Signing Pedro? Five cautionary tales to consider

Amidst the All Star break came news that Pedro Martinez may have at last finally found a home. After an idle half season, ESPN is reporting that the former Cy Young pitcher is in talks for a one-year, $1 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.  It’s a far cry from the millions upon millions he earned in his heyday as the hard-throwing, top pitcher in baseball for the Boston Red Sox, and there had been reports in Sports Illustrated earlier this year that Martinez wanted $5 million this season.  Still, at this point, I’ll bet the 37-year-old Martinez is glad for the work.

If I were the Phillies, though, I would exercise some caution, some “You’re Allen Iverson, we’re the Clippers and you’re coming off the bench”-style caution. For every flamethrower like Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson who’s pitched into their mid-40s, a litany of starting pitchers have burnt out in their 30s.  Martinez’s chances of having a resurgence at this point, following a 5-6 2008 campaign are slim.

Take a look at some who have come before him:

Juan Marichal: The Dominican Dandy, Marichal epitomizes someone who fell off in a hurry.  After compiling an 18-11 record in 1971, he went 22-33 over his final four seasons before retiring at 37.

Don Drysdale: The Los Angeles Dodgers hurler had a 2.15 ERA with 12 complete games and eight shutouts in 1968.  The following season, Major League Baseball lowered the pitchers mound, Drysdale went 5-4 and reached the end of the line at 32.

David Cone: If any player on this list should make the Phillies especially leery of Martinez, it’s Cone.  Perhaps no aging pitcher ever had as dramatic of a season-to-season decline as Cone, as he followed a 12-9 year, at 36, by going 4-14.  More bafflingly, his ERA doubled.  His career was effectively done from that point.

Dizzy Dean and Dwight Gooden: Two hard-throwers who flamed out around their respective 30th birthdays, Dean fell apart for being injured, Gooden for being a cocaine-addled train wreck.

Catching the legends

I went to my first San Francisco Giants game in about six years yesterday.  My parents and I went to see Randy Johnson face Roy Oswalt and the Houston Astros.  It wasn’t the best day for the Big Unit– he gave up three solo home runs and left with an injured shoulder in the fourth inning.  Oswalt looked more like the Johnson of old, holding the Giants to one-run in eight innings. Houston prevailed 7-1, a far cry from the last Giants game I attended when Barry Bonds blasted a walk-off home run against some hapless reliever.  Still, it was cool to see 45-year-old living legend Johnson in action, maybe for the last time.

My dad asked me before the game who my favorite player was, while we sat in our seats halfway down the left-field foul line watching warmups.  It occurred to me that I don’t have too many guys I support these days.  I like Ken Griffey Jr. and Josh Hamilton, I follow American League pitchers Garrett Olson and Ricky Romero because I used to cover them in college, and Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson went to my high school.  Still, it’s not like when I was a kid and I idolized Will Clark.  Heck, even as a young Giants fan, I once ran around my front yard pretending to be Kirk Gibson doing his home run stagger in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.  The modern game just doesn’t fill me with the same wonder.

The argument could be made that my perspective has merely changed as an adult.  Still, I know that if I were offered the chance to see someone from the 1950’s or ’60s play, I could name a dozen guys off the top of my head who I would pay to see play in a heartbeat.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jackie Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Pete Rose and Willie McCovey all come quickly to mind.  It’s like getting the chance to watch The Beatles, Michael Jackson or Elvis in concert.  Come to think of it, I should really catch the Rolling Stones while it’s still possible.

There just aren’t as many comtemporary players who compare.  I was glad to see Johnson do his thing, and I’ll probably catch Griffey one more time.  From there, who knows.

The Joe DiMaggio Standard

I remember a time when Shaquille O’Neal was the most-feared player in the NBA, a 325-pound locomotive, good for about 30 points, 20 rebounds and a wrecked backboard on a standard night.  The only way to stop him was to foul him and hope his shooting from the line was off as usual.  I grew up in Sacramento as a Kings fan and Shaq used to ruin my team’s shit every year.  When Game Seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals got to overtime, I knew my Kings would lose.  One did not beat Shaq and Kobe in overtime.  And my Kings didn’t.

These days, though, 37-year-old Shaq looks less the Diesel and more the Edsel.  His decline has been several years coming, ever since the Lakers traded him to the Miami Heat following the 2004 season.  He averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Suns last season, decent numbers, but nothing close to his prime.  Legends do not get traded but the Phoenix Suns gave Shaq and his $21 million contract away to the Cleveland Cavaliers this past week for spare parts.

My feeling has been that Shaq has mostly stuck around these past few years to collect his hefty paycheck.  Watching him stumble around, I can’t help but think, conversely, of Joe DiMaggio and how he retired following the 1951 season.  DiMaggio was also 37 at the time of his retirement and probably could have gone a few more years for the New York Yankees if he’d wanted to.  Still, he stopped playing because he couldn’t be Joe DiMaggio anymore.  After his decision, he told the Sporting News, “I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game.”

DiMaggio wasn’t the only player like this.  Jackie Robinson followed suit five years later when the Brooklyn Dodgers star, also 37 at the time, chose to retire over accepting a trade to the New York Giants.  Mickey Mantle quit after having a dream that he was wearing a uniform for the expansion Seattle Pilots.  Mantle’s age at the time he announced his retirement?  You guessed it, 37.

To be sure, there have been many athletes who have stuck around entirely too long.  Willie Mays comes to mind as do Pete Rose and Steve Carlton.  Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and Joe Namath all played a few too many NFL seasons.  Patrick Ewing and Gary Payton should have quit basketball sooner than they did.  And Wayne Gretzky really wasn’t “The Great One” by the end of his hockey career.

Shaq’s hardly the first of his kind.  I suppose they just don’t make them like Joe DiMaggio anymore.

Know your Giants

I went camping recently in Northern California with a group of friends.  While on the trip, one of the girls told me she was a big San Francisco Giants fan.  I smiled.  I like women who can drive stick, shoot pool, and watch baseball.  I would like nothing more than to find a girl to take to ATT Park and eat peanuts with.  The shells would gather at our feet as we took in the game, our bond cementing.

I digress.

I asked the woman if she was a fan of Will Clark, Matt Williams, Kevin Mitchell.  Alas, she had no clue.  I think she’d maybe heard of Barry Bonds.  Jeff Kent?  I’m guessing no.  This of course says nothing of the current crop of superstars. I’ll cut the woman some slack, as there were plenty of Angels fans back in 2002 who were unfamiliar with David Eckstein (those Rally Monkeys were cute, granted.)

Still, a true Giants fan knows a little history.  The names of Clark, Williams, and Mitchell are only the beginning.  The true fan also knows Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, and Bill Terry, who once said of the Dodgers, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?”  There’s also John McGraw, the famed manager of the Giants, back when they were in New York, in the early part of the 20th Century.  McGraw introduced sign language to the game  to communicate with his deaf pitcher, Dummy Taylor.  He also once had his team dress in all-black uniforms for a World Series to make them look more intimidating (it worked.)  Earlier, following the 1904 season, he refused to face the Philadelphia Athletics of the three-year-old American League and hoisted a banner, declaring his team world champions.  They don’t make them like McGraw anymore.

I go as far back as Buck Ewing, who was a catcher for the Giants back in the 1880s and ’90s.  Ewing once yelled to a group of fans during a game that it was getting late, time for dinner.  He then stole home and won the game.

Damnit, I want to be on ESPN

So it used to be I had a nice, quiet, little blog, where I could write odes to baseball, offering cute anecdotes and historical references.  No one paid all that much attention, but I accepted it as the norm for a new sports blog.  I mainly wanted the chance to write about sports, moreover baseball, on a regular basis and my blog granted that.

Until yesterday, that is.

Sports blogging is back on the national radar.  I suppose it was inevitable, though I didn’t figure it would come at the hands of Raul Ibanez.  To those out of the loop, one of the bloggers whose stuff gets reprinted here wrote a post a couple of days ago exploring the possibility that the aging Philadephia Phillies slugger may be on steroids, due to his freakish start this year (at 37, he’s currently on pace for 57 home runs, after never managing more than 33 in a season.)  It seemed fair enough to consider, for probably 10 different reasons at least, though the national media blew a gasket.

First the story spread around the blogosphere.  Then came a column from John Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Inquirer who quoted Ibanez saying, “You can have my urine, my hair, my blood, my stool—anything you can test. I’ll give you back every dime I’ve ever made if the test is positive.”  (Sammy Sosa also had an impassioned response when Rick Reilly challenged him to take a test back in 2002, as recounted here. To highlight: “This interview is over.  Over motherfucker!”)

By yesterday afternoon, the blogger, Jerod Morris, was appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, along with Gonzalez and Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News.  I watched the segment yesterday evening through a link from the homepage, which had an in-depth story about the article.  Rosenthal and Gonzalez acted more like they were on Bill O’Reilly, ripping into Morris for not protecting Ibanez’s reputation.  It’s the same kind of crap the media said a decade ago after an Associated Press reporter wrote a story about finding androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker.  It’s embarrassing that we’re still at this level.

For Morris’s part, I thought he held his own.  He looked a little nervous at times, with what looked like “Richard Nixon at the 1960 Presidential Debates” stage makeup.  Hey, I sweat too.  But I’m sure Morris would have more polish if he was on the air as much as sports journalists seem to go on these days (ratings be damned.)  And Morris stuck to his guns, not resorting to the condescencion or personal attacks of his counterparts.

Good job man.  We’re all proud of you.  Envious too.

The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame

1. Pete Rose: No surprise here. The all-time hits leader is easily the most-talented (and charismatic) player who doesn’t have a plaque hanging in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. Rose was banned from baseball in 1989 for sports betting, a shame, considering racists like Ty Cobb and Cap Anson are in Cooperstown.

2. Joe Jackson: Babe Ruth is said to have modeled his swing off “Shoeless Joe,” who owns the third best batting average all-time, .356. Alas, the Chicago White Sox great was also banned for gambling, in the wake of the infamous 1919 World Series that he helped fix.


3. Dom DiMaggio: Ted Williams had a pamphlet in his museum about why DiMaggio should be in the Hall of Fame. The Boston Red Sox centerfielder was a seven-time All Star, renowned for his defense. The knock was that he had a relatively short career. Then again, so did Sandy Koufax.

4. Dave Parker: This guy’s a Veteran’s Committee pick waiting to happen. If Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda can get into the Hall, Parker should too. He had better career numbers than those players for hits, doubles, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases. However, just like Cepeda delayed his Cooperstown bid by going to prison for drug trafficking, Parker likely hurt his chances with well-publicized cocaine abuse.

5. Bert Blyleven: The poor man’s Nolan Ryan, Blyleven had 3701 strikeouts and 287 wins over the course of his career. Much like Ryan, though, Blyleven also lost a lot of games, 250 overall to Ryan’s 292. Still, he probably has the best credentials of any pitcher not in Cooperstown.

6. Hal Chase: Yet another great player banned for gambling, Chase made a name for himself with outstanding defense at first base in the early part of the 20th century. However, he was so shameless in his association with gamblers, Ken Burns’ Baseball noted, that fans took to chanting, “What’s the odds, Hal?” when he played.

7. Stan Hack: A solid Chicago Cubs third baseman from the 1930s and ’40s, this Sacramento native had 2193 lifetime hits and a .301 lifetime average.

8. Ron Santo: Much like Hack, Santo was a good Cubs third baseman who may get into the Hall before too long through the Veteran’s Committee.

9. Dale Murphy: If character counts, Murphy should have been a first-ballot inductee. The Atlanta Braves outfielder and devout Mormon deserves a spot on the All-Time Nice Guy squad, being a throw-back player who never drank and instead did things like answer children’s questions in a regular newspaper column. He also hit 398 home runs and won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards.

10. Dwight Gooden: Were it not for cocaine addiction derailing his career, this New York Mets phenom would have been on the inside track to Cooperstown. As it stands, his 194 victories are better than Hall of Fame hurlers Dizzy Dean and Koufax and all three pitchers had primes that lasted for similar, brief lengths.


Also check out the Tuesday feature, Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?

My interview with Dom DiMaggio

A few days ago, I alluded on here to an interview I did with Dom DiMaggio, calling it a story for another time. As fate would have it, the former Boston Red Sox center fielder and seven-time All Star died early yesterday morning at 92. Thus, I will now tell of the time I sought him out.

As I mentioned before, I did a research paper my junior year of college on the significant number of Italian-American baseball players from the San Francisco Bay Area. After turning my paper in, I spent several months trying to expand it into a magazine piece. Though I never ultimately submitted it for publication, I did a lot of research, making trips to the city and interviewing former major leaguers like Gino Cimoli, who had the first at-bat on the West Coast in 1958. Eventually, my research brought me to a place called Dom’s Dugout.

I had read in The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer, that Joe DiMaggio once had a restaurant on the Embarcadero. On one of my trips to the city, in 2004, I ventured in search of it, near Pier 39, and found that the restaurant no longer existed. The top floor of its building had been converted into a different restaurant, and on the bottom, there now sat a memorabilla store– Dom’s Dugout. I learned it was owned by the former player– a savvy businessman in his own right– and that he occasionally made trips from the East Coast to check on his investment. At some point, I learned he would likely be visiting in September of that year.

Thus, I eventually found myself back in the store on a fall day, with a living legend sitting at a card table in front of me. At first, he was hesitant to give me any time, which made sense. His older brother Joe was famously reclusive, almost suing Simon & Garfunkel after they referenced him in their song “Mrs. Robinson,” and neither DiMaggio agreed to be interviewed for The Hero’s Life. Nevertheless, Dom acquiesced for me and allowed my request for ten minutes.

Somehow ten minutes became two hours of sitting with him while he signed autographs for customers and chatted with them. I’ve interviewed a number of ballplayers and I must say that next to Ozzie Smith, DiMaggio may have been the kindest. He autographed tirelessly, talked with fans about his life experiences and even called one guy’s son up via cell phone, after the man said it would make his day. DiMaggio also was nice to me. Diminutive and bespectacled and still lucid, he graciously answered my questions.

It’s been almost five years now, and I’ve always felt guilty for never writing of my experience, though it’s nice to relate it now.

On a final note, decades before, when the building was the DiMaggio family restaurant, it had a famous patron. Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb helped Joe DiMaggio negotiate one of his early contracts with the New York Yankees, advising him on how to successfully hold out for more money, and as a thank you for this service, Cobb got to eat free for life at the restaurant. For all I know, Dom DiMaggio and I sat in the same spot where Cobb once dined.

(Postscript: For anyone who’d like to read more about Dom DiMaggio, Sports Illustrated published this nice story on him in 2001.)

My top five baseball books

Anyone who reads this space consistently will find that I make a lot of references to baseball books in my writing. Most of these are in fact books that I own. I’m proud to say I have a pretty decent personal baseball library that I’ve been accumulating since childhood. For whatever reason, baseball is a sport that lends itself to wonderful, poetic writing (along with boxing and horse racing I’ve heard) and today, I offer five essentials, the five baseball books I’d want to bring to a desert island were I ever stranded there:

1. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn

This is actually the latest book that I’m reading, and I’m only about 100 pages in, though already it’s wonderful. Kahn offers an autobiographical look at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, drawn from his days as a young beat writer for that team. Lots of former players are interviewed, including Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider.

2. Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam

This takes somewhat of a similar approach to Boys of Summer, with lots of interviews of former players, though this time, it’s the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of the 1949 pennant race who are chronicled. A Harvard graduate and former Vietnam correspondent, Halberstam offered a book full of depth and insight. He ends with a nice quote from Ted Williams, though on an interesting side note, Joe DiMaggio refused to participate in the book.

3. The Glory of their Times, by Lawrence Ritter

Possibly the very best baseball book out there. The book is an oral history of the early days of baseball, comprised of interviews with about 20 ballplayers whose careers spanned the beginning to middle of the 20th century. One of those books that also provided a public service, it’s no surprise that the original tapes Ritter made interviewing the players are now in the Hall of Fame. In fact, a number of the players profiled here later were inducted into the Hall, possibly because the book brought awareness to their careers. Ritter later wrote another great book, The Lost Ballparks, about demolished fields.

4. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton

This one broke ground when it came out. A diary of the 1969 season by Bouton, an acerbic relief pitcher, the book exposed players as drunks, amphetamine users and philanderers. Though comparatively tame today, the book violated the unwritten code of clubhouse privacy and shook baseball. The San Diego Padres burned a copy of the book before a game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a meeting with Bouton in an attempt to coerce a retraction, and Pete Rose taunted “Fuck you Shakespeare” from his dugout. Incidentally, the book is also funny, intelligent and just vulgar enough to be charming.

5. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward

This was released in conjunction with Burns’ epic 1994 documentary of the same name and is basically a written account of what aired on PBS. Filled with pictures, oral histories, essays and anecdotes, this is probably the finest chronicle of baseball history among the several that I own. I hope Burns offers an updated version at some point.

I could recommend a whole slew of other titles, though I’ll keep this short today.

Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home

I found an old notebook this weekend that reminded me of a cool story I haven’t written about before: About five years ago, I got to go inside Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home. It happened like this:

Starting in middle school, I often wrote about baseball for term papers. First, in eighth grade, I decried Pete Rose’s banishment from the game and got an A-plus. For my high school senior project, I copiously researched the Sacramento Solons, a former Pacific Coast League team from my hometown. Then in my junior year of college, I wrote about the inordinately large number of Italian-American major leaguers who grew up in San Francisco. These players included New York Yankees stars Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Gomez and, most famously, Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio.

I received another A on the last paper, and afterward, I got this idea that I could expand it into a magazine story. It never went anywhere, though over the course of several months, I did a lot of research and interviewed a number of former major leaguers, including Joe’s brother Dom DiMaggio, a great player in his own right (that’s a story for another time.) I also made several trips to San Francisco, hoofing it around the Italian quarter, North Beach, and other parts of the city. Among the places I visited were a bar where I learned the staff kept Pabst Blue Ribbon on-hand for when Joe would visit– the bar didn’t sell it, though apparently it was the Yankee Clipper’s favorite beer. I also visited the DiMaggio family home on Taylor Street.

I had learned of the house from Richard Ben Cramer’s biography Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, which showed a picture of DiMaggio as a toddler outside the dwelling, but didn’t provide its exact address. Instead, I went to the street on one of my trips to the city and had an elderly man point the house out to me. When I knocked on the door, I found three 24-year-old girls living inside. They let me in and were very friendly, with one of the girls, Katie, telling me the house had been in her family for three generations. There wasn’t any kind of marker or plaque outside, and Katie said her dad had told her of DiMaggio’s past residence when she moved in. It had been remodeled since DiMaggio’s time, with linoleum now on the floor, a marble counter and fluorescent lights. There were two tiny rooms and one big room, though I heard that one of the bedrooms had extended out to where the kitchen presently was. According to this article, nine DiMaggio children somehow lived inside.

Apparently, the city of San Francisco had never approached the owners about making the building a landmark, though I suggested the girls hold some kind of party to commemorate the Yankee great. To this, one of their neighbors who was visiting at the time remarked, “Oh dude, we’re having a Joe DiMaggio party.”

I just hope they had plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon on-hand.