Monthly Archives: June 2011

Any player/Any era: Satchel Paige

What he did: Paige pitched off and on for 40 years between the Negro Leagues, the majors, and beyond, estimating he won 2,000 games. Only 28 wins of these wins came in big league play, since segregation kept Paige from the majors until 1948 when he was 42 (at the youngest, since some dispute exists about his year of birth.) One of baseball’s great “What Ifs?” is how many wins might Satchel Paige have had with a full career in the majors.

Era he might have thrived in: Paige endured the rugged conditions of Negro League and independent ball, once living in a converted boxcar while playing for an integrated team in North Dakota. In other words, he probably could have made his mark in any era of big league play. But to do best in the majors, Paige might need a pitching coach as good as his one in reform school, Edward Byrd who, as Paige’s SABR biography notes, “showed Satchel exactly how to exploit his storehouse of kinetic energy.”

We’re giving Paige a start with the Detroit Tigers of the late 1960s and their legendary pitching coach, Johnny Sain. It might have been an ideal launching point for Paige.

Why: For much of his career, Paige was a drawing card, a soldier of fortune in black baseball and beyond. When a team’s finances were in doubt, Paige was sent for. Perhaps he thrived under the attention, the pressure, the limelight. Some people are built that way. But perhaps Paige would do ever better if he debuted in the majors playing a quieter, supporting role and getting the chance to learn from the best. In 1968 in Detroit, he’d have this opportunity.

The Tigers went 103-59 that season, led by Denny McLain who won 31 games. Mickey Lolich wasn’t bad either, going 17-9 and saving his best work for the World Series, winning three games including Game 7. The rest of the starting pitching was something of a crap shoot for the Tigers, though, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think a young Paige could have been Detroit’s third-best starter. He might have been a younger, better version of the man who held that title in ’68, Earl Wilson, another victim of segregation in the sense he got buried in the Red Sox minor league system in the 1950s as a young, black man.

Whatever the case, Paige would’ve debuted at a peak time for pitchers and gone on to pitch the bulk of his career in the 1970s and ’80s when less was demanded of hurlers and five-man rotations became commonplace. Paige’s longevity in real life is all the more impressive considering he overcame a dead arm in the 1930s, which he incurred through injury and overwork. Imagine him not having to go through that and getting good medical care. He’d also make a better salary and be among the first free agents. I’m guessing one of baseball’s most famous self-promoters would do well with it.

Then there’s Sain, who made 20-game winners out of Lolich and Wilson and guided McLain to his 1968 triumph and had him on his way to another Cy Young in 1969 when the Tigers fired him in August after clashes with management. Lolich praised his former coach in Sports Illustrated in 1972, noting, “He made me a 20-game winner. Yet, he never taught me a single thing about pitching a baseball. Maybe that’s because John’s not a pitching coach, he’s a headshrinker. Even when you learn from Sain, you never feel you’ve learned a thing from him. He lets you think you did it yourself.”

Given Paige’s spartan accommodations most of his career, perhaps he did come by most of his success himself. How much better he’d do with expert help, one can only wonder. I brought it up with one of my readers who noted that Sain coached 17 20-game winners. My reader also suggested that Sain’s emphasis on not having pitchers run in practice might go well with the easygoing philosophy of Paige, who had well-publicized tips for staying young (such as Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.)

The thought here is that barring catastrophic injury, Paige wins somewhere in the neighborhood of 325 games like others of his prospective era, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Steve Carlton. Sure, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to 2,000 wins, seeing as Paige wouldn’t be pitching year-round or for as long and as many teams as he could. In this era, he’d have the luxury of bowing out in his 40s.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

The 50 greatest baseball nicknames

1. George Herman Ruth- The Sultan of Swat, The Bambino, The Colossus of Clout, Babe: No surprise here- the greatest baseball player of all-time also inspired the greatest nicknames. Sportswriters of the 1920s outdid themselves to come up with new names for the Yankee slugger.

2. Joe Jackson- Shoeless Joe: Would the most famous of the Black Sox be so remembered without such a romantic moniker? Granted, a lifetime .356 batting average would assure immortality in the record books even for a hitter named Peanuts McGee, but Shoeless Joe sounds like something from myth.

3. Lou Gehrig- The Iron Horse

4. Pete Rose- Charlie Hustle: Whitey Ford derisively nicknamed Rose during spring training in 1963 after watching him sprint to first base on a walk. The name quickly came to epitomize Rose’s all-out style of play.

5. Joe Wood- Smoky Joe: Like Shoeless Joe, Smoky Joe is another baseball nickname that made an otherwise mundane name timeless. Wood earned his moniker because he of how hard he threw.

6. Reggie Jackson- Mr. October

7. Stan Musial- Stan the Man

8. Willie Mays- The Say Hey Kid

9. Mordecai Brown- Three Finger: Same deal as Wood. Ask most fans about Mordecai Brown, and I imagine there would be plenty of blank stares. But I imagine Three Finger Brown would draw some looks of recognition, even a century after the Deadball Era great’s Hall of Fame career.

10. Joe DiMaggio- The Yankee Clipper, Joltin’ Joe

11. James Bell- Cool Papa: Negro League baseball remains a somewhat mysterious world nearly six decades after its demise, records incomplete, many players forgotten to history. Here’s one exception, thanks to a memorable name (for a superb player, of course.)

12. Ted Williams- Thumper, The Kid, Teddy Ballgame, The Splendid Splinter

13. Ted Radcliffe- Double Duty: Damon Runyon nicknamed Radcliffe after watching him pitch one game of a doubleheader and catch another.

14. Leo Durocher- Leo the Lip, The All-American Out: Durocher would have a spot on this list for the nickname he earned as a bombastic manager, Leo the Lip. He gets some dubious bonus points for his other nickname, which Ruth bestowed upon him during his playing days. It seems apt for a man who hit .247 and had a lifetime OPS+ of 65 playing most of his career in the 1930s, a Golden Age for hitters.

15. Jim Hunter- Catfish: A memorable Sports Illustrated retrospective on the 1974 Oakland A’s recounted how Hunter came by his handle:

On the day in 1964 that the 18-year-old Jim Hunter became a Kansas City Athletic, Finley asked him if he had a nickname. Hunter told him that he did not. “Well, you’ve got to have one,” said Finley. “What do you like to do?”

“I hunt and fish,” replied Hunter.

“Mr. Finley kind of hesitated on the phone,” recalls Hunter. “Then he said, ‘You were six years old when you ran away from home. You went fishing. Your mom and dad looked for you all day. About three o’clock your mom and dad found you. You had caught two catfish and were bringing in a third, and from that day on you were Catfish. Now repeat the story to me.’ ” When Hunter did, Finley said, “Anybody ever asks you anything, that’s how you tell it.”

16. Nolan Ryan- The Ryan Express

17. Bob Feller- Rapid Robert, Bullet

18. Ozzie Smith- The Wizard

19. Ernie Banks- Mr. Cub

20. Honus Wagner- The Flying Dutchman: Nearly a century on from the end of Wagner’s Hall of Fame career, it stands to reason– politically incorrect nicknames just don’t find their way into baseball anymore.

21. Mickey Mantle- The Commerce Comet, The Mick

22. Walter Johnson- The Big Train

23. Juan Marichal- The Dominican Dandy

24. Ty Cobb- The Georgia Peach: Not one of my favorite baseball nicknames, as it seems a man as complex and unbridled as Cobb might have inspired descriptions that better captured the fury with which he played and lived. Still, I’d be remiss to not include Cobb here.

25. Branch Rickey- The Mahatma: The Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates executive earned his moniker both for his baseball acumen and scrupulous religiosity.

26. Sal Maglie- The Barber: So named because of his menacing reputation on the mound, though he never struck out more than 146 in a season. Still a great nickname.

27. Earl Averill- The Earl of Snohomish: The Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer was dubbed for his hometown of Snohomish, Washington.

28. Lenny Dykstra- Nails: Between career-ending injury problems and his ongoing legal issues in recent years, Dykstra’s had a rough go of it since finishing second in National League MVP voting in 1993. But in his prime, both for his nickname and the style of play it connoted, Dykstra may have been a poor man’s Rose (a Rose by any other name, we could say.)

29. [Tie] Hugh Mulcahy- Losing Pitcher, Walter Beck- Boom Boom: Mulcahy and Beck earned their nicknames as hapless pitchers for the Philadelphia Phillies of the 1930s. One of my baseball books notes of Beck:

It must have been on just such a typical Baker Bowl day that stocky Hack Wilson, hot and sweating, waited out in right field, hands on knees, eyes downcast, while his manager walked to the pitcher’s mound to replace [Beck.] Line drives had been caroming off the wall all afternoon– after all, Beck wasn’t called ‘Boom, Boom’ for nothing– and Wilson was exhausted from chasing the ball.

Unhappy at being removed, Beck angrily heaved the ball toward right field with all his might.

Hearing a familiar sound as the ball glanced off one of the tin advertising signs on the right-field wall, the startled Wilson awoke from his reverie, ran after the ricocheting ball as fast as he could, and fired it on a line to second base– a perfect peg to get the runner trying to stretch a single into a double, if only there had been one!

31. Charlie Keller- King Kong: One of the best players not in the Hall of Fame and certainly one of my favorite nicknames among that bunch.

32. Frankie Frisch- The Fordham Flash: Sounds more like a comic book character.

33. Pepper Martin- The Wild Horse of the Osage: Western novel.

34. Hideki Matsui- Godzilla: One of the few nicknames I like among current baseball players. Either sportswriters have stopped being as creative or I’m just unfamiliar with a new generation of nicknames.

35. Mose Solomon- The Rabbi of Swat: Solomon was supposed to be John McGraw’s great coup, the National League version of Ruth, able to help pack the Polo Grounds with a broad base of Jewish fans. But Solomon couldn’t field, making 31 errors in 108 games in the minors in 1923. The Giants called him up that fall, and McGraw refused to play him in the field. Solomon made three hits in eight at-bats over the last few weeks of the season, and that was the end of it.

36. George Kelly- High Pockets: Bill James ranks Kelly as one of the worst Hall of Famers, and I don’t know if I can dispute seeing as Kelly boasted a career batting average of .297 during a great time for hitters and may have been ushered into Cooperstown through the influence of former teammate and Veterans Committee head Frisch. I will say High Pockets Kelly is one of the coolest names on any plaque in Cooperstown. It sounds Dickensian.

37. Frank Thomas- Big Hurt

38. Hank Aaron- Hammerin’ Hank

39. Will Clark- Will the Thrill

40. Don Mattingly- Donnie Baseball

41. Orlando Cepeda- Baby Bull

42. Marv Throneberry- Marvelous Marv: The expansion 1962 New York Mets may have been one of baseball’s all-time worst clubs, going 40-120, but their fans adored them. They nicknamed their first baseman Marvelous Marv even though he was marvelous at nothing and once missed two bases on a triple. Later in life, he endorsed Miller Lite, noting in a commercial, “If I do for Lite what I did for baseball, I’m afraid their sales will go down.”

43. Buck O’Neil- Nancy: O’Neil recounted in the Ken Burns’ Baseball series about how he came by one of the more unusual nicknames in baseball history. In essence, teammate Satchel Paige invited an Indian maiden named Nancy to come visit him at a hotel in Chicago, not knowing his future wife Lahoma would also be in town. Paige wound up with both women in the same hotel, and when he went calling for Nancy in the night and Lahoma heard, Paige said he was just looking for O’Neil. The name stuck.

44. Bill Lee- Spaceman: The SABR biography of former Red Sox hurler Lee notes, “His often-outrageous statements and bizarre actions marked him as an oddity and ensured him a lasting reputation in the buttoned-down baseball world. They also earned him the nickname ‘Spaceman,’ a title he never fully embraced, arguing that his first priority was always Mother Earth.”

45. Sandy Koufax- The Left Arm of God

46. Mark McGwire- Big Mac

47. Carl Hubbell- King Carl, Meal Ticket

48. Walter Maranville- Rabbit

49. Jimmie Foxx- The Beast, Double X

50. Hideo Nomo- The Tornado: When I think of the first great Japanese player in the majors, I’m forever reminded of the image of him on the mound,  body contorted as he prepares to unleash his pitch. In the spirit of other great nicknames here, Nomo’s describes him aptly.

A Quick Fix for What Ails Ya

Editor’s note: Doug Bird’s weekly column is moving to Mondays.

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It’s almost July and having been lucky enough to watch more than my share of baseball games thus far, today I am offering some quick fixes for those teams which plainly need to do something to either become contenders or to right the proverbial ship.  Sometimes these decisions will not be made due to money considerations and sometimes the solution is in house and staring them in the face, money not really being a consideration.  Pay strict attention because I’m only going to say this once and afterwards it may well be too late.

1.     Pittsburgh Pirates:  The Pirates are doing much better than expected, (obviously pitching coach Ray Searage has been doing something right, especially with the starters).  Offense is and continues to be a big problem for the Pirates.  Solution:  Say goodbye to Lyle Overbay, move Pedro Alvarez to first now and keep rookie Josh Harrison at third.  Give Xavier Paul regular playing time and sit Jose Tabata down or send him down to Triple A.

2.     Washington Nationals:  Who pays all this money to turn a fifth place power hitter into a leadoff hitter?  Can anyone explain to me why Jayson Werth has been the Nationals lead off man  Come to think of it, with a .233 average, why is Werth batting anywhere above sixth in the order?   Perhaps he’s feeling the pressure of that big contract and let’s face it, he was never a $20 million a year player anyway.

3.     Baltimore Orioles:   The Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds and Vlad Guerrero era simply isn’t working.  It pains me to watch one of my favourite all time players falter, (Guerrero), Derrek Lee hasn’t cared since the big Cubs contract and Mark Reynolds can’t hit .200.  Brian Roberts can’t stay healthy either. Time to, once again, load up on young players and deal these guys while they still have something reasonably tangible left.

4.     Chicago Cubs:  Oh the sink hole of the long term, big money, under performing contract.  Everyone knows that Zambrano, Ramirez, Soriano, Fukudome, have to go.  Heck, even the Cubs know that.  Problem is the Cubs don’t have much on the farm, (Vitters is still in Double A) and the other 29 teams know that they can pretty much call the tune on any deal. The only teams that could afford them don’t want them.  Get what you can for them, eat lots of money and finally start over.  Wrigley Field is still beautiful…

5.     Los Angeles Dodgers: Which, if either of the McCourt’s, will get to keep the Dodgers?  Apparently Frank wants them but so does Bud Selig.   Don Mattingly’s inexperience is showing.  Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Jamey Carroll and Matt Kemp are playing like major leaguers.  Can’t say the same for the rest.  Rumours have Carroll on the trading block but why sacrifice one of only two position players who gets his uniform dirty?  Maybe Selig should buy this team.  Maybe Jack McKeon should manage this team instead of Florida.

6.     Oakland A’s:  Billy Ball should have worked but it hasn’t.  The pitching was there until all the injuries and Josh Willingham and company are hitting whiffle balls.  The team average is second worst in the league, (.239) with no power. None of the seemingly offensive improving acquisitions can hit. An Oakland A’s rally is a 3-2 count.  Firing one bad manager and hiring another bad manager isn’t going to help.   In the year of the pitcher Oakland should be in a good position.  Trade a couple of the .240 hitters with speed for a power guy.  Bat Matsui eighth.  Do you know the way to San Jose?

7.     San Diego Padres: This team needs to play in a major league park and not the Grand Canyon.  You can’t build a team entirely around pitching and I doubt even the New York Yankees could hit much here. After 30 or 40 games here, even the best hitters begin to believe that they really are .230 hitters with no power.  Bring in the fences to reasonable dimensions and make the game a two way affair once again. You can’t rally from two or three runs back if it takes seven singles to do it each night.  You can’t sign an Albert Pujols if he knows his homerun totals will drop to 10 over the course of 81 games at Petro Park.

Just a few simple strategies. For some, it’s only a speed bump.  For others it’s a brick wall. For still others it seems to be both.

Double the Fun: Believe it or Not: A 51 Minute Complete Game!

In the mid-1920s, Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitchers Carmen Hill and Lee Meadows made baseball history when they became the first two twirlers to wear glasses while on the mound. Their glasses must have helped since both notched 20 game winning seasons with the Bucs. In 1926 Meadows’ 20 victories led the National League and in 1927 Hill topped all hurlers with 22.

In May 1923, the Pirates traded for Meadows who won 88 games for the Corsairs until a nagging sinus infection and a sore arm forced his 1929 retirement.

Nicknamed “Specs,” the nearsighted Meadows ranks sixth on the All-Time Pirates list with his .629 winning percentage. Meadows, a pivotal part of the era’s National League dominating Pirates, appeared in the team’s two World Series, 1925 and 1927. During his 15 year career, Meadows won 188 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pirates.

Meadows most memorable baseball moment came with the Phillies when during the second game of a 1919 double header in the Polo Grounds against the New York Giants, he absorbed the 6-1 loss in baseball’s shortest ever nine inning game: 51 minutes.

Unfortunately for Meadows, despite his efficient pitching that day, he suffered his 20th set back. Meadows’ Giants’ opposite Jesse Barnes out pitched him to rack up his 25th win. Barnes’ pitching line: 9 IP, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 SO.

The Giants prevailed in the nightcap, 7-1. The doubleheader had little significance in the standings. The Giants finished a distant 9 games behind the first place Reds; the Phillies ended up dead last with a 47-90 record, 47.5 games behind.

Meadows died in Daytona Beach in 1963 at age 68.

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“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one memorable doubleheader in baseball history each week.

Any player/Any era: Billy Martin

What he did: I’ll preface this by saying today’s piece isn’t about Billy Martin the player. Had he not played the majority of his career on the New York Yankees of the 1950s or been Mickey Mantle’s running partner those glory years, I doubt Martin would be much remembered for anything he did prior to becoming a manager. But his 16 years as a skipper more than made up for it, and Martin might be the best manager not in the Hall of Fame. He’s also one who could have done more, had he not died at 61 in a drunk driving accident on Christmas Day 1989.

Era he might have thrived in: Today’s piece isn’t about transplanting Martin to a different era. It’s about considering what he might have done if instead of dying at the end of the ’80s, one of baseball’s most notorious drinkers had gone to rehab or found another way to quit drinking. Sober, Martin might have done good things in baseball in the 1990s and beyond. With 80-year-old Jack McKeon just agreeing to manage the Florida Marlins, there’s a chance even that Martin would still be in the majors today at 83.

Why: Martin was good, underrated even. He was feisty, known for disputing calls on obscure technicalities, and notorious for getting fired by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner five times. Bottom line, Martin won wherever he went. In 16 years as a manager with five teams, he had just three losing seasons, going 2,267-1,253 overall with a World Series title and two pennants. And he did all this barely working past his 60th birthday.

Baseball’s an interesting sport in that good managers sometimes retire relatively early. Earl Weaver was 56 when he quit the Baltimore Orioles for good. Dick Williams managed the Oakland A’s to consecutive World Series championships in the early 1970s, got the San Diego Padres a pennant a decade later, and was out of baseball at 59. Joe McCarthy, who never had a losing season, quit managing at 63 and lived another 28 years. So perhaps Martin wasn’t long for the game, regardless of his fate in life.

But plenty of managers have lasted in baseball into their senior years, from Connie Mack to Casey Stengel to Felipe Alou. Sober, Martin would have been an interesting addition to their ranks, perhaps more sedate, less defiant, more secure. Imagine Martin sitting calmly in a dugout, less likely to brawl with one of his players or a marshmallow salesman after hours. It boggles the mind. Martin probably would have stood a better chance of sticking longer with one team, less likely to burn bridges and self-destruct.

What teams might Martin have benefited? My guess is that any number of clubs might have welcomed him. Here’s one that would have been interesting: the Moneyball A’s. Granted, Martin would have been pushing 70 by the time Billy Beane ushered in Oakland’s strategy of searching for any new competitive advantage as a small market club. But I’d like to think a scrappy man who spent a lifetime fighting would have been ideal to lead those A’s. And Martin had a couple winning seasons in Oakland in the early ’80s with Rickey Henderson and, essentially, some spare parts.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, and while I doubt that statement holds true for everyone, it’s apt for Martin. It’s a shame he didn’t live longer or conquer his demons. With his wealth of baseball knowledge and experience, he could have had an interesting final chapter as something of a sage. It goes without saying he’d also probably have his spot in Cooperstown today.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Take Me Out to The (College World Series) Ball Game

If I were to given my choice of any sporting event I could watch in person, without hesitation I would opt for the College World Series.

The young amateur players are more fundamentally sound than major leaguers and Omaha’s ambiance offers up a slice of Americana that has all but faded away. Absent are the whining multimillionaires who can’t field, pitch or hit—at least not at a level consistent with their incomes.

This week and next, the CWS holds its championship games with the University of California Bears making a surprise appearance in the final eight. Cal beat Texas A&M 7-3 on Wednesday to improve to 1-1 in the final, double-elimination portion of the tournament.

Only a few months ago, the chances of Cal even fielding a team were slim. Last September, the university announced that baseball would be one of four varsity sports dropped from the 2011-2012 season because of budget constraints. Other sports eliminated were men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s rugby and women’s lacrosse. The university projected that the cuts would save $4 million including the salaries of 13 full time coaches.

But within a week of the announcement, parents, alumni and former players held a meeting at Berkeley’s Evans Diamond to develop a reinstatement strategy. What evolved was a $10 million fund raising effort, much of it through an Internet website foundation, that kept the Bears on the field.

The team rewarded the alumni with one of its most memorable seasons in the program’s 118-year history. Cal qualified for its first trip to the CWS in 19 years after the Bears scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the final of the Houston Regional.  Then, Cal swept Dallas Baptist University in the Super Regional during a series in Santa Clara played in front of sellout crowds made up of hundreds of the original donors.

Cal’s players made sure the organizers know how appreciative they are. Although many had tentative plans to transfer to another university, once the money came rolling in they concentrated on baseball.

Pac-10 Player of the Year and sophomore second baseman Tony Renda said: “They are the reason we are still here. I’m forever grateful for them pledging all their money to save us. They’re on my mind. We have our team on the field, but they’re on our team, too. They’re Cal baseball like we are.”

The alumni may have unwittingly created a template for other college baseball teams to liberate themselves from the clutches of their university athletic departments. Before launching its fund raising efforts, the alumni consulted with the San Francisco Giants and other successful NCAA teams to learn what would lure more paying fans to Bears’ games.

Some of the solutions like installing lights for night games and operating in a mode of constantly cold calling for donations were obvious. Cal also copied Texas A&M, another CWS finalist, and allowed local restaurants to sell food before games in exchange for a fee.

The Bears talked the Giants into hosting a three-day baseball classic at AT & T Park that included games against Rice University, Long Beach State and Louisiana-Lafayette.

The CWS has blossomed into a prime-time ESPN event that makes it slightly less appealing to me. The old Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium has been razed in favor of the TD Ameritrade Park.

If the CWS grows much bigger, I’ll have to set my sights on a Cape Cod League game where they’re still using wooden bats.

How I Would Realign Major League Baseball

In last week’s column I discussed the problems with the rumoured Major League baseball alignment plans and how I thought realignment for money or to increase competitiveness and give struggling teams a better (I believe the words being used by baseball are fairness and increased attendance) shouldn’t be THE motivating factor.

But equal opportunity usually runs in cycles. One division can be strong for many years potentially leaving a team with a record better than a rival division winner out of the playoffs and sitting on the sidelines watching on television. Baseball’s luxury tax and the wild card were introduced in an attempt to rectify the perceived large market vs. small market problem. Certainly to some extent that has worked.

But if interleague play is here to stay and realignment and more playoffs are inevitable, I suggest Major League Baseball end piecemeal solutions and go all the way. Of course there are problems with any suggestion and mine is probably far from perfect but let’s have some fun with this shall we?

Let’s combine both leagues and have four divisions based on geographical locations as much as possible.

East: Yankees, Mets, Blue Jays, RedSox, Orioles, Nationals, Phillies

North: Tigers, Indians, Twins, Whitesox, Cubs, Brewers, Reds, Pirates

South: Marlins, Astros, Rangers, Royals, Cardinals, Rays, Braves

West: Mariners, Giants, A’s, Padres, Angels, Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks

There are some built in rivalries in this proposal which address the most popular interleague games (Cubs-Whitesox, Yankees-Mets, Indians-Reds, Astros-Rangers) and maybe some new and potentially popular ones. Some divisions would be stronger than others but again, that is an ebb and flow situation over the course of many seasons.

I haven’t decided how the scheduling would go (I don’t like balanced as it defeats the purpose of divisions while others would argue that the only fair scheduling is each team playing each other the same amount of games). An unbalanced schedule would greatly cut down on travel but limit exposure from a fans point of view. I’m no mathematician either.

In this scenario, the playoffs would have the top two teams in each division meeting in the playoffs, East No. 1 vs. West No. 2 and East No. 2 vs. West No. 1 and so on or something similar. The first place team would have home field advantage during round one. Each series would be best of seven. Trim the regular season to 154 games.

Of course, a realignment this radical could see the World Series being played between two teams previously in the same league but chances are these teams met in the regular season anyway.

It might play havoc with the traditional league records but interleague play sort of does that now anyway to a lesser degree.

The All-Star game could be something like East and West vs. North and South.

Such a realignment would also necessitate the awarding of only one MVP and one CY Young, one Rookie of the Year and one Manager of the Year. In the old days, that’s how it was done. Might be the only solution.

A decision would have to be made concerning the DH. Here’s what I would do. I read this idea somewhere a few years ago and I still think it’s an interesting one. Keep the DH but change its usage in the following manner. The pitchers would bat as in the NL but once a game, a pitcher could be pinch hit for without having to leave the game. This would mean that the DH became strategically important and would allow a manager to leave his ace starter in late during a tight game.

Keeping in mind that I am a staunch traditionalist, (no DH, interleague, wild card etc.), I am starting to think that there is a time to put tradition to bed. After all, I own an mp3 player, I download cds and I sold my turntable. The heck with what few traditions remain?

Perhaps this solution will make baseball too similar to other sports. Perhaps it would cause more problems than it would solve. But it’s just an ideal.
 

Gene Mauch and his fondness for the sacrifice bunt

As a major league ballplayer, Gene Mauch was a reserve middle infielder in the 1940s and ’50s with a career .239 batting average. Following his forgettable playing career, he found his niche in baseball as a manager. Beginning with the Phillies in 1960, Mauch was employed as a major league field general almost continuously until the late 1980s, including 22 full seasons and parts of four others. A no-nonsense leader, he was respected equally by his players and opponents, and he was an unapologetic proponent of small-ball.

The sacrifice bunt is a tool that has its place. Advancing a runner with a bunt is a productive out, and whether by the bunt, the sac fly, or hitting behind the runner, productive outs have traditionally been viewed as an important part of a winning baseball strategy. However, the indiscriminate use of any tool (a scalpel, for example, or even a peppermill) can have disastrous consequences.

Mauch had an inordinate affection for the sacrifice. In the “get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in” world of baseball, he was the king of get ‘em over. In his 14 full seasons as an NL manager, Mauch’s Philadelphia and Montreal teams led the league in sacrifice bunts seven times (including one tie). Only one Mauch-led team failed to finish fourth or better in sacrifice hits, and that team was the 1969 Expos. The expansion Expos finished 11th in the NL in OBP, so they can be excused for not bunting more. You have to get ‘em on to get ‘em over.

If you think that Mauch’s NL teams bunted a lot, check out his AL teams. In eight full seasons as an AL manager, his teams led the league seven times. Some years they didn’t just lead the league, they blew it away. During the DH era, NL teams generally produce about twice as many sacrifice bunts as AL teams, with pitchers accounting for slightly less than half of NL sacrifices. In the 38 years of the DH era, an AL team has led the majors in sacrifices only four times, and Mauch was responsible for two of those. His 1979 Twins produced 142 sacrifice hits, well ahead of AL second-leading California with 79 and NL-leading San Diego with 113. In 1982 Mauch’s Angels led the majors with 114. Cleveland was second in the AL with 74, and the Dodgers led the NL with 106.

Mauch last managed in 1987, just about the time that major league baseball embarked on an extended period of hitter domination. During the 1990s, bunting became less frequent, probably driven by two forces, the rise in scoring and the rise of sabermetrics. Bunting becomes a less critical strategy in high-scoring games (why scratch for one run when your team might have to score six or seven to win the game?). Meanwhile, sabermetric analysis has indicated that the benefit of so-called productive outs is limited. It’s better to take your chances trying to advance a runner with a base hit, rather than hand your opponent one of the 27 outs it will need to win the game, or so we are told by sabermetricians. To be fair, the decline in sacrifice bunting since 1990 has not been dramatic (about 20%), indicating that bunting remains an important strategic element of the major league game. Nonetheless, there are some recent extreme examples of non-use of the bunt. The 2003 Toronto Blue Jays had 11 sacrifice hits, and the 2005 Texas Rangers had only nine.

Gene Mauch had a long managerial career, but most of it was with less than stellar clubs. He is the winningest manager never to have taken a team to the World Series, coming close only a few times. His 1964 Phillies collapsed late in the season and finished one game behind St. Louis, and two of his 1980s Angels teams won their division but lost the ALCS. Otherwise, his Philadelphia, Montreal and Minnesota teams mostly struggled. While there is little team success to show for Mauch’s strict adherence to small-ball, in my view, it would be an unfair criticism 24 years after his retirement and six years after his death to say that he flashed the bunt sign too often. However, if Mauch were alive today and managing in the major leagues, it would be worth noting whether he would be as devoted to the bunt as he was during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And if so, it would be interesting to see the extent of criticism he would endure from sports media and sabermetric-savvy bloggers for pursuing his small-ball strategy.

Double the fun: Joe Adcock and His Dazzling Day at Ebbets Field

When Fred Haney took over the Milwaukee Braves’ reins from Charlie Grimm on June 17, 1956, the former Pittsburgh Pirates skipper must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. What a starting rotation Haney had to chose from: Warren Spahn (20-11), Lew Burdette (19-10) and Bob Buhl (18-8). The fourth and fifth starters, Ray Crone and Gene Conley were not as outstanding but could be counted on to turn in solid outings.

Haney’s starting lineup included Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Bill Bruton and one of the most feared batters of his era, Joe Adcock. The first games Haney managed were a doubleheader in Ebbets Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although Grimm started the Braves off with a lackluster 22-24 record, when Haney took over Milwaukee was locked in a season long, fierce first place battle with the Dodgers.

Haney immediately ended Grimm’s practice of platooning the right handed Adcock and inserted his name in both ends of the double dip against Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe.

In the first game, Adcock blasted two homers, one off Erskine and a second game winning, ninth inning smash off relief pitcher Ed Roebuck that landed after clearing the 83-foot left field wall. Adcock was the only slugger to accomplish this feat. In the nightcap, Adcock touched up Newcombe for this third home run of the afternoon.

Adcock’s line for the day: AB: 7; R: 3; H: 4, RBIs: 4.

Brooklyn fans remember, with dismay, how Adcock feasted on Dodger pitching. On July 31, 1954, Adcock accomplished the rare feat of homering four times in a single game, against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, and set a new record for most total bases in a game (18) that stood until broken by Shawn Green in 2002.

Although he ended his career with more than respectable stats, (.277 batting average, 336 home runs and 1,122 RBIs, Adcock’s more famous teammates and other slugging National League slugging first basemen like Ted Kluszewski and Gil Hodges overshadowed him.

In addition to the Braves, Adcock played for the Cincinnati Reds, the Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Angels. A two-time All Star selection, Adcock was a part of the 1957 World Series winning Braves.

After an unsuccessful one year stint managing the Indians and two more years managing in the minor leagues, Adcock retired to his 288-acre ranch in Coushatta, LA. to raise horses. Adcock died in 1999 at age 71.

“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one famous doubleheader each week.

Any player/Any era: Rick Ankiel

What he did: Ankiel’s is a story in three parts. He started as a phenom pitching prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals (“here was Sandy Koufax,” Buzz Bissinger wrote of an 18-year-old Ankiel in 3 Nights in August.) Then came an inexplicable collapse in the 2000 playoffs, as Ankiel suddenly and permanently lost his ability to throw strikes. He bounced between the majors and the minors for the next several years before resurrecting himself as an outfielder in 2007.  He’s had some ups and downs and is on his fourth team in three years, though Ankiel at least has a spot with the Washington Nationals.

Another left hander made the transition from the pitching mound to the outfield in the Cardinal organization decades prior, albeit with much greater success. I wonder if Ankiel had followed Stan Musial’s career path, he might be something more than a 31-year-old journeyman today.

Era he might have thrived in: Musial could do everything except throw because of a shoulder injury that ended his pitching career before it ever really began. Ankiel would come with a cannon arm and power hitting good enough to net him 25 home runs in 2008. He doesn’t offer much speed, which the St. Louis farm system placed a premium on at the beginning of Musial’s career, though the team made exceptions occasionally for men like Johnny Mize and Joe Medwick. Perhaps Ankiel could join their ranks.

Why: I don’t mean to slight Musial, who might be the most underrated player in baseball history. Stan the Man put together a Hall of Fame career in the relative obscurity of St. Louis, and prior to this, he worked hard transforming himself in the minors into a position player. He went 18-5 as a pitcher in the Florida State League in 1940 and played the outfield between starts, hitting .311 in 405 at-bats. By the time of his shoulder injury that August, it was already apparent to Musial’s bush manager Dickie Kerr and Cardinal general manager Branch Rickey that his future was in the outfield.

Thing is, I question how much of Musial’s success was due to natural talent, how much was due to hard work, and how much can be attributed to playing in Rickey’s farm system, one of baseball’s greatest. Would Stan Musial have been Stan Musial had he come up as a Pittsburgh Pirate or New York Yankee, two teams he wanted to sign with? Would he have become a lifetime .331 hitter had he not hurt his arm? Retired scout Ronnie King said Musial’s hitting abilities wouldn’t have shown without the injury. “If you get a left hander and a 20-game winner, you’re going to make him pitch,” King told me.

I wrote here recently about how I believe so much of baseball success comes down to being in the right place at the right time, and for Musial, it was getting optioned to Daytona in 1940 after a couple fruitless years in the minors, making a deep Cardinal team at the onset of World War II, and managing to play through most of the conflict because of his large number of dependents. The second world war benefited no baseball player like it benefited Musial, and I question if Ankiel could have had similar success in his circumstances.

There’s another possibility here, too, the chance that Ankiel never loses his equilibrium on the mound, pitching for a better club in a talent-depleted majors. Maybe Ankiel does big things as a young hurler for the ’42 Cardinals who won 106 games and the World Series without, get this, any Hall of Fame pitchers. He’d just need something to get out of military duty.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Three Men on Third: Which One is Out?

The Brooklyn Robins’ Babe Herman was an outstanding hitter but his fielding was, to put it mildly, suspect. Try as he might, Robins’ manager Wilber Robinson could not hide Herman’s defensive liabilities. In 1927, as a first baseman, Herman led the league in errors. Then in 1928 and 1929, he topped the league in errors committed by a right fielder.

Herman’s ineptitude lead teammate Fresco Thompson to comment: “He wore a glove for one reason: because it was a league custom.”

A base running gaffe Herman committed in his rookie year has put him down in history as the only man who doubled into a double play. During an Ebbets Field game on August 15, 1926, with none out and the bases loaded Herman tried to stretch a double off the right field wall into a triple. Chick Fewster, who had been on first, tried to advance to third but that base was already occupied by Dazzy Vance who had started from second base. Vance, caught in a rundown, tried to dash back to third. Since Herman had not watched the play in front of him, the three runners ended up at third base. Third baseman Eddie Taylor tagged all of them to be sure of getting as many outs as possible.

Recounting the incident to the Glory of Their Times author Lawrence Ritter, pitcher Rube Bressler said: “The third baseman didn’t know what to do so he tagged all three of them. And the umpire hesitated trying to decide which of these two guys are out and which one is safe. Rather an unusual situation, doesn’t exactly come up every day and they started arguing about who’s what.”

According to the rules, the slow footed Vance was entitled to the base, so umpire Beans Reardon called Herman and Fewster out.

Scribes pounced on Herman and wrote that for the first time in baseball history, a batter had doubled into a double play. In his own defense, Herman complained that no one congratulated him for driving in the winning run. When Babe got his hit Hank DeBerry was on third, Vance on second and Fewster on first. DeBerry scored.

Long suffering Dodgers fans created a running joke: First fan: “The Dodgers have 3 men on base!” Second fan: “Oh, yeh? Which base?”

Throughout his career, Herman was prone to the most egregious errors on the base paths. On two occasions in 1930— May 30 against the Philadelphia Phillies and September 15 versus the Cincinnati Reds—Herman stopped to watch a home run while running the bases and was passed by the hitter, thereby changing the homer to a single.

Not only was Herman a defensive liability, he was one of baseball’s slowest runners. On September 20, 1931 Herman  was thrown out attempting to steal second base steal a base against the St. Louis Cardinals, even though opposing catcher was 48-year-old Cardinals manager Gabby Street, appearing in his first game (as an emergency substitute) since 1912.

For his various mistakes, pitcher Vance dubbed Herman “the Headless Horseman of Ebbets Field”.

Herman ended his major league career with a .324 batting average, 1818 hits, 181 home runs, 997 RBI, 882 runs, 399 doubles, 110 triples and 94 stolen bases in 1552 games.

Once Again Realignment Rears Its Ugly Head

Okay let’s get this straight.  I’m not against realignment per say.  I just don’t like any Bud Selig inspired or sanctioned plan because I know from past experience that those who run major league baseball have only one motive in mind, money. They also seem to have a desire to make baseball the same as other sports, ignoring the beauty and originality of it.

Playoffs generate lots and lots of money regardless of which sport and the excuses of seeking a competitive balance with as many teams as possible only serve to bring up a National Hockey League type scenario.  The NHL system basically renders the regular season meaningless and sets up a two or three month playoff round(s) which at the final conclusion, render said playoffs meaningless as well.

But lots and lots of cash is generated, especially in those cities where attendance is mediocre at best.   It gives the illusion that all is well and of course allows owners to spend less and less on trying to field a quality team.   There is little reason to strive for a team which plays above the .500 mark.  While having poor quality teams matched up in the playoffs can make for “exciting” games, it only weakens the sport in the long run.

First we had the proposal over the past offseason of floating teams from division to division depending on their won lost record of the previous season.  It was difficult to tell if this was serious or not but surely no one here would want to see the World Series featuring the present day Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals.  Teams with barely above .500 records have advanced through the playoffs but that is more of a fluke and should not be something which is strived for. Another proposal saw an expansion of the wild card, again watering down the overall quality.

The National Football League does something similar although it achieves this with its’ scheduling. The worst teams from the season past play almost exclusively other less successful teams, allowing for inflated and deceiving records the following season.   Once again, most incentive to produce a quality on field product is removed, further watering down the sport.

Baseball has of late been proposing a system of two 15 team divisions, (one for each league), with the top four or five teams qualifying for the playoffs.  This seems to be a basic extension of the present wild card format, a format which while generating fan interest longer into the season, has the effect of inter division games late in the season being basically meaningless.  One is forced to instead focus on the wild card standings and closely following those teams with a sub or barely .500 record.  As there is no real incentive to finish first, (except for home field advantage for the team with the best overall record), when it is much easier to finish fourth, mediocrity is once more encouraged under the guise of competitiveness.

Ironically, the latest proposal would leave more teams out of the playoff picture earlier than since the introduction of the wild card and would return us to a pre 1969 situation.  It would also set up the season for a battle between the fourth and fifth place teams, leaving little incentive to finish in the top three.   It would bring baseball to a European soccer like situation which no one really understands.

Here is my proposal if we are going to throw traditions out the window.  As we seem to be stuck with interleague play which I admit does work well in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Baltimore, let’s go one step further.

Let’s have one league, (similar to the NFL), and have four divisions.  We could call it North, South, East and West.  Inter divsion play would be the majority and the first two teams in each division would be playoff bound. With the first place team having home field advantage until the World Series.  Next week I’ll get into a detailed discussion of this plan but I think there are distinct advantages to it.

A starting lineup of Beatles songs

C- Love Me Do: The Fab Four’s early hit has the slow, easy consistency characteristic of a veteran backstop, even if the song’s relative brevity at just over two minutes raises some questions of durability. But then, the life of a catcher is riddled with questions and uncertainty. It’s the cost of doing business.

P- Eleanor Rigby: A great pitcher has something that sets him apart, Christy Matthewson with his screwball, Bob Feller with his speed, Greg Maddux with his pinpoint control. When the Beatles released this single off “Revolver” in 1966, they’d done little, if anything, like it. An existential song about loneliness, none of the four members played on it, relying instead on an octet of violin, viola, and cello musicians. The resulting track went to #1 on the UK Singles Chart and signaled John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s shift to more serious work.

1B- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Paul’s hit from 1967 was strong enough to anchor an album and reach #1 in four countries. It is my power hitter here, the big bat for a group that was otherwise light for the most part on heavier tracks and produced happy and optimistic-sounding works even in the brooding, creative intensity of later years.

2B- Strawberry Fields Forever, SS- Penny Lane: Countless car trips when I was growing up featured The Beatles 1967-1970 greatest hits anthology so whenever I hear “Strawberry Fields Forever,” I’m reminded of “Penny Lane.” The songs follow each other on the album and forever feed into one another in my mind. For that reason, they are my double play combo.

3B- Revolution: Nike used the Beatles’ anthem for social unrest to controversially create a commercial in 1987, filling it with highlights of the ’60s. For some reason, replaying the song in my head, I’m reminded of different highlights, Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson making diving catches at third base, in slow motion, in black and white. Don’t ask me why my mind works the way it does.

RF- A Day in the Life: A listener can get lost in the long transition in the middle of this song where the orchestra plays and John Lennon wails. The depths of the outfield were made for this sort of thing.

CF- Something: Perhaps no ballplayer was ever as graceful as Joe DiMaggio. “Something” is the Beatles’ version of the Yankee Clipper, one of two classic songs written about George Harrison’s wife at the time Pattie Boyd (who would inspire “Layla” two years later.) More than 150 artists have covered “Something,” including Frank Sinatra who called it “the greatest love song ever written.”

LF- Rocky Racoon: Someone told me anything by George belongs in left field. I’d have thought that’d be more the domain of Ringo, but I’ll make the leap of faith here.

Other starting lineups: ex-presidents, writers

Forever young: 10 who threw their last pitch before 30

Baseball can be a paradoxical sport. The pitchers with the greatest longevity sometimes hit their strides late, seemingly every generation having its Dazzy Vance or Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. And often, the brightest young phenoms flame out early. Here are 10 hurlers who threw their last pitch before age 30, ranked in order of magnitude of collapse:

1. Denny McLain: In 1968, a 24-year-old McLain became the most-recent pitcher to win 30 games, and he followed that in 1969 with another Cy Young season. Within three years, he’d be out of the majors.”How could this have happened?” his SABR biography notes. “McLain claims to have suddenly lost his fastball in 1970, but one couldn’t help but notice that he was putting on ten pounds of fat a year. At the time of his release, he was 29 and looked 45.”

2. Mark Fidrych: At his height, Fidrych was a 21-year-old rookie who talked to the ball on the mound and was nicknamed Big Bird for his awkward, goofy mannerisms, on his way to a 19-9 season with a 2.34 ERA. But throwing 250.1 innings in a debut campaign can take its toll, and Fidrych didn’t manage that the rest of his career combined, retiring four injury-plagued years later.

3. Mark Prior: Of all the men on this list, Prior may be the one who could still pitch, just 30 at this writing. But he hasn’t played in the majors since going 1-6 in 2006, possible overuse by his manager on the Chicago Cubs, Dusty Baker to blame. Certainly, Prior was never the same after Baker’s first year in town, 2003, when the 22-year-old ace went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and the Cubs came within one game of the World Series.

4. Herb Score: Early in his career, Score looked like the next Bob Feller, going 36-19 with a 2.68 ERA and 508 strikeouts over his first two seasons with the Cleveland Indians. Score’s fortunes shifted a few months into his third year in the majors when he took a Gil McDougald line drive to the face. Though Score pitched another five seasons, he won just 17 more games after his injury and retired in 1962 at 28.

5. Bugs Raymond: Raymond had seemingly ideal circumstances for his career, joining a dynasty at the height of the Deadball Era. He went 18-12 with a 2.49 ERA in 1909 but drank his way off a World Series-bound New York Giants club two years later and was dead barely a year after that.

6. Gary Nolan: For someone who was done at 29, Nolan offered surprising longevity, his 110 wins lifetime second among these men to McLain’s 131. Five times, Nolan won at least 14 games, and he finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 1972 when he went 15-5 with a 1.99 ERA for a Reds team that went to the World Series. One can only wonder how much longer Nolan would’ve lasted without a debut as a young flamethrower or later, a manager, Sparky Anderson who urged him to pitch through arm pain.

7. Wally Bunker: Bunker was enough of a hit with the Baltimore Orioles early on that the pitching mound in Memorial Stadium was renamed Bunker Hill. He went 19-5 as a 19-year-old rookie in 1964 but developed a sore arm late in the season and was never again as effective, even if he stuck around the majors seven more seasons.

8. Tony Saunders: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Saunders the first pick in the 1997 expansion draft, though he pitched just two years for them before his injury-related retirement at 25. Jose Canseco wrote in one of his books that Saunders wore out his arm through excessive steroid use.

9. Dave Nied: The second of three men here selected in expansion drafts (the next guy was as well), Nied came to the Colorado Rockies as their first overall pick in November 1992. But expansion duty in the light air of Denver may have been too much for even a once-heralded Atlanta Braves prospect. Nied lasted parts of four seasons before bowing out in 1996 at 27 with a 17-18 lifetime record and 5.06 ERA.

10. Jay Hook: Hook went 29-62 with a 5.23 ERA in eight mostly-forgettable seasons between 1957 and 1964. He’s notable for winning the first game in New York Mets history, entering the majors as a Bonus Baby years before, and earning the nickname of “Professor” from Mets manager Casey Stengel for attending Northwestern in the offseason.

Any player/Any era: Lefty Grove

What he did: I thought of Grove while reading a Baseball Think Factory discussion on my Gavvy Cravath piece last Thursday. One of the forum members noted that Cravath spent several years in the minors because his club, Minneapolis, refused to sell him. The same thing happened with Grove, who went 25-10 with a 2.56 ERA for Baltimore of the International League in 1921 but didn’t make the majors until four years later when he was 25. “It will forever be debated how many major-league games Grove would have won if he hadn’t spent five seasons with the Orioles,” his SABR biography notes. I’m happy to begin that debate anew.

Era he might have thrived in: Grove would benefit from an era where he could make the majors in his early 20s and not burn out in his mid-30s through overuse, as was the case for him. He might thrive on the current San Francisco Giants who play in the pitcher-friendly AT&T Park and whose coaching staff has done good work thus far keeping a staff of bright, young hurlers healthy. With a full career, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest Grove could add 50-100 wins to the 300 he got lifetime.

Why: First off, Grove wouldn’t be held back by Jack Dunn, the Baltimore owner who clutched onto his star so long before finally selling him to the Philadelphia Athletics for $100,600 (Dunn at least sold a 19-year-old Babe Ruth to the Boston Red Sox a decade before.) Growing up in recent decades, Grove would also probably start playing baseball much sooner than 17. Whether that would lead to him being drafted today out of high school or college, Grove would have far better chances as a prospect.

The thought here is that if a 21-year-old Grove could dominate the International League, a circuit just below the majors in its day, he’d be in the show not much later in this era. This could hold especially true on the Giants, where Tim Lincecum debuted at 22, Matt Cain at 20, Jonathan Sanchez at 23, and Madison Bumgarner at 20. Granted, Bumgarner has struggled mightily this season, and Sanchez and Cain have had their ups and downs through their careers, Lincecum as well to a lesser extent, but all have had success with San Francisco. Grove could, too.

Grove had certain things going for him when he played that would serve him well today. He’d probably still have the competitive streak that spurred him to destroy lockers (though never with his pitching hand, as David Halberstam noted in Summer of ’49.) Also, a reader told me awhile back that Grove was one of the first pitchers to throw from a full-body windup, which makes him one of the few classic hurlers I’m willing to project in contemporary times. I’m guessing almost anyone else who pitched before World War II would get rocked in the majors today.

Would Grove lose some things going from the time he played to the present? Sure. He’d miss out on spending his prime seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics of the late 1920s and early ’30s, one of baseball’s all-time best clubs. It’s also unlikely he’d get close to 300 innings or 50 appearances in a season, with 240 innings and 35 starts the standard in baseball today. Still, that might work wonders for his longevity. Seeing as Grove overcame a dead arm in his mid-30s and pitched until he was 41, going 15-4 with an American League-best 2.54 ERA at 39, one can only guess how much longer he might last today.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

How Buster Posey Became a Catcher (Will He Catch Again?)

I’ve watched the Scott Cousins-Buster Posey collision dozens of times. My conclusion: if it’s a clean baseball play, it shouldn’t be.

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt told ESPN’s Mike and Mike that in his opinion Cousins had a clear path to home plate and should have taken it. But, said Schmidt, since sliding is a “lost art,” Cousins barreled into Posey and may have ended the young star’s career.

But did Posey also make the wrong choice when as a Florida State Seminole he switched positions to become a catcher? As a testimony to his versatility, Posey at one time or another at Florida State played all nine positions. In a single game on May 12, 2008 against Savannah State Posey not only played all the field positions but pitched the last inning and struck out the only two batters he faced.

As a freshman in 2006, Posey started at shortstop, hit .346 and won a spot on the Louisville Slugger All American Freshman team. The following year, the Seminoles needed a catcher so associate head coach Jamey Shoupe approached Posey who readily agreed.

According to sources close to the Florida State baseball program, Posey spent the next few months in a catcher’s crouch. Not only did Posey watch television and read textbooks while bent at the knees, he studied Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Joe Mauer’s defensive techniques.

After just one season of playing the position, Posey was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award, awarded to the best catcher in college baseball. In 2008, as a junior, he hit .463 with 26 home runs and 93 RBIs, won the Johnny Bench Award and was named the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year. The same year Posey won the coveted Dick Howser Trophy, and the Golden Spikes Award given to the best player in amateur baseball.

By all accounts, Posey is not only a great player but also an outstanding young man. FSU fans once serenaded Posey with this tune:

Bus-ter Pose-ee, he’ll hit a home run/Bus-ter Pose-ee, he’ll throw you out/Bus-ter Pose-ee, he’ll strike you out too!

Posey, out for the year, says he wants to return to catching in 2012.

But everything depends on how Posey’s physical rehab progresses. But however this season ends, whether you’re a San Francisco Giants’ fan or not, the Cousins-Posey incident has cast a dark shadow over the game

Knowing that baseball greats like Schmidt think Posey’s injury was avoidable makes coping with its consequences all the harder.

The Good, the Bad and the …So Far

Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties, Doug Bird’s Tuesday post is going up a day later than usual this week.

_________________

With apologies to spaghetti westerns everywhere, let’s look at the first two months of the 2011 major league baseball season and see some of what and who went right, what and who went wrong and what and who went really wrong . Maybe the title of this week’s column should really be surprises, disappointments and disgusting.

The Good

Cleveland Indians: Although they have started the expected slide, the Cleveland Indians proved that defense and pitching (in that order) are what wins ballgames more often than not.  Having two of your best players back and hitting (Grady Sizemore and Travis Haffner) doesn’t hurt either.  The acquisition of Orlando Cabrera in the winter gave the team a genuine winning player with intangibles which defy his statistical performance.  Almost everywhere Cabrera has played has turned that team into a winner.  Astrubel Cabrera (Cabrera to Cabrera on double plays sure is fun to say and write) has been performing like the player scouts have always said he could be and the young pitching has been solid until it ran into the Boston Red Sox recently.

Tampa Bay Rays: That the Tampa Bay Rays are winning as much as they have been and especially after their horrid start proves that, as Yogi Berra once stated, “90% of this game is half mental”.  Or Joe Maddon.  Maddon has always managed this team emphasizing the importance of very solid fundamental play, no panicking and Evan Longoria. Maddon seems to have a quiet confidence in all of his players and adheres strictly to everyone being equally important.  Half of his team are multi-positional players and defensive minded and his starters strike almost everyone out.  Who says you can’t lose half your roster and still be in the hunt for a playoff spot?  Not me anymore.

Arizona Diamondbacks: They still strike out way too much and don’t like to walk but first year official manager Kirk Gibson has instilled this team with a football type mentality.  Gibson has insisted on intensity every play and every pitch and his players refusing to accept a loss. It sure helps that the totally revamped bullpen has been lights out with come back finally from injury closer J.J. Putz securing the back end.

Even once super prospect Sean Burroughs has gotten into the action if only as a reserve player.  Pittsburgh Pirate castoff Zach Duke pitched well in his first start of the season last week and hit a three run homerun.  Shades of Tampa Bay efficiency?

Honorable Mention: Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins

The Bad

Chicago White Sox: Ozzie Guillen was quiet until a couple of days ago despite the fact that this year so far the team can’t pitch, hit or remember how to play the game.  That all changed after a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.  The post game meet and greet with the press turned into an Ozzie rant and rave with more “bleeps” than anything.  Not his best work but it was nice to see him finding his groove once again.

Adam Dunn is on pace for 20 homeruns and a .230 batting average and Alex Rios has turned into a player whose only virtue seems to be a strong throwing arm.  If it wasn’t for converted shortstop Sergio Santos, the bullpen would be a complete disaster and John Danks is 0-8. At least Paul Konerko is hitting.

Chicago Cubs: The city by Lake Michigan isn’t having a very good 2011 baseball season.  I still think hiring Mike Quade as manager was the right decision but even he can’t motivate Aramis Ramirez, (two homeruns thus far) and Carlos Pena.  Soriano has continued to make any fly ball to left an adventure and the strangest sight of all, empty seats in Wrigley.  Cub pitching has been only okay but although the Cubs would like to trade (give away) Carlos Zambrano, Rick Dempster no one will touch them except maybe the New York Yankees in September. With their large payroll and poor farm system (why is Josh Vitters still in Double A anyway?) the World champion drought will well into the future.

Minnesota Twins: Is anyone else having trouble getting used to seeing the Twins play poor fundamental baseball and their pitching allow football type scores? I didn’t think so.  Of course injuries have really hurt the club with Joe Mauer hurt again, Justin Morneau still recovering from the concussion he suffered almost one year ago and Joe Nathan hoping his repaired arm can finally heal and allow him rediscover his fastball.

But the signing of Japanese league star Tsuyoshi Nishioka has proven to be a major mistake notwithstanding his injury, the fragility of Francisco Liriano  and Delmon Young having an awful season, the Twins might be in big trouble not only this season but for the foreseeable future.

Dishonorable Mention: New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers

Being in the right place at right time

A few weeks ago, a reader emailed with a question: Was there any player whose spot in the Hall of Fame was so dependent on the team he played on as Roberto Clemente? The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Clemente as an 18-year-old free agent in 1952, though he went to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft two years later. Clemente struggled his first several years in Pittsburgh, before blossoming into a perennial All Star and batting champ in the 1960s. The rest is history.

My reader wrote of Clemente:

He lacked power and lost time due to many nagging injuries that on another club would have made him an ideal candidate for a backup player or a trip to the minors.

Had he stayed with the Dodgers, he would not have been able to break into their starting lineup and might well have gone to either the Mets or Colts in the expansion draft.
With any of the [other second-division teams he could have started for as a young player], his playing time certainly would have been curtailed and limited. He would probably have spent some time back in the minors, or been traded around the league a few times before becoming a well traveled journeyman.
All things considered, with any other team besides the Pirates, not only does he lose about three or four more seasons in the minors and maybe one or two more as a part time player, but there’s absolutely no way he reaches 3000 hits and becomes the Roberto Clemente we now know.
His career, perhaps more than any other shows just how dependent a ballplayer is on so many factors that are all beyond his control.

I agree. So much about success in baseball and life in general seems to hinge on being in the right place at the right time. It’s not to say hard work and perseverance don’t matter as well, but baseball history is filled with players who soared high with the help of luck and happenstance.

Here are 10 such men:

1. Joe Sewell: A lot came out of the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 including, arguably, Sewell’s Hall of Fame career. A 21-year-old Sewell made his debut September 10, 1920, less than a month after Chapman was killed by a pitched ball. While he’d done nothing special his only year in the minors, Sewell proceeded to bat .329 the rest of the season as Cleveland won the World Series. He played another 10 years with the Indians, hitting above .300 eight times, famous for his miniscule number of strikeouts each year.

2. Chuck Klein: A number of hitters posted gaudy numbers in the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark in the early part of the 20th century, the Baker Bowl. Klein may have earned his spot in the Hall of Fame because of it. Consider that in 581 games lifetime at the Baker Bowl, Klein batted .395 with 164 home runs and 594 RBI. In 1172 games elsewhere, he hit .277 with 136 home runs and 607 RBI.

3. Yogi Berra: The Hall of Fame catcher was regarded highly enough that Branch Rickey wanted to sign him to the Dodgers in the early 1940s. The Yankees won out on Berra, though, and his arrival in New York in 1946, after he served in World War II, coincided with the final seasons of another great catcher, Bill Dickey. Dickey mentored Berra through the ’46 season, and Berra progressed enough that the following year, the Yankees traded away former starter, Aaron Robinson. Berra later won three MVP awards, and Bill James ranks him as the greatest catcher all-time.

4. Sandy Koufax: Koufax signed with the Dodgers as a Bonus Baby in 1954, and his first several seasons, he struggled to keep his ERA under 4.00 and his winning percentage above .500, just another young, impossibly hard-throwing southpaw. He considered quitting after 1960 but thought better of it, and in spring training in 1961, catcher Norm Sherry offered sage advice. “Take something off the ball and let ‘em hit it,” Sherry told Koufax. “Nobody’s going to swing the way you’re throwing now.” Koufax went 129-47 the rest of his career, winning three Cy Young awards and an MVP.

5. Hank Aaron: My reader offered former home run king Aaron as another example. “This skinny, 20-year-old converted second baseman gets his shot because Bobby Thomson breaks his ankle in an exhibition game [in 1954],” my reader wrote. “No broken ankle, probably no rookie season and the 13 home runs that eventually lead to breaking the record. Without it, he may have spent a year or two either in the minors or as a backup outfielder. Think of the implications to all the records he wouldn’t have been able to set.”

6. George Foster: The early 1970s were bleak years to be a San Francisco Giant, with the club experiencing a near-two-decade slump following the departure of Willie Mays. Foster debuted with the Giants in 1969 and played parts of three years in San Francisco. He could have been limited by those years, another Bobby Bonds or Gary Matthews or Jack Clark, though one of the worst trades in baseball history sent Foster to greener pastures. In exchange for two forgotten players, Foster went to the Cincinnati Reds in 1971, and by the end of the decade, he’d be a power-hitting MVP for the Big Red Machine.

7. Ron LeFlore: For LeFlore, the right place at the right time was prison. Doing a 5-15-year stretch for armed robbery at the State Prison of Southern Michigan, LeFlore began playing on the baseball team. One of his fellow inmates knew Detroit Tigers manager Billy Martin, and after scouting LeFlore, Martin got him paroled in 1973 on a unique work-release program. LeFlore made the majors in 1974 as a 26-year-old rookie and played nine seasons ultimately. In baseball as in life, LeFlore distinguished himself for stealing, swiping 455 bases. Being incarcerated or meeting Billy Martin never paid so many dividends.

8. Jay Buhner: Getting traded from the New York Yankees to the Seattle Mariners early in his career made Buhner a starter and brought him to a home ballpark, the Kingdome that boosted his hitting numbers. Superstar teammate Ken Griffey Jr.’s broken wrist in 1995 elevated Buhner again. Hitting 40 home runs and driving in over 100 runs for the first time, Buhner helped fill the void and lead Seattle to the American League Championship Series. He remained a force his next two seasons.

9. Eddie Perez: How does a catcher make the majors at 27 and stay despite hitting in the low .200s? By being one of the preferred backstops of Greg Maddux. In his years with the Braves, Maddux generally opted to not be caught by regular starter Javy Lopez, the kind of exception made for a Cy Young hurler. Perez was Maddux’s primary battery mate from 1996 through 1999, and he played 11 seasons, ultimately.

10. Mike Piazza: Being the son of a childhood friend of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had its perks, including the chance to be drafted by Los Angeles in the 62nd round in 1988. With the draft maxing out at 50 rounds today and Lasorda retired since 1996, there’s less chance Piazza would make the show, let alone become an elite catcher.

Double the fun: The Two Lives of Bo Belinsky

During Bo Belinsky’s final two years in baseball, his skills were totally shot. In eight games with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1969 and one with the Cincinnati Reds in 1970 his record was 0-3 with a 4.50 ERA. But in 1962 when he first burst on the scene in Los Angeles with the original Angels, Belinsky looked like he would dominate the American League for years to come.

Belinsky won his first five starts including a May 5 no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles. Then on May 20, in the second game of a Fenway Park doubleheader, Belinsky reached what was to be his career peak.

Against the Boston, Belinsky pitched a complete game, 2-hitter to dominate the Red Sox, 1-0. For the rest of 1962, the bottom fell out as Belinsky posted an unimpressive 4-10. Then, in the seven following seasons between 1963 and 1970, he was never better than mediocre—and rarely even that.

Off the field, Belinsky dated “B” list Hollywood starlets, drank heavily and made the headlines more often than Angels management liked. The final straw for the Angels came Belinsky started a hotel room fight with elderly Los Angeles Times sportswriter Braven Dyer. The Angels immediately suspended Belinsky, then traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies where opposing batters proved to him that he was washed up. The consensus around the Major Leagues was that Belinsky had totally wasted his considerable talent.

Although his reputation during his playing days was one of a heavy drinking, barroom brawling playboy, toward the end of his life, Belinsky had sobered up and become a born again Christian. In 1973, veteran sportswriter Maury Allen wrote a biography of Belinsky, Bo: Pitching and Wooing, with the uncensored cooperation of Bo Belinsky, in 1973.

Belinsky had come to terms with his lost opportunities.

As he told Allen:

“I came to the Angels as a kid who thought he had been pushed around by life, by minor league baseball. I was selfish and immature in a lot of ways and I tried to cover that up. I went from a major league ballplayer to hanging onto a brown bag under the bridge, but I had my moments and I have my memories. If I had the attitude about life then that I have now, I’d have done a lot of things differently. But you make your rules and you play by them. I knew the bills would come due eventually, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover them.”

In 2001, Belinsky died after a long struggle against bladder cancer.

“Double the fun” is a Friday series here that examines one famous doubleheader each week.

Any player/Any era: Gavvy Cravath

What he did: Gavvy Cravath may be something of a forgotten man today, and I’ve confused him with Gabby Hartnett and Gabby Street before. Mostly, Cravath can be remembered as a name that shows up again and again on the National League home run leader boards of the Deadball Era. His 24 homers in 1915 was, to that time, a big league record. But he was slow in the field and played just seven full seasons in the majors. One of my baseball books suggests Cravath was born 55 years too soon, that he could have played into his 40s had the designated hitter position existed in his day. That’s an interesting thought, which I’m happy to expand on here.

Era he might have thrived in: The DH position debuted in 1973 when the New York Yankees made Ron Blomberg baseball’s first full-time hitter. Seeing as Cravath was born in 1881, moving his birth date up 55 years would seem insufficient to extend his career much or boost his Hall of Fame case. He’d perhaps be little more than a glorified version of another slow-moving slugger Frank Howard, who was born in 1936 and got just one season at the end of his career to DH. But if Cravath had been born in say, 1951, he might have been baseball’s first superstar DH.

Why: Cravath’s problem wasn’t that he couldn’t stick in the big leagues once he finally had a starting position. It’s that it took him until he was 31 to get it.

A native of Escondido, California, Cravath began playing in the Pacific Coast League and was 27 when he debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1908. But he couldn’t penetrate Boston’s vaunted outfield of Harry Hooper, Tris Speaker, and Duffy Lewis, one of baseball’s greatest, and Cravath bounced to a few other American League clubs before returning to the minors. When Cravath finally earned a starting spot with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1912, he quickly made up for lost time and took advantage of his cozy home park, the Baker Bowl, leading the National League in home runs six of the next eight seasons.

Cravath’s 119 home runs were a record when he retired at the dawn of the Live Ball Era in 1920, even if Babe Ruth quickly set this aside. But in the modern era, Cravath could make the majors as a full-time DH in his early 20s, last 15 or 20 seasons, and maybe hit 400-500 home runs. I’m guessing his 1915 season alone, when he clubbed 24 homers, unheard of for those days, might be good for 50 today. And seeing as Cravath played until he was 40, when few lasted that long, I wonder if he’d have even greater durability with modern medicine. The man exuded strength, becoming a no-nonsense judge after baseball. Even his name sounds tough.

Granted, playing in recent decades, Cravath wouldn’t have the 279-foot right field limits of his old stomping grounds, the Baker Bowl, which closed in 1938. Still, as a right-handed hitter with the ability to go to the opposite field, Cravath might thrive in old Yankee Stadium. He’d certainly trump Blomberg who, even with the chance to DH starting at 24, had 52 home runs lifetime and played his final game at 30.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays