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Prior to Bucky Dent’s 1978 home run against the Red Sox, I have
to confess I wasn’t the man’s biggest fan. Although Dent was reliable
defensively, he had ordinary range and rarely made spectacular plays. He also
seemed to regress as a hitter each year, to the point that former WPIX
sportscaster Jerry Girard came up with one of the best lines I’ve ever heard delivered
on the nightly news. As Girard narrated Yankee highlights one night, he
blurted: “There’s Bucky Dent, with another line drive to the catcher.” My
father and I chuckled over that crack for days.
For most of the latter half of the 1970s, I wanted the Yankees
to replace Bucky Dent with one man: Toby Harrah. I think George Steinbrenner
shared that same dream, because every summer we Yankee fans in Westchester heard rumors that the Yankees were working on
a deal for Harrah, the starting shortstop for the Rangers. One summer day,
while we were eating lunch at Badger Camp–yes, I spent summers at a place
called Badger Camp, and I’m embarrassed to admit it–we exchanged some
conversation on a particularly hot Harrah rumor. I can’t remember the exact
names, but I think the deal would have sent Dent and one of the lesser starting
pitchers (Dick Tidrow?) to Texas
for Harrah. Heck, it sounded good to me, since the pitcher wasn’t named Guidry,
Figueroa, or Hunter.
I didn’t much care that some people regarded Toby Harrah as
a subpar defensive shortstop. I preferred to obsess about another fact: the man
could hit. He reached the 20-home run mark three times with the Rangers, usually
hit .260 or better, annually achieved double figures in stole bases, and drew a
ton of walks (though I didn’t know that much about on-base percentage at the
time). Even though the Rangers moved Harrah from shortstop to third base in 1977,
largely because of knocks against his range and reliability, I figured he could
make the switch back. As long as Harrah could play shortstop reasonably
well–you know, better than Bobby Murcer once did–I was going to be satisfied.
So I kept dreaming that Steinbrenner and the Yankees’ GM at the time (Gabe
Paul, followed by Al Rosen) would do whatever they could to get that deal
Why did I like Harrah so much? In the mid-1970s, Harrah
represented a rare breed: an American League shortstop who could hit. Keep in
mind that Robin Yount had not yet entered his prime, Alan Trammell wouldn’t
arrive in Detroit until 1978 (and even then he was only 20), and Cal Ripken,
Jr.s’ debut remained several years away.
Most American League shortstops fell into the one-dimensional category
of all-field and little-hit, including the likes of Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Dave
Chalk, Frank Duffy, and Tom Veryzer. Compared to those noodle bats, Harrah
looked like an Adonis in the batter’s box.
The plan to bring in Harrah sounded good. Considering the
depth of the Yankees’ pitching staff, giving up a second-tier pitcher in
addition to Dent seemed doable. There was just one problem. The Rangers had to
agree to the deal, too. They negotiated with the Yankees off and on, with
Harrah’s name periodically being mentioned in rumors, but the two sides could not
reach the appropriate compromise. After the 1978 season, the Rangers finally
received an offer they couldn’t refuse. Only it didn’t come from the Yankees.
Instead, the Rangers found a trading partner in the Indians, who agreed to give
up All-Star third baseman Buddy Bell.
Harrah spent five mostly productive seasons with the Tribe. By
the early 1980s, I had forgotten about Harrah, who had entrenched himself as a
durable and productive player in Cleveland.
It was time to move on. The dream had ended.
In February of 1984, with the Yankees collecting infielders
the way I once collected postage stamps, the team announced a surprising trade.
The deal sent reliever George Frazier and minor league speedster Otis Nixon to
the Indians–for Harrah, of course. By then, Harrah was no longer a shortstop;
he had long since been converted to third base. He was no longer an All-Star
either, with his home run production falling off from 25 to nine in his final season with the Tribe.
At 34, Harrah looked well past his prime.
Lots of folks didn’t understand the trade, including me. The
Yankees already had Graig Nettles and Roy Smalley available to play third.
Nettles eventually vacated the premises, mostly because he ticked off The Boss
with the contents of his tell-all book, Balls.
Harrah ended up splitting time with Smalley, hit all of one home run in
pinstripes, and slugged an ungodly .296. Clearly not the player he once was, Harrah
became trade bait after the season, sent to the Rangers for outfielder Billy
Sample. Harrah would play better in Texas,
but that only made me feel worse.
In the meantime, the Yankees continued their search for a
new shortstop, some of whom could hit, some of whom could field, and some who
could barely stand up. Smalley tried and failed, as did Andre Robertson, Bobby
Meacham, Paul Zuvella, Wayne Tolleson (another personal favorite), Rafael
Santana, Alvaro Espinoza, Spike Owen, and even a fading Tony Fernandez.
The Yankees’ quagmire of shortstop mediocrity continued until
1995. That’s when Toby Harrah finally arrived. Not the actual Toby Harrah, but a newer, better version of Toby Harrah.
Like Harrah, he would receive his fair share of criticism for his defensive
failures, but he would do wondrous things offensively and help spearhead the
next Yankee dynasty.
Yes, Toby Harrah finally did arrive–in the form of a
21-year-old phenom named Derek Jeter.
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As I avidly followed baseball in the early 1980s, some of my
favorite ballplayers did not happen to be Yankees. One of those players was
Billy Sample. He was playing for the Rangers at the time, a team with which
I’ve never had any kind of affiliation. Sample wasn’t a star. He was a pretty
good ballplayer, though, a speedy defensive left fielder who stole bases, hit for
a decent average, and launched an occasional longball. In other words, he was a
role player, one who had to overcome the stigma that comes with being five
feet, nine inches tall. I’ve always liked role players, in part because they
have to struggle–just like us. Little comes easy to them, but they find a way
to contribute in tangible and important ways.
One winter day in 1984, I was doing some broadcasting for
WHCL, the radio station for Hamilton College in Clinton,
NY. As I was preparing my
afternoon sports report, I noticed a transaction on the AP wire. It involved
the Yankees. They had made a wintertime trade, sending an over-the-hill Toby
Harrah to the Rangers–for Billy Sample. Yes!
I immediately began to think of what role Sample might play
for the Yankees in 1984. Left field looked like the logical destination,
perhaps in a platoon with the elder Ken Griffey. You see, the Yankees collected
outfielders in the early 1980s the way that Adrian Monk collects phobias. Only
stars played every day in the Yankee outfield back then, Hall of Famers like
Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. A player like Sample, a complementary role
player, appeared destined to platoon in pinstripes.
Even so, a timeshare in left field looked appealing to
Sample, who was glad to be out of Texas,
a team that had lost 92 games. He also looked forward to playing for a new
leader in Yogi Berra, a man with a reputation for being the consummate player’s
manager. Unfortunately, no one could have anticipated that Berra would manage
the Yankees for a mere 16 games in 1985. An early managerial changeover brought
the worst of possible successors for Sample–the fourth pinstriped tenure of Billy
For reasons that remain unknown to this day, Billy Martin
despised the likeable Sample with the same kind of passion he once reserved for
Jim Brewer, Dave Boswell, and marshmallow salesmen. (All of those men had
experienced Martin’s wrath, either on the ballfield or in bars.) Martin’s
dislike for Sample had first manifested itself in 1978, which happened to be
Goose Gossage’s first season in pinstripes. During Gossage’s first meeting with
Martin in spring training, the manager instructed his new relief ace to hit
Sample with a pitch–preferably in the head. Not wanting to participate in a
case of on-field murder, Gossage refused the assignment, drawing Martin’s fury,
but allowing Sample to continue his major league career.
With Martin now back at the Yankee helm in 1985, Sample saw
his Bronx future doomed. Although the Yankees
faced 60 left-handed starters that season, Sample came to bat only 139 times,
playing sporadically for a manager who did not want him, and one who had
alternatives in Griffey and a promising Dan Pasqua. Sample finished out his
first and only season in New York before receiving a reprieve–in the form of a
trade to Atlanta. Sample played productively as a backup for the Braves, even
reaching a career-high in slugging percentage, but decided to call it quits
after one season in the south.
Most players struggle in making the transition to
life-after-baseball, but not so with Sample. He was a natural fit to become a
broadcaster–articulate, thoughtful, and insightful. And unlike many former
athletes, he brought little ego to the booth. The Braves hired him to work
games for SuperStation WTBS, where he eagerly learned at the feet of Skip
Caray, Pete Van Wieren, and Ernie Johnson. Smooth enough to handle play-by-play
and analytical enough to provide color commentary, Sample became an instant hit
on the Ted Turner network.
Sample announced games for the Braves and then the Angels,
before finding his way to the fledgling MLB Radio network (a division of
MLB.com) in the year 2000. It was at MLB Radio that this writer actually
crossed paths with William Amos Sample. In 2001, I received a chance to co-host
MLB’s new weekly show, the “Hall of Fame Hour.” With Sample anchoring the
program in New York and me contributing from Cooperstown, we worked together on the show for three years.
Oftentimes, the opportunity to meet (or work with) people
you once idolized produces only disappointment. Billy did not disappoint.
Always easygoing, accommodating, and encouraging, Billy gave me plenty of room
to roam; he treated me like I was the
former big league outfielder. He also
taught me about the inner workings of those Ranger and Yankee teams, giving me
vivid portrayals of some of the more colorful characters that populated the
clubhouses, from Martin to Mickey Rivers to Willie Montanez.
On a Friday afternoon in December, Billy and 19 other
employees were called into the offices of MLB.com. They were informed that they
had been laid off, ostensibly the victims of the economy and some preemptive
cost-cutting measures. Sample, one of the longest serving employees of the
company, volunteered to work the winter meetings before officially clearing out
of the MLB offices.
For the moment, Billy is out of baseball. If there’s any
justice in the world of sports broadcasting, he’ll be in front of a microphone
soon. Someone out there can use a man of Sample’s abilities, a versatile talent
who can deliver play-by-play, provide analysis, or host a talk show–sometimes
all in the same day. It’s just another reason why Billy Martin was dead wrong
about Billy Sample.
I guess I felt something wasn’t quite right when I heard Bobby Murcer on his first Yankee broadcast of 2008. With his voice weakened and distant, it just didn’t sound like him. And then Bobby never returned to the broadcast booth.
All of my worst fears were confirmed on Saturday afternoon, when I heard the news that Bobby Murcer had died earlier in the day. Only 62 years of age, Bobby succumbed to the effects of brain cancer, which was first diagnosed in December of 2006.
This is heartbreaking news for me–as I’m sure it is for all of Bobby’s fans, and of course, his family and friends. When I first started following the Yankees in the early 1970s, he and Thurman Munson were my favorite players. They were two of the reasons why it was always worthwhile to switch the television dial to WPIX, even when the Yankees were losing more games than they were winning.
In his prime, Bobby was a five-tool player who did everything well. He enjoyed a couple of Hall of Fame seasons before showing some slippage in his game. And just as we waited for Bobby to bounce back, the Yankee front office broke our collective hearts by trading him to the Giants for Bobby Bonds.
Thankfully, the Yankees brought Murcer back in 1979, allowing him to finish out his career in the only place he should have played. When he retired, he stayed in the Bronx, becoming a broadcaster and friend to a new generation of younger fans. For us older fans who remembered watching him play, his place in the broadcast booth gave us a continuing connection to an earlier and more innocent era in Yankee history.
A few years ago, Bobby provided me with one of the most lasting thrills of my professional career when he agreed to become a guest on the Hall of Fame Hour show that Billy Sample and I hosted for MLB Radio. I’ll always cherish those few on-air moments with Bobby, who was as gracious and kind as I’d always been led to believe.
Today, I’m one of just many people offering thanks to the man who was known as Bobby Ray Murcer. He was one of the genuinely good ones; they’re realizing that in heaven right about now.
New York Mets prospect Lastings Milledge finds himself squarely in the midst of controversy once again. Last season, Milledge made a bad first impression on teammates and the media, largely because of his attitude and tardiness. Milledge is now facing heat because of his decision to record a rap song filled with profanity, including the use of the same racist term that recently resulted in Don Imus’ firing by WFAN and MSNBC. The song, called “Bend Ya Knees,” also contains repeated mentions of the N-word.
Given the punishment of Imus, does MLB have grounds to punish Milledge? Or should the Mets be allowed to deal internally with their outfield prospect, who’s currently on the disabled list with New Orleans of the Pacific Coast League? If so, what should the Mets’ punishment be? Let’s hear your thoughts on this week’s “Fan Forum.”…
In what figures to be a labor of love, I’ll be broadcasting Monday’s Hall of Fame Game between the Orioles and Blue Jays for MLB Radio. I’ll be working the game with former big leaguer Billy Sample, who’s not only a solid professional but a good man, as well. The game starts at 2 p.m. Eastern from Doubleday Field here in Cooperstown, with the pre-game show beginning at 1 p.m. on MLB.com…
Finally, one of the best baseball fans I’ve ever met–and a great friend–passed away on Monday. Don Casey, whom I came to know during his days as an attendant at the Hall of Fame, was an extremely knowledgeable fan of the Phillies and baseball history in general. An avid collector of memorabilia, Don regularly swapped baseball cards with me. He usually gave me the better half of the deal, helping me in my efforts to complete the 1972 Topps set. Those trades were typical of Don’s generosity.
Don died suddenly on Monday at the age of 45, the victim of an enlarged heart. In addition to some great memories, Don leaves behind an important legacy–his wife Theresa and his two children, Felicia and Cory. It’s hard to believe he is gone, but I can take some comfort in knowing that his wife and children will be able to share their good memories of Don.