Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Card #103: Bob Lacey

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Joseph Lacey Jr. was born on August 25, 1953, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He attended high school in Tucson, Arizona, and was a year or two behind Andy Hassler at Palo Verde High School. He started at Central Arizona College -- a junior college -- in the fall of 1972 after he graduated high school.   

That ended quickly for him after he was drafted the next January in the 10th round of the Regular Phase of that draft. When you get to the 10th round of that January draft, you're not exactly high on the draft list -- only four players were taken in that round in total.

Oddly, Baseball Reference lists Lacey as pitching in 1972 for the Oakland A's Northwest League affiliate in Coos Bay/North Bend, Oregon. I'm not sure if that is a mistake or whether Lacey was playing on some sort of "play well/show us something and we'll draft you" type agreement.  It must not have been a "play well" thing, because his numbers look bad -- 0-3, 5.77 ERA, 39 innings, 30 BBs, 22 Ks, 6 HRA, and 43 hits allowed (9.9 H/9). 

Lacey appeared to be nothing more than organizational filler being a 10th Round January draft pick. But his 1973 season -- split at two levels of Single-A in Florida and the Midwest League -- put him on the "possible prospect" highway. Through these two stops, he finished 13-2 with a 2.24 ERA in 173 innings with 42 BBs and 120 Ks. While he benefited from 15 unearned runs that year, he had harnessed his control to make himself much more of a real prospect. 

So, for 1974, Oakland thought they may have something and pushed him to Double-A Birmingham. He struggled to the tune of 203 hits in 155 innings with the higher level of competition, and his outward numbers -- 6-13, 4.59 ERA -- hid the fact that he allowed a whopping 32 unearned runs of the 111 runs allowed. That Birmingham A's team was the worst in the league, though, so that did not help matters either -- the team had a 4.40 ERA; the next highest was 3.78 by Savannah.

It was not surprising when Lacey was sent back to Birmingham for the 1975 season. He spent 68 innings there and was being transitioned to relief -- starting just 5 of 33 games. Inexplicably, though, Lacey got to go back to Arizona -- to Tucson -- and play in Triple-A before the end of the year. He went back there in 1976 and was really bad -- 3-9 record, 29 appearances (12 starts), 105 innings, 139 hits allowed, 26 walks and just 35 Ks. His 1976 season ended early due to what was called a "sore arm".  Lacey admitted the next May that the sore arm was more of a cover story than anything else:
I had a sore arm late in the season and since we were 35 games out of last place [sic] I asked to go home to Phoenix. But the arm was no excuse. I was just a bad pitcher.
But, in an Oakland organization short on left-handed pitching, he still stuck around Triple-A. He went back to the PCL in 1977 -- this time in San Jose. He put up 16 scoreless innings in 11 appearances and suddenly found himself pitching against the Baltimore Orioles in May of 1977. Four appearances later, he faced and struck out future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson twice. Reggie said that Lacey acted bush league after the strikeouts: "He hollered at me and made some gestures too."

Directly after the game, the AP said that Lacey was somewhat apologetic about the incident, which occurred in Lacey's first major league win.  Lacey was quoted in that story as saying, "I was emotionally up. I might have said something derogatory. I don't remember. I just wanted Jackson. I wanted to strike him out."  

As a lawyer, I have found that people use the "I don't remember" or "I don't recall" line as a way to cover up when they actually do recall something that they do not want to talk about. The same appears true for Lacey and that game 37 years ago, since Lacey remembers pretty clearly today what happened.  As he said in an interview earlier this year, he talked some serious sh*t to Reggie after the strike out:
I was a punk. Reggie was classier. After striking him out, I yelled a colorful expletive at him which went like this: "Take that mother f**ker." The next day my pal Michael Norris acted as a liaison between me and Reggie.
Through all of these issues, the A's kept Lacey on the roster from 1977 through 1980. Lacey appeared regularly for the A's in 1978 -- leading the American League in pitching appearances with 74 after finishing 5th in 1977 despite his time in the minor leagues for the first 6 weeks of the season. Those appearance numbers did not tell the whole story, either. As Lacey mentioned in 2011 to Tom Owens on Tom's great blog, Baseball By the Letters, though Lacey appeared in 74 games, he probably warmed up in at least 25 to 30 more.

By 1980, Lacey had become Oakland's closer -- the go-to guy in the bullpen -- as he racked up six saves that year. As Matt Keough's shoulder would remind you, 1980 was the year that Billy Martin made a deal with Dr. Frank Jobe and Dr. James Andrews to send as many starting pitchers to them as possible by making them complete nearly every game -- 97 complete games total. Lacey himself even got one of those complete games -- throwing a shutout against the Milwaukee Brewers in October of 1980.

The next season, Lacey came to spring training with a request -- perhaps even a demand -- to become a starter. He had complained in 1980 about not getting to pitch enough, so he thought being a starter would solve this issue.  This led Lacey to end up in Billy Martin's doghouse. I know -- shocking that Martin would get upset with any of his players. Martin refused to put Lacey into games and, further, even ordered the rest of the team not to play catch with him.

Through all of this, Lacey quickly gained a reputation as being a bit flaky and a difficult guy to deal with. The excellent Terry Pluto book The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump relays the story about how Lacey dealt with being frozen out:
Right before the Indians traded for Lacey, Oakland manager BIlly Martin was so fed up with the lefty that he would not pitch him in spring training. In fact, he ordered that no one even play catch with Lacey. 
So during an exhibition game, Lacey went to the bullpen, put on his glove, and pretended his was warming up. He would up, mimed throwing the baseball, then pretended to receive a throw back from the catcher. Then he did it again and again and again.
But, being frozen out in the spring meant that Lacey was going to be shipped out of town soon. Finally, on March 27, 1981, Lacey was sent with a minor leaguer to the San Diego Padres in exchange for infielder Kevin Bell, pitcher Eric Mustad, shortstop Tony Phillips, and two minor leaguers. I'm not exactly sure what happened between Lacey and the Padres in the four days he was in their camp, but apparently the Padres felt that having second baseman Juan Bonilla was better than having Lacey -- so Lacey was shipped to the Cleveland Indians on March 31.

Lacey was terribly for the Indians -- 21-1/3 innings, 37 hits, 19 earned runs, 6 HR allowed, 3 walks and 11 Ks led to Lacey finding himself in Triple-A again for a couple of games that season. Then, on September 8, 1981, Lacey found himself traded for the third time in less than 6 months -- moving to the Texas Rangers when the Rangers bought Lacey's contract. Lacey faced a grand total of 4 batters as a Ranger and gave up one home run in his only inning of work.

After that season and perhaps fueled by the perception of being difficult to deal with, no major league teams took a chance on signing Lacey for 1982. Instead, he pitched in the Mexican League in 1982 for Saltillo. In 1983, the Angels gave Lacey a chance to pitch at Triple-A Edmonton and in 8 games for the big league club. Finally, in 1984, the Giants employed Lacey. He pitched for 24 games in Phoenix -- badly -- but got called up in mid-July anyway. In his time with San Francisco, the Giants had a 7-27 win-loss record, and Lacey came into the game with a lead just 4 times.

Lacey spent part of 1985 with the Giants Triple-A team in Phoenix. He pitched fairly well there, but on June 25, he was released. He finished the season with the independent Miami Marlins in the Florida State League and left baseball.  For a while. 

But, in 1998, Lacey was managing in the independent Texas-Louisiana League for a team in Greenville, Mississippi. Yeah, don't ask me.  He decided that it was time for him to pitch again at the age of 44 -- I mean, why not, since Jesse Orosco at the time was 41 and still had 4 more seasons to go? In both 1998 and 1999 Lacey appeared in 4 games for the Bluesman without a decision. He did call it quits at that point, and he moved back to Arizona.

Mustache Check: Nope -- not a thing. He might need a shave, but it's not a mustache.

Nanu Nanu
Despite his half-season with the Giants in 1984, Lacey did not appear on a Topps card after this 1982 card. He appeared on a card in Fleer's 1985 set, though. 

I would think the rarest card possible for Lacey, though, would be to find a card on which he appears as a Padre. I'm not sure that any such photos still exist, and certainly Trading Card Database does not have any of him from that three-day spring training stint.

Trivial Pursuit
In 1980, Rick Langford had a streak of 22 consecutive complete games. That streak came to an end on September 17 when Langford pitched 8-2/3 innings against Texas. Billy Martin came to the mound and took him out, telling Langford, "I think it's time now." 

Into the game to end that streak came Bob Lacey. Lacey induced a groundball from Buddy Bell and picked up his fifth save.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
This is a card that Topps painted for a guy who appeared in one September inning for the team on the card. We know it's airbrushed, they know it's airbrushed -- even Bob Lacey on the photo knows it's airbrushed. 

These days, Lacey has a far more important job than baseball -- he's a teacher. He obtained his teaching certificate a few years ago. According to his LinkedIn biography, he taught for an online high school for about a year-and-a-half before teaching at Desert Winds High School starting in August of 2011.  He's back at Desert Winds today teaching American and World History to 7th and 8th Graders.

Lacey seems to be fairly accessible today to bloggers and writers. He definitely comes across as regretting being a bit of an ass when he was a player. Certainly, if you "did a George Atkinson" on Darrell Porter -- which I take to mean that he hit Porter in the back of the head with a forearm a la Atkinson's hit on Lynn Swann in 1976 -- you probably qualified as being a "crazy, immature punk" as Porter called Lacey. 

His interview in July with the Coco Crisp's Afro blog on MLB Blogs has him recognizing this fact. He seems very regretful regarding how he interacted with Billy Martin -- "The articles were correct concerning my interactions with Billy Martin. Darrell Porter was correct I was an immature punk and I didn't handle my interactions with Billy very well. After saying that I will say that Billy was one of the best managers that I ever played for."

I'm not sure if Lacey ever got the chance to tell Billy that himself before Billy died. That, too, may be a regret to Lacey.

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