Monday, April 30, 2007

Torre's travails

Joshua Morgan Hancock (1978-2007)

The Associated Press

Say it ain't so ...

If there's one redeeming feature of the Evil Empire, it has been manager Joe Torre.

I liked watching Joe toward the end of his playing career, with the Cardinals and Mets in the '70s. I liked watching him take the then-lowly Braves (yes, they once were awful) to the '82 NL West title, and that he later was hired by St. Louis after Ted Turner dumped him.

Then history repeated itself, in a way.

Back in 1949, the Yankees hired a new manager, a man in his late 50s who had spent his entire major-league career to that point in the National League. The new manager went on to win 10 American League pennants and seven World Series in 12 years. His name was Casey Stengel.

Torre, another lifelong National Leaguer, was a few years younger than Stengel had been when the Yankees hired him. But Torre's results have been similar. His teams won the World Series in four of his first five seasons and have won the AL East title in all but one of his first 11.

Despite his stellar record, Stengel lost his Yankees job after one bad stretch: namely, the 1960 World Series, during which New York outscored Pittsburgh 55-27 but still managed to lose, thanks to Bill Mazeroski.

Torre faces a similar situation. A bad stretch to start the 2007 season has the Yankees sitting on a 9-14 record, good for last place in the division.

Pitching is primarily to blame. The staff has been decimated by injuries, and those who still can throw aren't getting the job done. The starting pitchers are averaging fewer than five innings per start, and Buster Olney of ESPN: The Magazine mentioned that four Yankee hurlers are on pace to make 99 or more appearances, and that only one pitcher in history (Mike Marshall, 1974) has pitched in more than 94 games.

Torre might be overworking the staff, but if no one can get the job done, what choice does he have? He can't pitch Andy Pettitte every day.

If the situation doesn't improve soon, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner will be looking for a scapegoat. Torre almost paid the price after New York's early exit from the playoffs last fall, so the team really needed a hot start this year for his sake.

One part of me is happy that the Yankees and their $200 million payroll are playing so miserably (even worse than the Pirates). But if Joe Torre is the resulting casualty, that's a sad day for baseball.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bye, bye Berry

In 1986, Jim Leyland's first season as a manager, the Pirates made some improvement over the previous year. But they finished last in the National League East, in large part because they managed to post a 1-17 record against the eventual world champion Mets.

That happened to be my first full year living in the Pittsburgh area, and no matter how lousy the Pirates happened to be, I tried to attend as many games as I could. Plenty of those were losses to the Mets, right from the season opener, with Dwight Gooden (then baseball's top pitcher) beating Rick Reuschel, 4-2. My most lasting memory of that game was that a "ball girl" fielded a ball while it was in play, then realizing the mistake she'd made, kind of rolled it back onto the field. I think she lost her job slightly afterward.

I also was on hand for the Pirates' only victory over New York that season. Rick Rhoden beat Ron Darling, 7-1, in the first game of a twi-night doubleheader. (Remember those?) For the second game, Leyland trotted Jose DeLeon out to the mound, which left us kind of scratching our heads. DeLeon was sensation when he broke into the league in '83, pitched decently but was victimized by tough luck in '84, and managed a 2-19 record in '85, missing 20 losses when Chuck Tanner took him out of the rotation toward the end of the year. Why was Leyland giving DeLeon a shot?

Jose promptly coughed up a 2-0 lead to the Mets in the first, then managed a couple of scoreless inning before the roof caved in. With two outs and a man on, opposing pitcher Rick Aguilera cracked a home run. Further carnage staked the Mets out to a 7-0 lead after Danny Heep's double, and Leyland walked out to the mound to relieve DeLeon. That was his final appearance as a Pirate (although he did go on to lead the National League in strikeouts three years later, as a Cardinal.)

The biggest Pirates-Mets disappointment of 1986 came in Pittsburgh's final home game, "Fan Appreciation Day." As added bonuses, fans were to be treated to a chicken dinner after the game (courtesy of Lou Pappan) and an "oldies" concert featuring the Four Tops and Chuck Berry.

The Associated Press

Wow! I'd never seen Chuck Berry live, but I sure loved his music. Still do. So I made sure to be at Three Rivers Stadium that day.

With the Mets winning 1-0 in the ninth, everyone was ready to get the game over with and let the festivities begin. Then, with two outs, Jim Morrison cracked a home run to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

Pirate play-by-play man Greg Brown was a stadium announcer back then, and as I've heard him tell it, Berry took one look at Morrison's ball sailing over the wall and announced something along the lines of, "I'm outta here." The Pirates lost, of course, and we did eat chicken, but we got a double dose of the Four Tops instead of a set by one of rock music's most influential figures.

Greg Brown, who had to make the announcement to 30,000 fans, says he's no fan of Chuck Berry.

Trivia question 24: Who was the losing pitcher for the Pirates in the non-Chuck Berry game?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Rough start in the Bronx

The debate on the radio this morning is whether the last-place Yankees can dig themselves out of the early hole they've dug for themselves.

The general feeling is that certain players, especially pitchers, will get healthy and give New York the needed boost to win its usual division title.

But as ESPN's Jayson Stark pointed out, who exactly is going to do the job? Mike Mussina is 38 years old. Carl Pavano is perpetually injured. There's the possibility they can land Roger Clemens for half a season. But he'll be 45 in August. Perhaps the can go the rent-a-player route and acquire a pitcher who's in the last year of his contract. Stark mentioned the possibility of the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano, who's off to a very disappointing start. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has expressed the notion that the team wants to hang onto its younger prospects, rather than trade them for older, expensive players.

Speaking of getting older, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera might be headed toward Cooperstown one day, but he's not looking like a Hall of Famer so far this season. In seven games, he is 1-2 with a 7.11 earned run average and 0 saves. He's 37 years old.

But although the situation might not look the rosiest for New York at the moment, it's certainly not time to panic yet, what with about 85 percent of the season to go. When the Yankees are beating up the Devil Rays in August and September, that means a lot more than losing a few games to them in April.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Now, that's baseball!

Watching baseball in Pittsburgh has been a relatively painful experience for the past 15 years. But every once in a while, you get a gem like tonight's game, a three-hit, complete-game shutout by the Pirates' Paul Maholm that clocked in at just under two hours. Check it out:

Pittsburgh 3, Houston 0

Pirates fans probably won't have long to enjoy Maholm's gem. Zach Duke, who's been strafed early and often in his past two starts, follows him to the mound at PNC Park.

Incomplete games

A number of possible causes have been offered for the longball boom that erupted in the mid-'90s and persists through today (witness Alex Rodriguez). Chief among them are smaller ballparks, a livelier baseball and the possibility that some guys just might have been using performance-enhancing substances.

My theory is that pitching is the primary culprit.

I'm not so sure that the quality of the pitchers in general is down. A number of future Hall of Famers -- Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson, probably Clemens -- were stars throughout most of the '90s and still are effective today. And don't forget about guys like Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, who might not be bound for Cooperstown but still put up some tremendous numbers.

The problem with pitchers today is that in any given game, far too many of them make appearances.

You've seen managers in action. Six innings is enough for a starter who's pitched effectively. Setup Man No. 1 comes in for the seventh. Setup Man No. 2 for the eighth. Oops, he's in some trouble. A lefty comes in to face a left-handed hitter. The next batter is a righty, so in comes a right-handed pitcher. He's a bit wild, so another man trots in from the bullpen. If his team makes it through the eighth, the closer enters to -- if all goes well -- close.

Not only does that make for some very protracted games, but it might give the batters an advantage. Think about a pitcher just entering the game. He may be throwing heat with a fresh arm, but more than likely he has to make a few adjustments when he starts facing live hitting. The batter already is warmed up after the first several innings. All he has to do is get ahold of one of those first few tentative pitches, and there's another moonshot.

All right, I don't know how much of that I believe, myself. But I did some digging and came up with some interesting statistics. Starting in 1973, the advent of the designated hitter (and the first year I started analyzing box scores), there appears to be a correlation between the number of complete games thrown by pitchers and the number of home runs hit by batters.

These charts list the league leaders in team complete games and individual home runs (click on a chart for a closer look):

I the American League, complete games skyrocketed after the DH came into play, as there was no longer any need to pinch-hit for pitchers. In the first four years of the DH, the average home run total for an AL leader was a shade over 33, the lowest total for a comparable span since World War II (and laughable by today's standards). It took an expansion year in '77 to push the homer champ up to 39. Meanwhile, the top teams still were tossing more than 60 complete games per year.

The Billy Martin-led A's took it to the extreme with 94 CG in '80, but he's often been accused of blowing out his pitchers' arms, which in turn contributed substantially to the decline of the complete game. That deserves a closer examination later.

The National League didn't show much correlation in the '70s. But look what happened in the '90s, leading up McGwire-Sosa-Bonds. Pitchers had pretty much stopped going the distance, and balls flew out of the park at a record pace. Coincidence?

For the record, both leagues reached the point of no return -- the home run leader hitting more than the team CG leader, for good -- in 1986, the year of Mike Schmidt's final longball title.

Also for the record, the first recorded instance of an individual leading the league in home runs with more than the team leader in complete games was Harmon Killebrew in 1964. He went yard 49 times, and his team, the Twins, topped the circuit with 47 CG.

Trivia question 23: Who is the last pitcher to record 20 complete games in a season?

David Halberstam (1934-2007)

Among the authors that took their Pulitzer Prize-winning skills to baseball writing was David Halberstam, who died yesterday in a vehicle accident while on his way to interview football great Y.A. Tittle.

Among his sports books, his best-known was "The Summer of '49," the recounting of the season that began the New York Yankees' epic run of 14 American League pennants in 16 years.

He also wrote "October 1964," the story of the last season of that stretch, the end of the Mantle-Berra-Ford dynasty and the beginning of a very enjoyable decade for non-Yankee fans. Part of the book focuses on how New York failed to sign and develop minority players, mostly at the behest of general manager George Weiss, while other teams -- including the St. Louis Cardinals, which beat the Yankees in the '64 World Series -- became fully integrated. Cardinal stars Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White also are featured prominently in the book.

"October 1964" contains one of my favorite baseball anecdotes. Ralph Terry, best known as the pitcher who surrendered Bill Mazeroski's Series-winning blast in 1960, was one of the better pitchers on the Yankees' staff in the early '60s. When Terry first signed with the Yankees, he was assigned to the farm team in Binghamton, N.Y., which is not very far from Cooperstown. Terry received permission from his manager to watch the Yankees play in the annual Hall of Fame Game. As Halberstam wrote:

"Jim Turner, the Yankee pitching coach, recognized (Terry) and, because it was not a league game, told him it was all right to sit down at the end of the Yankee dugout. Terry walked down to the end of the bench, where he found three very old men sitting together. Very full of himself, and sure that the big leagues were just around the corner, Terry introduced himself to the nearest of the men. 'Hi, I'm Ralph Terry, and I'm pitching for the Binghamton Yankees,' he said, and the tone of his voice, he later decided, was more than a little cocky, implying that within a year or two he would be with the big-league club.

"The older man, one of the most courteous people Ralph Terry had ever met, said, 'Well, Ralph, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you. Now, my name is Cy Young. And these fellas over here next to me and Zack Wheat and Ty Cobb.' Just as Terry decided that he was the youngest and biggest fool in professional baseball, Cy Young moved a little closer, to sit next to him, and he talked pitching with him for the rest of the day."

Isn't that a great story? David Halberstam's books are full of them.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Wright stuff

I turned on ESPN's Sunday game last night, remembered it was the Yankees vs. Red Sox, then turned the channel so my wife could watch "Desperate Housewives." ESPN apparently is under obligation to carry the entire season series between baseball's two highest-salaried teams in some manner, and I get kind of put off by the hype.

A little while later, though, I took a short drive and didn't bother turning the radio station, which was tuned to the local ESPN affiliate. I learned that I should have been watching the game. I'd missed the Red Sox tying a record by hitting four consecutive home runs. And they all were off the same pitcher, just the second time in history that has happened.

The pitcher was a 24-year-old lefty named Chase Wright, who was part of history on the positive side earlier in the week. Wright, Kei Igawa and Sean Henn each earned their first major-league victories in a three-game sweep of Cleveland. A trio of pitchers hadn't done anything like that since 1941.

Injuries have taken their toll on the Yankees' starting rotation, which might be encouraging to their non-fans. But it's April. Expect some New York's injured pitcher to be back in top form late in the season, when they're really needed. And expect another first-place finish for the team that shells out the most money.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Mike Golic of ESPN's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" is conjecturing today that Alex Rodriguez is on his way to becoming "the most beloved player in baseball."

Mike's opinion is that given A-Rod's tremendous start this season, he's likely to make a run at breaking Barry Bonds' single-season home run record. And given A-Rod's tremendous career to this point, he's likely to break the career record Bonds probably will set this year, "maybe before Bonds goes into the Hall of Fame."

I'd buy into that, especially the career record component, especially if Rodriguez is wearing something besides Yankee pinstripes when he sets the new mark. I'm not that big of an A-Rod fan (the Yankee thing), but if he can knock Bonds down a peg, more power to him.

Let's not crown Rodriguez just yet, though. True, he's hit 10 home runs in his first 14 games, including last night's game-winner off Cleveland's Joe Borowski. (Why the Indians have Borowski trying to close games is a whole other story.) That projects to a lot more than 74 for the season.

But keep in mind that we're only three weeks in the season. Other players have gotten off the fast starts, including Graig Nettles, who set an American League record for April with 11 home runs in 1974. (He finished the season with 22.)

And keep in mind that this is the same Alex Rodriguez who went 1-for-14 in the Yankees' playoff series loss to Detroit last year, prompting predictions that he couldn't possibly return to New York under the circumstances. He'll hit a cold spell sooner or later.

Even if he doesn't crack 74 this year, A-Rod seems to be in a good position to eventually set the career record. He has 474 so far, one behind Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Stan Musial, and Rodriguez hasn't yet reached his 33rd birthday. If he plays until age 42 -- like Bonds, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays -- and averages roughly 30 homers per year, that should put him in the high 700s, and should put him ahead of Bonds.

Sounds good to me ... even if he's still in pinstripes.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Congratulations to Mark Buehrle (try that one in a spelling bee) on his no-hitter last night. And congratulations to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for actually leaving Buehrle in the game for all nine innings. These days, you'd expect a middle reliever to enter the game in the seventh, even if the starter hasn't given up a hit.

I remember a game back in 1990 in which California lefty Mark Langston, who'd signed a contract in the off-season making him the highest-paid player in baseball at the time, pitched seven innings of no-hit ball. Then he watched the last two innings. I guess the Angels were protecting their investment.

No-hitters have always made for interesting commentary by baseball historians, because each has a story. Some of my favorites:

John Montgomery Ward, 1880. The future Hall of Famer (not the guy who opened the department store, though) pitched a perfect game: 27 men up, 27 down. A guy named Lee Richmond had accomplished the same feat just five days before, pitching for Worcester, Mass., which at the time was in the National League. Because the perfect games occurred so close together, fans apparently figured that was something they'd see fairly regularly. But ...

Jim Bunning, 1964. The next perfect game in the National League occurred 84 years after those of Richmond and Ward. Bunning, a Hall of Famer and U.S. Senator, mowed down the Mets on Father's Day. My own father happened to be visiting New York at the time for the World's Fair, but says he was talked out of attending the game at Shea Stadium that day. Live and learn.

Bumpus Jones, 1892. At the tail end of the season, Cincinnati gave a 22-year-old kid named Charles Leander Jones a chance to pitch. He made the most of it, shutting down Pittsburgh without a hit in his major-league debut. Before the 1893 season, they moved the pitching mound 10 1/2 feet farther away from home plate. Jones didn't adapt too well. In seven games, he racked up a 10.19 earned-run average and exited the big leagues with just two wins to his credit, including the no-hitter.

Bobo Holloman, 1953. Alva Lee Holloman did Charles Leander Jones one better. That is, he had three major-league victories, including the no-hitter he threw in his first start, for the St. Louis Browns.

Andy Hawkins, 1990. Younger fans who see the Yankees in the playoffs each and every year might not remember that they stunk for quite a while in the late '80s and early '90s. Hawkins didn't help the cause with his 5-12 record in 1990. Among the losses was a game he managed to lose 4-0 to the White Sox without surrendering a hit. To his credit, none of the runs were earned. But speaking of credit, Hawkins doesn't officially receive it for his no-hitter. The game was in Chicago, which didn't have to bat in the ninth, so he pitched only eight innings.

Matt Young, 1992. In his first start of the season for the Red Sox, Young held Cleveland hitless through eight innings but lost, 2-1. He hardly helped his cause by walking seven Indians. And as was the case in Hawkins' no-hitter, Cleveland didn't have to bat in the ninth, so Young didn't receive official credit for his "gem." It gets worse, though. Young was dropped from the rotation after four ineffective starts, and he managed to finish the season with an 0-4 record despite his "no-hitter."

Dick Fowler, 1945. Fowler was a member of the Canadian Army who was released from the service in time to pitch in a handful of games for the last-place Philadelphia Athletics before the season ended. In one start, he no-hit the almost-as-bad St. Louis Browns. That marked his only victory of the season.

Sandy Koufax, 1965. No-hitters were an annual occurrence for Koufax between 1962 and '65, and his most impressive was the final one, a perfect game against the Cubs in which he struck out 14. His mound opponent, Bob Hendley, did almost as well, giving up just one hit. Dodger Stadium just wasn't a hitter's park in the '60s.

Bob Forsch, 1978. In the only no-hitter I ever saw in its entirety (on television, of course), Forsch beat the Phillies, 5-0. At least, it's in the books as a no-hitter. In the top of the eighth, Philadelphia's Garry Maddox hit a rocket somewhere in the neighborhood of St. Louis third baseman Ken Reitz, who made a valiant stab at the ball. Even though Brooks Robinson in his prime wouldn't have gotten the speedy Maddox out, the hometown official scorer gave Reitz an error. Maddox promptly was erased on a double play grounder, and one inning later, Forsch had his "gem."

Trivia question 22: Who are the only brothers to pitch no-hitters in the majors?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Roto venting

Players on a Rotisserie team have a strange penchant of all going into a slump at the same time, even though they're scattered all around real-life baseball.

In the Whiners Rotisserie League (Since 1989), I ended the second week of the season in first place, which was a nice surprising considering I'd paid bargain-basement prices for pitching.

Then came starts the past two days by Jeff Francis (5 innings, 7 earned runs), Chuck James (5 inn., 3 ER), Adam Wainwright (6 inn., 4 ER) and Matt Belisle (5 1/3 inn., 5 ER).

Suddenly, the inexpensive pitching doesn't seem like a good idea, particularly considering Dan Uggla and Miguel Cabrera went a combined 0-for-10 for Florida last night.

It's going to be a long season.

Trivia question 21:
Who is the only Rookie of the Year who later won Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Philadelphia 18, Cubs 16 (10 innings)

(The Associated Press)

My father had turned off the television by the time I arrived home.

I'd been playing ball with some friends early that Saturday afternoon, and as I took a shortcut through the woods, I was looking forward to watching the Phillies game. It was very early in the 1976 season, and given Philadelphia's improvement the past few years, we fans had high expectations. But the Phils had dropped three of their first four games.

Game No. 5 was at Wrigley Field, and when I asked about the blank TV screen, Dad explained that the Phillies were hopelessly behind. I turned the set back on, and he was absolutely right: Cubs 13, Phillies 2, top of the fifth.

I was about to turn it back off when my favorite player, Mike Schmidt, came to the plate. So I figured I'd watch him, then go do something else. He launched one into a stiff breeze for his second home run of the year, cutting the Chicago lead to nine, and I figured I might as well sit down. I didn't have anything better to do in those days before computers and video games.

Schmidt came up again in the seventh and belted another one out of the park to make it 13-7. That still was a big margin, but I still didn't have anything better to do.

The score was 13-9, though, when Schmidt came up again in the eighth, with two men on base. Boom! He did it again, and I ran upstairs to tell Dad about the historic event: three home runs in one game!

That looked to be it for Schmidt's day when the Phillies scored three more times in the ninth to take a 15-13 lead, having outscored the Cubs 12-0 since I started watching. The usually reliable Tug McGraw took the mound in the bottom of the inning, but Steve Swisher's single with two outs tied it again.

Schmidt was due to bat second in the 10th inning, and after Dick Allen walked, the Cubs brought in Paul Reuschel (his brother Rick had started the game).

I don't remember if Harry Kalas or Richie Ashburn made the call on the broadcast. But I remember jumping up and down as the ball sailed over the left-field wall, marking just the ninth time in major league history that a player had hit four home runs in one game.

Mike Schmidt had started making a name for himself by leading the National League in home runs in 1974 and '75. But his performance on April 17, 1976, marked the real start of his road to Cooperstown as the generally acknowledged greatest third baseman of all time.

I cut the game story and box score out of the newspaper the next day and had it hanging on my bedroom wall for a long time. Schmidt's numbers that afternoon: 6 at bats, 4 runs, 5 hits, 8 RBI, 17 total bases (one short of Joe Adcock's record).

Trivia question 20:
The Phillies' starting pitcher on April 17, 1976, gave up seven runs (all earned) before being relieved in the second inning. Who was he?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Waiting for Cooperstown

One of baseball's great debates is who should or shouldn't be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Pittsburgh attorney Sam Reich has written a book, "Waiting for Cooperstown," that provides a thorough analysis of the qualifications for many would-be inductees. He concentrates mainly on players he knew during his formative years, with those playing the bulk of their careers after 1972 not considered. (As he explained at Saturday's meeting of the Forbes Field chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, he considers the advent of the designated hitter rule in '73 as the start of a new era, so he drew the line there.)

He offers 10 leading candidates for enshrinement:

Ron Santo (The Associated Press)

1. Ron Santo. The former Cubs third baseman has come close to election by the Veterans Committee, although that particular body has not given anyone the nod in recent years. Santo was the premier player at his position during the 1960s and into the early '80s, but he might be overshadowed by three teammates in the Hall of Fame: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.

2. Maury Wills. This seemed like a no-brainer after Wills broke Ty Cobb's single-season stolen base record and helped propel a hitting-challenged Dodgers team to three pennants during the '60s. But after Lou Brock displaced him in the record book, Wills was somewhat of a forgotten man. Reich contends that Wills' base running transformed the game from its relatively static version in the '50s to a more exciting brand of baseball the following decade.

3. Gil Hodges. A certified star for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Hodges also showed a penchant for managing, guiding the 1969 New York Mets to their "miracle" championship. Unfortunately, he suffered a fatal heart attack just before the 1972 season. Who knows what might have been.

4. Allie Reynolds. The ace of the Yankees pitching staff during the team's five-year run of championships in 1949-53, Reynolds was especially clutch in the World Series. Hurting the cause of "Superchief" is his lifetime win total of 182, although he compiled a superior .630 lifetime winning percentage.

5. Joe Gordon. Recognized as the American League's top second baseman during much of his career, Gordon belted 253 home runs in just 11 seasons, a very impressive total for the time, particularly for a middle infielder. Like Reynolds, Gordon might also suffer from the presence of so many Yankees in the Hall of Fame already.

6. Stan Hack. Relatively few third basemen are enshrined in the Hall of Fame. For whatever reason, not many superstars played the position until the days of Robinson, Schmidt and Brett (and Santo). While with the Cubs in the '30s and '40s, Hack was probably the top third baseman in his league, receiving MVP votes in eight consecutive seasons and hitting .323 in 1945, the year of Chicago's last World Series appearance to date.

7. Jim Kaat. Four pitchers who won 250 or more games are not in the Hall of Fame: Kaat, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John and Jack Morris. In Kaat's case, he never was considered one of the top pitchers in the game, and most fans remember him simply as a soft-tossing lefty. Kaat should be given points for longevity: He played from 1959 through 1983 and was the last active original Washington Senator. He also won 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards.

8. Bob Johnson. Perhaps the most obscure player on Reich's list, "Indian Bob" spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Athletics at a time when the A's were so awful that no one paid any attention. Johnson cracked 20 or more home runs in each of his first nine seasons (1933-41), which was a tremendous accomplishment for that period. Back when I started following baseball, his 288 homers used to show up on the career leaders list. And he hit a healthy .296, to boot.

9. Vern Stephens. My assumption is that the case against Stephens involves spending the first several years of his career with the St. Louis Browns, another team that garnered very little attention. But the Browns did win the American League pennant in 1944, and Stephens was their starting shortstop. And he led the league in runs batted in that year. Speaking of RBI, Stephens made a specialty of it when he was traded to the Red Sox, batting in 440 runs in a three-year span (1948-50).

10. Wes Ferrell. Two factors weigh heavily against Ferrell: He won 193 games, and in his era, 200 was considered the benchmark for Hall of Fame pitchers. And his career earned run average was 4.04, higher than any pitcher now enshrined. Ferrell won 20 or more games in each of his first four full seasons, but his arm had pretty much given out on him by the time he was 40.

It is the contention of some historians that Ferrell could have been a Hall of Famer as a hitter. He hit 38 home runs for his career, a record for pitchers. Nine of them came in one season, another record for pitchers. And in another season, he drove in 32 runs for yet another pitchers' record.

His brother, Rick Ferrell, was a catcher. He hit 28 career home runs, and his season high was eight.

Yet Rick Ferrell is one of those guys whom the Veterans Committee elected to the Hall of Fame.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cold Rain and Snow

It hasn't been quite as bad weather-wise here in Pittsburgh compared with up the turnpike in Cleveland. But this sure isn't spring, and it sure isn't baseball weather.

Somehow, the inconsistent (a kind way of putting it) Pirates pitching managed to give up two home runs to Barry Bonds on Friday night, aiding and abetting the inevitable. That might end up being the last game in Pittsburgh for the guy who started his career here 21 years ago as a skinny kid.

With a chilly, miserably drizzle starting Saturday afternoon and persisting for the foreseeable future, the Pirates decided against playing last night, opting instead for the dreaded (from a team profit standpoint) doubleheader Sunday afternoon.

Well, the weather is even worse this morning, and the Pirates have decided there won't be any baseball at PNC Park this afternoon, either.

According to the Pirates' Web site, "The doubleheader will be rescheduled for a date later in the season." When will that be? San Francisco was scheduled for just this one visit in Pittsburgh this season. If the Giants can't swing by this neck of the woods again, it shouldn't have any bearing on the standings. I have both these teams finishing last in their respective divisions. The Associated Press report on the situation give some vague possibilities about rescheduling the games, but it looks like it can't be done without major inconveniences.

So, is that it for Barry Bonds playing in Pittsburgh?

If so, too bad. I enjoyed hearing the booing.

• • •

Today is Jackie Robinson Day, a full-fledged celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Hall of Famer's major-league debut. Of course, in today's world of baseball, even the most well-intentioned plans generate some controversy, and the beef this week seemed to be who was entitled to wear Robinson retired No. 42. Whole teams offered to wear the uniform number in tribute, including the Dodgers, which is entirely appropriate.

If the Pirates would have played today, they were to have been among the all-42 teams. That also is appropriate. In 1971, Pittsburgh fielded the first starting lineup of exclusively African Americans.

Philadelphia also is on the list as "all players" wearing No. 42 today.


History books usually cite the Phillies as being on the major instigators in the backlash against Robinson's breaking the color barrier, with manager Ben Chapman, a Southerner, supposedly a particular thorn in Jackie's side.

Then again, no one playing for today's Phillies have anything to do with that unfortunate situation. So if those guys want to honor Jackie Robinson, go for it!

Trivia question 19: Who was Jackie Robinson's manager when he made his major-league debut 60 years ago? (This is straight from the list of "opening day" trivia questions presented at yesterday's meeting of the Forbes Field chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. Joe Elinich, the chapter's president, called it a "geek" question. That is, anyone who got it right has studied far too much baseball history!)

Friday, April 13, 2007

More ugly numbers

OK, I've dredged up awful seasons by Mike Schmidt and Roy Halladay, and an awful game by Salomon Torres ... along with awful teams like the Cleveland Spiders and all those seasons in Washington.

I don't know. Baseball's ugly numbers always have fascinated me. Probably has something to do with my own lack of prowess as a player.

Anyhow, here's what I've always considered to be the most pitiful seasonal pitching line of all time:

Record: 0-10
Games: 10
Innings: 68
Runs allowed: 110
Hits allowed: 111
Walks allowed: 60
Strikeouts: 18
Earned run average: 10.32

The pitcher's name was either Charles Stecher or William Theodore Stecher, depending on the source, and he's one of those entries in the baseball encyclopedias who's listed simply as "deceased," for lack of biographical information. He pitched the last month of the season for the 1890 Philadelphia Athletics, which lost its final 23 games.

The story of that team is a fascinating one, and I'll summarize it from memory based on the writings of historian David Nemec.

The A's were part of the American Association, which in 1890 was one of three major leagues in existence. None of the three was making any money, and the Athletics reached a point where they couldn't meet payroll. Their solution was to release all their active players and hire sandlot-quality substitutes on a game-to-game basis. That seems to explain Mr. Stecher's presence on the mound, and also that of teammate Ed O'Neill (not the guy who played Al Bundy), whose numbers with Philadelphia were just as ugly:

Record: 0-6
Games: 6
Innings: 52
Runs allowed: 77
Hits allowed: 84
Walks allowed: 32
Strikeouts: 17
Earned run average: 9.26

Mercifully, neither Stecher nor O'Neill were invited to play in the major leagues again.

No thanks for the memory

How about that. Tim Kurkjian, who writes for ESPN The Magazine (and is a frequent guest on ESPN radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning" has posted an article today about Pirates reliever Salomon Torres.

Kurkjian addresses Torres' unfortunate experience in the final game of the 1993 season and offers this: "It's a shame that anyone remembers Torres for that day."

Sorry, Tim. I dredged up those bad memories two days ago in one of my trivia questions. But that's after Torres blew a save one day, then took the loss the next.

Just venting.

But in all fairness to Torres, read Kurkjian's account of Salomon's long, strange trip around baseball. Then to try forgive and forget.

Trivia question 18: He's recognized as one of the best pitchers plying his trade today. But in 2000, he went 4-7 with a 10.64 earned run average, which I believe to be the highest ERA in baseball history for a pitcher with 10 or more decisions. (It could have been a lot worse. In his final appearance of the season, at Baltimore, he allowed seven runs in two-thirds of an inning during a 23-1 drubbing by the Orioles. But none of those runs were earned.) Who is this hurler who has turned it around?

Starting slow

In Philadelphia, we're told, they boo Santa Claus.

They used to boo one of the city's top sports icons, and it always bothered him. But early in his career, those nasty fans in Philly might have been justified. They were seeing one of the all-time greats. They just didn't know it yet.

After the 1972 season, the Phillies traded away slick-fielding third baseman Don Money, a fan favorite on a crummy team. As part of the deal with the Brewers, the Phils received a couple of pitchers named Ken (Sanders and Reynolds), then promptly traded both those guys to the Twins for Money's replacement: Cesar Tovar, who in various years had led the American League in hits, doubles, triples and sacrifice flies.

Tovar, though, was pretty much washed up by the time he arrive in Philadelphia. So early in 1973 the Phillies called up a third baseman who’d had a cup of coffee with the team at the end of '72.

The new guy struck out eight times in his first four games. After 40 games, he'd hit just two home runs. He heated up a bit after that in the power department, but he couldn't get his batting average out of the low .200s. An 0-for-25 stretch to end the season bottomed out his average at .196.

That's the kind of performance fans tend to boo.

Nevertheless, that same third baseman in the starting lineup on Opening Day 1974, and he cracked a home run off future teammate Tug McGraw to propel Philadelphia to a 5-4 win over the Mets. He went on to lead the National League in home runs that year and establish himself as a star in the making.

Of all the position players the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mike Schmidt is the only one to hit below .200 in his first full season.

Trivia question 17:
How many times did Mike Schmidt lead the National League in home runs?

Thursday, April 12, 2007


One of baseball's longest standing traditions is that if a pitcher starts taking a no-hitter in the latter innings, no one is supposed to mention it.

Last night, a national TV audience tuned in for the ballyhooed home debut of Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. He didn't pitch poorly, but his mound opponent, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, stole the show by hurling the first seven innings without giving up a hit.

Around that time, my son came upstairs, annoyed at the poor performance of his favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in their playoff-opening loss. I told him, "Hey, there's a no-hitter in progress."


"Hernandez," I said. "The good one, not Livan or ..."

At that point, J.D. Drew whacked a single up the middle for what turned out to be the only hit off Felix. My son shook his head and returned to the Penguins' agony of defeat.

I watched Hernandez wrap up his one-hitter, and kudos to Seattle manager Mike Hargrove for letting him pitch all nine innings. (Hargrove was a teammate of Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, who tossed 29 complete games in 1974 and 22 in '75 for Texas.)

And next time I watch a no-hitter in progress, I plan to keep my mouth shut.

Trivia question 16: Felix Hernandez celebrated his birthday on Easter. How old is he now?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mr. Robinson's history lesson

One of Major League Baseball's most significant events was the debut of Jackie Robinson 60 years ago. His breaking of the sport's "color line" has come to represent a milestone in American history, an early victory in the civil rights movement.

Students learn about Jackie Robinson, but they're never given information about how the barrier against him and others like him came to be. I was reading an excerpt from Mr. Robinson's autobiography, "Baseball Has Done It," and thought I'd provide a history lesson in his own words:

"I was not the first Negro in the major leagues. In 1884 Fleetwood Walker caught 41 games for the Toledo Mudhens of the big-league American Association, while his brother Weldon played the outfield in six games.

"That June the Chicago White Stockings rolled into Toledo for an exhibition game. ... Their manager and first baseman was Cap Anson, who would turn handsprings in his grave if he knew that I share a niche with him in baseball's Hall of Fame. ... He was a great ballplayer but a heartless man.

"In 1884 the nation was still recovering from the aftermath of the Civil War. Southern senators and congressmen were whipping up a fury of bigotry ... in much the same vituperative language that many Southern demagogues use today. Whether Cap Anson was poisoned by their venom I do not know, but he walked on the field in Toledo that June day, saw the Walker brothers in uniform and stalked off, taking his team with him. A large crowd was in the stands. Charlie Morton, Toledo's manager, promised to fire the Walkers the next morning. The game was played.

"Thereafter Anson saw red at the mere mention of a Negro in baseball. He launched a one-man crusade to rid the game of all but whites."

Robinson's information is based on the recollections of Sol White, a baseball star of the 1880s who was forced to play in segregated leagues, primarily because of Anson.

"Anson's vendetta reached a climax in the winter of 1887-88," Robinson wrote. "He appeared at major- and minor-league meetings, urging the adoption of a rule that would require owners to fire Negroes on their rosters and never again to contract with them. None was then in the majors; twenty-five in the minors were deprived of their jobs, among them Sol White and Weldon Walker."

Keep turning those handsprings, Mr. Anson.

Trivia question 15: The Toledo team referenced by Jackie Robinson carried the same nickname that the current minor-league team in the Ohio city does today. What is the nickname?

Instant karma for Pirates

What goes around, comes around.

The Pirates started the season with some late-game heroics in Houston. A week later, the reverse has happened against St. Louis.

Salomon Torres couldn't hold a lead last night, and he gave up the game-winning home run to Chris Duncan this afternoon. That's not exactly the way a team wants its closer to pitch. Just ask the Astros and Brad Lidge.

Pittsburgh now is 1-5 after its season-opening sweep, scoring just four runs in three games against the Cardinals, who don't exactly look like world beaters this year.

But as it's usually been in recent years, playing the Pirates is a shot in the arm for a struggling opponent. (At least until the Washington Nationals come to town.)

Trivia question 14: The San Francisco Giants missed winning the division title by one game in 1993, despite winning 103 games. Manager Dusty Baker chose to start a rookie pitcher in the pivotal season finale. He lasted only into the fourth inning, taking the loss in a 12-1 defeat. Who was this would-be phenom?

Too early to gauge

Pittsburgh Pirates fans were enthusiastic a few months ago about that trade that brought power-hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche from Atlanta for reliever Mike Gonzalez.

LaRoche, who still is in his 20s and had a monster second half of the season for the Braves, seemed like a welcome change of pace from the usual suspects the Pirates have brought in the past several years, over-the-hill veterans like Jeromy Burnitz and Derek Bell, or obviously short-time solutions like Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders.

With the short right-field porch at PNC Park, LaRoche seemed like a natural to belt some balls into the Allegheny River.

It's just the start of the season, but after Tuesday night's game, plenty of Pirates fans already are second-guessing the trade.

LaRoche went hitless again in the 3-2, 12-inning loss to St. Louis, dropping his batting average to .097. And Salomon Torres, who inherited Gonzalez' job as closer, gave up a pair of runs in the ninth inning to allow the Cardinals to tie the game (and to negate a stellar pitching effort by starter Tom Gorzelanny).

Might the result have been different if Gonzalez finished the game and, say, Brad Eldred were playing first base?

Before Pirates fans turn on LaRoche after he's played exactly two home games, consider that he has a history as a slow starter. Last year, as of May 1, he was hitting .195 with four home runs. His 2006 power surge didn't really start until July 7, when he whacked a pair of homers in San Diego.

As for Torres, I watched him pitched enough the past few years in middle relief to start cringing when he walked toward the mound. He may be what they call a crafty veteran, and he was off to a hot start this year, earning saves in the Pirates' first four victories.

But I suspect there will be plenty of blown saves as the year progresses. Visions of Mike Williams and Jose Mesa might be haunting Pirates fans.

Tuesday's loss also featured a mental lapse by Jason Bay, who threw to the wrong base and allowed the tying run to advance to second before scoring on a single. Bay has established himself as someone who is going to have a stellar stat line at the end of each season, but for anyone who has watched him in clutch situations, his performance often leaves a lot to be desired.

Gorzelanny's performance, on the other hand, marks six decent starts in six tries for the top three pitchers in the Pirates' rotation: Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Gorzelanny. That's very encouraging, even if Snell has nothing to show so far but an 0-1 record.

At this point, the team needs a lot more run support. And the fans' expectations have a lot of that riding on LaRoche.

Give him a break for now. Would you rather see Jeromy Burnitz out there again?

Trivia question 13: Adam LaRoche's father, Dave, pitched in the majors for 14 years, on five teams. For which team did he make the most appearances?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Goodbye, Cleveland

Thanks to Mother Nature, the Cleveland Indians are making a road trip to Milwaukee for some "home" games vs. the Angels. With snow blowing in from Lake Erie for the past week, the Indians hadn't been able to play a full game since last Wednesday.

I've heard various commentators whining about the scheduling of early April games up north. But it's not every year that winter returns with such vengeance, and everyone but Indians fans will have pretty much forgotten about the relocated games once the temperature hits the 70s.

There is precedent for teams rescheduling home games in other cities, with a very notable instance involving Cleveland.

For most of the 1890s, the National League was the only recognized major league. With a monopoly in place, the team owners did what they could to maximize their profits, including shifting games from cities that didn't draw well to ones that did. As a result, subpar teams in, say, Washington and Louisville played far fewer home games each year than Boston and New York.

Another practice of the 1890s was "syndicate ownership," in which an individual or group could own a stake in more than one team. If an owner felt he could make more money in one city compared with another, he simply transferred the best players to the better prospect.

In 1898, brothers Frank and Stanley Robison, who owned the team in Cleveland (then known as the Spiders), purchased the St. Louis Browns. Figuring they could grab more cash in the Gateway City, the Robisons sent practically all the Spiders of major-league caliber west.

About the only decent player remaining was Lave Cross, who was "rewarded" by being named manager of what looked to be a lousy team.

"Lousy" doesn't even begin to describe what happened in Cleveland in 1899. The Spiders got off to a miserable 8-30 start, and Cross turned in his resignation, subsequently joining his former teammates in St. Louis. Veteran Joe Quinn (the first native Australian to play in the majors), the Spiders' second baseman, took Cross' place at the helm. Under his direction, the team won another dozen games.

That adds up to 20 wins for the season ... in 154 games.

Understandably, hardly anyone was showing up to see the Spiders in Cleveland. So in late June a local newspaper reported: "The Cleveland team, owing to lack of support, will be withdrawn from the Forest City after July 1 and will play the balance of the schedule on foreign ground." One of the reasons: "This year, the gate receipts at the grounds of the Cleveland Club have not averaged much over $25 per day."

The article ends on a prescient note: "And so good-bye forever to Cleveland as a National League city." Sure enough, the Spiders folded after 1899, and the team now known as the Indians joined the American League at its start in 1901.

During its perpetual road trip, the '99 Spiders had exactly one highlight: On Sept. 18, they squeezed out a 5-4 victory over next-to-last-place Washington. Before the game, Cleveland had lost 24 in a row. After that, they closed the season with 17 losses in a row.

By comparison, maybe today's Cleveland fans shouldn't complain too much about a few "home" games being moved to Milwaukee.

Trivia question 12: One member of the 1898 Spiders who ended up in St. Louis was a pitcher whose name still is mentioned regularly today. Who was he?

Monday, April 9, 2007

Another D.C. disaster?

"Washington: First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League." -- old Vaudeville gag

With the exception of one World Series title (1924) and two AL pennants (1925 and 1933), and a couple of other decent finishes here and there, the history of Major League Baseball in the nation's capital is best left forgotten.

The old-time Senators did produce perhaps the greatest pitcher in history, Walter Johnson, who won 416 games between 1907 and 1927, and might have won a lot more if he wouldn't have been pitching for lousy teams for much of that time.

Those Senators, charter members of the American League, left Washington to become the Minnesota Twins after the 1960 season. A brand-new version joined the AL in 1961, but bolted for Texas a decade later.

Baseball finally returned to D.C. in 2005, to the National League this time, as the landing spot for the remnants of the Montreal Expos.

The Nationals, as the Washington team is known this time around, put in a good showing in their first season, breaking even at 81-81. They won 10 fewer games in '06, the final season for Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as manager.

During spring training this year, veteran baseball observers started conjecturing that the Nationals might finish 2007 as one of the worst teams in history. I've heard it reported that some sportswriters got a pool going on the among of games they'd lose, ranging anywhere from 105 to what would be a record-breaking 130.

I thought some hyperbole might be involved there, but after the first week of the season, it looks like those guys might be on to something.

Washington has managed to win one of its first seven games, coming from behind to pull one out in the ninth. In those seven games, that has been the only time the Nationals have held the lead. They've scored 18 runs and given up 45. Their alleged "ace" pitcher, John Patterson, has a 9.35 earned run average after two starts.

It's early yet, but none of that sounds very promising.

If the Nationals' performance sends sportswriters scrambling for the record books later this summer, they might want to check deep into history for just how awful baseball teams have been in Washington.

I've mentioned the American League Senators, which started play in 1901. Washington had a representative in the National League prior to being dumped when the league contracted from 12 to eight teams. Washington had been in the NL for eight years and posted these finishes: 10th, 12th, 11th, 10th, 10th, seventh (wow!), 11th and 11th. Ouch.

Prior Washington teams were no good, either. The American Association, one of a handful of 19th-century major leagues, put a team in D.C. in 1884, but it folded after 63 games in which the team's batting average was an even .200. The National League tried the capital for the first time in 1886, and the result was a last-place finish with a record of 28-92, and a .210 team average. The only bright spot was a rookie named Cornelius McGillicuddy, who hit .361 in a 10-game trial. Better known as Connie Mack, he later gained fame by managing the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years.

As a regular catcher the following season, Mack hit .201, but Washington managed to creep into next-to-last place. The team returned to the basement in 1888 (Mack didn't help much by batting .187) and '89, despite Mack upping his mark to .293. The team disappeared for a year before resurfacing in the American Association in 1891, finishing -- you guessed it -- last.

Go back to the really dark ages of baseball, and it doesn't get much better. The sport's first professional league, the National Association, had two teams in Washington at various points, the Olympics and the Nationals. In 1872, the Nationals played 11 games and lost them all. They tried again in 1873 (8-31) and 1875 (4-23).

That sure didn't set a good precedent for their namesakes of the 21st century.

Trivia question 11: This Hall of Fame player was named American League manager of the year when he guided the Washington Senators to an 86-76 record in 1969, nine years after retiring from another AL team with which he spent his entire playing career. Who was he?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Batting champs

On June 11, 2005 (my 23rd wedding anniversary), Rob Mackowiak was hitting .358, and the Pirates utility player finally had compiled enough at-bats to qualify for the National League batting race.

His hot start had helped Pittsburgh to a 31-31 record, which was a big deal in a town where .500 baseball sounds like the Promised Land. Perhaps, some long-suffering Pirates fans though, their team finally was turning the corner, thanks to guys like Mackowiak.

June 12 was a sunny Sunday at PNC Park, a great day for baseball, as they say. The Pirates were wrapping up a three-game series vs. Tampa Bay, looking for the sweep after an 18-2 rout Saturday night. A warm cheer rose from the stands as the scoreboard listed the batting leaders, Rob Mackowiak officially among them.

He proceeded to go 0-for-5 in Pittsburgh's loss to the Devil Rays, dropping his average by nine points. The Pirates then embarked on a road trip to face other AL East teams, the Yankees (who, after a decade of interleague play, have yet to visit Pittsburgh) and the Red Sox. The Pirates dropped five out of six on the trip and had yet to reach .500 again until beating Houston in this season's opener. Mackowiak managed a total of one hit in New York and Boston, watching his batting average plunge 39 points in a week. He was below .300 by July 2, finished at .272 and was shipped to the White Sox after the season.

With the precedent set of a Pirates utility player tearing it up at the start of the season, some fans were skeptical when Freddy Sanchez followed Mackowiak's lead early in 2006. True, Sanchez had showed some promise by hitting .291 the previous season. But few folks expected him to keep it up when his '06 average rose to .358 at the start of June. That's exactly where Mackowiak had peaked the year before.

Of course, Freddy proved the doubters wrong, staying consistent enough to lead the league at .344, giving Pirates fans one of their few thrills since the days of Bonds and Bonilla.

Although posting the highest batting average doesn't carry the clout it once did -- everyone looks at home runs nowadays -- it still is quite a feat, and most of the National League leaders of the past three or so decades have been established stars: Gwynn, Bonds, Pujols, Larry Walker, Willie McGee, Bill Madlock and the like. You'd have to go back to 1974 (Ralph Garr, Atlanta, .353) to find an NL batting champ who's faded into the obscurity of baseball annals. But even Garr had posted some decent numbers for the Braves for a couple of seasons before topping the field.

Before Sanchez, probably the most unexpected NL batting champion was another member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Mateo "Matty" Alou was one of the three Alou brothers on the San Francisco Giants in the early '60s, along with Felipe and Jesus. Matty had shown flashes of potential, but when his batting average tailed off to .231 in part-time outfield duty in 1965, he was shipped to the Pirates for a couple of warm bodies named Ozzie Virgil and Joe Gibbon.

Under the tutelage of Pirate manager Harry "The Hat" Walker, Alou upped his average to .342 in 1966, besting Felipe by 15 points in the only batting race featuring brothers finishing 1-2. Interestingly, the league's MVP that year was Roberto Clemente (.317), his only such award even though he won batting titles in four other seasons.

Walker knew something about unexpected batting champs. In 1946, playing for the World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals, he hit .237. His average early in 1947 was .200, and the Cards packed him off to the Phillies, a team that had registered exactly one above-.500 season since 1917. Walker gave Philadelphia a rare reason to celebrate by batting .371 the rest of the way, finishing at .363 and leading the league by 46 points. He never had another season remotely approaching those numbers.

Will Freddy Sanchez at least be respectable compared with last season? He comes off the disabled list this weekend, and we'll see if he can do a Dave Parker (last Pirate to win back-to-back batting titles).

Freddy already has shown he's no Rob Mackowiak.

Trivia question 10: The 1991 American League batting champion still is active in the majors. Who is he?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A night to remember

The older you get, the more you say things like: "I can't remember what happened last week, but I remember (fill in the blank) like it was yesterday."

I usually fill in that blank with the events of April 8, 1974, at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Henry Aaron had tied Babe Ruth's career home run record a few days before, and a fortuitous set of circumstances allowed the Braves' home opener against Los Angeles to be broadcast on ABC's Monday Night Baseball, allowing the whole nation to see history in the making. Remember, this was long before ESPN was around to cut into the middle of the game each time Aaron strode to the plate.

I can clearly picture Aaron getting ahold of an Al Downing pitch and driving it over the fence in left-center field; the fishing net coming down from the stands in an unsuccessful attempt to land the historic ball (Braves reliever Tom House ended up with it); the two young men running out of the crowd to pat Henry on the back between second and third bases; and the long interruption of the game for all the accolades from baseball bigwigs.

That was really 33 years ago?

Last night, Barry Bonds hit another home run on his quest to pass Aaron's record. That concept used to bother me, for all the reasons it bothers most other baseball fans outside of San Francisco.

But why should I care? Bonds is playing in an era when everything seems to be done toward maximizing the potential for balls to fly out of the park. If you don't believe me, compare pitching numbers during Aaron's heyday, particularly the mid-'60s, with the abysmal mound performances of the past dozen or so years.

Bonds does deserve plenty of credit for taking most advantage of the conditions that have been favorable to home run hitters, coming out on top of the pack that includes the likes of Sosa, McGwire and Palmeiro.

But I don't plan to be watching when Aaron's record falls. I don't need visions of Barry Bonds in my head for the next 33 years.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

"Oh, say, can you see ..."

Francis Scott Key's greatest hit has been an institution at baseball games since a band on hand at Fenway Park in the 1918 World Series broke into an impromptu version.

Jimi Hendrix borrowed the concept to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" on electric guitar, complete with squealing feedback accompanying "the bombs bursting in air," at the Woodstock Music & Art Festival in 1969.

While Jimi never was invited to perform the anthem prior to a ballgame, some of his fellow performers at Woodstock were, almost a quarter of a century after the fact.

In April 1993, some members of the Grateful Dead -- founders Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, along with latter-day keyboard player Vince Welnick -- sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" to open a Giants game at Candlestick Park, in the Dead's hometown of San Francisco. They might not have gotten the response of, say, Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl, but the members of the band acquitted themselves quite while, according to Grateful Dead fans in attendance.

Unfortunately, neither Jerry nor Vince are with us anymore. RIP.

This photo appeared in "Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip," published by DK Publishing Inc., New York City. The photo was taken by Jay Blakesberg, Jay Blakeberg Photography.

Trivia question 9: What National League team finished second five years in a row in the 1960s, despite having six future Hall of Famers at various times during that stretch?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Gimme some K's

I'm one of those baseball fans who prefers watching pitchers racking up strikeouts to batters belting the horsehide all over the park. Maybe it's because I couldn't hit the darn thing when I was a kid.

At any rate, I was enjoying tonight's Pirates game, watching Ian Snell work his way through the Houston lineup. After five innings, Snell had fanned 10, given up only two hits and walked none. Unfortunately, one of those hits was a Jason Lane home run to the short left-field porch at Minute Maid Park, and the score was tied, 1-1.

Snell wasn't quite as sharp in the sixth, surrending a bloop single (or Texas Leaguer, if you will) to a struggling Carlos Lee, bringing in the go-ahead run for Houston. Still, Ian upped his strikeout total to a career-high 11.

His reward? With two outs in the top of the seventh, he was out of the game. Pittsburgh manager Jim Tracy sent Nate McClouth up to pinch-hit for Snell, even though McClouth probably burned up his pinch-hitting karma for the year with his home run last night. Nate promptly popped up to end the inning, something Snell very well could have done.

I left the TV for the computer when I saw journeyman John Wasdin come in for the Pirates and promptly get lit up a bit.

As you've probably gathered by reading some of these posts, I grew up in an era when starting pitchers still finished the game, particularly when they were blowing batters away. Now, I don't expect any of today's Pirates to throw 300 innings and 30 complete games -- they'd have Tracy committed if he tried anything like that -- but can't a guy have a go at, say, 14 or 15 strikeouts? You don't see anything like that anymore, particularly when it comes to the Pirates (although Oliver Perez whiffed 14 a few years ago, also against Houston, before they started messing with his delivery and ruined him for the time being).

I'm not nearly the fan I used to be, and watching what Tracy did in tonight's game reminds me why.

Trivia question 8: What pitcher struck out the most batters in a Major League game?

Coming back

The Pirates' comeback against Houston last night for a season-opening 4-2 victory reminded me, in a way, of another game against the Astros.

I was driving home on the afternoon of July 28, 2001, listening on the radio to the Pirates getting crushed in the first game of a doubleheader. Four runs in the eighth and ninth off Pittsburgh reliever Omar Olivares put the Astros up 8-2, and with two quick outs in the bottom half of the inning, everyone involved started getting ready for the day's second game.

Then Kevin Young doubled and Pat Meares hit what probably was his last home run as a Pirate. Adam Hyzdu singled. Tike Redman walked, and Jack Wilson singled to score Hyzdu.

At that point, the Astros brought in relief ace Billy Wagner, who promptly hit Jason Kendall (a perennial leader in that category) to load the bases and bring the potential winning run to the plate.

The hitter was Brian Giles, who happened to be the Pirates' All-Star representative in '01. He showed why by belting the ball into the PNC Park stands for one of the rare instances of an "ultimate grand slam" (a bases-loaded home run to win a game by one run).

Giles' home run came just as I was pulling into the driveway, and I remember running into the house to tell whomever.

When Jason Bay's 10th-inning homer won it for the Pirates last night, I had pretty much dozed off on the couch, and I went to bed shortly afterward.

Well, overcoming a 2-0 deficit isn't exactly like winning after trailing by six. Plus, I'm almost six years older now!

Monday, April 2, 2007

Feats of pitching

I received an e-mail from Joe Agnello, who works for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and shares my interests in subjects like baseball and good rock music of the '60s and '70s.

Here's part of what Joe wrote:

"A couple years ago I went hunting for pitchers who threw at least 300 innings in a given season and, for the same season, recorded an ERA under 2.00. What would a pitcher who could do that be worth today? In fact, you can’t find any two pitchers (probably not even three) on any team whose combined stats would measure up to that. Near as I could tell, it’s been done seven times since 1950. Incredibly, Sandy Koufax did it twice and almost did it a third time. Former Bucco Wilbur Wood did it with the Chisox of the early 1970s. Wood TWICE won 20 games and lost 20 games in the same season. You talk about an innings eater!

"By the way, among the pre-1950 accomplishers of these freak stats was one George Herman Ruth with the Bosox. Bring that up the next time someone proclaims Barry Bonds as the greatest player of all time."

Interesting stuff, Joe. Here is a complete list of the pitchers with the criteria he cites since 1950:

Sandy Koufax, 1963, 311 innings, 1.88 ERA
Sandy Koufax, 1966, 323 innings, 1.73 ERA
Bob Gibson, 1968, 305 innings, 1.12 ERA
Denny McLain, 1968, 336 innings, 1.96 ERA
Wilbur Wood, 1971, 334 innings, 1.91 ERA
Vida Blue, 1971, 312 innings, 1.82 ERA
Steve Carlton, 1972, 346 innings, 1.97 ERA
Gaylord Perry, 1972 , 343 innings, 1.92 ERA

That actually adds up to eight pitchers, and as Joe says, Koufax just barely missed a third time, posting an ERA of 2.04 in 336 innings in 1965.

A couple of notes:

• Some revisionists have tended to downgrade Koufax's accomplishments, citing his home park, Dodgers Stadium, as having highly unfavorable conditions for hitters. Plus, before the height of the pitcher's mound was standardized, Dodger pitchers allegedly were a couple of feet above the batters. Whatever the case, no other Dodger starter posted anything comparing to Koufax's numbers, and that staff included two other Hall of Famers, the Dons Drysdale and Sutton.

• Gibson and McLain, of course, were the brightest stars in the Year of the Pitcher, when offensive statistics dwindled to the point where the Yankees compiled a .214 team batting average. The baseball powers that be promptly put rules in place to give the hitters a better shot. It worked, at least for a few years.

• I remember watching Vida Blue pitch to Willie Mays, the first batter in the '71 All-Star Game. Willie was 40 by then, and the consensus is that he never saw any of the pitches before walking back to the bench after striking out. He heard them, maybe. Blue was 17-2 heading into the game and was baseball's biggest story, similar to Fernando Valenzuela 10 years later. But he held out prior to 1972 and slumped to 6-10. Although he had a few decent years for Oakland and later across the bay in San Francisco, he never again approached the status he held in mid-'71.

• Baseball history stats guru Bill James cites Wood's 1971 performance as being even better than Blue's. Wood, a knuckleballer, had led the American League in appearances as a reliever in 1970, but his White Sox posted the worst record in the majors by a long shot, so they figured they had nothing to lose by converting Wood to a starter. In 1972, Wood hurled 377 innings, and in 1973, he started both games of a doubleheader.

• There isn't enough hyperbole for Carlton's 1972 season. We'll take a closer look at that later.

• Perry is remembered today mainly because he admitted to -- bragged is more like it -- throwing the spitball, which has more or less been outlawed since 1920. He won 24 games in 1972 for a Cleveland team that won only 72 games and scored just 472 runs. With a little bit of offensive support, Gaylord might have been the last 30-game winner, instead of McLain.

• Look up Babe Ruth's pitching numbers any time you want to debate who was the greatest player of all time.

Trivia question 7: The American League's offensive statistics in 1972 were almost as dire as in '68, the Year of the Pitcher. What rule change was instituted in '73 to beef up batters' numbers?

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Rotisserie next day

Don't ask ...

Let's just hope that a lot of rookie phenoms get hot and stay that way. Otherwise, it's going to be a long season.

Trivia question 6: Who was the last major league pitcher (and there in all likelihood to never be another one) to throw 300-plus innings in one season? (Hints: It occurred the same year as Question 5 and by a pitcher who is referred to on this page.)