Whatever Happened To Winning?
"It’s not about the money." That’s a refrain we hear often from baseball players—from many professional athletes, for that matter—during contract negotiations, trade talks, and a variety of other agent-driven ploys. We’ve heard it in recent days from players like Juan Gonzalez, who at first said his rejection of a trade to the Yankees was not related to the issue of money, but then tried to extract a ludicrous contract that approached the $100 million mark. We’ve also heard it from Sammy Sosa, who says his problems with the Cubs are not based on money and the absence of a contract extension, but rather to the lack of respect being exhibited toward him by Chicago’s front office. One may choose to believe the reasoning of Gonzalez and Sosa, or one may choose not to, based on a healthy dose of skepticism (and perhaps logic). Athletes like Gonzalez and Sosa—along with Baltimore’s B. J. Surhoff and Houston’s Moises Alou, who also indicated they would use no-trade clauses to block trades to New York—talk about playing in a city where they feel comfortable, about having a safe and secure place for their family, about not having to deal with too much media distraction. Perhaps those are all legitimate points. But the one thing we’re not hearing about from these athletes involves another important consideration—and that’s the subject of winning. While Sosa indicated he would have accepted a trade to New York, he would have done so only if he and his agent had been able to hammer out a long-term contract extension. Yet, the possibility of playing for a pennant contender didn’t seem to excite Sosa the way we thought that it would. The contract, it appeared, always took first priority. As for Gonzalez, it seemed like he didn’t give any hard thought to the possibility that he might actually be able to win a pennant or a world title playing with the Yankees. Perhaps he did, but we certainly didn’t read about it. For all of their individual accomplishments, Sosa and Gonzalez haven’t won all that much during their careers. Sosa, for example, has made it to the post-season once in his lifetime. That was in 1998, when the Cubs lost their first-round playoff series in the minimum three games. Gonzalez has enjoyed a few more trips to the playoffs (three to be exact), but his teams have never even advanced as far as the Championship Series, much less the World Series. Wouldn’t these guys, just once, like to experience the thrill of playing on baseball’s greatest stage? Of course, there’s no guarantee that this year’s version of the Yankees will return to the World Series this fall; the Bombers might not even make the playoffs if they continue to play the way they have for the last month. But at least the defending champions have a chance—and a reasonable one at that. As for Sosa’s and Gonzalez’ current teams, they have absolutely no chance of playing in October this season. The playoffs are not going to happen for Sosa and the Cubs, just like they’re not going to happen for Gonzalez and the Tigers this summer. As for the future, the Cubs will likely still be in a rebuilding mode in 2001, which happens to be the final year of Sosa’s contract in Chicago. And who knows if any legitimate pennant contender will even make a strong bid for a free-agent-to-be like Gonzalez, what with superior players like Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, and Manny Ramirez all set to be available on the market. Given such circumstances, the Championship and World Series drought could continue for several more years for both Gonzalez and Sosa. By then, their playing days might be over. We hear it again and again. "It’s not about the money." Perhaps, perhaps not. But for professional baseball players who supposedly love to compete at their sport’s highest level, it should be about winning, too. We know that winning isn’t everything, and that it’s not the only thing, but it should count for some thing.
What’s Going On In Atlanta?
For a long time now, the Atlanta Braves have been regarded as baseball royalty by the national media. Given their National League successes of the past decade, and the generally sound leadership provided by general manager John Schuerholz, there has been little reason to criticize or second-guess the Braves for the off-the-field decisions that they have made. Perhaps now that is beginning to change. Although the Braves’ team continues to succeed in terms of wins and losses, the new millennium has produced a series of ill-advised—and at times downright bizarre—decisions that makes one wonder where all of Atlanta’s collective wisdom has gone. In the latest and perhaps least defensible maneuver, Braves president Stan Kasten decided to punish the team’s broadcasters by refusing to allow them to board a team flight. Instead, the broadcasters (including longtime employees Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren) were forced to take a commercial flight from Atlanta to Montreal. And what exactly did the announcers do to incur the wrath of the Braves’ front office? They had the audacity to act as journalists, informing viewers that Atlanta’s grounds crew had tampered with the size of the catcher’s box during a weekend series against the Brewers. The field-tinkering chicanery became especially relevant in light of an umpire’s decision to call a rare catcher’s balk on Javier Lopez for setting up outside of the catcher’s lines. Ironically, the Braves’ announcers have often drawn criticism for acting as homers in their coverage of the team. Perhaps their past "homerism" is understandable given the Braves’ heavy-handed overreaction to their attempts at objectively reporting a newsworthy and controversial item. But make no mistake about it, the broadcasters did the right thing by reporting what they did, and Kasten clearly did the wrong thing by instituting his "flight ban" against them. Furthermore, the subsequent decision to lift the ban and allow the broadcasters to resume flying with the team shows that perhaps even Kasten himself realized how bad he looked by trying to bully the likes of Don Sutton and Joe Simpson, two of the best color announcers in the business. The treatment of loyal broadcasters is just the latest transgression committed by the Braves this season. The front office has completely botched the handling of John Rocker from the early days of spring training, when Schuerholz passed up the opportunity to make trades with the Expos and the Indians. Later on, the Braves announced that they were sending Rocker to the minor leagues to work out his control problems, but brought him back to the big leagues after three spotty outings in which he had shown little to no improvement in commanding the strike zone. All the while, the front office has continued to act as if it doesn’t care about Rocker’s negative presence in a clubhouse that has prided itself on good behavior and character… Predictably, Schuerholz’s signing of John Burkett as a replacement for the injured John Smoltz has not helped the Braves’ rotation. Burkett, who pitched brutally for the Rangers over the past two seasons, has an ERA over 5.00 despite pitching well in his last start against the Brewers… Manager Bobby Cox hasn’t been blameless this year, either. He overused Rudy Seanez (who has a clear and long history of arm troubles) by using him 23 times during the first 60 games of the season. The end result? Seanez blew out his arm again, costing the Braves the services of their best right-handed reliever. Seanez became the fourth Atlanta pitcher to suffer a major elbow injury over the past two years, joining Smoltz, Kerry Ligtenberg, and Odalis Perez. In spite of all of their ill-fated moves, the Braves remain in first place in the American League East. That’s a testament to the performances of people like Andres Galarraga, Quilvio Veras, Rafael Furcal, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones, whose offensive exploits have made up for the lack of pitching depth in both the starting rotation and the bullpen. If the Braves return to the World Series this year, the players will have gone a long way to make up for the mistakes of a usually sure-minded front office.
Baseball and Celluloid
It’s no secret that two of our most passionate hobbies are baseball and the movies, so it’s only natural that we try to find links between the two. Having lived and worked in Cooperstown over the last five years, we’ve seen a number of Hollywood types pay visits to the game’s shrine. For example, Arlington Road co-star Tim Robbins has made multiple journeys to the Hall of Fame, while also donating artifacts from his signature baseball film, Bull Durham. As one of Hollywood’s most rabid baseball fans, Robbins takes special joy in touring the exhibits at the Hall of Fame… Last fall, Bill Murray visited the Hall of Fame as part of the contingent that accompanied minor league owner Mike Veeck and his daughter, Rebecca, on a heartfelt visit to Baseball Mecca. Rebecca, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa—a gradual and progressive degeneration of the retina that can eventually cause complete blindness—spent some of her time at the Hall laughing and joking with Murray, whom she calls "Uncle Bill." As a lifelong fan of the Cubs, Murray regularly takes in his share of games at Wrigley Field, owns percentages of five different minor league teams (all with Veeck), and has plans to make a film about Veeck’s father, Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck. Murray is currently in the process of financing the Veeck film, which he hopes to complete within the next two to three years. Murray, who’s turned to more serious acting roles within the last few years, will play Veeck, the most colorful owner in the game’s history (with apologies to Charlie Finley)… Other acting notables who have visited Cooperstown over the past five years include Brad Pitt (who did some filming near Lake Otsego), Robin Williams, and Mark Harmon, who is originally from upstate New York… One of Tim Robbins’ Bull Durham co-stars hasn’t visited Cooperstown in recent years, but has seemingly made a living out of making baseball films. Kevin Costner can count Field of Dreams and For Love of the Game (which was better than we had been led to believe) among the three baseball movies he’s starred in since 1987… Here’s another intriguing connection between baseball and the world of Hollywood. Character actor Paul Giamatti, who has starred in such films as The Negotiator and Private Parts, is the son of the late commissioner, Bart Giamatti.
A Visit With Mudcat And A Brush With The Law
Here’s a good trivia question to try on a local baseball expert: who was the A’s No. 1 reliever prior to the move of Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers to the Oakland bullpen in 1971? Although he’s mostly remembered for his fine work as a starting pitcher, Jim "Mudcat" Grant capably filled the role of Oakland closer in 1970, one year before Fingers made his successful conversion from mediocre starter to standout reliever. Grant, who saved 24 games in 1970 before being traded to the Pirates, was in Cooperstown recently as part of a benefit auction and golf tournament that raised money for the Catskill Area Hospice… Although Grant’s time in Oakland was relatively brief, he enjoyed playing for owner Charlie Finley. "It was a good relationship," says Mudcat. "Every now and then it was fiery a little bit, but it was generally a good relationship." Finley liked Grant enough to bring him back to Oakland for the latter part of the 1971 season, re-acquiring him from the Pirates in a cash deal. Grant pitched well in 15 late-season games, compiling a 1.98 ERA and helping Fingers complete the transition from starter to ace reliever… Grant credits Finley for having the vision to champion ideas that were ahead of their time. "He was a good promotional person," says Grant. "Charlie advocated some things that baseball was against but found out a little bit later on that they were actually good ideas. For example, the uniforms. Finley came up with the idea of having the A’s wear two or three uniforms (instead of standard white at home and gray on the road), and little things like the rabbit delivering the ball to the umpires."… Grant’s favorite Finley promotion? The A’s team mascot, which took the form of a mule, or a jack-ass, as Grant likes to say... Grant also became a part of one of Finley’s favorite pet projects: having players wear their nicknames on their uniforms. At Finley’s urging, Grant became the first A’s player to do so, with the placing of the word "MUDCAT" in large block letters on the back of his jersey… Other former major leaguers who visited Cooperstown as part of the Catskill Hospice benefit were Paul Blair (perhaps the best defensive center fielder we’ve ever seen), Chuck Hinton (recently retired from a long and successful run as head baseball coach at Howard University), and Dave Lemanczyk (one of the original Blue Jays of 1977 and now the head of a prominent baseball school in the New York City area)… Former pitching standouts Vernon Law and Bobby Shantz, who also participated in the charitable event, offered their recollections of the 1960 World Series for a book we’re currently working on, Fall Classics: The Ten Greatest World Series of the 20th Century… Law says he injured his arm in the ’60 Series, the result of trying to compensate for a sprained ankle he had suffered in September of that year. Shortly after the Series ended, Law started a long car ride home to Ohio, but realized that something was wrong when he couldn’t reach the top of the steering wheel. A subsequent exam revealed a torn rotator cuff, which affected Law’s pitching over the next several seasons. Although he fought his way back to win 17 games in 1965, Law never quite returned to the Cy Young level he had displayed in 1960.
Coming to Cooperstown
Although general attendance at this year’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies (July 22-24) figures to be somewhat smaller than last year’s record-setting crowd of 50,000 fans, the Hall might be setting another kind of record this month. At this writing, 47 living Hall of Famers are scheduled to return to Cooperstown for this summer’s Hall of Fame Weekend. If that number holds, it will shatter the record of 37 living returnees, which was set in 1993. Although the list is subject to change, here are the 47 HOFers scheduled to be in Cooperstown on the second-to-last weekend in July: Luis Aparicio, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, George Brett, Lou Brock, Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, Larry Doby, Bobby Doerr, Bob Feller, Rollie Fingers, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Monte Irvin, Reggie Jackson, Ferguson Jenkins, Al Kaline, George Kell, Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner, Sandy Koufax, Tommy Lasorda, Lee MacPhail, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Stan Musial, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Phil Rizzuto, Robin Roberts, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Red Schoendienst, Tom Seaver, Enos Slaughter, Duke Snider, Warren Spahn, Don Sutton, Earl Weaver, Hoyt Wilhelm, Billy Williams, Ted Williams, and Robin Yount… Mays, who hadn’t been to Cooperstown for much of the 1990s, will be attending his second straight Hall of Fame Weekend. All of last year’s inductees are scheduled to return, with the exception of Nolan Ryan, who suffered heart problems earlier in the year… For more information on the upcoming Induction Ceremonies, call the Hall of Fame’s Public Relations Department at 607-547-0215.