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Steve Garvey and the end of the line

A look back at Garvey’s last regular Topps card with the Dodgers

By the time the 1983 Topps set came out, Steve Garvey had already moved on, signing as a free agent with the San Diego Padres. But as baseball cards are a snapshot in time, this particular card showed what would be the totality of the star first baseman’s career with the Dodgers.

The font didn’t quite require a magnifying glass, like say some late Nolan Ryan cards, trying to fit nearly three decades of stats onto the back one 3.5” by 2.5” piece of cardboard. But 14 seasons for Garvey in Los Angeles was still a long time.

The stats captured on the back of this — and most, at the time — baseball card represented the majority of what we knew about Garvey’s performance at the time. That he was a .301 hitter was the headliner, his .337 on-base percentage wasn’t mentioned, and his 122 OPS+ hadn’t even been invented or defined yet.

What was evident, however, was Garvey’s undeniable stardom. Seemingly built for the biggest stage, Garvey hit .346/.370/.571 with 10 home runs in the postseason for the Dodgers. He won a league MVP and two All-Star Game MVPs, and started seven midsummer classics in a row at first base. The 1982 season, the last one captured on this Topps card, snapped a string of eight straight All-Star appearances for Garvey.

Garvey hit .282/.301/.418 with 16 home runs in 1982, his lowest batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+ (101) in at least a decade. The breakup of the Dodgers’ famed infield already started the offseason before when second baseman Davey Lopes was traded to Oakland, ending an unprecedented streak of 8½ seasons of four infielders playing together. More changes were expected, with the Dodgers youthful core emerging.

When Garvey collected three hits and a walk in the Dodgers’ final home game of 1982, there was a foreboding sense that this could be it.

“If I’d wrote a script for this evening, I wouldn’t have had to re-write it,” said Garvey, described as teary-eyed by Vic West of the San Bernardino Sun. “It was the best of times, and the most emotional, I guess. We got a big victory, and I got a chance to share some special moments with the fans, a chance to thank them for the years.”

Over the previous 10 seasons, only Pete Rose and Rod Carew had more hits than Garvey’s 1,812, which included six seasons of at least 200 hits. Though not known for his home run prowess, Garvey still had power. From 1973-82, he was fifth in extra-base hits (528) and fifth in doubles (302), which enabled him to drive in 930 runs during that time, trailing only Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt.

Garvey was an unquestionable star, and about to hit the open market. Sort of.

Free agency was still in its relative infancy in the 1982-83 offseason, and MLB was still in the process of sorting things out. Owners wanted to rein in spending, and before they settled on collusion later in the 1980s, first had the idea of limiting the number of teams that could bid on specific players.

Garvey wanted a five-year contract, something the Dodgers balked at for someone who turned 34 that December, even with Garvey’s legendary durability. Through the end of the 1982 season, Garvey played in 1,107 consecutive games, which he would extend to a National League record 1,207 games later in 1983.

Los Angeles wanted a three-year deal for Garvey but was willing to go to four years, but both sides could not agree on the money. “Some people would be surprised. We went pretty high,” general manager Al Campanis told the Los Angeles Daily News.

Unable to reach a contract with the Dodgers, Garvey filed for free agency, which officially closed the door on his time in Los Angeles. The Dodgers for the most part stayed away from free agency, almost entirely, after the disastrous signings of Don Stanhouse and Dave Goltz in 1980, until the whirlwind offseason of 1988 that saw them sign Kirk Gibson and Mike Davis, among others.

“This has been a very disappointing evening, probably the saddest of my life,” Garvey told the San Bernardino Sun after negotiations with the Dodgers ended without a contract. “It is a very low point in my life. It’s a very sad evening and there will be many people who I will miss. I have been a Los Angeles Dodger for 14 years contractually and a Dodger for 27 years.”

The latter referred to Garvey growing up in Florida, with his father a bus driver driving the Dodgers around during spring training in Vero Beach.

In the 1982-83 offseason, free agents would enter a re-entry draft, and only the teams that selected them would be allowed to bid on their services. Each team could only bid on a certain number of players, with the idea being to try to limit unfettered spending. So it wasn’t exactly an open market.

Nine teams selected Garvey, per the San Bernardino Sun: Cubs, White Sox, Astros, Yankees, Padres, Giants, Rangers, Pirates, and Mariners.

The Dodgers did not select Garvey, after not reaching a deal in early negotiations. “We had ample time,” team president Peter O’Malley told the LA Daily News. “We made our best offer, and it was not good enough.”

After about six weeks of the courting process, Garvey got his five-year deal, with the Padres agreeing on a $6.6 million contract.

Free agents back then were split into designations based on stats from the Elias Sports Bureau. Type A free agents were considered the top 20 percent at their position, which meant a team losing such a player would receive a second-round draft pick from the signing team as compensation. The Dodgers in 1983 got picks from the Padres for signing Garvey and from the Braves for reliever Terry Forster. With the Garvey pick, the Dodgers took right-handed pitcher Mike Cherry, who did not progress past Double-A.

A month after Garvey signed with the Padres, the Dodgers traded third baseman Ron Cey to the Cubs. Three quarters of The Infield were gone. The Dodgers integrated first baseman Greg Brock and outfielder Mike Marshall into everyday roles for the first time, with Pedro Guerrero and his special bat moving to third base. They won the National League West in 1983, the transition in full force.

Garvey would play five years with San Diego, even making a World Series with them in 1984. He made such an impression with the Padres that the team retired his number six, a step the Dodgers have not taken. The numbers on the back of this 1983 Topps Baseball card weren’t enough.