Thursday, October 23, 2014

Card #122: Jamie Easterly

Who Can It Be Now?
James Morris Easterly was born on February 17, 1953, in Houston, Texas. Easterly grew up in little Crockett, Texas, a city of about 7,000 people located about midway between Houston and Dallas in Houston County, Texas. 

Despite the rural setting, baseball scouts were well aware of Easterly's exploits in high school. As a result, Easterly was drafted by the Atlanta Braves straight out of high school in the 1971 June draft in the second round (34th pick overall). 

Easterly tore up the Western Carolinas League in 1971 and 1972, putting together a 15-appearance run of 53 innings pitched in which he allowed a grand total of 3 runs (2 earned), allowed 25 hits, walked 22, and struck out 62. I mean, allowing 4.2 hits per 9 innings while striking out 10.5 batters per 9 innings is good nearly anywhere, and doing it as a guy who was 2 to 3 years younger than his competition made the Braves look like they had a future star on their hands. 

While in Greenwood in 1971, he also got his nickname of "Rat" from a guy called Stan Babieracki. Stan said that Easterly looked like a rat and ate a lot of cheese. Stan never made it past Double-A, though, so I guess Easterly won that exchange. 

Back to Easterly. After his dominance at Single-A in both 1971 and 1972, the Braves pushed Easterly aggressively through their farm system. At age 20, he made the jump to Double-A Savannah in the Southern League for the 1973 season. He pitched just 67 innings that year for some reason, but he pitched reasonably well.

Despite not having any experience at Triple-A, the Braves promoted Easterly all the way to the major league roster to start the 1974 season. His first appearance against the Reds was not bad -- a clean inning. But, his next two appearances were pretty bad: 1-2/3 innings (note the discrepancy on the back of the card above which states that Easterly pitched three, and not 2.2 innings), 6 hits, 7 runs, 5 earned runs, 4 walks, and no strikeouts. Easterly was summarily dispatched to Triple-A Richmond for the remainder of the 1974 season and did not even receive a September call-up that year.

Easterly's 1975 season was more of the same. He made the team out of spring training, but he pitched just 4 times in the Braves first 34 games. As a result, he went back to Richmond for a few weeks to pitch. After that, the Braves used him 4 times in June, July, and August and 5 times in September. This time, though, the Braves plugged him into the starting rotation to see what they had with Easterly. As it turned out that year, the Braves did not have a heck of a lot -- as a starter, Easterly went 2-9 with a 5.52 ERA. In 58-2/3 innings, he allowed 63 hits, walked 32 batters, and struck out just 31 while giving up 43 runs (36 earned). Ugly.  His relief appearances over 10 innings were far better though, even if he walked a batter an inning while striking out just 3.

Things did not improve in 1976 for Jamie. While he spent most of that season as a swingman in Triple-A and putting up good surface numbers -- 7-6, 2.96 ERA -- his walks nearly equaled his strikeouts -- 88 v. 91 over 137 innings. Still, the Braves seemed to remember that he was a high draft pick and gave him another chance to be a starter in September of 1976.

1977 and 1978 were years that Easterly probably wouldn't mind forgetting on a professional level. While he was in the majors for the entirety of both seasons, he pitched terribly. For those two seasons, he went 5-10 with a 5.86 ERA (4.58 FIP). In 136-2/3 innings, he gave up 163 hits, 75 walks (10 intentional), and 79 strikeouts. These pitching performances earned Easterly the title of 14th worst pitcher in Atlanta Braves history and fourth-worst reliever in Braves history from the Rowland's Office blog.

It should be no surprise, then, that he spent most of 1979 in the minor leagues. What is a little befuddling is that Easterly split that season between the Braves and Expos farm teams even though his transaction log on Baseball Reference says that the Expos did not purchase his contract until after the 1979 season or, as the newspapers put it, he was traded to the Expos for "a player to be named later or cash."

I guess his playing at Denver was a quirk in the rules back then; it reminds me of the loan system in European soccer/football. At any rate, after the Expos purchased his contract, Easterly had all the appearances of being a pitcher on his way out of baseball. The Expos did not call him up at all to the major leagues in 1980, and Easterly served as the Denver Bears closer that season at the age of 27. That's usually not a recipe for success.

Into the breach stepped Harry Dalton and Dee Fondy. Dee Fondy was the last man to bat at Ebbetts Field as a player, and for the Brewers he served as a scout and as an assistant to Dalton. At the end of the 1980 season, the Brewers needed a better lefty in the bullpen than the fungible Jerry Augustine, and, as Daniel Okrent's Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game recounted, the Expos were willing to part with him. Dalton wanted a left who could come in as a middle reliever and force the other manager's hand to switch out the lefties who started against right-handed starters before a right-handed closer came into the game.

So, Easterly came to Milwaukee in 1981 for a two-and-a-half year tour of duty. The problem with Easterly in Milwaukee was not his pitching. I mean, a 3.71 ERA in 84 games (104-1/3 innings) is not great and is not terrible either. But, the real issue was that the guy couldn't stay healthy. First, as this "he's doing great" article from 1981 in The Milwaukee Journal reported, he had shoulder tendinitis issues in his first spring training with the club. He stuck with the club because he was out of options and the team did not want to lose their investment in him.

Then, in mid-1982, Easterly suffered a strained knee that put him on the 21-day disabled list and led to the team calling up Pete Ladd. That knee issue kept Easterly out until September roster expansion and, further, it probably led to his not being used and I think not even being on the post-season rosters for the playoffs and World Series that year.  

His time in Milwaukee ended in June of 1983. He was a part of a trade that was extremely unpopular in Milwaukee, as he and pitcher Ernie Camacho joined Milwaukee blue-collar icon Gorman Thomas in being traded to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for lefty Rick Waits and centerfielder Rick Manning. Joel McNally of The Milwaukee Journal did a satiric send-up of the caterwauling Brewer fans by replacing the beloved Thomas with Easterly in this piece. It's tongue-in-cheek, of course, but it is reasonably humorous (especially for being a newspaper article).

Easterly spent the rest of 1983 and four additional years in Cleveland. The Indians signed Easterly to a 2-year, $500,000 contract after the 1983 season in large part because the Indians (a) did not realize how fungible relief pitching really is and (b) the Indians were a really poorly run team in the 1980s. Also, Easterly did enjoy his best season in the major leagues in 1983 with Cleveland, so that run of 57 innings convinced Cleveland to overlook the remaining 340 innings of work that had come before it.

Easterly did make some headlines -- or at least the Mental Floss list of the 24 most bizarre injuries in baseball history -- in 1984 for an offseason training regimen which included running backwards. Like most of us, Easterly doesn't have eyes in the back of his head and he tripped over a gopher hole. That injury kept him out until June of 1984.  

The Indians gave Easterly two more seasons after that 2-year deal ran out. Eventually, at the age of 34, even being left-handed couldn't save Easterly from the unemployment line. On October 29, 1987, the Indians released Easterly and no one else signed him. That was the end of his playing career prior to the Senior League.

Mustache Check: Definitely. For the years that Easterly was in Milwaukee, he sported a full beard. 

Trivial Pursuit
Two trivial tidbits for Easterly come up in the research. The first is on the back of his card -- that he threw a 7-inning perfect game with Denver while on loan to Montreal on July 14, 1979.

The other occurred the previous year -- 1978 -- while Easterly was a member of the Atlanta Braves. In the second inning of the first game of a doubleheader on June 30, 1978 -- a doubleheader that the 69-93 Braves improbably swept from the San Francisco Giants -- Easterly faced future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. On a 0-1 pitch from Easterly, McCovey teed off and sent the ball over the wall for his 500th Home Run as a major leaguer.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I remember Easterly nearly entirely for his injuries. I mean, if I were engaged in one of those word-association games popular with interviewees who don't have a clue what to ask someone, my response the minute Easterly's name came up would be "shoulder pain." 

He was usually generous with his time after games and would sign autographs regularly for the kids like me who hung out after the game. I can't recall any time when I thought he was mean, rude, or otherwise anything but a gentleman.

Easterly came up in the Cleveland news during the 2014 baseball season. Zach McAllister, an Indians pitcher, went on an injury rehab stint and ended up getting sent down right after the rehab time ended. The story went on to recount how Easterly refused to go on an injury rehab assignment for fear that the team would not bring him back at the end of it. 

Gabe Paul, the Indians president, then tried to trade Easterly as a result. In the end, the team ended up needed a pitcher and activated Easterly without the rehabilitation time. Based on when Easterly and Paul overlapped in Cleveland, that had to have occurred in 1984.

These days, Easterly is back in his hometown of Crockett, Texas. He and his wife Stacy appear to be fairly active users of Facebook. Jamie still has his mustache -- it's white now, of course -- and those glasses are still on his face too. He posts a lot of old photos of his dad and of himself from his youth. On the darker side, he is a Dallas Cowboys fan.

In all, though, it appears that his retirement is treating him well.

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