August 2008

So That’s What it Was Like

In the ever-evolving storyline of baseball, the present not only adds additional layers to the horizon; it can also provide opportunities for us as fans to expand our understanding of the past and connect with the emotions, experiences, and perceptions of older generations.  Within the present-day baseball universe, we can use the moments of today to better understand and appreciate those that came before our awakening; in such a contemplation, the intimate colors what may have been superficial, and the past can leap out of the vicarious to breathe and shout in a definable and very real manner.  

In the late 1990’s, when Vladimir Guerrero brandished his powerful bat and arm and started a run that has seen him make eight All-Star teams in 10 seasons,  one could joyfully watch Vlad – laser beam a throw to third, or connect with a  fastball 12 inches off the plate and four inches from the ground and send that pitch bee-lining into a right centerfield gap, or even amble, with that awkward, up-and-down-halt of a man with pain from hips to ankles – and perhaps gain a sense of what it must have been like to follow Roberto Clemente on the diamond.  On June 2, 1998, with the Brewers in Atlanta and with both teams sporting replica uniforms of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves, I witnessed Andruw Jones, in a baggy uniform, pant legs pulled high, striped stirrups in full display, glide toward right centerfield and at last minute, drop his arms and hands to his waist, and basket catch a deep drive with all of the practiced and feigned nonchalance of a 12-year boy on his bicycle pulling off stunts in front of a group of girls.  In that moment, with the happiness of watching a beautiful play performed by a virtuoso of his craft, I understood what it must have been like to watch Willie Mays patrol centerfield in the Polo Grounds.  

These glimpses spring up everywhere on the baseball field – we only have to keep our eyes open and our minds on the here and then.  The exercise works best when we remain patient and passive in the dynamic, and allow the game and the small moments to develop and impinge themselves upon our internal baseball library.  Once there, in the manner of a prospector searching for gold, the images are sifted through, considered, the unsubstantial are rejected (or at least placed to the side for later reconsideration), and the nuggets are revealed, celebrated, and happily deposited into a reserve for further examination and contemplation.  For gold does lie at the end of this baseballed-rainbow endeavor.  The resultant epiphanies and understandings allow us to see the beyond the static or poorly developed past – we become better equipped to converse with those who experienced the long-ago directly, we carry on dusty legacies, and we add another perspective to the evolving framework of our connection to the game.

As we carry into the last week of August and the pennant races are placed under the broiler, I have found myself whirling amidst a drawn-out drama of the present calling up the past.  Since he was traded to Milwaukee on July 7, C.C. Sabathia has started nine games for the contending Brewers and won eight of them.  He has completed five of the starts to take over the NL lead in complete games, has hurled two shutouts to tie for the league in that category**, and has compiled a sparkling, twinkling, showy 1.60 ERA.  C.C. Sabathia’s name rests atop the list of players in baseball’s seasonal pennant race drama; his work on the mound has recalled those not so long ago days when starters often finished what they began, and his presence has energized a city and franchise that has been left off the playoff invitation list for more than a quarter-century.  No matter how the last chapter finishes, Sabathia and his run will always remain a focal element in the story of the 2008 season and the trade deadline machinations that witnessed reloading, puzzle-fitting and chance-taking, and which left the baseball world in an excited state of wondering where all of this would lead.

In 1982, 26 years before Sabathia brought his prowess to Milwaukee, a similar deadline move made by the Brewers did indeed deliver the taste of October baseball to the club and its fans.  On August 30, 1982, the Brewers sent cash and three players to be named later to Houston and secured the services of a right-handed future Hall of Famer named Don Sutton to assist them in their push for the American League East division title.   Heading into September, Milwaukee was already in first place, four-and-a-half games in front of the Boston Red Sox.  At the time, Sutton had won 13 games for the Astros, and had already accumulated 254 victories in his career.  In his first start for his new team, Sutton pitched a complete game, but took the loss as the Brewers fell to the Indians in the second game of a doubleheader.  Sutton would pitch a shutout in his next start against the Tigers, and then won his next two decisions as well.  He was pitching about as well as the Brewers could have hoped, and his efforts helped the team maintain their lead in the East.  And then the story got really interesting.

After Sutton received a no-decision in a Brewers’ win on September 29, the team lost their next game and finished the month holding onto a three-game lead.  They had four games left to play, and as all four were coming against the second-place Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee only had to win one in the series to clinch their first-ever outright division title (they had made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season by virtue of winning the nominal second-half of the season).  But when Harvey’s Wallbangers were swept in a doubleheader on Friday, October 1, the lead was cut to one precious game.  When they lost again on October 2, their once seemingly insurmountable lead had vanished and the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles settled in for what amounted to a one-game, winner-take-all playoff.  Adding to the intrigue and hoopla of the final contest, the starting pitchers for the two teams were two men who faced one another (although they didn’t go head-to-head) 16 years earlier in the 1966 World Series.  In this one-game-for-all-the-marbles, Don Sutton took the hill for the Brewers against Baltimore’s own future Hall of Fame right-hander, Jim Palmer.  Entering the game, Palmer had won 263 games in the Majors; Sutton countered with 257.  By the end of the game, Palmer’s total remained the same, Sutton’s increased by one, and the Milwaukee Brewers had won the American League East.  Their quest had reached the final destination, thanks in large part to the man who jumped aboard their rollicking caravan for the September push.

C.C. Sabathia – in only two more starts – has already won twice as many games as Sutton in that magical pre-autumn run of 1982.  With each start, the legend of the portly southpaw gains another volume and the Brewers move one step closer to a wish they have not fulfilled since Sabathia turned two years old.  Sabathia is, of course, too young to remember Don Sutton coming to the team and providing the final piece in a heated pennant race.  But each time he steps toward the mound and rubs up a ball, he walks in the same footsteps and conjures up the same feelings that Sutton created all those years ago.  And for us?  We get to sit back and enjoy the ride:  for its immediacy, for its distillation of what always remains vital and pulsating within the game, and for its ability to remind or introduce us to a series of days long ago, when the Milwaukee Brewers flashed brilliantly in the middle of a pennant race and rode the splendid arm of an ace to the promised land.

**As of August 21, Sabathia actually is tied for both the National League AND American League lead in shutouts.  Before taking his show to Milwaukee, Sabathia pitched a couple of gems:  one against the A’s on
May 14, and then versus the Twins on June 10, and sits atop the junior circuit leaderboard with Roy Halladay, Matt Garza, James Shields, Jon Lester and Kevin Slowey.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.

Take Me Out

Take Me Out

Katie Casey was base ball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad;
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou Katie blew.
On a Saturday, her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go,
To see a show but Miss Kate said,
“No, I’ll tell you what you can do.”

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”


Of course, the above lines represent the first verse and chorus to baseball’s musical theme, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The song, whose lyrics were penned by Jack Norworth and whose music was composed by Albert Von Tilzer, was published in 1908 and has become as much of the ballpark experience as cheering and exhorting the home team, booing the visitors, and dipping one’s hand into a box or a bag to scoop out some crackerjack or peanuts in their shells. The allure of the game resides partly in the experience at the ballpark, in which the sights, the smells, the patterns of entering, sitting, standing and cheering, and the hopes for the heroes on the field follow a pattern whose templates were built more than a century ago. Katie Casey’s sensibilities and desires are not all that different from ours – perhaps she ignored a walk across town and a ticket to a show in order to watch a player from the Pittsburgh team hit a double on his way to leading the league; maybe she eschewed a dinner at a fine restaurant because Cleveland and their ace pitcher were playing the hometown team; conceivably, Katie Casey may have turned down her young suitor’s invitation in order to make her way through a turnstile and watch the first place Cubs take on the Giants in a game with postseason implications. In baseball, the past always sits in the adjacent seat, resides upon the infield dirt and within the outfield grass, and always maintains a presence in the affairs, acting as a sheet of tracing paper over the present accounts. In this scheme – this layering, juxtaposing, and building within – anniversaries stand out for their ability to instantly perform time traveling acts whereby the past connects and molds our understanding of the present and provides a formula for projecting toward the future. As part of the baseball story in 2008, we have celebrated the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The reinvestigation of how the song has colored our appreciation of baseball’s place inside the story of America and why the song is sung in nightly unison by thousands of fans can take us back: to our childhoods, to eras consigned to the history books and black and white films, to times of day baseball and twenty-five cent tickets, to the glorious moments and achievements that have all landscaped the national pastime’s terrain. And perhaps, through these celebrations we can rediscover why the game has clung so tightly to our souls and made each of us, at some point, easily turn down an invitation and happily head out to the old ball game. I’d like to think that a little part of Katie Casey resides in all of us who care for the game; so in honor of her exhortation and with respect to the importance of anniversaries in baseball, I have selected 10 themes – one from each eighth year in the 10 decades between the publishing of the song in 1908 and the present – that may have pulled Katie Casey toward a seat in ballpark. I hope you enjoy.

1908: Addie Joss versus Ed Walsh
On Friday, October 2, 1908, the Chicago White Sox came to Cleveland’s League Park to play a game that would place a large exclamation point on the American League pennant race. The White Sox entered the game in third place in the AL, but only one game behind the first-place Detroit Tigers. Between the Tigers and the Sox stood the Indians, only a half-game out of first. The White Sox hadn’t played since Monday, when they had swept a doubleheader against the Red Sox. On that same day, the Indians had taken two from the Philadelphia Athletics and then had beaten the A’s for a third straight day on the 30th. Each team was rested, and each team placed their hopes on this Friday in the more-than-capable right hands of their respective aces. For Chicago, spitballer Ed Walsh was on the mound. Up to this point in the season, Walsh had won 39 games and pitched over 400 innings. Walsh was putting the cap on his finest season in a Hall of Fame career that would see him retire with 195 wins and the lowest career earned run average in history (1.82). For the Naps (as they were called in 1908, in honor of their Hall of Fame player-manager Napoleon Lajoie), countered with a 28-year-old named Addie Joss, who was having the best year of his career. Although still young, Joss was in his next to last year in the Majors, and only two-and-a-half years away from dying tragically from tubercular meningitis two days after his 31st birthday. Joss would end his career with the second-lowest ERA of all-time, the lowest WHIP of all-time, and 160 victories in only nine seasons. On October 2, 1908, two of the greatest pitchers of their generation faced each other in the deepest and starkest pits of the pennant race – an hour-and-a-half after the first pitch, the encounter concluded and immediately was held for framing in a hall meant for the greatest games ever played. Ed Walsh served as the hard-luck loser in this affair; for although he allowed only four hits, a walk, and struck out 15 batters, he did allow a run. And that was too much. Joss bettered his opponent, for he didn’t allow any runs at all. Nor did he surrender a single base hit or walk. Instead, Addie Joss–in the refiner’s fire of a pennant race–pitched a perfect game. Joss’s masterpiece allowed Cleveland to remain a half-game behind the Tigers (who slipped by the St. Louis Browns by the score of 7-6) and pushed Chicago back a devastating two-and-a-half games off the pace. Still, neither team would pass the Tigers (who would go on to lose the World Series in five games to the Cubs); but for one late summer afternoon, perhaps the greatest pennant race in American League history witnessed the brilliance of two pitchers at the top of their game, dueling and creating magic.

1918: Walter Johnson
In 1907, a 19-year-old Walter Johnson made his debut for the Washington Senators. Johnson would start 12 games that season and finished with a 5-9 record (for a team that concluded the year 49-102, 43.5 games out of first place). Six years later, the 25-year-old Johnson put together his best season. In a year that stands among the greatest ever, Johnson went 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA, allowed 232 hits in 346 innings pitched, threw 11 shutouts, and compiled a .780 WHIP, which until Pedro Martinez and his 2000 season, was the lowest ever (ever being since 1893, when the mound had been moved back to sixty feet, six inches). Johnson led the Majors in wins, ERA, and strikeouts that season–the first time he would accomplish the feat. Five years later, in 1918, he would do it again. By 1918, Johnson was 30 years and had already pitched 3474 innings in the Majors (that total alone would rank him 74th on the all-time list). 1918 stands out as a strange year on the baseball timeline–the season was shortened by around 20 or more games, Shoeless Joe Jackson played in only 17 games (he spent most of the season working in a shipyard as part of the war effort), and for the first time in the century, Christy Mathewson was not wearing a Major League uniform (Christy had left his managerial post with the Reds in order to accept a commission as a Major in the U.S. Army). But despite these undulations in and around the game, Walter Johnson was still dominating hitters in unique and inspiring fashion. In 1918, The Big Train again led the Majors in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, and became the first pitcher since the American League came on the scene in 1901 to twice lead the Majors in all three categories. The singular prospect of watching Walter Johnson ply his craft –reason enough to head out to the old ball game.

1928: Taylor Douthit
Taylor Douthit played in the Majors for 11 seasons, from 1923 to 1933; he patrolled the outfield for the Cardinals for his first eight-and-a-half years in the league, and then moved to Cincinnati and then to Chicago to conclude his career. In 1929 and 1930, he collected over 200 hits (not necessarily a remarkable accomplishment, since over the course of those two seasons, 39 batters reached the 200-hit plateau), he finished in the top-15 in MVP voting twice (in 1928 and 1929), and played in the Cardinals’ first three World Series appearances (in 1926, 1928, and 1930). Based on the evidence above, Taylor Douthit and his career appears less than remarkable, and certainly doesn’t stand tall in a line of moments or achievements pulling one to the ballpark. However, in 1928 Taylor Douthit accomplished a very special feat–one that hadn’t been done before and hasn’t been seriously challenged since. In 1928, Taylor Douthit – playing centerfield for the NL Pennant-winning Cardinals – accumulated 548 putouts. Before Douthit began his endeavor to cover every conceivable inch of the outfield territory that season, Baby Doll Jacobsen held the record for most putouts by an outfielder: he had recorded 488 in 1924. In the years following Douthit’s landmark performance, only four other outfielders have reached 500 putouts. Richie Ashburn did it on four separate occasions, and Dwayne Murphy, Chet Lemon, and Dom DiMaggio each did it once. But no one has matched the magical 548. Ralph Kiner once said, “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.” If she were watching any Cardinals’ games in 1928, Katie Casey could have said the same for Taylor Douthit.

1938: Bob Feller
By 1938, Bob Feller was beginning his third year in the Majors. And he still hadn’t finished his teenaged years. Feller burst upon the Major League scene in 1936 as a seventeen-year-old with an electric fastball – a jaw-dropping, velocity-packed thunderbolt kind of fastball – and a grin as bright and commanding as the high stalks of corn grown in his home state of Iowa. Bob Feller was the Natural. Bob Feller was a phenomenon. In his first Major League start, he struck out 15 – one shy of the AL record. Less than a month later, he tied the Major League record with 17 punchouts. As the 1938 season began, Feller already had 226 strikeouts and 15 wins under his teenage belt. He was averaging nine-and-a-half strikeouts per nine innings; over those two seasons, the strikeouts leader–Van Lingle Mungo–averaged less than seven strikeouts per nine innings. It’s hard to imagine that kind of talent springing from the middle of the country, bursting upon the American consciousness in a thrilling and unbelievable manner. But to me, Bob Feller was always about the indescribable, the unbelievable, and the irrepressible. 1938 would mark the first season Feller led the league in strikeouts (240). He would lead the league in the next six years he pitched. 1938 would mark the first time Feller finished in the top-10 in wins. He would go on to lead the league in his next five years in the Majors. In 1938, Feller pitched the first of his 12 one-hitters. He was elected to his first All-Star game. And then on October 2, 1938 (thirty years to the day after Addie Joss pitched his perfect game to beat Ed Walsh 1-0), the Indians and their star pitcher once again took center stage in a fascinating confluence of expectation and achievement. On October 2, 1938, Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians hosted Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader that would close out the season. Neither team was embroiled in the pennant race, but there was still immense anticipation and edginess at the park that afternoon, for Hank Greenberg entered that final day with 58 home runs, just two shy of tying Babe Ruth for the most in a single-season in history. When the game had concluded, however, Feller was the one commanding the spotlight. With movie cameras rolling and thousands of fans packing the ballpark, Feller set a new Major League record with 18 strikeouts. Although he fanned twice, Greenberg went 3-3 with a walk against Feller (who walked seven in total that day to bring his season total to 208 – a new league record), and would finish the season stuck on 58 home runs (still tied for the fourth-highest amount in American League history – only Roger Maris in 1961 has hit as many since). By the finish of the 1938 season, Feller had 466 strikeouts in his career–the figure still stands as the greatest amount for any player through his teens.

1948: Gene Bearden
A decade after Feller, another Cleveland Indians pitcher stood atop the mound on the final day of the regular season and pitched his way into the history books. But that’s where the comparison ends. This 28-year-old rookie threw left-handed, utilized a knuckleball, and never quite matched the enormous success he achieved in the beginning. Gene Bearden led the AL in ERA in his first real season (he pitched a third of an inning the year before) in the Majors and won 20 games. His 20th came on the final day, in the first ever one-game playoff in American League history. On October 4, Gene Bearden and the Cleveland Indians met Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox in one game at Fenway Park to decide the AL Pennant. The Indians had won seven of their last ten to force the one-game playoff (either Feller or Bearden earned the win in all seven games), and then the 28-year-old rookie went out and shut down Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Vern Stephens and Dom DiMaggio to give the Indians the crown. The lefty knuckleballer pitched a five-hit shutout over the Boston Braves in the third game of the 1948 World Series, and then came on in relief of Bob Lemon in the sixth game to close out the series-clinching victory. Bearden would never approach those heights again and the Indians haven’t won a World Series since. But in 1948, Cleveland – with a pitching staff anchored by future Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, a potent offense led by a power-hitting outfielder named Larry Doby, a third baseman named Ken Keltner, and a 30-year-old player-manager named Lou Boudreau at shortstop, and of course, a nearing-thirty rookie knuckleballer named Gene Bearden – comprised perhaps the most compelling reason to buy a ticket to a ballgame.

1958: Ernie Banks
Before the 1955 season, the record for most home runs by a shortstop in a season was 39, set by Boston’s Vern Stephens in 1949. Then, in 1955 a young, wiry right-handed shortstop for the Chicago Cubs hit 44. Three years later, that same shortstop passed by the old standard and set a new record by knocking 47 balls out of the park. Since that season, only Alex Rodriguez has ever hit more homers as a shortstop. In fact, the 10 greatest single-season home run totals at the position are held by just two men: Alex Rodriguez and Ernie Banks. In his Hall of Fame career, 1958 stands out as the apex of what Ernie Banks could do on the ballfield. He produced career bests in hits, runs, triples, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. He played every single game for the Cubs that year, and then was named the MVP of the National League. And he did all of this for a team that finished ten games under .500 and 20 games out of first place. In 1958, Ernie Banks broke new ground as the first player ever from a losing team to win the MVP, and the following year he became the first player ever to win two NL MVP awards in a row. From 1955-1950, Mr. Cub hit the most home runs in baseball: more than Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or Frank Robinson. Ernie Banks – through his joy, abilities, and eye-popping power at the plate – provided all of the incentive needed to visit Wrigley Field or any other National League ballpark.

1968: Luis Tiant
When we discuss 1968, we immediately speak of Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA or Denny McLain’s 31 wins, or his teammate Mickey Lolich winning three games in the World Series. We might even mention Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 batting average to lead the American League as further evidence of the “Year of the Pitcher.” If one decides to dig a little deeper in the mountainous statistical record of the season, however, gems of all sizes and shapes can be unearthed. Luis Tiant’s remarkable performance lies at the forefront of such a exploration, for in 1968, this whirling dervish of a pitcher carved up hitters with an aplomb that reflected the arsenal at his disposal, the conditions in his favor, and the mastery with which he could combine the two elements. Luis Tiant compiled the lowest ERA in the American League in 1968: 1.60. He struck out more than a batter an inning that year, too. And he threw nine shutouts (again, the most in the AL). These numerical markers of achievement lead the explorer to conclude that indeed, Tiant stood among the top hurlers in baseball in 1968. This empirical evidence would also lead one to wonder (as Gibson’s statistical record leads the observer to ask), how in the heck did he manage to lose nine games that year (Tiant went 21-9 for the Cleveland Indians; Gibson went 22-9 for the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals). But the wins, the shutouts, the ERA, and the strikeout ratio do not, by themselves, place Tiant at the top of the totem pole. Seven different pitchers won 20 games in 1968. Seven moundsmen (who qualified for the ERA title) finished the season with an ERA below 2.00. 12 pitchers threw at least six shutouts. And 12 topped the 200-strikeout plateau. The particular achievement – exhibit A in Tiant’s amazing résumé – which elevates his season into the stratosphere and serves as the bolded, underlined, and exclamation-pointed offering of greatness is contained within a single number: 5.295. In 1968, Luis Tiant allowed 152 hits in 258-and-a-third innings pitched, which works out to a ratio of 5.295 hits per nine innings. None of the great hurlers from the deadball era ever proved so difficult to hit. Nor did Lefty Grove or Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax had never limited batters to such a minimal degree of success. In fact, no one, in the history of the Major Leagues, had ever produced a ratio as low as Luis Tiant’s 5.295 hits/9 (Nolan Ryan, in 1972, would break Tiant’s record, which still stands as the second lowest ever). In a season when pitchers dominated to a degree that had not been seen for decades, Luis Tiant dominated in a manner that had never been seen.

1978: Jim Rice
Much has been written, on both sides of the discussion, with regards to the legitimacy of Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame argument. For example, his supporters point toward the peak of achievement and his detractors counter with the claim that the numbers are inflated because of Rice’s home ballpark. Both sides hold valid points and evidence, creating a dynamic conflict that usually apexes sometime in the winter months toward the end of the year when the impending Hall of Fame election announcements spark the fires. In 1978, the projection of Jim Rice as a future Hall of Famer lay in a much more defined and conclusive area. If one were able to look inside the 1978 Major League baseball dictionary (or thesaurus) and thumb to the page with “scary,” an image of Rice – in the home whites, eyes locked onto the mound, bat upright, the slight crouch of the upper part of the body toward the plate – would be drawn upon the page. In 1978, Rice meshed all of that scariness into a ferocious offensive assault that witnessed him become the first AL player in 41 years to accumulate 400 total bases (no player in the junior circuit has done it since) and lead the league in triples and home runs, RBI and hits, slugging percentage and OPS. He played in all 163 games of the regular season (including the one-game playoff against the New York Yankees), served as a rock-steady element in the third-hole of the lineup, and exhibited a steadying influence on a team that experienced immense highs and abject lows in their roller-coaster season. Jim Rice may never get into the Hall of Fame. But his demeanor and excellence and downright scariness in his best season will always serve as a threading and boisterous chapter in the story of 1978.

1988: Kirby Puckett
If Jim Rice connoted fear and intimidation, Kirby Puckett symbolized joy – uninhibited, unrestrained, unabated joy. In a way, his 1988 season represents a way of inferring and understanding part of Kirby’s magnetism. Puckett hit .356 that season – good enough for second in the Majors – rapped out an unsurpassed 234 hits -and walked only 23 times (in 691 plate appearances). Between 1901 and 1936, seven batters had hit as high as .350 with less than 25 walks in a season in which they accumulated 502 plate appearances. After Gee Walker – an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers – did it in 1936, the club remained closed until Kirby burst – joyously – through the door in 1988. I think of Kirby’s approach as an extension of his personality: open to anything, welcoming, antsy and anxious to begin moving. Slicing drives to every open space on the field, chopping high bounders off the turf and then bowling down the first base line to beat out an infield hit, lacing doubles into gaps, and even popping out a fair number of home runs, Kirby Puckett performed as a machine-come-to-life: dependable, rhythmic, unceasing. And he did it all with a brilliant energy and joy, as if to say to each pitcher on the mound, “Toss whatever you’d like toward the plate. I’ll be happy to hit anything you’ve got.”

1998: The Atlanta Braves Pitching Staff
In 1998, offenses exploded. Two men tore past the previous record for home runs in a season, 13 different sluggers reached the 40-homer plateau and seven players drove in at least 140 runs. Undaunted, the starting pitchers from the Atlanta Braves stood fast against the rising tide and plied their craft with the same unceasing dedication to their art and adherence to their responsibilities. The three old standbys – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz – led the way. Greg Maddux pitched to a lower ERA (2.22) than any other starter in the game. Tom Glavine quietly and determinedly kept the powerful hitters off-balance enough to win 20 games and capture his second Cy Young. And John Smoltz led all of the Major Leagues with a .850 winning percentage (he went 17-2). With the pathways cleared and the lessons demonstrated, the lesser-known members of the Atlanta Braves’ starting staff followed suit. A 23-year-old righty named Kevin Millwood won another 17 games, and a 29-year-old lefthander named Denny Neagle chipped in with 16 victories. In all, the five starters accounted for 153 of the team’s 162 starts and 88 of the club’s 106 wins (83 percent). The big three finished in the top-four of Cy Young voting and top-six in ERA, and all five were among the top-13 in wins. More than likely, 1998 will always be remembered for the offense and focus on the home run. But in Atlanta, a group of five men bravely took upon all challenges and reminded us of the beauty inherent in the composition of a well-pitched game.

2008: ???
What would be inspiring Katie Casey this year? Would she have been drawn into the developing storyline of the Chicago Cubs seeking to end 99 years of World Series emptiness and celebrate the 100th Anniversary of their last Fall Classic title with another? Would she have been one of the 50,000 fans chanting Josh Hamilton’s name in Yankee Stadium on July 14 when he mesmerized the baseball world with his performance in the first round of the Home Run Derby? Would she be chuckling at the sight of a submarine-ing rookie right-hander for the Oakland Athletics inducing countless groundballs on his way to setting a new Major League record for consecutive scoreless innings to begin a career? Perhaps the resonant hasn’t bubbled to the surface yet. Sometimes, we must wait patiently for the context to unfold and un-layer itself so that we can appreciate the vital and ever-lasting. And sometimes, what speaks loud and clear to one of us remains quiet and unintelligible to others. In a way, that is why the ballpark experience remains fascinating and integral. For the conversations and visual compositions that speak are inherently intimate and require our attendance to be fulfilled. And when we do hand over our ticket, find our seat, yell for a bag of popcorn or a box of crackerjack, and root, root, root for the home team, we place ourselves within the scene and re-enact the lines in an unfolding drama that was first given life a century ago.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, baseball-almanac.com, and The SABR Baseball List and Record Book for information that helped with this piece.

Pitching, Defense, and the Three-Run Home Run

Since 1920, 450 Major League pitchers have started at least 100 games and pitched at least 1600 innings.  Of those 450, 14 have a career ERA less than three.  The 14 represent an interesting assortment of names and stories.  The old standbys, the inner-circle Hall of Famers, are well represented:  Bob Gibson (career ERA of 2.91), Tom Seaver (2.86), Sandy Koufax (2.76), Juan Marichal (2.89) and Whitey Ford (with a 2.75 ERA, the lowest of anyone on the list) stand out, like they always do.  Another baseball god – Carl Hubbell (2.98) – represents the twenties and thirties and his inclusion in the club reinforces his mastery, for he did it in an offensive era and in a league when Hack Wilson, Mel Ott, Chuck Klein and a host of other NL sluggers were tattooing balls with a ferocity that hadn’t been since the middle 1890’s.  Like Hubbell, Pedro Martinez (2.86) has compiled an ERA below three for his career, and like that master of the screwball, Pedro shines a little brighter for this achievement; for he has accomplished this in an age where batters have swung their lumber with a decided advantage in the ever-oscillating struggle for balance between pitcher and hitter.  There are a couple of forgotten names on this list, too.  Mort Cooper (2.97) and Harry Brecheen (2.92) pitched primarily in the 1940’s and their magnificent (if short) careers seem to have been shelved in the back corners where little light ever reaches.  Three others on the list seem to be better remembered for another element of their baseball lives:  Don Drysdale  (2.95) pitched in the shadow of his teammate Sandy Koufax, and was branded by his exceptional and record-breaking run of 582/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968; when we think of Andy Messersmith (2.86), the first moment that bows to the audience occurred in 1975 when he challenged the reserve clause, played the season without a contract, and effectively made himself a free agent; Dean Chance (2.92) won the Cy Young  Award in 1964 when he was 23 (if not for Chance, perhaps Sandy Koufax would have won the award in four straight seasons), never reached those heights again, and never looked in on the target once he received the sign from the catcher.  The 13th member seems forgotten for another reason:  Mel Stottlemyre (2.97) had the misfortune of pitching for the Yankees during their only real World Series drought between 1921 and 1982 (although Mel did pitch in the 1964 World Series, beat Bob Gibson and the Cardinals  in Game 2 and then lost to same in Game 7).  Despite the team’s pedestrian (for them) .510 winning percentage over his 11 seasons, Stottlemyre  won at least 20 games on three separate occasions and of course, finished with an ERA below three. 

The final member of this group pitched for the Baltimore Orioles for 19 seasons.  Over the course of those 19 years in the black, orange, and white, the right-hander accumulated 268 wins (with eight 20-win seasons), won three Cy Young Awards, hurled 53 shutouts, never allowed a grand slam*, and hung ’em up with a career 2.86 ERA:  the same as Pedro (as of today), Messersmith and Seaver.  Jim Palmer connected three eras of Baltimore baseball and holds the distinction of being the only player to appear in every Orioles World Series.  In 1966, a 20-year-old Palmer – wearing gray flannels and a hat adorned with the head and face of a smiling Oriole with its own cap – faced off against Sandy Koufax (in his final season in the Majors) in Game 2 of the Fall Classic and beat the Dodgers 6-0 with a four-hit shutout.  17 years later, the uniform had changed:  from the traditional flannels to the double-knits, from a cap in black with an orange brim to a pinwheel-like black and white shell with orange brim.  But the bird was still there, and so was Palmer.  The same fluid delivery with the same high leg kick, the same concentration, the same savvy.  And if the stuff had slowed and had become less packed with voltage, the results still saw a “W’ next to Palmer’s name in an October box score.  In Game 3 of the 1983 World Series, Jim Palmer pitched two shutout innings in relief and walked away with his fourth (and final) World Series victory; in doing so, he became the only pitcher in the history of the Fall Classic to win a game in three different decades.

Jim Palmer represents an era of Orioles baseball that has grown in significance and esteem with each passing year.  He represents one third of a mantra that became synonymous with “The Oriole Way”:  pitching, defense, and three-run home run.  He offers a link between Mr. Oriole (Brooks Robinson) and The Iron Man (Cal Ripken, Jr.).  He played with a Rookie of the Year in 1965 (Curt Blefary) and another in 1977 (Eddie Murray).  He won a World Series with three different managers:  Hank Bauer in 1966, Earl Weaver (his foil) in 1970, and Joe Altobelli in 1983.  Palmer pitched alongside nine other 20-game winners, four different 30-home run hitters, three MVP’s, and seven different Gold Glove winners (and also won four straight Gold Gloves himself).  Pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.

From 1966-1983, the Baltimore Orioles adhered to a dominating philosophy that provided a secure foundation and pushed the club toward a remarkable consistency on the ballfield.  In those 18 years, they won 1668 games and posted a .588 winning percentage – both tops in the Majors during that span.  They won three World Series, six pennants, and finished first in their division (or league) eight times.  They accomplished most of this under the leadership of Earl Weaver – the diminutive, fiery, brilliant manager who acted as the master architect and choreographer in a  grand display of baseball ballet.  Pitching, defense, and the three-run home run:  the essential qualities – practiced, refined, elevated – that harvested wonderful and compelling successes and brought a litany of resonant ballplayers to the center of the stage.  

Sometimes, certain teams leap out from their era and the game to claim their own unique acreage in the baseball kingdom.  Almost seven decades before Palmer and the rest of the Orioles began their ascension, another Baltimore club captured pennants and acclaim for their unique brand of baseball.  The 1890’s Baltimore Orioles of the National League – led by brilliant baseball men such as John McGraw, Ned Hanlon, Wee Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson – fought, scrapped, cheated, and innovated their way to the top of the league.  They redefined, reinterpreted and remodeled baseball in a captivating manner and still serve as symbols of all that was good and bad in the game in the final decade of the 19th century.  Four decades later, the Gashouse Gang and their cast of characters – Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Ripper Collins, Ducky Medwick – colored Depression-Era baseball with an outlook and feistiness that, in retrospect, seems perfectly tailored to the conditions and sensibilities of a country grappling with financial devastation and a bleak outlook for improvement.  The Baltimore Orioles from 1966-1983 own a platform in this terrain.  Through a compendium of alterations in the game, through a trio of field generals, through their reliance on and dedication to a fundamental and ingrained philosophy, they won.  The cast of characters on the field changed now and then, but smooth transitions – fostered by the guiding precepts – enabled  the club to maintain their supremacy  .  When Boog Powell drifted off, Eddie Murray soon rose up and made first base his own.  After Mark Belanger retired  with eight Gold Gloves, Cal Ripken, Jr. emerged and helped revolutionize the shortstop position.  When Paul Blair could no longer roam centerfield with his poetry and grace, Al Bumbry wrote his own storylines in the outfield at Me
morial Stadium.  The two Robinsons – Frank and Brooks – although irreplaceable, were succeeded by a host of players like Ken Singleton, Bobby Grich and Doug DeCinces who could bring their own invaluable talents to the club.  From Cueller and Dobson and McNally to Martinez and Flanagan and McGregor, the pitching staffs changed faces and arsenals but maintained a degree of balance and aptitude rarely seen in the history of the game.  And through it all, Jim Palmer took in a sign, reared back on his right leg, kicked his left leg out high, and delivered pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch.

Most franchises can point to their club Hall of Fames, statues outside the ballparks, or retired numbers on or beyond outfield walls to showcase the best and most celebrated performers who wore their colors.  Ballplayers are elevated for numerous reasons:  the statistics serve as the foundation and underlie the other elements that lend vibrancy to the overall picture.  Often, these special ballplayers become synonymous with the franchise itself.  Ernie Banks and the Cubs.  George Brett and the Royals.  Tony Gwynn and the Padres.  Craig Biggio and the Astros.  Robin Yount and the Brewers.  The uniform and the player mesh characteristics and memories and create a bouillabaisse of images that speak to the fanbase in deeply personal phrases.  More than the replica pennants on a façade or banners waving in the wind, the players frame a franchise – they author the moments and memories and create the imprints.  Jim Palmer pitched 3948 innings for the Baltimore Orioles.  In addition to being one of the 14 starters since 1920 to own a career ERA less than 3.00, he stands at or near the top of virtually every important pitching category in club history.  He is more than just a brilliant pitcher who stills stands as one the greatest of his generation; he represents a team and an ideal of baseball – an ideal centered in Baltimore and summarized by the beautiful refrain, pitching, defense, and the three-run home run.

* In his career, Palmer pitched to 213 batters with the bases loaded.  In those situations, he held the opposition to a .196/.230/.234/.464 line, with a mere six extra-base hits, and of course, no home runs.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.