"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mike Cuellar, pitcher with Baltimore dynasty

I had an emotional attachment to the Minnesota Twins through the 1960s and a little beyond. That means I was greatly annoyed by the Baltimore Orioles and their intense manager, Earl Weaver. I regret that I ever got emotionally connected to baseball. Even if my team had won the World Series, would it really have made me happy? Our favorite teams could become an extension of our personalities.
Let's remember that back then, when you tuned in to baseball on TV, you almost always watched that favorite "home" team. It was the nature of the media then, just like watching many TV games from that dreaded fixed camera position behind home plate. You could hardly count on the center field camera position, which we take for granted today. We take for granted so much.
My emotional connection is gone. First it departed for baseball, the final nail being the 1994 strike, and then for football for the obvious player hazard reasons. So today I observe baseball as mostly a curiosity. I haven't been to Target Field. In the late '60s I made occasional trips to our old beloved Met Stadium out in the Bloomington prairie. One of the missions of my blogging has been to keep alive memories of the Met.
Orioles: a nemesis for our Twins
The dynastic Baltimore Orioles under the excitable Weaver came often to frustrate us. A top pitcher for that squad was Mike Cuellar. I remember the lefthander so well. He, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer were spectacular on the mound. In '71 they were joined by Pat Dobson and all four won 20 games. Four 20-game winners! There outta be a law, I might suggest.
Awe-inspiring though this was, it hardly seems to equate with exciting sports. Baseball allowed pitching to really dominate in the '60s, the peak being 1968 "the year of the pitcher." Yawn. I have long wondered why the baseball powers that be allowed things to get so bad in '68.
You had to try to find a way to just be fascinated by the pitching. I guess a fair number of fans did that, including the cook character in the movie "Bobby" about the assassination of RFK at the Ambassador Hotel. The cook coveted his ticket to see Don Drysdale of the Dodgers try to extend some ridiculous pitching record. Consecutive shutout innings?
Cuellar was in his prime in that phase of baseball history. His significant trade to the Orioles happened in December of 1968. Baseball did do something to try to help the offense for 1969: it lowered the pitching mound. But pitchers were hardly thwarted.
In August of 1969, Cuellar accomplished a sequence where he retired 35 batters in a row, without issuing a walk or giving up a hit. It was our Cesar Tovar who ended the streak on August 10, when Cuellar was three outs away from recording his first career no-hitter. Cuellar won the 2-0 home victory.
Cuellar (pronounced KOY-ar) won 23 games in 1969. It was the first season of East and West divisions in big league ball. Us Twins fans were excited about our team winning the West with a seemingly explosive team. Problem was, we weren't quite as good as the Orioles. This applied in both '69 and '70, carbon copy seasons as it were. The playoffs in both seasons were excruciatingly frustrating for the Twins faithful.
Baltimore won a club record 109 games in '69. Cuellar fashioned a 2.38 ERA. He became the first pitcher born in Latin America to win the Cy Young Award. Cuellar was the starter for Game 1 of the 1969 American League championship series. The Orioles beat our Twins 4-3 in 12 innings as Cuellar departed with a no-decision. Paul Blair's RBI single did the job. Cuellar didn't need to pitch in the series again. Our Twins got swept.
Cuellar started Game 1 in the World Series that year. Remember that Series? It was the one that showcased the New York Mets with our Morris area native Jerry Koosman. But in Game 1 of that Series, Cuellar was the winner in a 4-1 Baltimore win. He started Game 4 but left after seven innings, trailing 1-0. The Orioles managed to tie the game 1-1, letting Cuellar off the hook for getting the loss. But the Mets took the Series 4-1.
Bring on 1970: Cuellar picked up where he left off and fashioned a 24-8 record with 190 strikeouts. Again the Orioles swept the Twins in another crusher of a disappointment for us fans in the far north. Cuellar hit a grand slam home run in Game 1 of the A.L. championship series! The Orioles led 9-6 when Weaver pulled Cuellar during the fifth inning, thus Cuellar could not be the winner, and he wouldn't have to pitch again in the Series because - you guessed it - the Orioles won in an efficient 3-0 sweep. Sigh.
Cuellar got rocked in Game 2 of the World Series against Cincinnati - he was pulled in the third inning - and in Game 5 the performance started out bad too. But help was on the way in the form of advice from the sage pitching coach George Bamberger. Bamberger scratched his head, in effect, and decided to advise Cuellar to throw his screwball no more. Cuellar went with his fastball, curve and changeup exclusively. Ah, Cuellar shut out the Reds for the next eight innings! It was dramatic because this was the game where the Orioles could close out the Series, and they did with a 9-3 win. 
Cuellar kept on rolling in 1971, going 20-9 with a 3.08 ERA. He won Game 2 of the A.L. championship series against Oakland. The Orioles won the pennant for the third year in a row. I'll remind that '71 was the season when Baltimore had four 20-game winners. The stuff of dreams. But Baltimore was done in by Pittsburgh in the World Series.
As time went on, Cuellar continued most resilient with his pitching arm. The southpaw won 18 games each in '72 and '73. But he wasn't fading, as in 1974 he surged to post a 22-10 record and 3.11 ERA. He wasn't quite the strikeout master as before. But he hurled 20 complete games back when that was a coveted stat. He tossed five shutouts.
Cuellar split a pair of decisions against the new dynasty in the A.L. - Oakland - winning Game 1, but Oakland took the A.L. series.
I do not remember at the time that Cuellar's nickname was "Crazy Horse." But it was, and I'm wondering if Cuellar's dark skin complexion made some think in a knee-jerk way that he was Native American. He was actually native Cuban.
Looking for luck in unusual ways
Cuellar built a reputation for having superstitions. He never stepped on the foul line when he took the field. He always picked the ball up from the ground near the mound himself. As he kept winning, the importance of ritual only grew. I think a psychologist (or psychology professor) would call this "behavioral psychology." I had that rammed down my throat in college - ridiculous.
In May of 1972, Cleveland left fielder Alex Johnson caught Boog Powell's fly ball to end the third inning, then as he jogged in, he tossed the ball to the pitcher, anticipating Cuellar's stride to the mound. Cuellar ducked and the ball rolled free. The batboy tossed the ball to Cuellar. Once more, "Crazy Horse" dodged the ball. The ball dribbled to Powell, the big guy first baseman. Powell appeared to momentarily forget the pitcher's habits. He threw it squarely to Cuellar, and the pitcher simply couldn't avoid it this time. Disgusted, Cuellar tossed the ball to the ump and asked for a new one. The ump obliged. But Cuellar again sidestepped the ball which trickled past him. Bobby Grich found the ball at his feet. Grich rolled the ball to the mound. Cuellar picked it up, "satisfied now that no evil spirits had invaded his place of business."
Cuellar with his quality pitching arm, longevity and personal oddities really adds richly to baseball's annals. Now that I'm 62 years old and no longer emotionally connected to the Twins, I warmly congratulate him!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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