Monday, July 13, 2020

1997 Topps All-Star Rookie Short Stop Nomar Garciaparra


With some players, there's very little mystery. Will they have what it takes to perform at the highest level? Do skills at a young age translate to the big leagues? In the case of Nomar Garciaparra, it was obvious from the beginning that something special was happening. Nomar's rookie season was among the best of all-time. He was a complete player right out of the box. He was the AL leader in hits and triples. He hit .306 with 30 homers and he scored 122 runs. He stole 22 bases, while playing excellent defense at a premium position. He ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, so of course he was the selection at Short Stop for the 1997 Topps All-Star Rookie team.

He was an All-Star, won a Silver Slugger award, finished 8th in the MVP vote, and was a unanimous Rookie of the Year for the Red Sox. All of this came after a rough 24 games in 1996 at the big league level. That short stint was all he needed to make the necessary adjustments. He was no stranger to taking a big leap into unfamiliar waters. 

As a college freshman, Nomar was a walk-on with the Team USA Olympic baseball team. He ended up as their starting short stop, and the team finished 4th in the 1992 Summer Games. His college career at Georgia Tech was fairly impressive. He was the 1992 ACC Rookie of the Year, and his 1994 season is one for the ages. He hit .427 with 26 doubles, 11 triples, 16 homers, 73 RBI and 33 stolen bases. Not too shabby.

Nomar was selected 12th overall by the Red Sox in the 1994 MLB June draft. His first taste of pro ball wasn't overly impressive. In 28 games for the Sarasota Sox, he hit a respectable .295 with one homer and 5 stolen bases. The following year his hitting took another step back, with a .267 average at AA Trenton, but he did flash the glove and the wheels, stealing 35 bases. Nomar was being promoted each season, but hadn't really had a breakout performance by 1996. In AAA Pawtucket, everything came together quickly. He torched the ball to the tune of .343/.387/.733 in 43 games. The torrid pace forced the Red Sox to make a move, calling the youngster up to the big leagues in August. 

Nomar's rookie season was tremendous, but he wasn't just a one hit wonder. He excelled in his time at Fenway Park, hitting a robust .323/.370/.553 over 9 seasons. His second year, he was the AL MVP runner-up, leading the Red Sox in runs scored and runs batted in. If not for the fact that he was splitting votes with his teammate Mo Vaughn, he might have been the outright winner that season. He followed that campaign up with a pair of batting titles, including an incredible .372 average for the year 2000. He led the AL in intentional walks that season as well. His best season in Beantown is hard to pick - was it his rookie year? His 2 batting title years? 2002, when he led the AL with 52 doubles? 2003 when he had 120 runs scored to go along with 13 triples, 37 doubles, and 28 homers? The Red Sox ran on Nomar for nearly a decade, and his play inspired the team despite not resulting in the ultimate prize of a World Series victory. A wrist injury limited him to just 21 games in 2001, snapping a string of 4 straight top-10 MVP finishes. Injuries would define the end of his Boston tenure, even though they were sandwiched between a pair of productive seasons. 2004 was truncated by an Achilles' heel injury, keeping Nomar out of the lineup until late June. He was hitting .321 for Boston when he was traded as part of a 4 team blockbuster with the Twins, Expos, and Cubs. Boston was after a defensive upgrade, securing the services of Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera, and Nomar found himself heading to Wrigley Field. Nomar would miss out on the Red Sox' World Series win, though his former teammates voted to give him a partial share of the World Series pot and sent him a World Series ring. The fact is that the Red Sox might not have attracted the big name free agents like Pedro, Schilling, and Manny Ramirez without a star like Nomar to build around. Ironically the team's egos were mostly sidelined for the championship run, but Nomar's contract extension dispute was the lone exception. While he didn't play with arrogance, the Red Sox certainly treated him like a malcontent before shipping him out. 

The Cubs were disappointing in his year and a half in Chicago, and so was Nomar. He would play in just 62 games for the Cubs in 2005, missing 3 months due to a groin injury. The injuries that slowed Nomar at the end of his Red Sox career were not the same ones that derailed his Cubs career, but hurt his future earnings all the same. Thankfully for Nomar, the Dodgers had deep pockets, and were more than happy to pay for his services. Things were looking up for Nomar in his first full season in LA, and he was coming home after growing up in Southern California just minutes from Chavez Ravine. He would return to the All-Star game for the final time, and racked up 2.5 WAR, his highest total since his 2003 season. He had a 120 OPS+. which was decent, but still a shadow of his former self. The next year his production slipped and he was moved around the diamond to accommodate other players like James Loney at first base. Injuries towards the end of the year didn't help. 2008 was nearly lost before it began for Nomar, when he suffered a microfracture in his hand. He would return to Short Stop for the first time since 2005, but was now relegated to fill-in and bench duty. He would play in just 55 games as his playing time and production fell off dramatically.

He would play one final season in the big leagues, signing a one year deal with the Oakland A's in 2009. Over 65 games, Garciaparra hit .281 as a DH/first baseman. For his career, he was a .313/.361/.521 hitter. if not for several seasons derailed by injury and the general wear and tear, he might have reached 2,000 career hits. He was even better in the post season over his career, hitting .321/.386/.589 in 32 playoff games. His career was cut short by injuries, but his peak was certainly Hall of Fame worthy. He certainly falls short in counting stats over his career, but when he was at his best, there were few players that could match his skills on the diamond.

Any specific Nomar memories you'd like to share? I'd love to read them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 12, 2020

I Love The 80s - 1982 Toronto Blue Jays

This is a series of posts on a 1980's Frankenset. Each page features a different team, with 9 of my personal favorite cards from that year's team. You might find players repeated, you'll definitely see brands repeated, but hopefully you'll agree that there are some interesting selections from the 1980s!

In 1981, the Blue Jays had a tough time in the powerhouse AL East. They finished in 7th place in the division, though they had a slightly better 2nd half. The team's record for the season was a forgettable 37-69, and the team's highlight was arguably the game they did not get a single baserunner. Len Barker's perfect game against the Jays in May was one of the more notable days of the year for the Blue Jays. The team also courted controversy when they visited the Angels on a road trip. The Angels' team President was the father of Jays' president Peter Bavasi. Angels' Prez Buzzie Bavasi was not pleased with the play of his team and wanted to fire his manager. Son Peter devised a plan to make history and floated the idea of also firing Jays' skipper Bobby Mattick. Cooler heads prevailed, though a frustrated Mattick would resign at the end of the season, as would Bavasi- forced out by the Jays' top Brass. 

1981 was also notable for the Jays when they signed Choi Dong-won from South Korea. The 23 year old pitcher was the first Korean-born player signed by a Major League Baseball team. Choi ultimately was not permitted to leave South Korea to join the Blue Jays, and instead became one of the great players in the early days of the KBO. 

The following season was the first year with Bobby Cox as the team's manager, and things were certainly looking promising for the Jays, in just their 6th year of existence. While they weren't showing it in the standings yet, the team had several talented young players, and seemed to be just a few pieces away from being a playoff contender in the East. They improved to a 78-84 record and moved one step forward, finishing in 6th place. More exciting for fans, 1982 was the year that the Blue Jays began selling beer at the ballpark. Ontario had previously outlawed serving beer at baseball games, and even after lifting the ban, kept certain restrictions and limits in place to discourage patrons from over-indulging.

The Cards:
Topps #125 Danny Ainge - If you liked the controversies above about gimmicky firings, free agents prohibited from leaving their home country, and restricted beer sales, you're going to love digging in to the Danny Ainge saga with the Blue Jays. Ainge would be released officially by Toronto on November 27th, 1981, but not without some fireworks. The 6'4" Third Baseman / Shooting Guard had struggled in the big leagues .220/.264/.269 over 211 games. That's not his batting average each season, that average/ on base / slugging for his MLB career to date. A Third baseman slugging .269 is a far cry from typical production, but the Jays still felt strongly that Ainge had potential to be great. So did the Boston Celtics, who drafted Ainge in the 2nd round of the 1981 NBA Draft, despite being fully aware that he was under contract with the Jays. Ainge played college basketball at BYU while he was with the Jays, and was tremendous, averaging over 24 points per game as a Senior, and won the coveted Wooden Award, given to the "most outstanding basketball player of the year." Ainge would take the Jays to Court, so to speak (meaning literally), and was granted his release to start his NBA career. 

Fleer #609 Jorge Bell - Bell was the main power bat in the heart of the Jays' lineup for the 2nd half of the 80s. He was originally signed as a free agent by the Phillies, but had already been heavily scouted by the Jays. The team would select Bell in the Rule V draft in 1980 and made him their starting Left Fielder to begin the 1981 Season. He would return for another season in the minors in 1982 (Rule V draftees are required to spend the season on the big league roster), and was a regular fixture in the Jays outfield starting in 1984. He would hit big in the 1985 ALCS (.321), won the 1987 AL MVP when the Jays fell just short of the pennant, and was later named to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. In his rookie year of 1981, Bell hit just .233, but offered some promise for big days to come. Cubs fans went from hating to loving him after a lackluster free agent signing. Bell was the player traded to the White Sox that brought Sammy Sosa to Wrigley. 

Donruss #227 Jim Clancy - Clancy was an "original Blue Jay" coming to the team in the 1976 expansion draft from Texas. Clancy was just 21 years old when he made his debut for the Jays in 1977. Clancy was considered a veteran by the time 1981 rolled around, but he was still a relative youngster. 1982 would be one of his best seasons, making the All-Star team and leading the AL with 40 starts. He ranks 3rd on the Blue Jays' all-time wins list. 

Donruss #129 Lloyd Moseby - Along with Bell and Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby formed a strong outfield force known as "the Bs." Moseby once stole 2nd base twice on the same play, but didn't get credit for either one. In a game against the White Sox, Moseby took off and swiped second, with the ball trickling into center field. Short Stop Ozzie Guillen had faked out Moseby so well that he started back towards first base, thinking that the play had been ruled dead. He was nearly thrown out at first from CF, but the throw was wild and trickled into the dugout, so 270 feet later, Moseby was at second base with nothing to show for it for him on the stat sheet. Moseby was an All-Star in 1986, and often combined speed and power on the diamond, leading the league in Triples in 1984, and averaging 17 homers and 29 stolen bases a season. 

O-Pee-Chee #380 Dave Stieb - Gotta have some OPC for the Canadian teams, and who better to represent Canada than Dave Stieb? Dave was the Blue Jays' Ace in 1981 and 1982, tossing 7 shutouts over the two seasons combined. Stieb became the Jays' All-time Leader in victories, was a 7-time All-Star, and won the AL ERA title in 1985. From 1982 through 1985, Stieb was the WAR leader among pitchers each season. Only Jack Morris won more games in the 1980s than Dave Stieb. He also made a notable comeback at age 40 in 1998, pitching 50 innings for the Jays 5 years after his first retirement.  After a pair of 9th inning near misses, Stieb finally tossed a no-hitter in 1990, the first no-no in Blue Jays history.

Donruss #652 Willie Upshaw - Upshaw was another Rule V draftee by the Jays, coming to Toronto from the New York Yankees' system. Upshaw was with the Jays right away in 1978, but just like Bell, spent the following season in AAA getting more time to develop. By 1982 he was the starting first baseman, and he led the Jays in homers and RBI that year. He had some power, averaging 16 homers a season for his career, but ultimately would find his playing time reduced when new prospects arrived like Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff. Upshaw's final MLB season came in Cleveland, where he hit 11 more homers and reached 1,000 hit and 500 RBI milestones for his career.

Fleer #612 Jim Clancy - Clancy and Stieb would spend a better part of the 1980s battling for the "ace" status with the Jays. His best season was probably 1980, even though he led the league in walks allowed and had a losing record of 13-16. He had an ERA+ of 103 for the Jays, just above league average, but was the definition a workhorse starting pitcher, 2nd all-time for the Jays with over 2,200 innings pitched. Clancy would close out his career in the bullpen for his old Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox, pitching and earning the win in game 3 of the 1991 World Series. 

O-Pee-Chee #107 Juan Berenguer - SeƱor Smoke was a spot starter for the Blue Jays in 1981, ultimately finishing the season with the AL lead in losses. But Berenguer would find his stride in Detroit in their 1984 championship season, and later became a trusted and vital bullpen option with several teams. He was a World Series champion with the Tigers, the Twins in 1987, and was part of the 1991 and 92 Atlanta Braves pennant winners. It was the Giants in 1986 that converted Berenguer solely to relief duties, and he found that the bullpen was a great place to be. He was also the 1978 International League pitcher of the Year, when he was a starting pitching prospect with the Mets. 

Topps #470 John Mayberry - Before Willie Upshaw, the Jays' big bopper was John Mayberry. He was acquired in Spring Training from the Royals in 1978, and right away changed the dynamic of the offense north of the border. Mayberry already had two All-Star Appearances under his belt and had twice led the AL in walks while in KC. With the Jays he averaged 20+ homers and  nearly 70 RBI a season while sporting a 119 OPS+, thanks again to his excellent plate discipline. His career OBP was more than 100 points higher than his career batting average. He still could hit the ball hard - he had 255 career homers. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A PWEdnesday Post

Let's open the mailbag! Jeff from Wax Pack Wonders sent over an envelope, hitting both vintage and local hero needs. Since it is in the news, I'll offer my very lukewarm take on team names. To me, nothing is sacred about a sports team name or logo. It might be easy for me to say living in an area where the oldest major sports teams started in the 60s, so it's not like there's a huge extended legacy of any of those team names. If any of these teams change their names or logos, it won't make me any less likely to support them. One thing I will say - there are teams that we have these conversations about every few years, and teams we likely never would need to. So, what does that tell you?

Anyway, off the soapbox and into the shoebox with these Minnesota-centric guys. Neal Broten was one of the last members of the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 U.S. Hockey team to play in the NHL. Aaron Sele was born in MN, but went to High School in Washington. Buster Rhymes is from Miami, but what a great card. It's funny, I sent my brother my only copy of this card a few weeks ago, so it was awesome to see Card Karma repaid so quickly!

There are some awesome facts shared on the back of these - for example, Brent Burns had (has?) a pet shark!?! 

Bringing it all back around again, here's another 1976 Topps card from Jeff's envelope- thanks again!

Nick, the king of the Dimebox and the low-key master of the oddball discoveries, recently had this card one of his Free stuff posts. Steinbach was born in MN, went to the U of MN, and finished out his career as a Twin. I'm a big fan of the 1959 Topps design.

Aquino is officially a guy I collect - I have always thought of the Reds as my National League team, and I thought Aquino was a fun story last season. He was compared to Kevin Maas on twitter recently, which, yeah, I can see it with their stats side-by-side. My hope is that he just keeps getting better.

Rounding out the envelope from Nick are several more Twins, Kirilloff might be playing the big leagues this year, as he was placed in the Twins' 60-player pool. It remains to be seen just how many guys will need to get COVID ahead of him, but so far Miguel Sano and Willians Astudillo have caught the bug. Kirilloff is an outfielder with a sneaky good bat, it will be fun to see what he can do. Thanks again for sending these over, Nick!

You might be asking - why would Bo from Baseball Cards Come to Life! send me a Pirates card? Well, look close - this is a bat rack card! Always a treat to find one that I missed. I recently opened a box of this set, 2003 upper deck Victory, but totally missed noticing the bat rack in the background!

Bo also loaded this mailer up with vintage 70s goodness.

Jerry Bell has a bit of a Hugh Jackman/Wolverine look to him! This Jerry Bell is not the same Jerry Bell that is in the Twins Hall of Fame as a long-time executive in the front office during the Twins two World Championships, and helped convince the City Counsel to bill the people of Minneapolis to build Target Field! Snarkiness aside, the Brewers Jerry Bell is a cool looking dude.

1973 Topps has some interesting ideas about action and landscape photography. Hey, I can dig it!

Last but definitely not least, Bo included this Hall of Fame / all-time Great Brooks Robinson! The back references his nickname as the human vacuum cleaner. 

The final envelope in this post comes from SCC of the Sport Card Collectors! I don't think Mascot cards should be inserts / short-prints in Opening Day, to me that release should be for the kids! Nonetheless, it's fun to add TC Bear to the roster. 

Who is going to miss Brusdar Graterol more this year? The Twins, or the Red Sox?

Speaking of Pink parallels, the only parallel (besides 1/1s) that I haven't seen yet in my Rosie Rainbow quest is the Mother's Day Pink parallel numbered to 50. I messed up yesterday and didn't check the eBay auction for the Independence Day Parallel. I put a bid in, with the intention of increasing it later, but forgot. I thought I was being clever by bidding $17.76, but now that I think about it, I am kind of happy I was outbid. Hopefully another one will pop up soon, and I can get it for less than that!

A big thanks to everyone sending cards and everyone reading the blog! 

Monday, July 6, 2020

1997 Topps All-Star Rookie Outfielder Andruw Jones

Andruw Jones was a once-in-a-generation talent - power, speed, and defense, Andruw could do it all. Jones was another player who could be pencilled in to the 1997 Topps All-Star Rookie Team before he even took the field that season. His 2 homers in the 1996 World Series at the tender age of 19 announced that he was something special. His rookie year could almost be called a disappointment, though he hit 18 homers and stole 20 bases while playing a stellar center field.

"The most graceful center fielder since Joe DiMaggio." That was Braves' manager Bobby Cox, who played with Mickey Mantle at the tail-end of the hall of famer's career. Cox knew a thing or two about talented center field play. Ultimately, the decline of Jones was a lot like that of Mantle, though it seems like it was for different reasons. In 1997, Jones put together a solid rookie campaign, filling up the stat sheet across the board. 

Jones was an international free agent signed by the Braves out of Curacao when he was just 16 years old. While the island was still a bit of a mystery to MLB scouts, Andruw was nearly a household name. He was an international sensation at age 11, playing in a tournament in Japan. At 13, the legend goes, he was launching 400 foot homers and was getting invites to play with adult leagues in Curacao. By 15, he was considered the best baseball player on the island.

His minor league career was equally impressive and showed his precociousness. He dominated at each level, and was the 1995 and 1996 Minor League Player of the Year according to Baseball America. In 1995 he was the MVP of Southern Atlantic League, where he hit 25 homers, drove in 100 runs, stole 56 bases, and of course was a revelation in center field. 1996 was not much different; he hit .339 and scored 115 runs before being called up to the Braves for 31 games at the end of the season. He remained on the post season roster as well, hitting a homer in Game 7 of the NLCS, then two more in the World Series - his first two World Series At bats.. He was the youngest player to homer in the World Series since Mickey Mantle. . .   Jones was ready for super stardom.

As Jones matured with Atlanta, his skills also became sharper. He would become arguably the greatest defensive center fielder of all time while patrolling Turner Field. Barry Bonds (Willie Mays' god son) was quoted as saying Jones "plays center field like no one I've ever seen in my life time." He would win 10 consecutive Gold Gloves in the National League. His peak years (1998-2006), Jones averaged .270/.347/.513 with 35 homers, 99 runs scored, 104 RBI, and double digit stolen bases. He was a 5-time All-Star in that stretch, and won a Silver Slugger in 2005, thanks to his league leading 51 homers and 128 RBI. 

His final season in Atlanta was perhaps a bad omen of things to come. He still hit for power with 26 homers and 94 RBI, but his batting average had plummeted to .222 and he had a career low with an OPS+ of 87. He still won a Gold Glove in CF, leading the NL in putouts, but he seemed to have lost a step or two in some of the advanced (if flawed) defensive metrics like Total Zone Runs and Range Factor. As Jones got older, his body type changed as he worked on hitting for power at the expense of speed. The charitable verdict on Jones is that he was overweight, the cynic may try to link his decline to the alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. From what little research I could do for this post, I didn't see a smoking gun for PEDs, just some circumstantial evidence of the obvious physical transformation that can be seen on his baseball cards. I don't put much stock in the steroids theory, but it seems like his decline was abrupt and tragic for a ballplayer with such a meteoric rise.

Jones signed a big free agent contract with the Dodgers, that didn't really pan out. His 2008 season included a long layoff following surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee, and an abysmal 75 games in which he hit just .158 with 3 homers in 209 at bats. His free swinging ways, which had been a quirky and acceptable vice in his younger days was now responsible for derailing his production at every turn. 

Keep in mind that Andruw was still just 32 years old when he made the Rangers' roster as the 25th man. He was a non-roster invitee but showed enough in Spring Training to find a spot on the roster. He was intended to be a 4th outfielder, but instead found most of his at bats as a DH. He hit 17 homers, but hit just .214 for the season. One bright spot in his game was that he had managed to develop some latent on base skills, walking at a career high rate of 13.6%.  His OBP ended up more than 100 points higher than his batting average. He would end up playing just one season in Texas before moving on.

In 2010, Jones would play on the South Side, getting a Walk off homer (seen here, maybe?) in April against the Mariners, which led to his 400th career homer in July. he came into White Sox camp 30 pounds slimmer than the year before, which certainly made a difference. He surpassed 100 games played in a season for the first time since 2007. Jones played in the OF again, but wasn't the fielder we once was. His walk rate was again a career high, at 13.7%, and even stole 9 bases, which was the most he'd stolen in a season since 2001. His "Power/Speed" number was again in double digits, and he had an OPS+ of 120, once again proving his undeniable baseball talent.

Jones would sign on with the Yankees, hoping to build on his success in Chicago and perhaps get back to the post season. His first year as a bench player went quite well - he had a 126 OPS+, his highest since his last All-Star season in 2006. He got on base via the walk, hit for a little power (13 homers), and filled in admirably in the corner outfield when called upon. 

His Final MLB season did not go nearly as well, though he hit 14 homers and drove in 34. His rate stats had all declined, and he was striking out at a higher rate than he had in several years. He was left off the post season roster in 2012, and was looking for another chance in 2013. He represented the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic and was looking to showcase his skills, hitting .333/.447/.370 in the tournament. He would sign with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japanese Pacific League, was instrumental as the team's DH. The team won the league championship in 2013, thanks in no small part to Jones' 26 homers and 94 RBI. He played again with the Eagles in 2014, and tried another comeback with Atlanta in the Spring of 2015. He did not make the cut, and was out of pro ball at the age of 38. 

Do you think Andruw Jones is a Hall Of Famer? The best Center Fielder of all-time? Any specific Jones memories you'd like to share? I'd love to read them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

I Love The 80s - 1982 Houston Astros

This is a series of posts on a 1980's Frankenset. Each page features a different team, with 9 of my personal favorite cards from that year's team. You might find players repeated, you'll definitely see brands repeated, but hopefully you'll agree that there are some interesting selections from the 1980s!

In 1981, the Astros finished with their division's best record in the 2nd half, propelling them to the ALDS (ahem NLDS) against first half champs, the Dodgers. In September of that year, Nolan Ryan tossed his 5th No-hitter, passing Sandy Koufax for most career no-nos. The team took the Dodgers to a 5th and final game in the ALDS (CoughNLDScough) but would lose after Jerry Reuss pitched a shutout. It was the Astros' 2nd straight appearance in the playoffs.

1982 had the makings of an even bigger year for Houston, adding Ray Knight to help bolster the offense. Instead the team would flounder, and fall from 1st to 5th place in the NL West, with a 77-85 record. The offense was mostly to blame, but a slow start overall doomed the '82 squad from the beginning. They would be back in contention again soon, though it would not be until 1986 that they would win their division again. Following the 1982 season, the team made one of the most productive trades in their franchise history, acquiring Mike Scott from the Mets for Danny Heep. Scott would be become the team's ace, which is saying something with a rotation that featured Nolan Ryan and Joe Niekro.

The Cards:
Topps #483 Gary Woods - Woods made an impression in Houston in the playoffs more than the regular season. He was a September call-up in 1980, and his .377 average in the final month helped get the team into the NLCS against the Phillies. They had him in the lineup in Game 4 of that series, hitting cleanup and starting in Right Field. He was 0-2, but walked and stole a base. He was called out on the bases on appeal after leaving the bag early on a sac fly. The Astros would lost the game in extra innings. In 1981, he would struggle in limited time as a platoon/reserve outfielder, hitting just .209 for the season. This time, he would go hitless in 2 plate appearances in the ALDS. Woods would spend the rest of his career with the Cubs as a valuable bench option.

Fleer #230 Joe Sambito - Joe Sambito's injury early in 1982 may have been one of the team's bigger setbacks, leading to their 5th place finish. The lefty reliever was a key part of the Astros' pen, much like a Josh Hader or Andrew Miller in recent years. He was the team's closer in 1979 and was an All-Star. He notched 22 saves and had a 1.77 ERA in 91 innings pitched. He had just pitched in 9 games in 1982 before going on the shelf, having saved 4 games and a 0.71 ERA. The injury resulted in Tommy John surgery for Sambito, who would miss the 1982 season and the 1983 season. He would come back and found a role with the Red Sox in time for their 1986 World Series run as a crafty lefty specialist.

Topps #90 Nolan Ryan - On September 26th, 1981 Nolan Ryan made history against the Dodgers. He struggled early in the game with his control in the nationally televised contest, including a wild pitch, that could have led to a run before he had even allowed a hit. Ryan settled in and adjusted his mechanics mid-game. The shorter stride allowed Ryan to regain the accuracy of his deliveries and he finished the game with 11 strikeouts. This no-no came at a great time- the team was fighting for a playoff spot in the NL West, and the Dodgers were the team they needed to beat. 

Topps #306 Don Sutton - The Astros acquired Sutton after the 1980 season to join a rotation with Ryan and J.R. Richard. The trio seemed poised to take the National League by storm. Richard of course was in his prime when a blood clot caused a stroke in July of 1980, ending his career. Sutton was instead replacing Richard in the Rotation, and pitched well in '81, tying the team lead for victories. He also contributed 3 shutouts in 81. A line drive to his knee in final days of the season kept him out of the playoff series against his former team, the Dodgers. Sutton was vocal about the business side of baseball, which led to his request for a trade halfway through his 4 year deal with Houston. He clashed privately and publicly with Houston GM Al Rosen, ultimately being traded to the Brewers. The silver lining of course was that he would be instrumental down the stretch for another playoff run. The Brewers won the division on the final day of the season with Sutton pitching 8 strong innings. He would also be the Stopper in the ALCS against the Angels, winning game 3 with the Brewers' backs against the wall. 

Fleer #229 Nolan Ryan - Ryan's Astros Career included several milestones - He hit his first MLB home run and struck out his 3,000th batter in 1980. 1981 was the year of his 5th no-hitter. In 1983 he passed Walter Johnson to become #1 on the all-time strikeout list, He would get strikeout #4,000 in 1985, and both of his NL ERA titles came in an Astros uniform. Ryan remains the All-Time MLB strikeout leader and has the most no-hitters of any MLB pitcher. He was a nearly unanimous 1st ballot Hall of Famer (98.8%) in 1999. Hard to believe that he never won a Cy Young award. 

Donruss #344 Craig Reynolds - Reynolds was a Triples machine in 1981, leading the NL with 12 three baggers. He actually got 3 of those triples in one game in a May contest against the Cubs. He would lose his everyday shortstop gig to prospect Dickie Thon in 1982, but would be right back at it in 1984 - hitting 11 triples to finish 4th in the league. Reynolds was an original Seattle Mariner, coming to the team after the 1976 season from the Pirates. Reynolds was a 2 time All-Star; first as the Mariners' lone representative in 1978, then as an injury replacement for Garry Templeton. His son Kyle played several seasons in the Chicago Cubs' minor league system.

Fleer #214 Jose Cruz - You may have been expecting Nolan Ryan's Donruss card to be in this slot to keep the pattern going, but instead I opted to go with another player. Cruz was right in the midst of his peak playing days in 1981 and 82, playing as the everyday left fielder for the Astros. Though not really counted on as a power threat, he was the Astros' leader in homers in 1981. Oddly, he stole just 5 bases that year having been known as a expert base stealer. Cruz was an All-Star in 1980 and 1985 for the Astros. He led the NL in hits in 1983, and won the first of two Silver Slugger awards in his career. His son Jose Cruz, Jr. was a Topps All-Star Rookie

Donruss #544 Phil Garner -  This card was selected because there is a well-known reverse negative variation - Night Owl has a whole post on it - but Phil Garner was a worthy subject for discussion in his own right. Garner was a big piece of the 1979 "We Are Fam-A-Lee" Pirates World Series team, hitting .500 with 4 doubles and 5 RBI in the series, and a .417 average with a homer in the 79 NLCS. He was traded mid season to the Astros in 1981, which explains the Pirates uni on the card. His playoff prowess did not translate to Houston, going just 2-21 in the 1981 NLDS, and 2-9 in the 1986 NLCS. Garner came up with the Oakland A's narrowly missing their three-peat run, though he did play in the regular season in 73 and 74. Garner's Houston run lasted 7 seasons. He finished his career with nearly 1,600 hits. 

Donruss #191 Dave Smith - When Joe Sambito went down, it was up to Dave Smith to step in as the team's Closer. He did ok that first season in the role, with 11 saves in 14 opportunities, but overall he had an ERA+ of just 87, well below league average. He was successful in 1980 and 81 as a set up man for Sambito, and would return to that role in 1983 and 84. Eventually he would again assume the closer role for Houston, and hold on to it for several seasons in the mid to late 80s. In 1986 he was an All-Star, and even garnered a few down-ballot MVP votes to finish in 17th place. A second All-Star appearance came in 1990. He retired following the 1992 season with 216 career saves. His 13 year career included an Astros' franchise record of 563 pitching appearances.