Saturday, April 02, 2005

April 2nd, 2003

Todd Zeile Homers

A Todd Zeile home run doesn't necessarily seem like much of a monumental event, he did after all do the same feat two hundred fifty-two times in his career (plus four more times in the playoffs). What makes Zeile's home run notable here is two things. First is that Zeile's home run came in his first Yankee at-bat, an accomplishment to which Marcus Thames can certainly relate, although homering in one's first at-bat with a new team is nice, it is second to Zeile's real triumph on this day. By homering with the Yankees, Zeile became the only man to hit a home run with ten different teams. Since 1989 Zeile had homered for (in order) the: Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies, Orioles, Dodgers, Marlins, Rangers, Mets, Rockies and Yankees. I'm not quite ready to declare that Zeile's record is Fernando Tatis-level safe, but he probably doesn't have to worry for a while. This is even more so because after Zeile's release from the Yankees, he hooked onto the Expos and homered for them as well, giving him home runs with eleven different teams.

Zeile retired after the 2004 season (one he spent entirely with the Mets, ruining his chance to add team number twelve) without having won any individual honors or a World Series. But he is the man who homered for eleven teams, and there are for worse things to be remembered for.

Some brief site news:

First, I would like to take the time to thank The Hardball Times and Will Young, both of whom have linked here in the past couple of days, with special regard to Will for his generous endorsement. They're both on my links to the left, which are made up of the sites I visit--or try to visit--every day so I can recommend them.

The other bit of news is that I am heading on a three week vacation through
Europe. Now fear not (or stop cheering, I suppose), I have spent many a hour building up a stockpile so the site will continue despite my absence. My father will be taking over publishing duties, so you have to excuse any posts that continue odd formatting errors, as does not quite have as much as experience and is doing this as a favor. I will return to regular work in late April.

Friday, April 01, 2005

April 1st, 1949

Fidel Castro Cut From Washington Senators

Editor's Note: This is a work of fiction--note the publication date--and virtually all facts contained herein, with the exception of a few minor ones regarding the '48 Senators, should be regarded as such.

This is a story that has been covered up for many, many years but can finally be told, thanks to the efforts of Juan el Bromista, a Cuban historian who only recently made his escape from Cuba after repeated efforts and managed to find the remaining evidence he needed to prove that Castro came to America and pitched. Although el Bromista has not yet found a publisher for his work, tentatively titled Cuento de un Tonto, certain members of SABR's Cuban Baseball Chapter were provided with copies of the manuscript and one passed it on to me.

It is widely passed off as fact that although rumors abound of Fidel Castro having a try-out with either the Washington Senators or New York Yankees, there is no basis in fact for this and that Castro in fact did not even possess the talent necessary to attract the attention of scouts in Cuba, let alone pitch in the Major Leagues. As el Bromista has discovered, this was part of a determined effort between the
United States and Cuban governments, along with Major League Baseball, each with their own motivations for covering up the Cuban's Major League activities.

Castro never did pitch in an official Major League game, but that is not to say he never pitched against Major League hitters. In the winter of 1948-49, the Senators' Cuban scout Guillermo Mentira spotted the twenty-two year old Castro pitching for a semi-professional team outside of
Havana. Mentira was impressed the youngster’s poise; although he lacked the velocity of big-league hurlers Castro made up for it with a variety of breaking and 'junk' pitches that kept both righties and lefties off balance. Mentira offered the young Cuban a chance to come to camp with the Senators and see what he could do.

Naturally, the baseball mad Castro took up Mentira on his offer and went to camp with the Senators. The 1948 Senators had lost ninety-seven games, finishing with a team ERA of 4.65, better than only two others in the American League. Manager Joe Kuhel was therefore intrigued by the young hurler who was able to keep his hitters puzzled so long as he remained ahead in the count and was not forced to throw his mediocre fastball for a strike, where it would typically be hammered. Although Kuhel was impressed by Castro's collection of pitches, he finally came to the conclusion that the Cuban needed more time to develop either greater control of his breaking pitches to allow him to pitch ahead in the count more consistently, or an improved fastball so he could throw it with confidence when behind in the count. With this in mind less than three weeks before the season was to start, Kuhel explained to Castro that the team was looking to send him down to the minors until they thought he was ready, hopefully later that season.

Showing the spark that would eventually led the young man to bigger things, Castro was furious and refused his assignment, instead deciding to go home to
Cuba. He finished his law degree at the University of Havana and went into private practice, and down the path that would land him, a little over ten years later, to overthrowing Batista and taking over Cuba.

So why has this story so long been covered up? Well, each of the parties had their reason. For the Cuban government, the notion that their leader would not be leading the revolution but rather playing baseball, for salary, in
America, was hardly the kind of image of Castro they wanted to present. For the United States, the thought that given a certain twist of fate and Cuba might never be a Communist country, that the Cuban Missile Crisis would remain the realm of doomsday naysayers, that Castro could be on their soil, playing their game was something best left to conspiracy theorists. Lastly, Major League Baseball wanted to do all they could to disassociate themselves from the Communists; remember, this is a league that had one of its teams rename itself (the "Reds" became the "Redlegs") out of fear of being mistaken for Communist sympathizers.

Thanks to the amazing work of Juan el Bromista however, the truth can finally be told. He has managed to turn up multiple records of Castro's pitching in
Cuba that had long been considered legend and has done so at considerable personal risk. He has spoken to the son of Joe Kuhel who has what is believed to be the only undoctored photograph of the Senators in early spring training, one that clearly shows Castro with the team, wearing number fifty-nine and has, despite his short time in America, located a previously classified FBI document listing all Senators who might have come in contact with Castro and advising the cover story for each. If there is any justice, el Bromista will soon find a publisher and this amazing story will be told.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

March 31st, 1916

Brooklyn Introduces New Uniforms

I will spare you all another Best/Worst uniform rundown, but I could not let this date pass without pointing out the uniform innovation that came to pass. On this date, the Brooklyn Robins, as they were then known, decided that their previous uniforms, white with blue pinstripes at home, white with red (!) pinstripes on the road, were insufficiently unique and launched their new ones. They featured a checkerboard pattern not seen, so far as I know, before or since. Unattractive though the uniforms were, the Robins had success, winning their first pennant since 1900 before falling to the Red Sox 4-1 in the World Series. The next year the checkerboard stayed on the road uniform but was replaced with pinstripes on the home uniform. Furthermore that season, presumably in honor of the First World War, the olde English 'B' on the home uniform was replaced by an American flag.

The Robins finally came to their senses and the checkerboard was gone by 1918, replaced with more traditional pinstripes, and putting patchwork players back where they belong, in the realm of nightmares.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

March 30th, 1950

Grady Little Born

Grady Little, of course, will forever be remembered as The Man Who Didn't Pull Pedro, a title that has improved only slightly with the Sox victory in 2004. Little is in the relatively exclusive, if dubious, company of those involved with baseball known for one mistake more than anything else. Perhaps not surprisingly given both the (lack of) success of the franchise and the nature of their fans, several of these people made their bad decisions for the Boston Red Sox.

The first, and arguably still most famous, case of a player having no place in history besides his screw-up is Fred Merkle. As a Giants' rookie in 1908, Merkle failed to touch second base after a game winning hit, and after much debate involving umpire, Johnny Evers, John McGraw and even the League President, the game was declared a tie and the Giants had to replay it. They would lose the replay, which ultimately cost them the 1908 pennant, and "Merkle's Boner" was born.

The next man remembered solely for one screw-up was Red Sox owner Harry Frazee who sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Frazee's reputation is probably worse than it should be, as the facts around the sale have long since passed into legend, a process which tends to remove accuracy, but still, it’s hard to argue with eighty-six years of futility.

In three seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chuck Dressen led them to two pennants and a .642 winning percentage, but he is remembered most for the season he didn't win the pennant. In 1951 the Dodgers held a one-run lead in the third and final playoff game to decide the pennant against the Giants. With Bobby Thomson coming up, for the Giants, manager Dressen went to his bullpen and called in Ralph Branca, against whom Thomson had already hit two home runs and whom the Giants had beaten six times that season, including in Game One of the series. Of course, Thomson soon took Branca deep for the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" and sent the Giants to World Series and Dressen into his place in history.

The next pair of screw-ups came in back-to-back World Series. The first was in 1985 when umpire Don Denkinger called Jorge Orta safe at first base in Game 6 of the World Series despite Orta clearly being out. The Royals would rally to win Game 6 and go on to crush the Cardinals in Game 7. The Series loss wasn't entirely Denkinger's fault--the Cardinals suffered an epic meltdown in Game 7--but he remains nonetheless remembered solely for that fault. In 1986 another non-player made a mistake that might have caused his team a world title. That man was Red Sox manager John McNamara who decided to let Bill Buckner and his achey knees be on the field for the Sox celebration in Game 6. Of course, that celebration never came and Buckner went down in infamy.

So cheer up, Grady Little, infamy may seem bad, but you're in exclusive company and immortality in trivia is better than none at all.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

March 29th, 1975

Mel Stottlemyre Released

I know that Mel Stottlemyre is not exactly a man for whom we should be breaking out the violins, he has after all, won--by my count--five World Series as a pitching coach (one with the Mets, four with the Yankees), is being paid a handsome sum to serve that role with the Yankees again this season and had two sons pitch in the Major Leagues. That having been said, Mel deserves at least some sympathy for his playing career, when he was a victim of terrible timing.

Stottlemyre joined the Yankees in August 1964 as a twenty-two year old rookie. He pitched less than one-hundred innings the rest of the season but impressed manager Yogi Berra with a 9-3 record and a 2.06 ERA. He started three games in the World Series that year, giving up just four runs in sixteen innings against the Cardinals before surrendering three runs in four innings when he was pressed into duty starting Game Seven on two days' rest after Whitey Ford had arm problems. The Yankees lost that game and the series and entered into a long period of mixing good teams (they won ninety-three games in 1970 and eighty-nine four years later) with some pretty bad ones (they were under .500 every year 1965-1969).

Stottlemyre for his part was consistent, starting thirty-five or more games from 1965 to 1969 and pitching more than two hundred-fifty innings every year until 1974, usually giving the team better than league average innings. He still ranks ninth all-time among Yankees in ERA, and third in innings. Stottlemyre was just thirty-two when he suffered arm troubles in 1974 and his release prior to the 1975 season marked the end of his career. It was as poor timing for the end of his career as the beginning; the Yankees were average in 1975 but would go to the World Series three years in a row starting in 1976, including winning back-to-back titles in 1977 and 1978.

Yes, Mel Stottlemyre, World Series winning coach, father of Major Leaguers and earner of a mighty salary is not someone for whom many tears need be shed. However, we could at least feel a bit of sympathy for a good pitcher with bad timing.

Monday, March 28, 2005

March 28th, 1907

Chick Stahl Dies

Charles "Chick" Stahl was an outfielder with good power in the 1890s and 1900s, who at the time of his death was the player-manager of the Boston Red Sox (the first season they would be the Sox, they were the Pilgrims prior to that). Stahl's death was a suicide, he was just thirty-four when he drank a bottle of carbolic acid prior to a morning practice and died while dressed partially in uniform. Stahl's act came as a great shock; he was widely popular in Boston and around baseball, newspapers at the time described him one of the "squarest, cleverest and fairest ball players that ever lived." Stahl's last words, recorded by Jimmy Collins (his roommate) and Bob Unglaub were reportedly "Boys, I'm sorry. It drove me to it." Rumors have abounded that Stahl was referring either to marital troubles, an addiction to drugs or some combination thereof. His last words are sometimes misquoted as "Boys, I'm sorry, you drove me to it," leading to fairly tasteless jokes in the genre of a man driven to suicide by his own players. Chick Stahl obviously had profound problems, but taking over a team that had lost more than one hundred games the year before was low on the list.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

March 27th, 1967

Jamie Navarro Born

Jamie Navarro was a pitcher for the Brewers, Cubs, White Sox, and Indians over a twelve year career. It is his tenure with the White Sox, 1997-99 that is most remarkable. On the back of two good years across town with the Cubs, plus the memory of a sometimes effective tenure with the Brewers, the Sox signed Navarro to a four year, twenty million dollar contract. Before we get into Navarro's performance, it is worth pointing out that the contract was a huge sum. In the contract's first year the highest paid American League pitcher was Roger Clemens, making $8.4 million, as he was in 1998 when his salary increased to $8.55 million. In 1999 the highest paid AL hurler was Boston's Pedro Martinez, making $11 million. Navarro was being paid then, on average, just under five and a half million less than the league's highest paid pitcher during the first three years of the contract.

Given Navarro's status among the wealthier moundsmen, it would be expected for him to perform for the White Sox, maybe even lead the league in a few categories. Navarro did accomplish this, but probably not the categories the Sox had in mind. His first year Navarro went 9-14 with a 5.79 ERA, twenty-four percent worse than league average. He was fourth in the league losses, and first in hits, wild pitches and runs allowed. In 1998 he fell even farther, going 8-16 with a 6.36 ERA, twenty-eight percent worse than league average. His sixteen losses were most in the league and for good measure he led the league in wild pitches again and finished second in runs allowed. In 1999 Navarro had a "rebound" season going 8-13 with a 6.09 ERA, just twenty-two percent worse than league average, a personal best for Navarro in his pale hose tenure.

After the 1999 season, having pitched Navarro in one hundred two games over the three years and watched him produce a cumulative 25-43 record (an average of 8-14) and 6.08 ERA in more than five hundred innings, the White Sox finally decided to make Navarro someone else's problem and traded him to the Brewers for a pair of players. Hard as it is to believe, Navarro was actually worse for the Brewers who released him in late April. Navarro was then picked up by
Cleveland but equally bad and finished the year with a 10.53 ERA, and never pitched in the majors again despite a handful of comeback attempts.

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