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Baseball HOF? You’re Dead To Me

The way it works is like this. Each year, several hundred baseball writers and others cast their ballots. Each voter can list up to ten players on their ballot. To be eligible for consideration, a player must have played in the majors for at least 10 years, have been retired for at least five years, and be approved by a screening committee. I’m pretty sure Johnnie Lemaster never made it past the committee and it’s a crying shame.

To be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a player must appear on 75% or more of the ballots cast in any year. Prior to this year, only 230 players had been inducted into the Hall since the first annual vote took place in 1936. That’s less than three players per year.

The pinnacle for baseball players is to be inducted in their very first year of eligibility. It is an honor that is reserved for the greatest of the great. An even rarer honor is for a player to be named on 100% of the ballots. How rare? It has never happened.

Until now.

To give you an idea … in the first year the Hall of Fame elected players, the votes were Babe Ruth 95%, Christy Mathewson 90%, Ty Cobb 98%, Walter Johnson 83%, Honus Wagner 95%.  Five of the greatest players to ever play the game and not a one of them got 100% of the votes cast.

Joe DiMaggio got 88%.

Ted Williams 93%

Mickey Mantle 88%

Willie Mays 94%

Bob Gibson 84%

Hank Aaron 97%

Steve Carlton 95%

This list could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. No player in the history of the Hall of Fame has attained a 100% unanimous vote and many great players were not inducted in their first year of eligibility.

Until now.

This year, the HOF voters unanimously voted for Mariano Rivera in his first year of eligibility. Mariano Rivera who was a closer. Which means that he pitched about twice a week, sometimes three times a week, and only pitched about one inning per appearance. He played nineteen seasons, he averaged 57 appearances per season. He averaged only 67 innings per season and struck out fewer than one batter per inning.

What he did do is throw a particular pitch better than just about anybody else. One article says that it was estimated that he threw his cutter 92% of all the pitches he threw. I can’t discount that he put up arguably the best numbers of any closer in the history of the game.

But, from my perspective, closers are over-rated and the “save” is the most meaningless stat in baseball — a game that statheads obsess about. The rules for how a pitcher records a save have changed over the years, but at all times since the save became a statistic, a relief pitcher can come in and throw one pitch and get a save. Or, alternatively, come in with a three run lead, pitch the final three outs, give up two runs, and still get a save. The stat is just really beyond meaningless.

Virtually every  major league team has a closer who gets 30 saves a season. Every year, year after year. Most teams have a closer who gets 35 or 40 or 45 saves per season. Case in point — in 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays finished with 80 wins and 82 losses, their closer was a guy by the name of Alex Colome. I’ve never heard of him, but he had 47 saves for Tampa Bay in 2017. Baseball is filled with pitchers who can pitch lights out for one inning more often than not.

What set Rivera apart is that he did it as consistently as he did for as long as he did … and that one pitch.

But he was a closer and he is the first player to ever be unanimously voted into the HOF. He doesn’t come close to a Mays, an Aaron, a Ruth, a Cobb, a Gibson … and dozens and dozens of other players during the history of the game. Players who define greatness  on multiple levels.

I don’t think any closer belongs in the HOF — their role and their stats are so fluky and meaningless. And, I’ll say it again, not only is Rivera now in but he got the first 100% ever. It’s ridiculous. The HOF doesn’t really mean as much as once did.

A Good Man Gone

Bob Gibson, who was likely the most feared pitcher of his era, once described Willie McCovey as “the scariest hitter” in baseball. McCovey aka Willie Mac aka Stretch hit more home runs at Candlestick Park than any other hitter.  Candlestick Park, a stadium that was notorious for being a place where home runs went to die.

Growing up a Giants fan in the 1970s I don’t have much memory of his early years as a Giant — the years when he was in his prime as “the scariest hitter.” Although I did get his autograph on my glove when I was seven years old.

Instead, my memory picks up when he returned to the Giants in 1977, after a few years with the Padres and A’s. McCovey was a mountain of a man who lumbered around the diamond, playing first base and swinging a bat that looked like a small tree, while he played out his final few years as a major league baseball player.

At one point, McCovey held the record for most career grand slams. He ended his career with 521 home runs in an era that predated steroids, and was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

More important to me is the fact that McCovey was a quiet man who didn’t make a lot of noise about himself. He let his game speak for itself and for him. And he was such a good player and man that the San Francisco Giants organization created the Willie Mac award upon his retirement. The award is given each year, based on a vote of players, coaches and others within the organization, to the most inspirational player on the team. It says something about McCovey that this award is one of the biggest deals of every Giants season.

One of the best things the Giants organization has done over the last 20-25 years is to embrace their history. Players from years past, and decades ago, have been brought back into the organization, treated like royalty, and adored by fans and players alike. The stadium has statutes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and others. The stadium is located at McCovey Cove in the San Francisco Bay.

What the Giants do with their history is one of the reasons why baseball is the best major sport in America. It continues to tell a story in which generations of players are linked with each other. No other sport is like baseball, with its 162 game schedule each season that tells one piece of its story every year and its historical ties that go back decades. Why? Because the game has not changed all that much. Unlike football and basketball, where the rules change every year, baseball is still following the same basic rules it always has. There are rarely changes that alter the fundamental dynamics of the game. And so the story continues from year to year, decade to decade, and on into the future. The Giants maintenance of their history keeps that story alive.

Willie McCovey passed away today. It was a day all Giants fans knew was coming. McCovey has been suffering for a long time with the physical ailments of an athlete who put it all out there at the major league level for two decades, and the inevitable other ailments that hit the old. But he will not be forgotten by Giants fans. He is an integral part of the story of the San Francisco Giants. I still have that glove and while I may not have much memory of that 1972 summer when he signed it, the autograph means something that no money could replace.

Willie McCovey, a man who deserves the title “Legend”.

willie mac

 

A Class Act

I regularly have these conversations with other sports fans.

“Whose your favorite baseball player?

“I don’t have favorite players.  I follow teams.”

“But Posey?  Pence?  Curry?  Lebron?”

“No.  I follow teams.  With all of the movement of players from team to team and all of the things you learn about their human weaknesses at some point, I don’t fall in love with the players.  I follow the teams.”

As long as I can recall being a fan of sports, when it comes to the team games in America, I have been a fan of the San Francisco Giants, the Golden State Warriors, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I’ve spent my life in Northern California. As a result, that last favorite team — the Steelers — frequently results in raised eyebrows.  The thing is, I grew up in the 70s.  The decade when the Steelers were winning four Super Bowls, the 49ers sucked, and the Raiders were the root of all evil. I’ve been a Steelers fan ever since.

The reality is, however, that my first, last, and only love when it comes to real and true sports fandom is the San Francisco Giants. I have struggled with remaining interested in the NBA as the game has grown more and more boring as the years go by. It’s only the recent success of the Warriors that has brought be back into the fold. And the NFL? Bah. I detest them. Their dominance. Their arrogance. The fact that as the baseball season turns its late summer attention to heated pennant races, the sports pages turn their attention to the NFL preseason — as in, practice and games that don’t count. I have hated that for years. If I had my way, although I follow the NFL because I am an inveterate sports fan, the league would cease to exist. Tomorrow.

But the Giants. The baseball San Francisco Giants. It’s been a love affair ever since I was a child. Listening to them on the radio on KNBR as I went to sleep. Reading the box scores in the paper every morning for years. Decades. Living through years and years and years of suffering.

Followed by a magical five year run with three World Series championships. I believe I can speak for many Giants fans when I say, I didn’t know how to act.

The thing is that their success didn’t change things for me. I remained a fan of the team. The players were another story. I never attached myself to any of them or considered the players to be my heroes or role models or anything like that.

As the 2017 season winds towards its hideous, horrible end for us Giants fans, however, I’m beginning to realize that I missed something in my being a fan of a team and trying to resist the significance of the individuals.

This will be the last season for Matt Cain. He first made an appearance for the San Francisco Giants in 2005, at the tender age of 20. From that point on, he became a mainstay in the Giants rotation for the next ten years. At the end of this season, he will have spent his entire professional career in the Giants organization.

Matt Cain was class.  For the first few years of his life as a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, he pitched remarkably well, but recorded more losses than wins because the Giants offense absolutely sucked. He never complained.

Matt Cain was class. He went out and did his job. He pitched every five days. He gave his team a chance to win almost every one of those games. And when the offense failed, he never complained. He never whined. He just went out five days later and did it again.

Matt Cain was class. In 2010 and 2012, he was a fundamental piece of the San Francisco Giants first two World Series Championships. He was 4-2 in the postseason, with an ERA below 3.00. In the World Series, he pitched twice, with one victory to his credit and an ERA below 2.00. Things changed by 2014 and the third and final run to the World Series. He didn’t pitch an inning in the postseason. And he never complained. He never griped.

Matt Cain was class. He persevered. Did his job. Earned three World Series rings. He pitched a perfect game in 2012. He ends his career now with more losses than wins, but it wasn’t his fault. And he has never complained.

A few years ago, after a season of struggle, Matt Cain went under the surgeon’s knife to remove bone spurs from the elbow of his pitching arm. He has never been the same since. Imminently hittable and remarkably unsuccessful after almost ten years of incredible success.

The thing that always baffled me about Matt Cain was that he didn’t seem to have any awesome gifts as a pitcher. His fastball was routine — not up in the high 90’s, not a lot of movement. It always seemed so flat and hittable. He didn’t have a huge, sweeping curve. Or something else that would baffle batters. Except for the only thing that is left. Pinpoint location. When he threw a pitch, it went where he meant it to go. And he could mix things up just enough to keep batters off balance.

Maybe somebody else who knows more about pitching can explain it, but what was so great about Matt Cain was his success without any apparent strength.

A few years ago, Matt Cain signed a contract extension that paid him over $20 per year for a few years. The contract runs out this year. Unlike some athletes who try to hang on, convinced that they have one more year and if they could only get that one year, things could turn around and maybe they would have another year, and another, Matt Cain has announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Tomorrow he will have his last start as a Giants pitcher. As a major league pitcher. I plan on watching the game. I want to watch a baseball hero. A man who did his job. He never whined. He never complained. No drama. Absolutely nothing other than that he went out and pitched every time his manager gave him the ball. He achieved success beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. And he recognized when his time was over.

Matt Cain was … and is … class. He will be missed by this Giants fan and by many others as well.

With Regret

On a glorious sunny day, I took my boys to a Giants game.  They were 11 and 8 at the time.  It was Sunday, May 28, 2006.  A lifelong Giants fan, I tried to go to at least one game a year and I wanted to bring my boys up right.  As Giants fans.

That afternoon Barry Bonds hit a home run that marked him as a great.  He hit number 715, surpassing Babe Ruth.

 

It’s one of those memories etched in my brain.  The boys and I sat in the upper deck somewhere between home plate and third base.  The ball arced out to the seats just to the right of center field.  And the celebration was on.  Along with 41,000 of our fellow Giants fans, I screamed my head off.  My boys did, too.  I explained the significance to them and we were happy.  It was a moment to revel in being a Giants fan.

Between Bonds and history stood only Hank Aaron’s magical number of 755.

This was a time when Giants fans didn’t have much else to cheer or dream about.  Sure, a few years earlier they made the World Series — a series they lost because Dusty Baker thought it was okay to give the game ball to a starting pitcher before the game was actually won.  And they made the playoffs every now and then.  But seriously, for years, most of what Giants fans had to cheer about revolved around Barry Bonds.

His every at-bat was an event.  Something could happen that would cause your jaw to drop. That short, compact, yet powerful swing just might produce another home run.  He gave us something to watch.  He provided meaning to every game.  He gave us something to cheer in an otherwise empty chapter of Giants history — just like all of the other chapters in Giants history that stretched back to my childhood.

In May 2006, I was 41 years old.  Being a Giants fan since I first became aware of baseball — because that’s what our family was — I was used to misery and not having anything to cheer about.  I rode the Bonds train just like most every other Giants fan.  What else did we have?

A little over a year later — in fact, ten years ago to the day — Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record with number 756.  I watched a video of the home run earlier today and still marvel at his swing.  At the sheer talent of what he could do.  But I wasn’t at that game and the reality is that the stink of his chase had finally sunk in for me.

Barry Bonds likely had one of the most beautiful, perfect swings of any hitter in the game of baseball.  He had an incredible eye and owned just about any mistake thrown by a pitcher.  He was pretty much a Hall of Fame player before any steroid taint entered the discussion.  He won three MVP awards in the early 1990s and put up numbers that were at the top of the game during that decade.

But it wasn’t enough.  In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a home run duel for the ages, with both topping the long-standing single season record.  And, at the end of the day, it was all fueled by steroids.

What Bonds couldn’t stand apparently was all of the attention and accolades Sosa and McGwire received in 1998.  Shortly thereafter he began a run of performance unrivaled by any player in the history of the game.  A run that began when he was 35 years old, when most baseball players are winding down.

While I cheered and screamed wildly for all of his successes, just like the rest of us Giants fans, we knew.  We knew that what he was doing was toxic.  But what else did we have?

I look back now with ambivalence and with regret.  This article over at si.com describes better than I can the reasons for that.

The odd thing that happened while I thought about this tonight was that I compared it to what is going on in America today.  For almost a decade, the hundreds of thousands of us that call ourselves Giants fans overlooked Bonds toxicity, his cheating, his arrogance, all of it … because he was our guy.  Guess what all of those Trump supporters are saying today … it doesn’t matter what he does because he is our guy.

Yes, there is a huge degree of difference between something as ultimately meaningless as baseball (although baseball is life and art and poetry) and the honor and integrity of the Presidency, but I feel sick at the idea that I ignored his cheating because it felt good at the time and because he was a Giant.

What I am most grateful for is that it was only a couple of years after his last season with the Giants, after purging him from the organization and cleaning house, that the  Giants went on their first successful World Series run in more than 50 years. 2010 will always be the year the Giants wiped the slate clean.  2012 and 2014 were just icing and the cherry that none of us expected.  And each one of them put the tragedy of the Bonds years further behind.  For that I am thankful, but that success will never change how I will always feel about Bonds.

My hope is that he never makes the Hall of Fame, although I think he eventually will — likely in either his ninth or tenth year of eligibility.  I won’t care then and I won’t celebrate it.  He doesn’t deserve it.  He was the poster child of the poison that was Major League Baseball for about ten years.  He and several others, just like Pete Rose, should be forever banned from the Hall for what they did.

For Baseball Fans

For years, there have been a handful players playing baseball where the opposing team employes a defensive shift when those players come to the plate.  They are always lefthanded hitters and the shift involves moving the second baseman into shallow right field, the shortstop to the first base side of second base and the third baseman to around where the shortstop usually plays.  This shift used to happen rarely.

Suddenly this year, the use of this shift exploded, with every team using it regularly throughout the game for a lot of lefthanded hitters.  And invariably when teams used the shift, the batter hit weakly to the third baseman, now in the shortstop’s spot or to the second baseman playing in shallow right field.  It was amazing how frequently the shift worked and how little these hitters tried to adjust to the move.

So, now baseball has a new commissioner who has expressed support for outlawing the shift.  Apparently, the reason for doing so would be to help increase offense.

All I have to say is that if baseball outlaws the shift it will be the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.  The linked article goes into a lot of the reasons why this is a horrible idea, but I’ll briefly summarize my reasons.  As the article describes it, the point of hitting is to try to “hit ’em where they aint,” and the point of defense is to try to play where they hit them.  There are all sorts of shifts that take place throughout baseball games.  Outfielders playing shallow, playing deep, shading towards right field or left field, corner infielders playing close to the lines to prevent hits down the line turning into extra base hits, playing in to avoid a runner at third from scoring on a ball that stays in the infield, infielders playing at double play depth.  There are all sorts of these things.

One of the biggest problems I have with football is how the rules change every year and they are almost always changed to increase offense at the expense of the defense.  What this means is that defenses have to constantly adjust to what offenses cook up, but offenses never have to learn to adjust to what defenses cook up.

And that’s the beauty of baseball.  The rules don’t change very often and with the rare exception of lowering the pitching mound at the end of the 1960s, those changes almost never have to do with taking away one side’s need to learn to adjust to improvements made by the other side.

What amazes me about the shifts is that there is a remarkably simple solution to the “problem” they create for offenses.  There was a time when baseball players knew how to hit the ball to the opposite field.  That seems to be more and more of a lost art these days.  All it would take for teams to stop employing the defensive shift is for those incredibly talented professional athletes who are making millions of dollars a year to re-learn the ability to the ball the opposite way and then do it every once in awhile to keep the defenses honest.  What would be even better is if those batters just dropped a bunt down the 3rd base line every once in awhile — they’d probably get a double every time.

That the new commissioner believes that outlawing something that has been a part of baseball throughout its history rather than forcing batters to adapt, which has also been a part of baseball for years, is not a good sign for the future of the game.  Or civilization as we know it.

 

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