The 1984 Topps Traded Willie Hernandez baseball card represents something of a life lesson.
To wit …
Sometimes, partnerships just don’t work out quite the way you envisioned, and you have to move on.
And sometimes, you have to move on again.
If you’re lucky, though, you’ll eventually find that certain “click” that aligns all of your personal stars and gets you where you want to be.
Take our trusty cardboard subject, Guillermo Hernandez, as a for-instance.
Willie got his start in professional ball when the Philadelphia Phillies signed him as an amateur free agent out of Puerto Rico in 1973.
The next year, he went 11-11 with a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts with the Single-A Spartanburg Phillies as a 19-year-old.
His record improved in 1975, split between Double-A and Triple-A, and then slipped below .500 with the Triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers in 1976.
He was rising, but was no blue-chip prospect, especially with an ERA that rose with each stop — it swelled to 4.53 in that Bicentennial summer.
By then, the big-league Phils were winning, finally, copping their first-ever division title in 1976 and tasting the postseason for the first time since 1950. They had a strong rotation and a balanced bullpen and looked like they’d be contenders for awhile.
So, that fall, they left Hernandez unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, and the Chicago Cubs came calling.
In the Bigs
Now, the Cubbies were nothing to write home about, having posted four straight losing records, but they were Hernandez’s ticket to the majors, courtesy of that Rule-5 selection.
That first summer in Chicago changed everything for Willie — not only was he a big leaguer, he was also no longer a starter.
The switch to the bullpen didn’t mean Hernandez was a forgotten man, though.
Indeed, manager Herman Franks found all sorts of work for his rookie lefty, and Hernandez finished the season with 110 innings pitched over 67 appearances (including a single start). He finished 8-7 with a 3.03 ERA and even picked up four saves.
The Cubs improved to 81-81, too, and things were looking up.
It all sagged back toward the earth again in 1978, when Chicago finished 79-83. And, while Hernandez went 8-2, his ERA bumped up to 3.77, and his saves total dropped to three.
Over the next five seasons, it was more of the same for team and pitcher, as the Cubs never reached .500 again, and Hernandez continued to provide relief of various types — long and spot, mostly.
He was never going to be the closer on the Northside, either, it seemed, not with Bruce Sutter in the fold early on and the later arrival of Lee Smith.
So it probably didn’t surprise too many when Chicago general manager Dallas Green turned to one of his favorite trading partners in May of 1983, sending Hernandez back to the Phillies in exchange for Dick Ruthven and minor league righty Bill Johnson.
At the time, the Phils were jockeying with the St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos for first place in the old National League East, looking for a boost that would help them separate from the pack.
Hernandez wasn’t a big name, and long relievers don’t typically get credit for making or breaking a season, but he was young by Wheeze Kids standards, at 28, and he could step into just about any situation.
The Phils cratered a bit as the weather warmed up in June, but they soon pulled it together again and, by the middle of July, they were back to trading first-place jabs with the Cards and ‘Spos.
In the end, Philadelphia pulled out a 6-game division title, thanks partly to Hernandez’s work from the ‘pen — 63 appearances, 95.2 innings pitched, seven saves, a 3.29 ERA.
The Phillies then took the NLCS from the Dodgers before fizzling against the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
Finally, Hernandez had found a home with a contender, even though he was again blocked from the closer’s role, this time by Al Holland.
The next spring, though, after divesting themselves of oldsters like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and others, the Phillies continued their teardown by dealing Hernandez to the Detroit Tigers about a week before Opening Day.
Now, Detroit had sort of quietly pushed the Orioles in 1983, finishing six games behind the eventual champs in the AL East, but crafting a more-than-sold 92-70 record.
If you were paying attention, you might have expected the Tigers to contend in 1984.
But no one, probably not even manager Sparky Anderson, expected the juggernaut that erupted from the Motor City that summer. Detroit streaked to 8-0, and then 35-5, before “coasting” to a merely spectacular 104-58 final record.
The Kansas City Royals barely whimpered during a three-game sweep in the ALCS, and the San Diego Padres submitted nearly as listlessly in a five-game World Series.
This was a team for the ages, one the Tigers had been building for more than half a decade. It was the maturation of a core that included Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parris, Chet Lemon, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and others.
But in spite of all that homegrown star power, it was an outsider who took the individual accolades at the end of the year.
Hernandez closed out the Tigers’ first three games, the first two blowouts, the third a 3-2 squeaker over the White Sox that garnered Willie his first Detroit save.
Teaming with righthander Aurelio Lopez, Hernandez turned the Tiger bullpen into a place that other teams’ hopes came to die. By the end of the season, he had run up a 9-3 record with 32 saves and a miniscule 1.92 ERA.
More than that, Hernandez led the majors with 80 appearances and 68 games finished, providing an amazing 140.1 innings.
Think that didn’t help Detroit’s starters stay fresh(ish) through the long grind of a season?
Yeah, it sure did.
Finally given a shot at the closer’s role, Hernandez had grabbed on with both hands and proved he more than belonged.
He had found his place. It all clicked.
And that wasn’t lost on baseball’s awards voters, who selected the 29-year-old as the American League Cy Young Award winner … and as the American League Most Valuable Player.
About the same time those awards were handed out — in November — collectors got their first look(s) at Hernandez in his Tigers duds.
On card number 51 (OK, 51T and U-51) in both the 1984 Topps Traded and Fleer Update sets, we see Willie dealing from the mound:
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And we really needed both of these cards, too, because they tell both sides of the story of how Hernandez found his forever baseball home.
Topps lets you know on the front of his road grays that he belongs in DETROIT.
And Fleer plants him there, in blazing home whites, right on the Tiger Stadium mound.
Willie Hernandez never looked so right as he did in that blazing season in the sun, or on those beautiful first Tigers cards.
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