Skip to content

All is Well in the Windy City

November 9, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The Chicago Cubs outlasted the Cleveland Indians in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series and ended more than a lifetime of frustration for their fans. For the first time since 1908, the Cubs are World Champions. As this Series demonstrated, sometimes there is a very thin line between winning and losing; between celebrating championships and enduring long, cold winters; between Grady Little and Joe Maddon.

In the 2003 American League Championship Series, the Boston Red Sox were leading the New York Yankees 5-2 going into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7 with their ace, Pedro Martinez, on mound. The Red Sox were trying to get to the World Series for the first time since Bill Buckner broke their hearts in 1986 and they had not won the World Series since 1918.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

After Nick Johnson popped out to start the inning, Derek Jeter doubled. Boston manager, Grady Little, did not panic; he stayed with his ace, which was understandable. A single by Bernie Williams made it a two-run game and Little stayed with Martinez. A double by Hideki Matsui put the tying runs in scoring position; Little stayed with Martinez. Finally, after Jorge Posada doubled to tie the score, Little decided that Martinez was finished.

The game remained tied until Aaron Boone ended it with a home run off Tim Wakefield in the 11th inning. Boston fans were devastated and Little never managed another game for the Red Sox.

Joe Maddon may be riding high, but the only difference between Grady Little and Joe Maddon is that Maddon got away with his questionable management of the pitching staff.

Maddon’s mismanagement of the bullpen actually goes back to Game 6 of the Series. The Cubs were firing on all eight cylinders and led the Indians 7-2 going into the bottom of the seventh inning. Mike Montgomery was pitching for the Cubs and he issued a one-out walk and a two-out single to put runners at first and second. Maddon brought in his closer, the flame-throwing lefty, Aroldis Chapman.

It seemed perplexing that Maddon decided to use Chapman in such a situation. Even if Maddon had left Montgomery in, or had gone to another reliever, and Francisco Lindor had hit a three-run homer, the Cubs still would have been up by two runs. Maddon then could have used Chapman if he felt the need.

Even with the five-run lead preserved, Chapman was right back out on the mound for the eighth inning. He got a strikeout and then gave up a single, but a double play quickly erased the threat. Even though the Cubs tacked on two more runs in the top of the ninth to expand their lead to seven, Maddon trotted Chapman back out to the mound to start the ninth inning; he walked the leadoff batter before departing.

Chapman pitched 2 2/3 innings, his longest outing of the season, on Sunday, October 30. With the travel day on Monday and the blowout on Tuesday, Maddon could have had a well-rested Chapman to call upon early in Game 7. If the Indians had indeed made a game of it, Maddon then always could have gone to Chapman.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

In his postgame press conference on ESPN, Maddon defended his decision to go with Chapman. “I thought the game could have been lost right there if we did not take care of it properly,” Maddon said. The game could have been lost right there? So there was a chance that Lindor was going to hit a six-run homer off Montgomery?

The Cubs took command of Game 7 and were up 6-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning with their ace, Jon Lester, on the mound pitching in relief. (I actually think Maddon lifted starter, Kyle Hendricks, too soon, but that’s another debate.) This is where things got a little dicey. After Jose Ramirez singled, Maddon decided to bring in Chapman.

Brandon Guyer greeted Chapman with a ringing double, Ramirez scored, and it was a two-run game. Then Rajai Davis hit a laser into the left-field stands and, just like that, the game was tied. Cubs fans could be forgiven if thoughts of, “Here we go again” suddenly danced in their heads.

Chapman gave up another hit before striking out Yan Gomes to end the inning. After the Cubs failed to score in the top of the ninth, Chapman retired the Indians in order in their half of the inning.

The Cubs waited out the rain and pulled out a win in extra innings, so all’s well that ends well. I don’t think the Cubs would have fired Maddon if the Indians had won the World Series. And I don’t think the Red Sox would have fired Grady Little had the Red Sox lost even if he had taken Pedro Martinez out of the game after Derek Jeter’s double.

Managers these days are expected to go to the bullpen at the first hint of the first sign of the first glimmer of trouble. Grady Little thumbed his nose at that philosophy and it cost him his job. Joe Maddon painted himself into a corner and lived to tell the tale.

Jason Heyward Saves the Day?

The morning after the Cubs won the World Series, Nancy Armour had an article in USA Today entitled “Jason Heyward’s speech spurs Cubs during Game 7 rain delay.” The article says that Heyward called his teammates together in a cramped weight room, gave them a pep talk, and told them to get back out there and win just one for the Gipper. Not really, but the article made it sound as if, without Heyward’s speech, the Cubs may not have won the World Series.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I like Jason Heyward. I met him once during an Atlanta Braves Caravan during the off-season just before his rookie year. He was very polite, well mannered, and well spoken. He hit a home run in his first big-league at bat for the Braves and he is the best defensive outfielder in baseball today. Even though he failed to live up to his early promise while with Atlanta, I hated to see him go when the Braves traded him to St. Louis.

Heyward struggled all season long in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract; he hit just .230 with seven home runs and 49 runs batted. He was worse in the World Series, hitting just .150. I don’t believe a pep talk from Heyward made any difference in the outcome of the Series. To believe otherwise would mean that a bunch of professional athletes who won 103 regular-season games, took care of the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, and battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series needed a pep talk from their least productive player to get over the top.

It makes for a good story, and maybe the Cubs feel better about the first $23 million they paid Heyward, but I’m just not buying it.

(Statistics are from baseball-reference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

The World Series Finally Returns to the North Side

October 25, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

For the first time in over 71 years the Chicago Cubs have taken the field for a World Series game. The Cubs lost the 1945 World Series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and have not returned to the Fall Classic since.

More importantly the Cubs roll into the World Series with a chance to end a lifetime of misery for their fans. As any baseball fan knows by now, it has been 108 years since the Cubs last won the World Series. That’s right, the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since the Roosevelt Administration–the Teddy Roosevelt Administration.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Even though the Cubs have been absent from the World Series since the Truman administration, they were actually in the Fall Classic on a fairly regular basis through 1945, having appeared in 10 of the first 42 World Series.

The Cubs first made it to the World Series in 1906 but lost to their crosstown rivals, the Chicago White Sox. They won back-to-back titles in 1907 and 1908, defeating the Tigers both times. The Cubs were back in the Series in 1910, but lost to the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1918 the Cubs lost to Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox. They had a shot at the World Series title in 1929, but again they lost to the Athletics.

In has been 84 years since the Big Bambino’s “called shot” helped lead the Yankees sweep of the Cubs in the 1932 World Series. The Cubs were back in the Series in 1935, but lost to the Tigers. The “Homer in the Gloamin’” from Gabby Hartnett propelled the Cubs back to the World Series in 1938 but they lost to the Yankees in another sweep.

After the 1945 season, the Cubs fell on hard times. From 1946-1966, they finished under .500 every year but one; they went 77-77 in 1952. They hired Leo Durocher as manager in 1966 and quickly rose to respectability in the National League, finishing third in both 1967 and 1968.

Longtime Cubs fans still remember the collapse of 1969. The Cubs jumped out to an early lead in the National League Eastern Division. They led by as many as eight games before a late-season losing streak allowed the Amazin’ Mets to climb into the top spot on September 10. The Mets would go on to win the division by eight games over the Cubs.

The Cubs blew a great shot at a return to the World Series in 1984. They won the National League East and then won the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres. The Cubs headed to the west coast needing only one more win for a berth in the Series. But the Cubs came up empty after losing three straight in America’s Finest City. The 1984 Cubs are the only team in League Championship history to lose three straight games after leading two games to none in a best-of-five series.

The Cubs were back in the playoffs again in 1989 but lost to the Giants four games to one. The Cubs went to the post season in 1998 as a Wild Card team but the Atlanta Braves swept them in the National League Division Series.

In 2003 the Cubs finally won a postseason series when they beat the Braves in the Division Series. In the NLCS against the Florida Marlins, the Cubs were up three games to two and led 3-0 going into the eighth inning of Game 6. It looked as if the Cubs finally were going to make it back to the Fall Classic. But then disaster struck.

A sure inning-ending, double-play grounder went through the legs of shortstop Alex Gonzalez. The error turned what would have been a one-run inning into an eight-run frame for the Marlins. To be fair to Gonzalez, manager Dusty Baker waited too long to go to his bullpen and when he finally did, his bullpen failed miserably. Even though Game 6 ended in disaster, the Cubs still had a chance to advance, but they lost Game 7 to the Marlins the following night.

The Cubs won consecutive National League Central titles in 2007 and 2008, but the Arizona Diamondbacks swept them in the Division Series in 2007 and the Los Angeles Dodgers did the same in 2008. The Cubs were in the playoffs last season, but Arizona swept them in the Division Series.

The Cubs are very good this year. They won the National League Central going away, finishing 17.5 games ahead of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. They won 103 games; no other team in baseball won more than 95. The Cubs won 100 games in a season for the first time since 1935. But getting to the World Series is just the first leg of a long journey.

The Cleveland Indians are a good, well-rested team, with an excellent manager, and they have a streak of their own that they would like to end. The Indians last won the World Series back when Satchell Paige was pitching for them in 1948.

Either way, hang in there Cubs fans because, as Harry Caray used to say, “The Cubs are for real this year.”

(Statistics are from baseball-reference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

Postseason Power from the Pitchers

October 13, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

In the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series, pitcher Travis Wood of the Chicago Cubs launched a solo home run off George Kontos of the San Francisco Giants. Wood’s long ball was the first homer by a relief pitcher in a postseason game since 1924 when Rosy Ryan of the New York Giants hit a solo home run off Allen Russell of the Washington Senators.

In Game 3 of the same Division Series, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs also connected for a homer, a three-run shot off Madison Bumgarner in the top of the second inning. Wood and Arrieta became the first two pitchers from the same team to homer in the same postseason series since Jack Bentley joined Ryan in the homer parade with a two-run shot off Walter Johnson in Game 5 of the 1924 World Series.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

There have been 15 home runs by 13 different pitchers in the World Series; Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals and Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles each did it twice. There have been six home runs by pitchers in the League Championship Series, while the home runs by Wood and Arrieta are the first by pitchers in a Division Series.

Jim Bagby of the Cleveland Indians was the first pitcher to homer in the Fall Classic; he connected for a two-run shot off Burleigh Grimes of the Brooklyn Robins in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 5 of the 1920 World Series.

Gibson and McNally are the only pitchers to hit home runs in two different World Series. Gibson hit a solo home run off Jim Lonborg of the Boston Red Sox in the top of the fifth inning of Game 7 of the 1967 Series. The next season, Gibson hit a solo homer off Joe Sparma of the Detroit Tigers in the top of the fourth inning of Game 4. Home runs were nothing special for Gibson; he slammed 24 regular-season homers during his career.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

McNally hit the first of his World Series home runs in Game 5 in 1969. It was a two-run homer off Jerry Koosman of the New York Mets. In Game 3 of the 1970 World Series, McNally connected for his second Series homer, a grand slam no less, against Wayne Granger of the Cincinnati Reds in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Twice in the World Series a pitcher from each team has hit a home run. In the bottom of the third inning of Game 1 of the 1967 Series José Santiago of the Red Sox accounted for his team’s only run with a solo home run off Gibson who, as mentioned earlier, would go on to hit a homer of his own in Game 7. Gibson is the only pitcher to hit a home run and give up a home run to a pitcher in the World Series.

In the top of the third inning of Game 2 of the 1968 World Series Mickey Lolich of the Tigers hit a solo home run off Nelson Briles of the Cardinals. As mentioned earlier, Gibson hit a home run in Game 7 of that Series.

From 1967-1970 Santiago, Gibson, Lolich, and McNally put together a streak of four straight World Series in which a pitcher hit a home run. And since Gibson and McNally hit two home runs apiece during this span, these four years account for 40 percent of the World Series homers.

pitchers-hitting-homers-in-the-world-seriesMike Cuellar of the Orioles hit the first home run by a pitcher in a League Championship Series. In the top of the fourth inning of the 1970 ALCS, Cuellar hit a grand slam off Jim Perry of the Minnesota Twins. As mentioned earlier, his teammate Dave McNally hit a home run, also a grand slam, in the World Series that year. So not only did Cuellar and McNally homer in the same postseason, but also both of their home runs were grand slams.

With the Wild Card Games, Division Series, League Championship Series, and World Series, the chance for postseason home runs by pitchers has greatly increased since the days of Ryan and Bentley. But with the dreaded designated hitter in use for over half of those postseason games, the likelihood of home runs by pitchers still remains fairly remote.

PLAY!

img_1208If you live within a day’s drive of Nashville, Tenn., then you should plan a trip to the Nashville Public Library to check out “PLAY! The Art of Mike Schacht.” This exhibit features over 100 items from Mike Scahacht (1936-2001), who created memorable works of art for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Upper Deck.

Mr. Scahacht created paintings of some of the legendary players from the history of baseball, including Ty Cobb, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams. He also recreated many of the game’s memorable moments. Mr. Schacht was the creator of Fan magazine, a baseball art and literary triannual.

The exhibit is open to the public, free of charge, from now until December 31, 2016, in the Courtyard Gallery of the Main Library, 615 Church Street in Nashville.

(Statistics are from sabr.org and baseball-reference.com; game details are from retrosheet.org)

Braves Better Than Expected in 2016

October 4, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

The Atlanta Braves finished the 2016 season in last place in the National League Eastern Division with a record of 68-93 and 26.5 games out of first; but it could have been much worse.

The Braves got out of the gate with a 9-28 record that led to the firing of manager Fredi Gonzalez. At the time of Gonzalez’s departure, the Braves were on pace to lose 123 games, which would have been the most in the history of modern baseball.

While it stood to reason the Braves would not lose quite that many games, they seemed certain to lose over 100 games for the first time since 1988 when they dropped 108 and finished 39.5 games out of first place. The Braves played somewhat better under new manager Brian Snitker, but their record at the end of July was only 37-68, which put them on pace to lose 105 games. But a funny thing happened over the last two months of the season; the Braves started playing decent baseball.

From August 1 through the end of the season, the Braves went 31-25. They were 17-10 in September and won 12 of their final 14 games. All talk of the Braves just phoning it in to get the top pick in the amateur draft vanished.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

The turnaround by the Braves coincided with their acquisition of Matt Kemp from the San Diego Padres. Kemp, who came to the team with a decent 23 homers, 69 RBIs, and .262 average, slammed 10 home runs, drove in 35 runs, and hit .280 after the trade. Hitting fourth in the lineup seemed to spur on Freddie Freeman, who hit .358 with eight homers and 29 RBIs in his final 30 games and was the National League Player of the Month for September. Freeman finished the season at .302 with 34 home runs and 91 RBIs.

Ender Inciarte got off to a slow start due to an injury, but Snitker put him in the leadoff spot late in the season and he hit .317 over his last 30 games to finish at .291. He played excellent defense in center field, as well.

Right fielder, Nick Markakis, hit 13 home runs and quietly drove in 89 runs and third baseman, Adonis Garcia, provided plenty of pop batting second in the order; he hit 12 homers and drove in 65 runs.

Another key to the Braves’ improvement was the promotion of shortstop Dansby Swanson. After joining the Braves on August 17, Swanson hit .302 with three home runs and 17 RBIs. His play at short steadily improved to the point that the Detroit Tigers will have nightmares about his glove work all winter long.

The Braves started holding onto leads late in the game thanks to the resurgence of closer, Jim Johnson. In his final 30 appearances, Johnson notched 18 of his 20 saves for the season and struck out 39 batters in 30 1/3 innings; his ERA over that stretch was 1.48. Johnson was so impressive that the Braves signed him to a two-year deal during the final weekend of the season.

After such a dismal start, when the dust finally settled on the 2016 season, not only had the Braves avoided 100 losses, but they also wound up winning one more game than they did last season.

Obviously, the Braves still have their work cut out for them to be a contender in 2017 when they move up the road to their new park. But with their strong finish, the Braves left their fans with some reason to feel optimistic during the long off-season.

The Giants Are Not a Dynasty

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way right now. The San Francisco Giants are back in the postseason as the second Wild Card team. They travel to the Big Apple to play the New York Mets this Wednesday. If they make it all the way through the postseason and win another World Series title, they will have won four Series in the last seven seasons. But that doesn’t make them a dynasty.

The Giants won the National League West in 2010 and had the second best record in the league on their way to the World Series title. They finished in second place in 2011 with the fifth-best record in the league and did not make the playoffs. They won the West again in 2012, tied with the Braves for the third-best record in the league, and went on to win the World Series. They did not make the playoffs in 2013 as they finished fourth in the West with a record of 76-86. In 2014 they finished in second place in the West with the fifth-best record in the league, but that was good enough for the second Wild Card spot. They got hot at the right time and won another World Series title.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

While it certainly is impressive to win three World Series titles in five years, they are not even close to being a dynasty. If they had won five straight division titles and strung together three straight World Series wins like the Oakland Athletics (1971-1975 for the division titles and 1972-1974 for the Series), then we could talk about a dynasty. A dynasty does not skip the postseason every other year, especially in this era of the watered-down playoff system.

And while I’m at it, unless Madison Bumgarner pitches at least three complete games and wins them all like Lew Burdette did in 1957 and Mickey Lolich did in 1968, he will not have turned in the “most dominant performance in World Series history.” Even if Bumgarner pulls off three complete-game wins, two of them would have to be shutouts, with his final 24 innings being scoreless for him to match Burdette. And even Burdette’s magnificent performance did not measure up to the three starts, three complete games, and three shutouts by Christy Mathewson in the 1905 Fall Classic.

The Giants have been a good team for four of the last seven seasons; but a dynasty they are not and Madison Bumgarner’s performance in 2014 was not the most dominant in World Series history.

Baseball Suffers Heartbreaking Loss

September 26, 2016
Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins


Sunday morning I tapped into my laptop to check the Internet for the late baseball scores only to see that José Fernandez, the young, enthusiastic, and hugely talented right-handed pitcher of the Miami Marlins was killed in an early morning boating accident. He was only 24 years old.

The news knocked the wind out of my sails. Even with his abundant ability  the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of this kid is his wonderful smile. I call him a kid, perhaps, because he was the same age as our son. What a heartbreaking loss for his family, for baseball, and for the world.

It is terribly ironic that Fernandez should die of a boating accident off the coast of Florida given his struggles to get to this country from Cuba. He and his family made three failed attempts at reaching the mainland before finally making it in 2007 when Fernandez was 15.

At the time of his death, Fernandez was 16-8 on the season with a 2.86 earned run average. His 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings demonstrate how dominant he had been this season. In his tragically short career Fernandez won 38 games, lost 17, and had a career ERA of 2.58. He was the National League Rookie of the Year and an All Star in 2012; he also was on the All-Star team this year.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Given the number of active players in Major League Baseball, it is inevitable that tragedy will strike from time to time. Most deaths of active players seem to occur during the offseason. Roberto Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972 while on a humanitarian mission to supply aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews of the Cleveland Indians died, also in a boating accident, on March 22, 1993 during Spring Training.  Unfortunately, in the history of baseball, several players have had their careers ended by tragic deaths during the season.

Before Fernandez the last player to die during the season was Darryl Kile of the St. Louis Cardinals. He died of coronary disease in his Chicago hotel room on June 22, 2002 while the Cardinals were in town for a weekend series with the Cubs. Kile had a career record of 133-119 with three teams over 12 seasons. He was a three-time All Star and won 20 games for the Cardinals in 2000. Kile was 33 years old.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

On August 2, 1979 catcher Thurman Munson of the New York Yankees was killed when a plane he was piloting crashed while he was practicing landings at an airport in Canton, Ohio. Munson, who was 32 at the time of his death, was captain of the Yankees, the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970, and the American League MVP in 1976.

Lyman Bostock signed a free agent contract with the California Angels before the 1978 season. He batted .323 in 1976 and .336 in 1977 for the Twins. The left-handed hitting outfielder was fatally shot on September 23, 1978 while sitting in his car at a red light in Gary, Ind. After a slow star for the Angels, Bostock had gotten his average up to .296 at the time of his death. He was 27 hears old.

Native Tennessean Walt Bond was a veteran of the Negro Leagues and a minor league slugger before making it to the majors in 1960 with the Cleveland Indians at the age of 32. The 6’ 7” former Kansas City Monarch played parts of six seasons in the big leagues. Bond smashed 20 homers for the 1964 Houston Colt 45’s. Despite battling leukemia, he was hitting .313 for the Minnesota Twins in 1967 when died on September 14 at the age of 39.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Harry Agganis was the regular first baseman for the Boston Red Sox in his rookie season of 1954. The following year, he was hitting .313 on June 27 when he died of a massive heart attack while in the hospital recovering from pneumonia. Agganis was 25 years old at the time of his death.

Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died on August 17, 1920. He remains the only player ever to be killed during a Major League game. On August 16, Chapman apparently was moving forward in the batter’s box to attempt a drag bunt when an up-and-in fastball from Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays struck Chapman in the forehead, crushing his skull. He died in the wee hours of the morning despite showing signs of improvement after emergency surgery. The fleet-footed shortstop was 29 years old at the time of his death. He played nine seasons and hit .278 over the course of his career.

On April 14, 1911, pitcher Addie Joss of the Cleveland Naps died suddenly of tubercular meningitis. Joss was all set to start his 10th season in the big leagues, but had not yet appeared in a game for the Naps, whose season began on April 12. He was 190-67 with a microscopic 1.89 ERA at the time of his death; Joss was 31 years old. Unlike the Marlins, the Naps went ahead and played their regularly scheduled game on the day Joss died. Even though he pitched for only nine years, the Veterans’ Committee elected Joss to the Hall of Fame in 1978.

One of baseball’s earliest stars, Big Ed Delahanty, died on July 2, 1903 as a result of a fall from a bridge at Niagara Falls. Delahanty was hitting .333 for the Washington Senators at the time of his death. He played parts of 16 seasons from 1888-1903 and had a career batting average of .346; he hit .404 in 1894 and again in 1895 and hit .410 in 1899. He was 35 years old at the time of his death. Delahanty was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

The death of José Fernandez will affect the Miami Marlins for a long, long time. He was their best player; he was a fan favorite. Fernandez was a huge talent and he seemed to love playing the game more than anybody else in baseball. Of all the deaths of active baseball players, the loss of José Fernandez may be the most tragic. At 24 his baseball star had only just begun to shine. It is said that life “is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth.” But for José Fernandez, that time was way too little.

With apologies to Jimmy Dugan, the fictional manager from the movie A League of Their Own, as of September 25, 2016, there is crying in baseball.

Remembering July 3, 1966 and two slams in the same game

July 4, 2016
James Atkins, II

Hugh Atkins

Can it really be 50 years since Tony Cloninger of that Atlanta Braves became the first player in the history of the National League to hit two grand slams in one game? It was quite an accomplishment, especially considering the fact that Cloninger was a pitcher.

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. His best season was 1965 when he won 24 games.

The Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966 and brought with them several brand name sluggers, including Henry Aaron, Ed Mathews, and Joe Torre. In the first game in Atlanta Braves’ history, Cloninger battled the hard-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates and pitched a 13-inning complete game. Willie Stargell hit a two-run homer in the top of the thirteenth and the Pirates won the game 3-2. Apparently, the marathon pitching performance took the life out of Cloninger’s pitching arm and he was never quite the same after that game.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Cloninger entered the 1966 season with one career home run, but on June 16 Cloninger clubbed two homers and drove in five runs against the New York Mets. This was the beginning of a hitting tear that would see him drive in 18 runs over the course of five games. Entering the game on July 3 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Cloninger was six for his last 16 with two home runs and nine runs batted in.

My brothers and I tuned into the game coming to us from the West Coast on WSM AM 650 out of Nashville. The Braves knocked out Giants’ starter 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 a 3-2 pitch over the center-field fence for a grand slam that gave the Braves a 7-0 lead.

In the fourth inning, Cloninger came to bat again with the bases loaded. Ray Sadecki, the Giants’ third pitcher of the evening, got ahead with a strike, but Cloninger blasted the next pitch deep to right-center field and his second grand slam of the game sailed into the night. Cloninger topped off his performance by driving in another run with a single in the eighth inning. In another oddity, Sadecki got in on the home-run act by hitting one of his own in the bottom of the fifth inning.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

While Cloninger was the first player in National League history to hit two grand slams in one game, four American Leaguers previously had done it–Tony Lazerri of the New York Yankees in 1936, Jim Tabor of the Boston Red Sox in 1939, Rudy York of the Red Sox in 1946, and Jim Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles in 1961.

Since Cloninger joined the exclusive group of sluggers to hit two grand slams in one game, eight more players joined the club: Jim Northrup of the Detroit Tigers in 1968; Frank Robinson of the Orioles in 1970; Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox in 1995; Chris Hoiles of the Orioles in 1998; Fernando Tatis of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999; Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox in 1999; Bill Mueller of the Red Sox in 2003; and Josh Willingham of the Washington Nationals in 2009.

Cloninger remained the sole National League batter with two grand slams in a game until Tatis did it; and Tatis went one better by hitting both of his slams in the same inning. Mueller, a switch hitter, hit one slam as a right-handed batter and one as a lefty; he also hit a solo homer earlier in the game.

Cloninger hit one more home run in 1966, giving him five for the season; he also hit .234 with 23 runs batted in that year. The Braves traded him to the Cincinnati Reds in 1968; he hit two homers that season, one in 1969, and two more in 1970 to finish his career with 11 home runs. His career bating average was .192, which isn’t too bad for a pitcher.

Tony Cloninger finished his career with a 113-97 record as a pitcher. But because of one big night at the plate in July of 1966, he always will be remembered as a hitter.

(All statistics are from retrosheet.org)

Can’t anybody here play this game?

May 18, 2016
Unknown Braves Fan

Unknown Braves Fan

So the Braves fired manager Fredi Gonzalez. It seems a bit unfair for him to get the ax after upper management decimated the team in an effort to rebuild the farm system. I figured the Braves would at least let him oversee the disaster of this season, but now they have decided to bring Brian Snitker on board to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I’m not saying that Gonzalez ever was a good manager. The Braves should have fired him the first time he trotted out to home plate with a lineup card that had the pitcher batting eighth. (I don’t care if Tony La Russa used to do it, it’s still stupid.) Or maybe they should have fired him after the collapse of September 2011 when the team blew an eight-and-a-half-game lead in the Wild Card race. Or perhaps they should have fired him after the 2013 National League Division Series when he sat in the dugout in the bottom of the eighth inning of the deciding game and watched David Carpenter give up a two-run homer to Juan Uribe while a rested Craig Kimbrel stood watching from the bullpen mound. The Braves might have been justified in firing Gonzalez after their collapse in September 2014 when the team went 4-16 down the stretch.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

So if the Braves stuck with Gonzalez when they actually had a chance to win, why are they firing him now when upper management knew 2016 was going to be a terrible season? It’s not like the Braves gave Gonzalez the 1927 Yankees to work with this season. They were 9-28 under Gonzalez; that’s a .243 winning percentage. Heck, at that rate they will have to improve their play to even be the 1962 Mets. At least Gonzalez and the Braves set the bar for success really low for Snitker.

But the current plight of the Braves has nothing to do with the competence, or incompetence, of their manager. I could give you some numbers that show that the Braves’ offense has been really bad, their defense is fairly lousy, and their bullpen is not very good. I also could give you some numbers that show their starting pitching actually hasn’t been that bad. But a really telling statistic to look at that demonstrates just how weak the Braves have been this season is their home run total.

Through 37 games under Gonzalez, the Braves had but 11 home runs as a team. The Philadelphia Phillies have the next-lowest total of home runs for a team this year with 29. Four players have more home runs individually at this point in the season than the Braves have as a team and seven more have just as many.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

In Gonzalez’s last game as manager, Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson each hit their first home runs of the season, doubling the number of players on the Braves’ current roster who had homered this year. That’s right. As of May 17 the Braves had but four players on their roster who had hit a home run this season. In addition to Francoeur and Johnson, Freddie Freeman had six home runs and rookie Mallex Smith had one. Drew Stubbs and Adonis Garcia each hit homers this season, but the Braves released Stubbs on May 3 and sent Garcia to the minors on May 7.

The Mets have two pitchers on their roster who have homered this season. One of them, Noah Syndergaard, hit two in one game and the other one, Bartolo Colon, is 42 years old and shaped like Baloo (the Phil Harris version) from The Jungle Book.

The 1962 Mets hit 139 home runs, led by Frank Thomas with 34. The 2016 Braves are on pace to hit around 48 homers as a team. I know hitting home runs doesn’t automatically make a team good, but a team that has virtually no power cannot be competitive. The Braves sent Gonzalez into battle this season with no ammunition and then fired him when he got routed.

It’s painful enough to try to follow a team with a .243 winning percentage, but the lack of power from the Braves adds insult to injury. The Braves stormed into Atlanta in 1966 and established themselves as a power-hitting team. Led by Henry Aaron (44), Joe Torre (36), Felipe Alou (31), and Mack Jones (23), the 1966 Braves pounded 207 home runs.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

I don’t want to sound greedy by wishing for the likes of Aaron, Torre, Alou, and Jones; at this point I’d settle for the power of Gary Geiger with his four homers in 1966 or Mike de la Hoz who, with his two home runs that year, suddenly looks like a slugger. Heck, give me Tony Cloninger, a pitcher for goodness sake, who hit five home runs in 1966.

Both the 2016 Braves and the 1962 Mets started their seasons with nine straight losses. The 1962 New York Mets were an expansion team, so they have an excuse for getting out of the gate slowly and finishing at 40-120. (One game ended in a tie and they did not make up one rainout.) The Braves are rationalizing their poor record by reminding anyone still willing to listen that they are rebuilding. The firing of Gonzalez means they are still in the demolition phase of the project.

I realize the rebuilding process can be painful for the fans. The Braves claim to be doing the same thing the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals did to make their teams strong. It appears that the Braves now have a farm system stocked with prime prospects. But the Braves’ performance in the early part of this season points to a bigger issue. It may be time for Major League Baseball to step in with some incentives to make sure its teams are at least trying to be competitive. Maybe a team should drop a slot in the amateur draft for each game over 100 they lose. After all, a team doesn’t have to be all that good to avoid losing 100 games.

When new manager, Brian Snitker, trotted out to home plate with his first lineup card, he had pitcher, Aaron Blair, batting eighth and center fielder, Mallex Smith, batting ninth.

Buckle up, Braves fans. We’re in for a bumpy ride this summer. It’s only the middle of May and we’re reduced to hoping the team can win more games than the 1962 Mets. And maybe Fredi Gonzalez should be grateful that he won’t be along for the ride.

(All statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com)

%d bloggers like this: