December 16, 1988: Cardinals get Milt Thompson in trade with Phillies

 

From the moment he arrived in St. Louis, the Cardinals saw Milt Thompson as a Whitey Herzog type of player.

On December 16, 1988, the Cardinals traded outfielder Curt Ford and catcher Steve Lake to the Phillies for Thompson. A former second-round pick of the Braves in 1979, Thompson was expected to serve as a backup for outfielders Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, and Tom Brunansky.

“He definitely adds a lot to the club,” said Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill, who was the Braves’ first base coach during Thompson’s rookie season in Atlanta in 1984. “Defensively, he’s a solid center-field type guy and we haven’t had anybody like that for a while, whether it be a Ford, a (Jim) Lindeman, or a (John) Morris, who could come in and play center field on a regular basis if Willie were to injure himself or for some reason couldn’t play. He’s got some pretty good pinch-hitting numbers too. He’s a definite plus.”[1]

Thompson had a .342 average (25 for 73) as a pinch-hitter.[2] He also had 105 stolen bases in 134 career attempts, good for a 78% success rate.

“He’s run up some pretty good numbers,” Maxvill said. “I particularly like his stolen-bases-to-getting-caught numbers. It looks like he knows when to run and when not to.”[3]

Upon breaking into the majors with the Braves in 1984, Thompson received limited playing time, appearing in just 98 games over two years despite a .302 batting average over that span. Following the 1985 season, the Braves traded Thompson and Steve Bedrosian to Philadelphia for Ozzie Virgil and Pete Smith.

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described it, “When Thompson was acquired, he was heralded as the second coming of former Phillies star center fielder Garry Maddox. … It didn’t help matters that Virgil had been popular in Philadelphia and that Smith had been a first-round draft pick.”[4]

Thompson got off to a slow start, drew boos from the Philadelphia faithful, and was demoted to Triple-A for two months in 1986.

“He put a lot of pressure on himself because he had heard about the fans up there,” Thompson’s wife, Annette said.[5]

“I finally got my opportunity (but) I put too much pressure on myself and I messed up,” Thompson said. “But I got my act together.”[6]

Despite his rough welcome to Philadelphia, Thompson got his career back on track. In 1987, his nine triples and 46 stolen bases each ranked sixth in the National League, and his .302 batting average over 527 at-bats ranked ninth in the league.

In 1988, Thompson batted .288 with a team-leading .354 on-base percentage despite injuring his right knee when he ran into Wrigley Field’s brick wall chasing a fly ball. He played two more months before he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage on Sept. 12.[7]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch — December 17, 1988

“He’s a good kid, plays hard, and hustles all the way,” Maxvill said. “He’s definitely a Whitey Herzog kind of player.”[8]

Thompson agreed.

“It’s a positive move for me,” he said. “I know the type of game Whitey likes to play, and I like that style of ball. I play with what I call aggressive hustle; I’m not afraid to take the extra base.”[9]

The Phillies, however, felt that they had better options for their everyday lineup. In November 1988, they signed former Cardinals second baseman Tom Herr and made plans to move Juan Samuel to center field.

“I’m happy, in a way,” Thompson said. “I knew that with Sammy going to the outfield I wasn’t going to get any playing time at all because he’s an everyday player. I don’t know how it’s going to work over there (in St. Louis) because they have Vince Coleman in left, Willie McGee in center, and Tom Brunansky in right. From what I hear, though, I’ll get to play and there have been some rumors that McGee could be traded. The way I look at it, it’s a two-for-one deal so hopefully it will all work out.”[10]

Phillies general manager Lee Thomas, the Cardinals’ former director of player development, outlined two reasons for the trade.

“First, I think Milt felt like he had to play fairly regularly, and although I can’t speak for the Cardinals, I think he’ll play more there than he would have here,” Thomas said. “He’s a line-drive hitter who will fit in well at Busch Stadium. Second, Curt Ford can pull the ball and if Milt has a weakness, that was probably it, even though he’s a very fine player.”[11]

1988 Donruss

The 28-year-old Ford had just completed his third full season in St. Louis. A 1981 fourth-round draft pick out of Jackson State University, Ford hit .285/.325/.408 with three homers, 26 RBIs, and 11 stolen bases in 228 at-bats in 1987.

In 1988, however, Ford suffered an early-season wrist injury that limited his effectiveness on the field. In 128 at-bats, he hit just .195/.239/.266.

“We look at Milt as more capable of being an everyday player than Curt could have been,” Maxvill said.[12]

The Phillies and manager Nick Leyva appreciated Ford’s ability to play all three outfield spots as well as the infield. Thomas also indicated that they considered Ford a power threat, though he had just six career home runs in St. Louis.

“He’s the type of guy who can play second base, third, first, and the outfield, and he’s the kind of guy who, if you send him up to bat with two on when you’re behind by three in the bottom of the ninth, is a threat to hit one out,” Thomas said. “He can get around on a Todd Worrell-type fastball and there aren’t too many guys who can do that.”[13]

1989 Score

Lake gave the Phillies the right-handed hitting catcher they had been seeking since Lance Parrish signed with the Angels. Lake had just completed his third season in St. Louis, and the highlight of that tenure came early in the 1987 season, when he hit .300 for six weeks while filling in for the injured Tony Pena.

“Steve did a great job for us as a backup guy,” Maxvill said. “We probably never would have won (the National League pennant) in ’87 if it hadn’t been for the way he stepped in when Tony Pena got hurt.”[14]

On July 7, in the second game of a double-header that had been delayed by rain, Lake hit a two-run, ninth-inning homer to send the game into extra innings. By the time Jack Clark hit a 10th-inning RBI single to win the game, it was 3 a.m.

Lake hit .251/.289/.346 that season and even received the start in Game 7 of the World Series while Pena served as the designated hitter. Lake took advantage of the opportunity, hitting a second-inning RBI single that briefly gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.

In 1988, however, Lake took just 54 at-bats as he was slotted into a third-string role behind Pena and Tom Pagnozzi.

“I’m excited,” Lake said after the trade. “The Cardinals are a great organization, but it had gotten kind of frustrating. I could play in the seventh game of the World Series one year, but couldn’t play a Sunday afternoon game in New York the next season. I was getting kind of antsy to get in a situation where I could platoon or at least play a little more regularly. I think I had proven I could be a backup catcher in the majors; now it’s time to see if I can do more.”[15]

1990 Fleer

The Phillies planned to platoon the right-handed hitting Lake with Darren Daulton.

“I look at it this way: Darren Daulton will get a chance to play against right-handers and Steve Lake against left-handers unless somebody beats him out,” Thomas said. “He’s not going to play 120 or 130 games, but he handles pitchers well and he has a chance to throw runners out.”[16]

That chance was all Lake could ask for.

“I knew at the end of the year that the Cardinals wouldn’t be keeping three catchers, and I also heard that Philadelphia was looking for catching after they traded Lance Parrish, so I was just hoping,” Lake said. “Every day for two months I’d pick up the paper and hope.”[17]

Lake spent four seasons in Philadelphia, though he never appeared in more than 58 games in a season. In 1993, he returned to the Cubs, where he played the final season of his career. He retired with 476 games played in a career that spanned 11 major-league seasons.

Ford played two seasons in Philadelphia. He hit just .218 in 142 at-bats in 1989, and was just 2-for-18 in 1990. After the 1990 season, Ford continued his career in Triple-A and independent baseball. He retired after playing the 1997 season in the Texas-Louisiana League.

1992 Stadium Club

Thompson spent four seasons in St. Louis. In 1989, he hit .290/.340/.393 with four homers, 68 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases in 545 at-bats, playing well enough to garner three points in the NL MVP voting.

Thompson’s batting average dropped to .218 in 1990, though he rebounded by hitting a career-high .307 in 1991. In 326 at-bats, he hit six homers, drove in 34 runs, and stole 16 bases. In Thompson’s final season in St. Louis in 1992, he hit .293/.350/.404 and stole 18 bases, though he took just 208 at-bats.

After the 1992 campaign, Thompson signed a free-agent contract to return to Philadelphia. He retired following the 1996 season with a .274 career batting average. In 13 major-league seasons, Thompson appeared in 1,359 games and compiled 18.6 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com.


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[1] Jeff Gordon and Kevin Horrigan, “Cards Acquire Milt Thompson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1988.

[2] Jeff Gordon and Kevin Horrigan, “Cards Acquire Milt Thompson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1988.

[3] Jeff Gordon and Kevin Horrigan, “Cards Acquire Milt Thompson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1988.

[4] Vahe Gregorian, “Newcomer Thompson Likes Herzog’s Style Of Ball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 1988.

[5] Vahe Gregorian, “Newcomer Thompson Likes Herzog’s Style Of Ball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 1988.

[6] Vahe Gregorian, “Newcomer Thompson Likes Herzog’s Style Of Ball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 1988.

[7] Vahe Gregorian, “Newcomer Thompson Likes Herzog’s Style Of Ball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 1988.

[8] Jeff Gordon and Kevin Horrigan, “Cards Acquire Milt Thompson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1988.

[9] Vahe Gregorian, “Newcomer Thompson Likes Herzog’s Style Of Ball,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 1988.

[10] Paul Hagen, “Phillies Dealt Two Cards for Thompson,” Philadelphia Daily News, December 17, 1988.

[11] Paul Hagen, “Phillies Dealt Two Cards for Thompson,” Philadelphia Daily News, December 17, 1988.

[12] Jeff Gordon and Kevin Horrigan, “Cards Acquire Milt Thompson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1988.

[13] Paul Hagen, “Phillies Dealt Two Cards for Thompson,” Philadelphia Daily News, December 17, 1988.

[14] Jeff Gordon and Kevin Horrigan, “Cards Acquire Milt Thompson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 17, 1988.

[15] Paul Hagen, “Phillies Dealt Two Cards for Thompson,” Philadelphia Daily News, December 17, 1988.

[16] Paul Hagen, “Phillies Dealt Two Cards for Thompson,” Philadelphia Daily News, December 17, 1988.

[17] Paul Hagen, “Phillies Dealt Two Cards for Thompson,” Philadelphia Daily News, December 17, 1988.

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