Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 04/24/2003
Securing The Stadium
Since September 11, 2001, “security” is a word we have heard often, perhaps more often than most of us might ordinarily like. It is a word that we are hearing just as often in baseball circles these days, given the events of this month. The senseless physical attack on umpire Laz Diaz in Chicago and the idiotic flinging of a cellular phone at Carl Everett during a game in Oakland have prompted wide-ranging reaction from a concerned baseball community. While some writers have taken to categorizing such reaction as “knee jerk” or “grandstanding,” it’s quite clear that maintaining the status quo will not suffice; something must be done to improve the safety of on-field personnel at major league games.
Here’s what can’t be done, at least given reasonable limitations. Unless we are willing to ring the playing field with security—and thereby create the possibility that security guards will interfere with foul balls and overthrows—or supplement the perimeter field fences with an obtrusive 15-foot Plexiglas wall, it is virtually impossible to stop a fan from invading the playing field, if that’s what he wants to do.
So what can be done? The key remains reacting to that unruly fan as quickly as possible, once he steps over the line of the stands into the active field of play. That won’t necessarily be accomplished with more security (because you’ll never have a one-to-one ratio between the number of security guards and the number of fans), but with better-conditioned, more highly trained security forces. If they can improve reaction time, the contact between the fan and the player or the fan and the umpire will be eliminated, or at least minimized. Local courts can also help out by charging fans with felonies, increasing the level of fines, and rescinding season ticket options for all offenders.
Will any of these measures completely eliminate the presence of the interfering and potentially violent fan? Of course not, but only because that’s an unreasonable expectation. Yet, the level of danger can be reduced with some well-planned and carefully-enforced measures, direct input from security staff who do this kind of work for a living, and even assistance and vigilance from the “good” fans, who still comprise the majority of the population at ballparks and stadiums. It can be done; at the very least, it’s worth a try.
The Nickname Game
Last week’s column on nicknames appearing on uniforms has resulted in some worthwhile e-mail response. As usual, SABR member and column contributor Maxwell Kates provided some of the most informative feedback. He points out that the A’s led the way in the unusual nickname fashion trend during the late 1960s and early seventies. “A’s players to wear first names or nicknames on their uniforms,” Kates writes, “included Vida Blue (‘VIDA’), Jim Hunter (‘CATFISH’), Wayne Causey (‘KOOZ’), and Jim Grant (‘MUDCAT’).” Unlike the other A’s, Blue maintained the trend even after leaving the team in a 1978 blockbuster trade with the Giants. “Vida continued to wear his first name on the back of his uniform with the Royals and the Giants,” Kates says. “He claimed it to be a tribute to his father [Vida Blue Sr.].” That certainly makes sense, given the reverence that Blue has consistently expressed toward his late father. In 1971, Finley asked Blue to officially change his name to “True Blue” for marketing purposes; Blue found the request insulting, especially given the pride that he felt in being named after his father.
Kates provides additional insight on Dick Allen, who wore the name of his hometown on his A’s uniform in the late 1970s. “I've seen Lou Cauz’ movie about the 1977 Toronto Blue Jays,” Kates writes, “and there is some footage included of a game against the A’s at Exhibition Stadium. Allen is on first base, and sure enough, he's wearing ‘WAMPUM 60’ on his uniform. The [uniform number] 60 was to commemorate the year of his high school graduation.” Yet, Allen didn’t finish out the season wearing Oakland’s green and gold. Not surprisingly, he committed an unpardonable baseball sin that irritated irascible owner Charlie Finley. “When Allen was released during the 1977 season,” Kates points out, “Charlie Finley’s explanation was that [Allen] was [caught] taking a shower during the middle of the game.” There was no word, however, as to who caught Allen in the shower.
The subject of much debate in this and other internet columns, Allen remains a volatile lightning rod for discussion when it comes to his character and relationships with teammates. “A few years ago,” Kates writes, “I had the opportunity to interview [former major league outfielder] Jay Johnstone at a golf tournament. We talked about Allen, and he said that one couldn’t have found a more loyal, decent teammate than Dick. Johnstone and Allen were teammates on the White Sox (in 1972) and the Phillies (in 1975-76), and he remembered Allen (and Tony Taylor) recalling just how difficult it was for the black players on the Phillies during the 1960s.”
Nothing Eating This Raul—And Other Notes From YankeeLand
Under other circumstances, I might be inclined to consider him as a “Comeback Player of the Year” candidate, but he did have 26 home runs and 15 stolen bases last year, so perhaps we might have to create a new award, something like “Most Improved Player.” That might be the best way to categorize the Yankees’ Raul Mondesi, who looks like a different player in 2003. After spending most of the winter hearing his name linked to trade rumors that had him landing anywhere from Pittsburgh to San Francisco, Mondesi reported to spring training 10 to 15 pounds lighter. Energized by his improved conditioning, Mondesi played well during the spring and has thus far carried that renewed level of play over to the regular season; the weight loss has given him extra quickness on the basepaths and an extra step in right field. In addition, Mondesi has exhibited a willingness to change his mental approach at the plate. He finally listened to the advice of Yankee batting coach Rick Down, who implored him to take outside pitches to right field instead of pulling off the ball and hitting lazy pop-ups and grounders to the left side. Mondesi has also improved his selectivity at the plate, working deeper counts and showing far less tendency to swing at bad two-strike pitches. Through his first 20 games this season, Mondesi has an OPS of over 1.000, compared to his well-below-par figure of .740 last season. As a result of the physical and mental overhaul, coupled with the retention of his base stealing and throwing capabilities, Mondesi is playing his best ball in the last three years and erasing—at least for the moment—any talk of trades or salary dumps… While the Yankees are pleased with Mondesi’s rebirth, most of their front office brass has given up hope that Drew Henson will ever mature into any legitimate kind of major league prospect. Facing a critical make-or-break season in his development, Henson has shown no improvement in his second go-round against Triple-A pitching. Through his first 15 games with the Columbus Clippers this year, Henson was hitting .153 with 15 strikeouts, five walks, and only one home run. The Yankees are now hoping (make that praying) that an NFL team will select Henson in this weekend’s draft (expect Henson to be taken in the later rounds, perhaps by the Detroit Lions, who are rumored to have interest in the once-and-future quarterback) and then begin talks with him about the possibility of switching sports. It’s safe to say that the Yankees won’t stand in Henson’s way if he chooses a better-late-than-never career on the gridiron… One final note on the Yankees: what exactly did Chris Latham do so wrongly that resulted in his being designated for assignment? Granted, sample size won’t exactly be the strong suit of this argument, but Latham did pick up two hits in his only two at-bats, stole a base in his only attempt, and made no errors while playing in the outfield. On paper, he appeared to give the Yankees exactly what they wanted from a fifth outfielder: a switch-hitter with speed, the ability to pinch run in the late innings, and enough versatility to play any of the three outfield positions. Apparently, the Yankees wanted a fifth outfielder who could also play the infield, which was the reasoning that they offered in recalling journeyman Charles Gipson from Columbus. In promoting Gipson to the Yankees’ major league roster, Joe Torre invoked comparisons to Clay Bellinger, which might not be the most encouraging words that Yankee fans have heard this year. Two years ago, Bellinger was the subject of a little-publicized depute between Torre and general manager Brian Cashman. Torre wanted to keep the hard-working Bellinger, one of his favorites, on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, while Cashman, less of a fan of the overmatched Oneonta native, was reported to have said something to the effect of: “I want him off this team—now !” As long as Cashman’s around, Torre won’t be allowed to bring back Bellinger, who is making a comeback as a catcher for the Giants’ Triple-A franchise in Fresno, but he apparently thinks that Gipson is the next best thing. Hmmm.
Sports Collectors Digest recently held a contest to determine the funniest sports trading card of all-time. This 1976 Topps card, featuring Kurt Bevacqua, some scary-looking calipers, and one enormous piece of bubble gum, finished second in the periodical’s sweepstakes. (The first-place finisher borders on the X-rated, so I opted not to include that here; this is a family show, after all.) In baseball’s more innocent time, players took time to participate in the official Bubble Gum Blowing Championships of 1975. The championships were sponsored by the Bazooka Gum Company and overseen by “gum commissioner” Joe Garagiola, who was NBC’s lead play-by-play broadcaster at the time. Each major league team held an individual contest, with winners advancing to the championships. In fact, almost all of the then-24 major league teams submitted a representative, except for the Pirates and Tigers, whose players apparently had little skill in the field of bubble-blowing. Here’s a look at the complete list of participants, which included three Hall of Famers:
American League Baltimore Orioles: Doug DeCinces Boston Red Sox: Rick Miller California Angels: Mickey Scott Chicago White Sox: Lee “Bee Bee” Richard Cleveland Indians: Eric Raich Kansas City Royals: George Brett Milwaukee Brewers: Kurt Bevacqua Minnesota Twins: Bert Blyleven New York Yankees: Walt “No-Neck” Williams Oakland A’s: Glenn Abbott (the team runner-up who replaced Oakland’s team champion, Angel Mangual) Texas Rangers: Joe Lovitto (who passed away two years ago after a battle with cancer) National League Atlanta Braves: Ed Goodson Chicago Cubs: Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Bench Houston Astros: Mike Cosgrove LA Dodgers: Rick Rhoden Montreal Expos: Gary Carter New York Mets: John “The Dude” Stearns Philadelphia Phillies: Johnny Oates St. Louis Cardinals: Bob Forsch San Diego Padres: Jerry Johnson SF Giants: Mike Sadek
From there, a “Big Six” of finalists emerged. The gummy gang included Bevacqua (a utility infielder), Oates (a catcher and future major league manager), Cosgrove and Scott (a pair of journeyman left-handers), and right-handers Rhoden and Raich. From there, Oates claimed the National League title while Bevacqua bubbled his way to the top of the American League contest. The cameras then came out for the head-to-head (or shall we say mouth-to-mouth) finals, which were taped for airing as part of NBC’s 1975 pre-game World Series coverage. With umpire Dick Stello serving as the official measurer, Bevacqua’s 18-and-a-half inch bubble defeated Oates’ 13-inch bubble to claim the championships. Other than hitting a home run for the Padres in the 1984 World Series, winning the bubble gum title was probably the most illustrious achievement of “Krazy Kurt’s” journeyman career.
Hall of Fame Handbook
As part of this segment, I usually answer questions pertaining to the Hall of Fame’s election rules and procedures, myths and misinterpretations about the Hall, and upcoming events in Cooperstown. In this week’s edition, I’ll defer to SABR member and baseball author Kerry Keene, a regular contributor to SABR-L’s online discussion forum. (For more information, visit www.sabr.org.) Keene, co-author of the new book scheduled for release this June, The Proudest Yankees of All: From The Bronx to Cooperstown, recently made an emotional, sensible, and well-articulated appeal for a new approach to arguments regarding the Hall of Fame candidacy of certain players. “The discussions and debates over who does and doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame are one of the most enduring, and often passionate that appear here [on SABR-L] and in SABR in general,” Keene writes. “At the risk of offending some, can we please acknowledge once and for all the Hall of Fame is not a Sabermetric award? While it is certainly reasonable to include Sabermetric analysis in the discussion, we must accept that there are other factors that can legitimately add to a candidate's worthiness overall.”
Keene takes issue with some Sabermetric analysts who would prefer that a player’s participation on pennant and championship-winning teams be excluded—or at least diminished—in Hall of Fame discussions. “Many Hall of Fame voters over the years have placed emphasis on winning, because that is largely what the game is about. If a player has contributed significantly to winning championships, that gives him a bit extra in terms of credentials. We must not overlook that it is the Hall of Fame, and being a large part of multiple championships can certainly add that certain something extra to the way a player is perceived. This concept is sure to be ridiculed, but it is a fact of life in the real world.”
The specific case of Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter spurred some of the most recent debate on SABR-L, along with comparisons to pitchers like Jack Morris or Dave Stieb, both on the outside looking in when it comes to Cooperstown. “Catfish Hunter has several credentials that helped to make him a Hall of Famer which aren't evident merely by applying Sabermetric formulas,” Keene writes before listing some of The Cat’s most notable achievements and milestones. “Five straight 20-win seasons; contributing greatly to three straight World Championships; a Cy Young Award; a perfect game; eight times on the AL All-Star team among them. Each of these factors by themselves may not have been enough to get him there, but added all together they make for an extraordinary career, and were no doubt a factor in getting him elected in only his third year of eligibility. Luis Tiant is often compared to Hunter—and many try to make a case for Luis as a Hall of Famer—but the fact is, he simply doesn't have the above listed credentials.”
Hunter and Tiant are pitchers of relatively recent vintage, but the subjects of Hall of Fame debates date back to as far as the 1930s, when the concept of a Hall of Fame was conceived and delivered. “One other aspect that has long puzzled me is when the election of a certain player from years past is criticized heavily because he doesn’t measure up Sabermetrically, such as the recent criticism of Willie Keeler’s election back in 1939,” writes Keene. Given the relative newness of Sabermetric principles and research, such criticism may be unfair. “Naturally, it takes a long time for radical analysis to take hold in the mainstream. Do we really expect sportswriters and Veterans Committee members to fully embrace these principles immediately, and ignore all of the other types of credentials?”
So what can be done? Is there a way to bridge the gap between the Sabermetric analysts and the traditional voters, who seem to be at diametrical opposites on the talent-evaluation scale? Or is there an alternative answer? Keene favors the latter idea. “There is one simple solution here,” writes Keene, “and I have alluded to it before. SABR should create a lifetime achievement award for those players who have excelled under the microscope of Sabermetric analysis. The criteria would, of course, completely ignore all of the remotely subjective aspects that are routinely dismissed here as meaningless, such as reaching career milestones, receiving awards that were voted on by sportswriters, setting various records, anything to do with batting average, being on winning teams, and above all, intangibles. Such an award would allow players such as Jim Wynn and Bobby Grich to receive their proper credit.” It’s an excellent suggestion, Kerry, and one that SABR should consider as part of its annual summertime convention. Such an awards ceremony would only add to the luster of SABR’s annual get-together, while giving some of the most avid statistical analysts of SABR’s community the opportunity to play an active part in creating a statistically-based Hall of Fame.
Re-Living The Swingin’ A’s—30 Years Ago
The new designated hitter rule was forcing manager Dick Williams and owner Charlie Finley to make changes with the 1973 A’s. Since Williams no longer had to pinch-hit for his pitchers, he tended to leave his starters in for longer periods. As a result, the A’s’ relievers became under-worked. Even ace reliever Rollie Fingers found himself spending too much time idle time in the bullpen. “It’s a terrible thing for relief pitchers,” Fingers told the Associated Press, pointing his finger at the DH rule. “It seems like I’m throwing more on the sidelines this year instead of in games.” Fingers also felt the new rule would hurt his chances of earning a pay raise. “We’ve got four good relievers,” Fingers explained to the AP. “Some clubs, like the Yankees, have one guy they use all the time. Sparky Lyle will still probably get about 30 saves this year. I’ll have something like 13. That will be great when I go in to talk contract with Charlie Finley.”
With four quality relievers and the designated hitter in place, Williams realized he didn’t need a nine-man staff; four starters and four relievers would be sufficient. The A’s dispatched the thoroughly well-traveled Rob Gardner to Tucson. In his place, Finley substituted Triple-A outfielder Jay Johnstone, fledgling comedian and one of the game’s greatest flakes of the late 20th century.
In 1971, Johnstone had hit 16 home runs for the White Sox, but his struggles the following year prompted his release in the spring of ’73. Envisioning problems in center field, the A’s signed Johnstone to a minor league contract and assigned him to Tucson. Upon his promotion to the major leagues, Johnstone reported to Kansas City, where the A’s were scheduled to play a night game against the Royals. At 7:45 pm, Johnstone received a telephone call in the dugout from none other than Finley. The Oakland owner wanted to wish his newest player good luck, and asked Johnstone if he needed anything prior to his first game. While talking with Johnstone over the phone, Finley heard a loud roar from the fans at Royals Stadium. Thinking that the fans were reacting to an impressive batting practice display, Finley asked Johnstone what had specifically prompted the cheers from the crowd. Johnstone replied matter-of-factly that the fans were reacting to a play in the game going on between the A’s and Royals. Now at a loss for words, Finley felt a lump in his throat. He had thought that games in Kansas City started at 8:00 pm, not at 7:30. The embarassed owner hurriedly said good-bye to Johnstone and promptly hung up the phone. Johnstone now realized the strangeness of the new baseball world he had entered.
Johnstone became one of the A’s’ newest candidates to fill the designated hitter role. The new DH rule, by the way, had met with such media resistance that it caused Dick Williams to lose his patience with at least one television broadcaster. Williams didn’t appreciate some of the negative coverage being given to the issue of the designated hitter and expressed his discontent with NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week” crew, which had criticized the American League innovation. When Williams saw NBC announcer Tony Kubek patrolling the A’s’ training room, he asked the former Yankee shortstop to leave. With Major League Baseball rules declaring training rooms as off-limits to the media, Williams found himself technically within his rights to ask for Kubek’s removal. Realizing he didn’t belong in the trainer’s room according to the rules, Kubek responded professionally and apologized to the Oakland skipper. Still, Kubek might have wondered if Williams was seeking some form of retribution for the network’s negative coverage of the DH.
DH or no DH, the A’s needed a productive one. The absence of a power hitter to fill that role, coupled with the lack of a proven center fielder, left the A’s with two major holes in their starting lineup. Plus, with Dick Green struggling in his return from back surgery, second base once again became a problem. The pitching staff, although strong on paper, did not fare well either, failing to pick up the slack for the offense over the first few weeks of the season. Other than starter Ken Holtzman and reliever Horacio Pina, none of the pitchers were performing up to their past resumes.
While John “Blue Moon” Odom was in the midst of an 0-5 start, Horacio Pina represented the other end of the success-failure spectrum, pitching surprisingly well in the first month of the season. The 28-year-old Mexican had faced immediate pressure from the Oakland fans and media, who criticized his acquisition from Texas in the Mike Epstein trade. (Fortunately, Pina didn’t hear many of the criticisms, because he understood and spoke virtually no English.) When A’s fans took their first look at Pina—with his long, bushy hair and gangly frame—they must have wondered whether he was even an athlete. At six feet, two inches, and 160 pounds, the reed-thin right-hander had earned the nickname “Ichabod Crane” during his early major league days with the Cleveland Indians. An impressive physical specimen he was not.
Initially, Pina had also failed to impress pitching coach Wes Stock, who noted his past inability to handle left-handed batters. Pina, an effective side-arming pitcher against right-handed hitters, seemed unwilling to use that style against lefties. “He was coming over the top to left-handers and his ball always was up,” Stock explained to The Sporting News. “His natural motion is side-arm, and his ball sinks when he throws it that way.” Stock quickly convinced Pina to rid himself of the overhand delivery and show courage in using his side-winding motion at all times. Pina had been given such advice in the past, but the recommendations never stuck—until now. With his long fingers and large hands, Pina already threw his best pitch, a sinking palmball, more effectively than most pitchers. Pina’s palmball now became lethal to left-handed hitters, as well. Pina piled up three wins and a save, which represented the best pitching of anyone on the Oakland staff over the first month of the 1973 season.
Claude Christie (Died on March 31 in Twain Harte, California; age 76): According to several sources, Christie deserves credit as the man who invented the batting tee. After a seven-year career as a catcher in the minor leagues, the community-minded Christie became active in youth baseball. According to several coaches, he started experimenting with a batting tee in the early 1950s. Christie’s first tee was made of metal, while his later tees consisted of plastic. Christie also founded the first Little League organization for the city of Palm Springs, California, beginning in 1952.
Sam Bowens (Died on March 28 in Wilmington, North Carolina; age 64): An alumnus of the Negro Leagues, Bowens went on to play seven seasons as an outfielder in the major leagues, all with the Baltimore Orioles. During a two-year stint with the Nashville Elite Giants, famed Baltimore scout Jim Russo spotted him and signed him to a contract with the Orioles’ organization. After four years in the minor leagues, Bowens finally cracked Baltimore’s roster in 1963. He hit .333 in 48 at-bats, helping him earn a fulltime job the following year. Bowens batted .263 with 22 home runs and 71 RBIs for the O’s in 1964, but never again matched that level of success. A slow start in 1965 resulted in a demotion to the minor leagues; even after subsequently returning to the big leagues, Bowens failed to raise his batting average above the .210 mark in any single season.
James Mertz (Died on February 4 in Waycross, Georgia; age 86): After a five-year stint in the minor leagues, this right-handed pitcher spent one season in the major leagues before retiring and serving in World War II. Pitching for the Washington Senators in 1943, Mertz compiled a record of 5-7 with an ERA of 4.62.
In addition, SABR member Bill Carle, a regular contributor to the terrific Baseball America, has reported the following death from the year 2000:
Bubba Roe Floyd (Died on December 15, 2000; age 83): Floyd batted .444 in a nine at-bat stint with the Tigers in 1944. He then missed all of the following season while serving in World War II and never again returned to the major leagues.
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 One, appears regularly on MLB Radio (MLB.com) each Friday from 12 noon to 1:00 pm Eastern time.
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