(Check out our other player card posts here.)

Baseball can be an exquisitely cruel soulmate.

It teases you all winter long with stories about your favorite team and how improved they’re going to be in the new season only to unfurl a key injury or poor performances in the spring that doom your club to another season of futility before summer even arrives.

Or, worse, the hometown nine sprint out of the gate and make an earnest run for greatness before an upstart or the Baseball Gods waylay them in September or even — gasp! — October.

That’s when cold reality settles in, and you set your sights on “next year” … again and again.

Your baseball cards provide welcome respite from the harsh truth that only one team can win the World Series each year and that it’s hardly ever your team who carries home the Commissioner’s Trophy.

That’s because, most of the time at least, your cards only care about the players themselves.

And in the cardboard world, Eric Davis always hit 37 home runs and stole 50 bases with 100 RBI and 120 runs scored in 1987 even though the Cincinnati Reds finished in second place in the National League West … again.

Your cards know that’s the same season Andre Dawson clubbed 49 home runs and drove in 137 even if they don’t know his Chicago Cubs finished in last place in the NL East. The cards also don’t care that the Oakland A’s finished at .500 that year — they just celebrate Mark McGwire and his then-rookie record of 49 home runs.

 

1981 Topps Bill Gullickson Record Breaker

 

But just because they don’t dwell on your team’s shortcomings, don’t think for a minute that baseball cards are above the heartache endemic to the game itself.

You need look no further than McGwire and the rollercoaster ride of his rookie cards during a 16-year love-hate-love-resent career for proof of that. More fortunes (cardboard division) were won and lost during McGwire’s choppy Big League tenure than you might see over a lifetime of Presidential guard changes.

It’s not just the big names who suck us in to their stories via a cardboard conduit, either. If you doubt that, check out the story of Barbaro Garbey sometime.

Yes, every season, there are at least a couple of guys who make big waves early in their careers, and the card companies are happy to immortalize those moments on card backs.

And sometimes on card fronts.

Take Bill Gullickson, for example.

In 1980, Gullickson was 21 years old and had worked his way up the Montreal Expos‘ minor league ladder after the club picked him in the first round of the 1977 amateur draft.

By September of ’80, the Expos were fighting for first place in the NL East with the Philadelphia Phillies. You might remember that those Phils eventually won the East — by a single game — before taking the NLCS in five games over the Houston Astros and then downing the Kansas City Royals in six games to win the World Series.

It shows you how good Gullickson was going that he had claimed a spot in Montreal’s rotation even as they prepared for their playoff push.

Entering September, Gullickson’s record stood at 6-4, supported by a 3.62 ERA. Things would only get better.

In his first game of the season’s final month, Gullickson pitched a complete game shutout against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park to lower his ERA to 3.31.

Then, on September 10, Montreal hosted the hapless Cubs. This time around, Gullickson gave up two runs, but he went the distance again.

And he did something else, too.

That afternoon, Gullickson faced 33 batters — and struck out 18 of them. That was a record for rookie pitchers and fell just one K shy of the overall MLB mark of 19 held at the time by Charlie Sweeney, Hugh Daily, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan.

Gullickson’s rookie record stood until Kerry Wood knocked down 20 Astros for the Cubs in 1998.

The next spring, Topps marked the right-hander’s accomplishment with a record-breaker card, #203, in their 1981 set. Here’s how Topps told the tale:

 

1981 Topps Bill Gullickson Record Breaker (back)

 

And that card represented a problem — for Gullickson, for his fans, for collectors.

Every time Gullickson’s name came up for the 14 years, until his retirement in 1994, something clicked in our minds.

This guy did something. What was it again?

So we’d run to our shoe boxes and sort through those old dog-eared cards with fuzzy corners until we found young Bill, clad in his red, white, and blue Expos uniform with a matching Pepsi sign in the background. He smiled against a blue-sky background as Topps proclaimed him a “1980 Record Breaker.”

Most Strikeouts, Game, Rookie Season

That’s right! Gullickson set that record. He must be really great. He must be on track for the Hall of Fame by now (1984 or 1988 or 1992).

But he wasn’t.

Now, there were some really good years in Montreal.

Gullickson won 17 games in 1983 and 14 in 1985. He finished his Expos tenure that fall with a 72-61 record and 3.44 ERA over seven seasons.

Then, after the Expos traded him to the Cincinnati Reds, Gullickson went 15-12, 3.38 in 1986 and probably should have seen some action in the Cy Young voting.

 

 

 

Several years later, by then toiling for the Detroit Tigers, Gullickson did finish eighth in the 1991 AL Cy Young balloting after winning 20 games (against nine losses) with a 3.90 ERA.

That accomplishment was all the more amazing given that he was 32 years old, had spent the 1988 and 1989 seasons in Japan, and had battled type 1 diabetes his entire career.

A few years later, Gullickson wrapped up his 14 years in the with 162 wins and 136 losses, sporting a 3.93 ERA. Pretty solid stuff — the kind Little League dreams are made of.

Somehow, though …

We were always looking for more from him.

I mean, he was a Record Breaker at age 21 — Topps verified that.

Didn’t that mean massive accomplishment was in his future? Didn’t that mean our Gullickson cards would be worth something, someday?

It was all part of baseball’s cruel dance, where you’re not as good today as we remember you from yesterday.

And you’re never as good as we thought you would be back then — whether you’re Mickey Mantle, Dwight Gooden, or Bill Gullickson.

We have the baseball cards to prove it.

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

 

 

 

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