third.

“It’s got me down,” he said. “In the first two innings I had better stuff than I had all year. Then six runs. It’s hard on me and it’s hard on the team. This is the worst stretch of my career.”

In two July starts he lasted just 3.2 innings, giving up seven earned runs on ten hits. By the end of the month he was seeking help from a hypnotist.

“I went to see… if he could change my thought train,” he told the L.A. Times. “The hypnotist told me to reach back for something positive. I told him I couldn’t, that it had been so long I just couldn’t think of anything positive.”

The Mariners were also at a loss as to what to do with their Opening Day starter and sent him back to AAA Spokane. The move seemed to work as he gave up just two runs in 22 innings of work in the Pacific Coast League.

The Beat Goes On

He returned in September, made three starts and lost them all, allowing 13 earned runs in 21.1 innings. A move to the bullpen netted him three saves in four appearances but there was more misery to come.

On the final day of the season, Parrott entered the Mariners game against the Rangers with a one run lead and a runner on second. He got Billy Sample to hit a ground ball to 3rd, but Jim Anderson made a throwing error which allowed Bump wills to score to tie the game. Three innings later, Johnny Grubb‘s walkoff double won it for Texas and Parrott’s season from hell was over.

#Mariners pitcher Mike Parrott went 1-16 in 1980 and that wasn't the worst of it. Click To Tweet

Mike Parrott was the Mariners ace heading into the 1980 season. He started on Opening Day and got the win. From then on he lost 16 straight decisions and got hit in the groin with a one hopper that caused him to miss a month. He finished the year with a 1-16 record and a robust 7.28 E.R.A. American League hitters batted .348 against him.

“I think I’ll know how to handle adversity in the future,” he joked after the season was over. “I had enough this year, didn’t I?”

 

 

Rick Langford: Iron Man

Billy Martin strode to the mound at Arlington Stadium to talk to his starter, Rick Langford.

“I think it’s time now,” he said.

It was September 17th, 1980 and the Oakland A’s were up two in the 9th inning with two outs. But Rusty Staub‘s 2-run homer in the inning was followed by a Bump Wills single and a Jim Sundberg walk. Langford was in a jam and Martin felt he didn’t have a choice.

“I went with him as long as I could,” Martin told the media after the game.

Reliever Bob Lacey got Buddy Bell to ground out and it was over; both the game and one of the most remarkable streaks in recent baseball memory. For the first time in four months, Rick Langford hadn’t finished a game he started.

An Odd Beginning

Langford was the Opening Day starter for Billy Martin and the A’s but it didn’t go well. Facing the Minnesota Twins, he surrendered five runs in just three and two-thirds innings and was one of five pitchers Martin used that day. He came out of the bullpen in back-to-back games later in the month but nearly three weeks would go by before he got another start. On April 28th, Langford got the ball and went the distance against the California Angels.

His next two starts were complete games against Detroit and Toronto, the latter of which featured a bench-clearing brawl after Langford hit the Blue Jays’ Al Woods in the back with a pitch. Two more starts followed in which he was pulled after seven and four and two-thirds innings respectively.

The Streak Begins

Rick Langford - Oakland A'sOn Friday, May 23rd, Langford faced Fergie Jenkins and the Texas Rangers at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Rangers won the game 3-1, but Langford went the distance. His next start came against the Kansas City Royals and again, Rick Langford went the distance.

In six June starts, Langford posted an 0-6 record with six complete games. Things turned around in July, when he posted a 6-0 record with, again, six complete games, including a 14-inning affair against the Indians on July 20th. Up 5-0 in the top of the 9th inning, Langford surrendered five runs, including a Toby Harrrah Grand Slam to tie it before the .196-hitting Dave McCay singled home Mitchell Page to end the game in the 14th inning. Had the game gone to the 15th, Langford would likely have gone back out.

Still Going Strong

August came and went. Langford made five starts and finished all five of them, going 4-1. The streak hit 19 on August 27th when Langford beat the Yankees 3-1. New York scored their only run in the first inning on a Reggie Jackson single but didn’t mount much of a threat for the rest of the game.

”I just went power to them in the ninth,” Langford told the media. ”I didn’t want to walk anybody. Sometimes that can get a rally started and wind up hurting you more than a home run.”

September

Rick Langford - Oakland A'sThe streak reached 21 on September 6th against the Orioles, and established a modern day record, surpassing Robin Roberts, who threw 20 straight for the 1953 Phillies. Often described as a “sinker/slider pitcher,” Langford didn’t walk a lot of batters and he didn’t strike a lot of people out, which kept his pitch count down. Billy Martin also didn’t have a lot of faith in his bullpen, which was a major factor in Oakland’s pitchers throwing as many complete games as they did.

Just one day earlier, the A’s bullpen allowed six runs in the final two innings of a loss to the Orioles and Martin wasn’t about to let it happen again.

“I wouldn’t have taken Langford out of the game tonight if he had put seven guys on base in the ninth,” Martin said. “Not after last night, I wouldn’t.”

By this point, the A’s had played 245.2 innings in Langford’s starts. He was on the mound for 234 of them.

“I never think about complete games,” he told the media after his 21st straight. “I take it one pitch, one batter, one inning at a time. I know I’ll come out of the game sometime, but when I do I’ll walk off the mound with my head high.”

Six days later, he allowed 14 hits, but picked up the win, and another complete game when the A’s beat the Royals 9-5 in Oakland.

The Streak Ends

Langford’s next start came against the Texas Rangers, that team against whom the streak began. Martin stayed with his starter as long as he felt comfortable, but with the game on the line, he had to make a move.

“The only reason I went with him as long as I did was the streak,” Martin said. “I’ve seen him pitch better.”

In his streak-snapping start, Rick Langford went eight and two-thirds innings, allowed four runs on eleven hits, and got the win.

“I didn’t ask him to leave me in,” Langford said of his manager. “He makes the decisions on this club and he’s done a fantastic job.”

He would make four more starts and finish all four, including a 10-inning CG on two-days rest on the season’s final day because Martin wanted to give him a shot at winning 20. He came up short, but still established a season the likes of which will probably never be matched.

In 1980, Rick Langford threw more complete games than 8 MLB teams Click To Tweet

In 1980, Rick Langford went 19-12 in 33 starts. He threw 28 complete games, including 22 in a row. The 28 CGs were more than the combined total of eight different teams. Not too bad for a guy who lead the league in losses just three years earlier.

 

George Brett and the Amazing Summer of 1980

 

If you’re going to hit .400, or even have a shot, it helps to put together a summer like George Brett did in 1980.

The Royals third baseman got off to a slow start, hitting just .259 in the first month of the season. Brett was just starting to get hot in June when an ankle injury cost him 35 games. He didn’t return to the lineup until after the All-Star break and it was anybody’s guess as to how he’d do. He spent the layoff thinking about hitting, visualizing at-bats and pumping himself up.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’re hot, you haven’t been gone at all.'” he told the Associated Press.

Hitting a baseball at the big league level is among the toughest things in sports and timing is a huge part of hitting. Missing a month of action doesn’t help and neither do torn ankle ligaments. But none of that mattered to George Brett.

A Triumphant Return

Brett assumed his normal spot in the Royals batting order on July 10th and began a seven-week hitting spree the likes of which has rarely been seen in baseball history. In his first seven games, Brett went 17-29 with six doubles and a triple against Detroit, Baltimore and Boston. He also drew six walks during that span for a ridiculous seven game OB% of .636. Red Sox lefty John Tudor held him to an 0-4 evening at Fenway Park on July 17th, but it would be more than a month before Brett went hitless again.

The Streak

The hitting streak began at Yankee Stadium. In the three-game series against starting pitchers Rudy May, Doug Bird and Ron Guidry, Brett went 7-14 with a homer and nine RBI. After that was a 7-16 four-game set against the White Sox. By the end of July, Brett was batting .390 and riding a 13-game hitting streak. Over the next month, his batting average would go UP.

August began with a modest (by Brett standards) 4-13 performance against the White Sox followed by a three game series against Detroit at Tiger Stadium. In the second game, Brett homered off Detroit starter Milt Wilcox to extend his streak to 18 games. In his next at-bat, Wilcox knocked him down twice before getting him to fly out. On his way back to the dugout, Brett and Wilcox exchanged words and the benches emptied, resulting in a brawl that must have had Royals skipper Jim Frey extremely nervous.

“I thought about going after him the second time he knocked me down, but he was too big,” said Brett of the 6-2, 215 pound Tiger pitcher. “Then, after he was staring at me a bit I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ It was a matter of honor.”

Brett escaped with just a scratch under his right eye and held no grudges.

“I’m not mad at Milt, that’s just baseball,” he said.

George Brett
George Brett stands at second after reaching .400

After the Dust Up in Detroit, Brett rapped out eight hits in seventeen at-bats in a four game series against the Blue Jays in Toronto, then returned to Kansas City and went 13-24 in a six-game homestand, including a 4-4 day against those same Blue Jays that boosted his average to .401.

“It was electrifying to stand at second base and see a standing ovation,” he said after the game. “That was really something. I was getting goose bumps out there.”

When he reached the magical .400 mark, the scrutiny and media attention increased dramatically. No one had finished a season above .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Rod Carew flirted with the mark in 1977, but he dropped under .400 on July 11th and never got back.

Brett’s quest had a different feel. First of all, he reached .400 on August 17th, some six weeks later than Carew. Secondly, George Brett was enjoying the season of a lifetime.

From the time he returned from the disabled list until the day he finally reached .400, Brett played in 37 games and recorded at least one hit in 36 of them. From July 10th through August 17th, he hit .473 and struck out a total of three times. His manager had no doubt Brett could deal with the pressure.

“You’re talking about a guy who can handle it better than almost anybody else,” said Jim Frey. “He’s one of those unusual guys who doesn’t spend any time thinking about what could go wrong.”

Over the next nine games hardly anything did. His hitting streak may have ended at 30 games, but his average continue to climb, culminated by a 5-5 effort against the Brewers on August 26th to bring his batting average to .407 with 36 games left in the season.

George Brett hit .456 over a 7 week span in 1980. #Royals Click To Tweet

“I really feel no pressure because there’s such a long way to go,” Brett told the media. “I imagine I will feel more pressure if I’m at .395 or .400 with a week to go in the season, but not now. I just want to have fun playing baseball and fun to me is hitting and driving in runs.”

Late Season Struggles

Brett’s average stayed at or near .400 as late as September 19th, with just 14 games left in the season. Unfortunately, he experienced his first real slump over the next seven games, hitting just .148. He hit “just” .304 over the last two weeks of the season and finished at .390.

“It would have been better if we’d been playing games that meant something,” Brett said after the season. “That way they’d have to pitch to me and I’d also have had to be more selective. The way it was, those trips to Seattle and Minnesota two weeks before the season’s end were just awful.

“I knew I was running out of time, and I was swinging at bad pitches and I couldn’t do anything. I was just hacking and digging a hole for myself. There just wasn’t anything I could do.”

Hacking, digging holes for yourself, swinging at bad pitches and still hitting .390 is a good problem to have.

George Brett: The Pine Tar Game

Note: This is a guest post from Rocco Constantino

July 24, 1983

The old baseball cliché is that you see something new at the ballpark every time you go to a game. It could be something as simple as a player recording his first major-league hit or achieving a team record; however, sometimes something so crazy will happen that it will be talked about in baseball circles for decades.

On July 24, 1983, fans undoubtedly witnessed the latter. The Yankees and Royals had one of the game’s best rivalries in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The teams met in the postseason in the 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980 ALCS, and the main cast of characters was similar in each series. The Royals were led by George Brett, Frank White, Hal McRae, and Willie Wilson, among others. The Yankees featured Graig Nettles, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, and Goose Gossage during that time.

The Background

By 1983, the Yankees were starting to get old but still had some fight in them. The Orioles and Tigers were the up-and-coming teams and would finish ahead of the Yanks in the AL East standings. The Royals finished second that year but were never really in the race, ending the season 20 games out of first. With Wilson, White, and McRae still in their prime, the Royals lineup was tough to negotiate for any pitcher. But Brett remained the focal point of the offense and was an incredibly difficult out for pitchers. “Brett was the toughest hitter I faced in my career,” said Don August, a starter for the Brewers whom Brett went 5-for-11 against. “I remember him standing way off the plate when I faced him, so I put a fastball on the outside corner. He hit it off the center-field wall. Next time up, I tried to come inside, and he turned on it and ripped it into the corner. How do you get Brett out? I guess throw it down the middle and hope he hits it at someone.”

The Yankees had taken two of the first three games in this four-game set and faced off against the Royals in a Sunday afternoon game at Yankee Stadium on July 24. Bud Black and Shane Rawley were the starting pitchers for the Royals and Yankees, respectively, but they would be long gone by the time the events that made this game famous happened.

The Game

The first inning went by without incident, and the Royals were the first to get on the board when John Wathan scored on a groundout by White in the second. The Yankees quickly tied the game up when Dave Winfield homered off Black. The Royals regained the lead in the fourth when White again drove home Wathan, this time with an infield hit. Black settled in after the Winfield homer, only allowing singles to Bert Campaneris and Roy Smalley as the game remained 2–1 through five. In the sixth, the Royals scored again on a triple to center by Don Slaught. The Yankees, however, would finally get to Black in the sixth. Campaneris led off the frame with an infield hit, and Lou Piniella followed with a one-out single to center. Don Baylor tripled to center to tie the game, and Winfield singled to left to give the Yanks a 4–3 lead.

The game stayed that way until the top of the ninth. Despite having Gossage, the Hall of Fame closer, available in the bullpen, manager Billy Martin stuck with Dale Murray, who had retired all eight batters he faced to that point. Slaught grounded out to lead off the top of the ninth, and Pat Sheridan popped up to first for a second out. However, U. L. Washington singled to center, and with Brett due up next, Martin opted to bring in Gossage. Brett launched a long home run to right off Gossage for what was apparently the go-ahead hit. He circled the bases, touched home, and took a seat in the Royals dugout next to Sheridan and McRae. What happened was iconic ’80s baseball.

In a game in 1975, Nettles was involved in a play in which a similar illegal bat was used. According to an archaic rule stating that no substance could be applied to a bat beyond 18 inches from the knob. The Yankees were facing the Twins on July 19, 1975.  In the game, Twins manager Frank Quilici asked umpires to check Thurman Munson’s bat after he hit an RBI single.  The umpires ruled that Munson’s pine tar exceeded 18 inches and called him out.  The rule allegedly was put into place because players were applying pine tar toward the barrel of the bat and then using it to get a better grip. While the application of pine tar was not illegal, rules were changed to limit the application to 18 inches above the knob because too many batted balls were coming in contact with the pine tar and causing otherwise perfectly good baseballs to be thrown out of play because they were stained.

Nettles had approached Martin earlier in the year when he noticed that Brett’s bat had pine tar that was obviously well past the 18-inch limit. The Yankees manager decided to wait until the right time to appeal Brett’s bat to the umpire. The Yanks had played the Royals earlier that year, but Brett didn’t have any big hits in the previous series, so Martin declined to call him on it. The home run he hit on July 24, 1983, was the perfect time.

George Brett Pine TarMartin approached home plate umpire Tim McClelland with his concerns. The umpires convened, and third-base umpire Nick Bremigan suggested that crew chief Joe Brinkman measure the bat against home plate, which is 17 inches wide. It was estimated that the pine tar stretched more than 25 inches past the bat handle, clearly past the limit. The problem that ensued was that there was no specific penalty listed for someone who had applied material past the 18-inch mark. Martin was ready for this and suggested the umpires invoke a rule stating that the umpires have the right to make any decision on any penalties not specifically listed in the rule book.

Slaught was sitting near Brett in the dugout during all of this: “I was sitting right near George, still in my equipment,” said Slaught. “Someone said, ‘Hey I think they’re gonna call you out.’ George said, ‘If they call me out, I’ll kill them.’” At about the same time, McClelland took a few steps toward the Royals dugout, with Brett’s bat in hand. McClelland raised his right hand, pointed at Brett with the bat, and called him out. After that, pure insanity erupted.

George Brett Pine TarBrett jumped off the dugout bench and sprinted at McClelland, arms flailing and furiously screaming at the umpire, who stood 6’6″. Brinkman grabbed Brett with a choke hold, and Brett began screaming and struggling to get loose as the entire Royals bench emptied onto the field. Almost as mad as Brett was Royals manager Dick Howser, who furiously protested the call. In the fracas, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry grabbed the bat from McClelland and handed it down in a relay to a Royals batboy, who went toward the clubhouse. Yankee Stadium security noticed this and, along with the umpires, sprinted down the runway after the illegal bat.

“It was wild,” said Slaught. “Steve Renko and some of the guys were running around the hallways looking for the bat, and security was running right behind them through the halls.” Eventually, the bat was confiscated by the umpires and sent to American League president Lee MacPhail for investigation.

The Aftermath

The Royals filed a formal protest against the ruling and waited for a final decision to be made by MacPhail. MacPhail ruled in favor of the protest, citing the rule’s archaic nature, the fact that the pine tar did nothing to enhance the ball’s contact off the bat, and an incorrect penalty by the umpires. MacPhail stated that the way he read the rules, the umpires should’ve just removed the bat and continued play from there. The bat was eventually returned to Brett. He removed the excess pine tar, drew a line with a red marker around the 18-inch mark, and continued to use it in games. But Perry advised Brett that the incident was so unique that his bat was a baseball artifact and he shouldn’t risk breaking it. Brett agreed and eventually sold the bat for $25,000; however, Brett rethought the transaction and bought the bat back for the same amount. To this day, the bat is still on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As for the game itself, MacPhail ruled that the remaining four outs would be played as part of a makeup on August 18. Martin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, always the competitors, were livid at the reversal. On August 18, the Royals returned to Yankee Stadium to finish the game. Howser, Brett, Perry, and Royals coach Rocky Colavito were ejected from the original game due to their actions in the melee that ensued during the initial ruling.

“It may have been the most nervous I was for a game in my career, even including the postseason,” said Slaught, who was in his second season in the bigs and went 3-for-4 in the game. “There were more reporters there than any postseason game that I played in. It was a weird, weird game. Gaylord Perry even had T-shirts made up for us and then tried to make us all buy them from him.”

The Conclusion

As the game was about to start, Martin appealed the fact that Brett actually touched every base. He contested that since it was an entirely different umpire crew, they would have no way of knowing that he indeed touched every base. But the umpires anticipated Martin might do this and had a sworn affidavit from the original crew stating that Brett did touch every base. Martin then informed the umpires that he was playing this game under his own protest.

When the action finally started, Martin made some lineup changes. Jerry Mumphrey, the original center fielder in the game, had been traded in the ensuing weeks and so was unavailable to continue. Martin decided to send his ace pitcher, Ron Guidry, out to center. He also inserted rookie Don Mattingly at second base. Mattingly, a lefty first baseman, became the first lefty to play a middle-infield position since Indians pitcher Sam McDowell in 1970. No lefty has played a middle-infield position since. Asked for his reasoning behind the moves, Martin said the resumption of the game was a mockery and he would play it like one.

With George Frazier pitching in relief for the Yanks, the game resumed. McRae, who was the on-deck batter when Brett homered, struck out to end the ninth. Royals closer Dan Quisenberry came on for the save and retired Mattingly, Smalley, and Oscar Gamble in order to finally give the Royals the 5–4 win in front of the 1,200 fans who showed up for the final four outs. Brett flying out of the dugout is something that will live on in the annals of baseball history. Brett, Martin, Perry, and Nettles were some of the most colorful characters in baseball, making the incident even more memorable.

The game itself brought the Royals to within one game of first place, but they went into a midseason slump, and that would be the closest they got to first place for the rest of the year. In the years after, all parties involved looked back on the incident with a sense of humor, accepting their place in baseball history and laughing about the events surrounding the end of the game. Brett went on to have one of the greatest careers in baseball history. He finished the 1983 season with a .310 batting average and went on to record 3,154 hits in his career. He maintained his reputation as an intense player who was willing to do anything he could to play the game and play it well. “Brett was just a regular guy, but incredibly talented,” said Andy McGaffigan, who was Brett’s teammate between 1990 and 1991. “He showed up and played hard and played hurt. He would DH, play third, play first, whatever it took to be in the lineup that day. He had no pride or ego, and that was contagious. It’s what made him a great leader.” Another of Brett’s teammates agreed with that assessment: “He was the best pure hitter I ever played with,” said Jim Wohlford, who played with Brett the first four years of his major-league career. “You just knew the special talent was there, even as a 20-year-old kid.” Slaught also reflected on Brett’s greatness: “George always seemed to hit what we needed,” said Slaught. “It was unbelievable. If we needed single or double, that’s what he seemed to hit. Look at the pine tar game; we needed a homer and that’s what he hit. He was the guy that did that the best of anyone I played with.” There are so many reasons George Brett is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game. His clutch performance in the game and wild outburst after he was called out were two iconic moments in one of the most colorful and productive careers in baseball history.

About Rocco Constantino

515LKDSOtIL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Rocco Constantino is the author of 50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and a writer for www.baseballhotcorner.com.  Released in June of 2016, 50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball examines 50 unique moments from the past 100 years that helped define the sport that we love.  In addition, it also features exclusive interviews with over 40 players who played in each decade from the 1950’s through the 2010’s.  With input from players like Fred Lynn, Rod Carew and Jeff Montgomery, readers get a perspective on these special games directly from the players.  50 Moments that Defined Major League Baseball is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s online store.  Rocco Constantino is represented by P.S. Literary.  Follow him on Twitter @MLB100years.

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.