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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season - 05/20/2004

Card Corner

Tommy Davis has always been one of my favorite players. In some ways, it’s a strange association for me; I never saw him play during the prime years of his career, and for good reason—I had not yet been born. By the time I was old enough to start following Davis’ career, his playing ability had been reduced to a splintered shell of its former self.

In truth, we had very little in common. He’s from the West Coast; I was born in downstate New York. He’s black; I’m white. He’s old; I’m, well, not quite so old. So why have I followed and researched his career so closely? In part, it’s because he played just about everywhere, giving him the opportunity to experience a long list of teams, teammates, and managers not approached by most other players. More importantly, I think it’s because Tommy Davis struggled for much of his career. I like guys who have to struggle—and then persevere. They work so hard, and when they reach one of their goals, they appreciate what they’ve accomplished all the more.

At one time destined for a place in the Hall of Fame, Davis eventually settled for a solid career as a longtime, well-traveled veteran. In the early 1960s, Davis had been arguably the National League’s best all-around hitter. In 1962, he led the league with a .346 batting average and 153 RBIs. In 1963, Davis’ numbers fell, but he still led the league in hitting with a .326 mark. Two years later, Davis caught his spike on the second-base bag while executing a take-out slide, shattering his right ankle. The fracture, a frightening injury to a professional athlete, robbed Davis of much of his speed and power-hitting capability.

Instead of giving up, Davis adjusted. He learned to hit off his front foot, making him more of a contact hitter and far less of a power threat. The injury rendered him a journeyman player, as he floated from Los Angeles to New York (Mets) to Chicago (White Sox) to Seattle (Pilots) to Oakland to Chicago (Cubs). Given the frequent movement and the constant rejection, it’s hard to understand why Davis could have smiled so sincerely for his 1969 Topps baseball card (No. 135 in the set and his only card as a Pilot). By the following year, Davis had been traded three times, sold twice, made available in the expansion draft, and even released—on Christmas Eve, no less.

In 1971, Davis found a home in the Bay Area, at least temporarily. Playing a game in early April, Davis and the A’s trailed the Royals, 4-3, heading to the bottom of the ninth inning. With one out, Dick Green singled and moved up to second on a walk to backup outfielder Steve Hovley (a onetime teammate of Davis in Seattle). Royals reliever Jim York then retired leadoff man Campy Campaneris for the inning’s second out. Since Oakland manager Dick Williams had pulled a double-switch earlier in the game, the pitcher’s spot, featuring relief pitcher Bob Locker, was now scheduled to bat. In Locker’s place, Williams called upon his most experienced pinch-hitter, which happened to be Davis. With two on and two outs, and the A’s facing their third loss in four games to start the season, Davis belted a hard-hit ball into the left-center field gap. Green scored easily from second to tie the game, and Hovley raced all the way home from first base to give the A’s a dramatic come-from-behind victory. Tommy Davis, who had been acquired from the baseball scrap heap known as the waiver wire, had paid his first major dividend as the leader of Oakland’s bench brigade.

Davis’ clutch hit marked the beginning of a summer filled with late-inning heroics. By mid-season, Davis had become the best backup player on the Oakland roster, forcing his way into a platoon that saw him play first base against left-handed pitching. Batting a team-high .324 with 42 RBIs in only 219 at-bats, Davis played a key role as a supporting cast member to a lineup that featured stars like Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson. No American Leaguer played better off the bench than Davis, who batted a league-leading .464 as a pinch-hitter while driving in 13 runs with 12 pinch-hits. As Dick Williams would later tell sportswriter Phil Pepe of his skilled batsman, “Tommy Davis can hit at midnight with the lights out.”

So how did the A’s reward Davis? In the spring of 1972, the A’s waived the veteran first baseman-outfielder. “I knew I was in trouble when I got my contract,” Davis said of the written agreement that Charlie Finley had mailed him during the winter. “I hit .324 for him and he offered me [only] a $3,000 raise,” Davis told the New York Daily News. Davis had also continued to hit well in the spring exhibition games, assaulting pitchers at a .563 clip prior to his release. So why did Finley and the A’s essentially throw away such a valuable bench player while receiving nothing in return? The A’s claimed that the condition of Davis’ oft-injured legs prevented him from playing a position in the field.

In reality, Davis’ defensive limitations had little to do with his sudden unemployment, since the A’s planned to use him mostly as a pinch-hitter. The real reason could be found in the name of Davis’ agent—Bob Gerst—the same man representing celebrated holdout Vida Blue. Davis had first introduced Blue to Gerst, an act that Finley now considered unconscionable given Blue’s unwillingness to accept contract terms and report to spring training in Arizona. “If that’s the reason they cut me,” Davis told the New York Times, “there’s nothing I can do about it. If it is [the reason], it’s very childish.” Later on, Davis fully realized Finley’s intent. “He wanted a scapegoat,” Davis said. “He didn’t want to get rid of Blue, but he wanted to show how strong he could be.”

With teams looking to reduce their rosters to the 25-man limit late in spring training, the timing of the release did not help Davis. “I figure I had a job, hitting for Oakland and maybe playing sparingly… the next thing I’m out of baseball,” Davis told Black Sports Magazine. Davis would eventually find work with the Cubs and in later years would make Finley regret his foolish decision to release him. Davis would become one of the more productive designated hitters in the American League, at a time when Finley continued to search high and low for viable DH candidates. In baseball, that’s the best way to exact revenge, and Tommy Davis had succeeded in doing just that.

By the time he ended his 18-year major league career in 1976, this after having made even more journeys (including stops in Chicago, Baltimore, California, and Kansas City), Davis ranked first on the all-time pinch-hitting list with a batting average of .320. Among today’s pinch-hitters, there’s no one who’s even close. While that’s not enough to make the Hall of Fame, the ability to perform one of baseball’s toughest and least appreciated jobs gives me just one more reason to call Tommy Davis one of my favorite players.

Major League Morsels

Anyone familiar with this author knows that I rarely miss an opportunity to mix and match two of my favorite hobbies: baseball and horror. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in an indirect way, have given me the opportunity to do just that. It seems that the old section of a hotel in St. Petersburg, where many of the Devil Rays’ opponents stay during road trips, has been the source of several ghostly episodes that might be best described as baseball “hauntings.” One seemingly supernatural episode involved Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who spent a series in the hotel’s older section last year. One day Roberts asked to have some dry cleaning delivered to his room. When Roberts returned to the room, he didn’t find the dry cleaning wrapped in plastic and draped over hangers, as is usually the custom. Rather, he discovered the clothes laid out on the bed, as if someone else was preparing to wear the clothes instead of him… According to another account, Red Sox reliever Scott Williamson says he experienced a particularly gothic encounter last year while with the Reds, who were playing the Devil Rays in an interleague matchup. In the midst of a deep sleep, Williamson suddenly awoke in his hotel bed, unable to breathe. While lying on his stomach, Williamson felt an unusual force on top of his, pushing him into the mattress and making it difficult to take a breath. When he finally freed himself and turned his head to the side, he saw a man dressed in clothing of 1920s or thirties vintage. Though Williamson had never previously believed in ghosts, the encounter convinced him that he had experienced something paranormal. As a result, Williamson has vowed that he will not spend another night in the old section of the hotel, where the incident took place. He’ll take his chances in the newer section of the hotel, which is said to be ghost-free… These and other ghost stories prompted Red Sox manager Terry Francona to warn his players about this month’s trip to Tampa. “Watch for the haunted rooms,” Francona said cryptically and perhaps not completely tongue-in-cheek…

Is it just me or do the new uniforms of the Blue Jays look eerily similar to those of the Devil Rays, from both the uniform design to the logo? And if that’s truly the case, why would any team emulate the Rays given their continual futility on the field and seemingly complete absence of luck, which has reached exasperating proportions this spring? Perhaps the Jays should go back to their original look from their glorious days in 1977, when Roy Hartsfield was calling the shots from the dugout, Otto Velez was crushing home runs in right field, and Hector Torres was gobbling up grounders on the turf at Exhibition Stadium…

When the Mets decided to designate talented right-hander Grant Roberts for assignment, the move surprised many observers. Other than the pitching-rich Red Sox, Marlins, and Cubs, just about every major league team could use help in the starting rotation, making Roberts seem like an attractive commodity. So when Roberts cleared waivers, with none of the other 29 teams putting in a claim, the sentiments of surprise may have given way to feelings of shock. As it turns out, no one should have been shocked or surprised, since Roberts has been struggling with pain in his pitching shoulder and believes that he needs to undergo surgery. The Mets aren’t yet ready to make that decision, however, and are still hoping that Roberts will be able to resume pitching at Triple-A Norfolk without having to go “under the knife.” We may have to wait for Will Carroll to check in on this one.

The All-Name Team

While watching a recent game between the Mariners and Yankees, I was nearly blown away by the mention of one of Seattle’s rookie pitchers, a promising right-hander named J.J. Putz. The name struck a chord with me, prompting the following thought: there sure are a lot of players with unusual names nowadays. Some are laughable, some are lyrical, some are even nonsensical. So with both the comical and the mellifluent in mind, here is our All-Name team for 2004:

First Base: Lyle Overbay (a literary name, like something out of Hemingway) Second Base: Gookie Dawkins (his name makes me think of a combination of Mookie Wilson and Darryl Dawkins) Shortstop: Pokey Reese (a perfect double play partner for the Gookster) Third Base: Shea Hillenbrand (you have to love a first name that jives with a ballpark and a last name that sounds like it came from Wuthering Heights) Left Field: Wily Mo Pena (the first name is pronounced WIL-lee, not WI-ley, but the “Mo” makes it special) Center Field: Coco Crisp (you just knew this one had to make the first team) Right Field: Kit Pellow (sounds like a character in a Russ Meyer film) Catcher: Geronimo Gil (the G’s are silent, almost like H’s, but it’s still an eye-catching name in print) DH: Erubiel Durazo (a lyrical name that sounds better when said with its proper Spanish accent) Starting Pitcher: C.C. Sabathia (a moniker that’s smooth and cool; it also makes me think of Shield actress CCH Pounder, formerly of ER) Relief Pitcher: J.J. Putz (even pronounced correctly as POOTZ, it’s still funny)

The Nickname Game

The always affable Jim “Mudcat” Grant made another visit to the Hall of Fame this month (it’s getting so that we’ll have to change his permanent address from California to Cooperstown), so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the origins of his colorful nickname. Back in 1954, Grant earned the “Mudcat” tag while playing his first season of minor league ball for Fargo of the Northern League. According to one story, a teammate named LeRoy Irbe mistakenly thought that the rookie right-hander hailed from Mississippi, known as the “Mudcat State,” and slapped him with the label. According to another story, a teammate regarded Grant as so homely that he described him as being “as ugly as a mudcat.” Grant, who is actually from Florida and not at all unsightly in appearance, opted not to correct his teammate or defend his looks, and accepted the name with his usual geniality. The nickname became so popular that it eventually replaced his first name in common, everyday usage. Nowadays, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who calls him Jim; it’s always Mudcat or “Cat,” for short.

Sonnets To Sierra I love to admit making mistakes—when it involves one of my favorite players, that is. During the late eighties and early nineties, I found fewer players in the game more exciting than the young Ruben Sierra. He had all the earmarks of a future Hall of Famer, and a game remarkably similar to an established member of Cooperstown, the late Roberto Clemente. In fact, Sierra looked like he might emerge as an even better player than his fellow Puerto Rican, given his ability to switch-hit and his burgeoning power. Sierra played the game much the way that Clemente did, bypassing walks in favor of a determined aggression at the plate, pasting line drives into the gaps, displaying enough power to keep pitchers at least slightly intimidated, running the bases with a dogged kind of recklessness, and showing the kind of range and throwing arm that made him a right fielder only a few strokes below Roberto’s class.

And just when Sierra appeared on the verge of piercing his prime years as a full-fledged superstar, he inexplicably became consumed with weights and body building. Not satisfied with merely adding a few degrees of tone and a few pounds of muscle, Sierra seemed to become so obsessed with weightlifting that some might have confused him for a “Mr. Universe” contestant. Overly ripped with extra layers of muscle, Sierra lost the flexibility and agility that had made him such a versatile threat offensively, on the basepaths, and in the field. Burdened by a body that had become too heavy and rigid, and flaunting a personality that sometimes rubbed managers and teammates as arrogant and selfish, Sierra began a march toward mediocrity. Traded from the Rangers to the A’s in the Jose Canseco blockbuster, Sierra butted heads with Tony LaRussa, who soon demanded his banishment to New York for a washed-up Danny Tartabull. While with the Yankees, Sierra became one of the few players to foster a relationship of animosity with Joe Torre. From there, the journeys only continued with more frequency, from New York to Detroit to Cincinnati to Toronto to Chicago (White Sox). By the late 1990s, Sierra had been given up for baseball dead, with a body made for bench pressing but now ill-suited for the flexible rigors of swinging and throwing.

Yet, a comeback was still in the offing. After not playing a single major league game in 1999, Sierra resurfaced with his original Rangers, where he put in a revived season as a DH and part-time outfielder. He then moved on to the Mariners, where he once again played credibly if not spectacularly. And then when he became reduced to reserve duty, he found himself coming full circle again, this time back in New York, with a manager that he had once considered unapproachable and a manager who had considered him uncoachable and incorrigible. Now aging and no longer capable of playing the field or running the bases with any level of skill, a more mature Sierra grasped the value and importance of becoming a part-time player for a team that had visions of playing in a World Series. Realizing that he could not crack the Yankee lineup on an everyday basis, he became an integral bench cog and Joe Torre’s No. 1 choice for pinch-hitting calls in the postseason. (Does this sound like Tommy Davis all over again?)

Earlier this year, Sierra began the season slowly, hitting little during the first few weeks of the season. His bat seemed slower, making his lack of fielding versatility more pronounced and his presence on the roster more problematic, so much so that I called for his trade or release, in order to free space for the younger and more athletic Bubba Crosby. Well, I’d still like to see Crosby on the 25-man roster as a spare part, but not at the expense of Sierra. At a time when a number of Yankee bats have failed to hit to their established levels, Sierra remains one of the few Bombers playing above and beyond the expected call of duty. He also looks like one of the few Yankees who wants to have a bat in his hand with runners on base (through games of Monday, May 17, he’s batting .342 with runners on) and one of the few who understands what comprises a two-strike swing.

Does any of this mean that Sierra should play an everyday role on a team that hopes to call itself a champion? No, not at all. The DH role is meant for a veteran who is a better and stronger hitter, like an Edgar Martinez or a Rafael Palmeiro or a Frank Thomas. The aging Sierra is bound to tail off at some point, and will inevitably give up at-bats to a rejuvenated Bernie Williams or perhaps Tony Clark or maybe even untested career minor leaguer and Sabermetric favorite Brian Myrow. Yet, when that time comes, Sierra should still be allowed to wear Yankee pinstripes, even if only in a supporting role as a part-time DH/late-inning bench threat. Through games of May 17, he had accumulated an OPS of 1.013 as a left-handed hitter, making him a formidable option as a DH against right-handed pitching. He remains the Yankees’ best alternative as a pinch-hitter who brings a sense of danger to the plate, the kind of hitter who is as likely to drive a double down the line as he is to poke a single through the middle infield. Yes, Ruben Sierra can still contribute after all, even after all those calls (and yes, my call) for expulsion from the Bronx.

Pastime Passings (compiled with help from www.historicbaseball.com)

Warren Abramson(Died on May 13 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; age 78; complications from a heart attack): A longtime front office official with the Milwaukee Brewers, Abramson was the first man that Bud Selig hired in his effort to help bring major league baseball back to Milwaukee. Hired in April of 1966, Abramson was entrusted with providing hospitality during Chicago White Sox games at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Those games helped launch Selig’s efforts to return major league ball to Milwaukee, which had just lost the Braves to Atlanta. When the Seattle Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Brewers just prior to the start of the 1970 season, Selig hired Abramson as his Director of Hospitality. Often serving as a host in the team’s executive dining room, Abramson was still working for the Brewers at the time of his death.

Wayne McLeland (Died on May 8 in Friendswood, Texas; age 79; cancer): McLeland pitched in 10 games for the Detroit Tigers during the 1951 and ’52 seasons. In 13 and two-thirds innings, he posted a won-loss record of 0-1 and an ERA of 8.57. After his retirement from baseball, he worked for the Goodyear Tire company for 35 years.

Sam Nahem (Died on April 19, 2004 in Berkeley, California; age 88): A pitcher who toiled for the Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies over a four-year major league career, Nahem enjoyed his best season in 1941, when he posted a 2.98 ERA in 81 and two-thirds innings for the Cardinals. The following season, he saw his career interrupted as he joined the Army for service in World War II. After the war, Nahem returned to pitch for the Phillies, but was ineffective, allowing over seven earned runs per nine innings in 1948.

In addition, here are two deaths that have been reported from the previous year. Ray Medeiros (Died on June 6, 2003 in San Mateo, California; age 77): Medeiros appeared in one major league game, serving as a pinch-runner for the Cincinnati Reds on April 25, 1945. Nicknamed “Pep,” Medeiros did not come to bat or play a position in the field in his lone appearance.

Danny Napoleon (Died on April 26, 2003 in Trenton, New Jersey; age 61): A veteran of two major league seasons, Napoleon played in 80 games for the New York Mets in 1965 and ’66. Although he batted only .162 in 130 at-bats, he did contribute to Casey Stengel’s 3,000th managerial win. Serving as a pinch-hitter, Napoleon delivered a three-run triple in a 7-6 win over the San Francisco Giants on April 14, 1965.

And Another Thing

On the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend (May 29), the Hall of Fame will kick off a special weekend of activities by presenting a Legends Series event with former major leaguer Frank Tepedino, who played for the Yankees, Brewers, and Braves over an eight-year career and was part of Atlanta’s famed “F-Troop” bench squad in 1973, when he hit .304 with 29 RBIs in 148 at-bats as a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter. More importantly, Tepedino served as a firefighter with the New York Fire Patrol, contributing to rescue efforts at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Tepedino will discuss his memories of that fateful day and also recall his big league career as a teammate of Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. The program will take place at 1:30 p.m. in the Hall of Fame Library’s Bullpen Theater. Admission to the Tepedino event is free for all Museum visitors and tickets are not required, but seating is limited and will be accommodated on a first-come, first-serve basis… The special Memorial Day Weekend will continue on Sunday, May 30, when the Hall hosts four veteran players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in another afternoon event. And then the weekend will wrap up on Monday, May 31, when former major league relief ace and Vietnam veteran Bill Campbell discusses his military duty during one of the country’s most controversial eras. As with the Tepedino and the AAGPBL events, admission to the Legends Series with Campbell is free of charge, but seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information on any of the Memorial Day Weekend programs at the Hall of Fame, call 607-547-0261.

Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is host of the Hall of Fame Hour, which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on MLB.com Radio. He is also the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, Roberto Clemente: The Great One, and The Orlando Cepeda Story. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004. Markusen has also written a young adult horror novel, Haunted House of the Vampire, which is scheduled for release this fall.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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