With his big-league career in rapid freefall, Lee Tunnell got an unexpected boost from a veteran scout and grabbed hold of an opportunity presented by the Cardinals. Six months later, Tunnell was pitching in the World Series.
During spring training in 1987, Cardinals scout Rube Walker was following the Pirates to assess whether catcher Tony Pena was a player St. Louis should acquire.
Walker, 60, had been a big-league catcher with the Cubs and Dodgers. He was the pitching coach for the Mets when they won the 1969 World Series championship and 1973 National League pennant and for the Braves when they won the 1982 NL West title. Walker joined the Cardinals in 1986 as special assignment scout.
While scouting Pena, Walker got to see Tunnell pitch in spring training with the Pirates.
Walking the plank
Tunnell, a right-hander, was 21 when he made his major-league debut with the 1982 Pirates. The next season, he was 11-6 with Pittsburgh.
Then his career skidded. He was 1-7 with the Pirates in 1984 and 4-10 in 1985. Tunnell spent the 1986 season in the minor leagues with Hawaii and was 4-11 with a 6.01 ERA.
“My career has been on a downhill slope, but (in 1986) it was pretty steep,” Tunnell said.
When he reported to spring training in 1987, the Pirates told Tunnell, 26, he no longer was in their plans and they would try to deal him. Tunnell handed the Pirates a list of places he’d like to pitch. St. Louis was one of those.
On April 1, 1987, the Pirates traded Pena to the Cardinals for outfielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne.
The Pirates also talked to the Cardinals about Tunnell. “We weren’t real interested in him because his record had been pretty weak,” Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Maxvill had a change of heart when he talked with Walker. The scout told Maxvill that Tunnell had an effective fastball and breaking pitch. After reading Walker’s scouting report, Maxvill met with Lee Thomas, director of player development for the Cardinals.
“We talked it over again and decided to go for him,” Maxvill said.
Thirty years ago, on April 6, 1987, the Cardinals purchased Tunnell’s contract from the Pirates and assigned him to their Class AAA minor-league affiliate at Louisville.
Pitching for Louisville manager Mike Jorgensen, Tunnell regained his form and validated Walker’s endorsement. “This was just a time in my career where I needed a new start with somebody else,” said Tunnell.
In six starts for Louisville, Tunnell was 4-1 with a 3.41 ERA.
On May 15, 1987, the Cardinals placed outfielder Jim Lindeman on the disabled list and called up Tunnell. Two days later, Tunnell got a start against the Reds in place of Joe Magrane, who had sprained an ankle.
The May 17 game between the Reds and Cardinals at St. Louis was a matchup of pitchers seeking to revive their careers. Starting for the Reds was Jerry Reuss, 37, a St. Louis native and former Cardinal who had joined the Reds after being released by the Dodgers.
Pitching in a big-league game for the first time in two years, Tunnell showed he wasn’t washed up. He held the Reds to two runs in seven innings and got the win in his Cardinals debut. Tunnell also singled and drove in a run in a 10-2 Cardinals victory. Reuss yielded 10 hits, two walks and seven runs in 4.2 innings. Boxscore
Tom Pagnozzi, who caught Tunnell’s gem and contributed a grand slam off Reds reliever Guy Hoffman, said of the Cardinals starter, “His fastball was running in and out. He had a good slider and an outstanding curveball. He kept it down all game and they kept swinging and missing.”
Pena, watching from the Cardinals bench while on the disabled list, said of his former Pirates teammate: “He pitched today like he did in 1983. The Pirates lost confidence in him and then he lost his confidence. Sometimes it’s good to make a change. It was the right move and he’s excited about being here.”
Tunnell won three of his first four decisions with the Cardinals.
In August 1987, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of a shoulder ailment. “Anytime I put effort into my fastball, it felt like my shoulder was coming out of its socket,” Tunnell said.
The rest enabled Tunnell to regain strength in the shoulder. On Aug. 29, he pitched effectively in a rehabilitation start for Class A Springfield, Ill. Three days later, he was reactivated by the Cardinals.
Utilized as a reliever, Tunnell pitched 8.2 scoreless innings in eight September appearances for the Cardinals, helping them clinch the NL East title.
His regular-season record: 4-4 with a 4.84 ERA.
For the NL Championship Series versus the Giants, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog opted to keep just eight pitchers on the postseason roster, leaving no room for Tunnell.
After the Cardinals won the pennant, Herzog determined injured first baseman Jack Clark wouldn’t be able to play in the World Series against the Twins, so he replaced Clark on the roster with Tunnell.
Tunnell appeared in relief in two World Series games, posting a 2.08 ERA by yielding one earned run in 4.1 innings.
In 1988, Tunnell spent the season at Louisville and was 6-8 with a 3.86 ERA. The Cardinals released him in October 1988.
In August 2012, Tunnell became Brewers bullpen coach. He has held that role each year since.