Bring back Tony Gwynn and the lost greats of the 1980s

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A remembrance of the past, a wish not to go back but to be back, and for others to be back as well. Also the only post where you'll see Pascual Perez compared to a character from Shakespeare.

When Tony Gwynn passed away last week, I felt not just sadness but a fervent desire to see him again as he was in his prime, when both he and I were brimming with potential -- mostly him. Then I took a step further back and I realized it's not just him. He's not the only part of my baseball youth who have gone on. There are so many more.

If you will forgive the observance of a personal holiday, 2014 represents the 30th anniversary of my adult interest in baseball. I am old enough that I cheered for the 1977 and 1978 Yankees as a young child, but it was 1984 when I first read Bill James and saw the game for what it was, had my imagination captured by a blossoming young first baseman named Don Mattingly, and really got it in a way that, although I didn't know it at the time, would lead to a career writing about the game.

I was 13 then. The players were for the most part young men. Mattingly, for example, was 23. He and players like him are in late middle-age now, just as I am in early-middle age. No doubt this strikes them as being as unfair as it strikes me. I don't want to be 13 again, but I wouldn't mind 23, and I'm sure they wouldn't either. This will mean nothing to those who weren't there then or haven't reached my age yet, but my selfish wish would be to have both, to have both they and I get a second chance.

This is a component of a midlife crisis and I'm okay with it. I still mourn for the loss of Gwynn as an individual and not just as an idol of my childhood. You can do both. Yet, thinking of his death this way, as a moment of passage in my own life, I was struck by the capriciousness of the, so to speak, whole damned ballgame. Of the players who captured my imagination when I was entering adolescence, Gwynn is only the latest of so many who are gone. Bob Welch preceded Gwynn to the great beyond by a matter of days, and if you believe in a field of dreams somewhere, they won't find themselves lacking for teammates. A handful who made a powerful impression:

Dan Quisenberry, RHP (1953-1990)

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Brain cancer took a thoughtful, witty pitcher who won five saves titles, demonstrating that a pitcher who basically threw underhand could be a great closer -- a fact that was quickly forgotten. "I found a delivery in my flaw," he said, and he both was and wasn't joking. His fastball sat around 80 mph at best.

Why you should still care: Not everyone can close (as we'll see below), but guys who throw softball-style can. Listening Diamondbacks, Brad Ziegler? He's also a monument to Whitey Herzog (also more below), who was one of the few managers who would have looked at a 27-year-old former non-drafted free agent who threw the equivalent of soap bubbles and envisioned Goose Gossage-like possibilities. Beyond that, Quis was a unique personality worth spending time with, even if only in the pages of the history books.

Gary Carter, C (1954-2012)


Another victim of brain cancer, "The Kid" sometimes rubbed fans the wrong way just because his sunny disposition and gamer attitude could feel like a put-on. They weren't, and as one of the best catchers in history he was a deserving Hall of Famer. The trade that brought him to the Mets was one of the best of all time (Taking Advantage of the Expos Handicap Division), putting one of the final touches on an all-time great team.

Why you should still care: Carter was one of those combinations of player and personality that doesn't come along too often. It was painful watching the rigors of catching erode his value in his early 30s in roughly the same way it did Johnny Bench before him. There are baseball players and people who love baseball. Carter was both. He was also one of the few sane members of the 1986 Mets. The sane man in an insane world has a heavier cross to bear than Carter ever let on, but when a person in that position holds it together, he's done something special.

Kirby Puckett, OF (1960-2006)

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Puckett was a rookie in 1984 and hit no home runs in 583 plate appearances. The next year he hit four in 744. In year three, he hit 31 in 723. Supposedly that was due to working with Tony Oliva on changing his stroke. Today, no one would believe that's all it was, and perhaps they'd be right. We can be thankful we were spared that, because Puckett was a great deal of fun to watch. Later, we learned he was possibly a repugnant man, and not the fun-loving, let's-play-two guy he appeared to be at a distance. In some ways that knowledge changes everything, in others nothing.

Why you should still care: Because balancing what you see versus what you know, even retroactively, is a mental exercise worth undertaking, even when it induces dissonance.

Joe Niekro, RHP (1944-2006)

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro's younger brother was more of a journeyman until he too picked up the knuckleball, putting together a strong run for the Houston Astros in the early-to-mid 1980s. He finished a close second to Bruce Sutter in the 1979 Cy Young Award balloting, though in truth neither was as valuable as Niekro's teammate J.R. Richard. Niekro would have been a more deserving recipient in 1982, when he posted a 2.47 ERA in 270 innings, but he won only 17 games and the Astros weren't any good, so in those 20-win-obessed seasons, he didn't garner a vote.

The Yankees traded a 25-year-old Jim DeShaies for a 40-year-old Niekro in 1985, which was (and is) a very Yankees thing to do. Two years later, they traded him to the Twins and Niekro picked up a winning World Series ring.

Why you should still care: The world needs to remember the knuckleball, as well as one of the most successful sibling pitcher combinations of all time.

Mike Flanagan, LHP (1951-2011)

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The 1979 AL Cy Young Award winner went 23-9 with a 3.08 ERA, which was good-not-great run-prevention for that time, but hey, he led the league in wins and the Orioles were a playoff team and that's all that mattered. Had the concept of wins above replacement existed back then, it would have been observed that Flanagan clung to the bottom of the league's top-20 pitchers. Nonetheless, it was a good season in a creditable, league-average career, with a championship ring, Baltimore's last to date, in 1983. He eventually rose to be the team's Executive Vice-President of Baseball Operations. That he didn't succeed in the role had perhaps more to do with the team's inherent structural deficiencies than his own talents. We'll never know, as he took his own life during the summer of 2011.

Why you should still care: "Cy Young Award-Winners of the 1980s," which can begin with an ominous pre-credits prelude set in 1979, is the Michael Bay disaster film that will never get made. You know who had his best season by WAR in 1979? Jack Morris. He didn't get a vote. Oh, and then there's this simple idea: the men and woman who populate the world of baseball aren't just distant celebrities for us to mock on social media. Their pain may be as real as yours. It's a simple thought, but it's easy to forget kindness, charity, and empathy when your team has just traded its best prospect for a journeyman pitcher or said pitcher has just been thrashed 10-1.

Rick Mahler, RHP (1953-2005)

He was the Braves' most consistent starting pitcher in the period between Phil Niekro and Tom Glavine, and if that sounds like it's damning him with faint praise, it is. He went 79-89 with a 4.00 ERA for Atlanta. He was part of their NL West-winning 1982 team, but not a very good one. Adding insult to injury, when they finally got good in 1991, they made the sentimental move and brought him back at midseason... then released him in August. He did go 17-15 for a 66-96 team in 1985, which was an accomplishment, and he picked up a winning World Series ring before the Braves did, working as Lou Piniella's swingman on the 1990 Reds.

Why you should still care: The journey the Braves went on as a franchise, from the semi-successful Joe Torre years to the nadir of the National League to the Bobby Cox revival, is one of the great riches-to-rags-to-riches stories in baseball history -- but like Moses, not everyone gets to see the promised land.

Pascual Perez, RHP (1957-2012)

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Mahler's teammate, the only guy to be late for a game because he couldn't figure out how to exit the Atlanta I-285 loop, and a pitcher who threw a bit of everything at any time, including an eephus pitch, Perez's career didn't come to much, in part because he was six-foot-two and appeared to weight about 90 pounds -- a build like that just wasn't going to sustain a 3000-inning career. Then there was the cocaine. If you want a third reason, he rarely seemed to be taking things seriously, which made him highly entertaining -- but also frequently annoying, because that kind of approach is the antithesis of consistency. He was probably the greatest pitcher in baseball history to go 1-13 with a 6.14 ERA.

Perez was a frenetic pitcher, always running to and from the mound like someone had ordered an emergency evacuation. He had great control but also started one of the most vicious brawls in history in 1984 by hitting Padres' second baseman Alan Wiggins (see below) in the head.

Perez was suspended for the entire 1992 season for drug violations and was unable to come back. He was killed in a botched burglary of his house in the Dominican Republic.

Why you should still care: You should have seen him. He made people happy and angry and disappointed at the same time. Imagine if Yasiel Puig was a pitcher. That was Pascual Perez, and drugs weren't necessarily a part of that -- he was just an odd, odd guy. At his best he was like Pedro Martinez as Puck, Shakespeare's "shrewd and knavish sprite," and it's a shame we didn't get to see more of that than we did.

Chris Brown (1961-2006) and Jose Uribe (1959-2006)

Jose_uribe_medium Jose Uribe and Mookie Wilson.

I put these two together because they were teammates for parts of four seasons. Brown was drafted away from the same Crenshaw, Los Angeles high school team that produced Darryl Strawberry. He had the typical career: Came up with the Giants and started out strong, finishing fourth in the 1985 Rookie of the Year balloting; made the All-Star team as a sophomore when he hit .317/.376/.421; was traded away as a malinger, injuries set in, and rapidly dropped out of the majors; drove a truck for Halliburton in Iraq; died in a mysterious fire that might have been murder or a botched arson. There isn't any other baseball story like that -- "Pride of the Yankees" really doesn't get into such strange, dark territory. It's like a Coen Brothers film, only with real people, and we'll never know what really happened.

Uribe was a run-of-the-mill good-field, no-hit shortstop who caught attention when he initially came up under the name Jose Gonzalez; he didn't change it in one of those Leo Nunez/Juan Carlos Oviedo, ID-disguising situations, rather it was that Jose Gonzalez was pretty close to a Hispanic "John Smith" at the time. He was one of the many players that brought Jack Clark from the Giants to the Cardinals in February, 1985. A car accident ended his life at 47. His Baseball-Reference page notes he had "at least" 14 children.

Why you should still care: Brown's life and its ending is a mystery. Did he want to play or was he truly hurt? There was a racial component to many accusations of lassitude towards black players in the 80s. Was that part of what happened to Brown? As for Uribe, apparently some aspects of his life are mysterious as well. "At least?" It sounds like a bad Vince Vaughn comedy with a painfully sad ending, those initially outside of the original class of heirs still finding out years later.

Tug McGraw, LHP (1944-2004)

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The Mets and Phillies southpaw reliever was wrapping up his career that first year. He was one of the funniest men ever to play the game. You can pick your favorite line, but came when he was asked whether he preferred grass or Astroturf. "I don't know," he said thoughtfully, "I've never smoked Astroturf." He was also the originator of the 1973 Mets' rallying cry, "You gotta believe!" which he very well might have meant ironically. He pitched on winning World Series teams for two franchises that desperately needed the titles, the 1969 Mets and 1980 Phillies. His 1971-1972 peak was monstrous - over the two seasons he went 19-10 with a 1.70 ERA in 217 innings, saving 35 games along the way.

Another victim of brain cancer, he was a scrapper - watch him punch his way off the field when the Mets clinched the NL East in 1973.

Why you should still care: Great pitcher, great personality, hero to two franchises, father of a country music star who is probably more famous than his dad ever was. There is a Tug McGraw Foundation, its motto "Ya Gotta Believe," which exists to enhance the quality of life for those afflicted by brain trauma and tumors. It is run by Jennifer Brusstar, the wife of former major-league pitcher Warren Brusstar; she was McGraw's fulltime caregiver during his final illness, a wonderful example of baseball taking care of its own. Many other former major leaguers are involved as well.

Darrell Porter, C (1952-2002)

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Left-handed power, patience, and occasionally some batting average made for a nice offensive combination. Alas, it came with the cocaine problem that eventually killed him. The goat of the 1980 postseason for the Royals, he was the MVP of both the NLCS and World Series for the Cardinals in 1982. Porter's 1979 season (.291/.421/.484 with 20 home runs and a league-leading 121 walks) ranks in or near the top five performances by a backstop since 1901.

Why you should still care: He was part of the magical mystery tour that was the wonderfully successful but strange career of Whitey Herzog, a Hall of Fame adventure that was wrapped in switch-hitters, stolen bases, and baseball's drug problem. He also demonstrates that that problem didn't just vanish when the 80s were over, but stayed with many of the players involved long enough to destroy them.

Eric Show, RHP (1956-1994)

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He was an ill-fitting, strange combination of a ballplayer, a jazz-guitar-playing, drug-consuming, extreme right-winger. He gave up the record-breaking hit that Pete Rose force-fed to baseball. During Show's career, there was a short-lived superhero parody TV show called "The Greatest American Hero" about an unassuming schoolteacher who stumbles upon a super-powered suit. It's theme song pathetically concludes, "It should have been somebody else." That was also true of both Rose and Show -- Rose didn't deserve to break the record and Show wasn't equipped to be the patsy of what initially seemed like a historic moment: He simply sat down on the mound and watched while the Rose circus happened around him. It was a gesture that embarrassed a very volatile group of teammates.

Part of the pennant-winning 1984 Padres, he had a chance at a second life with the Tony La Russa-era A's, but pitched poorly in 1991, then showed up at camp in 1992 with bandaged hands and no clear explanation for how they had got that way, but clearly it had something to do with addiction to both cocaine and methamphetamines. The A's released him and his career was over.

Why you should still care: The Padres' clubhouse of the mid-to-late 1980s was a strange place, with a kid of culture war being fought between players who overlapped in strange ways. Black against white, left against right, sober against high, except that the lines were blurry. It's a story that needs to be told, because it had casualties, Show among them -- he died while in drug rehabilitation. The ESPN profile linked above is an excellent place to start.

Donnie Moore, RHP (1954-1989)

One of those old sabermetrics-versus-scouting arguments is whether anyone can close or a pitcher needs some kind of special God-given mentality to make it. The answer to that question is that more pitchers have that mentality than don't, but not all do. This is a vast oversimplification of what must have been a vastly more complex series of psychological issues, but perhaps Moore was one of those who should not have been closing. By all accounts, he never recovered emotionally from blowing the save in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS against the Red Sox. A few years later, he shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself. His wife recovered. He did not.

Why you should still care: Show, Porter, Moore, and the last man on this list show that sometimes baseball not only needs to care for players during their careers, but after as well. We like to pretend that the retired veterans are still part of the game, that we still love them when they are (sometimes literally) rolled out on Old-Timers Day. Nowadays, the game has alumni associations and the Baseball Assistance Team to look in on ex-athletes that have slipped ourminds, but there can always be more. You'll never avert every tragedy, but we can try. One sense in which you can see the emphasis Major League Baseball places on such efforts: many links on the B.A.T. page, linked above, including for grant applications, are currently broken.

Alan Wiggins, 2B/OF (1958-1991)

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Baseball handled the drug crisis of the 1980s ineptly, but it truly was a crisis. Over time, MLB has gravitated from punishment to therapy as a first resort, a far more intelligent and humane approach, but there were too many players - Show, Wiggins, Porter, Steve Howe, and Rod Scurry among them, whose lives were shortened by their usage before and even after the Lords of the Game wised up. Wiggins' was an especially pathetic case. A speedy outfielder who Dick Williams moved to second base in place of Juan Bonilla, Wiggins had been arrested for possession of cocaine in 1982, at which point he and Bonilla went to rehab. Wiggins had virtually-identical seasons in 1983 and 1984, hitting a combined .267/.350/.327 with 66 stolen bases in the former seasons and 70 (with a league-leading 21 caught-stealing) in the latter. This wasn't quite Joe Morgan territory (he was still around, playing for the A's), but getting into scoring position under your own power was a good thing when Gwynn was hitting behind you; Wiggins scored 106 runs in 1984.

After that the drug problems overwhelmed Wiggins' career. The Padres disassociated themselves from Wiggins, then traded him to the Orioles, but it was pretty much all over.  In September, 1987, then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended him indefinitely. He never made it back. Not quite four years later, he died of AIDS. Major League Baseball was not ultimately responsible for what happened to Wiggins, it is fair to say that it didn't help him either, just as its seven suspensions of Steve Howe (including "for life") didn't help him. Maybe there was an inevitability to it all. Another thing we'll never know.

It is heartening to learn that Wiggins' daughter Candice excelled as a high school and collegiate basketball player and is now a well-regarded player in the WNBA.

Why you should still care: In the 1980s, America had at least two public health crises, drugs and AIDS. It did a miserable job combatting both, approaching them as personal failings to be scorned rather than illnesses to be treated. Wiggins's story encompasses both of those tragic responses in one life.

Steve_howe_medium Steve Howe

I haven't mentioned everyone, or close to that: There is also Paul Splittorff, Jim Bibby, Brad Lesley, Steve Howe, Kevin Hickey, Aurelio Lopez, Bo Diaz, Dave Smith, Charlie Lea, Ivan Calderon, Tom Underwood, Mitchell Page, Vern Ruhle, Al Cowens, and so many more. It probably shouldn't be shocking to note that so many have gone in 30 years, and yet, it is, both because I can still remember a slim, young Tony Gwynn and because some of them were younger than I am now when they passed. The implications of that alone are hard to accept. I have young children. They had young children.

To state the obvious, this is life. And yet, we absorb that ideas and then Clayton Kershaw comes along, tosses a great game, and we let it go to watch the great wheel spinning. What choice do we have? None, really -- the only alternative is a paralysis not unlike death in its inertia. We forget for a little while. That's the great thing about baseball. Bart Giamatti famously wrote that baseball is the game that breaks your heart. He was wrong. It was the game that makes you forget that you have one for awhile -- not the symbolic heart he was referring to, but the literal one, the muscle that, beginning about six weeks after you are conceived, is slowly ticking to a stop.

All photos: Getty Images.

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