Thursday, May 8, 2014

Card #37: Dan Graham

Who Can It Be Now?
Daniel Jay Graham was born July 19, 1954, in Ray, Arizona.  Interesting, Ray is now a ghost town which is the site of a large copper mine which, in 1958, enveloped the city of Ray.

Graham was drafted for the first time in the 21st round of 1973 June Amateur draft by the San Francisco Giants with the 485th pick overall.  Rather than signing with the Giants, Graham instead attended Mesa Community College -- a school which over the years has produced dozens of pro baseball players and 33 guys who made it to the major leagues. After his first semester, Graham was drafted again in the Secondary Phase of the third round of the 1974 January Draft.  As an interesting side note, Graham was drafted three picks before Brad Van Pelt -- a two-time football All-American out of Michigan State.

Once again, Graham did not sign.  He enrolled at the University of La Verne in California, a private college run by the Church of the Brethren, a German version of the Quakers. When Graham played at ULV, his teammates included Dan Quisenberry and future Phillies manager Nick Leyva

Graham was drafted for the final time in the 5th Round of the June Draft in 1975 by the Minnesota Twins and signed with them.  Graham was sent to Wisconsin Rapids in the Midwest League, where he split his time between 3B and catcher.  

He did okay in adjusting to professional baseball generally there, but he truly blossomed in 1976.  In Reno in the California League, Graham put up some incredible numbers: in 595 plate appearances, he hit 29 homers, drove in 115, hit .320, and walked 102 times.  Those numbers produced a gaudy OPS of 1.019 based off an OBP of .436 and SLG of .583.  

Once the Twins saw that they might have a real hitter on their hands, they pushed Graham up to Double-A Orlando and, after just 45 games there, to Triple-A Tacoma in 1977. In addition, the Twins decided that catcher was no longer Graham's position and they moved him to 3B.  

The position change really did not help Graham to progress, and one look at the Twins roster in 1977 or 1978 shows why.  The Twins of that time were teetering on the edge of being decent under Gene Mauch, but they also were pretty well set at catcher -- with switch hitter Butch Wynegar debuting as a 20-year-old in 1976.  

First base?  Nope, that belonged to future Hall of Famer Rod Carew and, when Carew was traded for four additional players in early 1979, by Ron Jackson (who had been obtained in that same off-season in a different trade between the Angels and Twins).  

What about at third base? Once again, the Twins had a player they liked in Mike Cubbage -- who was, as of 1978, just 27 years old.  Then, in 1979, the Twins called up their hot-shot third-round pick from 1976, John Castino -- who promptly was named the 1979 American League Rookie of the Year.

With that kind of organizational logjam, the Twins did what any well-run club would do -- they traded Graham to try to get something in return that they could use.  It being the Twins of the late 1970s and early 1980s, they traded a quarter for two dimes, however, and obtained Tom Chism, who is the subject of a fascinating biography on the SABR website.

Graham came to the Orioles with little fanfare.  He started the 1980 season with Triple-A Rochester and was not called up until early May.  The Orioles put him back behind the plate to give him some more positional flexibility.  After being called up, Graham enjoyed a season that his minor league numbers -- especially those for 1978 in Toledo -- would have predicted.  

Graham got significant playing time -- 86 games -- for an Orioles team that won 100 games but finished 3 games behind the AL East winners, the New York Yankees.  Manager Earl Weaver employed Graham as the left-handed half of a catching platoon with Rick Dempsey, and the results were impressive.  Graham had a slash line of .278/.310/.481 -- an OPS+ of 115.  He hit 15 home runs and drove in 54 total runs.  Yes, he could have walked more -- just 14 walks in 286 plate appearances -- but his other numbers kept him in the lineup.  

Orioles fans loved their new catcher.  Some blog commenters recall fighting in the backyard in 1980 as to who got to role play as Dan Graham.  The group known as the Oriole Advocates voted Graham as their Favorite New Oriole for 1980 -- an award whose other winners included Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken, Jr., among others.

But, as well as Graham played in 1980, that was as badly as he played in 1981.  His power dropped -- only 2 home runs in 156 plate appearances.  He drove in just 11 runs during the entire strike-shortened campaign.  His walks were way up as a percentage of plate appearances, but he simply could not make contact.  He had a batting average of just .176, an OBP of .244, and SLG of just .239.  

A game story from the September 9, 1981 game against Cleveland tells some of the story of Graham's horrible year.  Coming into that game against Cleveland -- one in which Graham went 2-for-2 and drove in 2 of his 11 runs for the year -- Graham had been hitless in 24 previous at-bats.  A quote from Graham is very telling:
"It was a curveball up and out of the strike zone," Graham said of his two-run double in the first inning.  "If I swing and miss that pitch, Earl's going to go nuts," Graham said.  "I've been swinging and missing that same pitch for three months.  Tonight I hit it." [emphasis added]
There's an old "Demotivational" poster about how winners never quit and quitters never win, but if you never win and never quit, you are an idiot. I am not calling Graham an idiot. though, because his problems may have been caused by Earl Weaver.  During the 1981 season, Graham said that Weaver pulled him aside and told him to become more of a dead-pull hitter. Graham related a few years later:
"The more I tried, the more it screwed me up.  If there's a little bitterness involved, it's right there.  When all is said and done, though, I'd be right where I am anyway."
Graham's final major league appearance took place in 1981.  The writing was on the wall for his time as the lefty in the catching platoon when the Orioles made a trade with the Cincinnati Reds near the end of March of 1982 for left-handed hitting Joe Nolan. Graham played the 1982 season at Rochester and hit about the same way he did in previous years, but that was the end of his professional baseball career.

Nanu Nanu
As was foreshadowed by that last paragraph, this was Dan Graham's last appearance on a Topps card as a player.  Despite having a career that lasted less than one full season when you add up the games, however, Graham did appear in the 2005 Topps Rookie Cup set as card 141.  After all, he was the Rookie Cup winner for 1980 at catcher even if his 1981 Topps card doesn't show it.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Tracking Dan Graham has been somewhat frustrating for me.  Much like Gary Alexander, Graham's name is a combination of two very common names.  Sorting through the stories to find ones about him has been an interesting journey -- I mean, I found out a decent amount about a photographer/artist/videographer named Dan Graham, but that didn't help write this blog entry.

What I have been able to piece together is this:  Graham has lived since the mid-1980s in Toledo and, from all indications, still lives there (see number 2). The reason for this is the fact that Toledo is where Graham's wife is from.  Though the story does not say it, one would guess that Graham met her during his time as a Toledo Mud Hen in 1978 and 1979.  From 1984 through at least 2002, Graham has played amateur/semi-pro baseball in the Toledo area. 

The 1984 story linked above about Graham's wife mentions how Graham obtained a job in Toledo working as a group leader at the Child Study Institute.  But Graham loved playing the game of baseball, so he found himself in the Toledo Federation League playing with a bunch of former high school and college players who wanted just to play baseball.   He was working second shift, from 3 PM to 11 PM, so he would trade shifts to play one of the weekday games and then would play on Sundays.  

Graham kept playing in Toledo, and, in 2002, was still playing baseball.  His team in 2002, the Harry Young Builders team, had won the local Roy Hobbs league for nine straight seasons at that point.  Graham, at age 48, was one of the team's oldest players yet he was still serving as the team catcher.

It also notes that he and his wife headed to Toledo after the 1982 season when Graham refused to return to minor-league baseball.  That is easy to understand too.  After all, Graham would have turned 29 during the 1983 baseball season.  Another year of playing in the minor leagues for an organization that already knew what he could do and had decided already that his skills did not fit their major league roster could not have been a prospect that Graham wanted to face.  

In fact, Graham asked Baltimore for his release so that he could play for someone else.  The Orioles refused, so Graham spent the summer in a bowling league.  No kidding.

Graham's story isn't sexy or quirky or out of the ordinary.  He was a very good major league player for about one year.  That's an accomplishment by itself.  

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