Craig Kusick, 1980 Topps, #693
Craig Kusick is not ours. Despite what this piece of cardboard may say calling Kusick a Toronto Blue Jay is misleading. Almost his entire legacy in baseball belongs to the fans of the Minnesota Twins where he played 95% of his games. He was sold to the Blue Jays halfway through 1979 and once the season was done he never played another MLB game.
I could try and seek profundity in that or try and couch it in some kind of evocative prose, but as often happens to me Josh Wilker of Cardboard Gods fame (I’ve said it before but you should definitely read his book) has mined that ground quite well. I recommend you read his remarkable essay on this Craig Kusick card (and Tony Solaita) and a Ted Nugent and AC/DC concert.
Instead, I wanted to focus on a single moment in time for Kusick and the Blue Jays that has been forgotten to most.
On August 25, 1979 the California Angels were in Toronto for the second game of a three game series. The previous day, the Blue Jays had pulled one out 6-4 on the back of two John Mayberry doubles and a lockdown 2.1 inning relief effort from Tom Buskey. The Jays would not be so fortunate this afternoon.
Yeah, you read that right. California 24. Toronto 2. The worst loss in a season filled with plenty of horrific losses.
But for Craig Kusick, this nightmarish blowout will forever be a part of his legacy in baseball.
Balor Moore was on the hill for Toronto that afternoon and a California lineup filled with names like Rod Carew, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich had no trouble getting started quickly. Carew leads off with a walk. Carney Lansford grounds a ball that is misplayed by Alfredo Griffin and there are runners on first and second. Moore does little to help himself by blowing a bunt by Dan Ford and the bases are loaded with no outs for Baylor. You know what comes next.
Grand slam. 4-0. Still not a single out recorded.
The damage kept coming. A quick base hit followed by a Grich double to make it 5-0. The brief gift of a sacrifice fly is quickly lost to two straight walks loading the bases and Roy Hartsfield gives Moore the hook. On comes Jesse Jefferson. Jefferson slows the bleeding but all three of Moore’s runners score before the third out is recorded. Moore finishes with a line of .1 IP, 3 H, 8 R (3 ER), 3 BB, 0 K. Painful.
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s fate was not much better. Over the next three innings he gives up 12 hits and 8 runs, all earned, including a pair of home runs and as he walks off the mound with two outs in the 4th the score is 16-2. Bring on Jackson Todd!
The moustachioed Todd is shown no mercy. Over 1.2 innings he surrenders 6 runs including another Baylor bomb. The score is now 22-2 and there is only 1 out in the sixth inning. What is Roy Hartsfield to do? Burn through more bullpen arms in a bloodbath? Leave Todd to continue to be savaged? Hartsfield chose option C(razy)- bring in your backup 1B/DH to pitch.
Craig Kusick’s career arc is familiar. Good enough to play in the big leagues, but never great enough to force himself into a regular lineup. For the 6 ½ years he was a member of the Minnesota Twins, Kusick found himself trapped behind two Hall of Fame careers at his position. Harmon Kilebrew was winding down his incredible 20+ years with the franchise and before leaving to join the Angels, Rod Carew had found himself as the Twins latest star at 1B. Kusick was position blocked and even after Carew was traded, Kusick was not getting the opportunity to show he could play.
“Perhaps I’ve fallen into a Syndrome and can’t get out of it,” he said in an early 1979 Evening Independent piece by Gary Ledman. “But maybe if I’d hit better, I wouldn’t be known as nothing more than a part-time player. Maybe it’s nobody’s fault but my own. But I feel I have the ability to play better.”
A few months later he found himself sold off to the Blue Jays to occupy the same role. Just a guy on the bench.
Craig Kusick had never pitched in the big leagues before in his near seven year career. Craig Kusick had never pitched in the minor leagues before either. But the 6’3”, 232lb man in aviator glasses pictured above and nicknamed “Mongo” was the Jays most effective pitcher that day.
First hitter is Jim Anderson. A glove only middle infielder with a career OPS of .578 is a nice soft starting point. Pop out. Next up? The man who prevented him from getting steady playing time in Minnesota. Rod Carew. Uh oh. But wait, Kusick gets him to pop out as well. Two up, two down.
This is where most of these novelty pitching appearances end. The Kusick or Jeff Mathis types come in and try to squeak out an inning or so and get away relatively unscathed. But that is not Craig Kusick’s fate that day. Kusick came out and put together a 1-2-3 7th inning, including retiring the destructive force of Baylor. Things start to get a little hairy in the 8th as Kusick gave up a 2 run home run to Bob Clark, but he stopped the damage there. Why not let the man close it out? Kusick shut the door in the 9th on three straight outs. The final batter he faced that day? Don Baylor. Popped out to first base.
Kusick’s final line was 3.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R (both earned), 0 BB, 0K.
When the season was over Kusick was released by the team. He spent the next two years in the Padres and Tigers AAA systems, and even took the mound a couple of times for Hawaii in the PCL. Neither appearance went as well as that August afternoon in Toronto.
Kusick passed away in 2006, but that one disastrous afternoon for the Blue Jays, one that fans at the time would likely prefer to forget, was worthy of inclusion in his obituary in his local paper.
I love these kinds of stories. Baseball’s rules and the nature of the game create quirks unlike those found in most other sports. Tales like “Mongo” getting out the likes of Rod Carew and Don Baylor are the kind of moments worth appreciating when the season gets long and your team just lost 3 out of 4 to a division rival.