Sunday, June 7, 2020

My Three Favorite Baseball Cards and Thoughts on the Hall of Fame Case of Thurman Munson

As a lifelong baseball enthusiast, I can point to three aspects of the sport which served as my foundation as a fan: watching games, studying statistics, and collecting baseball cards.  The majority of the articles I have written focus on overlooked Hall of Fame candidates.  However, this past year, I dug back into my baseball card collection.  As a result, my recent writing has been less analytical and more baseball card-centric.  With this in mind, I have been taking a look at some of the candidates who recently appeared on the Era Committee Hall of Fame ballots, picking out my three favorite cards of the player, and giving my thoughts on their Hall of Fame case.  This article focuses on catcher Thurman Munson, who recently appeared on the Modern Baseball Era ballot.

August 2, 2019 marked the fortieth anniversary of the tragic death of New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson in a small plane crash.  During his career, Munson was known as one of the grittiest and most determined players in the game.  Munson was selected in the first round of the June 1968 Amateur Draft by the Yankees with the fourth overall pick and almost immediately paid dividends for his new team, winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 1970.  Three years later, Munson won his first of three consecutive Gold Glove Awards.  Early in the 1976 season, the Yankees named Munson captain of the team—the first player bestowed the honor since Lou Gehrig.  That season Munson was named AL MVP and helped lead the Bronx Bombers to their first Pennant since 1964.  Although, New York was swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, Munson did his part—wrapping nine hits and batting .529.  Munson and the Yankees returned to the Fall Classic in both 1977 and 1978, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games each time to win back-to-back World Championships.  Munson proved himself to be an excellent postseason hitter during New York’s three-Pennant run, batting .339 in the ALCS and .373 in the World Series.  Unlike most catchers, Munson had the ability to consistently hit for average—reaching the .300 mark in five different seasons.  Munson was also one of the most durable backstops of his day, finishing in the AL top-five in games caught each year from 1970 to 1977 and leading the league in three of those seasons.  In addition, Munson was a seven-time All-Star and accumulated 46 WAR—an impressive total considering the brevity of his career.

Munson's 1971 Topps featured a great action shot of the catcher

After sharing his 1970 Topps rookie card with teammate Dave McDonald, Munson’s 1971 issue was the first Topps card he appeared on solo.  Although Munson is almost unrecognizable without his trademark mustache, this card has always been among of my favorites of the backstop.  The image of the Munson trying to put the tag on face-first sliding Oakland Athletics pitcher Chuck Dobson is one of the greatest action shots of a catcher captured on a baseball card.  Another thing that drew me to Munson’s 1971 Topps is the card’s unintentional color coordination: the card’s black border and white outline complement Munson’s chest protector and jersey while the catcher’s All-Star Rookie trophy and the card’s green and gold writing closely match the brilliant hues of Dobson’s flashy A’s jersey.  The colors of the two teams’ uniforms stand in stark contrast to each other as the classic Pinstripe look of the Yankees is essentially the polar opposite to Oakland’s radiant green and gold.  The shot of Dobson crashing headfirst into home plate foreshadows some major changes that were about to alter the look of the game during the 1970s as more and more teams adopted the brighter jersey colors the A’s had brought into the sport a few years earlier.  The A’s were also about to change the look of baseball players by embracing facial hair during the team’s 1972 World Championship season.  While the Yankees chose not to follow the decade’s trend toward flashier jerseys, the buttoned-down franchise did allow their players to grow mustaches and by 1973 Munson was sporting the whiskers and sideburns that would be synonymous with the catcher for the remainder of his career.

The presence of the gold Topps All-Star Rookie trophy stands as a reminder of Munson’s excellent rookie season in which the backstop hit .302 and helped the Yankees to a 93-69 record which earned the club a second place finish in the AL East.  For his impressive campaign, Munson not only took home AL Rookie of the Year honors but also came one vote away from being the unanimous selection for the award.

Munson won his first of three straight Gold Glove Awards in 1973

Munson’s 1973 Topps shows the Yankees backstop crouched down in full catcher’s gear.  On the bottom right corner of their 1973 cards, Topps featured a silhouette icon representing the player’s position.  For catchers, the silhouette is in a squatted pose similar to the card’s shot of Munson.  Throughout Munson’s career, Topps was the card manufacturing giant as they essentially had a monopoly over the industry until a legal victory allowed Donruss and Fleer to produce full sets in 1981.  Thus, pretty much all the cards I associate with Munson are Topps.  Of Munson’s Topps cards, his 1973 issue features the backstop in the most natural catcher pose.  Like Munson’s 1971 Topps, the harmonious color coordination on his 1973 Topps make this card stand out.  Munson’s hat, sleeves, and shin guards along with the black silhouette fit the shadowy backdrop of the dugout.  The dark surroundings also make the whites of Munson’s home jersey and its pinstripes more pronounced.  Topps used a deep purple for Munson’s name which was a good match for the black and dark navy in the photo.  Topps used a different color for the circle behind each position silhouette.  The orange color Topps chose to put behind the catcher silhouettes may be an eyesore on some of their cards but with the presence of Munson’s brown and orange catching gear along with the surrounding dirt, the orange circle looks fitting.

By the time Topps released their 1973 set, the young backstop had already proved himself to be one of the best catchers at managing the running game—ranking in the AL top-five at throwing out would-be base stealers in each of his first three full seasons, including a league-leading otherworldly 61% in 1971.  Munson stood atop the AL leaderboard again in 1975 with a 50% caught stealing rate.  For his career, Munson threw base stealers out an impressive 44% clip, a healthy margin above the 38% league average.  Munson finished among the AL top-five in caught stealing percentage seven times and had only one season in which he finished below the league average.  The BBWAA electorate recognized Munson’s defensive value, awarding the catcher three straight Gold Glove Awards from 1973 to 1975.

Yankee captain Munson standing tall on his 1978 Topps

I’ve always felt the 1978 Topps set best captured the Bronx Zoo-era Yankees who won back-to-back World Championships.  For several teams, Topps did a poor job of selecting colors to use for the square outline that surrounded the player’s photo.  However, for the Yankees, the purplish blue outline and clean white border match the pinstripes of the Bombers jerseys.  Similar to his 1973 Topps, the brownish orange color used for the team name complements Munson’s chest protector, knee guards, catcher’s glove, and mask.  The cursive writing of Yankees also gives the card a more regal air than designs used by Topps in surrounding years.  The image of the card fittingly captures Munson standing tall, decked out in his catching gear, looking very much like the captain of the team.  With his long hair, sideburns, and mustache, Munson personified the look of the Bronx Zoo-era Yankees—whose scruffiness was a stark contrast from the franchise’s clean-shaven dynasties of the past.

Fresh off New York’s World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers the previous fall, by 1978, Munson had established himself as one of the most recognizable players in the game.  Munson’s status as an MVP and Gold Glove Award winner along with being captain of baseball’s most celebrated franchise all added to the catcher’s notoriety.  Munson’s MVP campaign came in the middle of a three-season stretch in which the slugging backstop achieved two of the era’s most celebrated milestones by driving in 100 or more runs while posting a .300-plus batting average.  Along with his excellent play on both sides of the diamond, Munson’s well-documented rivalries with Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk and teammate Reggie Jackson gave his career extra mystique.

Munson immortalized alongside five other franchise icons

However, more than any of his baseball cards, the image I most associate with Munson came from a poster which featured the backstop alongside five Yankee legends—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris.  Although Munson passed away a few years before I became a fan of the game and started collecting baseball cards, as I became more familiar with the history of the sport, I learned about the former Yankee captain and the impact he had on the game.  I remembering seeing the poster in a shopping mall as child during the late 1980s and being immediately awestruck by the image of Munson alongside the other Yankee greats and immediately knew I needed to purchase it.  I always viewed the painting as the late Munson being immortalized among the other franchise icons.  I felt the six Bronx Bomber legends each symbolized a different decade of success for the franchise with Ruth representing the 1920s, Gehrig the 1930s, DiMaggio the 1940s, Mantle the 1950s, Maris the 1960s, and Munson the 1970s.  This was fitting to me as I also had a poster of Don Mattingly, who I felt was the Yankee great who best represented the 1980s.  Years later I found out the image on the poster had originally been used for the cover of the Yankees 1985 yearbook.

Due to the Hall of Fame waiving its standard five-year waiting period, Munson appeared on the 1981 BBWAA ballot.  Despite his impressive career accomplishments, Munson drew just 15.5% of the vote. On the following ballot, Munson’s support plummeted to 6.3% and though he stayed on the BBWAA ballot for the entire fifteen eligible years, he never broke 10% again.  The brevity of Munson’s career, which essentially spanned only a decade, likely cost the catcher support as it left him well shy of the major or even secondary career milestones often associated with most Hall of Fame players.  Also, Munson’s prickly personality did the former Yankees captain no favors with the writers who make up the BBWAA electorate.  Although he was lauded for his leadership capabilities, Munson was also known for his gruffness and abrasiveness—particularly towards the press.

As a candidate who lasted the maximum number of eligible years on the BBWAA ballot, along with his status of being a key player on a back-to-back World Championship team, a former MVP winner, and captain of the unforgettable Bronx Zoo-era Yankees, Thurman Munson seemed like an obvious choice to be selected to appear on the Era Committee ballot.  However, Munson’s name was not among the candidates on either the 2011 or 2014 Expansion Era ballots or the 2018 Modern Baseball Era ballot.  Perhaps Munson’s exclusion from the Era Committee ballots was due in part to his receiving little to no support on the Veterans Committee ballots.  Indeed, Munson appeared on three-straight Veterans Committee ballots between 2003 and 2007 and failed to draw even 10% of the vote in those elections.  Last fall, Munson’s Hall of Fame case finally got another look when he was one of ten candidates included on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era ballot.  After being passed over on each of the three previous Era Committee ballots, Munson’s inclusion on the most recent Modern Baseball Era ballot can possibly be traced back to August 2019, marking the fortieth anniversary of the catcher’s tragic passing which brought renewed attention to his career achievements and Hall of Fame case.  Munson shared the ballot with fellow newcomers Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker along with holdovers Ted Simmons, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey, Dale Murphy, Tommy John, and Marvin Miller.  Both Simmons and Miller were voted in on the ensuing election—picking up 81.3% and 75% of the vote, respectively.  Evans drew the next highest vote total with 50%, followed by Parker’s 43.8%, along with Garvey and Whitaker at 37.5%.  Despite his inclusion on the Modern Baseball Era ballot generating a fair amount of attention and fanfare, Munson drew one of the lowest vote totals, with his and the three remaining candidates support being ambiguously described as having received “three-or-fewer votes.”

Munson’s career was tragically cut short, leaving the former Yankees captain well shy of the milestones associated with the Hall of Fame.  Nevertheless, I feel Munson’s career was worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.  Detractors of Munson’s Hall of Fame case often say he was nearly finished as player in 1979 and point to his declining power along with the wear and tear of his knee injuries as evidence.  While it is true Munson appeared to lose much of his home run power in his final two seasons, he still possessed the ability to hit for average.  At the time of his death, Munson was batting .288 in what had been a streaky season for the catcher up until that point.  Indeed, after a slow start to the 1979 campaign, Munson raised his batting average up to as high as .331 on May 27, it hovered around .300 for much of June and July, before a 2-for-27 slump dropped him to .288.  Moreover, Munson had hit better in the second half of 1978 so there is no evidence that his ability to hit for average was declining.  Although, it is likely that Munson’s chronically injured knees were going to force him to reduce his workload at catcher and possibly necessitate his eventual move to first base, the outfield, or even designated hitter.  Be that as it may, Munson gained his gritty reputation by playing through pain and injuries.  In fact, Munson never made a single trip to the disabled list during his career.  Furthermore, despite being bothered by knee injuries during his final season, Munson still managed to start 88 of New York’s first 101 games.  For the last four games of his career, Munson started at first base on three occasions and designated hitter once.  Yet, it was not completely out of the ordinary for Munson to occasionally play positions other than catcher.  For example, during the 1978 season, Munson was moved to right field for 13 games just after the All-Star break at the insistence of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to give the veteran backstop’s aching knees a rest before being moved back behind the plate for the remainder of the year.  It is possible that Munson was going to be taking an extended break from catching or at the very least lightening his load for the remainder of the 1979 season.  However, it is hard to imagine the resolute Munson giving up catching entirely or completely walking away from the game.  Thus, I do not agree with the conclusion that Munson was nearly finished as player in 1979.

Even though I feel that Munson deserves to be elected to the Hall of Fame, the combination of only being allowed to vote for four of the ten candidates on the 2020 Modern Baseball Era ballot along with the presence of several deserving candidates would have forced me to leave the catcher off of my mock ballot.  As a passionate supporter of Dwight Evans’ and Lou Whitaker’s overlooked Hall of Fame cases who has waited years to see the two sluggers finally get a second chance at Cooperstown immortality after falling off of the BBWAA ballot, half of the votes for my mock ballot were immediately spoken for.  My remaining pair of votes would have been prioritized for Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, the two candidates who ended up being elected on the 2020 ballot.  While I felt Munson had a comparable Hall of Fame case to both Simmons and Miller, my primary reason for choosing Simmons and Miller over Munson was because I felt they stood the best chance at actually being elected.  As the top returning holdovers from the 2018 ballot, Simmons and Miller carried a fair amount of momentum going into the 2020 vote.  Simmons in particular appeared poised to be voted in as he had missed gaining entry into Cooperstown by a single tally on the 2018 ballot.  Like Simmons, Miller also had come excruciatingly close to being voted into the Hall of Fame on a prior ballot, having fallen one checkmark shy on the 2011 Expansion Era ballot.  The presence of Simmons on the ballot likely cost Munson support as having two catchers as part of the same ten candidate slate may have forced some members of the electorate to choose between using one of their four votes on one backstop while omitting the other.

The Modern Baseball Era Committee will hold its next election in fall 2022.  However, after drawing such little support on the 2020 vote, Munson’s inclusion on future ballots is not a given.  Unlike the BBWAA voting process, the Hall of Fame discourages the Era Committee electorate from publicly discussing their ballot.  Thus, we have no way of knowing how many Era Committee voters had a similar viewpoint as myself and supported Munson’s Hall of Fame case but ran out of space to include the catcher on their ballot.  Nevertheless, the elections of Simmons and Miller will at the very least free up support for the 2020 ballot’s holdover candidates on future votes.  Moreover, with the induction of Simmons, the focus may then turn to who should be the next catcher elected to the Hall of Fame.  Modern Baseball Era Committee voters should look no further than Thurman Munson.

----by John Tuberty

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

My Favorite Baseball Cards of Jimmy Key During His Nine Seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays


I started collecting baseball cards as a young child in 1983.  Initially, I purchased packs of baseball cards at grocery and convenience stores.  As my interest in the hobby expanded, I began going to baseball card shops and collectible shows.  My favorite player to collect cards of was left-handed pitcher Jimmy Key.  Despite being the winning pitcher of a pair of World Series-clinching games, a two-time recipient of The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year Award, and twice the runner-up in the AL Cy Young Award vote, Key is largely forgotten.  Key’s career spanned from 1984 to 1998 and was split between three teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles.  For the first nine years of his career, Key pitched for the Blue Jays.  Key’s time in Toronto coincided with my prime years as a baseball card collector.  With this in mind, I decided to take a look at my favorite cards of Key during his nine seasons with the Blue Jays and explore some of his career highlights.

One of my most avid years as a collector was 1986.  After enthusiastically collecting Fleer and Topps in 1983 and 1984, I found the designs of the 1985 sets underwhelming and my interest in the hobby waned.  However, when I opened my first pack of 1986 Topps, I fully jumped back into collecting, buying cards every chance I got.  Just as in 1983 and 1984, I collected packs of Fleer in addition to Topps.

Jimmy Key's 1986 Fleer and his phantom mustache

Key made his initial card appearances on the 1984 Fleer Update and Topps Traded sets followed by rookie issues in each of the 1985 base sets.  Nevertheless, I didn’t get my first cards of Key until I started buying packs again in 1986.  Although I preferred the design of the Topps set from that year, it was actually Key’s Fleer which served as the catalyst for the left-hander becoming my favorite player.  Key’s Fleer featured the young hurler in Toronto’s practice jersey rearing back to throw a pitch.  What drew me to the card was Key's tucked in upper lip which had created enough of a shadowy look that I couldn't tell whether or not he had a mustache.  As my collection of Key cards grew, I noticed the southpaw often had stubble above his lip but never a fully grown mustache.  Thus, I eventually came to the conclusion that the combination of Key's stubble, his lip being tucked in, and the shadowy lighting of the shot created the illusion of a phantom mustache.  In fact, none of the one-hundred plus cards I own of Key or any of the countless photographs I have seen of the pitcher show him sporting a mustache during his career.  Aside from the mystery of Key’s phantom mustache, the colors and design of the card also made it stand out to me.  Between 1983 and 1990, Fleer included the logo of player’s team on their cards.  Toronto's logo which featured a blue jay in front of a baseball with the red maple leaf of the Canadian flag in the top right corner was charming enough to appeal to children while being sophisticated and creative enough for adults to identify with as well.  Fleer used a navy blue border for their 1986 design which was a bad fit for some teams but looked great for clubs like Toronto that incorporated lots of blue in their jerseys.  For the lower portion of their 1986 card, Fleer featured a color which matched one of the colors of the player’s team.  In Key’s case the light blue on the lower portion of the card is a perfect complement to the bottom half of the young pitcher’s uniform.  Moreover, even the blue background of the shot and the white outline around the photo blends well with the colors of Key’s uniform.  Since I spent so much time examining Key’s Fleer, flip-flopping back and forth on whether or not I thought he had mustache, it caused me spend more time looking at other cards and collectibles I owned of the lefty which included his 1986 Topps as well as his Topps Stickers from both 1986 and 1987.  These cards and stickers along with Key’s Fleer served as the foundation on which the southpaw became my favorite player.
 
Key's 1986 and 1987 Topps cards and stickers

By the time I came into possession of Key's 1986 Fleer, the young hurler had already completed his 1984 rookie season out of Toronto's bullpen and followed it up by breaking into the club's starting rotation in 1985 and putting up an impressive 14-6 record with a 3.00 ERA.  Although Key lacked an overpowering fastball, he quickly became known as one of the best control pitchers in the game.  Key had the craftiness and ability to effectively throw an array of pitches which included a change up, sinker, curve, and slider.  Al Widmar, Key’s pitching coach for the first six seasons of his career said of the southpaw, "He's a pitcher, not a thrower.  He has an average fastball, a good sinker and curve, and knows how to change speed on his pitches.  He also throws a cut fastball with good movement on it.  And, his control is outstanding."

Key got his first taste of the postseason during his solid sophomore campaign, playing a crucial role in helping the team win the AL East and advance to the ALCS where he made two starts against the Kansas City Royals.  After staff ace Dave Stieb won Game 1, Key got the ball for Game 2 but struggled and was chased from the mound in the top of the 4th with the Jays down 3-0.  However, Toronto's offense saved Key from the loss by roaring back to win the game in extra innings.  Four nights later, Key had the chance to pitch Toronto into the World Series with his club up 3 games to 1 over Kansas City.  Key pitched decently, surrendering two runs over 5.1 innings but was no match for Royals lefty Danny Jackson who shutout the Blue Jays.  Kansas City did not allow Toronto to take another lead for the rest of the ALCS and advanced to the World Series where they beat the St. Louis Cardinals.  The following season, Key took a small step backward but still put together a decent campaign, going 14-11 with a respectable 3.57 ERA to further solidify himself as one of the finest young pitchers in the game.

Key's 1988 and 1989 Topps each feature colors that complement the southpaw's hat and jersey

I immediately was a big fan of the 1988 and 1989 Topps designs, the larger white borders gave these cards a bright look that reminded me of the Topps 1983 and 1984 sets which had served as my introduction to the hobby.  Key's Topps from 1988 and 1989 each do a wonderful job of using colors that complement the southpaw's hat and jersey.  The red box which outlines Key's 1988 card along with the blue lettering for the team name bring out the colors from the Blue Jays logo.  Although the yellow strip with black lettering going across the bottom right corner doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the colors, overall Key’s 1988 Topps is an excellent card.  For Key’s 1989 card, Topps found the perfect harmony of colors.  The combination of the light and dark shades of blue that spell out Blue Jays blends well with Key’s jersey colors while the red lettering for his name matches the maple leaf on his hat.  In addition, the white border, blue sky background, and faint dusting of clouds correspond well with the colors of Key’s home jersey and the shades of blue used for the outline and writing on the card.

After staff ace Stieb's disastrous 1986 campaign in which the veteran went 7-12 with an uncharacteristically high 4.74 ERA, Key was given his first Opening Day starting assignment to begin the 1987 season.  Key won his Opening Day start and did a fabulous job anchoring Toronto’s rotation throughout the season, going 17-8 with an MLB-leading 2.76 ERA.  Key’s excellent campaign won him The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year Award.  In addition, Key finished second to Boston Red Sox righty Roger Clemens in the AL Cy Young Award vote.  Clemens, the defending AL Cy Young winner, went 20-9 with a 2.97 ERA and garnered 21 of 28 first place votes.  Key collected four first place votes while the remaining three tallies were split among Oakland Athletics righty Dave Stewart and Detroit Tigers righty Doyle Alexander.  Key and Clemens had similar win/loss percentages but the Toronto hurler pitched in more meaningful games than his Boston counterpart as his Blue Jays finished a close second to the Tigers in the AL East while the Red Sox struggled to a sub-.500 record.  However, Clemens’ status as the defending AL Cy Young winner and his reaching of the 20-win plateau undoubtedly helped the Boston righty draw the majority of first place votes.  In addition, Clemens threw more innings than Key while also leading the league in strikeouts, complete games, and shutouts.  Nevertheless, for Key there was no shame in being edged out by Clemens who was already establishing himself as the dominant pitcher of his generation.

Aside from the white border and clean designs, another similarity between Key’s 1988 and 1989 Topps is the easy-going, calm look on the face of the southpaw.  Key’s mild-mannered expression on each card captures his personality as he was known as one of the most even-tempered players of his day.  Most articles written about Key reference his unassuming looks and quiet nature.  Yet, underneath Key’s calm exterior was an intense competitor with a strong desire to win.  Pitcher David Wells, who was teammates with Key from 1987 to 1992—and in many ways the polar opposite of the mild-mannered lefty personality-wise, wrote this about Key in his autobiography “Perfect I'm Not: Boomer On Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball”:  “He’s soft-spoken.  He’s buttoned-down.  He’s one pocket protector away from full-blown nerd status, but don’t let any of that fool you.  The guy takes no shit on the mound or off.  Let’s put it this way; on the one occasion I made the mistake of seriously goofing on this guy, he shoved my face into a team bus window.  You’ve gotta love that.”  In the book, Wells named Key to the starting pitching staff of his dream line up “Got-Balls-Star” Team and also praised the quiet hurler for taking the time to give him advice and helping him develop as a young pitcher.

Key posted an MLB-leading 2.76 ERA in 1987
 
As a result of his excellent 1987 campaign, Key started being included in more special limited edition box sets.  One of the box sets Key appeared in was the 1988 Topps Revco League Leaders, a 33-card set which highlighted players who led their respective league in select categories.  Though Revco is now defunct—having been acquired by CVS in 1997—the company’s memorable logo is forever immortalized on the card.  I have always been fond of Key’s 1988 Revco and what I believe drew me to the card was its similarity to the hurler’s 1988 and 1989 Topps.  Like his 1989 Topps, the Revco card features a close up shot of the young lefty set against a blue sky background dotted with clouds.  On Key’s Revco card, the southpaw is clad in the same style road practice jersey he is wearing on his 1988 Topps.  Also, the Revco set uses similar colors to Key’s 1988 Topps for their design with a clean white border, red outline, and blue lettering—along with the inexplicable use of yellow.  The Revco design features a slightly darker shade blue which looks good on Key’s card since it matches the color of his jersey.  Key was included in the Revco set for leading the AL with a 2.76 ERA.  Coincidentally, the NL’s ERA leader, Houston Astros pitcher Nolan Ryan, finished the 1987 season with the same 2.76 mark as Key.  However, Key was the overall MLB ERA leader as his 2.759 ERA rounded up to 2.76 and was slightly lower than Ryan’s 2.764 mark.  Key won the ERA title during the year of the “rabbit ball” in which home runs were hit at a never before seen rate and average runs scored per game rose to their highest since 1950.

Key followed up his excellent 1987 campaign with a solid 1988.  The crafty lefty posted a 3.29 ERA and went 12-5 despite missing two and half months of the season after having surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.  Unfortunately, injuries continued to plague Key over the next two seasons.  Key won his third straight Opening Day start to begin the 1989 season.  By late May, Key was 6-2 with a 2.82 ERA and in the process of putting together another excellent campaign when he was beleaguered by a 13 start stretch in which he went an unfathomable 1-11 with a 5.29 ERA.  At the end of this horrid run, Key was placed on the 15-day disabled list with inflammation of the rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder.  A drop in velocity caused by these shoulder issues was at the root of Key’s struggles.  After returning from the DL, the hurler rebounded to a 6-1 record with a 3.40 ERA in his final 9 starts to finish the year 13-14 with a 3.88 ERA.  Toronto won their second AL East crown and faced the Oakland Athletics in the 1989 ALCS.  Key had a mediocre performance in his one ALCS start, giving up 3 runs over 6 innings.  Nevertheless, Key managed to pick up Toronto’s only ALCS win as they were defeated by Oakland in five games.  During the offseason, Key had surgery to repair his partially torn rotator cuff.  Key struggled to return to form after the surgery, averaging fewer than 5 innings through his first 8 starts of 1990 while posting an ugly 6.56 ERA before going on the DL for a month due to a hamstring injury.  The time away seemed to help Key who averaged over 6 innings per start with a 3.55 ERA for the remainder of the season.  Key finished 1990 with a 13-7 record, marking his sixth straight season with at least a dozen wins.  However, for the third consecutive year, Key saw his ERA rise, this time to 4.25.

Toronto's uniform changes are visible on Key's cards
 
Since the Blue Jays first took the field in 1977, the club had made very few alterations to their uniforms.  Nevertheless, Toronto decided to make major changes to the team’s appearance for the 1989 season.  Gone were the pullover jerseys that had been synonymous with most clubs in the 1970s and 1980s as the Blue Jays switched to the button down look that several other teams had begun to adopt.  In addition, Toronto drastically altered the look of their road uniform, going with gray for both their jerseys and pants—moving away from powder blue which had been the staple of many teams during the 1970s and 1980s.  Another big change to the road uniform was the return of Toronto being printed across the chest—something featured on the away jerseys during the initial two years of the franchise.  With the move to the button down style, the team slightly decreased the size of their logo and shifted it from the center to the left side of the jersey.  The Blue Jays also switched their road hat to a solid blue style, replacing the white front with blue bill and blue back style which had been used by the team for all games but now would only be used for home games.  Looking through my collection of Key cards, I’m able to see the hurler in the different variations of Toronto’s uniforms.  What also becomes apparent is the large number of cards which feature the southpaw in a Spring Training or practice jersey.

Many of Key's cards feature him in a Spring Training or practice jersey
 
After dealing with injuries during the previous three seasons, Key was able to stay off the DL in 1991 and put together a solid campaign, going 16-12 with a 3.05 ERA.  The Blue Jays easily won the AL East and faced the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS.  Despite Key’s strong season and veteran status, Toronto slid the lefty back to third in the playoff rotation and opted to go with mid-season acquisition Tom Candiotti and rookie phenom Juan Guzman—each of whom had zero postseason experience—to start the first two games of the ALCS.  Candiotti lasted 2.2 innings and got rocked for 5 runs in a 5-4, Game 1 loss while Guzman earned the win in Game 2–going 5.2 innings and giving up 2 runs in Toronto’s 5-2 victory.  With the series tied, Key took the hill at home for Game 3.  The Blue Jays raced out to an early 2-0 lead in the 1st inning but Minnesota was able to score a run a piece in the 5th and 6th to draw even.  Key pitched strong enough to give his team a chance to win—putting up a similar line to Guzman’s with 2 runs allowed in 6 innings—but because he was taken out of the game with the score tied, he did not factor into the decision.  Toronto’s bullpen ultimately surrendered the lead in the 10th and lost Game 3 by a score of 3-2.  After Minnesota roughed up Toronto starter Todd Stottlemyre and won Game 4, Candiotti returned for Game 5 with the Blue Jays on the brink of elimination.  Candiotti delivered a shaky 5-inning performance in which he gave up 4 runs—two of which were unearned—yet departed the game with a three-run lead.  However, Toronto’s bullpen failed to hold the lead and the Twins won the game, 8-5, to take the AL Pennant.

In 1992, the Blue Jays once again won the AL East and returned to the playoffs, this time taking on the Oakland Athletics.  Despite posting a respectable 3.53 ERA, Key’s record was an even 13-13.  Though Key’s win/loss record was middling, this marked the lefty’s eighth straight season with 12 or more victories.  Following their ALCS loss to Minnesota, Toronto allowed free agent Candiotti to leave—choosing instead to spend their money on a higher-profile pitcher with a better postseason track record in Jack Morris, who was fresh off a stellar World Series-clinching Game 7 victory for the Twins.  At the end of August, the Blue Jays made another big move, acquiring hurler David Cone just before the trade deadline.  These moves pushed Key further back in the rotation.  In fact, when the Blue Jays set their rotation for the ALCS they opted to go with just three starters—Morris, Cone, and Guzman—while sending Key to the bullpen.  Key was called upon only once during the ALCS, pitching three innings of mop-up duty with his club down five runs in the bottom of the 5th of Game 5.  Key held the A’s scoreless but the Blue Jays were unable to mount a comeback and lost the game 6-2.  Nevertheless, the Blue Jays clinched the AL Pennant with a Game 6 win two days later to advance to the franchise’s first World Series to face the Atlanta Braves.  Key’s solid relief appearance in the ALCS proved to be an important one for the veteran southpaw as Toronto decided to use a four-man rotation for the World Series and tapped him to start Game 4.  Matching up against the Braves in the World Series gave Key the chance to pitch against one of the teams he rooted for during his childhood.  Key grew up in Huntsville, Alabama which is just a few hours’ drive from Atlanta.  Though Key considered the New York Yankees his favorite team, he also was a fan of the Braves and regularly attended games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with his father during his childhood.

After dropping the Series opener with an uncharacteristic postseason loss by Morris, set-up man Duane Ward won Games 2 and 3 in relief for the Blue Jays.  Eligible for free agency in the offseason, Key took the ball for Game 4 knowing it could be the final time he pitched in a Blue Jays uniform in front of the Toronto home crowd.  Atlanta countered with Game 1 winner Tom Glavine, who had also been the 1991 NL Cy Young recipient and was fresh off his second-straight 20-victory campaign.  Key and Glavine matched each other pitch-for-pitch in what became a duel between two crafty lefties.  Toronto drew first blood with a solo home run by catcher Pat Borders in the bottom of the 3rd and made it 2-0 with an RBI-single by Devon White in the bottom of the 7th.  After pitching masterfully through seven innings, Key finally ran into trouble in the top of the 8th.  After allowing Atlanta to cut the lead in half, Key was lifted from the game for set-up man Duane Ward with a runner on second and two out.  Key received a warm reception from the Toronto faithful as he tipped his cap while leaving the mound.  Ward worked out of the jam to preserve the lead and closer Tom Henke picked up the save with a scoreless 9th to give Key and Toronto the 2-1 victory.  Key put up an excellent pitching line in Game 4, allowing just 5 hits and 1 run through 7.2 innings.  In addition, Key struck out 6 and lived up to his reputation as one of baseball’s premier control pitchers, issuing no free passes to Braves hitters.  Glavine went the distance for Atlanta but was saddled with the loss despite giving up just 2 runs through 8 innings.  Key’s Game 4 victory put the Blue Jays up 3 games to 1 over the Braves and a single win away from the World Championship.  With Morris set to pitch Game 5 and Cone and Guzman slated to start Games 6 and 7, Key returned to the bullpen for the rest of the Series.

Following the Braves 7-2, Game 5 rout of the Blue Jays, the Series shifted back to Atlanta for Game 6.  With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 10th, Toronto called upon Key to enter the game with one out.  After Key got David Justice and Sid Bream to ground out to complete the 10th, the Blue Jays rallied in the top of the 11th, taking the lead on a two-out, two-run double by veteran slugger Dave Winfield.  Atlanta threatened in the bottom half of the 11th with a leadoff single by Jeff Blauser followed by Damon Berryhill reaching on shortstop Alfredo Griffin’s error.  After Rafael Belliard’s sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third, Brian Hunter pinch hit for pitcher Charlie Leibrandt with one out.  Key was able to retire Hunter on a grounder to first base for out number two but, in the process, Blauser scored while pinch runner John Smoltz advanced to third base.  With leadoff hitter Otis Nixon due up, Toronto manager Cito Gaston walked out to the mound.  Nixon had hit Key well in Game 4, going 2 for 3 against the southpaw.  With Gaston and Key both aware of Nixon’s success against the lefty, they agreed it would be better to bring in reliever Mike Timlin to face Nixon.  Well known for his speed, Nixon attempted a bunt on Timlin who threw to Joe Carter at first base to get the final out and secure the World Championship for the Blue Jays.  For his inning and a third of relief work, Key was credited as the winning pitcher for Game 6.

Key picked off Otis Nixon in the 1st inning of Game 4 of the 1992 World Series

Following Toronto’s World Series victory, a handful of cards were released which showcased Key’s success in the Fall Classic.  Despite being an avid collector of Key’s memorabilia and generally buying every reasonably priced card I could find of the southpaw, I never managed to get ahold of any of his World Series cards.  Nevertheless, the card I associate most with Key’s World Series triumph is his 1993 Upper Deck which captures the veteran hurler in mid-wind up during a pregame warm up.  In addition to his pinpoint control and ability to change speeds, another one of Key’s strengths was his deceptive pickoff move to first base.  During his Game 4 World Series start, Key opened the contest by giving up a single to Atlanta’s speedy leadoff hitter Otis Nixon.  As one of the game’s most prolific base stealers, Nixon threatened to put himself into scoring position by swiping second before Key had even registered an out.  However, Key quickly nullified the threat by picking Nixon off at first.  This proved to be a crucial play because Key gave up a single to number two hitter Jeff Blauser before settling down and working his way out of the inning.  Though it was not taken during the Fall Classic, Upper Deck’s shot of Key in mid-wind up reminds me of his picking off of Nixon.  Despite being the victim of Key’s deceptive pickoff move, in some ways, Nixon was the hurler’s main antagonist during the Series as the speedster not only hit the southpaw well but was also the on-deck hitter in both Game 4 and Game 6 when Gaston lifted Key.  Although he was more known for his speed on the basepaths than his hitting prowess, Nixon swung a particularly hot bat during the final three games of the Fall Classic:  Aside from his base knock to leadoff Game 4, Nixon scratched out another single in the 6th inning, making him Atlanta’s only batter to get multiple hits against Key during the lefty’s masterful performance.  Nixon continued to be a menace in the batter’s box and on the basepaths in Game 5 as the speedster got a trio of hits, swiped a pair of bags, and scored twice—including the go-ahead run in Atlanta’s 7-2 win.  Nixon had his third straight multi-hit game, stroking a pair of singles in Game 6—the second of which temporarily staved off Atlanta’s elimination as it drove in the tying-run off Toronto closer Tom Henke with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th.  Considering Nixon’s success against Key and Toronto pitching in general over the final three games of the Series, Gaston was wise to bring in Timlin to face the hot-hitting speedster in the 11th inning of Game 6.

Despite playing a pivotal role in their World Series victory, the Blue Jays did not place a great emphasis on re-signing the 31-year old Key and allowed the veteran hurler to test the free agent market.  On December 10, Key officially brought an end to his time with the Blue Jays when the southpaw agreed to a four-year deal with the New York Yankees, the lefty’s favorite team during his childhood.  In his nine seasons with Toronto, Key put together a 116-81 record with a 3.42 ERA.  Key ranks fourth overall on the Blue Jays all-time win list and first among left-handed pitchers.

Though Key’s mild-mannered personality seemed like an odd fit for New York, the crafty lefty excelled in the Big Apple— becoming the ace of the staff while going a combined 35-10 over his first two seasons with the Yankees.  During the second of those initial campaigns in New York, Key repeated his achievements of 1987 by being named The Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year and also finishing runner-up in the AL Cy Young Award vote—on this occasion being edged out by former rotation-mate David Cone who was now pitching for the Kansas City Royals.  Unfortunately, Key was felled by injuries during the next two seasons and by the time the Yankees reached the Fall Classic in 1996 to face the defending World Champion Atlanta Braves, the southpaw had slid down to the middle of the rotation.  Nevertheless, just as he had in 1992, Key made a big impact in the World Series.  After New York dropped the Series opener, Key was tabbed to start Game 2 against the winner of the last four NL Cy Young Awards, Greg Maddux.  Key delivered a shaky performance in Game 2 and took the loss, allowing 4 runs across 6 innings while Maddux held the Yankees scoreless through 8 frames as Atlanta won 4-0.  Despite losing the first two games in New York, the Bombers turned the Series around by winning all three games on the road in Atlanta.  With the Series back in the Bronx and the Yankees one win away from the World Championship, Key took the ball for Game 6 where he was, once again, matched up against the dominant Maddux.  However this time around, Key out-pitched Maddux—giving up just a single run before departing the game in the 6th inning with a 3-1 lead.  New York’s bullpen preserved Key’s lead to secure the victory and the World Championship for the Yankees.  Key was credited with the win, marking the second time in his career the hurler picked up the victory in a Series-clinching Game 6.

Following New York’s World Series triumph, Key became eligible for free agency.  With New York wary of signing Key to more than a one-year contact due to his recent injuries, the lefty opted to take a two-year offer to join the Baltimore Orioles.  In his first season with the O’s, Key helped lead the club to the playoffs with a solid 16-10 record supported by a 3.43 ERA that, in the high-scoring environment of the late 1990s, ranked 8th lowest in the AL.  However, after an injury-riddled 1998 season, the 37-year old Key decided to call it a career.  The Yankees showed interest in bringing Key back for the 1999 season but were unable to lure the veteran out of retirement.  Key walked away from the game with an overall record of 186-117 and a 3.51 career ERA.  Key was one of baseball’s winningest pitchers during his career, posting an impressive .614 win/loss percentage.  In fact, in the three seasons Key had a below .500 record, each time he lost only one more game than he won.  Key was also one of the most consistent hurlers of his generation, winning a dozen or more games in 12 of his 15 big league seasons including a consecutive ten-year stretch from 1985 to 1994.

Key also pitched for the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles

During Key’s first couple of seasons in New York, I started moving away from buying packs of cards and began making most of my purchases at baseball card shops and collectible shows.  As the hobby grew more popular in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the photography on the cards became crisper, the designs more extravagant, and manufacturers released additional sets to keep up with the competition and also as a reaction to the increase in consumer demand.  However, with these improvements came downsides: the card packs increased in price, the market became over-saturated, and—while the designs were bolder and more impressive—they didn’t appeal to me the way the cards of my youth had.  As a result of Key’s success in 1993 and 1994, the southpaw was included on several specialized sets as well as the All-Star and league leader cards.  Although Key played in New York less than half as long as he did in Toronto, because such a large number of cards of the lefty were released during his time in the Big Apple, I own nearly as many cards of Key from his four seasons with the Yankees as I do from his nine campaigns with the Blue Jays.  Towards the end of Key’s tenure with the Bronx Bombers, my interested in the hobby began to decline and by the time the veteran signed with Baltimore, I had nearly stopped collecting all together.  In fact, I only own seven cards which feature Key in an Orioles jersey—barely a tenth of what I have of the hurler in either a Blue Jays or Yankees jersey.  Even though it has been over two decades since I regularly collected, my cards of Key will always hold a special place in my baseball memories—particularly the ones of the underrated pitcher in his colorful Blue Jays uniform.


----by John Tuberty

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Jimmy Key cards:  1986 Fleer, 1986 Topps, 1986 Topps Sticker, 1987 Topps, 1987 Topps Sticker, 1988 Topps, 1989 Topps, 1988 Topps Revco League Leaders, 1988 Donruss, 1988 Score, 1993 Donruss, 1993 Topps, 1989 Upper Deck, 1990 Topps, 1991 Bowman, 1992 Topps, 1994 Flair, 1994 Topps Stadium Club, 1993 Topps Finest, 1997 Skybox Circa, 1993 Upper Deck, also Otis Nixon 1993 Upper Deck

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