Monday, April 30, 2012

#345 Larry Parrish

Who is this player?
Larry Parrish, third baseman, Montreal Expos
As a major part of the Expos' young attack, Larry Parrish was considered one of the key components as Montreal made a serious challenge for the NL East Championship. Larry had a solid April, batting .307 for the month with a three-homer game against the Atlanta Braves.  However, he was hit on the wrist May 3 by the Giants' Ed Whitson and ended up missing more than a month of action. The effects of the injury lingered as Parrish struggled down the stretch, batting .227 with only two home runs in September. The Expos stayed in the race all season, but sadly, were eliminated in the next-to-last day of the season by the eventual world champion Phillies.

A product Haines City, Florida, Larry Parrish went undrafted by a major league club upon his completion of high school in 1971. He enrolled at Seminole Junior College in Sanford, Florida and gained attention from the Expos when he batted .455. Montreal signed him the following year and he began his professional career as an outfielder.

Organizational needs saw Parrish shifted to third base and he was originally hailed for his glove more so than his bat. He was promoted late in the 1974 season and won the third-base job outright in 1975. That first season was a rousing success for Parrish as he batted .274 and drove home 65 runs, establishing himself as a fan favorite.

However, the Expo fans soured on Parrish when he slumped, which was caused primarily due to the team's shift into Olympic Stadium. The pressure and the boo-birds effected his performance and it appeared that his tenure in Montreal would be short. He was making errors in the field at an alarming rate and his bat would go cold for extended periods.

Enter Ozzie Virgil, Sr. Parrish credited the elder Virgil with turning his career around in the Venezuelan League after the 1977 season. Parrish began to hit to all fields instead of pulling the ball and he led the league in home runs and RBI.  This culminated in a breakout season in 1979. In making his first All-Star team, he batted .307 and clubbed 30 home runs as the Expos were in serious contention for the first time in club history.

After a disappointing and injury-filled 1980, Parrish and the Expos came up short again in 1981, this time in the NLCS. The Expos began to make changes before the 1982 season and Parrish was traded to the Texas Rangers for veteran Al Oliver. Larry would spend seven seasons in Arlington; first as an outfielder and then primarily as a designated hitter. In his first season in Texas, he tied a major-league record when he crushed three grand slam homers in one week in July, 1982.

Parrish would have some productive seasons as a Ranger, four times driving in 88 or more runs in a season and being named an All-Star for the second time in 1987. He also became one of eight players to hit three homers in a game in both leagues when he repeated his 1980 feat in Texas. By mid-1988, the Rangers' released Larry and he was picked up by the Boston Red Sox for the stretch run. He appeared in the ALCS that year in the Red Sox loss to Oakland, but his fifteen year career as a player was over.

Larry began a second career as a coach and manager, culminating in his appointment at Detroit Tigers' manager in September 1998. He managed the Tigers' final season at historic Tiger Stadium but was reassigned upon the Tigers' selection of Phil Garner as manager. He went on to have many successful seasons as manager of the Toledo Mud Hens and won championships in 2005 and 2006. He returned to the major league level as hitting coach of the Atlanta Braves in 2011.

Today, there is a baseball complex in Haines City, Florida named in his honor.

Why I love this card
Warm-up apparel then is nothing like today. Players nowadays have separate hats, jerseys, everything. To see Parrish in a behind-the-scenes type moment, to me, was unique. It looked like he was warming up in a jacket and a t-shirt. Heck, he could have been going out to rake leaves or trim bushes. Had there not been an Expos logo on his jacket and a Marlboro dangling from his mouth, he looks reminiscent of my Little League coach. Just another subtle thing that made major leaguers more like real people in my ten year old mind.

Something else....
My son was reading this blog post over my shoulder and there was discussion of the Montreal Expos. Here is a partial transcript

Him: "They're the Washington Nationals now, right?"
Me: "Yep"
Him: "When was that again?"
Me: "2005"
Him: "That was a long time ago."
Me: "Um, I guess so."
Him: "So they're extinct now...the Expos, right?
Me: "Kind of...they're not in Montreal anymore."
Him: "So they're kinda like the St. Louis Browns?"

Two things. First, I was impressed that he pulled out St. Louis Browns. Second, have the Expos really faded so far into the recesses of memory that they are now considered like the Browns, Seattle Pilots and Washington Senators. God I feel old.

Finally, I share Parrish's 1980 Topps Super Card here and a short video that I found out there in cyberspace.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

#344 Randy Lerch

Who is this player?
Randy Lerch, starting pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies
Coming into the 1980 season, the Phillies were looking to Randy Lerch to fill in the back end of their starting rotation. The 25-year old lefthander was roughed up in his first start of the season against the St. Louis Cardinals and he was never able to find a groove as the Phillies made a run towards their first world championship. He won only four of 22 starts in 1980 and by August he was removed from the starting rotation. Now in the bullpen, Lerch was still inconsistent and the Phillies picked up Sparky Lyle to fortify the bullpen down the stretch. As a result, Lerch was left off the postseason roster in favor of Kevin Saucier. Despite being part of a team that would be champions, by the end of 1980, Lerch was subject to trade rumors and prescription allegations.

At one time, Randy Lerch was thought to be a pitcher in the mold to teammate Steve Carlton. Philadelphia selected the California native in the 1973 amatuer draft and he won 16 games two years later at Double-A Reading. After notching another 13 wins and leading Triple-A in strikeouts, Randy made his major league debut at the end of the 1976 season. As the 1977 campaign got underway, Lerch won a spot in the Phillies starting rotation and was part of two National League East championship teams (1977 & 1978).

Perhaps Lerch's most memorable moment came on September 30, 1978 (depicted on his 1980 card). In a wild game during a wild pennant chase, Lerch was the starter for the Phillies and clubbed two home runs in a 10-8 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The clincher came on the second to last day of the season in a nail biting finish that has been overshadowed by the Red Sox-Yankees drama the same season.

After the 1980 World Series, Lerch and several of his teammates were subpoenaed to testify at a hearing against a doctor charged with illegally prescribing drugs. Lerch admitted that he had twice received amphetamine tablets, while many of his teammates denied such activity. Perhaps coincidentally, Lerch was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers shortly before Spring Training.

In Milwaukee, Randy benefited from a change of scenery and helped the Brewers win the AL East partial pennant in 1981. Unfortunately, Lerch missed out on a return to the postseason (and World Series) when he was sold to the Montreal Expos in August 1982. Randy became almost exclusively a reliever in the latter part of this career with the Expos and San Francisco Giants. He spent two seasons in the minor leagues earning his way back and returned to the Phillies for four appearances in 1986. He was released after posting a 7.88 ERA and his 11 year major league career came to a close.

In 2000, Randy Lerch was inducted into the Reading Baseball Hall of Fame. Today, Randy and his family reside in New Jersey.

Why I love this card
Again, gotta go with the cartoon on the back. Something about making a bat into Swiss cheese with a fastball is very cool. That and the fact that the Spring Training photos always made it look like Topps took these pictures at my little league field.

Something else.....
In July 1979, Lerch was injured in a scuffle with three youths when a group harrassed his wife. He broke a bone in his right (non-pitching) hand. It would probably explain why he had a 7.00 ERA during the month of July.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

#343 Mike Vail

Who is this player?
Mike Vail, rightfielder, Chicago Cubs

As the season began, Mike Vail was the fourth outfielder and occasional pinch-hitter for the Chicago Cubs. While he did provide a solid bat against left-handed pitching, he was not expected to be a major contributor to the Chicago cause. However, when Dave Kingman was injured and had personal problems in the early part of the season, Vail stepped and batted .382 in May and drove in 13 runs. When Kingman returned, Vail moved over to right field, where he played the majority of the season. Though his bat cooled over the long haul, he finished the season with a .298 average and achieved career highs in nearly every offensive category.

A product of Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, the righthanded hitting Vail was originally drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 amateur draft. While in the Cardinals' system, Vail had a career-changing experience under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Joe "Ducky" Medwick. Medwick was a minor league instructor and taught Vail to hit the ball to all fields. When Vail was traded to the Mets, it was Medwick who correctly predicted that he would have a better opportunity to make the major leagues with New York.

Vail dominated in the International League, being named MVP and leading the loop in batting. This lead to his promotion to the parent club and Mike made his debut on August 18, 1975. He laced a single in his first at-bat and it was a harbinger of things to come. Vail would go on to set a major league record for rookies (since broken) by hitting safely in 23 straight games. Being in the glare of New York City, Vail became popular with fans and touted as a "future star."

It has been speculated that Vail's performance in the late summer of 1975 prompted the Mets to trade the popular veteran Rusty Staub to make room for him. However, he was unable to do so when he dislocated a bone in his right foot playing basketball during the off-season. He returned to soon and out of shape and the magic was gone. He would last only one more season in New York and was sold to the Cleveland Indians in 1978.

By mid-season he was traded again, to the Cubs and Vail would spend three years in Chicago. Manager Herman Franks was critical of him (and others) when he resigned in 1979, despite the fact that he batted .317 in his time on the North Side. After leaving Chicago, he spent four seasons with four teams (Reds, Expos, Giants and Dodgers), being used primarily as a reserve and pinch-hitting specialist. He retired after the 1984 season and 10 big league seasons.

Today, he lives in the Las Vegas area. I wonder if he still breeds Persian cats?

Why I love this card
Here's another plug for the cartoon on the back. Not only does it mention the hit steak (as did many of Vail's cards), the "23" exploding off the bat is very consistent with the comic books which were also very popular in the 10-year old circle. For example:

Something else.....
Using the theme from the previous post, I attempted to determine when the photo on Vail's card was taken. First, it is clear that this shot was taken at the site of Vail's former glory, Shea Stadium. Next, I had to make a pretty big assumption, that this photo was not taken in 1978, as Vail played for them in 1978. There is an outside chance that this game could have been played July 7, 1978 as Vail did appear at Shea in a day game.

Therefore, assuming that it was taken in 1979, Vail played in two day games at Shea that year; Saturday, July 28th and Sunday, July 29th. The Sunday contest was called in the seventh inning due to rain. Vail's card appears to be in the sunshine. Vail popped out to catcher, grounded out to third and walked in that game. Here he appears to be following a drive in the air.

Therefore will go with Saturday, July 28, 1979 as the date of the game Vail is pictured in here. We'll say the rationale is that there doesn't appear to be a threat of rain and Vail is following one of his two fly outs that day.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

#342 Odell Jones

Who is this player?
Odell Jones, starting pitcher, Seattle Mariners
After an erratic 1979 season in the Mariners starting rotation, Odell Jones was looking for a spot on Seattle's pitching staff as Spring Training 1980 opened. After some impressive outings, Jones was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on the final day of camp. He did not appear in a major league game for the defending world champions, but the hard throwing righthander did pitch well enough at Triple-A Spokane to earn consideration for a spot in 1981.

A graduate of Compton High School in 1972, Odell Jones was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates as an amateur free agent. The fireballer first garnered attention in 1974 when he pitched a no-hitter at the Double-A level and again the following season when he was named an International League All-Star. Jones led the IL in victories and strikeouts and earned a shot with the parent club, making his major league debut on September 11, 1975.

Jones made the Pirates pitching staff in 1977, splitting his time between starting and relieving. However, his high ERA (5.08) and an abundance of veterans prevented him from staying in the Steel City and eventually led to his trade to the Mariners after the 1978 season. Upon his arrival in Seattle, Odell was counted on to be the fourth starter. After a decent first month, Jones stuggled, allowing four or more runs in eight of his next nine starts. He was relegated to the bullpen for the last two months of the season and eventually was not part of the Mariners plans.

After spending the first half of 1981 in the minor leagues and again leading the International League in strikeouts, the Pirates brought Jones up after the Player's Strike. He was consistent as both a starter and reliever, but his performance did not guarantee him a return in 1982. From there, he spent the 1983 and 1984 seasons in Texas and the 1986 season in Baltimore. Pitching almost exclusively in relief, Jones pitched well, posting a consistent ERA (3.09 to 3.83). He even notched 10 saves for the Rangers in 1983. Curiously, though it did not ensure a spot on a major league staff as he spent the 1982, 1985 and 1987 entirely in the minor leagues.

He earned a spot as a reliever with the Brewers in 1988, Jones took advantage of an opportunity when Milwaukee ace Teddy Higuera was hurt. With short notice, he pitched 8 1/3 no-hit innings against the Cleveland Indians. He was a perfect 5-0 with the Brewers, but again, it did not guarantee a continued spot on a major league staff. His 9 year major league career would come to an end.

But not his professional experience. He played in the Senior League in 1989 and 1990 and as late as 1992 was still pitching in the minor leagues, this time the Edmonton Trappers at the age of 39.

Jones today lives in Colorado and makes periodic autograph appearances and private signings.

Why I love this card
One of the games that we used to play would be copying certain players stances, quirks and mannerisms. Often that would require replicating what we saw on the cards. Jones' form here, I am certain, was never copied as I can't imagine any of us being able to stand on one leg that long for us to guess.

Something else....
I love cards with real game action shots. This card is obviously one of those. I used to like to try to guess where the games were played, against whom, etc. I am fairly certain that this game was in Oakland and through the magic of Retrosheet, am able to determine that this game was likely played Saturday, July 28, 1979. Even if it wasn't, I'm going to tell myself that it was.

Monday, April 23, 2012

#341 Jim Essian

Who is this player?
Jim Essian, catcher, Oakland A's
As the 1980 season unfolded, Jim Essian was part of a baseball resurgence in Oakland. The A's surprised the critics by winning 29 more games over their disastrous 1979 campaign. Led by new manager Billy Martin, "Billyball" captivated the fans and turned the A's into winners. Essian was a part of that effort as part of a platoon system of catchers with Mike Heath and Jeff Newman. Essian started the most games behind the plate as he was the best defensive receiver. That November, Jim signed a one-million dollar contract to become the starting catcher for the Chicago White Sox in 1981.

A product of the eastside sandlots of Detroit, Jim Essian was a prep star at St. Martin of Tours. A two-sport athlete, he led his high school basketball team to the state championship in 1969 and was named an all-state player. However, when the Philadelphia Phillies offered him a contract, he began his career in baseball. Working his way up the minor league ladder, he was named to three All Star teams and established his reputation as an excellent defensive catcher. Jim made his major league debut late in the 1973 season.

In Philadelphia, his path to a full-time spot was essentially blocked by Bob Boone and he only appeared in 21 major league games over the course of three seasons. Subsequently, he was traded twice in May of 1975, first to the Atlanta Braves and then to the Chicago White Sox less than a week later. It was in Chicago that Essian settled in as backup catcher and had a strong season with the 1977 South Side Hit Men team, batting .273 in 114 games and smashing 10 home runs. The good vibes did not last long in Chi Town as the Hit Men were quickly disassembled and Essian was traded to the Oakland A's prior to the 1978 season.

With Oakland, Essian saw the fall of the A's Dynasty first hand, as Oakland fell to the cellar of the AL West. Essian even reported calling the A's front office during the off-season to find the number disconnected. There were some bright moments, such as the time Essian hit an inside-the-park grand slam against the Toronto Blue Jays.

After signing his million dollar contract, Essian was to be the starting catcher upon his return to the Chicago White Sox. However, when Carlton Fisk became an unexpectedly available free agent, the Pale Hose threw their hat into the ring and landed the prize. This transaction moved Jim to the bench and he only spent one year in Chicago before being traded again, this time to the Seattle Mariners. Jim would play three more season in Seattle, Cleveland and returning to Oakland before his 12 year career ended in 1984.

Jim became a minor league player-manager in 1985 and became a full-time manager the following year. Taking a page from the "Billyball" philosophy, Essian's teams were aggressive on the base paths and had strong pitching. He was rewarded with the Cubs' managerial position in 1991, taking over for the fired Don Zimmer. He only managed that season at the major league level before returning to the minor leagues. More recently, Essian has led the Greek National Team as their manager.

Why I love this card
During the time I was collecting these cards, I devoured every bit of information that they contained. It was earth shattering to learn that Essian resided in my home town at the time of St. Clair Shores, Michigan. To think that a major leaguer lived in my town was mind blowing. I could run into him at the 7-11! The grocery store! The little league field! The possibilities were endless. Of course, none of that happened, but to think that it realistically could personalized the game that much more.

Something else....
Absolutely love the A's logo on Essian's helmet. In those days, the catcher's gear wasn't a sophisticated as today and more often than not, players had a batting helmet turned around. To have the logo on the front (or back) was a precursor to the multiple designs on the hockey-style catching mask of today.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

#340 Ken Singleton

Who is this player?
Ken Singleton, right fielder, Baltimore Orioles
The 33-year old Singleton was in the midst of putting together a very solid season during the summer of 1980. In helping lead the O's to 100 victories in the tough AL East, Singleton was an anchor in the middle of the Baltimore lineup. He drove in more than 100 teammates for the second straight season and saw his season average finish at .304. His penchant for clutch performance saw him lead the league with 19 game winning hits in 1980.

Almost from birth, it seemed as if Ken Singleton was destined for a future in major league baseball. Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, Ken grew up in a home once owned by former Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca. A lefty by birth, Singleton learned to switch hit as a youngster by emulating his favorite player, Willie Mays. In high school, his switch-hitting ability enabled him to star at the prep level and he went on to play both baseball and basketball at Hofstra University. The New York Mets made him their #1 selection in January 1967 with a $10,000 signing bonus.

Singelton quickly established himself as one of the Mets' top prospects, and after three years of climbing the ladder, made his major league debut on June 24, 1970. The following season, he received valuable tips to improve his slugging from Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner in the fall Instructional League. His improvement made him one of the crown jewels of the Mets' farm system and he was the key prospect traded to the Montreal Expos for Rusty Staub in 1972.

As an everyday player in Montreal, the switch-hitting Singleton quickly became the Expos' best player. He led the team in hits in two of his three seasons in Montreal and established a club record in runs and RBI in 1973 (since broken). A durable player, Singleton led the National League in on-base percentage during his '73 campaign (.425). Despite his fine performance and emergence as a fan favorite, the Expos traded Ken to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1974 season. It was in Baltimore that Singleton would establish his most lasting impression on the minds of most baseball fans.

In his first season in Baltimore, Singleton set a club record with 118 walks and was named Most Valuable Oriole by his teammates (an award he would win twice more). Two years later, he was selected to his first All Star Game in a season that saw him bat .328 and finish third in the MVP voting. In 1979, Ken helped lead the O's to the World Series with perhaps in most impressive statistical season, hitting 35 home runs and batting .295. At the time, his 35 home runs was the second-most in history for a switch batter. This led Ken to being named runner-up to American League MVP Don Baylor.

Ken was rewarded for his quiet consistency in 1981 by being named to start the All Star Game in Cleveland. As the elder statesmen of the early 1980s Orioles, Ken helped mentor future Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken and lead them to the 1983 World Series championship. His fifteen year career ended when Ken retired after the 1984 season.

Singleton transitioned into the broadcast booth even before his playing days ended, working at WBAL television in Baltimore. Later, he commentated for two of his former teams the Orioles and later the Expos. Today, Ken is an analyst for the YES network on New York Yankee broadcasts. He has held that position since 1997 and established just as good a reputation as an announcer as he had as a player.

Why I love this card
Ballplayers simply do not wear their caps under their batting helmets anymore. In fact, most helmets didn't even protect the ear as they do today. During this era, several players like Singelton here, sported the look and with our plastic replica batting helmets, we emulated our heroes. That and wearing the hat softened the blow when someone would push a helmet down on your head. Those four little spikes that kept the headband in place hurt like hell sometimes.

Something else....
Each year, Singleton helps organize a golf tournament for the Cool Kids Campaign, a foundation established in memory of Ken's Orioles' teammate Mark Belanger. The foundation helps raise money for kids and families stuggling with cancer.