On the one hand, the Texas Western Miners of 1965-66 are celebrated for being the first national championship team in college basketball to field an all-black starting lineup. On the other hand, the Mets of Omar Minaya, who have 15 Latino players on their 40-man roster, are questioned by some for what they perceive as unfairly overloading their roster with Spanish-speaking players. And then there are the 1971 Pirates—the subject of an upcoming book by yours truly—who continue to be overlooked despite fielding the first and only all-black lineup in major league history.
For me, it all comes down to the quality of players. If players on my team can play, I don’t pay much attention to who’s black, who’s white, and who’s from a foreign land. Now I might think about it during a quiet moment, after the game or after the season, but rarely during the heat of a game. I think it comes down to this: in an ideal world, if you can win, and win with a representative and balanced cross-section of white, black, and Latino players, then that’s the best possible scenario. It shows that a team’s management is color blind when it comes to finding the best players to comprise a team. It also serves as a way of proving to the racial naysayers that teams can win with fully integrated rosters, with players of differing ethnic backgrounds playing well on the field and meshing well off the field. It can be done, as evidenced by Texas Western, which defied the odds to win the college championship of 1966, and the Pirates, who also overcame predictions of gloom to win the World Series in 1971.
In this week’s “Fan Forum” question, I’ll pose several queries. Does it matter to you what the racial composition of your team happens to be? Should we, as I believe we should, celebrate championship teams that win with a large degree of ethnic diversity and balance, as a real-life lesson about how people of different races can come together and achieve a united goal? Or should we not pay attention to the breakdowns of these rosters for fear that it will only serve to make people more divisive when it comes to the issue of race? These aren’t easy questions. Think about them. Let me know your thoughts.
The Rumor Mill
The acquisition of Frank Thomas by the remodeled A’s could lead to another trade sometime between now and Opening Day. If Thomas can remain healthy, he’ll handle the everyday DH chores, thereby restricting Milton Bradley and Nick Swisher to outfield duty. That could ultimately lead to a trade of Jay Payton, who had a remarkable second half in Oakland, lifting his trade value to an all-time high. Payton would be a great fit for the Indians–assuming the Coco Crisp deal ever becomes finalized–and a better alternative than Jason Michaels, who is unproven as an everyday player. Of course, the Indians would have to give up something other than Arthur Rhodes, who’s been rumored to be the player that would be sent to Philadelphia for Michaels. (It’s amazing that the Phillies would settle for Rhodes in return for Michaels, after having demanded Chien-Ming Wang from the Yankees earlier this winter.) The A’s have already gone down the Rhodes road before and have no interest in bringing the aging left-hander back to the Bay Area bullpen… If the A’s decide to hold onto Payton and platoon him with Swisher in left field, they may end up dealing Bobby Kielty, who has been a disappointment since being acquired from the Blue Jays but seems wasted as a fifth outfielder. As with Payton, the A’s would look for bullpen help and/or a minor league prospect in return… After initially having no interest in Mike Piazza, Yankee GM Brian Cashman has been doing some backtracking and giving some second thoughts to signing the former Met receiver as a part-time DH and backup catcher. While Piazza would certainly be an upgrade over Kelly Stinnett (signed earlier this winter as John Flaherty’s replacement), he’s really not a good fit for the Yankees because he’s too much like Posada (a declining hitter who can’t be trusted to catch everyday). A catching combination of Posada and Piazza might be the game’s worst since Cliff Johnson and Ed Herrmann split catching duties for the ’76 Astros… Don’t believe the talk that has Piazza signing with the Cubs or Phillies. Cubs GM Jim Hendry has already said that the only role available in Chicago would be as a pinch-hitter, which Piazza wouldn’t be able to tolerate. The Phillies won’t likely make a heavy investment in Piazza unless they can shed the contract of Mike Lieberthal, which is easier said than done… Piazza could end up signing with the Padres, who are offering a one-year contract worth $2 million. It would be a strange move for the Padres after giving up starting second baseman Mark Loretta to acquire Doug Mirabelli, who was originally slated to be their No. 1 catcher. So much for the Padres placing more of a premium on defense behind the plate… In reality, it wouldn’t make sense for any National League team to sign Piazza, who simply doesn’t catch well enough to play everyday anymore and has shown little interest in learning the subtleties of playing first base. Without the DH as an option, any National League team would be boxing itself in by adding Piazza…
One of the best bargains on the current free agent market is Russell Branyan, who was released by Milwaukee earlier this offseason despite his productivity as a power hitter against right-handed pitching. Branyan, who can play first base or third base, could be headed to the Devil Rays–a move that might finally lead to the departure of Aubrey Huff. Another underrated player remaining on the free market is former Twin Matthew LeCroy. It’s just a question of finding the right role for LeCroy, who would be ideally suited to work as a platoon DH, backup first baseman, and third-string catcher. (LeCroy’s skills behind the plate simply aren’t good enough to merit regular duty.) If there’s anyone playing today that reminds me of Cliff Johnson, it’s LeCroy…
The Redsâ recent change in ownership and general managers is likely to lead to some fairly heavy trade activity from now till Opening Day. The first order of business could involve the scuttling of Austin Kearns, whom former Reds GM Dan O’ Brien treated as the second coming of Frank Robinson in trade talks. The Reds would like pitching in return for the disappointing Kearns; one recently rumored deal involved the Indians and Jake Westbrook, but was turned down by O’ Brien. Even though Kearns spent a sizeable part of the 2005 season in the minor leagues, he remains the object of several teams’ affections, including the Royals and the Nationals… The Reds are less anxious to deal Adam Dunn, whom they’ve penciled in as Sean Casey’s successor at first base, but will consider a deal that can net them a premier pitcher. One of the teams mentioned is the Dodgers, who have either Derek Lowe or Brad Penny to offer, but neither of those pitchers would be sufficient for the Reds to cut ties with Dunn.
Carlos Martinez (Died on January 25 in Caracas, Venezuela; age 40; undisclosed disease): At one time a highly regarded teenaged shortstop prospect with the New York Yankees, Martinez spent seven seasons as a first baseman and third basemen with the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and California Angels. (He never actually played a single game at shortstop in the major leagues.) According to his wife, he was forced to retire from playing in 1998 because of the onset of the disease that eventually claimed his life. Nicknamed "Cafe" because of his love of Venezuelan coffee, Martinez batted .258 with 25 home runs, with one of his home runs gaining national notoriety because of rather unusual circumstances. Playing for the Indians at the time, Martinez lofted a fly ball to right field that bounced off of the head of Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Canseco for a home run.
Some of the criticisms of the upcoming World Baseball Classic just don’t make sense. The newly organized tournament, which will debut this March, has been attacked on several fronts. Yet, none of the three major criticisms hold much water.
The World Baseball Classic can’t be taken seriously because all of the pitchers will be on pitch counts. Well, on this issue, we’ve got news for you: major league pitchers are on pitch counts in every regular season game–and in every postseason game, including the World Series, and that includes both starters and relievers. So in a general sense, there’s very little difference. In today’s game, most starters are held to a limit of 100-120 pitches, and relievers are usually maxed out at 30 to 40 pitchers, with closers being held to a tighter leash. Now it’s true that the pitch counts in the World Baseball Classic will be smaller, but teams will be able to balance off that problem by carrying larger numbers of pitchers on the active roster. And it’s unlikely that we’ll see an All-Star Game approach, with pitching changes annoyingly made every inning. The number of games in the tournament simply won’t allow that.
With so many American-born players either questionable for the Classic, or dropping out altogether, the U.S. team won’t be the powerhouse that some envision. Given the depth of American talent currently playing in the major leagues, there will be no shortage of quality players on the U.S. team. As an example, consider the situation at third base, where arguably the game’s best player, Alex Rodriguez, continues to vacillate on whether he will play. Even without A-Rod, the U.S. is stacked with several quality third basemen: Oakland’s Eric Chavez, Houston’s Morgan Ensberg, and the Mets’ David Wright. All have been All-Star players, with Chavez firmly established as the game’s best defensive third baseman and Wright seemingly destined for stardom in the nation’s largest market. They may not have A-Rod’s marquee value–at least not yet–but it’s not like these are middling third basemen, scraped from the barrel of mediocrity. A poll of today’s scouts would have Chavez and Wright ranked among the game’s top five third basemen, with Ensberg ranked somewhere in the upper 10 to 12.
The Classic will have trouble garnering media coverage because it is being played at the same time as the NCAA basketball tournament. To this criticism I ask, "What’s the alternative?" If the games were played during the summer, baseball’s regular season would have to be shut down for several weeks, causing games to be missed and interrupting the ebb and flow of the various pennant races. Major league teams already have a three-day break supplied by the All-Star Game; they simply don’t need another mid-season vacation, one that would last several weeks, at a time when the major leagues should be capitalizing on the fact that the three other major team sports–the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL–are all out of season. Another possibility that has been suggested would have the World Baseball Classic played in November, just after the World Series. Well, there are more problems with that. Coming on the heels of the World Series, the Classic would be considered a letdown, with the final results paling in comparison with those of major league baseball’s postseason. Then there’s also the problem of player fatigue. By November, most players are exhausted, ready to take some relaxing time off at the start of the winter. They’re simply not apt to be in prime condition–either mentally or physically–for another rigorous series of competitive games.
Furthermore, the conflict with the NCAA tournament in the spring may not be as large an obstacle as foreseen. Other than the championship game, which takes place on a Monday night, all of the NCAA basketball games take place from Thursday through Sunday. That leaves three full days each week–Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday–for the Classic to grab its share of newspaper and SportsCenter headlines. The Classic can take advantage of the weekly lull by scheduling some of the premier matchups during those open pockets of days off.
Once again, baseball is facing criticism for daring to do something different, just as it did with three-division formats and wild cards. Why do I get the feeling that if the NFL were to try something like this, the national media would be eating it up like candy? Yet, for some reason, baseball is held to a different standard, a standard that simply won’t allow the acceptance of anything that is new and different.
Why not let this thing develop and unfold, allowing the best baseball-playing countries in the world to show off their national pride in what could very well be a spirited international tournament? Before we condemn it for all sorts of questionable reasons, just give this thing a chance.
The two trades made over the weekend made sense for all four teams involved. In the first swap, the Mets added some depth to their late-inning relief corps by acquiring Jorge Julio from the Orioles for career underachiever Kris Benson. Five years younger than Benson, Julio will join another newly acquired right-hander, Duaner Sanchez, in setting up free agent closer Billy Wagner, giving the Mets three high-octane relievers to work the final three innings. While Benson is coming off the better season than Julio, the Mets were able to even the swap by acquiring young right-hander John Maine, who was Baltimore’s top-rated prospect only one season ago… At the same time, the Orioles deepened their starting rotation by adding Benson, a former No. 1 draft choice who could thrive under Baltimore’s new pitching guru, Leo Mazzone. It’s a reasonable gamble for the Orioles, who are hoping that Benson’s experience will counteract the youth of a starting rotation that is heavily dependent on under-thirties Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, and Bruce Chen…
The other weekend trade was even more notable, as the Red Sox addressed two problem areas by acquiring a new center fielder and leadoff man in Coco Crisp from the Indians for third base prospect Andy Marte and reliever Guillermo Mota. Many members of Red Sox Nation think that Boston might have surrendered too much in giving up two players, but the need for a player like Crisp was so great that a little overpayment could be justified. Crisp is not ideally suited to bat leadoff because of his unwillingness to draw walks, but his combination of speed and power and his potential to grow offensively make him a better alternative than anyone else the Sox have. He’ll also be an improvement defensively over Johnny Damon; Crisp played a terrific left field in 2005 and has more than enough speed and range to return to center field… As for the Indians, the departure of Crisp leaves them a little short in the outfield (at least until they finalize a rumored deal for the Phillies’ Jason Michaels), but Marte has a higher ceiling, and plays a position where the Indians found Aaron Boone lacking in 2005. Already regarded as the top prospect in two different organizations this winter (first the Braves and then the Red Sox), Marte looks like one of the early-line favorites for this year’s American League Rookie of the Year Award. If Marte does pan out, the Indians might have the makings of the game’s best infield, with future MVP candidate Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, the underrated Ronnie Belliard at second base, and the solidly productive Ben Broussard at first base.
With two more wintertime trades completed, here’s our Fan Forum question of the week. What has been the best single transaction pulled off by a major league team? My vote goes to the Phillies’ acquisition of Aaron Rowand and two legitimate pitching prospects for an overpaid and most likely over-the-hill Jim Thome. I’m still stunned by how the Phillies were able to acquire a Gold Glove caliber center fielder while shedding one of the most monstrous contracts in the game today.
Here are some other candidates for best transactions of the winter:
*The Red Sox’ trade for Josh Beckett.
*The Twins’ acquisition of Luis Castillo.
*The Yankees’ signing of Johnny Damon.
*The Diamondbacks’ acquisition of Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista for Troy Glaus.
*The Dodgers’ signing of Rafael Furcal.
*The Mets’ trade for Carlos Delgado.
*Or something else.
Mike Piazza is a future Hall of Famer who managed to hit 19 home runs last season, but those realities haven’t helped much this winter. Given his insistence on wanting to catch—it’s become an obsession with Piazza—he is having a hard time nailing down a contract for 2006. At one point this winter, Piazza seemed like a fairly desirable commodity, with teams like the Orioles, Angels, White Sox, Twins, A’s, and Blue Jays all showing interest. One by one, those teams are dropping out of the derby. The Twins and A’s no longer are considering Piazza, despite the fact that both teams need right-handed power. The Blue Jays have retained some interest, but only if Piazza is willing to accept a backup role as a part-time catcher and DH. And the Orioles would consider Piazza, but only if they are successful in trading Javy Lopez, who has already been demoted from No. 1 catcher to a more nebulous role as a first baseman-DH. Speaking of Lopez, new Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone wants him out of Baltimore as fast as possible… Piazza won’t be out of work this spring; he’ll eventually sign on with an American League team that needs some depth behind the plate and at DH. But the longer the winter progresses without a deal, the less money he’ll have to accept on what might be no better than a one-year deal. If only Piazza would accept the fact that his days as a No. 1 catcher are over…
The team that might be the most logical fit for Piazza would be the Angels, who need some power and might have room for a catcher behind Jose Molina if Jeff Mathis begins the season at Triple-A. Unfortunately, the Angels have been victimized by their own inertia this offseason. They’ve lagged behind teams like the Orioles and Mets in talks for Manny Ramirez, failed to come up with a winning bid for Paul Konerko, let Bengie Molina and Jarrod Washburn slip through the free agent cracks, and seem to be almost indifferent to the possibility of adding Piazza. The best move the Angels have made this winter has been an internal one: moving Darin Erstad back to center field, where he can have far more impact on a game as the central flychaser between Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero…
Several other future Hall of Famers remain unemployed. Roger Clemens remains the most desirable (with the Rangers and Yankees showing the hottest breath), but he may not decide whether to continue his career until sometime in early February. As usual, Clemens is in no rush to make a commitment, what with that dreaded “percentage point” of a chance that he won’t call it quits… The A’s can’t seem to decide whether to sign Frank Thomas, whose marketability is hurt by the fact that no one believes he can play first base anymore, restricting him to the confines of the DH world. The A’s would be better off sending one of their excess pitchers to the Pirates for Craig Wilson, who would supply depth on the infield and outfield corners… Sammy Sosa has a grand total of one interested suitor—the Washington Nationals—and even that seems like a bad fit. The Nationals play in RFK Stadium, otherwise known as Grand Canyon East, which doesn’t seem like the appropriate setting for an aging and slowing bat… Then there’s Rafael Palmeiro (who’s actually not a very good bet for the Hall of Fame right now); he hasn’t drawn a sniff from a single team. Earlier this winter, Palmeiro indicated some interest in signing with the Yankees, but the Bombers haven’t returned the favor. Right now, the Yankees seem satisfied with a first base-DH triumvirate of Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, and Andy Phillips, but then again, things can change quickly in Yankeeland… There are also two near Hall of Famers who remain out of work: Juan Gonzalez and Kevin Brown. It’s likely that both will be forced into retirement announcements this spring…
No free agent has had a worse offseason than former Angel Bengie Molina, who at one time was looking at a three or four-year deal in the $18 to $21 million range but may end up settling for a one-year contract worth $4 million. (That’s what he’s already been offered by the Blue Jays.) The Dodgers are the latest team to show interest; they like Molina as part of a continuing veteran overhaul that has already brought in other players with loads of postseason experience, including Nomar Garciaparra, Rafael Furcal, and Bill Mueller. If the Dodgers end up with Molina, they might have catcher-in-waiting Dioner Navarro start the season at Triple-A Las Vegas, with Sandy Alomar, Jr. primed to become Molina’s backup. (Navarro’s inability to throw out basestealers last season worries some members of the Dodgers’ front office.) Of course, Alomar’s age and susceptibility to injury would make it likely that Navarro will see significant roster time in LA this summer…
Although the Baseball Writers’ Association of America saw fit to elect only one man to Cooperstown this year, the newly formed Negro Leagues committee will be taking a more open approach to their election in February. Most of the committee’s members are historian of the game who want to see past injustices undone and deserving Negro Leagues greats inducted en masse. Don’t be surprised if the committee elects anywhere from 15 to 20 black ball legends (out of an overall group of 39 candidates), with the list of 2006 enshrinees including catcher Biz Mackey, infielder Jud Wilson, outfielders Mule Suttles and Cristobal Torriente, and pitcher Cannonball **** Redding… Sadly, there are only two living candidates on the committee’s list. They are Minnie Minoso, who deserves election as a player, and Buck O’ Neil, who merits inclusion as a combination player/manager/ ambassador of the game.
Two former major league outfielders from the 1960s have died within the past week. While neither had more than a journeyman career, both men were considered delightful teammates, well-liked within the clubhouse and by those fans who came in contact with them. Here are two short tributes.
Willie Smith (Died on January 16 in Anniston, Alabama; age 66; apparent heart attack): One of the last major leaguers to have played in the old Negro Leagues, Smith appeared as both a left-handed pitcher and outfielder during a well-traveled major league career. After making his major league debut for the Detroit Tigers in 1963, Smith started the 1964 season as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels. In mid-season, Angels manager Bill Rigney decided to shift the versatile Smith to the outfield; he responded to the radical move by hitting .301 with 11 home runs and 51 RBIs. Nicknamed "Wonderful Willie," Smith became popular with teammates during a journeyman career that included stops with the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, and Cincinnati Reds. Smith is believed to be the only black major leaguer to have both pitched in over 20 games and played the field (outfield and first base) in over 20 games.
Bubba Morton (Died on January 14 in Seattle, Washington; age 74; long illness): A veteran of seven major league seasons, Morton played for the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Braves, and California Angels over a career that spanned from 1961 to 1969. Morton was the first black player ever signed by the Tigers, but didn’t make Detroit’s major league roster until after the arrival of other African-American players. Although Morton’s tenure in Milwaukee lasted only 15 games, it was a memorable stint for the journeyman outfielder; Morton ended up rooming with the game’s future home run king, Hank Aaron. Morton’s best season came in 1967, when he batted .313 for the California Angels as a pinch-hitter and part-time player. After his playing days, which included one season in the Japanese Leagues, Morton made history by becoming the first African-American head coach at the University of Washington.
From time to time, I’ll post obituaries on former major leaguers and other significant baseball figures who have passed away in recent days. The New Year has already seen the loss of legendary USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux and several other men who played major league baseball, including longtime reliever Paul Lindblad, whom we honored in yesterday’s post.
Seth Morehead (Died on January 17 in Shreveport, Louisiana; age 71; heart attack): A veteran of five major league seasons, Morehead pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, and Milwaukee Braves. In 132 games, the left-hander posted a 4.81 ERA and a record of 5-19. Morehead was the last pitcher to face Roy Campanella before the Hall of Famer’s career-ending auto accident and also the last pitcher to face the Brooklyn Dodgers before the team’s move to the West Coast.
Merv Connors (Died on January 8 in San Francisco, California; age 91): A longtime minor league slugger, Connors eventually reached the major leagues, playing in 52 games for the Chicago White Sox during the 1930s. In 165 at-bats, the first baseman-third baseman batted .279 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs. During his minor league career, which spanned from the thirties through the fifties, Connors clubbed over 400 home runs. In 1944 and ’45, Connors served in the military as part of the World War II effort.
Rod Dedeaux (Died on January 5 in Glendale, California; age 91; complications from a stroke): Dedeaux played in only two major league games as a shortstop, but forged a far more lasting legacy as one of the greatest and most enduring coaches in the history of college baseball. During a 45-year tenure as the head coach at the University of Southern California, Dedeaux won an NCAA record 11 national championships, 28 conference titles, and a total of 1,332 games against only 571 losses. After retiring as USC’s coach in 1986, he became the school’s director of baseball. Over 50 of Dedeaux’ players eventually made the major leagues, including Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and standouts like Randy Johnson, Fred Lynn, Mark McGwire, and Roy Smalley.
Paul Lindblad (Died on January 1 in Arlington, Texas; age 64; Alzheimer’s disease): A member of three World Championship teams, Lindblad was a reliable left-handed reliever for much of the late 1960s and early seventies. During a 14-year career spent entirely in the American League, Lindblad posted a 3.29 ERA, 64 saves, and a record of 68-63. Originally a member of the Kansas City A’s, Lindblad moved with the franchise to Oakland and then spent time with the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers before returning to the A’s in a 1973 trade. Pitching primarily in middle relief as one of the primary set-up men to Rollie Fingers, Lindblad pitched for Oakland’s World Championship teams in 1973 and ’74. He pitched in the 1973 Fall Classic, hurling the ninth and tenth innings of a Game Three victory over the New York Mets. Lindblad later returned to World Series play, appearing for the New York Yankees in a 1978 matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With the first day of the New Year came the unhappy news that Paul Lindblad had died. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade, so in a way his passing may have been a blessing.
Younger fans might not know much about Paul Lindblad. Here are a few numbers and facts. During a 14-year career with the A’s, Senators, Rangers, and Yankees, Lindblad put up an ERA of 3.20, saved 64 games, and posted a won-loss record of 68-63. He was an integral part of Charlie Finley’s dynasty, a member of World Championship teams in 1973 and ’74. And in a fitting finish to his career, he played a small role on the Yankees’ World Championship team of 1978. To put his accomplishments in a modern-day context, he was a 1970s version of Mike Stanton, but probably a bit better.
In today’s game, an effective and durable left-hander like Lindblad (who could pitch in almost any role in relief) would probably command a three-year deal in the $15 million range. “Bladder” was that good, a fine relief pitcher for a long time. He’s just not remembered that well because he usually played the role of second-fiddle in the bullpen, setting up such relief aces as Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage. Over at Baseball Toaster, A’s expert Ken Arneson posted a nice tribute to Lindblad, making an astute observation about Lindblad’s 1974 Topps card. The card shows Lindblad at the finish of his motion, with his body oddly contorted and his legs falling to the ground, ala Mitch Williams. Unlike Williams, Lindblad didn’t throw particularly hard, but he did have much better control than “Wild Thing.”
During a lengthy career that featured a slew of memorable pennant races and postseason moments, Lindblad also became notable for playing parts in two milestone games.
*He was the last pitcher to face Hall of Famer Willie Mays in a game. Pitching the 10th inning of Game Three of the 1973 World Series, Lindblad retired Mays on a groundout.
*At the end of the 1975 season, Lindblad achieved a piece of baseball history by combining with three other A’s pitchers to record a no-hitter. Along with starter Vida Blue and fellow relievers Glenn Abbott and Rollie Fingers, Lindblad shut down the California Angels, holding them hitless on the final day of the regular season.
On a far less trivial note, Lindblad suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for 12 years, having been diagnosed in 1993, when he was only 52 years old. Although I’m hardly an expert on the disease, this strikes me as being a remarkably young age to become afflicted with Alzheimer’s. It’s an awful disease, one with which I feel an unfortunate connection because of how it affected my grandmother in the early 1980s. I saw first-hand the ways that Alzheimer’s causes deterioration of both the mind and the body, making the damage all the more encompassing. I can only hope that Paul’s suffering was somehow less than that of my grandmother.
My condolences to Paul’s wife, Kathy, and the rest of his family. Rest in peace, Bladder.
You were awfully good, and underappreciated, coming out of that bullpen.
Now that this year’s vote has been taken by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, it’s time to consider the next stage of Hall of Fame voting–the election of the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award, which will be announced on February 21. There are 10 candidates on the final ballot, ranging from old-time legends like Graham McNamee to current broadcasting stars like Dave Niehaus to two recently departed fan favorites, Tom Cheek and Bill King.
Unlike ballplayers, there are no statistics for us to use in judging the quality of broadcasters. We can only use our ears, and in some cases, the history books, in venturing a guess. Given how difficult it is to evaluate broadcasters unless you’ve heard them, either live or on audio tape, I’ve decided to restrict myself to those I’ve listened to during my years as a fan.
For me, the choice is clear: Tony Kubek. As a broadcaster, he filled almost every role, from doing live interviews in the stands during World Series broadcasts, working as the No. 1 analyst for a major network (NBC), and performing both play-by-play and color commentary for two teams, the Blue Jays and Yankees, on a local basis. Articulate enough to describe game action and insightful enough to analyze what we were seeing, few ex-athletes or professional broadcasters could match Kubek’s versatile skills in the booth. All the while, Kubek established one of the best-known work ethics in the announcing game, exhaustively researching player backgrounds and tendencies prior to each game or series and always venturing into the clubhouse to find an elusive insider angle. Perhaps the best thing I can say about Tony Kubek is this: I learned something new about baseball almost every game that I heard him work, whether it was the importance of the bench and the bullpen to winning the pennant to a coherent definition of a secondary lead. As much as Tony was a broadcaster of the game, he was also a teacher, and that wasn’t easy with students like myself who thought they knew everything about the National Pastime.
With that in mind, our "Fan Forum" question of the week involves your selection of the Frick Award winner. Of these 10 men featured on this year’s ballot, who would you select as the winner?
Give us your thoughts, your reasons why, and your personal remembrances of the man you feel should be the 2006 winner of the Ford C. Frick Award.
If the writers said ‘yes’ to Bruce Sutter, then why did they say ‘no’ to Rich "Goose" Gossage? That seems to be the overriding theme in the aftermath of Tuesday’s Hall of Fame election and it’s a perfectly sensible and logical sentiment. Gossage sustained his peak longer than Sutter–10 years for "The Goose" to nine years for Bruce–and also earned the advantage in durability, pitching over 1,800 innings to Sutter’s total of just over 1,000 innings. The writers do have some explaining to do. I’ve yet to hear a coherent argument as to why Sutter earned 76 per cent of the vote, while Gossage, who had the superior career, fell short at 64 per cent. Hopefully, the writers will rectify this in coming years, though it’s not likely to happen next year when Tony Gwynn, Mark McGwire, and Cal Ripken, Jr. come onto the ballot for the first time and dominate the thinking of many of the voters.
There’s also a myth circulating about Sutter and his impact on the game. Several media outlets have proclaimed that Sutter invented the split-fingered fastball, and that’s just not true. After hurting his elbow in 1972 while in the Chicago Cubs’ organization, Sutter decided to come up with another pitch to offset his 85 mile-per-hour fastball. He thought about trying to throw a curveball, but feared that it might aggravate his surgically repaired elbow. That’s when Cubs pitching coach Fred Martin, noticing Sutter’s unusually large hands and fingers, suggested he try throwing the split-fingered fastball. Martin taught him the splitter, setting the stage for a Hall of Fame career. (I’m not certain that Martin invented the splitter either; it’s quite possible that someone was throwing it prior to him.) Sutter did make some modifications with the way he gripped the splitter, but that’s a little different than saying he invented the pitch. Now it is accurate to say that Sutter popularized and revolutionized the split-fingered fastball because of the success that he had with it in the 1970s–at a time when no one else was throwing it–and because of the influence it had in convincing other pitchers to try this deceptive, "fall-off-the-table" pitch. By the 1980s, the split-fingered fastball had become the fashionable pitch of many starters and relievers, thanks in large part to Sutter’s late-inning dominance with the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
Another pitching coach in the Cubs’ organization, Mike Roarke, also deserves some credit here. Sutter has often ackowledged that it was Roarke who helped him refine and improve the pitch, which was virtually unhittable when thrown properly.
So hats off to Martin, Roarke, and Sutter, all of whom played a part in changing the landscape of major league pitching throughout the 1970s and eighties.