Saturday, January 08, 2005

January 8th, 1994

Harvey Haddix Dies

Haddix was nicknamed "Kitten" from when he was in St. Louis, based on his resemblance to Harry Brecheen. Brecheen was a thirty-seven year old ten year veteran nicknamed "The Cat" while Haddix was a twenty-six year old rookie ergo, Kitten. This is much moaned by baseball fans and writers but nicknames are truly terrible these days. If a rookie in Mets' camp this season reminded someone of Andres Galarraga, at best he would be "The Little Cat.” That isn't even an especially good nickname, but it would sadly rank as one of the best in modern baseball.

Haddix was a key player in the 1960 World Series, going 2-0, one victory coming as a starter in Game 5, the other when he relieved in the ninth inning of Game 7 and secured the victory when Bill Mazeroski hit his Series-winning home run off Ralph Terry.

Haddix would be all but forgotten however, if not for the events of Memorial Day, 1959. Although not feeling well, Haddix took his turn in the
Pittsburgh rotation against Milwaukee's Lew Burdette. Haddix pitched a perfect first inning retiring Johnny O'Brien, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron in order. He proceeded to do this for the next eight innings, thus completing a nine-inning perfect game. The problem was that after nine innings, Haddix's Pittsburgh teammates had failed to score a single run of their own off Burdette, so the game went into the tenth. Pittsburgh was held scoreless, but Haddix pitched another a perfect inning. Onto the eleventh: Another scoreless frame, and still no base runners for the Braves. The twelfth pasted again without either team scoring and without the Braves touching Haddix. At this point, it seemed a battle of whose helplessness with the stick would end first, the Pirates or the Braves.

In the thirteenth, the Pirates again went down without scoring a run against Burdette and Felix Mantilla, who had come into the game to play second base after Del Rice flied out for O'Brien in the tenth, led off. He hit a ground ball to Don Hoak. Hoak uncorked a low throw that first baseman Rocky Nelson couldn't handle and Mantilla was safe on the error. Haddix had lost the perfect game but still had his no-hitter. Eddie Mathews (who would finish second in the MVP vote after hitting .306/.390/.593 with a league-leading forty-six HRs) bunted Mantilla to second and the Pirates intentionally walked Hank Aaron. At which point, things got rather confusing. First baseman Joe Adcock connected with a ball that "barely cleared the right-center-field [sic] fence" according to the next day's New York Times. Adcock hesitated momentarily and then began rounding the bases, having ended both Haddix's no hitter, and the game. According to rules at the time however, once Mantilla scored, the game should have been over 1-0. Adcock however was initially credited with a home run, making the final score 3-0. This was taken away from him when umpires realized he had passed Hank Aaron on the bases, and thus declared the score to be 2-0.

After reviewing the end of the game, NL President Warren Giles credited Mantilla with a run, Adcock with an RBI and ended the game 1-0. Haddix took the loss despite pitching 12 1/3 innings of one-hit, one-run baseball. Burdette pitched 13 innings, giving up 12 hits but no walks, and more importantly no runs and left with his eighth win.

A final postscript, legend has it that Haddix arrived back in the clubhouse after the game and received a series of telegrams congratulating him on his performance from various MLB figures and one from a fraternity. Their telegram read just four words: Dear Harvey, Tough Shit. At first Haddix was angry but the more he thought about it (and the more
Harvey had that night at the bar one suspects), the more he decided the kids had, in fact, hit the nail on the head.

Friday, January 07, 2005

January 7th, 1962

Jeff Montgomery Born

Jeff Montgomery was the ninth pitcher to earn three-hundred saves and the first to earn all three-hundred with one team (since joined by Mariano Rivera and Troy Percival). Montgomery was unique among his reliever brethren in that while most of them are associated with one single dominant pitch—Rivera's cutter is probably the best known but the connection can be made with most prominent closers—he had a starter's repertoire of four pitches: Fastball, slider, curve, and change-up. Common theory is that closers (and relievers in general) only have a pitch or two for two reasons: (1) If they had more than two pitches, they'd be starting and (2) If you're coming in with the game on the line, you don't want to be fiddling around trying to figure out what pitches are working that day. Montgomery succeeded in spite of these reasons (both of which have obvious flaws) in large part because he struck out a fair number of batters (7.5 per 9 innings) and walked very few (3 per 9 innings). Despite his success, Montgomery remains an anomaly as a four-pitch closer, proving as always that you can count on baseball teams to maintain convention despite contrary evidence.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

January 6th, 1931

Yankees Sign Joe Sewell

Sewell spent most of his career as a shortstop but was basically a third baseman by the time the Yankees signed him in 1931 after he was released by Cleveland. Sewell had a couple of good years for the Yankees, winning a World Series in 1932 although he was replaced by Red Rolfe before the Yankees won their four consecutive World Series, 1936-39.

The real story about Sewell however was how difficult he was to strike out. He struck out just 114 times in his entire career, or an average of roughly eight per season, or once ever sixty two and a half games. Sewell did play in a low strikeout era, the league leader in Ks topped one-hundred only once during his career, but Sewell’s totals were low regardless. For the modern game, they are unheard of. The 2004 American League K leader (Mark Bellhorn) had 177 strikeouts, and the entire top five had an average of fifty more strikeouts in 2004 alone than Sewell had in his entire career. Even contact hitters have huge strikeout totals, compared to Sewell. Ichiro, the supreme example of a modern contact hitter, set the new season hit record and hit .372 in 2004 and still struck out sixty-three times.

Of course, this is more trivia than anything else. Strikeouts are, largely, just another out. While they are bad for a team when they have a runner on third, less than two outs, they sure beat a groundball with a runner on first and less than two outs. Bellhorn, despite his 177 Ks also walked eighty-eight times (third in the league) and was one of the most valuable second baseman in the league. David Eckstein struck out just forty-nine times but wasn't half as valuable as Bellhorn.

If you were looking to assemble the "All-Contact" team however, Joe Sewell would doubtless be your shortstop.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

January 5th, 1975

Don Wilson Dies

Don Wilson's death is a subject of some controversy, he was found dead in his garage having suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. General belief is that Wilson committed suicide, although there are still some who believe it was an accident. Either way, Wilson joined the ranks of those whose death also ended their career. Wilson's debut season was 1967, although he finished just 10-9 was an excellent one. Wilson lead the team in ERA, 2.79 and was one of only two Astro starters with a winning record. In just his twelfth career start, Wilson shut out the Atlanta Braves. Although he struggled on the whole in 1968 and 1969, Wilson still managed individual game success, striking out 18 Cincinnati Reds in a 1968 and pitching his second career no hitter in 1969, again against the Reds. Wilson also receives a favorable treatment in Ball Four, depicted by Jim Bouton as a both a fierce competitor and possessor of a good sense of humor.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

January 4th, 1931

Roger Connor Dies

Roger Connor was one of the game's early stars and a one-man source of various records, firsts and trivia. Although it was not determined until well after his death, Connor--who hit more than ten home runs seven times in the 1800s, itself a record--held the for career record for home runs, 138, until Babe Ruth broke it in 1921. Of course, thanks to the shoddy record keeping at the time, no one (least of all Connor himself) had any idea what the record was or who held it.

Connor was a large man even by modern standards, 6'3", 220 pounds, but for the 1800s he was huge and it was because of Connor and others that the "New York Giants" were so-named. Connor used his size to not just establish the home-run record but also to establish some home run firsts. According to the Hall of Fame, Connor was the first man to hit a HR over the fence at the Polo Grounds in
New York. The Hall of Fame also credits Connor, on September 10, 1881 as hitting the first grand slam in history, a walk-off grand slam no less.

January 4th, 2002

Ron Gardenhire hired to manage Minnesota Twins

Ron Gardenhire has since proven himself to be a wise hiring, winning at least ninety games and a division title in each of his first three seasons with the Twins, plus a trip to the ALCS his first year. The interesting trivia of his hiring however was that he was being hired to manage a team that if Bud Selig and Twins' owner Carl Pohlad had gotten their way, would not have existed for him to manage. At the time of Gardenhire's hiring, Selig and Pohlad (who is, incidentally, said to be the model for The Simpsons' C. Montgomery Burns) were attempting to eliminate both the Twins and Montreal Expos. Gardenhire had been a Twins' coach for eleven years and was hired in part because fellow Twins' coach Paul Molitor withdrew his name from consideration, not wanting to be hired as manage of a team that would never exist. At his hiring press conference, GM Terry Ryan admitted he had not announced a manager sooner because Pohlad (who, incidentally, got his start handing out foreclosure notices during the depression) had not given him permission but went ahead when Major League Baseball realized they were unlikely to escape the Twins' lease with the Metrodome.

Gardenhire escaped being the first manage to be hired but never manage a game, something which had never happened until the four day tenure of Wally Backman (who had been a teammate of Gardenhire on the 1984 Mets) as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks during the 2004 off-season.

Monday, January 03, 2005

January 3rd, 2003

Jim Westlake Dies

A lot of people, baseball fans or not, have seen Field of Dreams. One of its supporting characters is "Moonlight" Graham. Graham is based on an actual player who played a single inning of a game in 1905, never coming to bat. He retired shortly thereafter to become a doctor. It’s seemingly not an appealing fate, although the movie Graham (played by Burt Lancaster) seems comfortable enough with it, remarking that if he'd "only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy."

Like Graham, Jim Westlake appeared in just one major-league game. Unlike Graham, he had an at-bat. In the ninth inning of a "Ladies' Day" game at the Polo Grounds in 1955,
Westlake was sent to pinch-hit for pitcher Jack Spring against the defending champion Giants. With his Phillies down 8-3, Westlake struck out, and would never again play in the Major Leagues. Westlake was just twenty-four at the time, but would be out of baseball shortly thereafter and spend most of the rest of his life as a salesman for a paper company.

It is easy to look at the story of someone like Jim Westlake and see it as a failure. But of course,
Westlake wasn't a failure. Not just in the absolutely literal sense (having earned a Major League at-bat puts one in exclusive company statistically speaking), but also as a ballplayer. When he was just nineteen, Westlake played for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and was selected (along with Lew Burdette, Lefty O'Doul and others) to tour Japan as part of a PCL All-Star team. Westlake remembered "I could not believe the reception we got at all these cities. There were about a half a million people greeting us as we came through." The team met Gen. MacArthur and went 16-0 in the course of their tour.

Jim Westlake's stat line looks depressing all on its own: 1 Game, .000/.000/.000, 1 K, in a meaningless at-bat of a blowout no less. I had even initially planned to write words to that effect. But like Moonlight Graham, Jim Westlake's career--and his life--was more than just MLB stats.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

January 2nd, 1963

Edgar Martinez and David Cone Born

In addition to sharing a birthday, Edgar Martinez and David Cone were both key players in the 1995 ALDS, and specifically, Game 5 of that series. It was arguably the best Game 5 ever played, even if it broke my 11 year-old heart. The Yankees had won the first two games at Yankee Stadium to take a 2-0 lead, but the series shifted back to Seattle and the Mariners won the next two games, bringing the whole series down to one game
at the Kingdome.

David Cone, acquired earlier in the season to boost the Yankees' pitching rotation, had pitched eight innings in a winning effort in Game 1. He was opposed by Andy Benes (that's the older, better Benes). Cone's real opposition, however, was the Seattle
offense. Ken Griffey Jr. had 4 HRs, including a pair off Cone in Game 1. The real offensive star for the Mariners though was Edgar Martinez. Edgar entered the game batting .600 with 2 HRs and 8 RBI of his own.

The game was scoreless for the first two innings, although the Mariners left runners (one of whom naturally was Edgar Martinez) on second and third in the second inning. In their half of the third, Joey Cora homered off Cone, putting the M's up 1-0. The Yankees would respond in the fourth, when Paul O'Neill hit a two-run home run, giving Cone a one-run lead, which he proceeded to surrender in the bottom half of the fourth when Jay Buhner singled home Seattle's other Martinez, Tino.

In the sixth, Don Mattingly hit a bases-loaded double--the last hit of his career--putting the Yankees ahead 4-2. This lead stood until the 8th inning. Joey Cora flied out, but Griffey followed that with his fifth homer of the series, a playoff record. Edgar Martinez then grounded out, leaving the Yankees just four outs away from victory. They would never get there as Cone then surrendered his first walk to Tino Martinez, gave up a single to Jay Buhner and walked pinch-hitter Alex Diaz. Cone had now thrown 141 pitches but Yankee manager Buck Showalter decided to stick with his ace to face pinch-hitter Doug Strange. Cone ran a full count on Strange and on his 147th pitch of the night, threw a splitter in the dirt. Strange refused to bite and the Mariners scored the tying run, as the 57,000 plus in the Kingdome cheered wildly while Cone bent over on the mound and waited for Showalter to pull him.

Showalter went to the Yankee bullpen and summoned a twenty-five year old rookie who had appeared in just nineteen games for the Yankees and posted an ERA over five and a half. Showalter's faith in his rookie was rewarded however, as Mariano Rivera struck out Mike Blowers on three pitches. The Yankees threatened in the ninth, putting runners on first and second when Lou Pinella called Randy Johnson out of the bullpen. Johnson had pitched seven innings in Game 3 two days prior but retired Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams and O'Neill without trouble. The Mariners got runners on first and second in their half of the ninth, prompting Showalter to bring in his Game 3 starter, Jack McDowell. John Wetteland the Yankees' closer had struggled throughout the series, giving up a grand slam to Edgar Martinez in Game 4, apparently prompting Showalter's decision. McDowell escaped the ninth and both pitchers pitched a scoreless tenth.

In the eleventh, Johnson apparently began to tire walking Mike Stanley. Pinch runner Pat Kelly would come around to score on a Randy Velarde single, putting the Yankees now just three outs away. With Cone now long-gone, it was time for the other birthday boy to shine. Joey Cora singled on an intensely controversial play, arguably leaving the basepath to avoid a Don Mattingly tag. Griffey singled moving Cora to third. Martinez
stepped to the plate, the tying run on the third, and the winning run on first. He launched a double into the left-fielder corner of the Kingdome. Cora scored easily and Griffey went all the way from first to slide in ahead of the Gerald Williams throw.

Cone would finish the series on the losing squad with a 1-0 record and a 4.60 ERA. After a brief flirtation with the Baltimore Orioles, he would re-sign with the Yankees and go on to win four World Series while Martinez's M's would go on to lose the '95 ALC S to Cleveland and then lose the ALCS to the Yankees in 2000 and 2001, thus perhaps giving Cone the last laugh. However, for 1995, the series belong to Edgar. He finished with a .571 batting average, 2 HRs, 3 doubles and 10 RBIs, including the series winner. Baseball players sharing a birthday are not uncommon, but two players with such meaningful roles in such a great series is something of a rarity, and one worth noting.

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