Over the weekend, former Expos/Twins pitcher Charlie Lea died at the rather young age of 54. This is jolting news, largely because the former Expos hurler was so young. It’s extra jolting on a personal note. For me, Lea was the first young pitcher I can remember who flamed out.
Oh, technically there were others, but Lea was the guy that stuck out in my mind. I remember he was really good when young, played in an All-Star Game, and then crashed. Others who crashed back then didn’t register with me. For example, I remember when Richard Dotson was really good, and then remember when he fell apart, but I didn’t realize he was that young. I knew Lea was young.
Now Lea is gone.
I can’t speak to what sort of person he was, but I can go over his career a little bit. Below are his career highlights. It’s something I often do here at THT when a player retires, dies, or goes into Cooperstown. (Basically, it’s what I do when it’s time for a retrospective of an individual).
Below are Lea’s highlights, lowlights, and memorable moments.
Montreal Expos tenure
June 12, 1980: Lea makes his big league debut, and in doing so becomes the first French-born player in big league history. (So I suppose it’s appropriate he does it for Montreal). He pitches eight innings for Dick Williams, allowing just one run to pick up the win as Montreal triumphs over the Padres, 9-1.
The first batter he faces, Gene Richards, flies out. Later that inning, Dave Winfield becomes his first strikeout victim. In Lea’s first time at the plate, he draws a walk. It’s the only walk he’ll get all year and one of 10 in 299 career plate appearances.
June 21, 1980: It’s only Lea’s third career outing, but it will turn out to be the longest of his career without a strikeout. He lasts 7.2 IP without fanning anyone but gets the win as the Expos defeat the Padres, 7-4.
Aug. 3, 1980: Lea never belts a home run in his career, but he does once leg out a triple, and it comes on this day. He does it leading off the fifth inning against Atlanta’s Larry McWilliams. Lea later scores a game-tying run that proves to be the difference, as Montreal carries the day, 6-5.
May 10, 1981: Lea has his moment in the sun. On this day he takes the hill against the Giants and tosses a no-hitter, the only one of his career. He fans eight and walks four as the Expos defeat the Giants. 4-1.
May 27, 1981: Lea does a good job shutting down the Runnin’ Redbirds of Whitey Herzog. He picks off two runners, the only time Lea ever does that, guiding the Expos to a 4-1 win.
June 6, 1981: Less than a month from his greatest triumph, Lea has his worst start. The Reds badger him for nine runs (all earned) on 10 hits and a walk in 3.1 innings. Half the hits are for extra bases: a pair of doubles, a triple, and two home runs. Lea also tosses a wild pitch for good measure. Lea’s Game Score is 3, easily the worst he ever has.
Sept. 9, 1981: Lea makes a rare relief appearance—one of only 12 in his career—in a wild game against the Phillies. In Montreal’s second game since the firing of manager Dick Williams, the Expos take a 8-6 lead in the top of the eighth, only to see the Phillies rally in the bottom of the frame.
With the score tied and two runners on, new skipper Jim Fanning summons Lea from the bullpen, only to see him surrender a home run to the first batter he faces, Gary Matthews. That’s the difference as Philadelphia wins, 11-8.
Sept. 16, 1981: Lea makes his first appearance since the homer a week ago and his first start in 15 days. He doesn’t get out of the first inning, surrendering three runs on three hits and a walk. Something is apparently going wrong for him, and the Expos shut him down. He will not pitch at all in the 1981 postseason, which is the only time one of his teams advances to October.
April 18, 1982: This just might be the greatest game Lea ever had at the plate. He comes up three times and never makes an out, going 2-for-2 with a walk. He never scores nor drives in any runs, but the Expos top the Mets, 7-6, anyway. It’s one of only six two-hit games for him.
May 1, 1982: It’s the clutchest home run Lea ever surrenders, according to WPA, anyway. Jorge Orta belts a two-run homer for the Dodgers in the bottom of the seventh to turn a 1-0 Expos lead into a 2-1 LA advantage. That proves to be the final score.
May 26, 1982: This is one of the greatest games of Lea’s career. He pitches nine innings of shutout ball, allowing only one baserunner, a one-out, first-inning single by Houston’s Craig Reynolds. Lea retires the remaining 27 batters. However, he doesn’t get the complete game as Don Sutton (in his brief tenure with the Astros) also holds Montreal scoreless. However, when Montreal scores four in the top of the tenth, Lea gets the win.
May 31, 1982: Lea is on fire. For the second straight start, he shuts out the opponent for nine innings. Again it’s against the Astros, and again Don Sutton is the opposing pitcher. This time, it’s not close, as Montreal triumphs, 10-0. Lea tries to help his own cause with a two-out, fifth-inning single, but Houston throws out Chris Speier at the plate to end the inning.
Oh, it’s also Lea’s second straight nine-inning game with zero walks. He only has three of those in his career, and two are back-to-back.
April 16, 1983: Lea has his only complete-game one-hitter, as he tops the Astros, 2-0. It’s a no-hitter until two outs in the eighth when pinch-hitter Terry Puhl laces a single to right field. Lea had another one-hitter against Houston the year before, but that wasn’t a complete game.
June 17, 1983: Lea sets a personal best when he fans nine Mets in a complete-game win over them, 7-2. Lea will fan nine batters a month later while pitching 8.2 innings against Cincinnati, but he’ll never crack double digits.
July 2, 1983: It’s possibly Lea’s worst day at the plate, as he goes 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. It’s the only time he fans in every plate appearance when he came up to the plate at least three times. Chicago defeats Montreal, 5-2.
Sept. 6, 1983: It’s the only time veteran third baseman Ron Cey actually likes squaring off against Lea. Cey comes to the plate in the top of the sixth 0-for-18 against Lea for his career but finally figures him out with an RBI double. Cey will end his career 1-for-24 against Lea, the best Lea did against any hitter more than 20 times. (Tony Scott was 0-for-18 in 20 PA against Lea).
Sept. 11, 1983: For the eighth start in a row, Charlie Lea notches the win, the greatest winning streak of his career. His line in that spell: 8 G, 8 GS, 61.1 IP, 57 H, 13 R, 13 ER, 17 BB, 37 K, for a 1.91 ERA. Perhaps most impressively of all, he surrendered only one homer in all that time. It came in the first game of the streak on Aug. 4 by Danny Heep.
Sept. 16, 1983: For the first time in exactly 28 months, Charlie Lea hits a batter. When Lea plunks Justin Thompson leading off the sixth inning, it marks the end to a 424.2-inning streak since he hit Billy North as the first batter in a game on May 16, 1981.
Sept. 22, 1983: With one out in the second inning, Lea’s streak of not allowing a home run comes to an end when Ivan DeJesus of all people goes deep on him. Lea won’t survive the fourth inning, and the Phillies will triumph, 9-7, over the Expos.
Sept. 27, 1983: This 10-4 Expos victory over the Cardinals has two notable features. First, it’s the only day at the plate that can rival Lea’s April, 1982 game for best day batting, as Lea goes 2-for-3 with a double. Second, it’s the day after Bob Forsch no-hit the Expos for St. Louis. Forsch died a little over a week ago and Lea this weekend—a rough week for pitchers who won a game in that series. (If you’re curious, Bryn Smith won the finale on Sept. 28, 1983).
April 3, 1984: On a staff featuring Bill Gullickson, Bryn Smith, and Dean Palmer, Lea is given the honor of the Opening Day start. He delivers, guiding the Expos to a 4-2 win over the Astros, allowing one run in seven innings. It’s Lea’s only Opening Day start.
April 8, 1984: In his second start of the year, Lea ties a personal worst by walking seven. At least last time he did it (May 27, 1981) he lasted seven innings. Today he only goes 5.2 frames.
May 11, 1984: Normally Lea is really good at keeping the ball in the park, but today he surrenders a personal-worst three gopher balls. Chili Davis goes deep in the third against him, and just before Lea is yanked in the seventh, Bob Brenly and Fran Mullins hit back-to-back shots against him. Lea gets the victory anyway, as the Expos top the Giants. 7-5.
July 10, 1984: It’s one of the highlights of any pitcher’s career, as not only is Lea selected to the All-Star squad, but he is asked to start the game for the NL. He allows one run in two innings but is awarded the victory. (Normally a starting pitcher has to go five innings for a win, but that is not the case with the Midsummer Classic.)
July 14, 1984: In his first start since the All-Star Game, Lea posts his third consecutive complete-game victory. At this moment, he is 14-4 on the season with a 2.85 ERA. With 87 games played, he’s on pace for 26 wins.
In hindsight, this is highwater mark for Lea. Instead of winning 12 more games, he’ll only win one more, finishing the season 1-6. He actually pitches well with an ERA of 2.95 after this game, but he suffers a bunch of narrow losses and then an arm injury. As of this moment, Lea is 54-34 in his career, but he’ll only win eight more games.
Aug. 16, 1984: Lea gets his last win as an Expo, guiding them to a 11-3 victory over the Giants. Lea doesn’t pitch as well as the score indicates, as he surrenders a dozen hits, a pair of walks, and a wild pitch over eight innings. Fortunately, only two hits were for extra bases. San Francisco leaves a dozen runners on base.
Sept. 1, 1984: Fernando Valenzuela becomes the only pitcher ever to belt a home run off of Lea. It ties the score at 1-1 and proves to be the difference, as Valenzuela and the Dodgers beat Lea and the Expos, 4-3.
Sept. 16, 1984: Something happens. Whatever it is, it sure isn’t good. Lea cruises through two innings, but then allows a single and a homer in the third. In the fourth, he’s struggling, allowing two walks, and a pair of singles. Even though he’s only allowed three runs through four innings, manager Jim Fanning pulls him. Lea’s arm is injured. He won’t return to the mound for three full years, and Lea won’t even pitch in the minors until 1987.
Sept. 16, 1987: Exactly three years since his last appearance on the big league diamond, Lea makes his return, but it’s not a moment of triumph. He gets the start against the Mets and begins by allowing a walk, single, and run-scoring wild pitch. He finally retires the first batter but then allows a home run. Lea survives the first inning, but after a double, wild pitch, and RBI-single begins the second, he’s done. And with that, his career with the Montreal Expos comes to a close.
Minnesota Twins tenure
April 9, 1988: Lea tries to recapture some of the old magic with his new team, but it doesn’t work. He surrenders five runs (four earned) in 5.1 IP on eight hits and a walk. Thus begins Lea’s last big league season.
April 14, 1988: In his second start with the Twins, Lea gives up a personal-worst four stolen bases. In his lengthy tenure with the Expos, he allowed three stolen bases in a game only twice, but in this one year he’ll have one four-steal game and a pair of three-steal games.
June 18, 1988: It’s the best game Lea has with the Twins. He tosses seven shutout innings against the Mariners to pick up the win.
Sept. 23, 1988: In his penultimate performance, Lea begins the game by striking out Mark McLemore. Lea will record 28 more outs in the majors, but none by strikeout. Also, as near as I can tell, McLemore has the distinction of being the last person left in the majors ever to face Lea. McLemore retired after 2004, and I can’t find anyone who lasted longer, though I might have missed someone.
Oct. 1, 1988: On the next-to-last day of the season, Lea makes his last big league appearance. He gets the start against the Angels, and has a middling performance: 5.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. Bob Boone, the last batter Lea ever faces, gets a single against him. That’s good enough to give Lea the win, allowing him to end his career with a record of 62-48. There are worse ways to end a career.