Winning the World Series is the ultimate goal of every team every time they gather in Spring Training at the beginning of February.
Sure, you can talk about the modern “tanking” strategy some teams seem to employ these days, tearing everything down in order to build up to a title run a few years from now.
But you think those players who are on the team in those lean, torn-down years don’t want to win? Don’t want to win the World Series?
Nah, baby, nah.
Give any player or manager worth his salt the choice between winning or going through the motions all summer, and he’ll be trying his level best at all costs.
Of course, even your level best doesn’t pan out sometimes if the team around you isn’t all that great, or if a fly ball falls this way or that. Some all-time great players hung up their spikes without ever even reaching the Fall Classic (I’m feeling for you, Ernie Banks).
At the other end of the spectrum you have some great teams who make it all the way to the promised land without the benefit of a Hall of Famer. For a long while, there, it looked like the 1984 Detroit Tigers would uphold that standard. The recent Cooperstown elections of Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, and copious support for Lou Whitaker, have quelled that possibility, thankfully.
And if you dial back the clock to the last great Tigers before that, in 1968, you find a couple of guys who were almost always surefire Hall of Famers, but who didn’t figure so prominently in the ultimate title run.
By that point, Al Kaline was relegated to “utility” status, though he did contribute 3+ WAR to the 103-win Tigers. And Eddie Mathews was at the very end of the line, appearing in 31 games and collecting the last three of his 512 career home runs as a Tiger.
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But if you’ve read anything about 1960s baseball history, then you probably already know that the 1968 Detroit Tigers were a great team largely because of their pitching. Consider that their staff featured …
The last pitcher to win 30 games in a season (Denny McLain, at 31-6) …
A dude who went 17-9 and THEN won three games in the World Series (Mickey Lolich).
None of those guys ever sniffed the Hall of Fame.
Then there was the unsung member of that pitching staff, another guy who never sniffed the Hall of Fame — catcher Bill Freehan.
Ask most folks who saw that team in the moment, and they’ll tell you that Freehan was the quiet glue who helped hold it all together. At 26 years of age, Freehan raked to the tune of .263, with 25 home runs and 84 runs batted in. He was only mildly patient at the plate, drawing 65 walks, but also striking out just 64 times. But when you add in the 24 times he took a pitch off his body, Freehan pushed his on-base percentage all the way to .366, good for an OPS+ of 145 and 7 WAR — second on the team to McLain’s 7.4.
In terms of the staff Freehan led, they finished the Year of the Pitcher third in the American League with a 2.71 ERA, third with a 117 ERA+, second in strikeouts (1115), and allowed the fourth fewest walks, with 486.
So it’s somehow both ironic and appropriate that Topps chose to feature Freehan on card #11, WALK, in their 1968 Game set, inserted in packs that summer. I mean, sure, you might get a walk from Freehan at-bat or from one of his pitchers on the mound, but you were just as likely to get an extra-base hit or HBP (from Freehan) or a K from one of his battery mates.
The card does feature those probing and suspicious Freehan eyes that helped him cut down 53% of would-be base stealers back in 1964 and 37% over his 15-year career, though. It also provides a great opportunity to look back on the guy that Baseball Reference (via JAWS) ranks as the 15th greatest catcher of all-time … yet appeared on just 0.5% of ballots in his only shot at Cooperstown in 1982.
Who knows? Maybe with the rejuvenated and re-segmented Veterans Committee, Freehan will get another look someday.
Until then, his 1968 Topps Game card is more than a worthy representative of players who won a World Series here on Day 30 of my 2019 Spring Training Baseball Card Challenge, even if they are no longer household names.
Check out the entire series of 2019 Spring Training Challenge posts here.