Donít Print Those World Series Tickets Just Yet
Thereís no question that the acquisition of Ken Griffey, Jr. was a monumental achievement for the Reds, one what will provide both an economic boost and a tangible lift in the standings. The Reds will be a strong bet to make the playoffs as a wild card, and might even be considered the favorite in the National League Central. Yet, hereís a note of caution for those already predicting that the arrival of the gameís best everyday player in Cincinnati will cement a World Series title for the Reds. Owning the best player in the game doesnít guarantee that a team will even make the World Series. Letís consider some recent history.
Over the course of the 1990s, one could make an argument for several players as the "best player in the game" at any given time. Griffey is one, as is Barry Bonds. Other candidates include Frank Thomas (we tend to forget that he won two MVP awards) and Albert Belle (that seems like awhile ago, doesnít it?). So whatís the grand total of World Series appearances by these players? Itís one. That occurred in 1995, when Belle and the Indians took the Braves to six games before losing on Tom Glavineís masterpiece. Bonds came close in both 1991 and Ď92, when he was with the Pirates, who lost to the Braves in the seventh game of each of those Championship Series. Griffey didnít even come that close; his Mariners lost to the Indians in six games in the 1995 ALCS. Thomas and the White Sox made the post-season in 1993, but also lost their Championship Series matchup in six games.
Are we saying that these players deserve all of the blame for not leading their teams to the championship? Of course not. In some cases, these players didnít have the necessary supporting casts (like the White Sox of Thomasí salad days). In other cases, too many of their teammates fell into post-season slumps at the worst possible times. Thatís what happened in 1995, when Griffey assaulted Clevelandís pitching staff but Edgar and Tino Martinez crashed and burned at the same time.
But there have been times when the superstars have failed to deliver when needed. For example, the Pirates should have made the World Series in 1991. They didnít, losing the seventh game to the Braves. But they wouldnít have been forced to a seventh game if Bonds had hit better than .148 with no RBIs in the series.
And then thereís the case of the 1996 Mariners, who had the best team in the American League, if not all of the major leagues. At least that was the consensus in spring training, when sportswriters fell over each other predicting that the Mís would win it all. Those Mariners had Randy Johnson and Sterling Hitchcock at the head of the rotation. They had a decent bullpen headed by a still-effective Norm Charlton. They also had a murderersí row lineup that included Griffey, Edgar Martinez, a healthy Jay Buhner, a young Alex Rodriguez, a productive Paul Sorrento, and an emerging Dan Wilson. Yet, those Mariners couldnít get even make the playoffs, in large part because of injuries that limited Randy Johnson to eight starts. Thatís an example of how just one of many team variables, above and beyond the contributions of one superstar player, can affect the fortunes of a championship run.
The bottom line is this: having the greatest player in the game can be a fun experience and makes lots of headlines, but has translated into zero world championships over the last decade. No one has ever credited the Yankees with having the best player over that span, but theyíve managed to win three titles in four years. Letís just keep that in mind as the gameís best player makes his way to his old home...
Deep Pool Of Managers Waiting For The Call To The Hall
Managers are baseballís most endangered species. They always have been, but more so today than ever before. They are constantly second-guessed by an ever-growing media, often receive more criticism than their players do when their teams struggle, must deal with the largest egos in professional sport, and are not protected by a powerful union. So perhaps itís only fair that the greatest managers in history are still rewarded with membership in the Hall of Fame. Although only 15 managers have gained election to the Hall, that number could grow significantly over the next few years, given the current depth of outstanding managerial candidates being considered by the Hallís Veterans Committee:
Sparky Anderson: A first-time candidate for election by the Vets Committee, he passes the litmus test of Hall of Fame managers: three world championships. All retired managers with more than two titles have made the Hall; as one of the few managers to enjoy success in both the National and American leagues, Anderson earned two world championships with the Reds and one with the Tigers. With Cincinnati, his teams always seemed to lack dominant starting pitching, so he compensated by dipping into his bullpen early and often, thus earning the nickname, "Captain Hook." With the 1984 Tigers, he fostered strong relationships with a group of talented young veterans, coaxed a career season out of a journeyman reliever (Willie Hernandez), and adeptly juggled his lineup at positions where he lacked stars. A winning and colorful personality simply adds to his impressive resume.
Dick Williams: It remains to be seen how his recent arrest for alleged lewd behavior will affect his chances. He has come so close to election the past two years, just missing out to Lee MacPhail in 1998 and to Nestor Chylak in 1999, and now faces even tougher competition with the addition of Anderson to the ballot. As his greatest legacy, Williams assumed leadership of three different teams (Red Sox, Aís, and Padres) that had failed to win for years and took them all to the World Series (winning twice with the Aís). Prior to his arrival in Oakland, the Aís had a nucleus of talented young players, but didnít win, in part, because of a lack of discipline from previous managers. When Williams arrived, he immediately stamped the Aís with his Branch Rickey-Vince Lombardi philosophies and identified three key players--Sal Bando, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson--as team leaders. He also made the vital decision (along with pitching coach Bill Posedel) to convert Rollie Fingers from a starter into a reliever, putting the finishing touch on a standout pitching staff.
Whitey Herzog: Unlike Anderson, who managed power-hitting teams in his two major league stops, Herzog fashioned a "run-and-slash" style of play that fit his teams (and their ballparks) in both Kansas City and St. Louis. Other than John Mayberry, George Hendrick, and Jack Clark, Herzogís teams didnít have many true power hitters, so his decision to steal bases and employ the hit-and-run frequently came by necessity. Itís mostly forgotten now, but Herzog also helped build the Metsí farm system in the late sixties. So what hurts his impressive candidacy? Although Herzog frequently led his teams to the post-season, he won only one world championship (1982).
Danny Murtaugh: One of the most underrated managers of the 20th century. Self-effacing and non-analytical in his communication with the media, Murtaugh extracted the most from his over-achieving teams in Pittsburgh. Because of his placid demeanor, he was often accused of "sleeping" in the dugout during games, but he brilliantly maneuvered and platooned role players with both his 1960 and 1971 world championship teams. In í71, he refused to panic after the Pirates lost the first two games of the Series to the heavily favored Orioles. Instead, he pointed to a derogatory headline in one of the Baltimore newspapers, using it to both anger and motivate his players. The Pirates proceeded to win four of the next five games and take the title. Managerial successes aside, Murtaugh was wonderfully down-to-earth and loved by players and front office staff alike.
Billy Southworth: Probably the least known of the managerial candidates, at least to younger fans. Like Williams and Murtaugh, Southworth won two world championships, but has received relatively little support for Hall of Fame election, perhaps because his greatest successes came during the World War II years. He wasnít particularly well-liked by his players, who often resisted his disciplinarian methods, but he still led the Cardinals to three straight pennants and World Series wins in 1942 and í44. Southworth retired with the fifth-best lifetime record among managers...
Even though the managerial pool is as deep as any category being looked at by the Veterans Committee, the rules permit only one of the above managers to be elected to the Hall of Fame in any given year. Yet, thereís no guarantee that even one manager will be elected, since managers are grouped in what is called the composite category, which also includes owners, executives, and baseball pioneers. For example, if the Veterans Committee decides to elect an umpire (as it did last year with Chylak), then no manager can be elected that year, since only one electee can emerge from the composite category.
Still, there is one exception to the above rule. Managers who hailed from the 19th century are considered in a different category altogether and are grouped with great players from the 1800s. Last year, a 19th century skipper--Frank Selee--emerged from this category. This year, players seem to dominate the 19th century listings:
Bill Dahlen: This early-day shortstop seemed like the favorite to win election to last year, only to be passed by the underdog Selee. Dahlen, a terrific line-drive hitter who often batted in the middle of the lineup, once hit safely in 42 consecutive games. On defense, Dahlen made more errors than any shortstop in history, but that was partly attributable to the horrid condition of the infields he played on. Dahlen had exceptional range, which helped him finish among the top three all-time in both putouts and assists.
John "Bid" McPhee: Arguably the greatest second baseman in the 19th century. His defensive skills outweighed his offensive game, which along with his quiet demeanor caused him to be underrated. Yet, he possessed a remarkable batting eye and scored 100 or more runs 10 times.
George "Rip" Van Haltren: This pitcher-turned-outfielder lacked power and played for some mediocre-to-bad New York Giantsí teams at the turn of the century, but hit .300 or better 12 times during a consistent career. He had good speed, allowing him to lead the league with 23 triples in 1896 and 45 stolen bases in 1900...
Next week, weíll have a preview of 20th century player candidates being considered by the Veterans Committee, which meets on February 29...
Defensive Tutors In Demand
The Mets are doing a smart thing by bringing in former All-Star and team leader Keith Hernandez to work with their new first baseman, Todd Zeile. Although first base carries fewer demands than third base, Zeile will need to accustom himself to new angles, handling pickoff attempts from pitchers, and learning assignments on bunt plays. Few players studied such situations as diligently as Hernandez... On a related note, one has to wonder why more teams havenít followed the lead of last yearís Pirates, who brought perennial Gold Glove magician Bill Mazeroski to spring training to work with rookie second baseman Warren Morris. Mazeroskiís instruction helped Morris improve his footwork and his quickness in turning the double play. In fact, the Pirates were so pleased with Mazí influence on Morris that theyíve decided to bring their Hall of Fame candidate to spring training for another session this year... Several other former stars seem like naturals as defensive tutors in the spring. For example, the Aís would be well served to bring in former World Series hero Joe Rudi to coach Ben Grieve on the subtleties of playing left field. As a young player coming of age in the late 1960s, Rudi himself benefited from the outfield teachings of Joe DiMaggio, who was a coach for the Aís at the time. Rudi went from being a very poor defensive outfielder to a Gold Glove winner within the span of five seasons... Other candidates to conduct fielding tutorials might be Wes Parker, a brilliant defensive first baseman who played nine seasons as a regular despite a mediocre bat. A six-time Gold Glove winner (every year from 1967 to 1972), Parker could work with veteran Eric Karros and the young first baseman in the Dodger system... Another logical pairing would be former Expo All-Star Andre Dawson and current Expo right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, who has too much talent to be making 20-plus errors in a season... And then thereís Ryne Sandberg, who seems like the ideal person to teach Cubsí newcomer Eric Young, a perennial defensive liability, the finer points of playing second base...
More On The Aís Finest
In light of our recent selections of an all-century team for the Aís franchise (including their years in Kansas City and Philadelphia), a few readers have asked for an all-time Aís team based solely on the teamís days in Oakland (1968-current). Here are our selections, with those players in italics representing carry-overs from our all-century team:
Also, an astute reader pointed out our omission of Eddie Plank from the Aís all-century team. Upon further review, Plank should rate an honorable mention as the teamís left-handed pitcher, behind Lefty Grove and ahead of Vida Blue. Thanks for keeping us on our toes. Keep those letters coming.
Although the Yankees are saying publicly that theyíre comfortable with the newly signed Rafael Bournigal as their primary utility infielder, theyíre still looking around at better options. One player theyíd like to have is Aaron Ledesma, whoís already been traded once this off-season (from Tampa Bay to Colorado). The Yankees offered pitching prospect Todd Erdos in exchange, but the Rockies turned them down. The book on the 28-year-old Ledesma? On the up side, heís a career .300 hitter in his role as a backup and can play all four infield positions. On the flip side, he doesnít hit with power, doesnít draw walks, and is stiff defensively... Former major league slugger Don Mincher, who homered against Don Drysdale in the 1965 World Series, was named interim president of the Southern League last week. He replaced Arnold Fielkow, who decided to leave for other career interests. Mincher, who remains the president and general manager of the Huntsville Stars, is one of the few ex-big leaguers to pursue a career--and a successful one at that--on the management side of minor league ball. Heís bright and down-to-earth, one of the real good guys in the game...