(Check out our other player card posts here.)
If you have your sights set on a winter-themed baseball card type set, you’re going to need to buddy up to Matt Winters.
Here’s why …
More than 19,000 men have played at least one game of Major League Baseball since 1871.
Of those, just four had the last name of Winter or Winters:
- George Winter, who played for the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers from 1901 through 1908 …
- Jesse Winters, who toiled for the San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies from 1919 through 1923 …
- Clarence Winters, who made four appearances for the Red Sox in 1924 …
- And, Matt Winters, who made 42 improbable appearances for the 1989 Kansas City Royals.
George Winter appeared in a handful of early 20th century baseball card issues, and Jesse Winters made it into the 1924 Diaz Cigarettes set. As far as I can tell Clarence remains a cardless wonder.
All of which is to say that most of us would have never had the chance at a Winter/Winters baseball card were it not for a late-career push by Matt Winters. Before we get into the cards that were born of that improbable 1989 season, let’s step back a few years … all the way back to 1978.
Big Time Beginnings
Matt Winters was something of a hot-shot prospect coming out of Williamsville High School in Williamsville, New York. Hot-shot enough, in fact, for the New York Yankees to make him their first pick (24th overall) in the 1978 June Amateur Draft. Those were the same Yankees who won the World Series in 1977 and would turn the trick again in 1978.
Of course, the problem for a young guy stepping into a storied franchise with a stellar current team was that there wasn’t a lot of light in front of him.
In the Bronx, Reggie Jackson manned right field.
Lou Piniella was in left.
Mickey Rivers was in center.
And, even though no one would have expected Winters to jump right to the Majors, there were other young guns in the New York farm system — Steve Balboni, Bobby Brown, Andre Robertson, Pat Tabler. It would be a tough road for any youngster.
And so it played out for Winters.
He spent 1978 in Low-A ball, then split 1979 between Low-A and plain-old-A. In 1980, he finally found a season-long home with the Single-A Greensboro Hornets and smacked 20 home runs while batting a robust .320.
But the Yanks were busy winning again in the Majors, which meant Winters got another season of A ball in 1981. It wasn’t until partway through the 1982 season that he graduated to the Double-A Nashville Sounds. He continued slugging, though, with a combined 24 home runs, good enough to get him a full season with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers in 1983 — the same year Don Matting started to make a name for himself in the Bigs.
After another 29 home runs and a .292 BA, Winters found himself back in Columbus for 1984 … and 1985.
Right Place, Right Time (Finally!)
By that point, Winters was nearly 26 years old and had used up most of his “prospect” status.
After a season split between Double-A and Triple-A, the ChiSox released Winters in October.
He sat on the shelf until February 13, 1987 — exactly a year after the Yanks traded him — when the Kansas City Royals signed him to a minor league free agent pact. Predictably, they sent Winters right to the minors, and he split his season between the Memphis Chicks (Double-A) and the Omaha Royals (Triple-A).
The next year, 1988, was all Double-A, and then Winters began 1989 in Triple-A.
Then, in May of that year, when he was hitting .224 but with 13 home runs as a 29-year-old farmhand, the unthinkable happened — KC called up Winters, and he made his Big League debut nearly 11 years after the Yanks drafted him.
Maybe even more amazingly … he stuck.
But stuck enough to appear in 42 games for a Royals team that wanted to unseat the Oakland A’s in the old American League West division. They fell well short of that target, but they did win 92 games to finish “just” seven games behind Jose Canseco, Dave Stewart, Mark McGwire and the rest of the Bash Brothers.
Along the way, Winters batted a modest .234 and hit two homers with nine runs batted in.
But he had made it to the Major Leagues.
What’s more than that, his call-up and his stickiness earned Winters four baseball cards — rookie cards! — in the 1990 sets:
- 1990 Fleer (#124)
- 1990 Score Rising Stars (#47)
- 1990 Topps (#147)
- 1990 Upper Deck (#524)
By the time those cards hit store shelves and collectors hands, Winters was gone from MLB for good, but he did parlay his one-year run into a steady gig with the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Pacific League.
Over five seasons in Japan, Winters realized the potential he had flashed all those yeas for the Yanks: 160 home runs with more than 400 RBI.
It was a wonderful coda to a career that looked like it might never get on track at all but swooped in to give us the cold-weather cards we never even knew we needed.
(Check out our other player card posts here.)