Saturday, May 3, 2014

Card #32: Gene Garber

Who Can It Be Now?
Henry Eugene Garber was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on November 13, 1947.  He attended Elizabethtown High School and Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, which are located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Garber actually attended college when not playing baseball and graduated from Elizabethtown College in 1969.  

Elizabethtown is small-town America -- 21 miles from Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg.   As we will see, this background is what really defines Garber today.  Garber was raised on a dairy farm outside Elizabethtown, in fact, and returned there after he retired.

Garber was selected by the Pirates in the 20th Round (not 19th, as the card says) in the 1965 June Amateur Draft.  Even though he had a very successful career, Garber was only the second best player in that round -- being selected 3 picks after Gene Tenace.  After signing straight out of high school with his home state club just 6 days after being selected, Garber spent three seasons in A-ball, two of them in Raleigh in the Carolina League.  The 1967 season convinced the Pirates that they had something good in Garber, as he threw 138 innings in 18 starts with a 1.89 ERA.  

From there, he was pushed to Double-A York and Triple-A Columbus in 1968 and 1969.  He was called up for a spot start in June of 1969 and gave up three runs on three home runs to the Chicago Cubs.  He threw 2/3-inning 3 days later, and then went back to the minor leagues.  He started 1970 in the majors as a reliever, struggled again, and was sent back to the minor leagues in early June.  After spending all of 1971 in Triple-A, Garber pitched in four games for the Pirates in 1972.  

The Pirates decided that Garber was expendable after the 1972 season and shipped him to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for Jim Rooker.  The Royals kept Garber in the major leagues for all of 1973, and he pitched okay -- not great -- for a surprising Royals team that finished just 6 games behind the World Champion Oakland A's. 

Midway through the 1974 season, however, the Royals decided to send Garber back to Pennsylvania -- this time with the Phillies.  There, he spent 4-1/2 years coming out of the bullpen and saving 51 games , even leading the National League in 1974 in appearances with 71 and games finished with 47.  Life was good for the Pennsylvania native.

Then 1978 came.  Garber was pitching extremely well for the Phillies, who were in first place in the National League East.  The Phillies traded for Rawley Eastwick, another reliever, and they needed starting pitching.  Garber became the odd man out -- or at least the trading chit most capable of getting the starter that the Phillies needed.  So, Garber found himself heading south -- both literally and figuratively -- to the last place team in the National League West, the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Dick Ruthven.

It was later that same season that Gene Garber's name became forever entwined with Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose.  Rose came in to the game on August 1, 1978, with a 44-game hitting streak -- tied for longest in National League history with the 1897 streak by Wee Willie Keeler.  Rose came to bat in a game that was well out of hand -- a 16-4 Braves win against the Reds -- in the top of the 9th inning with  two outs.  Garber, who was the Braves closer, refused to leave the game after 8 innings despite Bobby Cox's request because he wanted to end Rose's streak.  Garber did just that.  By striking out Rose on a 2-2 change-up, Garber -- along with rookie starter Larry McWilliams -- put their names on the map as the guys who stopped Rose.  

Garber pitched for the Braves until 1987, when the Royals picked him up in one of those last-minute waiver-wire deals.  He stuck around for another half-season in Kansas City before hanging up his cleats and retiring.

When this card was issued in 1982, Garber had just turned 34 years old and, was just about to have one of his best seasons in his career.  He through 119-1/3 innings with a 2.34 ERA, winning 8 games (against 10 losses) and saving 30.  The Braves, of course, ran out to a 13-0 start (a record for the best start ever that was tied in 1987 by the Milwaukee Brewers) and ended up winning the National League West before they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.  With team success aiding his cause, Garber finished 7th in the Cy Young Award voting (at a time when the BBWAA overvalued closers, to be fair) and 19th in the MVP Award voting.

Totally Gnarly
In a PDF parked on the SB Nation website from the now-defunct Maple Street Press, writer Mac Thomason makes the case for the idea that there is a curse on the position of closer for the Atlanta Braves.  Garber was traded over to the Braves in 1978.  The article claims that the Braves never settled on a closer even after Garber had 47 saves over two seasons and then was replaced by Rick Camp.  

Camp sucked in the role in 1982, so Garber came back and, in 1983, saved 30 games and set both the season and career record for the club.  Next came Steve Bedrosian, who did well but ended up in the rotation for a while before the Braves sent Bedrosian to the Phillies for Ozzie Virgil.  Bedrock then saved 40 games and won the Cy Yount Award in 1987 in Philly.  But, in the meantime, the Braves signed the skeletal remains of Bruce Sutter (after Whitey Herzog and Sutter's forkball decided that Sutter did not need a rotator cuff).

So, Garber ended up closing again. 

Garber then was traded, and, in rapid succession, the Braves employed Jim Acker, Kent Mercker, Juan Berenguer, Alejandro Pena, Mike Stanton, Mark Wohlers, Jeff Reardon, Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker, Mike Remlinger, Steve Karsay, John Smoltz (who is the one who supplanted Garber as the all-time Braves saves leader in 2004), Dan Kolb, Chris Reitsma, Kyle Farnsworth, Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Billy Wagner as their closer up to the time that the article was written.  Of course, since then, Craig Kimbrell appears to have locked down the role of Braves closer.  But that is one heck of a weird run post-Garber.

 A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1982, I was aware of Gene Garber only in that I was following the Braves 13-0 start to the season -- and eventual loss in the playoffs to the St. Louis Cardinals -- with the rest of America.  Garber didn't stand out for any reason back then, to be fair, despite his clear role as closer.  Back then, bullpen roles were not as big a deal in many respects. Pitchers pitched when the team needed them, and most teams only went 9 or 10 pitchers deep.  A closer was nearly as likely to be used in the 7th or 8th inning to snuff out a rally -- and then finish the game -- as they were to show up in the 9th.

Gene Garber these days is back farming, but it isn't your usual type of farming.  He's an emu farmer.  Along with his wife Karen and his sons Greg and Mike, Gene owns GMG Farms and has several thousand emus.  He's also very involved in farmland preservation and serves as chairman of the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board (as of last May, at least). 

Despite rising every morning at 4:30 AM, Garber loves every minute of this lifestyle.  As he said in 2008 to Sports Illustrated, "I enjoy everything about farming.  I enjoy getting out and working the ground and planting.  And it gives me the opportunity to spend time with my sons.  I've had two jobs in my life, and I've loved them both."

Not everyone can go back to where they grew up and be happy.  Gene Garber is truly a lucky man for that.

1 comment:

  1. Emu farmer. Now I can throw out some random facts about Garber. Great post Tony!