Orioles Card "O" the Day

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mike Hargrove, 2002 Topps #298

In his playing days, Mike Hargrove was known as "The Human Rain Delay". The former Rangers, Padres, and Indians first baseman drove pitchers to distraction by stepping in and out of the batter's box during his at-bats. Between each pitch, he would first adjust his helmet, then fiddle with his batting gloves, then hitch his jersey sleeves up ever so slightly, and finally wipe each hand on his uniform pants. Only then would he retake his place at the plate. Sure, this extended and particular routine was enough to wreak havoc with the rhythm of scores of pitchers, as his impressive .396 career on-base percentage indicates. Amazingly, this number is higher than his career slugging percentage (.391). But the grim and exact machinations of "Grover" are a telling window to his soul. It's called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Mike. Look it up. You don't have to suffer alone...and neither does Nomar.

Fun fact: Mike Hargrove was the 1974 American League Rookie of the Year, sandwiched between two former Orioles outfielders - Al Bumbry (1973) and Fred Lynn (1975, then with the Red Sox).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Juan Bell, 1992 Donruss #479

The above is a great action shot of Juan Bell leaping over Carlos Quintana as the Red Sox first baseman barrels into second base to attempt to break up the double play by interrupting Bell's throw to first. But it gets even better. Below is Quintana's card (#609) from this set, with a photo taken mere seconds later at a different angle. I first learned of this phenomenon in an issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly over a dozen years ago. I carried that pointless knowledge somewhere in the recesses of my brain until the day that I came into possession of both cards, the pair representing one of the neat little quirks that make collecting small rectangles of cardboard a reward unto itself.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Armando Benitez, 1998 Score #170

There are days when I really empathize with Armando Benitez. Days when all of the forces of nature align to absolutely test me, to push every last button until I just want to snap and lash out in a childish and destructive manner. Of course, when Armando lost his cool, he expressed it by firing a 100 MPH fastball directly at a relatively defenseless batter. On one notorious occasion in May of 1998, his plunking of New York first baseman Tino Martinez incited a prolonged ugly brawl between the Orioles and the Yankees. After having surrendered a game-breaking three-run home run to outfielder Bernie Williams, Benitez reared back and let it fly. As soon as the ball left his hand, he must have known that he'd done something wrong. He could have seriously injured Martinez. Yet when Tino's teammates jumped to their feet in the home dugout, the O's pitcher tossed his hands out defiantly, urging two dozen angry enemies to rush the field and take him on. Through his hasty actions, Armando Benitez had let his frustration get the best of him and had made a bad day so much worse.

Today was one of those days for me. I woke up with my right eye bloodshot and irritated; my seasonal allergies are in full bloom. I'm sure my stubborn insistence upon wearing my contact lenses didn't help much. Despite getting home late after an outing to Baltimore last night, I decided to forgo an extra 30-60 minutes of sleep and got out of bed in time to make my usual train. Of course the train was delayed for about an hour because an earlier train had broken down. I spent that hour standing out in the unseasonably cold and rainy weather.

Once I got to work, things just snowballed. Without getting into specifics, I logged most of my day scrambling to identify and correct multiple errors with the software that is quite necessary for the purposes of doing my job. At one point, things got so bogged down that I attempted to restart my computer and found myself unable to log back in for roughly one hour. It almost goes without saying that my boss is out of town on vacation for the week, causing even more responsibility to fall upon me. Knowing that I'd still be dealing with the same difficulties tomorrow compounded my irritability; I nearly threw a stapler across my cubicle in one rage-filled instant.

Once I finally made it to my homebound train, I settled down with a book and read until my eyelids drooped, then settled back for a power nap. Soon I realized that we had stopped moving. The conductor came over the P.A. and announced that a fallen tree had obstructed the path. He assured us that someone was coming with a chainsaw to cut it up and remove it from the tracks, and they would arrive in approximately one hour. The masterstroke at the end of a supremely crummy day. I attempted to settle back into a state of quasi-sleep, to no avail. I went back to the book, but I haven't exactly taken a liking to it and my heightened ire wasn't helping. Finally, I picked up the phone and called my sister to complain. It couldn't have been much fun for her, and I don't know how much better it made me feel. But at least I didn't instigate a bench-clearing brawl and get myself suspended for eight games.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Joe Orsulak, 1989 Upper Deck #429

Yesterday my other sports love, the Baltimore Ravens, drafted the man who will hopefully be their quarterback of the future. His name is Joe, and he's a native of New Jersey. In honor of Joe Flacco, here's another Jersey Joe who was very popular in Charm City. Joe Orsulak was one of those guys that was never the most talented player on the team, but he was quietly consistent. From 1988 through 1993, he hit between .269 and .289 every year. It seemed like he was always diving for fly balls in the outfield, getting his uniform dirty and compensating for any lack of speed and size. He just epotimized the blue-collar everyman, which really helped the Baltimore fans to connect with him. Joe Flacco might have all of the physical gifts that he needs to succeed, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that those gifts will translate to the NFL and he'll be the next Joe to be treated as a local hero.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tippy Martinez, 1991 Crown/Coca-Cola All Time Orioles #281

I've talked in the past about my misadventures in Little League. But an early highlight of my amateur career was the day I got to meet Tippy Martinez. It was our season-opening parade in Spring 1994, and he was the guest of honor. Things got off to a rough start when the smallest member of our team, a second baseman/pitcher named Dave, came limping over to the rest of us and told us that the car that was transporting Tippy had just run over his foot. Yes, this actually happened. Thankfully, he wasn't seriously injured and didn't miss any games.

The rest of the day went better. Tippy made some remarks at the post-parade picnic, nothing that I can remember nearly fifteen years after the fact. Then he stayed put and signed autographs until everyone who wanted his signature had gotten it. Most of the other kids just had him sign their hats, but I wasn't about to do that. As you'll see a little later in this entry, those hats were a cheap eyesore. Besides, I was a member of the Yankees. Though Martinez started his career in the Bronx, it just wouldn't have been right to have him sign a Yankee hat. I only had one of his cards in my still-nascent collection, so that made my decision easy. The card you see above became my first autographed card.

The story doesn't end there. As the day's events wound to a close, my mother, my younger sister, and myself headed to the parking lot. On our way, we happened upon Tippy, who was on his way out as well and was by himself. My mom took the initiative and asked the Orioles Hall of Famer if he'd mind posing for a few pictures with us. He couldn't have been more polite, as he quickly agreed and stood alongside both my sister and myself for individual photos. My sister couldn't have cared less, as her half-bored, half-anugished expression showed. Though I still didn't have a complete grasp of just how important Martinez had been as the go-to reliever for the Orioles from the mid-1970's through the mid-1980's, it was still something of a thrill to me.
Though the giant puffy hat and recycled polyester uniform didn't do any favors to a kid in the midst of an awkward phase, I think you'll agree that Tippy Martinez looked pretty good for a guy who'd been retired for six years and was nearly forty-four at the time.

For the purpose of soothing my own bruised ego after sharing this picture with you, I'd like to state for the record that baseball-reference.com lists Tippy's height as 5'10", which means that in the ensuing years, I've surpassed him in stature. So there's that.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Bob Grich, 1976 Topps #335

This is my very favorite card in an altogether fantastic 1976 Topps set. It signifies everything that's great about that year's cards: bright, contrasting border colors, a smiling, sun-drenched subject, and most of all, glorious hair on both head and face. Bob Grich is resplendent in his Seventies masculinity with a thick mustache that is reminiscent of the true greats, names like Selleck and Reynolds. The hair flies free and loose in the summer breeze, sticking up and out in every direction. It looks like my hair does when I've let it grow out a bit and I go for a swim. For kicks, I'll slick it back and wait for it to dry, and then get a porcupine effect as the air does its work.

There are some iconic photos in this set, and Grich more than holds his own with George Scott, Garry Maddox, Hal McRae, Oscar Gamble, Gorman Thomas, Al Hrabosky...those are just the handful that I have in my own collection. Whenever I get around to completing a set from the Seventies, I'll probably start with 1976, a year when men were proud to let their hair grow long and wild. A year when sideburns were pushed to the limits, crossing jawlines and cheekbones and ruling over everything in between. A year when mustaches had a life all their own.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wady Almonte, 1997 Fleer #613

The O's really missed the boat with Wady Almonte. If they had promoted the Dominican outfielder to the big leagues, he would have become the first Wady in the majors. As it stands now, this relatively pointless honor could go to a (ugh) Yankee farmhand, first baseman/outfielder Wady Rufino. Rufino is also from the Dominican Republic, which is apparently a hotbed for Wadys. Wadies? I don't know.

Mr. Almonte wasn't even close to a callup at the time this card was produced. In the preceding season, his third in pro baseball, he'd just gotten to A-ball. He did have a solid season at Frederick, batting .286 with 12 home runs and 44 RBI in 85 games. He would split 1997 between Frederick and AA Bowie, struggling with the bat. He seems to have been injured the following year, appearing in just 7 games. Wady finally got back on track in 1999, setting personal high-water marks across the board (.293-17-83). But he stalled out at AAA Rochester for the next two years, and spent 2002 back at AA in the Cardinals' organization.

The tale of Wady Almonte ends in the quirky, sparsely attended Independent leagues; after a 16-game sojourn with the Long Island Ducks in 2003, he went out on top with the 2004 New Jersey Jackals of the Northeast League (.327-9-64 in 86 games).

On second thought, it might be for the better that he never made it to Baltimore. The baseball-loving world was undoubtedly spared from Chris Berman referring to him as "Dude Looks Like A" Wady Almonte.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chris Myers, 1990 Bowman #250

Ah, Chris Myers. All that I know about this lefty pitcher is that he was the Orioles' first round draft pick in 1987. Considering that he never made it to the majors, and that he was out of pro baseball by the age of 24, I might as well engage in a little second-guessing. Besides, with all the foaming at the mouth that surrounds this weekend's NFL draft, it's even somewhat timely.

Based on their crummy 1986 season (73 wins, 89 losses), the O's picked seventh overall in June 1987. Of course, the big prize in the draft was long gone by then; the Mariners took a high school outfielder named Ken Griffey, Jr. with the first pick. Though five of the six players taken before Chris Myers eventually made it to the big leagues, only Griffey and pitcher Jack McDowell turned out to be anything special. With Myers, the Birds took a gamble on that most enticing of amateur players - the phenom high school pitcher.

If Baltimore had kept their eyes open for a college pitcher, they might have grabbed a righthander named Kevin Appier. Appier was grabbed by the Royals with the ninth pick, and went on to win 169 games. Second baseman Delino DeShields, a talented but injury-prone second baseman, went to the Expos with the twelfth pick; he would join the O's late in his career and perform well for two years. The Birds had two more first-round picks to come; with the fifteenth overall selection they actually did nab a college pitcher, but whiffed again: Brad DuVall never sniffed the majors either. Between their second pick and their third (twenty-seventh overall), the player of most note was catcher Craig Biggio, who just retired in 2007 after collecting 3060 hits. The Orioles finally did well with their third shot, landing a righty hurler from Fordham University named Pete Harnisch.

Looking at the draft results from any given year just underscores what a crapshoot it can be. Of course, when you swing and miss with most of your picks over an extended period of time, that's when you really look bad.

As a fun side note, the Orioles drafted yet another pitcher you may have heard of in the seventh round in 1987, a high schooler from Pennsylvania named Mike Mussina. Of course, he turned them down and went to Stanford, but the O's persisted and got their man in the first round in 1991.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Miles Barnden, 1994 Orioles Magazine

This one actually came from an Orioles game-day program that I bought at this game. There was a perforated sheet of nine cards; I'd guess that the players featured were either on the forty-man roster or were present at Spring Training. For some reason I only have eight of these cards. Of the eight, only three ever suited up for the Birds in a major league game. Aussie infielder Miles Barnden was not so fortunate.

Barnden's name actually appears on baseball-reference.com as "Myles" Barnden. It would be a cruel twist if the Orioles' official magazine didn't even get his name right. The lefty hitter was signed as a nineteen-year-old undrafted free agent in 1992. In the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, he hit .240 in his pro debut. He showed some improvement the following year at higher rookie-level Bluefield (.288-6 HR-53 RBI), and looked even stronger in a brief 12-game promotion to A-level Albany (.362-2-11). His numbers dipped with a longer stint at Albany in 1994 (.256-0-26), but he was promoted to higher A-level Frederick anyway. He had only three hits in thirty-five at-bats there, and that appears to have been the end of his U.S. baseball career.

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Myles found new life in the sport in his native Australia. Playing with the league champion Waverley/Melbourne Reds in 1998, his .343 batting average was ninth-best in team history. Having played in the third-most games in Reds history (315), he ranks in the top ten in several career offensive categories for the club, including home runs (29), RBI (134), and walks (117). The Australian Baseball League folded in 1999, ensuring that Myles Barnden's place in club history is secure.

You just never know what you're going to learn when you start researching a foreign-born infielder who never made it out of single-A baseball.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Leo Daigle, 2007 Bowman Heritage Prospects #BHP24

I haven't done a theme week in a while, and this one should be fun. As I discussed way back with Dave Crouthers, the rookiemania that gripped the card collecting hobby with its icy talons during the Nineties led to a lot of "rookie cards" for players who would never make a major league roster. So this week I'm highlighting cards of Orioles who never were. First up is first baseman Leo Daigle.

You might think I'm being a bit hasty in dismissing Leo. If he was considered a prospect just last year, the jury is still out, right? Well, it's safe to say that the fine folks at Topps were the only ones who considered him a prospect. He was almost 28 by the time these cards rolled out. His bio even mentions that he's been with three different organizations (Tigers, White Sox, and O's) since 1998. Well, at 6'3" and 220 pounds, at least he cuts an imposing figure. Plus, the card back mentions his impressive .341-29 HR-112 RBI batting line at Winston-Salem, though it doesn't specify the year. Let's see...baseball-reference.com puts it in 2005. He even won the Carolina League Triple Crown...not bad. But that was his fourth season in high-A ball, and he was promoted to AAA Charlotte at the end of the season, where he had a less gaudy .220-2-8 line in 25 games.

This brings us to Daigle's 2006 campaign at Baltimore's AA affiliate, the Bowie Baysox: .233-15-63. If you're wondering why Topps wasted one of their "prospect" inserts (a loophole they used to get around MLB's stringent new rookie card rules) on Leo, you don't know the half of it. The card back actually mentions that the Orioles released him in 2006! That appears to have signaled the end of Leo Daigle's nine-year minor league odyssey, in which he played in nine cities from Kannapolis to Toledo. 978 games, only 26 of them at AAA. He racked up 352 extra-base hits in all of those games.

Let's offer up a slow, sarcastic clap to Topps for choosing a 27-year-old first baseman who had already been released after hitting .233 at AA as a "prospect". I realize that the Birds haven't exactly had a robust farm system lately, but come ON.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Alan Mills, 1994 Topps #324

I always liked Alan Mills. He was a righty middle reliever who was in the Birds' pen seemingly forever. As you can see in this photo, he was also a certified badass. I still have this vivid image of Alan standing on the mound, his lanky limbs making him seem taller than his 6'1". He peered out at the hitter from deep under the low-pulled brim of his usually dirty cap, his lips curled in a sneer. He was definitely the kind of pitcher who believed in the power of intimidation.

I also remember reading an article about Mills in an Orioles game day program in 1993. It was all about his hobby: collecting baseball cards. There were pictures of him in casual dress, sitting in his house and leafing through a big stack of cardboard. There were boxes and piles of cards situated all around him; I remember seeing a lot of 1991 Topps. I have Mills' 1991 Topps card, which happens to be his rookie card and shows him as a Yankee. Somehow that article has stuck with me throughout the years, although the magazine was discarded years ago. There's a corner of my living room, contained within the area directly next to my computer, that looks a lot like the tableau in Alan's house.

There's something very humanizing about baseball players who are also card collectors (Dmitri Young and Pat Neshek being two big examples); it shows you that they have some sense of the history of the sport, and that they have their own idols and heroes. I'd imagine that they're also more accommodating when it comes to autographing their own cards. Has anyone out there found this to be the case?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Chris Richard, 2002 Upper Deck Vintage #58

If you're unfamiliar with Upper Deck Vintage, it was essentially Upper Deck's attempt to cash in on the throwback card design craze by blasphemously ripping off some of Topps' most classic card designs. This card is from the 2002 set, and as you may have surmised, it is patterned after the ultra-cool 1971 Topps series. In other years, the crumbums at Upper Deck also borrowed from the iconic 1965 and 1963 Topps issues. I suppose this idea was worth a shot if Upper Deck could get away with it, but I still consider it to be a poor imitation.

It's funny that this card would feature outfielder Chris Richard standing alongside then-first base coach Eddie Murray. Not only was he a poor imitation of Eddie, but Richard is also a relic of the Orioles' previous feeble attempt at rebuilding. As the 2000 season trudged on with the aging O's in a nosedive, past-his-prime baseball executive Syd Thrift sold away every veteran player with any shred of trade value, and got virtually nothing of worth in return. Gone were B. J. Surhoff, Mike Bordick, Will Clark, Mike Timlin, Harold Baines, and Charles Johnson. The only player who ended up being a true asset to the Birds was Melvin Mora (acquired for Bordick), and that was something of a surprise; he was a 28-year-old minor league veteran with 246 major-league at bats.

Richard was acquired from the Cardinals for Timlin; many desperate Baltimore fans drank the Kool-Aid that Thrift and Co. were handing out. Here was a kid who hit 30 home runs in 1999! He'd bring much-needed power to the O's for years to come, maybe settle in at first base and become the next Eddie Murray. Sure, it took him five years to reach AAA, and maybe 26 was a little old for a prospect, but who's counting? When Chris hit 13 home runs in his first 200 at-bats in orange and black, our hopes were officially up.

The following season, Richard played regularly but only upped his longball total to 15. Still, he was slightly above league average. 2002 was disastrous for the San Diego native, as a shoulder injury limited him to 50 games. A .232 average and four home runs weren't enough to keep him around, especially since he'd gained a reputation for arrogance that was out of proportion to his actual talents. Baltimore traded Chris Richard to the Rockies in Spring Training 2003 for Jack Cust.

Jack Cust...now there's a story for another day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Hank Bauer and Dave McNally, 1967 Topps #155

There are few things that give me more joy as a baseball fan than beating the Yankees. If you're a fan of any team other than those villains from the Bronx, this should be self-evident. After fifteen years of watching the Yankees leave my Orioles in the dust, and watching the media fawn upon them, and listening to Camden Yards rock with the cheers of carpetbagging Yankee fans nine times a year, to say nothing of Jeffrey F. Maier...every game against New York has taken on a life-or-death importance for me. It's personal. As much losing as the Orioles have done since 1998, every time they rise up against the odds and put down the guys in pinstripes, it means just that much more.

Over 162 games, the details of a baseball season tend to run together. But so many of those victories over the Yanks stand out: Daniel Cabrera's near-no-hitter, Brian Roberts' walk-off home run, Jeremy Guthrie's hard-earned win, Brian Burres outdueling Roger Clemens, Chris Ray's bases-loaded stand...they're all right there in my memory.

I didn't get to see tonight's game; I went straight to a friend's house for dinner after work. I arrived home at 1 AM (still Friday on the West coast!), exhausted after eighteen hours's absence from my warm bed. The first thing I did upon powering up my computer was click over to the Baltimore Sun to see the score on the sports page: Orioles 8, Yankees 2. A gutsy six-inning win for Daniel Cabrera. A seven-run sixth inning, on seven singles. The Yankees looking up at the Birds in the standings. How sweet it is.

I chose this card because it represents a turning point in the fortunes of the O's and the Yanks. In the early 1960's, the young Orioles gave the Bronx Bombers a run for their money almost every year, only to fade down the stretch. When they finally broke through, it was under the tutelage of a former Yankee hero, gruff ex-Marine Hank Bauer. After playing in nine World Series in the span of a decade in New York, Hank found himself exiled to lowly Kansas City in a trade.

Seven years later, he got the last laugh, leading his orange and black charges to the American League pennant in a cake walk while his original team languished in last place. While fans and experts alike fawned over the National League champion Dodgers' one-two punch of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, it was the Orioles' young arms that carried the day. Dave McNally was the only Baltimore pitcher to give up any runs (a whopping two) in the World Series, and even he "redeemed" himself by outdueling Drysdale in a 1-0 masterpiece to clinch the sweep and put Charm City on top of the baseball world. I love the simple joy and exuberance of this card, as Bauer has been smeared with shaving cream by some practical joker (Moe Drabowsky, perhaps?), but still beams from ear to ear as he embraces the winning pitcher.

Considering the charge that I get out of a regular-season win over the Yankees, I can only imagine how I'd react if the O's ever won it all again.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pat Hentgen, 2002 Fleer Tradition #430

This card serves as a lasting tribute to Pat Hentgen's mustache. I used to call this style of facial hair a "fu manchu", but I've come to learn that a fu manchu technically hangs off of the chin like this. What #41 is sporting is properly known as a "horseshoe", but is also often referred to as the "Hulk Hogan" or the "Earl". For many years I yearned to grow a mighty Flavor Saver like that, but the only place that hair grew thickly and evenly on my face was on my chin. So the goatee became my calling card, but every once in a while I tried to branch out (particularly in college, when I just couldn't be bothered with shaving regularly). I usually gave up within a few weeks, because my upper lip and cheeks resembled nothing so much as a barber shop floor. I even convinced my Dad to shave his trademark beard down into a horseshoe for a brief period, so that I could live vicariously through him. I still maintain that it helped to intimidate his high school students into obedience.

Last year, I finally reached for the stars. I can't quite explain what compelled me to do it, but I spent the spring of 2007 patiently growing out a full goatee. I never got fully used to the way the mustache portion looked, and it never quite fully connected to the chin hair. But as it got longer and slightly fuller, I saw my opportunity. In June, I shaved my chin before my roommate's birthday party. I had finally arrived. Even better: as a sign of solidarity, said roomie crafted a horseshoe 'stache of his own. Still, he shaved his off later that night, while I reveled in my hirsute glory for a few more weeks. Below you can see my best attempt to channel Pat Hentgen, Al Hrabosky, Rod Beck, and all of the other greats (I'm on the left, of course, in my Orioles Spring Training tee).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bob Melvin, 1991 Leaf #240

It's always seemed to me that the Orioles have produced more than their fair share of managers. The best manager to have spent some of his playing years in the orange and black is undoubtedly Davey Johnson, who returned to lead the Birds to back-to-back playoff appearances in 1996 and 1997. The best Orioles player to become a skipper was Frank Robinson, who made history as the first black manager in both leagues (Cleveland, 1975 and San Francisco, 1981). There was Johnny Oates, who presided over some competitive O's teams in the early Nineties before leading Texas to their only prolonged period of success later that decade. Some managers that you'd never expect played for the Orioles, however briefly; Lou Piniella made his major league debut in Baltimore in 1964 (0-1 with three pinch running appearances).

Today's card features a man who is the reigning National League Manager of the Year and has guided the exciting young Arizona Diamondbacks to a 10-4 start in 2008. They're currently tied for the best record in the major leagues, and look poised to return to the NLCS (and maybe go a little farther) this year. Bob Melvin has always been one of those players and managers that I assumed was a nice guy, just because he looks placid and pleasant. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but I can tell you that he was a solid defensive catcher during his three years in Baltimore, committing just five errors total and throwing out 29% of would-be base stealers.

Melvin also proved the old adage that "good things come to those who wait". As of August 27, 1989, he was the only Oriole who had been with the team all season who had not hit a home run. That day he almost single-handedly beat the Yankees, swatting a three-run home run in his first at-bat and later hitting his first (and only) triple of the season to drive in another run. The Birds won 8-5, and Bob fell a double short of hitting for the cycle.

Bob Melvin's patient nature has served him well as a manager. He took over a Diamondbacks team that had lost a staggering 111 games in 2004 and piloted them to a 26-game improvement in 2005. Though Arizona saw no further improvement the following season, he stayed the course with a lineup full of players in their early-to-mid twenties and the present - and the future - look bright in the desert.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Leo Gomez, 1995 Fleer Flair #3

Last night, I got waylaid with some sort of stomach virus. Since I've barely budged from my couch today, I needed to find a card that spoke for itself. God bless Fleer Flair, with its veritable orgy of etched foil and fancy script initials. I also love this card for the old-school flip-up sunglasses and the white tape with Leo's uniform number written on it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Rick Sutcliffe, 1992 Studio #130

I was going to mock Rick Sutcliffe's mighty helmet of hair in this copper-framed Glamour Shot, but now I'm afraid of the consequences.

You see, I'm currently reading Cal Ripken, Jr.'s new motivational book, Get in the Game: 8 Elements of Perseverance that Make the Difference. It was sitting on the "free table" at work, one of the little perks that comes with working for a national publication. I tend to view rah-rah self-help books with skepticism, but this one has been a light, quick read with plenty of entertaining baseball stories to illustrate points. One of the funniest anecdotes involves big righthander Rick Sutcliffe.

As Ripken tells it, he and Sutcliffe were standing on the field in Cleveland; he doesn't give a date, but obviously it would have been during the pitcher's two-year tenure in Baltimore (1992-1993). Cal was having second thoughts about continuing The Streak; he was struggling on the field, and the increasing pressure from the media was wearing on him. So he asked for Sut's take:

After a moment's pause, Rick looked at me rather seriously. "Well, I'm pitching tomorrow," he said. "And if you take a day off tomorrow, I guarantee you'll make the papers. You'll be in the front pages. You'll be in the sports sections. You might even make the business sections. But there's one more section you'll be in."

"What's that?" I asked.

"The obituaries-because I'm going to kill you."

Cal went on to mention that Rick was 6'7", making him the rare contemporary to tower over the O's shortstop, and that he wasn't smiling when he threatened Ripken's life. But Sutcliffe went on to compliment his teammate's stabilizing presence on the team, all of the things that he did to help the club win, slump or no slump. He told Junior to "stop your whining and go back to your job". Because he didn't sugarcoat his message, he got Cal's attention and helped him snap out of his torpor.

These days, that same direct, no-nonsense approach is probably serving Rick Sutcliffe well as he endures treatments for colon cancer. The early prognosis is good, as the disease has been classified as "curable and maintainable". "Maintainable" seems like an odd word to use to describe cancer. But if the above story is any indicator, I'd put my money on Rick Sutcliffe to come out on top.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sammy Stewart, 1986 Donruss #270

For whatever reason, the topic of drug abuse doesn't come up very often in conjunction with baseball. I'm not talking about performance-enhancing drugs, of course. I'm also not referring to alcohol abuse, which seems to be a serious and fairly frequent problem that gets brushed off until a team wants to make an example of somebody. But the only current major leaguer who I can recall who has struggled with hardcore drugs is Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, a former #1 draft pick who nearly lost everything to his alcohol, cocaine, and crack addictions before making a remarkable recovery. In his second season in the major leagues since his comeback, Hamilton is looking like a great success story.

Sammy Stewart is not nearly so lucky.

A go-to guy in the Oriole bullpen for much of the 1980s, Stewart had no drug problem during his ten-year career in the majors. It was only when the Cleveland Indians released him in October 1987 that Sammy looked for something to fill the void. A few months later, he found the rush and excitement he'd been missing, and unfortunately he found it in crack cocaine. Though the imposing righthander had compiled some impressive statistics on the diamond (2.32 ERA in 1981, no runs allowed in 12 postseason innings,7 straight strikeouts in his ML debut), he's spent the past two decades racking up numbers of a more disheartening nature:

26 arrests
43 criminal charges
6 incarcerations

He's currently serving jail time in North Carolina. He's lost the three million dollars or so that he earned on the mound. He's lost his 1983 World Series ring, his home, and most of all his family. Sammy Stewart is a sick man who would have done anything to get money for his next high. He has a daughter with cystic fibrosis, and he used to play upon the sympathies of his friends and neighbors to borrow cash. His story is equal parts pitiable and despicable, and it's been told much more eloquently in other places.

The thing that really struck me in reading up on Sammy Stewart was his age. He's fifty-three, just a few weeks younger than my father. I can't imagine being in the position of Alicia, Stewart's daughter. What would I do - what would you do - if you happened upon your father and he was dirty and disheveled, his skin actually yellowed from the abuse he'd inflicted upon himself? How would you react if you tried to offer him food, only for him to refuse and to ask for money instead?

I don't have the answers. I hope that Sammy truly has hit rock bottom, and that it's not too late for him to start climbing back up.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ryan Minor, 1999 Upper Deck MVP #29

This card creates the only situation in which you'll ever see "Ryan Minor" and "MVP" mentioned in the same breath. But I sort of feel for the guy. He was clearly the victim of the hype of others. If you look at his minor league stats, there's nothing there to justify the hopes and dreams that the Orioles held for him. As a 23-year-old in 1997, he had a .918 OPS with 24 home runs at low Single-A. As has often been the case, everyone got all hot and bothered over him and skipped him past Frederick the next year. So he posts a .295 on-base percentage at Bowie in 1998, strikes out more than he hits (152 K, 130 H), and...gets a September call-up to Baltimore? Ooookay.

Any remaining chance that Minor had of developing into a hitter may have been dashed against the rocks on September 20, 1998. One week after the guy makes his major league debut, he has the thankless job of replacing Cal Ripken, Jr. on the first day that #8 takes a break in sixteen years. No pressure or anything, fella. Ten years later, his brief career has been reduced to a trivia tidbit. At least Babe Dahlgren had a decent career and played in a World Series after he relieved Lou Gehrig in 1939.

Speaking of trivia, the O's traded Minor to the Expos in December 2000 for a flamethrowing pitcher named Jorge Julio. In the end, that's probably the most legitimate reason for Birds fans to associate Ryan Minor with suffering and anguish.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Mike Cuellar, 1977 Topps #162

As you can see, this card has a little surface wear. I like it, though; the tiny white divots that mottle Mike Cuellar's photograph make it look more like an oil painting on a bright canvas; it could have been crafted by one of the Old Masters. Cuellar was an Old Master himself at this moment in time; at thirty-nine years old he was the fifth-oldest player in the American League. 1976 had been his eighth season with the Orioles and his fourteenth overall. But the end was near. His won-lost record was an atrocious 4-13, his first sub-.500 win percentage in an O's uniform. He deserved every loss, as his 4.96 ERA was his highest ever for a full season. As Earl Weaver remarked, "I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife."

Cuellar would run out of chances the following winter. The Orioles released him four days before Christmas. By the time this card came out, the Cuban lefty would be attempting to prolong his career as a California Angel. Though he had climbed the ranks to become the AL's oldest active player, it was a short-lived reign. He was torched in his only two appearances for the halos to the tune of an 18.90 ERA, and his career ended with his release on May 16.

Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the career of Mike Cuellar truly was a work of art.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dwight Smith, 1995 Collector's Choice #336

When the Orioles acquired Dwight Smith from the Angels in a trade in June 1994, he became the fourth Smith to play for the team that season. He followed closer Lee Smith, designated hitter Lonnie Smith, and outfielder Mark Smith. Throughout O's history, there have been eleven Smiths (Texas Mike, Roy, Pete, Hal, Nate, Billy, and Al are the others). In other words, 36% of the Smiths who ever played for the Orioles suited up for the club in one season. I just feel like repeating the name "Smith" until it loses all meaning. Smith, Smith, Smith, Smith.

The Smiths are still trailing the Johnsons in the Oriole name game, however. There have been twelve players with the latter surname, including three Dave Johnsons. However, Dwight's still a unique snowflake. His birth name is John Dwight Smith; I'd say he made the right choice by choosing not to blend into his surroundings as another "John Smith".

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cal Ripken, Jr., 1996 Score #60

Today is a milestone day for this blog - my 100th entry - and it gets a milestone card. As you might have surmised, the above card shows Cal Junior acknowledging the fans on September 6, 1995, the night that he broke Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old record by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game. I have to sheepishly admit that I don't recognize all of the players behind him, but I can tab a few of them. Third from the left is Arthur Rhodes. Next to him, Doug Jones is holding the camcorder. Standing in the back, over Cal's left shoulder, is Jeffrey Hammonds. Next to him is Jesse Orosco, and on the end is...a batboy. I hope that kid was thrilled to make it onto a baseball card, the lucky stiff.

I remember a lot about that night. I remember my near-miss with history; two days earlier I had been at Oriole Park with my father, my Uncle Ken, and Bill, a middle school acquaintance of mine and a fellow sports nut. My Dad had gotten free tickets on a beautiful Labor Day afternoon, tickets that put us right next to the O's bullpen. So I was there for game 2,129. So close, and yet so far. To rub a little salt in the wound, the Birds lost 5-3, being undone by the Angels' four-run fifth inning against starter Jamie Moyer. I have two distinct memories from that game. One involves Doug Jones warming up in the bullpen and losing control of a pitch that sailed over the catcher's head and clattered off of the protective screen to our left. For all that I know, he was probably trying to silence a heckler. It's not often that a pitcher lets loose with a purpose pitch before he even gets into the game. The other thing I remember about that game is me asking Bill if he was having a good time. He replied in the affirmative, "except for this woman that keeps dropping peanut shells on my head!". Indeed, there was a heavyset man sitting a row up from us, and he was a bit careless with his leavings. If the slovenly guy heard Bill's complaint/insult, he didn't acknowledge it.

On the night of the actual record-breaker, my dad and I watched the game on television with my Uncle Jerry. He was my mom's oldest brother, a short-tempered and impish cab driver. I still remember laughing with disbelief when I learned that he had set my mother's hair on fire as a child and then had tried somewhat ineffectually to blow it out. He was the only one of my uncles that ever really intimidated me; on the rare occasions when he rebuked me for acting out there was something about his stern face and tone of voice that just cut through me. When my little sister and I were fighting about something, she'd pull out her trump card: "I'll tell Uncle Jerry!" It was an empty threat - he usually wasn't visiting with us when she said it, but the very idea of him just freaked me out. What can I say; I was a nervous kid.

Anyway, as I got a bit older, I stopped thinking of him as a boogeyman. We even started bonding a bit over the Orioles, in the way that all awkward young men bond with older male figures, relieved to find some sort of common ground. Back then, most O's games were on Home Team Sports, which was a premium cable channel at the time. My family had only basic cable, so Uncle Jerry had generously invited my dad and myself over to his apartment to watch the 2,131 festivities. By the time the big day rolled around, we learned that WJZ-13, a local channel, would be sharing the broadcast, as would ESPN. But we didn't want to offend my uncle, and we probably didn't want him to watch it alone in his modest bachelor pad, so we kept our word and joined him.

That game was straight out of Hollywood, and yet so much about it seemed genuine. The stadium - and the room - came unglued as Bobby Bonilla led off the fourth inning with a home run to put the O's ahead 2-1. It was pure bedlam as Cal stepped to the plate next and hit his own home run - the third straight game he'd gone deep! A half-inning later Damion Easley hit a lazy pop-up to second baseman Manny Alexander, making the game official. 46,272 spectators rose to their feet as one, cheering wildly. The number banners that had been hanging from the warehouse for the previous few months were changed one more time, 2,130 flipping over to 2,131.

The man of the hour sheepishly stepped out of the home dugout, acknowledging the fans with a few cursory waves and some mouthed "thank you"s. He tried to retreat to the dugout, intent on not bringing the game to a grinding halt. But the Camden Yards faithful wouldn't let up, coaxing the new Iron Man out of the dugout a few more times. Cal's teammates sensed that it would take a grand gesture to satisfy the throng, and finally Rafael Palmeiro and Bonilla physically pushed the shortstop out onto the field once more and urged him to take a stroll. Displaying a flair for the dramatic, #8 began jogging slowly down the right field line, taking the time to reach out and slap the hands of as many people as he could. He continued across the warning track, jumping up here and there to reach up the outfield fence and meet the fans who were hanging out of their seats to try to get to him. He eventually concluded his victory lap and the game resumed some 22 minutes after it had been stopped. Looking back on the emotionally overpowering scene, I think the most remarkable aspect may have been ESPN's coverage. Not only did they let it all unfold without a commercial break, but loudmouth broadcaster Chris Berman kept his trap shut the whole time. It would have been so easy for him to ruin the moment by spouting hackneyed catchphrases and waxing faux-poetic, but for possibly the only time in his career, he let the pictures do the talking.

So we know what the future held for Cal Ripken, Jr. after the defining moment of his playing career, but what does the future hold for this blog? Let's just say that I've got plenty of stories to tell, and I've barely skimmed the surface of my Orioles card collection. Unbelievably, I have yet to post a single Eddie Murray card. I also haven't gotten around to luminaries like Paul Richards, Hoyt Wilhelm, Gus Triandos, Mike Cuellar, John Lowenstein, Tippy Martinez, Ken Singleton...the list goes on and on. Then there are the oddballs, the Floyd Rayfords and Todd Frohwirths of the world. If you keep reading, I'll keep writing.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dave Johnson, 1990 Upper Deck #425

I wish I had been a baseball fan when Dave Johnson was still pitching. There have been a lot of major league baseball players from Baltimore, some of them among the all-time greats of the game (Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, and Al Kaline, most notably). But Dave Johnson was truly one of our own. He hailed from Middle River, mere miles from my own childhood home. He attended Overlea High School and Baltimore City Community College, and was not drafted by any team. The Pirates signed him as an amateur free agent in 1982. He pitched in their organization for seven years, getting a brief taste of the bright lights in 1987 at age 27. He was a mop-up guy, and not an impressive one at that; his thirteen hits allowed in six and one-third innings probably shortened his already-brief stay in Pittsburgh. Johnson was finally granted his freedom after a 1988 season spent entirely in the minors, signing with Houston in December. Three months later he was traded to his hometown Orioles just before the start of the new season; the rebuilding Birds had picked him up as insurance. That's where his legend begins.

I've talked about the wonders of the "Why Not?" O's of 1989, but I haven't gone into detail about Dave Johnson's role. He was recalled from AAA Rochester at the beginning of August to provide a fresh arm in a double header against Boston. He lasted into the seventh inning, but gave up five runs to wind up on the wrong end of a 6-2 decision. But a week later, he was given another shot, this time in front of his friends and family in Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. The result was right out of Damn Yankees, as the 29-year-old righthander with 13 major league innings under his belt scattered eight hits, going the distance for a 6-1 victory over the Twins. The win allowed the ragtag Birds to hold on to their slim two-game lead over AL East rival Toronto. His next start was another 6-1 complete-game victory at home; this time he held the Red Sox to six hits. After a rough outing in his fourth start, a 9-2 loss vs. Toronto, he rebounded for his third complete game in four starts at Memorial Stadium, a 4-2 win over the Brewers, who were also nipping at Baltimore's heels. The rest of Johnson's season was up-and-down, but before the year was out he would notch a fourth complete game, tough 3-0 loss to the White Sox. Despite starting just fourteen games, Dave's 4 complete games tied for the team lead with eighteen-game-winner Jeff Ballard.

The following season would prove to be Dave Johnson's only full major league campaign. It was a good one, as he led the O's in wins (13) and again tied for the lead in complete games (3). Once again, all of his CGs were in Baltimore; being so close to home just seemed to give him that extra push. Nearly two decades later, Dave's still a part of the action in Charm City. He helped instruct the team's pitchers during the most recent Spring Training, and he serves as a baseball analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and 105.7 WHFS.

During my childhood, I remember sitting in the waiting room at my dentist's office and seeing a glossy photo that hung on the bulletin board. It was a head shot of Dave Johnson in an Orioles uniform; he was a fellow patient. While I recall being somewhat impressed by this fact, it would have resonated with me much more if my love of baseball weren't still a few years away. It's the kind of thing that you don't spend much time thinking about, but I guess baseball players have to get their teeth cleaned too. As you can see above, Dave had a great smile to show for it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Kevin Millar, 2008 Topps #68

I hope you'll forgive me a little giddiness over the Orioles' surprise five-game win streak that has put them, however briefly, into first place. Baltimore has rarely been at the top of the AL East at any point in the season since 1998, so I am determined to enjoy this. I think the players are too, especially my namesake Mr. Millar. I've become a huge Kevin Millar fan since he arrived in Baltimore before the 2006 season, as his sense of humor and strong clubhouse character have injected some much-needed life and levity for the O's. Already this season, he has done the following:

1. Mocked former teammate Ryan Dempster's guarantee of a Cubs World Series win by making the same guarantee and talking trash about Dempster's lack of talent.

2. Taken cheeseball Baltimore Sun sports columnist and Southern Cal alumnus Peter Schmuck to task for his pick of USC to win the NCAA Tournament (the Trojans were knocked out in the first round).

3. Thrilled the fans in Camden Yards by reprising his act from last Opening Day, when he imitated Ray Lewis' pregame dance.

4. Responded to questions about the fans' rough reception for Aubrey Huff by saying it was "hilarious", and claiming that he was booing Huff as well.

5. Celebrated yesterday's win by cranking up the hokey 1980's "Orioles Magic" theme song in the clubhouse, which led to several other players banging their hands on a wooden table to the catchy beat.

This is the perfect kind of team for Kevin Millar. It's a young team with rock-bottom expectations, a team that Millar and his partners and crime can instill with a loose, carefree attitude. The Orioles are winning right now because they don't believe that they're as bad as everyone insists they are; you might even say that they don't know any better.

Just don't call them Idiots.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mike Boddicker, 1985 Topps #225

Thursday evening, I came home weary from an extra-long commute in miserable, rainy weather and found a self-addressed envelope waiting for me. The return address had a familiar name: Mike Boddicker. The card above was included in the envelope; it was my first foray into the world of TTM (Through the Mail) autographs. It had been about four weeks since I'd sent a brief letter, the card, and the SASE to Mike, not a bad turnaround. I'm thrilled to have an autograph of the last 20-game winner for the O's, a man who was instrumental in the World Series win twenty-five years ago.

I have a pretty good assortment of Mike Boddicker cards now, but I chose this one for a specific reason. It was the first card of his that I ever owned, a childhood relic that stood out even before I knew the first thing about baseball. You get used to seeing the same kinds of faces on baseball cards: awkward action shots with the faces contorted with exertion, blank confused stares, or pleasant bland smiles. But there was something mischievous playing across Mike's face in this shot. He was in mid-windup, but he knew something that the imaginary batter didn't. He was on top of his game, toying with the opposition. I'd like to think that Boddicker had to chuckle a bit when he opened his mail and saw the young, playful righthander smirking back at him.

No matter what he thought of it, the fact that he took the time to sign it and slip it back in the mail made my day.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Omar Daal, 2004 Topps #479

I've always found the sudden-death nature of extra-inning games to be especially hard on my nerves. With a string of horror show bullpens in recent memory, I sit on the edge of my seat as the latest questionable reliever works with no margin for error and somehow escapes trouble, only for the offense to sputter and send him (or a contemporary) back out to the mound for another inning. So it was in this game. Kerry Ligtenberg, B. J. Ryan, Jorge Julio, Willis Roberts, Buddy Groom, and even *gasp* Omar Daal kept the Phillies off of the scoreboard. Meanwhile, the punchless Bird bats never even came close to pushing across the winning tally. A single here, a walk there. Inning after inning, I found myself pleading...just one run. That's all they needed. You can score a single run accidentally with luck on your side. But the O's pitchers were using up all of the team's luck, wriggling out of two separate bases-loaded jams. So the game continued for ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen...fourteen innings??? That's right. There were two seventh-inning stretches.

My uncle was long-gone, but my father and I stayed behind. As the innings pushed on into the teens, I started feeling weak and numb in my extremities. I could barely stand. On a hunch, I took my long-empty commemorative plastic souvenir soda cup (commemorating the 1983 World Champion Orioles) to a water fountain between innings and filled it. As I drank voraciously, I almost immediately felt better. I'd sat out in the bleachers in on 95-degree afternoons, and never been worse for wear, but this game had dehydrated me. Some time between the fifteenth and sixteenth innings, Dad and I decided to head for the upper deck and make sure that my sister was still around. She was, and her nerves were in better shape than mine, though some overly enthusiastic Phillies fans in her section had been grating on her.

Meanwhile, Omar Daal was defying the odds, pitching two scoreless innings. This was the southpaw's first relief appearance of the season, and he had earned his position as the team's last resort by losing his last four starts, including a two-and-a-third inning, nine-run masterpiece in his previous start in Toronto. Hell, I was starting to feel sorry for the guy, and the chance of him grabbing an improbable win made me want the game to end even more. So under these bizarre circumstances, with my body and mind incredibly weary and the game plowing on well past midnight, I threw down the gauntlet.

It was the bottom of the sixteenth inning, with two outs and the bases distressingly empty. Who else but David Segui should stroll to the plate? This madness had to end. From my perch high above left field, I shouted in a deep, raw voice:

"Get a hit, Segui, or you'll never see your children again!"

There were a smattering of laughs around me. One man turned around grinning and said I was "harsh". I'm certain Segui didn't hear me, or at least I hope he didn't. Because if he truly cared about his kids, he surely wouldn't have struck out swinging on a 2-2 pitch. David was 1-7 in the game, and so we reached the seventeenth inning.

Omar Daal had used up all of his luck. Singles by Thome and Lieberthal put runners on the corners with one out for outfielder Jason Michaels, whose career high in home runs would be the ten he'd hit in 2004. I mention that because, on this day, he hit a three-run home run to triple each team's sixteen-inning run output. We'd seen enough. The three of us started the long walk out of the stadium, haunted by the cheers and taunts of the jubilant Phillies fans. Now it was my sister's turn to snap: "At least we don't live in PHILADELPHIA!", she barked. That's why I love her.

We would later find out that Luis Matos hit a solo home run in the Birds' last at bat, a symbolic and futile gesture. Too little, too late. 4-2, Phillies. Time of game: 5 hours, 41 minutes. Fifteen total pitchers used, thirty-eight players altogether. 531 pitches thrown to 137 batters in 34 half-innings. And three grouchy members of my family.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Vintage Fridays: Baltimore Orioles, 1957 Topps #251

This is one of the oldest cards I own; it features the 1956 Orioles, who were in just their third season of existence. They were already showing signs of improvement, winning 69 games and losing 85. This was a 12-game improvement over the previous year, but left the fledging Birds in a distant sixth place, far behind fifth-place Detroit. Still, there was plenty to love about the team. Catcher Gus Triandos set new team records in home runs (21) and RBI (88), left fielder Bob Nieman batted .322 in 114 games, and the pitching staff was led by Maryland native Ray Moore's 12 wins against just 7 losses. Three members of the '56 O's would eventually gain entrance to the Hall of Fame: veteran third baseman George Kell, utility player Dick Williams (who was just elected last January as a manager), and a nineteen-year-old named Brooks Robinson. The young third baseman did not make it into this team picture, but he had something to show for his 15 games - namely his first major league home run. By the following July, he would be in Baltimore to stay.

There are a lot of things to love about this battered, blurry old card. The design is great, with a photo-album kind of feel: the wooden frame is augmented by the name plate design at the bottom paired with the vintage baby-bird-on-ball logo. Not only are the team trainers and bat boys pictured (which just doesn't happen on today's team cards), they're identified on the card back. The bat boys are Young (front row left) and Diering (front row right). I'm going out on a limb to say that the latter bat boy is the son of outfielder Chuck Diering, who played the last 50 games of his nine-year career that season. Oddly enough, Chuck is not even in the team photo! Also on the card back are the single season franchise leaders, an odd mishmash of brand-new Orioles marks and turn-of-the-century St. Louis Browns records. The most remarkable thing about this card may be the listed dimensions of Memorial Stadium: 309 feet down the lines, and 450 feet to straightaway center! It's no wonder that the O's hit only 91 homers in 1956.

I've never really cared much about team cards, but this one serves at a pretty interesting time capsule now that I've stopped to take a closer look at it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

David Segui, 2002 Leaf #57

I've never been particularly fond of David Segui. I didn't have time to get attached to him in my youth; he was a member of the 1993 Orioles team that indoctrinated me into fandom. Then he was gone, replaced by the powerful and reliable Rafael Palmeiro, who became my favorite player. Segui bounced around the league, putting up pretty solid offensive numbers on a consistent basis and missing a small chunk of games each year to injury. Flash forward to 2000, when the 33-year-old first baseman played in a career-high 150 games and also reached personal bests in RBI (103), batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (.334/.380/.510). It was (surprise!) a contract year. What happened next?

Well, the Syd Thrift Orioles were desperate to make a splash and prop up a team that had bottomed out. They signed Segui to a laughable four-year contract that would pay him $7 million per year. I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that he totaled 193 games played over the span of that deal, although he apparently had plenty of time to introduce his impressionable young teammates to steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

In 2003, I had no idea that David Segui was the PED pipeline for the woebegone Birds. But I already had plenty of contempt for him, and it came spilling out early one Saturday morning during the longest baseball game I've ever endured.

The date was June 27, 2003 - at least it was when the game started. It was a balmy Friday night, 80 degrees at first pitch. I'd traveled to the game with my father and my teenage sister; my Dad and I had gotten a few extra tickets from his brother Phil and we be parted ways with my sister when we got to the park. She hunkered down in the upper reserve seats with her high school friends, taking advantage of the $5 Student Night promotion. Our seats were midway down the third base line; we weren't anywhere near the field, but we weren't exactly in the nosebleeds either. It was an interleague game against the Phillies, a rematch of the World Series that had ended in a Baltimore victory twenty years earlier. Though the O's were already cemented in fourth place in the AL East as usual, there was a buzz in the air, probably due to the scores of animated Phils fans that had made their way south for the weekend.

The Birds struck right away, taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first when Brian Roberts singled, stole second, and scored on a B. J. Surhoff double. The latter would be stranded at third, an unheeded event at the time. It would be a grim portent of things to come. Phillies starter Brandon Duckworth worked just that one inning, leaving with a minor injury in favor of Carlos Silva. I recall thinking to myself that the O's were in good shape, having already gotten into the other team's bullpen. Surely manager Larry Bowa would be tempted to stretch at least one tired pitcher out, and the Birds would reap the benefits. Not so; Melvin Mora's groundball to third base left the bases loaded in Silva's first inning of work. Meanwhile, the visitors broke through against Orioles righty Jason Johnson in the third on hits by Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu (Thome scored while Abreu was forced at third on a Mike Lieberthal grounder).

That third inning fielder's choice would represent the last run scored for a looong time. Improbably, Johnson would bear down, allowing just one runner to second base in his last five innings of work and leaving with a tough no-decision. The O's bats also went dead, as they managed just two singles and two walks (one intentional) against three Philly relievers in innings three through nine. Extra innings, one-all.

To be continued Saturday...after all, tomorrow is Vintage Friday.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

David Wells, 1997 Score #256

"All the fat guys watch me and say to their wives, 'See, there's a fat guy doing okay. Bring me another beer.'" - Mickey Lolich

I'd venture a guess that David Wells was a fan of Mickey Lolich in his formative years. Even though he's had his share of injuries in recent years, it's still pretty amazing that "Boomer" has been able to pitch into his forties while carrying so much weight. He's also surprisingly athletic for someone so large, as I've seen him spring off of the mound to field his position on balls hit in his vicinity.

I vaguely remember the game depicted in the above photo, as I believe it was a 1996 game in Arlington against the Rangers. I can't quite remember the occasion, but the two teams were wearing throwback uniforms. Rather than flashing back to the great American League O's teams of the 1960s and 1970s, on this date the club wore the threads of the 1930s and 1940s International League Orioles. During Major League Baseball's 53-year absence from Charm City, the minor-league O's were known for their enthusiastic fan base and consistently successful performances. The most famous Oriole of this era was Maryland native and eventual Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove. Babe Ruth was also an Oriole, but that was an earlier incarnation of the O's in a different league. Believe it or not, the IL Orioles were affiliated with the St. Louis Browns from 1949-1950. Three years later, the Browns would move to the city of their former farm team!

That is a really sharp uniform, very distinct from anything the big-league Birds have worn. With the birds-on-the-bat, it's reminiscent of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the orange stripes and upright bird on the cap are also eye-catching. It's worth noting that when the Orioles first arrived in Baltimore from St. Louis in 1954, Bowman tried to guesstimate the new uniforms on that year's baseball cards. The result looked something akin to the minor league design. Amusingly (or perhaps infuriatingly, for us English majors), some of the cards showed the team insignia with an apostrophe in "Oriole's".

It's a rare treat to see an MLB team acknowledge a forgotten facet of their hometown baseball history like this. If you're interested in owning some IL Orioles gear, you can go here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rick Dempsey, 1981 Fleer #177

Who better to ring in April Fools' Day than the Orioles' own Clown Prince? Friday night I caught a replay of the final game played in Memorial Stadium on MASN's Orioles Classics. I'd only seen clips and pieces of the postgame ceremony before, so it was a transfixing experience to witness the whole scene unfold.

The Orioles did a fantastic job of keeping their plans close to the vest. After home plate was dug up to be transported to Camden Yards, the field was cleared and some dramatic, "Field of Dreams"-type music began to emanate from the PA system. A familiar face appeared at the foot of the home dugout in a full vintage Orioles uniform with #5 on the back. As Brooks Robinson jogged out to rousing applause, he was already welling up with tears. He took his rightful place at third base, exhibiting all of the same mannerisms he had for twenty-three years. He was followed by #20, as Frank Robinson loped out to right field one more time. Next came Jim Palmer, the handsome righthander who had won 268 games in orange and black. As he stood on the mound, he too was crying. This really affected me; for some reason, I didn't expect that much emotion out of the polished and suave Palmer.

One by one, and sometimes two at a time, the players kept coming. No introductions were given; none were necessary. It seemed like they'd gotten every player in Oriole history to return and suit up; there was Boog Powell, soaking in one more "BOOOOOOG!" chant. Doug DeCinces strolled out to third base and shook the hand of the man who had moved aside for him, Brooksie. Davey Johnson, Jim Gentile, Bobby Grich. Mike Cuellar, Milt Pappas, even Dennis Martinez, who was still an active player in Montreal. Some of the very first Orioles, guys like Bob Boyd, Joe Ginsberg, and George Zuverink.

It was sobering and almost surreal to recognize several old heroes that have passed away in the seventeen years since that October day in 1991: Mark Belanger, Pat Dobson, Dave McNally, Steve Barber, Elrod Hendricks, Cal Ripken, Sr., and certainly others. It truly was like seeing the old White Sox players emerge from the cornfield as Kevin Costner looked on in amazement.

The final man out of the dugout was Earl Weaver; as the dozens of Baltimore's household names moved away from their old positions and formed a circle around the infield for a 360-degree photograph, the legendary O's manager wandered over to the empty hole where home plate had just been uprooted and kicked at the dirt for old times' sake. As the ceremony came to an end, the players milled about; old friends and teammates reminiscing and current, younger players like Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes introducing themselves to their predecessors. Scott Garceau and Keith Mills sat in the TV booth and observed that none of these men seemed like they wanted to leave.

It was abundantly clear that Rick Dempsey didn't want to go. The "Dipper", who had spent 12 seasons as a defensive specialist behind the plate in Baltimore and had been embraced by the city and its fans for his infectious enthusiasm and offbeat antics, wandered over to the third base side of the field and led one more crowd cheer, contorting his body to spell "O! R! I! O! L! E! S!". He reappeared a few moments later, his jersey stuffed with padding, and brought his famous rain delay pantomime out of mothballs. He stood in the batters' box, mimicked a mighty swing of a bat, and took off around the bases, imitating Babe Ruth's iconic home run trot. As he came down the third base line, a mob of former Birds dissipated just enough for him to belly flop dramatically home. The crowd, which had been on its feet and in full throat through it all, roared their approval.

There may be a time and a place to play the fool. But on a day when many were struggling to say goodbye to their home away from home, a building and an atmosphere rich with nearly forty years of baseball history, Rick Dempsey left them laughing.