The Wrong Man

Is it possible to be innocent and guilty at the same time?

Iconic filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had a recurring theme in many of his most famous movies – an innocent man is accused of a terrible crime and then spends the remainder of his screen time trying to prove his innocence.  All the while, circumstantial evidence layers around him while the police and the actual guilty party close in.

Wrong

However, in Hitchcock’s world, no one was innocent.  Even the wrongly accused had scar tissue – typically, character blemishes that required varying degrees of salvation.  Beating the charge was one thing; a cleared name with a reformed persona quite another.

Under such a plot premise, Hitchcock would – cinematically – stuff his leading man into a burlap sack, toss him into a river, observe the inevitable struggle, and then use some spectacular backdrop to highlight his rescue.  Most famously, in “North by Northwest”, Hitchcock dangled Cary Grant from Mount Rushmore (or at least a studio mockup) after making him serpentine through 136 minutes of cornfields and crop dusters, staged murders, and international espionage before finally reeling him in – an innocent and changed man.

North

Thirty-four years before “North by Northwest” made its debut in 1958, there was, sadly, no one around to reel Jimmy O’Connell to safety.

O’Connell, a professional baseball player, didn’t need salvation, though.  His naïve identity was as smooth and unmarred as a frozen lake before the first skate.  He only needed to have his name cleared, to be found innocent of his crime.

OConnell

Unlike the movies, though, real-life exoneration isn’t as tidy or timely – if it comes at all – as a script that has been worked and re-worked by a creative team exclusively focused on making it tidy and timely.  No, O’Connell’s acquittal quest hadn’t an ounce of Hollywood magic in it.

A big part of O’Connell’s problem was that the only arbiter capable of clearing his name was an utterly ruthless sort, not equipped with either a sympathetic ear or compassionate heart.  He dealt entirely in absolutes and brandished the derived determinations viciously, unconcerned with the resulting damage – collateral or not.

Another not-so-minor obstacle stood in O’Connell’s way as well.  He was guilty.

Perhaps, “guilty” isn’t the correct term.  O’Connell had, indeed, done what they accused him of doing.  However, what he had done wasn’t really a crime – certainly, not in a legal sense, and probably not in an ethical sense, either.

Even decades later, the argument isn’t really over whether he committed the act – he had – it is whether or not the act itself merited any sort of punishment.

EXHIBIT A

As context to O’Connell’s case, consider Exhibit A – the “crime” itself.

In 1924, O’Connell was an eager, second-year player for the New York Giants, and, prior to a late-season game against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, he approached the opposing shortstop, John Sand, with a curious bargain.

Sand

O’Connell offered Sand $500 if the Philadelphia player agreed “not to bear down too hard” on the Giants that afternoon.  Sand refused and reported the incident to his manager, Art Fletcher.

The Giants won the game, anyway, 5-1.

Although O’Connell and Sand both started for their respective teams, neither did much of any value in the contest. O’Connell had a double in four at-bats but did not figure directly in any of New York’s five runs.  And, even with Sand “bearing down” in the ballgame, the Phillies’ shortstop failed to record a hit in four trips to the plate; although he did score Philadelphia’s only run.

The victory clinched the National League pennant for the Giants and punched their second straight ticket to the World Series.

1924 World Series

Meanwhile, the Phillies were fated to complete their seventh straight losing season.  Simply put, a really good team had beaten a really bad one, and that should have been that.

However, word of O’Connell’s bribe attempt swirled from the Phillies’ dugout to the locker room and then all the way the desk of the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Landis.

Landis

Landis was a humorless, pompous former federal judge from Chicago, who many believed made rulings from the bench as much to satisfy his own sensibilities as on the actual merits of the case.  He had been appointed the first Commissioner of Baseball following the scandalous 1919 World Series, in which several members of the American League champion Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to lose games.

His appointment was designed, in large part, to deal with the public relations mess of the rigged World Series and, by extension, prevent another one from happening.

1919 News

One of his first official acts as commissioner was to ban the tainted White Sox players from baseball for life.  Although only seven Chicago players could be tied, directly or indirectly, to the illicit cash, Landis banned third baseman Buck Weaver as well – even though he hadn’t been paid or actively participated in the conspiracy – for keeping quiet about the plot as it was happening.

To Landis, ignorance slept in the same bed as instigation.  That is, what you didn’t do could be as damning as what you did.  Moreover, Landis refused to consider any gradients of accountability – there were only those involved and those who were not.  And when he affixed punishment, he used an equally rigid scale – the scarlet letters he handed out were all the same size.

scarletLetter

So, when it came time to take action on the fixed game that wasn’t fixed in 1924, he ruled on the notion of corruption rather than any resulting fraud.  Because of that, the scarlet letter he handed Jimmy O’Connell was precisely the same size as those he handed to the Chicago players who had deliberately disgraced baseball’s most cherished event five years earlier.

O’Connell was banned from organized baseball for life.

Despite the fact that no money was actually exchanged, the Giants-Phillies game itself seemed entirely unaffected, and the transgression was ultimately little more than a young player saying something foolish, Landis saw O’Connell’s brief liaison with duplicity as being just as damaging to the sport as the seven men who took pick axes to the World Series.

Unfortunately, there were no cooler heads around to prevail.  When Landis had been appointed commissioner, he had essentially been given tyrannical reign.  As part of the deal – made at a time when frightened team owners were desperate for order to be restored in baseball – Landis was made bulletproof.  He couldn’t be fired, his decisions couldn’t be reversed unless he nullified them himself, and he required no other counsel before passing judgement.

Landis2

He was a baseball despot.  And for a bombastic, self-important curmudgeon like Landis, that elevated status was intoxicating.  He drank up the autonomy like a stranded man in the Kalahari who had just been thrown a great, big canteen of glacier water.

With a more even-handed view, though, most undoubtedly see the staggering difference between O’Connell’s carelessness and the massive gambling conspiracy that swallowed the White Sox.  And with a closer look at some of the details and circumstances surrounding O’Connell’s incident, the chasm between his transgression and the dishonesty of the 1919 World Series widens even further, making his punishment seem all the more egregious.

EXHIBITS B & C

Consider, then, Exhibits B and C – motives and mitigating circumstances.

Why on earth would a 24-year old backup outfielder still trying to earn his professional stripes like O’Connell do something as outrageous as offering a bribe to a mediocre player on a floundering team, especially at a time when gambling was so widely condemned and scrutinized in the sport?

Granted, O’Connell’s team – the New York Giants – were in a hotly contested race with Brooklyn for first place in the National League that season.  Before the September 27 game with Philadelphia, New York held a narrow 1 ½ game lead over Brooklyn.

O’Connell, eager to prove himself, might have seen convincing an opposing shortstop to gift wrap an important win as a way to get that much coveted badge of approval.  As for the consequences – dire as they were at the time – history is peppered with an unending litany of young men in their twenties doing reckless things for validation.

reckless

Still, no matter how badly O’Connell wanted to win over his teammates the bribery scheme seems an odd and very impractical way to do it.

First, the Giants really didn’t need any conspiratorial aid in beating the Phillies. On September 27, they were 37 games ahead of Philadelphia in the standings.  Paying a player on such a pitiful team to lose to a juggernaut like New York would have been like rewarding a fly for an intentional defeat to the swatter.

The 1924 Giants were also the defending National League champs, so they understood the rigors of a championship run.  They were a powerfully built team, with five eventual Hall of Fame players in the starting lineup and one of the game’s greatest managers – John McGraw – leading them from the dugout.  They were abundantly capable of beating the best teams in the league, much less dispatching a leaky rowboat like the Phillies.

Rowboat

Also, there was a distinct hierarchy on teams of that time, mostly driven by talent and tenure. Befitting the customary attitude of the day, veteran players regarded their less experienced peers as clear subordinates.  And with such a talented roster, the Giants had a clear division of influence in the clubhouse.  Older star players had little patience for defiant young teammates.

McGraw, the team’s venerable manager and unquestioned leader, might have summed up the ballclub’s class structure best when he told one of his players, “Don’t ever speak to me.  I speak to you and you just shut up.”

Giants McGraw

That structure worked, though.  In his 23rd season with New York, McGraw had already guided the team to three World Series titles and had just captured his tenth National League pennant in 1924.

So, the idea that O’Connell would usurp all of the intimidating layers above him and approach John Sand on his own with the bribe scheme is as unlikely as the need to pay for such an easily attainable win in the first place.  No matter how eager he might have been to gain endorsement in the locker room, he surely must have known that independent and impulsive was entirely the wrong way to do it.

Indeed, when Landis called O’Connell in to give his version of events, he told the former judge that New York coach Albert “Cozy’ Dolan had instructed him to make the offer to Sand.  Not wanting to disobey a coach’s direct missive but also fearful of the gambling aspect of the errand, O’Connell asked three of the team’s leaders – second baseman Frankie Frisch, first baseman George Kelly, and outfielder Ross Youngs, all future Hall of Famers, by the way – for their guidance.

Frisch

O’Connell told Landis that the three star players all agreed that he should to do what Dolan had asked.

If true, O’Connell likely felt that he had little choice but to comply.  Refusal might bring reprisal and alienation, making big league success and acceptance that much more difficult.  Besides, the messenger couldn’t be more culpable than the sender, could he?

However, when Landis questioned the three players, they denied knowing anything.  When Dolan was interrogated, he strangely feigned amnesia – neither denying nor admitting guilt, only saying that he could not remember any details of September 27th.

It turns out, the messenger could, indeed, be blamed more than anyone else involved.

Messenger

Although Dolan was also banned from baseball – Landis didn’t accept memory loss as an acceptable plea – it is hard to equate the exile of a 41-year old coaching assistant who had already played out his big league career with the expulsion of a 24-year old hopeful who would never have the same chance.

In the end, the whole sorry episode was a simply case of testimonial weight – who said what and how much it was believed.  No hard evidence was considered, because none existed.

As such, Landis’ decision indicates that he believed O’Connell and Dolan acted in concert and that O’Connell was as responsible for the plot as the older coach.  Further, Landis believed that the three star players – Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs – had no involvement and that O’Connell had fabricated their inclusion in the plan.

However, this version of events raises many more questions than it answers.

First, if Landis believed O’Connell when he confessed to his own part in the incident and the involvement of Dolan, why did the judge think that O’Connell then lied about Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs telling him to proceed with the plan?  And why would a young player like O’Connell implicate his star teammates if he knew they were innocent?  Finally, if Dolan was the instigator, why wouldn’t Landis consider the possibility that O’Connell was coerced into participating, fearful of disobeying his coach’s order?

Dolan

Though, no matter which version of events is to be believed, the biggest question of all is why was the bribe plan created in the first place?

The likely answer to that is as simple as it is sad.

It was a joke.

Given the nature of ballplayers of the time and the accepted hierarchy of the day, veteran players were notorious for hazing young players as a penance to be paid for membership on the team.  As with most hazing, the degrees of the ritual ranged from harmless laughs at a rookie’s expense to physical, psychological torment of a newcomer.

As an example of the latter, the great Ty Cobb was hazed so mercilessly by his older Detroit teammates early in his career that he suffered a nervous breakdown and missed two months of the 1906 season.

Cobb

Mostly, though, hazing involved variants of the former – the long, arduous crawl of a baseball season practically demanded it. A well-crafted gag that involved a gullible neophyte went quite a way towards livening up an otherwise stale routine.

How else to explain why an impressionable young player like O’Connell would offer money to an opposing player on a bad team at the behest of his coach – and likely three of his veteran teammates?

The very idea of making a greenhorn like O’Connell offer to buy something the older players knew they could get for free would have been worth plenty of laughs.  Unfortunately, the premise of the joke involved gambling, and gambling was the great, big boogeyman in the sport.

Once Landis got involved and brought a stenographer into the room, it makes sense – ethics and decency, notwithstanding – why the architects of the joke would have wiped their fingerprints off the whole thing.  Whether it was just Dolan or any of the players O’Connell named who were responsible, they probably – and rightfully – figured that admitting participation, even as a joke, to the stone-faced Landis could have dire consequences.

So, Jimmy O’Connell took the fall and as did any hope of his personal baseball glory.

EXHIBIT D

Finally, consider Exhibit D – the punishment and its aftermath.

Ideally, penalties should be partly punitive and part deterrent with an eye towards reform and meted out mostly on the severity of the offense.

In O’Connell’s case, the punitive portion swallowed everything else.  He’d essentially been given the same sentence for shoplifting that others had received for armed robbery.

Granted, as a deterrents go, there could be few stronger than a lifetime ban for a minor infraction and first-time offense.  However, the impact of the deterrent wasn’t aimed at O’Connell – the punishment had wiped out any chance that he would ever repeat the infraction.  Landis wanted to send the message to the rest of the players in the game that gambling of any sort in baseball would not be tolerated.  So, he fed O’Connell to the wolves to punctuate the point.

And since part of Landis’ initial mission as commissioner was to ensure that there would not be another tainted World Series, he properly reasoned that fear had to be part of the reform.

However, as a reformer, Landis had his shortcomings in that role as well.

While he exiled a slew of individuals from the game for direct or tangential participation in gambling schemes, most were fringe players at the end of marginal careers.  The Black Sox scandal was different only because of the visibility of the mess. In order to put out that fire, Landis knew he would have to stomp on stars like Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte.

Jackson

It is curious, though, how few other notables Landis expelled after that initial purge.  Two years after he removed O’Connell, he certainly had the chance to prosecute two of the biggest names in baseball history.

In 1926, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were implicated in a betting scheme from 1919 when letters written to one of Cobb’s former teammates, including a letter from Cobb himself, became public.  The plan centered mostly around Cleveland, Speaker’s team, deliberately losing a meaningless late-season game to Detroit, Cobb’s team.  A group of players, including Speaker and Cobb, were going to pool their money and bet on the Tigers to win, since the outcome had already been agreed upon.

After the letters reached Landis, he made some inquiries and deliberated shortly before dropping the entire matter.  Detailed accounts of the arrangement in writing – one directly from the accused – were not enough to sway the great reformer into action.

Either an awful lot had changed in two years or – more likely – Landis had openly shown his preference to sacrifice lambs and spare lions.

There had even been whispers that John McGraw himself was involved in the O’Connell incident back in 1924, paranoid that the Phillies might stumble onto a win or two by accident while Brooklyn passed the Giants by dismantling the pitiful Boston Braves on that final weekend.  Even though the practical joke gone awry seems a much more plausible scenario, no one will ever know about the possibility of it actually being McGraw’s brainchild as a genuine bribe, because Landis never interrogated the New York manager.

And if Landis was truly interested in baseball reform, eliminating corruption was only part of it.  Integration also had to be a sizeable piece.  Of that possibility, he once said, “The colored ballplayers have their own league.  Let them stay in their own league.”

His obstinance on the matter – aside from being petty and hateful – played a critical role in keeping African-Americans out of Major League Baseball for decades.  Not coincidentally, it took the new baseball commissioner, Albert Chandler, less than two years to see what Landis could not in a quarter of a century, clearing the way for Jackie Robinson’s big league debut in 1947.

Robinson

As for Jimmy O’Connell, he played in an “outlaw” league in Arizona for a time, because it allowed players banished from organized baseball (Major and sanctioned minor leagues) to participate. Later, he returned to Central California, where he was born and raised, living a long and honorable life until he passed away at the age of 75.

However, it is in that space of time – from 1924 to 1976 – the fifty-two years after he was sacrificed by Kenesaw Landis that remains tinged with melancholy.

No one knows what kind of Major League career O’Connell would have had.  The odds of any player becoming a star at the big league level are remarkably slim.  Still, O’Connell had shown enough natural ability to attract the attention of John McGraw.  And McGraw had a solid record for spotting raw talent and refining it into productive Major League stock.

In fact, O’Connell had impressed McGraw enough to compel the veteran manager to get the Giants to purchase the young player’s minor league contract for $75,000, a record amount for such a procurement at the time.

Playing for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), O’Connell hit .337 with 17 home runs in 1921 as a 20-year old.  The following season, he had a nearly identical stellar year, hitting .335 with 13 homers.  And the PCL was a high-quality baseball league, often producing players who went on to star in the majors.

As proof, a decade after O’Connell’s graduation, the PCL showcased the talents of three future Hall of Famers – Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Ernie Lombardi.

DiMaggio

So, when Jimmy O’Connell arrived in New York, there was a basis for hope.  He had starred in a league known for producing Major League talent, impressed a legendary manager with a keen eye for playing ability, and was joining a perennial championship-caliber team where he would be surrounded by great players.

Although he struggled for playing time and success during his rookie season, O’Connell saw the field in 87 games, hit six homers, and drove in 39 runs as the Giants cruised to the 1923 National League title.

At the start of the ill-fated 1924 season, though, he languished on the bench, playing in only 21 games through the first four months of the year.  Even then, he participated mostly as an afterthought – often entering games as a pinch-hitter or late-game outfield substitute.  In fact, in 8 of the 21 games he played during that stretch, he didn’t even get to bat.

However, as injuries depleted the active roster, O’Connell started to play more.  In August, he started 11 games and responded to the expansion of his role by hitting .302 for the month.  In September, as the Giants raced to stay ahead of Brooklyn, O’Connell responded to the pressure by having his best month in the big leagues.  He batted .349 and hit both of the home runs he would tally for the year.  In one memorable series against Boston, he collected 9 hits in the four-game set, including a perfect 4-for-4 performance in a 10-2 win.

As if to punctuate his rise as a player on a pennant-winning team, O’Connell had three hits and a home run in the final game of the regular season and, as it turned out, the last game he would ever play in the majors.

New York went on to lose the World Series to the Washington Senators in a tightly contested seven game set.  In fact, Game 7 went 12 innings before the Senators finally pushed across the winning run on a bad-hop single.

Senators

By then, O’Connell had already been removed from the team and was not allowed to play in the Series.  While there is no way of knowing, it is compelling to wonder if having a player who hit nearly .350 in the final weeks of a tight pennant race would have helped swing the results of such a close championship series towards the New Yorkers.

Sadly, like the rest of Jimmy O’Connell’s big league baseball life after September 28, 1924, there are only hypotheticals instead of concrete accomplishments.  If there was any real crime committed in 1924, it didn’t involve a rejected bribe; it was the theft of a young man’s future.

OConnell2

They got the wrong man, and Alfred Hitchcock was nowhere to be found to reel him in to safety.

Sources:
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The Tall Tale of Madison Bumgarner

If Madison Bumgarner didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.

Trouble is, no one would believe it if they did, because Bumgarner’s rise to baseball stardom and celebrity seems more folk tale than unembellished biography.

In fact, Bumgarner himself is more folk hero than sports idol.

Folk

Sure, he can throw a baseball with the kind of velocity and deceptive geometry that makes him an elite-level Major League pitcher. But he also does it with a unique quirkiness and self-assurance.   And for sheer scale, the folk hero quality suits him.

He’s a big man – 6-foot-5, 250 pounds – who does big things in big moments.

Consider the first time he commanded a national audience.  In Game 4 of the 2010 World Series, Bumgarner – a 20 year old rookie – threw eight shutout innings, allowed only three hits, and gave his San Francisco Giants a commanding 3-1 World Series lead.

2010 WS

But that probably doesn’t provide the full flavor of how impressive it was for someone with so little pro experience to own that big a moment when it should have swallowed him whole and spit out the bones.

Put another way – in action movie terms – Bumgarner stuffed the big, bad Texas Rangers into a dark room, locked the door, and kicked the keys down the hallway.  Without breaking a sweat.  And whistling the James Bond theme as he walked away.

Bond

World meet Mr. Bumgarner.

It gets better, though.

Almost four years to the day after he throttled the Texas Rangers in the World Series, Bumgarner stepped back into the spotlight and did something even more remarkable.

In the 2014 playoffs, the Kansas City Royals were the hottest team in baseball – downright incendiary.  They beat Oakland in the Wild Card game and then swept the Angels and Orioles out the door in consecutive series.  And they did it with a certain ruthless efficiency.

The Royals got on base and then stole them.  In fact, Kansas City stole so much and so often that the ploy gave them a huge advantage, both strategically and emotionally.  All of that running was a psychological wrecking ball to the opposition, kind of like a cat burglar who keeps getting into the house no matter what kind of security system is put up.

Burglar

In the Wild Card game against the A’s alone, Kansas City stole seven bases.  Seven.  That’s 630 feet – over two football fields – worth of pilfered ground in the span of a single game.

Royal Steal

The Royals also won with great defense – particularly in the outfield – and a bulletproof bullpen.  So, the scarcity of runs to be had against Kansas City made all of those stolen bases the Royals took even more maddening, especially when they were cashed in for runs on otherwise harmless fly balls and grounders.

As it turned out, though, the Royals’ post season formula for winning had a fatal flaw.  It didn’t work if they didn’t score any runs.

Kansas City meet Mr. Bumgarner.

In the four years since he shut down the Rangers in the 2010 World Series, Bumgarner refined his already impressive pitching skills.  In 2014, he had career highs in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts.  He’d also been selected to his second straight All-Star team.

There had been no let down after his outstanding World Series splash as a rookie.  If anything, the wakes he was creating just kept getting larger and larger.

So, when the irresistible force of the momentum-fueled Royals met immovable Madison Bumgarner to open the 2014 World Series, irresistible yielded.  Bumgarner gave up only three hits in seven innings, halting Kansas City’s lethal running game because, of all the bases to be stolen, first isn’t one of them.  The Giants won convincingly, 7-1.

Five days later, Bumgarner was even more immovable, throwing a four-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and no walks.  The Giants won again, 5-0.

Bum 2014WS

In his two World Series starts against the Royals, Bumgarner had only allowed eight baserunners and a single run in 16 innings.  More importantly, Kansas City had stolen precisely zero bases when he was on the mound.  And just like that, Bumgarner had managed to do what the entire American League could not – fold the Royals’ unblemished post season record into an airplane and sailed it into San Francisco Bay.

Plane

The problem, from the Giants’ perspective, was that Bumgarner couldn’t start every game in the series.  And when he didn’t start, the Royals mostly kicked the daylights out of San Francisco.  In the three games the Giants lost – with Bumgarner stored away safely in the dugout – Kansas City outscored them, 20-4.  Truly daylight kicking stuff.

World Series Giants Royals Baseball

When the Royals forced a decisive Game 7 – after clobbering the Giants 10-0 in Game 6 – they knew San Francisco couldn’t start Bumgarner in that big game, either.

Three days earlier, he had thrown 117 pitches during his masterful Game 5 shutout.  So, conventional thinking had Bumgarner right back in the San Francisco dugout for the entirety of Game 7, his pitching arm safely holstered.

After all, the modern manual for proper use of a Major League pitching staff clearly draws the line of demarcation for a starting pitcher at 100 pitches per start.  Anything over that number requires management to place the affected hurler’s arm on a velvet pillow for five days before he can take the mound again.  It’s right there in writing and bold type.

Except, how many folk heroes are conventional, instruction followers?

Given that, Bumgarner not only made himself available to pitch in Game 7, he placed no caveats on the role or length of his participation.  With a championship to be won, he knew he was the best chance for San Francisco to win it.  And so did the Royals.

However, Bumgarner sat undetonated in the Giants’ bullpen for four innings at the start of Game 7.  Everyone knew he was there – his teammates, the Royals, and a stadium full of nervous Kansas City fans – just a wave of his manager’s hand away from entering the game and turning the whole series on its ear.  But through the early part of the game, he was more threat than tangible obstacle, like a great, big storm cloud hovering overhead needing only the necessary change in conditions to bring its pent up fury.

In the fifth inning, with the Giants holding a 3-2 lead, those necessary conditions presented themselves.  San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy waved his hand toward the bullpen, tapping his left arm, and that was pretty much that.

Bullpen

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So, expecting the Royals to somehow figure out how to beat Madison Bumgarner when all he’d done for the past week and a half was punch them in the mouth would have been kind of insane.  Most everyone watching the game – and probably a goodly number of those who were playing in it – must have realized it, too.

Of little surprise – except to the Einstein-defined insane – Bumgarner just kept doing what he’d been doing to the Kansas City lineup.  He shut them out for an inning, then two, and three.  By the time he had recorded his fourth scoreless inning, he’d somehow squeezed more than 50 pitches out his arm – which were 50 more pitches than any modern baseball god-fearing soul had a right to expect.

The real question was whether or not he could keep it going for one more inning to close the game out.  Any chance the Royals had to come back and win in the ninth stemmed mostly on how many more pitches Bumgarner had left.

USP MLB: WORLD SERIES-SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS AT KANS S BBO USA MO

That number, it turned out, was 16.  Unfortunately for Kansas City, that was also precisely the number of pitches it took for Bumgarner to retire the last four hitters of the game.  That number also included a play that nearly wrecked his heroic evening.

With two outs, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon hit a lazy, looping drive into shallow center field.  However, San Francisco outfielders Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez misplayed the ball so badly – even kicking it across the warning track at one point – that Gordon motored all the way to third base.

With the tying run at third – and was only there because Blanco and Perez had decided to step on banana peels at the worst possible time – Bumgarner calmly got the next hitter to hit a harmless infield popup to seal the win.

End Game7

When Bumgarner was named Most Valuable Player of the series, it was probably the least suspenseful announcement in the history of the award.  He’d commandeered the entire championship competition, single-handedly shaping the outcome like few others ever had, from the opening game to the very last pitch.

It was, in fact, a king making moment – the kind that only happens after total victory with the whole world watching.  However, a funny thing happened in that moment.

And maybe this gets directly to the heart of his folk hero quality.  He did something truly magnanimous when he didn’t need to, and he did it mostly on his personal instinct to be gracious in success.

With everyone expecting him to take a well-deserved bow and revel in all of the singular adulation, Bumgarner deflected the praise.  Instead, he thanked his teammates.

“I couldn’t be happier for my teammates. There were a lot of guys that couldn’t deserve it anymore (than) they do. Like I said, I’m thankful for them and (it’s) truly an honor to be part of this team and organization.”

Press Conference

Even though he’d been the one who kicked in every single door that needed kicking to win a championship, he couldn’t bring himself to take appropriate credit for it.  So, he thanked his team – thanked them for essentially allowing him the opportunity to save them.

But if anyone thought that seemingly misplaced gratitude was false humility, they really don’t understand what Madison Bumgarner is all about.

He can be a lot of things, a jumbled bag of dichotomy at times, but entirely genuine in his expression.  Maybe growing up in tiny Lenoir, North Carolina – a place where humility and honest intentions are part of the local harvest – had a lot to do with that.  He says what he means and believes in what he does.

So, thanking others for something he had accomplished wasn’t a dodge.  It was part of his truth.

However, the truth about Bumgarner is sometimes edgy and sophomoric and curious, too.

While he’s been a humble champion, he can also be brazenly cantankerous in competition.  On several occasions, he has stepped off the mound, loudly challenging opposing players whom he felt disrespected by.

The most famous iteration of this happened in 2014, when Los Angeles outfielder Yasiel Puig flipped his bat after hitting an enormous home run off of Bumgarner.  Before Puig reached home, Bumgarner confronted him halfway down the third base line and yelled at the outfielder for his showmanship.

Puig

A year later, he had three separate altercations with players who had thrown their bats in anger after failing to get hits against him.

Like any self-respecting Carolina farmer, Bumgarner would never back down from a fight, even if he’s the one who starts it.

However, it is strange that someone known for his calmness during high-pressure playoff baseball also has a reputation for anger issues during less intense regular season games.

Yet, it is easy to forget that for all Bumgarner has accomplished in his big league career he is still a very young man.  When he confronted Yasiel Puig in May of 2014, Bumgarner was still 24 years old.  Later that season, after the Giants won the National League pennant, he decided to celebrate the moment like any good twenty-something would.  He picked up five beers and chugged them all at once.

Division Series - Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four

After all, big men do big things in big moments.

For someone who mostly tries to deflect attention while in the spotlight, it is curious how much of a knack he has for creating spectacle.

He’s a pitcher who people want to see compete in the All-Star Home Run Derby.  When he hits, he swings as hard as he possibly can, like he’s channeling his inner Ted Kluszewski.

Ted Kluszewski

And it’s working, because he’s hit the most home runs by a pitcher since 2014 – nine – including two off of Dodger lefty Clayton Kershaw, widely considered the best pitcher in the big leagues.

Batting

During batting practice before a game in St. Louis this season, Bumgarner hit a ball that reached the highest deck in left field, traveling over 450 feet.

On the mound, he routinely blows his nose directly on to the ground.  These blasts, affectionately referred to as “snot rockets” by Giants fans, have become so commonplace that they almost look like part of Bumgarner’s pitch routine.

Rocket

Other quirky details about San Francisco’s reluctant pitching hero include his request to ride a horse in the victory parade after the 2014 World Series, the team’s refusal on the parade request but allowing him to ride a horse into the ballpark for the following Opening Day, and his purchase of cattle as a birthday gift to his wife in 2011.

He’s part rural pragmatist – with little patience for egocentric nonsense – part frat boy, part Southern gentleman, and part Bunyanesque sports hero with a healthy dose of humility.  He hits tape measure home runs and baffles hitters with a lethal pitching repertoire.  He’s a devoutly loyal teammate and post season badass who’s never been defeated in the World Series.

He’s also a devoted husband, with a penchant for unpretentious gifts, and mindful of his hometown roots.  He does commercials for Ford, because he drives a Ford pickup truck. After being named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 2014, he had to buy a suit to attend the ceremony, marking not only the first suit he had ever purchased but also the first time he’d ever worn one.

Suit

Bumgarner is all of these things – all rolled up in one person.

So, the next time he does something that draws widespread attention, take a good look.  Otherwise, you might not believe it.  That’s how folk heroes work.

And Madison Bumgarner is most certainly one of those, too.

Folk2

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bumgama01.shtml
http://m.mlb.com/news/article/100048920/oct-29-bochy-bumgarner-postgame-interviews
http://www.csnbayarea.com/giants/instant-replay-bumgarner-silences-dodgers-giants-win-3-1
http://mlb.nbcsports.com/2015/07/31/the-benches-cleared-in-fridays-giants-rangers-game/
http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/10/madison-bumgarner-six-beers-nlcs-giants
http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/after-going-upper-deck-in-bp-bumgarner-says-he-wants-to-be-in-home-run-derby/
http://www.people.com/article/world-series-mvp-madison-bumgarner
http://m.mlb.com/cutfour/2014/12/09/103643608/madison-bumgarner-wears-a-suit-and-tie-for-the-first-time–in-his-life

Photos:

http://ww3.hdnux.com/photos/10/61/75/2301778/25/920×920.jpg
http://fm.cnbc.com/applications/cnbc.com/resources/img/editorial/2012/10/05/49168054-James-Bond-Collectibles-cover.600×400.jpg?v=1349460991
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http://www.dispatch.com/content/graphics/2015/07/08/all-star-1953-art0-g1r12g1ar-1ted-kluszewski-jpg.jpg
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http://sports.cbsimg.net/images/visual/whatshot/Bumgarner_102914.jpg
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https://lintvwwlp.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/world-series-giants-r_fay.jpg?w=650
http://larrybrownsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/yasiel-puig-madison-bumgarner.jpg
http://i.huffpost.com/gen/2144876/images/o-BUMGARNER-facebook.jpg
https://bumgarnersnotrockets.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/giants-bumgarner-snotrocket-2014-07-23-5.jpg
http://cdn-s3.si.com/s3fs-public/videos/2157889318001_3933497728001_Screen-Shot-2014-12-09-at-11-40-15-PM.jpg
http://ww1.hdnux.com/photos/33/50/60/7244816/6/rawImage.jpg

 

An All-Star Game without All of the Stars

The first Major League Baseball All-Star Game took place in 1933, which was about 15 years too late.

Granted, that All-Star debut didn’t lack spectacle or star power – seven of the nine starters for the American League were eventual Hall of Famers, while four National League starters later earned Cooperstown entry.

Even the managers carried legend with them.  John McGraw and Connie Mack led their respective teams for 86 years between them, collectively winning 19 pennants and 8 World Series titles.  Both earned Hall of Fame honors and are still considered two of the greatest managers in the history of the sport.

So, as debuts go, the 1933 All-Star Game was, indeed, gold plated and diamond encrusted.

1933 All Star

Still, if the All-Star tradition had started a decade or two earlier, the 1933 edition would have still been played in all of its magnificence, it just would have been the latest in a string of great games leading up to it.  Earlier contests would have also allowed a whole slate of star players the chance to shine in such an elite showcase – a chance not afforded in 1933 because they had already left the game.

Consider 1919 – yes, the year of the Black Sox and the eternal tarnishing of baseball’s soul.  However, if there was an All-Star game that year, the American League could have matched the 1933 roster with seven Hall of Famers in the starting nine. And that magnificent seven would have included top-tier talents like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson – all of whom had retired by 1933.

For good measure, the American Leaguers could boast about having Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest left-handed hitters in baseball history, on the team and having the version of him before he decided to corrupt himself and his sport in the World Series that fall.  Harry Heilmann would also be available to them – the only big league player to crest .400, win four batting titles, be selected for the Hall of Fame, and yet remain shamefully invisible in the public’s collective memory.

Harry Heilmann Detroit Slugger

And if the game was close and the team needed an immediate offensive dividend, they could use a 24- year old outfielder from the Boston Red Sox named George Ruth, who was on the cusp of changing the sport forever by tethering the age of power hitting to his booming bat and sling-shotting it forward.

Ruth1918

In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs, 17 more than anyone else in the majors.  He also won nine games on the mound with an ERA under 3.00.  So, if the American League needed it, Ruth was capable of launching a homer to grab the lead and then pitching an inning or two to protect it.

As for the National League, they weren’t exactly sacrificial mutton, either.  They could roll out five Hall of Fame starters themselves, including second baseman Rogers Hornsby, a two-time Triple Crown winner, and pitcher Grover Alexander, whose 90 career shutouts are still the second most All-time after Walter Johnson.

Alexander

Coincidentally, the managers for the hypothetical 1919 game likely would have been the same ones who oversaw the actual 1933 contest, John McGraw and Connie Mack – except they would have been 14 years younger and strategically devoted to the more nuanced “dead ball” aspects of play at that time.

Since the “Dead Ball” era (circa, 1900-1920 and so named because of the lack of carry of the ball) emphasized pitching and base running above all else, the 1919 version would have been more stealing than slugging, more spitballs than fastballs, and much more bunting than anyone has ever seen since.  That is, such strategy would permeate until Mack decided to play his trump card, Ruth, and then the big fellow would try to put a hole in the outfield grandstands with one swing of the bat.

That mythical 1919 All-Star Game would have been an extraordinary thing to behold, for sure.  There would be a few things missing, though – namely, diversity and equality, along with some truly remarkable players.

If the times were more enlightened and the people who ran the majors – as well as the fans who watched – in 1919 had been more accepting and progressive in their thinking, this hypothetical All-Star game would have surpassed the actual 1933 debut in most ways imaginable.

Had star players from the Negro Leagues been allowed to play in the majors in 1919 the infusion of talent and innovation would have been enormous and transformed the sport in ways that might well still be felt today. Such integration would have also allowed two full generations of players to shape big league identities, preserving their baseball legacies in ways only Major League notoriety seems able to do – fair or not – and cast them forward.

But integration didn’t happen in 1919 or 1929 or 1939, it took Major League baseball until 1947 to finally tear down the invisible fence it had built on ignorance and stupidity and fear.  And that fence had deprived the big leagues of decades’ worth of historical impact and memorable matchups – not to mention the utterly unnecessary insult and vitriol it directed at hundreds, if not thousands, of faultless players.

The failure to integrate baseball in 1919 is especially galling, because America was only a year removed from its participation in World War I.  Among the soldiers sent to fight for flag and country were 40,000 African-American troops.  They served honorably, fought with tenacity, and died courageously.

Soldiers

When the fighting stopped and the soldiers returned, African-Americans collectively hoped that the battle sacrifices of black troops abroad merited social progress at home. Sadly, that did not happen.  Not much changed – in the factories or political arenas or on baseball fields.

Black men could take a bullet in France fighting a faraway war but could not take the field alongside white players in America.

It was a great shame, not just from a social equality perspective but from a sporting standpoint, too, because many of the best players in the world at that time were black.

To underscore this, if the American League could have fielded seven Hall of Fame players with their best starting lineup in 1919 – a rather impressive number – the African-American community of the time could have done even better.  Comprised of black players playing in their own professional leagues that year, an African-American All-Star team would have included eight Hall of Famers.

Centerfielder Oscar Charleston could do it all – a power-hitting, defensive wizard with speed.  And he did it with the kind of competitive edge that bordered on rage but stayed just controlled enough to be considered productive fury.  In 1919, he was 22 and hit a whisper under .400, while belting eight home runs in just under 180 at bats.

Charleston Oscar_FL w bat 6545.76 PDCharleston’s outfield mates would have included Pete Hill – a lean base stealer with a slashing, line drive-making swing, and Cristobel Torriente – a stocky Cuban power hitter with surprising stealth.  Defensively, the trio’s superb athletic range would have swallowed would-be hits like few others ever could.

As for defense, few players had better reputations for glove work than third baseman William “Judy” Johnson and shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.  Johnson had remarkable defensive reflexes.  His ability to charge and field bunts became a trademark of his Hall of Fame skills.

Even though he was 35 years old in 1919, Pop Lloyd could still play.  In fact, Lloyd played another 13 seasons after 1919.  Like Oscar Charleston, Lloyd had all-around brilliance to his game.  On defense, he earned the nickname “El Cuchara” when he played in Cuba for his ability to dig out tough grounders, scooping them to nab base runners as though served up on a tablespoon.  At the plate, his tremendous hands allowed him to place the ball all over the diamond and, when needed, he could lengthen the bat and send a booming drive for extra bases.

Lloyd

First baseman Ben Taylor was a gentleman first and ballplayer second.  That he had Hall of Fame baseball talent speaks as much or more to his grace and integrity off the field than his magnificent skills on it.  As a player, he was a smart hitter with a penchant for getting big hits and a nimble defender recognized for his agility around the bag.  As a mentor and teacher, he guided young players for decades after his playing days.  His most famous protégé, Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, credited Taylor with not only teaching him how to play first base but also how to be a professional.

Behind the plate, William “Biz” Mackey was everything a great catcher is supposed to be – tough, smart, fearless, and strong armed.  When he called a game, pitchers followed him, because he knew the psychology of hitters as well as he knew the physics of pitching.  It was a lethal combination.  Add to that, a .300 bat and a towering but classy presence, and the result is one of the great catching careers in baseball history.

Mackey Biz 1052.86_FL_PD

On the mound, Joe Williams – appropriately nicknamed “Smokey Joe” – had a fastball that rivaled any of the time for sheer speed and intimidation.  From Seguin, Texas, Williams had the classic look of a power pitcher – tall, broad shouldered, and deadly serious with a baseball in his hand.  Soft spoken off the field, Williams let his searing fastball tell the story.  And when it did, that story included a 27-strikeout, 12-inning shutout, a string of 20 straight wins early in Williams’ career, and a poll naming the tall Texan the greatest pitcher in Negro League history.

Williams

Like their Major League counterparts, a 1919 Negro League All-Star team could also supply a Hall of Fame manager.

Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive mélange of confidence, defiance, and ambition.  As one of baseball’s greatest managers, Foster also had an impressive range of vision.  He saw things as they might happen, how they should happen, and how best to narrow the distance between the two.

Foster

Above all else, Foster’s vision of the game emphasized speed and precision.  The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.

Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos.  However, Foster demanded attention and obedience because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players.  Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.

In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept.  Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field.  Led by Pop Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.

During one brilliant stretch, Foster’s teams won 12 championships in 13 seasons (1910-1922).  So, in 1919, Foster was still at the apex of his managerial genius.

After he left the dugout, Foster organized the Negro National League and became one of the most visible African-American entrepreneurs in the country.  When he was finished, Foster built some of the greatest black baseball teams in history, built the first black baseball league, and, finally, built a legacy which is still regarded as one of the most innovative and successful in the game.

So, if in some parallel universe, the powers that be organized an All-Star game in 1919 and were impartial and decent enough to allow all players of all races to participate, it would have been one hell of a show.

Consider some of the unforgettable showdowns.

Ty Cobb, sharpened spikes and all, racing into second on a steal attempt, in a virtual dead heat with Biz Mackey’s rifle-armed throw to the bag. Walter Johnson trying to sling his legendary fastball past Oscar Charleston, whose lightning fast reflexes rivaled those of any hitter that Johnson had ever seen. 

Johnson

George Sisler belting a ball deep into one of the outfield gaps then waiting to see if Pete Hill could run it down before it hit the turf.  And Joe Williams, with his cap pulled down taut, staring down brawny Babe Ruth with the game on the line. All the while, Rube Foster would match strategic wits with John McGraw or Connie Mack – three of the sharpest baseball minds in history.

As icing, all of this could have happened at the rollicking and rowdy Polo Grounds, right on the edge of Harlem in New York City.  It was the longtime home of the New York Giants and, with its enigmatic but fascinating oblong dimensions, would have been the perfect cathedral to house this perfect jewel of a game.

Polo Grounds

The fully integrated 1919 All-Star contest was the greatest game that never happened.

But if it had, it would have had a tremendous ripple effect by the time the American and National Leagues squared off in 1933.

Assuming integration continued – and thrived – the 1933 All-Star Game would not only have included big league greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Carl Hubbell, no fewer than 16 Negro League stars and eventual Hall of Fame players would have been available as well.

Catcher Josh Gibson, widely considered the greatest power hitter in Negro League history, and outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, similarly regarded as the fastest man to play in the league, would have provided remarkably dangerous levels of muscle and quickness to whichever side was fortunate enough to have them.

Gibson hit so many home runs and hit them with such force that the sheer volume – both in number and decibel level – seems overwhelming.  Some sources credit him with over 900 homers in his 17-year career, including one launched completely out of Yankee Stadium.  While debate may linger on the exact number of home runs he hit, few squabble over the devastating kinetics of his swing.

Gibson

Bell’s speed could not be reduced solely to the art of the steal – using the number of bases he took over his career as the only metric to evaluate his historic quickness.  He learned how to weaponize his speed, turning into as much psychological dagger as strategic windfall.  He often beat out routine grounders for hits and would sometimes score from second on a sacrifice fly.  And that consistent ability to take an extra 90 feet not available to ordinary players made Bell especially worrisome to opponents, because – as the cliché goes – speed never slumps.

Bell2

Pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige named his pitches, called out hitters, and then backed up all of that bluster the moment the ball left his hand.  Paige pitched for 25 seasons, hopping from teams and leagues like a symmetric stone skipping across a lake.  Everywhere he went, though, he entertained and impressed.  In exhibition games against white Major Leaguers, Paige garnered respect for his considerable abilities from a string of big league stars, including Joe DiMaggio and Babe Herman.  They all knew he could play at an elite level; it was only his circumstance that determined where.

Paige

To prove the point, when integration finally came, Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and became an important part of the team’s championship season. Even at the age of 42, he still had enough left in his arsenal to go 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

In 1933, though, Paige was 27 and still in the prime of his career.  Had he played in the All-Star Game that year, he would have undoubtedly pushed Lefty Gomez and Carl Hubbell for the starting pitching nod.

Speaking of Hubbell, his extraordinary run of five consecutive strikeouts against five Hall of Fame hitters (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star Game remains one of the most impressive moments in baseball history. 

Hubbell C 1498.68 = 68 NBLIt is fascinating to ponder whether or not he would have been able to accomplish the same extraordinary feat if Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston (even at 37 years old) had been swapped in as part of that fearsome sequence.

As for fearsome clusters of hitters, the Home Run Derby did not become a staple of All-Star festivities until 1985, five decades after the inaugural All-Star contest.  However, since hypotheticals are ruling the day (or at least this blog post), imagine an integrated Home Run Derby in 1933.

The American League quartet of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Al Simmons – Hall of Famers, all – combined to hit over 2,000 career homers in the big leagues.  Even today, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx remain in the top 30 on the All-time home run list.  Foxx, in particular, was so physically intimidating at the plate that pitcher Lefty Gomez once mused, “He wasn’t scouted; he was trapped,” coinciding neatly with his nickname, “The Beast”.

Foxx

National League representation wouldn’t have quite the same pedigree, but the foursome of Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, and Wally Berger includes three Hall of Fame hitters and an aggregate career home run total of more than 1,200.  And Ott’s distinctive swing, which featured a prolonged and high-altitude leg kick, would have added a little panache to the proceedings.

Ott

Not to be outdone, the African-American contingent would have been comprised entirely of Hall Famers – Gibson, Charleston, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, and Jud Wilson.  Despite a relatively ordinary baseball frame (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Stearnes won seven home run titles in the Negro Leagues and once led his league in stolen bases, for good measure. Wilson was barrel-chested and massively strong.  Despite only being 5-foot-8, many considered him one of the hardest hitters in the history of black baseball.  His nickname, Boojum, was derived from the sound his crushing drives made when they struck outfield walls.

Wilson

The modern day Home Run Derby is – as most modern entertainment pieces are – a glossy, overblown thing designed to fascinate momentarily before being forgotten entirely.  It’s laden with product placement and players who bask in the flash and worship of the moment.

Derby

Mind you, there’s not wrong with it – as fun, fluffy events go.  In fact, most notably, participants are as varied as the international amalgam of the game itself in the 21st century.  In that respect, maybe, the derby isn’t all that fluffy and inconsequential, after all.

Still, a home run contest involving the Bambino, the Beast, Boojum, and a power-hitting “Turkey” would have been far more compelling.  In it, twelve sluggers – all but one in the Hall of Fame – would unleash their celebrated torque, sending an endless stream of great, big soaring drives out of Comiskey Park in Chicago with the wind howling.

No sips of Gatorade or glitzy scoreboard odometer readings.  Just twelve guys in wool uniforms knocking the holy living hell out of baseballs. 

Gehrig Derby

And if it came down to Babe Ruth squaring off against Josh Gibson to see who claimed the home run crown, it would have settled an awful lot of arguments that are now forever in dispute.

So, yes, the debut of the All-Star Game came a few years too late, while the integration of baseball came decades too late.  And all of the remarkable moments that would have come with better timing of both are left in the regrettable place that all other hypothetical triumph resides.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/heilmha01.shtml
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http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/stearnes.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/wilsonj.html

Photos:

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A Tale of Two Hamiltons

Sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways.

In 2012, a shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system set a minor league record by stealing 155 bases.  He stole them so often and with such exhilarating ease that fans and pundits wondered if they were witnessing a prototype; a burgeoning, transformative figure in the art of base running.  Twenty-one year old Billy Hamilton certainly looked the part – lean and lithe; his long, kinetic strides leaving vapor trails in the spaces between the bases he took.

Hamilton Record

And that record – 155 steals in a single season – was a remarkable accomplishment.  Consider the company he bested to get there – Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills.  None of them ever stole that many bases in a single year.

Coleman was the closest at 145 in 1983 while he was with Single-A Macon, and it was Coleman’s record Hamilton broke, by fully ten more steals.  Granted, the minor leagues are not the major leagues, not by a long shot.  And Henderson, Brock, Raines, Coleman, and Wills all had superb stolen base totals at the game’s most difficult level.

Still, 155 steals is a staggering number, no matter the league.  Just think about what goes into a single steal attempt, let alone over 150 successful ones.

In the time it takes a baseball to travel from the pitcher to the catcher – at 90 miles per hour – and from the catcher to a given base – at 75-80 mph – a runner must be able to cover 90 feet – 30 yards – and beat the baseball to the bag.  And he has less than four seconds to do it.

Throw Second

In fact, the players who do it well routinely complete the theft very near the three-second mark.  They are among the elite who can actually outrun high-speed projectiles – bipeds beating ballistics.

To complicate matters – or to add spice to the stew – a base stealer must be able to determine when a pitcher has committed his balance and body to throw a pitch to the plate and when he can still wheel around and throw towards the runner and the base.  The runner has to process this – has to know with certainty – what the pitcher will do at the very instant he begins to do it.

Because once a runner decides to leave the base, there’s no looking back.  He plants that first big stride in the ground and goes.  Those three seconds are incredibly unforgiving.

Hamilton Run2

In turn, the pitcher can disguise his intent – whether he will throw to the plate or back to the base – letting doubt delay a runner’s decision and increase the odds of the ball outspeeding the base stealer to the target.   It’s a hand of poker, without the self-important posturing.

Holding-Runners-On-Base

So, Hamilton’s record – his sheer bushel of beating thrown baseballs to bases – is impressive, indeed.

However, before bestowing Hamilton with any enduring crowns of base stealing exclusivity, it should be noted that he might not even be the best Billy Hamilton to blaze across the base paths.

That distinction is reserved for a speedy outfielder who pilfered his first big league bag 124 years before Cincinnati’s prodigy dazzled the modern game.

William Robert Hamilton earned the nickname “Sliding Billy” for his speed, his aggressive approach to the game, and, well, because, he slid so damned much.  However, there was good reason for all of that dirt on his uniform.

Sliding-Bill-Hamilton

He is one of five players in Major League history to steal at least 100 bases in a single season, and he accomplished the feat four times (1889-1891, 1894).  Hamilton still ranks third all-time in career steals.  His 914 stolen bases remained a big league record for 77 years until Lou Brock finally surpassed the mark in 1978.

Over the years, though, many have discounted Sliding Billy’s gaudy stolen base total due to when they were taken (1888-1901).  For instance, rules of the time allowed for such things like a steal being awarded for taking an extra base on a hit. Such quirky ordinances have muddied the concept of the stolen base from that period, especially when compared to the version tallied in the modern game.

However, if steals of that era were truly that diluted, the top career marks in the category would be littered with players from the late-1800’s.  However, of the Top 15 base stealers in Major League history, only two others could be considered contemporaries of Hamilton (Arlie Latham – 7th and Tom Brown – 13th).  Even so, Hamilton had over 170 more stolen bases than his closest peer from that time (Latham with 742) and accumulated them in three fewer season, to boot.

So, he was the elite base runner of his day, whether or not split hairs over the statistical classification of his many jaunts around the bases are applied.  He was the best at what he did when he did it – and by a fairly wide margin.

Billy-Hamilton-Phillies

But because he played most of his career before the advent of radio and decades before newsreels and, later, television and the internet, Sliding Billy pretty much slid his way right out of the public consciousness.

However, when another speedy player – coincidentally named Billy Hamilton – came along decades later but happened upon the spotlight at time when media attention was never greater, that singularity of name helped to rightfully bring attention back to the brilliant career of the 19th century star.

Although the elder Hamilton’s base running exploits were remarkable, his ability to get on base to do all of that burglary was even better.

His .344 career batting average is tied for 7th All-time in big league history, in a statistical dead heat with the great Ted Williams – all the way out to a fourth decimal point, actually.  Along the way, Hamilton topped the .400 mark in 1894, hitting .403 for the Philadelphia Phillies, and finished north of .380 on two other occasions.

And he was so selective at the plate that he led the National League in walks five times.  Combined with his exceptional hitting, that penchant for getting on base brought Hamilton another piece of history.  His .455 career on-base percentage still ranks as the fourth-highest ever.

Sliding Billy H

However, his most impressive deed on the field is at the very heart of the game itself.

If the entire object of the sport is scoring runs – which it is – Hamilton scored more of them in a single season than any player in big league history, ever.  In 1894 – the year he hit .403 – Hamilton scored 198 runs.  Since then, only Babe Ruth has gotten as close as 20 runs from the record (1921).  And in the last 50 years, only one player has gotten within 50 runs of the mark (Jeff Bagwell with 152 in 2000).

Although he was one of the game’s greatest players, his personality was more bookkeeper than baseball superstar – particularly one of that vintage.  Perhaps, it was that sedate persona during such an unruly time in the sport that limited his notoriety, because there was certainly more than enough spectacle to go around.

Ball players of the late-1800’s were a staggeringly rowdy bunch, often profane and habitually self-indulgent.

86chiwhitestockings

As for the staggering part (pun very much intended), many players imbibed so often and in such volume that they either drank themselves out of the game or, worse, to any early grave.  Alcohol infused shenanigans commonly resulted in brawls on the diamond and saloon melees off of it.  Coarse language at nearly every utterance was probably more acclimation than intentional vulgarity – wild milieus couldn’t help but produce wild denizens.

Perhaps, it was the uncertainty of the industry that drove the rollicking behavior.  If a player lost his metaphorical grip on baseball, he was likely doomed to a life of agrarian or industrial misery.  Few were educated enough to survive comfortably outside of the game.  So, while they were privy to celebrity and decent money, many lived like there wasn’t a tomorrow, because – for a lot of them – there wouldn’t be.

Delahanty

Amidst that, Sliding Billy was an anomaly.  He didn’t drink or cheat on his wife or curse repeatedly.  In fact, the only hell he raised was on the field, and, even then, it was his running that caused the ruckus and not an overly aggressive personality or borderline dirty play that were hallmarks of most of his contemporaries.

He lived modestly, saved his money, and led a quiet but honorable life.  Sadly, his spectacular play on the baseball diamond wasn’t enough to have saved his legend over the years.  It seems that history preferred stormy over calm. As proof, it took the Hall of Fame over two decades to recognize Hamilton’s accomplishments (the Hall opened in 1936; Hamilton was inducted in 1961).

Meanwhile, 19th century stars Mike “King” Kelly and George ”Rube” Waddell – both superb players but chronic drunks – were allowed Cooperstown entry 15 years earlier than Hamilton (Kelly was inducted in 1945; Waddell in 1946).  No doubt, the colorful yarns attached to Kelly and Waddell over time – whether brimming with hyperbole or not – helped to keep their names more ready at the recall when it came time to honor players from that era.  After all, few could forget a baseball star who once kept a pet monkey on his shoulder (Kelly) or another who would occasionally miss games to chase fire engines down the street (Waddell).

King_Kelly

However, it should be noted that Hamilton had significantly higher career totals in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, steals, and runs scored than Kelly (Waddell was a pitcher).  He was also a much better defensive player than Kelly and had far greater range.  What he did not have was a quirky, grandiose persona, and that, apparently, cost him the enduring recognition his playing record would seem to merit.

One has to wonder, then, if the modern-day Billy Hamilton – he of the 155 steals in a year – will be similarly swallowed by time, because he has also has a modest and unassuming personality.  In fact, Cincinnati’s Hamilton has a number of things in common with Sliding Billy of yesteryear.

There is the name, of course.  There is also the demeanor.  The current Hamilton is polite and gracious, never allowing the notoriety of the moment go to his head.  He works hard and mostly lets his accomplishments punctuate his play.

Hamilton Work

Then, there is the speed.  Both Hamiltons share that – the game-changing, unstoppable ability to propel themselves around the bases with extraordinary quickness.  And within that frantic realm is the stolen base.

Base stealing is in some parts brains, bravado, and birthright.  Players best suited for it study pitchers and their pickoff moves relentlessly.  Even then, they have to have the fortitude and faith to believe that they can outrun a thrown baseball.  Most importantly, they need the God-given ability to become a blur.

Hamilton run

The two Hamiltons truly have that – Sliding Billy’s 914 big league thefts and the modern Billy’s 155-steal minor league season are proof of extraordinary speed.  However, what remains to be seen is what the 21st century version of Billy Hamilton will produce at the Major League level.

So far in 2014 – his rookie season in the big leagues – Hamilton has stolen 43 bases in just over 100 games.  He has also been caught 16 times, the most in the National League.  That difference between major and minor leagues has been a bit problematic for Cincinnati’s wunderkind – a 150-steal season in the majors is still a ways off.  However, a likely 60-steal rookie campaign is not a bad way to start what could be the next great base stealing career.

Hamilton is also hitting a respectable .271, though his .299 on-base percentage could use some polish.  At 23, he has plenty of time to sharpen his skills, to truly weaponize his remarkable speed.  If he’s lucky he may even carve out a 14-year Hall of Fame career in the big leagues, become a lifetime .300 hitter and steal 900 bases.

hamilton-hof

If he does, it will be difficult to determine the better of the two Billy Hamiltons. Until then, the nod has to go to the player who did accomplish all of those things, even if history has given him the cold shoulder.  Hopefully, the universe will not be required to conjure up a third Billy Hamilton in order for us to rightfully celebrate the other two.

Sources:

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/8291219/billy-hamilton-cincinnati-reds-prospect-sets-steals-record-147

http://www.thebatssignal.com/the-math-behind-billy-hamiltons-base-stealing/

http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/birdland/how-fast-did-molina-throw-that-ball-to-second/article_dc42994c-fea5-11e1-b8c1-0019bb30f31a.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=hamilt002bil

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http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi01.shtml

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http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/R_season.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/kellyki01.shtml

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/billy-hamilton-s-immense-potential-isn-t-just-fantasy-165453900.html

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Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last

Tony Gwynn was good friends with Barry Bonds. Gwynn was also close with Ted Williams.

Perhaps, that tells you all you need to know about Tony Gwynn.

Two of the most combative and complicated personalities in the history of baseball – separated by decades in their playing careers, no less – both found peace and camaraderie with him. That Gwynn smiled as much – or more – than Bonds and Williams snarled (which was plenty), that he was genial and openly joyful while the other two wrestled figurative alligators on and off the field was a testament to the simple unifying power of being a gentleman.

Gwynn Smile3

As it turns out, Leo Durocher had it all wrong. The famous curmudgeon posited that nice guys were doomed to finish behind the angry and arrogant. But Tony Gwynn, arguably the nicest guy to ever play Major League Baseball, rarely finished last.

Durocher

In 20 big league seasons – all with his beloved San Diego Padres, he won eight batting titles, five Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Slugger awards. He was named to 15 All-star teams and finished his brilliant career with a lifetime .338 batting average and 3,141 hits.

In fact, the only time he ever hit below .300 was in 1982, his rookie season, when he hit .289 in 54 games as a 22- year old neophyte. After that, he ran off 19 consecutive years above the .300 line. In his final season, 2001, he battled weight issues and cranky knees but still managed to hit .324 as a 41-year old pinch hitter. It was as if the baseball gods simply wouldn’t let a hitter of his magnitude and remarkable skill fade below the mark that defines hitting excellence, even as his body was failing him.

Gwynn Swing

Not that his batting prowess was owed to some sort of cosmic serendipity. Gwynn painstakingly made himself a great hitter, maximizing his athletic potential through patience, study, and physical repetition.

Long before iPads and smart phones brought HD video at our collective beck-and-call, Gywnn immersed himself in the relatively primitive visual technology of the day, lugging a bulky VCR and stacks of video cassettes with him on the road. However, by studying his swing endlessly and dissecting the smallest details, he shaped it and refined it and shaped it some more – like an architect coaxing a sleek structure from a paper sketch.

Gwynn Swing Drawing

That meticulous attention to hitting served as the connective source between Gwynn and Williams, because the two seemed to have little in common other than that. After all, Williams made his big league debut 21 years before Gywnn was even born and served in combat duty during two American wars while Gwynn spent nearly the entirety of his baseball life in peace time.

Williams was aggressive and prone to argument and confrontation; Gwynn was calm and gregarious, more likely to shake a hand than slap it away. And they came from different generations in life and different eras of baseball. Yet, the two men knew better than nearly everyone else in the world the how difficult it was to hit a baseball in the big leagues and how few people had ever done it better than they had.

Williams was the last player to hit .400 in a full big league season, reaching the rather impressive figure of .406 in 1941. Gwynn nearly joined him 53 years later, when he hit .394 in the strike-shortened season of 1994. And Williams, who was especially guarded about those he allowed to get close to him, felt a kinship with other great hitters. Considering his resume – 521 career home runs and a lifetime .344 batting average – that distinction was an exclusive one, indeed.

Williams Swing

However, Williams developed a special rapport with Gwynn. Whether it was due to the younger player’s excellence at the plate or Gwynn’s endless study of hitting or simply his eternally sunny disposition, Williams gravitated to him like no other player from the current generation. And the same could be said of Gwynn’s affinity for Williams. He revered the legendary slugger and sought his advice on hitting whenever he could.

That mutual respect was never more apparent than during a stretch between the summer of 1999 and winter of 2000. At the 1999 All-star Game at Fenway Park, Williams – whose health was deteriorating quickly – made what turned out to be one of his last big public appearances. As he readied himself to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, Williams had Gwynn steady his shoulder for support while he made the throw.

FILE PHOTO OF BASEBALL LEGEND TED WILLIAMS ALONGSIDE CONTEMPORARY STARS GWYNN AND MCGWIRE

Given Ted Williams’ enormous pride, allowing such a moment of vulnerability on such a public stage must have been incredibly difficult. That he allowed Tony Gwynn not only to be a part of that moment but to be the one who provided strength and stability was as powerful a statement as he could make about his admiration for Gwynn as a person.

The following year, Gwynn authored a book, “The Art of Hitting”, and had Williams provide the foreword. Gwynn’s book, likely an homage to Williams’ classic manual on batting, “The Science of Hitting”, was the student’s study of the art form. The forward was the teacher’s much coveted endorsement.

The two men also had geography as a common tie. Although Williams was most immediately associated with Boston due to his famed exploits with the Red Sox, he was born in San Diego and got his first professional break there as a member of the city’s Pacific Coast League team in 1936. Gwynn, of course, became such a San Diego icon that he will be forever linked to the place.

Before his Major League glory, Gwynn was a star basketball and baseball player at San Diego State University. In fact, he was so talented on the basketball court that he set the school’s assist record. In retrospect, it was fitting for a man who would become renowned for his generosity to have an official entry in the record books for the number of times he helped others.

Gwynn Basketball

As a member of the San Diego Padres, he quickly became the face of the franchise. If there were others made famous by their association with the team, Gwynn’s overwhelming popularity engulfed them. For the twenty seasons he played in the uniform, no one ever thought of anyone else when they thought of the Padres.

Even though he went from a sleek, base stealing speedster – in one four-year stretch, he swiped 159 of them – to rotund veteran playing on wobbly knees, he never lost the two things for which he will always be remembered: that crisp, compact swing and a smile that made an entire city feel good about itself.

The swing, tuned like a Stradivarius over the years, seemed equal parts hard physics, mechanical brilliance, and minor magic. Gwynn was so skilled with the bat that it looked like he actually caught the ball on the surface of the barrel – like a lacrosse player cradling a ball in the pocket of his stick – and then flicked it to an open patch of grass.

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies

As for the smile, it was the signature for one of the game’s most gracious personalities. Reporters marveled at his accessibility and insight, while fans delighted in the homespun delivery. There was never anything pretentious or demeaning about the things he said or the way he said them. He spoke honestly and personably but used humor and wit to make sure the message was available to all – he always made sure to let everyone in on the joke.

Because of his easy relationship with the media, which bordered on adoration, the press could never quite reconcile his friendship with Bonds – the ultimate villain in the eyes of most reporters. Bonds rarely let anyone in on the joke, because he rarely joked – at least with the media. He was adversarial with the pundits and highly guarded around most everyone else, not unlike Ted Williams.

However, like Williams, Bonds had a special rapport with Gwynn. Perhaps, it was their shared greatness as hitters but also maybe because they shared the same race and the same challenges of contemporary fame. And, maybe, just maybe, Gwynn saw something in Bonds that others had stopped looking for – or more likely – had never bothered to search for at all.

Baseball - 1994 All-Star Game - Barry Bonds

The rest of the world saw Bonds in a black hat, and that was pretty much that.

To his credit, Gwynn recognized that Bonds was a much more complicated person than cartoon bad guy. He once urged Bonds to soften his image a little, to be less abrasive to the media. In other words, Gwynn wanted Bonds to let everyone else see the guy who became one of his best friends in the game. But Bonds couldn’t do it. He needed the edge he got from all of that negative energy.

If Gwynn thrived by charming people and making them laugh, Bonds fed his competitive fire by getting people to root against him. And in the 16 seasons their careers overlapped, they were the best hitters in the game – by a fairly wide margin.

In fact, the year Gwynn rode off into the big league sunset – 2001 – Bonds hit 73 home runs in just 476 at bats (roughly a home run every 6.5 at bats). Three years later, he drew 232 walks, 120 of the intentional variety. Pitchers weren’t just afraid of Bonds, they were scared to even compete against him anymore.

Bonds Walk

In 2007, Bonds, playing in his final season, passed Hank Aaron as the All-time Major League home run leader. And all hell broke loose.

The whispers of Bonds cheating via PED’s weren’t really whispers anymore. They were loud, angry voices and self-righteous finger points. All of the negative publicity Bonds had accumulated over the years manifested itself into the fervor – perhaps, leaning towards bloodlust – of wanting to see him publicly humiliated as a cheat.

While the baseball world collectively rung its hands every time Bonds reached a home run milestone and argued endlessly over the morality – or lack thereof – of it all, Gwynn, in typical Gwynn fashion, refrained.  What he said on more than one occasion with regard to Bonds and his other worldly hitting prowess was that it was the approach that impressed Gwynn the most, not the results. Everyone else obsessed over the muscle; Gwynn marveled at the technique.

As with much else in his life, Gwynn was calm and thoughtful in his professional assessment of Bonds – one of the very few who weighed in on the matter that stayed clear of the chaos and media clutter. As for his friendship with Bonds, it remained intact, because, among his many virtues, Gwynn was incredibly loyal.

That loyal nature, in large part, made Gwynn such a beloved figure in San Diego. Once he set his roots there, he simply refused to leave. Despite the lure of more money and more national fame elsewhere, Gwynn repeatedly signed team-friendly deals with the Padres. In an age of professional sports where players and owners operated – and continue to operate – under a mercenary code, Gwynn chose a place over a paycheck. And the good people of San Diego loved him for it.

Gwynn Tip Cap

Not only was Gwynn an enduring part of the team, he was as big a part of the community. Although he never sought recognition for his public generosity, he earned baseball’s three highest humanitarian accolades – the Branch Rickey Award in 1995, the Lou Gehrig Award in 1998, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 1999. All three awards focused on celebrating the depth and breadth of community giving by a Major League player. Not that the locals needed a trio of awards to know how good Gwynn had been to the area.

As a final ode to his adopted home, Gwynn, who was born in Los Angeles, accepted the head coaching job of the baseball program at his alma mater, San Diego State, less than a year after he retired from the big leagues. It turned out that the old point guard wasn’t quite done dishing out assists.

Even if he couldn’t play in the majors any more, he could help the next wave of aspiring big leaguers get there. Plus, he could still put a uniform on every day and walk out on a baseball diamond and feel the intoxicating energy of the game.

Gwynn Coach

As a mentor, he helped a shy, slightly awkward young pitcher named Stephen Strasburg get prepared for the media blitz that came with being the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft. There was little question that Strasburg had the pitching ability to succeed at the highest level of the game. Some even compared his extraordinary skill on the mound to Tom Seaver. It was the rest of it – the money, media, and ungodly expectations – that Strasburg wasn’t certain about.

So, Gwynn relayed his own pro experience – two decades worth as a Major League superstar – to the young man but fashioned it so that Strasburg could relate to it, could imagine himself in that spot, and how he might best deal with the possibility of big, bright athletic fame.

During the young player’s three seasons at San Diego State, Gwynn also taught Strasburg how to handle the inevitable ups and downs of the game itself. Just as he had done when evaluating Bonds’ swing, Gwynn told Strasberg that it was the approach that mattered more than the results.

Even after Strasburg left the university to pitch in the big leagues, his old college coach never lost touch. There were phone calls and personal visits. And every off season, when Strasburg held his annual 5k charity run in San Diego, Gwynn was there.

Stephen Strasburg, Tony Gwynn

For a man with as few vices as Tony Gwynn, it seemed especially cruel that the one he had the hardest time shaking might have been the one that killed him.

Baseball players chew tobacco. They just do. Perhaps, not all of them but a huge number, nonetheless. The practice has been around the game long enough that many players end up with the habit somewhere along the way. Whether or not the risk is ever fully evaluated – likely, not – the sport’s culture accepts it as part of the landscape. That said, those who chew probably know, somewhere in the back of their consciousness, that it’s a habit that could eventually turn very, very bad.

Chewing Tobacco

So, when Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2010, he was convinced that chewing tobacco had helped to put it there. Some doctors disagreed with the correlation; others wouldn’t pinpoint the origin. Whatever had caused the cancer, the fact remained that he had it, and the prognosis wasn’t good.

Treatment was arduous, relief was sparing, and, ultimately, the relentless cruelty of the disease took what was thought to be untakeable – his trademark smile. Surgery to remove a portion of malignant tumor in his cheek left Gwynn unable to use many of his facial muscles. So, for months, he couldn’t grin – not that there was much to smile about, anyway.

His medical battles forced him to take a leave of absence from San Diego State, and, for the first time in decades, the game wasn’t a part of his life. But he soldiered on, because he had to. If he ever wanted to return to the diamond and his cherished role at his alma mater, he needed to endure the needles and the radiation and the horrible physiological aftermath. Mostly, he needed to beat the disease, because he never backed down from a challenge.

He fought the cancer off two times – stopping the initial spread and beating it again when it returned in 2012. Sadly, when it came around for a third time in 2014, his body had had too much.

On June 16, 2014, Tony Gwynn died. He was 54 years old.

As legacies go, few athletes have ever left a better one than Gwynn. He was a Hall of Fame player in his chosen professional sport and a record-setting amateur in another. His athletic greatness was a fascinating blend of natural gifts, academic grit, and calculated prophecy. He was so charismatic that the press, the public, and the two most difficult figures in the history of American sports all adored him.

Gwynn Sign

He loved the city for which he played for twenty seasons so much that he stayed there after his playing days just so he could teach a new generation of players about baseball and San Diego, all at the same time. And his charity didn’t stop at the gates of the ballpark. He and his wife, Alicia, not only gave money to help the community, they gave their time – hours and hours of it.

At home, his son, Tony Jr., was proud to call his father his best friend and followed his footsteps all the way to the big leagues. Alicia was his high school sweetheart and never left his side – through the glory of his playing days and his utterly bitter fight with cancer.

Perhaps, the most amazing thing about Gwynn’s legacy ,though, is for all of the eye-popping baseball statistics, on-field brilliance, countless friendships, charitable generosity, and personal courage, the one thing that remains in most people’s minds when they think of Gywnn is, maybe, the most simple thing – his smile. His everyday joy was at the core of what he was all about.

Gwynn Smile2

So, no, Leo Durocher, nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes, they finish way ahead of the rest of us. And we can thank Tony Gwynn and the grand way that he led his life for proving you wrong.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gwynnto01.shtml

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Tony_Gwynn.aspx

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2014/06/16/tony-gwynn-dies-appreciation-barry-bonds/10647275/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bondsba01.shtml

http://static.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/gwynn/1364950.html

http://www.csnwashington.com/baseball-washington-nationals/talk/stephen-strasburg-reflects-mentor-tony-gwynn

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/hall-famer-gwynn-dead-54-article-1.1831442

http://drmirkin.com/histories-and-mysteries/tony-gwynn-mr-padre-dead-at-54.html

Images:

http://www.trbimg.com/img-539f78f8/turbine/la-me-tony-gwynn-obit-pictures-012/500/16×9

http://www.gammonsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Tony-Gwynn.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/tonyhrinworldsereis1.jpg

http://img.auctiva.com/imgdata/1/0/1/4/2/4/6/webimg/538052630_tp.jpg

http://www.beabetterhitter.com/text/fundamentals/sweetswing/images/TedWilliams.jpg

http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2014/gwynn_williams.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/42-19213500.jpg

http://www.10tv.com/content/graphics/2014/06/16/tony-gwynn-ap-30457689_12279_ver1.0_320_240.jpg

http://media.nbcsandiego.com/images/654*368/Gwynn-Fans-1.jpg

http://www.drugfree.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Tony-Gwynn-KENT-HORNER_AP.jpg

http://library.sdsu.edu/sites/default/files/imagecache/gallery_full/a-gwynn_tony4-sdsu-052404.jpg

http://natsinsider.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/ap090218045418.jpg?w=320

http://martinisatthebluemax.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/personal-jmf001.jpg?w=620

http://library.sdsu.edu/sites/default/files/imagecache/gallery_full/sp-bkm-61.jpg

http://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/assets/4623841/Tony_Gwynn_1990.jpg

http://worldonline.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/photos/2001/10/02/barrysports_t440.jpg?9e2a24ba44807f8f9b96aad7c4082bf6ded075dc

http://i.usatoday.net/sports/_photos/2011/09/26/Will-Major-League-Baseball-toss-tobacco-THDUVQ5-x-large.jpg

The Pride of Lions

He couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd, but he could feel it.

And it was enough. It had to be, because it was all he was ever going to have.

Curtis Pride played baseball with power and speed, crackling with competitive fire. He also played it in utter silence. When Pride made his big league debut in 1993 for the Montreal Expos, he was the first deaf player to reach the majors in nearly fifty years.

pride-expos

A perinatal case of rubella siphoned his hearing. From birth, he never had the rich texture of sound in his life. Instead, he had to rely primarily on sight and touch to replace audio cues.

For an outfielder like Pride, the game was made even more difficult, because he could not rely on calls from teammates to prevent collisions on fly balls. Nor could he pick up fair or foul calls from umpires. He had to see it happening – all at once – perpetually dividing his vision. He needed to visually process so much more than other players it was a wonder that he could keep it all from dooming his play to distraction.

Reaching the major leagues – one of sport’s most exclusive fraternities – is difficult enough using all of one’s senses stretched taut. However, to arrive at such a coveted spot missing one such perceptive instrument is a stunning achievement.

So, when Pride made it to the big leagues in 1993, he had conquered what few others in the history of the sport ever had. And he had done so while squashing his own doubting whispers – the only sound ever available to him.

As a reward for his remarkable journey, he received a standing ovation after his first major league hit, a double lashed all the way to the left center field wall in Montreal. Even though he never heard the cheers, he saw the enthusiastic faces and felt the vibration of the applause. Perhaps, it was an even more profound way to receive such adulation, because he felt it in his bones.

However, the struggle to reach the big leagues is only surpassed by the more daunting task of staying there. Although he had proven himself at each minor league level – at times even performing brilliantly enough to suggest future stardom in the majors – Pride had difficulty with the staying part of the Major League equation.

He wandered through six different big league clubhouses in 11 seasons and played sparingly, only once appearing in more than 90 games in a major league season and often bounced between the minors and majors in the same year. His lone shining moment in the big leagues – aside from that thrilling ovation in Quebec – came in 1996. That season, he achieved career highs in home runs (10), doubles (17), RBI’s (31), and steals (11) with Detroit. He also hit an even .300, the revered hallmark of batting success.

Pride Detroit

The following year, though, his average plummeted to .210, and the vagabond’s road through the majors beckoned. Although he never hit higher than .252 or played in more than 70 games in a big league season after 1996, he did draw a Major League salary until he was 37 years old.

But he also spent time in Norfolk, Pawtucket, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. In all, he played parts of 23 seasons in the minors and independent leagues, a testament to how difficult it is to fully escape the shadows of the lower floors once the penthouse has been reached.

Salt Lake

More difficult still, of course, was that Pride had to try to maintain his hold on the big leagues as a deaf player – something that only two others had ever done more successfully.

William Hoy and Luther Taylor claimed that they were never bothered by a common troublesome nickname. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were not particularly progressive or enlightened times. So, calling a deaf player “Dummy” seemed strangely normal for the age.

However, neither man lacked the smarts, ability, or courage to play the game – and play it well – amidst the myopic thinking of the day.

Hoy made his big league debut in 1888 for the Washington Nationals, who played their home games at the splendidly named Swampoodle Grounds. Although the Nationals finished last, Hoy was one of the team’s few bright spots. He led the league in steals with 82 and finished the year with a team-high .274 batting average.

Hoy

And he played the outfield with aggressive panache. From center field, he directed his teammates – as a deaf man – on pop ups and fly balls. If the play was his, he would bellow as loudly as he could to signal his bead on the ball. If he couldn’t reach it, he would simply remain silent, tacitly commanding one of his peers to make the play. And he wasn’t timid about his preference for this arrangement.

His teammates respected the dynamic, because Hoy was exceptionally skilled and they all knew it. In 14 Major League seasons, he collected over 2,000 hits, stole 596 bases, and scored nearly 1,500 runs. He was fast and smart and could hit, In fact, he was talented enough to almost make them forget he couldn’t hear.

But there was that nickname.

In time, though, it became a badge of honor, a constant reminder of everything he had to overcome to find success and respect at the game’s highest level.

Just as Hoy was finishing his big league career, a young pitcher in New York was just about to earn a badge of his own.

Luther Taylor played most of his career for the New York Giants and John McGraw, one of the least sentimental managers in the history of the game. So, if Taylor wanted any special dispensation for his deafness, he certainly wasn’t going to get any from McGraw. Not that Taylor ever needed any, though; he was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth and had an undeniable toughness.

Perhaps, it was that tenacity and his intelligence from the mound that won McGraw over. While the pragmatic skipper lacked pathos, he brimmed with loyalty. Once a player proved his competency and combativeness on the diamond, McGraw willingly became a mentor and protector.

In nine seasons with the Giants, Taylor won 115 games with a 2.77 ERA – including a career high 21 wins in 1904, a pennant–winning year for the New Yorkers.

Taylor

Although Hoy and Taylor shared scant overlap in their big league tenures, they did have one collective moment of history. In 1902 – Taylor’s rookie year and Hoy’s final season in the majors – the two squared off in game between the Giants and Reds.

In that instant, the two men transcended their insulting nicknames and shattered perceived limitations. If two deaf men could rise to enough athletic fame to meet on a Major League baseball diamond, the alibis of others for lesser dreams and self-limiting expectation seemed all the more hollow.

Thirty-seven years after Taylor threw his last big league pitch in 1908, outfielder Dick Sipek reached the majors with Cincinnati just four years after graduating from the Illinois School for the Deaf. His Illinois coach, Luther Taylor, couldn’t have been prouder.

And no one called Sipek “Dummy” when he stepped on the field.

Sipek

Although Sipek only played that one season – 1945 – in the majors, he, too, left his mark on the game.

When Curtis Pride made his big league debut forty-eight years later, no one called him “Dummy,” either. By then, perception of a deaf player had progressed to the point where it was merit – and merit alone – that shaped opinions of his play and potential.

Had Taylor and Hoy been alive to witness the thunderous ovation in Montreal a deaf man received for his first big league hit, it would have been that much sweeter to feel the reward for their collective struggle in their bones.

Sources:

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/college/baseball/2010-04-27-gallaudet-curtis-pride_N.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pridecu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=pride-001cur

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/14fca2f4

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/763405ef

Photos:

http://z.lee28.tripod.com//sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/pride-expos2.jpg

http://blog.detroitathletic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/curtis-pride-detroit-tigers-deaf-baseball-player.jpg

http://blogbeckett.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/heardofme10.jpg

http://cincinnati.com/blogs/tv/files/2012/03/Dummy-Hoy-baseball-card.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/DummyTaylorLOC.jpg/200px-DummyTaylorLOC.jpg

http://www.infobarrel.com/media/image/14357_featured.jpg

Character Counts – Remembering Stan the Man

The nickname was simple but effective.

Off the baseball field, he was humble and endearingly uncomplicated. On the diamond, though, Stan “The Man” Musial was fearsome. His unorthodox batting stance – knees together, back hunched, torso contorted so that his jersey number nearly faced the pitcher – unleashed a torrent of wickedness and produced some of the most impressive results in Major League history.

Stance

For 22 seasons, all with the St. Louis Cardinals, Musial terrorized big league pitchers – finishing his brilliant career with a .331 lifetime batting average, 475 home runs, three MVP awards, seven batting titles, and an eclectic brew of envy, respect, and dread from the men he bested.

He triumphed so often and so thoroughly from the batter’s box that opponents flinched at the thought of seeing him at the plate. After all, he was The Man – the player whose lethal skill sent shivers up spines with a game in the balance.  But that anxiety was tempered by Musial’s unfailing sportsmanship and grace in victory. He beat you, but he never gloated. His remarkable ability did all of the talking, and he was honorable enough to let that suffice.

Musial2

Because of that decency, Musial’s stunning accomplishments in the game left an even greater impression.

He certainly had every reason to be arrogant. His 3,630 career hits were the most in National League history when he retired and remained at that apex for 18 years until Pete Rose eclipsed the mark in 1981. His 6,134 total bases are still the second highest in Major League history behind only Hank Aaron. He played in 24 All-Star games and holds the record for most home runs in All-Star competition with six. He was also a three-time World Champion and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969 with over 93% of the vote.

Still, he went through life with a smile rather than a self-important smirk.

He told corny jokes with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy and was known for playing a harmonica in public whenever the mood struck him.

Harmonica

After his playing days, he stayed in St. Louis and remained an approachable and happy presence in the community. The sun was always shining in Stan Musial’s world, and fans loved him as much for his joyous deposition as for his lofty position in the game’s history.

And for a franchise with a pedigree that includes icons like Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, and Dizzy Dean, it was Stan the Man who came to embody the essence of the Cardinals – proud and earnest and respectful of the game and its rich history.

Statue

So, when Musial passed away on January 19 at the age of 92, a significant piece of one of baseball’s great teams and cities went with him. In an age where athletes are vilified for selfishness and ethical indifference and the media delights in holding a self-important stance over such exposés, the loss of a genuinely kind and gracious sports legend is all the more poignant.

Perhaps, the true legacy of Musial’s extraordinary life isn’t to be found in the eye-popping numbers he produced on the baseball diamond. Rather, his greatest impact has more to do with how he achieved all of those remarkable things – with undeniable charisma and humility. It is a lesson that present-day athletes and those who cover them would be wise to fully appreciate.

He had a simple nickname, but The Man did something that few others can ever claim. He reached true greatness without ever losing himself along the way.

stan-musial

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/musiast01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/allstar/leaders_bat.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/TB_career.shtml

Photos:

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/multimedia/photo_gallery/0804/mlb.best.baseball.players.numbers.0-22/images/06.stan-musial.jpg

http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lnufm2fIjf1qzjvaqo1_500.jpg

http://sav-cdn.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/superphoto/11913519.jpg

http://stl.snd.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/musial.jpg

http://cdn.faniq.com/images/blog/stan-musial.jpg

Baring Knuckles – 100 Years of the Game’s Wildest Ride

Perhaps, Robert Allen Dickey was inevitable – the evolutionary apex of a hundred years of baseball’s most mercurial pitch.

*May 27 - 00:05*

A knuckleball is one of the oddest things in all of sports. It’s a pitch that employs no rotation whatsoever – a bobbing apple of a thing that flutters along on the whim of an afternoon breeze and is as hard to catch as it is to hit. Even its most capable practitioners sometimes have no way to control it.

So, it takes an atypical pitching mindset to commit to it, because nearly all success from the mound – particularly at the Major League level – is predicated on knowing precisely what a given pitch will do and exactly where it will go. A knuckleball is none of that, and the players who throw it know it.

But they throw it, anyway, because when it works, when it dances along with just the right current, it becomes a mesmerizing, unhittable thing. Most pitches are whirring, violent expressions of physics – the dark red stitches of the ball cutting into the wind to provide whatever darting angles are used to try and fool big league hitters. But a knuckleball dances freely – Ginger unencumbered by Fred; a baseball independent of the preordained rules of pitch trajectory. Since it doesn’t spin, it does whatever it damn well pleases once it leaves the pitcher’s hand.

WILHELM

That tenuous balance – the intoxicating lure of a perfect pitch tempered by the volatile nature of the outcome – has naturally limited the number of those who attempt to use it.

The knuckler isn’t an easy pitch to physically deliver, either. It requires the complete nullification of a ball’s strong tendency to spin off the hand when thrown, so any pitcher who throws a knuckleball needs extraordinarily strong fingers to press hard enough into the seams to reverse the rotation. And if those fingers aren’t powerful enough to halt that spin, the pitch won’t knuckle, instead tumbling helplessly forward – a Little League lollipop at the mercy of Major League damage.

However, an adventurous few have been tossing those erratically bobbing apples since the earliest days of the professional game.

The origin of the knuckleball is as nebulous as the pitch itself. As with much in the pioneering age of baseball, it’s difficult to say with any certainty who dreamt it up and had the nerve to fling that first one. During the formative stage of the sport, with so much to be discovered and put into practice, the impetus for invention was overwhelming. However, the early record keeping for attributing various innovations to their specific innovators was not.

Someone had that initial burst of creative pitch design. History just hasn’t been able to determine who that was. The best that such hindsight can do is narrow the field of would-be inventors down to four players, all from the early 1900’s – George Napoleon “Nap” Rucker, Eddie Cicotte, Ed Summers, and Lew Moren.

It’s easy to picture one of them toiling on the mound some random afternoon; his thick wool uniform, damp with sweat, scratching at his neck and shoulders. A heavy bead of sweat trickles from the brim of his cap all way down the bridge of his nose. As he removes the cap to brush the moisture from his face, he pauses and grins – a great, big toothy smile pushing the corners of his chapped lips upward.

He takes a look at the baseball in his hand – the cover of the ball tinged nearly mahogany with an amalgam of dirt, tobacco juice, and saliva smeared across its surface – and the idea just unfolds, a spontaneous parachute of a notion, floating easily in his mind. His fingers reflexively follow the mental picture and curl around the baseball – two of them bent at the knuckle with the tips pressed hard into the seams.

Cicotte Knuckle Grip

His crooked smile widens, because he has no earthly expectation of what the ball will do once he releases it. So, he contorts himself into an elaborate windup – hands thrown behind his head, leg kicked high in the air, and arm swept forward in a wide arc – and throws the new pitch with the unconventional grip, as eager to see the outcome of his invention as he is fearful of being made a fool.

The batter, umpire, and catcher all freeze momentarily; transfixed by the jagged movement of the ball as if a juggling pin had been thrown from the mound instead of a baseball. The pitch swoops across the plate untouched – the hitter still too confused to move his bat – and slaps awkwardly into the catcher’s rounded mitt; the crisp, pop of the glove serving as the customary slap on the rear of a newborn.

The beaming inventor receives the ball back from his puzzled teammate and quickly fashions his fingers to throw the freshly minted creation again – the next in what will eventually be thousands more thrown on a myriad of diamonds over the next century.

As for the founding fathers of the unusual new pitch, they led professional careers as varied as the shimmy of their co-creation.

Of the four, Cicotte lasted the longest, building a robust career that stretched 14 seasons and included over 200 wins. He threw the knuckleball so often and with such success that he was known around the league as “Knuckles.” He also fell the furthest.

After winning a league-high 29 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1919, he willingly played a central role in the biggest scandal in the history of professional sports. Cicotte demanded and received $10,000 from gamblers to lose the games he started in the World Series that year. After that, little else was ever remembered of the early knuckleballing star except for his tainted baseball soul.

Cicotte

Years later, when the edges of his betrayal had dulled in the public lexicon, Cicotte demurred taking credit for the knuckler. Instead, he insisted that Summers had refined the pitch while the two were minor league teammates in Indianapolis in 1906, and readied it for production in the big leagues.

Summers, a descendant of the Native American Kickapoo tribe, made a spectacular Major League debut in 1908, winning 24 games for the Detroit Tigers. A year later, he won another 19 games, all the while tossing his mischievous new pitch. And he may well have surpassed Cicotte – less the bartered dignity – as a successful moundsman if rheumatism hadn’t forced him from the field after just five years in the majors.

Summers

The third claimant in the knuckleball creation saga, Rucker, was also a minor league teammate of Cicotte. However, the two shared a clubhouse in Augusta in 1905 – a year before Cicotte ever met Summers. And Rucker reached the big leagues in 1907, also a year before Summers’ splashy debut in Detroit. Whether he threw a knuckleball from the very start or if he – not Summers – conjured up the devilish new pitch is hidden in the whispers of time.

Rucker

What is known is that in ten seasons with Brooklyn of the National League, Rucker won 134 games, threw a nasty knuckleball in many of them, and had a hand in introducing it to the big leagues – even if his old minor league teammate didn’t think so.

As for Moren, he toiled for six uneventful seasons in the majors, losing nine more games than he won during that span. His modest career record of 48-57 undoubtedly would have been lost to time, except for a New York Press article from 1908 proclaiming Moren as the originator of the knuckler – Moren’s lone tether to advent of the pitch.

No matter which of the quartet actually invented the thing, the knuckleball was, indeed, let loose on the world and snaked its way across the game’s history through a variety of interesting conduits.

Eddie Rommel won 27 games in 1922, became Connie Mack’s pitching ombudsman in Philadelphia – starting and relieving to suit his manager’s whims, and then umpired for 22 years after he retired from the mound. Jesse Haines and Fred Fitzsimmons each pitched for 19 seasons during the 1920’s and 30’s and notched over 200 career wins apiece. Haines was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. However, Fitzsimmons – who rarely pushed away from the dinner table until entirely sated earning the unfortunate nickname “Fat Freddie” – was not.

Hoyt Wilhelm spent ten years trying to get a chance in the majors. But once he did in 1952, he stayed there – for 21 seasons. He threw his maddening, dancing knuckleball in the big leagues until he was 49 years old – a skinny old man with a soothing Southern drawl who nearly single-handedly kept the game’s most curious pitch relevant for over two decades.

Wilhelm

Two brothers from Bridgeport, Ohio – Joe and Phil Niekro – pitched in the majors for 46 years between them, becoming synonymous with the knuckleball. More than that, the brothers became proud advocates for the pitch – a pair of knuckleball godfathers who counseled any young player who wanted advice on how to throw it. Collectively, their credibility was sterling – they combined to win 539 games in the big leagues from the 1960’s through the 80’s, with Phil earning 318 of them en route to the Hall of Fame.

Niekros

And it was Phil, ready with knuckleball wisdom even in retirement, who received a phone call in 2008 from a young pitcher in Seattle struggling to find his professional identity.

R.A. Dickey turned 33 that year and had just drifted through his sixth listless season in the majors. In fact, the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners had engaged in a sort of reverse tug of war over him prior to the 2008 season. The two teams swapped him back and forth three times in the off season before he spent the year in Seattle, only to have a tepid stay there.

So, when Dickey turned to the godfather for help, Niekro was happy to pass the baton which had traveled from Kickapoo Ed Summers to Fat Freddie and then to him and his brother.

With Niekro’s guidance and encouragement, Dickey learned to refine his knuckler – the pitcher like the pitch, a work in progress. In 2009, the Twins signed him as a free agent, pulling him back yet again. After an utterly average season, mostly as a reliever, he became a free agent and signed with the New York Mets.

However, there were signs that Dickey was developing a genuine aptitude for the knuckler. His year with the Twins marked the third straight season his ERA dropped. In fact, it had fallen to a respectably pedestrian 4.62.

Even more encouraging was that Dickey had learned to throw his variation of the pitch at over 80 miles per hour – a hard, heavy thing, full of sharp elbows of movement. It was, in fact, such a big contrast to the traditional knuckler – a meandering cork that rarely broke the speed limit on most interstates – that it almost begged a new classification.

At its essence, though, it was still a knuckleball; and by 2010, Dickey had learned to throw it with an uncanny level of confidence and control. He earned a spot in New York’s starting rotation that year, won 11 games, and lowered his ERA to a stingy 2.84.

In 2012, the evolutionary tumblers finally fell into place. Dickey used his turbo-charged knuckler to dazzle the baseball world. He won 20 games, led the National League in strikeouts with 230, walked only 54 – unheard of for a knuckleballer – and won the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher.

RA Dickey

He was so good, in fact, that during one particularly jaw dropping stretch he threw consecutive one-hitters with 25 strikeouts and just two walks spread across the two games.

And just like that, R.A. Dickey has become the perfect torchbearer of the knuckleball. What started as a whimsical germ of an idea on some lazy afternoon over a century ago has – thanks to Dickey – morphed into a legitimate weapon on the diamond. And the chain of caretakers often ridiculed for throwing what was perceived as a gimmick – a cheap gadget viewed by some as disingenuous to hard-nosed competition – can take a bow for guiding the pitch all the way to the point where a player desperate for professional salvation found it waiting for him.

Perhaps, it was inevitable. After all, the knuckleball has survived its own murky beginning and a century of dismissal and disrespect for a reason. When it’s right, it can do what few other pitches in the game can – frustrate hitters to the point of embarrassment. All the pitch needed was the steady hand of a player who could throw it with enough speed and stillness to chase away some of its capriciousness.

That it found the hand of Robert Allen Dickey, who just may have found a way to throw the best knuckleball in history, is an evolutionary marriage made from decades of trying, adapting, and waiting for the right combination of pluck and proficiency to come along.

Somewhere, even Knuckles Cicotte is smiling.

Sources:

Neyer, Rob and James, Bill, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches”, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2004.

Asinof, Eliot, “Eight Men Out”, Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, New York, New York, 1963.

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The Rose and Thorns of Josh Hamilton’s Baseball Life

The whispers must be the worst part.

Of course, an addict experiences far more troubling and damaging things than the nasty buzz of disapproving tongues. Lives are often jeopardized, essential relationships ruined, and prison a possibility. However, no matter what an addict does to move past the addiction, to finally understand that the only choice left is to fight to separate from the drugs or follow the addiction to the grave; no matter how much an addict repairs the damage the addiction has caused or how much time has passed since the worst of it, the whispers remain – an unshakeable legacy of past sins.

More difficult still is to be a public figure carrying such a legacy.

Just ask Josh Hamiltion.

Hamilton, a five-time All Star and 2010 American League MVP, is one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars. He is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. And the whispers have followed him every step of the way throughout his big league career.

Of course, the hard truth is that it is impossible to separate Hamilton’s tumultuous battle with addiction from his similarly dizzying baseball career. The two have become intertwined over the years like a great big rose atop a gnarled stem studded with thorns jagged enough to rip most anything to pieces.

But before that bittersweet dichotomy controlled his universe, he was an unwrinkled sheet of athletic potential – crisp, clean, and awaiting definition.

In 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Hamilton, an 18-year-old high school outfielder from North Carolina, the first overall selection in that year’s Major League amateur draft. Nicknamed “Hammer,” he could throw a ball nearly 100 miles per hour but swung the bat with such natural fury that his future as a hitter easily trumped his considerable pitching promise.

A year later, he confirmed the choice by displaying such enviable power and speed at Tampa’s minor league affiliate in Charleston that USA Today named him The Minor League Player of the Year for 2000.

In 2001, Hamilton was primed to become the game’s next big thing, a 20-year-old phenom who hit prodigious home runs with as much ease as he tore around the bases. However, fate and Hamilton’s own demons intervened, sweeping his considerable promise wildly off-course.

On the way to their Spring Training home in Sarasota, Hamilton and his parents were blindsided by a dump truck that sped through a red light and roared into the their SUV. Although Hamilton escaped major injury, he hurt his back seriously enough to limit his playing time that season to just 43 games.

As it turned out, being away from the baseball diamond was the one of the worst things that could have happened to him that year. Still flush with the bonus money he received from his lofty draft status and untethered from the discipline of the game while he nursed his injured back, Hamilton was seduced – slowly, at first – by the thin, dark fingers of illicit indulgence.

He chased the very first drink of alcohol he’d ever had in his life with a line of cocaine. The ensuing dalliance led to guilt, which in turn, led to a stint in rehab – the first of eight such attempts he would eventually try. But the more playing time he missed the easier it was for him to retreat into the haze of cocaine and booze.

By 2003, he had surrendered his baseball future for the bottle and the baggy. His drinking and coke binging had grown to such opulence that there was little room for much else, let alone the painstaking training regimen of a professional athlete. So, after failing a drug test given by Major League Baseball, he simply refused to take any more of them and was suspended from the league indefinitely.

By most measures, his story – at least his story as a public figure – should have ended there, a failed phenom who allowed the visceral temptation of the shadows to hasten his self-destruction.

But it didn’t.

Instead, he fell even further – disintegrating into rampant crack cocaine abuse – before he was saved, by his grandmother and his faith. Late in 2005, Hamilton showed up at his grandmother Mary’s house, financially broke and spiritually broken. And she took him in, demanding only that he not break her heart anymore.

With a newfound respect for religion and the tough love of family, Hamilton slowly made his way back from the edge of the abyss. Although baseball was hardly on his immediate radar, his natural ability for the game had survived his recklessness. While he tried to repair the more important and personal things he’d managed to disassemble, he still dreamt of a return to the sport one day because he knew he still had the instincts and reflexes of a ballplayer. The drugs hadn’t taken that.

After more than a year of sobriety, endless hours of retraining his body to play again, and a successful trial in the low minors, he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 2007. Tampa understandably no longer had the stomach to take any more chances on him and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds.

At the age of 26, eight years after he was chosen as the first pick in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton finally made his big league debut and quickly showed why so many had such buoyant hopes for him years before. In 90 games with the Reds, he hit .292 with 19 home runs and played defensive with the easy, loping strides that had impressed all of those scouts before his life went haywire.

Hamilton was finally back on the baseball map, but the whispers of his drug-addicted past lingered. Perhaps wanting to take advantage of his newfound value and not wanting to risk losing him to a relapse, Cincinnati traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for a pair of promising young pitchers – without any baggage from their pasts.

With the Rangers, Hamilton was spectacular. In 2008, his first year with the club, he made the All-Star team. And as part of the All-Star Game festivities at New York’s Yankee Stadium – one of the great cathedrals of the game – Hamilton launched 35 home runs in the Home Run Derby contest, a record for the event. For the year, he hit .304 and led the American League in RBI’s with 139.

However, he missed 62 games in 2009 with an assortment of injuries. Worse still, it was revealed that he had briefly relapsed with alcohol earlier in the year, publicly binging at an Arizona bar one night. There were anonymous rumblings that another descent could be waiting to happen. After all, addicts are forever just a bad moment or two away from giving away all of the progress they have made.

Instead, Hamilton thrived in 2010. He led the league in batting with a .359 average, hit 32 homers, won the American League MVP, and carried the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in franchise history. The rumors of his demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.

The following season, he again played a key role in leading Texas back into the World Series but missed another 41 games during the regular season due to injury. This time, the whispers hinted at his fragility. Perhaps, the past drug and alcohol abuse had taken such a physical toll that he would always be vulnerable to his body breaking down during the long season.

However, he seemed to answer his murmuring critics again by playing in 148 games in 2012 and swatting 43 home runs for the Rangers, who made the post season for the third year in a row. Yet, Hamilton’s thorny past haunted him when news of another alcohol-related evening of relapse during the season went public.

So, despite, a batting crown, a league MVP award, five straight All-Star appearances, and key roles on three playoff teams, Hamilton became a free agent after the 2012 season and is not expected to receive an offer from the Rangers.

Ordinarily, a player of Hamilton’s ability, accomplishments, and age – he turned 31 in May – would be welcomed back by his current team, in the form of a long-term, big money contract. However, Hamilton and his baseball journey are not in the least bit ordinary.

So, as speculation swirls as to where Josh Hamilton will wind up for the upcoming season, discrete mention of his “off the field” issues invariably play a significant part in the discussion.

Those whispers do, indeed, remain – no matter how long or how far an addict has come from a troubled past.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamiljo03.shtml

http://espn.go.com/dallas/mlb/story/_/id/7537732/texas-rangers-outfielder-josh-hamilton-relapse-alcohol

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/minor_league_player_of_the_year_award_USA.shtml

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-01-11/sports/1001100576_1_katie-hamilton-addiction-texas-rangers

http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-10-28/sports/27079542_1_hamilton-points-josh-hamilton-rays

Photos:

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Most Valuable

His teammates already knew how valuable he was.

So, when San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey was named National League Most Valuable Player for 2012, it just confirmed how special the rest of the baseball world saw him.

At 25, Posey has already accomplished more than most players will achieve in their entire baseball lives and had to overcome a devastating injury to do so.  In that context, his resume is even more remarkable.

In 2008, he won the Golden Spikes Award, honoring the country’s best amateur player, for his extraordinary junior season at Florida State University.  Not only did the young catcher lead the nation in batting with a .472 average, he also led his team in saves.

And he established himself as a premier defender with the leadership and game savvy to handle a talented pitching staff.  Perhaps, that rare duality – the co-mingled experience on the mound and behind the plate in the same season – gave him such remarkable insight into calling pitches, because he not only knew firsthand how good hitters approached their craft but also what he would throw them to get them out.  That summer, the Giants selected him in the first round of the amateur draft as the fifth overall pick.

In 2010, after just over a year in the minors, he reached the big leagues and immediately faced the heat and pressure of a pennant race.  In fact, the first-place Giants had so much faith in their catching prodigy that they traded a 13-year veteran, Bengie Molina, and handed Posey his starting job behind the plate. 

Posey wasted little time in proving his major league worth.  He hit .305 with 18 homers, and – more importantly – guided a pitching staff that was historically brilliant in September and into the playoffs.  In the World Series, he hit an even .300 and caught a pair of shutouts as the Giants brushed aside the Texas Rangers for the first title the franchise had won since moving to San Francisco in 1958.  On baseball’s biggest stage and in its most unforgiving spotlight, the prodigy had fearlessly taken a bow.

As if to remind everyone that he had done all of this as a rookie, Posey won the National League Rookie of the Year Award to pair with his World Series ring.

Despite just a single season in the majors, he had the unmistakable scent of stardom.  Although his success and impact were instantaneous – having been the offensive and defensive centerpiece of a World Championship team in his big league debut, he also handled the sudden notoriety with humility and soft spoken ease.  That formidable combination of talent, cool, and character hinted not only at a stellar career but even generational greatness – a player of impending legend.

In 2011, he was on his way to adding another successful chapter to his remarkable professional story when something went horribly wrong.  In a game against the Florida Marlins at the end of May, Posey took a throw from the outfield just as the runner, Scott Cousins, reached the plate.  Instead of veering to the back edge of the base that Posey had left open, Cousins barreled directly into San Francisco’s star catcher.  In what could best be described as a two-man train wreck, the force of the collision pinned Posey’s left ankle beneath him and the devastating torque shredded ligaments and snapped his fibula.  It was, in fact, the kind of horrific injury that could end an athletic career.

To underscore the magnitude of Posey’s injury to the team, the Giants were leading the National League West by 2 ½ games the day he got hurt and finished the season eight full games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks as San Francisco played the rest of the season without him.

With his future on the diamond in jeopardy and his shattered leg held together with an amalgam of surgical fasteners, Posey demonstrated his most admirable quality – undeniable resolve.

He not only had to retrain and re-strengthen his body to handle the physical toll of catching, he also had to conquer the doubt fueled by the severity of the injury and trust that his repaired leg could do everything it used to do.  After all, hesitancy in athletics dooms performance.

After eleven brutal months of physical rehab and psyche building, Posey was back behind the plate in time for the start of the 2012 season.  Most outsiders had no idea what to expect from him and how long – if ever – it would take for Posey to regain the career arc that appeared unlimited just a season earlier.  The conventional expectation was for him to take some time to re-acclimate to the game.  The layoff practically guaranteed rust.  All the while, there was also the uneasiness that Posey’s patched up ankle could give way at any time

However, generational greatness often defies convention.  In Posey’s case, he played so well so quickly that he was named starting catcher for the National League All-Star team – without a speck of rust on him. In the second half of the season – precisely when the fatigue from the long layoff should have been the greatest and pulling at his game the hardest – he was even better.

In the 71 games he played after the All-Star break, Posey hit .385 with 14 home runs and 60 RBI’s.  Greater still, he caught nearly every day, enduring the punishment of foul balls and blocked pitches without ever having it effect his offense.

When Melky Cabrera, the team’s talented left fielder, was suspended by the league in August for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance, it was Posey who carried the team offensively and set the tone in the locker room by quickly shifting the focus away from the player who wasn’t there to the ones who were.

In fact, Posey’s understated leadership had such a profound effect on his teammates and organization that they all voted him the recipient of the Willie Mac Award, an honor given to the team’s most inspirational player each season.

On the field, the Giants rallied around their resurgent superstar and roared down the stretch, winning the National League West by eight games.  Posey finished the year – a year many expected him to struggle through, post-injury – with 24 homers, 103 RBI’s, and a .336 batting average, the highest mark in the majors in 2012.  That productive aggregation earned him the National League MVP Award as well, the first catcher since the legendary Johnny Bench to win it.

In the playoffs, his dramatic grand slam in Game Five of the NLDS against Cincinnati capped the Giants’ improbable comeback from two games down and facing three straight elimination contests, all on the road.

In the World Series against Detroit, Posey’s two-run homer in Game Four helped San Francisco complete a sweep for the championship.

While there are a myriad of factors that contribute to a team’s success, there’s an interesting dynamic to consider when looking at Buster Posey’s short but stellar career so far.  In the two seasons he played to completion, his team won the World Series.  In the one year he was injured and did not play after May, the Giants failed to reach the playoffs.  Mere coincidence?  Perhaps.

However, there is no denying his value.

His Willie Mac Award, National League MVP trophy, and second World Series ring in three years certainly provide proof that his teammates, the Baseball Writers of America, and his peers understand his considerable baseball worth.

Sources:

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/ostler/article/Coach-s-bright-idea-helped-turn-Posey-into-star-3173219.php

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080716&content_id=3142837&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/poseybu01.shtml

http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_21611850/tim-kawakami-theres-no-room-melky-cabrera-giants

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/article/Buster-Posey-wins-Willie-Mac-Award-3885151.php

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