Another 1987 Topps card. Damn I loved that set. And man, this card looks strange.
A lot of people like to go out on top in their career. They retire when they are still playing like a star and walk away before they break down.
John Elway and David Robinson won a championship and then retired. Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown hung up their spikes when they were still the best in the game.
David Ortiz retired last year after having one of his best seasons. Mike Mussina quit after finally recording a 20 win campaign. That has a heroic warrior quality to it that you have to admire.
Then there is Steve Carlton.
When I first started following baseball in the late 1970’s, Steve Carlton was the gold standard of pitchers. Lefty was signed by the Cardinals before the existence of the draft out of Miami-Dade College in 1963 and by 1967 was a World Champion, winning 14 games and pitching 6 innings with no earned runs in St. Louis’ 7 game victory over Boston. He also appeared in the 1968 World Series.
Into the 1970’s, Lefty was a young established All Star, winning 17 games in 1969 and 20 in 1971. But he got into a contract dispute with the club and they shipped him off to Philadelphia for Rick Wise.
Now Wise was a fine pitcher. The Phillies got the best pitcher of the era.
In 1972, he won the Cy Young Award after winning 27 of the Phillies 59 wins. He pitched to a 1.97 ERA in 346 1/3 innings, striking out 310 and had an ERA + of 182 and an FIP of 2.01 all the while completing 30 of his 41 starts. By the way, he led the league in every one of those categories.
On Baseball-Reference.com, the single greatest website in the history of the planet Earth, stats that a player led the league in are always in bold. Between 1972 and 1983, it looks like Carlton’s entire page is bold.
He wasn’t as media savvy as Jim Palmer nor Tom Seaver. In fact he hated the press and famously refused to speak to them. He wasn’t the showman that Fernando Valenzuela nor Vida Blue were nor as intimidating as Nolan Ryan.
He just was the best, year in and year out. In his first 12 seasons with the Phillies, he led the National League in strikeouts 5 times, in victories 4 times, innings pitched 5 times and 4 times was named the Cy Young Award winner. Throw in two more top 5 Cy Young finishes and you have a dominant stretch.
And not only did he put up the big numbers but he also delivered in the greatest run the franchise ever saw. Before Carlton’s exile to Philadelphia, the Phillies had won two pennants between 1903 and 1975. They won a grand total of one single World Series game and remained the lone none expansion franchise to be without a World Series title.
In 1976, buoyed by Carlton’s 20 wins, the Phillies won the division. He won his second Cy Young Award in 1977 and had another Division Title. Another strong season in 1978 led to their third straight October date, but still no trip to the World Series.
In 1980, he won Cy Young number three, winning 24 games, leading the league with 286 strikeouts and 304 innings pitched. He went 3-0 in the post season, including earning the victory in Game 6 of the World Series over Kansas City and clinched the first ever title in Phillies history.
His greatness continued into the 1980. He and Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry all passed Walter Johnson’s all time strikeout mark around the same time. Ryan and Carlton flip flopped on who had the all time title for a period of time before Ryan passed him.
Carlton picked up Cy Young number 4 in 1982 and in 1983, led the league in innings pitched while helping the Phillies clinch yet another trip to the World Series by going 2-0 in the NLCS over Los Angeles. That same year he won his 300th game, cementing his place in the Hall of Fame.
He was solid but not spectacular in 1984 but was injured in 1985. At age 40, he was done. He had nothing left to prove. He was a Cy Young winner 4 times over, pitched in 4 World Series, won 2 of them, set strikeout records and became one of the great sports figures in Philadelphia in an era where they had gigantic sports stars. By all accounts, he should have hung up his spikes after the 1985 season.
Instead he came back for 1986. He had nothing left in the tank and got clobbered in 16 starts. He was agonizingly close to 4,000 strikeouts, but the Phillies decided it was time to part ways.
Instead of a long farewell tour and riding off into the sunset, Steve Carlton, the best pitcher of his era, was released.
The San Francisco Giants picked him up. He started 6 games and did not fare much better in Candlestick. He did pass the 4,000 strikeout plateau. It was strange to see him do that in a Giants uniform but he did it.
After a month in San Francisco and with the milestone passed, the Giants cut him. Time to wave good bye to baseball. Except he did not.
Five days later, after 22 seasons in the National League, Carlton pitched his first American League game as a member of the lowly Chicago White Sox. The team was going nowhere, their stadium was empty and their uniforms, as seen on this Topps Card, were horrible.
And Carlton pitched. He had a few decent games, throwing to Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk in his debut. He won 4 games and had a decent 3.69 ERA over his 10 Chicago starts.
He saved face in a rocky year and bid farewell to the game.
Except he didn’t. In 1987, at age 42, he signed with the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe that year had big expectations after a surprisingly solid 1986 season. Their pitching was suspect and perhaps a veteran like Steve Carlton could help.
In his first game of the season, he relieved Phil Niekro and pitched 4 innings for his second career save. One 300 game winner saved a game for another. It was a nice fun start to the season, which was the Indians first win of the year.
It was also his lone highlight in Cleveland. The Tribe was terrible in 1987 and Carlton was worse, throwing to a 5.37 ERA over 109 innings. He pitched well his final two starts for Cleveland but it was time for the team to go to youth. So, for the fourth time in 2 years, 4 time Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton was released.
Instead of retiring he found himself with the Twins. In his second game for Minnesota, he pitched into the 9th, throwing 8 2/3 solid frames against Oakland and earning the win. He had one other good start but was mainly hit very hard. When the Twins went to the post season, Carlton was not added to the active roster.
However, the Twins did indeed win the World Series, earning Carlton his third ring. Go out on top as a champion, eh Lefty?
NOPE! He returned as a 43 year old spot starter and long reliever to the Twins for Spring Training 1988.
On April 9th, he entered a game against Toronto in the 6th. He allowed two homers and 4 runs in 2 2/3 innings. On April 17th, he threw a scoreless inning against the Blue Jays.
On April 18th, he allowed 6 runs and 7 hits in a single inning against the Yankees.
On April 23rd, 1988, probably out of nothing more than respect, Steve Carlton started a game for the Twins against the Cleveland Indians.
Four batters into the game, the score was 4-0 Cleveland with no outs. He allowed back to back homers to Joe Carter and Brook Jacoby. The Indians extended it to 5-0 in the third, 6-0 after 5 and in the 6th, Cleveland rallied again. Mel Hall singled, Ron Washington walked and Andy Allanson doubled home Hall. Manager Tom Kelly relieved Steve Carlton and replaced him Joe Niekro, another veteran winding down his career.
Niekro would allow a homer and Washington and Allanson scored, completing Steve Carlton’s line. It would be the last big league game Steve Carlton ever pitched in.
5 days later the Twins released him and no other team picked him up. There was no need for a 43 year old pitcher with nothing left in the tank. His Hall of Fame clock, which probably should have started 3 year earlier, began in 1989.
In 1994 he made the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 95.6% of the vote. When you consider all of the sports writers who hated him over the year, that high total is even more impressive.
That Hall of Fame plaque is cluttered with teams. Instead of just having St. Louis and Philadelphia, the engraver needed to find room for San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota.
But there is something about Carlton’s bizarre ending to his amazing career that I have always admired. He left it all on the field.
A lot of times you see players come back because they are restless and wonder “Do I still have it?” or “Did I walk away too soon?” Carlton didn’t do that. He just kept pitching until there was no team left that wanted him.
When he walked off the mound against the Indians that day in 1988, there was no doubt he was done. And with that comes no regrets.
Walk out on top? Maybe for some. Walk out knowing it is over? That was Lefty’s way!