"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Observations From Cooperstown–The Election, Rumors, and Preston Gomez

There will be a clear-cut Yankee-Red Sox flair to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies taking place on July 26 here in Cooperstown. Veterans Committee selection Joe Gordon played a large chunk of his career with the Yankees, Jim Rice spent all of his major league days with the Red Sox, and Rickey Henderson played for both the Sox and the Bombers. I have to confess that I’d forgotten about Rickey’s tenure with Boston, but he did play there for 72 games in 2002. Like Goose Gossage, Rickey put in cameos for just about everyone.

Unlike Rice, there’s really no argument over Henderson’s worthiness as a Hall of Famer, not when you’re the all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases, and second on the all-time walks list. The 28 writers who left Henderson’s name off the ballot really should step up and explain themselves. (Up till now, only one has, a man named Corky Simpson, who said Henderson wasn’t his kind of player.) If they left him off as a protest against Rickey’s occasional tendency to lollygag, I can somewhat understand their point; Henderson did his reputation no favors when he tanked his performance with both the Yankees (in 1989) and Mets (in 2000). If they left him off because they don’t vote for first-year eligibles, or because they don’t want to see a unanimous selection, they really need to lose those antiquated ideas. Those simply aren’t legitimate reasons to keep someone’s name off the ballot. It would be nice for the Baseball Writers to come up with a system that demands accountability. Perhaps the voting for the Hall should no longer be done with secret ballots; let’s make each writer publicly list his or her choices. Maybe that will eliminate some of the silliness.

What about Rickey as a Yankee? I’ll always have mixed feelings about Henderson’s days in the Bronx. At his worst, he pulled a Manny Ramirez-like stunt in 1989, jogging after balls hit to left field, running the bases at three-quarter speed, all because of his unhappiness over his contract and his displeasure with management. But at his best, Henderson was THE Best. From 1985 to 1988, he performed at a level never matched by any other Yankee leadoff man in history. He also had his best power seasons while playing for the Yankees, 24 home runs in 1985 and 28 in 1986. For his career, he nearly reached the 300 milestone, an amazing accomplishment given the lack of power he had displayed throughout the minor leagues. Except for one minor league season, Henderson hit with no power at all. Over his first 942 major league at-bats with Oakland, basically the equivalent of two seasons, he hit a grand total of ten home runs. But then he turned his muscular build into legitimate power, making him the ultimate three dimensional leadoff threat. His 1990 performance highlighted his power at its peak, when he slugged an amazing .577 for the A’s. If Henderson had wanted to, if he had changed his plan from slash-and-dash to a muscle approach, he could have hit 500 home runs, though it likely would have hurt his all-round game. The “Man of Steal” had that kind of talent. He was Ty Cobb with a power stroke.

The number of words that have been written on the Internet about Rice’s candidacy could fill 26 volumes of one of those old-fashioned print encyclopedias, but the debate has basically centered on a battle of younger Sabermetric types against older mainstream writers. At 43 years of age, I find myself in between the two camps, but leaning in the direction of those writers who saw Rice play, most of whom regarded him as a Hall of Famer at the time. I think that their argument (based on Rice’s level of peak performance, phenomenal RBI totals, his high batting average, and his robust slugging percentage) wins out slightly over the Sabermetricians (who have based their argument on Rice’s lack of walks, his tendency to ground into twin killings, and his lack of longevity). I have read good arguments on both sides of the equation, but am frankly dismayed by the shrill nature of some of the anti-Rice sentiments, which at times have seemingly bordered on viciousness. It hasn’t been enough to make the argument against Rice’s Hall of Fame worthiness; too many have seen fit to trash Rice’s career entirely, calling him “mediocre,” or “average,” while comparing him to the likes of Jay Bell. I’m sorry, but when a player leads his league in 15 major offensive categories, earns eight All-Star team selections, compiles eight 100-RBI seasons (which are not worthless, despite the current disdain for the statistic), compiles four 200-hit seasons, and plays a significant role in his teams winning two pennants, he’s not merely average, or decent, or ordinary. Hall of Famer or not, Jim Rice was a fine, fine player…

Brian Cashman would prefer to trade Xavier Nady over Nick Swisher. That’s no surprise considering that Swisher is younger, a switch-hitter, and signed long-term, while Nady is poised to ride the Scott Boras dollar train to free agency next winter. Several teams appear to be interested in Nady, including the Braves, the Reds, and the Giants (who are interested in moving Nady to first base fulltime). I’ve heard rumors regarding all of these teams, but precious little with regard to possible players who would be coming back to the Yankees. Let’s take each of the teams one at a time, with some thoughts on what the Yankees should be seeking.

What do the Braves have to offer? Other than prospects, not much, unless you’re interested in platoon outfielder Matt Diaz (coming off a bad season) or backup catcher Clint Sammons. I’d be tempted to ask for Mike Gonzalez, who returned from major arm problems to record 44 strikeouts in 33 innings. Gonzalez would give the Yankees another left-hander in the pen—joining Damaso Marte—and free up Phil Coke to audition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

Like the Braves, the Reds have little in the way of spare major league talent to offer. They could put together a package of backup catcher Ryan Hanigan and utility infielder Jeff Keppinger, but that’s not enough. I’d ask for a young pitcher like the live-armed Johnny Cueto or a young catching prospect like Craig Tatum.

The Giants would probably like to escape from Aaron Rowand’s hefty contract, but his defensive play slipped badly in 2008. Randy Winn is too much of a tweener, not a big enough hitter to play the outfield corners every day, not good enough defensively to handle center field. So how about Jonathan Sanchez for Nady? His ERA was an awful 5.01, but he did strike out 157 in 158 innings. At 26, he might be on the verge of translating a big-time arm into big league success.


Preston Gomez, the first manager in the history of the San Diego Padres, died on Tuesday at the age of 85. An advisor with the Angels at the time of his death, he never fully recovered from injuries suffered in a spring training car accident last year.

At one time a manager in the Yankees’ farm system, Gomez gained some level of recognition for twice pinch-hitting for his pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter. He first did it with Clay Kirby in San Diego and later with Don Wilson in Houston. In both cases, Gomez’ teams were losing the game at the time, so the moves were understandable, though still controversial.

This past summer, I met Nate Colbert, one of Gomez’ former Padre players, during his visit to Cooperstown. Colbert said that Gomez was one of the best managers he ever had. (He also liked future Yankee coach Don Zimmer, who succeeded Gomez as manager.) He said that Gomez was very sharp, particularly good when it came to late-inning strategy.

Gomez’ sharpness wasn’t illustrated by his managerial record, which was well below .500. Of course, he had the misfortune of managing three sets of bad teams: the early incarnation of the Padres, the Astros of the mid-seventies, and the Cubs of 1980. Those Padres teams were particularly awful. When you have to fill out a lineup that has an infield of Derrel Thomas, Enzo Hernandez, and Dave Roberts, and you have only two legitimate sluggers at your disposal in Colbert and Downtown Ollie Brown, it’s hard to expect good results.

Most baseball people understood that Gomez was better than his teams’ records. That’s why the Angels brought him into their organization, using him as everything from a coach to a scout to an advisor to the general manager. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who considered Gomez a mentor, thought so much of him that he gave him a large role in spring training each year. Like so many lifetime baseball foot soldiers, Gomez became an asset to the game and to his teams. And just for good measure, he was an awfully friendly guy, willing to talk to just about anybody who crossed his path in spring training.

Bruce Markusen can be reached via e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com. He also writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.


One comment

1 DaveinMD   ~  Jan 15, 2009 3:01 pm

Rice as a hall of famer is a travesty. He was a slightly above average player away from Fenway. Dwight Evans would have been a more worthy Red Sox player. Tim Raines is clearly more worthy. And Blyleven continues to get the shaft.

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