Tagged: Cubs

Card Corner: Gene Michael




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Forgive Gene Michael if he looks a little dazed in his 1969
Topps card. He’s shown as a member of the Yankees, even though he’s wearing the
colors of the Pirates, a team that he hadn’t played for since 1966. Somehow
Topps could not find a picture of Michael with either the Yankees or the
Dodgers, the team that actually traded him to the Yankees.


Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, I can tell you this without
hesitation: Michael’s move to New
York, which coincided with the start of the 1968
season, helped change his career for the better, more subtly in the short term
and quite significantly over the long haul.


At one time traded for Maury Wills, Michael had fallen into disfavor
with the Dodgers because of his lack of hitting. After the 1967 season, the
Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees, where he would eventually replace Tom Tresh
as the starting shortstop. Like many shortstops of the era, Michael couldn’t
hit worth a damn, but he could field the position with a smooth alacrity that
the Yankees hadn’t seen since the prime years of Tony Kubek.


It was during his Yankee years that Michael established a
reputation as the master of the hidden ball trick. With the runner at second
base thinking that the pitcher already had the ball, Michael would blithely
move toward him and then place a tag on the unsuspecting victim before showing
the ball to the umpire. It’s a play that major leaguers occasionally pull off
in today’s game, but Michael did it with a stunning degree of frequency, at
least five times that have been documented. Considering that the hidden ball
trick relies on heavy doses of surprise and deception, it’s remarkable that
Michael was able to execute it more than once or twice. He was that good at it.


The hidden ball trick epitomized Michael’s intelligence. He
had little obvious talent, possessing no power, average speed, and an overall
gawkiness that came with his rail-like frame of six feet, two inches, and a
mere 180 pounds. Yet, he was surprisingly athletic, enough to have starred as a
college basketball player at Kent
State, where his lean
look earned him the nickname of “Stick.” As a major league shortstop, he made
up for his lack of footspeed and arm strength with good hands and quick feet,
and by studying the tendencies of opposing hitters and baserunners. How good
was Michael defensively? I’d call him a poor man’s Mark Belanger. Like Michael,
Belanger was tall and thin, and overmatched at the plate. But Belanger was
arguably the best defensive shortstop of his era, so it’s no insult to put Michael
in a slightly lower class of fielders.


Michael served the Yankees well as their starting shortstop
from 1969 to 1973, but age and injuries began to catch up with him in 1974. At
the age of 36, Michael received his unconditional release. He eventually signed
with the Tigers, where he played sparingly in 1975, before being returned to
the unemployment line. In February of 1976, Stick signed with the dreaded Red
Sox, but he could do no more than earn a minor league assignment. In May, the
Red Sox released Michael, who never did appear in a game for Boston.


With his playing career over, Michael quickly embarked on
his second life in baseball. George Steinbrenner, remembering him as one of the
original Yankees from his first year as ownership, gave him a job as a coach.
From there Stick became a front office executive and then a two-time Yankee
manager, serving separate stints in 1981 and ’82.  Like all Yankee managers of that era, Michael
was fired. He left the organization to manage the Cubs, where he clashed with his
new boss, Dallas Green.


After a brief respite from the reign of Steinbrenner,
Michael eventually returned to the Bronx. In
1990, the Yankees, by now a struggling team and a near laughingstock, made one
of the most important moves in franchise history. They hired Michael as general
manager. I was working as a sports talk show host at the time; I remember being
very critical of Michael, who seemed unwilling to pull the trigger on big
trades. Well, Michael knew a lot more about constructing a ballclub than I did.
He set out to rebuild the Yankees’ farm system, while resisting the temptation to
trade what few prospects the organization had for quick-fix veterans.


Under Michael’s stewardship, the Yankees drafted or signed
the following players: Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and a fellow
named Mariano Rivera. That’s probably enough of a testament to Michael, but let’s
consider that he also signed Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key as free agents.


When Michael did decide to make a trade, he made a splash.
In November of 1992, Michael executed one of the most pivotal moves for the
franchise’s future. He sent Roberto Kelly, one of the team’s two young center
fielders, to the Reds for Paul O’Neill. It was a controversial deal, to say the
least. Kelly was two years younger than O’Neill, a good player certainly, but
one who was already 30 and had appeared to reach his ceiling. Michael knew what
he was doing. He realized that Kelly, who lacked patience at the plate and
passion in the field, was not as good a player as Bernie Williams, the team’s
other center fielder. He also sensed that O’Neill could blossom as a
left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium playing for Buck Showalter. Stick was
right on both counts.


With those vital pieces in place–including a catcher, a
shortstop, a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and a closer–Michael left a
championship nucleus for Bob Watson and Brian Cashman when he stepped down as
Yankee GM in 1995.


Dazed and rejected no more, Stick Michael proved himself to
be a pretty smart guy.


A Smattering of Intelligence: Hinch, Freel, and The Little Professor




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Less than six weeks into the season, the Diamondbacks have
decided that a major change is in order for their underachieving team. By
sacking Bob Melvin and hiring front office farm director A.J. Hinch to manage
the team, the D-Backs have signaled a radical change in the direction of their
on-field leadership. Hinch has no prior managing or coaching experience at any
level, not even in rookie ball. What he does have is an eye for young talent,
an ability that the D-Backs hope will translate into an ability to develop that talent. The latter area is
where Melvin fell short; too many of Arizona’s talented young players (like Mark
Reynolds and Chris Young) have failed to become significantly better than they were in
2007, when the Baby Backs came within two games of the World Series.


Did Melvin deserve to get fired? Perhaps, but not at this
early stage of the season. I tend to think that managers–like young unproven
players–deserve at least two full months of the season before we make
wide-sweeping judgments about their ability. I would have given Melvin until
the end of May; if the D-backs had shown no signs of a turnaround, a move would
have been mandatory. And what about Hinch? I know he’s a bright guy who has
drawn good reviews for his work as an Arizona’s
front office whiz kid, but his lack of any kind of on-field coaching or
managing experience is alarming. Contrary to what most Sabermetric general
managers like Josh Byrnes (and Billy Beane) seem to think, you cannot put just anyone into the managerial chair. It’s
not an interchangeable position. Rather, it’s a highly demanding and important
job that requires the right kind of temperament, personality, and experience.
Who knows how Hinch will do…


The Cubs made an interesting, if not major, transaction on
Friday, acquiring utilityman Ryan Freel from the Orioles for spare outfielder
Joey Gathright. Is this Chicago’s
way of trying to right the wrong that was done when GM Jim Hendry dealt Mark
DeRosa to the Indians for three middle-road prospects? Or is Hendry simply
trying to fortify his bench while ridding himself of a player (Gathright) who
had become so extraneous that he was sent to the minors earlier this week?


Freel isn’t the player that DeRosa is, either in terms of
power or versatility, but he does provide some flexibility. Freel can play
second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, while giving Lou
Piniella a decent pinch-running option in the late innings. Gathright is
certainly the more dangerous baserunner, but he’s strictly an outfielder, a
position that has become especially deep for Chicago given the resurgence of Kosuke
Fukudome and the presence of supersub Reed Johnson. This is really a no-brainer
move for the Cubs, who will benefit from Baltimore’s
inability to find a role for Freel…


In the late 1990s, Ted Williams championed Dom DiMaggio for
the Hall of Fame while serving as a member of the Veterans’ Committee. Even
with credit for the three seasons he lost to World War II, I felt that DiMaggio
fell short of the Hall of Fame standard. He was a very good player, but a bit
short of Cooperstown greatness.


That’s a trivial point, however. In many ways, Dom DiMaggio
represented everything that is good about baseball. DiMaggio, who died early
Friday morning at the age of 92, was a five-foot, nine-inch outfielder who wore
glasses; “The Little Professor” looked about as imposing on the ballfield as Chicken Little. But as
an overachiever performing in a sport where size plays little importance, he made
himself into a fine player who hit for average, drew walks, and played a dandy
center field–a very substantial player on some fine and underrated Red Sox
teams of the late 1940s. He was also, by all accounts, a true gentleman who was
highly regarded for his character by teammates and opponents alike. And that
matters a lot more than any argument about whether DiMaggio belongs in the Hall
of Fame.

Bunts and Boots: Yankee Embarrasment, Awful Ollie, and Domino’s Pizza




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It wasn’t that long ago that the Yankees played some of the
smartest baseball in the major leagues. Now it seems that their Baseball IQ has
fallen off a cliff, even among veteran players who should know better. How else
to explain Andy Pettitte allowing a second baserunner to steal home plate
against him over the last three years? Jacoby Ellsbury’s two-out steal of home
on Sunday night provided the Yankees with their signature embarrassment in a
weekend filled with lowlights. Jorge Posada, who had just reminded Pettitte about
the possibility of a steal, didn’t help matters by reacting slowly to
Ellsbury’s charge, while also failing to block home plate. Just flat out


Brian Cashman’s inability to build a bench has also cost the
Yankees, who are enduring a third straight spring filled with injuries. How is
it possible for a team with the resources of the Yankees to go into a season
with a journeyman like Cody Ransom and a past-his prime Angel Berroa as the
primary backup options at third base? The Yankees are struggling to score runs
right now, in part because Alex Rodriguez remains sidelined but also because of
the anemic production of the backup third basemen and starting center fielder
Brett Gardner. How much longer before the Yankees give Jim Edmonds a call?


The Cubs can sympathize with the Yankees. Milton Bradley
remains out of the starting lineup, joined now by Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez,
who are also hurt. With a deeper bench than the Yankees, the Cubs are better
equipped to handle the crush, but losing three regulars (including their top
two players) from the starting eight ranks as nearly an impossible predicament.
Lou Piniella has also made another lineup change, moving Alfonso Soriano back
to the leadoff slot in spite of his lack of patience…


How much longer will the Mets wait on Oliver Perez, who was
assaulted by the Nationals in his start on Sunday? The Mets will likely give
Perez at least one more start; if he pitches poorly, he’ll either be dispatched
to the bullpen or head back to the minor leagues for a mid-season adjustment.
Perez would have to approve any demotion to Triple-A, however, which becomes
unlikely when one remembers that his agent is Scott Boras. I just don’t see Boras advising Perez to
accept such a move, even if it is for his own good…


I’m sure that this has been pointed out by other writers,
but that awful Citi Field patch worn by the Mets looks exactly like the
Domino’s Pizza logo. (I have nothing against their product; I just don’t think
a ballteam should have a patch that looks like it belongs on a box of pizza.) While
on the subject of the Mets and their colors, I wish they would go back to
wearing their traditional pinstriped uniform for all home games. The Mets, who
wore the stripes in the finale of the Washington
series, appear much more dignified wearing their traditional look, which also
serves as a reminder of the glory days of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Tug
McGraw. And don’t get me started on the Mets’ black uniforms, which make little
sense for a team whose colors are blue and orange.

The Sunday Scuttlebutt




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How quickly a player’s value can change. Brandon Inge could
have been had for a song during spring training. The Tigers would have taken a
small amount of talent from any team willing to pick up the bulk of Inge’s
contract for 2009. Just a few weeks later, the Tigers are glad that nobody took
a flyer on their starting third baseman. Through Sunday’s games, Inge has hit
seven home runs and is making an early argument for a berth on the American
League All-Star team, especially with Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list. He’s
also played a stellar level of defense at third base, which is no surprise to some
scouts who consider him capable of winning a Gold Glove…


The Royals made a surprising move this weekend when they
designated third-string catcher Brayan Pena for assignment. Pena is a rare
breed in 2009–a backup catcher who can actually hit and carries more than a
modicum of power. He also brings versatility to the table, with his ability to
fill in at third, first, and the outfield corners. Expect the Royals to find a
taker in a trade for Pena. If not, he won’t last long on the waiver wire. There
are at least a dozen major league teams who could use help behind the plate


The Yankees just cannot seem to avoid injuries. For the
third straight year, the Bombers have been assaulted by a wave of physical
setbacks to start the season. They have five players slated to be part of their
25-man roster currently on the disabled list. The growing list includes set-up
reliever Brian Bruney (elbow), starter Chien-Ming Wang (hip), and default third
baseman Cody Ransom (torn quad), all of whom have hit the DL during the
Yankees’ disastrous weekend venture to Boston…


Speaking of waves of injuries, I thought the A’s would be a
factor in the AL West, but the disabled just isn’t cooperating. Staff ace
Justin Duchscherer remains on the 15-day DL with an elbow that underwent
arthroscopic surgery and won’t be able to return until the middle of May at the
earliest.  The A’s also learned this week
that their No. 1 set-up reliever, Joey Devine, will likely be lost for the
season because of an elbow injury. With Duchscherer and Devine, the A’s would
have made a run for the Western Division with the Angels, who have a ravaged
pitching staff of their own, but without at least one of the “Double D’s,”
Billy Beane may have to conduct another firesale this July…


Jeff Francouer has promised repeatedly that he’ll be a new
player in 2009, but we’re still seeing the same strangling level of impatience
at the plate. Through Sunday’s games, Francouer has drawn only three walks in
18 games, which is palatable if you’re a Kirby Puckett type of player, but unacceptable
if you’re not hitting for power and not bringing Gold Glove fielding to right
field. Unfortunately, the Braves are strapped for outfielders. They’ve already
made top prospect Jordan Schafer their starting center fielder and just had to place
the disappointing Garret Anderson on the disabled list…


On paper, the signing of Milton Bradley made tons of sense
for the Cubs. They need the kind of left-handed bat that the switch-hitting Bradley
can provide. But Bradley has started out miserably at the plate (one hit in 23
at-bats), has already suffered his first injury, and won’t play again until Lou
Piniella deems him 100 per cent healthy. In the meantime, the Cubs will
continue to play with 24 men. Observers in Chicago are also wondering when Milton and
Sweet Lou will have their first blow-up. Both men have explosive tempers that
tend to erupt when things go badly on the playing field. Watch out in the Windy City…


Carlos Beltran is hitting like he did during the 2004
postseason, when he practically carried the Astros to their first berth in the
World Series. By flattening out an already level swing, Beltran has been able
to hit National League pitching at a .406 clip. Beltran won’t hit .400 for the
entire season, but his speed, patience, and ability to switch-hit make him a
contender for his first batting title. I just hope that Beltran doesn’t wear
himself out trying to catch everything in an outfield that will feature Daniel “Bull
in a China Shop” Murphy all too regularly and Gary Sheffield on occasion… Sheffield’s
presence on the roster continues to surprise many of the New York beat writers. With Sheffield in town, Fernando Tatis’ role has been reduced
to almost nothing, while Ryan Church remains a platoon player in the eyes of
Jerry Manuel. Sheffield started Friday night’s game against Washington’s Scott Olsen, the first time the
Mets had faced a left-handed starter all season…


Finally, a postscript to Hank Aaron’s visit to the Hall of
Fame on Saturday. In filling out all of the artifacts contained in the new
Aaron exhibit, the former Braves legend has donated more than 50 pieces of
memorabilia to the Hall of Fame and Museum. The large supply of Aaron artifacts
include not only the requisite share of milestone bats, balls and gloves, and
his entire uniform from home run No. 715, but also several bricks and a porch
post from Aaron’s childhood home in Mobile, Alabama. Those surviving pieces
from Aaron’s youth serve as yet another reminder of how “The Hammer” came from
modest beginnings, overcoming a lack of money and a preponderance of racism on
his way to one of the greatest careers in the game’s history. Kudos to Hall of
Fame curators Erik Strohl and Mary Quinn for a job well done in constructing
such an extensive exhibit on Aaron, now on permanent display on the Museum’s
third floor.

Card Corner: Sweet Lou Piniella




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In 1984, Topps printed its final card for Lou Piniella as a
player. Even though he was hitting .302 at the time, Piniella realized that he
was blocking the way of younger outfielders in the organization and agreed to
retire in the midst of that season. The sweet swing, the reliable hands, and
the clubhouse agitation–all prominent features of the longtime Yankee–departed
the Bronx to make room for a new wave of outfield youth.


Piniella was one of the last remnants of Gabe Paul’s regime
as Yankee general manager. After the 1973 season, Paul sent aging reliever
Lindy McDaniel to the Royals for Piniella, who had won the American League’s
Rookie of the Year in 1969 but had slumped to a .250 batting average and a .291
on-base percentage during his final season in Kansas City. Paul figured that Piniella had
endured an off year, nothing more. Piniella fit Yankee needs precisely–given
their lefty-leaning lineup–providing them a semi-regular outfielder and DH who
would play against all left-handers and occasionally against right-handers,
too. In three of his first five seasons in pinstripes, Piniella hit .305 or
better while filling in day-to-day gaps in left field, right field, and at DH. He
became a vital complementary piece to the world championship teams of 1977 and
’78, culminating in his miraculous “stop” of Jerry Remy’s sun-screened line
drive in the tiebreaking playoff game of 1978.


Aside from his one-hop snare of Remy’s drive, I’ll remember two
features of Piniella’s game more than others. First, he owned one of the best
opposite-field strokes of any hitter I’ve seen. As he took his stance, he kept
his hands back, wrapped almost behind his right shoulder. With his left
shoulder tucked in and his back visible to the pitcher, Piniella pushed the
ball toward right field with the same kind of ease and precision that most
players reserve for their pull side. Then there was his reliability in the
field. Though he lacked speed and had nothing more than an average throwing
arm, Piniella possessed hands of velvet. If he could reach a fly ball, he
caught it. And whenever he pounded his fist into his glove, he was sure to make
the play.


Piniella’s line-drive stroke and sure hands represented the
best of his talents. But he had his critics–Clete Boyer was among them–those
who felt that he was vastly overrated. Piniella didn’t hit with much power,
rarely drew walks, and ran the bases poorly, sometimes atrociously. Most of his
value was tied up in his batting average. If he batted .300 or better, he could
help you, but if he hit anything less, he was just wasting at-bats that could
have gone to Roy White or Cliff Johnson.


While with the Yankees, Piniella also enhanced his
reputation as “Sweet Lou,” which had begun to form with Jim Bouton’s revealing
passages about him in Ball Four. As
is common with many nicknames, the origins of “Sweet Lou” derived from the
theory of opposites. Like the 400-pound guy who is called “Tiny,” both friends
and detractors of Piniella referred to him as Sweet Lou because of his sour
moods, sarcastic sense of humor, and his explosive temper tantrums. On the
field, his displays of anger, including incidents of helmet-and dirt-kicking,
sometimes reached comic proportions.


I first encountered Piniella three years after his
retirement from playing. By then, he was the Yankees’ manager, one of many
successors to Billy Martin. In 1987, the Yankees played the Braves in the Hall
of Fame Game here in Cooperstown. Aside from
recalling the hijinx of Rickey Henderson and Claudell Washington
at the Sheraton Hotel in UticaHe’s telling
me to go away
, I thought to myself. Stopping dead in my tracks, I soon
realized that Piniella was gesturing toward someone else, someone he knew.
Relieved that he hadn’t dismissed me,
I was nonetheless intimidated, and gave up my pursuit of Sweet Lou.

(that’s an article for another day), my strongest memory of that weekend
involved Piniella. Covering the event for WIBX Radio, I had the assignment of
doing on-field interviews prior to the game. I targeted Piniella as one of my
prime interviews. I made my way in his direction amidst an army of media types
that swarmed Doubleday Field; we soon made eye contact each other. As I drew
closer, Piniella’s blank expression became a scowl, followed immediately by a
dismissive wave of the hand.


Piniella did not return to Cooperstown
until last year, when his Cubs were scheduled to play the Padres in the final
Hall of Fame Game. The two teams never actually played, the game canceled after
several downpours of rain. Unfortunately, Piniella provided the other downer of
the day. During the pre-game parade that made its way down Main Street,
Piniella made it obvious he wanted to be anywhere but Cooperstown, underscoring
some earlier negative comments he had made about having to travel to upstate
New York. According to my spies, a number of fans screamed “Lou! Lou,” hoping
that Piniella would wave–or even smile. Instead, he continued to frown,
maintaining a scowl that reflected his contempt for having to come to Cooperstown in the first place.


In spite of my disappointment in Piniella’s dismissive
attitude toward the Hall of Fame Game, I like him as a manager. Except for Tampa Bay,
he’s consistently posted winning records, even for teams with a recent history
of failure. Last year, Piniella guided the Cubs into the postseason for a
second straight fall (though the team followed up with a second straight early
exit from the playoffs). It’s amazing the impact that he continues to have on
his teams offensively, whether it was in New York
in the eighties, Cincinnati and Seattle in the nineties, or now the Windy City
in the 2000s. When Piniella took over Chicago’s helm four years ago, the Cubs
found themselves choked by an offense that could only kindly be described
as below-average. They didn’t walk, didn’t get on base, and didn’t score runs.
By 2008, Piniella’s philosophy had taken hold. Aside from Alfonso Soriano,
almost all of Chicago’s
hitters worked the count capably last summer. Youngsters like Geovany Soto
thrived under Piniella, as did seemingly past-their-prime veterans like Jim
Edmonds. Even the role players, from Mark DeRosa to Mike Fontenot to Reed Johnson,
make ample contributions. It’s no wonder that the Cubs scored 855 runs, putting
them well ahead of all teams in the National League. Simply put, runs
scored translated into games won for the Cubs, just as it did for Piniella
long ago with the Yankees, Reds, and Mariners.


So with Piniella, you take the bad–the temper tantrums and
the moodiness–with the good. Just a few weeks ago, Piniella unleashed another
tirade, this one directed at ESPN’s Steve Phillips. The former Mets general
manager had dared to mention that the presence of an impatient manager like
Piniella made life more difficult for Kosuke Fukudome, a Japanese player who
faced an extremely difficult transition to American culture. I thought it was a
fair point by Phillips, but Piniella took it as a personal insult.

There will likely be more tantrums from Piniella this
season, whether it be a public scolding of the media, an angry mound lecture to
a wild Cubs pitcher, or a childish dirt-kicking of an umpire. That’s Sweet Lou
for you: good player, better manager, and ready to scowl at a moment’s

Releasing Sheffield, Remembering Franks




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“I didn’t see that coming.” Isn’t that what someone said in
a recent commercial for beer, or pizza, or chicken wings? Well, that’s what a
lot of us are saying after hearing that the Tigers had released Gary Sheffield.
The severing of a brand name usually carries some degree of shock, and it will
carry a cost for the Tigers, who still have to pay the $12 million salary due Sheffield in 2009.


The Tigers must think that Sheffield
40, is completely cooked to swallow that sizeable sum of money. An increasing
frequency of injuries along with a substantial loss of bat speed convinced the
Tigers that Sheffield would have been more of
a hindrance than a help. With Sheffield gone, the Tigers can feel more
comfortable in giving the majority of their DH at-bats to Marcus Thames, while
also sliding Thames into an outfield rotation
that features everyman Carlos Guillen in left, super stud Curtis Granderson in
center, and political lightning rod Magglio Ordonez in right.


I had always thought that Sheffield
would age gracefully because of his incredible bat speed, which was arguably
the fastest in the game at its peak. Even with some loss of bat speed, I
figured that Sheffield would retain enough to
remain a forceful hitter into his early forties. Unfortunately, Sheffield lost so much quickness in his wrists and hands
over the last year that it rendered him merely mortal at the plate. The lack of
bat speed became plainly evident this spring, as Sheffield
wallowed with an average under .200.


Is Sheffield done? The
Tigers obviously think so, but the odds are likely that at least one of the 29
other teams will take a flier on his right-handed power. The world champion
Phillies, who remain vulnerable to left-handed pitching, have already made
contact with Sheffield’s agent. Sheffield might fit the Phils as a platoon left fielder
(where he would share time with Raul Ibanez) and occasional first baseman
(where he could spot Ryan Howard against the occasional southpaw).  


In regards to Sheffield’s
milestone and home run issues, they need to be relegated to the back burner of
the stove. Outside of Sheffield’s most devoted
fans, no one really cares that he remains one short of the 500-home run club. (No
other milestone has lost more luster in recent seasons.) The Tigers obviously
didn’t care, either, knowing that no additional fans would show up to Comerica Park
to watch Sheffield pursue history.
Furthermore, writers need to stop referring to Sheffield
as a future Hall of Famer. He was always going to be a borderline case because
of his career-long crankiness and shoot-first-think-later approach to the
spoken word. Because of his association with the BALCO scandal, Sheffield now has about as much chance of winning 75 per
cent of the writers’ vote as Albert Belle does…



One of the most underrated managers in the history of the
expansion era died on

Monday. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living
ex-manager, passed away at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial mark with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he
failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. With the lack of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison to contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and
as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s
look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than
four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a
season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.


In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three
second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the
time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles
and St. Louis,
and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league
had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have
pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.


Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later
with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants.
In 1977, Franks led Chicago
to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting
pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with
Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like
George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing
time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did
similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave
Kingman and using an innovative approach with Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the
Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks
began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the
lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of
being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving
his relief ace for late-game leads.


For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven
games remaining in the season. The following year, the Cubs finished 64-98,
nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.

Card Corner–Bump Wills


In 1979, the Topps Company produced this iconic Bump Wills card, featuring the switch-hitting second baseman as a member of the Blue Jays, even though he was clearly wearing the uniform of the Rangers. In fact, the Rangers never traded Wills to the Blue Jays, not at any time before or during the 1979 season.


So what happened here? In 2002, former Topps president and baseball card icon Sy Berger visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for a 50th anniversary celebration of Topps baseball cards, giving me the opportunity to ask him directly about the reasons behind the Wills “error.” According to Sy, he had received a call from a friend after the 1978 season, telling him that Wills was about to be traded from the Rangers to the Blue Jays as part of a major trade. Although the trade had yet to be announced, the friend assured Berger that it was a “done deal.” Convinced that he had a scoop and figuring that he could release an accurate and updated card ahead of the curve, Berger instructed his production people to attach the name “Blue Jays” to the bottom of the Wills card.


After producing the card during the winter of 1978, Topps issued it to the public in March of 1979, which was then the time that Topps typically released its cards. Unfortunately, like many trade discussions, the Bump Wills trade turned out to be nothing more than rumor. The Rangers kept their hard-hitting second baseman, who remained in Texas for three more seasons before finally being dealt–not to the Blue Jays, but to the Cubs–after the 1981 campaign.


With the trade to Toronto falling through, Topps was left mildly embarrassed. Once Opening Day rolled around and Berger realized that no trade was going to take place, Topps decided to correct the error and release a revised and corrected card, this time showing the name “Rangers” at the bottom of the card. As a result, there are two 1979 Bump Wills cards in circulation. The corrected “Rangers” version is considered the more valuable, since fewer of those cards were produced, making it scarcer than the “Blue Jays” version. The only thing scarcer might be Berger’s relationship with his friend, who had clearly given him some misguided information and had ceased becoming a source of knowledge for the Topps Company.


Although Wills never played for my team, the Yankees, he did have a rumored connection to the club in the early 1980s. After the 1982 season, several reports circulated that the Yankees were seriously considering a blockbuster trade that would have sent Willie Randolph to the Cubs for Billy Buckner. Such a move would have filled a major need at first base (where the Yankees realized that 33-year-old John Mayberry was over-the-hill), but would have created a large void at second base. According to one hot rumor that winter, the Yankees were prepared to replace the departed Randolph with the faster Wills, a free agent who had played out the final year of his contract with the Cubs. The additions of the two former Cubbies would have given the Yankees a hyperactive offensive infield of Buckner, Wills, Roy Smalley at shortstop and Graig Nettles at third base, but the reconfiguration would have created more than a few misadventures defensively. In addition to Smalley’s shortcomings, Wills’ range had started to diminish, while Buckner’s knees were beginning to give him trouble before they would undergo a complete breakdown in Beantown.


Despite the rumors, Wills never did make his way to the Bronx. Finding no offers to his liking from any major league team, including the Blue Jays, Wills took his talents to the Japanese Leagues. That didn’t stop Topps from producing another Wills card in 1983–one that had him right back in Chicago!