A Quarter-Century After the Cardboard, Volume 4

For the first installments of this series, click HERE and HERE and HERE. Thanks for all the great feedback thus far, 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, quite simply, destined for baseball immortality.

With the exception of aspiring Colorado Rockie Jamie Moyer, 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 4: Players Now Coaching In An NL East Organization

Card #48 Wally Backman

Then: Second baseman, New York Mets

Action shots are few and far between in the 1987 Topps set as a whole, but if anyone was going to be shown kicking up dirt it may as well have been Wally Backman. The diminutive (by baseball standards) infielder personified the gritty determination of the equally beloved and despised mid-80s Mets. ’87 would be his eighth season with the club, and he then went on to stints in Pittsburgh, Philly, and, finally, Seattle.

Now: Manager, Buffalo Bisons (Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets)

You could practically make a movie out of Backman’s managerial career. It starts off with four seasons (1997-2000) in the independent leagues, during which he was nearly killed by a spider bite. He recovered, of course, and broke into the affiliated ranks with Winston-Salem in 2001. This led to a rapid ascent up the ladder, culminating with the November 2004 hiring as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This was not to be, however, after it was quickly revealed that Backman had a criminal record and had filed for bankruptcy. The Diamondback, embarrassed, quickly fired Backman and he next surfaced as an independent league manager/reality TV star (note: NSFW).

And now? Now he’s back with the same Metropolitans organization that drafted him way back in 1977. Backman managed the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2010, Binghamton in 2011, and next year he’ll be leading the Triple-A Bisons of Buffalo. Could a big league job be next? If so, you know the NYC tabloids will go with: WALLY’S BACK, MAN!

Card #135 Mike Easler

Easler, coiled and ready to strike

Then: Outfielder/Designated Hitter, New York Yankees

Easler played 14 Major League seasons, but it certainly took him a while to find his footing: between 1973 and 1979 he only appeared in 112 games (total), but from 1980-87 he was a regular with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and (briefly) Philadelphia Phillies. When this card was produced Easler was coming off a solid 1986 campaign in the Bronx (.302-.362-.449), but 1987 was nonetheless his final campaign. All told, he accumulated 1078 hits and retired with an average of .293.

Now: Hitting coach, Buffalo Bisons (Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets)

Easler was known as “The Hit Man” during his career, so it’s fitting that his current occupation is teaching others how to be better “hit men.” 2012 marks his second campaign as the Bisons’ hitting coach, the most recent stop in a decades long coaching career that has included stints in the Florida State, Southern, and Pacific Coast Leagues as well as the independent Frontier and Atlantic. And in addition to all that, he spent 1992 as the Brewers hitting coach and 1993 with the Red Sox.

Card #310 Frank Viola

Then: Left-handed starting pitcher, Minnesota Twins

“Sweet Music” Viola played 15 seasons in the Majors, and from 1984-93 was one of the premier pitchers in Major League Baseball. He won the 1988 A.L. Cy Young after going 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA for the Twins, and logged another 20-win campaign as a member of the 1990 Mets. Viola was a workhorse, too — from 1984 through ’92 he never pitched less than 231 innings in a season!

Frank Viol' Blue Eyes

Now: Pitching coach, Brooklyn Cyclones (Class A Short-Season affiliate, New York Mets)

After some time spent coaching prep school and in collegiate leagues, Viola re-emerged with the Mets organization last season as pitching coaching for the short-season Cyclones. As a New York native who later pitched for St. John’s University, this was a homecoming of sorts for the now 51-year-old. And, as the picture above makes clear, Viola is still a proud proponent of upper lip hair. Some things never go out of style.

Card #408 John Mizerock

Then: Catcher, Houston Astros

Mizerock’s time in the Major Leagues was brief, as over four seasons (1983, ’85-86, ’89) he appeared in just 103 games. This card was produced after a 1986 campaign in which he set career-highs in games (44) and plate appearances (107), although he hit just .185. But — and this is a significant “but” — he walked 24 times and finished the season with an on-base percentage (.374) that was more than double his average! Mizerock spent the remainder of his career in the Atlanta organization, mostly with Triple-A Richmond.

Now: Hitting Coach, Clearwater Threshers (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies)

Mizerock has had a long and varied post-playing career, managing in the Northwest, Midwest, Carolina, Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues as well as stints as the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen coach, third base coach, and even interim manager (for 13 games in 2002). 2011 marked his first season teaching swing science to Clearwater batsmen, and he’ll pick up where he left off in 2012.

Card #454 Luis Salazar

Then: Third baseman/shortstop/outfielder Chicago White Sox

Although the reasons why are lost to time (injury, most likely), Salazar only played four games for the White Sox during the 1986 season. But Topps, possessing a generous nature and genial disposition, included him in the 1987 set anyway. In the card, Salazar sports a perplexed look and is gazing into the distance. Perhaps he knew that his time with the White Sox was coming to a close? In April of 1987 he signed with the Padres (who he had played for from 1980-1984), and from there he went on Detroit, San Diego (again!) and Chicago’s North Side before hanging up his cleats following the 1992 campaign. All told, he had played in 1302 games over the course of 13 seasons.

Now: Manager, Lynchburg Hillcats (Class A Advanced affiliate, Atlanta Braves)

Salazar’s managerial career dates back to 1996, and he has logged time in all areas of the country and all levels of play. He became a national news story last March, however, after he was struck in the face by a foul ball in the dugout while coaching for the Atlanta Braves during Spring Training.  The impact was so severe that he ended up having his left eye removed, but less than a month later he resumed managerial duties for Lynchburg. He’ll be back in 2012, now possessing one of the most harrowing — yet ultimately triumphant — stories in all of professional sports.

Card #651 Benny Distefano

Then: First baseman, outfielder, pinch-hitter, Pittsburgh Pirates

First of all, let’s all wish Benny Distefano a very happy birthday – this past Monday (January 23) he turned 50 years young. But a quarter century ago he was only a quarter of a century old, and coming off a season in which he appeared in 31 games for the Pirates. This was par for the course for Distefano, who played in the Majors in 1984, 1986, 1988-89, and 1992. In between these sporadic stints in “The Show” he spent time in some exceedingly diverse Triple-A locales: Hawaii, Vancouver, Buffalo, and Tuscon among them.

And this is worth noting: On the back of this baseball card, it is noted that “Benny’s leisure activities include dancing.” For a humorous analysis of this, and much more, click HERE.

Now: Hitting coach, Savannah Sand Gnats

Dancin’ Distefano is two-steppin’ his way through America, with recent gigs including the GCL Tigers (2006), West Michigan Whitecaps (2007-08), Brooklyn Cyclones (2010) and now, Savannah. That Brooklyn stint must have been particularly meaningful to Benny — that’s where he’s from, after all, and it was in that borough that he first made a name for himself as a Cyclone of the dance floor.

Card #667 Ron Hassey

Then: Catcher, Chicago White Sox

In 1986 Hassey was part of a trade deadline deal, one that sent him from the Bronx to Chicago’s South Side. And once he arrived he came on like gangbusters, hitting a robust .353 over 49 games. Hassey returned to the ChiSox in 1987, then spent three years with the “Bash Brothers”-era Oakland A’s dynasty before wrapping things up in 1991 as a 38-year-old Montreal Expo. He caught Dennis Martinez’s perfect game that year, making him the only backstop in history to be behind the plate for two (he caught Len Barker’s while with the Indians in 1981).

Hassey, with his previous club the Jupiter Hammerheads

Now: Manager, New Orleans Zephyrs (Triple-A affiliate of the New Orleans Zephyrs)

Hassey has had a long and winding post-playing career, working as a scout, front office executive, Major League coach and Minor League manager. The 2012 campaign will be his first in New Orleans, no word yet on whether he’ll demand that nutria be served as part of the post-game clubhouse spread.

Card #680 Ryne Sandberg

Then: Second Baseman, Chicago Cubs

Now here’s a man who needs no introduction. Sandberg, one of the preeminent infielders of the late 20th-century, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition of a distinguished 16-season Major League career (2386 hits, 282 home runs, 10 consecutive All-Star Game appearances, eight consecutive Gold Gloves and one MVP Award). When the above card was produced Sandberg was coming off a relatively lackluster season (.284-14-76), at least by his elevated standards.

Hall of Fame attire?

Now: Manager, Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies)

After some time away from the game, Sandberg embarked on his Minor League career in 2007 and systematically worked his way through the Cubs system (Class A Peoria in 2007-08, Double-A Tennessee in 2009, Triple-A Iowa in 2010). In the eyes of many observers (that’s what people with eyes do — they observe), Sandberg was in line to be named the Cubs’ manager in 2011 after Lou Pinella departed during the 2010 campaign.

But it was not to be. Chicago went with Mike Quade, and Sandberg defected to the same organization that first drafted him in 1978 — the Philadelphia Phillies. 2012 will mark his second season at the helm of the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, but he continues to be “in-the-mix” when it comes to big league managerial openings. His time will come — make no bones about it.

Four down, two to go! When I started this particular blog series, I had no idea what a monstrous undertaking it would be. But there’s no turning back now! To those who have stuck with it, I commend you.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

4 Comments

Love the ’87 Topps Set. I remember when I first saw the ‘Woodies’ and I thought of the ’62s. Bought my first packs of ’87 Topps at Jolly Jug liquor on Reseda for 40 cents a pack… got a Rose Manager card in my very first pack!

Great cards, and great memories. Benny was gold when he was with the Whitecaps. So nice to the fans, and I have a great pic of him and my daughter signed by him(two left handed catchers!). He always seemed to be having fun in his job, and I was sad to see him leave West Michigan.
We met Ryno a couple of times while he was managing Peoria, and he was always good to the fans, too. Long lineups for his autograph, though!!
–Mike
‘Minoring In Baseball’

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