The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Big Red Machine”

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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The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 7

Been away for a while.  Blame illness, child hunger (or just hungry kids), work, exotic invasive species, parents who never understood me, locusts, a dead car battery, the Republican primaries, Industrial Disease, etc.  Anyway, it’s good to be back doing the thing I love best.  Or, at any rate, one of the top four or five things.  And this one’s the cheapest.

So let’s get back at it.

When last we left this series, we had reached the happy conclusion that HOF voters did a very nice job with their induction choices in the decade of the 1990’s.  In fact, other than the half-decade of HOF choices in the first few “classes” back in the 1930’s, this was the best showing by the BBWAA and the Veteran’s Committee that we have seen in decades.

The ’90’s may have been the mythic Golden Age that some people seem to fervently believe has once been a part of the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame before, you know, they started letting in “just anybody.” (Please proceed to the links to Parts 1 and 2 below, if you haven’t already read them.)

Now it’s time to take a look at the most recent decade of HOF voting, the 21st century Aughts.  For most of us, we are well within our comfort zone here, having witnessed at least in some part the careers of virtually all of these inductees.

2000:  BBWAA – Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez 

Fisk is an obvious choice.  He is always rated among the top ten catchers of all time, often in the top five.  The original “Pudge,” from Bellows Falls, VT (population 3,165), caught more games than any other catcher in baseball history: 2,226.  He is second in career home runs as a catcher behind only Mike Piazza.  Fisk’s career WAR of 67.3 is certainly Hall worthy.

Odd factoid of the day:  the only time that Fisk led his league in any category occurred in 1972 when he paced the A.L. with 9 triples.

Tony Perez is a classic case of traditional stats vs. modern sabermetrics.

Like Fisk, Perez played well into his mid-40’s, but Perez was essentially finished being a useful player several years before that.  Perez slugged over 500 doubles, hit over 300 home runs, and drove in 1,652 runs.  He topped over 100 RBI in a season seven times, and, of course, he was a key cog in the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970’s.  He also scrubbed the floors, washed the dishes, and took the trash out when needed.

So what’s the problem here?  Well, those pesky modern stats (dag-nabbit!) are at it again, cutting a good man down to size.  And that’s precisely the point.  Perez was a good player, sometimes a very good player, but a questionable HOF’er.

In only five seasons did Perez reach 5.0 WAR in a season.  His career high, 6.7 in 1970, was the best in the league, but he never finished higher than seventh best in any other season.  In fact, after 1974, he never reached even 3.5 WAR in any year, meaning he was essentially treading water for the last dozen years of his career.  And not once in 23 seasons did Perez ever lead his league in any positive offensive category.

His career OPS+, 122, is good, but it’s the same as fellow first baseman Derrek Lee and Andre Thornton.

In other words, Perez is a questionable choice (though not necessarily a terrible one) for the Hall of Fame.  Yes, there are worse players in The Hall, but was he really one of the very best players of all time?

2001:  BBWAA – Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield  V.C.  Bill Mazeroski

Kirby Puckett

Image via Wikipedia

Once upon a time, we all thought we knew Kirby Puckett.  He seemed like a happy bundle of baseball joy.  Then the tragic Dennis Martinez pitch that broke Puckett’s jaw in September of 1995, followed by the glaucoma that ended his career at age 35.

Does it matter that we now know of his internal darkness, his violence, his personal demons, when reevaluating his HOF career?

Dave Winfield was a terrific athlete and apparently a decent man who toiled hopelessly in the shadows of Mr. Steinbrenner’s insatiable demand for glory.  That Winfield now enjoys permanent glory in the HOF is perhaps the cosmos way of balancing out the ledger.

In retrospect, both Winfield’s and Puckett’s careers feel like those periods of our life that we always thought we’d remember more fondly, but for which we now feel a strangely lackluster emptiness,  like a once-indispensable girlfriend whose very name now elicits a furled brow and an anxious, dyspeptic glance around the room.

The Hall of Fame, being, as it were, the litter-bin of the great and good, collects players like these whose stats and reputations are the stuff of the moderately great, or the toss-away fine.

So, yes, into The Hall of Fame with both of these mini-giants, and may at least a few of their former fans smile at the recall of their names!

Montage of Mazeroski's 1960 World Series winni...

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As for Bill Mazeroski, well, what a difference one big hit can make.  Despite the fact that he was one of the finest defensive second baseman of all time, would he have been voted into the HOF if not for his Game Seven World Series winning (for the Pirates) home run against the Yankees in 1960?  I think not.  So does the man make the moment, or does the moment make the man?

Either way, WAR says Mazeroski is a HOF wannabe, (26.9 WAR), unless you really love your Gold Glove-winning middle infielders (and who doesn’t?)

2002:  BBWAA – Ozzie Smith

Professional baseball player Ozzie Smith is sh...

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Now that’s a nice segue.  Ozzie Smith was the ultimate fan-favorite, light-hitting, acrobatic, awe-inspiring (almost out of hyphens now) middle infielder of all-time (damn, that was the last one.)

Now, a baseball player who finishes his career with an OPS+ of just 87 typically won’t make my list of players who deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown.  Ozzie Smith is the exception.  If you think Mazeroski’s defense was impressive (and I know you do), just wait until I pull out The Wizard of Oz career numbers.

Mazeroski’s career DWAR was an impressive 11.9, and his Total Zone Runs was an excellent 148.

The Wizard, by contrast, recorded a DWAR of 21.6 and a TZR of 239!  Clearly, he was from another planet.  Ozzie Smith recorded more assists (8,375) than any shortstop in history.  Another excellent defensive shortstop, Omar Vizquel, is still about 700 assists behind Smith despite having played in about 300 more games.

You might as well add in the 580 steals (about an 80% success rate) and twice as many walks as strikeouts, as well as the 2,460 hits and you have a package unlike any other in MLB history.  No, he doesn’t have Mazz’s one big heroic homer, but I’ll take the daily package just fine, thank you.  (Career WAR: 64.6).

2003:  BBWAA – Gary Carter, Eddie Murray

Like Pudge Fisk, Carter was a top ten all-time catcher.  Personally, I’ll take Carter in the top five.

Eddie Murray was a demonically consistent player.  In his rookie year with the Orioles at age 21 in 1977, in 611 at bats, Murray had 173 hits, of which 29 were doubles, 27 were homers,  he batted .283, and he slugged .470.

Sixteen years later, at the age of 37 with the Mets in 1993, in 610 at bats, Murray had 174 hits, 28 of which were doubles, 27 were homers, he batted .285, and he slugged .467.

In between, Murray hit at least 25 homers in a season 12 times, posted an OPS+ of at least 130 eleven times, topped .500 slugging percentage seven times, and generally wreaked havoc and fear in both leagues from both sides of the plate.

In his 20-year career, Murray cranked out over 3,000 hits, 500+ doubles, and over 500 homers.

His 1,942 runs created ranks 25th best ever, over 200 more than compiled by long-time teammate Cal Ripkin, Jr.

So, yeah, he was good.

2004:  BBWAA – Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley

Virtually all of Molitor’s career value lies in his offense (career DWAR just 0.8).  But, with an Offensive WAR of 74.0, who cares?  He was the second greatest Brewer ever, after Robin Yount. He also contributed an MVP-caliber season in 1993 with the World Champion Blue Jays.  He hit .341 at age 39 with the Twins in 1996, his 19th season in the Majors.  Certainly, Paul Molitor belongs in The Hall of Fame.

Dennis Eckersley is the Frankenstein’s Monster (Dr. Frankenstein being A’s manager Tony LaRussa) of the modern 9th inning save specialist.  And for that we may grind and gnash our teeth without let or hindrance, but to no avail.  The modern, ninth inning save specialist is here to stay.

But let’s not hold that against Eck.  Although he looks like one of the Allman Brothers circa 1972, the man could pitch.  Even the infamous home run he surrendered to Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in the ’88 World Series never really sullied his reputation.  I think that’s because Eck was always such a fierce competitor, he was able to brush off a moment that would have wrecked the careers of lesser mortals.

Eck basically had two careers, including four distinct phases as a starting pitcher.  He went from being a young, unpolished flame-thrower with the Indians (200 K’s in 199 innings, 1976) to a staff ace in Boston (20-8, 2.99 ERA in ’78), to a mediocre innings eater (13-13, 3.73 ERA in 224 innings with Boston in ’82) to a broken down hunk of scrap metal with the Cubbies in 1986 (6-11, 4.57 ERA in 201 innings.)

Oakland took a chance on Eck in ’87, and by ’88 he was on his way to becoming one of the most dominant relief pitchers of all time.  He enjoyed an unbelievable run of five consecutive years from 1988-92, inclusive, during which his worst WHIP was 0.913.

My favorite Eck season, though, and one of the best by any pitcher in history, was in 1990 when, in 73 innings he fanned 73 batters while walking — are you ready for this?– 4 batters all season.  He gave up just five earned runs all year resulting in an ERA of 0.61.  His ERA+ was a comically absurd 610.

In 1992, he was voted A.L. MVP and won the Cy Young award.

I’m sure there aren’t too many pitchers in the HOF with 197 wins, 100 complete games and 390 saves.  I have no problem with Dennis Eckersley being in the Hall of Fame.

2005:  BBWAA – Wade Boggs, Ryne Sandberg

Boggs received 91.86% of the vote; Sandberg just cleared the hurdle by the slimmest of margins, receiving 76.16% of the vote.  Boggs was a slam-dunk choice:  3,010 hits, seven consecutive seasons of at least 200 hits and at least 100 runs scored (1983-89), and an incredible run of five straight years (’85-’89) accumulating a WAR of at least 8.2 in each season.

He was also a pretty good defensive third baseman, accumulating 10.1 DWAR in his career.

I believe a case can be made that Wade Boggs was the best player in Major League Baseball during the 1980’s.

Ryne Sandberg was nearly as great as Boggs.

Sandberg was a ten-time All Star, he won nine Gold Gloves, earned seven Silver Sluggers, and won an MVP award in 1984.  His wide-ranging skills are revealed by seven 100+ runs scored seasons, a 200 hit season, a 40-homer year, a couple of 100 RBI seasons, and a 50 steal season.  He was one of the top ten second baseman of all time.  Bill James ranks him seventh best at that position, between Nap Lajoie and Charlie Gehringer.

Why nearly one-quarter of BBWAA voters left him off their ballots in 2005  is beyond me.

2006:  BBWAA – Bruce Sutter

English: Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bruce S...

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Is it unusual for a 13-year old kid to emulate his favorite split-fingered fastball tossing relief pitcher?  ‘Cause around 1977, that kid was me.  I got pretty good at it, too.  My friend Johnny, who actually had a catcher’s mask and mitt, used to hold his glove about eight inches above the ground, and damned if I didn’t hit that target directly in the middle  eight times out of ten.

I’m not saying I was quite as good as Bruce Sutter, but the fact is that between us, we saved exactly 300 games.  I’m just saying, Bruce, that it would be nice to, you know, send me a postcard once in a while.  Where’s the love, man?

2007:  BBWAA – Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripkin, Jr.

Now that’s a pair of ballplayers.

I loved Tony Gwynn.  I loved listening to him talk, and I loved knowing that players with his natural ability to hit a baseball (eight batting titles) come along once in a lifetime, and that I was there to see it.

Ripkin circling the perimeter of Camden Yards the night he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record is a memory that still gives me goosebumps on my arms.

Could Cal Ripkin, Jr. be the last legitimate American Hero?  To borrow from Simon and Garfunkel, “Where have you gone, Cal Ripkin, our nation turns it lonely eyes to you?”

2008:  BBWAA – Goose Gossage

Sparky Lyle, the Yankees closer, won the 1977 Cy Young award.  That off-season, the Yankees then went out and signed free agent Goose Gossage, prompting Yankees 3rd baseman Graig Nettles to quip that Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara.”

310 saves later, Gossage represents one of the last of the old time closers for whom 100 innings pitched in a season was not unusual.

Incidentally, Gossage helped lead the Yanks to their second consecutive World Championship in ’78.  Sparky Lyle was still a Yankee in ’78, playing second fiddle to Gossage, then went over to Texas and on into oblivion.  But he was a helluva pitcher in his own right.

Still, Gossage is in the HOF, and Lyle is not.  So it goes.

2009:  BBWAA – Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice  V.C.  Joe Gordon

Rickey Henderson was the greatest lead-off hitter of all-time.

But what if, somehow, we find out that Rickey Henderson used steroids?  He was certainly in the clubhouse with Canseco and McGwire when this phenomenon was relatively new to baseball.  And I remember seeing photos of Rickey in about 1988 or so in which his upper body was just massive.  I mean, it was a body-builders body, not a typical lead-off hitter’s body.

Obviously, without any objective evidence one way or the other, we can only go by his numbers, and they are extraordinary.  No one would argue that his numbers are not Hall-worthy, and it isn’t fair to pronounce on him guilt by association, is it?

So, then, why do we allow this to happen with Jeff Bagwell?  Just sayin’.

As for Jim Rice, more than enough ink has been spilled by people like myself who do not think he is a highly suitable choice for The Hall, unless you also consider Jimmy Wynn, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy to be HOF’ers.  And perhaps you do, but Jim Rice wasn’t significantly better than they were.

The Veteran’s Committee has had a very quiet decade, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Joe Gordon is a decent addition to the HOF, ranking among the top 15 second baseman of all-time.  Had good pop for a second baseman, cranking at least 20 homers in a year in seven of his eleven seasons.  He was also reputed to be excellent on the double-play pivot.  Not a top tier HOF’er, but we’re past worrying about that, right?

2010:  BBWAA – Andre Dawson

Player A:  Career WAR:  57.0,  Career OPS+ 119,  Runs Created:  1,518

Player B:  Career WAR:  64.6,  Career OPS+123,  Runs Created:  1,636

Player A is Andre Dawson.  Those aren’t bad numbers, sort of the lower middle class among non-middle infielder HOF’ers.

Player B is Dawson’s former teammate, Tim Raines.

If you asked a typical HOF voter why he would vote for Dawson over Raines (and, obviously, many have) they would probably cite intangibles like leadership, solid citizenship, and other “hidden” factors.  They might knock Raines down a peg or two for the cocaine scandal he was involved in at one point in his career.

Personally, the scandals of prior generations don’t much interest me.  We have our own, and future generations will have theirs as well.  It turns out that ballplayers are human and make mistakes after all.  We can continue to play mother-superior every time a new scandal “shocks” us, or we can allow for a cool-off time to provide some greater context.

Meanwhile, the BBWAA, having chosen Jim Rice and Andre Dawson in consecutive years, seems to be slowly reverting to it’s habit of previous years, selecting those players whose lobbying efforts by proxy, combined with a bit of laziness on the part of the writers themselves, creates a bogus need to fill a false void in The Hall.

2011:  BBWAA – Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven

When I was a kid, there is no way I considered Blyleven to be a future Hall of Famer.  Our heroes included Tom Seaver, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, and perhaps Steve Carlton.  What did we know?  Blyleven was an excellent pitcher who toiled on lots of mediocre teams.  Career WAR:  90.1 is definitely HOF worthy.

Roberto Alomar was graceful and fun to watch at second base, though a bit overrated defensively.  A great base-stealer and an excellent line-drive hitter, there are maybe half a dozen better second basemen in The Hall, and that’s about it.  If he hadn’t spit on umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996, he would have been a first ballot inductee.  Stupid thing to do, but he apologized, and Hirschbeck accepted it.

Since the year 2000, then, 22 players have been inducted into The Hall.  Depending on how you view relief pitchers like Eck, Sutter, and Gossage (I’m fine with all three), you could choose to determine that about 17 or 18 of these choices were solid.

I think that legitimate arguments can be made that Tony Perez, Bill Mazeroski, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and, if you want to be picky, Joe Gordon, were questionable inductees.  Mazeroski, Perez and Rice are, to me, the worst picks of the decade, though not as bad as some of the players chosen in previous decades.

In the next, and last post, of this series, I will attempt to draw some final conclusions regarding Hall of Fame inductees over the past three-quarters of a century.  And we’ll attempt to answer the question we started with, “Has there ever been a Golden Age of the Hall of Fame.”

Parts 1-6, should you care to go back and take a look at them, are listed below.

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

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