Gene Nelson 1982 Fleer – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 16, 2017

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A lot has been said about how Tony LaRussa revolutionized the closer role by making Dennis Eckersley a one inning closer for the 9th and giving everyone else assigned roles.

I think another aspect of the genius of how he assembled his bullpens was taking starting pitchers at the end of the line and using them as relievers.

Eckersley was a washed up starter who became a Hall of Famer under his watch. Rick Honeycutt was a former All Star starter who was picked up from the Dodgers, stuck in the bullpen and became an irreplaceable set up man who actually clinched the 1990 ALCS for the A’s.

And not as famous but still valuable and effective was Gene Nelson.

His real name is Wayland Eugene Nelson, which is an awesome name. That name alone would get to number 8 on the country charts, even if he is just blowing a kazoo.

Nelson was picked in the 30th round of the 1978 draft by the Rangers. He never saw a day as a Ranger as he was packaged off to the Yankees in a complex deal that involved Oscar Gamble and Mickey Rivers.

Nelson made 7 starts and a relief appearance for the 1981 AL Champs but was not included on the post season roster. In 1982, he was in Seattle after a deal involving Shane Rawley.

His pitching coach was Dave Duncan that season and there were glimmers of hope for the Mariners, who started pitching a little better than expected.

Between May 22 and June 12, he went on a terrific streak, throwing 2 complete games and going into the 9th another time and going 8 innings in another start. He won player of the week honors and looked like a stud for the Mariners.

Injuries derailed his season and at the end of the year, Duncan left the Mariners to join Tony LaRussa with the White Sox.

Nelson pitched one more year in Seattle and it was a lost season. In 1984, he was traded to the White Sox and reunited with Duncan. He had a pair of rocky seasons as a starter and in 1986, he was moved to the bullpen. He began to pitch more effectively out of the pen. Then, at mid season, in one of the worst moves every made by any front office, GM Ken Harrleson fired Tony LaRussa.

Within seconds of the firing (OK, maybe a little longer) LaRussa and his staff set up shop in Oakland. By 1987, Nelson joined them. Eckersley was picked up in spring training from the Cubs. Rick Honeycutt was picked up at midseason.

LaRussa was putting together his team. Once Jay Howell was dealt to Los Angeles and Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk were put into their roles, the bullpen was assembled.

Nelson gave LaRussa 111 2/3 innings of solid relief. He got only 3 saves, picked up 9 relief wins and was a steady bridge to Eckersley.

In the 1988 ALCS, he went 2-0, setting up series MVP Eckersley.

As the A’s won the Pennant in 1988, the World Series in 1989 and another pennant in 1990, Nelson was steady. He posted a 1.57 ERA in 1990 and picked up 5 saves along the way.

By 1992 he had run out of gas and after comeback attempts with the Angels and Rangers, called it a career, one that featured a World Series title and multiple trip to the post season, a fate that would not have fallen upon a washed up starter in Seattle.

That should be part of any bullpen construction plan. Find that starting pitcher with stuff but can’t quite make it work and give them a new role to shine.

Meanwhile look at the majesty that is the Fleer 1982 series. Fleer had bad printing on their cards so all the pictures looked a little blurry. Plus it was their first year with major league cards, so all the pics look like they were taken from a surveillance crew.

A thing of beauty. Come to think of it, how do we really know that IS Gene Nelson in that pic?

Jerry Narron 1981 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 15, 2017

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In 1979, Jerry Narron looked like he was getting into a great baseball situation. He was a rookie playing for the two time defending World Champion New York Yankees. He was surrounded by superstars and beloved figures in one of the most thrilling baseball crucibles imaginable.

That year he was thrown into an impossible scenario and one that was, probably for the best, short lived.

The Goldsboro NC native was drafted by the Yankees in 1974. He was a left handed hitting catcher and nephew of a former big leaguer named Sam Narron.

By 1977, he was putting up solid offensive numbers at Double A, launching 28 homers and batting .299 with an OPS of .904. He continued his hot hitting in Triple A Tacoma in 1978.

Of course the Yankees had a catcher. Their captain and the soul of the team was Thurman Munson. Reggie Jackson may have been the straw that stirs the drink, but it was Munson’s team through and through.

Between Fran Healy in 1977 and Mike Heath and Cliff Johnson in 1978, the Yankees had plenty of backups for Munson on the big league level. Narron remained on the farm during the 2 World Series years.

In 1979, after trades of Mike Heath and eventually Cliff Johnson opened the door, Narron got the call to the Yankees.

He made his big league debut on April 13th in a game against the WhiteSox. He didn’t hit much but that wasn’t his job. Every week or so, he’d start and give Munson the day off or let him move to DH or first base to keep his bat in the lineup.

Narron had some moments, like his go ahead 7th inning homer off of Dennis Eckersley in a 6-5 win against Boston on July 1.

On August 1, 1979, Jerry Narron homered off of White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec in Comiskey Park. He got the start in the 9-1 Yankee victory. Munson started at first base. Nobody knew the significance of that day when it happened.

The next day, Munson was piloting an aircraft in Ohio when it crashed. The other two men in the plane lived. He did not.

The concentric circles of grief that engulfed the Yankees with the death of Munson can still be felt. But they were at an intense fever pitch in August of 1979.

The act of carrying on a baseball season, much less a defense of two World Series titles, seemed futile in the wake of Munson’s death. But the Yankees followed through.

On Friday, August 3, the Yankees returned to the Bronx in a daze. Jerry Narron was the starting catcher. There was no more Thurman Munson. No more hard nosed captain, representing the Yankee way. No more heart and soul of the team who took the Yankees to the World Series a year before Reggie arrived with his 1976 AL MVP campaign.

Now it was Jerry Narron.

During the pregame ceremony for Munson, Narron did not take the field. The catcher position was empty out of respect for the fallen captain. When he did play, he struck out both times at the plate. The Yankees offense was shutout by Scott McGregor and they lost 1-0.

The catching duties were split with Narron and Brad Gulden. When Bobby Murcer famously won the game after Munson’s funeral with a 2 run single, Gulden got the start but Narron came into the game.

Narron batted .045 in the month after Munson’s death and .228 in September as the Yankees faded far behind the Orioles.

When the season ended, he was mercifully traded to the Mariners, along with Juan Beniquez, Rick Anderson and former 1978 World Series hero Jim Beattie in a deal that brought over Ruppert Jones. Eventually the Yankees would deal for Toronto catcher Rick Cerone to be the starting catcher.

He struggled offensively as a reserve in Seattle but did not have to play with the label of replacing a legend. Eventually he landed with the Angels and was Bob Boone’s backup for several years.

Narron managed a post season highlight in 1986. In Game 4 of the ALCS between the Angels and Red Sox, Narron got into the game after Boone was lifted for a pinch runner. With the score tied in the bottom of the 11th, Narron led off the inning with a single.

Gary Pettis bunted him to third and Ruppert Jones, now his teammate, was walked. Bobby Grich singled to left and Jerry Narron raced home. He scored and was mobbed at home plate after the Angels took a commanding 3-1 series lead. Narron’s run looked like it all but iced the Red Sox.

Boston would of course come back to win. The final out was made when Boston reliever stuck out Narron to end Game 7 in Boston.

Narron’s baseball career would go on well after his playing days were over. By the late 1980’s, he was managing in the Baltimore Orioles organization. In 1993, he joined the Orioles coaching staff. By 1995, he was on the big league staff for the Rangers.

When Rangers manager Johnny Oates was let go, Narron became the interim manager in 2001 and the full time manager in 2002. He would also manage the Cincinnati Reds for a few seasons as well as coach for the Red Sox, Brewers and is currently on the Diamondbacks coaching staff.

After many decades, Jerry Narron is an accomplished and respected baseball man. But the burden he had in his rookie year would have been too much for anyone to carry.

Joe Torre 1978 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 11, 2017

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Edgar Martinez is inching closer to Hall of Fame election. He reached 58.6% last year and with a big bump, he might get in.

If he does and they have those events when all the living Hall of Famers get together, I hope Joe Torre comes over to him and says “Thank you.”

If it weren’t for Edgar Martinez and his amazing series against the Yankees in 1995, Joe Torre would not be in the Hall of Fame.

Oh don’t get me wrong. If Edgar Martinez did not get that game winning double in the bottom of the 11th in Game 5 of the Division Series, or didn’t bat .571 with a 1.000 slugging percentage against the Yankees, Torre would still be a respected man in baseball.

He was an MVP as a player, part of a proud baseball family with his brother Frank Torre and spent decades as a manager and broadcaster for several organizations.

But he became a Hall of Famer, one of the biggest and most beloved figures in all of baseball and managed a team in the wake of September 11th that led the league in overt dramatic symbolism.

That wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t become the Yankee manager at the right time.

The Brooklyn born Torre overcame an abusive father to follow in the footsteps of his brother Frank and played for the Milwaukee Braves starting in 1960. By 1963, Torre was an All Star catcher, hitting 20 homers a year, driving in 109 in 1964 and hit .315 in 1966 with an OPS of .943 as the Braves moved from Wisconsin to Atlanta.

In 1968, Torre was dealt to the two time defending NL Champion Cardinals in a deal for Orlando Cepeda. At this point, Torre was transitioning to third base. The result was in 1971, he had his best season.

He led the league with 230 hits, 137 RBI and a .363 average. He also had the most total bases in the National League and, though nobody knew it then, had the highest offensive WAR in the NL. He was named the MVP of the National League in 1971.

The Cardinals, who won two titles and another pennant in the 1960’s, stopped winning in the 1970’s with Torre on the roster.

He had a few more All Star seasons after his MVP but his borderline Hall of Fame career was winding down. He was traded to the Mets after the 1974 season. He hit .306 as a part time player in 1976 but by 1977, he was done.

The Mets released him but gave him a different job. He was named manager, replacing Joe Frazier.

He was screwed. Not long after installing him into the job, they traded away Tom Seaver. Then they dealt Dave Kingman. Jerry Koosman was next. It wasn’t a great time to be the manager of the Mets and frankly, Torre did nothing as manager to distinguish himself.

He had very little good will in New York, despite being a native son. The Mets were so bad under him that they got some good draft picks, selecting Darryl Strawberry with one of them. But Torre got the boot after the 1981 season.

He found a landing spot in Atlanta and he got off to the best start a new manager could go on. The Braves won their first 13 games under Torre, a National LEague record. They would need every one of those 13 as Atlanta won the division by a single game over the defending World Champion Dodgers and 2 games over the upstart San Francisco Giants.

Finally Torre was in the post season. It didn’t last long. After Game 1 of the best of 5 NLCS against the Cardinals was rained out after it started, Torre and company went on to be swept. The Cardinals won the title. The Braves won the heart of the South. Dale Murphy would win back to back MVPs and become one of the most beloved players in Atlanta history.

Torre couldn’t get the Braves back to the playoffs however and was let go after 1984.

After Atlanta, he became a solid color commentator, working for both the California Angels and for NBC and ESPN. Torre has a solid set of pipes, a relaxed and personable style and lots of stories to tell. There is no doubt that if his managerial career did not take off, he would have had a long broadcasting life somewhere.

He managed the Cardinals between 1990 and 1995, but they did not go to the post season under his watch. When the year ended, he looked like he was primed to head back to the booth. His reputation secure as a fine former player and a baseball lifer.

Then the Yankees collapsed in the playoffs after Edgar Martinez played like a man possessed. George Steinbrenner, desperate to show everyone he was still boss, did not bring back Buck Showalter, the manager who basically rebuilt the team.

The move to let Showalter go was intensely unpopular, especially after the Yankees had a brilliant 1994 cut short by the strike and had a huge comeback to even get into the post season.

Torre was brought in and was dubbed “Clueless Joe” by the press. The great mind of Showalter was canned for a former Met, Brave and Cardinal manager who had one Division Title to his credit.

The match turned out to be one made in heaven. Torre, knowing this was his last chance to win as a manager, was a calm and even keel father figure for the young Yankee team. He handled the veterans and young stars perfectly and kept the Steinbrenner craziness away from the clubhouse. His brother Frank needed a heart transplant during the 1996 post season and suddenly the grandfatherly figure with the sad eyes became a symbol of love and family in New York.

They won the pennant, the first in Joe Torre’s career. Then he outmanaged that asshole Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves. The Yankees won their first title since 1978 and for Yankee fans, it was one they savored forever.

Had the Yankees lost in the Division Series (and they were losing late in 3 of the last 4 games against Texas), Torre might have been fired. Maybe he would have if they lost to Atlanta.

But they didn’t. Torre was impossible to fire. The World Series titles piled up, winning it all in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

And Torre, wearing the NYPD and fire department hats post September 11th, became a reliable father figure for a wounded country after the attacks. The Yankees took dramatic games against the A’s, Mariners and Diamondbacks before falling in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

By then he was an all time ambassador of baseball. No manager lasted longer under Steinbrenner. Only Joe McCarthy lasted longer in Yankee history.

He would go on to manage the Dodgers to the NLCS in 2008 and 2009 and became the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for MLB in 2011.

In 2014, he was selected to the Hall of Fame as a manager and later the Yankees retired his number.

All of these opportunities would have been denied to him if the Yankees had advanced under Showalter in 1995. If they made it to the ALCS against Cleveland, Buck would have returned. The entire modern history of the Yankees would have been different. Maybe they would have won titles under Showalter. Maybe they wouldn’t have.

But Martinez went on that hitting tear, Showalter lost his job and Torre took over. There is a direct line to that event and Torre being in the Hall of Fame.

I truly hope Torre thanked Martinez.