’77 Record Breaker Sparky Lyle, 1978 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for November 18, 2017

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I have mentioned several times that 1978 was my first year of collecting baseball cards and in many ways, my education into baseball. I learned who the players were, what the teams were, who played for whom, who used to play for different teams etc.

I also learned terms and the language of baseball as a 6 year old. Some seemed intuitive. Others fascinated me.

That brings me to this card celebrating the record breaking achievement of Sparky Lyle. The record itself, listed at the top of the card, totally bewildered me.

There was Sparky Lyle. I knew who he was. I mainly knew Red Sox and Yankees players. I knew Sparky was a star on the Yankees. I also knew he pitched with Goose Gossage (remember this was 1978.)

But what was this record?

Most Games… Pure Relief… Lifetime.

Pure in it caught me off guard. I also had a tendency to say “Lifetime” as if I was saying “Lifetiiiiiiiiime.” I said it almost as if I was going to say “Out of sight!” as a punctuation. It seemed very 70’s… or as I thought of it as a kid, the only reality I knew.

Pure. Did that mean he was clean? Did that mean nobody did it better? I had an idea what a relief pitcher did. He came in and replaced the starter.

Was his record that he came in and always gave pure relief… never did anything wrong… and did that all of his life?

That seemed like the only logical explanation.

So for his entire life, he came in and got the job done, got pure relief…. lifetiiiiiiime.

Well, now I understand what it REALLY means. It means that in 1977 Sparky Lyle pitched his 621st game in the big leagues and all were out of the bullpen. He had never made a start. Bob Locker had held the record prior to that year with 576 games, all out of the bullpen.

He would go on to have 899 games of pure relief in his career. (You would think someone could have squeezed in appearance 900 in his career.)

It is a strange record. There have been other relievers who threw more innings or made more appearances than Lyle. Mariano Rivera and Hoyt Wilhelm come to mind. But Rivera made several starts in his rookie year and Wilhelm started some games in his long career.

Lyle, much to my amazement as a kid, began his career with the Red Sox. Why would the Red Sox trade him? Remember, I was young. I didn’t realize at the time how the ineptitude of the Red Sox front office was so often to the benefit of the New York Yankees.

The Sox got infielder Danny Cater out of it and saw themselves have bullpen issues throughout the 1970’s. Meanwhile Lyle blossomed with the Yankees. As the role of the reliever was developing into a more vital position for championship caliber teams, Lyle became the Yankees’ top fireman. He would pile up saves, wins and keep his ERA low, which were the relief metrics at the time.

Lyle had an undeniably terrific year in 1977. He threw 137 innings (pure relief of course), saved 26 games, won 13 and kept his ERA to 2.17. In his league leading 72 appearances, he averaged nearly 2 innings per appearance.

In the post season, he made a ALCS saving appearance in Game 4. With the Yankees on the verge of elimination by Kansas City, the Royals were rallying in the 4th. Ed Figueroa and Dick Tidrow could not hold the KC bats down and Yankee killer George Brett came up with the tying and go ahead runs on base.

Billy Martin brought in his relief ace in the 4th. He got Brett out but now he had to figure out what to do with Lyle.

His solution was novel. Martin had Lyle throw 5 1/3 shutout innings to finish the game and earn the win. That was great but what was he going to do in the do or die Game 5?

Ron Guidry had a poor start in Game 5. This time it was Mike Torrez’s turn to throw 5 1/3 shutout innings out of the bullpen. But when Torrez ran into trouble in the 8th, Lyle came back out with no days rest. He finished the 8th. The Yankees rallied in the top of the 9th to take the lead. Lyle came in and finished the 9th and clinched the pennant.

He was the winning pitcher of the last two games of the ALCS and the first game of the World Series. The Yankees would capture the World Series title but Mike Torrez would have the honor of clinching the final game.

Lyle, a known practical joker and later author of a tell all book about his days with the Yankees, took home the Cy Young Award. The sabermetric crowd would have given it to Frank Tanana of California, who of course got no first place votes.

Because three pitchers all led the AL with 20 wins and that was still the main metric for pitching greatness, perhaps the vote was split.

Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Dennis Leonard and Dave Goltz all got first place votes for Cy Young. So did Bill Campbell who won the Rolaids Fireman Award for best reliever. Lyle won the Cy Young but couldn’t take the top reliever award.

That’s a strange year. It was an even stranger off season for Lyle. He won the Cy Young but lost his job. Steinbrenner signed Rich Gossage from the Pirates, hoping to make a 1-2 tandem in the bullpen. It didn’t quite work and as Graig Nettles said, Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara.”

Lyle was traded to the Rangers in the deal that brought Dave Righetti to the Yankees. He played in the 1981 playoffs for the Phillies before finishing his career with the White Sox.

He couldn’t get that 900th appearance of pure relief in his lifetime (lifetiiiiiiime.)

But what else did he do? He did a chewing tobacco commercial that was aired on TV. The 1970’s were a different time.

MLB Leading Firemen 1978 Card – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for November 12, 2017

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It is harder to get more old school in terms of praising bullpen closers than this “Leading Firemen” card from 1978.

You have a pair of classic relievers, now both in the Hall of Fame, and both quick to point out today what is wrong with closers who only throw one inning for the save.

It is odd to see a clean shaven Gossage, who famously grew out a big mustache to the point where it is mentioned on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Fingers, still sporting his stache he grew for bonuses in Oakland, is seen during his run with San Diego.

It is funny how they are perceived as old school and “the way things should be done” now. In the 1970’s they both represented what, in many people’s eyes, was what was wrong WITH KIDS TODAY!

Besides being dominating closers, what is one thing that both Rich Gossage and Rollie Fingers had in common? They were both early participants in free agency.

Gossage cut his teeth for many years with the White Sox. He spent one year in Pittsburgh before cashing in and signing a multi million dollar contract to join the Yankees. The Yankees already had a bullpen closer, Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle. But he was looked on as a mercenary, chasing the big bucks.

As for Fingers, who was part of the great A’s teams that won 3 straight World Series titles, he also cashed in. He left the team that developed him and made him a star to become a millionaire playing for San Diego, a team that had no chance.

Free agency, supposedly, was going to kill the sport and make sure only the rich teams won and bankrupt small teams. Of course the opposite happened. The 1980’s saw parity like never before in baseball and big market teams were often on the outside looking in.

But think of another element of these two players that would have upset the previous generations. Pitchers were supposed to go nine innings. Relievers were the scrubs not good enough to be starters. These guys were becoming millionaires, making more money than Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal or Whitey Ford ever made, and they were just throwing 2 innings a game.

Wasn’t this the softness of the new generation out for everyone to see? In MYYYYYYY day, you didn’t even WANT to be a reliever. But these kids today like Gossage and Fingers, they don’t care. Just throw 2 innings a game and get millions. Soft kids. They would never have survived in MYYYYY day.

Now they are the old men.

Of course this was in the infancy of judging relievers. The save stat had only been official for about a decade and people were still trying to figure out how to judge the value of a reliever.

Take a look at the back of the card.

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You see they had essentially the first draft of a formula. Saves plus Relief Wins equal total points. Of course a reliever can get a relief win when they pitch poorly. A save can be a sloppy performance.

Blown saves and losses were not taken into account. Neither were inherited runners scored. But it was an attempt and this sort of statistical analysis was all brand new.

Everything new becomes old eventually. And even two players who may have represented everything WRONG about baseball for one generation could become the beacon of the good old days for another.

’77 Record Breaker Reggie Jackson 1978 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for November 3, 2017

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It is November, so why not salute Mr. October?

The first year I collected baseball cards was 1978. I saw a lot of Red Sox games that year but also Yankee games as I spent my summer in Connecticut.

All of baseball was still buzzing from the record that Reggie set in the previous World Series and was honored on this card. He hit 5 homers in the 1977 World Series, three in the final game, all on the first pitch.

They showed those homers on 11 Alive (WPIX in New York) all the time. I remember asking my dad why they kept showing his World Series homers. He replied “Because he was incredible in that game.” My dad wasn’t wrong.

Now to 6 year old Sully, Reggie WAS the Yankees. And he might as well have been there since the Jurassic period. He was a Yankees for life the way Yaz was with the Red Sox.

When I got his actual card, not the record breaker card, I looked at his “Year Club”. (That’s what I called the listing of all the years on the back of the card.)

I remember being stunned that he had only played one year with the Yankees. It was also the first time I ever remember a team called the A’s. 2 letters and an apostrophe. The team looked so short on the back of the card.

He had all those years with the A’s, one with the Orioles and one with the Yankees. I remember there was a rhythm to the back of his card that a 6 year old version of me used to recite as I walked around Connecticut and Massachusetts.

“A’s, A’s, A’s, A’s, A’s, A’s. A’s, A’s, A’s, A’s, Orioles, Yankees.”

Why did the A’s get rid of him? Why didn’t the Orioles keep him?

Six year old Sully didn’t understand free agency and Charlie Finley’s relationship with his players. I still believed the Easter Bunny was real.

But it is funny that some of my earliest memories of Reggie Jackson revolved around the “What if’s?” of his career. What if he stayed here? What if the Orioles kept him?

There are some tantalizing “What if’s?” of Reggie’s career that could have sent him in a totally different trajectory.

What if he chose football over baseball? Colleges like Alabama and George were willing to make him their first ever black star. He might have been a racial pioneer in a different sport.

What if he signed a baseball contract out of high school? He was a high school prospect in the early 1960’s before the advent of the draft. The Giants, Twins, Phillies and Dodgers all scouted him. The Giants made a big push to sign him. He could have come up through the system and be teammates with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and be a left and right punch with Bobby Bonds.

He went to Arizona State was selected second in the 1966 Draft by the A’s. The Mets had the first pick. What if they used that pick to draft Reggie Jackson instead of Steve Chilcott, who never made it to the majors? Reggie would have emerged in the late 1960’s, right around the time of the Miracle Mets. He would have become a New York legend and there would not have been a need to sign with the Yankees. They would have made a Reggie bar long before 1977. He would haunt the Mets by being the MVP of the 1973 World Series.

What if Charlie Finley could have kept the A’s together? Free agency was looming and everyone hated Charlie O. But imagine if he somehow found a way to keep Catfish, Fingers, Rudi, Bando, Blue, Holtsman, Campaneris, Tenace and Jackson together even for a few more years. Would they have won another title or two? Would they have clashed with Kansas City in amazing AL West runs?

What if Reggie embraced Baltimore? When Finley decided to cut bait with Reggie and send him to the Orioles, Jackson stewed. He didn’t report initially and never seemed to warm up to the Orioles and the feeling was mutual.

The team got off to a sluggish start and were 6 1/2 games out by early May.

The team finished with an 88-74 record, far behind the Yankees.  He seemed to have one foot out the door the whole year. But imagine if he looked around and saw he was in a stable organization. He had Earl Weaver, one of the All Time greats, as manager. He had a pitching staff led by Jim Palmer and hit in a lineup with Lee May, Al Bumbry, Doug DeCinces, Ken Singleton and, oh yeah, the next year Eddie Murray arrived.

Had he stayed put in Baltimore, he could have put up some big numbers and played in many more Octobers.

He became a free agent and the team that offered him the biggest contract was… drumroll… THE MONTREAL EXPOS. That’s right, the Expos wanted to being Reggie up and over the boarder and he did indeed go up to be wined and dined by the Expos brass. Of course he got a little hassled for the pot in his bag which may have soured him a bit on the experience.

Picture Jackson in Montreal just as the team was starting to blossom. The outfield of Ellis Valentine, Andre Dawson and Reggie Jackson would have been something. And guess what? He would have had a reuinion with his Oakland manager Dick Williams.

He went to the Yankees and everything was peaceful and tranquil in the Bronx.

Actually, it could have been quite different. Reggie had a good season in the Bronx but “Mr. October” was bombing badly in the ALCS against Kansas City.

Through 4 games, Reggie was 1 for 14 with 2 walks, 1 run scored and 0 RBI. He was SLUGGING .071 going into the final game.

Reggie was bench for the finale as Paul Splitorff historically had his number. He wound getting a key pinch hit RBI single to make the finale 3-2 Royals in the 8th, but Kansas City still had the lead in the 9th and were 3 outs away from the World Series.

Had the Royals clinched, Jackson’s reputation in New York would have been mud. He talked a big game about being the straw that stirred the drink. But when it came to the big spotlight in New York, he withered and batted .125. “He’s all talk.”

Reggie, who requested trades throughout the 1977 season, would probably have been dealt that off season. His time with the Yankees would have been a strange and ill fitting cameo.

The Yankees rallied but he started the 1977 World Series 1-6 with no runs scored and no RBI. He made up for it and clubbed the 5 homers that this card celebrates.

He played 5 years with the Yankees but the marriage became strained and when the contract was up, off he went to California, this time to the Angels.

What if Reggie and the Yankees could have coexisted? They needed each other. Reggie reveled in the New York spotlight. The Yankees floundered without an identity for years after Jackson’s departure. Reggie as the elder statesmen on the Yankees with stars like Dave Winfield and Don Mattingly in the lineup would have been a sight to see.

What if Reggie had homered off of Red Sox reliever Steve Crawford in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the ALCS?

The Angels never won a pennant with Reggie there but damn they came close in both 1982 and 1986. The Angels needed a single run to go to the 1986 World Series as Game 5 went to the 10th inning. Reggie Jackson came up. Steve Crawford, a right handed reliever who was only in the game because several other pitchers were injured faced Reggie.

Crawford was hardly an ace reliever and the idea of him grooving a pitch to Jackson was hardly improbable.

Had he clocked one, the Angels would have gone to the World Series, Reggie would have had his Angels glory moment, the 1986 World Series would have been California and New York and poor Bill Buckner would be a beloved tough veteran.

Lots of what ifs there.

What we got was a remarkable Hall of Fame career that made an impression on a 6 year old version of me.