Random Card Musings #1 - 1988 Fleer #475 Pete O'Brien, 1988 Score #475 Frank Viola

by Drew Pelto

I was asked to do something seemingly simple: pull a random card from my collection and write about it.

The problem with this however is that my cards aren’t exactly random. While many collectors break their cards down by sport-year-set-number, or by team, or even just have them all willy-nilly all over the place, I break mine down alphabetically by player since it works well for me as an autograph collector. So true randomness is tough in that regard.

So that’s where Random.org really helps out. Sticking to baseball, I had it pick a year at random from 1987-1992, the years where most of my collection falls. Then I asked for a number 1-660 since the sets of those eras contained 660 or more cards (Topps was 792, Upper Deck hit the 800s, even 1991 Score got into the 800-level, but Fleer, Donruss, and Score were typically 660 cards-- five sheets printed at 12x11 cards).  So from there, I got 1988 and #475.  So, that gives me Pete Rose in Topps, Dave Anderson in Donruss, Frank Viola in Score, and Pete O’Brien in Fleer.

Enough has been written on Rose that I can skip him. He’s too easy to write about, and too hard to keep it short. Anderson played, managed, and coached a largely uneventful career—his most notable moment being that he was the on-deck decoy before Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run. With it being too tough to narrow it down further, let’s hit up both Viola and O’Brien.

(photo credit: comc.com)
Pete O’Brien was the third of four players with his name in Major League history and so far the longest tenured, spending 1982 through 1993 with the Rangers, Indians, and Mariners. This 1988 Fleer card was his final season with the Rangers. On the card, he’s in his home white uniform, sitting in the dugout.

Pete was a solid-gloved first baseman and no slouch at the plate—a .261 career hitter with 169 home runs. In 1986, he actually placed 17th in the AL MVP race with a career-best .290 average, 23 homers, and 90 RBI on an overachieving Rangers team. After a 99-loss season in 1985, no one expected much from Texas in 1986, but they managed to press the Angels for the AL West crown. A 17-12 month of August would be nice for most teams, but the Angels managed to win 19, and took the West by five games.

Pete eventually made his way to Cleveland for a year, traded in December 1988 with Jerry Browne and Oddibe McDowell for Julio Franco. The Tribe assumed the 30-year old Franco didn’t have much left, while hoping O’Brien could regain his 1986 form, McDowell would be a solid table-setter at the top of the order, and that Browne could be good enough that they could put the up-and-coming prospect Jay Bell at shortstop.

Typical of the late 80s Indians, they were wrong on all accounts.

Franco went on to play in three All-Star Games and win four Silver Slugger Awards, and played his final Major League game nearly twenty years later—and then even managed to hit .222 with the independent United League’s Fort Worth Cats over a few games in 2014. He also played with the Indians in 1996 and 1997. McDowell managed to hit .222 and go only 12/17 on the basepaths before being sent to Atlanta for Dion James. Browne had the most successful Indians’ career after the trade, hitting .273 and providing at least adequate defense before being moved to a utility role and eventually released to make room for future All-Star, Carlos Baerga. By the way, that idea of shipping Franco to make room for Bell? That lasted a year before Bell was shipped to Pittsburgh in what amounted to a shortstop-for-shortstop challenge trade (Felix Fermin was the return in the deal) that the Pirates clearly won.

(photo credit: comc.com)
As an Indian, O’Brien’s time was good but uneventful, hitting .260 with 12 homers. He left as a free agent as fast as he possibly could. The Indians signed Keith Hernandez to replace him and Hernandez hated it so much that to this day he won’t sign Indians items.

In Seattle, O’Brien served as the bridge first baseman between a couple of fan favorites: Alvin Davis and Tino Martinez. 1991 brought a 17-home run campaign hitting cleanup ahead of Davis and behind Ken Griffey Jr.  Eventually the Mariners released him in 1993.

O’Brien just celebrated his 60th birthday and currently resides back in the Dallas area town of Colleyville. He owns a flotation spa and flotation table manufacturing company. He is active with the Texas Rangers Alumni Association, and I have gotten to meet him through there a number of times.

Meanwhile Frank Viola is a favorite of mine because of my first baseball mitt. For Christmas in 1991, my parents got me a Spalding 42-9311 Frank Viola signature model that I used well into adulthood and still have today. It just needs re-stringing in a few spots.

(photo credit: ebay.com)
On his 1988 Score card, Frank is framed in golden yellow borders following through on a pitch. He’s in his road gray pinstriped Twins uniform, pitching in a day game. Based on the fence colors behind him, I believe it’s in Oakland on August 1, 1987. Frank went the distance that day, taking the 3-2 loss via Carney Lansford’s walkoff home run.

In 1988, “Sweet Music” was just entering his prime. He had just won 15-plus games for the fourth year in a row, had a career-best 2.90 ERA in 1987, and was the MVP of the 1987 World Series as the Twins toppled the Cardinals in seven games. Viola went 2-1 with a 3.72 ERA in the series.  Those expecting big things from him in 1988 were correct: he led the AL with 24 wins, was third in ERA at 2.64, and third in strikeouts with 193, taking home some more hardware with a Cy Young Award.

For every bad trade the Indians made throughout the late 1980s, the Twins made a good one. At the 1989 deadline, the Twins sent Viola to the New York Mets for a package of prospects that included Rick Aguilera and my fellow Finn, Kevin Tapani. Both went on to be significant pieces of the Twins’ next World Championship in 1991: Tapani won 16 with a sub-3 ERA, Aguilera had 42 saves and the first of a trio of All-Star Game appearances.

Viola, meanwhile was still a fine pitcher for the Mets. He rebounded to win 20 games in 1990, placing third in the NL Cy Young voting, and made the All-Star team in 1990 and 1991. He was a workhorse on their staff, leading the NL with 35 starts and 249 innings.

(photo credit: ebay.com)
In 1992, he left as a free agent, pitching two full seasons in Boston before succumbing to arm troubles. 1994 Tommy John surgery signaled the end of his career. He had brief stops in Cincinnati and Toronto in 1995 and 1996, respectively, but a combined ERA of 7.25 in nine starts across those stops meant that it was time to hang up the cleats.

After his playing career, Viola has become a coach and broadcaster at several levels, most recently with the AAA Las Vegas 51s. Three of his children have also become athletes: daughter Brittany was a diver at the 2012 Olympics as well as the 2008 and 2011 NCAA National Champion, daughter Kaley played volleyball for Winthrop University, and son Frank III was a minor league knuckleball pitcher.

Lastly, I’m closing on a bit of controversy: If Jack Morris deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame, Viola does too. Pro-Morris proponents like to cite his World Series MVP award, something Viola also has. They’ll cite his 162 wins in the 1980s, most of any pitcher in that decade.  But why does number of wins in an arbitrary timeframe matter? It you want to bring that up, then fine—Viola had 163 in a ten-year span of 1984-1993. Viola has a Cy Young Award, Morris doesn’t. Viola has a better ERA, Morris more World Series wins on account of being on better teams. Overall, I’d say Morris’ numbers were certainly better, but if Viola couldn’t even get a half a percent of the votes on his lone ballot, then Morris certainly shouldn’t have a spot in the Hall.

Drew Pelto is an avid sports card and autograph collector and works for a industry leading card company as a photo editor. 

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