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Rabbit Ball: the wacky 1987 baseball season

Jan 16, 2013, 1:42 AM EDT

George Bell - 1987 Topps All-Star

1987 was the first year I truly started paying attention to baseball statistics. I didn’t really get to watch any baseball; while I experienced the 1986 Braves season and that year’s playoffs on TV, I was without cable the following few years and NBC never came in very well through our antenna. However, I did start playing Little League, seriously collecting baseball cards and reading about Rotisserie League Baseball. Thus, baseball — and especially the numbers — became a big part of my life at age nine.

1987 was also the oddest baseball season in my lifetime. Maybe the oddest since World War II or even 1900, going by the numbers. That year’s stats would fit in nicely in 1935 or 2000, but they stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of what was a pitcher friendly era.

Most home runs in a season – 1980s

Andre Dawson – 49 – 1987
Mark McGwire – 49 – 1987
Mike Schmidt – 48 – 1980
George Bell – 47 – 1987
Kevin Mitchell – 47 – 1989
Dale Murphy – 44 – 1987

Highest OPS in a season – 1980s

George Brett – 1.118 – 1980
Jack Clark – 1.055 – 1987
Wade Boggs – 1.049 – 1987
Kevin Mitchell – 1.023 – 1989
George Brett – 1.022 – 1985
Mike Schmidt – 1.004 – 1980
Paul Molitor – 1.003 – 1987
Pedro Guerrero – .999 – 1985
Dale Murphy – .997 – 1987
Reggie Jackson – .995 – 1980
Eric Davis – .991 – 1987
Mark McGwire – .986 – 1987
Dwight Evans – .986 – 1987
Darryl Strawberry – .981 – 1987

That’s eight of the top 14 in the decade from 1987. If I went down further, it’d be 14 of the top 25, with Tony Gwynn, Bell, Guerrero, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell and Will Clark all joining the list.

In writing up some of Andre Dawson’s comments a couple of days ago, I made the point that Dawson might not be a Hall of Famer today if not for the unique conditions of 1987. A couple of people actually countered my assertion that there was anything different about that season. I think 14 of the top 25 OPSs of the decade makes a pretty good case that there was.

You’ll notice Dawson’s name isn’t anywhere in the above OPS list. Of course, 1987 was his MVP season, thanks to his NL-leading 49 homers and 137 RBI. However, his .287/.328/.568 line gave him just the league’s 10th best OPS. His 130 OPS+ that season was the seventh best mark of his career. Many would argue that he was a better player in his days with the Expos.

1987 saw 79 different players hit 20 homers, far and away a new major league record.

Players with 20+ homers:

1982 – 51
1983 – 41
1984 – 45
1985 – 59
1986 – 60
1987 – 79
1988 – 45
1989 – 38
1990 – 45
1991 – 51
1992 – 37
1993 – 62 (expansion)

The number likely would have increased steadily from there if not for the strike cutting into the 1994 and 1995 seasons. 1987’s record was broken in 1996 (83 players). That was the first of nine straight seasons with 80, topping out at 103 in 1999 and 102 in 2000. As you surely guessed, it’s slipped again of late, going from 92 to 87 to 77 to 68 to 79 the last five years.

Among the players to hit 20 homers in 1987 was future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. One of the most intelligent hitters in the game’s history, Boggs probably could have hit 20 homers annually if he wanted to. 1987, though, was the only season he thought it made sense to do so. Outside of his 24 that year, his high water mark for homers was 11.

Back to Dawson for a second. Apart from 1987’s 49-homer campaign, his career high for homers was 32. But then he was far from the only Cub to set a career high for homers that year.

– First baseman Leon Durham had 27, five more than in any other season. It was his last useful season before substance-abuse problems ended his career.

– Third baseman Keith Moreland had 27, 11 more than his next best total. He hit 11 more total in his career.

– Left fielder Jerry Mumphrey hit 13 in 309 at-bats. He previously had six seasons of at least 400 at-bats, yet he had never topped nine homers. He finished his career with 73 homerless at-bats in 1988.

– Infielder Manny Trillo had eight homers in 214 at-bats as a 36-year-old utilityman, an average of one every 27 at-bats. He had 53 homers in his other 5,736 major league at-bats, an average of one every 108 at-bats.  After 1987, he’d have 205 more major league at-bats and hit one homer.

– Outfielder Bob Dernier hit eight homers in 199 at-bats, twice as many as he had ever hit previously. He averaged a homer every 25 at-bats that year and one every 152 at-bats over the rest of his 10-year career.

Rafael Palmeiro, for what it’s worth, did not hit for his highest homer total as a 22-year-old rookie for the Cubs in 1987. However, after hitting 14 in 221 at-bats that year, he went on to hit a total of 16 in 1,139 at-bats over the next two years. He didn’t top 14 until 1991, though he did it a few times after that.

1987 also produced some weird statistics on the pitching side, most notably Nolan Ryan leading the NL in ERA while going 8-16 for Houston. Rick Sutcliffe led the NL with 18 wins, which was the lowest total ever to lead the league in a non-strike year until 2006 came along. That result helped produce a remarkably close Cy Young race, with closer Steve Bedrosian (57 points) edging out Sutcliffe (55) and Rick Reuschel (54).

The MVP balloting, of course, gets a very bad rap these days, with WAR saying that neither Dawson nor AL winner George Bell were among the 10 best players in their respective leagues.   WAR says Gwynn, who hit .370/.447/.511 to Dawson’s .287/.328/.568, was the NL’s top player, with Eric Davis next in line. WAR ranks Cy Young winner Roger Clemens first in the AL, with Boggs and Trammell not far behind. Trammell finished a close second to Bell in the balloting, claiming 12 first-place votes to Bell’s 16.

So, that’s a bit about 1987. MLB has never gone on record about what exactly changed inside the baseball to produce the unique season, but whatever alterations were made were quickly reversed afterwards.

I should also probably mention here that the Twins beat the Cardinals in the World Series, with Frank Viola capping a terrific season by winning Games 1 and 7 (he lost Game 4) and taking home MVP honors.

Of course, having had a bedtime, I don’t really remember much of that happening. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember 49 (Dawson and McGwire) and 47 (Bell).

  1. kappy32 - Jan 16, 2013 at 2:27 AM

    Cool, very cool. I like how you laid out the statistics for subsequent years, too. Had you not done that, I would’ve automatically assumed ’87 was the beginning of The Steroid Era. However, with the numbers dropping drastically in the next few years, it’s apparent that 1987 was more of an aberration than anything else. I wonder if MLB did a behind-the-scenes experiment with juiced baseballs or something that year. I doubt anyone will know the truth & it’ll always be chalked up to a statistical aberration & the only year of the 1980’s that can compare to the Post-Steroid Era of today.

  2. Matthew Pouliot - Jan 16, 2013 at 3:00 AM

    The 1987 Cubs are fascinating me at the moment. Obviously, Dawson was pretty great in the clutch to get his 137 RBI. But it’s amazing just how terrible everyone else on the team was in RBI situations:

    None on: .271 avg, .456 slg
    Men on: .255 avg, .399 slg
    RISP: .239 avg, .363 slg

    Dawson hit .330 and slugged .654 in 179 AB with RISP. The rest of the team hit .225 and slugged .319 in 1,176 AB with RISP. Dawson had 15 of their 35 homers with RISP.

    But that lack of success partly made Dawson’s job easier. Every runner Sandberg (hitting ahead of Dawson) left on base was one Dawson could drive in. And Sandberg wasn’t driving in anyone himself. He hit .233/.331/.310 with two homers and 42 RBI in 129 AB with RISP. Overall, he had one of his best OBP and his worst RBI seasons, which was just perfect for Dawson as far as racking up the RBIs.

    Oh, and those last place Cubs had three future Hall of Famers in Dawson, Sandberg and Greg Maddux (6-14, 5.61 ERA), plus two more guys currently receiving votes in Lee Arthur Smith and Palmeiro, plus the one player from 1987 to play in the majors in 2012 in Jamie Moyer (12-15, 5.10 ERA). They nearly had both the MVP and Cy Young winner (Sutcliffe). And all it got them was a 76-85 record.

    • professormaddog31 - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:53 AM

      In Dawson’s book, he states that he enjoyed playing at Wrigley almost more than anywhere else, and he felt appreciated by the Cubs fans and team. Could it be a simple case of Hawk getting a boost of enthusiasm along with the other oddities of the ’87 season?

    • RickyB - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:41 AM

      While offense was up across the league, it may have hit the Cubs even harder due to weather conditions. The variation in weather patters at Wrigley Field have caused the park to go from hitter’s park to pitcher’s park and back and forth. Could have been an exceptional year for hitters there as well.

  3. sdelmonte - Jan 16, 2013 at 4:33 AM

    It was also a great year for Strat players. My brother and I used to take selected sluggers and do a Home Run Derby once in a while. That season made for a lot of fun.

    • mjames1229 - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:48 AM

      As a teenager, I bought my first Strat-O-Matic set after the 1984 season, then bought a set of cards after the 1987 season.

      Mercy, the ’87 Cubs almost never lost a game that was played against any ’84 team (including the Tigers). The ’87 Red Sox were pretty devastating, too.

      • kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:33 AM

        Growing up, we had a watered down version using baseball cards called “Big League Baseball”. We were big enough baseball card collectors that we would make individual teams for each big league team. The conversion chart had two sides, those with over 20 homers and those with under.

        The most fun team to play with was the Detroit Tigers, because they were the only team you could build an All-Over-20-Home-Run team at each position from 1985-1992:

        C- Matt Nokes
        1B: Cecil Fielder
        2B: Lou Whitaker
        SS: Alan Trammel
        3B: Travis Fryman
        OF: Chet Lemon
        OF: Kirk Gibson
        OF: Rob Deer
        DH: Mickey Tettleton

  4. 6stn - Jan 16, 2013 at 6:11 AM

    Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark, teammates on the 1987 Cardinals probably cancelled each other out in the MVP voting, finishing second and third, respectively. Smith hit over .300 for the first time in his career, with 75 RBI and 0 home runs. Clark was having a monster season until he injured himself tripping over first base against Montreal in late July.

  5. bankboy2012 - Jan 16, 2013 at 6:41 AM

    Wade Boggs hit 24 HR’s that year and only hit double digits in a season once more after that, hitting 11 in (amusingly enough) the strike-shortened 1994. He hit roughly 20% of his career home runs in 1987 alone.

    • bankboy2012 - Jan 16, 2013 at 6:44 AM

      And this is why I shouldn’t comment early in the morning. I somehow skipped over the paragraph mentioning Boggs.

  6. woodenulykteneau - Jan 16, 2013 at 7:19 AM

    The question is not “Why were there so many HRs in 1987?” but, rather “Why did they drop so suddenly in 1988?” (Hint: It had nothing whatsoever to do with the ball)

    The answer: MLB changed the strike zone, redefining it as “the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.”

    While that may seem counterintuitive, those of us who were old enough to remember the early-to-mid-1980s can put it more simply: “They started calling strikes that were above the belt again.”

    Sadly, as noted in this article that definition only held true for a couple of seasons. Click through to that link if you’re of the ilk that prefers data to support conclusions less simplistic than “the rabbit ball.”

  7. proudlycanadian - Jan 16, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    1) I have a vague memory that at the time commentators said that the baseballs were juiced. I think that there was a claim that the manufacturing process had changed.

    2) Nice to see the old George Bell card. Bell was a rule 5 draftee who worked out rather well for the Jays.

  8. philliesblow - Jan 16, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    That makes Doyle Alexander’s run with the Tigers in 1987 all the more amazing. 11 starts, 9 – 0 record. 1.53 ERA, 279 ERA+, 1.008 WHIP. Only 3 HR allowed in 88.1 innings.

    • kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:38 AM

      I wonder if the Tigers GM thought after the season Alexander’s performance thought “Man, that was a move of pure genius. No way anyone will ever be able to second guess me on that one!”

  9. shoehole - Jan 16, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    Makes you wonder why Jack Morris had such a high ERA during the 80’s and won the most games. I am still trying to figure out why Whittiger and Trammel are not in the HOF. Look up their records.

    • weaselpuppy - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:28 AM

      because the BBWAA is a group of self congratulating grudge holding prima donna wankers.

      That hate anything Tigers. Freehan should be in too.Look at his numbers in context of all of it being in the “second dead ball era”

      5 Catchers voted into the HOF that played post WW2? Five?, they’ll bump that up soon with Pudge Rodriguez and eventually Piazza….but Nobody that started their career from 1949 to 1967.

      Oh, and in 1987 , BBWAA, it was Trammell’s Tigers that caught and passed Bell’s Blue Jays from a 2 game deficit by sweeping the 3 game last series of the season, with Trammell increasing his BA from 324 to 343 the last month to win the batting title, hitting .417 and OPS 1.167 that month, with 7 of his 28 HR down the stretch…SMOKING HOT….while Bell goes 1-11 in that decisive series and is outhomered by Tram in September. 7-6…BRUTAL, BBWAA, BRUTAL…

  10. paperlions - Jan 16, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    Based on popular opinion with respect to the “steroid era”, I am forced to conclude that every MLB player was forced to take steroids in 1987, and then not allowed to in 1988 and that there were no changes to the ball. If that explanation is good enough for why HR rates suddenly increased in the middle of the 1993 season (a factor that didn’t enjoy a full season until 1996 thanks to the strike), then it is good enough for 1987 as well.

  11. jlovenotjlo - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    Great article Matt. This is what offseason articles should consist of. Extremely cool.

  12. kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    We all know Dawson probably shouldn’t have won the MVP in 1987, but who should have? The number of legitimate candidates that year was absurd. In most seasons, there are, at most, 2 or 3 players people will argue over. In 1987?

    -Dale Murphy hit 44 homers and had a .997 OPS
    -Eric Davis hit 37 HR with a .293/.399/.593 line and *50* stolen bases
    -Pedro Guerrero hit .338 with 27 HR and a .955 OPS in a pitcher’s park
    -Tim Raines hit .330 with 123 runs, a .955 OPS and 50 steals
    -Darry Strawberry hit 39 homers, 36 steals and a .981 OPS
    -Mike Schmidt had last Mike Schmidt like season with 35 HR, 113 RBI and an OPS 1 point lower than his MVP winning 1986 season
    -Tony Gwynn hit .370 with a .958 OPS and lead the league in WAR
    -Will Clark hit .308 with 35 homers and a .951 OPS (he was also an awful 5 for 22 in stolen base attempts)
    -Jack Clark lead the league with a 1.055 OPS, hit 35 homers and walked more than once per game
    -Ozzie Smith combined his legendary glove with his best all-time hitting season and finished 5th in WAR

    The AL was a bit clearer as Boggs and Trammel clearly lead the pack (except in the minds of the voters). Still, 12 players posted an OPS above .900, compared to 4 the year before and 7 the year after.

    What a silly, silly year for baseball.

  13. stlouis1baseball - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:36 AM

    Nice article.
    Good work…dipwad!

  14. tfbuckfutter - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    I find it interesting that every stat up there occurred in 1980, 1985, 1987 or 1989.

    Not a single one from 81, 82, 83, 84, 86 or 88…..

    This is why I can kind of see Andre Dawson’s point about not playing with many HOFers….the 80s was just not a good decade for offensive players.

    Is it because the pitchers were so much better than the hitters or because there was an overall weak pool of hitters (which would make the pitchers look better)?

    Who knows? That’s why it’s tough to compare across generations.

    • paperlions - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:06 AM

      Holy cow that is full of fail. Inter-annual variation is not a sign of the over-all quality of play for a time frame.

      • paperlions - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:07 AM

        ….do I need to list all of the HOFers already elected that played in the 80’s again? There were over 40 of them, with many more that are deserving that weren’t or haven’t been enshrined yet.

      • tfbuckfutter - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:46 AM

        Like I said in the other article, seemed like most of those players you listed peaked in the 70s or 90s. Not in the 80s. And, I don’t recall, but were all 40 of those players everyday players or were pitchers included?

        The 80s was a kind of crummy time for offensive baseball. What is the problem with that statement?

      • jm91rs - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:16 AM

        Do you just scan the pages and look for comments from tfbuckfutter so you can slam him? I’m pretty new to the site but I typically stop reading the comments section the minute you step up onto your high horse.

      • paperlions - Jan 16, 2013 at 12:13 PM

        Nope, I just call people out that say obviously incorrect things….like this one. I honestly have no idea if or how often I’ve said such things.

        ….and it isn’t a high horse, it is called data. If people post casual observations or “conclusions” that aren’t based on information, and, in fact, are in opposition to said information, I’ll point out that that fact.

      • paperlions - Jan 16, 2013 at 12:20 PM

        Here are some guys who were at their peak in the 80s, admittedly, all are not HOFer or did not have HOF careers, much of which was due to longevity, not peak performance:

        Rickey Henderson
        Wade Boggs
        Mike Schmidt
        Robin Yount
        Cal Ripken
        Alan Trammell
        Eddie Murray
        George Brett
        Tim Raines
        Ozzie Smith
        Gary Carter
        Dale Murphy
        Andre Dawson
        Keith Hernandez
        Lou Whitaker
        Paul Molitor
        Willie Randolph
        Ryne Sandberg
        Don Mattingly
        Tony Gwynn
        Lance Parrish
        Kirk Gibson
        Carlton Fisk
        Nolan Ryan (just as good as he was in the 70s)
        Bert Blyleven
        Roger Clemens
        Steve Carlton (best years were early 80s)
        Dwight Gooden
        Fernando Vlenzuela
        Frank Viola

        Yeah, the pitchers don’t really stack up. Longevity and health was a much bigger factor in ending careers than it is with modern surgical procedures.

    • thegreatstoneface - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:55 AM

      you shud try bref’s era adjustment tool. it’ll make it a lot easier to compare across generations…if you think thru what it’s doing, and what it shows you…

  15. Minoring In Baseball - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    That was the last great season for the Tigers for a long time. I wish they could have won the East that year. It would have been a good series with the Twins. Trammell has never gotten the respect he deserves.

  16. askingwater - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    I still don’t understand the particular incentive for MLB to juice the balls in ’87. MLB was riding high in popularity after the Mets-Red Sox series of ’86 and the NFL was about to go on strike in ’87. I understand why MLB allowed the PLAYERS to be juiced after the ’94 strike season (to bring the fans backs), but ’87 will go down as one of the oddest, more inexplicable years in baseball history.

  17. xmatt0926x - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    I remember that season like it was last year. Everyone knew something was up right from the beginning. I don’t know if I buy that it was just a result of a smaller strike zone being called. The difference in home runs was drastic. Whenever anyone talks about a spiked ball or a crazy home run year, 1987 always pops into my head first. It’s good business for baseball. Interest always seems to go up when the ball is flying out of the park.

  18. kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    Looking at the stats from 1987 makes me wonder: What ever happened to Kal Daniels? He looked ripe for superstardom

    1986: As a 22 year old rookie, he hits .320/.398/.519 and steals 15 in 17 attempts
    1987: Misses a chunk of time, but in 109 games, hits 26 home runs swipes 26 and hits a whopping .334/.429/.617
    1988: Scores 95 runs, steals 26 bases and leads the league in OBP, posting a .860 OPS (with an impressive 143 OPS…this was 1988 remember, the batting title was won by Tony Gwynn hitting .313).
    1989: Injured, help to 55 games
    1990: 27 home runs, 155 OPS

    …and then, kaput. Done. He turned completely terrible at the age of 27 and was out of baseball by after the 1992 season. A guy who posted a 151 OPS to from ages 22-26.

    What could have been….

    • zzalapski - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:26 AM

      My lasting memory of Kal Daniels is his base”running” fail from his last season in the majors (5:33 mark in the video).

  19. mjames1229 - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Don’t forget the year of the balk in 1988!

    (Ok, I am not sure how it ties in, other than homers spiked in 1987 and declined in 1988, while balks spiked in 1988 and declined in 1989).

  20. paepae805 - Jan 16, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    1987 was the first year I started collecting baseball cards. Gotta love the 87 Topps Wood design. Buy a pack of 16 cards with a stick of gum for only 50 cents, what a deal.

    1987 was the first year I really starting paying attention to stats as well. As a Brewers fan, I remember Molitor’s 39 game hitting streak during the summer and the Brewers 13-0 start to the season. As well as the homerun numbers of McGuire, Dawson, and Bell.

    • kirkvanhouten - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:06 AM

      Of course, Matthew’s error in choosing the 1987 Topps George Bell is that the back of the card shows his *1986* statistics. He really should have used this image:

      • umrguy42 - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:08 AM

        But that wood design was awesome, though :p

    • sabatimus - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:45 AM

      Even if it was one of the most worthless sets in card-collecting history.

  21. disulfide - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    I was hoping for a Wally Joyner mention 😦

  22. e5again - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:34 AM

    Reading the stats in this story and comments brings me back to RBI Baseball on the NES. Loved that game.

  23. genericcommenter - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    My experiences with 1987 are the same. It was when I started playing and following baseball statistics, and it was clear within a few years that there WAS something different about that year.

    I also blame 1987 for inflating the value of baseball cards and creating many false “future hall of famers” and superstar rookies. It seemed like every rookie or young guy that year hit at least 20 homeruns and there were any number of guys who seemed poised to join the 500 club with enough longevity. Or in the cases of guys like Wally Joyner, you (or me as an 8 year-old) would see a guy who hit .290 with 22 HR as a rookie and follow that up with a 34 HR season and just think this was a guy who was maturing and progressing in his development as a slugger.

  24. thegreatstoneface - Jan 16, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    you know…it’s likely that the offensive explosion of ’87 was similar to the coming explosion in the ’90’s. by that i mean that there are likely several small things that accumulated to create a ‘perfect storm’…not just juiced baseballs, not just steroids, not just dicking with the strikezone, not just better nutriiton, not just smaller ballparks coming online, not just better use of video…not just any one of those things…

    it was all of them, i think.

    same thing with the single season abberation, i imagine.

    i mean really…it was game wide…that speaks to the environment being different, for everyone…

    • cur68 - Jan 16, 2013 at 12:09 PM

      There’s some truth to what you say, Stoneface: but there’s a historical example that indicates changes to the ball are much more likely. The turn of the century Dead ball/Live Ball era saw rule changes render baseballs much more hittable and Ruth’s emergence as HR hitter: batters could see the baseball and were crushing it. Since the changes in rules about ball use were unilateral and not subject to strike zone interpretation or variation in parks, supplements, coaching, training, or weather effect, there’s a generalized up-tick in hitting based on changes to ball use. Hence we have a very good precedence for some alteration in the baseball being responsible (certainly MORE responsible that any other factor or an agglomeration of many tiny factors).

      Independent studies on baseballs confirms variations in baseball composition that co-incide with HR spikes INDEPENDENT of ball use changes. Stiffer cores, use of synthetics, heavier balls have all been noted.

      I’ll link the study that gets the most attention:

      But then baseball weights have hardly been consistent. In the 60’s there were spikes in HRs as Maris & Mantle threatened Ruth’s HR record. Again, tests on the ball confirm a differently weighted ball.

      Mathew’s point about a “rabbit” ball are well made. That 1987 ball contained synthetics in its wrap. It was drier and firmer. In the mid-90’s the same thing happened: the ball had more synthetic, this time including the core. Each time, HR spikes.

  25. shoehole - Jan 16, 2013 at 11:14 AM

    Kirkvanhoutan. The operation on Kal Daniels knee in 1989 eventually would end his career. If I remember correctly, Daniels had a earlier operation on the same knee. The last operation slowed him down quite a bit.

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