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Observations From Cooperstown: Okajima, Jones, the HOF, and Greg Spira

Posted By Bruce Markusen On January 2, 2012 @ 11:03 am In 1: Featured,2010s,21st Century,Bruce Markusen,Obituaries,Observations From Cooperstown,Staff,Yankees | Comments Disabled

[1]The Yankees made two low-profile roster moves last week, but both were good transactions. First, they signed ex-Red Sock Hideki Okajima to a non-guaranteed contract, giving him a chance to make the team with a good spring training performance. Then the Yankees re-signed Andruw Jones, their most effective bench player in 2011.

At one time, Okajima was one of the American League’s most effective left-handed pitchers. He was also one of the most fun to watch, given the way that his head bobbed toward third base, a particularly distracting trait for many hitters. Okajima spent most of last year at Triple-A Pawtucket, but is only two years removed from being a key member of the Red Sox’ bullpen. For his career, he has held left-handed batters to a .217 batting average and a .277 on-base percentage. He also has no fear of American League East pennant races, having done regular battles against the Yankees and the Rays over the span of three summers.

With a good spring, Okajima could beat out Boone Logan, who was wildly inconsistent against lefty batters in 2011. Or there’s a possibility that the Yankees could carry Okajima as a second southpaw reliever. As it is, the Yankee staff is far too right-handed, with CC Sabathia providing the only certainty from the left side. Another left-hander, provided that he is effective, would be a nice bonus for Girardi to call on in sixth and seventh inning situations.

Now on to Jones, a familiar face from 2011. He did quietly good work in a supporting role last season. After a so-so first half, Jones finished up the season on a strong note, establishing himself as a right-handed hammer. In 146 plate appearances against left-handers, Jones reached base 38 per cent of the time and slugged to the tune of .540. Those are Marcus Thames numbers. Jones is an ideal fourth outfielder who can handle either corner position, and can also play center field in the event that both Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner go down. If anything, I’d like to see Jones play more in 2012. Whenever the Yankees see a left-hander, Joe Girardi should find a place for Jones in the lineup, whether it’s in left field, right field, or as the DH…

***

We are one week away from the Hall of Fame vote being conducted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The ballot contains five names that I personally regard as Hall of Famers, but only one man is likely to emerge with the 75 per cent vote needed for election.

Here are the four players likely to receive the most support in next week’s election:

Barry Larkin:

Of all the players, he has the best chance to win election from the Baseball Writers. He received 62 per cent of the vote last year and would need a jump of 13 per cent, which is not without precedent. Like George Brett, Larkin’s frequent injuries were a factor against him, but not enough to dethrone him as the best all-round shortstop of the 1990s. His power (198 home runs) and his basestealing numbers (379 steals, only 77 caught stealing) really jump out, especially coming from a shortstop. I remember him as a very good player, but the numbers show him to be a great one. Prediction: He’ll receive 78 per cent of the vote and join Ron Santo in the Class of 2012.

Jack Morris:

After Larkin, he has the most favorable odds of earning the required 75 per cent. He received 51 per cent last year, so he will need a huge jump in the balloting. His supporters point to him as the best starting pitcher of the 1980s and cite his standout work in the 1991 postseason. His detractors emphasize his 3.90 career ERA, which would rank the highest of any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. Prediction: He’ll receive about 64 per cent support, well short of election.

Jeff Bagwell:

His lack of voting support in 2011 (41 per cent) was astounding. Rumors of steroid use may have been a factor, but Bagwell never failed a drug test and was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report. MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons, whose opinion I respect greatly, recently rated Bagwell as the fourth best first basemen in history, behind only Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Albert Pujols. That’s good enough for me, but it doesn’t appear that it will be good enough for the voters. Prediction: He’ll receive just over 50 per cent support.

Tim Raines:

Like Bagwell, his lack of support from the writers has been astonishing. He’s the second best leadoff man of all-time, behind only Rickey Henderson, a supposition that should indicate his worth for the Hall of Fame. And as a bonus, he earned a couple of World Series rings as a part-time player with the Yankees, where he filled in as a left fielder, DH, and clubhouse leader. Prediction: He’ll jump from 37 to 41 per cent, leaving him alarmingly short of election. The lack of support makes little sense to me; he’s a far stronger candidate than Jack Morris, among others.

***

There are celebrities among baseball writers, people like Bill James and Rob Neyer and Bill Madden. And then there are footsoldiers, people who do the research and leave the glory of the written word to other people. Greg Spira was one of those people.

Greg was regarded as one of the best researchers and editors in the baseball world. He wrote occasionally, but it was research and large research projects that really drove him. He did a lot of work related to the Mets, frequently collaborating with a friend of mine, Matt Silverman. They worked on many projects together, trying to come up with stories and statistics that people would be interested in reading and hearing. Greg also served as the editor of ESPN’s Baseball Encyclopedia, a book that was a particular source of pride for him.

There was pride, but little ego. Some of Greg’s friends tried to get him to write more often, but I don’t think he had the ego for that. He just wanted to do the research, and make it available for other people to study, and enjoy.

Greg Spira died last week at the age of 44. He had a difficult history of health problems, dating all the way back to the 1990s. His kidneys and his heart finally gave out on him, even though his mind had plenty of baseball left in it.

I don’t know why we keep losing these writers and researchers at young ages. There was Doug Pappas of Baseball Prospectus, John Brattain of The Hardball Times, and, of course, the beloved Todd Drew of Bronx Banter. I guess that all I can make of it is this: we must do what we can each day, not knowing exactly what might happen next.

Keep researching. Keep writing. Keep loving the game. Do it every day until it’s time to stop.


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