Jose CruzJuly 29, 2009
I have decided that I will not rest until every single transaction in baseball from 1974 through 1981 is considered, evaluated, and mined for possible answers to the enigma of human existence. OK, I will rest. I’ll rest a lot. I’ll rest at night, naturally, and I’ll probably nod off on the bus if I’m trying to read something sort of difficult, and whenever possible I’ll fall asleep on the couch with a half-open can of beer in my hand, but then I’ll wake up, eventually, and wrestle through the groggy aftershock of awakening and then, by god, if I have nothing better to do with myself, I’ll maybe look at a baseball card and if it alludes to a transaction that seems of interest I will investigate it until I get tired again or feel like watching TV. That is my solemn vow.
This card may seem like an odd place to begin following through on my solemn vow, as it has no textual allusion to any transactions. The backs of the 1975 cards are among my favorite card backs of the Cardboard God era, 1975–1980, mainly because they are the only ones to include a middle name and because they had cartoon-illustrated trivia questions, the cartoon appearing above the upside down answer (This Jose Cruz card’s trivia question goes as follows: Q: “What is a ‘sinker’?”; A: A PITCH THAT SUDDENLY DIPS DOWN.” [The cartoon shows two fish looking surprised at a baseball that has just dropped down into the water in front of them.]), but they did not, unlike later cards, include “signed” and “acquired” entries. So the only piece of evidence that a transaction has occurred is the difference in team name on the front of the card from the team name in the stats on the back. The giant garish blurry H on the cap of the player, a clear instance of card doctoring, suggests that the transaction occurred shortly before the card was shipped to stores.
In fact, it had happened at the end of the 1974 season. Here’s the description of the transaction from Jose Cruz’s page on baseball-reference.com: “October 24, 1974: Purchased by the Houston Astros from the St. Louis Cardinals.” Transactions such as that, unless they involve Babe Ruth, seem to fail to capture the popular imagination, but unless Houston had to fork over NASA to get him, their acquisition of Jose Cruz has to rank as one of the steals of the decade.
Consider Jim Rice. (Rice got his number retired at Fenway last night in a ceremony that revealed Rice to be something of a softy when it comes to his teammates, which made me regret questioning, in a post on this site on Monday, his neglecting to mention said teammates in his induction speech on Sunday; the great regard his teammates seem to hold for Rice, and the joy they showed over his induction, seems also to offer an answer to those up in arms over his induction: if his teammates hold him on such a pedestal, it can’t be an entirely illusory pedestal.) From 1975 to 1986, the years of the productive but relatively short prime that got Jim Rice into Cooperstown, Rice had an average OPS+ of 132. (OPS+ is a hitting statistic that adjusts for park and league factors. A mark of 100 is considered decent, and 132 is very good, though not in the otherworldly realm of, say Albert Pujols, whose lifetime OPS+ is 172 and rising.) For those same years, 1975 through 1986, the player that the Astros got for some cash from the Cardinals was 126. The difference in the general historical reputation between the two players, Cruz and Rice, is far greater than the difference between an OPS+ of 132 and an OPS+ of 126, especially considering that Cruz was an excellent outfielder and baserunner (24 steals per year in that time), while Rice was average in both regards when he was young and below average as he aged. Cruz, who played all those years in the Astrodome, among the very worst hitter’s park in baseball history, rarely showed up on any leader’s lists in the newspaper; by contrast, Rice played in Fenway Park, basically the polar opposite of the Astrodome, and in part because of that he was a mainstay in the batting average, home runs, and RBI top ten lists that are the steppingstones to baseball immortality.
I’m not saying the players are equal—though I have a feeling others without my sentimental attachment to Jim Rice might say just that, agreeing with Bill James, who ranks Rice and Cruz as the 27th and 29th best leftfielders of all time, respectively—but they aren’t so far off that you can’t help but wonder if the Cardinals would be in a kind of transactions Hall of Shame had they sold a young Jim Rice to the Red Sox instead of quietly peddling the stern young man shown here to the Houston Astros for what had to have been a modest sum.