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Mike Paxton and Don Aase

September 26, 2007
 

Don Aase made his major league debut for the Boston Red Sox on July 26, 1977. I don’t think it would be accurate to say he was a phenom. Five years earlier, he’d been drafted on the sixth round by the Red Sox, who shipped the 18-year-old to their Williamsport affiliate in the low minors, where he went 0 and 10 with a 5.81 ERA. After that demoralizing start he began a solid, gradual, unspectacular rise through the Red Sox system. The records on the back of the card pictured here seem to indicate that in the first half of 1977, while pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket, Aase slid back toward the ineffectiveness that had plagued his first pro season, his ERA over 5 again for the first time since his Williamsport days. Why then would the Red Sox choose to rush him to the big leagues to start a game in the middle of what was turning out to be a white-knuckle three-team pennant race?

I was nine years old by then, and had listened to many of the Red Sox games so far that season on the radio. They all seemed to be the same game. As the signal rose and fell through static, the Red Sox surged to a huge lead with a barrage of home runs, then allowed the lead to erode as their pitchers crumpled. By July 26 the Red Sox had fallen out of first by losing three games in a row by the following scores: 9-8, 9-6, and 9-7, a pace capable of yielding them a record-breaking number of runs in a season and a perversely spotless 0-162 record. It was clear that they could not win a pennant this way. In short, they needed help. A lot of help. But all they had was Don Aase.

The youngster instantly exceeded expectations, tossing a complete game 4-3 win. The following day the Red Sox returned to their recent script by getting bludgeoned 14-5, their bullpen again getting chewed like a speed freak’s hunk of Bazooka. They needed someone to at least give them some innings in the finale of their three-game series with Milwaukee, and turned to another unheralded rookie who had started the season in Pawtucket, Mike Paxton. Paxton had been called up from the minors earlier in the season and to that point seemed the prototypical Red Sox hurl-inducing hurler, compiling a 6.16 ERA as a mopup man and spot starter.

But something was in the air. Whatever pixie dust had landed on Aase on the Peter Pan Lines busride from Pawtucket to Boston must have rubbed off on Paxton, who tossed a sparkling 12-0 shutout. Aase then blanked the Angels 1-0, and two games later Paxton topped Seattle, 12-4, then Aase kept the Red Sox rolling with his next start, a 2-1 win over Oakland. Powered by the rookie aces, the Red Sox won 11 games in a row and reclaimed the division lead.

Yes, for just a little while, a thin breathless era that remains one of the more golden strands of my childhood, it seemed that Mike Paxton and Don Aase were going to carry the Boston Red Sox to the pennant.

It didn’t quite turn out that way in the end, as they weren’t able to quite continue their blistering midsummer pace, nor in general fully counteract the serious flaws in the Red Sox pitching corps. But Aase and Paxton both turned in admirable rookie years, going 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA and 10-5 with a 3.83 ERA, respectively. More than that, for me anyway, Paxton and Aase will forever be among the most exciting duos in baseball history. I was nine when they arrived, and to that point few things had caught my imagination as much as their sudden transformation from complete nonentities to season-rescuing heroes. They were young. I was young. They had been unknown. I was unknown. They seemed to have arrived in the spotlight from the middle of nowhere. I lived in the middle of nowhere. The sky was the limit, for them, for me.

As it turned out, the sky was the limit, but that sky was the leaden, unbreathable blue seen in the Mike Paxton card above. Neither player went on to stardom with the Red Sox. In fact, neither player was even on the Red Sox roster the following year. By the time I got the 1978 Mike Paxton card featuring his lifeless putty-like skin and oddly bulbous cap I had noticed that Mike Paxton no longer seemed to exist in the games I listened to on the radio and in the box scores I read in the paper. I didn’t know he’d gone to Cleveland as part of the deal to bring Dennis Eckersley to Boston. I only knew he was no longer around. This card, arriving amid Paxton’s troublingly sudden disappearance, must have made me wonder if Mike Paxton had ever been there at all. I’d never actually seen him, after all, but had just heard his name on the radio, and beyond that had only fervently, maybe even desperately, imagined him. And now here he was on his card, not quite real, looking starkly different from the players in any of my other cards (with the disturbing exception of the sepulchral Greg Minton). The question arose: Was there ever really a Mike Paxton? There seemed to be no inarguable proof of the affirmative to that question, which gave rise to another question with ripples deep enough to stretch from 1978 to right now: If there never really was a Mike Paxton, how can I be sure of anything?

As for the even briefer and brighter-burning comet of 1977, Don Aase, his only appearance in my collection came two years later, in 1980, during my last real year of collecting. I was older by then. I understood that guys who burst onto the scene with great initial success don’t always become superstars. Hopes fade, dreams gutter. Life goes on. Don Aase was just another guy on a baseball card, just another guy with a mustache, just another guy halfheartedly pretending to throw a baseball.

16 comments

  1. 1.  Don Aase surrendered a game-losing, gut-punching, opposite-field 3-run homer to, of all people, Willie F. Randolph, in one of the sure signs the 1989 Mets weren’t going to win the NL East.

    Paxton looks like he’s wearing a chef’s hat. A full shot (painting) might reveal an oven mitt on his left hand.


  2. 2.  I have to wonder if Topps just took a photograph of Paxton’s portrait down at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket and changed the “P” on the hat to a “B”. It’s a tradition that PawSox that make the big club get badly painted portraits hung on one of the concourse ramp walls. Paxton’s card has that same look.


  3. 3.  1 : I didn’t remember that Aase was a Met. Wow. As for Mike Paxton, I think he’s hiding a loaf of bread in his cap.

    2 : I’ve never been to McCoy, but now I covet Pawsox portraits. Just one. Just give me a Joe Hudson, lord.

    I can’t believe I didn’t work this into the profile above, but the ghost of Mike Paxton made an appearance a few years ago in the form of the very briefly successful (and later disgraced, for steroids) Red Sox career of Paxton Crawford, who also brought to mind former Red Sox bullpen mediocrity Steve Crawford. Paxton Crawford’s most famous exploit came after his first callup, I think, when he went back to Pawtucket, pitched a no-hitter, then badly injured his hand on broken glass when he “fell out of bed.”


  4. 4.  I remember that it was a big deal when the Orioles signed Aase, Lee Lacy and Fred Lynn as free agents in 1985. Signing big name free agents was supposed to be a new direction for the Oriole Way.


  5. 5.  Don Aase’s last name was most unfortunate. Maybe the worst last name in the history of baseball. Until J.J. Putz came along.


  6. 6.  Nah, Rusty Kuntz was better.


  7. 7.  4 : It’s funny (in retrospect) to consider some of the players fans pin their preseason hopes on. I always think of a poster I saw in the West 4th Street subway station one spring in the early ’80s. It had a ferocious new Mets team slogan (something like “The Power Is On At Shea!!!”) and featured photos of Ellis Valentine, Dave Kingman, and George Foster.

    5 : Though I must have heard his name mentioned on the radio at the beginning of his career, my starstruck worship of the ’77 hero made me mispronounce his last name as “Ace.”


  8. 8.  6 Imagine Rusty Kuntz hooking up with “Pebbly Jack” Glasscock.


  9. 9.  … I’ll always have a fond memory of Don Aase that stems from my years as an Angels’ fan in the late 70s.

    Aase was born in Orange County here in Southern California; he went to the same high school my mother did, Milliken High School in Long Beach. As a kid, he was a huge Angel fan, and indeed was a charter member of the “Junior Angels” Fan Club.

    In 1979, the “Yes We Can” Angels won the A.L. West, and made their first trip to the postseason, facing the Orioles. Baltimore won the first two games, one in extra innings and the other by one run after the Angels stranded two runners in the top of the ninth.

    In Game 3, Tanana started for California and pitched adequately; the Angels took an early 2-1 lead. But the Orioles loaded the bases in the top of the sixth with nobody out, and Aase came in from the bullpen to face DeCinces with the Angels’ season slipping away. DeCinces hit a sacrifice fly, plating the tying run, but Aase got out of the inning without any more damage done.

    Aase gave up a run in the seventh on a triple to right-center by Bumbry and a single to center by Crowley, putting the Orioles ahead for the first time in the game, 3-2.

    After that, Aase settled down. In the 8th and 9th, Don faced the minimum six hitters, striking out three of them. The Angels came up in the bottom of the ninth, and with the help of Carew, Grich, Downing, Larry Harlow, and 43,000 of the loudest and most boisterous fans I’ve ever heard, they scored two runs off of Stan the Man Unusual to earn a delightful and dramatic come-from-behind victory that will always stand as one of my favorite games of all time.

    Don Aase, the “Junior Angel”, received credit for the win in the Angels’ first-ever postseason victory. I’ve never met Don, so I haven’t had a chance to ask him … but I’m sure it’s his proudest moment in big-league baseball.


  10. 10.  8 or “Ugly” Johnny Dickshot.


  11. 11.  3 I found a couple of them at the bottom of this page:

    http://www.sittingstill.net/August2.htm

    The one of Nomar is a particularly good example of the oeuvre:

    http://tinyurl.com/356v3h


  12. 12.  9 : Thanks for that story of the junior Angel, JTD. Aase really had his moments, that’s for sure.

    10 : Ah, Johnny Dickshot. You will live forever.

    11 : Awesome!

    Also: CMcFood added some new comments on the ubiquitousness of the Oakland Coliseum in old posts for Vida Blue, Jim Sundberg, and Rich Dauer, plus an observation about the munificent mein of Bo McLaughlin.

    As for the Ramblin’ Pete/answering machine follies: the return of Manny Ramirez has helped silence the songs of Billy Joel of late; meanwhile the inexorable slide of the Mets has made me have to dig much deeper than I’d ever planned into the hideous back catalogue of Hall and Oates songs. Yesterday, to keep from gagging, I had to recite “She’s Gone” into Pete’s answering machine in the voice and delivery of William Shatner. Please, Mets, start winning. Neither my friend nor I can take much more of this.


  13. 13.  12. Bizarre: yesterday, soon as Ramblin’ began complaining of the follies, the first song I began reciting to him was “She’s Gone” — noting that it was the most appropriate H&O song to express the state of the Mets’ postseason hopes.


  14. 14.  I just went outside company headquarters and sang the grating chorus of “Private Eyes” into my phone until the answering machine on the other end made the “I cannot take any more” beeping noise and the line went dead.


  15. 15.  12 Is it ok to sing Daryl Hall’s part from “The Only Flame In Town”? – one of the odder duets in pop/rock history.


  16. 16.  Wow, this blog is over a year old. Let’s see how long it takes McFood to catch up, Thanks for being a sort of Hot Topics bar, Josh.



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