Card Corner: Dracula

Many collectors of baseball cards are obsessed with a player’s first card, the ever-desired rookie card. For some reason, I’m far more interested in the player’s final card, particularly when it’s the last Topps card for a player. The last three “Card Corners” have spotlighted players from the 1980 Topps set: Bernie Carbo, George Scott and now Pedro Borbon. In each case, the player’s 1980 Topps card was the last one issued during his major league career.

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So why am I so hell-bent on writing about (not to mention collecting) a player’s final card? I guess there are two reasons. The final regular issue card often shows a player wearing the uniform of a team for which he is not associated. To me there’s something fascinating about seeing Boomer Scott in pinstripes, in stark contrast to the red and white colors he wore for much of his career with the Boston Red Sox. Furthermore, the last card represents the final hurrah in a player’s career. There’s a certain gravitas that comes with the last card, fully knowing that Topps will likely never again publish an image for that player, barring his inclusion in the “Archives” or “Fan Favorite” series that have become so popular over the last decade.

In our latest example, we see Borbon wearing the late 1970s incarnation of the San Francisco Giants’ uniform. Unless you’re a diehard fan of the franchise (like our friend Steve Treder), you probably don’t remember Borbon as a Giant. After all, he spent most of the decade with the Cincinnati Reds, after originally signing with the St. Louis Cardinals and then breaking into the big leagues with the California Angels in 1969. Although Borbon’s last Topps card shows him as a Giant, he didn’t actually finish his career with San Francisco. The Giants released him just before Opening Day in 1980, clearing a path for him to pitch briefly for the Cardinals—the team that had signed him in 1964—before he finally called it quits.

As with many of the action-packed selections in the 1980 set, I like the image of Borbon that appears on his card. First, it’s a clear reminder of venerable Candlestick Park, hallmarked by the distinctive wire fence that appears behind Borbon in left field. It’s also an unconventional photograph for a pitcher.

Most of the time, we see the pitcher in the midst of his windup, or near the end of his follow-through toward home plate. Yet, Topps gives us something different here. We see Borbon, at the end of his delivery, watching a pop-up that has been hit toward the right side of the infield, but apparently not far from the mound. We can imagine that Borbon is beginning his pursuit of the pop-up, or perhaps we can picture him directing traffic between the first baseman and catcher, who are both likely to pursue the ball, as well. The image serves as a reminder that the pitcher cannot strike everyone out, that hitters will make contact, and that the pitcher takes on the role of an extra infielder once the ball has been put into play.

Borbon himself also provides some intrigue. Famously mentioned in the hilarious 1980 film, “Airplane,” Borbon became symbolic of the oddball characters of the 1970s. In a decade filled with offbeat personalities, Borbon emerged as one of the ringleaders. At one point, he became known by the nickname of “Dracula.”

The Dracula persona evolved because of a pair of authentic biting incidents—one on the field and the other at a Cincinnati nightspot. The first took place during the infamous third game of the 1973 National League Championship Series, when Borbon and the Reds became entangled in a bench-clearing brawl with the underdog New York Mets.

The brawl started when Pete Rose upended the much smaller Buddy Harrelson at second base, initiating a tussle between the Reds star and the Mets’ pint-sized shortstop. As benches and bullpens cleared at Shea Stadium, Borbon became an active participant in the brawl.

During the melee, Borbon’s cap fell from his head. Seeing a loose cap on the ground, Borbon picked it up, assuming that it was his. Within a few moments, Borbon noticed a Mets logo on the cap. Upset that he had picked up the wrong cap—one that belonged to Mets outfielder Cleon Jones (another interesting character)—Borbon took a healthy bite out of the stray hat. For the first time in his career, Dracula had struck.

Later in his career, a more serious incident left a mark on Borbon’s reputation. In May of 1979, Borbon was enjoying a night out at a Cincinnati disco when he became involved in a fight. During the fracas, Borbon bit one of the disco’s bouncers in the chest, prompting a charge of assault. When asked by Cincinnati Enquirer writer Mark Purdy to explain Borbon’s motivation, the bouncer offered his best bit of conjecture. “He’s just a habitual biter, I guess.”

Borbon also provided fans and teammates with less harmful forms of entertainment. A right-handed reliever who became a workhorse out of Cincinnati‘s bullpen—he logged more than 120 innings for six consecutive seasons—Borbon boasted of having an especially powerful throwing arm. When other players questioned his arm strength, Borbon placed bets on how far he could throw a ball. During pre-game warm-ups, the rubber-armed Borbon sometimes stood near home plate or the dugout and launched long-distance heaves toward the outfield, sometimes reaching the outfield stands on the fly. Once, Borbon tried to hit the roof of the Houston Astrodome, but the attempt only angered Cincinnati management.

Borbon’s most famous “fling” took place during the 1975 World Series. Killing some time before one of the Series games at Fenway Park, Borbon stood at home plate, opted not to warm up, and then hurled a ball over the center-field fence. Remarkably, he didn’t hurt his arm.

Other stories, some downright bizarre, help round out the legend of Borbon. They involved black cats, rooster fights and threats of voodoo. Borbon pitched regularly in the Dominican Winter League, where he developed a following because of his eccentricities. Fans in the winter league once tried to distract Borbon by tossing a black cat onto the playing field and directing it toward the pitcher’s mound. Rather than wait for one of the umpires to address the situation, Borbon picked up the cat himself and threw it to the catcher. Later, he expressed a twisted sense of regret. “I should have eaten it,” Borbon told a reporter. “That would show them.”

Borbon liked to brag about the incredible ages of some of his relatives. He once told a reporter that his grandfather was the oldest person in the Dominican Republic, checking in at 136 years of age. That sounded a bit strange to teammate Rose, who questioned the system for counting one’s age in Borbon’s family. “Last year, his grandfather was 128,” said Rose.

Then there was the matter of Borbon’s favorite hobby. During the 1970s, the annual Baseball Register listed a player’s hobbies under his statistical entry. Borbon’s hobby? “Rooster fights,” Borbon told the editors of the book, admitting to an activity that would have been illegal in the United States. The revelation should not have been surprising, considering that only two years earlier Borbon had decided to bring his pet rooster into the clubhouse of his Dominican Winter League team.

During the first half of the 1979 season, Borbon’s off-the-field behavior, in particular the second biting incident, convinced the Reds to part company with him. In explaining the trade that sent Borbon to the Giants for journeyman outfielder-third baseman Hector Cruz, Reds general manager Dick Wagner railed at some of Borbon’s conduct.

The criticism did not sit well with the temperamental Borbon. “Tell Dick Wagner to keep his mouth shut before I break his face,” Borbon told the Associated Press. Feeling betrayed, Borbon also announced that he would unleash a voodoo curse against the Reds. Borbon later said that he never did perform the voodoo curse.

Borbon’s major league career ended with the Cardinals in 1980, but he forged a brief postscript to his saga 15 years later. With the seemingly endless players’ strike jeopardizing the start of the 1995 season, Borbon agreed to return to the Reds as a replacement player. Although well into his 40s and about 40 pounds above his previous playing weight, the meaty Borbon vowed to make a successful comeback. The experiment did not last; Borbon slipped and fell while trying to field a ground ball. The Reds released him the next day, bringing the legend of Borbon to at least a temporary end.

Now 63 years old, Borbon has no more plans to return to active pitching. He’ll become a full-fledged member of the Reds’ Hall of Fame in July, a tribute to his successful 10-year run in Ohio. He now lives in Texas, which, if some of these horror films are to be believed, is prime breeding ground for vampires. If that’s the case, Pedro Borbon will fit in quite nicely.

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