Monday, February 28, 2022

1999 Topps All-Star Rookie Outfielder Preston Wilson


Preston Wilson arrived in the big leagues after a very long journey that took him from the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, to 4 top-100 prospect listings, to a winter spent playing baseball in Australia. After a 5 year minor league sojourn, Wilson had arrived in Queens, only to be traded away after just 8 games for the Mets. Wilson was big time prospect coming to Florida in exchange for the Marlins' brand new catcher Mike Piazza. 

His first full season came in 1999, and he was able to show power and a little speed for an exciting and young rebuilding Marlins team. He'd finish 2nd in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and had a strong season, with a 119 OPS+ and hit 26 homers to go with 11 stolen bases. He was a great choice to join the 1999 Topps All-Star Rookie team.

Wilson was the 9th Overall selection in the 1992 MLB draft, picked by his adopted father Mookie's former team, the New York Mets. To get the potentially awkward subject out of the way, Mookie Wilson's brother Richard was Preston's biological father, but it was Mookie that became Preston's mother Rosa's husband and raised Preston as his own son. So Mookie is technically Preston's uncle, but was also his father as far as Preston was concerned, and officially adopted him. Families are complicated, but it is clear that Preston was well loved and well raised by his parents. Preston was just 17 when he was drafted, and started his pro career with the Kingsport Mets in 1993. Before joining the Mets, he was the 1992 High School player of the year, and hit well for the 1992 18U USA National team. 

Wilson had no trouble launching the ball out of the park, hitting 17 homers in his first pro season, then at least 20 a year after that. In 1996, he played in just 23 games because of injuries to his wrist and shoulder. This had little to no impact the following season, as he hit 30 homers across 2 levels in the Mets organization, and then traveled down under for the Australian Winter League. I couldn't find any stats for his time with the Newcastle Hunter Eagles, but by the Spring of 1998, Wilson was poised to make his long awaited big league debut. He played in just 18 games for AAA Norfolk Tides before being called up in May 1998. His debut consisted of a 3 for 4 game with a stolen base and a run batted in. Each base hit, he was able to briefly visit with his dad, Mookie, who was the Mets' first base coach at the time.

Wilson's trade to the Marlins included a demotion back to AAA, where he nearly hit 30 homers again, showing he was more than ready for a shot at the big leagues. Wilson would have an even better sophomore season, when he joined the 30-30 club in 2000. He was known for big power, but his swing also was conducive to strikeouts. In 2000, Wilson struck out 187 times, which was the most in the Majors, and nearly broke the long time record that Bobby Bonds held. Over his 4 full seasons with the Marlins, Wilson averaged 26 homers and 82 RBI per year. 

Wilson was traded to Colorado prior to the 2003 season, and the Rocky Mountain air was kind to Preston. 2003 would include career highs for Wilson across several offensive categories, and he led the National League with 141 RBI. 2003 was also Preston's lone all-star season. Wilson went 1 for 2 in the Midsummer Classic.

So, once a player has been a Topps All-Star Rookie, led the league in a few different offensive categories, made an All-Star team . . . what's left to check off? A World Series win, of course! Wilson started 2004 off slowly in Colorado, and was traded to the newly minted Nationals in Washington. He ended up playing what would amount to roughly one season with the Nats before being traded mid season to Houston, just in time to make a run at the post season. The Astros fell short, but the 2006 season would give Preston another chance to play the role of 2nd half star. Wilson was released at the deadline and picked up by the Cardinals, and he solidified the team's outfield rotation, providing a little power (9 homers in 33 games) and a little good old fashioned veteran leadership. Along with a strong cast of characters, the Cardinals would prevail in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Wilson appeared in all 5 games and picked up a pair of hits, scored a run, and drove in another. 

Following the 2006 championship, Wilson returned to St. Louis for an encore, but injuries limited his effectiveness and he played in just 25 games. Wilson worked hard to get back, and even played for the Independent League Long Island Ducks for 48 games in 2009 before deciding to retire. After his playing career, the charismatic and outspoken Wilson became a regular on Houston Astros and Florida Marlins broadcasts, and has dropped in as an MLB Network analyst from time to time as well. 

Wilson was recently interviewed for a Sports Illustrated article about declining participation of African-Americans in Major League Baseball, and his experiences and insights bring an important story into focus. You can read the article here -  and there's quite a bit to unpack inside. Wilson is also active on Twitter, his handle is @PrestonWilson44

Sunday, February 27, 2022

I Love the 80s - 1982 Atlanta Braves

  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!

The 1981 Atlanta Braves had a mostly forgettable season. The highlights included acquiring absolute legend Bob Walk from the Phillies in March, debuting new uniforms in April, and falling out of contention by May. While other teams seemed to re-load, re-fuel, or re-tool after the work stoppage, the Braves stayed at roughly the same lethargic pace in the 2nd half. They finished in 5th place in the NL West (yes, Atlanta is in the West). They had been stuck in quite the rut, having finished 4th or worse (usually worse) since the mid 70s, and hadn't won their division since 1969. 

The first move following the 1981 season was to fire that bum of a manager, Bobby Cox. (Cox found a job weeks later in Toronto, and of course is best known for his next stint in Atlanta as General Manager then Manager of an unprecedented run of excellence. For the time being though, a bum!)

Cox gave way to another unremarkable skipper, former Milwaukee Brave Joe Torre. Torre, like Cox, had presided over a cellar-dwelling team for several seasons, with Torre sporting a .405 winning pct as manager of the Mets. And yet, the front office looked like geniuses, as Torre and the Braves won 13 straight games to start 1982. The team continued to be known for both winning streaks and losing streaks. The rest of the season the team was just over .500, but would find themselves see-sawing up and down the standings all year. The hot start certainly helped, as they won the division by a single game over the Los Angeles Dodgers. They had one final streak left in them for the post season, but unfortunately it was a 3 game losing streak in the NLCS to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cards:

Topps #32 Gene Garber - The team's closer in 1982, Garber had one of the best seasons in team history out of the bullpen. 30 saves and 2.34 ERA in 69 appearances will do that.  Garber has a dubious record - he is the all-time losingest reliever in MLB history, having lost 108 career decisions out of the bullpen. The silver lining of course is that to earn such a record requires the talent and skill to be called upon on average 67 times a season to enter the ballgame. Garber had 218 career saves, and is the only reliever with over 200 career saves to never appear in an All-Star game. Garber was on the mound to snap Pete Rose's 44 game hit streak, striking out Charlie Hustle and earning his 16th save of the season. 

Fleer #442 John Montefusco - The "Count of Montefusco" was now a few years removed from his sterling debut as a Topps All-Star Rookie for the Giants in the mid 70s. Now 31 years old, Montefusco relied on a wiser skill-set than his early free-wheeling days. The Braves used Montefusco as a swing man, starting 9 games and appearing in 17 more as a reliever. His antics, which wore thin in San Francisco again reared their ugly head in Atlanta, and he was suspended for missing a team flight, ending his 1981 season and his Braves tenure prematurely. Montefusco requested his release following the suspension and he became a free agent that off-season. The 1975 NL rookie of the year and 1976 All-Star would finish his career with a decent season in San Diego and a trio of less decent seasons in New York with the Yankees. 

Fleer #444 Phil Niekro - When trying to come up with the MVP of the 1982 Braves, it helps to have a little context. The streaky Braves were streaking again, losing several games in a row, and their newly-acquired young gun Pascual Perez was a no-show on game day in mid August. It turned out that poor Pascual was going in loops, lost on the Fulton County freeways, so near but so far from the mound. Niekro, the long-time and long suffering Atlanta team leader, stepped in to take a spot start. For a Knuckleballer, pitching on 3 days rest is no big deal. Niekro made the August 19th start, and the team that had dropped 19 of 21 games started a new streak, now roaring back into first place with a 26-16 record for the rest of the season. Niekro won 17 games that season, out of 318 victories in his career.  

Topps #482 Glenn Hubbard - Not known for his power, Hubbard's 1982 season is ironically remembered best for a key home run. Midway through the season, the Braves went into extra-innings against the Padres and Hubbard's walk-off homer sealed a sweep of a key double-header. The team ultimately won the pennant by a single game. Hubbard was an All-Star in 1983, and was a steady defender who led all NL 2nd basemen in Range Factor 6 times and Double Plays turned 3 times. He debuted in the big leagues when he was just 19 years old, part of a mostly young lineup of Braves in the late 70s, that became the core of the 1982 division winning team.

Fleer #445 Gaylord Perry - Perry was determined to get 300 career wins, having pitched for 5 different teams between 1979 and 1982. His one year stop in Atlanta in 1981 was hit or miss, heavy on the hits. He allowed a league high 182 base hits, but also showed his trademark impeccable control, leading the league in fewest walks per 9 innings as well. Perry led the Braves in innings pitched, no small feat with Phil Niekro in your rotation. The strike in 1981 most likely was the reason win #300 came as a Mariner in 1982 instead of as a Brave in 1981. He was just 3 wins short at the end of the 1981 season. Perry's "signature" pitch was the spitball, though he would never sign off on that version of the story. He was only ejected once in his career for using the pitch, and he never once admitted to throwing anything illegal, though anyone that asked would get a coy grin before the denial.

Fleer #438 Al Hrabosky - The strategy for the Braves pitching staff in 1981 seemed to be to get the youngest guys and the oldest guys possible. Hrabosky, known in his wilder days as "The Mad Hungarian," was now closing out a solid career. In 1981 Hrabosky appeared in 24 games and had a career best 1.07 ERA. He'd follow that in 1982 with a career worst 5.54 ERA in 31 appearances and was released mid season. This card is version #2 of 3. The first attempt had his name on the back as "All" Hrabosky. This version, like the first, also incorrectly lists his height as 5'1" That's the kind of thing that will make a Hungarian (or anyone, really) Mad indeed.  Version three has the right name and lists all of Hrabosky's 5'10" frame. 

Topps #668 Dale Murphy - While Phil Niekro was the heart and soul of the Braves since the mid sixties, Dale Murphy was certainly the face of the franchise by 1982. Murphy was the NL MVP in 1982 and followed it with a second straight MVP in 1983. He arguably had even better seasons in 1985 and 1987, capping off a very successful run of 6 straight All-Star campaigns. Had he held on for just a few more seasons at that rate, he would no doubt have been a Hall of famer. As it stands, his 7 year peak in the 80s ranks him among some of the very best hitters of all time. His 1982 season may look less impressive when compared to the post steroid and post launch angle eras, but he led the league in RBI and hit 33 homers. During his peak, Murphy averaged 110 runs scored, 174 hits, 36 homers and 106 RBI with a 145 OPS+. His career numbers place him squarely in the Hall of "Very Good" but few players could match him in the 1980s.

Topps #268 Bob Walk -  The Man, The Myth, The Legend! Bob Walk's time in Atlanta started with an off-season trade before the 1981 season. Walk had just pitched in the 1980 World Series for the Phillies, winning game one. Walk pitched sparingly in 1981 for Atlanta, with just 8 starts in the strike shortened campaign. In 1982, he came back with a solid 11-9 record, but was only used in relief in one inning of the three NLCS matchups against the Cardinals. Walk would be sent to the minors for additional seasoning in 1983, 84, and 85. The Pirates would come to their senses and call Bob up to the big league club where he flourished as a mid-rotation juggernaut. The 1988 NL All-Star finished his pitching career with a 105-81 record. 

Topps #145 Bob Horner - Horner skipped the minors entirely, being drafted #1 overall by Ted Turner and the Braves in 1978 and he responded with 23 homers in the 89 remaining games of that season. Horner was named NL rookie of the year, and his prodigious power remained throughout his time in Atlanta. He is probably best known today for being one of the few players in MLB history to hit 4 homers in a single game. Despite this feat in 1986, collusion made getting a free-agent contract in 1987 nearly impossible, and Horner instead spent a year in Japan, in which he crushed 31 homers and slugged a Ruthian .683. He returned to the states for one more season, now with the St. Louis Cardinals (who notably could have used a slugging 3b/DH type in 1987 against the Twins. Not saying, just saying). When he came back, things weren't quite the same and he was released after just 60 injury filled games.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Halfway Home! Building the 1964 Topps Venezuelan set

 Just received a stack of 1964 Topps Venezuelan cards in the mail today. Still haven't solved my scanner issue, so posting from my phone. Sorry in advance for the not so great photos...

I added 10 cards in total to my set build with this order, taking me past the 50% mark!

Not sure that I will ever finish this set as I don't think I want to pay $100s (or $1000s) to get either of the 2 Mantle cards in this set. 

Ironically, two MLB players from the 60s born in Venezuela are in the regular Topps set, but not in the Venezuelan version - Vic Davalillo and Luis Aparicio. Their cards are found after #370, the last card issued in Venezuela.

9 of the 10 cards were obtained for less than 10 bucks apiece, that's the price point I've set for myself for commons / minor stars. Right now, I'm only buying cards if they are free from glue residue on the back (When these were issued, Topps also sold an album for gluing the set into pre-printed pages, much like panini sticker albums.)

It might not look too pretty, but this was the big addition for this batch - Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal!

I'm not picky about condition, but I'm happy I found this card with no paper loss or glue residue. Sure, it's shape is more like an Oval than a Rectangle, but it's good enough for me!

I owe everyone a bunch of Black History Month posts - I will be tinkering with some combo of phone, old broken laptop, and new laptop to try to get the scanner reconnected. I've had plans to talk about:

- The Birmingham Black Barons (think Willie Mays, but also Piper Davis and Artie Wilson among others) ,

- One of the lesser known / underreported baseball families (The Hairstons) ,

- MLB Labor pioneer Curt Flood,

- The Cool Papa Bell book I just finished, 

to name just a few ideas I have cooking. I wanted to post more this month but I find using my phone to be about 150% less enjoyable for blogging. I might instead try to find appropriate dates throughout the year to post those, since Black History can and should be celebrated all year long!