You probably could not make up an All-Star team of them, but you might stock a couple of rosters, with active major leaguers who have a true interest of some kind in the history of the game. Adam Lind is an expert on Brooklyn Dodgers’ ace Carl Erskine, the other hero from their hometown of Anderson, Indiana. After a couple of generations of disinterest, nearly all players revere the memory of Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leaguers before and after Robinson broke the color barrier. Manager Joe Maddon of the Rays sat in the dugout on a sweltering day last summer at Yankee Stadium to watch the entirety of the Old Timers’ Day ceremonies and game.
You can include Tim Hudson of the Braves on this list. The veteran pitcher not only has a commendable knowledge of the history of the teams for which he played (coincidentally the only three-city franchises in the game: the Braves and Athletics), but also a reverence for the Hall of Fame that particularly extends to its original inductees. So after a couple of years of talking about it, it was my pleasure yesterday to arrange for this:
Huddy knew the history of this Relic – the 1909 Honus Wagner card, hardly the scarcest baseball card (not even the scarcest one in that series), but handily the best known. Hudson was able to explain to several others on the bench the history of the American Tobacco card set (known to collectors as T206) and why there are, at most, 100 copies of the Wagner known.
He studied it carefully, asked about the trimming of the card’s borders, the scrapbook residue on the back, some of the other key cards in the set, and how I happened to come by it (how else? I bought it. I’ve been collecting this set since I was 11 years old, and as soon as I became a really overpaid adult I reverted to being a really over-excited teenager and was able to scratch off the last T206 on my want list).
I have to confess I was genuinely surprised by the interest in the card in the Braves’ dugout. Even Chipper Jones was shocked to see it. I’ve known him since he was a rookie and his sangfroid – his amazing calm in the most charged-up of circumstances – was once illustrated when in the middle of a conversation with me his back once went into full spasm and he basically pitched over into his locker. All he did was say “And you know what else? I think I’m going to have to have this back looked at.” Yesterday, even Jones’ eyes widened at the sight of The Wagner.
Some were even more effusive. Phil Falco, the Braves’ Strength Coach and himself a collector (autographed ’57 Topps Football cards are his joy), arch-collector and Media Relations Director Brad Hainje, and broadcaster Joe Simpson were closer to the dropped-jaw stage. I only wish I had done this last year: Bobby Cox would’ve loved to have seen that card.
Incidentally, remind me to explain some time why I don’t believe either the theory that the card is scarce just because Wagner objected to his likeness being used to sell cigarettes, or even the alternate one I proposed nearly 30 years ago that as one of the few players of his era who was aware of the value of his own likeness he was actually holding out for money. I have lately come to believe that the timelines don’t add up, and that to some degree the rarity of the Wagner card was deliberately created, or at least enhanced, by the manufacturer.
For now, just seeing baseball players gape at a baseball card was a great deal of fun.
The Yankees are seemingly focused on Derek Jeter’s pursuit of 3,000 hits. Not getting as much play: his slugging percentage is worse than all but one other Yankee hitter. Not all but one other Yankee regular – all but one of the other 14 guys who have come to bat for the team all year. Jeter is being “outslugged” by 71 points by Brett Gardner and by 33 by Jorge Posada, who is being treated in the Bronx as if he is a ghost…
The only one behind Jeter? Nick Swisher (.303 SA). And yet the manager says “we know Swisher will hit.” We know no such thing. Until last year he had never put together consecutive good seasons in the majors. And incidentally he still has more extra-base hits than Jeter. So does Justin Turner of the Mets – in one-third the plate appearances…
We haven’t even gotten to On Base Percentage. Simply put there is no excuse for Jeter to be leading off. None. He’s at .316. That’s tied for 242nd in the big leagues (that’s a wildly inflated number – it includes everybody in the majors. Nevertheless, among those in his neighborhood are Angel Sanchez of the Astros, Ronny Cedeno of the Pirates, and Jason Bartlett of the Padres. Nobody is trying to pretend they haven’t been offensive disasters. People read stuff like this from me about Jeter and wonder what I have against him. The answer is nothing. He’s a hall of famer and I’ve been stunned by his consistency and clutch play since I was at ESPN – that’s how long he’s been doing what he’s been doing. But they should’ve made him manager or general manager or team president last year – or at least should be planning to do so the day he gets his 3,000th hit.
Remember…this is the franchise that once released Babe Ruth…
The Mets have very quietly built a bullpen out of other teams’ spare parts. Jason Isringhausen has been lights out since coming back, Rule V draftee Pedro Beato’s scoreless streak wasn’t interrupted by his DL stint, and so far, Nationals refugee lefty Mike O’Connor has been untouchable. The secret to the Mets’ disastrous collapses of 2007 and 2008, and the miserable seasons since, has been the startling truth that the relief corps has never been as good as it is right now…
The Yankees appear to be dealing with the resurfacing of an old problem. First it was Ruben Sierra showing the kid a great time, late at night, after night games. Exit Mr. Sierra. Then his running-mate was Melky Cabrera. He was a late-inning game-winning machine in 2009. Nevertheless, exit Mr. Cabrera. Now it is a spare outfielder supposedly escorting the should-be MVP to see the bright lights of big league cities. The should-be MVP is hitting .275. There are rumblings that it may soon be Exit Mr. Spare Outfielder…
Speaking of exits, it may be hard to believe this, but my understanding is that Sandy Alderson, doing all due diligence to try to revive the team from Queens, has asked almost every club what they might give him for every one of his key players. You can forget the Jose Reyes talk: the Mets and the MLB caretakers working unobtrusively with them know they must re-sign Reyes. There are intriguing answers when the Mets say “Ike Davis” and, surprisingly, “Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran.” The answers offered when they say “David Wright” are stunningly low. The rap is simple: perfect public face of a franchise. Wonderful teammate. Great guy. Productive hitter and deft fielder. Durable. And not to be relied upon in the clutch. The yield for David Wright might be less than the yield for Carlos Beltran (FYI absolutely none of this comes from Sandy Alderson or anybody in the Met front office)…
Not to re-stir an old pot but Alex Rodriguez still looks to Yankee coaching assistant Brett Weber’s third-row seat from the on-deck circle. You remember Brett, right?But Brett isn’t always in his seat. He was, Friday. He wasn’t, last night. And it’s possible I’ve missed it, but I have not seen him throw a signal at A-Rod or any other Yankee, or wiggled any fingers, or held up a sign, or even as much as looked back. He may have taken an order for fries in that headset for all I know, but from what I’ve seen, he has not violated communications rule C4…
“WE TALKED ABOUT FEET”
As we look at the rogues’ gallery of baseball friends with whom I’ve posed this season, the touching saga of how Twitter brought together an underrated Marlins’ outfielder and a guy with a similar foot injury (me) is in the papers today, right here. LoMo portrays a certain raunchiness in his Twitter feed. I don’t want to hurt his street cred, but he’s also a polite and thoughtful guy. As is Andy Samberg from SNL, with whom I had the pleasure of sitting through the last of the Yankees-Red Sox games. Delightful sequence of pitches during a Swisher at bat. The first of them is lined straight back and bounces off the screen right in front of me. Mr. Samberg laughs appropriately. The next one is lined straight back and bounces off the screen right in front of him. His laugh is delayed by only about a second. He shouts “Swish! What the heck? I was an A’s fan!”You know this fella. Interviewed Harold Reynolds in, I think, 1987 or 1988. Worked with him at ESPN in 1996 and 1997, most memorably at the Jackie Robinson Game. Continues to anchor – in the more literal sense – the studio work at MLB Network, although Mitch Williams, Dan Plesac, Joe Magrane, all the other analysts and all the hosts have helped create the best TV start-up I’ve ever seen.
Having careened through the NL (Rockies beating the Braves in the NLCS, after the Rockies had beaten the Reds, and the Braves the wild-card Giants), we begin three nights’ worth of AL divisional previews, in the East:
BALTIMORE not have pitching. Surely they could have pitching by 2011, but right now
there is nothing on which to rely beyond Kevin Millwood, and no team relying on
Kevin Millwood has made the post-season since 2002 (and what is the excitement over
a pitcher who has produced exactly three winning seasons since that long-ago
last playoff appearance?). There are also worries offensively. Adam Jones was a
superstar at the All-Star break, but flatlined soon after, and any team relying
on Garrett Atkins clearly has not seen a National League game since 2006.
the unasked question in BOSTON: would the Red Sox rather have David Ortiz at DH
this year… or Luke Scott? Where, production-wise, will Not-So-Big-Papi fall in
2010? I think he’s behind Guerrero, Kubel, Lind, Matsui, Scott, and maybe
others. If the demise of the beast continues, the Red Sox are suddenly
presenting a very pedestrian line-up, one that might be the second weakest in
the division. Of course, Theo Epstein might have made this determination
already, which would explain the willingness to fill the big openings with the
great gloves of Beltre, Cameron, and Scutaro, rather than slightly bigger bats
that couldn’t have changed the overall new dynamic – the Red Sox are a pitching
and defense outfit. Mind you, as those outfits go, they’re among the best in
recent years. The rotation is deep enough to survive Matsuzaka on the DL, the
bullpen robust enough to survive if that soggy finish by Papelbon in the ALDS
was more than a one-game thing, and the cadre of young cameo pitchers has been
refreshed with the rapid maturation of Casey Kelly. But no matter how the Old
Towne Team fairs in 2010, keep the Ortiz thought in the back of your mind. What
if the second half of ’09 was the aberration, not the first half? Will the Sox
have to bench him? And if so, could the twists and turns of fate find them
suddenly grateful that they had been unable to trade Mike Lowell?
Oh is this
a conflict of interest. This will be the 39th season my family has
had season tickets in NEW YORK, and I’m not convinced the Yankees will be
hitting me up for playoff ducats this fall. Things I do not expect to see
repeated from 2009: 1) A.J. Burnett’s reliability and perhaps even his stamina;
2) Joe Girardi’s ability to survive without a reliable fifth starter (if Phil
Hughes really can pull it off in this, his fourth attempt, he might become the
fourth starter if my instincts on Burnett are correct); 3) Nick Swisher’s
offensive performance (his average and his RBI totals have never increased two years in a row); 4)
Derek Jeter’s renaissance (as the Baseball Prospectus folks note, 36-year old shortstops
deteriorate quickly); 5) Jorge Posada’s prospects of getting 433 plate
appearances (which begs the question: if you were hoping to DH Posada on
occasion, why did you sign as your primary DH, a guy who cannot play the
outfield, and can barely play first base?). As I have written here before, I am
not buying the premise that what in essence was a trade of Melky Cabrera,
Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, for a full-time Brett Gardner plus Curtis
Granderson and Nick Johnson was necessarily an upgrade – even if Javier Vazquez (9
career post-season innings; 11 career post-season earned runs) was thrown in,
in the bargain. Anybody wanna buy some of my tickets?
BAY, I’m betting 2009 was the fluke and not 2008. What does one not like about
this team? Is rightfield confused? Stick Ben Zobrist there and let Sean
Rodriguez have a shot at second. That doesn’t work? Wait for mid-season and the
promotion of Desmond Jennings. You don’t like Crawford and Upton? Bartlett and
Longoria? Pena? The law firm of Shoppach and Navarro? The Rays seem to summon a
fully-grown starter from the minors each year – Price in ’08, Niemann in ’09,
Wade Davis in ’10. I do not think Rafael Soriano is the world’s greatest
reliever, but his acquisition is an acknowledgment that championship teams do
not muddle through with closers who pitched in All-Star Games prior to 2001.
What is the most remarkable fact about this extremely talented and balanced
team can be summed up by the caveat I have to offer in praising them. Shortly
after they were ransomed from Vince Naimoli, I discovered to my shock that a
college pal of mine had, for all these years, been married to the man who had just
done the ransoming. A
few innings later, Stu and Lisa Sternberg and I sat in their seats at Yankee
Stadium and he was earnestly asking how I thought he could convince the players
to accept a salary cap so the Rays could contend. I told him I wasn’t sure, but
he wouldn’t have to worry about it any earlier than our next lifetimes. So what
you are seeing in Tampa is, in fact, Plan “B” – and it may be the greatest Plan
“B” in baseball history.
know TORONTO is a small market team? Here is something the writers apparently
promised not to tell: the Jays got almost nothing for Roy Halladay. Sorry. When
the reward was Travis D’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor, it was only a
pair of pants being pressed. When the Jays inexplicably swapped Taylor to
Oakland for the lump-like Brett Wallace, it became the full trip to the
cleaners. One of the oldest rules of talent evaluation is: if a prospect has
been traded twice in four months, he may not be quite the prospect you think he
is (one of the older rules is: if one of your starting middle infielders has a
weight clause in his contract, you only have one starting middle infielder). On top of
which, when you consider the Jays paid $6 million in salary offset for the
privilege of giving Doc away, this trade has to be called what it was: a salary
dump in which ownership was admitting it had no interest in competing. Jays
fans are left to cheer three very exciting hitters in Aaron Hill, Adam Lind,
and Travis Snider; to try to get the correct spellings and pronunciations of the
guys in their rotation (“excuse me, are you Brett Cecil, or Cecil Brett?”);
and, since there really won’t be much else to do under the roof this summer,
buy and read injured reliever Dirk Hayhurst’s marvelous book The Bull…
oh, sorry, did I already mention it?
Tampa Bay steps back into the forefront in an exciting race with the
well-managed but decreasingly potent Red Sox, and bests Boston by a game or
two. The Yankees contend – possibly even dominate – into June or July before the
rotation, and/or Posada, and/or Jeter, blow up, and they fade to a distant
third. The Jays and Orioles compete only to be less like The Washington