Russ Nixon 1989 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 17, 2017

IMG_1740

The late Russ Nixon managed for a 5 seasons in the early 1980’s and the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Over the those years, only twice did he begin and end the season with the same team.

As it turned out he arrived at the end of one of the great runs in National League history and the beginning of another. Russ Nixon was a fine baseball lifer who basically was a place holder in history as a manager.

The Cincinnati son joined the Cleveland organization in 1953. He bounced between four different minor leagues before arriving in Cleveland as a 22 year old in 1957. He had a twin brother Roy in the Indians organization with him. Roy never made it to the bigs.

Over 12 years, Russ managed to get jobs with the Indians, Red Sox and Twins as a reserve catcher. By 1970, his playing career was over but his coaching days were just beginning.

During the 1970’s he managed in the Reds organization and all the while saw many of the players who skippered head to the Big Red Machine.

Eventually he got the call. In 1976, he joined the Reds coaching staff on the big league level. That squad won the World Series, making quick work of the post season with sweeps of Philadelphia and the Yankees for the title.

In 1977, the Reds were the two time defending World Champs and added Tom Seaver to the team. But their fortunes slipped in 1977 and 1978. After the 1978 season, Pete Rose left by way of free agency and Sparky Anderson was fired. John McNamara took over as manager and Russ Nixon stayed with the staff.

The Big Red Machine might have gotten a facelift, but they were still good enough to win the 1979 NL West title. The Reds remained a solid team through the 1981 season, when they won more games than any other team.

However the stupid playoff rules in the split season of 1981 prevented the best team in baseball from making the postseason. They finished in second for both the first and second halves of the season. That would have been the Big Red Machine’s final bow.

In 1982, the Reds stumbled out to a 34-58 record over 92 games. McNamara was fired and Nixon took the reigns.

His first game was on July 21 against the Pirates. Dave Concepcion and Dan Driessen were still there. But the rest of the team bore little resemblance to a pennant winner.

Tom Lawless, a .154 hitter with an on base percentage of .241, was leading off. They blew the lead that game and lost. The restof the season didn’t get much better as the Reds went on to lose 100 games.

The Reds glory years were over and after 88 losses in 1983 as well, Nixon’s time managing his hometown team was also over.

He coached for the Expos and Braves over the next few years and managed the Double A Greenville Braves in 1988.

In 1988, he was promoted to replace Chuck Tanner as Atlanta manager. The farm system was loaded with talent and future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were on the big league roster.

The 1989 Braves was a 97 loss. They featured Smoltz, Glavine, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant,  Mark Lemke, David Justice and Lonnie Smith, all of whom would play big parts in the 1991 pennant winning season.

Veterans Darrell Evans and Dale Murphy were also there. But the team was not fitting together. In 1990, it was more of the same and 65 games into the year, they were floundering.

Nixon was fired and replaced by GM Bobby Cox. They would lose 97 games again. But the next year the Braves would win the National League pennant and put on the greatest run the league had seen since the Big Red Machine.

Nixon briefly coached with the Mariners before becoming a minor league manager and instructor until his death.

He was too late for the Big Red Machine and too early for the great Brave squads.

Sometimes it is all in the timing. Sometimes the groundwork is put down by unsung heroes. Nixon might have had bad timing and more influence than we will know.

Jeff Torborg 2002 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 16, 2017

 

IMG_2405In 2003, Jeff Torborg began the season as the manager of the Florida Marlins. He had been a manager over several decades and won a Manager of the Year in the 1990’s.

Now a seasoned veteran who had managed for several different franchises, he found himself in Florida in what might have been his last big shot.

That year, the Florida Marlins stunned all of baseball by winning the World Series over the New York Yankees. They did so being led by their veteran manager, a seasoned veteran of many franchises who won a Manager of the Year in the 1990’s.

Only it wasn’t Jeff Torborg who was managing the team when they won.

I couldn’t help but feel for Torborg when Jack McKeon took over the team and got the glory.

A star high school player from New Jersey, Torborg became a backup catcher on the Dodgers during their glory years of the 1960’s. He earned a World Series ring in 1965 and played on another pennant winner in 1966, although he never actually played in the World Series those years.

He played in LA from 1964 to 1970. From 1971 to 1973, he played for the Angels before transitioning to coaching.

In 1977, the Indians fired Frank Robinson as manager and put Jeff Torborg in the skipper role. The Indians had some talent on their squad but it could not translate on the field. His only full season managing Cleveland, 1978, they lost 90 games.

When the Tribe started 43-52 in 1979, Torborg was let go and Dave Garcia came in. The Indians would finish the season above .500.

For years afterwards, Torborg became a fixture in the Yankee coaching staff. Oddly, even though the Yankees averaged at least one managerial change a year, Torborg never got a chance to manage in the Bronx.

The White Sox came calling in 1989 after Jim Fregosi was shown the door. He had a rocky first year but the young talented squad blossomed in 1990, the final year of Comiskey Park.

The team had a combination of veteran hitters like Carlton Fisk, Ron Kittle and Ivan Calderon and young bats like Robin Ventura, Lance Johnson and young phenom Frank Thomas. They also had Sammy Sosa, but he was too skinny and didn’t have enough power.

Bobby Thigpen saved a record 57 games and Jack McDowell, Greg Hibbard, Melido Perez and Eric King made for a solid staff.

By July 7th, they were tied for first place and stayed close into August. The A’s would go on to win the AL West, but Chicago’s 94 win season came out of nowhere and was better than the AL East Champion Red Sox’s final tally.

Torborg won Manager of the Year and became on the shortlist of elite managers. After another winning season in 1991, he was coveted by several teams. He went to New York. The Mets were retooling with the additions of Bobby Bonilla, Bret Saberhagen and Eddie Murray and had thoughts of unseating the Pirates for NL East champs.

Now with Torborg replacing Bud Harrleson, the Mets looked to be great again.

Instead 1992 was an abject disaster. Bonilla and Saberhagen were not the stars New York was hoping for and the Mets lost 92 games. They began 1993 13-25 and that was it. Torborg was first and Dallas Green took over. The 1993 Mets are considered to be one of the worst in franchise history.

The taste of being involved in those Mets years seemed to wipe out the positivity of the White Sox success. He did not return to managing for the rest of the 1990’s. He worked as a broadcaster for several outlets.

His friend, Jeffrey Loria, revived his managerial career. When Loria ran the Expos, he brought in Torborg to supplant Felipe Alou to finish the 2001 season. When Loria left the Expos to run the Marlins, he brought Torborg with him.

The Marlins had talent and finished 2002 near .500. But they started 2003 with a new free agent signing, Ivan Rodriguez, and Wild Card aspirations. Instead they stumbled to a 16-22 start.

That prompted the hiring of Jack McKeon and Torborg was shown the door. The Marlins went 75-49 the rest of the way, stunned the Giants in the Division Series, caused agony to Cub fans and caught an exhausted post Aaron Boone Yankee squad off guard.

The Marlins were champs and it was McKeon, who had been Manager of the Year with the 1999 Reds, soaking in champagne.

Torborg retired to New Jersey and now is suffering from Parkinsons.

He had a long and varied baseball life that just barely missed that ultimate pinnacle as a manager.

I hope he got a winners share from the 2003 Marlins.

Jim Fregosi 1988 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 15, 2017

IMG_1894

The late Jim Fregosi was a baseball lifer who made his way from organization to organization, earning respect wherever he went. The eulogies for him when he passed away in 2014 were over flowing with affection.

An All Star and MVP candidate as a player is a career that spanned 18 seasons, he managed a pair of teams to the post season. One was the first ever Division Title for one franchise. The other was one of the most unlikely pennants in baseball history.

And yet for all of his achievements, he is best remembered for two negative things. He was on the wrong end of one of the worst trades in the history of baseball when he was a player. And as a manager, he made a decision with the season on the line that everyone on the planet Earth knew was going to backfire, and it did.

And frankly that is a shame that those two things overshadow his legacy. But look at what I am doing with this blog post. I can not write about him without bringing it up.

One of many stars to come out of Serra High School in San Mateo, Fregosi played ball at the University of New Mexico when the Red Sox signed him in 1960.

As a farm hand in Boston, he was left unprotected in the first ever expansion draft. The new Los Angeles Angels (not of Anaheim) selected him before their first season in 1961. A 19 year old Fregosi made his big league debut that year.

By 1963, he was a regular. By 1964, the 22 year old Fregosi was an All Star. He hit for a good average as a shortstop and knocked 12 triples along the way. In 1964, he was the first player in Angels history to hit for the cycle.

He would develop into a Gold Glove winning shortstop and lead the AL with 13 triples in 1968, which was one of his six All Star appearances with the Los Angeles and now California Angels.

Fregosi had foot issues in 1971. There was a tumor in his foot that hampered his productivity and one would assume his trade value. That would be a bad assumption. The Angels, hoping to get SOMETHING in return for their injured former All Star shortstop, shopped him around.

They found a willing trade partner with the New York Mets. They sent Fregosi… alone… nobody else… no prospects or anything… to the Mets. The Mets sent four players back. Right there, pat new GM Harry Dalton on the back. Flipping an injured shortstop for 4 players is a nice pick up.

Ohhh… it gets worse Met fans. Three of the players were Frank Estrada, Don Rose and LeRoy Stanton.

The other player was Nolan Ryan.

The Mets gave up on the man who would pitch from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, strikeout more batters than anyone in history and throw more no hitters than anyone in history.

Ryan had barely scratched the surface in his time in New York, which included a pair of critical relief performances in the 1969 post season and World Series victory.

Now the Mets would no long have Ryan and they would watch him rewrite all the strikeout records in the book. Fregosi would struggle through an injury plagued 1972. In 1973, the Rangers purchased him contract from the Mets. A little bit of money was all the Mets had left for Nolan Ryan.

He never played 80 games in a season again as he struggled the rest of the 1970’s with Texas and later the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 1978, while being a utility infielder for the Pirates, Fregosi was coveted again by the Angels, the team where he starred. They wanted him to be the manager of the team. The Pirates released him and he took the job.

In 1979, partially because of the splendid pitching of Nolan Ryan, he managed the Angels to their first ever post season appearance. In the ALCS, California took on a powerful Orioles team. They held their own, losing an extra inning game 1 and a one run affair in game 2. They held back elimination with a 4-3 walk off win in Game 4 before losing the final game.

The goodwill in Anaheim was shortlived. In fact it left with Ryan’s departure to Houston. The Angels pitching fell apart without Ryan and in 1981, they lost Frank Tanana was well. Fregosi was fired midway through the 1981 season.

After success managing for Triple A Louisville, Fregosi resurfaced with the White Sox in 1986. The team was floundering after the dismissal of Tony LaRussa. The rebuilding team had some solid veterans like Harold Baines and Carlton Fisk along with rising young players like Jack McDowell, Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Thigpen. But they could not put together a winning season with those curly C hats and he was let go after the 1988 season.

Many of the players he helped develop were on the 1993 AL West Champions. But by 1993, he was on another team’s payroll.

The 1993 Phillies are truly an odd fluke in baseball history. They won the NL East based upon a talent vacuum. The Pirates won the East the previous three seasons but they had lost all of their stars. The Mets were a mess, the Cardinals and Cubs were in transition and the Marlins were an expansion team. The talented Expos team offered the greatest challenge to the Phillies, who won the Division with 97 wins.

They were a strange potpourri of veterans who were OK and a few solid pitchers with post season experience. Everything clicked for that one year as the sloppy, tobacco chewing Phillies went to the NLCS against the 104 win Braves.

Atlanta had just finished their division race with the Giants on the last day of the season. San Francisco had won 103 games and missed the post season. Atlanta, who lost dramatic World Series in 1991 and 1992, brought in Greg Maddux and Fred McGriff to close the deal.

Playing the Phillies in the NLCS was a mere formality before the inevitable World Series rematch with Toronto.

The Braves outhit the Phillies in terms of team batting average, .274 to .227. They out pitched Philadelphia with a team ERA of 3.15 to 4.75. By all metrics, the Braves outplayed the Phillies.

Yet the Phillies pulled of the stunning upset. And they did so in 6 games. Each game Philadelphia won was razor thin. Each game Atlanta won was a blowout. But in the end, the title goes to the team that won 4 games, which is what the Phillies did.

They did so despite closer Mitch Williams blowing two Curt Schilling leads. Schilling was the NLCS MVP despite not getting a decision. They won despite three relievers other than Williams posting ERAs above 9.00.

In the World Series, they took on the defending champion Blue Jays. After three games, Toronto was up 2-1. Game 3 was a surreal affair with the score 4-3 after one inning. The Phillies bats kept scoring inning after inning while the Blue Jays would score in bursts.

Philadelphia led 14-9 with one out in the 8th. A Phillies victory would put Curt Schilling on the hill for Game 5 and a chance to be up 3-2 heading back home. But the Blue Jays rallied off of reliever Larry Anderson.

Fregosi turned to Williams again. The Blue Jays bats torched Williams, the final blow being a 2 run triple by Devon White to take a 15-14 lead.

The Braves had solved Williams and it was clear the Blue Jays were not being fooled by him. It wasn’t like they had Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage in their prime sitting in their pen to replace him. But the time had come to realize loyalty was not as important as recognizing a pitcher was not being effective.

Bobby Thigpen, who had been a closer with Fregosi’s White Sox and a few years prior had set a big league record for saves in a season was in the pen.

The Phillies didn’t need a reliever for a whole season. Just for 3 more wins. Schilling kept his end of the bargain up by going the distance in a Game 5 win.

In Game 6, the Phillies fell behind 5-1 in the 7th and elimination was inevitable. But Lenny Dykstra hit a 3 run homer off of Dave Stewart. Then Dave Hollins got an RBI single to tie the game. A sacrifice fly by Pete Incaviglia gave the Phillies the lead.

They needed 9 outs to force a Game 7 where anything was possible. Roger Mason, who threw a shutout 6th, kept the Blue Jays off the board in the 7th and he got the first out in the 8th.

David West and Larry Andersen wiggled out of trouble in the 8th. Now the Phillies were 3 outs away from Game 7.

Fregosi turned to Williams for the 9th. Williams who had blown save after save was on the mound. Everyone on the planet Earth knew he was going to blow the lead. Rickey Henderson evidently was giddy when he took the mound, knowing at least one run was inevitable.

Henderson walked to lead off the inning. With one out Molitor singled. And then Joe Carter came up.

There was no second guessing. Williams was not the man for the job anymore and the point was moot after Carter’s homer. A crushed Fregosi after the game deflected any notion of not using Williams in that inning by saying “he got us here.”

That’s right. But maybe give the ball to someone else for those three outs.

Either way, he managed a remarkable pennant for a Phillies team that is still beloved by their fans.

He was let go after the 1996 season, criticized for his handling of players. After a stint with, ironically, the Blue Jays in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, his career was over.

While participating in an MLB alumni cruise, he suffered a series of strokes in 2014 and died in a hospital in Miami.

Sadly he is best remembered for the Ryan trade and the 1993 World Series. But his was a baseball life that spanned 5 decades, saw great success and great frustration.

Perhaps that is one of things that made Fregosi so beloved. He wasn’t superhuman. He seemed like one of us.

Either way, he had a career worth celebrating.