Thursday, October 9, 2014

Card #118: Montreal Expos Future Stars

Who Can It Be Now?
As opposed to the Cubs Future Stars, whose rightward looking photos make them appear to be considering the past, all three of our Expos Future Stars are looking left and with a slightly upward tilt. 

Most of you have probably heard of all three of these guys, though perhaps not as players:

1.  Terry Jon Francona (shown here with hair) was born on April 22, 1959, in Aberdeen, South Dakota. My guess is that he was born in Aberdeen because his dad met Terry's mom in Aberdeen back in 1953 as a 19-year-old minor leaguer in the St. Louis Browns system with the Class C Aberdeen Pheasants and, then, when dad Tito was with the Indians, Terry's mom went home to her family to have Terry.  Totally guessing there, though.  

Straight out of high school, Terry was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the 1977 draft. He chose instead to go to college, where he was a bonafide college baseball star at the University of Arizona, winning the 1980 Golden Spikes Award and the Most Outstanding Player Award at the College World Series while leading the Wildcats to the World Series title. The Expos grabbed him with the 22nd pick overall in the 1980 June Draft with a pick that the Expos got from the Yankees as compensation for free agent Rudy May. 

After he signed, the Expos sent Francona directly to Double-A Memphis, where he hit .300/.333/.395 over 60 games (224 plate appearances). In 1981, the Expos sent Francona back to Double-A for 41 games before pushing him up to Triple-A Denver. Francona scorched the ball in Denver -- like many hitters do -- and was called up to the Expos shortly after the strike ended.

Francona never satisfied the high expectations that his college career created in large part due to injuries. On June 16, 1982, he suffered severe ligament and cartilage damage when he got his spikes caught in the warning track in Busch Stadium.  That ended his season prematurely and made him a part-time player in 1983. Then, in June of 1984, he twisted his knee trying to avoid a tag. That injury ended his 1984 season.

He played with Montreal through spring training in 1986. He failed to make the club that year and was released by the Expos. The Cubs picked him up as a spare part in May of 1986 and was used mainly as a pinch hitter.  In 1987, he played for the Reds in a similar role. In 1988, it was Cleveland and again it was part-time work. In 1989 and for the first month of 1990, Francona was a Milwaukee Brewer. The Brewers released him in early May and, while the Cardinals picked him up and played him at Triple-A Louisville that summer, he never again appeared in a major league uniform as a player after he left Milwaukee.

2.  James Bradley Mills was born on January 19, 1957, in Exeter, California. Mills was selected by the Expos in the 17th Round of the 1979 June Draft -- also from the University of Arizona. Mills started his professional career in Single-A at West Palm Beach before joining Francona in Memphis in 1980.  

Mills was called up to the major leagues in June of 1980 to replace the injured Larry Parrish on the Expos roster, and his first major league hit led to a funny event. He started in Game 2 of a doubleheader against St. Louis and singled for his first big league hit in his first at bat. Notice of the hit being his first was put on the scoreboard to polite applause. Then, the crowd erupted loudly and the game was briefly delayed. Mills appeared to think that the applause was for his hit, but the reality was that the scoreboard had given fans confirmation that the Mets had beaten the Expos' Eastern Division rivals, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mills claimed later that he was just nervously stroking his hair under his helmet and not doffing his cap to acknowledge the crown.

Mills played in bits and pieces of the 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983 seasons for the Expos. The Expos traded him to the Houston Astros in 1984, but Mills never reached the major leagues with the Astros. His final season as a player was in 1986 with the Iowa Cubs, where he played 18 games before calling it a career as a player.

3.  Bryn Nelson Smith was born on August 11, 1955, in Marietta, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta). He was raised in Santa Maria, California, however. Smith was drafted in the 49th round of the 1973 June draft by the St. Louis Cardinals -- one of just two selections in that round -- but he did not sign. But, in December of 1974, the Baltimore Orioles stepped in and signed Smith as an amateur free agent.

He pitched two very successful seasons in the Florida State League for the Orioles' affiliate in Miami. The team then moved him up to Double-A Charlotte for the 1977 season, where he posted a 15-11 record with a 2.75 ERA and 16 complete games in 27 starts (206 innings overall). That raised Smith's profile as a prospect, leading to other teams wanting him.  

As a result, Smith became an Expo when, in December of 1977, the Orioles sent him, Rudy May, and pitcher Randy Miller to Montreal in exchange for pitchers Joe Kerrigan and Don Stanhouse and outfielder Gary Roenicke. So, two of the three guys here owe their Expo-dom to Rudy May.  The Expos moved Smith up slowly through their system after he was bombed in Denver in 1978 (6.83 ERA in 54 innings). So, he found himself spending both 1979 and 1980 in Memphis before returning much more successfully to Denver in 1981. That 1981 season was impressive too -- 15-5, 3.05 ERA, 183 innings with 127 Ks and 42 BBs.

Smith got his first taste of major league baseball in September of 1981, pitching in 7 games out of the bullpen -- including picking up his first major league victory by getting the final out in the top of the 17th inning against the Phillies in a game that finished 1-0 when the Expos finally scored a run off reliever Jerry Reed. By the way, the total game time for that game was 4 hours, 28 minutes.

Smith stayed up with the Expos for good after a brief stint in Triple-A in 1982. His best season for the Spos was in 1985, when he went 18-5 with a 2.91 ERA (2.81 FIP) and a 1.052 WHIP in 222-1/3 innings.  He stayed with Montreal until after the 1989 season. He signed a three-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals for the 1990 through 1992 seasons. His stay in St. Louis ended with a whimper, as he pitched just 21-1/3 innings in 1992.

The Rockies signed him for the 1993 season. After a 2-4 record with a very unlucky 2.49 ERA (FIP of 4.67, which is pretty respectable for the Mile High Experience), the Rockies released the 37-year-old Smith on June 2, 1993.

Mustache Check: Bryn Smith makes this card a solid one-for-three.

Family Ties
Most people know that Terry Francona's father Tito -- real name: John Patsy Francona -- was a major league outfielder/first baseman from 1956 through 1970. 

Bryn Smith also has a family tie. His son Cody Smith was a pitcher at Hancock College (Juco) and then Fresno State before spending three seasons in the Texas organization, a season and a half with the Royals organization, and then four games with Lake Elsinore in the San Diego organization before Cody called it a baseball career.

Trivial Pursuit
Each of these guys has a good little trivia nugget attached to their careers.  First, for Francona -- both he and his father finished their careers with the Milwaukee Brewers. Tito spent 52 games in 1970 with the club while Terry tallied 93 games. 

Of course, Terry's other claim to trivial fame was being the first Boston Red Sox Manager since Ed Barrow to win the World Series.

Mills's trivia is somewhat more ignominious. On April 27, 1983, the Expos played the Astros. Mills came in to pinch hit for second baseman Doug Flynn. Mills had not played in 10 days since his previous pinch hitting appearance, and Manager Bill Verdon was asking him to hit against Nolan Ryan. As one might expect, Flynn struck out. However, that strikeout was the strike out that moved Ryan into first place all-time in career strikeouts for a pitcher past the great Walter Johnson.

Smith's trivia is a far better one, though not quite as good as Francona's. On April 9, 1993, the Colorado Rockies squared off against Smith's former team, the Montreal Expos, in the Rockies' third-ever game. Smith shut out the Expos on 6 hits over 7 innings to earn the Rockies first-ever franchise victory.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
In looking at the roster at Triple-A Denver from 1981, one can see that the Expos were not exactly blessed with a deep minor league system by this point in their history. Yeah, Dave Hostetler put up big numbers there, but keep in mind that this is Denver we are talking about here. 

All three of these guys have gone on to coach or manage baseball teams. Obviously Francona has been far more visible than the other two guys.  That started back in 1997 when he became the Phillies manager back in 1997 after serving as the bench coach for the Detroit Tigers for a year and spending 5 years in the minors managing.  After losing his job in Philadelphia, he served as a scout for a year for the Indians before being the bench coach in successive seasons for the Rangers (2002 under Jerry Narron) and the Oakland A's in 2003 (under Ken Macha).  Then, he was appointed to the job of Boston Red Sox manager, where in his first season, David Roberts's steal of second base led the amazing come back against the Yankees.  That led to the first of his two World Series Titles with the Boston Red Sox. After a year away in 2012, he won the AL Manager of the Year Award in 2013 in his current job managing the Indians. 

For his part, Mills got started in management in baseball before either Smith or Francona did, jumping right into management in 1987 after his playing career was over. Mills hooked back up with his old college, minor league, and major league teammate Francona when Terry got the Phillies job back in 1997 by serving as Francona's first base coach. Mills took 2001 off before managing in Triple-A Las Vegas in 2002. In 2003, he served as Frank Robinson's bench coach with the Montreal Expos before Terry Francona came calling again. Mills joined the Red Sox in 2004 as their bench coach through 2009. Then, the Astros appointed Mills as their manager from 2010 to 2012. Mills was fired midway through 2012 when he couldn't get the Astros to play better baseball -- though, to be fair, I'm not sure who could have done that with those two teams.  Nonetheless, he and his pal Terry are back together in Cleveland. Mills was the third-base coach in 2013, and he served as the bench coach in 2014.

Smith has not had any similar high profile jobs. His baseball jobs were all as a pitching coach in the minor leagues -- at Salem in the Carolina League in 1997, with Portland in the Northwest League in 199, with Carolina in the Double-A Southern League in 2001 and 2002, and with Triple-A Salt Lake in 2005.  Since that time, he founded the Santa Maria Valley Packers as a way to give back to his old hometown in California where I think he still is today.

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