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Observations From Cooperstown–”Big” Pitchers, Flash Gordon, and Tony Kubek

Posted By Bruce Markusen On December 12, 2008 @ 1:50 pm In Bronx Banter,Bruce Markusen | Comments Disabled

The signing of CC Sabathia brings to mind the issue of large—shall we say heavyset?— pitchers. While few doubt that the 28-year-old Sabathia will help the Yankees immensely in the first two to three years of his contract, there are questions about his long-term staying power. How exactly have plus-sized pitchers aged over baseball history?

My immediate thoughts turn to two hefty lefties, Mickey Lolich and Wilbur Wood, who were dominant in their twenties, but pretty much past their prime by the time they reached their early thirties. Wood wasn’t helped by a freakish injury that occurred when a Ron LeFlore line drive nailed him in the kneecap, but the knuckeballer had already started to fade by that point. Already huge by his peak, “Wilbah” really took on grandiose proportions as a member of the White Sox in the early 1970s, once allegedly tipping the scale at about 280 pounds. By the age of 33, Wood was no longer effective. By 36, he was out of baseball and headed toward fulltime life on the farm.

Lolich never became as large as Wood did at his peak, but conditioning remained a problem throughout his career. By age 33, Lolich’s body had started to show signs of wear and tear. Though still adequate, he had clearly left his prime years behind. By 36, he was injury prone. Two years later, he was finished.  

Then there is the case of Sid Fernandez, another left-hander with a bad body who compounded his problems with a painful delivery. Fernandez enjoyed even less longevity than Wood and Lolich. El Sid started to experience serious arm problems by the age of 30, and soon lost his effectiveness. By age 34, Fernandez was headed to retirement.

In more recent years, the 250-pound Bartolo Colon ceased being effective by his 32nd birthday. Injuries, which may or may not have been exacerbated by his weight, haven’t allowed him to pitch more than 99 innings in any of the last three seasons. Now 35, it’s highly doubtful that Colon will ever become a frontline starter again. 

Other large pitchers have aged more gracefully. Former Yankee David “Jumbo” Wells, who easily passed the 250-pound mark at his peak, remained effective until he was 41 and didn’t stop pitching until he was 44. Another former Yankee Rick Reuschel, nicknamed “Big Daddy,” pitched until he was 42, enjoying a number of fine seasons into his late thirties. Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons pitched effectively until he was 39, and didn’t retire until his 41st birthday had come and gone.

So, the tale of the tape is decidedly mixed when it comes to heavy pitchers. It probably helps not to take on the epic proportions of a Wilbur Wood. It also helps when you can throw strikes like a Wells, or keep the ball down like a Reuschel, rather than rely on tossing hard stuff like a Lolich, Colon, or Fernandez. Given Sabathia’s history of health, his sound mechanics, and his ability to rely on something in addition to a 94-mile-per-hour fastball (he throws an excellent curve ball and change-up), perhaps he’ll fare on the better side of the longevity ledger.

With so much of the Yankee talk at the Winter Meetings centering on Sabathia and other big ticket pitching items, I find myself wondering about the state of the team’s offense. What is next on Brian Cashman’s agenda, especially in regards to center field and first base? The large sums of money being thrown at Sabathia, Derek Lowe, and A.J. Burnett will preclude a big money offer to Mark Teixeira, but Cashman is looking at other offensive options.

Cashman is reportedly close to swinging a deal that sends Melky Cabrera and a minor league pitcher to the Brewers for Mike Cameron and possibly Bill Hall, but that’s a trade that’s designed to help the defense as much as it is the offense. The 36-year-old Cameron has power and speed, but his on-base percentage will leave something to be desired. If he can give the Yankees one or two good years in center field, and buy some time Austin “Ajax” Jackson, they’ll be satisfied.

The Yankees may also make a play for free agent Adam Dunn, who is a less expensive and less well-rounded version of Teixeira. The “Big Donkey,” who looks and plays like Boog Powell, could man first base in the Bronx, allowing Nick Swisher to move into a right field platoon with Xavier Nady. Dunn has developed his share of critics over the years (he’s too heavy and lacks passion for the game, among other shortcomings), but anyone who can hit 40 long balls and draw 100 walks has real offensive value…

***

I’m sure a few anti-Yankee naysayers have been bemoaning the selection of Joe “Flash” Gordon—“Oh no, not another Yankee!”—but as my father would have said many moons ago, “They’re full of canal water.” Gordon is a most deserving choice. For most of his 11-year career, Gordon was a dominant player at his position—a second baseman who hit with power, walked more than he struck out, and played second base at a Gold Glove level (long before such an award was actually created).

For those who have criticized Gordon for having too short of a career, let’s not forget that he lost two and a half seasons to service in World War II. With that war “credit,” his career would have spanned 13 seasons. Of those 11 actual campaigns, nine were highly productive, including four seasons in which he slugged over .500. And he did most of it within the context of pennant-contending seasons—six of his teams advanced to the World Series (with five winning world championships), three others finished third, and two placed a respectable fourth. Remarkably, none of his teams ever finished in the second division of the eight-team American League.

The election of Gordon has again raised the Hall of Fame question regarding Bobby Grich, a remarkably similar second baseman who starred for the Orioles and Angels in the seventies and eighties. If Gordon is Cooperstown worthy (and he is), then why not Grich? Why not, indeed? The man known as “The Lizard” richly deserves the honor and stands as proof positive that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America has sometimes completely missed the boat in prior Hall of Fame elections. In 1992, the Hall of Fame voters shamefully gave Grich under three per cent of the vote, resulting in his falling off the ballot. The Veterans Committee has yet to even consider him, but that should change in coming years.

Grich should be a Hall of Famer, but I would argue that he wasn’t the equal of Gordon. He didn’t hit with nearly the power of Gordon, only once hitting more than 22 home runs. He also wasn’t as durable, often missing games because of a chronic back problem that began when he tried to pick up an air conditioner during the off season. Still, Grich managed to stretch his career out over 17 seasons, all the while working the count and turning double plays with Gold Glove efficiency. Perhaps Grich will one day take his rightful place in Cooperstown—with an assist from Joe Gordon…

***

As upset as I am over the continued exclusion of Ron Santo, Gil Hodges, and Dick Allen from the Hall of Fame, I’m ecstatic that Tony Kubek has finally received his due in the form of the Ford C. Frick Award for his outstanding contributions to baseball broadcasting. In recent years, the award had become far too much of a popularity contest, given to a local broadcaster who had achieved cult following regardless of skill or talent. As an announcer, Kubek has never been associated with merely one team—he did color for both the Blue Jays and Yankees—but forged a more memorable legacy as NBC’s No. 1 color analyst, working first with Joe Garagiola and then in later years with Bob Costas, covering a swath of regular season games, the playoffs, and the World Series.

With Kubek, it was never about style or shtick; it was always about substance and information. He constantly talked to players, coaches, managers, and scouts, as a way of staying on top of player strengths and weaknesses while also keeping a thumb on the most topical issues affecting the game. He studied the game from almost every angle, from his perspective as a major league shortstop to the intricacies of baserunning. When Kubek joined the Madison Square Garden Network as the Yankees’ lead color man in the early1990s, it marked the start of Baseball 101 for me as a fan. Almost every game I learned something new about baseball, whether it was the definition of a secondary lead, the importance of leg strength for a middle infielder in turning the double play, the “overprogramming” of pitchers, or the value of working the count and drawing walks. For many internet writers, they claim their primary influence has been Bill James. For me, it was most definitely Kubek, who brought the same level of illumination and insight without the nastiness of James. And he did it all as an ex-player, shattering the Cosellian notion that athletes could only speak in clichés and platitudes.

Several years ago while attending a Yankee spring training game in West Palm Beach, I happened to see Kubek standing outside of the ballpark eating an ice cream cone, of all things. I dared to walk over to him and introduced myself, mentioning that I had interviewed him for a Utica radio station a couple of years earlier. Not only did he remember the interview, but he proceeded to carry on the most amicable of conversations for several minutes, never once giving me the indication that he was in a rush to talk to someone else. Too often, meeting a hero produces only disappointment. For me, it produced exactly the opposite.

Thanks, Tony, and congratulations for reaching the summit of a baseball broadcasting career.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com and can be reached at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com [1].


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