Completely Random Baseball Cards
Because they're a staple of this site, I get asked from time to time if I collect baseball cards. The standard answer is no, not really -- I was pretty obsessed from 1978 to '87 or so, but the reason I started using cards on this blog was simply for the art, back when I was fledgling on Blogger.com and couldn't fish through the Globe archives for what I needed.
But the more accurate answer is this: more than my wife knows.
I might pick up a pack at Target from time to time after completing my 6-year-old's search for the latest must-have Skylander. But mostly I like getting stuff that reaffirms my love for baseball, the inexpensive nostalgia that reminds me of the time when I first noticed the game. I bought a well-worn '73 Hank Aaron card that was unattainable when I was a kid and is pretty much worthless now, but nonetheless delivers a pleasant flashback.
Another recent time, I bought a cheapo '76 Cleveland Indians team set on eBay after having them in a what-if sports league, and yes, I do realize that is probably the dorkiest sentence ever written on Boston.com.
I also really dug the Topps Archives set last year, the mix of modern and legendary players and vintage card designs is pretty much what I would draw up if I were asked to design my ideal set. How much did I like it? Let's just say I bought more than the occasional pack at Target -- I need two cards to complete the set. Say, anyone have Adrian Gonzalez and Jemile Weeks?
Anyway, I haven't written a post on this project about the top 60 Topps cards of all-time since -- let's see -- May 2012, but while sorting through my Target and eBay contraband recently during the recent snowstorm, I had the urge to revive it. Here are cards 36-40.
Like collecting itself, I suppose, the countdown has been stagnant, but never entirely out of mind.
1976 Hank Aaron
Given that the all-time Home Run King (in conscience if not on paper) played his 23 big league seasons (1954-76) in the golden age of card collecting, it makes sense that there would be countless options for his inclusion in this project. And there were -- like peers Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, he was featured on a memorable card almost every year. His 1954 rookie card rated second in Topps's voting. His 1956 card is a classic in my favorite all-time unattainable set. In '57, he unwittingly was made to hit lefthanded. In '73, he looked to the sky, as if he'd just found out about that 16-year old mistake (or, I suppose, was merely catching a popup off the bat off, oh, let's assume Pepe Mangual). I'm not entirely sure why I settled on this one, which is as gaudy as 1976 itself and features a puffier Aaron, who hammered 10 homers in his final season, though it may have something to do with appreciating a time when home run kings aged like the rest of us.
1977 Rod Carew
What is it with singles hitters and massive egos? Wade Boggs, Pete Rose ... well, I guess Tony Gwynn might be an exception. Carew, who hit .328 with 3,053 hits in his 19-year career, certainly did not lack for confidence, though he may have been short in the tact department. I remember watching a vintage "This Week in Baseball" on ESPN Classic a few years ago, maybe longer, back when the channel actually showed classic sports and wasn't just a promotional device for whatever was airing on the ESPN mothership that night. It was the episode from September 1978 that aired after the shooting death of Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock, who had played with Carew on the Twins the previous season and finished second behind him in the '77 American League batting race. Carew's comments were weirdly detached -- he basically said something like Bostock talked a lot and wanted to be great, like himself. It was about the most casual eulogy for a ballplayer gone too soon that you could imagine. But hey, Carew was right about himself -- he was great. I went into this exercise suspecting for some reason that he'd be overexposed as overrated. But he was not. He won six batting titles, lead the AL in on-base percentage four times, and that '77 season (.388, 239 hits, 68 extra-base hits, 100 RBIs, 69/55 K/BB ratio), the season from which this card showing him playing defense originates, was true brilliance. Carew could have left it unacknowledged, but you know, Lyman Bostock probably did want to hit just like him.
2010 Adrian Beltre
I'm coming around, all of you revisionist how-did-this-guy-get-away chirpers. I mean, I get the circumstances of the incredibly likable third baseman's one-and-done season with the Red Sox. He came here to rebuild his value after injuries and a bad marriage of skills-to-ballpark in Seattle, and did he ever do that. In his 154 games with the Red Sox, he played third base with such range and intense brilliance that it diminished our perception of his fine immediate predecessors. He led the league with 49 doubles, smashed 28 homers, and provided comic relief whether he meant to or not with his threats to maim amused teammates who dared touch his head. Oh, and he didn't just swing from the heels; he swung from one knee. This card manages to capture how fun it was to have Beltre here for a season, and given what we now know about management's desperate quest for star power, it must be asked: Did they not recognize what was right in front of them, or did a focus group tell them to just ignore it?
1980 Gary Carter
You got the sense watching Carter during his grand '80s heyday with the Expos and Mets that he couldn't contain that trademark gregariousness if he tried, not that such a thought ever crossed his mind. It's a challenge to find a picture from his baseball prime in which he isn't beaming, that smile camera-ready -- too ready, envious teammates sometimes whispered. I'll never believe there was phoniness there -- it seemed to me he was merely guy who could barely contain his love for the game and knew how lucky he was. But I also think it was apparent that there was another side to his personality that might have been underplayed, one evident by the look on his face on this lovely card. Gary Carter might have been a swell guy and an extraordinary player (the Carlton Fisk of the National League, in essence), but let's also remember that he was a ferocious competitor who thrived to the point of joy at one of the most grueling positions in sports. "The Kid" was the rarest kind, and perhaps that's one reason the death at age 57 of such a lively ballplayer and personality still isn't fully fathomable, a year later.
2012 Update 1987 Mini Mike Trout
I'm breaking all the rules! The rules, I'm breaking 'em all! OK, so I'm actually the one who set the rules for this little project (refresher here), but play along with me. This card of Angels outfielder Mike Trout, whose rookie season was so phenomenal that it's fair to wonder if we've already seen the best he has to offer, hardly fits the conventions of this project. It's a mini, for one thing, and I'm not even really sure what set it's from or how you'd go about obtaining it in a pack. All I know is that like the player himself, it's awesome in a lot of different ways -- the throwback Angels jersey, the fake-wood paneling design in homage to the gorgeous, worthless 1987 set, and the Future Stars designation, which always reminds me of Pat Dodson for some reason. I may need to get this one. Right after Gonzalez and Weeks.
Previously in this series:
What, you thought this feature was lost like that shoebox of vintage cards in your mom's attic? Nope, just temporarily out of sight and considerably less valuable. So let's dust it off with a rainy Friday edition featuring, for no reason other than that they looked cool on cardboard, five players who once starred for the Cincinnati Reds ...
1961 Frank Robinson
Is he the most underrated all-time great of the modern era? I tend to think so, though maybe that's partly clouded by my own perception. This much I do know for sure. He's the greatest player ever to be traded for Milt Pappas.
I've never thought of him as quite the equal of legendary peers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, but he'd be a worthy third man in their outfield of icons. He's ninth all-time in home runs (586), which is more than Mickey Mantle (536), Ted Williams (521, though he lost five prime years due to his World War II and Korean War service), and Stan Musial (475) hit, among others. His similar players list is dotted with legends -- Aaron, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., and there's also a dose of melancholy: His top comp at age 20 and 22 is Tony Conigliaro.
Robinson remains the only player to win the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, having done it for the Reds the year this card was issued, as well as in 1966 for Orioles, when he produced one of the all-time "Am I ever going to make you regret this trade" performances after the Reds swapped him for the righthander Pappas, Jack Baldschun, and Dick Simpson in December 1965. Robinson posted a .316-49-122 line to win the Triple Crown while also leading the league in runs, slugging, on-base percentage, and OPS. Oh, and he was the World Series MVP as the Orioles swept the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers.
As exceptional as he was as a player, he is also remembered for being baseball's first black manager when he took over the 1975 Cleveland Indians, a book-worthy collection of originals that included Oscar Gamble, Gaylord Perry, Fritz Peterson, Boog Powell, and a rookie righthander named Dennis Eckersley. Careers don't get much more impressive.
1973 Johnny Bench
Like the Vida Blue card I wrote about during the third episode of this eternal project, this Bench card is another groovy action shot from a '73 set stocked with them. Not sure why Topps got away from this as the decade went on -- the posed spring-training shot or the airbrush job seemingly done by an artistically-challenged fourth grader became later staples -- but it's photos like this that make this a truly distinctive set.
And of course, it's of a truly distinctive player. Bench is arguably the greatest catcher of all-time -- in his original Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked him second in career value behind Yogi Berra, and third in peak value behind Roy Campanella and Mickey Cochrane. The numbers and accolades from Bench's peak season are mesmerizing when you turn to his baseball-reference page. In 1970, at age 22, he hit 45 homers, drove in 148 runs, hit .293 with a .587 slugging percentage, played 158 games, threw out 46 percent of would-be base-stealers, was tops in rWAR among position players (7.4, trailing starting pitchers Bob Gibson and Gaylord Perry), won the Gold Glove and received 22 of 24 first-place votes in winning the NL MVP award. Imagine what a season like that would be worth in salary today. He made about $90,000 then.
Bench's peak arrived a few years before I fell for the game, so my recollections of him are a bit abstract: The role as the straight-man to Bob Uecker in the Krylon paint "no runs, no drips, no errors" commercials; hosting the The Baseball Bunch in the early '80s, a show I loved; and my mom telling me time and again that Bench wasn't as good as Carlton Fisk. It was only later that she confessed that by "good" she meant "handsome.''
Bench might be the catcher of my All-Times Ted Williams Team -- players, like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente, that I wish I could have seen in their heyday. But that's a thought for another day.
1987 Barry Larkin
I probably mentioned this previously when I started doing these "packs" back in 1997 or whenever it was, but the '87 Topps cards with the fake wood paneling straight out of your childhood TV room are among my favorite of all-time, right there with the '62 and '78 Topps sets. And this is the second-best card in the set, right after the Tim Pyznarski Future Star. I suppose that could have gone without saying.
I've also probably mentioned this before, but I wonder how the perception of Derek Jeter and Larkin would be different had Jeter played his entire career in Cincinnati and Larkin in New York. I'm a little surprised they don't show up atop each others' similarities lists (Larkin's top comp is Alan Trammell, while Jeter's is either Alvaro Espinoza or Roberto Alomar, I forget which.) Jeter is 81st all-time in rWAR among batters (70.4), while Larkin is 90th (68.9).
Jeter's legacy is built in the postseason, but Larkin has a .338 career average in 17 playoff games, including a .353 mark in the Reds' sweep of the A's in '90 World Series. Jeter has more Gold Gloves, 4-3, but Larkin could actually go to his left and played in a league with Ozzie Smith. Jeter has the edge in adjusted OPS, 118-116, and, somewhat surprisingly, home runs (244-198). Larkin played at Michigan, and Jeter was committed to playing there before signing with the Yankees out of I.M. Intangibles Prep in '92. Both are charismatic, and both never did anything to tarnish their image. One will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this summer, and Jeter is obviously a lock if he ever retires. But only one was/is underrated.
1964 Pete Rose
Is it possible to mention Rose without offering an opinion on whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame? If it is, I'm not one of those strong enough to resist the temptation, so, briefly, here goes:
I think he should be in. I haven't always felt that way, but I do now.
It's not a conclusion that's easy to come to -- Rose is so unlikable that you wonder from afar whether he's a sociopath. He's certainly a Hall of Fame narcissist.. He's also, among other things, a huckster, a liar, a serial womanizer, a terrible father, a hustler on the field and off. He had the worst haircut in baseball history, though Bryce Harper seems intent on challenging him. He probably plucks the wings off butterflies, then autographs them and tries to sell 'em online for $9.95 a pair, not including shipping.
Rose shamed the game by betting on baseball, and worse, by betting on his own team, at least on the nights Bill Gullickson wasn't pitching. (Talk about a vote of no-confidence.)
He lied about it for years, then profited from his eventual confession. Hell, if you want to ban him until he's gone to the great casino in the sky (or another somewhere south), I'm not going to argue with you. I get it.
And I respectfully disagree. It's the Baseball Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Fame of Rule Followers and Swell Guys, and Rose is the all-time hit leader. The vacancy just can't be ignored, just as it can't be for Joe Jackson, or Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds when their day of 'roid reckoning comes with the voters. I guess I'm a completionist when it comes to the Hall. Put an asterisk on the cheaters' plaques. Acknowledge their transgressions in the first line of bronze text. Don't let them within the city limits of Cooperstown in the summer. But put them in the Hall. Even pathetic old Pete Rose and his gambin', lyin', cheatin' heart.
1968 Tom Seaver
When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, I remember flopping on my bed and reading one of those geared-toward-kids, hyperbolic sports biographies about Seaver. It was right around the time he was traded from the Mets to the Reds in the stunning swap remembered as the "Midnight Massacre.'' (Thus, his Reds connection to this post even though he's shown as a Met.) I remember the book seemed to have a lot of exclamation points, and that Seaver would never pick up anything with his right arm out of fear of injuring it, and that he got a lot of money when the Mets won the rights to sign him.
But most vividly, I remember that it said he convinced his future wife Nancy to begin dating him in high school when he saw her walking down the street, pulled up alongside in his convertible, picked her up, and plunked her down in the passenger seat.
Now, when I was 7 or 8, that didn't seem to me like the kind of thing that would work unless you were the kind of the school, the coolest guy around. About a decade later, that was confirmed for me multiple times beyond a reasonable doubt.
It was confirmed for Seaver too, as the confident, almost smug look on his face on this card suggests. It's the face of someone whose grip on the world is as secure as his grip on his fastball, someone who just won 16 games as a 22-year-old rookie and who, should you have told him then that he was two seasons away from winning his first of three Cy Young Awards and a World Series, would probably reply, "Two years? What took so long.'' Then he'd throw his lovely wife in his convertible and be on his way.
Previously in this series:
How dare you! Just because I started the thing last November and haven't posted a new entry since Pack 5 in March doesn't mean I forgot about it. It means I got distracted by other shiny Boston sports objects and subjects, including the Red Sox managerial search that finally culminates today with the introduction of wrap impresario Bobby Valentine.
While Topps has long since concluded the countdown with which this was to coincide, I'm going to peck away at it even if it takes me another dozen Novembers to complete. There's no timeline to this truth, one which you've probably suspected all along -- it's not so much about the baseball cards as it is one more half-contrived but earnest reason to write sentimentally about baseball. In fact, I'll probably continue this project beyond 60 since it's so damn fun to write.
For now, though, here it is at last -- a special-edition Pack 6, looking at some of those memorable multi-player rookie cards. My apologies, Cardell Camper, you just missed the cut . . .
1973 Mike Schmidt
No truth to the rumor Schmidt's mustache is part of a famous (and somewhat disgusting) facial hair exhibit at Cooperstown, along with Rollie Fingers's throwback handlebar, Bruce Sutter's neck beard, Ozzie Smith's sideburns, and Eddie Murray's ... well, his just about everything. But it should be. Schmidt is sans the famous mustache here -- looks like he went with the permanent Movember look sometime during the '74 season.
On his first card, Schmidt didn't bear much resemblance to the player who'd go on to be recognized as arguably the greatest third baseman of modern times. And on the field, he bore little resemblance to that player he would become, the one who walloped 548 home runs -- winning eight single-season crowns -- and collected 10 Gold Gloves; in 40 plate appearances in '72, he hit .206, then fell to .196 in 443 PAs the next season. Good things the Phillies didn't judge the early book on Schmidt by the cover.
(It should also be noted that Ron Cey, who made six straight All-Star games as part of the Dodgers' famed long-running homegrown infield that also included Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Bill Russell, was the second-best NL third baseman of the era, which was sort of like being the second-best member of the Jackson 5. Those glasses should have been the dead giveaway that
John Dave Hilton probably wouldn't hack it.)
1978 Paul Molitor
Can't imagine there are many rectangles of cardboard that have as much lasting entertainment value as this one.
You have a Hall of Famer in Paul Molitor, coolly and perfectly nicknamed "The Ignitor,'' who used his short, quick righthanded swing to pile up 3,319 career hits and who might have made a run at 4,000 had he not missed approximately 500 games to injury early in his career; you have a should-be Hall of Famer in Trammell, who like his longtime double-play partner Lou Whitaker has had his accomplishments marginalized by voters; you have U.L. Washington, a marginal player on some memorable Royals teams whose ever-present toothpick stands as a symbol of '70s cool; and you have a dude named Mickey Klutts who, considering he was injured more often than even a young Molitor, was apparently doomed by the universe to live up to his last name.
Four players, two superstars, two airbrush jobs that look like they were done with fingerpaints, one toothpick, one Klutts, and what does it all add up to? One truly classic card from my all-time favorite set.
1973 Dwight Evans
So this is how it began for Dewey, playing center field between Orioles speedster Al Bumbry ("Team speed? Team speed?") and Sam Malone nemesis Charlie Spikes. But let's reconsider for a moment how it ended for one of the most beloved Red Sox players we'll ever see.
I've heard comments from Evans through the years suggesting he regrets hanging on for a final season with the Orioles. Lou Gorman, then the Red Sox general manager, made a difficult decision after the 1990 season, letting the 38-year-old Evans go after a year in which he batted .249 with 13 homers as the team's primary designated hitter. Evans, whose throwing arm was superior to every right fielder of the era, at least among those who did not play for the Pittsburgh Pirates, could no longer handle the rigors of the outfield, and his career trajectory indicated his bat wouldn't warrant a spot in the lineup by the time he hit his 40th birthday. With an outfield of young stars Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks and dependable 30-year-old Tom Brunansky, and promising if low-voltage Carlos Quintana at first base, the time seemed right to say goodbye to Dewey.
The time wasn't right for him however, and the conventional wisdom is that his desire to stick around for one more year -- and maybe stick it to the Red Sox in the process -- resulted in little more the disconcerting image of a 20-year Red Sox star wearing a garish color that looks right only on a traffic cone. Maybe joining the Orioles was a sartorial mistake, and being a member of one organization for an entire career might have enhanced his legacy even further ... but Evans himself should never regret the decision from a baseball standpoint, because a review of the numbers suggest he did have something left to offer offensively.
While his power was all but a memory (he had a career low .378 slugging percentage), he had an adjusted OPS of 119, and his .393 on-base percentage with Baltimore in '91 was higher than every Red Sox regular he left behind other than Wade Boggs (.421). His .770 OPS was higher than Brunansky's .692, and while his replacement as the Red Sox' DH had a decent first season in Boston with 28 home runs, it's fair to say the majority of us would rather see 60-year-old Dwight Evans make the 2012 Red Sox' opening day roster than ever consider another moment of Jack Clark's Red Sox career. No regrets, Dewey. The '91 Orioles were terrible and their wardrobe hideous, but there's no shame in going out the way he did.
1965 Joe Morgan
I imagine it's been said before, on the late, greatest blog and elsewhere, but it's so amazing that it bears repeating every once in a while: Joe Morgan the baseball player was pretty much the polar opposite of what he was as a broadcaster, and that is to say he was so consistently excellent and efficient that he's probably underrated even though he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990 with 81.8 percent of the vote.
Morgan was still a useful player even when age had sapped his power and speed -- in 1984, his final season, he had a .356 on-base percentage for the A's at age 40. And when he was in his prime and at his best, there wasn't a better offensive player in the game.
In 1976, his second straight MVP season, he batted .320 with 27 homers, 111 RBIs, 60 stolen bases (in 69 attempts.) He walked 114 times against 41 strikeouts, and led the majors in on-base percentage (.444), slugging (.576), OPS (1.020), and adjusted OPS (186). He even led the majors in sacrifice flies (12).
I can't decide whether it's sad or hilarious that Morgan's stubbornness in adhering to his narrow view of the game as a broadcaster seems to have prevented him from recognizing the broad excellence of his own career. Joe Posnanski summed it up perfectly a couple of years ago with this anecdote in a Gelf Magazine interview:
"Bill James tells a great story about how one time Jon Miller showEd Morgan Bill’s New Historical Baseball Abstract, which has Morgan ranked as the best second baseman of all time, ahead of Rogers Hornsby. Well, Morgan starts griping that this was ridiculous, that Hornsby hit .358 in his career, and Morgan never hit .358, and so on. And there it was, perfectly aligned—Joe Morgan the announcer arguing against Joe Morgan the player."
1972 Carlton Fisk
A smaller tragedy of Thurman Munson's premature death: We missed out on the chance to watch the Yankees legend and his contemporary rival Fisk violently whack each other with canes Joe Kapp/Angelo Mosca-style at a banquet a dozen years from now.
Fisk, stoic and deliberate, looked like he was carved out of his native New Hampshire's granite, and his legend in New England would be permanent and secure even without the iconic home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. If you grew up here and didn't admire Pudge, chances are you didn't know the difference between Fenway Park and the Public Garden. It will always seem so wrong that he spent more years with the White Sox than the Red Sox. Thanks, Haywood.
Fisk isn't the only excellent player featured on this card who got away from the Red Sox. (Uh, not so fast there, Mike Garman.) Cecil Cooper was one of the finest hitters in the American League in the late '70s through the mid-'80s. In the 1980, he hit .352, finishing a mere 38 points behind George Brett for the batting crown.
From 1980-83, he finished fifth in the AL MVP voting three times, and eighth in another season. He led the league in RBIs twice (1980, '83). He won a pair of Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger awards. And it did it all for the Milwaukee Brewers, who acquired him from the Red Sox for George Scott and Bernie Carbo following the 1976 season.
It was a trade that worked for the Red Sox in the short-term -- Scott hit 33 homers in '77 -- and was an absolute disaster in the long-term. Scott's bat slowed and his waistline expanded, and he was out of the majors following the '79 season. Carbo was run off the team by Don Zimmer during the '78 season. Meanwhile, Cooper, who arrived in Boston amid the extraordinary influx of home-grown hitting talent in the early '70s (including Dwight Evans, Ben Oglivie, Juan Beniquez, and a bit later, Jim Rice and Fred Lynn), never quite found his niche as an everyday player with the Red Sox, and his reputation was dented by his 1-for-19 performance in the '75 World Series.
Curious about the line of thinking that went into the trade, I stumbled upon a March 30, 1977 column by Will McDonough in which he spoke to Cooper in Brewers spring training about the trade. Let's just say that Cooper had a knack for candor:
On his reaction to the trade: "In Boston, I always felt the pressure because if I didn't do it, they always had someone else around ready to do the job. If I didn't do well for a few games, I'd probably be sitting down. Here, I know I'm going to play all the time no matter what happens. If I don't do a good job, I know I'll be right back in the lineup the next day. But I do miss the guys on the Red Sox. It was always like family to me. I had a lot of close friends, Jim Rice, Lynn. I came up through the organization with those guys and I guess I just assumed I'd always be playing with them."
On the Red Sox lineup: "The Sox are going to score plenty of runs with that lineup. I think they should put Jimmy Rice in left field and let him play every day. I think Yaz could be the DH for 162 games and do the job. I worry about Jim having a weight problem if he doesn't play every day. And I'd like to see [Dwight] Evans stop worrying. He's a worry wart, and if he'd just forget all the little things and go out and play ball he'd be a great player."
On playing against the team he came up with: "I know playing first base, and being right near their dugout, I'm going to catch plenty of flak. Luis [Tiant] will be all over me. But I'll tell you what. I'm going to bash the ball. Just bash it."
Cooper was right about that. In his 125-game career against the Red Sox, he hit .315 with 19 homers, 89 RBIs, and an .864 OPS.
So as you may have heard, Orioles manager Buck Showalter shared these deep thoughts on Theo Epstein in an interview with Men's Journal . . .
"I’d like to see how smart Theo Epstein is with the Tampa Bay payroll. You got Carl Crawford ’cause you paid more than anyone else, and that’s what makes you smarter? That’s why I like whipping their butt. It’s great, knowing those guys with the $205 million payroll are saying, ‘How the hell are they beating us?’ ”
. . . so in the spirit of equal time or an eye for an eye or stupid is as stupid does or whatever the saying is, how about this? How about we share a few not-so-deep thoughts on Buck Showalter with a long overdue Silly Friday Baseball Post while the Orioles prepare to raise their 2010 September AL East Championship banner.
Yes? OK! The rebuttal is on!
• Nope, that card is not a photoshop -- he really did play pro ball in the Yankees system. Seven seasons, in fact, and he was pretty good. He hit .294 while rising as high as Triple A, and his '80 season at Double A Nashville is fascinating statistically: He hit .324 with 1 homer, 82 RBIs, 53 walks and 23 strikeouts. Unfortunately for him, slow 5-foot-9-inch first basemen/outfielders with 17 homers in 793 career games are yet to be recognized as an undervalued asset in major league baseball.
• His Triple A experience was brief -- 14 games for the '82 Columbus Clippers and 18 more in '83 -- but man, he got to be part of one the most interesting and eclectic minor league teams of all time. Check out these names from the '83 roster: Don Mattingly, Steve Balboni, Butch Hobson, Rowland Office, Rex Hudler, Bert Campaneris (this was at the height of Steinbrenner's hoarding of washed-up stars), Dan Pasqua, Dennis Werth (Jayson's step-dad), minor-league legend Matt Winters, Rick Reuschel, and a handsome devil named Otis Nixon. In fact, of 21 hitters to play for Columbus that season, Showalter is the only one who didn't play in the majors.
• His real name is William (Billy Showalter?), but lore has it that he got his nickname because of his charming habit of walking around the clubhouse naked. As in, buck naked. Creepy in the real world, relatively witty and normal for the baseball world. I guess we should all be grateful that Charlie Manuel isn't the one nicknamed Buck.
• Showalter, who'd probably be uptight at a Jimmy Buffett concert, doesn't strike me a Men's Journal type of guy. Miniature Tyrannical Baseball Manager Monthly seems more likely. Never heard of it? Niche publication. Earl Weaver was on the inaugural cover, I believe.
• If he said stuff like this on "Baseball Tonight," he might have actually been, you know, interesting.
• As for payroll making Theo smarter . . . well, yeah, of course. The Red Sox' financial advantages allow him to cover for his major mistakes in a manner that Andrew Friedman can't. And you almost feel a twinge of guilt when your favorite team snaps up Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in a span of, what, five days? (Almost, I said. Then I remember the Yankees exist.) But what's mildly annoying about Showalter's statement is that he doesn't acknowledge that Theo has proven pretty damn smart over his nine seasons here, even with the built-in advantages. His list of shrewd moves (Papi, Mueller, believing in Pedroia, keeping Youkilis and Ellsbury . . . hell, you know the list) is far longer than poor ones (Arroyo for Wily Mo, Lugo, Renteria, Lugo, and don't forget Lugo). To put it another way, if every team in baseball had the same payroll down to the dime, I'd be extremely confident that Theo would put together a terrific team with a productive farm system.
• All snark, facetiousness, and feeble one-liners aside, it's pretty obvious what Showalter was trying to do: Give his team an us-against-the-rich-boys attitude, an actual identity that goes beyond their usual Punchline/Punching Bag of the AL East status. The Orioles are interesting team this year, with the acquisitions of Mark Reynolds, Vlad Guerrero, and Derrek Lee and the reasonable assumption that Brian Matusz, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters continue to improve and give hope to the next generation. They finished 34-23 under Showalter last year. They have more hope than they've had in awhile, and embracing the underdog role makes sense. You can't blame Showalter for trying to build on that, even if his words could haunt him when he looks up from the bottom of the standings at season's end and realizes the Orioles went 6-30 against the Red Sox and Yankees combined.
• All of that said . . . man, was he ever spot-on about Jeter.
In this installment of our
overly nostalgic homage 12-part series on the greatest Topps cards of all-time -- which, naturally, will conclude long after the cardmaker's own countdown -- let's hit a few grounders to shortstop . . .
I understand if you wonder why we didn't go with Yount's most famous and pricey card, his 1975 Topps rookie, even though it had a color scheme so gaudy it looked it must have been picked out by a young Vinny Testaverde. (He's colorblind. Get it? Oh, never mind.) We prefer the '76 in large part because Yount looks like Jeff Spicoli if he'd run with Jefferson and the jocks rather than hanging out in the van with the burnouts. With the references just getting timelier and timelier around here, let's move this thing along and take a poke at a baseball question. It's a fun one, I think:
Which player had the better career, Yount or his longtime Brewer teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Paul Molitor?
My guess, before checking the stats, is Molitor, who started faster and played at a supreme level longer, but because of injuries didn't have the consistent greatness in his prime that Yount did. Let's hop in the baseballreferencemobile and find out:
In his 21 seasons and 12,160 plate appearances, Molitor -- the third overall choice in the 1977 draft -- had 3,319 hits, scored 1,782 runs, hit 234 homers, drove in 1,307 runs, went .306/.369/.44 with an .817 OPS and a 122 OPS+, and is tied for 68th all-time in BR.com's version of WAR (74.8).
In his 20 seasons and 12,249 plate appearances, Yount -- the third overall choice in the 1973 draft -- had 3,142 hits, 1,632 runs, hit 251 homers, drove in 1,406 runs, went .285/.342/.430 with a .772 OPS and a 115 OPS+, and is 61st all-time in BR.com's version of WAR (76.9).
The objective verdict: Too close to call. Our subjective pick: Molitor by a headfirst slide, though anyone who prefers Yount's durability and defensive superiority certainly does not need to provide an explanation. And if you're curious, the players who fall between Yount and Molitor in WAR, from 62d to tied at 68 are: Eddie Plank, Bill Dahlen, Frank Thomas, Pete Rose (a logical comp for Molitor), and Frankie Frisch.
Yeah, this is a bit of a cop out, using Jeter's 2001 Heritage card instead of something from one of Topps's more conventional sets, such as his 1992 draft pick card in which he appears to be wearing a Yankees uniform culled together from a shopping spree at the Sports Authority.
But we can justify using this card with the 1952 design, since to a Red Sox fan it seems like Jeter has been with the Yankees since '52, and it's clear he has no intention of moving from shortstop until 2052. I am amused by the notion that he can move to center field when he's ready just as Yount did.
Jeter will turn 37 in June. Yount made the transition to the outfield in 1985 at age 29 and retired when he was 37 after batting .258 with 8 homers and 51 RBIs. His OPS in his final season was .705 and his adjusted OPS was 90. Jeter went .710 OPS/90 OPS+ last year. We shouldn't be wondering if he can make the same positional change as Yount. We should be wondering if he'll have to make the same career change.
It's going to be fascinating to see how far Jeter's rebuilt swing carries him beyond 3,000 hits -- he has 2,926 now, tops among active players.
One last Jeter note: He has more Gold Gloves (5) than three of the other shortstops mentioned here -- Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, and Yount -- combined (4). Of course, Ozzie Smith has four more than all of them combined.
This question might sound insane, especially in the greater Baltimore area, but it's really not: Would Cal Ripken Jr. have been a Hall of Famer had he played, oh, 153 games per year on average? Or even taken a maintenance day or two each summer?
I think the answer is a relatively easily concluded "yes," but I wouldn't go so as to say he would have been a first-ballot mortal lock, and he certainly wouldn't have received close to 98.5 percent of the vote, as he did in 2007.
In Bill James's black ink and gray ink metrics that gauge a player's likelihood of making the Hall of Fame based on how often he led the league in certain categories and how often he finished in the top 10, Ripken falls well short of the average Hall of Famer.
In fact, on a year-to-year basis, he looked a lot like Vern Stephens, who was Ripken's most similar comp at each age from 22-24 and 27-30. Over the last 18 seasons of his career, in the led the league in exactly three other categories other than games played and at-bats: total bases (368 in '91), sacrifice flies (10 in '88), and double plays (28 in '96). In his final 10 seasons, he had an adjusted OPS above 97 just three times. But when you show up for work every day for 17 years and do more than anyone else to erase the stain of the '94 strike, the fact that you hit into two games' worth of outs via the double play one season is pretty damn trivial.
Speaking of which, now that we've sufficiently annoyed Orioles fans, here are two Ripken trivia questions:
As for the second answer, Boyce, Sheets, and Hooks were the three players the Orioles chose ahead of Ripken in the 1978 June draft. The man who would become Mr. Oriole was a second-round pick.
"Let's play two."
Seems to me the famously sunny Mr. Banks, whose legacy is not only his fondness for doubleheaders but his 512 homers and those back-to-back MVP awards in '58 and '59, is on a short list of players whose persona can be instantly recalled with a simple recitation of one of his own quotes.
A few others that come immediately to mind, excluding everything Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel ever said or supposedly said:
"Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." "A man has to have goals -- for a day, for a lifetime -- and that was mine, to have people say, 'There goes [you'd better know the answer], the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " "Lou Brock was a great base stealer but today I am the greatest." "Luck of the Irish, I guess."
The answers, as you surely know unless you arrived here by some Google misdirection play, are Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, and Troy O'Leary (who uttered his quote after his two-homer, seven-RBI performance in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS). If you're presuming that one of those names doesn't belong in such exclusive company, well, you're right. Gehrig never played for the Sox.
We touched on this a bit in episode one of this series, but about the only Padres to survive the brown-and-yellow '70s with some semblance of cool and style intact were Dave Winfield, Oscar Gamble, and the wonderful Wizard here. (It's honorable mention for you, Jerry Turner.) Despite the "meh" design -- Topps was in the second to last year of its monopoly in '79, meaning there was no competition or inspiration -- this Ozzie rookie card is among the most iconic of the decade.
The player became iconic too, winning 13 straight Gold Gloves (1980-92) with an unmatched combination of grace and flair. Early in his career he had a wholly deserved spectacular-field, no-hit label (he had an OPS below .600 in three of his four years in San Diego), but he became a dependable offensive player in St. Louis (I love that '87 season: .303 average, 89 walks, 75 RBIs, not a single home run).
I was curious what the immediate perception of Smith was when he arrived in the big leagues in '78. After all, he played just one season in the minors, at Single A Walla Walla in '77, where he hit .303; the next season, he played 159 games at shortstop for the Padres. Obviously, his glove mesmerized the San Diego decision-makers immediately, but I wondered whether there was one moment or a certain amount of buzz around him that made baseball take notice. So in search of the answer, I do what I always do when I can't find it in one of Bill James's annuals: I poked through the Globe archives with a search for "Gammons Sunday Baseball Notes."
Man, let me tell you, what an awesome place to get lost. The first reference to Ozzie came in the October 15, 1978 edition of the Sunday Globe, with this quote:
Sox scout Lefty Lefebvre says Padres shortstop Ozzie Smith "might be the best I've ever seen."
OK, maybe it's not the most earth-shattering observation, though you do have to wonder how long it took for him to drop the "might be." But the column itself . . . I mean, it was just a treasure-trove of rumors (many of which proved prescient) and observations, a baseball time capsule that reminds you why Gammons's stature within the game was so great and why you looked forward to stealing that sports section from your dad every Sunday. Here's are a few of my favorites:
Steinbrenner may be the only owner who has the resources, tradable talent and market to afford Dave Parker, and while everyone categorically denies the Thurman Munson-Parker trade right now, it could come up again . . . Angels manager Jim Fregosi on rookie third baseman Carney Lansford: "He's so good I might not even trade him for George Brett" . . . Jim Palmer has been rumored to be going all sorts of places . . . The Orioles believe that if they can get Chet Lemon, Sixto Lezcano, or Dan Ford they can win . . . Detroit figures it is a year and a healthy Mark Fidrych away from a run at the pennant . . . Pete Rose reportedly is deadly serious about wanting to go to Philadelphia. He feels the Phillies need leadership, and he could play left field for three years, then perhaps manage them . . . The Cardinals have told the Angels they want to wait on the Garry Templeton-Frank Tanana trade . . .
And look at the that. We've lumbered around long enough to accidentally find the appropriate was to wrap up this column. For not only was Templeton never dealt for Tanana, he was swapped to the Padres for the one and only Ozzie Smith three seasons later. And like Banks, Templeton also owns a rather famous quote, explaining his reason for refusing to play in the 1980 All-Star Game as a reserve.
"If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'."
Pack 6 should be posted in a week-ish. For now . . . we're departin'.
Previously in this series: Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.
Pack 2: 1960 Carl Yastrzemski, 1952 Gus Zernial, 1956 Willie Mays, 1987 Barry Bonds, 1978 Reggie Jackson.
Pack 3: 1993 Pedro Martinez, 1957 Sandy Koufax, 1973 Vida Blue, 1968 Bob Gibson, 1985 Dwight Gooden.
Pack 4: 1978 Eddie Murray, 1985 Kirby Puckett, 1983 Wade Boggs, 1987 Mark McGwire, 1980 Rickey Henderson.
. . . and a long overdue Pack 4 at that, given that Topps has already revealed 47 of its top 60. With apologies to Michael Ian Black, Mo Rocca, and the rest, let's call this one the "I Love The '80s" version since it features the cards of five of the best hitters of the decade. Dig in . . .
Maybe it's because he made greatness seem routine, or that his most remarkable skill -- getting on base at a prolific rate by any means necessary -- is far more appreciated today than it was in his '80s Red Sox heyday. Or maybe it's just because as a fickle teenage fan I preferred his teammates named Evans, Rice, and -- it really was a long time ago -- Clemens. Maybe it was the limited power, or the perception that Boggs would prefer two hits in a loss to going 0-fer in a win. It's also possible that I formally declared him Dead To Me after this. Whatever the reason, there's no denying that I've had a longstanding habit of overlooking Boggs, something I was reminded of again recently when I filed the introductory essay/overview for the Maple Street Press Red Sox Annual. Breathlessly writing about the damage Adrian Gonzalez could do at Fenway, I noted that he could make better use of the Monster than any lefty batter since Mo Vaughn . . . and if not Maurice, well, then all the way back to Fred Lynn. I believe my editor's note in the margin was rather succinct: "Wade Boggs?" I appreciate that the sentence didn't end with a comma followed by a "you moron." Well, of course, Wade Boggs. There shouldn't have been any question. From 1983-88, Boggs won five batting titles in six years, never batting lower than .357 in the years he won the crown. His career on-base percentage with the Sox was .428, with a high of .476 in '88. And at Fenway? A .369 average, a .464 on-base percentage, and a .991 OPS in his career. Amazing. I'll do my best not to will him invisible from now on.
Man, he sure was skinny, wasn't he? Not quite Giambi skinny, but skinny nonetheless. I have to admit, it's images and recollections of the young and Not-So-Big Mac that leave me conflicted about his career and how to put it into proper context. He did hit a rookie-record 49 home runs and slug .618 in '87 while looking essentially like he does here; McGwire's presumably pre-steroid power was otherworldly, even in a rookie season in which the baseballs supposedly had the juice of superballs. After that superb start to his career, it got weird. He batted .201 at age 27 in 154 games, saw his career nearly meet an abrupt end because of injuries as he turned the corner to his 30s, hitting just 18 homers total in 74 games in 1993-94. And then . . . beast mode. Thirty-nine homers in 104 games in '95 . . . 52 homers in '96 . . . 58 in '97 . . . and, well, you know. The feats of McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the summer of '98 proved fraudulent -- in retrospect, this book reads like a satire -- yet I can't help but remember the whole spectacle as great fun. I suppose if I were a member of the Maris family I wouldn't feel that way -- talk about being cheated and misled. But the more time that passes and the more knowledge we gain about the prevalence of performance enhancers in that era, the more I wonder if the individual punishments to the confirmed PED users exceed by a large margin any stain that they left on the game. Does McGwire belong in Cooperstown? I'm still not sure. I'm just not. He's trending the wrong way, receiving just 19.8 percent of the vote this year, his low in his five years on the ballot, so I guess others have made up their minds. Me, I just look as his baseball-reference page and see a spectacular and spectacularly weird career. (His final season: .187 average, 364 plate appearances, 23 singles, 4 doubles, 29 homers, 105 adjusted OPS. I mean . . . what?)
I've read that the Rickey Rookie -- one of the few enduring cards in terms of value and popularity from the '80s -- is virtually impossible to find in perfect condition. If true, cool. I think we've probably made it clear that we're more interested in the warm sentiments that they bring rather than any possible cash reward, and besides, pretty much every card I had in that era was either irreparably dented by an elastic band or had a corner chewed off by my cat, my kid sister or both. I'll take childhood nostalgia over vacuum-sealed perfection every time, thanks. As for the wholly original ballplayer on this particular piece of cardboard, every time I consider his career or peruse his numbers, I'm reminded of the Bill James observation that I've paraphrased here a couple of times . . . and, surprise, will do again right now. If you split Rickey Henderson's career in half, you'd have two Hall of Fame players. Look at the numbers: It's true. He's first all-time in runs (2,295), first in steals (1,406), second in walks (2,190) and -- this is becoming one of my favorite stats -- fourth in times on base with 5,323. (Pete Rose is first at 5,929, while Yaz, somewhat surprisingly even with his longevity, is fifth at 5,304). There is no true comp for Rickey in history. Craig Biggio is No. 1 on his list, but the similarity score is low. It should be noted, particularly for those of us who believe the Hall of Fame is incomplete without this ex-Expo, that Rickey's most similar player every year from ages 24-39 is none other than Tim Raines. Of course, as transcendent as Rickey was as a player, he was an even better quote. His greatest hits can be found here or in this terrific string of Rickey anecdotes in the guise of a feature by SI's Tom Verducci. Our favorite is the John Olerud helmet story. And yes, I know Rickey says it never happened. I'm still going to believe it. Because, you know, it would be such a shame for a story like that to be apocryphal.
After sitting here staring with a blanker look than usual at the screen for 20 minutes, I guess I have to admit it: I don't really know what to think about Puckett, let alone what to write about him. I can't recall another a star, a superstar, who played with more joy, who was more universally beloved by fans and his peers. And if you believe all of the allegations and revelations in this 2003 SI bombshell by Frank Deford -- and there is no reason not to, beyond reading the story and thinking, "Damn, this is not the Kirby Puckett I thought I knew" -- it's apparent that his perpetual and easy smile served as one hell of a mask. Adding the confusion is the perception -- a fair one, I think -- that his sunny persona and the sudden, seemingly unjust ending to his career contributed to his induction to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. After all, his career totals and accomplishments (207 homers, 2,304 hits, one batting title, a .318 lifetime average) don't scream mortal lock; what they scream is Puckett Was Basically A Stumpy Don Mattingly, Albeit One Who Played A Dazzling Center Field and Won Two World Championships. (OK, maybe they just suggest that.) We'll never know the answer to this, but if Puckett's rep had been damaged before his playing days ended -- or even if his career ended with a slow fade, rather than because of glaucoma that cost him the sight his right eye -- would he have been a first-ballot selection with 82.1 percent of the vote? Would he have been inducted at all? We'll never know. Sadly, what we do know is that his sordid tale became -- well, a tragic one, and certainly a cautionary one -- with his death in 2006 from a massive stroke. He was just 46 years old, putting one more sad twist on his legacy. He was he second-youngest Hall of Fame player to die after he'd already been inducted.
Hit like Dave Winfield, looked like Jules Winfield. While comp to the former is particularly accurate -- Dave Winfield is his No. 2 all-time statistical comp -- we're going to presume that any slogans etched on his wallet would not tout his badness, but his incredible consistency. Murray was a regular for 20 of his 21 major league seasons (1977-97), and never did he hit fewer than 16 homers or more than 33. He drove in 100 or more runs six times, and 92 or more another six times. His career-low RBI total as a regular was 76 at age 38 in 1994, and his second-lowest, 78, actually led the league during the strike-shortened '81 season. He never won an MVP award, but finished second twice (including to teammate Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983) and in the top six seven times, including six straight years with the Orioles from 1980-85. If that wasn't enough to make Earl Weaver appreciate him way more than he ever did Terry Crowley, there's this: Murray hit 65 three-run homers in his career.
Previously in this series: Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.
Pack 2: 1960 Carl Yastrzemski, 1952 Gus Zernial, 1956 Willie Mays, 1987 Barry Bonds, 1978 Reggie Jackson.
Pack 3:1993 Pedro Martinez, 1957 Sandy Koufax, 1973 Vida Blue, 1968 Bob Gibson, 1985 Dwight Gooden.
We've got high heat, knee-buckling hooks, Cooperstown immortals, the lingering what-if of unfulfilled promise . . . and even a semi-random picture of Rollie Fingers shaking Rico Petrocelli's hand during his fleeting moment with the Red Sox. What we don't have is Cliff Lee. He shunned us for Philly, too. Ah, well, there's always Pavano -- or at least the gem who was once traded for him. Dig in to the batter's box if you dare and get ready for an all-pitchers edition of our version of the Top 60 Topps . . .
You'd think Pedro would have more thrilling Topps cards than just this sort-of-creepy oddity with Randy Johnson here, but he doesn't. His coolest made by any company is probably this Soul Glo-ing work of art from 1991, but it's an Upper Deck production, which DQ's it for our purposes. Because we have absolutely must include a Pedro -- it's a rule, you know -- by default we'll go with his first Topps card, which comes from the days when he was known as Ramon's kid brother and pitched mostly in relief because that dope Tommy Lasorda didn't think he could handle the rigors of starting. Pedro would be dealt that November to the Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields, the first of Dan Duquette's two heists of the greatest pitcher of at least his generation, and perhaps all generations. From what I understand, Pedro eventually proved to be able to handle the rigors of starting; he's the best pitcher these beady eyes have ever seen, he has the best adjusted ERA of all-time for a starting pitcher, and we sure do love it when statistics work in sync with our perceptions. I've made my feelings on Pedro clear though the years, so let's turn it a different way: If you could watch any player again -- not someone like Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson or Tony C. or some grainy black-and-white-footage icon you never saw in real time and real life, but someone you were actually fortunate enough to see -- who would it be? For me, without a doubt, it's Pedro Jaime Martinez, circa 1999-2002. Just give me one more game with Fenway buzzing in anticipation, one more summer night with the Dominican flags flying high, one more electrifying performance when his fastball came equipped with its own jet stream, his curveball broke at least one plane, and along with it the hitter's will, and his changeup was a cruel trick. Those were some times.
Now if we're talking about players we didn't have the good fortune of watching but wish we did, wouldn't Koufax be near the top the list? And barring the long-overdue invention of the time machine anytime in the near future, wouldn't the next-best thing be the chance to talk to Vin Scully -- I should say, listen to Vin Scully -- soliloquize on what it was like to watch Koufax in his brief, glorious, and unprecedented-except-maybe-by-Pedro peak? (Or even better, an interview/reminiscence with Koufax; unfortunately, he's so private that he once lived in Maine. I know, who would live there?) The lore of Koufax's career, the story -- struggling to find command for the first half of his career, command performance after command performance during his spectacular final four seasons, then, sadly, retirement at age 30 because of arthritis in that golden but flawed left arm -- remains as mesmerizing today as it has ever been. The priceless footage of one of his four no-hitters or his masterful performances in the '63 and '65 World Series never fails to cause the clicker to stall on the "MLB Network." And his baseball-reference.com page is mesmerizing in its own way; you can't help but stare at the bold-faced stats accumulated in those final seasons, when he had an ERA of 1.88 or lower, at least 25 victories, and a minimum of 306 strikeouts in three of his last four years. Oh, yes, and the baseball card. We picked the '57 Koufax. But honestly, any one would have done the trick. We just wanted a reason to talk about the legend, our best attempt at a placeholder until we should be so lucky to have Mr. Scully elegantly regale us with reminiscences about how the magic really went down.
If you've ever wonder what the moment before 100 mph heat is unleashed looks like to a batter, this is as close as it's come to being captured on cardboard. With a name like Vida Blue, he was probably destined for fame, and he found it in 1971, his first full season with the A's. He made 39 starts, won 24 of 'em, had a league-best 1.82 ERA, had 103 more innings pitched (312) than hits allowed (209), and struck out 301. He won the AL MVP award and the Cy Young Award, but here's an interesting bit of perspective: His 185 adjusted ERA that season would rate as the seventh-best of Pedro's career. Blue was never quite so good again, though he did win 20 or more games two more times. I wonder what would have happened had Bowie Kuhn not nixed A's owner Charlie Finley's dastardly plan to sell Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox during the 1976 season. With the lefty Blue in the New York rotation, would Ron Guidry ever have been given a real chance? With Fingers and Rudi in Boston, would one of the Rice-Lynn-Evans trio have been dealt for pitching? Would Bill Campbell have been signed and fed to the Zimmer meat grinder? As it turned out for Blue, most of his accomplished teammates were dealt or departed as free agents during and after the '75-'76-'77 seasons, and he was the last star of the A's dynasty to remain in Oakland, something his expression here suggests he just realized.
Yes sir, we've got ourselves an All-Star card, which is a bit of a cop out, I know. But there are two things about this one that gave it the edge over other Gibson cards we liked (his odd pretty-in-pink 1958 rookie, the simple 1961, the gaudy 1972):
1) It's from his legendary 1968 season, when he went 22-9 and led the league in ERA (1.12, a number every serious baseball fan knows for its historic meaning), shutouts (13), adjusted ERA (258), WHIP (0.853), and strikeouts while pitching the Cardinals to the World Series.
2) He's actually smiling, which runs counter to the perception that he was all serious, snarling business, all the time. Of course, Gibson didn't bring that smile with him to the mound, where not only would one of his generation's supreme intimidators brush back a hitter for looking at him the wrong way, he'd brush him back for looking at him, period. And he didn't have much use for the input of his catchers, either. Tim McCarver, the former Cardinals backstop better known to this generation as a meandering broadcaster, tells the tale of strolling out to the mound to try to calm Gibson during a rough inning, only to be greeted by an admonishing bark.
"Get back there! The only thing you know about pitching," Gibson growled, "is how hard it is to hit." Now, I don't know if the story is true to the last syllable, apocryphal, or a figment of the same region of McCarver's imagination that brought the world the concept of Derek Jeter's calm eyes. And I don't particularly care, either. Any story that ends with someone telling Tim McCarver to get lost is true enough for me.
His 1985 season, when he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 276 innings* at age 20, was the most sensational single-season performance by we've seen by a pitcher not named Pedro. (OK, and Rocket '86.) Though in a way, we didn't really see enough of it. It was a different time then. Australian Rules football was still a key element of burgeoning ESPN's menu. There was no MLB package on cable . . . hell, there barely was cable. And so the only real chance to see the kid dubbed Dr. K torment NL hitters with his effortless yet blazing fastball and duck-for-cover curve was on NBC's Saturday "Game of the Week" or on ABC's "Monday Night Baseball." But when you did get to see him . . . I mean, it's a cliche, but I can't think of a better word to describe it than breathtaking. It's easy to forget, knowing know what we didn't know then -- that he'd never win 20 games again, or that he'd receive Cy Young votes in just three other seasons, or that substance abuse issues and perhaps that heavy early workload would derail a career that should have ended with a stop in Cooperstown -- but there was a time when Gooden was such a phenom and phenomenon that he was on par with a certain young Chicago Bulls guard in terms of popularity. (No, not Quentin Dailey.) With his charisma and charm, the remembrance of what he was and the hazy promise of what he could have been, he probably got more chances than he deserved to prove he was going to respect his own talent. Instead, he's one of baseball's lingering what-could-have-beens. But when he was . . . man, was that ever fun.
* Yup, 276 innings at age 20. And his manager was not Dusty Baker.
Previously in this series:
Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.
Pack 2: 1960 Carl Yastrzemski, 1952 Gus Zernial, 1956 Willie Mays, 1987 Barry Bonds, 1978 Reggie Jackson.
1. Remember, we're counting down just Topps cards here, as part-homage, part-counterpoint to Topps's unveiling of its top 60 cards in celebration of its 60th anniversary. In other words, revered and iconic cards by other companies, such as the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie or the infamous 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken "[bad word]face" card won't be included here. If you've got a problem with that, take it up with Billy Martin and his blurry hand here.
2. While these are cards Nos. 6-10 in this project, we haven't been ranking them in any particular order. I'm thinking when we're done, maybe we will do that in a gallery of some sort, counting down the top 50, or top 25 or something, and maybe add a poll for you guys to vote. If you've got a brighter idea than that, please share it in the comments.
OK, let's get to the cardboard . . .
In our leadoff episode we featured Teddy Ballgame. So it seems only appropriate to follow up with Yaz, who followed him in Fenway Park's left field and never wilted in the shadow of Williams or the Monster -- and never you mind that his position here is listed as second base. Perhaps we'll feature a Jim Rice down the road as well, but the Red Sox' amazing left field legacy for our purposes probably ends well before Mike Greenwell. (And as much as we admired him, Troy O'Leary won't make it unless we extend this thing to a Top 6,000 or so.) Actually, had a debate with a friend who said Yaz doesn't even belong in the Top 60 and that including him over someone such as Al Kaline would be biased. To that, our response is two-fold:
1. Of course this is biased! I grew up a Red Sox fan! Who did you expect, Roy White?
2. Don't include Yaz? Heck, it was hard to choose just one. Because he played so long and during the golden years of collecting, there were many more cards of him that would have been worthy selections; '66, because it's a rare, candid action shot of him . . . smiling; '67 because of the dream that proved possible; '76, for the classic follow-through; 'and finally, this retro gem from '77, because if there's anything that captures the essence of this project (and this blog itself on many days), it's the enjoyment we get from turning back the clock.
Our list wouldn't be complete without perhaps the most inexplicably goofy baseball card of all-time, save for perhaps this high-fructose corn syrupy one that found its way into packs 24 years later. Looking at grinning Mr. Zernial here, I wouldn't know where to begin . . . which is why, once again, we are thankful for the wit of Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd in their seminal, timeless "Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book," which captured the essence of Cardboard Gus with nary a wasted word back in 1973:
How do you suppose they got those baseballs to stay up there anyway? Nails? Scotch tape? Postage stamp hinges? And why do you think Gus is giving us the high sign? Is he trying to assure us that everything is ok? Is he trying to indicate to us that he thinks the Athletics are a big zero? Does he want a cinnamon doughnut to go? And why is he wearing a pink undershirt?
What more is there to say? I mean, besides that yes, I would like a cinnamon doughnut to go. And if you don't own this book, your sports library is incomplete, son.
The '56 set is so classic that pretty much every card is gorgeous -- well, not so fast there, Don Mossi -- but there's something extra cool about the Mays card. It could be the jagged-legged slide in the background, perhaps the second-most ideal image of him, with only a back-to-the-infield basket catch being more appropriate. Or I suppose it could just be that it is Willie Mays, and cool is forever associated with the name and the ballplayer. One tidbit I stumbled upon while checking out his eye-popping stats: His most similar player each year from ages 23-28 is Vladimir Guerrero. Didn't see that coming, but maybe I should have given Vladi's awesome and sometimes overlooked peak. I'd say the Mays comp reflects well on his Hall of Fame chances, no?
And now the godson . . . or allegedly the godson, we should say. Oh, we're not doubting that Bonds, whose famous father played to Mays's left in the San Francisco outfield for five seasons while making a name of his own, has a genuine relationship with Mays that extends even beyond the ceremonial, the religious, and their respective homes atop or near the top of the all-time home run list. What we're doubting is that this is Bonds. Just look at him. He's . . . skinny. Scrawny, even. Like a leadoff hitter. Like Kenny Lofton's long-lost brother, or R.J. Reynolds, or Omar Moreno, or a less-pale Joe Orsulak. This cannot be the Barry Bonds. This isn't the swollen masher who shredded the record books, who hit 73 home runs one season, walked 232 times another, and batted .370 in yet another. It can't be. Because if it is, if he managed to essentially double in size from his rookie season to his the seasons when he put up "RBI Baseball" numbers, well, me and my pal Bud Selig might just have to start wondering if his methods were -- gasp! -- dubious.
(As for this set, it stands as a referendum on how a collector honestly feels about baseball cards. If you like it, it's for the colorful photos, the somehow appealing wood paneling straight out of your parents' 1977 den, and a terrific group of rookies and young players including Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco, Barry Larkin, and of course, Pat Dodson. In other words, for all the right reasons. If you don't like it, it's because you invested in these cards, only to have them became virtually worthless due to mass production. I'm pretty sure you can still get packs of '87 Topps at your neighborhood Puffin Stop. You know, if you don't have enough Ruben Sierra rookies.)
First Bonds, now Reggie. Might as well call this our Jerk Store edition. I've never met an athlete who is so attuned to the stature of the person he is talking to; if he's seen you on "SportsCenter," he turns on the charm and breaks out the anecdotes. If you're unfamilar, he's more interested in what he just scraped off his shoe, and takes delight in telling you so. I may have mentioned a time or 100 on this little blog that my first year as a Sox fan was 1978, so it probably should come as no surprise that my loathing of Reggie developed that summer. So much so, in fact, that my friend Duane (there are a lot of Duanes in Maine) and I ripped up all of our Reggie Jackson cards out of . . . I guess obligation, a show of Red Sox solidarity, a lack of foresight that they'd someday be worth twos and twos of dollars, whatever. I like to think of it as an indication that our shrewd judgment of character was already developed. But this Reggie card here? Mr. October stirring the drink with his swing-for-the-fences-and-the-glory approach that brought him 563 homers . . . and a record 2,597 strikeouts? This card captures Reggie the slugger perfectly. It's art. At least until its ripped to tiny cardboard bits, anyway. Then it's abstract art.
Previously in this series
Pack 1: 1952 Mickey Mantle, 1969 Nolan Ryan, 1978 Dave Winfield, 1956 Ted Williams, 1975 Oscar Gamble.
To celebrate our upcoming 60th Anniversary we would like Topps collectors to vote on our top 60 cards of all time! We have pre-selected the 100 best cards we've ever produced. Scroll through the cards, select your top ten, and vote! On Dec. 18 we'll begin to announce winning cards daily starting at No. 60. We will countdown to No. 1 on February 15 culminating with the launch of 2011 Topps baseball.
Say no more, Topps cardboard mavens. You had me at "To celebrate." In all seriousness, this is a great idea -- such a great idea, in fact, that we're going to co-opt it here at TATB with our own spin. If Topps is going to count down its 60 favorite cards, well, who in the name of Bump Wills is going to stop us from doing it?
After all, as you may have noticed in this site's six years of existence (has it really been that long?), we pay baseball cards their proper respect around here. We first started using them in our old neighborhood ostensibly to have some appealing art on the blog that wouldn't cause rights issues. But that's not the whole story. As someone who collected hardcore from 1978 -- thus the '78 Sox team card above -- through the mid-'80s, I knew they were perfect fit for the tone we strove for the blog, visually simpatico with our written love of baseball. Because they always had been.
We'll keep the ground rules at this ballpark simple:
A player will appear no more than once. On Topps's list of 100 nominees they have both 1955 and '56 Roberto Clemente cards, which feature the exact same head shot. We're redundant and repetitive around here, but not that redundant and repetitive. We'll have 60 different players in this countdown, mostly legends, but some obscurities too, the cards that deserve admiration for something other than the gaudy statistics on the back.
We'll post five cards per post. The aim is to get this written on Fridays, when it's a little easier to be whimsical, but you know probably means it will go up Monday at 6 p.m. given my track record. There will be at least one Red Sox player in each post, and my other biases will be evident. My two favorite sets ever are 1956 (stacked with legends and a timeless design) and 1978 (my first year as a fan, a gorgeous set in its own right, and I imagine no other explanation beyond the former is required). The cards are not listed in any particular order, though maybe we will rank them after our 12 posts are complete.
Nostalgia will be a significant factor in our choices. Because what's the point if it isn't? Baseball and baseball cards are supposed to be fun above all else. Each post will feature at least one card from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and we won't disregard the '80s. But anything beyond that came from the era when collecting was no longer a hobby, but another way for shady speculators to make a buck. I still can't believe they cut up vintage uniforms and equipment and stick a couple of threads or a bat splinter on a card and tout it as game-used. It's not "scarce." It's unfathomable.
There will be none of that stuff here. We're going to tear open those 25-cent wax packs already, chew that sweet cementy gum until our dentist owns a yacht, and get this game underway with our first five.
Play ball . . .
It doesn't get much more iconic than this, the definitive card from Topps's debut set. (Personally, always preferred Willie Mays more -- card and ballplayer.) We'd bet enough cash to -- well, buy this card -- that it will end up No. 1 on Topps's list. My dad, born in 1940, always insisted, with varying degrees of what-if agitation, that he had boxes upon boxes of early '50s Topps cards growing up but that my grandmother had thrown them out during a particularly costly spring cleaning or something one year. Just to be sure and sure again, me and my cousins ransacked her attic per every childhood visit, but never found traces of the bounty. We all have a story like that, don't we?
Because it just wouldn't be right to debut this feature with a legendary Yankee but not a legendary Red Sock/Sox, that's why. And it just wouldn't be right to lead with any other Red Sox but Teddy Ballgame. My fondness for the 1956 set is at play here; Williams's 1954 Topps rookie card is on the company's ballot, and he didn't have a '52 card because of an exclusive contract with Bowman. (Though eTopps made a sweet what-if? version a couple of years ago.) It actually wasn't a great year for Williams -- he batted .345 with 24 homers, a league-leading .479 OBP, and 1.084 OPS. His OPS+ of 171 was his second-lowest since 1940. For perspective, Manny Ramirez exceeded 171 twice in his 17 seasons. Actually, the following provides the best perspective of all that we can come withon Ted Williams. He led the major leagues in Offensive WAR every single year from 1941-49 . . . except for 1942-45, that is, when he was actually at war.
Proof that Dave Winfield's could overcome just about anything with his effortless cool : He doesn't look all that ridiculous in the Padres' late '70s you-want-fries-with-that? uniforms. Ozzie Smith, on this card on Topps's list of nominees, also escapes the tackiest decade with his dignity intact. Randy Jones? Not so fortunate. One other tangential thing: The late '70s Padres actually had some real talent on their roster; you forget that they were one of the original big spenders in free agency. Look at the 84-win '78 squad: Four future Hall of Famers (Winfield, Ozzie, Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers), a former Cy Young winner (Jones), a former World Series MVP (Gene Tenace), and then countless eclectic characters and obscurities such as Joggin' George Hendrick, Mickey Lolich, Bob Owchinko, Don Reynolds (Harold's older brother), Juan Tyrone Eichelberger, Broderick Perkins, and -- segue alert -- this guy . . .
Yep, he was a Padre, too. Not to mention an obvious selection for this list. Gamble, mostly because of his championship-caliber Afro, has lasted as a symbol of the super-fly '70s. His 1976 Topps Traded rookie card has long been a cult favorite, but my totally subjective preference is his card from the previous year. I think it's the retro (well, now-retro) Indians uniform that puts it over the top. While Gamble -- who, in a bit of humorous irony, is now bald -- has a merry attitude about his place in baseball lore, it's always worth a reminder that the man was a heck of a hitter and a habitual mauler of righthanded pitching. His uppercut lefty swing was particularly suited for Yankee Stadium, and in '79, splitting the season between Texas and New York, he batted .358 with 19 homers and a 1.065 OPS in 274 plate appearances. He finished his career with 200 homers, an .811 OPS, and his own distinctive place in baseball's history; the man's pick belongs in Cooperstown.
Look closely, and there's no other conclusion you can come to: Twenty-one year old Nolan Ryan threw so hard even with this casual motion that the ball was back in his glove before he even finished his follow through! OK, either that, or the photographer kind of hated his job. "Yeah, kid, one take is fine. Move along. Let's see, who's next . . . OK, Swoboda, take a half-hearted swing here, good, good, got it . . . all right, who's next . . . say 'cheese,' Kranepool . . . " I like this better than the famous '68 Ryan/Koosman rookie on Topps's short list for a couple of reasons. 1) It's a reminder that Ryan, who was still trying to harness his control then, was a member of the legendary '69 Mets. Imagine, him and Tom Seaver on the same staff. 2) The maniacal look in his eye suggests he's daydreaming of someday laying a whupping on any foolish batter who dares to charge the mound. Meanwhile, somewhere in Santa Maria, Calif., 2-year-old Robin Ventura has no idea what awaits. 3) After a Sox game in the early '80s, I picked one up for a couple of bucks of my paper route loot at that old card shop on Comm Ave, the one that had Ted Williams's locker on display. Now that's nostalgia. Wonder whatever happened to that place.
A silly little Friday baseball post to cap off a sadly barren week at TATB but a ridiculously busy week elsewhere . . .
So Joe Torre has 15 more games in Dodger Blue before he turns the reins over to Donnie Baseball. I assume this means we can look forward to "The Dodger Years" hitting the bookstores in roughly 18 months? Have to imagine Torre's take on Manny would make A-Rod look like his favorite son by comparison.
I bring this up today because I've been making progress ripping through the mound of baseball books that's been piled on my desk for . . . well, a long time. Let's just say I'm pretty sure there's a first-edition copy of "Boys of Summer" somewhere anchoring the pile. And who does this Bouton character think he is, anyway? The Mick would never do such a thing!
I'm a picky reader, so I'm pleased and a bit surprised to say that pretty much everything in the pile has been a joy to devour. Josh Wilker's "Cardboard Gods," Dirk Hayhurst's "The Bullpen Gospels," Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," . . . if they're not literary home runs -- and I'd argue that the first two are for sure -- they are at least damn fine baseball books that aren't necessarily about baseball.
The current selection is "The Yankee Years," Torre's candid and occasionally vicious remembrance of his 12 seasons in pinstripes, written by SI wordsmith Tom Verducci. I'd read bits and pieces and various excerpts when it was published to great fanfare in February 2009, and I'm greatly enjoying the early innings of reading it in full.
Roughly a quarter of the way through it, here are two revelations/reminders that have stood out so far, other than the fact that Derek Jeter really was Torre's favorite son.
- In the winter between the 2003 and 2004 seasons, the Yankees tried to trade for a different third baseman after Aaron Boone blew out his knee and before they swooped in and dealt for A-Rod. You may be familiar with his work. Don't know about you, but I'm glad Adrian Beltre never played there, because we'd probably never have had the pleasure of watching him play here.
- The 1998 Yankees were probably the best team of my lifetime, with only the mid-70s Reds (logic) and 2004 Red Sox (pure, unadulterated sentiment) also in the argument. I realize that's hardly news given that the 1998 Yankees won 125 games and lost 50 including the postseason. But I bet you don't hear such a sentiment often at the Baseball Tavern, you know?
Yes, those Yankees were loaded. Loaded. Hell, even Joe Morgan might acknowledge they'd take a game from the '76 Reds in a seven-game set. But they were also a study in balance and outstanding roster construction. The rotation was Pettitte, Cone, Wells, El Duque, and Hideki Irabu, and while the latter has become a punch line, he won 13 games and his 109 adjusted ERA was better than Pettitte's (104). The 'pen was deep as always (Mendoza, Nelson, Stanton), and the closer, an android curiously called Mariano Rivera by the division of ACME that built him, hadn't yet revealed that his warranty and his right arm apparently will last forever.
But what is most impressive about this Yankees team with the passing is its virtually perfect lineup. Of course it featured its share of name-in-lights stars, with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada just approaching their peak years and Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams still going strong (Williams in particular had a monster season, hitting .339 to win the batting title.). But the depth is what made it truly astounding; every regular hit at least 10 home runs, Darryl Strawberry slugged .542 as a platoon DH, and only Chad Curtis and Chuck Knoblauch had an OPS below .824.
The bench featured a future Hall of Famer (if there's any justice) in Tim Raines, a late-summer callup who hit 10 homers in 73 plate appearances (Shane Spencer), a .380-hitting pinch-runner (all-name Hall of Famer Homer Bush), and a steady defensive catcher (Joe Girardi), not to mention cameos from a future hack of a third base coach (Dale Sveum) and future heck of a third baseman (Mike Lowell).
To wind this back to an actual point, it was in "The Yankee Years" where the talent and depth of the New York offense that year was best articulated. Verducci noted that the Yankees had a different leader in home runs (Tino Martinez, 28), hits (Jeter, 203), doubles (O'Neill, 40), on-base percentage (Williams, .422), and steals (Chuck Knoblauch, 31).
Knoblauch, a relentless pest at the plate even as he declined defensively, also led the Yankees in being hit by a pitch (18).
It is here that we will note that Jeter was fifth on the team in HBP with five. Though someone should probably go back and check the video to make sure he was, you know, actually hit by the pitch.
C'mon, allow a Sox fan one crumb of snark.
The '98 Yankees were amazing, and to be reminded of them again was oddly appealing in the sense that its always cool to be reminded of genuine greatness. But they were the Yankees. It's a begrudging admiration.
Now, maybe if Pedro could have pitched every game in the ALDS against Cleveland, and then . . .
Not that we require one, but I'm not sure there's a specific reason why Joe Carter as the topic for this week's Silly Little Friday Baseball Post That Almost Never Gets Posted On Friday. More like a confluence of small coincidences. Among them:
The Sox, as they seem to do every other week, just wrapped up a set with the Toronto Blue Jays . . . the team for which Carter, a reputed RBI machine who hit 396 homers in his 16-year career, won two World Championships and achieved his greatest highlights -- or really, his greatest highlight. With apologies to Roberto Alomar, Roy Halladay, J.J. Cannon, and Danny Ainge, he's arguably the defining player in franchise history, for this reason:
If you can find a moment -- one moment -- in baseball history that captures the pure joy of victory and the game itself as much as Carter's delightfully exuberant reaction to his World Series-winning homer in Game 6 in 1993, topped off by Tom Cheek's pitch-perfect call of "Touch 'em all, Joe! You'll never hit a bigger home run in your life!," well, please do share it. Just don't give me anything that concludes with a less enthusiastic "Can you believe it?" than you heard on, say, the so-called Mother's Day Miracle.
During one media gig or another this week -- I can't recall which, but I think it might have been a WEEI appearance -- Peter Gammons referenced the infamous 1987 Sports Illustrated story . . . in which the Cleveland Indians -- surprising winners of 84 games the previous season -- were picked to win the World Series. SI, which made a habit of outsmarting itself with we're-smarter-than-you predictions in those days -- seriously, read the story and find one logical reason why they were the choice -- put a grinning Carter and Cory Snyder on the cover. (If you're unfamiliar with Snyder's work, think of him as an albino Wily Mo Pena, and you'd be close.)
The smiles didn't last long. The Indians went 61-101 and finished seventh in the AL East despite Carter and Snyder combining for 65 homers and featuring a lineup that also included Brett Butler, Julio Franco, and Brook Jacoby. It probably would have helped to have a pitcher with more than seven wins, but Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro were a combined 90 years old. In late June that season, SI offered a followup explaining its folly.
Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay's clueless if hardly surprising comment that pitchers should be judged on their won-lost records above all else . . . which got me thinking about other common statistical misconceptions, which, in my usual roundabout and contrived way, led me back to the '80s and made me think of Carter. Long praised for his supposed RBI and clutch proficiency during his peak, it dawned on me that he's regarded as almst the opposite of J.D. Drew among those who are not statistically inclined or prone to utilizing common sense.
Carter did keep the scoreboard operators busy -- his lowest single-season RBI total from 1986-94 was 98 in '88, and that consistency simply has to be attributable to more than just his durability and good fortune to bat in the middle of some deep lineups. I mean, it's not my intent here to knock Carter, a gem of a guy who was one of my favorites, but the reality is that he wasn't much of a batting average (.259 career, shockingly low) or OPS (.306) guy, and his .771 career OPS is lower than Mike Cameron's (.787), Jason Varitek's (.781) and just slightly higher than Jeremy Hermida's (.775).
As you've probably noticed, whenever I find myself pondering a player's career or his place in the game, my second go-to resource, after the life-affirming baseball-reference.com, is a stack of old Bill James annuals . . . and not surprisingly but pleasant to discover nonetheless, he did spend a few words on Carter in his writings through the years.
In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," published in 2001, the author rated Carter as the 32d-best left fielder of all time -- sandwiched in the middle seat between No. 31, Bob Johnson, and No. 33, Bobby Veach, just as we all suspected -- while making a casual case that Barry Bonds was actually superior clutch player to Carter. (Remember, this was when Bonds was notorious for melting in the heat of the spotlight before his Ruthian performance in the 2002 postseason . . . and before he had to specially order his hats from BigHeadCaps.com.)
James addressed the contradictions of Carter's career in his "Player Ratings Book 1993":
Averaging 110 RBIs for seven years, Carter is the game's top RBI man. There are people who exaggerate the value of this. Brett Butler is a more valuable player than Joe Carter. But there are also people who want to give no credit for it, and that's not right, either. There haven't been an awful lot of player in baseball history who could drive in 100 runs every year.
In the following year's edition, James touched on Carter's Hall of Fame chances:
Joe is the kind of player that statistical analysts will tell you is badly overrated, but no GM will ever be able to resist. You might assume he is going skate into the Hall of Fame as easily as he can pass through Canadian customs, and you might well be right, but the Hall of Fame has never been kind to RBI men.
It certainly was not kind to Carter -- he lasted just one year on the ballot, getting 3.8 percent of the vote in 2004, the same number Fernando Valenzuela received the same year.
At last, our final semi-understandable reason for writing about Joe Carter today . . .
He had the reputation as a certified Red Sox killah . . . and after coming home from wherever I was Friday night and discovering that the Jays dropped 16 runs on Jon Lester and the Sox, I half expected to look in the box score and see . . .
Carter, J. 5 2 3 4
Old habits and all.
Turns out their chief tormentor that particular night was Lyle Overbay, which reminded us of two things: 1) We really need a third installment of our Red Sox enemies list (version 2.0 is here), because Overbay is at this point a first-ballot lock, and 2) there is a tremendous amount of shame in getting pummeled by a dude named Lyle.
It's hard to imagine Carter would have any enemies other than maybe Mitch Williams and a few opposing pitchers he dinged through the years, but it turns out that in this case the perception is the reality. Carter would belong on our Red Sox enemies list, at least a retro edition from the '80s and '90s, because the man habitually annihilated Boston pitching.
In 160 career games -- you have to love the near-perfect symmetry of practically a full season -- and 682 plate appearances against the Sox, Carter hit .269 with 37 homers and 109 RBIs. His OPS, .841, would have tied with his '94 season as the best of his career, and his adjusted OPS, 116, would have ranked as his fifth-highest, while his 328 total bases against the Sox trailed only the the 341 he compiled for the Indians in '86. Essentially, Joe Carter's lifetime totals against the Sox would rank as one of the two or three best seasons in his career.
Carter was particularly awesome at Fenway -- in 79 games and 336 plate appearances, he hit .312 with 22 homers, 65 RBIs, and a .954 OPS -- and the hunch always was that he'd come to the Sox at the end of his career a la Andre Dawson, a shell casing of what he once was. It just seemed like a move Lou Gorman might make.
It never did happen, though, with Carter retiring at age 38 after a rather productive final few innings with the Giants in '98 (seven homers and an .884 OPS in 115 PAs.). But . . . well, you know, Carter is a young 50, and the Green Monster is enticing as ever, and he can't possibly be older than Mike Cameron, and with Carlos Delgado hurting in Pawtucket, and . . .
Our silly little nostalgic Friday afternoon baseball post that we're always promising and occasionally delivering is instead a silly little nostalgic Monday afternoon baseball post, pecked out while keeping one eye on the television as the Sox -- and there's only a hint of hyperbole here -- cling to their season.
(Annnnnd . . . they win, 2-1, and split in the Bronx, 2-2, and good things this season are still within their grasp. So grant me a moment of instant, brief and appreciative postgame reaction:
I don't understand pitching to Teixeira there despite his career 0-fer in eight at-bats against Papelbon -- I'm not a believer that truths are found in small-sample sizes, particularly when they supposedly indicate steady failure in a great player -- but it worked, dammit, and I'm always glad when The Best Red Sox Manager of My Lifetime is right. His decision was a crucial, gutsy call in a game this admirable team had to have, and as a bonus, it spared us the idiotic sports-radio caterwauling about "Francoma" on the way home. It was a good day in Soxville.
Anyway . . . our baseball post (I really need a catchier name for this) is actually just a question this week.
Who was/is your favorite superstar player who didn't/doesn't play for the Red Sox?
Maybe you adored Yaz, Rice, Fisk and Lynn as a kid (or heck, an adult). Maybe the idols were Pedro, Nomar, Manny, and Papi for your generation. But who was visiting star whom you wished called Fenway home, the player you looked forward to watching even as he tormented your team? For me, the answer was easy.
If you didn't like George Brett, you didn't like baseball.
The Royals' legend, who spent his entire 21-year career in Kansas City, played with the hustle and determination of a role player who had the self-awareness to appreciate every day in the major leagues. Yet to watch him at the plate was to know that without a doubt he was an absolute natural, a born hitter. He was blessed with a quick, short, gorgeous lefthanded swing, one that produced 3,154 hits, 317 homers, a .305 lifetime batting average, three batting titles (one each in the '70s, '80s, and '90s), four seasons of at least 13 triples, and . . . well, the rest is written on his plaque in Cooperstown.
He's been retired since 1993, and I still miss watching him play today -- despite that it seemed like Brett and Willie Wilson combined for three triples per game and exposed the Sox as slow and plodding every single time they played on the turf at Kansas City in the late '70s and early '80s. Or maybe it's just that I'm pretty sure that at age 57, Brett still could hold his own in the Royals lineup today.
For a Red Sox fans, there were other reasons to appreciate Brett. He despised the Yankees -- who ended the Royals season in the ALCS in 1976, '77, and '78 -- as much as we did.
In 1980, the season the Royals got their revenge, he proved to be the only mortal capable of launching a Rich Gossage fastball into the upper deck, and possibly orbit. (You could call him the anti-Bob Bailey, I suppose.) He was the first known player to suffer from Pine Tar rage. He knew how to treat a kissing bandit right. And then there's perhaps his greatest legacy: He put a public face on the tragic national plague of hemorrhoids among .390-hitting third basemen.
While you ponder that, here are a few other big names who were easy to cheer:
Nolan Ryan: Mythical, and unhittable. (Or one-hittable at the worst.)
Tony Gwynn: I can't say I'm certain he would have hit .400 in the abbreviated baseball summer of '94, but I will always be convinced that he would have made a hell of a run at becoming the first player since his idol Ted Williams in 1941 to achieve the feat. Gwynn had the talent and the temperament to do it, and he (and his batting average) was rising to the occasion -- he'd batted .475 over his previous 40 at-bats when the lights on the season were turned off. We'll always believe he was up to the challenge in every way, but we'll never know for sure. Thanks again, Bud.
Kirby Puckett: Arguably the most popular player of his time. Sadly, he's the leadoff hitter on the "No Matter How Much You Think You Know Your Favorite Player, You Don't Really Know Your Favorite Player" All-Stars.
Tim Raines: If there's any justice, Rock and the Hawk will be reunited in Cooperstown in the next couple of years. (Of course, I'd probably vote for Warren Cromartie and Ellis Valentine too. Viva les Expos!)
So there you go, sluggers -- TATB's favorite non-Sox superstars. Hit me with yours in the comments.
I imagine you'll forgive me if I pass on the opportunity today to lament Jon Lester's almost perfect nightmare or howl about Hideki Okajima's latest miserable foray into Sauerbeckville. Instead, we're here to ignore the feeling that a likable but undermanned Red Sox team is watching its season melt away and instead focus on a reason we actually enjoy baseball.
Random nonsense topped off with nostalgia, of course. We vowed awhile back to use any spare post-chat hours on Fridays to post a quirky baseball item to wrap up the week. We've even followed through once or twice. Consider this our latest installment, with many more to come. Even if they happen to be posted on Sunday . . .
Nolan Ryan is a favorite at this web address, and not just because he helped keep Cliff Lee from the Yankees. All ballplayers are larger than life when you're a kid; Ryan, with his intimidating heat on the mound and ambling Texas cool away from it, was larger than life to his peers. His 1986 season, when he went 8-16 despite leading the league in ERA (2.76), strikeouts (270), adjusted ERA (142), H/9 (6.5), and K/9 (11.5), was the first time I realized that wins were far from the defining judgment of a pitcher. Yet another baseball lesson born from a Strat-O-Matic addiction.
Ryan is the all-time leader in no-hitters with seven, three more than any other pitcher. (The runner-up is either Sandy Koufax or Joe Cowley; remind me to look it up.) That's pretty much common baseball knowledge; I wouldn't be shocked to learn Joe Morgan is even aware of it. What may not be as well known is that Ryan is also tied for first in one-hitters, with 12.
My interest in his one-hitters was piqued by this snippet in a wildly enjoyable book I just finished reading, Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s." I'm not one to judge a book by it's cover, but I was sold on this one as soon as I saw this. In the chapter on the 1973 season, Epstein notes that Ryan's season for the ages -- two no-hitters, 21 wins, a record 383 strikeouts -- could have been even greater:
Amazingly, Ryan almost pitched a third no-hitter on August 29, against the Yankees at Anaheim Stadium. In the first inning, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson popped a Ryan fastball off the fists toward second base. Angels shortstop Rudy Meoli [whose only claim to fame otherwise is apparently hitting really high pop ups at home plate] and second baseman Sandy Alomar both assumed that the other would field the ball, which dropped untouched into the infield dirt. Munson was safe at first and since neither player had actually touched the ball, the play was officially scored a hit. Thereafter, Ryan set the rest of the Yankees down without a hit, allowing only three more baserunners . . .
Epstein's writeup of Ryan's no-no near-miss left me with one immediate question: How close did he come to turning one of his dozen one-hitters into another no-hitter? Well, since you asked, here is a quick and quirky look at each of Ryan's one-hitters, along with a random picture from the Globe archives of Ryan and the Angels at Fenway in 1974. Do your thing, baseball-reference.com . . .
* * *
April 18, 1970
Ryan throws his first career one-hitter in his first start of the season against the Phillies, allowing a single to ping hitter Denny Doyle (who would be his teammate in 1974-75 with the Angels) leading off the game. He walked six, whiffed 15, and earned the 7-0 victory over fellow future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. The two starting pitchers in this one combined for 548 wins, with Ryan (324) winning precisely 100 more than the future Senator from Kentucky. One quirky note: According to baseballreference.com, Ryan is listed at a playing weight of 170, five pounds lighter than Doyle. Let's just say I'm skeptical.
* * *
July 9, 1972
The Red Sox managed both of their baserunners in this one in the first inning, when Tommy Harper led off with a walk and, one out later, Yaz singled to right. But Ryan stranded both runners, striking out the side in the first -- and he enjoyed it so much, he decided to whiff the side in the second and third innings as well. That's right; he recorded his first nine outs via the K, finished with 16, and retired the final 25 hitters he faced en route to a 3-0 win. Just a hunch, but the shadows in at the Big A must have been something that day. Now this is a classic I'd like to see on the MLB Network. (I've given up on ESPN Classic, But Mostly Bowling and Poker.)
* * *
August 29, 1973
Ryan notched his first two career no-hitters earlier in '73, perhaps the finest season of his 26 seasons given that he whiffed -- and this bears mentioning again -- 383 batters in 326 innings. (Somewhere, John Farrell just fainted.) His third career one-hitter was the aforementioned 5-0 win over the Yankees, with Munson getting the cheapo in the first.
* * *
June 27, 1974
Honest, I didn't know this before I started this post, but it happened again: The lone hit allowed by Ryan, a single by the Rangers' Alex Johnson in California's 5-0 win, took place in the first inning. Not to bludgeon the point, but it is sort of amazing: in each of Ryan's first four one-hitters, he did not allow a single hit beyond the first inning. Just plain ridiculous. Ryan isn't the greatest pitcher of all-time, but there's no one in the modern era that I can think of who has more impressive and, in many cases, unprecedented feats.
* * *
April 15, 1977
And so the streak ends. In the 10th game of the expansion Seattle Mariners existence, they managed a measly fifth-inning single by catcher Bob Stinson in the host Angels' 5-0 win. An Angels leadoff hitter by the name of Gerald Peter Remy -- you may know him as RemDawg -- matched the Mariners' hit total that day, going 1 for 4 with a run scored and a stolen base. He would be traded to the Red Sox that winter and, of course, never be heard from again.
* * *
May 5, 1978
In a 5-0 victory for the Angels over the visiting Indians, Ryan's no-hit bid was broken up by a fifth-inning single by Joe Posnanski's baseball idol, Duane Kuiper, he of the one career homer and .641 lifetime OPS. The late, great Lyman Bostock doubled the Tribe's output with two hits for California. Bostock, the gregarious 27-year-old outfielder, would die in one of baseball's true modern tragedies little more than three months later. (I don't know what this has to do with Ryan, but Bostock's legacy has always been something of a cause/obsession for me, and he was Ryan's teammate, and that connection is good enough here.)
* * *
July 13, 1979
Ryan had thrown four of his seven no-hitters at this point. This was two outs from being his fifth, but it was busted up by a one-out single in the ninth inning by another future Hall of Famer, Reggie Jackson. We've long believed the other starting pitcher in this game, a guy by the name of Tiant, also belongs in the Hall of Fame, and his performance in this one was vintage late-career El Tiante: 7 2/3 innings, 12 hits, 4 walks, 5 Ks, 3 earned runs, and, surely, 36 different motions for the 36 batters he faced.
* * *
August 11, 1982
Joe Pittman, Broderick Perkins, Joe Lefebrve, a washed--out Sixto Lezcano . . . not exactly an A-list lineup the Padres ran out there for this one. Hell, you half expect to see Kevin Cash's name in there somewhere. While one of the Padres' better players, four-time All-Star catcher Terry Kennedy, poked the lone hit -- a single in the fifth inning -- there was a relative unknown in the San Diego lineup that day who would go on to achieve great things. In his 24th major league game, Tony Gwynn went 0 for 4, leaving his career hit total at 27. Who -- save for some savvy scouts and perhaps a prospects whiz at a fledgling publication called "Baseball America" -- would have suspected then that there were 3,114 to come, including 19 against Ryan?
* * *
August 3, 1983
Nearly a year to the day after he one-hit the Padres, Ryan did it again, though with little drama. The Padres' hit came on a fifth-inning single by utilityman Tim Flannery, a rich man's Willie Bloomquist who finished his 11-year career with a.652 OPS.
* * *
April 23, 1989
As the president and head honcho of the Rangers, Ryan has gained notice for expressing his belief that, if pitch-counts are not quite the work of the devil (or at least Joe Kerrigan), they at least can hinder the development of young pitchers. In essence, he believes healthy arms are built by throwing, not babying. This particular season -- and this particular game -- provides a telling example of how Ryan's belief was built through experience. It took him 130 pitches to complete this one-hitter -- Nelson Liriano's one-out triple in the ninth busted it up -- and that pitch count was in the middle of the pack for him in the 1989 season, when he was 42 years old. Ryan made 31 starts, and the fewest pitches he threw in any of them? Ninety-nine. The most? One-hundred and 64. Again: 164. That was one of 16 starts in which he threw 130 pitches or more. Did we mention he was 42? Advil really must have worked wonders.
* * *
June 3, 1989
This is Ryan's fifth one-hitter in which the lone knock came in the first inning, and the second in which the leadoff hitter -- in this case, Seattle second baseman Harold Reynolds -- did the honors. We suspect Reynolds, who has made a fine living as a jovial but somewhat insight-challenged baseball analyst since his playing days ended, might describe the situation like this: "When you give up a hit to the first batter, chances are you're not going to pitch a no-hitter." One other note we found amusing: 19-year-old Mariners rookie Ken Griffey Jr. went 0 for 2 with a strikeout, batting fifth behind the one and only Jeffrey Leonard. Two of Griffey's 630 homers came off Ryan; five of Ryan's 5,714 strikeouts came against The Kid. And every one of their showdowns must have been compelling.
* * *
April 26, 1990
A good amount of the fun in a silly little undertaking like this is digging through old box scores and being reminded of players who'd been relegated to the dusty vaults of your baseball memories. Ron Kittle was a fun if one-dimensional phenom in the early '80s (a teenaged Keith Law might have warned us about his high strikeout totals, his history of back problems that led to his release from the Dodgers organization, and that it probably didn't bode well that he wore glasses. Prospects were much more of a mystery then.) Kittle pulverized the baseball en route 50 homers in the Pacific Coast League in '82, than won the AL Rookie of the Year award with a 35-homer season for the playoff-bound White Sox in '83. But he batted .215 in his sophomore season, and those old back problems never quite left him alone. He finished with 176 homers in a 10-year career, and there's something just right about his top three comps on baseball-reference.com: Russell Branyan, Steve Balboni, and Bo Jackson. But on April 26, 1990, the second-to-last season of his career, he accomplished something notable for that particular day: he was the only one of 29 White Sox batters to manage a hit off Nolan Ryan. And in the bigger picture, he's one of an exclusive dozen to get the hit in a Ryan Express one-hitter. There's no shame in that bit of baseball minutiae, presuming Rudy Meoli and Sandy Alomar didn't mess this one up too.
During his reign as the Red Sox general manager from 1994-01, Duquette proved an incurable scrap-heap junkie, and on occasion he did find treasure in another ball club's trash. Troy O'Leary. Brian Daubach. El Guapo. And a certain knuckleballer who is still floating 'em up there for the Red Sox, 15 years and 178 victories after he was discarded by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
There has been some revisionist history among some of my peers in recent years regarding the Duquette Era, the suggestion being that since he brought some supreme and pivotal players to the Red Sox (Pedro, Manny, Damon, Tek, even Nomar via Georgia Tech) and made a couple of historically shrewd deals in 1997 (Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. to Montreal for Pedro, Heathcliff Slocumb to Seattle for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe) that perhaps he deserved more credit for his contributions to the magic of 2004 than he received.
The reason for such a suggestion is nothing more than habitual contrariness, for it conveniently ignores two of Duquette's fatal flaws as a GM, reasons they never won a title on his watch: building a productive farm system and acquiring high-quality, reliable talent to support the superstars. There were too many retreaded Pat Rapps and Mark Portugals behind Pedro in the rotation, too many dubious Donnie Sadlers and Seung Songs atop the prospect lists. Duquette had a knack for paying the right superstars, but the subtleties of developing and sustaining an organization eluded him.
Anyway, while it's sort of turned in that direction, this isn't meant as a referendum on the Pros and Cons of the Duke. What it is meant as is our silly little Friday baseball post we promised a little while back (and even have delivered upon occasion . . . especially if you don't know the difference between Friday and Sunday).
The idea for this thing germinated while I was doing my homework last week for a gallery of former Red Sox players whose kids are making a name for themselves in pro ball. Looking back through rosters dating back to the late '70s, I found myself both bemused and annoyed when checking out those Duquette teams and remembering just how tenuous a spot on the back end of the roster was in those days.Today's Chris Donnels was tomorrow's Chris James, you know?
Our guys Arquimedez and Rudy up there are veritable Red Sox Hall of Famers compared to some of these guys Duquette ran in and out particularly during the 1995 season, when the Sox set a franchise record for players used (53), only to top it the following season (55).
Which brings us, at last, to our point: What follows is a look at some of the Duquette Era baseball vagabonds whose arrivals and departures with the Red Sox would barely be recalled if not for the memory-jostling magic of baseball-reference.com.
Here are few names that made us exclaim, "Oh, yeah . . . him." OK, so maybe exclaim is too strong a word. But we were made to remember these Red Sox short-timers and temps. Let's see if you remember them, too . . .
Stan Royer: Third baseman had one hit in nine at-bats in 1994; not to be confused with Chris Snopek, who had two hits in 12 at-bats for the '98 Sox. Royer was chosen by the Braves in the 10th round of the 1985 MLB Draft, but did not sign. Later in the same round, the Red Sox selected Brady Anderson. What, you've got a better anecdote?
Brad Pennington: A 6-foot-5 lefty with a Daniel Bard fastball, he shoulda-coulda-woulda been a bullpen stalwart for years, save for one career-killing flaw: He had the command of a blind man suffering from vertigo. In 13 innings for the 1996 Red Sox, he walked 15, whiffed 13, and presumably had every batter he faced stepping into the batter's box in abject terror. As further evidence that hard-throwing lefties will get roughly a half-dozen more chances than they deserve, in parts of five big league seasons, Pennington had a 7.02 ERA, a 2.08 WHIP, and walked 89 in 75.2 innings.
Pat Mahomes: Lit up the radar gun, but his fastball refused to move, and he walked five batters per nine innings over the course of his 11-year career, which included a stopover with the '96 Sox. That's the recipe for three-run homers right there, and he was a Wasdin-like master chef in that regard.
Ricky Trlicek: Duquette acquired the former Blue Jay twice, in 1994 and again in '97. I suspect at least one of the times he thought he was getting Mike Timlin.
Mark Lemke: Admit it: You forgot the former Braves second baseman ever played for the Sox. (It's for real -- he batted .187 in '98.)
There you have our short list. You know there were so many more.
Ken Grundt. Greg Pirkl. Allen McDill. Who can forget Izzy Alcantara? Calvin Pickering. Pickering's righthanded-hitting, eclipse-causing doppleganger, Juan Diaz. The 3.90-WHIP train wreck that was Toby Borland . . .
If you grew up a Red Sox fan in the 1970s, you dug No. 19, Fred Lynn, end of story.
When I see this card, I see Lynn in his golden Red Sox heyday. He made everything look cool and effortless -- even jogging in from center field between innings -- and those were crucial characteristics to a shy and occasionally coordinated 8-year-old. Dan Shaughnessy once wrote that Lynn was our DiMaggio, and he didn't mean the fine player who was our DiMaggio, you know?
Lynn fielded with elegance, fearlessness, and a knack for the spectacular. His lefthanded swing was the kind that made hitting coaches love their jobs, and when he got a hold of one, his home run trot -- head always down, right elbow tucked close, just a hint of a bounce in his step -- was casual and matter-of-fact and . . . well, again, cool was the right word.
Of course, cool was also part of the problem, as were a couple of other adjectives in that previous paragraph, starting with effortless and casual. Lynn made it look so easy that the assumption, accurate or not, was that it was easy, and so when he began missing time with injuries that didn't seem particularly debilitating when Upton and Lobie were talking about them on "Calling All Sports," that's how a reputation (and perhaps an accompanying nickname) is born.
And so Fragile Freddy it was.
I was reminded of this not only because of that baseball card, but for a different reason, and one that is probably apparent at the moment. Jacoby Ellsbury, who returned to the disabled list with re-injured ribs and a bruised reputation, is the latest Red Sox outfielder to be slapped with vague but mounting accusations of having a low pain threshold or being unwilling to play when he's less than 100 percent.
Whether criticism of Ellsbury is fair or not remains to be determined. His manager's previous comments about his responsibility to his teammates, to paraphrase slightly, indicates at the very least that there's been a perception that he's put his own well-being ahead of his team's. But it's not difficult to see the situation from Ellsbury's perspective as well. He's a player who depends more than most on sheer, world-class athleticism, whether he's tormenting pitchers and catchers on the basepaths or making spectacular catches in the outfield. And he did crack four ribs. Such an injury might test Jack Youngblood's pain threshold.
Anyway, retracing our winding steps from Ellsbury back to Lynn here, it is interesting to consider a curiously significant number of talented and productive Red Sox outfielders through the seasons who have endured whispers that they were malingerers, from Reggie Smith to Lynn to Ellis Burks to, nowadays, J.D. Drew and Ellsbury.
(In 1988, Shaughnessy -- can you tell I've been digging around the archives again? -- wrote that Lynn "came to Fenway each April on a six-month work visa. His interest in the Red Sox was professional and passionless." Sound like a certain current productive and yet hardly popular right fielder to you?)
Even more interesting is that Smith and Burks are two of Lynn's all-time most similar players according to baseball-reference.com. Smith rates first on the list among all big leaguers, as well as at ages 37 and 38, while Burks is Lynn's top comp from ages 32-35. I'd never thought of the parallels of their careers -- I was expecting Drew to appear somewhere on Lynn's list, but not Burks -- but it makes a ton of sense. Both played hard yet made the game look easy, and both were made well aware of the fans' frustrations when they weren't on the field.
Not coincidentally, both eventually moved on. While Burks went on to achieve great things elsewhere -- check out his beastly .344/.408/.639 line (with 40 homers) for the 1996 Rockies -- before returning to make the most memorable airplane exit of all-time with the 2004 Sox, Lynn was never quite the same after leaving Boston (and Fenway, which was tailor-made for his swing) in a particularly horrible trade in January 1981.
In the best piece of writing you'll ever read in this space, here's how Ray Fitzgerald broke it down in the Globe on Jan. 24, 1981:
Once the trade was to be for Steve Howe and Joe Beckwith, two young Dodger pitchers of great potential, plus minor league slugger Mike Marshall. And it sounded OK, because the Red Sox needed young pitchers of great potential.
Then the trade was to be for Yankee ace Ron Guidry and outfielder Ruppert Jones. Though the thought of Fred Lynn roaming center field for George Steinbrenner caused strange rumbles in the stomach of the average Red Sox fan, it would at least have been talent for talent -- the best for the best.
But now the actuality is less, much less. Lynn, one of the top players, if not the very best in the game, has gone from the Red Sox to the California Angels for fragile outfielder Joe Rudi, tender-armed lefthanded pitcher Frank Tanana and undistinguished minor league hurler Jim Dorsey.
It was a trade of desperation and expediency, brought about by the entanglements of modern baseball and the failure of the Red Sox front office to stay a step ahead of these entanglements.
Haywood Sullivan was in a bind, much of it apparently of his own making. Yesterday Sullivan was in New York at a hearing in which Lynn was claiming he should be a free agent. If the arbitrator ruled in favor of the outfielder -- and the betting was good that he would -- the Red Sox would lose Lynn and get nothing in return. And so the trade.
A year ago, if the Red Sox had even whispered that they were thinking of trading Lynn, a graceful outfielder, high-average guy and home run threat, for the struggling Tanana, they'd have been run out of town on a rail.
But circumstances and time alter the human condition, and when the trade came fluttering across the wires yesterday, the reaction was:
"A terrible trade, but what could they do? It's better than nothing."
Better than nothing. That's all Fenway fans are left with as exchange for a player who someday could wind up in baseball's Hall of Fame. Better than nothing.
A half-inning's worth of postscripts and epilogues regarding Mr. Fitzgerald's snippet:
1. Then the trade was to be for Yankee ace Ron Guidry and outfielder Ruppert Jones . . . I've seen this referenced in Peter Gammons's "Beyond the Sixth Game" before, and it still strikes me as unfathomable. Guidry, a Red Sox? Lynn, in pinstripes? That two players who played such memorable roles in the late '70s Yankees-Sox rivalry could have switched sides just three years after the life-altering '78 playoff game . . . well, it just wouldn't have been right. (Oh, and I'm pretty sure the Steve Howe thing would have gone wrong in a hurry. There would have been hell to pay when Joe Mooney inevitably caught him snorting the first-base line.)
2. It was a trade of desperation and expediency. . . . . . and one that brought predictably hideous results. Tanana, coming back from an arm injury, worked through the hiccups of making the conversion from brash flamethrower to wily junkballer during his one season in Boston, with discouraging results. He went 4-10 with a 4.01 ERA in 1981, then signed with the Rangers the following January. And he was the best thing the Sox got in the deal -- Rudi batted .180 with a .591 OPS in 49 games, and Dorsey appeared in four games over two seasons, with a 16.88 ERA. He was no Joe Beckwith.
3. Lynn, one of the top players, if not the very best in the game . . . That perception was the reality at times with Lynn in Boston. We all know about the gold-dusted summer and fall of '75, when he became the first player to be named MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season. And in '79, after he spent the previous winter working out on those new-fangled Nautilus machines, he was the very best in the game, leading the AL in batting (.333), on-base percentage (.423), slugging (.637), OPS (1.059), OPS+ (176), and finishing second in homers (39) and fourth in RBIs (122). He finished just fourth in the MVP voting, probably because the 91-win Sox wound up third in the AL East.
But he had seasons where his numbers were surprisingly pedestrian. He followed up his dazzling rookie season with 10 homers and 65 RBIs in 566 plate appearances in 1976. He followed up the '79 masterpiece by hitting 12 homers and driving in 61 runs in just 110 games. He never played more than 150 games in a season, in four of his six seasons in Boston he drove in fewer than 83 runs, and he never led the league in another offensive category after '79, his age-27 season. I guess you don't have to do much scouring to find reasonable sources of frustration for his fans.
To Lynn's credit -- and I'll wrap up what was supposed to be a whimsical, nostalgic, and quick post three days ago momentarily here before it becomes the The Official And Mind-Numbing Encyclopedia of Frederick Michael Lynn -- he's always been accountable for his career. Aging as gracefully as he played, Lynn strikes you as someone who has no regrets, yet he easily admits leaving Boston wasn't the best career move.
That .347 career batting average at Fenway might have something to do with that.
We'll give the last word on our overwrought ode to Freddy (and a 30-year-old baseball card) to the man who played to his left for six full seasons.
"A lot of people didn't know him. He was a quiet, nice guy who did his job," Dwight Evans told the Globe in September 1988. "He was very misunderstood. He didn't want the limelight. People thought he should play 162 games. He couldn't play hurt. So he'd only play 145 games, but for those 145 games he was the best player."
Dewey remembers him well. And despite Fred Lynn's enigmatic ways, he's far from the only one. There are far worse baseball legacies to own than one of uncommon grace and unsustainable greatness.
Embellished tales and exaggerated anecdotes aren't part of Joe Castiglione's repertoire when it comes to calling a Sox game. So my BaseballNerd antennae went up the other night when, in the context of talking about feeble hitters having success against superb pitchers, he noted that Mark Belanger owned Nolan Ryan. (Owned is my word, not his, but the sentiment doesn't change.)
Belanger, as you know if you're familiar with the great Orioles teams of the 1970s, was the ultimate "run prevention" player -- that is, he prevented runs for both teams. He won eight Gold Gloves in essentially 15 seasons (1967-81) as Earl Weaver's shortstop on some excellent Baltimore teams. Playing alongside Brooks Robinson for 11 of those seasons, they arguably formed the best defensive left side of an infield in baseball history. Maybe not so arguably, given the 24 Gold Gloves between them.
The trade-off for his defense was that his bat was more of a prop than a weapon. His career adjusted OPS was 68, or three points lower than Nick Green's with the Sox last season. Belanger batted .228 with a .300 on-base percentage and a .280 slugging percentage. He hit 20 home runs in 2,016 games -- roughly one every 100 games -- and 6,602 at-bats. I'm just going to stop here and presume that the case that he was not a good hitter has sufficiently been made.
So . . . Belanger owning Ryan? How can that be? Well . . . turns out it can't be. With the assistance of my longtime companion baseball-reference.com, I looked up Mark Belanger's career numbers against Nolan Ryan. And they looked pretty much what you'd expect Mark Belanger's career numbers to look like against Nolan Ryan:
58 plate appearances, 45 at-bats, 11 hits, one extra-base hit (a double), .244 average, .267 slugging percentage, .357 OBP.
Meh. Save for a very respectable OBP -- he walked seven times against Ryan -- those are pretty Belangerian numbers.
I must emphasize that the intent here is not to act like a product of the Jerk Store and call out Castiglione for passing along an anecdote or recollection that statistics prove untrue. Maybe there was a particularly big hit or moment that Belanger had against Ryan, one that I'm unaware and one that kick-started the myth. Maybe Ryan himself gripes to this day about struggling against Belanger.
And anyway, those occasionally accurate myths are part of the charm of baseball. I'm relatively sure all of the innings and dates in Vin Scully's tales of Dodgers past aren't always historically accurate. But I sure do love hearing them regardless. And I doubt Ernie Harwell was so beloved because of an encyclopedic memory. He was beloved because he helped us connect with and cherish the game.
Returning from that digression, the interesting thing I discovered is that Belanger actually did fare well against quite a few top-shelf pitchers. There are some whose knowledge of the game I respect who might argue that Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame just as much as Ryan does.
And get this: Belanger owned Blyleven. In 60 PAs (52 ABs), he batted .346, slugged .404, and had a .433 OBP. His .847 OPS against the future Hall of Famer was his highest against any pitcher he faced 60 or more times.
Blyleven wasn't the only quality pitcher whose stuff Belanger tased. He batted .333 with a .936 OPS in 38 PAs against Denny McLain. Steve Busby, one of baseball's lingering "what-ifs" from the '70s -- he won 22 games in '74, pitched a pair of no-hitters, but won just 11 games after age 25 because of shoulder problems -- struggled to solve Belanger, allowing a .907 OPS in 37 PAs (not to mention one of his 20 career homers).
And then there's Goose Gossage. One of few pitchers of the time who could match the Ryan Express's readings on the speedometer, Belanger nonetheless whacked him for a 1.121 OPS in 25 plate appearances.
Sure, the sample sizes are small. And there were plenty of elite pitchers --- Gaylord Perry (.274 OPS against), Fergie Jenkins (.317), and the Eck (.421) among them -- who dominated Belanger.
But his success against Gossage and other quality pitchers suggests that every now and then, Belanger could catch up to a blazing fastball.
Maybe even Nolan Ryan's, on an a special occasion or two.
* * *
Update, Saturday, 10:04 a.m. Well, turns out it was more than a special occasion after all. As I said in the piece, I suspected there might be a specific instance or development that I was missing, and astute reader TickOver14Million (strangest birth name ever) politely details in the comments why Belanger has the rep as a Ryan killah:
I can attest Belanger's success against Ryan is no myth. The confusion comes from the fact you are looking merely at Mark's career stats against Nolan, while everyone else is looking at just the final seven years of Belanger's career:
Also in 1973 Ryan was just six outs away from back-to-back no-hitters when guess who - Mark Belanger - broke up Nolan's bid for history.
When you get a chance you might want to read "Earl Weaver's Art of Managing a Baseball Team", this is what he had to say about Belanger:
"Usually Mark was our ninth hitter. His lifetime batting average was in the .220's but he was the best hitter I had against Ryan. Mark hit over .350 against Ryan's fastball. Mark had a short stroke and did very well against fastball pitchers. He was also 7-for-13 against Jim Kern and a .300 hitter against Goose Gossage. Mark's history against Ryan was the reason I moved him up in the lineup. Mark also had a good eye and could draw a walk. Ryan's control can be shaky, and if you give him a chance he might beat himself with walks."
So there you go. I wish I'd recognized this myself, but it's also damn cool to have readers who can point my lazy wayward self in the right direction when I need it. Thanks, Tick.
* * *
(Note: The tentative plan is to bang out one of these little Completely Random Baseball Card posts on Fridays after my chat, just to give me one more reason to pointlessly jabber on about baseball. So consider yourselves warned.)
It restores, through lively anecdotes and vintage highlights, so many memories of wonderful players and moments that escaped from the baseball vault of my mind.
I mention this now because I was watching a show called "Prime 9" on MLB the other night -- funny how the clicker always seems to conk out there -- when I was reminded of a player I would never hope to forget in the first place.
The show's premise is basic yet engaging: Nine players players are counted down and briefly profiled in a certain category -- say, the Greatest Defensive Third Basemen, for instance, or the Most Improbable World Series heroes, or maybe the Best White Red Sox Utility Infielders of the '80s (that one hasn't been made yet, curiously).
The topic the other night was What Might Have Beens, and typical of the Only Channel I Need, the list was smart and compelling. Satchel Paige was No. 1 and Bo Jackson was No. 2 -- and you can never go wrong reminiscing about either of those two. Lyman Bostock, a pet cause of mine for a long time, also got his due, as did our own Tony C.
But one name captured my attention more than the others. And let me tell you, it sure was a treat to watch footage of James Rodney "J.R." Richard throwing a baseball like few men ever have.
If you don't remember Richard -- a genial, gigantic righthander who won 74 games for the Houston Astros from 1976-'79 and struck out more than 300 batters twice -- all I can say is that "awesome" doesn't do him justice. He was 6-feet -8-inches tall, with legs thicker than your average backup catcher. And judging from the highlights on the MLB Network -- at one point, he's shown whiffing Reggie Jackson on a hellacious breaking ball Jackson missed by roughly the length of Dustin Pedroia -- I'm confident saying he was the most imposing pitcher, in terms of both stature and stuff, I've ever seen, Randy Johnson included.FULL ENTRY
- White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, after intentionally walking cleanup hitter (and apparent two-sport Triple Crown threat) Dustin Pedroia tonight.
Late, late tonight, I promise I'll be back with my first Red Sox column since - well, I think since Papelbon whiffed Seth Smith and the Sox rejoiced in the Rockies. (That's my way of saying it's been way too long.) But the basketball has been put away for the summer, the wimpy Lakers appropriately vanquished, and from here on out we'll be all about baseball until the leaves turn. I'm looking forward to it.
In the meantime, I filled in as the DH today at one of my longtime favorite sites, Rich Lederer's BaseballAnalysts, and my guest column concerns a topic that is central to TATB's existence. Jenna Fischer? Lovely guess, but nope. Today, we're talking about . . . baseball cards. Do check it out for a nostalgic dose of dorkiness, and also to learn why that Steve Stroughter card always made the 12-year-old me laugh. And still does.
I realize this is two ridiculously irrelevant posts in a row - some might say more - but I just noticed this while poking around the so-addictive-it's-life-altering SI Vault, and as someone who got his Red Sox baptism during the doomed '78 season, I just had to share.
The article, titled "These Are The Boston Manglers," appeared in the May 1, 1978, issue of Sports Illustrated. The author? Some cat named Gammons. (Don't know what became of him. Probably a blogger now. Shhh, don't tell Bissinger. He'll freak.) The theme of the article, as you may or may not have gathered from the clunky headline, told the story of the relentless Boston offense, with Gammons emphasizing the contributions of Jim Rice, who'd go on to earn the AL MVP that season, and No. 9-hitter Butch Hobson, who, well, would not, despite these early-season words of praise in SI:
Though he is only 26, because of his determination and attitude Hobson is the most respected member of the Red Sox. When he first came to Boston, there were doubts about his fielding. In one season he made himself into a third baseman of a rank just below the Yankees' Gold Glover, Graig Nettles. "He wears out us coaches," says Johnny Pesky, one of the men Hobson calls on to hit practice grounders by the gross. In a stretch of four games this season, Hobson made half a dozen brilliant plays. And though he strikes out a lot—162 times in '77—only Rice and Fisk can equal his clutch-hitting performances on the Sox. Last season 14 of Hobson's homers came after the seventh inning. With 16 RBIs in the first 13 games this year, Hobson appears to be headed for another 100-RBI season—if he can avoid having to undergo elbow surgery.
Now, I doubt anyone remembers Hobson with more distorted, misty-watercolor fondness than I do. He was my favorite player as a kid, and your favorite player as a kid ought to be your favorite player for life. The number "4" in my email address? Hobson's number with the Sox. Not a coincidence. And don't call me a dork.
I can say without a moment's hesitation that there has never been a Sox player in my lifetime who played harder (or more recklessly) than Hobson, and his hustle often led to spectacular plays; he was a recurring character in the "This Week In Baseball" highlights. Ol' Butchie never saw a dugout he couldn't dive into in pursuit of a popup. Bat racks feared him.
But the most ardent Hobson admirer has to chuckle at even an understated comparison to Nettles as a defender, especially considering what happened later that season. Hobson, plagued by bone chips in his throwing elbow, made 44 errors that season, becoming the first everyday player since 1916 to have a fielding percentage below .900. Any patron who dared to sit in the boxes behind first base was in the line of fire. It was only after Hobson went to his iron-skulled twit of a manager in tears and said, "I'm killing the team" that he was mercifully shifted to a DH role. Of course, it was actually The Gerbil who was killing the team, but we'll leave that story in the archives for today.
As for Nettles . . . he won his second straight Gold Glove that season, and his legendary and spectacular defensive performance in Game 3 of the '78 World Series lives on as a clinic on how to play the position. He might have been a colossal jerk, but he was a colossal jerk who could throw around the leather.
All these years later, I'd like to think Hobson could have stolen the same October moment, had fate been kinder to him and the ballclub that season, had his body not betrayed him, had his arm not gone on the fritz.
And you know what? I imagine Gammons does, too.
Just a quick tip of the cap to one of our longtime favorites, Julio Franco, who retired at age 49 yesterday, ending a 31-year-career in professional baseball. Yep, that's correct - Franco was paid to play baseball for 31 years, 23 of which were spent in the big leagues. We give you a few moments of note from a truly distinctive - and quirky - career:
He signed with the Phillies in 1978 and made his major league debut four seasons later in Philly, where his teammates included Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, Tug McGraw, and of course, Porfirio Altamirano . . . was swapped to Cleveland in the infamous five-for-one Von Hayes deal in December '82 . . . was an established star with the Indians in '84 during the inaugural season of my beloved Maine Guides, the Tribe's Triple A team which has been defunct for 20 years . . . played with fellow 29-year-old Terry Francona and 25-year-old John Farrell on the '88 Indians . . . earned the All-Star Game MVP award in '90, getting the winning hit off "Best Damn Sports Show" drooler Rob Dibble . . . won a batting title with the Rangers in '91 . . . went to Japan after the '94 strike, and later batted .423 and .437 in two years in the Mexican League . . . in 1997, was already one of the 10 oldest players in the league according to baseballreference.com . . . compiled over 4,200 hits in the US majors and minors, Japan, Korea, the Dominican, and Mexico . . . hit .309 with a 111 OPS+ for the Braves at age 45 . . . on one legendary road trip to L.A., hooked up with all four of the Golden Girls, including Rue McClanahan twice . . . became the oldest player to homer in the majors when he took a young whippersnapper named Randy Johnson deep a year ago today . . . was the last active player to face a pitcher who also faced Ted Williams (Jim Kaat) . . . said his goal was to collect a paycheck and a pension check from a team in the same year, which would have happened had he stuck around until age 50 . . . retires with a .298 average, 2,586 hits, and 173 homers in the majors . . . according to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, many of his early bios have his birthdate listed as 1954, which would make him 54 - but very likely still a couple of years younger than Miguel Tejada.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.