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Observations From Cooperstown: Feliciano, Martin, and Feller

Posted By Bruce Markusen On December 17, 2010 @ 9:29 am In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

Now that Cliff Lee has taken his thumb out of his mouth–I was going to write some other part of the body, but thought better of it–the Yankees have wasted little time in moving onto the business of real Hot Stove League baseball. In fewer than four days, Brian Cashman has landed Russell Martin and appears on the verge of signing lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano. That’s two for two in my book.

First off, I’m a fan of Feliciano. He’s been a consistently effective late-inning left-hander, pitching well season after season amidst the rubble of so many Mets disasters. His three-quarters/sidearm delivery is made to order against lefty batters, making him a more effective version of Damaso Marte (who will be out until at least August after labrum surgery). He throws strikes, has a close-game toughness about him, has no qualms about pitching in New York, and always takes the ball. Over the last three years, no one has appeared in more games than Feliciano. With Feliciano and Boone Logan pitching from the portside, the Yankees should be well-stocked in terms of left-handers in the bullpen.

Martin is a more complicated issue, though I’m generally pleased with his acquisition, if for no other reason than he will limit Francisco Cervelli to backup status, a return trip to the minor leagues, or the trade market. Martin is a much better player than Cervelli. Even in a down season, he hit five home runs last year, or five more than the punchless Cervelli. More importantly, Martin is a sound defensive catcher who blocks balls well and throws even better. In 2010, he threw out 38 per cent of opposing base stealers, and has never fared worse than 25 per cent in a single season. In contrast, Cervelli played like Venus de Milo, throwing out a mere 14 per cent of runners in 2010.

Aside from knee and hip injuries, the questions about Martin reside almost exclusively with his bat. After hitting at an All-Star level in 2007 and 2008, his numbers have fallen off badly the last two seasons (with OPS marks of .680 and .679), even though he won’t turn 28 until the spring. It can’t be age, so perhaps a change in approach or extra visits to the videotape machine would pay some dividends. A change of scenery might also help Martin. Not only will he be surrounded by better hitters in New York, but he’ll have a chance to work with one of the game’s best batting coaches in Kevin Long.

If you’re an optimist like me, you’ll be encouraged most by Martin’s similarity scores, available at baseball-reference.com. Who is Martin mostly equivalent to through his age-27 season? None other than a fellow named Thurman Munson. That’s not to say that Martin will go on a three-year tear like Munson did from 1975 to 1977, but he does have a similar game to the old Captain. Martin has some of Munson’s toughness behind the plate, along with a similar level of power; both players have (or had) maximum 18-20 home run capability. Like Munson, Martin is at his best going to right-center field; he has an excellent opposite field stroke that will be welcomed by the new Yankee Stadium.

Some have already amounted Martin as the No. 1 catcher, but that could change if Martin cannot reignite his offensive game. By June, Jesus Montero could be doing a good portion of the catching, with Martin spotted against teams that have a tendency to run, like the Rangers and Rays. All in all, a solid pickup for the Yankees, with very little downside…

***

The death of the legendary Bob Feller has resulted in some philosophical reactions, including the positive acknowledgment that he lived a long, full life that lasted 92 years. That’s certainly true, but when death hits someone you know, no matter how old, it still stings. I felt that sting on Wednesday night, when I heard that the Hall of Famer had lost his battle with leukemia.

I was privileged to know Bob Feller. During my years working in the Hall of Fame’s programming department, I had the pleasure of interviewing most of the living Hall of Famers, everyone from Hank Aaron to Billy Williams. There was no one I talked to more often than Feller, whether it was in one of the Hall’s theaters, at Doubleday Field, at the Otesaga Hotel, or the 18-hole Leatherstocking Golf Course. I interviewed him more than anyone because he visited the Hall of Fame more often than anybody, and he would never turn me down for a conversation.

Bob loved the Hall of Fame as much as anyone. He not only would visit Cooperstown to take part in old-timers games and induction ceremonies, which he never missed, but he would visit in the dead of winter, when people avoid central New York like the plague. If the Hall of Fame asked him to come talk to a group of students in the middle of December, Bob would do it–gladly. I think that if Dale Petroskey or Jeff Idelson asked him to come to Cooperstown in the middle of a 30-inch blizzard, Feller’s reaction would have been: “When’s the first available flight?” Simply put, he would do anything for the Hall of Fame; that’s the kind of pride and appreciation that he felt in being a member of the institution.

Sometimes Bob irritated people with what he had to say, particularly his putdowns of current-day players. Well, if anyone had a right to have high standards, it was someone like Feller, who debuted in the major leagues while still in high school and won 266 games despite missing nearly four full seasons to World War II. Here’s a guy who experienced the horrors of war; why would we expect him to have much sympathy for the coddled athletes of today? Others claimed Bob was somewhat racist in his beliefs, largely because of his strained relationship with Jackie Robinson. I’m no mind reader, but the impression I got was that Feller didn’t like Robinson in large part because of personal reasons. As great a man as Robinson was, he could be abrasive at times; there were also African-American players who didn’t care for his blunt, hard-hitting personality.

If you compare Feller to the general population of the thirties, forties, and fifties, he was actually more open minded than most, someone who could have been categorized as a progressive for his time. After all, Feller included Negro Leagues stars in his winter barnstorming tours, at a time when most players did little to acknowledge the black standouts of the day. In an era when much of baseball accepted and promoted the ideas of Jim Crow, Feller was actually doing the opposite.

Bob could lose his temper, especially with people he didn’t know, but he also felt a connection to the common man. While many Hall of Famers surround themselves with security during visits to Cooperstown, Feller willingly walked the streets of the village. His walks from the Otesaga Hotel down Main Street to the Hall of Fame were legendary. He would stop along the way to answer questions and sign autographs, never turning down a request as long as time permitted. It must have taken him an hour or longer to complete that walk, when it should have only taken seven or eight minutes, but Bob felt it was important to mingle with the fans. I only wish other players, both past and present, would embrace the same attitude that Bob did.

In much the same way as Hall of Famers like Brooks Robinson and the late Robin Roberts, Bob served the game as an unofficial ambassador. Talking the game with fans, filling autograph requests, and providing the media with his unabashed opinions, Feller promoted the game at every turn. Away from baseball, he remained a full-fledged patriot, even in times when such beliefs have too often become Hollywood punch lines. He was a war hero, too, even though he felt that label should be reserved only for those who died in battle.

Yes, I was lucky to have known a great man like Bob Feller, even just a little bit. Just being around Bob, an icon who accomplished so much in baseball and American culture, made me feel like a better man.

Bruce Markusen lives in Cooperstown, NY.


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