Monday, December 29, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part VII--Walt Dropo)

Walt Dropo's nickname "Moose" was derived from his hometown of Moosup, Connecticut. The moniker appropriately described his physical stature as well. Standing six-foot-five and weighing 220 pounds, the brawny first baseman burst upon the scene in 1950, leading the American league with 144 RBIs and 326 total bases. He was the first Red Sox player to capture Rookie of the Year honors, beating out Yankee great Whitey Ford by a wide margin. Though Dropo never came close to matching his rookie numbers at any other point during his career, he established a remarkable record that still stands during the 1952 slate. Traded to the Tigers in early-June of that year, Dropo made the Red Sox regret their decision when he strung together 12 consecutive hits over a two-day span. The streak began on July 14 at Yankee Stadium. Dropo went 5-for-5 (all singles) off of two different Yankee hurlers. The following day, he went 4-for-4 in the opening game of a doubleheader at Washington. In the nightcap, he established an all time record when he gathered a triple, double and single in his first three at-bats. After popping out to catcher Mickey Grasso in the seventh inning, he delivered a 2-run single in the top of the ninth. Dropo finished the '52 campaign with a .276 batting average and 97 RBIs--the second highest total of his career. In all, he spent thirteen seasons in the majors, averaging 12 homers and 54 ribbies per year.

Dropo was not the only major league player to collect 12 consecutive hits. In 1938, Red Sox third baseman Pinky Higgins broke a long-standing record of 10 straight safeties set by Jake Gettman in 1897 and tied by Ed Konetchy in 1919. Higgins needed 14 plate appearances to gather 12 hits (he walked twice during the skein). In recent times, two major leaguers have come moderately close to matching the all time mark shared by Dropo and Higgins. In 1992, Bip Roberts of the Reds hit safely in ten straight at-bats. In 2006, Matt Diaz of the Braves turned the same trick. Five years later, second baseman Josh Magee of the Greenville Astros assembled a streak of 12 consecutive hits. Since the Appalachian League is several levels below the majors, Magee's accomplishment went largely unnoticed.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part VI--Dale Long, Don Mattingly and Ken Grifffey Jr.)

Not all of the great home run records are held by guys named Bonds, Aaron or Ruth. For one week in 1956, Dale Long of the Pirates established himself as one of the most prolific sluggers in history, drilling homers in eight consecutive games. Long was a highly competent first baseman who spent time with six teams between 1951 and 1963. Though his career numbers are somewhat unremarkable, he will forever be remembered for his '56 power surge. The Pirates won 7 of 8 games during Long's home run barrage, which began on May 19 and continued through May 28. A crowd in excess of 32,000 at Forbes Field gave Long a standing ovation after he lifted a Carl Erskine pitch into the left field stands to set a new major league record. The Pirates had rewarded Long for his efforts earlier in the day by offering him a salary increase. Long finished his greatest season ever with career-high marks of 27 long balls and 91 RBIs. He never came terribly close to matching those numbers in any other season and, despite the Pirates' promise of a pay raise, he was traded to the Cubs in May of '57. To date, Long's record has never been broken though he shares it with two other prominent players--Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr. 

Mattingly is fondly remembered as the heart and soul of the non-contending Yankee clubs of the late-'80s/ early-'90s. Among the smoothest fielding first basemen in history, he captured nine Gold Gloves during a fourteen-year career that was cut short by chronic back trouble. He enjoyed his peak seasons at the plate between 1984 and 1986, leading the league in multiple offensive categories. Though his numbers dropped off slightly in '87, he still managed to set the all time record for grand slams in a season (6--a mark that was later tied by Travis Hafner of the Indians). In July of '87, Mattingly found a place beside Dale Long in the record books with homers in eight consecutive games. Mattingly's numbers during the streak were even tackier than Long's, including 21 RBIs and a pair of grand slams. Though he remained a steady presence in the Yankee lineup for several more years, he never collected more than 23 homers in a season after 1987.

Unlike the men he shares the record with, Ken Griffey Jr. was a productive long ball hitter throughout his career. In addition to hammering 630 career homers (placing him sixth on the all time list), he won ten straight Gold Glove Awards between 1990 and 1999. If his name remains unlinked to steroids over the next twelve months or so, he will almost certainly end up as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016. "Junior's" streak of eight consecutive games with a homer came in July of 1993. The Mariners had a somewhat anemic offense that year, ranking eleventh in batting average and tenth in runs scored. Consequently, 5 of Griffey's 8 homers during the skein were solo shots. His 45 round trippers represented twenty-eight percent of the team's total home run output that year. In 1997, Griffey tied the all-time mark for homers in a season by a center fielder with 56. He duplicated the feat the following year.   

Monday, December 15, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part V--Mark Buehrle and Yusmeiro Petit)

The pages of baseball history are cluttered with extraordinary pitching feats. In terms of sheer dominance, few come close to matching the performances turned in by Mark Buehrle and Yusmeiro Petit. During their record-setting scoreless innings streaks (discussed at length in my previous post), Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser yielded more than two dozen hits apiece. Neither was as commanding as Petit when he retired 46 consecutive batters in 2014 and Buehrle when he mowed down 45 straight hitters during the 2009 campaign.

A big man at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, Petit is currently property of the San Francisco Giants. Serving as a swingman, he routinely throws around 95 miles per hour. Though his lifetime numbers are rather pedestrian at best (19-26/ 4.76 ERA), he has shown sporadic flashes of brilliance during his seven years in the majors. The Venezuelan right-hander came within one out of a perfect game in September of 2013, coughing up a ninth inning hit to Eric Chavez of the Diamondbacks. Spending roughly equal portions of time as a starter, middle reliever and closer this past season, Petit etched his name into the record books. His incredible run began on July 22 in a shaky start that saw him retire the last batter he faced. He followed with six perfect relief appearances spanning 12.1 innings. After retiring the first eight Colorado hitters during a August 28 spot-start, he gave up a double to opposing pitcher Jordan Lyles and an RBI single to Charlie Blackman. Comparing his record-setting 2014 performance to his near-perfect game the year before, Petit said: "I was more relaxed this time. I concentrated a little bit more. I told myself I couldn't let the opportunity present itself and fall short again." Petit was a major contributor to the Giants' World Series run this year, logging 12.1 scoreless postseason innings before making an ineffective relief appearance in Game 6 against the Royals.

While Petit's record involved a patchwork of scattered appearances, Mark Beuhrle set the major league standard in consecutive starts. Unlike Petit, Buehrle has more than a dozen good seasons under his belt. Known as one of the fastest working pitchers in the majors, he has been known to finish games in under two hours--an oddity nowadays. Buehrle has five effective pitches in his arsenal, including a cut fastball and laboriously slow change up. He had everything working for him in 2009, when he mowed down 45 consecutive batters, breaking the record set by Jim Barr of the Giants in 1972. Barr's record (41) was tied by Buehrle's White Sox teammate Bobby Jenks in 2007.

Buehrle's impressive run began on July 18 versus the Orioles when he retired the last batter he faced. He followed with a perfect game on July 23 at U.S. Cellular Field. It was the eighteenth perfecto in major league history and an exciting one at that. In the top of the ninth, leadoff hitter Gabe Kapler his a towering fly ball to left center field. DeWayne Wise made a gravity-defying catch to rob Kapler of a homer. Only five batters worked the count full against Buehrle that day. In his next start, the brawny southpaw picked up right where he had left off, setting down the first 17 Minnesota hitters he faced. Buehrle remembered his record-setting moment fondly. "At the start of the inning, I looked down to the bullpen at Bobby [Jenks} and he's just laughing at me. When I got the one or two guys out, he threw his hat on the ground, acting [mad]. Then the whole bullpen started clapping for me." In the sixth inning, the Twins finally scored a run. They added 4 in the seventh to knock Buehrle out of the game. After his crowning achievement, Beuhrle went 2-7 with a 4.78 ERA. He finished the 2009 slate at 13-10/ 3.84.   

Monday, December 8, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part IV--Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser)

In my last post, we discussed Walter Johnson's streak of 55.2 consecutive scoreless innings, which is still an AL record. It stood as the all time mark in both leagues until Don Drysdale surpassed it in 1968. Drysdale, a towering presence on the mound at 6-foot-6, was one of the most feared pitchers of his generation. He led the league in hit batsmen every year from 1958-1961 and currently ranks among the top twenty of all time in that category with 154. The ornery moundsman once remarked that he started every game angry and stayed that way until it was over. He had very little regard for opposing batters. St. Louis catcher Gene Oliver drilled a deep homer off of Drysdale one day at Dodger Stadium and, after standing idly at home plate admiring his shot, Oliver called loudly to the Cardinals dugout: "Hey, batboy--come get the bat!!" When he came to the plate again, Drysdale deliberately plunked him with a fastball. As Oliver lay on the ground in obvious pain, Drysdale shouted: "Hey, batboy--Come get Oliver!"

Drysdale secured a place in baseball history during the '68 campaign when he assembled a streak of 58 consecutive scoreless innings. In addition to breaking Walter Johnson's all time mark, he eclipsed Carl Hubbell's NL record of 45.1 scoreless frames. "Big D's" streak began with a shutout against the Cubs on May 14. Five straight shutouts followed. Drysdale had a little help along the way. On May 31, his streak stood at 44 innings when the Giants loaded the bases with no outs. Dick Dietz ran up a 2-2 count before Drysdale nailed him in the elbow with a wayward slider. The streak should have ended there, but umpire Harry Wendelstadt invoked a rare ruling, declaring "no pitch" on the grounds that Dietz had made no attempt to get out of the way. Drysdale was able to pitch out of danger, extending his remarkable run. Against the Phillies on June 8, he lasted through four and two-thirds scoreless innings before a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Howie Bedell scored Tony Taylor. At one point during the game, Philly manager Gene Mauch asked home plate umpire Augie Donatelli to check Drysdale for contraband. It had been proposed by some (most emphatically by Giants manager Herman Franks) that Drysdale had been throwing spitballs during the streak. When his remarkable run was over, the big right-hander commented to reporters: "I think all good things have to come to an end...There's always somebody around who can break a record. This gives everybody a target to shoot at. I wish him all the luck and will be the first to congratulate him if I'm around to do it."

Drysdale was indeed alive and kicking when his record was broken in 1988--fittingly by another Dodger. Tall and gangly at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Orel Hershiser looked more like a school teacher than an athlete. He went undrafted out of high school and didn't capture any serious attention from scouts until he earned All-Metro Athletic Conference honors while pitching for Bowling Green University in 1979. He became a full-time pitcher in Los Angeles during the '84 campaign, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting. Hershiser received the nickname "Bulldog" from manager Tom Lasorda, who felt that the brainy right-hander could stand to toughen up a bit. An early scouting report alleged that Hershiser had poor control, a weak fastball and threw a mechanically flawed curve. None of that information was applicable in 1988, when he reset the all time mark for consecutive scoreless innings.

Hershiser began his historic run against the Expos on August 3. He followed with five straight shutout wins. Facing the Padres on the last day of the season, he added ten more scoreless innings. Though his regular season record would end shortly into his first appearance of the '89 campaign, his string in '88 continued into the postseason as he shut down the Mets for 8 innings in Game 1 of the NLCS. Interestingly, he had a little help from an umpire while going for the record--just as Drysdale had in '68. During a September 28 start, arbiter Paul Runge made a controversial interference call at second base on a run-scoring double play to keep Hershiser's bid alive. The streak officially ended on April 5, 1989, when the Reds broke through for a run with two outs in the first inning. After Todd Benzinger delivered an RBI single, the crowd in Cincinnati razzed Hershiser loudly.

Hershiser's streak has not been seriously challenged in recent years, though three different hurlers have assembled scoreless strings in excess of 40, the most recent being Clayton Kershaw in 2014.   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part III--Jack Coombs and Walter Johnson)

Right-hander Jack Coombs got noticed by Connie Mack's brother while playing for Colby College in New England. The studious Coombs majored in chemistry and had every intention of making a career out of it until the A's signed him in 1905. Five years later, he turned in one of the most spectacular seasons in major league history. Relying heavily on his fastball and drop curve, he tossed twelve shutouts and won 18 of 19 starts during a three-month span in 1910. He held opponents scoreless in six straight September appearances, assembling a streak of 53 consecutive shutout innings. In the first game of a September 25 doubleheader, he relieved Hall of Fame staff mate Eddie Plank in the ninth inning. He dueled with spit-baller Ed Walsh of Chicago for six scoreless frames and started the winning rally himself. With the streak at 52, manager Connie Mack sent Coombs back to the mound as a starter in the second game. Coombs held the Sox scoreless in the first, but yielded 3 runs in the second, putting an end to his record-setting string. The previous mark had been set by "Doc" White of Chicago, who recorded five consecutive shutouts in September of 1904.

After collecting a league-leading total of 31 regular season wins in 1910, Coombs polished off his most remarkable campaign with three complete game victories over the Cubs in the World Series. He guided the A's to a second world championship the following year with a 28-win effort. Slowed by illness and injury over the next several seasons, he gradually faded from the majors. He made his last appearance in 1920.

 Unlike Coombs, Walter Johnson's star burned brightly for a very long time. Ty Cobb once commented that Johnson's fastball "looked about the size of a watermelon seed and it hissed at you as it passed." Sportswriter Grantland Rice compared it to an express train, giving birth to the enduring nickname "The Big Train." Johnson himself was well aware of his ability to throw the ball with alarming velocity, remarking to pressmen one day: "You can't hit what you can't see." 

The broad-shouldered right-hander (listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds) came from humble beginnings--the son of a poor Kansas farmer. He spent the majority of his career on the woeful Washington squads of the Deadball Era. With minimal run support, he set a record for 1-0 losses (26). By the time the Senators climbed into contention, Johnson was nearing the end of his playing days. He remained effective late into his career, capturing his third and final triple crown at the age of thirty-six. When he retired in 1927, he was the game's reigning strikeout king. He still holds the all time mark for shutouts.

One of Johnson's crowning achievements came in 1913, when he broke Coombs's scoreless innings record. After giving up a first inning run to the Yankees on opening day, he held opponents at bay for the next 55.2 frames. On May 14, Johnson joined the team in St. Louis, having taken a long train ride from his home in Coffeyville, Kansas. He complained of a headache during the game. Despite the malady, he turned in three shutout innings before the Browns finally got to him. Outfielder Gus Williams doubled to left field and second baseman Del Pratt followed with an RBI-single. After the Senators had opened up a 9-1 lead, manager Clark Griffith allowed Johnson to rest, replacing him with left-hander Joe Boehling. Johnson's 1.14 ERA in 1913 remains one of the lowest ever recorded. His 36 victories represented forty percent of the Senators' total win share that season.

The accomplishments of Coombs and Johnson are magnified by the conventions of the era. There were no official relievers in those days. Starters worked on short rest and were expected to go the distance. Most teams used a bullpen by committee format. Since Johnson was so durable, he was often called upon in relief. During his record-setting 1913 season, he made 36 starts and 11 appearances out of the bullpen. Coombs started 38 games and made 7 relief appearances during his historic run. In addition to carrying a heavy workload, both hurlers faced some of the toughest batters in baseball history, including Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker--collective holders of thirty-three offensive records.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part II--Willie Keeler and Pete Rose)

Long before Joe DiMaggio attained immortality in the Bronx, a diminutive outfielder from Baltimore set the bar for him. "Wee Willie" Keeler stood just five-foot-four and weighed one hundred and forty pounds. He spent several of his prime seasons with the infamously rough and tumble Orioles squads. The O's were notorious for fracturing rules and Keeler was no exception, keeping extra baseballs hidden in the high grass at Oriole Park in case the ones hit to right field eluded him. Appearing at the top of the batting order, Keeler led Baltimore to three consecutive first place finishes. His most remarkable offensive season came in 1897.

After collecting a hit in his last at-bat of the '96 slate, he hit safely in the first 44 games of the '97 campaign, breaking a record set by "Bad Bill" Dahlen of the Chicago Colts. Keeler's streak came to an end on June 19 against the Pirates. The pitcher that afternoon was Frank Killen, a left-hander who won 30 games in a season twice during his career.  There was far less hullabaloo about streaks and records in those days. In fact, a Pittsburgh Press correspondent saw fit to mention Keeler's accomplishment only briefly, remarking: "Until today, Keeler had not missed a hit or more in each game this season." That was it--just one sentence! Had the reporter known that Keeler's 45-game hitting streak would stand as a National League record for more than a century, perhaps he would have waxed poetic about it.

Keeler's record was seriously challenged by NL contenders only a handful of times during the twentieth century. In 1945, Tommy Holmes of the Braves assembled a 37-game hitting streak. In 1978, Cincinnati's Pete Rose tied the single-season mark. Arguably the greatest player outside the Hall of Fame, Rose got his nickname "Charlie Hustle" from Yankee southpaw Whitey Ford, who resented the way Rose sprinted to first base after receiving a walk during an exhibition game. Rose was known for his intensity on the field, sliding headfirst into bags and bowling over anyone who stood in his path. During a playoff loss in 1973, he fought with lightweight shortstop Bud Harrelson, solidifying his reputation as a bully. Three years earlier, his ethics  had come into question after a vicious collision with catcher Ray Fosse during the All-Star Game.

Playing with unbridled ferocity, Rose hit safely in 44 straight games during the '78 campaign, mirroring "Wee Willie's" 1897 feat. On August 1, he was stopped in his final at-bat against change-up specialist Gene Garber of the Braves. Garber remembered the game vividly many years after the fact, commenting: "It was the most nervous I'd ever been in my life because I was scared to death I might walk him. I'd be a horses' rear end and never live it down if I walked him to end the streak, so that made the situation a lot more difficult than it really was."

The right-handed Garber was summoned in relief of Dave Campbell, who had taken over for rookie Larry McWilliams. McWilliams had walked Rose in his first plate appearance then robbed him of a hit an inning later with a nifty grab on an ankle-high liner hit back through the box.There were more than 31,000 fans on hand--an unusual sight at Fulton County Stadium considering that the Braves were non-contenders. By the time Rose came to the plate in the ninth inning, Atlanta had opened up a 16-4 lead. There was nothing at stake except the streak. Hitless in four previous trips to the dish, Rose faced Garber with 2 outs and nobody on. With the count at 2-and-2, he swung through a change-up, ending his incredible run. Rose didn't realize that the post-game interview was live and vented his frustration to reporters. Asked how he felt about the streak being over, he barked: "At least now I don't have to deal with you jerks anymore." He later complained that Garber had pitched to him "like it was the seventh game of the World Series." Responding to the comment years later, Garber commented: "For him to say that was a compliment to me. That was my hope, to be perceived as playing the game that way."

Garber spent nineteen years in the majors and recorded more than 200 saves. He lost 108 games in relief--a major league record. To date, he is the only hurler with 200 saves who never made an All-Star appearance.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part I--Joe DiMaggio)

Joe DiMaggio's famous 56-game streak began on May 15, 1941, when the Yankee center fielder went 1-for-4 against White Sox southpaw Eddie Smith. For the next two months, "Joltin' Joe" hit safely in every game. He logged a total of 223 at-bats during the remarkable skein, compiling a .408 batting average with 35 extra-base hits and 55 RBIs. When he began his assault on the record books, his Yankees were sitting in fourth place, five and a half games behind the Indians. After game #56, the Bombers had climbed into first and held a six-game lead over Cleveland. 

The streak, which inspired a popular big band song performed by Les Brown, was endangered on several occasions. In games #30 and #31, "The Yankee Clipper" was helped considerably by New York's official scorer Dan Daniel. In each game, Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling botched easy grounders hit by DiMaggio. Daniel counted both as base hits, prompting scorn from a handful of sportswriters. A few days later, Joe D. was hitless entering the seventh inning against the Browns. St. Louis manager Luke Sewell ordered pitcher Bob Muncrief to walk the Yankee clean-up man, but Muncrief refused. DiMaggio expanded the streak to 36 games with a single.

On July 17, the Yankees were scheduled to play the Indians at Cleveland's League Park. Anticipating a large crowd, the Indians moved the Thursday night game to Municipal Stadium--a cavernous venue that could accommodate up to 78,000 fans. Though the park was within walking distance of the visiting team's hotel, DiMaggio opted to share a taxi with pitching ace Lefty Gomez. Recognizing his famous passenger, the cabbie said to DiMaggio: "I've got a strong feeling that you're going to get stopped tonight." (Many versions of the quote exist) Gomez was highly perturbed by the comment while DiMaggio just brushed it off. 

As it turns out, the driver was on to something. A fixture at third base for the Indians, Ken Keltner was among the most talented glove men in the majors. With wide range and a strong arm, he led the American League in assists four times while capturing three fielding titles. After the events of July 17, 1941, he would forever be remembered as the man who brought DiMaggio's illustrious record to a dramatic end. In the first inning, DiMaggio smashed a hard bouncer to third. Keltner, who was shaded toward the line, backhanded the ball and threw to first baseman Oscar Grimes to beat DiMaggio by a step. 

"Ground's still wet," DiMaggio squawked in the dugout. "Footing's not the best"  

In the fourth inning, the Yankee slugger drew a walk, prompting a chorus of boos from the crowd. When he came to bat again in the seventh, the score was tied at one apiece. On the first offering from left-hander Al Smith, DiMaggio sent another hot shot to Keltner at third. Again, Keltner made a spectacular back-handed grab as DiMaggio struggled to find his footing. He was out by a full stride. After the Yankees had rallied for three runs in the eighth, Jim Bagby Jr. came on in relief. DiMaggio had homered off of Bagby on June 15, extending his streak to 28. With one out and a runner on first, DiMaggio rapped a 2-1 pitch to Lou Boudreau at short. It took a wicked hop, but Boudreau stayed with it, starting a 6-4-3 double play. Just like that, "The Streak" was officially over. 

The Indians arranged a police escort for Keltner and his wife as they left the stadium. The following day, DiMaggio picked up right where he had left off, hitting in sixteen more games. He ended up reaching base safely in 74 consecutive contests (a record broken by Ted Williams in 1949). Fifty years later, Keltner and DiMaggio celebrated the famous hitting streak by making several public appearances together. "I'm glad I'm remembered for something," Keltner remarked. "I didn't feel like a villain. Somebody had to do it. I'm glad he hit them to me."              

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hall of Fame Voting 2015: Who's New?

It's time for my annual Hall of Fame predictions. This year's new crop should make the balloting pretty interesting!

Notable holdovers from last year include Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. If last year's voting is any indication of the direction we're headed in, then either Biggio or Piazza could be enshrined in 2015. Biggio missed by a hair's breadth, capturing 74.8% of the vote last year. Piazza received a 62.2% share--up 5% from the previous election. Bonds and Clemens (members of the steroid class) both finished in the 30th percentile and are long shots for the Hall regardless of their accomplishments.

There are several players approaching the end of their fifteen-year candidacy, all of whom seem to be falling out of favor with the Hall of Fame electorate. Former Tigers' pitching ace, Jack Morris, was eliminated last year after peaking at 67.7% of the vote in 2013. Other long-term veterans on the ballot include Don Mattingly, Alan Trammel and Lee Smith. Mattingly, whose prime years were cut short by chronic back trouble, will get his last shot this year. Trammel (an immensely talented shortstop in an era dominated by shortstops) is entering his fourteenth year of eligibility while Lee (the all time saves leader until 2006) has hung in there for the past twelve seasons. Each experienced a significant decrease in support last year and can be realistically eliminated as contenders.

So who's new this year?
There are a slew of candidates who will undoubtedly fail to meet minimum requirements for future eligibility. Those players include Jarrod Washburn, Joe Crede, Paul Byrd, David Weathers and Ron Villone (among others). But this year's rookie class includes at least one first-ballot Hall of Famer. With more than 300 wins and 4,000 strikeouts, I would be shocked and disappointed to see Randy Johnson get overlooked. I'm a bit skeptical about newcomer Pedro Martinez. Though he owns one of the highest winning percentages in baseball history, I'm not sure that his era of dominance extended long enough. It will be interesting to see how members of the Cooperstown electorate feel. Other players I believe will get moderate consideration in their first year of eligibility are John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield. Sheffield played for a long time and put up excellent power numbers despite suffering an ongoing string of injuries. Smoltz collected more than 200 wins and 150 saves--a unique combination in the modern era.

Predictions: Just for Fun
 There is no doubt in my mind that Craig Biggio belongs in the Hall of Fame. He was a sparkplug for numerous Astro squads that didn't contend along with several that did. With 3,000 hits, four Gold Gloves and seven All-Star selections, I believe that 2015 will be his year. I think that Randy Johnson will be making an acceptance speech in Cooperstown this coming summer as well. Since there were multiple players enshrined last year, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find Mike Piazza among the 2015 inductees. Though he had some shortcomings behind the plate, he was among the greatest offensive catchers in history. Bagwell--a two-time 30/30 man with a stellar lifetime on-base percentage of .408--will have to wait along with Smoltz and Martinez.



Monday, November 3, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know ('80s-'90s)

Willie Hernandez (1984 AL MVP)
Hernandez began his pro career with the Cubs in 1977. During his six seasons in Chicago, the team never placed higher than third. He pitched moderately well at times, but failed to make a name for himself until a trade sent him to Detroit in 1984. The Tigers had a banner season, capturing the AL pennant then cruising to a Series victory over the Padres. Hernandez played a major role, leading the league in closing appearances while posting a spectacular ERA of 1.92. He yielded just 2 runs in six postseason appearances and was on the mound when the Tigers clinched their first world championship since 1968. Hernandez used an assortment of screwballs, sinking fastballs and curves. At one point during his career, he converted 32 consecutive save opportunities--a record since broken. After receiving Cy Young and MVP honors in '84, he spent the next five seasons with the Tigers. He saved 88 games and posted a 27-28 record in that span. A native of Puerto Rico, he reverted to his birth name of Guillermo in 1987. When his ERA soared to 5.74 in '89, he fell from the major league ranks. He continued in the minors until  '95.

Willie McGee (1985 NL MVP)
Originally signed by the Yankees, McGee spent portions of ten seasons in the minors. He had an even longer major league career, playing for four teams over an eighteen-year span. McGee combined speed with clutch-hitting during his prime. He finished among the top ten in stolen bases four times between '83 and '88. He was among the Cardinals' top RBI producers several times in that same stretch. McGee enjoyed his greatest all around season in 1985, earning an All-Star selection, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. He led the NL with 216 hits, 18 triples and a .353 batting average. He was a resounding choice for MVP that year. Though McGee's averages dropped considerably over the next several seasons, he bounced back with a second NL batting title in 1990. The feat was somewhat unusual as he played 125 games for the Cards that year before an August trade landed him in Oakland. He hit just .274 for the A's, but since his NL average remained at .335, he was declared the batting champion by a somewhat narrow margin over Eddie Murray of the Dodgers. McGee had some good seasons after 1990, but never came close to matching his MVP numbers. He retired in '99 with a .295 lifetime batting average. During his career, he was a quiet, unassuming player who was hesitant to draw attention to himself.

George Bell (1987 AL MVP)
Bell was discovered by Blue Jays' scout Epy Guerrero while playing in the Dominican Republic. Guerrero is noted for having signed a slew of great Latino ballplayers, among them Cesar Cedeno, Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado. Bell had a breakthrough season with the Blue Jays in 1984, finishing among the league leaders in extra base hits. He would remain a regular in the Toronto lineup for the next six seasons. Playing alongside speedster Lloyd Moseby and slugger Jesse Barfield in the Blue Jays outfield, Bell saw his club rise to contention, going all the way to the ALCS in 1985. His most productive season came in 1987, when he led the league in RBIs (134) and Total bases (369) while hitting .308. At season's end, he was named AL MVP. A 1991 traded sent Bell to the Cubs. He ended up with the White Sox the following year. He had several good slugging seasons after his MVP year, reaching the century mark in RBIs twice. When his batting average fell to .217 in '93, he disappeared from the majors. He served as a minor league hitting coach for several years. In 2013, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.  

Kevin Mitchell (1989 NL MVP)
As a teenager, Mitchell ran with an urban street gang and was allegedly shot several times. The Mets rescued him from the streets when they signed him as an amateur free agent in 1980. Known as a malingerer and a toxic clubhouse presence, Mitchell did not endear himself to management in any of the cities he played for. But he was periodically brilliant on the field. Serving mostly as an outfielder, his best offensive span came between 1988 and 1990, when he averaged 33 homers and 99 RBIs per year. He enjoyed his signature campaign in '89, leading the Giants to a World Series berth while pacing the NL with 47 homers, 125 RBIs and a .635 slugging percentage. He stayed hot in the postseason, hitting .323 with 3 homers and 9 RBIs in nine games. Injuries and unpleasant incidents began to pile up after 1989 and Mitchell played for five different teams between '92 and '98, which was his last season in the majors. Anyone interested in specific details of Mitchell's misadventures can pick up a copy of my book: Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities.   

 Terry Pendleton (1991 NL MVP)
Pendleton was selected by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the '82 amateur draft. He ascended quickly through the minors and made his big league debut in '84. It was a promising one as he hit .324 in 67 games and finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting. A slick-fielding third baseman, Pendleton led the NL in putouts and assists five times apiece. He won a fielding title in 1989 and captured three Gold Gloves. After helping St. Louis to a pair of World Series appearances in 1985 and '87, he joined the Atlanta Braves. A vital member of various star-studded rosters, he made frequent appearances on the October stage. From 1991 through 1996, he played in four National League Championship Series and three Fall Classics. Pendelton put up his best regular season numbers in 1991, leading the NL in hits (187) and total bases (303) while capturing a batting title. The MVP vote was extremely close, but he edged out Barry Bonds of the Pirates. Pendletton followed his MVP effort with another solid season, leading the NL in hits for the second year in a row. Injuries and age began to take their toll and he was finished in the majors after 1998. He has served as a Braves hitting coach since 2002.

Ken Caminiti (1996 NL MVP)
Ken Caminiti is perhaps best remembered for the way his life ended in ruin. After admitting to polysubstance abuse during his playing days, he died of a drug overdoes in a run-down section of the Bronx in New York City. He was suffering from an enlarged and weakened heart--a condition that was significantly affected by steroid use. In 2002, Caminiti admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his MVP season of 1996. He also confessed to abusing alcohol and painkillers earlier in his career. Just months before his untimely death in 2004, he tested positive for cocaine. Caminiti played for fifteen seasons, spending time with four different clubs. His best all around year came in '96 when he slammed 40 homers and drove-in 130 runs for the Padres. He finished sixth in the league with a .326 batting average and also captured a Gold Glove (the second of three he would receive at third base during his career). Caminiti's numbers gradually tapered off and, in 2001, he posted a substandard .228 batting mark. He was finished as a player after that. Teammate Trevor Hoffman praised Caminiti's determination, commenting: "He worked his ass off. But he obviously had help. His pain threshold was higher than most. He had things that probably would have crippled a lot of people."  

Monday, October 27, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (1960-1974)

Dick Groat (1960 NL MVP)
Groat could have chosen basketball as a career if he had wanted to. He was an All-American at Duke University,winning the UPI National Player of the Year award in 1951. He began his pro baseball career with the Pirates the following season. Without the benefit of any minor league experience, he hit .284 in 95 games and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting. At season's end, he returned to Duke to complete his degree and ended up being selected in the first round of the NBA draft. He played in 26 games for the Fort Wayne Pistons, averaging 11.9 points per game. His season ended prematurely when he was drafted into the Army. Upon receiving an honorable discharge in 1955, Groat considered pursuing both sports, but ultimately chose hardball over the hardwood.

With the addition of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski in the mid-50s, the Pirates climbed into contention after several years of mediocrity. Groat held his own, combining solid defense with timely hitting. In 1959, he earned his first All-Star selection. He followed with his signature season, winning a batting title, a World Series ring and an MVP Award. Although he was an offensive no-show in the Series that year, he was widely praised for his leadership. His RBI single in the eighth inning of Game 7 helped ignite a historic Pirate rally that sank the powerful Yankees. Groat had some good seasons after 1960, getting named to three more All-Star teams before calling it quits in '67. In later years, he ran a golf course outside of Pittsburgh and served as a commentator at Duquesne University basketball games.

Ken Boyer (1964 NL MVP)
 Boyer came from a family of fourteen children. He was one of three siblings who made it to the majors. Cloyd--the oldest--had the shortest career, spending five seasons in the Show as a pitcher. Clete--the youngest--enjoyed great success with the New York Yankee teams of the late-'50s/ early-60s. Together, Clete and Ken combined for 444 lifetime homers, placing them third on the all time list among big league brothers. Only the Aarons and DiMaggios surpassed that total.

Ken began his big league career with the Cardinals in 1955. He blossomed into one of the finest defensive third basemen in the National League, capturing five Gold Glove Awards. He enjoyed his peak offensive years from '56-'64, gathering no fewer than 23 homers and 90 RBIs on eight occasions during that span. His finest hour came in 1964, when he earned his sixth All-Star selection and only World Series ring. At season's end, he was named NL MVP. Slowed by back trouble the following year, Boyer's numbers began to taper off. He played for three different clubs between '66 and '69 then retired. He took over as Cardinals manager in '78, but was fired just 51 games into the 1980 campaign. Two years later, he died of lung cancer. His number (14) was retired in St. Louis.

Denny McLain (1968 AL MVP)
Originally property of the White Sox, the Tigers obtained McLain in the 1963 minor league draft. For five seasons, he was among the best pitchers in the American League, capturing two Cy Young Awards and earning three All-Star selections between 1965 and 1969. In '68, he became the last pitcher of the modern era to win 30 games during the regular season. He added another win in the World Series against the Cardinals, finishing with 32.

McLain's SABR biography describes him as "cocky, arrogant, reckless." He had a habit of pulling his cap down so low that he had to tilt his head back to see the signs from his catchers. He treated batters to a steady diet of fastballs and hard sliders, employing a "Here it is--hit it if you can" strategy. Off the field, he was compared to a high school wise guy. He flew his own airplane and sometimes played the organ at Tigers games. McLain had little success after 1969 as the strain of averaging nearly 300 innings per season over a three-year span began to take its toll. Traded to the Senators in 1971, he compiled an 18-36 record before retiring from baseball two years later. McLain could not keep his personal life in order after baseball. He was sent to prison twice for charges of fraud and embezzlement. In 2008, he failed to show up in court to testify in a foreclosure and eviction case. He ended up in jail.

Boog Powell (1970 AL MVP)
Powell's unusual nickname came from his father, who used the word "Boog" as shorthand for the term "Bugger." After graduating from Key West High School in Florida, Powell quickly ascended through the Orioles minor league ranks. Called to the majors in September of '61, he would spend thirteen full seasons at first base in Baltimore. A big man at six-foot-four, 230 pounds, he was little more than adequate with a glove. His primary value to the club was on offense. Between 1963 and 1970, he smashed 25 or more homers five times while gathering 80 or more RBIs on six occasions. He had his shining moment in 1970, when he finished among the AL top five in at least half a dozen categories, among them homers, RBIs and total bases. He continued to hit well in the World Series against Cincinnati, driving in 5 runs with a  double and a pair of homers. It was Baltimore's only championship of the decade.Powell played in four Fall Classics with the Orioles altogether, coming out on the winning end twice.

After another solid effort in 1972, Powell's numbers tapered off. Traded to Cleveland in '75, he bounced back with 27 homers, 86 RBIs and a .297 batting average. It was his last excellent season. After his retirement, Powell appeared in a series of TV commercials for Miller Lite Beer. He currently owns Boog's Barbeque, an eatery located on Eutaw Street at Camden Yards. A second restaurant is located in Ocean City.

Jeff Burroughs (1974 AL MVP)
Burroughs got his start in the Senators organization, but would spend his most productive years with the Rangers and Braves. A right-handed outfielder with some power, he had a breakthrough season in 1973, launching 30 home runs--second in the league to Reggie Jackson of the A's. The following year--at just 23 years of age--Burroughs captured MVP honors on the strength of his 60 extra-base hits and league-high 118 RBIs. He won the vote by a wide margin over four different members of the championship A's, among them Jackson and Catfish Hunter.

Burroughs struck out at an alarming rate over the course of his career, but drew a fair amount of walks as well. After hitting just .226 in '74 and .237 the following year, he was traded to Atlanta. He reached a career high for homers in '77, going deep 41 times. That total was eclipsed by George Foster of the Reds, who became the first player to hit more than 50 long balls in a season since Willie Mays accomplished the feat in '65. After receiving his second All-Star selection in 1978, Burroughs became a rather ordinary player. He never hit more than 16 homers or drove-in more than 56 runs in any season from 1979 to 1985, which was the year he retired. He coached his son Sean's team to consecutive Little League World Series berths in 1992 and '93. Sean later ascended to the majors with the Padres. As of 2014, he was playing for Bridgeport of the Atlantic League after compiling a .278 batting average in portions of seven big league seasons.      

Monday, October 20, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (1950s)

Jim Konstanty (1950 NL MVP)
Though Konstanty had only one brilliant season, he has been widely credited with legitimizing the role of the closer. Konstanty was a multi-sport star at Syracuse University, graduating with a degree in Phys Ed. While pitching in the minors, he doubled as a high school coach. He had a slider and a curve in his arsenal, but didn't gain success until he mastered the palmball. After appearing in 53 games for the Phillies in '49, he became the club's official closer. 1950 was Konstanty's biggest year. He led the league in appearances (74) and saves (22) while gathering 16 wins. No National League reliever had ever appeared in as many games or registered as many victories. From July 23 through August 29 of that year, he yielded just 1 run in 17 assignments, bringing his ERA to a season-low 2.14. The 1950 Phillies were dubbed "The Whiz Kids" on account of their youth and hustle. They won the pennant by a slender margin over the Dodgers then met the Yankees in the World Series. Philly manager Eddie Sawyer tried to ride Konstanty's arm to a championship, designating him the starter in Game 1. Konstanty pitched brilliantly in the unfamiliar role, scattering four hits over eight innings against the likes of Johnny Mize, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. But New York's starter, Vic Raschi, was even better that day, spinning a complete game shutout. Konstanty made two more appearances in the Series, but was not as effective as the Yankees completed a sweep. The bespectacled right-hander hung around the majors for several more seasons, but never matched the success of his MVP campaign. He later served as athletic director at Hartwick College for several years.

Bobby Shantz (1952 AL MVP)
At five-foot-six, 138 pounds, Shantz was one of the smallest pitchers in major league history. He weighed even less when he joined the Army out of high school in 1944. After serving in the Philippines for sixteen months, he returned to the states, where he began a brief and successful minor league career. He led the Western League in wins and strikeouts during the 1948 campaign and was called to Philadelphia the following year. The A's weren't very good in those days and neither was Shantz initially. In his first two seasons, he went 14-22 with a 4.16 ERA. Then in 1951, he suddenly found his groove, winning 18 games. In his MVP season of '52, the diminutive southpaw posted a 24-7 record and 2.48 earned run average (third best in the league). Even more impressive is that he finished 27 of his 33 starts. In a shortened All Star Game, he struck out all three batters he faced, including Jackie Robinson and Stan Musial. There would be no more extracurricular activity for Shantz that year as the A's finished in fourth place. After several rocky seasons, it became evident that Shantz lacked the durability to be a long term starter. He hung around the majors as a swingman until 1964, winning eight Gold Glove Awards. He had several successful seasons with the Yankees, accruing a 30-18 record between 1957 and 1960. His 2.45 ERA was tops in the American League in '57. In six World Series appearances with the Yankees, he met with mixed success. The Bombers lost both of the Series he appeared in.

Hank Sauer (1952 NL MVP)
Sauer did not become a full time player until he was thirty-one years old. Painfully slow afoot, he lacked range in the outfield and was somewhat of a liability on the base paths. For several seasons, he made up for those shortcomings with his bat, cracking 30 or more homers six times and reaching the 100 RBI plateau on three occasions. He had a pair of three-homer games during his career. When Sauer was named MVP in '52, it set off a storm of controversy since he was a one-dimensional player for the fifth place Cubs. No one was more surprised than Sauer himself, who commented: "I thought maybe the other guy, Roberts, would win it." The Roberts he was referring to was none other than Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who won 28 games for the Phillies that year. Sauer had a handful of good offensive seasons after '52. In all, he spent portions of fifteen seasons in the majors with four different clubs. He later scouted for the Giants.

Al Rosen (1953 AL MVP)
Rosen was of Jewish ancestry. A stint as an amateur boxer taught him not to back down from a fight. He stood up to several opponents who directed anti-Semitic slurs at him and sacrificed three full seasons during World War II while serving in the U.S. Navy. In a 2010 documentary, he commented: "There's a time when you let it be known that enough is enough...You flatten [them]." Carrying the nickname of the "The Hebrew Hammer," Rosen languished in the Indians' farm system for several years waiting for an opening at third base. He was twenty-six years old when he attained full time playing status. A right-handed hitter with power, he enjoyed his peak seasons between 1950 and 1954, leading the league in homers and RBIs twice apiece. He was named to four straight All-Star teams. In his MVP season of '53, he paced the circuit in runs scored (115), homers (43) and RBIs (145). He narrowly missed a Triple Crown, finishing one percentage point behind Mickey Vernon of the Senators with a .336 batting average. Rosen had a good follow-up season though he missed a significant amount of playing time with a broken finger. The Indians won 111 games that year and were heavily favored to win the World Series over the Giants. Rosen was limited to 3 games and couldn't prevent his club from being swept as Cleveland hitters managed an anemic .190 collective batting average. Rosen's career ended rather abruptly after that as injuries began to take their toll. He suffered from back trouble and reportedly broke his nose more than a dozen times. After retiring as a player, he worked as a stockbroker. He later served as President of the Yankees for two seasons. He was General Manager of the Astros for six years and the Giants for eight more.

Don Newcombe (1956 NL MVP)
Newcombe was solidly built at six-foot-four, 225 pounds. Before joining the Dodgers, he played for the Newark Eagles and was named in a newspaper poll as one of the greatest Negro Leaguers of all time. He was certainly no flash in the pan at the major league level, dominating the NL for three straight seasons before losing two full campaigns to military duty. He struggled in his '54 return, but bounced back with a stellar 20-5 record the following year. 1956 was Newcombe's signature season as he jumped out to a 15-1 start before the All-Star break. He finished the season at 27-7, leading the league in winning percentage for the second consecutive year. He was the first player to receive Cy Young and MVP honors in the same season. After that, he began a downward spiral, exiting the majors after the 1960 slate. In 1962, he played for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan, serving as a first baseman and outfielder. He had always hit well for a pitcher with a .271 lifetime batting average to prove it. After his playing days, he worked in the Dodgers front office. He struggled with alcoholism but later cleaned himself up and turned his life around.  

Jackie Jensen (1958 AL MVP)
Jensen became infamous for his debilitating fear of flying--an affliction that ended his major league career. Long before then, he was the University of California's "Golden Boy," setting a record for rushing yards as the school's starting running back. He was equally skilled at baseball and ended up being signed by the Yankees in 1949. Though he struggled for playing time in New York, he eventually became a regular in Washington and Boston. Between 1954 and '59, Jensen finished among the top ten in homers, RBIs and total bases every year. He reached a career zenith in '58 with 122 ribbies and 66 extra-base hits. The MVP vote was close, but Jensen beat out pitcher Bob Turley of the Yankees by a handful of votes. As Jensen began to suffer panic attacks on airplanes, he ended up traveling to numerous games in his own car. The pressure was too much and he retired in 1960. He made a comeback attempt the following year, but was not the same player. He coached baseball at the Universities of Nevada and California during the 1970s. He suffered fatal heart attack in 1982.     

Monday, October 13, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (The WWII Era)

Bucky Walters (1939 NL MVP)
Walters began his career as a two-way player, splitting time on the mound and at third base. He served primarily as an infielder until 1936, when he made 33 starts for Philadelphia. The Phillies lost 100 games that year and Walters led the league in that category. On the bright side, he paced the circuit with 4 shutouts. In those days, the Phillies played their home games in a dilapidated old bandbox known as the Baker Bowl, which was an offensive paradise. Walters' earned run averages suffered every year. Traded to Cincinnati in June of 1938, he completely turned his career around. In 1939, he was the best pitcher in the majors, claiming a triple crown with 27 wins, 137 strikeouts and a 2.29 ERA. His performance not only helped the Reds to a World Series berth, but it earned him NL MVP honors. During the war years, Walters was among the most successful pitchers in the majors. From 1939-1944, he posted a 121-73 record with a 2.67 ERA. Extremely durable, he logged no fewer than 246 innings per season. When the war ended, he steadily lost his effectiveness, retiring after the 1950 slate.

Frank McCormick (1940 NL MVP)
Considered tall for the era at six-foot-four, McCormick was one of the most productive first basemen in the majors during WWII. Spending most of his career with the Reds, he led the league in hits from 1938-1940. Though he captured MVP honors in 1940, he actually had a better all around offensive campaign in '39, hitting .332 with 128 RBIs and 99 runs scored. His average "slipped" to .309 during his MVP year though he did pace the NL with 44 doubles. McCormick rarely struck out, averaging just one whiff per 30 at-bats during his career. He was also extremely reliable, playing in 652 consecutive games at one point. Exceptionally skilled with a glove, he won four fielding titles at first base. During his thirteen years in the big leagues, he was named to eight All-Star teams. After retiring in 1948, he managed in the minors, guiding the Quebec Braves to a league championship in 1949. He also coached for the Reds in '56 and '57.

Dolph Camilli (1941 NL MVP)
The left-handed Camilli was a free swinger who led the league in strikeouts four times. But he also drew a fair share of walks, topping the 100 mark in that category on four occasions. He began his career with the Cubs in 1933 then spent portions of fours seasons at first base with the Phillies. Traded to Brooklyn in 1938, he became one of the most productive players on the club. Appearing most often as a clean-up man, he hit .345 with the bases loaded during his career and .285 with runners in scoring position. He earned his only All-Star selection in 1941--the same year he claimed the NL MVP Award with a league-best 34 homers and 120 RBIs. Camilli had one more great season left in him after that, slamming 26 long balls while driving in 109 runs during the '42 campaign. Traded to the Giants in 1943, he refused to report, retiring to his cattle ranch in California. He returned for a curtain call with the Red Sox in 1945. When his playing days were over, he coached and managed in the minors. He later scouted for the Yankees and Angels.

Mort Cooper (1942 NL MVP)
Cooper kicked around the Cardinals' minor league system for portions of six seasons, finally earning a call-up in 1938. Before the U.S. entered World War II, the big right-hander compiled a 38-28 record with a 3.56 ERA. As many of the game's most talented players were called to military duty, Cooper emerged as one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League. From 1942-'44, he won no fewer than 20 games per year while leading the league in shutouts twice. His finest effort came in 1942, when he notched a 22-7 record with a 1.78 earned run average. He led the Cardinals to three pennants and two world championships in a three-year span. Cooper pitched with bone chips in his elbow for years. He once told a reporter that he performed better when he was in pain. The condition finally took its toll in 1947, when his record fell to 3-10 with the Giants and Braves. He finished his career with the Cubs in 1949.

Spud Chandler (1943 AL MVP)
With a lifetime mark of .717, Chandler is baseball's all time winning percentage leader. It certainly didn't hurt that he played for the most successful club in the majors. During his eleven-year career, spent entirely with the Yankees, the Bombers won seven pennants and six World Series (including a run of four straight championships that began a year before Chandler's major league debut). Chandler lost portions of several seasons during the 1930s with a balky right elbow. When he was healthy, he was a fiery competitor and an intimidating presence on the mound. He finished among the top ten in hit batsmen three times, leading the league in 1940. His best season came in 1943, when he led the league with 20 wins and a 1.64 ERA. Additionally, he paced the loop in complete games and shutouts. The performance earned him MVP honors. After serving in the Army from April of '44 through September of '45, he was a bit rusty when he returned. He regained his form the following year with a 20-8 record and a 2.10 ERA (second best in the AL). In his final big league season of 1947, he made 17 appearances and led the American League with a 2.46 earned run average. He served as A's coach for two seasons and later scouted for the Indians and Twins.

Marty Marion (1944 NL MVP)
Marion received a fair amount of Hall of Fame consideration, peaking at forty percent of the vote in 1970. An MVP in 1944, he finished among the top ten in balloting two other times. Marion spent his prime years with the Cardinals, earning wide acclaim for his defensive excellence. With his long arms and wide range, he picked up the nickname of "The Octopus." He led the league in fielding percentage three times and finished among the top five in putouts and assists for ten straight seasons. A childhood accident left him with a right leg that was shorter than the other along with a trick knee that could be easily dislocated. The affliction kept him out of World War II. Marion was named to seven All-Star teams during his career. A competent but not exceptional hitter, he compiled a .267 batting average with a personal-best 63 RBIs during his MVP year. When his playing days were over, he served as manager of the Cardinals, Browns and White Sox. He later owned the Houston Buffs of the American Association.  

Phil Cavarretta (1945 NL MVP)
A quietly consistent performer, Cavarretta remained with the Cubs for twenty seasons and served as player/manager for three of those campaigns. He lost his job during spring training of 1954, when he told owner Philip K. Wrigley that the club would finish near the bottom of the pack that year. Fired for his "defeatist attitude," he moved across town to close out his career with the White Sox. Cavarretta helped the Cubs to three pennants and hit .317 in 17 World Series games. He enjoyed his finest season in 1945, when he led the league with a .355 batting average and a .449 on-base percentage. On the strength of those numbers, he was named NL MVP. Cavarretta was a steady hitter throughout his career, maintaining an average of .270 or better in nineteen of his twenty-two major league seasons. Following his retirement in 1955, he coached for the Tigers and Yankees. He also worked as a hitting instructor for the Mets.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (1911-1929)

There have been three versions of baseball's Most Valuable Player Award. In 1910, business mogul Hugh Chalmers chose to promote his automobile company by presenting a brand new Model 30 to the player with the highest batting average. It ended up being the most controversial race in history as members of the St. Louis Browns deliberately allowed Cleveland's star second baseman Napoleon Lajoie to beat out several bunts on the last day of the season. The ruse was designed to rob the tremendously unpopular Ty Cobb of the batting crown. When league officials got word of the plot, they blacklisted Browns manager Jack O'Connor from the majors along with pitching coach Harry Howell. Though Cobb was declared the winner by a narrow margin, cars were awarded to both contenders.

In 1911, Chalmers rebooted the award, appointing a committee of baseball writers to choose the "most important and useful player to [his] club and to the league." The selection was made every year until 1915, when Chalmers terminated the promotion on the grounds that it wasn't generating enough revenue for his company.

It would be several years before postseason accolades were reinstated. In 1922 and '23, a group of eight sportswriters chaired by Chicago Tribune scribe James Crusinberg voted for the best player in the American League. In 1924, the NL followed suit. Referred to as the League Awards, the tradition continued in both circuits through the 1929 campaign.

In 1931, the Baseball Writers Association of America created the Most Valuable Player Award, which has endured to the present day. Each year, the top players in both leagues are rank ordered from one to ten with points being assigned to each rank. Though the number of sportswriters casting ballots has varied a bit over the years, there have been no significant changes to the selection process.

It should come as no surprise that baseball's MVP awards (in whatever form) have been dominated by the all time greats. Of the many players selected during the twentieth century, most are in the Hall of Fame or have a legitimate shot at getting there. The others fall into two distinct categories: minor stars or flashes-in-the-pan. Over the next several posts, we will take a look at these odd men out and learn what happened to them after the greatest seasons of their careers.

Frank Schulte
 With the colorful nickname "Wildfire," Schulte was definitely no flash-in-the-pan.He patrolled the Cubs outfield for portions of thirteen seasons, leading the NL once in triples and twice in homers. A productive hitter in the postseason, he appeared in four World Series for Chicago, gathering 26 hits--7 for extra bases--in 21 contests. He was on the last Cubs team to win a World Series in 1908. Known for his defensive excellence Schulte enjoyed his finest offensive campaign in 1911. He was the first player to hit 4 grand slams in a season and the first to have at least 20 doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases. That feat went unmatched until Willie Mays pulled it off in 1957. After claiming the 1911 Chalmers Award, Schulte's offensive stats became more ordinary. He was traded to the Pirates in 1916. While wrestling playfully with teammate Duster Mails, he broke two ribs and was never the same afterward. He hit just .214 in 1917, prompting another trade to the Phillies. He finished his big league career with the Senators in 1918.

Larry Doyle
Known for his cheerful disposition, Doyle earned the nickname "Laughing Larry." He once commented: "Gee, it's good to be young and a Giant." It certainly was as Doyle helped the club to three straight World Series appearances (all losing causes) from 1911-1913. He was an offensive star in the 1911 Fall Classic, leading New York regulars with a .304 batting average. He scored the winning run in Game 5, but never touched the plate according to umpire Bill Klem. Had the A's tagged him, he would have been out. Doyle won the Chalmers Award in 1912 though he didn't lead the league in any major offensive category. He actually had a better all around season in 1915, when he paced the NL in hits (189), doubles (40) and batting average (.320). It was not the only time he finished atop NL leaderboards. In '09, he paced the loop with 172 hits and in 1911, his 25 triples were most in the majors. Doyle served as captain of the Giants for five seasons, filling in for manager John McGraw after ejections or suspensions (which were numerous). He hung around the majors through the 1920 slate, retiring with a commendable .290 batting average. He never received any serious Hall of Fame consideration.  

Jake Daubert
When two baseball organizations (SABR and STATS) gave out retroactive Gold Glove awards for decades before the honor existed, Daubert was named the best first baseman of the 1910s. He held his own offensively as well, leading the league twice in triples and once in sacrifice hits. His lifetime total of 392 sacrifices is second only to Hall of Famer Eddie Collins. Daubert spent a majority of his career in Brooklyn, winning consecutive batting titles. His .350 average in 1913 coupled with his slick fielding won him the Chalmers Award. Traded to Cincinnati in 1919, Daubert won his only World Series. The victory would be forever tainted when eight of his opponents admitted to throwing games. Over the course of his career, Daubert finished first or second in fielding percentage ten times. He hit .300 or better the same number of times, never dropping below .261. Beaned by Allen Sothoron of the Cardinals in May of 1924, he missed a total of fifty games while suffering from headaches and insomnia. At season's end, he grew weak and was re-hospitalized. He died a week after an appendectomy was performed. One of the attending physicians listed the secondary cause of death as "a concussion resulting from a pitched ball." 

 Roger Peckinpaugh
 Peckinpaugh was at least partially responsible for major league baseball's decision to wait until after the World Series to hand out MVP awards. After receiving the honor in 1925, he set an all time record for defensive ineptitude with 8 errors in the Fall Classic. Several of his miscues directly affected the outcome of games. Before then, he was widely hailed as the best defensive shortstop in the majors, turning more double plays than any of his AL peers on six occasions. Additionally, he led AL shortstops in assists four times. Peckinpaugh was a competent but not exceptional hitter, peaking at .305 in 1919. In his MVP year, he hit .294. After his horrific performance for the Senators in the Series, one sportswriter joked that he should have been named NL MVP as well. His downfall from the majors was swift. He hit just .238 in 1926, prompting a trade from Washington to Chicago. He got into 68 games for the White Sox then retired after the '27 slate.

George Burns
Burns's nickname "Tioga George" helped distinguish him from the George Burns who played for the Giants and Reds during the same era. "Tioga George" spent sixteen seasons in the American League, giving his best seasons to the A's, Indians and Red Sox. He led the league in hits and total bases while playing for Philly in 1918. His .352 batting average that year was second in the AL to Ty Cobb. Burns had an even better year with Cleveland in 1926, when he rapped a league-best 216 hits and set a single season record with 64 doubles. The mark was broken in 1931 by Earl Webb of the Red Sox. After capturing MVP honors in '26, Burns had an excellent follow-up season, slamming 51 more doubles while completing a run of seven straight campaigns with a batting average over .300. By 1928, Burns's skills were fading. He played through the '29 slate then continued in the minors until 1934. He served as a player/manager from 1930-'34.

Bob O'Farrell
O'Farrell had a long major league career, spending twenty-one years in the majors with four different clubs. A solid defensive catcher with a strong arm, he finished among the top five in fielding percentage five times and runners caught stealing on four occasions. He foiled 48% of attempted steals during his career, placing him among the top fifty in that category. Ascending to full-time status with the Cubs, he hit .324 in 1922 and followed with a .319 effort in '23. He lost his starting job to Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett the following year. Traded to the Cardinals in May of 1925, he became a first-stringer again. In his MVP year of 1926, he hit at a healthy .293 clip and guided a relatively mediocre pitching staff to a pennant. His 146 catching assignments should not be taken lightly considering the sweltering heat and humidity in St. Louis. In the '26 World Series, O'Farrell hit .304 and caught all seven games as the Cardinals edged the Yankees for a world championship. In 1927, he served as player/manager, replacing Rogers Hornsby. He guided St. Louis to a second place finish and was fired at seasons' end. He had some decent offensive campaigns after that, topping the .300 mark at the plate in 1930 and '31. When his major league career was finished, he played and managed in the minors through the 1938 campaign.            

Monday, September 29, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (2001)

November 4, 2001
New York Yankees vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
Bank One Ballpark, Arizona 

Having won four of the previous five World Series, the Yankees appeared to be virtually unbeatable. It was the hey-day of the so-called "Core Four" with homegrown stars Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera still very much in their prime. Rounding out an impressive pitching rotation, ageless flame-thrower Roger Clemens posted 20 victories against only 3 losses while ultra-reliable right-hander Mike Mussina gathered 17 wins of his own.

The Diamondbacks had no shortage of reliable arms with strikeout kings Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson forming the most potent one-two punch in the majors. The Arizona offense was driven by outfielders Reggie Sanders and Luis Gonzalez, who combined for 90 homers during the regular season. An All-Star and Silver Slugger Award recipient, Gonzalez was enjoying the most productive campaign of his career with 57 home runs and 142 RBIs. Prior to 1998, he had never hit more than 15 long balls in a season. After 2001, he would never reach the 30-homer threshold again.

The Yankees' pennant run had been staged in the shadow of the September 11 terrorist attacks while the wreckage of the Twin Towers still smoldered and rescue workers combed Ground Zero for remains of the deceased. Yankee players had repeatedly reached out to members of the community in their time of need, offering encouragement and support. In addition to being New York's team, the Bombers had become America's team. 

After clinching the first pennant in franchise history with a 5-game victory over the Braves, the Diamondbacks rolled over the Yankees by a combined score of 13-1 in Games 1 and 2. Schilling held the Yankees to just 3 hits in the opener and Johnson duplicated the feat in the second contest, adding 11 strikeouts to his lofty career totals.

The Yankees looked more like themselves in the next several meetings, staging dramatic come-from-behind victories in Games 4 and 5. In the fourth contest, Tino Martinez tied the score in the bottom of the ninth with an epic 2-run homer. Derek Jeter earned the nickname "Mr. November" with a walk-off shot in the tenth. It was third baseman Scott Brosius's turn to play the hero in Game 5, knotting the score in the bottom of the ninth with a 2-run blast off of Korean bullpen sensation Byung-Hyun Kim. For Kim, it was the second day in a row he had blown a lead. The Yankees won in the twelfth on a clutch single by second baseman Alfonso Soriano.

Trailing 3-games-to-2, the Diamondbacks sent a clear message that they were not finished yet, victimizing four different New York hurlers for a total of 22 hits in a 15-2 blowout. With Curt Schilling slated to start Game 7, the Yankees appeared to be at a distinct disadvantage for the first time all year. Schilling had stymied the Bombers in his two previous starts, allowing just 2 runs while striking out 17. Before a capacity crowd at Bank One Ballpark, he turned in yet another brilliant performance.

Roger Clemens gave the Yankees six and a third strong innings, allowing just 1 run on 7 hits. The Diamondbacks broke through in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI double by journeyman Danny Bautista. Schilling retired 16 straight Yankee batters before surrendering the tying run in the seventh. A leadoff homer by Alfonso Soriano and a 1-out single by David Justice in the eighth chased Schilling from the game. He finished the Series with a 1.69 ERA and 26 strikeouts--numbers good enough to capture co-MVP honors (which he shared with Randy Johnson).

Prior to the '01 World Series, Mariano Rivera had given up just 6 earned runs in more than 70 innings of postseason work. A 2-1 Yankee lead in the ninth seemed relatively secure to nearly everyone watching. Veteran Mark Grace led off with a single. David Dellucci was installed as a pinch-runner. Catcher Damian Miller followed with a bunt that Rivera inexplicably threw into center field. The odds of this happening were slim as Rivera would be charged with just 6 errors in more than 1,100 appearances during his regular season career. As Dellucci slid into second, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner encountered a TV crew setting up for the trophy presentation in New York's clubhouse. "Get out of here!" He bellowed, chasing them into the hall. "You're jinxing me!"

The game unraveled quickly for the Yankees after that. Jay Bell bunted and Rivera threw accurately to Scott Brosius at third to erase the lead runner. Brosius could have fired across the diamond to nail Bell at first fairly easily, but for unknown reasons, he held onto the ball. The next batter, Tony Womack, laced a 2-2 pitch into the right field gap for a double. The game was now tied. Rivera--perhaps a bit unnerved--hit Craig Counsel, who was batting just .083 in the Series to that point. The bases were now loaded with one out and Arizona's most productive hitter coming to the plate. In two previous at-bats against Rivera, Gonzalez had struck out and produced a weak grounder. He choked up on the bat just hoping to put the ball in play as the Yankee infield moved in. With an 0-1 count, Gonzalez swung at a nasty cutter that was in on his hands. The bat broke on contact and the ball fluttered to the edge of the infield, where it dropped for a hit. Had the Yankee infield been playing at normal depth, it almost certainly would have been caught. The Series was over. America's team had lost.

Standing calmly in front of his locker after the game, Rivera answered a barrage of questions. "I made the pitches I wanted to make and they hit them," he said. "That's baseball. I did everything I wanted to do. They beat me. They can say that they beat me."     



Monday, September 22, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1991)

October 27, 1991
Minnesota Twins vs. Atlanta Braves
Metrodome, Minnesota 

The '91 World Series was selected by ESPN as the greatest ever. A total of 69 innings were played, setting a record for the longest 7-game Series in history. Five of those games were decided by a single run as the home team prevailed in each contest. With a Game 5 loss at Atlanta, the Twins (formerly playing as the Senators) set an all time record for futility. It was the club's fourteenth consecutive defeat on the road--the longest streak of any major league franchise.

In addition to one of the greatest Game 7 pitching duels in history, the Series became known for a handful of odd occurrences. As the Twins continued their winning ways at home, the fan noise in the Metrodome soared to unprecedented levels. At several points, the decibel level was equivalent to a jet taking off at close range. Numerous fans reported headaches and temporary hearing loss. Controversy surfaced in the third inning of Game 2 when Ron Gant got hung up between first and second after lining a 2-out single. He became entangled with Kent Hrbek, who appeared to literally pick Gant up and pull him off first base while applying the tag. Umpire Drew Coble called Gant out and the play killed a Braves rally. Hrbek became a villain in Atlanta, receiving a death threat and getting booed loudly by fans. In Game 3, Minnesota's Tom Kelly faced the ultimate manager's nightmare when a series of substitutions and slick double-switches left him without any available players on his bench or in his bullpen. He was down to his last pitcher in the twelfth when Atlanta broke through with the winning run.

The Twins appeared to have momentum on their side after Kirby Puckett's eleventh inning homer gave them a 4-3 victory in Game 6. Puckett won the game almost single-handedly for Minnesota, driving in 3 runs and scoring twice. He also made a spectacular catch in center field. "It's so draining, these one-run ballgames," he said after the game. "I think I'll be sick all winter."

The seventh contest featured a rematch between Game 4 starters Jack Morris and John Smoltz. The two squared off for seven-plus scoreless innings. Smoltz was pulled in the bottom of the eighth with one out and runners on the corners. Reliever Mike Stanton was ordered to walk Puckett to load the bases. He then disposed of the slumping Kent Hrbek, who lined into an inning-ending double play. In the bottom of the ninth, Stanton pulled a muscle in his back while fielding a bunt and was replaced by Alejandro Pena. Pena worked a scoreless ninth though he would eventually be charged with a loss.

In the tenth inning, Twins starter Jack Morris refused to come out of the game. He retired the side in order, finishing his night with 126 pitches. In the bottom of the inning, left fielder Dan Gladden led off with a bloop single and moved to second when the ball took a weird hop. He was sacrificed to third by Chuck Knoblauch. Puckett was intentionally walked along with Hrbek, who was hitting just .115 in the Series. Atlanta skipper Bobby Cox was hoping for a force play at the plate. Summoned to pinch-hit, Minnesota's back-up catcher Gene Larkin (nursing a knee injury) had his moment in the sun, sending Pena's first pitch over a drawn-in outfield for a Series-clinching base hit.

Morris's 7-hit shutout earned him World Series MVP honors. It was the first time a pitcher had worked 10 innings since Tom Seaver did it in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. "This is something you dream about," Morris told the press. "I remember as a kid I used to throw Wiffle balls to my brother in the backyard. He used to be Mickey Mantle. I pretended I was Bob Gibson."  

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Emerging 2014 National League Playoff Picture

Finally, the Nationals are sitting where everyone thought they would be over the past few seasons--in first place with a large lead over the Braves. As usual, they are doing it without major contributions from former Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, who (largely due to injuries) has not blossomed into the natural hitter he was said to be. Instead, the Nats are relying on first baseman Adam LaRoche and third baseman Anthony Rendon to supply most of the offensive punch. The pitching has been dependable as well with Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister all sporting ERAs below the 3.00 mark. The Braves have gotten a lot of mileage out of first baseman Freddie Freeman and left fielder Justin Upton. The two had combined for 45 homers and 169 RBIs through Sept. 13. Craig Kimbrel is a reliable closer and Julio Tehran, a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2013, is having a wonderful follow-up season. The Nationals will take the division anyway unless something disastrous takes place in Washington.

The Cardinals are shooting for their fourth consecutive playoff appearance and owe most of their success to pitching. Adam Wainwright is on target to win 20 games for the first time since 2010 and right-hander Lance Lynn has held opponents to a .238 batting average so far this year. The NL Central is still up for grabs with the Pirates running a close second. Andrew McCutchen is having another stellar season and catcher Russell Martin has finally found his swing after three straight mediocre years at the plate. He's hitting in the .290s with an OBP above the .400 mark. The big question in the Central is What Happened to the Brewers? After a 20-7 start, they have played below .500. Center fielder Carlos Gomez and right fielder Ryan Braun are dealing with injuries and the pitching staff is a mess. They'll be lucky if they escape with a wild card berth.

The NL West has become a two-team shootout between the Dodgers and Giants (a familiar historical scenario). It may be a matter of who gets hot at the right time. Through September 13, the Dodgers had won 7 of their last 10. Clayton Kershaw is having another Cy Young season (18-3/ 1.67 ERA) and the rest of the staff has stepped up as well. Zack Grienke, Dan Haren and Hyn-jin Ryu have added more than 40 wins between them so far. Jake Peavy has been hot for the Giants, sporting a 5-1 record and 1.12 ERA in his last six starts. The two teams just finished up a three-game set. After losing the opener 9-0, the Dodgers returned the favor with a 17-0 thrashing in the second meeting. Last night, LA took a three-game lead in the West with a 4-2 win. Three games remain between the two clubs.

Wild Card
The East appears to be wrapped up, but the other two divisions are decidedly unsettled. The Cardinals could certainly claim a wild card spot if they falter down the stretch. Same goes for the Dodgers. I hate to write them off so early, but the Brewers are sputtering. Only two other NL clubs have a lower walk ratio. The Giants and Pirates are top contenders right now. Atlanta is a longshot.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Emerging 2014 American League Playoff Picture

We're heading into the final stretch! It's been an exciting year for baseball with several playoff spots still up in the air. The next two weeks should be quite interesting.

The Orioles have emerged as the dominant force in their division and should win the East over Toronto unless something shocking happens. The Blue Jays have been hot lately thanks to a late power surge by Jose Bautista, but a recent injury to Melky Cabrera will almost certainly hurt the club. The Yankees, who have been on the cusp all year, don't have the guns to make it to the postseason. Only two of their regular players are hitting above .270. Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner are hurt (though Gardner is day-to-day). Rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka is still out of action as well.

The Royals and Tigers are currently in a dogfight for the Central lead. Kansas City has been losing steam lately, dropping 4 of 6 games from Sept. 6-Sept. 11. Among the Royals most reliable hitters, Alex Gordon is in a September funk. In the previously mentioned span, he struck out 13 times and hit below the .100-mark. The Detroit offense is driven by sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who are both having excellent seasons. Max Scherzer is a dependable starter with a 16-5 record, but Justin Verlander is sporting a 4.82 ERA (what's up with that?) and Rick Porcello is in a downward spiral, losing 6 of 8 decisions between Aug. 7 and Sept. 10. Good news for fans in Detroit: The Tigers have compiled an 11-5 record against Kansas City so far this year with three games still left to play against them. The Indians are within striking distance of the Central lead, but need to push harder. Left fielder Michael Brantley and first baseman Carlos Santana have propelled the offense and right-hander Corey Kluber is a Cy Young candidate (15-9/ 2.45 ERA through Sept. 11). But games against the division leaders are few at this point and the Indians have been mediocre so far in September. They're 5-5 in their last ten games.

The Angels are currently in the midst of a 10-game winning streak and should take the West easily over the slumping A's. After trading outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox on July 31, Oakland went into a tailspin. They have won just 3 of their last 10 and have been unable to generate consistent offense. Meanwhile, the Angels have enjoyed major offensive contributions from superstars Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. Things looked bleak when pitcher Garrett Richards (13-4/ 2.61 ERA) was shelved with an injury in early September, but the rest of the staff has stepped up.  Right now, the West seems like a foregone conclusion.

Wild Card Picture
 The Mariners have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs via a Wild Card berth. Robinson Cano is having another fine offensive season in Seattle while third baseman Kyle Seager has supplied plenty of punch as well. "King Felix" Hernandez continues to be a dominant presence on the mound with a miniscule 2.12 ERA through Sept. 11. The Mariners have seven games left against the surging Angels and this could be a good or a bad thing. The Blue Jays, Indians and Yankees are all in the hunt, but all three seem like a long shot to me at this point. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1975)

October 22, 1975
Boston Red Sox vs. Cincinnati Reds
Fenway Park, Boston

The Red Sox returned to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade. The big story in Boston was the emergence of rookies Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. Lynn's remarkable glove work in center field drew comparisons to the all time greats. He hit .331 and led the league with 47 doubles, becoming the first man to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. Rice put up similar offensive numbers despite suffering a broken wrist in September that kept him out of the postseason. On the mound, the Sox had five players with double digit win totals. Rick Wise led the staff with 19 victories while swingman Roger Moret paced the league with an .824 winning percentage.

After coasting to a Western Division title, Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" dismantled the Pirates in the NLCS by a combined score of 19-7. Among the greatest ballclubs in history, the Reds were looking to atone for World Series losses in 1970 and 1972. Baseball's all time hits leader, Pete Rose, spent most of the season stationed at third base alongside Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. The Cincinnati lineup was strengthened considerably by blossoming stars George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr.. Reds hurlers combined for a modest total of 22 complete games (the lowest number in the majors). This was due in part to manager Sparky Anderson's impatience with hurlers--a trait that earned him the nickname "Captain Hook."

The Series is perhaps best remembered for Carlton Fisk's dramatic twelfth inning homer in Game 6, an event that took place more than four hours after the opening pitch. Fisk drove Pat Darcy's second offering--a sinker--toward the left field foul pole then danced up the first base line, waving his arms and coaxing the ball to stay fair. TV cameraman Lou Gerard kept his camera focused on the actions of Fisk rather than the flight of the ball after spotting a large rat heading toward him. Not wishing to draw the rodent's attention, he kept the camera pointed in Fisk's direction, inadvertently altering the style of television sports coverage. John Filippelli, assistant broadcast director, commented later: "No one had ever thought of isolating on an individual." Fisk's memorable walk-off homer forced a Game 7 that has been largely forgotten.

Reds ace Don Gullett ran into control problems in the third inning. After an RBI single by Carl Yastrzemski, Gullett walked Carlton Fisk to load the bases. Having used eight pitchers the night before, Sparky Anderson stood idly by as Gullett walked Rico Petricelli and Dwight Evans to give the Sox a 3-0 lead. The score remained that way until the top of the sixth, when Tony Perez lifted a Bill Lee blooper pitch over the Green Monster in left field for a 2-run homer. Thanks to the hustle of Ken Griffey, the Reds tied the game in the seventh. Griffey worked a walk, stole second then scored on a 2-out single by Pete Rose.

In the ninth, Griffey got things started again for the Reds with a leadoff walk. A sacrifice by Cesar Geronimo sent him to second and a groundout by Dan Driessen moved him to third. Reliever Jim Burton walked the dangerous Pete Rose, but NL MVP Joe Morgan followed with a bloop single that scored the deciding run. Cincy's closer Will McEnaney retired the side in order in the ninth. Fan favorite Carl Yasterzemski--a triple crown winner in '67--ended another year of futility for the Red Sox with a routine fly to center field. Boston would not return to the World Series for another decade.

Talking about his Series-clinching hit, Joe Morgan told reporters: "I was hoping they would walk Pete. He's had so many hits in the Series, I figured maybe he had run out of them. I wanted my chance." With 10 hits and a .370 average, Rose received Series MVP honors. The drama had taken its toll on him by the end of Game 7. He told the press jokingly that he was worried he might have a heart attack.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1971)

October 17, 1971
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles
Memorial Stadium, Baltimore

After winning the NL East over the Cardinals by seven games, the Pirates defeated the Giants in the NLCS by a 3-games-to-1 margin. In 1970, they had come up short in the playoffs against the Reds. Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente were the core of the Pittsburgh offense. Clemente hit .341 and Stargell led the NL with 48 homers. Manny Sanguillen enjoyed one of his finest offensive seasons, leading major league catchers with a .319 batting average.  Flamboyant right-hander Dock Ellis was the ace of the pitching staff, posting a 19-9 record.

The defending world champion Orioles relied heavily on pitching, carrying four twenty-game winners on their staff.  This was a rare accomplishment in the modern era. Dave McNally, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer made life easy for manager Earl Weaver, gathering 81 victories between them. The Oriole offense was propelled by sluggers Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. Brooks Robinson added 91 RBIs and won his twelfth consecutive Gold Glove Award at third base as the Orioles coasted to the pennant then swept the A's in the playoffs.

Entering the Series as underdogs, the Pirates dropped the first two games at Baltimore and appeared to be on the ropes after an 11-3 Oriole blowout in Game 2. Back at Three Rivers Stadium, the Bucs put the O's on the brink of elimination with three straight victories. Game 6 was a classic that lasted for 10 innings. The Pirates loaded the bases in the top of the tenth, but came up empty. In the bottom of the frame, the Orioles scored the deciding run on a sacrifice fly by Brooks Robinson. The ball was hit to shallow center field and Frank Robinson narrowly beat Vic Davalillo's strong throw to the plate.

Game 7 featured the second showdown between Mike Cuellar and Steve Blass. Cuellar had faltered in the O's Game 3 loss while Blass had pitched a 3-hit gem. In the encore match-up, Cuellar was in peak form. Through seven frames, the Bucs managed just one run on a solo homer by Clemente. In the top of the eighth, Cuellar gave up a leadoff single to Stargell and an RBI double to third baseman Jose Pagan before retiring the next three batters in order. Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth, the O's finally broke through as Ellie Hendricks and Mark Belanger strung together a pair of singles. Hendricks later scored on a grounder by Don Buford to cut the Pirate lead in half. In the ninth, the Orioles sent their most powerful hitters to the plate. The ball never left the infield as Blass worked a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Pirates their first world championship in over a decade. Having hit safely in all seven games, Clemente was named MVP. The decision prompted the following comment from Orioles skipper Earl Weaver: "Clemente was great all right, but if it hadn't been for Mr. Blass, we might be popping corks right now."

After his brilliant Series performance in '71, Blass came back strong with a 19-8 record and 2.49 ERA the following year. He finished second behind Steve Carlton in Cy Young voting. After that, he suffered one of the most puzzling downfalls in baseball history. In 1973, Blass inexplicably lost his ability to throw strikes, walking 84 batters in 89 innings. Demoted to the minors in '74, he never appeared in another major league game. There was no satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon as Blass had not suffered an injury and there was no precipitating event. His condition became unofficially labeled "Steve Blass Disease"--an affliction that appears to be caused by over-thinking the act of throwing. Several other players have suffered the same plight, most notably Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who was moved to the outfield after becoming increasingly unable to make the toss to first base. Commenting on his rapid career decline, Blass remarked: "It was the worst experience of my baseball life...I don't think I'll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can't imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no idea what you're doing out there, performing that way as a major league pitcher."