A Quarter-Century After the Cardboard, Volume 5

For the first installments of this series, click HERE and HERE and HERE, and HERE. Thanks for all the great feedback thus far, and, please, comment freely on this one as well! (Your memories of ’87 Topps, the players involved, the Minor League teams involved, why some random blogger is devoting so much time to this, 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? Despite their age, they remain formidable:

With the exception of the indefatigable Jamie Moyer (quarante-neuf ans jeune!), 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 5: Players Now Coaching In An NL Central Organization

Card #65 Tom Browning

Then: Left-handed starter, Cincinnati Reds

Browning appeared in 302 games over his 12-season Major League career (1984-95), 300 of which were with the Reds. From 1985-91 he was an absolute workhorse, leading the league in games started four times and topping 225 innings pitched in six of those seasons. Browning won 20 games as a 25-year-old in his rookie season of 1985, and in 1988 pitched a perfect game against the eventual World Champion Dodgers. Impressive feats, both.

Now: Pitching coach, Dayton Dragons (Class A Affiliate, Cincinnati Reds)

After some managerial gigs in the independent leagues, Browning returned to the Cincinnati organization in 2008. He spent two seasons in Billings (a job that allowed him to visit his Casper, WY hometown on road trips) and then two more in the sweltering backlots of the Arizona League.  2012 marks a significant upgrade for him, then — he’ll be working with young hurlers in Dayton, home to the perpetually sold-out Dragons.

Card #199 Mariano Duncan

Then: Shortstop/Second Baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers

As one who grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, I’ll always remember Duncan for his 1992-95 stint with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a key member of the pennant-winning ’93 Phils, platooning at second base with Mickey Morandini and, most memorably, hitting a game-winning grand slam against Lee Smith on Mother’s Day. But before these exploits in the City of Brotherly love, Duncan was a Dodger. He made his debut in 1985 and received a lot of playing time (appearing in a career-high 142 games that season), but his lack of efficiency was so pronounced that by 1988 he was back in the Minors. He returned to LA in ’89, then went to Cincinnati, then the aforementioned City of Brotherly Love, then back to Cincinnati, then the Bronx, and, finally, Toronto. All told, he played in 1279 games over 12 seasons.

Now: Hitting coach, Tennessee Smokies (Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs)

Upon retiring, Duncan returned to the Dodgers organization that had originally drafted him. He worked his way up through the system and in 2006 returned to LA for a five-season run as the team’s first base coach. 2011 marked his first campaign with the Smokies (and within the Cubs organization), and he’ll return for more of the same in 2012.

Card #252 Dennis Martinez

Then: Right-handed starter, Montreal Expos

Martinez enjoyed a stellar 23-season career in the Majors, playing past his 43rd birthday en route to 245 wins and 3999 2/3 innings pitched. Yes — 3999 2/3, meaning he fell one out short of 4000 in his career. So let’s look at how his career ended: on September 27, 1998, Martinez was summoned by Braves manager Bobby Cox to pitch the seventh inning of a contest against the Mets (in relief of Greg Maddux). He retired the first batter he faced, but then surrendered back-to-back doubles and an infield single. The next batter was Mike Piazza, and Martinez struck him out looking.

Cox then summoned left-handed John Rocker to pitch to switch-hitter Brian McRae (presumably batting from the left-hand side). The move worked, as McRae struck out, but at what cost? Martinez never appeared in the Major Leagues again, and if he had been given the opportunity to finish the frame he very well could have retired with an even 4000 innings pitched.

But on the happier side of things, the above card marks the first featuring Martinez on the Expos (he had spent the previous decade in Baltimore). He pitched eight seasons with the club, and threw a perfect game on July 28th, 1991. As we learned in a previous post in this series, that perfect game was caught by current New Orleans Zephyrs manager Ron Hassey.

Martinez, on the left

Now: Pitching coach, Palm Beach Cardinals (Class A Advanced affiliate, St. Louis Cardinals)

Since 2007 Martinez has been in the employ of the St. Louis Cardinals, working for the GCL Cards (2007), Palm Beach (2008-09), and Springfield (2010) before returning to Palm Beach. He also holds the lofty title of “Minister of Sport” in his native Nicaragua, a position befitting his status as one of the country’s most successful and beloved athletes.

Card #356 Luis Aguayo

Then: Shortstop/Second base, Philadelphia Phillies

Perhaps no player’s career was as neatly encapsulated within the Reagan era as was Aguayo’s, as the Puerto Rican-born infielder played his first game in April of 1980 and last in September of 1989. He spent the majority of that time with the Phillies but was generally a reserve player, as his career high of 99 games (in 1988) would illustrate.

Aguayo’s Baseball Reference wiki page features two quotes about him courtesy of Phillies announcer Richie “Whitey” Ashburn, and one of them is this gem:

“Aguayo’s running at first base. He doesn’t have great speed … what am I saying? He doesn’t have good speed, he doesn’t even have average speed. The man is slow.”

The man is slow

Now: Manager, Quad Cities River Bandits (Class A Affiliate, St. Louis Cardinals)

After his playing career ended, Aguayo transitioned quickly into the coaching ranks. His managerial career dates back to 1997, with the Red Sox, Reds, and, now, Cardinals organizations. 2012 marks his first campaign in the Quad Cities, making him the 33rd manager in franchise history. And, perhaps, the slowest.

Card #411 Darnell Coles

Then: Third Baseman, Detroit Tigers

Coles was the Seattle Mariners #1 draft pick in 1980 (sixth overall), and while he never attained the perennial All-Star status expected of one in such a position he nonetheless found a way to play baseball professionally for a long, long time. Coles made his MLB debut with Seattle in 1980, and went on to play in Detroit, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Seattle (again), Detroit (again), San Francisco, Cincinnati, Toronto, St. Louis, and Colorado (as well as two seasons in Japan) before finally hitting the end of the line in 1997.

He was at the height of his powers when this card was produced, however — in 1986 Coles set career highs in at-bats (587), runs (67), hits (142), doubles (30), home runs (20), RBIs (86), stolen bases (6), walks (45),  and strikeouts (84).  That’s a “Darn” good season (alternate line: a “Darnell” of a good season.”)

Now: Manager, Huntsville Stars (Double-A affiliate, Milwaukee Brewers)

The latest stop in Coles’ never-ending baseball journey is Huntsville, which represents his most prominent managing gig to date (he has also skippered teams in the New York-Penn and South Atlantic League). 2012 marks his third year with the Brewers’ organization, but first with the Stars (2010 and 2011 was spent in the position of “Minor League hitting coordinator).

Card #437 Ted Power

Then: Right-handed starter/reliever, Cincinnati Reds

Ted made his Major League debut with the 1981 Dodgers, but from 1983-87 it was Cincinnati that had the Power. He started 10 of the 56 games he appeared in in ’86, setting the stage for an ’87 campaign in the starting rotation (10-13, 4.50 ERA over 34 starts). After that he was a big league vagabond, spending ’88 with Kansas City and Detroit, ’89 with St. Louis, ’90 with Pittsburgh, ’91 back in Cincinnati, ’92-93 in Cleveland and, finally, ending ’93 in Seattle. Whew! Power spent his entire career in perpetual flirtation with the .500 mark, finishing at 68-69. He earned the win in the last ballgame he ever appeared in, tossing three scoreless innings on 9/30/1993.

Now: Pitching coach, Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate, Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds)

Power has, you know, “Powered” his way through the Reds’ Minor League system. He coached Rookie-level Billings and Class A Dayton before making his way to Triple-A Louisville in 2006. This coming season, therefore, will be his seventh with the club. But maybe the Reds will be compelled to call Power up to Cincinnati?

Card #577 Dann Bilardello

Then: Catcher, Montreal Expos

Bilardello, a one-time batterymate of fellow St. Louis Cardinal employee Dennis Martinez (see above), played professionally from 1978-94. The vast majority of his playing time was spent in the Minors, but he nonetheless found a way to appear in the Majors in eight seasons over a 10-year span (1983-87, 1990-92). The above card shows Dann the Mann just chomping at the bit, clearly eager to destroy any baseball hit in his direction. This was easier said than done, however – in 1986, his lone season in Montreal, Bilardello hit .179.

Perhaps he had chosen the wrong vocation — in 1993, Bilardello made two relief appearances for Triple-A Norfolk and allowed just one walk over two scoreless innings of work.

Now: Manager, Batavia Muckdogs (Class A Short-Season affiliate, St. Louis Cardinals)

In each of the last two seasons Bilardello has spent his summer as a Muckdog, working with just-drafted prospects in the short-season environs of the New York-Penn League. Thus far his record with the Muckdogs is a sparking 82-67, and in 2012 he’ll no doubt secure his 100th win with the club. This is apt to be one of the most significant milestones of the season, and worthy of a parade down Main Street.

Card #646 Mike Mason

Then: Left-handed starter, Texas Rangers

The human mind is a funny thing. I have forgotten many important facts in my life, but before searching for an image of this card I thought to myself “Mike Mason. That’s the guy who had the huge glove!” And then, lo and behold, there it was. I mean, look at it: you could probably fit two dozen baseballs in that thing. Or two human heads!

When the above card was produced, Mason was coming off of his third season as a (semi)-regular member of the Rangers’ rotation. In ’86, he had gone 7-3 with a 4.33 ERA over 27 appearances (20 starts), his first winning record in the Majors. Mason split the 1987 campaign between Texas and Chicago, and appeared in five games with the ’88 Twins. That was to be it for his MLB career, although he sporadically re-surfaced in the professional ranks up through 1996 (three games in an independent league).

Now: Pitching coach, Iowa Cubs (Triple-A affiliate, Chicago Cubs)

Mason has more than two decades of coaching experience, with his first work in this capacity preceding his final professional appearances on the mound. He’s tutored toe-slabbers in Appleton, Memphis, Springfield, Wichita, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (to name just a few locations), and 2012 marks his fifth campaign with the Iowa Cubs. No word on whether he remains an advocate of gargantuan gloves.

Card #711 Ken Griffey

Then: Outfielder/first baseman, Atlanta Braves

Before there was Ken Griffey Jr. there was  — believe it or not — Ken Griffey Sr. While not a (presumable) first-ballot Hall of Famer like his son, ol’ Ken still enjoyed a long and distinguished Major League career. He first made a name for himself as a key member of the legendary “Big Red Machine” teams of the mid-’70s, and went on to play for the Yankees, Braves, Reds (again), and, finally, the Mariners. This last destination was particularly meaningful — Griffey Jr. and Sr. were teammates, and on one occasion even hit back-to-back home runs! This was one of the final highlights of an 18-season career, one in which he totaled over 2100 hits en route to a lifetime average close to .300.

Now: Manager, Bakersfield Blaze (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds)

Griffey has coached in the bigs with Seattle, Colorado and Cincinnati, but when it comes to managing even a man of his stature has to pay his dues. So in 2011 off Griffey went to the less-than-idyllic confines of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark in order to helm the fiery collection of young men who play as “The Blaze.” He’ll return to this position in 2012, continuing his reign as one of the most distinguished figures in the California League.

Card #738 Jorge Orta

Then: Designated Hitter, Kansas City Royals

Orta’s rookie card was issued by Topps in 1973, in recognition of the 51 games he had played in 1972. 14 years later the company issued the above slice of cardboard, and it would turn out to be his last. In 1986 Orta had appeared in 106 games for the Royals, primarily as a DH. He hit a solid .277 and slugged .411, and the Royals re-signed him for the 1987 campaign. But not for long — Orta was released by the club that June, an ignominious ending to a respectable big league career that included 1619 hits accumulated with five different Major League clubs.

Perhaps Orta’s most enduring legacy, however, is that he was the beneficiary of Dom Denkinger’s controversial call at first base in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. This largely disputed ruling wound up playing a key role in the Royals’ eventual seven-game victory over neighboring St. Louis.

But, also, let us not forget this: the back of his ’87 Topps card notes that “Jorge is in the Mexican League Hall of Fame.”

Now: Hitting Coach, Arizona League Reds

Orta’s coaching career dates back to 1997 with the once (and future) Quad City River Bandits. He’s also logged time in the New York Penn, Appalachian, Florida and Gulf Coast Leagues in addition to his current location in the sweltering backlots of the AZL.

83.3% of this extensive blog saga is now complete! Stay tuned next week for the remaining 16.7%! It will be worth your while, no matter how expensive you consider that particular commodity to be.

Also, if you know someone who would enjoy writing of this nature, please pass along the link. I have a craving for fresh eyeballs that isn’t close to being fulfilled.

benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

6 Comments

Being a child of similar age but identical disposition, these were the first cards my best friend and I regularly traded amongst each other. I remember thinking that the cards were made out of real wood. Never was the sharpest crayon in the box…

Well, it just depends on your definition of “wood.” Baseball cards don’t exist without trees, trees are made of wood, and there you go!

I’m inclined to mention that these cards were very similar to the cards Topps issued in 1962 with the wood-look border. I’m not THAT old, but my uncle gave me some when I was a kid. lol

Unfortunately, I don’t think a 1962-themed series would yield many current coaches…but there’s still got to be a few lifers kicking around out there, right?

I love this, I just found this and can’t wait to go back through the first set of series. Keep up the great work

Pingback: A Quarter Century After the Cardboard, Volume 6 « Ben's Biz Blog

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