History

Phillies Hot Stove History: The 1981 Bo Diaz – Lonnie Smith trade



Veteran’s Stadium was the site for much of the Phillies drama during the 1980’s.

The Philadelphia Phillies are expected to be big players during this current ‘Hot Stove’ season in Major League Baseball.

Through both free agent signings and trades, if there aren’t a half-dozen interesting players swapped on and off the roster by spring training, fans of the team will be extremely disappointed.

With that in mind, today I’ll begin a regular ‘Phillies Hot Stove History’ series. In it, we’ll take a look back at some of the big free agent signings, trades, and other transactions made by the club on this date in history.

It was on November 20, 1981, 37-years-ago today, that the Phillies finally decided to turn the page at their catching position by swinging a three-team trade.

That deal involving the Cleveland Indians and Saint Louis Cardinals would ultimately have ramifications that reached up to Chicago and out to California as well.

Bob Boone, a future Phillies Wall of Famer, had turned 34 years old just a day earlier. Boone had been the club’s sixth round pick all the way back in the 1969 MLB Amateur Draft out of Stanford.

Boone made his big-league debut in 1972 and became the Phillies starting catcher the following year. For his outstanding play that first season, Boone finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

He would remain the starter right on through the 1980 World Series-winning campaign, capturing a pair of NL Gold Glove Awards and being named as a National League All-Star three times.

It was a combination of age, decreased production, and a younger player coming up through the system that finally began edging Boone out during the 1981 season.

That younger player was Keith Moreland, the Phillies seventh round pick in the 1975 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of Texas. Moreland first broke into the big-leagues for a cup of coffee in 1978 and 1979.

In the 1980 World Series campaign, Moreland grew to become a key piece of manager Dallas Green‘s bench. He appeared in 62 games, 39 of those as Boone’s catching backup.

The Phillies captured their first-ever World Series championship against the Kansas City Royals that October. During the Fall Classic, Moreland started three of the six games behind the plate.

During the following strike-shortened 1981 season, the 33-year-old Boone caught in 75 games and a 27-year-old Moreland in 50. The writing was on the wall.

Boone would end up being sold to the California Angels on December 6, 1981. Two days later, Moreland was dealt away along with reliever Dickie Noles and pitching prospect Dan Larson to the Chicago Cubs. The Phillies received veteran righty starting pitcher Mike Krukow in return.

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DIAZ CAME IN TRADE AFTER BECOMING AN ALL-STAR IN CLEVELAND

It was the trade two weeks earlier to bring in Diaz that allowed the Phillies to make those two moves. Baudilio Jose ‘Bo’ Diaz was born in Venezuela on March 23, 1953, apparently with a baseball in his hand.

At age 14, Diaz played on Venezuela’s Little League national championship team. The team was unable to travel to the United States to compete for the finals due to a July earthquake which devastated his hometown of Caracas.

Diaz was good enough that he would be signed by the Boston Red Sox at age 17 in December 1970. That began a long, slow climb through the Boston farm system. He finally got a cup of coffee with the Bosox in 1977.

During spring training for the 1978 season, Diaz was included in a big trade between Boston and the Cleveland Indians. That deal was highlighted by the exchange of a pair of star pitchers, with former Phillies ace Rick Wise headed to Cleveland and future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley going to Boston.

Diaz would spend the next three seasons as a backup catcher in Cleveland, the first two of those to Gary Alexander and then for one year to Ron Hassey.

During the 1981 work stoppage campaign, the righty-hitting Diaz split the role in an even platoon with the left-handed batting Hassey. Diaz began the season red-hot, hitting .356 with 25 RBI in June. That fast start earned him a berth on the American League All-Star team.

Phillies general manager Paul Owens was trying to keep the veteran Phillies, winners of the NL East in four of five seasons between 1976-80 and a playoff team during the strike-shortened split 1981 season, as a contending ball club.

Owens believed that Boone was aging past his prime as a catcher. He also felt that Moreland was an attractive piece who could possibly bring back the veteran pitcher in trade that the GM believed the Phillies still needed. And he liked what he saw both at and behind the plate from the 28-year-old Diaz during the 1981 campaign.

The big trade came down on Friday, November 20. In the deal, the Phillies would obtain Diaz from the Indians and send 26-year-old outfielder Lonnie Smith to the Cardinals. The Cards would ship pitchers Lary Sorensen and Silvio Martinez to Cleveland.

As a final part of the deal, the Phillies would send pitching prospect Scott Munninghoff to Cleveland on December 9 as a player to be named later.

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SMITH (L)  CELEBRATES AFTER PHILLIES WON GAME FIVE OF 1980 WORLD SERIES

Diaz would excel as the Phillies starting catcher for the 1982 season. He played in a career-high 144 games, starting 135 of those. At the plate he hit .288 with 18 homers, 29 doubles, and 85 RBI. Diaz finished second that year only to Montreal Expos all-star Gary Carter as a combined offensive and defensive catcher in new computer rankings.

Unfortunately, the Phillies fell short of their team goal. The club held the lead in the NL East as late as September 13. But losses in 11 of their next 16 games left them finishing three games behind Smith and the Cardinals in the final standings.

Compounding the Phillies frustrations, that Cardinals team would go on to win the World Series with Smith playing a key role. He finished as a close runner-up to Dale Murphy in the NL MVP voting and was a National League All-Star after hitting .307 with 51 extra-base hits, 68 steals, and a league-leading 120 runs scored.

Smith had finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting with the 1980 champion Phillies. But many around the team believed that he was simply a speedy outfielder who would never fully harness his talents.

In the end, they were wrong. Smith would enjoy a 17-year career in Major League Baseball, one that would see him win a third World Series in 1985 with the Kansas City Royals. He produced a career .288/.371/.420 slash line with nearly 1,500 career hits, 909 runs scored, and 370 stolen bases. Smith received NL MVP votes as late as 1989 while with the Atlanta Braves.

Diaz and the Phillies would gain a measure of revenge during the following 1983 campaign. Dubbed the “Wheeze Kids” due to the age of most of their key players and as a nod to the youthful 1950 NL champion ‘Whiz Kids’, those 1983 Phillies would pull away down the stretch to reclaim the NL East crown.

Diaz caught 136 games that season with 15 homers and 64 RBI. On April 13, he slammed one of only 11 “ultimate grand slams” in MLB history. With the Phillies trailing the New York Mets by 9-6, two outs in the 9th inning, and the bases loaded at The Vet, Diaz ripped a walk-off grand slam to win the game.

As the Phillies were pulling away down the stretch, Diaz had yet another memorable moment. On September 28 at Wrigley Field he produced a five-hit game that included a pair of home runs as the Phillies romped the host Cubs by 13-6 to clinch the division title.

His heroics continued in the postseason that year. In Game Four of the NLCS, Diaz delivered two hits as the Phillies romped the Los Angeles Dodgers by 7-2 at Veteran’s Stadium to take the pennant and advance to the World Series.

The Phillies would capture the first game of the Fall Classic against Baltimore only to see the Orioles charge back to win the World Series in five games. Diaz would prove one of the few solid hitters for the team during the series, batting .333 with a pair of multi-hit games.

Diaz would open the 1984 season as the Phillies starting catcher, but it would prove to be a lost season for the 31-year-old in a year that would ultimately see his time in Philadelphia draw near to an end.

A pair of knee injuries kept him to just 27 games, nearly half of those coming over the season’s first few weeks. In his absence, 27-year-old Ozzie Virgil Jr took over behind the plate and produced 18 homers and 68 RBI.

Virgil would rip 19 home runs the following year and become a 1985 National League All-Star for the first of two times in his career. Diaz would be gone during that 1985 season, dealt to the Cincinnati Reds in early August as part of a mostly nondescript five-player trade.

Diaz’ story and life would ultimately have a tragic ending. On November 23, 1990 – 28 years ago this Friday – he was killed in an accident in Caracas. While adjusting a satellite dish on the roof of his home, the dish fell on him, crushing his head and neck. Diaz was just 37-years-old and left behind a wife and two sons. He was inducted to the Venezuela Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

So, it was 37 years ago on this very date that the Phillies swung a fascinating trade, one that brought them a new starting catcher who would help lead them to an NL pennant. But that deal also sent away a talented young outfielder who would enjoy a long, championship-winning career.

BobBoone.jpg

Boone’s career would prove to be far from over after the Phillies gave up on him.

As a bit of a post-script to this particular trade, Boone would prove to be far from finished. He would enjoy seven full seasons with the Angels as their starting catcher. He would then play two more in Kansas City, the first of those as the Royals starter behind the plate.

Boone would win five more Gold Glove Awards during that time, four of those in a row from 1986-89 during his ages 38-41 campaigns. During the 1983 season when Diaz was helping the Phillies to the NL pennant, Boone was himself an American League All-Star catcher.

Diaz undeniably made contributions to a Phillies pennant winner. But would the franchise have ultimately been better off keeping Smith and either Boone or Moreland instead of making the trade with Cleveland and Saint Louis?

It’s often easy to judge these things with the 20/20 hindsight of history. However, history can also serve as a warning. It remains one of the oldest but wisest of sayings: those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.

These are the types of deals from the Phillies past that we will examine as we move forward during the ‘Hot Stove History’ series. The hope is that as we look back on the nostalgia of the past, the present Phillies management will be making wise moves that up helping to improve the current and future versions of the team.

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Nick Marmarou

    November 21, 2018 at 9:21 am

    This is awesome. I’d love to see more stories like this. I’m a die hard Phillies fans and know all the players and how the teams did, but reading the story behind the offseason prior to those season and what the team was thinking in making those moves and constructing the team is great insight. Well done. I look forward to more.

  2. Tom curran

    November 27, 2018 at 10:58 pm

    Lonnie would spin his wheels when trying to steal a base so the Phillies asked the legendary track coach at Villanova to straighten it out, smith said no.! A couple days later jumbo Jim Elliot died, a couple days later Lonnie was gone!

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