When you open up a pack of baseball cards, you get more pretty pieces of cardboard and maybe a stick of gum. I love baseball cards for the stories behind the players they represent. With old cards, I’ve done research and find funny, inspiring and heartbreaking tales.
Have you heard of J.R. Richard, the Houston Astros’ 6’-8” flamethrower who won 74 games from 1976-1979, struck out 300 batters in two seasons and suffered a career-ending stroke in the middle of a fantastic 1980 campaign, at age 30? I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t looked through my uncle’s old card collection. Getting a new rookie card is even cooler, a story waiting to happen. If you follow that rookie throughout his career, you never know where it might take you.
In the spring of 2006, I was in sixth grade and playing Little League baseball. For some reason, my coach gave each player on my team a pack of Topps baseball cards. Maybe we had won a big game or mastered a fielding drill. I longed for a David Ortiz or a Dontrelle Willis card, two players whose feats on the field had made them larger than life. They weren’t in that pack, but a rookie card with some crazy strike out numbers was. The card featured a 6’2’’ Dominican lefty from the Minnesota Twins farm system who struck out 204 batters in a short season while maintaining impressive control. His name was Francisco Liriano.
When the 2006 Major League Baseball season started, I kept track of each of Liriano’s outings as a rookie relief pitcher for the Twins. When I heard that he was being moved to the starting rotation, I quickly went to my Sports Illustrated for Kids fantasy baseball team and added him to my team. In the SI Kids game, you were given an imaginary $50 million to build a team, and Liriano’s salary of $400,000 barely made a dent in my payroll. He instantly became my team’s best weapon, and at one point I saw my name on the website’s Top 100 Managers.
Amazingly, Liriano’s 10-1 record and 1.83 ERA at the All-Star break didn’t really express how great his season had been. Those stats show that he wasn’t allowing runs, but the truth is that he was barely allowing any hits. At the break, he had allowed only 4.8 hits per nine innings as a starter. No starting pitcher has ever kept a pace that low for a full season, and only a handful of Hall of Famers, including Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson, has ever come close. On ESPN, baseball analysts said that Liriano was miles ahead in the Rookie of the Year race, and was even a frontrunner for the Cy Young Award. I bragged to all of my friends about my rookie card, certain that it would be worth hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars someday when Liriano retired as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.
Obviously, it was too good to last. Liriano delivered a few more dominating starts in July, but he began feeling pain in his throwing elbow. According to a New York Times article, he tried to hide it from his teammates and coaches and downplayed its seriousness. By the time he talked with his manager after a poor outing against Detroit, serious damage had been done. He only made two brief appearances in August and September, and in his last outing, he reinjured the battered elbow. Needless to say, my fantasy team ended the season in a free fall.
The Twins fared better, winning 96 games, but were swept by Oakland in their opening playoff series. Liriano finished the year with a 12-3 record and a fantastic 2.12 ERA, but Rookie of the Year voters were more impressed by Justin Verlander’s 17-win season for the Tigers. Liriano got his elbow operated on, and the Twins announced that he was expected to miss the entire 2007 season. I couldn’t believe it. A whole season! I still clung to my dreams of owning a Hall of Fame rookie card, but it seemed like a long shot after the 2007 season went by without Liriano throwing a single pitch.
There were times when it seemed like Liriano was back to his old form. In August of 2008, he went 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA. But that was the last good month he would have for a long time. Liriano was totally clobbered in 2009. His record of 5-13 put him second in the league in losses. Batters hit a monstrous .279 against him, his ERA balooned to 5.80, and he ended the season by giving up a home run to the Yankees in his first playoff apearance. Just looking at his rookie card made me sad, as I realized that he had probably joined the long list of pitching phenoms who were diminished by injuries well before their prime.
And I still thought that through most of the 2010 season, until I watched ESPN’s Sports Center on Monday morning and saw the headline, “Liriano Dealing.” I saw him dominate a weak Seattle Mariners lineup with wicked breaking balls and a baffling changeup. He wasn’t pitching fast, but he was pitching smart. He finished his seven shutout innings with 11 strikeouts and only allowing two hits.
A quick Google search revealed that Liriano hasn’t given up a run for his past three starts and is on a 21-inning scoreless streak. He’s also fourth in the American League in strikeouts with 150, and has thrown 136.2 innings, almost matching his 2009 total. But he has allowed forty fewer runs than last season.
Obviously, things can change quickly, but it really looks like the patience of the Minnesota Twins and their fans has been rewarded. Four years after his golden debut, Francisco Liriano is once again pitching like an ace, while his team is locked in a tight battle for the AL Central lead. He’s frustrating opposing hitters and renewing a retired Little Leaguer’s sixth grade dreams of rookie card riches.