Dick Williams 1987 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 3, 2017

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I REALLY thought Dick Williams was going to win a Division with the Mariners. It seemed like it was inevitable.

When you consider what a Johnny Appleseed of unusual post seasons Dick Williams was responsible for, the Mariners seemed like the next logical step. It didn’t quite work. It almost did.

Williams was from Pasadena, not far from where I a typing this right now. He played as a reserve with the Brooklyn Dodgers during their “Boys of Summer” glory days, pinch hitting 3 times in the 1953 World Series. He spent the later 1950’s and into the mid 1960’s bouncing from team to team. He went to Baltimore, Cleveland, the Kansas City A’s and back to the Orioles and finally with Boston.

After the 1964 season, Williams retired from playing and wound up, after a strange affiliate shift, becoming the manager of the Toronto minor league team. He endeared himself to Red Sox management with his coaching style in 1965 and 1966 that in 1967, he was named manager in Boston.

Now remember what the Red Sox were in 1967. The notion of “Red Sox Nation” and Boston being in love with their team and Fenway Park being the center of the Olde Towne was not even conceivable then.

The Red Sox had not been to a World Series in 21 years. Boston was, and read this carefully, apathetic to the Red Sox. The team stunk. Fenway Park was empty. That bag of shit Tom Yawkey was threatening to move the Red Sox unless they got a new multipurpose stadium, preferably a dome.

Read that again. The Red Sox were going to MOVE FROM BOSTON UNLESS THEY GOT A COOKIE CUTTER OR DOME STADIUM. That’s where the Red Sox were in 1967.

Williams took over the team. They were involved in the greatest pennant chase in baseball history, winning the AL Pennant on the final day of the season. Suddenly Boston was in love the Red Sox. Everything that we associate with Red Sox nation and romance about Fenway Park can be traced to 1967. It wasn’t Ted Williams and “The Teammates.” That is retroactive Baby Boomer nostalgia. We could have had the Atlanta Red Sox if we weren’t careful.

After 3 years in Boston, Williams left and in 1971, he joined the A’s. Now let’s remember what the A’s were. They were a vagabond franchise, having left Philadelphia for Kansas City in the 1950’s and leaving Kansas City for Oakland in the 1960’s, the team was not relevant since the days of Connie Mack.

They were considered to be a joke franchise, first with the KC A’s acting like a de facto farm team for the Yankees. Then, under Charlie Finley, the team had mules on the field, bright green uniforms, long hair, mustaches and the goofy looking bunch was constantly threatening to move.

Under Dick Williams, the insanely talented team won the AL West in 1971 and the World Series in 1972. The team had not had an October since 1930 and under Williams, they won back to back Championships. A dispute with ownership had him resign after the 1973 World Series. The team won again in 1974.

OK, things didn’t work out when he tried his hand with the California Angels. But in Montreal, he took over a strange team that had never even had a winning record in 1977. With talent blossoming, they contended in 1979 and 1980 until the final day of the season. They made the playoffs in 1981, but again, clashing with ownership caused him to resign before October. GM Jim Fanning piloted the team in October, but it was Dick Williams design.

The next year he was in San Diego, another team that had never contended EVER. A strange little franchise with brown uniforms and tucked away next to the desert, Mexico and the ocean, the Padres also threatened to move early in their existence. In Williams’ third year with the club, they won 92 games and the NL West. Then they stunned the Cubs in the NLCS before finally falling to the Tigers in the World Series. He had successfully managed teams in each league to the World Series. One year later he was gone, only to find a new job a year later.

In 1986, he was in charge of the Mariners. Now, remove the Angels and look at his resume. Lackluster Boston franchise? Pennant. Confused and ridiculed A’s franchise? Back to back titles and a dynasty. Irrelevant Expos franchise? Contender and built into a playoff team. Small potatoes San Diego franchise? Pennant winner.

With that in mind, taking over Seattle, a club that from 1977 to his arrival in 1986, had never ever seen a .500 club and threatened to move, looked like the next inevitable pennant.

One thing the Mariners had in 1986 was some raw talent all over the field. There was raw power in Alvin Davis, Ken Phelps and Jim Presley. Rookie Danny Tartabull also provided 25 dingers. Phil Bradley was a solid all around hitter. Harold Reynolds provided speed. A slew of young hitters were coming up through the pipeline.

There was talent in the pitching staff. Mike Moore and Mark Langston both had ace stuff and Billy Swift was a top prospect.

If this group could gel in a weak AL West, Williams would have his next magic act. Then came 1987. The AL West was wide open. The defending champion Angels and perennial contender Kansas City seemed to be the cream of the crop. But the Mariners had one of the strongest infields in baseball and a 19 win season from Mark Langston.

By mid May, they were tied for first place and were above .500 into June. By July, they were hovering near first place. On July 10, they were 3 1/2 games out of first place. The Twins were in first, but hardly a juggernaut. The A’s and Royals were a few games out. If they could keep close, the AL West could go to Seattle.

Instead they finished 34-42 the rest of the way. They finished with a 78-84 record, 7 games back of the Twins. Those Twins would go on to stun Detroit and beat a hobbled St. Louis team for the World Series. What could have been for the Mariners if they had a better second half.

Williams would leave midway through 1988, his final year. The next year, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson arrived, laying down the foundation of Seattle’s first playoff push that would come 6 years later.

I really loved that Mariner team in 1987. They were fun, exciting and had some real hope. The problem was that Langston was talented and Moore was talented but they could never have their solid years in the same year. Had they had that 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, Williams might have been able to add Seattle to his Hall of Fame resume of success.

Williams didn’t need Seattle for his miracle worker reputation. It just would have been a lot of fun if he did win there.

Ken Griffey Jr. 1993 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 29, 2017

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Ken Griffey is the greatest baseball player I ever saw play. And for that reason, he is my favorite non Red Sox player of all time.

I already wrote how I believe Barry Bonds was the greatest offensive force I ever saw in my life. I stand by that.

But Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime was the greatest player I ever saw.

So naturally, the one chance I ever got to talk to him, I asked him the single stupidest question anyone has ever asked Ken Griffey Jr. Don’t bother challenging me. I get the blue ribbon.

The year was 1989. I was reading Baseball America for the first time in my life, trying to see if I could follow prospects. I read that the Mariners had used the number one pick a in 1987. I was living in Palo Alto and I saw he was doing well with the San Bernadino Spirit of the California League.

The Spirit were playing the San Jose Giants just about 30 minutes from our house. I convinced my dad to go to a SJ Giants game and see if Ken Griffey’s kid was any good.

He was as good as advertised. If my memory serves, and it sometimes comes up short, he hit a pair of triples and threw out a baserunner from centerfield who rounded second base too widely.

My dad and I had our eyes wide open during the game. He was only 18 years old but it was so clear that he was playing on a different level than any of his teammates.

A few of his teammates, like Dave Burba and Jeff Nelson, would make it to the majors. But most of them, including Cowboy Helton and E. B. Bryant never got the call.

After the game, I had my copy of Baseball America handy and wanted to catch up with Griffey. To understand what I mean by that, at San Jose Municipal Stadium, the players walked out of the same exit as the fans do.

So you got to see the crowd filing through a series of doors next to players in uniform. The visiting team would file onto a bus heading to the team hotel.

I saw Griffey, said hello and asked if he could sign my copy of Baseball America, which featured his picture.

I was 16 at the time. He was 18. It was hardly a little kid talking to Mean Joe Greene moment in that Coke commercial moment. But he seemed so much older than me.

As he was signing it, I asked him the stupidest question and I felt so stupid, I wanted to turn back time at that moment. It was my Jennifer Gray holding the watermelon moment.

“Are you Ken Griffey’s son?”

Think about that. Even if you knew NOTHING about Ken Griffey Jr. except his name, you should be able to deduct what his dad’s name is.

And I asked as if his paternal lineage was in question.

Now in my pitiful defense, I was trying to broach the topic about his dad, a player I saw play a bunch and admired. I couldn’t figure out how to broach that topic.

So I asked Ken Griffey Jr. if his father was Ken Griffey Sr.

It is nearly 30 years later and I remained mortified.

Now, here is how cool Ken Griffey Jr. is. He didn’t look at me and tell me to F— off. He said “You ever see clips of the 1975 World Series?”

I said “Yeah.”

“You can see me and my little brother in Reds jackets sitting in the dugout.”

He told me about seeing his dad win the 1976 World Series, made a comment about San Jose being cold. “I thought this was California” and I asked about the current Mariners team with Harold Reynolds and Alvin Davis and he said some good things about them.

He smiled, nodded. I thanked him. Then I said “Good luck in Seattle. They need you.”

He smiled the biggest grin and said “I know” and got on the bus.

Ken Griffey Jr. turned my personal mortification into one of my all time coolest baseball memories.

I followed him that year as he made the jump from Single A San Bernadino to Double A Vermont. By Spring Training, 1989, he was expected to go to Triple A Tacoma. Instead he went right to the major leagues.

He doubled in his first at bat and I was thrilled. Griffey was MY guy. Instantly, I started following the Mariners almost as closely as I followed the Red Sox and the Giants in 1989. (Keep in mind the Giants won the pennant in 1989.)

That year, I got ballot after ballot for the All Star Game and wrote Griffey’s name on every one of them. I wanted to help get him into the Mid Season Classic.

He didn’t get in that year but after that, he didn’t need my help. He would be named to 13 All Star Teams, win 10 Gold Gloves, 7 Silver Sluggers, an All Star Game MVP, the American League MVP and slid home in the single greatest moment in Seattle baseball history, ending the 1995 Division Series for the Mariners.

His 630 lifetime homers is made even more remarkable when you consider he was on the disabled list for a gigantic chunk of his final 10 years in the majors.

And I can not tell for sure if he took PEDs or not, but his health and productivity did not suddenly skyrocket in his 30’s nor did his body alter. And if people take PEDs to come back from injuries, if Griffey was taking them, he was taking lousy ones.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in a damn near unanimous vote. Even his injury plagued seasons in Cincinnati and his less than stellar cameo with the White Sox could slow down his Cooperstown run.

Griffey was fun. He looked like he was playing a game. He played along side his dad, as I wrote before, which honored both of their legacies. He had a flair for the dramatic and his prime was a sight to behold.

I never saw Mays, Aaron, Musial, Williams or Ruth. I saw Griffey and I don’t feel cheated.

I was a fan before it was cool, but not before HE was cool.

He gave a 16 year old Sully more respect than I earned by asking him the dumbest question anyone ever asked him.

 

Henry Cotto 1990 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 21, 2017

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National broadcasts of playoff games are supposed to be, at least in theory, neutral. Now we all know that is almost impossible.

Announcers want there to be drama. And the drama that keeps people watching a game and builds up the drama of a series is good for the network, the announcers and the game.

Sometimes there is built in drama in a team advancing and history being made. In 1984, the regular season looked like a great old fashioned World Series was going to take place. The Detroit Tigers made a mockery of the AL East from the start and with Sparky Anderson in charge of a young, star studded squad, Detroit was the team to beat.

Meanwhile the Cubs, who hadn’t played in October since 1945, fought hard tooth and nail with the Mets for the NL East. A Tigers vs. Cubs World Series would have been heaven sent.

They would be playing in the same ballparks as the 1945 series (and the 1935 series for that matter.) Two old school teams, wearing traditional uniforms (at least the home unis) and two great sports cities would clash.

As with every championship caliber team, the Cubs got contributions from everyone, from their stars to their role players. 23 year old Henry Cotto was one of the member of that Cubs squad. The Bronx native who went to school in Puerto Rico was a speedster and a solid defensive outfielder. Between 1980 and 1983, he shot up through the Cubs system. By 1984, he was in the majors.

He mainly came off the bench as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Veterans Gary Matthews, Keith Moreland and Bob Dernier did the bulk of the starting but Cotto would give manager Jim Frey some young legs off the bench.

In his second ever start of April 8th, against San Diego, he got 3 hits and played all 10 innings in the Cubs win. On August 7th, he got 4 hits in a critical win against the Mets.

The Cubs clinched the NL East. As the Tigers made quick work of Kansas City in the playoffs, it was Chicago’s turn to dispatch the unheralded San Diego Padres for the pennant and have the World Series everyone was waiting for.

Wrigley did not have lights, but the World Series games were scheduled for the evening. Cub fans could not wait to force the Commissioner to change the TV schedule to play World Series games in the afternoon.

The Cubs clobbered the Padres in Game 1, 13-0. Cotto came off the bench and singled as everyone got into the fun. After a Game 2 victory, the Cubs went to San Diego, needing only one win in 3 games to go the World Series for the first time since 1945.

The Padres saved face with a Game 3 win. In Game 4, the Cubs went for the kill. Neither starter, Scott Sanderson and Tim Lollar, made it out of the 5th, making it a battle of the bullpens. The Padres took the lead in the 7th and a tiny bit of panic started coming over the baseball network powers that be. The narrative that sells was slipping away.

When Keith Moreland reached base in the 8th representing the tying run, Cotto came in to run. With the Padres 4 outs away from forcing a deciding Game 5 (and NBC executives gulping wondering how to sell San Diego in the World Series), Cubs catcher Jody Davis doubled off of Rich Gossage. Cotto came around to score and the game was tied.

Lee Smith worked out of trouble in the 8th. But the Cubs put two men on and 2 outs against reliever Craig Lefferts in the 9th.

Cotto came up and was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for Ron Cey. A base hit would give the Cubs the lead and be 3 outs from the World Series. Cey grounded out.

In the bottom of the 9th, Tony Gwynn singled off of Lee Smith and Steve Garvey came to the plate. On a 1-0 pitch, he hit a deep drive to right. Cotto chased it to the wall. He jumped up onto the top of the wall, arm stretched. But the ball was well over his head.

Steve Garvey hit a dramatic walk off homer. It forced a deciding game and gave Cub fans and TV executives a hollow pit in their stomach.

The TV announcers, a strange group of future Hall of Famers, Don Drysdale, Reggie Jackson and Earl Weaver, called the shot. Almost right away Drysdale started praising Cotto and his effort to catch the ball.

“Watch this effort, Earl!” exclaimed Drysdale. “If that isn’t major league, I don’t know what is!”

To this day, that bit of analysis in the wake of an unbelievably dramatic homer struck me as odd. I am not one to scream “bias”. I rolled my eyes a lot over the years when people accused announcers of New York and Boston bias. But it was pretty clear that they were throwing something to the many Cub fans and the legion of people who did NOT want to see a Padres pennant.

An inning prior, the Cubs had knocked out Gossage and had the bases loaded and a seasons former LA superstar, Cey, ready to slug them into the World Series. Instead it was ANOTHER former LA superstar, Garvey who got the big hit. So why not praise the backup Cubs outfielder who stretched his glove out to catch a ball 10 feet over his head?

As it turned out, it would be his last game as a Cub. The Padres did indeed win the pennant in Game 5. In the off season, he was dealt to the Bronx, kind of a homecoming, as he gave the Yankees valuable depth on their bench. Between 1985 and 1987, he went back and forth between the Yankees and Triple A Columbus. In 1988, he was dealt to Seattle and saw regular playing time along side Ken Griffey Jr and Jay Buhner.

He bounced between the Mariners, Marlins, Japan and the White Sox organizations before finally hanging up his spikes. Currently he is a minor league manager in the San Francisco Giants organization.

But for one moment of exaggerated effort, he personified hustle, big league desire and the realization that the hopes for a dream World Series were flying out of reality’s reach.