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TOT - A Postseason Hero Is Let Go
A Year After Winning a World Series Game, Jerry Willard is Released
Transaction of Today...October 15, 1993 - The Atlanta Braves release Jerry Willard.
In terms of Atlanta Braves postseason heroes, Jerry Willard's name isn't quite up there with Francisco Cabrera, Tom Glavine, David Justice, or Jorge Soler. Yet, undoubtedly, Willard left an imprint on the 1991 World Series. It was surprising for a guy who only stepped up to the plate 16 times that season to play any kind of role. But then, it was surprising for Willard to even be in the majors after already retiring. But sometimes, baseball can be weird like that.
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Born in March of 1960, Gerald Duane Willard was born and raised in Oxnard, California. He attended Oxnard College, a college that boasts both Patrick Weigel and Darius Vines as alumni. Willard wasn't drafted coming out of college. Instead, he signed a minor league deal with the Phillies in December of '79. For three seasons, Willard climbed the ladder from low-A to Triple-A, hitting quite brilliantly - especially for a catcher in the early 80's.
Perhaps that's why the Cleveland Indians were interested in Willard. As a result, Willard was one of five players that came to Cleveland in exchange for Von Hayes. One of those players, future Brave Julio Franco, will enter this story again later.
Cleveland's primary catcher was Ron Hassey, who, outside of a nice 1980 campaign, was essentially a one-win catcher in a time when we didn't know what WAR even was. Different backstops came and went with Chris Bando being around the most, but improving behind the plate was definitely high on the list of things Cleveland wanted to accomplish. While not a prime prospect, the hope was that Willard would help make that reality.
After excelling with Charleston in the Triple-A International League for a season, Willard got the call to the majors the following year. At the same time, Bando, who had a .631 OPS over parts of three seasons prior to '84, broke out. The two would share time behind the plate with Willard, a left-hand hitter, starting the lion's share of games against righties and Bando working against most of the lefties. That left Hassey with no real place and he was dealt to the Cubs in a trade that brought Joe Carter to Cleveland and Rick Sutcliffe joining Hassey in Chicago.
Overall, Willard hit .224/.295/.386 during the season. Those numbers are certainly not great, but for a rookie catcher, it was acceptable results. The following season, he had his best major league season, slashing .270/.333/.383 over 334 PA with a 1.7 rWAR. But Cleveland had a new catcher in 1983 second-rounder, Andy Allanson. With the rookie ready to take over, the Indians released Willard just prior to the beginning of the '86 campaign.
Willard wouldn't stay a free agent for long as he signed with the A's three days later. The California native would play 22 games in the minors and an additional 75 games in the majors, OPSing .740 over 75 games as Mickey Tettleton's primary backup. However, his time with the A's was shortened by the arrival of Terry Steinbach. With Steinbach vaulting to the top of the depth chart and Tettleton settling into the top reserve spot, there was no room left for Willard. He played in just seven games in the bigs during 1987, logging a mere two innings in the field as a third baseman.
With his back hurting and walking papers given by Oakland, Willard decided that maybe baseball was no longer in the cards. Just 28 years old, the catcher decided to walk away. He spent a year working a regular 9-to-5 job in construction, along with "other things." However, the lure of playing a kid's game for a bit longer was too enticing. In 1989, he signed with the White Sox. Spending all of the season in the minors, mostly in Vancouver, Willard hit .277/.388/.420. It didn't get him back in the bigs, but did help re-establish Willard as a legit professional player. The following year, he hit the snot out of the ball for Vancouver, bashing 20 homers and posting a .901 OPS over 121 games. That effort did get him a three-game cup of coffee. He went 0-for-3 with the White Sox.
Once again a free agent, Willard joined the Braves in January of 1991. The Braves were pretty sure they had their starting catcher in All-Star Greg Olson (see his TOT). Veteran Mike Heath was added for insurance. The team also brought back Francisco Cabrera, who spent more time playing first base for the big-league team the previous year than the 5.2 innings he was behind the plate. Cabrera became Willard's primary competition with the younger Dominican winning the third catcher job. Heath would go down with an injury in early July, which pushed both Cabrera and Willard up the depth chart.
Willard spent much of the season being a thorn in the backside for many International League pitchers. He hit .300 with a .406 OBP and .473 SLG over 91 games. That production kept any contenders to Willard's place on the depth chart at bay. That included Kelly Mann, a veteran of a pair of cups of coffee with the Braves the previous two seasons, who hit just .184 for Richmond.
Three times, Willard was shuttled to Atlanta during the season. Through the first two runs, he went hitless in eight at-bats. Every time he got into a game, he was a pinch hitter. His final run with the Braves came after rosters expanded in September. He smacked a single in his first at-bat back. After four more hitless outings, Willard delivered an RBI single in a 7-6 win in Cincinnati. Finally, in the last game of the season, Willard got the start behind the plate. While most of the team had little to play for, Willard was fighting for a spot on the postseason roster. His biggest competition was infielder, Vinny Castilla. With that in mind, you have to think that when Willard popped a two-run bomb off Pete Harnisch in the fourth, that was a huge deal for him. It was also his first major league homer since 1986.
Just before the Braves left to travel to Pittsburgh, Willard was informed he was on the playoff roster. Willard would play just twice in the NLCS. He struck out with a runner on in a Game One loss and, in Game Four, popped out with the potential winning run on second in the bottom of the ninth to end the inning. The Pirates would take the lead the following inning and win the game.
As he watched his teammates get shut out 1-0 in Game Five, Willard had to wonder if he'd get another chance to produce and hopefully extend the series. He wouldn't play again, but he also wouldn't be needed as the Braves swept the final two games in Pittsburgh with back-to-back shutouts.
Willard remained on the roster for the World Series as he waited for an opportunity. It didn't come in either Game One or Two, both losses in Minnesota. It also didn't happen in Game Three, an extra-innings affair that the Braves won in walk-off fashion, 5-4. That led to Game Four and a matchup of two Hall of Famers in Jack Morris and John Smoltz. The Twins struck first, scoring a run in the second. Terry Pendleton tied it with a homer in the third. After a Mike Pagliarulo homer in the 7th, the Twins moved ahead. And once again, the Braves came back with a Lonnie Smith solo bomb in the bottom half of the inning. It was still 2-2 as the ninth opened.
With one out, Lemke, ever the postseason performer, smacked a triple to the left-center gap off Mark Guthrie. With the pitcher's spot on deck, Guthrie walked Jeff Blauser. Both Cabrera and Willard had their helmets and bats, ready to be the hero. Bobby Cox went with Cabrera and that caused the Twins to counter with former Brave, Steve Bedrosian. Cox followed by pinch-hitting Willard for Cabrera. Don't worry, Francisco, your time will come later.
The crowd was ready to erupt and the situation was massive. Win and the series was tied. Lose and the Braves would face elimination games the rest of the way. But Willard stepped up to the box with a smile, greeting the umpire and Twins catcher, Brian Harper. He settled in to face Bedrosian. The former Cy Young Award winner, who had spent much of the second half of the season battling numbness in his fingers, got ahead of Willard 1-2. Willard’s two strikes came on a pair of fairly ugly swings. "Bedrock” was once one of the best relievers in baseball when a strikeout was needed. Maybe he wasn't that guy anymore, but he had a shot to get the big out that his team required. All he had to do was strike out the journeyman, Willard.
Harper wanted the ball high-and-up. Bedrosian hit his spot. If it had been a couple of years before, with his normal velocity, maybe Bedrosian would have gotten it passed Willard. Instead, Willard put enough wood on the ball to send it to medium-depth right field. Shane Mack retreated and then delivered a strong throw toward home. The throw was slightly up the third base line. Going around Harper, Lemke dived feet-first, brushing Harper as the catcher caught the ball and tried to tag him. Terry Tata immediately singled safe and Harper jumped up and down in anger, swearing he tagged Lemke. If there had been instant replay, it was clear that Harper only brushed Lemke with his left elbow rather than the ball that was in his right hand, pressed tightly in his catcher's mitt. Lemke was safe and both Lemke and Willard were mobbed by their jubilant teammates.
The hero of Game Four did not get into any of the next three games. Willard returned to the team in '92 and hit fairly well as the third catcher/pinch hitter, going 8-for-23 with two homers. But the Braves wanted more positional flexibility on their bench and designated Willard for assignment in June. He opted for free agency and signed with the Expos. Willard spent much of his time with Montreal in the minors and went 3-for-25 in the majors.
After the year, Willard returned to the Braves. He wouldn't get an at-bat in the majors but did post a .890 OPS for Richmond.
On this day in 1993, Willard was released by the Braves. But his career was not yet over.
He signed with the Mariners next. He spent most of the season in the minors, though he did have two memorable moments with Seattle. On May 14, Willard came to the plate in a 7-7 game, pinch-hitting with Ken Griffey Jr. on second and Jay Buhner on first. With the count 2-2, Willard smacked a homer off the Angels' Joe Grahe, completing a comeback of a game the Mariners once trailed 7-2.
The other notable moment may or may not be true. The only report I found was from Wikipedia and, to be fair, there's no secondary link to substantiate this story. But, if true, four days before Willard's final major league homer, he was catching as Seattle was routed by the White Sox. He took a foul tip off his throwing shoulder. The story goes that Willard suffered a fracture and damaged cartilage. Now, including the appearance against the Angels, Willard appeared in four more games as a pinch hitter. He also appeared in 42 games with Triple-A Calgary as a catcher and it's not possible for all of those games to have occurred prior to his mid-May promotion to Seattle. He also played in 29 games as a first baseman, which wasn't abnormal for him. The following year, he did catch a dozen games in the minors but failed to throw out any of the six runners that ran on him. The article suggests Willard retired after 1994, which we know is not true. That begs the question - is any of it true? Unknown. The article goes on to say that, because of Willard, there is now a flap over the throwing shoulder as part of the catcher's chest protector and called, wait for it, the Willard.
But why this story may not be as true - beyond the fact that it's Wikipedia, not supported, and no one seems to call that flap a "Willard" - is that the article says Julio Franco was the guy who fouled off the pitch. But Franco was pinch-hit for the inning that Willard came in so that's simply not possible. But I did tell you that Franco would be a part of this article again. Even if it's not true.
The same article also suggests that in his post-playing days, Willard landed a job as a campus supervisor with the Oxnard Union High School District. A Jerry Willard does show up in some old documents I’ve looked at so I am inclined to believe that part of the article might be true. Wikipedia also said, but did not corroborate, that Willard was, at least for a time, the high school baseball coach at Adolfo Camarillo High School. That, I cannot confirm.
Regardless, what we do know is that Jerry Willard hit 25 homers over a 346-game career. Two of them came in one game against future Hall-of-Famer Dennis Eckersley. But maybe the most memorable thing he ever did was lift a lazy flyball to right field on an October night in Atlanta.
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