Monday, August 25, 2008

Next up for Hall of Fame

Sports Illustrated reports on the next steps for the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee:

Allie Reynolds, Joe Gordon and Vern Stephens are among 10 players whose careers began before 1943 who will be considered by the Hall of Fame's constituted Veterans Committee when it meets on Dec. 7.

Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, Sherry Magee, Carl Mays, Mickey Vernon, Bucky Walters and Deacon White also will be on the ballot, the Hall said Monday. The 10 finalists were selected by a committee of the Baseball Writers' Association of America that considered pre-1943 players. A 12-member committee of Hall of Famers, media and historians will vote.

In the coming days, I'll address the relative credentials of each of these candidates. My initial take is that none of them are worthy of the Hall, but I need to consider them more closely before rendering the final decision. In particular, I want to look closer at Joe Gordon and Deacon White.

Stay tuned for my analysis this week.

Friday, August 22, 2008

On this date... Marichal vs. Roseboro

I almost let this day go by without talking about the infamous incident between Giants pitcher Juan Marichal and Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro, which happened on August 22, 1965.

The Dodgers and Giants began the day separated by just 1-1/2 games in the standings. The Giants were hosting the Dodgers in Candlestick Park, and the game promised to be a tense pitchers duel: Marichal (19-9) vs. Sandy Koufax (21-4). As the old cliche goes, these two teams just didn't like each other. In the bottom of the third, with the Dodgers leading 2-1, Marichal came to the plate to face Koufax. Earlier in the game, Marichal had knocked down two Dodger players. I'm going to let ESPN's page 2 tell the next part of the story:

"When Marichal came up to bat, I tried a knockdown from behind the plate, throwing the ball close to his nose when I returned it to the pitcher," recalled Roseboro. "I expected Marichal to attack me in some way. If he had said anything to me, I had studied karate, and I was ready to annihilate him."

The karate didn't help. When another of Roseboro's throws came too close to Marichal's ear, Marichal clubbed Roseboro on the head with his bat, opening up a two-inch gash that would require 14 stitches and starting a bench-clearing brawl that lasted 14 minutes. Marichal was handed an eight-game suspension and fined $1,750, a huge sum in those days.

Did the eight-game suspension hurt the Giants? The Giants went on to win that game to pull within a 1/2 game of the dodgers, but then they lost their next four games, including the August 26 game that would have been Marichal's next start. His next one after that would have been on August 31, which the Giants won. Marichal came back on September 2 and lost, 4-3. In the month of September overall, he went 4-4 with a 3.55 ERA, his second worst month of the season.

The Giants went on to lose the pennant to the Dodgers by 2 games, but that included a 14-game winning streak in September. Every loss they did suffer ended up very important to the Giants, so it's hard to blame the games Marichal missed for the loss of the pennant. The Dodgers pitching was just too strong to overcome.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, would have been 74 today. I was too young to see him play, but he was Puerto Rican and I am Puerto Rican, so I always felt a connection to him. I recently read David Maraniss's book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero and came away with more admiration for the man.

Clemente possessed perhaps the best outfield arm of all time, but he also excelled at the plate, lashing line drives in droves on the way to four batting titles, 13 seasons over .300, and exactly 3,000 career hits. He won an MVP Award and helped his Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Series victories.

Most long-time fans can tell stories about the amazing things Clemente could do in the outfield, like throw out a runner at home from the warning track on one bounce, or gun a runner at third on the fly from the right-field corner. He was that good and that memorable.

During his career, he fought to help Latin ballplayers gain acceptance into the major league fraternity, but his dedication and valor didn’t end on the field: His death on New Year’s Eve 1972 occurred while he was aboard a mercy mission carrying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua.

One story from 1971 illustrates the way Clemente played the game—and lived his life. He was 37 years old and worn down by 17 seasons of bold and sometimes reckless outfield play. But on that day, he proved to 14,933 baseball fans at the Houston Astrodome what his teammates and his family already knew: that he was the kind of player who would run into a brick wall to help his team. It happened on August 27, as his Pittsburgh Pirates were coasting to their second straight division title. They played the first game of a three-game series in Houston and led 7-3 in the eighth inning. A right-handed hitter caught a pitch off the end of the bat and sent the ball high into the air, curling toward the right-field foul line, where a brick wall separated the field from the fans. Clemente was playing the hitter to pull the ball, in right-center, giving him a long run to make the out. He began to sprint madly. When the ball reached its peak and began its descent, Clemente seemed too far from it to make the catch.

A regular human being would have slowed down at that point, let the ball drop; no use risking a nasty confrontation with that brick wall. The ball would have been foul anyway—no harm done. But such was not Clemente’s style. He kept running after it, and the ball kept twisting toward the stands. Fans in the first dozen or so rows stood up to catch the souvenir, assuming that it would bounce on the hard turf and into the seats. Then they saw Clemente sprinting toward them, and they must have thought about that brick wall, and they must have realized that he wasn’t going to stop in time. Clemente himself certainly didn’t. He just kept running and running, his eyes fixed on the ball, his mind focused on one single effort: making the catch for out number three. He reached out and, two steps in front of the wall, made the catch. Then he braced himself for the impact. Smack! The wall didn’t give an inch. Clemente did. The force knocked him to the ground, but he never let go of the ball. He got up slowly and tossed the ball back toward the infield. The game went on.

Later in the clubhouse, a reporter asked him why he had taken the risk; why did he go after such a meaningless out? Clemente looked confused. He didn’t understand the question. The reporter explained: He could have hurt himself—was the catch really worth it? Why didn’t Clemente let the ball drop? Clemente paused. Then he answered simply, “I wanted to catch the ball.” And the reporters understood. Anybody who knew Clemente knew that there was only one way for him to do anything—the right way. The score of the game, the position of brick walls, the risk of injury—none of that made a difference. You dedicate yourself to something, you accept the responsibility, and you go all out. Always.

He once said, “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.” He is.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Remembering Skip Caray

Longtime Braves announcer Skip Caray died suddenly last week, and yesterday, the team held a memorial service.

I thought I'd join the action with my own memories of Caray. I came of age as a baseball fan in the 1980s when the only games you could watch regularly were Braves games on WTBS. I was always a Dodger fan, but I liked the Braves and, like millions of others, I was a big Dale Murphy fan. Skip Caray was the voice of the Braves at the time, and his distinctive voice carried me through countless summers.

I'm pretty sure Caray called the infamous July 4, 1985, game that lasted 19 innings and finally ended at 3:53AM. I remember watching that game early in the evening, turning it off, and then turning on the TV at about 11pm California time to discover that the game was still going. It was a wild one. In the 18th, with the Mets leading by a run and two outs, light-hitting Braves pitcher Rick Camp hit the most improbable home run of any career to tie it up and send it to the 19th, when the Braves finally lost. Amazingly, even though it was 4 in the morning, the Braves followed through with their promised fireworks show for the remaining 8,000 fans.

I don't remember Skip Caray's reactions to that game, but I do have a favorite Skip Caray moment. It came later, must have been in the 1990s. The visiting team was trailing with one out in the top of the ninth and a runner on first. After the game, WTBS would show an episode of The Andy Griffith Show or Roseanne or some other sitcom, and Caray was doing a promo for the show when the next batter came to the plate.

I swear on my life that Caray said something along the lines of, "And we'll be showing 'Roseanne' just as soon as [the batter] hits into a 6-4-3 double play."

The VERY NEXT PITCH, the batter hit a grounder to the shortstop.

Caray, ever the professional, simply said, "6-"

The shortstop flipped the ball to the second baseman....

Caray said, "4-"

...who threw it to first.


As I and millions of other fans sat giggling or shouting at home, Caray and his broadcasting partners remained absolutely quiet for a good 15 seconds until finally he announced the final score and totals. He made no mention of his lucky prediction at all.

It was a great moment, one I'll never forget.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Non-baseball post: Olympic swimming

Here's the question I have every four years during the Olympics: Why are there so many swimming medals? Michael Phelps is going for 8 gold medals, which is great for him, but why does he get that opportunity when a sprinter or cyclist or boxer or beach volleyball player only gets one or two shots?

I understand the distances. 50M, 100M, 200M, 400M, 1500M that all makes sense. I understand the relays. But why all the different strokes? Why the medleys?

In track, you have sprints and hurdles. But you don't have the gunny sack race. You don't have the crab walk. You don't have a relay when one person hops on his left leg, and the next guy hops on his right leg, and the last guy hops on two legs.

Yet in swimming you have freestyle (which makes perfect sense... it's the fastest stroke), and you have breaststroke, and butterfly, and backstroke. And then just for fun, you have the medley, when one person does each stroke. That makes no sense to me.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Trouble with the blog

I'm having some trouble with the blog, so some RSS newsfeed readers may have received my Cubs post twice.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Greatest Ever: Chicago Cubs

Sorry I've been away from the blog for a few days.

But I'm back now and it's time to renew my ongoing feature about the greatest position player and pitcher for each franchise. In the past, I've covered the Pirates, Cardinals, Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Boston Braves, Philadelphia A's, and Oakland A's.

Today, I'll take on everybody's favorite cursed team, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs are one of the oldest teams in baseball, having operated continuously since the National League's founding in 1876. In my feature, I'm focusing on post 1900 players because that's generally considered the dividing line between old baseball and the modern game. (It would take a whole separate post to explain that further.)

Anyway, here goes.


Contenders: Mordecai Brown, Ferguson Jenkins, Charley Root.

I was surprised to discover that Root is the Cubs' all-time leader in victories. He's most famous for giving up Babe Ruth's called shot home run in the 1932 World Series, but his career goes way beyond that moment. He was a solid pitcher for the Cubs from 1926 to 1937, usually good for about 15-20 victories per year during an era when the best pitchers were winning 20-25 per year. With modern relief pitching and 5-man rotation, I'd say it's the equivalent of winning 10-15 games today. Good but not great.

Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown* was one of the Cubs' pitching aces who led the team during their dynasty period of 1906 through 1908. He won 20+ games six years in a row (1906-1911), usually with excellent ERAs. His best year was 1908, when he won 29 games for the pennant-winning Cubs, including, by my calculations, four in the last nine days of the season. He finished his career with 188 victories as a Cub, 239 overall.

*Why "Three-Finger"? Glad you asked. Seems he lost his forefinger in a corn-grinder accident at the age of 7. He attributed his wicked curveball to the unnatural break caused by the mangled hand.

Ferguson Jenkins pitched 10 seasons with the Cubs (19 overall) and ranks fifth on the Cubs' all-time list with 163 wins. He won 20+ games six years in a row (sound familiar?) for teams that were good but not great. His ERA+ stat (which compares his ERAs to the league-average ERAs) are in the mid-100s, which means he was substantially better than the league. Jenkins was a great pitcher in a tough era.

The winner: It is a very close call between Brown and Jenkins, but I'm going to go with Brown for two reasons. First, he played on pennant-winners -- three of them -- and he was a key performer in each victory. Second, he was much better relative to his league than Jenkins was (based on the ERA+ scores; check out their pages at If Jenkins had played with the Cubs a few more years and compiled better counting stats, then maybe he would claim the title, but I'm going to stick with Brown.


Contenders: Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa (apologies to Cap Anson, who played in the 1800s)

Known for his sunny demeanor, Banks won two MVP awards as a shortstop, becoming the first MVP winner to play for a second-division team. He was a devastating offensive force in his younger days, but after injuring his knees, he became a slow, immobile first baseman. In fact, he logged more time at first base than at shortstop over the course of his career. From 1962 on, he was just an average first baseman with good but not great power.

Ryne Sandberg inherited the title of baseball's best second baseman from Joe Morgan in 1984 and kept it for almost a decade, when Roberto Alomar took over. Sandberg won the '84 MVP award and later became the first second baseman since Rogers Hornsby to lead the league in home runs. He also won nine Gold Glove awards. I have to acknowledge, however, that Sandberg's offensive totals were much helped by his home park, Wrigley Field. His OPS+ scores aren't that great.

Sammy Sosa is the only player to have three 60-home run seasons, yet in none of those years did he lead the league in that category. Amazing. (He did lead the league with 50 in 2000 and 49 in 2002.) At his peak from 1998 to 2002, he was practically unstoppable. He seems to be under a cloud of suspicion for using performance-enhancing drugs, but he never failed a drug test and he was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report. His career with the Cubs ended badly, but it shouldn't overshadow his contributions to the club.

The Winner: This is a tough one. Each player has his pros and cons, and each of them was helped to some degree by playing in Wrigley. If Banks had played shortstop his whole career, he would easily be number one. If Sosa's best years hadn't come at the height of the steroid era, then he would easily be number one.

I'm going to go with Banks, though. It comes down to this: If I were starting a team and could choose one of these players at their peak, I would choose the young Banks at shortstop hitting 47 home runs instead of the young Sosa in right field hitting 66.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The big baseball news

Have two future Hall of Famers ever been traded on the same day, the way Manny Ramirez and Ken Griffey Jr. were traded yesterday? I doubt it. There's a lot of great analysis of the trades out there, including from Salon's King Kaufman,, Dodger Thoughts, and others.

I thought I'd look at the historical aspect. What truly great players--future Hall of Famers--were shipped off to new teams in mid-season? Here's what I've come up with (probably not a complete list, but a pretty big one):

Steve Carlton: Traded at the end of his career several times, mostly to non-contenders. He'd lost his effectiveness and was just barely hanging on.

Jimmie Foxx: Only 34 years old, Foxx's skills were shot. At 32, he'd hit 36 home runs. Two years later, he would hit 8 for two teams, the Red Sox and Cubs. The Sox were a second-place team when they released Foxx, and the Cubs picked him up off the waiver wire, probably in an attempt to boost attendance.

Rickey Henderson: He started the 1989 season as a Yankee, but that team was going nowhere while the A's were in the middle of a run of three straight pennants. The A's traded three non-stars for Henderson and went on to dominate the A.L. Henderson even won the 1990 A.L. MVP award. In 1993, the A's were descending, so they sent Henderson to the Blue Jays in a deadline deal. The Jays went on to win their second straight World Series with Henderson. He was traded again in mid-season in 1997 from the Padres to the Angels, but that deal had no impact on the pennant races.

Randy Johnson: In one of the great deadline day pickups, the Astros traded Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and a player to be named later for Johnson on July 31, 1998. Johnson, who had been unhappy in Seattle and pitched poorly for them, went on to post a 10-1 record for division-winning Houston.

Mark McGwire: In 1997, the A's weren't going anywhere and were looking to get something in return for McGwire, who was going to be a free agent after the season. They didn't get much from the Cardinals (Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews, and Blake Stein), and McGwire went on the following season to write his name in the history books.

Greg Maddux: On deadline day 2006, Maddux agreed to a trade from the going-nowhere Cubs to the contending Dodgers in exchange for slick-fielding shortstop Cesar Izturis. Izturis was a bust, and Maddux went on to post a 6-3 record for the Dodgers in the last two months of the season before departing as a free agent.

Willie Mays: According to Wikipedia, "In May 1972, the 41-year-old Mays was traded to the New York Mets for Charlie Williams and $50,000.[19] At the time, the Giants franchise was losing money. Owner Horace Stoneham could not guarantee Mays an income after retirement and the Mets offered Mays a position as a coach upon his retirement." Mays was pretty much finished as a player, and he popped just 14 home runs as a Met during his two seasons there. But he did get back to the World Series in 1973, so it worked out for him.

Willie McCovey: In 1976, the 38-year-old McCovey was coming off a decent season in which he slammed 23 home runs in 413 at bats for the Padres. But that season, he hit just 7 homers through August, and the Padres sold him to the A's, who didn't really need him to contend for the division championship. McCovey flopped in Oakland, going just 5 for 24, all singles, and the A's finished in 2nd place. After '76, McCovey signed as a free agent with the Giants, where he finished his Hall of Fame career.

Joe Medwick: Medwick was never a great player and doesn't really deserve his Hall of Fame plaque. He posted several good seasons in his 20s, but was washed up by 29. In June 1940, at 28, he was traded from the Cardinals to the Dodgers for a bunch of nobodies. When the Dodgers won the pennant the next season, Medwick was a solid contributor but not the star of the team, and after that he pretty much fell apart as a player.

Eddie Murray: In 1996, the 40-year-old Murray still had some gas left in the tank when, in mid-July, he was traded by the Indians to the Orioles for Kent Mercker. It was a homecoming for Murray, and the Orioles eventually won a Wild Card berth. As DH, though, Murray didn't contribute more than an average player would have: .257/.327/.439 with 10 home runs.

Mike Piazza: You probably remember this one: One day in 1998, the Dodgers traded Piazza to the Marlins, who sent him to the Mets a week later. Why the Dodgers did it remains a mystery to me. They were afraid of losing him to free agency because they couldn't afford to pay him what he was worth? The Dodgers? Are you kidding me? As I recall, this was the first big deal of the post-Peter O'Malley era, when they were owned by News Corp (Fox). And it proved a harbinger of the mismanagement that would ensue over the next five or six years of Fox's ownership.

Curt Schilling: In July 2000, the Diamondbacks picked up Schilling for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee, and Vicente Padilla. Schilling went just 5-6 for the D-backs, who finished a distant third. But the following season, Schilling pitched Arizona to a thrilling World Series victory over the Yankees. The other guys didn't amount to much.

Tom Seaver: On June 15, 1977, the Mets traded Tom Terrific, the greatest player in club history, to the Cincinnati Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman. The Mets were a franchise in total decline, while the Reds were trying to catch the Dodgers. It didn't really work out for either team. The Mets continued declining and the Reds never caught the Dodgers. Lose/lose for everybody, especially Mets fans.

Dave Winfield: The moribund Yankees dealt Winfield to the Angels in May 1990 for pitcher Mike Witt. Witt didn't do much for the Yankees, who themselves didn't do much in the pennant race. Winfield played well enough that season and several more to make the Yankees regret their treatment of him.

Clearly, the best deadline-day pickup in history is Randy Johnson, but I think Manny Ramirez has the ability to make a run at that title.