It’s gotta be the bird

The Baltimore Orioles were one of the best teams in baseball when I was a young kid. They had Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray and lots of pitching. And they had a funny cartoon bird on their cap. But they won, and that’s what mattered.

In 1989, the year that the Jeff Ballard card shown above appeared, the Orioles did away with the bird. Ballard and his teammates were given a more bird-like creature to wear on their hats. And the team somehow stopped being good. They made the playoffs in 1996, but lost out to the Yankees. And they haven’t gone back since, until tonight.

The cartoon bird returned this season, and the Orioles are still playing games that count in October. Some won’t believe that there’s anything to that, thinking that the players could wear armadillos on their hats and still win, if they’re good enough. And maybe that’s true.

The overlap is too good to disregard, though. The Cartoon bird is back, and the Orioles are winning again. Coincidence? Who knows? I just know that I’ll be watching as they play meaningful games next week. The Bird is the word, or so it would appear.

Post number 300

I previously wrote a little bit about Jamie Moyer here, although my purpose for writing was more to describe something on one of his old cards than to talk about him. So now, on the occasion of my 300th post on this blog, I’ll return to Jamie Moyer for a few more comments.

This would be considered Jamie Moyer’s rookie card because it’s the first time he ever appeared on one of these things. He made his major league debut a few weeks after I graduated from high school, back when Ronald Reagan was president. This means that before anyone named George Bush had ever been president, Jamie Moyer was pitching in the major leagues.

I like the idea that somebody who was in the big leagues during that transitional summer when I couldn’t wait to get out of my parents’ house could still be playing the game. Everybody else from the pre-steroid era is long gone from the game, but Moyer still pitches on, possibly.

Moyer had elbow surgery and missed all of the 2011 season, and he’ll turn 50 at the end of this year. Yes, Jamie Moyer is presently 49 years old. But if he gets an offer from a big league team, and he is reported to be working towards one, then he gets back in the game needing just 33 wins to get to 300 for his career.

What’s so important about that? It’s pretty simple: win 300 games as a pitcher, and you’re in the Hall of Fame. No debate, no discussion, nobody bringing up stats like ERA+ or WAR, which didn’t even exist when Moyer began his pitching career. Moyer won’t get to 300 wins, which would take three or four seasons to accomplish. But it’s fun to think about it anyway, especially since we won’t see another pitcher approaching 300 wins for a long, long time.

Moyer has more wins than several pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame right now, including Bob Gibson. With one more win, Moyer will match Jim Palmer with 268 career wins. But Palmer is enshrined in Cooperstown already, while Moyer won’t get a whiff of the place unless he reaches 300 wins.

Wins and losses for a pitcher are the easiest stat to understand. That’s what baseball is all about, isn’t it? 18 players take the field, with umpires keeping watch over the game and fans in attendance in the grandstand, not to see who can hit the most doubles or record the most putouts in the outfield. The bottom line, for every baseball game ever played, is who scored more runs than their opponent did. Some pitcher’s going to take the win for that game, and some other pitcher is going to take the loss.

It has taken Moyer a quarter of a century to pile up 267 career wins, and only 35 men who have ever played the game can lay claim to having more wins than Moyer does. And yet, somebody somewhere made winning 300 games the bright line between an automatic Hall of Famer and somebody who we’ll have to argue over ad infinitum.

I hope Moyer does sign with somebody this year, and gets a spot in their starting rotation. I’d love to go to a game and watch a 49 year-old do battle with players who weren’t yet born when he made his big league debut, such as the Cubs’ Starlin Castro and the Braves’ Jason Heyward. And the closer he gets to 300 wins, the more foolish that arbitrary line will appear. If you can still pitch at age 49, that’s a pretty remarkable feat, Hall of Fame or no Hall of Fame.

Solving an old mystery

A friend of my wife’s has a young son who just began collecting baseball cards.  I brought a big box of cards, mostly doubles of Cubs cards I already had, along on a weekend outing last fall, and told him could take whatever he wanted to add to his collection. But he insisted on trading cards with me, which is how I would have done it when I was a kid. Most of his cards were from the 2011 Topps base set, and I paged through his binder full of cards, looking for something that caught my eye.

The binder was a tipoff to how card collecting has changed since I was a kid in the late 1970s. My cards were kept in a blue plastic box, with a flap that folded down to close it up. I’m not sure how I got it, but it somehow became the home of my baseball card collection.

These things didn’t have any monetary value back then, they were just fun to have. The All-Star cards were the ones I wanted most, like every kid did, because we all wanted to be Mike Schmidt or Jim Palmer or Reggie Jackson. There were lots of role players, and they all had cards too, but getting one of those cards was never any big deal. Superstars and utility infielders all shared space inside my blue box, though.

Keeping my cards inside of a binder, with plastic sheets specifically designed to protect their condition, is something I wouldn’t have ever considered. Likewise, the idea of keeping cards all jumbled together, willy-nilly, inside of a plastic box wouldn’t occur to him, either. One storage system isn’t any better than the other, of course, but they do reflect differing views about these cards.

The card I found, which is shown above, isn’t an original 1977 card, but a reprint of that card for an “insert”  for the Topps base set. There were special cards (Father and Son Big Leaguers, Record Breakers from the previous season, etc.) when I was a kid, but these were all integrated into the larger set of cards. Somewhere along the way, some special cards were pulled out from the larger set, numbered differently from the base set, and are now thought to be more desireable than a base card of a player. Another new wrinkle since I was a kid.

The insert card I found was of Don Sutton, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers back in the 1970s. I saw Sutton pitch in a game in Busch Stadium when I was ten years old, but I never really knew what happened in that game. I remember that he left the game in the middle of an inning, without any explanation being offered to the fans, and that was it. The game just carried on, with another Dodger pitcher in his place. It just felt very weird at the time.

I wanted the Sutton card, though, and the trade was made. Trading baseball cards with a nine-year old felt a little strange, but many kids his age don’t seem to have an interest in baseball today, unless they’re playing a video game version of it.  So maybe I was just perpetuating the real thing, on some level.

I took the Sutton card home with me, and took to the internet for some research. It turns out that Sutton was ejected from the game for scuffing a baseball, and was suspended for ten games as a result. When Sutton threatened litigation against the League (this was back when the National and American Leagues were separate entities, unlike today), they backed off and Sutton was reinstated. The nickname “Black and Decker” followed him around throughout his career, as players assumed he had his toolbelt on whenever he took the mound.

I realized that this had happened in the pre-ESPN era, when the only way to get information like this was through reading a newspaper or perhaps Sports Illustrated. Sutton’s transgression was thus easier to bury than it would be today, and he was then able to have a Hall of Fame career without any real damage to his reputation, as least as far as I knew about.

In doing this research, I learned something else on the internet about Don Sutton that I didn’t know before. Sutton was apparently bothered by Steve Garvey’s All-American image, and made some comments to a newspaper along these lines. Garvey then confronted Sutton about it, and the two began wrestling around in the clubhouse. From a Cubs fan who hates what Steve Garvey did to us in the 1984 playoffs, I offer you a hearty bravo, Don Sutton.