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:

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

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

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A Crowning Achievement

It is the one crown in baseball that gets the least amount of use.

The figurative garland bestowed upon a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s in the same season – the much ballyhooed Triple Crown – has only been worn by a dozen Major League hitters since 1900.

The most recent honoree, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, earned the distinction this season as he led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title.  Cabrera, a seven-time All-Star, solidified his place as one of the premier hitters in the sport by clubbing 44 home runs, batting .330, and driving in 139 runs – besting all other players in the American League in each category.

In the buildup to Cabrera’s 2012 ascent to the throne, the difficulty of the task was underscored merely by citing the last instance of such triangular excellence.  Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski was the last player before Cabrera to wear the Triple Crown, and Yaz had achieved the rarity in 1967 – a reign of 45 years before the regal headwear was handed to a new recipient.

As baseball rightly lauds the new king, his predecessor merits a linger in the limelight before he cedes it entirely.  So, Yastrzemski’s magical run to his triumphant thrice deserves another look.

1967 is lovingly referred to by Red Sox partisans as the “Impossible Dream” season.  The year before Boston finished next to last, twenty-six full games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.  So, little was expected of the team in 1967.  In fact, the Red Sox hadn’t finished higher than third in over twenty years.

Even mediocrity was a longshot; triumph lunacy.  However, Boston’s best player was hardly free from lofty expectations.

Carl Yastrzemski had earned the team’s starting left field job in 1961, stepping into a pair of the biggest footsteps in baseball history.

Ted Williams was larger than life, a genuinely heroic figure – on and off the field.  Williams was a Marine fighter pilot, a baseball icon who had willingly stepped away from the sport to fight in two wars, and a champion for minority players who had never received the opportunities he felt they deserved.  And his personality seemed to be guided by the furies.  He was cantankerous and profane but also generous and fiercely loyal, rarely doing anything in life at less than loud acceleration.

He was also the greatest player in the storied history of one of baseball’s most venerable franchises.  Williams, who retired in 1960 after nineteen extraordinary seasons with the Red Sox, owned virtually all of Boston’s hitting records and capped his remarkable career with one of the most lasting farewells in the game.

In his final at-bat of his last game, Williams hit a towering home run into the right field stands – the perfect baseball goodbye.  With that, the man with 521 career homers, six batting titles, and two Triple Crowns of his own, circled the bases one last time and left the diamond for good.  His daunting legacy promised to swallow the poor fellow who assumed his spot in the Red Sox lineup.

That unenviable task fell on a rookie from Southampton, New York with a tongue-spraining Polish surname.

Yastrzemski lacked the panache of the home run hitting war hero.  He was reserved and difficult to read.  On the field, he played well but could not equal Williams’ herculean stats – few mortals ever could.  And a passionate fan base starving for success had yet another reason for displeasure.

The kid with the funny name wasn’t an acceptable substitute for their brash record setting virtuoso.  But he was the best they had.  It just wasn’t good enough for most of them.

Although Yastrzemski had won a batting title and made three All-Star teams entering the 1967 season, he was still cast firmly in Williams’ considerable shadow, and the team limped along, vainly waiting for a transformational player to lead them out of the doldrums.

As it turned out, Yastrzemski was such a transformative force.  He had needed only to mature into that role, and in 1967, he fully displayed his considerable potential.  Flanked by a hard-hitting 22-year-old from nearby Revere, Tony Conigliaro, Yastrzemski led the Red Sox on an unlikely surge up the American League standings.  By August, Boston had closed to within three games of first.

Yastrzemski who had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, already had 26 by August 1.  Later that month, in one of the game’s most frightening episodes, Conigliaro was lost for the season after he was hit in the face with a pitch.

Without the talented young right fielder to help him, Yastrzemski single-handedly carried the Red Sox to the American League pennant.

Over Boston’s final 44 games – from the day after Conigliaro was injured – the man now affectionately known as “Yaz” hit .344 with 15 homers and 38 RBI’s.  As an exclamation, with the Red Sox needing to win the last two games of the season against the Minnesota Twins to take first, Yaz had seven hits in eight at bats and drove in six runs – including two in the season finale to help Boston come from behind and take the title.  It was the first American League championship that the Red Sox had won since 1946.

When it was over, Yastrzemski had finished the year with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI’s – all career highs and all either tied for or exclusively in the league lead,  He had finally proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams and had a Triple Crown of achievement to prove it.

Although the Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yaz didn’t disappoint in that ultimate showcase, either.  He hit an even .400 with three homers and five RBI’s in the seven-game series, bringing Boston within an eyelash of baseball’s biggest prize.

Yastrzemski went on to play sixteen more big league seasons and finished his brilliant career with more than 3,400 hits, 452 home runs, and seven Gold Glove awards.  As such, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  The skinny kid with the odd name turned out to be every bit as good as Red Sox fans could have hoped.

So, while Miguel Cabrera deserves all of the accolades given to him as baseball’s newest Triple Crown winner, a former crown bearer who lifted an underdog to unlikely heights and allowed all of New England to dream for an entire season merits another bow in the spotlight as well.

Sources:
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/aw_triph.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/yastrca01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=yastrca01&t=b&year=1967
http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1967_WS.shtml

Photos:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/10/02/miguel-cabrera-triple-crown-best-season/miguel-cabrera-usp2.jpg
http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0819/mlb_g_yastrzemski_200.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/641/830/carl_yastrzemski_mvp_display_image.jpg?1349203197
http://www.veteranstoday.com/story_images/ted_williams.jpg
http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/ted-williams-0209-lg.jpg
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm
http://blog.mitchellandness.com/image.axd?picture=2012%2F8%2F136887266.jpg

Videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_St0-1sGh0Y

Why You Should Care – Player Profile – Lefty O’Doul

Lefty O’Doul

Postion(s) – Pitcher, Outfield

Years – 1919-1920, 1922-1923, 1928-1934

Teams – New York (A), Boston (A), New York (N), Philadelphia (N), Brooklyn

Bats – L

Throws – L

Why you should care: O’Doul won two batting titles (1929, 1932) and set a National League record for hits in a season with 254. He also played a key role in bringing organized baseball to Japan through diplomacy and instruction. As a manager for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League from 1935-1951, he led the team to five championships. He also mentored a young shortstop named Joe DiMaggio and advised another young player who was on the rival San Diego franchise, Ted Williams, never to let anyone change his swing. The San Francisco Giants named a gate at AT&T Park after him when the stadium opened in 2000.

The fine print: If anyone could relate, fully, to Tony Bennett’s signature ballad, it was Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul.

Although he was a baseball nomad in every sense of the word – traveling the world with his cleats in one hand and a ready pat on the back available with the other – his heart always belonged to San Francisco.

It was his birthplace and beloved hometown and lifelong connection there helped to tether him, to provide an emotional anchor if not a physical one. And he needed it, because his baseball life was a dizzying adventure, unique in its twists and turns.

He was a pitcher and a hitter, a mentor and an ambassador, and a restaurateur and local icon. Mostly, he was a baseball man who loved and respected the game and accepted the mercurial winds that pushed him and his peers from city to city. It’s just that the gusts that pushed O’Doul were gustier than most.

And that first big gale landed him in New York.

As a rookie pitcher, he’d shown enough potential to attract the attention of the Yankees and made his big league debut with them in 1919.


However, things didn’t go well in Gotham. The young left-hander rarely took the mound. In fact, in his first two seasons with the Yankees, he pitched a grand total of 8 2/3 innings and then was unceremoniously shipped to the minors – New York probably could have reissued his uniform to the next rookie in line without even having to launder it.

In 1922, the Yankees repurchased his contract, but the team had little more use for him. He pitched only 16 innings for them that season and then was traded in the offseason to the Red Sox.

In Boston, with a brand new opportunity awaiting, his performance disintegrated. He finished the year with a 5.43 ERA in 53 innings and allowed an even 100 baserunners. Later, it was discovered that he had seriously damaged his arm along the way. Whether or not the injury had caused his struggles or if it had merely been the coup de grace to miserable season, O’Doul’s short-lived big league career seemed to be over.

However, he was determined to stay in the game, even if it mean that he had to reinvent himself on the diamond. With his pitching arm in tatters, he returned to San Francisco, caught on with various teams in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) including the hometown Seals, and immersed himself in the nuances of hitting.

To his credit, that conversion – from pitcher to hitter – went seamlessly. O’Doul proved to be an extraordinary talent at the plate. To punctuate his transformation, he terrorized PCL pitching in 1927 with a .378 batting average and 33 home runs.

And the Majors came calling once again. In 1928, he returned to the big leagues, this time with John McGraw’s New York Giants. In his first full season back, O’Doul hit .319, a remarkable achievement considering his relative inexperience in his new discipline.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his glovework.

O’Doul’s defense in the outfield was ragged, at best. However, in fairness, it was enough to ask of him to re-emerge as a legitimate big league hitter capable of cresting the .300 mark. His pedestrian defense was the trade off for his unexpectedly splendid offense.

Still, the Giants – who played in the Polo Grounds with its great outfield expanse – decided they couldn’t afford such a trade off. So, they dealt O’Doul to the Philadelphia Phillies, who would reap the rewards of his true emergence as an elite hitter.

In 1929, Lefty O’Doul – the struggling pitcher who had taught himself how to hit just to be able to stay in the game – had a season for the ages. He won the National League batting title with a .398 average and set the league record, which he still shares, for hits in a season with 254. As icing, he added 32 home runs with 122 RBI’s and finished second in the National League MVP voting to legendary Rogers Hornsby – not bad for a player in just his second full season as a big league hitter.

Although his lagging defense remained an obstacle, his bat never failed him. In 1930, he followed up his near-MVP year with an impressive encore, batting .383 with 22 homers and 97 RBI’s. A trade to Brooklyn didn’t deter his considerable offensive roll. In 1932, he won his second batting crown with a .368 average.

In his final big league season, 1934, he appropriately reached .300 one last time, batting .316 for the team with which he started his redemptive journey, the Giants. It was a fitting curtain call for one of the game’s great comebacks.

In just seven seasons, O’Doul evolved from a sore-armed pitcher hoping to hang on as the ultimate long shot into one of the game’s most dangerous hitters. Perhaps, there is no greater evidence of his brilliant legacy than his rank among the best who ever played. His .349 lifetime batting average remains the fourth highest in Major League history.

And if O’Doul’s baseball story had ended there, it would have been wonderfully compelling. However, he was a restless soul, and his passion for the game simply wouldn’t allow for any separation. So, he just kept adding chapters.

After his big league playing days were over, he went home to San Francisco and was named manager of his old team, the Seals. From 1935 to 1951, he led the ballclub to five Coast League championships and counted among his disciples a young shortstop from the city’s Italian North Beach neighborhood named Joe DiMaggio. The gifted young player had marvelous natural ability but was as raw as an uncooked porterhouse.

Though O’Doul later deflected any credit for DiMaggio’s ascent in the game, the fact remains that DiMaggio’s development under his direction went well enough to bring the best team in the Majors, the New York Yankees, out West with mouths agape and a check book equally wide open.

In an interesting twist, O’Doul also had an influence on DiMaggio’s great rival, Ted Williams. While the gangly outfielder was playing for the PCL’s San Diego franchise, O’Doul approached him one day before a game and advised the young hitter to never let anyone change his swing.

Later, as DiMaggio and Williams reached Major League greatness and became the key symbols of the game’s most bitter rivalry – between the Yankees and Red Sox – their roots in the sport could be traced directly back to O’Doul.

Perhaps, his most fantastic baseball travels took him all the way to Asia. Beginning in 1934, O’Doul organized exhibition tours of Japan by Major League stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. However, it was O’Doul who personally cultivated the connection between the two countries by taking the time to teach and encourage Japanese players, fostering a growing interest in the sport.

Years later, he took some of his PCL teams with him and even organized trips for Japanese teams to visit and play games in America. All the while, O’Doul stayed connected to the baseball movement in Japan as it continued to develop.

Of course, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had a devastating effect on that connection. However, even that catastrophic divide was eventually bridged after Douglas MacArthur personally asked O’Doul to act as a diplomatic envoy to Japan after the war, naturally using baseball as the cooperative vehicle.

For his efforts, he was the first American Major Leaguer to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also credited with inspiring the name of Japan’s flagship franchise – the Giants – after his last big league team.

No matter where the game took him, though, he was never completely apart from his beloved San Francisco. As the road beckoned less and his favorite city tightened its hold, O’Doul became one of the area’s most recognized and cherished celebrities. In fact, he was such a presence around town that he simply became known as “The Man in the Green Suit” after his penchant for wearing emerald-hued clothing.

When he passed away in 1969, thousands of fellow San Franciscans attended his funeral, mourning the loss of one of the city’s favorite sons. However, his legacy in town remains.

The San Francisco Giants moved into a new ballpark in the China Basin area in 2000 and fittingly not only named a gate after O’Doul but also the bridge spanning Mission Channel leading up to the stadium.

Not far away, the restaurant he opened in 1958 – which bears his name – is located on Geary between Powell and Mason, just blocks away from the bustle of Union Square.

It still attracts sports fans from all over the city looking for an unpretentious place to watch a game and enjoy a beverage. Inside, the walls are covered with photos of O’Doul’s fascinating trek through a myriad of baseball frontiers.

Through it all, the photos portray a charming consistency – a mischievous glint, a ready smile, and a barely detectable look of longing, which from just the right angle looks a little like homesickness.

So, maybe, it’s appropriate for an establishment which carries his name and houses a scrapbook of his remarkable baseball adventure to be located in the very heart of his hometown.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/o/o%27doule01.shtml

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

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Lefty_O%27Doul#Year-by-Year_Managerial_Record

Linn, Ed, “Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994.

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

http://articles.sfgate.com/2002-06-24/bay-area/17547602_1_japanese-baseball-hall-baseball-stars-mayor-willie-brown/2

http://www.californiapioneers.org/sanfran_seals.html

Freedman, Lew, “The Day All the Stars Came Out: Major League Baseball’s First All-Star Game, 1933,” McFarland, 2010.

Photos:

http://ph.cdn.photos.upi.com/slideshow/full/c7c75a48e58a08d3ead7ed71b16e0a50/San-Francisco-Fog.jpg

http://prints.encore-editions.com/0/500/frank-lefty-o-doul-new-york-al-baseball.jpg

http://www.sparkletack.com/wp-content/img/podcast_img/61/young_lefty.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/1930-philadelphia-phillies-baseball-photo-lefty-odoul.jpg

http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/26/14beb6d0-6364-45b6-b6f8-7ead29336367_lg.jpeg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/tedwilliamsasasdpadre2.jpg

http://webbie1.sfpl.org/multimedia/sfphotos/AAD-3205.jpg

http://www.inetours.com/images/Restaurants/O%27Doul%27s_Front.jpg

http://www.sparkletack.com/wp-content/img/podcast_img/61/odoul_restaurant4.jpg

October Snapshots

Heroes are still lauded and goats horned. It just happens faster – much faster – during the World Series. Baseball time is accelerated to the point where a single play – and in some cases, a single instant within a single play – can define a player’s entire career.

Consider the fate of a trio of players whose baseball lives were changed forever by individual moments in the October spotlight, three snapshots capturing the very best and worst the game has to dish out to the men who play it.

Dateline – Boston, Massachusetts, October 21, 1975. The Boston Red Sox knew they were fighting against history. The team hadn’t won a World Series title since 1918 when a gifted young left handed pitcher named George Ruth threw a pair of gems, including a shutout in the Series opener, and led Boston to a championship crown. Two years later, Ruth discovered that his ability to hit a baseball dwarfed even his considerable skill in throwing it, and he would go on to revolutionize the game, ushering in the thunderous age of the home run. He’d even been given the peculiar nickname, Babe, along the way.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, he staged that revolution wearing a New York Yankees uniform, because Boston owner Harry Frazee – who was perpetually dulling his manicure scratching for nickels – sold Ruth’s contract just as the burgeoning slugger was was finding his stroke. To make matters worse, Frazee didn’t reinvest the proceeds back into the team. Instead, he diverted the funds into his other entrepreneurial venue, musical theater. So, in essence, the greatest slugger in the history of the game was exchanged for a handful of show tunes.

The rest, as they say, was history. And it was that history the 1975 Red Sox were still fighting against fifty-five years later.

So, when Boston, who trailed the Cincinnati Reds three games to two in the World Series, was pushed into extra innings in Game Six, the cursed aura of Ruth’s history seemed to be winning again.

They needed something, anything, to save them from elimination and another frigid New England winter shivering in disappointment.

The Red Sox rising young catcher Carlton Fisk knew all about the harsh Northeastern off seasons. He grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire – squarely in the shadow of Boston’s generational tussle with its baseball past. So, he knew exactly what it would mean to the franchise and its tortured fan base if he could deliver the promise of a Game Seven and one more chance to win a championship.

When he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the of the 12th inning, all of that was waiting for him – his New England roots, the hope and dread of the nervous crowd, and the foreboding weight of the team’s past failures. As Cincinnati’s Pat Darcy delivered his second pitch, everything collided as Fisk swung the bat.

He hit a soaring drive directly down the left field line and began to frantically wave his arms, trying to will the ball to stay fair. When it did, Fisk danced around the bases, the Boston crowd stormed the field, and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” played triumphantly in the background.

It was one of the great moments in Red Sox history and a snapshot of Carlton Fisk that has served as the lasting image of his brilliant career.

Interestingly, Fisk’s dramatic performance ended up overshadowing the fact that Boston lost Game Seven and the Series to Cincinnati the next evening. That the eventual outcome of the championship wound up a mere footnote to one extraordinary instant for the losing side speaks to the magnitude of the moment.

As further proof, it even transcended the sport. One of the best scenes in the Academy Award-winning film “Good Will Hunting” featured the Fisk homer as its central theme.

How was anyone supposed to know that Pudge was going to hit a home run?

Sometimes, those snapshots aren’t quite as flattering, though.

Dateline – Flushing, New York, October 25, 1986. Bill Buckner played in the big leagues for twenty-two seasons, won a batting title, and finished his accomplished career with 2,715 hits. However, no one remembers any of that. Instead, all people seem to recall is one instant of human failure, forcing Buckner to learn the game’s hardest lesson – a big enough mistake at the wrong time can undo decades of heroics.

Playing first base for the Boston Red Sox in 1986, Buckner found himself in the World Series, only a single out away from the championship, when the wrong moment came bouncing ominously his way.

Boston’s opponent, the New York Mets, were trailing 5-3 with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six when they put on a furious rally. Parlaying three straight base hits and a wild pitch into the two runs they needed to tie the score, they put the potential winning run at second with outfielder Mookie Wilson coming up to bat.

Wilson hit a slow roller up the first base line, the kind of ball Buckner had successfully fielded hundreds of times before. However, when he ambled over to get it this time – in a moment that would haunt him for years – the ball inexplicably trickled under his glove. The winning run came all the way around from second to give the Mets a stunning victory.

The snapshot of Buckner leaving the field after Game Six with the unforgettable look of shock and embarrassment became the poster for the ultimate cautionary tale in the sport. You better make the play or it will unmake you.

And the degree to which that one mistake unmade him was stunning. After the Sox dropped Game Seven two nights later, the focus on the lost championship all but won a game earlier was directed squarely towards the Red Sox first baseman. The media was merciless in rehashing the moment, over and over. And they never let him forget it.

Because of the repetitive drumbeat of watching the replays and reading articles retelling the story, it became more and more difficult for people to separate the player from the play. Eventually, there simply wasn’t any separation – Buckner became the error and, by extension, a euphemism for sports misery. For years, anytime any player made a mistake in a crucial game Buckner’s name would inevitably be brought up by the press.

And hero-making and scapegoating is an ongoing process.

For better or worse, October baseball has an eternal eye open, especially during the World Series. Perhaps, it’s the intensity of the stage – entire seasons often hang on a crucial play or two. And the relentless lens of the postseason never stops focusing on the moment, ready to lionize or condemn in an instant. So, every championship brings fresh potential for snapshots, and in 2011, one picture clearly stood out more than the rest.

Dateline – St. Louis, Missouri, October 27, 2011. David Freese had told anyone who would listen that he was just happy to be there. And there was good reason for that. After spending nearly four seasons in the minor leagues and having a series of injuries limit his playing time in the Majors once he arrived, he finally had a starting position – for his hometeam team.

Growing up in Wildwood, Missouri, Freese idolized Ozzie Smith and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, during a brief stint as a pitcher in his youth, he donned the number “45” as a tribute to longtime Cardinal pitching ace Bob Gibson.

So, winning a starting job at the Major League level was thrilling enough. Manning third base for the team he’d dreamed of playing for must have been surreal, in a good way.

And just when the elasticity of believability and good fortune was stretched to its limits, the World Series pulled it even further.

The Cardinals had clawed their way into the postseason by overcoming a 10 ½ game deficit over the last month of the regular season. In the playoffs, they had beaten the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies and slugging Milwaukee Brewers. In the World Series, they fell behind the Texas Rangers three games to two and were losing by three runs with only two innings left in Game Six (yes, more Game Six madness!).

Although St. Louis had cut the lead to two runs in the eighth, they were now down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth. And everything rested on the kid from Wildwood to save the season. With two runners on, Freese hit a long looping fly ball into right field. Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz made a desperate leap for the ball, but it landed just beyond his glove and bounced against the fence.

As Freese sprinted into third with a triple, the other two runners scored and the game was tied – new life granted with an electrifying bolt out of the blue.

In the 10th, the Rangers re-took the lead, only to watch the Cards tie it back up.

In the 11th, Freese made his way to the plate again and, this time, delivered the dagger that finally put Texas away. During a game in which the lead changed hands five different times, he hit a booming fly ball to straight away center with no outstretched gloves in the vicinity. As he rounded first, he thrust his right arm up in the air in triumph. As his giddy teammates spilled out of the dugout to celebrate, David Freese’s October snapshot was made complete.

Whether or not David Freese’s moment of triumph will endure in World Series lore like the disparate images of Fisk and Buckner remains to be seen. Certainly, the timing of Freese’s dramatic homer – capping, perhaps, the greatest game in World Series history – will help. However, historical memory takes time, because the snapshots that are commemorated in that album stay fixed for years, recalled instantly at the mere mention of a name or circumstance.

So, decades from now, the name of the young St. Louis third baseman or the phrase – Game Six, Cards/Rangers – may conjure the reflexive image of a euphoric hero in crimson circling the bases with a triumphant fist in the air.

World Series moments have that kind of power. Just ask Carlton Fisk, Bill Buckner, or the next unwitting player whose baseball life will change in an October instant.

Sources:

http://www.accuracyproject.org/cbe-Frazee,Harry.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS197510210.shtml

Shaughnessy, Dan, At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation, Random House Digital, Inc. 1997.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bucknbi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN198610250.shtml

http://articles.latimes.com/2001/apr/13/sports/sp-50553

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN201110270.shtml

Photos:

http://www.angleton.isd.tenet.edu/secondary/hs/smith/web/webs%202010/Boston_Red_Sox/Images/carlton%20fisk.jpg

http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2008/world_series/world_series_buckner.jpg

http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lts4niRjU51qm9rypo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1320996468&Signature=mU3TSu2J7G9hzIvkmRmDOU6zglA%3D

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg_9FQk6UnA

Head Games – The Tragic Consequences of Pitches that Got Away

Home plate on a baseball diamond measures precisely seventeen inches in width, and pitchers and hitters have been fighting over every single speck of it for more than a century. It is the eternal struggle in baseball and the most direct confrontation in all of sports. And it all happens in a fraction of a second.

Hitters have only the instant from the time the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand to when it arrives at the plate to do a myriad of things. Balance, speed, the proper timing of the hands, the correct angle of the bat, knowing a pitcher and what pitches he throws at what speed and with what degree of movement, considering the count and game situation and how that might effect pitch selection – a hitter needs all of that all at once, all in the time it takes to blink.

Although pitchers can be more deliberate – working with catchers via hand signals and other physical cues – to determine pitch type and location, their key contribution to the game action, the pitch itself, is just a flash. However, pitchers know the inner and outer sections of the plate provide the most difficult angles for hitters to squarely drive a ball. In order to maximize life on the edges, pitchers also know that each edge has a symmetrical relationship to the other. That is, even for a pitch to one side of the plate, the other side remains important, because pitchers necessarily need to convince hitters that any pitch in any batting sequence can be thrown to either edge.

So, while pitchers seek to create pitching angles, hitters naturally look to cut them down, to flatten them out as much as possible. And the closer a batter sets up to the plate the clearer the intent to try to block the inner corner, push pitch selection out toward the middle and opposite edge of the strike zone, and improve his reach to outside pitches.

In its most basic form, the pitcher-hitter showdown is territorial. However, such a standoff is more than just a simple property dispute. This simultaneous claim of ownership – with the very public success or failure of heated rivals at stake – brims with emotion. Add a dense leather sphere traveling at potentially lethal velocity into the equation, and the conflict over who holds the deed to the most valuable foot-and-a-half in the sport can turn deathly serious in an instant. In the time it takes one pitch thrown with angry intent to reach a hitter, a career can be jeopardized – or worse.

Fortunately, most encounters between pitchers and hitters do not remotely involve such dire circumstances. While there is commonly the uneasy hum of competitive tension bubbling beneath the surface on nearly every pitch, most throws that do go astray, by design or accident, result in little more than frayed tempers or dull pain and nasty bruises. However, improbability does not diminish the depth of consequence when something awful does occur.

In recent years, Major League Baseball has tried to minimize the risk of potential calamities at the plate by siding with hitters and regulating the intent of pitchers throwing too far inside. A system of warnings and ejections for perceived willful throws directly at batters is designed to blunt the motivation for such deliberate miscues.

Predictably, there has been resistance to the new process. Many purists of the game – and nearly all pitchers, of course – have taken umbrage at the idea of artificially policing what has seemingly been an organic part of the game, especially when that policing heavily favors one primary group of players over the rest. To such opposition, limiting a pitcher’s ability to fully protect the plate unnecessarily restrains a crucial part of the core activity in baseball. For decades, the tug of war between pitchers and hitters over creating and shutting off pitching angles to the plate has involved an uninterrupted procession of hissing inside pitches, hit batsmen, defiant hitters, and glowering pitchers, with little more than psychological warfare and thankfully few physical casualties as by products.

Perhaps, the mastery of the inside pitch as the ultimate tool of intimidation without the wreckage of shattered careers or serious injury was best embodied by a pair of extraordinary pitchers who ruled the mound in the 1960’s with the authority of despots.

St. Louis Cardinal ace Bob Gibson’s ferocity on the mound was only matched by his unshakeable resolve. In his eyes, every inch of the plate belonged to him. Gibson considered hitters who encroached on the inner edge – or even hinted at it – as trespassers. And he dealt with the unwanted intruders swiftly and severely. Whether the ball actually struck a batter or sent him sprawling in retreat, the missive was the same – back down or get down. It made little difference to him which, so long as he was free to operate on both sides of the plate. That hitters were made uneasy by the tactic was just an added bonus. And because his pitch command was so precise, he could send such messages without a hint of ambiguity.

Like Gibson, Don Drysdale had a mean streak. There was menace behind his pitching, and he had no qualms about directing that venom toward the men standing at the plate to protect his stake in it. As proof, the long time Los Angeles Dodger stalwart led the National League in hit batsmen five times and finished his 14-year big league career with 154 of them. His fearless, and ruthless, demeanor earned him a reputation as an enforcer, as willing to hit opposing players if his teammates had been thrown at as he was to spin the enemy off the plate for crowding it. When Drysdale was on the mound, hitters knew he could turn the stitches on a ball into teeth and had little trouble sending it howling at them ready to take a bite.

So, it’s no surprise that Gibson and Drysdale have typically been the first names brought up in defending the strong armed tactics of pitchers chasing hitters off the plate. However, those pining for the “good old days” of self-policing, unfettered intimidation, and everything else that came with the distorted form of frontier justice practiced by the pitchers of yesteryear may do well to remember the destructive force a baseball carries when traveling the 20 yards from mound to plate at the velocity generated by a major league pitcher. They may also do well to remember that Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were both Hall of Fame talents with the rare ability to place a pitch precisely where they wanted.

However, most pitchers do not have that exquisite level of control, and the chaos of a pitched ball gone amok is frighteningly indiscriminate. Any batter who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can have his baseball world turned upside down in a heartbeat – great, not so great, grass green rookies – it doesn’t matter. Once the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand and veers wildly off course, fate bows to the law of physics. A fast moving projectile will be halted by a solid mass. That such an abrupt and violent collision can happen by accident only underscores the risk of deliberately throwing a pitch astray even without the intent to harm in any way.

An eventual Hall of Famer, a superstar in waiting, and a rookie stepping into a big league batter’s box for the first time all experienced those hellish consequences first hand.

Mickey Cochrane was a natural leader. His white-hot temperament and insatiable hunger for success simply wouldn’t allow any other way. As a catcher on Connie Mack’s great Philadelphia Athletics of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was the granite foundation for the burgeoning dynasty. Although Philadelphia’s rosters were loaded with stars during that span – including Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove (Hall of Famers, all), Cochrane deferred to none of them. His combativeness and commitment demanded attention and simultaneously ignited and challenged the competitive fire of his teammates. That Mack entrusted his catcher to prod, cajole, and browbeat his own hand-picked roster into a winning mindset spoke volumes about Cochrane’s leadership effect on a team.

However, Mack’s Philadelphia franchise was in perpetual financial difficulty due to lagging attendance. So, he was often forced to trade his star players to avoid hefty salary demands and garner additional cash in return. Cochrane’s turn came in 1934 when he was sent to Detroit.

However, no sooner had he arrived in Michigan than he was named skipper of the club and became one of the youngest player-managers in league history at the age of 31. Leading the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934 and 1935, Cochrane cemented his reputation as a star on the field and in the dugout. In fact, as icing, he capped that magnificent 1935 season by scoring the winning run to bring Detroit its first World Series title. By 1937, Cochrane had entrenched himself as a local sports icon in the Motor City and was still considered one of the best catchers in the game. Through late May of that year, he was hitting .306 with nearly half of his hits going for extra bases and appeared to be headed for another stellar year at and behind the plate. In a game against the Yankees on May 25, he hit a third inning home run and looked to follow that up with another damaging blow to the New Yorkers in the fifth. He ran the count to 3-1 and, without warning, the walls of his great career caved in.

The pitcher, Irving “Bump” Hadley, threw a fastball that momentarily seemed to be swallowed by the late afternoon sun and then just as suddenly came roaring from the glare, careening out of control and directly toward Cochrane’s head. The one device that would have spared him, the batting helmet, was still 15 years away from regular use. So, when the ball struck him in the head, he had only his wool ball cap between his skull and the horrific impact.

Teammate Charlie Gehringer was on deck and later said Cochrane looked like he’d been struck by an axe as he toppled helplessly to the ground. For the next 48 hours, Cochrane’s life was still in jeopardy as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, Hadley was clearly jarred – adamant that the pitch unintentionally went off course and troubled by the considerable damage it had done to Detroit’s great leader.

After ten agonizing days in the hospital, Cochrane steadily improved but his Hall of Fame career was over. In 13 seasons, he hit .320, won two MVP awards, and played on three World Championship teams. However, his final official big league at-bat illustrated how devastating a single baseball can be under the darkest of circumstances.

While few players have had to endure the anguish of a lone at-bat bringing an immediate end to their careers, an unfortunate handful have had their athletic promise irrevocably damaged in a single moment. Perhaps, that lost potential is even more heartbreaking than the abrupt end of a realized career because of the unanswered questions left in its wake. Crueler still are instances where enough promise is taken away to scuttle greatness but the remaining residue fuels false hope.

Tony Conigliaro was ready to take his place among the pantheon of great Boston sports heroes. Williams. Russell. Cousy. Yaz. They were all going to have to move a little closer together to make room for a young slugger who was bunching up home runs with impressive density at Fenway Park. His name was already written in pencil on the pages of legend, waiting only for his inevitable accomplishments to fill those letters in with permanent ink. But in one instant on one perfectly placid summer afternoon in 1967, it ended. In the time it takes to blink, his name simply vanished from the pages of history.

On one pitch in one game of the long baseball season, Tony Conigliaro’s magical run with the Boston Red Sox ended. California’s Jack Hamilton threw a fastball that sailed high and tight, and Conigliaro never had a chance. The ball struck him nearly flush on the left eye, scrambling his flawless eyesight like a beaten egg. Though he would eventually recover from the beaning, his eyesight would never be the same and his chances at baseball immortality went with it.

And so it was. Tony C, the local kid from Revere, Massachusetts who made good, the right-handed hitting phenom who hit 24 homers in 1964 at the age of 19, and the All-Star right fielder who was supposed to bookend with Carl Yastrzemski for the next decade and give the Sox the most feared lefty-righty punch in the league was essentially done before his 23rd birthday.

He did make it back to the big leagues in 1969 and hit 20 homers. He followed that up with 36 more the following season, a true triumph considering the toll it must have taken on his psyche to step back into the batter’s box and face his greatest demon – the pitched ball. However, the baseball gods simply wouldn’t give him a break, his eyesight, which had cleared enough to allow him back into the big leagues, went for good in 1971. Another comeback in 1975 ended disastrously and at 30 years old, the game had dispatched Tony C for good.

Sometimes, a baseball doesn’t even wait for a player’s big league clock to really start ticking.

A hitter’s first Major League at-bat is the Holy Grail of his professional career. After all, scores of hopefuls seek it, few find it, and fewer still build longevity and legend from it. However, those who do reach that apex never forget it, because that first official big league moment is the culmination of arduous labor and a lifelong love, the joyful intersection of toil and talent. Imagine, though, the cruelty of having that anticipation, built on years of dreams and evolution, evaporate in a noisy, dizzying moment of bedlam.

Adam Greenberg understood, above all else, the value of maximizing his resources. There were more naturally gifted prospects in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system in 2005. However, few of them gave more effort or utilized their baseball strengths as constructively as the 24-year-old outfielder.

On July 9, the stars guiding Greenberg’s baseball future rose over Miami. He had been promoted from Double-A West Tennessee a day earlier and was in the Chicago dugout that evening wearing a crisp new big league uniform, awaiting a chance – the moment he’d been preparing for his entire life – to step onto a Major League diamond and etch his name into baseball’s most exclusive roll call. As befitting the pomp of a commencement, Greenberg’s family had flown in to attend the game.

In the ninth inning against Florida with the Cubs leading 4-2, Adam Greenberg graduated. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter and surveyed the scene – one out, flame throwing lefty Valerio de los Santos on the mound, and home plate beckoning dreamlike but as real as the crackling dirt under his cleats. As he sunk his feet into the batter’s box – a Major League batter’s box, the thought must have surely entered his mind that his chance to do something great with that first big league pitch was nearly at hand.

It probably seemed like an optical illusion at first. The ball appeared to be chasing him. Rather than focusing on the natural litany of items to hit a baseball, Greenberg had to convert aggression to evasion in an instant. And it was like trying to outrun a runaway train – everywhere and overwhelming to the senses, all at once – giving way to the horrible realization that a collision was inevitable. As the blur of white leather and red stitching ominously zeroed in on him, Greenberg managed to turn his head at the last moment and the ball glanced off of the back of his helmet and struck him fiercely on the neck.

He later recalled gripping his head as tightly as possible, because he thought it was about to split open.

The force of the blow knocked his helmet – the piece of material salvation unavailable to Mickey Cochrane seventy years earlier – off, and the rookie wilted to the soil. A horrible stillness settled into the venue. The pitcher, Santos, was mortified. He had no desire or reason to knock down the young hitter, let alone cause serious injury. Greenberg’s family was inconsolable, their moment of shared happiness turned so profoundly ugly. And Greenberg, himself, was trying to quiet the thunder clap rippling through his central nervous system and summon the courage to get back on his feet.

Fortunately, the pain was temporary. However, dizziness and headaches lingered, unwelcome souvenirs of his sour debut. Within a couple of weeks, though, he was back on the ball field again. In West Tennessee.

To date, he has yet to play in another Major League game. So, his lone experience as a big leaguer is an uneasy dichotomy of the best and worst things to ever happen to him in the game and a constant reminder of the chasm between what might have been and what was.

However, the blackest day in baseball history occurred in 1920 when a perfect storm formed over the 60 feet between the pitcher’s mound and the plate at the Polo Grounds in New York. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was in the eye of that maelstrom.

Chapman was a genial sort, well-liked by his peers, beloved by his teammates, and respected by all for his hard nosed play and his devotion to his team. He was also a productive player, batting .300 or better in two of the three years leading up to the 1920 campaign and, at 29, had several more useful seasons ahead of him. His ballclub, the Cleveland Indians, were one of the better collectives in the American League, finishing second in 1919 and again vying for the pennant in 1920.

Cleveland was an efficient team, they hummed with solidarity. Befitting their leader, Tris Speaker – one of the greatest combinations of speed, batting, and defense to ever take the field – they all understood the importance of outsmarting and outplaying their opponents. And, perhaps none of them grasped the concept better than the Indians’ versatile shortstop. Bunting is one of the least glamorous activities in the sport, but Cleveland’s game plan required it, lots of it. In 1920, they would go on to lead the majors in runs scored, chiefly because they also led the big leagues in sacrifices and walks. Put runners on, move them over, and allow the heart of the order to drive them home. It is a simple, time-honored philosophy but few have the patience and will to execute it.

So, Chapman, the reigning American League leader in sacrifices and the pace setter for the 1920 season, was the point man for arranging Cleveland’s chess pieces on the board to their liking. He was one of the most skilled bunters in the game and could place them virtually anywhere on the field that he wished, moving runners along or bunting for hits himself with impressive ease.

However, Chapman’s vocation also carried risk. He liked to practically hover over the plate during his at-bats to see the ball better and give him the best bunting angle possible. So, he had to rely heavily on his wits and reflexes to avoid danger at the plate because of that batting stance.

In mid-August, the Indians traveled to New York to open a crucial three-game series against the Yankees. Cleveland was tied for first with the White Sox and both held a precarious half-game lead over the third place Yankees. The three teams were separated by an eyelash and, on any given day, that eyelash could rest gently with one club only to have flit mercurially to another the next.

On August 16, the Yankees sent their best pitcher, Carl Mays, to the mound for the series opener. Mays, who was on his way to 26 wins in 1920, was something of an enigma. Where Ray Chapman was always ready with a smile and a warm handshake, Mays was taciturn and distant. He could also be prone to fits of rage on the mound if things went poorly and had little patience with teammates who did not measure up to his standards. However, there was no questioning his pitching ability. He had developed a devastating side armed delivery and practically brushed his pitching hand on the ground just prior to releasing the ball. The unusual arm angle also created an unpredictable break on the ball as it snapped toward the plate.

The miserly ways of baseball owners of the time, however, were sadly predictable. Baseballs cost money, umpires had the discretion to determine whether or not to keep them in play, and umpires were employed by the league. With impressive economic pragmatism, owners wasted little time in stringing the three elements together. Umpires were, therefore, instructed to remove as few baseballs as possible from play. Discoloration and/or blemished surfaces were not sufficient reasons for retirement. That such imperfections made the ball harder to see and more difficult to track were trumped by its manufacturing cost.

While clouds began to gather over the Polo Grounds, no one realized what awful fury they carried inside.

The Indians wasted little time in pressuring Mays and his teammates, scoring in the second and again in the fourth to open a 3-0 lead. Leading off the top of the fifth inning, Chapman stepped into the batter’s box and likely didn’t notice how thick the air was with bad omens.

It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a horrible, horrible thing to behold – a hitter standing on top of the plate, a pitcher with an unorthodox delivery and a brooding demeanor, and a darkening ball in the fading afternoon light all amid a heated pennant race with its soupy tension simmering to a slow boil.

Like Cochrane after him, Chapman failed to pick up the flight of the ball and, because of the times, had no protective headgear to deflect the imminent blow. The horrific impact was so great that the ball deflected all the way back to Mays, who fielded it and threw to first, assuming that the pitch had struck Chapman’s bat rather than his head.

Chapman steadied himself for a moment before sinking to the ground like an untethered marionette. While the injured player lay prone in the batter’s box, Mays opted to confront the umpire by brazenly offering the fielded ball as evidence that it been roughened, the scuffed cover causing the errant arc of the pitch. The cause had clearly superseded the unnerving effect for the New York pitcher.

And the effect was dire. Chapman never recovered and became the first and only player in Major League history to die as a result of being hit by a pitch. For his part, Mays always insisted it was an accident, but the label stuck with him – the man who threw the only fatal pitch in the big leagues.

Cleveland somehow carried on, despite the heartbreak and anger. They went on to outlast both Chicago and the Yankees for the pennant and completed their mission by taking the World Series. However, the unimaginable cost of their beloved comrade forever marred the triumph. The struggle of sport paled to the hard truth of mortality.

Yet, even after these cautionary tales – Cochrane, Conigliaro, Greenberg, and especially the awful episode that took Chapman’s life – hitters and pitchers still skirmish over that prized pentagon with the intensity of a blood feud. Unfortunately, blood has been spilt and, because the key active element in the exchange – a baseball traveling at high-speed – will always carry destructive kinetic energy, that terrible potential still exists.

However, the pitcher-hitter dynamic is a complicated one. Because pitchers have such a finite area in which to ply their trade, it is understandable that they absolutely refuse to concede any amount of that precious space to the group that is in direct competitive confrontation with them. And it is equally justifiable that hitters, in turn, cannot tacitly accept a practice, regardless of intent, that carries the possibility of ending careers – or lives – merely in the name of sport. So, it remains a standoff with little chance of a resolution that would keep the delicate balance of the game intact.

One can only hope that the participants fully understand and respect the danger within the confines of this standoff and that the vagaries of chance do not happen upon another perfect storm on the diamond. More than anything, the forces of competition should never obscure the importance of valuing people over the games they play. Ray Chapman’s memory and the lesson of that tragic August afternoon deserve at least that much.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gibsobo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/drysddo01.shtml

Charlie Bevis (1998). Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Macfarlane.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cochrmi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/c/conigto01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/moment010818-conigliaro-beaned.html

http:www.nytimes.com/2005/08/22/sports/baseball/22adam.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/chapmra01.shtml

Mike Sowell (1989). The Pitch That Killed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1920.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192008160.shtml

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