One Pack. No Turning Back.

Middle Reliever Hall of Fame: Don Carman
ByBrad Balukjian
, brad@waxpackbook.com, 4.23.15

The movie 42 was not about Don Carman.

Imagine my disappointment when I got to the Cineplex back in 2013, endured the dancing bags of popcorn that told me to silence my cell phone, and then realized that the other guy who wore number 42, Jackie Robinson, was the star of the show (although Harrison Ford did give a damn fine performance that made me forget all about Hollywood Homicide).

With all due respect to Jackie, I will always associate #42 most with our first inductee into the Wax Pack Middle Reliever Hall of Fame (WPMRHOF), the Phillies’ Don Carman. WPMRHOF not only rolls off the tongue, it commemorates the 1980s middle relief performances that have been overlooked and forgotten by history.

Carman was not exactly a highly touted prospect for the Phils, who signed him undrafted in August of 1978.

“I was never big and strong, I never threw hard or ran fast. I was never a star on my high school team. I was so small and skinny,” Carman told Phillies Report in 1988, an interview in which he also listed An Officer and a Gentleman (!) as his favorite movie.

Carman scuffled through the Phillies minor league system for several years, making his emergence as one of the premier relievers in the National League in 1985 a testament to his hard work, mental toughness, and lefty Al Holland’s unfortunate transformation from man to blimp (Holland was traded to the Pirates on April 20). Carman showed up in camp in ’85 rested and hungry, even if the Phillies had no expectations of him making the team. After going the duration of spring training without giving up a single run, Carman made the 10-man staff with such luminaries as Pat Zachry and Charles Hudson.

Although new manager John Felske used Carman as more of a specialist early in the season (and remember, this is before Tony LaRussa turned the 6th-9th innings into a bathroom-break bonanza with all his mound visits), Carman’s dominance (he allowed runs in only 5 of his first 34 appearances) earned his skipper’s trust. After trading Holland, Carman became the go-to-lefty in the ‘pen, even notching 7 saves to complement the legendary Kent Tekulve’s 14, whose tinted prescription eyeglasses did for baseball what Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s post-cataract-surgery-look sunglasses later did for professional wrestling.

Carman may have been a one-trick pony (“Carman’s one pitch is a fastball,” according to The Scouting Report: 1987), but that one trick worked wonders. He finished the season 9-4, with a 2.08 ERA in 71 games and 86.1 IP, striking out 87 while walking 38. Batters managed only .178/.273/.274 against him, with righties hitting a measly .161. In his last 27 games, he was 7-1 with a 0.99 ERA. His WAR was 2.8.

“From the first time I got called up, in ’85, I kept saying, 'One of these days, they're gonna start hitting me 'cause I'm not this good,'” Carman told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1994.

Well, he was right.

Once National League hitters got accustomed to his hard-tailing fastball, curve, and slider, Carman’s ERA started fighting gravity: from 2.08 in ’85 to 3.22 in ’86, 4.22 in ’87, 4.29 in ’88, and 5.24 with an NL-leading 15 losses in ’89. There were moments of brilliance sprinkled in, such as his near-perfect game at Candlestick Park in 1986 spoiled only by a leadoff Bob Brenly double in the 9th. But it would never be quite as sweet as that rookie season that clinched his membership in our Middle Reliever Hall of Fame.

While Carman’s numbers soured with time, his wit only got sharper. In professional sports, there are certain positions that tend to breed eccentricity and originality, such as goalies in hockey, and pitchers in baseball. The two actually have a lot in common—long stretches of time spent patrolling a tiny area with no one to talk to but everyone’s attention focused squarely on you. Add in left-handedness, and you’ve got the potential for something truly bizarre.

The lefty Carman was a refreshing anomaly in a sea of robotic, cliché-stricken ballplayers. So used to the routine, pat post-game responses was Carman that in 1990 he simply taped a list of 37 potential sound bites in his locker and invited the media to take their pick. Some of these are classic (#4: “we’re going to take the season one game at a time,” while others reflect a more subtle wit (#24: “Yes;” #25: “No.”) 

Carman’s thoughtfulness and originality was a harbinger for his second life in baseball, this time as a sports psychologist and employee of super agent Scott Boras. Carmen got his degree in sports psychology and now counsels such players as Matt Harvey and Mike Pelfrey.  

For his creative use of his locker, sterling performance in 1985, and selection by The Tulsa World in 2007 as the 81st  Greatest Oklahoman Baseball Player of All Time (narrowly edging Dave Rader and Steve Crawford), we welcome Don Carman as our first inductee into the WPMRHOF.