I love the name Joe Strain, and I love the story about him told by Josh Wilker on his website CardboardGods.net It made me wonder if I could play any part in proving that Joe Strain really did exist and, sure enough, I was able to find a crucial piece of the puzzle in the form of a baseball card. I don’t write a baseball card blog, but I have got more than a few of them in my possession, and they do inspire me on some level, so here we go:
First of all, we need to address the optics. The Joe Strain pictured above is just scary. The only other word for it is possessed-by-some-dark-force-that-I-don’t-want-to-know-about. Clearly, the Joe Strain above could freeze you in your tracks with his demonic gaze. That must explain how he was drafted and worked his way up to the major league level. His managers and coaches were probably afraid to put him on the bench or cut him, for fear that the locker room would mysteriously ignite.
But the actual Joe Strain–which I dug out of my collection of Cubs baseball cards– looked like this:
Talk about a contrast. The back of the card lists this guy as being 28 years old, but he doesn’t look a day over 15 here. He looks like the kid who wants to mow your lawn, or who wheels his aged grandmother down the sidewalk so she can get some fresh air. And the freckles that show up so well on this card only reinforce that image. Unlike the 1979 Joe Strain, there’s nothing the least bit scary or threatening about the 1982 Joe Strain. What a relief.
Joe Strain was indeed a prospect in the Giants organization, as indicated by the stats on the back of his card. Here they are, in case anyone is truly interested:
The card reveals that Strain was signed by the Giants in 1976 as a free agent. He would have been 22 at the time, so I’m guessing he played college ball somewhere. He then spent one season in Great Falls, another in Fresno, and still another in Phoenix. That might explain the P on his cap in the Prospects card above, if it is really him. But that seems doubtful, in light of the color image of him from three years later.
In 1979, the year of the Giants Prospects card, he played another 75 games for Phoenix and then got “the call” that all minor leaguers are playing for. So he came up for the rest of the ’79 season, hit a respectable .241, and slugged his only home run in the majors. But that’s one more than I’ll ever hit, so I can’t make light of it.
By 1980, at the age of 26, Joe Strain was in the majors for good. No return trips to Phoenix for him, at least as far as his baseball card is concerned. The trouble was that he played in only 77 games that year, and hit a surprisingly strong .286. The Giants’ everyday second baseman that year was Rennie Stennett, who has shown up in a previous post on this blog.
Of the 54 hits that Strain had in 1980, only 6 went for extra bases. Second basemen in those days, except for Joe Morgan, weren’t expected to put up power numbers, though. In fact, Strain had a higher batting average and on base percentage than Stennett did, but for some reason Giants’ manager Dave Bristol gave Stennett more playing time than Strain. While lots of bad plays on words come to my mind at this point, I’ll hold off on using any of them.
If you can’t get extra base hits, perhaps you can steal lots of bases to help your team that way. Not so for Joe Strain. Only one base was stolen by him in 1980 which, again, is one more stolen base than I’ll ever have. But I’m not seeing the kind of an impact player that the Giants might have wanted to have on their roster. So, on December 12, 1980–less than one week after John Lennon was killed–the Chicago Cubs decided to give Strain a chance. But just barely.
During the 1981 season, Strain appeared in 25 games for the Cubs and hit .189. I probably watched some of those 25 games on WGN, even. But I have no recollection of a guy named Strain. My guess is that he was sent down to Iowa after that, since he appeared in 11 games for them as well.
Clearly, by the end of 1981, his major league career was on life support. In fact, it was already over, since he walked and scored a run in his final big league game on June 2, 1981. This would appear to make the existence of a 1982 card for him somewhat inexplicable. But nevertheless, his career stat line of 169 games, 520 at bats, 60 runs, 130 hits, and so on are ones that almost any grown man–myself included–wishes that he had. It was probably the best three years of his life, playing in the big leagues.
I don’t know what happened to Joe Strain after 1982, but I hope that he’s sitting at a bar somewhere, possibly in Colorado, telling his buddies about the time he stood in against Nolan Ryan. I’d buy him a drink just to hear him tell it, too. But for now I’ve proved that there really was a Joe Strain, and he really was a Giants prospect, and he really did set foot on major league turf three decades ago. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.