The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “pop culture”

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

 

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Soundtrack for Baseball: July, 2012

This is my third offering in a sporadic series in which I mix baseball analysis with some of my favorite music artists.  Let’s call this one “The Blues Edition.”  (Please ignore any commercials that may appear.  For “Full Screen,” click the icon on the lower, right-hand corner of each video.)

The relationship between the analysis and the songs is tenuous at best, but it amuses me nevertheless (as do bright, shiny objects and fire trucks.)

Here were my offerings for April and May (June somehow slipped by me unnoticed.)

The point of these posts is to create a video-blog of the highlights (and low lights) of the baseball season.  I’ll leave it to other bloggers to address this season’s stats and stories in a more traditional fashion.

So let’s begin.

Has any PHEENOM ever made such a huge impact in his first full season as Mike Trout has done this season?  The list of players who were great right out of the gate, and who went on to have fantastic careers, is not a very long one.  That list would include, for example, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez and a handful of others.

Add Mike Trout to that list.  Sure, it’s true that Trout’s future is yet to be written, but other than the possibility of injury, there is no reason to think that we’re not looking at the next Stan Musial or Mickey Mantle.

All Trout has done so far is hit a league-leading .351 to go along with a circuit-pacing 78 runs scored in just 80 games.  Oh, and did I mention he’s also stolen the most bases in the A.L. (35) while being caught an absurdly low 3 times?  How about that 180 OPS+, also the best in the junior league.

The fact is, pitchers have to learn to stop “Messin’ with the Kid.  Here’s a direct appeal to MLB pitchers from Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, so listen up.

Meanwhile, up in New York, the Yankees have added both age and depth to their first-place team by trading for Seattle’s most famous icon (and, no, I don’t mean Starbucks.)

Ichiro Suzuki has been a fixture in the Mariners outfield since he burst on the Major League scene in 2001.

But after 11 1/2 years in Seattle the former MVP has finally been granted his wish to play for a team that could well find itself in the World Series this year.

Ichiro has accumulated over 2,500 hits in his MLB career along with a career batting average of .322.  The ten time All-Star and future Hall of Famer has won 10 Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and has led the A.L. in hits seven times.  He has been a one-of-a-kind player in his generation.

Yet Ichiro is also 38-years old, and clearly isn’t the player he once was.  His OPS+ of 82 this season is unimpressive, while his batting average is just .261.  Though it’s true he still has some value, it is clear he is no longer able to do “The Things That {he} Used To Do.”

I’ll let the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughan spell it out for you.

I wasn’t sure he could do it again.

I’m talking about the Tigers Uber-Ace, 29-year old Justin Verlander.  Last year, he won both the Cy Young award and the MVP award.  It was perhaps asking too much for a repeat performance, yet Verlander is not far off last year’s pace.

Granted, Verlander won’t finish this season with a 24-5 record, as he did in 2011.  His record currently stands at 11-7, but he has pitched better than that. Verlander leads the A.L. in innings pitched, complete games, and fewest hits surrendered per nine innings.  His ERA is just .23 higher than last year.  He is second in his league in strikeouts, starts and WHIP, while also leading the league in WAR for pitchers.

Verlander is a polished pitcher with a solid arsenal, but his bread and butter pitch is an old-fashioned 100 mile per hour fastball.  His is the ultimate power arm.  His nickname should be the “Smoking Gun,” ’cause that’s what he brings to the table.

So let’s dedicate this next song, “Smoking Gun,” performed by the smooth as silk Robert Cray, in honor of Verlander’s awesome right arm.

When we were kids, our best pitcher would always pitch the most games.  Sounds logical, right?  In the Majors, of course, things are much different.  Sure, it’s true that a relief pitcher will probably appear in more games than a typical starting pitcher.  That’s the nature of the job.  But, apparently, it doesn’t necessarily follow that even your best relief pitcher will lead the staff in appearances.

That honor is often enjoyed by the specialist of all specialists, the situational lefty.

He doesn’t have to be particularly good, mind you, just left-handed.

Situational lefties are the summer school teachers of the bullpen.  They’re willing to do the job, and there just ain’t that many others to choose from with their particular mix of modest self-esteem and masochism.

Which explains (though it doesn’t excuse) why lefty Tim Byrdak of the Mets leads the entire Major Leagues in appearances (as of August 1st.)

In 55 appearances, Byrdak has managed to accumulate a paltry 30.1 (not entirely effective) innings pitched.  His ERA on the season is 4.45.  Apparently, his “situations” have been a bit more challenging for Byrdak than he would like.

But once a Major League manager gets an idea in his head, or develops an irrational affinity for a particular player, there’s just no turning back.  So manager Terry Collins runs the 38-year old Byrdak out there about two out of every three games (actually, Byrdak has recently missed a couple of games with a sore knee) and hopes for the best.

Good baseball strategy?  Who cares.  It’s what’s de rigueur these days in Baseball Land.  Obviously, it’s simply impossible to love mediocrity too much.  Does it backfire sometimes?  Sure, love is like that.

So here’s an ode to loving someone or something too much by the late, great, blind Canadian blues artist, Jeff Healey.

Someday, I’d like to meet an actual Padres fan.

The San Diego Padres were one of baseball’s expansion teams in 1969.  Forty-three years after their founding, not only have they not won a World Championship, but they’ve won only one World Series game.  (Andy Hawkins beat the Tigers’ Dan Petry, October 10, 1984, 5-3.)

They’ve also never reached the 100-win plateau in any season, topping out at 98 wins in 1998.  In fact, they’ve topped 90 wins in a season just four times since the first man walked on the moon.

During their existence, they have lost 520 more games than they’ve won.

Their only league MVP winner, Ken Caminiti in 1996, turned out to be a steroids user, was arrested in a Houston hotel room for possession of crack cocaine, and died prematurely at age 41.

If that’s not enough to give a baseball fan the blues, I don’t know what is.

Sure, other MLB teams have suffered long droughts of futility, but, other than Tony Gwynn, can you give me one reason the Padres haven’t been baseball’s most superfluous team?

The question is, “How Many More Years” will the Padres offer so little in the way of hope and success to their (presumably loyal) fans?

Perhaps it’s time for a little Howlin’ Wolf as an antidote to this historically uncompelling franchise.

With that, my friends, we come to the end of this edition of a “Soundtrack for Baseball.”  I hope you enjoyed it.  We may do it again in another month.

Soundtrack for Baseball: May, 2012

Back by popular demand, today I offer you Part 2 of my monthly series,  Soundtrack for Baseball.”  Here’s the link to Part 1 if you missed it, or if you want to go back and have another listen.

A lot has happened in baseball over the past month, and I hope this video soundtrack captures just a bit of the flavor of this season up through the first week of June.

As a Mets fan, I have to say that the first couple of months of the 2012 baseball season have been more fun than I can remember having in years.  At the beginning of the year, my only hope was that the Mets would just play competitive baseball, and lose fewer than 90 games.  As of this writing, the Mets are in a three-way tie for first place in the tough N.L. East, an amazing eight games over .500.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Johan Santana became the first Mets pitcher in the half-century history of this franchise to throw a no-hitter.

Yes, it’s been a truly magical year thus far at Citi Field.  Hopefully this magic bubble won’t burst during the dog days of August.  The question is, do you believe in magic?  Back in 1969, when the Amazin’ Miracle Mets won their first World Series, Jay and the Americans had a hit single with “This Magic Moment.”

One of the teams keeping up with the Mets is the Florida Marlins, who are apparently attempting to steal their way to a pennant.  Generally, I think stolen bases are overrated as a strategic weapon, and most teams that run a lot seldom go on to become World Champions (yes, there have been some exceptions.)

The Marlins have stolen 62 bases as a team this year; no other team has reached 50.  Emilio Bonifacio leads the Marlins, and the Majors with 20 steals.  Maybe the Marlins will run into a pennant with their speedy legs.  I’m guessing Marlins fans hope their favorite team stays hot, even if it means they’ll have to leg their way into the playoffs.   Hmm, hot legs.  Why does that sound familiar?  Maybe Rod Stewart can help us out.

If, incidentally, some future anthropologist decides to mine Rock n’ Roll for a glimpse into the psyche of late-20th century Western Civilization, he could do worse than to display this video as Exhibit A.  Please excuse the damned commercial that might pop up.

Has anyone noticed what a great year Carlos Gonzalez is having for the otherwise winning-impaired Colorado Rockies? (23-30.)  It took me by surprise that this 26-year old star is having a big year, leading the N.L. in total bases (128), slugging percentage (.634), and runs scored (45) through 50 games.  After an off-year last season, Gonzalez is reasserting himself as one of the top young players in the game.

I wonder what Gonzalez hears in his head when he’s rounding second base, digging for third, and being waved around to score.  Is he thinking just one word, HOME?  How exactly does that sound in his head?  Perhaps something like this:

Back on May 2nd, I picked up this story on CBS This Morning about Roger Clemens’ old friend and teammate, Andy Pettitte, testifying against his former mentor in the trial to decide if Clemens has committed perjury regarding the use of HGH and other banned substances.

One has to consider these drugs a kind of high for athletes who are addicted to success from which they don’t ever want to come down.  Most of us will never know the kind of fame and fortune that was Clemens good fortune at one time, so it is perhaps impossible for us to ever know what it was like to be faced with the end of a brilliant career.  What then?  The broadcast booth.  Endless rounds of golf for the next 35 years?

But worse, how must it feel when your former best friend testifies against you in open court, in front of thousands of witnesses.  One can only guess that Clemens must be feeling that he hopes Pettitte will never let him down again.  Or perhaps it is Pettitte who feels let down by Clemens alleged behavior.  Either way, here’s a song by Depeche Mode called “Never Let Me Down Again” that captures the sinister nature of a friendship turned sour.

But long before the ugly, inevitable breakdowns of age, there is the limitless potential of youth.  For most young people, especially for those who have been marked at an early age for greatness, there is  a tendency to cockiness, a natural inclination to eschew nuance and moderation in favor of the simple and the bold.

Such has been the start of the Washington Nationals’ young star outfielder Bryce Harper.  When Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels pointlessly plunked Harper in the back, the completely unimpressed Harper later stole home off Hamels.  Take that, old man!  (Hamels is 28, nine years older than Harper.)  Harper is part of a new generation of young talent (Angels outfielder Mike Trout is 20) that is ready to very quickly make their collective mark on Major League baseball.

For my money, no song has ever quite captured the brash, emotional intensity of the teenage male the way The Who’s song “5:15″ did on the highly underrated album “Quadrophenia.”  Play it loud, and picture Bryce Harper stealing home, or slugging a fastball out of the park.

When Kerry Wood announced his retirement on May 18th after a 14-year Major League career, I think many of us immediately remembered the then 20-year old Wood’s fifth career start when he struck out 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit pitching performance that, at the time, seemed to herald a long, dominating career.

In a way it did, though not exactly as we expected.

Wood struck out the last batter he ever faced in the Majors, the White Sox’s Dayan Viciedo, then left the field to a standing ovation.  After 14 years in the Majors, Wood ranks second all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.317.)  Only Randy Johnson averaged more strikeouts per nine innings.

Yet Kerry Wood finished his career with a record of only 86-75, and he spent most of his career either on the Disabled List or pitching in relief.  The complete game shutout Wood tossed against the Astros as a 20-year old was one of only eleven complete games and just five shutouts he would throw in his entire career.  Wood led the N.L. in strikeouts in 2003 with 266 — one of four 200 K seasons in his career — then was essentially finished as a starting pitcher at age 26.

But boy, in his glory days, he could throw that speed-ball by you (and that curve ball, too.)  Just 34-years old now, Wood should have plenty of years left to tell boring stories of his glory days to his kids and grandchildren.  And maybe he’ll think of himself whenever he hears this Bruce Springsteen classic called, appropriately enough, “Glory Days.”

That’s all for tonight, folks.  Hope you enjoyed this particular playlist.  We’ll probably do it again in about a month.

Underrated / Overrated: Baseball, and Other Stuff – Part VII

The Green Hornet Trading Card

Image by Sean Castor via Flickr

For your reading pleasure, today we take a look back at a shortstop that once appeared headed for greatness, a superhero team possessing no particular superpowers, and a pre-WWII Japanese pitcher.  Along the way, we’ll also throw in a visit to a restaurant, and a strange baseball story or two.

Overrated:  Dave Concepcion – Recently, I’ve been reading arguments on baseball blogs and websites that Dave Concepcion should be in the Hall of Fame.  The reasoning goes that without Concepcion’s defense and solid approach at the plate, the Big Red Machine would not have been able to fire on all cylinders.  For the record, Concepcion’s career OPS+ was 88, meaning that he was just 88% as effective at the plate as a typical replacement level ballplayer.  In 12 of his 19 seasons, his OPS+ was below 100.  He never scored 100 runs in a season, and only once did he top 90 runs scored.

Concepcion’s career high in hits was 170, he seldom drew a walk, and he had very limited power.  His career batting average was .267, his on-base percentage was .322, and his slugging percentage was a horrid .357.

With those kinds of stats on offense, it would take one helluva resume on defense to get one into The Hall, wouldn’t it?

Concepcion won five Gold Gloves, but Gold Gloves can be misleading.  They are not based on actual defensive metrics; they are awarded solely on the subjective perceptions others have of a player’s defensive abilities.  But, although Concepcion’s defensive statistics are good, it’s unclear whether they qualify as Hall of Fame worthy.  His Range Factor / 9 Innings, 4.98, is 16th best all-time among shortstops.  His career defensive WAR stands at an acceptable 1.1.

Dave Concepcion, with a total career WAR of 33.6, had a fine, nineteen-year career.  But arguments that he should be among those inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame are, at best, overstated.

Underrated:  Gary Templeton – It is no overstatement to say that as late as 1980, five years into Templeton’s career, he appeared to be on the verge of greatness.  He had already led the N.L. in triples three straight years, had batted well over .300 in 1977, ’79 and 1980, and had posted a couple of 200 hit seasons (including a league-leading 211 hits in ’79.)

Templeton also averaged 30 stolen bases per year over that same four-year period.  More to the point, however, Templeton’s cocky, flamboyant temperament captured the imagination of many of the young fans at the time.  For example, in the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” (1982), one of the primary teen characters has a Gary Templeton poster prominently displayed on his bedroom wall.

Templeton also exhibited excellent range in the field, though he did make his share of errors.  In fact, in ’78, ’79 and ’80 he led the N.L. in errors.  But his career Range Factor / 9 Innings was 5.07, seventh best of all-time (and nine places better than Concepcion.)

Then a funny thing happened on the way to stardom.

On December 10th, 1981, the Cardinals unceremoniously traded Templeton to San Diego for some guy named Ozzie Smith.  Ozzie, of course, went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career in St. Louis.  Templeton’s career, for reasons that probably included his inability to draw a walk as well as the poorer hitting environment he encountered in San Diego, faltered badly.  At the age of just 27-years old, when many players are just entering their prime, Templeton’s career was already on a down-hill slide.

Templeton’s fielding remained alternately spectacular and erratic.  He finally retired after the 1991 season at age 35.

Yet his career OPS+ of 87 (but higher in his St. Louis days), and his fielding range, were not significantly different from Concepcion’s.

If you prefer a career with a higher peak than one that is steadier over time, Templeton is your man.

Either way, however, neither Concepcion nor Templeton, despite having enjoyed success in the Majors, can truly be considered a Hall of Fame caliber player.

Overrated:  Batman and Robin (the 1960’s T.V. show) – As superheroes go, not only did they not actually have any superpowers, but Robin was basically useless in a brawl.  Countless times, Batman had to rescue Robin.  Moreover, Batman’s inability to read a trap before he encountered one occasionally even led to an emergency rescue by Bat Girl.  And why didn’t Batman ever finally make a serious move on either Bat Girl or Cat Woman?  Did he secretly favor Robin?  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Underrated:  The Green Hornet and Kato – How cool is it when the junior partner in a crime-fighting team is Bruce freakin’ Lee? The short-lived T.V. series (one season) starred Van Williams as newspaper publisher Britt Reid, a.k.a., the Green Hornet.  Bruce Lee, of course, played Kato. Williams and Lee played it cool and low-key, but were always in complete control of a given situation. And their ride, the Black Beauty, was a deadly arsenal prowling the nighttime streets.  Good stuff.  If I was in the middle of being victimized, I’d prefer this dynamic duo to bail me out rather than the more famous caped crusaders prancing around Gotham City.

Overrated:  Roger Clemens first 20-strikeout performance (April 29, 1986) – Do you know who was batting leadoff for the atrocious Seattle Mariner ball club that day?  Try Spike Owen, who finished the year with a .300 on-base percentage (that’s on-base, folks.  Not batting average.)  Gorman Thomas, who hit .194 for the season, was the cleanup hitter.  In the three-hole?  Ken Phelps and his .247 batting average.  The lineup also featured Jim Presley (career .290 on-base percentage) who fanned 172 times that season.  Phil Bradley was perhaps the only respectable hitter in that lineup: .310 batting average, 12 home runs, 50 RBI’s and 134 strikeouts.  Clearly, Clemens was basically facing (at best) a Triple-A lineup that day.  The Mariners finished 1986 with a 67-95 record, the worst in the A.L.

Underrated:  17-year old Japanese pitcher vs. America (November 20, 1934) – On a barnstorming tour of the orient in the 1934 off-season, a talented group of American baseball players engaged in an exhibition game in Japan.  During that game, a Japanese teenager named Eiji Sawamuru of the Yomiuri Giants came in to face a star-studded American lineup.  Sawamuru pitched five innings, and he struck out nine Americans, including future Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, in succession.

Ten years later, 27-year old Sawamuru was killed fighting the Americans in the Pacific Theatre during WWII

Overrated:  Salad Bars – The tubercular guy across from you coughs violently onto the wilted lettuce.  A single, desultory piece of broccoli lies dead on a metal tray like a cadaver at a morgue.  The mushrooms are all in it together, gathering bacteria in one last-ditch effort to take you down with them.  Flies dive-bomb the antipasto salad, depositing feces and larvae wherever they can. The shredded carrots, bereft of dignity, no longer even care.  All this, and stale bread-sticks, for $7.95.

Underrated:  The Dessert Cart – Undisputedly, the high point of Western Civilization.

Overrated:  (Strange but True Category) - In the second game of a double-header on Sunday, August 19, 1951, Edward Carl (Eddie) Gaedel, an American with dwarfism, received his one and only Major League at bat for the Browns against the Tigers. He drew a walk. Gaedel was 3’ 7” tall, and weighed 65-pounds.  He was signed by St. Louis Brown’s owner Bill Veeck to a one-day contract as a publicity stunt.

But Gaedel’s story is more tragic than funny.  A heavy drinker with a combative personality, Gaedel died of a heart attack after being mugged in 1961.  The only person in any way associated with Major League baseball who attended Gaedel’s funeral was retired pitcher Bob Cain, the man who walked Eddie Gaedel in his sole Major League plate appearance.

Underrated:  (Strange but True Category) – The strangest story I’ve ever read about the death of a Major League baseball player involves Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Len Koenicke.  Koenicke, 31-years old, had been playing for the Dodgers for just two seasons when, on September 17, 1935, he was involved in an altercation on an American Airlines airplane.  Intoxicated, he was forced to get off the plane, so he hired a charter plane.

While in mid-flight on the charter, Koenicke began to fiddle with the flight control panel.  The pilot was forced to physically prevent Koenicke from touching the controls.  This led to a brawl between Koenicke, the pilot and another passenger.  While no one was flying the plane, the pilot, out of desperation, grabbed a fire extinguisher and smashed it over Koenicke’s head.  Somehow, the pilot managed to regain control of the airplane, and he made an emergency landing in Toronto, Canada.

When the Toronto police came to investigate the situation, they found that Koenicke was dead due to the blow on the head he received during the fight.

Thus endeth another edition of Underrated / Overrated. Hope you enjoyed it.  Now, a special message:

Special Note: Beginning this Friday, January 14th, Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present and I will be teaming up on a new series entitled,  “Baseball’s Best of the Worst.” This 12-week long series will examine one player per week (to be published on Fridays) who was the best player on a terrible baseball team.  Graham will guest-post six of the twelve installments here on this blog.  His focus will be on teams and players pre-1961.

I will write the other six installments in an alternating format with Graham.  My focus will be on post-1961 teams.

Graham’s blog, Baseball Past and Present has been a constant source of information and entertainment for me for some time now, and I am really looking forward to sharing this space with him.  So please join us beginning this Friday for the first post in our new series.  I’ll be writing the first post, and Graham will be officially joining us on Friday, January 21st.

We hope you enjoy it.

Regards, Bill

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 27 – The Houston Astros

The Bad News Bears

Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps it says something about my shameless immaturity, as well as the uniquely mind-warping experience of having been weened on 1970’s pop culture, that whenever I think of the Houston Astros, Walter Matthau’s “Bad News Bears” come to mind.

I have to admit that I thought Tatum O’Neal (the best pitcher on that team) was pretty cute back then.

This was 1976, when she and I were both just 13-years old.

The movie ends, more or less, with the foul-mouthed, youthful Bears spraying beer (!) all over each other upon finishing the season in second place (they had been expected to finish last.)

In 1977, “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” follows the Bears all the way to the Houston Astrodome (minus my gal Tatum,) which was still considered an impressive monument to modern engineering in those days.

I remember Cesar Cedeno, the Astros center-fielder, had a cameo role in that film.  While the Bears enjoyed yet another successful season in ’77, the Astros finished 81-81, good for 3rd place in the N.L. West.

Meanwhile, 26-year old Cesar Cedeno — already in his eighth big league season — enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, year.  He batted .279, stole 61 bases, stroked 36 doubles, and scored 92 runs.

But Cesar Cedeno’s Best Forgotten Season was in 1972.

Just 21-years old, Cedeno led the N.L. in doubles for the second time with 39 (after swatting 40 the previous year), he scored a career high 103 runs, stole 55 bases, and added 22 homers, eight triples and 82 RBI’s.

Cedeno batted .320 and slugged .537; he would post precisely the same two percentages the following season.

Cedeno’s 8.2 WAR is still the fourth best in Astros history.

His .921 OPS, 162 OPS+, and 300 total bases would all represent the highest totals he would reach in those three categories in his career. 

Cedeno also played in the ’72 All-Star game, won a Gold Glove (one of five he would win in his career), and finished sixth in the N.L. MVP voting.

I always find it interesting when a player like Cedeno peeks at such a young age, remains productive for an extended period of time, but never again produces an MVP caliber season. 

Why is that?  Is there a certain amount of luck involved, coupled with peak physical performance, that accounts for this phenomenon?

True, many players reach their peak-performance years when they are about 27-years old. But baseball history is littered with ballplayers who had careers similar to Cedeno’s: Vada Pinson and Ruben Sierra are just two players who come immediately to mind.

Cedeno enjoyed 17 big league seasons, finishing with a career batting average of .285, 550 stolen bases (26th all-time), 2,087 hits, 1,084 runs scored, 436 doubles, 60 triples and 199 home runs.

His career Win Probability Added (WPA) is 31.7, 77th best in baseball history.

Meanwhile, Tatum O’Neal, after having  dealt with drug and alcohol issues in the past, has made a comeback in recent years starring as Maggie Gavin in the hit T.V. show “Rescue Me,” playing Tommy Gavin’s (Denis Leary) sister.

Going back even further in Houston Astros history, though, back to a time when they were known as the Colt-45’s, and Tatum and I were yet to be born, you may come across the name Turk Farrell.

28-year old Turk Farrell, a big right-handed pitcher born and raised in Massachusetts, had been taken in the 1961 expansion draft by the Colt 45’s after having been left unprotected by the L.A. Dodgers.

Turk Farrell’s Best Forgotten Season was 1962.

For a pitcher on a first-year expansion team, Farrell performed quite well.  In a club-leading 241 innings, he struck out 203 batters, posted a 3.02 ERA, tossed eleven complete games, including two shutouts, and posted a solid WHIP of 1.097, which was second best in the league.

For all of that, Farrell was rewarded by his teammates with a final win-loss record of 10-20.  There were three other 20-game losers in the N.L. in ’62; two of them played for the expansion Mets.

Farrell ended his 14-year big league career after the 1969 season with a career record of 106-111.  His career ERA+ of 104 indicates that he was typically your standard issue, average major league starting pitcher.

His 1962 season has led me to consider starting a new (shorter) series about players who perform well, often for bad or mediocre teams, but whose statistics don’t always tell the full story of their relative success.

That’s another way of saying that this 27-part series “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons,” has finally come to a merciful end.  After slogging it out for about six months, I have certainly learned a lot more than I ever thought I would about each teams’ forgotten stars.

If you’ve been with me the whole time, or even part of the time, thank you so much for being kind enough to follow along.  For those of you who have left kind comments along the way, I always appreciate the ego-stroking sentiments.

If you are interested in reviewing any of the particular posts from this series, or if there are some you missed along the way, I have included links to each segment of this series below.

Part 1: The New York Mets
Part 2: The Chicago Cubs
Part 3: The New York Yankees
Part 4: The Montreal Expos
Part 5: The Phillies
Part 6: The Brooklyn Dodgers
Part 7: The Los Angeles Dodgers
Part 8: The Cincinnati Reds
Part 9: The Boston Red Sox
Part 10: The Atlanta Braves
Part 11: The Cleveland Indians
Part 12: The Kansas City Royals
Part 13: The Baltimore Orioles
Part 14: The Detroit Tigers
Part 15: The St. Louis Cardinals
Part 16: The Oakland A’s
Part 17: The Pittsburgh Pirates
Part 18: The San Francisco Giants
Part 19: The Seattle Mariners
Part 20: The Minnesota Twins
Part 21: The Chicago White Sox
Part 22: The Texas Rangers
Part 23: The San Diego Padres
Part 24: The Toronto Blue Jays
Part 25: The Milwaukee Brewers
Part 26: The Angels

Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Bill Miller

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