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Observations From Cooperstown–Competition, Mr. Sheppard, and Herman Franks

There are those who believe that spring training performance is too misleading to be useful in determining who should win spots on an Opening Day roster. I would tend to agree with that theory, at least in the case of established veteran players, but the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons can be helpful in sorting out the best and worst among younger players.

The 2009 Yankees provide a classic case in point. Last Sunday, Joe Girardi announced that Brett Gardner had won the center field battle, with Melky Cabrera relegated to backup duties. Gardner hit a leadoff home run in the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game—and continued to hit all spring, even showing surprising power. Cabrera, after a slow start, rebounded to lift his average near the .350 range, which is terrific, but still short of Gardner’s exhibition season level.

In my mind, Girardi has made a perfectly reasonable and rational decision in choosing Gardner. Both players have their strengths, Gardner his speed and range, and Cabrera his throwing arm, but neither has a huge edge in talent over the other. Both are younger players still trying to establish their levels of value in the major leaguers. Neither player hit well in 2008, leaving question marks about their staying power as regular center fielders. If Girardi can’t use spring training as a major factor in this decision, then what else can he rely on? A call to Joe Torre? Tarot cards?

I believe that the pressure of spring training performance can also tell us something about a player. If a player knows he has to hit well in the spring in order to win a job, and then he goes out and does exactly that, it may be an indication that he can handle the pressure that comes with the major leagues. Similarly, I believe that competition should bring out the best in good players. And based on the way that both Gardner and Cabrera have responded to this spring’s competition (and the way that Austin Jackson, slated for Triple-A, also hit in Grapefruit League play), the Yankees may find center field to be in far more capable hands than they originally planned…

No one seems to know for sure whether Bob Sheppard is fully retired, or might make a cameo appearance at the new Yankee Stadium this year, but what I do know is this: This incredible man has introduced Yankee players for nearly 60 years, dating back to the 1951 season. So we thought we’d compile an “all-Bob Sheppard team,” consisting of some of the best and most unusual Yankee names in history. (The more syllables, the better.) Some of the monikers are lyrical, others are clunky, but all have been delivered with a grace and precision unlike any other public address announcer in baseball history.

Catcher: Thurman Munson (the only big leaguer with the given name of Thurman)
First Base: Duke Carmel (true identity: Leon James Carmel)
Second Base: Robinson Cano (the only current Yankee to make the squad)
Shortstop: Paul Zuvella (Rizzuto loved this name)
Third Base: Celerino Sanchez (makes me think of celery stalks)
Outfield: Ross Moschitto (hit like a mosquito, too)
Outfield: Roger Repoz (if only he had played so lyrically)
Outfield: Claudell Washington (the first and only Claudell, and a personal favorite)
Pinch-Hitter: Oscar Azocar (not much of a hitter, but what a name!)
SP: Ed Figueroa (Mr. Sheppard would never call him “Figgy”)
SP: John Montefusco (did Bob ever call him “The Count?”)
SP: Eli Grba (still not sure what happened to all of the vowels)
SP: Hideki Irabu (never referred to as “The Toad”)
RP: Hipolito Pena (an obscure left-hander, but a memorable moniker)
RP: Cecilio Guante (translates to “Cecilio Glove”)
RP: Ron Klimkowski (went from pitching to selling Cadillacs)
RP: Dooley Womack (one of the stars of Ball Four)
Opponent: Jose Valdivielso (Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins)…

One of the most underrated managers in the history of the expansion era died this week. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living ex-manager, passed away on Monday at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial record with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. Without a measure of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison with that of contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Gil Hodges, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.

In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles and St. Louis, and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.

Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants. In 1977, Franks led Chicago to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave Kingman and using an innovative approach with fireman Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving his relief ace for late-game leads.

For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven games remaining in the season. The following season, the Cubs finished 64-98, nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.


1 knuckles   ~  Apr 3, 2009 5:08 pm

As far as Sheppard pronunciations go, shortstop begins and ends with Alvaro Espinoza.

2 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Apr 3, 2009 11:56 pm

Yup, that and Shigetosi Hasegawa are among his favorite names of his career.

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