Sil Campusano 1989 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for April 19, 2017

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For one year, Sil Campusano was such a heralded prospect that people were thinking he would supplant the reigning Most Valuable Player.

In the end, he would up playing 154 games in the majors before finding success elsewhere.

Silvestre Diaz Campusano was born on the last day of 1965 in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He was signed as an 18 year old in 1984 as part of the Blue Jays successful scouting system.

For 3 straight years, Campusano was listed as the top prospect in the organization. Future major leaguers like Fred McGriff, David Wells, Nelson Liriano, Mike Sharperson, Todd Stottlemyre and Kelly Gruber were all ranked between 1986, 1987 and 1988. But each year Campusano was on the top.

He had speed, he had defense and power. His stats might not have popped off the back of the baseball card. But his skills had scouts drooling.

In fact, heading into the 1988 season, Campusano’s stock couldn’t be higher. George Bell, the left fielder for Toronto, won the MVP in 1987 and was part of the best outfield in baseball (with Lloyd Mosesby and Jesse Barfield.) But Campusano was so good, the Blue Jays were considering moving Bell to the DH spot to let the rookie play the field. Baseball America put him on their cover as “The Man Who Will Replace George Bell.”

No pressure.

On opening day, Campusano did indeed start. He was in center field with Moseby moved to left and Barfield in right. Campusano batted 9th. Fred McGriff batted 8th. In the 5th, he doubled but was stranded at second. Not a bad showing for his big league debut.

He homered in a 7-3 loss to the Yankees on April 13th. Those games were the exception not the rule for April. He batted .167 for the month with a ghastly .194 on base percentage.

He wasn’t much better in May where he hit .225 with a .620 OPS. By July, he was showing he simply was not ready for prime time, batting .186 and an on base of .234. He went back to the minors, George Bell’s job was secure.

Between August and September he had 10 more plate appearances for the rest of the year.

After spending the entire 1989 season in the minors, the Blue Jays removed their top prospect going into 1988 from their 40 man roster. The Phillies, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, picked up Campusano in the Rule 5 Draft.

He did not fare much better in Philadelphia. He hit .212 with a .586 OPS in 66 games for the 1990 Phillies. In a handful of games in 1991, he went 4 for 35 before spending the rest of the year in the minors.

While he never did play again in the majors, he found success elsewhere. He remained a star in the Dominican Winter League, winning the Caribbean Series, hitting for the cycle and playing along side many future big leaguers.

He played in Taiwan and won a home run title in the mid 1990’s with the Wei Chuan Dragons and Chiayi-Tainan Luka. Later he had success as a manager and coach in both Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

So Sil Campuano is a man of international success. He was born in the Dominican Republic, was praised in Canada, didn’t quite make it in America but prospered in China, Mexico and back in the Dominican Republic.

A round about path to success to be sure, but a memorable one.

Joe Carter 1991 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for April 18, 2017

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If you read a blog like this one, chances are you know who Joe Carter is. Seeing him in a San Diego Padres uniform might be a bit odd, but his legacy in baseball history is secure.

Whether you think he was an elite player or someone whose value was inflated by people’s love for RBIs, Joe Carter will always have a clip shown every October because he hit one of the most dramatic home runs in the history of baseball.

His 3 run homer with 1 out in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series was just the second season ending homer in history. It was also the second “come from behind walk off” homer in World Series history. Kirk Gibson had the first.

And his joyous free for all dance around the bases has to be one of the greatest and most sincere expressions of pure joy on a baseball diamond in history.

An interesting aspect of his career, that lasted 16 years and saw him named to 5 All Star Teams, was the fact that three times, he was involved in blockbuster and franchise defining trades.

Carter was a star at Wichita State University and was drafted number 2 overall by the Cubs in 1981. He was assigned to the Texas League right away and by 1982, was putting up big numbers. He was crushing the ball in Triple A Iowa when he got a call up with the Cubs in 1983. By 1984, he was continuing to hit Triple A pitching while the parent club was putting together a surprise run for the NL East title.

On June 13, 1984, the Cubs and Indians put together a major trade. Chicago picked up veterans Rick Sutcliffe, Ron Hassey and George Frazier. The Indians got Mel Hall, Don Schulze, Darryl Banks and Carter.

The deal gave the Cubs an ace. Sutcliffe went 16-1 the rest of the way and became an unlikely Cy Young winner in the NL (keeping in mind he spent the first 2 1/2 months of the season in the American League!) Chicago fought with the Mets for most of the season before pulling away and clinching their first post season appearance since 1945.

While the Cubs failed to make the World Series after their meltdown against San Diego, Sutcliffe became a major part of the team. He nearly winning a second Cy Young Award when the Cubs won the 1989 NL East crown.

Meanwhile Carter’s arrival in Cleveland sparked a brief renaissance and hope. Mel Hall became a starter with the team but Carter became the star. He batted .302 with 29 homers and an AL Leading 121 RBI in 1986, and stole 29 bases for good measure in 1986. The Indians posted a winning record and with a super talented lineup, had people believing in Cleveland. Sports Illustrated picked them to win the AL Pennant.

Instead the Indians crashed and burned in 1987. Despite a 32 homer 31 stolen base season from Carter, the Indians lost 101 games.

They had losing records in 1988 and 1989 as well. The team needed a rebuild and Carter, still in his prime but approaching 30, looked like a prime trade chip.

Meanwhile in San Diego, the Padres had an interesting problem. They had the best catching prospect in baseball, Sandy Alomar Jr, in their system. His brother, Roberto, was the starting second baseball for the Padres and they seemed poised to start together for a long time in San Diego. However the Padres also had Benito Santiago, arguably the best catcher in baseball. Plus the Padres had a talented team but looked like they were just a few pieces away from being a legit pennant contender.

After the 1989 season, the Indians and the Padres worked out a swap. Joe Carter would head to the Padres and give the lineup some much needed pop. Sandy Alomar Jr would head to Cleveland. So would infielder Carlos Baerga and outfielder Chris James.

While James would not factor much into the Indians future, Alomar and Baerga became building blocks. Alomar would become the Rookie of the Year and a fixture in Cleveland as they finally became a playoff team again. Baerga would make 3 All Star teams and be one of the bright stars on the club that went to the 1995 World Series.

The trade was credited with kickstarting the Indians rebuild to contention.

In San Diego, Carter played centerfield in a lineup that included Jack Clark, Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar. Carter homered a bunch and drove in 115. His OPS was an alarmingly low .681, but nobody knew that then. Despite a lot of talent on the team, the Padres could not put a winning product on the field as they stumbled to a 75-87 record.

While that was happening in San Diego, the Toronto Blue Jays could not get over the hump. Despite an organization that scouted and traded with the best of them and a super talented team and academies in the Dominican Republic that gave them access to players that other teams never saw, they couldn’t get past the ALCS.

They lost the ALCS in 1985 and 1989 and saw their teams eliminated on the final day in 1987 and 1990. They were good, but not good enough. The Blue Jays lineup was consistent year in and year out, but maybe there needed to be a shakeup and a change of some faces.

After the 1990 season, the Padres and Blue Jays pulled off a stunning deal. Two Toronto stalwarts, Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff, were packaged off to the Padres. Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter landed in Toronto.

The Padres got quality years from McGriff and Fernandez but ultimately dealt them away and other teams got their glory years.

The deal made sense in Toronto where the emerge of John Olerud and Manuel Lee filled in first base and shortstop, making McGriff and Fernandez expendable. Carter would provide power lost from George Bell’s signing with the Cubs and Alomar gave stability to second base, who had a revolving door after Damaso Garcia’s decline.

In the end, it was a culture change in Toronto. Alomar put together the best year’s of his Hall of Fame career as a member of the Blue Jays. And Carter of course put up big hit after big hit, none bigger than the World Series clincher.

The Blue Jays won the Division in 1991 but failed to get past the Twins. In 1992, thanks in part to Alomar’s homer against Dennis Eckersley, the Jays beat the A’s. When they won the World Series in Atlanta, it was Carter who caught the clinching out.

The Blue Jays went from being the perennial “always a bridesmaid never a bride” to winning back to back titles.

A deal involving Joe Carter can be pointed to as one of the big franchise changing moments in Toronto, just like the deals with the Cubs in 1984 and the Indians in 1990.

 

 

Tom Henke 1988 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for April 16, 2017

IMG_9783In 2001, Tom Henke got six Hall of Fame votes for 1.2 percent of the ballots, far short of the five percent needed. And while his final career numbers fell short of Cooperstown, how he left the game sparked an intriguing “what if?” about his Hall of Fame prospects.

Hall voters have been remarkably slow to embrace the relief pitcher. It took eight ballots to get Hoyt Wilhelm in. Rollie Fingers wasn’t in on the first ballot. It took 13 turns to get Bruce Sutter in. Goose Gossage, the biggest no-brainer other than Fingers, inexplicably took nine ballots before getting in.

So when the undeniable greats had trouble getting voted in, a borderline candidate like Henke has little to no chance.
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But take a close look at Henke’s career. His Baseball Reference page lists his similar pitchers as the likes of Robb Nen, John Wetteland, Todd Worrell, Dave Smith, Rod Beck and Troy Percival. That seems about right. Each one of those pitchers were dominant pitchers for a stretch before injuries caught up with their careers.

Armando Benitez is also listed as a similar pitcher, which is a slap in all of their faces. Flush all of his stats down the drain. Being compared to Benitez as a reliever is like comparing a singer to Alfafa from the Little Rascals.

Henke broke into the majors with the Rangers and went to Toronto in the compensation draft. For those of you who have no idea what the compensation draft is, it is the answer to the question “Why was there a strike in 1981?”

When Henke’s career turned a corner as a 27-year-old middle reliever for the 1985 Division Champion Blue Jays, he looked like a late bloomer. But in 1986, Henke no longer fought for saves with Bill Caudill and Jim Acker and became the closer by himself. The result was he became one of the most feared relievers in the game.

Partially fear because of his imposing height, his big glasses couldn’t have made batters feel any more comfortable. “He throws that hard and can’t see? Maybe I shouldn’t dig in.”

He struck out 9.8 batters over nine innings over 14 seasons in the bigs. His individual season save total wasn’t as gaudy as some of his contemporaries (like his fellow Hall of Fame ballot rejects Dave Righetti and Steve Bedrosian who racked up some eye popping regular seasons.) But by the late 1980s, Henke was saving games along side Duane Ward and being part of a devastatingly deep Toronto bullpen.

In 1989, when the Blue Jays returned to the playoffs, Henke saved only 20 games. But he finished 56, struck out 116 batters in only 89 innings and pitched to a 1.92 ERA. Over the next three seasons, the Blue Jays made the post season two more times with Henke leading the deep pen, instead of being a compiler, while keeping up around a four-to-one strikeout to walk ratio.

In 1992, when future Hall of Famer and saves compiler Dennis Eckersley couldn’t contain Roberto Alomar and the Blue Jays, Henke clinched the pennant in Toronto. He lacked that great career highlight moment, as he blew the save in the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series against Atlanta. The Jays would win the game in extra innings and it was Mike Timlin who closed out the series.

But Henke saved two games in the series and outshone his Atlanta counterpart, Jeff Reardon, who was roughed up in Games Two and three.

The Blue Jays decided to stick with Duane Ward as their closer after the World Series, and Henke went back to Texas. There he saved 40 games for the first time in his career. Then after the 1994 strike, he landed in St. Louis. The result was one of his best seasons. He saved 36 of the Cardinals 62 wins, pitched to a 1.82 ERA and made the All-Star team. At the end of the season, he was the 1995 National League Rolaids Relief Award winner. He had never received that honor in all of those years pitching in Toronto.

In 1995, after years of piling up substantive seasons of leading the bullpen and being one of the most respected—but not one of the most celebrated—closers in the game, he seemed poised to start to pile up the stats and pad his Cooperstown resume. Sure he was 37 years old, but he wasn’t logging 200 innings a season. He could start climbing up the saves leader chart and maybe pick up another Rolaids Award.

Maybe he would join a playoff-bound team and get another shot at a ring (and a chance to close it out himself.) And when all was said and done, writers would look at his career and say “Wow, he just might be a Hall of Famer!”

So what did he do?

He retired.

That’s right. He was declared the league’s top reliever and hung up his spikes. Maybe he wanted to go out on top.

Maybe he knew that piling up saves wasn’t going to make a compelling Cooperstown case. (It sure never helped Lee Smith, Reardon and John Franco.) Maybe he saw the late Dan Quisenberry, who has an argument for election, be dropped after the first ballot.

Or maybe the Hall of Fame never entered his mind, and he was a humble family man who was content with 14 big league seasons, multiple All Star appearances, a World Series ring, millions of dollars in the bank, love and respect from a fan base and walking away on top.

If only he were greedier. He might be in the Hall of Fame.

 

(An earlier edition of this post was written for The Hardball Times in 2011.)