Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 04/17/2003
The Pastime In Puerto Rico
Now that Puerto Rico has successfully hosted its first series of major league games, with the hometown Expos staging an impressive sweep of the Mets at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, it’s an appropriate time to consider some of the best players this small island has produced. While Puerto Rico’s development of young major league talent has diminished in recent years—only 38 native Puerto Ricans made Opening Day rosters this year—this U.S. Commonwealth has long been a hotbed of baseball. Professional leagues sprouted up on the island in 1938, creating an avenue for high-quality winter ball while yielding more than enough native talent for a representative all-time team. Here are this writer’s selections of the best Puerto Rican-born players, position by position, with one honorable mention thrown into the mix:
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez: Critics of Rodriguez have chided him for his tendency to call too many fastballs, his unwillingness to meet with pitchers prior to each series, and his impatience at the plate (at least prior to this year). Those are all legitimate complaints, but they still don’t prevent Pudge from earning honors as the best Puerto Rican catcher of all time. After making his major league debut at the age of 19, Rodriguez quickly established himself as the best throwing catcher in either league, drawing comparisons to the defensive standards established by Johnny Bench. Quick and agile behind the plate, Rodriguez also became a force with the bat, setting an American League record for catchers by hitting 35 home runs in 1999. He also batted .332, giving him the best single-season average for an AL catcher since Bill Dickey in 1936. Such numbers earned Rodriguez a controversial selection as league MVP, as he surprisingly beat out Pedro Martinez. Deserved MVP or not, Rodriguez is still only 32 years old and remarkably well-conditioned (after a series of grueling offseason workouts), and could challenge the longevity marks of catchers like Carlton Fisk and Bob Boone.
Orlando Cepeda: Prior to caving in to a succession of knee surgeries and finishing out his career as a DH, Cepeda was a fine defensive first baseman. More significantly, he was one of the game’s most feared sluggers of the 1960s. No Puerto Rican player has shown more power in the major leagues than the “Baby Bull;” in fact he and Tony Perez led all Latino-born players with 379 home runs before the emergence of Sammy Sosa (a Dominican) and Rafael Palmeiro (a Cuban). Cepeda nearly won a Triple Crown with the Giants in 1961—a year that saw him overshadowed by Roger Maris—but it was as a member of the Cardinals that Cepeda achieved the most glory. Filling the team’s need for a cleanup hitter, “Cha Cha” won the National League’s MVP Award in unanimous fashion in 1967, leading St. Louis to the World Championship. Cepeda later had success with Atlanta and Boston, helping the Braves to their first playoff berth and serving as the first DH in Red Sox franchise history.
Vic Power: Although nowhere near Cepeda’s level as a hitter, Power won the first seven Gold Glove awards given out to American League first basemen, a testament to his stylishly dazzling play around the bag. A right-handed thrower who preferred to make plays with only his glove hand (against the fundamental two-hand approach emphasized at the time), he had terrific range to either side of the ball, which helped him lead the league in assists on six occasions. While Power’s defensive skills became his trademark, he also put forth some respectable seasons at the plate. During a four-year stretch with the old Kansas City Athletics and Cleveland Indians, Power posted three seasons of .300 or better, once piling up 19 home runs and 34 doubles.
Roberto Alomar: For someone who has only seen film and videotape of Bill Mazeroski in his prime, Alomar ranks as the greatest defensive second baseman I’ve had the pleasure of watching. His 10 Gold Gloves are the most by any second baseman, surpassing both Mazeroski and Ryne Sandberg. Mets fans might not agree, given his rapid decline in a New York uniform, but Alomar’s combination of soft hands, acrobatic range, and quick trigger on the double play, coupled with his ability to steal bases (463 at the start of the season) and hit for average and power (201 home runs), make him the preeminent second baseman of the 1990s and early 2000s. We don’t often find five-tool players among second basemen, but Alomar fits that category as well as anyone in the expansion era. And some observers feel his career accomplishments place him at the top of the list among all Puerto Rican players, past or present.
Perucho Cepeda: He’s the only member of this Puerto Rican all-star team who never played in the majors, but that wasn’t his fault; baseball’s color line kept Cepeda playing most of his career on the island. The father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, the elder Cepeda was nicknamed the “Babe Ruth of the Caribbean,” a tribute to his legendary power. He was also a capable shortstop, leaving many observers to rate him as a finer player than his better-known son.
Carlos Baerga: I’m cheating a bit with this selection, since Baerga spent most of his career at second base, but he seems like the better choice than most of the traditional third basemen (like Jose “Coco” Laboy and Jose Pagan), who comprise a rather ordinary cast of candidates. In 1992 and ’93, Baerga piled up consecutive 100-RBI seasons and emerged as a fearsome switch-hitter. Playing at a Hall of Fame level his first six seasons, Baerga suddenly fell off the mountaintop in 1996, the same year that the Indians traded him to the Mets. Analysts have speculated on the cause of his early downfall, with reasons ranging from a lack of conditioning to a love of nightlife to questions about his birth certificate. Whatever the reason for his precipitous fall, Baerga could find himself surpassed by Jose Hernandez, who has split his career between third and short, and has a chance to pad his career numbers with extended playing time in the Mile High City.
Jose Cruz Sr: He’s the most underrated member of this all-star team, in large part because he spent most of his home career trying to hit in the cavernous Astrodome. A model of consistency, “Cheo” did everything extremely well except hit home runs. He reached the .300 mark six times, drew walks, stole bases, and played a solid left field. If only he had played his career at the “Launching Pad” in Atlanta or in front of the “Green Monster” in Boston, he might have received more consideration for the Hall of Fame.
Bernie Williams: Shy and soft-spoken, Bernie Williams has accomplished what few athletes in New York City have been able to do: he has remained an underrated star, despite playing for both a baseball dynasty and the most successful franchise in the sport’s history, all the while performing in the country’s largest media market. It was in 1995 that Williams emerged as a star, coinciding with the team’s return to the postseason after a 14-year absence. Williams batted .307 with 18 home runs and led the Yankees in runs, hits, and total bases. In 1996, Williams reached the 100-RBI mark for the first time in his career and emerged as the Most Valuable Player of the League Championship Series, spearheading the Yankees’ first trip to the World Series since 1981—and their first World Championship since 1978. Not satisfied with his first World Series ring, Williams advanced his level of play in 1997. He batted .328 with 21 home runs, and finally achieved some recognition for his standout defensive play, overcoming his below-average throwing arm to garner his first Gold Glove Award. The following three seasons, Williams’ performance reached its peak. In 1998, he won the American League’s batting title with a .339 mark and captured his second straight Gold Glove. The following season, Williams put up some of the best offensive numbers of his career— including a personal best 202 hits and 116 runs—as the Yankees defended their title. In 2000, Williams drove in a career-high 121 runs as the Yankees claimed their third consecutive set of World Series rings.
Roberto Clemente: Critics of Clemente rightly point to him as an example of an overrated offensive player (primarily because of a lack of walks), but he achieved most everything else at a superior level, including a lifetime total of 240 home runs (impressive given that he played all but two and a half seasons at cavernous Forbes Field), a .317 lifetime batting average, four batting titles, and baserunning skills that might have been unmatched in his era. Yet, there’s no overestimating his defensive play; he remains the standard-bearer among right fielders, combining the best throwing arm of my lifetime with the quickness and agility usually seen in a shortstop. And let’s not forget his postseason contributions, minimized by some, but crucial to the Pirates’ ability to win two World Championships. In 14 World Series games, Clemente batted safely in each, delivered critical hits in two Game Seven situations, fielded his position flawlessly at all times, and made two of the most outlandish throws a human being has ever made. All in all, Clemente emerged as the greatest player in the island’s history, a title that only Roberto Alomar might be able to challenge.
Juan Gonzalez: Many Sabermetricians feel that “Igor” is overrated, that he’s been too injury prone, too impatient at the plate, and didn’t deserve the two American League MVP awards that he received. Those sentiments may be true, but Gonzalez did spend the early portion of his career as one of the game’s most legitimately feared hitters. He won a home run title at the age of 22 and reached 300 home runs by his 29th birthday. During a four-year span with the Rangers, Gonzalez helped the team to three American League West titles, a winning tenure that included a monstrous 157-RBI season in 1998. Gonzalez has now hit the downside of his career, but he’s accomplished enough to rank among the top outfielders—and as the best choice for DH—on an all-Puerto Rican team.
Juan Pizarro: He spent the second half of his career as a bullpen journeyman, but his prime seasons occurred as a standout starter for the White Sox. After joining the Sox in 1961, Pizarro made an impressive American League debut by winning 14 games. The hard-throwing left-hander then emerged as an All-Star in 1963 and ’64, posting back-to-back ERAs of 2.39 and 2.56, and winning a career-high 19 games the latter season. After an off year in 1965, Pizarro worked largely out of the bullpen, pitching effectively at times for the Pirates and Cubs.
Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez: A failed middle reliever and sometime starter with the Cubs, Hernandez resuscitated his journeyman career as the ace reliever of the Tigers in 1984. Employing a deceiving mix of screwballs, curves, and sinkers, Hernandez won both the American League’s Cy Young and MVP Award while pitching for the World Champions. Hernandez continued to pitch at an All-Star level for the next two seasons, recording 31 and 24 saves, but lost the closer’s role to Mike Henneman in 1987. Still, he remained effective as a set-up reliever for two more seasons before struggling in his 1989 swansong.
News And Notes From The Island
During the first weekend series in San Juan, former National League second baseman Felix “The Cat” Millan visited with some of the 2003 Mets. A native and current resident of Puerto Rico, was a good defensive second baseman for the Mets and Braves from 1966 to 1977. Yet, he was far better known for the unusual approach he used at the plate. Millan choked up on the bat more than any player I’ve ever seen—and that includes Little League—with his hands about a foot from the knob of the bat. It still amazes me that Millan never poked himself in the ribs while taking a swing with what seemed like half the bat sticking out underneath his hands… The city of San Juan contributed over $2 and a half million to renovate Hiram Bithorn Stadium for the 22 games the Expos will play there this season. In return, city officials hope to generate about $8 million for the local economy… Bithorn Stadium has the look and feel of many of the 1970s cookie-cutter stadiums, except that it’s a single-deck structure instead of having multiple tiers. In some sense, it’s a hybrid of old Jarry Park in Montreal and Royals Stadium (now named after Ewing Kauffman), the way it used to look before the Royals replaced the artificial turf with grass… And for those who might be wondering, Hiram Bithorn (pronounced hee-DOM BEE-thorn) was the first Puerto Rican to make the major leagues, cracking the big league barrier in 1942, four years after the start of professional baseball on the island. He won 18 games for the Cubs in his second season, while leading the National League with seven shutouts, but never again reached similar heights of success.
Major League Morsels
While nary an article can be written about the Red Sox without mentioning the dirty words of bullpen-by-committee, another team has quietly been using a similar relief structure—and doing so successfully. That team is the Cubs, who have used a variety of relievers to close games during the absence of the injured Antonio “Six-Finger” Alfonseca. Among their most effective relievers has been right-hander Joe Borowski, a consummate journeyman who may have finally found a home in the major leagues—thanks in part to a fastball that registers in the low 90s. Borowski, who is one of the good stories in the early season, had bounced around with four different organizations (the Orioles, White Sox, Yankees, and Braves) and two non-affiliated leagues (the Mexican and Northern) before latching onto a middle relief job with the Cubs last season. When Alfonseca returns, there’s no guarantee that old Six-Finger will return to the closer’s role… According to Lee Sinins’ “Around the Majors” report, the Cubs have denied interest in making a blockbuster trade of young talents. The weekend rumor had the Cubs sending reliever Juan Cruz to the Reds for the struggling Adam Dunn. Although Cruz is pitching like the reincarnation of Ron Davis in 1981, Mariano Rivera in 1996, and Octavio Dotel of recent vintage, the thought of Dunn wearing Cubs pinstripes has to be tempting. Once regarded as the top prospect in all of baseball, Dunn was an untouchable as recently as last year. And while he’s slumping, young position players are usually far more predictable—and durable—than young pitchers. One problem for the Cubs may involve Dunn’s position; he’s primarily an outfielder, one whose presence would force the Cubs into trading Corey Patterson (who’s off to a great start) or creating a platoon with a veteran like Moises Alou. The Cubs could also play the lefty-swinging Dunn at first base, but that would mean giving up on Hee Seop Choi, who’s also a talented young left-handed batter… Given Armando Benitez’ three bullpen blowups over an eight-game stretch, should the Mets make a switch and find themselves a new closer? (The Mets don’t seem interested in making a change; as one New York sportswriter put it, they’re in “Benitez Denial.”) While any talk of trading Benitez is silly—on the premise that a team shouldn’t trade someone when his value is far lower than usual—Art Howe has to treat the situation with urgency given the Mets’ recent habit of poor starts in April and May. The Mets, a team desperately in need of an injection of confidence, simply can’t afford too many more heartbreaking losses in the late innings. A temporary solution might involve David Weathers, who has been the one bright spot in the Mets’ pen, or Scott Strickland, who certainly has closer’s stuff, if not the savvy that you’d prefer from your top reliever. The Mets could then use Benitez in the less-pressurized role of middle or set-up relief, giving him a chance to build up his psyche before returning to the territory of the ninth inning… Staying with the Mets, it may be time to give up on any hopes of rejuvenation for either Jeromy Burnitz or Roger Cedeno. The veteran outfielders look as helpless this April as they looked most of last year. Art Howe might want to think about using Timo Perez as his everyday center fielder or right fielder, or at least as part of a platoon with Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Perez doesn’t have a right fielder’s arm, but he covers far more ground than Burnitz and is a better defender than the erratic Cedeno. Right now, Burnitz (despite a good series against the Pirates) and Cedeno (hitting well below Mendoza) are providing few positives on offense or in the field, so there’s really nothing to lose by giving Perez regular playing time… Although the Pirates’ fast start might make Lloyd McClendon a very early favorite in the Manager of the Year sweepstakes, the Pittsburgh skipper raised some eyebrows on Sunday, when he brought in two different relievers who were not warming up at the time of their entry into the game. Both pitchers, including Pirates closer Mike Williams, had warmed up earlier in the day, but then sat down before being beckoned by McClendon. It’s exactly that kind of questionable handing of his bullpen that figures to put McClendon, whose contract is up at the end of the year, under the microscope all summer long… Red Sox manager Grady Little deserves some credit for trying to expand on his bullpen-by-committee by using Tim Wakefield in the late innings in between starts. There’s no earthly reason why a knuckleballer can’t pitch four or five times a week, even if two of these appearances come as a starter. Given the early disabling of Alan Embree due to elbow pain and the mysterious loss of velocity experienced by Ramiro Mendoza, Wakefield may yet emerge as the Red Sox’ best option in the eighth and ninth innings… The early returns on Erick Almonte’s performance at shortstop indicate that the once highly rated prospect can’t play the position. He has neither the range nor the hands (four errors in his first nine games) for the position, a deadly combination for a middle infielder. Now that doesn’t mean the Yankees should panic and trade for another shortstop; Almonte’s play has had little affect on the win-loss column. Assuming that Derek Jeter will be able to return by August or September, the Yankees should just bite hard and live with some combination of Almonte and Enrique Wilson at shortstop. The rest of the roster remains good enough to overcome the shortcomings of just one position.
Newly elected to the Hall of Fame this past January, Eddie Murray burst onto the baseball card scene 25 years ago, when his rookie card came out as part of Topps’ 1978 set. While there’s nothing particularly unusual about this card, it features a few subtleties… There’s one of my old favorites, the classic Topps trophy cup, which is represented through a logo placed on one of the card’s corners, honoring each player who earned selection to Topps’ all-rookie team. By the way, I’ve always wondered, is that cup really yellow?… Murray’s primary position on the card is listed as DH, while his secondary position on the card is first base. And that’s no mistake, since Murray actually served as the Orioles’ designated hitter 111 times in 1977, while surprisingly playing only 42 games at first base. (Quick now, who was the Orioles’ regular first baseman in 1977? Boog Powell? Terry Crowley? Or perhaps Sabermetric favorite Tony Muser? No, it was actually slugging Lee May, who hit 27 home runs that season.) Murray even appeared three times in the outfield his rookie season, though that position isn’t mentioned on the front of the card… The card, while picturing a young Murray finishing a left-handed practice swing, also shows him wearing a cap underneath his helmet, a Murray trademark. Is it just me, or does no one in baseball do this anymore? It seems like more players used to wear both a cap and a helmet in the seventies and eighties—Willie Davis, Dion James, Bobby Murcer, Al Oliver, and Willie Stargell are a few that come to mind—but the trend has become lost, perhaps because of the mandate that players use the ear-flapped helmet. Or maybe it’s because major league rules no longer allow players to run the bases wearing only a soft cap. Or perhaps it’s just not fashionable anymore. Oh well.
One of my favorite passions involves researching and writing about baseball nicknames. A subset of that hobby involves the discovery of player nicknames or first names on uniforms, which has been a relatively rare occurrence in baseball history. From time to time, I’ve published lists of players who have worn something other than their last names on the back sides of their jerseys. Having uncovered a few additional gems with the 1960s Kansas City A’s and the 1970s Atlanta Braves, here is an updated list:
Player Name On Uniform Team Dick Allen “WAMPUM” Oakland A’s Vida Blue “VIDA” Oakland A’s Wayne Causey “KOOZ” Kansas City A’s Darrel Chaney “NORT” Atlanta Braves Ed Charles “ED” Kansas City A’s Billy Conigliaro “BILLY C” Oakland A’s Tony Conigliaro “TONY C” California Angels Vic Correll “BIRD DOG” Atlanta Braves Bruce Dal Canton “PROF” Atlanta Braves Doc Edwards “DOC” Kansas City A’s Jim Grant “MUDCAT” Oakland A’s Ken Harrelson “HAWK” Kansas City A’s, Cleveland Indians Andy Messersmith “CHANNEL” & “BLUTO” Atlanta Braves Roger Moret “GALLO” Atlanta Braves Phil Niekro “KNUCKSIE” Atlanta Braves Tom Paciorek “WIMPY” Atlanta Braves Jerry Royster “ROOSTER” Atlanta Braves Ichiro Suzuki “ICHIRO” Seattle Mariners Carl Taylor “CARL TAYLOR” St. Louis Cardinals Earl Williams “HEAVY” Atlanta Braves Jimmy Wynn “CANNON” Atlanta Braves
According to research I’ve done on the subject, Kansas City’s Wayne Causey was the first player to feature a nickname on the back of his jersey. A journeyman shortstop, Causey wore “KOOZ” on his uniform in 1963, the same year that the A’s became the first team in major league history to sport multi-colored uniforms… The most recent player to wear a nickname or first name on his jersey is Ichiro, who needed to obtain special permission from Major League Baseball to do so.
Unless you’re a SABR member who has attended previous Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, it’s probable that you’ve never heard of Marge Tillapaugh, who passed away on April 11 at the age of 80. She never played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball, didn’t umpire any games, and never owned a professional baseball franchise. Yet, she still had a connection to the game, serving as the hostess of SABR’s annual induction day meeting, held regularly at the Tillapaugh Funeral Home on Pioneer Street in Cooperstown. I didn’t really know Marge very well, but she was a gracious and efficient hostess, serving hungry SABRites like myself refreshments, cookies, and pastries at the meeting, and never charging us a dime… People always thought it strange that this annual SABR meeting took place at a funeral home, but the location made as much sense as any other, given Marge’s generosity and hospitality. Meetings are more about people than locations, and those meetings won’t be quite the same without Marjorie Tillapaugh.
Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen, who has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great Oneappears regularly on MLB Radio (MLB.com) each Friday from 12 noon to 1:00 pm Eastern time.
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