League Leaders Julio Franco, Rangers Fleer 1992 – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for November 14, 2017

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There seems to be a bottomless pit of interesting information regarding the remarkable career of Julio Franco. He played in the Majors until he was nearly 50 years old. His professional career stretched from the late 1970’s until the 2007 season.

Franco was a one and done player on the Hall of Fame ballot but his name is all over the record books. And who knows? If his career didn’t have a few sojourns into foreign leagues, he might have reached the 3,000 hit mark and who knows where that would have led him.

And he also taught me, yes me, an interesting lesson about how RBIs can be amassed.

Franco was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies out of his native Dominican Republic in 1978. The 23 year old Franco made his big league debut on April 23, 1982.

Among the Phillies names in the lineup were Ivan DeJesus, Pete Rose, Bo Diaz, Garry Maddox, Manny Trillo, Sid Monge and Ozzie Virgil. They faced the Cardinals who played Bob Forsch, Gene Tenace, Keith Hernandez, Ozzie Smith and Darrell Porter among others.

I listed those names to give you a sense of the era he first showed up in. The names in his final big league game would look a lot different.

He only played 16 games with the Phillies in 1982 and in the off season was shipped off in a multiplayer deal to Cleveland, bringing Von Hayes to Philadelphia.

Franco hit well in his first year in Cleveland, finishing as the Rookie of the Year runner up to Chicago’s Ron Kittle. Between 1983 and 1987, he steadily improved each year. He became a consistent .300 hitter, albeit one that didn’t walk much. His OPS climbed to .818 in 1988, he would steal bases and had good gap line drive power.

His defense at shortstop was suspect and was moved to second base in 1987.

In 1989, the Indians dealt Franco to the Rangers in a 3 for 1 move. In Texas he made three straight trips to the All Star Game, winning the Mid Summer Classic MVP in 1990. His power increased while he still stole 30 plus bases a year.

In 1991, as this Fleer Card celebrates, he won the batting title, finishing the season with a .341 mark. His OPS was .882 and he brought home his fourth straight silver slugger award.

But injuries in 1992 slowed him down as he only played 35 games. He came back in 1993 to hit .289 with an OPS of .798. He tested the Free Agent waters after 1993 and landed with a super talented White Sox team.

Manager Gene Lamont put Julio Franco in the cleanup spot behind Frank Thomas. I remember when that happened, I thought he was crazy. “Franco doesn’t drive in runs. He should bat second and be driven in.”

But a funny thing happened. Franco DID drive in runs. He hit a career high 20 homers, hit .319 and his OPS soared to .916. And in the strike shortened season, he drove in 98 runs in 112 games. He would have easily passed 110 or even 120 RBI if there wasn’t labor strife.

It was the first realization I made that perhaps “being a run producer” meant being a good hitter when runners were on base. Maybe putting a good hitter there, and not necessarily a masher, meant producing more runs.

Had the White Sox played a full season in 1994, who knows how far they would have gone? Either way, the strike did hit and in the labor limbo, Franco left MLB for Japan.

He put up big numbers for Chiba Lotte and cashed a nice paycheck. In 1996, he returned to America to rejoin he Cleveland Indians. They were the defending AL Champs and looked to go to the World Series and win it in 1996. Franco contributed a .322 average and .877 OPS for the Tribe and played in his first post season.

Cleveland fell short to Baltimore in the playoffs but looked to come back in 1997. Franco played on that squad as well but was dealt to Milwaukee midway through the season and was not part of the team that lost a lead in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

In 1998, no big league team was interested in a 39 year old DH. He returned to Japan for 1998 and after one at bat with the 1999 Devil Rays, found himself playing a team in Mexico and a team in Korea.

By 2001, he was 42 years old, essentially out of MLB since 1997 and hitting with the Mexico City Tigers.

But man he was hitting. In 110 games and 469 plate appearances, he was batting .437.

That isn’t a typo. The first number was a 4. His OPS was 1.175. Granted, it wasn’t against big league pitching. But the Atlanta Braves, looking to get back to the World Series after a disappointing 2000 playoffs, took a flier.

Franco was back in the major leagues as a 42 year old pinch hitter. Baseball fans all over the country did a double take. “Wait, is that the SAME Julio Franco?”

Yup. He batted .300 in a part time role and hit .301 in the Division Series sweep of the Houston Astros. He homered in the Division Series and NLCS, again falling short of the World Series.

He remained on the Braves as a part time first baseman and pinch hitter, playing in the post season for the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 Division Champs. In the 2003 Division Series, he batted .500 and had an OPS of 1.225 in a part time role.

In 2006, the 47 year old Franco signed with the Mets and once again played in October as New York lost a heart breaking NLCS to St. Louis.

The 48 year old Franco played his final game with the 2007 Atlanta Braves. That was 15 years after the featured Fleer Card was issued.

His last game was against the Florida Marlins. The Marlins would not exist until 11 years after Franco’s big league debut. In his final game, not only did they exist, but they had torn down two World Champions and fired Joe Girardi.

The hero of the 1997 and 2010 World Series, Edgar Renteria, was Franco’s teammate in that game. So was Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz.

Players like Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera were playing for the Marlins. They are both still active.

In his final MLB at bat, Julio Franco singled off of Lee Gardner for an RBI single.

Gardner was 7 years old when Julio Franco made his big league debut.

That is quite a baseball life. He amassed nearly 4,000 professional hits, including 2,586 in the majors. Franco is the oldest player to hit a grand slam, a pinch hit homer and 2 homers in an MLB game.

He returned to the Mexican League in 2008 and played 7 games for an independent league as a 55 year old is 2014. In 2015, he was a 57 year old player manager in Japan and who knows? He might be back for a return.

Russ Nixon 1989 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 17, 2017

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The late Russ Nixon managed for a 5 seasons in the early 1980’s and the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Over the those years, only twice did he begin and end the season with the same team.

As it turned out he arrived at the end of one of the great runs in National League history and the beginning of another. Russ Nixon was a fine baseball lifer who basically was a place holder in history as a manager.

The Cincinnati son joined the Cleveland organization in 1953. He bounced between four different minor leagues before arriving in Cleveland as a 22 year old in 1957. He had a twin brother Roy in the Indians organization with him. Roy never made it to the bigs.

Over 12 years, Russ managed to get jobs with the Indians, Red Sox and Twins as a reserve catcher. By 1970, his playing career was over but his coaching days were just beginning.

During the 1970’s he managed in the Reds organization and all the while saw many of the players who skippered head to the Big Red Machine.

Eventually he got the call. In 1976, he joined the Reds coaching staff on the big league level. That squad won the World Series, making quick work of the post season with sweeps of Philadelphia and the Yankees for the title.

In 1977, the Reds were the two time defending World Champs and added Tom Seaver to the team. But their fortunes slipped in 1977 and 1978. After the 1978 season, Pete Rose left by way of free agency and Sparky Anderson was fired. John McNamara took over as manager and Russ Nixon stayed with the staff.

The Big Red Machine might have gotten a facelift, but they were still good enough to win the 1979 NL West title. The Reds remained a solid team through the 1981 season, when they won more games than any other team.

However the stupid playoff rules in the split season of 1981 prevented the best team in baseball from making the postseason. They finished in second for both the first and second halves of the season. That would have been the Big Red Machine’s final bow.

In 1982, the Reds stumbled out to a 34-58 record over 92 games. McNamara was fired and Nixon took the reigns.

His first game was on July 21 against the Pirates. Dave Concepcion and Dan Driessen were still there. But the rest of the team bore little resemblance to a pennant winner.

Tom Lawless, a .154 hitter with an on base percentage of .241, was leading off. They blew the lead that game and lost. The restof the season didn’t get much better as the Reds went on to lose 100 games.

The Reds glory years were over and after 88 losses in 1983 as well, Nixon’s time managing his hometown team was also over.

He coached for the Expos and Braves over the next few years and managed the Double A Greenville Braves in 1988.

In 1988, he was promoted to replace Chuck Tanner as Atlanta manager. The farm system was loaded with talent and future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were on the big league roster.

The 1989 Braves was a 97 loss. They featured Smoltz, Glavine, Jeff Blauser, Ron Gant,  Mark Lemke, David Justice and Lonnie Smith, all of whom would play big parts in the 1991 pennant winning season.

Veterans Darrell Evans and Dale Murphy were also there. But the team was not fitting together. In 1990, it was more of the same and 65 games into the year, they were floundering.

Nixon was fired and replaced by GM Bobby Cox. They would lose 97 games again. But the next year the Braves would win the National League pennant and put on the greatest run the league had seen since the Big Red Machine.

Nixon briefly coached with the Mariners before becoming a minor league manager and instructor until his death.

He was too late for the Big Red Machine and too early for the great Brave squads.

Sometimes it is all in the timing. Sometimes the groundwork is put down by unsung heroes. Nixon might have had bad timing and more influence than we will know.

Rick Mahler 1983 Fleer – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for August 5, 2017

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Behold the genius of the 1983 Fleer Series!

I have written about this series before. The series was simply bananas. Fleer was new in the baseball card business and clearly could not get access to game shots, so they had to go around during batting practice and in the clubhouse to sneak shots.

The result was a bizarre collection of poses and unlikely cards, like this one of Rick Mahler in the clubhouse signing baseball.

Everything about this card screams 1983 Fleer. The setting is strange, the action is not exactly dramatic and is a little bit of an illusion breaker. Isn’t the concept of getting an autograph appealing because it creates the image that the player signed something specifically for one person, not a mass production like Lucy and Ethel at the Chocolate Conveyorbelt.

And his expression clinches it as well. It looks like he is saying “Really? Here? OK, take the picture, buddy.”

Mahler had a good solid career, mainly with the Braves. An undrafted free agent, Mahler signed with the Atlanta organization in 1975. In 1977, he made it to AA and made an impression on the organization as a starter and reliever for Savanah. In 1979, he got his first call up to Atlanta but he did not stick.

In 1980, the 26 year old had a terrific season in AAA and there was no reason to keep him in the minors.

He began 1981 as a reliever for the Braves, going multiple innings in his games including a 3 shutout inning save in a May 15th game against San Francisco. With his ERA at 1.59 at the end of May, he was moved to the rotation. His success was mixed as a starter but did throw a complete game victory against the playoff bound Astros on September 23.

Mahler was the opening day starter for 1982 and rewarded manager Joe Torre with a 2 hit shutout of San Diego. His second start was also a complete game shutout, this time of Houston. He helped the Braves get off to their amazing start and capture the South’s imagination.

His superstar start was met with a mixed bag between May, June and July. Sometimes he would look like an ace, but as his 4.40 ERA would suggest, other times, he would get bombed.

In August and September, as the Braves raced with the Dodgers and Giants for the NL West title (remind me why Atlanta was in the West), he would switch between the bullpen and rotation. He did pitch into the 10th in a game against the Expos on August 18th while other days providing long relief.

He pitched an inning and two thirds of shutout ball in the NLCS against the Cardinals but the Braves were swept.

1983 was a tough year for Mahler as he spent most of the season back in AAA , making only 10 relief appearances. But by 1984, he was back in the big leagues for good. As the Braves stunk on national cable television, Mahler was one of their most reliable innings eaters.

Regularly he would give Atlanta well over 200 innings, often seeing his win total in the teens for truly dreadful clubs.

After the 1988 season, he signed with the Reds and was there in time for the Pete Rose suspension and the chaos of 1989.

In 1990, however, he was a spot starter and managed to get 4 saves in the deep Reds bullpen that went wire to wire. He returned to the post season, throwing 1 2/3 shutout innings again, this time against the Pirates in the NLCS. The Reds would win the pennant and ultimately the World Series, earning Mahler his ring.

He spent 1991 with the Expos before returning to Atlanta in time to see them win the NL Pennant. He wasn’t on the playoff roster but was there for the good times and the bad.

Rick Mahler passed away on March 2, 2005. No word of where any of those autographed baseballs ended up