Thursday, May 31, 2007

It happens every time

When the Pittsburgh Pirates see Chris R. Young penciled in as the opposing starting pitcher, they get an ill feeling.

The Pirate batters feel sick because they can't solve Young whatsoever. Following his stellar performance last night, the San Diego rightthander has pitched 23 2/3 innings against Pittsburgh in his career, surrendering just seven hits and two runs while going 3-0. And those two runs came on a Joe Randa home run that broke up Young's no-hit bid in the ninth inning against the Bucs late last season.

The opposing Pirate pitcher feels none too well because he knows he'll receive no offensive support. That was the case for Paul Maholm yesterday. He'd given up only two runs entering the eighth inning, then watched Jonah Bayliss give up a grand slam to Khalil Greene to put the game totally out of reach. (Actually, it was out of reach as soon as the Padres scored their first run.)

But the most nauseous of all must be Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield. He had Young in the Pirates' minor-league system in 2001-02, and Young had pitched well, compiling an overall 16-12 record for Class-A Hickory. In 2002, Young posted a 3.11 earned run average while striking out 136 batters in 144 innings.

When Littlefield had the opportunity to acquire journeyman reliever Matt Herges, though, he traded Young. That didn't work out so well for the Pirates, who released Herges the following spring training.

Young has to be happy, not only because he's pitching for a decent team. Given the history of pitchers in the Pirates organization, if he would have hung around, he'd probably be recovering from Tommy John surgery right around now.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Philadelphia story

Today's standings show the Pittsburgh Pirates in the lofty position of second place, a ranking that has a lot more to do with the mediocrity of the National League Central than anything the Buccos are doing.

No matter where they show up in the final standings, the Pirates are on their way to a 15th consecutive losing season, which will be only one year away from tying the major-league record.

The Phillies went from 1933 to 1948 without ever seeing .500, but that's only part of the story of the suffering of Philadelphia baseball fans.

Our story starts with the final out of the 1914 World Series, with the Philadelphia Athletics being swept in four straight games by the Boston Braves, a team that had been in last place in the National League as of mid-July. According to legend, A's manager/owner Connie Mack was so humiliated by his team's performance that he sold off most of his star players. More likely, Mack was feeling financial pressure from the Federal League, the last "third" major league, the presence of which was driving up salaries throughout baseball. Earlier in 1914, Mack had passed on acquiring a lefthanded pitcher who was tearing it up for the minor-league Baltimore Orioles. If Mack hadn't already been planning to dump payroll, George Herman Ruth might have spent his early career in Philadelphia.

As it turned out, the A's went into a free-fall of epic proportions in 1915, blundering their way to a 43-109 record. It got worse in 1916, when the Athletics fielded a team that compiled a winning percentage that was lower than the '62 Mets. One member of the pitching staff, Jack Nabors, lost 20 games while posting only a single victory. The A's went on to finish last in the American League a record seven straight seasons.

Meanwhile, the situation was much better across town, where the Phillies won their first pennant in 1915, losing to the Red Sox in the World Series. With Grover Cleveland Alexander winning at least 30 games annually from 1915-17, the future didn't look so bad.

All that changed when the Phils, wary of Alexander's draft status during World War I, traded him to the Cubs prior to the 1918 season. Sure enough, Alexander went into military service, but Chicago had the last laugh, making it to the World Series without much of a contribution from him. The Phillies, meanwhile, won 33 fewer games than the previous year. They stayed below .500 for 14 straight seasons.

Meanwhile, Mack decided to spend some money again in the mid-'20, including doing substantial business with the Orioles. In fact, he paid a then-record price to obtain another left-handed pitcher, Robert Moses Grove. With several future Hall of Famers on the squad, the A's won three straight pennants, 1929-31.

Even though the Athletics fell short in 1932, it was a milestone year for Philadelphia baseball, one of only two seasons between 1913 and when the A's bolted for Kansas City during which both of the city's major-league teams finished above .500. The Phils finished at 78-76, with star outfielder Chuck Klein winning the MVP award and having the rare distinction of leading the National League in home runs and stolen bases. He won the Triple Crown in 1933, but the cash-strapped Phillies shipped him to the Cubs after the season.

Blaming the Depression this time, Mack started dismantling his team again, and by 1934 the A's were below .500 again.

Thus began the most horrible stretch of baseball a city has had to endure, which might help explained the ingrained bitterness of Philadelphia fans. For 13 straight seasons, neither the A's nor the Phillies came anywhere near cracking the .500 mark. The Phils finally moved out of the half-century-old ballpark known as the Baker Bowl in 1938, but it didn't help matters. The team lost more than 100 games five straight seasons, culminating with a wretched '42 club that finished 42-109 while finishing last in batting average, earned run average and fielding average.

The final year of World War II might have been the worst of all for Philadelphia. Both teams finished dead last, the Phillies at 46-108 the A's slightly better at 52-98.

Mack's team had a bit of a resurgence in the late '40s, winning more than it lost each year from 1947-49. But it was back to the basement in 1950, and after managing the franchise since the day it started operating in 1901, the 87-year-old Mack, who attended every game dressed in a shirt with starched collar instead of a uniform, finally called it quits.

The Phillies meanwhile started winning, too, after finally producing a decent crop of young players, including future Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts. The so-called Whiz Kids finally made it back to the World Series in 1950, although the celebration was short-lived, as they were swept by the Yankees.

So, Pittsburgh fans, it could be a lot worse for you. That's not to say it won't in the future ...

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Last time around

Red Sox fans will fondly remember Jim Lonborg as the pitcher who won the Cy Young Award during the Impossible Dream season of '67, pitching his team to the pennant, then throwing a one-hitter and three-hitter in consecutive World Series starts.

Unfortunately for Lonborg, his arm couldn't withstand one day of rest when he got the call to start the Series' seventh game. And his arm really couldn't withstand the shattering it took when he was involved in a skiing accident in the off-season.

By 1973, he was pitching for a bad Phillies team that was just about to turn the corner, and he put in quite a few solid seasons as the right-handed complement to Steve "Lefty" Carlton in the Philadelphia rotation. In the process, Lonborg became a fan favorite, his friendly demeanor serving as a counterpoint to his future-Hall-of-Fame staffmate.

The Phillies won three consecutive NL East titles from 1976-78, but by the last of the seasons Lonborg wasn't pitching effectively, compiling an 8-10 record and watching his earned run average balloon to 5.23.

His status definitely was in question going into the '79 season. He was about to turn 37, and the Phillies had acquired Nino Espinosa (RIP) from the Mets to fill out the rotation. Lonborg made the team, but appeared in just a few games of mop-up relief by the end of May.

When manager Danny Ozark (who would be fired before season's end) finally gave Lonborg a start on June 3, it was at Cincinnati, where the Big Red Machine was on its way to its final division title. As a Jim Lonborg fan, I tuned in to watch the game, even though I had a bad feeling about it. Sure enough, it looked like he was tossing batting practice. The Reds scored three runs in the second and three more in the third, including back-to-back home runs by George Foster and Dan Driessen. When John Bench singled, Ozark came out to the mound to get the ball, and Lonborg walked off mopping up tears with his glove. It was a sad end to a decent career (although I've since learned that Jim made one more relief appearance, giving up three runs in three innings, before the Phils said goodbye for good).

Speaking of sad endings, I remember listening to a Saturday afternoon broadcast of a game between Minnesota and Toronto early in the 1988 season. With the Twins already getting smoked by the Blue Jays, they brought in Carlton, now age 43, to pitch. The Jays had a decent lineup then, and Lefty was no match for the likes of George Bell (home run), Fred McGriff (double) and Lloyd Moseby (another double). Hearing them tee off on the formerly great pitcher was a painful experience.

Like Lonborg, Carlton got one more chance to start a game, but was pounded into submission by a mediocre Indians lineup. The last batter Lefty ever faced was Indians catcher Andy Allanson, who smacked a run-scoring double. The date was April 23, 1988.

Here are some more last stands by some of the great pitchers of the '70s/'80s:

Nolan Ryan, Texas, Sept. 22, 1993. His last pitch was hit out of the park for a grand slam, no less, by Seattle's Dann Howitt. Who? The first baseman-outfielder hit a total of five home runs in parts of six major-league seasons, but he'll always be able to get mileage out of being the answer to a trivia question.

Tom Seaver, Boston, Sept. 19, 1986. I remember Tom Terrific sitting on the bench during the Sox' postseason run, but he was injured and never appeared in a game again. In his final appearance, he started against and lost to Toronto, trailing 3-2 when Sammy Stewart relieved him and coughed up three more runs. Tony Fernandez, who flied out, was the last batter Seaver faced.

Phil Niekro, Atlanta, Sept. 27, 1987. Baseball fans thought he might pitch forever, but the knuckleballer finally ran out of steam at age 48. After his release by Toronto, the Braves - the team that, when it still was in Milwaukee, first signed him back in 1958 - brought him back for one more start. He gave up six hits, five runs and walked six Giants before manager Chuck Tanner removed him in the fourth inning. Niekro's last pitch walked Kevin Mitchell with the bases loaded.

Ferguson Jenkins, Chicago Cubs, Sept. 26, 1983. Jenkins' final appearance was an inning of relief against the Phillies, the team that originally signed him, then included him in an ill-advised trade with the Cubs. Jenkins immediately went on to win 20 or more games six straight season. He bounced around a bit before returning to Chicago for two final, forgettable seasons. In his finale, Jenkins gave up a single to Mike Schmidt and home run to Joe Lefebvre before retiring Garry Matthews and Greg Gross as the final two batters he faced.

Tommy John, New York Yankees, May 25, 1989. John's career spanned seven presidencies, JFK through Bush I, and he actually pitched longer in the majors after having the surgery that is named after him. He made the Yankees, a lousy team at the time, coming out of spring training in '89, but his aged arm had lost all its zip. Although he had a 2-7 record, manager Dallas Green trotted John out one more time in a game against the Angels. Although New York won the game, Tommy didn't earn the victory, as his lead was blown by Dale Mohorcic. John's last pitch was hit for a single by Devon White.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Home of the Braves

With John Smoltz winning his 200th career game last night by outdueling Tom Glavine, we're reminded of what may have been the top trio of starting pitchers in major-league history.

From 1993, when Greg Maddux joined the Atlanta staff, until 1999, the year before Smoltz took a season off because of injury (and later become a top-flight closer), the team's top three starters put together a seven-year run in which they combined for 340 wins, 166 losses, a 2.92 earned run average and five Cy Young Awards. No wonder the Braves were perennial division winners. The real surprise is that with such a stellar rotation, they couldn't advance further in the playoffs each year. History might not be kind to the '90s Braves because of their failure to climb all the way to the top all but one year, but who knows if we'll ever see such a steady nucleus of starters for such an extended period again.

For a look at how Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz fared each of those seasons, click here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Of the myriad sources of frustration for Pirates fans, one of the toughest to swallow is the success of players who couldn't cut it in Pittsburgh but flourish elsewhere.

This year, Exhibit A is Oliver Perez, the left-hander who sizzled in 2004, fizzled in '05 and pitched himself out of the Pirates' plans in '06. They shipped him to the Mets, with whom he hurled well enough in last fall's playoffs to raise hopes among New Yorkers that he could regain his form.

So far this season, he's looking like the Ollie of '04, if not better. Last night, Perez beat Atlanta, 3-0, his third win against the Braves this season. He pitched seven shutout innings, giving up four hits and walking just two, in improving his record to 6-3 and lowering his earned run average to 2.54.

Most people who follow the Pirates saw this coming. The Pittsburgh hierarchy had attempted to have Ollie change his pitching delivery, and he obviously didn't respond well. The culture of losing permeating PNC Park probably didn't help much, either. Now that he's on a team that looks as if it's bound for the postseason again, he seems to be back on track. And more good news for the Mets: He won't turn 27 until later this season.

(Maybe his resurgence will mean the autographed poster I have of him might be worth something someday ...)

As if Perez's success weren't enough, the Pirates suffered the humiliation of losing last night to former teammate Kip Wells. Having landed in St. Louis by way of his trade from Pittsburgh to Texas last season, Wells was off to a horrible start this year: 1-8, 6.75 ERA. Against the Pirates, he tossed seven innings and gave up one earned run.

Watching results like that, the big question around Pittsburgh is: When does Steelers training camp start?

Trivia question 34: Speaking of pitchers who stunk in Pittsburgh and went on to better things elsewhere ... who posted a 2-19 record for the Pirates and later led the league in strikeouts for St. Louis?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

As bad as it got

Each spring, I go into the garage with the intention of clearing away all the junk that's out there. I cam close this year, until my wife saw some of the stuff and insisted it go right back inside.

Of course, along with the masses of junk come little treasures, and I found one while rooting through an overstuffed cabinet.

Several years ago, I somehow found the time to collaborate with fellow SABR Forbes Field Chapter member Tom Baxter on a research project involving Pittsburgh's worst baseball team ever, the 1890 Alleghenys (aka Alleghenies, Innocents, Infants and Colts, but not yet the Pirates). And I found the file that chronicles, day by day, that miserable season when the team managed to lose 113 games while winning 23.

In other words, if you thought the Pirates teams of the past 15 years have been awful, think again.

The problem with the 1890 team is that it lost most of its better players to the Brotherhood, the first players' union, which decided to strike out on its own and form the Players League that year. The Alleghenys basically had to start from scratch, trying an endless series of unproven ballplayers who, as the season wore on, seemed to get worse and worse.

Just a few tidbits from the cover sheet of the project:

• Pittsburgh finished last in batting average (.239 vs. league average of .254), fielding percentage (.896, the last team ever to finish below .900) and earned run average (5.97). The last category is somewhat deceiving, as opponents scored more than nine runs per game. When your team commits 607 errors, many of those runs will be unearned.

• The Alleghenys drew a documented 16,064 fans. That's for the whole season. The low for one game was an officially announced 17, although I found information to the contrary published several decades later in the Baltimore Sun. A.G. Pratt, Pittsburgh's business manager in 1890, claimed: "The Sun's count of 17 spectators at that record-breaking game is absolutely correct, but I have some information that makes the attendance that day even more of a record. The paid admissions totaled only six. There were 17 persons at the game. J. Palmer O'Neil, Willis Orth and I were the only spectators in the boxes, there were six in the grandstand and eight in other parts of the park. Only the six in the grandstand paid to see the game, and I believe they were not Pittsburghers at that, but traveling men."

• Pittsburgh played the first (of three in major-league history) tripleheader, losing all three contests on Sept. 1 at Brooklyn, a team that obviously wanted to get in as many automatic wins as possible. Brooklyn went on to win the National League pennant.

Anyway, next time Pirates fans see their team play a sloppy, uninspired game like the one that took place last night in St. Louis, they can rest assured that the situation never is going to get as dire as it was in 1890.

At least, they can hope.

For the previously unpublished and unfinished (it goes only through Aug. 19) manuscript "Striking Bottom: The Terrible Season of 1890," click here. In the meantime, I'll see if I can find the account of what happened after Aug. 19.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stick together

In the free-agency era, fans have to get used to new players shuttling on and off the team year after year. Or before and after the trade deadline. At any rate, that's one of the big knocks on baseball: no team loyalty for players seeking multimillion-dollar contracts.

In that context, I came across a truly impressive accomplishment listed in "The SABR Baseball List & Record Book." One set of records involves teammates who played together the longest: Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played next to each other in the Tigers infield for 19 years to set the standard for a duo.

Before Trammell and Whitaker came on the scene, the Tigers were setting eye-popping records from the mid-'60s through the early '70s. No less than nine Detroit players were teammates for a full decade: Gates Brown, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe and Mickey Stanley. Only Kaline was a Hall of Famer, but the rest were very good players, with Cash and Lolich reaching some degree of stardom.

During that decade, the Tigers won the 1968 World Series and 1972 AL East title, coming within one game of ruining the start of Oakland's amazing three-year Series run. Also in that period, Detroit barely lost the '67 pennant to the Yaz-Lonborg Red Sox and had the misfortune of playing in the same era of one of the great teams of modern history, the late-'60s/early-'70s Orioles.

Five of the longtime Detroit teammates (Brown, Freehan, Horton, Lolich and Stanley) still remained in 1975, the year the bottom fell out. The Tigers finished at 57-102, including 19 consecutive losses from July 29 through Aug. 15. Freehan, Horton and Stanley stuck it out through '76, but after that came the debuts of Trammell and Whitaker, who were together from '77 through '95.

The Tigers' consistency in personnel came during an era when the city of Detroit was undergoing a major upheaval, including the devastating riots of 1967 and the major problems for the American automotive industry that cropped up in the '70s. Detroiters never could be too sure of what was going on around them, unless they went to Tiger Stadium, where they always could see a lot of familiar faces on the diamond.

Trivia question 33: When Al Kaline retired after the 1974 season, he'd just passed one major batting milestone and fell just short of another. What were they?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rough times

Members of the Society for American Baseball Research periodically receive publications in the mail, one of the perks for paying your dues.

When I arrived home after a weekend out of town, I found a package containing a nearly 500-page book called "The SABR Baseball List and Record Book: Baseball's Most Fascinating Records and Unusual Statistics*" (the asterisk boasting that the information is "not available online or in any other book).

Inside is a large component of what continues to make baseball a popular sport, despite its myriad problems: hundreds of pages of names and numbers, dating back to the dawn of major-league history.

Turn to a random page, and even ardent students of baseball minutiae is likely to find something he or she never knew before. An example is page 141, which contains a list of "Batting Triple Crown Losers." They're the opposite of triple crown winners: guys who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title and finished last in home runs, runs batted in and batting average. Talk about a lousy season.

The latest entry on the list is Ramon Santiago, who it .225 with two homers and 29 RBI for the 2003 Tigers, the team that set the American League record for losses in a season.

The most recent National Leaguer is Ivan DeJesus, who turned the trick for the Cubs in 1981 (.194-0-13). His dismal performance didn't dissuade the Phillies from trading for him in the off-season, sending a past All-Star, Larry Bowa, and a future one, Ryne Sandberg. What was Philadelphia general manager Paul Owens smoking?

The list also contains a two-time loser (Freddie Maguire, Red Sox, 1929 and '31) and Enzo Hernandez, who in his rookie season of 1971 came to bat 549 times for the Padres and drove in exactly 12 runs, to go along with a .222 average and no home runs.

Trivia question 32: A future Hall of Famer was a "Triple Crown Loser." Who was he?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Interleague play

Does this start earlier every year?

I kind of glaze over when the National League teams start playing the American. It throws the pitcher's listings and box scores all out of whack. Plus, I have no interest in the Yankees vs. Mets, which is all anyone hears about when interleague play begins.

This is the 11th year for regular-season NL vs. AL, which means that teenage baseball fans (if, indeed there are any) won't remember the regular order of things, when the only time the leagues met was in the All-Star Game and World Series.

When interleague play started, I remember the hype in places like Pittsburgh to the effect that, "Now you'll get to see the Yankees come to town!" Well, guess what. Steinbrenner's boys have yet to visit Western Pennsylvania. And the one trip the Pirates made to the Bronx, they got creamed three straight, starting a long downward spiral that ruined a semi-promising '05 season.

The next few days are being touted as "rivalry weekend," with matchups like the Cubs vs. White Sox, Red Sox vs. Braves (who once were in Boston) and even Baltimore vs. Washinton and Florida vs. Tampa Bay set up as "natural rivalries."

Speaking of which, I remember when Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were natural rivals, in the same state and same division of the National League. Those made for some great series back in the '70s and into the early '80s. But they ruined that by putting the Pennsylvania teams in different divisions when they went to a Central.

I'll yawn this "rivalry weekend" and sort of hope the Mets sweep the Yankees, although I'm none too fond of the guys who play at Shea these days, either. But it would be nice to see New York's American League entry behind by double digits a week before Memorial Day.

Wouldn't it?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Wounded birds

A couple of friends have a gentleman's bet going each year (I don't think either of them has actually paid up) regarding which team will win more games, the Red Sox or Orioles.

I think they started wagering around 1997, when Baltimore won the AL East title, finishing 20 games ahead of Boston. That's back when O's owner Peter Angelos was spending some big-time money, and Baltimore had a cast that included Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key (one of the great underrated pitchers of his generation) and Rafael "I have never used steroids. Period." Palmeiro.

The Sox, on the other hand, had in their starting lineup the likes of Jeff Frye, Tim Naehring, Wil Cordero, Darren Bragg, Troy O'Leary and Reggie Jefferson, with Tim Wakefield (already 30 years old way back then) anchoring the starting rotation.

Since then, of course, the Red Sox fan has won the bet each and every year, and it hasn't been close. Baltimore has escaped the cellar by the grace of Tampa Bay, and the only thing keeping Boston from the division title has been the Yankees' even bigger payroll. (Sox fans were ecstatic at their team winning the '04 Series, but New York finished first that season.)

Today's standings show Baltimore in second place, percentage points ahead of New York but a full eight games behind Boston. The margin would have been seven if not for the disaster that befell the O's yesterday.

Baltimore was cruising along with a 5-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, threatening to hand seven-game winner Josh Beckett his first defeat. But catcher Ramon Hernandez dropped a popup for what should have been the second out, and O's manager Sam Perlozzo decided to make a pitching change, putting in Danys Baez to face one of the game's most dangerous hitters, David Ortiz.

Baez has bounced around a bit since making the AL All-Star team as Tampa Bay's representative two years ago. He had been somewhat effective for Baltimore in the early going this season, but Big Papi popped a double off Baez to produce Boston's first run.

After Wily Mo Pena smacked a single, Perlozzo brought on closer Chris Ray, who has been somewhat erratic. He walked the first two hitters he faced to force in a run, then Jason Varitek doubled. A couple of batters later, Julio Lugo's single and Ray's error brought in the winning run.

Interestingly, the franchise that now is in Baltimore holds the record for blowing the largest ninth-inning lead. On Opening Day 1901, the Milwaukee Brewers held a 13-4 lead against Detroit, but the Tigers scored 10 runs to win the game. Milwaukee moved prior to 1902 to become the St. Louis Browns, which in turn moved to Baltimore in 1954.

At any rate, Boston's victory served as one more sad day for my buddy the long-suffering Orioles fan. Of course, he's not as long-suffering as my buddies the Pirates fans ...

Trivia question 31: The Orioles have won three World Series since arriving from St. Louis. Which years?

Friday, May 11, 2007

'You gotta believe'

In their never-ending quest for a catchy slogan, the Pirates' PR types have come up with promos assuring the fans, "You gotta believe!"

It may be catchy, but it also is copied. I quote to you from the Washington Star-News of Oct. 2, 1973:

"(Tug) McGraw, an 0-6 pitcher on August 21, finished with a 5-6 record and 25 saves - including four victories, 12 saves and no losses in his last 17 outings. And he has contributed the slogan that has become the team's creed: 'You gotta believe!'"

In the summer of '73, McGraw's New York Mets were in last place in the National League East. But the division was full of mediocre teams that year, and the Mets figured they had as good a shot as anyone. So when they went on a tear, winning 23 of their final 32 games, the mass of media types in the Big Apple picked up on something the Tugger had said and turned it into a full-fledged battle cry.

The Mets, incidentally, finished with an 82-79 record and were the only team in the division above .500. They did beat the 99-win Cincinnati Reds in the league championship series, primarily because Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman represented the core of a far better rotation than Jack Billingham, Don Gullett and Fred Norman.

The ensuing World Series with Oakland was an exciting one, although it did feature the first Series game to go beyond midnight Eastern Time, setting a not-so-hot precedent. That was the game in which the A's Mike Andrews made two errors in the 12th inning, then owner Charlie Finley tried to release Andrews in the middle of the Series.

The A's eventually prevailed in seven games, with Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson cracking home runs (Oakland's only two homers of the Series) in the third to knock Matlack out of the game. I remember my dad complaining that, with the Mets obviously about to lose, they didn't put Willie Mays into the game for one last appearance. Mays went 2-for-7 in the Series at age 42.

(The Associated Press)

As for Frank Edwin McGraw (1944-2004), he was 1-0 with a save and 2.63 ERA during the '73 Series. But he wasn't nearly as effective in '74 and was traded to the Philadelphia, where he helped guide the Phils to their one and only World Championship.

RIP, Tugger. Let's figure that the Pirates are paying you a tribute every time they use your slogan.

Trivia question 30: Who managed the "You gotta believe" Mets?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A hit to the eye

The Cleveland Indians had one of history's best pitching rotations in the 1950s, anchored by Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, along with the dependable Mike Garcia. In 1954, when the Indians won a then-American League record 111 games, the staff was so deep that it included two other future Hall of Famers, Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser, in part-time roles.

The best of the lot, though, may have been a lefthander who debuted in 1955. Herb Score won 16 games as a rookie, then 20 in '56. But more than the wins, his whiff totals are what caught everyone's attention: He was the first pitcher in history to average more than a strikeout per inning over a full season, and he did it in each of his first two years.

Fifty years ago this month, Score was pitching at home against the Yankees, the team that had won the pennant while Cleveland finished second the previous two seasons. The second batter of the game was New York's Gil McDougald, who cracked a line drive straight back toward the pitcher. The ball struck Score in the right eye, cutting it badly and causing his face to bleed badly. He was taken from the field in a stretcher.

An eye specialist was called in, but Score missed the rest of the '57 season. He pitched sparingly in 1958 and rejoined the Indians' regular rotation in '59, but posted a 9-11 record, although he led the league in fewest hits and most strikeouts per nine innings.

Cleveland gave up on Score, though, and traded him to the White Sox for a pitcher named Barry Latman (who, as a youth, somehow had developed a friendship with the aged Ty Cobb). He couldn't rebain his form, though, and was done in the majors before he was 30.

Fortunately, Score went on to a long career as an Indians broadcaster. But those who saw him pitch in the mid-'50s say baseball lost perhaps one of the all-time greats with that hit to the eye.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


There has been some debate about whether Roger Clemens' contract makes him the highest-paid baseball player.

The Yankees are paying him $18-plus million for a partial season, which prorates to about $28 million annually. That, in turn, works out to more than Alex Rodriguez is paid. And considering what his salary is adding to the Yankees' "luxury tax" payment, Clemens is costing the team more than $1 million per start. That's if the 44-going-on-45-year-old pitcher stays healthy.

When Clemens was a mere toddler, a salary dispute arose between the Los Angeles Dodgers and two of their pitchers, both former Cy Young Award winners and future Hall of Famers.

On March 30, 1966, just before the start of the season, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale ended their joint holdout. The tandem accounted for 49 victories the season before, and it was safe to assume that without them, the Dodgers and their relatively anemic offense would have finished toward the bottom of the National League standings, instead of winning the World Series.

A Los Angeles Herald-Examiner article said the pitchers "wrote a happy ending to their cliff-hanger 32-day holdout" by signing for a combined $230,000. Koufax was to receive $120,000 and Drysdale $110,000.

Let's see ... using Koufax's salary as a barometer against Clemens' prorated figure, that works out to an inflation rate of something like 23,333 percent in the past 41 years. I know inflation was steep in the '70s, but I don't remember it being anything like that.

At any rate, Koufax went on the win 27 games and his third unanimous Cy Young Award (back when there was only one for both leagues) for his 120 grand. And that's all the Dodgers had to pay him, because his arm hurt so bad he couldn't pitch anymore after that.

Too bad Tommy John surgery didn't come along for another decade.

Trivia question 29: Sandy Koufax's last appearance was in the 1966 World Series, in a loss to the Orioles. Which Dodger outfielder made three errors in one inning of that game?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Money talks ...

My son the baseball fan came storming out of the house seconds after I'd heard the announcement while doing yardwork with the radio on, listening to another Pirates defeat.

"I hate Clemens again!" he proclaimed.

I shrugged my shoulders. That Roger Clemens has announced he's returning to Yankee pinstripes comes as no surprise. So far this season, New York has had one of the most ineffective pitching staffs in the majors this season. Only one possible savior was on the horizon, and the Yankees backed up the Brinks trucks and dumped the cash in Clemens' lap.

His prorated salary is the highest in baseball history, even more than his oft-beleaguered now-teammate, Alex Rodriguez, is paid.

That's sort of cool for a guy who's four months older than I am. But it would have been cooler if, say, he had re-signed with Houston. But the Astros stink, especially their offense, and Clemens must be sick and tired of the lack of run support he's received the past few years.

So it's off to the Bronx and, if all goes well for the Yankee faithful, another trip to the playoffs and beyond.

By then, Clemens will be 45 years old. Age catches up with all the great ones, sooner or later. Even Nolan Ryan eventually could pitch no more. Even Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm and John Picus Quinn.

Please, American League hitters, find a way to solve this overpaid senior citizen and keep the Yankees' pitching woes going. Let their overinflated payroll come back to bite them, for once. It was fun to see them below Tampa Bay. It really was ...

I'm watching the major-league debut of the latest pitching phenom, San Francisco's Tim Lincecum. He's blown hitters away in high school, college, the low minors and AAA. Now, he's in a good pitcher's park. Let's see how he adapts to the big boys.

He didn't do so hot with the first couple of hitters, giving up a home run to Philadelphia's Shane Victorino, not what you'd call a big power guy. But then Lincecum struck out the side, including last year's MVP, Ryan Howard.

Whatever the case, Lincecum has to be glad the Cubs didn't draft him, given their luck with great-looking young pitchers.

Trivia question 28: What Giants pitcher tossed a one-hitter in his major-league debut?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Golden age?

I've read many times about how the 1950s, at leat the earlier part of the decade, supposedly represented baseball's Golden Age; those accounts mostly were written by New Yorkers who enjoyed seeing a team from New York in the World Series each and every year.

The spell was broken somewhat when the Giants and Dodgers bolted for the West Coast after the 1957 season. But enough prose had come out of the media capital of the world to ensure New York's status as baseball's epicenter for time immemorial.

There are reasons to dispute the '50s as a golden era. Attendance at most ballparks took a severe dip after a postwar boom, causing three teams -- the Boston Braves, St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics -- to move out of their cities in rapid succession, followed shortly by the New York Giants and Brooklyn.

Speaking of the ballparks, most had been built nearly half a century before and were located in places that lacked what had become essential: parking for automobiles. Some of the neighborhoods around the parks had deteriorated to the point where families didn't exactly feel comfortable attending games.

Integration started with Jackie Robinson in 1947, but many teams took their good old time when it came to bringing in black players. The Yankees were among the stragglers, with Elston Howard making his debut in 1956, after team management combed the organization for a suitable candidate; the talented first baseman Vic Power was dealt away because he was considered to be too flamboyant.

And the Boston Red Sox, which have become one of baseball's most revered franchises, didn't have an African American on the team until Pumpsie Green in 1959.

If you lived in New York, everything was fine: half the World Series played in the '50s involved both teams from that city. And if you count the Dodgers in 1959 after they moved to Los Angeles, every Series of the '50s involved a team from New York.

Everyone's personal Golden Age of Baseball seems to relate to his childhood, when he first starting following the sport. I'm no exception, but I'd like to state a case for the period of roughly 1965 to 1975. I came in toward the end of that decade, first paying real attention to baseball at the tail end of the '72 season and absorbing it in 1973. (Yes, I vaguely remember when American League pitcher hit for themselves against other AL teams.)

Anyway, here are some reasons:

• This era represented baseball's best attempt at putting everyone on an equal footing. The amateur draft started in 1965, and free agency didn't really start kicking in until 1976. Before '65, the teams with the most money were likely to sign the best prospects. After '76 ... well, you know what happened.

• Baseball still was the national pastime. Football made some inroads during the 1960s, but the first few Super Bowls during comparatively minuscule attention. (Of course, it took a New York connection, the Joe Namath Jets, to put the Super Bowl in the spotlight.) The World Series still was the biggest game in town, and it still was played during the day, for the most part.

Speaking of which, people my age still fondly reminisce about taking little transistor radios into school and trying to catch what was going on during the playoffs and Series before the teacher caught us. Or sometimes they'd wheel in a television and let everyone watch.

• Every year, some larger-than-life event was likely to occur: Koufax's perfect game in '65 ... Frank Robinson's triple crown and leading the Orioles to a Series sweep in '66 ... the Red Sox' "Impossible Dream" and Yaz's triple crown in '67 (although the Sox lost the Series) ... the Year of the Pitcher in '68, with McLain's 31 wins, Gibson's 1.12 ERA, Drysdale's 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and the Yankees' .214 team batting average ... the '69 Miracle Mets, who won the World Series after never finishing higher than ninth place in their existence ... Brooks Robinson's one-man show in the '70 Series ... Reggie Jackson hitting a ball in the '71 All-Star Game that still might be traveling in the ozone ... Steve Carlton racking up 27 wins for the last-place Phillies in '72 ... Nolan Ryan setting the strikeout record and pitching two no-hitters in '73 ... Hank Aaron breaking the career home run record in '74 ... Carlton Fisk's home run winning the sixth game of the '75 Series.

Just a sampling.

• The Yankees were not in the postseason from 1965 through 1975. (In that context, a case could be made for 1982 through 1994 being an even more golden era, but ...)

I realize baseball had some not-so-pleasant issues to confront between 1965 and 1975. The players' union gained in stature, creating a climate that resulted in a series of work stoppages, including the interruption of the start of the '72 season. Curt Flood started the ball rolling that led to free agency, which led to ruining baseball in places like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and especially Montreal. The first night World Series game took place in 1971; soon, most were played at night, and since 1984, they all have. The American League, suffering from poor attendance, decided to let a regular hitter bat for the pitcher, in what started as a three-year "experiment"; today, baseball is the only sport with significantly different rules for two components of the same ostensible organization.

And Charlie Finley watched his Athletics, laughingstocks while in Kansas City, become a dynasty after they moved to Oakland. But he didn't like to part with his money, and his star pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter found a loophole that allowed him to sign with whatever team ponied up the most cash.

Of course, that was the New York Yankees.

Goodbye, Golden Age.

Friday, May 4, 2007


Yesterday, I took a break from keeping close tabs on baseball to accompany some visitors around my local area.

The visitors are from Turkey and are here as a Group Study Exchange organized by Rotary International. The GSE program allows people to experience the cultures of other nations firsthand.

Our friends from Turkey had an opportunity to take in a baseball game at Pittsburgh's PNC Park on Saturday, and of course, they saw the Pirates lose. They also had trouble following the game, being new to it.

I've taken GSE visitors to games in the past, and it turns out that the sport is rather difficult to explain. We're used to baseball from watching it all our lives, but explaining concepts such as hits and runs, balls and strikes, outs and innings -- not to mention more esoteric concepts like balks and the infield fly rule -- can prove to be very challenging, probably a lot like us trying to learn about cricket.

At any rate, our visitors seemed to have a nice time, and we really enjoyed showing them around. They also gave a presentation about Turkey for our Rotary club, which made us all want to make travel reservations. The presentation ended with the visitors doing a folk dance in their native costumes. Here are the women in the group (Selen, Guliz and Asli):

One of stops was at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, which, if you're ever around the Pittsburgh area, is definitely worth a visit:

By the way, I am aware that the Pirates are in second place, proving that the experts were correct about the National League Central being an extremely weak division. (I've heard it referred to as the "National League Comedy Central." Can't take credit for that, but it's funny!)

Trivia question 27: The Milwaukee Brewers are in first place in the NL Central. Counting the year they existed as the Seattle Pilots, how many years did the team play before it put together its first winning season?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Philip Hughes

(The Associated Press)

The Yankees' Philip Hughes took a no-hitter into the seventh inning last night. But unfortunately for the already pitching-challenged Yanks, Hughes pulled a hamstring and is out for several weeks.

Hughes, just 20, is the youngest player to appear in the majors so far this season. A total of 20 players who haven't yet reached their 23rd birthday have made appearances. Click here for the rundown.

Do we have some future stars in the making? Given Hughes' performance in just his second start, and the probability of the Yankees surrounding him with some high-priced hitters for many years to come, he seems like a shoo-in if his hamstring heals properly.

The under-23 MVP so far looks like B.J. Upton of Tampa Bay, who is hitting for average and power so far. Upton, who debuted as a teenager in 2004 after being taken second overall by the Rays in the 2002 draft, has stolen five bases to go with his five home runs, making him a valued power/speed commodity. His brother, Justin, is a highly regarded 19-year-old prospect in the Diamondbacks organization.

The top under-23 pitcher is no surprise: Matt Cain of the Giants, who wowed baseball observers with his stellar rookie season in 2006. Cain is just 1-1 so far but has one of the National League's best ERAs. His offense has let him down, scoring just 12 runs in his five starts.

Trivia question 26: Who was the youngest player in major-league history?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


Jamie Moyer

(The Associated Press)

Baseball's senior citizenry is thriving: 22 players ages 40 and older have taken the field this season.

Click here for their statistics after the first month.

So far, the geriatric MVP (to go along with his seven real ones) is Barry Bonds. Despite your opinion of him, he continues to be one of the National League's more dangerous hitters despite his advanced age. Moises Alou, his teammate with the Giants last year, also is off to an excellent start with the Mets.

Among pitchers, Jamie Moyer, Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz all have started the season with 3-1 records. I'll give the senior Cy Young at this point of the season to Moyer, who turned 44 in November. (That's one month before I did!)

Also of note:

• Julio Franco, who will turn 49 later in the season, has just a pair of hits so far, but has made the most of them.

• Texas outfielder Kenny Lofton is the only American League position player over 40.

• The Mets have four players over 40, the most in the majors.

Trivia question 25: Who is the oldest player to lead his league in a category?