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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 05/01/2003

Major Mets Mess

Did the Mets really hit rock bottom when they made eight errors and struck out 27 times in their now infamous doubleheader flop at the hands of the Diamondbacks on Sunday afternoon? Well, things can get worse, and they did for the Mets in their next game, when they dropped a dreadful 13-3 decision to the rival Cardinals at the start of a road trip. Yet, it may have been the Sunday swoon that finally sent the message to Mets ownership that major changes—and a major change in philosophy—must take place before this team can even think about becoming a legitimate contender.

The Mets’ embarrassing play puts general manager Steve Phillips closer to the firing line than he’s ever been, even closer than the time that his infidelity scandal placed him in such an embarrassing spotlight with the organization and the team’s fan base. If Phillips is fired—and that will happen soon if the Mets don’t reverse fortunes shortly—the Mets will likely tap the shoulder of assistant general manager Jim Duquette, who has the intelligence of his brother, Dan, but far better people skills than the now-exiled Red Sox general manager. Some observers have expressed concern that Duquette might feel awkward about taking the job because of loyalty to Phillips (who hired him to work in the organization), but no one would blame “The Duke” for accepting his first general managerial job.

While Phillips currently remains in limbo, manager Art Howe has much more leeway in New York, given his success in Oakland over the last three seasons and the general indictment that Mets players handed to Bobby Valentine after his firing over the winter. Although player personnel changes will likely have to wait for a changing of the guard in the front office, Howe needs to consider making some immediate lineup alterations. Here are a few moves that might make sense:

1) Begin the gradual transition of Mike Piazza to first base: Piazza’s defensive problems have reached an embarrassing stage, culminating in a recent throw to second base that actually bounced off the back of the pitcher’s mound. (By the way, I’ve never seen that before.) Against left-handers, Howe should employ Vance Wilson as his catcher and play Piazza at first base. This maneuver would improve the Mets defensively at two different positions, while giving Piazza and his sore left knee and hip a regular respite from the catching chores. Wilson certainly can’t be classified as a prospect or long-term solution at the age of 30, but he has been a reliable backup catcher, has good hands and a sound throwing arm, and should be able to produce against left-handed pitching. As for Piazza’s insistent braying that he wants to remain a catcher, he simply needs to be reminded that team comes first, with individual goals a distant second. A check of the standings should be all the evidence that Piazza needs.

2) Hand in hand with alternation No. 1, initiate the phase-out of Mo Vaughn: By sitting Vaughn against left-handers, Howe can send an important message to his players: high salaries won’t guarantee everyday status in the lineup. At one time, Vaughn played a decent first base, but those days seemed like last century. With apologies to Zeke Bonura, Dave “King Kong” Kingman, and Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart, Vaughn just might be the worst defensive first baseman in major league history, at least based on his performance this season and last. Combining Bonura’s statuesque mobility with Stuart’s bad hands, Vaughn has become such a huge defensive liability that he affects the confidence level of other infielders when making even routine throws to first base. And then there’s the matter of Vaughn’s conditioning. (As one Mets fan told me, “It looks like Vaughn gains weight during the game. I swear he looks 10 pounds heavier at the end of nine innings than he did at the start.”) For all the talk of Vaughn having reported to spring training lighter than last year, he is still about 30 pounds overweight. Sadly, that just makes him a symbol for the Mets’ current state of ineptitude—and an easier target for the boo birds at Shea Stadium.

3) Stabilize the outfield: Some of the Mets’ problems have been created by the condition of Cliff Floyd’s legs, which have caused him to miss playing time and badly affected his mobility in left field. Still, the Mets need his bat in the middle of the lineup, forcing them to live with his defensive shortcomings in the field. Given that, the Mets need to stress defensive play with their other outfield spots. A platoon of Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Timo Perez in center field makes sense, as does a platoon of Raul Gonzalez and Roger Cedeno in right field. Thankfully, Howe has already begun to make such moves, in spite of ridiculous complaints coming from Cedeno and his agent. While Cedeno is a terrible center fielder, he has had previous success playing in right, so it’s worth an extended try. If Cedeno continues to fail, then Howe should hand the starting job over to Gonzalez, who’s been a career minor leaguer, but a good one whose plate discipline has improved with age.

Will any of the above moves make the Mets a contender in the National League East? Of course not; even collectively, these alterations would probably only provide a small amount of immediate relief. Yet, it’s a starting point, and more importantly, a way to send a clear signal to Mets players and fans that accountability is taking place, that rebuilding has begun, and that selfish concerns, high salaries, and past reputations won’t be accommodated any longer.

The Cubs’ Not-So-Hot Corner

Ever since trading Ron Santo to the cross-town White Sox in 1974, they have struggled to find a long-term remedy to what can be an awfully difficult position to fill. Oh, they had Ryne Sandberg for one year (before moving him to second base), Bill “Mad Dog” Madlock for a few seasons (before being traded to the Giants), and Ron “The Penguin” Cey, who provided some temporary relief in the mid-1980s, but it’s been mostly a collection of overhyped prospects, overmatched journeymen, or over-the-hill stars who have taken turns at playing third base for the Cubs. The glorious list includes mediocre switch-hitters like Steve Ontiveros (not to be confused with the former pitcher), Rodney Scott, and Lenny Randle; mediocre right-handed hitters like Vance Law and Luis Salazar; good-field, no-hit wonders like Mick Kelleher, Ken Reitz, and Steve Buechele; and good-hit, awful-field marvels like Keith “Zonk” Moreland… The Cubs thought they might have found a long-term answer to their third base dilemma in Mark Bellhorn, who enjoyed a breakthrough season with a .516 slugging percentage in 2002. A switch-hitter with power and above-average fielding skills, Bellhorn seemed like the perfect fit at the infield corner. Now he looks more like Ontiveros, Randle, and Scott on some of their poorer days. An awful start to the new season for Bellhorn has the Cubs reconsidering the future of the switch-hitter—and the position. The Cubbies have shown some interest in the Red Sox’ Shea Hillenbrand, who’s become baseball’s version of Rodney Dangerfield to Boston’s Sabermetric front office. Chicago is also considering the recall of Triple-A third base prospect David Kelton, whose name (if not performance) might remind some of former third base standout Ken Keltner. The Cubs originally targeted Kelton for major league arrival in 2004, but he seems to have overcome the throwing “yips” that bothered him last year. The 23-year-old Kelton has already demonstrated big league hitting skills, so if he can avoid a relapse of his poor throwing habit, he might just be “NEXT!” in the long line of successors to Santo.

Lauding The Latinos

Alex Rodriguez might simply be the best position player in the game. Vladimir Guerrero would probably make the top five lists of most analysts and might one day challenge Rodriguez for “the title.” Sammy Sosa recently hit his 500th home run and should be joined momentarily by the underrated Rafael Palmeiro. And when he’s healthy, Pedro Martinez remains the American League’s most dominant pitcher.

Given the continued successes of these Latino stars, perhaps now is the time to bring back a special event that once commemorated the accomplishments of players who shared a common bond with these current-day stars.

Nearly 40 years have passed since an unusual one-of-a-kind all-star game was played. It was a game that received very little attention from the national media and only passing notice from baseball’s weekly documentarian, The Sporting News. It was a game that probably would not have been allowed to take place under any circumstances today—in the age of political correctness that we call the 1990s and the new millennium.

On October 13, 1963, stars from the American League opposed their counterparts from the National League in the last game ever played at the Polo Grounds. Yet, the impending death of the old ballpark was not the big story here. No, the most intriguing storyline of the game involved its participants. All of the game’s players hailed from Latin American countries or commonwealths, from Cuba to the Dominican to Puerto Rico to Venezuela. They played in what amounted to the first and only Hispanic American All-Star Game in the history of baseball in the United States.

The all-star game, which was designed to raise money for an Hispanic youth baseball federation, featured the four most well-known Latino players of the day: Luis Aparicio of the Orioles, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal of the Giants, and Roberto Clemente of the Pirates. Marichal started for the National League all-stars, opposed by veteran right-hander Pedro Ramos (of the Indians), who represented the American League. Pitching a four-inning stint, Marichal allowed only two hits and no runs while striking out six. The “Dominican Dandy” then gave way to Pittsburgh’s Al McBean—whose full name read Alvin O’Neal McBean—a native of the Virgin Islands. The unusually monikered right-hander matched Marichal by throwing four more scoreless innings.

In the meantime, the National League’s Latino stars struck quickly against Ramos. Phillies infielder Tony Taylor reached base and quickly scored on a single by Milwaukee Braves outfielder Felipe Alou, whose future acclaim as a major league manager would obscure his stardom as a player. The NL stars continued to hold the slim 1-0 lead until the fourth inning, when they strung together a rally of singles. Cepeda, Philadelphia’s Tony Gonzalez, Julian Javier of the Cardinals, and Pittsburgh’s Manny Mota each connected with hits against Ramos as part of a three-run outburst.

Although Ramos surrendered four runs in five innings, he put forth an impressive display of power pitching with eight strikeouts. In the sixth, he gave way to Kansas City A’s right-hander Diego Segui. Although better known as the father of current major leaguer David Segui, Diego also forged a reputation for throwing a devastating forkball (which some hitters considered a spitter in disguise). Whatever the case, Segui found himself in trouble when he allowed a single to Gonzalez. The National League pitching staff then aided its own cause, as McBean delivered a triple against Segui that scored the game’s fifth run. Feeling frisky on the basepaths, the fleet-footed McBean tried to stretch three bases into an inside-the park home run, only to be thrown out at the plate.

Trailing by five runs to start the ninth, the American League stars finally mounted a rally of their own. Eduardo “Ed” Bauta, a journeyman right-hander who had pitched for the Cardinals and Mets, allowed two hits, a walk, and a wild pitch, accounting for two AL runs. Bauta settled down and ended the threat, cementing a 5-2 win for the National League. The victory also completed an unusual trifecta for the senior circuit, which had already won the traditional All-Star Game and the World Series earlier that year.

Although Cepeda and Clemente ranked as the two greatest Latino hitters of the early 1960s, neither enjoyed a particularly memorable performance in the Hispanic all-star game. Instead, two journeymen players keyed the offense for the National League. Manny Mota, who would become one of the top pinch-hitters in major league history, collected two hits and two RBIs in two at-bats. Tony Gonzalez, the eventual runner-up in the 1967 NL batting race but an otherwise forgotten player, picked up two hits in three at-bats. As for the losing American League, Tony Oliva rated as the only bright spot, rapping out a single and a double in five at-bats. For Oliva, it was an indication of things to come. The following year, the sweet singing Cuban would win the American League’s batting championship. He would duplicate the feat two more times during an injury-shortened career that fell just short of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

In some ways, the ceremonies prior to the game proved more notable than the game itself. Organizers of the game handed out several awards, designating the top Latin American player, the best pitcher, and the most popular Hispanic player. The best Latino pitcher? No surprise there, as Juan Marichal took the honor on the heels of a 25-win season. The top player award, which one might have expected to go to an all-star like Roberto Clemente or Orlando Cepeda, instead went to Twins first baseman Vic Power, a 10-year veteran who had slumped to a .270 average and only 10 home runs in 1963. And the most popular player? Not Clemente, who would have won the award in a landslide if such a vote were taken today. Rather, the honor went to Cepeda, the affable Giants’ first baseman who enjoyed a solid rapport with teammates and members of the media. In contrast, Clemente often clashed with Pittsburgh-area writers, whom he felt lacked an appreciation for both his playing skills and his desire to win.

Beginning in the 1990s, Latin American players have begun enjoying more collective success in the major leagues than at any time in the history of the game. Both leagues would have little trouble fielding quality all-star teams consisting solely of Latino ballplayers. So why not resurrect the Hispanic American All-Star game as a way of recognizing the current contributions of Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Sammy Sosa, Bernie Williams, and so many others? And why not donate the proceeds to a Latin American youth organization, perhaps the Roberto Clemente Sports City, which is in need of financial help? Maybe the notion of having an all-star team based on ethnicity bothers the politically correct thinkers these days, but the benefits of recognition and fundraising for Latino causes would heavily outweigh the downside. At least it’s something to think about.

If the social climate weren’t so politically correct these days—and so against the concept of an all-star game based on heritage—it might not be a bad idea.

The Bereavement List

For years, baseball has categorized different kinds of transactions by an assortment of names and lists. Players can be placed on waivers or irrevocable waivers, unconditionally released, sold on waivers, traded, loaned (in the case of minor league players), designated for assignment, or disabled. Beginning in 2003, we can add another transaction to the list: placing a player on the bereavement list. In the past, teams would have been forced to play shorthanded while the player attended to funeral arrangements or would have had to seek permission to place him on the 15-day disabled list, a span of time that usually exceeds the period of bereavement. This new category allows a player to leave a team due to a death in the family, while also allowing a team to replace that player for a period of anywhere from three to 10 days. In principle, the rule makes sense for all involved, giving the player enough time to attend to family matters, while giving the team the opportunity to maintain a 25-man roster.

Unfortunately, some teams have taken a good and well-intended measure and have bent the rules to take further advantage of manpower possibilities. Last month, the Giants placed pitcher Jason Schmidt on the bereavement list because of the death of his mother. They replaced him on the roster with highly touted pitcher Jerome Williams. The Giants then sent Williams back to the minors only one day after he had made his major league debut as a starter and replaced him with another pitcher, Jeff Urban, who was recalled from their Triple-A affiliate. The Giants intent? They wanted to use Urban out of the bullpen until Schmidt returned from the bereavement list. As Lee Sinins (author of The Sabermetric Encyclopedia) points out in his extremely detailed Around the Majors reports, the Giants manipulated the rules to help out both their starting rotation and their bullpen. “The first National League team to use the bereavement list also becomes the first team to ‘abuse’ it,” Sinins contends. “The purpose of the rule is for a team to not to have to be shorthanded due to a death in a player's family. For one day, when it was Schmidt’s turn in the rotation, the Giants used the list for that purpose. For the rest of the days, they've used it for the purpose of adding another arm to the pen. [There’s] nothing illegal about it. But we knew it wouldn’t take long for a team to exploit the list.”

Card Corner

Over the years, Topps has airbrushed logos and uniform colors on countless cards, but during the seventies and eighties it was pretty rare for the company to use anything but actual photographs of players on the cards. In this week’s Card Corner, we find an example of a card that had no photograph, only a drawing, from the cap and the uniform to the player’s face, neck, and hair. So who is Mike Paxton and why was a picture of him drawn onto his 1978 Topps baseball card (No. 216), rather than photographed? Well, I can answer the first question easily enough, but the second query remains a bit of a mystery… No relation to actor Bill Paxton (of Frailty and Twister fame), or to the guy who owns the PAX Network, Mike Paxton is probably best remembered for being included in the trade that sent Dennis Eckersley from the Indians to the Red Sox; in the deal, Eckersley and backup catcher Fred Kendall went to Boston in exchange for Paxton, veteran pitcher Rick Wise, third baseman Ted Cox, and catcher Bo Diaz. Prior to the trade, Paxton had risen through the Red Sox’ farm system in the mid-1970s, emerging as one of their better pitching prospects despite the lack of an overpowering fastball. As a rookie in 1977, Paxton made an immediate impact, winning 10 of 15 decisions as a sometime starter and reliever. Standing only 5’11” and sporting a lower body nearly as bowlegged as Bucky Dent, Paxton compensated for a lack of velocity with tenacity and a willingness to throw inside that earned him the nickname, “Bulldog…” More significantly, the soft-spoken Paxton was—and presumably still is—deeply religious, a devout Baptist and a member of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. That may explain why his image was drawn and not photographed for the 1978 Topps card. Although I haven’t been able to verify this through any written documentation, I’ve heard it speculated that Paxton and another pitcher, Seattle Mariners left-hander Rick Jones (who was featured on a 1977 Topps card), didn’t want to be photographed on their cards for religious reasons. Topps has always negotiated its contracts with players on an individual basis, so it’s possible that Paxton and Jones specifically made the request for drawings, and not photographs, on their cards. While the religious interpretation seems like as good a reason as any in explaining why a photograph wouldn’t be used at a time when photos of players were in large supply, it doesn’t explain why Paxton’s two subsequent Topps cards (1979 and ’80) featured photographs and not drawings. Thus, the mystery continues.

Hall of Fame Handbook

“I’m doing what I do. Doing what I’ve always done.” That’s what Cosmo Kramer once said on Seinfeld. From time to time, people ask me what it is that I do at the Hall of Fame. As part of the Hall of Fame’s programming department, I help stage a variety of public programs, ranging from guest lectures to trivia games to multi-media presentations by members of our staff. Given that we’ve just begun the month of May and are finally experiencing some spring weather, now seems like a good time to present an update of upcoming public programs at the Hall.

On most Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in May, the Hall presents Sandlot Stories, which are in-depth multimedia presentations on various aspects of baseball history. Sandlot Stories topics include video interviews with newly elected Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Eddie Murray; Latino stars in the Hall of Fame; memories of collecting baseball cards; a video tribute to Ted Williams; and a 30th anniversary celebration of Roberto Clemente’s election to the Hall of Fame.

With Sandlot Stories serving as a primary theme, here is a calendar of events for the month of May at the Hall of Fame, including a full slate of activities for Mother’s Day Weekend. Unless otherwise indicated, all programs are scheduled to take place in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater.

May 1 SANDLOT STORIES: The Hall of Fame presents in-depth, taped interviews with newly elected Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Eddie Murray. 3:30 pm.

2 CELEBRATION OF MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL: Bring a ticket stub from a minor league game in 2002 or 2003 and receive free admission to the Museum (All day).

7 SANDLOT STORIES: Today’s presentation, entitled A Video Tribute to Ted Williams, highlights the career of one of the game’s greatest hitters. 3:30 pm

8 SANDLOT STORIES: On the anniversary of the perfect game thrown by Jim “Catfish” Hunter, the Hall of Fame presents A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. The presentation highlights the great A’s teams that featured Hunter, Reggie Jackson, and Rollie Fingers. 1:30 pm.

9 SANDLOT STORIES: The Hall of Fame’s Judie Mayer hosts a presentation entitled The History of Women in Baseball. 1:30 pm.

10 MOTHER’S DAY WEEKEND CELEBRATION

BASEBALL 101; Visiting speaker Kelley Franco offers an introductory 45-minute course on baseball. 1:30 pm.

SPECIAL EDITION SANDLOT STORIES: Deborah Hopkinson, author of Girl Wonder, will discuss her children’s book about women’s baseball pioneer Alta Weiss. After the presentation, Hopkinson will be available to sign and personalize copies of the book. Bullpen Theater and Library Atrium; 3:00 pm.

BULLPEN FILM SERIES: The documentary, All for One, details the lives and careers of Canadian players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. 4:00 pm

11 MOTHER’S DAY WEEKEND CELEBRATION

BASEBALL 101; Visiting speaker Kelley Franco offers an introductory 45-minute course on baseball. 11:00 am.

LEGENDS SERIES; A Legends Series event featuring alumni from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League will highlight the day’s activities. 2:00 pm.

BULLPEN FILM SERIES: All For One. 4:00 pm.

14 SANDLOT STORIES: Today’s multi-media presentation, entitled Roberto Clemente: The Great One, profiles one of baseball’s true heroes. 1:30 pm.

16 SANDLOT STORIES: On the anniversary of one of his greatest days in baseball, we’ll present A Video Tribute To Hall of Famer Ted Williams. 1:30 pm.

17 SPECIAL EDITION SANDLOT STORIES: In the kickoff to the Hall’s summer author series, I’ll discuss my book, A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. After the presentation, I’ll be available to sign and personalize copies of the book. Bullpen Theater and Library Atrium; 1:30 pm.

21 SANDLOT STORIES: Today’s presentation, entitled Murderers’ Row: The 1927 New York Yankees, will examine one of the greatest teams in baseball history. 1:30 pm.

22 SANDLOT STORIES: Today’s presentation, entitled Three Decades of Collecting Baseball Cards, highlights one of baseball’s most enjoyable pastimes. 2:00 pm.

24-26 MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND: The Hall of Fame will examine baseball’s involvement in war through a special presentation of Sandlot Stories. Each day at 1:30 pm.

29 SANDLOT STORIES: Today’s presentation, A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, examines some of the most colorful teams in baseball history. 2:30 pm.

May 30 SANDLOT STORIES: Today’s presentation, entitled Latino Stars in the Hall of Fame, profiles the seven Latin-born members of the Cooperstown shrine. 1:30 pm.

Pastime Passings

Al Epperly (Died on April 14 in McFarland, Wisconsin; age 84): Epperly experienced an unusual career in that he pitched in two major league seasons, separated by a 12-year span. The right-hander debuted in the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 1938, winning two games for the National League pennant-winners. He didn’t return to the big leagues until 1950, when he pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In between, his itinerary included stops with a variety of minor league teams. During a professional career that lasted 17 seasons, Epperly toiled for minor league teams like the San Francisco Seals, Milwaukee Brewers, Montreal Royals, and St. Paul Saints. He also played winter ball in Cuba.

Chris Zachary (Died on April 19 in Knoxville, Tennessee; age 59; cancer): A onetime member of the Houston Colt .45s, Zachary also pitched for the Kansas City Royals (during their inaugural 1969 season), St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers, and Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1970, the Cardinals acquired Zachary for submarining right-hander Ted Abernathy, one of the better-known firemen of the 1960s. Zachary’s only sustained success came with the Tigers; in 1972, the journeyman right-hander helped the Tigers win the American League East by posting a 1.41 ERA in 25 games, mostly in middle relief. Zachary finished his career with a record of 10-29.

Wally Burnette (Died on February 12 in Danville, Virginia; age 73; cancer): A member of the Kansas City A’s for three years during the pre-Charlie Finley years, Burnette notched a 3.56 ERA and a record of 14-21 in the major leagues. In his rookie season of 1956, the right-hander pitched mostly as a starter, completing four games and compiling an overall mark of 6-8. He then pitched primarily in relief the next two seasons.

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.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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