Macho Low, Part 10: Kevin Foster ate the Phillies’ worst innings

While the regular Phillies were barfing, Kevin Foster and the back-ups took the field.

There were some big personalities on the 1993 Phillies. But they weren’t the only ones. As part of a commemoration of the team’s 25th anniversary, we’re taking a look at the back-ups, drop-ins, and less-remembered Phillies who didn’t make it into a lot of the archival footage.

Kevin Foster

Position: Post-clinch innings-eater

Age: 24

Stats: 14.85 ERA, 6 SO, 7 BB in 6.2 IP

The Phillies played some pivotal games in 1993. But not every start is a crucial one. We learn this early, in backyards playing wiffle ball: Not every pitch matters in a long season. Sometimes, the dramatics of which baseball is capable are replaced by low stakes, no audience, and a desire to just go home for dinner.

The 1993 Phillies played a game on September 29 in which many players we talk about in this series crossed paths. We talked about it when we talked about Jeff Manto. We talked about it when we talked about Brad Brink. It was a lineup of back-ups, fill-ins, drop-by’s… it featured all of the players you don’t remember from a mostly memorable year.

There’s a reason for this: The Phillies spent the previous night doing what they did all year, only this time, they were doing it with a division title in their clutches.

So, with fistfuls of painkillers and the clubhouse converted into a nap room, the Phillies went into this game knowing they would likely get their asses kicked. And nobody got their ass kicked harder that day than Kevin Foster; a 24-year old kid just over two weeks removed from his major league debut.

Drafted by the Expos wout of Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois, Foster was supposed to be an infielder, and was one for three years before someone scratched their chin, eyed him pensively, and announced that he was now a pitcher.

Foster spent a few unremarkable years in the Montreal farm system, logging eye-catching ERAs of 2.74 in 34 games in 1991 and 1.95 in 16 games in 1992 with 9.8 and 8.6 SO/9, respectively. But the walks were an issue—he had 68 of them in 102 innings in 1991 alone. Nevertheless, he piqued somebody’s interest in Seattle, and the Mariners made a low-profile move to bring him into the fold with a largely unreported trade.

He wasn’t long for the Seattle organization, putting in a few innings with their Double-A squad, the Jacksonville Suns, alongside teammates like Edgar Martinez and Desi Relaford. Up north, Lee Thomas’ bullpen itches continued. He found Foster’s name on a stat sheet and couldn’t live without him. Knowing Thomas, he probably woke somebody up with a phone call to announce his intention to add and subtract yet again to and from his pitching options.

It was Bob Ayrault who Thomas sent to Seattle in exchange for Foster’s arm on June 12. Foster spent most of the season down in the minors before getting called up in September to make his major league debut while Lenny Dykstra puked in a BP bucket and John Kruk woke up face down on a sprinkler. Re-hydrate, gang. Gotta replenish those electrolytes.

So Foster goes out there with what’s very likely to be the 1993 Phillies’ worst possible defensive and offensive set-ups with the job of plowing through nine innings and just get the team one day closer to the playoff run it had earned. The best way to do this would be to get outs quickly, so that everyone could move on with their lives, but sadly, Foster, with over 46,000 fans at The Vet watching the most meaningless game of the season, had just the one big league appearance from which to draw experience.

Let’s catch up with the action in the bottom of the first inning:

  • Walk
  • Stolen Base
  • RBI single
  • Wild pitch

Okay. Okay. Deep breaths. You remember how to get outs, right? Just… get some of those now.

  • Strikeout swinging
  • Walk
  • Fly ball
  • Wild pitch

All right, well, outs are generally more effective if they’re not paced by base runners, but outs are outs, and now there’s two of them.

  • RBI double
  • Ground out

It’s over! The first inning, that is. Foster would give up a lead-off home run in the second, and RBI single in the third, and back-to-back jacks in the fourth when finally, Jim Fregosi was startled out of his nap with only one pant leg on and waved Brad Brink in from the bullpen.

The Phillies lost big time and Foster never played for them again. Instead, the following April the Phillies sent him to the Cubs, where he’d spend 1994-98 as a mostly ineffective starter. In 1995, the National League feasted on Foster, giving him the league lead in home runs surrendered, with 32 in 28 starts. On July 16, he actually gave up four of them to the Reds in a game the Cubs still managed to win, 7-5.

While he was pounded with dingers, earlier that season, Foster got to give one of them back. Playing at the still freshly christened Coors Field in Denver, Foster gave the Cubs an early 1-0 advantage with a solo shot, but then gave up a home run to Rockies pitcher Marvin Freeman—who upped the ante with a three-run shot—and let Colorado take a 4-3 lead.

Foster was not typically the center of drama, but was occasionally a supporting player in it. On May 12, 1996, the Mets were celebrating John Franco Day at Shea Stadium. The long-time New York reliever had recorded his 300th career save, and the team held a ceremony prior to their game against the Cubs to celebrate the achievement. Foster, pitching for the Cubs, celebrated it too in his own way, by throwing a heater at Mets catcher Todd Hundley’s head. Hundley dodged the blow, but the Mets still felt the pitch warranted payback, and Pete Harnisch hit Foster with a fastball later in the game.

Cubs catcher Scott Servais took particular umbrage at this in defense of his pitcher.

That irked Servais, who told his old buddy as he ran past him after a groundout, according to the game account in the Chicago Tribune: “Why do you gotta hit Kevin? We’re not throwing at Todd.”

You know where this is going. And in the fifth inning, when Cubs reliever Terry Adams threw inside at Harnisch, it went there. For 16 minutes.

Harnisch called the brawl “biblical.” That fight wound up putting a lasting schism between he and Servais, who had come up together as players, and took them a bit of time to push past it as friends.

Harnisch left the game, ejected, with “scratches on his face and neck,” but didn’t seem too bugged by the ordeal, given the Mets’ 7-6 win.

”It was long and ugly–and we got the big hit,” said Harnisch, who got the brawl going by punching Cubs catcher Scott Servais in the chest. “I expected to get thrown out, but I’m glad we won the game.”

Franco was one of the nine players ejected and spent the ninth inning, when the Mets really could have used him, nursing a cut below his eye. Foster managed not only to avoid an ejection, but was not among the many coaches and players suspended or fined in the fallout.

But Foster’s career included more than just the spark that set off a powder keg on boring afternoon on the North side. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Foster was a terrific narrative choice to be the first Cubs starter to face off against the White Sox in interleague play in 1997. Official interleague play, anyway; the Cubs and White Sox actually played a City Series every year after the regular season ended from 1909 to 1942. Also, the mayor of Chicago suggested they play twice after the strike in 1981. Also, they played a few one-game contests for charity from 1985 to 1994.

So, Foster getting the ball for the “first” interleague match-up between two sub-.500 teams in 1997 may not have been the “big moment” promoters intended. Which may have been why it was trusted to Kevin Foster. He went six innings and allowed three runs in a Cubs 8-3 win.

Foster tried a comeback in 2001 with the Rangers after suffering from some shoulder issues, wound up in the minors, and pitched for the independent league St. Paul Saints in 2003.

In October 2008, Foster passed away from cancer at 39. He had taken a job as a truck driver in his post-playing career and had been engaged to be married. His former GM with the Cubs, Ed Lynch, lauded his determination as a high-round draft pick who pushed his way into the majors, and the Cubs remembered him as “very popular with his teammates, the organization and fans.”

Foster, a big league ball player, was still living at home in Evanston during his mid to late nineties career with Chicago. A former Cubs media relations staffer, Chuck Blogerstrom, would often give him rides, during which he learned firsthand that the reputation of Foster as an insightful, humble individual was perfectly accurate.

I’m guessing I drove [Foster] home 8-to-10 times. He would talk about taking the train to Wrigley Field as a kid, just like I did. He would talk about his family, how close he was with them, about how they kept him grounded, about why he didn’t see a reason to move out. He wondered how often he’d get home cooking if he moved out.

Foster didn’t get the ball for the 1993 Phillies when the World Series came around. He got it the day they just needed someone to pitch. But regardless of his role, and beyond his stats, he seemed to have had maintained the same human decency and pure baseball desires of backyard wiffle ballers: In the end, all he wanted was to play ball and go home for dinner.

References:

“Home Run’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Monumental Dingers, Prodigious Swingers, and Everything Long Ball,” by David Vincent

“100 Things Cubs Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” by Jimmy Greenfield

“Baseball’s Boneheads, Bad Boys & Just Plain Crazy Guys,” by George Sullivan

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