’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.

’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.

Don Gullett 1980 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for August 26, 2017

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Don Gullett started three straight World Series openers. Chances are he isn’t the name you would think had accomplished that feat. But for a stretch in the 1970’s, Don Gullett was as close to a good luck charm as a team could have.

Born in Lynn Kentucky, Gullett excelled in many high school sports and was a big football prospect. He also was worth of being a first round pick for the Cincinnati Reds in 1969.

He spent less than a year in the major leagues before he joined Sparky Anderson and the Reds in 1970. That was a pretty good time to show up in Cincinnati with Sparky Anderson.

The 19 year old Gullet was used primarily out of the bullpen and pitched to a 2.43 ERA in 77 2/3 innings pitched. He wound up pitching in the post season, earning a save in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Pirates.

In the potential clinching Game 3, he came into a 3-2 game in the 9th. There were 2 outs but the tying run was on. Willie Stargell singled but he got Al Oliver to ground out. Less than a year and a half out of high school, Don Gullett clinched the pennant for the Reds.

He would throw 3 games in the Reds 5 game defeat at the hand of the Orioles. But the kid who could not legally buy a drink yet was now established in the brand new Big Red Machine.

He joined the rotation in 1971, going 16-6 and leading the league with a .727 winning percentage.

Gullett was in the rotation when they won the 1972 pennant and 1973 NL West.

By 1975, he was money in the bank to throw 200 some odd innings and win in double figures with a low ERA. The Reds were better known for their bullpen, but Gullett was a good go to man in the rotation. Injuries kept him from pitching 200 innings in 1975 but he made up for in in October.

In Game 1 of the NLCS, he threw a complete game victory against the Pirates and drove in a run with a single and cracked a 2 run homer. He was a one man wrecking crew. The Reds would sweep the Pirates and the 24 year old was off to his third trip to the World Series.

Gullett pitched the opener of the World Series against the Red Sox. He matched Luis Tiant with shutout inning after shutout inning until a 7th inning rally put the Red Sox up for good.

He made up for the Game 1 loss by pitching into the 9th inning in Game 5. He went 8 2/3 innings, allowing 2 runs and earned the 6-2 decision that put the Reds on the verge of the World Series title.

A series of rain delays and the epic Game 6 gave Gullett a chance to pitch Game 7. He let up 3 early runs and was lifted but the Reds bats and bullpen came to his rescue to win it in the 9th. Gullett was a World Series champ.

1976 saw another season interrupted by injuries for Gullett has he managed only 126 regular season innings over 23 games. But by the time the post season began, the Reds were back in it and Gullett took the ball.

In Game 1 of the NLCS, he held the Phillies to 2 hits and 1 run and the Reds took the opener, 6-3. Cincinnati would sweep the 3 game set and lined up the World Series for Gullett to throw the opener.

He would pitch into the 8th, allowing 1 run over 7 1/3 innings and earned the 5-1 win. The Reds would have a perfect post season, sweeping the NLCS and World Series. Those would be Gullett’s only 2 post season starts as he picked up his second ring.

Free Agency was brand new after the 1976 season and Gullett threw his hat into the proverbial ring. After a few weeks, he joined the team he beat and became a New York Yankee through 1982 with a contract that would make him a millionaire.

Not bad for a 26 year old. Yankee manager Billy Martin and pitching coach Art Fowler got a lot wins out of Gullett, going 14-4 with the best winning percentage in the AL. But his shoulder issues kept him from reaching 200 innings again.

He was ready, however to start the playoffs. This time however, he got clobbered hard in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Royals. He did not appear in the rest of the series. The Yankees would come back and win it in 5.

With starters Ron Guidry and Mike Torrez used in the ALCS finale, Martin once again turned to Gullett in a Game 1. For the third straight year, and with two different teams, Don Gullett opened the World Series as a starter. He pitched into the 9th inning but did not get the decision. Paul Blair got the walk off hit in extra innings, putting the Yankees up 1-0.

In Game 5, Gullett took the ball with the Yankees up 3-1 in the Series and a chance to win their first title since 1962. But the Dodgers jumped all over Gullett, as he allowed 7 runs in 4 1/3 innings. The Yankees would win it in 6, giving him World Series ring number 3.

The World Series Game 5 start in 1977 exposed a series of shoulder injuries to Gullett that reduced his 1978 season to just 8 starts. He would earn World Series ring number 4 that year, but he was in trouble at age 27.

This card was issued including his 1979 stats. The picture must have been taken in 1977 or 1978 because he didn’t pitch a game in 1979. Nor did he in 1980. In fact he never pitched in the majors again after 1978.

Like a meteor going through the atmosphere, he burned up before his career reached its 10th season.

Still a beloved Red, he served as the team’s pitching coach for a while and is in the team’s Hall of Fame. In a career that started before he was 20 and ended before he was 30, he packed more Championships and post season appearances than most players see in their lifetime.