This is no way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of being the Oakland A’s. Including Sunday’s 13-1 humiliation at the hands of the White Sox, the A’s are now 5-23 since the All-Star break. As Bill Madden pointed out in his Sunday column in the Daily News, their level of play is so historically bad that they are threatening to eclipse the franchise mark for the worst post-All-Star break record ever. That was set in 1943, when the Philadelphia A’s went 15-61 under Hall of Famer Connie Mack. For those who may have missed out on that team, the ’43 A’s featured the immortal infield of Dick Siebert, Pete Suder, Irv Hall, and Eddie Mayo, who combined to hit four home runs over the 154-game schedule.
The reasons for the sorry state of the current A’s are numerous. A full-throttle assault of injuries (including season-ending jolts to Mike Sweeney and Eric Chavez), midseason trades that sent Rich Harden and Joe Blanton elsewhere, and a reliance on too many not-ready-for-prime-time prospects have all conspired to place the A’s in a death spiral. If you’d like to place a finger on the No. 1 culprit, however, you might be advised to look at the team’s offense. At their current pace, the A’s are on track to score the fewest number of runs in franchise history since the 1979 A’s. Managed by the forgotten Jim Marshall, those A’s managed to score 573 runs for the season. With such luminaries as Mike Edwards playing second base and Rob Picciolo at shortstop, and journeyman catcher Jeff Newman leading the team with a scant 22 home runs, the ’79 A’s lost an Oakland-record 108 games on their way to finishing last in the American League West.
In terms of hitting, today’s A’s aren’t much better. Corner infielders Daric Barton and Jack Hannahan have been offensive ciphers, combining for ten home runs all season. (Where are Dave Revering and Wayne Gross when you need them?) After a good start to the year, outfielder Emil Brown has reverted to journeyman form, justifying the Royals’ decision to release him after 2007. Even highly regarded center fielder Carlos Gonzalez has struggled, experiencing growing pains despite being the top prospect acquired from Arizona in the Danny Haren deal last winter.
Only a good start to the season has prevented the A’s from taking their place next to the franchise’s worst teams in terms of won-loss record. Since moving to Oakland in 1968, the A’s have experienced 100-loss seasons only three times. Despite their horrific play over the last month, the current A’s are only 11 games under .500, at 56-67. Padded by the early season wins, the A’s would have to endure a truly awful stretch for them to challenge the 100-loss mark.
Then again, it’s only mid-August. Maybe these A’s have another 33 losses in them…
In contrast to the A’s, the Mets are trying to reverse their trend of early season underachievement by playing their best ball over the past month. Prior to Monday’s loss to the Bucs, the Mets had won six games in a row–in spite of Billy Wagner’s continuing absence. The Mets understandably remain concerned about their bullpen, though, which explains Omar Minaya’s acquisition of Luis Ayala on Sunday. I might be in the minority on this one, but I like the pickup of Ayala. Though he’s pitched poorly this season, Ayala was very good in 2007; in fact, he’s been an effective middle reliever his entire career. His career ERA of 3.33 is a full run better than the league average. A change of scenery–from the league-worst Nationals to the hard-charging Mets–might be a tonic for Ayala, who is only 30 and fully healthy after missing all of 2006 because of Tommy John surgery…
ESPN SportsNation has been conducting polls on the greatest players in each franchise’s history. The Reds, as one of the oldest franchises in the game, have featured perhaps the most stunning ballot results thus far. At last look, the leading Cincinnati votegetter has been baseball’s favorite banned boy–none other than Pete Rose–with about 55 per cent of the tally. Somehow, Johnny Bench is running second to Rose, and Joe Morgan can be found all the way down at fifth place. Unbelievable. Gambling issues aside, there is simply no way that a reasonable argument can be made that Rose was a better player than Bench (MLB’s greatest catcher) or Morgan (arguably the game’s best second baseman ever). In my mind, Rose ranks as no better than the 4th best player in franchise history, well behind Bench, Morgan, and Frank Robinson. Let the arguments begin…
Finally, this is the last week that we’ll take suggestions for the new baseball card image we’ll be displaying on the home page. (Sorry, Willie Mays.) Topps cards are preferred, but we’ll also consider Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck if the story behind the card is a good one. Post your suggestions now!
Willie Stargell–Topps Company–1973 (No. 370)
As a young baseball fan growing up in the 1970s, I liked and admired Willie Stargell so much that I was once motivated to do something very foolish: at the age of nine, I stole his elusive 1974 baseball card from my next door neighbor’s house. (I’m not sure why I became so infatuated with the 1974 card. I actually liked the 1973 card, pictured here, a lot more, since it was an action shot, showing a massive Stargell stretching to receive a throw at first base ahead of the arrival of Philadelphia’s Del Unser. I also preferred the 1973 card of Bobby Bonds, which features an unexpected appearance by Stargell, who is attempting to retire Bonds in a rundown play. Two stars on one card, yes!)
Fortunately, my neighbor Hank Taylor–the older brother of one of my best friends, Alec–knew about my infatuation with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ slugger and quickly confronted me about the pilfered card. Feeling humiliated at being caught and guilty over what I had done, I returned the stolen item. As I look back at that incident today, I’m tempted to make the following conclusion: in a strange and indirect way, Willie Stargell taught me a simple but important lesson about how it was wrong to take things that didn’t belong to me.
Although my friends and I grew up in Westchester County as fans of either the Mets or Yankees, we loved to imitate two “out-of-town” hitters of the day. One was Cincinnati Reds superstar Joe Morgan, who regularly flapped his left elbow like a fluttering chicken wing. The other was Stargell, for the way that he “windmilled” his bat in a rhythmic circle. As he awaited each pitch, Stargell rocked back and forth in the batter’s box, motioning his bat forward, pointing it for a moment toward center field, and then bringing the bat backward for another swirl. The windmilling seemed to relax Stargell and aid his timing at the plate. At the same time, the constant motioning of the bat must have frightened opposing pitchers, as they envisioned the massive Stargell preparing to unleash his ferocious uppercut swing.
The Stargell that we enjoyed watching was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. Given our youth, we didn’t realize what Stargell had overcome in reaching the major leagues. At the time, we didn’t understand that he had grown up poor, in contrast to our relatively wealthy upbringing.
For much of his youth, Stargell lived in a governmental project in Alameda, California. Stargell certainly experienced poverty, but on the favorable side, encountered relatively little racism while growing up in the projects. Those circumstances began to change in 1959, when he signed his first professional baseball contract and reported to the Pirates’ minor league affiliate in the Class-D Sophomore League. There he discovered a different world, one more antagonistic and harsh toward African Americans. Since many hotels did not permit black residents, Stargell often slept in cots on the back porches of private homes owned by other blacks. Restaurants also discriminated against blacks. Stargell often had to wait in restaurant kitchens, where he was handed small scraps of foods. At other times, Stargell had to sit on the team bus while the white players ate comfortably in roadside diners. Other devices of segregation were just as infuriating to Stargell. “We had to drink from different fountains,” Stargell recalled. “There was always a constant reminder that we were less superior.”
The severe racial hostilities that Stargell and other black players experienced left the slugger feeling understandably bitter–at least early in his career. On one occasion, a white man threatened Stargell with a shotgun. The man told Stargell that if he dared to hit successfully in the game that night, he would shoot him. “I couldn’t understand how the color of my skin could make people hate me for something I had never done,” Stargell recalled in the Syracuse Herald American.
Stargell first arrived in the major leagues in 1962. At 6’2″ and 225 pounds, Stargell was a massive but mobile outfielder with a surprisingly strong arm (second only to Clemente among the Pirates), who showed flashes of promise at the plate. Yet, he really didn’t begin to commit himself to the game until after he suffered a disappointing 1968 season, when he batted.237 with 24 home runs. “I wondered if all I wanted to be was a player who stayed around for 10 years and didn’t really accomplish anything,” Stargell told Baseball Digest, “or did I want to make myself a real good ballplayer, an outstanding ballplayer?” Stargell realized that he had been cheating himself. “Once I used to think that all there was to this game was to show up at the ballpark a couple of hours before gametime, go through the usual routine, play nine innings, and go home.”
Stargell began to hit more consistently in 1969 and ’70, but it was in 1971 that he emerged as a star. After reporting to spring training in the best physical condition of his career, he enjoyed a torrid first month of the season, making a successful run at the April home run record. He became an important part of the Pirates’ team–a World Championship team in 1971.
Stargell inspired his Pirate teammates and fans–with his tape-measure home runs, the longest the game had seen since Mickey Mantle‘s heyday in the 1950s. Stargell’s resume of tape-measure home runs included two launched completely out of Dodger Stadium, one of the toughest parks for hitters of that era. During Stargell’s career, no other player even managed to hit one home run out of the ballpark in Chavez Ravine.
As much as lengthy home runs defined Stargell on the field, they only scratched the surface of portraying his overall contributions to the game, including his relationship with teammates and the general public. Unlike some self-centered athletes, Willie knew how to connect with fans. For example, after he bought a restaurant in The Hill section of Pittsburgh in 1970, he conjured up a special promotion: every time, he hit a home run, the restaurant would give free chicken to anyone placing an order at that time. The giveaway prompted legendary Pirates announcer Bob Prince to proclaim, “Spread some chicken on the hill!” when Willie blasted another long ball. More importantly, Stargell didn’t merely focus his efforts toward patrons of his restaurant. He reached out to all Pirate fans by regularly chatting with them prior to games and willingly signing autographs.
For years, Stargell impressed the baseball world with his success in hitting home runs and driving in runners. People within the game also took notice of Stargell’s Clemente-like willingness to devote time to humanitarian causes. During the 1970-71 off-season, he participated in a USO tour for the benefit of American soldiers in Vietnam. On the local front, he performed volunteer work for the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Pittsburgh, working in the ghettoes as part of the “War on Poverty.” He became president of the Black Athletes Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping African-American athletes earn better contracts and endorsement opportunities while also addressing problems that affected the black community at-large. And in perhaps his most well known cause, he served as chief spokesman for the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, successfully mobilizing public awareness of a disease that had received very little publicity in the 1960s. Stargell made numerous public appearances throughout his playing career in efforts to raise money to combat the sickle cell disease, which attacks blood cells, mostly in African Americans. “So many people know so little about this disease,” Stargell once said in an interview with the New York Times. “These people live a short, miserable life. We need the help of everyone.”
In 1998, just three years before his death from kidney disease, I was privileged to meet Willie Stargell for the first time. In January of that year, during the depths of another Northeast winter, he came to Cooperstown as part of a program put together by the U.S. Postal Service. He agreed to speak to a group of children who had assembled in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. Although most of the kids didn’t know who he was–and none of them ever saw him play–they were still captivated by the positive messages of inspiration coming from this once-great player. In spite of the generational divide, he was able to reach those children, just as he had always reached me, starting with those days in the early seventies when I collected his cards and imitated his swing.
Willie Stargell, it seemed, could connect with anyone.