This picture of Gary Lavelle was clearly taken during spring training. Seeing it is the 1986 Topps edition, this must have been taken at the 1985 Spring Training camp for the Toronto Blue Jays.
What always struck me about this card was his hat. For some reason it looked awkward on his head. Maybe ill fitting. Maybe it was brand new and not broken in yet. Maybe he wasn’t used to having a Blue Jays logo on top of his head.
There was something oddly appropriate about that. After 11 seasons of being a mainstay in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, Lavelle arrived in Toronto for 1985 and his first shot at post season glory.
He would not achieve such heights in the majors. But for a high school in Virginia, he might as well be a Hall of Famer.
The left handed thrower was from Pennsylvania, graduating from Bethlehem Liberty High School when the Giants picked him in the 20th round of the 1967 draft. Oddly, the Giants were his favorite team. But perhaps that makes sense as the local Phillies team gave fans little to cheer for.
20th round picks don’t normally play in the majors for a decade. Lavelle was an exception. The Cubs would have been better off selecting Lavelle with the second pick over all rather than Terry Hughes, but I digress.
The 18 year old Lavelle did well in Salt Lake City Rookie Ball and steadily worked up the Giants farm. In 1968, the 19 year old Lavelle was in Medford. In 1969, Decatur. By 1970, he struggled in AA Amarillo but after 2 seasons made it AAA Phoenix.
One thing was sure. He was not going to make it to the majors as a starting pitcher. With the Giants in full rebuild mode, Lavelle was moved to the Phoenix bullpen in 1973. In 1974, he made it the show and in 1975 was there to stay. The 26 year old left hander began to make a name for himself in San Francisco.
He saved 12 games and won 10 for the 1976 Giants, not exactly a powerhouse, but he threw 110 1/3 innings of relief to a 2.69 ERA.
1977 was his peak. He saved 20 games for the Giants, finishing with a 2.05 ERA and was named to his first All Star team. In the Mid Season Classic, he faced Hall of Famers George Brett, Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk and got them all out.
His solid relief work continued in the 1978 season when the Giants were surprise contenders. In 1979, Greg Moonman Minton blossomed as a reliever and the Giants had a 1-2 punch with Minton and Lavelle coming out of the pen. Between 1980 and 1982, Minton got the majority of the saves. In 1983, they saved 20 games each.
But with the fortunes of the teams falling after the 1982 pennant race, having two bullpen closers was a luxury the Giants of the mid 1980s just could no longer afford.
After 11 seasons with the Giants, Lavelle was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays just before Spring Training of 1985. In other words, right around the time this picture was taken, Lavelle had to put on a new hat.
The hat didn’t quite fit.
The Blue Jays were a rising team, winning 89 games in 1984 and looking to make their move in a very talented AL East. The Tigers were the defending champs and the Yankees added Rickey Henderson to their star studded roster. But with an outrageously talented core of players, including Dave Steib, George Bell and Willie Upshaw, the Blue Jays looked like they were putting together a powerhouse.
Their bullpen needed an anchor and they dealt for Lavelle to be their reliable closer. He had a shake start with the Blue Jays but settled down and put up outstanding numbers in May and June as the Blue Jays took off. As it turned out, the bullpen for Toronto evolved into a strength. Bill Caudill, Jim Acker and Tom Henke all put up double digit save totals with solid ERAs. Lavelle saved 8 on his own and Dennis Lamp went 11-0 as a middle reliever.
Injuries kept Lavelle from matching his San Francisco numbers but he did get to pitch briefly in the ALCS against Kansas City, his lone post season appearance.
He missed the entire 1986 season with injuries and didn’t quite recover in 1987. He was released by the Blue Jays and finished his career with a cameo on the Oakland A’s.
Eventually, Lavelle found himself coaching for the Greenbrier Christian high school team in Cheasapeake Virginia. For a quarter of a century, he has been a rock, coaching kids and winning his share of games at the high school level. He left the school for 7 years to work in the Yankees organization as a pitching instructor but has since returned and picked up where he left off, picking up conference championship after conference championship.
No doubt he is an inspiration to the kids he coaches. Nothing impresses more than a coach who once did it themselves, and retiring four future Hall of Famers in the All Star Game is no simple feat.
I hope his new hat fits him well.