Last night, I was taking the 1 train home to the Bronx, passing the time engrossed in Dick Lally’s “Pinstriped Summers”. I couldn’t resist picking the book up the day before when I saw it at the Strand, because Lally covers the CBS, and Steinbrenner years (though 1982). Knowing precious little about the Mike Burke, Horace Clarke Era, I thought it was about time to do some investigating.
At 59th street, a heavy-set man in his 50’s sat next to me, and pulled out the Daily News. The Yankees first-round playoff loss was voted by the News as the most disappointing sports story of the year. Putting my book down, and looking over this guy’s shoulder at the story, I couldn’t help adding my two-cents.
“103 wins, and that’s a disappointing season?” I said. “Even the damn papers are spoiled around here.”
Turns out the guy is a Yankee fan, and lives in the Bronx as well. So we spent the next half an hour talking shop. I peppered him with questions about the CBS Yankee team. It was my good fortune that I was able to get a seasoned fan’s perspective, to help add balance and shape to my impressions of players like Fritz Peterson, Joe Pepitone, Danny Cater and Tommy Tresh.
Eventually, we got around to talking about the Hall of Fame. I asked him who he thought should make it via the Veterans Committee: Santo, Dick Allen, Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Joe Torre, or Minnie Minoso.
He smiled warmly and the first thing he says is, “Hodges.” Having read Rob Neyer’s recent response to the Hodges debate, I’m fairly convinced that Hodges is a sentimental favorite more than the most deserving candidate (though Tom Verducci noted that Hodges’ slugging and on-base percentages were better than Eddie Murray’s). Neyer compared Hodges career with that of Joe Carter, and Rocky Colavito: very good, but not truly great. (Another friend who is just shy of 50 told me yesterday that Colavito was much more of a star, a feared-slugger, than Hodges ever was.)
My fantasy is that if he can put together another couple of solid seasons, Tino Martinez may find similar sympathy twenty-five years down the line.
I asked my friend, “Why Hodges?” And before he recited Gil’s accomplishments, his smile grew warmer. “Cause he’s a Brooklyn boy.”
Which is as good an explaination as any as to why New Yorkers of a certain vintage would like Hodges to be in the Hall, it’s just not enough, in and of itself to merit the selection.
Last night, for no reason at all, I sat down and wrote out a list of current players who would be Hall of Famers if their career ended today. I came up with it off the top of my head, and I’m sure that there are a few other players who are close (Biggio, Larkin, Sheffield to name a few), or too young (Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez) that I didn’t mention. Still, I was amazed by just how many future Hall of Famers we have in our midst.
Ken Griffey Jr.
I’m sure I’ve ommitted some deserving names, but the point is, we’re watching some great players. If this isn’t a Golden Age, it is at least a great age for Stars. When was the last time so many future Hall of Famers were active at the same time?
Most of the players mentioned above are in the declining years of their career, even those who are still productive like Palmerio, McGriff, Maddux and Clemens. Piazza, Alomar, Frank Thomas and Bagwell had sub-par years last season, by their own lofty standards (Alomar was mediocre by anyone’s standards), but still may have a few terrific years left in them.
Junior Griffey and Pudge Rodriguez may be the most intriguing names on this list because they are still comparitavely young. For the past few seasons, baseball fans have been waiting for these two to regain their status amongst the game’s elite. Injuries have tortured them. Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson are great examples of modern ball players who have improved with age, so the carrot is on the stick. If they can do it, why can’t Junior and Pudge?
Eric Neel wrote an interesting piece on Griffey a few weeks back called “Hoping for the return of the spectacular”. Neel neatly described the young Junior, and what he’s become:
“He wasn’t solid or profesional, he was spectacular. [I couldn’t help but think of this description watching Michael Vick play this season.] He was arguably the best player in the game. It was more than that: The game, the whole sweet spirit of it, seemed wrapped up in his brilliant, easy style. (Yeah, that’s a bit much, but that’s the way his game was; it made you want to say too much, made you wish you could find the words—make up new words if you had to—to say too much and then some.)…
All of a sudden, you’re thinking about him in the past tense, and the poetry of his swing seems forever lost. It’s a strange, vertiginous feeling. The shift from something effortless and great to something labored and common, even when it’s played out in small acts over a few years, is steep. There are two pictures of Griffey in your mind now, one laid over the other, with almost no overlap…
Hitting a baseball is different than hitting a punching bag, or George Foreman’s chin, and you’re enough of a student of Bill James to know that 33 isn’t exactly the peak age of offensive performance, and declines are usually just what they look like: declines.
So, romance aside, you know there is a chance it won’t get better from here, and it might get worse. Maybe greatness is just that: burning hot, withering fast…you know, fleeting…Maybe we’re drawn to it because we have an unspoken sense of how rare it is. Maybe the pangs you feel watching him swinging and missing these last couple of years, or thinking that he might be done now or soon, are the true measurement of how great he was.”
Neel is on to something when he says, “Maybe greatness is just that: burning hot, withering fast.” Perhaps “Brilliance” is a better word, because there is something to said about longevity being the mark of greatness as well. Though Griffey’s style may have been more lucid, couldn’t the same be said for Dick Allen, Bobby Bonds or even Darryl Strawberry?
I’ve never been a Junior Griffey fan, and his inability to mature personally has made him difficult to pull for. There is a lingering sense of entitlement with Griffey, as if he’s still carrying around an adolescent chip on his shoulder. Maybe the game got harder when his body started to age some, and suddenly the game wasn’t “effortless” any longer. Maybe we are judging Griffey too harshly, because as we all know, baseball is anything but easy.
Since I have it handy, here is another bit from Dick Lally:
“It is baseball’s great illusion that is it not a difficult game to play. When a player repeatedly fails to perform well, it destroys that facade of ease. It makes it painfully clear that the game of our youth, like normal life, is a hard and difficult business. Ther are too many daily reminders of that sort of thing. Booing implies many things, including: ‘Don’t screw around with my dreams; don’t take away my escape.'”
I don’t know if Griffey’s body has broken down due to poor work habits. I can only speculate. I do know that if he adopts the kind of single-minded focus, and dedication Barry Bonds has displayed throughout his 30’s, we just may be talking about him catching Aaron again sometime soon. Bond has achieved a level of superiority that is virtually unrivalled in the history of the game, but I never get the sense that it comes easy to him. If anything, his genius is combining tremendous natural talent with an obsessive work ethic.
Personality aside, I find it increasingly difficult to root against greatness (though I’m still having issues with Frank Thomas). I think I’d appreciate Junior even more if the game was more of a grind for him. It’s been nothing short of depressing to see one of the game’s bright stars fall so far, so fast.
For more on the Hall, peep Don Malcom’s site Big Bad Baseball for a lengthy article on Mattingly and Mex Hernandez, “Donnie, Keith, Steve and a Mystery Guest (the R rated version)”.
Also, check out the return of Tom Verducci, with his piece on the Hall of Fame ballot (Eddie Murray: yes, Ryno: no go.)
My friend Mindy is an avid Yankee nutjob has been gorging herself on Yankee history this winter. She especially loves Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle. We’ve been swaping stories for weeks now, and I recently suggested that she may want to check out the Museum of Television and Radio as a place to do some more learnin’.
I recieved an e-mail this morning:
Here is my report on the Museum:
Okay, first let me say that it is a good thing I didn’t go to this museum before because between watching the films and all of the baseball reading, I would have never gotten any work done and would have been out on the street weeks ago.
So, I started light and looked up an old interview that Whitey and Mickey did on the Ed Sullivan show. There, of course, is a story behind the interview. It was during the 1955 World Series against the Dodgers, and the Yankees were down 2 games to 3. It was the night of the 5th game and Whitey was scheduled to pitch the next day. So Sullivan asks him who is pitching tomorrow and Whitey replies, “I am, and then Tommy Byrne will be pitching the next day.” This reply sparked such an outcry because of Whitey’s arrogance in assuming he would win the game and that there would even be a game 7. Of course, Whitey did win the next day’s game, and as we know, the Dodgers went on to win game 7.
The interview was kind of disappointing, though, because it lasted all of 45 seconds. Whitey said maybe two sentences and Mickey said, at most, one sentence. That’s alright.
The next two clips I got were the 50s and 60s from the Ken Burn’s Baseball Series. Very exciting. It was great to see the interviews and clips on Mickey and Ted Williams. Stuff on Joe D. and Yogi. Jackie Robinson had a nice portion and so did Willie Mays. The home run race of 61, obviously, and then all of the crazy changes in the 60s. You know the shtick since you already saw it. I liked it very much.
The final clip I saw was game 7 of the 1952 World Series against the Dodgers. I got to see a Mickey Mantle home run, a Jackie Robinson triple, and all three starting pitchers, Lopat, Reynolds, and Raschi. It was so cool to see all of these guys that I have been reading about-ittle Scooter and Yogi and Billy the Kid (who hit a couple of singles). I’ll have to find another game where Whitey’s playing (he was in the Korean War in ’51 and ’52).
The game I wanted to see most, though, was the 1961 All Star game. I couldn’t find it. Aside from all of the amazing players in this game, there is just one moment that occurred that I know would give me a giggle. The day before the game was to be played in San Francisco, Mickey and Whitey flew out a day early to get in a day of golf. They didn’t have anything with them so the Giant’s owner, Horace Stoneham let them go to his club and buy whatever they needed to play and put it on his tab. They each ran up a $200 bill. So later that night, Whitey went over to Stoneham to give him the money and he decided to have some fun and make a bet with Whitey. Wrong move. He told Whitey that if he got out Willie Mays in tomorrow’s game then the bill would be cleared. However, if Willie got a run off of him, they would owe double (making it $800). Of course Whitey could never pass up a challenge, which scared Mantle to death because Mays used to KILL Whitey. So, the next day Whitey starts the game, Willie steps up, Mantle is in center field. First pitch, foul, second pitch, just barely foul, third pitch-Strike. Mantle’s response: he started leaping up and down, yelling and yahooing, and twirling all over the field like he had just won the world series. The writers became suspicious because this was around the time of the big competition “who is better-Mantle, Mays or Snider.” Mantle and Mays were actually good friends, so when Willie looked at Whitey, like “what the fuck is that crazy ass doing?” they finally told him the story and Willie started laughing hysterically.
Anyway, I just wanted to see the clip for Mantle’s reaction to Whitey striking out Willie Mays.
I just have to add that the two moments where I smiled the most and that really touched me during the Ken Burns clips, were: 1) Bobby Thompson’s home run and the reaction of the Giants (players and fans) and 2) Seeing clips of Ted Williams play his last game with his infamous home run. Isn’t that funny? Neither included the Yankees. Huh.
I may go back tomorrow. I have a feeling I am going to be very wild.
IT WAS 30 YEARS AGO TODAY…
Today marks the 30th anniversary of George Steinbrenner buying the Yankees. To think that he did it for less than he’s currently paying Raul Mondesi, Ro White and Sterling Hitchcock is staggering. The Post has an article commemorating the sale today. At the end of the piece, George, now 72, said he wouldn’t be running the team forever. “This year has taken a toll. Ive been very tired, but I still get the steam up when I have to.”
Yeah, just ask Jeter.
BILL JAMES WATCH
I have to admit that I’m fascinated that Bill James is working for the Yankees arch-rival. I will be keeping tabs on him throughout the year. The first interview I’ve encountered since he’s been in Boston was posted on mlb.com this week.