July 2008

Hall of Fame Weekend–Part Two

Jim “Mudcat” Grant created a bit of a stir in Cooperstown on Thursday when he likened Barry Bonds to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. Basically, Grant said that Bonds has been put under same kind of intense scrutiny of someone running for president, which has made him a target for criticism on so many fronts. Grant defended Bonds in the interview, saying that he deserves the presumption of innocence on the steroid issue. Grant’s defense of Bonds isn’t surprising considering his long friendship with Barry’s late father, Bobby Bonds. Grant pitched against the elder Bonds in the late 1960s and early seventies, when Mudcat played for the Expos, Cardinals and Pirates and Bobby starred for the Giants. Frankly, what Grant said amounted to very little in terms of real controversy, but it did make a few headlines…

 

I’ve sometimes compared Mudcat to the late Buck O’Neil, as far as their abilities to charmingly spin stories and make friends. Well, O’Neill will officially be honored on Friday afternoon, when the Hall unveils his new bronze statue in a ceremony taking place in front of the Museum. The statue coincides with a new award the Hall has created, the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. O’Neill, who died two years ago, will be named the first winner of the award during Sunday afternoon’s induction ceremony…

 

I’m off to the Otesaga Hotel, where I’ll be interviewing Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, and Tony Perez. The material from these video interviews will be used by the Hall of Fame as part of a new permanent exhibit about the Latino baseball experience. The new exhibit will debut in 2009. Hey, I’m just excited about being allowed into the Otesaga. It’s where all the Hall of Famers stay, and security is usually at the level of something that might be employed by the CIA. Hopefully, they’ll let me in the door.

Hall of Fame Weekend–Part One

I noticed the first seeds of Hall of Fame Weekend being sowed on Wednesday night. Just as I finished leading one of my guided tours of Cooperstown, two young boys in the group noticed a trolley arriving at the front doors of the Hall of Fame. Within moments, they exclaimed “Dave Winfield,” and then raced across the street in a failed attempt to acquire his autograph. Autograph or not, Winfield had become the first Hall of Famer to hit town, beginning a procession that continued on Thursday, and will not conclude until all of the Hall of Famers have reached Cooperstown by sometime on Friday.

The Hall of Fame is expecting a record 54 returning Hall of Famers for Sunday’s induction ceremony. Assuming they all attend the ceremony, that would eclipse last year’s mark of 53 Hall of Famers. Originally, the Hall expected only 52, but then Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken, Jr. changed their plans at the last minute and announced that they were coming. Joining Banks and Ripken on the induction stage will be the likes of Tony Gwynn (who was inducted with Ripken during last year’s memorable Hall of Fame Weekend), Willie Mays (the game’s greatest living player), Steve Carlton and Sandy Koufax (the two greatest living left-handers), Bobby Doerr (the oldest Hall of Famer), and Brooks Robinson (the nicest Hall of Famer). All will be on hand for the official induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams, along with the late Billy Southworth, Bowie Kuhn, Walter O’Malley, and Barney Dreyfuss.

Only a handful of Hall of Famers will not be in Cooperstown this weekend. The no-shows include Hank Aaron (who seems to carry on a love/hate relationship with the Hall), Stan Musial (whose health has cut down on most of his public appearances), Nolan Ryan (who’s never been back for an induction since his own), and Carl Yastrzemski (probably the most reclusive of the Hall of Famers). 

Hall of Famers will not be the only retired ballplayers making appearances in town at the various signings on Main and Pioneer streets. For me, the list of non-Hall of Famers is just as interesting, probably moreso because their stories have not been told as often as those of the game’s immortals. The list of “others” includes Paul “Motormouth” Blair, Ralph Branca, Steve Garvey, Dwight Gooden, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Denny McLain, Graig Nettles, Mickey “Mick the Quick” Rivers, and Bobby Shantz. That’s quite a diverse group, ranging from the troubled trio of Garvey, Gooden and McLain to the ever colorful Rivers to the gentlemanly Branca and Shantz. There’s a lot there for just about everyone, from fans of the 1940s to the more contemporary followers of the game in the eighties and nineties.

One source told me that Pete Rose will also be signing along Main Street, but I have not yet been able to confirm his appearance. I really wish Rose would stay away, if only because he tends to steal attention from where the spotlight really should be–on Gossage, Williams, and the Class of 2008. It’s also bothersome to watch a guy profit from being the outlaw of baseball, a role that Rose is only too pleased to fulfill. 

But let’s not allow Rose to spoil the beauty of the weekend. I’ll never cease to be amazed how this small village of 2,200 fulltime residents annually transforms itself into the focal point of the baseball world for four summer days. We saw a few signs of that today, as security guards lined the public access points of the Leatherstocking Golf Course, where a few of the Hall of Famers took in their first round of golf. Yes, Hall of Fame Weekend has begun!

Card Corner–Norm Cash

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Norm Cash–Topps Company–1973 (No. 485)

The Detroit Tigers of the late 1960s and early 1970s remain a beloved team throughout Michigan and much of the Midwest. In 1968, the “Battling Bengals” came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals. Four years later, an older Tigers team, featuring many of the same heroes from 1968, captured the American League East title before losing the playoffs to the eventual World Champions Oakland A’s.

One of the most colorful players on both of those teams–and certainly my personal favorite–was Norm Cash, who provided Detroit with just the right combination of polished glovework at first base, hefty power at the plate, and a keen sense of humor. This 1973 Topps card provides us with an especially appropriate image of “Stormin’ Norman,” since it shows him accompanied by two of his trademarks at the plate. He’s wearing a soft cap instead of a batting helmet and holding a bat that may or may not have been filled with cork. Fearless at bat, Cash was one of the final major leaguers to wear a cap at the plate, as part of a grandfather clause attached to the 1971 rule that made batting helmets a requirement for most hitters. (For those keeping score, Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery was the last player in major league history to wear a soft cap at the plate.)

Cash admitted to using a corked bat at various times throughout his career, including his breakout season of 1961, when he batted .361. Of course, even if he was using cork during Detroit’s championship run in 1968, it didn’t do much to counter the effects of the “Year of the Pitcher,” a development aided by higher mounds, an ever expanding strike zone, and the emergence of larger, cookie-cutter stadiums.

Cash also made intriguing bat-related news during the 1973 season. With Nolan Ryan in the midst of throwing his second no-hit performance that summer, the free-spirited Cash decided to walk to the plate without a bat, instead carrying what appeared to be a strangely-shaped piece of wood. Legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell described the item as a piano leg during his play-by-play of the game, but it was actually a table leg, taken from a piece of furniture in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

Cash had every intention of using the table leg; he actually saw one pitch from Ryan while holding the table leg in his hands. After that first pitch, not-so-amused umpire Ron Luciano (a colorful figure in his own right) realized what Cash was actually holding and told him to discard the makeshift stick in favor of a regulation bat. “I can’t hit him with a regular bat,” Cash argued with Luciano, before making his way back to the dugout to retrieve his regular bat. Even then, Cash could do nothing more than record a weak out to the infield, with Ryan eventually finishing his no-hit masterpiece.

Cash played one more season in the major leagues before calling it quits. Cash dabbled in broadcasting and played in a professional softball league, all the while spinning stories from his days with the Tigers. Then came tragedy. In October of 1986, the 51-year-old Cash slipped and fell off a dock while boating in northern Lake Michigan. He tumbled into the cold waters, could not keep himself afloat, and drowned. An autopsy determined that Cash was legally drunk at the time of the accident.

Cash has been gone for 22 years now, and the game of baseball is a little lesser for it. Even after all these years, I still miss Stormin’ Norman.

A Smattering of Intelligence–Santana, Wolf, Invented Trades, and the Hall of Fame

To their credit, the Mets bounced back with a win on Wednesday night, responding nicely to their most devastating loss of the season. They just have to hope that this year’s pennant race won’t come down to one game, the way it did last year.

Here’s my reaction to the Mets’ 8-6 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday night: perhaps the Mets should start treating Johan Santana like an ace. On Tuesday, Santana threw 105 pitches over the first eight innings. He sailed through the eighth inning, needing only a handful of pitches to retire the Phillies, putting the Mets three outs away from sole possession of first place. With the Mets holding a three-run lead and Billy Wagner unavailable, the conditions seemed right to have Santana start the ninth and attempt to finish off the game. Instead, manager Jerry Manuel pinch-hit for Santana in the bottom of the eighth and turned the game over to Duaner Sanchez. Six runs and three more pitching changes later, the Mets found themselves down by three runs–on their way to a crushing loss against their prime divisional rival.

I understand that Santana is a prized arm, someone the Mets desperately want to keep healthy, but 105 pitches over eight innings is not an exorbitant total. Asking Santana to give you 115-120 pitches, especially on a night when your closer is unavailable, is not an unreasonable request. Yet, the Mets continue to treat Santana with the most sensitive of kid gloves, even in the midst of a heated pennant race with the Phillies and Marlins. The continued babying of Santana partially explains why he hasn’t pitched a single complete game all season. Not one. In contrast, Toronto’s Roy Halladay has pitched seven complete games. CC Sabathia, now with the Brewers, has a total of five on the season. I’m not expecting that Santana match either of those totals, but it would nice for the game’s top left-hander to complete a game every once in a great while.

Instead, Manuel and the Mets allowed themselves to be ruled by the dreaded pitch count, where anything over 100 pitches is treated with red flags, fire whistles, and burglar alarms. It cost them a game, one that they may or may not be able to retrieve…

The Astros’ acquisition of Padres left-hander Randy Wolf has baffled much of the baseball community. Why would the Astros give up a prospect in Triple-A right-hander Chad Reineke for a veteran pitcher when they’re already ten games out in the National League Central? What possible difference will Wolf make for a team that needs help everywhere, from the lineup to the bullpen and maybe even the manager’s office? Are the Astros certain they can re-sign Wolf, who is eligible for free agency at season’s end?

Here’s a deal, courtesy of some creative Internet types, which makes so much sense that it will never happen. The prospective trade would have the Orioles send veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez to the Yankees for burly right-hander Chris “Big Foot” Britton. Hernandez would give the Yankees a competent hitting catcher with power (11 home runs), thereby replacing Jorge Posada, who won’t be able to catch any more in 2008. Britton, a 25-year-old reliever who has thrown well in limited duty but never gets much of a chance to pitch in New York, would complement George Sherrill in Baltimore’s improving bullpen. Britton, a shorter version of Tim Stoddard (the original Big Foot) who stands six-three, 278 pounds, has enough stuff to be a closer, which could ultimately make Sherrill available in a subsequent deal…

The Hall of Fame’s official web site doesn’t list his name among the inductees returning to Cooperstown for this weekend’s induction, but a Hall source tells me that Cal Ripken, Jr. is indeed planning to attend. That brings the total number of expected Hall of Famers to 53. The group also includes Tony Gwynn, who was also a part of the memorable Hall of Fame Class of 2007. Those who are not coming to Cooperstown include Stan “The Man” Musial (who has eliminated most of his public appearances because of health concerns), Hammerin’ Hank Aaron (who doesn’t often attend inductions), and Carl Yastrzemski (noted for being a recluse).

Card Corner–Boog Powell

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Boog Powell–Topps Company–1973 (No. 325)

Although Boog Powell was surprisingly nimble and surehanded as a first baseman, it’s at the plate where he is most remembered. On his 1973 Topps card, he holds the bat high, regally concluding one of his Ruthian swings. (If you’ve ever seen his 1974 Topps card, you’ll notice the subtle bending of the bat, a common trait amongst power hitters with high bat speed.)Other than Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell, no left-handed hitter of that era was more fear inspiring while pawing in the batter’s box or hitting home runs of tape-measure dimensions. (Tony Oliva, Billy Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski were better all-around hitters than Powell, but none really struck fear in the hearts of pitchers, first basemen, and second basemen the way that Boog did.) At a time when no players lifted weights and 200-pound players could scarcely be found, the hulking Powell weighed 250 pounds by the most conservative of estimates, helping him carve out a niche of sheer intimidation at the plate.

As much as Powell looked like an angry behemoth swinging a large club, his personality ran to the other extreme of the spectrum. Affable and good-natured both on the field and away from the ballpark, Powell became known as a kind of smiling giant who liked to laugh and have fun. He rarely argued with umpires or exchanged angry words with opponents. His jovial personality only helped him during his postseason days, when he became a staple of the legendary Miller Lite television commercials and later opened up “Boog’s Barbecue” stand outside of Camden Yards.

Powell could also be mischievous, in the way that he joked and played pranks on others. In fact, that’s how he obtained the nickname “Boog.” As a child, John Wesley Powell sometimes misbehaved, leading his parents to say, “What’s that little booger up to now?” Booger eventually was shortened to Boog, giving Powell his memorable moniker.

Although he was often overshadowed by the Robinsons (Brooks and Frank), Jim Palmer, and Earl Weaver, and has never received serious consideration for the Hall of Fame, Powell has achieved iconic status in Baltimore. It’s partly because of his performance–he did win American League MVP honors in 1970–in part because of his sense of humor, and partly because of that great nickname. While few would remember someone by the name of John Wesley Powell, they all seem to remember the burly slugger named Boog.

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Durham, Posada, and Holtzman

If the Milwaukee Brewers don’t make the playoffs, Ned Yost will surely be fired. That’s one of several conclusions that can be drawn after the Brewers announced their second major mid-season trade on Sunday. The acquisition of Ray Durham, coming on the heels of the pre-All-Star break addition of CC Sabathia, gives the Brewers needed depth and versatility. Although Durham has played almost exclusively as a second baseman throughout his career, I could see the Brewers using him as a Tony Phillips-like superutility player. The switch-hitting Durham could platoon with the disappointing Rickie “Hands of Stone” Weeks at second base, while also filling in at first base and perhaps even the outfield, assuming that Yost is willing to be daring. Durham’s ability to get on base, coupled with his occasional power, makes him a useful player. He also helps balance a lineup that leans far too much to the right side. Other than Prince Fielder, the Brewers haven’t had much left-handed hitting. Durham, a stronger presence from the left side, gives them a little bit more.

The Brewers really have no excuses now if they fail to make the playoffs. It’s debatable whether they’re as good as the Cubs, but they certainly have more talent than the Cardinals, whom they are currently trying to catch in the wild card chase. With All-Star talents like Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Sabathia, and Ben Sheets, the Brewers should beat out the overachieving Cardinals. If they don’t, the Ned Yost bashers will have their most convincing evidence yet that it’s time to make a change in the Brewers’ dugout…

Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news on the Yankees? The good news involves their standing in the AL East; they’re only two and a half games behind the Red Sox and four and a half games behind the Rays. The bad news is that their roster has been rendered a M*A*S*H unit, with Jorge Posada back on the disabled list, where he joins Hideki Matsui, Chien-Ming Wang, and Phil Hughes. With Posada’s right shoulder continuing to bark, the Yankees are looking at the real possibility that he won’t play again in 2008. Even if he does manage to suit up, he can forget about doing any catching the rest of the season. That leaves the Yankees in a quandary. As good as Jose Molina has been defensively, he is the kind of offensive non-entity that the Yankees can no longer afford to carry.  With their offense already devalued by Matsui’s injury and the wear-and-tear to Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu, the Yankees need a catcher who can hit at least a little. Some of the available candidates include Baltimore’s Ramon Hernandez, the Rangers’ Gerald Laird, Cincinnati’s David Ross, and the Padres’ pair of Josh Bard and Michael Barrett. Brian Cashman won’t have to break the bank for any of those receivers, but he will have to part with at least one prospect in any deal, something that he’s been reluctant to do up until now…

In a year that has already seen the passing of Eliot Asinof, W.C. Heinz, and Jules Tygiel, the baseball world lost another writing giant over the weekend. Jerome Holtzman, the unoffficial dean of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, died after a long illness. He was 82. Holtzman is best remembered for spearheading the invention of the save statistic, but his legacy encompasses far more than that. For years, he successfully covered both the Cubs and the White Sox as the guardian of the Chicago baseball beat. He wrote a terrific oral history, No Cheering in the Press Box, which chronicled the memories of some of the game’s early writers. He also provided some unique memories to other members of the BBWAA, as they delighted in watching him verbally spar with Dick Young, the dean of New York City baseball writers. Holtzman and Young might not have liked each other, but they were both impressive old-school chroniclers of the game’s history.

Caught On The Fly–Blanton, Jocko, and Marzano

A’s general manager Billy Beane did very well in acquiring two high-ceiling prospects from the Phillies for Joe “Bulldog” Blanton. The workmanlike right-hander has struggled badly this year, with an ERA creeping toward 5.00 and a declining strikeout rate. While I understand the Phillies’ interest in Blanton–they need starting pitching in the worst way and hope Blanton can fill the bill as a No. 3 starter–they paid a high price in surrendering second baseman Adrian Cardenas (no relation to former major league shortstop Leo Cardenas) and pitcher Josh Outman (what a wonderful name for a pitcher). Cardenas might have to be moved to the outfield at some point, but he has enough of a bat to justify playing him anywhere. Outman could join the Oakland bullpen by mid-2009, when the A’s figure to be more legitimate contenders to the Angels’ throne out west…

His death has hardly been acknowledged by the mainstream media, but it deserves to be at least mentioned here. Former Negro Leagues broadcaster and writer Sherman “Jocko” Maxwell died earlier this week at the age of 100. Maxwell religiously followed the exploits of the old Newark Eagles, submitting stories on game days to the Newark Star-Ledger. Maxwell also announced–free of charge–Sunday afternoon games in Newark as part of a broadcasting career that finally came to an end in 1967. Like other great Negro Leagues writers, including legends like Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith, Maxwell fulfilled an important role in publicizing and promoting black baseball both before and after Jackie Robinson integrated the game at the major league level…

For weeks now, we heard nothing public about the cause of death of former major leaguer John Marzano. That changed earlier on Friday, when the coroner announced that Marzano died from a fall that was caused by “ethanol intoxication,” or essentially alcohol intoxication. Ever since Marzano’s death in late April, speculation had centered on his death being caused by a heart attack, but that has now been ruled out. I’m really not sure how to feel about this latest revelation. If Marzano, a seemingly healthy 45-year-old man, had died suddenly because of an unexpected heart attack, it comes across as much more alarming because of concerns that it could happen to anyone. On the other hand, the news that his death was related to alcohol consumption makes it all the sadder because the circumstances could have been avoided. While the cause of death has been altered, the end result remains the same. Marzano, one of the game’s nicest guys and most energetic forces, is gone all too soon.

Card Corner–The Mystery of Dick Dietz

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Dick Dietz–Topps Company–1973 (No. 442)

Why didn’t Dick Dietz play beyond the 1973 season? As a valuable backup catcher-first baseman for the Braves, Dietz batted .295 and compiled a remarkable .474 on-base percentage in 1973. In today’s game, most teams would kill for a backup catcher like that. Yet, no major league team saw fit to offer Dietz a contract for the 1974 season.

While his name might not be familiar to younger generations of fans, Dietz was certainly a recognizable player to those who grew up with baseball in the 1960s and seventies. He was an underrated player and a fun-living teammate. He was also a Sabermetric favorite, in much the same way that Gene Tenace and Mickey Tettleton garnered preference in later decades. And for one season, Dietz was just about the best catcher in the National League–playing at a level that put him in company with Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

In 1970, Dietz batted an even .300 for the Giants while compiling 22 home runs, 109 RBIs, and 84 runs scored. Even more impressively, Dietz drew 104 walks, an excellent total for any player and a remarkable figure for a catcher who lacked the reputation of a Bench or Joe Torre. Although Dietz’ home run and RBI totals didn’t come close to matching those of Bench, his high walk total gave him a stunning on-base percentage of .430–a 79-point advantage over Bench (.351.) On the way to producing such numbers, Dietz earned a berth in the All-Star Game and came off the bench to hit a key home run in the bottom of the ninth.

So why is it that Dick Dietz didn’t become a household name? Unfortunately, he never came close to matching his 1970 numbers again. On the heels of a respectable 1971 season, Dietz was surprisingly sold on waivers to the rival Dodgers during the spring of 1972. The reason? As the Giants’ player representative during the strike of ’72, Dietz had drawn the wrath of San Francisco management. The Giants decided to punish Dietz by selling him to another team, but they mostly punished themselves by receiving nothing of consequence for a highly competent major league catcher.

Shortly after joining the Dodgers, Dietz suffered a broken finger (in his first start with Los Angeles, no less) and missed most of the 1972 season. By then, Dietz’ days as an everyday player had come to an end. During the spring of 1973, the Dodgers sold Dietz to the Braves. (Unfortunately, Topps had already issued its 1973 card for Dietz, which still shows him wearing Dodger duds.) With the Braves, Dietz became a valuable member of the team’s vaunted “F-Troop” bench brigade, which also featured jack-of-all trades Chuck Goggin (who played second base, shortstop, the outfield and even caught one game) and first baseman Frank Tepedino (who later became famous for his work as a fireman on September 11, 2001). And then, after a productive offensive season in 1973, when he compiled a near .480 on-base percentage in a backup role and helped make the Braves’ clubhouse a fun place, Dietz never again played in the major leagues. Believing that he still had ample ability to hit the ball, Dietz felt that major league teams had colluded against him because of his active involvement with the Players’ Association.

Although Dietz was only 32, his career was over–just three years after his All-Star season, which had come at the tender age of 28. Sadly, such rapid declines are not uncommon for catchers, who are subject to more physical wear and tear to their bodies than any other position players. It’s quite likely that Dietz’ extreme workload in 1970 and 1971 contributed to a loss of arm strength, a falloff in his already questionable mobility behind the plate, and to his general lack of longevity. After playing in a staggering 148 games in ’70 and another 142 games in ’71, Dietz’ physical skills had declined from overuse. Yet, in spite of his defensive deterioration, he still had a potent bat, one that was more than capable of producing as a pinch-hitter and a backup. For a team that had two light-hitting catchers in Johnny Oates and Paul Casanova and a mediocre first baseman in Mike Lum, Dietz appeared to be a nice alternative.

During his playing days, Dietz sported a solid six-foot, one-inch, 185-pound frame. After his playing career, he fell victim to a condition that sadly plagues too many former players. Dietz became extremely overweight, which may have contributed to the 2005 heart attack that took his life at the age of 63.

Much like his playing days, Dietz’ life was far too short. Let’s hope that doesn’t make him a forgotten man. Baseball fans should remember that for one season, Dick Dietz was pretty much the equal of Johnny Bench. And that he deserved to play at least one more season, after the way he led F-Troop in 1973.

A Long Night of All-Stars

The All-Star Game started ridiculously late and ended horrifically behind schedule, but in between the American and National League stars provided us with a host of good memories. Exhibiting plenty of good defense and baserunning (particularly in the area of stolen bases), this year’s Midsummer Classic proved to be one of the best in the last 25 years. There was also a plethora of controversy, from the broadcast booth to the issue of tied games for the All-Stars.

*As much emotion as the lavish pre-game ceremonies and a tight ebb-and-flow game created, the presence of Joe Buck continues to be a drawback. I can excuse the mispronunciation of Justin Duchscherer’s name (it’s a momentary lapse on a tough name), but Bucks’ other indiscretions have become intolerable. During his pre-game PA announcements, Buck didn’t just introduce the participants by name and team, but saw fit to provide parenthetical remarks for each player. (“Last night’s hero, Josh Hamilton.”) That kind of hoaky commentary just isn’t done by the public address man. Besides, Buck shouldn’t be doing the PA announcements in the first place. He’s the play-by-play guy, not the in-stadium announcer. I know that Bob Sheppard has been ill, but Yankee Stadium backup Jim Hall should have been the choice to handle the intros. And then during the game, Buck repeatedly told us that Carlos Guillen was the last man on Terry Francona’s bench when in fact Evan Longoria was still available. That was a huge mistake to make, especially with extra innings looming, along with the real possibility of running out of players.

*Man, Justin Morneau is slow. Reminiscent of players like Rich Gedman, Ed Herrmann, and Ernie Lombardi, Morneau barely managed to score the game-ending run despite a weak, fading, two-hop throw by Corey Hart. If Hart had even managed to reach home plate on one hop, Morneau would have been out, the inning would have ended, and Terry Francona would have had little choice but to send Scott Kazmir out for the 16th inning.

*J.D. Drew will always be a pariah in Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent in Los Angeles, but his MVP performance on Tuesday night may be a sign that he is reaching his peak in his early thirties. Drew does everything so well–hitting for power, drawing walks, running the bases, and playing solid defense in right field–to the point that we have to start considering him an elite player. If he can just keep himself on the field for 150-plus games, he could win the real MVP Award within the next three years. With the Red Sox figuring to contend over that stretch, and the futures of both Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz murky, Drew’s importance to the franchise should only grow.

*I’m glad that MLB took a moment to honor the late Bobby Murcer, but it would have been far more appropriate to do so during the pre-game ceremonies. There are far more viewers than in the later innings, when East Coast fans turn off their TVs in droves. Murcer was a five-time All-Star himself, a franchise icon of the Yankees, and an extraordinarily popular player. He deserved an earlier spotlight on the broadcast.

*I felt a flashback toward the days of Mike Andrews when Dan Uggla made back-to-back errors, practically losing the game in the bottom of the 10th inning. Thankfully, Charlie Finley wasn’t lording over the National League team last night. If here were, he would have fired Uggla on the spot and asked Bud Selig to replace him with Brandon Phillips.

*Is there anything more nauseating than listening to broadcasters or reading Internet scribes as they agonize over pitch counts, who’s available to pitch, and the possibility of running out of pitchers and declaring the All-Star Game a tie? (My goodness, 12 pitchers aren’t enough to get through a single game?) These tedious issues would become a non-factor if MLB instituted a simple rule and managers adopted a basic pitching plan for the All-Star Game. If a pitcher isn’t physically capable of pitching at least two innings in the game, his invitation should be withdrawn and his spot should be taken by someone who can. Managers should ask their starting pitchers to give them three innings (which was customary for many years in the All-Star Game), followed by a two-inning stint from the second pitcher. Then the manager can go single innings with the next four relievers. That way, managers would use only six pitchers in regulation and have five or six still available to pitch in extra innings. The possibility of a tie shouldn’t even be discussed until the completion of, let’s say, 18 innings–which is the equivalent of two nine-inning games. And please, no more mention of tiebreakers or shootouts. This isn’t the North American Soccer League here.

Card Corner–Johnny Bench

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Johnny Bench–Topps Company–1973 (No. 380)

The 1973 All-Star Game was remarkably unmemorable. The National League dominated a one-sided affair, 7-1, continuing a seemingly endless string of supremacy against the older and less talented American League. Bobby Bonds came off the Nationals’ bench to hit a double and two-run homer, earning MVP honors for his work as a substitute. The other National League home runs–both solo shots–emerged from the bats of Willie Davis (the subject of an earlier “Card Corner”) and Johnny Bench, who started the game behind the plate and batted sixth in the NL lineup before giving way to Ted Simmons. Bench was one of 15 Hall of Famers to appear in the game that night at Royals Stadium.

In this 1973 Topps card, we see Bench in full action, near the climax of a hell-bent run toward the first-base dugout, as he attempts to finish off a two-handed basket catch of a foul ball. Due to the timing of the photo by the cameraman, we don’t know for sure if Bench makes the catch, crashes into the enemy dugout (is it the Giants?), or both. Given Bench’s athletic ability, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to say that he makes the catch while remaining on his feet, frustrating yet another opposing batter with his gifts of soft hands and nimble agility.

Simply put, Bench is the best defensive catcher I’ve ever seen. (Keep in mind that I never saw Roger Bresnahan, Mickey Cochrane, or Jim Hegan play.) When you include Bench’s offensive game–which encompassed power, the ability to draw walks, and above-average speed–he ranks as the best all-round catcher of my lifetime, too. I suppose strong arguments could be made for Josh Gibson as the greatest catcher of all time, but I never saw him play, and the Negro Leagues statistics are so lacking as to do him little justice. So I’ll take Bench in that category, as well.

There’s some irony to those assessments when you consider his name–”Johnny Bench.” Think about that. It sounds like a putdown nickname for a young schoolboy who’s not quite good enough to start. “Sit on the bench, Johnny. You’re not that good. We’ll call you ‘Johnny Bench.’ ” I can just hear Hawk Harrelson exclaiming in an imaginary game between the White Sox and Reds, “Grab some bench, Johnny.”

I wonder if Johnny Bench ever heard such putdowns. Kids can be cruel sometimes, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he did. It didn’t matter. Bench’s talent and work ethic made up for any ill feelings that his neighborhood cohorts might have created.

What made Bench such a standout behind the plate? Any discussion of Bench’s defensive prowess has to begin with his hands. Bench was actually nicknamed “Hands,” largely because his hands approached the size of lion’s paws. He could hold eight baseballs at one time in his two hands, a neat trick that became a staple for photographers of the sixties and seventies. His hands weren’t just oven mitts either; they were soft enough to dig balls out of the dirt and keep wild pitches at a minimum. With such large tools at his disposal, Bench adopted a one-handed catching style; when no runners were on base, he held out only his mitt hand, keeping his bare hand behind his back so as to avoid hurting his fingers on foul tips. His success with the one-hand style, aided by the use of a hinged mitt, helped influence a baseball myth. For many years, Bench was falsely credited with being the first major league catcher to use the one-handed approach. The pioneer was actually the Cubs’ Randy Hundley, but Bench followed shortly thereafter. Both were exceptional.

Bench’s throwing arm teamed well with his hands. He pumped cannonshots to second base, displaying the kind of power arm that has been matched by only one man since (Ivan Rodriguez). Bench’s arm served him well in an era in which the stolen base shared prominence with the home run.

Although Bench’s 208-pound build made him look like a piece of rounded granite, he was amazingly agile. He moved smoothly in blocking pitches, handled pop-ups with speed and grace, and deftly snatched bunted balls.

In completing the picture of defensive perfection, Bench handled pitchers exceptionally well. Unlike Pudge Rodriguez, there were few criticisms that he signaled for more fastballs to improve his chances against basestealers. Bench called a solidly good game, even though the Reds lacked dominating pitchers for most of his years in Cincinnati.

Johnny Bench created a poetic portrait with the way he handled the position. Sometimes a baseball card catches the player just right.

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