Bob Horner – 1989 Topps

October 15, 2010

Oh, What Might Have Been

I don’t care about how many times the media says it, there is no ‘sure thing’ in major league baseball.

Joba Chamberlain was a ‘sure thing’ (at least to NY media). Nope.

Clint Hurdle was a ‘sure thing’. Nope.

Todd Van Poppel was a ‘sure thing’. Only to those who didn’t see that stiff, mechanical mess pitch.

For every Dave Winfield or Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, there are 5 to 10 phenoms that flambe out of the league in a hurry. Or they don’t meet immediate expectations, are branded a failure, and never recover.

How much do Gregg Jefferies or Phil Nevin rookie cards go for now anyway?

The saga of Bob Horner hits for me, since he started right when baseball became important to me (born in 1965, he made his debut in 1978). His entire career was during the years when I was most baseball crazy, reading the Sporting News and Baseball America, devouring any Baseball Abstract I could get my hands on, watching ESPN, TBS and WGN for any baseball scrap my way, and playing in some early rotiss leagues.

By 1978, it was well known that you shouldn’t take pitchers right from the draft to the majors (thanks to David Clyde and Eddie Bane). But Dave Winfield went from the U of M right to San Diego, and was an future HOF player.

Wags conveniently forgot that Dave Roberts (no, not him – no, not him either…yes THAT one) did the same thing in 1972 and by the time Topps released its 1977 set he had a Blue Jays hat airbrushed upon himself. (He never played for the Jays, as the Padres traded Jerry Johnson for him. He later was included in the Oscar Gamble / Mike Hargrove trade.)

Ted Turner, at the time Captain Outrageous, decided that his Braves needed a big splash. Well, Turner always thought his Braves needed a big splash, and they did. The number of empty blue seats in Fulton County Stadium was quite impressive when you watched a game on TBS and they cut to the shot of a righty pitcher in the stretch. Thanks to an inept 1977 team (61-101 despite 41 bombs from Jeff Burroughs and 16 wins by Phil Niekro (though Niekro also lost 20)) the Braves had the first pick in the June regular phase draft. Turner was going to make an impact pick with that selection.

The offense in 1977 was pretty bad, but the pitching was even worse. Frank LaCorte went 1-8 with an incredible 11.68 ERA (his game log is a sight to behold). The only pitchers with an ERA under 4.00 were Dave Campbell, Max Leon and Larry Bradford (in just 2 2/3 innings for him). That’s out of 22 pitchers who took the hill for Atlanta. While pitchers such as Campbell, Rick Camp, Don Collins, Preston Hanna, Duane Theiss, Jamie Easterly, Mickey Mahler, and Mike Davey were young and works in progress, there was a chance that none of these young arms would pan out.

But the 1978 regular phase draft wasn’t big on pitchers. The pitchers chosen in that round were Andy Hawkins, Mike Morgan, Tim Conroy, Rod Boxberger and Brian Ryder. And Bob Horner was tearing it up at Arizona State. He had that Strasburg buzz. Turner selected him, signed him to a major league contract and on June 16, 1978 Bobby Cox wrote him in at third base for the Braves.

In 1977, Junior Moore was the third sacker for the Braves, but they lost him in free agency. (A quirk at the time allowed anyone ‘playing out their option’ to become a free agent even if they were only in the league a short time, like Moore.) Early in 1978, Rod Gilbreath and Barry Bonnell shared third base with Gilbreath taking the most starts. As of June 16, Gilbreath was hitting .228/.291/.331 and Bonnell was posting a .216/.271/.284 disaster. Horner could probably do that one handed.

Well, Bob had two hands, and he used them well. The Braves still stunk (69-93) but Horner hit 23 homers and won Rookie Of The Year. Dale Murphy also had 23 homers and Braves fans were hopeful if the pitching could get fixed, they’d have a great team.

Well, that never really happened in the 1980’s. Yes, they had some nice teams, and won some games, but they were never ‘great’. And neither was Horner, really. He did post some fine numbers, but there was always something missing.

Mainly, he was missing from ball games. Not mentally, physically.

He held out in 1979, missing Spring Training, and then hurt his ankle. He played just 121 games, but blasted 33 homers.

In 1980, Horner got off to an atrocious start. As of April 20 he was 2-34 with one walk. Turner wanted to send him down. Horner resisted and sat out until May 11, protesting the decision. He again got hurt thanks to ankle and back injuries, but recovered to hit 35 bombs in just 124 games.

In 1981, he played in just 79 games.

In 1982, he was one of the catalysts in the Braves run to the title. But he missed a chunk of time late in the year when the Braves were holding on for dear life.

From 1983-86, his games played were 104, 32, 130, 141. Now in 1986, that 141 games played was a high water mark, but he did miss a couple of weeks in July.

To be truly great, you need to be on the field 140-150 games each season. Injuries happen, but Horner was collecting them at an alarming rate. One look and you could see why. He was a bit…large.

His contract expired at the end of 1986. By this time, Horner was moved from third to first. His weight, and lack of mobility thanks to his injuries forced the Braves to move him. That, and his 1985 fielding stats at third were the equivalent of LaCorte’s 1977 pitching stats (11 errors and -9 fielding runs in 40 games. 40!).

It was the time of collusion. And Horner found the market limited. Of course, every free agent found the market limited, but the market for Horner’s skills were more so. He could still hit, but he’d probably be best served as a DH. He’d also collect a high salary, so only a few AL teams would be able to bid on him.

So in 1987, Bob took his bat and went to Japan to play for lots of yen. He hit .327 with 31 homers and found himself wanted again.

Can I do a Hubie Brown impression here. I know, wrong sport, but bear with me.

“You’re the St. Louis Cardinals. You were just in the World Series. Your team was all about speed, defense and pitching with one exception – Jack Clark. You know Clark is leaving as a free agent.You have a first baseman at Louisville, Mike Laga, who hit 29 home runs in 1987. You play him every day, he’s not Jack Clark, but he’ll hit 20 bombs and you can use the money on Clark for a couple of other needs. You don’t sign an injury prone, overweight, big money defensive liability and tie your hands.”

That’s what they did, though.

As I said in the Tommy Herr post, the Cardinals got off to a bad start. On the surface, though, Horner was a’ight. He had a .381 OBP, and Whitey loved guys who could get on base. The problem was, he had just two homers.

May comes around. Horner tails off. Well, he was just a .260 hitter anyway, but he had power. But not this year.

After 47 games, his OBP was higher than his SLG. That’s NOT what you need out of your corner infielders.

June 2, 1988. Bob cranks one out against Don Carman. Maybe that’s the thing he needed. Horner was always a streaky home run hitter.

June 16, 1988. Bob plays his last game. Not just as a Cardinal, but as a professional baseball player.

The Cardinals finished fifth.

Newcomer Tom Brunansky leads the team with 22 home runs. The only other player in double figures was Tony Pena with 10. You have to have SOME power. You play 81 road games.

The Cardinals started 10 players at first base that year. Yes, they did play Laga some, but mostly they buried him as a pinch hitter. Laga also left his bat in Kentucky, as he had the hard to accomplish -12 OPS+ in over 100 at bats. Noted offensive stars Tom Pagnozzi, Mike Fitzgerald and Jose Oquendo started at first base. Can you say train wreck, children?

As much talent as Horner had, he couldn’t stay healthy. Because he couldn’t stay healthy, he wasn’t someone a team could count on to lead them to the pennant.

But Turner got his splash, and his publicity. Horner hit some home runs and made some money. But it could have been more.

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