February 2012

February 21 – Happy Birthday Oscar Azocar

You have to be a pretty good Yankee fan to remember Oscar Azocar. Originally signed by the Yankees as a pitcher, this left-hander from Venezuela put together a 14-5 record in the minors with four shutouts and an ERA of 2.31. Evidently, that was not good enough to keep him in the organization because he was about to be released when a coach suggested he try the outfield. During batting practice, the team’s pitchers would play the outfield and according to the coach, it seemed as if Oscar could chase down anything hit out there. He made the move during the 1987 season and impressed everyone by hitting .359 that year. It took him five years after making the switch to make it to the Bronx for his first big league action. One of those years was spent playing for the Albany-Colonie Yankees, New York’s old AA Eastern League affiliate who’s home park was just a 30-minute drive from my house. His Manager at the time, a guy named Tommy Jones, remembered Azocar as a hitter who “doesn’t get cheated,” referring to Oscar’s tendency to be way too aggressive at the plate. Jones once told a reporter that Azocar’s strike zone extended from “his shoes to his hat.”

The Yankees called him up from Columbus in July of the 1990 season and benched football star Deion Sanders who was hitting .158 at the time as the Yankees primary utility outfielder. Azocar got off to a perfect start in his big league debut when Stump Merrill inserted him as a pinch-hitter for Alvaro Espinosa in the eighth inning of a game against the Royals and Oscar singled off future Yankee closer, Steve Farr. In his second game in pinstripes, he finished just a triple short of a cycle, hitting his first-ever big league home run off another future Yankee reliever, Tom Gordon. After his first twenty games, the free-swinging rookie was hitting .350 and starting for New York in left field. Azocar would not be able to keep up that torrid pace. When the season was over, his average had fallen to .248 and he had walked just 2 time in 218 at bats. Since he had minimum power, his inability to walk killed his run-scoring potential and the Yankees gave up on him after that single season and traded him to the Padres in December of 1990 for a young outfielder named Mike Humphreys. The Yankees also released Deion Sanders that September.

Oscar would spend just three seasons in the big leagues and then continue to play both in his native Venezuela and Mexico. On June 14, 2010, Azocar suffered a heart attack in Venezuela and died at the age of 45.

This former Yankee catcher and this former outfielder were also born on February 21st.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1990 NYY 65 218 214 18 53 8 0 5 19 7 2 15 .248 .257 .355 .612
3 Yrs 202 460 439 38 99 16 0 5 36 10 12 36 .226 .248 .296 .544
SDP (2 yrs) 137 242 225 20 46 8 0 0 17 3 10 21 .204 .239 .240 .479
NYY (1 yr) 65 218 214 18 53 8 0 5 19 7 2 15 .248 .257 .355 .612
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/1/2014.

February 20 – Happy Birthday Bill Gullickson

I remember when the Yankees acquired today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant in a straight-up one for one trade with Cincinnati for pitcher Dennis Rasmussen late in the 1987 season. I liked the deal even though Gullickson was a right handed pitcher coming to Yankee Stadium and Rasmussen was a southpaw, leaving it. Those of you who can remember when Gullickson started  for the Expos in the early eighties might recall that he was a very good pitcher for Montreal. During his six full seasons with the team he had won 72 games (still good for fourth best on the franchise’s all-time wins list.) He then got traded to the Reds after the ’85 season and he went 15-12 during his one full season there. Gullickson was a big guy, six foot three inches tall but he didn’t throw hard. Instead he depended on pinpoint control, walking an average of just two hitters per nine innings. He gave up quite a few home runs when he pitched but they usually occurred in non-crucial situations, which helps explain why his ERA as an Expo had been just 3.44.

A lot of Yankee fans hated seeing Rasmussen go because as mentioned before, he was a lefty, he had gone 18-6 for New York in 1986, and had a winning record (9-7) at the time the deal was made. At the same time, Gullickson was 10-11 for the Reds and his ERA was a tenth of a point higher than Rasmussen’s even though he had the advantage of pitching to lineups that included pitchers instead of DH’s. Both pitchers were 28-years-old and both were on cold streaks. Rasmussen had lost his last three starts as a Yankee and Gullickson had dropped five straight decisions.

Despite all that, I thought Gullickson was the better pitcher of the two and the future proved me correct. In 1991 he led all AL starters with 20 wins. The problem was he got those wins for the Tigers and not the Yankees. Gullickson would end up pitching just one month in pinstripes, going 4-2 in September of 1987. That was his option year. That also happened to be the same year big league owners allegedly colluded and agreed they would no longer bid for other team’s free agents. Rather than sign again with the Yankees, Gullickson decided to play in Japan for the next three years. In 1990, he returned to the MLB and pitched for the Astros. The following year he signed with the Tigers and put together his career year. He would retire after the 1994 season with a 14-year big league record of 162-136 and a career ERA of 3.93. He also pitched his entire career with diabetes.

Sharing Gullickson’s February 20th birthday is this outfielder who swung at one of the most famous third strikes in Yankee history,  this other outfielder who’s overthrow of a cutoff man turned into one of the most famous plays in Yankee history, this brand new Yankee catcher and this former Yankee catcher.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
1987 NYY 4 2 .667 4.88 8 8 0 1 0 0 48.0 46 29 26 7 11 28 1.188
14 Yrs 162 136 .544 3.93 398 390 3 54 11 0 2560.0 2659 1228 1118 282 622 1279 1.282
MON (7 yrs) 72 61 .541 3.44 176 170 2 31 6 0 1186.1 1149 494 453 88 288 678 1.211
DET (4 yrs) 51 36 .586 4.68 118 116 1 11 1 0 722.2 826 403 376 109 163 290 1.369
CIN (2 yrs) 25 23 .521 3.98 64 64 0 9 3 0 409.2 417 202 181 57 99 210 1.260
NYY (1 yr) 4 2 .667 4.88 8 8 0 1 0 0 48.0 46 29 26 7 11 28 1.188
HOU (1 yr) 10 14 .417 3.82 32 32 0 2 1 0 193.1 221 100 82 21 61 73 1.459
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/28/2014.

February 18 – Happy Birthday Joe Gordon

My favorite story about “Flash” came from his Yankee teammate, Tommy Henrich. According to Old Reliable, reporters were questioning Yankee manager Joe McCarthy in New York’s locker room after a game and asked him why he liked Joe Gordon as a player so much. McCarthy had frequently claimed Gordon was the “best player in baseball.” Instead of answering the question, McCarthy called his second baseman over and asked him what his batting average was. Gordon replied that he did not know. Next, McCarthy asked Joe how many home runs he had hit so far that season and again the Flash told his skipper that he had no idea. McCarthy then excused the infielder and after he walked away, answered the reporters original question. “That’s what I like. All he does is come to beat you.”

Joe played for the Yankees from 1938 until 1943 and then served in WWII. During those six seasons the Yankees won five World Series, Gordon made five All Star teams and he won the 1942 AL MVP award. He was also a magnificent second baseman. When Scooter joined the Yankees in 1941 he and Flash formed a terrific middle infield until Pearl Harbor blew it apart. When Gordon returned to the Yankees from military service after the war, he hit just .210 and New York’s front office, thinking his best playing days were behind him, traded Joe to Cleveland for pitcher Allie Reynolds. It turned out to be one of those transactions that worked well for both teams. The hits and power returned to Gordon’s bat and he teamed with Indians’ player manager Lou Boudreau to lead Cleveland to a 1948 World Series victory. Gordon blasted 32 home runs and drove in 124 that season. He played for Cleveland until 1950, retiring after 11 big league seasons. He eventually became a manager, skippering Cleveland, the Athletics and the Royals.

Joe died in 1978 and was voted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee in 2009. I listened to his daughter make the acceptance speech and the loving words she shared about her Dad made it clear that Gordon was much more than just a great ballplayer. Joe was born in LA on February 18, 1915.

This former Yankee bullpen star, this long-ago Yankee starting pitcher and this former Yankee catcher also celebrate birthdays on February 18th.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1938 NYY 127 521 458 83 117 24 7 25 97 11 56 72 .255 .340 .502 .843
1939 NYY 151 648 567 92 161 32 5 28 111 11 75 57 .284 .370 .506 .876
1940 NYY 155 677 616 112 173 32 10 30 103 18 52 57 .281 .340 .511 .851
1941 NYY 156 665 588 104 162 26 7 24 87 10 72 80 .276 .358 .466 .824
1942 NYY 147 625 538 88 173 29 4 18 103 12 79 95 .322 .409 .491 .900
1943 NYY 152 649 543 82 135 28 5 17 69 4 98 75 .249 .365 .413 .778
1946 NYY 112 431 376 35 79 15 0 11 47 2 49 72 .210 .308 .338 .645
11 Yrs 1566 6538 5707 914 1530 264 52 253 975 89 759 702 .268 .357 .466 .822
NYY (7 yrs) 1000 4216 3686 596 1000 186 38 153 617 68 481 508 .271 .358 .467 .825
CLE (4 yrs) 566 2322 2021 318 530 78 14 100 358 21 278 194 .262 .354 .463 .817
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/28/2014.