Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ken Harrelson: Behaving Badly on a Plane and the Birth of Free Agency

Most fans of this generation know Ken Harrelson as an outspoken, controversial, occasionally obnoxious broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox. The previous generation knew him as an outspoken, controversial, occasionally obnoxious baseball player. He also should be remembered as the man who started the free agent revolution.

Ken Harrelson was a street-wise guy who always knew how to squeeze a few extra bucks out of his athletic potential. As a high schooler in Savannah, Georgia, on scholarship at a private academy, he played golf, football, basketball and baseball. He was good enough to warrant numerous college football scholarship offers and, as a high school All-American in basketball, had offers to places as prestigious as the University of Kentucky. Baseball was perhaps his fourth best sport, but he went with it because it promised quicker money than the other sports.

He signed with the A's for a $50,000 bonus. At an early minor league stop, he was given the nickname "Hawk" due to the obvious raptor-like appearance of the profile of his prodigiously protruding proboscis.

While he didn't appreciate the moniker initially, Harrelson soon embraced it and the name became part of a persona he created. After a couple of great years in the minors, Hawk Harrelson made it to the big leagues at the age of 21.

Once in Kansas City, however, his career stagnated. Despite the potential, by 1967 Harrelson was an obvious disappointment. His best season had been 1965 in which he hit 23 home runs while hitting .238. As was written in Sports Illustrated in 1968 about his days with the Athletics, "Harrelson had drifted and scuffled through five unimpressive seasons, averaging fewer than 50 runs batted in each year while developing a reputation as the game's best arm wrestler, pool shooter and golfer as well as being a man who played defense with all the finesse and surety of Venus de Milo."
[For the non-art enthusiasts in the crowd--that was not a compliment]:

In addition to underperforming, Harrelson made a nuisance of himself with several vehement outbursts toward owner Charley Finley and had the audacity to make incessant demands for unreasonable perks, like raises. Sick of such behavior, Finley dumped Harrelson to Washington in June of 1966, but then inexplicably purchased him back in June of 1967.

The big trouble started on a routine team trip from Boston to Kansas City on August 3 aboard a commercial TWA flight. They made stops in Baltimore and St. Louis which turned the normally two-and-a-half hour flight into six hours--too much time for some members of the team to behave themselves.

Mischievousness and frivolity abounded in the back of the plane and it attracted negative attention. The exact actions of players became shrouded in the "what happens here, stays here" mentality of a major league team and the players, as expected, have forever denied that anything out of the ordinary happened that night. Other accounts differ greatly, however. When viewed with all evidence, we can be certain of two things: 1) copious amounts of alcoholic beverages were consumed and, 2) butts were pinched without the express written consent of the commissioner of baseball or, apparently, of some of the owners of said butts.

Remember, this was the Mad Men era in which boys were allowed to be boys, dames were expected to tolerate leers and unauthorized advances and terms such as sexual harassment were never uttered. The fact that some people took offense to the actions on the plane points to the fact that some players did indeed indulge in very ungentlemanlike behavior and, possibly, a line of some sort was crossed.

Charley Finley, who was not on the flight, heard about the ruckus and, perhaps because it was a commercial flight with numerous innocent bystanders, and witnesses, decided he needed to do something to save face. For years afterwards players held announcer Monte Moore responsible for snitching, but it had actually been Charley's eleven-year-old son Paul, who was also on the flight, who ratted them out to the boss. Paul later told his cousin, Nancy Finley, that several of the stewardesses were bothered by the language and groping and it progressed to the point that one of them fled to the front of the plane and sat next to him (an adolescent boy's dream come true), telling him that was the only save place on the entire plane.

Finley held relief pitcher Lew Krausse most responsible and ordered him fined $500 and suspended. Obviously Krausse was not the only one involved. Some players felt that Krausse was singled out because he was the only player in the back of the plane who was not married and it would spare the others from certain domestic wrath. Incidentally, just a few months earlier, Finley had backed up Krausse and saved him from arrest after he had fired a pistol from his hotel room in a drunken stupor following a tough outing.

In addition to the punishment meted out on Krausse, on August 18, 1967 Finley sent the following memo to his team: "Effective immediately and for the balance of the season, all alcoholic drinks will no longer be served on commercial airlines to members of the Kansas City Athletics. The Kansas City Athletics will no longer tolerate the shenanigans of a very few individuals who obviously do not appreciate the privilege of playing in the major leagues and being treated like gentlemen. The attitude, activities and words of some of you have been deplorable."

As expected, the memo was met with anger among the team members. In addition to being appalled at Finley's gross misuse of basic grammar rules, the players were upset at being publicly shamed when Finley released the memo to the wire services.

The players rallied around their suspended teammate and drafted an uncomplimentary reply to Finley which they also released publicly.

Manager Al Dark refused to back Finley in the suspension and when Finley found out that Dark had known about the players' public rebuttal beforehand and did nothing to head it off, he fired Dark with the explanation that he had "lost control of his ball players."

Reporters flocked to Harrelson for his response to the whole affair, Harrelson predictably had a lot to say, little of it complimentary to his boss. He was quoted in the papers as saying that Finley was "a menace to baseball."

Finley called Harrelson in and demanded a public apology. Harrelson denied using the term "menace to baseball" but did not deny any of the rest of his statements and refused to retract them.

Finley then released Harrelson.

Initially horrified at being cut loose from his $12,000 a year job, Harrelson soon learned that he was free to make a deal for himself with any other willing team. He was a free agent. While Tommy Henrich had been freed from the Indians' farm system and allowed to make his own deal with another team (the Yankees) in 1937 and similar situation may have occurred with minor leaguers, it was the first time that an active major league player had been given the opportunity.

For Harrelson, the timing couldn't have been better. Although there was little drama in the National League as the St. Louis Cardinals were running away from everyone, four American League teams had battled all season for the top spot--a struggle in which three teams would still be in contention on the last afternoon of the season. And two of the contending teams were in desperate need of a good bat. The White Sox had great pitching but were scoring about as often as a coke-bottle-thick black-rimmed-glasses-wearing Physics nerd on a Christian college campus. The Red Sox, with their first sniff of a pennant in more than two decades, had recently just lost slugger Tony Conigliaro to a horrific beaning.

Before his dismissal, Harrelson had been on a modest hitting binge, rapping out a .336 average in the preceding five weeks, raising his season average to .305. That was just enough to give hitting-starved general managers heart palpitations in 1967.

Harrelson was savvy enough to put out the word, sit back and let the feeding frenzy take place. Several major league teams made offers and counter offers and the Tokyo Giants even got in on the act.

After three days of furious negotiations Harrelson signed with Boston. At a time when the major league average salary was $19,000 and virtually no one got anything other than a one-year contract, Harrelson inked a two-year deal and was given a whopping bonus reportedly between $50,000 and $75,000. The total package was worth $150,000. To put that in perspective, during the same 1967 season, Willie Mays, the most exciting player of the decade, made $105,000, Mickey Mantle, who was a walking Hall of Fame plaque, made $100,000 and Hank Aaron, who had 83 home runs and 236 RBIs the previous two seasons, made $92,000. Carl Yastzemski, on his way to a triple crown/MVP season and the highest paid player on the Red Sox, was down for a yearly wage of $50,000.

The leader of the players union, Marvin Miller, all baseball players, and everyone who ever dreamed of walking around with a briefcase and becoming a player agent watched the whole thing play out and a very large light bulb went off in their heads. That light bulb would eventually spell doom for baseball owners and their beloved reserve clause.

For the short term, the Red Sox did not quite get their money's worth. Harrelson had a few clutch hits in the last month, but ended up hitting just .200 with 3 home runs and 14 RBIs in 23 games. In the World Series lost to St. Louis, he was 1-for-13.

But the move to Boston worked out great for Harrelson. He blossomed in both Fenway Park and the city and became a cultural icon and a media magnet. He liked to thrill reporters with his ultra-mod wardrobe; think bell bottoms, cowboy hats, Nehru jackets, turtle necks, gaudy medallions around the neck and fuzzy boots. Not only that, but he could wear them with a straight face (no small accomplishment).

Being the sixties, any guy who worked that hard to stick it to the man was going to be popular. Fueled by a breakout season in 1968 in which, during the famous year of the pitcher, he hit 35 home runs and 109 RBIs and finished third in MVP voting, in addition to his off-field cultural appeal, he thrived. He later estimated that his off-field business interests brought in at least $200,000.

In April, 1969, however, he was unexpectedly traded to Cleveland. Harrelson, shocked and hurt, announced his retirement from baseball. He later reconsidered and turned in a 30 home run, 92 RBI season while hitting .221. It would be his last good year of baseball. An ankle injury in spring training the next year was the beginning of the end. Harrelson finished his playing career with pedestrian numbers of 131 home runs, 421 RBIs and a lifetime .239 average in parts of nine seasons. He dabbled in golf with little financial success, then returned to Boston and began a broadcasting career.

After being fired by Boston owner Haywood Sullivan in 1981 due to some unflattered remarks about the franchise, Harrelson took his act to Chicago. In 1986 he somehow convinced the owners of the White Sox to move him from the broadcast booth to the role of general manager without any experience. He took over a team that had won more games than any in the majors as recently as 1983 and, when he was let go at the end of the one year, the franchise was in shambles. Among his monumental moves that year was: 1) Moving 37-year-old future Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk to left field, 2) Trading future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver for Steve Lyons and 3) firing future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa.

Harrelson returned to the broadcast booth, where he has made his living since.

This year the 75-year-old Hawk Harrelson has hinted that his career may be coming to an end soon. No matter how you look at it, it's been a memorable ride.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Greater Love Hath No Man: Life Lessons Learned From College Baseball

I often think about my time as a college baseball player. Not because I did anything spectacular worth remembering, but because it helped define my self-image and taught me some valuable lessons, about myself and life. I certainly wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

Unfortunately, we weren't a very good team. We had some good players, and some great guys, but not  nearly enough to compete with the teams on our schedule. We were a Division II team from a college with fewer than 1,000 students but were sentenced by the joker who made up our schedule to play almost one-third of our games against Division I teams. So we received symbolic if not physical wedgies on the diamond on a rather routine basis.

And by a metaphysical quirk of which none of us were aware at the time, our home field at Kentucky Wesleyan College, in the midwestern town of Owensboro, Kentucky was the furthest geographical point on the North American continent from Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the location of the College World Series.

Our coach, David Stanton, was a good guy but was seriously overmatched by the multitude of duties that his job description at an underfunded small college entailed. These duties included, but were not limited to, equipment manager, trainer, groundskeeper, fundraiser, recruiter, van driver, dinner-time concierge on road trips, priest, mother, tutor, janitor and, on at least one occasion, bail bondsman.

Rumor had it that Coach used to be a wild man, but he had recently joined the church and he took his conversion seriously. He also took his role as an example for us impressionable young college kids seriously. He was never heard to utter a word any stronger than "crap." But surprisingly, this word served him very well. By subtle changes in tone and inflection, he was able to convey every possible human emotion with this one word. A dejected "crap" might render his opinion of an untimely error on our part. A louder, staccato "Crap!" might be heard after one of our guys smoked a line drive that was snagged by the opposing third baseman. And a full-throated, drawn out, "CRAAAAP!" could sum up about any catastrophe known to man.

Not only did Coach Stanton guard his every phrase for any indiscretion, he expected the same from us. He was known to pull a player or two from games after he heard them emit an unsavory word.

In my first season, I struggled with the nagging thought that I didn't quite belong. The fact that I was a pre-med/physics major did very little to give me street cred among the other players. I'll admit I was a nerd, albeit a nerd who loved baseball and possessed maybe a little skill. But the other players seemed much bigger and better than me, even if my percentage of base hits per at bat happened to be higher than some. So I usually kept my mouth shut and stayed in the background, content to watch, but not join in, the incessant ragging and revelry of the dugout and van.

One unforgettable day we were struggling, trying to finish off a miserable inning late in a losing game, but could not find the third out. If my memory is correct, it was well over 150 degrees and we had been in the field at least three hours that one inning alone.

Finally, I was relieved immeasurably when I watched the batter hit a routine ground ball to Dave Beitler, our shortstop. Beitler was our erstwhile leader and the most fundamentally sound player on the team. I can't seem to ever remember him letting a ground ball go through his legs, in practice or a game, until this time. As I was jogging in toward the infield from my left field position, not so much moving in to backup the play as fleeing the field to reach the safety of the dugout, I watched with surprise and horror as the ball trickled between Beitler's legs and rolled into short left field.

Have you ever thought something so forcefully that the words actually came out of your mouth by accident? I hadn't either; until that moment. I admit that I thought a very bad word that I normally would never admit to thinking in mixed company and, apparently, it did indeed come out of my mouth.

Very loudly.

I had no idea this had happened until I glanced over at our center fielder, Allen Buckles, who had a confused look on his face and held both hands turned up to the heavens in a gesture that could only mean, "What the crap?"

I was immediately possessed by a sense of shame--and dread. When the inning ended moments later, as I jogged slowly toward our dugout, I witnessed the sight of Coach Stanton, standing in front of our dugout with his hands on his hips, staring unmistakably in my direction.

He did not look happy.

I slowed my jog to a crawl, trying to delay the inevitable, all the while thinking, "Well, that's it. My career is over. He's going to kill me. And then he's going to kick me off the team. In front of everyone."

But as I neared the dugout, I was amazed--and relieved--to see him step to the side, directly in front of Dave Beitler. Coach Stanton leaned so close that the bill of his cap hit the bill of Dave's and said in his best disappointed-father voice, "Dave, I know it's hot and we've been out there a long time. And you feel bad about making that error. . .  [dramatic pause] . . . But when you say something like that so loud that everyone in the bleachers hears you . . ."

I suddenly realized that Coach thought that Dave had yelled that dastardly word. It made sense. The socially awkward, bookworm left fielder never said anything; of course he wouldn't be guilty of such an egregious sin. I began to understand that maybe my college baseball career was not going to end on this day.

Now, at this point I would like to pause and state that I manned up, nudged Beitler to the side, looked Coach square in the eye and confessed, "It was I, Doug Wilson, who yelled that atrocious word on the field of this Methodist-sponsored school," and threw myself on the mercy of the court, fully prepared to take whatever cruel punishment the crime certainly deserved.

I would like to say that. I really would. But I can't. Because I didn't.

Instead, I lowered my head, concealed my expression of relief--and maybe just a hint of a smile--sidled past them and slunk to the end of the bench like the miserable, spineless slug that I was.

To his credit, Beitler never said a word back to Coach. He stoically endured the long speech. I always felt that took remarkable self-control on Dave's part. Or something.

After Coach left the dugout to take up his third-base coaching spot, Dave walked past me in the dugout. I still had my head down, ashamed to look up. Dave uttered only a solitary word, dripping with as much sarcasm as possible:  "Nice."

I have often thought of that game and my admiration for Dave Beitler has grown with time. Looking back, I think he showed great leadership. He took a nag for me.

So if you read this Dave Beitler, wherever you are, I owe you one.

And if Coach Stanton or my mother reads it--I'll swear that it wasn't me. I made this up. It was Dave all along.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Johnny Bench and Bob Hope: Heavy Hitting in Vietnam

When it came time to support the troops of the United States military in the 20th century, there were two institutions that stood above all the rest: Bob Hope and Major League Baseball. Hope began making goodwill tours for overseas troops officially in 1941, but  there were unsubstantiated reports of a character who billed himself as Bob "Continental Army" Hope running around Valley Forge dropping one-liners about Washington's teeth and saying, "Hey, and how about that King George, he really thinks he's something . . ."

After the 1966 season, in response to a request by the Department of Defense, which was in desperate need of something to raise the spirits of the troops, baseball commissioner and former Air Force General William Eckert put together a heavy-hitting lineup that included Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Joe Torre and Stan Musial to tour U.S. outposts in Vietnam on a goodwill mission.

The trip was such a success that it became a regular thing for the rest of Eckert's tenure. 
After the 1967 season, it was Pete Rose and Joe DiMaggio. While sweating at a jungle firebase, Rose and DiMaggio poured water over each other's heads in a canvass shower, thereby giving Pete one of his favorite lines for the next five decades: that he was the only man ever to give the Yankee Clipper a shower.


In 1968 it was Ernie Banks, Pete Richert, Ron Swaboda and Larry Jackson.

These trips were universally popular with the military men as might be expected. They provided the young soldiers a small reminder of a better time and place and, at least for a short period, a short respite from their daily horrors.

Whereas the above trips were set up by a collaborative effort between Major League Baseball and the military, Johnny Bench's involvement was entirely different proposition. Late in 1970, Bob Hope personally asked Bench to accompany him and his troupe on their previously scheduled trip. Hope had been regularly doing holiday shows in Vietnam since 1964 ("the pentagon decided they had tried everything else, they might as well send me," he quipped). Bench, who had been planning to use the time for much-needed vacation and relaxation, quickly signed on. Bench was coming off the best overall season for a catcher in major league history: a Most Valuable Player, Gold Glove season in which he hit 45 home runs and 148 RBIs.

Johnny Bench was more than just the most talented 22-year-old catcher anyone had ever seen. He was a young man on the move. He had raised eyebrows when he told reporters--with a straight face--before 1970 that his goal was to have a million dollars before his thirtieth birthday. In those days in which only a handful of major leaguers made even $100,000 a season, and only after 15 years of first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame-caliber play, that was about as likely as a kid being able to hold seven baseballs in one hand.

But Bench had a plan. As precociously mature in front of a camera as he was behind the plate, Bench was in the process of carefully crafting a public image in which he would be a media crossover superstar and would be acclaimed as the most eligible bachelor among sports icons this side of Joe Namath. By the end of the 1970 season, he had already made the rounds on the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore shows. And he had plans in the works for a syndicated Johnny Bench variety/talk show that would start in 1971.

Hope's Christmas shows for Vietnam troops were filmed at various outposts and then put together for a prime-time television special broadcast in January. They were always a hit. They were especially a treat for the soldiers, so far from home over the holidays. Despite Hope's jokes (at one stop he told the crowd, "America's behind you fifty percent"), it was truly important for the morale of the troops, to let them know they were not forgotten. In between the one-liners poking fun at military life, officers and the so-called peace talks, he made them forget the war, if only for a few minutes.

Of course, for a healthy young male like Bench, the tour contained added benefit from the bevy of beautiful girls that Hope always took with him. The 1970 tour included singer Lola Falana, original Bond girl Ursela Andress, the reigning Miss World and the Golddiggers, a troop of ten beautiful leggy dancers in low-cut outfits from the Dean Martin show. Flying cramped up in a military transport plane with these fellow tour-members made the time pass much easier.

The first time Bench met Hope, the comedian asked him, “Hey, ya doin’ any power hitting?” While casting a sideways smirk around his famous ski-slope nose to let the baseball player know that he wasn’t talking about baseball, the 67- year-old Hope added, “If I were six months younger you wouldn’t have a chance.”
That became Hope’s standard greeting for Bench throughout the years: “Been doing any power hitting lately?”

The group traveled to England, West Germany, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Alaska. At Camp Eagle, opening date of the tour in Vietnam, 18,000 GIs showed up. Helicopter gun ships circled the nearby hills and infantry patrols were dispatched for a fully manned perimeter security.

Bench stood on stage next to Hope wearing a baseball cap backwards, holding a catcher’s mitt tucked under one arm. Hope had on a cocked Reds cap and held a century old mitt on his left hand.

Hope's opening line to Bench later incurred some mild wrath from military brass and the conservative press when he told him, “It’s a great sport, baseball. You can spend eight months on grass and not get busted.”

Bench showed surprising polish and decent comedic timing on stage with Hope.
JB: “I’m surprised you asked me to come with you.”
BH: “Why are you surprised?”
JB: “I’m not a girl.”

BH: “The Gold Diggers are mad about you, but you’re ignoring them. Why is that?”
JB: “They are adorable, but they’re all married.”
BH: “Who told you that?”
JB: “You did! Right after you told me to wear my catcher’s mask all the time. I almost starved to death.”
BH: “Well, I just wanted everyone to know who you are. It’s your identification.”
JB: “I guess you’re right. I notice you don’t go anywhere without your nose.”

BH: “Why do they call the catcher’s gear the tools of ignorance?”
JB: “That reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you. Why do they call them idiot cards?”

They spent Christmas day in Long Binh. Troopers hitched rides in three-quarter ton trucks from all over. Hope's group performed in a hastily arranged outdoor amphitheater on a hot sunny day. Over twenty-five thousand soldiers wearing floppy hats and sunglasses, many shirtless, sat around the stage. Some GIs climbed trees and telephone poles to get a better view of the stage. They hooted, whistled, clapped and cheered every joke, no matter how corny.

Hope mentioned the recent troop withdrawals, “It nice of you guys to stick around just for me. . . .This is my seventh time here . . .  I volunteered to come back. The Pentagon was very impressed. They said we once had a General like you, Custer.”

When the show ended with everyone singing “Silent Night” there were few dry eyes.

Afterwards, they toured hospitals and talked to wounded soldiers. To the men in hospital beds, Hope cracked, “Did you see the show or were you already sick?”

On the plane traveling back to Bangkok, the troupe was suddenly struck with the fact that they were also thousand of miles away from their families. Bench and Betty Lannigan, the press secretary for the tour, began singing Christmas carols. Within a few minutes, the entire plane was singing along.
For years Bench would always mention the tour as his most memorable Christmas away from home.
He spoke of how much the trip meant:  “Giving of something. It’s doing something freely without being pressed by anybody. . . . It meant a lot to me to be able to go over there and give just a little something to those guys who have given so much to all of us.”

Bench and Hope would become long-time friends. They exchanged Christmas cards for decades.

When Johnny Bench started his talk show the next year, Hope appeared as one of his first guests.

Bench would appear regularly in Hope’s golf classic for years. Bench later went on another Bob Hope tour in the 1990s during Desert Storm.

Bench would go on to numerous television appearances the next few years, among them a bizarre one-scene, overly serious gig as a guard shouting orders on Mission Impossible in 1971:

A tongue-in-cheek spot as a waiter at King's Island on the Partridge Family in 1973:

and numerous crooning attempts on Hee Haw (this one belting out "You Don't Mess Around With Jim"):

Overall, while Bench was able to pull these off, most astute observers agreed that he should continue to play baseball as long as he was able. But then, neither Jim Croce nor David Cassidy could ever hit a curveball.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Next Generation of Hall of Fame Baseball Players?

I realize that, outside of politics, the quickest way to bring indignant wrath down upon yourself is to discuss who belongs and who does not belong in the Hall of Fame. But just call me a glutton for punishment.

As the All-Star game approaches, and there is nothing else going on today, I thought now would be a good time to look at the Hall of Fame prospects for current players. I'll admit it is somewhat distressing to look at the current All-Star rosters. I know a lot of the best players in the game can't be there every year anymore due to the rule of having a player from each team, but it seems that we don't have the number of larger-than-life superstars who are walking Hall of Fame plaques that we used to.

I will use 1970 as a comparison for the simple reason that I was nine years old that year and every morning raced to get the paper to plow through each box score. And nothing is ever as good as when you are a nine-year-old fanatic.

In 1970 there were no less than eight active players who had already accumulated a resume that made them absolute no-doubt-abouters: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. These guys already had 500 home runs, 3000 hits, or both, or were still going strong and rapidly closing in on those numbers. If a meteor had struck the earth at the All-Star break of 1970, these guys would have had no trouble getting into the Hall of Fame (once it was rebuilt).

Also, Carl Yastrzemski, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal were only a few years away from having the career numbers to be considered sure things. There was little doubt that, barring a catastrophic career-ending injury (or some type of suspension), that these guys would make it.

In addition, the following players had notched five to eight good years and appeared to be well on their way: Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Billy Williams. Pete Rose and Willie McCovey.

These were stand-out players whose personalities and performance dominated every All-Star game for a decade or more. Of course, there were other guys in 1970 who were very good and later managed to compile Hall-worthy careers, but were maybe a notch below the above guys in day to day games--guys like Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan (although he was still in relative obscurity in Houston in 1970), Orlando Cepeda, Fergie Jenkins and others. And most of them still had a good decade of work to do.

While youngsters Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Rod Carew and Tom Seaver certainly seemed great, it was still too early to start forging their plaques. There were also a few cautionary-tales-in-the-making of why you shouldn't rush to enshrine young players, no matter how good they look. In 1970, Tony Oliva, Dick Allen, Denny McLain and Sudden Sam McDowell looked like sure things. But injuries and other problems would eventually keep them from their appointments in Cooperstown. Also, Ron Santo looked like a sure thing in 1970--not a guy who would have to wait 30 years--but we didn't know diabetes would shorten his career in only a few years.

Now look at current major leaguers [I will preface this with the statement that I am not taking into account any real or perceived use of performance enhancers--as several of these guys undoubtedly will have to battle when the voting begins--I am only talking about stats and actual performance; and all numbers stated are at the beginning of this season. Also, I am talking about guys who already have the complete resume needed for induction. Obviously, there are some guys who are good enough to make it, but have only had a few good years so far]:

Alex Rodriquez, Ichiro and Albert Pujols have clearly done enough to warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame. And also David Ortiz, with more than 500 home runs and a great portfolio of post-season heroics. If these four were involved in a tragic accident tomorrow and had to stop playing, they would be safe as far as the Hall.

Miguel Cabrera with ten seasons of hitting .300, four batting titles, 408 home runs, 2331 hits and a lifetime average of .321 is a very good bet at this point. And he's only 33. If he stays in shape until he is 38 or 39 he can compile numbers which would put him in the conversation for the short list of best ever.

But that's it for right now. Five guys; among all current major leaguers.

There are a few other borderline players, but they all have question marks. I'll start with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran. I lump these two together because they are so similar, even with their last names --almost so similar that they may suffer from the fact that some voters who don't pay much attention to the game (there are apparently more than a few of those still out there) might think they are the same guy.

Beltre, 37 this year, has 413 home runs, 1467 RBIs, 2767 hits, four Gold Gloves, and a lifetime .285 average. Beltran, 39, is nearly identical with 392 homers, 1443 RBIs, 2455 hits, three Gold Gloves and a lifetime .280 average.

Neither of them has ever been the dominant player in their league, but they have put together good, solid, long careers. These two guys probably deserve it; probably not on the first ballot, if that means anything anymore, which it doesn't. But their stats seem to put them in the Tony Perez class. Perez, who had to wait years to get in, had 379 home runs, 1653 RBIs, 2732 hits and a career .279 average. Also Perez had six division titles, five pennants and two world championships on his resume, which is always nice. Perez got in as an RBI man, and these two are Tony Perez, minus the postseason and minus about 200 RBIs--so not overly exciting.

Of the probables who need a few more good years, I think Robinson Cano is the most likely candidate. Cano, 33, has 252 homers, 1025 RBIs, 2014 hits and a .306 average and is a six-time All-Star. He will also get some extra credit for being a pretty good fielder (two Gold Gloves) at an infield position up the middle. Personally, I would like to see him get another 4 or 5 decent years to put him around 1400 RBIs and 2700 hits before I endorse him. Will he make it? He will be hurt by playing half of his games in Seattle, which is a tough power-hitting park. But considering some of the second basemen already in the Hall, I think Cano may only be one or two years away from being thought of as a sure bet.

Three years ago Joe Mauer would have been considered a lock. He was a great hitter and got premium points for catching and really had nine extremely good years. And he's a good guy, if that means anything. But time has not been kind to Joe Mauer. He hasn't been effective since 2013 and I think hamstringing his franchise by severely under-performing with a monstrous contract is hurting his reputation. Mauer, 33, has only 1697 career hits, 119 home runs and 755 RBIs. Despite six seasons over .300 and three batting titles, he never had much power (which makes him look even worse now as a first baseman/DH) and is quickly running out of gas and his career average of .314 will plummet the longer he tries to play. He will have a hard time getting 2000 career hits and 900 RBIs--just not very good numbers for the Hall of Fame. Mauer looks a little better than Thurman Munson, who has never gained much traction in voting. Munson, who died at 32, had 1558 hits, 113 home runs, 701 RBIs, a .292 average with one MVP and three Gold Gloves. Overall, I think Mauer may eventually get in, mostly on the strength of just how good he was in his early-to-mid twenties, but he may have to wait a few years.

Andrew McCutchen, 29, is a toolsy, good guy and some consider him to be one of the "faces" of the game. He has 151 home runs, 558 RBIs and a .298 average. His problem is that he doesn't really have a lot of power and we know that everyone's lifetime average drops at least 10 or 20 points the further they get in their thirties. He probably would need to play effectively until he's 37 or 38, which might put him around 350 homers (a stretch) and 1400 RBIs; not quite Andre Dawson numbers. That still doesn't look too good. So I would consider him borderline at best.

Adam Jones, 30, looks a lot like McCutchen, with a little more power and less average. He has 201 home runs, 678 RBIs and a .277 average, with four Gold Gloves. Like McCutchen, he needs 7 or 8 more solid years and he needs to keep his average from dropping too much.

There are a lot of guys who have had some good years, but injuries and age have rendered their chances very slim. Ryan Howard is essentially done with 365 home runs; he won't make it. Mark Teixeira, 36, is running out of steam and has only 394 home runs and 1254 RBIs--that wasn't enough for Rocky Colavito and it won't be enough for Teixeira. Similarly, Prince Fielder, 32, is showing signs that carrying around all that weight is wearing him down. He has 311 home runs, 984 RBIs. He had 3 home runs in 2014 and 23 in 2015. He doesn't have enough time left.

Adrian Gonzolez, 34, has 290 home runs and 1056 RBIs and Jose Bautista, 35, has 286 and 793. They don't have enough time left either.

Joey Votto had some good years for the Reds. But he's a die-hard on-base-percentage guy on a team that needed RBIs and OBP alone has never been enough to get a guy on the walls in Cooperstown. Votto is 32, with only 1226 career hits and 633 RBIs and is toiling for a miserable team. If he plays until he's 40, and has good years until then, that puts him around 2700 hits and 1400 RBIs max--sorry Votto fans, but there's no way that's going to happen.

Catchers are a slightly different breed as far as the Hall goes and, as stated for Mauer, they get a little leeway on their career stats due to the wear-and-tear from all that squatting. Buster Posey, 29, has had five good years and one MVP. He has 850 hits, 110 homers, 447 RBIs and a .310 average. He needs four more very good years to be Joe Mauer at 33. Yadier Molina, 33, has eight Gold Gloves, four .300 sesasons, 1477 hits, 101 homers and 663 RBIs and a .283 average. Right now, he's Thurman Munson with a few more Gold Gloves and not quite as good a hitter. Given that Molina is probably the best at his position of his generation, he'll probably make it some day.

Of course, there are a lot of great-looking young players; there always are. Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper all have Hall of Fame talent and have put up some good seasons. Manny Machado, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant look good. But they are much too young to start talking Hall of Fame yet. They need to stay away from injuries, bad attitudes and bad habits for another 10 or 12 years. If they do that, sure, they will waltz in. Unfortunately, as we have seen so many times in baseball history, a lot of things can happen. So I usually don't like to even start thinking Hall of Fame until a guy is around 27 or 28.

As far as pitchers, that is an all-together bleak prospect. Not that there aren't a lot of great pitchers out there--there are. Batters are striking out in record numbers and it's not just because they're not taking as many greenies as they used to. But I think we will eventually need to change our paradigm for what is considered immortal for a pitching career. It used to be that pitchers needed 250 or more career wins and at least 10 to 15 dominating years. Then Don Drysdale got in with 209 wins and lowered the bar. Because of the way pitchers are used now, it might have to eventually go much lower.

It's striking when you discover that the three top career wins men among active players are Bartolo Colon with 218, C.C. Sabathia with 214 and John Lackey with 169. That's it. Lackey, 37, has been solid at times, but I don't think anyone would even remotely suggest that he's a Hall of Famer. There are two major problems with modern pitchers as far as building Hall of Fame careers go: wins are getting very hard to come by for starters with the modern usage of bullpens and pitch counts, and it seems as though, in spite of improvements in medicine, we are seeing more and more injuries curtailing pitchers' careers. Nobody is asking for Old Hoss Radbourn to come back and throw 600 innings a year, but 200 innings and 15 wins seem to be getting harder and harder to find. At least not for 10-15 years in a row like we were used to.

Colon and Sabathia are close. Colon, 43, started this season 218-154 with a pedestrian career ERA of 3.96, although he pitched through some very pitcher-unfriendly years. Sabathia, 35, was 214-131 (an impressive .624 percentage) and 3.69. He has battled injuries and may be nearing the end. Of the two, I like Sabathia. I don't think Colon deserves to be in. But I could be wrong.

Clayton Kershaw is doing the best impersonation of Sandy Koufax that we have seen in five decades. Going in to this season, he is 28 years old with two pretty good and five superlative seasons under his belt. Other than his first year dabbling, he has never had an ERA above 3.00. His career stats are 114-56 with an ERA less than 2.50. Certainly these are Hall of Fame numbers. But it's not quite enough. Yet.

There have been two notable exceptions for pitchers as far as total number of career wins, Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean, and each of them, like Kershaw, were the dominant pitchers of their eras. Also--but this is a very big also--they each had that something extra: great post-season success along with an aura and charisma that transcended the game. And don't forget that Sandy looked great in a yarmulke. Kershaw has none of these intagibles. But Koufax (165-87, 2.76) and Dean (150-83, 3.02) had career numbers that are only about three seasons away for Kershaw. So, barring catastrophic injury, which is always a big if when talking about pitchers, I would say that Kershaw is nearly a certain thing and will be in a few years. And he may go down as one of the all-time greats.

After that, it is a crap shoot. Two years ago most people would have tabbed Justin Verlander as an automatic. Now he is very doubtful. He's 33 years old and is clearly slowing down. He is 157-97 with a career ERA of 3.50--a number that is rapidly going up. He was 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and 5-8 in an injury-plagued 2015 season. I think he really needs three more good seasons but he's not going to get them. Maybe if he hangs on for five or six years and crawls to 200 wins? Right now, I would call him possible, but doubtful.

Zack Greinke, 32, is 142-93 (.600) with a 3.38 ERA. He has had some very good years and a few mediocre ones. He clearly benefited from the Chavez Ravine mound and is having a hard time this year. He needs at least four seasons to get to 200 wins. If he lasts, maybe.

Felix Hernandez is 30, has a career record of 143-101 and 3.12 ERA. He's made 6 All-Star teams and has a Cy Young Award. Plus he has one of the best go-to nicknames in baseball (King Felix), no small accomplishment nowadays. He's close. It's well-known that he has toiled for some bad teams and I think voters will give him a little bit of leeway with career wins because of it. I would like to see him have another four decent years and end up around 200 wins; which is very possible baring injury. Between Greinke and Hernandez, I would go with Hernandez as far as HOF chances at this point. But they've both got a shot.

David Price and Max Scherzer are 30 and 31 years old respectively and have 104 and 105 career wins (for comparison, the above-mentioned Denny McLain had 110 at 26 years of age). They look good and had they pitched in the 1970s or 1980s would probably be locks. As it is, they will need to stay healthy and effective at least six or seven more years--an increasingly difficult task for hard-throwers these days.

Stephen Strasburg certainly has the kind of talent that can make a guy's name get thrown around in these types of discussion and is finally having the type of year everyone predicted. But he is still only 27 and had never won more than 15 games going in to this season. And with his history of injuries, there is too much uncertainty yet.

Jake Arrieta is untouchable right now, but remember he has only had one great year. He is 30 now and he didn't start doing well until he was 29. Hall of Fame voters do not have a good history of allowing guys in on the basis of a few extremely good years--which is why Roger Maris and Denny McLain aren't in. Even if Arrieta is canonized this year for leading the Cubbies to the promised land, he still needs to throw at least six more good years to get in on the Koufax and Dizzy Dean exception. Will he be able to do that? Who knows?

And that brings us to relief pitchers. This is really where the questions are. And the main question will be: what constitutes a Hall of Fame career for a relief pitcher now? Is it going to be 500, 600, 700 career saves? The specialty is changing so fast, and everybody seems to be piling up monstrous numbers of saves now. How do you separate them? What are the standards going to be?

And ERA is difficult to evaluate. A guy can be a one-inning closer, pitch perfectly in 54 games, then one day--maybe because of a bad batch of Cuban churitos--walk 3 guys and give up a home run and his ERA for the year goes up 0.67.

Of course there will be no doubt about Mariano Rivera, but what about modern relievers? I think a guy would need to be the dominant player in his role for at least 10 years. It seems that every season, at least half of the major league teams change closers. And they are all unhittable. Who's the best?

Francisco Rodriguez is 34, on his fifth team, in his 15th year and had 386 saves coming into the season. His career ERA is 2.71. Does he excite anyone? Joe Nathan is 41, in his 15th season, had 376 saves and a career ERA of 2.89. Jonathan Papelbon is 35 with 349 saves and a 2.36 ERA. Hudson Street, 32, had 315 saves and a 2.83 ERA. I'm not suggesting that getting three major league hitters out in the ninth inning is an easy task, but if current trends continue, there will be tons of closers over the next 20 years who will pile up 400 or 500 career saves with low ERAs. Are they all worthy--are they all better than Fingers, Gossage and Sutter--or is it just the nature of their role?

I think one problem we are seeing now for all players is that the 15-20 year careers are fading away. Guys are financially secure beyond their wildest dreams at 25. There is little incentive to play longer and unless a team is one piece away from a pennant run, little incentive for a team to pay, say 30 or 40 million a year for a past-his-prime guy when they can sign a younger player for much, much less.

So, who's going to be next up there? If you are keeping score at home, that's four definites: Ichiro, A Rod, Pujols and Ortiz (and two of those have a chemical cloud hanging over their careers that will need to be addressed by voters).

Three more probables: Beltre, Beltran and Cabrera (who, as I said, is only a year or two away from being a certain).

A few maybes: Sabathia, Mauer and Molina.

And then some guys who need a few more years. As far as the young players, remember that just a few years ago we had crop of guys named Longoria, Wright, Howard, Fielder, Uggla, and Utley who all seemed like sure-things, but injuries and other problems have rendered them yesterday's news. So don't get too excited yet. As Yogi would have said, you can't tell exactly how a guy is going to do in the future until he's already done it.

So there you have it. And remember: if I omitted or disrespected your favorite player, it was entirely unintentional and I am probably wrong. But feel free to hate me anyway.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A King's Ransom Worth of Memories: My Review of Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer

Ransom Jackson was a good hitting, two-time All-Star third baseman whose major league career spanned the 1950s. While his most productive years were spent with the Chicago Cubs, he also played on the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians. Jackson was a popular, easy-going player and the worst thing his critics ever had to say about him was that he lacked fire on the field.

The 90-year-old former major leaguer recently released his autobiography, Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer. It's a nice trip down memory lane for anyone who remembers the 1950s and a worthwhile book for anyone who wants to know a little about baseball back then--a light-hearted, anecdote-filled look at a bygone era in American sports.

Modern Little League parents who give up every single weekend of their kid's childhood for travel team tournaments--out of fear they will be left behind and not allowed to make the local high school team--will appreciate a simpler time in which an athletic kid who had never played high school baseball or football could stroll to a college football practice to watch friends, be invited to join the team by the head coach and end up starting in the backfield in the Cotton Bowl by the end of the season. And not only that, but later be invited by the same coach, who was also the baseball coach, to join the baseball team in the spring and go on to hit over .400 and lead the conference three straight years and end up signing a professional baseball contract. Those were the days.

For fans who grew up only knowing modern baseball millionaires, Jackson explains his contract talks after his first year, 1951; a season in which he hit .275 with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs. Cubs director of player personnel Wid Matthews offered him a $2,500 raise--up to a whopping $9,000. When Jackson reminded Matthews of his stats (including 8 more RBIs than Rookie of the Year Willie Mays), and mentioned that he felt he had value in the marketplace, Matthews answered, "There was one other team that wanted you and all they offered was a broken bat, a caved-in catcher's mask and an old ball. The best thing for you to do is get your things together and get down to spring training and try to make the team." Unable to argue with that kind of logic, Jackson quickly signed.

In 1956 when he was traded to the Dodgers, Jackson hoped for a bit of a raise since he was going to a contender and was fresh off two straight All-Star seasons. The Dodgers' Buzzie Bavasi had other ideas and sent him a contract for $20,000--the same he had made with the Cubs. When Jackson called Bavasi and reminded him of his accomplishments, Bavasi replied, "You did all that with the Cubs. You didn't do anything with the Dodgers." After a long pause, the big-hearted Bavasi finally said, "I'll tell you what. You sound like a nice young man. We'll give you a thousand-dollar raise." These were the type of negotiations for all ballplayers in the days of the reserve clause.

The 1956 trade to the Dodgers set Jackson up to battle an aging Jackie Robinson for the third base job. Jackson includes an entire chapter discussing his new teammates, the fabled "Boys of Summer," and particularly the talent, pride and class that Robinson showed.

A strong point of the book is the fact that Jackson's remarkable career provided him a chance to witness history and throughout the book he liberally drops names and stories of the famous and not-so-famous guys he played with and against. He talks of Cub teammate Chuck Connors, who after a brief major league career moved to Hollywood and became television's Rifleman. He also reminisces about Joe Garagiola, Ralph Kiner, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Duke Snider, coach Rogers Hornsby and manager Frankie Frisch. In addition, he played in the same backfield in college with NFL great Bobby Layne.

Jackson has no axes to grind, throws no one under the bus and is grateful for the opportunities baseball gave him. But he does not sugarcoat his opinions of why the Cubs couldn't win in the 1950s and the role owner P.K. Wrigley played in the lack of success.

The book is well-written and flows smoothly. Coauthor Gaylon H. White (The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels) contributed additional research and fact-checking and does a good job of keeping things organized into an easy and enjoyable read.

This is a fun book and definitely worthwhile for any baseball fan. The true treasure of the book is the ample supply of first-person anecdotes. Unfortunately, there are not many guys around from that glorious era. Jackson and White deserve our thanks for taking the time to share the priceless memories.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Forty Years Ago The Bird Had His Coming Out Party on a Monday Night

   Forty years. Does it seem that long? Not to those who witnessed it. They can remember the emotion--and fun--just like it was yesterday. June 28, 1976 Mark Fidrych, aka The Bird, had the biggest coming out party in the history of Monday Night Baseball. Fidrych was a local phenom in Detroit, but the rest of the country hadn't seen him yet. When the national audience tuned in that night, they were treated to a two-hour party, the likes of which had never been seen in a baseball stadium, and would never be repeated. By the next morning, the small town rookie pitcher would be the most famous man in America.
The following is an excerpt from The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych:

          They had never seen anything like it. 
          For a month stories had been leaking out of Detroit of a curious phenomenon—a 21-year-old rookie pitcher, who seemingly came out of nowhere, who was as wildly popular and flaky as he was talented. He not only filled stadiums and won games, he manicured the mound on his hands and knees and talked to the ball before pitching. His name was Mark Fidrych but he was known as The Bird because he looked like Big Bird, that large yellow curly-headed muppet that was all the rage at the time on the kid’s show Sesame Street.
            Baseball in 1976 was in dire straights. The reserve clause had been struck down and the Pandora ’s Box of free agency had been opened. A large number of players were openly talking of playing out their options at the end of the season and defecting—abandoning their teams for the highest bidder. The owners had locked out the players in spring training due to squabbles over the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Fans, disheartened by the greed which had taken over the game, were sick of hearing about lawyers, agents and astronomical salaries.
            In the seventies, baseball fans got to see two, and only two, nationally televised games each week: the traditional Saturday Afternoon Game of the Week and the newer Monday Night Game. There was no cable; no ESPN. That was it—two games a week. And everybody watched them. Some smart network guy decided that the late June match up in Detroit between the division-leading Yankees and the Tigers would be a good game to put on. This young bird guy was scheduled to pitch; might be interesting television. Interesting television indeed. That night the country was treated to nothing short of a cultural iconic event. Witnesses would forever remember it as part of the times--the baseball equivalent of the Beatles on the Sullivan show.
            The powerful Yankees would go to the World Series that October for the first of three consecutive years, but on this night, they were merely straight men: Washington Generals to The Bird’s Globetrotters. The 18 million viewers across the country were treated to The Bird’s full array of antics. They saw him hopping excitedly out of the dugout to congratulate teammate Rusty Staub after a first-inning home run. They saw him sprinting on and off the field between innings, like he couldn’t wait to get there, then couldn’t wait to get back and tell everyone how much fun he had. They saw him rush over to shake hands with fielders after routine plays. Twice the cameras showed him patting down the mound, carefully arranging the dirt. “That’s not a member of the Detroit ground crew you see,” said the announcer the first time. “That’s Mark Fidrych.”

            The Bird’s exuberance and joy were plainly evident. This guy was actually enjoying himself—having fun playing baseball, like we all used to when we were kids. And, what’s more, the camera repeatedly caught him between pitches, standing on the mound, his hands together with the ball in his glove held out in front of his face—with his lips moving. He was talking. Talking to the ball. The total package was just too much. The unexpected pleasure of it all mesmerized both the television audience at home and the announcers in the booth and they were swept up in the emotion of the night as it built to the finish.

            When the Yankees came to the plate in the top of the ninth, down 5-1 with The Bird still on the mound, the fans were delirious. The atmosphere was electric. “I’ve seen a lot of ball games played and I’ve caught a few,” the announcer said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher this keyed up in the ninth inning of a ball game, or all through the ball game. You’d think this guy would be running out of gas by now, but he is just starting to heat it up.”
            “He’s giving me duck bumps,” said the other announcer.
            With the fans on their feet, screaming, “Let’s go Mark,” the kid mowed down the Yankees in the final inning. After the last out, an easy ground ball to second, Fidrych ran all over the field, shaking his teammates’ hands. He grabbed the umpire’s hand and pumped it. Who shakes hands with an umpire? “And the Tigers act like Fidrych has just won the seventh game of the World Series,” the announcer intoned.
            And then, the most remarkable thing of the whole evening occurred: nobody went home. Even after the players had filed through the dugout into the clubhouse and the field was empty, nobody went home. The fans remained standing, screaming, “We want The Bird, We want The Bird.” Five, ten minutes after the game had ended, the camera panned through the stadium and it was still completely filled with standing, screaming fans. In 1976, the curtain call was not in vogue in baseball—but it was about to make a dramatic comeback.
            Fidrych was pushed out of the dugout by his teammates and the stadium exploded. He stood in his socks, shrugging, smiling and flapping his arms. He waved to the crowd, tipped his cap, then covered his head with both hands like an embarrassed third grader who has just realized everyone is looking at him. With incredible, unmistakable joy on his face, he shook hands with his teammates and tried to get them to come out with him, but they stayed in the dugout, understanding that the moment belonged to Mark. He leaned over the roof of the dugout and shook hands with fans. He shook hands with the cop standing next to the dugout. Who shakes hands with a cop? Announcer Bob Uecker grabbed the kid for an interview and introduced him to the nation. Mark’s face glowed. He radiated enthusiasm and happiness. As he talked about the game he sounded like a ten year old describing his first trip to Disney World. “You’ve got a home here,” said Uecker nodding to the fans who were still cheering madly. “I love it,” the kid gushed. And the best part of it all was that it was real. It wasn’t an act.
This one evening would ignite an unprecedented frenzy which would play out over the next three months. The nation would fall in love with The Bird’s enthusiasm, spontaneity, genuineness, celebrated goofiness and the fact that he was happy doing it all for the major league minimum of $16,500 a year. Fans and the media simply would not be able to get enough of him. He would achieve a level of cross-over popularity which has not been approached by a baseball player since. He would appear on the covers of Sport, Sports Illustrated, Baseball Digest, The Sporting News, The New York Times Saturday Magazine, Parade Magazine and would become the first team-sport athlete ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone. He would be the starting pitcher in the All-Star game and dominate the media coverage of that event like few ever had before. He would bring almost a million people to stadiums around the country in his 29 starts that season (single-handedly outdrawing three teams) and, more importantly, would cause millions more, young and old, to become baseball fans. He would be held up as an example of all that was right with baseball, the savior of the game, the answer to the greed which had threatened the national pastime. A rival manager would state, “Babe Ruth never created this much attention on his best day,” and no one would doubt him. The commissioner of baseball would coin the term “The Mark Fidrych Syndrome” as a symbol of hope for future generations of baseball fans. In his meteoric streak across the consciousness of America, Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych would become as much of a 1970s pop cultural icon as Evil Knieval, Saturday Night Fever, Jaws, the Six-million dollar man, and, dare we say it, Fonzie before he jumped the shark.
 That would all come later, however. On this night, as the fans and The Bird celebrated the moment, the announcers, try as they might, seemed at a loss to find the correct words to sum up what they were seeing. But they all agreed on one thing: they had never seen anything like it.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Is Jake Arrieta a Robot? Possible Bad News For Cubs Fans

With the news of Jake Arrieta's first loss after 20 consecutive wins last night, I was reminded of one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, The Mighty Casey, which originally aired in 1960. Similarities? You be the judge. Submitted for your approval: 

The camera pans across a deserted, weed-covered baseball field . . .

"What you're looking at is a ghost, once alive but now deceased. Once upon a time, it was a baseball stadium that housed a major league ball club known as the Hoboken Zephyrs. Now it houses nothing but memories and a wind that stirs in the high grass of what was once an outfield, a wind that sometimes bears a faint, ghostly resemblance to the roar of a crowd that once sat here. We're back in time now, when the Hoboken Zephyrs were still a part of the National League, and this mausoleum of memories was an honest-to-Pete stadium."

"Mouth" McGarry, played by Jack Warden, is the long-suffering, broken-down manager of the Hoboken Zephyrs, a ball club that hasn't won the pennant in decades and is threatened with extinction. The hopes of McGarry and the Zephyrs are suddenly lifted when Casey, a mysterious pitcher, shows up for a tryout. Casey possesses both a peculiar lack of emotion and an unhittable fastball. Casey is accompanied by his personal trainer, Dr. Stillman, who we later learn, built Casey in a lab as a very life-like robot.

Casey's fastball indeed proves unhittable as he plows through the league, becomes a sensation, and lifts the team into the pennant race.

Just when "Mouth" has the long-desired pennant in his sights, tragedy strikes. Casey is beaned and an exam by a doctor reveals that he is a robot. After other teams complain, the National League president quickly declares that no one can play baseball who is not human.

Undaunted, Dr. Stillman returns to the lab and installs a real heart into Casey's chest, thereby making him human.

Alas, while the heart allows Casey to conform to the rules, it also brings an unintended complication: it gives Casey a conscience. He soon refuses to throw his heater anymore--worried that by striking out his opponents, he is hurting their feelings and careers--and instead serves up a diet of gopher balls that would make the Cincinnati Reds bullpen proud.

Without Casey, the Zephyrs return to their customary place in the cellar and the franchise is doomed. In the end, the disheartened Dr. Stillman gives McGarry the blueprints that he used for Casey and retires from the baseball business. McGarry, however, is anything but sad--he wonders what it would be like to have an entire team of Caseys . . . 

"Once upon a time, there was a major league baseball team called the Hoboken Zephyrs, who, during the last year of their existence, wound up in last place and shortly thererafter wound up in oblivion. There's a rumor, unsubstantiated, of course, that a manager named McGarry took them to the West Coast and wound up with several pennants and a couple of world championships. This team had a pitching staff that made history. Of course, none of them smiled very much, but it happens to be a fact that they pitched like nothing human. And if you're interested as to where these gentlemen came from, you might check under 'B' for Baseball - in The Twilight Zone."

While many people thought this episode was fiction it was, in fact, completely based on reality. And the team on the west coast was of course the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax. But nothing like it had occurred in major league baseball for five decades. Until last year when a previously-unknown pitcher showed up in Chicago, pitching like nothing human.

Unfortunately for Cubs fans, it appears that their Casey, Jake Arrieta, has suddenly developed a heart. He lost his first game after 20 consecutive wins.

Cubs fans can only hope that he returns to his bloodless ways and leads them to the promised land.