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.

Dave Johnson 1988 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 12, 2017

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First of all, is it Dave or is it Davey? I am fine with either one, I just want some consensus here.

I wrote Dave Johnson on the title card for this blog post because that is how it is written on the Topps Card. But for the rest of this posting, I will refer to him as “Davey” or “Johnson” because I always thought of him as Davey Johnson.

OK, the next and most interesting question is “What makes a Hall of Fame manager?” Davey Johnson is an interesting case study for what makes a Hall of Fame manager.

Now we know he wasn’t a Hall of Fame player. He had a fine career, playing 8 years with the Orioles in their glory days. He won Gold Gloves, All Star Game appearances and finished third in the 1966 Rookie of the Year vote.

That year the Orioles won the World Series, the first in the franchise’s history including their time as the St. Louis Browns.

He played in the 1969, 1970 and 1971 World Series, picking up another ring with the 1970 squad. After some down years and injuries, he returned to Philadelphia and played in the 1977 NLCS against Los Angeles.

In 1978, he hit a pair of grand slams as a pinch hitter, but he was done.

When his playing career ended, he began coaching. He was a manager in the Mets organization in the early 1980’s. Johnson was the skipper at Jackson and later the Triple A squad in Tidewater in 1983.

He was promoted to the major leagues as the Mets manager, probably because the team was having a major youth movement. Johnson had managed many of the young Mets in the minor leagues. Now he was ready to turn the team around.

In 1984, under Johnson’s leadership, the Mets had their first winning season since 1976 and the second 90 win season in franchise history.

Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry blossomed in 1984 and the Mets became the team of New York.

The 1985 squad won 98 games but narrowly missed the playoffs, falling just behind the Cardinals.

Then came 1986. The 108 win team became one of the most legendary and beloved (and reviled) teams in New York baseball history. That’s saying something. They fought and brawled behind the scenes but were the most dynamic and best team in baseball probably for the entire decade.

Of course the Mets won the World Series. You could not be here, 400 words into a blog post that I wrote if that was a spoiler for you.

Now the Mets nearly lost to the Astros. They were losing in the 9th inning of Games 3 and 6. The final game was a 16 inning affair where a swing of the bat by the Astros would have forced a 7th game showdown against Mike Scott.

And maybe you remember how the World Series ended up with the Red Sox. If the Red Sox got one more out in the 10th or held onto their 3-0 lead in Game 7, Johnson would have remembered for his odd managerial decisions and poor bullpen use.

In 1987, a scandal ridden and injury plagued Mets team won 92 games but again came up short to the Cardinals (who had no shortage of injuries themselves.)

The 1988 Mets team should have demolished the Dodgers in the NLCS. They had no holes on the team and even added a phenom with young Gregg Jefferies hitting up a storm. They won against LA in Hershiser’s first two starts and were cruising to a Game 4 victory that would have put them up 3-1.

Scioscia homered, tied the game and this time it was the Mets who lost a marathon game. The Dodgers won the Series in 7. That was the beginning of the end for Johnson with the Mets.

The team had an unnecessary facelift in 1989, dumping Dykstra, Wilson, Backman and many other beloved figures. They fell short of the playoffs again. Johnson was fired the next year with some saying his time with the Mets was underachieving.

Tough crowd.

Where his Hall of Fame discussion becomes interesting, however, is with his post Mets years.

Early in the 1993 season, he was brought in to replace Tony Perez as manager of the Reds. They were in first place in 1994 at the time of the strike and they won the new NL Central in 1995.

The Reds swept Los Angeles in the Division Series before being swept by the eventual World Champion Braves in the NLCS. THe Reds were a winner under Johnson.

But owner Marge Schott had made the decision before the post season that Ray Knight, the MVP of the World Series for Johnson’s 1986 Mets, was going to be the new Reds manager in 1996.

Thanks for the NLCS, now here is your pinkslip.

Johnson jumped to Baltimore and took the team to the post season for the first time in 13 years. In the 1996 Division Series, the Orioles and Roberto Alomar stunned the heavily favored defending AL Champion Indians. The Birds won in 4 and went on to New York.

The Yankees beat the Orioles with a little help from Jeffrey Maier but the Orioles finally brought October ball to Camden Yards.

In 1997, Johnson moved Cal Ripken from shortstop to third base because, well, it made the team better. The Orioles responded that season with 98 wins and a Division Title. They beat Seattle and faced a much weaker Cleveland squad in the ALCS.

It was a wild series involving extra inning games and controversial calls. The Indians would win Game 6 in extra innings, 1-0 and clinch the pennant. But Johnson would be named AL Manager of the Year that off season.

He would also be shown the door again. Johnson and Orioles owner Peter Angelos clashed and he was fired, despite leading two different teams to the League Championship Series in three straight seasons.

In 1999, he arrived in Los Angeles. The Dodgers, now owned by Fox, had spent lavishly and expected to win the NL West. Davey Johnson claimed that the “village idiot” could win with this team.

He would regret that quote. The 1999 Dodgers not only didn’t win the NL West (the Diamondbacks did in their second ever season.) They didn’t finish with a winning record, going 77-85.

The pressure was on Johnson in 2000 and while the Dodgers won more than they lost, they finished 11 games back of the Giants and far behind the Mets for the Wild Card.

Johnson was let go.

He didn’t get another managerial job until he was hired by Washington in 2011. The Nationals were expected to improve but not contend in 2012. Stephen Strasburg, coming off of Tommy John surgery, was going to pitch that year but, as they announced, would be shut down after he reached an innings cap.

Johnson’s Nationals surprised everyone by starting the season strong and not looking back. As the Phillies crumbled due to injuries, the Braves fell short of expectations, the Mets were a mess and the Marlins dealt with internal squabbles, the Nationals took advantage of a chaotic NL East.

The team won the Division with a 98-64 record. The city of Washington, who had no team between 1971 and 2005, had their first playoff team since the 1933 AL Champions.

They also had a problem. Against Davey Johnson’s wishes, management kept their plan of shutting down Strasburg. The Nationals starting pitching in the Division Series against the Cardinals bombed badly and the worn out bullpen blew the save in Game 5.

The Nationals had an astonishing meltdown with the series on the line. The defending champion Cardinals won the series and the Nats still wonder what would have happened if Strasburg had just one October start.

Johnson managed 2013 before retiring at age 70.

So is he a Hall of Fame manager or not? He took over losing teams with the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Nationals and quickly turned all of them into playoff teams.

The fortunes of the Mets, Reds and Orioles all plummeted after Johnson’s departure. If the Nationals got one more strike in 2012, he would have taken 4 teams to the League Championship Series.

He managed for 17 seasons was in the post season for 6 of those years.

Sure Davey Johnson only won one World Series. But that’s all Leo Durocher won. That’s all Bobby Cox won. That’s all Earl Weaver won.

And yes, the Mets squad should have won at least another pennant. But remember when he arrived in New York, the team was a consistent loser. His time changed the mentality so much that NOT winning the World Series was considered to be a let down.

But that title seems to be more of one lost by the Red Sox than won by the Mets in terms of its legacy.

I would have no issue with Johnson being in Cooperstown. I love the managers, like Dick Williams, who are basically Johnny Appleseeds of post seasons wherever they go.

If he won a pennant in Cincinnati, Baltimore or Washington, this would be a much easier question to answer. But for now, it is interesting to ponder.

As for the Dave or Davey question, we may NEVER get to the bottom of that.

Tommy Helms 1978 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 22, 2017

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I specifically remember getting a Tommy Helms card back in 1978 when I started collecting baseball cards.

I was 6 years old, a Red Sox fan and opening the world of who the players were and what the teams were. And when I would open a pack and find one of MY players from MY team, I got a rush. It was like being introduced to not only a friend, but like a member of the Super Friends.

If the card had a cursive Red Sox on the lower left hand corner, guess what? THIS WAS ONE OF MY GUYS!

Tommy Helms! Woo hoo!

Not long after getting this card in 1978, I learned that Tommy Helms was no longer on the Red Sox… despite the fact that I had the card that proved “Yes indeed he was.”

As I explained in the Frank Duffy entry from July, I was learning that the players on the cards did not always stay and Tommy Helms’ time with the Red Sox was “Blink and you will miss it” time.

He did indeed play with the Red Sox but very briefly in 1977, enough to get this card produced. It would be the final stop in a big league playing career. Twice in his baseball life he would miss being part of a Reds World Series winner, once as a player and once as a manager.

Tommy Vann Helms (a pretty cool full name if you ask me), was from North Carolina and joined the Reds in 1964 as a 23 year old. It was a good time to come of age in Cincinnati. He was surrounded by players like Frank Robinson and Pete Rose. Soon Tony Perez and Johnny Bench would be his teammates.

In 1966, he was named the National League Rookie of the Year. By 1967, Helms was holding his own with any member of the Reds team. He was a National League All Star in 1967 and 1968, batting .288 at a time when .301 earned you a batting title.

In 1970, Helms was a reliable starter on the Reds when they moved into a new ballpark, Riverfront Stadium, got a new manager, Sparky Anderson, and everything came together.

On May 27th, he got 4 hits in a game against San Diego. On July 1, he went 3 for 4 scoring 3 times in their win over the Braves. Down the stretch he had a 3 hit game over the defending World Champion Mets. The Reds would win the NL East and play in the second NLCS.

In the opener in Pittsburgh, he collected 2 hits and helped the Reds win 3-0. Cincinnati would sweep the Pirates and off they would go to the World Series. He started every game in the 5 game loss to Baltimore but Helms was a part of a Reds team who looked to dominate the decade.

They would do so without Helms. After the 1971 season, Helms would take his multiple All Star games and Gold Gloves to Houston. Lee May and Jim Stewart would join him in the deal that brought future Hall of Famer and MVP Joe Morgan to Cincinnati. Denis Menke, Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo also came over to the Reds and the cast of the Big Red Machine was put into place.

As the Reds won the 1972 pennant and 1975 and 1976 World Series without him, Helms remained a regular player with the Astros and briefly with the Pirates.

The A’s, in total disarray after the 1976 season, purchased Helms contract from Pittsburgh but then traded him right back to the Pirates for a deal that included Mitchell Paige and Tony Armas.

The Pirates cut Helms in June and he was signed by the Red Sox to be a reserve infielder. In the end he was mainly used as a DH, only playing 3 of his 21 games for Boston in the field.

In a game against the Twins on August 27th, he homered, driving in 2. It would be his final big league homer. He failed to make the Red Sox out of spring training in 1978 and his playing career was over.

Helms returned to Cincinnati as a coach in the 1980’s and when Pete Rose was suspended in 1989, he took over as the team’s manager. It was a turbulent time for the franchise who saw the city’s favorite son removed from the game just 4 years after his greatest moment of passing Ty Cobb’s hit record.

Helms had some support of the team to take over as the full time manager in 1990 but Marge Schott fired him and went with Lou Piniella. It is difficult to argue with the results as the Reds won the 1990 World Series title, again without Helms.

After wards, Helms married for a second time and saw some of his sons and his nephew, Wes Helms, play professionally.  He is part of both the Reds and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

And one day in 1978, a young Sully opened a pack of cards and said “Yes! A Red Sox player! I will root for him.” Little did I know it was too late. His career was already over.