I simply cannot believe that 1987 has fallen 30 years into our collective rear view mirrors. That was the year that I graduated college and began to work in the real world for the first time, taking a part-time job as a sportscaster with WIBX Radio in Utica, NY. On a less important but more interesting note, that also happened to be the year that Topps produced one of my favorite card sets of the 1980s, a set that reminded us of how “the wood can make it good.”
In 1987, Topps decided to pay homage to a set that it had issued 25 years earlier. The 1962 set, which would become one of the most popular sets in the company’s history, featured wood-grained borders surrounding a photograph that appeared to be peeling in one corner. For fans who had become tired of the same old white borders year after year, the wood borders represented a novelty—and a classy novelty at that. With the wood borders, those ’62 cards took on something of a distinguished, regal quality.
In bringing the wood borders back for 1987, Topps touched nostalgic chords with old-time collectors while also drawing in the new breed of collectors that were descending upon the hobby in the mid-1980s. While the reincarnation of the wood borders didn’t create the same passion for cardboard collectors in 1987 that it did in 1962, they did make the set easily distinguishable from all of the other sets that were coming out in the late 1980s. At a time when collectors found themselves inundated with Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Score, and a variety of other sets, 1987 Topps stood out above the fray. In a pile of random cards, it was always easy to spot a card from the set; the wood border made each card stand out, almost as if it were three-dimensional in appearance.
Among the Detroit Tigers to be featured in 1987 Topps, one of the more interesting cards is that of a now-forgotten player. Chuck Cary’s card shows the usually quiet left-hander looking relaxed and at ease as he engages in some warmups at what appears to be an empty Tiger Stadium. On the verge of breaking out a full-length smile, Cary looks like he’s having a grand old time while warming up prior to a game. If only we saw such positive body language from Cary on the mound, where his enormous talents too often gave way to episodes of frustration.
At six feet, four inches and 210 pounds, Cary had the ideal build for a pitcher. He also had an arsenal of good pitches, highlighted by a fastball that clocked near 95 miles an hour. In 1980, he earned some acclaim by starring for the University of California in the College World Series. Attracted by his live left arm, the Tigers made Cary their seventh-round pick in 1981.
Over the next four years, Cary endured a bumpy ride in the minor leagues. Alternating good years with bad ones, he never reached double figures in wins. At times, he tantalized the Tigers’ front office with his stuff and his ability to dominate minor league hitters. At other times, he seemed unaware of where the ball might be going.
After a series of fits and starts, Cary finally made it to the major leagues in 1985. Sparky Anderson used him out of the bullpen, where he proved mildly effective. Logging 23 innings, Cary struck out 22 batters and put up a respectable ERA of 3.42. Anderson trusted him enough to allow him to finish off some games, giving Cary the chance to pick up his first two major league saves.
Cary proved less effective in his second season, largely because he struggled to harness his control. In 31 innings, he allowed 15 walks—a ratio that was simply unacceptable. His strikeout rate also dropped. The Tigers wondered just what they had in Cary. His repertoire of pitches was outstanding, but the results were mediocre at best. For some scouts and talent evaluators, Cary had become one of those pitchers best described in the following way: great arm, but doesn’t know how to pitch.
The Tigers simply couldn’t get through to Cary. So in January of 1987, only a few weeks before the start of spring training, the Tigers decided to move on from their enigmatic left-hander. They traded Cary and right-hander Randy O’Neal to the Atlanta Braves for platoon outfielder Terry Harper. By then Topps had already produced a card for Cary, so it was too late to show him wearing anything but the home colors of the Tigers on his card.
Years later, Cary admitted that he was a bit overmatched in trying to latch on with a quality team like the Tigers. “In Detroit I was just trying to make the team [in 1985],” Cary told Michael Kay of the New York Daily News. “They were rock solid. I don’t think I was ready to take on a role to be a real important guy.”
Moving on to Atlanta, Cary pitched parts of two nondescript seasons with the Braves, where he was plagued by a bad knee and even considered retirement at one point. Then the Braves released him in December of 1988, cutting him loose while receiving nothing in return. In January of 1989, he signed with the New York Yankees, who were desperate for starting pitching. That’s when I became familiar with Cary; at the time, I watched just about every Yankee game on TV. In 1989, the Yankees used Cary as both a reliever and starter and watched him pitch respectably. He put up an ERA of 3.26 and struck out 79 batters in 99 innings.
Despite becoming a fulltime starter in 1990, Cary regressed. He won only six of 18 decisions and saw his ERA rise above 4.00. He finished second on the team in strikeouts, but gave up too many hits, nearly one per inning. He also spent some time on the disabled list, which had become an annual occurrence for the hard-luck left-hander.
Still, the Yankees loved Cary’s stuff, particularly his 94 mile-an-hour fastball, a devastating screwball (which he learned from former Yankee standout Luis Arroyo), and an above-average slider. They also liked the fact that he pitched left-handed, an advantage at Yankee Stadium. Still only 29 years old, the Yankees felt that Cary, a late bloomer, was on the verge of becoming a top tier starting pitcher.
How much did the Yankees like Cary? Let’s consider the words of Yankee pitching coach Mark Connor during spring training in 1991. “Name a better left-hander in the league,” Connors told a group of assembled reporters.” When one writer suggested Mark Langston, Connor disagreed. “Cary throws harder than Langston and with better movement.” Connor also felt that Cary rated ahead of Chuck Finley, Langston’s teammate with the California Angels. High praise indeed.
Not only did Connor’s words stun the reporters, they stunned Cary. Never one to be overly confident, and certainly not cocky, the quiet Cary appreciated the compliment from his pitching coach, but seemed a little uncomfortable with the praise and the sudden attention.
Unfortunately, Connor’s words represented false hope. After the promise of 1989 and 1990, Cary pitched so poorly in 1991 that he lost his spot in the rotation. By June, he was back in the minor leagues, pitching for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Shortly after the season, the Yankees released him.
Cary never became the star that Connor had predicted. In retrospect, the Yankees bemoaned Cary’s lack of understanding of the art of pitching. He simply didn’t know how to mix up his pitches, set up hitters, or finish them off.
Let go by the Yankees, Cary took his talents to Japan, where he put in a mediocre season for the Tokyo Giants before making a comeback with the Chicago White Sox in 1993. He made 16 appearances, pitched poorly once again, and became a free agent at season’s end. Now 33 years old, Cary failed to find any suitors and called it a career.
Whereas success eluded Cary during his major league trials in Detroit, Atlanta, and New York, he has found it since leaving the game. He has become a high-end executive, first earning a position as the executive director for Playground Destination Properties and later becoming the president and CEO of Sea Sotheby’s international real estate, where he has overseen billions of dollars in real estate transactions.
The label on Cary as a ballplayer claimed that he had a “million dollar arm, but a ten-cent head,” the implication being that Cary was not very bright. It’s a label that has been thrown at many pitchers, but like a lot of labels, it’s not always accurate. In the case of Cary, it seems like it might not have been true. After all, it’s easy to forget just how difficult it is to become a star in the major leagues, let alone make a big league roster in the first place.
Cary’s success in real estate has shown that it really is his head that is capable of making millions.