Cardboard Tigers: T. Walker, G. Wilson, Wockenfuss

Seventeenth and last in an occasional series. Collect ’em all! I’m working through a stack of Tigers baseball cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s, with occasional newer cards.

Tom Walker – 1976 Topps #186

Tom Walker pitched in 36 games for the 1975 Tigers, starting 9 of them and finishing 17 others. He had a 3-8 record, a 4.45 ERA, and didn’t record a single save despite closing out those 17 contests. He came to Detroit in the deal that sent Woodie Fryman to Montréal that also brought Terry Humphrey to the Tigers. To be honest, though I followed the Tigers pretty closely in the mid-seventies, I don’t have any memory of Tom Walker with the team at all.

While this is Tom’s 1976 Topps card, by the time the spring training started that year he was with the Cardinals, who purchased his contract that February. He spent most of the season in Tulsa as a starter, but ended up saving three games for the big league team in only 19 2/3 innings. He split 1977 with Montreal again, then the California Angels, before briefly playing for the Columbus Clippers (then the Pirates’ AAA farm team) in 1978.

Tom’s career was fairly uneventful, other than the uniqueness of the final batter he faced in the big leagues, as Lyman Bostock lined into a triple play. He had a 18-23 lifetime record with a 3.87 ERA and struck out 262 batters.

In 1972, Walker was one of several major leaguers who helped Roberto Clemente load an airplane full of food and other supplies destined for Nicaragua after the Christmas earthquake that winter. Tom offered to go along to assist with the distribution, but Clemente told him to stay home and enjoy his New Year’s Eve celebration. When he returned home, Walker found out that Clemente’s plane had crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Walker’s son, Neil, was a second baseman for the Pirates, Mets, Brewers, Yankees, Marlins, and Phillies over an eleven-year major league career.

Of more significance to Tigers’ fans is the fact that Tom’s daughter Carrie married former Tiger Don Kelly (currently the bench coach for the Pirates), making Tom his father-in-law and Neil his brother-in-law.

Glenn Wilson – 1984 Topps #563
Johnny Wockenfuss – 1984 Topps #119

Glenn Wilson and Johnny Wockenfuss finish out our Cardboard Tigers series due to the fact that their last names put them at the bottom of the deck. Coincidentally, they share a connection beyond having names near the end of the alphabet: They were traded together at the end of spring training in 1984 to the Phillies for first baseman Dave Bergman and closer Willie Hernandez. Bergman, of course, was a key utility component for the Tigers’ World Series championship team, playing first base and the corner outfield spots while hitting .273 in 121 at-bats, while all Hernandez did was win both the Cy Young Award and American League MVP while saving 32 games and posting an ERA of 1.92.

So again, as we’ve seen several times in this series, the cards for the 1984 Tigers feature a lot of guys who weren’t even on that team, including Wilson and Wockenfuss.

Wilson was coming off a good season for Detroit in 1983 where he hit .268 with 11 homers, playing 144 games in mostly right field with a few appearances in left and center. He went on to have a decent year in Philly in ’84 as well, but his best year was 1985, when he hit .275, knocked in 104 runs, made the National League All-Star team, and finished 23rd in the NL MVP voting. He played through 1990 with the Phillies, Mariners, Pirates, and Astros, and made a brief comeback in 1994 with Pittsburgh. For his career, he batted .265 with 98 home runs, and 521 RBI. He also pitched once: in 1987 he threw a 1-2-3 inning including a strikeout, giving him a lifetime 0.00 ERA.

After retiring from baseball, Wilson owned a gas station in Texas, managed independent league baseball in the Frontier League, and became an ordained minister.

Wockenfuss was tougher for me to deal with when he was traded to Philadelphia. He was one of my favorite Tigers, having been with the team since 1974, mostly as Bill Freehan’s (and later Lance Parrish’s) backup at catcher, and platooning for a couple of years with Milt May. He was versatile, making appearances in the outfield and at first base and serving as a capable designated hitter when needed as well. While he only averaged around 200 plate appearances per season (the exception was 1980, when he had 444 plate appearances while playing mostly first base – also his best season as he hit .274 with 16 homers and 65 RBI), he was always fun to watch, with his curly hair and mustache making him stand out on the field. As a catcher myself, Wockenfuss was they guy whose receiving style I copied. He also had a rather unusual batting stance, which I also copied (not that it did me any good). I was pretty upset when the Tigers traded him, especially right before the team headed north from Florida.

In the end, I got over it, considering the great start the 1984 team got off to and the contributions from both Bergman and Hernandez. Wockenfuss had a good year in Philadelphia, hitting .289 in 180 at-bats, playing mostly first base with some catcher and a couple of brief appearances at third base. He finished his major league career in 1985 with the Phillies at the age of 35. For his career, he hit .262 with 86 home runs, and 310 RBI.

In 1986, however, Wockenfuss decided he wasn’t done quite yet and paid his own way to Lakeland, hoping the Tigers would give him a shot. When they weren’t interested, he headed down the road to Winter Haven to see if the Red Sox would be willing, but they also said no. So he caught on with the Single-A Miami Marlins of the Florida State League, who in those days had no major league affiliation. He spent the whole season in south Florida, hitting .269 with 10 home runs and 80 RBI and was considered the “anchor of the Marlins’ team,” according to Miami sportswriter Tom Archdeacon.

After finally ending his playing career, he managed the Lakeland Tigers (A) in 1986 and 1987; the Glens Falls Tigers (AA) in 1988; and the Toledo Mud Hens (AAA) in 1989. He was fired early in the 1990 season after the Mud Hens got off to a 10-14 start, but later managed in the Pirates’ minor league system and with the independent Albany-Colonies Diamond Dogs in 1996-97.

Today, Wockenfuss, 72, suffers from dementia, believed to be a product of years of head contact as a football and baseball player, especially at the catcher position. His former teammate, Bill Freehan, also suffered from dementia for several years before his death this summer at the age of 79. He does remember much about his baseball career, though, including the disappointment he felt when the Tigers traded him in 1984. When his former team went on to win the World Series, Wockenfuss was frustrated with how close he’d come to winning a championship.

“I knew I was (close to) getting a (World Series) ring, you know, and that hurt, because I had been with them for so many years,” Wockenfuss said. “We were getting better and better and better and Sparky (manager Sparky Anderson) and I were good friends. I couldn’t believe it what he did to me. Because I was in the minors for a long time.”

From NNY360.com, November 18, 2019, article by Gregory Gay

My extra-innings proposal

Major League Baseball recently reached out to me to put together a proposal to fix the controversy caused by the rule, which started in 2020, that adds a runner on second to start each extra inning (the “Manfred Man,” as named by Craig Calcaterra). (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a lie. MLB could care less what Tom thinks, and generally speaking, doesn’t care very much what any fan thinks.) (TOM’S NOTE: The preceding note is also a lie; I don’t have an editor.)

I concede that the diminished pitch counts for modern pitchers can make it difficult when a game goes into extended extra innings. Teams don’t want to burn up their entire bullpen, or even have a position player end up having to finish a game that actually matters, so it’s reasonable to think that some sort of rule that might bring a lengthy game to an earlier conclusion is needed. But altering the rules immediately following the regulation number of innings (whether that’s the normal nine or the shortened seven used in doubleheaders these days) is too soon. Both soccer and hockey play at least a short overtime before using a shootout to settle things, although hockey does gimmick things up a bit by playing with three skaters instead of five to open up the ice.

Anyway, here’s my proposal:

  • In the 10th and 11th innings, play normal baseball.
  • The 12th and 13th innings, add the runner on second at the start of each half-inning.
  • Each inning after the 13th, start a runner on second – and ban infield shifts. Two infielders on each side of second base, and they may not be positioned in the outfield.

Additionally, if the half-inning starts with a runner on second, the team in the field may not intentionally walk a batter until the runner on second moves up at least to third (or is retired). They can pitch around batters, of course, issuing the old “unintentional intentional walk,” but can’t ask for the automatic pass.

This would give us one or two traditional extra innings, then add elements to bring the game to a conclusion. For all of the flaws in the Manfred Man rule, at least they’re playing baseball and not deciding who wins with what amounts to a skills contest, which is what a shootout is.

Because I like hockey’s 3-on-3 overtime during the regular season, an alternative idea would be to reduce the number of fielders in extra innings: 8 in the 10th and 11th; 7 in the 12th and 13th; and so on.

Also, seven inning games in doubleheaders are horseshit.

You’re welcome.

Injury bug bites baseball man, leaves mark

A crazy number of major leaguers have been bitten by the injury bug in the first week of the 2021 season. I know this because nearly half of my fantasy team have already been day-to-day, on the injured list (IL), or are already done for the year. This includes two of the pitchers I drafted fairly high, James Paxton of the Mariners (who is looking at Tommy John surgery which will end his season) and Trevor Rosenthal of the A’s (who is having thoracic outlet surgery that will put him out at least a couple of months if not longer).

While my lineup has been affected pretty hard, fortunately I don’t take it all that seriously. Fantasy baseball – and football in the fall – mostly gives me a reason to keep up with who the players are. I like baseball a lot, but if I don’t have a reason to follow other teams’ lineups, I probably wouldn’t have much of an idea who they were.

For example, I don’t play fantasy hockey and watched the Red Wings play Nashville the past few nights (due to COVID protocols, the NHL is playing mini-series instead of one-off games, as is traditional). After two nights, I still don’t know who most of the Predators are. Come to think of it, there are a lot of Red Wings I’m not too familiar with, too.

What’s the reason for all of these baseball injuries? I suppose it could be over-training, or under-training, or just bad luck. But my guess is it’s how players are handled these days, and it has a lot to do with the amount of money teams have invested in them. When a guy was making $40K per season back in the 1970s and he strained a muscle or tweaked an ankle, he probably would just play through it, partially because he didn’t want to lose his job to the next guy in line and partially because rehabilitation techniques weren’t as sophisticated. Spit on it, rub some dirt on it, and keep playing was the attitude when I played ball in high school. (Full disclosure: I was terrible.)

These days, if a player has a minor injury, he gets held out for a game or two, and if it doesn’t improve right away it’s off to the ten-day injured list. When you’re paying someone hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, you’re going to protect your investment. Understandable, but frustrating to fans – and fantasy players.

Les cadets crient «M’aider!”»

The things you learn when you’re learning another language

The international voice distress call is “mayday,” used to call for help in both in the air and on the water. The word is a phonetic transliteration of the French m’aidez or, in its infinitive form, m’aider, literally “help me!”

The term was coined by the radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, F.S. Mockford, in the early 1920s. Since most air travel was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris at that time, Mockford figured that a word that was easy to remember but had an underlying meaning in at least one of the two languages would be ideal, and “mayday” was born.

I learned the origin of the second word this morning reading a translation of a golf article in Le Journal de Montréal. My iPad translated “caddie” as “cadet,” which it turns out is the French source word for caddie. A cadet is more commonly a trainee military rank, but the Scots borrowed the word in the late 1600s to mean someone who did odd jobs, and eventually it was applied to the person who carried a golfer’s clubs. Incidentally, the derogatory term “cad” also is derived from this Scottish borrowing of “cadet.”

UPDATE: Tigers will not go 162-0. Could go 161-1, trend is now 108-54, though.

The Tigers lost today to the Indians, but ended up winning two of the three games in their opening series. But there goes the perfect season. Rule 5 draftee Akil Baddoo hit a home run in his first major league at bat today, a remarkable thing in itself, but he also did it on the first major league pitch he had ever seen in a regular season game. His parents, who were at the game, we’re very excited. And so was I.

Tigers maintain pace for 162-0

The Tigers beat Cleveland again today, this time 5-3. They’re 2-0 to start the season for the first time since 2016 – I know, it feels like a lot longer than that. Julio Teherán pitched five strong innings to get the win and the bullpen looked good again, with Derek Holland, Michael Fulmer, and Bryan Garcia in control of their innings of work. Tyler Alexander struggled a bit but was able to right the ship before things got out of control. Garcia picked up a very efficient four-out save, not something we’ve been accustomed to very often over the past few seasons. He looks like a closer to me; I think Soto has the stuff to do that, too, but I like Garcia’s sense of calm. In any case, it’s nice to have two legitimate options for the ninth inning.

Other positives over the first two games include Robbie Grossman’s patience at the plate. He’s walked six times so far, the first Tiger hitter ever to do that in the first two games of a season (Norm Cash held the record with five until today). Jeimer Candelario seems to be locked in as well, with a nice, short batting stroke that allows him to put the ball where he wants it to go, as he showed today with his sharp opposite field hitting.

Best of all, we’ve beaten Cleveland twice already in 2021. Considering what a pain they’ve been over the past couple of seasons, that’s a reason for optimism. This is still a very young team in most ways, and is likely to get younger as some of the prospects make their way to the major league roster as the season moves along, but they’re fun to watch so far, with a lot of small ball hustle and two strong starts from the front end of the rotation.