There is, however, another reason. Pete Rose as a player and manager was gruff, a little sleazy and linked to disreputable characters from the gambling world. The St. Louis Cardinals, on the other hand, are the best organization in baseball. We know this because the media reminds us of this all the time and because their manager wrote a book called "The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager's Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life." I have not read the book but am looking forward to the chapter on how to successfully lose in the post-season to teams that you had been expected to beat.
Baseball lost a bit of its history last week when Don Zimmer died. Zimmer was the starting 2nd baseman the day the Dodgers won their only championship in Brooklyn. Twenty-three years later he spent Rosh Hashanah managing the Boston Red Sox to their most famous defeat ever as Bucky Dent's three run home run dashed the Red Sox pennant chances. He was the starting third baseman in the first game the New York Mets ever played; and 27 years after that spent Yom Kippur managing the Chicago Cubs as they got eliminated from the NLCS on a clutch single by Will Clark. Zimmer, however, wasn't Jewish, so probably was not aware of the connection between important defeats and Jewish holidays in his life.
No team in sports talks more about their history than the New York Yankees; and that is why the decision to honor Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill with plaques in Yankee Stadium is so puzzling. Honoring Martinez and O'Neill is an affront to Yankee history for two reasons. First, the absence of Bernie Williams' name in that group is a noticeable slight. Wiliams will get a plaque next year, but making him wait a year while two inferior players who spent less time on the Yankees get their plaques this year is, at best, puzzling.
Robinson played in his last game well over 50 years ago, and died over 40 years ago. Thus many baseball fans never saw Robinson play, and have only read about him or seen old footage of his playing days. Over time, not surprisingly, the story of Jackie Robinson, has surpassed the memory of Jackie Robinson as a player. Robinson was, however, a great player, and an unusual one. Looking more closely at what Jackie Robinson did on the field helps fill in the picture of who he was.
The real reason these men, including my father, became Cardinals fans is simply because of Stan Musial. Musial, who died over the weekend at the age of 92, had not uncoiled his famous swing in a meaningful baseball game in just short of half a century. During that time a legend grew around Stan Musial. Of all the great World War II era stars, Musial was the decent one who rarely sought attention but lived his life honorably, was polite, pleasant and respectful and never had any contact with even the whiff of scandal. Musial's personal story reinforced this. He was a Polish-American who grew up in a coal mining town, was a natural athlete who worked hard to make it in baseball, spent his entire career with one team and was married to the same woman for more than 70 years. Gradually, other stories leaked out. Turns out that in 1947 Musial had without fanfare made it clear that he, as the leader of the reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, had no problem with African American players and expected his teammates to act the same way. Baseball history might have been very different if Musial had given in to the racist pressure coming from some corners of that team. The legend of Stan Musial helps explain why of the thousands of men who have played professional baseball, only one was known as "The Man."
That rivalry may not be between the Red Sox and Yankees, but between two teams that are gearing up for another division race in the NL West, and who are also playing each other this weekend, the Giants and the Dodgers. Both the Yankee-Red Sox and the Dodger-Giant rivalries have had moments of intense competition, memorable games and pennant races, and genuine rancor between the two teams. However, the degree of competition and balance between the two rivals has been consistently stronger between the two NL rivals.
If the expanded wild card system, which will be in place by 2013, had been in place this year, this second story, which may have been the defining baseball story of 2011 would not have occurred. The Red Sox and Braves, as the fifth strongest team in each league, would have won the last wild card spot. The exciting month of September in which four teams played meaningful games every day would have been replaced by five teams jockeying for post-season position. Rather than more than fifty games about which fans of four teams cared, there would be two very brief series at the end of the regular season.
If controversy surrounding Frank McCourt were happening to the owner of the Yankees instead of the Dodgers owner, books would already have been written and the casting for the HBO special would be well underway. Because it is happening in baseball’s second largest media market, rather than New York, ithas not gotten the attention it might have. It could be argued that given the size of the Los Angeles market and the import of the Dodgers to baseball in general, the story has gotten surprisingly little publicity.
The tail end of the period when Mays, Mantle and Snider dominated baseball and center field, saw the rise of another four players who would all play the same position for over a decade and all rank among the greatest ever at that position. Between 1956 and 1970, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Frank Robinson all starred in right field and were among the best players in the game. Aaraon and Robinson are among the five greatest right fielders ever, while Clemente and Kaline are probably still among the top ten.
Joe Torre’s streak of nine straight seasons in which his team made the post-season but did not win the World Series, will come to an end this year because the Dodgers will not make the playoffs. While Torre enjoyed tremendous postseason success from 1996 through the 2001 ALCS, a period where his team went 14-1 in postseason series. He has been far less successful in the playoffs since that time, winning only five of his next fourteen postseason series. Moreover, during the first fifteen years of his managerial career, Torre only made the post-season once.
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.
The difference between Jeter and Reyes is that while Reyes plays better defense and steals more bases, Jeter is slightly stronger at the more important offensive categories of drawing walks and hitting home runs. Reyes advantage of defense has not been enough to make him the better overall better player. It is not entirely reasonable, or even useful to hold measure Reyes in comparison to a great player of historical significance like Jeter. Reyes does not have to be as good as Jeter, to be a very valuable player, but a flashier glove and better speed on the bases should not be overestimated either.
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.