The film ends with a now legally blind 93 year old Hano celebrating his birthday, how else, by reminiscing about the great New York Giants pitcher Carl Hubbell and throwing a few screwballs, his and Hubbell's favorite pitch, to Leonoudakis. Leonoudakis crouches like a catcher, with his fielder's glove on his right hand, as both he and Hano, like the great Carl Hubbell are lefties, to receive the pitches. As the ball travels across about 30 feet, as far as Hano can throw now, it also travels across almost all of baseball history. The history contained in the arc of Hano's screwball is that of the personal stories, favorite players, beloved teams and memories of days in the bleachers that exists inside of all real baseball fans, even those of us who, unlike Hano, never saw the Babe, Don Larsen or Willie Mays.
At best these debates are fun, challenging and seemingly important. Hall of Fame and Award related discussions feel important because they have direct bearing on how the game and its history are remembered. One of the annual baseball debates that meets none of these criteria surrounds the All Star Game. These debates begin around this time of year and usually take the form of whether some genuinely underrated very good player, a famous and clearly great player having an off-year or a not well known player having a good first half should start the All Star Game, or make the team. This year Josh Donaldson, Derek Jeter and Seth Smith are good examples of each category.
Williams played for the Yankees for 16 seasons, most of them as their star center fielder. The Yankees have a tradition of great center fielders; and while Williams is obviously not in the same class as Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio, he is clearly the third best center fielder in franchise history. Williams also played more games in centerfield for the Yankees than DiMaggio, Mantle or anybody else. Williams batted cleanup and played a marquee position for a team that won three consecutive World Series, spent his entire career with the Yankees, was very popular with the fans, but the hoopla around the notion of the core four has caused Williams to be almost entirely forgotten less than eight years after he played his last game
Bonds had a nine year peak where he hit .305/.438/.600 for an OPS+ of 181. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting eight of those years while winning eight gold gloves and stealing 300 bases. Those are extraordinary numbers, but they are even more impressive because those years 1990-98, were not only a time when Bonds was not taking steroids, but, at least for the last few years of that period, a time when many others were. During those years, Bonds accumulated 76.2 WAR, the most in a nine year period since Willie Mays in his prime. Lost in the noise about Bonds and PEDs is that a clean Barry Bonds dominated the early steroid era in a way not seen in a generation. During those years, Bonds was also a remarkable player to watch. He was a complete player who could run, hit for power, steal bases and exhibit an extraordinary batting eye.
Jeter is one of the most intriguing of baseball players because for most of his career he has simultaneously been overrated, he is clearly not the greatest player or even the greatest Yankee in history, and underrated. He is not strong on defense, but has not been as bad as many think. Moreover, Jeter's extremely cautious style with the media has led most of the media to cover him as some sort of baseball saint, always ready with a good team oriented quote, respectful of the game and its history and almost never willing to criticize a teammate, or opponent. A minority of fans, however, see this is as a highly choreographed image by Jeter, which of course it is, and decry him for not being genuine.
Supporters of Beltran will argue that his post-season performance should inform his candidacy. That notion is also relevant for players like Andy Pettitte who started more than a full season's worth of games in the post-season. Beltran's post-season record probably should be taken into account, but so should everybody else's from this era. However, this record should not only be taken into account, but should be viewed in its proper context. One striking line from Beltran's post-season resume is that he has played in 38 post-season games, but none in the World Series. The great post-season performers from previous generations either played all their post-season games in the World Series like Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, or, like Reggie Jackson and Steve Garvey, played a good proportion of their post-season games in the World Series.
The most intriguing question facing the Yankees is not which of their veterans can come back or who they can acquire to help their chances this year, but what the next decade will look like for the Yankees. Only Cano, Gardner and perhaps Sabathia, are both young and good enough to be around and contributing in five years. The prospects who are expected to arrive in the next few years are solid but unspectacular. Accordingly, the Yankees need to build a team based on some good prospects, a contingent of aging and, due to contracts, largely unmovable veterans, and, of course, the ability to outspend everybody. This last point alone will not be enough to build a winner.
The question of whether or not Posada is one of the twenty greatest Yankees will have to be left to future, and longer, subway rides, but his place in the top 25 is reasonably secure. The same ambiguity around Posada’s place in Yankee history will probably surround his Hall of Fame candidacy, but there is no ambiguity around his role in the last four Yankee championships. If game five of the LDS was indeed Posada’s last game, he will be missed by all Yankee fans, whether hunched over their computers looking at numbers or cursing A-Rod while semi-conscious on the subway.
Should Posada move on to another team next year, one of the great Yankee careers will have come to an end. Inevitably, the baseball media and blogosphere in New York, will begin questioning Posada’s credentials as a “true Yankee.” Putting aside the legitimacy of questioning the credentials of a player who played a key role in four Yankee World Series winning teams, delivering numerous big seasons and clutch hits along the way, this also draws attention to the absurdity of this term.
In all elections, whether for awards, political office or All Star Games, the election system has a big impact. This will continue to be the case for the baseball Hall of Fame and it will add another dimension to an already complex and sometimes irrational process over the next few year
The finding suggests that left-handed and right-handed throwers are, to some extent, playing different games at the big league level, and therefore has implications for player development starting at a very young age. One of the first baseball skills that young children master is fielding. This may be because it is easier than hitting or more likely because it is easier for coaches and parents to practice and teach. Nonetheless, among seven or eight year olds, the better players first begin to stand out because they are good at fielding ground balls. The hitting generally comes a little later, so within a few years the fielders who can hit begin to stand out from those who cannot. However, there are still plenty of ways a good fielder can contribute to a team and be valuable as (s)he gets older. For left-handed throwers, these options disappear usually by high school when traditional views about what position lefties can play become more powerful.
One possible area worth exploring is different ways of using left-handed throwing players. For most of the history of modern baseball, left-handed throwing big leaguers have only been pitchers, outfielders, first baseman and designated hitters. Obviously, many left-handed throwers rank among the greatest ball players ever including hitters like Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial and pitchers like Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson and Warren Spahn. However, it is still possible that by restricting the use of left-handed players, teams are missing a possible strategic advantage.
Henry Aaron turned 77 on Saturday. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Aaron’s birthday, as might be expected, was overshadowed by the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Aaron’s birthday receiving almost no attention demonstrates how the he remains bewilderingly underrated in his retirement, just as he was during his career. Aaron retired as the all time leader in home runs and RBIs and among the top three in hits. His career numbers of .305/.374/.555 were good for a career OPS+ of 155 which, while not in the same ballpark as Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, are still very good. These numbers are even more impressive because Aaron accumulated them over 23 seasons and 13,940 plate appearances. This latter number is the third most ever, but was good enough for first at the time Aaron retired. However, Aaron, who was overshadowed by Willie Mays for most of his career, is still oddly underrated by most casual students of baseball’s past.
Thomson’s death feels like the passing of an era that actually ended decades ago. The home run occurred when baseball was played in black and white, New York had three teams, and a radio broadcast of a ballgame to a soldier in Asia was considered an impressive technological feat. The home run belongs to a time, city, and even country of the long ago past, but somehow it can still make a young father feel compelled to share the event, which occurred years before he was born, with his young son and an make an aging veteran still feel his monthly paycheck slipping away just as Thomson’s fly ball slipped over the left field fence and into history.
Wilker has written an extraordinarily honest book about growing up and forging adult lives and adult relationships which, while not really about baseball, still made me feel like I was back at an almost empty Candlestick Park watching the Giants lose, playing ball in the Presidio, reading yet another baseball magazine or book and, yes, buying a pack of baseball cards and giving the gum to my brother.
The confirmation narrative will likely not look too different from the one surrounding Justice Sonia Sotomayor. President Obama will nominate a judge with a strong resume including a degree from an elite university. The judge will have a moderately liberal voting record and perhaps be a person of color, a woman or both. Liberal interest groups will support the nominee, but some more progressive groups will be critical of the candidate's pro-business history. The right wing will attack the nominee as yet another sign of the imminent socialist apocalypse and identify minor scandals and gaffes which they will seek to make into bigger issues. The nomination fight will end with the nominee being confirmed with almost unanimous Democratic support and perhaps the support of a small handful of Republican senators as well.
The questions of how the core four of the New York Yankees compare to other groups of four players who played together for ten or more years, which was discussed here last week, raises the question of what was the greatest threesome of all time to have played together for ten or more years. There are four serious contenders for the best group of three players as well as one group, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, who are not eligible because they all missed time due to military service.
A more interesting question about Thomas’s career is how he ranks among the greatest right handed hitters ever. There are some players who were right handed hitters who were more valuable because of the positions they played and their ability to contribute defensively such as Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Honus Wagner, but when looking at batting numbers only, there are fewer right handed hitters who were clearly better than Thomas. Thomas is one of only eight right handed hitters to have over 9,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better, and one of only four with 10,000 or more plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better
The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry has been particularly intense over the last decade because these years, just as in the late 70s and late 40s, both teams have been contenders. The Yankee-Red Sox rivalry is based on more than just regional loyalties; it is also based on a narrative which many fans seem to believe. The narrative can be summed up, and dramatically exaggerated, by saying it is about the Evil Empire-Best Team Money Can Buy Yankees against the Underdog-Long Suffering Red Sox. This narrative is even more nonsensical than most, but it is surprisingly persistent among casual fans.
Comparing players across generations is a confoundingly difficult task. Complete games are extremely are in today’s game; few people stole a lot of bases in the 1930s-1950s; home runs were very rare until Babe Ruth went to the Yankees. Therefore we cannot know, or even approximate well, how many bases Dom DiMaggio would have stolen, or how many complete games Randy Johnson would have thrown if they had played in different eras with different expectations and incentives.