Saturday, November 19, 2005

November 19th, 1938

Ted Turner Born

The success of the Braves in the John Schuerholz/Bobby Cox era has succeeded to a large extent in masking that Turner's initial years at the head of the Braves was a nearly unmitigated disaster and the team was--as recently as the late 80s, the subject of national mockery on The Simpsons. For a while, Turner was something like George Steinbrenner or Charley Finley without whatever good sense those men possessed. Turner was especially bad when it came to signing free agents. He allegedly had an inside track towards signing Reggie Jackson after the 1981 season but when Jackson arrived for a meeting, Turner was drunk and leading the bar in chants of "Reggie! Reggie!" Jackson signed with the Angels instead.

In things which are more than just slanderous rumor, Turner definitely was so over anxious in his attempts to sign Gary Matthews (a good but not great player) that he got himself suspended for a year on charges of tampering. During a brief period when Turner was reinstated, he put manager Dave Bristol a "ten-day paid leave" and announced he was taking over as Braves' manager. He lasted all of one game (a loss, naturally) before NL President Chub Feeney forced Turner to resign, citing the league rule that a manager could not have a financial stake in the team.

Turner also moved to put his players' nicknames on the jersey, and shortly after he acquired Andy Messersmith, Turned assigned him number 17 (Messersmith wanted 47) and decided Messersmith's new nickname was "Channel" such that "Channel 17" would now appear on the pitcher's jersey. Not coincidentally, this happened to be the channel which carried Turner's network on local cable in
Atlanta. Chub Feeney also got wind of his one and forced a change. Overall, before Schuerholz's arrival in 1990, the Braves went 978-1225 (.443, that's an average of 72-90) under Turner, posting just three winning seasons, while losing over one hundred games twice and over ninety an astounding nine times in fourteen seasons, almost sixty-five percent of the time. Of course, it’s to Turner's credit that he hired Schuerholz and Cox, but it shouldn't be forgotten the disaster his early tenure was.

Friday, November 18, 2005

November 18th, 1968

Gary Sheffield Born

Now with the Yankees, after stops in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Florida, San Diego and Milwaukee, Gary Sheffied is a still controversial player. However, perhaps never more so than with regards to his play as a shortstop in Milwaukee. After he left the city, Sheffield told the Los Angeles Times’ Bob Nightengale that his time in Milwaukee “brought out the hate in me. I was a crazy man. . . . I hated everything about the place. If the official scorer gave me an error, I didn’t think was an error, I’d say, ‘OK, here’s a real error,’ and I’d throw the next ball into the stands on purpose.” Now leaving aside the fact that being in Milwaukee could bring out the hate in anyone, it’s a pretty serious claim. Making errors intentionally is a bad thing; many stories claim that Sheffield did it to force the Brewers to trade him but the original quote seems to suggest it was revenge as the motive more than anything else.

But did he really do it? Sheffield has obviously downplayed the story, asking “why would a player purposely make mistakes? I’d never do anything to hurt the team. You get paid to play.” A response like that could be expected. Under Sheffield’s version of events, he would have had to make at least two errors in a game, the non-intentional one, and the “Screw You” error. Luckily for us, there are resources to check this kind of thing out. has daily logs of every game Sheffield played for the Brewers, the 1988 through 1991 seasons. In those four seasons, Sheffield made two errors in a game just four times. Let’s look at them one-by-one, along with a brief opinion of if it seems like the second error was intentional:

April 23rd, 1989, Tigers at Brewers: In the top of the second, Tiger right fielder Chet Lemon reached on an error by Sheffield. In the fifth, Matt Nokes hit an infield single to Sheffield but he threw the ball away, allowing Alan Trammel to score.
Unlikely. While it does fit the pattern Sheffield described (air-mailing a throw) this was April of Sheffield’s rookie year, it's doubtful he was already so angry with the Brewers that he was making intentional errors.

June 20th, 1989, Royals at Brewers: With the Brewers leading 1-0 in the seventh, Bill Buckner and Bob Boone singled. With Bill Pecota running for Buckner, Frank White singled to left-field. Sheffield was the cut-off man, and the AP report for the game describes it thusly: “Boone was caught off second on the throw from the outfield after White's single but returned to the base safely when Gary Sheffield's throw hit him in the back.” The error was charged to Sheffield. In the tenth inning, with the game tied at two, Sheffield allowed Kevin Seitzer to reach base leading off the inning.
Maybe. Again the relative newness of Sheffield to the Brewers is a factor. Sheffield might have had a complaint with the umpire regarding a possible interference call. Without an interference call, the official scorer had little choice but to give him an error. It's possible Sheffield was sufficiently angered by this to make an intentional error, but given that it was he who had driven in the run to tie the game at two, it seems unlikely he would have intentionally let the leadoff hitter reach base in the tenth.

May 15th, 1990, Angels at Brewers: In the second inning, Sheffield made an error that allowed Johnny Ray to reach first. In the eighth, Sheffield again made an error that allowed Ray to reach first, which eventually lead to a three-run Angels rally, putting a formerly close game out of reach for the Brewers.
Maybe. AP reports don’t describe either error, and it fits the pattern Sheffield describes in the quote. In his defense, Sheffield was playing out of position (at third base, instead of shortstop) and the weather was terrible, forty-six degrees at game time and in a fog so thick the outfield could not be seen from the press box. This also works against Sheffield however, in that he could have believed his first error to be weather related and then made the second out of spite.

April 8th, 1991, Brewers at Rangers: On Opening Day, in the third inning, Sheffield made an error that allowed Jack Daugherty to reach first. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Brewers leading five to four Sheffield made an error that allowed Mike Stanley to reach first base, but he was stranded and the Brewers won.
Almost certainly not. For one thing, the game was not at County Stadium, so Sheffield couldn’t feel the Brewers’ official scorer was trying to make him look bad. The second error occurred at a key moment in the game, the Brewers clinging to a one run lead. Most importantly though, Sheffield handled a chance cleanly in the fifth, throwing out Julio Franco, meaning that the error would be out of the pattern Sheffield himself laid out.

So was Gary Sheffield making intentional errors or was he just later all talk? We may never truly know, but from where I sit, it looks like all talk.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

November 17th, 1991

Smead Jolley Dies

Yes, that really was his name and no, I don't know what the story is. At first blush, actually, his whole career is kind of an I don't know what the story is. He made his debut in 1930 as a twenty-eight year rookie and immediately proved he could hit, posting a .313/.346/.492 line with sixteen home runs, good for tenth in the league. He was the just-above-the-cellar White Sox second best hitter (behind Carl Reynolds) and appeared in all but two games. The next year however, Jolley appeared in just fifty-four games, although he posted a similar batting line. In early April 1932 he was traded to the Red Sox and promptly posted a .309/.345/.480 line in
Boston, slugging eighteen home runs, good for eighth in the league. The Red Sox were a terrible team that year (they lost one hundred eleven) but Jolley still managed to receive some MVP support. Smead's numbers slipped in 1933 and although he was just thirty-one, that would be his last year in the Majors.

So...what was the story? As it turns out, Jolley was a 1930s Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz: all stick, no glove. And I mean really, really no glove. Of course, back then, there was no DH to hide players like that. In 1930 Jolley played just over a hundred and fifty games in the outfield. He made fourteen errors, a rate which isn't quite Hundlelian--although his 1931, 5 errors in twenty-games is pretty close--but it was still lousy. More than however, Jolley was widely considered the worst defensive outfielder of the decade. There is an almost surely apocryphal story that he once made four errors on the same play, first allowing a well hit line drive to go through his legs (Error #1), then allowing the rebound off the wall to go through his legs (#2), then bobbling the ball while trying to pick it up (#3), and then airmailing the cut-off throw (#4). I don't know why teams never tried him at first base, although perhaps if a man could have that story plausibly told about him, it is best to keep him out of the infield. Jolley did at least have a sense of humor about the whole thing, claiming the "One-a-Day" vitamin company had named their product after his error total.

Jolley was always a welcome presence in the minors however, where his defensive follies were better tolerated, as he led various minor leagues in batting six different times. There are plenty of players like Jolley, just born at the wrong time. That's Smead's cross to bear, a shame he had to live with the name too, however.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

November 16th, 1951

Herb Washington Born

One of the most unique players in the history of the game, Herb Washington was the first and only designated runner. Washington was a world class sprinter, who had won a NCAA Championship while at Michigan State University and broken several indoor track records. Charles Finley decided his A's--coming off two straight World Series victories--needed a speedy pinch-runner for those times when the A's really needed a steal. As Finley's ideas go this one had more in common with his suggestion that Major League Baseball switch to orange balls or his "Three-Ball Walk, Two-Strike Strikeout" rule change than his decision to change the A's to their current green-and-gold uniforms.

Washington was fast, even outdoors and in a baseball uniform. The problem was that Washington wasn't an especially good base runner. He wasn't Jorge Posada bad or anything (Posada runs the bases in a manner suggesting the Yankees might consider a Second Base Coach to go along with those at the corners) but he simply wasn't a baseball player. Obviously his speed could make up for some of these mistakes, but Washington's final 1974 line features an impressive twenty-nine steals (and an equal number of runs) but also sixteen times caught stealing. None of those CS was worse than during Game Two of the World Series. With the A's down one run and rallying in the ninth, Washington came on as the tying run, running for Joe Rudi. However, in a disastrously embarrassing moment, Washington was picked off by Dodgers' reliever Mike Marshall and after Angel Mangual struck out, the A's lost the game, their only loss in the 1974 World Series.

Washington returned to the A's in 1975, but only briefly, going 2-for-3 in steal attempts before Charlie Finley decided he'd had enough of his own novelty and Washington was released in early May. He would--unsurprisingly--never play in the Majors again, although he retires with the unusual distinction of being the man with the most steals (31) and runs (33) without ever having come to the plate, and of course, he has a World Series ring. He ran on the pro track circuit until 1976 and today is a businessman in Rochester, NY where he owns several McDonald's.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

November 15th, 1967

Carl Yastrzemski Wins MVP Award

I suppose I should be nicer to sportswriters, since they've done pretty well in their awards this year, and I was rather critical of them just a few days ago. But I gotta call 'em like I see 'em and there's a problem. Not with the winner, of course, Yaz won the Triple Crown in 1967 and absolutely deserved the award. However some sportswriter somewhere cast perhaps the most baffling Most Valuable Player vote in history. Yaz received nineteen of the twenty first place votes. The final vote went not to second place finisher Harmon Killebrew, nor to third place Bill Freehan, or to the highest placing pitcher, Chicago's Joe Horlen. The final first place vote went to the man who finished seventh, Minnesota’s Cesar Tovar.

Tovar had doubtless been versatile for the Twins in 1967, playing the second most games at third base, second base, and also manning time at shortstop and the outfield. On the other hand, he hit just .267 with a .691 OPS (OPS+ of 107) to Yaz's .326 and OPS of 1.040 (OPS+ of 195). And while Yaz wasn't as defensively versatile as Pepito (as the 5'9" Tovar was known); he was no slouch defensively, winning a Gold Glove for his outfield play. So what was that final voter thinking? I have no idea.

Monday, November 14, 2005

November 14th, 1975

Garland Buckeye Dies

Nicknamed Gob (but no relation to GOB of the recently and tragically cancelled Arrested Development), Buckeye was a pitcher in the twenties. A rather amply man, Buckeye stood six foot but weighed in at two hundred and sixty pounds. He debuted in baseball in 1918 but was out of the game until 1925, with most of the years (1921-24) spent as a different occupation: as a guard for the St. Louis football Cardinals. In 1925 Buckeye returned to the Majors and posted some decent numbers as a pitcher for Cleveland, as well as the dubious honor of what was labeled at the time as “baseball's biggest battery,” in 1928 when he was paired with the two hundred and fifty pound Shanty Hogan. The year of his weightiest triumph also marked the last of his career however, as Buckeye was out of the majors after that season.

Buckeye's story can nonetheless tell us two things. For one, it tells us that if even if Buckeye never did it simultaneously, it does tell us that athletes like Deion Sanders and Drew Henson weren't the first to play baseball and football professionally. The second is more about football than baseball, but still worth noting. Buckeye was a big guy for the time, and while it is true the population has been getting bigger, athletes especially have. The Indians battery of C.C. Sabathia and back-up catcher weighs in at four hundred ninety pounds, just a score fewer than “baseball’s biggest battery” but it draws no special attention in that regard. Of course, compared to football players today, the enlargening of baseball players is relatively minor. If Buckeye were to try out as a guard for the (now
Arizona) Cardinals today, he would be four inches and one hundred and thirty pounds short of average. Just as baseball players of Buckeye’s size are no longer as notable, in football he’d have a lot more in common size-wise with the average NFL quarterback than the average NFL guard.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

November 13th, 1990

Bob Welch Awarded Cy Young

One of the few things which constantly baffles me about voting for the Cy Young Award is the extreme overemphasis on wins. This year, for example, America League winner Bartolo Colon was better than Johan Santana in one category, wins. In everything else, Santana was superior. But voters love wins, as Bob Welch demonstrates. In 1990 Welch won twenty-seven games (against six losses) with a 2.95 ERA (a 126 ERA+). Welch struck out one hundred and twenty-seven in two hundred thirty-eight innings while allowing 1.22 base runners per inning pitched. Before we get into the numbers of the man who should've won the award, it's worth noting that Welch's season, insofar as ERA is concerned, is similar to one like Kevin Milwood's 2002 or Mark Buehrle's 2004, seasons which drew no attention from the Cy Young voters. However, the almighty win helped propel Welch to an undeserved trophy.

So who should have won the award? Well, as most questions of pitching the mid 80s through early 90s, the answer is the greatest pitcher of the last forty years, Roger Clemens. Clemens had one of the best seasons of his entire career in 1990, posting a 1.93 ERA (good for a 211 ERA+, at the time the third best post-war single season number) while tossing two hundred twenty-eight innings. Despite throwing ten fewer innings than Welch, Clemens struck out eighty-two more batters (for a total of two hundred and nine, the fifth of Clemens' twelve seasons two hundred or more Ks) and allowed just 1.08 base runners per nine innings, a number ten percent better than Welch's. The really incredible part of the voting that year is that Clemens finished third in the MVP voting, while Welch finished just ninth. So evidently sportswriters could realize Clemens was a better player in 1990, but not see how he was a better pitcher.

Fairness dictates I point out that Clemens has been the beneficiary of the wins obsession himself in 2001--when he wasn't even the best starter on his own team--and arguably again in 2004. Of course, this year Clemens was back to being the victim, so I suppose that makes him even for his career. But that doesn't mean the sportswriter notion that wins are the ultimate measure of a pitcher won't continue to leave me dumbfounded.

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