Thursday, February 25, 2016

Island of Lost Teams (Part I--The Washington Senators)

The Senators have had several lives. They began their existence in the American Association as the Washington Statesmen. When the AA folded after the 1891 slate, the Statesmen joined the National League and became the Senators. The club floundered in the standings despite the presence of multiple deadball stars--among them Jack Doyle, Kip Selbach and Deacon McGuire. After the 1899 campaign, the NL downsized from twelve to eight teams. The Senators, with their lousy 54-98 record, were ousted from the league.

A new incarnation would appear among the inaugural American League lineup in 1901. In 1905, the team name was changed to the Nationals, but it never caught on. The old Senators were a star-crossed club through most of their existence, compiling a cumulative won/loss record well below .500. Their lackluster play inspired the popular saying: "Washington: First in War, First in Peace and Last in the American League!" 

During the mid-'20s/ early-'30s, the club climbed into contention with the addition of Hall of Fame outfielders Sam Rice and Goose Goslin. Walter Johnson--among the greatest hurlers of all time--had been anchoring the pitching corps for many years. In 1924, the rejuvenated Senators captured the first World Series title in franchise history, squeaking out a narrow 7-game victory over the Giants. The final game meandered into extra innings and was decided on a pair of flukey defensive mishaps. With the lineup virtually intact, the Senators returned to the Fall Classic the following year. They met their match against the Pirates, who carried a trio of all time greats on their roster--Kiki Cuyler, Max Carey and Pie Traynor. The Senators brought the last pennant to Washington in 1933, finishing seven games ahead of the powerful Yankees. Season highlights more or less ended there as the Giants rolled over them in five games.

From 1934-1960, the Sens finished in fifth place or lower more than twenty times. This included six last place showings. When owner/ president Clark Griffith passed away in 1955, his nephew Calvin took over the team. He sold Griffith Stadium to the city of Washington then leased it back, generating speculation that the team would relocate. By 1957, Griffith was actively negotiating with officials in Minnesota. The American League was initially opposed to the move, but a deal was eventually struck in 1960. The Senators became the Twins and a new franchise continued play in the nation's capital.

The new Senators were more pitiable than their predecessors, losing 100 games in four consecutive seasons. During their eleven years of existence, they finished above .500 just once. It happened in 1969 with former Red Sox great Ted Williams at the helm. Slugger Frank Howard, known to fans as "The Capital Punisher," had a banner year with 48 homers and 111 RBIs. It wasn't enough to prevent the club from moving to Texas and changing its identity in 1972. To date, the Rangers have made a total of seven playoff appearances, advancing to the World Series twice. Both were losing causes.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Greatest Players From Each Franchise (Part VI--NL West)

Randy Johnson
Johnson is also among the greatest Mariner players in history. During his ten seasons in Seattle, he won 130 games and captured four strikeout titles. He landed in Houston after getting off to a slow start during the ’88 campaign. Unable to meet his salary demands, the Astros let him go before the ’89 slate. Johnson spent eight of his prime seasons with the Diamondbacks, compiling a 118-62 record with a 2.83 ERA. He averaged 260 strikeouts per year while helping the club to three postseason appearances, including the only World Series title in franchise history. Johnson was co-MVP of the Series—sharing the honor with Curt Schilling. By the time he retired in 2009, the towering left-hander (6-foot-10) held numerous all-time records. His 4,875 lifetime strikeouts are most for a southpaw.

Todd Helton
Offense has always been an intrinsic feature of Coors Field and, when Helton becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, he will have his share of detractors. Still, the talented first baseman put up some of the best numbers in franchise history. A lifetime .316 hitter in seventeen seasons, he logged a .372 average during the 2000 campaign with 59 doubles and 147 RBIs. Despite those tacky numbers, he finished fifth in MVP voting that year. A multi-dimensional player, Helton won three Gold Gloves during his career. He helped the Rockies to their only World Series appearance in 2007. His .333 batting mark (highest among Colorado regulars) could not prevent a sweep at the hands of the Red Sox. Helton currently holds franchise records for runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, homers and RBIs.

Willie Mays
Warren Spahn blamed himself for Mays’s complete domination of National League pitching. “He was something like zero for twenty-one the first time I saw him,” Spahn reminisced years after the fact. “His first major league home run was off me and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of him forever if I’d only struck him out.” Mays eventually found his groove and captured Rookie of the Year honors in ’51. Twelve Gold Gloves and Twenty All-Star selections would follow. A five-tool player, Mays hit for power and average, ran the bases exceptionally well and had unparalleled defensive skills. During his 21 seasons with the Giants, he hit .304 with 646 homers and 1,859 RBIs. He holds franchise records for total bases, doubles and extra-base hits (among others).

Tony Gwynn
Gwynn spent his entire twenty-year career with the Padres, helping the club reach the postseason three times. Gwynn was a .371 hitter in two World Series. During the regular season, he compiled a more modest .338 mark. He was an eight-time batting champion and fifteen-time All-Star. Proving he was a well-rounded player, he won five Gold Gloves and stole 30 or more bases four times. Opposing pitchers dreaded facing him, especially Al Leiter, who once commented, “The only way to pitch Tony is to throw the ball down the middle and hope he hits it at someone.” Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007, he died seven years later at the age of fifty-four—a victim of cancer.

Zack Wheat
The Dodgers have had so many great players over the years—especially during the ‘50s, when Ebbets Field was home to Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson. But from a purely statistical standpoint, the most productive Dodger player retired long before “The Boys of Summer” took the field. An obscure historical figure, Zack Wheat spent eighteen seasons with the Dodgers from 1909-1926. During Wheat’s career, the club carried three different names--the Superbas, Dodgers and Robins. Wheat was the team’s brightest star for well over a decade. A writer from Baseball Magazine once remarked that “What Lajoie was to infielders, Zack Wheat is to outfielders, the finest mechanical craftsmen of them all.” Wheat led players at his position (LF) in fielding percentage twice and remains among the all-time leaders in putouts, assists and double plays. He was pretty good with a bat too, establishing franchise records for hits, doubles, triples and times on base. He led the Dodgers to their first two World Series appearances and reached base eighteen times in twelve games. Had he played alongside the aforementioned luminaries, the Dodgers would likely have captured several more world championships.     

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Greatest Players From Each Franchise (Part V--NL Central)


Stan Musial
Anyone who thinks Musial was NOT the greatest player in Cardinal history needs to reexamine the facts. In May of 1954, Musial had 4 hits, 3 homers and 6 RBIs in the first game of a doubleheader at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. With the hometown crowd cheering him on, he added 2 homers and 4 RBIs in the second game, finishing the day with 21 total bases. The 5 long balls are still a record (tied by Nate Colbert of the Padres). Though he had some less exciting days at the plate, the performance was typical of Musial's remarkable career. Despite losing a full season to military duty during WWII, Musial is still among the all time leaders in runs scored, hits, total bases, doubles, RBIs and times on base. He won three MVP Awards and seven batting titles. He narrowly missed a Triple Crown in 1948, finishing just one home run behind league leaders Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. Musial rarely struck out, recording less than forty whiffs in sixteen seasons--a major league record. He was pretty good on defense too, leading the NL in fielding percentage three times. His efforts guided the Cards to four World Series berths, three of which were winning causes. Off the field, Musial was a consummate gentleman and tireless ambassador of the game. Even the great Mickey Mantle was in awe of Musial's all around greatness. "He was a better player than me because he was a better man than me," said Mantle. Before his death in 2013, Musial received the Presidential Medal of Freedom--the highest honor bestowed upon a U.S. civilian.


Honus Wagner
Wagner was widely hailed by his contemporaries as one of the greatest players in the game. A hundred years later, those endorsements still hold up. Sabermetric similarity scores place Wagner above Napoleon Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker--three of the most prolific hitters in baseball history. Statistical guru Bill James once ranked Wagner as the second best player of all time behind Babe Ruth. Wagner won eight batting crowns and led the league in slugging percentage on six occasions. He still holds the record for most triples by a right-handed batter (252). By the time MVP Awards were handed out, Wagner was thirty-seven years old. Still, he finished among the top ten in voting every year from 1911-1913. There was no All-Star Game in his day, but he would undoubtedly have been a perennial choice. Nicknamed "The Flying Dutchman," Wagner was oddly proportioned with huge hands, a barrel-chest and bowed legs. Though he must have looked a bit awkward doing it, he ran the bases well, accumulating more than 700 steals during his career. He was mild-mannered and approachable off the field. He never hesitated to give teammates and opponents due credit. He was always ready with an interesting anecdote or a joke. After missing out on a managing opportunity in Cincinnati, he served as Pirates coach from 1932 to 1952.


Pete Rose
Of all the players outside the Hall of Fame, Rose is among the most worthy of inclusion. He once remarked that he would "walk through Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball." Few players have matched his level of enthusiasm. Hank Aaron famously joked: "Does Pete Rose hustle? Before the All-Star Game he came into the clubhouse and took off his shoes and they ran another mile without him." Rose's fierce desire to win became infamous. He once brawled with pint-sized infielder Bud Harrelson during a playoff game the Reds were losing handily. In the 1970 All-Star Game, he laid a nasty hit on AL catcher Ray Fosse while delivering the winning run. The resulting injury derailed Fosse's promising career. Over the past two and a half decades, Rose has served as an outspoken proponent of the sport. Banned for life after being caught betting on games he was involved in, he holds the all time record for hits and times on base. He is also the only player to log at least five-hundred games of experience at five different positions. Describing Rose's importance to the "Big Red Machine" of the 1970s, manager Sparky Anderson said: "He is Cincinnati. He is the Reds." 


Ernie Banks
Nicknamed "Mr. Cub," Banks was the living embodiment of baseball in Chicago. Even when his team failed to make it to the World Series year after year, he maintained his zest for the game. He became famous for the statement: "Let's play two." A fourteen-time All-Star, he was the National League's first back-to-back MVP recipient. In an era when shortstops were known mostly for their defense, he went deep 512 times, reaching the 40-homer threshold on five occasions. Highly versatile, he made the switch to first base in 1962. As a shortstop, he led the league in fielding percentage three times. At first base, he led the league once and finished among the top three during five other seasons. He won a Gold Glove in 1960. When sportswriters asked him during spring training how the club would fare in any given year, he always offered a memorable quote. Some examples are as follows: "The Cubs are due in sixty-two," "Wrigley Field will be heaven in sixty-seven," and "The Cubs will shine in sixty-nine." Before he died in 2015, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  


Robin Yount
When discussions of great Milwaukee players surface, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount inevitably enter the mix. While Molitor was undoubtedly among the most gifted hitters ever to don a Brewers uniform, he can't match Yount's record for longevity. Yount spent his entire twenty-year career with the Brewers and appeared to be on pace to reach the 4,000 hit mark when he unexpectedly retired at the age of thirty-seven. In 1982, Yount put together one of the finest seasons ever by a shortstop, leading the American League in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases. He led the Brewers to their first ever World Series appearance. After hitting .414 in a losing cause, he was named AL MVP. Yount was the third youngest player to gather 3,000 hits. He is among a select group of players to be named MVP at more than one defensive position. In 1989, he captured the honor as a center fielder. He is among the top twenty of all time in hits and doubles. He held the franchise record for homers until 2015.