If you were a young baseball fan looking for proof that anything was possible on the diamond — that maybe even the dark cloud hanging over your team could lift someday soon — well, you would have done well to hitch your star to the 1983 Topps John Denny.
Now, at first glance coming out of the pack, this thing was pretty bad … and pretty strange, even …
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Here was John Denny, who you’d never heard of unless a) you were an Indians fan, b) you had been following the game since the mid-1970s, or c) you were Denny’s mother.
And the tableau of the card was about the eeriest thing you’d seen emerge from wax — a gothic “painting” of a dour looking, aging hurler with his hands over his head standing against a swirling, menacing cloudscape.
Why, it looked like something straight out of Dark Shadows, I tell you!
Like, maybe the pack should have come with a clove of garlic instead of a stick of gum — just in case.
And then, when you turned the card over, you found that Denny had been traded from the Indians to the Phillies during the 1982 season, and that his career track record was … well, just OK.
That 5.01 ERA with Cleveland the year before and the 4.03 after he came over to Philly convinced you if you weren’t already: commons bin.
Fourteen wins as a career-high cemented the decision.
And so you moved on with your pack, to Tony Perez in Boston and Steve Sax stalking a baseball in the sunshine and, maybe, to some other unknown, a guy named Gwynn pushing out of the batter’s box, rump-side to the camera.
That might have been all the love you ever showed that stormy John Denny card, dropping him there on the dust pile with the last Terry Felton card.
Well, except, the baseball season has two halves.
See … entering play on July 1, 1983, Denny’s record stood at 5-4 and the Phillies were just 34-35 and in third place in the old National League East.
That night at Veterans Stadium, though, Denny pitched a complete game — and won — against the New York Mets.
Over the next 11 days, the Phils would go 8-3 to claim first place for the first time in nearly two months. It wouldn’t last, but it would come back.
In fact, Philly would lose and reclaim the division lead five more times through the end of the season, but they landed there when it counted and nabbed their first crown since 1980.
Along the way, Denny established himself as not just the ace of a playoff team, but as one of the best pitchers in the game.
By the time the Phillies rolled into October, Denny was 19-6 with a 2.37 ERA, marks that would eventually earn him the Cy Young Award and a few down-ballot MVP votes.
As the NLCS got underway, with the Phillies knocking off the Dodgers in four games, collectors set about digging through our stashes to make sure we had the main guys lined up with us there in the living room, or the bedroom, or Papaw’s garage as the drama unfolded on the TV.
And, suddenly, that 1983 Topps John Denny we forgot all about took on a majestic glow, much like the 2.24 ERA the man had sported way back on July 1 — the one we also didn’t notice.
Had Denny ridden in on those storm clouds to save the Wheeze Kids Phillies from oblivion?
The visual and statistical evidence suggest maybe we should have cued The Doors, just in case.