Matt Alexander 1981 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for May 1, 2017

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The first World Series I ever remember watching was in 1979 where the We Are Family Pirates came back to beat the mighty Baltimore Orioles. It was a remarkably fun World Series and no player seemed to have more fun playing on it than Matt “The Scat” Alexander, pinch runner extraordinaire.

A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Alexander attended Grambling State University on a baseball scholarship. In 1968, the Cubs drafted Alexander in the second round. The scout who recommended Alexander to the parent club was the legendary Buck O’Neil, who had an amazing eye for finding talent.

Throughout the 1970’s, he jumped between Cubs farm teams and serving his Military requirement with the Navy and playing winter ball in Mexico. In 1973, he made it to the Cubs if only for a 12 game cameo.

In 1974, he played 45 games with the Cubs but couldn’t hit a lick. He batted a poor .204 and did not drive in a single run. He did steal 8 bases in a limited role. He was the wrong fit in Chicago but in 1975 found an unlikely home in Oakland.

When he was traded to the 3 time defending World Champion A’s in 1975, he was on a crowded star studded squad. Any chance for him to get at bats were slim. In the end, that was kind of the point. Manager Alvin Dark but more importantly owner Charlie O. Finley loved the concept of pinch running. Alexander with his lightning speed was tailor made for the role.

He played in 61 games for the AL West champs but only 30 plate appearances. Along the way he stole 17 bases and scored 16 times. A late game weapon to cause havoc on the basepaths, Alexander used his time on the base to observe and learn pitchers tendencies to his advantage.

In 1976, he went 1 for 30 at the plate but stole 20 bases. He was a specialist and his new Oakland manager, Chuck Tanner, would remember him.

After one more year in Oakland, he found himself without a team in 1978 after coming down with hepatitis in Mexico. 24 days shy of being eligible for the MLB pension, he went home to Louisiana to learn how to be a barber.

His old Oakland manager, Chuck Tanner, was the new manager of the Pirates. He brought Alexander to Steel Town to once again steal bases. He played enough to earn the pension.

In 1979, he earned a lot more.

The image of harmony of the 1979 Pirates squad was palpable right through the TV screen. Willie Stargell was the emotional leader of the team, Dave Parker was the superstar and the combination of colorful pitchers like Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria and Kent Tekulve kept the score down. Omar Moreno, Phil Garner and Bill Madlock got big hits and Pirate favorites like Manny Sanguillen and Dock Ellis made their last hurrahs in the Family.

Alexander was a role player. He knew his place on the star studded squad… and that was a literal term in 1979. Willie Stargell would hand out stars to the most valuable players for each game to sew onto their caps. Alexander tried and many times succeeded in getting a star with a key steal or important run scored.

He would score and often run across the plate backwards, jumping up and down and endearing himself to the Pittsburgh faithful. And his teammates loved him, appreciating his embracing of his role and doing things like using his barber skills in the clubhouse, trimming players beards and hair.

He even batted .538 in limited at bats, tripling once and driving in a run. (He would drive in 4 in 374 career games.)

Alexander appeared in the playoffs and World Series in 1979. He was caught stealing in his lone World Series appearance but he earned his ring.

After playing 2 more seasons in Pittsburgh, he played in Mexico before retiring, with his pension, to Louisiana.

Pirate fans still remember Matt the Scat, a guy who won games with his legs rather than his bat or glove, and loved every minute of it.

Willie Stargell 1978 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for March 23, 2017

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Topps

I have talked on the podcast about how, all things being equal, I would have been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

The history of the team fascinates me, some of their greatest moments of glory have captured my interest.

But the main reason is because the first World Series I ever watched and have a memory of was the 1979 World Series. That was the “We Are Fam A Lee” World Series between the Orioles and the Pirates. And you could not have seen that World Series and NOT be affected by Willie Stargell.

It still blows my mind that I am older than Willie Stargell was in that World Series. He was called “Pops”. He seemed so much older than anyone else on the team. Look at the picture on this 1978 Topps Card. He was 37 years old when this pic was taken. I guess people looked older back then.

Wilver Dornell Stargell bounced around the country a lot in his childhood. Born in Oklahoma, he called Florida and the East Bay across from San Francisco as his home. He joined the Pirates organization in 1959, just as Branch Rickey’s plan for the team was about to sprout a title. As Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente and company won the title in 1960, Stargell was in C ball. Two years later, he made his big league debut.

By age 24, he made the 1964 All Star team. By 1966, the 26 year old Stargell was a 33 home run hitter in a league dominated by some of the most legendary aces in the game’s history.

Stargell was a bit pudgy and the team tried to get his workout regiment going. He lost a ton of weight in 1967 and his numbers dropped. Maybe some people SHOULD play with a gut!

The All Star Games and top 10 MVP finishes kept building up. In 1971, he lef the league with 48 homers and finished 2nd in the MVP race. That year he was one of the emotional leaders on the Pirates team that went all the way. In 1972, he finished 3rd in the MVP race. Stargell was a leader on the Pirates, but it was Clemente’s team. That changed after the 1972 season.

When Clemente died in the plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1972, suddenly the leadership void was palpable. It was Stargell who filled in. He produced on the field, posting a 1.038 OPS, leading the league in homers and RBI and once again finishing second in the MVP race. But he also provided an anchor for the team, that would make the 1974 and 1975 post season.

After 1974, his numbers began to dip as did the number of plate appearances a year.

In 1979, the Pirates started off slowly. They were in last place at the end of April. But the Pirates started to win, and Stargell’s 1.151 OPS in May helped. ¬†They went on a 6 game winning streak in May and another one into June. But they were a streaky team and were at an even .500 on June 14th.

They went 20-11 in July and 21-9 in August, taking the lead in the Division. In late September, the Pirates behind the Expos with 6 games remaining.

The Pirates rallied around Pops. He crashed a home run in the first inning of a critical game against Montreal. The Pirates would win and not look back, dancing to “We Are Family” the whole time.

As a young version of your pal Sully watched the post season, it seemed like in every moment, Stargell came up big. He hit the game winning homer in extra innings against the Reds in the NLCS. He also homered and drove in 3 in the clincher.

And of course he put the Pirates up for good in Game 7 of the World Series with a towering homer.

The Pirates won, overcoming a 3-1 hole and impressing the hell out of me.

Sabermetics dictate that Stargell wouldn’t even be in the top 5 in terms of stats on his own team in 1979. But people voted for the MVP back then based on the narrative and Stargell leading the team with big hit after big hit was quite a narrative. He would share the MVP with Keith Hernandez, who also put up great numbers.

Stargell made the Hall of Fame in 1988 but died in 2001. Nobody seemed to say a bad word about him, not his teammates, his opponents nor the media. He seemed to be genuinely interested in being a good role model and leader on the Pirates.

I guess as a first World Series hero, he wasn’t a bad choice for me.

 

Sully Baseball Podcast Rewind – December 2, 2012

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Topps


On December 2, 2012, I was saddened by the fact that he is older than Willie Stargell was in the 1979 World Series… then said Bagwell was a user of PEDs.

Enjoy this Podcast Rewind

Sully Baseball Daily Podcast – December 2, 2012