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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 06/17/2004

Garcia Going, Going, Gone To The Bronx?

The rumor of the month circulating throughout New York’s five boroughs centers on the Yankees’ acquisition of available right-hander Freddie Garcia, who continues to be shopped by the Mariners. Although variations of the rumors have included anywhere from two to four players in this East Coast-West Coast swap, the central rumor seems to focus on the following four-man deal: Garcia and left-handed reliever Mike Myers to the Bronx for enigmatic right-hander Jose Contreras and top-notch catching prospect Dioner Navarro. If this rumor is to be believed, why don’t the Yankees just throw in Eric Duncan and Robinson Cano, make the deal a complete shipwreck, and devour entirely what’s left of their faded farm system? For the Yankees to surrender their best overall prospect while failing to acquire a top-of-the-line starter, instead settling for an underachieving pitcher who’s said to enjoy the night life too much (and that’s a problem that could get only worse in the big city), makes no sense for the Yankees. If the Yankees are to balance this deal even slightly, they’d better ask the Mariners to throw in an A-level prospect or ask the M’s to settle for a minor leaguer a little less heralded than Navarro.

Now I can certainly understand the Mariners wanting more than Contreras for Garcia, whose value is at its highest point of the last three years. Contreras is older, makes a lot more money, and has the kind of fragile psyche that may prevent him from him ever justifying the $32 million the Yankees siphoned his way. Rather than Navarro, the Yankees should consider packaging hard-throwing righties Bret Prinz (who’s been phenomenal in limited major league duty this year) and Scott Proctor (who’s wasting his time and talent at Triple-A Columbus). A deal of Contreras, Prinz, and Proctor for Garcia and Myers (or just for Garcia) strikes me as far more fair and balanced for both teams.

Simply put, there’s no way the Yankees should include Navarro in any package for a pitcher who doesn’t merit being called a No. 1 or a No. 2. If the Yankees trade Navarro for a pitcher like Garcia, who’s really a No. 3 or No. 4 starter after his poor 2003 performance (when his ERA ballooned to a career high 4.52 in 201 innings), then they probably won’t have the chips to acquire a real ace like Randy Johnson, Jason Schmidt, or Barry Zito later in the season. Although there’s always a chance that none of these big three gets traded, it’s a gamble the Yankees should be willing to wait out. Zito is probably the longest shot since the A’s won’t likely trade him to a league rival that they might end up facing in the postseason, but Johnson and Schmidt are better bets. While the Diamondbacks say they have budgeted the $30 million due “The Big Unit” this season and next, don’t think for a moment that the front office won’t jump at the chance to lessen a high payroll for an injury-plagued non-contending team if the right package of prospects is offered in return. As for Schmidt, he’s not available as long as the Giants remain in contention, but their staying power remains in severe doubt in a division where the Padres and Dodgers have the potential to pull away. San Francisco’s lack of lineup depth and pitching problems will probably push the Giants out of contention at some point this summer; when that happens, the Yankees will at least want to ask the Giants what they’d like for the services of a workhorse like Schmidt. A catching prospect like Navarro might be awfully attractive to a team that has grown disappointed in the performance and attitude of incumbent receiver A.J. Pierzynski, who used to grate only opponents but has now become an unwanted agitator of teammates, as well.

Wailing For Walling

Managers have always been convenient scapegoats. For awhile, it seemed like pitching coaches were taking too many falls during the season, blamed for the inadequacies of young pitchers who don’t belong in the major leagues. Now the trend has come to affect hitting coaches, who unfairly take the blame when their hitters don’t listen to their sage suggestions. Since winning their last World Championship in 2000, the Yankees have axed Chris Chambliss, Gary Denbo, and Rick Down, making Don Mattingly their fourth hitting instructor in the past five years. And this is for a team that has made two World Series appearances and three playoff appearances since beating the Mets in the 2000 Fall Classic! Perhaps borrowing from the Yankee philosophy, the Mets have decided to follow suit and lay the blame for their woeful 2004 hitting on batting coach Denny Walling, who was fired this week—well before the halfway point of the current season. And why exactly is the Mets’ inability to score runs the fault of Walling? During spring training, the consensus was that the Mets were at least one hitter away from being a decent offensive team. Then Jose Reyes went down with the mother of all hamstring injuries and hasn’t taken a single at-bat all season. Then Cliff Floyd began a stint on the disabled list, leaving the Mets without his dangerous left-handed bat for several weeks. In essence, the Mets have been short three hitters for a long stretch this season, and short two hitters over the first two and a half months. So is it really any surprise that the Mets rank among the three worst National League teams in run production?

Let’s take a look at some of the individual cases on the Mets. Jason Phillips has struggled most of the spring, but that should really come as no surprise because of the common occurrence known as the sophomore slump. Kaz Matsui has struggled, but that’s understandable given the transition to a new league and a new culture. Mike Cameron has been awful, but again the reasons are apparent: adjusting to a new league coupled with a bad wrist. On the plus side, Mike Piazza has hit at about the same level as the last two season, Ty Wigginton has been about as expected, and Shane Spencer and Todd Zeile have actually overachieved.

So who are the hitting culprits on the Mets that might logically be blamed on Walling? I can think of possibly one, Karim Garcia, who has failed to show the progress he made with the Indians and Yankees over the last two summers. And even Garcia’s problems may be related in part to the adjustment to a new league, though I’m more inclined to blame his disturbing tendency to pull off—and up—against outside pitches. Even if we accept that Garcia’s problems should have been repaired by Walling, should we really believe that the Mets are firing Walling because of the failures of Karim Garcia, the same guy whom most major league teams shunned as a free agent over the winter? It’s not only fair; it just doesn’t make sense.

In justifying the firing of Walling, the Mets have pointed to the team’s hideous inability to hit with the bases loaded, along with other situations featuring runners in scoring positions. Walling has tried to cure that ailment by preaching ad nauseam about the importance of pitch selection, of trying to work the count, of trying to swing at favorable pitches that hitters can handle. Walling’s philosophy isn’t wrong; the Mets’ hitters simply haven’t been able to execute it. What else is Walling supposed to do, short of tying a lasso to the Mets’ bats from the dugout?

Manager Art Howe isn’t happy about the firing of Walling—and he shouldn’t be. He’s not only friends with Walling, whom he obviously trusts as a hitting instructor, but he knows that this move may be the precursor to his own firing. The process usually starts with the coaches—with hitting coaches becoming the fashionable victims—but it usually ends with the manager, who eventually takes his own uncomfortable place on the firing line.

Ubiquitous Uniforms and Mashing of Myths

I’ve always been fascinated by the baseball uniform. It might not even be a stretch to call it an obsession. Whether fascination or fixation, the attractiveness of certain uniforms stirred much of my original interest in becoming fans of two particular teams, while the homeliness of other double-knit combinations has made me rebel, rather illogically I might add, against other major league organizations.

Much of my interest in uniforms is based strictly on personal preference, having little to do with any tangible fashion sense or any objective method of evaluation. I like almost anything green or red (hello A’s and Reds), love pinstripes of almost any color (thank you, Cubs and Yankees), appreciate the combination of black and gold (thank you, Pirates), and despise the use of brown or orange, especially when used in tandem. And I can’t stand powder blue, which became such a popular color for road uniforms in the 1970s and eighties. Yet, beyond these subjective assessments of what is pleasing and what is not, the uniform is a crucial element to the mosaic of the major league scene. The uniform is critical not only in establishing the look and colors of a particular team, but also in telling us something important about the identity of an individual player. While most of the characteristics of a team’s uniform are the same from player to player, there are two features that are unique to each player: his number and his name.

According to a common baseball myth, the New York Yankees became the first big league team to sport uniform numbers. While the Yankees have set numerous trends in the history of our National Pastime, they were not pioneers in the deployment of numbers. That honor belongs instead to the 1916 Cleveland Indians. On June 26 that summer, the Indians took the field wearing large numbers affixed to their left sleeves. The experiment lasted just a few weeks, perhaps explaining why the Indians have become forgotten in history as number trendsetters. Rare photographs, however, offer evidence supporting the Indians as the first wearers of numbers among major league teams.

Thirteen years later, both the Indians and Yankees planned to open the new season with numbers—this time on the backs of their jerseys. Due to extenuating circumstances, the Indians once again gained credit as the true originators. The Yankees’ Opening Day game on April 16, 1929, was rained out, thus again allowing the Indians to emerge as pioneers and become the first team to permanently adopt uniform numbers. Unlike the 1916 experiment, the latest attempt at numbering caught on. By 1932, every major league team wore uniforms with numbers on the backs of their jerseys. The trend has remained in practice ever since.

At first, the Yankees assigned numbers based on where a player batted in the lineup, explaining the selection of “3” for Babe Ruth and the “4” for Lou Gehrig. Yet, never-ending lineup changes and roster alterations soon made this system impractical. In time, players came to choose uniforms based on availability, preference, and superstition—not necessarily in that order. By the 1970s, some players had decided to delve into relatively uncharted number territory, selecting such non numbers as “0” or “00,” or oddities like “99.”

With the assistance of game-day scorecards and programs, the numbers aided fans in recognizing players from a distance, while also helping radio broadcasters better identify players in the course of their play-by-play descriptions. The numbering system remained the only source of uniform identification for three decades, until one of the game’s most innovative owners decided to take a crack at the next alteration. In 1960, ever-creative Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck felt the time was right to add the names of his players to the backs of the jerseys, just above the location of the numbers. The names helped television-watching fans more easily identify players, while also making ballpark scorecards less of a necessity. In the years since Veeck’s groundbreaking idea, every major league team, with the lone exception of the Yankees, has adopted names for either its home or road jerseys.

Much like Veeck, Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley was another innovative owner with groundbreaking ideas who dared to invent. Nicknames especially held an important place in Finley’s heart, so much so that they became part of the ever-evolving uniform. In 1963, the same year that the A’s became the first team in major league history to sport multi-colored uniforms, Finley allowed infielder Wayne Causey to feature a nickname on the back of his jersey. A journeyman shortstop, Causey wore “KOOZ” on the back of his uniform. Other A’s players soon followed Causey’s example, either using nicknames or first names. Third baseman Ed Charles wore “ED” and catcher Doc Edwards donned “DOC” as the chosen names on their A’s jerseys.

As one of the decade’s most colorful characters, Kansas City A’s and Boston Red Sox’ slugger Ken “Hawk” Harrelson had already developed a reputation for rebellious individuality. Previously, he became the first player to use batting gloves at the plate. Upon being traded from the Red Sox to the Cleveland Indians in the spring of 1969, the maverick first baseman created another stir by having the letters “HAWK” stitched above his number in lieu of the traditional use of his surname. Harrelson thus continued a practice that his former owner (the inimitable Charlie Finley) had started with Kansas City.

In the early 1970s, Finley’s A’s (by now transplanted to Oakland) continued the trend of creativity on the back of the uniform. When relief pitcher Jim Grant joined Oakland in a 1971 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he instructed the team’s equipment manager to put the letters “MUDCAT” on his uniform. Since most fans and media types usually referred to Grant by his nickname anyway, the switch made sense and created little confusion for knowledgeable baseball fans.

Finley liked Grant’s fashion statement so much that he encouraged other A’s players to wear their nicknames, or even their first names, on the backs of their shirts. In 1977, Oakland’s Dick Allen opted for the letters “WAMPUM” on the back of his jersey. Unlike other players’ usage of alternate names, “Wampum” wasn’t Allen’s nickname; rather, it signified the name of his hometown in Pennsylvania.

In 1976, the practice of wearing nicknames on uniforms reached epidemic proportions with the Atlanta Braves, who had just been purchased by boating maverick Ted Turner the previous winter. At the suggestion of pitcher Andy Messersmith, Turner arranged for many of his regular players to wear their nicknames on their home uniforms. Burly catcher Earl Williams wore the word “HEAVY” on his back, an interesting choice given the constant criticism of his weight. Even players with longer nicknames joined in the act. Outfielder Jimmy Wynn, known as “The Toy Cannon” for his ability to pack home run power into a diminutive frame, featured the single word “CANNON” where his last name otherwise would have been placed.

Turner’s nickname game reached unparalleled heights with Andy Messersmith, who had suggested the Braves wear the nicknames on their jerseys in the first place. Turner assigned Messersmith uniform No. 17—instead of the No. 47 he preferred. He also gave him the strange nickname, “Channel.” With the name over the number, the back of Messersmith’s shirt served as a commercial for Turner’s television station—Channel 17 on the local cable system. When National League president Charles “Chub” Feeney learned about Turner’s not-so-subtle attempt at free advertising, he ordered Messersmith to dispense with the “CHANNEL” jersey and revert to the tradition of using his last name on the back of his uniform. Instead, Messersmith opted for what he insisted was his real nickname, “BLUTO.”

After the wave of nickname-wearing by the Braves, the trend wore off for most of the 1980s and nineties. Uniform rules became more stringent, mandating that players wear their last names exclusively. That practice continued until Ichiro Suzuki joined the Seattle Mariners as a rookie phenomenon in 2001. Known universally by his first name, the former Japanese Leagues star needed to obtain special permission from Major League Baseball to place his first name on the back of his jersey. If not for the maneuverings of mavericks like Veeck, Finley and Turner, Suzuki might never have been in a position to ask for such an alteration to what had become the standard baseball uniform.

While Ichiro is the lone exception to the “first name” rule, several current-day players are reviving non-traditional trends of the 1970s by wearing uniform numbers that fall out of the usual “single digits to sixties” range. Journeyman reliever Rick White, now pitching out of Cleveland’s overmatched bullpen, proudly wears the infamous “00” on the back of his Indians jersey. Cardinals outfielder So Taguchi, recently demoted to the minor leagues, wore No. 99 while patrolling St. Louis’ outfield. Another well-traveled reliever, Turk Wendell, is currently on the disabled list of the Rockies, but when healthy also sports the number that Barbara Feldon made famous while playing a secret agent on Get Smart. (There’s no one currently wearing Maxwell Smart’s “86,” but give it time.) And if the Yankees continue to retire numbers at a prolific rate, they may become the first team to petition the Commissioner’s Office for permission to delve into the area of three-digit numbers.

Table One: Intriguing Numbers Worn By Players and Coaches:

00        Bobby Bonds (Cardinals), 
          Jack Clark (Padres), 
          Paul Dad(Indians),
          Jerry Hairston (White Sox), 
          Cliff Johnson (BlueJays),
          Jeff Leonard (Brewers, Giants, and Mariners), 
          Bobo Newsom (Senators), 
          Joe Page (Pirates), 
          Rick White (Indians)

0 Oscar Gamble (White Sox), Oddibe McDowell (Rangers), Al Oliver(Dodgers,Giants, Expos, Phillies, Rangers, Blue Jays) Max Patkin,George Scott(Royals)

77 Charlie Dressen (Dodgers), Damaso Garcia (Braves)

88 Rene Gonzalez (Orioles, Angels, and Blue Jays)

99 Willie Crawford (A’s), Charlie Keller (Yankees), So Taguchi (Cardinals), Turk Wendell (Rockies)

1/8 Eddie Gaedel (St. Louis Browns)

Table Two: Players Who Wore Something Other Than Their Last Names On Their Uniforms

Dick Allen		“WAMPUM”		Oakland A’s
Rocco Baldelli		“ROCCO”			Tampa Bay Devil Rays (one game)
Vida Blue		“VIDA”			Oakland A’s
Vida Blue		“VIDA”			San Francisco Giants
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 
Jim Hunter		“CATFISH”		Oakland A’s
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

Pastime Passings

Mack Jones (Died on June 8; age 65; cancer): A left-handed hitting outfielder with considerable power, Jones was best remembered for his 1965 season, when he hit a career-high 31 home runs and was one of six Milwaukee Braves to hit 20 or more home runs. Along with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews and slugging threats like Felipe Alou, Gene Oliver, and Joe Torre, Jones helped form one of the most feared National League lineups of the mid-1960s. After making his major league debut with three singles and a double in his first game on July 13, 1961, Jones remained with the Braves through the team’s move to Atlanta. In 1967, the Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds along with outfielder Jim Beauchamp and pitcher Jay Ritchie for slugging first baseman Deron Johnson. Nicknamed “Mack the Knife” for obvious reasons, Jones remained with the Reds through the 1968 season, but was left exposed in the National League expansion draft. As the second player taken by the fledgling Montreal Expos (after veteran outfielder-third baseman Manny Mota), Jones made history with Montreal in 1969. He became the first player in the franchise’s existence to hit a grand slam home run, driving in five runs to launch the Expos to their first home victory at Jarry Park. Eventually concluding his 10-year career with the Expos, Jones finished with his major league tenure with 133 home runs and 65 stolen bases.

After his playing days, Jones received a prestigious honor from one of his minor league teams. In the year 2000, the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League enshrined the popular Jones onto their Wall of Fame, which is featured at P and C Park in Syracuse. In 1964, Jones hit .317 for the Chiefs, blasting 39 home runs and collecting 102 RBIs.

Chris Kitsos (Died on June 7 in Mobile, Alabama; age 76; lung cancer): A native of New York City, Kitsos played in one major league game. Debuting as a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs on April 21, 1954, Kitsos played several innings in the field but never accrued an official major league at-bat. Soon demoted to the minor leagues, Kitsos played for such teams as the New Orleans Pelicans and Mobile Bears, and helped the Pelicans to the Southern Association championship in 1955. A member of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization for 10 seasons, Kitsos never made it to the major leagues with Brooklyn. After retiring as a professional player, Kitsos became a youth baseball coach and also worked with the mobile parks and recreation department.

Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is co-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 this fall. Markusen is also available for lectures and presentations on baseball and baseball history. For more information, send an e-mail to bmark@telenet.net


by Bruce Markusen

 

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