Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’

Chris Chambliss, Billy Martin, and the 1976 American League Playoff

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The baseball traveled on its parabolic destiny, rising through the mid-October night and dropping a few dozen feet in front of the Manufacturers Hanover Super Checking billboard at 11:43 p.m. Eastern.  It was a moment of exhilaration, followed nanoseconds later by pandemonium in a crowd that hadn’t tasted a championship in more than a decade.

Chris Chambliss’s three-run homer brought the 1976 American League pennant to the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fifth and deciding game of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals.  Score:  Yankees 7, Royals 6.

“And I want to tell you, the safest place to be is up here in the booth!” exclaimed WPIX-TV announcer and former Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto when several hundred fans stiff-armed decorum, poured onto the Yankee Stadium turf, and jumped up and down like the prospectors who discovered gold in mid-19th century California.

New York City hadn’t seen a celebration like that since V-E Day.

To say that Chambliss’s safety was in jeopardy is neither hyperbole nor ignorance.  Suddenly, survival instinct surpassed the duty of touching home plate, an impossibility given the swarm of fans excited by the victory and oblivious to the hero’s wellbeing; Chambliss didn’t even make it to third base.  Hoping to embrace their hero, Yankee rooters risked injuring him—maybe even trampling him.  Had it not been for the uniform and the baseball diamond, one might have thought Chambliss was a running back as he plowed his 6’1″, 195-pound frame through the crowd towards the refuge of the dugout and, in turn, the Yankee clubhouse.

Chambliss came to the Yankees in a 1974 trade—along with Chambliss, the Indians sent Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw in exchange for Fritz Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline.  Not a power hitter, Chambliss was known as a dependable batsman—188 hits, 32 doubles, and 96 RBI in 1976.  With 17 home runs during the season, a dinger was feasible, but a hit off Royals pitcher Mark Little seemed more likely.

Chambliss, in the end, returned to the field under the guard of two police officers.  Alas, home plate vanished in the anarchy, so, to be sure, Chambliss stepped on the area.

Below the fold on the front page of the New York Times, media geography usually used to convey issues of national and of international importance, Murray Chass’s article informed the newspaper’s readers who went to bed before the ninth inning about the latest notch to Yankee Stadium’s greatest moments—a roster including Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, Babe Ruth’s wistful farewell as he leaned on a bat with his frail body, and Don Larsen’s perfect game.

It was nostalgic, if not appropriate, that Billy Martin helmed the Yankee ball club.  Hired during the 1975 season, Martin had a reputation as a turnaround expert in stints with the Twins, the Tigers, and the Rangers.  But returning to the Bronx had an even sweeter taste for Martin—he played with the gloried Yankee teams of the 1950s, idolized manager Casey Stengel, and suffered a betrayal from Yankee management, specifically, Stengel.  Or so he believed.

When several Yankee players captured headlines with a fight at the Copacabana in New York in 1957, the front office shipped Martin to the Kansas City A’s after the season because of the embarrassment—it happened when Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford and their wives gathered to celebrate the 29th birthday of Martin, who went stag.  “Yanks Bench 2 in Copa Brawl” screamed the front page of the New York Daily News.  Confronting hecklers from a bowling team called the Republicans, the Yankees stepped up when nasty comments tinged with racism emerged from the hecklers aimed at Sammy Davis, Jr., the Copa’s performer, with whom the fellows from the Bronx were acquainted.  One bowler, a deli owner named Edwin Jones, claimed Bauer clocked him.

In his 2015 biography Billy Martin:  Baseball’s Flawed Genius, Bill Pennington wrote, “It was later learned that Casey had protected Billy from the Senators trade and two other trades.  But [Yankee General Manager George] Weiss was not to be dissuaded this time.  Not with this player in these circumstances.  Not when he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team.  Besides, Kubek was already in New York, ready to play shortstop.  For the Yankees’ youth movement in the middle infield to be complete, Richardson had to take over at second base.”

Stengel had not only managed Martin on the Yankees, they also worked together on the Oakland Oaks, a Pacific coast League championship team in 1948.  Returning to Yankee Stadium as a managerial descendant of his mentor may not have completely healed old wounds whose scars remained resonant, but it did give Yankee fans a continuity to the past, Martin a chance for redemption, and players the benefit of their manager’s baseball wisdom honed by Stengel’s tutelage two decades prior.

The Yankees lost the 1976 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a four-game sweep, but rebounded to win the series in 1977 and 1978, both times against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Billy Martin went through several stings as the Yankee skipper, being fired and rehired by owner George Steinbrenner.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 13, 2017.

Baltimore, Frank Robinson, and the Year of the Orioles

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

It was the best of baseball.  It was the worst of baseball.

On the 9th day of the 10th month of the 66th year of the 20th century, it ended—the subject being the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Baltimore emerged as champions, triggering elation throughout the metropolis named for Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore—the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland.  It was not supposed to happen.  At lest it was not supposed to happen the way it did, with the Orioles blanking the vaunted Dodgers squad for a 4-0 sweep—three games were shutouts:

  • Game 1:  5-2
  • Game 2:  6-0
  • Game 3:  1-0
  • Game 4:  1-0

In turn, the Orioles elevated their status in Baltimore’s sports hierarchy.  “This season’s feats of the Orioles, who leaped from crisis to crisis and still won the pennant, and who brought the exciting Frank Robinson to the city as a counter attraction to the demigod Johnny Unitas, balanced the ledger more than a bit.  The Colts may not have lost their eminence, but the city’s fans and newspapers have learned that there is another team in town,” wrote Shirley Povich, whose words in the Washington Post started the day for sports fans in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Ushered to Baltimore in a trade with Cincinnati after the 1965 season, Robinson swatted his way through American League pitching in his first year as an Oriole:

Led Major Leagues

  • Runs Scored (122)
  • Home Runs (49)
  • Slugging Percentage (.637)
  • On-Base + Slugging Percentage (1.047)
  • Total Bases (367)

Led American League

  • RBI (122)
  • Batting Average (.316)
  • On-Base Percentage (.410)
  • Sacrifice Flies (7)

Robinson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  It was a vindication, of sorts.  “I wanted to have a good year especially to show the people in the front office there [in Cincinnati] that I wasn’t washed up, and I wanted to show them by having a good year,” said Robinson in an Associated Press article published in the Baltimore Sun on October 10th.

“And I wanted to show the people, the officials, the city of Baltimore they were getting a guy who still could play baseball.”

For the Dodgers, blaming and shaming arrived with gusto.  Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, for example, lobbed verbal grenades spiked with sarcasm, as was his wont.  Murray’s piece titled “The Dodger Story:  A Classic Case of Ineptitude” brought forth a wheelbarrow full of bon mots.

On the Dodgers’ hitting woes:  “Their batting average cannot be seen with the naked eye or figured under the decimal system.  Guys who weigh that little get to ride horse races.”

On Don Drysdale:  “He deserved better, but the Dodgers’ invisible attack, the worst exercise in offensive futility since Mussolini’s invasion of Greece, left him like a guy who thinks his whole platoon is crawling through the brush with him until he whispers and gets no answer back.  The Dodger ‘attack’ would have to be twice as loud to be dignified as ‘whispering.’  They hit the ball as if it was a cantaloupe.”

On the Dodgers’ post-season Japan trip:  “They are now taking the act to Japan where, when the Japanese get a load of them, they may want to reopen World War II.”

Stocked with blue chips nearly as strong as the Dow 30, the Dodgers suffered a downturn that was unavoidable, arguably—Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, Maury Wills, Wes Parker et al. faced an opponent that needed to be quashed before taking on the O’s.  In his 2006 book Black and Blue:  Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America, Tom Adelman posited that exhaustion—or something close to it—affected the Dodgers after a merciless pennant race.  “Unlike the Orioles, they’d [sic] had no chance to adjust to the idea of a post-season contest—to catch their breath, raise their sights, and ready themselves for a fight,” wrote Adelman, who interviewed several players from both squads.  Ron Fairly, among others, confirmed the toll created by the quick turnaround from the end of the season to the beginning of the World Series.

That is not to take anything away from the Orioles, managed by Hank Bauer, who knew a thing or two thousand about winning—he played for the Yankees during the Mantle era, which saw World Series titles in:

  • 1949
  • 1950
  • 1951
  • 1952
  • 1953
  • 1956
  • 1958

American League pennant flew unaccompanied in the Bronx in 1955 and 1957.

Bauer won the Associated Press Manager of the Year Award and the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award in 1966.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 23, 2017.

Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, and the Olympics

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Baseball’s nexus with Hollywood had a center point in Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field on February 28, 1932 for a charity game benefitting America’s Olympians; the ’32 Summer Olympics—which took place in Los Angeles—inspired two comedy icons to combine their celebrity and passion for baseball in a civic minded cause.  Joe E. Brown and Buster Keaton spearheaded the teams.

Players from the Cubs, the Giants, and the Pirates took the field in front of approximately 8,500 fans, according to the Los Angeles Times.  Brown’s team won 10-3 in the six-inning contest.  It was nearly over as soon as it began—six Brown players scored in the first inning.  The Times reported, “The game was called to permit Rogers Hornsby and his Cubs to catch the Catalina Ferry.”  The rosters included Lloyd Waner, Pie Traynor, Carl Hubbell, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.  Keaton and Brown also participated, as did Jack Oakie, another member of Hollywood’s comedy group.

Brown and Keaton incorporated baseball into their respective bodies of work.  Fireman Save My ChildElmer the Great, and Alibi Ike offer Brown as a skilled rube.  Keaton filmed a legendary segment at Yankee Stadium for his silent film The Cameraman—he mimed players at different positions.  Brown’s love for the National Pastime stuck in his DNA—his son Joe L. Brown was the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, a period of Steel City baseball legends, including Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Roy Face, Willie Stargell, and Al Oliver.

Keaton’s comedy was universal, timeless, and groundbreaking.  The Muskegon, Michigan native formed the comedy cornerstone of the silent film industry, along with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, and Fatty Arbuckle, to name a few.

A few months before he died, Keaton explained how he saw his comedy appeal to the current generation; Times writer Henry Sutherland chronicled this insight in the 1966 obituary for the filmmaker, nicknamed “The Great Stone Face”for his ability to maintain composure during chaos in his films.

“Two years ago we sent a picture to Munich, Germany using old-fahsioned subtitles with a written score,” Keaton said.  “This was ‘The General.’  It was made in 1926, and hell, that’s 39 years ago.

“But I sneaked into the theater and the laughs were exactly the same as on the day it was first release.”

Wrigley Field graced television and theaters before its demise in the 1960s.  It was where Herman Munster tried out for the Los Angeles Dodgers under the watchfulness of Leo Durocher.  It was where baseball scenes in The Pride of the Yankees were filmed.  It was where baseball’s greatest sluggers matched powers at the plate in Home Run Derby, a syndicated television show in 1960—Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Harmon Killebrew, and Ernie Banks were among the competitors.

Considered a hitter’s park, Wrigley Field hosted its first game in 1925.  The California Angels played their home games at Wrigley Field in their début season—1961.  Dodger Stadium was the team’s home field for the next four seasons, until Angel Stadium’s début in 1966.

Today, Gilbert Lindsay Park stands on Wrigley’s grounds.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 5, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Forget about the 288 wins.

Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.

Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.

You might as well.  The Baseball Hall of Fame voters have.

Thomas Edward John, Jr., the Terre Haute native who stayed in his hometown to attend college at Indiana State University, stands overlooked and undervalued for his contributions to baseball.

In his 26-year career, John pitched for:

  • Chicago White Sox
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • New York Yankees
  • California Angels
  • Oakland A’s

He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and the major leagues in 1974; played on the Dodgers’ National League pennant-winning teams in 1974, 1977, and 1978; played for the American League champs in the strike-shortened season of 1981—the Yankees.

In eras gone by, when more pitchers stayed on the mound for the entire game, John led the major leagues three times in shutouts:

  • 1966 (5)
  • 1967 (6)
  • 1980 (6)

With just 12 wins short of the magic number—300—John stands on the cusp of Cooperstown; peers Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer were inducted with 287 and 268 wins, respectively.  One can presume that at least 12 games in a 26-year career fell victim to a combination of error, lack of prowess at the plate, and a manager’s strategic errors.  It’s an interesting point, but, in the end, you are what your record is.  And John’s 288 notches in the win column stand as impressive.

It is, perhaps, the breakthrough surgery that Dr. Frank Jobe performed on the hurler in 1974 that is the most significant factor in an argument for John’s Hall of Fame membership.  At the time, Jobe was the Dodgers’ orthopedist.

Tommy John surgery rebuilds the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by using a tendon from another part of the body.  A torn or ruptured UCL can immediately put a period at the end of a pitcher’s career.  Only an injury warrants the surgery.  It is not a procedure for improving performance.

John won more games after the surgery than before it and played on three All-Star teams (1978-1980); his only other All-Star appearance happened in 1968.  To be a pioneering patient for a surgical procedure that’s become as much a cornerstone of the game as corporate-sponsored stadia.  Had Tommy John not gone under Dr. Jobe’s knife, somebody else would have.  Eventually.  But John took the risk.

When would another pitcher have been the first if John had stepped away from baseball?  1975?  1980?  How many careers have been saved because John opted for Jobe’s cutting edge idea?

Treating a UCL problem with Tommy John surgery has become de rigeur.  Hall of Famer John Smoltz sat out the 2000 season to recover from the surgery.  At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015, Smoltz warned teenage pitchers against going under the knife.  “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old.  That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sports.  That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.  Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”

Smoltz is the only Tommy John surgery patient inducted into the Hall of Fame.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 22, 2016.

Wynn, World Series, and White Sox

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Not since Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven others received lifetime banishments from baseball had White Sox fans suffered a collective depression akin to the one on October 8, 1959—Chicago’s beloved team from the South Side lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the transplanted team from Brooklyn in its second year of basking in the southern California sunshine.  And so, the Windy City shrugged its big shoulders as a dream of a World Series championship became a daymare punctuated by the formidable batsmen from the City of Angeles.

With a 22-10 record, veteran right-hander Early Wynn propelled the White Sox to a World Series birth; Wynn’s number of wins led the major leagues in 1959.  The man whom Ted Williams called “the toughest pitcher I ever faced” criticized the press as the White Sox prepared for Game Six, which turned out to be the deciding game.  “They made us look like a lousy ball club just because we’ve had some bad experiences in that circus grounds they call a ball park out there,” said the 39-year-old hurler of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in an article penned by Richard Dozer for the Chicago Tribune.  “They’ve been saying we ought to try to get into the their major league.”

This statement referred to the Continental League, an idea spearheaded by Branch Rickey.  It ultimately failed, but gave rise to National League expansion in 1962 with the Houston Colt .45s (later Astros) and the New York Mets.

Game Six was Wynn’s third time taking the mound in the series.  He blanked the Dodgers 11-0 in Game One, held at Comiskey Park.  Though Wynn started Game Four, he did not get credited with the 5-4 loss.

Trailing the Dodgers three games to two, the White Sox were poised to even the series in Game Six.  It was a crucial moment for Wynn et al.  “The White Sox are in excellent position for pitching.  Wynn worked only three innings, a victim of semi-liners, pop hits and fielding blunders by his teammates in a four-run third inning,” wrote Edward Press in the Chicago Tribune, absolving Wynn of blame for the Game Four loss.  “So the 39-year-old butcher should be sharp.  He is still dunking his elbow in the whirl pool.”

Alas, it was not meant to be for the White Sox.  1959 belonged to the Dodgers.  Game Six secured the first World Series title for Los Angeles’s National League team, thanks to 13 hits and nine runs.  Wynn took responsibility.  “I threw some bad pitches,” said Wynn in an article by Robert Cromie for the Chicago Tribune.  “But I did nothing different today.  I thought I had pretty good stuff, and I wasn’t tired.  There were no effects from the two-day rest or anything.”

Wynn’s ’59 performance earned him the Cy Young Award.  It was the culmination of a season of excellence in the autumn of his playing years—he retired after the 1963 season with a lifetime 300-244 win-loss record.

Led by manager Al Lopez, the White Sox compiled a 94-60 record in 1959, spurred by future Hall of Famers Wynn, second baseman Nellie Fox, and shortstop Luis Aparicio.  Fox racked up 191 hits, notched a .306 batting average, and led the major leagues in plate appearances (717).  Aparicio’s prowess resulted in 157 hits, 98 runs scored, and a league-leading 56 stolen bases.

Lopez, himself a Hall of Famer, managed the Cleveland Indians from 1951 to 1956 and the White Sox from 1957 to 1969.  The Hall of Fame inducted Lopez in 1977.  When he took the reins in Chicago, the team became known as the “Go Go Sox” because of an emphasis on speed instead of power.  Lopez lived just long enough to see the White Sox bring a World Series title to the South Side in 2005—the team’s first championship since 1917—he died four days later.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 29, 2016.

Chuck Connors, Branch Rickey, and “What’s My Line?”

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Before he governed North Fork, New Mexico with a Winchester rifle on ABC’s The Rifleman, Chuck Connors played in the major leagues.  It was, however, a short stint—one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and 66 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1949 and 1951, respectively.  His journey to Hollywood resulted from his geographic base.  In Connors’s 1992 obituary, Bruce Lambert of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Connors had a lackluster sports career, but his towering height of 6 feet 5 inches and his square-jawed masculinity made him a natural for rugged acting roles.  When his struggling athletic career landed him with the Los Angeles Angels, a minor-league [sic] baseball team, he began picking up minor movie parts and soon gave up sports.”

Connors also played for the Boston Celtics.

The Rifleman ran for five years, from 1958 to 1963, starring Connors as rancher Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as Lucas’s son, Mark.  Lucas helped North Fork’s sheriff keep the peace from intruders seeking to do harm.  The Rifleman‘s popularity carved a prominent foothold in the vast array of western-themed television shows in the 1950s and the 1960s, including GunsmokeBonanza, and Rawhide.

In a 1959 profile of Crawford, the St. Petersburg Evening Independent explained the dynamic between Crawford and Connors.  “An avid baseball fan, Johnny doesn’t miss a chance to skip dancing, singing and acting lessons to root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, which, he tells you with much gusto, is his favorite team,” stated the Evening Independent.  “He particularly relishes working with Chuck Connors, who formerly played with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  As Johnny expressed it:  ‘Chuck has taught me lots of special little things about baseball.  Like how to hold my bat, and how to field the ball and run the bases.  he and I are real close.  I go out to his house to play ball with him and his sons and swim in their pool.”

Connors reunited with his former boss in the Dodgers organization—Branch Rickey—during the September 13, 1959 episode of What’s My Line?, a game show hosted by John daly, where panelists deduced a guest’s occupation through a series of “yes or no” questions.  On occasion, the panelists failed to guess correctly.  Celebrity guests often used fake voices while the panelists wore eye masks to prevent immediate identification.

At the time, Rickey devoted his energy, acumen, and stamina to forming the Continental League.  Although it ultimately failed to launch, the league’s demise caused the expansion of the National League to Houston and New York in 1962.

After panelist Arlene Francis correctly guessed Rickey’s identity, a conversation ensued regarding the new league.  Rickey the Continental League’s president, assured that the enterprise would flourish with a target start date of 1961 and a 154-game schedule.  “Inevitable as tomorrow morning,” declared Rickey.

New York, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, and Toronto already had Continental League rights.  When Daly asked about the remaining three slots and potential contenders, Rickey clarified, “More than we can fill.  The embarrassment is in the field of exclusion rather than inclusion.  We shall have a very difficult time in choosing the other three.  In fact, we are now laboring hard, at the moment, to choose a sixth one, which will be announced surely in the next few days.”

Connors graciously acknowledged Rickey’s impact on his life.  “I remember Mr. Rickey, who actually gave me my career in baseball,” stated Connors.  “And it’s a pleasure to see him again.”

“It’s a pleasure to see you, too,” responded Rickey.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 27, 2016.

A New Era in Chavez Ravine

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Los Angeles suffered a divorce worthy of soap opera status when the controversy of Dodgers ownership became public—Frank and Jamie McCourt engaged in a matrimonial battle that brought disgrace upon the vaunted Dodgers brand and disgust among the team’s loyal fan base.  Plus, their spending habits approximated using the team’s coffers as a personal ATM machine.  Bankruptcy forced a sale.  In the country’s second biggest market, Major League Baseball could not afford a continuous display of greed in an era already tarnished by steroid use.

In her 2015 book The Best Team Money Could Buy, Molly Knight wrote, “But after they moved to Los Angeles their aspirations morphed into an insatiable obsession with status and material possessions.  By 2009 the couple turned on each other, with Frank testing the limits of the amount of money he could borrow, and and Jamie instructing a Dodger executive to draw up a battle plan for her eventual ascendance to the office of president of the United States [sic].”

On May 1, 2012, a new era began in Chavez Ravine—Guggenheim Partners purchased the Dodgers for $2.15 billion.  Led by CEO Mark Walter, Guggenheim boasted Magic Johnson as a minority owner with the credibility required to allow Los Angelenos a sigh of relief when one of its favorite sons appeared ready to restore the Dodgers brand from garnishment to luster.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig offered respect to the devotees who saw more drama in the media’s recounting of the McCourt saga than in the games at Dodger Stadium.  “In addition, I want to personally thank all Dodger fans for their patience and loyalty during this trying period,” said Selig.  “I have said many times that we owed it to them to ensure that the club was being operated properly and would be guided appropriately in the future.  It is my great hope and firm expectation that today’s change in ownership marks the start of a new era for the Los Angeles Dodgers and that this historic franchise will once again make the city of Los Angeles proud.”

Indeed, new ownership cleansed the toxicity plaguing the team.  On 710 ESPN’s Mason & Ireland Show, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly noted, “It’s been a positive since the announcement of Magic and his group.  You could feel a difference with the fans instantly.  There’s been so much negative for the last few years that it just gets kind of old for guys that are playing because people aren’t showing up and it doesn’t have anything to do with if you win or not.”

In a 2015 profile titled “Who Is Dodgers Owner Mark Walter and Where Did He Get All That Money” for laweekly.com, Gene Maddause highlighted the financial health of the Dodgers resulting from an $8.35 billion television contract.  In turn, Walter’s Guggenheim team fought the ghosts of the McCourt era by strategically reinforcing the $2.15 billion investment. Maddaus wrote, “A hundred million for stadium improvements?  Sure.  An $85 million contract for Andre Ethier?  Uh, OK.  How about $18 million a year to Matt Kemp to play for another team?  Why not?”

Guggenheim prioritized the importance of repairing the tattered confidence of the Dodgers, beginning with signing Ethier.  Knight noted, “Even though he was on the decline, and arguably the club’s tenth-best player at that point, the Dodgers re-signed him to a five-year, $85 million extension that raised eyebrows around the league for its generosity.  But the new owners weren’t overpaying an aging outfielder as much as they were purchasing a citywide public service announcement letting fans know the bad times were over.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 15, 2015.

Don Sutton Wins 300

Friday, January 13th, 2017

In a city resting on a foundation of glamour, Don Sutton provided a terrific contrast.  With a workmanlike manner, Sutton reigned over the pitcher’s mound with consistency complemented by endurance.  No ego.  No nickname.  No razzle-dazzle.

Sutton began his major league career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966; the Baltimore Orioles swept the Dodgers in the ’66 World Series.  He went 12-12 in his rookie season, not breaking .500 until 1970.  It was a record hardly indicating greatness.  Despite a moderate beginning to his career, Sutton flourished.  In 1980, Sutton led the National League in Earned Run Average—2.20.  His Hall of Fame plaque calls attention to his reliability—100 or more strikeouts in a season 21 times, 15 or more victories in 12 seasons, and the fifth best career strikeout total.

Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said, “When you gave him the ball, you knew one thing—your pitcher was going to give you everything he had.  You win as many games as he did—to me, that should be automatic Hall of Fame.”  Lasorda’s quote is on Don Sutton’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site.

After his lengthy stint in Los Angeles, which ended with the 1980 season, Sutton played for Houston, Milwaukee, and Oakland before playing for the California Angels in the id-1980s.  He returned to the Dodgers in 1988, which was his last season in the major leagues.

On June 18, 1986, the curly-haired pitcher reached a pinnacle rarely achieved by hurlersYou win as many games as he did—to me, that should be automatic Hall of Fame.”he won his 300th game.  In the Los Angeles Times, Mike Penner detailed Sutton’s dissimilarity with pitching legends, for example, Warren Spahn.  “And today, they have the company of the sport’s ultimate Everyman, Donald Howard Sutton,” wrote Penner.  “Sutton, who won 20 games in a season only once, who never struck out 300 batters in a season, who never had a no-hitter, who just, in his own words, kept getting people out, became the 19th pitcher in major league history to win 300 games by beating the Texas Rangers, 5-1, before an Anaheim Stadium crowd of 37,044.”

Sutton’s stoic manner disappeared after his 300th victory.  Penner described the scene taking place more than two hours after Sutton punctuated the day by striking out Gary Ward to end the game:  “But there in the darkness, still clad in his Angel uniform, was Sutton, still grinning, still clasping a celebratory plastic cup of champagne.”  It was a contrast, certainly, to Penner and other baseball insiders familiar with a pitcher uninterested in the openness connected to being a public figure.  Rhetorically and kiddingly, Penner questioned, “So this is Mr. Unemotional, eh?  The man who supposedly wears nothing on his sleeve except cuff links?  The pitcher who prides himself on two decades’ worth of poise, who attributes his long-running success to never leaving himself vulnerable to an unguarded moment?”

In 1998, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Don Sutton.  During his speech, Sutton said, “My mother used to worry about my imaginary friends ’cause I would be out in the yard playing ball. She worried because she didn’t know a Mickey, or a Whitey, or a Yogi, or a Moose, or an Elston, but I played with them every day.”

Sutton’s trajectory led him to the major leagues, where he played with and against other legends—Seaver, Palmer, Niekro, and Carlton, to name a few.  Without star power enjoyed by his peers, Sutton compiled a career undeniably worthy of belonging in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 8, 2015

The Hall of Fame Case for Steve Garvey

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Steve Garvey, to the consternation of certain factions of Dodger Nation, is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  A stalwart first baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers and, in the latter years of his career, the San Diego Padres, Garvey accumulated career statistics meriting inspection for entry into baseball’s shrine.

In his 19-year career, Garvey notched 2,599 hits.  Though he did not reach the magic number of 3,000, the statistic is close enough when considered with excellence further reflected in his selection to the National League All-Star team 10 times—eight as a Dodger, twice as a Padre.  More pointedly, Garvey’s eight All-Star appearances as a Dodger were consecutive, indicating a rare consistency usually seen in those with careers crowned with a plaque in Cooperstown.  Additionally, Garvey won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1974 and four consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1974 to 1977.

Garvey’s career batting average of .294 adds weight to an endorsement for Hall of Fame inclusion.  A mere difference of .006 points from the hallowed .300 batting average barometer ought be considered unimportant, especially when combined with the other statistics.  Also significant is Garvey’s National League record of 1,207 consecutive games played.  Post-season play adds weight:  World Series appearances with the Dodgers in 1974, 1977, 1978, and 1981; the Dodgers won the World Series in the strike-shortened ’81 season.  Garvey won another World Series ring with the Padres in 1984.

A strong case can be made for Garvey’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It is, however, a case as yet unpersuasive to the voters.  In his 2012 ESPN.com article “Steve Garvey’s reliability forgotten” Steve Wulf declared that a Hall of Fame plaque for Garvey is unlikely, given off-the-field exploits.  “What happened to Garvey is partly schadenfreude:  Writers turned on him for a complicated personal life that smudged an image so golden that he once had a middle school named after him,” wrote Wulf.  “But he’s also one of the great players from that period who have been hurt by the inflation of statistics fueled by the increasing use of PEDs, which happened to coincide with the HOF eligibility for the earlier era.”

The “complicated personal life” involves extramarital affairs, two illegitimate children, strained relations with his two daughters from his marriage to television news personality Cindy Garvey, and a divorce that captured headlines.  Consequently, Garvey’s image, once thought to be purer than Ivory soap, shattered into shards.

In the November 27, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated, the article “America’s Sweetheart” by Rick Reilly with Special Reporting by Kristina Rebelo depicts the foundation of Garvey’s “Mr. Clean” status.  “He had mail to answer, business contacts to cement, a moral obligation to be at every Cub Scout banquet and Kiwanis dinner.  He believed in doing the Right Thing.  His parents smoked, but he never did.  His teammates swore, but he never did.  Cyndy says that when he was having trouble throwing in his first years as a Dodger, people would call and scream insults at him.  He would listen to everything they had to say and then hang up.  Punishment is important.  Yet in 1983, when he broke the National League record for consecutive games, he took a $15,000 ad in the Los Angeles Times to thank the fans.

“But maybe sometimes he has confused responsibility to family with responsibility to fans.”

Whether Garvey’s denial of membership by the voters is sourced in scandal or statistics—or a bit of both—is a matter of debate.  If the former subject is believed to be inconsequential in future votes, the latter subject deserves another examination.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 27, 2015.

 

Hank Aaron Hits #715

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

It was a glorious moment.

On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, previously thought unassailable, when he hit his 715th career home run.  Aaron’s historic blast occurred during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves; it was the first home game of the 1974 season for the Braves.

When Aaron knocked an Al Downing pitch over the left field fence in the fourth inning to create a new home run record, he triggered a celebration with enough energy to power the state of Georgia.  In the article “End of the Glorious Ordeal” in the April 15, 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ron Fimrite wrote, “It ended in a carnival atmosphere that would have been more congenial to the man he surpassed as baseball’s alltime [sic] home-run champion.”

Indeed, Babe Ruth was gregarious with an appetite for life that could not be matched, measured, or modulated.  Aaron, in contrast, had a quiet dignity.  In the April 11, 1974 edition of the Atlanta Daily World, Charles E. Price wrote, “A player who dresses at the plate, waiting to get to the plate before adjusting his helmet, only to take an unassuming stance at the plate, Hank then has the appearance of any other player.”

Fimrite, too, opined on Aaron’s contrasting demeanor.  “This is not the sort of party one gives for Henry Aaron, who through the long weeks of on-field pressure and mass media harassment had expressed no more agitation than a man brushing aside a housefly.  Aaron had labored for most of his 21-year career in shadows cast by more flamboyant superstars, and if he was enjoying his newfound celebrity, he gave no hint of it.  He seemed to be nothing more than a man trying to do his job and live a normal life in the presence of incessant chaos.”

In his autobiography I Had A Hammer, Aaron recalled that he and his wife, Billy, hosted a party after the historic game.  Before the party started, as he enjoyed some quiet, Aaron realized the true impact of his achievement.  “When I was alone and the door was shut, I got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thanked God for pulling me through,” wrote Aaron.  “At that moment, I knew what the past twenty-five years of my life had been all about.  I had done something that nobody else in the world had ever done, and with it came a feeling that nobody else has ever had—not exactly, anyway.  I didn’t feel a wild sense of joy.  I didn’t feel like celebrating.  But I probably felt closer to God at that moment than at any other in my life.  I felt a deep sense of gratitude and a wonderful surge of liberation all at the same time.  I also felt a stream of tears running down my face.”

Hank Aaron began his major league career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954; the Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season.  Aaron stayed with the Braves organization through the 1974 season, and then finished his career with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Aaron retired after the 1976 season with 755 home runs.  It remained the major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2007.  Bonds retired after the 2007 season with 762 home runs.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2015.