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Buzz Capra

March 27, 2009

buzz-capra-75

“There have been a lot of players who have had one good season and then were never heard from again. I don’t want that to happen to me.” – Buzz Capra, April 1975

You can tell from this photo, which was taken during Buzz Capra’s one fantastic season of 1974, that Buzz Capra wants it. He’s amped up, alert, aware, ready to fling himself into battle. Itching for it. Let’s go. Give me the ball. Let me show you what I can do.

***

My problem? I never wanted it enough. I loved playing baseball as much as I’ve ever loved anything, but when the pitches started coming at my head and then, as I bailed, breaking over the plate for strikes, I quit. By then I’d become interested in basketball, which I loved playing as much as I’d loved baseball. The head coach at the high school had all the teams at the school do a particular drill during practice: put the ball down on the floor and have players in pairs fight for it. Who wants it more? I wasn’t very good at this drill. Soon, I gave up on climbing the ladder of success in basketball, too. When the going gets tough, I curl into a fetal position. I daydream. I eat potato chips and stare out the window. 

***

“One thing I will always remember,” begins a commenter on the Buzz Capra fan memory page on the Ultimate Mets Database, “is seeing Buzz’s dad hitting him ground balls at Chopin park in Chicago when there was still snow on the ground.”

This memory, which comes courtesy of a commenter named Bob L. who played Little League with Capra, is in line with information about Capra that came out in a Sports Illustrated article about the surprising 1974 Atlanta Braves, which describes the undersized Capra spending each morning of his youth, even in the dead of winter, going out to the family garage and hanging from an iron bar to try to grow taller.

The dude fucking wanted it.

***

I have spent most of my life bracing for loss. At some point, the indifferent steamroller of history will flatten you. So why bother. Why try?

***

Buzz Capra made it the majors with the Mets in 1971, but he was used very sporadically by the team for the next three seasons, pitching mostly in relief in 3 games in 1971, 14 games in 1972, and 24 games in 1973. In the last of those seasons, the Mets made the playoffs, but Capra didn’t get a chance to pitch in any playoff games. He did, however, get a chance to show once again that he wasn’t afraid to throw himself into the middle of the action by throwing down with Pedro Borbon in an undercard bout during the famous Reds-Mets playoff brawl started by Pete Rose and Bud Harrelson. Capra, who told Sports Illustrated that he leapt into battle when the trouble started “to show that a little guy can take care of himself,” tussled with Borbon until the two were separated and Borbon, discovering that he was somehow now wearing a Mets cap, took it off and ripped it apart with his teeth.

I can’t find confirmation that it was Capra’s cap, but he seems the most likely owner. What happened to that cap? Wouldn’t the Buzz Capra Mets cap gnawed to pieces by Pedro Borbon be a valuable piece of memorabilia? If that was unearthed and put on auction, you’d have to think that there would be someone somewhere who would want it.

***

I own no memorabilia, no pieces of history, beyond these cards. What are they doing with me anyway? I could have thrown them out or sold them a long time ago. Most everything else in my life has come and gone without me putting up a fight. Why have I chosen to hold onto this?

***

Buzz Capra deserved to become more than just a colorful footnote in baseball history, the possible owner of the cap half-eaten by Pedro Borbon. When he was sold by the Mets to the Atlanta Braves after the 1973 season, he finally got his chance. He was no longer a rookie, no longer young enough to ever be called a phenom. In this way he differed from the two pitchers who would seem to come out of nowhere to grab a national spotlight in each of the following two seasons, John Montefusco in 1975 and Mark Fidrych in 1976. But like those pitchers he emerged from the margins to perform stunningly well. In fact, by the light of the statistic best able to compare performances from different seasons, Capra did even better than the Count and the Bird, posting not only a league-leading “regular” ERA of 2.28 but a league-leading ERA+ mark of 165, better than Montefusco’s 132 ERA+ in 1975 and Fidrych’s 158 ERA+ in 1976. Both Montefusco and Fidrych captured fans’ imaginations in such a way that they continue to hold a lasting place in the hearts of fans of 1970s baseball, even though (or in part because) the brilliant careers they seemed destined for never materialized. Buzz Capra, on the other hand, seems not to be quite as well remembered. He had his one great season, started having injury problems, and faded from view. Does he show up in “where are they now” features? Are his gems from the 1974 season replayed on the MLB network? Does his phone continue to ring? Is he wanted?

***

If I was a nicer guy, I could have given my cards away years ago when my young cousin was starting to collect and his mother floated the idea that I could make the little boy happy by passing my little boy artifacts on to him. I let the hint hang in the air without replying. I was a grown man, but I didn’t want to let go. My cousin took much better care of his cards than I ever took care of mine. He had them all under plastic and was aware of their monetary value. If I gave the cards to him he’d have enjoyed assessing their worth. But how much could a Buzz Capra card mean to him, or to anyone? Who would want it? I mean who could possibly want it more than I do?

13 comments

  1. Buzz got the save in the game when Hank Aaron hit #715, but nobody was watching by then.


  2. I looked up his stats. In his final season of 1977 he gave up a staggering 28 HRs in only 139-1/3 innings.


  3. For any Atlanta kid of those times, if the question is to name a young, funny-named pitcher from the mid-70′s who had one great season and then battled injuries and never got it back, the answer is not Bird, but Buzz.

    ’74 began with Aaron breaking the record, which served brilliantly to focus the minds of many young, burgeoning obsessives such as myself. And then Capra took the story and ran with it (beginning that very night, as piehead noted). It was a great juxtaposition — a old master and a young phenom. One hero for the dads and one for the kids. Henry and Buzz.

    The apex had to be June 28, when he threw a 10-inning shutout against the mighty Reds to improve his season to 9-2, 1.32. He struggled for a while after that game, but turned it back on in his last four starts to salt away the ERA title.

    Of course, the next season Henry got traded and Buzz got hurt, and it was time to face the reality of being an Atlanta Braves fan, ’70s style. But he was really something there for a while.


  4. Thanks very much for the hometown perspective, sansho1.

    Tha SI article I linked to about the team in ’74 focuses on Capra and another hot pitcher who I associate even more closely with Hank’s ’74 season: Tom House (who caught #715).


  5. I’m ashamed to admit, I was ignorant of Buzz Capra’s one-hit-wonder status. I also didn’t know there was a time when Tom House was considered a big prospect. Aside from his bullpen-snare of #715, I mostly remember him as a short-timer with the Red Sox (he was with them when I started following baseball, and you think there’s something permanent about your first team roster) and for having this program of throwing footballs when he was pitching coach with Texas.


  6. sb1902:
    You and me both. I can’t speak for you, but I think Buzz Capra eluded being imprinted on my mind because of when I became conscious of baseball–1975, a year after he hit his Fidrychian heights. Also, I really think he has gotten kind of a raw deal in history, his one hit song every bit as amazing, in statistical merit if not colorful narrative interest, as The Count’s and The Bird’s.


  7. Looking a bit at Capra’s ’74 season, I see a guy who is all ready 26 years old and on his second organization after having 100 big league innings (almost on the nose) under his belt. Then in his one big year he pitched 217 innings and walked 84 guys! One of the hardcore saber guys could probably tell you what the batting average was of balls put in play, but it’s hard to conclude he was anything but very lucky that year, I think. Does anybody know if he was a big prospect when the Mets sent him to Atlanta?

    He might have had one very lucky year in the big leagues and then went off to oblivion, but, Hell, I’d take that. I would have LOVED that, actually.


  8. It’s true he wasn’t a kid, but he hadn’t pitched much, and he was the new guy on a staff with Niekro, Morton, and Reed, who were all well-established. That, along with his name, gave him the appearance of youth.

    As far as luck goes — insofar as he was unlikely to repeat ’74, you could say he was lucky. But while stats like BABIP or clutch batting average are useful in predicting what a player might do next, I don’t like to use them to dismiss what the player just did, if that makes sense. He did what he did — he’s Buzz Capra, ERA champ.


  9. “Does anybody know if he was a big prospect when the Mets sent him to Atlanta?”

    The page for Capra on BR bullpen says he was “highly touted” when he came up with the Mets in 1971. I’m a little skeptical of that claim, given that just two years earlier he entered professional ball as a 27th-round draft pick.

    As for his one big year and what followed: I am not basing this on much beyond a gut feeling and the admiring way other players talked about him in the SI and Baseball Digest articles from ’74 and ’75 linked to above, but I am thinking that it must have been mainly injury problems, and not a regression to the mean, or whatever, that prevented Capra from ever coming close to equalling his ’74 season.

    Also, he had a decent Ks to innings pitched rate with the Mets, which as I understand it can be a good predictor of success (i.e., suggesting that ’74 wasn’t so much a fluke as a talented guy finally getting his chance).


  10. Capra probably deserved more support in the Cy Young voting that just one third place vote. I am guessing the writers didn’t like the fact that he pitched 217 innings, not 300 like Messersmith and Neikro but that year’s winner was Mike Marshall who pitched in 200. Jack Billingham got more votes than Capra and he had nearly a 4.00 ERA (89 ERA+).

    Capra was out of baseball by the time I collected the entire 1979 Topps set so he was unknown to me until I started picking up older 70s cards from my friends who were outgrowing the hobby.


  11. (sb1902) – Well, I don’t know if “big prospect” is the proper term, but all the while, during those first key years of my “baseball-awakening,” as I was discovering and following my team, the Mets, I was quite aware of this young pitcher with the cool sounding name.

    Capra’s mug shot would perennially appear on one of those pages toward the back of the yearbook, grouped with another five-or-so guys, designated “On the Rise” or something like that.

    This was a step up from the similar page -even further toward the back- that was usually labeled “In the System” and featured a more motley and obscure array of characters.

    He was certainly imprinted on my mind – one of the Next Crop of superb young Met arms…inextricably linked with cool astronaut and James-at-15 guest star ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. (I mean who else had a name like that? US Hockey Olympian ‘Buzz’ Schneider would complete the triumverate just after the tail end of the decade.)

    I guess his superb ’74 season seemed like Atlanta’s justifiable pitching-related revenge for our previous theft of George Stone. (in the Gentry/Frisella deal)


  12. From 1973-1978, I followed Buzz Capra like no one else! He was something more than just a baseball player to me – he was my childhood hero. I know some may find that “cheesey” but to me he was bigger than life. From a small town in Montana, I followed his stats in the newspaper. One night I was even lucky enough to see him pitch on TV; a moment I’ll never forget. I only got to see him pitch in person one time, against my home town team, the San Diego Padres. What a thrill! After the game, with all of my Braves gear on, I met him for the first time coming out of the tunnel. About 8 years ago I played a round of golf with him. After golf, we went to the clubhouse, had a drink and talked 1970′s baseball. We talked about Rose, Schmidt, and McCovey; what a great day. To this day, I still have the poster (of himself) he signed for me. His note on the poster reads, “Best wishes and love always.” Cousin Buzz.

    My cousin, Buzz, was dominate in 1974. In addition to winning 16 games and leading the league in ERA(without much of an offense), he also won 9 games in a row – a record that held for several years. Best of all, Buzz Capra is a great man and I’m proud to call him my cousin!

    J. Naples, Jr.
    San Diego, CA


  13. I always loved his name. ERA champ 1974. That ’74 Braves team was actually better than how they performed. They had a good staff and pretty decent hitting. Their numbers suggest they should have done better.



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