Thursday, May 27, 2010

Two Shy

Seventeen years ago today, Brave great Dale Murphy announced his retirement. Murphy, battling knee injuries, had been released by the Phillies at the beginning of the '93 season and was signed by the Rockies the very same day to serve as a right-handed hitter off the bench. With the Rockies, Dale only had 42 at bats, hitting .143 with no homers-leaving him two short of 400. Murph's last game was actually on May 21, 1993, when he went 0-3 with a strikeout against Orel Hershiser and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Facing Hershiser in the top of the seventh inning that night, Dale struck out swinging to end the inning. The strikeout would be his final at bat. Other finals for Dale: his last hit came on May 15, 1993 at Riverfront Stadium vs. the Reds- a single to center off of Tom Browning in the top of the second. His final home run came on May 9, 1992 while he was with the Phillies. Facing Craig Lefferts of the Padres, Dale supplied the Phillies with their only run that evening- homering to deep right with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Ironically, Murphy announced his retirement in the same city (Houston) where he found out he had been traded to the Phillies.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On This Day in 1953...

1953 Johnston Cookies Braves #11 Max Surkont

One of the most popular players for the Braves during the 1953 season, their first in Milwaukee, was pitcher Max Surkont. Max, a picture of perserverance, signed his first contract at the age of fifteen (with the Cardinals) and would not make his major league debut until twelve years later (and two years after that Max would become a regular starter in the majors). In August of 1950, he would be purchased from the White Sox and spend the next four seasons with the Braves. During that '53 season, Surkont won nine of his first ten decisions, including an Opening Day 2-0 win over the Redlegs-which was the very first major league game played in Milwaukee. But on May 25, 1953, Milwaukeeans, and the rest of the baseball world, would remember Surkont for something else. Surkont would beat the same Cincinnati team on the back end of a doubleheader to raise his record to 6-0, making baseball history in the process.

Max's historic night began in the second inning, as he struck-out (ironically) pitcher Herm Wehmeier to end the inning. Wehmeier would later become somewhat of a nemesis to the city of Milwaukee and their beloved franchise. He would be the man who in 1956 would not only snap Henry Aaron's 25 game hit streak, but would also break the heart of the Braves and their fans by defeating the Braves on the final Saturday of the '56 season- crushing their hopes of the N.L. pennant. But this night belonged to Max Surkont. After the first strikeout to end the second, Surkont would then go on to strike out the side in the third and fourth innings, tying the major league record for consecutive strikeouts at seven. In the bottom of the fourth inning, with Surkont at-bat, the rains came and time was called-putting the record in jeopardy. Thirty-three minutes later the game resumed, and while playing in a light rain Cincinnati came to back to bat in the top of the fifth. Andy Seminick would then strikeout to begin the inning, and Max Surkont had the record, as long as the game would become official. Immediately after the strikeout, time was once again called, causing Milwaukee manager Charlie Grimm to complain. Grimm's complaints worked, and the game once again resumed. The next two batters would be retired (although not by strike out) and the game would become official. There would be one more delay that night (of 40 minutes), and the Braves would go on to win 10-3 as Max Surkont finished with 13 K's. Max's record would stand for 17 years, until Tom Seaver would break it by striking out 10 hitters in a row.

The 1953 season would be Surkont's last one in Milwaukee, as he and five other players (along with $100,000) were traded the day after Christmas to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Danny O'Connnell. Max would pitch in the big leagues for four more seasons, but would never match the success he had in Milwaukee.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Are You Sure You Want to Invest in Bryce Harper Cards?

With the 2010 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft only two weeks away, we will (once again) begin hearing the hype surrounding the Washington Nationals and the #1 overall pick. It is presumed by most fans that 17 year-old phenom Bryce Harper will be the guy whose name is called first, although as recently as a few weeks ago the Nationals were denying that they had made up their minds.

I'm sure most collectors and baseball fans know all about the hype-machine of Harper, so I won't regurgitate all you've heard. What I will say is this: before you start chasing down all the over-priced Harper Chrome cards, Autographed this and that cards, and Relic cards, please join me in a stroll down memory lane.

1990 Topps #564- Tyler Houston

If you were a Braves fan back before the bandwagon started up, you might remember the name Tyler Houston. The year was 1989, and the Braves owned the second-overall pick in that June's amateur draft. With the first pick of the draft Baltimore took RHP Ben McDonald, who was as highly touted (if not more highly touted) as last year's number one pick, Stephen Strasburg. Had McDonald not been draft-elgible, then Tyler Houston would have easily gone number one overall. Houston, like Harper, was a phenom catcher who came from the Las Vegas area. As a senior, he had led his high school team to a 31-5 record on their way to the Nevada State Championship. He was also named the 1989 High School Player of the Year by USA Today. Known for his prodigous power (hitting bombs that were estimated at nearly 500 ft), Tyler's senior year stats were very "Harper-esque", 131 AB, 50 R, 61 H, 8 2B, 4 3B, 13 HR, 66 RBI, 23 SB, .885 SLG, 18 BB, 7K, .466 AVG. Not only that, but at 6'1 and 205 lbs. Tyler was a pretty awesome speciman. He WAS Bryce Harper before the College of Southern Nevada star was even born!

So, as providence would have it, Houston was taken by the Braves with the number two overall pick in '89. The Braves, who had scouted Houston for three years (!), thought they had drafted a catcher who would become a future All-Star. Scouting Director Paul Snyder, Jr. was asked if Tyler was a lock to make the majors, and he responded by saying you can't project a lock, but that "probably the safest draft pick you can make is to choose a catcher who is an above average receiver and an above average thrower." Houston fit that description, and then some. Bobby Cox, who was GM for the Braves at the time, said "it shouldn't take him long to go to the top of his class in his profession." They paid the kid a then N.L. record $241,500 signing bonus and sent him to Idaho Falls to play in the Pioneer League. While there, the opposing teams would welcome him at the plate with Pink Floyd's "Money". So goes the life of a "Bonus Baby".

Yogi Berra was once quoted as saying "it's tough to make predictions-especially about the future." But from listening to those within the Braves organization and around baseball, Houston was going to be an All-Star. Problem was, Tyler got off the bus somewhere on the road to the hall-of-fame. He kicked around the minors for a number of years before finally making his big league debut in 1996. Twenty-Five games into his major league debut-season, he was traded to the Cubs and then went on to play for four more organizations, never fulfilling the stardom that his immense talent promised.

Looking back in hind sight, it is easy to say that the Braves blew it when they passed on local Georgian and future Hall-of-Fame first baseman Frank Thomas (#7 to the White Sox) and a future All-Star catcher Charles Johnson (#10 to Expos). Scouting a player is not an exact science, however, and at the time Houston seemed to be the logical choice. Tyler Houston did make the majors and played eight seasons in the show, two of which were fairly productive. Bryce Harper might well be "all-world" and be worth every penny that Scott Boras will suck from whomever it is that picks Harper this June. I just wouldn't invest much money in his cardboard.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Walk-Off This Way

Okay, so I stole the title from ESPN's Baseball tonight, but it seems fitting after the Braves won in their last at-bat for the third consecutive day (and the eighth time this season) today.

Now, would Topps PLEASE make a card of Brooks Conrad? The guy is coming up big this year and is looking like a nice alternative at third base right now. I haven't come across any cards of Brook in a Braves uniform-does anyone know of any? Let's hope that he's included in the Topps Update set later this year.

Be sure to check out Conrad at about 1:58- he thought it was caught and gave up on it. Classic!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

50 Year Counterparts, Pt. 5

In the latest installment of 50-Year Counterparts, we will be looking at two speedy outfielders: Al Spangler from the 1961 Milwaukee Braves and this years Braves’ center-fielder, Nate McLouth.

1961 Topps #73 Al Spangler

Much like his career, this '61 Topps Spangler card can be described as decent, but unspectacular.

Coming into the 1961 season, Al Spangler spent the previous two seasons in Milwaukee as a reserve outfielder. Originally signed by the Braves in 1954, Spangler had been an All-American in college at Duke University and then broke into the majors in 1959. The 1960 season saw Al get 105 AB while appearing in 101 games. Seven of his twenty-eight hits that year would go for extra bases (5-2B, 2-3B), and being a slap hitter, this was pretty much the norm for his career. During the summer of 61, Spangler turned in another mediocre year offensively: 68 games, 125 plate appearances, .268 BA, and a .432 OBP (helped by 28 BB), yet continued his fine fielding by posting a 1.000 fielding percentage. The 1961 season was Spangler’s third and final season as a Brave, as he was drafted on October 10, 1961 with the 8th pick in the expansion draft by the Houston Colt .45’s. The next three seasons in Houston would be his best as a pro, and he actually led the .45’s in hitting their first two seasons.

Perhaps the highlight of Al’s major-league career came on June 2, 1969, when as a member of the Chicago Cubs, he went 3 for 5 with 2 home runs (his only 2 homer game as a major leaguer) and 4 RBI. Who were the victims that fateful day? Yep, the Atlanta Braves.

After retiring Al went on to become a legendary high school baseball coach in Huffman, Texas- so revered was he that they named their field after him. One of Al’s former players was former major league closer Keith Foulke.

2010 Topps Heritage #73 Nate McLouth

Similar to Spangler in stature and speed, Nate McLouth patrols CF for this years Braves team. Like the former Brave, Nate possesses a fine glove (he won an N.L. Gold Glove while with the Pirates in 2008) and appears to be on pace for the same type of .262 career batting average as Spangler. One advantage McLouth has over his counterpart is in the power department- Nate hit more homers in one year (26 in 2008) than Al Spangler had his entire thirteen-year career (21). And, in case you missed it earlier this year, Nate the Great likes to celebrate his ‘walk-off’ homers solo-style.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero

While this has nothing to do with baseball cards, I wanted to post a review of David Maraniss' 2006 biography of Roberto Clemente. Maraniss is a fine writer who has won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, and is currently an associate editor for the Washington Post. He was also the author of the critically acclaimed When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi.

Most baseball fans are familiar with the on-the-field acclomplishments of Clemente, as well as with his legendary arm and hitting prowess. Likewise, most have also heard of his compassion for the poor and neglected, a compassion which led to his death. What Maraniss has done in his book is paint a picture of a very complex man, one whose character often seemed contradictory. Clemete was obviously blessed with amazing talent that was shown on the baseball field, but one gets the impression that much of his success was fueled by an anger brought about because of the times he played in: black and Latin players were still often ignored, stereotyped, and misunderstood.

As much as I love baseball and learning its history, I think the importance of this book is found not in the history of the game, but elsewhere: the social commentary of the times Clemente played in, the desire of the man to use his fame and fortune for a greater good, and the corruption and negligence that led to the tragic death of Momen, Roberto Clemente. The author is to be commended for painting a picture of Clemente as he was- a man who had many admirable qualities as well as many shortcomings.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Trip to Target

So we were out getting groceries tonight, when my daughter declares that she wants to stop by Michaels craft store. Realizing that it was close to Target, I selfishly agreed (well, I did need to pick something up there...wink, wink) and pulled up to the giant retailer - not seeing the irony that as one with a baseball card jones', I was the one wearing the bulls-eye. Strolling towards the card aisle, I was hoping that somehow the 2010 Bowman retail boxes would be live, especially after all the hype that's been out on the internet with its release. It wasn't available, but I did find some National Chicle. Now as I've said elsewhere, I have not been excited by any of the newer "neo-vintage" stuff (save Topps Heritage),and I have especially been turned off with the Chicle brand. But I couldn't fight the urge to buy a couple of packs and doing so I felt the shame as I ran my card through the machine. My shame deepened as I kept the packs concealed until we could get home so I could get my fix in private. Much to my surprise, I actually pulled a few cards that I thought were worthwhile.

Pack #1
There was this Jimmy Rollins, card #157

J.D. Drew #192

This beauty:
#222 Lou Brock

For my darker side there's this one....
#205 John Danks

#286 George Sisler SP (another beauty, but can't show 'em all!)
#203 Edison Volquez
Checklist #1 of 2

Pack #2

#187 Joe Saunders- a card that will undoubtedly find its way into the hands of endued.
#217 Frank Robinson
#260 Drew Stubbs
#110 Curtis Granderson
#329 Juan Francisco-
With all respect, this is a horrible piece of 'art'!

and what has to be the ugliest card of them all (and arguably the ugliest card ever)...

#258 Gordon Beckham

Still kinda bummed that I didn't get the Warren Spahn card- it and the Eddie Mathews cards are the only ones I really want out of this set.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Thanks Mom...For Throwing Out My Cards!

With Mother's Day being a few minutes away, I thought what better time than to login to Topps' Million Card Giveaway website to redeem one of those cards that my mother supposedly threw out. As I viewed their homepage, I noticed some of the most recent unlocked cards included two from the '50s, one from 1976, and many from 1979. Ah, what the heck, I asked myself. So after punching in my lottery number-er, special code- low and behold I got....a 1979 Mike Lum, card #556.

This is the second player I have unlocked who at one time in his career played for the Braves (the other being Rico Carty). Lum appeared on Topps cards while he was with the Braves: first, from 1969-1976 and then again in the 1980 and 1981 issues. The irony here is that though Lum's 1979 card pictured him with the Reds, he actually spent the season playing for, yes- you guessed it, the Bravos. Sigh... I could have used any of those '69-76 cards.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mile-High Murphy

After perusing White Sox Cards' entry on the 1993 Topps Traded "Cards That Never Were" of Dale Murphy, I was inspired to go digging through my Dale Murphy collection for other cards showing Dale with the Colorado Rockies. Murph was signed as a free-agent by the Rockies after being released by the Phillies at the start of the 1993 season. Twenty-Six games later, Dale’s incredible career came to an end after hitting only .143 in 42 AB- two homers short of 400. While I would love to have the creation of White Sox Cards in my collection, I will settle for the following 1993 cards depicting Murphy in the black and purple:

1993 Upper Deck #706

1993 Fleer Ultra #353

1993 Score Pinnacle “Cooperstown Card” #5 of 30
One of my favorites of Dale (even if it is in a Rockies uniform!) The back of this card sums up Murphy.

I guess at this point in Dale's career, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson had it right: "Good guys wear black."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

50 Year Counterparts, Pt. 4

1961 Topps #390

The tools of ignorance were adorned primarily by Del Crandall for the Braves from 1949-1950 & 1953-1960. Shoulder problems would keep him out for most of the 1961 season, giving future-Hall of Fame Manager Joe Torre his first real shot as a major leaguer. Torre, in fact, would finish second to Billy Williams in the 1961 Rookie of the Year voting. (Unfortunately, there was no card from the 1961 Topps set of then-rookie Joe Torre. If I can someday purchase a copy of Photoshop, that's the first project on my list of "Cards That Never Were.")

A perennial All-Star, Crandall was one of the top defensive catchers in the N.L., had a very strong arm (he threw out 46% of would-be basestealers), and was a four-time gold glove award winner. His reputation of being one of the best at calling a game was evidenced by the Braves' staff finishing either first or second in ERA five times over a six-year period, and in that he caught three no-hitters in his career (two of them coming in less than a month apart).

1961 Topps #583

While he was primarily known for his defensive prowess, Del was no slouch at the plate. His 175 homers were fourth highest in NL history at the time of his retirement and he had a good eye at the plate (he only had 53 more strikeouts than walks).

For those who collect autographs, Mr. Crandall will be signing at an upcoming Waukesha Sportcards private signing June 23rd. You can get more info here.

Current Braves backstop Brian McCann could be defined as the antithesis of Crandall. While McCann has made the All-Star team each of his full four-seasons, it has been his bat that has gotten him there. A career .293 hitter, Brian is a three-time Silver Slugger Award winner and has hit 91 home runs in 2123 AB. Defensively, he is not horrible, but his future may be at first base- especially with Christian Bethancourt developing very nicely in the minors.
2010 Topps Heritage #390
While not exactly the most exciting card from this year's Heritage set, Brian most certainly looks like the smartest player in the league, kinda like one of those cool urban types. This past offseason he had laser surgery to correct his vision and hasn't been sporting the glasses, but it appears his early struggles this year are attributed to having gone without them. It was announced today that Brian would be wearing the eyeglasses again, so I'm guessing that we might see him wearing them on future cards.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Prospect of the Week: Julio Teheran

2009 Bowman Prospects #BP4 Blue #490/500

Widely regarded as the top pitching prospect in the Braves minor league system, Julio Teheran has done nothing yet this year to diminish that title. The nineteen year-old native of Columbia began the 2010 season in LoA Rome, where he finished the '09 season, and through his first 5 starts has posted some very impressive numbers: 1-2, 1.03 ERA, 26.1 IP, 30 K, 3.08 BB/9, 10.25 SO/9, and a 0.84 WHIP.

Signed out of Columbia at age 16 for $850,000 , Julio possesses a low- to mid-90s fastball, an outstanding changeup, and a solid curveball to compliment them with. Having had shoulder problems in the past, the Braves will be keeping a close eye on his innings and with the surplus of arms in the Braves organization, Teheran will have plenty of time to develop, enabling him to be better prepared for when he finally reaches the Show.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em, Jim

The original "smoking man"-Detroit Tiger manager Jim Leyland- is known for his love of cigarettes, and as of today, May 1st, he will no longer be able to smoke at the Tigers home field. That's because a new Michigan law goes into effect today that bans smoking from public places, effectually "snuffing out" the habit of Leyland lightin' up in the dugout during Detroit games. While I don't watch many Tiger games, it is almost like the end of an era as I vividly remember the days when the Braves and Leyland's-then Pittsburgh Pirates would battle it out for the NL Pennant. And just as surely as pitching coach Leo Mazzone would start his trademark rocking motions, so too would would the camera catch Leyland lighting up. Aahh...I can almost smell the smoke now...(cough, cough)

Anyhows, I hear so much talk about how card companies need to do something innovative- and I think I've got an original idea: In honor of Jim Leyland, I would like to suggest a game-smoked cigarette butt of Leyland inserted into a pack. Wouldn't that be ironic? Having ciggies in packs of baseball cards, where the cards were one time inserted into packs of cigarettes? It would be as Yogi Berra once said, "it's like deja-vu all over again."