The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Detroit Tigers”

National League Picks: 2014

Following up on yesterday’s post featuring my A.L. picks, here are my soon-to-be-proven absolutely foolish N.L. picks.  Go easy on me, lads.  Playoff teams are in bold.

National League

National League (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

N.L. East:

1)  Washington

2)  Atlanta

3)  New York

4)  Florida

5)  Philadelphia

N.L. Central:

1)  St. Louis

2)  Pittsburgh

3)  Cincinnati

4)  Milwaukee

5)  Chicago

N.L. West:

1)  Los Angeles

2)  San Francisco

3)  Colorado

4)  Arizona

5)  San Diego

St. Louis Cardinals go to the World Series and take on the Detroit Tigers.  The Cardinals win in a classic seven-game match.

 

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American League Picks: 2014

I know I’m bound to get many, perhaps most of these wrong, but making predictions is part of the pre-season ritual around here.  We’ll check back after the World Series to see how well my predictions turned out.  This post is for the American League only.  Tomorrow, I’ll check in with a brief post on the National League.  My playoff team picks are in bold print.

The logo for the American League.

The logo for the American League. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A.L. East:

1)  Tampa Bay

2)  Baltimore

3)  Boston

4)  New York

5)  Toronto

A.L. Central:

1)  Detroit

2)  Kansas City

3)  Cleveland

4)  Chicago

5)  Minnesota

A.L. West:  

1)  Anaheim

2)  Oakland

3)  Texas

4)  Seattle

5)  Houston

The Detroit Tigers make it all the way to the World Series vs. the St. Louis Cardinals.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you which team I pick to win the World Series.

 

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The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 6

In my last post in this series, I named Kid Nichols as the ace of my all-time under-appreciated Hall of Fame pitching staff.  There are, of course, several options from which to choose for the #2 man in my rotation.  I decided to go with the Detroit Tigers’ own Hal Newhouser.

Before we go any further with this, let’s take a look at two lines of stats.  For both pitchers, we are comparing their six best consecutive seasons:

Pitcher A:  129-47, WAR – 44.4, ERA+ 160

Pitcher B:  136-56, WAR – 43.8, ERA+ 158

Also,

Pitcher A led his league in wins three times, in complete games twice, in shutouts 3 times, and in ERA+ twice.

Pitcher B led his league in wins four times, in complete games twice, in shutouts once, and in ERA+ twice.

As measured by WAR, Pitcher A was the best pitcher in his league twice, Pitcher B three times.

Pitcher A had a career WAR of 50.3, Pitcher B had a career WAR of 55.8.

They were each named to about a half-dozen All Star teams.

Both pitchers stood 6’2″, and threw left-handed.

Pitcher A made his debut at age 19.  Pitcher B, at 18.  Both came up as home-town boys.

Pitcher A made his Major League debut in 1955, just seven weeks after Pitcher B threw his final pitch.

One pitcher is dead; the other is still alive.

Pitcher A was born Sanford Braun, but you know him as Sandy Koufax.

Pitcher B was born, and remained, Hal Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax is everyone’s idea of a Hall of Famer.  Hal Newhouser was rejected by the BBWAA, topping out at just 43% of the vote in his final year on the ballot in 1975.  It wasn’t until the Veteran’s Committee inducted him 17 years later in 1992 that Hal Newhouser finally received recognition in the baseball Hall of Fame.

Koufax was a first ballot Hall of Famer, receiving 87% of the vote in 1972.

Yet, if you go back and take a look at their numbers, especially in their six best consecutive seasons, the difference between the two is not all that great.  Sure, Koufax was more of a strikeout guy, leading the league in K’s / 9 innings six times, but Newhouser led his league in that same stat four times.

One must also keep in mind that Koufax pitched in a better pitcher’s era, in a better pitcher’s park, than did Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax won three Cy Young awards, and finished 3rd in another season.  He was also voted league MVP in 1963.

Hal Newhouser won consecutive A.L. MVP awards in 1944-45, and he finished in second place in the voting in 1946.  The Cy Young award didn’t come into existence until 1956, otherwise it is reasonable to assume that Newhouser would certainly have deserved three of those awards as well.

I think the key here as to why Koufax overshadows Newhouser is primarily due to the issue of timing.  Newhouser’s best years occurred more or less in the middle of his career, which is normal for most players.

Koufax had a slow start to his career, then caught fire in the early ’60’s and never looked back.  In a sense, at least as far as the mythology and stature of SANDY KOUFAX is concerned, walking away from a highly successful career while still at the top of one’s game was a stroke of genius.  Yes, I know that he only retired due to excruciating pain in his left elbow.

But if he had continued to pitch for a few more years, it’s likely that the pain and the simple wear and tear on his arm would have resulted in a steady decline in production, mirroring what most other pitchers go through in their careers.  If that had been the case, I believe it would have diminished Koufax in the eyes of HOF voters, and he might have had a more difficult time being inducted into The Hall, despite his six amazing seasons.

Another reason, though, why I believe the mythology (and I don’t mean to imply that I think Koufax was overrated) of Koufax is far superior to the more prosaic legacy of Hal Newhouser was due to the era in which they each toiled in the Majors.

Hal Newhouser’s best seasons occurred during and just after World War II.  This was an era when bigger things than baseball were occurring in the world, when a generation of Americans labored for their daily bread, and their very lives, in factories at home in America, and on battlefields  from Salerno to Saipan.  There just wasn’t much time to romanticize a series of sporting events.

Nor was that particular generation of men and women prone to push heroes up onto pedestals.  They were generally too busy burying heroes silently.

By 1960, however, a new generation of young people, not yet at war, and just then beginning to imprint their profligate, psychological profile on an indulgent society, was in the midst of defining their own heroes.

Sandy Koufax emerged at exactly the right time.  His career clicked just as a young John Kennedy inspired this generation to embrace the present as well as the future.  Koufax turned 25 in ’61, and led the N.L. in strikeouts for the first time.  He would continue to dominate the decade through ’66, before it was clear that the Vietnam War was going nowhere, and before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.

Hal Newhouser, by way of contrast, became dominant in the year of the D-Day Invasion, and continued his run of success on the eve of the largely forgotten Korean War.

Newhouser’s career record of 207-150 might not impress people in the same way that, for example, Don Sutton’s 324-256 record might.  Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea, picked up naturally by others, that a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher should have 300 wins.

Certainly, if a pitcher wins 300 games, he is probably going to be worthy of Hall induction based on other career stats as well.  Yet, in their respective primes, who would you rather have pitching the big game for you?  Who would you prefer to have as your staff ace?  The pitcher who enjoyed lots of 17-11 seasons with respectable peripheral numbers, or would you have the guy that, in his best years, could knock off 25-30 wins while dominating the league in several other stats as well?

As for me, I’ll take Hal Newhouser, one of the most under-appreciated HOF pitchers of all time.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of this series.  So far, our roster of the Hall of Fame’s most under-appreciated players looks like this:

1B – Roger Connor

2B – Joe Gordon

SS – Arky Vaughan

3B – Eddie Mathews

C  – Gary Carter

LF – Jesse Burkett

Not a bad team.  Let’s flesh it out now with a center fielder and a right fielder, shall we?

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder ....

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder . Levels and saturation adjusted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Center Field – Richie Ashburn:  Why Richie Ashburn, and not someone like Max Carey, Hugh Duffy or Billy Hamilton?

For one thing, Ashburn had a higher career WAR (60.2) than either Duffy or Carey, and about the same as Hamilton.  Also, Ashburn, as far as dWAR is concerned, was a better defensive center fielder than any of them.

Ashburn’s range in center field was excellent. He led the N.L. in Range Factor ten times in his career.  Ashburn also led all outfielders in his league in putouts nine times, and assists four times.

In his rookie year in 1948, the 21-year old Ashburn batted .333 and topped the N.L. with 32 stolen bases.

In just his third season in the Majors, at age 23, Ashburn was a key member of the Phillies “Whiz Kids” team that won the N.L. Pennant by two games over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ashburn led the league that year in triples with 14 while batting over .300 and playing solid defense in center field.

As a hitter, Ashburn didn’t generate much power (just 29 career homers), but he was an on-base machine.  He finished first in the N.L. in walks four times, and in hits three times.  In six seasons (including his first and last) he topped a .400 on-base percentage.

On the other side of the ledger, Ashburn was very difficult to strike out.  During his twelve prime years with the Phillies (1948-59), Ashburn never struck out as many as 50 times in a season.

Ashburn was also very difficult to double-up.  In eight of his seasons, he grounded into fewer than five double plays.  In three additional seasons, he grounded into fewer than ten.

For eight straight seasons, (1951-58), Ashburn scored at least 90 runs in every season.  He also led the league in hits three times, topping 200 hits in each of those three years.

Playing the final season of his 15-year Major League career with the hapless ’62 Mets, 35-year old Ashburn posted a .306 batting average and an outstanding .424 on-base percentage, still the third highest single season on-base percentage in Mets history.

Ashburn retired after the ’62 season at age 35 having netted 2,574 hits to go along with nearly 1,200 walks, a .308 career batting average, and an even more impressive .396 career on-base percentage. He scored 1,322 runs, slashed 109 triples and stole 234 bases.

Despite those numbers, and the reputation of being one of the greatest lead-off hitters, and excellent defensive center fielders of his generation, Ashburn never received much more than 40% of the vote of the BBWAA.  After his name fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 1982, it wasn’t until 13-years later in 1995 that the Veteran’s Committee finally inducted Ashburn into the HOF.

Richie Ashburn died a couple of years later, in 1997, at age 70.  He is still among the Phillies’  all-time leaders in several offensive categories such as base hits, runs scored, walks and on-base percentage.

Right Field – Harry Heilmann:  Harry Heilmann was, along with Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Al Kaline, one of the greatest outfielders in Detroit Tigers history.

Heilmann was one of the few baseball players born on the west coast before the turn of the twentieth century.  Born in San Francisco on August 3, 1894, Heilmann debuted with the Tigers in 1914 at age 19.  Given his German heritage (on his father’s side), one has to wonder if this young German Catholic teenager didn’t experience at least some bigotry around America as the First World War settled like a steel cloud over Europe that summer.

Heilmann didn’t stick with the big club immediately, and spent the summer of 1915 in the minors.  But by 1916, he had become a permanent resident of the Detroit outfield, playing alongside Ty Cobb.    Through 1920, Heilmann was a very good player, though not yet a great one.  Heilmann’s breakout season was 1921, when he turned 26-years old.

In 1926, Heilmann won the A.L. batting title with a .394 batting average, besting teammate Ty Cobb by five points.  He also led the league in hits with 237.  He slugged 42 doubles, 14 triples and 19 home runs.  He finished second in the league in OPS+ (167), WAR (6.5), RBI (139), Slugging Percentage (.606) and Total Bases (365.)

Heilmann went on to win a total of four batting titles, in alternating years, from 1921 to 1927.  His batting averages in those four years were .394, .403, .393, and .398.  He also topped .300 in eight additional seasons in his 17-year career.

Heilmann’s .342 career batting average ranks 12th on the all-time list, just a couple of points shy of Ted Williams.

In fact, Heilmann was the last A.L. player to hit .400 (.403 in 1923) until Ted Williams accomplished that feat by hitting .406 in 1941.

Heilmann’s On Base Plus Slugging Percentage of .930 ranks ahead of Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker and Frank Robinson, among others.  His career OPS+ (148) ranks 40th all-time, ahead of Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell.

Heilmann finished in the top five in MVP voting in his league four times, and he was the best player in the A.L. in 1925, posting a WAR of 6.5.  His career WAR of 67.3 is better than HOF players Ed Delahanty, Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Eddie Murray and Duke Snider.

After spending the first 15 years of his career with the Tigers, Heilmann caught on with the Reds for a season and a half.  In his last full season as a player in 1930, Heilmann hit .333 and drove in 91 runs.  He retired in 1932 at age 37.

Heilmann finished his career with 183 homers, 1,539 RBI, 542 doubles and 151 triples.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Heilmann was not elected into the Hall of Fame until his 13th year on the ballot in 1952.  Unfortunately, Heilmann had already died of cancer in 1951.  While on his deathbed, however, his former teammate and sometimes nemesis Ty Cobb came to visit him.  Cobb, in a rare act of empathy, told Heilmann that he had been voted into the Hall of Fame that summer so that Heilmann could die a happy man.

Which just goes to show, sometimes good lurks in the hearts of even the coldest men.

NEXT UP:  The Pitchers

Who Belongs in the Hall of Fame: Player A, or Player B?

There is a popular game among those of us who like to compare players who may or may not belong in the Hall of Fame.  You simply take the statistics of two or more players, place them side by side, and remove the players’ names.

The reason you take away their names is that with names come memories, emotions and biases.  These subjective “inputs” then cloud one’s judgment when attempting to objectively compare two or more players.

O.K., so it’s not much of a game.  But it does serve to illustrate that sometimes, what we think we know about a particular player may actually be at best just a pale shadow of who that player actually was.

On the other hand, as you shall soon see, the data that one chooses to use may also have its limitations.

Case in point:  Here are the career statistics of two pitchers, one right-handed and the other a southpaw.  Using only the data I have listed below, I will allow you to decide which pitcher you would rather have leading your hypothetical rotation.  I have chosen ten categories to use as a basis of comparison.

Pitcher A:

Career ERA+  105

Career WAR:  39.3

WHIP:  1.296

Strikeouts / 9 innings:  5.8

Strikeouts / Walk:  1.8

Career Shutouts:  28

Career ERA:   3.90

Peak WAR:  5.9

Seasons with ERA less than 3.oo:  0

Career Post-Season:   7-4, 3.80

Pitcher B:

Career ERA+   114

Career WAR:   38.7

WHIP:   1.233

Strikeouts / 9 Innings:   5.8

Strikeouts / Walk:   2.38

Career Shutouts:  30

Career ERA:  3.18

Peak WAR:  8.6

Seasons with ERA less than 3.00 – 4

Career Post-Season:   2-2, 1.40

As you can see, Pitcher A wins only one category, Career WAR, 39.3, just barely beating Pitcher B by 0.6 percentage points.  Pitcher A also ties Pitcher B in Strikeouts / 9 Innings at 5.8.

Pitcher B wins the other eight categories, and even seems to be the better pitcher in the post-season.

Both pitchers, by the way, pitched well over 2,000 innings in their respective careers, and neither of them won a Cy Young award.  One pitcher was named an All-Star game MVP, and the other won a World Series MVP award.  Both pitchers began their careers after 1970.

So which pitcher would you rather have on your team?

Choosing simply by the numbers I have listed, I am confident that most people would choose Pitcher B over Pitcher A.  Pitcher B simply has too great an advantage in too many important stats to ignore.

Therefore, most people would have chosen Jon Matlack over Jack Morris.

Yet, many people believe that Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame, while virtually no one that I’ve ever met (there’s a pun there) would argue that Jon Matlack belongs in that same august association.

So what are we to make of these statistics?  None of the statistics I have chosen is in and of itself misleading, yet can we feel comfortable with the outcome I have presented?

Jack Morris, who spent his entire 18-year career in the American League, finished his career with a record of 254-186.  He led his league in wins twice, posted three 20-win seasons, had three 200 strikeout seasons, was a five time All-Star, and finished in the top five in his league’s Cy Young voting five times.

He was the ace of every staff he led, and, of course, he pitched one of the most famous games in World Series history, Game 7 of the 1991 World Series against the Braves, when he hurled ten shutout innings as the Twins won their second World Series in four years.

Jon Matlack, meanwhile, while pitching for the Mets and the Rangers in the 1970’s and early 80’s, finished with a career record of 125-126, never led his league in wins, won the N.L. Rookie of the Year award in 1972, made three All-Star teams, and led his league in shutouts twice.

Jack Morris won twice as many games as Jon Matlack, pitched about 1,500 more innings in his career, and pitched in an era that was, generally speaking, more favorable to hitters than the era in which Matlack pitched.

So now what?  This is not, as some might argue at this point, an example of how modern sabermetrics have their limitations, because we all “know” that Morris was a better pitcher than Matlack during their  respective careers.

What we do know for sure was that Morris was more durable than Matlack.  We know that Morris pitched for teams that generally won more games (even when he wasn’t pitching) than Matlack. And we know that sometimes, fortune favors one person over another for no particular reason.

On a game by game basis, it is clear that Matlack could have held his own with Morris any day of the week in any era.  But it is also true that Napoleon had it right when (so the story goes) he was asked who his favorite generals are. He replied, “The lucky ones.”

This is not to cast aspersions on the fine career of Jack Morris.  But aside from the obvious conclusion that he really doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, it is clear that fortune smiled on him throughout his career.  Matlack’s numbers, as I have shown, clearly indicate that he was clearly an excellent pitcher for over a decade.

But Matlack also doesn’t merit serious Hall consideration.  No matter how you cut, split-up, and regroup the numbers, a pitcher with a career losing record just ain’t never getting into the Hall, nor, in my opinion, should he.

Because when all is said and done, the Hall of Fame isn’t simply about numbers.  It is also about memories, emotions, and personal connections.  Although the Hall of Fame shouldn’t simply be a Hall of Celebrity, it is also not merely a math problem to be solved with modern computer-generated algorithms.

A legitimate Hall of Fame career should be that narrow intersection where the emotional, metaphysical and, if you will, spiritual,  meets the sensible, rational and objective.

If that intersection is hard to find, that standard hard to meet, well, isn’t that the point?

Cleaning Up The Hall of Fame: Rizzuto vs. Trammell

Phil Rizzuto, N.Y. Yankees bunting wonder, ill...

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

In this new series, we are going to clean up The Hall,  the Hall of Fame, that is.  According to the Hall of Fame’s official website, about 1% of all players who have ever worn a Major League Baseball uniform have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

That number seems about right to me.

But it raises a question.  How big and crowded should The Hall be allowed to become?  Currently, there are 295 plaques (which includes managers, umpires, etc.) in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery.  Over time, of course, this number will continue to grow, and although it is not growing quickly, it is possible to foresee a day when the Plaque Gallery is as crowded as the checkout line at Target on Black Friday.

I have no particular number in mind as to what constitutes “enough” plaques in the Plaque Gallery.  But could The Hall physically hold, for example, 400 plaques?  How about 500?  Assuming baseball continues to hold any interest for the general public one century hence, will anyone in the year 2112 make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown to stand in front of Orlando Cepeda’s plaque and have any idea who he was?  Should that matter?

First of all, we have to stop pretending that every player who was considered a superstar in his time cannot be reevaluated in light of all that has happened in the several decades since he last put on a pair of spikes.  The passage of time offers a perspective not available to that particular player’s contemporaries.

Certain players who appeared to be superstars in the first half of the twentieth century now appear, given modern standards of objective analysis, to have been merely very good ball players who left a strong emotional imprint on the judgments of peers (and voters) of decades past.

What I’m proposing, then, is to gradually improve the quality of the players in the Hall of Fame, one player at a time.  One player out; another (arguably better) player in.

All of which brings us to Phil Rizzuto.

Phil Rizzuto was an important part of several New York Yankees championship teams in the 1940’s and early ’50’s.  His defensive skills made the Yankees pitchers better.  But was his defense good enough to merit Hall of Fame selection?

In a word, no.  Rizzuto’s dWAR for his career, (interrupted for three years by W.W.II) was 11.0, the same as Frank White, and slightly higher than Willie Randolph.  For a relatively weak-hitting infielder, his defense needs to be world-class — Ozzi Smith-good —  to justify selection to The Hall of Fame.  Rizzuto doesn’t meet that test.

Rizzuto’s career offensive numbers are unimpressive.  He posted a career triple slash line of .273 / .351 / .355.  Rizzuto’s career OPS+ of 93 is about the same as Edgar Renteria’s career mark of 94.

Rizzuto hit just 38 home runs in his career, scored only 877 runs, stole 149 bases and amassed just 339 extra base hits in his entire career.  He did, however, lead his league in sacrifice bunts four times.

Rizzuto enjoyed one fantastic year when he won the A.L. MVP award at age 32 in 1950.  His WAR of 7.1 led the league. He reached a career high 271 total bases, scored 125 runs and batted .324.  Rizzuto also produced 200 hits, drew a career high 92 walks, and slammed 36 doubles.

Although he was a five-time All Star, much of his Hall of Fame resume revolves around this one season.  But lots of players have had one great season.  It is not often the case, however, that they go on to gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Rizzuto was the David Eckstein of his era, but on a much bigger stage, and with a more formidable P.R. machine behind him.

 Clearly, Phil Rizzuto does not belong in The Hall.

The player whom I would replace him with is former Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell.  Whereas Rizzuto posted a career WAR of 41.8, Trammell easily outclasses him with a mark of 66.9.  By comparison, HOF’ers Eddie Murray, PeeWee Reese, Gary Carter and Roberto Alomar all produced lower career WAR than Trammell.

Trammell also posted a better career OPS+ of 110 to Rizzuto’s 93.

A much better power hitter, Trammell slugged 185 home runs in his career.  He also produced 652 extra base hits, nearly twice as many as Rizzuto’s 339.  Trammell’s triple slash line of .285 / .352 / .415 is also better than Rizzuto’s, as is his .767 OPS.

Trammell compiled 2,365 hits, 1,231 runs scored, and 1,003 RBI.  Each of these numbers are significantly higher than what Rizzuto produced.  And even accounting for the three years that Rizzuto missed while in the service, it is still unlikely that the would have matched Trammell’s totals in any of those categories.

Defensively, Trammell was no slouch, either.  He won four Gold Gloves, and finished his career with a dWAR of 7.5, not as good as Rizzuto’s, but not significantly worse, either.

Trammell finished second in A.L. MVP voting in 1987.  He won three Silver Sluggers as the best hitter at his position.  He also made six All Star Teams.

Clearly, Trammell was the better shortstop.  Removing Rizzuto from The Hall and replacing him with Alan Trammell would make The Hall incrementally better, but you have to start somewhere.

1984 World Series Hero, Alan Trammell 1991 Tig...

Image via Wikipedia

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 14 – The Detroit Tigers

One in a Million movie poster.

Image via Wikipedia

There are many paths to the Major Leagues.

Some teenagers are drafted right out of high school, spend a few years in the minors, and eagerly ascend to the parent ball-club.

Others make an almost seamless transition from college baseball to the Majors, spending little if any time in the minor leagues.

Still other players from foreign lands, such as Ichiro, jump right into Major League roles with varying degrees of success.

There is one unique avenue to the Major Leagues, however, that very few players have ever traversed:  Federal Penitentiary to the Major Leagues.  In fact, it is certainly the most unlikely path to Major League stardom.

There was one player, however, who broke into the Major Leagues in 1974 after having followed that exact path.

His name was Ron LeFlore.

Ron LeFlore was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948.  Then, as now, Detroit was a rough town.  His father was an unemployed alcoholic.  His mother was a hardworking nurse.  It didn’t take long for young Ron LeFlore to find trouble.  By the time he was a teenager, he’d acquired a criminal record.  Within a few years, LeFlore found himself in a Federal Penitentiary, a 5 to15-year sentence for Armed Robbery hanging over his head.

Then something remarkable happened.  Billy Martin, then manager of the Tigers, decided to pay a visit to an incarcerated friend of his, Jimmy Karalla.  (I find this humorous, but unsurprising.)  During this visit, Martin just happened to notice LeFlore’s speed and strength during prison workouts.  Right then and there, he convinced the prison administrators to allow LeFlore a pass for Day Parole so that LeFlore could attend a tryout with the Tigers.  LeFlore so impressed Tigers management that they signed him to a contract which allowed LeFlore to meet his conditions for parole.

Ironically, Martin was fired soon afterward for ordering his pitchers to throw at opposing team’s hitters.

Finally, already 26-years old, LeFlore first donned a Tigers uniform 1974.  A part-time player in ’74, LeFlore was still learning the game, periodically displaying his natural athletic abilities.

In his first full season in 1975, LeFlore hit just .258, but the Tigers stuck with him.  His 28 stolen bases (despite 20 caught stealings) promised more to come.

In 1976, LeFlore improved dramatically.  He hit .316, scored 93 runs, and stole 58 bases.  He even got to play in his one and only All-Star game.

The ’76 squad, which also included Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, had to be one of the most unlikely groups of players ever assembled.

But 1977 signaled Ron LeFlore’s full arrival as a Major League talent to be reckoned with.  At age 29, he batted .325 lashing 212 hits, including a career high 16 home runs, plus 30 doubles, ten triples, and an even 100 runs scored.

His aggressive style of play in the field and on the base-paths drew a few awkward comparisons in the Press to a previous controversial Detroit star named Ty Cobb.  Although the comparison was, in some respects, highly exaggerated, LeFlore, like Cobb, was much more respected than he was liked.

But despite LeFlore’s accomplishments in 1977, I have chosen 1978 as Ron LeFlore’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

Although his batting average actually dropped to .297 in ’78, he drew a career high 65 walks, and he led the American League in runs scored with 126, and in stolen bases with 68.  He just missed 200 hits for a second consecutive year (198) and he drove in a career high 62 runs.  His 105 runs produced was good for second place in the A.L.  He also led the A.L. in singles with 153.

LeFlore worked hard to become a very good defensive outfielder as well.  In 1978, LeFlore led all A.L. center-fielders in put-outs with 438.  The previous season, he led A.L. center-fielders in assists with 12.

Also in 1978, “One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story” starring LeVar Burton as LeFlore, aired on CBS to positive reviews.

LeFlore spent just one more season in Detroit before moving on to Montreal for the 1980 season.  But he continued to improve his stolen base totals for four successive seasons, swiping 78 for Detroit in his final season with that club, and then grabbing an N.L. high 97 in his one season with the Expos.

LeFlore played in the Major League for just nine seasons, retiring after the 1982 season with the White Sox at the age of 34.

In just six full seasons and three partial seasons, LeFlore successfully stole 455 bases (among the top 50 all-time), scored 731 runs, posted a .288 career batting average, and lashed 1283 hits.

Clearly, LeFlore found redemption on a Major League playing field.

After his retirement, LeFlore worked briefly as a baggage handler for United Airlines. Then he spent several years coaching and managing in various minor league organizations in both the U.S. and Canada.

There are currently over two million Americans serving prison time in the United States, by far the most in the entire Western World.  How much wasted talent and human potential languishes hopelessly behind bars, hoping, perhaps even praying, to find some redemption of their own?

And, as Billy Martin did in 1973, who will take a chance on some young man, granting him perhaps one last chance to embrace his inherent human dignity and self-respect?

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