Steal a Base

Scan 130

Thanks to the amazing Mookie Betts, America didn’t have to wait long for Taco Bell’s Steal a Base, Steal a Taco promotion to be realized. Swiping second base off of Clayton Kershaw in the top of the first in Game 1 s(t)ealed the deal. Free Doritos Locos Tacos for all his American friends! I’m not of fan of their food, so I won’t be taking Taco Bell up on the offer- but I do commend the fast-food giant for hooking up with MLB for such a promotion. What’s even better, Topps has partnered with Taco Bell for a limited edition Steal a Base, Steal a Taco Topps Now trading card set. Great idea, but unless you’re in the Los Angeles or Boston area, you’ll have to buy the cards on the secondary market. Expect to pay a premium- at least at first.

Four decades before Taco Bell first offered food for a stolen base, there was a different offer for stolen bases. A much sweeter offer.

It all started when he was in the California League with the Angles’ Class-A team in Salinas, where he would steal 68 bases during the 1976 season. A fan of the team discovered that young second baseman Julio Cruz had an affection for cheesecake and presented the prospect with one, each time he swiped a bag. A prodigious theft artist, Cruz received more than his fair share of the desert, but apparently he wasn’t very excited about sharing with double-play partner (and future Mariners teammate), Jim Anderson. Arguments ensued over division of the cake.

At some point during his rookie season, the Seattle Times referenced Julio’s love for cheesecake and a young woman by the name of Louise Kiss delivered one to the speedy second baseman. The next spring, Times columnist and The Sporting News contributor Hy Zimmerman wrote that a Seattle woman (probably Kiss*) offered Cruz one cheesecake for each stolen base. Recognizing that his goal of 50 stolen bases for the 1978 season was attainable, Cruz was determined to abstain from indulging himself in those sweet rewards. “No more cheesecake,” he confessed to Zimmerman. ” I want to hold my weight down.”

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If there is a piece of cardboard that better captures Julio’s game, I have yet to see it. His was built on speed and I love that Topps chose this photo for the rookie’s first major league card. The beautiful, blue road uniform only adds to the brilliance of card #687.

 

*Kiss had been mentioned by name in the 1977 Sporting News article-but not the one from 1978. A Google search revealed that the Seattle-area woman once owned a desert shop before going into the catering business.

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Card Stock

Scan 98

It’s a damn shame that team-issued sets are mostly a thing of the past. Not only were they a great resource for players who might have been overlooked by the major card manufacturers, but many also included the now-extinct coaches card(s). This injustice became more evident to me as I was taking stock of my all-time roster project and noticed I have exactly one card of today’s subject. And because that card is shared with the rest of the coaching staff, I decided to do something about it: I took an image of a team-issued card off the internet, found some card stock at work that I thought would do the job and boom- I now have a replica of West Stock’s 1979 Seattle Mariners Postcard. I would love to have an original (not only of Stock, but the rest of the cards issued during the team’s infancy) but they are difficult to find and can command premium prices.

The decision to leave a club that had dominated the ‘70s for an expansion team might have been a difficult one for most men- but not Wes Stock.

Stock, who had been the pitching coach for the Oakland Athletics since the 1973 season, had seen, as The Sporting News called it, an ‘exodus’ take place within the organization. This flight from the Bay area was substantial for a team coming off a 2nd-place finish during the 1976 season (2.5 games behind A.L. West winners, the Kansas City Royals): seven players left as free-agents during the offseason- and that doesn’t include Reggie Jackson or Ken Holtzman, both of whom were traded to Baltimore at the onset of the 1976 season. But it wasn’t the roster turnover the team was about to undergo that led to Stock leaving for less-than greener pastures. It was a chance to go back home.

In this case, “home” was the Pudget Sound area.

The opportunity to go home actually came eight years earlier, when Wes, then a roving minor league pitching instructor for the New York Mets, was offered the position of pitching coach for the second-year Seattle Pilots. The homecoming never materialized, however, as the Pilots were sold to Milwaukee used car salesman Bud Selig, who would move the team to the Midwest just days before the start of the 1970 season.

The move must have been a disappointment for Stock, who was initially hesitant in taking the Pilots job- and only did so after Whitey Herzog convinced him to accept the offer. Nevertheless, Wes stayed in Beertown for three seasons before moving on to the World Champion Oakland Athletics for the 1973 season. While in Oakland, Wes inherited a staff that included Jim Hunter, Vida Blue, the aforementioned Ken Hultzman, John ‘Blue Moon’ Odom and Rollie Fingers. The group was quite a contrast to the collection of ragtag has-beens, never-weres and victims of the numbers-game that Stock would assemble his first season in the Pacific Northwest.

With the Mariners looking to build their foundation on team speed and young pitching, Stock knew the importance of bringing the younger arms along slowly. “The big danger in the early going is the tendency for the younger pitchers to throw too hard,” he said that first spring. Wes knew the temptation for the “greener ones,” as he called them, would be to try to impress he and assistant Mel Stottlemyer- and it was their responsibility to make sure that didn’t happen. An optimist, Stock believed the inexperienced staff only needed an opportunity to develop- even going so far as to invoke the name of a certain rookie sensation from the previous season. Had anyone heard of Mark Fidrych prior to the 1976 season, he asked rhetorically. “It is opportunity that makes stars,” the coach would wax philosophical.

After having time to assess the pitching staff once they reported to spring training, Wes was even more optimistic, being quick to point out how the Mariners pitchers were (physically) the biggest that he had ever seen. Three of the possible starters (Glenn Abbott, Frank MacCormack and Gary Wheeler) stood 6’3” or taller. He also couldn’t stop singing the praises of many of the arms in camp. Even Dodgers scout Charlie Metro came away impressed. “There are some very good arms in this camp,” the late MLB player and manager would tell The Sporting News.

Once the season began the pitching staff was very much like a ship at sea. There would be times when the waters raged, the wind- howling; and then, a calming. Injuries took their toll early in the schedule, as two of the most promising arms (Dick Pole- rib cage; Frank MacCormack- shoulder) spent time on the disabled list. Enrique Romo (their best reliever) pitched well, but was pitching through a hamstring injury. With a thin starting rotation, the bullpen started bearing a heavier load. The team was down to just one lefty- not ideal as they embarked on a trip to Yankee Stadium. By the time the starting rotation was getting healthy and starters were going deeper into the games, the pen began to unravel. The staff, which the organization thought would be a strength, did not live up to expectations. Nor would it in the coming years.

Lauded by many inside (and outside) the organization for having as talented a group of pitchers of any American League team, Seattle constantly found itself at or near the bottom of the league in just about every pitching category. And not just during its expansion season; it would plague the team throughout Stock’s tenure.

Wes’ final season as Seattle’s pitching coach came in 1981, the “Split-Season,” and would present yet more difficulties. The team entered the season with the second youngest rotation in baseball, with the average age of the five starters at just 24 years and 7 months old. As far as major-league experience, they were pretty green, as well, with an average of just 1 year, 111 days of service-time.

Working with the youngest staff he had ever coached, Stock called the experience “a challenge.” “You have to do a lot more teaching and you have to be patient with them. You tell them every time they do something wrong, but it is not because you are finding fault. You know they don’t have the experience and aren’t going to be perfect. But you push them to make them feel more confident. You do it because you want them to get better.”

That Maury Wills returned as manager in ’81, having taken over the job after the team fired Darrell Johnson on August 3, 1980, only exacerbated the situation. Though Wills would get canned in May, working under the inept manager became what Stock would refer to as a “chore.” The joy of the game would return under Wills’ replacement, Rene Lachemann.

Just over one month in to Lachemann’s captaincy, the player’s union staged the first mid-season strike in the history of major league baseball. While it would be one of the darkest periods in the history of the sport, the time off afforded Wes something he had not had much of previously: time to spend with his family. It also gave him a taste of the retirement from the game he would soon enjoy, however briefly. At the end of the season, the Washington native would announce his retirement.

“Everybody tells me I’ll never be able to walk away from [the game],” Stock told Tracy Ringolsby of his decision. “But I’m looking forward to the challenge.” With a job lined up in the construction business, Wes still spoke of his desire to remain connected to the game by attending games at the concrete mausoleum known as the Kingdom. And, should his new employer permit it, to work in some part-time capacity as a pitching instructor.

Stock’s return to the game saw him in the broadcast booth for select games during the 1982 and 1983 seasons, providing color commentary alongside Rick Rizzs and Dave Niehaus for KSTW, the independent television station that broadcasted Mariners and Sonics games. Following his brief career in broadcasting, Wes returned to Oakland, where he would serve as pitching coach from 1984-1986. After the arrival of Tony LaRussa in 1986, Wes found himself back in the minor leagues for the next eight seasons, retiring from the game for good following the 1994 season.

Right in the Nuts

Scan 97

I saw a meme on Facebook recently that reminded me of the inscription a girl wrote in my senior-year high school yearbook. “Don’t forget me!” she implored. The only thing is, there wasn’t really anything to remember her by. My only recollection of her was that night some friends and I left a dance and she ended up catching a ride with us- and her having to sit on my lap due to the car being packed. Nothing happened, so there wasn’t *that* to remember her by. She was just a sophomore who happened to be a cheerleader. Hell, she wasn’t even a friend of any of the guys I was with that night. This was late 1986 or early 1987, only two years after The Breakfast Club’s release- so maybe that yearbook thing was a common inscription for her to use. Anyway, years later (many years, in fact), she requested my friendship on Facebook. Okay, that’s not so odd. What was odd, however, was that about a week later my mom asked me about this girl woman. Come to find out she requested friendship from my mother, who didn’t know her from Eve. I certainly won’t forget her now.

That request (don’t forget me) comes from an innate human desire to remember and to be remembered after we’ve passed on from this world. We memorialize those we love and respect (and sometimes do these things for ourselves) through slabs of granite or some other material. Headstones, statues, monuments recognizing those who perished in a terrorist attack- even little pieces of cardboard to remember our heroes.

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As a collector, I find myself drawn to the “all-time roster”-type of a collection, in which I try to have at least one card of every player to have worn my team’s uniform. While it’s easy to remember the Ken Griffey’s of the world, it’s far more difficult to remember the Chris Herrmann’s of the world. But preserve their name (and image) on cardboard and you have something to remember them by. Only don’t allow fire or flood near your collection.

Being a roster-project collector, I was torn on purchasing today’s card. After all, buying a Topps Now card will set you back, at the minimum, at least $5- give or take a few cents. And a common like Chris Herrmann is the last thing I want to spend five bucks on. It’s just that I don’t know if he’ll even be on the roster next year, let alone appear in the upcoming Topps Update set. Leaving nothing to chance, I hit the “buy it now” button on eBay.

I don’t regret it. The day I receive the card is also the day Topps releases its checklist for Update- and no, there is no Chris Herrmann card anywhere to be found. Score one for the all-time roster project.

Now is the perfect medium for the card of the common man. After all, it’s not just a face and a name I want; it helps to remember someone, by having something to remember them by. In this case, an event. So instead of having a flagship card of some guy who has two ‘r’s and two ‘n’s in his name, I now have a card of a guy who kicked the A’s right in the nuts. Not only did Chris’ pinch-hit homer beat Oakland (the team who overtook the Mariners for the final playoff spot), but it gave the Astros the division title. The A’s were left to a one-game play-in game (“wild card.” Playoffs, my ass) against New York and lost.

If only Topps had played it’s cards right, we might have had another worthwhile Now card of Herrmann…

In one single at-bat against Texas on August 7th, Chris tried his hardest to neuter everyone except the opponent.

With the count 1-2 in the top of the ninth, Herrmann smoked a foul ball that hit Cameron Maybin (who was in the on-deck circle) right in the nuts. Or hips. Or thigh. Where ever it hit, it was too close for comfort for the lanky outfielder, who could only smile (a pretty good indication that the liner didn’t strike him in the jewels). Then, on the very next pitch, Herrmann fouled off another pitch- this one bouncing off of home plate and hitting home plate umpire Adam Hamari not in the ball bag, but in the ballsack.

Apparently satisfied, Chris drove the next pitch to left field and pulled up to second base with what Grant Brisbane of SBNation called his “second two-bagger of the the at-bat.”

Now that’s truly a moment to remember.

Scrap Iron

Scan 96

Game One of the NLCS is airing on FS1- but I’m not watching. It’s Friday night, which in our house means movie night. At some point during the movie I sneak a peak at Twitter, to get an update on the game, and I see something about catcher’s interference. I then check my email and see something in my inbox from my work email address: Stinson, reads the subject line. It contains a few ideas for something I haven’t done in a few months: post something on the blog.

Taken with the 13th overall pick in the January phase of the 1966 amateur draft (and drafted ahead of Tom Seaver, who was taken 20th overall), Bob Stinson was assigned to rookie ball in Ogden, Utah to begin his professional career. It was there in the Pioneer League where he earned the nickname Scrap Iron after running into an outfield wall while pursuing a fly ball. The incident left him with a broken jaw, but it wouldn’t prevent him from playing. Released from the hospital the next day, Stinson arrived at the ballpark that night and went 3-4 with a home run and two doubles.

The steadfastness Bob exhibited in not being deterred by a broken jaw would later be a source of frustration for one of the worlds’s most well-known baseball card collectors, Keith Olbermann. The polarizing commentator, who wrote the player bios on the back of the 1976 SSPC cards, has been attempting to complete a set with each card signed by its subject. The only player he has not- cannot- get to sign is Stinson, who refuses to sign his cards from the unlicensed set. Bob’s not trying to be difficult, its just that he is a man of principles and doesn’t think that its right that the major league players association never received any money from the set.

My favorite card of Stinson comes from the 1980 Topps set. Appearing on card #583, Bob is shown in his catcher’s gear, glove tucked under his right arm while he’s holding his mask with his right hand. Also of note is a facsimile of the autograph so desired by Olbermann. As great as the front of the card is, it’s the back of the card that is particularly interesting. Like many Topps cards from the era, a cartoon is featured on the back of Bob’s card, with an interesting fact: in 1978, he set what at the time was the American League record for number of times reaching base in a season due to catcher interference, with 6. Not noted on the card is the fact that Stinson was also awarded first base due to CI twice in one game (something that only four other men in the past 50 years can boast). Had Bob been credited with an at-bat for the six times he was awarded first base (CI only counts as a plate appearance), his OBP would have been ten points higher than it was for the season.