December 2009

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More thoughts on the Hall of Fame ballot

A VERY QUICK NOTE ON ARBITRATION OFFERS
As you have very likely seen by now, the Yankees have declined to offer arbitration to any of their free agents. They have elected not to get tied into an inflexible negotiating position with any of their veterans. The downside to this decision is that if Johnny Damon leaves the Yankees won’t pick up a free draft pick.

Now, on the positive side, this decision doesn’t mean that Damon and pals are definitely gone. The Yankees can keep talking to as many of their free agents as they’re interested in retaining, even Xavier Nady. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ’til the fat agent sings (about signing with another team). Meanwhile, a handful of players were offered arbitration, including some players that have been rumored to attract the roving eye of Brian Cashman to one degree or another–Chone Figgins, John Lackey, Mike Gonzalez, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. If the Yankees were to bring in any of these fellows, they would punt away their first-round draft pick for next June. Given that the Yankees actually do things with their draft picks these days, it is to be hoped that the penalty attached to signing these cats would act as a severe disincentive to action. With Curtis Granderson and Roy Halladay out there to be pursued in trade, there’s no reason for the Yankees to feel like they absolutely most sign a free agent.

mattingly_250_120209.jpgIF I WERE A VOTE-MAN CONTINUED
Continuing our review of the Hall of Fame ballot…

Barry Larkin: One of the best offensive shortstops in history, with Jeter-like batting results in most seasons. He was an excellent glove in his prime, and his Reds won a World Series, something that seems impossible now. An MVP award attests to the high regard in which he was held during his career, as do 12 All-Star game selections. His main weakness was that he had trouble staying on the field, but his career totals are just fine in spite of that. He could hit .300, steal 40 bases at an excellent percentage, was willing to take a walk and hit almost 200 home runs. He’s a no-brainer Hall of Famer.

Edgar Martinez: Let’s get one thing out of the way: if designated hitter is a legal position, then there should be no penalty for playing there. Martinez was not a good glove at third, where he started, and he might or might not have been a decent first baseman but he was fragile and the Mariners had other options. Thus, the DH position allowed Martinez to reduce his injury risk and made him a pure asset instead of a compromised defender. Those seem like good things. Martinez was one of the best right-handed hitters of recent years–you might recall him personally dismantling Buck Showalter’s career in the 1995 ALDS. He won two batting titles, led the league in on-base percentage three times. A career .312/.418/.515 hitter, depending on how you adjust for era, Martinez figures as one of the 30- to 50-best hitters of all time. His career totals are a bit short of the big round numbers the voters typically like to see mainly because the Mariners weren’t smart enough to start playing him regularly until he was 27–he had to prove he could hit a Triple-A three times over before they gave him a real chance. This is one of the reasons the Mariners were a complete loss from expansion until the mid-90s. That’s not Martinez’s fault and he shouldn’t be penalized for it. He’s in my Hall.

Don Mattingly: Back in the early days of the Pinstriped Bible the readers and I spent thousands of words arguing Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case. I should re-run those one of these days. Suffice it to say that, in the days when feelings about Mattingly were still fresh, emotions ran high when I suggested that Mattingly’s short peak period didn’t quite qualify him for entry. This was a painful thing for me, because Mattingly was the player who really changed me from a very casual baseball fan to someone who would eventually end up writing about baseball for a living. Donnie Baseball had four Hall of Fame-level seasons, perhaps three more that were very good but not of that quality, and six seasons that really didn’t help. These were the post-back injury years–I still mourn that injury. As good as Mattingly was from 1984-1987–and despite the greatness of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, A-Rod, and the rest, I still haven’t seen anyone better–his peak just wasn’t long enough.

Fred McGriff: The Crime Dog confuses me. I wouldn’t hold up a true Hall of Famer over seven missing home runs. That would be pathetically small-minded and arbitrary. His offensive abilities were clearly worthy of enshrinement. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional slugger, but also walked and hit for solid averages. He played on five postseason teams and picked up a winning ring. At the same time, he wasn’t much of a fielder (though he was good enough at first to get over 2000 games there), not at all a baserunner. He never came close to winning an MVP award. He was just quietly good for about 18 years. I really have no idea what to do with him. The back of his baseball card says yes, but I just don’t have that feeling about him.

Jack Morris: The quintessential “league-average innings eater,” people mistake him for an ace because of one of the great World Series performances. You have to make crazy excuses and explanations to force him into the Hall. Walter Johnson was reputed to pitch to the score too, but still managed to post dominant numbers. Pass.

Dale Murphy: An excellent player on a mostly miserable team, in the late ’80s you could turn on TBS and the games were so sparsely attended that the crowd mic would clearly pick up the players talking to each other on the field. I tend to discount him on two levels: first, his peak was relatively brief. Second, he was a product of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, hitting .285/.374/.513 at what was called the Launching Pad, but only .251/.329/.445. He was a good player, and a much-admired one, but given that park advantage, even his best seasons aren’t quite as big as they should be to put him in the Hall given the brevity of his career.

Dave Parker: In the first Hall of Fame entry, I said of Andre Dawson that as a center fielder he was a Hall of Famer, while as a right fielder he was Jermaine Dye. A similar bifurcation can be observed in Parker’s career. For about five years in the 1970s, Parker was a .300 hitter with power, speed, and a killer throwing arm (26 assists in 1977!). After that, but for the 1985 season he was just a guy, and often not a very good one, overweight and impatient at the plate. From 1980 on, a span of nearly 1,600 games, his hit only .275/.322/.444. The overall career is still impressive due to his longevity and the height of his peak years, but his case for Cooperstown comes down to about six seasons, and as with Mattingly, that’s not quite enough for me.

WE’LL WRAP UP THE BALLOT…
…In our next installment.

Tommy Henrich, a great player and man

FAREWELL, TOMMY HENRICH
One of the great Yankees passed away today. Tommy Henrich, an outfielder and first baseman with the Yankees from 1937 through 1950 (with a break for three years of World War II) has died at the age of 96. Mel Allen named him “Old Reliable” because of his reputation for delivering in the clutch. One of my favorite lines about Henrich was written by sportswriter Tom Meany during the 1949 season when for the first three quarters of the season Henrich was the only Yankee who stayed healthy — then he got hurt too, having run into an outfield wall:

Tommy Henrich hit a home run for the Yankees to win the opening game of the 1949 season. Tommy Henrich hit a home run to win the pennant for the Yankees in the closing game of the season. Tommy Henrich hit a home run for the Yankees to win the opening game of the World Series. What’s the matter with the guy? Is he in a rut?”

henrich360_120109.jpgHenrich (middle) made up one-third of the greatest Yankees outfield with Charlie Keller (second from left) and Joe DiMaggio (second from right). Given frequent injuries, which he either missed time for or ruined his stats playing through, a bit of platooning, the war, and a late start to his career, Henrich’s career numbers don’t really show how good a player he was — he only had a few seasons where he played a full campaign and hit up to his full capabilities. That said, even below-peak Henrich was very good. He had power, hit for good averages, and walked 80 to 90 times a year. I’m trying to think of a contemporary player who is a good match for Henrich. Baseball Reference.com cites J.D. Drew as a comp for Henrich, and statistically it’s right on. Drew, however, provokes a lot of negative reactions while Henrich was not only completely uncontroversial but widely admired for his professionalism. In that sense, the comparison doesn’t fit. Henrich hit like Drew and had Don Mattingly’s attitude — perhaps that does the trick.

Henrich’s career might have been a little different had he not signed with the Indians as an amateur. He got buried in their farm system and it took a direct appeal to the Commissioner to get him out of his contract. Declared a free agent, the Ohio native decided he liked the Yankees best. He was sent to Newark for about three seconds and hit .440. Simultaneously, veteran outfielder Roy Johnson greatly annoyed Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. After the Yankees, who were playing with their usual excellent form of those days, dropped a close game, McCarthy groused in the clubhouse. “Does he expect us to win them all?” Johnson replied flippantly. Actually, that’s exactly what McCarthy expected. Johnson was instantly released and Henrich was recalled.

The two most famous plays of Henrich’s career came in the World Series. The lesser known of the two was the walk-off home run that broke a zero-zero tie and won the first game of the 1949 Series. The other occurred in the top of the ninth of Game 4 of the 1941 Series against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The Yankees came to bat in that frame trailing 4-3. Dodgers ace reliever Hugh Casey was in the game. The first two batters of the inning grounded out. Henrich came to bat. The count went to 3-2 and Casey fired off his put-away pitch, a sinker. Henrich swung and missed, but the ball ticked off of catcher Mickey Owens’ glove and rolled behind the plate. Owens got after the ball in fairly good form, but Henrich beat the play at first.

With that, the wheels came off for Casey and the Dodgers. DiMaggio singled. Keller doubled to right, scoring both Henrich and Joe D. Bill Dickey walked. Joe Gordon doubled to left field, scoring Keller and Dickey. By the time Casey finally recorded the final out, the Yankees were up, 7-4. Yankees’ fireman Johnny Murphy got the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth and the World Series, which could have been tied at 2-2, was now 3-1 in favor of the Bombers. The Yankees would close the series out behind pitcher Tiny Bonham the next day. Henrich homered in the fifth.

Henrich had been in ill health for years, but in the early 1990s he would still give the odd interview, talking candidly about the great Yankees teams he played for and his relationships with (each in their own way) outsized and difficult personalities like DiMaggio and Casey Stengel, or Lou Gehrig and McCarthy. I always wished I could have heard more — I would have listened for hours.

It’s one thing to be remembered as a great baseball player. It’s another thing altogether to be recalled as a great professional, a great teammate, and a good man. I’ve never heard or read a word said about Henrich that detracted from the image of a man who was a pleasure to be around, who was always ready to play, who set an example for his colleagues. Tommy Henrich really was Old Reliable in every sense of the name. You can’t ask for a greater legacy than that.