Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top 10 Shortstops Not in the Hall of Fame

So close for Dick Allen.  

Earlier this week, the Baseball Hall of Fame Veteran's Committee considered players from its Golden Era ballot but ended up electing none of them into Cooperstown.  Dick Allen and Tony Oliva came the closest - each missed by one vote.  Also missing out were Gil Hodges and Ken Boyer, players mentioned in this blog when we looked at the first basemen and third basemen who missed out. 

So I thought it would be a good time to move around the diamond and look at the shortstops. Shortstop is a tough position to evaluate because it's so demanding defensively that offensive production is frequently not expected.  Many "great" shortstops have had a light bat.  There's Mark Belanger and Marty Marion (who aren't in) and Ozzie Smith and Rabbit Marranville (who are).  Expectations changed somewhat in the 80s with Ripken, Yount and Trammell and most especially in the 21st century with A-Rod, Jeter and Garciaparra.  Slick gloves and sluggers alike make this list. 

Here are the top 10 shortstops who are not in the hall of fame:

10.       Tony Fernandez

The 1980s saw the first wave of Dominican shortstops making their mark in the major leagues.   Tony Fernandez was one of the first, and probably still ranks as the best (save for Miguel Tejada but his steroid issues will mar his legacy).   He was a journeyman by the end of his career, but for a four-year stretch with the Blue Jays in the 1980s, he was terrific – twice batting over .300 and winning 4 gold gloves.  

9.         Cecil Travis

A career .314 hitter, Travis had the misfortune of:  1) playing for the Washington Senators, and 2) having his career interrupted in World War II.  And not just interrupted - Travis reportedly suffered a severe case of frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge.  Bill James ranks him as the best candidate among the players who may have lost a Hall of Fame career to World War II.

8.         Bert Campaneris

A key cog in the great A”s teams of the 1970s, Campaneris actually started with the A’s in 1964 when they played in Kansas City.  He was a 4-time All Star with Oakland and finished his career with over 2200 hits and 646 stolen bases.

7.         Maury Wills

A 5-time All Star with the L.A. Dodgers, Wills practically rediscovered the stolen base, breaking Ty Cobb’s 47-year old single-season record in 1962, with 104 stolen bases.  He won the NL MVP award in 1962.  

6.         Jim Fregosi

He’s best remembered as the player who was traded to the Mets for Nolan Ryan – surely one of worst trades in baseball history.  But people forget why it seemed like a good trade at the time.  Fregosi, an original Los Angeles Angel, was a terrific shortstop - a 6-time All Star and, easily, the best hitting shortstop in the American League in an era dominated by pitching.  But he had some injuries and, of course, he was a bust with the Mets.

5.         Dave Concepcion
          For my money, Concepcion was the most underrated player on the great Red Machine team of the 1970s.  He was best known for his defense - his 5 Gold Gloves, his great range and strong arm.  But he also batted .280 or better 8 times and finished his career with 9 All Star game appearances and over 2300 hits.
            4.          Nomar Garciaparra

The 1980s gave the American League Cal Ripken, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell.  The late 1990s introduced an even more promising trio of young shortstops – Jeter, A-Rod and Nomar.   Jeter and A-Rod are now done with their spectacular careers and only injuries have kept Nomar from joining them.   He’s eligible for the first time this year, but he didn’t have the longevity he needed to mount a serious campaign.  Still, between 1997 and 2003, in the 6 full seasons he was healthy, Nomar batted .300 or more 6 times, won 2 battling titles (batting over .350 twice), and drove in 100 runs 4 times. 

3.          Bill Dahlen

It’s hard to know how to rank players from the dead ball era, but it’s hard to ignore Bill Dahlen, a player with 2.461 career hits who was a power hitter for the Cubs, Brooklyn Superbas and N.Y. Giants around the turn of the century and a wizard with the glove. 

1.                  2.        Vern Stephens

In the 20th century, only Ernie Banks and Cal Ripken hit for more power from the shortstop position. Stephens starred for both the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox and between 1942 and 1950, no major league player had more RBIs (938) and only Ralph Kiner hit more home runs.

1.         Alan Trammell

In 20 years with the Tigers, he hit .285 with 2365 hits, 412 doubles, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs and 236 stolen bases. He was a six-time All-Star who won four Gold Gloves and three Silver Slugger awards – not bad considering he had to contend with Ripken and Yount.  And, he was a key player and World Series MVP for the great Detroit Tiger team of 1984. He probably belongs in Cooperstown.

Honorable Mention:  Alvin Dark, Dick Groat, Marty Marion, Johnny Pesky


Friday, August 1, 2014

Top 10 Third Basemen Not in Cooperstown

Last weekend, Cooperstown saw the induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame of three worthy players (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas) and perhaps the three most successful managers of the last quarter century (Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre).  In the last 15 years, only 2 third basemen have been voted into the Hall –  Wade Boggs and Ron Santo.   And unless the Veterans pick someone from this list below, we won’t see another 3rd baseman selected until 2018 when Chipper Jones is elected.

Here are my top 10 Hall of Fame eligible third basemen who are not in the Hall:

10.       Ron Cey
The Penguin  was part of the Dodger’s great infield of the 1970s – joining Garvey, Lopes and  Russell.   A 6-time All Star, Cey hit over 300 home runs, had 1,000 RBIs and was co-MVP of the 1981 World Series.

9.         Robin Ventura
The Mets infield of the late 1990s didn’t stay together as long as the Dodger infield of the 1970s, but for a year or two, it might have been the best fielding infield of all time.  Ventura won 6 Gold Gloves (5 with the White Sox) and was also a solid hitter, finishing his career with 294 home runs and 8 seasons with at least 90 RBIs.  He’ll always be remembered by Met fans for his post-season walk-off Grand Slam single in the 15th inning against the Braves

8.        Buddy Bell
A terrific fielder and solid hitter for the Indians and Rangers, Bell was a 5-time All Star and winner of 6 Gold Glove awards.  He finished his career with over 2500 hits and 200 home runs.

7.       Sal Bando

The captain of the great mustachioed  Oakland teams of the 1970, Bando was a clutch hitter, a 4-time All Star and twice finished in the top 3 of the A.L. MVP voting.  He was the 2nd American league third baseman, after Brooks Robinson, to hit 200 home runs.

6.       Al Rosen
If he had a longer career, Rosen would have been a certain Hall of Famer but he spent 4 years in the Navy during World War II.    Between 1952 and 1955, the Hebrew Hammer was the best third baseman in the game, twice leading the league in home runs and RBIS.  In 1953, he won the MVP with 45 homeruns, 145 RBIS, and with a batting average of .336, he missed out on the Triple Crown by a percentage  point. 

5.       Bob Elliott

A 7-time All Star for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Braves, Elliott won the National League MVP in 1947 and helped the Braves win the Pennant the following year. 

4.      Darrell Evans
Bill James argues that Evans is the most underrated player in baseball history.  He was the national league’s version of Graig Nettles – low batting average, good power, excellent fielder.    After 15 years with the Braves and Giants in the National League, Evans joined the Tigers and became the oldest player to lead the league in home runs (40 in 1985) and the first player to hit 40 home runs in both leagues.  For many years, before the power/steroid explosion cheapened home runs, Evans held a distinction of being one of only 2 players with 400 home runs who were ignored by Cooperstown.  (Dave Kingman was the other).  

3.       Stan Hack

Stan Hack was a criminally underrated third baseman for the Cubs.  Hack played in the 1930s and 40s and wasn’t a power hitter, like Santo.  He was a lead-off hitter and 5-time all-star who batted .301 for his career and had 7 seasons of 100 runs scored.   He also batted .348 in four World Series.  Yes, that’s right.  The Cubs used to play in the World Series. 

2.       Graig Nettles

A terrific fielder, Nettles probably deserved to win more than 2 Gold Glove but he played at the same time as Brooks Robinson at the beginning of his career, and then Buddy Bell.   He’s deservedly remembered for his fielding heroics in the 1978 World Series and when he left the Yankees for the Padres in 1984, he had more career home runs than any American League third baseman.  

1.       Ken Boyer

Cardinal third baseman was an 11-time All Star game selection  and a 5-time gold glove winner who hit 282 home runs batted .287 and won the National League MVP in 1964.   

Honorable Mention:  Garry Gaetti, Ken Keltner, Bill Madlock, Tim Wallach, Matt Williams.



Friday, July 4, 2014

World Cup Bites: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

56 games down - 8 more to go. Four years ago, it was the vuvazela, that annoying plastic horn that was the symbol of the World Cup, held in South Africa. This time, it's the samba, the carnival, the rhythms of Brazil, the sacred land of the beautiful game. It's a huge upgrade.

The Good. The soccer has been amazing. So far, this year's World Cup has delivered just about everything a soccer fan can hope for. Lots of goals (a record 136 in group play), close games, breakout stars (James Rodriguez of Colombia), upsets (Costa Rica?), multiple subplots, thrills, agony and heartbreak. And if you're not a fan, well....who cares? I used to concern myself with the idea of "selling" soccer to the U.S. audience and convincing the doubters and the soccer-hating American exceptionalists that soccer is actually a terrific game, worthy of our nation's short attention span. Every 4 years, I would beseech the soccer gods, Please, give us a thrilling game. But the soccer gods are cruel. And so the big games, the ones that drew a large American audience - the final game, and the games involving the U.S. team – tended to be dull or controversial affairs. There have been 0-0 games won on penalty kicks (which can either be thrilling or unsatisfying depending on your point of view), or 1-0 games decided by a controversial penalty call. There was Zinedine Zidane's headbutt and now there is the furor over Luis Suarez's bite.

But none of that matters. Soccer is here to stay. Even if the remaining eight matches are snoozers (unlikely), we are well past the tipping point in this country. No, soccer will not be as big as American football.  It doesn't need to be. Soccer jerseys are flying off the store shelves. Messi, Ronaldo, Dempsey, Neymar. Highlights from games played in England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga are routinely shown on ESPN Sportscenter. The average attendance for a MLS game in Seattle is over 44,0000. Kids in the USA are playing and adults are watching. More Americans watched the U.S. vs. Portugal match than the NBA or NHL finals or the World Series. And they liked what they saw. Three of the four U.S. matches were terrific and tense and if you were fortunate to watch any of them in a bar or public place, you know that the shared experience - the outbursts and expressions of joy and hope, outrage and frustration - is unique and not something you'll forget anytime soon.

So the U.S. is out. Although, they only won a single game, they performed well. Tim Howard's heroic performance versus Belgium, puts him into the argument about who is the greatest U.S. player of all time. In hockey, 16 saves in one game is not a lot. In soccer, it's huge - Howard's 16 saves were a World Cup record. What that means is the Belgium badly outclassed the U.S. And yet, the U.S. still could have won the game (or tied in extra-time) and that is precisely what is so wonderful and maddening about soccer.

Once the group play ended, and the knock-out rounds began, the goals dried up, but the excitement did not. Brazil and Costa Rica advanced on penalty kicks. France and Netherlands squeaked by with late goals, and Germany, Belgium and Argentina finished at 0-0 and eventually won their games in extra time. This was heart-stopping stuff and no team looks invincible. This is a promising sign for those of us looking for more thrills.

The Bad: There's not much left to write about Luis Suarez and his biting of Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini. What struck me as so distasteful (no, I will not make the joke about Chiellini's shoulder), were the denials and cries of victimhood on the part of Suarez's Uruguayan coaches and teammates. My favorite was Uruguay's slow-footed captain, Diego Lugano claiming that the bite marks on Chiellini's shoulder were already there and were not caused by Suarez's teeth. Really? When Lugano considers his next career (and judging by his performance for West Brom last year, he'll need to very soon), he should not become a criminal defense lawyer. Suarez himself claimed that he tripped and fell into the Italian defender. He has since retracted this absurd excuse and apologized for the biting and promised that it won't happen again. He apologized to Chiellini but he hasn't apologized to Uruguay for letting his team and his nation down.  That's the part that's curiously missing. Now, of course, there is considerable outrage over the severity of his suspension. According to some (including all 3 million people in Uruguay, it seems), it is hypocritical for FIFA to punish Suarez so severely for biting, when far more dangerous transgressions - two-footed tackles etc. - often go unpunished. They act as if Suarez is being suspended merely for bad manners. Yes, soccer is a violent game, but if you can't understand why biting an opponent in a sporting match is different from kicking at an opponent's knee, I doubt I'll succeed in explaining it.

And how I love the conspiracy theories! According to the apologists of biting, there is a witch-hunt against Suarez because the powers that be, in FIFA and the British press, favor European nations and don't want smaller latin countries, like Uruguay, to do well in the tournament. (The irony is that the Italians were spinning the exact opposite conspiracy theory – they say the match officials failed to toss Suarez from the game against Italy because FIFA needs stars like Suarez for ratings.) In fact, the primary beneficiary of the Suarez suspension was not Europe, but Uruguay's next opponent, Colombia. Colombia has also been without their best player, Falcao, due to injury but they nevertheless took care of business, dispatching a Suarez-less Uruguay 2-0 behind their new rising star, James Rodriguez. Colombia has, arguably, been the team of the tournament so far and now they play a quarter-final match against the host, Brazil. No offense to Colomiba, but I would have loved see a quarter-final match-up between Uruguay and Brazil instead. And I suspect FIFA would have loved it too because it would have meant a rematch of the most famous football match ever played on South American soil – the mythical final game of the 1950 World Cup, when Uruguay stunned mighty Brazil 2-1 to win the world cup at Brazil’s sacred stadium, the MaracanĂ£. What a subplot that would have been. But for every subplot that is denied, a new one is born and this afternoon, Colombia will try to traumatize a new generation of Brazilians with an upset of Brazil’s Selecao on their home soil.

The Ugly. If Brazil lose this afternoon, the ensuing rioting will probably be the ugliest thing about the World Cup. But I’m most interested in what happens on the pitch. So let’s talk about diving. Unlike biting, which does not actually give your team an advantage (don’t flatter Suarez by calling him a cheater, call him a psychopath), diving is a form of cheating that is often rewarded. This has always been a problem with soccer. Some players try to draw penalties by falling to their ground when they’re not even touched. In other cases, the cheating is more subtle. The player is clearly fouled but he exaggerates the impact and falls to the ground in order to sell the call. Which brings us to Arjen Robben of the Netherlands.

Arjen Robben is a diver. He’s also a world class attacker who has impeccable skill and is blazing fast with the ball at his feet. Let’s flash back to the World Cup final match in 2010. Spain and Netherlands were deadlocked at 0-0 after 82 minutes when Arjen Robben, with a burst of speed, broke free with a chance on goal. The Spanish maned defender, Carles Puyol (who resembles Dee Snider of Twisted Sister), prevented the goal by attaching himself to Robben’s back just outside the penalty area. It was a clear foul, but Robben stayed on his feet, struggled to stay with the ball and there was no call. If Robben had fallen to the ground, there surely would have been a foul called and either a penalty kick or free kick just outside the box. Perhaps Puyol would have been ejected. Instead, Spain went on to win the game, and the World Cup, in extra-time, 1-0.

Did Robben learn a lesson? If there’s contact in the box, fall to the ground – let the referee see that you’ve been fouled. Maybe. After all, those fouls are hard-earned. Robben uses great skill to put himself in those positions. And so when Holland came from behind to beat Mexico last Sunday, it was because Robben made a great play and then play-acted. His foot came into contact with the foot of Mexico’s Rafa Marquez, and Robben went down like he was shot. The penalty was called and the goal scored on the penalty kick was the difference in the game. Whether or not Robben’s conduct was justified, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. There was nothing cheap about Robben’s two goals against Spain in Holland’s 5-1 win in the opening round. This goal felt cheap.

I hate to see games decided that way and I hope we see less of that sort of thing as we head to the quarterfinal and semifinal matches. But if the final 8 matches are as exciting as most of the previous 56, it won’t really matter.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Monsters and Memories

The 1985 Bears were unforgettable. They were ferocious, colorful, and controversial and their defense was the best that I have ever seen.  Rich Cohen has written a book that does justice to that team and its legacy.  It is, quite simply, the best book about football that I have ever read.

The best sports books are never just about sports.  They are about life, about culture and about ourselves.  Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of those books.  It is part Fever Pitch in the way that Cohen shares the joy, heartbreak and obsessions of a fan.  It is part Boys of Summer as he tracks down and interviews the broken, fading warriors, now 20 years retired.  It is also part history as Cohen retells the story of the Chicago Bears and its founder Papa Bear, George Halas, who practically invented the National Football League.  Even though Cohen is only writing about football, he manages to capture something of the energy, rhythms and history of 20th century America.  He traces the origins of this violent game, played by the children of immigrants in factory towns like Decatur, Canton, Akron, Muncie and Racine. This game would evolve into our national religion. 
Rich Cohen grew up in Glencoe Illinois, an affluent lakeside suburb of Chicago that was home to Ferris Bueller.  In 1985, Cohen was 17 years old.  It was the age of Reagan and MTV – a golden age for John Hughes movies but a miserable time to be a sports fan in Chicago.  The Cubs and White Sox were legendary losers.  Their last World Series wins had come in 1908 and 1917.  In hockey, the Blackhawks were competitive but they hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961.  Hope had arrived on the hardwood in the form of Michael Jordan, but in 1985, he was still finding his air.  He was a rookie on a mediocre Bulls team.
Chicago’s most recent sports championship had come in 1963.  On a frigid day in December, just one month after JFK was assassinated, the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants 14-10 at Wrigley Field to win the NFL title.  The Bears were best known for their ferocious defense, the famed “Monsters of the Midway” (a nickname that actually originated with the University of Chicago football team coached by Amos Alonzo Stagg).  The Bears team of 1963 also featured an outstanding 24-year-old tight end, from the coal-mining town of Carnegie Pennsylvania.  His name was Mike Ditka.

After 1963, the Bears plummeted to mediocrity and despite fielding some of the finest players in NFL history – Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and eventually, Walter Payton – they lost more than they won.  Things started to turn around in the early 1980s when defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan defense began building a solid defense, called the 46, after the number worn by safety, Doug Plank.  But the turning point came in, 1982 when George Halas hired Mike Ditka as head coach.   Ditka, the gum-snapping, sweater-vest-wearing, bullet headed martinet with the icy blue stare, brought a winning attitude and was the perfect symbol for Chicago.  Tough, unyielding, unforgiving and, on occasion, completely out of control.  He would turn things around.

Like Cohen, I also misspent my youthful passion rooting for a bad team, the NY Giants of the 1970s (and a worse one, the Mets).  For me, the rise of the Bears was fascinating to behold.  I had always admired the Bears.  Like my Giants, they had the old school mystique of a storied franchise that had fallen on hard times.  I loved watching those NFL Films clips of Butkus and the earlier Monsters of the Midway of the 1950s and 60s, their white uniforms covered in mud, their hands and forearms taped and bloodied.  The Greco-Roman columns at Soldier Field made them seem like gladiators.  Their breath in the frigid cold poured out of their facemasks like dragons breathing fire.

By the middle of the 1980s, the Bears started playing well.  It happened just as my Giants started playing well.  But in 1985 the Bears were better.  Better than anyone. The defense was frightening.  Mike Singletary, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, Otis Wilson, Wilbur Marshall, Gary Fencik were magnificently brutal.  On offense, Walter Payton was past his prime but still a joy to behold, gracefully high-stepping through defenses, palming the ball like a toy, and, and lowering his shoulder to hit linebackers before they could hit him.  Then there was Jim McMahon, the rebel, rock star quarterback who broke the rules, swaggered and won.  And there was the media sensation, William “the Fridge” Perry and then the Super Bowl Shuffle.  The Bears were everywhere and for some reason, I absolutely loved it. 

They finished the regular season 15-1.  Then they embarrassed my beloved Giants in the Playoffs 21-0, and, if anything, the score made the game seem closer than it actually was.   OK, I may be biased and perhaps tad bitter about the memory, but I think Cohen pours it on a bit too much here.  Giant fans will wince when remembering how punter, Sean Landeta whiffed on a punt, leading to the Bears first touchdown.  Landeta says that a gust of wind misdirected the ball just before he was to kick it but Cohen doesn’t buy it.  He’s so taken with the mythology of the mighty Bears that he thinks that Landeta was so terrified of the Bear onslaught, that he couldn’t keep his eye on the ball.  But why?  Landeta was a punter, not a quarterback.  Yes, many players trembled before the mighty Bears, but punters don’t get hit.  In any event, it was a brutal loss, but I can forgive the Bears for this humiliation and I can forgive Cohen for making me relive it.  After all, the Bears humiliated everyone in 1985.  They beat the Cowboys 44-0.  They beat the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, 24-0, and they beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10 in what was then the most lopsided result in Super Bowl history.
For me, things got better. The Giants rebounded from this loss and won the Super Bowl the following year.  And since 1986, they’ve won three more.  But it has now been 28 years since the Bear’s Super Bowl win of 1985.  In that time, Chicago has moved forward with urban renewal and the Bulls, Blackhawks and even the White Sox have all won championships.  But the Bears have not.  Another generation of Chicago football fans has grown up knowing only frustration and the disappointment of close calls.  For them, the legend of the 1985 Bears looms larger than ever.

Cohen’s look back at the casualties, the retired and fallen players, is especially poignant.   Walter Payton died of a rare liver disease in 1999, but also struggled with drugs and depression after he retired.  The Bear’s hard-hitting All-Pro safety, Dave Duerson, committed suicide in 2011 at the age of 50.  He shot himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied.  Sure enough, researchers found he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of repeated blows to the head.  The symptoms include dementia, memory loss, aggression and depression.  Jim McMahon suffers from memory loss and is one of 75 retired players suing the NFL for allegedly failing to disclose what it knew about the dangers of concussions.  William Perry had problems with alcohol, gained weight and suffers from a disorder to the nervous system.

Cohen brings his skills as a journalist as he recounts his visits with the retired players.  There’s magic and real joy in the memories but the telling is also bittersweet. The tale of the retired athlete is often a sad one.  Most of us are just figuring things out when we reach our thirties.  But the professional athlete is finished.  Hopefully, he is smart with his money.  (Gary Fencik, the All-Pro “Hit Man” from Yale is an investment advisor.)  Many are not.  There is often physical pain, the toll exacted from the years of pounding.  Of course many find other paths and enjoy the fulfillment that comes with family and career.  But these are not the same as the rush, excitement and feeling of brotherhood that came on Sunday.

The reverence that Chicagoans have for Mike Ditka is the stuff of both legend and caricature.  Cohen takes us beyond the Ditka of Saturday Night Live and the State Farm commercials and helps us appreciate the man and understand why his bond with Chicago’s football fans was so real and so deep.  After the Super Bowl win of 1985, the Bears under Ditka enjoyed several excellent seasons, winning 4 division titles but they failed to make it back to the Super Bowl.  In 1992, the Bears went 5-11 and lost 8 of the last 9 games.  Rich Cohen was 24 and working in New York for Rolling Stone magazine when he learned that the Bears had fired Ditka.  When he heard the news, he left the building and sat down on the curb and began crying.  He knew that something was over and it wasn’t coming back.