Jose can you see it?

cardenal

Jose Cardenal played in many cities over the course of his big league career, and I’d be surprised if he had a special affinity for any one of them. But he was a Cub when I started following the team in the mid-1970s, and for that reason he’ll always be a Cub to me. He played six seasons in Chicago, and he also sang the seventh-inning stretch with Eddie Vedder a few days ago, so that must mean something.

Jose Cardenal is almost 73 years old, and if the Cubs are going to finally go all the way, I want him to be around to see it. The same goes for Rick Monday, Bruce Sutter, Rick Reuschel, and all the other players I’ve seen in a Cubs uniform through the years. That goes for Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Sammy Sosa, Greg Maddux, Leon Durham, Jody Davis, and the list goes on….

There are Cubs fans–hopefully not including me–who won’t be here in October, if the World Series finally does come to pass. With the Pulse shooting in Orlando fresh in our memories, I’m reminded that tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, and certainly that applies to me, too.

The Cubs will be a dominant team for a long time, I hope. But I want this year’s time to be the one that finally breaks through that 108-year wall. I wanted it last year, and I’ll want it every year until my time is up. May we all live to see it finally happen.

Movember musings

Lewallyn

My participation in Movember this year means–for the first time in my life–I have a mustache. The scratchiness on my upper lip is one thing, but the feeling that I somehow resemble John Wayne Gacy is something else, entirely.

But rather than sharing my facial developments with the world, I’d rather tell a story about somebody else with a mustache. The question is where to start. Nearly all of the Cubs ballplayers I grew up with in the seventies sported a ‘stache: Dave Kingman, Bruce Sutter, Rick Reuschel, and many others I can’t think of at the moment. Instead of commenting on their facial follicles, though, I want to give some recognition to one Denny Lewallyn, My guess is that few, if any, are familiar with his story. That’s what I’m here for, I suppose.

Denny Lewallyn broke into the majors in 1975 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He appeared in two games that year, which is two more games than I and everyone else reading this will ever appear in. It must have been exciting for Lewallyn to think about what lay ahead.

Over the next four seasons, from 1976 through 1979, Lewallyn always pitched in a game or two with the Dodgers at the major league level, after spending the large bulk of the season in the minors. He pitched 17 innings in 1976, and 17 more in 1977, but in 1978 he saw just one two-inning outing for the Dodgers. If a September call-up is a “cup of coffee” in baseballspeak, this isn’t much more than smelling the coffee fumes as they float through the air. But it must have still smelled sweet, all the same.

In the late 1970s, being a marginal big leaguer–as Lewallyn clearly was–didn’t get you anything, from a baseball standpoint. If appearing on a baseball card indicates anything, Lewallyn was never afforded that opportunity with the Dodgers. He went to the Rangers for a year, where he appeared on an insert card for Keebler cookies for the 1980 baseball season..

When his first Topps card appeared in the 1982 Topps set, Lewallyn had big-league service in seven different seasons. Granted, those seven seasons totaled about the same as a six-week stretch for an established big-leaguer. But again, stepping onto a major league field in the first place is something that I can only imagine how it feels.d.

This Denny Lewallyn card is a window into another time and place, where a player had to earn his way onto a baseball card, and where thinking of these things in terms of monetary value was unheard of. I grew up in these times, and I refuse to conform to the thinking that has come into play since then.

I’m offering this early Denny Lewallyn card as an acknowledgement of his major league career (which ended not long after this card appeared in 1980), and as a testament to a time where a baseball card was nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a picture and some numbers on it.

In the spirit of Movember, this post is dedicated to all who have been afflicted–in any way–by prostate or testicular cancer. May all forms of cancer someday become even more rare than Denny Lewallyn’s baseball card.

His place in history

Paul Reuschel

A week ago, when the baseball season hadn’t yet started, and the Cubs weren’t off to their “This will be a long year, won’t it?” start of 1-4 after five games, I scanned a card highlighting long-ago Cubs pitcher Rick Reuschel. Today, in the interest of equal time–and to keep me from going off on this year’s team too much–I’m going to spend some time recounting the career of Rick’s brother, Paul Reuschel.

Paul Reuschel, like Bill Plummer, just turned 65 this year. He’s two years older than his brother Rick, but made his big league debut in the 1975 season, fully three years after Rick had made his. There’s always a sibling rivalry going on, especially when one brother is in the majors and the other (older) one isn’t, but they appear to have gotten along reasonably well, if this photo is any indication.

I came across this card when I was digging through a box of baseball cards the other day. The pose that Reuschel is in, as with Bruce Sutter’s card from that year, is something that was common for Topps cards in that era. Sutter was about to have the breakout season that launched a Hall of Fame career, while Paul Reuschel’s pitching career wouldn’t survive into the 1980s. Same team, same pose, different career arcs. Such is life.

But the thing I wanted to say about Paul Reuschel is that his place in Major League history is secure. In the long history of professional baseball, he can say something that no other pitcher can. And it stems from a relief appearance at the end of a game during his rookie season of 1975.

On September 16, 1975, history was made at Wrigley Field in Chicago. And not the type of history a team might want to make, in their own ballpark and in front of fewer than 5,000 fans in the stands, with a few thousand more watching on cable TV. Baseball’s Game of the Week was on back then, but beyond that ballgames generally weren’t shown on TV. It was a different time.

Rick Reuschel was the starter against the Pittsburgh Pirates that day, but he was pounded in the first inning. In fact, by the time three Pirates had been retired, Rick Reuchel was done for the day, having allowed 8 runs (all of them earned) on 6 hits and a walk. Reuschel was followed by a series of Cubs pitchers, who proved to be unable to stop the Pirate juggernaut. By the end of the seventh inning, the score stood at 22-0, which was to be the most lopsided shutout of the entire 20th century. And this was being done to the home team, no less.

The outcome of the game had long been decided, but there were still two innings left to be played. How many of the 4,900 fans who attended the game remained in the ballpark at this point is anyone’s guess, but a number somewhere in the three digits wouldn’t surprise me too much. Who would stay to watch such a beatdown? Not me.

Rookie pitcher Paul Reuschel was sent in to absorb his share of abuse from Pirate hitters in the eighth. He retired the first two hitters in order, when up came Rennie Stennett, the Pirates’ leadoff hitter. Stennett had already racked up six hits on the day, and he proceeded to put the exclamation point on his day by driving the ball into right field.

As Stennett was  pulling into third base, standing up, I turned on a Cubs game for the first time in my life. I had a broken leg at the time, and would have rather been outside running around with the other neighborhood kids, but my cast and crutches made that all but impossible. A graphic was put up on the screen –a rare thing in those days–informing the viewer that Rennie Stennett had gone 7-for-7 in a nine inning game, and was the first player in big league history to accomplish this feat. The seven-year old that I was found this factoid most intriguing.

Reuschel retired the next hitter, to end the inning. He also finished the ninth without giving up a run, and became the only Cubs pitcher that day who wasn’t scored upon. You could say he had a decent outing that day, certainly a much better one than his little brother had to start the game. But Reuschel also carved his name into the history books by becoming the first, and so far the only, pitcher to give up a seventh hit to a batter in one game.

Just as Rennie Stennett made history by getting that hit, so too did Paul Reuschel make history by surrendering it. This was an otherwise meaningless game at the end of the regular season, and it’s an admittedly obscure baseball record, so nobody’s going to remember the name Rennie Stennett, much less Paul Reuschel. But, at the same time, this at-bat and its historic result was enough to reel me in as a Cubs fan, and set me on a path that has stretched out for 37 years since then.

If Paul Reuschel had retired Sennett, and made that TV graphic unnecessary, perhaps I’m not so intrigued by a baseball game on TV that afternoon. Maybe then I stay true to my Cardinals upbringing, complete with the World Series titles and an overall level of success that I can’t relate to as a Cubs fan.  Who knows for certain? But I can say that Paul Reuschel and Rennie Stennett essentially set my baseball course in motion, all those many years ago.

Let’s start with a win

Rick Reuschel was one of the Cubs from my childhood that I remember the most. He was coming off of an 11-17 season when this card appeared in 1976, and then went on to become the Cubs’ first pitcher post-Fergie Jenkins to win 20 games in a season the following year.

The Cubs have had just two 20-game winners in the 34 seasons since, which goes a long way toward explaining why the World Series has been so elusive. And if you know who those two 20-game winners for the Cubs were since 1977, leave a comment below and I’ll send you some Cubs’ related thing in the mail. Anything for my readers.

But the reason I’m spotlighting Rick Reuschel here is because he holds possibly the most inglorious Opening Day streak in Cubs’ history. In 1978, fresh off his 20-win season, Reuschel made the Opening Day start and lost a 1-0 decision to John Candelaria.  Tough luck, but get ’em again next year, right? Well, not exactly.

Reuschel lost the Opening Day start to Craig Swan of the Mets in both 1979 and 1980, and he then lost the 1981 opener to the Mets’ Pat Zachary. That’s four Opening Day starts, and four losses all in a row. And he didn’t get the chance to open the 1982 season for the Cubs, since they traded him away to the Yankees in June of 1981. We’ll never know if he could have snapped the streak in 1982, because he apparently was out of baseball altogether that season.

Reuschel came back with the Cubs in 1983, and kept playing on into the 1990s with other teams, but he never made an Opening Day start for the Cubs again. So four losses in a row was as bad as it would get for him.

And if you’re wondering, this year’s Opening Day starter, Ryan Dempster, also made the start (and took the loss) on Opening Day last year. But my opinion is this will be his last year with the Cubs, so with a rough outing he may be able to get to the half-Reuschel, but he won’t get all the way to the full-Reuschel. But I don’t want to think about losses just yet. I’d rather see the new era of Epstein, et al. start off with a win.

It’s good to have baseball back again, that’s for sure.

A very meaningful number

When I started this blog last year, I learned pretty quickly that promotion is important. The Internet, and especially the blogosphere, doesn’t come knocking on your virtual door. So I applied, and was accepted, to the mlb.com/blogs page back in September. It was a great feeling to see my face on their web page for about a week or so, but more importantly than that, people started to click on the link to this page. The page views spiked upward, and they haven’t stopped since.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the MLB blogs page also tracks pages and ranks them at the end of each month. They recently released a list of the top 100 fan blogs for 2011, and I was honored to appear on the list as #31. Not too bad for a blog that didn’t come into being until the middle of June. This gives me an opportunity to write about the  number 31 which, for a Cubs fan like me, has great significance.

The first great Cubs player to wear #31 was Ferguson Jenkins. He pitched for the Cubs from 1966-1973, and again from 1982-1983. In his first run with the Cubs, he won 20 or more games for six straight seasons. To put that into some perspective, consider that after he left the Cubs, some thirty-nine seasons ago, the Cubs have had just three 20 game winners in a single season, and none of them did it more than one time. And in case you’re curious, they were Rick Reuschel in 1977, Greg Maddux in 1992, and Jon Lieber in 2001.

After Jenkins returned to the Cubs and pitched his final game for them in 1983, there was nothing to do but to wait for the call to Cooperstown, and it came in 1991. One of the perks of being a Hall of Famer is being able to sign baseballs with “HOF” and the induction year, as Jenkins once did for me on the ball shown below. And yes, I know that he’s a Canadian, but I had just come from Disney World, and let’s just say it’s hard to find regular baseballs when you’re there. I was lucky that I even had this one, and lucky that he obliged the autograph request. But here it is, in all its star-spangled glory.

The Cubs didn’t retire Jenkins’ number right away, because back in the early 1990s the only retired numbers belonged to Ernie Banks (#14) and Billy Williams (#26). The number 31 was assigned to a rookie named Greg Maddux in 1986, and he went on to win 20 games and a Cy Young Award in 1992, before leaving for Atlanta the following season. One can only wonder whether or not the Cubs could have won a pennant and a World Series in the 1990s, if Maddux had stayed in Chicago and been built around by Cubs’ management.

I saw Maddux pitch in person a few times, and the last time I saw him pitch at Wrigley–during his second stint with the Cubs in the mid 2000s–he was simply masterful. I told myself I’d never again see anyone as good at pitching as he was. May I be proven wrong in that assessment someday.

The Cubs decided to retire #31 for both Jenkins and Maddux in 2009, and their names now fly from the foul poles at Wrigley Field (Jenkins is in left field, and Maddux is in right). To have #31 attached to my blog, for whatever reason, allows me a moment to pay tribute to these two great pitchers, and to also give a special nod to the late Kevin Foster, an Evanston native who wore #31 while Maddux was pitching for the Braves.

To honor all of them in this space, I am also retiring #31 from any future posts here on BlueBattingHelmet. This applies to Dave Winfield (who I previously wrote about here) and probably a few others, as well.  I do, however, reserve the right to post something about Baskin-Robbins ice cream in this space at a future date.  Just give me a few months and I’ll think of some relevance for it.

Hanu-Cubs, Night 1

Hanukah begins tonight, and I wanted to put my collection of Cubs baseball cards to work to commemorate the season. In order to do this, I have brought out a ceramic menorah that was purchased at a garage sale many years ago. If I was actually Jewish, I’d probably have a better one to use for this purpose. But you have to play the hand you’re given in life.

The first candle, the one that is used for lighting all of the others, is going to be Steve Goodman, who was not a Cubs’ player, but he did write and sing songs about the Cubs. This is one you’ve heard before:

So on the first night of this celebration, I’ll highlight (no pun intended) the late Dave Roberts. No, not the Dave Roberts who is known for “The Steal” but the journeyman pitcher who pitched for eleven different organizations in his thirteen-year career. His salad days were with the Detroit Tigers in the mid-1970s, and the Cubs purchased his contract from the Tigers at the end of July in 1977. This was also around the time that the Cubs brought Dave Giusti in from Pittsburgh, as the Cubs were hoping to stave off a second-half collapse that saw them go from 25 games above .500 to finishing 20 games out of first place. Clearly, the Roberts/Giusti combo wasn’t enough to save their season that year.

Roberts spent the next full season with the Cubs, splitting his time between the starting rotation and the bullpen. The 1978 Cubs were an awful team, managed by Herman Franks, but they were enough to keep a nine-year-old boy in Springfield, Illinois occupied all summer long. I don’t have any specific recollections about anything Roberts did that summer, but I can tick off the guys that he played with: Reuschel and Sutter, Kingman and Buckner, DeJesus and Trillo. And there can’t be too many people who remember Mick Kelleher, but I’m one of them.

To give perhaps the strangest analogy you will ever hear on the subject, if my allegiance to the Cubs is concrete, it was poured in late 1975, hardened in 1976 and 1977, and by 1978 it was set for good. I couldn’t break it now if I wanted to (and believe me, there have been some times I have thought about this). Roberts is a part of my Cubs history, and so he gets the honor of leading off the Hanu-Cub festival of Jewish Cubs players, all of whom have come and gone in the past 35 years. More will follow over the next few evenings.

The 1978 Topps card for Dave Roberts showed him as clean-shaven, but I liked the 1979 version better, and I included it above. However, it was obsolete by the time it was printed, as Roberts signed with the San Francisco Giants in late February, probably in time for spring training that year. He played with two teams in 1979, two teams in 1980, and ended his career in early 1981 after a short stint with the New York Mets.

Roberts supplemented is baseball income by working as a boilermaker in the off-season, where he was exposed to materials that gave him lung cancer. He died in 2009 at the age of 64. His service, both to the Cubs and to baseball in general, is remembered here.

Going the distance and shutting ’em out

Rick Reuschel was one of the prototypical Cubs of the 1970s. He was from downstate Illinois (Quincy, to be exact), which is an area that, as George Will put it, is “infested with Cardinals fans.” You might think that Illinois folk would have a predisposition to root for the Illinois teams in Chicago. But you would be misguided in that.

As a college professor of mine once put it, “Outside of Chicago, there’s this place called Illinois.”  So the folks living in Quincy, which is just upriver from St. Louis, are more likely to identify themselves as Cardinals fans than anything else. And yet, Rick Reuschel and his brother Paul Reuschel still made their way to Wrigley Field in the early to mid-1970s.

When Rick Reuschel broke into the majors in 1972, baseball was a much different game than it is today. There was no such thing as a Designated Hitter, Divisional play was still a new thing, and the reserve clause was still in effect. Do you ever wonder why Brooks Robinson played for the Orioles for so many years? For most of them, he didn’t have a choice.  The reserve clause meant that he was an Oriole for as long as they wanted to keep him. He wasn’t able to play wherever he wanted. And so it was with Rick Reuschel, too.

Reuschel tossed five complete games his rookie season, with four of them being shutouts. It sounds impressive enough to our modern ears, but consider that the National League’s leaders that season were Steve Carlton, who pitched thirty complete games, and Don Sutton, who pitched nine shutouts. Who knows how many millions that would have meant for them in today’s game? But, as I said, it was a different game back then.

Seven other National League pitchers, besides Reuschel, threw four shutouts in 1972. In other words, his accomplishment wasn’t such a big thing back then. But the game began to change over the course of Reuschel’s career. Free agency set in, and pitchers like Carlton became a true investment for teams. Gone were the days when starting pitchers threw 300+ innings per season, as Carlton did in Reuschel’s rookie season.

Teams also switched from a four-man starting rotation to a five-man starting rotation. You won’t see a pitcher get 40 or more  starts in a season anymore, which hasn’t happened since 1979. Fewer starts necessarily means that fewer complete games, and fewer shutouts, are now being pitched.

Pitch counts have also dramatically changed the way starters pitch. Pitchers once pitched until they were tired, but those days are no more. Innings pitched is a reflection of this trend. Between 1973  and 1980, Reuschel pitched between 234 and 260 innings every season. He was a workhorse back then, but he would be considered almost superhuman in today’s game.

When Rick Reuschel split the 1988 season between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, he again pitched four shutouts, but this time it was tops in the National League. His 12 complete games also led the league, but would have been no better than eighth in the NL in his rookie season. He was still the same pitcher at age 38 that he was at age 23, but the game itself had shifted under his feet. Change is indeed the only constant.