Friday, May 30, 2014

Card #50: Buddy Bell

Who Can It Be Now?
David Gus Bell was born August 27, 1951, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because that's where his father, major leaguer Gus Bell, was playing right field in 1951.  Buddy spent much of his childhood in Cincinnati because his father played from 1953 to 1961 with the Reds.  The Bell family stayed in Cincinnati for Buddy's school years, so Buddy graduated from Archbishop Moeller High School in 1969.  For about 15 years, Bell was the most well-known graduate of Moeller in baseball.  He was later surpassed by both Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin.

Despite being a high school star, Bell was not drafted until the 16th Round of the 1969 June Amateur Draft by the Cleveland Indians.  He signed nearly immediately and, as a 17-year-old, was sent to the Gulf Coast League.  He didn't hit very well there, but he was nearly 2-1/2 years younger than the average player in the GCL. Still, he did walk more than he struck out, which tends to be a good indicator of future success.

The Indians pushed Bell first the Single-A Western Carolina league in 1970 and then to Triple-A Wichita in 1971.  At the age of 19, Bell found himself playing against guys who averaged being more than 6 years older than him.  Even in the face of that, Bell still hit the ball well and did not embarrass himself at third base.  His numbers -- .289/.344/.413 -- were solid though not spectacular.  

Perhaps Bell got pushed through the system because of being Gus Bell's son.  Whether true or not, Bell stuck in the majors out of spring training after the 1972 players' strike.  It probably did not hurt that the Indians were terrible in 1972, either -- they finished 7 games ahead of the terrible Milwaukee Brewers that season at 72-84...and that was an improvement of 12 wins and 92 winning percentage points over their 1971 disaster.  

Bell played right field for the first half of the year and then in centerfield for the Indians because Cleveland had Graig Nettles at third base.  Because the Indians were one of the most poorly run franchises in major league baseball from about 1960 until the early 1990s, the Indians made sure to trade Nettles for 25 cents on the dollar, getting John Ellis, Jerry Kenney, Charlie Spikes, and Rusty Torres in exchange for a 27-year-old third-baseman who had received MVP votes the year prior when the Indians won 60 games.

The Nettles trade, though, meant that Bell could move to third base, where he would become known as one of the best fielders of his day.  Once at third base, Bell settled in immediately, as he went to the first of his five All-Star Games in 1973, where he tripled off Claude Osteen. Bell enjoyed five more seasons in Cleveland after that one, though he was never an All-Star again for the Tribe.

Perhaps because Bell was becoming too good of a baseball player, he was traded after the 1978 season to the Texas Rangers in exchange for the palindromic Toby Harrah.  Cleveland fans were outraged.  One AP story appeared in the Toledo Blade on December 17, 1978 -- a little over a week after the trade -- under the headline, "Bell Trade Has Indian Fans On The Warpath."  At that point, the Bell-for-Harrah deal was being likened to the Rocky Colavito trade to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Harvey Kuenn in 1960.  Bell was quoted as saying, "I hate to leave Cleveland.  I love this town and the guys on this team."  Perhaps the best quote about the trade came from a "pretty girl dressed up for disco dancing" in a pub: "He was so beautiful. I'll never like the Indians again."

Beautiful Buddy went to the heat of Arlington, Texas, and, in 1979, began a run of six straight Gold Glove Awards at third base.  Every year in Texas, he hit 10 or more homeruns and drove in 100 runs one time in 1979.  He was selected to the All-Star Game in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1984, and received MVP votes in every full year he played there except 1983.  And, while Bell is mostly remembered for his glove work, he won a Sliver Slugger Award in 1984.  

Bell was traded to his hometown Cincinnati Reds during the 1985 season in exchange for outfielder Duane Walker and, eventually, pitcher Jeff Russell.  His three years in Cincinnati saw him reach a career high in homeruns with 20 in 1986, but the team never got over the hump -- they finished second all three years that Bell finished in Cincinnati behind the Dodgers (1985), the Astros (1986), and the Giants (1987).

In 1988, Bell made his way back to Texas when he was traded to the Houston Astros.  By this point in his career at age 36, he was a shell of his former self at the plate.  The Astros let Bell go after the season, and he signed for 34 games in his final season with the Texas Rangers.

By all indications, though, Bell was a good character.  Indeed, he was honored in 1988 by being named the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award Winner, an award which is given annually to the baseball player who best exhibits the Iron Horse's character and integrity on and off the field.

Family Ties
Of course, when you talk about Buddy Bell, you cannot help but mention his family ties.  As I mentioned above, his father Gus Bell was a four-time All-Star who was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1964.  Buddy's son David Bell followed in Buddy's footsteps by starring at Moeller High School in Cincinnati before making it to the major leagues. Another of Buddy's sons, Mike Bell, also played in the major leagues for Cincinnati for a year in 2000.

In 2000, a nostalgia-filled look at baseball in the 1970s was made by filmmaker Eric Porvaznik, director of the forgettable Steven Seagal/Keenen Ivory Wayans vehicle The Glimmer Man.  Porvaznik's movie used interviews with various people associated with the famous 1970s afro that was attached to Oscar Gamble's head.  The movie was called Looking for Oscar, and Buddy Bell was one of a host of baseball players who were interviewed in the movie.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Bell was always a guy who seemed like George Brett-lite to me.  He wasn't as good of a hitter as Brett, certainly, though Brett did not have the same range that Bell had.  But that said, Bell was a very good baseball player for a long time.  He was only a good hitter -- 201 homeruns, 1106 runs batted in, and a career slash line of .279/.341/.406 that put him about 10% better than the league average.  

In discussing Darrell Evans, though, Bell's name came up in the Hall of Fame discussion.  The SB Nation Cincinnati Reds site, Red Reporter, used a Bill James construct called the Keltner list, so discuss whether Bell should be in the Hall of Fame.  The problem with trying to include Bell in the discussion is that his value as a player comes more as a defender than as a hitter at a position that, since the 1950s, has been a hitters' position. Most telling is the question of whether Bell was ever the best player at his position during his career -- and that answer is an emphatic "no" thanks to everyone from Brooks Robinson to Mike Schmidt to George Brett to Wade Boggs to even Darrell Evans.  As I said above, Bell was a very good -- even verging on great -- ballplayer for a long time.  But he is not a Hall-of-Fame calibre player.

Since Bell's retirement as an active player, his name recognition and his understanding of the game have combined to keep him employed regularly in baseball.  He worked with the White Sox from 1991 through 1993.  Then, in 1996, he was named manager of an absolutely horrendous Detroit Tigers team that finished 53-109.  He pulled them up to 79-83 in 1997, but then was fired midway through 1998 with the team languishing at 52-85.  A couple of years later, he managed for two seasons and an additional 22 games with the Colorado Rockies.  Then, in 2005, he managed the Kansas City Royals for nearly 3 seasons.  He quit the position with the Royals after 2007 due to the desire to spend more time with his family.  

That led him to accept a position back in the Chicago White Sox front office.  He currently is a vice president and assistant general manager and also serves as the team's minor league director.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Card #49: Alvis Woods

Who Can It Be Now?
Alvis Woods a/k/a Al Woods was born August 8, 1953, in Oakland, California.  Woods came from a large family -- he was one of 11 children -- and he admitted in news stories in the early 1980s that he was the quietest of his siblings.  Woods attended St. Elizabeth High School -- an urban Catholic college prep school, according to its website -- in Oakland.  Directly out of high school, Woods was drafted in the 32nd round of the 1971 June Draft, but he did not sign.  

He was drafted again by the Minnesota Twins in the 2nd round of the June 1972 Secondary draft and signed as a draft-and-follow with the Twins after he spent some time at Laney College -- a junior college in Oakland.  Woods signed in time to play in 1973 in low-A ball as a 19-year-old, where he hit .302/.401/.422 in 137 plate appearances.  Woods worked his way up the chain in the Twins system so that, by 1976, he had reach Triple-A in Tacoma.  

At every stop, Woods hit reasonably well, showed a little bit of home run pop, stole a couple of bases, and played decent enough defense in the outfield.  His abilities were not enough, however, to convince the Twins to protect him from selection in the 1976 Expansion Draft. As a result, the Blue Jays selected Woods as the 15th overall pick in the expansion draft.  

While Woods did not start the first game in Toronto Blue Jays history, he did appear in the game starting first as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning and then coming into the game in right field.  His first major league at-bat came against Francisco Barrios, and Woods made it count -- hitting a two-run home run on the first pitch he saw that put the Blue Jays ahead 7-4 in a game that they would eventually win 9-5. Woods finished his rookie season with the Blue Jays with a .284/.336/.382 line -- giving him an OPS of 718 which put him at 96% of the average for the league. 

His 1978 season was one to forget, though -- he struggled immediately out of the gate and got sent down to Triple-A just 9 games into the new season.  He did not return to the majors until July 21.  He enjoyed a hot August, pushing his batting average up to .270.  His September was a cold one, though, and he finished at just .241 with a .278 OBP. 

The Blue Jays struggled through their first several seasons as a major league team -- as you might expect.  In 1980, Woods put up his best season as a major league player under manager Bobby Mattick.  1981's strike cut into his overall numbers, but again Woods looked like he not doing badly.  

Then 1982 came.  The Blue Jays hired Bobby Cox as their manager.  Cox employed some platooning involving the lefty-hitting Woods and a host of others -- Barry Bonnell mostly, in left field, but also Wayne Nordhagen, Tony Johnson, and Leon Roberts.  At least that is how Woods explained it in an interview he did in 2012.  More to the point, Bonnell shifted to left field -- taking Woods's spot -- while youngsters Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield jumped into the lineup in center and right fields, respectively.  By 1983, the Blue Jays had gone from doormat to 89-73.  

In the process, though, the Blue Jays decided that Woods was expendable.  At the end of the 1982 season, Woods was traded to the Oakland A's in exchange for Cliff Johnson.  The trade was one of sure genius by Pat Gillick, who took advantage of then-neophyte GM Sandy Alderson and the vacuum in leadership there created by Billy Martin's firing.  I say that because the A's released Woods at the end of Spring Training in 1983, while Johnson hit 22 home runs as the Blue Jays designated hitter.  

Woods eventually signed back up with the Blue Jays later in 1983, but he never again reached the majors with the Jays.  Not until 1986 did Woods even get a cup-of-coffee from the Minnesota Twins, who used him to fill in for injuries in May and June of 1986, and then called him up to be a pinch hitter at the end of the year.  

Woods closed out his baseball career playing for Tabasco in the Mexican League in 1987.

Trivial Pursuit
Only 114 Major League players have hit a homerun in their first major league at bat.  Woods was only the 11th player in history at the time to have hit a homerun on the first pitch he ever saw in the major leagues.  Since Woods accomplished this feat in 1977, 16 more players have also hit a homerun on the first pitch they saw as of 2012.  By comparison, hitters have hit for the cycle 304 times  and pitchers have thrown 283 no-hitters.  

But, then again, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Woods's descent off the Blue Jays major league roster was swift and hastened by the coming surge of youthful talent enjoyed by the Jays in the early to mid-1980s.  While a youth movement is no guarantee of winning down the road, it certainly worked well for the Blue Jays. 

Between 1979 and 1985, they had turned an outfield of Al Woods, Rick Bosetti, and Bob Bailor into an outfield of George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield.  The upgrades both in hitting and in fielding were impressive, and it led to the Blue Jays winning the AL East in 1985.  

In that regard, it is not unlike what you will see with any expansion team.  The "first" team tends to be shunted aside fairly quickly for youth.  The first seasons of futility lead to high draft picks, which allows the expansion team to infuse what should be top-level talent into their farm system.  Since the farm system had been stocked previously with a lot of castoffs, the top-level talent will rise to the top quickly -- sometimes too quickly, but often at a pace that the player can handle.  As a result, the top guys get to the majors and start showing their talent quickly.  

Meanwhile, the Al Woods of the world are traded for spare parts or simply become spare parts themselves.  

These days, as Mr. Woods says in the 2012 interview linked above, he is a Deputy Sheriff in the San Francisco Sheriff's Department.  He has a page at LinkedIn as well.  For that, I thank him for his service to San Francisco County.

The one ironic item about Woods I found is actually the news story to which I cited for the fact that Woods is one of 11 children.  The story was written in spring training in 1981, and it talks about how Toronto loved hockey and football but not baseball.  In that context, the article mentioned that Toronto was "kinda negative" (that's Woods's words).  

The ironic part relates to Woods's success at the plate in 1980.  He hit .300 that year despite injuries.  The story introduced the idea as follows:
So when Woods hit .300 last year despite injuries . . . the skeptics said wait until 1981 because he'll hit .241. ... The last time someone hit .300 in Toronto, sure enough the next season he batted .240.  That was Bob Bailor.
Al Woods did not hit .241 in 1981, though.  He hit .247.  Take that, naysayers.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Card #48: Bobby Castillo

Welcome back to me from a little vacation at the beach, and welcome back to the 1982 Topps set!

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Ernie Castillo, Jr. was born on April 18, 1955, in Los Angeles, California.  According to this interview he did for TV Learning, he grew up five minutes from Dodger Stadium, so getting to pitch and play for his hometown team was a dream come true.  And, to be fair, Castillo was not kidding about growing up practically next door to Dodger Stadium -- his high school, Abraham Lincoln High, is literally 2.9 miles and 10 minutes away from the Stadium.

One website claims that Castillo was a gang member in Northeast LA in the 1960s who ran around "with all his homeboys and homegirls from Lincoln Heights . . . ." I have not seen any other references to this, but it is certainly a plausible statement.  The problem I have with believing that is that the website mangles a few other details.  It's not big stuff, and it's tough to imagine a reason to use Castillo as the foil for the "gang member leaves gang to be a pitcher" meme other than truth, but it does take away from that write-up.

Anyway, Castillo was drafted for the first time out of Los Angeles Valley College in the 6th round of the 1974 January Regular Draft by the Kansas City Royals.  Even though he is listed as being signed as a pitcher, the Royals had him playing outfield and third base for their Gulf Coast League affiliate.  The Royals saw him as being too short -- at five-foot, ten inches tall -- to be a pitcher, so they released him.

That off-season, Castillo was playing in a semipro game at the Evergreen Recreation Center in Boyle Heights, California.  Into the batter's box stepped 40-year-old former minor leaguer Mike Brito against Castillo.  Castillo struck out Brito on a wicked screwball -- one that fooled Brito so badly that Brito almost hurt his back, according to Castillo.  As a result, Brito arranged for Castillo to come to Mexico to pitch.

Castillo then appeared in the Mexican league in 1976 and 1977.  The Dodgers eventually purchased Castillo's contract from the Royals in June of 1977.  Castillo finished up his summer in Mexico and then made his way to Dodger Stadium in September.  The 1977 Dodgers ran away with the NL West Division title, winning by 10 games over previous champion the Cincinnati Reds, so Castillo got the honor of starting the final game of the season against the Houston Astros in Los Angeles.

Castillo made the Dodgers as a reliever in 1978.  In spring training that season, then-GM Al Campanis made the point to the Associated Press that the Dodgers were very pleased with Castillo, saying, "He's really come along since he developed that screwball.  He's got a good chance to make the club."

Despite the happy talk in the spring, Castillo got roughed up that year, however, and he did not distinguish himself.  His first game of the year was a save, but otherwise the Dodgers lost every other game in which Castillo appeared.  Castillo was pinned with the loss four times -- three of which came before the Dodgers sent him back to Albuquerque in June to get more seasoning.

The 1979 season saw Castillo start in Albuquerque.  The Dodgers struggled that year, finishing at 79-83, so they started blooding youngsters like Castillo.  He got his chance in early August to pitch the rest of the season exclusively as a reliever, and he pitched well -- 7 saves and two wins (one caused by his own inability to save the game) in 19 appearances with a microscopic 1.11 (or 1.13, if you believe Topps) ERA that season.

After that year, Castillo was sent to the Arizona Instructional League.  It was not because the Dodgers thought he needed the extra work, however -- it was because Castillo was going to teach the screwball to Fernando Valenzuela.  As the book Viva Baseball!: Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger by Samuel Octavio Regalado noted, the benefit to having Castillo and Valenzuela work together that fall went beyond simply pitching.  As quoted by Regalado, Valenzuela's biography by Mark Littwin stated that Castillo and Valenzuela "immediately became companions on and off the field.  Fernando was naturally attracted to someone who might help him, who spoke the same language, and who shared some of the same experiences."

Castillo pitched very well again in 1980 for the Dodgers, pitching 61 games as a reliever with a 2.75 ERA over 98-1/3 innings.  At age 25 at the start of the 1981 season, things were looking good for Castillo in Los Angeles.  His protege Valenzuela was up in the majors and pitched extremely well, and his Dodgers won the World Series.  To be fair, the Dodgers did well in 1981 despite Castillo -- his 5.33 ERA was terrible if not entirely deserved (3.92 FIP shows that).

Castillo was traded to the Twins after the 1981 season for two minor league players.  The Twins decided to make Castillo a starter at the age of 27.  To be fair, Castillo did well in the role, leading the Twins in ERA and wins and finishing second to Brad Havens in strikeouts for a terrible Twins team.  Castillo remained with the Twins for two more seasons before returning to the Dodgers as a free agent before the 1985 season.  That year was his last as an American Major Leaguer. He closed out his career by playing in Mexico in 1986 and in Japan for at least a couple of seasons before retiring.

Everybody Wants You
As mentioned above, Castillo did not appear for the Dodgers at all in 1982.  He was traded to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for minor leaguer Paul Voigt and Scotti Madison.  Madison would not appear in the major leagues until 1985 with the Detroit Tigers.

Trivial Pursuit
The Mike Brito story involving Castillo is interesting for two reasons.  The first, of course, is that it got Castillo his start toward playing for the hometown Dodgers.  The second is that, at the time, Mike Brito was not scouting for anyone.  Do you know who Mike Brito is?  
(Photo credit – Ron Cervenka)
If you ever watched a Dodgers game in the 1980s or 1990s, you saw Brito behind home plate, wearing his Panama hat, holding a cigar in one hand and the radar gun in the other. He's known as one of the Dodgers' best ever scouts, and without Bobby Castillo he never would have had a job.  The reason was that, as the LA Times article about Brito's at bat mentioned, Al Campanis gave Brito a job contingent on getting Castillo to sign with the Dodgers.  Castillo did so, and the rest -- which includes not only Castillo, but also Fernando Valenzuela and Yasiel Puig -- is history.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Bobby Castillo does not exactly strike fear in anyone.  I mean, take a look at that card photo. His glove looks like it is as big as Castillo's torso.  Even in 1982, the photo made me think that Castillo was no bigger than my 10-year-old self borrowing a glove from an adult and getting on a baseball card -- except, of course, for that huge mustache.

These days, Babo (as he is also called) basically gets one line from all the major baseball and encyclopedia sites for being the guy who taught Fernando the screwball. To be fair, the best I can do is to point out that Castillo is one of the most active Dodgers Alumni in making appearances on behalf of the Dodgers.  I mean, if you go to the Dodgers website and look at the "Dodgers Alumni League" page, there's a picture of Bobby Castillo at the Pico River PONY Baseball Opening Ceremonies.  

The guy loves being a Dodger.  Can you blame him?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Card #47: Jeffrey Leonard

Who Can It Be Now?
Jeffrey Leonard was born on September 22, 1955 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended Overbrook High School.  Leonard is the only baseball player to have attended that school, but he is in no way the most famous alumnus of Overbrook -- that title certainly belongs to actor/rapper Will Smith.  Indeed, Leonard isn't even the best athlete to come out of Overbrook since NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain attended Overbrook around the time Leonard was born.

Leonard was more highly regarded by colleges for football and basketball than for baseball. In a story about Leonard near the end of his career in the Seattle Times, the story was told that Leonard "got 60 scholarship offers for football, five for basketball and none for baseball, where he played shortstop and twice hit two home runs in one inning."  It should not be surprising, then, that he was not drafted.  

His signing by the Los Angeles Dodgers sounds like a 1970s version of a Horatio Alger tale -- poorer African-American boy grows up in tough neighborhood, rises above his circumstances, and ends up in the big leagues.  That's not far off from the truth.  As a high school player, baseball scouts ignored Leonard. Leonard believed that he was ignored because his school only played a 12-game season and lost several of those to rainouts.  

One day, a Dodgers scout, Ed Libertadore, saw Leonard play and gave Leonard a business card.  Leonard was certain that the Phillies were going to draft him so he stuffed the card into his uniform pocket and forgot about it.  When Leonard went undrafted,  he went back to retrieve it from the dirty laundry pile at his high school. Leonard's father called Libertadore, who came to watch a game (with three Phillies scouts also in attendance) that was -- surprise -- rained out.  The next day, the Phillies scouts did not return, but Libertadore did and ran Leonard through some drills.  Libertadore said Leonard was"raw, but had tools, a pretty good prospect."  Leonard continued, "I took him over to my car and signed him."

Leonard got a $500 signing "bonus" and a new baseball glove.  Libertadore threw in some extra money for equipment and a new suit.  

Leonard was just 17 years old when he signed in 1973, and his first minor league assignment sent him clear across the country to Bellingham, Washington -- a Navy town nearly on the Canadian border.  He spent the better part of two seasons at Bellingham in short-season ball and hit very well.  

Perhaps because he was not drafted and, therefore, did not have a "pedigree," he wasn't really pushed to advance through the Dodgers system until around 1976.  The Dodgers gave him a 7-game preview of Triple-A at the young age of 20 after Leonard spent the season in the Single-A California League.  Leonard hit .296 and slugged .556 in 27 at-bats and did not appear overmatched other than not taking any walks.  

The Dodgers organization realized that Leonard could hit, and they moved him up to Double-A San Antonio in 1977.  The Dodgers gave Leonard a brief September call-up in 1977, and Leonard hit .385 in 27 at-bats.  

Leonard moved up to Albuquerque in 1978, but he was stuck in an organization that had Dusty Baker, Bill North, and Reggie Smith in its outfield and was contending for World Series titles (they lost to the Yankees that year). So, when the Dodgers needed to come up with a player to be named later to send to Houston in September to complete a trade made earlier in the year for backup catcher Joe Ferguson, Leonard was made available.  The Astros grabbed Leonard.

In 1979, Leonard got his first opportunity to play regularly at the major league level.  He did not hit for power, but he did hit and get on base well -- .290/.360/.350.  He finished a distant second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Dodgers pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, but it was certainly a successful year.

Despite the good season in 1979, the Astros made Leonard their fourth outfielder in their run to the National League West title.  Leonard struggled early in 1981, and the Astros felt he was expendable. So, on April 20, 1981, Leonard and Dave Bergman were sent to San Francisco for first-baseman Mike Ivie.  Leonard was sent down to Triple-A immediately on his arrival with the Giants, and he flourished in Phoenix -- in 204 plate appearances, he his .401/.451/.636 and added 18 stolen bases in 19 attempts.  So, when the major leagues resumed after the strike, he was in San Francisco.

He played in the minor leagues again in 1982, but that was to get himself back into shape. Leonard came clean that year about the fact that he had a cocaine problem and sought and received treatment for his addiction.  

After that time, Leonard was clean and his performances improved as well in many respects. He was an all-star twice -- once in San Francisco in 1987 and again in Seattle in 1989.  That did not stop him from being a divisive character, however. In 1987, Leonard and Will Clark got upset with each other in the visitors clubhouse in Philadelphia due to what Clark called later to be Leonard's "unyielding abuse." With the Giants in Philadelphia, Leonard had a nephew in the clubhouse.  The nephew asked Clark for an autograph.  Clark turned Leonard's nephew down and added a gratuitous racial epithet to boot.  Clark says that did not cause the fight between the two, but they did fight. 

Two years later, when the Giants made the World Series, Clark still had not let the incident go -- calling Leonard a "tumor" and saying, "we got rid of him; now look where we are." Clark was referring to the fact that Leonard was traded in June of 1988 to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for shortstop Ernest Riles. At least one San Francisco Examiner columnist, Art Spander, was not a fan of the trade, calling it a "joke" and saying that the Giants "are giving away ballplayers."

Leonard responded to Clark by saying, "It's about time Will Clark came out of the closet. Talk about my personality! Let's unveil his true personality. He's a talented hitter, but he's a prejudiced bastard."

The idea that Leonard was a difficult character was not new.  Former Brewers and Mariners manager Del Crandall managed Leonard at Albuquerque.  His comment in 1990 was that Leonard, "had considerable talent.  But he really wouldn't talk to anyone but his teammates. At times he appeared, I'm not sure of the right word, maybe angry.  It might have been a defense against management or anyone who had to evaluate him."

The Brewers kept Leonard only for the rest of the 1988 season, letting him go to Seattle for the 1989 and 1990 seasons. By that time, Leonard had become an elder statesman of sorts, especially with younger African-American players.  For instance, a July 30, 1989 story in The Milwaukee Journal questioned openly whether Gary Sheffield would have settled better in Milwaukee had Leonard still been with the Brewers.  In fact, in Seattle, none other than Ken Griffey Jr. cited Leonard as being a major positive influence on him.

After his two-year contract with the Mariners ended, though, the Mariners released him on October 13, 1990.  Leonard played in 1991 for the Royals' Triple-A farm team in Omaha, but never made the majors and retired after that.

Pass the Dutchie
As mentioned in passing above, Jeffrey Leonard was one of many major league baseball players who got caught up in the cocaine-fueled early 1980s.  Not only that, but Leonard also testified at the Pittsburgh Drug Trial of Curtis Strong.  The book citation here says that Dave Parker allegedly smuggled drugs into the US in a catcher's mitt and sold it himself.  Initially, Leonard received a one-year suspension that was never enforced, and rumors were that his punishment was reduced by then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

The Message
I've forgotten to use this subject a few times for others who have done or are doing a great deal of charity work.  I'm bringing it back here, though.

Jeffrey Leonard's daughter Christine suffered through stage 3 breast cancer.  As a result, he set up a charity called "Jeffrey 'HacMan' Leonard Runs Bases for a Cure" to promote cancer awareness and to seek support for his daughter.  Leonard and his wife Karen have a joint Facebook page that is listed as the administrator for the Cancer charity.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1982, I was not all that familiar with Leonard.  By 1988, though, I obviously was since he played for my Milwaukee Brewers. I remember Leonard as the archetypical anti-hero in many respects.  He was great to his own teammates, yet he kept his distance from the media and the fans.  Perhaps because of that -- and perhaps because of the fact that I was a trying-to-be-rebellious 16-year-old -- I loved Leonard's "One Flap Down" home run trot.  In the video at this link, Leonard explained that the One Flap Down trot actually originated somewhat by accident.

Since retiring as a player, Leonard managed for a while in the minor leagues in the Oakland A's organization. In the story about his appointment to the position with the Modesto A's, he mentioned that he had become religious and credited Jesus Christ for his turnaround. Leonard hung around for a little while in the minor leagues before coaching the Antelope Valley College Marauders in 2003 and 2004.

More recently -- as in 2014 -- Leonard rejoined the San Francisco Giants organization as a Community Ambassador.  According to the press release regarding the position, Leonard is scheduled to attend the Breast Cancer Awareness Night at AT&T Park on Wednesday, July 2.  

His "One Flap Down Foundation" is still active and aims to assist single parents who have cancer.  If you wish to learn more about that fight, you can click through here. That website tells the story of his stepdaughter's fight against breast cancer -- it is worth your time to read it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Card #46: Jerry Augustine

Who Can It Be Now?
Gerald Lee Augustine was born on July 24, 1952, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and grew up in Kewaunee.  For those of you not familiar with Kewaunee, it is due east of Green Bay and located right on Lake Michigan halfway between Manitowoc and Sturgeon Bay. Augustine went to Kewaunee High School, went undrafted, and then went clear across the state of Wisconsin to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for college.  

In the mid-1970s, the Brewers were struggling both to find talent and to find ways to get people to come to the games.  The 1974 June Draft saw them pick four guys from the State of Wisconsin in consecutive rounds between 12 and 15.  In order, they were Jim Gantner (from Wisconsin-Oshkosh), Thomas Farina (drafted from Pulaski High School in Milwaukee, he lasted all of 7 games in the New-York Penn League), Daniel Morgan (hailing from Superior, Wisconsin, Morgan did not sign and went to the University of Minnesota instead), and Jerry Augustine.

Despite the lack of pedigree in being a fifteenth round pick, Augustine was promoted aggressively through the system in a fashion somewhat appropriate for a collegiate pitcher. He started in 1974 at Danville in the Midwest League and had facially acceptable numbers -- a 7-4 record and a 2.56 ERA.  Still, he only struck out 5.3 per 9 innings in A-ball while walking 3.5 per 9.    

The club pushed him to Triple-A Sacramento for 1975.  He didn't exactly shine -- a 4.78 ERA with only 3.1 K and 4.6 BB per 9 innings.  Even so, the Brewers gave Augustine a big-league call-up in September of that year, having him start 3 games.  After that, Augustine did not go back to the minor leagues until 1984.

Outside of his 1975 cup of coffee, Augustine had two years as a Brewer where he sported an ERA better than the league average -- 1976 and 1979.  Otherwise,  Augie was solidly below average every year.  He didn't strike people out -- only 3.3 K/9 for his career and never getting more than 68 strikeouts in a season (that was in his single 200+ inning year, 1977).  He was a finesse pitcher, a swingman who, when things were going well, induced a lot of ground balls.  

When the Brewers started to contend in the American League East in 1978 and thereafter, Augustine's role changed.  Yes, he could still hop into the rotation for a spot start here and there.  But, the Brewers treated him as a mop-up man.  For example, in 1980 for a team that finished 86-76 and in third place in the AL East, Augustine pitched in 39 games.  In those 39 games, the team's record was a miserable 7-32.  Only on 10 occasions did Augustine enter the game with the score tied or with the Brewers winning.  He came in 3 games with the team down a run, eight times with the team down two, six times with the team down three runs, four times with the Brewers losing by four runs, and eight times when the team was losing by five or more runs.  To me, that sounds like the very definition of the low-leverage mop-up man.

Coming in to 1982, then, Augustine was a guy on the bubble.  A story ran in March of 1982 in the Milwaukee Sentinel (the old morning paper) that Augustine was fighting to make the staff.  Indeed, later that season, when the Brewers traded for Don Sutton on August 31, room had to be made on the 25-man roster for Sutton.  That room was created when the Brewers designated Augustine for assignment.  

Strangely, though, it was all a paperwork issue because he was back with the team two days later after the Triple-A season was over.  That move, however, made him ineligible for the post-season roster -- meaning that the home-grown guy who played through the bad years in the mid-1970s sat and watched his team as a fan.  As he put it the next spring, "it still hurt inside.  I wanted to play.  I kept dreaming at night after the games that I got into the game and I helped win it.  Stuff like that.  It didn't make it any easier, but there was nothing I could do about it."

Augustine's career as a major leaguer ended after April of 1984.  Augustine pitched four times in the first seven games of the season and did not give up an earned run, but the Brewers sent him down to Triple-A Vancouver to make room on the roster for fellow lefty Rick Waits.  That same year, Augustine moved through two other organizations -- St. Louis and the Cubs.  He finished his career pitching in Triple-A for Baltimore and, finally at the end of 1986, the New York Yankees.

Family Ties
Augustine's brother Dale played football at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.  Dale's son and Jerry's nephew, James Augustine, played college basketball at the University of Illinois and professionally with the Orlando Magic from 2006-2008.

This Is Radio Clash
Since 2009, Augustine has served as a pregame and postgame analyst on Fox Sports Wisconsin for Milwaukee Brewers games.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Even as a kid, I learned to cringe a bit when Jerry Augustine came into the game. Instinctively -- because I didn't have the stats to prove it -- I knew that the game must be getting out of hand.  Now, at least, I can relax a bit in knowing that my instincts then were correct.  

That said, whenever Augustine came into the game -- and even when I hear his name now -- I think of a Viennese song written in around 1800.  Huh?  Yes:

Okay, back to Jerry Augustine.  In the time between his retirement from baseball as a player and his current gig as a TV analyst, Augustine has had two main jobs.  First, he served for 12 seasons as the head baseball coach for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (and yes, there are a LOT of schools that are the University of Wisconsin-somewhere).  After that and outside of his TV roles, his main work in life is as an American Family Insurance agent.

Two final random items:

1.  Augustine is a very diligent signer of autographs through the mail, as fellow blogger Cynical Buddha found out last year.

2.  You can follow Augie on Twitter, though it does not appear that he tweets very regularly.

When I was a kid, Jerry Augustine was not high on my list of favorite Brewers.  I recognized the limitations on his talents.  I wanted to grow up to be a Robin Yount/Paul Molitor/Cecil Cooper type -- the star, the guy everyone watches.  If you asked me now, I would take the life that Jerry Augustine led -- being a local boy who got to play for the local team in the majors for nearly a decade -- in a heartbeat.   

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Card #45: Rick Cerone

Who Can It Be Now?
Richard Aldo Cerone was born on May 19, 1954 in Newark, New Jersey.  He attended high school at Essex Catholic High School and college at Seton Hall University.  While at Seton Hall, he played in the 1974 Amateur World Series and won a gold medal alongside fellow future major leaguers Steve Kemp, Ron Hassey, Marv Foley, and Barry Bonnell...and why three future major league catchers were necessary for an 11-day competition, I do not know.

After his junior year at Seton Hall, Cerone was drafted 7th overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 1975 June Amateur Draft.  It was the same draft and same round in which Rick Sofield was drafted, and Cerone turned out to be the most successful first round pick that year.  

On his signing, the Indians sent Cerone directly to Triple-A Oklahoma City.  Cerone hit .250/.375/.350 at OKC in 170 plate appearances.  He came up to the majors that same year in August for a few games, and then again for three games at the end of the season for a mediocre Indians team managed by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.  Cerone followed a similar pattern in 1976: start the year in Triple-A (this time in Toledo) and then get called up for 7 games starting in August.  

Apparently, those 14 games convinced the Indians that they did not need Cerone around.  To be fair, the Indians appeared to have no clue what they were doing at this point.  They traded two catchers -- Cerone and Alan Ashby -- to the Toronto Blue Jays.  Cerone went to the Jays because the Indians were fixated on getting Rico Carty back to the team after the Jays grabbed him in the expansion draft.  Joining Cerone in the trade for Rico Carty was John Lowenstein.  Lowenstein spent spring training with the Blue Jays before he was traded -- back to Cleveland.

Cerone again split the 1977 season between the majors and Triple-A.  In a weird anomaly created by expansion, Cerone actually spent his time in Triple-A with the Houston Astros Triple-A Affiliate in Charleston, Illinois because Toronto did not have a farm system level above short-season A ball.

In 1978, finally, Cerone was in the majors to stay (other than rehab assignments).  He split time at catcher with Alan Ashby for a terrible Blue Jays team.  He finished with a .223 AVG, a .284 OBP, and a .298 SLG -- wow, are those numbers ugly -- and an OPS+ that was 36 percent below the average player in the league.

The Blue Jays were seemingly impressed by these numbers and let him play 136 games as a starter in 1979.  Cerone hit for a little bit more average and power -- .239 AVG, .358 SLG. 

Despite this, Cerone was still somewhat in demand.  After the 1979 season, the Blue Jays sent Tom Underwood, Ted Wilborn, and Cerone to the New York Yankees in exchange for Chris Chambliss, Damaso Garcia, and Paul Mirabella.  The Yankees were looking for someone to replace the irreplaceable -- Thurman Munson -- after Munson's death in a plane crash on August 2, 1979.

Perhaps because he was back home and playing for the team that he loved as a child in Newark and against all odds and statistical projections, Cerone had his best season in the major leagues in 1980.  He hit 14 homers, had 85 RBI, hit .277/.321/.432 (his only SLG above .400 in his career), and finished seventh in the MVP race behind George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Willie Wilson, Cecil Cooper, and Eddie Murray -- and ahead of Rickey Henderson and Robin Yount, among others.

Cerone never again reached those lofty heights.  Certainly, as a catcher, injuries took their toll, but Cerone simply turned back into what he was before 1980 -- a solid defensive catcher whose hitting would be a negative if he had to play regularly for his team.  The Yankees traded for Butch Wynegar after the 1981 season, and Wynegar (a switch hitter) took over the main catching duties.  Cerone was buried on the bench a bit by Billy Martin in 1983 -- a year that Cerone described as, "a tough time.  In 1983, Billy was 91-0.  The 71 losses he blamed on somebody else".  

Yogi Berra barely used Cerone in 1984, paving the way for Cerone to be traded to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Brian Fisher.  His time with the Braves was unremarkable; one Braves blog calls Cerone the #9 worst Atlanta Brave ever.  Perhaps because of this, the Braves decided that they would rather have Ted Simmons's skeletal remains on their bench in 1986 and traded Cerone and two minor leaguers to the Milwaukee Brewers for Simmons. From there, Cerone went back to the Yankees, then to the Red Sox, then back to the Yankees, then to the Mets, and then to the Montreal Expos.

Cerone did have one brief year of glory as a backup in 1990, though, on his third tour of duty with the Yankees -- he had his one, and only, .300+ AVG in a 49-game, 146 plate appearance season.  Otherwise, he was in demand as a backup catcher who would be stretched as a starter.

We Got the Beat
If you had to ask me what player or players I would have expected needing to come up with a new headline for related to being a musical talent, I would have gone through at least fifty or one hundred names before I got to Rick Cerone.  But, that's why we have this Go-Go's classic from 1982 here -- because someone used vinyl to record Rick Cerone's singing voice for posterity.

Yes, in 1981, Rick Cerone and The Dusty Road Band released a song called "A Long Run Home." It was a song recorded for the benefit of earthquake victims in Italy.  The New York Times in 1981 referred to it as an "uptown country-western song." I have not yet been able to find a version that you can listen to online.  I also did not look too hard to try to find it.

While not technically a screen appearance, the New York Times article by Murray Chass linked above notes that Cerone was hired by something called "10" Jeans -- whom he selected over Jordache -- to promote their blue jeans.

Trivial Pursuit
I've lost the citation, so forgive me for that, but here's a very trivial note: Rick Cerone was both the first player to debut and the last player to retire from the 1975 Draft class.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
On a personal level, I met Mr. Cerone after one or two Brewers games in 1986 when he spent his one year in Milwaukee.  He was pleasant and quick to sign autographs for kids, from what I recall, and he enjoyed talking to people about baseball even after games. There weren't enough players like that even then, so it was always appreciated.

Rick Cerone was a decent player for a long time, and in 1982, there was an open question as to whether the 1980 season was an aberration or whether it should be the expectation. Certainly, in the offseason after 1980, people thought Cerone was going to be the next Yankees catching star.  It didn't turn out that way for him, but he led a successful career.

Indeed, his baseball playing career led first to an eight-year stint behind the microphone for the Yankees and Orioles in the 1990s.  After that, Cerone brought baseball to Newark by founding the Newark Bears and the independent Atlantic League in 1998 (he later sold his interests in both).  He is so well respected in Newark that the city named its best baseball field for him -- it's Rick Cerone Field at Branch Brook Park.  Indeed, Cerone was named one of 40 "New Jerseyans We Love" by New Jersey Monthly magazine along side such luminaries as Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen -- at least at some point.

Cerone is also active in charitable events.  He has participated in at least one golf tournament to benefit the Sean Kimmerling Testicular Cancer Foundation, named for the former WPIX anchor and pregame announcer for the Mets who died of the disease in 2003 at the age of 37. He was honored as Man of the Year by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Northern New Jersey and Rockland County Chapter for his "hands-on help in raising awareness and funds towards diabetes research."

Today, if you want to meet Cerone and have some money to spend on it, you can.  Would you like Rick to join you for lunch? It's just $2,750.  He will even come to your wedding for that price.  If you'd rather play a round of golf with him, that will run you $3,500.  For a personal appearance, you can get an hour of Rick's time for $4,400.

Wow, he charges lawyer rates.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Card #44: Britt Burns

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Britt Burns was born on June 8, 1959, in Houston, Texas.  Don't let that birthplace fool you though -- Britt Burns is a Birmingham native.  He attended Huffman High School in Birmingham and graduated at the age of 19 in 1978.  

Why was he older than the rest of his classmates?  When he was 13 years old, he missed an entire year of school due to the fact that he needed pins inserted into his hips to stabilize the growth centers at the upper ends of his femurs.  As a 1982 Sports Illustrated article put it, Burns still "lurches from side to side as he walks, as if he were on stilts."  Despite this, Burns was an incredible high school pitcher at Huffman -- in 139 innings, he had a 20-1 record with 292 strikeouts, 30 walks, and just 30 hits allowed.

Even so, the only reason that the White Sox had even heard of Burns was happenstance. As a senior, Burns threw an 18-strikeout no-hitter in the rain in front of two dozen scouts.  Burns said that he had hoped that the game had impressed the scouts enough but, if it had not, he was prepared to take Auburn University up on its scholarship offer and play baseball there. 

Burns never got to Auburn, because the White Sox drafted him in the third round of the 1978 June Draft. Oddly enough, the White Sox were not one of the teams represented by a scout at Burns's no-hitter.  That organization heard about the game thanks only to former Chicago Tribune book editor Robert Cromie sending a newspaper article of the game to Bill Veeck.   In response, Veeck then sent a scout to Birmingham. The scout (later pitching coach Ken Silvestri) was sufficiently impressed and the Sox drafted Burns.

Bill Veeck was not one to let potential revenues stand in the way of player development. Burns spent all of 51 innings in the minor leagues in 1978 at Single-A Appleton and Double-A Knoxville before the White Sox called Burns up to start a game against the Detroit Tigers on August 5, 1978.  Even though he had been drafted just two months prior, Burns was not the first player from his draft class to debut in the majors -- the Braves pushed third-baseman Bob Horner directly from the campus of Arizona State University into the lineup at Fulton County Stadium.

Putting it lightly, Burns was overmatched entirely -- as you might expect that most high school pitchers would be.  He sported a 12.91 ERA in 7-2/3 innings, giving up 14 hits and striking out 3.  Those results convinced the White Sox to let Burns develop somewhat more in 1979 in the minor leagues.  He didn't enjoy great success in Double-A or Triple-A that year, though he did display fairly good command and a high strikeout rate for the time.  

The White Sox, though, were not a good baseball team in the late 1970s or into the early 1980s.  So, having very little to lose by blooding new talent, the White Sox decided to start 1980 with Britt Burns in their starting rotation.  Burns responded fairly well, throwing 238 innings and finishing 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA -- a finish which put him fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Joltin' Joe Charbonneau.  

Looking at more advanced metrics, though, shows how good of a year Burns really had -- he led American League Pitchers in Wins Above Replacement at 7.0 WAR.  That number put him fifth overall in the AL behind George Brett's 9.5, Rickey Henderson's 8.7, Willie Wilson's 8.5, and Robin Yount's 7.1.  The BBWAA was distracted by the loud noise and shiny stuff that was Steve Stone's 25-7 season (WAR: 2.4) and handed Stone the Cy Young Award.

When the calendar turned to 1981, the White Sox were pleased with their young starting pitching led by Burns, Rich Dotson, and Steve Trout.  Burns turned in another good season in that strike-shortened year.  He went to his one career All-Star game after the strike ended in August of 1981.  Burns finished seventh in the Cy Young race with two vote points and fifth in WAR with 4.0.

However, 1981 was a very bitter one for Burns.  On July 16, his father was struck by a car outside his family's summer home.  He never recovered and passed away at the age of 51 on September 9.  From the time that baseball began again in August, Burns was on airplanes regularly as he commuted back-and-forth between Chicago (or wherever the White Sox were playing) and Birmingham.  In retrospect, Burns found that his father's condition gave him "strength and determination [that he] never knew [he] had."

Many prognosticators saw the White Sox pitching staff in 1982 and thought that certainly they would be contenders in the American League West.  And, they did finish 87-75, 6 games behind the division winning California Angels.  Burns missed time due to injuries, and LaMarr Hoyt took over as the staff ace.  Certainly, 1983 was a happier season for the Sox, even if Burns again missed time with various ailments.  The White Sox won 99 games and the AL West, but they then lost out in the ALCS against the eventual World Series champion Baltimore Orioles.

Burns pitched two more years in Chicago, finishing 1985 with another seventh place Cy Young finish after an 18-11 record.  At age 26, Burns was a man in demand.  The White Sox recognized that another similar year like that from Burns would make him very expensive. So, the Sox traded him in December of 1985 to deep-pocketed Uncle George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees.

The Yankees viewed Burns as the missing cog to push them over the top to the AL East Division title.  Unfortunately for Burns, however, his hips became a problem again.  As a New York Times story from 1985 mentions, Burns was examined by Dr. Dan Kanell (who is the father of former NFL Quarterback Danny Kanell); the doctor told Burns and the club that Burns risked being left "a cripple" if he continued to pitch.  

Burns was afflicted with osteoarthritis, a disease which made even putting on his shoes an extremely painful process.  After 1985, Burns got divorced and spent a lot of time alone elk hunting.  The elk hunting made him realize that he might yet have a chance to pitch again because he was reasonably mobile out in the wilderness.  So, in 1990, he tried.  Despite his best efforts, though, Burns never did pitch for the Yankees in the regular season.  

Trivial Pursuit
While he apparently spent a lot of time hunting elk in the American West, Burns did not content himself to a life of leisure and hunting camps.  Indeed, he saved most of his salaries from the early 1980s and owned and operated "a dude ranch" in Colorado during that time. I can't help but see Billy Crystal in City Slickers whenever someone mentions the term "dude ranch."

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I was well aware of Britt Burns, Richard Dotson, Steve Trout, LaMarr Hoyt, and the rest of that White Sox rotation in 1982.  After all, the Sox were that team that was located just 90 miles south of Milwaukee County Stadium.  I'll let you in on a little secret: people in Wisconsin aren't particularly enamored with their more urban and urbane neighbors to the south.  If you doubt me on that, try attending an NFL game between the Bears and Packers and see how that goes.

After his aborted attempts to come back and pitch despite his hip condition in the early 1990s, Burns followed the path that Mike Cubbage took -- he became a "baseball man," a lifer.  When his old pal Dave Dombrowski was named the General Manager of the new Florida Marlins in 1993, Burns gave Dombrowski a call to see if the Marlins had any room in their organization for Burns to be a coach.  

The Marlins hired Burns and assigned him to the Gulf Coast League.  From there, Burns worked his way up the chain and became the Marlin's minor league pitching coordinator before Jeffrey Loria bought the team.  Burns went on to work in the Astros organization. Finally, in December of 2012 at the age of 53, Britt Burns was signed again by the Chicago White Sox.  Burns found himself back Birmingham after a long trek around the minor leagues of America.  As of this writing, Burns is still the pitching coach in Birmingham.