Results tagged ‘ Baseball Cards ’
Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.
Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.
At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.
It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.
The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.
Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.
With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82. Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.
After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.
Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.
When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.
With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.
Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.
Photography on baseball cards sometimes shows players in
delightfully awkward poses or clumsy moments. Card No. 616 of the 1979 Topps
set provides an example of that; it features journeyman infielder Billy Almon,
the No. 1 choice in the 1974 draft who never reached expectations of stardom in
the major leagues. The card’s photo, which was snapped during a game at Shea
Stadium, shows Almon dressed in the Padres’ highly unattractive uniforms of the
day. As baseball researcher Maxwell Kates points out, those yellow-and-brown
beauties are believed to be the last uniforms featuring both the team name and
the city name on the front of the jersey.
Beyond the ghastly colors of the Padres’ uniforms, there is
something intriguing in the odd way that Almon is holding the bat, which he is
gripping by the wrong end Perhaps after being called out on strikes yet again?
Or perhaps he is getting ready to crack the bat over his thigh, ala new Hall of
Famer Jim Rice? And then, as Kates suggests, there’s the dazed expression on
Almon’s face, as if to say, “What should I be doing with this piece of wood? I
am after all in the major leagues.” In 1979, Almon would bat only .227 with an
on-base percentage of .301 and a total of one home run. For his career, the
shortstop-third baseman performed only a bit better, batting .254 with 36 home
runs in 15 seasons with the Padres, Expos, Mets, White Sox, A’s, Pirates, and
Phillies. He was, however, an excellent bunter, leading the National League
with 20 sacrifices in 1977.
The Padres expected far more than good bunting from Mr.
Almon. Just how highly was Almon regarded as an amateur? When Almon graduated
high school in 1971, several teams wanted to draft the lanky shortstop in the
first round, but he wrote to each club informing them of his decision to attend
an Ivy League school (Brown University). The Padres drafted him anyway, taking
him with a 10th round selection in the ’71 draft. Three years later,
the Padres once again targeted Almon, selecting him with the first overall pick
in the draft after he set a school record by hitting ten home runs in a short
season. The Padres even gave Almon a $90,000 bonus–a huge amount at the
time–but he struggled to hit in both the minors and the majors, making him just
one of many No. 1 picks to turn into big league disappointments.
Unlike the NBA, there’s little certainty that comes with being
the first man taken in the major league draft.
For too long now, we in the media have referred to the
Yankees of 1965 to 1974 as representatives of the “Horace Clarke Era.” The
team’s starting second baseman for much of that period, Clarke has come to
symbolize the mediocrity of those Yankee clubs. Seen here in his final Topps
card (vintage 1974), Clarke was viewed as an inadequate player, symptomatic of
a team that was inadequately built to win any pennants or division titles
during that ten-year span.
The criticism of Clarke has run on several different levels.
Too much of a free swinger, he didn’t draw enough walks. He didn’t have great
range at second base, especially toward his backhand side. He also didn’t turn
the double play well.
To some extent, the criticisms are all true. He never coaxed
more than 64 walks in a season and usually finished below the 50-mark.
Defensively, he paled in comparison to two other Yankees, predecessor Bobby
Richardson and successor Willie Randolph. On double plays, Clarke bailed out
early and often. Instead of pivoting at the bag, he sometimes jumped out of the
way of runners while holding onto the baseball.
Those critiques provide only a partial view. The
switch-hitting Clarke stole bases, bunted adeptly, and usually hit for a
respectable average (at least for that era), which would have played acceptably
as the eight-hole or ninth-place hitter. The Yankees made the mistake of using
Clarke as a leadoff man because he looked and ran like a tablesetter. That was
their mistake, not his. In the field, Clarke had his shortcomings, but for a
guy who supposedly lacked range, he did lead the American League in assists six
times. Part of that might have been attributable to having a sinkerballer like
Mel Stottlemyre on the staff, but it’s also an indication that Clarke had pretty
good range to his left.
Was Clarke a top-notch player? Of course not. But I would
say that he was better than mediocre. (The Yankees of that era, like Clarke,
were also better than advertised. Just look at the records of the 1970 and 1974
teams.) I think the Yankees could have
won a division with a second baseman like Clarke, if only they had been better
at other positions, like third base (prior to Graig Nettles’ arrival) or right
field. If you want to find the real reasons why the Yankees so often struggled
during those years, you need to look no further than the revolving doors at
those slots. The Yankees had substantially weaker players at third base (Cox,
Kenney, Sanchez) and right field (Kosco, Swoboda, Callison). It’s just that
none of the third basemen or right fielders lasted long enough to become
targets of the critics.
Putting aside the issue of talent evaluation for a moment,
Clarke was an intriguing player to follow, especially for a young fan like me. Clarke
came attached with a cool nickname. He was called “Hoss,” raising memories of
Dan Blocker’s iconic character from Bonanza. (Bill White, in particular, loved
that nickname. “Hosssss Clarke,” he liked to say with flourish.) Clarke also
had an intriguing background. He was one of the few players I can remember who
hailed from the Virgin Islands. So that made
him a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill player. Then there was
Clarke’s appearance. He wore very large glasses, the kind that became so horribly
fashionable in the early 1970s, really round and overly noticeable. On the
field, Clarke not only wore a helmet at the plate; he sported one while
patrolling second base. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why he did
that. It may have had something to do with his fear of being upended on
double-play takeout slides. Several years ago, Darren “Repoz” Viola of Baseball
Think Factory asked former Yankee broadcaster Bob Gamere why Clarke wore the
helmet at second base; Gamere explained that it may have stemmed from a 1969
incident in which Clarke was hit in the head with a ball, but he wasn’t
completely certain. Whatever the reason, the helmet made Clarke a distinctive
landmark on the middle infield.
For all of those reasons, and for being a quiet guy who
rarely complained, Hoss Clarke was a likeable guy. He was also a decent ballplayer.
So let’s stop vilifying the man who was once booed during pre-game introductions
on Opening Day at the old Yankee Stadium. Let’s stop raking the man that one New York writer
repeatedly referred to as “Horrible Horace.” I’d prefer to call him “Helpful
Horace.” Let’s go with that instead.
In 1973, just one year before this card appeared, the Texas
Rangers initiated the destruction of a young pitcher’s career in an effort to
revive a languishing franchise. Team owner Bob Short devised an ill-conceived
plan to rush phenom left-hander David Clyde from high school ball to the major
leagues as a drawing card for the struggling Rangers franchise. Clyde’s debut
season did much to help attendance at Arlington Stadium, but at considerable
damage to Clyde’s career, which seemed so
promising after throwing nine no-hitters in his senior season of high school.
At onetime a household name, Clyde
has become a forgotten man in baseball annals. Here’s what happened. Drafted
first in the country out of Texas’ Westchester High School
in the spring of 1973, Clyde received a bonus
of $125,000 and donned a Rangers’ major league uniform only a few days later.
The immediate call-up to Texas was the
brainchild of owner Bob Short, which conflicted directly against the advice of
manager Whitey Herzog, who believed Clyde
needed considerable schooling in the minor leagues.
Equipped with both Short’s blessings and a mechanically
sound delivery that some scouts compared to that of Sandy Koufax, Clyde made
his highly publicized major league debut against the Minnesota Twins on June
27, 1973. (Only 20 days earlier, Clyde had
made his final appearance as a high school pitcher.) That night’s game at
Arlington Stadium became such a focal point of local attention that the first
pitch was delayed by 15 minutes, allowing more fans to free themselves from the
massive logjam of traffic outside the stadium. Perhaps rattled by the late
start and frazzled by his own nervousness, the 18-year-old Clyde walked the
first two batters he faced–infielder Jerry Terrell and Hall of Famer Rod Carew–before
settling down to strike out the side. Clyde went on to pitch a respectable five
innings, walking a total of seven Twins, but struck out eight batters while
allowing two earned runs and only one hit. Unfortunately, Clyde
struggled to match his celebrated debut performance over the balance of the
season, posting an ERA of 5.03 and winning only four of 12 decisions with the
lowly Rangers in 1973. His pitching only worsened in 1974, leading him down a
slippery slope to baseball obscurity.
Clyde’s problems only
worsened when Whitey Herzog was fired and replaced by Billy Martin. Ever fiery
and judgmental, Martin didn’t like the left-hander, in part because he didn’t
like pitchers and didn’t like rookies, two mortal sins committed by Clyde. Martin also didn’t appreciate the fact that Clyde lost nine straight decisions after starting the
1974 season at 3-and-0. At one point, Martin didn’t pitch Clyde
for 31 consecutive days.
The late Art Fowler, a crony of Martin at virtually every
one of his managerial stops, became Clyde’s second pitching coach in Texas. Several years
ago, Fowler appeared on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” program to discuss Clyde’s saga. Fowler supported Martin’s general
evaluation of Clyde, claiming that the
youngster was vastly overrated, unable to throw his fastball much harder than
in the mid-eighties. Fowler also trashed the quality of Clyde’s
competition in high school, half-kiddingly suggesting that the left-hander had
piled up an impressive set of statistics pitching against “girls.” Fowler’s
recollections of Clyde, however, differ significantly from those of Tom Grieve,
who was Clyde’s Texas
teammate from 1973-75. According to Grieve, Fowler raved about Clyde’s talents at the time, saying that he had the
potential to be a 25-game winner once he harnessed his control. Many of Clyde’s Ranger teammates also raved about both his
fastball and curve, rating them both as well above major league average.
So who to believe, Fowler or Grieve? For what it’s worth,
Fowler drew criticism throughout his career for his work as a pitching coach,
reinforcing a belief that he held onto jobs in Minnesota,
New York, and Oakland only because of his friendship with
Martin. Given Fowler’s track record as a Martin crony, it’s not surprising that
he would come to Martin’s defense when passing a judgment on Clyde’s
ability. It was that very allegiance to Martin that shed a light of suspicion
on Fowler’s motives. Fowler himself claimed that he didn’t think much of Clyde in large part because Martin didn’t think much of him. And that’s not a very critical way
of thinking, especially when it was your job to instruct pitchers and find ways
to make them better.
By the way, here’s what Fowler had to say about Clyde after one of his starts in 1974. “When his fastball
is moving like it was tonight,” Fowler told Randy Galloway of The Sporting News, “and with the
velocity he had tonight, he didn’t need [his] curveball.” That doesn’t sound
like the description of a pitcher lacking a good major league fastball.
While Clyde struggled with
his pitching coach and manager, along with the on-the-field demands of pitching
against big league hitters, he also gave in to the temptations of a fast-lane
lifestyle practiced by several of the Rangers’ veteran players. The hard-living
group, which included catcher Rich Billings, infielder Jim Fregosi, and pitcher
Clyde “Skeeter” Wright (the father of former Indian and Brave Jaret Wright),
laid out the welcome mat for Clyde, including him in their post-game visits to
local establishments. Clyde began drinking
heavily, a vice that became obvious when he showed up late for a team flight
while wearing the same clothes he had used the previous day. Unfortunately,
none of the veteran Rangers stepped up to help the teenaged Clyde, whose drinking
habits only exacerbated his problems on the mound.
And that only expedited the crashing of the career of a
young pitcher who might have been.
Less than a week after Sports
Illustrated ran an article declaring the stolen base to be a lost art, two
players have run wild on the bases. First it was Rockies
rookie Dexter Fowler, who swiped five bases in a game against the Padres. Then
came Carl Crawford, who did Fowler one better by stealing a half-dozen bags on
Sunday against the Red Sox. In the process, Crawford tied the modern era record
for most thefts in a single game. So let’s not refer to the stolen base as
lost or dead, but something that is perhaps being resuscitated in 2009.
Do the one-game feats of Fowler and Crawford represent a
changing trend in the way that the stolen base will be used now that we’re in
the post-steroids era (if we can dare call it that)? It’s too soon to tell, but
I was initially leaning toward the poor state of catching as a reason for the
Fowler and Crawford explosions. After all, catching is one of the positions
that has been in recent decline, with most teams struggling to find quality
backups and some lacking severely in the starting department. Then I realized
that the two catchers in question–San Diego’s
Nick Hundley (no relation to Todd or Randy) and Boston’s
Jason Varitek–both have good reputations for their defensive play. Varitek
doesn’t throw the way he did in his prime, but his caught stealing percentages
have been 22 to 24 per cent over the last five seasons. Those aren’t great
percentages but they’re not terrible either and they’re remarkably consistent.
So I really don’t know why the stolen base seems to be on
the uptick in 2009. Teams are still hitting plenty of home runs; in fact, the
home run numbers for this April were up over the same numbers for April of
2008. Maybe the reasons for the surge in speed this week don’t matter. Maybe we
should just enjoy the spectacle of the stolen base…
With the Mets facing the possibility that Carlos Delgado may
be saddled with a chronically sore hip this season, they will have to start
considering alternate plans. If Delgado cannot play every day, or if his hip
prevents him from generating sufficient power, the Mets would be smart to move
Daniel Murphy to first base. Murphy has been nothing short of a defensive
disaster in the outfield this spring, as he combines the worst of Greg “The
Bull” Luzinski and Lonnie “Skates” Smith in left field. By putting Murphy at
first base, where he figures to be much more comfortable (he started his career
as a third baseman), the Mets would be forging a long-term solution at the
position. But here’s the problem: who steps in and plays left field? Gary
Sheffield has played poorly in spot duty, Fernando Tatis is best as a supersub,
and Jeremy Reed is no more than a stopgap. Perhaps Wily Mo Pena, currently at
Triple-A Buffalo, could provide some help. Unfortunately, the Mets don’t have
much else in terms of ready made offensive talent at Buffalo, where the Bisons
are running last in the International League in most major categories,
including batting average, home runs, and slugging percentage…
Finally, I’d like to extend thanks to those readers who
posted suggestions for this month’s homepage card image. I loved the suggestion
of the 1952 Topps Gus Zernial, with the various baseballs sticking to his bat, but
could not find a suitable image for posting purposes. So we’re going with a
1974 card of Jim Palmer, one of the underrated pitching greats of the 1970s,
for at least the first half of the new month. Always silky smooth, Palmer
pitched with a classic overhand throwing motion, releasing the ball from
seemingly the highest possible point above his head. Though surpassed by the
likes of Carlton,
Gibson, and Seaver, Palmer was one of the era’s second-tier Hall of Famers, and
the lynchpin to those great Orioles staffs of 1969-1971.
The Phillies knew that Raul Ibanez would give them nearly
the same level of offensive production as Pat Burrell, though they thought with
less power and more contact. Through the Phillies’ first 20 games, Ibanez has supplied
plenty of pop, to the tune of seven home runs and a .718 slugging percentage. What
has surprised the Philly brass even more is Ibanez’ defensive play in left
field, which was a subject of much mockery and scorn in Seattle. Ibanez looks like a completely
different fielder in Philadelphia.
He has shown much more mobility than Burrell, which has made life easier on
Shane Victorino in center field.
At some point, the Phillies will need to add some
right-handed hitting to their lineup, but it does not appear that it will come
at the expense of Ibanez’ playing time. If Ibanez continues to hit and defend
at his current level, the Phillies will not relegate him to platoon status.
They’ll have to incorporate right-handed hitting somewhere else, whether that’s
at catcher or third base, two positions where the Phillies currently sacrifice
offense for defense…
Not only did the Yankees do the right thing in reducing the
prices of some of their high-end box seats, they did the smart thing. Let’s
refer to the “Empty Seat Syndrome.” Empty seats are the worst thing that can
happen to a professional sports team. Empty seats don’t buy concession items.
Empty seats don’t buy souvenirs or memorabilia. Empty seats don’t tell their
friends about their wonderful experiences at the ballpark. On top of all that,
empty seats just look bad, especially when they are located so close to the
playing field. When a team is coming off back-to-back seasons of four million
fans in paid attendance, there is no excuse for not filling the
ballpark–especially a new one that has so many improvements over the old
house–on a regular basis. Hopefully, the Yankees have learned their lesson…
Finally, we will continue to take your suggestions on a new
baseball card image for the month of May and post the winner sometime this
weekend. So far, we have votes for Jim Palmer (one of the underrated pitching
greats of the seventies) and Dirty Kurt Bevacqua’s 1977 Topps card, which shows
him blowing a bubble of gargantuan proportions. Both are good suggestions, but
we’re willing to hear more.
The calendar has yet to turn from April to May, but the
calls for Jerry Manuel’s head have already begun to sound in New York. A second straight loss to the
previously slumping Marlins has created a sea of discontent, with much of the
focus centered on some bizarre strategy by Manuel in the ninth inning of
Wednesday afternoon’s loss to Florida.
With two outs and the bases loaded and the Mets down by a run, Manuel called
back Ramon Castro, who had banged out two hits in four at-bats. He summoned
backup catcher Omir Santos from the bullpen to pinch-hit, then watched him hit
a soft pop-up to end the game.
While the hue and cry for a change in managers is silly at
this early stage of the season, Manuel left me scratching my head with this
decision. Castro is a much better hitter than Santos, a career minor leaguer who has always
had a reputation as a good-field, weak-hit catcher. A few good games with the
Mets this past week should not have erased that reputation, nor should it have
fooled Manuel into thinking that Santos
posed more of an offensive threat than Castro. Bad move.
If Willie Randolph had pulled such a managerial rock, the New York media would
have roasted him. Manuel, who is a genuinely good guy and a great interview,
will probably be given a pass by most of the writers, but the fan base is beginning to lose patience with the Mets’ continuing ineptitude. In the meantime, expect
everyone to turn up the heat on David Wright, who looks lost at the plate and
in the field. Another target can be found in the Mets’ bullpen, which
was directly responsible for the one-run loss to the Marlins. J.J. Putz walked
the first two batters of the eighth inning, setting the stage for Florida’s comeback
rally. A few more outings like that, and we’ll start to hear speculation on
when Billy Wagner might be able to return this summer from Tommy John surgery.
It’s easy to forget that Wagner remains under contract to the Mets; just imagine a
three-man crew of Wagner, Putz and Francisco Rodriguez putting out fires in the
eighth and ninth innings of late-season games…
In anticipation of the new month of May, we’ll be changing our
baseball card image (which currently honors the late Dock Ellis) this weekend.
Feel free to submit nominations for a new card, either by posting a
recommendation here or by sending me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Topps cards are
preferred, but we’ll consider Upper Deck, Fleer, and Donruss cards, as well.
Heck, if the suggestion is a good one, we’ll consider just about any company…
On a promotional note, my 2006 book, The Team That Changed Baseball, is now out in paperback. The book
tells the story of the 1971 Pirates, who fielded major league baseball’s first
all-black lineup on the way to winning the world championship over the heavily
favored Orioles. For more information, or to purchase a copy (hint, hint),
please visit the website www.westholmepublishing.com.
My thanks to publisher Bruce Franklin for his continued support and faith in
Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have
to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable
defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also
seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX
sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered
on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he
blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My
father and I chuckled over that crack for days.
For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees
to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner
shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on
a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day,
while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp–yes, I spent summers at a place
called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it–we exchanged some
conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact
names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting
pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas
for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry,
Figueroa, or Hunter.
I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as
a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man
could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually
hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a
ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the
time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977,
largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could
make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably
well–you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did–I was going to be satisfied.
So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe
Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal
Why did I like Harrah so much? In the mid-1970s, Harrah
represented a rare breed: an American League shortstop who could hit. Keep in
mind that Robin Yount had not yet entered his prime, Alan Trammell wouldn’t
arrive in Detroit until 1978 (and even then he was only 20), and Cal Ripken,
Jr.s’ debut remained several years away.
Most American League shortstops fell into the one-dimensional category
of all-field and little-hit, including the likes of Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Dave
Chalk, Frank Duffy, and Tom Veryzer. Compared to those noodle bats, Harrah
looked like an Adonis in the batter’s box.
The plan to bring in Harrah sounded good. Considering the
depth of the Yankees’ pitching staff, giving up a second-tier pitcher in
addition to Dent seemed doable. There was just one problem. The Rangers had to
agree to the deal, too. They negotiated with the Yankees off and on, with
Harrah’s name periodically being mentioned in rumors, but the two sides could not
reach the appropriate compromise. After the 1978 season, the Rangers finally
received an offer they couldn’t refuse. Only it didn’t come from the Yankees.
Instead, the Rangers found a trading partner in the Indians, who agreed to give
up All-Star third baseman Buddy Bell.
Harrah spent five mostly productive seasons with the Tribe. By
the early 1980s, I had forgotten about Harrah, who had entrenched himself as a
durable and productive player in Cleveland.
It was time to move on. The dream had ended.
In February of 1984, with the Yankees collecting infielders
the way I once collected postage stamps, the team announced a surprising trade.
The deal sent reliever George Frazier and minor league speedster Otis Nixon to
the Indians–for Harrah, of course. By then, Harrah was no longer a shortstop;
he had long since been converted to third base. He was no longer an All-Star
either, with his home run production falling off from 25 to nine in his final season with the Tribe.
At 34, Harrah looked well past his prime.
Lots of folks didn’t understand the trade, including me. The
Yankees already had Graig Nettles and Roy Smalley available to play third.
Nettles eventually vacated the premises, mostly because he ticked off The Boss
with the contents of his tell-all book, Balls.
Harrah ended up splitting time with Smalley, hit all of one home run in
pinstripes, and slugged an ungodly .296. Clearly not the player he once was, Harrah
became trade bait after the season, sent to the Rangers for outfielder Billy
Sample. Harrah would play better in Texas,
but that only made me feel worse.
In the meantime, the Yankees continued their search for a
new shortstop, some of whom could hit, some of whom could field, and some who
could barely stand up. Smalley tried and failed, as did Andre Robertson, Bobby
Meacham, Paul Zuvella, Wayne Tolleson (another personal favorite), Rafael
Santana, Alvaro Espinoza, Spike Owen, and even a fading Tony Fernandez.
The Yankees’ quagmire of shortstop mediocrity continued until
1995. That’s when Toby Harrah finally arrived. Not the actual Toby Harrah, but a newer, better version of Toby Harrah.
Like Harrah, he would receive his fair share of criticism for his defensive
failures, but he would do wondrous things offensively and help spearhead the
next Yankee dynasty.
Yes, Toby Harrah finally did arrive–in the form of a
21-year-old phenom named Derek Jeter.
In 1984, Topps printed its final card for Lou Piniella as a
player. Even though he was hitting .302 at the time, Piniella realized that he
was blocking the way of younger outfielders in the organization and agreed to
retire in the midst of that season. The sweet swing, the reliable hands, and
the clubhouse agitation–all prominent features of the longtime Yankee–departed
the Bronx to make room for a new wave of outfield youth.
Piniella was one of the last remnants of Gabe Paul’s regime
as Yankee general manager. After the 1973 season, Paul sent aging reliever
Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella, who had won the American League’s
Rookie of the Year in 1969 but had slumped to a .250 batting average and a .291
on-base percentage during his final season in Kansas City. Paul figured that Piniella had
endured an off year, nothing more. Piniella fit Yankee needs precisely–given
their lefty-leaning lineup–providing them a semi-regular outfielder and DH who
would play against all left-handers and occasionally against right-handers,
too. In three of his first five seasons in pinstripes, Piniella hit .305 or
better while filling in day-to-day gaps in left field, right field, and at DH. He
became a vital complementary piece to the world championship teams of 1977 and
’78, culminating in his miraculous “stop” of Jerry Remy’s sun-screened line
drive in the tiebreaking playoff game of 1978.
Aside from his one-hop snare of Remy’s drive, I’ll remember two
features of Piniella’s game more than others. First, he owned one of the best
opposite-field strokes of any hitter I’ve seen. As he took his stance, he kept
his hands back, wrapped almost behind his right shoulder. With his left
shoulder tucked in and his back visible to the pitcher, Piniella pushed the
ball toward right field with the same kind of ease and precision that most
players reserve for their pull side. Then there was his reliability in the
field. Though he lacked speed and had nothing more than an average throwing
arm, Piniella possessed hands of velvet. If he could reach a fly ball, he
caught it. And whenever he pounded his fist into his glove, he was sure to make
Piniella’s line-drive stroke and sure hands represented the
best of his talents. But he had his critics–Clete Boyer was among them–those
who felt that he was vastly overrated. Piniella didn’t hit with much power,
rarely drew walks, and ran the bases poorly, sometimes atrociously. Most of his
value was tied up in his batting average. If he batted .300 or better, he could
help you, but if he hit anything less, he was just wasting at-bats that could
have gone to Roy White or Cliff Johnson.
While with the Yankees, Piniella also enhanced his
reputation as “Sweet Lou,” which had begun to form with Jim Bouton’s revealing
passages about him in Ball Four. As
is common with many nicknames, the origins of “Sweet Lou” derived from the
theory of opposites. Like the 400-pound guy who is called “Tiny,” both friends
and detractors of Piniella referred to him as Sweet Lou because of his sour
moods, sarcastic sense of humor, and his explosive temper tantrums. On the
field, his displays of anger, including incidents of helmet-and dirt-kicking,
sometimes reached comic proportions.
I first encountered Piniella three years after his
retirement from playing. By then, he was the Yankees’ manager, one of many
successors to Billy Martin. In 1987, the Yankees played the Braves in the Hall
of Fame Game here in Cooperstown. Aside from
recalling the hijinx of Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington
at the Sheraton Hotel in UticaHe’s telling
me to go away, I thought to myself. Stopping dead in my tracks, I soon
realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else, someone he knew.
Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me,
I was nonetheless intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of Sweet Lou.
(that’s an article for another day), my strongest memory of that weekend
involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio, I had the assignment of
doing on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my
prime interviews. I made my way in his direction amidst an army of media types
that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact each other. As I drew
closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a
dismissive wave of the hand.
Piniella did not return to Cooperstown
until last year, when his Cubs were scheduled to play the Padres in the final
Hall of Fame Game. The two teams never actually played, the game canceled after
several downpours of rain. Unfortunately, Piniella provided the other downer of
the day. During the pre-game parade that made its way down Main Street,
Piniella made it obvious he wanted to be anywhere but Cooperstown, underscoring
some earlier negative comments he had made about having to travel to upstate
New York. According to my spies, a number of fans screamed “Lou! Lou,” hoping
that Piniella would wave–or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown,
maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place.
In spite of my disappointment in Piniella’s dismissive
attitude toward the Hall of Fame Game, I like him as a manager. Except for Tampa Bay,
he’s consistently posted winning records, even for teams with a recent history
of failure. Last year, Piniella guided the Cubs into the postseason for a
second straight fall (though the team followed up with a second straight early
exit from the playoffs). It’s amazing the impact that he continues to have on
his teams offensively, whether it was in New York
in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City
in the 2000s. When Piniella took over Chicago’s helm four years ago, the Cubs
found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described
as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs.
By 2008, Piniella’s philosophy had taken hold. Aside from Alfonso Soriano,
almost all of Chicago’s
hitters worked the count capably last summer. Youngsters like Geovany Soto
thrived under Piniella, as did seemingly past-their-prime veterans like Jim
Edmonds. Even the role players, from Mark DeRosa to Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson,
make ample contributions. It’s no wonder that the Cubs scored 855 runs, putting
them well ahead of all teams in the National League. Simply put, runs
scored translated into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella
long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.
So with Piniella, you take the bad–the temper tantrums and
the moodiness–with the good. Just a few weeks ago, Piniella unleashed another
tirade, this one directed at ESPN’s Steve Phillips. The former Mets general
manager had dared to mention that the presence of an impatient manager like
Piniella made life more difficult for Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese player who
faced an extremely difficult transition to American culture. I thought it was a
fair point by Phillips, but Piniella took it as a personal insult.
There will likely be more tantrums from Piniella this
season, whether it be a public scolding of the media, an angry mound lecture to
a wild Cubs pitcher, or a childish dirt-kicking of an umpire. That’s Sweet Lou
for you: good player, better manager, and ready to scowl at a moment’s notice.
Every once in awhile I enjoy tweaking my father-in-law by
making a reference to Juan Marichal. The mere mention of the “Dominican Dandy”
brings out a few exclamation marks from my wife’s dad. You see, he’s a Dodger
fan, going all the way back to the Brooklyn days, and he remembers all too well
the time that Marichal decided to take a bat to the head of Dodgers catcher
John Roseboro. I try to explain to my father-in-law that Marichal is really a
pretty good guy, that he actually reconciled with Roseboro, but he won’t buy
that line–not at all.
This 1974 card of Mr. Marichal is one of the last two
regular cards that Topps issued for the Hall of Fame right-hander; the other
one is part of the Topps Traded series for 1974, featuring Marichal in the
colors of the Red Sox. Yes, it is strange to think of him in Beantown after all
those years by the Bay, sort of like watching Elston Howard finish up his
career in Boston
after all those seasons in pinstripes.
Although it has no remarkable monetary value, the regular
issue ’74 Marichal encapsulates the lasting image of the great right-hander’s
most memorable attribute–not his onetime bat-wielding incident, but an
extraordinarily high leg kick that counterbalanced a no-windup delivery. The
photographer skillfully manages to catch Marichal’s left leg near its highest
point, with the toes of his left foot practically even in height with the tip
of his cap. (Don’t try this at home; it’s sure to cause a muscle pull or some
other significant injury.) The photo on the card is particularly striking
because few pitchers in today’s game use this kind of a motion, in part because
of the modern-day emphasis on the slide step and in part because pitching
coaches like to teach more compact motions, thereby lessening the possibility of
bad mechanics. As distinctive as Marichal’s motion seems in contrast to today’s
big league pitcher, it’s hardly the only one of its kind in baseball history. A
number of great pitchers have used high leg kicks and–in contrast to
Marichal–large, convoluted windups, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller and
Warren Spahn. For years, the high leg kick was considered important for a
variety of reasons; it added to a pitcher’s velocity, proved distracting to a
hitter, and helped a pitcher hide the ball–and his pitching arm– behind his
While one’s eyes naturally tend to gravitate toward
Marichal’s front leg, his back leg is also worth a look. In the photo, he’s
bending his right knee severely, almost unnaturally, as a way of absorbing all
of the weight that the leg kick causes to shift to the back side. The more I
look at that back knee, the more my own joints start to suffer.
Other attributes of this card bear exploring. The photograph
for the ’74 Marichal was taken during a day game at Candlestick Park, at a time
when the old stadium still featured artificial turf–and lots of empty seats
beyond the left-field fence. Yeah, those were the really fun days in Frisco, when players not only had to deal with
the howling wind and glaring sun at The Stick, but also the rock-hard turf that
supplied a pounding to the legs of infielders and outfielders. Of course, the
fans didn’t have much fun either while dealing with the Candlestick elements,
which kept down the size of the crowds in 1973, the year that this Marichal
photo was taken. (The Giants finished a more-than-respectable 88-74 that
season, but drew fewer than 900,000 fans, the third-worst figure in the
National League.) So even on a day when the popular Marichal pitched, fans
showed their apathy in the form of their absence.
Still, for those who had a chance to watch Marichal, he
usually entertained us with a speckled assortment of breaking pitches and that
gymnastic leg kick. And perhaps the joy that he brought us helped him atone for
that one incident–one that he probably regretted for years–at least until he finally
made amends with Mr. Roseboro.