When I first started writing Cooperstown Confidential for MLBlogs, I wrote a series of articles known as “Card Corner,” in which I wrote about specific baseball cards and the players featured on them. For a variety of reasons, mostly due to slow dial-up connections and the difficulty of posting images, I abandoned the feature. Well, that’s changed. Now that the Internet connection has been upgraded, it’s time to bring back Card Corner. In our first installment, let’s go back 35 years in time to the 1973 Topps set, which was earmarked by a variety of unusual action shots and some curious poses.
I’ve always been intrigued by Dave McNally’s 1973 Topps card. He’s shown wearing one of those gloves that has a release hole for the index finger, but he instead maintains the finger inside of the glove. I’ve never been able to figure out why.
That triviality never affected McNally. He was never as famous as Hall of Fame teammates like Jim Palmer or Brooks and Frank Robinson, or as popular an “everyman” like Boog Powell, but was a crucial component to the Baltimore Orioles’ dynastic run from 1966 to 1971. McNally, who died in 2002 after a five-year battle with lung cancer, was the Orioles’ most consistent starter–though not their most dominant–during that span of six seasons.
Stylistically, McNally pitched like Whitey Ford and Eddie Lopat–or like Mike Flanagan and Tom Glavine in more modern times–spotting a decent fastball while fooling hitters with rolls of curve balls and change-ups. McNally also used a unique motion that I often like to imitate, even though I’m right-handed and he was left-handed. Two days after McNally passed away at the age of 60, I happened to be watching ESPN Classic when it aired the highlight film of the 1969 World Series between the “Miracle Mets” and McNally’s Baltimore Orioles. The film revived memories of that smooth but unusual delivery used by McNally, in which he dipped his head and shoulders toward first base before sliding his body forward and releasing the ball toward home plate.
Although McNally was one of the game’s best left-hand pitchers of the late sixties and early seventies, piling up four consecutive 20-win seasons, he was humble about his achievements. When a reporter from Sports Collectors Digest asked him if he had a shot to make the Hall of Fame, Mac offered an honest response: “I don’t think so. I didn’t have enough wins (184 in 14 seasons). Sandy Koufax had only 165 wins, but he was really dominating. I think a pitcher has to be in the neighborhood of 250 wins unless some rare thing went with it. I think the Hall of Fame has done a tremendous job making sure it’s not easy to get in.”
McNally’s selflessness matched his modesty. In 1975, the Montreal Expos offered him a contract paying him $125,000, which would have been one of the highest salary figures of the day. Yet, McNally refused to sign, in part because he felt the Expos had reneged on some other aspects of the deal. McNally instead played the season at a reduced salary and without a signed contract, so that he could support Andy Messersmith (who also refused to sign a contract for 1975) and help the Players Association in making a better case for free agency. After the season, arbitrator Peter Seitz awarded both McNally and Messersmith their freedom, allowing them to negotiate with any club. The decision really didn’t benefit McNally himself, since he had already decided to retire, but his conviction helped the players win an important gain in their struggle against major league owners. One year later, the players embarked upon their first season of full-fledged free agency. Without the courage and servitude of pioneers like McNally, players of the current day would not be enjoying the salaries and benefits that make them the kings of the sports world.
Those players should remember what McNally did for them.
With all of the negative attention being monopolized by the aging Carlos Delgado and the enigmatic Aaron Heilman, it’s been easy to overlook the debut of new Mets right fielder Ryan Church. On Sunday, Church made a spectacular running catch in right-center field, as he outran Carlos Beltran in ending what could have been a huge comeback rally for the Braves. It was the kind of play that could have put Church with the likes of Endy Chavez, Tommie Agee, and Ron Swoboda in Mets lore–if only it had happened during a playoff or World Series game.
That play by Church should serve as the headline maker in what it has been a terrific first month in New York for the ex-National. His defensive play–from his range to his throwing arm–has been first rate, essentially giving the Mets a second center fielder in their outfield. And his offensive firepower has been a godsend for a team that has received virtually no production from Delgado and absolutely nothing from Moises Alou, whose absence may grow longer now that he appears to have suffered a fractured bone in his ankle.
If Church had endured a poor start, Mets fans would have booed him with the same passion they’ve reserved for Delgado, largely because of their dissatisfaction with the Lastings Milledge trade. Milledge still has the higher upside, but right now, there’s no question that Church is the better, more complete, and more polished player. And given the struggles of the Mets this April, that should count for something…
What a difference a year makes. Last year, Wil Nieves played so incompetently as the Yankees’ backup catcher that I regarded him as arguably the worst major league player I’d seen in 30 years. (Other candidates include Mike Fischlin, Ron Hodges, Happy Jack Voigt, and Scott Bailes.) Nieves couldn’t do anything; he couldn’t hit, looked tentative behind the plate, and couldn’t throw. Twelve months later, he has emerged as the Nationals’ No. 1 catcher during the absence of Paul Lo Duca. In 23 at-bats, he’s hitting .348 with a .423 on-base percentage and has even pounded out his first big league home run–a game-ending blast that gave the Nats a dramatic win over the first-place this past weekend. With Nieves playing so well, Washington now faces a dilemma. Which catcher gets the axe when Lo Duca returns from the disabled list? It was supposed to be Nieves, but it might now be Johnny Estrada (who suddenly could draw interest from the Yankees, smarting from the loss of Jorge Posada). Or the Nats might do the unthinkable and carry three catchers until they can sort things out behind the plate…
Finally, longtime Latino baseball expert and author Peter Bjarkman has provided us with our first baseball card change of 2008. Peter recommends a card for Cuban standout Pedro Lazo, who just become Cuba’s all-time leader in pitching victories. Lazo was also the pitcher who saved the game for Cuba against the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, launching the Cubans into the finale of the WBC in 2006. Thanks, Peter. We’ll post your card this week.
Two developments this week point directly to the ridiculous ways in which pitching staffs are being managed and pitching decisions are being handled. Exhibit No. 1 could be found with the Brewers, who actually went with a 14-man pitching staff for a day; that is believed to be a major league record number of pitchers on an active roster, not counting the month of September, when rosters are expanded to a maximum of 40 players. It is preposterous to think that a team needs a 14-man pitching roster–even for a single day. That amounts to five starters and nine relief pitchers. It is getting to the point where MLB needs to think seriously about imposing a limit on the number of pitchers that can be an on an active roster at any one time, much like the NFL limits the number of quarterbacks who are available on game day. That way, we might be able to avoid these embarrassing scenarios where teams are repeatedly using pitchers as pinch-hitters. My goodness, this is supposed to be the major leagues, where the highest quality of baseball is played. And that can’t possibly happen when pitchers continue to pinch-hit, and position players are asked to play positions they’ve hardly ever played before in their careers. That’s what the Cardinals did with Albert Pujols this week, asking their fragile-shouldered superstar to play second base because Tony LaRussa insists on carrying a 13-man pitching staff.
Exhibit No. 2 of the pitching apocalypse involved the Rockies last night. Their starter, Mark Redman, a guy who hasn’t been effective since 2003, allowed ten runs in the first inning against the Dodgers. As if that wasn’t enough, the Rockies then allowed Redman to start the second inning, ostensibly because they didn’t want to blow through their bullpen. This is why you have a long reliever–or at least why you should– a durable pitcher who can give you four or five innings as a way of saving the rest of the staff. But that seems to be an impossibility nowaways, where headlines are made if a relief pitcher is allowed to pitch more than an inning at a time. And what kind of a message do you send to your fans when you give the ball back to a lousy starting pitcher who couldn’t get through the first inning without giving up double digits in runs? Shameful.
One of the most criticized men among general managers in today’s game was given the boot by the Reds this week. I don’t understand it–either the criticism of Wayne Krivsky or the decision to fire him. The Reds haven’t played well this season, but it’s a small sampling of games that doesn’t accurately reflect the moves that Krivsky has made. Let’s consider that Krivsky managed to acquire a third of the Reds’ starting lineup–second baseman Brandon Phillips, shortstop Jeff Keppinger, and catcher David Ross–for a pittance. Krivsky stole all three players in minor trades, principally Phillips, who has emerged as the franchise’s best second baseman since the days of Joe Morgan.
Krivsky also brought in the ace of the Reds’ rotation, Bronson Arroyo, at the price of an underachieving Wily Mo Pena, a flat-out bust in Boston who is off to a terrible start with the Nationals in 2008. Furthermore, he managed to acquire Josh Hamilton for cash after the 2006 Rule Five draft, before flipping Hamilton to Texas for the ultra-promising Edinson Volquez. With Arroyo, Volquez, and Johnny Cueto, the Reds’ starting rotation hasn’t been this promising since the turn of the millennium. Because of that pitching, Reds fans, for the first time in a long while, have a legitimate right to be optimistic about the team’s chances of contending.
Krivsky’s detractors love to point to his ill-fated decision to surrender Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns for a cache of mediocre Washington relievers, but it’s not as if those ex-Reds have turned into the second coming of Davey Concepcion and George Foster. Frankly, I’d rather have Keppinger and Adam Dunn, who both remain property of the Reds.
Other critics of Krivsky point to his secretive nature, his unwillingness to be more forthcoming with the media. Gee, that’s a criticism that could be aimed at only about two-thirds of the game’s current GMs, many of whom act as if they are operatives for the CIA. It’s certainly a bone of contention, but hardly a fireable offense–not unless you wanted to start giving pink slips to the other GMs too.
Whatever the real reason, Krivsky is out of work, replaced by Walt Jocketty, who may be angling to bring in Tony LaRussa as his manager in the next year or two. I’m sure that Jocketty will do well in moving the Reds from builders into contenders, just as he did with the Cardinals. I’m just not sure why his predecessor, Krivsky, wasn’t given that same opportunity. After all, he was the man who started putting the pieces into place in Cincinnati.
I never had the chance to meet John Marzano, but the lack of a face-to-face encounter shouldn’t always matter when it comes to assessing someone’s character. When everyone who worked with a person talks about how amicable and good-hearted he was, then you feel pretty comfortable trusting their judgment. Well, John Marzano was that kind of guy.
By now, you’ve probably heard that Marzano, a former major league catcher and a talk show host with MLB.com, passed away over the weekend at the young age of 45. He died while falling on the stairs of his home, possibly after suffering a heart attack. Given how energetic, gregarious, and passionate Marzano was, the news of his death comes as a particularly horrible shock–to those he worked with and to the many fans who listened to him on Baseball Channel TV. Marzano not only appeared to be in good health, but he had that kind of vibrant personality that can make someone look indestructible. That’s why his passing is twice as jolting to those who knew him and listened to him.
I’ve often heard people use the phrase, “Only the good die young.” I used to scoff at that notion, but when you hear about tragedies like the one involving Marzano, it makes you wonder. How do you explain the death of someone so young and so strong of character? It just doesn’t make sense.
When someone like Marzano leaves us all too soon, all that we can do, I guess, is to take solace in knowing that we had at least some time to appreciate him, whether it was as a listener of his talk show, or more importantly, as his friend or loved one.
We can also remind ourselves to live each day to its full potential, since we simply don’t know which day will be our last.
Well, it’s time to change the baseball card. And what the heck does that mean, you might ask? Every two to three weeks, I’d like to change the baseball card image featured on Cooperstown Confidential. I started with Roberto Clemente (1973 Topps) before switching to Thurman Munson (1978 Topps), reflecting two of my favorite players of all time. Now it’s your turn to suggest a baseball card image for the main page of the blog.
The rules are simple. Just post a note indicating the card you would like to see posted. It doesn’t have to be a Topps card, but can be any company, any player, assuming that I can find the image. Tell me in a few words why you’d like to see that card posted. I’ll pick the best one, post the image, and acknowledge the winner here on the blog.
You can also e-mail your suggestions to me at email@example.com.
In reading about the various celebrations that are taking place in honor of Jackie Robinson, I learned that ESPN has won the rights to do a feature film on the Hall of Famer and racial pioneer. The venerable Robert Redford will direct and play Branch Rickey. Redford’s acting and directing accomplishments are unquestioned, and he has experience doing a baseball film (The Natural), but I have a hard time picturing him in the role of Rickey. Will he put the weight on naturally, or use some sort of prosthetic? That may be a tough one to pull off.
More to the point, I wonder who will play Robinson in the film. As an iconic figure who was photographed often during his adult life, Robinson would create challenges for even the most experienced of actor. The actor will not only need to be African American (a brilliant deduction), but will also have to replicate Robinson’s beefy build and athleticism (a tough combination) and try to match his unique, high-pitched voice. Who would be the right choice? A headliner like Denzel Washington would help the film enormously–at least from a commercial standpoint–but he strikes me as too lean and athletic to replicate Robinson. Don Cheadle is an enormously talented actor, but he’s too small and frail to make a believable Robinson. On the other hand, Lawrence Fishburne might be too big for the role–literally. How about Jamie Foxx? Oh please, don’t get me started.
After considering some of thes A-listers, an actor from a lower rung (but still extremely talented) came to mind. How about Andre Braugher of Homicide fame? The underrated Braugher is accomplished at serious roles, has extensive experience on both the big and small screens, and owns the same kind of stocky build that Robinson carried during his major league days. And at age 45, Braugher is still young enough to pull off Robinson in his younger days, perhaps with only a small boost of makeup.
Come to think of it, Braugher has already played Robinson, albeit in a small television film that appeared in 1990. (Thanks, IMDB.) That film centered on Robinson’s court martial. Given that experience, an older and more mature Braugher would seem ready for a full-length biopic on Robinson.
Yes, I like Braugher in the title role. Then again, I’ve never cast a film, not even a cheap one made for television. If you were in charge of a Robinson film, who would you cast in the lead role?
I was always amazed by Tommy Holmes’ ability to put the ball into play. Let’s consider what he did in 1945, when he hit .352, led the National League with a .577 slugging percentage, and struck out a grand total of nine times. Given that he hit 28 home runs and piled up 47 doubles, that strikeout total is ridiculous. Nine times. We see some of the game’s offensive superstars strike out that many times in a week–or perhaps in a particularly bad four-game series.
Actually, I had never heard of Holmes until 1978, when his National League record 37-game hitting streak was eclipsed by another fair country hitter named Pete Rose. That’s when I learned about Holmes’ magical ability to make contact. Frankly, that was a lot more impressive than either Holmes’ 37-game streak or Rose’s eventual 44-game streak. Hitting streaks are one thing, but practically never striking out against major league pitching, well that’s quite another.
The left-handed hitting Holmes died on Monday at the age of 91, bringing to a tangible end a remarkable legacy of contact hitting. Though he never again duplicated his 1945 power numbers, he still avoided strikeouts like the plague throughout his career. Over the course of 11 seasons, Holmes struck out 122 times in over 5,000 plate appearances. In other words, he struck out roughly ten times a season for more than a decade.
Given today’s emphasis on swinging for the fences, along with a general reluctance to use a shortened, two-strike swing, I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see anyone come close to matching Holmes in the art of putting bat to ball. The game simply isn’t played that way anymore. Players today take little pride in avoiding the strikeout–certainly not the way that Holmes did.
It’s kind of sad that no one today can do what Holmes once delighted in doing. Yes, I know that power is part of a good offensive philosophy–and strikeouts come with hitting home runs. Still, it would be pretty nice to see someone wave the wand the way that Holmes did in the 1940s.
Who is the worst manager in all of baseball?
Maxim (yes, I admit it, I do read Maxim, though I restrict my reading to the web site) has a list of the five worst managers in the game. From the least worst to the actual worst, they are:
Dave Trembley, Orioles
John Gibbons, Blue Jays
Willie Randolph, Mets
Ozzie Guillen, White Sox
Dusty Baker, Reds
Do you agree or disagree with the listing? Well, I have some problems with it. Trembley has the Orioles playing the most surprising ball of the new season, after making a good first impression in 2007. I’m not sure exactly what he’s done to merit inclusion on this list. Randolph definitely doesn’t belong here, but is being buried because of the Mets’ disastrous performance in September.
Given Baker’s current status as the Sabermetric whipping post among managers, I wonder if the article was written by someone with a statistical inclination. I have mixed feelings about Baker (great motivator, lacks a disciplinary touch), but some of his recent rants against on-base percentage make me wonder if all of his success in San Francisco was merely a mirage.
What’s going on here? That was my reaction when I read John Harper’s piece in the NY Daily News, in which he suggested that Joe Girardi shouldn’t put Alex Rodriguez at shortstop in place of the injured Derek Jeter because it might offend Jeter.
This has to be one of the most ridiculous suggestions I’ve ever read. Since when did the Yankees become a soap opera instead of a baseball team? I thought the idea was to win ballgames, as opposed to soothing egos. For crying out loud, if Girardi thinks that the Yankees have a better chance of winning with A-Rod at shortstop, then A-Rod should play shortstop. No questions asked.
I have my doubts as to whether Jeter cares whether A-Rod fills in for him at shortstop. But if Jeter, for whatever reason, feels threatened or offended by that possibility, then he needs to do some serious re-thinking about his commitment to winning. If Jeter has become such a diva that certain players aren’t allowed to fill in for him while he’s injured, then I have to wonder what became of the ballplayer who was once such a selfless contributor that always valued wins over everything else.
Either way, Harper’s recommendation strains credibility. Folks, the point of professional baseball is to try to win ballgames, not obsess over who receives top billing.