Let’s start with something almost everybody agrees with: One fantastic season is not enough to make a player a Baseball Hall of Famer. Al Rosen had a great 1953 season — he finished one point behind Mickey Vernon in batting average or he would have won the Triple Crown — and he’s not in the Hall of Fame and I don’t hear many people who think he should be.
Norm Cash was great in 1961, George Foster was great in 1977, Cesar Cedeno was great in 1972, Dwight Gooden was all but incomparable in 1985. This list goes on and on — Mark Fidrych, Vida Blue, John Hiller, Wes Ferrell, Willie Wilson, Chuck Knoblauch, Willie Davis, on and on. None of them are in the Hall of Fame. And while there is a good argument for some of them the argument is not “He had one fantastic season.” One is not enough. I think we all agree with that.
First the good news: Three managers, all deserving and perhaps even overqualified, were elected into the Hall of Fame on Monday. If you are going to have managers in the Baseball Hall of Fame — and you are — then Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre are all obviously deserving Hall of Famers.
One day, a few years ago, Robin Roberts called me out of the blue. I had never spoken with him before. He never did say how he found my number. He just left a message saying that he was Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher, and he was in Kansas City to visit his brother, and he was hoping I might take him on a tour of the Negro Leagues Museum. He said that he wanted to tell me some baseball stories.
I remember thinking how odd that call was — I was sure for a good while that it was a gag of some kind. But looking back on it, I’m kind of embarrassed for thinking that. Robin Roberts was 77 years old when he called. He wanted to see the Negro Leagues Museum. He’d read a few of my columns, thought he saw a a bit of kindred baseball spirit, and thought I might get a kick out of talking some baseball with him. It’s a shame that our natural reaction — or mine, anyway — so often leads toward mistrust or worse. I wish I followed more of my instincts like Roberts did.
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — So this is not really about skiing, but to I’m here in Beaver Creek for the Birds of Prey World Cup ski tournament. You might have heard that there’s a Winter Olympics coming up here in a couple of months, so I’m here working on few things.
And it’s cold. Seriously. Cold. OK, not the coldest I’ve ever been. The coldest I’ve ever been, I can tell you the exact date, was January 10, 1988 in Minneapolis. I was there to cover the Arizona-Minnesota playoff game, but because I knew the game was being played indoors I did not exactly dress for the occasion. Oh, I had my winter coat, but no hat, no gloves, no boots, I just didn’t expect to be outside for very long.
And, I wasn’t outside for very long. But long enough. The bus I took dropped me off on the wrong side of the Metrodome. The walk was probably 10 minutes, maybe 15. Hey, I’m a Cleveland kid. I grew up delivering newspapers in brutal cold. I grew up playing football in the snow, sledding on ice, what could 15 minutes of Minneapolis cold do to me anyway?
Before he became an irascible Tweeter, Charles Radbourn was an irascible and overwhelming 19th century pitcher who won more than 300 games in his career and, most famously, 59 in one year. In doing this list, I find it is even harder to judge 19th Century players than it is to judge Negro Leaguers or players in the the Japanese League or Mexican League and so on. There are all the usual challenges of trying to imagine a player you’ve only read about, translate his game to a modern setting, make any kind of viable comparison between that player and the players we know so well.
But then, with the old guys, there are unexpected bumps. Here, I’ll give you an example.
You can pretty neatly divide Craig Biggio’s career into two distinct eras. Before 33, he was probably a wildly underrated player because he did so many good things that went unrecognized. After 33, he was probably a wildly overrated player because he passed a handful of career standards (like 3,000 hits and 600 doubles and 1,500 runs) that people tend to associate with greatness … but he really was a shell of himself by then.
You probably know, Biggio began his career as a catcher. He held his own at the position despite leading the league in passed balls in 1991 and despite a subpar arm (he threw out less than a quarter of the runners trying to steal on him in his career). Still: He was an odd choice as catcher. Biggio could really run, and you wanted his bat at the top of the lineup every day. In 1992, Houston smartly moved him to second base and he played all 162 games, scored 96 runs, stole 38 bases and was solid as a defender. His career was about to take off.
The quirks of baseball: They called Paul Waner “Big Poison,” and his younger brother Lloyd “Little Poison.” Except Little Poison was actually a little bit taller than Big Poison. And, if the stories are true, the person who nicknamed them, some anonymous fan from Brooklyn, wasn’t calling them “poison” at all. He was shouting Big and Little PERSON, only it sounded like ‘poison” in the way that Brooklyn can turn Jersey into Joysey and and work to woyk.
Waner, like Stan Musial, began as a pitcher, developed a sore arm, and moved to the outfield. Like Musial, he immediately hit in the minors — Waner hit .401 for the San Francisco Seals in 1925 — but he apparently did not look much like a ballplayer. The Giants’ John McGraw famously sent a scout to San Francisco to take a look at Waner and you could say the scout came back a bit less than impressed. “That little punk don’t even know how to put on a uniform,” was his scouting report.
Joe Morgan is unquestionably one of the greatest second basemen in baseball history. Bill James ranks him No. 1, others put him behind Rogers Hornsby and maybe Eddie Collins, I’ve seen him on lists behind Nap Lajoie too. But everyone would agree he’s one of the best ever.
After Joe Morgan’s 30-year-old season, he had 5,939 plate appearances.
Robinson Cano, who just finished his 30-year-old season, has 5,791 plate appearances.
How do they rate against each other so far? Morgan was better. Not a lot better. But better. The numbers are difficult to compare because they played in very different eras. But Morgan created a few more runs (922 to 905) even though he played in a significantly lower scoring time and played his early years in Houston, when the Astrodome was the monster who ate offense. Morgan got on base more often, which is the main thing. Morgan also stole 378 bases, Cano 38. The defensive numbers seem to give Cano an edge in defense which makes some sense, but Morgan was a good fielder too.
Like I say, it’s pretty close. But Morgan had 54.2 WAR after 30, Cano is at 45.2 WAR. I think Morgan was a bit better..
I I was a smart man — I’m not smart man, Jenny, but I know what love is – I would rank Mariano Rivera pretty much ANYWHERE but right here at No. 95. That’s because there are certainly two divergent schools of thought on Mariano:
1. He absolutely does not belong in the Top 100 at all.
2. He absolutely belongs MUCH higher than 95.
I don’t think we — and by “we” I mean the whole baseball community — have ever figured out how to judge closers. I mean, compared to health care, it’s not a big deal. But I don’t think we really know what to make of them. It’s one of the weirdest parts of baseball. We will be going along, year by year, ignoring every Al Hrabosky and Goose Gossage and Rawly Eastwick and Kent Tekulve who comes along. And then one year, blammo, Bruce Sutter wins the Cy Young Award with a season that looks very similar to those other guys. Why? My guess: It has something to do with shiny objects — sometimes a reliever has a season that for one reason or another, catches our eye. Maybe it has a good story. Maybe there’s a single stat that takes hold. Whatever the reason, we follow the shininess and marvel and then forget all about closers until the next shiny object comes along.
The other day, I totally misread a statistic tweeted out by Adam Schefter. I THOUGHT Adam had tweeted out that this years’ Seahawks were the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to win eight games by 20 or more points. This thoroughly boggled my mind, and I brought up it up to a few friends, and it boggled their minds too.
“That can’t be right,” we all thought.
As it turns out, it wasn’t close to right because I completely bungled what Adam had actually tweeted. Leave it to my feeble mind to not comprehend 140 characters. What Adam actually tweeted out was that the Seahawks are the first team since the 1972-73 Dolphins to win eight games by 20 or more points in a 14-game home winning streak. This statistic is considerably less mind-blowing, in large part because I still don’t entirely follow it.
As it turns out, Seattle has five victories this year by 20 or more points, That IS the most in the NFL, and impressive in its own right. But it does not approach the record. Of course, I had to go see which team HAD the record, and this led to … what it always leads to. An unnecessarily long blog post.