Any player/Any era: Ichiro Suzuki

What he did: When I launched this column in June, I considered featuring Ichiro right away. I initially envisioned him as a Deadball Era star with his excellent contact hitting, speed, defense, and rifle arm, but the idea never developed. A number of Hall of Famers might have excelled in baseball’s early days, Roberto Clemente for one, and I don’t know what would make Ichiro that much more spectacular or unique back then. But if Ichiro played a decade or two into the Live Ball Era, he might have been iconic.

Era he might have thrived in: Ichiro probably would thrive in any era. For our purposes, we’ll look at the “Gashouse Gang” St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1930s when general manager Branch Rickey could have made Ichiro baseball’s first Japanese player. Ichiro’s style of play would have been perfect for Rickey and St. Louis, and his presence in baseball may have changed history.

Why: The 1930s were an interesting time for US-Japanese relations. Despite World War II looming a decade beyond, Major League Baseball launched multiple goodwill tours of Japan. Lefty O’Doul visited with an American All-Star team in 1931 and told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times that he returned the following year, taught baseball at six universities, and helped found its professional league. He even named the Tokyo Giants, who were originally going to be called The Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club.

Biographer Richard Leutzinger quoted O’Doul saying, “I’ll venture to say there are at least 20 players in Japan who are good enough fielders to play in the major leagues today. I remember that during our tour in 1931, Japanese outfielders made more spectacular catches in the 17 games than I had seen in any one year of major league baseball.” But O’Doul said Japanese players were so timid at the plate that he returned to coach hitting. And the majors of the 1930s, when hitters reigned supreme, had no place for an all-glove, no-bat outfielder.

Enter Ichiro, the Gold Glove standard in right field; he’d offer less power than most great 1930s hitters but on the right team, he might hit .400. The stat converter has Ichiro’s 2004 season translating to a .389 batting average with 267 hits for the 1935 Cardinals. And who knows how O’Doul’s tutelage would boost Ichiro’s natural abilities, seeing as the Father of Japanese Baseball made a hitter out of Dom DiMaggio in the Pacific Coast League.

Prejudice might hinder Ichiro playing stateside in the ’30s, but I doubt it would have been insurmountable. After all, no gentleman’s agreement kept Asians from the majors until Masanori Murakami debuted for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. I think it was more an issue of no all-around Japanese offensive player being available. I doubt one would have gotten past Rickey, who made Jackie Robinson baseball’s first black player in 1947. Interestingly, Rickey reportedly considered recruiting from Japanese internment camps during World War II.

I emailed Lee Lowenfish, who wrote a 2009 biography of Rickey. Lowenfish told me, “I do think that Rickey would have been enamored of Ichiro. He loved guys who could run because as he said it so trenchantly, speed helps you on both sides of the ball. Ichiro’s hitting down on the ball and covering a lot of ground in the outfield with a fine arm would definitely have appealed to Rickey. His last St. Louis team of 1942– the so-called St Louis Swifties– all could run like the wind.”

Lowenfish disagreed on Rickey being willing to sign Ichiro, saying the 1930s “would have been too early.” Still, I think Ichiro would have been worth a public relations risk. Could he have changed history? My friend Sarah, who shares an interest in history, said business was a major reason for war, that an oil embargo hurt Japanese interests. Perhaps conflict was unavoidable. I doubt Ichiro would have hurt matters, though. At worst, he would have been side-by-side O’Doul in the years after Hiroshima, helping promote goodwill and Japanese baseball once more.

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, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

Bob Costas: Hall of Fame ‘Too Big’

I lied! Granted, I didn’t realize I was lying when I wrote in my recent blog about Bert Blyleven’s inevitable Hall of Fame election that I wasn’t going to get into a “lather” about it.

But now I realize that I’m at lather stage not only because of the inclusion of another unworthy player into the Hall, but also because his induction represents another step in the deterioration of a once great institution.

What got me “lathered” up was Joe Posnanski’s blog wherein he revealed that Bob Costas thinks the Hall of Fame is “too big,” my position exactly. According to Costas, again echoing my feelings, the Hall should be reserved for the “great” and not include the “very good” which Posnanski interpreted as a reference to Blyleven.

Posnanski further speculated that if Costas could do it without hurting anyone’s feelings, he’d cull several existing members from the Hall. Once again, Costas and I share the exact restrictionist philosophy.

Then, in a joking response to Costas, Posnanski created what he called the “Willie Mays Hall of Fame” that would use Mays as the standard for all future inductees. If a player didn’t compare to Mays, he wasn’t Hall material. By the time Posnanski completed his analysis, the Hall only had one member: Willie Mays.

If you’re willing to considering Costas’ (and my) approach, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

The first 1936 Hall of Fame class included the following: Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner. These players didn’t qualify: Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby and others with imposing stats. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, the Hall elected Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Blyleven. Is there anyone out there that, no matter what convoluted sabermetrics you may use, wants to argue that that Ruth and Dawson are comparable players? Can anyone successfully debate that, regardless of the era they pitched in, that Blyleven is the equal to either Johnson or Mathewson?

Here’s something else. Tell me who doesn’t belong in this picture: Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Blyleven.

Yet despite the huge disparities in their skills and careers, at the end of the day, baseball fans can accurately make this all-inclusive observation: “Seaver, Gibson, Palmer and Blyleven are Hall of Fame pitchers.”

Unless you go into a long-winded breakdown of their careers, that simple statement puts them all on equal footing. That is, they’re all Hall of Famers.

That’s ludicrous!

Maybe you’re okay with Dawson, Rice and Blyleven. But if the current relaxed standards trend continues, as I sadly expect it will, the Hall will soon be seriously evaluating, for example, Bobby Abreu.

Like Blyleven, Abreu will have played for several teams including three with strong public relations machines, the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angeles, all of whom will work hard to advance his Hall case.

For that matter, Abreu has enough money to hire his own public relations firm or, like Blyleven, develop an influential Web site to do his own advocating. Then, perhaps most helpful of all to Abreu, he’ll stay on the Hall ballot for an interminable 15 years. Since Abreu will have made friends among the voting sportswriters, locally and nationally, eventually his train will come in. By the time the spin ends, Abreu will be as good as Roberto Clemente.

In the meantime, I’m finding comfort where I can. I have Costas and some readers as allies in my losing fight for a meaningful Hall. That’s good company to be in.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Smoky Joe Wood

Claim to fame: Novelist James T. Farrell once wrote of Wood, “Some of the most exciting early games I saw were in 1912, when the Boston Red Sox came to town. They won the pennant that year, and they always beat the White Sox when I went to the games. Smoky Joe Wood, who belongs in the Hall of Fame, won 34 and lost 5 that year. In memory it seems as though he hurled all those games against Chicago. With shadows pushing over the ball park he would stand out there on the pitching mound in his red-trimmed gray road uniform, hitch up his pants, and throw. To this day, I have a recollection of a strange sensation as if my head had emptied, when he fired the ball in the shadowy park. The White Sox couldn’t touch him.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Wood received votes for Cooperstown from the Baseball Writers Association of America nine years between 1936 and 1951, peaking at 18 percent of the vote in 1947. The Veterans Committee can enshrine Wood through its Pre-Integration Era subcommittee, which covers players from 1871 to 1946 and is due to meet next prior to 2013 inductions.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Wood essentially has two things going for his Hall of Fame case. First, he has one of the greatest baseball names of all-time. Smoky Joe Wood sounds more like a Steinbeck character than a ballplayer. I’d venture that beyond Shoeless Joe, Smoky Joe might be the only Deadball Era player most fans today would know or care about. Wood also had one of the greatest pitching seasons ever, 1912, and his dominance that year went beyond his 34-5 record, 1.91 ERA, 10 shutouts, or 258 strikeouts. He also racked up 9.5 WAR, a better than 3-1 strikeout-walks ratio, and a 1.015 WHIP. If ever a pitcher deserved to be enshrined on the basis of one season, it’s Wood though Denny McLain of 1968 and Dwight Gooden of 1985 can’t rank far behind.

Wood doesn’t have much else on his resume beyond 1912 since he permanently injured his arm the following year and threw just 18.1 innings past 1915. It’s worth noting Wood transitioned to the outfield for a few seasons thereafter, even hitting .366 with an OPS+ of 151 in reserve duty in 1921. Mostly, though, Wood’s a tantalizing example of what might have been with his 117 career wins, all compiled by the age of 25 and his lifetime 2.03 ERA. Baseball’s enshrined pitchers before who were done early, from Addie Joss to Dizzy Dean to Sandy Koufax, but Wood’s lifetime marks would be the least of the bunch.

Whether Wood belongs in the Hall of Fame probably depends upon one’s view of the museum. For those who see Cooperstown strictly as a place to honor players with superior career stats, Wood doesn’t make it. Not even close. But for players who, for even a time, might have captured the spirit and magic of baseball and helped elevate the game, Wood has to be one of the very best without a plaque. And unlike many who held this mantle and then fell dramatically from grace, from McLain and Gooden to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, Wood seems just as mystifying almost 100 years after his last pitch. That has to be good for something.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

My interview with Josh Wilker

The baseball blogosphere is filled with people who haven’t gotten a professional break, people like myself. Many of us are dedicated and passionate, but for whatever reason, we find ourselves here. Every so often, though, one of us breaks through. Last spring, I noticed reviews on and in Sports Illustrated of Josh Wilker’s book, Cardboard Gods, a memoir framed around his childhood baseball card collection. I subsequently reviewed the book and thought it was excellent. As a baseball blogger and a writer, Wilker is a lot of things to aspire to be: funny, honest, and original. It gives me hope he’s gotten to the point he’s at.

I’ve been interested in interviewing Wilker since reading his book, and I finally made some time to talk with him on Saturday. Excerpts of our 30-minute phone discussion are as follows:

I’ve been a reader of your site pretty much since I read your book in April or May. One thing I noticed during the summer was your frequency of posting slowed for a few months. I was just curious– did you experience a post-book creative letdown at all?

Wilker: I had another book that I had to write so I was putting whatever creativity I had into that really and then trying to keep my blog also going along. But I think in general, even up to this moment, there was a lot of momentum in me working on my blog for the first few years I was writing it, and that momentum kind of climaxed with the book. I had a story I wanted to tell about my life, and I found a way to get to it, piece by piece, by writing about it first on my blog and then working on the book. And then when I got it to find its shape in the book, then I wasn’t sort of searching for that anymore. I’m still interested in the cards themselves, I’m still interested in trying to find ways that relate it to my life. It just doesn’t– I don’t know if it has the same urgency it did in the early days.

*                         *                         *

How has the release of your book changed your life?

Wilker: Not in any huge ways outwardly. I still live basically the same life that I was living before the release of the book. I write in the morning, then I go to my day job, come home, watch TV, drink a couple of beers. It’s pretty much the same story as it was before. I think internally, it was very satisfying to see a creative piece of work make its way into a published book. I’ve been writing for over 20 years, and most of the satisfaction just comes from the writing itself. But I’m certainly not above getting the kind of external validation, and just enjoying that, the validation that comes from just getting a book out there and sharing it with people….

I would say [something] that’s changed, I suppose, is just the idea that some people have read it which makes me kind of uneasy because there’s some really personal stuff in there. For example, I very much like the people I work with but I haven’t told them about my life in such detail that, if they happened to pick up my book, suddenly they know my whole story from birth to right now, and that makes me feel a little weird.

I know I was reading, and especially like the last half of your book, it was really, really personal stuff, and I mean, frankly, it’s more detail than I would go into if I was writing my life story. When you were writing the book did you ever wrestle with, ‘Hmmm, some of this stuff, should I be putting this in?’ What was that like for you?

Wilker: I think I’ve been inspired by books that try not to hide from the whole story, if they can and get it out there. There’s some memoirs that I really like, This Boy’s Life and A Fan’s Notes and The Basketball Diaries, and these books really do go to places that most people wouldn’t really be comfortable talking about so publicly. So I had those kinds of things urging me on because those books were so important to me. I think I felt it would have been insincere to not try to live up to that. But it’s a story, too, and there’s parts that I leave out. I didn’t tell everything, so I suppose there’s definitely a thought in my mind, I don’t want to go everywhere. But I did want to, as much as I could, lay myself open to scrutiny and just show all my limitations and faults and not hold back and make myself look good.

*                         *                         *

I’m 27, and I’m kind of at the stage of my life where professionally I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer. I work as a delivery driver right now to get my rent paid, and one thing that really resonated with me from reading your writing, both on your blog and in your book, is it seems like we’ve kind of been the same places. Were there ever times as a young man when you wondered what your life would amount to?

Wilker: Oh sure, yeah. The only aspiration I had was to be a writer, and for most of my adult life, it wasn’t really bearing any fruit in the real world, and meanwhile, I was making ends meet, or not. That was the toughest times, actually. Being unemployed is infinitely worse than having a crappy job.

I absolutely, absolutely agree with you.

Wilker: Actually, some stability with work I think really might have helped me, because I was kind of bouncing from very tenuous job to tenuous job. I think when I had a job with kind of regular hours that wasn’t killing me in any kind of anxiety or ways, it helped my writing. It gave me a better routine every day and allowed me to focus on the writing a little more steadily. But back to your question, I did worry about that, for sure, and I still worry about it. I think it’s a worry that I’ll always have.

*                         *                         *

What’s one thing you wish you did better as a writer?

Wilker: I often wish that I was more like [Anton] Chekhov who in some ways is the most awe-inspiring writer to me because when he would write a short story, there wasn’t any discernible part of his own personality in the writing. He would just drop into the life of somebody who was completely unlike who he was, a writer/doctor. He would become anybody. It was like he could become anybody and find drama in a life where most people wouldn’t see it as dramatic. I don’t know if I could boil that down to one word, but sometimes I feel shackled by my way of writing which is very much centered on a memoirist’s approach, where I’m just kind of writing about my own life, and then sometimes, I’m able to disguise it a little bit and fictionalize it. But I would like to be able to explore kind of more widely and freely into other lives, through fiction, in a way that he did.

*                         *                         *

What advice would you give other baseball bloggers hoping to write a book?

Wilker: I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice. It took me a long time to do anything that led to anything. Like I’ve sort of been saying, I was writing mostly because I’m just compelled to write, and I love to do it. I thought there was a book out there about the baseball cards and my life intersecting, but I didn’t push it in my own mind very hard. I just wanted to explore the material. So I just kind of relaxed and just churned out the blog posts about the cards and just tried to have fun, and a form kind of slowly suggested itself from all those posts.

I guess if I had to put that in the direction of advice, I would just say, if you’re writing a baseball blog, or any kind of blog or doing any kind of writing, try to go where the enjoyment is and maybe the urgency, and just try to go with it, and don’t get too wrapped up in those early stages and any kind of finished product. I know that in my own writing life, I think I’ve probably sabotaged some possible books by just going too quickly by going too quickly toward the idea that I could come up with a finished product instead of just exploring the terrain for awhile.

*                         *                         *

One final question for you: Has there been any word from Yastrzemski or still no word? (Wilker writes in his book of penning an unanswered fan letter to his hero as a child)

Wilker: [laughs] No, no word from Yastrzemski. I did get a great letter from somebody who’d read an article in the Boston Globe about my book, and the writer of the letter was this woman from Worcester, Massachusetts. Her husband had gotten an autograph from Carl Yastrzemski back in, like, 1979, and she was cleaning out some stuff and she found it and sent it to me. So, all these years later, I do get an autograph from Yaz, which is all I wanted. What I describe in the book– I write to him– I wasn’t asking for him to come meet me. So, I got my autograph. There’ve been some really cool kind of connections through the book, and that’s right at the top of the list.

Trying to make sense of arbitration

Late, great baseball union head Marvin Miller once explained that even if the owners thought they lost badly when free agency was granted, what the union really wanted was the right of arbitration. It’s the arbitration process that has driven baseball salaries through the roof much more quickly than free agency.

The legal parameters and procedures attached to the arbitration process would take up far too much time and space for anything less than a book or two, (there have been several books written on this subject). Such discussion would be well outside my realm of expertise and too dry a read for anyone not in the legal profession.

Instead, let’s consider a much more subjective approach—a dissection with a no more than gut level observation. A dissection from a baseball fan and a baseball writers’ casual observation.

Of course, the temptation with such an approach is to degenerate into a rant along the lines of: “He’s a lousy player—why does he make so much money—and why does he deserve a raise?” The arbitration system as it currently stands is not set up in this manner. It is there only to decide between what a player is asking for and what ownership has offered to pay. Nothing else.

This can allow a player to make an outrageous salary demand with the knowledge that should an arbitrator decide that the offer made to the player by the team– usually a raise depending on performance that past season– is insufficient, the player’s demand must be met.

Baseball owners have little or no recourse in dealing with those players who had a less successful or slightly better than unsuccessful season than previously. In the past, it was the players who had little or no recourse. Arbitration has taken the equation from the one extreme, now to another.

It has been suggested by some that the arbitrator should have the authority to choose a figure that he or she feels would be reasonable if neither submission seems fair. This has it’s drawbacks however. The most disagreeable although perhaps the most money saving for ownership would be in losing of  control of the decision on what a player might be worth.  It’s true that arbitration decides what a player will earn that season, but at the very least, owners have had their say with their proposal. Having an independent board decide on a figure other than those submitted by either party might take such control completely away.

This might lead to the precedence of strict statistical “legal” guidelines. A player who bats .240 is worth this amount of money, a player who bats .280 is worth this amount. A pitcher who wins 10 games will automatically receive less than on who wins 15. This might lead to individual stats being more important to a player than team wins or losses.

A manager would be under pressure from both players and management— the players would need to do whatever they could for their own benefit and no longer the benefit of their team. Upper management would insist on the benching of a player fearing another home run or base hit would cost them X amount of dollars. Benching a number one starting pitcher would hurt the team and the player but help the owner. Of course, it would also probably be illegal.

Who knows of a better solution?

Looking Back at the Seattle Mariners to Steel Myself for the Pittsburgh Pirates

With spring training fast approaching, I’m steeling myself for another (nineteenth consecutive) losing season by my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.

Looking for comfort wherever I can find it, I recall that I have seen worse baseball, or at least as bad, as the Buccos of the last few seasons.

I lived in Seattle during the Mariners’ early years from 1977 to 1986 when the team was as painful to watch as the Pirates. During that ten-year period, the M’s average winning percentage was about .400

The M’s had some good players like Leon Roberts and former two-time All Star Richie Zisk. In 1982, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry had a cup of coffee with the Mariners. Perry’s stop over was long enough for him to record his 300th career victory over the New York Yankees. I still have my ticket stub to prove that I was one of the 27, 369 fans in a stadium that held 59, 438. As an indication of fan indifference, two nights later the Mariners drew 36,716 for Funny Nose Glasses Night.

Most Mariner players however were rejects with limited skills. A good example is one-time Bucco shortstop Mario Mendoza whose batting ineptitude created the term “Mendoza Line,” a reference to hitting at least .200

The M’s bumbling play drove another Hall of Famer, manager Dick Williams, out of baseball. After managing the team in 1986, 1987 and half a season in 1988, Williams left baseball for good.

A more insurmountable problem for Seattle baseball fans than the Mariners’ pitiful play was the team’s venue, the awful Kingdome.

On beautiful Pacific Northwest summer evenings, when the sun didn’t set until 10:00 PM, a fan’s entertainment choice was between enjoying free of charge Puget Sound’s magnificence, complete with a panoramic Mt. Rainer view or pay to enter the gloomy, empty Kingdome to watch the M’s lose again.

For most of the Mariners’ first 18 years, their inept play (they didn’t have a winning season until 1991) combined with the Kingdome’s design, led to extremely low attendance. Most games I saw had less than 5,000 fans.

At one point the Mariners covered “the Tombs,” the right-center field seats in the upper decks, to make the stadium seem “less empty”. The Kingdome’s acoustics created problems for radio announcers Dave Niehaus and Bill Freehan who had to deal with significant echo issues.

At least Pirates fans don’t have to worry about ambiance when they go to PNC Park. While the Kingdome was the dreariest place I have ever watched baseball (with Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers and Cleveland’s Municipal Stadiums close behind), PNC is at the other end of spectrum.

Despite the Pirates’ epic struggles, a game at PNC—voted “America’s Best Ballpark”— is the best way to enjoy a summer afternoon or evening. Tour PNC Park here, then compare it the Kingdome here and tell me where you’d rather watch a losing team play baseball.

The Great Friday Link Out

Today marks the dawn of a new era. Like many baseball bloggers, I have decided to do a link out post. Big stuff, I know. Some popular writers like Rob Neyer have the audience to do one of these posts everyday. I am going to start off at one a week and see where it goes.

Before going any further, I have a confession: I don’t read nearly enough baseball blogs. For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time every week sitting hunched over on a stool, squinting at the my laptop, researching or writing about baseball history (and it pisses my cat off), I have only a handful of blogs I actively go to and fewer that I read. This needs to change. I’m going to make a point of reading more blogs, particularly in hopes of finding great content to link to each week. I also encourage anyone who’s interested to send me their stuff. I can’t guarantee a link, but I’ll read everything I can.

All this being said, one of my goals at the outset is to help my friends, the people in my blogroll. I like to think we’re a talented bunch, and I aim to showcase as much of our content as is reasonable.

Without further adieu, here are the links for the week:

  • The debut edition of the column Bill Miller and I will be writing about good players on bad teams should be up sometime today on his blog, The On Deck Circle.
  • I should have an interview up on Monday with Josh Wilker who wrote a book, Cardboard Gods, that I reviewed here in May. Josh writes a blog of the same name, and he’s had some great content as of late. I particularly enjoyed a December 28 post he did on Dwight Gooden, likening the aimlessness of his 20s to the once-great pitcher’s decline. Josh’s writing is often funny, philosophical, and totally original. He absolutely influences my efforts here.
  • I’ve heard it said of late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray that he could have written about anything; sports just happened to get lucky. Joe Posnanski seems like Murray’s equivalent these days, even if I doubt he’d ever claim it. Anything he touches is gold. Here’s a sweet blog post, for anyone who hasn’t read it, that Joe wrote about taking his family to the newly-opened Harry Potter World. One great passage: Sadly there was no Cleveland Indians world, unless you count the bleachers at old Municipal Stadium where factory workers drank schnapps from flasks and swore liberally and rubbed your head when the Indians actually scored.
  • I’m glad that economics professor and sabermetrician Cyril Morong is part of the goings-on here, leaving the occasional comment and, like Wilker, participating in a recent project I led to find the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. I wrote a post yesterday on 1930s and ’40s pitcher Paul Derringer, and Cyril commented that Derringer had a better-than-average strikeouts/walks ratio in his time. Coincidentally, Cyril recently wrote about a future Hall of Fame pitcher who just retired with the all-time best ratio.
  • Peter Nash reports on yet another piece of phony memorabilia connected to the late Barry Halper. Was anything in his collection real?

Any player/Any era: Paul Derringer

What he did: Tomorrow marks the debut of a weekly feature Bill Miller and I will be doing for his blog, The On Deck Circle. We’re writing about good players on bad teams, with Bill featuring players from 1961 to present day and me covering people before then. Bill will write tomorrow’s piece, and I’ll have something up on his site the following Friday, with us alternating weeks, though this could double as my first column. There may be no finer example of a player done in by his team than Paul Derringer on the 1933 Cincinnati Reds.

Derringer won 223 games lifetime and played 12 more seasons in Cincinnati after his 1933 campaign. His fortunes improved as his team did, with Derringer winning 20 games four times and helping the Reds to the 1939 World Series, which they lost and the 1940 World Series, which they won. Both years, Derringer finished in the top four in National League MVP voting, and he also made six All Star teams in his career. In 1933, though, Cincinnati was 58-94 and Derringer bore the brunt, losing 25 games there after an early-season trade from St. Louis and going 7-27 overall.

Having won 18 games for the World Series-champion Cardinals in 1931, Derringer struggled for victories with a 1933 Reds team that managed just 496 runs. Derringer was otherwise decent besides his record, posting a 3.26 ERA and a not-terrible 1.26 WHIP for Cincinnati, and without checking, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the finest performance by a 27-game loser in the Modern Era. On a better team and in a better era for pitchers, Derringer could more than double his 1933 win totals.

Era he might have thrived in: In most other eras, Derringer probably could have boosted his career numbers to within striking distance of the Hall of Fame (in real life, he peaked at 6.2 percent of the vote in 1956.) Derringer would do his best pitching in the late 1960s.

Why: The 1960s were essentially opposite of the 1930s, a Golden Age for pitching instead of a dark time. It’s easy to pluck pitchers from bad teams in hitter’s eras and drastically improve their numbers by placing them on, say, the 1968 Dodgers. I doubt, though, that many hurlers could handle the 300-inning seasons expected from starters in the 1960s, when the schedule was newly expanded t0 162 games, four-man rotations were common, and relief pitchers weren’t yet regularly used. But Derringer averaged 240 innings a season, topped 280 four times, and went over 300 twice, so he might be up to the challenge.

I ran Derringer’s 1933 numbers through the stat converter on, seeing how he would fare on the 1968 Tigers, Cardinals, and Dodgers. While Derringer wouldn’t approach Cy Young or MVP status in 1968, since Denny McLain won 31 games for Detroit and Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA for the Cardinals, he wouldn’t be a half bad third or fourth starter. Derringer would do best with the Dodgers, with the converter predicting a 16-13 record with a 2.55 ERA and 1.098 WHIP. All this from a 7-27 season.

There’s been movement within the baseball research community to de-emphasize win-loss records for pitchers. Most notably, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young this year with a 13-12 record since he pitched for last-place Seattle and cleaned up in non-team-dependent stats. While I still kind of think it was crazy talk for the Baseball Writers Association of America to honor Hernandez, Derringer’s conversions are striking. Maybe the writers were on to something.

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, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate ColbertPete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

The 1954 World Series and the Vanishing Bob Feller

Looking back at Bob Feller’s outstanding pitching career, one unresolved question keeps turning over in my mind.

In 1954, Feller was an integral part of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff. Anchored by Bob Lemon (23-7, 2.72) Early Wynn (23-11, 2.73), and Mike Garcia (19-8, 2.64), the Indians also had two spot starters that added depth to the rotation; Art Houtemann (13-7, 3.35) and Feller (13-3, 3.09)

Although the Indians coasted to the American League championship, their pitching failed in the World Series when the New York Giants swept them, 4-0. Feller did not throw a pitch.

Lemon started games one and four. In his 13.1 innings pitched, Lemon was rocked and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Wynn, in game two, managed to pitch seven effective innings, allowing three earned runs, but took the loss. Garcia, the game three starter, was only marginally more effective than Lemon. Garcia allowed three earned runs in his five innings.

When manager Al Lopez called the bull pen, he logically summoned his two relief aces, the lefty righty combination of Don Mossi (6-1, 1.94) and Ray Narleski (3-3, 2.22) as well as well as Houtemann, Hal Newhouser (7-2, 2.51) and Garcia.

How it came to pass that Lopez, a Hall of Fame catcher and 1947 teammate of Feller, never saw the opportunity to put the seasoned veteran pitcher into a series game is a mystery, at least to me. A solid Feller post-season performance would have taken some of the sting out of his 1948 World Series disappointment.

Although the Indians beat the Boston Braves, 4-2, Feller was charged with both Indians’ losses. In the opener, Johnny Sain outdueled “Rapid Robert” in a 1-0 complete game heartbreaker.

Feller’s second start in game five was a nightmare.

His line: 6.1 IP, 7ER, 2 BB and 5 SO

For the series, Feller posted a 0-2 mark with a 5.02 ERA.

Lopez, who held the record for most games caught (1,918) until Bob Boone broke it in 1987, had a .587 winning percentage as a manager and was the only skipper from 1949-1959 to win an American League pennant besides Casey Stengel. In addition to winning with the 1954 Indians, Lopez also led the 1959 Chicago White Sox to first place.

If Lopez didn’t see a good spot for Feller during the 1954 World Series, who am I to challenge his judgment? All I’m saying is that it would have been nice.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Ken Caminiti

Claim to fame: Caminiti was a tough-as-nails third baseman with Gold Glove-winning defense and good power, though that was overshadowed by so much. Persistent substance abuse throughout his life ultimately ended it at 41 in 2004. Caminiti was also the first notable baseball player to admit using steroids, in a June 3, 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story, and since then, the sport has changed dramatically. I wouldn’t give Caminiti a Hall of Fame plaque due to his so-so career stats, but I think his impact on the game has been undervalued. Baseball’s gotten a lot better since Caminiti had the courage to speak up.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Not surprisingly, Caminiti received just two votes out of more than 500 cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2007, his only year on its ballot. He will be eligible with the Veterans Committee in 2021 and looks like an extreme long shot for Cooperstown, since the committee will have a backlog in the next 15-20 years of steroid-connected players shunned by the writers. I can’t see Caminiti getting in the Hall of Fame before Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and so many others with better stats.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This was going to be a column about Jose Canseco, whose inglorious retirement was the subject of a recent blog post by Josh Wilker. I wondered if Canseco deserved a column here on the strength of his 2005 book Juiced, which was the first to name other players alleged to have used steroids, and then I remembered Caminiti, who was Canseco three years before him. In fact, there may have been no book from Canseco if Caminiti hadn’t bolstered the market (though the SI story noted that Canseco said upon his retirement in early 2002 that he would write his tell-all, though he didn’t admit to using steroids then.)

Some may credit Steve Wilstein, who reported on a steroid-related supplement in Mark McGwire’s locker during the 1998 home run chase. But Wilstein was excoriated by the baseball community and fellow sportswriters following his story, and the Steroid Era continued unchecked for another few years. The Caminiti piece signaled a turning point, baseball acknowledging steroids for the first time, and while it took another couple years of wrangling between baseball’s ownership and labor union, steroids were finally banned. The game isn’t perfect today, but I wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were.

Others may credit Tom Verducci, the SI writer who broke the Caminiti story and grew it out of what was originally a Where is he now? assignment. Still, I credit Caminiti. With the exception of Canseco, pretty much every other player who’s admitted to using steroids has minimized their usage, making it sound like a one-time thing, a mistake, even an accident. Caminiti told Verducci he used steroids so heavily during his 1996 National League MVP season that “it took four months to get my nuts to drop on their own.” He also estimated at least half the players in the majors were juicing and said, “I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”

Some might call this all gutter bravado from Caminiti, just a drunk looking back at the mess his life became. I call it humility. I don’t know where baseball would be without it.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith HernandezLarry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark