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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.

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