Thursday, May 15, 2014

Card #42: Rick Sofield

Who Can It Be Now?
Richard Michael Sofield was born December 16, 1956, in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  By the time Sofield was in high school, though, he was living in Morristown, New Jersey -- more on that later.  He graduated from Morristown High School, and was the Minnesota Twins #1 pick in the June 1975 draft.  

That first round was not a demonstration in good scouting, though -- the best player by career wins above replacement in that round was Rick Cerone, who had 8.1.  Five catchers were selected, and Sofield was one of four shortstops.  I throw stones at the scouting there because teams could have selected Lee Smith (round 2), Carney Lansford (round 3), Don Robinson (round 3), Jason Thompson (round 4), or the guy on Card #39, Lou Whitaker (round 5).

Sofield really had only one good minor league season -- the 1977 season at Single-A Viasalia in the California League in which he hit 27 homers, drove in 107 runs, stole 10 bases, and had a slash line of .328/.421/.623.  Over 1978 and 1979, though, the Twins kept moving Sofield back and forth between Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Orlando -- mainly because his performance in Triple-A was not very good.

Despite not really ever mastering Triple-A, he made the Twins directly out of spring training in 1979.  He struggled initially and was sent to the minor leagues in mid-May.  He even found himself back in Double-A for a while before a September call-up.  During that call-up, he had a hot 13 games -- going 14-35 (.400 BA) with 5 walks (.475 OBP) and 4 doubles (.514 SLG). His strong finish to the season in a bunch of meaningless games brought his overall numbers for the year up quickly to what looked like a breakout -- a .301 batting average, after all, looks good even if it was in only 93 at-bats.

Coming into 1980, then, the Twins were convinced that their 23-year-old former first round pick would be one of their starting outfielders. Gene Mauch plugged Sofield into the lineup 131 times in all three outfield positions.  The results were underwhelming -- only a .287 OBP and a .374 SLG.  Together, these numbers put Sofield squarely at 75% of the league average for OPS -- not exactly what you are looking for from a corner outfielder.

If 1980 was underwhelming, then 1981 was a disaster for Sofield.  He had to go 3-for-6 in his final game of the season to raise his batting average twenty points to finish at .176. He spent time back in Triple-A Toledo, and didn't hit there either -- just .208/.329/.278 in 22 games with 20 total bases in that time.

1982 was no better; indeed, Sofield never got the opportunity to hang his jersey in a major league clubhouse again as a player after 1981.  Sofield struggled at Triple-A Toledo in 1982, and the Twins gave up on him.  He had a 15-game cameo in Denver with the Texas Rangers Triple-A team, but, discouraged, Sofield left baseball as a player in 1982.

Nanu Nanu
You are looking at Sofield's one and only card for 1982 -- neither Donruss nor Fleer deemed Sofield worthy of treatment on cardboard for the 1982 season.  He did appear in the TCMA Toledo Mud Hens team set, though.  But, Card #42 was Sofield's last Topps card appearance. The only appearance on a card for Sofield since 1982 was on a 2001 minor-league card on which Sofield appeared as the manager of the Las Vegas 51s

I Ran (So Far Away)
I needed a category name for something that Sofield did in his career, and this song by A Flock of Seagulls -- which, quite honestly, is one of my favorite new-wave songs of the 1980s -- is as good a title as any for it.  "It" is changing sports to try another one.

Sofield left baseball after 1982.  He recognized that his career was not going in the right direction and that he likely would not make the major leagues again.  So, at the age of 25, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina to play football.  As an All-State quarterback in the state of New Jersey, Sofield had been recruited by the University of Michigan directly out of high school.  He chose baseball instead.

He was not the first guy to do this, and later Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke proved that Sofield would not be the last guy to do it.  

Unfortunately for Sofield, after going through spring practice and summer drills in 1983 with the Gamecocks, he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA because he had enrolled briefly at the University of Minnesota during his baseball career to take a few classes.  So, since he was at South Carolina already, he completed his degree and, at the same time, served as an assistant baseball coach.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Rick Sofield made no impression on my 10-year-old brain in 1982, or in any other year quite honestly.  That's not to say that Sofield hasn't had an eventful career and life.

Let's go back to his high school days for a moment.  Pretend that you are a good student and great baseball player, and your coach sends you and two teammates to a sporting goods store on a Monday at lunch time to get some bats for the team. Now, that probably wouldn't happen today, but in the 1970s, you could buy baseball bats at the hardware store -- so stick with me here.  

You get back to your high school and you see absolute chaos on campus -- your fellow students are carrying two-by-fours and balusters from nearby porches of houses next to the school and you see some of your friends leaving the school with blood streaming down their faces.  

That's exactly the scenario that Rick Sofield walked into in the May of his junior year of high school.  Morristown High School in Morristown, New Jersey, was in the midst of a race riot. Sofield and his black teammate Sonny Holt fought their way upstream to their coach's office and were told that a race riot was in progress. and that they should, "Get the hell out of here!"  They did.

The riots started, according to police records, when some white teens hassled some younger black children at a church carnival on a Thursday evening.  Fighting involving both groups continued over the weekend so that, when school opened on Monday, tensions were high and, as the news story linked above puts it, "many students had scores to settle."  

Eventually, Sofield and his baseball and football teammates brought the city back together by winning -- both were #1 in New Jersey that year.  Sofield himself in 2009 challenged the idea that these fights were even race riots:
I never saw a racial element at the high school. That's part of what made us so intimidating.  We won the state championship in football alter that year, and we were ranked No. 1 in baseball, too.  And it was basically the same guys on both teams, black and white.  Could we have won if we fought amongst ourselves? That's why people feared us. They would come to our school and get dressed in the locker rooms and they were scared to walk the walls.  They thought they were in Harlem.  We found it funny.
Since his career as a player, Sofield stayed in baseball as a coach and manager both at the college level with South Carolina and, later, as the first coach in the history of the University of South Carolina at Beaufort (pronounced "Byoo-fort"), and in the professional ranks with the Rockies and Pirates organizations.  His life-long friendship with Clint Hurdle led to Sofield being named as the first base coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- a position he still holds today.

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