Phil Niekro, RIP: Great pitcher, better friend

Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, pitching for the Braves in Wrigley Field.

When Lou Piniella first managed the Yankees in 1986, he was handed an order in spring training that he didn’t want to obey. Owner George Steinbrenner convened a meeting of Piniella and his coaches plus others in the Yankee high command to discuss final roster cuts.

The name Phil Niekro came up. The vote was 11-1 in favour of keeping Niekro, who’d electrified both the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays fans when he landed his 300th career pitching win with a season-ending, 8-0, complete game shutout in October 1985. The only thing amiss was Niekro not landing it for the Braves with whom he’d been a fixture for two decades.

Then The Boss asked his son, Hank, “What do you say?” The younger Steinbrenner might as well have said, “Off with his head,” because his father said, “I agree. That makes the vote 12-11.” Rather conveniently handing himself ten votes. As he would in due course arguing with many an umpire, Piniella exploded.

“What are you even bothering to ask our opinion for? You know what you’re gonna do anyway.” Then Piniella made the long walk to the spring clubhouse, called Niekro in, and told him with the utmost reluctance that he was being released.

“Piniella’s anger over having to release Niekro was understandable,” wrote Bill Madden and Moss Klein in Damned Yankees, from whence the story of the execution springs. “There was no finer person to pass through the Yankees in the ’77-to-’89 period than ‘Father Time’.” (The writers covering the Yankees referred to Niekro that way, affectionately.)

The amiable Ohioan with the knuckleball that inspired some of baseball’s finest wisecracks, and the personality and presence that made you feel he was liable to invite you to a barbeque at any moment, lost a battle against cancer at 81 on Saturday night.

That makes it seven Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields this cursed year, including one hell of a pitching rotation if you think about it. Niekro, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, and Tom Seaver. How many pennants could you win if your rotation was Knucksie, the Chairman of the Board, Hoot, and The Franchise?

The seven set a record they’d surely rather not have set. Their deaths made 2020 a record year for Hall of Fame passings. If the Modern Era Committee elects the late Dick Allen when it meets in 2021, it’ll make for eight. (Allen died earlier this month.) Not nice.

I couldn’t resist looking it up and then imagining Allen giving Niekro a little good-natured grief upon their Elysian reunion. Allen faced Niekro 65 times, picked up nine hits including a double and a home run, walked nine times, but struck out fourteen times. Making the slash line .161/.277/.268.

“Trying to hit Phil Niekro,” Bobby Murcer once said, “is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”  “It actually giggles at you as it goes by,” said another outfielder, Rick Monday, which may have been more appropriate considering Niekro’s birth on April Fool’s Day in 1939. Said longtime catcher Bob Boone, who only ever had to try hitting the Niekro knuckler, “There were times I needed a tennis racquet to hit him.”

Trying to catch Niekro’s signature pitch may have made trying to hit it child’s play. “Catching Niekro’s knuckleball was great,” cracked Bob Uecker, Niekro’s flaky Atlanta Braves catcher. “I got to meet a lot of important people. They all sat behind home plate.”

Dale Murphy started his major league career as a catcher before he moved to the outfield. As a rookie behind the plate he had the signature honour of catching what threatened to be a no-hitter by Niekro against the Big Red Machine, until Cesar Geronimo managed to float a shuttlecock into left in the ninth.

“We had one out in the ninth, and I mean, I was scared to death,” said Murphy to The Athletic’s David O’Brien. “I mean, I’m trying to keep that ball in front of me. I don’t know what I’m calling. He had said, ‘Just give me a knuckleball sign every pitch; I’ll shake you off if I don’t want to throw it.’ And we ended up with a no-hitter until one out in the ninth, and then Geronimo dunked one in, just flared one over [Jerry] Royster’s head at third base.”

Rarely at a loss, Niekro once remembered Uecker giving him sound counsel early in his Braves career. “Ueck told me if I was ever going to be a winner,” Knucksie once said, “to throw the knuckleball at all times and he would try to catch it. I led the league in ERA and he led the league in passed balls.” That would have been 1967, when Niekro led the entire Show with a Koufaxian 1.87 ERA and wasn’t even a topic in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.

Throwing a pitch that places minimal strain at worst on the arm and shoulder, Niekro pitched major league baseball from Lyndon Johnson’s through Ronald Reagan’s presidencies, until he was 48 and the Braves—surely in tribute to the man as well as the pitcher—brought him back to let him suit up for one more start before he finally retired.

The un-straining knuckleball allowed Niekro to pitch 5,404 major league innings. The only pitchers who threw more were Hall of Famers Cy Young, Pud Galvin, and Walter Johnson. No pitcher since the dead ball era spent as much time as Niekro did on a major league mound. No knuckleballer struck out as many as Niekro’s 3,342.

Yet there was always the sense that, no matter how good and successful he was, no matter how he endured pitching long and well for teams that weren’t always as good as he was, Niekro was baseball’s Rodney Dangerfield, getting no respect, because he threw a pitch that was tough to master but still seen somehow as a gimmick. “Niekro wasn’t looking to master it,” says another Athletic writer, Joe Posnanski. “It was more like he and the knuckleball were friends.”

“I’ll tell you,” Niekro once told an interviewer, “I’ve been asked that question lots of times, you know, why does a knuckleball does what it does, and what makes it do it, and I have no idea.” It was also more like Niekro and baseball were kindred. The kid from Ohio whose coal-mining father taught the knuckleball to him and his late younger brother, Joe, really did seem as though you’d have to tear the uniform off him at last.

Phil Niekro chatting with Braves fans at a Hall of Fame event. (National Baseball Hall of Fame photo.)

“Warren Spahn will never get into the Hall of Fame,” Stan Musial once cracked. “He won’t stop pitching.” Spahn threw his last major league pitch four years younger and 160 innings short of Niekro’s final jacket.

As a 1964 rookie Niekro’s teammates included Spahn. When he got his wish to throw his last major league pitch as a Brave, his teammates included a rookie lefthander bound for Cooperstown likewise. Tom Glavine joked to O’Brien that he saw Niekro and thought for one moment he’d mixed up his own schedule and arrived at a fantasy camp.

Glavine was only kidding. “It was fun to watch. I mean, look, we all knew Knucksie and what he was and how much he loved being a Brave,” he told O’Brien.

That was a big deal for him to be able to end his career as a Brave. At the time I may not have understood it, but getting to know Knucksie as I did in the years after that, and certainly these last few years in the Hall of Fame, I understand why it was important to him. It was a neat thing to be able to watch him go out there and do that, and kind of have that closure.

Many players following the greats on their teams call them mentors. Niekro didn’t just make disciples, he made friends.

You were a great example for what athletes should aspire to be,” tweeted former Braves infielder Brian Jordan. “Phil had a huge heart to bring joy to others. He cared so much for kids and had a fantastic foundation. Continue to bring the joy in heaven my friend.”

[H]eartbroken!” tweeted incumbent Braves first baseman and National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman. “An amazing pitcher but an even better man! Thank you Phil for all the laughs and wonderful memories over the years!”

“Phil was a man with a perpetual smile and always overflowing with jokes and nice things to say,” wrote pitcher Mike Soroka on his Instagram page. “I will miss seeing him around the stadium as well as getting calls from him after games.”

“[I]n a world where athletes, celebrity, however you want to deem it, there’s always going to be somebody that just doesn’t like you,” Glavine said. “And I never heard anybody say anything like that about Knucksie. And the people who were privileged to know him — I mean, really know him — understand why.”

Niekro’s affection for younger players didn’t stop with the Show. From 1994-1997 he managed the Colorado Silver Bullets, an exhibition team of young women baseball players who toured the United States playing against men’s amateur and semi-professional players. Niekro brought several former Showmen—including his knuckleballing brother Joe plus Al Bumbry, Johnny Grubb, and Joe Pignatano—to the coaching corps.

The Silver Bullets folded in 1997, after the Coors breweries ended their sponsorship of the team, but their skipper gave them their due when—with most of the Bullets present—he saluted them during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

Phil Niekro, not long after the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. (Atlanta Braves photo.)

Niekro also served on the board of directors of Kiz Toys, a Georgia toymaker whom Niekro advised closely on the making and selling of its KizSport line of baseball toys and equipment. He also hosted an annual Ohio Valley golf tournament that raised funds for the high school for whom he pitched, Bridgeport High School. He lost only once as a high school pitcher—when a kid from Tiltonsville High named Bill Mazeroski hit one out.

Eons ago, Braves manager Brian Snitker caught a spring training bullpen session for Niekro. Snitker never got anywhere near the Show as a player but he made a lifelong friend in the genial knuckleballer. He told O’Brien Niekro’s least favourite topic of conversation was his health or himself.

“He’d never let on if anything was bad, that’s for sure,” Snitker said. “He’d always call, and I’d always tell the guys, the coaches and everybody, ‘Knucksie’s calling and just checking on everybody.’ I said there wasn’t a bigger Braves fan in the world than Phil Niekro . . . Knucksie, he was a big fan of them guys (the current players) and us and everybody. He was an awesome, awesome man. I’ve never seen a guy that sucked the life out of every day like that guy did.”

Niekro’s reputation for geniality even extended to fans. Stories abound of Niekro meeting fans at the ballpark, at various team events, and even away from the park, and talking to them as if they were his long-lost friends.

The coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on Niekro’s presence with the Braves this year, but it didn’t keep him isolated entirely. Snitker said Niekro would call him every few days to check in on him and the team. Previously, Niekro would bring his wife, Nancy, and their grandchildren to the Braves’ facilities where he’d also pitch batting practise. “If you needed help,” Snitker said, “all you’d have to do is call, and Knucksie would be there, loving it.”

Niekro thought himself a caretaker of a game that belonged to everyone beyond those who play and administer it. “This is America. America is baseball,” he said during his Hall induction speech, pointing to the Cooperstown crowd as the only player inducted in 1997. “This game is owned and it belongs to you. The fan. Cherish it and take care of it.”

Nancy Niekro was a young flight attendant when she first caught her husband’s eye, while he boarded his first flight as a member of the Braves organisation. Niekro told a teammate that so help him he’d marry her soon enough.

He did. They raised three sons together, and became grandparents twice. She, their sons, and their grandchildren lost something even more precious than baseball lost, when Niekro died in his sleep Saturday night. It was as gentle a passing as you could ask for a cancer-stricken man who made life a playground. Surely the Lord welcomed home not just a great pitcher but a better friend.

The right reason to send Vizquel to Cooperstown

Omar Vizquel leaping over Charlie Hayers to avoid getting clobbered while possible thinking double play turn in 1997.

Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame candidacy sometimes seems a product mostly of the perception that he was the second coming of a Hall of Fame shortstop whose career overlapped his for a few seasons. The perception comes mostly from Vizquel’s more voluminous presence on highlight reels.

It’s not that the Other Guy was obscure, of course, but the continuing metastasis of cable sports in the 1990s showed Vizquel’s acrobatics far more often than they showed the Other Guy’s—and the Other Guy got exposure enough by way of fans watching his teams play against three cable superstation teams, the Braves, the Cubs, and the Mets. (Not to mention a few World Series.)

When Sports Center and Baseball Tonight metastasised in the 1990s, so did the looks at Vizquel’s own acrobatics. They were real enough. And shown frequently enough, more so than the Other Guy got despite his teams’ contests against the superstation teams. That ubiquity of the highlight-reel plays made it simple to forget that Vizquel—who got to play in a few postseasons himself—had a modest throwing arm who made up for it with his field positionings and his marshmallow-soft hands.

What made him more delightful to watch, too, was that he was a not-so-huge guy (well, he’d resemble Hercules if positioned next to Jose Altuve) who played like a pest. He was at least as much fun to watch in the field as the Other Guy was, and it proved worth only two fewer Gold Gloves than the Other Guy won.

The perception of Vizquel also comes, I think, from people understanding how long it took the Hall of Fame and its voters to grok (with one or two exceptions) that preventing runs is just as important as producing them, and that Vizquel looked like one of the greatest run preventers you ever saw at his position. No point in your team putting up crooked numbers if they can’t keep the other guys from putting up just as many, right?

Right. And when it comes to what he did at the plate, Vizquel wasn’t exactly of the Cal Ripken, Jr. breed of big-hitting shortstops, but he was as close as you could get to the Other Guy. They were both slap-and-tickle hitters who knew how to reach base by hook, crook, and practically anything else available to them. They played with brains as well as arms, hands and legs.

Look at Vizquel and the Other Guy by way of their Real Batting Averages—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. (Sorry, sac bunts aren’t included: these two guys were smart bunters, but I don’t give credit for surrendering precious outs deliberately.) This pair could be fraternal twins, practically.

If you disallow that Vizquel played mostly in a far more hitter-friendly time than the Other Guy did, the Other Guy hitting his mid-30s by the time his career careened into that hitter-friendlier time, there’s only a hair between Vizquel and the Other Guy. (The Other Guy hit most of his career in a far tougher park for hitters, too.) They both used up just about the same number of outs to produce at the plate, even if the Other Guy was a little better at taking walks:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Omar Vizquel 12,013 3,727 1,028 25 94 49 .409
The Other Guy 10778 3,084 1,072 79 63 33 .402

I don’t care that Vizquel came up 123 hits short of 3,000 lifetime. For one thing, the Other Guy would have crossed the 3,000 threshold if he’d gotten to play 24 seasons. Bank on it. For another thing, how many hits you get matter less than what you and those hits really did to help your teams win. Vizquel averaged 72 runs created a year; the Other Guy averaged 73. They were practically the same batter.

Did you know that once he reached base Omar Vizquel was worth +8 runs lifetime but the Other Guy was worth +102? Did you also know that Vizquel took extra bases on followup hits 42 percent of the time . . . but the Other Guy did it 53 percent of the time? Did you know Vizquel has a .707 stolen base percentage . . . but the Other Guy has a .797?

And we haven’t yet gone deeper into the number one factor that keeps people comparing Omar Vizquel to the Other Guy—defense. Vizquel was an above average defensive shortstop in his prime, but we need to remind ourselves this isn’t the Hall of Above Average. (It sure as hell isn’t the Hall of the Gold Watch, either, Harold Baines’s election notwithstanding.)

Vizquel’s prime didn’t last quite as long as the Other Guy, and he spent his final four seasons as a utility man while the Other Guy was kept strictly as a shortstop even when he became a part-timer in his final three or four seasons. So let’s look at whether Vizquel really was the second coming of the Other Guy at shortstop.

Uh-oh.

Vizquel totals +128 putting total zone runs and defensive runs above average together—but the Other Guy totals +110 more. Vizquel’s range factor is 0.1 above league average—but the Other Guy is 0.44 above average. It isn’t even that close between Vizquel and the Other Guy, and close counts only in horseshoes, hand grenades, nuclear weapons, and bad plate umpire pitch calling.

It’s even less close between Vizquel and Mark Belanger, a shortstop whose prime preceded the Other Guy’s but whose all-time high of +241 total zone/defensive runs above average (113 more than Vizquel) still won’t put him into the Hall of Fame because of one problem: compared to Belanger, Vizquel and the Other Guy hit like Cal Ripken, Jr.

(It’s the same thing that keeps Clete Boyer out of the Hall of Fame: Boyer may have been the greatest defensive third baseman ever, even better than Brooks Robinson, but 1) Robinson could and did hit a lot more than a little; and, 2) Boyer couldn’t hit if you paid him by contact frequency.)

And I haven’t even thought about wins above replacement-level player until now. Well, now. Vizquel’s 45.6 career WAR are 1) 31.3 fewer than the Other Guy; and, 2) 21.9 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop. His 26.8 seven-season peak WAR are 1) 15.7 below the Other Guy; and, 2) 16.3 below the average Hall of Fame shortstop’s seven-season peak. (For the record: Vizquel broke into his league’s top ten WAR only once; the Other Guy did it six times.)

The Other Guy, of course, is Ozzie Smith.

(And we didn’t even think about Smith’s famous cartwheeling back flips out to his position for the home fans.)

I’m not arguing against Vizquel being elected to Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame should continue recognising run prevention as equal to run creation and run production. (If nothing else, it’s the number one reason Rabbit Maranville made it into the Hall of Fame on deep thought: he couldn’t hit if you set the ball on a tee for him, but Maranville was a reputed gazelle at shortstop.) Vizquel was the best defensive shortstop of the 1990s and the early Aughts.

But electing the Little O to the Hall of Fame on the grounds that he was the second coming of the Wizard of Oz would be false. There hasn’t been a shortstop yet who’s that second coming, and you don’t have to be the new Wiz to earn a Cooperstown plaque. Elect Vizquel for who he really was, not for whom you only think he was.

The pioneer Hall case of Tommy John

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Tommy John on the mound; as a Dodger, he asked Frank Jobe not just to think about but to perform,  for the first time, the  groundbreaking surgery that’s borne his name since.

To this day, my favourite Tommy John story involves a 24 August 1987 game in old Anaheim Stadium. John, a New York Yankee starter then, squared off against Hall of Fame starter Don Sutton for the California Angels. The eyes of just about everyone in the ballpark, the broadcast booths, and the press boxes were trained upon the evidence of things barely seen—like evidence itself.

Put it this way: Sutton was once a barely-apologetic ball doctor. “Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller once told Thomas Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

In the same article (“Salvation by Salivation”), Boswell described John as “the elegant Rhett Butler of outlaws. In the fine Whitey Ford tradition of mudballers and scuffballers, the gentlemanly John can turn a tiny scratch into a double-play grounder.” John himself told Boswell he had four basic pitches “plus eight illegal ones.”

The Yankees’ mercurial (shall we say) owner, George Steinbrenner, watched that game from his Tampa home aboard the Yankees’ cable superstation. Despite the Yankees holding an early 1-0 lead, The Boss was unamused enough by what he saw from Sutton to call manager Lou Piniella in the Yankee dugout demanding he arrange for Sutton’s immediate frisk, arrest, arraignment, trial, conviction, and execution. Not necessarily in that order

“George,” Piniella replied, “do you know what the score is? If I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know that the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ is doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone.” Wise counsel. The Yankees went on to win, 3-2, though neither Sutton nor John got a decision in the game.

They did, however, provide the har-har postscript, enunciated by an unnamed scout cited in Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees: “Tommy John against Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Which is where a lot of people would like to send John. The Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee will consider John’s case again this fall, when they convene again to determine who was left out that shouldn’t have been left out, including the man for whom the White Sox once traded John to the Dodgers, Dick Allen. If the committee elects both, this may be the first time players traded for each other went to Cooperstown together.

On their playing records, Allen has an overwhelming if too often underappreciated case as a peak value Hall of Famer. John’s case isn’t that cut and dried—if you consider him strictly as a pitcher. But if you consider him as a pitcher and a baseball pioneer, John’s case becomes a lot more vivid.

As a pitcher, John was brainy and lived on excellent control and—once then-Dodgers pitching coach Red Adams caught hold of him and convinced him—a deadly sinkerball that didn’t travel fast but moved like a ballroom dancer in a lusty cha-cha-cha.

His pitching record shows a good pitcher who was occasionally terrific with slightly more than a quarter century’s worth of major league pitching on his resume. Old-schoolers love to point to his 288 lifetime pitching wins and remind you that there but for the grace of the surgery that bears his name went his shot at 300 wins and a guaranteed Hall of Fame election.

They also point to that 26-year resume, but the key is that it took John that long to reach 288 credited wins. Those who still hang on the pitching win at face value forget for a moment that, in John’s case, it averages out to eleven wins a season.

What about Nolan Ryan and the 27 years it took him to land 324 wins and his average twelve wins a year? you say? Well, what about all that black ink on Ryan’s resume, his strikeouts and no-hitters, all seven of them, especially? Unless you are Nolan Ryan or close enough, you’re not going to Cooperstown even by way of the traditionalist vote unless you can show—as Jacob deGrom did winning the National League’s last two Cy Young Awards—that those eleven wins don’t really reflect just how well you pitched.

By earned run average, fielding-independent pitching (FIP), walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), strikeouts per nine innings, walks per nine, home runs surrendered per nine, and strikeouts versus walks, this is Tommy John’s average season against Jacob deGrom’s pair of Cy Young Award seasons:

Pitcher ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K/BB
Tommy John 3.34 3.38 1.28 4.3 2.4 0.6 1.78
Jacob deGrom 2.05 2.32 0.94 11.2 1.9 0.6 5.82

Which man averaging eleven pitching wins a season is the better pitcher, then? (The one thing they have in common: both are impossible to hit out of the yard.)

John has been sent to Cooperstown, in a sense. He and Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgeon who performed the first ligament replacement surgery on the elbow whose owner gave the surgery its name, were honoured formally by the Hall of Fame in 2013. But Tommy John strictly as a pitcher isn’t a Hall of Famer no matter how close he got to credit for 300 wins. Tommy John as a pioneer, however, is something else entirely.

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Tommy John before the White Sox traded him to the Dodgers.

Argue all you wish that he was comparable to the man or woman who discovers they were the millionth or ten millionth customer at a tony restaurant or crossing a fabled bridge. There’s still something to be said for being in the right place at the right time.

Until the Dodgers decided they needed pitching help, and were willing to send Allen to the White Sox to get it, John held down a slot in the middle of a starting rotation respectably. He was an All-Star once, and he tied for the American League league in shutouts twice. The Dodgers got what they traded for until John’s left arm went dead in July 1974.

It was, indeed, John’s good fortune that Jobe was the Dodgers’ team physician. Jobe joined the team a few years earlier, under the wing of his boss at the Southwestern Orthopedic Medical Group, Robert Kerlan, and may actually have had ideas about elbow ligament replacements a few years before John offered him a test case at last. When rest and then a little therapy came up empty, John asked Jobe to try surgery.

Jobe’s idea about elbow ligament replacement emerged, according to numerous articles about the man, after he’d seen it succeed in finger movement procedures and thought somewhat logically that there was no reason why it couldn’t do likewise for an elbow. But the opportunity didn’t present itself until John took himself out of that July 1974 game in pain, and Jobe told him “there was a chance to put the elbow back together, but that it was going to take the rest of the season.”

“Let’s do it,” John said. “Those three words,” Jobe eventually said, “made baseball history.”

John spent all of 1975 rehabilitating the repaired elbow and thus walking into virgin territory. There was no map or chart to guide him. He was baseball’s Admiral Byrd, undertaking a polar expedition with no clue as to what awaited him in those frozen outbacks, or whether he’d even survive. Like Byrd, John did far better than he or anyone else expected.

This is Tommy John’s record before and after the surgery that wears his name forever:

Tommy John, career ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K/BB
Pre-Surgery (1963-74) 2.97 3.16 1.21 5.3 2.6 0.6 2.01
Post Surgery (1976-1989) 3.66 3.56 1.34 3.4 2.2 0.6 1.55

His gaudy-looking 2.97 ERA before the surgery masks that John never had the kind of peak numbers that make a peak-value Hall of Famer. He was 31 with all or parts of twelve seasons on his arm when he underwent the surgery; his return, including three 20+ win seasons out of the first five following the surgery, indicated an unexpected and brief peak.

Pre-surgery, he struck out two batters for every one he walked, and a 5.3 strikeout-per-nine rate isn’t that of a strikeout machine. John depended more on the glove men behind him than he did on his own pitching to get outs. You’d expect that of a brainy sinkerballer. Still, his ERA (considerably), his FIP (slightly), and his WHIP (slightly) were lower before the surgery.

Five times John’s FIP was -3.00, but only once after the surgery would he achieve that again. His ERA was under 2.00 only once in his career—in 1968, the vaunted Year of the Pitcher, when the American League’s ERA was 2.98, the White Sox team ERA was 2.75, and John tied with Gary Peters for the lowest FIP (2.83) on the staff.

When The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe examined John last fall, taking a look at the coming Golden Era Committee ballot, he made an observation based on whether John would or could have achieved the 300-win milestone:

One can play “what if” and surmise that John might have gotten to 300 wins, and thus automatic enshrinement, had he not missed a year and a half due to his elbow injury, but it’s entirely possible that his elbow (or another body part) would have instead given way in his late 30s or early 40s, after he’d made a few million dollars in free agency, at an age when rehabbing might have seemed less appealing than when he was 31.

Indeed. Jaffe also reminded his readers that, for all his career longevity, John made only four All-Star teams in 26 seasons, never once led his league in a single pitching Triple Crown category, and never won the Cy Young Award. (He did finish second twice in Cy Young voting, but two second-place finishes in 26 seasons isn’t enough to push a pitcher into the fraternity of underrated Hall of Famers.)

If you can look at wins above a replacement-level player without wanting to throw things at your desk or screen, WAR doesn’t help John’s case. He has practically the same number of WAR (31.1) before the surgery as he earned (31.0) after it.

Baseball Reference defines a 5.0+ WAR season as All-Star caliber or better; John had four such seasons out of 26. Three of them posted before the surgery, and only one of them got him an All-Star selection. He had one after the surgery and wasn’t even a topic in the All-Star pickings that year. Tommy John made four All-Star teams but three weren’t the ones he should have made. Overall, he averaged 2.6 WAR per season before the surgery and 2.8 per season after it.

And what about the scuffballing? I don’t remember umpires accosting John on the mound too often over such accusations. John was suspect but almost never the subject of a warrant. His peers knew. Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan showed Boswell a fresh ball, then used a broken-open coat hanger to put three identical scratches into the meat. “Tommy John could make this ball sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’,” Flanagan cracked

But when Boswell wrote that John could take the tiniest scratch and get a double play grounder, it probably acknowledged in reality that John was brainy enough on the mound to grok the most obvious trick: take the ball returned to the mound after being in play, instead of being switched out promptly for a fresh ball, then spot the scuff or scratch and go for the gusto.

He probably didn’t have to do anything to the ball himself. Not like Ford with the rasp in his wedding ring and, later, his catcher Elston Howard scraping balls on his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. Not like Gaylord Perry with his actual or alleged K-Y jelly—and who’s to say that, half if not more of the time, Perry’s once-famous mound routine that only looked as though he was lubing up was just that, a look, meant to pay the bogeyman’s rent in the hitter’s head?

If Tommy John’s overall pitching record isn’t a Hall of Fame record by itself, you should know the reason he does belong in Cooperstown as well as I do. A good and sometimes terrific pitcher by himself doesn’t equal a Hall of Famer; a good and sometimes terrific pitcher before and after what was a career-ending injury, until Tommy John and Frank Jobe collaborated on maybe the single most radical orthopedic procedure in baseball history, does.

Nobody in his or her right mind might have expected him to last more than a few seasons after the operation, in that time and place, but John pitched fourteen years worth of major league baseball after returning, including in a few World Series, and for at least half of them he was still a solid middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.

It might be a simple quirk of fate or fortune that he got to be the first to undergo that operation, but it was up to him to show whether he could pitch at all after it, never mind fourteen seasons. He did, and he proved that a ruptured elbow ligament didn’t have to be a baseball death sentence. Even if not every pitcher who undergoes it does as even as he did after as before it.

Being “honoured” by the Hall in 2013 isn’t enough, either for John or for Jobe, the surgeon who took the shot when he asked for surgical relief in the first place. Their collaboration should earn both Tommy John and Frank Jobe full plaques in Cooperstown at last.

Al Kaline, RIP: Mr. Tiger was a pussycat

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Hall of Famer Al Kaline (left) with Fred Hutchinson, his first major league manager. Hutch introduced the lad to Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who introduced him to wrist strengthening that enhanced his formidable enough hitting–but Kaline’s glove and arm were equal.

Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, whose career ended before Andy Messersmith shattered the reserve era once and for all, once turned down a salary raise because he believed he didn’t earn it. He still became the first Tiger to sign a six-figure single-season contract in due course.

A year ago, a teammate of Kaline’s on the 1973 Tigers told me during a telephone interview about how Kaline—who died today at 85—became a team leader without big talk or big noise.

“Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” said Bill Denehy, the former Mets pitcher whose third of three major league seasons was in Detroit. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player.”

Kaline signed with the Tigers right out of high school for a $35,000 bonus. Under the once-infamous Bonus Baby rule of that era, such players had to be kept on major league rosters for two seasons before they could be farmed out for real seasoning. Of all the players impacted by that bonus rule, Kaline was one of only three to become Hall of Famers. (The others: Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew, though Killebrew was the only one of the three to see minor league time after his bonus period expired.)

The son of a Baltimore broom maker and a scrubwoman, Kaline used his bonus to pay off his parents’ mortgage and for his mother to undergo eye surgery. “They’d always helped me,” he once told a reporter. “They knew I wanted to be a major-leaguer, and they did everything they could to give me time for baseball. I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.”

Kaline was in a Tiger uniform the week after his high school graduation. By the time he became eligible to be sent to the minors, in 1955, it was the last thing on the Tigers’ mind: he was about to become the American League’s batting champion. He developed a near-picture swing, partially on Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s advice, Williams having suggested he try squeezing rubber balls and moderate small weight lifting to build his wrists.

What Denehy considered the ultimate team player on the Tigers proved it on the final day of his major league career, against the Orioles. Coming in having hit in thirteen of his previous eighteen games, including the one that gave him 3,000 lifetime, Kaline also hadn’t hit one out since that September 18. His next home run would be the 400th of his career.

It never came.

Kaline batted twice against the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar, striking out and flying out, while also playing through a badly ailing shoulder. When his next turn to hit arrived in the fifth, Kaline put baseball ahead of a notch on his resume. He told manager Ralph Houk to take him out, which Houk did, sending Ben Oglivie up to pinch-hit against Baltimore reliever Wayne Garland.

The tiny Tiger Stadium crowd booed lustily. “I was sitting there in the clubhouse,” Kaline remembered, “and I could hear them booing. I really felt sorry for Ben. It wasn’t his fault.” Houk, for his part, empathised with Kaline. “With a hitter as great as he is,” he told reporters, “you don’t send him back out there when he says he’s had enough. I think I owed Al that much.”

When Kaline became the (still) youngest batting champion (at 20), he tied for second with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting. That wasn’t the only thing he had in common with the Yankee legend. Kaline dealt with osteomyelitis, too, but in his left foot, requiring removal of some bone and forcing him to learn to run on the side of the foot, something that plagued him along with numerous other injuries in his career.

Writing The Cooperstown Casebook, Jay Jaffe ranked Kaline the number seven right fielder who ever played the game, including that his 155 defensive runs saved lifetime are second only to fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente among right fielders. Yet when Kaline became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1980, fans and the Detroit press hammered the Tigers yet again over Kaline’s early exit in that final game.

Kaline also faced questions over it even then. “That was one of my most embarrassing moments,” he said long afterward. “But you have to understand that I didn’t realize at the time the fans came out to see me in my last time at-bat.”

He had nothing for which to apologise. A man who puts baseball ahead of his own potential milestone and knows when it’s time to sit down is entitled to dispensation.

“When you talk about all-around ballplayers, I’d say Kaline is the best I ever played against. And he’s a super nice guy, too,” said the Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, during Kaline’s final season, Robinson just so happening to be a super nice guy himself. (“Around here,” Brooks Robinson Day MC Gordon Beard said, “people don’t name candy bars after Brooks Robinson—they name their children after him.”)

“There aren’t too many guys who are good ballplayers and nice guys, too,” Robinson continued. “Your attitude determines how good you’re going to be — in life as well as in baseball. He’s got a great attitude.”

So much so that Kaline began getting applause in opposing ballparks around 1969-70, something that didn’t go unnoticed by him. “This makes a guy feel good,” he told The Sporting News in 1970. “Most of it is for being around so long. I’ve stood the test of time. And I haven’t done anything to embarrass the game or myself.”

Kaline’s humility was as legendary in Detroit as his playing consistency. He missed five weeks in 1968 with a fractured forearm, then saw limited time when he returned. He even questioned whether he belonged in the World Series when Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup, who’d gotten most of Kaline’s plate appearances in the interim, had run the distance.

That’s when then-manager Mayo Smith devised his gambit of moving Stanley from center field to shortstop, displacing good glove/spaghetti bat Ray Oyler, and shifting Northrup to center field, enabling Kaline to take his usual post. Kaline’s two-run single in Game Five yanked the Tigers from the brink of elimination and he finished the Series with a 1.055 OPS.

That was the man who said after the Tigers clinched the pennant in the first place, “I don’t deserve to play in the World Series.”

Kaline became a respected commentator on Tigers’ game telecasts, working with play-by-play man George Kell and then, after Kell retired from the booth, Ernie Harwell. He did that for two decades to follow before he was moved to the Tigers’ front office in an advisory role. More than that, making friends among just about everyone who met Mr. Tiger seemed to come second nature to him.

He had numerous admirers even among his opponents. “I like to watch him hit,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once. “I like to watch him hit even against us. He’s got good rhythm, a picture swing. Other hitters could learn a lot just by watching him. The thing about Kaline is that he’ll not only hit your mistakes, he’ll hit your good pitches, too.”

Yet the Tigers honoured him with one of only six statues around Comerica Park by having him seen with a glove, rather than a bat in his hand. It depicts Kaline making a leaping, one-handed catch, very much like the catch he made scaling above the old Yankee Stadium right field, field-level scoreboard, to take a homer from Mantle in 1956.

Kaline was as elegant an assassin shooting down runners from right field as he was at the plate. “He was the only fielder,” tweeted actor/baseball fan Jeff Daniels, “who could make the ball come to him.” Not long ago, though, Kaline lamented contemporary outfielders doing less work on their throwing than he and his contemporaries did.

“The outfielders really need to be practicing making long throws because sometimes you can go several games before you have to make a long or hard throw,” he told a writer.

They don’t do it at all. Today the outfielders play long catch before the game, and they work on the outfield walls when they go to another ballpark but they don’t regularly practice throwing home like we did when I played. They just don’t do it. Throwing in game conditions is a lot different then just playing long catch in the outfield. In a game you have to move your feet a lot faster and you don’t have time to set up and throw . . . I don’t know why they don’t practice throwing home at least once every series just to get used to game situations as you possibly can.

Two years before that robbery against Mantle, Kaline threw White Sox baserunners out in three straight innings. The bad news was the White Sox still slapping the Tigers silly in that game, a 9-0 win with sixteen White Sox hits. Typically, Kaline refused to call for fireworks on his own behalf. “That was a pretty fair day,” he said of his three kills in three innings. “I liked it.”

Kaline had only one more enduring marriage than with the Tigers—with his wife, Louise, his high school girl whom he married after the 1954 season and whom he loved for her beauty, her brains, and for her ability to talk baseball. One of their two sons played in the Tigers organisation briefly.

When baseball changed the name of its annual sportsmanship/community involvement award to the Roberto Clemente Award, Kaline was the first to win the award under that name. Fittingly. Both men had 3,000 hits or more and howitzers for throwing arms. But Kaline has just one up on Clemente: his was the first uniform number (6) retired by his franchise.

Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” tweeted longtime Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years.”

Always felt that to be a slam-dunk HOFer you had to have an ego and be selfish, always knowing how many W’s or HRs you were away from Cooperstown,” tweeted Claire Smith, a Hall of Fame baseball writer herself. Then I met #AlKaline Billy Williams, Sandy Koufax, Phil Niekro — gentlemen & gentle men. “R.I.P. Mr. Tiger.”

In numerology, 6 means, basically, family, home, harmony, nurturing, and idealism. It sounds like a thumbnail sketch of Kaline himself. If we have to say farewell on the day this gentleman and gentle man went to the Elysian Fields, the date is only too appropriate, too. The sixth.

Blake Snell’s hidden plea

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Blake Snell was not amused by the Rays trading Tommy Pham.

Within Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell’s gutteral emission upon the trade of Tommy Pham to the San Diego Padres, you could find a plea pondered almost as long as professional baseball’s been played. If you wanted to.

On the surface, Snell fuming aboard the social media outlet Twitch was negative amazement that Pham would be surrendered for lesser elements: “We gave Pham up for [Hunter] Renfroe and a damn slap[penis] prospect?” And he has a pretty point, since the Rays may or may not have received equal value in return.

Baseball administrators are nothing if not men and women seeking the maximum prospective performance at the minimum prospective cost, of course. Pham earned $41. million in 2019 and was liable to earn more next season following salary arbitration; Renfroe earned $582,000 in 2019 and isn’t eligible for arbitration until after next year. And the damn slap[penis] prospect, Xavier Edwards, was ranked number five on the Padres prospect list before the deal.

Renfroe in 2019 was the Clete Boyer of outfielders, hitting 33 home runs against a .289 on-base percentage, rather companionable to the longtime Yankee third base legend’s 1967 with the Braves, 26 home runs and a .292 OBP. And Renfroe is a promising defender in his own right. But the Rays are renowned for mulcting large results out of small costs and the words “salary dump” come to mind for some, surely.

Snell apologised almost post haste. “[J]ust saying I’m sorry I’m just upset we’re losing a guy like Tommy who helped our team in so many ways!” he said. “Didn’t mean any disrespect to Edwards who I didn’t know who he was until after I said that. I was just sad to lose Tommy . . . It’s tough losing someone you respect so much and enjoy being around.”

Thus does Snell invite deeper examination, where you may find the unenunciated very present plea for loyalty and the noticeable absence thereof. Except that when you do enunciate it, you provoke another tirelessly tiring debate on where the loyalty disappeared among, well, the players, who need to learn a thing or three about loyalty while they pursue their unsightly riches, yap yap yap.

It’s been that way ever since the advent of free agency, of course. Once upon a time it amused, if only because those bellowing against the lack of player loyalty were only too obvious in their ignorance, willful or otherwise, regarding the lack of team loyalty even to Hall of Famers. In both the so-called Good Old Days and the days, years, decades to follow. It’s still somewhat amusing, even when it gets somewhat annoying.

Referencing Hall of Famers was something I did about a decade ago, for another publication, when pondering the “loyalty” question. (That publication ceased to exist not long after I published my old finding.) It began then and now with there having been but one single-team player (Walter Johnson) among the inaugural five players enshrined in 1936. The first single-team Hall of Famer to follow: Lou Gehrig, in 1939.

It goes from there to those whose careers were entirely or mostly reserve era. Thirty-six single-team Hall of Famers played all or mostly in the reserve era; eighteen (allowing the prospect of at least Derek Jeter and Thurman Munson being elected for 2020 induction) played all or mostly in the free agency era. Out of all 232 Hall of Fame players (Jeter and Munson included), it means 54 players—23 percent, not even one quarter of all Hall of Fame players—were single teamers.

The reasons vary as much as their playing or pitching styles do. Age is one. The chance to bolster or reconstruct a roster, hopefully without downright tanking, is another. Issues off the field, which didn’t begin with Rogers Hornsby’s trade after winning a World Series (as a player-manager) because he was a horse’s ass so far as his team (and a lot of baseball) was concerned and didn’t end with the Phillies’ barely conscionable mistaking of a slumping should-be Hall of Famer Scott Rolen for lacking heart or passion, are others.

Still others are organisational philosophy changes, and economic hardship real (think of Connie Mack’s fire sales breaking apart two separate Philadelphia Athletics dynasties) or alleged. (Think of M. Donald Grant’s capricious purge of Tom Seaver in 1977, to name one, or Charlie Finley’s capricious practically everything around the dynastic-turned-rubble Oakland Athletics of the 1970s. Among others.)

The loyalty issue has been with us since the signature dried on the Messersmith-McNally ruling that ended the reserve clause’s abuse in 1975 and provoked the immediate firing of arbitrator Peter Seitz, who heard the evidence real or imagined and ruled properly on behalf of Andy Messersmith. (The intending-retirement, non-playing Dave McNally, technically an unsigned player, signed onto the action as an insurance fallback in the event the refusing-to-sign Messersmith wavered during the 1975 season.)

And almost invariably it begins with rare diversions forward with player loyalty. The fact that owners pre- and post-free agency felt little if any comparable “loyalty” to their players remains underrated if not undiscussed if not untouched at all. The millionaires-versus-billionaires debate is an exercise in fatuity; the loyalty-versus-disloyalty debate exercises a lot of plain nonsense by people who’d impress you otherwise as being old enough and smart enough to know better.

This week Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner said plainly that the team could afford to keep only one of two now-free agent World Series heroes/homegrown Nats, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, but not both. Lerner’s are economic reasons by his own proclamation, never mind that between himself and his father they’re baseball’s second-richest owners at this writing. Warble not about “loyalty” when Strasburg and Rendon—neither now under binding contract, each free to negotiate on a fair and open job market—are told, pending an unforeseen change of mind or heart, that the team who raised them can’t afford to keep both.

Last March Mike Trout looked at two seasons to come before his first free agency and no small speculation as to whether he’d stay where he was or move elsewhere, and as to how many teams would prepare to mortgage the gold reserves to bring him aboard. That talk included a certain freshly-signed, $350 million Phillie whispering sweet nothings toward Trout regarding keeping the City of Brotherly Love very much at the front of his mind.

Then Trout and his Los Angeles Angels agreed mutually to make him an Angel for life to a $450 million extent, the major talk of which surrounded how richly he deserved the dollars while there seemed little enough appreciation for Trout himself proclaiming publicly, without sounding sirens or fireworks, that he was plenty enough content where he was. And, by the way, hoping more than kinda-sorta that the Angels, maybe, finally, might reconstruct themselves into a team their and baseball’s best player could be proud of.

That was a mutual exercise in loyalty by player and team that went noticed to a glandular level over the fact that Trout would earn the equivalent of a small country’s economy for the rest of his playing career and to a dust bunny’s level over their hard-earned loyalty to each other. Remember it the next time you eavesdrop upon or partake in yet another exercise in the just plain nonsense that baseball loyalty debates become, at least as often as Trout steals a home run from over the center field fence, or hits one there.