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Top 60 Topps, Pack 6: Dewey, Pudge ...

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 1, 2011 07:30 AM

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Say what, Bombo? You thought I abandoned this goofy little side project counting down the 60 greatest Topps baseball cards of all time?

How dare you! Just because I started the thing last November and haven't posted a new entry since Pack 5 in March doesn't mean I forgot about it. It means I got distracted by other shiny Boston sports objects and subjects, including the Red Sox managerial search that finally culminates today with the introduction of wrap impresario Bobby Valentine.

While Topps has long since concluded the countdown with which this was to coincide, I'm going to peck away at it even if it takes me another dozen Novembers to complete. There's no timeline to this truth, one which you've probably suspected all along -- it's not so much about the baseball cards as it is one more half-contrived but earnest reason to write sentimentally about baseball. In fact, I'll probably continue this project beyond 60 since it's so damn fun to write.

For now, though, here it is at last -- a special-edition Pack 6, looking at some of those memorable multi-player rookie cards. My apologies, Cardell Camper, you just missed the cut . . .

finnschmidt.jpg 1973 Mike Schmidt

No truth to the rumor Schmidt's mustache is part of a famous (and somewhat disgusting) facial hair exhibit at Cooperstown, along with Rollie Fingers's throwback handlebar, Bruce Sutter's neck beard, Ozzie Smith's sideburns, and Eddie Murray's ... well, his just about everything. But it should be. Schmidt is sans the famous mustache here -- looks like he went with the permanent Movember look sometime during the '74 season.

On his first card, Schmidt didn't bear much resemblance to the player who'd go on to be recognized as arguably the greatest third baseman of modern times. And on the field, he bore little resemblance to that player he would become, the one who walloped 548 home runs -- winning eight single-season crowns -- and collected 10 Gold Gloves; in 40 plate appearances in '72, he hit .206, then fell to .196 in 443 PAs the next season. Good things the Phillies didn't judge the early book on Schmidt by the cover.

(It should also be noted that Ron Cey, who made six straight All-Star games as part of the Dodgers' famed long-running homegrown infield that also included Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Bill Russell, was the second-best NL third baseman of the era, which was sort of like being the second-best member of the Jackson 5. Those glasses should have been the dead giveaway that John Dave Hilton probably wouldn't hack it.)

molitortram.jpg 1978 Paul Molitor

Can't imagine there are many rectangles of cardboard that have as much lasting entertainment value as this one.

You have a Hall of Famer in Paul Molitor, coolly and perfectly nicknamed "The Ignitor,'' who used his short, quick righthanded swing to pile up 3,319 career hits and who might have made a run at 4,000 had he not missed approximately 500 games to injury early in his career; you have a should-be Hall of Famer in Trammell, who like his longtime double-play partner Lou Whitaker has had his accomplishments marginalized by voters; you have U.L. Washington, a marginal player on some memorable Royals teams whose ever-present toothpick stands as a symbol of '70s cool; and you have a dude named Mickey Klutts who, considering he was injured more often than even a young Molitor, was apparently doomed by the universe to live up to his last name.

Four players, two superstars, two airbrush jobs that look like they were done with fingerpaints, one toothpick, one Klutts, and what does it all add up to? One truly classic card from my all-time favorite set.

deweyfinn.jpg 1973 Dwight Evans

So this is how it began for Dewey, playing center field between Orioles speedster Al Bumbry ("Team speed? Team speed?") and Sam Malone nemesis Charlie Spikes. But let's reconsider for a moment how it ended for one of the most beloved Red Sox players we'll ever see.

I've heard comments from Evans through the years suggesting he regrets hanging on for a final season with the Orioles. Lou Gorman, then the Red Sox general manager, made a difficult decision after the 1990 season, letting the 38-year-old Evans go after a year in which he batted .249 with 13 homers as the team's primary designated hitter. Evans, whose throwing arm was superior to every right fielder of the era, at least among those who did not play for the Pittsburgh Pirates, could no longer handle the rigors of the outfield, and his career trajectory indicated his bat wouldn't warrant a spot in the lineup by the time he hit his 40th birthday. With an outfield of young stars Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks and dependable 30-year-old Tom Brunansky, and promising if low-voltage Carlos Quintana at first base, the time seemed right to say goodbye to Dewey.

The time wasn't right for him however, and the conventional wisdom is that his desire to stick around for one more year -- and maybe stick it to the Red Sox in the process -- resulted in little more the disconcerting image of a 20-year Red Sox star wearing a garish color that looks right only on a traffic cone. Maybe joining the Orioles was a sartorial mistake, and being a member of one organization for an entire career might have enhanced his legacy even further ... but Evans himself should never regret the decision from a baseball standpoint, because a review of the numbers suggest he did have something left to offer offensively.

While his power was all but a memory (he had a career low .378 slugging percentage), he had an adjusted OPS of 119, and his .393 on-base percentage with Baltimore in '91 was higher than every Red Sox regular he left behind other than Wade Boggs (.421). His .770 OPS was higher than Brunansky's .692, and while his replacement as the Red Sox' DH had a decent first season in Boston with 28 home runs, it's fair to say the majority of us would rather see 60-year-old Dwight Evans make the 2012 Red Sox' opening day roster than ever consider another moment of Jack Clark's Red Sox career. No regrets, Dewey. The '91 Orioles were terrible and their wardrobe hideous, but there's no shame in going out the way he did.

morganfinnjackson.jpg 1965 Joe Morgan

I imagine it's been said before, on the late, greatest blog and elsewhere, but it's so amazing that it bears repeating every once in a while: Joe Morgan the baseball player was pretty much the polar opposite of what he was as a broadcaster, and that is to say he was so consistently excellent and efficient that he's probably underrated even though he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8 percent of the vote.

Morgan was still a useful player even when age had sapped his power and speed -- in 1984, his final season, he had a .356 on-base percentage for the A's at age 40. And when he was in his prime and at his best, there wasn't a better offensive player in the game.

In 1976, his second straight MVP season, he batted .320 with 27 homers, 111 RBIs, 60 stolen bases (in 69 attempts.) He walked 114 times against 41 strikeouts, and led the majors in on-base percentage (.444), slugging (.576), OPS (1.020), and adjusted OPS (186). He even led the majors in sacrifice flies (12).

I can't decide whether it's sad or hilarious that Morgan's stubbornness in adhering to his narrow view of the game as a broadcaster seems to have prevented him from recognizing the broad excellence of his own career. Joe Posnanski summed it up perfectly a couple of years ago with this anecdote in a Gelf Magazine interview:

"Bill James tells a great story about how one time Jon Miller showEd Morgan Bill’s New Historical Baseball Abstract, which has Morgan ranked as the best second baseman of all time, ahead of Rogers Hornsby. Well, Morgan starts griping that this was ridiculous, that Hornsby hit .358 in his career, and Morgan never hit .358, and so on. And there it was, perfectly aligned—Joe Morgan the announcer arguing against Joe Morgan the player."

fiskfinncoop.jpg 1972 Carlton Fisk

A smaller tragedy of Thurman Munson's premature death: We missed out on the chance to watch the Yankees legend and his contemporary rival Fisk violently whack each other with canes Joe Kapp/Angelo Mosca-style at a banquet a dozen years from now.

Fisk, stoic and deliberate, looked like he was carved out of his native New Hampshire's granite, and his legend in New England would be permanent and secure even without the iconic home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. If you grew up here and didn't admire Pudge, chances are you didn't know the difference between Fenway Park and the Public Garden. It will always seem so wrong that he spent more years with the White Sox than the Red Sox. Thanks, Haywood.

Fisk isn't the only excellent player featured on this card who got away from the Red Sox. (Uh, not so fast there, Mike Garman.) Cecil Cooper was one of the finest hitters in the American League in the late '70s through the mid-'80s. In the 1980, he hit .352, finishing a mere 38 points behind George Brett for the batting crown.
From 1980-83, he finished fifth in the AL MVP voting three times, and eighth in another season. He led the league in RBIs twice (1980, '83). He won a pair of Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger awards. And it did it all for the Milwaukee Brewers, who acquired him from the Red Sox for George Scott and Bernie Carbo following the 1976 season.

It was a trade that worked for the Red Sox in the short-term -- Scott hit 33 homers in '77 -- and was an absolute disaster in the long-term. Scott's bat slowed and his waistline expanded, and he was out of the majors following the '79 season. Carbo was run off the team by Don Zimmer during the '78 season. Meanwhile, Cooper, who arrived in Boston amid the extraordinary influx of home-grown hitting talent in the early '70s (including Dwight Evans, Ben Oglivie, Juan Beniquez, and a bit later, Jim Rice and Fred Lynn), never quite found his niche as an everyday player with the Red Sox, and his reputation was dented by his 1-for-19 performance in the '75 World Series.

Curious about the line of thinking that went into the trade, I stumbled upon a March 30, 1977 column by Will McDonough in which he spoke to Cooper in Brewers spring training about the trade. Let's just say that Cooper had a knack for candor:

On his reaction to the trade: "In Boston, I always felt the pressure because if I didn't do it, they always had someone else around ready to do the job. If I didn't do well for a few games, I'd probably be sitting down. Here, I know I'm going to play all the time no matter what happens. If I don't do a good job, I know I'll be right back in the lineup the next day. But I do miss the guys on the Red Sox. It was always like family to me. I had a lot of close friends, Jim Rice, Lynn. I came up through the organization with those guys and I guess I just assumed I'd always be playing with them."

On the Red Sox lineup: "The Sox are going to score plenty of runs with that lineup. I think they should put Jimmy Rice in left field and let him play every day. I think Yaz could be the DH for 162 games and do the job. I worry about Jim having a weight problem if he doesn't play every day. And I'd like to see [Dwight] Evans stop worrying. He's a worry wart, and if he'd just forget all the little things and go out and play ball he'd be a great player."

On playing against the team he came up with: "I know playing first base, and being right near their dugout, I'm going to catch plenty of flak. Luis [Tiant] will be all over me. But I'll tell you what. I'm going to bash the ball. Just bash it."

Cooper was right about that. In his 125-game career against the Red Sox, he hit .315 with 19 homers, 89 RBIs, and an .864 OPS.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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