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Where Have You Gone Joe Torre?

April 14, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Fifty years ago, the Montreal Expos played their first home opener; it was also the first regular-season game ever played outside the United States. A glance at the box score from the game shows that the Expos beat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7 that day. As an Atlanta Braves fan, a couple of names in that box score caught my eye and reminded me of some of the terrible trades the Braves made after coming south from Milwaukee in 1966.

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Former Brave, Mack Jones, batted fourth for the Expos that day, and he hit his second home run of the season. Jones was the Braves’ starting center fielder in 1966. The Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1967 season for first baseman Deron Johnson. Jones performed adequately as a backup outfielder in 1968, hitting 10 home runs with a .252 average. He was the fourth player the Expos picked in the expansion draft.

Former Brave, Joe Torre, batted fourth for the Cardinals, and he also hit his second home run of the season. Torre hit 36 homers, drove in 101 runs, and batted .315 in the Braves first year in Atlanta. He had a solid season in 1967, but injuries limited his playing time in 1968. Torre was a four-time All Star with the Braves and was still only 28 years old when they traded him to the Cardinals on St. Patrick’s Day in 1969.

The Braves were the first champions of the National League West in 1969. The Miracle Mets swept the Braves in the NLCS, but still, it was a fine season. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the Braves would have been a much better team had they held onto most of the players they brought with them from Milwaukee.

Jones hit .270 with 22 home runs and 79 runs batted in for the Expos in 1969. The Braves started the season with Felipe Alou in center field and then acquired Tony Gonzalez after Alou was injured. Gonzalez performed well for the Braves, hitting .294 with 10 homers, but the Braves would have had a more imposing lineup with Jones in the outfield.

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Torre hit .289 with 18 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Cardinals in 1969 while Cepeda hit .257 with 22 homers and 88 RBIs for the Braves. That’s not too bad, but the Braves would have been better with Torre in their lineup.

The Braves traded shortstop Denis Menke and pitcher Denver Lemaster to the Houston Astros after the 1967 season for shortstop Sonny Jackson. Menke hit .269 with 12 home runs and 87 RBIs for Houston in 1969. Jackson hit .239 with one home run and 27 RBIs for the Braves.

Lemaster was just 13-17 for the Astros in 1969, but he had a 3.16 earned run average. That means he would have been at least as productive in the Braves’ rotation as Milt Pappas, which brings me to another poor trade.

Early in the 1968 season, the Braves traded infielder Woody Woodward and pitchers Tony Cloninger and Clay Carroll to the Reds for Pappas, who was 6-10 with a 3.62 ERA for the Braves in 1969 while Carroll was 12-6 with 16 saves for the Reds. The Braves would have been much better with Carroll in their bullpen that season.

Not a single player the Braves received in these trades ever outperformed the players they gave up. Perhaps the Braves success in 1969 masked the damage all these trades caused. And perhaps since 50 years have passed, it’s time for me finally to get over it.

Nah.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.comall game details are from retrosheet.org)

Frank Robinson was One of the Best

February 10, 2019
Hugh Atkins

Frank Robinson passed away this past Thursday. I’m not sure even fans who followed baseball during Robinson’s career realize what a great player he was.

Robinson played 21 seasons and hit 586 home runs. He was the unanimous selection as the National League Rookie of the Year in 1956, and he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1961. Robinson was the American League’s MVP in 1966 and is still the only player to win the award in both leagues. In 1975 he became the first African American manager in Major League History, and he went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, the first year he was on the ballot.

Robinson hit 38 home runs for the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1956, equaling the record for a National League rookie that Wally Berger of the Boston Braves established in 1930. That record stood for 51 years until Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers hit 39 homers in 2017.

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Robinson was just 29 years old and coming off a great season in 1965, but for some crazy reason, the Reds traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas. In his first year in Baltimore, Robinson won the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting at .316, home runs with 49, and runs batted in with 122. He was the MVP the of World Series that year when the Orioles swept the Dodgers.

Robinson was an integral part of three more Orioles teams that made it to the World Series; they lost to the Miracle Mets in 1969, knocked off the Big Red Machine in 1970, and lost to Roberto Clemente in 1971.

Robinson played in 14 All-Star Games and was the MVP of the 1971 Mid-Summer Classic. He hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the third inning, becoming the first player to homer for each league in an All-Star Game.

Despite a very good season in 1971, the Orioles traded Robinson to the Dodgers during the offseason. It turned out to be a good trade as far as I was concerned, because it led to me seeing him hit a home run when our family visited Atlanta at the end of July during the 1972 season. In the nightcap of a doubleheader, Robinson led off the second inning with a home run against Braves’ lefty George Stone.

After just one season, the Dodgers traded Robinson to the California Angels, and he hit 30 home runs with 97 RBIs in 1973. Robinson hit 20 more homers for the Angels in 1974 before they traded him to the Cleveland Indians late in the season. He was a player/manager for the Indians in 1975 and 1976. In his first game as manager, he hit a home run in his first at-bat.

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Robinson retired as a player after the 1976 season but continued to manage the Indians in 1977. He ended up managing 16 seasons with four teams, the other three were the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. Robinson won 1,065 wins as a manager and was the AL Manager of the Year in 1989 with the Orioles.

In summary, Robinson was a Rookie of the Year, the MVP in both leagues, won a Triple Crown, was MVP of a World Series, MVP of an All-Star Game, the game’s first African American manager, and a Manager of the Year. And if that isn’t impressive enough, at the time of his retirement, only Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays had hit more home runs than Robinson.

Frank Robinson was 83 years old.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

It’s a Crime, Dog

January 13, 2019

Hugh Atkins

It’s time for my annual rant about Fred McGriff and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball’s Crime Dog is on the ballot for the tenth and final year, and according to the website Baseball Hall of Fame Vote Tracker, he will not receive the required 75 percent of votes necessary for enshrinement. While that may not be an actual crime, it definitely is a shame.

As of the time of this post, McGriff is listed on 60 of 169 ballots, putting him at 35 percent. So, even if he received a vote on each of the 243 remaining ballots, he still would be six votes shy of the 309 needed for 75 percent.

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I admit that, as an Atlanta Braves fan, McGriff holds a special place in my heart. On July 20, 1993, the Braves were 53-41, nine games behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. The Braves needed help and they got it in a trade with the San Diego Padres that brought McGriff to Atlanta, and the impact was immediate.

A fire broke out in the press box of Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium that night, delaying the start of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Once the action started, the Braves fell behind 5-0, but McGriff tied the score with a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Braves went on to win 8-5. After McGriff’s arrival, the Braves won 51 of their remaining 68 games and won the NL West title, finishing one game ahead of the Giants.

My loyalty to the Braves aside, McGriff’s career numbers clearly merit induction into the Hall of Fame. He hit 493 home runs, drove in 1,550 runs, and finished with a .284 batting average. McGriff was the first player to lead each league in home runs, and he hit 30 or more homers for five different teams; he hit over 30 home runs in a season 10 times and 20 or more in a season 15 times.

McGriff’s 1,550 runs batted in are more than many players already in the Hall of Fame, including Willie Stargell (1,540), Mickey Mantle (1,509), Billy Williams (1,475), Ed Mathews (1,453), Jim Rice (1.451), Orlando Cepeda (1,365), and Duke Snider (1,333). McGriff’s 493 home runs tie him with Lou Gehrig and are more than Stan Musial (475), Stargell (475), Dave Winfield (465), Carl Yastrzemski (452), Williams (426), and Snider (407).

Stargell had a .282 batting average to go along with his 475 homers and 1,540 RBIs; McGriff topped all those numbers. Stargell made it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. If Stargell was such an obvious choice, then it seems to me that McGriff should have made it into the Hall, and it shouldn’t have taken 10 years for it to happen.

Braves infielders Mark Lemke (left) and Jeff Blauser (right) during the press box fire at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on July 20, 1993.

The only explanation I can offer for McGriff’s low vote totals is that the writers seem to think that 493 home runs and the rest of his offensive numbers aren’t as impressive as they used to be. Well, the reason the measly 493 homers that McGriff and Gehrig hit aren’t what they used to be is due to the players who used performance-enhancing drugs. Some writers will not vote for players associated with PEDs, but some of those same voters also must be penalizing players like McGriff.

Barry Bonds, the personification of the steroids era, sits at 72.2 percent with 122 votes, so he needs to get 187 more votes, or 76.9 percent, on the remaining ballots. That seems unlikely, but he still is going to get a lot closer than McGriff, and with three more years on the ballot, Bonds just might make it in the next year or two.

Of the 169 ballots reported, 83 writers voted for Bonds and did not vote for McGriff; Peter Gammons was one of them. Twenty-one writers voted for McGriff, but left Bonds off their ballots; Terrence Moore and David O’Brien, writers with close association with the Braves, were among them. Thirty-nine writers voted for both Bonds and McGriff; Bob Nightingale of USA Today was one of them. Twenty-six writers voted for neither Bonds nor McGriff. Of the four anonymous writers among the 169, three voted for neither Bonds nor McGriff while one voted for both.

The good news for McGriff is that the Today’s Era Committee just put Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame. While I could fill at least another entire post on whether Baines deserves to be in the Hall, I don’t see how the Today’s Era Committee could pass on McGriff, but stranger things have happened. Like a player of Fred McGriff’s quality and character not making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame after 10 ballots.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com, and all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

 

Stretch

November 8, 2018

Hugh Atkins

San Francisco Giants great Willie McCovey passed away last week. McCovey was one of the most powerful sluggers in baseball at a time when baseball had a lot of legendary sluggers. I always liked McCovey; he seemed like a good guy. As an Atlanta Braves fan, it seemed to me that he always killed the Braves.

After digging through some statistics, I think my memory of McCovey as being a Braves killer is accurate; he hit 71 home runs against the Braves during his career, 48 of them after the Braves moved to Atlanta. But there are some specific, personal memories of McCovey that form my opinion of him being death to Atlanta.

On June 22, 1969, McCovey hit a home run against the Braves that traveled into the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He was just the second player to ever hit a ball into the upper deck; Willie Smith of the Chicago Cubs did it just 12 days before McCovey.

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In 1977, my future brother-in-law, Wayne Shearon, and I made the trip to Atlanta to catch a weekend series against the Giants. In the first two games, McCovey only managed one hit and two walks in eight trips to the plate. But in the fifth inning of the Sunday afternoon game on July 17, McCovey stepped to the plate against Buzz Capra and lined a home run that seemed to get over the fence in about two seconds. Wayne and I talked about that home run at least until we got to Chattanooga on our trip home.

The following summer, Wayne and I returned to Atlanta, and the Braves again were playing the Giants. In the first game of a doubleheader on Friday evening June 30, McCovey led off the second inning with the 500th home run of his career. In the fourth inning, he ripped a double and then left the game for a pinch runner.

On Saturday night, McCovey hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the second inning. By this time, Wayne and I were convinced that Babe Ruth had nothing on Willie McCovey. On Sunday afternoon, McCovey wasn’t in the starting lineup, but with the Braves leading 9-7 with one out in the top of the eighth inning, Wayne nudged me on the shoulder and pointed to the on-deck circle. McCovey had emerged from the dugout and was swinging a couple of bats as he prepared to pinch hit. We were relieved when Johnnie LeMaster grounded out, because we knew the worst McCovey could do was make it a one-run game. As it turned out, he grounded out to second base to end the inning. Because McCovey was such an imposing figure–even while merely swinging a bat in the on-deck circle–we feared the Braves’ lead was in jeopardy.

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While McCovey was tough on the Braves, he also was tough on every other team in the National League. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1959 when he hit .354 in 52 games; he was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1969. McCovey is the all-time National League leader in grand slams with 18; he led the National League in home runs three times and played in six All Star Games. Just when it appeared that McCovey’s career was over, he bounced back with 28 home runs in 1977 and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

McCovey played 15 seasons with the Giants before going to the San Diego Padres for most of three seasons; he finished the 1976 season with the Oakland Athletics before returning to the Giants for his final four seasons. Along the way McCovey hit 521 home runs, despite not having a regular spot in the lineup early in his career and playing the last several years of his career with bad knees.

McCovey wore number 44, just like his fellow Mobile native, Henry Aaron, and was, by all accounts, a good guy all the way.

Willie “Stretch” McCovey was 80 years old.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.organd the Atlanta Braves 2018 Media Guide; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

Red Sox Hero

October 30, 2018

Hugh Atkins

The 2018 World Series is in the books, and the Boston Red Sox are champs. I never watch the Red Sox in the World Series without thinking about one of my favorite players from the 1970s. During his career, Bernie Carbo had a great rookie season, became a journeyman outfielder, and left his mark on two World Series.

Carbo was the first-round pick (16th overall) of the Cincinnati Reds in the very first amateur draft in 1965; Johnny Bench was the Reds’ second-round pick. Carbo made it to the Reds in 1970 and fit right in with the original Big Red Machine. He hit .310 with 21 home runs, 63 runs batted in, 94 walks, and had an on base percentage of .454. The Reds won 102 games and played the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

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In Game One at Riverfront Stadium, the Reds scored a run in the first inning and then increased their lead to 3-0 on a two-run homer by Lee May in the third inning. Baltimore’s Boog Powell answered with a two-run homer in the fourth inning, and the Orioles tied the game on a solo shot by Elrod Hendricks in the fifth. The Reds were threatening to take the lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, and that’s when Carbo made his appearance on center stage.

After May grounded out, Carbo walked. Tommy Helms then singled to center field, sending Carbo to third base. Ty Cline came up to pinch hit for Woody Woodward, and fireworks soon followed.

“I was at third base,” Carbo recalled, “and Alex Grammas (Reds third base coach) said, ‘On a ball hit on the ground you’re going to go home. Watch the line drive, tag up on a flyball, and if they play in, you still got to go; we don’t want them to turn a double play.’” Cline checked his swing and topped the ball out in front of the plate. “When that ball was hit, Ken Burkhart (plate umpire) got out there to call the ball fair or foul,” Carbo said, “and I had to run around him. Elrod tagged me with the glove and had the ball in the other hand.”

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Burkhart called Carbo out, and the brouhaha was on. Carbo began arguing with Burkhart, and Reds’ manager Sparky Anderson was soon at the plate. But before engaging in an argument with Burkhart, Anderson first confronted Carbo.

“He (Anderson) said, ‘If you get thrown out of this game, I’ll fine you $5,000; get in the dugout,’” Carbo said. “Heck, I was only making $10,000, so I went to the dugout.” The ruling stood, and the Reds did not score in the inning. Brooks Robinson homered in the seventh inning, and the Reds lost the game. The Orioles wound up winning the Series in five games.

Sports Illustrated used a photo of the play on their subscription mail order form for years. Carbo said that he, Hendricks, and Burkhart each received $100 for appearing on the forms.

Despite Carbo’s great season in 1970, he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. “Carl Morton got the Rookie of the Year, which is picked by the writers,” Carbo said. “I was really disappointed. I was the Sporting News Rookie of the Year, picked by the Major League Baseball players. Even today I am very proud that my peers picked me for the Rookie of the Year Award.”

Carbo had a terrible season in 1971; he hit just .219 with five home runs and 20 RBIs in 106 games. After a slow start in 1972, the Reds traded Carbo to the St. Louis Cardinals, and the journeyman stage of his career began; he was only 24 years old.

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When the 1975 season began, Carbo was in his second season with the Red Sox. Carbo had a decent season, hitting .257 with 15 homers, 50 RBIs, and a .409 OBP. The Sox won 95 games that year and took on Carbo’s former team, the Reds, in the World Series.

The Reds led the Series three games to two heading into Game 6, which turned out to be a classic. This is the game that Carlton Fisk won for the Red Sox with a lead-off homer in the bottom of the 12th inning. The lasting image from that Series is of Fisk bouncing down the first base line, frantically waving his arms trying to keep the ball fair. There is no denying that Fisk was a huge star, but was he really the hero of Game 6?

Fisk never would have been in position to win the game had it not been for Carbo. With no designated hitter in the Series at that time, and with Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, and Dwight Evans in the outfield, Carbo’s main function in the Series was pinch hitting; he hit a home run as a pinch hitter in Game 3. In Game 6, the Red Sox were down 6-3 with two outs and two runners on base in the bottom of the eighth. That’s when Carbo stepped to the plate to pinch hit for pitcher Roger Moret. Carbo was surprised that he even got the chance to hit.

“When Darrell Johnson (Boston’s manager) told me to pinch hit,” Carbo said, “I told Juan Beniquez, who is a right-handed hitter, ‘You grab a bat because Sparky’s going to go to the left-hander.’”

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But Anderson stayed with right-hander Rawley Eastwick, and the stage was set for Carbo’s heroics. But on the first pitch from Eastwick, Carbo swung and missed and looked like anything but a potential hero.

“It was probably one of the worst swings in the history of the game,” Carbo recalled with a chuckle. “I remember Pete Rose’s comment. He said I looked like a Little Leaguer. Johnny Bench said, ‘I’ve never seen a worse swing from a Big League ball player.’” But Carbo laughed best, because he laughed last.

“I thought: ‘He threw me a slider; he’ll probably come back with a fastball,’” Carbo said. “When he did I hit the home run.”

And hit it he did; “crushed it” would be a better description. Carbo drove the fastball deep into the center-field seats, setting the stage for Fisk’s extra-inning shot four innings later. During his home run trot, Carbo had a word or two for Rose.

“I’m rounding second base, and I’m yelling at Pete Rose, ‘Don’t you wish you were this strong?’ He said, ‘Isn’t this fun?’”

After Fisk hit his game-winning home run, almost everybody outside of Boston forgot about Carbo’s blast., and that’s a shame.

The 1975 World Series proved to be Carbo’s last hurrah. He held on several more seasons, but he bounced around from Boston to Milwaukee, back to Boston, then to Cleveland, back to St. Louis, and finally to Pittsburgh where he finished his career at the ripe old age of 32.

Bernie Carbo played 12 seasons with six different teams. He finished his career with 96 home runs and a .264 batting average; but he made two memorable appearances in the World Series. He now lives in Theodore, Alabama and operates the Diamond Club Ministry in Dauphin Island.

(All statistics are from baseballreference.com, and all game details are from retrosheet.org. The comments from Bernie Carbo are from my telephone interview with him in October 2008.)

Room for Improvement

October 21, 2018

Hugh Atkins

Major League Baseball is gearing up for the World Series, and, while baseball is still the greatest sport, there are many things about today’s version of the game that really aggravate me. I won’t bother with going into things like the designated hitter and interleague play, since there is no going back with those atrocities; I’ll just stick with things that could change.

Managers wearing hoodies. I have to say that I’m not sure why baseball managers wear uniforms in the first place. For most managers and coaches, a baseball uniform is not a very flattering look. But if MLB insists that managers wear a uniform, then they should wear the full uniform and not some hoodie or sweatshirt with a clever slogan on the front it.

Eye black. In the old days of baseball, the only players wearing eye black were field floppers and players who “played the game the way it’s supposed to be played.” The given reason for wearing eye black is that it reduces glare from sunlight shining on the players’ cheekbones, but there is no scientific evidence that it provides any real benefit to the player. What really bothers me about eye black is that it has become more of a fashion statement than a useless utility. Players now smear it all over their cheeks or use peel-and-stick patches. And even if eye black reduced glare, why do so many players wear it during night games in domed ballparks?

Pine tar on batting helmets. I’m tired of seeing players come to the plate with a batting helmet that looks like they just emerged from a tar pit. Some players have so much pine tar on their helmets that you barely can see the team logo. There is even less reason to have pine tar on a helmet than there is to wear eye black.

Body armor. Unless a player is protecting a recent injury, batters should not be wearing elbow guards, shin guards, or those ridiculous-looking C-flap batting helmet extensions that are becoming so ubiquitous in today’s game.

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Beards. I tuned in to a game a few weeks back and thought the Colorado Rockies had signed Rasputin to a contract. What is the deal with the long, unkempt, nasty-looking beards? Can there be a single player in the game with one of those beards who looks himself in the mirror and honestly says, “Yeah, that’s a good look for me”? If so, then maybe they should wear some eye black to knock down the glare that obviously is preventing them from seeing their face in the mirror.

I’ll take a break right here and chalk up the items mentioned thus far to peer pressure or sheepism. After all, if a player appears in Game 1 of the World Series this Tuesday wearing an ascot like Errol Flynn, then 10 more players will show up for Game 2 wearing one, and 90% of Little Leaguers will want one before next spring. Now, I’ll move on to some of the more substantial things that bother me.

Excessive celebrations. Let me start by saying that my problem with celebrations is not so much the ritual or gesture as it is with the timing. It doesn’t bother me so much if a player flips his bat after hitting a game-winning home run or if a pitcher punches his fist after striking out a batter to snuff out a rally. But I’m tired of the primal screams following routine walks or singles during the fifth inning of a regular-season game. A broken-bat double by a player on a last-place team shouldn’t send that player into a moon-walking frenzy out at second base. Every little hit or strike out doesn’t clinch the seventh game of the World Series, so players shouldn’t act like that’s what they’ve just done.

Replay reviews. I don’t have a problem with limited replay reviews. I understand that even after looking at a play from several different angles in super slow motion, it oftentimes is difficult to determine whether the umpire made the correct call. Still, nothing frustrates me more than when, even after the review, an obviously incorrect call stands. One problem with replay review is that having umpires on the review team in New York creates a conflict of interest; umpires naturally may be hesitant to rule against another umpire. If MLB continues to use replay reviews (and they will), then they need to either remove the umpires from the review team or have them conduct the review without knowing the original ruling on the field.

The shift. My problem with the shift isn’t that a team stacks a bunch of its infielders on one side of the field. What bothers me is that batters refuse to take advantage of the huge areas of the field left open to them by the shift. MLB doesn’t need a rule outlawing the shift; players need to start slapping the ball to the opposite field, especially in run-scoring situations, when facing a shift. When teams lose a few games due to overuse of the shift, then managers will quit using it.

Relief pitchers. The game strategy today is to hope a starting pitcher can go five innings and then turn the game over to three or four relief pitchers; therefore, most teams carry 13 pitchers on their roster. Five of those pitchers are starters, which means most teams carry eight relief pitchers. Every game seems to devolve into a constant parade of relief pitchers entering the game. I’m waiting for some team to install a revolving door on their bullpen; with the right sponsorship, it could happen.

Strikeouts. Oh, boy, do I hate strikeouts, which is unfortunate, since this season there were more strikeouts than hits in MLB; batters struck out 41,207 times and recorded 41,019 hits. Not a single player registered 200 hits this season, but three players struck out over 200 times. A whopping 154 players struck out over 100 times, 28 of whom struck out at least 150 times; half the teams had more strikeouts than hits. There doesn’t seem to be any stigma associated with striking out, so most players go to the plate, swing as hard as they can, and don’t change their approach even with two strikes.

One of the most impressive at-bats of the American League Championship Series this year came in the first inning of Game 4. The Boston Red Sox had runners at second and third with two out; Rafael Devers was at the plate, down in the count 0-2. Houston pitcher, Charlie Morton, was one strike away from getting out of the inning.

Devers, who hit 21 homers during the regular season and struck out 121 times, eased up on his swing and lined a soft single into left-center field, driving in Boston’s first two runs.

I’m like most baseball fans. I love to see a three-run homer as much as the next guy. But it was refreshing to see a young player like Devers, who will turn 22 on the second day of the World Series, do whatever it takes to get the runners across the plate.

Even with all its flaws, baseball is still a great game, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better.

Braves’ Slugger Tony Cloninger Passes Away

August 12, 2018

Hugh Atkins

Tony Cloninger, who pitched in the National League from 1961-1972, died a couple of weeks ago. I started following baseball when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, and one of my favorite baseball memories is the game on July 3 of that year when Cloninger hit two grand slams against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.

Cloninger, nicknamed Top Cat because of his initials, came into that game on July 3 as a hot hitter; he was six for his last 16 with two home runs and nine runs batted in. The Braves knocked out Giants’ starting pitcher, Joe Gibbon, after only 2/3 of an inning. With two men on, Bob Priddy replaced Gibbon and promptly made things worse by walking Denis Menke. That brought Cloninger to the plate, and he hit the first of his grand slams.

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After grounding out in his second at-bat, Cloninger hit his second grand slam in the top of the fourth against Ray Sadecki, the Giants’ third pitcher of the evening. Cloninger flied out to left field in the sixth inning before topping off his magnificent night at the plate by driving in another run with a single in the eighth inning.

On the mound Cloninger labored through the 1966 season, finishing 14-11 with a 4.12 earned run average, including a 13-inning complete-game loss on Opening Day. As a hitter, he hit five home runs, drove in 23 runs, and had a .234 batting average. Such a season likely would get a starting pitcher a long-term deal for millions of dollars these days.

Cloninger first came to the big leagues in 1961 and went 7-2 for the Milwaukee Braves. He steadily improved and won 19 games in 1964. On the strength of a 24-win season in 1965, Cloninger was the starting pitcher on Opening Day in 1966, the first game in Atlanta Braves’ history. Those 24 games he won in 1965 were the most in a single season in the history of the Milwaukee Braves. Only John Smoltz, in 1996, has matched that total for the Braves since.

Injuries limited Cloninger to only 16 starts in 1967, and his record fell to 5-7 with a 5.17 E.R.A. After eight appearances in 1968 – all but one in relief – Cloninger was 1-3 with a 4.26 E.R.A., and the Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds along with reliever Clay Carroll and infielder Woody Woodward for pitchers Milt Pappas and Ted Davidson and infielder Bob Johnson.

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From 1968-1971, Cloninger appeared in 110 games for the Reds, made 77 starts, and had a record of 27-33 with a save and a 4.31 E.R.A. He made one start in the 1970 National League Championship Series and made a start and one relief appearance in the 1970 World Series. Cloninger hit one home run in 1968, two in 1969, and two more in 1970.

Just before the 1972 season, the Reds traded Cloninger to the St. Louis Cardinals for infielder Julian Javier.  Cloninger made 17 relief appearances for the Cards and was 0-2 with a 5.19 E.R.A. when they released him; Cloninger’s baseball career was over at age 31.

Tony Cloninger finished his career with a 113-97 record as a pitcher and 11 home runs, 67 runs batted in, and a .192 batting average at the plate. And because of one big night at the plate in July of 1966, many fans will remember him for his heroics as a hitter. He was 77 years old.

(All statistics are from baseballreference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

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