Saturday, January 29, 2005

 

January 29th, 1964

John Habyan Born

Memory is a tricky thing, generally speaking (unless you happen to be Oliver North, in which case, Hi Ollie thanks for stopping by, tell your friends) its fairly reliable. Not flawless of course, but reliable. That's why it’s always interesting to discover those occasions when something forces you to realize that your memory bears absolutely zero resemblance to what actually took place. Such is the case of John Habyan and my memory.

Now, to be fair, I was all of seven years old in the summer of 1991 so it would seem logical that my memory of last truly awful Yankee team is a bit fuzzy. But despite that, I had certain notions in my head and was shocked to see how little they correlated with the facts from that season. To start with, I had always thought that Habyan was a product of the Yankees' farm system one of the collection of young mediocrities on the mound that were brought up in the early 1990s. Others in this group included Wade Taylor (who having looked up his transaction history was actually drafted by the Mariners albeit traded to the Yankees shortly thereafter) Jeff Johnson, Scott Kamieniecki and the only one who had a real career, Sterling Hitchcock. As it happens, I'm way off, Habyan was a product of the Orioles system--where he threw a no-hitter in the low minors in 1985--and had pitched parts of four seasons for the Birds before being traded to the Yankees for switch-hitting Stan Jefferson (who appeared in 14 games for the '86 Mets, I wonder if you get a ring for that). Habyan was twenty-six before he pitched his first inning for the Yankees, hardly the young product of the Yankee farm system I imagine.

Something else, although the 1991 Yankees were pretty bad, Habyan, by golly, was pretty good. With Habyan serving as the primary set-up man and Steve Farr as the closer, manager Stump Merrill actually had a fairly decent late inning combo. Habyan appeared in 66 games, threw 90 innings with an ERA of just 2.30 while Farr appeared in 60 games, threw 70 innings and posted an even-better 2.19 ERA. The 1991 Yankees probably did not have many late leads to protect (indeed, Farr would finish with just 23 saves) but contrary to my memory, in John Habyan they had someone capable of doing the job in the 7th and 8th innings.

Habyan would never match his success of 1991 again and floated around baseball for most of the rest of his career, finally retiring after a season with the Rockies
in 1996. Today he works as a coach for the Cal Ripken Baseball Camps. So how to reconcile the John Habyan of my memory, a young Yankee pitching prospect who never had a good season, with the actual Habyan, a four-year MLB veteran acquired in a trade? I suppose I simply have to accept that facts are facts and whatever I have hard-wired into my brain is wrong. If anyone has ever succeeded in doing this, let me know.


Friday, January 28, 2005

 

January 28th, 2001

Curt Blefary Dies

Curt Blefary was nicknamed "Clank" for his lack of prowess with the glove, and was constantly shifted around the diamond in an attempt to keep his bat in the line-up in the pre-DH days. Blefary played mostly in the outfield (more than 550 career games) but also saw time at first base and in 1968 (and occasionally thereafter) at catcher. I would've really liked to have been at the meeting where the Orioles decided to try this:
"So, what should we do with Blefary? The man can rake but he's a nightmare on the field"
"I know, let's put him at catcher, that way he can handle the ball on nearly every pitch"
"That's just crazy enough to work!"

It actually sort-of did work, as Blefary managed to throw out just under 50% percent of base stealers, although he did allow almost 40% of the Orioles' passed balls despite just playing 20% of the team's innings behind the dish. Blefary also had the distinction of being behind the plate for Tom Phoebus' no-hitter in April of '68.

Before Blefary died, he asked that he be cremated and his ashes spread over Memorial Stadium in Baltimore
. The stadium was mostly demolished by the time he died, but Blefary's widow nevertheless went to the rubble and spread the ashes on the former site of home plate, the spot marked by the plate used in the stadium's penultimate game, loaned for the occasion by the Babe Ruth Museum.

January 28th, 1974

Jermaine Dye Born

Happy Birthday to Jermaine, who I've discussed in the past.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

 

January 27th, 1944

Casey Stengel Fired as Manager of Boston Braves

Casey Stengel was fired when the Braves were sold to three new owners who decided they were unhappy with Stengel. He had managed the team for six seasons to a cumulative record of 373-491 (.432). Although the teams' record was hardly Stengel's fault (they would lose almost 175 games the two seasons following his firing) Stengel was not regarded as a managerial genius. He had skippered the Brooklyn Dodgers for three seasons in mid 1930s and left there with a winning percentage of .453, better than his Boston turn but certainly not by much. In fact, as the 1944 season approached, Stengel had managed nine seasons with a career 581-742 (.439) record and an average finish of sixth.

In the off-season of 1948-49, the Yankees were searching for a manager, having fired Bucky Harris after a 94 win season that resulted in just 3rd place behind
Cleveland and Boston. They decided to hire the previously unremarkable Stengel. The decision would create one of the greatest partnerships between manager and team in baseball history. It paid off immediately as the Yankees won 97 games (holding off the Red Sox by just a game) and won the World Series 4-1 against one of Stengel's previous teams, the Dodgers. In 1950 the Yankees again won the pennant, this time winning 98 games and sweeping the "Whiz Kids" Phillies in the series. In 1951, the Yankees won their third straight pennant and met the Giants in the World Series, after the Giants dramatic performance to win the pennant against the Dodgers.

It was this World Series that Stengel reportedly advised Mickey Mantle to try and chase down everything he could from right field because "the old man [Joe DiMaggio] can't get 'em like he used to." It was a wise decision on the manager's part both in his appraisal of DiMaggio's skills (an appraisal that Joe Torre would be wise to consider regarding his current center fielder) and for his knowledge that moving DiMaggio for Mantle would have caused more trouble than it was worth. Unfortunately for Mantle, chasing a Willie Mays fly ball he caught his knee (on a drain pipe according to many stories) and tore the cartilage. Mantle missed the rest of the Series and would never play healthy again. Despite this, the Yankees won their third straight World Series, defeating the Giants in six games.

The Yankees would win the Series again in 1952 and 1953, for five straight titles in each of Stengel's first five years (a record unlikely to ever be tied, let alone broken). In 1954 the Yankees would win their most games ever under Stengel, 103, but still finish eight games behind the Indians who put together a 111 win season. In 1955 the Yankees would return to the World Series but fall to the Dodgers in seven games. After a two year "drought" the Yankees found their Series winning ways in 1956 taking their revenge against the Dodgers in seven games. The Yankees won the pennant again in 1957 but fell to another one of Stengel's former clubs, the now
Milwaukee Braves in seven games. In 1958 the Yankees again got their revenge on a team that had vanquished them a season earlier, taking the Series in seven games over Milwaukee, including the game winning outburst against Lew Burdette who had shut them out in Game 7 the year before.

In 1959 the Yankees suffered the worst season under Stengel, going just 79-75 and finishing third. They rebounded in 1960 to win 97 games before famously falling to
Pittsburgh in seven games. After the season, Stengel was fired and replaced by Ralph Houk. Stengel left the Yankees with a 1149-696 (.623) record, seven World Series victories and ten American League pennants and an average finish of first.

Stengel would go on to a stint with the Mets, of course, helping to create the image of the early Met teams as being hilariously inept. Stengel is also well-known for a variety of quotes, many of which are seemingly throwaway lines but actually reflect a fairly astute knowledge of the game: "The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided," "The Yankees don't pay me to win every day, just two out of three," "I don't like them fellas who drive in two runs and let in three.” Stengel's best quote however was his after the 1958 World Series, but one that also serves as slogan for his entire career--and, for that matter, the career of most managers: "I couldn't have done it without my players."


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

 

January 26th, 1884

Tubby Spencer Born

"Tubby" is of course, a nickname, he was born Edward Russel Spencer a name which has an almost regal quality about it. He was listed as 5'10" and 215 pounds, although as photos taken at the time show, perhaps he was a bit larger than claimed. Either way, the nickname certainly fits.

Spencer had an interesting career, he first played for the St. Louis Browns in 1905 and served as the back-up catcher that year and the next (when the starting catcher was a name you'd know: Branch Rickey, yes that Branch Rickey) before serving as the starter in 1907 and 1908. He was traded to the Red Sox for the 1909 season but appeared in just twenty-eight games. Spencer did not play in the majors at all in 1910 but returned to appear in eleven games for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1911 after which he did not play in the majors until 1916. Spencer's five year career gap was caused by the simple fact that he was an alcoholic. According to some reports, Spencer spent the five years, arguably those that could have been the best of his career, as a hobo, riding the rails. The image seems almost romantic, and not unlike something out of Carnivàle but it was probably a miserable existence, only compounded by alcoholism.

At age thirty-two Spencer managed to get his life reasonably back on track and returned to the majors in 1916 for a nineteen game stint with the Tigers during which he hit .370, a number which probably played a large part in his returning for the following season. Spencer was the Tigers' back-up catcher for 1917 and 1918 and retired thereafter, putting an end to one of the more fascinating back-up catcher stories of all time.



January 26th, 1935

Bob Uecker Born

Someday, if there's any justice in the world, Bob Uecker's Birthday will be a National Holiday and everyone can take the day off and watch Major League on TV. Until that happns, you can at least enjoy the Best of Bob.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

 

January 25th, 1945

Wally Bunker Born

Wally Bunker made his debut for the Orioles in September of 1963 as an 18 year-old. He started the last game of the season, didn't make it out of the 5th inning and was hung with a loss. The next year, Bunker had one of the great seasons by a 19 year-old in baseball history. He started 29 games for the Orioles, and went 19-5. His first game he one-hit the Washington Senators and went on to win his next six starts including another one-hitter. He led the team in ERA (and was sixth in the league) while throwing the O’s second most innings. Bunker succeeded in large because of a fastball which he could throw as either a 'riser' (fastball don't actually rise, of course, it’s an optical illusion) or a sinker. Bunker was denied the Rookie of the Year award despite a great season only because he had the misfortune of debuting the same year as Tony Oliva who won the batting title and led the league in doubles, hits, runs and total bases in his rookie season. Competing with that, Bunker received just one first-place vote.

Bunker's was one of the great 19 year-old seasons ever, and more impressive for being rookie. But there was an extra factor: Bunker was incredibly lucky. There is a theory of pitching which states that pitchers only have explicit control over strikeouts, walks, and home-runs. The remaining base hits are to a large degree (but not entirely) a function of luck. This is controversial but is based in certain logic; we've all watched a pitcher and said "Boy, every time they hit a screamer off this guy, it goes right into someone's glove.” Based on Bunker's walks, home runs, and strikeouts, he would have been expected to post an ERA of 4.30, rather than the 2.69 he actually had. That's pretty lucky. Even if you don't believe in that theory, it is easy to see how lucky Bunker was. He allowed 9.5 men to reach base per 9 innings, but just 2.7 of them came around to score.

After his fantastic 1964 there were doubtless many who predicted great things for Bunker. But he had the strike of being lucky against him already and suffered a sore arm in 1965. He would pitch as few as 71 innings in the next few seasons, although he did throw a shutout in Game 3 of the 1966 World Series, putting the Orioles up 3-0 and effectively ending the Series. He would enjoy a brief revival (despite being just 24) in 1969 leading the expansion Royals in victories (12) but averaged just 77 innings after that and was out of baseball after the 1971. Bunker was just 26 years-old but his pitching career was over leaving him an ironic contrast to one of the opposing pitchers in the 1966 World Series, Sandy Koufax who did not become Sandy Koufax until he was twenty-six.

Monday, January 24, 2005

 

January 24th, 1989

Bob Melvin Traded to Orioles


I have a 1991 Topps card of Melvin, which given only one line to say something about him, comes up with “Bob belted 2 grand slams at Birmingham in 1982.” After six years in the big leagues, the nicest one-line
thing anyone at Topps could say about Bob was that he had hit two grand slams at double-A almost a decade ago? Ouch.

Melvin is perhaps best known now as the former manager of the Seattle Mariners, a task he succeeded in performing in 2003 to the tune of 93 wins but struggled with in 2004 to 99 losses and a “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Melvin was also the bench coach for the 2001 Arizona team that beat the Yankees (and Mariano Rivera) in Game 7 of the World Series, which was no small feat given the stumblebum work of manager Bob Brenly, who had split catching duties with Melvin in San Francisco prior to this trade. Melvin will take over a terrible Arizona Diamondback team for 2004, giving him a decent chance at losing 95 plus games managing two teams in two leagues in two consecutive years. That’s probably some kind of record.


Sunday, January 23, 2005

 
January 23rd, 1970

Alan Embree Born

2004 saved Alan Embree from being remembered as "The Guy Who Should've Come in For Pedro" in Game 7 of 2003, if I'm correct in assuming this past season purged the memory for Sox fans. Now he can be remembered for something slightly more obscure: As a type of pitcher who did not exist in the first 75 years of baseball. Embree is a middle reliever. This may seem like a silly concept, but the idea of a pitcher who came in after the starter but doesn't finish the game is an essentially an invention of the 1980s. These are the pitchers for whom the hold statistic was invented (A quick aside: The hold is a terrible, terrible, statistic. If the save is Police Academy, worthwhile but flawed, then the hold is Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, purposeless and painful.)

For his career, Embree has 28 wins, 28 losses, 7 saves and a 4.38 ERA averaging 61 innings over eleven career seasons. Until the 1980s, a player would never have a career line like that. For a long while of course, relievers were simply starters who weren't pitching that day or the next or rookies not good enough to start. That evolved into players like Luis Arroyo for the 1961 Yankees and evolved further into the "Firemen" of the 1970s. But in almost every case, it was assumed that once a reliever entered a game, he was going to finish it. Rollie Fingers averaged 49 games finished and 23 saves during his career, while Embree has 46 and 3 over his last three seasons and has averaged just 16 game finished and less than one save a year. Some old-time baseball players complain about being "born too soon" speaking of the salaries for modern players. For Alan Embree and his skill set, he was born at exactly the right moment.


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