Tagged: Tigers

The Sunday Scuttlebutt

Normal
0

false
false
false

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

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.

Advertisements

The Nickname Game: Team Names

Normal
0

false
false
false

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

Beginning this week and continuing most Thursdays throughout the season, we present a new feature at Cooperstown Confidential. Though they have become somewhat of a dying art in the major leagues, nicknames are one of my favorite pastimes. They tell us more about teams and players, while adding some color to the game. In this week’s lidlifter, let’s examine some of the best secondary nicknames that have been given to some memorable teams over the last 100-plus years.


While
all current-day teams have official nicknames, there’s always been a tendency
to give some clubs more colorful names, as a way of paying tribute to unique
characteristics or personalities within the teams’ dynamics. Here are 12 of the
most intriguing names that have been given to teams over the years, either by
fans, the media, or by the players themselves.


“Hitless Wonders”: 1906 Chicago White Sox

Epitomizing
the depths of offensive frustration in the Deadball Era, the White Sox batted
.230 with a grand total of seven home runs in the regular season, yet still
claimed the American League pennant. The Sox might not have hit much, but they
drew a ton of walks and played little ball to the hilt, finishing fourth in the
league in runs scored. The White Sox then pulled off an ever larger upset in
the World Series, downing the crosstown Cubs of Tinker-to-Evans-to-Chance fame,
four games to two.

 

“Murderers’ Row:” 1927-1928 New York
Yankees

No
team nickname has matched the fame of “Murderers’ Row,” which actually
originated as a 19th century reference to an isolated row of prison
cells featuring some of the worst criminals of the infamous Tombs prison.  The baseball version of Murderers’ Row
included four future Hall of Famers–Earle Combs (batting leadoff), Babe Ruth
(batting third), Lou Gehrig (in the cleanup spot), and Tony Lazzeri (batting
sixth). The ’27 Yankees didn’t receive much punch from the bottom of the order,
where weak links like Jumping Joe Dugan and Pat Collins resided, but the top
six batters in the lineup did the damage of nine full men.

 

“The Gas House Gang:” 1934-1939 St. Louis
Cardinals

This
name originated with a neighborhood on the lower east side of Manhattan, where a violent group of young men
tormented citizens and came to call themselves the “Gashouse Gang.” The
Cardinals’ version of the “Gang” wasn’t quite as vicious as the street thugs,
but they did feature a number of ruffians, including infielders Leo Durocher
and Pepper Martin, outfielder Ducky Medwick, and ace pitcher Dizzy Dean. The
Cardinals of that era played a hard-nosed brand of ball, sliding hard into
bases, knocking over opposing defenders, and rarely backing away from on-field
brawls.

 

“Whiz Kids:” 1950 Philadelphia Phillies:

Coming
out of nowhere to win the National League pennant, Eddie Sawyer’s “Kids”
featured a day-to-day lineup of players almost exclusively under the age of 30.
The oldest regular was 30-year-old first baseman Eddie Waitkus, but the stars
were the 23-year-old Richie Ashburn and the 25-year-old Del Ennis. The starting
rotation was also headlined by two youngsters, Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons,
whose combined total of wins (37) nearly matched their collective age (44).

 

“Big Red Machine:” 1969-1976 Cincinnati
Reds

Some
newspapers and magazines began to refer to Cincinnati’s dynamic offensive team
as the “Big Red Machine” as early as 1969 and ’70, but the name really caught
on when the franchise steamrolled the rest of the majors in winning the ’75 and
’76 World Championships. That mid-1970s run included a four-game World Series annhilation of the Yankees, a series that too often seemed like Thurman Munson battling alone against Cincinnati’s entire 25-man roster. The cast of characters changed significantly from 1969
to 1976, with Lee May, Tommy Helms, and Bobby Tolan eventually giving way to
George Foster, Joe Morgan, and Ken Griffey Sr. The constants were Johnny Bench,
Tony Perez, and Pete Rose, though both Perez and Rose switched positions in
mid-stream; Perez moved from third to first, and Rose went from right field to
left field to third base. Combining power and speed, few teams in history have
matched the offensive potency of “The Machine.”


“Pittsburgh Lumber Company:” 1970-1976 Pittsburgh
Pirates

The Lumber Company name didn’t really take hold until the mid-1970s, but in retrospect, the 1971 world championship team should be included. Using
a free-swinging approach that might not have been fully appreciated by some
Sabermetricians, the Pirates pummeled their way to five division titles, one
pennant, and a World Championship during the first half of the decade. Other than
Willie Stargell and Bob Robertson, the “Lumber Company” didn’t like to take
walks, which they generally regarded as unmanly. Instead, Roberto Clemente, Al
Oliver, and Manny Sanguillen preferred to swing the bat early and often, and
they did it well, banging a parade of singles and doubles in a constant barrage
against opposing pitching staffs.

 

“Mustache Gang:” 1972 Oakland A’s

After
initially balking at Reggie Jackson’s spring training mustache, Oakland owner Charlie
Finley decided that he liked the new facial hair so much that he offered $300
bonuses to each of his players if they followed suit by Father’s Day. All 25
players took up the challenge, what with $300 being a lot of money to a major
leaguer in 1972. Even after the resulting “Mustache Day” promotion, most of the
A’s kept their mustaches; some took the trend a step further by letting their
hair grown long, while adding beards and heavy sideburns to boot. The new look
certainly didn’t hurt the A’s on the field, as Finley’s gang went on to win the
first of three consecutive world championships.


“The F-Troop:” 1973-1974 Atlanta Braves

The
Braves’ bench players came to call themselves the “F-Troop,” in reference to
the popular TV show that starred Ken Berry and Forrest Tucker. Although the
Braves finished fifth and third, respectively, in 1973 and ’74, they did have
some productive players in reserve. In 1973, backup catcher-first baseman Dick
Dietz hit .295 while drawing an amazing 49 walks against only 25 strikeouts.
Reserve first baseman Frank Tepedino hit .295 with 29 RBIs. And utilityman
Chuck Goggin batted .289 while showing the versatility to both catch and play
shortstop. Without Dietz and Goggin, the bench wasn’t nearly as productive in
’74, resulting in a quick fadeaway for the F-Troop nickname.


“The Southside Hitmen:” 1977 Chicago White Sox

The
’77 White Sox of Bob Lemon finished no better than third in the American League
West, couldn’t field a lick, and had the third-worst pitching in the league,
but still managed to win 90 games while creating a legacy that makes them one
of the most beloved Sox teams in memory. The hard-hitting, stone-gloved lineup
featured Jorge Orta at second, Eric Soderholm at third, Ralph “The Roadrunner” Garr in left,
Richie Zisk in right, and Oscar Gamble at DH, all the while wearing those awful
black and white throwback uniforms that featured collared shirts of the
“untuckable” variety. Finishing second in the league in runs scored, the
“Hitmen” made the summer of ’77 a fun one in the Windy City–and a final legacy to aging owner Bill Veeck.


“The Bronx
Zoo:” 1977-1979 New York Yankees

This
nickname became popular because of the book of the same name written by Sparky
Lyle and Peter Golenbock. “The Bronx Zoo” served as a perfect description of a
team where arguments took place on a daily basis, players fought in the showers
(Cliff Johnson vs. Goose Gossage), the team’s center fielder (Mickey Rivers)
spoke in a language all his own, and Lyle himself routinely sat on birthday
cakes delivered to the clubhouse.  It was
all in a day’s work with the Yankees of the late seventies.

 

“Riders of the Lonesome Pine:” 1981 Detroit Tigers

The
’81 Tigers finished out of the playoff money during the split season and the
bench players really were nothing special, but they deserve credit for coming
up with one of the most colorful nicknames for a backup squad of players. “The
Riders” included the wacky (Johnny Wockenfuss and that wonderful leg-crossing stance), the obscure (Ron Jackson, Mick
Kelleher, and Stan Papi), and the forgotten (Lynn Jones and Ricky Peters).

 

“Harvey’s
Wallbangers:” 1982-1983 Milwaukee Brewers

This
nickname was a natural, given the first name of manager Harvey Kuenn and the
team’s ability to hit home runs at a moment’s notice. Stormin’ Gorman Thomas
led the American League with 39 home runs in 1982, while Cecil Cooper and Ben
Oglivie also cracked the 30-home run barrier. The “Wallbangers” advanced to the
seventh game of the 1982 World Series, but fell back in ’83, finishing fifth in
a stacked American League East. Two future Hall of Famers, Paul Molitor and
Robin Yount, played as regulars for the ’82 Wallbangers, while two others, Don
Sutton and Rollie Fingers, contributed to an underrated pitching staff.

 

Farewell to The Bird

Normal
0

false
false
false

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

It has been a dire day for baseball. On Monday afternoon, we
learned of the passing of beloved broadcaster Harry Kalas. A few hours later
came news of the death of an equally cherished figure, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych,
who became the game’s pied piper in 1976.

 

I first experienced the wonder of Mark Fidrych on a Monday
night in late June that summer. Prior to that game, I had seen only snippets of
Fidrych’s antics on local sportscasts and read tidbits about him in the New York newspapers. Beyond that, I didn’t know much
about Fidrych. There was no ESPN or MLB Network around to provide continuous
highlights or in-depth analysis about what this strange-looking rookie was
doing during his tour of American League cities.

 

Prior to Fidrych’s arrival on the major league scene in
1976, pitchers usually showed little emotion on the mound. They restrained
themselves from exhibiting much body language, instead approaching the job of
pitching in a businesslike manner.

 

On June 28, ABC chose to broadcast the Tigers-Yankees
matchup as its featured game on “Monday Night Baseball.” With the old Tiger
Stadium providing the backdrop, Fidrych showed the country his way of doing
things. He “manicured” the mound by combing over the dirt with his hands,
fixing cleat marks along the way. When one of his infielders made a great
defensive play behind him, Fidrych applauded loudly, congratulating his
teammate. After recording the third out of each inning, Fidrych didn’t walk off
the mound, but ran as if he were in the midst of a 40-yard dash, usually
engaging in a full sprint before coming to a sudden halt at the Tigers’ dugout.
There was also an element of superstition in his running. On the way back to
the dugout, he jumped over the chalk baselines so as to avoid stepping on the
lines.

 

And, oh by the way, Fidrych talked to the baseball. He felt
that by conversing with the ball he could better control the pitch and make it
move in the way that he wanted. Fidrych felt every baseball possessed a kind of
karma. Once a batter reached safely with a hit, Fidrych asked the umpire to
throw out the ball and give him another. He felt the old ball still had hits in
it and needed to mix with other baseballs so that it would “right itself.”

 

All of these on-field mannerisms overshadowed Fidrych’s pitching that night. Throwing a sinking fastball clocked at 93 miles per hour, Fidych scattered seven hits in putting the clamps to the Yankees, 5-1, before an appreciative Tiger Stadium crowd.

As with most colorful characters, Fidrych came equipped with
a nickname. Fidrych’s on-field antics, assisted by his physical appearance,
earned him the nickname “The Bird.” Thin and gangly with a head full of curly
hair, Fidrych looked a little like the Sesame Street character, “Big Bird.”
Fidrych’s unusual look fully accentuated his on-the-field histrionics, giving
him a loveable goofiness that fans adored.

 

Fidrych became so popular during the 1976 season that one of
Detroit’s
opponents held a special promotion marketed around the Tigers’ right-hander.
The California Angels hosted “Mark Fidrych Day” at Anaheim Stadium, giving
thousands of fans a chance to obtain the gawky right-hander’s autograph at no
extra charge.

 

In addition to adoring his on-field antics, fans appreciated
Fidrych for his down-home qualities. At a time when major league players began
to draw criticism for escalating salaries, Fidrych showed little interest in
material reward. He drove a green subcompact car to the ballpark, usually wore
old blue jeans, and told fans that if he didn’t have the ability to pitch, he’d
spend his time pumping gas at a filling station in Northborough, Massachusetts.

 

Unfortunately, Fidrych would be forced to return to a more
routine lifestyle sooner than he would have expected. During spring training in
1977, Fidrych hurt his arm while shagging fly balls in the outfield. The
injury, which turned out to be a rotator cuff tear, sidelined him for most of
the next three seasons, never allowing him to return to his previous form. By the
end of the 1980 season, he was out of a major league job. To the surprise of no
one who knew him, Fidrych became a commercial trucker after his playing days
and settled down to live on a 107-acre farm in Northborough.

 

It was on that farm that Fidrych was doing some work on
Monday. A family friend came by his house, discovering his body under a dump
truck, which Fidrych was trying to repair. The truck had apparently collapsed
on Fidrych, claiming his life at the age of 54.

 

Mark Fidrych should have lived longer, just like he should
have pitched longer. That’s the sad part of the story. But he managed to create
more memories than any player who lasted a mere five seasons in the majors. And
he lived more vibrantly than most of us could do given twice the time he had.

 

That’s a lesson we should all remember whenever we think of
The Bird.

 

Releasing Sheffield, Remembering Franks

Normal
0

false
false
false

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:”Table Normal”;
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-parent:””;
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:10.0pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
mso-ansi-language:#0400;
mso-fareast-language:#0400;
mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

“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–Aurelio Rodriguez

Rodriguez.jpg

Aurelio Rodriguez–Topps Company–1981 (No. 34)

Although his name can be found right below that of the already-legendary Alex Rodriguez in books like Total Baseball, he has been mostly forgotten since his playing days ended in 1983. That’s more than a bit sad, partly because the original “A-Rod” left such a distinct impression on me–first as an opposing player and then during a late-career turn with the Yankees.

Aurelio Rodriguez couldn’t hit like today’s more well-known “A-Rod,” but he was one of the most graceful defensive third basemen of the 1970s. Rodriguez had the range of a shortstop and the throwing arm of a right fielder; along with his smooth hands, those skills combined to form a delightful package at the hot corner. In fact, I’ve never seen an infielder with a stronger arm than Aurelio. (A list of such arms would have to include recent infielders like Shawon Dunston and Travis Fryman or current-day players like Rafael Furcal and Troy Tulowitzki. All terrific arms, but all a notch below that of Rodriguez. ) That cannon-like right arm, which Ernie Harwell often described as a “howitzer,” made him a treat to watch during his many stops with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Padres, Tigers, Washington Senators, and Angels.

A product of Cananea, Mexico, Rodriguez struggled with English during his early major league career with the Angels. As Rodriguez once said without bitterness, he knew only three words of English during his first ten days with California. “Ham and eggs” became a frequent refrain, resulting in a less-than-balanced diet for the young Rodriguez.

Always a terrific defender at the hot corner, Rodriguez failed to develop offensively with the Angels–a problem that persisted throughout his career. He resisted repeated attempts by his managers and coaches to hit outside pitches toward the opposite field, stubbornly trying to pull the ball and hit home runs. Rodriguez was also the consummate free swinger, never one to take to pitches and work out walks. And I’ve heard at least one former front official with the Tigers describe Rodriguez as a player who simply didn’t work as hard as he should have.

Although Rodriguez never became the star that the Angels once predicted, he did enjoy a solid career, especially with the Tigers. With his rifle arm and silky soft hands, Rodriguez cemented the left side of the infield for the Tigers and would have won more than one Gold Glove if not for the presence of a fellow named Brooks Robinson. How good was Rodriguez in the field? Of all the third basemen I watched throughout the seventies, only two were better defenders: Brooksie and the Yankees’ own Graig Nettles. In a decade that overflowed with slick-and-smooth fielders like Buddy Bell, Darrell Evans, Doug “The Rooster” Rader, and Mike Schmidt, that should be taken as lofty praise indeed.

Rodriguez won only one Gold Glove during his 17-year career, that coming in 1976, mostly because he had the misfortune of playing at the same time as the two acrobats named Robinson and Nettles. “Brooksie” and “Puff” became far more famous–primarily because they could hit and launch the ball with power–and were better defensively at third, but not by much. If Rodriguez had ever developed into more than a mediocre hitter with only occasional power, he might have collected a few more Gold Gloves during his dynamic years in Detroit.

In addition to the legacy he left behind for his fielding abilities, Rodriguez will also be remembered for his involvement in two intriguing episodes of baseball history–one rather trivial and the other a bit more consequential. In 1969, the Topps Company issued Rodriguez’ rookie card. Or so it seemed. The picture on the front of the card did not actually depict Rodriguez, but rather the Angels’ youthful batboy, a young man named Leonard Garcia, who happened to be wearing Aurelio’s uniform. I’ve heard two theories behind this incident, which left Rodriguez with perhaps the oddest rookie card in Topps history. According to one story, it was a simple mix-up, caused by the similarities in appearance between Garcia and Rodriguez and exacerbated by Rodriguez’ limited abilities with speaking English.  The other theory is more interesting: Rodriguez intentionally substituted Garcia for the photograph session, as a way of playing a practical joke on the people from Topps.

In 1971, Rodriguez found himself in the spotlight again when the Senators included him in a monstrous trade package that they used to acquire 1968 Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain from the Tigers. Although McLain was the headliner in the deal, the Tigers would emerge as the clear winner of the trade. Rodriguez and slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman, two of the players acquired by Detroit, would form an impenetrable left side of the infield, helping the Tigers to the American League East title in 1972. He would also become popular with Detroit fans, in part because of a nice, easygoing personality. Rodriguez would remain in the Motor City for the rest of the decade, eventually overseeing the arrival of two promising fellow infielders, Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker.

Rodriguez would play nine seasons in Detroit before being sold to the Padres during the winter of 1979. In August of 1980, with the Yankees concerned about an aging Nettles become increasingly vulnerable to left-handed pitching, GM Gene Michael sent cash to the Padres for Rodriguez. He ended up doing nothing offensively for the Yankees down the stretch, batting a mere .220 with a slugging percentage of .323. With his career slope on a downhill path and now reduced to reserve status, Rodriguez returned to the Yankees in a limited role in 1981, the year of the Topps card shown above. Playing almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, Rodriguez made the most of his opportunities. Though he came to bat only 52 times, he batted .346 with a slugging percentage of an even .500. (I know about small sample sizes, but such numbers were simply unheard of for the offensively challenged Rodriguez.) He continued his monstrous hitting in the World Series, where he batted .417 against Dodger pitching, with five hits and a walk in 12 at-bats. His offensive performance would become obscured amidst the disappointment of four straight losses to Dodger Blue (and amidst the hubbub of George Steinbrenner’s alleged fight with two Dodger fans in an elevator), but Rodriguez couldn’t be blamed for the team’s shortfall. If only the Yankees had won the Series, then Aurelio might have been remembered as yet another October hero.

So how did the Yankees reward Rodriguez for his robust hitting in 1981? They traded him, of course, sending him to the Blue Jays for an obscure minor leaguer named Mike Lebo. And just that quickly, his days as a Yankee came to an end.

Most Yankee fans probably forgot about Rodriguez until picking up a newspaper in the fall of 2000. That’s when they would have seen the obituary. On a Saturday afternoon in September, the 52-year-old Rodriguez and a 35-year-old woman were walking on a Detroit sidewalk when the driver of a nearby car suffered a stroke, resulting in his vehicle jumping the curb and running into them. The bizarre accident killed Rodriguez, who was visiting Detroit because he was scheduled to appear at a card show the next day, along with another former Tiger and Yankee, Tom Brookens. At his funeral in Mexico a few days later, thousands of fans and friends attended the service of the likeable Rodriguez, including the Mexican president.

Sadly, Rodriguez never received a last chance to reminisce with those fans, or Tiger fans, many of whom enjoyed watching him play third base with such flair and finesse. Those fans, like this Yankee fan, would have let Aurelio know that he really was not forgotten after all.

Dastardly Denny

Always outspoken, Denny McLain is at it again. The former Tigers’ ace has just issued his third autobiography (and more could be on the way given McLain’s penchant for trouble). In his latest volume, McLain verbally attacks several of his former Tiger teammates, most notably Hall of Famer Al Kaline. McLain describes Kaline as not being particular popular in the clubhouse, especially during the latter stages of the 1968 season, when he almost hurt himself before the World Series by slamming his bat into a bat rack. McLain also knocks Kaline for refusing to accept a salary increase from the Tigers’ front office, an increase that would have put other Tiger players in better positions to ask for raises.

In some cases, the messenger is just as important as the message. McLain’s “messages” about Kaline are worthy of debate, but there’s little debate about the “messenger” here. This is the same McLain who expected the Tigers to treat him one way, that is to say royally, while treating the other players a different way, that is to say, like peasants. This is the same McLain who abused his body by living a high-wire lifestyle that included the daily consumption of a case of Pepsi. And this is the same McLain who has spent two terms in federal prison on a variety of counts, including racketeering, embezzlement, extortion, and drugs.

I want to like McLain. At his peak, he was an extraordinary pitcher and a Hall of Fame talent. He has always been articulate and charismatic. Some of the misfortunes he has suffered, including some financial issues, have not been his fault. Yet, he makes himself hard to sympathize with when he constantly points the fingers at others, whether it be Kaline, fellow pitching ace Mickey Lolich, or a lowly backup catcher like Jim Price. A little less assignment of guilt, and a little more accountability, would go a long way toward making McLain more sympathetic and a lot less objectionable.

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Remembering Dobber

The baseball world continues to lose good people. First there was Buck O’Neil. Then came word of the unexpected passing of Joe Niekro. Then we lost Johnny Sain. And then last Wednesday, former major league right-hander Pat Dobson died just one day after being diagnosed with leukemia.

I never met Dobson, but I always enjoyed reading articles that quoted him. He was a legendary storyteller, an incredibly funny free spirit, and an incisively honest assessor of major league talent, both good and bad. He also happened to be a very good pitcher, a legitimate No. 3 starter for some excellent postseason teams of the 1970s. In today’s game, the younger Dobson would have merited a four-year contract worth $40 million, maybe more, on the open market. He was that good.

*Dobson is best remembered for being one of four 20-game winners on the 1971 Orioles, but he was previously an important part of a World Championship bullpen. He pitched in long relief for the 1968 Tigers, succeeding the likes of Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich on those rare occasions when those workhorses didn’t last through the eighth or ninth innings. Although the Tigers’ starters accumulated a ton of innings in 1968, Dobson did pitch effectively when called upon. He posted a 2.66 ERA in 125 innings, finished second on the team with seven saves, and even started 10 games as a spot starter. Dobson filled a role that is rarely seen in baseball today: that of the utility pitcher who can close, pitch middle relief, or start from time to time. Few guys do that anymore in this age of specialization.

*After struggling to find a niche with the Tigers and the Padres in the late 1960s, Dobson blossomed under the tutelage of manager Earl Weaver and pitching coach George Bamberger with the Orioles. At the time that Dobson joined the Orioles, he featured five pitches that he threw from several different angles and windups. Weaver simplified his approach, encouraging Dobson to adopt a single windup and concentrate on using his two or three best pitches. The approach worked; Dobson not only won 20 games in 1971, but also remained an effective starter in 1972 before the Orioles foolishly traded him to the Braves as part of the ill-fated Earl Williams deal. After the Braves gave up on him midway through the 1973 season (as if they had too much pitching to spare), he had effective seasons with both the Indians and the Yankees.

*Dobson featured a phenomenal overhand curve ball, which he couldn’t throw for strikes in Detroit but began to refine with more precision in Baltimore. It wasn’t as good as that of contemporaries like Bert Blyleven, but it was probably only a notch below. (Think Neil Allen or Rod Scurry from the 1980s in terms of similarly effective curve balls.) If Dobson had ever developed another pitch with remotely the same effectiveness as his curve ball, he would have likely been a 200-game winner and a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.

*After his playing days, Dobson remained highly successful. He became a respected pitching coach for several teams–he could diagnose a flawed pitching delivery almost immediately–and then a trusted scout and front office advisor for the Giants. Here’s what I really liked about Dobson: as a scout, he was very outspoken and colorful. He gave very honest opinions to the media, sometimes so honest that he got himself into trouble. I can remember a few years ago, he was heavily quoted in a USA Today Baseball Weekly article with some brutally honest assessments of various players. The Giants, his employers, were none too pleased and reprimanded him. I think they came close to firing him. Thankfully, they didn’t. It’s too bad that he never became a color analyst on radio or TV. He would have made a good one.

Either way, I’ll miss the likeable guy known as Dobber.