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09/02/2004 Archived Entry: "Cooperstown Confidential, August 26, 2004"
Cooperstown Confidential, August 26, 2004
by Bruce Markusen
Shilling For Sheffield
I know it’s a cliché, but sometimes it does hold true. “You don’t realize how good (or great) a player he is until you see him play every day.” This old school baseball axiom, while sometimes overused and overstated, certainly applies to Gary Sheffield, at least in the way that I’ve viewed him over his career. I have to admit that I didn’t exult with joy when the Yankees signed Sheffield to a multi-year contract this past winter. Given his age (35) and moodiness, his tendency to spout off illogically, and his confession to intentionally making errors earlier in his career didn’t exactly put me in the front seat of the Sheffield Fan Club. Well, it turns out that I was flat-out wrong about this guy, whom I previously considered a great statistical player but someone lacking in team concepts and winning values. Establishing himself as the consummate team player in 2004, Sheffield’s willingness and ability to play through two painful injuries (a bad wrist and an ailing shoulder) while resisting the temptation of pain-alleviating surgery has helped make him the Yankees’ Most Valuable Player and a legitimate contender for the American League’s higher honor. In spite of the pain—which is felt almost every time he swings and misses or tries to lift his left shoulder over his head—Sheffield has put forth a typically monstrous season at the plate, with a .408 on-base percentage and a .563 slugging percentage (through games of Monday, August 23). He’s also made a major adjustment on defense, using a sidesaddle approach to making catches (sort of a basket-catch-to-the-side style that surely would have made Willie Mays proud), all the while displaying a previously underrated cannon-shot arm that ranks almost as highly as that of ex-Yankee Raul Mondesi. And then there’s his baserunning. Sheffield no longer steals bases the way he did in Atlanta (in part to protect his injured wrist and shoulder), but he runs the bases smartly and aggressively, which makes him fit in with well on a team that features other instinctive baserunners like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. And Sheffield plays hard at all times, running everything out—the way it’s supposed to be done, whether you’re a superstar or not.
Even with two serious injuries, Sheffield is probably the most enjoyable hitter to watch in either league. From him incessant bat waggle (which makes you think he might break his arm at any moment), to steel-like wrists that seem to have come from a melding of Dick Allen and Hank Aaron, to a ferocious swing-from-the-heels approach that amazingly produces more contact than it does air, Sheffield has made himself into a one-man grandstand show in the batter’s box. There’s more, too. His plate coverage is simply remarkable, like that of a Roberto Clemente or a Yogi Berra. In a recent series against the Twins, Sheffield hit two eye-popping home runs. The first one came on a pitch up and in and probably out of the strike zone (it was practically above head level); at best, most hitters would have popped the ball foul behind the catcher. And then in the ninth inning, with the Yankees trailing by one after having forked over a 9-1 lead, Sheffield practically willed a game-tying shot into the left field stands, blasting a brutal pitch falling down and away, a pitch that most hitters would have dribbled down the third-base line. The dramatic home run initiated a Yankee comeback that produced four runs in the inning, giving the Bombers a much-needed win during one of their most dreadful stretches of the season.
Plain and simple, Sheffield has played at a Cooperstownian level in 2004. He may still say some silly things, things that are illogical and contradictory, but that hasn’t stopped teammates from viewing him as one of the best Yankees in the clubhouse. That’s because of what he has done on the field this summer, combining talent and grit that has made at least one writer (that’s me) eat his words about what a troublemaking loser he was supposed to be. I’d like to see this “troublemaker” and “loser” play a few more seasons in Pinstripes—giving him some long-term residence in The Bronx on his way to earning a plaque in our small town in upstate New York.
Healy And History
Longtime Mets broadcaster Fran Healy is at his best when discussing the game’s history, especially when talking about headline-making trades that never became reality. On a recent broadcast of a game between the Mets and the Rockies, Healy provided an intriguing sidenote to a discussion that centered on Mike Cameron’s tying of Tommie Agee’s franchise record for most single-season home runs by a Mets center fielder. Healy revealed that Agee, one of the stars of the team’s 1969 “Miracle” season, almost never became a Met in the first place. Acquired in a multi-player deal with the Chicago White Sox, Agee was originally supposed to have been traded to the Boston Red Sox in a blockbuster deal—for Hall of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski. (This trade was most probably discussed after the 1966 season, when Agee hit 22 home runs and stole 44 bases, and right before Yaz’ Triple Crown season of 1967.) The White Sox and Red Sox came close to completing the one-for-one swap, but Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey balked at the last minute, unwilling to give up Yaz, always one of his favorite players. Yawkey’s veto prevented the Red Sox from making what would have been one of the worst trades in franchise history—and indirectly helped the Mets, who eventually acquired Agee and middle infielder Al Weiss from the White Sox for outfielder Tommy Davis, pitchers Jack Fisher and Billy Wynne, and catcher Buddy Booker.
After a dismal 1968 season, Agee shined during the summer of ’69, begging the following question: Would the Mets have won the 1969 National League pennant and the World Series without Agee, who hit 26 home runs, stole 12 bases, and won a Gold Glove for his defensive prowess in center field? It’s a debatable point. The Mets, after overcoming a nine-and-a-half game mid-August deficit, ended up winning the East by a comfortable eight games over the Cubs, so it’s probable they could have claimed the division with the likes of Don Bosch, Don Hahn, or Dave Schneck patrolling the middle of the outfield. But the World Series was likely a different matter. In a critical Game Three matchup that proved to be the turning point of the Series, Agee led off the game with a home run against Jim Palmer and then made two breathtaking catches in the outfield—one in left-center and one in right-center—to prevent five Orioles runners from scoring. In other words, Agee accounted directly or indirectly for six runs in the game, which the Mets won, 5-0. It was an enormous victory for the Mets, enabling them to take their first lead in the Series and putting them just two games away from the first title in franchise history. Without Agee, the Orioles would likely have won Game Three, putting the rest of the Series in an entirely different context.
The Nickname Game
I often bemoan the lack of nicknames among current major league players, but the art form of nicknaming is not completely lost in all ports. One of the best new nicknames can be found affixed to the name of Oakland A’s outfielder Eric Byrnes. The hustling left fielder has emerged with the alternate moniker of “Captain America,” which references the patriotic superhero of Marvels Comics lore. According to Oakland broadcaster Marty Lurie, Byrnes picked up the nickname while playing winter ball, where the fans came away duly impressed with his hell-bent, all-out, all-the-time style of play. The name has stuck here in the states, with Oakland teammates and media employing the nickname, too. All that the blonde-headed Byrnes needs to do now is to wear that funny hooded hat that Captain America modeled, and the transformation from solid everyday left fielder to comic book superhero should be complete. Hey, perhaps good nicknames aren’t a thing of the past after all.
The Lyons List
While working at the Hall of Fame for the past 10 years, I was generally limited in what I could say about the issue of Pete Rose. It’s a sensitive subject, after all, and one that all Hall of Fame employees are careful about in treading both lightly and softly.
Now that I’ve left the Hall, I feel a bit more comfortable in presenting the following nugget, courtesy of the ever creative mind of baseball writer Douglas Lyons, author of the new biography of Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione (Broadcast Rites and Sites: I Saw It On The Radio With The Boston Red Sox). Doug recently put together his own top 10 list (part comical, but part sincere) of the things that Pete Rose needs to do in order to make himself eligible for the Hall of Fame. With a few parenthetical notes and a slight change in the order on the part of yours truly (for dramatic effect), let’s present the Lyons List of Rose Penance and Compliance:
10. Rose has to pay the IRS (The latest tab has Rose owing nearly $1 million to the government.)
9. He has to admit that he bet on baseball.
8. He has to enter and complete a gambler’s rehabilitation program.
7. He has to stop going to Cooperstown on Induction Day at the Hall of Fame and signing Pete Rose stuff just down the block. (This used to happen every year until the past two summers.)
6. He has to apologize to Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor (for taking the January
spotlight away from them at a time when they should have been reveling in baseball glory).
5. He has to apologize to Roger Kahn for the lies he told in his last autobiography.
4. He has to disgorge all the profits he made from that book and the new one. (That would really require some newfound charity on the part of “Charlie Hustle.”)
3. He has to make Pete Jr. retire.
2. He has to get a new haircut. (This one is non-negotiable.)
And the No. 1 stipulation that Rose must meet in order to make himself a possibility for Cooperstown enshrinement?
1. He has to follow the advice Lou Grant gave to Ted Baxter the night before Baxter's wedding on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Grant: “Ted, you know they way you are?”
Baxter: “Yes, Lou.”
Grant: “Don’t be like that any more.”
At first nothing appears amiss with this 1966 Topps card of onetime All-Star pitcher Claude Raymond—at least until you look beneath the waist. Yes, that’s right. Raymond’s zipper is undone, an accident of Seinfeld-ian proportions (remember Elaine’s Christmas card) that might have left the pitcher subject to loads of verbal abuse in the Houston Astros’ clubhouse. This card “mistake”—if we can call it that—isn’t particularly well known, but makes for an amusing sidenote to an intriguing career in baseball.
When Raymond, a French Canadian, first reported for minor league duty in the mid-1950s, he spoke not a word of English. Determined to communicate in a new country, Raymond (pronounced Ray-MONE) faithfully learned 10-12 words of English a day until he gained a semblance of comfort with the new language. The highly intelligent Raymond, who always looked about 15 years older than he was because of his ever-present eyeglasses, now speaks three languages, with Spanish added to his impressive resume.
In the late 1960s, Raymond established himself as a more-than-serviceable fireman, performing the role so well for the Astros in 1966 that he was named to the National League’s All-Star team. The rubber-armed right-hander finished that season with 19 saves, an impressive total at the time given the way ace relievers were used out of the bullpen. Raymond remained with the Astros until the middle of the 1969 season, when he was traded to the fledgling Montreal Expos, who desperately wanted a Canadian for marketing and attendance purposes. As the first French Canadian to don the colors of the Expos, Raymond became extremely popular with Montreal fans, who generally treated him to grand ovations. When Raymond entered games from the pen, the organist routinely serenaded him with a rendition of “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.”
Nicknamed “Frenchy” for obvious reasons, Raymond bloomed in his second season with the Expos. Exhibiting his usual precise control while mixing in fastballs with forkballs and sliders, he posted a career-high 23 saves in 1970, which helped make him a near cult figure north of the border.
After his retirement in 1972, Raymond remained with the organization as an announcer. He served as an analyst for SRC television for 17 years and also worked radio broadcasts for a dozen seasons. His combined efforts as a pitcher and sportscaster earned him induction to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985. Seventeen years later, he moved into a new role with the Expos, becoming the team’s “eye-in-the-sky,” assisting with defensive strategies and shifts. He remains one of the most outspoken defenders of the Montreal franchise, first criticizing the possibility of the team’s contraction and now arguing against efforts to relocate the Expos to another North American city.
Girardi At The Mike
It’s easy to get lost in the Yankees’ broadcast booth. After all, the YES Network has an army of play-by-play men, ranging from regulars Michael Kay, Jim Kaat, and Ken Singleton to once-in-awhilers like Bobby Murcer and Paul O ‘Neill. Yet, one of the part-timers has emerged as a bright new announcing and analytical talent: former Yankee catcher Joe Girardi. Unlike most rookie broadcasters who struggle in making the transition from field to booth, Girardi already provides the sounds and insights of an experienced analyst. His delivery is both smooth and articulate, but it’s his ability to break down almost every pitcher, from established to obscure, that truly amazes. Girardi has a “book” on seemingly every pitcher, including a rundown of the pitcher’s repertoire and tendencies, along with recommendations on how each pitcher can improve his performance. (I.E. “Quantrill needs to mix in some change-ups, instead of relying on sinker after sinker.”) And then there’s his analysis of catchers, something that Girardi knows a little bit about from his days as a Cub, Rockie, Yankee, and Cardinal. Girardi offers the kind of detailed pitcher-catcher insights that most other broadcasters, be they local or network, rarely deliver, either because they don’t want to be perceived as too critical or simply don’t know how.
There’s only one fly in the ointment with regard to Girardi’s future as a broadcaster. He’s so insightful and studious that many of his former teammates and coaches think he’ll become a manager—and a good one at that. Heck, maybe he’ll be in line to replace Joe Torre three years down the road, when the Yankee manager is scheduled to move to the front office. Ultimately, Girardi will have to make a tough decision. Will he want to leave the generally comfortable life of baseball broadcasting for the incessant pressures and second-guessing that come with managing a major league team? Either way, someone will benefit—either the listeners who learn from his baseball wisdom or the team that profits from a bright managerial mind.
Pastime Passings (thanks to www.historicbaseball.com and www.thedeadballera. for providing information for these obituaries)
Hank Borowy (Died on August 23 in Brick, New Jersey; age 88): Borowy won 108 games over a 10-year career that included stints with the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Detroit Tigers. The right-hander picked up four decisions during the 1945 World Series, posting a record of 2-2 as Borowy’s Cubs fell to the rival Tigers in seven games. Borowy started the final game, which the Cubs lost, 9-3. That same season, Borowy became the first pitcher in major league history to win 10 games for two different teams in one year. After winning 10 games for the Yankees, he was dealt to the Cubs, where he posted a record of 11-2 down the stretch. Borowy had previously pitched in the 1942 and ’43 World Series, helping the Yankees win the championship with a victory in Game Three of the latter Series.
Jim Nelson (Died on August 22 in Sacramento, California; age 57; cause of death not revealed): A member of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ World Championship team in 1971, Nelson was best remembered for winning the last game ever played at Forbes Field. On June 28, 1970, Nelson started the historic Forbes Field finale against the Chicago Cubs and earned a 4-1 victory. Known for brushing back hitters with his fastball, Nelson then made 17 appearances during the Bucs’ World Championship season of 1971, but was not included on the team’s postseason roster. Considered one of the Pirates’ better pitching prospects, Nelson saw his career stalled by rotator cuff surgery, which at the time usually signaled the end of a pitcher’s career. He never appeared in another major league game after the 1971 season. In 32 career games, Nelson posted a 6-4 record and a respectable ERA of 3.06.
Joe Falls (Died on August 11 in Detroit; heart failure related to diabetes; age 76): A jovial, popular sportswriter known for his keen wit and voice-of-the-people writing style, Falls was a staple of the Detroit newspaper scene from the early 1950s until his retirement last year. Falls began his professional career in 1945, working as a copy boy for the Associated Press in New York City. In 1953, he received a transfer to the AP’s bureau in Detroit before eventually landing a job with the Detroit Times and then the Detroit Free Press, where he eventually became that paper’s sports editor. In 1978, he joined the sports department of the Detroit News, where he remained until his retirement. For years, Falls also wrote a regular column for The Sporting News, with a special emphasis on baseball-related subjects. In 2002, Falls earned the Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding baseball writing and officially received the honor at that year’s Induction Ceremony in Cooperstown.
Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is co-host of “The Heart of the Order: Old School Baseball Talk,” which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on MLB.com Radio. He is also the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, Roberto Clemente: The Great One, and The Orlando Cepeda Story. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in September. And for those interested in the realm of horror and vampires, Markusen’s new book, Haunted House of the Vampire, will be available in October. For more information, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Replies: 1 Comment
When I read the heading Shilling for Sheffield I thought the Red Sox and the Yankees had made a trade. After reading the Sheffield comments I went back and noticed the absence of c. But I loved what you said about Sheffield. Not that I like the guy for all the torture he inflicted on the Phillies, but I have to admit - a helluva ballplayer.
Posted by Max Blue @ 09/05/2004 07:13 AM EST