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Archive for August, 2010

After recently reading a wordpress blog a man wrote about meeting Mickey Mantle when he was a kid (http://freshrhetoric.com/2010/08/13/my-time-with-mickey-mantle/), I was inspired to put my own few experiences of running into ball players as a kid down.  I’m 32 now and when I do see a player away from the field, it’s still fun, but not mind blowing like when I was a kid.  Now I think to myself, “Cool, there’s Scott Baker.”  As a nine-year old my thoughts were more like, “Oh my God!  That‘s Juan Berenguer!!!  That’s really him!”    

The biggest chance encounter happened at the Burnsville (Minnesota) Mall with my parents at the food court.  It was 1986 (I believe) and I was a skinny, blond, eight-year old Twins fan (add 24 years on to that, and things haven’t changed much).  As I was eating some fast food and Coke I would never put in my stomach today, my mom pointed to one of the restaurants where a man was ordering.  “Hey Jeff, look over there!  It’s Mickey Hatcher.”  I actually didn’t recognize the 31-year old backup outfielder.  He took a table about 25 feet from ours.   

While my parents and I were wondering how we could approach him for his autograph, we heard him shout, “Hey, Randy!”  We looked to where he was yelling and there stood left fielder Randy Bush, also getting something to eat.  Randy saw Mickey and sat with him.  What are the odds that these two Minnesota Twins would run into each other at the Burnsville Mall food court and I would be there?  Why my parents and I were at the Burnsville Mall, I have no idea as it’s 44 miles away from my hometown, Forest Lake.  Perhaps the baseball Gods said, “We should let this baseball superfan see what a big leaguer looks like up close.”   

My mom eventually led me up to their table and asked if they could sign a napkin for her son.  “Oh, sure,” Randy Bush said and asked for my name.  “To Jeff.  Best wishes” and their signatures covered the small napkin and was pinned to my bulletin board in my room until my mother took it down when I went off to college.  

Bush played 12 great seasons in the big leagues, all with the Twins. He was known as a great pinch hitter.

 

The only other time I was able to get more than two seconds and a quick autograph from a big leaguer was also in 1986 at the Rosedale Mall in Roseville.  Frank Viola was scheduled to be signing autographs and my mom and I went down to see him.  Being the shy kid I was, my mother had to coax me into talking to the red-headed 26-year old.  I had a ball my dad had caught during batting practice.  As Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola was signing it, my mom said, “Did you tell him how you got that ball.”  I quietly told the future Cy Young winner about getting the ball.  His reply was something like, “Oh, really!  Well, that’s great.”  My mom then took a picture of me with the eventual 1987 World Series MVP’s hand on my shoulder.  I haven’t seen that picture in many years, but if I ever do, it will be scanned and put on this blog.   

I even went to a Best Buy in 1988 for Juan Berenguer’s autograph, but he seemed uninterested in his surroundings.  The same went for Kent Hrbek at the Ford dealership in Forest Lake.  I was one of dozens and dozens of kids to snag Kirby Puckett’s signature in my 1987 yearbook before a game along the third-base line seats.  Of course, Puckett could only sign, move on, sign, move on …  

It seems most athletes realize the influence they have on kids.  People complain about how much money baseball players make, but I do see a lot of work for their communities and the kids.  I can’t stand it when I go to spring training games and see grown men paging through their baseball card books to get autographs that will likely be sold on eBay.  Getting autographs was something I grew out of and it should be saved for the kids.  It’s a fun hobbie and a great way to come face-to-face with big leaguers.   

The few big leaguers I did come face-to-face with as a kid had a profound effect on me.  I’ll always remember Randy Bush and Mickey Hatcher for their kindness at Burnsville Mall and the same can be said for Frank Viola.   

"Sweet Music" won 24 games in 1988 and earned a Cy Young award.  

I was at a family reunion a few years back and I asked one of my cousins, who’s about 12-years old, who his favorite Milwaukee Brewer was.  “Bill Hall,” he said.  Of all the Brewers at the time, fans complained about Hall more than most since he was in about a three-year slump.  “Why Bill Hall?” I asked.  There was some event where Bill Hall came and talked to either his class or baseball team and he was really nice to the kids.   

It doesn’t take much to make friends when you’re a big leaguer.  A simple smile and acknowledgement of a kid will make his day and give him/her a memory that will last forever.

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A lot of people think Bert Blyleven should be in the hall of fame and I agree.  They think he should be there for his 287 wins, 3,701 strikeouts and two World Series rings.  I also agree.  But there’s another reason many overlook: 1986 and the magic number, 50.  

In 1986, Bert Blyleven set a major league record that still stands after the steroid and juiced-ball era.  In 1986, Blyleven allowed 50 home runs and what’s even more impressive is he had a great year.  The Flying Dutchman proved how worthless the home run can be in 1986 by having a great year while setting a record most pitchers wouldn’t want.  Like Bob Uecker and his lifetime .200 batting average, I don’t think Blyleven has a problem owning this single-season mark.  

The 1986 Twins were not good.  They finished the AL West race in sixth place with a 71-91 mark.  Manager Ray Miller was fired with 23 games to go and replaced with third-base coach, Tom Kelly.  The few bright spots of the ’86 squad were Kent Hrbek (.353 OBP, 29 HR, 91 RBI), Gary Gaetti (.518 SLG, 34 HR, 108 RBI) and Kirby Puckett (.328 AVG, .537 SLG, 31 HR, 96 RBI, 119 R, 20 SB).  As for the pitching staff, it was pretty sad aside from Blyleven and a few others (Keith Atherton, Neal Heaton and Roy Lee Jackson were the only pitchers with a sub-4.00 ERA).  

At the age of 35, the Twins helped Blyleven to a 17-14 record and a 4.01 ERA.  Before the 1986 season began, Robin Roberts held the single-season record for most home runs allowed at 46 from his 1956 season.  Roberts was 19-18 with a 4.45 ERA for the Phillies in ’56, an off year for a man with a career 3.41 ERA.  Up until this season, Roberts held the all-time home run mark until Jamie Moyer allowed his 506th home run of his career.  

Many have attempted to pass Blyleven’s record, but most of them are because of poor performance and the misfortune of pitching during a hitter’s era.  Ten players have allowed 40 or more home runs since 1986 and only two had, what I consider, a good season: Ramon Ortiz in 2002 and Blyleven in 1987.  Just behind Blyleven’s 50 dingers in ’86 on the list is Jose Lima, who gave up 48 in 2000.  Lima followed his 21-win 1999 performance with a 7-16 mark and a 6.65 ERA for the Astros.  It only took Lima less than 197 innings pitched to reach 48 home runs.  His WHIP was 1.62.  

Blyleven was able to scatter his 50 home runs over 271 innings and keep his WHIP at a very respectable 1.18.  He completed 16 of his 36 games started, tossed three shutouts and struck out 215 while walking only 58.  Not only did Blyleven lead the league in innings pitched and home runs allowed, but he also had the top strikeout/walk ratio at 3.71. 

Of Blyleven's 96 home runs given up in 1986 and 1987, 61 were solo shots.

 

“Of the 96 homers I gave up in 1986 and 1987, something like 80 were solo shots,” Blyleven said, according to baseballanalysts.com.  Bert doesn’t quite  have his numbers right on, but he’s not far off.  Of the 96 home runs over the two seasons, 61 of them were solo shots.  Of the 50 home runs allowed in 1986, 27 were solo dingers while 18 were two-run bombs.  Blyleven gave up only three three-run homers and two grand slams.  

Blyleven can thank Ron Kittle of the White Sox for helping him reach the 50 mark.  On consecutive starts in June, Kittle smashed two home runs off Blyleven in each game.  In the June 18 matchup, the Twins went on to win 10-9 in 10 innings with the win going to Ron Davis while in the June 23 game Chicago stomped Minnesota 11-2.   The Brewers’ Ben Oglivie knocked three round trippers off Blyleven that season, two during a May 23 8-7 Twins win at the Metrodome.  Six other player went yard on Bert twice during the season: Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson, George Bell, Johnny Grubb, Doug DeCinces and Darrell Porter.  

Blyleven would have an almost identical season in 1987 with the same ERA (4.01) and a 15-12 mark with 46 home runs allowed.  Of course, the Twins were World Series champs that season.  It just took a year for the rest of the team to catch up with Blyleven. 

Will anyone ever break this record?  Possibly, but if so, it will be from poor performance.  Starting pitchers rarely approach 250 innings pitched a year anymore and those who do are usually at the top of their game.  Home run numbers have been down lately, dropping the chances ever further.  

Does Bert deserve a spot in the hall of fame?  Of course, but it’s not just for those 287 wins and 3,701 strikeouts.  He also knew how to spread out the negative of his game and remain consistent, no matter how far those hanging curveballs landed in the stands. 

My favorite photo of Bert.

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It’s okay.  Don’t feel bad for not going to any Astros games this year.  I don’t blame you.  Yes, I believe you when you say you’re still an Astros fan, but you don’t need to waste your disposable income on a bad team.  It’s okay.   

Many times I’ve heard sports fans accuse others of being fair weather.  Some take it as a personal insult when called fair weather as if they were just accused of a felony they didn’t commit.    

“Their fans aren’t hard core like we are!”    

Is it really a compliment to be considered hard core?  What defines a hard-core baseball fan from a fair weather fan?   

In terms of baseball, most real hard-core fans are quietly so.  They’re not self-appointed hard core.  They quietly follow their favorite team through the standings, statistics, television, radio, columns, features and, occasionally to frequently, attends games.  Then there are the self-appointed hard-core fans who generally flame out when the team drops below .500 and/or beer vendors pack up for the night after the seventh inning.    

The teams most associated with hard-core fans are the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  These also happen to be large-market teams.    

New York Yankees
There are many ways to define a fan base.  Are Yankees fans hard core, or fair weather?  I’ll keep this simple and look at attendance figures.  If a fan base is fair weather, the attendance would rise and fall with the team’s win-loss record.  It’s difficult to gauge with the Yankees because they’re almost always good.  We’ll have to go back to 1992 for the Bronx Bombers last losing season (they were 76-86, fourth of seven teams in the AL East).  That season the Yankees drew just 1,748,737 fans to Yankee Stadium, 11th of 14 American League teams.  In 1991, when they won only 71 games, they drew about 100,000 more fans and were 11th in the league.   Wouldn’t a hard-core fan base show up for more games?   

Attendance records show Yankees fans aren't as hard core as they'd like you to think.

 

Fast forward to one of the greatest baseball teams in the history of the game: the 1998 Yankees.  New York won 114 regular season games and then breezed through the playoffs and won the World Series.  Their attendance that season (2,955,193) ranked third in the league.  Perhaps the fan base needed to witness history to get back on board?  Their 1999 attendance also ranked third.  It wasn’t until 2003 that New York topped the American League in attendance and has stayed on top since.    

Based on these numbers I’m going to label Yankees fans as fair weather … not that there’s anything wrong with that.   

Boston Red Sox
… or as a friend of mine likes to call them, the New England Yankees.  Baseball fans know how hard it is to find a ticket at Fenway Park these days.  The team is a step below the Yankees (though, a big step) in terms of payroll and Theo Epstein has made the right moves amounting to two World Series championships in the last decade along with six playoff appearances.  The fans are known as extremely loyal as most of them had to endure over 80 years of the curse of the Bambino.    

It’s a bit tougher to gage the team’s fan base by attendance as Fenway Park can house only about 39,500 fans.  Like the Yankees, we’ll have to go back to the nineties to find the last sub-.500 season from Boston.  In 1997 the Red Sox were just under .500 (78-84) and ranked seventh in attendance with 2,226,136.  With capacity at Fenway Park at 34,218 in ’97, this averages about 27,500 fans a game.    

Strangely, in 1998 the Red Sox won 92 games, yet only 2,314,704 fans went through the turnstiles, ninth in the American League.  Did the low attendance have anything to do with the fact that the Yankees, their biggest rival, were spectacular?    

Like the Yankees, it’s hard to decifer hard core from fair weather as the Red Sox are really good most of the time.  Boston has had six losing seasons in the last 30 years and none since 1997.  Are Red Sox fans fair weather or hard core?  They’re more hard core than Yankees fans, but they’re still fair weather … not that there’s anything wrong with that.   

Chicago Cubs
The north side of Chicago has not seen a World Series since 1945, but Cubs fans still don’t give up.  They’re known as the lovable losers even though Philadelphia Phillies fans have seen a lot more of it.  Wrigley Field is almost always full despite how horrible the Cubs may be.  Looking at attendance figures, 1986 was the last time Chicago didn’t draw at least two million fans for a full season.  That’s devotion.  After years and years of losing, it slowly got cool to root for one of the least successful teams in baseball history.    

Cubs fans show up to beautiful Wrigley Field no matter what.  Of course, it helps the team plays in a big market and WGN has spread the word through cable wires and satellites across the country.  Like the Red Sox and Yankees, the Cubs spend a lot of money on their payroll, but with far worse results.    

With this being said, Chicago Cubs fans are not fair weather (at least, in the last 20 years) and are hard core … but there’s something wrong with that.   

Every (sane and mature) fan is fair weather
There’s no shame being labeled a fair-weather fan.  It’s the level-headed choice.  If your team isn’t playing well, or downright horrible, there’s no sense in spending your money on them.  How else should you let the owner know you’re disappointed?  Sure, a good fan will keep an eye on the box scores and any transactions.  But a good fan will also not follow the team blindly by spending lots of money on tickets, souvenirs and concessions at the game.    

As a Twins fan, I’ve been lucky in the last decade.  It’s been easy to follow the team and go to games when everything’s still meaningful in late September.  Of course, before Minnesota won 85 games in 2001, it endured eight consecutive losing seasons.  No matter how horrible the team was, I always check the box scores and game stories and watch them on TV if it fit my schedule.  Am I fair weather because I paid less attention to the Twins when they were in last-place team than now?  Or am I hard core because I will always root for the Twins no matter what the standings and never turn to whatever team has done well in the last decade?             

We’re not cattle.  You won’t keep going to a restaurant if the food didn’t taste good and you got bad service, so why complain when fans don’t show up to the ballpark for a bad team?

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The home run is overrated.  It’s especially overrated after the last 15 years of baseball when the 600 home run club went from three members to seven.  It’s overrated and it’s overdone.  I can understand how veterans like Ty Cobb scoffed at the new fame of Babe Ruth.  The home run requires little strategy – hit the ball over the fence and everyone one base and yourself scores a run.  The home run is a rally killer.  Your team is getting walks and hits and then someone hits a home run.  Sure, the team just scored at least one run, but if there was anyone on base, there isn’t anymore.   

Now, when a player spanks a double into the gap, that’s excitement.  A double into the gap or corner or off the wall brings at least two runs home with the bases loaded and when it’s over, there’s at least one man left standing in scoring position.  There are more possibilities for the on-deck hitter after a double.  To paraphrase Bull Durham, it’s more democratic.  Home runs are fascist.  

The walls of Fenway Park have contained many doubles over the years - just ask Speaker and Webb.

 

There’s mystery to a double.  There’s speed to a double.  There’s hustle in a double and yes, there is some power involved too, but in moderation.  Doubles down the line are usually within a few feet of being outs – a hard line drive just past a diving first of third baseman’s glove and into the corner.  Doubles in the gap create a whirlwind of outfielders scrambling for the ball before it hits the wall.  Sometimes doubles can be, unfortunately, disappointing, when they bounce off the outfield wall.  Television commentators talk about how close the double was to a home run as numerous replays are shown.   

Most baseball fans will tell you who owns the single-season home run record.  They’ll also tell you who owns the all time home run record.  Unfortunately, it’s the same person: Barry Bonds.  Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 and 762 for his career – two records that, I hope, are never broken.  I don’t wish them to remain because of the person who hit them, but I’m not a big fan of the home run and would prefer more strategy and … doubles!  

Few baseball fans will tell you who is the single-season or all time leader in doubles.  Can you guess?  

These are records I want to see broken in my lifetime.  The double is immune to the size of the ballpark.  It’s more difficult to hit a home run in Safeco Field or Petco Park, but the double can still thrive in such spacious outfields.  Because of this, the doubles records will be broken.  But who will celebrate such a miniscule milestone?  With the home run numbers falling (thankfully), the double should be celebrated.  

Tris Speaker’s all time doubles record of 792 can be broken, but it won’t be easy.  Speaker spent 22 seasons compiling a record that has stood since 1925 when he passed Napoleon Lajoie.  Speaker spent nine seasons with the Boston Red Sox, followed by 11 in Cleveland, one in Washington and his final season with the Philadelphia Athletics.  At the age of 35, the Indians’ outfielder hit a career best, 59 doubles to go with his 133 RBI, 130 runs scored and a .380-.469-.610 offensive line.   

Tris Speaker's career doubles record has been approached and can be broken.

 

One might think a record that’s been held since 1925 won’t be approached by today’s players who play a much different game.  No, it can be broached and Pete Rose nearly did it.  Rose smacked 746 two baggers in his career.  Of course, Rose hit his last double in 1986.  Can any of today’s player’s approach the record?  Craig Biggio did.  The longtime Astro hit 668 doubles (5th all time) in the era of the home run.  Biggio didn’t play by the Selig era rules and he will be rewarded for this when it’s his turn to go to Cooperstown.    

Other players to retire in the last twenty years in the top fifteen are George Brett (665, 6th), Paul Molitor (605, 11th), Cal Ripken (603, 13th), Bonds (601, 14th) and Luis Gonzalez (596, 15th).   

Speaker’s 85-year old record can be broken and there are a few active players with a shot.  The active leader in doubles is Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez with 562.  Pudge is in the twilight of his career at the age of 38 and will probably not approach Speaker.  Alex Rodriguez, the newest member of the 600 home run club, has 469 doubles.  He’d need 323 more to eclipse Speaker, which would average out to 50 doubles over the next six and a half seasons.  This seems much more unlikely than A-Rod passing Bonds on the home run list (please don’t).   

Then there’s the case of the great Albert Pujols.  The St. Louis first baseman has 410 two baggers and he’s still only 30 years old.  Pujols would need 382 to tie Speaker.  This averages out to about 40 doubles a year for nine and a half more seasons.  Through nine full seasons, Pujols has averaged 43 a season.  Speaker’s record is possible, but still not likely unless Pujols  proves to be the next Hank Aaron and hardly declines through his thirties.  

There’s the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera with 283 at the age of 27.  He’s averaged 36 doubles in his first seven seasons.  If Cabrera kept up this average through 13 seasons, he’d have 789, three short of Speaker.  Cabrera has thirty this season already.   

David Wright is just behind Cabrera with 248 and is the same age.   

The truth is, a player needs an early start (Speaker was 19 when he broke in with Boston and 21 when he played his first full season) and needs a lot of plate appearances (Speaker had nearly 12,000) to approach the record.   

But there is the possibility of the single-season doubles record held by little known Earl Webb.  Webb knocked 67 doubles in 1931 for the Red Sox.  The most he hit in any other season was 30 in 1930.  Webb’s doubles record sounds similar to Roger Maris’ former single-season home run record – one and done.   

The closest a modern player has come to approaching the single-season record was Todd Helton in 2000 when he hit 59 doubles.  Carlos Delgado hit 57 in the same season and Garrett Anderson (2002), Craig Biggio (1999), Nomar Garciaparra (2002) and Brian Roberts (2009) all hit 56.  I remember rooting for the Twins’ Chuck Knoblauch in 1994 to break the record before the strike stopped the season.  The Minnesota second baseman had 45 through 109 games.   

A modern player can top Webb’s 79-year old mark.  A player such as Roberts, Cabrera, Grady Sizemore, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria or Jason Werth.  It will take a lot of plate appearances, so a batting spot in the top three would be beneficiary.  The right ballpark also helps and judging by Speaker and Webb’s records, Fenway Park is a doubles park.  Based on these factors, Pedroia has the most going for him.  He had 54 in his MVP season of 2008 and 48 the following year.  Injuries have slowed his attempts this year, but he’s still only 26.   

Home run statistics became as overdone as the reality television.  It’s time to focus on the double.  

If anyone can approach Webb's single-season record, it's Dustin Pedroia.

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I was fortunate enough to make it to two Twin Cities games this weekend. The first was the St. Paul Saints at Midway Stadium and the second was the Mariners/Twins game at Target Field. Both games were sold out and had standing-room only seats available, which is what I got.

A word to the wise: if you’d like to actually watch the Saints game, don’t bother with the standing room tickets. My three friends and I had a difficult time finding a place where we could see the entire field. Most of the time we couldn’t see home plate.

As for the Twins game, I found a spot a few feet from the left-field foul pole, in foul territory. There are plenty of spots to enjoy the game, but arriving early and securing a place is wise.

I may have witnessed one of the greatest pitched games I’ve ever seen. I’m sure it really helped the Twins were playing the Seattle Mariners, but it was impressive none the less.

Francisco Liriano pitched seven innings, gave up two hits, two walks and struck out 11. Then Jon Rauch took over for an inning and struck out another two. Matt Guerrier closed out the 4-0 win with another two strikeouts, giving the Twins 15 for the game.

A fan next to me pointed out late in the game that Denard Span had not fielded a single ball. I thought about it and realized left fielder Delmon Young hadn’t either. I checked my scorebook to find there was not one outfield putout the entire game. In fact, the two hits the Mariners did have were doubles to right fielder Jason Repko, but that’s it. Two balls made it out of the infield!

The Twins are looking great and I hope they can continue in St. Petersburg against a nasty Rays squad.

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