Saturday, September 15, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 1996

Part 35 of our 50-Year Pitching Phenom...

What is it: 1996 Topps #144, Bill Pulsipher

What makes it interesting: After several years tinkering with some flashy designs that didn't look very good, Topps finally got it right with the '96s. One of the better sets they put out this decade, the '96s are a combination of what generally works for Topps, simplicity and design.

Few Mets left a more tragic story than Bill Pulsipher.

Pulsipher, a 1991 Draft Pick, was everything you could have asked for in a pitcher. He moved up the ladder towards the Major Leagues at a regular pace, and consistently improved along the way. By 1994, he began to reach everyone's radar screen. Pitching for AA Binghamton, Pulsipher was the ace of a team that would win the Eastern League Championship (and included several future Mets, including Edgardo Alfonzo, Jay Payton, Rey Ordonez and Jason Isringhausen). During the Eastern League playoffs, Pulsipher even threw a No Hitter. By time 1995 rolled around, Pulsipher was clearly the Mets top Pitching prospect and the question wasn't if he'd make the Majors, but when. He, along with fellow pitching prospects Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson, were anointed the saviors that would bring the Mets out of the doledrums and back to respectability. They were billed as "Generation K." Of the three, Pulsipher was always my favorite.

Pulsipher had the makeup and the stuff to survive in the Majors. An offbeat character, Pulsipher's eccentricities included shaving his head before starts and hopping over the foul line. On the mound, Pulsipher was all business, featuring three plus pitches, a mid 90s Fastball, a hard curve and a slider. Pulsipher's highly-anticipated Major League debut arrived on June 17th, 1995, a Saturday afternoon game against the Houston Astros. Of course, I'd dashed out to Shea Stadium to watch it. How could you not root for a guy who used Nirvana's "Come As You Are" as his entrance music? Pulsipher immediately made his presence sailing his first pitch to the backstop. His first inning didn't go very well, although he wasn't helped by his fielders, particularly Brett Butler, who misplayed a Jeff Bagwell fly ball into a double. Nonetheless, Pulsipher left that first inning down 5-0, but ended up pitching 7 innings in a 7-3 loss. Two starts later, on June 27th, Pulsipher would have his first Major League win, pitching into the 8th inning of a 2-0 victory at Florida. Though Pulsipher started 2-5, he slowly began to improve every time out. One thing he was accomplishing, more than anything else, was the ability to go deep into games, at the behest of Manager Dallas Green. Of Pulsipher's 17 starts that season, only twice did he fail to make it to the 7th inning. A complete game victory over the Pirates on July 31st kicked off a stretch where he would lower his ERA over a point over the next month. His final few starts were spotty, and ultimately, Pulse would be shut down with a sore elbow in September. But overall, there was little to dislike from Pulsipher's first taste of the Majors. His good friend Jason Isringhausen had also arrived in July, and had performed even better. The winter of '95-'96 was spent salivating over what was to come. These guys were set to carry the Mets into the next decade.

But just as that optimism peaked on Opening Day of '96, the news came down that Pulsipher's sore elbow turned out to be a torn ligament. Pulsipher would have Tommy John Surgery and miss the entire '96 season. When he returned to pitching in '97, the Mets decided that his violent delivery was the cause of his problem, and set out to alter it. The results were not promising. Pulsipher found himself unable to throw strikes and was eventually demoted to Single-A. His inability to find success at a level of pitching he had previously dominated sent him into a bout of depression. Eventually, with some professional help, Pulsipher overcame his depression problems and began to rebound. By '98, he was back in AAA, and by midseason, he had returned to the Mets, albeit as a reliever. Pulsipher appeared in 15 games with the Mets, making one start, but he struggled. Though he wasn't wild, he also wasn't especially effective, posting an ERA of 6.91 and giving up 23 hits in just 14.1 innings. Then, on the eve of the trading deadline, the Mets traded Pulsipher to the Milwaukee Brewers for Mike Kinkade. Though the trading of Pulsipher officially signaled the end of the hope that was Generation K, the hope had died long before that. Both Isringhausen and Paul Wilson were vastly ineffective in '96, and both ended up injured and missing the majority, or in Wilson's case, all, of the next few seasons. 

But Pulsipher would, in fact, return to the Mets in a deal for Luis Lopez before the 2000 season. His time in Milwaukee had not been successful, he didn't pitch especially well in the remainder of '98 or '99 before a back injury ended his season. Pulsipher started the 2000 season in Norfolk, but he would return to the Majors for two starts in May. This would be his final hurrah with the Mets. In his first start, in San Francisco, he was bad. His second, in Florida, was even worse. Pulsipher could not get out of the 4th inning either time, and his ERA for the season stood at an embarrassing 12.15. In early June, Pulsipher was traded again, this time to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Lenny Harris. 

Pulse spent the remainder of his career bouncing around from team to team. He went from the Diamondbacks, to the Devil Rays, the Red Sox, the White Sox, the Rangers, the Yankees, the Orioles and the Mariners. He didn't appear in the Majors at all between 2001 and 2005, when Isringhausen, whom he remained close friends with, beseeched the Cardinals to give him a shot. In 5 games, Pulsipher posted a 6.75 ERA. A career that once looked unstoppable had reached its final stop.

Pulsipher is generally looked upon with distaste by Mets fans for failing to live up to the hype. But I don't think that was really his fault. Many teams saw what happened. Pulsipher pitched deep into games just about every time out in '95, part of the tough guy regiment imposed by Dallas Green. There was probably something to the fact that both Pulsipher and Isringhausen went down with significant arm injuries early in their careers. It probably didn't help that the Mets screwed around with his mechanics following his injury as well. Under a different set of circumstances, Pulsipher might have gone on to have a very successful career. Perhaps, as teams do quite frequently nowadays, the Mets might have been more careful with his 21-year old arm. But such is the case in Baseball. Pulsipher should be remembered mostly as a cautionary tale about the handling of young pitchers.

Card back:

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