Stories and Myths

He was larger than life.  Sustained by a gargantuan appetite, he crisscrossed the countryside and exhibited a prodigious ability to dominate his chosen craft.  He was a paragon of strength, as brave as could be, and his exploits captivated anyone lucky enough to bear witness.  As he continued to wield the tool of his trade, the stories of his journeys expanded, growing even larger than the man himself, until finally, they evolved into the stuff of legend.  This was Babe Ruth.  This was Paul Bunyan.



There are heroes and villains in the story of baseball.  Improbable adventures, epic battles, glorious victories, and bitter defeats color the boxscores.  Larger than life characters populate the record books and encyclopedias.  In the first edition of The Bill James Historical Abstract, James wonders if Hal Chase might have been a character created by Robert Louis Stevenson.  In his wonderful book, Baseball America, the author and baseball historian Donald Honig sets up the historic convergence between Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood on September 6, 1912 by borrowing imagery and language from the American Wild West.  Baseball even has its own creation myth:  the story of  Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown in 1839.  Although this particular tale has been repudiated, and we now have a much clearer and realistic timeline to associate with the evolution of the game of baseball,  the myth retains its importance.  It provides insight into a specific desire to understand and claim, and as such, lends itself to our understanding of the national pastime and its place in the history of our country.  The stories of our baseball heroes – polished by fantastical stories and grounded in empirical evidence – illuminate the game and lend a sense of otherworldliness to our love for it.  In a sense, the stories make our heroes come alive, and add color and depth to the numbers.  Did Ruth call his shot in the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series?  We don’t know.  But it falls in line with everything else we know about the Babe, and the myth creates a finer-tuned image of him.  The stats and stories of ballplayers align themselves into thousands of photographs which imprint themselves in our conversations and memories, and the resulting assembled pictures reverberate with a liveliness and tangibility that would otherwise remain static and unimpressionable.



Last week, Major League Baseball held its annual First-Year Player Draft in Orlando, Florida, and the yearly excitement of predicting greatness, prospecting for unrefined gems, and assembling components of the future had its few days in the sun.  This year, 29 men and one woman – all in steep contrast to the youth surrounding them – lent a poignant counterpoint to the stories of kids chasing their dreams to become the next great baseball star.  Andrew Porter, Mahlon Duckett, James “Red” Moore, Harold Gould, Emilio Navarro, and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson were among the 30 former Negro League players invited to Orlando to participate in a Negro League Player Draft in which each MLB club selected one of the former players in attendance.  None of thirty – when their arms were strong, when their bats were powerful – were given the opportunity to play in Major League Baseball.  When I read the news of this additional element to the draft, began to study the names and bios of players like Bob Mitchell, Jim Colzie, Otha “Li’l Catch” Bailey, Bill Blair, “Prince” Joe Henry and Charley Pride, and started writing questions for them (MLB Productions was given the opportunity to conduct interviews with some of the invitees), I began imagining their baseball lives:  the players they had seen, the battles (on and off the field) they had fought, the myths they had created.  Despite the profound advancements in research and scholarship that have given substance to the careers of players like Bert Simmons, Mack “Mack the Knife” Pride, Cecil Kaiser, Robert Scott, Ulysses Hollimon, and Walter Lee Gibbons, we still know too little about the exploits, achievements, glorious victories, and bitter defeats of the Negro Leaguers.  But, in place of the solidity of the statistical evidence, we do have stories and myths that can foster an appreciation for their careers and abilities.  These ballplayers – men like Irvin Castille, John “Mule” Miles, Hank Presswood, Bill “Lefty” Bell, James Tillman and Enrique Maroto – may have played against Satchel Paige when he would saunter into the game, call in his fielders, and dare to strike out the side.  They may have seen Josh Gibson exhibit his prodigious strength on the ballfield – the powerful ability to hit the ball as far as anyone which gave life to a myth of the time he hit a ball so high that it didn’t return to earth until the next day.  They may have been awed by the blinding speed of Cool Papa Ball, who ran so fast, it was asserted, he could flick off the light switch in his room and then be in bed before it got dark.  Some saw a 15-year old Willie Mays before the was the “Say Hey Kid.”  Some  played alongside a baby-faced Ernie Banks as he worked out the rough portions of his game with the Kansas City Monarchs.  Some watched Hank Aaron hit cross-handed and wondered if the kid could ever amount to anything.  And some even played against Jackie Robinson when he was a sore-armed shortstop just out the Army.  The former ballplayers – men like Joseph B. Scott, Neale “Bobo” Henderson, Carlos Manuel Santiago, Walt Owens, Charlie Davis and Walter McCoy – saw games and played against players who, for the most part,  have been confined to incomplete sketches and caricatures.  But for the thirty former Negro leaguers who attended the draft in Orlando this past week, they own more than hazy outlines.  Their memories can take us back to another era; their stories can enliven our impressions and evaluations, and their myths can add incomparable depth to our considerations.  For a time last week, the Negro Leagues lived and breathed again, and the stories of a particular time and place were passed on from 30 former Negro Leaguers to another generation. Without their stories, without their graciousness and willingness to sit for a time and share their oral histories, our game would not be so rich and textured.

The story of baseball resides not only on the playing fields and in the statistical evidence of performances.  The connected stories and myths that accompany our knowledge and expand our recollections remain essential.  They color, illuminate, magnify, and reveal.  They sharpen our arguments, augment our conclusions, and add spice to our assertions.  Every performance or achievement we witness today begins a time-line of connectivity that reaches back into the past, imploring us to remember and contextualize.  The timelessness of baseball originates here – in the stories and myths of the ballplayers and moments that echo across the fields and reach into our memories.

SmoltzMadduxandGlavine

“Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting that timing.”

When a hand cradles a baseball and the fingers settle upon one of the myriad possibilities that arise, a subsequent artistry can be created.  The forefinger and middle finger can lie along the seams, each digit exerting equal pressure on the ball.  The same two fingers can also rest across the seams, again with equal amounts of force being placed on the connection.  The ball can be choked back into the base of the palm.  The ball can be held delicately with the fingertips.  The amounts of pressure can be altered.  With a twist or flick of the wrist, different torques of spin can be generated.  When the ideal combination of these elements and possibilities is achieved, the flight of the ball from pitcher’s hand to catcher’s glove moves across the three dimensions and into a fourth – a place in our mind reserved for the best that we have seen:  a collection box for pitching perfection.

Greg Maddux won 194 games with the Braves from 1993-2003. (Mark J. Terrill/AP).

Over the course of three successive seasons in the 1980’s – 1986, 1987, and 1988 – three particular pitchers began their Major League careers and struggled to find those grips, pressure points, twists and flicks that would spawn artistry.  In their respective debut seasons, their aggregate numbers produced a 6-15 record and a 5.51 ERA.  Two decades later, they have combined for 865 wins, a 3.29 ERA, 8,930 strikeouts, 154 saves, seven Cy Young Awards, and countless moments and pitches that all reside in that collection box of memory.  From inauspicious beginnings to celebrated conclusions, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine have intertwined their careers, and the sum totals of moments and exhibitions of virtuosity resonate like few other confluences in baseball history.  For me, they are the Willie, Mickey, and the Duke of a generation.  A trio of ballplayers, refracted and reflected against one another by the twin variables of time and geography, forever connected by their similarities, contrasts, and adeptness on the ballfield.  Their identities and numbers do stand alone, but they are also subsumed by the connection.  SmoltzMadduxandGlavine.  A breath and phrase that speaks volumes about three extraordinary careers that found a home together for a decade.  

Working the extremes of the strike zone with the patience of a sculptor who quietly and methodically chips away at his stone, Tom Glavine never gave in.  His countenance on the mound always even, his focus never wavering, Tom Glavine explored and then claimed the outside black of the plate.  Change-up after change-up, pitches drifting to the plate, falling away as if pulled toward a home six inches off the plate – a safe haven away from the ferocity of the bat.  This unassuming but powerful interpretation of pitching that led to 305 wins, two Cy Young Awards, and a World Series MVP to acknowledge a masterpiece in the 1995 Fall Classic.

When he stood atop the mound and placed his fingers on the ball, Greg Maddux became Picasso.  He reinvented the art form, causing us to reconsider how we saw and appreciated the dance of the ball from mound to batter’s box.  With the slightest alteration of pressure upon the ball, with the unperceived change in the speed of the ball, Greg Maddux painted master works that we hadn’t even considered.  The pitch bores in on the left-handed hitter’s hip, bee-lining itself till the very end, when, as if it has just remembered an errand on the next side street, the ball darts back toward the center of the plate.  It whispers across the black, and the batter, having already given up the battle, consigns himself to serving as just another print autographed by “Greg Maddux.”  17-straight seasons of 15 or more wins.  350 victories in all.  Four Cy Youngs.  A magical sequence of two summers in 1994 and 1995 when he was as good at pitching as perhaps anyone has ever been.  Greg Maddux was devious, artful, mischievous, aggressive, and one of the greatest pitchers to ever stride to the mound.

I close my eyes and see John Smoltz standing on the rubber, looking in for the sign.  Underneath his jersey with the number “29”, his ubiquitous t-shirt with the blue sleeves ending around the elbow.  The classic delivery unleashing lightning.  Sliders that exploded.  Splitters that disappeared.  A first-pitch fastball that never changed plane or direction but simply eluded bats by its sheer force.  And even on a few rare occasions, a fluttering knuckleball emerged – just to confound, bemuse, and add to the legacy.  At the age of the 24, facing his boyhood idol Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, he took a shutout into the eighth inning – it would be the start of an iconic postseason career that has witnessed 15 wins against only four defeats.  John Smoltz was lightning – the brightest light illuminating its surrounding with such force that an imprint was left long after the flash.  Whether it was his 1996 season, when all of that talent and all of those magical pitches joined forces to contribute to 24 wins and a Cy Young award, or whether it was his career as a closer when, allowed to direct that fierce arsenal into the contracted experience of one-inning, John Smoltz was neither patient nor mischievous – quite simply, he was filthy.

Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine.  If the mound and the distance between the rubber and home plate served as their tapestry, their gallery owner was Leo Mazzone.  The rocking sage – perched on the bench in the dugout – quietly overseeing his charges, watching them, aiding them in their development from apprentices to journeymen to master craftsmen.  Quietly passing on the accumulated knowledge that he had learned from Johnny Sain, who perhaps passed on a bit of wisdom that he had heard from his former teammate, Warren Spahn:  “Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting that timing.”  And through the thunder and lightning of sliders and splitters, through the perfected patience of changing speeds and living on the corners, and through a playfulness that gave the batter just enough of a of a pitch to ground it or lift it weakly somewhere on the diamond, SmoltzMadduxandGlavine – in the alternating shadows and sunlight of thousands of innings – pitched like few others, and in the process filled enough collection boxes with enough images and memories to last three lifetimes.

John Smoltz.  Greg Maddux.  And Tom Glavine.  They are all near the end now, winding down and putting the finishing brushstrokes on their magnificent visual autobiographies.  Selfishly, I hope they continue to pitch.  I want to see Tom Glavine continue to mystify batters with that same falling-away change-up.  I want to see Maddux make a run at Spahn’s 363 wins and then maybe take on Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander, who, with their 373 wins, have always seemingly stood beyond the grasp of modern-day pitchers.  And I want to watch John Smoltz pitch one more time – pain free, loose and happy, the master in the middle of diamond – and invite some helpless hitters to try and hit that darting slider.  And perhaps not so selfishly, I also hope they retire together.  I hope that one day, in the same space in the plaque room of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, three plaques will rest together.  In my mind’s eye, they will always be together – three gunslingers, three artisans, three paragons – each working his own unique magic, each defining his own brand, each illuminated by the other – Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine.

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

Beginnings and Ends


Earlier this week, a centerfielder named Jay Bruce made his highly awaited and eagerly anticipated Major League debut for the Cincinnati Reds.  This hot prospect – the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft, the 2007 Minor League Player of the Year – took his spot in the left-handed side of the batter’s box in the bottom of the second inning, settled in with his feet planted, body and hands swaying rhythmically in anticipation, waited for the cheers cascading from a standing ovation to flutter away, and proceeded to patiently allow four balls to cross the plate.  Bruce’s four-pitch walk didn’t measure up to the harbinger-of-greatness-to-come that Ken Griffey, Jr. produced in his first at-bat in the bigs (a double to center against Dave Stewart), nor did it contain the immediate, exclamation-pointed thunder of Jeremy Hermida’s initial introduction to the Majors (a pinch-hit grand slam in his first at-bat); instead, Bruce’s first plate appearance (which isn’t even recorded as an official at-bat) served as an introductory, tentative note in a forceful opus that built each successive foray into the batter’s box on this first night.  Each was prefaced with a standing ovation from the hometown crowd and punctuated with another productive conclusion of hit or walk.  Jay Bruce finished the night with an unblemished record:  five plate appearances, three hits, two walks, two runs scored, two runs driven in, one successful stolen bases attempt, and one triumphant shaving-cream pie in the face.  

Of course, no one knows where this will all lead.  Bruce’s bold hello to the rest of the Majors could be the apex.  On the final day of the 1963 season, an 18-year-old named John Paciorek made his Major League debut for the Houston Astros against the New York Mets in a battle between the two worst teams in the National League.  Paciorek went 3-3, drew two walks, scored four runs, and drove in three.  And he never played another Major League game.  Or Bruce’s magical first night in the Majors could eventually stand out in a career most notable for that first flash.  In 1977, Mitchell Page finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting – he slugged over .500, stole more than 40 bases, and put up the fourth-best OPS in the league.  Page would play seven more seasons in the Majors, but never again reached the heights attained as a 25-year old rookie.  Or perhaps (and this is, of course, the hope that anyone watching Bruce in his first game holds onto, quietly, smilingly), Jay Bruce’s perfect night at the plate in his very first Major League game will someday be viewed as the starting gun that announced the beginning of a very special, iconic, once-in-a-generation career.  The beginning.  The lightning flash of the rookie season resonates like few experiences in the game – for over the extended debut season, we are allowed to give full leash to our hopes of witnessing and participating along every step of a Hall of Fame career.  

Tom Seaver and Herb Score.  Dwight Gooden and Bob Feller.  Cesar Cedeno, Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey and Vada Pinson.  Mark Fidrych.  Al Kaline.  Eric Davis and Will Clark.  Fernando Valenzuela.  Jim Bouton, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Black, and Tony Conigliaro.  All cannonballed into the Majors, producing a splash that delighted the amassed audience.  Each created – through outward expressions made up of equal parts talent, youth, and exuberance – the sense of excitement, awe, and hopefulness that attaches itself to any rookie sensation.  And then?  Some fizzled, leading us to wonder, “what if?”  Others continued to build upon that early explosion, using that first step as the building block on a glorious ascent toward baseball’s Olympus.  And many others hung around, grinding our admirable careers, flashing here and there, evoking (but never fully realizing) the brilliance of the beginning.    

Of course, not all stories announce their start with a meteoric, blinding flash that remains imprinted on our collective baseball consciousness.  Sometimes, a career will meander here and there, picking up themes and adding to the totality, until a final moment serves as the refiner’s fire, out of which a true and definitive shape stands before us.  

On June 2, 1998, at County Stadium in Milwaukee, Dennis Martinez took the hill for the Atlanta Braves.  Martinez stood on the mound that day, the winner of 242 Major League games, a 43-year-old pitcher in this third decade, and stared straight into the last vestiges of a career that witnessed glory (a perfect game in 1991) and disappointment (two poor performances in the 1979 World Series that found he and his team on the losing end).  He had led the AL in wins in 1981, won an ERA title in 1991, and pitched in four All-Star games.  Perhaps most importantly, Martinez stood on the mound on June 2 one victory shy of tying Juan Marichal for the most all-time wins by a Latin-American pitcher.  In his start five days earlier, Martinez had left the game with a 4-1 lead, only to see the Braves’ bullpen blow the lead and the game and shorten El Presidente’s window for tying the Dominican Dandy.  The Braves and Brewers were wearing the uniforms of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves this particular game, and when Martinez, wearing a blousy #32 on his back, double-pumped his first windup (in a pitching motion more in line with 1958 instead of 1998), his quest to match Marichal began.  I remember watching this game live, hoping for Martinez to get through five innings with a lead, hoping to see this aging pitcher fight off the realities of the years and the wear on the arm, hoping that I would get to share in the magic that springs from the meshing of the past and present.  A walk and two singles against Martinez in the first did not improve my hope, but when the second single (by Dave Nilsson) hit a Brewers runner for the last out of the inning, some of that optimism returned.   

By the time the ninth inning rolled around, Martinez was still on the mound.  Incredibly, he had allowed ten hits but no runs in the first eight frames.  And with the Braves holding a 9-0 lead, Martinez could afford to try and get the final three outs of an improbable shutout.  Following form, Martinez allowed two more hits in the ninth, but still was shutting out the Brewers.  Martinez (from Nicaragua) took the sign from Javy Lopez (from Puerto Rico), and made his pitch.  With 26 outs in the book, pinch-hitter Bobby Hughes chopped the ball over the mound, and was declared out when shortstop Ozzie Guillen (from Venezuela) ranged behind second base, cradled the ball in, and threw on the run to Andres Galarraga (also from Venezuela) at first.  Martinez’s 12-hit shutout (the first in 24 years, and one of only five thrown since 1956) had tied him with Marichal, and as Martinez celebrated with Lopez, Guillen, Galarraga and the rest of his teammates, his career seemed complete.  El Presidente would never make another start in the Majors, but he would pass Marichal on the all-time wins list on September 25, when he pitched one-and-a-third scoreless innings in relief.  Martinez – whose story had begun in 1976 as a 21-year old earning the win in relief in his first Major League appearance – had concluded a 23-year career back where had begun – in the bullpen, pitching in September.

Beauty resides in every story told by a ballplayer, and all stories remain unique.  The sum totals of hits, strikeouts, home runs, wins, and errors read like braille on an always-evolving text, directing and imploring us to read between the lines to truly celebrate and acknowledge.  But no matter what the middle will tell us, there is always a beginning and an end.  Each reflects on the other, lending poignancy to the entire story.  Bobo Holloman pitched a no-hitter in his first Major League start and finished his o
ne-year career with a 3-7 record.  In his first Major League at-bat, Will Clark hit a home run off Nolan Ryan.  In his last 59 games (14 years later), Clark hit .345, slugged .650 with 32 extra-base hits, and drove in 47 runs – all after being acquired by the Cardinals for the pennant race.  At the beginning, Ted Williams was a beanpole, the brash and antagonistic kid who compiled an historic rookie season that still dazzles.  In the middle, he was the man who hit .406, and the man who won the 1941 All-Star game, and then the man who hit .388 at the age of 38.  At the end, he hit a home run at Fenway Park in his final at-bat and then disappeared into the dugout.  

Beginnings and ends.  We have no idea of the finality that awaits Jay Bruce, nor can we imagine when that end may occur.  But his beginning on May 27, 2008 will always reverberate and ring with the excitement and intimation of what may follow.

Back-to-Back

His hands come together as the arms begin to rise over the head.  As the arms elevate, the head bows, and the connection between the eyes and the catcher’s target breaks.  The head continues its descent, anticipating the full bend at the waist, which spurs a break in the connection between the hands as they fly to either side of the pitcher’s torso.  And then, the momentum of the arms swinging forward carries them up and over the head of the now straightened-up pitcher, and the eyes reconnect with the catcher’s glove.  As the motion continues, the right leg, bent, is raised to the “Cincinnati”  in blocked letters across the jersey.  Gloved right hand and right shin almost touch, while the left hand (cradling the ball) remains hidden behind the lower portion of the pitcher’s torso.  From the batter’s perspective, the pitcher’s midsection twists just enough so that the outer portions of the “57” on the back of the jersey become visible–just a flash of number before the motion enters its final stage.  The delivery – almost overhand – reintroduces the ball to the equation.  The pitcher uncoils, moving in direction from first base toward the plate, head on a perfect line with the target, and the right leg kicks out.  The fastball, now free, explodes across the last part of its journey, and pops into the catcher’s glove.   

Over the span of two starts through five June days in 1938, this motion (and its shorter, less complex, more contained version – the stretch) baffled hitters and led a pitcher previously known more for his bouts of wildness than for his artistry and accomplishments toward a unique, rapturous, and omnipresent niche inside the baseball hall of records.  Before this magical run finished its breathtaking course, 63 consecutive batters* had failed to get a hit against this unique and artistic pitching motion.  On June 11th in Cincinnati, and then on June 15th in Brooklyn, Johnny Vander Meer commanded the stage and played the leading role in what can only be described as the baseball equivalent of being twice struck by lightning.  In back-to-back starts – in a day game at Crosley Field and then in the first night contest at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field – Johnny Vander Meer contested the definition of impossible, restructured the bounds of the believable, and twirled back-to-back no-hitters.  

When Johnny Vander Meer strode to his home mound on June 11, he was 5-2 on the season, and his club – the third-place Cincinnati Reds – was 23-20, five-and-a-half games behind the front-running New York Giants.  His opponent on that day was the team from Boston (called the Bees that year), just a half-game behind the Reds in the standings.  The Bees would finish the season at the bottom of most offensive categories, and on this day, Vender Meer’s blazing fastball and controlled curve rendered the bats especially ineffectual.  The Reds would score a run in the fourth, two more in the sixth, no Bee would make it to second, and before 10,311 fans, Johnny Vander Meer – nicknamed the Dutch Master – claimed a definitive spot in the baseball ledgers and concluded this one hour, 48-minute affair by inducing pinch-hitter Ray Mueller to bounce to third.  It was the first no-hitter in the National League since 1934 and the first by a Reds pitcher since Hod Eller turned the trick on May 11, 1919 (Eller would go on to claim more fame later that season, when he – on his way toward a three-hit shutout – struck out six straight White Sox batters in Game Five of the 1919 World Series).  Vander Meer’s no-hitter was the 48th in National League history, and like Eller’s, faced the very real possibility of fading into the dusty recesses of boxed-up memories and mythologies.

Johnny Vander Meer pitched in three All-Star games.  He lost two seasons when he served in the Navy during World War II, and missed more time because of arm injuries.  He threw three scoreless innings in relief in Game 5 of the 1940 World Series – a game which the Reds lost 8-0.  Johnny Vander Meer fought wildness throughout his days in the Majors (leading the league in walks on two separate occasions), struck out a bevy of batters throughout his career (leading the league in three different seasons), and finished his 13 years in the Major Leagues with a 119-121 record.  In the ninth edition of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, his career is delineated on page 2311.

The depth of Vander Meer’s story – a tale told with broad strokes in the encyclopedia and given additional texture by his no-hitter in Cincinnati on June 11, 1938 – becomes altogether unique and resonant because of the chapter written when he took the mound in Brooklyn, four days after his performance against the Bees.  It was there that the lefty ensured that his performance at Crosley Field would always stay fresh and unboxed.  Paradoxically, he began the night as a footnote to a different sort of historical precedent, just one of many players participating in the first wave of a new, wobbling, tentative milestone in the history of the game.  On June 15, 1938, Vander Meer pitched in front of the second-largest crowd in Ebbets Field history.  The majority of the crowd had not chosen to attend the game because of the starting pitcher for the Reds; most were not there to see a 6-2 pitcher for a third-place team  take on the batters for their seventh-place hometown Brooklyn Dodgers.  Johnny Vander Meer did not begin the game as the main focus for the fans, whose attention was directed somewhere above the pitching mound, trained on the lights illuminating the field, stands, and men ready to find their positions.  This particular contest marked the first ever night game in Brooklyn baseball history, and 38, 784 men, women, and children had descended on the ballpark to both witness and impinge themselves on the proceedings.  

And so on this night, Vander Meer added the shadows created by night baseball to his already impressive arsenal of blazing fastballs and sharp curves.  But if the curves were breaking more, and if the fastballs were popping with greater intensity, the Dutch Master’s control was less.  Eight Brooklyn Dodgers would earn a free trip to first base on this summer evening.  But seven others would also trudge back to the dugout after failing to even make contact in their at-bat.  And all failed to hit safely.  Future Hall-of-Famer Kiki Cuyler would go hitless.  As would a power-hitting first baseman named Dolph Camilli.  And so too, Brooklyn’s weak-hitting shortstop named Leo Durocher.  Durocher, whose name and presence litters and contextualizes so much of what was important in baseball between 1925 – 1973, found himself at the plate, facing Vander Meer with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning on June 15, 1938:  found himself, once again, in the middle of baseball history – a  history at this moment defined and sculpted by a 23-year old left-hander named Johnny Vander Meer.

On this upcoming Sunday afternoon, sometime after four pm (Eastern Time), a 24-year-old lefthander named Jon Lester will stride to the mound in Oakland, California.  Lester will be following his Red Sox teammates onto the field, and will be shadowed by the  indiscernible, but very real shadow of Johnny Vander Meer.  The walk will mimic one taken by every pitcher who has thrown a no-hitter since Vander Meer pitched his back-to-back gems, and will connect Lester with every  mounds-man who had taken a shot at duplicating Vander Meer’s handshake with immortality.  Unlike Lester’s previous outing, the expectancy and tension will live from the outset of the very first pitch.  Each fan in the park, every television viewer and radio listener, all of the teammates and opponents, and perhaps even Lester himself, will be anticipating and wondering.  And as Lester begins his windup for his ve
ry first survey into the possibility, the past and the present will collide and then dance together on the ballfield.  

Over a span of five days that occurred sixty years ago, Johnny Vander Meer did his own dance with the impossible and emerged from the performance as an unlikely definition of the attainable.  No pitcher has matched Vander Meer since, but this weekend we will all have the opportunity to watch the newest member of the no-hit club try to join him at a table reserved for one.  And as we watch Lester’s dalliance unfold, we’ll also be treated with an opportunity to peer back toward the past, when there was a team in Boston nicknamed the Bees, when the Reds played at Crosley Field, when nighttime baseball was a controversial new concept, and when a young left-hander named Vander Meer rode a powerful, twisting, winding delivery on an ageless and unforgettable wave toward the impossible.

* A Note:  After his back-to-back no-hitters, Vander Meer’s next start took place on June 19, and his dominance continued.  He got through the first three-and-a-third innings without allowing a hit before Boston’s Deb Garms singled.  Starting with the first batter on June 11, Vander Meer threw 21.1 hitless innings.  The 63 batters figure referenced above includes just the hitters Vander Meer faced in the two no-hitters.

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, baseball-almanac.com, and No-Hitters, by Rich Westcott and Allen Lewis, for information that helped with this piece.  The book by Westcott and Lewis is a fun read, filled with interesting facts and anecdotes (not to mention box scores and line-scores for all of the no-hitters thrown between 1893 – 1999), and comes highly recommended for any of you wanting to learn more about the history of no-hitters.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke

The lefty came from California, just another face in a sea of baseball prospects bobbing here and there among the rolling tide of a vast and expansive farm system.  The righty came from the south, plucked from playing fields of the Negro Leagues.  The switch-hitter – named for a Hall-of-Fame catcher – came from the Midwest, an unpolished jewel full of jaw-dropping potential.  Each would find himself inextricably connected to baseball’s story in his first season in the big leagues and emerged as a footnote in a larger and more dramatic essay.  The switch-hitter would play alongside Joe DiMaggio in the Yankee Clipper’s final campaign in the Majors, a rookie quietly deferring to the icon and waiting for his chance to roam centerfield.  The righty would be waiting in the on deck circle with a unique vantage point for Bobby Thomson’s home run that gave the Giants the pennant.  The lefty would make his Major League debut just two days after his teammate Jackie Robinson trotted out toward first base for his first game in the Majors.  Each would struggle in that first season, too.  The switch-hitter famously considered leaving the game after failing in his first taste of the Majors.  The lefty batted only 89 times in his debut season, and failed to hit a single home run while striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances.  And the righty would start off hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering off Warren Spahn for his first big league hit.  Each would patrol centerfield in a ballpark in New York.  Each would blast out home runs in prodigious quantity.  Each would be held up by his fans as the best the town had to offer.  And each would settle into a magnificent playing career whose chapters would find a permanent home in baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

In the nineteen-fifties, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider stood at the epicenter of the baseball world.  In ballparks as famous and iconic as the players would someday become, they ran down long fly balls, hit searing line drives, and led their teams to pennants.  Willie Mays flew around a playing field in Manhattan and exhibited a style, grace, and innate sense of baseball-ness that made it seem as if he were born to play the game.  Over in the Bronx, Mickey Mantle turned his unique and unprecedented blend of power and speed into the focal point of a dynasty that placed his image atop a totem of greatness and dominance.  And Duke Snider, overseeing his kingdom in Brooklyn, followed a path of quieter consistency and demeanor, issuing resounding thwacks with his sweet and powerful swing, offering counterpoints to the cowbells and ringing instruments; the Duke, the regal centerfielder always pushing to elevate his team to the golden promises of next year.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  In 1956, Mantle led the Majors in batting average (.353), home runs (52), and RBI (130).  The triple crown season remains an apex and symbol of all that could be accomplished when this man was healthy and able to mesh his vast talents and abilities in a concentrated drive toward excellence.  In 1957, Willie Mays became the first player in Major League history to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in back-to-back seasons.  The accomplishment represents the total package of Mays on the ballfield – the running and hitting, the power and the speed, the promise of any given moment flashing and resonating with wonder.  As Leo Durocher once said, Mays could do it all.  In the nineteen-fifties, Duke Snider hit more home runs (326) and drove in more runs (1031) than any other player in baseball.  Day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out – the remarkable resume of a remarkable ballplayer fulfilling his responsibilities and making manifest the magical qualities that could turn a power-hitting centerfielder into a magnetic and smile-inducing paragon.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  The summers were their stage.  And the autumns, their encore.  Mickey Mantle hit more home runs than any other player in World Series history.  Willie Mays used up every inch of his centerfield to run down a drive by Vic Wertz.  Duke Snider remains the only player in World Series history to hit four home runs in two different series.  In every year from 1951 – 1964, at least one was playing in the Fall Classic.  Each brought a title to his team, and each became a little more special for that contribution.

Every ballplayer has his own unique story to tell.  For Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, those stories resonate like few others, and sturdily stand on their own myths, facts, numbers, and anecdotes.  Still, their juxtaposition to one another expands their legacies, and adds depth and color to their mythologies.  Without the others, perhaps they don’t shine as far or with as much wattage.  There are numerous combinations like this that texture the baseball timeline.  When geography and timing exert their influence, certain pairs, trios, or quartets become so linked that they forever stand together.  And when that does happen, we are left with a sum that stands above its parts.  Tinker, Evers, and Chance.  Ruth and Gehrig.  Raschi, Reynolds, and Lopat.  Trammell and Whitaker.  Mathewson and McGraw.  Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey.  Smoltz, Maddux, and Glavine.  And of course, Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.  As the Hall of Fame writer Red Smith once quipped, Snider, Mantle and Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best.  Thanks in part to a song by Terry Cashman, the three names have become one – a rolling, effluent, harmonious combination that immediately speaks to a different era when three of the greatest to ever play the game shared the same city and magnetized the same baseball universe.  A trio of ballplayers – forever linked, forever resonant,  forever connected in a perpetually sparkling centerfield of their youth.  Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

To be continued…

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

Time Machine

Did you ever play the time-machine game? As in, if you had a time machine, what date would you punch into the dials? Where would you go? Why? Have you ever played this particular wish-casting game with baseball at the center? If you could jump into a time machine right now, armed with a blackberry that had baseball-reference on-line, ready to spit out any date, what game would you visit? I have so many answers to this question. Maybe July 2, 1963 – for Warren Spahn versus Juan Marichal over 16 innings. Perhaps I would type in August 22, 1936 and watch Satchel Paige, Biz Mackey, Josh Gibson and Hilton Smith battle during a Negro League All-Star game. Or just maybe I would pocket a small transistor radio and journey to September 9, 1965, take a seat at Dodger Stadium, plug the earpiece into my right ear and listen to Vin Scully call Sandy Koufax’s perfect game. All justifiable choices, no doubt. And there are hundreds more. But if pressed for one final, definitive answer, I would grab a heavy sweater, climb into the capsule and answer, “October 8, 1908.”

Nearly 100 years ago, on October 8, 1908, the Chicago Cubs found themselves at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, preparing – in the most hostile environment imaginable – to play the New York Giants in a one-game, winner-take-the-pennant contest. The intrigue, controversy, permutations of circumstance, and combinations of coincidence that forced the scheduling of this game are mind-boggling, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, and just plain absurd.

On September 23, 1908, the Giants and Cubs met at the Polo Grounds for the third game of four-game set. The Cubs had swept a doubleheader the day before to virtually tie the Giants for first place in the National League. The Giants — due to numerous postponements earlier in the season – had 17 games and a slew of doubleheaders remaining on their schedule. The Cubs – just percentage points behind New York – only had 11 games left to play. So on Wednesday, September 23, 1908, the Giants and Christy Mathewson squared off against the Cubs and Jack Pfiester in a game that would have much to say about the eventual National League pennant winner. And when the Giants’ Al Bridwell hit a two-out single to drive in Moose McCormick in the bottom of the 9th to win the game 2-1 and give Mathewson his 34th win of the season, the Giants looked like they had regained their status as favorites for the pennant. But as McCormick was crossing the plate, the Giants’ runner at first – Fred Merkle – was running toward the clubhouse, anxious to escape the mob of fans already invading the field. Merkle would never touch second (a not uncommon practice of the time in this particular circumstance) and his negligence would be spotted by the Cubs’ second baseman, Johnny Evers. Evers (after trying, and failing, to get hold of the game ball to step on second and force Merkle out) would confront umpire Hank O’ Day with the situation, and O’Day (who was also watching Merkle intently because the exact same play – although without Merkle – had taken place in a Cubs’ game weeks before, and O’Day had been forced to admit at that time he hadn’t been watching the baserunner) would eventually rule Merkle out when Evers (with another baseball in his hand) stepped on second. Which meant that the third out of the inning had been recorded by forceout, which meant the winning run didn’t score, which meant the game was still tied, which meant the teams were still tied in the National League. League president Harry Pulliam would eventually rule the game a 1-1 tie and announced that if the outcome of the game played a role in determining the pennant winner, it would be replayed from the start. Of course, the Giants and Cubs would finish the regular season with exactly the same record, and on October 8, 1908, the two teams readied themselves for one final contest.

This is the game I would visit if I had a time machine. And I would sit somewhere in the stands and watch two of the game’s greatest pitchers – Christy Mathewson and Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown – duel. Brown did not begin the game for Chicago, however. Mathewson started against Pfiester in a reprise of the September 23 match up, but the Cubs’ left-hander never made it out of the first inning. With a run already in, manager Frank Chance called on Brown to come in for relief. And then, two of the game’s greatest pitchers resumed their one-on-one battle that had begun in 1903.

Over the course of 14 seasons, Mathewson and Brown faced each other on 24 separate occasions. Each would win 12 games. At one point, Brown won eight in a row- a streak that ended on September 24, 1908 (the game following the 1-1 tie), when Mathewson, a day after pitching a complete game, relieved and threw three innings to earn the win. For the baseball fans of today, imagine if Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez – in their primes in the mid to late 1990’s – started facing each other two or three times a year, and continued these marquee match ups for a decade. This was Mathewson versus Brown.

1908 witnessed the apex of the Brown versus Mathewson confrontations. When Brown relieved Pfiester on October 8, the game marked the fourth time that season the two great righties squared off. Mathewson was the winningest pitcher of the decade. Brown owned the lowest ERA of the 1900’s. Each was the ace of his staff. Brown’s right hand was a gnarled mess – he was missing most of his right index finger and two other fingers on his pitching hand were either bent permanently or paralyzed – which enabled him to throw devastating pitch whose movement bewildered batters. Mathewson was a heroic, mythic figure. With matinee-idol looks, an appearance that connoted (and cultivated) a certain superiority, and a fadeaway pitch that was unparalleled for its effectiveness, Mathewson was perhaps the most beloved and highly respected ballplayer of his era.

But on October 8, 1908, Brown emerged as the superior pitcher. With the Giants’ offense held at bay by his assortment of pitches, the Cubs exploded against Mathewson in the third inning. Matty – who later admitted that he “never had less on the ball” – allowed four runs on a triple, two doubles, and a single. It would be the only inning in which the Cubs scored (Mathewson shut them out for the next four innings before being lifted), but it was enough. The Cubs won the game and the pennant, 4-2. Brown earned his 29th win. Mathewson – who had pitched in nine of the Giants’ last 24 games – was saddled with his 11th loss of the season. Brown would go on to win two games over 11 scoreless innings in the World Series that year, helping his club win their second consecutive title. As of May 1, 2008, the Cubs still have not won another World Series. In 1908, Mathewson led the league with 37 wins, a 1.43 ERA, 34 complete games, 44 games started, 390.2 innings pitched, 259 strikeouts, and 11 shutouts. He and Brown were also tied for the league lead with five saves (Mathewson’s teammate, Joe McGinnity, also had five saves).

After October 8, 1908, Brown and Mathewson would pitch against each other nine more times in their Hall of Fame careers. The last match up came on September 4, 1916, when both pitchers, far past their prime and struggling to record outs, pitched complete games in a 10-8 slugfest. Mathewson would win that game, giving him a National League record 373 career victories. Neither man would ever pitch another game in the Major Leagues. Mordecai Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown lives on as a connection to a time and era when the Cubs were perennial contenders for the pennant. From 1906-1910, Chicago won 530 games (the most wins over a five-year stretch in history), four pennants, and two World Series. And they had the infield that not only inspired the Franklin P. Adams poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (These are the saddest of possible words/”Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance“), but also created the always-fun trivia question, “Who played third in the infield with Tinker, Evers, and Chance?” (answer: Harry Steinfeldt).

Christy Mathewson was elected to the first class of Hall of Famers in 1936. His 373 wins remains the most in National League history (tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander). His feat of three shutouts in the 1905 World Series has never been duplicated. Mathewson’s mythological status – burnished by some of the most heart-wrenching and inexplicable losses in baseball history, an untimely death at the age of 45, his performances on the field, and his association with the New York Giants and John McGraw – remains strong to this day. His perch on baseball’s Mt. Olympus seems assured.

Christy Mathewson and Three Finger Brown. Beginning in the early 1900’s, they pitched at the top of their profession and led their respective teams to a total of nine pennants. They remain at the top of baseball’s all-time leaderboards in multiple categories. They are among the greatest pitchers in history-each illuminating their performances on the field with tales and elements often seen in books of mythology. For me, their stories are intertwined, each lending poignancy, texture, and significance to the other.

Worth a trip back in time, don’t you think?

Grateful acknowledgment and thanks to a few sources that helped immeasurably with this piece:

baseball-reference.com
Baseball Dynasties, by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
Christy Mathewson: A Game-By-Game Profile of a Legendary Pitcher, by Ronald A. Mayer

If you’re interested in learning more about the 1908 Season (the greatest season in baseball history, in my estimation), Christy Mathewson, or Mordecai Brown, here are some recommendations for further reading.

Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History, by Cait N. Murphy

Matty: An American Hero: Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, by Ray Robinson

The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball, by Frank Deford

The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg

Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story, by Cindy Thomson & Scott Brown

Mile High City

Once upon a time, a ballpark stashed away in the lower downtown area of a city built a mile above sea level played host to a different brand of baseball. In this park, line drives ricocheted off bats into expansive green gaps, twelve-to-six curve balls-instead of intimidating batters into jelly-legged stances-floated enticingly into sweet hitting zones, and lazy fly balls carried, and carried, and then carried some more to nestle or thud beyond the outfield fence. In 1996, at Coors Field, all of these moments were taking place with mind-numbing frequency. In 1996, the home ballpark for the Colorado Rockies witnessed a total of 1217 runs-an average of 15 runs a game. In 1996, 271 home run runs (270 traditional long-balls and one of the inside-the-park variety) were tallied inside this second-year stadium. Opponents hit .304 with a .501 slugging percentage when visiting Coors Field. But those numbers seemed pedestrian when compared to what the Blake Street Bombers totaled when they had last-ups. In 1996, the Rockies hit .343 and slugged .579 at their home park. In a way, the Rockies turned into a roster of Rogers Hornsbys when they played at Coors Field. Dante Bichette. Andres Galarraga. Vinny Castilla. Larry Walker. Ellis Burks. These were some of the names penciled into the lineup cards for the Rockies that season, forcing opposing pitchers to check their itineraries for the first plane out of Colorado.

Hideo Nomo as a Kansas City Royal in 2008 (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, a Japanese-born pitcher arrived in the United States and with a twisting, halting, springing windup, began flinging split-fingered pitches with devastating effect. He threw five shutout innings and allowed one hit with seven strikeouts in his Major League debut. A month-and-a-half later, he struck out 16 Pirates. On July 11, he started the 1995 All-Star game for the National League and struck out Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, and Albert Belle during his two scoreless innings. Hideo Nomo emerged as the conductor of a symphony whose defining piece of music was titled “Nomo-Mania.” The twist of the delivery, the splitter that traveled on a even plane for 59 feet and then dropped like a bowling ball hurtling into the gutter, the stoic attention on his battery mate when perched on the rubber, the gleeful joy expressed by the widening smile at the end of any of his 13 wins in 1995-these were the elements that transformed Hideo Nomo from litmus test and curio to one of the most dominating and captivating pitchers in the Major Leagues. In 1995, opponents amassed a .556 OPS when they faced Hideo Nomo, basically turning into a team of Mark Belangers when they stood in the box against number 16 from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1995 & 1996, Hideo Nomo dominated like few others could. He, along with the Greg Maddux and Kevin Brown, reduced hitters to mere accessories in a continual game of pitch and catch, and transformed each stadium into an account book for innumerable swings, misses, weak replies, and trudges back to the dugout. Each stadium that is, except for Coors Field. Through the first 10 months of Hideo Nomo’s career, he pitched two games in Colorado, and the aggregate results suggested that he, like any other superhero, was not immune to certain forces of nature. Here is Nomo’s combined line from his first two starts at Coors Field:

  • 9.2 Innings Pitched
  • 18 Hits
  • 12 Earned Runs
  • 5 Home Runs
  • 11.17 ERA

Once upon a time during a cold, rainy September night in Colorado, 15-game-winner Hideo Nomo walked slowly toward the mound and faced his own version of kryptonite. The Dodgers entered the contest with 85 victories and held a tenuous lead in the National League West, a half-game ahead of the Padres and six-and-half games in front of the 79-win, third-place Rockies. Nomo peered in for the first sign of the night and began his twisting, then halting, then springing motion toward the plate. Eric Young, standing in the right-handed side of the batter’s box, swung just a tad late on the fastball running low and away, and lifted a fly ball toward right-center. A moment to wait…and then exhale. For this was Coors Field, and any fly ball lifted toward a gap in the outfield could begin a rally. But on this night, in the cold and damp air, Wayne Kirby moved toward his left and in between drops of rain, accepted the ball into his glove.

Every ballgame tells its own story. Some burst early, taking on the pace and associated pulse-beat of a track meet, where hitters become base-runners with alarming frequency. The slugfest. Others seemingly glide along on an uninterrupted, repeating rhythmic course only to be pierced by the abrupt crack, roar, and rising tension. The pitcher’s duel. And some meander here and there; they pick up themes and then discard them after a quick sniff, preferring to settle into an evolving pattern that reveals itself more sharply with each passing inning. In the early innings on September 17, 1996 in Colorado, the game seemed to follow the traditional Coors-Field template: the Dodgers scored in the second and third innings and a third of the way through the game, held a 3-0 lead on the home team. The Rockies had threatened in the first and second, thanks to walks and stolen bases, but they hadn’t pushed across a single run. And they still didn’t have a hit. Curiously, since the beginning of the second inning, Nomo had pitched exclusively from the stretch. Due to the rain, Nomo had decided that his full windup would be affected by the wet conditions on the mound, and so he minimized and reduced his unique approach. But neither the rain, nor the cold, nor the ballpark, nor the abrupt change in motion would aid the Rockies on this autumn-like evening. Through four innings, Colorado still didn’t have a hit. When they failed to get a base-runner on in the bottom of the fifth inning, the game became official. And the tension became real.

The tension, of course, would build through the latter part of the game. The contest would become less and less about a pennant race. When the Dodgers came to bat in the top halves of innings, opportunities for rest and relaxation arrived. And then, in the bottom frames, the attention would focus squarely on the right-hander walking to the mound. Always the same measured pace. The warm-up pitches proceeding with regularity while the pulse inside the stadium quickened. The final toss, with the baseball traveling from mound, to plate, to second baseman covering at second, to the shortstop, to the third baseman, and finally back to the pitcher. A strikeout, lineout, and fly ball to center told the story of the bottom of the seventh. The ball didn’t leave the infield in the eighth. And then suddenly, miraculously, Hideo Nomo stood three outs away from a no-hitter. At Coors Field. Against the Blake Street Bombers. In the ninth, a couple of groundouts to second brought Ellis Burks to the plate. Burks-putting the finishing brushstrokes on one of the all-time fun seasons in baseball history-had lined out deep to right (instigating another of those deep breath, hold, wait, exhale moments), walked, and chopped back to Nomo. Hitless, but still hitting over .340 on the season. I’ll let Vin Scully recount the rest of the story, for he can do it much better than I.

“He is one out away, and Ellis Burks, the National League player of the week, is standing in Nomo’s way of a no-hitter.

Burks is the other player to come close to breaking the no-hitter. In the sixth inning, he hit a come-backer, and Nomo reached up and grabbed it and threw him out. And now the picture will tell the story-Ahh, shut up.

How does this sound in Japanese? Ken Fukuhara and Masanori Murakami…”

Note: Scully then stayed quiet and listeners got to hear a couple of moment’s worth of the two gentlemen calling the game for broadcast in Japan. Scully resumed the call after Burks fouled off a pitch.

“…One ball and one strike. On deck, Dante Bichette, who has struck out three times. Ellis Burks hitting .348.

Fastball missed, ball two. The way the ball carries here, the inability to really break off a good curve ball, makes what he has done, up to here, truly remarkable. Two and one.

And now, one precious strike away.

Got ‘im! Hideo Nomo has done what they said could not be done. Not in the mile-high city. Not at Coors Field in Denver. He has not only shut out the Rockies, he has pitched a no-hitter, and thank goodness, they saw it in Japan.”

Once upon a time, Hideo Nomo was considered among the handful of the most dominant and remarkable pitchers on the planet. After a brief call up in 2008 with the Kansas City Royals, it looks like his career has come to a quiet, unremarkable close. Once upon a time, the Blake Street Bombers and Coors Field united to create a unique and awe-inspiring brand of offensive baseball. Coors Field has since softened its effect on the scoreboard, and new sluggers and line drive hitters populate the ballpark in Colorado. The game, as it has always done, swings on a pendulum between offense and pitching. In 1893, the pitching distance was lengthened (to its present distance of sixty feet, six inches), and the resulting offensive numbers remain a high-water mark in the game’s history. The first decade of the 20th century witnessed a swing in the other direction, as pitchers controlled the action and the environment. From the lively ball era led to prominence by Babe Ruth in the twenties, to the pitching-dominated late sixties apexed by Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain’s 31 wins in 1968, baseball continually sways its favor. But even in the extremes, iconic and time-stilling performances will emerge out of the seemingly impossible and place their imprint on the game’s timeline and consciousness. Honus Wagner can compile an OPS of .957 in 1908 when the league average stands at .626. Lefty Grove can win 31 games against just four defeats and allow almost two-and-a-half runs less than the league average in the American League in 1931. Frank Howard can somehow power out 44 home runs in a pitcher’s park in 1968. And Hideo Nomo, like the hero in a fairy tale who slays the dragon, can stand in the center of the most hostile environment possible and twist, halt, spring, and pitch himself into the history books, where we will return to begin the story, ‘Once Upon a Time.’

Thanks to baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org, and baseball-almanac.com for information-statistical and anecdotal-that helped with this piece. Thanks too, for Vin Scully’s television broadcast call of the final out of Nomo’s no-hitter.

 

Four Ballplayers

10 years and 85 days after Jackie Robinson first emerged from the dugout at Ebbets Field and strode toward first base, four ballplayers stood together under a St. Louis sun, and posed for a group portrait captured on film. The photographer caught them in a moment before the 1957 All-Star game at Sportsman’s Park; they are joking, at ease with each other and the gaze of the lens. These four men were young, entering their primes as ballplayers, ready to continue their odysseys toward four of the greatest careers baseball has ever seen. More than a half-century later, I look with awe upon this moment and this image-for I have the luxury of knowing so much more than these four men could fathom at that particular place and time.

I know, for example, that the 26-year-old shortstop on the far left would soon win back-to-back MVP awards, capture two home run titles, and become so identified with his team and city that in the spring of his 77th year, a statue of his likeness would be unveiled outside his home ballpark.

I know that the outfielder standing next to the shortstop-still only 21-years-old on the day the film image was taken-would become known for a ferocity and will to win that was unmatched. I know that years after capturing the Triple Crown and becoming the only player in history to win a Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, he would become the first African-American manager in baseball history.

I know that the lanky, tall, smiling 23-year-old standing in the middle of the group would hit a pennant-winning home run later that year. And I know of another home run that would sail beyond the fence 17 years later-a home run that would forever link this outfielder with a man named Babe Ruth.

And finally, I know that the man standing on the far right-the elder statesman of the group, but still the one who is doing the most joking, the one who can’t stand still-would continue to make every ballfield he stepped onto his own personal playground. I know his resume would include 12 Gold Gloves, two MVP’s, a batting title, and four home run crowns.

Ernie Banks. Frank Robinson. Henry Aaron. Willie Mays. Each carved out an historic career-one filled with myriad accomplishments, moments of stunning artistry, and enough hardware to adorn a museum. Each would power out enough longballs to earn membership into the 500-home run club, and each would stand in front of an adoring audience in a small town in central New York, holding up a plaque that would symbolize his membership among the game’s immortals. Before that 1957 All-Star game, they had already begun their imprint on the game: Banks was making his third All-Star appearance, Robinson had been named the Rookie of the Year in 1956, Aaron had captured a batting title that same season, and Mays had won the National League MVP in 1954. Still, in this image they are babies, young men just beginning to write their own chapters. After the 1957 All-Star game, they would combine to make 52 more All-Star appearances, garner 17 Gold Gloves, earn six MVP’s, win two batting crowns, and capture 10 home run titles. I could go on and on citing statistics, but it seems unnecessary. For the names of these four ballplayers reverberate and resonate with every baseball fan, issuing a smile to anyone who chooses to remember or imagine fields and parks that once played host to Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays.

When these four ballplayers started their Major League careers, baseball was still in the infancy of what Jules Tygiel called “The Great Experiment.” Jackie Robinson had been given the opportunity to write a new chapter of baseball, and the prose and poetry he composed over ten years on the diamond forever changed the game. But by 1957, Robinson had retired, and it was time for a new generation to create their own storylines. For the better part of two decades, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays did just that. In a way, each seems to have borrowed an element of Jackie’s game and turned it into his own defining characteristic. Ernie Banks played with a joy-an emotion I always think of when I picture Jackie jubilantly clapping his hands as he skips down the third base line to meet his teammates at the plate. Frank Robinson brought an unrelenting desire to win to the ballpark-an emotion that makes me picture Jackie standing behind second base after Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, making sure that Thomson touched all the bases on his pennant-winning home run. Henry Aaron brought a dignity and grace to his playing-the same grace and dignity that allowed Jackie to fashion a Hall of Fame career in the face of unimagined pressure and vitriol. Willie Mays could make the basepaths his dance floor and engage in a never-ending game of rundown-Jackie would taunt, tantalize, and ultimately defeat other teams as he waltzed, strutted, pranced, dared, dashed, and flew from base to base.

When I look upon that image from the 1957 All-Star game, I stare into the eyes of the ballplayers, mesmerized by their youth and the knowledge of what lies in front of them. And I think of a legacy that has been passed from Jackie, through Banks, Robinson, Aaron, and Mays, and onto today’s generation of ballplayers. 61 years after Jackie Robinson stood with his teammates on a ballfield at Ebbets Field, Derek Jeter-wearing ’42’ for the night-whistled three singles through the middle of the diamond to continue his inexorable march toward 3,000 hits. 61 years after Jackie came to the plate for the first time and stood inside the batter’s box to face Johnny Sain, Ken Griffey, Jr.-wearing ’42’ on his road grays-drove a 2-1 pitch over the wall for his 595th career home run. 61 years after Jackie Robinson gave all fans the opportunity to watch his aggressiveness on the bathpaths, Jose Reyes-wearing ’42’ in a stadium less than 15 miles from where Jackie played on April 15, 1947-sped from home to third on his first triple of the season.

The thread-always with Jackie Robinson as the knot-remains strong and vital. From Opening Day in Brooklyn in 1947, through a moment before the All-Star game in 1957, to the records and achievements waiting to have their time onstage in 2008, baseball keeps taking us back and forth between the past and the present, juggling and shuffling moments and images that connect us all to our national pastime and to the men who have performed so brilliantly on its diamonds. No matter what images resonate with us, they all have their starting point on some field in the past, perhaps even one in St. Louis during the summer a half-century ago, when four young ballplayers started etching their names in the book of baseball.

Triples

Before we get started, I’d like to offer some triples-trivia to (hopefully) whet the appetite.

  • The record for most hits in a season without a triple is 216, set by Magglio Ordonez in 2007.
  • In Game 7 of the 1903 World Series, Boston & Pittsburgh combined to hit seven triples.
  • In 1904, Roger Connor was the all-time leader in both home runs (138) and triples (233).
  • Jimmy Rollins has the most triples in baseball since 2001.
  • When Curtis Granderson and Jimmy Rollins each reached the 20-triple mark in 2007, it marked the first time since 1930 that two players reached the mark in the same year. In 1930, Adam Comorosky (23) and Earle Combs (22) each did it.
  • Curtis Granderson’s 23 triples in 2007 were the most in the Majors since Dale Mitchell had 23 in 1939.
  • Willie Mays (20 triples in 1957) is the last right-handed batter to have 20 triples in a season.
  • Johnny Estrada is the all-time leader in most at-bats (2027) and most hits (567) without a triple.

Nearly a decade ago, my good friend and colleague James walked over to my desk, and asked (without any real introduction) if I could name the five players to have collected 20 doubles, triples, and home runs in a season. This type of challenge was (and is) typical for the two us, for we have spent countless hours talking baseball, arguing stats, and imagining all-time lineups. I thought about the question for a minute or two, made a few guesses, and then followed along as James called up each player’s season on baseball-reference. For the record, the five players (at that time) were:

  • Frank “Wildfire” Schulte, 1911: 30 doubles, 21 triples, 21 home runs
  • “Sunny” Jim Bottomley, 1928: 42 doubles, 20 triples, 31 home runs
  • Jeff Heath, 1941: 32 doubles, 20 triples, 24 home runs
  • Willie Mays, 1957: 26 doubles, 20 triples, 35 home runs
  • George Brett, 1979: 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs
Triple machine Jimmy Rollins (Julie Jacobson/AP).

Since that day, this club (and it’s members) have remained at the top of my baseball list titled “fun.” There is just something engrossing with the idea of the combination of these numbers and the type of player built to make a run at joining the club. And since that day, I had been keeping an eye on the baseball landscape to see if another player could emerge and collect 20 of everything. For a while, the prospects looked dim. Between 1957-2006, only five players had a season in which they reached the 20 triple mark: the aforementioned Mays and Brett, and a trio of light-hitting (in terms of extra-base power) speedsters-Willie Wilson, Lance Johnson, and Cristian Guzman. Triples, for the most part, had become the domain of the slap-hitter who could fly. And so I waited, wondering if I would get to see a player with enough of a varied skill set to join Schulte, Bottomley, and the rest of the boys in the 20-20-20 club.

For anyone who closely followed the 2007 late season pennant races and joined in the milestone-watches, the answer to that question above is fairly obvious. For in the late summer shadows of the 2007 season, two players-Curtis Granderson of the Tigers and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies-improbably collected 20 doubles, stroked 20 triples, powered out 20 home runs, and joined the 20-20-20 club. And aside from the pragmatic concerns of helping their teams (Rollins led the Phillies to their first NL East title since 1993, and Granderson contributed to a Tigers’ offense that scored the third-most runs in the Majors), these two ballplayers also gave us a glimpse into the past, and afforded us the wonderful opportunity to recall, investigate, and celebrate Wildfire Schulte, Jim Bottomley, Jeff Heath, Willie Mays, and George Brett. And in doing so, another thread linking the past to the present was created, reminding us again of the ability of the game and its players to transport us back and forth between eras.

Once upon a time, the triples suggested power. Ballparks were immense, with outfield walls seemingly miles away, opening up expansive gaps that afforded power hitters the space to litter the outfields with rocket line drives that in turn allowed the batter to motor the 270 feet from home plate to third base. More recently, triples thrived on artificial turf-where the fleetest of base runners could utilize the hardness of the ground to whistle balls toward the walls and then run, and run, and run. No matter what the circumstance or the milieu, triples have always provided an excitement, a rising sense of anticipation and fervor that builds and apexes with a slide or downshifting into third. When we watch a triple, we get to see the ballplayer in a sustained picture of motion, in which all of the assets and abilities combine and manifest themselves. And so for more than a hundred years, triples-because of their rarity, their combination of power and speed, their sustained and elongated action-have forced us out of our seats and created an almost reflexive desire to clap and smile.

One of the best parts about working for MLB Productions is that my desk sits a mere 50 feet away from our library. In the thousands upon thousands of hours of footage, certain images remain with me, growing in my mind’s eye until they have become permanent snapshots of the photo album I know as “baseball.” As I have been thinking about triples over this past week, a few of these images have leapt to the forefront and demanded my attention. I’d like to share some of them with you.

Lou Gehrig triples at Yankee Stadium
Gehrig stands in the left-handed side of the batter’s box, feet planted close to the line that separates the space from home plate. His compact swing is forceful, but curiously he almost lays the bat down as he breaks out of the box. Gehrig seems to be almost at full speed three steps out of the batter’s box, and only 30 or so feet from the plate, he begins to widen out in anticipation of an extra-base hit. His head and eyes look directly out toward right-center field, following the ball and movement of the outfielders. His gaze remains on the play in front of him until after he hits first base, and then turns to fix squarely in the middle of the diamond. At the same time his head swivels toward second, Gehrig kicks into another gear, and I know instantly that he is not going to stop at second. He displays a machine-like power in his gait: arms piston-ing, legs churning. But there is also a sense of the contained about his dash. His head and torso keep still, focused on the next destination. Gehrig hits second with his right foot, elongating his last stride before the bag in order maintain his flow. And then he really turns on the speed. The upper body and head rock, aligning themselves in a pendulum against the arms. Gehrig is flying, allowing his power to fully assert itself. And then, 20 to 30 feet from third base, he begins to slow, and he pulls into third, standing, decompressing. This is a power-triple.

Roberto Clemente in the 1971 World Series
Immediately, I am drawn into the swing: the slight lift of the left leg in anticipation, the hands moving back and up. The bat flashes through the hitting zone, on an even plane that scorches the ball back from whence it came. Clemente’s head, so focused on the collision between ball and bat, now raises and directs the eyes toward a gap in left center where the ball is rocketing. As he hits second, the head is turned over his right shoulder; he is watching, reflexively calculating. His right foot hits second base, and he begins his last 90-foot dash in that inimitable style. His gallop…his hop. Giving the impression of both feet leaving the earth simultaneously before touching to gain power. Clemente’s teeth are bared, betraying the effort in his journey. Hands are clenched. He begins his slide, left leg bent under right, and glides over third base. The momentum carries his lower body past, but Clemente keeps his left hand connected. The left hand stays-always in contact-as he looks over his shoulder out toward left field. This is the dictionary-definition triple.

Joe Girardi triples in the 1996 World Series
Girard stands still in the right-handed batter’s box. And then, a measured swing (just a tad of the inside-out variety), sends the ball toward right-center field. Unlike Gehrig and Clemente, who seem to be running full blast immediately out of the box, Girardi lopes, more interested in the flight of the ball and its possible interception by the fielder than he is by the need to run. He starts to run hard after hitting first-the arms tight to the body, the compact frame chugging. Once he cuts the corner at second, he begins that Gehrig-like rock that shivers from head to waist. The slide-unlike Clemente’s (which seems to be both aggressive and necessary)-returns Girardi to his earlier pace. It is a slowdown, a nice, measured hello to third base. And with the stadium rocking, Girardi’s triple seems to have been the most contained element in the ballpark. This is the series-changing triple.

Jimmy Rollins triples at Wrigley Field
Rollins stands in the right side of the box, still for just a moment. It is the last time he is immobile, for his body always seems kinetic, electric. He is all measured movement, from the slightly upper cut swing, to the casual tossing of the bat. He runs fast, smooth. Rollins glides. If Clemente is a stallion, Rollins is a deer. He runs with a tilt in his body, as if the left side of his torso was being drawn to a center found on the mound. His 270 foot dash requires only one speed-Rollins on cruise control. His head, like the others’, remains focused on the play in the field. As he pulls into third, he stands with both feet on top of the bag, and reaches a height that almost allows him look into the eyes of his third base coach. This is the artistry inside the triple.

I never got to sit in the stands and watch Mays run out a triple, hat flying off somewhere between second and third. There is no footage of Schulte sending a long, deep drive in between fog-hidden fielders at Chicago’s West Side Park. But I know that these men followed the form of those who came before, and that their own interpretations of the triple influenced those who have played after. And so I will sit down tonight, and if I am lucky to watch a triple unfold, I will smile happily, knowing I am witnessing another version of the same dance between a player, three square bases, and 270 feet of field.

 

Happy Opening Day

Tom Seaver in 1969 (AP).

First of all, I’d like to take a moment to thank the folks at This Week in Baseball for giving me the space and opportunity to write about one of my passions-baseball. In order to try and give everyone an idea of what I’ll be doing in this column, let’s try a little exercise.

Close your eyes for a moment, and take a stroll in your mind’s eye toward any image that for you, remains as vivid as the moment in which you first experienced it. Maybe it’s Pedro in Fenway in 1999, when he stood atop Mt. Olympus and toyed with batters using an arsenal that you made you gasp and laugh at the same time. Perhaps it’s Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds in 1954, so small in that endless-looking centerfield and yet so immense in stature that a simple gesture of standing, knee bent, hands on hips seemed to be the most elegant, powerful, graceful gesture ever exhibited. Maybe it’s a curveball by Sandy Koufax or Doc Gooden; perhaps it’s the sense of contained power waiting to be unleashed that you first saw in Albert Pujols’ batting stance. Maybe it’s a name that conjured for you black and white images of a game that seemed almost mythical: Duke, Lefty, Whitey, Red, Big Train, and of course, Babe. Names and numbers. Swings and smiles. The deliveries of Warren Spahn and Dontrelle Willis . Jackie Robinson running the bases, hands flying, hook-sliding into third. There is a connection-an overlapping of times and moments and performances that appear unique and familiar at the same time-that colors our love and appreciation of baseball. Roger Angell called it the web of the game. Over the course of the 2008 season, I will be sharing some of these connections with you. And along the way, hopefully we’ll all learn a little more about ourselves and the game we love.

Every ballgame-the statistics that are accrued, the plays that are made, the wins and losses that are recorded-offers us the opportunity to reflect on the past and inspires questions concerning the future. With the possible exception of one-game playoffs and postseason games, no single day or week provides as many opportunities for these discussions and reflections as baseball’s Opening Day. Scorecards and ledgers are clean on Opening Day, waiting for the first pitches and swings that will begin to write the story of the ensuing baseball season. For all of us-players, fans, vendors and writers-Opening Day represents a clean slate and the opportunity to add new chapters to an always evolving encyclopedia of moments, memories and achievements. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this new beginning resides in the selection of the Opening Day pitcher. There is an honor and responsibility set upon the ace pitcher for each team as he is handed to ball for that first start of the season-a directive that says, “get us started off right… set the tone for the season… show us what you can do.” And as aces toe the rubber for the first time in 2008, we-emboldened by the sight of our guy peering in for that first sign-will feel the hope and the expectancy of what is to come.

In every season from 1968-1977, the New York Mets handed the ball to Tom Seaver on Opening Day. He was the franchise, the All-American boy from Southern California who came to New York and almost immediately helped change the fortunes of a moribund franchise. And for 10 straight years, Tom Seaver pulled on his jersey with the number 41, and strode to the mound to begin the Mets’ season. For a symbol of all that is possible, Tom Terrific was the perfect choice. Over the course of those 10 consecutive starts, Seaver recorded a 6-0 mark, and the Mets went 7-3. Facing the likes of Juan Marichal, Steve Blass, Steve Rogers, and Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver took the ball and delivered-driving toward the mound, right knee scraping the dirt, throwing high fastballs, breaking off darting sliders, baffling hitters-on the promise of Opening Day.

Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton matched up on Opening Day on four different occasions. Imagine that sight-crisp April temperatures welcoming thousands of fans sitting, waiting, and then cheering for two future Hall of Famers as they made their alternating turns on the mound. Tom Terriffic got the best of Lefty in those four marquee match-ups, winning two and losing none, while helping the Mets team to a 3-1 record. The final convergence between the two pitchers on Opening day took place on April 5, 1983 at Shea Stadium. And if the start of any season holds a certain magic, this particular afternoon stands above the rest. On April 5, 1983-after a five-and-a-half year tour with the Cinicnnati Reds-Tom Seaver was back where he belonged: pitching for the New York Mets on Opening Day. Although he was thicker, older, and slower in his gait to the mound, he was still Tom Terriffic. And over the course of six shutout innings on that afternoon, Tom Seaver reached back and reminded us of the magic that can happen when baseball begins its journey across a new season.

Over his 20 year career, Tom Seaver made 16 Opening Day starts-more than any other pitcher in history. Whether it was in the blue and orange for the Mets, the red and white for Cincinnati, or the red, white, and blue striped variety of the White Sox jersey, Tom Seaver began the season for his team with the fulfillment of all that was expected-he gave his team a chance to build upon the promise of early spring.

Happy Opening Day(s) to everyone. While you’re watching your team and wondering if this could be the year, take a moment to sit back, smile, and relax as you watch your own club’s ace work his stuff. For me, it remains one of the best parts about the baseball season-it conjures so many memories and blends so many images into a tapestry that never fails to elicit the same fascination and love that began while watching number 41 take hill year after year.

Tom Seaver’s Opening Days with the New York Mets

11 Starts
76 IP
66 H
14 BB
68 K
6-0
2.13 ERA
Tm W/L: 8-3

Tom Seaver Opening Day Starts as a Met versus Steve Carlton

4 Starts
29 2/3 IP
21 H
4 ER
5 BB
30 K
2-0
1.21 ERA
Tm W/L: 3-1