Flashback (Part 3): “There But For The Grace Of God…”

Note: You are about to read part three. To read what has come before, try part 1 and part 2.

Sane people have a saying: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Gabe Paul, whose acquaintance with sanity was passing at best (only with George Steinbrenner around to overrule him), had never lived by that rule. His belief was “When you’re in a hole, hire a jackhammer.”

The second Rocky Colavito trade was an example of how Gabe Paul rolled. In 1964, the Indians had gone 79-83 and:

  1. Needed offense– they’d gone sixth (of ten teams) in both batting average and slugging percentage and seventh in on-base percentage
  2. Needed a player who could draw crowds. They were eighth in attendance and the only player who was a fan favorite was Leon Wagner.
  3. Were still dealing with fan blowback from Frank Lane’s trade of Rocky Colavito for Harvey Kuenn.

Gabe saw an opportunity to fix all three problems with one master stroke. He re-acquired Rocky Colavito, in exchange for:

  • His starting catcher, John Romano. To be fair, Romano was 29, was a low-average hitter and a mediocre defensive catcher with a big swing, who was out of the majors by 1967.
  • 21-year-old centerfielder Tommy Agee. The best I can do to defend this it to say that the Indians had 28-year-old Vic Davalillo in centerfield (.300 hitter, slick fielder) and that Agee had hit ‘only’ .272 with 20 homers in AAA. He was out of the majors by 30. Of course he was also a rookie of the year, two-time All star, got MVP votes four times and was one of the starters on the 1969 Mets, so smooth move, Ex-Lax.
  • 21-year-old lefthander Tommy John. This one I got nothin for. John had already made 17 starts in the majors, His ERA wasn’t anything special for the time (3.61)– but a 21-year-old who can play in the majors at all is already proving he’ll be a superstar. John won 288 games, made four All-Star teams and belongs in the Hall of Fame about 20,000% more than Bert Cryleven.

Rocky Colavito was 31, and like many power hitters (hopefully not Edwin Encarnacion) injuries ate him up quickly. He was out of the majors by age 34.

But that was Gabe Paul for you. Don’t worry about what a player might do someday— win today’s game.

So Gabe had a problem: 33 days before Opening Day, he needed to find a veteran capable of starting 30 games and pitching 200 innings– without giving up a starting pitcher.

Being the genius he was, Gabe came up with a brilliant idea: trade one of his three young starting pitchers for two pitchers–  a veteran to replace the 32-year-old Jim Bibby, and a young prospect. He did some shopping and found out that:

1. Nobody wanted Wayne Garland‘s contract (which still had nine years and $2,070,000 to run) coming off a 13-19 season with a 3.60 ERA. Also the Orioles (having lost him in free agency) had been doing damage control, saying that he wasn’t that good– sowing doubt.

Also several teams wondered if Garland (6’0″, 195 pounds) had been given too much of a workload (38 starts, 21 complete games, 282.1 innings) in 1977 and would be able to hold up. (Concerns that were well-founded.)

2. Nobody was comfortable trading two pitchers for Rick Waits . Waits was a tall (6’3″), skinny (195 pounds lefty) who didn’t have a great fastball and survived by changing speeds and using a good curve as his out pitch. One trade target (the Dodgers) allegedly told the Indians that he was a #3-#4 starter, who probably couldn’t pitch more 180 innings without hurting himself.

This proved to be correct. After throwing three seasons of 220+ innings– going 42-42 with a 4.03 ERA between 1978-80– Waits’s arm blew up. He lasted until 1985, but was never effective again.

3. Eckersley– an All-Star at only 23, already 87 starts in the majors and three winning years for a rotten team– drew interest. Boston, who had four starters over 30, was the most interested. They were willing to offer:

  • 31-year-old starter Rick Wise
  • 24-year-old catcher Bo Diaz (trapped behind Carlton Fisk)
  • 22-year-old third baseman Ted Cox (not going anywhere with Butch Hobson around)
  • One of two starting pitchers, both of whom had pitched successfully in the majors in 1977

What Boston (who had won 97 games in 1977) was doing was doing was cashing in four red chips for one blue chip player. Wise’s contract was up in two seasons, and he wouldn’t have been re-signed at 33. Diaz was never going to play as long as Carlton Fisk was healthy. The Red Sox had Butch Hobson at third– he was 25, had hit 30 homers and batted .265 and seemed like he would play for years. Both prospects had pitched well in the bullpen… but Eckersley was the same age and he was already an all-star starter.

Because spring training was already underway, the Indians could scout both prospects at leisure, in game conditions. They picked Mike Paxton. People forget this, but the decision made sense in many respects:

  • Paxton had a better record (10-5) in the majors than the other guy (8-7) in 1977.
  • His ERA (3.83) was a smidge lower (the other guy was 3.99).
  • Paxton struck out nearly twice as many men (4.8 per game as opposed to 2.6)
  • His K/W ratio was 2.32 (above-average), while the other guy’s was way below average (1.02– 44 strikeouts and 43 walks).
  • Paxton had an above-average fastball, a good curve and a fair change. The other prospect had a much better fastball and a breaking ball he could sometimes get over the plate.

There were a few indicators suggesting that Paxton wasn’t preferable:

  • His age– at 23, he was a year older.
  • He’d had only 12 starts to the other’s 13 and pitched fewer innings (108.1 to 151)
  • He allowed more hits (11.2 to 10.5)
  • Paxton had never had a great year in the minors. His best season was 13-9 with a 3.66 ERA.
  • The other guy had been dominating at both AA (15-9, 2.66 ERA) and A (5-17, but a 2.93 ERA)

They could have bet on the future– hoped they could get the pitcher with more potential groomed. But they needed Wise to pitch as well as Jim Bibby and the prospect to match Eckersley. As Gabe put it “Paxton is a pitcher. All Bob Stanley has is a fastball.”

Yes, that’s who it was. When I was in Boston once, I checked to make sure.

You can argue that Bob Stanley wasn’t that great– lord knows, plenty of Chowds would agree. The Red Sox never made a full effort to turn him into a starter (he made 85 in 13 years), but were never comfortable with him as a closer. They had Bill Campbell when they made the trade; they kept bringing in other closers (Tom Burgmeier, Mark Clear) when Campbell folded. Stanley had only career 132 saves (and he blew 55), against 115 wins.

But Paxton’s arm blew up after one decent season. He went 12-11 with a 3.86 ERA in 27 starts– and then posted a 5.92 ERA in 24 starts the next year. He was in the minors by 1980 and out of baseball after 1981.

Meanwhile the Indians behaved like the Indians with the other players:

Wise, like Garland, needed a defense better than anything the Indians had– and some run support. After two seasons, he decamped to San Diego– who gave him a 5-year, 1.95 million deal and wound up eating the last two years. It showed how badly the free agent market was out of control– Garland’s contract was 2.3 million for 10 years.

Diaz, who was 25, spent much of the 1978 seasons playing behind Gary Alexander. Alexander was also 25, a converted outfielder, who was a nightmare defensively at catcher. (He preferred, a pitcher told me, to call high fastballs because they were easier for him to catch.) Alexander did hit 17 homers, but he also hit .235 and fanned 100 times in 365 plate appearances.

When they got tired of playing Alexander, the Indians went to Ron Hassey– who had been trapped in the minors behind Diaz and Alexander and got his first chance to start at 27. Diaz had a good year and went to the All-Star Game on the “We have to pick someone from every team” plan, but had to get traded to get his career started.

The Indians managed a minor miracle in that deal. It was a three-team deal where two of the clubs came off well. Diaz went to the Phillies and became an All-Star. The Phillies traded Lonnie Smith to the Cardinals. And the Cardinals traded Lary Sorenson to the Indians.

Cox was given treatment simply unfathomable. The Indians had 26-year-old Buddy Bell at third, so they didn’t really need a third baseman. So in his first season in Cleveland, Cox (who was 23) didn’t play a game in the minors– and got into only 82 (252 plats appearances) in Cleveland. The Indians used him at the following defensive positions:

  • Left field for 33 games
  • Third base for 20
  • DH for 12
  • First base for 7
  • Right field for 5
  • Shortstop for one game

That’s just what you want to do with a 23-year-old prospect, right? After the season, the Indians did what they should have done during the 1978 season: trade Bell. But they traded him for Toby Harrah, another third baseman. At 30, he was even older than Bell– and unlike Bell, was a much worse fielder.

Cox played fewer games (78), got fewer PAs (208) and added four games at second base to his resume. At the end of the year, the Indians pronounced him a failure and traded him to Seattle for three players, the best known of which is Bud Anderson.

The Indians pronounced Cox “the key to the deal”, which was a statement comparable to anything uttered by Kellyanne Conway. The key to that deal was Gabe Paul trying not to have the 1978 season go up in flames due to his stupidity. Like the deal for Cliff Lee three decades later, the Indians went for quantity over quality and ended up getting nothing from most of the players.

Bibby (to start profiling the player I said I was going to do) came out exceptionally well. His career as a player showed the same problem as Bob Stanley’s. When he was starting, his manager would always look as his shortcomings– a good fastball but no pitches to complement it, problematic control– and think that he’d be better off in the bullpen, where he could junk the other stuff and just bring heat.

But since his fastball was good but not unhittable, nobody ever wanted to see him with the game on the line.

But he was 6’5″ and 235 and it just seemed wrong to have him in middle relief. It seemed like he was too talented a pitcher to waste.

Looking at his career now, it seems that middle relief– with spot starts as needed– was exactly where Bibby should have been:

Bibby Stats

And with the Pirates, that’s what he did. Chuck Tanner had many issues, but his handling of the pitchers was positive. Much like Terry Francona, he didn’t believe in letting a pitcher work out of a jam if he thought someone else could do better. He’d have 8-10 guys starting– five guys he relied on and five who pitched as needed.

Bibby thrived. In 1978, he had 14 starts and 20 relief appearances and put up a winning record (8-7) an ERA (3.53) close to his best ever. The following year he had 17 starts and 17 relief appearances– he went 12-4 with a 2.81 ERA, playing a key role in Pittsburgh’s world championship season.

I might point out that a certain .500 pitcher went 12-5 that same year, and that his team– which normally won about as many games as it lost when he pitched– went 23-14 in his starts.

But, of course, helping the team by making personal sacrifices was never something Bert Cryleven liked. He preferred to pitch until he was gassed and blame his losses on either insufficient run support or the manager taking him out too late (or too soon, if the bullpen blew the game).

At the end of the 1979 season, the Angels signed Bruce Kison and the Pirates put Bibby back into the rotation. He went 19-6 in 1980, with a superb 3.32 ERA in 238.1 innings at the age of 35.

But either age or the workload got to him. In the strike-shortened season of 1981, he had a 6-3 record with an even lower 2.50 ERA. But he missed the entire 1982 season due to injury and pitched only 37 more games.

I have a soft spot for players like Bibby, because they remind us of how much of a player’s career is due to chance and good management.

Despite retiring at 39, Bibby spent only 12 seasons in the majors. He was signed by the Mets in 1965, but spent 1966 and 1967 in Vietnam. When he returned, he had two good years in the minors– in 1969, he went 14-10 with a 3,38 ERA in AA at age 24. Not shabby, given that he didn’t play for two years.

But he got injured and missed the 1970 season. And when he didn’t come back fast (he had an ERA of 4.04 in 1971 and the Mets had so many pitchers they didn’t have time to develop Nolan Ryan), Bibby ended up getting traded in a package to the Cardinals– who ended up trading him to Texas for John Wockenfuss.

When he got to the Rangers, Whitey Herzog was managing. Herzog probably would have been able to get him polished up– he fixed Joaquin Andujar, who was the same kind of pitcher. But Herzog gets fired, and now Bibby is pitching for Billy Martin (who knew nothing about pitching other than how to destroy it).

Then, just before Billy gets fired (a chance for sanity), Gaylord Perry and Frank Robinson get into a fight (part salary issues, part egos and temper, part “first black manager meets guy from North Carolina”) and Bibby gets traded with Waits to Cleveland.

You’re Gaylord Perry’s replacement. Have a nice day.

In an alternate universe, the Mets fight to keep their player out of the military, the organization that developed so many pitchers (they’re the guys the Braves stole all their tricks from) does their thing with him. In that universe, maybe it isn’t 22-year-old Gary Gentry and 25-year-old Jim McAndrew in the rotation with Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. Maybe it’s 24-year-old Jim Bibby.

If that happens, Bibby would be part of legend. When he died in 2010– seven years and one week ago today– everyone would remember his name. Instead he’s just some guy who, despite his world series ring, is best known as the .500 pitcher who was involved in the departures of two future Hall-of-Famers from the Cleveland Indians.

Note: You have just completed part three. To read what has come before, try part 1 and part 2.


2 thoughts on “Flashback (Part 3): “There But For The Grace Of God…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s