Empty Calories

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The past couple of weeks have been busy for former Mariners who have entered the coaching ranks. Another one was in the news on Friday, as the Angels promoted minor league hitting coordinator Jeremy Reed to major league hitting coach…

In her younger years, our daughter had a tendency to request one thing from my wife before her weekly trip to the grocery store (or of me, should I make a trip to the market): Lunchables.

Unless you’re living in an alternate universe, you’re at least familiar with Lunchables, the prepackaged lunch containing processed meat and cheese, crackers, artificially flavored fruit drink and desert! It’s a convenience “food” loaded with saturated fat, sodium and sugar, conceived by marketing genius Bob Drane, who at the time was VP of new business strategy and development for Oscar Mayer.

It was hard to say no to our daughter because she was such a picky eater when she was younger (took after her old man). And when you have a picky eater and they find something they like, as a parent, you’re relieved and are susceptible to giving in to their wishes- no matter how unhealthy the food might be. In her mind, the lunch tray was a perfectly healthy lunch choice. But we knew better and would buy them only sparingly.

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If I had been collecting around that time (2004/2005-ish), I would have, without a doubt, been going to card shows, the Beckett Marketplace website and eBay to buy (or trade for) Jeremy Reed cards. Named the best pure hitter and base runner in the Mountain West Conference, where he played for Long Beach State, Reed had been drafted 59th overall in the 2002 draft by the Chicago White Sox, and reminded me a lot of one of my favorite players at the time, Mark Kotsay.

Baseball America would later go on to name Reed the top prospect in the Southern League (AA) following the 2003 campaign, a season in which he hit .409/.474/.591 in 242 at-bats along with 7 HR, a 29/19 BB/K ratio and 18 stolen bases. Fangraphs had him ranked as the #4 prospect in all of baseball following that season. Thus, when, on June 27, 2004, the Mariners traded Freddy Garcia and Ben Davis to the south side for Reed, Mike Morse and Miguel Olivo, Mariners fans had reason to be excited. That excitement only increased after a September call-up saw Reed hit .397/.470/.466 (with 7 walks vs 4 k’s) in 66 plate appearances. At this point, Jeremy Reed looked like a pretty healthy option for the franchise going in to the 2005 season.

But because this is the Mariners we’re talking about, any excitement the fans had about Jeremy Reed was extinguished following a rookie season in which he compiled a 2.0 WAR (Baseball Reference). A sophomore slump ensued, the result of JR forsaking the level swing that made him a line-drive hitter and, instead, employing an uppercut. As a result, Reed watched his strikeout totals rise; his walks, diminished. This new approach at the plate only intensified the struggles he already had against left-handed pitching, as he went 0-23 against southpaws during the 2006 season. And while Jeremy’s slugging percentage was up from the previous season, his OBP and OPS dropped significantly. Even his base running- a strength in college and the minors- was a mess (17 steals/ 15 caught stealing in his first three major league seasons). A broken thumb in July (mercifully) ended Reed’s sophomore season and, effectively, his career in Seattle.

With his long list of ingredients, I thought Jeremy would be a well-balanced player and, like so many others, I really thought he would help the Mariners eat Chicago’s lunch. Turns out the player we received in the trade contained nothing but empty calories.

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Steal a Base

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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.

Card Stock

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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

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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

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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.

Card Porn

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The name. The trident. A bad airbrush job. That look that penetrates the soul. The mustache. It’s a sexy card, no doubt.

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The recent release of 2018 Stadium Club baseball brought with it a lot of discussion on Twitter- some of which seemed to be centered on the question of why can’t every release feature the great kind of photo selections as those used in TSC. Topps has gotten lazy, the thinking goes. Collectors have gotten tired of action photos and want to spice things up with a little variety.

I get it. The photos found in flagship tend to get a little stale and Stadium Club photos tend to be… sexy. And collector’s love sexy.

But have products like Stadium Club become porn for the collector?

Experts almost universally agree that pornography affects (among many things) the way men view women, how it distorts our idea of beauty. We begin to set our standards so high that our expectations become unrealistic. We forget that that women on those pages are the product of (formerly, airbrushing) photoshop; enhanced for our pleasure.

Look, I like variety in the photos found on my cardboard but the last thing I want to see is Topps flagship to become Stadium Club. Would I like to see more variety? Absolutely. But traditionally the set has been more the evening newspaper than Playboy.

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I started an Instagram account a few months back, thinking I would use it to post content that wasn’t put up on the blog. So I started to follow some card-related accounts and soon discovered that Instagram is porn for collectors. It seemed like every account I was following was showing me their hits and made my modest little collection look rather boring.

It also made me realize I’m glad that Dick Pole pitched in the 70s and not today.

Lemmy Tell ya: He’s the Ace of Spades

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“If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man, you win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me. The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say, I don’t share your greed, the only card I need is the ace of spades.” Motorhead’s Ace of Spades

Ten years before the U.S. Playing Card Company release its 1990 Major League All-Stars boxed set, Motörhead, one of the most influential rock bands to come out of England, released its fourth studio album. The record, titled Ace of Spades, featured a title track that would become the band’s signature tune. Using poker as a metaphor and a long list of cliches for the lyrics, the tune perfectly summarized frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s penchant for fast living.

Randy Johnson, the man they called the Big Unit, didn’t have that insatiable thirst for self-destruction (at least not to my knowledge), but while on the mound he did exude, note-for-note and beat-for-beat, the band’s music. Johnson was the perfect embodiment of Motorhead’s intensity, ferocity, anger, power and speed. If Lemmy’s pitch for life was marked by recklessness, Randy Johnson’s pitching was marked by wildness- or at least early on in his career.

Still a very raw talent when the Montreal Expos traded him to the Pacific Northwest, the 6’10” lefty wasn’t even the centerpiece of the May, 1989 trade that sent Mariners’ All-Star ace Mark Langston north of the border. While Johnson had the highest ceiling of the return, the two other prospects acquired, Brian Holman and Gene Harris, were considered the safer prospects. If Johnson hadn’t been so wild and erratic early in his career, perhaps the Expos would not have traded the lefty.

The trade was a gamble for 32 year-old Expos GM Dave Dombrowski, whose first three seasons as Montreal GM saw him make 23 trades involving 62 players. Sure, he was sending away talent, but the risk Dombrowski faced was acquiring a pitcher who was going to be a free-agent at the end of the ‘89 season- and Montreal was not exactly a popular destination for free-agents. But he really had no choice. The team was in fourth place and number 4 starter Pascual Perez started the season 0-7 after spending most of the spring in drug rehab.

“No free-agent will come here. Almost every no-trade provision includes Montreal. That puts us in a big competitive disadvantage.” Expos manager Buck Rodgers, in the July 31, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated

Langston lived up to the Ace billing- accumulating a 4.9 WAR while going 12-9 in 24 games, with a 2.39 ERA. The lefty registered 6 complete games, 4 shutouts and 175 strikeouts in 176.2 innings. However, after sitting at 17 games over .500 on July 31st, the team would go into a tailspin and finish the season at 81-81 (they had also been at .500 at the time of the trade)- good for 4th in the NL East.

Dombroski’s gamble didn’t pay off in the long run, as Mark signed with the Angels in the offseason. The gamble did payoff for the Mariners, though. It took a few years, but Randy Johnson became the ace that the team lost when it traded Langston.

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A Brick in the Wall

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I wanted very badly to name this post Another Brick in the Wall, but to do so would be disingenuous; this is the only card of Brick Smith that I own. It also happens to be his only major league card and, thus, the only Brick in my “Wall of Mariners.”

Changing the format of the blog from featuring trades and purchases (Maildays!!) to anecdotal pieces about the players to have donned the Seattle uniform has been difficult with players like Smith. The former first baseman’s MLB career consisted of just 20 plate appearances over 2 seasons (’86, ’87) and there wasn’t anything of significance to report. So in cases like this, I rely on just plain dumb luck. And I’m feeling pretty lucky about now.

Knowing there wasn’t a lot out there about Smith, I resorted to checking out his Wikipedia page, where I came across this:

Could it be? An educational reference for something I so desperately wanted to tie in with the Pink Floyd classic! Is this some type of protest (one that falls short of a choir of school children singing, ‘we don’t need no education. We don’t need no thought control”)?

The link referenced in the 7th grader’s attempt at… oh, how I wish I could say it was dark sarcasm… complaining about the difficulty of the class was, in fact, a dead link. However, I eventually found a Providence School and lo-and-behold, there was a reference to a Brick Smith, assistant baseball coach for 20+ years. No mentioning of him as a teacher.

Unfortunately, Brick’s card didn’t scan so well. But then it dawned on me that even this misfortunate event played into the whole Another Brick in the Wall theme. If you’ve ever seen The Wall, then you remember the scene featuring the protest song, and the faceless masks worn by the children…and this scan fits perfectly with that. It’s like a card of a faceless player.


Roger Waters drew lyrical inspiration from his experience in the Cambridge schools he attended as a youth and created Pink Floyd’s iconic Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2. Instead of inspiring kids, Waters found the educational system there to be oppressive. “The same who are susceptible to bullying from other kids are also susceptible to bullying by the teachers,” the former Floyd leader is quoted as saying.

Arbitration

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Sometimes I wonder if I don’t need an arbiter to settle the disputes taking place inside this collector’s head.

Now before you implore me to see my doctor and get back on my meds, I want to assure you there’s nothing wrong with me. Nothing that a doctor can cure, anyway.

Like many in the hobby, I struggle to decide which (team) sets are worth adding to my collection. There are just too many products over the past 30 years to even think about trying to collect them all- and yet I have found myself investing time, money and space while trying to keep up with the Jones’ on way more sets than I should (most of which I don’t even like). But the time has come to draw a line in the sand and settle these disputes once and for all- and I’ve been able to resolve them without any outside help.

Jim Todd, on the other hand, needed a third party after not being able to come to an agreement with the Mariners on his salary following the 1978 season. Todd, coming off his third consecutive poor season, was offered $80,000 for the ’79 season- the same amount he played for in 1978. Convinced he was worth 100,000, he filed for arbitration but was put on waivers and then released before the hearing; Oakland then signed him as a free-agent three weeks after his release.

Jim was even worse in ’79, which turned out to be his worst- and last- season in the majors.

As bad as the Mariners looked during the whole process, they did offer up an excuse: the team was negotiating with the pitcher prior to the arrival of new team president and CEO Dan O’Brien. Once O’Brien arrived in mid-January, the team began to re-evaluate some of its players, according to then-GM Lou Gorman.