Thursday, July 28, 2011

Don 'Stan the Man Unusual' Stanhouse: An inspiration for chain smoking

The ninth inning of a close baseball game is a tough time to pitch. In the first half of the 20th century, few baseball teams carried a specialized pitcher whose job it was to finish ball games. But teams started designating certain pitchers to throw the end of close games some time around 1970. Although usually effective, these pitchers seldom resembled modern closers, who typically strike out heaps of hitters.

But the closer has always attracted a few "personalities." Perhaps the pressure of the situation draws a certain type of person, but closers have historically been wild, had terrible facial hair, sculpted greasy-looking mullets, made bizarre Internet videos with "The Machine" and, occasionally, been the scorn of an entire nation because of racially insensitive comments.

Before these came Don Stanhouse, an innovator. His lasting nickname, "Stan the Man Unusual1," indicates part of his colorfulness. But the nickname that describes his on-field performance is more telling. Irascible Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver2 called Stanhouse "Fullpack" during his stint with the O's in 1978 and 1979. Stanhouse earned this nickname by allegedly causing Weaver, a heavy smoker, to burn through a whole pack of cigarettes while pacing the dugout during Stanhouse's late-inning appearances. This was made possible not only by his harrowing escapades in close games, but also by the glacial pace at which he worked on the mound.

While baseball statisticians have figured out a way to measure nearly all aspects of the game, they've fallen short in their ability to describe a pitchers' stat for "anxiety caused." However that stat may turn out to be calculated, Stanhouse probably set several records for it. As the Orioles' closer in 1978 and 1979, Fullpack allowed 1.439 runners per inning pitched (WHIP) and also averaged 6.3 walks per 9 IP (BB/9)3. When combined with a low strikeout rate (4.6 K/9), it's clear that Stanhouse occasionally had some difficulty finding the strike zone. More often than not, Fullpack escaped the trouble, but not before Weaver would nearly have a coronary.

Off the field, Stan the Man Unusual was notorious for his exploits, which seem to have never been published anywhere due to their prurient nature. His hair was unstoppable and may have had its own personality4. His screams before games disturbed those unfamiliar with him. And Don fancied himself a ladies man. The Baltimore Sun quoted him as saying, "Tell me one person in the world who doesn't like women. My trouble is that I like too many of them5." His personality was apparently not well-liked by the Montreal Expos, who sent him to Baltimore in a trade for, in part, Purveyor of Fine Red Beards Bryn Smith, then a youthful minor leaguer.

Stanhouse came from the southern Illinois billiards mecca (not really) Du Quoin, where he played high school baseball and football. The Oakland Athletics drafted him in 1969 but sent him to the fledgling Texas Rangers in 1972 with future GNIB-er Jim Panther while Stanhouse was still in the minors. He debuted for Texas that year as a starter and pitched parts of 1973 and 1974 with the Rangers as a spot starter. The Rangers dealt Stanhouse to Montreal for Willie Davis, and Stan the Man found himself used as a part-time starter for the Expos in 1976 before moving to the bullpen, where he found some success, for most of 1977. The Orioles took him in 1978, and the rest, as Weaver would say, gave everyone heart palpitations.

Stanhouse, having caused Earl Weaver irreparable harm to the lungs, heart and psyche, was granted free agency by the O's after the 1979 World Series6. He struggled through injuries in 1980 after signing a big contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who released him in frustration before the 1981 season started. Stanhouse signed with the Orioles in 1982, but whatever mojo his hair contained had dissipated at that point. He hung on until the end of the year, when Baltimore released him for the second and final time.

Today, Stan the Man Unusual is a venture capitalist whose hair is no longer exciting. He's been married to the same woman for thirty years and is, by all accounts, a usual person.

Read a "Where Are They Now" article on Don Stanhouse here. That's not a recommendation; you MUST read it.

1 This moniker was allegedly coined by Orioles starter and 1979 Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan. While Flanagan lacked hair up to Stanhouse's level, he equaled him with a strong mustache showing.

2 If this is the first you've ever heard of Earl Weaver (and even if you're familiar), do yourself a favor and get acquainted (NSFW language). He even mentions Don Stanhouse and smoking, among other things. Watch this one, too (also NSFW language).

3 While a WHIP of 1.4 isn't unheard of in today's game for a closer, a walk rate of 6.3 BB/9 is (at least for an extended period of time). Fullpack averaged 5.4 BB/9 in his career, so control was always a problem for him.

4 His hair, however, pales in comparison to that of Oscar Gamble, Bake McBride or even modern-day hair-star Coco Crisp.

5 Read this article in tiny, tiny print here.

6 Fullpack famously did his best to blow a five-run lead in the 1979 American League Championships with the California Angels. Weaver left him in to finish the game after Stanhouse had given up four runs because Weaver "still had three cigarettes left."

1 comment:

  1. Another great and funny entry in this series! I sure didn't recognize him in his 'disguise' of today!