In The Last Trial by Scott Turrow, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is back in the Kindle County courtroom to try his last case, defending his friend and fellow Argentinian transplant Kiril Pafko against charges of fraud and murder. I considered several approaches to finding an appropriate bookmark.
While there have been quite a few Argentinian baseball players, very few have played professionally in the United States, and zero have played in the Major Leagues.
There have been several lawyers associated with Major League Baseball. Moe Berg, the catcher who was a spy, spoke several languages and had a law degree. But no baseball cards that I’d ever own. Branch Rickey earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. Again, no card. And Tony LaRussa, who I certainly have cards of, earned a law degree from Florida State University but never practiced. He said, “I decided I’d rather ride the buses in the minor leagues than practice law for a living.” Plus, when I began the book, word had leaked that LaRussa had recently been arrested for driving under the influence for the second time. I chose to pass.
The next option was Andy Pafko, playing off the name of defendant Kiril Pafko. Pafko is one of those names that comes up a lot in the books detailing what some consider a golden age in baseball. He was a key member of the 1945 Chicago Cubs World Series team, playing center field, hitting 24 doubles, 12 triples, 12 home runs, driving in 110 runs, and finishing fourth in the MVP voting. “Handy Andy” would say in 1984, the next time the Cubs finished in first place in their division, “I never dreamed it would take them 39 years to win again. I thought they would have won by accident before then!” In 1951, Pafko was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers and was the left fielder over whose head Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” traveled. Pafko was a native of Wisconsin and spent the final seven years of his career playing at home for the Milwaukee Braves, finally winning a World Series as part of the 1957 team that included future HOFers Red Schoendienst, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, and Henry Aaron.
One other thing Pafko is “famous” for is being card number one in the 1952 Topps set, a position notable both for its prominence as well as the tendancy to be ruined by rubber bands at the top of a sorted set of cards, thus making one in good condition significantly more valuable. I don’t have that card, or any 1952 Topps for that matter. I have very few cards from that era. 1955 Topps is the only set I have a good number of cards from, so many in fact that I can write the number of cards missing easier than those I have. In 1954, the year used for the 1955 set, Pafko was a key member of a Braves team that went 89-65 to finish third in the National League. He played in 138 games, had 570 plate appearances, hit .286, and was the starting right fielder. But Topps did not include Pafko in their 1955 set for some reason. So he was out.
That left Alejandro Pena. There have been other Alejandro’s in baseball, of course. In fact, when you type “Alejandro” into Baseball Reference, Alejandro De Aza is the first name suggested.* But for me, possibly because he was such a key member of the Dodgers bullpen in 1990, the year of my first Strat-O-Matic set, Pena is always the first Alejandro I think of. Also, when I looked up his Baseball Reference, I found a lot to be interested by. First, I did the “black ink” test. Bill James talks about “black ink” when considering players, referencing how Topps would always put league leading statistics in bold black on the back of cards. Pena only has two, both in 1984: shutouts (tied) and ERA. But when I looked at the right of his stats for that year, there’s no mention of getting any votes for Cy Young that year. Rick Sutcliffe was the unanimous NL Cy Young that year, going 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA after being traded from Cleveland midway through the season. But, not only did he not lead the league in ERA that season, the only category he lead the league in was win percentage. In fact, by WAR, he was fourth among those getting Cy Young votes, and behind two that didn’t: Alejandro Pena and Fernando Valenzuela.** If voting were done today to decide the 1984 Cy Young, Dwight Gooden would run away with it. He lead the league in strikeouts, FIP, WHIP, hits per nine innings, home runs per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings, while going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, seven complete games, and three shutouts. All as a 19 year old rookie.
*I don’t know how Baseball Reference sets up their auto suggestion in the search box, but I know it must have something to do with either the durability or quality of a player. It ranks somehow. It’s not by WAR, but for example, if you type in “Cal,” Ripken will be first in line. If you type in “Barry,” Bonds auto fills before Barry Larkin followed by Barry Zito.
**Fernando had absolutely zero chance of getting any Cy Young votes in 1984 despite having a higher WAR than the eventual winner. Much of his WAR was built up by his enormous workload, throwing 261 innings, 12 complete games, and leading the league in batters faced (and walks). He did have a 3.03 ERA, a 116 ERA+, and strike out 240 batters. But his win-loss record was just 12-17, and in 1984 that meant you weren’t even considred amongst the best pitchers that year.
Alejandro Pena’s baseball card interests me also for what happened after his superb 1984 season. Despite leading the league in ERA and going 12-6 with 28 starts that season, Pena would only start 18 more games over the remaining 398 games of his career. He pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen following shoulder surgery in 1985, and following his brilliant 1988 season for the World Series champion Dodgers in which he had 12 saves, a 1.91 ERA, and won game one of the World Series, the famous Kirk Gibson walk-off, he never made another start. Pena would win another World Series with the 1995 Braves, although he was the losing pitcher in the incredible 1991 World Series game seven when Jack Morris outdueled John Smoltz to win 1-0 in 10 innings.
I don’t know why I started reading The Last Trial. I didn’t know that the author had also written Presumed Innocent. Unsure of whether or not I’d ever watched the movie adaptation, I rented it. So, apropos of nothing, here’s my list of favorite courtroom movies in reverse order (Presumed Innocent doesn’t make it).
10) All the movies I recall being good but can’t really remember: Primal Fear, The Client, A Time to Kill, The Firm, To Kill a Mockingbird)
8) Just Mercy
7) A Few Good Men
5) Runaway Jury
4) 12 Angry Men (And all its alternate versions)
3) The Rainmaker
2) My Cousin Vinny
1) Miracle on 34th Street