Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bobby Grich, Rick Burleson, and Their One Full (Strike-Shortened) Season as a Dominant Double Play Combination

Grich & Burleson formed a dominant double play combination
Prior to the 1981 season, the California Angels acquired shortstop Rick Burleson from the Boston Red Sox in a five-player deal.  The trade paired Burleson with second baseman Bobby Grich to give the Angels a dominant double play combination.  For several seasons, Grich and Burleson had been two of the finest offensive and defensive players at their respective positions.  In their first season together, Grich and Burleson had standout campaigns and, with both signed to long-term contracts to play for the Angels, all signs pointed to them becoming a formidable double play tandem for a number of years.  Unfortunately, the strike-shortened 1981 campaign wound up being their only full season turning double plays together as a series of injuries kept Burleson off the field and prevented the duo from realizing its full potential.

Grich and Burleson were born in 1949 and 1951, respectively.  Grich and Burleson each grew up just outside of Anaheim.  Grich was born in Muskegon, Michigan but spent the majority of his childhood in Southern California.  He went to high school in Long Beach, while Burleson completed his education just about a half an hour north of his future teammate in Downey.  Grich grew up a fan of the American League based Angels while Burleson supported the Los Angeles Dodgers of the National League.  Grich and Burleson were both first round draft picks.  Grich was selected by the Baltimore Orioles with the nineteenth overall pick in the June 1967 draft.  Burleson was snapped up by the Boston Red Sox with the fifth overall pick in the January secondary phase of the 1970 draft.

Grich won 4 Gold Gloves with Baltimore
Grich played the majority of his minor league games as a shortstop but was moved to second base when the Orioles traded their keystoner Dave Johnson to make room for him.  In 1973, Grich had what is arguably the greatest fielding season ever for a second baseman, leading AL keystoners in games played, putouts, assists, double plays turned, fielding percentage, total zone runs, and range factor.  Not only did Grich lead his second sacker peers in every major fielding category, but with just five errors in 945 chances, his superb .995 fielding percentage set a major league record for second basemen.  Grich's fielding excellence was recognized with his first of four consecutive Gold Glove Awards.  Flanked to his right by defensive wizards Mark Belanger at short and Brooks Robinson at third, Grich was part of one of the finest fielding infields in baseball history.  The trio became the first second base-shortstop-third base combination to each win the Gold Glove Award in the same season--a feat they would accomplish not only in 1973 but in 1974 and 1975 as well.  In addition to his stellar glovework, Grich also contributed at the plate, putting up power and on base numbers that were well above average for a second baseman.  Grich played a significant role in helping Baltimore win AL East Division titles in 1973 and 1974.  Unfortunately, the '73 and '74 Orioles were unable to advance to the World Series as they were defeated by the eventual World Champion Oakland Athletics in the ALCS both times.

Following the 1976 season, Grich became part of the inaugural free agent class.  With his combination of power, patience, and slick glovework, Grich was a highly sought after free agent.  Grich spurned an offer of more money from the New York Yankees and signed with the Angels, the team he had rooted for growing up.  California signed Grich to play shortstop, his original position in the minor leagues.  Unfortunately, Grich suffered an offseason back injury carrying an air conditioning unit up a staircase, the effects of which carried over into the season and cut his 1977 campaign short once he saw he could no longer avoid having surgery.  Grich returned in time for the 1978 season but was moved from shortstop back to second base by the Angels.  Grich worked hard to rebound from the injury with a workout regimen focused on weight-lifting.  Grich's dedication paid off in 1979 as the keystoner hit .294 with 30 home runs and 101 RBI to help the Angels win the AL West for the first time.  With his 30 round-trippers, Grich joined Rogers Hornsby, Joe Gordon, and Dave Johnson as the only second baseman to reach the 30-home run plateau.  Unfortunately, the Angels were defeated by the Orioles in the 1979 ALCS before nose-diving to a 65-95 record in 1980.  Grich was unable to replicate his dominant 1979 campaign but nevertheless put together a solid year, hitting .271 with 14 home runs and an impressive .377 OBP.

Burleson won a GG & set a DP record w/Boston
Burleson made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox in 1974 and by season's end was the club's everyday shortstop.  Burleson played in a team-high 158 games for the Division-winning Red Sox in 1975.  He flourished in the postseason, batting a stunning .444 against the three-time defending World Series champion Oakland Athletics, whom Boston promptly swept in the ALCS.  Burleson then hit .292 in the seven-game Fall Classic in which the Cincinnati Reds narrowly edged out the Red Sox.  Burleson didn't hit for much power but posted strong batting averages in comparison to most shortstops as many of his peers were of the "good glove, no hit" variety.  Burleson particularly excelled at the plate in 1976 and 1977, becoming the team's leadoff hitter while posting respective batting averages of .291 and .293.  Like Grich, Burleson contributed on both sides of the diamond, regularly finishing near the top of many key defensive categories.  Burleson was recognized for his sterling glovework in 1979 when he was awarded the AL Gold Glove.  The following year, Burleson set a major league record for shortstops that still stands when he turned an incredible 147 double plays.  Despite setting the record, voters selected Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell over Burleson for the AL Gold Glove.  Nevertheless, Burleson led all AL shortstops and held a significant advantage over his Detroit counterpart in putouts (301 to 225), assists (528 to 412), and double plays turned (147 to 89).  Though, it is likely Trammell's edge in fielding percentage and batting average over Burleson--.980 to .974 and .300 to .278, respectively--played a role in the vote.

Even though Boston relied on Burleson's defense at short, bat at leadoff, and veteran leadership in the clubhouse, the franchise became embroiled in bitter contract negotiations with their shortstop.  When negotiations broke down following the 1980 season, Burleson was packaged in a deal with third baseman Butch Hobson and sent to the Angels for pitcher Mark Clear, outfielder Rick Miller, and third baseman Carney Lansford.  California quickly signed Burleson to a six-year, $4.65 million contract.  The trade represented a major upgrade at shortstop for the Angels, as Burleson replaced the aging veteran platoon of Bert Campaneris and Freddie Patek, each of whom struggled in 1980.  California had also played infield prospect Dickie Thon at shortstop towards the end of the 1980 season but the youngster performed underwhelmingly at the major league level and was used as a trade chip to bring in starting pitcher Ken Forsch from the Houston Astros during the offseason.

The pairing of Grich and Burleson not only brought together two of the game's best all-around players but also two of its fiercest competitors.  Grich and Burleson were both known for their intensity and determination to win--earning reputations as hard-nosed players, not afraid to get their uniforms dirty.  Umpire Ron Luciano once said that Grich "always wore uniforms that looked like 'before' on detergent commercials."  Early in his career Burleson was given the nickname "Rooster" by Boston third base coach Don Zimmer one day during infield practice, who remarked "with his hat off and his hair standing up, he looks like a rooster walking around."  The nickname perfectly fit the shortstop and his aggressive style of play.  Contemporary infielder Alfredo Griffin recounted the complete game Grich brought to the ballfield, "He had it all - a great glove, power, an all-around game."  Zimmer also recognized Burleson's abilities on both sides of the diamond saying, "He hits pretty well because he hits like he plays.  He's a little bulldog up there."  Future major leaguer Tim Salmon remembers Grich "as a real no-nonsense player, really aggressive with high energy and high emotion."  Former pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee described Burleson's tenacious desire to win, "Some guys didn't like to lose, but Rick got angry if the score was even tied."  Lee, who was teammates with the fiery shortstop on the 1975 Pennant winning-Red Sox also added that Burleson "was very intense and had the greatest arm of any infielder I had ever seen.  The moment he reported to camp, he brought a fire to the club that we had been lacking."  Broadcaster Joe Garagiola said this of Burleson, "He's even-tempered.  He comes to the ballpark mad and he stays that way."

California looked to rebound from an abysmal 1980 campaign in which the combination of injuries to several key position players and a struggling pitching staff resulted in a 65-win, sixth place finish in the AL West.  Angels manager Jim Fregosi installed Burleson as the number two hitter in the line up behind former MVP and perennial batting champion threat Rod Carew.  By contrast, Fregosi wrote Grich's name into the eight-hole in the batting order, surprisingly deep in the order for such an accomplished hitter.  Baltimore manager Earl Weaver had generally batted Grich second or third in the line up during the keystoner's time with the Orioles, while occasionally moving him into a later spot.  California initially used Grich as its number two hitter during his first season with the club.  However, midway through the following year--with Grich struggling to bat .240 and slug .300 in his first months returning from back surgery--the second sacker was moved to one of the bottom two spots in the order.  Nevertheless, Grich excelled in the final month of the 1978 campaign and found that he preferred hitting deep in the order as it allowed him to study the opposing pitcher and learn their patterns and velocity.  During his 30-home run 1979 season, Grich saw the majority of his plate appearances come out of eighth in the order while also starting several games batting sixth or seventh.  In 1980, Grich mostly hit sixth but also had a fair portion of starts come out of the seven-hole.

After opening the season by taking three out of four games against the Seattle Mariners, California was swept in a four game series at home by the Oakland Athletics, who started the season 11-0.  At the end of April, the Angels ranked in fourth place with a 10-11 record, already eight games behind the AL West leading A's.  Grich and Burleson each finished April with an OPS of .760--arriving at their totals in vastly different ways:  Grich counteracted a lowly .215 batting average with enough power and plate discipline to bring his OBP to an acceptable .329 and slugging to a solid .431.  Burleson, on the other hand, balanced his lack of power with an impressive .298 batting average that enabled him to put up a sound .381 slugging percentage along with a high walk rate which jumped his OBP up to .379.

Grich and Burleson each embarked on hitting streaks in the month of May.  Between May 7 to May 22, Burleson hit safely in 15 consecutive games, batting .375 with an .812 OPS during the streak.  Most impressive about Burleson's streak was the fact that the majority of it took place over the course of a ten-game road trip.  California went 9-6 during Burleson's streak which briefly overlapped with Grich's hitting streak which began on May 21.  However, Grich's and Burleson's hot hitting was not enough to move the Angels up the standings as the club struggled to stay above .500 and gain ground on the AL West leading A's.  After a homestand in which the Angels lost five of six and dropped their record to 22-25, the club fired Fregosi and replaced him with Gene Mauch.  Mauch, a veteran skipper with over 3,000 games managed, had been serving as California's director of player personnel, a position he was hired for prior to the season.

Grich and Burleson continued to sizzle in the batter's box as the calendar turned to June.  Unfortunately, on June 6 in the fifth inning of a 10-0 rout of Baltimore, Grich suffered a broken bone in his left hand when he was hit by a pitch from Orioles reliever Steve Luebber.  The hand injury sent Grich to the disabled list.  Nevertheless, the Angels continued to surge, with Burleson going deep off of Cleveland Indians pitcher Bert Blyleven during a 4-3 victory on June 10 which brought California's record back above .500.

Grich & Burleson were each strong all-around players
However, on June 12 the season grinded to a halt when the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike against the owners.  The major reason for the strike was to prevent the owners from implementing a system by which clubs losing a star player to free agency would be compensated with a player of comparable value.  Blocking the owners from enacting this change was crucial as a similar compensation system used by the National Football League and National Hockey League had largely stunted the growth of free agency in those sports.  After decades of player salary and movement being restricted by the reserve clause, the advent of free agency had swung the balance of power away from ownership.  Grich and Burleson had each been beneficiaries of free agency, empowering them to return to their Southern California roots by signing lucrative contracts with the Angels.  After almost two months of cancelled games, the two sides came to an agreement to restart play with a rescheduled All-Star Game on August 9 at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.  Burleson was named to the AL All-Star team as a reserve and entered the game in the seventh inning.  "Rooster" fielded short flawlessly and reached base in his sole plate appearance on third baseman Mike Schmidt's error.  Burleson then advanced to third on Vida Blue's wild pitch but was left on base as the NL ultimately defeated the Junior circuit, 5-4.

Games cancelled due to the strike would not be made up, which left most teams with roughly a third of their season's contests never to be played.  Moreover, the MLB decided to split the season into two halves and crown divisional champions for each.  California finished the first half in fourth place with a 31-29 record, six games behind the Athletics who received an automatic ticket to the postseason by being atop the AL West standings when the labor dispute halted play.  Prior to the strike, Grich was in the process of putting together another solid campaign with 6 home runs, 24 RBI, a .275 batting average, .385 OBP, .469 slugging percentage, and .854 OPS in 50 games.  Like his double play partner, Burleson also wielded an impressive stat line with 3 home runs, 16 RBI, a .299 batting average, .364 OBP, .390 slugging percentage, and .754 OPS.  In addition, Burleson started all 60 first-half games at shortstop.

When the MLBPA went on strike, no one knew how many games would be cancelled or if the remainder of the season would be lost.  Nevertheless, Grich and Burleson each spent the strike working out and staying in shape, preparing for the resumption of play.  Coincidentally, the timing of the strike actually worked to Grich's favor as the slugging second baseman returned to action when regular season play resumed on August 10, having only missed five games due to his hand injury.  Grich's and Burleson's hard work to stay in playing shape during the labor dispute paid off as each had phenomenal months of August.  Grich picked up where he left off before the hand injury, ripping 6 home runs in the first eight games back from the strike--extending the hitting streak he started on May 21 from thirteen games to twenty-one.  New manager Mauch took notice of Grich's hot hitting and moved the second sacker into the heart of the order for the rest of the season, generally batting him fifth.  Grich finally went hitless in an August 20 win over Baltimore but managed to reach base on an error and drive Burleson in to give California the go-ahead lead.  Overall, during Grich's 21-game hitting streak, the slugging keystoner dominated opposing pitching with 7 home runs, a .440 batting average, and an astounding 1.304 OPS.  In addition, Grich had also flashed the leather during the hitting streak, making just one error during that time--a harmless miscue in a May 23 blowout loss to the Chicago White Sox.  Grich’s bat stayed hot after the streak was over, finishing August with 10 longballs in just 19 games along with 20 RBI, a .378 batting average, and 1.209 OPS.  Burleson also surged in August, batting .338 with a .405 OBP, and .837 OPS.  However, the Angels failed to capitalize on their double play duo's excellent play in August, tripping out of the gate in the second half with losses in six of their first seven games before recovering to a 9-10 record by the end of the month.

Going into the season's final month, no AL West team had broken away from the pack and with the split season format all seven clubs had a chance at the Division title--setting up a shootout atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the Angels quickly fell out of the race, dropping fourteen of fifteen games from September 5 to September 20.  The California offense went cold during the horrid 1-14 skid, scoring just 41 runs while the pitching staff surrendered 77 runs.  Like most of the team, Grich struggled during the team's slump, hitting a dismal .203.  Burleson, on the other hand, excelled in the batter's box during the club's difficult fifteen-game stretch, putting up a potent .327/.424/.806 batting average/OBP/OPS line.  Kansas City took the AL West second half crown, going 30-23 after play resumed, while California's 20-30 record landed them in the cellar.  Grich regained his hitting stroke in the last two weeks of the season to finish the second half with 16 home runs and 37 RBI supported by a sensational .328 batting average, .372 OBP, .604 slugging percentage, and .976 OPS.  Burleson's post-strike numbers dipped slightly in comparison to his strong first half, though the fiery shortstop still hit a solid .286 with 2 home runs, 17 RBI, a .348 OBP, .349 slugging percentage, and .697 OPS.

Grich tied for the AL lead with 22 home runs in 1981
The Angels finished the strike-shortened season with an overall record of 51-59 and .464 winning percentage, ranking them fifth best among the seven AL West teams.  Despite suffering a broken bone in his left hand, Grich had one of the finest hitting campaigns ever for a second baseman with 22 home runs, 61 RBI, a .304 batting average, .378 OBP, .543 slugging percentage, and .921 OPS.  Grich's 22 round-trippers tied him with Eddie Murray, Dwight Evans, and Tony Armas for the AL lead--making him the first second sacker since Rogers Hornsby in 1925 to sit atop his respective league leaderboard in longballs.  Moreover, Grich's 22 home runs were more than double that of any other major league second baseman with Frank White having the next highest total of 9.  In addition, Grich's potent .543 slugging mark also led the AL while his overall .921 OPS ranked second in the Junior circuit behind only Evans.  Burleson also put together a fine offensive season, batting .293, with a .357 OBP, .372 slugging percentage, .729 OPS, along with 5 home runs and 33 RBI.  "Rooster" also showcased his durability, tying for the AL lead with 109 games--a total made even more impressive since he played all of his games at the demanding position of shortstop.

Despite putting together excellent offensive seasons, Grich and Burleson were non-factors in the AL MVP vote.  The inability of the Angels to contend for the AL West crown in either half of the strike-shortened campaign undoubtedly cost California's keystone combination with the MVP electorate as Grich finished a distant 14th in the election while Burleson failed to receive a single vote.  Although Grich and Burleson were overlooked by AL MVP voters, the solid-hitting, slick-fielding double play tandem were each recognized for their superb offense with Silver Slugger Awards at their respective positions.

Grich and Burleson both lived up to their reputation as two of the game's best all-around players with strong defensive campaigns to compliment their stellar offense.  Grich ranked in the top-five among AL second basemen in several fielding categories including second in double plays turned and range factor, third in assists, and fourth in putouts.  However, Grich made ten errors, a total that tied him with four others for second highest among AL keystoners.  Seven of Grich's errors came during a 19-game stretch between September 5 and 24.  Grich's fielding slump ran almost parallel with the team's 1-14 September skid, though just one of those errors--a ground ball miscue in a September 6 game against Cleveland which put California behind 1-0 in an eventual 2-0 loss--resulted in the opposing team taking a go-ahead lead which the Angels failed to at least tie back up.  Despite the errors, Grich finished the strike-shortened season with a .983 fielding percentage, slightly above the league average of .982.  Yet, prior to his September slump, Grich owned a stunning .993 fielding percentage which--had it been maintained--was much higher than Rich Dauer's AL leading .989 mark.  Like Grich, Burleson also displayed his impressive defensive prowess--ranking in the top five among his shortstop peers in several AL fielding categories.  For the second year in a row, Burleson ranked first among AL shortstops in putouts, assists, and double plays turned.  "Rooster" also placed second among Junior circuit shortstops in range factor and fourth in fielding percentage.

Even though Grich and Burleson put together strong defensive campaigns, neither were bestowed with the Gold Glove Award for their respective position as they were passed over by voters in favor of Royals second baseman Frank White and Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell.  Grich and Burleson led White and Trammell in most defensive categories and dominated them offensively.  However, the Angels dynamic double play duo trailed White and Trammell in fielding percentage--a statistic most Gold Glove voters placed a large value on at the time.  Also, Gold Glove voters during this time generally selected the same player each year.  In fact, since Grich's brief move off second base during his injury-shortened 1977 campaign, Gold Glove voters had honored White each year so it was little shock the Kansas City keystoner won the award for the fifth consecutive season while Trammell took home the hardware for a second year in a row.  Another factor which may have cost Grich and Burleson support was the Angels failure to be a factor in either half of the season's divisional race.  By contrast, White's Royals won the AL West in the second half and Trammell's Tigers stayed in the hunt for the AL East until the final week of the season.

Grich's and Burleson's standout campaigns not only look solid through the traditional statistics of the time but their excellence is also underscored by advanced metrics used today.  Grich finished the strike-shortened season with a 5.4 WAR which ranked the power-hitting second baseman fourth among AL position players, fifth in the Junior circuit, and eighth overall in the MLB.  In addition, Grich's superb .921 OPS ranked him second in the AL behind only Dwight Evans' .937 mark while the keystoner's park adjusted 165 OPS+ put him ahead of the Red Sox right fielder and atop the rest of the league.  What's more, Grich's WAR and OPS+ totals were so dominant among major league second basemen that the California keystoner led his second sacker peers by significant margins in both categories with Lou Whitaker's 3.8 WAR the next closest behind his 5.4 total and Tony Bernazard's 119 OPS+ the next best after Grich's 165 mark.  Burleson's 4.5 WAR gave the shortstop the sixth highest mark among AL position players, ninth best in his league, and placed him fourteenth overall in the MLB.  "Rooster" also looks strong in comparison to his defensive peers in advanced metrics, ranking second among all major league shortstops in WAR and OPS+ with his respective 4.5 and 112 marks just behind the 4.9 and 114 totals of Robin Yount.

Following his outstanding season, Grich was eligible to become a free agent again.  Despite finishing 1981 with a poor record, the front office had no interest in allowing their veteran second baseman to leave and play for another team.  Shortly after the conclusion of the season, the Angels signed Grich to a lucrative, four-year contract extension.  "There was never any question of letting Grich get away", Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi said of the signing.  Barring trade, injury, or some other unforeseen consequence, Grich's contract extension ensured the Angels franchise would keep their dominant double play duo combination together through 1985.

A torn rotator cuff ended Burleson's '82 season
Unfortunately, the strike-shortened 1981 season wound up being Grich's and Burleson's only full season turning double plays together.  Burleson began to suffer from a sore right shoulder during the following season's Spring Training.  Burleson started receiving cortisone injections for his ailing shoulder but only lasted in 11 games into the season before he suffered a torn rotator cuff which required surgery and brought an end to the shortstop's season.  Grich expressed shock and despair at Burleson's injury, "It's unbelievable.  He's so vital to this team."  Nevertheless, despite losing Burleson, Grich and the Angels won the AL West Division crown with a 93-69 record.  California took on the AL East champion Milwaukee Brewers in the best-of-five ALCS.  The Angels won the first two games before allowing the Brewers to even the series and win the deciding fifth game.

Burleson finally made his return more than a year later on June 30, just before the 1983 All-Star break.  "Rooster" initially looked strong in his return, picking up two or more hits in each of his first seven games back.  Unfortunately, the gritty shortstop continued to be afflicted by right shoulder issues.  After his strong start, Burleson struggled to remain in the line up and went on the 15 day-disabled list in mid-August with right shoulder stiffness.  Burleson briefly returned before packing it in for the rest of the season on September 8.  "Rooster" was back for the following season's Spring Training but once again hit the disabled list when a new tear was discovered in his right shoulder which kept him out of action until September.  Upon his return, Burleson was solely used as pinch hitter and pinch runner.  Once again disaster struck when Burleson dislocated his right shoulder lifting weights during the offseason, sidelining the injury-plagued veteran for the entire 1985 campaign.

Overall, Burleson made his way into just 51 games between 1982 and 1985.  In Burleson's absence the shortstop position was first filled by veteran Tim Foli and later by youngster Dick Schofield.  Foli and Schofield both performed well on defense but neither were the strong two-way player Burleson was, as both truly epitomized the "good glove, no hit" shortstop that was commonplace of the era with sub-70 OPS+ marks.  Following their Division title win in 1982, the Angels team struggled with injuries and slumped to a 70-92 record in 1983 before rebounding with back-to-back second place finishes behind the Royals in 1984 and 1985.  After his MVP-caliber 1981, Grich continued to put together solid campaigns with his combination power and patience.  Grich hit 19 home runs with a .371 OBP for California's AL West-winning 1982 team.  In 1983, Grich was enjoying one of his finest seasons--with a .292 batting average and .414 OBP--when an errant pitch from Yankees reliever George Frazier broke a bone in his right hand and brought a premature end to his impressive campaign on August 28.  As he aged into his mid-thirties, Grich began platooning at the second with Rob Wilfong during the 1984 and 1985 seasons while also filling a utility infielder role by backing up Carew at first and DeCinces at third.  In 1985, Grich once again set the fielding percentage record with an incredible .997 mark with just two errors in 606 chances at the keystone.  Coincidentally, the man whose record he broke was his teammate Wilfong's, who had set the record in 1980 as a member of the Minnesota Twins--eclipsing the mark Grich set in 1973.  Despite setting a new fielding percentage record for second baseman, Grich was passed over for the AL Gold Glove Award in favor of Tigers keystoner Lou Whitaker who was bestowed with the honor for the third consecutive season.  Grich's record stood for a dozen years before it was just barely edged by Cincinnati Reds second baseman Bret Boone whose only two errors came in 607 chances.

With his four-year contract set to expire after the 1985 season, Grich considered retiring but instead chose to sign a one-year deal to remain with the Angels.  The 1986 campaign represented the final season of the six-year pact Burleson signed following his trade to California.  After back-to-back second place finishes with most of their line up well into their thirties and several of their veteran players--including Grich and Burleson--eligible for free agency at the end of the season, the 1986 Angels were dubbed "The Last Chance Gang."  Burleson reported to Spring Training healthy much to the delight of Grich who stated, "You won't find a player anywhere that plays with any more intensity.  It just gives everybody a good feeling about him being out there."  With Grich at age 37 and Burleson turning 35 a few weeks into the season, their time as a dominant double play combination had passed and the veteran infielders started just six games together as a tandem during the season.  Nevertheless, Grich and Burleson were each able to contribute as the Angels led the standings most of the season and comfortably won the AL West Division with a 92-70 record.  Grich shared second base with Wilfong while also making pinch hit appearances and occasionally filling in at first for rookie Wally Joyner while Burleson backed up Dick Schofield at short, Reggie Jackson at DH, and also made a few starts at second and third base.  Grich put up a 109 OPS+ on the strength of his .354 OBP while Burleson made it through his first full season since the strike-shortened 1981 campaign and chipped in with a .284 batting average and 107 OPS+.  At season's end, Burleson was named the United Press International Comeback Player of the Year.

Grich retired after an emotional ALCS loss to Boston
Unfortunately, there would be no "fairy-tale ending" for Grich, Burleson, and the rest of "The Last Chance Gang" as the Angels were defeated in seven games by the Boston Red Sox in an unforgettable ALCS.  While Burleson quietly hit .273 in 11 plate appearances, Grich had a dramatic ALCS with incredible highs and heart-wrenching lows.  Grich was the victim of a base running miscue and made a costly error to be the goat of a Game 2 loss.  However, he redeemed himself with a game-winning, walk-off single in the 11th inning of Game 4 to put California up three games to one.  In the bottom of the 6th of Game 5 with the Angels one victory away from their first World Series, Grich hit a deep fly ball which popped out of the glove of Boston center fielder Dave Henderson and over the fence for a 2-run homer to put California ahead 3-2.  An elated Grich memorably leapt in the air to slap hands with teammate Doug DeCinces, celebrating what appeared to be the game-winning drive to send the Angels to the Fall Classic.  However, Henderson tied the game in the top of the 9th with a home run before driving in the go-ahead Red Sox run with a sacrifice fly in the 11th.  Grich had a chance to be the hero again with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th but his liner was snagged by Boston reliever Steve Crawford for the third out.  California dropped Games 6 and 7 to Boston in lopsided fashion to lose the ALCS.  At the conclusion of Game 7, Grich announced his retirement.  Burleson was not re-signed by the Angels and inked a one-year pact with the Baltimore Orioles for 1987.  Burleson was released by the Orioles on July 11 after hitting just .209 and subsequently retired.

In 1988, Grich became the first inductee into the California Angels Hall of Fame.  General manager Mike Port said of the former second baseman, "I think it's fitting for Bobby Grich to be the first inductee into our Hall of Fame.  In the 10 seasons he spent with the Angels, he ranked among the top 10 in most of the club's all-time offensive records.  That's an item of record.  But the attitude and the intensity he took across the white lines made Bobby Grich as much as all the statistical accomplishments.  In many ways, he was the ideal California Angel--not only in ability but also in terms of intensity and the determination to win.  Bobby Grich epitomized all of that."

Grich & Burleson were teammates for 6 season but rarely player together after 1981
Four years later Grich became eligible for the BBWAA Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.  Despite his power numbers, fielding accomplishments, and reputation as a gamer, Grich collected less than the five percent minimum required to be included on future ballots.  However in more recent times, Grich's overlooked Hall of Fame case has become a cause celebre for the sabermetric crowd who point to his 70.9 WAR, 125 OPS+, and .371 OBP--each of which are higher than most second baseman in Cooperstown.  One person who supports Grich's election is his former double play partner Burleson.  When asked by Three Days of Cryin' during a 2009 interview which second baseman he played alongside should have their number retired and be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Burleson named Grich and added, "That was one of the things that was toughest about my injury.  I was really looking forward to seeing what the two of us could have been together up the middle."

The pairing of Grich and Burleson brought together two of the game's most passionate and finest all-around players to form a dominant double play partnership.  Grich and Burleson exceeded expectations with outstanding performances in their first season together.  Moreover, with Grich and Burleson each signed to long-term contracts, the duo looked set to build on their strong initial campaign together.  Unfortunately, Burleson's shoulder injuries robbed the tandem of their chance to become a historically great double play combination.

----by John Tuberty

Follow me on Twitter @BloggerTubbs

Sources:  Baseball Reference, Baseball Reference Play Index, SABR, SI Vault, Baseball Almanac, Baseball Prospectus, UPI Archive, Google News Archive, Three Days of Cryin', The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, MLB, Bill James-The New Bill James Historical Abstract (Free Press), Ross Newhan-Anaheim Angels:  A Complete History (Hyperion), John Eisenberg-From 33rd Street to Camden Yards:  An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles (McGraw-Hill), Ron Luciano-The Fall of the Roman Umpire (Bantam Books), Bill Lee with Richard Lally-The Wrong Stuff (Crown/Archetype)

Photo credit:  1981 Topps Bobby Grich, 1981 Topps Traded Rick Burleson, 1976 SSPC Bobby Grich, 1977 Topps Rick Burleson, 1982 Topps Home Run Leaders, 1983 Fleer Rick Burleson, 1984 Topps Bobby Grich, 1984 Rick Burleson, 1982 Topps Bobby Grich, 1982 Topps Rick Burleson, 1987 Topps Bobby Grich, 1987 Topps Rick Burleson

Other articles by Tubbs Baseball Blog:
Bobby Grich Was The Victim of Some Bad Baseball Cards and Some Even Worse Hall of Fame Voting

The Two Excellent Five-Year Peaks of Bobby Grich's Hall of Fame Caliber Career, Part One:  The Baltimore Orioles 1972-1976

No comments:

Post a Comment