"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: February 2008

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Hot Seat

Andy Pettitte spoke to the media yesterday in Tampa. He was flanked by Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi. Teammates, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera sat nearby in the audience. Here is Pettitte’s prepared statement:

I just wanted to say, well, I’m happy to be back here and again looking forward to giving the Yankees every ounce of energy I have this season. I want to thank the New York Yankees for giving me a few extra days with my family. I think they realize this has taken a toll on my family, and other than my relationship with God, my family is the No. 1 priority in my life.

I want to apologize to the New York Yankees and to the Houston Astros organizations and to their fans and to all my teammates and to all of baseball fans for the embarrassment I have caused them. I also want to tell anyone that is an Andy Pettitte fan I am sorry, especially any kids that might look up to me. Since graduating from high school, I have spent my life working with young kids at my church and in my community. I never want a young person to do what I did.

Anyone that has followed my career knows that I have battled elbow problems the entire time. Again, like I said before, I never took this to get an edge on anyone. I did this to try to get off the DL and to do my job. And again, for that, I am sorry for the mistakes I’ve made.

I have been put in a situation that I think no one should ever be put. Being put in the middle of a situation between two men I have known for a long time has been a very difficult time for me over the last couple of months. I have never tried to take sides in Roger [Clemens] and [Brian McNamee's] situation, but I’ve only been honest.

Roger has been one my closest friends in baseball over the last nine years. He has taught me more about pitching than I ever could have imagined. Mac has pushed me in my workouts harder than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I have been friends with Roger and Mac for a long time and, hopefully, will continue to be friends after this.

As far as the situation with my dad, I am sorry for not telling the whole truth in my original statement after the Mitchell Report was released. I am human, just like anyone else, and people make mistakes. I never wanted to bring my dad into a situation like this. This was between me and him, and no one else. I testified about my dad in part because I felt in my heart I had to, but mainly because he urged me to tell the truth, even if it hurt him. Most of you know that my dad has had numerous health problems, especially with his heart, and he was just trying to do anything to help himself feel better. He is a private individual, not a professional athlete like myself, and his privacy should be respected.

I hope with the help from y’all that I can put all this behind me and continue to do what I’ve always tried to do — that is to help bring the New York Yankees another world championship.

Most of the columnists I read this morning suggest that the drama is far from over for Pettitte.

Meanwhile, Rob Neyer had a post about Posada yesterday at ESPN. He writes, in part:

Is Posada the best “old” catcher ever? No. That title clearly belongs to Fisk. Best mid-30s catcher? I don’t think I’m prepared to say that; it’s a great battle between him and Howard. Which is appropriate because those two have a great deal in common. Both were Yankees. Both weren’t worked particularly hard in their 20s; Posada because of Joe Girardi, Howard because of Yogi Berra.

How good was Elston Howard? In his Age 34 season (above) he was the American League’s MVP; in his Age 35 season (ditto) he finished third in the voting. If he hadn’t gotten that late start he might be in the Hall of Fame.

But you know what happened to Howard after he turned 36? He stopped hitting. Howard’s OPS+’s from ages 32-35: 153, 113, 140, 128. Over those four seasons, his 133 OPS+ is No. 1 all time for catchers in that age range (minimum 500 games). And No. 2? Posada (130 OPS+), followed by Hall of Famers Hartnett (127), Berra (118) and Fisk (117).

Howard’s OPS+’s from 36-39: 77, 98, 42, 92. That last number, while constituting an impressive rebound, 1) came in only 71 games, and 2) came in Howard’s last season.

Will the same fate befall Posada? Almost certainly not. Howard’s a sample size of exactly one, and certainly doesn’t predict Posada’s future. On the other hand, Fisk is essentially the only catcher who’s remained a truly productive hitter into his late 30s. Who is Posada more likely to resemble, Fisk, or the many other good-hitting catchers in the game’s long history?

The answer seems obvious.

More obviousness: Posada was incredibly lucky in 2007. Perhaps it goes without saying that when any player puts up numbers that are both historic and out of character with the rest of his career, he had a bit of luck on his side. It was more than a bit, though; when Posada put the ball into play he batted around .390, far higher than his career norms. This year he’ll be back to normal, and should post numbers something like his outstanding performance from 2004 through 2006. But can he keep it going for more than another year or two? Historically speaking, it’s terribly unlikely. And as great as he’s been, one wonders if he’ll really be worth $13 million per season from today through October of 2011.

I expected Posada and Alex Rodriguez to come back down to earth some this year. But they will still likely be All-Stars (though it’ll be interesting to see how the third base voting goes now with Cabrera in the league), even if their numbers understandably fall off.

The Source (Good n Plenty)

It wasn’t so long ago when you really had to hunt around to find good Yankee blogs. That just isn’t the case anymore. In fact, there are so many interesting Yankee-based blogs that I have tough time keeping up with them all. We don’t even have a full listing of ‘em all on our blog roll, but there is still more than plenty to keep you busy: Replacement Level Yankees, Yanksfan v. Soxfan, River Ave. Blues, Yankees Chick, Canyon of Heroes (welcome back, dude), Was Watching, and No Maas, just to name a few (and no disrespect meant to the other fine blogs that I didn’t mention). Kat O’Brien, who did an excellent job on the beat last season, is blogging On the Yankee Beat, Jack Curry and Tyler Kepner do a nice job at Bats, and of course, there is Pete Abraham, whose tireless efforts have established The Lo-Hud Yankees Blog as the premiere one-stop shop for all the behind-the-scenes Yankees action. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that Pete has raised the bar for all the professional writers who are now being asked to blog in addition to carrying out their usual assignments. This is a perfect, little example of why his site is so good–nice composition Scorsese, you done good.

Soul on Ice

I tried to represent as many different sports as possible when I put together The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. Funny thing is, while there may be more great writing about boxing than any other sport, including baseball, no boxing stories made the cut, though Pat’s done some decent ones, like this one about Amir Khan, the Great British-Pakistani-Muslim Hope:

At 10 p.m., Amir Khan walked into the arena amid the flash of cameras and TV lights and the Asian girls aiming their cellphone cameras at him. He was wearing his trademark silver trunks, but with a slight alteration: tartan trim had been sewn in. Steve Gethin stood in his corner, his blue eyes wide.

The bell rang for Round 1. Khan loped into the center of the ring and began to stalk Gethin. He moved gracefully, bent over at the waist, bobbing and weaving left and right, his hands dangling low to the canvas. Khan did not look so young now, nor so slight. He looked huge next to Gethin and dangerous in a primitive way. Suddenly he attacked Gethin, hitting him with three quick punches before Gethin could react. Khan did resemble Muhammad Ali in the ring. It’s almost sinuous, the way he moves. He’s a trained fighter, but an instinctive one too.

Khan pursued Gethin, who backpedaled, Khan weaving hypnotically, and then he sprang again, pummeling Gethin with so many quick punches it seemed as if they were all one long, continuous punch. Gethin wrapped his arms around Khan and waited for the referee to separate them.

The fight didn’t last very long. The referee stopped it in the third round, after Khan again battered Gethin’s head with so many quick blows in succession that Gethin could only cover his face with his gloves and forsake any thought of throwing a counterpunch.

Khan raised his arms in victory. Some cheered; others were upset the fight had been stopped early. The members of “Khan’s Barmy Army” poured out of their seats. They began to leave the arena, waving their Union Jack-Pakistani flag at the seated fans. The Scottish fans began to throw things at them. Bottles. Sharpened coins. Cups of beer. “Khan’s Barmy Army” covered their heads. Security appeared from the runways, surrounded Khan’s “army” and hustled them out of the arena. In the ring, Amir Khan, oblivious, was being interviewed on ITV with his father.

Pat did a handful of hockey pieces for Sports Illustraed in the ’70s including a good one on Derek Sanderson. We included a hockey story in our collection, one of his earliest pieces for Sport magazine, about the Bruins at the old Boston Garden. Here is a good little profile Jordan did on Mike Keenan for The Sporting News in 1994, just after coach Keenan left the Rangers for St. Louis.

Italian waiters at Gian-Peppe’s Restaurant in “The Hill” section of St. Louis are wearing tuxedos with frilly shirts. They hover around Keenan at his table as if he were the Mafia Don out of “A Bronx Tale.”

“I used to hang around with seven Italian brothers when I was a kid,” he says. “I was the only Irish kid. If they got a beating from their mother, I got a beating from her, too.” He laughs, and drains his beer. Keenan asks a waiter to bring him a phone. He has to call his daughter, who will visit him tomorrow, and he’s worried that she might not have gotten the airplane ticket he sent her.

“It causes me great pain to be away from her,” he says, as the waiter returns with the phone. “I’m proud of my accomplishments, but maybe my ambition was selfish. You pay a personal price. Loneliness. It’s the only thing that scares me.” He makes the call, but his daughter is not home. The other waiter returns with a beer. For a tough-guy hockey coach, Keenan talks a lot about pain and lone-liness and even fear. He had a fear of failure when he took over at Philadelphia.

“I was confident,” he says. “I felt ready. But there’s always that fear in hockey if you’re not successful you’ll never coach again. I felt I had to be firm with my players and then I’d back off after a while, you know, the way a teacher does. But the players didn’t think I let up as much as I should have. I like to think my relationship with players has improved. I’ve improved. After the separation, I learned to reflect on life. To be introspective, tolerant and understanding. It was an awakening.” He picks up the phone and dials his daughter again.

I’m not a hockey fan and I never have been. I don’t follow boxing but I liked it as a kid. Hagler, Hearns, Sugar Ray. The tail end of Ali. The Rocky movies (seeing Rocky III in the balcony of Loews 83rd street–a theater no longer with us–with the place literally shaking during the big fight at the end, was one of the more memorable movie experiences of my childhood). Larry Holmes v. Tim Witherspoon, vs. R. Tex Cobb, all the way through Iron Mike’s early days.

I want to read more boxing writing at some point–there’s so much good stuff out there. I’d at least like to give it a shot. It’s such an appealing sport for writers because, as Len Shapiro of the Washington Post says, “It’s the greatest sport in the world until they get in the ring.”

Lot of good boxing movies too, come to think of it: Body and Soul, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Fat City, Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings. And Slap Shot is arguably the greatest sports movie of them all.

Couple Few Things

Following in the tradition of his old man, Hank Steinbrenner says he hopes he won’t regret not making a deal for Johan Santana. Maybe Hank will start coming through the clubhouse and give the troops the ol’ Knute Rockne before long.

Item:

“Joba is competing for a spot in the starting rotation right now,” Joe Girardi said. “We’re preparing him to be a starter. We’re going to look at the pitching staff as a whole and decide where people best fit.”
(N.Y. Daily News)

So, maybe Chamberlain won’t be in the pen this year. Starter, reliever, which one of these? Speaking of Joba, last year, a friend of mine pointed me to this good, 2005 profile from Omaha World-Herald.

Item:

Chien-Ming Wang lost his arbitration case.

Item:

Over at Replacement Level Yankees, SG has a nifty two-part series on the best seasons ever by Yankee pitchers: starters and relievers. Check it out.

Yankee Panky # 42: Love Is Not in the Air

Ambition makes you look pretty ugly.”
– Thom Yorke, Radiohead, in “Paranoid Android,” from 1997’s OK Computer

The Roger Clemens-Brian McNamee divorce dominated the Valentine’s Day sports headlines. And yet while media members clamored to dissect the proceedings in Washington, most people I spoke to, both in and out of the business, treated it with a resounding “Who cares?”

Newsday’s Johnette Howard summed it up beautifully here.

As far as the Capitol Hill proceedings were concerned, I found two poignant snippets of analysis from writers for whom I have great respect: ESPN.com’s Howard Bryant, and the Post’s Phil Mushnick (Laugh all you want. He’s cynical, yes, but he gets it right).

From Bryant: "Ultimately, we did not learn that Roger Clemens lied, nor did we learn he did not. As expected, the truth lies somewhere in the creases of the memories of the people involved. What we did learn is that Roger Clemens had an answer for everything the committee asked him. At the ready, his finger was always pointing at a reason, but it was never at himself. And that is why so many of the committee members did not believe him.” (Newsday’s Jim Baumbach and Robert Kessler echoed Bryant’s summary.)

From Mushnick: “Wednesday’s hearings weren’t quite as party-divided as many have claimed. While all the Republicans were seen as anti-McNamee and pro-Roger Clemens (vice versa with the Democrats), Mark Souder, Republican from Indiana, was one of the committee members who wisely refused a social meeting with Clemens days before the hearing. Souder condemned such chumminess as inappropriate.

And it was Souder, Wednesday, who was the only Representative to ask why team owners weren’t being called to answer for their look-the-other-way role in MLB’s drug scandal. And that’s still a very good question. How did team owners miss what was obvious to everyone outside of baseball?”

Some other highlights:
Jayson Stark had a typically strong piece about the emotional toll Pettitte’s testimony could have on the Yankee clubhouse. A great quote from Mike Mussina in there comparing it to what Jason Giambi went through in 2004. (Mussina didn’t mention Sheffield, who at the time was also embroiled in the BALCO investigation.) The only detail Stark failed to mention regarding Pettitte’s absence from camp was that the Yankees gave him permission to report Monday, four days after the scheduled report date. With that said, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction in Tampa when he does report, and to see how willing or dismissive he is during reporters’ interrogations.

While I’ve found the coverage of these hearings to be fairer than the “rush to judgment” style exhibited following the release of the Mitchell Report, I’m feeling like Cush in “Jerry Maguire:” I just want to watch and enjoy baseball. I’m ecstatic to see stories with slugs like “Joba Chamberlain throws off a mound for the first time since ALDS.” At least if the word “injection” or “infusion” is used in and article with that angle, it won’t have anything to do with a needle.

SPEAKING OF COMPARISONS …
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was also on Capitol Hill this week, testifying before Senator Arlen Specter (R – Pa.) on the New England Patriots’ “Spygate” case. Can the media please stop attaching the word “Gate” to every scandal? It’s not original, nor is it applicable. I’d venture to guess that a sector of the population believes Nixon’s scandal took place at the Water Hotel because of this.

Mr. Goodell destroyed the Pats’ tapes in the League’s investigation. In not so many words, Goodell said, “It’s my league. We reserve the right to reopen the investigation if we see fit, and I stand by my actions.” Why can’t Mr. Selig do this?

I’m not a fan of many of the NFL’s administrative practices, particularly on the issue of health insurances and pensions for retired players, but one thing the league has done consistently is preserved its autonomy when pressed on how it polices itself. Meanwhile, MLB has continually sought help from external sources, including the federal government, and demonstrated disunity and a lack of leadership in this regard. Based on the coverage I tracked, few writers or sports/legal pundits addressed that fact.

Moreover, for politicians to cry foul on sports and attempt to legislate the leagues on a basis of purity, competition, and character is eminently hypocritical. Politics and athletics, since ancient times, have been two of the most corrupt entities, largely due to the presence of the most intrinsic and addictive of drugs: the thirst for power, success and fame.

Until next week …

Card Corner–Charlie Kerfeld

 

Of the few acquisitions the Yankees have made this off-season through either trades or free agency, I’m most intrigued by the prospects and potential of Jonathan Albaladejo. With or without Joba Chamberlain, the Yankees’ bullpen needs help, both in terms of quality and depth. If Albaladejo can pitch anywhere near as effectively as he did last September for the Nationals, he will certainly aid the Yankee cause. His mid-nineties fastball and superb control, if given the proper chance to shine, will be a welcome addition to Joe Girardi’s revamped bullpen.

Then there’s Albaladejo’s size. At six feet, five inches and 250-260 pounds, the right-hander commands a hulking presence on the pitcher’s mound. Whenever I hear those kinds of dimensions, the name of Charlie Kerfeld comes to mind. As seen in his 1986 Score rookie card, Kerfeld looked a little bit like a truck driver on the mound, though I have to confess that he looks a little slimmer than usual in this photograph. Hey, perhaps the camera subtracts ten pounds.

In actuality, Albaladejo doesn’t really look like Kerfeld; he’s Latino (born in Puerto Rico), has a more angular face, doesn’t wear glasses, and sports an earring (which he’ll have to ditch in Yankeeland). But he does fall into that same general category as Kerfeld—talented but overweight reliever, with a little eccentricity thrown in for good measure. (Like Kerfeld, Albaladejo is considered a little bit light above the shoulders, an airhead, if you will.) Those kinds of pitchers have a tendency of flaming out over the long haul—think Dick "The Monster" Radatz or Brad "The Animal" Lesley—but for awhile, they can create a stir with their mix of stuff, antics, intimidation, and imposing monstrosity.

Fitted with oversized glasses and carrying anywhere from 230 to 250 pounds on his 6-foot, 6-inch frame, Charlie Kerfeld looked like few other major-league players of his era—or any other, for that matter. On the mound, the native of Knob Noster, Missouri, was as boisterous as he was overweight, often engaging in a series of awkward gyrations while pitching in short and set-up relief for the Houston Astros. Unlike the staid Mariano Rivera, Kerfeld showed his emotions as they changed, often coinciding with strikeouts of opposing batters in key situations.

Away from the mound, Kerfeld was just as entertaining. As he sat in the bullpen, he sometimes donned a large conehead, a practice shared by fellow Astros relievers Larry Anderson and Dave Smith. He wore outrageous clothes to the ballpark, ranging from Rambo-style military fatigues to pink high-tops. (It’s not clear if he wore the fatigues and the high-tops at the same time.) A superstitious sort, Kerfeld wore what he considered his lucky "Jetson" T-shirt under his uniform. With the Astros, he wore No. 37 and once negotiated a contract that included an annual payout of 37 boxes of orange-flavored Jell-O. I assume that it took Kerfeld less than a full year to finish off those boxes.

With his odd quirks, robust personality, and general good nature, many fans and writers considered Kerfeld a refreshing 1980s version of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Like Fidrych, Kerfeld forged one dominant season; in 1986, he posted a 2.76 ERA and won 11 of 13 decisions while setting up Dave Smith in the Houston bullpen. With a riding fastball and a convenient touch of wildness, Kerfeld alarmed and overpowered most National League hitters. And like Fidrych, he lacked staying power. After his meteoric 1986 season, Kerfeld flopped so badly that he never again fashioned an effective season. In fact, he never managed to keep his ERA under 5.58 the rest of his career. Kerfeld saw his major league days end after a failed 1990 stint with the Atlanta Braves because of continuing issues with his weight and an injury to his right elbow.

The Yankees hope that Albaladejo, whose weight remains a colossal concern, will have more long-term success than Kerfeld. Then again, if he can help the Yankees reach the League Championship Series in 2008, the way that Big Charlie did with the Astros in 1986, perhaps the Yankees will be happy with just that.

 

Bruce Markusen, the author of seven books on baseball, writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and weighs less than both Charlie Kerfeld and Jonathan Albaladejo.

Spring Awakening

The Yankees didn’t make any radical changes to their roster this offseason. In fact, of the 21 players most likely to head north with the team, only veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins wasn’t on the team last year. Still, Spring Training 2008 feels like a new beginning for the team. A lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s a new Joe running the show. Joe Torre managed the Yankees to a dozen playoff appearances in as many seasons, including six World Series appearances and four world championships. This spring, he’s over in Vero Beach, decked out in Dodger blue as that team’s new manager. Back in Tampa, the new Yankee skipper is Joe Girardi, who was the Yankee catcher during four of Torre’s seasons at the helm, three of which ended in championships.

Over the past twelve years, more than a third of which I’ve covered either here or at my previous blog, Yankee fans became used to Joe Torre’s managerial style, his likes and dislikes, his tendencies, preferences, and pet peeves. Of Girardi’s managerial style, however, we know very little. Girardi has been retired for four years, three of which he spent as a broadcaster for the YES Network and one of which he spent as the manager of a newly-gutted Florida Marlins team. Though Girardi’s Fish had a losing record in 2006, their 78-86 performance and brief late-season flirtation with the NL Wild Card race was viewed as an unexpected success. Still, Girardi came under criticism for feuding with ownership, overworking his team’s young pitching staff, and exhibited an alarming affection for the sacrifice bunt. This offseason, Girardi has often said that he learned a lot from that experience, hinting that his approach as the manager of the Yankees will differ in meaningful ways. Exactly how he’ll affect those changes remains to be seen.

We don’t really know what to expect from Girardi at any point this season, nor do we know what impact will be felt from the resulting turnover in the team’s coaching staff. Mix in the continued emergence of the team’s pitching prospects starting with Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy, the continued development (or lack thereof) of Melky Cabrera, and the wide-open front half of the bullpen, and this spring should be unlike any the Yankees have experienced since Torre’s inaugural season of 1996, despite lacking the significant roster turnover experienced by the team that year.

While the Yankees once again have the potential to be one of, maybe even the best team in baseball in 2008, the season will ultimately be one of transition. Beyond the introduction of Girardi and his coaches, this will be the first season in which George Steinbrenner’s sons Hank and Hal, who emerged from the long shadow of their father’s failing health over the offseason, will be in public and practical control of the team. Thus far, Hank has filled his father’s shoes as a blustery boaster constantly feeding the media leap-before-you-look quotes, while Hal has worked quietly behind the scenes to support Brian Cashman’s team building efforts, though some have said he is as motivated by penny-pinching as by his belief in his GM. This season will also be the last for the original Yankee Stadium, which conjures up a flood of mixed emotions from sadness over the loss of the landmark which, for many Yankee fans, is something of a second home, to cynicism borne from the Stadium’s loss of character following renovation 30 years ago and the design flaws apparent in the new stadium, to anger over the mistreatment of the community and the city both physically and financially as a result of the construction project, to excitement over the state-of-the-art structure rising in the Bronx, despite it’s already apparent flaws and the damage inflicted by its creation.

On the field, this will also be a year of transition, as the young starters will have to cope with innings limits as they build up their stamina for their first full major league seasons. Those extra innings in the rotation will be consumed by Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, two long-time Yankees who are likely taking their final tour in pinstripes. Similarly, a long-term fix at first base is being put off one more year as Jason Giambi plays out the final year of his contract. This season also finds the Yankees waiting out the final year of their commitments to Kyle Farnsworth and Carl Pavano, which will leave Kei Igawa as the last barnacle stuck to Brian Cashman’s hull. Then again, Cashman’s in his walk year as well.

There’s a lot of change on the horizon for the Yankees, and a lot of change already at hand. With all of that looming in the background, let’s get to the business at hand and take a look at the 69 players Girardi and his coaches will have to sort through in Tampa this spring in order to settle on the 25-man Opening Day roster of the 2008 New York Yankees.

(more…)

The Boogie Down Book Shelf

The spring baseball books will start coming out soon. I’d like to try to have more book reviews this year, and not necessarily long ones either. Have you ever read James Agee’s movie reviews for Time magazine (collected in the essential Agee on Film)–he’d write these killer little wrap-ups in three or four sentences that are as appealing, in their own way, as a five-page Pauline Kael bender.

I’ve run book reviews by Chris DeRosa for several years now and he recently sent me a file of his complete book reviews from the past eight years. There are a couple of longer, Yankee-related critiques that I’ll post shortly, but for now, check out a DeRosa sampler (again, I found myself drawn to the short reviews).

On the Shelf

by Chris DeRosa.

Roger Angell, Game Time: A Baseball Companion (2003)

Essays from the 60s to now. As Richard Ford says in the introduction, Angell is not a baseball romanticist, and it’s true he’s too light on his feet to be labeled a sentimentalist, but he does write with great affection for the game, in an adult voice that never takes itself too seriously. This collection features many examples of his strengths: the eye for the telling detail, the felicitous turns of phrase, and the sweet wrap-ups. I read him to remember, rather than to learn, but I learned some things too. Check out this description, from the 1980 essay “Distances.”

Gibson’s pitch flashed through the strike zone with a unique, upward-moving, right-to-left sail that snatched it away from a right –handed batter or caused it to jump up and in at a left-handed swinger—a natural break of six to eight inches—and hitters who didn’t miss the ball altogether usually fouled it off or nudged it harmlessly into the air. The pitch, which was delivered with a driving, downward flick of Gibson’s long forefinger and middle finger (what pitchers call “cutting the ball”), very much resembled an inhumanly fast slider, and was often taken as such by batters unfamiliar with his stuff.

Bob Gibson had Mariano’s cutter?

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

You know that great baseball conversation you wish you could have with Bill James? This is it. Nine-hundred player comments provide James a forum for a free-wheeling and fascinating discussion in which he proves himself not only the game’s greatest analyst, but its ablest historian and keenest practical observer. Some people assume James knows abstract numbers but they know actual baseball. In fact, James runs rings around his critics as a student of “actual” baseball. No one watches the game like he does, or at least no one watches it like he does and can also connect what he sees to the game’s larger contexts. The guy is a genius. Perhaps the best baseball book ever published.

Charles Einstein, Willie’s Time: Baseball’s Golden Age (1979)

Rob Neyer wrote a glowing review of this book when it was reprinted in 2004. I wanted to check it out, but it was shrink-wrapped and I thought I maybe had read it at the Closter Public Library about (geez) 18 years ago. Finally I saw an unwrapped copy and flipped through. I quickly understood what Neyer and other people thought was so great about it. There’s a lot in there about Lyndon Johnson and the war and such. It’s not about Willie so much as the times, see? Nah! I mean who would turn to a Willie Mays bio for a history of the Sixties?

Glenn Stout, Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball (Houghton-Mifflin, 2002)

The best history of the Yankees ever written, though not necessarily definitive. Stout’s writing can be strangely informal, but at times lively. The analysis of the baseball on the field is strictly conventional and not as probing as it should be, but no other book has tried to synthesize the history team in as much detail and on as many levels. Stout is at his best on the politics of the early American League, but he’s also interesting when trashing Ralph Houk, profiling Steinbrenner, and enthusing about Torre’s Yankees. Good photos, with celebrity pinch-writers contributing essays, including the obligatory Molly O’Neill piece. David Halberstam’s essay on George Weiss reiterates the legitimate criticisms, but makes no attempt whatsoever to explain why he was a great GM, nor does Ira Berkow’s effort shed much light on Stengel.

Richard J. Tofel, A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939 (2002)

The 1939 Yankees get their book. It’s too bad they waited so long to make their move on the 1927 Yankees. They might have been top dog for a while if they’d jelled before 1998, before DiMaggio died. Tofel isn’t the only one to do this, but he repeats without comment the quotes saying that Lou didn’t forgive Babe and didn’t hug him back on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. However, Gehrig’s fingers are clearly visible on Ruth’s shoulder in the accompanying photograph. Maybe he didn’t forgive him anyway.

The analysis of the team is pretty conventional and not deep. But it does provide the definitive account of the demise of Lou Gehrig. Tofel cites medical journal articles that plausibly claim that Gehrig was feeling physical effects of his disease in 1938, even though his stats don’t show a tell-tale ski-slope across the season. The portrait of Gehrig, fleshed out by personal correspondence, is the richest part of the book, but it offers other interesting tidbits such as: Art Fletcher led the team in a singing of “Roll Out the Barrel,” after every win. The players treated the All Star Game with the utmost seriousness, on par with the World Series. In the summer of 1940, Gehrig sued the Daily News for suggesting that the Yankees’ struggles were due to a team-wide ALS infection. He won a settlement.

Mel Stottlemyre, The Pride and the Pinstripes: The Yankees, The Mets, and Surviving Life’s Challenges (2007)

The real story of Mel Stottlemyre’s career as a pitching coach revolves around his misguided effort to teach Dwight Gooden the cut fastball, and Mariano Rivera’s later development of the very same pitch. Of the former, Stottelmyre has nothing to say, and on the latter, he writes: “From the first time I saw him he was throwing his legendary cutter.” Most people date the cutter to the 1997 season, as opposed to 1996, Stottlemyre and Rivera’s first year together. Either Stottlemyre has it totally wrong, or maybe Rivera was mixing in the cutter more than we thought in 1996. I do have that tape of game 2 of the 1995 ALDS where he throws what the broadcasters describe as a “real good cut fastball.”

Don Zimmer, Zim

Don Zimmer, features Gerbil in his Yankee helmet, but the photo I clipped for the baseball annual is a lot more spontaneous. Some might think that Zimmer, part of the Boys of Summer, the ’62 Mets, the tragic Red Sox, a Wrigley miracle, and Torre’s Yanks, would have a lot of good stories for a book like this. But Don Zimmer isn’t an observer type. He’s a funny character in other people’s stories. A standing-in-the-bookstore review reveals nothing amusing in this one.

Roger Angell, A Pitcher’s Story

Roger Angell has written a book about David Cone’s 2000 season. Cone is known as a guy who isn’t a rube, but he’s never been that interesting either. The excerpt in the New Yorker was a bore, with Cone and Angell fretting about his injuries and woes in mundane fashion. A whole book like this would be about as fun as Cone’s 4-14 season.

Jonathan Eig, The Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (2005)

Standing in the bookstore, I see that he doesn’t cover Gehrig’s demise in as much detail as Tofel did. Plus you have the Ray Robinson bio. If you ask me, Lou Gehrig is borderline biography material to begin with.

Mickey Rivers, Ain’t No Sense Worryin’

An important contribution to the 1977-78 New York Yankees’ drive to be the first “25 players, 25 books” team in baseball history.

Frank Graham, The New York Yankees: An Informal History

I guess he was a good writer, but all the stories in here are hokey and inaccurate.

Stephen Jay Gould, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville

I picked up Gould’s posthumous baseball collection, flipped it open randomly, landed on an idiotic apology for Joe Jackson, and immediately shut it replaced it on the shelf.

David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (2006)

I don’t expect a lot of agreement here, but I submit that the more enraptured you are by Roberto Clemente, the less you actually know and care about baseball.

James Sturm, The Golem’s Mighty Swing

Stark graphic novel about a House of David team in a bad scrape.

Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (2002)

I was less impressed than most reviewers. Informative but a little wrapped up in the poetry of it all.

John Gall and Gary Engel, Sayonara Home Run! The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card (2006)

Katie saw this in the art section of a great bookstore in Miami, but I thought it was too expensive. Later I bought it remaindered, and liked it so much I almost feel guilty about not paying the original price. The cards look great and this has to be one of the most beautifully designed baseball books ever published.

Signs of Life

The official reporting date for pitchers and catchers is still two days away, but a number of Yankees are already in Tampa working out. Jack Curry of the Times reports on Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter. Pete Abe reports on Joba Chamberlain, who is already working out with new pitching coach Dave Eiland. Phil Hughes, who has taken Sean Henn’s number 34, is among the other pitchers in camp. He went to a NASCAR race at Daytona with Shelley Duncan and Ian Kennedy on Saturday, so count those two as in camp as well as Henn, Jeff Karstens (per Pete’s post), and . . . Carl Pavano [insert joke]. There are others there as well, I’m sure. Up around these parts, my lawn is frozen solid, but news like that makes me think I can smell the grass.

Sun Dazed

Last Tuesday, Cliff and I met in Manhattan for dinner. We walked a few miles north, up Manhattan’s west side, and caught up on our lives. When we got to the 72nd street subway station we saw Hillary Clinton supporters and Cliff spotted Rob Reiner, boosting for Mrs. Clinton. Cliff and I enjoyed dinner and then I came home and came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I still haven’t fully recovered but it knocked the hell out of me something fierce for a few days there, which is why I haven’t posted anything of late.

Catching up, however, here are some links for you:

Over at Tiger Tales, Lee Panas conducted an interesting study on baserunning. Using the Retrosheet play-by-play databases, he determined the success rates for base runners in taking extra bases on hits and advancing on ground outs, air outs, stolen bases and other plays. Then, Panas combined everything into a single base running performance measure called Bases Gained Above Average(BGAA). According to his findings, Johnny Damon was the third best base runner in the American League in 2007.

Sam Borden, previously with the Daily News, is now a columnist for the Lo-Hud. Here is Jack Curry profiles Joe Girardi.

In the News, Don Mattingly tells Bill Madden that it is just as well he wasn’t hired as the Yankee manager, given the recent turn of events in his private life.

Yanksfan vs. Soxfan tackles the PECOTA predictions for the 2008 Bronx Bombers.

Also, I know this story is dated, but did you guys see this about Mike Lupica v. Lisa Olson? Yikes.

Observations From Cooperstown–The End of the Hall of Fame Game

Last week’s news regarding the death of the Hall of Fame Game came as no surprise, considering that strong rumors of its demise had been floating for weeks. Still, the news is no less disconcerting; the game, while only an exhibition, has meant so much to fans in upstate New York (many of whom cannot afford to attend major leagues games in person), not to mention the benefits to the Cooperstown economy. It has also provided a natural link between the Hall of Fame—the repository of baseball history—and the current-day game as it exists at the major league level.

The Hall of Fame and MLB are taking the bullet for the termination of the game, and that’s really not fair. Some internet posters immediately tried to blame Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey, perhaps because of their dislike of him over the Tim Robbins/Bull Durham incident of a few years ago. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Petroskey, along with just about every high-ranking Hall of Fame official, wanted this game to continue. The game promotes the Hall of Fame while providing an economic boost of about $30,000 to the local economy. As the saying goes, what’s not to like? The end of the Hall of Fame Game—that’s the last thing that Petroskey and other Hall officials wanted to see happen.

MLB has tried to absorb some of the heat, citing the scheduling difficulties created by inter-league play and the lack of available off days during the regular season. Scheduling problems have certainly created large roadblocks, but that’s largely because of contemporary major league players, who have made a habit of complaining about the trip to Cooperstown. Even if a team has a day off and happens to be somewhere east of the Mississippi, the team’s players still have to approve participating in the game. And that was becoming increasingly difficult, because of the growing number of players who wanted nothing to do with traveling to upstate New York during one of their scheduled days off. Now, let’s keep in mind that a player might have to play in one, maybe two Hall of Fame games during the course of his entire career. That was apparently too much of an inconvenience, weighing more heavily than the wonderful public relations that the HOF Game created for baseball on the whole.

The termination of the Hall of Fame Game represents the opposite of public relations. The decision to end the game after this year’s June matchup between the Cubs and Padres has created such a firestorm in upstate New York that Senator Chuck Schumer has lent his efforts to a petition calling for MLB to reverse its decision. (The online petition, for those who are interested, can be found at ipetitions.com.)

While I applaud the efforts of those who are supporting the petition, the realist in me dictates that it’s time to move forward. After this year, the Hall of Fame Game will have ended, nearly 70 years after its inception, and there’s likely nothing that can be done to change that. Very smartly, the Hall of Fame realizes that the game needs to be replaced with some other tangible event. The Hall has already begun exploring alternatives, including some kind of a "Futures Game," a game involving minor league teams, or perhaps even an "Old-Timers" or "Legends Game." And I’m all for that. While each of these concepts carries logistical problems, their potential benefits will bring some much-needed juice to the Hall of Fame calendar.

Last week on MLB Radio, afternoon host Seth Everett asked Hall vice president Jeff Idelson about the possibility of a Futures Game featuring prospects from two different organizations. Idelson seemed receptive to the idea. A mid-season Futures Game, coinciding with the All-Star break and featuring top prospects across the board, has already proved successful since its inception in 1999. By narrowing the concept, the Hall of Fame could take advantage of existing rivalries, such as the "future stars of the Red Sox against the future stars of the Yankees." Still, such a game would require some compromise. Since it’s highly unlikely that all of a parent team’s affiliates would have off on the same day, the parent team would have to be willing to give their top prospects a one-day leave of absence. For organizations that value winning at the minor league level, that stipulation could pose a problem.

As for the second possibility, a game featuring minor league teams will actually take place at Doubleday Field this May. It’s not affiliated with the Hall of Fame, but has been scheduled as part of the International League’s 100th anniversary celebration. This matchup, pitting the nearby Syracuse Sky Chiefs against the Rochester Red Wings, will count in the International League standings. Some Cooperstown observers believe that the Red Wings-Sky Chiefs game could become a precursor to an annual minor league game at Doubleday Field, one that the Hall of Fame might affiliate itself with. Hey, how about a game featuring the Yankees’ top affiliate at Scranton-Wilkes Barre against the Mets’ top minor league team, currently stationed in New Orleans? That would become even more feasible if the Mets relocate their Triple-A team to Syracuse, which has been hotly rumored.

An Old-Timers Game would be an even better idea than a minor league game or futures game, given the name value of retired stars. Such a game could be attached to Induction Weekend, when 50 or so Hall of Famers are already in town. Hall officials have resisted the idea in the past, in part because of worries that some Hall of Famers wouldn’t want to embarrass themselves in a game setting. Fine, that’s a legitimate concern. So let’s supplement the Old-Timers Game with a few non-Hall of Famers who are a little bit younger and in better physical condition. Twenty or 30 retired players, in addition to the Hall of Famers, usually attend Induction Weekend anyway. Another possibility would be to invite retired players who are scheduled to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. The Hall could easily offer each player a reasonable honorarium to have their names introduced to the crowd, followed by two or three innings of participation in a game.

There is precedent for Old-Timers games at Doubleday Field. In 1989, the Hall of Fame celebrated its 50th anniversary by featuring a game of retired legends, including Hall of Famers and recently retired stars like George Foster and Manny Sanguillen. I’ve talked to a number of longtime Cooperstown residents about that game; every one of them has raved about the commercial and artistic success of that game. Not only did the game draw a strong crowd, but the participants also did well in playing to the fans, taking full advantage of the intimacy of Doubleday Field.

Perhaps the time is right to bring the old-timers back to Doubleday Field. That would be a great way for the Hall of Fame to counteract the unhappiness that came with last week’s demolition of a Cooperstown institution.

 Bruce Markusen, the author of seven books on baseball, writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com.

1918 (and one)

Pitchers and catcher report a week from today, but I must admit, I’m still glowing from the Giants’ Super Bowl win this past Sunday, which was my best experience as a football fan since the Giants won their first Super Bowl 21 years ago. Gregg Easterbrook had high praise for the the Giants and the game in his alternately essential and indulgent Tuesday Morning Quarterback, meanwhile the almost exclusively indulgent Bill Simmons was able to step back and notice the strong parallels between the Giants’ upset and the then-underdog Patriots’ upset of the Rams six years ago. Simmons, who attended the game with his dad, concluded his column thusly:

The last thing we heard as we were walking (OK, hustling) out of the stadium right after the final play . . . was the sound of euphoric Giants fans chanting, “Eighteen and one! Eighteen and one! Eighteen and one!” Yes, it’s safe to say the Boston-New York rivalry has been taken to new heights. As a tennis umpire would say, “Advantage, New York.”

That “18-1″ rings like a distant echo of the now-dormant “1918″ chant that was once heard throughout the Bronx. That said, I have a hard time translating the rivalry between sports. The Patriots are an expansion team that plays in “New England,” not Boston, and their natural New York rivals are not the Giants, but the Jets, who aren’t up to the task. Still, after watching the Pats and Red Sox claim five championships in the past six years, even Jets fans and local football haters have to have a glimmer in their eye after the Giants knocked off the near-perfect Pats.

If nothing else, the Yankees can take inspiration from the Giants, who beat a seemingly unbeatable team from Massachusetts with a roster stocked with young homegrown players including Eli Manning, David Tyree, Steve Smith, Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, Kevin Boss, Madison Hedgecock, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Barry Cofield, Jay Alford, Corey Webster, and Aaron Ross (along with a couple of key homegrown vets in Michael Strahan and Amani Toomer). As much as I’m still watching The Play on a loop on my DVR, the thought of the Yankees getting their turn to do something equally amazing is all I need to redirect my thoughts toward roster minutia and the $600,000 that separates the team and Chien-Ming Wang in the right-hander’s arbitration case. Until Wang and company report to camp a week from today, however, I think I’ll go watch that play a few more times . . .

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Yankee Panky # 41: Weird, Wild Stuff

What a strange week. New York over Boston in the Super Bowl. The Mets get Johan Santana. Chuck Knoblauch clamps up in front of congressional attorneys, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens maintained their respective stories for the same panel, and Kim Mattingly is in jail.

* * *

The Giants’ win has a similar feel to when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Not as great of an underdog story, to be sure, but the Big, Evil, Untouchable Team was toppled, and in dramatic fashion. I’m not even a Giants fan, but I’m gloating, sort of.

It was also a strange week in baseball, when there was baseball news. The Cute Franchise in Queens pulled a major coup with the Santana acquisition. It was odd to read stories, like Ken Davidoff’s giving the Yankees an assist to the Mets. It was even odder to read reactions in both the mainstream and the non-traditional outlets providing an effective, “Well at least he didn’t go to the Red Sox,” vibe. RealGM graded the trade an A for the Mets and a C for the Twins.

HAVE YOU HAD YOUR B-12 TODAY?
Roger Clemens gave a five-hour, 15 minutes deposition Tuesday in Washington Tuesday, and maintained his innocence regarding his alleged steroid and HGH use in the Mitchell Report. Coverage, so far, has been pretty dry, with all the mainstreamers highlighting the denial and the length of the deposition.

I especially loved how the Daily News made it a point to mention the color combination of Clemens’ wardrobe, how he held a “hot beverage cup” and threw a curveball for photographers before heading into the Rayburn Building.

Exhibitions like that are exactly why news people should not deal with sports stories. Cue the circus calliope music.

We’ll see if any curveballs are thrown next Wednesday, when both Pettitte and Clemens give their testimony in front of Congress.

The saddest part of the recent proceedings may be Chuck Knoblauch. When asked about his alleged use of HGH, he said, “It is what it is.” As Emma Span beautifully encapsulated in this space, Bad Luck Chuck’s statement was not as convincing as DeNiro’s “This is this” mantra from “The Deer Hunter.”

LEGENDS OF THE FALL, AND BY FALL, I MEAN PERSONAL DECLINE
Based on the Kim Mattingly story, or the way it’s been presented, it’s easy to draw conclusions why a) Donnie Baseball went to LA; b) why he left his post beside Joe Torre. The mugshot shown on Deadspin typifies the “Picture’s worth 1,000 words” cliché.

IN OTHER NEWS…
Brian Bruney and his outstanding K/BB ratio (yes, that was sarcastic), are back for 2008. A trend to watch this year – and this is a slam-dunk Spring Training feature – is the effect Dave Eiland could have on this pitching staff, as so many of the young arms worked with him either at Trenton or in Columbus/Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

Next week … recap of the fun times at our nation’s capital, and insight of what it’s like for a beat reporter at Spring Training.

Bring it Back, Come Rewind

It is unseasonably warm but overcast this morning in New York. I saw a gang of Manhattan college kids wearing Eli Manning jerseys trooping to the subway this morning, on their way down to the parade. When I got off the train in midtown, more Giants fans–a father taking his young son over to Rockefeller Center, a group of high schoolers cutting school. Everybody likes a parade, right?

Not for nothing, but I’m not a fan of the Yankeeography series–I find the shows slick at best and maudlin at worst–but the box set is worth checking out for the bonus dvds, which feature player highlights. The best part of these highlights is that most of them are not cut-up like the ones we generally see on TV. In many cases, they’ll show an entire at-bat sequence, pitch-by-pitch, in real time. The bonus clips are not thorough, and concentrate on home runs (I would have loved to see a fielding compilation for Willie Randolph), but still, it is refreshing to see baseball clips that don’t rush by you like a slam dunk. I wish there was more of that. Plus, I’d love it if they did a spin-off Yankeeography show, one where they would honor guys like Roy White and Joe Gordon.

Finally, Roger Clemens visits Washington today. Pete Abraham summed up my feelings about this nonsense last week in a rant over on his blog.

With a Little Bit o Luck

For all of the hype about the kind of character it takes to win championships, it also takes a certain amount of luck. Takes both, not always in equal measure. When Eli and Plax could not hook up on that play with the Giants leading 10-7, I thought it’d be the moment they’d most regret should they have lost the game. But then, how about that improbable David Tyree catch? Are you kidding me? That was the Bucky Dent moment of the game. How did Manning not get sacked? How did Tyree manage to come down with that ball? Talk about the All-Schoolyard Play of the season! Then Eli made a few more key passes, including the game-winner. Good for him.

Of course, much of the credit for the win goes to New York’s defense.

Have to say, their coach aside (who manages to be terse and dour in victory as well as defeat), the Pats were gracious in defeat. Reminded me a little bit of when the Yanks lost the D-Backs in ’01. Tom Brady is a class act.

It is snowing in Manhattan this morning. Andy Pettitte visits Washington today. But right now, the city is alive with the Giants’ stunning Super Bowl win. Congrats G-Men, you done made the city proud.

Best Served…Cold

Take that Beantown.

Holy cow.

Circus Sunday

Big game out west tonight, Giants/Pats. Stupit Bowl. Tom Petty at the half. Em and I will be watching. Made ribs in the oven this afternoon. I’m not a Giants fan but I’ll have no trouble rooting for them tonight. I like Eli. Tom Brady and Randy Moss are great players, and I’ve never hated the Patriots they way I hate the Red Sox (never hated the Celtics either). Their coach is overbeaing but what can you say? Can’t have it all. I’m not wild about the Giants coach either. Hopefully, it’s a game mid-way through the fourth quarter. Would be a major upset if the Gints pull out the win. I suspect a decisive victory for New England, but one never knows…

Where Have You Gone, Chuck Knoblauch?

It’s one of the stranger stories of this offseason, but it’s hardly been investigated: the federal government’s apparent inability, for the better part of a week, to find and subpoena Chuck Knoblauch. The former second baseman finally agreed to a meeting with the House committee lawyers, held yesterday, and will apparently testify on February 13th; but no one seems to know where he went, why he couldn’t be tracked down, or why he hid, if indeed he was hiding at all. Perhaps the media is respecting his privacy, but since that would be a first, I suspect he’s just not famous enough for people to care.

I keep wondering about it, though. In fact, over the years I’ve thought about Chuck Knoblauch much more often than I’d have expected to think about Chuck Knoblauch. His is one of the most bizarre stories of my baseball-watching life, and it has that haunting quality of all the best cautionary tales, only without any sort of moral. Partly, I suspect, my brain worries at the subject because I never really figured out what to make of his career: cosmic joke, or tragedy?

Knoblauch always seemed private, a bit awkward, not especially at ease with the media; despite being the kind of small, fast player fans often embrace at a disproportionate rate – textbook “gritty” – I don’t think he was ever particularly a favorite. Still, I was surprised by his quotes in the Times a few weeks ago, when a reporter finally tracked him down to comment on the steroid mess:

He described the Mitchell report as “crazy” and “interesting,” and added that what actually bothered him about being mentioned in the report is that “I’ve got nothing to do with any of that, I mean, any baseball.”
“And I don’t want anything to do with baseball,” he added…

… On Thursday, he did not voice any regrets. “I love baseball,” he said, “but I’m not trying to get a job in baseball. I don’t have any friends from baseball. Baseball doesn’t control my life anymore.”

Ten years in a job and no friends? Even Barry Bonds has friends in baseball; I’m not sure about Randy Johnson, but next to him Knoblauch is Oprah Winfrey. He sounds awfully relieved to be not only out of the game, but as far away from it as possible.

Knoblauch seemed destined to be the source of much amusement after the 1998 playoffs, when he argued passionately with the first base umpire for what felt like an eternity — while the live ball lay in the grass a few feet away, and the opposing runner (Enrique Wilson of all people) ran home. Knoblauch, deeply outraged by a call, was completely oblivious to the increasingly desperate screams of his teammates, 55,000 fans, and, almost certainly audible in the Bronx from a TV room fifteen miles away, my father. Since the Yankees eventually recovered to win that series, and the next, it was soon forgiven, just a memorably funny moment on the way to a happy ending.

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Card Corner–Steady Eddie

 

From time to time throughout the year, I’ll be spotlighting cards that were issued as part of Topps’ colorful 1978 set. Featuring a nice mix of profiles and action shots, the set remains one of my favorites. It also helps that the 1978 season worked out pretty well for the Yankees, too.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003, Eddie Murray burst onto the baseball card scene some 30 years ago, when his rookie card came out as part of Topps’ 1978 set (No. 36). While there’s nothing grossly unusual about this card, it features a few subtleties. There’s one of my old favorites, the classic Topps trophy cup, which is represented through a logo placed on one of the card’s corners, honoring each player who earned selection to Topps’ all-rookie team. By the way, I’ve always wondered, is that cup really yellow?

Murray’s primary position on the card is listed as DH, while his secondary position on the card is first base. And that’s no mistake, since Murray actually served as the Orioles’ designated hitter 111 times in 1977, while surprisingly playing only 42 games at first base. (Quick now, who was the Orioles’ regular first baseman in 1977? Boog Powell? Terry Crowley? Or perhaps Sabermetric whipping boy Tony Muser, the failed manager? No, it was actually slugging Lee May, who hit 27 home runs that season. May wasn’t a favorite of Sabermetric types for his playing, largely because of his inability to draw walks, but he had legitimate power and was a much better player than either Crowley or Muser.) Murray even appeared three times in the outfield his rookie season, though that position isn’t mentioned on the front of the card. In retrospect, this positional breakdown seems rather strange, since Murray ended up becoming a very competent first baseman, to the point that he won three straight Gold Gloves from 1982 to 1984.

The Topps card, while picturing a young Murray finishing a left-handed practice swing, also shows him wearing a cap underneath his helmet, a Murray trademark. Is it just me, or does no one in baseball do this anymore? It seems like more players used to wear both a cap and a helmet in the seventies and eighties—former Yankees Dion James and Bobby Murcer come to mind, along with 1970s icons Willie Davis, Al Oliver, and Willie Stargell—but the trend has become lost, perhaps because of the mandate that players use the ear-flapped helmet. Or maybe it’s because major league rules no longer allow players to run the bases wearing only a soft cap. Or perhaps it’s just not fashionable anymore.

In regards to Murray the player, few hitters were as consistent as the Orioles’ first baseman was from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. From 1978 to 1993, Murray emerged as a lock to hit at least 20 home runs, draw 70-plus walks, and collect 90 RBIs each season. The nickname "Steady Eddie" didn’t just occur because of his first name and the convenient rhyming pattern; it fit his even-handed level of production to perfection.

Some critics of Murray have knocked him for never achieving a level of superstardom; he never put together the kind of monster season that we have become accustomed to seeing from power-hitting Hall of Fame types. Murray never hit more than 33 home runs in a season, never drove in more than 124 runs, never slugged higher than .549. The criticism is legitimate to an extent, but it doesn’t do enough to detract from his year-to-year excellence and his inspiring career totals: 504 home runs, 3255 hits, and 1,333 walks. Those, dear friends, are Hall of Fame numbers.

While few would debate Murray’s Hall of Fame worthiness, many would argue about Steady Eddie’s character. For years, baseball writers have lobbed insulting words at Murray, who refused to talk the media for most of his career. They’ve called him surly, uncooperative, and downright callous. Others have gone so far as to call him a clubhouse cancer, citing his negative effect on the New York Mets’ clubhouse in the early 1990s.

So it was with considerable trepidation that I prepared for an interview with Murray in 2003. As part of my duties at the Hall of Fame, I used to conduct an in-depth videotaped interview with each newly elected member of Cooperstown. Expecting the worst, I began to talk to Murray. Within a few seconds, Murray shunted aside all of my fears. He was thoughtful, polite, and to the best of my knowledge, sincere. Rather than answer each question with some cliché of immediacy, Murray took a few moments to ponder my words before providing a reflective, meditative answer. Though not particularly smooth in his delivery, Murray did his best to give me some insight as to his patterns of thought, his philosophies on baseball and life. I learned about he had overcome a childhood of poverty, as one of 12 brothers and sisters living in the ghetto. (One of his sisters had died only a week before the interview, yet Murray retained his composure throughout our talk.) After about 20 minutes of discussion, I concluded the interview, not only glad to have been spared Murray’s supposed surliness but wholly impressed with the newest Hall of Famer.

Prior to our sit-down, I had never been a particular fan of Murray. In short, I believed the writers, without stopping to assess why Murray had chosen not to talk to them. (The running feud stemmed from a 1979 article, in which sportswriter Dick Young discussed members of Murray’s family. Murray considered the article intrusive and unfair. ) I believed the stories that claimed Murray led the league in laziness, selfishness, and lack of hustle. Plus, he had made the mistake of never playing for my team, the Yankees.

Thankfully, our opinions of others can change. Now I look at that rookie card of Eddie Murray a little bit differently.

 

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver