The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Sports”

All That We Leave Behind

Playing ball in the parking lot behind my friend Tony’s house.

Cool pavement under shady maple trees.

We had to climb two chain-link fences to get to this place.  The last car would usually vacate the lot around 5:00, so we would begin playing ball here sometime around 4:30, just to be on the safe side.

We’d already been playing all day.  Pickup games on side streets and in overgrown dandelion fields.

In the lot, we played “one-bounce” with a red rubber ball.  The pitcher would toss it, overhand, towards home-plate on one bounce.  By putting a spin on the ball, the pitcher could make the sphere either bounce away from the lunging batter, or jam it in on his hands.

If an infielder caught a ground-ball on one bounce, it was ruled an out.

Eleven-years old, I am standing on third base, the result of a hard smash I hit that made it halfway down the driveway before being recovered by the outfielder.

As I faced home-plate, I suddenly knew, as clearly as if a bell had gone off in my head, that I would remember this moment forever.

I was in that breezy, afternoon space between growing into myself, and all the trials and expectations that were sure to follow.

As I waited for the next batter to hit the ball, I happened to turn to my right and noticed something carved into the trunk of a maple tree.  Weather-worn and barely legible, it read, “J. Holvanek was here July ’56.”

John Holvanek, I knew, was one of my father’s childhood friends.  His son, John Holvanek, Jr., age nine, was here playing with me, yelling at the batter to “just hit the goddamned ball!”

In the age of Mantle, Mays and Snider, back when this parking lot was still an open field, John Holvanek, senior, had played baseball.

Standing in the outfield grass, sun high in the sky, waiting for the chubby kid to hit one out to me in center field.

I am thirteen-years old now.  The four guys playing with me are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  We walked three miles from our street in the hot summer sun to get to this lonesome Little League field, hidden high on a bluff overlooking the town of Fairfield.

A dragon-fly hovers ten feet away, calmly positioning himself to make his next kill.  I, too, know that I am positioned correctly to catch the fly ball that Richard will inevitably be lofting high into the muggy afternoon heat.

Richard only ever hits high fly balls to straight away center.  I know this because I’ve made a mental note of several of his prior at bats.

He always hits the scuffed up baseball off the end of his aluminum bat, partly because my cousin, Jimmy, won’t throw him anything over the plate for fear of getting decapitated by a line-drive.

I am the sole outfielder.

The August sun traces hot fingers of perspiration down my neck.

On his next swing, Richard really lays into one, sending the ball soaring high into the sepia sky.  It is a towering drive that clears the left-center field fence by fifteen or twenty feet.  All I can do is stare at it as it plunks itself down among the scrubby weeds and the vine-covered trees.

Great, now someone, namely me, has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball; it is one of only two that we brought with us, and we can’t afford to lose it.

The terrain behind the fence is extremely difficult to climb through.  Sloping sharply downward at a 45 degree angle, the topography is not unlike that on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield, with the added obstacle of a jagged barbed-wire fence that juts out randomly from under the soil.

Also, it’s hotter than hell, and the mosquitoes are feasting on my blood.

After several minutes of fruitless, frustrating searching, I spot something straight ahead of me.  It is sort of white, like the baseball, but it appears to be somewhat larger than the ball I’m looking for.

I kneel to take a better look at it.  Using my baseball glove as a tool, I brush away the brackish, wet leaves piled half an inch thick.

It is part of an old sign.  At first, being a Catholic, I thought that it read, “Confessions.”  But this seemed rather unlikely to me, being out here in the woods and all.  And anyway, “Confessions” weren’t something you put up signs about.  Then I realized that it actually read “Concessions,” and it began to make sense to me.

On the other end of this field, there used to be a concession stand where players and fans could cool off with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy a snack of their choice.  Children and parents spent their Saturday afternoons enjoying the sounds of the crack of a bat smacking a ball, kids laughing and yelling, and cicadas screeching in the woods.

I thought about picking up the sign and showing the others.  Instead, I kicked a wet pile of dead leaves over it, and resumed my search for the baseball.

On the lawn behind my apartment building.

My six-year old boy is standing barefoot in the grass holding a wooden baseball bat behind his shoulder.  He is locked and loaded, ready to rip into one of daddy’s famous, underhand “slow” balls.  I stare in at him and say, “Hey, give me your game-face.”  My son bares his teeth at me and scowls.  He is intensely focused.

I toss the ball exactly where he likes it, up and over the plate where his small arms can extend themselves just enough to drive the ball over my head.

And that is exactly what he does.  His drive travels an estimated sixty-five feet into the tall bushes that provide our ground-floor apartment with a modicum of privacy.  He circles the imaginary bases as fast as he can.  He hasn’t yet perfected his home-run trot.

I lope over to the bush to find the baseball.  (Some things never change.)  I pluck it out easily and turn to jog back to my “pitcher’s mound.”  But my boy is already half-way back, heading towards our apartment.

“Dad,” he says, “I don’t want to play any more today.”

We’ve already been playing almost an hour, and the April sun is already hot here in South Carolina.

I begin to suggest to him that we write “First homer, April ’10” on his baseball, to commemorate his first home run, but he is already pulling open the screen door to get a drink.

I look around the yard for a moment; everything has been picked up off the lawn.

I head back in towards the apartment, and I wonder if, many years from now, my little boy will remember this moment.

On a whim, I toss the baseball as high up into the cobalt sky as I can, and wait for it to come back down into my glove.  As it hovers halfway between Heaven and Earth, I wonder how many times in my life I’ve searched the skies, the streets, and the woods for baseballs.  I often ended up finding things others had left behind.

I often ended up finding Baseball.

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On Baseball Gloves, and Girls

It is my probably faulty recollection that parents simply did not exist when I was a teenager.  Sure, someone must have paid the bills on our five-room, one-bath, split-level on Colorado Avenue on Bridgeport’s west side.  A person of the feminine persuasion provided us with relatively healthy meals (I could have done with a lot less canned Le Sueur Peas, though.)  And my grandparents did technically live directly upstairs from us (my grandma watching General Hospital, and my grandpa reading his Slovak edition of Pravda.)

baseball glove

baseball glove (Photo credit: theseanster93)

Yet, in a very real sense, my younger brother and I spent most of our days very much unsupervised.  We could have been famous serial arsonists, but as long as we were home by around 9:00 p.m., that’s all that mattered.

Make no mistake, I hold no grudge against my parents or grandparents.  My parents worked hard all day, and my grandparents had worked perhaps even harder for tens of decades before that.  My grandparents still used the very same salt and pepper shakers they’d received back on their wedding day in the heart of the Great Depression in the early ’30’s.  My dad still took the Barnum & State bus to work.  No one in my immediate family could be accused of flaunting their wealth.

I bought my first baseball glove in the late spring of ’76, the Bicentennial year, with money I’d earned from household chores, or had saved from my First Communion and most recent birthday.  I don’t remember the model, but it was mostly tan with dark brown trim.  Perfect for grabbing hard-hit ground-balls off the sweltering summer pavement, it was clearly an infielder’s glove.  No Mark Belanger, but Buddy Harrelson might have met his match.  Shea Stadium was just about 90 minutes from my house.  Surely, a roving Mets scout would someday spot me accidentally while driving through town.

Those honey-hued summer days were sticky and sweet as the peanut brittle in my grandma’s pantry, and time was a distant concept that smelled vaguely of rubbing alcohol and Tuesday afternoon Catechism classes.  The ship I floated on was devoid of sail, and I would gladly have remained drifting on the current for eternity in those empty lots where sweaty boys in close companionship would induce grounders, line-drives and a form of self-hypnosis broken only by the Earth folding into itself, abandoning orphan Night to fend for herself.

My baseball glove was always the last thing I put away before bed, and first thing I’d take off my closet shelf once I got home from school.  Let me make it clear that football and even basketball, like unannounced visits from cousins, would occasionally spend a day or two with us.  Those events, while not unpleasant, only served to make us appreciate the utter seriousness of our relationship with baseball.  Nothing could come between us and our bats and gloves.  Until it did.

I was invited to my first pool party in July, 1978, when I was 15-years old.  My friend Danny, in his usual fashion, simply showed up one mid-day at my house and told me that some of the girls from our class were having a pool party at their place, and that I should come along.  I had no idea where these girls lived, and if you were raised in Bridgeport in the ’70’s, just going three or four blocks away from home constituted an expedition worthy of Marco Polo.

Danny drove me in his mom’s tan Buick up the interstate and on over to near the Trumbull line.  There were few actual sidewalks out here, and certainly no corner stores.  The mall was nearby, however, and everyone seemed to own at least three lawnmowers.  I even saw a couple of kids kicking around what looked like a soccer ball on their front lawn.  Christ, was I still even in America?

The pool was one of those above-ground jobs that you had to climb a ladder up, and then down, into the over-chlorinated water below.  I’d only been in one like this a couple of times before, and, since I couldn’t swim, I’d had little incentive to seek opportunities to partake of this particular form of recreation very often.  Skinny and self-conscious, I did slowly sink into the chest-high cool soup, and instantly noticed Janice’s butt around eight inches from my face, as she climbed into the pool directly after I’d made a relatively safe landing.  Though not previously a big fan of Janice, she did now hold a certain biological sway over me that no evolutionary chain could break.

The tinny F.M. radio on the picnic table under the back upstairs deck over the driveway churned out tunes of the day, mostly just pop noise designed to hold your attention long enough to sell you that one missing item that would make you, if not quite cool, then at least not as big a loser as that other guy over there by himself with that bad haircut and that awful shirt.

Still, one or two songs (“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick, for example) happened to carve out an odd moment for themselves, to be frozen in time for no reason other than a fortuitous confluence of circumstance heightened by youthful sexual energy, and no obvious alternative to what for me was a pretty damned unique experience.

Chasing the girls around, one of them later stepped in dog-shit in the backyard, and the pool games weren’t quite going anywhere.  One of the moms or dads came over and said something or other that I blocked out while their mouth was still forming the syllables, and the false jauntiness of their eyes signaled an end to our nearly nude mirth and merriment.  Screw’em.

I slept over my friend’s house that night, the last night I would ever do so.  Within a year, he’d become a loud, obnoxious bore, and I’d grown my hair longer while finally landing a job at Carvel Ice Cream on Park Ave.  None of the girls from the pool party became a significant part of my life, though I think of them from time to time, and doubt I’ll ever hear the term “pool party” without thinking of that long ago afternoon.

When Danny dropped me off at my house the next day, I returned a changed young man.  Baseball was no longer the Big Thing in my life.  Within a few days, I sold my baseball glove to a younger kid in my neighborhood for six dollars.  It didn’t have much life left in it anyway, and sure enough, Johnny got mad at me (but didn’t stay mad for long), when the webbing broke a few weeks later.

I no longer owned a baseball glove, and wouldn’t again for a few more years.  And certainly, none of the gloves that I’ve owned in all those years since have logged nearly as many kid-hours as that first glove did in the streets and sandlots of Bridgeport.

This afternoon, after some deliberation, I bought a baseball glove for a friend of mine as a Christmas present.  A few years older than me, and a serious baseball fan, he told me he hasn’t owned a glove in many years.  It’s not for me to know why he has gone so long without one, or to inquire as to whatever happened to the mitts he’s owned in the past.  Such questions might be too personal.

But I’m hoping that with his new glove, he might casually put to closure whatever experience he may have had regarding the end of his last glove.  Unlikely that either of us will be invited over to a pool party anytime soon, perhaps we can, in the near future, simply enjoy a calm, hypnotic game of catch.

Ten Tips for Enjoying Fantasy Baseball

Here are ten tips to help you enjoy your fantasy baseball season, regardless of whether this is your first time, or if you’ve been doing this for a while:

 1.  Know your league’s scoring system inside out. If you are in a points-based league, make sure you know how many points a blown-save is worth.  Is a strikeout by a hitter a negative half a point, a full point, or does it not count against a hitter?  Information like that will make a difference when trying to decide when, or if, to draft a player like Nationals’ infielder Danny Espinosa (a league-leading 189 strikeouts in 2012. )

2.  Stay away from personal prejudices.  If you are a Red Sox fan and you hate the Yankees, you have to remember that as an owner of a fantasy team, your job is to try to win your league, not simply stock up on all of your favorite Red Sox players.  If you begin by excluding one or more franchises that could supply top-tier talent to your team, you are simply reducing the chances of enjoying a championship season.

3.  Never be vindictive towards another owner. There are practical, as well as ethical reasons for not doing so.  Fantasy Baseball can be highly competitive, and everyone wants to win, but if you take this hobby too seriously and lash-out at another owner, or attempt collusion against someone who irritates you, look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why your life is so small that this should be so important to you.

Also, from a practical standpoint, that owner that you have decided is your enemy might just have the one player on his team that you would like to trade for to help put your team “over the top”.  Good luck doing that if you’ve been acting like a jerk.

4.  Don’t overrate your own players. This is a common mistake in fantasy baseball, especially with less experienced owners.  Most people involved in fantasy baseball have a pretty good working knowledge of the relative value of every player on someone else roster.  If you start with the premise that all of your players are future Hall of Famers, you’ll never be able to engage in any potentially helpful trades, and you’ll just sound like an ass.

5.  Don’t propose insulting trade offers. An extremely common, and annoying, strategy is to offer anywhere from two to five of your own average players for another team’s superstar.  Considering that there is usually enough talent available on the waiver wire, why should someone take on your mediocre players?

Moreover, with limited roster space, the person you are making the offer to would have to drop one or two players just to consummate the deal, and those players might be better than or equal to the players you are offering.

6.  Don’t ignore trade offers. Even if someone does offer you a stupid, ridiculous trade, just politely respond with a “No thanks for now,” response.  No use offending anyone that could potentially help you down the road.

7.  Don’t whine or complain about bad luck. No one wants to hear about it.  Conversely, don’t denigrate another fantasy owner’s success by writing it off as nothing more than good luck.  Success, as someone once said, is the residue of preparation.  Every team experiences injuries.  A successful fantasy team adapts to changing conditions throughout the season.  If you think you are done actually managing your roster on draft day, you’ve got another thing coming.

8.  Try to stay engaged in an ongoing dialogue regarding your league, and baseball in general, throughout the season.  In almost every league I’ve ever been in, we end up with “hidden” owners we know exist only because they submit weekly line-ups, but they are virtually absent as actual humans participating in a hobby that’s meant to be interactive.  That’s like joining a book-group and just sitting there reading, never engaging in a conversation about the book you’re reading with anyone else.

9.  Don’t let fantasy baseball take over your life. If you find yourself still awake in front of your computer at 2:15 a.m. trying to locate the box-score of some west coast game, turn off the damned computer and go to bed.  You’ll feel better in the morning, and you can always turn on Sports Center when you wake up.

10.  Don’t forget that you love real baseball first, fantasy baseball second.  Therefore, when you are watching a fantastic pitcher’s duel featuring two young aces, and the only player you have in that game on your fantasy roster just went 0-5 with four strikeouts, you didn’t just watch a crummy, disappointing game.  You may have “missed” (even though you just sat through it) one of the best games of the season.

Baseball, Strange But True (Or, The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters)

I’ve always been a sucker for the Strange but True tales, wherever I can find them.  It all began with a weird book my father used to own (first published in 1973) called, “Wisconsin Death Trip.” Also, (to my nine-year old sensibilities) the paintings of Goya, (particularly “Saturn Devouring His Son,“) would both fascinate and terrify me as well.

"The sleep of Reason creates monsters&quo...

“The sleep of Reason creates monsters”, etching and aquatint by Francisco Goya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So whenever I come across even marginally interesting baseball flotsam, I indulge myself like Miguel Cabrera sitting on a 3-2 pitch from Josh Tomlin with the bases loaded.

Here are a few things I’d like to share with you.

1)  Lawrence Dolan, (net worth, 3 billion dollars) of Clan Dolan, purchased the Cleveland Indians in the year 2000 for $323 million dollars.  Since then, the Indians have finished above .500 just twice over the past eleven seasons.  Attendance at Indians home games has gone from #1 (3.5 million fans per year) when he bought the team to near the bottom of the league (about 1.5 million fans per year) under his tenure.

Meanwhile, the value of the Cleveland Indians franchise, even despite the major recession and the poor on-field performance, has actually increased from $323 million to the current (Forbes) estimate of $353 million.

Which just goes to show, if you are filthy rich in America, remarkable incompetence is generally rewarded just as handsomely as is occasional, skillful management.

Joey Votto

Joey Votto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto went through the entire 2010 baseball season without once hitting an infield pop-up.  In 2011, he hit an infield pop-up just once.  Also, through July of 2012, Votto had pulled just one ball foul in his entire career.  What does all that mean?  It means the man simply never misses his pitch.

In 2012, despite missing about 50 games, he still led the N.L. in walks with 94, and in on-base percentage for the 3rd straight year.  His unbelievable .474 on-base percentage means, of course, that he gets on base nearly one time for every two plate appearances.

Those are numbers normally compiled by Little League All-Stars, or by guys named Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, or Babe Ruth.

2010-02-19 #18 Max Scherzer

2010-02-19 #18 Max Scherzer (Photo credit: lakelandlocal)

3)  Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers has pretty dominant stuff.  In 2012, he recorded 231 strikeouts in just 187.2 innings pitched.  He posted a 16-7 record, and has now made 133 Major League starts over the past five years.

Somehow, though, Scherzer has never been told that MLB games, unlike Little League contests, last nine innings.  For the 28-year old Scherzer, remarkably, has never pitched a single complete game in his career.

Now, as a former teacher (I don’t like to say, ex-teacher, ’cause that sounds a bit too much like “teacher who was fired for reasons sealed away in a Federal Affidavit,”) I got used to people complaining that “teachers hardly work at all,” apparently referring to the cushy 180-day work schedule “enjoyed” by your typical public school teacher.

Putting aside that we didn’t in fact, A) punch a clock, that we did not get paid for the summer (we could opt to get paid through the summer, but that’s not the same as getting paid for the summer), B)  Most of us showed up at school quite often on our “off” days, and C)  Like cops and firemen, teachers are never really “off-duty.”  Whether shopping at the local grocery store, or a Target, a Staples, etc., or even attending a local museum, most teachers are always, ALWAYS, on the lookout for something they can either purchase, beg or steal for their classrooms.

Which brings us back to Scherzer.  Is it really too much to ask Scherzer to go nine innings just once?  After all, my top salary as a teacher, after 12 years, was about $50,000 (in one of the better paying districts in Maine.)  Max Scherzer earned $117,187.50 per start in 2012.

Also, I completed every one of my starts.

And Scherzer has never had to do after-school detention duty.

4)  In 1997, despite a league-leading 744 plate appearances, Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio did not ground into a single double-play all season.  Now, GIDP is not a stat that has been religiously recorded throughout baseball history.  In fact, before, WWII, it was often not recorded at all.

Yet, with 65+ seasons available to analyze, here’s a short but interesting list of players who cannot make the same claim as Biggio (minimum 400 plate appearances):

1)  Rickey Henderson

2)  Tim Raines

3)  Lou Brock

4)  Maury Wills

5)  Jackie Robinson

6)  Vince Coleman

7)  George Brett

8)  Tony Gwynn

9)  Juan Pierre

10) Dave Lopes

11) Pete Rose

12) Roberto Alomar

13) Eric Davis

14) Barry Larkin

15) Ron LeFlore

Admittedly, a statistic like this is as much an aberration as it is a sign of incredible skill.  But what else can we do but genuflect in the general direction of Houston whenever Biggio’s name is so much as mentioned?

Official Major League Baseball - Close-up Shot

Official Major League Baseball – Close-up Shot (Photo credit: Jason Michael)

5)  Rawlings, the official manufacturer of all baseballs used in the Major Leagues, pays its employees in Costa Rica about $1.50 an hour.  Each employee must be able to hand-stitch one baseball every fifteen minutes, and each employee works an average of 11-12 hours per day.  They are required to meet a minimum quota of 156 balls per week.  This one factory produces well over two million baseballs each year.

A large percentage of the workers in this factory will eventually develop carpel-tunnel syndrome, or other physically debilitating injuries, within two to three years.  They are not allowed to speak to one another during the course of an entire shift, and must ask permission to use the bathroom.  And, of course, any discussion regarding organizing a labor union immediately results in the termination of employees foolish enough to engage in these “secret” discussions, despite the fact that, under Costa Rican law, its citizens do have the legal right to organize.

All of this information has been made available to Major League Baseball, to the Player’s Union, and, of course, has been pointed out to Rawlings, U.S.A.  To this point, none of these entities has shown the slightest bit of interest in the health and welfare of the people who make their multi-billion dollar industry possible.

Perhaps strangest of all, there has never been a Major League baseball player from Costa Rica.

When Second Base Was a Handbag

My friend Scott was nothing if not resourceful.

After we climbed the hot metal fence with the spikes on top into the parking lot of the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, we counted our blessings.  This lot was one of the biggest and the best in which to play baseball from Maplewood Ave., over to Clinton Ave., and on up to North Ave. (which became the more regal King’s Highway once you crossed into Fairfield.)

English: St. Augustine Cathedral Bridgeport Pa...

English: St. Augustine Cathedral Bridgeport Patrick C. Keeley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On this happy occasion, we also happened to have a full complement of neighborhood boys, including a couple of kids from way over on Howard Ave. whom I didn’t know too well.  It was rare that we had enough kids (not to mention bats, gloves and balls) to play an actual game between two teams.

Normally, we’d play four-on-four, with anything hit to right-field an automatic out.  Fewer than eight kids meant mere batting practice for the day, desultory fly balls dropping well out of reach of our de facto outfielder.

Scott was the first one to notice it.  The smooth handbag rested, discarded and disgraced, near the green metal dumpster under the stained glass image of Jesus extending His hands, sans glove, for what must have been a low line-drive.

We had the usual piece of damaged roofing tile for first base, Johnny’s mother’s Neil Sadaka L.P. for third base, and, despite our proclivity for high scoring games, what was left of a ONE WAY, DO NOT ENTER sign for home plate.

But Tony’s mom would no longer let us use his grandma’s crocheted Lord’s Prayer on a doily for second base.  So we knew we would have to improvise.

Except for the one used Kleenex tucked hopelessly away in the loose change compartment in the front, the brown leather handbag was empty.  If we could pull the strap off (which the Jelliff brothers did, quickly and efficiently), we’d have ourselves a satisfactory keystone to slap down in the middle of the steamy asphalt.

Scott, craving the validation from his friends he never got from his bastard of a step-father, let out an adolescent, voice-cracking war-whoop as he raised the handbag over his head like an Algonquin war trophy

Johnny, always quick to kick the chair out from under Scott’s skinny legs while the self-induced noose was wrapped firmly around his neck, shouted, “Shut the hell up, Scott!  Let’s freakin’ play!”

Remington Arms  demo Bridgeport, Ct.

Remington Arms, Bridgeport, Ct. 

Johnny was the youngest of our group by an unheard of four years, but he could hold his own with even the 7th graders.  His dad actually hung around with my dad on similar turf in the days when Bridgeport’s impending collapse was delayed by the still sinewy bonds of church, work and family.

Once the work went away, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and even fucking Arkansas, the families fragmented, leaving only the churches to sort through the scattered bones and abandoned souls of the old, neglected neighborhoods.

But at least we had our second base.

At precisely 4:00 p.m., Tony hit a shot that approached, on a line, the red and orange stained glass windows of what we thought of as the Diocese H.Q.  It was the mysterious place that only priests and the occasional civilian grownup had ever set foot inside of, and we couldn’t even begin to imagine what Holy Rites and adventures went on inside that place.

Even my grandpa, who seemed to go to church whenever he was awake (and he didn’t sleep much), had never entered that cloistered universe.

Tony’s line-drive, perhaps aided by the irregular shape of the lopsided nine-month old baseball itself, curved away from the window, slamming into the stone border just six inches away from Jesus’ outstretched hand.

We knew it was exactly 4:00 p.m. because at the exact moment that ball hit stone, the bell inside the office chambers tolled four times.  For a second, our young minds searched for some connection between the line-drive and the bell but, of course, there wasn’t one.

Until one of the priests, a middle-aged man wrapped in a black cassock with white trim, approached us purposefully.  Without a word, he strode up to our pitcher, one of the boys from over on Howard Ave., and held his hand out for the ball.  Assuming that excommunication would probably follow close on the heels of the surrendering of the baseball, I was just glad it wasn’t one of my buddies.

English: Fred Russell, Sadaharu Oh and Sparky ...

English: Fred Russell, Sadaharu Oh and Sparky Anderson in Tokyo, Japan in 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the quiet priest, tall and calm, held out his hand, doing his best impersonation of Reds manager Sparky Anderson, purple clouds bruised the sky above us.  I thought, “Holy shit, we’re sunk.  We’re gonna lose the baseball, and it’s going to freakin’ rain.”

The priest stood, shadow-less in the diffused sunlight, with his back foot planted on our pitcher’s mound (a paper-plate from Carvel Ice Cream.)  When his left leg came up to his belt, his head sank slightly into his left shoulder as his right arm began to arc high over his head.  His fastball exploded into the mitt of Matt, our 13-year old catcher.  Matt just blinked as he tossed the ball back to this still-silent priest.

Now he had our attention.

He motioned for Tony to get back in the “batter’s box,” a crude outline of chalk on pavement.  Tony, perhaps feeling what the guests of the Inquisition might have felt in 16th-century Spain, held the Chris Speier model Louisville Slugger high and back, his right arm cocked at the elbow.  This time, the pitch started heading for Tony’s face, then about eight feet out, it curved over home plate, catching the outside corner for a strike.

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

English: Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bruce Sutter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scott and Johnny surreptitiously glanced at each other, a silent and respectful “WHAT THE FUCK?” mouthed behind their baseball gloves.

Strike three was what appeared to be that new pitch, the split-fingered fastball, recently made prominent and popular by Cardinals relief pitcher Bruce Sutter.  Tony looked at strike three, his bat never having left his shoulder.

The priest walked over to Tony, and loud enough for most of us to hear, simply said, “Thanks for letting me play.  It’s been a while.”  With that, he handed Tony the baseball, then calmy strode back inside the priestly vault.  At first, no one said anything.  We weren’t even sure if this was some kind of unspoken message on his part that we should get the hell out of there.

This was, after all, priestly property, and we weren’t exactly invited.

Finally, Johnny broke the ice, yelling at Tony, “You just gonna stand there, or we gonna play some ball?!”

We played until our hands were raw and our shins were sore, until the universal call of mom’s announcing supper rang throughout the neighborhood, and encroaching darkness dimmed our enthusiasm.

As for the priest, despite playing in that parking lot several more times throughout the summer, we never saw him again.

Wherever he ended up, though, I like to think he’s still mixing fastballs and curves on a sandlot in some half-forgotten town that exists on the periphery of the American Dream.

Related Posts:

Jabbar’s Traveling Baseball Circus

Baseball Summers In the 1970’s

Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls

Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind

Fantasy Baseball: Ten Tips for an Enjoyable Season

During the month of February, I will alternate my normal fare with posts about fantasy baseball.  I’ve been participating in various fantasy baseball leagues since 1993, so I decided to share some of my experience (I hesitate to call it “wisdom”) with those of you who play as well.

Here are ten tips to help you enjoy your fantasy baseball season, regardless of whether this is your first time, or if you are an aging veteran like me.

Fantasy Baseball

Image by StuffEyeSee via Flickr

1.  Know your league’s scoring system inside out. If you are in a points-based league, make sure you know how many points a blown-save is worth.  Is a strikeout by a hitter a negative half a point, a full point, or does it not count against a hitter?  Information like that will make a difference when trying to decide when, or if, to draft a player like Drew Stubbs (205 strikeouts in 2011.)

2.  Stay away from personal prejudices.  If you are a Red Sox fan and you hate the Yankees, you have to remember that as an owner of a fantasy team, your job is to try to win your league, not simply stock up on all of your favorite Red Sox players.  If you begin by excluding one or more franchises that could supply top-tier talent to your team, you are simply reducing the chances of enjoying a championship season.

3.  Never be vindictive towards another owner. There are practical, as well as ethical reasons for not doing so.  Fantasy Baseball can be highly competitive, and everyone wants to win, but if you take this hobby too seriously and lash-out at another owner, or attempt to collude against someone who irritates you, look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why your life is so small that this should be so important to you.

Also, from a practical standpoint, that owner that you have decided is your enemy might just have the one player on his team that you would like to trade for to help put your team “over the top”.  Good luck doing that if you’ve been acting like a jerk.

4.  Don’t overrate your own players. This is a common mistake in fantasy baseball, especially with less experienced owners.  Most people involved in fantasy baseball have a pretty good working knowledge of the relative value of every player on someone else roster.  If you start with the premise that all of your players are future Hall of Famers, you’ll never be able to engage in any potentially helpful trades, and you’ll just sound like an ass.

5.  Don’t propose insulting trade offers. An extremely common, and annoying, strategy is to offer anywhere from two to five of your own average players for another team’s superstar.  Considering that there is usually enough talent available on the waiver wire, why should someone take on your mediocre players?

Moreover, with limited roster space, the person you are making the offer to would have to drop one or two players just to consummate the deal, and those players might be better than or equal to the players you are offering.

6.  Don’t ignore trade offers. Even if someone does offer you a stupid, ridiculous trade, just politely respond with a “No thanks for now,” response.  No use offending anyone that could potentially help you down the road.

7.  Don’t whine or complain about bad luck. No one wants to hear about it.  Conversely, don’t denigrate another fantasy owner’s success by writing it off as nothing more than good luck.  Success, as someone once said, is the residue of preparation.  Every team experiences injuries.  A successful fantasy team adapts to changing conditions throughout the season.  If you think you are done actually managing your roster on draft day, you’ve got another thing coming.

8.  Try to stay engaged in an ongoing dialogue regarding your league, and baseball in general, throughout the season.  In almost every league I’ve ever been in, we end up with “hidden” owners we know exist only because they submit weekly line-ups, but they are virtually absent as actual humans participating in a hobby that’s meant to be interactive.  That’s like joining a book-group and just sitting there reading, never engaging in a conversation about the book you’re reading with anyone else.

9.  Don’t let fantasy baseball take over your life. If you find yourself still awake in front of your computer at 2:15 a.m. trying to locate the box-score of some west coast game, turn off the damned computer and go to bed.  You’ll feel better in the morning, and you can always turn on Sports Center when you wake up.

10.  Don’t forget that you love real baseball first, fantasy baseball second.  Therefore, when you are watching a fantastic pitcher’s duel featuring two young aces, and the only player you have in that game on your fantasy roster just went 0-5 with four strikeouts, you didn’t just watch a crummy, disappointing game.  You may have “missed” (even though you just sat through it) one of the best games of the season.

In a follow-up post, I will write more specifically about strategies and tactics that have met with success in fantasy baseball throughout the years.

Related articles

Announcing the Winners of the B.B.A.’s Connie Mack Award

 

Ron Washington and Joe West

Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

 

I am a member of the Miscellaneous Chapter of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

One of the responsibilities we have as members of the B.B.A. is to cast votes for various post season awards.

The following is an official press release announcing the winners of the Connie Mack Award for the best manager in each league. Check out the website and the many interesting and entertaining  blogs in the B.B.A.

WASHINGTON, BLACK WIN CONNIE MACK AWARD

Ron Washington of the Texas Rangers and Bud Black of the San Diego Padres were named winners of the Connie Mack Award by the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, noting them as the best managers in their respective leagues for 2010.

Washington, who weathered a drug controversy in spring training, led Texas to their fifth divisional title since 1994 and their first since 1999.  While the voting was based on his regular season accomplishments, Washington also guided his team to their first ever postseason series victory when they eliminated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games in the American League Divisional Series.

Washington received ten first place votes in route to accumulating 74 total points.  He edged out Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who received 67 points.

In the National League, Black’s guidance of a Padres team almost universally expected to finish last to first place most of the summer helped him edge Dusty Baker of the Cincinnati Reds by the slimmest of margins.  The fact that the Padres fell just short of the playoffs while the Reds won the NL Central helped lead to the tight race.  Black garnered nine first place selections and 53 total points to Baker’s seven first place nods and 51 total points.

The complete voting results are as follows (first place votes in parenthesis):

American League

Ron Washington, Texas (10) 74

Ron Gardenhire, Minnesota (7) 67

Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay (4) 35

Terry Francona, Boston (3) 20

Cito Gaston, Toronto 9

Buck Showalter, Baltimore 9

Joe Girardi, New York 2

National League

Bud Black, San Diego (9) 53

Dusty Baker, Cincinnati (7) 51

Bobby Cox, Atlanta (2) 33

Bruce Bochy, San Francisco (3) 29

Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia (1) 27

Brad Mills, Houston 3

Mike Quade, Chicago 2

The Baseball Bloggers Alliance was formed in the fall of 2009 to encourage cooperation and collaboration between baseball bloggers of all major league teams as well as those that follow baseball more generally. As of this writing, the organization consists of 224 blogs spanning all 30 major league squads as well as general baseball writing.

The BBA is organized under a similar structure as the Baseball Writers of America, where blogs that follow the same team are combined into “chapters” and only two votes from the chapter on an award are counted. The blog chapters that are focused on general baseball were allowed two votes as well, which they could use both on the same league or split between the two leagues.

Chapters generally followed one of two methods when casting their ballot.  Either representatives of the chapter were given the ballots for voting or a “group ballot” was posted, accounting for both of their votes.

Ballots are posted on the respective blogs and tabulated on a 5-3-1 point scale for first, second and third. In the interest of transparency, links are given below for the ballots. Chapter affiliation is in parenthesis.  Those chapters that decided on the group method are noted with an asterisk.

American League

Camden Crazies (Baltimore)*

Boston Red Thoughts (Boston)*

Toeing The Rubber (Boston)*

The Tribe Daily (Cleveland)*

Motor City Bengals (Detroit)

Switch Hitting Pitchers (Detroit)

One Royal Way (Kansas City)

Seth Speaks (Minnesota)

Bronx Baseball Daily (New York)*

Contract Year (Oakland)

Jeff’s Mariners Fan Blog (Seattle)

Rise of the Rays (Tampa Bay)

Baseball Is My Boyfriend (Texas)*

The Blue Jay Hunter (Toronto)

500 Level Fan (Toronto)

Advanced Fantasy Baseball (Fantasy)*

Misc. Baseball (History)*

Victoria Seals Baseball Blog (Other)*

Blogging From The Bleachers (General)*

National League

Prose and Ivy (Chicago)*

Cincinnati Reds Blog (Cincinnati)

Astros County (Houston)

Feeling Dodger Blue (Los Angeles)

Bernie’s Crew (Milwaukee)*

Brewers Bar (Milwaukee)*

The Eddie Kranepool Society (New York)*

Dugger’s Corner (Philadelphia)

Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? (Pittsburgh)*

i70 Baseball (St. Louis)

The Outfield Ivy (St. Louis)

Friar Forecast (San Diego)*

Advanced Fantasy Baseball (Fantasy)*

Misc. Baseball (History)*

Victoria Seals Baseball Blog (Other)*

Blogging From The Bleachers (General)*

Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf (Miscellaneous)*

Prior Winners

2009: Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles of Anaheim; Jim Tracy, Colorado

The official website of the BBA is located at www.baseballbloggersalliance.com.  The BBA can be found on Twitter by the handle @baseballblogs and by the hashmark #bbba.  Members of the BBA may be heard at Blog Talk Radio every Tuesday night with their call-in show, BBA Baseball Talk, which may also be downloaded as a podcast from iTunes.  For more information, contact Daniel Shoptaw at founder@baseballbloggersalliance.com.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 21 – The Chicago White Sox

 

Fielder Jones of the White Sox hits the ball a...

Image via Wikipedia

 

You can put together a pretty damn good team composed entirely of players who toiled for Chicago’s south side franchise over the past hundred years or so.  The list of best players in White Sox history looks something like this:

Carlton Fisk

C  Ray Schalk

1B  Frank Thomas

1B  Dick Allen

1B  Paul Konerko

2B  Eddie Collins

2B  Nellie Fox

SS  Luke Appling

SS  Luis Apparicio

3B  Robin Ventura

OF  Shoeless Joe Jackson

OF Magglio Ordonez

OF  Lance Johnson

DH  Harold Baines

SP  Eddie Walsh

SP  Red Faber

SP  Ted Lyons

SP  Lamarr Hoyt

SP  Jack McDowell

SP  Mark Buehrle

RP  Goose Gossage

RP  Hoyt Wilhelm

RP  Bobby Thigpen

A couple of the players on this list are more readily identified with teams they played with prior to coming over to the White Sox.  I am referring specifically to Carlton Fisk (Red Sox) and Dick Allen (Phillies).

Both players were born in the region or the state where they first debuted in the Major Leagues:  Fisk in northern New England (Bellows Falls, VT, a couple of hours north of Boston) and Allen in the small town of Wampum, PA (about an hour from Pittsburgh, six hours to Philadelphia.)    Both are small, rural towns, and both are about 97% white.

This is approximately where any similarities between the two players end.

Fisk is white; Allen is black.

Fisk was reticent; Allen sang in his own band.

Fisk was lionized by the people of Boston; Allen was generally regarded with disdain by the people of Philadelphia.

Fisk is in the Hall of Fame; Allen…should be?  We’ll get back to that topic later.

Although they both played for the White Sox, their careers never overlapped.  Fisk played 13 seasons for the White Sox beginning in 1981.  Allen played just three years with the White Sox, from 1972-74 (about the time Fisk’s career was just getting underway in Boston.)

Actually, they do have one more thing in common.  They each enjoyed one very productive season as hitters while playing in Chicago.  Although Fisk was generally productive in several of his seasons with the White Sox, one season in particular stands out.

1985 was Carlton Fisk’s Best Forgotten Season with the White Sox.

In 1985, Fisk was already 37-years old.  Yet he played in 153 games that year, catching in 130 of them.  He accumulated 543 at bats and 620 plate appearances.

While his .238 batting average might not seem all that impressive, his 37 home runs and 107 RBI’s were both career highs.

Fisk also scored an impressive 85 runs, quite a lot for an aging catcher who managed just 129 hits on the season.  Shockingly, Fisk even stole 17 bases, matching a career high he had set three seasons earlier (also with the White Sox.)

His .488 slugging percentage was good for tenth place in the A.L. in ’85.

He even chipped in 17 time hit by pitch, second most in the league.

Defensively, his range factor of 6.63 paced the junior circuit, as did his 801 putouts.

He made the 1985 All-Star team for the tenth time in his career.  (He was named to eleven All-Star teams in his career.)

For his efforts, and despite his low batting average, Fisk finished a respectable 13th in MVP voting in ’85.

Other than his famous moment in Game Six of the 1975 World Series in which he hit the game winning home run vs, the Reds, Fisk put together a quiet and steady 24-year career during which he belted 376 home runs, drove in 1,330 and amassed 2,356 hits.

When Fisk retired, he had caught more games and had hit more home runs than any other catcher in history.  ( Both records have since been broken.)

Fisk is obviously one of the top ten catchers in baseball history, perhaps top five.  He was a worthy inductee into baseball’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.

One word that has never (to my knowledge) been used to describe Carlton Fisk is “controversial.”

Which brings us to Dick Allen.

In “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (p. 438), baseball stat guru Bill James called Dick Allen, “The second most controversial player in history, behind Rogers Hornsby.” He finished his terse little paragraph on Allen by claiming that he “…lost half of his career or more to immaturity and emotional instability.”

Harsh words.

What are we to make of that damning sentence?

Was Dick Allen diagnosed with a mental illness that only Bill James was aware of?  Can immaturity really shorten the career of an otherwise highly productive player?  Allen was enjoying an outstanding career through age 32.  Eying his age-33 year off in the distance, did he suddenly panic and become the black Adam Sandler?

It’s true that Dick Allen rubbed some people the wrong way, like the population of the city of Philadelphia.  But Phillies fans are notorious for their ability to find the dark cloud in the silver lining.  They have never been considered baseball’s most forgiving bunch of fans.

But let’s have a reality check.

Here’s what some players who were actually teammates of Allen said about him years later:  ( All quotes and text in the following three full paragraphs below are from Wikipedia-Dick Allen.)

Gene Mauch of the Phillies and Chuck Tanner of the White Sox  managed Allen the longest.  Asked if Allen’s behavior ever had a negative influence on the team, Mauch said: “Never.” According to Tanner, “Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth.”

Hall of Fame teammate, Mike Schmidt, credited Dick Allen in his book, “Clearing the Bases,” as his mentor.

In a Mike Schmidt biography written by historian William C. Kashatus, Mike Schmidt fondly recalls Dick Allen mentoring him before a game in Chicago in 1976, saying to him, “Mike, you’ve got to relax. You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

Mike Schmidt responded by hitting four home runs in that game. Mike Schmidt is quoted in the same book, “The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse.”

Playing in a pitcher’s era, Dick Allen amassed some outstanding statistics in his 15-year career.

From 1966-74, he led his league in slugging percentage three times.  He led his league in on-base percentage twice.  He also led his league in OPS four times.  In various seasons, he also led his league in runs scored once, triples once, home runs twice, walks once, RBI’s once, total bases once, and OPS+ three times.

Dick Allen won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award.

He was named to seven All-Star teams.

His career .534 slugging percentage is good for 44th best of all time.

Perhaps most impressively, his career adjusted OPS+ is 156, good for 19th best in baseball history, and tied with another White Sox slugger, future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.

By way of comparison, Stan Musial’s OPS+ was 159; Tris Speaker’s was 157; Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio are each at 155.

That’s pretty select company to be able to share.

But Dick Allen’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season with the White Sox was in 1972.

Dick Allen won the A.L. MVP award in 1972 by leading the league in home runs (37), RBI’s (113), walks (99), OBP (.420), slugging (.603), OPS (1.023), and OPS+ (199).

An OPS+ of 200 means that a player is exactly twice as good as a typical replacement level ballplayer.

Allen also batted .308 and scored an even 90 runs.  His 131 runs created also led the American League.  Not usually a prolific base-stealer, Allen even contributed 19 stolen bases to his efforts.

He enjoyed another fine season for the White Sox in 1974 at age 32.  His swift and steep decline dovetailed with his off-season trade back to the city he once demanded to be traded from in the first place, Philadelphia.

Dick Allen retired after playing in a limited capacity for the Oakland A’s after the 1977 season.  Allen was 35-years old.

Two questions come to mind:

1)  Was Dick Allen a victim of racism?

2)  Does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

As for question #1, yes, of course.  Phillies fans often hollered highly offensive racial slurs at him, not to mention bottles and batteries while he played the outfield.

More to the point, some writers then (and now) have always been uncomfortable with the idea of an assertive black man who isn’t interested in schmoozing with the media.

Historically, black athletes in America who have flaunted their wealth, confidence and pride have often been labeled as surly, divisive, angry and controversial.  This reality goes all the way back to the great heavy-weight boxer Jack Johnson a hundred years ago, and has continued in recent years with players like Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds.  (Bonds was subject to many of these demeaning terms long before he was linked to steroids.)

Meanwhile, Joe DiMaggio, who certainly flaunted his confidence, wealth and pride was spoken of as, at worse, aloof, but was more frequently praised as classy and noble.

For what it’s worth, if you do a google search using key words: “Controversial white baseball players,”  you will find there are 174,000 hits.

If you substitute the word “white” with the term “African-American”, you will find there are 263,000 hits.

Do I think baseball writers like Bill James and others are inherently racist?  No.  Bill James, for example, has also written eloquently on the subject of race in baseball in  books like, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame.”

But I do think there is an intrinsic racial bias in the kinds of knee-jerk reactions and words writers, fans and others use that has evolved down through the generations.  These auto-responses have imprinted themselves in our psyches, and  handily come to the fore in place of more reasonable, sensible alternatives for which we might have to dig just a bit deeper.

I think this is as true for myself, Bill James and perhaps you today as it was for others generations ago.

So does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

Depends on your definition of a Hall of Famer.

A case can be made that he does belong in The Hall.  Some of the numbers and other career accomplishments I have alluded to already in this post make the case that he is a viable candidate.

For those of you, however, who favor a more Career Numbers and Milestones approach, I suspect that Allen’s 351 career home runs, 1119 RBI’s, .292 career batting average, and fewer than 2,000 career hits has you firmly ensconced in the NO column.

So be it.

But one thing remains true.  During his career, few players were as feared, respected and productive between the lines as Dick Allen.

And it is also true that places like Wampum, PA, Bellows Falls, VT, and other small towns and hamlets across our country will continue to produce ball players who will, whether controversial or not, bestow their legacy in some fashion on our timeless yet ever-changing National Pastime.

Did Babe Ruth Really Call His Shot?

Writing about Babe Ruth is like writing about God.  No matter what you say about either of them, you are bound to offend someone. Still, there is one major difference between the two of them. God never hit 714 home runs. Oh, sure, God COULD have hit that many if he had wanted to, you say, but we’ve heard that before about countless prospects over the decades. Yet only a heroic Henry Aaron and an inflatable Barry Bonds have surpassed Ruth. Gods, of course, have the power to know what truths the future holds, a power that mere mortals are not privy to.  So how, then, was Babe Ruth able to predict that he would hit a home run off of Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in that legendary at-bat in the 1932 World Series? Actually, the essential question here is, DID Babe Ruth truly call his shot on that early October afternoon in Chicago? It all began with sportswriter Joe Williams.  In the late edition of the same day as the game, he wrote, “Ruth Calls Shot As He Puts Home Run No. 2 In Side Pocket.” (Ruth had already hit another home run earlier in the game.) At first, even Ruth dismissed the story, saying that he was just pointing towards the Cubs bench telling them he still had one more strike to go. As time went on, however, Ruth began to warm up to the story, embellishing it as time went by. Yet no other player on the field that day was able to positively confirm that Ruth actually did call his shot, a monster 440-foot home run towards the flagpole beyond the outfield wall. Still, the famous photo exists that shows Ruth gesturing, arm outstretched, pointing at someone or something during this very at-bat. Isn’t it at least plausible that this enormously talented hitter and consummate showman really could have called his shot that day? Ruth later claimed that he announced, “I’m gonna hit the next pitched ball past the flagpole. Well, the Good Lord must have been with me that day.” God, apparently, is a Yankees fan (which would explain a lot of things.) Yet Yankees pitcher Charlie Deven, in an interview given seven decades later, said that while at first he thought Ruth’s foreshadowing gesture was indeed a portent of the subsequent home run, he was corrected by Yankees shortstop Frank Crosetti who told Deven that Ruth simply put up one finger to indicate he still had another strike coming. Cub’s pitcher Charlie Root denied to his dying day that Ruth called his shot.  In one interview, he said that if Ruth had tried a stunt like that, his next pitch would have knocked Ruth on his ass. The player who was physically closest to Ruth in that moment was Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett.  Hartnett later stated that Ruth did not in fact call his home run.  Instead, he said that Ruth bellowed, “That’s only two strikes,” while pointing at the Cubs dugout. One might argue that Crosetti simply wasn’t physically close enough to Ruth to hear what he actually said.  And it can also be argued that Gabby Hartnett, being the catcher for the opposing team during a bitterly contested World Series (which the Yankees swept in four games), would have every reason to try to deny additional glory to the Yankee legend. It must also be remembered that Ruth was not a brash, 25-year old kid just trying to make a name for himself.  In that case, it is conceivable that players on both teams would have tried to cut Ruth down to size for his lack of humility. But Ruth was an aging, 37-year old legend playing in his last World Series.  He was not just another star; he was THE star that all of baseball was indebted to for leading the way out of the woods of the scandalous 1919 season which could have ruined baseball indefinitely.  It was his exploits that changed the game forever, filling stadiums all over America, putting a little more money in every player’s pocket. In other words, his reputation already cast in stone, it’s hard to see why, if Ruth really had called his shot that day, not a single player on the field that day would grant him this one last diamond in his crown. Unless, of course, it never happened. But why, then, would Ruth feel compelled to embrace this apocryphal tale? To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at Ruth the Man, as opposed to Ruth the demigod. Despite enjoying a very productive season in 1932, Ruth was clearly no longer the dominant slugger in the American League.  For the first time since 1925, Ruth failed to lead the league in any of the following three categories:  Home Runs, RBI’s, or Slugging Percentage.  His teammate, Lou Gehrig, with whom a tense rivalry existed, had driven in 151 runs to Ruth’s still fine 137.  Worse, Jimmie Foxx of the Athletics had out-homered Ruth 58 to 41, falling just two homers short of Ruth’s own single-season home run record. While Foxx and Gehrig had finished 1-2 in MVP voting in ’32, Ruth finished tied with Joe Cronin for a distant 6th in the balloting. Ruth, age rapidly creeping up on him, must have sensed his days as baseball’s most awesome slugger were numbered.  He also must have known that despite how much he was loved by his countless admirers, in the end, his on-field production would dictate the intensity and degree of their future admiration. He must also have realized that the world itself had changed drastically since the Yankees glory days of the late 1920’s. Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic back in ‘27.  Now, Europe was faced with the specter of Fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany. A world-wide Depression had taken hold, and America itself was threatened by malignant forces both from within and without. In short, the world was clearly not headed into a new Age of Reason.  Dark forces could only be effectively met by new heroes.  Franklin Roosevelt and his inspirational Fireside Chats were still months away.  Ruth, then, already a hero back in the heady days of the ‘20’s, tapped into the American Zeitgeist once again, and delivered the miracle this emotionally impoverished nation needed, i.e., that a man could still control his destiny. Babe Ruth’s Called Shot resonated with the American public because it proved that even in the face of extreme darkness, heroic moments were still possible. Yet, for our purposes here today, during a time of renewed social and economic turmoil, our rationalist selves have to accept that there just doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence that Babe Ruth really did call his shot.

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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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