Monday, August 18, 2014

"One Day Wonders" by Dad

     Everybody knows about the One Hit Wonder, that pop music singer or group who score one hit and then disappear.  “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell comes to mind if you’re of a certain age, Norman Greenbaum’s  “Spirit In The Sky” if you’re of a slightly older certain age.
     In a similar way, what I’ve been pondering lately is a sports phenomenon that I’ll call the One Day Wonder. 
     To whit, most athletes who are remembered achieve their fame from a career’s body of work. From Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter, Ben Hogan to Tiger Woods, most athletic fame rests on having been great for a long time.  
     There is a much smaller group of athletes whose fame rests on one great, “lightning in a bottle” year. Mark Fidrych, aka The Bird, comes to mind. He lit up the baseball world in 1976, winning 19 games for the Tigers and finishing second to Jim Palmer for the Cy Young Award. He hurt his knee in spring training the next year, and was never great again. By all accounts a very good guy, he died too young in 2009.
     But then there’s the One Day Wonder. Before I get into this slightly snarky enterprise, let me first say that I know how amazingly much skill and how many years of dedication and hard work it takes just to reach a major league and be in a position to have, for good or bad, that one unforgettable day. 
     That said, let’s press on and start with the ultimate case of the One Day Wonder, the guy who’s not simply most remembered for what he did in the course of one day, but who wouldn’t likely be remembered at all if not for that day.
     The ultimate One Day Wonder, the guy whose name would top the list of any sports fan who gave this any thought at all, would have to be Don Larsen. His career fits the definition of journeyman. In a 14-year career, he went 81-91, never winning more than 11 games in a year. But in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, he of course pitched that famous perfect game for the Yankees, retiring all 27 Brooklyn Dodgers hitters. An amazing day, and the sole reason we remember Don Larsen.
     On a smaller scale, perhaps because few positional players can dominate a game the way a pitcher can, there is David Tyree.  Hardly the household name, even in sports loving households, that Don Larsen is, Tyree is of course the wide receiver for the New York Giants who made “The Helmet Catch” to keep alive the Giants’ last minute drive to win Super Bowl XLII.  An amazing, resourceful catch, it comprises the entire David Tyree highlight reel. Tyree may in fact occupy a category all his own: Beyond a One Day Wonder, we should probably classify Tyree as a One Play Wonder.
     Then there’s the more problematic case of guys who had credible careers, but are still best remembered for the events of a single day. The two names that come most quickly to mind are a pair of Bills: Mazeroski and Buckner.
     Bill Mazeroski was of course the Pirates second baseman who hit the walk off, grand slam home run to win the 1960 World Series. Apart from that or, more likely, in large part because of that, he is among the least deserving players ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A career .260 hitter with just 138 home runs, Mazeroski was a good, but not great, player whose fame rests largely on that huge home run.
     And then there’s Bill Buckner. 
     Buckner had a way better career than Mazeroski – a career that is actually worthy of at least Hall of Fame conversation.  A lifetime .289 hitter with over 2700 hits, he even won the AL batting title in 1980. But it’s his bad luck to have been, in a Bizarro World Series version of Mazeroski, a goat for the ages. There may not be a sports fan who needs to be reminded that it was through Boston Red Sox first baseman Buckner’s legs that New York Met Mookie Wilson’s ground ball passed, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run in Game 6 of the ’86 Series. This forced the Series to a seventh game, which was of course won by the Mets. 
     Buckner was vilified for years in Boston, not the most forgiving of sports towns, although the town has famously forgiven him. And his appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which he catches a baby dropped from a burning building, is well worth checking out.
     So there they are – a handful of One Day Wonders. If anyone has any others, please add ‘em to the list via our Facebook posts.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Is Johnny Football Simply the 21st Century Broadway Joe?" by Bojo

Joe Namath’s Super Bowl prediction is among the most famous proclamations in not only football, but American sports in general. It is well remembered for its bravado, and of course, for the fact that Broadway Joe and his underdog Jets actually made good on that promise. But what is often less remembered, is that he made that prediction while lounging poolside the week of the big game. That type of unfocused behavior was very well documented in his career, but he still won games. 

And that point leads me to what I really want to talk about today, and that is Johnny Manziel.

I can remember my grandfather and father having animated discussions about how soft players are these days, and how hard athletes lived back in my grandpa’s day. And how if athletes back then had taken care of themselves the same way these current guys do, they would have made them look terrible.

So perhaps that is all that Johnny Manziel is: a throwback to a time where athletes did not view themselves as finely tuned machines, when they thought they were just simply really, really good at a sport. A sport which may only be a portion of what is important to them in their lives.

And just because Johnny seems to have other priorities beyond football, it doesn’t seem to have negatively affected his performance on the field yet. He still performed excellently last year at Texas A & M, even with his voracious party schedule. So perhaps he can do the same thing in the NFL. And perhaps not. Maybe he will be completely exposed as the limited, undersized player he is.

But maybe he will do the same stuff in the NFL that he did in college. I personally think he will crash and burn.

But if the athletes of my dad’s generation taught me anything, it might be that you can party and play sports at the same time. So I will reserve my judgments on Johnny Football until I see some actual NFL game footage. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Sports and Age: A Few Notes" by Dad

     A few random thoughts on the age-old issue of age and sports. It seems to have been more than ordinarily in the news of late.

     First, with his win at the British Open, Rory McElroy becomes just the third player in history to win three legs of a career Grand Slam by the age of 25.  The other two? Nicklaus and Woods.  Pretty elite company, especially for a guy who was sort of golf AWOL for a year.  

     Also worth noting at this year’s British Open was that Tom Watson, at the age of 64, finished at just one over par.  And of course Watson won this tournament in 2009 at the advanced age of 59, prompting Tina Fey on SNL to remark that golf shouldn’t even be considered a sport if a guy can win a tournament at 59. Little snarky, and I’m going to go with the simple rule that if they sell the equipment in a sporting goods store, then it’s a sport.

     Age and tennis has also been in the news.  It was noted in more than a few places that the average age of truly top tier players is currently 30, plus or minus a year or two. One magazine even proclaimed that in tennis, “30 is the new 20,” and pointed out that when Tracy Austin won the US Open in 1979 at the age of 16, she was by today’s standards woefully small and under muscled. Interesting that, just last year, Federer was starting to be written off as too old to remain at the top of the tennis food chain.  Not sure what changed, but this summer the men’s and women’s top 20 are both filled with the names of players well past 20.

     And then there’s Derek Jeter, playing a credible shortstop and hitting around .275 as he plays his final season at the age of 40, after missing virtually all of last year. And all topped of by that truly age-defying All Star Game performance, both at bat and in the field.  To put this in perspective, only 4 shortstops in the history of the game have played even 100 games at the age of 40: Barry Larkin, in 2004, and Omar Vizquel, in 2007, did so fairly recently.  To get to the other two, you have to jump back to Luke Appling in 1947 and then waaaaay back to Honus Wagner in 1914. Yup, Jeter would be just the fifth in 100 years.

     Hard to draw any hard conclusions from any of this. Just seemed worth noting in a blog dedicated to sports across the generations.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Nobody Asked Me, But..." by Dad

A couple of weeks ago, my younger son (byline:CBoh) borrowed an interesting column-creating idea from Bob Ryan and Bill Simmons, and followed their lead to create his own all-Earth basketball team.

Very fun blog. Please jump back to June and check it out.

But now, since this is 2gens and I’m the older gen, I’m going to pay homage to a much older sports columnist named Jimmy Cannon.  Cannon, long dead, wrote a column for a variety of New York newspapers from the ‘40s to the ‘70s. I remember reading him as a very young kid in a long defunct newspaper called the New York Journal American, which my dad would hand to me after reading it on the train home from work. Most of Cannon’s columns were of the single subject variety, as are most newspaper columns.  But, from time to time, lacking an idea he could run with to sufficient length, he would simply write a column of random ramblings, under the heading, “Nobody asked me, but…”

To the degree that Cannon is at all remembered, it is ironically for just this.

So, nobody asked me, but…

Even though I really dislike the designated hitter, I think the National League should buckle and accept it.  The players’ union will never let the American League give it up and, with all the interleague play, not having a DH just puts NL teams at too great a disadvantage.

Citi Field has probably cost David Wright as many home runs as Yankee Stadium has added to Derek Jeter’s home run total.  Imagine their careers if each one had played in the other’s ballpark.

I think that baseball should outlaw extreme defensive shifts.  I’m a huge fan of sabermetrics, but the game has gotten too difficult for hitters, and not just because of all the 95 MPH flame-throwers that every team seems to have. It’s also all these data driven defensive shifts. The solution? Every team on the field should be required to have two infielders on each side of second base, and no more than two outfielders on either side.  There’s plenty of precedence in other sports for this. Football has legal and illegal formations, soccer has the off sides rule, hockey has the blue line, and basketball has the rule about the paint.

I also think baseball should have a salary cap, just like football and basketball.  I do realize that the bulk of TV money in baseball is local and team-based, not national and league-based as is the case with the NFL and the NBA. But this difference in revenue source doesn’t mean that grotesquely uneven spending from team to team is fair. It’s as if Yankee GM Brian Cashman were to start a Monopoly game with $15,000 instead of the rule-stipulated $1500 that almost all the rest of the teams start with, and then think he’s a genius when the last guy lands on Boardwalk and he wins. And I don’t care about the low team spending success of guys like Billy Beane.  Those guys would also crush Cashman and Co. at rigged Monopoly.

UVA and Vanderbilt recently completed a really good College World Series and, rightly, almost no one cared. Baseball is the one sport of the Big Three in which college games are kept in proper perspective. The obvious reason? Baseball has a huge minor league system where lots of aspiring players go straight from high school. This means there is way less money involved in college baseball than in football and basketball, and much less hypocrisy about “scholar athletes.” The equally obvious solution? Football and basketball should develop their own minor leagues.  Basketball has a sort of start here with its D league. The chance of this happening? Nil. Love that soccer term.

So that’s it for this time. Nobody asked me, but… this random ranting is kind of fun.

Monday, June 30, 2014

"If I Ran The Mets..." by Dad

            As a long time, which translates to long suffering, Mets fan, the question I have to ask myself is: What would I do differently? I f I had Sandy Alderson’s job, not an enviable task, how would the Mets be different? And my one line answer is: If I ran the Mets, the Mets would run.
     And to be more specific, the 2015 Mets would run like the 1985 Cardinals.
     The first fact to face is that no one will consistently hit the ball out of Citi Field, even with the fences brought in a tad. That was the lesson of Jason Bay, and the tragedy of David Wright, and the mistake in signing Curtis Granderson. If you need any single piece of evidence of how badly miscast Granderson is for that stadium, just think back to the player he was for three days last month at Yankee Stadium -- home runs on back-to-back days and a carefree swagger not seen at Citi.
     The next thing to take into account is that Alderson, to his great credit, is building what could be a really good pitching staff of young guns in both the rotation and, finally, the pen.
     So what should a GM do with a pitching-rich team in a cavernous ballpark?  He shouldn’t stockpile power hitters, because his need is speed. And this leads us exactly to the 1985 Cardinals – a pitching-rich team, in a cavernous park, built on speed, especially in the outfield.  
     The beauty of outfield speed in this scenario is two-fold, with each fold so obvious that I can’t see how anyone, read Sandy Alderson, could miss it. First, if your team can’t generate runs the Earl Weaver way (“The best play in baseball is the three run homer”), then you play small ball with fast gap hitters. Guys who can steal bases, for sure, but these same guys can more frequently score from first on a double, from second on a single, tag from third on shallower fly balls, and ground into fewer double plays. And defensively, to bolster the confidence of a young pitching staff, they can run down anything hit anywhere near them, which is especially important when your outfield is vast.  In Citi Field, speed is win-win on both sides of the ball.
     Which leads me to the ‘85 Cardinals, a great team so little dependent on the long ball that their second baseman, Tommy Herr, was one of the very few players in major league history to have 100 more RBIs than home runs. With just 8 homers, Herr drove in 110 runs, and is to me symbolic of that team’s unique greatness.
     But let’s look at that whole team. 
     First, pitching. 
     That staff was everything we could ever hope this Mets staff could grow up to be. John Tudor went 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA. And yes, Tudor was nominally the ace, but Joaquin Andjuar also won 21. And Danny Cox won 18, with a 2.88 ERA. 
     And the pen?  Remember that this was just before the era of the single, dominant 9th inning closer eating up saves. On that staff, five different pitchers had saves. Jeff Lahti led with 19, Ken Dayley had 11. After those two guys, the soon to be dominant Todd Worrell had 3 wins and 5 saves.
     And now, the speed that supported that great staff. 
     In the outfield, there was Vince Coleman with his 110 stolen bases, followed by Willie McGee with 56 and Andy Van Slyke with 34. The fourth outfielder on that team, Lonnie Smith, stole a dozen bags in just 96 at bats.
     And it wasn’t just the outfield. Second baseman Herr, the aforementioned RBI machine, also stole 31 bases. And his 31 was matched by his double play partner, a shortstop you may have heard of named Ozzie Smith. On this team, even the third baseman ran, with Terry Pendleton stealing 17 bases. Heck, platoon catcher Darrell Porter stole 6.
     The only slow guy on this team, remembered now as the one power bat inserted in the line up in order to keep opposing pitchers honest, was first baseman Jack Clark. And how many home runs did team leader Clark hit? All of 22. 
     The ’85 Cardinals were not a team built on the long ball. But now, almost thirty years later, they are the model that I believe Alderson should be using to build the ’15 Mets on.