The most important players, emotionally, don’t have to be the best ones on the field. Steve Carlton, for instance, was one of the best pitchers of the modern era, but he means nothing to me personally. He never played for my team, and I never saw him play in person. Those seem to be the great dividing lines between the players I care about and the ones I don’t.
Using those criteria, Mike Garman is a player of great importance to me. I acquired his 1976 Topps card, and a handful of others, in a trade with a colleague, and I was especially happy to get this card because he was in a Cubs uniform for the 1976 season, which was my first full season of being a Cubs fan. I was seven years old when the season started, and eight when it finished. It’s better to start young, I suppose.
Whenever I acquire any baseball cards, there are only two categories: Cubs players and everybody else. The Garman card was in the “good” category, and so I flipped his card over and began looking at his stats on the back. What I noticed right away was that, for the previous season, he had been a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. This intrigued me, since the first big league game that I ever went to was in St. Louis in July of 1975.
My father drove down to Busch Stadium from our home near Springfield, Illinois, which was about an hour away. Taking me along with him changed my life, even if I was too young to appreciate that just yet. All I knew is that my Dad was taking me with him, and that felt real good.
As a young kid, I had never been in a crowd that big before. The bustle of the ballpark, and the sight of the peanut and beer vendors making their rounds, and the roar of the crowd for Lou Brock (it sounded just like “Boooo” until my dad explained it to me) was strangely fascinating. Tom Seaver was pitching for the Mets, and it was the first game of a doubleheader. Life was just great.
I didn’t have too many insights on the game just yet, but I remembered that the Cardinals won the first game and everyone was yelling and cheering about that. If that had somehow been my initiation ritual into Cardinals fandom, I would have probably been much happier over the years. The hand of fate (and the voice of Jack Brickhouse) were still a few months in the future, but both would arrive in my life before the summer was over.
It wasn’t until I got the Mike Garman card that I realized how significant he had been in that first ballgame I ever attended. With the help of Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com, I have been able to reconstruct what the seven-year old saw but didn’t really understand just yet.
The Cardinals that year had the National League’s premier relief pitcher in Al Hrabosky, the “Mad Hungarian.” He was so good that he finished 3rd in the National League Cy Young balloting, and 8th in the MVP voting as well. He wasn’t a ninth-inning closer in the Mariano Rivera mold, because that role hadn’t yet evolved within baseball. Relievers came on in the 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th inning, as needed, and got the outs needed to finish the game. Hrabosky came on in the 8th inning to protect the Cardinal’s lead, and he had a two-run lead to work with in the ninth inning.
Hrabosky proceeded to load the bases, and manager Red Schoendienst had seen enough. He brought Mike Garman in to face future Cubs slugger Dave Kingman. Kingman was good for 30+ home runs a season in those days, but he was also the same .230 hitter that he would remain throughout his career. With the bases loaded and the game on the line, Kingman was either going to strike out or hit the ball into the Mississippi River. Garman got him to strike out, and then he retired Del Unser on a comebacker, and the game was over. Garman got the save, both in a statistical and a metaphorical sense, and the home crowd ended up happy.
There wasn’t any way that either us involved with the trade knew of Mike Garman’s heroics on that day. And yet, out of all the random cards either selected for the trade or not, his was one of the ones that was included. I didn’t understand the outcome of the game on that day, but I did realize that a baseball game was a great experience to have. And I haven’t stopped having them since.
Many thanks to Josh Wilker at Cardboardgods.net for randomly choosing the card that led me to this important–at least for me– discovery.