The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Charlie Finley”

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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Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 16 – The Oakland A’s

topps greatest moments - Sal Bando

Image by Thomas Duchnicki :: Location Scout via Flickr

Growing up on the east coast in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Oakland A’s of my youth appeared to be a strange bunch of fellows.

As a Mets fan, I watched only WOR-Channel 9.  The hated Yankees were on WPIX-Channel 11.  Since I was a Mets fan, I grew quite familiar with the rhythms of their N.L. only schedule. And since I only started watching baseball in 1974, I missed by one year watching the improbable Mets take on the A’s in the ’73 Series.

As there was no inter-league baseball in those days other than the World Series, the only limited exposure I had to the players on the Oakland A’s was through their baseball cards.  And what a group they were.  The A’s struck me as a team composed of long-haul truck drivers, urban speedsters, and western gunslingers.

Charlie O. Finley‘s club was both literally and figuratively a colorful bunch.  Their garish green and gold uniforms offended the eye.  The handle-bar mustaches several of their players sported were anachronistically 19th century.

Nevertheless, two players on the A’s struck me as working class types that I might be able to relate to.  While Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter were the stars on that team, I could identify with 3rd baseman Sal Bando and left-fielder Joe Rudi.

Bando and Rudi struck me as regular guys that might work with my dad at Remington Arms if they hadn’t been lucky enough to play professional baseball.  They probably lived in modest, middle class homes similar to mine, changed their own oil, and enjoyed a beer after work.

The statistics on the backs of their baseball cards seemed solid, too.  No flashy 200 hit seasons.  No stolen base crowns.  No batting titles.  Just annual, workmanlike production.  A couple of regular lunch-pail guys.

So it wasn’t until nearly forty years later that I finally realized, while researching this blog-post, just how good these two players actually were.

During the A’s run of three consecutive World Championships from ’72-’74, it is inconceivable that they could have won any of those titles without the accomplishments of Bando and Rudi.  In fact, each of them finished strongly in A.L. MVP voting during those years.  Bando placed 4th in 1973 and 3rd in 1974.  Rudi placed 2nd in both ’72 and ’74.

But their Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons were, respectively, ’73 for Bando and ’72 for Rudi.

Let’s start with Sal Bando.  In ’73, the 29-year old 3rd baseman led the entire A.L. in Total Bases with 295.  He also led the league in games played at 162, one of four times in his career he would lead the league in that category.  His 32 doubles were also a league high.  Among position players, his 7.3 WAR was second best in the league, behind only teammate Reggie Jackson’s 8.1.

Bando also finished 1st in the A.L. in Runs Created with 113, 1st in Extra Base Hits with 64, as well as 4th in both home runs (29) and RBI’s (98).  His Adjusted OPS+ (150) was second best in the league.

Bando also made one of his four trips to the All-Star game in 1973.

Although Bando also had a great year in 1969, my focus here is the three-year period from ’72-’74 when his A’s dominated the Major Leagues.

Over a six-year period, from 1969-’74, Bando’s average OPS+ was an extremely strong 137.  Bando’s career WAR was 60.6, compared to other players of his era like Steve Garvey (35.9), Tony Perez (50.5), and Graig Nettles (61.6).

After spending eleven seasons with the A’s, Bando finished out his career playing five more seasons with the Brewers, retiring after the 1981 season with 242 home runs, 1039 RBI’s, and more walks than strikeouts.

Sal Bando enjoyed a long and productive career, but 1973 was his Best Forgotten Season.

Joe Rudi, meanwhile, actually had two excellent seasons during that three-year run of championships for the A’s.  One could choose either 1972 or 1974, since he finished in second place in A.L. MVP voting in each of those seasons.

But I will choose 1972 as Joe Rudi’s Best Forgotten Season.

In ’72, Rudi posted career highs in hits (a league-leading 181), triples (an A.L. best 9), runs scored (2nd in the league with 94), Adjusted OPS (151), and WAR (5.9).  Rudi also notched a career high 288 Total Bases, 3rd best in the league.

Rudi finished the ’72 season with a .305 batting average and 60 Extra Base Hits (3rd best in the A.L.)

In 1974, Rudi’s last excellent year, Rudi led the A.L. in doubles (39) and in Total Bases (287.)  He also enjoyed career highs in both home runs (22) and RBI’s (99.)  He also led the A.L. in Extra Base Hits with 65.

Rudi also won a Gold Glove playing left field for the A’s in ’74.

Overall, Rudi, like Bando, played 16 seasons in the Major Leagues.  Over a six-year period, from ’72-’77, Rudi’s average OPS+ was an impressive 131.

I have chosen 1972 as Joe Rudi’s Best Forgotten Season, but if you choose 1974, you won’t get an argument from me.

Neither Bando nor Rudi posted careers quite worthy of the Hall of Fame.  Yet without solid, above average players like these, teams like the A’s would not have likely enjoyed three straight World Series titles.

But above average, solid players were something this kid from Bridgeport could relate to back in the mid-1970’s.

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