The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Chicago Cubs”

What Not to Say On the Back of Your Baseball Card

I’ve been going through a random stack of baseball cards for about the past hour or so, and I came across an entry on the back of a card for Cubs pitcher, James Russell.  It is a 2011 Topps Update card, US90.  I found it to be a remarkable admission for a player to have on the back of his baseball card.  It’s as if Russell was talking randomly to a teammate, and a representative from Topps just happened to be lounging around Russell’s locker, waiting for him to say something worth writing down.

Topp 20 2013 Rådhusplassen

Fans of James Russell admiring his delivery.

Here it is in its entirety:

James is the son of Jeff Russell, the 1989 AL saves leader.  Their styles, however, differ.  “He had that little extra [velocity] he could reach back for,” says the rookie.  “I really don’t have that.”

Hmm.  So what exactly is it you really do have, James?

Oh, uh, and James, it may be time for you to update your resume.

In fairness to young Mr. Russell, he is having a very decent season this year as a relief pitcher for the Cubs.  In 28 innings, he has a 2.22 ERA, and 26 strikeouts against just eight walks.  I’m sure his dad is quite proud of him, even without that little extra bit of oomph in his delivery.

Let’s just not ask James to write any of us a letter of recommendation.


“Calico Joe” – A Baseball Book Review

You’re probably more familiar with the works of John Grisham than I am.

I’ve seen a couple of movies based on his books — “The Firm” and “The Client” –but I’d never actually read one of his novels.  Based on my experience reading “Calico Joe,” I will have to go back and rectify that mistake.

“Calico Joe” is a 194-page masterpiece of story-telling that has become one of my favorite fictional baseball tales of all time.  I picked it up on a whim at my local public library.  I sat down with it after my kids went to sleep, and stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the next morning enraptured by this stunning story.

Let me tell you about it.  Set in the summer of 1973, as well as the present, the story is told to us through the eyes of Paul Tracy, son of fictitious Mets pitcher Warren Tracy.  The Mets and Cubs are locked in a mid-season pennant race.  Young Paul is a huge Mets fan, and, of course, wants badly to root for his dad.

But Paul’s dad has little interest in what his son Paul wants and needs from him.  Warren prefers the nightlife, and is often abusive to Paul and his mom.  Paul’s tenuous loyalty to his dad is then abruptly tested by Joe Castle, a young phenom just called up by the Cubs due to injuries to some of their other players.

“Calico Joe,” as the press begins to call him, is an immediate sensation like nothing baseball has ever seen before.  He breaks rookie record after record, and baseball fans all over the country become virtual Cubs fans overnight as the nation is riveted by the unbelievable on-field exploits of “Calico Joe,” who hails from a small town in the Ozarks.

Warren Tracy, fighting for his career as the Mets fourth starter behind Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, is also suddenly in a fight for his son’s loyalty, if not for his love.  The inevitable on-field confrontation between the young phenom and the journeyman pitcher yields tragic results, expertly handled by an author at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

Unlike other baseball novels in which the story-line revolves primarily around a father-son axis, this one jettisons all saccharine melodrama from the start.  Told in starkly rendered primary colors of love and hate, there is no ambiguity in how this son feels about his dad.  His entire adult life, as is true for many of us, is irrevocably shaped by the history of his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father.

An aging Warren Tracy, later riddled with cancer, is confronted by his angry, uncompromising son who demands that  his father face his sordid past, and  make amends for it.  The emotional storm between them unfolds like a Gulf hurricane, gathering power slowly and deliberately, before unleashing its fury.

Joe Castle himself is the vehicle through which the story is told.  His character is the tragic center of the universe that mirrors all the hope and ultimate despair that confronts humanity in general, and many young ball players in particular.  His archetype, the handsome young man from nowhere who bursts onto the scene and into the hearts of an adoring public, is classic American mythology.  Yet seldom has this archetype been handled as deftly as it has in “Calico Joe.”

For baseball fans, you will delight in the recreation here of the 1973 N.L. East pennant race, and in the recalling of so many stars of that era, including Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays (who has a “cameo”), Catfish Hunter and so many others.  If you’re lucky enough to still have some of your old baseball cards, you may be tempted to pull them out of whatever shoe-box you’ve stored them in all these years to recapture some of the magic of when you first pulled them out of a Topps wax pack.

Keeping in mind that this is a novel, the dates, schedule and scores in the story are not necessarily accurate to real life, nor are they intended to be.  But you can feel the excitement in the batting cage when the rookie takes his first batting practice, and you can practically hear the crowd in your head during the ultimate showdown between protagonist and antagonist in a mid-summer Shea Stadium sell-out.

There are, of course, obvious parallels between actual young players today like Bryce Harper (and Mike Trout), and the fictitious Joe Castle.  Most of us realize what precious commodities they are to baseball, and, freed momentarily from our ever-present, and not always pleasant, real-life responsibilities, to our ability to dream.

Yet sometimes, as in “Calico Joe,” dreams have the life-span of soap bubbles.

The question, then, is how do move on?  And what role, if any, does the act of forgiveness play when life’s tale is nearly spent? In short, can a son ever really forgive a father for his dad’s utter, ugly humanity?

Grisham pushes the reader into some uncomfortable emotional territory, but respects the reader enough to provide his or her own answers to these compelling questions.

If you read just one baseball novel this summer, allow John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” to expertly and efficiently transport you into a time and place as magical as any ballgame you fondly remember, in a world that, for better and worse, looks a lot like our own.

Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Ernie Banks

1966 Ernie Banks Front

Image by cthoyes via Flickr

The following is a guest post written by Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present.  Graham’s blog is well worth a look, if you haven’t already visited it.

At first glance, the 1959 Chicago Cubs look something like an expansion team. A fifth place club that finished 74-80, Chicago did so with virtually no big names, mostly a conglomerate of over-the-hill veterans like Al Dark and Dale Long and young players who hadn’t accomplished much yet such as Moe Drabowsky and Tony Taylor. Exactly one name stands out, and it was like this at Wrigley Field most of the 1950s. That player is Ernie Banks.

The first ballot Hall of Famer, who turned 80 on January 31, did his best work as a young shortstop and lone wolf in Chicago. By the time some All Star assistance arrived in the early 1960s in the form of Billy Williams and Ron Santo, Banks was on the down slope of his career, mostly confined to first base and struggling to keep his OPS+ above 100 and provide starter-caliber WAR. His wonderful spirit of “Let’s play two!” and a less sophisticated understanding in those days of player value may have kept Banks a starter in his waning years. Today, he’d have a harder time sticking around to get 512 home runs.

At least in his early years, though, Banks was something special, with a career trajectory similar perhaps to Nomar Garciaparra. For the better part of a decade after Banks debuted in 1953, there were two certainties on the North Side of Chicago: The Cubs would finish under .500 and in the second division, and Banks would be an All Star and in the hunt for the National League Most Valuable Player award.

Banks was the first great black player for the Cubs and, at least in early seasons, perhaps the greatest power-hitting shortstop in baseball history aside from Honus Wagner (who led the National League in slugging six times and would have hit several hundred more home runs playing at any time since the Deadball Era.)

In many ways, 1959 was Banks’ finest season. That year, he became the first shortstop in N.L. history to win back-to-back MVP awards.  It’s worth noting Banks also posted career highs in WAR with 10.0 and RBI with 143, to go with 45 home runs, a .304 batting average, and an OPS+ of 155.

Though Banks played another 12 years, 1959 was the last year he hit above .300 and the second-to-last year he offered All Star-level WAR (5.0 or better) or any hopes of winning MVP. While 1960 looked like more of the same from Banks with a league-leading 41 home runs, fourth place in MVP voting, and even a Gold Glove to boot, it really was the beginning of a long decline. The high RBI totals Banks in his final seasons are less a reflection of his skill than that the Cubs were finally improving.

Chicago became a winning team in the late 1960s and eventually a playoff contender. But interestingly, as the Cubs were rising, their franchise icon was falling. One can only wonder how much better Banks’ stats would be if his career had began even a decade later.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 22 – The Texas Rangers

1982 Topps Fergie Jenkins

Image via WikipediaIn our own American historical experience, Justice has often displayed herself with an ironic touch.

A century and a half ago, negro slaves were privy to a literal life-line that extended itself, like an index finger plowing a thin furrow through the dark soil of America, from South to North.

Canada was the goal.

Southern Ontario was the primary recipient.

Chatham-Kent, Ontario, is today one of the primary municipalities in the region where the descendants of runaway slaves still make their home.

In fact, Ontario has over 473,000 people of African descent within its boundaries, many of whom can trace their lineage back to ancestors who once toiled the fields of the southern U.S.A., from Texas to Florida.

One of these families produced a son whose birth resulted in his mother’s subsequent blindness, and whose own life would know personal tragedy as well.

This child would one day cross the border into the United States as an entertainer of sorts.  An athlete by trade, he would enjoy time performing with the Harlem Globetrotters, but would make his primary mark on baseball diamonds throughout country.

Signed in June, 1962 by the Phillies, Ferguson Jenkins would make his debut with the parent team on September 10, 1965.  He was traded to the Cubs in 1966.

From 1966 through 1973, Chicago Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins was one of the most dominant pitchers in the Major Leagues.  A Black Canadian whose ancestors had left America for a life of freedom had returned to America to find fortune.

A look at Fergie Jenkins career numbers leaves one astonished.

Jenkins won at least twenty games every season for six consecutive years, from 1967-72, inclusive.  He tossed at least 20 complete games in every one of those seasons, topping out at an astonishing 30 complete games in 1971.

Five times in his career he topped 300 innings pitched.

During Jenkins’ 19-year career, he led his league in wins twice, starts three times, complete games four times, innings pitched once, strikeouts once, and WHIP once.  He gave up a huge number of home runs in his career (484), but usually minimized the damage by allowing very few walks.

Fergie Jenkins won the 1971 Cy Young award, and finished in the top three in votes received four other times.

But Fergie Jenkins’ Best Forgotten Baseball Season was 1974 with the Texas Rangers.

At the age of 31, in his first season after having been traded away by the Cubs for Vic Harris and Bill Madlock ( Madlock having been the subject of a prior blog-post of mine,) Jenkins showed he could teach the American League a thing or two about pitching while pitching his home games in a state that was once a battleground for slavery.

Jenkins won a career high 25 games in 1974 against just 12 defeats.  He made 41 starts and led the league with 29 complete games.  In 328 innings pitched, he struck out 225 batters while walking just 45.  His five strikeouts per walk topped the league.

Jenkins’ ERA was just 2.82, his WHIP reflected his few walks surrendered, 1.008, and his WAR was 7.6, better than any hitter in his league.

For his efforts, Jenkins finished second in the league in Cy Young voting, just behind Catfish Hunter.  Remarkably, they both finished with identical 25-12 records, both made 41 starts, and both hurled six shutouts.

While Jenkins pitched ten more innings and racked up 80 more strikeouts with one fewer walk, Hunter’s ERA was .33 lower, his WHIP was lower (0.986), and, of course, the A’s won their division.

Jenkins pitched two seasons for the Rangers before being traded to the Red Sox for two unremarkable years, then went back to the Rangers for four more seasons.  The Cubs brought Jenkins back for a last hurrah in 1982 and, at age 39, he made 34 starts, pitched 217 innings, and posted an ERA of 3.15.

The following season, at age 40, Jenkins pitched his last career shutout on June 10th, 1983 vs. the Cardinals.

Jenkins finished his career with 3,192 strikeouts, which ranks 12th all-time.  His 49 career shutouts ranks 21st.  His career WAR is 81.3, twentieth best in MLB history for pitchers.  His career win-loss record was 284-226.

In 1991, in his third year on the ballot, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.   He was the first Canadian citizen to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Tragically, just three days after his induction into The Hall, his wife died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Just two years later, Jenkins’ girlfriend committed murder-suicide, asphyxiating herself and Jenkins’ three-year old daughter.

Since then, Jenkins has married again, does promotional work for charitable organizations, and now owns a ranch in Arizona.  Now in his late sixties, Jenkins has experienced great success and terrible tragedy in a country his forebears once fled in terror.

America has done well to welcome Jenkins back.  That he has chosen to stay here suggests that history can be kind to those who forgive, if not forget.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: A Team By Team Analysis – Part 2

If you read my May 25th blog-post, then you know that the purpose of this series is to resurrect the best largely forgotten baseball seasons by individual players that have occurred over the past several decades.

In Part 1, I focused on a pair of Mets players, Lance Johnson and Frank Viola, who each had extremely successful seasons with the Mets that even many Mets fans have already forgotten about.

My goal here in Part 2 is to continue to focus on a pair of players  from each team who have had big seasons that have since largely faded from our collective memory.

One arbitrary ground rule I have set for myself is that I won’t choose any players from before 1950 because, by definition, the further back you go in baseball history, the less likely it is that anyone will remember a certain player that I may decide to dredge up.  After all, isn’t it more fun to be reminded of someone you think you should have remembered rather than some semi-obscure player who you have no recollection of at all?

Also, the individual baseball seasons I have chosen will not be split seasons (when a player, due to a trade, splits his seasons between two or more teams), strike years, or seasons in which the player missed a significant amount of games.

That’s not to say there won’t be any surprises, however.  In fact, I guarantee you that there will be more than a couple of surprise names in this series as we go along.

And those surprises may come as early as, well, right now.

So lets begin Part 2 of Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: A Team By Team Analysis.

Today’s team: The Chicago Cubs

This historic franchise has blessed baseball with Mordecai Three-Finger Brown, Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandburg…and Dave Kingman.

Dave Kingman?  That Dave Kingman?

Dave Kingman came stumbling out of the Oregon woods as a child, as likely as your average circus freak to become a major league baseball player.

Tall, and thin as a rail, Kingman apparently learned English as a second language, his native language being a simple, occasional grunt.  Never really comfortable with people, he spent 16 seasons in various major league uniforms steadfastly avoiding, and annoying, other players, managers, photographers, and just about anyone else with whom he shared a confined space.

Virtually no one, however, could hit the ball as far as Dave “King Kong” Kingman.  And no one could make the rest of the game, you know, throwing catching and hitting, look as awkward and difficult.

Yet, after having played for four, yes four teams, in 1978, and for six teams in the previous four, the Chicago Cubs decided to give the enigmatic 29-year old grunter a chance at stardom.

Astonishingly, he delivered.  Despite the fact that he’d never batted higher than .238 in any season before, he hit .266 for the Cubs in 1978 with 28 homers and 79 RBI’s.  Overall, for Kingman, a successful campaign.

But his 1979 season was, for the Cubbies, proof that even the lovable losers get lucky sometime.  His production in his age 30 season defied, I’m sure, even their wildest dreams.

In 1979, Kingman hit .288 (52 points higher than his career average) with a league-leading 48 home runs.  He also scored a career high 97 runs (I still can’t picture him stumbling around the bases that often without falling over), 115 RBI’s, and an N.L. best .613 slugging percentage.

He led the league with an OPS of .956 and had an OPS + of 146.  His 326 total bases were a career high.  It was also the only season in which Kingman topped 150 hits, with 153.

Of course, Kingman also led the league in strikeouts with 131.

Strangest of all, though, is that Kingman ranked 4th among N.L. left fielders in put outs, and 3rd in assists.

One has to wonder what kind of quasi-humans could possibly have been stumbling around on the left side of N.L. ballparks that year to actually rank behind Dave Kingman in putouts.

But Kingman quickly wore out his welcome in Chicago, and was exiled back to the hapless Mets in 1981.  Kingman played three more season with the Mets with declining batting averages of .221, .204 and .198.  At that point, even the Mets had had enough.

Inexplicably, in his final three seasons as a major league ballplayer, toiling away in Oakland, Kingman hit at least 30 homers and drove in over 90 runs all three years.

Then, like a freak storm that swirls up out of the summer heat, does its fair share of damage, and kicks up all kinds of dust and dirt in your eye, he was gone.  Perhaps the baseball powers-that-be suddenly noticed that Kingman was getting uncomfortably close to that magic, Hall-of-Fame triggering, 500 home run mark.  (He retired just 58 home runs short of 500, a total he might have reached in a couple more years.)

Lucky for all of us, perhaps most of all for Kingman himself, he never had to face the awkward possibility of tripping up the steps to a microphone in front of a dubious throng at Cooperstown, and grunt something unintelligible at them.  And which of the boatload of baseball caps that he wore as a player would be his induction cap?

My vote would have been for his Chicago Cubs hat, where he enjoyed his one truly excellent season back in 1979.

The second Chicago Cub I will analyze in this blog-post is someone who had an even more unfortunate, if not infamous, career as a major league baseball player.

Before his attempted kick-save that resulted in a Mookie Wilson goal in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Bill Buckner was an actual baseball player.

In fact, Buckner was, once upon a time, before he strapped those strange-looking  Annie Oakley boots over his problematic ankles and feet in the fall of ’86, even a good fielder.

And he was often a good hitter.

In fact, arguably his best single season was in 1982 when, playing with the Cubs, he had 201 hits, 93 runs scored, 105 RBI’s, and a .306 batting average.  Never a power hitter, he also managed 15 home runs that year to go along with his 15 stolen bases.

Just two seasons earlier, also with the Cubs, Buckner had won the N.L. batting title with a .324 average.  Eight seasons earlier, playing with the Dodgers, Buckner had even stolen 31 bases in a season.

Twice Buckner led his league in doubles, and he was always one of the most difficult players to strike out, fanning only 453 times in a 22 year career that included over 10,000 plate appearances.

It also turns out, ironically, that Buckner was a skillful, aggressive first baseman.  Four times in his career, twice with the Cubs and twice with the Red Sox, he led the league in assists, and he ranks 15 all time in assists by a first baseman.

But three times, due to his aggressiveness, he also led his league in errors at first base.

Still, it is, of course, unfortunate that a player who amassed over 2700 hits in his career, who drove in over 1200 runs and scored over 1,000, along with a .289 career batting average, should be primarily remembered for one fateful play in October 1986.

But four years earlier, playing for the Cubs in 1982, Buckner was one of the best players in the National League, with what appeared to be a reasonably bright future lying ahead of him.

It would be easy to finish this blog-post by saying something like,” Such is the fate of a Cubs player,” but, in truth, Buckner’s fate is not unique.  Eventually, Fate frowns on many of us.

Which is why the humbling lessons of baseball are such useful lessons for us all to learn.

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