Gary Pettis 1989 Fleer – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 12, 2017

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Gary Pettis hit a fly ball in 1986. It went to the wall. Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice caught it at the wall. If it were 20 inches higher, it would have cleared the wall.

If it were 20 inches higher, Gary Pettis would have become one of the great legends of October baseball and maybe alter the lives of many prominent figures in baseball history.

As it was, Pettis played for over a decade in the majors and is now what I would call a Baseball Lifer. He is currently a coach with the Astros and has coached in several organizations. The native of Oakland was an Angels pick out of Laney College and became one of the best defensive outfielders in the game.

And yet he was so close to immortality.

Pettis broke in as a call up with the 1982 Angels. By 1984, was as an all glove no bat centerfielder. He batted .227 and posted a .632 OPS. But when he DID get on, he would fly. He stole 48 bases in 1984 and 56 in 1985.

1985 was also the year he won the first of his 5 AL Gold Gloves. He struck out way too much, usually over 100 times a year. And he did not walk enough and had little home run power.

But man he could cover ground in centerfield. Seeing that he was often flanked by not exactly fleet of foot Brian Downing in left and Reggie Jackson in right, Pettis being able to field the whole outfield well was no small contribution.

In 1986, he hit a career high 5 homers and batted his best ever .258 while stealing 50 bags. The Angels won the AL West that year and faced a solid Red Sox team in the ALCS.

In the opener against invincible Roger Clemens, Pettis walked to extend the second inning which turned into a 4 run rally. In the third, Pettis slapped an RBI single off Clemens to make it 5-0. His single off of Clemens in the 8th knocked him out of the game.

In a lineup that featured Reggie Jackson, Wally Joyner, Brian Downing and Doug DeCinces, it was Gary Pettis who drove in the final nail to Roger Clemens.

In Game 3, with the series tied at a game a piece, Pettis came up in the 7th with the Angels leading 2-1 with 2 outs and a runner on first. Pettis launched home run off of Oil Can Boyd, knocking him out of the game with the Angels up 4-1. They would hold on to win 5-3.

Pettis continued to be an offensive force in Game 4. He already had 2 hits when he came up to bat in the 9th with 2 on and 1 out and the Angels down 3-1.

He lifted a fly ball which Jim Rice misjudged and it flew over his head. Dick Schofield scored to make it 3-2 and pinch runner Devon White made it to third and Pettis was at second. It was a key hit as a 2 out hit by pitch of Brian Downing tied the game.

In the 11th, Pettis put down a sacrifice bunt that moved the runner to second and came around to score on Bobby Grich’s walk off single.

The Angels were up 3-1 in the ALCS and Pettis was the star. He was batting .500, had an on base percentage of .563, amazingly slugged .786 and an OPS of 1.348. He was lining up to be the Series MVP.

The Angels looked to clinch the pennant in Game 5 with ace Mike Witt on the mound. Pettis singled in the third and walked in the 7th, coming around to score to make the score 5-2 Angels. It remained that going into the 9th.

And then Donnie Moore gave up the homer to Dave Henderson and the Red Sox had the lead. BUT that wasn’t the game winner.

With a pinch runner on first and nobody out in the bottom of the 9th, Pettis, the team’s hottest hitter, was called on to bunt. He did so. Times were different in 1986. Rob Wilfong hit a game tying single but the Angels could not push across the pennant winning run.

The game went into extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th, Pettis came up with 2 outs and Jerry Narron on first.

Steve Crawford, still on the mound and getting outs, was on the mound.

Pettis hit a high drive to left field. It pinned Jim Rice to the wall with his arms extended up. Rice, a great player, was not as fleet of foot as he once was and probably would not have reached much higher above the wall than he did.

If the ball was maybe 20 inches higher, it would have cleared the wall. Pettis would have had the walk off homer to win the ALCS.

Instead the Angels lost the game and were blown out in Games 6 and 7 in Boston.

It would have been “The Gary Pettis Game.” Baseball history would have been different.

First of all Gary Pettis would have become a baseball legend, AND he probably would have won the series MVP.

Dave Henderson’s homer would have been one of those dramatic moments from a losing team, like the Endy Chavez catch or the Rajai Davis homer.

Gene Mauch would have finally won the pennant. Who knows? If that ball was 20 inches higher, Gene Mauch might have been elected to the Hall of Fame.

Gene Autry, the Angels owner, would finally have the pennant he wanted all those years in Southern California.

Reggie Jackson would have another team in the World Series, solidifying his Mr October monicker with another Series and another trip to New York no less.

Bobby Grich and Doug DeCinces would have had their glory moments in Anaheim after many solid years.

On the other side, if the ball was a few inches higher, the Red Sox are not in the World Series and Bill Buckner is remembered as a good solid borderline Hall of Fame player who played hard and played hurt.

Entire fan bases would be different and the identities of giants in the game would have been altered if only the ball was 20 inches higher.

Todd Van Poppel 1994 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for July 28, 2017

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As baseball gathers in Cooperstown this weekend to honor the all time greats of the game, consider how difficult it is to predict who will become great and who will fade into obscurity.

A case in point of someone who was projected to have greatness in baseball and fell far short was Todd Van Poppel. One can argue that the projection of his greatness led directly to his downfall.

As a high school phenom in Texas, Van Poppel caught the attention of Sports Illustrated who profiled him as the next great Texas flame thrower. The concept of Texas flame throwers were in vogue in the late 1980’s. Roger Clemens was dominating with the Red Sox and Nolan Ryan had a renaissance with the Rangers. (Truth be told, Ryan was also great with the Astros all those years but I digress.)

Van Poppel was the most coveted amateur player in America but seemed committed to attend the University of Texas.

The Atlanta Braves, slowly building what would become an all time great team, had the first pick overall in 1990. Van Poppel was the clear cut first choice but they did not want to waste the pick if Van Poppel wouldn’t sign, which he indicated he wouldn’t.

The Braves compromised and signed Chipper Jones.

Meanwhile the defending World Champion Oakland A’s had piled up a bunch of draft picks after letting Dave Parker, Storm Davis, Matt Young and others leave via free agency.

They were the best team in baseball, the reigning champs and had 4 of the first 36 picks in the draft. They could defend the title AND rebuild at the same time. It also meant they could take a risk.

With the 14th pick, the defending champs selected Van Poppel, thinking they had nothing to lose.

His agent Scott Boras shot for the moon with the A’s, knowing that if it didn’t work, Todd would just head off to Austin to pitch for UT.

The A’s, thinking they had stumbled into the next Roger Clemens, offered him a $500,000 signing bonus and a $1.2 million major league contract. The deal was worked out and the A’s drafted 3 other college pitchers to lay down the foundation of the next great pitching staff.

None of the pitchers panned out.

By signing Van Poppel to a major league contract out of high school, it prevented the A’s from having multiple minor league options. They NEEDED to promote Van Poppel sooner rather than later. Now if he was like Dwight Gooden and was big league ready by age 19, that would be one thing.

Van Poppel wasn’t ready. And yet at age 21, the A’s had little choice but to put him on the big league roster. He had all the pressure and none of the minor league experience. In 1993, he was on the Oakland staff but it was clear he did not belong.

His ERA’s on the big league level were unsightly. 5.04 in 1993, 6.09 in 1994.

The fact that the 4.88 ERA he posted in 1995 seemed like an improvement says a lot.

Enough was enough in 1996. He needed to go back to the minors at age 24 and re establish his abilities. But in order to do that, he needed to be put on Waivers because of the big league contract. The Tigers selected him and the Van Poppel hopes were over in Oakland.

He never did establish himself as a major league pitcher. Between 1998 and 2004, he bounced around the majors, posting a few decent seasons as a middle reliever for the Cubs in 2000 and 2001. He seemed like a grizzled veteran by then and yet he had not reached his 30th birthday in those years.

After a stint with the Reds in 2004 and a try out with the Mets in 2005, he retired, evidently not bitter and happy he played 10 plus years in the majors.

Was he an overrated prospect or did the Major League contract derail his career? Would he have been an ace had he developed in the minors properly or went to University of Texas?

We will never know. What we DO know is a lot of people thought it was unfair that the World Champion A’s could improve with a can’t miss pitcher like Van Poppel while a team like the Braves that NEEDED to improve got stuck with a mediocre prospect like Chipper Jones.

And yet Chipper Jones is going to the Hall of Fame.

As I said, greatness is hard to predict.

Sully Baseball Podcast Tigers should emulate the White Sox and remembering 1987 Blue Jays – July 13, 2017

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With the second half of the season looming, the Tigers should look at the White Sox wild rebuilding strategy and say “Hey! WE should do that!”

Plus I remember the Blue Jays team that should have won.

You need to fall before you rise on this episode of Sully Baseball.

While we are at it, enjoy the In Memoriam video.

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