Orioles Card "O" the Day

An intersection of two of my passions: baseball cards and the Baltimore Orioles. Updated daily?

Monday, March 31, 2008

Jeremy Guthrie, 2007 Upper Deck #559

That's right, Opening Day 2008 has finally arrived. It can be hard to remain optimistic when you've dealt with ten straight losing seasons and traded away the two biggest stars on your team. It's tough to maintain a rosy outlook when the big names and bigger budgets of your division rivals put you at a disadvantage right from the start. It's not easy to hold onto hope when the crowds at the ballpark get smaller and more apathetic every year. But until the first game has ended, everyone is on equal footing, and anything can happen. Just ask today's starting pitcher, Jeremy Guthrie.

Jeremy was the #1 draft pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2002, taken 22nd overall from Stanford University. Incidentally, two of his current teammates - Adam Loewen (4th) and Scott Moore (8th) were chosen ahead of him. Despite his considerable talent and high expectations, he never got comfortable with the Tribe. The team didn't give him much of a look, burning through his options in three seasons (2004-2006) while using him in just sixteen major league games, all but one out of the bullpen. In a small sample size (36 innings), he did not perform very well (6.25 ERA) and seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence.

When the Indians tried to pass him through waivers in the Winter of 2007, Orioles scout Dave Hollins and new bullpen coach Dave Trembley insisted that the Orioles should claim him. Trembley had managed against Guthrie in the minor leagues, and new that he had some great stuff. The 28-year-old righthander was virtually unknown to most O's fans, but he earned a spot on the team last year with an impressive Spring, allowing just two earned runs and striking out fourteen in fifteen innings. Though he started the regular season as a long reliever, injuries to most of the team's starters gave him a chance to crack the rotation and to really show what he could do. He earned considerable Rookie of the Year buzz with a ten-game unbeaten streak (though poor run support and a shaky bullpen conspired to give him just three wins in that span), and his ERA was below 3.00 until an August swoon. His final tally included a 7-5 record, a 3.70 ERA, and a 1.21 WHIP that placed him ninth among all qualifying AL pitchers.

In just one season, Jeremy Guthrie went from a forgotten prospect in Cleveland to a fixture in the Baltimore rotation. Today he makes his first Opening Day start, and hopefully he'll be able to build on all that he accomplished in 2007.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Albert Belle, 2000 Fleer Focus #131

In honor of the pomp and pageantry of WWE Wrestlemania XXIV, which is responsible for my very late and very abbreviated update this evening, I present you with Albert Jojuan Belle, who would be right at home in a wrestling ring.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dennis Martinez, 1981 Topps #367

That's right, he's Dennis. Not "Denny". Have you ever heard anyone call him "Denny"? This guy is Denny. So is he. I'll even include this Denny. But #30 up there is now, and has always been, Dennis Martinez. Well, either Dennis or "El Presidente". This has been one of my greatest pet peeves as a card collector. Year after year, the Powers That Be at Topps arbitrarily shortened Dennis Martinez to "Denny" Martinez. Every other card company got it right, so why couldn't the original?

It wasn't just Dennis that Topps worked their perverse magic on. Take Benito Santiago, the All-Star catcher with the cannon arm. His name was downright lyrical; it rolled off the tongue. But not for Topps, who soiled his good name, making him the comical and childlike "Benny" Santiago. At least in his case, Topps eventually saw the error of their ways, conferring Benito status upon him near the end of his career.

Most egregious was the case of former Red Sox pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd. Here was a charismatic player with a great nickname - In Boyd's native Mississippi, beer was known as "oil", and he apparently had a reputation as quite a drinker. As we've seen, Topps is fond of bestowing nicknames upon players, so surely they'd acknowledge this one, right? After all, Donruss did. Nope, no dice. Say hello to (yawn) Dennis Boyd. Gee, I wonder why they didn't just call him "Denny" Boyd?

So welcome to Orioles Card "O" the Day, Dennis Martinez. Don't worry; you'll always be "Dennis" here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Walt Dropo, 1961 Topps #489

Why does hulking first baseman Walt "Moose" Dropo look so troubled? Is it because dusk seems to be falling in the stadium and he's afraid of vampires? Is he unnerved by the somewhat-demented facial expression of the decapitated bird on his left sleeve? If you ask me, the answer is yes on both counts. But it is a Friday, and I'm probably just punchy. It's more likely that he's just thinking back to Walt Dropo Day.

Walt Dropo's parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia who settled on a farm in Moosup, Connecticut, just outside of Hartford. Walt grew up playing sandlot ball with his brothers, and attended the University of Connecticut. After school, the 6'5", 220-pound Dropo was offered an NFL contract by the Chicago Bears but signed with the Boston Red Sox to play baseball. He is best remembered for his outstanding rookie year of 1950, when he established what would be career highs in all three Triple Crown categories (.322 AVG, 34 HR, 144 RBI) and easily outpaced runner-up Whitey Ford for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. In 1952, he earned a place in baseball's record books with base hits in twelve straight plate appearances! But from that high, the next year brought a humbling low for Dropo.

In 1953, Walt and the Detroit Tigers played an exhibition game in familiar territory: Hartford, Connecticut. The townspeople honored their local boy by declaring it to be "Walt Dropo Day". He was honored with several pre-game speeches and gifts, including a new car. Unfortunately for Moose, there was still a game to play. On Walt Dropo Day, the man of the hour was 0-for-6 at the plate and committed three errors at first base. He probably considered himself fortunate that his hosts didn't ask for the car back!

Walt Dropo's career came to an end in 1961, the year this card was issued. After hitting .259 with one home run in just fourteen games, the Orioles released him on May 24. But history has remembered him primarily for his early-career slugging feats, and not for a notorious performance in an unofficial contest. Now eighty-five years old, Dropo still lives in New England (Boston, to be exact). One of my favorite quirks of Baseball Reference is that anyone can sponsor a player's page for a small fee (usually $5-$10), and they get the ad space to include a personalized message and/or web link. Walt Dropo's page is simply sponsored by "The kids", and their message reads: "Grandpa Walter!". I'm going to trust Wikipedia and assume that some or all of Walt's five grandchildren are "the kids" in question. I thought that was pretty sweet.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Don Aase, 1988 Fleer #553

10 Other Occupations for Don Aase, If He Hadn't Become a Baseball Player

1. Wild West Bandido

2. Walrus Whisperer

3. Frontman for a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young tribute band

4. Trucker

5. Fur Trapper

6. "Before" model in a mustache wax infomercial

7. Civil War General

8. The first man to donate his mustache to "Locks of Love"

9. Italian Plumber

10. Founder of Mustaches Anonymous

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sam Perlozzo, 2006 Topps #593

I had the opportunity to meet then-Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo last year, when I signed up for one of those Spring Training weekend travel packages. My father and I had the good fortune to spend a relaxing St. Patrick's Day weekend in Fort Lauderdale at the same time that it was snowing (!) in Baltimore. The first of two games that we attended was a rain-shortened disaster against the Twins. The Birds lost 16-2, as Jamie Walker was the only pitcher not to get battered. To make matters even worse, our old friend Sidney Ponson earned the win for Minnesota. For what it was worth, we had first-row seats directly behind home plate, which allowed me to take this picture of Perlozzo when he sidled up to the stands and talked to somebody in our section that he knew.

After the game, the few dozen diehards that were in town via the travel package were ushered to an enclosed area for a luncheon and an autograph session with "select" players, as well as a Q & A with Sam Perlozzo. The event began with an announcement by emcee Jim Hunter, indicating that Sam had been called away for a meeting with the front office and would be along later. There were sympathetic murmurs and groans, and Hunter was quick to tell us that these meetings were common in Spring Training and that the manager's job was not in jeopardy.

As we lined up for the buffet table, the players shuffled through the door in various states of dress. As you might imagine, the guys who were tabbed for this dubious honor weren't the Brian Robertses and Erik Bedards of the world. If I recall correctly, the lineup included Freddie Bynum, Jeff Fiorentino, Terry Tiffee, Brian Burres, Kurt Birkins, Brandon Fahey, and Hayden Penn. A few of the fans (my father included) made snide remarks about the team's performance that day, which I found pretty rude. These were the young prospects and fringe players of the team, guys who were probably already uncomfortable (Fahey in particular looked like he'd rather be anywhere else), and they'd been pulled away from the clubhouse in their downtime so that people could ridicule them for losing a game that didn't count - a game whose outcome wasn't even determined by most of them.

I stood in a short line to have my commemorative Spring Training Orioles hat signed by the rag-tag collection of young O's. They were all seated behind a couple long tables, and passed each item down the row like an assembly line. There wasn't any real opportunity for conversation, but Freddie Bynum and Brian Burres struck me as particularly polite for whatever reason. I think Freddie even thanked me after he signed my hat.

Sam Perlozzo arrived shortly thereafter. I recall him as having a good and sarcastic sense of humor, which I suppose is an important defense mechanism when you've just lost a game 16-2. He took several questions from the fans in attendance, but the one thing he talked about that really struck me was the series of unique disadvantages the Orioles faced because of their Spring facility in Fort Lauderdale. He explained that they were the southernmost team in the Grapefruit League, which in turn meant longer bus rides to away games than more centrally-located teams had to endure. Additionally, the O's are the only MLB team that does not have their minor league facility on-site at the major league camp. This causes roster snags all of the time, as players can't be shuttled back and forth to get more opportunities to play in live games. If the big league club is short-handed due to injuries and illness, they have to bring up players from the minor league camp in Sarasota and hang on to them for several days to make it worthwhile. Moreover, less minor leaguers get the benefit of exposure to the big league players, not to mention less attention and instruction from the major league coaching staff. Examples like this show the sort of inefficiency and mismanagement that has plagued this team in the past fifteen years.

After the Q & A, Sam also made himself available for autographs. For my part, that was when I took advantage of my audience with Perlozzo to ask him a brief question. I wish I could have thought of something more insightful, but in the end I simply asked him who would be managing the other half of the team on an upcoming split-squad day. He told me that it would be bench coach (and former Brewers and Cubs skipper) Tom Trebelhorn, which I had already suspected. Then he gave me a wry smile and said that he figured the coach could handle it.

What a wiseguy.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sid Fernandez, 1994 Score Select #353

I have to be honest with you, I haven't given Sid Fernandez much thought since he was released by the Orioles in July of 1995. But this weekend, I received a few boxes of O's cards in the mail from reader and frequent commenter Tim in New Orleans. I had a great time just flipping through the cards one by one, letting the names and faces of the past come back to me. When I got to this card of "El Sid", I was just dumbfounded by his appearance. I remember the lefty being overweight, but the photos on this card are just grotesque! Look at the size of those expansive hindquarters and massive thighs, cruelly accentuated by tight-fitting, bright white polyester pants. Sid was about average height at 6'1", but his legs look comically stubby below the knee, adding to the illusion that he is all midsection. Even his feet look tiny, based on the angle of the action shot. The belt is straining under the pressure of his protruding belly, proving that even the slimming effect of black clothing has its limits. His physique doesn't exactly lend itself to the tucked-in and tight dress code of the baseball uniform, as his pants seem to be hiked halfway up his stomach; it's a look that is usually associated with men much older than Fernandez. To sum up, the camera is not your friend, Sid.

This picture would have been taking in Spring Training of 1994, right after the Orioles signed Sid away from the Mets with a 3-year, $9 million contract, a rather large sum of money for a pitcher at the time. Though he'd missed significant time with injuries in two of the previous three years, the O's were banking on bolstering their starting rotation with a lefthander who had been consistently unhittable for a decade in the National League (his highest WHIP in that period was 1.26, and his highest ERA 3.81 - both occurring in 1987). When they got a good look at the native Hawaiian stuffed into a black and orange #50 jersey, I wonder if the team brass started having buyers' remorse. If it didn't happen right away, they had cause for regret soon enough; his numbers in Baltimore speak for themselves. What's maddening is that the Birds convinced him to show up for duty in 1995 37 pounds lighter, and he was even worse!

Maybe Baltimore was just a bad fit for El Sid. His success pre-and-post Orioles definitely seems to suggest that. But the damage has been done; to this day, whenever the O's set their sights on a National League pitcher, my father can be found rolling his eyes and exhaling in disgust. Caveat emptor.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Dick Kryhoski, 1991 Crown/Coca-Cola All-Time Orioles #250

Today would be former first baseman Dick Kryhoski's 83rd birthday, were he still with us. (He passed away last April 10.) A World War II veteran, he made his major league debut as a member of the 1949 World Champion New York Yankees. His best season was 1951, when he compiled career highs in several offensive categories, hitting .287 with 12 home runs and 57 RBI for the Tigers. His high-water mark in home runs would come two seasons later, when he belted 16 for the St. Louis Browns in their final year of existence. The following year, Dick followed the team to Baltimore, appearing in 100 games and hitting .260 with just one home run. In December of 1954, he was sent to the Yankees in a whopping seventeen-player trade, your standard 7-for-10 deal. The most notable players swapped were pitchers Bullet Bob Turley and future World Series perfect game architect Don Larsen going to New York, and slugging catcher Gus Triandos, shortstop Willie Miranda, and veteran outfielder Gene Woodling heading to Charm City. Kryhoski was sold to the Kansas City Athletics before the start of the 1955 season, and played 28 games for the A's before calling it a career. Kryhoski remained active in several ex-player organizations for the remainder of his life.

I chose Dick's card today because he shares a birthday with my younger sister, and according to Baseball Reference he is the only Oriole to have this honor. My sister has only been a baseball fan since high school, but I've had a great time going to games at Camden Yards with her in the subsequent years. I can remember baking in the bleacher seats during a sweltering Sunday afternoon game against Toronto a few years back (and all for the Orioles t-shirt giveaway), unabashedly getting drenched during a Friday night rain delay against the Devil Rays, and enduring the horrors of a tense seventeen-inning game against the Phillies on another Friday evening (much more about this game in another blog entry to come). Her favorite player by far is Melvin Mora, and if his strong performance this Spring is any indicator, he will hopefully be rewarding her loyalty in 2008. Happy Birthday, Liz; I hope it's a good one.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Javy Lopez, 2004 Upper Deck R-Class #7

As you may have heard, former Orioles catcher Javy Lopez announced his retirement yesterday. The 37-year-old hadn't played in the major leagues since being released by the Red Sox in September 2006. After sitting out all of last season, he decided to give it one last try, working out through the winter and convincing the Braves to invite him to Spring Training. Obviously things didn't work out the way that Javy had hoped; his .188 batting average this spring wasn't nearly enough to overcome a logjam behind the plate. But in a way, he got to go out on his own terms. Rather than ending things with an unceremonious dumping at the hands of the Rockies (as was the case in 2007), he got to return to the team that first signed him at the age of seventeen two decades ago. When the Braves let him know that he would have to begin the season in the minor leagues, he walked away with no regrets knowing that he had done his best. A career .287 average and 260 home runs are a pretty good legacy. He won a World Series ring with Atlanta in 1995, and set a record with 42 home runs as a catcher in 2003.

Ride off into the sunset, Javy. You've earned it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sidney Ponson, 2003 Upper Deck #318

A wise man once said, "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son." Clearly, Sidney Ponson wasn't listening. He squandered his talent and embarrassed the Orioles to the tune of three DUIs during his time in the Baltimore organization. Simply shaming his fans and employers wasn't quite enough for Sir Sidney (yes, he was actually knighted in his native Aruba by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands). He briefly landed in an Aruban jail prior to the 2005 season after recklessly steering his boat near the beach and punching a JUDGE when confronted about it. It's hard to believe that the Birds voided his contract with one year and $9 million left to go, isn't it?

Ponson has bounced around to four teams since the O's washed their hands of him in September 2005, his on-field performance getting progressively worse and his trademark lack of maturity shining through time and again. This Spring he resurfaced in Rangers camp, reportedly several pounds lighter and clean and sober. It doesn't seem to have made much of a difference, as Texas sent him to their minor league camp today. I hope for Sidney's sake that he truly has turned his life around, but as you can tell, I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Billy Smith, 1979 Topps #237

Billy Smith was a serviceable backup second baseman for the Orioles in the late Seventies, but in looking at this picture, I imagine that he could portray Jesus rather convincingly. You won't find anyone on the 2008 team that can claim the same, for several reasons. First, long hair and big mustaches are considered passe now. But even if an O's player wanted to let his hair down, so to speak, team policy forbids it. Kevin Millar and I both think that's ridiculous, but we don't make the rules.

When I was a junior in high school, I played Jesus in the school's live Stations of the Cross. It was simple enough; my religion teacher had picked me for the part, and there were a couple of rehearsals to get the movements down pat. We'd set up at each station and freeze in a dramatic pose, the spotlight would focus on the scene, and another student would read a description of the station and a short prayer from a sheet of paper. This all took place in a schoolwide assembly on the final afternoon before our week-and-a-half break from classes. Our audience was five hundred bored teenage boys, all of whom were just disinterestedly marking time until they could be loosed upon Baltimore for eleven days or so.

Most of my friends and acquaintances had just one piece of advice for me: avoid any spontaneous erections. The crucifixion tableau called for the young man portraying Jesus to be stripped to his underwear. Believe it or not, the promise of facing my entire all-boys high school in nothing but my white boxer shorts did not arouse me. My classmates felt the need to forewarn be because the guy who had been Jesus the previous year had not been so lucky. I'd like to think that I hadn't noticed his unfortunate situation myself because I was mature. Maybe I was just oblivious, though.

I got through my performance without any mistakes. The thing that made the biggest impression on me was the weight of the wooden cross. As I stood frozen in place, my shoulder ached under the cumbersome prop. It took all of my concentration and strength to stand still. I suppose that's my understatement of the week: being crucified is uncomfortable.

Of course the dramatic masterstroke was the resurrection scene. I lay on a platform under a shroud as a schmaltzy modern Christian song played. When the music swelled, the lights began to flicker and I stirred about. Finally, I rose and stood on stage, looking out on the student body. This was where I finally grabbed the attention of my contemporaries. As my friend Tim later told me, "I was sitting out in the auditorium, falling asleep." Like any good friend, he was honest to a fault. He went on to inform me that he had been sitting next to Cory, an African-American kid in his homeroom. "All of a sudden I heard Cory gasp. Then I looked up and you were standing there in a hooded white robe."

In hindsight, the costume probably could have used a couple tweaks.

Happy Easter weekend, folks.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Odell Jones, 1987 Donruss #582

May 28, 1988. Odell Jones is 35 years old. It's been eight years since he last started a major league game, but he's gotten the nod on this evening as his Brewers face the Indians in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Since Odell made his major league debut as a 22-year-old for the 1975 Pirates, his career has been full of ups and downs. He's now on his fifth team, and he's been out of the major leagues almost as often as he's been in: he saw no MLB action in 1976, 1980, 1982, 1985, and 1987. Odell Jones is running out of chances, so he's got to make the most out of tonight's start. The 1988 season has had a good beginning for him: 2-0 with a 3.26 ERA in his first seven appearances for a Milwaukee team that should be a contender in the American League East. Can he keep it going?

Cleveland has stormed out to a 30-16 start, positioning them near the top of the division and blurring memories of their struggles in recent years. Their lineup is full of talented young hitters: Julio Franco, Joe Carter, Cory Snyder, Brook Jacoby. But Odell Jones comes out firing, retiring the side in order in the bottom of the first inning...and the second...and the third. In the top of the fourth, Dale Sveum drives a single up the middle to give his pitcher a 1-0 lead. He would make it hold up with three more spotless innings. In the top of the seventh, doubles by B. J. Surhoff and Greg Brock gave Odell another run to work with. He responded with yet another perfect inning. With the tension mounting, the journeyman pitcher got Cory Snyder on a fly ball to right field for the first out in the eighth before walking Mel Hall to give the Indians their first baserunner. In all, Jones had shut down the first 22 Tribe batters. He would escape the inning unscathed, taking a no-hitter and a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

Now Cleveland was pulling out all the stops. Outfielder Dave Clark pinch hit for catcher Andy Allanson and struck out swinging; it was Odell's seventh punchout of the night. Two outs to go. Young shortstop Jay Bell was called back to the dugout, with veteran utility player Ron Washington taking his place at bat. Washington made contact, dropping a line drive in shallow right field, out of the reach of Glenn Braggs. Just like that, Odell Jones' unlikely run at baseball history had come to an end. Having thrown 101 pitches, he was pulled from the game, as reliever Dan Plesac was brought in to face the tying run and close out the victory. Plesac made things interesting by giving up another single, but retired the next two hitters to deliver a win for Odell Jones and the Brewers.

After the game, Jones said the following of his amazing performance:

"I kind of looked up at the board tonight and thought, `What am I doing? What in the world am I doing?' This is by far my best game ever. After about the fifth or sixth inning, I was really bearing down, trying to get it. After the hit, it really hit me hard, I was totally exhausted. I was overextending myself, using everything I had to get the ball up there. I was too tired to get nervous."

I've never seen an Orioles pitcher throw a no-hitter; the last in team history was a combined effort by Bob Milacki (6 IP), Mark Williamson (1 IP), Mike Flanagan (1 IP), and Gregg Olson (1 IP) against Oakland in 1990. The last time I remember anyone coming close was Daniel Cabrera against the Yankees in September 2006, when Robinson Cano ultimately spoiled things with a line-drive single to left field with one out in the ninth. Daniel settled for a complete game one-hitter, a 7-1 victory in the most hostile of environments - Yankee Stadium. From what I remember of that game, I was most certainly not too tired to get nervous. I lived and died with every pitch, especially when the Orioles started giving the Yanks extra outs by committing three errors in the late innings. But that's the ultimate reward for being a fan. Eventually, one of your guys will make it through the ninth without that line drive sinking into the expanse of the outfield, and you'll exhale.

I hope it happens some time this year. I could use a brief sensation of joy and otherworldly heroism in what promises to be a long and probably painful growing experience.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Miguel Tejada, 2004 Fleer Legacy #56

Here's a question that lingers in the wake of nearly five years of steroid and performance-enhancing drug suspensions, reports, tell-all books, accusations, and whatever else is swirling out there.

Was Rafael Palmeiro telling the truth?

One of the most disillusioning and disappointing experiences I've had as a fan was Palmeiro's fall from grace. He'd been my favorite player during his first stint with the Orioles (1994-1998), when I was coming of age as a baseball fan. I'd been happy to see the team bring him back in the twilight of his career, and even happier when he starting playing like the Rafael Palmeiro I'd remembered in the second half of 2004 and the beginning of 2005. Not only did I have a suddenly-relevant O's team to root for again, I got to watch him cement his place in Cooperstown by collecting his 3,000th hit and drawing ever closer to his 600th home run. Even better, he had provided a lasting image in a Congressional hearing about steroids by pointing his finger squarely at the panel and stating boldly and unequivocally that he had never used steroids, period. He was one of the good guys.

Then, of course, things went downhill in a hurry. In August 2005, he was suspended 10 games for testing positive for steroids - stanozolol, in fact. One of the big ones. Because of his pedigree and his performance in front of Congress, he became a pariah. I watched as the Orioles spiraled deeper into a late season free-fall that cost manager Lee Mazzilli his job. Palmeiro returned and his every move brought more scorn. He famously wore earplugs on the road to try to block out the jeering opposition fans. His play went in the tank, as he had just two hits in twenty-six at-bats after his return. The team shut him down at the end of August, which proved to be an ignominious end to a quietly prolific career.

But worst of all was his flimsy, cowardly excuse. Word leaked out that he had blamed his positive test on a shot he received from teammate Miguel Tejada, at that time the face of the Oriole franchise and the on-field leader of the team. He assumed that it was a vitamin B-12 supplement. Nothing about the accusation made sense. Why would he try to undermine and incriminate a teammate, especially one so prominent? Were we really supposed to believe that a finely-tuned professional athlete who had conditioned his body well enough to play into his forties didn't know exactly what he was putting in his body? And who could actually confuse a harmless vitamin with a potent steroid?

Eventually Rafael Palmeiro faded away, becoming a punchline and a cautionary tale and little else. In the meantime, Miguel Tejada has been implicated in the Mitchell Report as a steroid user and is currently being investigated on federal perjury charges. Knowing what we know now, don't we have to have just a shadow of doubt? Was Palmeiro telling the truth? Was he a victim of a series of improbable and unfortunate circumstances?

It's not very likely. But that's the thing. We don't know for sure, and we almost surely never will. That's one of the things that makes me crazy about the so-called "Steroid Era".

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lee Lacy, 1988 Topps #598

When my roommate Mikey and I used to work together, we'd take the train to Washington, D.C. every morning. From day to day, we'd see a lot of the same people along for the ride. There were certain folks that we'd identify (not to their faces, of course) with a certain public figure that they resembled. One middle-aged gentleman with thin gray hair and a neatly trimmed black beard was known as Michael Gross, the actor who played Michael J. Fox's father on Family Ties. A particularly unfortunate woman with short auburn hair came to be linked with Michigan State University men's basketball coach Tom Izzo. But our favorite psuedo-celebrity was one that involved a little creativity. There was a burly, light-skinned African American man with close-cropped hair and an equally short beard. He also had small, light wire-rimmed glasses. He seemed stern and stoic. We called him "Papa Stu", the implication being that he was the father of SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott. We thoroughly entertained ourselves with imagined stories of Papa Stu's feats of strength and prowess and gave each other knowing glances on the occasions that he was seated nearby on the train. It was all the more entertaining to us because we assumed that if he ever caught us looking at him sideways, he would crush us with the mighty paws that he called hands.

After a few months of sharing our commute, Mikey got a new job and began driving to work on his own. I continued my daily commute, and to this day I still see Papa Stu on the train from time to time. Once he even sat next to me, and I fortunately kept my cool. I did happen to catch a glimpse of his I.D. badge, which contained the answer to an ancient and mystical secret: his real name. For the sake of his privacy (and my own safety), I won't divulge it here, but I will tell you that it's one of the most appropriate names I've ever encountered in my life. This name was truly meant for its owner, and I almost wonder if he had it legally changed to better suit him. You know, like the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes Max Power. As soon as I got home, I told Mikey what I had learned. I just couldn't resist.

Last summer, I was with Mikey and his girlfriend in Washington, D.C. on a Sunday evening. We'd seen our friend John's one-man show and then accompanied him to dinner and a movie, and now we were taking the Metro back home. As the subway car pulled into the station where we waited, my roommate and I noticed a familiar face sitting inside. We very carefully pointed him to Mikey's girlfriend, whispering and stealing furtive glances as we entered the car and took our seats on the opposite end. We almost got a fit of the giggles, which certainly would have been the end of our shallow little lives, but somehow we made it back in one piece, disembarking at the same station as Papa Stu. I wondered if he had recognized us as well; maybe he even had goofy nicknames for us. After all, I probably look like at least a dozen lanky, gawky white guys with bad facial hair who dot the current landscape of pop culture. In my more self-referential moments, I've even compared myself to professional wrestler Austin Aries (though he's much more manscaped and toned than I'll ever be, naturally). Maybe someday I'll ask him about it.

Maybe someday I will look at this Lee Lacy card and I will be able to think about something other than his uncanny resemblance to Martin Lawrence. I doubt it, though.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dave McNally, 1991 Crown/Coca-Cola All-Time Orioles #293

I had a few reasons for choosing this card today. On a superficial level, it's St. Patrick's Day and I figured I should feature a McSomebody, and Dave McNally is the cream of the crop. But I also had him in mind because he was featured in one of my dreams last night. It wasn't much; I think I was rooting through some old family photos and McNally appeared in some of them. I realized that he must have been a family friend, and it occurred to me in the dream that I should make some attempt to contact him. This segues into another dream I had last night, actually.

I was near my parents' house, about a block away. I was sitting on a bench with my grandmother Boots. She was talking about how long it had been since we had been to Chestertown, and how much she'd like to go back there. This all made sense to me; I went to college in Chestertown, and she frequently made the trip down with my parents to see my plays. We would go to dinner beforehand at one of my favorite local restaurants. It was a small rural town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, with a beautiful downtown area that was right on the Chester River. There were historically preserved buildings dating back to the Eighteenth Century. If my family headed out from home early enough, they'd stop at the outlet shops on Route 301 on their way, or even take some extra time in Chestertown to browse at all of the little local stores. It meant a lot to me that my grandmother, who was in her mid-seventies at that time, would go to the trouble of riding in the backseat of my parents' car for nearly four hours round-trip just to see me and support me. She sat through some plays that must have seemed pretty strange to her.

So, back in the dream, I'm telling her that of course we'll go back to Chestertown. We can go this summer, in fact. She tells me that I'll have to help her out because she wouldn't know where to go. This goes without saying; she never got her drivers' license in the first place. So I make it perfectly clear that I will take her there, and that we'll see the sights together. It even crosses my mind that I had better make these plans concrete. After all, she might not be around for too many more years, and I've got to take advantage of the time we have together. I realize how much I'm enjoying just sitting and talking with her.

Of course when I woke up, the first thing that crossed my mind was the reality of the situation. Boots passed away in August of 2006 after enduring two years of various health complications initially brought on by a series of strokes. Dave McNally, too, is dead, having succumbed to lung cancer in December 2002.

After the initial disappointment of feeling like I'd lost my grandmother all over again, I've been reminding myself to be grateful that in some way, for some small amount of time, I got to spend some time with her again.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Bret Barberie, 1995 Leaf #382

In a Spring that is full of unusual and painful injuries, I'm left thinking about Bret Barberie, one of the less illustrious O's of the mid-Nineties. When Bret was still with the Florida Marlins, he was slicing chili peppers one afternoon. Immediately after doing so, he attempted to insert his contact lenses...before washing the chili juice off of his hands. The resulting burning sensation caused him to miss a game. As someone who's worn contact lenses for twelve years, it absolutely baffles me to think that anyone could make this mistake. Then again, there's a lot about Bret Barberie that baffles me.

Bret was a hot prospect with the Expos in the early Nineties, but had a hard time breaking into a strong young infield that included Sean Berry, Wil Cordero, and Delino DeShields. Montreal left him exposed in the 1992 Expansion Draft, and the Marlins grabbed him with the sixth pick. He had two decent seasons in Florida (.277 and .301), but didn't hit for much power, so Florida swapped him to the Birds for former #1 draft pick Jay Powell. Barberie had a miserable season in Baltimore, hitting .241 with sixteen extra-base hits and losing his job at midseason to the even-worse Manny Alexander. The O's let him walk as a free agent, and his career bottomed out with the Cubs. He had only one hit (a home run) in 29 at-bats before spending the rest of the 1996 season at AAA Iowa. He would sit out all of 1997 before spending the 1998 season at the Rangers' AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City. He bounced back, hitting .305 with 36 doubles, but never got the call to join the major league club. His career ended at age 30.

But people will always remember him for setting his eyes on fire, which is something at least.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gregg Olson, 1994 Donruss Special Edition #8

Since I'm on a Ball Four kick, I need to mention a passage in the book that I really identified with. Jim Bouton is describing the many idiosyncracies of Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz, and one of them is that he counts outs when the team has the lead. "Only eight outs to go-oops, only seven." As I read that sentence, I realized that I do the same thing when I'm watching an O's game. I'll be the first to admit that I take sports entirely too seriously. I'm a ball of nerves every time I watch the Orioles, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When they actually pull out to an early advantage, especially against a tough and hated rival like the Red Sox or the Yankees, I've been known to start the countdown as early as the fifth inning. Good, ground out to shortstop. Only fourteen more outs left. You might find it presumptuous, but honestly, it helps calm me sometimes. It's a way of putting those hard-fought battles in perspective.

Of course, when you consider the Birds' fortunes in recent years, you understand that this countdown is often an exercise in futility. A particular weak point has been the bullpen, too long a potpourri of raw rookies, quadruple-A veterans, and disappointing free agent pickups. It must have been much easier to count those outs when Gregg Olson was lurking in the Oriole 'pen. By the time I became a fan, the Otter was on his way out. Frank Robinson and Johnny Oates had rode him hard for the first five years of his career, and he had given them phenomenal results, saving 160 games with his wicked curveball. But all of that wear and tear caught up to Olson and he missed much of the second half of the 1993 season with an elbow injury. He was never the same after that, bouncing among eight different teams in the final eight years of his career. He picked up 30 saves for Arizona in 1998, but didn't top 14 in any other season from 1994-2001. It's an often-documented cruelty of baseball that a man's best years could be behind him at age 26, but that was a reality for Gregg Olson.

Still, he had a better run as the O's fireman than most. Time will tell whether Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford, George Sherrill, Greg Aquino and Dennis Sarfate make it any easier to count the outs.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Andy Etchebarren, 1968 Topps #204

I'm currently re-reading Jim Bouton's excellent book, Ball Four. I couldn't help but laugh out loud when the former pitcher described a favorite bullpen time-waster: choosing an all-ugly team. An excerpt:

"Some famous all-uglies are Danny Napoleon ("He'd be ugly even if he was white," Curt Flood once said of him); Don Mossi, the big-eared relief ace on the all-ugly nine (he looked like a cab going down the street with its doors open); and Andy Etchebarren, who took over as catcher from Yogi Berra when the famed Yankee receiver was retired to the all-ugly hall of fame."

If you clicked the links above, I'm sure you'll agree that Don Mossi is a historical, legendary kind of ugly. He truly looks like something that sprung to life in Jim Henson's Creature Shop. It's worth noting that a young Andy Etchebarren nearly faced Mossi in the ninth inning of a late-season game in 1965, but manager Hank Bauer lifted him in favor of pinch-hitter Dick Brown. Mossi retired at the end of the season, leaving generations of fans to dream of the aborted showdown between the Godzilla and Mothra of Ugly.

You can't help but think that ol' Etch made things harder on himself by refusing to do something about that unibrow. Even if he didn't have the self-awareness to realize it was a problem, didn't he have a friend, a significant other, a sibling, or even a barber to say, "Hey, let's get that taken care of"? Then again, judging from the prodigous chest hair trying to escape from the neck of his jersey, as well as the dense thicket on his forearms, it may have been more trouble than it was worth.

As frightening as it is, I think Andy has actually gotten better-looking in his old age. That is to say, he's aged more gracefully than his all-ugly predecessor behind the plate, Yogi Berra. At least Etch doesn't resemble a shriveled old gnome...yet, anyway.

Who do you think is the ugliest player in the game today? Hometown hero Jay Gibbons certainly has a strong case, as does Cincinnati's own Thing That Goes Bump In the Night, Aaron Harang. But for my money, I'd have to go with Pirates pitcher Tom Gorzelanny, who must be a big fan of The Goonies.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jimmy Key, 1997 Collector's Choice #273

When I look at this card, the first thing that jumps out at me is Jimmy Key's gray hair, poking out from under his cap, covering his temples. He was thirty-six at the time this picture was taken, about to begin his fourteenth season in the major leagues. But that premature loss of pigment made him look even older and wiser, more severe somehow.

We usually don't pay much attention to players' hair; it's usually obscured by their caps and batting helmets. You have to go to great lengths to get your locks noticed: Manny Ramirez's dreadlocks. Oscar Gamble's afro. Eddie Murray's chops. Gray hair is usually an attention getter, due to the stark contrast between the dark cap and the whitening follicles. We think of athletes as men's men, strong and youthful and virile; it seems strange that this image would be compromised. The most famous gray-haired players I can recall were doughy old dinosaurs holding on for dear life at the end of seemingly eternal careers. Gaylord Perry leers back at me from an early-Eighties baseball card; a few years later I see the final efforts of Phil Niekro.

As an Orioles fan, though, I remember great feats in gray. The little bit of hair that Cal Ripken, Jr. had in the early Nineties started turning silver. Over the second half of his career, he had some great seasons and acheived many major milestones. Mike Bordick was gray by the end of his career, and there are few players that Baltimore fans respected more than him. The man pictured above pulled it all together in 1997 for one last hurrah, winning 16 games with a 3.43 ERA for the only O's team in recent memory to win the American League East. His body broke down the following season, and he called it a career.

I feel something of a kinship with these men. I found my own first gray hairs when I was about fourteen. In the ensuing decade, I've cultivated a bright "skunk patch" above my right ear, clashing wildly with the dark brown that surrounds it. Renegade silver strands are popping up on my left temple, on the crown, around the back. It seems to be a trait inherited from my mother's family, and if history is any indication, the transformation to Anderson Cooper territory will be complete in another ten years. It amuses me more than anything; after all, it's something to set me apart from others. Blending in isn't something I usually strive for, anyhow. And as long as my hair sticks around, it can be any color it pleases.

Maybe it'll be an asset, lulling would-be opponents into a false sense of security. That's when I'll sneak the slider past them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Luis Mercedes, 1992 Donruss #6

I wonder what the protocol is for embarrassing baseball card action shots. I've seen players looking straight up into the sky, having clearly popped the ball up. There have been photos where the batter is clearly swinging and missing the pitch. I believe this card, however, is the first time I've seen a hitter look so completely flummoxed. He's holding the bat in an excuse-me position, having either squared around to bunt before pulling back or freezing with the bat on his shoulder before unfreezing again and dropping the bat in a relaxed position. He's looking back, trying to locate the ball that just fooled him and meekly asking the umpire if it was a strike. This indecisiveness seems to have been the norm for Luis Mercedes, who lasted just three seasons in the major leagues and batted .190 in 70 total games. It's too late, Luis. That was strike three.

What interests me is that you never see a baseball card with a pitcher or fielder in an obvious moment of failure. There are no cards where Sidney Ponson turns to watch a meatball soar over the center field wall, no action shots of Manny Alexander booting a slow roller. To stretch it further, no one immortalized Jack Cust's stumble toward home plate in cardboard form; Sam Perlozzo's manager cards didn't showcase the skipper futilely throwing up his hands as another late-inning lead evaporated. Somehow, only hitters are allowed to be exposed as fallible.

Can you imagine how humiliating that might be for a player? Take a guy like Luis Mercedes. He didn't have that many baseball cards, and one of the few that exists shows him not in the midst of a mighty swing or a heroic dash around the bases, but standing limply in the batters' box, an opportunity having passed him by. It's roughly equivalent to Donruss distributing your sixth-grade yearbook photo in one of their sets.

I'm wondering if the guy who selected the photos for these cards was himself a former pitcher, hell-bent on making an example of any batter he could. He was a die-hard competitor, the kind of guy who never joked around with the other team, not even before a game, because they were his sworn enemies. There's enough oversight at the card company to keep him in check most of the time, but occasionally he slips one through the cracks. Strike three, Luis. Have a seat.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Chris Ray, 2008 Topps Heritage #45

Here's the first Oriole card that I pulled in the next set that I will be attempting to collect. I've loved Topps Heritage ever since I picked up my first card of it, the 2002 Melvin Mora that recently appeared in this space. But due to my dormant collecting period, which coincided with the first seven releases under the Heritage brand, this is the first time I've had a chance to try to put together a set. With a higher price than the regular Topps set as well as the magic of short prints and wacky variations, this should prove to be a challenge. But hey, fortune favors the bold, right?

If the design of this card looks familiar, it's because it's lovingly based on one of the coolest designs Topps ever threw at us. That would be their 1959 set, which included this George Bamberger card. Lest you think that Topps is pandering and color-coordinating every player's card to match his team, I assure you that each team's various players feature randomly chosen colors and that Chris' Creamsicle Orange border seems to be a happy coincidence. For instance, I also pulled a yellow-bordered Aubrey Huff out of another pack.

Chris Ray might want to take up card collecting to pass the time while he rehabilitates his right elbow. He may miss the 2008 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last August. However, Chris has been spotted in Orioles camp this spring, and reports on his progress are optimistic. He might also want to spend a few hours researching O's history. A quick scan of the All-Time Roster at my NumerOlogy website would help him discover that he is one of just thirteen players in the 54-year history of the Orioles to have a three-letter last name (joining Howie Fox, Billy Cox, Charley Lau, Dave May, Lee May, Rudy May, Mark Lee, Esteban Yan, Jimmy Key, Derrick May, Geronimo Gil, and Radhames Liz).

Or, if he's looking to interact with his fans, maybe he could answer a question. On Baseball Reference, his full name is listed as Christopher T. Ray. What does the "T" stand for? Or is it a stand-alone letter, like Harry S Truman? Inquiring minds want to know, Chris.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Steve Finley, 1990 Donruss #215

1990 was the first year that Donruss had really gone out on a limb design-wise since the mid-Eighties. These cards were like nothing that came before them, with the distinct white script player names and blood-red borders, not to mention the splatters of black and white. It almost seemed as if the cards had been designed by Jackson Pollock.

Steve Finley was a player that Pollock would have loved, had he been a baseball fan. His entire career was a splash of this, a sprinkle of that. He broke in with the Orioles in 1989 as a speedy little singles hitter whose glove kept him in the lineup. Eventually he would develop surprising power, clouting 30 or more home runs in four different seasons and topping 300 for his career. He was a terror on the basepaths in the early years, swiping 78 bags between the 1991 and 1992 campaigns. But over his last eleven seasons in the bigs, he never notched more than 16 steals. Steve even pitched an inning for the Diamondbacks in 2001, ending his career on the mound with a spotless 0.00 ERA. He also spent his time in baseball playing here and there, jumping from team to team just like those contrasting splatters on the card above. In addition to his brief time in Baltimore, he played in Houston, San Diego, Arizona, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Francisco, and Colorado. I'm still disappointed that he never made it to Oakland; he would have probably been the first to play for each of the five California teams.

In Baltimore, Steve Finley is known largely as a symbol of a future denied by one disastrous trade. But he was the odd man out in the trio that included Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux, and hindsight is 20/20. Did you really predict in 1990 that Steve Finley would last 19 years, or that he would hit 304 home runs and 449 doubles? If so, you've probably got an attic full of Jackson Pollock paintings that you bought on the cheap before he hit it big.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mark Williamson, 1989 Topps Big #147

Earlier this week, I wrote about the guilty pleasure that is the 1989 Orioles "Why Not?" highlights video. I neglected to mention one of the few intentionally funny scenes in the entire video. The team was taking advantage of some downtime by bonding over a crab feast. Mark Williamson, who was in his third season with the Birds (making him one of the veterans, believe it or not), and hometown boy Dave W. Johnson took it upon themselves to teach the newbies how to pick and eat the crustaceans. The relief pitcher seemed to derive some satisfaction out of lecturing his teammates from his "expert" pulpit, explaining how you had to hit the shell with the mallet just so...at which point he brought his wooden mallet down on the crab, only to have a gob of Old Bay and other seasonings fly loose and hit him in the eye. This delighted the other Orioles to no end, and shut up Williamson very quickly.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Melvin Mora, 2002 Topps Heritage #14

Melvin Mora looks worried. He looks slightly troubled, inquisitive even. He looks like this most of the time, it seems. Sometimes when I'm watching him play, it seems as if he's on the verge of tears. I'm sure that he's not, that that's just how his face looks, but he certainly does have plenty to worry about. Melvin Mora has six children.

Six children.

His daughter Tatiana is eleven, and his quintuplets (two boys and three girls) are seven. I reflect on all of the things that my parents have had to worry about as my sister and I came of age - just two kids. There were broken arms, draconian grade school teachers that sent us home in tears, glasses and braces and broken hearts. There were the melodramatic teenage years, with hair dye and tattoos and all-day rock concerts and co-ed sleepovers. Choosing a college was a monster all its own. One false step, one lapse in judgment, and you're talking about a major impact on a child's immediate - and long-term - future.

Melvin has to worry about all of those things times six. He's had even more to worry about, especially at the beginning with the quintuplets. All of them weighed 33 ounces or less at birth, and there was surely a great deal of uncertainty pertaining to their survival. The Orioles' then-utility player spent the second half of the 2001 season running back and forth between the ballpark and the hospital, keeping close watch over his kids. In fact, when the babies were three months old, Melvin himself had to save daughter Jada's life with CPR. I can't imagine the stress and fear involved in being singlehandedly responsible for the survival of your child.

So really, you can't blame Melvin Mora if he looks concerned. Though the children are all now healthy and thriving, he certainly has his hands full, now and for several years to come.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Milt Pappas, 1964 Topps #45

10 Fun Facts About Milt Pappas:

1. His birth name is Miltiades Stergios Pappastediodis.

2. Milt is from Detroit. As a high school senior, he took the advice of former Tigers pitcher (and Orioles scout) Hal Newhouser and signed with the O's. Thirty-five years later, Newhouser became enchanted with another local high schooler named Derek Jeter. When the Astros ignored Hal's advice and drafted Phil Nevin instead, Newhouser retired.

3. To protest commissioner Ford Frick's "ridiculous" ruling that Roger Maris would have an asterisk by his name in the record books if he took more than 154 games to break Babe Ruth's home run record (the regular season having been expanded from 154 to 162 games since Ruth set the record of 60 in 1920), Pappas threw Maris nothing but fastballs in an O's-Yankees game - game 154, to be exact. Maris just missed a homer in his first at-bat, but bashed #59 in his second at-bat. Pappas was removed in the third inning.

4. Milt lost a no-hitter in the eighth inning against Minnesota on September 2, 1964, when Zoilo Versalles singled with two out. Eight years later (as a Cub), he no-hit the Padres. In that game, he lost a perfect game with one out to go by throwing four straight balls with an 0-2 count on pinch hitter Larry Stahl. Home plate umpire Bruce Froemming has received a lot of scrutiny for squeezing the strike zone in that at-bat, especially from Pappas.

5. On September 24, 1971, he became the 16th pitcher in major league history (and the 10th in the NL) to strike out the side while throwing the minimum nine pitches. The Philly batters were Greg Luzinski, Don Money, and future Oriole Mike Anderson.

6. Milt collaborated with Wayne Mausser and Larry Names on a memoir entitled Out at Home.

7. His brother Perry was a minor league pitcher in the Yankee organization.

8. Milt hit 20 home runs in his career, including a two-run shot off of Hall-of-Famer Gaylord Perry. He also victimized Perry's brother Jim for a two-run home run.

9. Speaking of Jim Perry, according to Baseball Reference, Pappas' career statistics are most similar to those of Perry, with Don Drysdale, Orel Hershiser, Catfish Hunter, and Bob Welch rounding out the Top Five.

10. His son Steve has his own website, which contains several more interesting facts and photos of Milt, as well as material relating to one of Steve's own passions, the APBA baseball board game.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mark McLemore, 1993 Upper Deck #801

Mark McLemore has been running for what seems like days. He lost track of the time long ago. If it weren't for the compass on his wristband, he wouldn't even know which direction he was heading in. He is a stranger in a strange land. His eyes are wide with fear and exhaustion as he finally falters. Stumbling, Mark reaches out with his arms to break his fall. But relief is in sight. He sees his base, his safe haven. Those diabolical black batting gloves that have chased him from Baltimore to Oakland must be long gone, dozens of miles behind him, sputtering as they ingest the dust and brown clay that he left in his wake.

Little does he know that the gloves climbed onto his back somewhere near Reno and sat there waiting...watching...biding their time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jim Palmer, 1981 Donruss #353

Growing up in Baltimore in a family full of Orioles fans, I was exposed to the team on a consistent basis even before I became a fan. Those early years are a bit of a blur when it comes to the O's. A game I attended here, or a name I heard there, filter through sometimes. But I remember hearing about Jim Palmer's comeback attempt.

Palmer was simply the best pitcher the Orioles ever had, possibly the best they ever will. Three Cy Young Awards. Four Gold Gloves. Six All-Star Games. Eight 20-win seasons in a span of nine years, and 268 wins overall. (All the more impressive when you consider that he missed large chunks of five different seasons with injuries.) A career ERA of 2.86. On top of it all, he was the only Oriole to participate in all three of the team's World Championships, winning one game in each World Series (1966, 1970, 1983).

But Jim Palmer didn't quite go out on top. After starting the 1984 season 0-3 and allowing more than a run per inning, the great pitcher was released on May 17 by the O's, 22 years after they'd signed him as an amateur. He was 38 at the time.

Palmer remained in the public eye, broadcasting television games for ABC and continuing to appear in the famous Jockey underwear ads. He was a shoo-in inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1990. But the competitive fire still burned within him, and he announced his intention to rejoin the Oriole pitching staff in 1991, at the age of 45. The sports world was all abuzz when Jim reported to Spring Training wearing the #22 that the O's had retired six years earlier. It was unprecedented for a Hall of Famer to return to action. He made it as far as his first exhibition game, giving up five hits and two runs to the Red Sox in two innings of work and tearing his hamstring. This time, Palmer saw the writing on the wall and hung up his spikes for good.

Comeback attempts are always exciting, though. Even though the end result is usually a disappointment, we root for these men who were once at the top of their game and have become underdogs again through the passage of time and the cylical nature of things. We are forever hoping against hope that the extraordinary can happen - that a man past his physical prime can dominate a young man's game. Jim Palmer's amazing career doesn't leave a whole lot of room for What Could Have Been (save for this game), but you can't help but dream about the headlines if he could have won so much as one last game in Memorial Stadium, a last hurrah for both pitcher and stadium.

Heck, if Jim's up for a challenge, this year's team has a #5 slot in the rotation to fill.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Randy Milligan, 1990 Topps #153

After fifteen years as an Orioles fan, the team that I most identify with is a team that I never followed at all: the 1989 Orioles. That team is a microcosm of everything about baseball that enchants us. A year after hitting rock bottom with a thrown-together mess of aging veterans and underqualified refugees from AAA, a year after losing their first 21 games of the season, firing Cal Ripken, Sr. as manager in April, and finishing dead last with 108 losses, the Orioles spent most of the 1989 season in first place in the American League East. They did it with the old methods of Oriole baseball: pitching and defense, along with some timely hitting. There were different heroes every day, most of them untested rookies and unwanted castoffs from other organizations. In one year, the O's went from laughingstocks to lovable underdogs.

Why Not?

That was the rallying cry of the fans, and the name of a VHS tape made locally to tell the story of the most improbable season in Baltimore baseball history. I own the tape, and try to watch it at least once a year. It's one of my favorite baseball keepsakes, for reasons both genuine and ironic. First, the genuine: it's narrated by Jon Miller, who is still sorely missed in Baltimore. The video is also well-constructed, showing the most pertinent and exciting highlights in chronological order and giving a real sense of the dizzying highs and crushing lows of the entire 162-game season.

As for the ironic, this tape is rife with uninentional comedy and is a perfect time capsule for the late 1980's. Certain points in the season are set up through "letters" the players write to friends and family. You'll see Mike Devereaux scribbling intently on a pad of paper as he also dictates the letter out loud in a stilted voiceover. In a cute touch, Cal Junior even dashes off a letter to former teammate (and at that time pitcher for the rival Blue Jays) Mike Flanagan. The players' hairstyle and fashion choices are also a source of amusement. There's the goofy soundtrack, which includes the over-the-top cheesy "Why Not?" (if you've heard any song explicitly written for your local sports team, you know what I mean), "I Love Mickey" (appropriated for slugging catcher Mickey Tettleton), "Great Balls of Fire", "Wind Beneath My Wings", and Kenny Rogers' "Blaze of Glory". I do have to admit that "Runnin' Down a Dream" was a great choice though.

But the absolute funniest moment in the entire video comes during a highlight of Randy Milligan's dramatic game-tying three run home run off of Boston's Rob Murphy. As footage of the at-bat rolls, we're treated to a voiceover by the burly first baseman, simulating his thoughts as he dug in at the plate. When he gets a hold of the pitch and it soars over the fence at Fenway Park, he lets out a loud, "YEEEAAAAHHHH BOOOOOYYYYYY!". It kills me every time.

Something else happens when I watch this video. I'm transported back in time, twenty years in the past. I find myself smiling as Dave Johnson gets that complete-game win in his Memorial Stadium debut, or Mickey Weston notches his first save in the bigs after eight-plus years in the minor leagues. Above all, I hope against hope that things will be different in the end. Maybe Mark Williamson cleanly fields that Joe Carter bunt. Perhaps the fog lifts just enough for Phil Bradley to find that Ken Phelps fly ball. Maybe, just maybe, Pete Harnisch doesn't step on a nail and miss that last starting assignment in Toronto. After all, they finished just two games back. Two wins away from a worst-to-first season.

Why Not?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Doug Jones, 1996 Donruss Top of the Order

Wow. There are so many mistakes contained within this one card, I almost don't know where to begin. First of all, the card itself. What the heck is this? In the mid-Nineties, collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering were gaining a foothold and wooing collectors (and their dollars) away from baseball cards, which had entered a phase of bloated excess. Naturally, Donruss' response was to release yet another product onto the market in the form of a collectible baseball card game. They had also created a football game, Red Zone. I owned starter kits for both games, but quickly lost any interest in figuring out how to play either of them. They featured big laminated wheels with any number of confusing outcomes.

I believe that you chose your "team" based on the attributes listed at the bottom of the card. The actual plays would be chosen from the rest of the deck, however. If you were batting, you'd select a swing (green box at top right)from the cards in your hand; if you were pitching, it would be a pitch (red box at top left). You'd match the pitch and the swing to a result on the wheel, and I assume the red, yellow, and green bars on the left side of the card played some part as well and I have no idea what that may have been. If you're wondering how successful this product was, well...let's just say that there are no 1997 Top of the Order cards.

Almost as disastrous as this card game was the Orioles' brilliant decision to update the uniform in 1995. The new script on the jerseys was a minor change, and the swap of home and road colors was a positive development (the black lettering stood out more on the home whites than it had on the road grays, while the orange lettering was a good look with either uniform). The new alternate caps with orange bills added more color and were a nice nod to team history. So what was so bad, then?

The gray cap. Oh, that gray cap.

It was ugly, it was unnecessary, and though it was intended as a road cap, the team apparently played fast and loose with those rules. Veteran catcher Matt Nokes, who did nothing to help his own cause by batting .122 in limited action, fired back at the team after his release in mid-June. He said he felt as though he were "out on parole", and criticized the leadership of rookie manager Phil Regan by saying that the team didn't know which color cap they were going to wear from day to day, much less who would be playing. The O's received scorn from outside of the organization as well. I can recall one ESPN anchor joking that it appeared as if everyone on the team had shaved their heads. Thankfully, the Orioles abandoned the gray monstrosities altogether by 1997.

Walrus-mustached veteran reliever Doug Jones seemed to be a fitting choice for an entry about foul-ups in Baltimore in 1995. Coming off of a good season in Philadelphia (27 saves, 2.17 ERA), the 38-year-old Jones signed with the Orioles and became their closer, replacing the departed Lee Smith...with poor results. He saved 22 games, but allowed 1.52 baserunners per inning. His earned run average was a lofty 5.01 - when he blew up, he did so in spectacular fashion. The low point of his season was an August 1 game against Toronto. After blowing an early 4-run advantage, the O's had battled back gamely and handed Doug a 10-6 lead in the ninth inning. He faced six batters, allowing five hits and a walk and retiring NO ONE. After Domingo Cedeno's three-run home run put the Blue Jays ahead 12-10, Jones was pulled from the game and serenaded by a chorus of boos from the Camden Yards faithful. Acting with true class and grace, the pitcher flipped the bird to the crowd and disappeared into the dugout.

At least he wasn't wearing the gray cap that day.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Nick Markakis, 2007 Fleer Rookie Sensations RS-NM

Just two years after the fact, it seems hard to believe that Nick Markakis had to fight to earn a spot on the Orioles' 2006 Opening Day roster. But that was the case, as the then-22-year-old outfielder had only 33 games at AA Bowie under his belt and had no AAA experience either. The O's were hesitant to rush the sweet-swinging Georgia native to the bigs, as similar practices had stunted the development of several other prospects in the team's recent history. But Nick wouldn't be denied, reaching base in nine of his first 10 plate appearances in Spring Training. Overall, he batted .358 with a .965 OPS in Grapefruit League action. The Orioles rewarded him with a spot on the Opening Day roster and stuck with him as he struggled to adjust to the major leagues, hitting .182 in April. Nick gradually improved throughout the first half of the season and caught fire in the second half, finishing at .291 with 16 home runs. In 2007, he stepped forward as the leader of the O's offense, leading the team in batting average, doubles, home runs, and RBI and ranking in the top ten in the American League in several offensive categories. The team's current rebuilding effort involves Nick Markakis as the centerpiece.

That's one of the great things about Spring Training. You never know who's going to step up out of nowhere and surprise you. Last year Jeremy Guthrie was plucked from waivers and pitched strongly throughout March, eventually becoming a strong Rookie of the Year candidate with the potential to be one of the best starters in the league. Sometimes a veteran journeyman like Kevin Hickey will earn a trip "up North" with some unlikely success in the Grapefruit League. You never know until they play the games.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Scott McGregor, 1987 Fleer #475

Scott McGregor is peering in for the sign. But maybe he's looking for something else. The look on his face is one of confusion, uncertainty, perhaps even disgust. Maybe he's trying to recapture something he's lost.

Three years before this picture was taken, Scott McGregor experienced the greatest moment of his career, standing on the mound in Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia as Cal Ripken, Jr. caught the final out of the clinching game of the 1983 World Series. Catcher Rick Dempsey ran to the mound and embraced McGregor, who had shined on the biggest stage of them all, shutting out the Phillies on five hits and two walks with six strikeouts. He'd avenged a Game One loss in which he'd been almost as strong (four hits and two runs in eight innings), but was undone by an Oriole offense that mustered only a Jim Dwyer solo home run. You could have made a strong case for Scotty as Series MVP, but that honor went to Dempsey for his unlikely offensive surge (.385, 4 2B, 1 HR). But personal accolades didn't matter as the two were engulfed by their jubilant teammates.

But three years had passed in the blink of an eye. In 1986, the Orioles were suffering through their first losing season in two decades. McGregor was suffering as well, logging his first losing record since his rookie campaign in 1977 (11 wins, 15 losses). He's staring into the catcher's glove, and wondering where those three years went. He's wondering where he goes from here. The answer would be less than promising. After another subpar season in which he was relegated to the bullpen, he would get pummeled in his first four starts of the disastrous 1988 season. On May 2, 1988, he suffered the indignity of being released by the only major league team he'd ever played for, his career over at age 34.

Similarly, I'm sitting here today wondering where the last three years have gone. In Spring of 2005, I took a job that was supposed to be a stepping stone, something to pay the bills for a year or two while I found something that I really wanted to do (and could do) for a living. All of a sudden, I'm approaching my three-year mark in this job, and I'm no closer to moving on. I still don't know what to do, and I've got no leads.

Meanwhile, change is occurring all around me. Since October of last year, there have been four engagements in my circle of friends. Last night, my roommate Mike informed me that he'd be looking for his own place in June when our apartment lease ends. He and his girlfriend figure to be engagement number five before too long. I'm honestly not surprised; they've been together since college and she's almost done with graduate school. But Mike and I lived together for two years in college and have shared an apartment for the last - you guessed it - three years. It's going to be a tough change. I have three months to figure out where I'm going to be living, and who I'll be living with. This is of course complicated by my desire to find another job. If I don't know for sure where I'll be working and how much money I'll be making, that throws a major kink into my plans. I feel like I had three years to prepare for this moment, and I fell asleep at the switch.

Scott McGregor did land on his feet after the rocky conclusion of his playing career. He's led a life of faith, serving as a minister in the Baltimore area, and ultimately returned to the Orioles organization as a minor league pitching coach. This year, he returns to the Aberdeen IronBirds, for whom he coached in their inaugural season in 2002. Hopefully I'll find my own path before another three years have passed.