Greg Gagne 1987 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for March 20, 2017

The 1980’s were a strange time for the New York Yankees. They did not win a World Series in a decade for the first time and they had a hard time developing a new young core.

Sure Don Mattingly and Dave Righetti came of age in that decade. But young pitching stars like Jose Rijo and Doug Drabek were shipped off as were young bats like Fred McGriff and Willie McGee for veterans who did not help their cause.

George Steinbrenner’s impulsiveness was always in the way.

With Bucky Dent, hero of 1978 fading, the Yankees also had a revolving door of shortstops. As always, the team coveted proven veterans in place of young up and comers.

Greg Gagne was a young prospect in the Yankees farm system from Massachusetts. At the start of the 1982 season, he joined the parade of talented future big leaguers who would be dealt away. He was sent to the Twins for Roy Smalley, an established big leaguer.

By 1985 he was the starting shortstop of the Twins at age 23 while the Yankees were still struggling to fill the void in the infield.

Steady but hardly spectacular, Gagne provided some pop at short in an era where they were expected to field and not hit much. He would smack double digit homers and get his share of doubles and triples as the Twins formed a slugging team that resembled a beer league.

He hit a pair of inside the park homers on October 4, 1986, being just the second person since 1930 to achieve that feat.

In 1987, the Twins shockingly made the post season. Gagne homered twice in the ALCS win over the Tigers, posting a 1.187 OPS. He also homered in the World Series against St. Louis and the Twins won the franchise’s first World Series title since they were the Washington Senators in 1924.

Former Yankees Joe Niekro and George Frazier were also on that team. Also on that team? Roy Smalley, who was reacquired by Minnesota. Being a Twin was an easier path to a World Series than being a Yankee.

That was the case in 1991 when the 29 year old Gagne was once again starting in the World Series. (The Yankees had not appeared in a Series at that point since dealing away Gagne. )

He hit a key homer in Game 1 of the World Series, helping give the Twins the win over Atlanta. The two would play one of the great World Series in baseball history with the Twins coming out on top.

He bounced between the Royals and Dodgers between 1993 and 1997, making the post season again with Los Angeles in 1996.

That was the year the Yankees finally DID win a World Series title. They did so with a lot of homegrown players including a young shortstop named Jeter.

Maybe they would have made it back to the World Series sooner if they held onto a few of their homegrown players.

I’m just saying.

Carl Willis 1987 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for March 7, 2017

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Carl Willis is a man who wore a lots of hats in his career as a pitcher and a coach. And by the looks of it, he wore multiple hats in this Topps Card from 1987.

Willis was drafted out of UNC Wilmington by the Tigers in 1983 and by 1984, he was on the big league club. That was a good year to be a Tiger as the team shot into first place with a dizzying start and never let go. He made his debut throwing 2 1/3 shutout innings out of the pen on June 9th. After a few good relief appearances, he was given a start on June 19th against the Yankees. He did not fare well, allowing 4 runs in 4 1/3 innings.

He was shuttled between Triple A and Detroit when he got another start on August 6th. He retired one batter, allowing 5 hits and 4 runs against the Red Sox. His start was so short that he actually pitched the next day and was sent back down. Any hopes of playing in October that year were dashed when he was dealt to Cincinnati for pitcher Bill Scherrer, who wound up pitching in the World Series.

Willis spent the next few years trying to break into the talented Cincinnati bullpen and not getting many innings. The Angels picked him in the Rule 5 draft before the 1986 season but returned him to the Reds when he didn’t make the team out of Spring Training.

He did not fare well with the Reds that year and between 1987 and 1990 saw a grand total of 6 big league games, pitching for the 1988 White Sox. After bounching around from the Angels to the White Sox and to the Indians farm system, he signed with the Twins before the 1991 season.

There was not much reason for hope for that Twins squad, who finished dead last in 1990. But perhaps Willis thought there would be a chance for a job there.

After a brief stint in Portland, he was called up to the big league squad and became an effective reliever for Minnesota. A workhorse who twice threw 5 innings of relief and 22 times pitched at least 2 innings, Willis finished the season with a respectable 2.63 ERA over 89 innings, winning 8 and saving a pair.

The Twins would win the Division that year and Willis pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings in his 3 relief appearances in the 1991 ALCS. When the Twins advanced the to World Series, Willis found himself playing in one of the most thrilling 7 games sets in baseball history.

He tossed 2 shutout innings in the Game Three 12 inning marathon. In Game 4, however, he allowed a game tying home run to Lonnie Smith and got hit hard in the Twins Game 5 loss, the lone blowout in the Series. In Game 6, he allowed the tying run to score but settled down and finished with 2 2/3 shutout innings.

The Twins would win it all on the back of Jack Morris’ 10 inning shutout and Gene Larkin’s RBI single, making Willis an unlikely World Champion after all the years of toiling in the minors.

He remained a effective middle reliever for the Twins in 1992 and 1993. By 1994, he was running out of gas and only pitched in 3 big league games in 1995, his final season.

Willis would turn to coaching, being the pitching coach for Cleveland between 2003 and 2009, the Mariners between 2010 and 2013 and currently holds that role for the Red Sox. Along the way, he has been the pitching coach for CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Rick Porcello for their Cy Young winning seasons.

This card is amazing. The 1987 Topps series has their share of poorly airbrushed hats. (The 1988 series is a bad airbrushing tour de force.) But what is so bewildering about this picture is that the cap is painting for his 1986 Spring Training session where he was temporarily in the Angels camp. So it was painted to reflect the Reds.

But he pitched for the Reds in 1984 and 1985! And the cap was identical in those years! Instead of sending the poor airbrusher to work, why not just dig up a picture from 1984 or 1985 and call it a day?

It seems like extra work to me.

 

Don Baylor 1988 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day For February 21, 2017

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Don Baylor made quite an impression on me when I started following baseball. It could be that the first year I REALLY followed the game day in and day out was 1979, the year Baylor won the MVP as a member of the California Angels.

But another thing caught my attention. Starting in 1978, before I really understood the day in and day out flow of a baseball season, I used to look at the backs of baseball cards and see the pattern of how they listed the teams a player played for.

On the back it would say “Year” and “Club” and list a bunch of teams. I would call it the “year club” and I would buy a pack of cards and say out loud “I want to see his year club.”

The year club for Reggie Jackson fascinated me. He was the biggest star in baseball in 1978 and in my mind he was as much a Yankee as Fred Lynn, Yaz, Fisk and Jim Rice were Red Sox. But Lynn, Yaz, Fisk, Rice and Evans only had Red Sox in their Year Club. Reggie had mostly the A’s, one year with the Orioles then with the Yankees.

Then I discovered Don Baylor’s year club. He had many years with the Orioles, one year with the A’s and then off to the Angels. I remember seeing that and thinking “It is like a reverse Reggie Jackson” back in 1978.

Little did I know how close I was.

Baylor, aka Groove, was from Texas and drafted into Earl Weaver’s Baltimore juggernaut. He was the right handed slugger would fill the void left by the departure of Frank Robinson. In 1972, he was a starting outfielder in Baltimore and had power and speed. By 1973 and 1974, he brought his stolen base ability and pop into the post season as the Orioles won back to back divisions but lost to the A’s, and Reggie Jackson, in the ALCS.

By 1975, Baylor had blossomed into a star. The 26 year old combined 25 homers and 32 stolen bases and got MVP consideration for the first time. Then he got caught in the crosshairs of baseball labor.

Reggie Jackson was eligible for the new status of Free Agent after the 1976 season. The A’s and Charlie Finley decided that signing him to a long term contract was not an option. So he needed to get SOMETHING for his star. So, during spring training of 1976, Jackson was bundled in a trade that sent him to Baltimore. Among the players who came back to Oakland was Don Baylor.

The A’s contended late into the season but their streak of consecutive Division Titles ended at 5. Baylor was going to test free agency himself and signed with the Angels. So while Reggie’s “Year Club” had many years in Oakland, one year in Baltimore and then off to the Yankees, Baylor’s had many years in Baltimore, one year in Oakland and then off to the Angels. They mirrored each other.

Baylor, who consistently led the league in hit by pitches, started clubbing homers left and right. By 1979, he became one of the best run producers in the American League. He led the league in runs and RBI. He homered 36 times, stole 22 bases and posted career highs in average and OPS.

The Angels made the post season for the first time that year and Baylor took home the MVP. Of course the voters today would probably have picked someone else. The Sabermetric crowd would not have put him in the top 20. Bobby Grich had the better all around season for the Angels. But in 1979, people looked at homers, RBI, average and if the team made the playoffs, so the award went to Baylor.

In 1982, Baylor and Reggie Jackson became teammates for the first time as Reggie left the Yankees to join the Angels. That year, along with Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich and Doug Decinces, the Baylor and Jackson combination pushed the Angels back into the playoffs. At this point, Baylor was a fulltime DH. He did not play a single game in the field during the 1982 season.

In the 5 game ALCS, Baylor drove in 10 runs by himself, including a grand slam in Game 4. But the Brewers came back from a 2-0 hole to win the series in 5, preventing Baylor from making the World Series.

He went to Free Agency again and wound up with the Yankees in 1983. Now think about his Year Club. A bunch of years with the Orioles, one with the A’s, then some glory years with the Angels and off to the Yankees. That, save one year overlap in California, perfectly mirrored Reggie Jackson’s bunch of years with the A’s, one with the Orioles, then some glory years with the Yankees and off to the Angels.

After a few years clashing with Steinbrenner while still homering, Baylor made it to 1985 with still no appearances in the World Series.

Then the “Year Club” deviated from Reggie for the first time. The Yankees and Red Sox swapped DH’s as Mike Easler went from Fenway to the Bronx. The idea was Easler’s left handed swing was better suited for Yankee Stadium while Baylor’s right handed bat would take aim at the Green Monster.

For what it is worth, Baylor’s prescience in the club house seemed to have as much an effect as the 31 homers he clubbed. The disjointed “24 men 24 cab” culture seemed to change with Baylor and his Kanagroo court. The Red Sox took control of the Division early in the year and won the first AL East since 1975.

Baylor made his mark in the ALCS, hitting the 2 run homer that set up Dave Henderson’s season saving homer off of Donnie Moore. The Red Sox won the pennant and Baylor saw his first World Series.

He wasn’t much of a factor in the World Series as Bill Buckner famously played at first base over Baylor. We all know what happened in the World Series.

In 1987, the Red Sox went into a transition season. New hitters like Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn and Todd Benzinger started to get playing time. Veterans Bill Buckner and Dave Henderson were sent packing to make room for the new sluggers.

At the end of August, it was Don Baylor’s time to be shipped off to Minnesota, who were making a surprise post season push. That trade led to this Topps card with a sloppy airbrushed hat.

In the post season as a part time DH, Baylor made the most of his brief career cameo in Minnesota. His RBI hit Game 1 of the ALCS helped set up the Twins come from behind victory. His three run homer in a do or die Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals helped force a 7th game. In the end he batted .389 in that October posting an OPS of 1.032.

The Twins held on to win Game 7 and take the World Series title, the first one earned in Baylor’s career.

He returned to Oakland in 1988 as a platoon DH but clearly no longer was the feared slugger he once was. He did play in the post season and got an at bat in the 1988 World Series. That made him the first player to play in three straight World Series with three different teams (since matched by Eric Hinske.)

His final appearance as a player was striking out in the 1988 World Series. Afterwards he a long career of managing and coaching, being the original manager of the Rockies and leading the Cubs during Sammy Sosa’s peak.

One last note about his “Year Club.” When he returned to the A’s, he was replacing the outgoing DH. Who was the A’s DH in 1987? That would be Reggie Jackson. They just kept mirroring each other.