Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When Gary Rajsich Rescued Baseball

GARY RAJSICH ROCKED the summer of 1981. Alright, half of it. But he rocked it really well.

"Who the hell is Gary Rajsich?" you ask?

Short answer: He was, for a brief time, the best home run hitter in professional baseball.

Our hero, from the Mets' 1982 Team Photo Album
The somewhat longer explanation is as follows:

Rajsich (it's pronounced RAY-sitch) was a sixth year minor-league ballplayer who had his best pro season just as Major League Baseball's players went on strike. From June 12 to Aug. 8, big league ballparks sat empty and unused as labor and management duked it out over the now somewhat arcane issue of free agent compensation.

Darkness descended. Gary Rajsich shined in the void.

It was his good fortune to play for the Tidewater Tides, AAA affiliate of the then not-significantly-better New York Mets, who acquired him at the end of spring training from the Houston Astros. With big league baseball on the blink, ESPN, the Sporting News and those who made their living covering the art of hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely needed a story.

They found it in Norfolk, Virginia where our hero was quietly slugging away. By mid-June, Rajsich had 20 homers, more than anybody in baseball.

At just that moment, the Tides were set to play the Columbus Clippers, who just happened to be the top farm club of New York Yankees, setting up the International League equivalent of a subway series (in an era when inter-league play was something reserved for the World Series). In the absence of major league programming, the mid-June contests would be broadcast back to New York by the teams' big league announcers.

Suddenly Rajsich -- a virtual unknown when the MLB strike began -- was the biggest baseball story in the land.

The '81 Clippers were stocked with future Yankees: burly slugging first-baseman Steve "Bye-bye" Balboni, slick shortstop Andre Robertson and -- for seven starts -- that season's American League Rookie of the Year, Dave Righetti.

The Tides had, well, Rajsich, plus future Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, future San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, future Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage (what is it they say about those who can't do?), plus Mike Howard, whose 1983 opening day start in right field for the Mets, behind the returning Tom Seaver no less, would be his last major league appearance.

Rajsich did his part in a June 22 contest won by the Tides, 8-7, clubbing a three-run homer, his 21st on the year.

He would crack just three more before his season of wonder abruptly ended nearly a month later with a broken wrist sustained in a home plate collision. Rajsich's stats to that point: 74 games, 253 at bats, 70 hits, 11 doubles, 1 triple, 24 homers and 56 RBIs. Not bad for a half-season's work. Balboni would win the IL's home run crown. He and Rajsich would make the league's All Star team.

From the Mets' 1982 yearbook, a tale of promise

More importantly, the outburst put him on the team's radar and merited a promotion to varsity the next year, joining a perennially-rebuilding roster that included Dave Kingman, George Foster, Ellis Valentine and Mookie Wilson. There, the 27-year-old rookie struck just two home-runs, one of which came in the same game as a highlight-reel catch. By 1983, he'd back at Norfolk, stroking 28 more round trippers while being passed on the organizational depth chart by Darryl Strawberry.

He'd hit just one more big-league homer for the Mets -- and for his career -- before being sold the St. Louis Cardinals in 1984, then shipped to the Giants the following year as part of a package exchanged for slugger Jack Clark.

Today, Rajsich is scouting director for the Baltimore Orioles. But for a brief shining moment 35 years ago -- during the ruined Major League Summer of 1981 -- he was The Man.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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