Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Card #108: Bob Sykes

Who Can It Be Now?
Robert Joseph Sykes was born on December 11, 1954, in Neptune, New Jersey. He did not receive any interest from major league teams in high school, so he decided to enroll at Miami-Dade-North Junior College. 

That decision was both the worst and best decision Sykes had made to that point in his life. It was the worst decision because he pitched a total of 25 innings over his two-year career at the juco. It was the best decision, though, because of a lucky break he got during a late season game during his second year. A Detroit Tigers scout called Rabbit Jacobson was vacationing in Miami in 1974 and decided to drop in on Dade-North game. Sykes threw two innings that day. After the game, Jacobson came up to Sykes and told him that the Tigers might want to draft him.

Three weeks later and after hardly pitching at all in the interim, Dade-North had qualified for the National Junior College baseball tournament. With hardly pitching at all over two years, Sykes thought it was a good idea to ask his coach, Demie Mainieri, whether Mainieri intended to use Sykes at the tournament. The response Sykes got was that he did not have much chance of pitching there. So, Sykes told Mainieri, "Well, then, save yourself an airfare. I've had enough; I'm going homes." 

Shortly after that, Sykes called Jacobson at the phone number on Jacobson's card. Sykes said to Jacobson that he would sign with the Tigers for nothing to get a chance. He did that, he said, to let the Tigers know that there was nothing wrong with his arm or his attitude. As a result, the Tigers selected Sykes in the 19th round of the 1974 June Amateur draft -- just 7 picks before the Orioles selected 1B and QB Steve Bartkowski. In other words, by that point in the draft, it was "let's take a flyer" time.

When Jacobson went to go sign Sykes, he came prepared. He offered a $4000 signing bonus. Jacobson also came hungry, though, and offered an additional $500 if Sykes's mother made Jacobson a great big sandwich. So, Jacobson enjoyed his $500 ham and cheese sandwich while Sykes signed his contract. 

The Tigers assigned Sykes to Bristol in the Appalachian League. To say Sykes impressed is an understatement -- he racked up an 11-0 record with a 1.07 ERA. In 14 games/13 starts, he threw 6 shutouts and even saved a game while allowing just 52 hits in 101 innings against 31 walks and 96 strikeouts. And, he allowed only 1 homer all year. 

That Bristol team was a very good team, though -- 52-17 overall, so 40-17 in games that Sykes did not rack up a win or save. That's still really good.  Put it this way -- Mark Fidrych led the team in saves and did not start a game, but he still went 3-0. The League as a whole hit just .248/.350/.351, and Bristol led the league in runs scored per game, fewest runs allowed per game, and, unsurprisingly, fewest errors.

On the strength of that 1974 season, Sykes went immediately from flyer to prospect -- with one newspaper calling Sykes "possibly the most prized pitching prospect in the [Tigers] chain." The Tigers jumped him from Rookie Ball in 1974 to Double-A Montgomery in 1975.  Outwardly, Sykes had another successful season -- 14-10 record, 3.16 ERA -- but under the surface there were problems. The biggest one in terms of his development was the complete loss of his ability to strike batters out. Yes, it was a different era, but when you go from 8.6 K/9 to 4.1 K/9, that should be a red flag. Still, Sykes moved up to Triple-A for 1976.

The red flags were not of importance to the Tigers, though. The Tigers of the mid-70s were terrible. In 1975, they finished with a 57-102 record, so youngsters were pushed to the major leagues quickly. By 1977, the team was in full rebuilding mode. Sykes made the team out of spring training -- probably because Mark Fidrych was hurt -- and he pitched okay. Having gone from the doghouse at Juco to the majors in 4 years, Sykes honestly pitched pretty well -- 5-7, 4.41 ERA, 141 hits allowed in 132-2/3 innings, 50 BB, 58 K, 15 HR allowed. He started 20 games and pitched three complete games as well.

By 1977, the Tigers starting pitching included 7 pitchers who started 10 games or more; of these, 6 of the pitchers were 27 or younger and three -- Fidrych, Dave Rozema, and Sykes -- were 22 or younger.  Throw in the 6 starts from 22-year-old Jack Morris, and you see where the Tigers were going. 

But, this youth movement also meant that the team started making moves quickly when it appeared that the team could start winning right away. In the 1977 offseason, the Tigers traded outfielder Ben Oglivie to the Milwaukee Brewers for pitcher Jim Slaton. Slaton slotted in to the starting rotation along side spring training acquisition Jack Billingham, pushing Sykes to the bullpen. Sykes was even sent back down to Triple-A for awhile in 1978. Amidst the changes, the Tigers finished a creditable 5th place in the 7-team AL East fully 10 games over .500 at 86-76.  

With the success, the Tigers looked to fill some other holes on the team -- particularly in their bullpen and outfield. Thus, Sykes was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals with pitcher Jack Murphy in exchange for outfielder Jerry Morales and pitcher Aurelio (Senor Smoke) Lopez at the winter meetings in 1978.

1979 was a terrible year for Sykes. He struggled on the mount -- going 4-3 with a 6.18 ERA with his new team. After a start against the Dodgers on June 11 in which he pitched 6-1/3 innings and gave up 3 HR, 9 hits, and 7 ER (but still notched the win) he had some shoulder issues arise.  As it turned out, a week later, he was undergoing surgery for a blood clot in his pitching shoulder.  He came back to pitch first in the minor leagues and then in September for the Cardinals, though, so he had hope for a better year in 1980.

Hope springs eternal for baseball players when the new season rolls around. Sykes claimed in the 1980 offseason that he was "more than ready" to rejoin the Cardinals roster after his surgery. For the Cardinals, it meant another disappointing season. The team finished 74-88, but its runs scored/runs allowed totals suggest that they should have finished 84-78. Usually, that is a bullpen issue in play -- losing a lot of close games. So, when Whitey Herzog took over in August of 1980, he set to work to fix things. That led to the big trades he pulled off in the 1980 winter meetings with the Padres (getting Rollie Fingers, among others), the Cubs (getting Bruce Sutter), and with the Brewers (getting rid of Rollie Fingers, Ted Simmons, and Pete Vuckovich).  

Sykes made it through that great purge, but perhaps that was because he had a no-trade clause in his contract. Indeed, Herzog kept trying to trade Sykes away during the 1981 season. On the last day of the 1981 season -- after the strike, during which Sykes was the Cardinals player representative -- Herzog told Sykes that Sykes would no longer be a Cardinal by the time the 1982 season came around. 

Sykes's trade occurred just a few weeks after the end of the season. In what became a famous trade in St. Louis Cardinal history, Sykes was sent to the New York Yankees in exchange for minor league outfielder Willie McGee. 

Perhaps more disappointingly for Sykes, however, was the fact that his major league career was over. He didn't know it when he was traded, but his appearance in the ninth inning of the final game of the season against the Pirates would be his last as a big leaguer at the age of just 26 years old. He spent the 1982 season in the Yankees system, and that was the end for him.

Mustache Check: The fully-bearded Sykes certainly qualifies here.

Nanu Nanu
In 1982, all three major baseball card sets included cards of Bob Sykes. He also had cards for his Double-A team in Nashville and his Triple-A team in Columbus.  But he has never again appeared on a Topps card since this 1982 gem. 

Trivial Pursuit
When Bob Sykes got married to his wife Jane on April 25, 1976, the best man at his wedding was Mark Fidrych.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I knew who Bob Sykes was in 1982. In fact, by the end of the 1982 World Series, I'd say I'd grown to dislike Sykes due merely to the association of being traded for Willie McGee. I really didn't like McGee, after all, due to his being a key player for the Cardinals team that beat my Brewers in the World Series.

Sykes was named to the Jersey Shore Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. Despite the love from his hometown, when Sykes was traded to the Cardinals, he fell in love with the area around St. Louis. He ended up deciding to live about a 2-hour drive from St. Louis, in small-town Middle America in a little town called Carmi, Illinois. He had hobbies that lent themselves to living in rural America, such as being a carpenter, fishing, and working at a car dealership in the offseason.

Indeed, according to the 1980 Topps blog, Sykes settled in Carmi and worked for 22 years for the Tartan Oil Company. Then, at the age of 50, Sykes went to the police academy and became a deputy sheriff in White County -- where Carmi is located. 6 years ago, Sykes decided to resign his post with the Sheriff's Department for personal reasons (H/T to Tom Owens for the link out of this comment on Baseball by the Letters).

After he resigned his post with the Sheriff, it appears that he became the coroner in White County. He stayed on as deputy after Ralph Hall completed the proper training to become the coroner. And for what it's worth, it appears that he is also a farmer -- since he got $43 in sorghum subsidies at some point between 1995 and 2012.

In many respects, he's led a life many of us could only dream about -- big league ballplayer followed by small town America. 

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