Results tagged ‘ History and Tributes ’
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.
Less than six weeks into the season, the Diamondbacks have
decided that a major change is in order for their underachieving team. By
sacking Bob Melvin and hiring front office farm director A.J. Hinch to manage
the team, the D-Backs have signaled a radical change in the direction of their
on-field leadership. Hinch has no prior managing or coaching experience at any
level, not even in rookie ball. What he does have is an eye for young talent,
an ability that the D-Backs hope will translate into an ability to develop that talent. The latter area is
where Melvin fell short; too many of Arizona’s talented young players (like Mark
Reynolds and Chris Young) have failed to become significantly better than they were in
2007, when the Baby Backs came within two games of the World Series.
Did Melvin deserve to get fired? Perhaps, but not at this
early stage of the season. I tend to think that managers–like young unproven
players–deserve at least two full months of the season before we make
wide-sweeping judgments about their ability. I would have given Melvin until
the end of May; if the D-backs had shown no signs of a turnaround, a move would
have been mandatory. And what about Hinch? I know he’s a bright guy who has
drawn good reviews for his work as an Arizona’s
front office whiz kid, but his lack of any kind of on-field coaching or
managing experience is alarming. Contrary to what most Sabermetric general
managers like Josh Byrnes (and Billy Beane) seem to think, you cannot put just anyone into the managerial chair. It’s
not an interchangeable position. Rather, it’s a highly demanding and important
job that requires the right kind of temperament, personality, and experience.
Who knows how Hinch will do…
The Cubs made an interesting, if not major, transaction on
Friday, acquiring utilityman Ryan Freel from the Orioles for spare outfielder
Joey Gathright. Is this Chicago’s
way of trying to right the wrong that was done when GM Jim Hendry dealt Mark
DeRosa to the Indians for three middle-road prospects? Or is Hendry simply
trying to fortify his bench while ridding himself of a player (Gathright) who
had become so extraneous that he was sent to the minors earlier this week?
Freel isn’t the player that DeRosa is, either in terms of
power or versatility, but he does provide some flexibility. Freel can play
second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, while giving Lou
Piniella a decent pinch-running option in the late innings. Gathright is
certainly the more dangerous baserunner, but he’s strictly an outfielder, a
position that has become especially deep for Chicago given the resurgence of Kosuke
Fukudome and the presence of supersub Reed Johnson. This is really a no-brainer
move for the Cubs, who will benefit from Baltimore’s
inability to find a role for Freel…
In the late 1990s, Ted Williams championed Dom DiMaggio for
the Hall of Fame while serving as a member of the Veterans’ Committee. Even
with credit for the three seasons he lost to World War II, I felt that DiMaggio
fell short of the Hall of Fame standard. He was a very good player, but a bit
short of Cooperstown greatness.
That’s a trivial point, however. In many ways, Dom DiMaggio
represented everything that is good about baseball. DiMaggio, who died early
Friday morning at the age of 92, was a five-foot, nine-inch outfielder who wore
glasses; “The Little Professor” looked about as imposing on the ballfield as Chicken Little. But as
an overachiever performing in a sport where size plays little importance, he made
himself into a fine player who hit for average, drew walks, and played a dandy
center field–a very substantial player on some fine and underrated Red Sox
teams of the late 1940s. He was also, by all accounts, a true gentleman who was
highly regarded for his character by teammates and opponents alike. And that
matters a lot more than any argument about whether DiMaggio belongs in the Hall
Three shortstops from the 1970s continue to stick in my
mind. None of them were standout players–in fact, two of them had little
tangible impact during their major league careers–but they all had nicknames
that were more memorable than their playing ability. Their careers also
happened to coincide with my formative years as a baseball fan.
Larvell “Sugar Bear”
Blanks: I had always assumed that the former Braves and Indians shortstop
derived his nickname from the cartoon character “Sugar Bear,” who was featured
on the Sugar Crisp cereal commercials of that era. I learned differently when I
read John Skipper’s comprehensive book, Baseball
Nicknames. Blanks informed Skipper that he received the moniker in either
August or September of 1970, while playing for the Braves’ entry in the Arizona
Instructional League. At the same time, The Archies happened to release their
song, “Sugar, Sugar,” which promptly became a hit single on the radio airwaves.
Two of Blanks’ Instructional League teammates, Darrell Evans and Ralph Garr,
took note of the young shortstop’s aggressive batting style and began
serenading him as “Sugar Bear.” The name stuck with Blanks, remaining with him
even after the Braves traded him to the Indians. Perhaps the most memorable
incident of Blanks’ career occurred in Cleveland.
Furious with manager Frank Robinson, Sugar Bear ripped off his Indians uniform,
threw it into a barrel of trash, and then set it on fire.
Gene “Stick” Michael:
The most accomplished of the three shortstops profiled here, Michael epitomized
the good-field, no-hit shortstops that populated the game in the late sixties
and early seventies. Before he began a major league career that included stints
with the Pirates, Dodgers, Yankees, and Tigers, Michael starred as a college
basketball player at Kent
At six-feet, two inches and a rail-like 180 pounds, Michael had a sticklike
appearance on the basketball court, hence the nickname became a natural fit.
The label stuck with him in baseball, where he established a reputation as one
of the game’s smartest players. “Stick” became the master of the hidden ball
trick, pulling it off at least five times in his career. After his retirement,
Michael became a coach, manager, scout, and general manager, and continues to work
as an advisor in the front office of the Yankees.
Lee “Bee Bee” Richard:
This former White Sox’ shortstop also influenced a wrong assumption on the part
of this author. For years, I had thought that Richard, a very fast runner and
prolific basestealer in the minor leagues, was called “Bee Bee” because of his
blazing footspeed. Not so. Richard’s nickname originated in high school, where
he starred as a pitcher. Richard threw so hard as an amateur that his fastball
had the imaginary appearance of a BB pellet, released from a gun. Perhaps the
switch-hitting Richard should have remained a pitcher; he hit only .209 and
made far too many errors over five seasons, frustrating a White Sox front
office that considered him the shortstop of the future. According to White Sox
legend, Richard often beat the catcher’s throw to second base on stolen base
attempts, only to be tagged out for sliding past the bag!
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.
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.
On Saturday, Hank Aaron will appear at the Hall of Fame here
in Cooperstown to commemorate the opening of a
new exhibit about his life and career. “Chasing the Dream” will be a full room honoring Aaron and chronicling his accomplishments. It will become only the second room
dedicated to one man at the Hall of Fame; the other belongs to a fellow named
George Herman Ruth.
Given Aaron’s impending presence in Cooperstown,
it seems fitting to honor him with this week’s installment of “The Nickname
Game.” Aaron had several nicknames during his long career with the Braves and
Brewers, though all derived from the use of a single word–”hammer.” Aaron’s
nicknames–at first “Hammerin’ Henry” and then the less formal “Hammerin’
Hank”–originated at the typewriters of sportswriters, who saw a chance to make
an alliterative play on his first name while also paying tribute to Aaron’s
thunderous bat. The nickname was later shortened to “Hammer,” which was easier
to say and fit more easily into smaller headline space.
Unlike other superstar players with unique nicknames (Willie
“The Say Hey Kid” Mays, Stan “The Man” Musial, and Babe “The Bambino” Ruth),
Aaron’s nickname did not remain in his sole possession. Instead, it influenced
players from later generations. Slugging
John Milner, who made his big league debut with the Mets in 1971, or 17 years
after Aaron debuted in Milwaukee,
also became “The Hammer,” largely because he considered Aaron his boyhood idol.
While Milner never came close to matching Aaron’s greatness, he did become part
of the Pirates’ team that won the world championship in 1979. He also accomplished
far more than perennial Oakland
A’s prospect Bobby Brooks, an athletic outfielder who earned the moniker for
his hard-hitting style in the minor leagues. Brooks played only briefly for the
“Swingin’ A’s,” who had a number of talented outfielders ahead of him,
including Reggie Jackson, Billy North, and Joe Rudi.
Perhaps the most interesting “Hammer” to emerge in the 1970s
also came from the A’s, but from the front office. As a member of the skeleton
crew employed by Charlie Finley, Stanley Burrell worked as a glorified go-fer.
Burrell received the “hammer” label from Jackson,
the team’s All-Star right fielder and future Hall of Famer. Burrell couldn’t hit
like Aaron (or like Reggie for that matter), but did carry an uncanny facial
resemblance to Hammerin’ Hank. Burrell never gained much fame working in
baseball, but would later turn his singing and rapping talents into a musical
career as “M.C Hammer.”
And to think, it all started with Hank Aaron.
Congratulations, Hammer, on your new room at the Hall of Fame.
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.
“I didn’t see that coming.” Isn’t that what someone said in
a recent commercial for beer, or pizza, or chicken wings? Well, that’s what a
lot of us are saying after hearing that the Tigers had released Gary Sheffield.
The severing of a brand name usually carries some degree of shock, and it will
carry a cost for the Tigers, who still have to pay the $12 million salary due Sheffield in 2009.
The Tigers must think that Sheffield
40, is completely cooked to swallow that sizeable sum of money. An increasing
frequency of injuries along with a substantial loss of bat speed convinced the
Tigers that Sheffield would have been more of
a hindrance than a help. With Sheffield gone, the Tigers can feel more
comfortable in giving the majority of their DH at-bats to Marcus Thames, while
also sliding Thames into an outfield rotation
that features everyman Carlos Guillen in left, super stud Curtis Granderson in
center, and political lightning rod Magglio Ordonez in right.
I had always thought that Sheffield
would age gracefully because of his incredible bat speed, which was arguably
the fastest in the game at its peak. Even with some loss of bat speed, I
figured that Sheffield would retain enough to
remain a forceful hitter into his early forties. Unfortunately, Sheffield lost so much quickness in his wrists and hands
over the last year that it rendered him merely mortal at the plate. The lack of
bat speed became plainly evident this spring, as Sheffield
wallowed with an average under .200.
Is Sheffield done? The
Tigers obviously think so, but the odds are likely that at least one of the 29
other teams will take a flier on his right-handed power. The world champion
Phillies, who remain vulnerable to left-handed pitching, have already made
contact with Sheffield’s agent. Sheffield might fit the Phils as a platoon left fielder
(where he would share time with Raul Ibanez) and occasional first baseman
(where he could spot Ryan Howard against the occasional southpaw).
In regards to Sheffield’s
milestone and home run issues, they need to be relegated to the back burner of
the stove. Outside of Sheffield’s most devoted
fans, no one really cares that he remains one short of the 500-home run club. (No
other milestone has lost more luster in recent seasons.) The Tigers obviously
didn’t care, either, knowing that no additional fans would show up to Comerica Park
to watch Sheffield pursue history.
Furthermore, writers need to stop referring to Sheffield
as a future Hall of Famer. He was always going to be a borderline case because
of his career-long crankiness and shoot-first-think-later approach to the
spoken word. Because of his association with the BALCO scandal, Sheffield now has about as much chance of winning 75 per
cent of the writers’ vote as Albert Belle does…
One of the most underrated managers in the history of the
expansion era died on
Monday. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living
ex-manager, passed away at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial mark with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he
failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. With the lack of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison to contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and
as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s
look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than
four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a
season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.
In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three
second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the
time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles
and St. Louis,
and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league
had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have
pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.
Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later
with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants.
In 1977, Franks led Chicago
to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting
pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with
Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like
George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing
time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did
similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave
Kingman and using an innovative approach with Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the
Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks
began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the
lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of
being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving
his relief ace for late-game leads.
For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven
games remaining in the season. The following year, the Cubs finished 64-98,
nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.