Monday, March 31, 2014

Card #6: Fernando Valenzuela

Who Can It Be Now?
Fernando Valenzuela burst onto the scene in 1981 as a twenty-year-old rookie with the Dodgers by starting the year 8-0 with five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. In his first eight starts, Valenzuela pitched at least nine innings in every single one of them. Fernandomania took over in Los Angeles in part due to the fantastic results and in part due to Fernando's unorthodox windup in which he looked skyward in the middle of his motion -- as his hands went over his head -- before he looked back at the plate and his catcher.  

Despite the fact that the Dodgers played only 110 games in 1981, Valenzuela still started 25 games, completed 11 of them, threw 192-1/3 innings, and struck out 180 batters.  In the post-season, he added another 40-2/3 innings.  He won both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards, and helped lead the Dodgers to a World Series Championship over the Yankees.

In 2011, Valenzuela was ranked as the fifth-best Latino hurler (players had to be retired at that time) in baseball history, behind Dennis Martinez, Luis Tiant, Pedro Martinez, and Juan Marichal.  The video accompanying the story on shows Valenzuela's windup.

Trivial Pursuit
Valenzuela spoke basically no English when he first came up to the Dodgers.  In 1981, this was a pretty big deal, it seems, since many of the stories about Valenzuela's phenomenal rookie season mention this fact.  Then-Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia learned Spanish and became Valenzuela's personal catcher thereafter.

Also a fun fact, seeing as this is opening day:  Prior to the start of the 2014 season, Valenzuela was the last pitcher to make his first ever start in a season opener.  That record is scheduled to end today, because, due to an injury to Yu Darvish, Tanner Scheppers will be making his first career start for the Texas Rangers against the Philadelphia Phillies.

In fairness to Fernando, Scheppers has a couple of seasons' worth of relief appearances in his background prior to today's game.  Fernando only pitched in 10 relief appearances in September of 1980 (at age 19) prior to opening the 1981 season against the then-defending-NL West Champion Houston Astros.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1981, it was impossible to miss Fernando Valenzuela.  Despite baseball's efforts to kill the game by cancelling a third of the year under the watch of then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, every major news outlet had stories about Valenzuela's incredible beginning to his career as a starter.  

As pointed out in an excellent SABR article about the phenomenon -- and it was that, much more than anything since (other than seeing Nolan Ryan pitch in the early 1990s) in my opinion -- people came out in droves to see Valenzuela.  To quote from the article:
Fans flocked to Dodgers games at home and on the road. Eleven of Fernando’s 12 starts at Dodger Stadium in 1981 were sellouts. On the road during his first two years, Valenzuela’s starts drew more than 13,000 more people than other Dodger starters. Prior to 1981, the Dodgers had only broken the 3 million mark in attendance twice. From 1982 to 1986, home attendance was over 3 million every season. The Dodgers broke the major league attendance record in 1982 with 3.6 million fans and slipped only slightly to 3.5 million in 1983.
More than anyone, Valenzuela gave Los Angeles's Latino community a reason to care about el beisbol over futbol or other diversions.  Fernando was a native Mexican who grew up incredibly poor, and that background was extremely important to drawing the Mexican-American diaspora in LA in to baseball.  As the SABR article mentions, most Latino stars before Fernando were from the Caribbean -- guys like Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente and Dominican Juan Marichal.  

Fernando opened up Mexico to baseball, and his legacy is apparent in the number of players signed from there since.  Players such as Yovani Gallardo, Teddy Higuera, Dennys Reyes, Jorge de la Rosa, Joakim Soria, and many, many others were all born in Mexico and owe at least a small debt of gratitude to Fernando opening the eyes of the often blinkered MLB scouting community of the 1970s and 1980s to the possibility that players from places other than the Dominican might be able to play in the big leagues.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Card #5: Nolan Ryan Highlight

Who Can It Be Now?
It's the one, the only Lynn Nolan Ryan, whose fifth of seven no-hitters is highlighted in this card.  It had been over 6 years -- since June 1, 1975 -- since Ryan had thrown a no-hitter. Ryan spent his childhood throwing rocks and other objects at "any target", according to Wikipedia.  

In the 1950s, that was called being a kid.  These days, that would be called being a vandal.  

Trivial Pursuit
Since this card celebrates Ryan no-hitter #5, let's look at some of the trivia about all of Ryan's no-hitters.

  • Ryan threw his first four no-hitters within the space of two calendar years plus 17 days -- between May 15, 1973 (#1) and June 1, 1975 (#4).
  • Despite this fact of timing, Ryan never had the same catcher behind the plate twice for any of his no-hitters.  In order from 1 through 7, the catchers were Jeff Torborg, Art Kusnyer, Tom Egan, Ellie Rodriguez, Alan Ashby, John Russell, and Mike Stanley.
  • The Angels lineup for Ryan's first no-hitter featured three future major league managers: Jeff Torborg, Frank Robinson (who, at age 37, hit 30 HRs and drove in 97 RBI), and Bobby Valentine.  In Ryan's second no-hitter two months later, none of those three played.
  • There was a gap of 6-1/2 years between no-hitter four and five.  Between no-hitter five and six, there was a gap of just over 8-1/2 years.
  • In Ryan's first three no-hitters, his second baseman was Sandy Alomar.  In Ryan's last no-hitter, the opposing second baseman was Roberto Alomar.
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
It's no secret that the sabermetric community believes that Nolan Ryan is overrated due to the love affair that baseball fans have with Ryan's strikeout records.  The reason for this belief is that Ryan (a) is first all-time in walks allowed with 2,795, and second place among Hall of Famers -- Steve Carlton -- isn't really close as Carlton is over 960 walks behind; (b) Ryan is first in the modern era with 277 wild pitches; (c) Ryan has the most losses in the post-1920 era; and (d) Ryan hit 158 batters. 

Look, Ryan is one of the best pitchers of all time by any measure.  He may have mediocre stats in some respects, but his lifetime K/BB ratio is still over 2.0 -- a measure of a good pitcher, though the best guys these days tend to have a ratio closer to 3.0 K/BB.  He had such good stuff that hitters couldn't hit the ball hard against him even if they could put the ball in play -- only 6.56 hits per nine innings prove this.

Statistics can be used to prove any argument you want.  Ryan didn't pitch on very many good teams, which could be either a defense for his rather poor win-loss record or an indictment of Ryan to say that either he chose low-stress situations with Texas teams (since as a free agent he signed first with the Astros and then with the Rangers) or he didn't do very much to make his team better, whatever that means.

I am of the opinion that Ryan is one of the best pitchers ever if only for his longevity and his strikeout totals.  Even in the swing-from-the-heels 2000s, he's still far and away the all-time strikeout king -- only Randy Johnson is within 1000 of him.  Saying he lost a lot of games is like saying that Christie Brinkley has trouble staying married -- they both are still fun to watch.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Card #4: Pete Rose Highlight

Who Can It Be Now?
Pete Rose spent his entire career being one of the most divisive characters of his time and perhaps of all time.  "Charlie Hustle" was Rookie of the Year in 1963, MVP in 1973, a 17-time all-star, and, of course, he broke the all-time career hits record once held by the All-Time most divisive character in baseball history, Ty Cobb.

Even so, Pete Rose also was and is an incurable narcissist who probably believed himself to be bigger than the rules of the game that absolutely, 100% prohibited players, coaches, manager, owners, trainers, bat boys, grounds crew, and ball girls from betting on baseball games.  The definition of Narcissism is someone who pursues gratification from vanity or an egotistic admiration of one's own physical or mental attributes that derive from arrogant pride.  Rose's entire personality is tied to his physical abilities and attributes from baseball, and to me that makes him a classic narcissist (disclaimer: I'm not a medical doctor or psychologist nor do I play one on TV).

Family Ties
Rose's son Pete Jr. played a grand total of 11 games for the 1997 Cincinnati Reds.  Junior honored his father on the first pitch of his first major league at-bat by crouching in Senior's trademark fashion.  Just as Pete Sr. spent time in jail (for tax evasion), Junior hit the cell block for distributing a drug called GBL which, if taken orally, is converted to GHB -- the date-rape drug.  According to Wikipedia, Junior said he gave it to his teammates to help them "relax."  Sure, Junior.  Keep talking.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Just as timely as ever with Opening Day coming up this weekend, the Pete Rose for Hall of Fame discussion has come back up.  Author James Reston, who wrote the book Collision at Home Plate about Rose and Bart Giamatti (that's Paul Giamatti's dad for you younger guys and gals), has changed his mind about Rose's banishment from baseball.  

The basic gist of his argument to me is essentially that Rose has suffered enough through 25 years of banishment.  Indeed, Reston even compares Giamatti's decision to banish Rose as similar to the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie.  For what it's worth, Rushdie parlayed his fatwa into a four-year marriage to Padma Lakshmi, so it must not have been all bad.  

Okay, back to the topic at hand.  Should Pete Rose's banishment from the game be overturned to allow the sportswriters to vote on his Hall of Fame candidacy?  It's a tough question, but one on which I say no.  

The sadist in me wants to deny Rose the narcissist his reinstatement and possible enshrinement until after Rose dies -- just so he can't gloat and enjoy it.

The analytical side of me says that Rose broke clearly stated, clearly identified rules.  It is not like the steroid issue because while steroids were and are illegal, the best that could be said was the the players using steroids were violating a policy which had no punishment attached to it until 2005.  

Everyone in baseball knew what those guys were doing and condoned it.  

No one in baseball knew what Rose was doing, and everyone in baseball knew that betting on baseball would result in lifetime banishment on the first offense.  

So, my take in the end is Rose stays out unless and until we decide that betting on baseball is acceptable for active players and managers.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Card #3: Tim Raines Highlight

Who Can It Be Now?
Tim Raines was the prototypical leadoff hitter who could steal bases, hit home runs, take a walk and get on base, and generally make the game exciting.  The fact that Raines set a record for steals in a season in 1981 with 71 is incredible because he hit that record in only 88 games.  At that pace, had he played a 150-game season, Rickey Henderson would have been chasing Raines and not Lou Brock in 1982 -- because Raines would have stolen 121 bases in those 150 games.

Pass The Dutchie
This song by Musical Youth was released in October of 1982 and hit number 10 in the US. According to the entirely-lacking-in-citations section on Wikipedia, the song was a cover of two songs -- "Gimme the Music" by U Brown and "Pass the Kouchie" by The Mighty Diamonds; this second song is a reference to passing a "cannabis pipe."  Dutchie (or Dutchy) now can refer to a blunt rolled in a Dutch Master Corona cigar.  See, the things you learn here.  Anyway, this category will refer to anyone who got caught up in the rampant drug use of the early 1980s.

Tim Raines holds an infamous record: he was the last player in Major League Baseball to have been involved with the Pittsburgh drug trials.  Raines admitted that he would carry cocaine in his back pocket so that he would not lose his stash in the locker room and, as a result, Raines made sure to always slide headfirst into bases.

The best thing about Raines being the last active player involved in those trials is that he lived -- and thrived -- for years after getting treatment and getting clean.  Others -- as we will hear the stories with later player's cards -- were not so lucky.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I mentioned Rickey Henderson above, and it is with Rickey Henderson that Tim Raines will forever be compared and contrasted.  They were contemporaries -- both appeared in their first major league game in 1979 (Raines at 19, Henderson at 20), both played into a fourth decade by appearing in the 2000s in games, both played left field, and both probably hung around a bit too long at the end of their respective careers (though Raines had a far better reason for doing so than Henderson did).  

The problem for Raines is that his talents were a bit more subtle than Henderson's talents were.  Raines didn't hit more than 18 homers in any one season, while Henderson hit over 20 four times.  Raines didn't steal more than 90 bases in any one season, while Henderson topped 100 three times.  Raines didn't get to play in New York until the twilight of his career, while Henderson spent his prime age 26 through 29 seasons with the Yankees.

If Raines had to be the best at his position -- whether it be leadoff or left field -- to get into the Hall of Fame, then he must resign himself to never reaching that pinnacle.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?  We'll talk about that another time.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Card #2: Ron Davis Highlight

Like a baby learning to walk, this blog is putting one hesitant foot in front of the other.  On to Card #2:

Who Can It Be Now? 
Ron Davis was a fireballing righty who teamed with the imposing Goose Gossage to form a bullpen tandem that made coming back to try to win games in the late innings against the Yankees a very difficult task.

For what it is worth, Davis still holds the record for most consecutive batters struck out in a relief role.  Based on how pitchers are used in the middle and late innings these days, unless you get a guy whiffing people in a mop-up role or in an extremely long extra innings game, this record could stand for another 30 years.

Family Ties 
Baseball ability tends to run in families.  To celebrate those ties and named in honor of the 1980s sitcom of the same name which debuted in 1982, we have this category.

Ron Davis's son is current (as of today, at least) Mets first baseman Ike Davis.  Interestingly, while Ron was brought up Baptist, Ike's mother is Millie Gollinger, who is Jewish.  In doing research into his family tree, Ike found out that much of his mother's family (originally from Lithuania) perished in the Holocaust.

A Few Minutes with Tony L. 
I didn't like Ron Davis much by the time this card came out in 1982.  That is because he was a New York Yankee.  

The 1981 season, of course, was interrupted by the players' union strike and resulted in the first time that baseball went to a three-tiered playoff to have the divisional champion of the "first half" play against the divisional champion of the "second half."  The Yankees "won" the first half of the season, finishing at 34-22 in the first 56 games of the season.  After play resumed in July, Milwaukee went on a run and finished the second half as the divisional champions with a 31-22 record.  

In the combined standings, that meant that the Brewers "won" the Division by finishing 62-47, one game ahead of the second place Orioles.  The Yankees finished at 59-48, third (by one percentage point) and tied on record with the Detroit Tigers 2 games behind.  

In the first round of the playoffs, the Yankees and Brewers had to face off in a 5-game series to decide who would play the winner of the divisional series between Oakland and Kansas City from the West.  The series went 5 games, with the Yankees beating the Brewers 3 games to 2 -- thwarting the Brewers come back from being 2 games down in the series.

Ron Davis played a key role in the Yankees winning both games 1 and 2 and in winning the series, pitching 6 scoreless innings of one-hit ball.  Having robbed me of the possibility of an American League Championship Series in Milwaukee in 1981, Davis and Gossage immediately became unwelcome in my world.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Card #1: Steve Carlton NL Strikeout Record

Welcome to the 1982 Topps Blog.  Let's get this show started.

Who Can It Be Now? 
The Men At Work song introduces Steve Carlton, who set a record in 1981 for the most strikeouts by a pitcher in the National League, passing the immortal Bob Gibson.  With interleague play since 1997, my question is whether these league-specific records still exist and are still kept.  Even in 1982, highlighting a league-specific record seemed a bit dubious.

That said, it almost looks like Carlton's left arm has been amputated at the elbow in this photo.

Trivial Pursuit 
This category is named in honor of the fact that one of 1982's most requested Christmas presents was a copy of Trivial Pursuit:

Steve Carlton was bilked out of most of the money he earned prior to 1983 by his unscrupulous agent, David Landfield.  Landfield put Carlton on an "allowance" during Carlton's time in the major leagues and, in the end, embezzled most of the money.  This led Carlton to sue Landfield in 1983 in Federal Court in Philadelphia.

Totally Gnarly  
Totally Gnarly will celebrate the weird and strange things that come up when researching and is named this in honor of the introduction by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa of "Valspeak" in 1982.

If you are a conspiracy theorist, then Steve Carlton should be your favorite baseball player.  The linked article is from the April 1994 issue of Philadelphia Magazine and appears on the internet at the Deadspin Stacks.  The follow-up from author Pat Jordan provides the most interesting and illuminating paragraphs:
Carlton was odd. He told me, "I'm up here because I wanted to be secluded because of what America's becoming," or something like that. So I changed the subject and told him about a new gun I had bought. I'm into guns. For some reason, I knew that would perk him up. So I mentioned that I had gotten a Czechoslovakian military pistol, a CZ 85.

He said: "Oh yeah, that's a great gun. You know you'd better bury that in PVC pipes because the UN is coming in black helicopters to confiscate all of our guns."

I said, "Oh, really?"

He said, "Yeah, it's a world organization that's dictated by the Elders of Zion, the twelve Jews in Switzerland who control the world."
On that note, let's just get up slowly and walk backwards away from the keyboard....

A Few Minutes with Tony L.  
As "60 Minutes" was the top rated show in America that wasn't named "Dallas", we'll close each discussion with my Andy-Rooney-like thoughts about what I can recall thinking about each player in 1982, if anything, and where my opinions are today.

Because Carlton was in the National League, I didn't give much thought to Carlton other than recognizing him as a great pitcher.  Everything I read about him brought up his amazing 1972 season with the Phillies and, then, the fact that he stopped talking to the press at some point in 1973.  Due to the trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies, I forever associated Rick Wise with Steve Carlton.

I recall reading, though, that he never responded to his fan mail, so to 10-year-old Tony, that made Carlton a bad guy despite being a really incredible pitcher.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Someone Needed to Do It

Now, in physics, that may not be true. Certainly in our biospheres, however, so long as you don't destroy an area with chemicals, a forest that is cut down will see the undergrowth and seedlings will come back within weeks to fill in that hole. 

As the Wikipedia article cited above mentions, nature abhorring a vacuum is a commonly cited misconception which "may owe more to its colloquial usage in modern times than anything else, as the phrase is commonly used to demonstrate the fleeting nature of opportunity as it is recognized and quickly seized by an opportunist before another opportunist beats them to it. This is sometimes referred to as 'finding a niche'."

That's what I am doing here -- finding a niche.

But 1982 was such a great year for me as a baseball fan. If you have read my other blog, you know that I am a Milwaukee Brewers fan. That means that 1982 was the one and only time I have ever seen my Milwaukee Brewers play in (and unfortunately lose) a World Series. I was a 10 year-old kid in 1982, so I was at my most impressionable while still being able to remember things today about that season.

1982 was also the year I really started collecting baseball cards in earnest. I was able to put together the entire 1982 set by buying wax packs, and my mom was kind enough to pay the $10 plus $2.50 shipping and handling for me to buy the 1982 Topps Update set through the mail.

So, 1982 has a lot of meaning for me as a baseball fan and as a collector. This blog will try to do justice to the cards, the players, and the goings on in 1982.

Let's start with some context for what this year was like.


The top selling song for 1982 was the song that started the year at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart: Olivia Newton-John's paean to the gym and other workouts, "Physical".

Yeah, I didn't like that song much even then. Earworm from hell.

The Number One song did not turn over much in 1982 -- only 16 total songs shared the 52-week calendar, including everything from the classic J. Geils Band song "Centerfold" to Rocky III's (and Auburn's) "Eye of the Tiger" to "Truly" by Lionel Richie.

I'm not sure who 1982's Justin Bieber or One Direction or New Kids was -- maybe it was John Cougar with "Jack and Diane"?


I remember well how god-awful cold it was in January of 1982: January 17 was "Cold Sunday", with the all-time low for Milwaukee of −26 °F (−32 °C) being set on that day.

Also in 1982:

  • The Falkland War between Argentina and the United Kingdom took place. 
  • Wayne Williams is convicted of killing 2 adult men in 1979-1981 and receives two consecutive life terms. 
  • Baseball is delayed in several northeastern cities by a blizzard dumping 1-2 FEET of snow. 
  • The Weather Channel first aired. 
  • Aston Villa won the European Cup by beating Bayern Munich in the final in Rotterdam. 
  • In September, 7 people in Chicago die by ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol. 
  • EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World opens. 
  • On November 30, Michael Jackson releases Thriller. Oh, and there is your Justin Bieber. 

That is just a tip of the iceberg for the year 1982. Hopefully, my run through the cards of 1982 will be enjoyable for me and for all of you.