Thursday, June 30, 2011

David Murphy

Sent: 10/14/10
Received: 6/30/11
Time: 259 Days
Address: c/o Texas Rangers
Item Sent: 2010 Topps
Item Received: 2010 Topps, signed in blue Sharpie.

The Texas Rangers absolutely fleeced the Boston Red Sox at the 2007 trade deadline.  Former NL Cy Young Award winner (albeit under the influence of PEDs) Eric Gagne was having a nice comeback year for the Rangers.  The Red Sox wanted him as an eighth inning man.  They dealt three prospects to the Rangers.  The highlight was Murphy, Boston's 2003 first round draft pick.  Gagne was a colossal disaster in Boston.  Murphy has done nothing but hit since arriving in Arlington.  He has played all over the outfield, hit for decent power, and stolen a few bases.  He is an ideal fourth outfielder, and has been supremely valuable in Texas, where superstars Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz are always prone to DL stints.

Dave Hannan

Sent: 5/21/11
Received: 6/30/11
Time: 40 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1990-91 Pro Set, 1991-92 Score Canadian, 1991-92 Upper Deck
Item Received: 1990-91 Pro Set, 1991-92 Score Canadian, 1991-92 Upper Deck.  All signed in black marker.

Dave Hannan was a grinder who logged 16 NHL seasons.  He is best known as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins (where he enjoyed his finest individual success), but also had long stints with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres.  Strangely, his two Stanley Cup titles each came as a late-season rent-a-player, for the 1988 Edmonton Oilers and 1996 Colorado Avalanche.  I am grateful to Mr. Hannan for these autographs, but I strongly encourage someone to send him a new Sharpie!

Joe Siwa

Sent: 6/14/11
Received: 6/29/11
Time: 15 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1990 Star Kenosha Twins, 1991 Line Drive AA, 1991 ProCards Orlando SunRays
Item Received: 1990 Star Kenosha Twins, 1991 Line Drive AA, 1991 ProCards Orlando SunRays.  All signed in black Sharpie.

Joe Siwa was a longshot 43rd round draft pick who caught his way all the way to AAA in the Twins system.  He didn't hit a lick (career .216 average) and had no power to speak of (career .288 slugging percentage).  His best year came for Kenosha in 1990, where he established career highs across the board (67 games, .246 average, 3 home runs, 25 RBI).  All this leads me to believe he must have been a pretty solid defensive catcher. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Willie Norwood

Sent: 6/20/11
Received: 6/28/11
Time: 8 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1979 Topps, 1980 Topps, 1981 Donruss
Item Received: 1979 Topps, 1980 Topps, 1981 Donruss.  All signed in blue ballpoint.

I don't know exactly why I have such a fascination with the late '70s Twins outfield of Willie Norwood, Bombo Rivera, Dan Ford, and Hosken Powell.  They replaced departed stars Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock.  They each possessed quite a bit of talent.  And they all ended up with basically the same, kind-of-mediocre big league careers.  Norwood was one of the most intriguing of the bunch.  His only year as a regular was 1978.  He appeared in 125 games (most of them in left field), hit .255, homered eight times, and stole 25 bases (two behind team leader Rod Carew).  However, he also committed an astonishing 14 errors - more than any other outfielder in baseball.  I suspect that, more than anything, led to his part-time role in 1979 and eventual minor league demotion in 1980. 

Larry Blackwell

Sent: 6/11/11
Received: 6/27/11
Time: 16 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1988 Cal League Cards Visalia Oaks, 1989 Best Orlando Twins, 1989 ProCards Orlando Twins
Item Received: 1988 Cal League Cards Visalia Oaks, 1989 Best Orlando Twins, 1989 ProCards Orlando Twins.  All signed in black ballpoint.

I have written many entries on this blog discussing amazing letters from former minor league players.  So many of these players take the time to answer questions and tell remarkable stories from their careers.  It's something I rarely see from the guys who made it to the majors.  Just a few days after an amazing interaction with Jason Klonoski, I received this reply from former Twins outfield prospect Larry Blackwell.

I'm finding it interesting that many players from the early to mid 1980s, especially guys from the 1983 Visalia team set that I have been working on, have terrific memories and wonderful things to say about the Twins organization.  By the late '80s and early '90s - when the big club had their greatest success - some of the minor league players have seen a different face.  While Mr. Klonoski admitted last week to questioning why the Twins would give up so quickly on someone with his successful track record, Mr. Blackwell flat out accuses them of mishandling his health and preventing him from being able to catch on with another club.

Blackwell was the Twins' fourth round pick in the 1985 draft.  While his hitting never did come around (he had a .245 career average in just over 2,000 minor league plate appearances), he could flat out fly.  After struggling mightily in his first AA stint at Orlando in 1987, he spent all of 1988 at high-A Visalia, and had his finest year.  He hit a career-best .268.  More impressively, he drew 71 walks - good for an outstanding .379 on-base percentage.  He also stole 33 bases.  His average regressed again at Orlando in 1989, but he maintained his fine walk rate to finish with a solid .366 OBP and stole 29 more bases in just 96 games.  That's the end of his career stat line, though.

I asked Mr. Blackwell about the abrupt end to his career and his responses were as candid as any I have received since starting this hobby.  He writes, "I was slated for the big leagues.  I had talked to Tom Kelly, and he had discussed putting me in center and moving Kirby (Puckett) to right.  Why?  I was faster than Kirby and could throw just as hard."

He adds, "It may have been possible for me to leave with the team out of spring training.  But fate would have it; I hurt my shoulder towards the end of camp."

He goes on to mention that only one of his six minor league seasons was injury free.  I assume that was his fine 1988 season, as that was the only one where he got into more than 100 games (118 to be exact).  I assume the possible call-up he speaks of would have been after that season, too.

It is at this point in his letter that Mr. Blackwell doesn't hold back.  "Writing this letter brings tears to my eyes.  Why?  When I was released by the Twins organization, they black balled me.  They put in my file that I was un-coachable... I was and am still well known by coaches and scouts from my area.  Once they read that about me, and told me what they had read, I could not believe it... I could not get a position on (another) team.  If I had known about defamation of character back then, I would have attempted to sue." 

He alleges that the training staff ignored and misdiagnosed injuries, and that they refused to give him an x-ray when he tore his rotator cuff.  Granted, this is only his side of the story, but it's a heartbreaking one.  It does have a happy ending, though.

Mr. Blackwell writes that after baseball he worked as a correctional officer before earning his college degree in criminal justice.  He then served as a supervisor in a youth prison before becoming a social worker.

He finishes the two-page letter by writing, "Thank you for sending this letter.  I will keep this letter as a testament to the good I did as a baseball player.  I love you and may God bless you.  Sincerely, Larry Blackwell."

Thank you, Larry.  Thank you for signing the cards despite the pain you still feel from the way you claim the Twins treated you.  Thank you for the insightful and candid letter.  I certainly wish you nothing but the best.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Randy Niemann

Sent: 5/26/11
Received: 6/27/11
Time: 32 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1986 Topps Traded, 1987 Donruss Opening Day Twins Logo, 1987 ProCards Portland Beavers, 1987 Topps
Item Received: 1986 Topps Traded, 1987 Donruss Opening Day Twins Logo, 1987 ProCards Portland Beavers, 1987 Topps.  All signed in black Sharpie.

Journeyman lefty Randy Niemann appeared in 31 games for the World Champion New York Mets in 1986, but was not on the post-season roster.  In 1987, he signed as a minor league free agent with the Minnesota Twins.  He appeared in eight games for the Twins that June, picking up a win along the way.  He obviously was not a part of the Twins' post-season roster in their World Champion season, either, but the 1987 Donruss Opening Day logo card you see here represents my quest to build an "ultimate" 1987 Donruss Twins team set.

Rex De La Nuez

Sent: 6/16/11
Received: 6/25/11
Time: 9 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1990 Star Kenosha Twins, 1991 ProCards Visalia Oaks, 1993 Fleer/ProCards Nashville Xpress
Item Received: 1990 Star Kenosha Twins, 1991 ProCards Visalia Oaks, 1993 Fleer/ProCards Nashville Xpress.  All signed in black Sharpie.

Already two years in to his pro career with the Twins, speedy outfielder Rex De La Nuez really staked his claim as a top Twins prospect with his breakout year at Visalia in 1991.  In addition to stealing a career-best 39 bases, he hit eleven home runs and drew 84 walks.  All told, it gave him an eye-popping .308/.433/.456 slash line.  He hit twelve more dingers but stole just 13 bases in AA at Orlando the next year.  By 1993, his average fell to just .236 for AA Nashville, though he did maintain an outstanding .407 on-base percentage thanks to his 93 walks.  (Perhaps sabermetrics could have saved his career!)  After spending all of 1994 in independent ball, he resurfaced in the Detroit Tigers system in 1995.  He had one more year of indie ball in him, and that was it for his playing career.  He is currently a scout for the Cincinnati Reds.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Jason Klonoski

Sent: 6/16/11
Received: 6/24/11
Time: 8 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1991 ProCards Kenosha Twins, 1993 Fleer/ProCards Nashville Xpress
Item Received: 1991 Classic Best Kenosha Twins, 1991 ProCards Kenosha Twins, 1992 Fleer/ProCards Orlando SunRays, 1992 Skybox Pre-Rookie Orlando SunRays, 1993 Fleer/ProCards Nashville Xpress.  All signed in black Sharpie.

I appreciate every single autograph I have acquired since beginning this blog fourteen months ago.  I do not require a personal response beyond the signature, but when I do receive one it does make the success truly memorable.  By that measure, this return from former Twins pitching prospect Jason Klonoski is one of the best I've ever had.

Klonoski was signed by the Twins in 1991 and had three outstanding years as a left-handed relief pitcher in the minor leagues.  He split 1991 between two levels of A ball (Kenosha and Visalia), combining for a 2.69 ERA, nine saves, and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings.  He posted similar stats in AA over the next two seasons, then oddly disappeared from pro ball.  I suspected an injury must have been a factor.  Otherwise it would have been pretty inexplicable for a lefty with his track record to not even get a shot at the Majors.

A few days before the cards arrived, Mr. Klonoski e-mailed my wife at work, asking to verify the legitimacy of my request.  He has had his identity stolen on multiple occasions and was simply doing his due diligence.  Still, it caught her off guard.  Once she vouched for my strange hobby, though, she and Jason actually discovered that they work in similar fields.

I also responded to Jason, apologizing for alarming him with my unsolicited letter.  We exchanged a few e-mails discussing a variety of subject, including vinyl records, his work with The Challenge Foundation and Team CFA (building schools in inner city and rural areas), and of course baseball.  He confirmed that injuries, specifically torn ligaments in his wrist, played a part in his retirement from baseball. Coming back from that, but faced with the 1994 strike, he was having difficulty finding work in baseball.  He wrote in an e-mail to me, "As you stated, I can’t find another lefthander with a career ERA under three that didn’t get a shot, let alone a job."  After weighing his options, he took his finance degree and set forth on a path that eventually led him to the outstanding work he's doing today.  It seems to have worked out well for him.

Thanks for the great experience, Jason.  It's been a pleasure.  Thanks for the three extra cards, too!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ken Tirpack

Sent: 6/9/11
Received: 6/24/11
Time: 15 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1993 Fleer/ProCards Fort Wayne Wizards, 1994 Fleer/ProCards Nashville Xpress
Item Received: 1993 Fleer/ProCards Fort Wayne Wizards, 1994 Fleer/ProCards Nashville Xpress.  Both signed in black Sharpie.

The Twins drafted first baseman Ken Tirpack out of Ohio State in the 21st round of the 1992 draft.  For the first couple of years, at least, it looked like a steal.  He put up a .943 OPS at short-season Elizabethton in 1992 and carried that over to Fort Myers in 1993, where he hit .294 with 9 homers and 70 RBI.  As so often happens, though, he started struggling while advancing to the higher levels of the minor leagues.  By the middle of 1995, he was out of affiliated ball and playing for Aberdeen of the independent Prairie League.  Since retiring from pro ball, he has spent time as a youth baseball instructor and as a scout for the Cleveland Indians.

Mike Dotzler

Sent: 6/14/11
Received: 6/24/11
Time: 10 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1988 Best Orlando Twins, 1989 ProCards Visalia Oaks
Item Received: 1988 Best Orlando Twins, 1989 ProCards Visalia Oaks.  Both signed in black Sharpie.

The Twins were catcher Mike Dotzler's third organization.  After signing with the Texas Rangers in 1985, he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates system in 1987.  He hit an impressive 11 home runs in 279 at bats during his one year in the Pirates organization and came over to the Twins the next year.  He served as a utility player for the Orlando Twins in 1988, adding first base, third base, and outfield to his repertoire.  He moved down to single A Visalia in 1989 and once again logged most of his time behind the plate.  He hit just .190, though, in his last year of pro ball.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Johan Hedberg

Sent: 5/17/11
Received: 6/18/11
Time: 32 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 2008-09 O-Pee-Chee Retro, 2010-11 O-Pee-Chee
Item Received: 2008-09 O-Pee-Chee Retro, 2010-11 O-Pee-Chee.  Both signed in black Sharpie.

I have read in a few places on the internet that the New Jersey Devils are one of the worst organizations in sports when it comes to handling fan mail.  While several of their players are reliable TTM signers, most successful requests reported on SCN from the likes of Brian Rolston, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, etc. have been through their home addresses - even during the season.  I sent to Johan Hedberg care of the team anyway (in early February), and in May received the cards back, unsigned, in my SASE.  I was not alone.  There was a tidal wave of failures from Devils players on SCN around that time.  Mr. Hedberg has a pretty good track record as a signer, though, so I retried at his home address.  One month later, and his great signature has been neatly applied to my cards.  Thanks, Johan!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Johnny Ard

Sent: 9/15/10
Received: 6/17/11
Time: 275 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1989 Bowman, 1990 ProCards Orlando SunRays
Item Received: 1989 Bowman, 1990 ProCards Orlando SunRays.  Both signed in black Sharpie.

Looking at former Twins first-round draft pick Johnny Ard, you almost have to wonder if he could have been the real life Kenny Powers.  The physical similarities between the 6'5" fireballer from South Carolina and the fictional anti-hero of HBO's Eastbound & Down are uncanny.  Ard was actually well on his way to a big league career before it was derailed by arm injuries.  After three stellar years moving up the Twins ladder, he was dealt to the Giants for former NL Cy Young winner Steve "Bedrock" Bedrosian.  Bedrosian would be a key set-up man on the Twins' 1991 World Series squad.  Ard, unfortunately, would only have two more full seasons of minor league ball remaining.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lindsay Whalen

Sent: 5/24/11
Received: 6/13/11
Time: 20 Days
Address: c/o Minnesota Lynx
Item Sent: 2005 Rittenhouse, 2006 Rittenhouse, 2007 Rittenhouse
Item Received: 2005 Rittenhouse, 2006 Rittenhouse, 2007 Rittenhouse.  All signed in black Sharpie.

My very first WNBA request had to be to Lindsay Whalen.  She is the greatest women's basketball player in Minnesota history.  She put the Gophers on the NCAA Women's basketball map, transforming a perennial doormat into a Final Four squad.  Following her All-American career at Minnesota, she was drafted fourth overall by the Connecticut Sun.  She helped lead the Sun to the WNBA Finals in each of her first two seasons and finished as the runner-up for the WNBA MVP award in 2008.  Last year, the Lynx brought her home.  Now, with the addition of superster Maya Moore to a lineup that includes Whalen, Rebekah Brunson, Seimone Augusts, and Candace Wiggins, the Lynx have the nucleus to make a run at multiple WNBA titles.  While it's a tad of a bummer that Lindsay's black Sharpie was drying out, I am ecstatic to add these to my collection.

Steve Brye

Sent: 6/6/11
Received: 6/13/11
Time: 7 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1975 Topps, 1976 Topps, 1977 Topps
Item Received: 1975 Topps, 1976 Topps, 1977 Topps.  All signed in blue Sharpie.

Steve Brye was the Twins' first round draft pick in 1967 and though he made his big league debut in 1970, he didn't receive regular playing time until 1974.  He had a nice glove and hit his fair share of doubles, but he never developed into the star the Twins thought they drafted.  After two good seasons as a platoon outfielder, he was dealt to Milwaukee at the end of spring training in 1977.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Warren Peters

Sent: 3/15/11
Received: 6/13/11
Time: 90 Days
Address: c/o Minnesota Wild
Item Sent: 1999-00 Upper Deck Prospects
Item Received: 1999-00 Upper Deck Prospects, signed in blue Sharpie.

Warren Peters was one of the best stories in an otherwise disappointing season for the Minnesota Wild.  Called up when Wild centers were dropping like flies, the AHL journeyman got into 11 games for the big club, scoring a goal and impressing his teammates, the coaching staff, and fans with his solid defensive play and workmanlike effort.  He finished out the year in Houston, where he helped the Aeros reach the Calder Cup Finals.

Jim Wiemer

Sent: 6/2/11
Received: 6/10/11
Time: 8 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1991-92 Score Canadian, 1991-92 Topps
Item Received: 1991-92 Score Canadian, 1991-92 Topps.  Both signed in black Sharpie.

Defenseman Jim Wiemer is my second return from my burst of requests to former Boston Bruins.  He bounced around the NHL for the better part of a decade before finishing with some stability in Boston.  He was, ironically, part of the Edmonton Oilers team that beat the Bruins in their last Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1990, though he did not get his name on the Cup.

Peter Douris

Sent: 5/20/11
Received: 6/7/11
Time: 18 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1991-92 Score Canadian, 1991-92 Upper Deck
Item Received: 1991-92 Score Canadian, 1991-92 Upper Deck.  Both signed in silver Sharpie.

Once it started looking likely for the Bruins to make this year's Stanley Cup Finals, I thought it would be timely to write to some former Bruins who I still needed for my 1991-92 Score set.  The first of those returns is Peter Douris, who spent four years in Boston before finally picking up regular minutes in 1993 for the expansion Mighty Ducks.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mark Johnson

Sent: 1/7/11
Received: 6/4/11
Time: 148 Days
Address: Home
Item Sent: 1984-85 Topps, 1987-88 Topps, 1990-91 Upper Deck
Item Received: 1984-85 Topps, 1987-88 Topps, 1990-91 Upper Deck.  All signed in blue Sharpie.

Mark Johnson was born in Minneapolis, but he is Madison through and through.  A star for his legendary father Bob at the University of Wisconsin, he then became a star on the 1980 US Olympic team.  He spent 11 seasons in the NHL (including 10 for the North Stars at the end of the 1982 season) and earned an All Star berth while with the Hartford Whalers in 1984.  He has spent the last decade as the head coach of Wisconsin's women's hockey team, and led the women's Olympic team to the silver medal in Vancouver in 2010.

Chris Pronger

Sent: 1/21/11
Received: 6/2/11
Time: 132 Days
Address: c/o Flyers SkateZone
Item Sent: 2008-09 O-Pee-Chee Retro
Item Received: 2008-09 O-Pee-Chee Retro, signed and personalized in black Sharpie.

It didn't come as too much of a surprise to receive a successful response from future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger.  I just wasn't expecting his card to be inside this particular envelope.  When I checked the mail, I had one of my familiar SASEs mixed in amongst the credit card solicitations and bills.  It was postmarked from Bemidji, Minnesota.  I tried to cycle through all the northern Minnesota athletes to whom I had pending requests.  A couple of hockey players popped into my mind, but certainly not Chris Pronger.  I'm still not sure of his connection to Minnesota.  I guess a lot of players have taken to making their summer homes in that area (including Pronger's Flyers teammate Scott Hartnell).  I had just not heard that Chris was now one of us!