A Quarter-Century After the Cardboard, Volume 2

For the first installment of this series, click HERE. Thanks for all the great comments on that post, and feel free to comment freely on this one as well (your memories of ’87 Topps, the players involved, the Minor League teams involved, etc). 

25 years ago this month, Topps’ 1987 baseball card set was unleashed upon the world. I was eight years old at the time, and like many others of similar age and disposition I quickly became obsessed with this 792-card collection.

The cards were sold in iconic green wax packs, at a cost of 40 cents per:

And the cards contained therein? They were far more memorable than Steve Carlton’s stint as a member of the Chicago White Sox, that’s for sure.

With the exception of the indomitable Jamie Moyer (aiming for a 2012 comeback at the age of 49!), all of the players contained in the set have long since retired. But many are still within the professional ranks, working as Minor League managers and coaches. This series of blog posts represents an attempt to bring the general public up to speed on who among the 792 are currently toiling within the vast world of Minor League Baseball.

Volume 2: Players Now Coaching in an AL Central Organization

Card #21 — Mark Davis

Then: Left-handed reliever, San Francisco Giants

Probably the most eye-catching stat on the back of Davis’ 1987 Topps card was the fact that he led the league in earned runs allowed in 1984 (as part of a miserable 5-17, 5.34 campaign). But before the decade was out, he went on to win a National League Cy Young Award as a member of the Padres (he led the league with 44 saves). This was clearly the highlight of Davis’ career, but he pitched through the 1994 season and then made a short-lived comeback with the Brewers in ’97.

Now: Pitching coach, Arizona League Royals (Rookie-level affiliate, Kansas City Royals)

Davis, a professional coach for more than a decade,  is still listed as a member of the AZL Royals staff.  He’ll end up somewhere in the Royals system in 2012 (most likely a short-season club), teaching Kansas City prospects how to win Cy Young Awards while avoiding leading the league in earned runs allowed.

Card #61 — Bobby Thigpen

Then: Right-handed reliever, Chicago White Sox

This was Bobby Thigpen’s rookie card, as he debuted with the Sox in August of 1986 and went on to post a 1.77 ERA while accumulating seven saves over 20 appearances. This was a harbinger of things to come — in 1990, he recorded 57 saves to establish a new Major League record. Thigpen’s final appearance was with the 1994 Seattle Mariners, a stint that lasted all of 7 2/3 innings.

Now: Pitching coach, Birmingham Barons (Double-A affiliate, Chicago White Sox)

2012 will mark Thigpen’s debut as the Barons’ pitching coach (after three years with the Winston-Salem Dash), but he’s no stranger to Birmingham. Before getting his call-up to the White Sox, he spent the 1986 season within the Barons’ starting rotation (going 8-11 while toeing the mound at venerable Rickwood Field).

Card #246 — Jim Dwyer

Then: Outfielder/First Baseman/Pinch Hitter, Baltimore Orioles

One of the most effective pinch-hitters of the ’70s and ’80s, Dwyer played 18 seasons in the Majors before finally retiring at the age of 40 in 1990. He never exceeded 300 at-bats in a season, and ranks 17th on the all-time pinch-hit list with 103. 1987 marked his seventh and final full season with the Orioles, during which he slugged a career-high 15 homers (while, improbably, only driving in 33 runs in the process. Is this the fewest RBIs ever in a season in which a player hit at least 15 home runs? Someone out there has the answer; could it be you?)

Rock Solid: Dwyer, circa now

Now: Hitting coach, Fort Myers Miracle (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Minnesota Twins)

Dwyer, who for reasons I’m unable to ascertain is nicknamed “Pig Pen,” wasted no time in transitioning to a coaching career. He coached for Triple-A Portland in 1991, and then managed for three seasons in the Midwest League before becoming the Twins’ Minor League hitting coordinator. Since 2006 he has taught the tools of the trade with the Fort Myers Miracle.

Card #247 Jeff Reed

Then: Catcher, Minnesota Twins

Reed made his Major League debut in 1984, but his first appearance on a Topps card was this pensive-looking number seen above. He ended up carving out a surprisingly long career, appearing with six teams over 17 seasons before finally hanging ‘em up in 2000 at the age of 37. In his career he appeared in 1071 games as a catcher — good for 94th all time (but first in our hearts).

Now: The coaching staff of the Elizabethton Twins is nothing if not consistent. Ray Smith has managed or coached with the club since 1987, with Jim Shellenback serving as pitching coach for 16 seasons before retiring in 2011. And then there’s Reed, who has coached the club’s hitters since 2002 while dispensing invaluable catching advice to those for whom said advice is applicable.

Card #290 — Leon Durham

A Starting Lineup figurine come to life: Durham in '86

Then: First baseman, Chicago Cubs

Durham was a fixture of the Cubs’ starting line-up from 1981-87, and during this time he enjoyed five 20-home run seasons. He was an All-Star in ’82 and ’83, but his best season was ’84 (.279-23-96). Durham both began and ended his career with the Cardinals, however — making his first MLB appearance on May 27, 1980 and his last on Sept. 17, 1989.

Now: Hitting coach, Toledo Mud Hens (Triple-A affiliate, Detroit Tigers)

The back of Durham’s 1987 card notes that he is “affectionately” known as ‘The Bull.’” This is an obvious nickname so far as baseball monikers go (Bull Durham, get it?) and one that has stuck with him. These days “Bull” Durham works as a hitting coach for the Toledo Mud Hens, who play in the same league as the Durham Bulls. He has held this position since 2001, making him one of the longest-tenured coaches in the International League.

Card #298 — Larry Herndon

Then: Outfielder, Detroit Tigers

Herndon played 14 seasons at the Major League level, largely split between San Francisco and Detroit. 1987 was his penultimate campaign, during which he hit a stellar .324 over 89 ballgames. Throughout his career his output was steady, but never spectacular. 162-game averages: 11 home runs, 58 RBIs, 10 stolen bases.

Now: Hitting coach, Lakeland Flying Tigers (Class A Advanced affiliate, Detroit Tigers)

Having stolen 32 bases over seven seasons with Detroit, Herndon was hardly a “Flying Tiger.” Yet that is the uniform he wears these days, tutoring Tigers’ prospects at the Class A Advanced level. Herndon has worked in this capacity since 2005, a somewhat significant downgrade from his seven-year stint (’92-’98) coaching at the big league level in Detroit.

Card #626 – Joel Skinner

Then: Catcher, New York Yankees

Skinner, the son of Major Leaguer Bob Skinner, enjoyed a nine-year career as a big league catcher. 1986 represented a high water mark (at least in terms of playing time), as the then-25-year-old split the season between Chicago and New York en route to setting career highs in games (114), at-bats (336), hits (73), home runs (5), and RBIs (37). He last played in the Majors as a member of the 1991 Indians, and his final professional appearance was with the 1994 Charlotte Knights. Speaking of which…

Now: Manager, Charlotte Knights (Triple-A affiliate, Chicago White Sox)

Skinner has been managing in the pros since 1995, when he piloted the now-defunct Watertown Indians of the New York-Penn League. He went on to log quite a bit of time at the big league level, as interim manager of the 2002 Indians and, later, a coach. 2012 will be his first season in Charlotte, aside from that six-game stint as a player in 1994.

Card #696 — Gary Lucas

Then: Left-handed reliever, California Angels

Quick! Who led the National League in games pitched during the strike-truncated season of 1981? It was, of course, Mr. Gary Lucas, who appeared in 57 games as a member of the San Diego Padres. He was effective throughout that campaign (compiling a 2.00 ERA), and, moreover, was effective throughout his eight-season career. 1987 was Lucas’ final season; he went 1-5 with a 3.63 ERA over 48 appearances with the Angels.

Bid for this card on eBay!

Now: Pitching coach, Beloit Snappers (Class A affiliate, Minnesota Twins)

Lucas joined the coaching ranks in 1991 with the San Jose Giants, and has gone on to work in Clinton, Quad Cities, and New Britain. He’s helped to coax Beloit Snappers hurlers out of their shells since 2008, so that their pitches will have more bite.

Card #720 — Richard Dotson

Then: Right-handed starter, Chicago White Sox

A staple of the White Sox’s rotation throughout much of the ’80s, Dotson was coming off a season in which he led the American League with 17 losses (this coming three years after his 22-7 record in ’83). He finished his career as a member of the 1991 Kansas City Royals, an unfortunate eight-game stint that pushed his career mark below .500 (he went 0-4, to finish at 111-113).

Now: Pitching coach, Charlotte Knights (Triple-A affiliate, Chicago White Sox)

Skinner and Dotson were batterymates on those mid-80s Chi-town squads, and now they are re-united in Charlotte. But, unlike Skinner, Dotson isn’t a Charlotte newcomer. He’s served as the Knights pitching coach since 2007.

(personal aside: In the song “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit,” I used to think Rza’s verse contained the lyric “Causin’ more family feuds than Richard Dotson.”

Card #762 — Gary Ward


Then: Outfielder, Texas Rangers

A late bloomer by the standards of professional baseball, Gary Ward didn’t have his breakout season until age 28 as a member of the1982 Minnesota Twins (.289-28-91). His ’87 Topps card depicts him as a member of the Rangers, but on Christmas Eve of 1986 he signed with the Yankees as a free agent. He went on to play three seasons in the Bronx, before finishing his career as a member of the 1990 Detroit Tigers.

Now: Hitting coach, Winston-Salem Dash (Class A Advanced affiliate, Chicago White Sox)

Ward started his professional coaching career in 1998 with Port St. Lucie, and 2012 marks the first time since that stint that he’s worked at the Class A Advanced level. In between, gigs as Charlotte’s hitting coach have  sandwiched a big league job with the White Sox as well as an assistant position at the collegiate level. Gary’s son, Darryl, went on to play in the Majors as well, and Baseball Reference notes that Pete Incaviglia, Rickey Henderson, and Kevin Brown were teammates of both Wards.

Card #776 — Tom Brunansky

Then: Outfielder, Minnesota Twins

Brunansky was at the peak of his powers in 1987, a year in which he slugged 32 home runs as a member of the World Champion Minnesota Twins. This marked the seventh of eight consecutive seasons in which he hit 20 or more homers, and he retired in 1994 with an impressive 271.

Now: Hitting coach, Rochester Red Wings (Triple-A affiliate, Minnesota Twins)

Brunansky returned to the Twins organization in 2010, coaching in the Gulf Coast League. He was promoted to Double-A New Britain in 2011, and in 2012 will serve as the hitting coach for Triple-A Rochester. In his coaching career, Brunansky has thus far shown no inclination to return to his glory days as one of baseball’s most formidable mustachioed men.

This train’s just gonna keep on rollin’! Stay tuned next week for Volume 3: Players now coaching in AL West organizations.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

8 Comments

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Ben, these posts are just wonderful. They conjure up vivid memories for me of you lying on your bed or the living room floor reading the backs of your cards. It never ceased to amaze me how you could recall the stats and how much pleasure you got from studying them. I remember the anticipation when you opened a new pack and discovered which cards were in there. This is prompting me to want to page through the old photo albums and just sit for awhile with cherished memories I have of the earlier days with you and your brothers. Thanks.
Obviously, Mom

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All of this blog was well written. Fast and fun read. Passionate posts. You have a thoughtful web site. Kudos!

Thanks for reading, and for the kind words. It’s much appreciated.

All of your Posts were pretty passionate. Fun read. Knowledgeble information. I found your Blog a work of love. Keep up the good work. Good Job!

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