One of the many illusions that baseball has created over the generations is that anyone can play it. And by that I mean, someone does not have to be a physical freak of nature to become a great baseball player.
A football player has to be a huge brute with speed and strength. A hockey player needs to do be the same except do it on skates. Tennis players and soccer players need unreal stamina. And basketball players are basically physical freaks when you consider the short guys on the court are about 6 for 3!
But you can be skinny, fat, tall or short and excel in baseball. Babe Ruth had a belly. Ted Williams was a stringbean. Short Pedro Martinez and professorial Greg Maddux were the best pitchers of their day.
Now of course this is an illusion as most baseball players are athletic and keep themselves in tremendous shape. But the illusion can be perpetuated by the likes of an All Star such as Rick Reuschel.
When Reuschel was on the mound, he looked like a branch manager of a Home Depot who splurged for the price of Giants fantasy camp. He never looked young, his gut hung over his belt and his fleshy face did not scream “Athlete”.
And yet he pitched in 19 seasons, made three All Star teams and a pair of sports writers put Big Daddy on their Hall of Fame ballot.
Reuschel and his brother Paul were from Quincy, Illinois. Both made it to the major leagues. Rick attended Western Illinois University when the Cubs drafted him in the third round of the 1970 draft. He only spent a year and a half in the minors before joining the major league roster in 1972.
By 1973, he was one of the most reliable arms on the rebuilding Cubs staff. The 24 year old Reuschel posted a 3.00 ERA over 237 innings pitched and year in and year out, he logged 230 or more frames.
By 1977, he was an All Star and a 20 game winner for a Cubs squad the briefly contended. He even logged a save and a relief win for good measure. He finished third in the Cy Young vote that year.
But as the 1970’s wound down, the Cubs failed to contend. Reuschel was still reliable as was his Cy Young winning teammate, closer Bruce Sutter. But the team was going nowhere fast.
In the strike shortened 1981 season, Reuschel was traded to the Yankees for Doug Bird and Mike Griffin. On a contender for the first time, he lost his lone start in the AL East Divisional Series against Milwaukee. In the World Series against the Dodgers, he got hit hard in the Yankees 8-7 game 4 loss and pitched in relief in the Game 6 loss that clinched the series for LA.
Injuries sidelined him for all of 1982 and a return to the Cubs in 1983 did not fare well either. He played on the 1984 Cub squad that returned to the post season, but in light of his 5.17 ERA, was left off the playoff roster.
At that point he was 36 years old, heavy, dealing with injuries and ineffectiveness. It was a good bet that his career was over, and it would have been a fine career at that.
Then came his comeback.
In 1985, he made the Pirates roster and had his best season since 1977. He won 14 games and logged a 2.27 ERA over 194 innings for the lowly Pittsburgh team. And the portly Reuschel even picked up a Gold Glove along the way.
Another fine season (in spite of a 9-16 record) in 1986 showed that the season before was no fluke. He began 1987 with the Pirates and the 38 year old Big Daddy was at the top of his game. He completed 9 of his 25 starts in the first 2/3 of the season with the Pirates and made the All Star Team.
Then on August 21, he was traded from the Pirates to the Giants as San Francisco continued their frantic overhaul of their pitching staff. A casual glance at his stats in San Francisco for the final month and a half sees a 5-3 record and a 4.32 ERA. Eh, nothing special.
But his first game with the Giants, he went 7 strong, allowing 1 run, 8 strikeouts and no walks. After a poor second start, he again went 7 strong in his third start, Then in September, as the Giants were overtaking the Reds, he rattled off three straight complete game victory including a critical 7-1 victory in Cincinnati.
His ERA bulked up based on 2 poor starts and a bad relief appearance after the Giants clinched. To Giants fans down the stretch, he was the missing ingredient ace they needed to win their first Division Title since 1971.
In the NLCS, he was hit hard by the Cardinals in both of his starts. The Giants would win his Game 5 start because of the bullpen. While San Francisco missed the World Series, they found an ace. Reuschel showed his Cy Young contending 1987 season was not a fluke.
He won 19 games in 1988 over 245 innings, posting a 3.12 ERA along the way. In 1989, he started the All Star Game for the National League, won 17 and saw his ERA dip to 2.94 as the Giants made the post season again. He would be the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the NLCS against his former team, the Cubs. That game clinched the pennant for the Giants.
He was 40 years old that season.
Injuries and age finally caught up with him as he only made cameos in the 1990 and 1991 seasons. He made his final appearance in relief against the Padres on April 22, 1991.
Rick Reuschel had a remarkable career, making the All Star team with three different franchised and playing from 1972 to 1991. All the while looking like a regular guy on the mound.
Thus the illusion. If someone like HIM can do it, why can’t I?