Friday, July 27, 2007

Tale of two rookies

In 2001, two rookies made the St. Louis Cardinals' roster coming out of spring training, one a left-handed relief pitcher who was talked about as a potential closer, the other a multi-position player who was targeted to perhaps fill a hole at third base.

Neither impressed as the Cardinals were swept three straight in the season-opening series in Colorado. The hitter went 1-for-9, and the pitcher gave up two earned runs in 2 1/3 innings in a relief appearance.

The team traveled to Arizona, where the rookie hitter started opening eyes by putting a hurt on the Diamondbacks: 7-for-14 with 8 RBI in three games. That began a 13-game hitting streak, by the end of which he was hitting .393.

The pitcher, meanwhile, sat on the bench and watched. Finally, 10 days after his first appearance, he entered a game in the seventh inning with the Cardinals trailing Houston, 4-2. The lefty proceeded to walk Jeff Bagwell, hit Richard Hidalgo, walk Lance Berkman and walk Chris Truby. Manager Tony La Russa had seen enough.

Three days later, La Russa brought the pitcher in to relieve Dustin Hermanson, who was getting strafed, with the Cardinals trailing 8-1. The rookie prevented further damage by retiring Armando Reynoso and Tony Womack to end the inning.

But Arizona scored five runs in the fourth, capped by a David Dellucci home run. Tony Womack tripled to open the fifth, and another ex-Pirate, Jay Bell, followed with a homer.

La Russa walked out to the mound to take the ball, and that was it for Chad Hutchinson's Major League Baseball career. His numbers: 3 games, 4 innings, 9 hits, 11 earned runs, 6 walks, 2 strikeouts.

His rookie counterpart, meanwhile, went on to a .329-37-130 season and today has a .331 lifetime average with 273 home runs. At age 27.

His name, of course, is Albert Pujols.

Trivia question 56: For which National Football League teams did Chad Hutchinson play quarterback?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ruth vs. Aaron and Bonds

After I compared the home runs of Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds as percentages of league totals, I thought it might be interesting to do the same for George Herman Ruth.

As more and more players exceed 500, 600 and even 700 lifetime homers, the Babe is starting to get lost in the shuffle. With very few people still alive who ever saw him play, some skeptics are dismissing his feats, using such caveats as the color line that unfortunately existed in organized baseball at the time.

Overlooked in the onslaught of modern home run marks is the enormity of Ruth's impact on the way baseball was played. Casual baseball fans might know the long ball was somewhat of a rarity before the Babe started hitting them. But even after certain aspects of the game made it easier for hitters after 1920, the balls weren't flying out of parks at anything resembling the rates of today. Throughout Ruth's career, in no season did the American League average more than 100 home runs per team, and usually the figure was well below that. Meanwhile, he was hitting them out at a pace very comparable to Aaron and Bonds.

Even in 1918, the year the Red Sox started to convert him to a full-time outfielder, the Babe was wowing 'em with his bat. His 11 home runs that year might seem like a few good weeks' worth of work nowadays, but it was an eye-popping total considering that the entire AL hit only 96 (that's a dozen per team). And considering that Ruth also posted a 13-7 record that year, with 18 complete games in 19 starts, then won two more games in the World Series.

Anyway, I tried to make Ruth's figures comparable to Aaron's and Bonds' by adjusting the number of teams to 12, even though eight existed throughout Ruth's career. (For the heck of it, I also ran straight percentages for Ruth, and they're truly astounding.)

Here is the chart for Ruth. Please click on the image for a larger view:

For Aaron and Bonds, see yesterday's post. And you'll see there is no comparison, really.

Trivia question 55:
In what season did Babe Ruth post his final victory as a pitcher?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bonds vs. Aaron: the nth comparison

My personal contention is that Henry Aaron played primarily in an era, the better part of the '60s, when pitching was as dominant as it has been since the day of the Dead Ball. Much of Barry Bonds' career has been during a period of unprecedented bounty for the long ball.

I started thinking about how Aaron fared against the rest of the National League while he played, compared with Bonds. Of course, the two played radically different types of schedules: Aaron started when the league had only eight teams, while Bonds now faces 15 other NL foes (not to mention that interleague stuff).

Anyway, to level the field for a comparison, I adjusted league home run totals for each year of both players' careers to reflect the number 12 teams would have hit. In other words, the 1,255 home runs National League hitters belted in 1955, when the NL had eight teams, is adjusted upward to 1,895; the actual NL total of 2,595 in 2002 is adjusted downward to 1,946.

Then I measured each player's home run total against the teams-per-league adjustment. And as I suspected, Aaron comes out ahead for his 21-year career in the National League, 2.22% to Bonds' 2.05%.

Both players were remarkably healthy throughout most of their careers, until Bonds missed most of the 2005 season, which is not included here. His playing time was limited in 1999, as well, but was comparable to Aaron's final NL season, when he was reduced to part-time status.

I've included Bonds' performance so far in 2007, as he has played nearly full-time. Plus, if we throw out '05, that gives him 21 seasons to equal Aaron.

Here is the comparison (click on the chart for a larger view):

Some aspects I find interesting:

• When Bonds set his single-season record in 2001, he accounted for 3.30% of the adjusted league total. But the highest figure on the chart is Aaron's 3.41% in 1971, when he hit a career-high 47. By the way, both players happened to be 37 years old at the conclusion of their top home run seasons.

• Bonds topped 2.5% in four seasons. Aaron did so in 10, and came very close to an 11th in 1957, the year he won his sole MVP award.

• Aaron's percentages increased markedly after the Braves moved to Atlanta. But his top five seasons in Milwaukee are bested by all but four of Bonds' 21 seasons.

• Aaron played in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when the adjusted home run total was 1,069. Bonds played during three seasons (1999-2001) that more than doubled that total, plus another two (2004 and '06) that nearly did.

Certainly, it's difficult to compare different eras. But say you had your choice of facing Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins and Steve Carlton on a regular basis. Or your choices were … well, there are so many teams nowadays, no one faces opposing pitchers on a regular basis. Some of Bonds' recent blasts have been off the likes of Will Ohman, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang, Livan Hernandez, Scott Proctor, Tim Wakefield, Josh Towers … you get the drift.

When Bonds breaks Aaron's record, keep the quality of Hammerin' Hank's pitching nemeses in mind.

Trivia question 54: What Hall of Fame pitcher surrendered Henry Aaron's 600th home run? (Hint: It probably still was wet when it landed in the stands.)

Monday, July 23, 2007


We get kind of used to the Yankees beating up on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But the slaughter perpetrated by the Bronx Bombers over the weekend goes far beyond the usual thrashing.

In three games on Saturday and Sunday, New York scored 45 runs off the beleaguered Rays pitching staff, cranking out 53 hits in the process. Bob Abreu, criticized often this season for underproducing, fattened up his stats by racking up seven hits in the three games.

Of course, the net effect on Tampa Bay's pitching statistics was none too kind. The Rays' earned run average ballooned to 5.98, and the staff now is on pace to break the 1,000 mark in runs allowed. The really bad news is that James Shields, who has seemed to have the makings of a decent hurler, gave up 10 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings on Sunday, adding more than half a run to his season's ERA. His 4.44 mark still looks stellar next to the figures compiled so far by the likes of Andy Sonnanstine (5.37), Edwin Jackson (6.65), J.P. Howell (7.36) and Jae Weong Seo (8.13). Such showings are worthy of the Baker Bowl Phillies or pre-humidor Coors Field.

But, hey, these are the Devil Rays, statistically the worst franchise in major-league history since the 19th-century version of the Washington Senators folded up the tent in 1899. Yes, the Phillies have lost 10,000 games, but if Tampa Bay had played as many contests as Philadelphia, they'd have dropped approximately 11,346 of them (by extrapolation, of course).

This is Tampa Bay's 10th season of existence. The team managed to sneak out of the basement once, blowing past Toronto in 2004 to win a franchise-record 70 games. In nine complete seasons so far, the Rays have finished a cumulative 312.5 games behind the Yankees.

We've seen new franchises in the past take a long time to win, but never like what's going on in Tampa. Remember how bad the Mets were in the '60s? They managed to develop a young pitching staff that took them to the top in their eighth year of existence. In the era of free agency, the Colorado Rockies made the playoffs in their third year; the Florida Marlins won the World Series in their fifth; and the Arizona Diamondbacks won a divisional title in their second.

When there was talk of contracting the major leagues a few years ago, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were at the top of the list.

After their showing in the Bronx the past few days, we can assume they still belong there.

Trivia question 53: What Tampa Bay pitcher holds the team record for victories in a season?

Big Poison

In another season full of disappointments, the Pirates looked back to happier times this weekend by retiring the number of Paul "Big Poison" Waner, who spent the first 15 years of his Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh.

Saturday's ceremony at PNC Park was a heart-warmer, with members of the Waner family attending as featured guests, along with other Pirate Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Bill Mazeroski. Fans certainly had a thrill in seeing Kiner, who looked to be his usual healthy self at age 84.

As for Waner, the honor certainly is deserved. We could go through a litany of his batting achievements -- he still is 10th on the all-time triples list -- but the key number is 3,152, the hits he accumulated for his career. He is the only player between the 1920s and '50s to accomplish that milestone. Unfortunately he did it as a member of the Boston Braves in 1942, two years after he left Pittsburgh.

For a firsthand account of Waner's career, buy a copy of Lawrence Ritter's "The Glory of Their Times," the gold standard of baseball oral history books.

Although Waner's brother, Lloyd ("Little Poison") followed him to Cooperstown, the Pirates have yet to retire the other number. Perhaps that will come when the team is looking for something to celebrate in '08, although scholars of baseball concede that Lloyd was nowhere near the player Paul was. Lloyd hardly ever struck out, though -- 173 times in 7,772 career at-bats -- and that's definitely something today's Pirates could try to learn.

During Saturday's pregame ceremonies, the Pirates did another classy move, attributed to lame-duck CEO Kevin McClatchy. Among those honored was Craig Biggio of the visiting Astros, who reached the 3,000-hit plateau this season and was introduced as a "future Hall of Famer." Let's hope the voters agree.

Trivia question 52: Former St. Louis Browns pitcher Rollie Stiles, believed to be the oldest former major leaguer, died Sunday at age 100. What former major leaguer lived the longest, to age 107?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Let's make some deals

With the Pirates about to fall into the NL Central cellar, unless new acquisition Cesar Izturis will rescue them, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how the current crop of players came to Pittsburgh.

• Fans were excited this past off-season when the team acquired Adam LaRoche from the Braves. Although he's been somewhat of a disappointment - who wouldn't be, with a .236 batting average - LaRoche is having a better season than the other major-leaguer in the deal. Mike Gonzalez is out for the season after having elbow surgery, but pitched well for the Braves before he went under the knife: 2-0, 1.59 ERA in 17 innings. Pirates fans might want to keep an eye on the third man in the deal, minor-league shortstop Brent Lillibridge, who was promoted from AA to AAA by the Braves this season. Overall, he is hitting .265 with 6 homers, 26 RBI and 28 stolen bases.

Freddy Sanchez wowed Pittsburgh and at least made a name for himself around baseball by winning the NL batting title last year, after starting the season on the bench behind free-agent bust Joe Randa (whom the Pirates originally let go in the '98 expansion draft). Sanchez became a Pirate by accident. In 2003, Pittsburgh made a deal with Boston involving reliever Brandon Lyon, who turned out to be injured. The Red Sox took him back and decided they'd like to have starting pitcher Jeff Suppan, too. So they shipped Sanchez to Pittsburgh.

Jose Bautista, who is spending time on the disabled list, is indicative of the Pirates' recent history of administrative snafus. The Orioles snagged him from Pittsburgh in the Rule 5 draft in late 2003, and he spent the first half of the 2004 season bouncing from Baltimore to Kansas City to the New York Mets. Finally, when the Pirates were looking to unload Kris Benson, the Mets included Bautista in the deal. (Also on board was Ty Wiggington, who stunk in Pittsburgh and eventually was released. He since has hit 38 home runs in a season and a half as a Devil Ray.)

• When the Pirates dealt reliever Jason Christiansen to the Cardinals for Jack Wilson, Christiansen reportedly was extremely happy to be leaving Pittsburgh. As for Wilson, the acquisition of Izturis points to the probability of Jack leaving town imminently. And at this point, he'll probably be happy.

• Ex-GM Cam Bonifay pulled off one great trade during his tenure with the Pirates, acquiring Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon. Giles' salary eventually wore out its welcome, and Pittsburgh dealt him to San Diego in a 2003 deal that included Jason Bay. In 2004, Bay became the Pirates' first Rookie of the Year, and for three straight years he was an All-Star. That's not quite the case this year, as he's struggled at the plate and runners have taken considerable advantage of his questionable ability to throw.

• The Pirates reportedly were more interested in Xavier Nady than Bay when they made the Giles deal. In the short term, it looked like not comparison between the two. But this year, Nady has been the Pirates' most consistent hitter, at .283-14-51. Pirates fans, though, can't help but keep a close watch on the Oliver Perez, whom the Mets acquired for Nady. Perez has spent time on the disabled list this year, but his 8-6 record with a 3.13 ERA indicates that he's still able to pitch well.

Shawn Chacon has pitched well at times out of the bullpen this year, posting a fairly respectable 3.58 ERA. He certainly is having a better season than the guy he was traded for: After spending half a season with the Yankees, Craig Wilson was signed by Atlanta, but was released in May when his batting average dipped to .172.

Trivia question 51: Which owner of a baseball team was fined $15,000 and suspended two years for making illegal political campaign contributions to Richard M. Nixon?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dice baseball

I recently wrote my newspaper column about a diversion we enjoyed when we were kids, long before the days of video games. You can read it here:

"Bored? Try this for cure"

Our version of "Dice Baseball" comes straight from an essay by the same name, written by D.J. Michael, that appeared in "The Second Fireside Book of Baseball," published in 1958. (We didn't start playing until 1975.)

Click here for a PDF version of the essay.

Back to real-life baseball, the world is returning to normal: The Pirates are sinking like a lead balloon, and the Yankees are about to give the Red Sox a run for their money.

Every few years, Pittsburgh will give fans a false sense of optimism. This summer, it came right before the All-Star break, when the Pirates went on a 9-4 run to pull within eight games of .500. (That might not seem so great, but in Pittsburgh, the big goal is to finish above the break-even point once more in our lifetime.)

After a four-day layoff, the Pirates returned to action by getting swept in Atlanta and at home by Colorado. On Tuesday, yet another mediocre ex-Buc, Josh Fogg, confounded his old team on his way to 6-2 win, lowering his ERA to 5.15 in the process.

The Pirates' worst pitching performance during the losing streak (so far) was turned in Monday by John Van Benschoten, who fell to 0-4 in a 10-8 loss. Van Benschoten -- at least one local sports talk type has tried to give him the handle of "JVB" -- started the game by plunking Willy Taveras with a pitch, then gave up five runs before Pittsburgh even came to bat. In surrendering nine earned runs in two innings, JVB saw his ERA rise to 8.17. All this from a former No. 8 overall pick in the draft, a stud hitter at Kent State whom the Pirates decided would make a better pitcher.

Good call.

As for the Yankees ... hey, when you can afford to pay Roger Clemens about two hundred grand per inning, you should be winning.

Trivia question 50: Who was the oldest player to win his first batting title? (courtesty of Bruce Brown, Society for American Baseball Research)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hail to the champs

The Phillies recently made history by losing their 10,000th game as a franchise. But they do have one World Series victory to their credit, and here's a rundown of the men who made it possible (please scroll down):

The 1980 Phillies: World Champions

Bob Boone, C. When Boone retired in 1990 at age 42, he had caught 2,225 games, more than anyone in history to that point. (The White Sox let Carlton Fisk hang on until he broke the record by one, then they released him.) Boone had a decent bat and was steady behind the plate, although at one point Steve Carlton opted for Tim McCarver as his personal catcher. In '80, Boone hit only .229 following four straight .280-plus seasons, and the Phillies shipped him off to California after a .211 showing in '81. That seemed like kind of a sad ending in Philadelphia for a three-time All-Star.

Larry Bowa, SS. Early in his career, Bowa was regarded as a light hitter whose glove kept him in the lineup. Then he started hiking up his average, and the Phillies started posting winning records. The five-time All-Star left Philadelphia after the 1981 season in what may have been one of the worst trades in history: He and an unproven Ryne Sandberg went to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus, who was coming off .194 season. Ouch. As for Bowa, he returned to manage the Phillies in 2001 but was shown the door after four seasons after failing to lead them to the postseason.

Warren Brusstar, RP. The Phillies always seemed to have a decent bullpen during the mid-'70s through mid-'80s, and Brusstar is a prime example of a pitcher who turned in a couple of decent seasons. As a rookie in 1977, the righthander endeared himself to Philadelphia fans with a 7-2 record and 2.33 ERA; he followed that in '78 with 6-3, 2.33. Unfortunately, he was belted around quite a bit in '79 and pitched for the Phillies only part of the World Championship season, going 2-2 with a 3.72 ERA. The Phils sold him to the White Sox in the middle of the '82 season.

Marty Bystrom, SP. One of the main reasons the Phillies won the NL East title in 1980 was the pitching of Bystrom, a 21-year-old September callup who was pitching for the first time in the majors. He pitched a five-hit shutout in his first start, then won each of his next four starts, compiling a 1.50 ERA. Unfortunately, his early promise fizzled in subsequent years, and the Phillies ended up trading him to the Yankees for Shane Rawley in mid-1984. Following his 5-0 start, his career record in Philadelphia was just 19-22, and he pitched just 15 games with New York before his major-career ended at age 26.

Steve Carlton, SP. Phillies fans didn't know what to make when the team traded its best hurler, Rick Wise, to St. Louis for Carlton just before the belated start of the 1972 season. Carlton, who'd won 20 with the Cardinals, proceeded to turn in perhaps the most amazing season ever by a pitcher, going 27-10 for a squad that won just 59 games. The rest was history: a then-record four Cy Young Awards for the Phils, including 1980, when he won 24 games and became the last pitcher in major-league history to work more than 300 innings, although on one knew that at the time. With 329 career victories, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994.

Larry Christenson, SP. Oh, what might have been … Christenson broke into the majors with a bang, winning a 7-1 complete game over the Mets in April 1973 as a 19-year-old. He wowed Phillies fans, but that proved to be his only win of the year. He recovered to post four straight double-digit-win seasons starting in 1975, with a high of 19 in '77. Prior to the 1979 season, he broke his collarbone in a charity bicycling event, and he never again was an effective pitcher. He went 5-1 in 1980 and earned himself postseason starts, but against the Royals in the Series, he gave up four runs while getting just one out. The Phillies hung onto him until more injuries ended his career in '83.

Mark Davis, P. The Phillies' first pick in the 1979 amateur draft, Davis debuted in the majors in September '80, about a month before his 20th birthday. He pitched two shutout innings of relief in his first appearance, then made his first career start on the last day of the season, giving up two runs in five innings in an eventual loss to Montreal. Davis was hit hard when the Phils called him up in the summer of '81, and they traded him to the Giants in the deal that brought Joe Morgan to Philadelphia. Later, as a reliever for the Padres, Davis won himself a Cy Young Award and a lucrative free-agent contract with Kansas City, which saw extremely little return on its investment.

Nino Espinosa, SP. The Phillies made an effort to bolster their starting rotation in 1979 by acquiring Espinosa from the Mets for an aging Richie Hebner, and Nino responded by winning 14 games. Injuries kept him off the field, though, in the first half of 1980, and he won only three games, his best start being a complete-game five-hitter against his former team. The Phillies left him off the postseason roster, and despite a decent start the following season, his ERA eventually ballooned to 6.11. Philadelphia released him, and he appeared in one more game with Toronto before his career ended. He died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 34.

Greg Gross, OF. In a full decade with the Phillies, Gross hit exactly one home run: on May 27, 1987, off the Padres' Lance McCullers. But he still was a fan favorite, hailing from nearby York, Pa. Plus, even if he wasn't hitting the ball over the fence, he was putting it in play; his lifetime batting average is .287. Gross helped the Phillies in their '80 playoff victory over Houston, with three hits in four at bats, including an RBI single that provided a cushion in Philadelphia's 3-1 win in the opener. Coincidentally, Gross started his career with the Astros, finishing second to future Phillies teammate Bake McBride in the 1974 NL Rookie of the Year vote.

Randy Lerch, SP. When the left-handed Lerch broke in with the Phillies, many fans confused him with Barry Lersch, who had spent five less-than-successful seasons in Philadelphia. Lerch (without the "s") fared a little bit better, winning 10 games twice and 11 games once from 1977-79. In '80, though, he turned in perhaps the poorest performance ever for a member of a starting rotation on a World Series winner: 4-14, 5.16 ERA. Manager Dallas Green finally took him out of the rotation in August, and Lerch was left off the postseason roster. He was shipped to Milwaukee prior to the '81 season for journeyman outfielder Dick Davis.

Greg Luzinski, OF. For about half a decade, Luzinski and Mike Schmidt formed one of the most feared slugging tandems in baseball. Luzinski hit for average, too, turning in three straight .300-plus seasons. His apex came in 1977, when he set career highs with .309, 39 homers and 130 RBI, and was second to George Foster in the NL MVP vote. Just 26 at the time, Luzinski looked to be headed for a long, productive career. But his productivity started slipping, and by 1980 his batting average fell to .228. His swan song with the Phillies came in the World Series, when he failed to get a hit in nine at bats. He finished his career as designated hitter for the White Sox.

Garry Maddox, OF. An acknowledged master of patroling center field - his nickname was the Secretary of Defense - Maddox was rewarded with eight consecutive Rawlings Gold Glove awards. He was a fine hitter, too, peaking at .330 (and finishing fifth in the NL MVP vote) in 1976, the year after he came to Philadelphia in exchange for the popular Willie Montanez. Injuries started catching up with Maddox after he turned 30, and he retired a few weeks into the 1986 season, hanging around long enough to garner that year's Roberto Clemente Award, which honors players based on their values.

Bake McBride, OF. One of the most savvy deals made by Phillies general manager Paul Owens was acquiring Arnold Ray McBride on the day of the trading deadline in 1977, basically giving up pitcher Tom Underwood. Why the Cardinals gave up on McBride, then 28, seems to be a mystery: The 1974 NL Rookie of the Year had hit over .300 in each of his first three full seasons. He continued to hit well with the Phillies, posting a .339 average the rest of the way in '77 and batting .309 in '80. Following an injury-plagued '81, the Phillies decided to ship him to Cleveland. where he wrapped up his career with a lifetime average of .299.

Tim McCarver, C. Prior to 1980, only a handful of players had appeared in the major leagues in four different decades. McCarver, who debuted in 1959 at age 17, added his name to the list when he joined the Phillies' active roster in September '80. He appeared in half a dozen games and netted his final major-league hit, No. 1,501, in the final game of the season; his double drove in two runs. Interestingly, he entered the game pinch-running for Pete Rose, who is about six months older than McCarver. In his two stints with the Phillies, McCarver's best season was in 1977, when he hit .320 in part-time duty, including serving as Steve Carlton's personal catcher.

Tug McGraw, RP. When Frank Edwin McGraw Jr. died Jan. 5, 2004, baseball lost one of its most colorful personalities. Tug first made a name for himself as a brash youngster for the Mets on Aug. 26, 1965, when he jumped off the mound clicking his heels after beating a fellow lefty named Sandy Koufax. Eight years later, he led the Mets' unlikely charge to the World Series with the rallying cry of "Ya gotta believe!" The Mets were unimpressed with his 6-11 record in '74 and dealth him to Philadelphia, where he regained his status as a top relief pitcher. And of course, he recorded the final out in the Phillies' one and only Series victory.

Keith Moreland, C. By 1980, longtime Phillies catcher Bob Boone's batting average had tailed off significantly. In stepped rookie Moreland, who hit .314 as primarily a backstop, and he went 4-for-12 in the World Series. In 1981, Moreland saw even more action behind the plate, but his average fell nearly 60 points. After the season, Moreland was shipped to the Cubs in a package deal that brought starting pitcher Mike Krukow to Philadelphia. Chicago made Moreland a starting outfielder, and he responded with several strong seasons, including .307-14-106 in 1985, when he showed up among the players receiving MVP votes.

Dickie Noles, RP. In July 1979, the three-time defending NL East champion Phillies were sputtering, mired in fourth place and playing barely above .500. To bolster a starting rotation that was temporarily missing an injured Dick Ruthven, the Phils called up righthander Noles for his first trip to the majors. He responded somewhat impressively, compiling a 1.98 ERA in his first four starts, including seven innings of shutout ball vs. the Dodgers. But there were warning signs: He walked nine Giants despite winning his second start. Noles ended up 3-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 14 starts, but found himself in the bullpen the following year, contributing six saves.

Ron Reed, RP. Back in the days before every team had a one-inning closer, the bullpen duties were shifted around quite a bit among competent arms. From 1976 through '83, the Phillies had an exceptional righty-lefty relief tandem of Reed and Tug McGraw. Although McGraw usually led the team in saves, Reed notched double digits in four seasons, and in 1979 he won 13 games in relief. The following season, he went 7-5 with nine save to help the champions' cause. A forward for the NBA's Detroit Pistons in the mid-'60s, Reed possessed one of the biggest shoe sizes in baseball.

Pete Rose, 1B. When the Phillies signed Rose as a free agent in December 1978, he was one of the two most popular players in baseball, along with Reggie Jackson. Rose didn't disappoint, hitting over .300 in two of his first three seasons in Philadelphia, and some sources credit him with the '81 NL batting championship. Perhaps if the Phils would have made him player-manager after 1983, instead of releasing him, history would have worked out differently and the Hit King would have his plaque in Cooperstown. But of course, people do place bets in the City of Brotherly Love, too.

Dick Ruthven, SP. When the Phillies shipped Ruthven to the White Sox in a trade that brought Jim Kaat to town, fans generally liked the deal. From 1973-75, Ruthven had compiled a lackluster 17-24 record, with an ERA over 4. He ended up in Atlanta, where he didn't fare much better, so it came as a surprise when Philadelphia reacquired him at the deadline in '78, in exchange for popular reliever Gene Garber. Ruthven, though, was a different pitcher during the last half of the season, going 13-5 for the Phillies as a major contributor to the team's division championship. Following an injury-riddled '79s season, he won 17 games in '80 as the No. 2 starter behind Lefty Carlton.

Kevin Saucier, RP. Another fixture in the Phillies bullpen in 1980, Saucier went 7-4 in 40 games and added an inning and a third of scoreless ball during the postseason. A few weeks after the World Series, he started a whirlwind journey: The Phils sent him to Texas as the player to be named in the deal that brought Sparky Lyle to Philadelphia for the stretch drive. Three weeks later, the Rangers shipped Saucier to Detroit, where he excelled in '81, posting a 1.65 ERA and 13 saves. He pitched only one more year, though, leaving the game reportedly because of a fear of hitting and seriously injuring batters.

Mike Schmidt, 3B. By 1980, Schmidt had captured three home run titles, was named to four All-Star teams and won four Rawlings Gold Glove awards, but he wasn't anywhere near being acknowledged as the greatest third baseman in history. The perception started tilting in his favor in '80, when he hit 48 homers, then a record for third sackers, on his way to being voted the unanimous NL MVP, then the MVP in the World Series. Two more MVP awards followed, and by the time he retired, he had totaled 548 home runs, among the top 10 in the pre-steroid era. His Hall of Fame induction came in 1995, his first year of eligibility, of course.

Lonnie Smith, OF. Following a few cups of coffee with the Phillies in 1978 and '79, Smith played semi-regularly in 1980, often spelling the notoriously poor-fielding Greg Luzinski in left field. Smith provided an element of excitement by hitting .339 and stealing a team-leading 33 bases. The 24-year-old then hit .333 in the postseason. He followed up with a .324 mark in '81, including a 23-game hitting streak to conclude the season, but the Phillies decided to deal him away in a three-team trade that netted catcher Bo Diaz. Smith ended up in St. Louis, where he hit .307 and was second in the NL MVP balloting for the '82 World Series winners.

Manny Trillo, 2B. In 1974, the Phillies traded pitcher Ken Brett to Pittsburgh for second baseman Dave Cash, who provided the spark the team needed to start making runs for division titles. After Cash left as a free agent following '76, Philadelphia struggled to fill the void at the keystone sack, relying on the likes of Ted Sizemore, Bud Harrelson and Jim Morrison. Prior to the '79 season, the Phils pulled off an eight-player deal with the Cubs, including Trillo as part of the package. He was an integral part of the '80 championship, hitting .294 and winning the Sporting News Silver Slugger award at his position. Trillo was part of the five-for-one deal for Von Hayes in late '82.

Del Unser, OF. The Phillies first acquired the slick-fielding center fielder in late 1972. During two seasons, Unser established himself as a fan favorite, but he was dispatched to the Mets in the Tug McGraw deal. When Unser returned to the Phillies as a free agent in 1979, he was used primarily as a pinch-hitter and flourished in the role in '80; for example, his pinch-single in the 10th inning vs. the Mets on Sept. 24 set up the only run in a 1-0 victory that kept the Phils a half-game behind the Expos. Unser stayed in Philadelphia in 1981, getting only 9 hits in 59 at bats, and was released in June 1982 after starting the season 0-for-14.

Bob Walk, SP. He's the answer to one of my favorite baseball trivia questions: Who was the second pitcher to win a World Series game for the Phillies, after Grover Cleveland Alexander? Walk, a rookie, gave up six runs in the '80 Series opener, but Philadelplhia provided him with enough support for the victory. After a few shaky outings to begin his career, Walk improved to 9-2 by mid-August before leveling off at 11-7 in his only season in Philadelphia. He bounced from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, where he made the All-Star team in 1988, pitched a complete-game victory in the '92 playoffs and has worked as a Pirates announcer for 14 years.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Barry's blues

07/01 2 2 1 2 0 2 2 0 0
07/03 3 1 1 4 1 2 2 0 0
07/05 4 1 1 1 0 0 0 1 0
07/06 1 1 0 0 0 0 3 0 0
07/07 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 1 0
07/08 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
07/13 2 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0
07/14 5 1 0 0 0 0 1 2 0
07/15 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0

Those are Barry Bonds' numbers since the start of July. Not only is he making no progress toward Hank Aaron, he's hitting nothing at all. And he's being his usual cheery self in dealing with his slump, peppering his postgame comments with profanities before telling media types to go away and get out.

Sounds good. And they can stay away while he staggers toward the record. Maybe we'll be well into the NFL season by the time he hits five more home runs, and even less attention will be paid to his accomplishment.

In the meantime, how about those 0-for-5's!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Adios, Julio?

New York also jettisoned 48-year-old Julio Franco, who hit only .200 in 50 at-bats with one home run and eight RBIs, and promoted Lastings Milledge from the minors. (The Associated Press)

Julio Franco had said he wanted to play until he was 50, and it looked as if he might reach that plateau. He'd had some decent seasons as a hitter long after everyone else his age had hung up the spikes, and he has kept himself in top physical shape.

But apparently keeping Franco around to fulfill his ambition is a luxury the underachieving Mets can't afford. Whether Milledge lives up to the hype he's been accorded the past few years remains to be seen. Fantasy Leaguers everywhere have been anticipating his finally arriving in the majors to stay and seeing what he can do for their bottom lines.

As for Franco, I often tell the story about how I remember him as a hotshot prospect in the Phillies organization when I was in high school. He was a shortstop at the time, and perennial All-Star Larry Bowa was blocking his way. Then the Phillies made the infamous deal of Bowa and an untested Ryne Sandberg for light-hitting shortstop Ivan DeJesus. Apparently figuring DeJesus was the ultimate answer at short, the Phils turned around and included Franco in the equally infamous five-for-one deal for Von Hayes.

Franco has 2,576 career hits but might be approaching (or already passed) 3,000 if he hadn't taken time off from the majors on a few occasions, with sojourns playing in Japan and Mexico. Credit the Atlanta Braves from bringing him back at age 43, and the Mets for signing him as a free agent at 47.

If, indeed, this is it for Julio's career, that leaves only two active players, Roger Clemens and Jamie Moyer, who are older than I am!

Trivia question 49: Who were the other four players in the Von Hayes deal between the Phillies and Indians?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Night of a bunch of stars

Today, I heard sports commentators lamenting the relative lack of long balls during last night's home run derby, particularly the fact that none reached the water of McCovey's Cove. I guess the folks at ESPN were upset because they stuck anchorman Kenny Mayne out in the cove in a kayak with a helmet-cam on his head. With no balls headed his way, he had no opportunity to get into a fracas out there.

Some of the talk the past few days has implied that the home run derby is becoming the main attraction of the All-Star break, eclipsing the interest of the game, itself. I'm assuming that's a lot of hype on the part of people with a vested interest in having viewers tune in to watch the sluggers.

Frankly, the home run derby is interesting to watch for about half an hour or so. When it drags on past my bedtime ... well, I really don't care that Vlad Guerrero hit one more over the fence than Alex Rios.

Then again, the All-Star Game isn't the thrill it once was. It used to be an opportunity to see American Leaguers face National Leaguers, something that only happened otherwise in October. Now, interleague play takes up an inordinate part of the regular-season schedule, negating the All-Star impact.

The large volume of televised games also detracts from the erstwhile Midsummer Classic. When I was growing up, you could watch Saturday afternoon broadcasts featuring Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek. And for a while, ABC did Monday night baseball, inexplicably with noted baseball nonfan Howard Cosell calling the games. Otherwise, you could tune in the Braves after Ted Turner started putting them on his cable network, but they really stunk in the '70s.

These days, we have networks televising games nationally several days of the week, and if you don't catch the contests in their entirety, you certainly can see the highlights.

What's so special about seeing Alex Rodriguez in the All-Star game when he's constantly on television, pictured in newspapers and magazines, and talked about ad infinitum on the radio.

And why would anyone want to tune in to see anything in which Barry Bonds is involved?

Oh, yeah. It counts. Home-field advantage in the World Series goes to the winner of whichever league proves victorious in the All-Star game.

Let's see ... since that went into effect in 2003, the American League has won home field each time. Since then, an AL team has won the Series twice, and the NL entry, twice.

My wife's birthday is tonight, so I'm taking her out to dinner instead of worrying about parking myself in front of the TV set. Sure, I'll probably tune in for the later stages of the game.

Just as long as Barry Bonds already has been removed for a pinch-runner.

Monday, July 9, 2007

9,999 and counting

Prior to the 1883 season, the National League put a franchise in Philadelphia, figuring a team in what then was America's second-largest city would fare better financially than the club it was replacing in Worcester, Mass.

The Philadelphia squad got off to a rocky start, to say the least. The Quakers, as they originally were called, played 98 games and lost 81 of them, giving up more than twice as many runs as they scored. Taking the pitcher's mound in a majority of games was a 20-year-old rookie named John Francis Coleman, who must have had either a strong sense of loyalty or a strong sense of humor: He surrendered 772 hits and 510 runs for the season while going 12-48.

The team became better known as the Phillies, but in 124 years its situation has rarely gotten all that much better. Besides a couple of isolated pennants, a dozen or so years of consistent winning and the magical season of 1980, the Phils have been associated with losing throughout most of their history.

And they're about to rack up their 10,000th loss as a franchise, an occasion some Philadelphians no doubt will celebrate in some kind of perverse tribute to the city's general sense of ineptitude.

Personally, I've always had a warm spot for Philly. My grandparents lived in the suburbs, just outside the city limits, and many of my fondest childhood memories are from there. Some of my earliest, too; I remember a visit to the Philadelphia Zoo in 1965 and still feel the pain of seeing the helium balloon I got there float away just as I was about to show it to my great-grandmother.

I'm too young, though, to remember what happened in Philadelphia in 1964, when the Phillies committed The Choke. For anyone who was there, the numbers still are agonizing four decades later: a 6.5-game lead on Sept. 20, with just 12 games to go, then 10 losses in a row and a tie for second place. My dad says that after one of those defeats, he was so disgusted that he threw his radio out the window.

My own memories of the Phillies start when they were lousy again, around 1970, when they used to give away 8-by-10 glossies of the players at the gas station (along with free road maps and guys checking your oil, all at 33 cents per gallon). So I ended up with a bunch of nice photos of the likes of Deron Johnson, Barry Lersch, Woodie Fryman and Byron Browne.

None of that meant much of anything to me until 1972, when everyone was talking about a new Phillies pitcher, Steve Carlton, who refused to lose. By the end of the year, he had racked up 27 wins for a team that posted a grand total of 59 victories, as far as I'm concerned the most remarkable accomplishment in baseball history.

By the following season, I listened to Phillies games on the radio every night, rapidly building enthusiasm for a team that managed, once again, to finish last.

In 1974, the situation started to look promising, with second baseman Dave Cash coming from the rival Pirates to provide a needed burst of energy and young third baseman Mike Schmidt leading the league in home runs while raising his batting average nearly 100 points.

The Phillies rose from third in '74 to second in '75 to their first National League East title during the Bicentennial. Three straight divisional championships, though, provided more frustration for long-suffering fans: Philadelphia faltered in the playoffs each fall.

Then came 1980, and as a freshman in college, I watched the Phillies finally put it all together. First was the playoff win over Houston, in which the final four games all went to extra innings. Then came the World Series against Kansas City, which had exorcised its own demons by finally beating the Yankees in the Royals' fourth try.

I've seen the deciding sixth game several times, but only on videotape. While it was being played live, I was obligated to be somewhere besides in front of a TV screen. That's the way it goes sometimes.

The strike of '81 started to erode my interest in baseball in general, and the Phillies in particular. I was attending school on the other side of Pennsylvania and had a whole lot else going on in my life.

I watched the "Wheeze Kids," featuring aging members of the '70s Big Red Machine, somehow make it to the '83 Series, only to be humiliated by Baltimore. A few years later, I was living in Pittsburgh and started the gradual process of switching my allegiance. (Oh, why didn't I move to Minneapolis?)

One like still remained from my years of following the Phillies: Schmidt, who in early 1987 was closing in on 500 home runs, which was a huge deal in the pre-steroid era. The Phillies happened to be visiting Three Rivers Stadium for a weekend series with Schmidt at 498. I saw him hit a home run on Friday night, then I returned for Saturday, April 18.

Steve Bedrosian had just coughed up a lead and the Phillies trailed, 6-5, going into the top of the eighth inning. The Phils got two runners aboard, and Don Robinson ran a 3-0 count on Schmidt. At that point, I figured I'd have to come back the next day, but Schmidt smacked the ball over the left-field wall, not only for No. 500 but to win the game for Philadelphia.

On April 23, 1989, I attended another Phillies-vs.-Pirates game at Three Rivers. Schmidt, now 38 years old, came to bat in the first inning against John Smiley and smashed the ball over the left-field wall.

"He always hits a homer when I see him!" I said to my companions as I stood and clapped.

Turns out that I never saw him in person again. A month later, mired in a slump, Schmidt announced his retirement. After that home run in Pittsburgh, he hit only one more, No. 548.

As for the Phillies, I cheered when they beat the Braves in the '93 playoffs, and I turned off the television when manager Jim Fregosi brought Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams in to pitch late in the sixth game of the World Series. I had a feeling about what might happen.

And that was about it. I don't have a rooting interest anymore in the team I loved as a kid, which is kind of a shame.

Then again, I probably shouldn't admit I used to love a team that's about to lose its 10,000th game.

Friday, July 6, 2007

All-Stars? The pitchers

The story goes that a guy tried to bluff his way into the American League team photo at the 1979 All-Star Game. Finally, he admitted he was an impostor.

"That's OK," said Cleveland pitcher Sid Monge. "So am I."

The possibly apocryphal tale illustrates how the Midsummer Classic often features players that don't quite go on to have the careers of the Schmidts and Carltons ... OK, the Seavers and the Fisks. At any rate, Monge is among those whose name sticks out a little more prominently in the annals of baseball because he was an All-Star for a day.

Monge actually was having a decent season when he got the call, compiling a 2.13 earned run average prior to the break on his way to a career year of 12-10, 2.40 ERA and 19 saves for the sixth-place Indians.

Some other pitchers who were All-Stars but aren't quite remembered in the same breath as Koufax:

Jack Armstrong, Reds, 1990. "The All-American Boy" (although he, personally, was too young to remember the radio serial) entered the '90 season with six career wins but got off to a tremendous start, racking up an 8-1 record with a 1.55 ERA by the end of May. On July 5, he beat the Phillies to improve to 11-3, 2.28, and drew the All-Start start at Wrigley Field five days later. In two innings, he gave up one hit and struck out Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. But it all came crashing down quickly for Armstrong, who won only one more game in '90, then posted records the next three years of 7-13, 6-15 and 9-17, with three different teams. He pitched his final game in the majors in 1994, at age 29.

Tommy Byrne, Yankees, 1950. Casey Stengel selected his hurler for the All-Star Game, but didn't send him to the mound, even though the contest went a then-record 14 innings. Byrne, who now is 87 years old, is one of my favorite pitchers from a statistical anomaly standpoint. Early in his career, he had extreme difficulty throwing strikes. But as long as Byrne was with the Yankees, he posted very good records. In 1949, for example, he went 15-7 while walking 179 batters in 196 innings. He toned it down a bit during his All-Star season, issuing 160 bases on balls in 203 innings while going 15-9. In 1951, though, he got off to a horrible start, walking a total of 36 batters in three starts and six relief appearances; at that point, New York GM George Weiss figured the team would be better off with Byrne pitching for the St. Louis Browns, where he went in exchange for someone named Stubby Overmire. Amazingly, Byrne resurfaced in New York after sinking to the high minors, and with much better control, he posted a career-best 16-5 record in 1955.

Fred Frankhouse, Braves, 1934. The second All-Star game was held at New York's Polo Grounds, the home park of the Giants' Carl Hubbell. And this was the contest in which Hubbell struck out five consecutive future Hall of Famers: Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin. NL pitchers Van Lingle Mungo and Lon Warneke squandered an early lead, and even Dizzy Dean got slapped around a bit in his three innings of work. Mopping up in the ninth was Frankhouse, just the 10th pitcher ever to appear in an All-Star game, and he acquitted himself well, giving up just a walk to Charlie Gehringer. Frankhouse finished the season 17-9, then won 11 games for the '35 Braves, a team that won an NL-record-low 38 contests. Frankhouse finished a respectable 106-97 for his 13-year career and lived to be 85.

Tyler Green, Phillies, 1995. The rookie righthander took an 8-4 record with a 2.81 ERA, including two complete-game shutouts, into the All-Star break. He pitched a scoreless fifth inning in an eventual 3-2 NL victory. Green's numbers following the break were downright scary: In 44 2/3 innings, he surrendered 53 earned runs, going 0-5 and raising his season's ERA to 5.31. He missed the entire '96 season because of injury, then struggled to a 10-16 record in his final two seasons.

Lee Grissom, Reds, 1937, and Marv Grissom, Giants, 1954. The Grissoms probably were the most unlikely brothers to be All-Stars. Lee, who made baseball lore by rowing a boat over the Crosley Field wall during a flood, finished 12-17 the year he got the call; for what it's worth, the first two batters he faced in the '37 All-Star Game were Lou Gehrig and Earl Averill, and Grissom struck them both out. His record for his career, which ended with a putrid Phillies team in '41, was 29-48. Brother Marv was a 36-year-old relief pitcher when he made the '54 team, retiring all four batters he faced in the game, wrapping things up by whiffing none other than Ted Williams. The Grissoms also were among the longest-living major-league brothers: Lee lived to be 90 and Marv, 87.

Matt Keough, Athletics, 1978. Charlie Finley's penny-pinching had divested Oakland of all its established stars by '78, when the once-mighty A's ended up losing 93 games. Representing the team in the All-Star Game at Jack Murphy Stadium was Keough, whose father and uncle had played in the majors without being accorded that honor. Keough, a 22-year-old rookie, was 6-4 with a stunning 2.16 ERA going into the game. He relieved Jim Palmer in the third inning of an eventual AL loss, giving up a single to Ted Simmons and retiring Rick Monday. Keough then started a year-and-a-half nightmare during which his record was a miserable 4-28. He rebounded in 1980, going 16-13 with a 2.92 ERA and 20 complete games, but was out of the majors by age 30 with a lifetime mark of 58-84.

Hugh Mulcahy, Phillies, 1940. As might be expected for a man whose nickname was "Losing Pitcher," Mulcahy did not pitch after being selected by Bill McKecnhie for the '40 NL team. As his Philadelphia teammate Kirby Higbe (with Martin Quigley) wrote in "The High Hard One": "They called us the Futile Phillies. ... About the middle of the season, old Hughie Mulcahy had won 10 and lost 9, and the sportswriters were saying he could be the first pitcher for win 20 for the Phils since Grover Cleveland Alexander. He pitched great ball but ended up something like 11-22." (Actually, it was 13-22.) Mulcahy was the first major-leaguer to be drafted for World War II and missed the entire 1941-44 seasons; by the time he returned in late '45, he won only a handful more games to finish his career at 45-89. "Losing Pitcher," indeed. He lived to be 88.

Wayne Twitchell, Phillis, 1973. Steve Carlton turned in the most remarkable season ever for a pitcher in '72, winning 27 games - the last National Leaguer to do so - for a team that won a grand total of 59. Needless to say, he was the toast of Philadelphia going into '73, and he responded with a 4-2 record and 2.47 ERA in April. Then he started getting banged around, giving up six or more earned runs in six of his next 13 starts. By that time, Sparky Anderson was scouting for All-Stars, and Carlton's struggles steered the Redss manager in another direction when picking the Phils' representative. He settled on Twitchell, a 6-foot-6 hurler whose ERA had dipped below 2 by July 4. Twitchell pitched an inning at the beautiful new Royals Stadium, with the fountains wowing the TV audience, and he struck out Reggie Jackson. Twitchell finished third in the NL in ERA in '73, but never again was a very effective pitcher.

Hear, hear!

Were all of them stars?

We're familiar with the fixtures of the All-Star Game, players like Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, each of whom participated in 24 of the contests. Or Babe Ruth, who was getting up there in years (and pounds) when the game came into being, but still managed to belt the first All-Star home run.

But what about the players who aren't quite as well-known but managed to make All-Star squads?

I started jotting down names and came across many that were surprising, some I didn't recognize, and others who have interesting stories to be told. Here's a sampling:

Eddie Brinkman, Tigers SS, 1973. Brinkman stuck in the majors for a long time as a slick fielder when shortstops weren't necessarily expected to hit a ton. (Think Mark Belanger.) But Brinkman took that kind of to something an extreme, posting three sub-.190 seasons out of four in the '60s on his way to a .224 lifetime average. In his 13th season, he managed to make the All-Star team when he managed to keep his average above .250 at the break. He finished the season at .237, but did play in all 162 of Detroit's games.

Dick Dietz, Giants C, 1970. Power-hitting always have been a highly sought commodity, and San Francisco came up with one in the late '60s. Dietz certainly deserved his All-Star accolades in '70, not quite posting the numbers of fellow catcher Johnny Bench, but finishing the season at .300 with 22 home runs, 107 RBI and 109 walks. Dietz put up respectable numbers (.252-19-72) as his team won the NL West. But he also served as the Giants' player representative during the strike that delayed the start of the '72 season, and San Francisco management decided to cut him loose. The Dodgers claimed him off waivers, but he played sparingly and was gone from the majors after '73.

Bert Haas, Reds OF-1B, 1947. Haas apparently opened some eyes when he returned from World War II to steal 22 bases, a relatively high total for the time, in 1946. Perhaps that stuck in Cardinal manager Eddie Dyer's mind when he selected the '47 All-Star team; otherwise, Haas' totals for that season look rather pedestrian at .286-3-67 and just nine steals. Haas was 33 when he played in his only All-Star game and hung on just three more years as a part-timer.

Ray Lamanno, Reds C, 1946. The National League squad set a record in the '46 game by losing 12-0, and having players like Lamanno on the team didn't help. The returning war veteran had posted a decent season in 1942, but in '46 was platooning at catcher with Ray Mueller. Nevertheless, he made the trip to Fenway Park for the Midsummer Classic and grounded out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth; in the bottom of the inning, he got to watch Ted Williams belt Rip Sewell's eephus pitch into the stratosphere. For his career of four full seasons, Lamanno had a total of 355 hits, which just might be an all-time low for an All-Star.

Felix Mantilla, Red Sox 2B, 1965. Mantilla is best known as the starting third baseman for the historically inept '62 Mets, and the Big Apple baseball writers loved to write about the team's foibles, including Mantilla's often-adventurous attempts at fielding. Thus ridiculed by undeterred, Mantilla escaped from New York and went on top post good numbers in Boston, including a 30-homer season in 1964. The following year, his fellow players voted him into the All-Star game as a starter when he went int the break hitting .316. The Sox, though, traded him to Houston just before the start of the '66 season, and he couldn't hit in the Astrodome, ending his major-league career at the end of the year.

Richie Scheinblum, Royals OF, 1972. Scheinblum was one of those players who hit very well in the minors but couldn't find his stroke in The Show. He began in the Cleveland organization, but the Indians gave up on him after they tried to make him a starter in '69 and he responded by hitting .186. He spent a lackluster year in the Washington Senators' system before Kansas City purchased his contract. The Royals might have questioned their wisdom when Scheinblum's average dropped to .214 following two consecutive 0-for-5 games against Oakland in late May. Richie then started an 11-game hitting streak to bump up his average a full 100 points, and he kept up the pace into July, his .324 average leading the AL at the break. He finished the season at .300, one of only five regulars to hit that mark in the American League's final pre-DH season. Nevertheless, the Royals decided to trade him to the Reds in a swap that involved future Kansas City star and manager Hal McRae. Scheinblum stiffed in Cincinnati and bounced around to four more teams before his major-league swan song in '74.

Don Wert, Tigers 3B, 1968. In the Year of the Pitcher, a player who finished the season at .200 participated in the All-Star Game (which, incidentally, the National League won 1-0). Wert was hitting only .220 at the break, but Detroit was well on its way to winning the AL pennant, so his fellow players must have figured he had something going for him. A look around the league that year doesn't show a whole lot of viable alternatives at the hot corner; besides Brooks Robinson, the All-Star starter, and Sal Bando, in his first full year with the A's, the field included such luminaries as Max Alvis, Joe Foy, Bobby Cox, Aurelio Rodriguez and Pete Ward, all of whom were struggling mightily. As for Wert, he lasted two more years (.225 and .218) as a Tiger starter after his All-Star appearance, before finishing his career on a 2-for-40 skid for the '71 Senators.

I'll focus the attention on All-Star pitchers in the next installment.

Trivia question 48: A pitcher was credited with the victory in an All-Star Game without actually throwing a pitch. Who was he?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The amazing Mr. Gibson

The last act of Gen. William D. Eckert before he was ousted as baseball commissioner in late 1968 was to approve a few measures to give batters a better shot at actually hitting the ball.

The powers that be were concerned because of the paucity of runners crossing the plate in what has come down in history as the Year of the Pitcher. Fans who like plenty of offense must have been put off by some of these occurrences in '68:

• The earned run average was a hair under 3. That's for the major leagues as a whole. Any pitcher not in the 1's or 2's wasn't earning his paycheck.

• The National League's cumulative batting average was .243, which looks good next to the pre-DH American League's mark of a robust .230.

Carl Yastrzemski led the AL with a .301 average. As late as Sept. 13, he was in the top spot at sub-.300.

• The Yankees - yes, the 20-time (to that point) World Champions - hit .214 as a team. Mickey Mantle, at .237 in his final season, was one of the team's better hitters.

• The Tigers managed to win the World Series despite a regular third baseman, Don Wert, who hit .200 in 536 at bats, and a regular-enough shortstop, Ray Oyler, at .135. One of the reasons the Tigers won the Series was that manager Mayo Smith had inspiration to stick slick-fielding outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop for the seven games to get some semblance of a bat in there.

• The Mets brought pitcher Jim McAndrew up from the minors and failed to score a single run in any of his first four starts. (See previous mini-research project.)

The list of terrible batting feats could go on for a while, but one hitter still is in the record books for his accomplishments in '68. Frank Howard, the massive first baseman for the Washington Senators, went on a tear starting May 12 that is unparalleled in baseball history. He hit two home runs off the Tigers at D.C. Stadium (Robert F. Kennedy still was alive for a few more weeks) and followed that up two days later with a pair more in Fenway Park. He added another on May 15 in Boston before the Senators traveled to Cleveland, where Howard hit two out of Municipal Stadium on May 16. For some reason, the Senators played the next night in Detroit, and Howard homered again. Two more dingers on May 18 gave Frank a total of 10 in six games, in four different cities.

But if baseball fans talk about 1968, three names come to the forefront:

Don Drysdale, who between May 14 and June 4 threw six consecutive complete-game shutouts on his way to a then-record streak of 58 2/3 straight scoreless innings. As a side note, the late Mr. Drysdale (who lent his name to the corresponding character on "The Beverly Hillbillies") won only 12 more games for his career after the streak was broken.

Denny McLain, who at age 24 became the only pitcher since the '30s to win 30 for a season (and pitched his way out of the majors just four years later).

Bob Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA was a phenomenal accomplishment even by Year of the Pitcher standards.

I remember watching Gibson pitch toward the end of his career, and even then he still could bring it. But he was as close to untouchable in '68 as any pitcher ever seems to have been.

Somehow, the Cardinals' offense managed to sputter its way to losing nine games while Gibson was on the mound. But some of the rest of his statistics defy belief, especially compared with the current standards of so-called pitching "excellence": 28 complete games in 34 starts, 13 of which were shutouts, and 304 2/3 innings for an average of - get this! - 8.97 innings per start. The category of "Quality Start" (3 or fewer earned runs allowed in six or more innings) hadn't been invented yet, but retroactively Gibson logged 32 of 'em, missing only on Aug. 4 while hurling 11 innings in an eventual loss to the Cubs and Sept. 11, when he beat the Dodgers for his 21st victory.

Then there was his performance in the World Series. He struck out a record 17 Tigers in his 4-0 opening win over McLain, then followed up with 10 K's in a 10-1 rout in Game Four, which marked his seventh consecutive complete-game victory in Series competition (yet another mark that will stand for the ages). Some shoddy fielding helped cost him the decisive seventh game, but he finished the Series with 35 strikeouts and just four walks in 27 innings.

Perhaps Gibson's most remarkable accomplishment of 1968 took place during the games he pitched in June and July.

On June 2, he gave up a home run to the Mets' Ed Charles to lead off the seventh inning in a game the Cardinals won, 6-3. In that Aug. 4 game, the Cubs touched Gibson up for a pair of runs in the fifth inning.

In between, he hurled 106 innings. During that span, he surrendered a grand total of three runs, all earned, for an ERA of 0.25. He won 12 straight, all complete games, and eight of those were shutouts. If it hadn't been for the Dodgers' Len Gabrielson scoring on a wild pitch on July 1, Gibson would have broken Drysdale's recently established mark for consecutive shutouts; by coincidence, Drysdale was Gibson's mound opponent that day.

After Charles' blast, Gibson didn't surrender another home run until Aug. 4, when future Hall of Famer Billy Williams took him deep.

Following his 7-1 win at Shea Stadium on July 30, Gibson had an ERA of 0.96. It dipped under 1 again as late as Sept. 2, when he pitched a 10-inning, 1-0 shutout vs. baseball's best-hitting team of '68, the Reds.

His overall performance that season earned him not only the Cy Young Award, but he also was named Most Valuable Player. He remains the last National League starting pitcher to capture the honor.

And that's another feat that is likely not to occur again.

Trivia question 47 (courtesy of SABR's Bruce Brown): Who is the only catcher to lead the American League in triples?