The Phillies made a smart move in prying Matt Stairs from the Blue Jays in exchange for what figures to be a lower level minor league prospect. With Geoff Jenkins becoming a bust in his first (and perhaps last) season in Philly, the Phillies have a use for a lefty bat who can platoon with the underrated Jayson Werth in right field, or can give Pat Burrell an occasional day off against tough right-handers. Stairs’ assets of power and patience could also be useful in a pinch-hitting role, giving the Phillies another left-handed bat (along with Greg Dobbs) for the late innings of close games. The Phillies’ bench, already a positive force because of the presence of productive semi-regulars like Werth, Dobbs, and the invaluable Chris Coste, could give them a slight edge over the thinner Mets during the final month of the regular season…
The Phillies’ acquisition of Stairs rules out any further interest in Mike Lamb, who was designated for assignment earlier in the week. Lamb has had a miserable season in Minnesota, inexplicably losing his power (he has one home run in 236 at-bats). He might draw some interest from the Dodgers, who have been disappointed by Casey Blake since his mid-season arrival from Cleveland…
I thought the Royals would be much improved under the ambitious and energetic Trey Hillman, but on the eve of September, the Royals are buried at 21 games under .500, making them better than only the Mariners among American League competitors. The list of reasons for the Royals’ struggles are numerous, including Alex Gordon’s failure to develop, a lack of improvement from David DeJesus and Mark Teahen, the fallback of Brian Bannister, and the disappointing debut of Luke Hochevar. And then there is the presence of Jose Guillen, who has been predictably bad off the field and uncharacteristically bad on it. Not only has Guillen argued with teammates, coaches, and fans (he had to be restrained from attacking a heckler this week), he also has a ghastly strikeout to walk ratio of 91-19. Even at 32, Guillen hasn’t learned an ounce of plate discipline; if anything, he’s gotten decidedly worse. His .286 on-base percentage stands to be the lowest for any full season he’s had in the major leagues. Hillman would like nothing better than to be rid of the headaches caused by Guillen (who claims his manager doesn’t talk to him), but he’s likely stuck with the chronic troublemaker. Guillen is still owed $24 million over the span of the next two seasons. Good luck finding a taker at that price…
In spite of the Royals’ disappointmenting summer, Hillman’s job should be safe. So who will be the first manager fired this off-season? Some National League names that have been mentioned include Houston’s Cecil Cooper (who seems to be taking his share of blame for a fractured clubhouse), Ned Yost (but only if the Brewers don’t win the wild card), and Washington’s Manny Acta (where someone may have to take the blame for a horrible season). On the American League side, the Tigers’ Jim Leyland and the Rangers’ Ron Washington could come under review. In New York, Joe Girardi should be safe–at least until the Yankees endure another bad start to another season.
Dick Tidrow–Topps Company–1978 (No. 179)
Dick “Dirt” Tidrow wouldn’t fit into today’s game. In an era when pitchers have become so specialized–there are set-up men, lefty specialists, innings eaters, one-inning closers, five-inning starters, crossover relievers, and never shall any of these categories overlap–no one would fully appreciate Tidrow’s value. That’s because a large part of Tidrow’s value was the actual versatility he brought to the pitching table. He could pitch set-up relief, serve as a long man, close out games occasionally, and fill in as a starter on a moment’s notice. He could perform all of those roles effectively, sometimes within a span of about two weeks, making him one of the most subtle but vital contributors to the Yankees’ mini-dynasty of 1976 to 1978.
Yet, Tidrow didn’t become a bastion of versatility overnight. Bursting onto the major league scene in 1972, Tidrow emerged as a durable right-handed starter for the rebuilding Cleveland Indians. Pitching only occasionally in relief, Tidrow made 74 starts for the Indians in 1972 and ’73, logging over 500 innings in the process. As the Indians’ No. 2 starter (behind Gaylord Perry), the young workhorse pitched well enough in 1972 to earn The Sporting News’ American League Rookie of the Year Award. After a poor four-game stretch to start the 1974 season, the Indians foolishly included Tidrow in the deal that also sent Chris Chambliss to the Yankees for an array of can-miss prospects and pitchers. It was another in a series of brilliant moves by Yankee GM Gabe Paul, who knew the Indians’ talent base as well as anyone, having worked for the Tribe prior to his relocation to New York.
Yankee manager Bill Virdon called on Tidrow 33 times that season–25 games as a starter and eight as a reliever. The following year, Tidrow worked solely in relief, pitching primarily as Sparky Lyle’s main set-up man, at first for Virdon and then for Billy Martin. Except for two spot starts, Tidrow remained in that role exclusively through the end of 1976. During that time, he built up the trust of Martin, who loved Tidrow’s durability and willingness to take the ball. So in 1977, Martin tested Tidrow by starting him seven times, giving him the ball 42 times out of the pen, and allowing him to finish 26 of those games. In his seven starts, Tidrow recorded a spotless mark of 5-0. For the season, Tidrow won 11 games, saved five others, and logged 151 innings. Who does that in today’s game? No one does, that’s who.
The jack-of-all-trades role continued in 1978, only this time with more emphasis on starting. When injuries to Don Gullett, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, and Andy Messersmith threatened to wreck the rotation, Martin and Bob Lemon turned to Tidrow. Making only six relief appearances that season, Tidrow started 25 games. He actually notched four complete games, borderline remarkable for a part-time reliever. For the summer, he soaked up 185 innings that might have otherwise gone to the Ken Clays and Larry McCalls of the world. In a season in which Hunter made only 20 starts, Gullett registered only eight, and Messersmith made a mere five, those innings amounted to lifesavers for managers Martin and Lemon.
Many pitchers tend to become regimented and like to follow their routines to the point of superstition. The more defined their roles, the better they like it. If you ask some pitchers to do something outside of their proverbial boxes, they bristle at the suggestion. Not so with Tidrow. Whatever Virdon, Martin, or Lemon asked him to do, he did. We never heard one shred of complaint–at least not publicly. And in the Bronx Zoo atmosphere that engulfed the Yankee world in the late 1970s, those gripes tended to get published. Yet, nothing came from Tidrow.
The absence of complaint played a part in the acquisition of his nickname. Teammates called Tidrow “Dirt.” He simply did his job, without fanfare or histrionics, like a blue-collar worker who was willing to throw himself into the muck and mire. Old school all the way, Tidrow wore his stirrups high, showing plenty of the Yankees’ navy blue stocking. The rest of his physical appearance also played a large part in the nickname. Tidrow wore his hair longer than most of his Yankee teammates, complemented by an oversized Fu Manchu mustache (seen vividly in his 1978 Topps card above) and the chronic presence of a few days’ worth of bearded stubble. When Tidrow entered a game in relief, it sometimes looked like he had spent a few innings wrestling in a bullpen mud puddle. (Actually, while playing a game called “flip” prior to actual games, Tidrow often dove into the dirt in an effort to keep the ball alive. Hence the dirty uniform.) Somehow Tidrow’s unkempt exterior managed to escape the ire of George Steinbrenner, perhaps because “The Boss” was too concerned with the main carnival participants in his ongoing three-ring circus–Martin, Thurman Munson, and Reggie Jackson.
Tidrow’s look wasn’t his only distinctive feature. His pitching motion left a clear but unusual impression. As part of his windup, Tidrow kicked his left leg high into the air, until he seemingly bounced his knee off his chest, and then released the ball from a three-quarters angle. In many ways, his motion resembled Dennis Eckersley’s, but “The Eck” kept his left leg fully extended while Tidrow flexed his knee.
Tidrow was fun to imitate, but easy to overlook. Frankly, I didn’t really appreciate him until after he left the Yankees. In the midst of a bad start to the 1979 season, Tidrow turned in a lousy performance against the Tigers, raising his ERA to an unspeakable 7.94. After the game, Steinbrenner told vice president and general manager Al Rosen to trade Tidrow–NOW. Making the best possible deal available to him at the time, Rosen sent Tidrow to the Cubs for Ray Burris. While the likeable Burris imploded in pinstripes, Tidrow regained his form, becoming a valuable set-up man, at first for Bruce Sutter and later for Lee Smith.
Sadly, Tidrow has little ties to the Yankees today. He worked for several years as a special assignment scout with the organization before becoming a successful executive with the Giants, where he serves as vice president in charge of player personnel. I have no idea whether he’s particularly good at that job–the Giants have developed young pitching in recent years but virtually no hitting–but it just seems like he should be working for the Yankees in some capacity. If nothing else, he could teach the pitchers a thing or two about being professional, being versatile, and getting just a little bit dirty.
For fans of New York City baseball, Tuesday eroded into the worst night of the summer. The Yankees lost the first game of their critical series with the undermanned Red Sox, putting their season on the brink of extinction and forcing them to win the next two games against Boston–or else. A couple of hours later, Scott Schoeneweis put the finishing touches on a disastrous 8-7 loss for the Mets, who couldn’t protect a seven-run lead against the Phillies and thereby fell a half-game out of first place.
First, let’s take on the Yankees. If they don’t win the next two games of the Sox series, their playoff hopes will have come to a realistic end. That scenario that should force GM Brian Cashman to entertain any and all trade offers for Jason “I Can’t Throw the Ball” Giambi and Bobby “I Fear the Wall” Abreu before the September 1 deadline. Both players are eligible for free agency; both are expected to be shown the exit door at season’s end anyway. The Yankees won’t be trading Alex Rodriguez, who remains one of the top three players in the game despite a nightmarish outing against the Red Sox. A-Rod accounted for seven outs at the plate and made an error in the field, as the Yankees fell to Boston, 7-3. Frankly, the Yankees should expect more from a player making an average of $27 million a season. When the Yankees badly needed their best player to turn in a star-like effort, he instead flopped in a way that was all too reminiscent of his recent playoff performances. I’ve been a Rodriguez defender for years, but he needs to come up bigger in such near must-win situations, given his enormous talent–and matching salary.
In what has been a season-long theme, A-Rod and the rest of the Yankees struggle to hit in the clutch. The Mets struggle to hit at all in the latter part of games. Over the last nine innings of last night’s epic with the Phillies, the Mets went scoreless while hitting into three stomach-kicking double plays. Pedro Martinez allowed most of a seven-run lead to evaporate and interim “closer” Luis Ayala, who had pitched well in prior outings for New York, failed to protect a ninth-inning lead. How bad has the Mets’ bullpen situation become? One recent caller to WFAN Radio recommended, in all seriousness, that the Mets sign John Franco, to which someone else sarcastically responded, “Why not Jesse Orosco?” A more realistic solution could be found at Triple-A New Orleans, where rookie right-hander Eddie Kunz and veteran retread Al “The Taser” Reyes are getting ready to wind down the Pacific Coast League season.
Clearly, the Mets will have to try something different, because the current options aren’t working–and might cause them to finish just short of the playoffs once again.
Ed Figueroa–Topps Company–1978 (No. 365)
Perhaps we should call him “Forgotten Figueroa.” For most Yankee fans, the 1978 season triggers memories of Ron Guidry’s Cy Young performance, Reggie Jackson’s stirring presence in the lineup and locker room, the mid-season transition from Billy Martin to Bob Lemon, and, of course, the looming specter of “The Boss.” Yet, no one ever talks about Ed Figueroa’s contribution to the cause. Pitching in the thin but substantial shadow of Guidry,” Figueroa quietly won 20 games, gobbled up 253 innings, and gave the Yankees a perfect right-hand complement to “Louisiana Lightning.” Heck, on most teams, Figueroa would have qualified as a full-fledged ace, a natural to start a one-game playoff tiebreaker, or the first game of a World Series. But on the ’78 Yankees, Figueroa will always be the proverbial second banana–the Vida Blue to Catfish Hunter (A’s), the Dave McNally to Jim Palmer (Orioles), the Frank Tanana to Nolan Ryan (Angels).
Aside from the obvious Guidry factor, why has Figueroa faded so badly into the collective memories of Yankee fans? Several factors may be conspiring against Figgy. First, he wasn’t overpowering, lacking the strikeout ability that both the mainstream and the Sabermetric types seem to favor. By the time that Figueroa traded in his Angels halo for Yankee pinstripes (as part of the Bobby Bonds for Mickey Rivers swap), he had become a four-pitch pitcher: fastball, slider, curve, and change-up. He threw mostly a sinking fastball, which he liked to mix and match with his breaking and off-speed pitches. That didn’t add up to a lot of strikeouts, just a lot of quiet effectiveness during his halcyon days from 1976 to ’78.
Then there’s Figueroa’s lack of staying power. As good as he was during the Yankees’ mini-dynasty, topped off by his career peak in 1978, he faded quickly from the scene. He threw a lot of innings in the mid-1970s–over a four-year span, he averaged 248 innings per season–a substantial workload that became exacerbated by an awkward motion. Figueroa tucked his left leg and left arm in toward his mid-section; by the time he put himself in position to throw, he was pitching the ball across his body. It was a fun delivery to imitate (as I know only too well from hours of throwing a ball up against a boulder outside of my house), but it sure did appear to put extra stress on the arm and shoulder. Figueroa’s arm problems began in 1979; by 1981, he was fully cooked.
Finally, Figueroa’s personality may have soured any hopes of long-term appreciation. Figgy had his share of run-ins with Billy Martin (then again, who didn’t?), with the manager enforcing his own strict set of policies onto his pitchers and their approach against each batter. Portrayed as surly by some of the New York media (which may or may not be fair, given the treatment of Latino players by some writers), Figueroa came across as dour to a young fan like me. When I think of Figueroa, I envision the “Lieutenant Castillo” character that Edward James Olmos once portrayed on “Miami Vice.” Yes, he was highly effective and very good at his job, but not exactly someone you’d send an invitation to amidst hope that he’d enliven the atmosphere at your local block party.
Given the mix of personality, longevity, and style issues, we are left with a retired pitcher who often attends Old-Timers’ Day at the Stadium but remains a figure wrapped in obscurity. With that in mind, here are a few things that you may or may not know about Ed Figueroa.
*A veteran of the Vietnam War, Figueroa saw the start of his major league career delayed by military service in 1969. He missed all of that minor league season while in the war, losing a valuable year of development. Figgy didn’t make the major leagues until 1974, when he was already 25 years of age. He probably would have arrived a year or two sooner, if not for Nam.
*By winning 20 games for the ’78 Yankees, Figueroa became the first Puerto Rican pitcher to achieve the milestone, ending a drought that began with Hiram Bithorn’s debut in 1942. Juan Pizarro, a 131-game winner for his career, never won 20. Neither did Ruben Gomez. Among today’s Puerto Ricans, former Yankee Javier Vazquez has never won more than 16. Figueroa might have reached the milestone even sooner, had a late-season game in 1976 not been rained out. Figueroa settled for a 19-10 mark that season, emerging as a major factor in securing the Yankees’ first pennant in a dozen years.
*Because of arm troubles, Figueroa’s prime ended by his 28th birthday. After the 1978 season, he never pitched more than 104 innings and never had another winning season. By the time he was 32, Figueroa had thrown his final major league pitch as a member of the Oakland A’s.
Figueroa will never make the Hall of Fame, never receive the loudest cheers at Old-Timers’ Day, and never have his number retired by the Yankees. But he deserves to be remembered as an essential piece–the right-handed anchor–of the ’78 Yankees. Without him, there would have been no tiebreaker against the Red Sox, no playoff appearance against the Royals, and no World Series date with the Dodgers. It’s long overdue, but at least one Yankee fans just wants to say thanks, Figgy.
Having watched Sunday night’s extra-inning thriller between Los Angeles and Philadelphia, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s wrong with the Dodgers. Despite banging out 13 hits, the Dodgers managed to score only two runs at the hitter’s haven of Citizens Bank Park. They also blew a ninth-inning lead, effectively capping off their third straight loss at the hands of a good-but-not-great Phillies team.
How is this Dodgers team, with its talent base of established veteran stars and prime young talent, not winning a weak division like the NL West by five or six games? The Dodgers field a lineup that includes two legitimate All-Stars in Russell Martin and Manny Ramirez, two young studs in Matt Kemp and James Loney, and two future Hall of Famers in Ramirez and Jeff Kent, the latter still a productive player. Rounding out the starting nine are Andre Ethier, who leads the team with 16 home runs, and third baseman Casey Blake, who is at least a league-average player. There is only one position that can be called a black hole; that is shortstop, where the Dodgers continue to audition the Angel Berroas of the world because of injuries to Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra.
In terms of the pitching staff, injuries have taken away Brad Penny and Takashi Saito, but there is still plenty in the way of talented arms. The starting rotation features two solid veterans in Derek Lowe and the newly acquired Greg Maddux, along with the live young arms of Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. The bullpen is vulnerable without Saito, but still has Jonathan Broxton’s 98 mile-per-hour fastball and a top-shelf left-hander in Joe Biemel. Throw in the unheralded duo of Corey Wade and Hong-Chi Kuo, and a surprisingly good Chan-Ho Park, and you’ve got the makings of a very good bullpen.
And yet, in spite of this assemblage of talent, the Dodgers are now a mediocre 65-65, having lost three straight games to fall three games off the pace in the NL West. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how this team is still playing only .500 ball with the calendar just a few days shy of September…
When you give up home runs to Brad Ausmus and Darin Erstad in the 10th inning of a tie game, you have to figure that you’re not very good. Mets fans had already come to that conclusion about the New York bullpen prior to Pedro Feliciano’s implosion on Sunday afternoon against the Astros; they’re now absolutely fit to be tied after Feliciano fell victim to Ausmus (he of 78 career home runs in 16 seasons) and Erstad (who hasn’t reached double figures in long balls since 2002).
So what is Jerry Manuel to do? He is facing heat from Mets fans who have criticized his bullpen use (didn’t we hear much of the same about the deposed Willie Randolph), but he doesn’t have any surefire options to lock down the opposition in either the late innings or extra innings. Feliciano is an excellent situational reliever, but has never been asked to assume the role of bullpen ace, which requires the handling of right-handed hitters, too. The same can be said for fellow southpaw Scott Schoeneweis. Aaron Heilman has the best stuff of any Mets reliever, but he is also the most enigmatic, prone to walking batters or giving up tape-measure home runs at inopportune times. Duaner Sanchez has not thrown with consistent velocity since returning from shoulder surgery. And then there’s newcomer Luis Ayala, who has made four scoreless appearances since coming over from the Nationals, but has little experience as a closer (ten saves over five seasons).
Perhaps Manuel should roll the dice with Ayala. His Nationals’ numbers were not good, but he had been a highly effective middle reliever over his first four major league seasons. It might also be time to call up Al “The Taser” Reyes, who is tuning up at Triple-A New Orleans after being signed off the waiver wire. Reyes pitched decently as the Rays’ closer in 2007 before running afoul of the organization because of his involvement in instigating a bar room fight, followed by a stretch of poor pitching. At this point, the Mets may be willing to try anything…
I’m sure I’ll get in trouble with Hunter Wendelstedt again, but that interference call by Doug Eddings against the Rays on Sunday afternoon was highly irregular. Rays third baseman Willy Aybar was called for interfering with the White Sox’ A.J. Pierzynski during a crucial 10th inning rundown, negating what would have been the second out of the inning. I saw the replay twice afterward; it seemed pretty obvious that Pierzynski initiated the contact, which was fairly minimal, with Aybar. Eddings, who made the call against Aybar, should have made no call at all, allowing Pierzynski to suffer a more legitimate fate on the basepaths.
I’m sure that B.J. Upton doesn’t want to be referred to as a “dog,” but he isn’t leaving reasonable people much choice given his behavior over the last month. For the fourth time in the three weeks, Upton has made mental mistakes that involved a lack of effort. The first three times, the Rays managed to overcome his miscues on the basepaths and went on to win the game. The Rays weren’t so fortunate on Sunday afternoon, when Upton lollygaged after catching a long fly ball in center field. After making the play on the deep drive, Upton decided he could use a nonchalant approach in returning the ball to the infield. Assuming that White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski would not attempt to advance to second, Upton took his time in turning around and throwing the ball to second base. Upton’s throw arrived too late, as Pierzynski–representing the winning run–advanced into scoring position. Pierzynski eventually scored the game-ending run. If Upton had handled the play with urgency, Pierczynski (a slow runner) would have either stayed put at first, or could very well have been thrown out at second.
Rays manager Joe Maddon has done his best to discipline Upton for his indiscretions–which are unfathomable given the Rays’ contending status in the American League playoff picture–including two benchings for his failure to run hard on infield ground balls. Maddon has criticized Upton for his play, but has exhibited some patience and restraint, refrained from a full-bore public blasting that surely would have come from the likes of a Dallas Green, Billy Martin, or Dick Williams in years gone by. Well, the time for patience and subtle punishment has expired. Maddon should step up the disciplinary efforts now and bench Upton for an entire series. If one-game sit-downs won’t deliver the message to Upton, then perhaps a three- or four-game benching will do the trick.
As much as the Upton apologists try to rationalize his decisions–we’ve heard everything from a bizarre need to conserve his energy to a whiny desire to avoid injuries to ludicrous attempts to place the blame on Maddon–Upton’s inexcusable actions have hurt the team on several fronts. They have played a part in one loss, threatened to undermine three winning efforts, and created a controversial distraction for the team during its first legitimate postseason run in franchise history. When players don’t put forth a full effort, whether it’s because of laziness, showboating, or making stupid assumptions, they diminish their team’s chances of winning games–plain and simple. All other rationales are for losers. Hopefully, Upton will realize that soon enough, before the “dog” tag gets changed to the dreaded “L” word.
Richie Allen–Topps Company–1973 (No. 310)
Forgive me for sounding like a member of The Brady Bunch, but this 1973 card of Richard Anthony Allen is just plain cool. From the way it captures Allen’s power-packed swing to the funky powder blue and red uniforms worn by the White Sox of that era to the tilted effect of the photograph, this card is one of the best in the 1973 set.
Allen was one of the first outspoken black superstars in major league history, making him reviled in the minds of some and praiseworthy in the hearts of others. He deserved praise for his ability to overcome the racial protest that greeted him as the first professional black player in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas, and earned a fast promotion from the minor leagues to the majors. Bristling at convention and the general establishment during his major league career, Allen rebelled against managers, front office officials, and members of the media whom he felt lacked respect for the black ballplayer.
In one example, Allen complained about the childlike name that sportswriters saddled him with after reaching the major leagues; he didn’t want to be known as “Richie,” which was the name that most of the general public used in identifying him throughout the 1960s. “Richie is a little boy’s name,” said Allen, who insisted that he be called “Dick.” That finally happened in the early 1970s, after the Dodgers traded him to the White Sox, where he captivated the baseball community with his historic 1972 season. For the first time in his career, Allen found a manager with whom he could co-exist, the accommodating Chuck Tanner. Though he had never faced American League pitching prior to that summer, Allen emerged as the league’s clear-cut MVP. Leading the AL in home runs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, and RBIs, Allen almost single-handedly kept the White Sox in the divisional race against a far superior Oakland A’s team. The lone bright spot in a lineup filled with mediocrities (and even lesser lights) like Luis Alvarado, Rich Morales, Ed Spiezio, Rich Reichardt, and Walt “No Neck” Williams, Allen carried the White Sox to a level of amazing overachievement the entire summer. If Allen had found just a little bit more help from his supporting cast, the Sox might have narrowed the five-and-a-half-game gap that separated them from the eventual World Champion A’s.
Allen only added to his colorful resume in 1977, when he joined the green and gold of Charlie Finley. Like some of the other unconventional A’s (and encouraged by Finley), Allen wore something other than his surname on the back of his uniform. Allen proudly bore the name “Wampum” on his jersey, as a way of celebrating his hometown of Wampum, Pennsylvania.
For Allen, his brief tenure with the A’s would represent the final stop on the baseball trail. Bristling at Oakland’s insistence on using him as a DH, Allen announced his retirement in mid-season. For a man who always played and worked on his own terms, it was the most appropriate of ways to end a playing career.
In 2006, I received one of the thrills of my adult life when I met Allen at a function celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first all-black lineup in major league history. After I delivered a short speech about former Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh and his involvement in starting the all-minority nine, Allen motioned me to come over to his table. When I arrived, he extended his large right hand and congratulated me for the remarks I made. It’s not often that I’ve received that kind of acknowledgment at a speaking engagement, especially from someone as noteworthy as Allen.
I guess that’s why I look at this card, cool and groovy as it is, even more fondly these days.
The Hall of Fame clearly did the right thing in extending a second invitation to Tim Robbins and the cast of Bull Durham–five years after former Hall president Dale Petroskey pulled the rug out from under Robbins and Susan Sarandon because of their public anti-war stances. Contrary to what some might lead you to believe, this invitation did not come after the resignation of Petroskey in March; my sources tell me that the “re-invitation” was extended prior to March, with Petroskey’s stamp of approval. Petroskey had second thoughts about the way he handled the situation in 2003, especially his decision to rescind the Hall invitation through a letter rather than over the phone. So he was on board with this as much as current Hall president Jeff Idelson.
Here are a few other observations on the Robbins-to-Cooperstown story:
*I would be shocked if Robbins or Sarandon mention the Iraq War at all during their Hall of Fame program on September 21. If they start talking about the war at all, I hope they receive a shower of boos from what is sure to be a packed house in the Grandstand Theater. After all, Robbins had indicated back in ’03 that he had no intentions of bringing up the war during the 20th anniversary program about Bull Durham. I believe Robbins to be a man of his word, so hopefully there will be no change in direction. Here’s one case where baseball and politics should not mix.
*Kevin Costner, the No. 1 star of Bull Durham, was invited to the Hall program this September, but declined the invite, apparently because of conflicts in his schedule. Costner is a huge baseball fan, but to the best of my knowledge has never visited Cooperstown.
*They figure to be overshadowed by Robbins and Sarandon, but actor Robert Wuhl and the film’s director, Ron Shelton, will also participate in the Q-and-A hosted by film critic Jeffrey Lyons. Like Robbins and Costner, Wuhl and Shelton are major fans of the game. Shelton was once a minor league second baseman in the Orioles’ farm system, his career spanning from 1967 to 1971. That was a bad time to be a second baseman in Baltimore’s system, what with Dave Johnson already entrenched at second base and a youngster named Bobby Grich on the way. Making movies became a nice and profitable alternative for Shelton.
Steve Blass–Topps Company–1973 (No. 396)
With hands on hips and mouth awkwardly unhinged, Steve Blass looks a bit puzzled in his 1973 Topps card. It’s almost as if he knew what was about to happen that spring and summer. In 1972, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace had put together the best season of his major league career, finishing with a career-high 19 victories, nearly 250 innings pitched, and an earned run average of 2.49. Then, in 1973, without warning, Blass endured excruciating difficulty throwing strikes and posted horrifying numbers: a 9.85 earned run average, 84 walks in 88 and two-thirds innings, and a won-loss mark of 3-9.
The situation worsened for Blass in 1974. After a disastrous performance against the Cubs, the Pirates demoted Blass to their Triple-A affiliate, the Charleston Charlies. Blass continued to struggle, even against minor league hitters, walking a remarkable total of 103 batters in 61 innings. The Pirates enrolled Blass in a special visual program, hoping that a California oculist could help him improve his pitching control.
The special eye care did not help Blass. In spring training of 1975, Blass worked only six and two-thirds innings, surrendering 13 runs and 17 walks. In what would be his last appearance in a major league uniform, Blass lasted three sad innings against the White Sox, giving up 10 runs and 11 walks. In his final inning of work, Blass surrendered eight bases on balls and forced in six runs.
On March 27, 1975, the Pirates requested waivers on Steve Blass for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release. At a press conference announcing the decision to waive Blass, Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh appeared close to tears as he spoke fondly of his onetime ace. “It’s very hard to many any statements at this time,” Murtaugh said. “I’ve had a very close relationship with Steve ever since he joined the organization. Players of his caliber are hard to replace.” Blass himself expressed little desire to latch on with another major league team. “I’ve always pitched for the Pirates,” Blass told the Associated Press, “and I don’t have a hell of a lot of interest in pitching for someone else.” He never did.
Baseball people offered countless theories in trying to explain Blass’ downfall, which ended his career prematurely at the age of 32. Some claimed that he was emotionally devastated by the death of Roberto Clemente, who lost his life in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Those theorists claimed that Clemente’s death made Blass more aware of the fragility of human life; perhaps Blass feared that he would hit an opposing batter with a pitch, doing him severe bodily harm. Other dime store psychologists claimed that Blass did not know how to handle his sudden success of 1971 and ’72. Still others believed that Blass was masking a sore arm, or hiding personal problems that he may have been experiencing.
Blass attempted a number of remedies in his effort to return to former glory. In addition to his consultations with eye doctors, Blass underwent hypnosis; consulted the advice of managers, pitching coaches, teammates, and opponents; and even listened to the suggestions of fans. Throughout his struggle, Blass impressed many observers by handling his downfall with dignity and self-deprecating humor, instead of anger and bitterness. In 1974, The Sporting News asked Blass when he had first realized that he had gone into his prolonged pitching funk. “When I missed the catcher a couple of times,” Blass replied, in classic deadpan fashion.
Since his retirement, Blass has run several baseball schools for youngsters, hosted a sports talk show on a Pittsburgh radio station, and become a well-respected color commentator on Pirate broadcasts. Blass has also contributed to a number of charities, including sickle-cell anemia, multiple sclerosis, and the Roberto Clemente Memorial Fund. All along, Blass has retained the sense of humor that made him one of the most popular Pirates in 1971, and one of Pittsburgh’s most well-liked and respected sports celebrities.
Clearly, Blass is one of the good guys. Even the good guys can have their careers snuffed out in a moment–with no explanations provided.
This is no way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of being the Oakland A’s. Including Sunday’s 13-1 humiliation at the hands of the White Sox, the A’s are now 5-23 since the All-Star break. As Bill Madden pointed out in his Sunday column in the Daily News, their level of play is so historically bad that they are threatening to eclipse the franchise mark for the worst post-All-Star break record ever. That was set in 1943, when the Philadelphia A’s went 15-61 under Hall of Famer Connie Mack. For those who may have missed out on that team, the ’43 A’s featured the immortal infield of Dick Siebert, Pete Suder, Irv Hall, and Eddie Mayo, who combined to hit four home runs over the 154-game schedule.
The reasons for the sorry state of the current A’s are numerous. A full-throttle assault of injuries (including season-ending jolts to Mike Sweeney and Eric Chavez), midseason trades that sent Rich Harden and Joe Blanton elsewhere, and a reliance on too many not-ready-for-prime-time prospects have all conspired to place the A’s in a death spiral. If you’d like to place a finger on the No. 1 culprit, however, you might be advised to look at the team’s offense. At their current pace, the A’s are on track to score the fewest number of runs in franchise history since the 1979 A’s. Managed by the forgotten Jim Marshall, those A’s managed to score 573 runs for the season. With such luminaries as Mike Edwards playing second base and Rob Picciolo at shortstop, and journeyman catcher Jeff Newman leading the team with a scant 22 home runs, the ’79 A’s lost an Oakland-record 108 games on their way to finishing last in the American League West.
In terms of hitting, today’s A’s aren’t much better. Corner infielders Daric Barton and Jack Hannahan have been offensive ciphers, combining for ten home runs all season. (Where are Dave Revering and Wayne Gross when you need them?) After a good start to the year, outfielder Emil Brown has reverted to journeyman form, justifying the Royals’ decision to release him after 2007. Even highly regarded center fielder Carlos Gonzalez has struggled, experiencing growing pains despite being the top prospect acquired from Arizona in the Danny Haren deal last winter.
Only a good start to the season has prevented the A’s from taking their place next to the franchise’s worst teams in terms of won-loss record. Since moving to Oakland in 1968, the A’s have experienced 100-loss seasons only three times. Despite their horrific play over the last month, the current A’s are only 11 games under .500, at 56-67. Padded by the early season wins, the A’s would have to endure a truly awful stretch for them to challenge the 100-loss mark.
Then again, it’s only mid-August. Maybe these A’s have another 33 losses in them…
In contrast to the A’s, the Mets are trying to reverse their trend of early season underachievement by playing their best ball over the past month. Prior to Monday’s loss to the Bucs, the Mets had won six games in a row–in spite of Billy Wagner’s continuing absence. The Mets understandably remain concerned about their bullpen, though, which explains Omar Minaya’s acquisition of Luis Ayala on Sunday. I might be in the minority on this one, but I like the pickup of Ayala. Though he’s pitched poorly this season, Ayala was very good in 2007; in fact, he’s been an effective middle reliever his entire career. His career ERA of 3.33 is a full run better than the league average. A change of scenery–from the league-worst Nationals to the hard-charging Mets–might be a tonic for Ayala, who is only 30 and fully healthy after missing all of 2006 because of Tommy John surgery…
ESPN SportsNation has been conducting polls on the greatest players in each franchise’s history. The Reds, as one of the oldest franchises in the game, have featured perhaps the most stunning ballot results thus far. At last look, the leading Cincinnati votegetter has been baseball’s favorite banned boy–none other than Pete Rose–with about 55 per cent of the tally. Somehow, Johnny Bench is running second to Rose, and Joe Morgan can be found all the way down at fifth place. Unbelievable. Gambling issues aside, there is simply no way that a reasonable argument can be made that Rose was a better player than Bench (MLB’s greatest catcher) or Morgan (arguably the game’s best second baseman ever). In my mind, Rose ranks as no better than the 4th best player in franchise history, well behind Bench, Morgan, and Frank Robinson. Let the arguments begin…
Finally, this is the last week that we’ll take suggestions for the new baseball card image we’ll be displaying on the home page. (Sorry, Willie Mays.) Topps cards are preferred, but we’ll also consider Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck if the story behind the card is a good one. Post your suggestions now!