What’s in a name?

I didn’t think this would happen when I started this blog, but a majority of the posts I’ve written here have to do with baseball in some way. Even though it’s the offseason now, and the NFL is coming into its final week of the regular season, and the NBA is beginning today, baseball still holds a place in my imagination. I won’t complain about it, and I won’t try to fight it, either. It’s just the thing that I care about more than anything else, excepting my family, of course.

And baseball has given me lots of things to write about. Spend just a few minutes going through my previous posts, and you’ll see that I’ve written about Chicago Cubs players, and little-known moments from the past, and teams you’ve never heard of before. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path.” And whatever it is that I am disdains one, too.

I also have a propensity to write about individual players, sometimes with one of their baseball cards for a visual aid. But I’ve never before written about a player who didn’t make it to the majors, for however briefly their time in the Show actually lasted. But I’m breaking from this today, and looking at a pitcher that you’ve never heard of before. Until two days ago, I hadn’t heard of him either. But it’s an interesting story, nonetheless.

The other day I came across a 1989 Upper Deck card with Wally Backman in a Twins uniform. Wally Backman was a long-time New York Met, including their 1986 World Series-winning team. I wasn’t aware that he ever played for anyone else, so I flipped the card over and read the back (of the Backman card, yes. Sorry). I learned that he had been traded from the Mets to the Twins in 1988, and the names of the other players involved in the deal were listed. I hadn’t heard of any of them, but one name did catch my eye: a pitcher named Steve Gasser.

It’s interesting when pitchers have names that could relate to their craft in some way. A pitcher named Bob Walk is the example that comes immediately to mind. A walk is not something a pitcher wants to give up, and yet Bob Walk had to carry that word around on the back of his jersey. It didn’t affect his performance too much, since he did spend fourteen seasons in the major leagues. That’s a solid career, by anyone’s standards.

Another pitcher that comes to mind is Jack Armstrong. If you make your living throwing a baseball, a strong arm is a must. But to have that name on the back of your jersey, and be announced that way on the PA system whenever you take the mound, seems like it would be a psychological advantage for a pitcher. He was an All-Star, and he won the World Series with the Reds in 1990, so it must have worked for him on some level. I included his card here because I like the Marlins’ early-days uniforms, along with the image of a pitch that appears to be coming right off the card.

So a pitcher with a name like Steve Gasser should have also had some hidden, psychological benefit when it came to facing down batters. “Hey batter, who throws the gas? I do. I’m the Gasser. Says so right here on my uniform. Just try to hit this next one.” Or at least, that’s the way I would approach it, if I were a pitcher with that name.

But there’s a reason why Steve Gasser was traded for Wally Backman in 1988. According to his player page at Baseball-reference.com, the Gasser made his way from Rookie ball up to Triple-A in the Minnesota Twins farm system in the span of three short seasons. And when he was sent back to Double-A ball to start the 1988 season, the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. His 1988 stat line reads like a baseball horror show: One game started, zero innings pitched, six walks, five runs (all earned) and an infinite ERA. When you don’t record an out, that’s what happens to the ERA. It simply can’t go any higher than that.

What happened was that the Gasser took the mound, and proceeded to walk the bases loaded. He then walked in not one, not two, but three runs, all before retiring a single batter. He was lifted following the third run, and two of the three walks that he issued also came around to score. He was then traded to the Mets in the Backman deal, and did not pitch again until 1990. What happened to him in 1988 (after his one disastrous outing) and all of 1989 wasn’t available in the research I did for this piece. His 1990 outings were at the single-A level, and they didn’t go very well, either. The career of Steve Gasser as a pitching prospect climbed like a rocket from 1985 until 1987, exploded in a ball of flames in 1988,  and fizzled out from there.

I’ve always said on this site that anyone who played professional sports, even for one minute, has something that most people–myself included–will never know. So I’m not bashing Steve Gasser for an instant. I wish I could see my name printed in a program, or have a kid ask me for an autograph, or hit the town when everyone knew that I was a ballplayer. That wasn’t my lot in life, unfortunately.

Once an athlete gets into the pros, his career is likely to be nearer to Steve Gasser’s than to Jack Armstrong’s or Bob Walk’s. But digging these stories out of oblivion is one of the reasons I write this blog, and I hope that my perspective–as an awed outsider looking in–is understood in all of this. And as I learn of other players–which isn’t always easy–I’ll write about them here, too.

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