When the Mariners acquired Aaron Heilman as part of their multi-player haul for J.J. Putz, it was widely assumed that the changeup specialist would take his place in Seattle’s remodeled rotation. That won’t happen now–not after the M’s traded Heilman before he even threw a pitch for them, sending him to the Cubs for infielder Ronny Cedeno and failed Oriole Garret Olson. Long desiring a rotation role, Heilman almost certainly would have started for the Mariners, but now he’ll have to battle for the fifth starter spot in Chicago, all while doing so for an impatient manager named Lou Piniella. I have my doubts as to whether Heilman will succeed. He’s basically a two-pitch pitcher–featuring that dandy change and a passable fastball–but he’ll need to come up with an improved third pitch to succeed as a starter. He’ll also have to show off the ability to shake off the emotional effects of a horrid 2008, a season that saw him become the No. 1 punching bag in the Mets’ putrid bullpen…
With the addition of Cedeno to a team that already has Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, the Mariners continue to collect middle infielders of questionable hitting ability. There’s been plenty of talk that the M’s will move Lopez to first base; if so, Seattle would have one of the worst offensive infields of the last 20 years. (It would also be reminiscent of the days when Dan Meyer, Julio Cruz, Craig Reynolds, and Bill Stein formed an anti-Murderers’ Row infield for Seattle in 1978.) Although Lopez enjoyed career highs with 17 home runs and 89 RBIs in 2008, his on-base percentage remained a problematic .322. As a second baseman, Lopez can be an offensive asset; as a first baseman, he’s probably an average player at best…
Up until now, I’ve resisted writing anything about Joe Torre’s revealing and provocative book on his years with the Yankees, and will continue to reserve final judgments until I’ve actually read the volume. (My wife has already placed an order with a local bookstore in Cooperstown, but actual arrival will not take place until next week.) I will say this, though. I’m very curious to read Torre’s defenses and/or explanations of his decisions to use Jeff Weaver in the 2003 World Series, his failure to use an effective Chris Hammond in that same postseason (except for a lone two-inning scoreless stint), and his refusal to run against Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield during the 2004 collapse to the Red Sox. I’d also be curious to hear what Torre has to say about the lack of effort that plagued Yankees players during the first halves of the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
For much of the 1980s and nineties, I had the pleasure of learning from Bob Fowler. Formerly the beat writer for the Minnesota Twins, Fowler had become the owner of the Utica Blue Sox, a minor league team that I covered as part of my duties at WIBX Radio. Bob knew the game thoroughly–from the 1960s to the current day. Whenever I interviewed him, or just talked to him off the cuff, my knowledge of the game grew.
I found it fascinating that Bob, a former sportswriter, had “graduated” to become an owner. Unlike many minor league operators, he knew the game from two vastly different perspectives. As a beat writer, he once listened to Rod Carew threaten him with a baseball bat. As a team owner in the New York-Penn League, he worked for years out of a cramped trailer. With those kinds of experiences, Bob Fowler became an interesting guy to know.
As a fan of baseball, I already knew the names of many players I had grown up with in the sixties and seventies. Bob helped flesh out those names for me, attaching personalities to the baseball cards. One of those characters was former Twins right-hander Jim “Mudcat” Grant. “He was really the catalyst of that [Minnesota] team,” Fowler told me years ago. “First of all, he was black. I think that was very significant to the Minnesota franchise. He wasn’t Cuban. He was [an American] black… Mudcat came in and he was a loosy-goosy guy. But the Minnesota team basically was a white team, outside of the Latins we had. It was basically a white team. And he came into that clubhouse, and he was the synergy of that ballclub. Harmon [Killebrew] was a quiet guy. Bob Allison was a quiet guy. We had a clubhouse of quiet guys. And Mudcat was sort of the spark, really.”
Bob also gave me great insights into Cesar Tovar, one of the game’s eccentric but loveable characters. Bob told me how Tovar was a packrat. At the end of each season with the Twins, he would collect as much baseball gear as he could find, from gloves to bats to catcher’s chest protectors. As Bob pointed out to me, Tovar didn’t collect the gear for himself; he collected those bats and balls and gloves for underprivileged kids in his native Venezuela.
When I set out a course of action to write my first book, a large volume on the Oakland A’s dynasty of the early seventies, I realized that Bob would provide a terrific source of information. He was more than happy to help. So I asked him about those A’s, in particular about owner Charlie Finley. Much to my surprise, Bob appreciated Finley more than most sportswriters. “Oh yeah, great guy,” Bob informed me during a memorable interview. “Great, great, great guy. Charles Finley was… he was a character, obviously. I have to personally qualify this. I like different type of people. People that are of the same ilk from a media point of view weren’t interesting to me. I liked the different kind of guys. Certainly Charlie was that way. But the thing I like about Charlie–he was articulate. He was always willing to give you a quote. Now, all the people said, ‘Well, he’s an egotistical whatever.’ I always felt he was cooperative with me. He would answer your questions. He wouldn’t duck them.”
Bob didn’t duck questions either. I asked him questions on a variety of topics, whether it was running a minor league team or ripping a major leaguer in print. (Bob, by his own admission, could be very tough on Twins players.) He always gave me his opinion, whether I agreed with it or not. At times, he could be gruff, sometimes downright intimidating. On one occasion, Bob disagreed with me vehemently when I chastised local Utica fans for not coming out to watch the Blue Sox on opening night. I could tell that he was very upset with me–heck, the listeners could have told you that–but he carried on with the rest of the interview as if nothing had happened. There was no grudge. He just disagreed with me, that’s all, and was more than willing to move on to the next day.
Earlier today, I came across an obituary on the Internet. I discovered that Bob Fowler, former sportswriter and former minor league owner, died earlier this month from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had struggled with ALS for two and a half years before finally losing the battle at the age of 69. I felt bad that I had lost touch with Bob, felt bad that I didn’t even know about the diagnosis.
But I’m awfully glad that, for nearly the last twenty years, I had the good chance to know him. Thanks, Bob.
Influences play a major role in baseball. It’s no secret that veteran teammates often provide counsel to young players about the subtleties of the game. Perhaps lesser known is the influence that some older teammates have had in shaping unusual characters of the next generation. Few players know that better than Jay Johnstone (seen here sporting a “Broccabrella” in his 1984 Fleer card), who carried the lessons from others through decades in the major leagues.
As a high school athlete, Johnstone found himself facing impending trouble from the NCAA. He had signed letters of intent to play football for nine different colleges. That was more than slightly against NCAA rules. Thankfully, the California Angels bailed Johnstone out by signing him to a baseball contract on the day of his high school graduation.
When Johnstone joined the Angels as a rookie in 1966, manager Bill Rigney gave him an intriguing place in the clubhouse. Rigney stationed Johnstone at the locker that stood in between those of veteran flakes Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance. Rigney then gave Johnstone his roommate assignment: the incomparable and sometimes indescribable Jimmy Piersall.
Johnstone had been a quiet, unassuming high school student. That all changed with the Angels. With Piersall becoming his guru, and Belinsky and Chance providing their own unique influence, Johnstone quickly developed into a combination of prankster, quipster, and clown. Within a short span of time, he became known as “Moon Man” to his Angels teammates.
Johnstone fit in well in the California clubhouse, but his lack of concentration and frequent defensive mishaps in the outfield frustrated Angels management. The Angels traded Johnstone to the White Sox, where he continued to show flashes of brilliance but also provided too many fits of frustration. A .188 batting average in 1972 didn’t help either. The White Sox released Johnstone, leaving him temporarily unemployed.
Fortunately, Johnstone had received an earlier promise from another major league owner, indicating that if he were ever to be released, he would have a standing offer of a job. That is how Johnstone came to be matched with an owner fitting of his comedic personality, Oakland A’s patriarch Charlie Finley. Living up to his promise, Finley signed Johnstone to a minor league contract.
In the midst of the 1973 season, the A’s recalled Johnstone from their Triple-A affiliate at Tucson, where he was attempting to begin his climb back toward the major leagues. The free-spirited Johnstone seemed like a perfect fit for the wild, swingin’ A’s, but he struggled to hit for the team that wore green and gold, and eventually became a victim of Oakland’s crowded outfield. Released by the A’s, Johnstone again found employment in the minor leagues, this time with the Phillies’ organization. It was there that he experienced an amusing run-in with Jim Bunning, the former Phillies’ standout who was now managing their Triple-A Toledo affiliate in his decidedly old school fashion. During the 1974 season, Bunning ripped two of his slumping hitters, Dane Iorg and Jerry Martin, by comparing their diminishing batting averages to the sinking of the Titanic. The comparison appalled Johnstone, who couldn’t believe that his manager would publicly belittle his own players in such a way. The next day, Johnstone showed up at the ballpark wearing a full-body wet suit with the words “USS Titanic” scribbled across the front of his chest. As Johnstone made his way around the ballpark, he carried an oar with him, pretending to paddle it across the playing field. Not amused by the outfit or the “paddling,” the hardline Bunning fined Johnstone.
Johnstone would find a better fit with the parent Phillies. Once promoted to Philadelphia, Johnstone became paired with a more lenient manager, one who possessed a sense of humor. Regarded as a players’ manager, Danny Ozark seemed to understand and appreciate his journeyman outfielder, who would do or say almost anything. “What makes him unusual is that he thinks he’s normal,” Ozark explained to a reporter, “and everyone else is nuts.”
Although Ozark and the Phillies came to appreciate Johnstone as a valuable part-time player and pinch-hitter, he also tested their patience at times. He sometimes missed signs, didn’t always run hard to first base on ground balls and pop-ups, and developed a strange habit of throwing the bat at the ball when badly foooled on the pitch.
As a member of the Phillies, Johnstone began to solidify his reputation as a full-fledged flake. He diligently shined his shoes before the first pitch of every game, knowing full well that they would become dirty once he stepped onto the infield dirt. He wore unusual headgear before and after games, including a multicolored umbrella hat and an oddly shaped helmet that featured the words “Star Patrol.” He also shot off firecrackers with regularity from his locker. One time Johnstone waited until NBC “Game of the Week” broadcaster Joe Garagiola started to ask questions of Phillies first baseman Dick Allen, then set off a loud firecracker during the live interview that was airing on national television.
Another one of Johnstone’s most memorable stunts took place during the 1977 winter meetings in Los Angeles. After dining at a restautant called The Cove, Johnstone stood outside while waiting for the valet parking attendant to return his car. As he waited, Johnstone struck up a conversation with several other restaurant patrons, who asked him what he did to keep his batting stroke sharp during the winter. In the middle of his disertation on wintertime workouts, Johnstone’s car arrived. Not wanting to miss an opportunity at show-and-tell, Johnstone opened up the trunk and took out a batting tee, a tennis ball, and a bat. He placed the tennis ball on the tee and then took a whack, hitting a sound line drive down 7th Street in Los Angeles.
As a backup outfielder, Johnstone found intriguing ways to fill down time at the ballpark. While with the Dodgers, Johnstone once paid a visit to the concession stand–after the game had begun–and stood in line while wearing his full baseball uniform. When his turn came, Johnstone ordered a hot dog–and then returned to the dugout.
Johnstone’s sense of humor carried over to his dealings with the press. Always friendly and receptive, Johnstone became known for his dry sense of humor. “I want to play until I’m 40,” Johnstone told sportswriter Gary Stein during a 1983 interview. “I drink a lot. I smoke a lot. I do all the right things.” Nearly overcoming his own self-inflicted odds, Johnstone played for two more seasons, with his career coming to an end in 1985, a little more than a year short of his 40th birthday.
After his playing days, Johnstone parlayed his sense of humor and gregarious personality into a career as a broadcaster and author. He worked as a color commentator for the Yankees and the Phillies on their radio broadcasts and hosted his own television talk show. He made a cameo appearance in the memorable Leslie Nielsen vehicle, Naked Gun. Johnstone also wrote several books, including Temporary Insanity and Over The Edge, two appropriately named volumes that illustrated his unique sense of humor.
The MLB Network’s re-broadcast of Don Larsen’s perfect game has created a yearning for a throwback approach to baseball coverage. As legendary broadcaster Bob Wolff pointed out recently, networks cover major league games today with a philosophy of “information overload.” Wolff, one of the game’s great interviewers and true gentlemen, is absolutely right in complaining that there are too many graphics, too many camera cutaways, too many statistics, and too much damn talking going on during game broadcasts. Let the game breathe. Do not be afraid of occasional silences. Give us more ambiance by increasing the volume of the crowd noise slightly, filling in the gaps when the announcers are not talking. And for crying out loud, give us a sense of history and perspective, an occasional reminder that what is happening in today’s game does not exist in a vacuum, but actually has a cogent connection to past generations and players…
In reaction to the arrival of the MLB Network, ESPN has already made changes to its coverage of baseball. Unfortunately, the worldwide leader isn’t getting the memo that less is more. Instead, ESPN will only be adding more noise to their Sunday night games by putting Steve Phillips into a crowded booth with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. Unlike many Internet observers, I don’t despise Phillips; if one can forget his unsuccessful term as Mets general manager, he’s actually an energetic presence who tries hard to enlighten viewers. The problem is this: he’ll now have to compete with the self-centered Morgan for airtime, and that can only mean a busier and more cluttered broadcast. And that’s exactly the opposite of the sensible solution that Wolff and others are proposing…
Speaking of ESPN, here are a few changes that I would recommend. Give us more of Peter Gammons and Tim Kurkjian on “Baseball Tonight.” Not only are both men wonderful writers, but they research their on-air material thoroughly, love the game unequivocally, and care about its history. In addition, put Brian Kenny on either “Baseball Tonight” or the game broadcasts, or both. He is another one who gets it, and someone who is willing to give us a Sabermetric touch in small but appropriate doses. Finally, I’d send a memo to all of the former players who serve as studio analysts: start doing your homework and stop treating today’s players like they’re your friends. ESPN’s jocks-turned-analysts need to take a page from the Tony Kubek/Bill White playbook and realize that they need to be objective, act professionally, and work hard at the job.
The Yankees have had a productive off-season in addressing major problems in the starting rotation and at first base, but they are playing with matches when it comes to their catching. Jorge Posada won’t be ready to catch by the start of the exhibition season, calling into question his timetable in recovering from major shoulder surgery. If Posada is unable to catch more than 80 to 90 games, the Yankees will be forced to play Jose Molina more than they should–which was a major problem in 2008. The light-hitting Molina is a one-man drag on an offense and shouldn’t start more than two to three times a week. A catcher with some decent hitting skills–someone like Chris Coste, Kelly Shoppach, or free agent Javier Valentin–would come in handy for the Bombers…
The Mets made a wise pickup in signing Freddy Garcia to an incentive-laced minor league contract. Garcia hasn’t been healthy the past two seasons, but has the talent of a legitimate No. 2 starter when he’s sound. If the Mets are unable to re-sign Oliver Perez or add someone the caliber of Ben Sheets, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Garcia pitching as the fourth starter behind Johan Santana, John Maine, and Mike Pelfrey. The addition of Garcia could push Tim Redding to the No. 5 slot–or even to the bullpen…
I have no idea what the Dodgers are thinking in giving Brad Ausmus a contract that will pay him nearly $1 million this yearn to back up Russell Martin. Ausmus has always been an offensive nonentity, but now even his vaunted defense has been rendered to a state beyond diminishing returns. At 40 years of age, Ausmus no longer controls the opposition’s running game; in 2008, he threw out fewer than 20 per cent of basestealers. Even with his intangibles, he’s strictly window dressing at this stage of his career, a should-be coach in player’s clothing…
I normally avoid non-baseball topics like the plague, but sometimes the world of popular culture leaves me with no other choice. What was the Motion Picture Academy thinking in not giving a “Best Picture” nomination to The Dark Knight, which was universally heralded as one of the finest films of the past year? The organizers of the Academy Awards have long consisted of superior snobs who think that any movie doing well at the box office must be contemptible because it appeals to the “commoners.” The snubbing of The Dark Knight just places an exclamation point next to their nagging elitism. And don’t even get me started on their exclusion of Clint Eastwood from this year’s awards.
Jeff Kent, who will officially announce his retirement on Thursday after 17 seasons, will provide a good test case for the voting competency of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Over the past 15 years, the BBWAA has shown little regard for the accomplishments of middle infielders in making their votes for the Hall of Fame. Yes, the writers have given passing grades to Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith, but they’ve also denied Hall of Fame entry to the considerable likes of Davey Concepcion, Bobby Grich, Sweet Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, and Frank White.
I’ve already gone on record as saying that Grich, Whitaker and Trammell deserve the Hall of Fame. In a few years, we’ll see how the voting goes for Kent, who was a better hitter than all three of these high-grade middle infielders. Given their oversight of second basemen and shortstops (as if these were somehow unimportant positions), I can see the writers passing on Kent, too, but that doesn’t make it any more legitimate or understandable. A consistent and highly durable player, Jeff Kent hit more home runs than any other second baseman in history, surpassing the legendary likes of Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan. Kent slugged .500 for his career, while playing one of the most physically tiring positions on the field. He accumulated eight seasons with 100 or more RBIs. He was no less accomplished in the postseason, slugging an even .500 over the span of 11 postseason series. In his one World Series appearance, he hit three home runs. And he did most of this damage while spending the majority of his 17 seasons playing in pitcher’s parks like Shea Stadium, Candlestick Park and Pac Bell Park, and Dodger Stadium.
I know the raps against Kent. He could often be a jerk with reporters and teammates. Well, that made him no different than Hornsby, an unquestioned Hall of Famer. Kent was never a good defensive second baseman, mostly because of a lack of range. But I’ll argue that he was never bad enough defensively to convince his managers to move him somewhere else, like third base or first base. (And for all of his problems in the field, Kent had good hands and turned the double play better than the average second baseman.) Even the writers themselves seemed to recognize his overall contributions to his team, giving Kent MVP votes seven times in his career, which included four top ten finishes and one MVP Award in 2000.
Frankly, I don’t see how an objective examination of Kent’s career can produce anything other than a check mark next to his name on the Hall of Fame ballot. Now if I hear even one writer say, “Jeff Kent just doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer,” I will not be responsible for my actions. That kind of kissy-touchy argument doesn’t cut it anymore, not when we have Kent’s impressive body of statistics, coupled with the visual images of his achievements over these past 17 seasons.
In 2014, when he first becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers need to do the right thing and say yes to Jeff Kent.
There has never been a time in baseball history when players have been less willing to switch positions. This past week, Michael Young put up an enormous fuss when the Rangers told him they wanted to move him to third base to make room for top prospect Elvis Andrus. Young became so upset that he asked the Rangers to trade him.
A few days ago, Young did an about-face. He said he would willingly move to third base. What’s that saying about “better late than never?” Well, good for Young that he finally came to his senses, even if his initial reaction was that of a spoiled child.
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but doesn’t it seem like no player today is willing to switch positions without making a federal production about it? Just consider the Alfonso Soriano debacle a few years back with the Nationals, when Frank Robinson practically had to plant Soriano in left field. Players have become more rigid, more territorial about the positions they play, to the point that they throw logic and team considerations to the wolves. Young’s defenders will point to the Gold Glove he won this year for playing shortstop; scouts, talent evaluators, and Sabermetricians alike will tell you that Young’s Gold Glove was undeserving, that he won it more on his offensive reputation, along with the lack of high-grade defensive shortstops in the American League. They will also tell you that the Rangers’ poor infield defense was one of the team’s many problems in 2008.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think that it’s wise for teams to first approach a player about the possibility of playing a new position rather than merely issue an edict from above. But if the move makes logical sense–and there’s nothing inherently illogical about sliding a shortstop over to third base, given the similarities of the two positions–and gives the chance the team to better itself defensively, then the club has every right to make the move. It’s not as if the Rangers asked Young to make some kind of radical switch, like becoming a catcher or a pitcher. That would be both illogical and unreasonable.
Due to this inflexible attitude toward playing different positions, players have become less versatile today. That’s unfortunate because the athletes of today are better and more highly trained then previous generations of major leaguers and therefore more capable of making the switch from one position to another. And with teams carrying more and more pitchers on their rosters these days, position players are required to be more versatile to cover all eight defensive slots in the field.
Simply put, players need to be more willing to do what the team needs in switching up positions. Sometimes that involves admitting that advancing age has changed their ability to play a certain position, just as it did with Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, and Cal Ripken in past years. Heck, if Hall of Fame shortstops like Banks, Yount, and Ripken could switch positions (to first base, center field, and third base respectively) then anybody should be willing to try doing so for the betterment of the team. The team–and the entire game–would be better off…
Continuing a recent infatuation with young Cubs center fielders, the Orioles acquired Felix Pie from Chicago over the weekend, sending major league lefty Garrett Olson and Class-A right-hander Henry Williamson to the Windy City. Will Pie end up like Corey Patterson, another disappointing Cubs outfield prospect who failed to develop in Baltimore? Possibly, but Pie is faster, potentially the better defender, and won’t turn 24 until next month. If Pie ends up left field, the Orioles will have one of the better defensive outfields in the American League, with the athletic Adam Jones manning center and the strong-armed Nick Markakis in right field. The Orioles will then have to find a spot for sweet-swinging Luke Scott, who played left field last year, but could see time as both a DH and first baseman.
I suppose this deal is further worth the risk for the O’s given how badly Olson pitched last year. Olson, 25, needed to get away from Camden Yards and the power-packed American League East; he’ll also have a chance to work with an accomplished pitching coach in Larry Rothschild. Both of those factors should help him lower his 6.65 ERA from last summer. The acquisition of Olson might also put the Cubs in a better position to reopen trade talks with the Padres about Jake Peavy. The Padres like Olson a lot and consider him a major piece to a potential package for their Cy Young-caliber right-hander…
Last week’s election of Rickey Henderson and Big Jim Rice to the Hall of Fame figures to give the village of Cooperstown a boost in tourism this summer, especially when compared with the meager turnout for the 2008 induction. Fewer than 10,000 fans visited Cooperstown for the induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams, despite Gossage’s obvious connection to the Yankees. This year’s induction attendance could double last year’s total–and not because of Henderson’s superstar presence. Given the distance between Cooperstown and Oakland, the team with which Rickey is most associated, it’s likely that few A’s fans will make the trek to Cooperstown. There will be a much larger contingent of Red Sox faithful in town for the long-awaited induction of Rice, who played his entire career in Beantown. Boston is a mere four hours away from Cooperstown; the Hall of Fame is already a convenient destination for members of Red Sox Nation, and that will only intensify during the Summer of Rice.
In a lot of ways, this has been a lousy week for baseball. First came the news that former big league reliever Frank Williams, who had enjoyed a couple of lights-out seasons in the 1980s, died from a heart attack while enduring a homeless existence as an alcoholic. Then we heard about the passing of Preston Gomez, the first manager in the history of the San Diego Padres, who never recovered from injuries suffered in a car accident last spring. And then earlier this week, a young man named Todd Drew died.
I never met Todd Drew, never even exchanged e-mails with him. But we had something in common. We were both contributing writers to Bronx Banter, Alex Belth’s fine Yankee-related web site. Alex had brought Todd on a few months ago to write a regular feature called “Shadow Games,” which was often about the people of the Bronx and New York City. Though I never did meet Todd, his humanistic, even poetic writing style gave every indication that he was a warm, sensitive individual who cared about the people he met along the way. Sometimes you can tell about a person just from the way that he writes. I think Todd was that way.
With his writing skills, Todd seemed destined for a long and successful stint as a contributor to Bronx Banter. But then came the diagnosis this winter of an unusual form of cancer. Todd entered the hospital in December for surgery, with the hope that he would be released within a couple of weeks. Todd never made it home. There were complications, followed by a difficult stint in intensive care. He passed away in the early morning hours Wednesday, with his wife and best friend by his side. Todd was only 42, about a year younger than me.
Like me, Todd was a Yankee fan. He was looking forward to a new season, complete with new superstars like Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia. Hopefully, he has a good view of the new Yankee Stadium from his seat up above. It’s just that we won’t be able to share his descriptive passages about the new Stadium and the latest version of the Yankees with his loyal readers.
That’s our loss–along with the enormous loss to his family. If there’s any consolation, it’s that we still have the body of his work preserved on the Internet, available at Bronx Banter for those who still want to enjoy his writing. His writing–and the memories he created for his family–remain a part of his uplifting legacy. Thanks for what you gave us, Todd.
This week’s Hall of Fame election has left us with several unanswered questions, some inconsistencies, and some flat-out perplexing voting patterns. Let’s take a look at some of the peculiarities.
*A total of 28 voters did not deem Rickey Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time, worthy of the Hall of Fame. To my knowledge, only one (a writer named Corky Simpson) has explained his no-vote for Henderson, saying that Rickey wasn’t “his kind of player.” Let’s hope that a few other writers are brave enough to tell us why Henderson didn’t merit their votes. If they did it as a protest against Henderson’s occasional malingering, a problem during Rickey’s stays with both the Mets and Yankees, I can somewhat understand the reasoning. But if they did it for some other reason, such as the antiquated belief that no one deserves a unanimous vote, they deserve the public ridicule.
*Of the 28 voters who left Henderson off the ballot, two actually submitted entirely blank ballots. Of the 23 players listed, they deemed absolutely no one worthy of the Hall. No Henderson, no Jim Rice, no Bert Blyleven, no Andre Dawson. Methinks their standards are a bit too high. The Hall of Fame has never been about honoring only the game’s immortals–the Babe Ruths, the Ty Cobbs, the Ted Williams, the Willie Mays. There has always been room for other tiers of players, players who don’t quite reach the godlike quality of Ruth and Mays. I understand the argument about a “small Hall,” but when a superstar like Rickey Henderson doesn’t merit inclusion, the standards for election have become a bit too lofty.
*The voters once again completely missed the boat on Tim “Rock” Raines, who was basically the equal of Tony Gwynn. (If you don’t believe me, consider that Raines reached base as much as Gwynn did during his unquestioned Hall of Fame career.) Not only did Raines finish well down on the ballot, his level of support actually dropped to 22 per cent. That’s shameful support for the National League’s best leadoff man of the eighties, a legitimate four-tool player who did everything well but throw.
*Mark McGwire’s voting support fell off by four per cent, dropping from 25 per cent, the level it had been during his first two years on the ballot, to 21 per cent. Why the falloff? Some writers have theorized that a few voters took their votes away from Big Mac and gave them to Rice, who happened to enjoy a four per cent increase. Without seeing individual ballots, the theory will be hard to prove, but it’s an interesting theory nonetheless.
*Two voters decided that Jay Bell–yes, that Jay Bell!–was somehow deserving of the Hall of Fame. I’d be curious as to whether those same voters put Alan Trammell’s name on their ballots. If Jay Bell merits the Hall of Fame, then Cooperstown will need to open its doors to Dave Concepcion, Bert “Campy” Campaneris, Leo “Chico” Cardenas, Mark Belanger, Eddie Brinkman, Shawon Dunston, Greg Gagne, and a few other shortstops of yesteryear. Jay Bell? He must have been a good to interview–or something.
*Finally, one voter deemed Jesse Orosco worthy of a vote. I suppose these token votes are harmless, but what if over 400 other voters had come up with the same idea, deciding to reward old Jesse just for kicks? The folks in Cooperstown would have to come up with some interesting explanations every time a child asked his or her father why Orosco’s image was featured on a plaque in the Hall of Fame Gallery.
Monday’s Hall of Fame election will surely bring glee to the city of Boston while stirring outrage from many of the Sabermetric types who write and post on the Internet. The candidacy of Jim Rice, which has been hotly debated for years by Sabermetricians and mainstream writers, finally concluded on Monday afternoon with the announcement that Rice will join Rickey Henderson on the Cooperstown dais this July.
Stepping aside from the controversy for a moment, my predictions about a Hall of Fame election–for once–actually came true. (Perhaps that makes up for my hunch that Ron Santo and Gil Hodges were going to win election last month.) I felt Rice would barely squeeze by, and that’s exactly what he did, gaining 76.4 per cent of the vote. I’ll have to do some checking, but that may be the smallest margin by which anybody has won election to the Hall through the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The election of Rice not only means a victory for Rice, the city of Boston, and Red Sox Nation, but a victory for those mainstream writers who have supported his candidacy for years, based on the belief that his high RBI totals, high batting average, and peak period of performance meant more than his lack of walks, his tendency to ground into double plays, and his lack of longevity. It’s an argument I support; I’ve felt that it’s fair to regard Rice as a borderline candidate, but I’ve also considered him worthy because of his sheer dominance as a professional power hitter during the late seventies and early eighties.
In regards to Henderson, there was never any doubt that he would win election in his first year of elegibility. The only question involved the final percentage of the vote that he would receive. Henderson checked in at 94.8 per cent, about where I thought he’d be, and just a bit short of the Tom Seaver-Cal Ripken stratospere of voting percentage. Somewhat remarkably, 32 writers felt Henderson, the greatest leadoff man the game has ever seen and arguably one of the top five left fielders of all time, was not worthy of the Hall of Fame. I’m guessing that some of those no-votes decided to penalize Henderson for his occasional lack of hustle, his repeated late entries to spring training, and some of the general nuisance he caused most of his managers (at least not those named Billy Martin, who absolutely loved Rickey). If there are any other reasons for leaving Henderson off the ballot, I’d love to hear them. Hopefully, it’s not the inane first-ballot nonsense that we sometimes hear, or some contrived argument that Henderson somehow was not a Hall of Fame performer. Anybody offering those lame arguments will have some serious explaining to do.
Then there is the case of Andre Dawson. I felt he’d come in at about 70 per cent, but I overestimated his total, as “The Hawk” finished at 67 per cent. That doesn’t bode well for Dawson next year, even in a year when there are overwhelming first-year candidates and no holdovers that appear close to Hall of Fame inspection. It’s probably too much to expect an eight per cent jump for Dawson in 2010, which could result in a very empty Hall of Fame class for the Baseball Writers one year from now.
Finally, the injustice of Bert Blyleven needs to be addressed. Blyleven has been the subject of some wonderful Sabermetric articles on the Internet, pieces that make a compelling case for ”The Dutchman.” Given the number of shutouts and complete games that he posted, given the lack of run support he received in all those 1-0 and 2-1 losses, and given his superior performance in World Series play (for both the Pirates and the Twins), Blyleven deserves the call to the Hall. Yet, his vote total actually remained virtually the same, going from 61.8 to 62 per cent of the vote. Unfortunately, too many of the mainstream writers just don’t get it when it comes to Blyleven’s dominance in both the regular season and the postseason. Even with average luck and average run support, Blyleven would have won more than 300 games, a total that becomes even more impressive considering how mediocre-to-bad the Twins were during his early major league career.
So, with the good news comes some bad news. Rice makes it, which brings the added bonus of larger crowds that will travel from Boston to Cooperstown this summer. Blyleven doesn’t, with his candidacy seemingly hitting a plateau and perhaps even taking steps backward.
I guess it’s one battle at a time when it comes to the Hall of Fame election–and how the writers evaluate what is truly greatness.