(Check out our other player card posts here.)
There exists in the annals of Major League baseball a special breed of player that seems to have been bestowed upon this earth for the sole purpose of tantalizing fans.
He is the man imbued with copious physical talents …
He makes it to the Major Leagues at a relatively young age …
He shows some early promise …
After a few years of mediocrity — or sometimes right away — he has that breakout season that establishes a new floor and sets him up for big things to come …
But then they don’t come.
And even though we watch him amble along into his mid-twenties … his late twenties … his thirties with a .246 average and less than 50 career home runs. We keep coming back to check on him.
When will he flash again? How high will he rise?
Often times, especially in the olden days before the internet, our baseball cards played a key roll in tethering us to these players. As long as we could lay our hands on a piece of their cardboard, that single golden season was real, immortalized in one glorious line on their card backs.
Al Cowens was one such player, and his 1981 Topps card reeled in thousands of us.
Here’s how …
1) Al Cowens hit 25 home runs with 112 RBI and a .312 average for the Kansas City Royals in 1977. It was Cowens’ fourth season in the Big Leagues, and he put it all together to help KC win the AL West. He also finished second in AL MVP voting that season to Rod Carew. That season sticks out like a sore thumb on the back of his 1981 Topps card because …
2) The next year, 1978, Cowens played in just 132 games and managed only five bombs while batting .274. Looking at the rest of the lines on his ’81 card, this seemed to be his norm — 5-10 homers, a batting average below .300 (usually well below). OK numbers, but where was the ascent?
3) The cartoon on the back of Cowens cards says that one of his high school teammates was Mitchell Page. In case you didn’t know, Page was one of “those guys,” too, after hitting 21 home runs for the Oakland A’s in (yes) 1977 and another 17 in 1978.
4) The picture on the front of Cowens’ 1981 Topps card, and the stat line on the back, told young collectors that he was a member of Detroit Tigers. Why had the Royals let him go?
5) That same card front made at least one collector think that maybe Cowens was, in fact, Lionel Richie. Cross-checking with his 1981 Donruss card did little to dispel that notion.
6) In the 1970s and 1980s, aluminum company Alcoa ran a series of television commercials that featured a mind-stealing jingle that told us, “Alcoa can’t wait:”
They were coming for us. It was unnerving. But at least one collector (again) was half (or more) convinced that the commercials were about a certain baseball player: “Al Cowens can’t wait.”
His 1981 Topps card bore that out — never did he draw as many 50 walks in a season.
That’s about as far as we could go in the 1980s. But sitting here in the 21st century with all means of time-wasters at our fingertips, we can learn more about Al Cowens and others like him.
And the story is still confusing, if more interesting.
For instance …
7) On May 8, 1979, Ed Farmer of the Texas Rangers hit Cowens in the face with a pitch, breaking his jaw and messing up several teeth. Cowens missed more than 20 games and had to have surgery to fix his face. Later in that same game, Farmer hit Frank White, breaking his wrist. The diminutive Royals second baseman missed 30+ games. It was ugly.
8) Maybe even uglier was the next meeting between Farmer and Cowens. In 1980, Farmer was pitching for the Chicago White Sox and Cowens had been traded to the Tigers when the two teams faced off. Cowens grounded out to lead off the 11th inning, but instead of running hard to first, he charged the mound and tackled Farmer — who was watching the play unfold — and pummeled him before the benches cleared.
Illinois police issued a warrant for Cowens’ arrest, which forced him to avoid the state until Farmer agreed to drop charges in exchange for a handshake. That kissy-kissy happened on the Tigers’ next visit to Comiskey park, but Chicago fans taunted Cowens with the name “Coward” for years after the incident.
9) Cowens didn’t go directly from the Royals to the Tigers. Rather, KC traded him to the California Angels in December of 1979. In May of 1980, after just 34 games in Anaheim, Cowens was shipped to the Tigers for Jason Thompson … who was definitely another one of “those guys.”
10) In 1982, the Seattle Mariners traded cash to get Cowens from the Tigers. In the muck of the early 1980s Mariners, Cowens enjoyed something of a resurgence, hitting 20 homers in 1982 at age 30 an adding 36 more in the subsequent three years. He drew a doughnut in 28 games with the ’86 Mariners and then was done.
11) After his playing career, Cowens became a scout and was chasing down prospects for the Royals when he died of a heart attack on March 11, 2002. He was 50 years old. #WTH
But even when we fill in these pieces of Cowens’ story, it still doesn’t make full sense.
I mean …
Why did he leap forward in production at age 25 but then slip back to previous level?
Did the Farmer incident keep Cowens from cultivating a more fertile career?
Would Cowens have been an All-Star if he’d landed in Seattle earlier?
Could he really dance on the ceiling?
How could he be gone so young?
We’ll never know the answers to these questions, of course, but that doesn’t mean we should stop asking or pondering.
(Check out our other player card posts here.)