Retro Jays Cards

I go to a bunch of Jays games. Each time, I empty my loose change to get random retro Blue Jay baseball cards from the vending machine. I also have plenty of boxes from my childhood. When I was a kid I remember these cards were some of my most prized possessions. Now they are 25 cents.

Check out a Random Card

Duane Ward, 1988 Topps, #696

I recently read “It’s What’s Inside the Lines That Counts” which is one of former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent’s collections of stories from ex-players. They are done in the oral history style of the classic Lawrence Ritter book “The Glory of Their Times.”

One of the players interviewed was Cal Ripken Jr. and when the topic turned to pitchers he hated to face I was a little surprised at the first name he mentioned.

“The guys that bothered me were the guys that had natural sinkers that ran in, sinker-slider types. Duane Ward comes to mind really quickly.”

I loved Duane Ward and think he is still quite underrated and lives a little in Tom Henke’s shadow, but even I was surprised to see him at the top of the list of pitchers Cal Ripken Jr. feared.

So I decided to do a quick check of their career numbers and Ripken actually hit Duane Ward pretty damn well posting a .300/.364/.450 slash line in 22 plate appearances. (Everyone whisper “small sample size” three times under their breath and we can move on.) Meanwhile, against long time Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb? In 71 plate appearances .224/.268/.328. Maybe Ripken blacked the terror of Stieb from his memory.

Or maybe Ward comes to mind because he was at the centre of one of Ripken’s most significant career moments. It was July 27, 1993 and it would end up being the last time the two would ever compete against each other.

It would still be two years before Ripken would ultimately break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak, but the record was on a lot of people’s minds because his wife was in the final weeks of pregnancy midway through the season. Speculation was running rampant that Ripken would end the streak to be present at the birth of his son. Ripken himself said he wanted to be there no matter what, but as he talked with his wife he was having doubts saying he did not want his son to be labelled as “responsible” for the streak ending. 

(Side note: WTF? What kind of awful human being would feel anything other than understanding, appreciation and celebration for someone choosing to be there for his wife and child and…oh right we are still having a debate on players taking parental leave in 2014. Never mind. We are all doomed.)

“It worked out in sort of a dumb-luck way. My boy was really big. He was nine pounds and he was still a couple of weeks early. The doctor wanted to get him out. And it just so happened that there was an off-day right in between Minnesota and Toronto. I flew in for the birth of my son, then flew on, and hit a home run off one of the hardest guys I hit a home run off, Duane Ward. I hit a home run to celebrate his birthday. So, I don’t know what I’ve done, but I can only tell you it was important for me to be there for the birth of my son.”

The home run was the only one Ripken ever hit off Ward, but the Blue Jays still held on to win the game 6-5.

Ron Fairly, 1978 Topps, #85

Last week I attended a launch event for Jonah Keri’s excellent new book on the Montreal Expos (which everyone should buy) that included a discussion between Jonah and Steve Simmons, columnist for the Toronto Sun. Now I will admit to some skepticism, if not outright hostility, to a baseball discussion involving Steve Simmons, but I was pleasantly surprised. Simmons was candid, engaging and had great stories about the early years of the Expos and the glory years of the Blue Jays – including some blistering words about Joe Carter which I won’t go into, but may be worth a post on their own. I may not agree with much of Simmons’ analysis of baseball lately, but there is no denying he has plenty of experience covering the game and a window into the behind the scenes dynamic of players and managers.

When a question was asked about the impact of the Blue Jays arrival on the Expos fan base, Simmons brought up Ron Fairly as a player who played an important role as someone former Expos fans could connect with on the new team, making him something of the face of a new franchise for much of the country. Given the nature of his arrival in Montreal in the late 60’s it is a rather surprising role for him.

On the one hand, Fairly had family connections in Canada going back to his father Carl, who was a minor leaguer who played part of his career for Toronto in the International League. Ron’s brother Rusty, also played football briefly in Canada signing as a quarterback for the Calgary Stampeders after a star run with the University of Denver. Unfortunately an injury ended his career after just one season.

However, Ron Fairly was rather pissed off in 1969 when informed he was traded to Montreal with Paul Popovich for Manny Mota and a disgruntled Maury Wills.  After 12 years and three World Series titles with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the California raised veteran took a look at his destination and didn’t like what he saw.

“I hated it. I didn’t like any part of it,” Fairly declared emphatically. “I hated the weather and I hated playing for a last place team. In 1970 our stated goal was to win 70 in ’70. In other words, we were playing not to lose 100 games and would be happy losing 90 games. With the Dodgers I went into every game expecting to win, even when we were down in 1967 and 1968. That couldn’t be the case in Montreal. When I showed my four-year-old son, Mike, where I would be playing (on a map) after the trade he looked at me sadly and asked, ‘Does this mean I don’t have a daddy anymore?’”

Despite his hesitation, Montreal rejuvenated his career and he was a valuable veteran presence on a team looking for consistency and identity. In 1973 he made his first All Star appearance and in most of six seasons with Montreal he put up good numbers, slugging.440 with an OPS+ of 128 but by the end was losing playing time and ended up being dealt to St. Louis after the 1974 season.

Jump to 1977 and another Canadian team in their inaugural season. Before spring training gets underway the Blue Jays send a minor leaguer and some cash to Oakland for the veteran Fairly and once again, it proves good for his career. In a mostly DH role, he slugged .465 and made his second All Star appearance, becoming the only player in MLB history to represent both Canadian teams at the midsummer classic.

But Fairly’s time in Toronto was brief as he was traded to the Angels after one year for Pat Kelly and Butch Alberts. He played one more season before retiring at age 40. He went to be a broadcaster for the Angels, Giants, and most notably the Mariners, for close to 30 years.

Bonus Ron Fairly content (As if you needed anything beyond those luscious sideburns)this awesome clip of Bob Gibson discussing Fairly’s ability to hit the Hall of Famer, and Gibson’s retaliation.

Sil Campusano, 1989 Upper Deck, #45

Sil Campusano was prospect porn before we really knew what kind of barely MLB legal age smut was out there. The toolsy outfielder was signed by the late, great Epy Guerrero who found him sleeping on a dirt floor in a run down house with a caved in roof following a hurricane. Guerrero arranged to get him a quick $3,500 signing bonus so his family could, literally, put a roof over their heads.

Unfortunately, Campusano never quite put it together in the big leagues, despite being given every opportunity. Including being front and centre in the infamous late 80’s outfield controversy as they tried to move George Bell to the DH slot. Campusano’s performance could never force their hand. He just never showed he deserved the playing time.

 Kyle Matte has a great piece up at Drunk Jays Fans today on the team’s history with prospects and it includes this perfect summary of Campusano’s hype and disappointment:

Considering he was labelled the Blue Jays number one prospect for three consecutive years – ranking above players like Kelly Gruber and David Wells – you’d think Campusano would have an illustrious career to his name some 25 years later. That’s unfortunately not the case, as Sil managed just 288 plate appearances across parts of three Major League seasons, producing a grand total of 0.0 WAR.

He was left unprotected after the 1989 season and the Phillies grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft. Seems fair, the Jays got George Bell in the Rule 5 at the start of the decade and Philly gets Campusano at the end of it. Good deal, right?

Don Cooper, 1983 Syracuse Chiefs team set, #6

Before he became the magical deity battling ligaments for the salvation of pitcher arms with the Chicago White Sox, Don Cooper spent nine years struggling through the minor league systems for the Yankees, Twins, Orioles and Blue Jays.

He was drafted by the Yankees in the 17th round of the 1978 draft and spent three seasons in their minor league system, initially as a starter before being moved to the bullpen. He made it as high as AAA with decent strikeout numbers and an ability to limit the long ball, but the Yankees left him unprotected and he was grabbed by the Twins in the 1980 Rule 5 draft. Because of the requirement to keep Rule 5 players in the big leagues for a year, the Twins brought Cooper to the big leagues in 1981 where he pitched in 27 games, including two starts, and posted a 4.30 ERA. In 1982 he struggled with the big league team and spent most of the season in AAA.

The Blue Jays traded third base prospect (I use the term generously) Dave Baker for Cooper that offseason. Aside from a brief time with the Blue Jays where he appeared in four games out of the pen, Cooper spent the 1983 season as a member of a Syracuse Chiefs team loaded with future Blue Jays regulars like George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Mark Eichhorn, and Jimmy Key. Despite all the future talent, it was not a great year for Syracuse and they finished the season 61-78.

The Jays traded him back to the team that drafted him that offseason for a minor league throw-away and Cooper did end up appearing on the mound in a Yankee uniform briefly in 1985. But for the most part he was a career minor leaguer the rest of the way and he retired after the 1987 season.

He stayed in uniform, joining the White Sox organization as a minor league pitching coach for their A ball team and worked his way up through the ranks until he got the job as pitching coach for the White Sox in 2002.

But we have skipped the most important detail…those hats. Dear Blue Jays, please reproduce these throwback Syracuse hats. I will give you many of my dollars. Please.

Ed Sprague, 1992 Score, #504

Like many baseball fans, I frequently get lost down the Diamond Mines rabbit hole. The Baseball Hall of Fame’s tribute to the role of scouts in the evolution of baseball is filled with original scouting report gems and it is easy to get lost reading negative prospect reports on long retired superstars and glowing reports on big league busts.

So let’s play a little Diamond Mines game: How many ways can Angels scouts suggest Ed Sprague is fat?

In 1988 Sprague was expected to go in the first round of the draft (which he ultimately did, 25th overall to the Blue Jays), after choosing to attend Stanford instead of signing as a 26th round selection by the Red Sox in 1985. The Angels had the eighth overall pick and must have been interested in the then-catcher because they had a number of scouts file reports on him. Let’s rank the descriptions of his physical build from most positive to least.

First, there is Rick Schlenker: “Tall, strong, muscular body.” That is pretty glowing. Sprague comes across like a finely crafted athlete.

Next we have Steve Gruwell: “Very strong, mature frame, heavy legged.” This is not so bad either. Sure, some extra baggage in the lower body, but that just gives him a power base.

Similar thoughts from Cliff Ditto: “Strong upper body. Forearms and hands strong… Lower body heavy legged.” Still nothing too damning.

Let’s try George Bradley: “Thick body, but very strong. Active, has some bounce, but legs dead, not agile.” Now we are getting a little closer to painting a chunky picture of poor Ed. Dead legs is little harsh, but maybe “thick body” could be viewed positively.

Mark Weidmaier continues the trend: “Strong, stocky, blocky build. Durable, thick, muscled and strong.” See? Thick is not so bad when it is accompanied by muscled and strong. I mean, calling someone’s build “blocky” is a little odd, but sure, why not? Maybe this is not about Sprague being fat at all. Maybe it is just his overwhelming muscle tone. 

One more Angels scouting report. Take it away Jesse Flores: “Big frame. Body is fleshy.”

Oof. Hard to find the positive spin on “Body is fleshy.”

I think we have our winner! Congratulations Jesse Flores, you are our winner for Angels Scout Who Comes Closest to Calling Ed Sprague Fat.

Phil Niekro, 1988 Classic Red, #199

I am fairly certain this is the only Phil Niekro baseball card showing the Hall of Famer as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. Frankly, it is surprising he has one at all given he was only a member of the team for just over three weeks in August of 1987.

Toronto was Niekro’s last chance to pitch in a World Series. At 48 years old it was blindingly obvious that his career was coming to a close and despite 24 years in the big leagues with Atlanta, New York and Cleveland, Niekro had only ever thrown 14 innings of postseason baseball, never going farther than the LCS.

“I’ve done just about everything else in baseball there is to do. Playing in the World Series is something I’ve always thought about.”Phil Niekro on being traded to the Blue Jays

Toronto was in the thick of the playoff chase in 1987 (ultimately ending with a devastating collapse to the Tigers) and Cleveland was going nowhere. So they gave the aging knuckleballer one last chance at a championship, sending him to Toronto for minor leaguer Darryl Landrum and a player to be named later (Don Gordon). It was the only time Niekro was ever traded.

 “I guess your first trade is always a jolt.”

His Toronto teammates immediately made him feel at home. Pitcher Jeff Musselman gave up his uniform number, No. 35. And on his locker some pranksters had taped two emery boards and a couple of pieces of sandpaper with this note:

“Dear Phil: Thought you could use these during my vacation. Good luck. Your brother, Joe.”

Brother Joe, of course, is serving a 10-game suspension after being caught with an emery board in his back pocket last week. - Bill Zack for the NYT Regional Newspapers

“I think anybody would be happy going to a contender… A lot of people picked them (the Blue Jays) to win it. I picked them last year, and I picked them or the Yankees this year. They’ve got everything going for them. They’re free of injuries, have good pitching and defense and score a lot of runs. There’s no breakdowns on that ballclub.”Phil Niekro to the Associated Press

Sadly for everyone involved the feel-good story of the veteran getting one last chance at glory was pretty short lived. The back of the card tells the story:

Phil is traded to the pennant contending Toronto Blue Jays, but is ineffective and consequently released.

Three starts. Twelve total innings. Eleven runs, all earned. A 1.0 SO/BB. It all came to a crashing halt and Phil Niekro had to deal with his career coming to an end as the Jays released him just 22 days after trading for him.

“What are you going to do- sit down and pout?” Niekro said 10 minutes after being told the news. “You get knocked down, you get back up. I’m just grateful they brought me here on a trial basis… I’ll be in uniform somewhere next year, somehow, in some capacity…I’m not going to walk away from the game completely.”Associated Press

Niekro only had to wait a few more weeks, as he put on an Atlanta Braves uniform one last time to make his exit from MLB as a member of his signature team. On September 27 he started one final game against the San Francisco Giants. The Giants also failed to give Phil a graceful Hollywood ending to his career and pounded him for five runs over three innings. Phil gave up six walks and did not record a single strikeout. He retired from the game and was inducted into Cooperstown ten years later.

Side note for card nerds (no offence intended as this, obviously, includes myself): this Niekro card was only made as part of a mini tribute to Niekro’s retirement by Classic. Cards #198, #199 and #200 were all Phil Niekro with each of the three teams he played for in 1987.

Frank Thomas, 2008 Upper Deck, #38

Congratulations to Frank Thomas, who joins Roberto Alomar, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro and Dave Winfield as Hall of Fame players who spent time with the Blue Jays in their illustrious careers.

A well deserved honour for the Big Hurt. Now we can only hope he pulls this suit out of the closet for the induction ceremony.

Willie Aikens, 1984 O-Pee-Chee, #137

The Willie Mays Aikens trade could never happen today. In fact, thirty years later it still seems kind of crazy it happened at all.

The Toronto Blue Jays, a young team on the rise after the 1983 season, traded a declining veteran DH/utility outfielder in Jorge Orta, for a power hitting outfielder in his prime years coming off a career best season – who was about to begin a three-month prison sentence for intent to purchase cocaine and had been suspended for the entire 1984 season.

I can’t even imagine what the current 24 hour sports media and social media world would do with a trade like this. A trade based on an assumption (hope?) of Bowie Kuhn’s mercy in the face of one of the biggest scandals in his career and just as he was preparing to step down as commissioner. The moral outrage over a team giving up assets for a player who would be in prison when spring training opens would likely put most of the PED scandals to shame.

Cocaine abuse was running rampant in the sport and the Royals were under surveillance by the FBI. Aikens and three other Royals players pleaded guilty to cocaine related charges stemming from a federal drug probe and became the first active players to serve jail time in MLB history. The cocaine scandal in Kansas City was one of several incidents that led to the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985.

While Kuhn initially suspended Aikens for the entire 1984 season, he left the door open for reinstatement saying he would review the suspensions in May of that year. Be it insider information or a trusty hunch, Pat Gillick and the Blue Jays front office felt confident enough that the suspension would be reduced that they made the deal.

Sadly, that was about all that would go in Aikens favour for a very long time. After a disappointing 93 games with the Blue Jays in 1984, the team cut him one month into the 1985 season and re-signed him to a minor league deal. He would never make the major leagues again.

After testifying in the Pittsburgh drug trials, Aikens tried to land a major league deal but his only option for playing ball was in Mexico, pretty much the worst place a cocaine addict could end up.

Mexico was the lone landing spot, the only circuit that would have him. So he played there for five years, during which he smoked crack nearly every day, slept with prostitutes, contracted hepatitis and fathered two girls.” – Amy K. Nelson, SB Nation.

After his playing career ended in the early 1990’s, Aikens returned to Kansas City and fell deeper into drugs. The Kansas City Police Department began an extensive investigation into Aikens, including using an undercover officer to set up drug buys from him. The police set up several buys until the total amount triggered stiff mandatory minimum sentences.

The stigma and public outcry over crack had reached a boiling point in America at the time, partially driven by the death of Len Bias, and drug laws would be drafted that treated those convicted of crimes related to crack far harsher than other drugs, even powdered cocaine. While these laws would eventually be overturned, Willie Mays Aikens paid the price. For selling 2.2 ounces of crack cocaine (and the fact he had a loaded shotgun in his home during some of these deals) he was given more than 20 years in prison, equivalent to the punishment for dealing around 15 pounds of powdered cocaine. This was after rejecting a plea bargain that would have been only between five and ten years.

When the laws were overturned and applied retroactively, Aikens was released after serving 14 years in prison. Since then he has put his life back together and is a part of the Kansas City Royals organization.

I can’t begin to do the story of Willie Mays Aikens justice. It is a movie waiting to happen. But I recommend two excellent pieces which do a remarkable job at capturing the man’s career, struggles and redemption.

Amy K. Nelson’s “’Every Game, I Used Drugs’: The Story Of Willie Mays Aikens” at SB Nation

Elizabeth Merrill’s “Gaps in the Road” at ESPN’s Outside the Lines

Mark Eichhorn, 1989 Score, #152

Bluebird Banter has a poll up for the best Blue Jays middle reliever of all time. There is only one answer. The sidearming man with the immaculately manicured moustache. Honestly, the man elicited a scout report with an exclamation mark.

Vote Mark Eichhorn. Do what is right.

Fred McGriff, 1986 Leaf, #28

Last year I posted a card that mentioned a monster McGriff home run in 1987 that was, at the time, the longest ball ever hit in Yankee Stadium post-1970’s stadium renovation. Well MLB knows how to make me happy and posted video of the ridiculous blast on YouTube this summer. So here is Fred McGriff doing unspeakable damage to a baseball. Enjoy.