1981 Fleer baseball cards

1981 Fleer baseball cards

It’s just my opinion, but I think 1981 Fleer baseball cards get less respect than they deserve. It ended Topps’ 25-year monopoly on baseball cards and, frankly, I think it’s a nicer set than the Topps or Donruss sets from the same year.

Yes, compared to the smooth and polished Topps, the Fleer set at times looked like amateur work. But they didn’t make as many mistakes as fellow upstart Donruss did. And they tried some things with their set that Topps had been unwilling to do. The 1981 Fleer baseball cards got some critical accolades at the time, and frankly I think it’s an underrated ’80s set. It didn’t contribute a lot to the most valuable cards of the 1980s, but it certainly helped shape the decade.

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Off to the World Series.

Years ago, probably sometime in 2009 or 2010, a coworker asked me when the Royals would be good again. I estimated 2014, based on the age of the serviceable young players they had at the time and the age of the prospects they had in their farm system.

By 2014, I estimated that Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer would all be productive major league players, and that would give them a chance. A whole lot of other things would have to go right though, and the window of opportunity would be short, because modern economics wouldn’t permit the Royals to keep all four of them together as long as the Royals of yore kept George Brett, Frank White, Hal McRae and Willie Wilson together.

Objectively, it sounded plausible. But did I believe it? Not really. I’d been denied too many times. Read more

The re-segregation of baseball

The Kansas City Star had a piece today about the sharp decline in the number of African-Americans playing baseball. Of course, when I grew up, the Royals relied heavily on African-Americans. George Brett was the star, but without Willie Wilson and Frank White hitting ahead of him and Hal McRae and Willie Aikens or John Mayberry hitting behind him, opposing pitchers would have never thrown Brett a hittable pitch.

Today, the Royals’ starting position players, their five starting pitchers and all of their key relief pitchers are all either white or Hispanic. The only African-American on their roster right now is speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson.

I think I know why.

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A story of baseball, drugs, vengeance and redemption

I saw a familiar name that I hadn’t heard in a long time–years, probably–mentioned on a Royals fan site.

Lonnie Smith.

Lonnie Smith was a talented but troubled outfielder who rose to prominence while playing for Whitey Herzog’s 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. He could run like nobody’s business and he was a fearsome hitter on top of that, but he also had a drug problem.In 1985, Smith had a minor injury and missed the beginning of the season. His bat was diminishing anyway, and the Cardinals had a young guy by the name of Vince Coleman waiting in the wings. Coleman got Smith’s job, and the Cardinals shipped Smith off to the Royals in exchange for John Morris, a prospect who made it to the majors the next year but never became a star.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Smith put up respectable but unspectacular numbers. But the Royals needed someone who could hit between Willie Wilson and George Brett and, like Wilson, run like his hair was on fire when Brett made contact. Smith did that pretty well.

Now, about that drug problem. Smith spent 30 days in rehab in 1983 when he was playing in St. Louis. In 1985, after the World Series, when the players all had a chance to speak, Smith thanked three people specifically. He thanked Royals’ hitting coach Lee May and Royals’ DH Hal McRae for helping him get his hitting stroke back, and Jesus Christ for helping him get off drugs and stay clean.

He stayed clean for about four years.

Smith’s hitting improved the next season in Kansas City, but then history repeated itself, and Smith lost his left field job to another prospect, the two-sport flameout Bo Jackson. Jackson’s 1987 season showed much more promise than it did powerhouse, but the Royals liked what they saw enough that they considered Smith expendable, and they released him in December of that year.

Smith waited for a call from another team interested in giving him a chance, but the phone never rang. Depressed, Smith started taking drugs again. And as the story from earlier this month goes, if the phone hadn’t rung one day with the then-lowly Atlanta Braves offering him one last chance, he might have flown back to Kansas City and tried to murder the general manager who released him.

Instead, Smith signed a minor-league contract with Atlanta and worked his way back into the major leagues. He once again blossomed into a minor star, and earned $7 million in his 6-year comeback tour. Unlike many professional athletes, he saved enough of his fortune that neither he nor his wife have to work today. They live comfortably and he has established trust funds to take care of his kids’ future.

I had never heard the murder plot angle of the Smith story.

The story (linked above) makes for an interesting read. After reading so many stories about ex-Royals with unhappy endings, it’s nice to see a happy ending this time.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jose Canseco’s steroid allegations

I remember back when the words "Jose Canseco money" meant something, even among people who weren’t really all that interested in baseball.

You see, Jose Canseco was a huge name. He hit long home runs in large quantities, and people paid him huge amounts of money to do it. For a time, he was the most popular and highest-paid player in the game.

Today, the money’s gone and he can’t get a job, and reading about his tell-all book is pretty sad.Terry Steinbach, a former teammate of Canseco, summed it up pretty well. Canseco worked pretty hard his first couple of years, and he actually got better during those first few years in Oakland. He worked on improving his outfield defense and got promoted from left field to right field. He worked on improving his speed and became the first man to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season.

But something happened. Steinbach says he stopped taking extra outfield practice, and it showed. The player who once was lauded for his defense became a full-time designated hitter. In one notorious incident after the Athletics had traded him to the Texas Rangers, a catchable fly ball bounced off Canseco’s head and into the stands, turning a long flyout into a home run.

And if you look at Canseco’s numbers, it’s almost like you can tell what years he was trying. Take 1998 for instance. That year, he stole 28 bases. But he stole 8 bases the year before and 3 bases the year after. He was out of baseball after 2001. He made some comeback attempts but to no avail. He complained about a conspiracy. Conspiracy? By 2001, he was good for a .250 batting average and 15 home runs per year. Why should anyone break out the Jose Canseco money a guy who can’t field and who puts up Steve Balboni-esque numbers at the plate?

So I think part of it is jealousy. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro came up about the same time Canseco did, and they played longer and put up better numbers. Both seem destined for the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to believe now that in 1987, Canseco was by far the most complete player of the trio. But both McGwire and Palmeiro worked on improving their defense, and Palmeiro worked on improving his power numbers and McGwire worked on his contact.

Meanwhile, Canseco was plagued by legal troubles. Speeding tickets (like 120 in a 55), allegations of spousal abuse, financial troubles… Seems he may have learned a thing or two from Pete Rose.

So, he’s likely a bit short on good character references.

But who better to recognize steroid users than another steroid user? And while much has been made of Barry Bonds’ transformation from a lanky guy into something that resembles a professional wrestler, a look at Mark McGwire’s 1987 Topps rookie card shows he made a similar transformation in the years between his 49-homer rookie season and his 70-homer binge. Was it just the andro?

It’s been said so many times that it’s cliche that taking steroids won’t help you keep up with Randy Johnson’s fastball and it certainly won’t make you able to hit a curveball. Whether you’re juiced or not, it’s a lot of work to stay in the big leagues. That’s why Canseco played his last game at age 37 while Julio Franco is still in the big leagues at age 45.

But the steroids will change long fly balls into homers. They may turn a hooking foul ball into a fair ball, or a broken-bat grounder to short into a broken-bat single.

And while the conspiracy that Canseco alleges may very well not exist, there’s no question that owners and the players’ union like the effects that steroids have. Fans like home runs, so more home runs means more fans, which means more money in the owners’ coffers. And the players’ union loves home runs, because nothing drives a player’s salary more than his ability to hit a long one. Ozzie Smith may have saved two runs a game with his glove, but he never made as much money as the guys who averaged a homer every 3-4 games.

Like it or not, regardless of how much truth there is in Canseco’s book, there’s a problem in baseball, and Canseco’s loud mouth is only a symptom. The bigger problem is that a drug that’s illegal for you and me to use is getting used by these professional athletes. The risk to their health is enormous, but worse yet, these men are idolized by millions of boys. Most of them are anything but good role models for children anyway, even without the steroids, but the steroids make it even worse.

In 1983, the Kansas City Royals realized they had a problem. A good half-dozen of their players had massive cocaine habits, including nearly every core player aside from George Brett. One by one, the Royals traded or released every last one of those players except for leadoff hitter Willie Wilson, who spent the first couple of months of the 1984 season in rehab. The Royals knew they were decimating their team–which had finished second the year before, and the same basic team had been in place since 1976 and been a contender every year–but they did it anyway. Surprisingly, the team of castoffs and rookies did well that year, winning its division.

Will any team have the guts today to purge itself of its steroid abusers?

I doubt it. But I guess I can hope.

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