In 1968, Mantle was one of the best hitters in the league who, while not the dominant player he once was, still was a valuable patience and power guy who was very valuable to the Yankees. None of this was evident at the time because front offices and management, although aware that it the game was dominated by pitching, did not fully understand its impact. Similarly, Mantle’ primary skill during his last two years was his ability to draw walks, something that was almost entirely unappreciated, even unrecognized, at the time.
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.
The first few weeks of the season saw one unexpected and one expected event occur for the Yankees. The unexpected event is that all three veteran outfielders, particularly Suzuki and Beltran were hitting. The expected event was that the increasingly brittle Teixeira missed a bit of time due to an injury. Additional injuries forced the Yankees to start Francisco Cervelli, a light hitting backup catcher at first base, twice. Cervelli himself got hurt and Beltran filled in ably for part of a game. Fortunately for the Yankees, Kelly Johnson, an off-season pickup expected to play mostly at third base has been hitting well and playing fine at first base.
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.
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 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."
The combinations of expansion, prioritizing power and patience and, yes steroids, creates problems for how sluggers are compared across eras and, of course, for the Hall of Fame as well, but this problems is exacerbated by a voting system that is unwieldy and flawed. This year no players were elected to the Hall of Fame. The merits of that decision can be debated, but the impact it will have on future elections will be clear. In short, by 2014, there will be so many deserving players on the ballot that it is likely that a player with numbers that were good enough for the Hall of Fame a generation ago, and perhaps no demonstrated link to steroids, will be dropped from the ballot after one or two appearances after next year. Next year there will be five 8000/140 players on the ballot as well as a number of other standouts like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Tim Raines.
Major awards are frequently won by candidates who are not the most deserving, but 1979 was significant because it effected the narrative of Lynn and his teammate Rice. This narrative in turn had a strong impact on Hall of fame voting decades later. For fans of baseball in the 1970s, Lynn and Rice are linked as they were rookies together in 1975 and carried their Red Sox team to the World Series that year. Lynn won the MVP and Rookie of the Year honors that year. Three years later, in 1978 Rice emerged as the leagues best slugger and won the MVP.
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 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.
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.
The recent controversy over whether Ken Griffey Jr., who at age 40 would be within striking distance of 3,000 hits and fourth place on the all time home run list if he played beyond this year, did or did not miss a pinch hitting opportunity because he was sleeping in the clubhouse was a tragicomic twist in the long decline of Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey’s decline has been going on for at least a decade and may be the longest such decline in baseball history.