Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bill Campbell -Funky Disco Era Reliever: Pre-free Agency Part One

[EDITED July 19, 2014 - the sister post to this piece is at this link, following Campbell's road to becoming the first-ever free agent under the new bargaining agreement in the post-Dave McNally / Andy Messersmith era]

So much of the spring training discussion of the 2011 Minnesota Twins has revolved around their bullpen, specifically the interesting closing tandem of Joe Nathan and Matt Capps.  The early blueprint has Capps shifting into the closer's role when Nathan has already pitched consecutive games.  This is a fortunate luxury that will hopefully pay dividends for Nathan's career as he seeks to regain his form as perhaps the greatest closer in Twins history. That's basically why they gave up top catching prospect, Wilson Ramos, to have somebody like Capps available to pitch that closer inning at the end of games while Nathan recovers. But there was a time in Twins history when their closers pitched far more innings at the end of games - and in fact, functioned essentially as starting pitchers on a smaller scale! Enter the Twin pitcher voted the Rolaids Relief Man of 1976 as Exhibit A John Swol had a fine summary of Bill and recorded an interview you can playback at his Twins Trivia site.

There weren't too many relief pitchers better than Bill "Soupy" Campbell in the mid-1970's. He became the Twins first free agent to leave Calvin Griffith's plantation, on November 6, 1976. Griffith was an owner from the old school, tightfisted, and he battled players down to the last nickel during contract negotiations. Campbell was definitely in that era's category of excellent relief pitchers, a list including Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Kent Tekulve. His 1976 season was astounding...and just look at his multi-inning boggles the mind now!  However, you should first sing along to Dylan's 1976 "Maggie's Farm" Video beforehand, substituting "Calvin" for "Maggie" in the chorus!

In that Bicentennial summer, Bill Campbell could brag about his:
  • 17 wins in relief
  • 20 saves
  • 167 innings pitched
  • Of his 78 appearances, only 13 merely lasted 1 inning.
  • 56 appearances were multi-inning games
  • 23 of his appearances were 3 innings or more
  • 6 times he pitched 5 innings or more
  • Surprisingly, he only blew 7 saves all year, after pitching all those innings
  • Earned a 7th place finish in the Cy Young voting, 8th place in the MVP voting
  • Grew a fu that Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourne would have envied

This guy was money in the bank when he came into a game!  Funny, how you never really hear his name mentioned among the great Twins relievers much at all.  But I remember him quite well, those long arms whipping around from behind his body, making his ball hard to pick up for the batter.  He moved on to the Red Sox the next season, before the Players Union installed a controlled trickle
of free agents:
"The now-powerful players' union negotiated it [the reserve clause] out of existence in the 1970s, setting up the lucrative free agent era. Union head Marvin Miller, who knew that universal free agency would be just as bad as having no free agency, negotiated a system based on service time for potential free agents." - from Answers.Com
In short, instead of letting everybody into the pool at the end of their contract, Miller was wise to create a trickle flow of free agents.  The lower supply would serve to increase the individual take in player contracts.  Too many high level players would dilute the money pool, so the control was set up.  But before that, his agent, Larue Harcourt (see photo), negotiated Bill's big pot of gold - 5 years, $1M - with the BoSox (why, oh why, do people say these agent / lawyers have sleazy names?). In any event, his exodus from the Twins wasn't preordained, and hi staying in Minnesota received a lot of conjecture during and after the season (see page one of this feature from The Sporting News (Oct. 16, 1976) and also the conclusion to the piece on page two.
A face that would have served him well as a
      bit actor in a western barroom scene.
 Appropriate, as 1970's baseball was a lot like ...
                    well, the wild, wild west. 

By today's rules, a player only becomes eligible for free agency after 6 years of inclusion on the team's 40 man roster. Under that format, Campbell wouldn't have become eligible to bolt until after the 1978 season. As it was, within three years, the Twins lost Campbell, Bert Blyleven (his trade preempting his all-but-certain free agency), Larry Hisle (team's top slugger), Lyman Bostock (Twins best pure hitter after Carew), Eric Soderholm (starting third baseman), and Dave Goltz (staff ace after Blyleven).  It was all sickening stuff for Twins fans to stomach - the exodus from the shantytown and cotton field that our (now-lovely) Twins Territory was. It made it ever more difficult for the club to compete in the late 1970's...gone was their chance to win another pennant (or two) in those years.

        Soupy's career ended with
        the Montreal Expos in
       1987, after he pitched in 7
       games at age 38.

As Herb would say: "...and the count rides along..."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Twins Fans Mournful: Goodbye, Luke Hughes-Hello (AGAIN) Matt Tolbert!

You'd be cryin' too if you
were a Luke Hughes fan.
Despite seemingly outplaying his main competitors for the utility (substitute) player off the bench, the Minnesota Twins designated Aussie prospect Luke Hughes for assignment to the AAA Minor League camp this.  This means holdover from last year, boring-but-steady Matt Tolbert will take over that role to start the season.

Fact is, Luke tailed off badly for the last 9 days.  He ends spring training with a .246/.265/.569 line while striking out 17 times in 65 at-bats. Lawdy mama! Meanwhile, Tolbert acquitted himself quite nicely, and at just the right time! He produced a  .316/.372/.395 that very likely saved his bench-warmin' hide.

Here's Hughes' first Major League home run, in his first at-bat, a "110 Meter" blast, as phrased by the Aussie sportscaster!

I love what Hughes could bring to the team. He could come off the bench and be an actual, right-handed, long ball threat in a pinch hitting situation. He could play third, first, second, and a corner outfield position. And he talks authentic Australian, without resorting to those dreadful, cliche "shrimp on the barbie," or "crikey" references that actor Paul Hogan spawned.

But Tolbert does all of the above, other than the talking thing. And there's this: do we really want a developing young guy warming the bench, getting stale? He'll do better fine-honing those skills with the leather at Rochester (AAA), no? Hopefully, young Luke will come back to claim his rightful place, and save the, Twins fans from having the spectre of an entire season of the pedestrian Tolbert. One injury away...

Until, then, as Herb used to say,
"...and the count rides along."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Last Of The Ninth 1965 Record LP

[AUDIO REINSERTED: DEC. 26, 2011. first POSTED IN MAR., 2011]This is an original album produced by radio station WCCO (CBS-Minneapolis) in 1965 to commemorate the American League pennant winning Twins.  It has some excellent game and player sound clips from many of the players of that club --Harmon, Tony, Zoilo, and the announcing team of Herb Carneal (great '65 All Star Game clip), Halsey Hall and Ray Scott are all here. Later, make SURE you check out the classic video clip of Ray with 2 other legends.

I heard it years ago on LP when I was a kid. I was smitten immediately, and I can trace my love of Twins history to that event. It, of course, is a passion that dovetailed nicely into the worldly passions of baseball card collecting, and making awkward advances towards the fairer sex (for some reason, the lasses have never been enamored with my encyclopedic knowledge of the '77 Topps Baseball set). Ah, women...a fickle, hard to please race of beings! Anyways, I've been looking for the original version of LOT9TH ever since, with hopes of finding a working copy off Ebay or Amazon for play on ye olde Victrola.  It's a toughie, having out of print since the Johnson administration, and the people I discover that own it don't want to part with it. Gravy sucking, elitist cake eaters...

Looking to post up another update of "Twins Phenoms Of Springs Past" again this weekend.  Enjoy the Twins-Rays preseason game today.  It'll be interesting to see how the roster shapes up, and how our starters like Baker and Slowey respond to the pressure of their competition for the 5th starters role [ edit. note: some competition, as Slowey basically had to be Walter Johnson last spring to lengthen Mgr. Gardy's  short leash ]. If Baker had been able to perform last year up to his capabilities, there would never be this current situation he finds himself in. Go Luke Hughes!

Album Jacket photos and source embeds courtesy 
of Vinyl From Hell (site may be "de-funked" at present).

It will all sort itself out, one way or the other.

As Herb would say "...and the count rides along."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Phenoms of Minnesota Twins Springs Past: Part I

Luke Hughes.  Kyle Gibson.  Scott Diamond. Just a few new names we Twins fans have heard bandied about this spring of 2011. This post and the ones to follow highlight some past Twins who either performed admirably in spring training, or caught on with the club early in the season.

Some "kicked up the dust," and flourished...while some wilted like daisies in the hot summer sun, from the pressures of big league ball.

Jimmie Hall, 1963: Southern Fried Slugger 
He was the fleet center fielder with a sweet, whiplash swing from the left side. He was the first, real "tools" player (speed, power) to come up in the Twins' system in the early 1960's. He was sort of a Mickey Mantle character, Minnesota version, with his skill set and southern drawl.

1964 Topps Card
Jimmie Hall was 25 when he impressed the Twins in the '63 camp (see "3 New Faces For The Twins" - Albert Lea Trib. April 1, 1963).  He'd been in the minors for parts of 7 seasons, and had finished his stint in the reserves in '62. Lenny Green had been the veteran in center field for the club, and knew by the middle of June that the fleet Hall would be taking his spot. Check out The Sporting News feature pg. 1 and page 2 on him from July 27, 1963. He was just a country kid, really, from Mount Holly, SC. You can imagine it was a kind of a place with Sheriffs like Andy Taylor and greasy spoon restaurants, a place where you couldn't swing a Louisville Slugger without hitting an Aunt Bee or drunk Otis Campbell character. He disliked big cities, a la, Hibbing, Minnesota native Roger Maris. That he played at Metropolitan Stadium must have been O.K. with him, as it was basically located in what had been a cornfield.

When Green went down with an injury in June, Hall was inserted into the starting lineup, and began knocking the cover off the ball. He hit .322 that month with 5 jacks, then only .233 but 7 HR's in July, caught fire with 13 bombs, 27 RBI and .333 in August, and finished off the year in September with another 6 homers. Not bad stuff -31 homers, .273 batting average, with 77 ribbies, .354 OBP & slugged .556.

Here's a wonderful clip of Jimmie batting against Don Drysdale in the 1965 World Series:

While he had three more fine seasons with Minnesota, it was always claimed that his May, 1964 beaning (link: Mar. 23, 1967 Milwaukee Sentinel) made him tentative against lefty throwers.   Actually, his line against them wasn't impressive previously, having only hit 1 homer pre-injury, and four lifetime (see Jason Kubel (10, through 2010) and Jacque Jones (21) lifetime for comparison). Just as crucial, perhaps, was his collision with Bob Allison that made him less aggressive going back to the wall for deep drives. He called it a career in 1970 with the Braves.

Sergio Ferrer, 1974: not ready for primetime...
Custom Made 1974 Ferrer Topps
Twins Cards Autographs section
Sergio Ferrer was basically the clubhouse janitor who masqueraded his way onto the major league stage. That is to say, he was a sham of a major league player for most of his time in the show. He was Chico Esquala, the fictional, comedic, Latin middle infielder popularized by Garret Morris on Saturday Night Live, before anybody had ever heard the name. He impressed the Twins brass during spring training competition, where his AA background looked to be more than adequate against the usual collection of green prospects and rusty veterans.

The Twins had selected him as a Rule 5 draftee on Dec. 3, 1973, from the Dodgers farm system.  Essentially, Calvin Griffith and company had grown dissatisfied with incumbent shortstop Danny Thompson. Thompson had produced a .225/.259/.282 line (batting, on base, slugging) line in '73, and it had to give the Twins pause, especially with his leukemia woes factored in. The Twins, with Ferrar's minor league stat sheet in front of them, saw this: a .297 BA, and a .397 OBP, with 44 steals in two seasons. I remember hearing the spring training games carried by WCCO radio out of Minneapolis, feeling thrilled whenever the little Puerto Rican reached base, anticipating he'd use his speed to swipe another bag.  And when he started the season as Manager Frank Quilici's lead off man, he batted .281 in 20 games, showing that speed alright...

Problem was, the Twins had neglected to scan the defensive side of his rap sheet: 70 errors in two seasons previous in A and AA ball.  Sure enough, when he had to field the ball, Ferrer didn't disappoint: at the start of '74, he committed 9 errors in 62 chances, a span of 125 innings. That's an .855 fielding percentage in 20 games (14 where he was the starter), while the league shortstops average was .969. Things had not "been berry, berry good..."

That's just plain loco, amigo!

By May 12, the "Sergio Ferrer Era" was mercifully over, as it marked the last time that year he would start at shortstop for the Twins. By the end of May, he was at AAA Tacoma, probably sent over in a spare bat bag to save cheap Calvin Griffith some air fare. There, he continued his pattern of savage butchery (a mere 29 errors in 79 games, .924 Fld%). The Twins tried their luck afterward with a revolving door of infield candidates, including Thompson, Luis Gomez, Jerry Terrell and Eric Soderholm. Dick Nixon could only wish he was given as quiet a burial in that stormy summer of '74. Sergio resurfaced with the hapless, late '70's New York Mets, where he found a home as Ed Kranepool's designated pinch runner.

Eric Milton, 1998: Centerpiece of Yankee trade for Chuck whats-his-name?
In the six seasons since the 1991 Championship, 2B Chuck Knoblauch had gone from an image of being the finest all-American overachiever who ever had his cheeks pinched by adoring grandmothers, to being a trade-demanding megalomaniac.  The Twins found suckers takers for his services in the New York Yankees [cue evil dictator laugh here].

The ransom they had to pay for his services turned into the most celebrated trade and transaction for the Twins in the decade of the 1990's: Brian Buchanan, Cristian Guzman, Eric Milton, Danny Mota and $3M came Minnesota's way on Feb. 6, 1998.

1999 Topps Rookie card
It was with no small joy for Twins fans that Milton was given a spot on the roster after his first spring fling with the Twins - he had discernible talent, which gave the fan base instant hope- a commodity that had become non-existent in a relatively short span of time. Pitchers like Rich Robertson, Scott Klingenbeck, and players like Scott Stahoviak and David McCarty had come to symbolize the decay and general malaise of a franchise (or like that same, inebriated Otis stumbling upon and flipping off the happy birthday kids party with his coarseness and rude flatulence). They were part of the slow building steam of resurgence for the Twins of the early 2000's that would blow the lid off the sham and lie that was contraction between the seasons of 2001 and 2002.

With that in mind, it's probably not too much of an exaggeration to claim Milton and his cohorts, specifically Guzman, were part of the most important trade in franchise history. The franchise's fate may have tipped another way if not for that. Of course, we'll never know.  Milton's 15-25 won-loss record over his first two seasons then became secondary, what with the legitimacy and talent (like the young Frank Viola) he brought to the pitching staff. A point of contention: Milton's Sept.11, 1999 no-hitter against the Anaheim Angels is downgraded for the low grade lineup he faced while Johnny Vander Meer's 1938 no-hitter (the second of two consecutive gems) against a very undistinguished Brooklyn Dodger lineup is given no such scrutiny or back-handed praise. With his career seemingly over at this point we owe him - and the Knobber - a salute in gratitude (uh, not that salute - the classy, respectful one).

We'll return later with more Twins phenoms.
Until then, as Herb used to say: "...and the count rides along."