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It’s Time to Ditch the DH

July 4, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

On April 6, 1973–a date which will live in infamy–Major League Baseball was suddenly and deliberately attacked by forces who wanted a more offensive game. That was the day Ron Blomberg of the New York Yankees stepped to the plate as baseball’s first designated hitter. Baseball hasn’t quite been the same since. The DH initially was a malady suffered only in the American League; but like a slow-moving virus, it gradually has infected most other areas of the game.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

The DH appeared only in regular-season American League games until the 1976 when MLB decided to allow it in World Series games played in American League parks. It took 16 years for the DH to rear its ugly head in an All-Star Game and by 2011 Major League Baseball decided to use the DH in the All-Star Game no matter the venue.

Interleague play, another abomination, started in 1997 and with it came the first DH to appear in a regular-season National League game. So what started out as an American League phenomenon is now practically ubiquitous.

Now that the DH is so firmly ensconced in the fabric of the game, there are those who want to deliver the final blow to baseball purists everywhere and have the DH now, the DH tomorrow, the DH forever in every ballpark, every night, in every league.

In the “Point After” feature of the May 11, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg attempts to make the case for “all DH, all the time.” But in attempting to tell us why baseball should use the DH universally, he actually gives some good reasons why such a change is a bad idea.

Rosenberg’s starts out by saying, “The DH is a hot topic because Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon running to first base on a pop-up….” Rosenberg then says, “The problem is not that pitchers get injured while hitting; they are far more likely to get injured while pitching.” On this point, I agree with him.

Then Rosenberg says that the problem with the current system is that it calls for two sets of rules, depending on which league the home team represents. He’s right, but eliminating the DH would solve this problem much more effectively.

It’s at this point that Rosenberg really goes off the rails. “The game of baseball is more interesting with a DH,” he says. To make his case, he concedes that the DH eliminates the double switch, but then asks, “What would you rather see: David Ortiz bat or Terry Collins scribble on his lineup card?” Obviously, Rosenberg doesn’t understand the double switch well enough to know that it involves a lot more than a manager making changes on a lineup card.

Another point Rosenberg makes is, “The DH allows the top starters to throw longer into games because their managers don’t pull them for pinch hitters.” So in the late innings of a close game with the DH, a manager doesn’t have to decide whether to bat for his pitcher or leave him in the game. In fact, with the DH, the manager doesn’t have to do much thinking at all. So if you don’t want to have to think–as a manager or as a fan–then “all DH, all the time” is the game for you.

In fact, I wonder whether anyone who prefers the game of baseball with the DH understands the Grand Old Game well enough to make an intelligent argument for why the DH should be used at all, much less “all the time.”

Orlando Cepeda: the Original DH

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I remember one of the major selling points of the DH was that it would give aging stars with limited mobility a chance to stick around the game. Orlando Cepeda wrapped up the 1972 season with the Oakland Athletics on knees that were so rickety he barely could walk. The Athletics, whose owner, Charles Finley, was the leading proponent of the DH, released Cepeda on December 18, 1972. Less than a month later, the 24 owners voted to allow the American League to use a “designated pinch-hitter” for the pitchers. A week after the vote Cepeda latched on with the Boston Red Sox.

Cepeda had a decent season in the first year of the DH, batting .289 with 20 home runs and 86 runs batted in with Red Sox. It’s ironic that Finley had the prototypical DH on his roster while he was lobbying the other owners to adopt the DH, but released him just 24 days before the rules changed.

But things did not end well for Cepeda in Boston. The Red Sox quickly realized that Cepeda clogged up the base paths whenever he didn’t hit a homer so, despite his good numbers with the bat, they released him at the end of Spring Training in 1974. Pretty soon teams realized that having guys like Cepeda limp (or guys like Gates Brown waddle) to the plate four times a game wasn’t necessarily a good thing, so the completely immobile DH gradually fell by the wayside.

I’m hoping for the day when some player like Ron Blomberg descends into the dugout having made the last appearance as a designated hitter in baseball history.

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

Triple-A A’s in Music City

June 28, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

No, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark. Or in the case of First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, you can’t beat fun at the new ballpark, either. Friday, June 19 was Star Wars Night and the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, were in town to take on the Sounds. Our son, Sean, and I got to the park early and settled in for a night of baseball that was to end with a fireworks show after the game.

Nashville came into the game struggling mightily. They closed out May and started June with eight straight wins and won 12 of 14 to pull within one game of .500 (28-29); but more recently the Sounds were losers of nine of their last 11 games and their record dropped to 30-38. The Sounds took the field decked out in special Darth Vader uniforms, hoping, perhaps, for a change of luck. Fans in attendance had the opportunity to bid on the jerseys during the game with proceeds going to the Nashville Sounds Foundation. Sean and I stopped by the booth and entered our bids before the first pitch.

The game turned out to be quite a pitcher’s dual with left-handers Brad Mills of Nashville and Buddy Bauman of Omaha trading zeros through the first four innings. Right-hander Matt Murray replaced Bauman in the bottom of the fifth and he and Mills pitched through the seventh inning with very little trouble.

Sean with his Star Wars team-signed jersey.

Sean with his Star Wars team-signed jersey.

While these pitchers were bobbing and weaving their way through the game, Sean was darting back to check on our bids on the jerseys every two innings. He hung around the tent through the bottom of the sixth and came back to his seat with a team-signed jersey.

Righty Dan Otero replaced Mills in the eighth inning and kept the shutout intact. Then it looked as though the Sounds were going to break through against Murray in the bottom of the inning. Joey Wendle led off with a double and after a groundout by Ryan Roberts, Omaha intentionally walked Jason Pridie. The strategy worked to perfection as Nate Frieman hit a hot smash right at the third baseman for a 5-4-3 double play.

It was about this time that the night started getting a bit bizarre. The public address announcer let us know, that due to the possibility of high winds in the area, the Sounds were, regrettably, going to cancel the post-game fireworks show. “Booooooo!” went the crowd, but very few of the 10,542 fans decided to leave the scoreless game.

Otero wiggled out of some trouble of his own in the top of the ninth. Casey Kotchman led off with a single for Omaha and moved to second on a groundout by Moises Sierra. Sounds manager, Steve Scarsone, called for an intentional walk of Orlando Calixte to set up a double play. Dusty Coleman singled on a hard liner to left field, but Kotchman held at third, leaving the bases loaded. Scarsone’s strategy paid off when Niuman Romero dove to his left to stab Whit Merrifield’s smash up the middle and turned it into the old 6-4-3 double play. The crowd jumped to its feet to cheer the defensive play of the year thus far for the Sounds.

The Sounds had a great chance to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Anthony Aliotti led off with a double that bounced over the left-field wall. Kent Matthes laid down a perfect bunt to move Aliotti to third with just one out. If Brian Anderson could put the ball in play on the ground or loft a fly ball of any depth to the outfield, the Sounds would win it 1-0; but Anderson struck out swinging. And then Romero did the same. It was extra innings at First Tennessee Park.

With the top of the 10th inning came the wind that the public address announcer had warned us about. Right-hander A.J. Alvarez replaced Otero and was immediately in the soup. Paulo Orlando singled to right and stole second base. Alvarez bore down and struck out Cheslor Cuthbert for the first out and then Scarsone went with his ninth-inning strategy and issued an intentional walk to Brett Eibner. But Alvarez uncorked a wild pitch and both runners moved up; he then walked Francisco Peña to reload the bases. Kotchman did for the Storm Chasers what Anderson couldn’t do for the Sounds; he lifted a fly ball into left field just deep enough to score Orlando and Omaha led 1-0.

Sierra reached on an infield single, but Eibner was out at the plate as he tried to come around and score from second on the play. The game moved on to the bottom of the 10th. And then the rain came. It started out as a steady drizzle that sent the fans in the lower seats rushing for the cover of the overhanging upper deck.

Craig Gentry led off with a single to left field, but was out trying to stretch it into a double; the rain came down harder. Wendle flied out to center; the rain came down even harder and the wind was blowing it sideways. Roberts lifted a routine fly to left field but neither Sierra nor Calixte, both looking up into the driving rain, could catch it; the ball dropped in for a double. And then the bottom dropped out and the umpires called for the tarp.

The grounds crew covers the infield at First Tennessee Park.

The grounds crew covers the infield at First Tennessee Park.

With the field covered and the rain blowing the crowd began to thin, but Sean and I decided we would wait it out. In about an hour the rain stopped and the grounds crew removed the tarp. Norm, our regular fan host, whipped out his ShamWow® and began to dry the seats down near the visitors dugout. Once he had a row dry, he motioned us down and Sean and I made like Bob Uecker and moved down to the front roooow.

The players from both teams emerged, took the field, and begin to limber up. Omaha manager, Brian Polberg looked into the crowd as he descended the dugout steps. Just before his head disappeared, he made eye contact with me. “Did you play here?” I asked him. He responded immediately. “Yes, in 1981 and 1982,” he said.

Polberg went on into the dugout and dropped off his managerial accoutrements and then popped back out onto the field. He went to the batter’s box and inspected the dirt. He slowly walked out to the pitcher’s mound and then consulted with the grounds crew. Once he was satisfied that the field was shaping up, he strolled down the right-field line to the bullpen, checked with his pitcher, and headed back to the dugout. When he was directly in front of the dugout, he turned toward me and said, “So, you remember those days, huh?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “my parents had season tickets back then and we came out to the park a lot.”

“We had a great team back in the early 80s. We had Mattingly and McGee and several other great players.”

“Y’all were a fun team to watch. And I remember during the strike of ’81—“

“Yogi came down. You do remember that team, don’t you?’

“I remember Yogi coming down and Joe Pepitone, too. I actually talked to Pepitone one night.”

“Yeah, traveling with Pepitone was quite an adventure.”

“I bet it was.”

“I still stay in touch with several people in Nashville.”

“Really? I see Farrell Owens here fairly often.”

“Oh, yeah, Farrell usually drops by to see me every time I’m in town. He is a great guy.”

“Yes he is.”
“Good talking to you.”

Jason  Pridie grounds out to end the game.

The view from the front row as Jason Pridie grounds out to end the game.

Polberg dropped down out of sight and the Storm Chasers took the field, an hour and twenty-eight minutes after Roberts hit his rain-drenched double. Left-hander, Scott Alexander, came on to pitch for Omaha, needing only one out to end the game. Pridie stepped to the plate for Nashville, took a strike, and then swung and hit a broken-bat grounder to first base where Cuthbert fielded it cleanly and trotted to the bag to record the final out. So after waiting almost an hour and a half, it was all over on two pitches and the home team lost 1-0.

No, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark.

Where Have All the Homers Gone?

June 7, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

There seems to be a power shortage in Atlanta. Through 55 games this season the Braves have only 37 home runs. Freddie Freeman leads the team with 10 and he hit five of those in the last eight games. Before Freeman’s power surge, Kelly Johnson led the Braves in homers with six and he hasn’t played a game since May 13. Only the lowly Philadelphia Phillies with 34 long balls have fewer home runs than do the Braves. At their current pace the Braves will finish the season with a paltry 110 home runs.

You had to figure power would be down in Atlanta this season after the Braves traded away their two biggest long-ball threats during the off-season. Justin Upton led the Braves in homers in each of the past two seasons with 29 last year and 27 in 2013. Evan Gattis hit 22 home runs last season and 21 in 2013 despite being a part-timer both seasons.

The good news is, the Braves are getting strong production from second baseman Jace Peterson, whom they obtained in the Upton deal and pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, whom they got in the Gattis trade. While I’m at it, I may as well mention that the Braves are feeling good about pitcher Shelby Miller, whom they got for Jason Heyward and his 11 home runs from last season. So a couple of seasons with fewer home runs may be a small price to pay if most of the prospects the Braves picked up turn into solid big league players.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Even if the Braves finish with around 110 home runs this year, they will hit quite a few more than they hit in 1968, their least-powerful season since moving to Atlanta in 1966. The ’68 Braves Bombers hit a grand total of 80 home runs; Henry Aaron led the team with 29. After Aaron, the totals drop off sharply. Felipe Alou and Joe Torre with 11 and 10 homers respectively were the only other players in double figures. The rest of the starting lineup combined hit just 16 home runs: Deron Johnson (8); Clete Boyer (4); Tito Francona (2); Felix Millan (1); and Sonny Jackson (1). Backup catcher Bob Tillman was a power threat with five home runs and Mike Lum came off the bench to hit three. Tommie Aaron, Wayne Causey, and Sandy Valdespino each hit a homer. The final three home runs came from the pitching staff; Phil Niekro hit two and Milt Pappas hit one.

Perhaps we should forgive the ‘68 Braves for their lack of power since that season is known as “The Year of the Pitcher.” The league average for home runs by a team was 89 and three other teams actually hit fewer homers than the Braves. The St. Louis Cardinals hit just 73 home runs but won the National League pennant and should have won the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers hit 67 home runs and the Houston Astros hit 66. Even without the long ball, the 1968 Braves still managed to finish the season at .500. It will be interesting to see if this year’s version of the Braves can pull off an  81-81 season.

In 1976 the Braves hit just 82 home runs and Jim Wynn led the team with 17; that’s the lowest total for a team leader since the Braves moved to Atlanta. Unless something drastic happens, Freeman should hit more than 17 home runs, but I’ll be surprised if any other player on the team hits over 20 this season.

Yes, Braves fans, power is in short supply this summer in Atlanta.

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

Play Ball!…And Be Quick About It

April 4, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The new baseball season starts in just a few days and with it come new rules to speed up the game. For years now, many baseball officials and experts have had nothing better to worry about than whether a game lasts over three hours. Major League Baseball finally decided to take some action and, in the process, added some timers to the game that prided itself for years on being the only sport that didn’t have a clock.

I have to say I like some of the changes. Maybe that’s because my favorite change is not a change at all; Major League Baseball simply decided that the umpires are to enforce Rule 6.02(d), which requires batters to keep one foot in the batter’s box during the entire at-bat. I’ve long wished that someone would put an end to batters going on walkabout after every pitch. I don’t know when this custom began; I know when I first started following baseball Henry Aaron, Felipe Alou, and Rico Carty didn’t walk halfway to the on-deck circle between pitches. If they had, pitchers like Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, and Don Drysdale would have enforced Rule 6.02(d) without waiting for the umpires to get involved.

While they’re at it MLB should tell batters they can’t readjust their batting gloves or landscape the batter’s box with their cleats between every pitch. MLB should have stepped in on this issue back in 1974 when Mike “the Human Rain Delay” Hargrove of the Texas Rangers started his routine of stepping out of the box, adjusting his helmet, tightening his batting gloves, pulling up his sleeves, rubbing his hands on his pants, and reviewing his IRS long form 1040 between each pitch.

Another change this season is an attempt to reclaim some of the time added to the game by a change implemented last season–the replay challenge. In the first season of the replay challenge, the manager sauntered out onto the field and entered into a deliberate discussion with the umpire who made a questionable call, while a designated replay watcher on the bench or in a booth somewhere looked at replays and decided whether their manager should risk a challenge. This season managers will not leave the dugout to initiate a challenge.

But another change to the replay challenge could eat up any time the first change recovered. Last season, managers got only one more chance to correct an umpire’s mistake after the first overturned call. They now retain the right to challenge after each overturned call. It seems to me that unlimited challenges will further slow the pace of the game. And I’m not so sure baseball is getting much bang for its buck from this whole process. Last season it appeared that, even after further review, there was no guarantee that the ultimate ruling would be correct.

Here Come the Clocks

MLB decided it could cut some more time off the length of its games by closely controlling the events that occur between innings. This is where the clocks, or timers, will show up for the first time in baseball. There will be a timer on the outfield scoreboard and another one on the façade behind home plate near the press box to measure the time between innings.

When television revenue became the pot of gold that baseball could not survive without, commercials between innings became baseball’s original time bandits. More commercials mean more revenue, but they also mean more time between innings. This season a timer will start immediately after the third out of a half-inning. For locally televised games, the first pitch of the next half-inning should come 2:25 after the final out of the previous inning; nationally televised games will get 2:45.

MLB will have an official on hand to operate these timers and closely track specific between-inning activities. With 40 seconds remaining on the timer, the public address announcer identifies the leadoff batter and begins to play that batter’s walk-up music. With 30 seconds remaining, the pitcher completes his final warm-up pitch. With 25 seconds remaining, the batter’s walk-up music mercifully comes to an end. As the clock winds down from 20 seconds to five seconds, the batter finally gets into the batter’s box and as the final electronic grains of sand run through the timer, the pitcher begins his motion to deliver a pitch.

Pitchers can toss as many warm-up pitches as they want up until 30 seconds remain on the clock, but they are not guaranteed the traditional eight warm-up pitches if they can’t manage to get them delivered in the allotted timeframe. There will be exceptions for pitchers who make the last out of the previous half-inning or were left on base. Umpires will issue warnings and fines to batters who don’t get in the box with at least five seconds left on the timer and to pitchers who don’t deliver a pitch before time runs out. I can’t wait to see how this works out.

Since baseball is adding timers and closely scripting its between-inning activities, instead of worrying about when a batter’s walk-up music starts and ends, maybe they should do us all a favor and ban walk-up music altogether. Who cares what tune a batter wants played while he’s fidgeting with all of his accoutrements instead of getting in the batter’s box? If the public address system had started blaring “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” every time Ty Cobb approached the plate, Cobb would have stormed the press box, put an end to such nonsense, and been back in the batter’s box ready to hit in less than 2:25.

Too Many Pitchers Lengthen the Game 

Baseball made these changes apparently without taking into account the main reason games are lasting longer than they used to; just take a look at the team rosters and you’ll see why they do. Every team now carries at least 12 pitchers because late in the game the managers want a left-handed specialist, a set-up man, and a closer.

Whenever a left-handed hitter comes to the plate after the sixth inning, the opposing manager likes to slowly walk out to the mound, paw around in the dirt for a minute, pass the time of day with the entire infield, wait for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound, and then finally signal a left-handed pitcher into the game. If the next hitter is right-handed, whether or not the left-handed pitcher retired the left-handed hitter, then the manager slowly walks out to the mound, paws around in the dirt for a minute, passes the time of day with the entire infield, waits for the plate umpire to drag out to the mound, and then finally signals a right-handed pitcher into the game. For goodness sake, let a big league pitcher try to retire two batters in a row late in the game every now and then. That will do more to speed up the game than timing the walk-up music will.

All of this choreography and timers make me wonder whether the cure for what ails baseball is going to be worse than the disease. Watching baseball is supposed to be a leisurely experience. I think I had rather watch a game for an extra half-hour than hear about whether the pitcher and batter are in danger violating a bunch of manufactured time restrictions that have no real effect on the way the game is played.

What’s In a Name?

March 5, 2015
James Atkins, II

James Atkins, II

For those of you who are really observant when you visit my site, I’m sure you noticed the name under my picture has changed. I thought I would try to change my luck and go with my first name. I got the idea from Melvin Upton, Jr., the outfielder formerly known as B.J. Like B.J. Upton, my parents named me after my dad, so I am James Hugh Atkins, II, hence the James Atkins, II under my photo.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I think Melvin is a good solid name, especially considering that “B.J.” was short for “Bossman, Junior.” Melvin Upton, Sr. is known as “Bossman,” so when Melvin Upton, Jr. came along, he became “Bossman, Jr.,” which someone shortened to “B.J,” giving him a nickname for a nickname. Even if Upton had hit .350 in each of his first two seasons in Atlanta, who could blame him for wanting to change his name to something–anything–else?

Upton isn’t the first baseball player to decide he wanted to go by a different handle. The Miami Marlins, the team formerly known as the Florida Marlins, once had an outfielder named Mike Stanton. After a couple of years in the big leagues, Stanton decided to go by his first name, Giancarlo. Again, I think it’s a good choice. Mike is a fine name, but there are lots of guys answering to that name. Giancarlo Stanton on the other hand sounds exotic and sophisticated.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

When I was growing up, the Philadelphia Phillies had a slugging third baseman named Richie Allen. Allen decided that Richie sounded like a child’s name, so he began to go by Rich Allen. Apparently, asking people to start calling him Rich instead of Richie just would not catch on, so he decided to go by Dick Allen instead. I must confess that to me, he is still Richie Allen. I just can’t seem to think of him as anything else. And no matter what name he chose, he still hit the baseball harder than just about any other player in the big leagues.

If Melvin Upton, Jr. wanted to change his luck, it hasn’t worked out so well thus far. Last week he experienced pain in his left foot, which, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, turned out to be sesamoiditis. That’s a fancy name for inflammation in a bone behind the ball of his foot. Upton will miss the remainder of Spring Training as well as the first month of the season.

I hope my name change works out better for me than Melvin’s did for him.

 

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Return of Zoilo

With Upton out for at least the first month of the season, his position in center field is up for grabs and several candidates will battle for the job during Spring Training. Among those trying to win the job will be Zoilo Almonte, a free agent the Braves picked up from the New York Yankees during the off-season.

Almonte, 25, has but 47 big league games under his belt. In parts of two seasons with the Yankees, he hit .211 with two home runs. But if Almonte wins a job with the Braves this season, he will be the second player named Zoilo to wear an Atlanta uniform.

Zoilo Versalles was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1965. He led the Minnesota Twins to the American League pennant with his glove, bat, and speed. The native of Havana, Cuba led the league in doubles with 45, triples with 12, finished third in stolen bases with 27, and belted 19 home runs. He batted lead-off and was the catalyst of a powerful Twins lineup that featured Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew.

Versalles was also a flashy fielder at shortstop and was awarded his second Gold Glove at the end of the 1965 season. He was the first Latin-born player to win an MVP Award, out-polling teammate Tony Oliva for the award.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Versalles was not a prototypical MVP. He wasn’t very big–5’ 9” and about 150 pounds. He wore thick, shiny-framed glasses that made him look like he’d be more at home in a chemistry lab than on a baseball field. Versalles won the MVP despite the fact that he led the league in strikeouts with 122 and hit only .273. Before Versalles, you had to be a Yankee to have an average that low and still win the MVP award. Yogi Berra hit just .272 in 1955 when he won the award and Roger Maris hit .269 in 1961 when he won the MVP on the strength of his 61 home runs.

Versalles didn’t follow up his MVP season with a stellar campaign in 1966, as he slumped to .249 with only seven home runs. Things got worse in 1967 when his average fell to .200. After the season, one sports writer deprived Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski of a unanimous selection as MVP by casting a vote for Versalles.

The Twins shipped Versalles west to the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 1968 season and he hit a paltry .196. The San Diego Padres selected him in the expansion draft, but they traded him to the Cleveland Indians before the 1969 season began; later that summer the Indians sold Versalles to the Washington Senators. He hit .267 with the Senators, but finished the season at .236 with a single home run. Versalles played in the Mexican League in 1970.

As a young Braves fan, I was excited when Versalles joined the team on June 1, 1971. He started slowly, going 0-9 before getting his first hit as a Brave. He then went on an 11-25 tear and raised his average to .294, but his average steadily decreased over the course of the season and he finished the year with five home runs, 22 runs batted in, and a .191 batting average in 66 games.

Versalles had some dramatic moments during the 1971 season. On July 29, he hit two home runs against the San Francisco Giants as Candlestick Park to lead the Braves to a 4-2 win. He hit a three-run homer off Nolan Ryan on August 7 even though the Braves lost to the New York Mets 20-6. I was listening to the game on August 17 when Versalles led off the bottom of the ninth with a pinch-hit home run to give the Braves a 5-4 win over the Chicago Cubs.

Even though Versalles wasn’t a vital part of the team, I hated it when the Braves released him during the off-season. As it turned out, his major league career was over at the age of 31. He finished his 12-year career with an average of .242, 95 home runs, two All-Star Game appearances, two Gold Glove Awards, and the 1965 MVP Award.

Versalles played in Japan in 1972 and then, according to an article in The New York Times, moved back to the Minneapolis area where he held a series of menial jobs before losing his house to foreclosure. He wound up selling his MVP trophy, his All-Star rings, and his Gold Glove Awards.

Versalles had lingering back pain from an old baseball injury and he suffered two heart attacks and underwent stomach surgery. He passed away on June 9, 1995 at the age of 55.

I hope Zoilo Almonte has a good spring and wins a spot on the Braves’ roster. If he does, his first name should have announcers everywhere remembering Zoilo Versalles. And I’d like that.

Remembering Alex Johnson

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

It saddened me to see that former major league outfielder Alex Johnson passed away this past Saturday in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Johnson played 13 seasons in the big leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, California Angels, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, and New York Yankees.

Johnson, a hard-hitting left fielder, became a regular with the Reds in 1968 and hit .312 with two home runs and 58 runs batted in and in 1969 he hit .315 with 17 homers and 88 RBIs. Johnson won the American League batting title with the Angels in 1970 with a .329 average, edging out Carl  Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox by 0.0003 percentage points.

While playing for the Cardinals on May 25, 1967, Johnson singled in the bottom of the second inning in a game against the Atlanta Braves. It was the first hit I ever witnessed in person at a big league ballpark.

According to the Associated Press, Alex Johnson died of complications from prostate cancer. He was 72.

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com; all game details are from Retrosheet.org)

Hot Stove Book Reviews

February 19, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

Pitchers and catchers are drifting into Spring Training sites in Florida and Arizona, but much of the country is still in the grip of Old Man Winter. With right at six weeks to go before the opening of the 2015 baseball season, fans still have time to read a couple of good baseball books before Opening Day. I recommend The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession by Rick Huhn and Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein.

The Chalmers Race

As a lifelong baseball fan and devoted subscriber to Baseball Digest, I have been familiar with the controversy surrounding the 1910 batting title for some years now. If Huhn’s book were merely a more in-depth history of the battle between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, I probably would not recommend it. But Huhn used the race for the crown as the backdrop to provide a history of the two players involved, a history of the early years of modern baseball, and a history of the early box score and how inexact a science scoring games was back in the first decade of the twentieth century.

A little background may be necessary for those not familiar with the story. In 1910, automobile magnate Hugh Chalmers, hoping to generate publicity for his company, offered a free car to the player who finished the season with the highest batting average. The offer was one car for the leading hitter in baseball, so the winning player had to lead both leagues in hitting.

By September, it became clear that the winner would come from the American League. Cobb and Lajoie maintained batting averages in the upper .300s while the eventual National League batting champ, Sherwood Magee of the Philadelphia Phillies, would finish the season at .331.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Cobb, at 23, was in his fifth season with the Detroit Tigers and was chasing a fourth consecutive batting title. Lajoie, at 35, was enjoying a resurgence of sorts with the Cleveland Naps and was chasing a fourth batting crown. The two men were from different backgrounds and had different personalities. Cobb was from Georgia and was a fierce competitor; most players, even on his own team, despised him. Lajoie was a New Englander and easy going. Lajoie was so popular in Cleveland that the team actually carried his name (Naps) from 1903-1914.

  • This might be a good place for a spoiler alert. If you don’t know who won the 1910 American League batting title, you might want to skip the next five paragraphs. But keep in mind that The Chalmers Race is not written as a mystery, so if you read the book, you’ll find out who won the title fairly early.

The battle for the batting title and the Chalmers 30 “motor car” went down to the final week of the season. But with two games left, Cobb held a nine-point lead over Lajoie, .385 to .376. Cobb sat out the final two games while Lajoie played in a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns. That meant Lajoie would need to go nine-for-nine to overtake Cobb.

After Lajoie tripled in his first at-bat, St. Louis manager Jack O’Connor instructed his rookie third baseman, Red Corriden, to play deep; Corriden dropped back to short left field; Lajoie then successfully bunted six consecutive times and then swung away for another hit to raise his average to .385. Cobb still held a slight lead–.38507 to .38474–so Lajoie needed another hit to claim the title.

In his final at-bat, Lajoie grounded to shortstop and reached on an errant throw. That lowered his average back down to .384 and gave Cobb the batting title and the Chalmers 30–or did it? After the season, lobbying began to have the error in Lajoie’s last at-bat changed to a hit. Lajoie even made an anonymous telephone call to try to influence the outcome. It’s easy to cast Cobb as the bad guy in any situation, but Lajoie’s role in the 1910 batting race seems less than honorable.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

In Charles C. Alexander’s forward to the book, he points out that much has been written about the battle for the 1910 American League batting title. But Alexander points out that Huhn’s significant contributions to the old story make The Chalmers Race a must read for serious baseball fans.

Huhn provides a history of the inconsistent nature of baseball scoring in the early days of baseball and that there was no uniform method or official box score for the games. This is why every now and then we hear that an old, established record is revised after someone pours over ancient accounts of games played over 100 years ago. For example, Cobb’s 1910 average was officially lowered to .383 and his career hit total was lowered to 4,189, but Cobb is still recognized as the 1910 batting champion.

Huhn also gives a detailed account of the trial resulting from a lawsuit that O’Connor filed against the St. Louis Browns after he was fired for his actions on the final day of the season.

One thing is for sure, Hugh Chalmers got his money’s worth out of his promotion. Reading The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession is a great way to get ready for the coming season.

Life in the Minors

In Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, John Feinstein follows several individuals, mostly players, as they plug along in Triple-A trying to get to the big leagues. Feinstein mostly follows players trying to get back to the major leagues, but he also covers a couple of managers, and umpire, and a broadcaster.

One thing Feinstein makes abundantly clear in Where Nobody Knows Your Name is that there is a huge difference between Major League Baseball and Triple-A. From the level of competition to the mode of transportation, it is a long way from Pawtucket to Boston or Gwinnett to Atlanta.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Feinstein spends most of his time on players Scott Elarton, Jon Lindsey, Nate McLouth, Scott Podsednik, Chris Schwinden, and Brett Tomko, but he also follows the ups and downs of managers Ron Johnson and Charlie Montoyo, and umpire Mark Lollo. Feinstein devotes a few pages to broadcaster Steve Hyder, who put in nine years with the Pawtucket Red Sox only to be passed over when a job with Boston became available.

Early in the book, Feinstein talks about how Scott Elarton decided not to use steroids in an attempt to make it to the majors. Feinstein points out that Commissioner Fay Vincent banned steroids in 1991, there was no testing. It’s easy to see that such a system would not, and did not, work.

The saga of Chris Schwinden perhaps best defines how chaotic life in the minor leagues can be. In a five-week span, Schwinden made seven appearances for five different teams with four different organizations in five different cities. His journey went from the Buffalo Bisons to the New York Mets and then on to the Las Vegas 51s and then to the Columbus Clippers and finally to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.

There is the story of Rich Thompson who went eight years between at-bats in the big leagues. Thompson made the Kansas City Royals out of Spring Training in 2004, batted once, grounded into a double play, and then went back to the minor leagues.

Thompson began an odyssey that took him to the minor league systems of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona D’Backs, Boston Red Sox, and Philadelphia Phillies. Along the way he became a CPA in case this baseball thing didn’t work out. In May of 2012, the Phillies traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays, where he went straight to the Major Leagues.

In his first game back, Thompson pinch ran and then was in the starting lineup the next night batting ninth and playing center field. He struck out in his first at-bat in eight years, but then in the bottom of the fourth with a runner at second base, Thompson hit a line drive to center for his first big league hit and run batted in. Making the most of his appearance, he also stole second and third bases. Thompson was back in the minor leagues three weeks later. He made it back to the big leagues for another short stint and then went back to the minors before the Rays called him up for the remainder of the season after rosters expanded in September.

As a Braves fan, I enjoyed brief segments on pitcher Buddy Carlyle and catcher J.C. Boscan. Carlyle had some nice things to say about his manager, Bobby Cox, and how Cox made him feel like part of the team. Boscan’s story of finally making it to the major leagues 13 years after signing with the Braves is one of the best parts of this book.

Feinstein does a good job of making it sound as if you, the reader, are sitting by, eavesdropping on his conversations with the people he interviews. Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball is a good book to read as we head toward Spring Training because it lets us all know how desperately the players, managers, umpires, and broadcasters want to make it to the major leagues.

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

Where is the Outrage?

February 12, 2015
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

In a little over a week, pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training. The Atlanta Braves finished last season tied in second place with the New York Mets in the National League East. The Braves wound up with a record of 79-83 and were a distant 17 games behind the Washington Nationals.

The Braves hit just .241 as a team last year, but still had a chance at making the playoffs until they limped through the final month of the season, hitting .206 and scoring but 59 runs in their final 25 games.

Obviously, the Braves needed to make some changes and they wasted no time in firing general manager Frank Wren. John Hart took the reins as president of baseball operations and went to work on the Braves’ roster. Apparently he decided that the way to cure what ailed the 2014 Braves was to shed their most productive hitters and stock the roster with as many backup catchers as he could get his hands on.

Heyward, Upton, and Gattis

The purge began on Nov. 17 when the Braves traded Jason Heyward, along with reliever Jordan Walden, to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Heyward hit .271 last year and is the best defensive outfielder in baseball. For a team that struggled to score runs, it’s hard to see how this trade helps the Braves.

On Dec. 19 the Braves traded Justin Upton, along with pitcher Aaron Northcraft, to the San Diego Padres for left-handed pitcher Max Fried, third baseman Dustin Peterson, second baseman Jace Peterson, and center fielder Mallex Smith. Upton led the Braves in home runs with 29, runs batted in with 102, and he hit .270. Even if the Braves were loaded with offense, it’s hard to see how trading the most productive hitter on the team makes any sense.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Hart completed his trifecta on Jan. 14 when he traded catcher Evan Gattis, along with pitcher James Hoyt, to the Houston Astros for another bevy of prospects; the Braves got pitchers Michael Foltynewicz and Andrew Thurman, and third baseman Rio Ruiz from Houston. Gattis hit .263 with 22 home runs last season and he is a much better defensive catcher than Braves’ announcers Chip Caray and Joe Simpson seem to realize. Again, for a team that needs to score more runs, this deal makes absolutely no sense at all.

Hart’s justification for trading Heyward and Upton hinges on the fact that both players are in the final year of their respective contracts. Hart figured the Braves were not going to be able to resign either of them after the season, so they would be lost with nothing in return. That is a valid consideration, but it seems to me that the Braves would have been better off hanging onto Heyward and Upton and getting one more season out of them, especially considering how little they wound up getting for them in return.

Using Hart’s logic, the Gattis trade makes even less sense than the Heyward and Upton trades. Gattis made a little over $520K last season. He isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2016 and could not be a free agent until 2019. Therefore, trading Gattis makes absolutely no sense at all.

Oh well, the Braves did sign Nick Markakis and Jonny Gomes. That should make up for all the offense they traded away.

The Backup Catchers are Coming

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

On Jan. 7 the Braves signed veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski to serve as backup to Christian Bethancourt. Pierzynski hit .251 with five homers last season serving in a backup role in Boston and St. Louis. He is still a decent defensive catcher and he gives the Braves a solid left-handed bat off the bench; he is a career .281 hitter.

At the very least this deal meant that the Braves were not going to keep Gerald Laird around for another season. Laird can’t hit, he can’t run, and despite what Caray and Simpson say, he can’t catch or throw.

But Hart apparently wasn’t satisfied with having just one backup catcher. On Jan. 25, the Braves signed John Buck to a minor league deal; the next day they signed Jesus Flores to one, as well. Buck split last season with the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels; he hit .225 with one homer and six RBIs. Flores last played in the big leagues in 2012 with the Washington Nationals. It’s hard to imagine how these two guys fit into the Braves’ plans.

On Jan. 30, Hart traded pitchers David Hale and Gus Schlosser to the Colorado Rockies for catchers Joe Briceno and Chris O’Dowd. In parts of two seasons for the Braves, Hale was 5-5 with a 3.02 earned run average and was able to give the team some solid innings as both a starter and a reliever. This is another trade that doesn’t seem to make much sense.

So, after all of these deals, the Braves will open Spring Training with a weaker offensive team, a gaggle of prospects, and a bunch of backup catchers. It looks like it’s going to be a long season for Braves fans.

Hey, Chipper, Do Us a Favor

Chipper Jones retired after the 2012 season. He finished his career with 468 home runs and a .302 batting average. Most baseball experts agree that he is a surefire bet to go into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. As a lifelong Braves fan it pains me to say it, but the problem with Chipper Jones is that he just won’t go away.

Somewhere around April of 2013, I got tired of hearing that Chipper was on a hunting trip, or that Chipper was in the ballpark, or hearing Chipper himself talking out of the side of his mouth in the broadcast booth. I got tired of seeing shows about Chipper during every rain delay.

I get it; Chipper Jones was a great player. He is the greatest player in Atlanta Braves history. You don’t have to take my word for it because, as Casey Stengel said, “You can look it up.” According to one of those rain delay shows about Chipper, he was a great high school baseball player. Heck, he was even a great high school football player. If you’re still not convinced what a great athlete Chipper was, then you can just ask Chipper. Or his dad. Or his mom. Or Bobby Bowden. They all are more than willing to tell you about Chipper.

But what I especially got tired of hearing about was Chipper and his Twitter account. Last week Chipper outdid himself when he tweeted, “So the FBI comes out and confirms that Sandy Hook was a hoax! Where is the outrage? What else are we being lied to about? Waco? JFK? Pfff…”

I’ve got some outrage for you, Chipper. In December of 2012, a madman killed 26 people, 20 of whom were young students, at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newton, Conn. Tweets like this one dishonor the memory of those victims and inflict unimaginable heartache on their families. Only a complete moron could tweet such a thing. There, Chipper, is the outrage.

It’s a bit ironic that Chipper is guilty of making ignorant and insensitive remarks in a public forum. In December of 1999, Braves’ pitcher John Rocker spewed all kinds of hateful rhetoric to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. At the time Chipper was one of the first players to speak out against what his teammate said.

Rocker was 25 years old when he made his outrageous statements. Chipper was 27 at the time and he had enough sense then to know that Rocker’s comments were inappropriate. But somehow or another Chipper at age 42 didn’t have enough sense to keep from publicly offending a group of people who already have suffered the most unspeakable pain.

Of course, Chipper went on Twitter and issued an apology for his idiotic post. He said he got his information from a source he thought was reliable and tweeted it without researching; kind of makes you wonder who his source is. Chipper also owned up to being irresponsible and apologized to those he hurt and offended. I will give Chipper this. As apologies from public figures go these days, his was pretty good.

But now that Chipper has apologized, I have one favor to ask of him. Hey, Chipper, why don’t you just put down your smartphone, climb back up into your tree stand, and keep your big fat mouth shut?

(all statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

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