Friday, May 9, 2014

Card #38: Charlie Lea

Who Can It Be Now?
Charles William Lea was born on Christmas Day, 1956, in Orleans, France.  He was born into a military family and arrived in the U.S. just three months after his birth.  He really grew up in Memphis, Tennessee -- attending Kingsbury High School there before going to Shelby State Community College (now a part of Southwest Tennessee Community College) and the school then known as Memphis State University and now known as the University of Memphis.  

He was drafted out of high school in the 15th round by the New York Mets in the June 1975 Regular Draft, by the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round of the June 1976 Secondary draft, and by the Chicago White Sox in the fourth round of the 1977 January Secondary Draft but did not sign with any of those teams.  Not until the June 1978 Regular draft, when the Montreal Expos chose him, did Lea finally sign.  It probably did not hurt the Expos chances of signing him that the team's Double-A Affiliate at the time when he was drafted.  

The Expos assigned him to the Memphis Chicks in Double-A immediately after he was signed.  He was a part of a Memphis pitching staff that had a team ERA of 2.98 and featured eight future or former major leaguers, including Scott Sanderson, Bill Gullickson, Bryn Smith, and David Palmer.  

It took the Expos until 1980 to promote Lea past Memphis.  His 9-0 start there, accompanied by a 0.84 ERA and just 34 hits allowed in 75 innings pitched, impressed the Expos enough to move Lea beyond his Memphis home.  What the card back above neglects to mention -- and, since the line apparently was deleted to note Lea's no-hitter the previous season, I can understand it -- is that Lea pitched 2 games for Triple-A Denver in 1980 before the Expos called him up to the major leagues.  

Lea was called up in 1980 in early June and made 19 starts for a Montreal team that finished just one game behind the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.  With being in a pennant race, manager Dick Williams used Lea as sort of a fifth starter in a four-man rotation.  He still started 19 games, but, come the September pennant race, Lea pitched only in spots and, frankly, appeared to wear out near the end of the season -- his ERA went from 2.93 on August 19 to 3.72 by the end of the year. 

Coming into 1981, Lea was expected to fill the same role as he had the previous year -- as a long reliever and spot starter.  His numbers from that season bear out that that is exactly how he was used -- 11 starts in 16 appearances, pitching on irregular rest of anywhere from 2 to 8 days rest, and not being a member of the rotation. 

As the back of the card says, on May 10, 1981, Charlie Lea became the second Expo pitcher to throw a no-hitter (and threw the third no-hitter overall) in Montreal Expos history.  The other two pitchers to do it were Bill Stoneman twice (in 1969 and 1972) and Dennis Martinez's perfect game in 1991.  And, it was the first one in Olympic Stadium.  Here's a video of the final out being caught by Andre Dawson:

The AP wire report about the game called Lea "an unlikely candidate to pitch a no-hitter." The same story quoted Lea's catcher for the game, Gary Carter, as saying, "Nobody expected a no-hitter from Charlie.  But he had a good fastball and good command of his pitches, and everything fell into place."  Based solely on Lea's ERA coming into the game -- 7.36 -- it is tough to disagree.

Even a closer look at the game log shows that the no-hitter was not something anyone would have expected.  Coming into that game, Lea had started two games in 1981.  In his first start, he got rocked, giving up hits to 9 of the 18 batters he faced and walking one while giving up 6 runs in 2-2/3 innings to the New York Mets.  In his other start, he went 4 innings and gave up 3 runs, which brought his ERA down to 10.57.  

The no-hitter, though, started a run of three four consecutive games for Lea that he won and pitched well.  He had three games in a row that he pitched very well -- 25 innings, 8 hits, 7 walks, 16 strikeouts, no runs and two complete game shutouts -- and a fourth where he was wild -- 7 walks in 7 innings -- but avoided trouble and gave up just one run.

Unfortunately for Lea, that 7-walk start on May 27 would be the best his numbers looked all season.  Just prior to the strike stopping play for nearly two months, Lea was absolutely annihilated by the Reds -- 10 hits, 9 earned runs, 2 homers allowed, and no strikeouts in 3-1/3 terrible innings.  Lea pitched just 5 times after the strike ended and watched as his ERA climbed from 2.09 on May 27 to 4.62 to end the season.  On the basis of his struggles, Lea was only a bystander in both the NLDS against the Phillies -- the only post-season series the Expos ever won in their 35-year history -- and the NLCS against the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1982, Lea finally got the chance to pitch reasonably regularly as an Expos starter.  He was a part of the Expos rotation with Steve Rogers, Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson, and David Palmer that, along with the bullpen, had the 2nd best ERA, the fewest walks, and the third-most strikeouts in the National League. Despite a strong offense and pitching, the Expos finished a disappointing third under Jim Fanning -- underperforming their Pythagorean W-L record based on runs allowed by four games.  

By his stats, though, one can see that the light really seemed to come on for Lea in 1982.  His walks went down by 0.8 per nine innings, his strikeouts went up by 1.5 per nine innings, and his hits allowed went down by 1.5 per nine innings.  From all indications, he was learning how to be successful on the major league level.  

Those indications were correct, as his 1983 and 1984 seasons were extremely successful ones -- his combined statistics for those two years resulted in a 31-21 record and a 3.00 ERA over 446-1/3 innings over his age 26 and 27 seasons.  

Outside of the no-hitter -- which, to be quite honest, includes a fair amount of luck incorporated with the skill to get hitters to make outs -- the pinnacle of Lea's career on the field had to be the 1984 season.  As a team, Montreal were not very good, finishing 78-83. But Lea received the honor of starting the All-Star Game in San Francisco that year on the strength of his 13-4 win-loss record at the break.  The second half of his year was less successful, however, and he started suffering from shoulder pain.  The Expos gave him 9 days rest between his second to last and last starts of the season, yet he did not make it past the fourth inning.  He did not pitch again after September 16.

Lea did not pitch in either 1985 or 1986.  He was placed on the disabled list in March of 1985 with what had been diagnosed as shoulder tendinitis.  By May 24, 1985, he had gone under the knife to fix his shoulder.  He was optimistic at that point and was quoted in the story as saying, "We still don't feel there's anything major wrong, but small things can cause problems.  I'm disappointed that I'm not going to pitch again this year, but something's definitely wrong with my shoulder and there comes a time when you have to make a decision."

While optimistic in May of 1985, Lea did not pitch at all until 1987, when he spent most of 1987 trying to rehabilitate in the minor leagues.  He would not pitch again for the Expos until exactly two years after his previous start -- September 16, 1987 -- and in that start, the reigning World Series champion Mets knocked him out of the box after just one inning.  That was the last time that Lea appeared in an Expos uniform as a player.  

He pitched just one more year in 1988 for the Minnesota Twins.  He didn't miss bats as well as he used to, giving up 156 hits in 130 innings and finishing with a 7-7 record and a 4.85 ERA.  Even in the high offense late 1980s, that was not a very good performance.  He never pitched again in the major leagues and retired after again feeling pain in his right shoulder in the spring of 1989.

Lea passed away unexpectedly of a massive heart attack on November 10, 2011, at the age of just 54 years old.  To honor Lea's memory, the Memphis Redbirds created the Charlie Lea Award in 2012 to recognize Memphis's top high school pitcher.  Lea also was honored with a statue at AutoZone Park -- the home of the Redbirds -- of him in his windup.  It's not your typical statue, though:

Photo by Darrin M. Devault (taken on May 9, 2012) of
The Memphis lore is that Charlie is pitching and Tim McCarver is getting ready to catch the pitch. Lea left behind a wife and two sons, both of whom played baseball collegiately.

This Is Radio Clash
Once Charlie Lea realized that his shoulder was not going to allow him to pitch any more, he headed back to Memphis.  He finished his degree in business administration at Memphis State and raised his two sons there with his wife.  Eventually, he spent 11 years as the radio broadcaster for the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple-A team that replaced the Double-A Memphis Chicks.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In 1982, I knew who Charlie Lea was because of two things -- the 1981 no-hitter, and his 1981 Topps baseball card where he is pictured smiling with a huge cheek full of tobacco.

Writing this entry has been somewhat difficult for me personally because I got to know Charlie's son, Brian, personally because Brian and I worked together for a year.  Brian already has established himself in his chosen field of the law -- Brian clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during the 2011-2012 Supreme Court Term (scroll up to see him there).  Whether you agree with Thomas's politics or not, the fact remains that clerking for a Supreme Court Justice is one of the most prestigious short-term positions that the law has to offer.  Luckily, Charlie got to see Brian achieve this height since the court's term runs from July to June of each year.

Thanks also to Brian asking him to do so, I was lucky enough to receive a few autographed items directly from Charlie in May of 2011.  

Charlie was happy to oblige my request, sending this photo card and a signed version of that 1981 Topps card to me even though I hadn't sent him anything.  It confirmed all the news stories that circulated about Lea at his passing - that he was gentle and kind and passionate for the game of baseball.

If one's children reflect who they are as a person, then I can honestly say that Charlie must have been one of the nicest, most genuine people around.  I'm sorry I never got the opportunity to thank him for his kindness in person.

1 comment:

  1. Quite a prestigious background for Lea's son. Are you a lawyer too?