Friday, November 21, 2014

Card #133: Pat Underwood

Who Can It Be Now?
Patrick John Underwood was born on February 9, 1957 in Kokomo, Indiana. He attended Kokomo High School in Indiana, and it is not hyperbole to say that he had an incredible high school pitching career. He still ranks first in Indiana High School baseball history in career strikeouts (637) and career shutouts (22), and he is still amongst the top 5 all time in complete games (40), consecutive scoreless innings (75), innings pitched (338), career no-hitters (6), shutouts in a season (8), and career ERA (0.58). Granted, that didn't make him a football star -- he was the quarterback who led Kokomo High School to an 0-10 season as a senior.

But, his baseball ability led him to a crossroads. He signed a National Letter of Intent to attend the University of Missouri on a baseball scholarship in 1976. But, the Detroit Tigers came calling with a $75,000 signing bonus after selecting Underwood with the 2nd overall pick in the June 1976 draft (one spot after Floyd Bannister). 

Underwood took the money over the scholarship and signed with the Tigers. The Tigers assigned him to Lakeland in the Florida State League in 1976 after asking Underwood whether he would rather pitch in the lower-level Appalachian League. He pitched well there -- 6-2 record, 2.22 ERA in 77 innings with 32 walks and 45 strikeouts. That led the Tigers to push their young sensation to Double-A Montgomery for 104 innings in 1977, where Underwood's pitching got him promoted to Triple-A Evansville. While that 50 innings was not impressive, Underwood was nearly 5 years younger than the average player in the American Association. There was no need to rush him.

Perhaps Detroit agreed, or perhaps Underwood was injured in 1978. I can't find anything specific on it, but I am guessing that injuries limited Underwood to 104 innings at Evansville in 1978. In the late 1970s, teams weren't all that concerned with limiting innings and for a predicted future star like Underwood to pitch just 106 innings smacked of injuries. 

By the time 1979 rolled around, however, Underwood must have been ready to go. He did not make the major league team right out of spring training. But, near the end of May that season, the Tigers summoned Underwood from Evansville and slotted him into the starting rotation. The need to call up Underwood came from the injury problems that plagued Mark Fidrych and caused the Bird to be put on the 21-day DL.

Underwood made his first start and major-league debut on May 31, 1979 in front of just 12,423 fans at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. On the mound for the Blue Jays was none other than Pat's older brother, Tom Underwood.  In the end, the younger brother Pat went 8-1/3 innings, allowed just 3 hits and one walk, and struck out four to earn the win over his brother. Tom was undone by allowing a Jerry Morales solo home run in the top of the 8th inning -- the only run scored in the game. The Underwoods were also lucky that several members of their family and friends from Kokomo were able to attend.

Underwood started 15 games in 1979, throwing 121-2/3 innings for the Tigers at the age of 22 and just three years removed from his high school graduation. He spent all of 1980 with the Tigers, starting just 7 games for Sparky Anderson's team. Anderson preferred Dan Schatzeder to Underwood for his lefty in the starting rotation, and further preferred Jack Morris and Dan Petry to Underwood for other rotation spots.

1981 was a lost season in some respects for Underwood. He spent the entire year in Triple-A Evansville again. His strikeout rate had declined to just 4.9 per 9 innings in 1981 from his previous stints in Triple-A in 1979 (6.6 K/9), 1978 (6.3 K/9), and 1977 (6.7 K/9). Something seemed wrong. 

It became apparent what was wrong in 1982 and 1983. Underwood was suffering from elbow trouble. Even in spring training in 1983, an AP story about the Tigers mentioned that Underwood was hobbled with a sore elbow but that he, "continues to throw, defying doctors' advice." The Tigers flew team physician Dr. Robert Teitge in to look at Underwood late in spring training, and he missed his last regular turn in the spring rotation

Sadly for Underwood, the elbow problem eventually ended his career. He hooked on with a number of minor league clubs into 1984, but he was not able to pitch effectively. As a result, at age 27, he was out of baseball.

Mustache Check: Underwood has a mustache that only a 25-year old would grow.

Family Ties
As I mentioned above, Pat's older brother Tom Underwood pitched in the major leagues and, indeed, enjoyed a far longer career than Pat. Unfortunately, Tom passed away from cancer in 2010.

Pat's nephew -- Tom's son -- J.D. Underwood -- was a 5th round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. He has pitched pretty unsuccessfully in the Pioneer League the past two years in Ogden.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that these Underwoods are related to country singer Carrie Underwood. Otherwise, I would put a photo of her here rather than just linking to this gallery of her on the beach.

The Message
Too many guys in professional sports take a short-term view and assume that they will have twenty-year careers and make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars playing the game they love. On the other hand, Pat Underwood did something incredibly smart: he took part of his signing bonus and set it aside so that he could fund his future college education. As the story in the alumni magazine for Indiana University at Kokomo mentions, he graduated in 1989 from IUK with a degree in business.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I remember Pat Underwood, mainly because of his brother being a pitcher as well. I was (and I guess I still am) fascinated by the families with such athletic talent that they could produce multiple major leaguers. 

That said, and other than Underwood being a high draft pick 6 years earlier, I cannot understand why Underwood got a Topps card in 1982. Sure, he pitched in the majors all year in 1980, but he did not even sniff the big leagues in 1981. It's just a strange inclusion in the set.

The best thing for Underwood was that he was both smart and lucky. He was smart for putting away money enough to fund his education in recognition that he would not be able to play baseball his whole life. He was lucky in that he could re-settle in his hometown, Kokomo, go to college, get married, and get a job as a quality engineer with Delphi Electronics in Kokomo.

This past summer, he also got to play baseball again in a great charity event in Kokomo that involved 30 other former big leaguers such as Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Ferguson Jenkins along with George Foster, Darrell Evans, Mark Whiten, Ryan Thompson, Wes Chamberlain, Anthony Telford, and Ron Robinson. The story quoted Underwood as saying that he was apprehensive about the game because he hadn't "pitched in any kind of competition in 30 years." The event raised money for a charity called The Greatest Save, which is focused on helping kids to be safe and aware and help avoid child abductions and, further, teen dating abuse as well.

In addition to that charitable appearance, Pat and his wife appeared in the local Kokomo Tribute a couple of years ago for adopting a dog that had been seized from a farm in north Kokomo. That farm was the home of an animal hoarder; the ammonia levels from urine and feces in the house were so great that people coming into the house experienced burning eyes and throats.

While Pat's big league career was cut short, he was honored at both the county and state levels in Indiana with induction into their respective baseball halls of fame. Sometimes, as the country song goes, it's good to be itty-bitty and live a good life.

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