Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Card #142: Dave LaRoche

Who Can It Be Now?
David Eugene LaRoche was born on May 14, 1948, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Well, actually, David Garcia was born on that date in Colorado Springs. His parents divorced when he was young, and Dave took on his stepfather's name as a child. LaRoche is actually of Mexican heritage, not French as his surname would imply.

LaRoche grew up in Torrance, California, and attended high school as West High School there. The California Angels drafted LaRoche in 1966 in the 20th round, but LaRoche did not sign with the Angels at that time. Seven months later, the Angels selected LaRoche again in the fifth round of the January Draft's Secondary Phase. LaRoche signed in March and reported to Quad Cities in the Midwest League...as an outfielder. After hitting a combined .227 over two stops, however, LaRoche came back to the Midwest League as a pitcher in 1968 to start his fast ascent through the Angels' farm system.

LaRoche spent all of 1968 in the Midwest League and showed some promise. Though neither Baseball Reference nor The Baseball Cube has complete stats for him in 1968, what we do know is that his ERA was good (2.36, though with 10 unearned runs in 84 innings) and that he walked 29 versus 80 strikeouts. That was sufficient promise for the Angels to move him to the more competitive California League for 22 innings in 1969 and then to the Texas League in El Paso thereafter. Rather than getting annihilated in that noted hitters' ballpark, LaRoche put up a respectable 2.94 ERA. 

He was assigned to pitch in Triple-A Hawaii to start the 1970 season. Throughout his minor league career, he almost always was a reliever -- a position which likely hastened his promotion to the major leagues on May 11, 1970.  His first task: face Carl Yastrzemski in the top of the 16th inning. He was able to get Yaz to fly out, and, in the process, picked up his first major league win when the Angels scored a run in the bottom of the inning. 

Being a reliever, though, put LaRoche in a fairly tenuous situation on the roster, it seems. After giving up 4 runs (3 earned) 5 days after his debut, either he was sent back to Triple-A or he did not appear for a month. I'm guessing it was Triple-A. After an appearance on June 14, either he was again sent back down or, once again, did not appear for nearly a month. But, once he was back up with the Angels in July, it appears that he stayed in the major leagues for good through both 1970 and 1971. Over those two season, he had success as well -- 121-2/3 innings, 107 strikeouts against 48 walks and a 2.88 ERA (supported by FIP).

Yet, when Harry Dalton was hired by the Angels to be its general manager after the 1971 season, the first trade he made was to send LaRoche to the Minnesota Twins for infielder Leo Cardenas. Minnesota manager Bill Rigney was very happy about the trade, saying that "LaRoche just may be the best left-handed relief pitcher in the American League." Even then, however, Dalton recognized that bullpen arms are fairly fungible: "Frankly, we felt it would be easier to come up with a replacement in the bullpen than a major league shortstop."

LaRoche spent just the 1972 season with the Twins, posting a 2.83 ERA and a 5-7 record and recording 10 saves in 95-1/3 innings. The Twins got better in 1972 over 1971, but it was not enough to save Bill Rigney's job or to keep LaRoche in Minnesota. Apparently, the feeling was mutual. According to Wikipedia (quoting from The Twins at the Met), Bert Blyleven said that LaRoche told a reporter that LaRoche wanted to be the Twins' player rep for the union because "all the player reps under Calvin Griffith get traded."

So, when the season ended, LaRoche got his wish and was traded again -- exactly one year after the previous trade -- this time to the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs gave up minor league pitcher Bob Maneely, pitcher Joe Decker, and pitcher Bill Hands to get LaRoche. 

The two years that LaRoche spent on Chicago's North Side were not good. His 1973 season was one of his worst in the major leagues -- a 5.80 ERA in 54-1/3 innings (4.65 FIP) -- and 1974 was bad enough to see him start the season as a starter in Triple-A before getting called up to the majors on May 15.

So, when the Cleveland Indians offered pitcher Milt Wilcox to the Cubs for LaRoche and outfielder Brock Davis on February 25, 1975, the Cubs jumped on it. Getting out of Wrigley and back in the American League appeared to agree with LaRoche. In his two and a half seasons as an Indian, he totaled 42 saves, set an Indians team record with 21 saves in the 1976 season (which has been surpassed many, many times now), and made his first of two All-Star Game appearances of his career in 1976.

Yet, by 1977, the Indians and LaRoche had failed to work out a contract for LaRoche to play with the team past the 1977 season. As a result, the team decided to trade him. This trade took LaRoche back to Anaheim along with then-minor league pitcher Dave Schuler in exchange for Bruce Bochte, Sid Monge, and $250,000 cash. 

After the trade, LaRoche stayed in California through spring training in 1981. The Angels had signed another lefty, former Brewer pitcher Bill Travers, as a free agent in the offseason to one of the worst-ever free agent contracts. Because Travers was going to have to make the team, LaRoche was cut. Travers pitched terribly, got hurt, and never made an impact in California, and LaRoche ended up joining the Yankees.

In New York, LaRoche gained notoriety for one unorthodox pitch: the "La Lob." Rather than describe it, here's a clip from This Week in Baseball to show you Gorman Thomas flailing at it, though my favorite part of the entire clip is seeing Thomas -- the guy who lived to hit balls out of the ballpark -- attempting to BUNT the Lob for a base hit.

LaRoche finished his career with the Yankees. The 1982 season for him was one spent on the Columbus shuttle, back and forth between the Bronx, as the Yankees identified him as the pitcher no one would claim off waivers when they optioned him back to Triple-A. 

In 1983, LaRoche did not make the Yankees team out of spring training. He decided to step away from baseball for a while that year to spend time with his wife Patty, who was pregnant with son Andy. But, once Patty got past the difficult stages of her pregnancy, LaRoche hooked on with the Yankees. He made one final big-league appearance on August 23, 1983 against Oakland. He tried to make the Yankees one last time out of spring training in 1984 but failed.

Mustache Check: Nope, LaRoche is clean-shaven here.

Family Ties
As fans of today's game likely know, Dave LaRoche has two sons that played major league baseball.  The older boy, Adam, came up in the Atlanta Braves system. After playing in Pittsburgh, Boston, Atlanta, Arizona, and Washington, Adam signed a 2-year, $25 million contract to play first base for the Chicago White Sox on November 25, 2014.

Younger son Andy came up through the Dodgers system before spending three years in Pittsburgh (and playing together with his brother). Andy spent 2014 in the Toronto system at Triple-A Buffalo.  Dave cites to photos he received of the two taking practice swings together and of Andy making a play at third and throwing the runner out at first with a throw to Adam as being very rewarding to him.

Goody Two Shoes
In a 1982 news article, Dave cited to his faith and a religious experience that he and his wife Patty had gone through in 1979 as helping him to become more mellow.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I very clearly remember that La Lob thrown to Gorman Thomas and, by extension, I clearly remember Dave LaRoche. Looking at LaRoche's lifetime stats, it appears that he always pitched well against Milwaukee. Of course, considering that LaRoche spent most of his career in the AL -- and that career included a lot of bad years for Milwaukee in the early 1970s -- I'm not all that surprised.

After LaRoche did not make the Yankees in 1984, he was hired on by the Yankees as a minor league coach. He spent the 1989 and 1991 seasons as the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox, sandwiching a season as the White Sox pitching coach in 1990. He then moved on with his pal Jeff Torborg to the New York Mets where LaRoche spent two more seasons as a bullpen coach. 

For the rest of his working career, LaRoche was a minor-league pitching coach. Indeed, in 2014, LaRoche came out of retirement to help the New York Mets fill a gap when the Brooklyn Cyclones regular pitching coach, Tom Signore, missed time due to an injury. But, as he says on his LinkedIn page, "I am un retired for 4 months. Then back to retirement."

Maybe Adam will buy his dad a new car or something.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Card #141: Cleveland Indians Future Stars

Who Can It Be Now?
We have three players on this card who had varying degrees of success as major leaguers and in their post-playing careers. 

1. Christopher Michael Bando was born on February 4, 1956, in Cleveland, Ohio. Bando was not drafted directly out of high school in Cleveland, and chose instead to attend Arizona State University to play baseball. While at Arizona State, he made news for hitting a home run in the championship game that won the Sun Devils the 1977 College World Series. 

That led the Milwaukee Brewers to select Bando with the 541st pick of the 1977 draft (22nd round, 3rd pick of the round). Okay, I say that his CWS heroics led to the pick, but the reality was probably closer to nepotism: the Brewers signed Chris's older brother Sal as a free agent prior to the 1977 season. Apparently, though, the money on offer from Milwaukee was not sufficient to sway Chris to sign, so he went back to ASU for another season.

During his senior year of 1978, he hit .415/.508/.744 with 17 HR and 102 RBI in 258 at bats (along with 49 walks). That season propelled him into the second round of the 1978 draft, where the Cleveland Indians selected him with the 36th pick overall (10th pick of the round). He signed was assigned to Double-A Chattanooga (Southern League) where he stayed through 1980. After a good year in Triple-A Charleston in 1981, the Indians gave him a shot at the big leagues at the age of 25 once the strike ended.

Bando did not hit all that well right away, and he had both Ron Hassey and Bo Diaz in front of him. The Indians traded Diaz to the Phillies to open up a spot for Bando to be the righty hitter in a platoon with Hassey in 1982. He scuffled at the plate in his limited playing time until 1984, when he slashed at .291/.377/.505 and hit 12 HR in 260 plate appearances at the age of 28.

The problem, though, was 1985. All of his good work was undone and then some. In 199 plate appearances, Bando "hit" .139/.234/.173, good enough for an OPS of .407. In other words, terrible. He was sent back down to Triple-A to right the ship. He came back in 1986 and enjoyed the most playing time he would see in his major league career -- 92 games, 290 plate appearances (.268/.325/.327) -- but, the power he showed in 1984 was nowhere to be found. 

He filled a similar role with similar plate appearances in 1987 with even worse results -- .218/.260/.332. Thus, when he struggled mightily in 1988, the Indians decided to release him in August. He appeared in one game in 1988 without a plate appearance for the Detroit Tigers, who cut him after the season. He signed on for 1989 with the Oakland A's, and, after 1 game, 2 at bats, 1 hit, and 1 RBI for the A's, his playing career ended.

Mustache Check: Chris was a good, clean-shaven, All-American Bando.

2.  Thomas Martin Brennan was born on October 30, 1952, in Chicago. He attended Leo High School in Chicago (part of the Chicago Catholic League which counts a number of major league alumni in its ranks). Undrafted out of high school, Brennan stayed close to home and matriculated at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. Brennan then led Lewis to the Division II College World Series in 1974. The Indians took notice and drafted him 4th overall in the first round of the 1974 draft -- one spot ahead of where the Atlanta Braves selected Dale Murphy.

Cleveland being Cleveland and Brennan being a college star, the Indians pushed Brennan to Triple-A Oklahoma City immediately after he signed. Bad idea. In 50 innings, Brennan allowed 46 hits and 56 walks (38 earned runs, 42 runs) in 13 starts, good enough for a 6.84 ERA. In 1975, the Indians tried the same thing, and Brennan was even worse -- 122 innings, 149 hits, 98 walks (52 strikeouts), leading to 103 runs (96 earned) and 21 HR allowed to boot...leading to a 7.08 ERA.

It took Brennan until 1981 -- at the age of 28 -- to finally reach the majors.  By that point, he had spent all or parts of 7 seasons at Triple-A in Oklahoma City, Toledo, Portland, Tacoma, and Charleston. He got his chance in the major leagues in September of 1981, and he pitched fairly well -- 48-1/3 innings with an ERA of 3.17 in 7 appearances.

That led to his only complete season in the major leagues in 1982, in which he appeared in 30 games (14 starts) with 92-2/3 innings pitched. He gave up a lot of hits -- 112 -- but he controlled his walks extremely well (just 10). Along the way, he earned the nickname The Gray Flamingo for how his windup featured a pause in his delivery when he was perched on one leg.

Yet, he would find himself splitting 1983 between Triple-A and Cleveland and, after the season, traded to the Chicago White Sox for a player to be named later that would not be named until 18 months later. He made four appearances with his hometown club in 1984, and they let him go. He signed with the Dodgers for 1985. But after a 7.39 ERA (despite a 3.47 FIP), he was out of the majors after 1985. He spent one final Triple-A season where he started out -- Oklahoma City -- in the Rangers organization before his career came to an end.

Mustache Check: Brennan saved the Indians from the ignominy of not having a mustachioed prospect fit for sharing in 1982.

3. Von Francis Hayes was born on August 31, 1958, in Stockton, California.  He attended St. Mary's High School in Stockton. but he was not selected by any major league team out of high school. He then enrolled at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga, California. His play there led the Indians to select him in the 7th round of the 1979 June Draft

Hayes did not play in the Indians system until 1980, however, when he hit .329/.405/.500 in Single-A Waterloo with 15 HR, 90 RBI, and 51 steals in 59 attempts. That showing was enough to get him promoted directly to Triple-A Charleston in 1981 where he once again hit well: .314/.401/.474  with 10 HR and 34 steals in 41 attempts. Hayes only played in minor league rehab assignments after 1981.

He actually made the major league roster directly out of spring training in 1981 and appeared in the 9th inning of a 7-1 win against Texas as a defensive replacement for Jorge Orta. Hayes came back to the majors when the strike ended and notched his first major league hit in his second major at bat -- a single off Brewers starter Jim Slaton on August 11, 1981, in a game Milwaukee won 6-1. 

In 1982, Hayes started regularly for the Indians -- mostly in right field but also making appearances in left, in center, at first, and at third, though he came up through the minors as a third baseman. At the age of 23, he hit .250/.310/.389 with 14 HR and 32 SB in 45 attempts. But, the Indians decided to cash in on Hayes's talent by using Hayes as a trading chit to rebuild their own farm system. So, on December 9, 1982, the Indians sent Hayes to the Phillies in return for pitcher Jay Baller, catcher Jerry Willard, outfielder George Vukovich, and infielders Manny Trillo and Julio Franco.

Through the trade, Von Hayes got the nickname "Five-for-One." Phillies fans never warmed to Hayes. As the Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Paul Hagen put it in 1991:
Hayes had an oil-and-water relationship with the crusty Veterans Stadium boobirds almost from the moment he came to Philadelphia as the one in a controversial five-for-one trade at the winter meetings in Honolulu nine years ago today. He was smooth and elegant and that didn't play in South Philly, where the fans like players with a little dirt under their fingernails.
Or, as NBC Philadelphia stated, "[t]he Phillies thought they were getting a five-tool player who could complement superstar third baseman Mike Schmidt. Instead they got an average outfielder who would make only one All-Star game in nine seasons in Phillies baby blue."

Hayes was traded from Philadelphia to California at the end of the 1991 season in exchange for pitcher Kyle Abbott and outfielder (and future Phillies GM) Ruben Amaro, Jr. He spent one season with the Angels, and that was the end of his career.

Mustache Check: Von Hayes was silky smooth in the field and in terms of his facial hair.

Family Ties
Chris Bando's brother Sal Bando is the far better known of the Bando brothers, having played for the Kansas City/Oakland A's and the Milwaukee Brewers from 1966 through 1981. Since Sal does not appear in the 1982 Topps set (only in Donruss and Fleer), let me use this opportunity to say that I'm still bitter about Sal and Bud Selig not resigning Paul Molitor in 1992.

Chris's son Ben Bando played with Arizona State (5 games) in 2006. Another son, Phil Bando, played 8 games in the Anaheim Angels system in 2009 after being drafted in the 45th round of the 2009 draft.

Goody Two Shoes
Another Chris Bando fact is that he is a baseball coach for San Diego Christian College in California. His coach's page mentions that his "lifelong accomplishments in competitive baseball along with his focus on building whole person growth for the glory of God is an asset to SDCC Hawks." Or, as his LinkedIn page puts it, the goal of his career is to "glorify God through the arena of baseball, by teaching sound baseball fundamentals, sound doctrine and a faithful commitment to the local church."

Tom Brennan appeared in the movie "Rookie of the Year" as the home plate umpire in the final scene of the movie, according to a story reprinted in full on this website from a newspaper called The Southtown Star. IMDB improperly credits a different Tom Brannan with the role.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Obviously, Von Hayes had the most successful career of these three guys. I would question including Brennan as a "future star" since he was already 28 years old when he appeared on this card. Topps tended to show players that had appeared in the majors already on these cards, though, so making a call as to who should have appeared on this card in his place is tricky. Maybe Mike Fischlin or Jerry Dybzinski? In other words, when the Indians traded Von Hayes, they did it out of necessity -- they needed more younger talent.

I mentioned above that Chris Bando is coach at SDCC. He's been in baseball in one capacity or another since he retired from playing. His first year out of playing he was the manager of one of the best minor league teams in Brewers history according to Reviewing The Brew: the 1990 Stockton Ports. He remained in the Brewers system as a manager through 1995 when he joined the big-league team as third-base coach. He did that two years under Phil Garner, then served as bench coach in 1998. He was reassigned to be a scout in 1999, and then was shown the door after the 1999 season when brother Sal was also kicked to the curb. Chris then joined up with the Indians organization until 2005, when the Arizona Diamondbacks hired him as a scout. Since then, he's managed twice in independent leagues and, as I said, in college.

Tom Brennan moved back to Illinois after his playing days ended and, according to his minimal LinkedIn biography, he works as a facility manager at "a local community bank." Since it appears he has been with the same bank for nearly 15 years, this Chicago Sun-Times article puts him at Standard Bank and Trust in Hickory Hills, Illinois. He also volunteers as a youth pitching coach around Chicago's South Side.

Von Hayes has also done some managing in his post-playing career in the Diamondbacks organization and in independent baseball. He also coached at his alma mater, St. Mary's College in between selling boats and moving from Florida to Illinois and back again. Based on his LinkedIn profile -- and we went three-for-three for this card -- he is a Partner in First Source HR/Employco, a company which he describes as "a professional employer organization that offers payroll services, competitive workers' compensation rates, human resource services, employee benefits and much more."

Just don't call him Five-for-One.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Card #140: Ron LeFlore

Who Can It Be Now?
Ronald LeFlore was born on June 16, 1948, in Detroit, Michigan. He was the son of an auto worker who found himself on the street early. This was not because his family could not provide for him -- he just chose to veer away from the straight and narrow. He claimed that, at age 11, he was stealing around $1,000 out of a supermarket cash register using a stick with gum on the end of it to pull dollar bills out of a cashier's box. 

LeFlore told People magazine that at the age of 15, a People magazine article says that he was involved with prostitution, shoplifting, and con games. At age 16, according to LeFlore, he was snorting heroin. LeFlore said that he and some buddies needed money for drugs, so, at the age of 17, they held up a check-cashing service in particular. They were caught and sent to jail.

If there is one thing that baseball fans know about Ron LeFlore, it is that he was "scouted" or "discovered" in the Jackson State Penitentiary in Michigan by Billy Martin. LeFlore never played baseball before his incarceration on an armed-robbery conviction, but when you have 5-to-15 years to spend behind bars, I imagine you might try a few sports that you hadn't played before too.

Prison officials convinced Martin to watch LeFlore and give him a tryout. Sufficiently impressed, the Tigers signed LeFlore the day he was paroled in July of 1973 and assigned him to Single-A Clinton -- a town of around 20,000 people on the Mississippi River about 45 minutes away from the Quad Cities. That must have been culture shock to LeFlore. He only spent 32 games there in 1973 before the season ended. The next year, LeFlore was assigned to Lakeland in the Florida State League. There, his speed was on display -- 42 steals in 46 attempts -- and he hit very well too: .339/.398/.451.  After just 93 games in Lakeland, the Tigers promoted him first to Triple-A Evansville for 9 games and then right to the major leagues with Detroit.

When he was first called up to the major leagues in 1974, LeFlore's story preceded him. In fact, that People article about him recounted all of the facts above. The story put LeFlore's age at 22 years old. The only problem was that LeFlore had lied about his age to the Tigers. I know -- shocking that a convicted felon in prison for robbery with a chance to get out and make gobs of money playing a game would lie about something.  He told the Tigers first that he was born in 1952. Later, his story changed to being born in 1950. Only in 1976 did all the facts come out to confirm that he was born in 1948.

As the facts developed later, yes, he was arrested at age 17. That was for "attempted safe-breaking." That arrest happened in 1965, however, and not 1970 as he had claimed initially. He went to jail in January of 1966, was paroled in July of 1967, re-arrested in May of 1968 for a parole violation, paroled a second time in September of 1969, and then, in January of 1970, he was, in fact, arrested for armed robbery of a bar on Detroit's East Side.

The response to these facts from the Tigers was that they really did not care how old LeFlore was and that their only concern was whether he could play baseball. By the time these facts came to light, LeFlore had already played in 195 games for the Tigers and stolen 51 bases (against 29 CS...a terrible percentage). In those days of overlooking OBP, LeFlore's was not what you would want from a leadoff man -- .302 over 863 plate appearances.  

To be fair, though, LeFlore was still learning the game (if his stories about not having played baseball before prison were true). Indeed, in 1976, LeFlore's story became even more heartwarming, if your heart can be warmed by a former armed robber becoming an All-Star. In 1976, America's hearts could be, leading to LeFlore starting the All-Star Game (with teammate Mark Fidrych starting the game for the American League). 

That 1976 season was probably his best as a major league baseball player. While he couldn't field his position very well, he hit well -- .316/.376/.410 -- and stole 58 bases in 78 attempts. The whole thing was straight out of Hollywood, it seemed -- so much so that CBS couldn't help itself and made the story into a TV movie called "One In A Million: The Ron LeFlore Story" starring as LeFlore a young LeVar Burton. Go here to see some clips from it, including cameos from Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Bill Freehan and starring Billy Martin as himself.

In 1977, LeFlore continued his hot-hitting ways, racking up 212 hits, in a "triple-double" season: he had 30 doubles, 10 triples, and 16 homers to go with his 39 SB (in 58 attempts, mind you). He walked just 37 times in 698 plate appearances, striking out 121 times. 

But, you can see how it appears that LeFlore really was learning to play baseball while in the major leagues. 1978 solidified that belief. At the age of 30, LeFlore led the American League with 126 runs scored and with 68 stolen bases in 84 attempts -- far more respectable than his previous years -- while drawing 65 walks in 741 plate appearances. Even his fielding was improving somewhat, as his speed made up for occasionally lacking fundamentals. While his SLG lagged in 1978, it really seemed that LeFlore had come of age as a player.

Come 1979, however, LeFlore had a problem. His previous manager, Ralph Houk, had been fired.  In June, Sparky Anderson was named manager after the team fumbled around with Les Moss and Dick Tracewski. If LeFlore and Houk agreed to disagree about team rules, well, Anderson just got upset and wanted him shipped out. So, despite LeFlore's 78 SB (in 92 attempts, an 84.78% success rate that was good enough for third in the league) and a slash line of .300/.355/.415, he was traded during the Winter Meetings in December of 1979 to the National League's Montreal Expos for pitcher Dan Schatzeder.

As one sportswriter put it the next spring, there were three reasons for the trade. The first was the Tigers' desire to bring up local football star Kirk Gibson. The second was Sparky Anderson and his rules -- no beards, no jeans, no long hair, and lots of rules. As LeFlore put it, "Obviously, he didn't feel I fit his mold. He felt I was a threat to his authority. Otherwise he wouldn't have authorized the trade." The final reason was that LeFlore was asking for a lot of money and a long-term contract. 

LeFlore responded well to the trade, leading the National League in stolen bases with 97. His batting average dipped to .257, but his new-found batting eye kept his OBP at a respectable .337. That was not enough, however, to convince the Expos to make him an offer of a long-term contract. 

Into that breach stepped the Chicago White Sox, who signed him to what was called a "multi-year, $2-million offer" which turned out to be a three-year deal. Interestingly, in both this article and the previous story about LeFlore, the myth of his birth being in 1952 was still being carried forward. Apparently those sportswriters -- and probably the Expos media guide -- did not get the memo from 1976 about his 1948 birth. This would continue to be the case throughout his career -- some newspapers used 1948 and others used 1952.

LeFlore thought that the Expos were making an example out of him with Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, and Warren Cromartie all coming up for new contracts. More likely, though, this was just a move similar to what the Tigers had done since the Expos had a 20-year-old left field prospect named Tim Raines chomping at the bit for his opportunity.

Perhaps the White Sox thought they were getting a thirty-year-old outfielder. I can't imagine that was the case, but maybe that is what they thought. Or, perhaps they didn't quite understand the decline phase for a player starts around 32 and that, for guys like LeFlore who rely on their speed, that decline is often extremely swift. 

Indeed, that is exactly what happened. 1981 went reasonably well healthwise for LeFlore, but the bottom dropped out of his ability to take walks -- just 28 in 369 plate appearances. Then, in 1982, LeFlore's inability to follow rules came back again. He butted heads with Tony LaRussa by failing to show up for a full-team pregame workout the day after the All-Star Game and for showing up late for a day game (just minutes before game time) over the next weekend. That led to his being suspended for three games and costing LeFlore $10,000 of his estimated $625,000 salary.

Then, at the end of the season, LeFlore got in trouble with the law again. After a three-month surveillance, LeFlore was arrested in Chicago for possession of Quaaludes, a stimulant, and two unregistered .25 caliber derringers. A "reliable source" tipped off the police that LeFlore was purchasing narcotics, so the police followed him around. The White Sox placed him on their "suspended list" as a result.

That was the start of a terrible six months for LeFlore. On January 16, 1983, LeFlore's six-week-old son John Christopher died from sudden infant death syndrome. Two days later, he was ordered to stand trial for the charges from October of 1982, for which he was eventually acquitted.  

Then, after a horrible spring training on top of everything else (.152 AVG, 5 for 33), the White Sox told LeFlore on March 28, 1983, that they were going to eat his salary and release him. No one else in baseball wanted to take a chance on the nearly 35-year-old outfielder with dwindling hitting ability and an attitude to match his rap sheet, and that was the end of his playing career.

Mustache Check: Ron LeFlore sported a mustache throughout his career.

Family Ties
LeFlore's cousin, Todd Steverson, was the first round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 out of Arizona State University. Steverson was a Rule 5 pick of the Tigers in 1994, and then was traded to the Padres in spring training in 1996. He got one at-bat with San Diego that season before spending a couple more years in the minors.

The World According to Garp
When you have a story good enough for a TV movie, usually that means you have a story worth telling in book form. LeFlore worked with ghostwriter Jim Hawkins to produce a book titled Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues in 1978. It was 180 pages long, and the lone review of the book on Amazon says:
It is a very fast read. There are few words on each page, and it reminds me of the type of thing that I would check-out from my elementary or junior high school library when I was that age. . . . One more caveat, if you're looking for a hero or an inspirational figure look elsewhere. The subject offers little in the way of advice, lessons learned or even contrition for the things he did in his life. He seems to take the attitude of, "Hey, this is my life, this is what happened, it is what it is."
Trivial Pursuit
Ron LeFlore was the first player to lead both the American League and the National League in Stolen Bases. He led the AL in 1978 and the NL in 1980.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Because of his story, I was very aware of who LeFlore was. I recall being blown away at the idea of someone stealing 97 bases as well -- LeFlore and Rickey Henderson went neck-and-neck all year before Henderson ended up edging out LeFlore by hitting exactly 100 steals. Even then, I always had a bit of trepidation about LeFlore.  I mean, he was a convicted felon, after all.

The intervening years since 1983 have not been kind to him. The link in that previous sentence is to a long-form story from last year that appeared in the Toronto Sun which talks about the struggles LeFlore has had since his release. 

He tried to be a minor-league coach, but no one would hire him. As a result, he got a job as a baggage handler (Wikipedia says with Eastern Airlines, if you buy that). He went to umpiring school, but failed to perform well enough at that task to get hired by professional baseball. He was arrested twice for failing to pay child support -- one time in Detroit in 1999 after ceremonies to honor former Tigers players on the closing of Tiger Stadium. 

Then, to cap things off, he had a hip replacement in 2009. That wasn't the worst part, though. LeFlore was a heavy smoker for his entire life and, in 2011, that piper came calling. As the Sun article quotes LeFlore:
I started having problems walking on my right leg and it started swelling up and my toes started turning dark. I had trouble getting my shoe on, so I started soaking my foot in warm water and wearing sandals all the time. Being an athlete, I had built up a high tolerance for pain...I just let it go.  
When my toe turned black, I started picking at it -- and a piece of my toe came off in my hand. When I saw that, I said, "Oh, my God!"
I went back to see the doctor who had done my hip replacement and he said, "You need to get to the hospital right away. This is serious." 
No blood could get to my foot. That's when they started amputating. First they cut off my baby toe. Then they removed the toe next to it, trying to see if they could save my foot. [After an artery transplant to try to save the leg], finally they amputated my leg below the knee in the third surgery.
The article closes with LeFlore wishing that someone would have given him the guidance he needed to get over his past problems. He complains that "I had no support from anybody. I don't know if they were afraid, because I was an ex-inmate, but nobody ever went out of their way to really help me."

Not to be snarky or preachy or negative, but isn't that what all the managers and teams who tried to get LeFlore to conform more to their rules were doing? Show up on time, don't miss workouts, not have the attitude that others have to conform to you? 

I feel bad for his current situation in that no one deserves to lose a leg. But almost all the bad stuff in his life happened because he made choices -- choosing to smoke, to take drugs, to rob bars, to miss workouts, and to fail to pay child support. Actions have consequences, and it sounds like LeFlore has found that out over and over again.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Card #139: Jeff Jones

Who Can It Be Now?
Jeffrey Allen Jones was born on July 29, 1956, in Detroit, Michigan. Jones grew up in the Detroit suburb of Southgate and led his Southgate High School team to the Tri-River League championship. He went undrafted out of high school, so he went first to St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, Michigan and then on to Bowling Green State University. While it appears that he attended BGSU for just one year, during that year one of his freshman teammates was none other than Orel Hershiser.

If the stats on The Baseball Cube are correct, Jones walked 40 in 56-2/3 innings while striking out 37. That's pretty bad. But, apparently the A's of the 1970s did not put any weight on college performance, or perhaps they felt that they could fix Jones's apparent wildness. Or, maybe when you make a pick with the 329th selection overall (13th round in 1977), you're just looking for a live arm.

In any case, Jones signed with Oakland immediately after the draft in 1977 and was assigned to Class-A Modesto in the California League. There, he wasn't exactly good, but in comparison to the rest of his team he looked decent. Jones threw 46 innings and notched a 4-3 record with a 5.09 ERA. That ERA was good enough, however, to put him 6th overall on the team -- and that includes a pitcher who threw just 11 innings. Modesto had a team ERA of 6.60. In that context, Jones looked like a prospect.

So, Oakland did what most teams did with their prospects -- they promoted him before the end of the year to Double-A Chattanooga in the Southern League. Nine scoreless innings later, and Jones cemented his status in the organization. That led to being assigned to Double-A Jersey City in the Eastern League in 1978. There, Jones was basically a team-average pitcher: Team ERA: 3.70 v. Jones ERA 3.72; Team WHIP: 1.403 v. Jones WHIP 1.419. For a team that finished 54-83 and whose best player was a 19-year-old named Rickey, Jones's 10-13 record did not look bad.

In fact, it was good enough for another promotion, this time to Triple-A Ogden in the Pacific Coast League. In Ogden, Jones was far better than average -- 3.50 ERA v. team ERA of 5.20. He led the team in inning pitched at 175 and in strikeouts with 126. He also walked more batters than any other Ogden pitcher. Considering he was three years younger than his average opponent, that was the season that made Jones into a legitimate A's prospect.

When 1980 rolled around, the A's were in the throes of "BillyBall" under Billy Martin. That meant that the young starting rotation finished what they started. Jones, however, was a reliever on that team. For him, it meant appearing in just 35 games all year. On the positive side, Jones was just one save away from tying for the team lead in saves. On the negative side, Jones had 5 saves all season. 

One problem with Martin's pitching philosophy from the reliever's perspective was infrequent use. Jones's usage pattern looks schizophrenic -- five of his appearances came the day after a previous appearance (including one run in July of three consecutive games) and six came with one day of rest. But, he also had 3 stints where he had 6 days between appearances, two times where he had 9 days between appearances, and two days when he went 10 days between appearances. He even had one run of 17 days -- from June 23 through July 11-- without an appearance. I'm not sure if that was an injury or otherwise, but I did look to see whether there were any games in which relievers were used. The answer:  in that time, Billy Martin used Bob Lacey four times in relief and, otherwise, every other game was a complete game. Seriously.

The same thing happened in 1981 as well. The Associated Press mentioned in a game story in April of that year about how bored the Oakland bullpen was. In that story, Jones was quoted as saying that, "[w]e sit out there cheering and yelling, trying to keep sharp so we're ready when they need us." In the game in question, Jones came in along with Craig Minetto to nail down a 2-1 win for the A's. Indeed, Jones was probably the "closer" for the A's in 1981, as he tied for the team lead in saves with Dave Beard at three. Yes. Three. Jones also led the team in relief innings pitched with 61.

Still, it wasn't like his peripheral stats showed him to be a star of any kind. Though he posted a 3.39 ERA, his FIP was 4.80 -- fueled by 40 BB in 61 innings and a K/BB ratio of just 1.08 (43 Ks). His 1981 season was the second of two seasons in which it appeared that he got pretty lucky as it related to opposition batting average on balls in play -- .242 in 1980, .256 in 1981. 

That changed in 1982. Opponent's BABip jumped to .317, likely added to by a couple of disastrous outings early in the season. The first came on April 8, 1982, when he came in to the game in the 16th inning and promptly allowed four runs in 1/3 of an inning. The second drubbing came on May 9, 1982, against Cleveland. Jones was stretched out to make up for a terrible Matt Keough start (4-1/3 innings, 7 hits, 6 ER, 4 BB, 0 K). All was fine for Jones until the 9th inning when the roof caved in. Jones walked 3, allowed three homers, and was touched up for 8 runs (5 earned). That earned Jones a demotion to Triple-A.

The next time he pitched in the major leagues, it was August. Indeed, after that 8-run outing, Jones never again stayed regularly in the major leagues for an entire season. He spent the majority of both 1983 and 1984 in Triple-A Tacoma and did not impress Oakland's front office enough to remain with the big-league team. 

The A's released Jones on October 19, 1984. It appears that he did not pitch anywhere in 1985. In 1986 and 1987, he appeared in the Detroit Tigers minor league system in Double-A, and he spent time in 1987 in Triple-A as well. However, that was the end for Jones's pitching career. As a result, his major league career ended in 1984.

Mustache Check: Despite having a bushy mustache these days, Jones was clean-shaven on his 1982 Topps card -- the massive unibrow notwithstanding.

Trivial Pursuit
As best I can tell, Jones is the only major league player to hail from Southgate High School. Yeah, that's all I've got.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Jeff Jones is not a player about which I have any memory. That should not come as a surprise, since I am a Brewers fan. Jones pitched just four times (5-1/3 innings) against Milwaukee, posting a 1.69 ERA despite 6 hits and 3 walks in those 5.1 innings. He faced just 25 Milwaukee Hitters in his career, for that matter.

Perhaps Billy Martin was on to something, though, with Jones's usage (since Martin was the A's manager for the majority of Jones's time in the major leagues). Jones pitched 124 innings against teams with a record of under .500 and posted a 2.83 ERA. In his other 81 career innings against teams with a record of .500 or better, Jones was touched up for a 5.67 ERA! Just crazy how wild those splits are. That's the fun of small sample sizes.

Jones has led a fairly straight-forward baseball life. Since his retirement as an active player in 1987, Jones has been a coach in the Tigers organization for literally the rest of his adult life. He spent time in Toledo, London (Ontario), and Fayetteville, North Carolina, as a minor league coach before coming up to the majors as a coach in 1995.

He was the Bullpen Coach in the major leagues for Detroit under Sparky Anderson in 1995, under Buddy Bell and Larry Parrish in 1998, under Parrish only in 1999, under Phil Garner in 2000, under Garner and Luis Pujols in 2002, and under Jim Leyland from 2007 through 2011. In the years in between those appearances in the majors, he was the pitching coach for the Tigers' Triple-A farm club in Toledo. Since 2012, he has served as the Tigers pitching coach under both Jim Leyland and, in 2014, under Brad Ausmus. 

He stayed in the Detroit area for his entire post-playing career outside of one season in Single-A Fayetteville in the late 1980s. Otherwise, he has lived in the same area and commuted -- whether to Toledo, London, or Detroit.

It's not that Jeff Jones has lived a boring life from an outsider's perspective -- it's that he has avoided trouble, avoided notoriety, and kept working hard in the same organization. It's just tough to make that story more interesting or salacious!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Card #138: Tony Pena

Who Can It Be Now?
Antonio Francesco (Padilla) Pena was born on June 4, 1957, in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. The almost-always excellent Joe Posnanski wrote a fantastic long-form story back in 2003 for the Kansas City Star recounting Pena's youth in the Dominican. Pena grew up in a poor neighborhood (Palo Verde), the son of Octaviano and Rosalia. His father worked 14-hour days to raise his family, and his mother taught school. His mother also taught Tony and his three brothers how to play baseball, as she had played softball herself as a youth.

In the last years before the Dominican academies -- which really started in the early 1980s after teams recognized the amount of (often cheaper) talent available on the island in the wake of the Latin baseball boom of the 1960s (Juan Marichal, the Alous, Manny Mota, and Julian Javier, to name just a few) , players being signed was hit or miss -- some great players probably got overlooked.  

Pena, though, was lucky: a scout from the Pittsburgh Pirates saw Pena playing among a group of fifty or so youths and thought he had promise. The scout, credited as Howie Haak on The Baseball Cube, came to Pena's parents' house to sign him, and surprisingly met resistance from Pena's mother. As Posnanski put it, "[s]he didn't consider baseball a career option for Tony. . . . Tony Pena's life was already laid out. His future wife, Amaris, lived three houses down. He was strong enough to work in the banana fields. He would have children and live his life in Palo Verde."

Eventually, though, Tony promised that he would come home in a year if he did not make it. So, Rosalia finally gave in and allowed Pena to sign. It did not go very well in that first year in the minors in 1976, however, as Pena struggled with hitting, hitting for power, and with getting on base. Granted, it was in a 47-game season, but with a slash line of .214/.260/.302 combined over two leagues (both of which hit far better than that and neither of which was that far away from Pena's age), it did not look good.

But the Pirates hung with Pena through 1977 and 1978. In both of those years, again, he struggled to hit and struggled with getting on base. I mean, even though in 1978 he was two years younger than the rest of the Texas League, he was still well below the rest of the league and the rest of his team in AVG, OBP, and SLG. As Posnanski's story tells it, Pena was told prior to his 1978 offseason that he needed to convince the Pirates he could play baseball. Now, Posnanski makes it sound like this was a Dominican epidemic -- not being able to "convince" the major league team that the players could play -- but looking at the stat line makes it pretty clear that the convincing would come with better results and not any sooner. 

As much as teams like high draft picks, there is a meritocratic side to player development. 

Pena took the words about showing something to the Pirates to heart. He ran the stairs at a church every day to build stamina. He swung a heavy bat to develop strength.  And, he developed his signature extended-leg crouch behind the plate. That crouch allowed him to give pitchers a lower target while still allowing Pena to throw out runners trying to steal.

It also didn't hurt that Pena was assigned to Buffalo in the Eastern League in 1979. At that time, the stadium in Buffalo had a short porch in right field, and Pena practiced directing fly balls to that short porch. It worked. He hit an entirely uncharacteristic thirty-four homers that season (he would never again hit more than 15 as a player and finished with 107 over his entire 18-season career) and started hitting for average as well. That led to being promoted to Triple-A Portland in 1980, where he against hit well and used the larger dimensions in the ballpark to run out 13 triples. 

After his strong 1980 Triple-A season, Pena was given a cup-of-coffee in 1980 with the Pirates. He never played in the minors again except for a two-game rehab assignment in 1987. 

In 1981, Pena made the Pirates out of spring training. As a rookie, all the usual questions about how he would perform and react to being in the major leagues were raised. To ease his transition, the Pirates had Pena splitting time with the slightly older veteran of four years, Steve Nicosia. While Pena did not walk much -- 8 times in 223 plate appearances -- he had a good AVG (.300). More importantly, Pena showed that he had great ability behind the plate to call games and throw out runners. Despite playing in just 64 games behind the plate out of 102 total, he finished third in the NL with 10 DP turned at catcher and third in caught stealing percentage with 42.6%.

Coming in to 1982, then, expectations for Pena were high. Local Pittsburgh journalists called Pena a "Rising Star" and made comparisons between Pena and the great Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. Indeed, Pena was named to the first of his five All-Star games in 1982 and, once again, hit fairly well (.296/.323/.435) but, as that slash line shows, Pena had very little plate patience. The old saw that "Dominicans don't walk off the island" certainly applied to Pena.

But to point that out in this context is a bit churlish. Pena's value as a catcher came more from his defense than his offense. In 1983, Pena won the first of four consecutive Gold Gloves in the National League (he would win one more in the American League in 1991). Indeed, in 1984, Tony Pena led all National League players (not just catchers) with 2.5 Defensive WAR

And yet, as Pena matured into a Gold Glover, the Pirates around him started boring downward in the National League East. After consecutive 84-78 seasons in 1982 and 1983 (the second of which was good enough for second place), the Pirates finished last in 1984, 1985, and 1986. 

Perhaps as a result of that terrible run or perhaps in an effort to signal to their young stars Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds that they were now the team's leaders, the Pirates traded Pena away on the eve of the 1987 season, sending him to division rival St. Louis in exchange for three players: pitcher Mike Dunne, catcher Mike LaValliere, and centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. As the excellent Cardinals history blog Retro Simba points out, the trade was considered to be incredibly lopsided in the Cardinals favor at the time. The Pittsburgh press hated the trade. Syd Thrift, the GM, was quoted as saying, "How am I going to explain to my 82-year-old mother when the fans boo me?"

In the end, the Cardinals made the World Series where they lost to the Minnesota Twins in 7 games. Pena hit extremely well that year in the postseason (17-for-43 with 6 walks), but it wasn't enough to overcome the Homer Hankies in the Metrodome.  

Still, the Pirates probably won the trade thanks to how well Spanky and Van Slyke played over the next 5 to 7 years while Pena left St. Louis after three seasons in which he totaled 19 HR, 132 RBI, and a .248/.303/.342 line in 1435 plate appearances (an OPS+ of just 79).

In 1990, Pena went to the American League by signing with the Boston Red Sox.  Pena again found himself in the post-season, and again found himself on the losing end of a playoff series when the Oakland A's beat the Red Sox in the ALCS. The end of Pena's Boston career in 1993 was also the end of his time as a starting catcher.  Yet, Pena was not done as a player. He signed on with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 37 in 1994, serving as Sandy Alomar's backup. That led to two more seasons in which Pena went to the postseason only to lose -- against the Braves in 1995 in the World Series and against the Orioles in 1996 in the ALDS.

After the 1996 season, Pena signed on with the Chicago White Sox. Now 40, he played sparingly as the third catcher behind Jorge Fabregas and Ron Karkovice. As the season progressed, the White Sox were scuffling along near .500, so they decided to give Pena one last shot at the postseason with the Astros. Pena played in just 6 regular season games in Houston after being traded there in August of 1997 to back up both Brad Ausmus and Tony Eusebio. And, as happened in all of his other postseason appearances, he ended his 1997 season -- and his playing career -- with a loss after the Astros lost in the NLDS to the Atlanta Braves.

Mustache Check: Tony Pena definitely has a mustache. Still has one today too.

Family Ties
Most baseball fans of recent vintage are aware that Tony's son Tony Pena, Jr. played shortstop for the Atlanta Braves and also the Kansas City Royals from 2006 to 2009. Another son, Francisco, made it to the major leagues in May of 2014, finishing out a 7-6 loss against the Chicago White Sox on May 20. Francisco had spent most of his career in the New York Mets organization before moving over to Kansas City before 2014.

Tony's younger brother Ramon also played in the major leagues, making 8 appearances for the Detroit Tigers in 1989 and getting lit up like a Roman candle (6.00 ERA, 13 runs/12 ER in 18 innings). In addition, Tony's nephew Rudy Pena made it to Double-A Altoona for 1 game in 2004 in the Pittsburgh organization.

Finally, Tony's daughter Jennifer Amaris is also a competitor of sorts: she is a self-described bikini competitor. Here's a photo of her with her father from October.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1982, I knew who Tony Pena was because the baseball card world was chasing his 1981 Topps Rookie card. To a 10-year-old kid who did not pay attention to stats quite yet (that took until my teens, when I discovered the Bill James Baseball Abstracts), I bought into the "Tony Pena is the next Johnny Bench" hype. 

Also, I was a catcher in little league and found that Pena's catching style was a hell of a lot easier on my knees than the old-school crouch. So, I really did like Pena as a player. 

It's not difficult to find what Tony Pena has been up to since he retired as an active player after the 1997 season. He immediately became a minor league manager -- first in the White Sox system, and then in the Astros system. Then, in 2002, he spent part of the season as the Astros bench coach before being named as the Kansas City Royals manager on May 15 in the wake of the Royals' firing of Tony Muser.  

Pena and the Royals surprised baseball in 2003 by posting a winning record -- 83-79. That earned him the award as the American League Manager of the Year. The Royals handled their above-.500 season about as well as you would expect for them ten years ago, however, and flopped to a 58-104 record in 2004. After an 8-25 start to the 2005 season, Pena resigned, saying that he felt that at the time the team had not "played to the top of our abilities." He added (in a team press release) that "The Kansas City Royals are on the right track by committing to their young players, and I believe the Royals will be contenders for a long time if they don't change their direction."

Perhaps he meant, "the Royals will not be contenders for a long time" but Pena left with more class than I might have had.

After his resignation, Pena joined the New York Yankees organization in 2006. He served for three years as the team's first base coach before becoming the team's bench coach in 2009. He served in that position through the 2014 season.

And damn, his daughter is hot.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Card #137: George Cappuzzello

Who Can It Be Now?
George Angelo Cappuzzello was born on January 15, 1954, in Youngstown, Ohio. He attended Ursuline Catholic High School in Youngstown/Girard, but he apparently is not famous enough to be listed as part of the "Notable alumni" on Wikipedia. For what it's worth, perhaps that is because Cappuzzello's Wikipedia article does not mention his high school affiliation. 

Also for what it's worth, George's Wiki entry is wrong in saying that he played baseball at Florida State. If he played at FSU, then FSU was fielding an ineligible player. I say that because Cappuzzello was drafted by the Tigers in the 27th Round of the 1972 June draft directly out of high school. 

Cappuzzello signed with the Tigers for the 1973 season and was assigned to Anderson in the Western Carolinas League. According to the "Fun While It Lasted" website (which chronicles "dead" teams), Cappuzzello was one of just three players on that Anderson team to make it to the big leagues. Indeed, Cappuzzello is called Anderson's staff ace for his 9 wins and 2.85 ERA. 

Anderson was just the starting point of a baseball odyssey for Cappuzzello that is chronicled on the back of his card. He played there at the age of 19, and it took him until 1981 -- at the age of 27 -- to make it to the big leagues.  Over that time, Cappuzzello bounced from Anderson to Lakeland (Single-A Florida State League in 1974) to Dubuque (Single-A Midwest, 1974) back to Lakeland (1975), then to Montgomery (Double-A Southern, 1975-1976) and all the way up to Evansville (Triple-A American Association, 1976-1977). He apparently spent enough time in Lakeland, though, to meet a local girl who attended my alma mater, Vanderbilt, and married her in 1979.

Over that time, the once bereft-of-talent Tigers system had reloaded. Cappuzzello was overtaken in the system by higher draft picks and better prospects such as Pat Underwood, Jack Morris, and Dan Petry, among others. Thus, Cappuzzello became expendable to Detroit and was one of two minor leaguers whom the Tigers sent to the Cincinnati Reds for Jack Billingham in a spring training trade in 1978.

Cappuzzello pitched reasonably well in his two seasons in the Cincinnati system. He injured a hamstring in 1979, however, and ended up being demoted to Double-A Nashville as a result. When the Reds wanted to send him back to Double-A in 1980, however, he asked for his release and the Reds complied with his wishes. He hooked back up with the Tigers (ironically at Double-A Huntsville) after he made sure that the Tigers were going to give him a fair chance to move up in the system. 

A funny thing happened in Cappuzzello's career, then: he started pitching far better in 1980 than he had before. In a 1982 interview, Cappuzzello chalked it to using his fastball more: 
All through my career, I had been told to throw my breaking pitches. I almost never threw my fastball. Nobody ever said much about it, and I thought that was because everybody thought I didn't have a good one. So I'd throw the breaking pitches, miss the corners and get behind, and then have to come right down the middle with the fastball, and they'd hit it.
Cappuzzello started 1981 in Triple-A at Evansville. There, he shut down hitters to the tune of 1.76 ERA in 46 innings. When a pitcher was needed to replace the struggling Howard Bailey at the end of May in 1981, Cappuzzello finally got his chance in the big leagues. He was hammered in his first start -- leaving with the bases loaded and no one out in the second inning -- and his second appearance ended with Cappuzzello getting stitches after igniting a benches-clearing brawl by hitting Milwaukee's Ben Oglivie (though it's pretty likely that Cappuzzello got the stitches due to friendly fire from his own catcher, Lance Parrish).  He wrapped up his first major league season with a 1-1 record and a 3.48 ERA (4.03 FIP) over 33-2/3 innings.

Coming into 1982, Cappuzzello was penciled in to the Tigers' starting rotation as the Number 4 starter behind Dan Petry, Jack Morris, and Milt Wilcox. By the end of spring training, however, Sparky Anderson used his pencil's eraser to replace Cappuzzello with "anyone but George Cappuzzello." The Tigers released him on March 28, 1982. 

A week later, Cappuzzello signed as a free agent with the Houston Astros. Once again, Cappuzzello pitched well in Triple-A -- this time in Tucson -- and pitched in the majors from May 25 through August 5 for the Astros. He was strictly a mop-up reliever, as the team's record in his appearances was a ridiculous 1-16. His ERA was a respectable 2.79, but that hid peripheral stats that made his FIP 4.27.

As far as I can tell from the various stat websites, Cappuzzello did not pitch anywhere in 1983. He made a minor-league comeback in 1984 in the Yankees organization, but he was not recalled to the majors. After 1984, George Cappuzzello did not pitch in organized baseball.

Mustache Check: Yes, George has a mustache. It's not bushy at all, but he's got one.

Don't You Want Me?
Cappuzzello getting cut at the end of spring training must have had him humming this tune. I'm using it here because there isn't much else to say about George.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I recall nothing of George Cappuzzello's career.  He pitched a total of 53 innings in the major leagues over two seasons more than thirty years ago -- there's no reason TO remember him as a player without some personal interactions.

I'm not alone in not remembering George. Back in 2010, fellow set-blogger Night Owl wrote a Cardboard Appreciation post of George's 1983 Topps card in which he mentions that he too never really knew that George Cappuzzello existed thirty years ago. Neither did I.

These days, George Cappuzzello is an executive recruiter at Key Alliance Staffing according to his LinkedIn page. He finished up a marketing degree at Florida State in 1984 -- which is probably why he did not pitch in 1983 -- and settled in Windermere, Florida (suburban Orlando) not far from where his wife's family was from in Lakeland.