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Category: Card Corner

Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Roy White

At times the photographers at Topps have depicted a player just about right. Roy White’s 1972 Topps card is a good example of that; we see White practicing his in-game batting stance, holding his hands much lower than most players do, toward his back hip. All that’s missing is the inclusion of White’s feet. With a larger photograph, Topps would have been able to show his pigeon-toed posture, another classic feature of White’s unique batting stance.

White’s card also gives us a good look at the Yankees’ old-school road uniforms, which they used through the 1972 season. They’re you’re basic road gray, with no piping or striping around the sleeve. I’ve always preferred this most simplistic of road uniforms, partly because it’s iconic and partly because it brings back memories of the Mantle/Maris Yankees of the early 1960s.

All in all, this is a quality card for a quality player. In recalling the Yankees of the early 1970s, fans of that era glorified three players: star catcher Thurman Munson, All-Star outfielder Bobby Murcer and the team’s pitching ace, Mel Stottlemyre. Roy White was rarely held in similarly high regard by either the fans or the media. He was generally considered a good, solid player, but not a star, with the one flaw in his game (a poor throwing arm) sometimes becoming the subject of contempt, ridicule, and cruel humor.

The perception of White has changed–and changed drastically–since then. Largely due to Sabermetrics, both Yankee fans and non-Yankee fans have changed their tune with towards White‘s abilities. Or in some cases, it’s simply a matter of a younger generation of fans having a better understanding of players’ quality than we did in the sixties and seventies. White’s ability to draw walks, which was rarely highlighted in the early seventies, has now been given its full due; we better understand and appreciate White’s ability to reach base, and the important role it played in setting the table for other Yankee hitters. And then there is the matter of White’s defense. He was truly an excellent defensive left fielder, with enough speed and range to have played center, if not for Murcer’s presence there through the middle of the 1974 season. Yes, the throwing arm would have been a problem, but probably not anymore so than the weak arms of Mickey Rivers or a late-career Bernie Williams.

Some might argue that the tendency to underrate White in his day was also a product of racism. I have my doubts that was the case. Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African American player, was popular with fans and held in high regard by almost all of the New York media. Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, and Mickey Rivers were all popular Yankees. And fans were just about as supportive as they could be of the controversial Reggie Jackson. When Reggie produced, the fans howled their approval with booming chants of “REG-GIE,REG-GIE” resonating though the upper decks of the old Yankee Stadium. Now Billy Martin might have been a different story; some of his dislike for Reggie might have been rooted in racism, but I don’t know for sure. But I just don’t see much evidence for racial antipathy, not from Martin or anyone else, toward a quiet and hard-working player like Roy White.

By 1972, the switch-hitting White had established himself as a very good player. Though underrated, he had already made two All-Star teams and had earned some MVP votes in three different seasons.  He was coming off a season in which he had led the American League in sacrifice flies, an unglamorous statistic to say the least, but one that showed his team-oriented nature.

In 1972, White’s power production fell off, as his OPS dipped from .857 to .760, his worst mark as the Yankees’ regular left fielder. Still, he managed to make some favorable contributions like lead the American League with 99 walks and steal 23 bases in 30 attempts, all while playing his usually sterling defense in the outfield. The following two seasons, he struggled, leading some to question whether he was on the downhill side at age 30. In the midst of the 1974 season, manager Bill Virdon made him a DH part of the time, a role that White abhorred, considering it an insult to his athletic talents.

In 1975, White’s career received a revival when the Yankees made a managerial switch, firing the placid, detached Virdon, and replacing him with Martin, who appreciated players of all-round ability like the speedy White. Martin put White back in left field and restored him to the No. 2 spot in the batting order. White bounced back beautifully, playing for White the way that he had once played for Ralph Houk.  In 1976, White led the American League with 104 runs scored and reached a career high with 31 stolen bases, becoming a huge part of the first Yankee team to reach the postseason since the ill-fated World Series of 1964.

In the meantime, White became known as a beacon of calm and kindness in a clubhouse that often swirled in turmoil. As Sparky Lyle wrote in his critically acclaimed book, The Bronx Zoo, everybody on the Yankees liked White. “Roy White is probably the nicest goddam guy on the club,” Lyle wrote in his blunt-force style. “He’s well respected by everybody, and he’s very classy.” Classy. The perfect word to describe the gentlemanly Roy White.

By 1978, the year that Lyle’s book hit the shelves, White’s on-field ability had slowed to the point of becoming a part-time player. No longer the everyday left fielder, he platooned with Lou Piniella and also made 23 appearances as a designated hitter, a role that he was now better equipped to handle. With the Yankees having extreme depth in the outfield, they could afford to use White more sparingly, a role into which he fit perfectly. Still able to reach base 35 per cent of the time, White became part of a squadron of role players that supported the Yankees’ stars during their second consecutive world championship run. He played some of his best ball of the season in the playoffs and World Series, hitting over .300 against both the Royals and Dodgers.

Then came the falloff of 1979. Spring training started poorly, as the Yankees refused to offer him an extension on a contract that had just one year remaining. The lack of an extension might have contributed to White’s nightmarish season. Appearing in only 81 games, White played poorly, his power and speed showing the decline that often comes with having a 35-year-old body. Free agency could not have come at a worse possible time. White wanted to keep playing, but the Yankees, looking to rebuild with youth after a season of tragedy and tumult, showed little interest. White received some offers from other teams, but he opted for a completely different career move. He took his aging talents to the Tokyo Giants of the Japanese Leagues, where he became a teammate of Sadaharu Oh.

Batting as the cleanup man behind Oh, White played very well in his first two seasons in Japan. He made the All-Star team one season and helped the Giants to the Japanese Leagues championship the next. In his third year with Tokyo, White found himself playing a utility role, but he fought his way back into the lineup and hit .330 the rest of the way. At season’s end, White decided to call it quits, leaving the game on a high note.

Since his playing days, White has returned to the Yankee organization several times, serving as the first base coach on three occasions and also putting in some time as an assistant to the general manager. In that latter role, he scouted Hideki Matsui during his time in Japan, giving the Yankees his first-hand assessment of a Far East player that they would eventually sign.

Unfortunately, every one of White’s coaching and front office assignments with the Yankees has ended with him being ousted, often with no reason given. I don’t know why that is. He seems like the kind of guy who should have a permanent place in the organization, whether as a scout or as a consultant. It’s almost as if the Yankee organization still doesn’t have a full appreciation for him, just as most of us fans failed to respect him at the time for the player that he truly was.

And that’s just not right. Roy White belongs with the Yankees. If he wants to work for them,  the Yankees should be able to find a place.

[Featured Image via Corbis]

Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Gene Michael

If you’re looking for connections between the current Yankee organization and the 1972 season, there are not many. Other than some minority shareholders and some old-time spring training instructors, there really is no one left from the 1972 days. Except for Gene Michael, that is. These days, he serves as one of Brian Cashman’s senior advisors, giving him advice on such newsworthy matters as the re-signing of the formerly retired Andy Pettitte. Back then, some 40 summers ago, Michael did his best to give the shortstop position the kind of defensive dignity it had lacked since the days of Tony Kubek.

Gene Michael looks a little bit surprised on his 1972 card, as if he isn’t quite ready for the snapshot taken by the Topps photographer. But it is most fitting that he is posed with a glove, for that was by far his best tool as a player. Michael really couldn’t run very fast, and he couldn’t hit a lick, though he did have enough patience to coax a walk here and there. He certainly had no power, with a total of 15 home runs in ten seasons. But he could handle the glove. And notice how small that glove was. We’ve always heard that middle infielders prefer small gloves so that they can take the ball out of the glove quickly and make a fast throw to one of the bases, but that glove is really stretching the limits of that theory.

It‘s rather amazing that Michael established himself as the master of the bidden ball trick using that small of a glove. Where exactly did he hide the ball? In his shirt? Yet, Michael could pull that play better than anyone in history. Here’s what he would do. With the runner at second base assuming that the pitcher was holding the ball, Michael would casually sidle over toward the second base bag with his ball nestled in his glove. He would then place a decisive tag on the unsuspecting victim before making the ball readily apparent to the umpire.

It’s a play that major leaguers rarely use in today’s game–I can’t remember the last time I saw a second baseman or shortstop pull it off–but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency. According to the official records, he executed the hidden ball trick at least five times. Considering that the hidden ball play relies on surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice.

By the time that Michael had refined the hidden ball trick, he was well established as a Yankee. But he did not start out in the organization, instead coming up through the Pirates’ system. Signed by the Pirates in 1959 after a standout career as a basketball player at Kent State, the six-foot, two-inch Michael might have wondered at times if he should have signed with one of the NBA teams that wanted him. “Stick” rode the minor league buses for seven seasons before finally making it to the major leagues in 1966, when he was already 28.

Though he was unusually tall and lanky for a shortstop of that era, he impressed the Pirates with his fielding and his range. His hitting was another story. A .152 batting average in 33 plate appearances will discourage a coaching staff. After the season, the Pirates had a chance to upgrade the position by acquiring Maury Wills, so they did just that. They packaged Michael with power hitting third baseman Bob “Beetle” Bailey, and sent them to the Dodgers for the mercurial Wills.

Michael didn’t hit much better for the Dodgers, who evaluated him for one season before deciding that he couldn’t play every day and selling him to the Yankees in a minor transaction. He entered the 1969 season with a chance to become New York’s No. 1 shortstop, but his bat remained quiet, limiting him to 61 games. Then came the best offensive outburst of his career. He lifted his average from .198 to .272 and cemented himself as the first-string shortstop.

He never came close to hitting that well again, but the Yankees didn’t seem to mind, as long as he gobbled up groundballs like a Hoover, showed a knack for heady plays, and turned his share of double plays with second base partner Horace Clarke. Steady and smooth, he remained the Yankees’ regular shortstop through the 1973 season. In 1974, he lost the job to Jim Mason. That winter, the Yankees, believing they had a capable replacement in Mason (boy, they were wrong on that one), released Michael. He later latched on with the Tigers, where he filled a role as a utility infielder for one season before being released.

It’s not particularly well remembered, but the Red Sox gave Michael a spring training invite in February of 1976. Michael stayed with the Red Sox through late May, but never actually appeared in a game for Boston before drawing his release. That’s why you won’t find Michael listed as a Red Sock in his entry at Baseball-Reference. The release not only ended his Red Sox tenure before it began, but it ended his well-traveled career.

While Michael’s playing career was unremarkable, it was after his playing days that he established his genius in the game. Michael’s intelligence had always impressed George Steinbrenner, who hired him as a coach and then as a manager, before making him a part of the front office. He then spent some time as manager with the Cubs, where he was criticized by Dallas Green for not being tough enough, before coming back to New York. In the early 1990s, the downtrodden Yankees, having hit one of the worst stretches in their history, turned the task of rebuilding the franchise over to Michael.

As a general manager, Michael didn’t bring much flash or showmanship. With his extremely deep voice and chopped manner of speaking, he wasn’t particularly engaging in interview settings; in some ways, he was the antithesis of Billy Beane (or Brad Pitt). While Michael didn’t know much about glitz or self-promoting, he knew what he was doing in putting a team together, while still emphasizing the Sabermetric principles of on-base percentage and defensive range. He placed an emphasis on player development, which included the drafting or signing of such cornerstone players as Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. He patiently waited for the right trade to come his way. On Election Day 1992, he made his signature move by trading Roberto Kelly to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. The trade changed the look of the lineup, while bringing an intensity, a property that had been sorely missing, to the Yankee clubhouse.

It’s unfortunate that Michael was fired as GM before he could see the benefits of his labors. The 1994 strike didn’t help matters either. It’s possible the Yankees would have advanced to the Series that ill-fated year, in what turned out to be Stick’s second-to-last season at the helm.

And those who know the game realize the importance that Michael had in laying the foundation for the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s. He deserves credit, just like Cashman and Bob Watson. Not bad for a guy who didn’t see the major leagues until he was 28.

Thankfully, Michael remains part of the Yankee organization today. I feel a lot better about things knowing that Gene “Stick” Michael is still around.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

[Featured Image Via Linnett Portraits]

Card Corner: 1972 Topps–Felipe Alou

As hard as it is for me to believe, I started collecting baseball cards 40 years ago. (Yes, I am becoming old.) To celebrate the anniversary, along with a set that collectors now consider iconic within the hobby, I’ll be spotlighting certain Yankee players from the 1972 Topps collection here in 2012.

For some reason, Topps chose yellow as its baseline color for Yankee cards. Yellow has never been part of the team’s color scheme; it has always been Navy blue and white, with some red thrown into the old Yankee Doodle hat logo. But yellow is what Topps selected, making that the color of memory for the ‘72 Yankees.

As with all of the regular issue ‘72 cards, Yankee players appeared in photographs that were either portraits, profiles, or posed shots. Topps did issue some “In Action” cards for a few Yankees, including Thurman Munson, Johnny Ellis, and Fritz Peterson, and we’ll tackle some of those throughout the year. But our emphasis will be on the regular issue cards, which were photographed at the original Yankee Stadium, various American League ballparks, or at the Yankees’ spring training site inFt.Lauderdale.

So let our tour of 1972 cards begin, with a player who is not often remembered for being a Yankee. Felipe Alou’s card shows him wearing the Yankees’ road uniform in a ballpark that may or may not be Anaheim Stadium. The photo, which is slightly out of focus, shows Alou finishing a practicing swing while giving the cameraman a serious stare. As posed shots go, it is classic Topps.

For those who recall Alou as the manager of the Expos and Giants, it’s easy to overlook just how good a player he was throughout the sixties and early seventies. The native Dominican was one of those five-tool players we hear so often about, but rarely get to see. In his prime, he hit with legitimate power, ran well enough to steal 10 to 12 bases a year, batted in the .280 to .290 range, and possessed enough arm and range to play all three outfield positions. Alou wasn’t quite a Hall of Famer–he was a couple of notches below that–but he was a damned fine ballplayer.

The peak of his career came in 1966, when he played center field for the Atlanta Braves and led the National League in hits, runs, and total bases. With a career high 31 home runs and an OPS of .894, Alou placed fifth in the league’s MVP voting.

By the time that he joined the Yankees early in 1971, Alou was no longer that same player, no longer in his prime. But he was still serviceable, a good role player who gave the Yankees depth in the outfield and at first base. The Yankees acquired him on April 9 of that season, just four days after the opening of the season. They acquired him from the Oakland A’s, who had deemed him valuable enough to be their Opening Day starter in left field.

In truth, Alou had been the center of trade rumors from the latter days of spring training through the first week of the regular season. There had been talk that the A’s might send him to the Brewers for some infield depth, but the Yankees apparently made Charlie Finley an offer that he felt was superior to what was presented by the Brewers. The Yankees sent Finley two pitchers, right-hander Ron Klimkowski and left-hander Rob Gardner. They were two decent middle relievers, but neither was expected to play a huge role with the Yankees in 1971. In fact, Gardner had been sent out to Triple-A Syracuse just before Opening Day.

The consensus of scouts maintained that Finley had not received enough value in return for Alou. The Oakland players knew that they would miss Alou, one of the most well-liked and respected players throughout the major leagues. A’s captain Sal Bando had once offered Alou the highest of praise. “He’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever met in baseball,” Bando told Ron Bergman, the A’s’ beat writer. “You think a man who’s been around as long as he has would pace himself a little. But he embarrasses you the way he hustles.” Yankee management was simply thrilled to have acquired a veteran leader and professional hitter.

Though there had been rumors of a possible trade, the timing of the deal—just a handful of days into the regular season—caught Alou by surprise. He had just moved his wife and children into an Oakland apartment, where they were scheduled to stay for the entire ‘71 season. Those plans would have to be scrapped, but the Yankees graciously gave Alou the necessary time to move his family out of the Oakland apartment and make new accommodations in the New York metropolitan region.

When Alou finally reported to the Yankees a few days later, he found an interesting way to find something positive in being traded from Oakland to New York. It involved the simplicity of his uniform. “At least I know this is the uniform I’m going to be wearing everyday,” Felipe told the New York Times in referring to the traditional home Yankee pinstripes. “Out there, I didn’t know which [A’s] uniform to wear when. We had one uniform for the first game of a doubleheader and another for the second.  Once I put on the wrong uniform.”

Indeed, the A’s led both leagues in the number of uniform combinations. On some days, the A’s wore Kelly green uniforms with gold undershirts. Then there were games when they donned white jerseys (wedding gown white, as Finley called it) and pants with green sleeves. On other days, they wore Fort Knox gold uniforms with green undershirts. Life would be much simpler with the Yankees: pinstripes at home and standard gray on the road.

Five days after the trade, on April 14, Alou made his Yankee debut wearing the pinstripes. He started in right field at The Stadium against Tigers left-hander Mickey Lolich. Alou went just 1-for-5 that day, but he made the one hit memorable–a solo home run that was part of an 8-4 victory over Detroit.

Alou’s arrival in New York also created confusion for us young Yankee fans. We assumed that his name was pronounced “feh-leep ah-lew.” We didn’t realize that you had to pronounce the final “e” in his first name, making it “feh-leep-ay.” For some reason “feh-leep ah-lew” sounded right. But we were wrong, as we often were with the pronunciations of Latino ballplayers.

Alou would become a semi-regular for the Yankees in ‘71, at first playing right field, then moving to first base. He played 56 games in right field, 42 games at first base, and even filled in 20 times in center field. At 36 years of age, he was hardly a force–he powered only eight home runs and slugged a mere .410–but he did hit .289 with an on-base percentage of .334. Under ideal circumstances, he would have been a platoon player for a strong contender, but at 82-80, the Yankees needed him to take on a more prominent role.

With his speed diminishing, the Yankees reduced his outfield role, making him a platoon first baseman with Ron Blomberg. They hoped that Alou could produce at his 1971 level, but one year older, his play continued to fall off. He played only 120 games, his lowest output since his 1969 season with the Braves. He hit only six home runs as his slugging percentage fell below .400. By now it was obvious that Alou could no longer play every day, and might not even be able to help in much of a bench role, but the Yankees brought him back for 1973.

Though Alou’s skills were waning, the Yankees appreciated his demeanor and attitude. When a reporter asked manager Ralph Houk whom he considered the team leader, the skipper thought for a moment before responding, “I’d say Felipe.” In terms of fundamental and professionalism, no one on the Yankees matched Alou. “Felipe plays every day like a pro,” Houk told Yankee beat writer Jim Ogle in 1973. “Have you ever seen him make a mistake? I’m talking about judgment, not [physical] errors. Everyone makes errors, but Felipe doesn’t do the wrong thing very often. Have you ever watched Felipe go down the line, then take the turn at first base on a hit to the outfield? If there is even the slightest bobble, he’s on his way to second.”

Alou’s 1973 season with the Yankees would provide an intriguing twist. The Yankees had made a wintertime deal, sending journeyman Rob Gardner (who had since rejoined the team) and Rich McKinney to the A’s for right fielder Matty Alou. For the first time since 1964, the Alou brothers would play as teammates, just as they had done with the Giants. In fact, withSan Francisco, all three of the Alous—Felipe, Matty, and Jesus—had played together in the same outfield. (The three would have a reunion of sorts in 1973. When the A’s, featuring Jesus Alou, came to Yankee Stadium for a series in 1973, photographers made sure to snap shots of the three brothers together. One of these photographs would become the basis for an SSPC baseball card in 1978.)

Three specific memories stand out for me from the Yankees’ 1973 season. That was the year that George Steinbrenner assumed control of the franchise. That was the spring that Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced the trade of their wives, children, and family pets. And that was the year that the Alous, reunited after a nine-year absence, became two of the notable faces of the Yankee franchise.

The Yankees made Matty their starting right fielder. They put Felipe back at first base. Facially, they looked somewhat alike, which created confusion for some Yankee fans. But for me, it was easy to tell them apart. Felipe wore glasses; Matty did not. Felipe was tall and batted right-handed. Matty was short and batted from the left side.

Matty hit well and fielded well, but it was strange that the Yankees used him, a singles hitter with virtually no power, to bat third instead of leadoff. Felipe struggled, his play falling off even further after the decline of 1972, and he lost the first base job. Interestingly, the Yankees replaced Felipe with Matty, who moved to first base despite being only five feet, nine inches tall. Felipe eventually made some starts in right field, mostly against left-handed pitching, as he platooned with Johnny Callison. But Felipe just couldn’t hit anymore. At age 38, he had lost most of his batting skills.

When the Yankees fell out of contention that summer, the front office felt it was time to move out some of their past-their-prime veterans. So they released Callison. A few weeks later, they decided it was time to cut ties with the aging Alous. On September 4, the Yankees announced two separate but related transactions. They sold Matty to the Padres. They also sold Felipe on waivers to the Expos. It was only fitting that the brothers would depart New York on the exact same day.

Felipe Alou batted .208 in 20 games for the Expos, who sold him to the Brewers after the season. Alou batted three times with Milwaukee, without a hit, and then drew his release. And thus came to an end a 17-year career in the big leagues.

Alou would never return to the Yankee organization. But he and the Yankees nearly enjoyed a reunion of sorts in 1994. Alou, by now the manager of the Expos, was leading his team to the best record (74-40) in the National League. In the meantime, the Yankees led the American League East. Then came the strike. If not for the labor/management conflict canceling the rest of the season and the World Series, it’s quite possible that Alou would have met the Yankees in the Fall Classic.

Like so many possibilities in baseball, it just never did come to pass.

[Photo Credit: Attic Insulation]

Observations From Cooperstown: Nix, Nunez, Garcia, and The Mystery Man

The Yankees’ decision to sign journeyman Jayson Nix to a make-good contract might end up as inconsequential, or it might be a harbinger of a larger transaction to come. A utility infielder who can play both the infield and the outfield, Nix looks like he’s part of the Triple-A backup plan, but I wonder if there is more at work here. There have been rumors that the Braves and Yankees are talking about a deal that would send Eduardo Nunez to Atlanta as part of a package for Jair Jurrjens. If the Yankees do trade Nunez, they will need a new utility infielder. Ramiro Pena is clearly not the answer, and the organization has shown no confidence in minor league veteran Jorge Vazquez.

What kind of a player is Nix? He had a miserable 2011, hitting so poorly and striking out so frequently for the Blue Jays that they released him in mid-season. But he does have some power–he hit 26 home runs combined for the White Sox and Indians over the 2009 and 2010 seasons–and can play third base, second base or shortstop, in addition to the outfield corners.

So should the Yankees trade Nunez? He has loads of natural talent, but is very raw, and must find a way to cut down on his throwing errors. He could be a very good utility infielder, ala Randy Velarde or Luis Sojo, but I don’t know if he has enough patience at the plate to be an everyday player. In the meantime, Jurrjens is a very effective right-handed pitcher who has been good in three of his four full seasons. He’s a strike thrower who won’t turn 26 until January, with the one concern being his ability to stay healthy. If the Braves would be willing to part with the native of Curacao in exchange for a package of Nunez, Brandon Laird, and a middling prospect, I’d have to give some serious thought to such a trade…

* * * *

The Yankees’ wise decision to re-sign Freddy “The Chief” Garcia should not be interpreted as a sign that they will not pursue additional starting pitching; rather it’s part of a plan to stockpile as much pitching depth as possible for a long season. The reliable Garcia is an insurance policy, a No. 5 starter under a worst-case scenario, and possibly a long reliever. The Yankees still plan to pursue pitching via both the trade and free agent routes. If they can add someone like Mark Buerhle (free agent) or John Danks (trade), the rotation will look like this:

1) CC Sabathia

2) Ivan Nova

3) Buerhle or Danks or someone else

4) Phil Hughes

5) A.J. Burnett

Under this scenario, Garcia would start the season out of the bullpen and would be available as a long man and spot starter. The Yankees could then give Hector Noesi some more time to develop as a fulltime starter at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. With Noesi, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos at Scranton, the Yankees would have exactly the kind of young pitching depth that Brian Cashman desires as mid-season insurance. But the plan depends on adding a starting pitcher of some pedigree, something that Cashman has not been able to do since signing Sabathia in 2009…

* * * *

Over at The Hardball Times, I’ve been writing a series of baseball card mysteries where I ask readers to assist me in identifying players on cards. One of the cards has proved particularly vexing: the 2001 Topps Golden Moments card featuring Bucky Dent’s historic home run against Mike Torrez. I’ve been able to identify most everyone on the card. There’s Dent himself (wearing No. 20), who’s being trailed by Chris Chambliss. The welcome wagon of congratulation includes Yankee trainer Gene Monahan, backup catcher Cliff Johnson and manager Bob Lemon (all in jackets). Behind Lemon is Jay Johnstone, the veteran backup outfielder. Behind Monahan is Willie Randolph, who was injured and unavailable to play in the tiebreaker game against the Red Sox.

That leaves one mystery man. Who is the player to the right of Randolph, the one right next to the gold Topps logo? Among our readers suggestions have been backup outfielder Gary Thomasson, first baseman/DH Jim Spencer, and backup catcher Mike Heath. Still others claim that this player has no number on the back of the uniform, which leaves open the possibility that it is not actually a player, or not a player who was eligible for that game against the Red Sox. Could it be a ballboy or a batboy?

Who in the world is it? At this point, I really have no idea. Perhaps someone at the Banter knows.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Card Corner: The 1961 Yankees: Bobby Richardson

Bobby Richardson might not have made it in today’s game. To be more specific, he might not have been able to start for most teams at second base. He was a reliable and rangy defender with hands of silk at the keystone, but as a .260 hitter who drew few walks and hit with little power, he probably wouldn’t have carried the offensive standard of today’s game. Of course, that should do little to diminish his complementary role on those great Yankee teams of the early 1960s.

Emerging as a 19-year-old rookie, the handsome Richardson made his big league debut in 1955. He was hardly an overnight success. He didn’t hit much over his first four seasons and had to settle for a role as a part-time player and utility infielder, while spending time on the minor league shuttle to Triple-A Denver. When Casey Stengel played him at second base, it was usually in a platoon with veteran infielder Jerry Lumpe. In many ways, Richardson seemed out of place on a Yankee team filled with hard hitters and big drinkers. Richardson’s clean living and deep religious beliefs prompted a famed remark from his manager, Casey Stengel. “Look at him. He don’t drink, he don’t smoke, he don’t chew, he don’t stay out too late, and he still don’t hit .250!”

It was not until 1959 that he started to hit better and finally took hold of the second base job, essentially succeeding Gil McDougald at the position. Richardson played well enough to earn a berth on the All-Star team, hit a tidy .301, and fielded everything hit in his direction. Unfortunately, after making appearances as a bit player in the 1957 and ‘58 World Series, Richardson was denied a more meaningful role in that fall’s World Series; the ‘59 Yankees finished 79-75, a disappointing and distant third in the American League pennant race.

In 1960, Richardson’s hitting fell off to .252, as he reached base barely 30 per cent of the time. Although he looked like a leadoff hitter, he didn’t play like one. Frankly, the Yankees would have been better served leading off with either Tony Kubek, who had a slightly better on-base percentage and far more power, or Hector Lopez, who reached base 36 per cent of the time. Fortunately, the Yankees did not need a ton of offense from Richardson because the rest of their lineup was so potent.

In reality, Richardson always led with his glove. He had the perfect physique for a second baseman. At five-foot-nine and 175 pounds, Richardson was built strong and low to the ground, making him an immoveable object on takeout slides at second base. He worked extremely well with Kubek, his shortstop partner and his best friend on the team. Richardson’s rock-solid defensive play more than satisfied the Yankee brass, which recognized the subtle role that his fielding played in helping the team regain the pennant after a one-year absence.

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Card Corner: Moose Skowron

Hard as it is to fathom, a full half-century has passed since the Yankees put together their storied season of 1961. Throughout 2011, I’ll pay tribute to the ‘61 Yankees by spotlighting some of their best and most interesting players on “Card Corner.” Today, we’ll begin at first base.

For me, Bill “Moose” Skowron has always been about mistaken assumptions. Perhaps that’s because I never saw Skowron play. I first learned about him while watching him make appearances at Old-Timers games during the 1970s. For some reason, I had always assumed that he was a left-handed hitter, if only because Yankee Stadium has always favored left-handed sluggers. So if Skowron was a slugger, then he must have been a lefty. (It’s funny how the mind of a seven-year-old works.) Not so, Skowron was right-handed all the way.

I also assumed that Skowron’s nickname had something to do with his power, his size, and his physical strength. The name Moose makes sense in that way, right? Little did I realize that the nickname was actually a shortening of the name “Mussolini.” When Skowron was a boy, his grandfather gave him an impromptu haircut, which made the youngster look too much like the Italian dictator. Skowron’s friends called him Mussolini; rather than take offense, the family responded by shortening the name to Moose. The new nickname would stick with Skowron throughout his career, even though Topps would refer to him as Bill on his baseball cards.

Impressing scouts with his power, Skowron signed with the Yankees in 1950. Originally an outfielder and third baseman, he then began a slow but fruitful climb up the organizational ladder, landing in the Bronx in 1954. By now a first baseman, he initially platooned with veteran Joe Collins, before becoming an everyday player by the late 1950s. Fitting in somewhere between Chris Chambliss and Lou Gehrig on the totem pole of Yankee first basemen, the free-swinging Skowron became a model of solid steadiness.

Skowron made five consecutive All-Star teams from 1957 to 1961, while averaging 20 home runs a year. He twice slugged better than .500, and twice earned American League MVP votes. With much of his power running from right to right-center field, he found the opposite-field power alley to his liking at Yankee Stadium. He didn’t walk much, but he gave the lefty-leaning Yankees some balance to their batting order. If there was a caveat in his game, it was his inability to avoid nagging and repeated injuries. Skowron had a physique wrapped in muscles, which he tended to pull and strain with annoying regularity. That’s why he usually played 120 to 130 games, instead of the requisite 140 to 150.

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Card Corner: Mike Kekich

Last summer I had the pleasure of interviewing former Yankee Fritz Peterson, who informed me of his involvement with a Ben Affleck/Matt Damon film project chronicling his famed wife swap with Mike Kekich. Now comes the news that Kekich will not give his approval to the project; in fact, one news report in the NY Post claims that the reclusive left-hander is “panic stricken” about the movie and “freaked out” that filmmakers actually found out where he lives.

I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear of Kekich’s reaction to the film. Ever since he retired in 1977, he has remained out of the baseball spotlight. I have never seen or heard him interviewed about his career, whether it’s talking about the Yankees or other stopping points in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Texas or Seattle. He has always been reluctant to talk about the wife swap, remaining so even with the passage of time. Unlike Peterson, I don’t think Kekich is planning any trips to Cooperstown in the near future.

So who exactly is Mike Kekich? Kekich the person remains a mystery, but Kekich the pitcher is very much the story of the highly touted left-hander who didn’t live up to his promise. Although he and Peterson are often mentioned interchangeably because of the wife swap, the reality is that Peterson was the far more accomplished pitcher.

Kekich came up in the Dodgers’ system in the mid-1960s, heralded as a talented left-hander with a blazing fastball. Some dared to call him the “next Sandy Koufax.” Unfortunately, the Dodgers at the time were just about the worst destination for a young pitcher because they were already bulging at the seams with talented hurlers; they had the actual Koufax, along with Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, and the up-and-coming Bill Singer.

Kekich could never gain traction with the Dodgers. After a terrible five-game stint in 1965, he went back to the minor leagues for two full seasons and didn’t return to Chavez Ravine in 1968. Kekich didn’t pitch particularly well, but he suffered from an unusual share of bad luck and poor run support, losing ten of 12 decisions while making 20 starts.

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Card Corner: Dave Winfield

I must admit that I never warmed up to Dave Winfield as a Yankee. Initially, I was excited when the Yankees signed him as a free agent during the winter of 1980-81. With an aging core of position players, the Yankees desperately needed a relatively young and athletic outfielder like Winfield. They also lacked thump from the right side of the plate; with Winfield now available to complement Reggie Jackson in the middle of the batting order, the Yankees appeared to have a thunderous righty-lefty combination.

Almost immediately, the New York media tried to sour the fan base on Winfield. I remember Mike Lupica, a poison pen if there ever was one, lamenting that the Yankees had spent millions of dollars on a “singles hitter” like Winfield. Admittedly, Winfield hit only 13 home runs in his first summer as a Yankee, the strike-shortened campaign of 1981. At times, Winfield looked more like a line-driver hitter than a pure power hitter. I think Winfield would have hit more home runs if not for the fact that he hit the ball so hard, with such incredible overspin. When Winfield connected with a pitch firmly, he hit searing line drives that tended to reach the outfield and then dip. For some reason, his swing lacked the lift of a classic power hitter.

Still, Lupica’s assessment of “singles hitter” was borderline ludicrous. Winfield had just come off a 20-homer season in San Diego. In 1982, his second season in the Bronx, Winfield would hit 37 home runs. By the time his career ended in 1995, he would compile 465 home runs and a lifetime slugging percentage of .475. Singles hitter, my eye. Perhaps Mr. Lupica would like to revise that description.

I’m not sure why I paid so much attention to Lupica, and all the other naysayers in the New York media who tried to belittle Winfield’s ability. Of course, I was all of 16 years old at the time, an impressionable teenager who took the words of older baseball experts too closely to heart. Still, their words seemed to carry more resonance in the fall of 1981, after Winfield endured a brutal World Series, gathering one hit in a disappointing six-game loss to the Dodgers. George Steinbrenner certainly bought into the perception, dubbing Winfield “Mr. May.”

With the seeds of postseason futility sown, I began to view Winfield as something of a disappointment as a hitter, and a failure in the clutch. First off, I was frustrated by Winfield’s log-cutting approach to hitting. Starting with a discernible hitch, he took a ridiculously large swing, unfurling his long arms toward the ball in such an exaggerated way, almost like a cartoon character in an old Bugs Bunny clip. (One frame of that gargantuan swing can be seen on his 1985 Topps card, which is probably the best of all the Winfield cards.) Too many times, his bat ended up hurtling down the third base line, threatening the livelihood of the poor third base coach, or the fans watching from the box seats near the dugout. The bat-throwing underscored the criticism of his hitting in the clutch. Unlike Jackson, Winfield rarely seemed to deliver that late-inning, game-turning blow that could transform a Yankee loss into an unlikely win. To this day, I have trouble remembering any landmark home runs, or even extra-base hits, that Winfield delivered for the Yankees.

Just for fun, I decided to take a look at the “clutch” statistics for Winfield’s career. With two outs and runners in scoring position, he batted a mediocre .255 with a pedestrian .431 slugging percentage. In late and close situations, he hit a bit better, .266 with a slugging percentage of .444. In tie games, his numbers improved to .271 and .455. All in all, the numbers show Winfield to be a mediocre player in the clutch, not as good as his usual performance, a little better than what I might have thought, and hardly Herculean.

Beyond his playing ability, Winfield could raise eyebrows through his demeanor. Trying too hard to sound cool and hip, he came across as arrogant in interviews. Cocky and confident, he walked with an exaggerated strut that looked like a Hollywood caricature. When a Yankee beat writer asked him to attend a charity event, Winfield agreed, but only after coming up with enough demands to make a diva proud. If anything, Winfield was out of touch with the common man.

None of this means that Winfield damaged the Yankees. On balance, he helped the franchise, albeit during the frustrating decade of the 1980s. He was durable, almost always playing 140 or more games a season. He was consistent, four times slugging .500 or better in pinstripes, and six times reaching the 100-RBI mark. Clutch or not, the man always played hard, running out every ground ball with a World Series passion, taking out middle infielders on double play balls, and chasing full bore after every fly ball that he could reach in left and right field.

When Winfield came up for Hall of Fame election, I did not hesitate to offer my own imaginary vote. I would have immediately put a check next to his name on the ballot. The man put up Hall of Fame numbers, and did so for a long time, his big league career lasting 22 seasons. He was a gifted and hard-working five-tool athlete who hit with power, stole bases, and played a wonderful right field.

He might have been a little hard to root for on a personal level, but if Winfield were in his prime today, I’d gladly add him to the Yankees’ starting lineup. David Mark Winfield could play right field for a winning team any day of the week.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Card Corner: Sparky Lyle

I feel like a DJ at the radio station, taking requests from listeners (or in this case, faithful readers) about articles they would like to see written in this space. Last week, we received a request for a “Card Corner” centered on Sparky Lyle and his 1978 Topps card. Well, Shazam, here it is!

Not that this is a rough assignment; Lyle will always be a favorite subject of this writer. First, he was a terrific pitcher, a true fireman who often came into games with runners on base and was usually asked to pitch multiple innings. Few relief pitchers of the 1970s performed this role more vitally than Lyle. Second, Sparky was a fully certified baseball maverick, an outlandishly colorful figure with a great sense of humor and an enormous propensity for pulling the practical joke. How could a writer not love penning a few hundred words about someone like this?Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

We all remember Lyle as a Yankee; some of us even remember his early days with the dreaded Red Sox. But how many of us realize that Lyle was originally linked to another American League East team? It was the Orioles who signed him in 1964, one year before the institution of the major league draft. The Orioles, however, failed to protect Lyle after his first professional season and lost him in the old first-year draft, a draft that would soon became as obsolete as bonus babies and the reserve clause. The Red Sox pounced, claiming Lyle and assigning him to Winston-Salem of the Carolina League. After two years of minor league seasoning, the Sox brought him to the big leagues in 1967.

Lyle’s rookie season coincided with Boston’s “Impossible Dream” of winning the American League pennant. It’s easy to overlook just how important Lyle was to that championship team; in 27 late-season appearances, he pitched to an ERA of 2.28, struck out a batter per inning, and even saved five games in the heat of a dizzying pennant race. The Red Sox didn’t include him on the World Series roster, but it’s debatable that they would have even reached the postseason without their only effective left-handed reliever.

Lyle should have had a long career in Boston, but the Red Sox did not fully appreciate his talents. That’s about the only way to explain their unfathomable decision to trade Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater, a singles-hitting first baseman of modest propositions. Cater was an OK first baseman, a decent hitter for average with a good glove, but he was really nothing more than a platoon player. Why give up a 26-year-old left-hander with a great arm and a superhuman slider for a 31-year-old journeyman and a middling minor league shortstop named Mario Guerrero? It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now.

The Yankees benefited immediately from the Red Sox’ shortsightedness. Lyle became the Yankees’ relief ace practically from Day One in 1972; he would lead the American League in saves and games pitched, while maintaining an ERA under 2.00. He would become an un wanted sight to AL hitters, mostly because of a fantastic slider that rivaled Ron Guidry and Steve Carlton in its greatness. Guidry threw his slider harder, but in his prime, Lyle threw his slider with more movement, more of that down-and-to-the-right bite. When thrown for strikes, it was practically unhittable for left and right-handed batters alike.

Lyle remained the Yankees’ unquestioned closer until 1978, when Topps happened to release one of his best cards ever. Most of his earlier cards were the standard fare, posed shots and up-close portraits, but this one gave us Lyle in action. The photograph captures two traits of the Lyle delivery: the manner in which he reared back to throw the slider, and the quirky way that he curled his glove toward the batter. Unfortunately, as good as the Topps card was, the 1978 season turned out to be one of Lyle’s most difficult. That winter, George Steinbrenner decided to bring Goose Gossage to the Bronx as his latest big money, free agent prize. The arrival of the Goose rendered Lyle a high-priced middle reliever, with rare opportunities to save games. With Rawly Eastwick and Dirt Tidrow also pitching out of the pen, Lyle became an afterthought at the times.

Unhappy with his muddled role, Lyle asked for a trade. After the season, the Yankees sent him to the Rangers for a package of prospects and young veterans, led by prized young left-hander Dave Righetti. In the long term, it would become a prosperous deal for the Yankees, while Lyle would begin the inevitable descent that afflicts most players. Now in his mid-thirties, Lyle never recaptured the form that he displayed from 1972 to 1977.

When Lyle left the Yankees, so did some of the fun. He was their primary prankster, the man who squatted on birthday cakes, scared Phil Rizzuto with a werewolf mask, and did a Bela Lugosi imitation while rising from a casket that had somehow been delivered to the clubhouse. Lyle was such a clubhouse cutup that I would never have imagined him becoming a coach or a manager. So, after working as a commercial actor and casino greeter for awhile, he did the unexpected in 1998, becoming the manager of the Somerset Patriots, a team in the independent Atlantic League. Lyle apparently knows what he’s doing, having won five league titles in a span of just over a decade.

I guess some guys are just good at whatever they try. First, Sparky was a great pitcher. Then he dabbled in writing. His diary, The Bronx Zoo, is one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read. And now he’s establishing a reputation as a highly effective minor league manager. It makes you wonder what he might do if given the chance to manage a big league club, maybe even the team known as the Yankees.

Card Corner: My Favorite Yankee Card

Over at The Hardball Times, I’ve been writing about my favorite baseball cards of all-time, a series that is coinciding with Topps’ countdown of the company’s 60 greatest cards. So naturally the whole process got me thinking of my favorite Yankee card ever. In the past, I’ve written about cards depicting Joe Pepitone (1968), Mickey Mantle (1969), Alex Johnson (1975), Cliff Johnson (1978), Aurelio Rodriguez (1981), John Mayberry (1983), Mike Easler (1987), Lance McCullers (1990 Score), and Matt Nokes (1991), among many others. Mantle’s was special because it was his final card. The Johnson card featured some odd airbrushing. The Rodriguez, Mayberry, and Easler cards all showcased the players with intriguing action shots. In some cases, I really enjoyed the card, or I really liked the player, and sometimes I liked both. But I don’t know that I would call any of these my favorite Yankee card.

After considering the question further, I thought I needed to pick an action card, since those have always been preferable to posed or portrait shots. It would need to be a card from one of Topps’ better sets, one with a good, perhaps innovative design. And it would certainly help if the card depicted one of my favorite Yankees. So using those three criteria, I arrived at this card as my choice:

Along with Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson was the Yankee I felt most attached to during the 1970s. This card came out as part of Topps’ memorable 1971 set, which featured distinctive black borders. It was also the first Topps set to feature regular player cards in action shots. This was one of the best action photographs in that set, as Munson is shown, amidst a thick cloud of dirt, applying a tag to an unknown Oakland A’s player. I can only guess that the umpire called the runner out, based on the firm grip that Munson has on the ball and the position of his glove in relation to the runner. Whether the runner was out or not, the card captures Munson, a superb defensive catcher, guarding the plate in his usual attack-dog fashion. As an added bonus, Topps has included its trademark yellow trophy, signifying Munson’s status as a member of the Topps all-rookie team for the 1970 season.

So what’s your favorite Yankee card? You don’t have to pick a Topps card; it can be a Fleer, or a Donruss, or an Upper Deck. Any company is fine. Just pick a card, but more importantly, tell us why it’s No. 1 on your list.

And while you’re thinking about your favorite cards, be sure to have a Merry Christmas!

Bruce Markusen lives in Cooperstown, NY.

Card Corner: Tom Underwood, 1953-2010

If you’re a fan from my generation, you face constant reminders that you’re approaching the unwanted status of “elder statesman.” Players that we remember watching are leaving us all too fast. Willie Davis died in the spring. So did Jim Bibby and Mike Cuellar. Earlier this month, former catcher-outfielder Ed Kirkpatrick passed away. And then came the news of the death of a former Yankee, Tom Underwood.

Tommy Underwood was hardly a household name to Yankee fans. He pitched only a season and a half in New York, back in 1980 and ‘81. But if you’re my age, 45 or older, then you likely have a distinct memory of Underwood. Whenever I hear his name, two words come immediately to mind: stylish left-hander. Underwood had one of those seamlessly smooth deliveries that I loved to imitate as a young boy growing up in Westchester County. He also liked to work fast, which made him doubly fun to watch.

I also remember Underwood for being part of an unusual starting rotation. In 1980, the Yankees featured four left-handed starters; in addition to Underwood, they had staff ace Ron Guidry, followed by Tommy John and the underrated Rudy May. (Luis Tiant was the lone right-hander.) As I recall, that’s the last time that a major league team had four fulltime lefty starters. The New York media made a huge deal of it at the time, and not for favorable reasons. Some writers said the Yankees were too left-handed–a strange complaint for a team playing at Yankee Stadium–and kept pushing for the Yankees to trade one of the left-handers for a competent righty. At the time, I bought into the theory, but in retrospect, it seems somewhat silly. If you have four good pitchers like Guidry, John, May, and Underwood, who cares if they all happen to be left-handed? In today’s game, most teams would kill to have two good lefties, not to mention a quartet of southpaws.

At one time, it appeared Underwood would blossom into stardom. Originally a top prospect in the Phillies’ system, Underwood made the Topps’ all-rookie team in 1975. He pitched even more effectively in 1976, but then fell into the pattern of inconsistency that plagued his career. After a bad start to the 1977 season, the Phillies sent him to the Cardinals as part of the package for speedy outfielder Bake McBride. The Cards soon sent him packing to the expansion Blue Jays for Pete Vuckovich. Underwood led Toronto in strikeouts two years running, but his periodic wildness frustrated the Blue Jays’ brass. That’s why they decided to include the 26-year-old southpaw in the trade that also brought Rick Cerone to the Yankees for Chris Chambliss and two prospects.

It didn’t take long for Underwood to impress Yankee fans with his fast pitching pace, his silky delivery, and his live fastball, which seemed to sneak up on hitters. He also had a nasty slider; on days that he could throw it for strikes, he became nearly unhittable. Emerging as a highly effective No. 4 starter behind Guidry, John, and May, Underwood won 13 games for Dick Howser’s 1980 Yankees. I thought that kind of performance would be a springboard to greater success–the kind of success the Phillies had once foreseen–but Underwood started the 1981 season flatly. With Dave Righetti now ready to join the rotation, the Yankees decided to make a move. Trading Underwood at the valley of his value, the Yankees foolishly included him with Jim Spencer in a package for the underachieving Dave “The Rave” Revering.

After pitching as a swingman during the second half of the 1981 season, Underwood put together his most effective season in 1982. Again splitting his time between the bullpen and the rotation, Underwood forged a career best ERA of 3.29, won ten games, and saved seven others for Billy Martin, who liked his versatility and willingness to pitch in any role.

Underwood’s performance slipped in 1983, which happened to coincide with the end of his contract. Although still only 29, the talented lefty drew little interest on the free agent market; he signed a one-year contract with the Orioles. At the end of one lackluster season in the Baltimore bullpen, Underwood drew his release. And then– nothing. Underwood, all of thirty years old, saw his major league career come to an end.

I’m not sure why Underwood’s career ended so abruptly. In retrospect, it’s shocking that a left-hander with his talent did not pitch past his 30th birthday, not when we see some lefties stick around till their early forties simply because they happen to be lefties.

Much like Underwood’s pitching career, his life ended at a young age. Underwood died on Monday at 56, the victim of a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Like too many of his baseball brethren from the 1970s and eighties, he left us way too soon.

Yet, Tom Underwood succeeded in making an impression on this Yankee fan. He left me with some good memories, for which I am grateful. In the end, I guess that’s all we can ask from our ballplayers.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Card Corner: The Wonderful Oscar Azocar

For too long, I used to think that Oscar Azocar epitomized the ineptitude of the Yankee teams of the early 1990s. A free swinger to the point of hapless extreme, Azocar struggled so much in trying to reach first base that I considered him synonymous with Yankee failure during that era. I felt bad about that continuing assessment this past June, when I learned that Azocar had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 45. I only felt worse when I started to read about Azocar, learning more about a hustling ballplayer, a fun-loving teammate, and a delightful guy.

As a rookie for the Yankees in 1990, Azocar stepped up to the plate 218 times. Swinging the bat from a pronounced crouch, he offered at almost any pitch within the general proximity of the batter’s boxes. In one stretch, he came to bat seven consecutive times without taking a single pitch. Not one! By season’s end, Azocar had coaxed a grand total of two walks. For awhile, he had more sacrifice flies than walks, which resulted in his batting average being temporarily higher than his on-base percentage.

While it’s true that Azocar didn’t walk and didn’t hit with any tangible power, he did play the game with a level of passion not normally exhibited by staid and stolid major leaguers. When Azocar played left field, he made sure to involve himself, even when the ball was not hit in his direction. On a batted ball to another outfielder or infielder, Azocar would make a hellish dash toward third base, so that he would be in position to back up his third baseman on a possible overthrow. It didn’t matter if the chances of there being a play at third were infinitesimal; Azocar wanted to be there, just in case. Azocar did something similar when runners from first base attempted to steal second base. If the catcher’s throw tricked into center field, Azocar would back up third base in the event of a second overthrow.

Some of the veteran Yankees noticed Azocar’s habit of running furiously toward third base. Perhaps unwilling to face their own mediocrity as ballplayers, they poked fun at Azocar. A few Yankees asked Azocar why he did this. Looking a bit bewildered, Azocar thought for a moment and then replied in his heavy Venezuelan accent: “Because that’s what I’m supposed to do.” And, you know what, Azocar was right. He didn’t have anything else to do on the play, so he might as well put himself to use–just in case.

In addition to his perpetual hustle, Azocar exhibited other good habits on defense. He tracked fly balls well and usually hit the cutoff man with his throws. Best utilized as a left fielder, Azocar had enough speed to dabble in center field, at least on a fill-in basis. He could also handle right field, though his arm strength was something less extraordinary than that of Jesse Barfield. Or even an injured Dave Winfield.

Azocar could run the bases, too. Though hardly a blazer, Azocar knew how to read pitchers and steal bases. Over parts of three major league seasons, including a pair with the Padres, Azocar stole ten times without being caught, setting an unofficial major league record.

Still, there was much more to Azocar. He loved to smile. He smiled during games. He smiled and laughed in the dugout. He smiled before games. Azocar simply loved playing baseball, along with the experience of being around the ballpark. With his upbeat and enthusiastic approach, Azocar became a wonderful teammate. He was no Mel Hall, who spent much of his time sticking pins in Bernie Williams dolls. Azocar just seemed delighted to be hanging around a major league setting, spending time with players ranging from Don Mattingly to Bye-Bye Balboni to Bam-Bam Meulens.

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Card Corner: The 1977 Rangers

The Yankees and the Rangers faced off three times in the postseason during the 1990s, with the pinstripes winning each of the Division Series matchups. Yet, a good argument can be made that the Yankees avoided having to face the best team in Rangers’ franchise history. That would have been the 1977 Rangers, who won 94 games but finished a distant second in the American League West. Instead of facing the Rangers, the Yankees squared off against a very fine Royals team managed by Whitey Herzog. We know the Yankees ended up winning that Championship Series in five games, but it’s interesting to consider what might have been against a very good group of ‘77 Rangers, who were recently profiled by longtime Star Telegram baseball writer Jim Reeves.

First and foremost, the Rangers had a dominant defensive team in 1977. Their catcher, the strong-armed Jim Sundberg, ranks as one of the greatest fielding receivers of all-time. The Texas infield, spearheaded by Mike Hargrove at first base and veteran Bert Campaneris at shortstop, provided reliable, sure handed fielding and adequate range. In the outfield, center fielder Juan Beniquez won the Gold Glove, while flanked capably by the speedy Claudell Washington in left field.

The Rangers’ defensive scheme supported a very good pitching staff, which stood behind only the Yankees and the Royals in the league rankings. Unlike their teams in the 1990s, the ‘77 Rangers had excellent starting pitching. They had a Hall of Fame ace in Gaylord Perry, a future Hall of Famer in Bert Blyleven (yes, he will make Cooperstown in January), a very capable junkballer in Doyle Alexander, and an efficient Dock Ellis, who pitched to the tune of a 2.90 ERA after joining the team in a mid-season trade with the A‘s. In a short best-of-five series (the format for the LCS in the 1970s), the Rangers’ front four would have been difficult to handle, though their lack of a left-handed starter might have been a concern against a lefty-laden Yankee team.

The Rangers, however, did not have nearly the same level of strength in the bullpen. Mike Marshall would have been their relief ace under normal circumstances, but injuries limited him to 12 appearances. Left-hander Paul Lindblad, normally a fine reliever, struggled through one of his worst campaigns. So the Rangers turned to journeyman right-hander Adrian Devine, who won 11 games and saved 15 others, but was hardly a dominant fireman, striking out a mere 67 batters in 105 innings. In front of Devine, the Rangers featured two competent left-handers in Darold Knowles and Rogelio “Roger” Moret, and a 21-year-old Len Barker, who had not yet established himself as a starting pitcher. All in all, a fairly mediocre bullpen.

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Card Corner: Graig Nettles and the Twins

In crafting this week’s edition of “Card Corner,” I wanted to come up with a player common to the two franchises facing each other in this week’s Division Series. I thought about picking Chuck Knoblauch, but his career-altering battles with the yips and his recent marital and legal problems have left a bad taste on the tongue. I thought about Luis Tiant and Jim Kaat, but their Yankee careers were simply too short. Ultimately, the choice of Graig Nettles feels like the right one. A supreme defender and infield acrobat, a clutch power hitter, and a wit of champion proportions, Nettles remains one of my favorite old Yankees and a clear-cut link to the two earliest world championship teams of the Steinbrenner regime.

It’s easy to forget that Nettles began his career with the Twins, and not the Yankees or the Indians, the team that handed him off to New York during the winter of 1972. The Twins originally drafted Nettles during the summer of 1965, the first year of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, but he did not make his professional debut until the following season. Playing as a third baseman for Single-A Wisconsin Rapids, Nettles showed a powerful touch from the start, hitting 28 home runs. That performance earned him a promotion to Double-A in 1967, where he struggled against more advanced pitching and saw his slugging percentage fall under .400. Yet, the Twins saw enough to give him a late-season audition in Minnesota before bumping him to Triple-A Denver in 1968. Starring for the minor league Bears, Nettles slugged .534, batted a career-high .297, and showed himself ready for another mid-season call up.

The Twins liked Nettles’ left-handed bat, but they had enough questions about his glove work to move him to the outfield during his lone season in Denver. So when Nettles arrived at the Twins’ spring training site in 1969, he was listed as an “outfielder/infielder.” Yes, one of the finest fielding third basemen in the game’s history was originally billed as some kind of utility player. (Note that Nettles 1969 Topps rookie card lists him strictly as an outfielder.) It was reminiscent of the career of Brooks Robinson, who had started his professional career as a second baseman before the Orioles made the sage decision to slide him to the hot corner.

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Card Corner: Ron Blomberg

Over the summer, I had a chance to chat with former Yankee Ron Blomberg, who spent Hall of Fame Weekend here in Cooperstown. Talking to Ron is always a good experience. One of the most affable players I’ve ever met, he is full of positive vibes and ceaseless energy. He seems to have the same level of vigor as he did in his twenties, when he was trying to establish himself as the next great left-handed hitter in Yankee history.

At the time, Blomberg’s smooth right-field swing seemed perfectly tailored for the old Yankee Stadium. In particular, “Boomer” tormented right-handed pitchers, especially those who dared to throw him fastballs. During the 1973 season, he flirted with a .400 batting average in early summer before eventually tailing off. If only Blomberg had been able to avoid the knee problems that eventually shortened his career, he might have become the Jewish superstar that Yankee management had been anticipating since drafting him with the first overall pick in 1967.

While injuries and defensive foibles at first base prevented him from achieving such fame, he did gain special notoriety on Opening Day in 1973. That’s when he came to bat as the first designated hitter in major league history. Facing Luis Tiant of the Red Sox, Blomberg walked in his first plate appearance–and walked right into a permanent place in baseball reference books.

While his status as the game’s first DH has become common knowledge to most fans, it was Blomberg’s off-the-field ability that became well known to baseball insiders and members of the media. Boomer could eat enormously large quantities of food, above and beyond any other major league player of his era. Here’s one example. After one road game, Blomberg sat down and consumed ten steak sandwiches, assisted by a quart of lemonade. By the time that Blomberg made his first road trip into Boston, a local Beantown newspaper featured the delightful headline, “Close Up The Delicatessens, Blomberg’s In Town.”

Especially devoted to fast food, Blomberg regularly consumed four to five large hamburgers during visits to Burger King and did similar damage on sojourns to Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. “We would go out and eat an entire bucket of KFC,” Blomberg once said proudly. A 3000-calorie meal was an ordinary accomplishment for the insatiable Blomberg. As part of one particularly memorable meal, Blomberg downed 28 (yes, 28!) hamburgers, establishing some sort of unofficial record.

With Blomberg’s reputation as a voracious eater established early in his career, Yankee left-hander Fritz Peterson (another summer visitor to Cooperstown) issued his teammate a challenge. He dared Blomberg to eat five exceedingly spicy jalapeno peppers at one time. Peterson himself feared eating even one of the zesty peppers; he considered the prospects of anyone eating five a downright impossibility. Confident that no one could pull off such a feat, Peterson offered Blomberg a small sum of money if he could successfully handle the fire-breathing snack. Peterson then watched in amazement as Blomberg consumed all five peppers within a matter of seconds. For his efforts, Blomberg won $10 from a disbelieving Peterson.

In spite of his eating habits, Blomberg maintained a trim physique throughout his major league career, with his weight rarely exceeding 185 pounds on a lean but powerful six-foot, one-inch frame. So how did Boomer do it? “We didn’t have personal trainers standing over us,” Blomberg said. “We had no rowing machines. We did construction in the off season. Put in sod. I ran the stairs at Columbia and Fordham University, since I was living in Riverdale at that time. I would run around the block with those ankle bracelets on.”

Blomberg liked to run by himself, but usually found company at the lunch and dinner tables. His list of fellow diners included voluminous eaters like Yankee teammate Walt “No Neck” Williams. Williams and two other Yankees regularly accompanied Blomberg on trips to well-known hamburger chains, where they gladly consumed hamburgers at the bargain basement prices of the early 1970s. “We had Burger King, when the burgers were 39 cents,” Blomberg explained. “We would have four of ‘em for under two bucks. Gene Michael, Jerry Kenney, No-Neck Williams—we would go out and eat together.”

While Blomberg, Kenney, and Michael were all relatively tall and lean—Michael was appropriately nicknamed “Stick”—Williams provided a contrasting view. At five feet, six inches and 190 pounds, Williams featured the physique of a fireplug. Known as a hustling pepper-pot player on the field, Williams treated the art of eating with as much gusto off the field. But he could not match Blomberg in terms of the sheer amount of food consumption.

Later in his Yankee career, Blomberg came into contact with another legendary eater, a man better known for his larger-than-life Afro. Oscar Gamble, who joined the Yankees in 1976, routinely downed eggs, pancakes, and sausage for breakfast. Gamble also developed a special appreciation for the clubhouse spreads offered at various American League ballparks. His stadium lunches included ham sandwiches, hamburgers, ribs, soups, and a variety of cheeses.

After games, Gamble liked to sample local restaurants around the American League for their various dinner fares. He particularly enjoyed trips to Milwaukee, which featured soul food. Gamble loved collard greens, candied yams, and peach cobblers.

With men like Gamble and Williams providing an appropriate level of companionship and encouragement on the food line, Blomberg cemented his standing as a champion eater. That ability, along with a growing reputation, carried over after his retirement from the game. Not so surprisingly, Blomberg became the first major league player to have a sandwich named after him at the famed Stage Delicatessen in New York City. Known simply as the “Ron Blomberg,” the large triple-decker sandwich consists of a combination of corned beef, pastrami, and chopped liver with a Bermuda onion thrown in for good measure.

I could do without the chopped liver, but the rest of the sandwich sounds pretty good to me. Perhaps one day the “Ron Blomberg” will qualify for an episode of “Taster’s Cherce.”

Bruce Markusen likes to dine at Cooperstown area restaurants like Nicoletta’s and the Hawkeye Grill.

Card Corner: The Retirement of Sweet Lou

The Topps Company produced 11 different cards of Lou Piniella as a Yankee, ranging from a capless 1974 traded card to his final 1984 card, but the one shown here is my favorite. Part of the wondrous 1980 set, the card shows Piniella near the completion of one of his typically sweet swings. Looking at the position of his bat, it appears that Piniella has just used his patented opposite field swing to drop a line drive (or a bloop) into right field. Action cards are always the most desirable to have, but especially when they give you a snapshot of a player doing something for which he is best known. And I’ll always remember Piniella best for that flat, line-drive swing that often seemed pointed directly toward right field.

I feel a little bit sad now that Piniella has retired from the game, a game that he has served for 50 years, in a decision that was expedited last month. We had all expected that “Sweet Lou” would finish out the season with the Cubs before stepping aside, but his elderly mother’s illness mandated that he retire immediately. Family comes first, a decision made easier when the Cubs are hopelessly lost in the National League Central. It’s not as if Piniella was abandoning a team in the midst of a pennant race; if anything, he may have given the franchise a lift by allowing the Cubs to evaluate their interim manager, the unusually pronounced Mike Quade, as a potential fulltime replacement for 2011.

In some ways, Piniella was one of the last of a breed: the colorful and fiery manager. He spoke bluntly with the press–often too bluntly–and argued fervently with umpires–sometimes too much so. But with those qualities, he brought some old-fashioned personality to the table, a mix of John McGraw and Billy Martin, with a little Fred Hutchinson tossed in for good measure. (Hutchinson was simultaneously loved and feared by his players. After giving up a game-ending home run, one of Hutchinson’s pitchers refused to walk back to the dugout to face his manager. He instead walked toward the center field exit.) So many of today’s new managers are cut out of the same mold; they engage in politically correct managerspeak, afraid to ever criticize their players for poor play, and they stand motionless, even emotionless, in the dugout, while passively observing the game in front of them. I have trouble telling many of the new breed managers apart from one another: Manny Acta, Bob Geren, Ken Macha, Brad Mills. I know that they’re all intelligent baseball men, but they’re also so bland, so indistinct, so seemingly interchangeable.

I guess maybe they have to be that way, especially if they don’t have strong major league playing resumes to fall back on, like Piniella. Managers have never had it more difficult than they have it today. The salaries of the players dwarf their pay so many times over that they have been rendered virtually powerless. They can’t publicly scold their players, whose egos simply will not permit it. And they’re afraid to say anything minutely controversial in their interviews with the press, out of the fear that their words could be misconstrued or twisted into the latest installment of a never-ending soap opera.

Piniella was different; he just didn’t care about repercussions. As a longtime player, he had a body of work to fall back on, 18 seasons as a big league outfielder, in case his players sassed him. Unlike previous targets like John Boles and Fredi Gonzalez, he had played the game at the highest level, with a couple of world championship rings as proof. Piniella didn’t worry about becoming embroiled in controversies; if anything, he seemed to embrace the excitement brought about by the conflict.

Now sometimes Piniella went too far. He picked fights with reporters when they posed legitimate questions. He kicked dirt on umpires, something that no arbiter, no matter how incompetent, should have to endure. He could come across as a spoiled, petulant child, like he did two years ago when he carried on about the “suffering” the Cubs had to endure having to play in the Hall of Fame Game in mid-June while in the midst of a pennant race. So yes, Piniella could take his act of fire and brimstone too far, sometimes making himself smaller in the process.

Yet, on the whole, Lou Piniella as a manager was good for baseball. He taught hitters like few others I’ve ever seen, with his prized students including Don Mattingly and Edgar Martinez. Though he often lacked patience with his pitchers, he motivated most of his players, through his energy and his constant call for professionalism. He won a ton of games along the way, culminating in an unlikely world championship for the 1990 Reds. He had a degree of success everywhere, with the one exception being Tampa Bay, where only Joe Maddon has found the way. And let’s not forget that he brought some much-desired verve and allure to the dugout, where the manager is still the boss, even if some want the players to be.

Good-bye, Lou. Enjoy that retirement. But don’t lose that personality.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Card Corner: Fritz Peterson

If you play word association with the name of Fritz Peterson, then the subjects “wife-swapping” and “Mike Kekich” will come up almost immediately. But the reality is far more nuanced. Peterson was a fine major league pitcher, the possessor of 133 career victories, a 20-win campaign, and an All-Star Game berth. From 1969 to 1973, Peterson ranked as the Yankees’ No. 2 starter, situated behind only staff ace Mel Stottlemyre.

The recently-completed Hall of Fame Weekend gave me the chance to sit down with the amiable left-hander, who spent much of his time in Cooperstown signing autographs with ex-teammate Ron Blomberg at the local CVS. Immensely gracious in granting me a lengthy interview, Peterson talked about Hollywood, the late Ralph Houk, his new book, his ongoing battle with cancer, and a few of his old Topps cards.

Markusen: Fritz, let’s first talk about the movie project that you’re going to be working on; you’ll be a consultant on The Trade. What’s the latest on that?

Peterson: Well, the latest is that Ben Affleck is doing some revisions to the original screenplay that has been done by David Mandel, who’s part of the Curb Your Enthusiasm group and did a lot of stuff with Seinfeld, just a good guy. But Ben wants to be the director of it at this point, so he’s changing it a little bit the way that he wants it. So we’re just waiting to see when Matt Damon gets involved. And then we’ll go from there.

Markusen: As a consultant, I take it you’ll be on the set of the film?

Peterson: From time to time. I don’t know exactly the schedule yet.

Markusen: Is your biggest goal just to try to keep it as accurate as possible?

Peterson: Well, that would be my goal. When I was out there with the screenwriter two years ago, that’s exactly what I wanted to do, just tell 100 per cent of the truth, and I hope that it gets close to that.

Markusen: Now, Affleck’s considered a pretty good looking guy; I guess you’re flattered he’s going to be playing you.

Peterson: You know, actually, I asked them to have Matt Damon play me because Matt can throw harder [laughing], plus he’s the shorter guy and he’s got blue eyes. I have the light eyes, and Mike Kekich had the dark eyes, and was taller.

Markusen: When you were first approached about this, were you surprised that they were interested in your story, your situation, as being part of a feature film?

Peterson: I was surprised [at the interest] from the people at that level, because we’ve been offered things by people at HBO and stuff like that before. But it was never big screen and big people like this before.

They’ve been interested in this since 1999. And then in 2006, we came together on an agreement, and we’re proceeding from there.

Markusen: Final question on the film itself: any chance that you’ll make some kind of a cameo in the movie playing someone else?

Peterson: No. [laughing] I’m not going to be like Alfred Hitchcock either and be seen walking through [one of the scenes]. I’m too old and too ugly.

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Card Corner: The Boss and Thurman

With Bill Madden’s new book on George Steinbrenner topping many of the sports bestsellers lists, it’s an appropriate time to look back on the first year of “The Boss’” reign as the game‘s most recognizable owner. That would be 1973, when the Yankees were in the midst of a 12-year absence from postseason play. Still three years removed from ending their lengthy playoff drought, the Yankees embarked on a new era not fully aware of how life would change under the thumb of “Big George.”

Coming only weeks after he purchased the franchise for less than $10 million, Steinbrenner’s first spring would not pass without major controversy, though it had nothing to do with his ability to rant and rave. The flames were instead fanned by two unconventional left-handers, Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, who decided the time was right to announce that they had swapped wives, children, and family pets. One could not have blamed Steinbrenner for questioning his new investment right then and there, what with 40 per cent of his projected starting rotation daring to do something that much of the civilian population would never even have considered.

The Yankees had other personnel problems, too. Their middle infielders, Horace Clarke and Gene “Stick” Michael, carried lightweight bats that would have made them utility players in today‘s game. The Yankees lacked a quality all-around right fielder, a position that featured the over-the-hill talents of Matty Alou and Johnny Callison. Their first baseman, the 38-year-old Felipe Alou (Matty’s older brother), had not been a premium player since the late sixties, when he played the outfield for the Atlanta Braves. The pitching staff, though featuring top-tier talents like Mel Stottlemyre and Sparky Lyle, lacked the depth of some of the other elite staffs in the American League and could not carry an offense that ranked tenth among 12 teams in runs scored.

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Card Corner: Claudell Washington

Whenever I see Atlanta’s super phenom Jason Heyward, the odds-on favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year, I think of Claudell Washington. Although Heyward is actually four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier, they have similar body types: they are both long and lean in the mold of a Darryl Strawberry, both left-handed hitters, and both right fielders. Additionally, of course, they are both African American. Heyward is more hyped–he is generally considered the top prospect among position players in today’s game–but Washington was also a highly touted prospect with the A’s in the early to mid-1970s.

Washington also possessed the perfect sporting body. He featured shoulders so broad that one sportswriter claimed he looked like someone who had stuffed a wire hanger into his jersey. From there, his torso tapered off to the slimmest of waists, making him look like a male model. Muscular enough to hit home runs, Washington remained lean enough to run the bases as if he were running track, the ideal combination of speed and power.

The A’s certainly liked what they saw, to the point that they brought him to the major leagues at the age of 19. At one time, the A’s regarded Washington as the new Reggie Jackson, only with more footspeed and better defensive ability. Well, it never quite happened that way. Disappointed in his development and his attitude, Oakland owner Charlie Finley dealt Washington to the Rangers for the paltry package of Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott and left-hander Jim Umbarger. From there, Claudell went to Chicago as part of a package for Bobby Bonds. Washington patrolled right field for Bill Veeck’s White Sox, but Chicago fans did not take to the lackadaisical Washington. One disgusted bleacherite brought a banner to Comiskey Park, infamously displaying it in the right field stands. The banner pronounced three succinct but memorable words: “Washington Slept Here.” Given the way that Washington seemed to sleepwalk through games in Chicago, no one could reasonably argue with the sentiment.

The Mets eventually did the White Sox a favor by taking Washington off their hands, but only by giving up the measly return of minor league pitcher Jesse Anderson, who would never play in a major league game. Washington played one lackluster season in Queens before realizing the benefits of baseball’s newly created free agency. In one of the most puzzling contracts ever doled out in the free agent era, the Braves rewarded the mediocre Washington with a five-year deal worth $3 million. That might not sound like much in today’s baseball economy, but in 1980 it was the kind of money given to a superstar. While talented and still reeking of potential, Washington was several levels shy of superstar caliber. For all of his talent, he had never hit more than 13 home runs, and had never drawn more than 32 walks in a single season.

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Card Corner–Tim Foli

Earlier this week, the minor league Syracuse Chiefs announced that Tim Foli would serve as the team’s manager in 2009. Foli has been the Nationals’ Triple-A manager for three of the last four seasons, but this will be his first go-round here in central New York, with Syracuse now acting as the home of Washington’s top affiliate.

If you remember Tim Foli as a Yankee, give yourself a pat on the back; you are a true Yankee diehard. Considering that Foli spent all of one undistinguished summer in pinstripes, and that his one season here coincided with a down time in franchise history, your memory of Foli shows your sharpness when it comes to all things Yankees.

During the 1983 winter meetings, the Yankees announced that they had acquired Foli from the California Angels at the expense of a minor league reliever named Curt Kaufman and some cash. Foli was coming off an unspectacular season in which he had hit .252 with two home runs. The move made little sense, considering the crowd that the Yankees had already assembled at shortstop: veteran Roy Smalley, top prospect Bobby Meacham, and former top prospect Andre Robertson. I’m not sure why the Yankees thought Foli was better than any of the present alternatives. He couldn’t hit nearly as well as Smalley, didn’t have the range or speed of Meacham, and lacked Robertson’s defensive reputation.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver