If you were betting on Rick Reuschel as the 1985 season dawned, you were likely either his family member, Pete Rose (because, you know), or a storied but low-payroll team in a downward spiral hoping to stanch the bleeding and at least bring a recognizable name to town.
As it turned out, the Pittsburgh Pirates fell into that third bucket, and they’d also fall a lot further before all was said and done.
But, coming off a 75-87 record in 1984 and with the worst attendance in the National League, the Bucs had little to lose in taking a flier on Big Daddy … even if suitors weren’t exactly lining up for his services.
After all, Reuschel would turn 36 that May, and he had a ton of miles on his arm — closing in on 2400 big league innings, to be exact.
And nothing had gone right for Reuschel since the Cubs had traded him to the New York Yankees halfway through the 1981 season.
Well, almost nothing — he did go 4-4 with a nifty 2.67 ERA in that second half to help New York into the playoffs.
But then …
A so-so performance against the Brewers in the ALDS led to no appearances against the A’s in the ALCS, and then two earned runs in 3 2/3 innings over two games (one start) in the World Series against the Dodgers got him derided in the Bronx.
And then, disaster — a torn rotator cuff kept Reuschel out all of 1982 (and wasn’t diagnosed until June).
Surgery followed, and when he still hadn’t made it back to the Major Leagues a year later, New York released him. Most observers probably thought he was done, and most 34-year-olds probably would have been done at that point.
But not Rick Reuschel.
The Cubs signed their former ace (a 20-game winner in 1977) to a free agent deal, and he came all the way back, taking the mound in Wrigley Field on September 11 and making three more starts after that.
In 1984, though, as the Cubs became a surprise contender, Reuschel struggled and then became an afterthought — especially after Chicago traded for Rick Sutcliffe in June.
That fall, the Cubbies left Reuschel off their postseason roster, and then they let him walk in free agency.
Or, rather, they let him try to walk in free agency. Because, as February of 1985 came to a close and with teams already in Spring Training, Big Daddy had no big league home to call his own.
Then, on the last day of the month, the Pirates came calling.
Reuschel signed for something like 200 grand and began the season with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders — not an unreasonable situation for a damaged old dude.
But after a strong showing during the season’s first two months, Reuschel got the call to Pittsburgh and made his first start on May 21. It was a masterful three-hit, two-walk victory over the Houston Astros, with Reuschel going 7 2/3 and nabbing the win.
And, just like that, Reuschel was back.
Overall that season, he made 31 appearances for the Bucs, 26 of them starts, and pitched 194 innings, his most since 1980.
He was also just about the only star-level performer on a terrible team that finished 57-104, piling up an overall record of 14-8 with a 2.27 ERA.
That was good enough for 6.4 WAR, easily best on the Pirates — catcher Tony Pena was second at 3.5.
That fall, Reuschel was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year.
Around the same time, collectors got their first look at Big Daddy in a Pirates uniform thanks to cards in the Topps Traded and Fleer Update sets.
That Fleer card, in particular, was a fitting depiction of the once-and-again star-level hurler:
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There was Reuschel, just months removed from the scrapheap, big and lumbering and aging, bringing all he had for a team that couldn’t win a game against themselves.
In some ways, it was a microcosm of his career with the Cubs, toiling as a big talent for a bad club, underrated because of his circumstances.
But, in other ways, this was just the beginning.
Two years later, in August of 1987, the Pirates would trade Reuschel to the San Francisco Giants.
And there, as the decade came to a close and as old Candlestick Park entered its final decade, Reuschel helped turn the Giants into something special. He won 37 games over the next two full seasons, a key member of the 1989 team that won a division, and a pennant.
Two years after that, Reuschel finally hung up his spikes, less than a month shy of his 42nd birthday and with all the questions answered.
Yes, he was a star, a resilient one. And, if you take a critical look at his overall body of work, you just might conclude that Rick Reuschel is a Hall of Famer.
Is Reuschel the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame? We take a look at his case over on YouTube …
Reuschel finished up his career with the San Francisco Giants in 1991 wearing uniforms that looked an awful lot like this one:
Or exactly like this one, since it’s a game-used jersey from that final season.
Check out the full listing on eBay right here (affiliate link).
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