Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Dick Selma: Dummy of misfortune
Luck is a fickle thing in big-league baseball, in case you hadn't noticed. As if the game itself didn't have enough of it, sometimes where players end up is a matter of luck.
Pitcher Spec "The Naugatuck Nugget" Shea was an average pitcher over the course of his career, but he managed to get signed by the New York Yankees just after World War II. Playing in parts of four seasons with New York, Shea won three World Series rings ('47, '49 and '51). But the Naugatuck Nugget's good luck ran out in May 1952 when the Yankees sent him to play for the lowly Washington Senators.
Some players--like pitcher Dick Selma--never got the chance to have any good luck. Over 10 seasons in the big leagues, Selma's ERA+ of 100 renders him a perfectly average pitcher of his era. And in those 10 seasons, Selma pitched for six different clubs. So the law of averages would make one think that he played for three winning teams and three losing teams or perhaps played for five seasons on a winning team. Right?
Wrong. Very wrong.
Only once did Selma's team compile a better-than-.500 record. And that one winning season stands as perhaps the most dramatic and unforgettable late-season flop in baseball history.
The kid from Fresno signed with the fledgling 1963 New York Mets. Selma debuted for the Mets by 1965 and would spend the next four seasons jumping back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, the big-league club and the minors. In that time, the Mets averaged just 62.5 wins per season, although under Gil Hodges' leadership, the Mets had won 73 games in 1968 and looked much improved. Selma pitched very well in 1968 and appeared poised to be in the middle of the Mets' rotation.
But it was not to be; the brand-new San Diego Padres drafted Selma in the expansion draft's fifth round. Like any other expansion club, the 1969 Padres were awful, but Selma did not endure the club long. Before April had ended, San Diego shipped Dick to the Cubs for, among others, promising young knuckleballer Joe Niekro.
Selma found the Cubs to his liking. In his first five starts with the Cubs, Selma pitched two shutouts and had soon picked up an 8-2 record working as a reliever and spot starter. Cubs fans took a liking to Selma, who acted as a cheerleader to the Cubs' faithful Bleacher Bums. Because of Selma's constant chattering, his teammates called him Mortimer Snerd1 after ventriloquist's Edgar Bergen's famous dummy. But it looked like Selma had finally found a winner; the Cubs stood alone in first place at July's end.
And then the club began those two months that permanently broke many Cubs fans' hearts. Selma's first three appearances in August resulted in two wins and a save, but the North Siders nose-dived from there. From August 22 until the end of September, Selma lost five straight decisions while the first-place Cubs watched their division lead erode and then vanish. To the Mets, the previously losing team for which Selma had labored for six years (including the two in the minors).
The Miracle Mets overtook the Cubs early in September and never looked back, but the final chapter of this saga came in game No. 162 of the 1969 season, when the Mets played the Cubs at Wrigley Field on October 1. The game meant little to the season's outcome; the Mets had long since clinched the division title, but the Cubs faithful wanted one last vengeful win against their tormentors. The teams traded runs early in the game to make it a 3-3 tie after eight innings. A two-run double by Tommy Agee in the top of the ninth soured the hopes of the Wrigley crowd. The Cubs rallied in the bottom of the inning--off some kid named Nolan Ryan--to knot the score again and send it to extra innings, where neither team scored in the 10th or 11th.
In the 12th, Cubs' skipper Leo Durocher called on Mortimer Snerd to hold the game. The inning's leadoff hitter, light-hitting shortstop Bud Harrelson, roped a double to left. The next hitter was Agee, who grounded to second base, moving Harrelson to third. Durocher, having seen enough, yanked Selma from the game. His replacement was Hank Aguirre, who promptly served up an RBI single to Art Shamsky. Despite another rally, the Cubs failed to score in the bottom of the 12th and their season mercifully ended. Having allowed the run-scoring batter to reach base, Selma was charged with one last loss, his sixth in a row to end the disastrous season. It was Selma's last appearance on a "winning" team.
Perhaps for his own protection2, the Cubs dealt him to Philadelphia, where he'd pitch in relief for the abysmal Phillies for the next four seasons, having two good years and two bad. His inability to stay quiet finally got the better of him, as a Phillies' traveling secretary once punched Mortimer Snerd in the jaw for making an off-color remark.
Selma's final two seasons proved even more turbulent: The Phillies cut him loose early in 1973. Two weeks later, he caught on with the St. Louis Cardinals in the minors, only to be purchased by the California Angels at season's end.
He made a few ineffective appearances for the Angles in 1974 before the Milwaukee Brewers purchased him, only to return him after two devastating appearances. Mortimer Snerd has become defective merchandise, returned like a broken microwave. Not that any of it mattered in the grand scheme of baseball history; none of the teams Selma played on from 1970 to 1974 won more than 73 games in a season3.
After a couple of tough minor-league seasons, Selma left big-league ball and caught on with the Alaska Goldpanners for at least the 1978 season4. He ended his playing days shortly thereafter and Selma coached baseball in the Fresno area, where he'd grown up. He died in 2001 from liver cancer.
Through 1971, Dick Selma's 112 ERA+ renders him an above-average pitcher; his final few seasons of ineffectiveness brought his career ERA+ down to 1005, which is considered perfectly average.
But history seems to forget those who don't play for winners. So the next time some dreadful jerk mentions the 1969 baseball season, you'll think of Dick Selma and his tough luck. And take some solace that, exactly a year after his last loss as a Cub, Selma won an extra inning game for the Phillies.
1Great Names in Baseball would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity acknowledge the wicked awesome 1970s rock band Mortimer Snerd, who are forever immortalized in one of the great modern literary works for being perhaps the first Kiss cover band and in an autobiographical website that describes them as having a "meteoric rise." By this, we assume the author means they were rocky and ferric. The Mortimer Snerd website conspicuously fails to mention how much tail the band got, which everyone knows is the true measure of 1970s rock and roll success. However, the site states that a reunion is "Coming Soon..." on June 6, 2010. GNIB, for one, looks forward to it and would like to know where tickets are available. Please take our money.
2Actually, we're not sure anyone can be sent to the Phillies "for protection." Phillies' fans are notoriously two-faced, relentless, and mean.
3 In actuality, the 1974 Brewers won 76 games, but Selma only made two terrible token trips to the hill.
4 While in Alaska, Selma played with future World Series winning manager Terry "Tito" Francona.
5 This is a common statistical phenomenon known as "decline." Baseball nerds have studied the phenomenon in-depth, but the relevant idea here is that Selma's peak came very early and his decline very precipitously.