Cooperstown Confidential By Bruce Markusen
Rickey Henderson, making silly statements by the day and taking leisurely trots to second (as he did in a recent game against the Padres), is sounding and looking a lot like the Henderson of 1989. And that’s not a good thing coming from a player with Hall of Fame abilities. That summer, Henderson often went through the motions in left field, forcing the Yankees to trade him to the A’s for the disappointing package of Luis Polonia, Eric Plunk, and Greg Cadaret. General manager Steve Phillips doesn’t want to trade Henderson for less than fair market value, but may have no choice if Henderson’s laissez faire style of play continues... A team like the Mets, which will be in search of a leadoff man if Phillips does decide to trade Henderson, should be taking a close look at Anaheim’s Darin Erstad. After battling shoulder injuries and other assorted ailments in 1999, Erstad is healthy now, batting over .400 with that pretty left-handed swing, and showing power to the gaps. The Mets don’t have a large surplus of minor league prospects from which to trade, but they might try packaging Benny Agbayani or Jay Payton with the recently acquired Joe McEwing and a prospect like outfielder Juan LeBron or pitcher Lesli Brea. That might be enough to entice the Angels, if not now then sometime this summer, when the team inevitably falls out of contention in the American League West... Another team that should be interested in Erstad is the A’s, who need only an effective leadoff man to complete their walk-intensive, home-run heavy lineup. Barring a trade, the A’s would be well advised to stop searching for leadoff candidates among their center fielders. Rich Becker isn’t the answer, while Triple-A prospect Terrence Long is better suited to batting toward the middle of the order. So who should the A’s turn to for help in the leadoff spot? Their best bet may be Ben Grieve, assuming that he can duplicate his 1998 numbers, when he batted .288 with 85 walks for an on-base percentage of .387. Grieve may not look like a leadoff hitter--he’s 6’4, 220 pounds and doesn’t run well--but his ability to reach base makes him the best candidate for the job, at least on a short-term basis. If and when the A’s address this problem long-term, they can move Grieve back to a run-producing position in the lineup, thereby taking advantage of his enormous power potential... If not Grieve, the A’s might have to turn to Randy Velarde, once he returns from a stint on the disabled list. Velarde doesn’t want to bat leadoff, but he’s always been a team player who will bite the bullet and fill a role that will help the team... Although Rangers’ outfielder Chad Curtis continues to take heat for his blow-ups with teammates, we admire him for his strong moral beliefs and his refusal to back down from them. Over the weekend, Curtis and teammate Royce Clayton reportedly engaged in a shoving match in the Rangers’ clubhouse. Curtis was angry that someone on the team was playing a profanity-laced song in the clubhouse while children were present and promptly demanded that the music be shut off. If that’s the case, Curtis had every right to be upset and should be applauded for trying to take the appropriate action... And some people wonder why we continue to be upset over the notion of allowing children in the clubhouse in the first place. A clubhouse, with its foul language and nasty examples of humor, is simply not a suitable place for young children...
One Setback After Another
The latest personal misfortune to hit the Yankees--the revelation that pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre has cancer of the blood marrow--probably has some employees of the organization wondering if they’re working for the star-crossed Los Angeles-California-Anaheim Angels’ franchise. Stottlemyre’s diagnosis is just the latest setback to a Yankee team that has had its manager (Joe Torre) miss time with prostate cancer, watched one of its key left-handed power hitters come down with cancer and experience a recurrence of a drug problem (Darryl Strawberry), and has seen three players lose their fathers during the last year (Scott Brosius, Luis Sojo, and Paul O’Neill. In case you’re wondering about the cruel fates suffered by the Angels’ franchise over the years, their luck has been even worse than that of the Yankees--far worse--and dates almost all the way back to the team’s inception in 1961. Just consider the following list of afflictions, tragedies, and controversies that have plagued the unfortunate Angels over the years:
*Rookie pitcher Dick Wantz makes the Angels’ Opening Day roster in 1965, only to be diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor shortly thereafter. Wantz dies just a few weeks later, passing away on May 13 at the age of 25.
*In 1966, highly-touted bonus baby Rick Reichardt sees his first full--and productive--major league season interrupted by a serious ailment that necessitates removal of one of his kidneys. Reichardt never returns to the same level of play after the operation, prompting the Angels to trade him to the Washington Senators in 1970.
*Slugging first baseman Don Mincher misses over 40 games during the 1968 season, the result of a Sam McDowell beanball. Mincher struggles to regain his stroke after his return from the injury, prompting the Angels to make him available to the Seattle Pilots in the 1969 expansion draft. Mincher resumes a productive career with both the Pilots and then the A’s, with the Angels having nothing to show in return.
*A horrifying car accident after the 1968 season ends the career of promising young reliever Minnie Rojas. Although Rojas survives the car crash, two of his children lose their lives in the accident, and Rojas himself suffers permanent paralysis from the neck down. In 1967, Rojas had led the American League with 27 saves while winning the circuit’s Fireman of the Year honors.
*In 1971, defending American League batting champion Alex Johnson clashes with teammates and management, both of whom express outrage at his repeated failure to run out ground balls. The situation comes to a head when Johnson and utility infielder Chico Ruiz engage in a nasty clubhouse incident in which Ruiz allegedly wields a gun. Johnson eventually undergoes psychiatric treatment, but the Angels decide to rid themselves of the problem by trading Johnson to the Indians after the season. In a tragic twist, Ruiz is killed in an off-season car accident shortly after being released by the Angels.
*In another scarred chapter of the team’s tumultuous 1971 season, the vision in Tony Conigliaro’s eye deteriorates so badly that he decides to retire as an active player. "Tony C" had enjoyed his finest season ever in 1970, reaching career-highs with 36 home runs and 116 RBIs--for the Red Sox. Shortly after his trade to the Angels, Conigliaro’s eyesight had become so bad that it made him virtually helpless at the plate.
*On January 6, 1977, 23-year-old infielder Mike Miley dies in a car accident. The Angels had considered the switch-hitting Miley their shortstop of the future.
*On September 23, 1978, star outfielder Lyman Bostock is killed--the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting in Gary, Indiana. Bostock, who was hitting .296 at the time of his death, had been signed by the Angels as a free agent after batting .336 and .323 for the Twins over the previous two seasons. Just 27 years old at his death, Bostock was still in the prime of a promising career.
*Leading the 1986 American League Championship Series three games to one, Angels’ closer Donnie Moore surrenders a key, two-run, ninth-inning home run to Dave Henderson of the Boston Red Sox. Boston rallies to win the game--and the playoff series. Three years later, Moore commits suicide, with his agent claiming the talented reliever had never recovered from the emotional distress of allowing the home run to Henderson.
*In 1997, Anaheim’s dynamic lead-off man Tony Phillips is found with cocaine in his hotel room. The Angels suspend him for four days before deciding to bring him back, which makes the Players’ Association happy but causes a public furor in southern California.
*The original owner of the Angels, the beloved Gene Autry, dies in October of 1998. Although Autry lived a full life of 91 years, he never did fulfill his personal dream of seeing the Angels reach the World Series.
We, like the Yankees and the rest of the baseball world, will hope for a better outcome for Stottlemyre than some of the above Angels-related tragedies. After taking loads of criticism for the failures of several Mets’ pitching stars in the early 1990s, Stottlemyre has done such commendable work in guiding the Yankee pitching staff since the Joe Torre reign began. In 1996, Stottlemyre took over a staff that had become consumed by Buck Showalter’s obsession with holding on runners and containing the running game, as if that were such a big part of American League offenses in the mid-1990s. Stottlemyre returned the pitchers’ collective focus to the plate, emphasizing the importance of throwing strikes and keeping the ball down. One third of the Yankee staff (Andy Pettitte, Ramiro Mendoza, and Mariano Rivera) has developed during his watch, while journeymen like Jason Grimsley and Allen Watson have resurrected their careers under Stottlemyre’s guidance.
While Stottlemyre’s work as a pitching coach is well known today, younger fans might not realize just how good a pitcher he was during an 11-year playing career with the Yankees. Pitching in his prime seasons from 1965 to 1973, Stottlemyre won 149 games--or an average of 16.5 wins per season--a remarkable total considering the Yankees’ coinciding decline as a franchise. In both 1968 and ‘69, Mel used his devastating sinker to reach the 20-win plateau, this while pitching for mediocre Yankee teams of Horace Clarke, Jerry Kenney, and Frank Fernandez vintage. Along with standouts like Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Roy White, Stottlemyre was the Yankees in the late sixties and early seventies...
Let’s Not Bundle Up
Cold weather is nothing new in baseball--regular seasons have started and post-seasons have ended in less than ideal weather conditions for two and a half decades now--but major league players are now resorting en masse to wearing attachable wool hoods to cover their heads and necks. This is a fashion statement that Major League Baseball should do away with, and quickly. The woolen hoods not only look bad--making it seem that players are so distracted by the cold that they’re less interested in playing the game--but also appear that they might restrict head and neck movements while cutting down on peripheral vision. We can understand football players bundling up in sub-zero conditions, but the worst temperatures in baseball are usually no lower than 25 to 30 degrees. Come on, guys, let’s toughen up just a little bit... We wonder what the late Ted Kluszewski, famed for his sleeveless, cut-off shirts, would have thought of the new hooded look... And we thought those hideous turtlenecks that the Mets introduced in the late eighties were bad enough...
Seymour Medal Winner Announced
Congratulations are in order for William Marshall, whose book Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951 has received the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) as the best book of baseball history for 1999. Marshall will officially receive the award at the Seymour Medal Conference, which takes place in Cleveland on April 28, 29, and 30... Marshall is currently a librarian, archivist, and historian at the University of Kentucky... By the way, I’ll be speaking at the Seymour Conference on Saturday, April 29, discussing the history-making significance of the 1971 All-Star Game. For more information on the Seymour Medal Conference, contact John Zajc of SABR at 216-575-0500.