Pat Tabler came onto the hobby scene just in time to miss the frenzied launch of the rookie card crazy train but still close enough to give diehard collectors some hope he’d be one of “those” guys.
You know …
One of those guys who blossomed out of the depths of a lowly Cleveland Indians roster to become a big name. Or, to find his stroke once the Indians traded him to a better team.
Some of the tea leaves were there …
He hit six home runs in 1983 and ten in 1984, with nice .291 and .290 batting averages to accompany them. Those numbers had us pausing as we shuffled through stacks of 1982 Donruss cards and wondering — would that Tabler rookie cards, where he dons the Chicago Cubs pinstripes and looks like he just woke up — be worth something someday?
Well, the 1985 season pretty much disabused us of that notion.
The Indians finished at 60-102, deep in last place in the old American League East. Tabler’s playing time dropped to 117 games, his homers to 5, his batting average to .275. In more modern terms, his OPS+ dropped below the league average, to 91.
And he was already 27 years old.
So, by the time the new 1986 baseball cards hit store shelves the next spring, even the most ardent dreamers among us had given up hope that Tabler would really break out and lift his cards out of the commons bin.
We were done dropping him into our “maybe” piles.
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Imagine my surprise, then, when I pulled my first Tabler card from a pack of 1986 Donruss cards. There he was, kneeling with a bat and smiling — nothing really out of the ordinary other than an Indian of that era finding reason to smile.
Then it hit me … there was something else on this card. Something beyond the 80s-video-game design and Chief Wahoo sneaking in an appearance on the right-hand side of the card. There, almost hidden in the “INDIANS” across Tabler’s chest and the stripes on his sleeves were two words, written in script — “Mr. Clutch.”
What? What the heck did that mean? Had Donruss whipped up a new batch of designations for certain players and peppered them through the set? I shuffled through a handful of the cards and couldn’t find anything similar, other than the usual Rated Rookie tag for rookies that Donruss, um, rated highly for one reason or another.
Nope, this seemed specific to Mr. Tabler.
But again … what did it mean? Tabler wasn’t a star, he hadn’t done anything particularly memorable that I could think of, and the Indians hadn’t won anything during his tenure.
How could he be Mr. Clutch?
Being an inquisitive (and slightly indignant, by that point) lad, I flipped the card over to search for answers. But there were none. Not ostensible ones, anyway.
No mention of “Mr. Clutch.”
No big awards won.
Nothing … until I dug down into the details under CAREER HIGHLIGHTS. There, in the first line, I saw it:
Has phenomenal 22 for 35 (.629) career average in bases-loaded situations with 54 RBI …
Aha! So that’s it! Tabler was clutch with the bases full. Sweet!
It gave me renewed hope, for a little while, that he really would still be a star. A guy who became a Hall of Famer in his 30s, like Edgar Martinez before Edgar Martinez.
Didn’t happen, of course.
But that misleading-not-misleading 1986 Donruss Pat Tabler card did imprint him deep in my collector mind and my collector heart, and so he pops into my cardboard field of vision every now and then.
Like in October 2018, when the Cleveland Indians found themselves in the playoffs for the third season in a row, something that would have been unfathomable in 1985 or 1986 but that is almost expected these days.
But in 2018 …
Well, the Indians were a notch or two below the peak they reached two years earlier, and they found themselves locked in a battle for the American League Division Series title with the defending world champion Houston Astros. Only, it wasn’t really much of a battle.
Cleveland dropped the first game, 7-2.
The second was a little better, at 3-1.
And the third was a disaster — an 11-3 loss at home.
Now, I’m a fan of the underdog, and Cleveland almost always fits that bill in my book. So, as I watched this series, I tried to think of ways that the Indians might have won, or at least pushed across a few more runs.
Inevitably, my ponderings turned to Mr. Clutch, Pat Tabler. Would he have helped?
Well, to work his magic, Tabler needed to work with the bases full (apparently).
In Game 1, the Indians left only three men on base for the whole contest, and there were no Tabler situations.
In Game 2, their LOB rose to four, but topped out at one for any particular inning.
And in Game 3, when the Indians actually led until the seventh inning? Another 4/1 LOB game for the Tribe.
In the end, then, it appears the Tabler’s clutchness was an interesting footnote on a quintessential 1980s baseball card issue but had little bearing on titles or big moments in the game. And, it seems unlikely that he would have made much of a difference for the 2018 Cleveland Indians.
No matter how much 14-year-old me wants to think that’s possible.
And, really, how big of a clutch performance could we expect from a 60-year-old 1B/3B/LF type, anyway?
(Check out the rest of our 2018 playoffs posts here.)