What about the player who fully expects his time on the stage to last far past the first act, in fact, he expects to be there for the encore call. I call him the ‘Can't Miss Prospect', the ‘Star Written All Over Him'......the 'Sure Thing'..? What about the guy who is expected to not only make the show, but steal the show? Do they always succeed? Was Warhol mistaken when he made his pronouncement and did not take into account ‘The Guy Who Has Star Written All Over Him'?
The inspiration for this story is motivated by the continuing consternation by Phillies fans over the struggles of one Marlon Byrd – centerfielder - and ‘Can't Miss Prospect...a Sure Thing'.
Though the Phillies have surely not given up on Byrd, and his past indicates that slow starts are his norm, there are many examples in past Phillie lore of prospects every bit as talented or trumpeted as Byrd. These were all ‘Can't Miss Prospects', the ‘Sure Thing' and Phillie fans awaited with anticipation the exploits of these players. Sadly, they waited with baited breathe as these players - for various and sundry reasons - never did make their mark in the big leagues. Many tried for several years but without success. Seeing that Byrd is the trigger word around town these days, let us take a walk down memory lane and allow me to introduce you to some past ‘Failed Phillie Phenoms'. Please note that since this is CD's column, we will play by CD's rules.....of which there are only 2. The first is that I could not, in good conscience, go back past the Mauch years, I have absolutely no recollection of them; and, the second rule is that these failed prospects never went on to success with other teams.
Thus, such players as Larry Hisle, Billy Champion and Bobby Dernier were excluded. Indeed, it would make painful, albeit enjoyable reading, to one day compile a list of ‘Failed Phillie Phemoms' who went on to be ‘Star Studded Successes' elsewhere. But....I regress. So, without further ado, take a walk with me around the baseball diamond of ‘Sure Things'.
Let's begin with the catcher position - the man responsible for calling the game - the brains and brawn of any solid team. Meet Jim Coker, catcher on Mauch's first club, the 1960 team. A solid minor leaguer (this will be a recurring theme), Coker was expected to be the Phillies starting catcher for the decade of the ‘60's. His power exploits and strong defense were expected to help the Phillies become a contender again. Well, the Phillies would become contenders soon enough.... sans Coker behind the plate. His starting job lasted exactly one season, a season good enough for him to make the Topps All-Rookie team, but not solid enough to satisfy the demanding Gene Mauch. Over the winter the Phillies drafted a minor league catcher named Clay Dalrymple who became the starter in '61. Coker was never a starter again, though he played parts of 6 seasons with the Giants and Reds.
With the Reds as perfect segway, let's approach first base. Which first baseman caused the Phillies to release two ex-Reds, in fact, two Hall of Fame type players? He is none other than Len Matuszek, one of the late season heroes of the 1983 NL champs. Matuszek showed so much potential after his .275 September in 1983 that the Phils unceremoniously released Pete Rose and Tony Perez, both HOF type players, and in Rose's case, an icon with the Phillies. Needless to say, Matuszek never fulfilled his promise; his 1984 season would be his last as a Phillie.
As we move to second base, we have more trivia, friends! Which Hall of Fame Manager is the starting second baseman for our ‘Sure Thing' team? He was the manager of Rose and Perez on those marvelous Big Red Machine teams, the one, the only, George "Sparky" Anderson. Sparky came to the Phils with outstanding minor league credentials. Indeed, the Phillies thought he would solidify their inner defense for years and become a pesky high average hitter. Not a chance.... Anderson hit .218 in his only year in the big leagues, and NEVER played another major league game.
His double play mate at shortstop would be a guy who was drafted #1 in the whole nation, a College All-American from Arizona State named Alan Bannister. Oh, Bannister seemed able to hit enough, but he had no range, no arm, and very little instincts for the SS position. The Phils tried him in center field, but he was found wanting there also. Finally, the Phils realized they had a shortstop in Larry Bowa, acquired a centerfielder in Garry Maddux, and shipped Bannister to the White Sox for pitcher Jim Kaat. Bannister's career with the Phils lasted a mere 50 games.
If you think you recognize the guy at the hot corner, third base – and you probably do – then you know he is our current coach, John Vukovich. Few realize that we did not always have such stellar performers at third base. We once had John Vukovich between the Richie Allens and the Mike Schmidts. Now Vukovich was a willing sort, and he had a marvelous glove. But with a bat in his hands he was pure poison.... to the Phillies. His one year as a starter was 1971 and his only claim to fame that year was that he was out-homered by Rick Wise. This wouldn't have been so bad except Wise was a pitcher. In fact, there actually was talk about one game having Wise hit eighth and Vuky hit ninth. By the way, Vukovich did resurface as a valuable bench hand on the 1980 team, though his contributions were more emotional than physical. In fact, he and Schmidt combined for 48 HR's from the hot corner that year.....all by Schmidt!
Let's now take a stroll to the last bastion of defense, the outfield. Here is where it gets tough; after all, it is here that the Phils have had so many failed prospects. However, after careful examination I came up with four outfielders, one being a personal favorite of mine. I am referring to the Bahaman speedster, Tony Curry, an outfielder - so fast - that he would often outrun fly balls. Indeed, every ball for Curry was an adventure, and though he showed some hitting potential, Mauch could not send Curry out to left field on a nightly basis.
That Curry was an outstanding athlete was never a question; indeed, he had been a star cricket player in the Bahamas as a teenager. He was fast, powerful and friendly, and once hit two mammoth home runs in one game at Crosley Field in his rookie year. In fact, like Coker, Curry made the Topps All-Rookie team in 1960, and like Coker, it was his swan song as a Phillie. He never started another game for the Phils after his rookie year and was gone early in the 1961 season. I herald my love for Tony Curry in the acquisition of his baseball card.... colored so nicely and his smiling face adorning it. I also thought that Tony Curry and Mickey Mantle were the two greatest names for baseball players, they literally roll off the tongue. Thus, any ‘Failed Phillie Phenom Team' must have Curry on it.
Playing co-left field with Curry is one similar to him, that it almost seems he, Curry, was reincarnated as Jeff Stone - one of the true marvels of the mid 80's. Few players came to the Phils with greater anticipation than Stone. In fact, that he failed is a testament to the importance of instincts to the game of baseball. As with Curry, Stone had more than enough talent. Try 100 stolen bases at Spartanburg in the SAL. How about a .362 average and a staggering 27 stolen bases in only 51 games as a rookie in 1984. Phillie fans were actually debating how many batting titles Stone would win in his career and his face, along with Juan Samuel and Von Hayes, adorned the Opening Day issue of the Phillies Report in 1985. That Stone never again reached those heights was a combination of poor fielding, poor baseball instincts and a case of overly hyped expectations. Stone's career lasted three more seasons, with averages of .265, .277 and .256 and a total of 37 stolen bases combined during those years.
Of all the cases of ‘The Sure Thing' that wasn't, the saddest one is probably Mike Anderson, he of the tape measure power and rocket arm. The reports out of the Phillies minor league system in the early '70s were of some very powerful homer run hitters. There was Joe Lis, Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt....and then there was Mike Anderson. To call him ‘The Natural' would be a fitting accolade, he literally graced the outfield with his talent and skill. He was to be a fixture in either right or center field for years...and would have been so for a little while longer if not for a beaning incident in a spring training game against the Reds. He was hit square in the head, and although he recovered physically, he was never to regain his performing self again. The smooth quick stroke was reduced to a bailing half swing every time a righty dared come side arm. It was painful to watch and more painful to bear. Anderson played parts of six seasons with the Phillies during the ‘70s but his rising star quickly took its descent. His most productive year was probably 1973 when he hit nine HR in 87 games. His career ended as a pitcher, the strength of his arm was such that he actually pitched a scoreless inning for the ‘79 Phillies....and retired.
Minor League Player of the Year, First Player EVER to homer at the Vet, Mammoth Power.... Mammoth Strikeouts! Thus were the exploits of one Roger Freed, undoubtedly one of the biggest ‘Can't Miss' players who ever donned a Phillies uniform. Freed, acquired from the Orioles in a December 1970 deal, was supposed to provide the Phils with firepower from the clean up spot, combined with Deron Johnson and Willie Montanez to give the ‘71 Phillies a real middle of the order threat. Johnson and Montanez did their parts to the tune of a combined 64 homeruns. But Freed, saddled with a weakness for the curveball, hit only 12 home runs in his two years as a Phillie, and was gone for good in 1973.
And to round it up, I chose two pitchers for two different reasons; the first is because his record was so outrageously bad and the second because there were few pitchers who his teammates so badly wanted to win for.... but never could. I bring for your approval lefty Kyle Abbott and righty Paul Brown.
Abbott, another in the list of College All-Americans, was acquired from the Angels along with Ruben Amaro Jr. for Von Hayes. Abbott was immediately given a starting birth on the 1992 staff that consisted of Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene, Terry Mulholland and Ben Rivera. That Abbott struggled to win was an understatement. When he finally won a game against the Dodgers in August, it was as if the Phillies had won the pennant. Considering that Abbott's final record for the year was 1-14 it was understandable why! If there was any irony to the Abbott story it was this.... he actually resurfaced on the 1995 Phillies for just a couple of months, and won two games. He had doubled his win total in a short amount of time, and erased the bitter taste of his incredibly difficult 1992 season.
And last but not least, I bring you one Paul Brown, a bonus baby pitcher from Oklahoma, who graced the Phillies roster in the early '60s. Everyone loved Paul Brown, especially Manager Gene Mauch. There was much to love about Brown, a crackling fastball, a scintillating curve, a determination to succeed that Mauch truly respected. The problem with Paul Brown is that he could never win a game. And herein lies the sadness, for Mauch always felt that if Brownie could win just one game, he could finally get over the hump and become a successful big league hurler. And he had his chances. In one game, an official scorekeeper gave a victory to another hurler, though Brown could have qualified for the win. In another, a late game homerun cost him a win. Finally, in a match against the Houston Colt .45's, Brown tired late in the game, went out winning, but his bullpen let him down. That the Phils came back to win was of small consolation to Brown, or Mauch. You see, what was not known was that Brown was pitching with a case of hepatitis and mononucleosis, and the reason that Brown would often tire late in a game became more apparent after the discovery. Brown lost his only decision in 1961, was 0-6 in 1962, and lost another game in 1963. He retired having never won a big league game.... a career record of 0-8.
In many respects, Brown is a microcosm of all of the above ‘Sure Things' - talented, determined and ballyhooed. That they were successful enough to make it to the big leagues is tribute to their abilities but that they never achieved the stardom predicted for them. It was as much an indictment of us as it was for them. For, ultimately, it is the baseball writer, the scout, the manager, and the fans, which pin the name ‘Can't Miss Prospect' on a player. That they often as not fail is a sign that the only sure thing in baseball is that, the ‘only Sure Thing' about the game is the unpredictability of the players who play it.
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