Concussions killed Mauer’s career, not his Cooperstown case

Joe Mauer

Mauer’s critics, not Mauer, should be shamed for willfully ignoring what concussions did to end his catching life and, in time, his playing career.

Scott Rolen’s election to the Hall of Fame triggered almost immediate discussions about next year’s likely Hall of Fame class. Social media being what it is, as opposed to what we wish it became, Rolen’s election also triggered an unfathomable outpouring of bile against one of three deserving Hall of Famers who make their first appearances on the writers’ ballots toward 2023’s end.

Adrián Beltré is a Hall of Fame lock. Not just because he’s a paid-in-full member of the 3,000 hit club but because he has 93.5 wins above replacement-level player (WAR) and he’s the number-two third baseman ever in terms of run prevention: Beltré’s 168 defensive runs above his league average is second all-time to Hall of Fame Brooks Robinson. (Baseball Reference rates Beltré the number four all-around third baseman.)

Chase Utley deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, too, even if his lack of black ink might be blinding. He wasn’t an overwhelming hitter, but he was a run machine once he reached base, including being worth 45 runs as a baserunner and worth another 25 runs due to his ability to avoid double plays. He’s also fourth for run prevention at second base (+141 runs, behind only (in ascending order) Hall of Famers Bid McPhee, Joe Gordon, and Bill Mazeroski.

And, then, there’s Joe Mauer. The number seven catcher all-time according to Baseball Reference. Uh-oh.

“I’ve never seen fans of a team hate an all-time great of their own the way some Twins fans do Mauer, tweeted The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe. “They’re just so convinced he gave them a raw deal for that contract.” As in, the eight-year, $184 million contract extension he signed with the Twins in March 2010. As in, before the injury that ultimately put paid to his life as a catcher, then a ballplayer period.

It’s as though a man whose baseball profession had already led him to knee and leg issues committed some grave capital crime when, in August 2013, Mauer took a hard foul tip off his face mask. It caused a concussion that soon caused the Twins to pull him out from behind the plate and move him to first base—a position left largely vacant when they traded Justin Morneau to the Pirates a year before Mauer’s concussion.

Morneau, who suffered a concussion on a baserunning play the year Mauer signed that yummy contract extension, and who would suffer a second concussion on another diving play after he’d signed with the Rockies for 2014. One concussed first baseman eventually replaced by a concussed catcher who’d never again be the player he’d been prior to August 2013.

The guy with a reputation as a baseball gym rat who played the game with a commitment and a steadiness that caused some people to mistake him for emotionlessness spent the rest of that contract extension doing his level best to play despite things like the balance issues and light sensitivities that now made hitting a challenge and fielding a battle.

The Twins’ struggles around Mauer’s had far less to do with Mauer’s and more to do with its ownership seeming to impose a de facto spending cap the rest of Mauer’s career, including major league salaries and minor league development. But the native son, the franchise face, was too simple a target to resist, as the injured often are.

As if Mauer hadn’t battled enough at the plate following 2013, in May 2018 he suffered a second one after he dove chasing a foul ball and injured his neck. Concussion symptoms kicked in a few days later. They didn’t just impact him on the field, either. His wife, Maddie, told The Athletic they were no treat for him at home with two young twin daughters to raise, either. (The story was published as she was about to give birth to their third child, a son.)

“It’s not quiet at our house and they don’t understand why dad wants it to be quiet or be in a different room or have the lights off,” Mrs. Mauer said.

Our girls had been born about a month prior (to the 2013 concussion). Both of these times it does put things into perspective that you’re dealing with these symptoms at work, but you’re dealing with them at home just as much. I think that’s something he may not have talked about as much publicly, but it was a difficult challenge to be going through concussion-like symptoms with children.

“The neck [injury] is an easy one to take care of,” Twins trainer Tony Leo told The Athletic for the same story. “We can fix that. But the concussion had all these ebbs and flows going up and down.”

I think people don’t appreciate how much it impacts you on a day-to-day basis with just simple things like getting out of bed. Am I going to feel OK? Am I going to have a headache? Am I going to have ringing in my ears? Am I going to feel nauseous? Am I going to be able to see all right? When I turn on the lamp next to my bed, is that light going to cause me to start having a headache? Am I going to be too agitated and upset at my kids when it’s not their fault, but just because of all the sensations going on.

Everything starts compounding and adding to the anxiety you’re going through when you’re trying to minimize all these distractions and trying to allow the brain to heal. Little things trigger big symptoms, which cause you to doubt whether you’re healing or not. It’s really hard to remove yourself from everything let alone when you’re in the clubhouse with music, all the lights we have, TVs, people. You have the same thing at home with the day-to-day living that . . . We get focused on the baseball. I get focused on getting them back on the field for the game. But how do you start minimizing everything else in life that’s bothering you, especially with kids who just want to be around dad?

Maybe instead of soaking Mauer in a phlegm-and-bile bath because of what his head refused to let his body do at the level it once did during five of the eight years of that contract extension, the idiot brigades might consider what it took for Mauer to continue playing at all, at any level. After they consider that, perhaps miraculously, it actually didn’t compromise his Hall of Fame case.

As a catcher, Mauer—unusually tall for a backstop at 6’5″—was easy to overrate while he played. I made that mistake once myself. I’m not making that mistake again. I’m going to show you where Mauer will sit among Hall of Fame catchers who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. (Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances.)

Catchers PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Piazza 7745 3768 759 146 45 30 .613
Roy Campanella 4815 2101 533 113 50* 30 .587
Joe Mauer 3943 1640 478 79 35 13 .569
Johnny Bench 8674 3644 891 135 90 19 .551
Yogi Berra 8359 3643 704 91 95* 52 .549
Carlton Fisk 9853 3999 849 105 79 143 .525
Ted Simmons 9,685 3793 855 188 100 39 .514
Gary Carter 9019 3497 848 106 99 68 .512
Ivan Rodriguez 10270 4451 513 67 76 58 .503
HOF C AVG .547

You’re not seeing things. Among that group of Hall of Fame catchers, Mauer is number three—eighteen points ahead of Johnny Bench, and twenty points ahead of Yogi Berra, the two men considered the greatest all-around catchers who ever played the game. (You might care to know, too, that as a catcher Mauer had 62 more walks than strikeouts at the plate.) He was also a highly-regarded pitch framer behind the plate who was worth 65 defensive runs above average for his entire life there.

Mauer retired in 2018 because he decided at last that family life without further health compromise was more important than his itch to compete. (The Twins retired his uniform number 7 the following season.) “Experiencing a concussion looks different for everyone,” he said in his formal retirement letter to Twins fans, “but my personal experience forced me to look beyond baseball at what is best for me as a husband and father.”

Instead of shaming Mauer because they don’t get what two concussions did to his Twins life under that contract extension, the idiot brigades should marvel that those two serious, life-and-career-altering injuries didn’t compromise his case as a Hall of Fame catcher in waiting, and even admire him for having the will to try playing on in spite of them. And, for deciding that being a husband and father was more important than playing the game he loved.

But that might ask too many people to surrender their ongoing and erroneous belief that injuries incurred in real competition equal weakness at best, thievery at worst, and character flaws somewhere in there, too. “I am done with a lot of things,” Jaffe also tweeted, “but especially done arguing about Mauer with Twins fans who don’t understand the impact of the concussions on his career.” As of this sentence, so am I.

Rolen rolls into Cooperstown at last

Scott Rolen

A big enough bat at the plate . . .

When Scott Rolen was in his absolute prime, Sports Illustrated said of him, among other things, that he “could have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken.” When he was with the Cardinals following his somewhat unfairly contentious departure from Philadelphia, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked where Rolen ranked among his era’s third basemen, then answered: the best at the moment.

Rolen’s overdue election to the Hall of Fame Tuesday still inspired carping enough among the philistines who think it was just another case of defining the Hall down. Maybe he wasn’t charismatic. He certainly wasn’t the cheerleading or the self-promoting type. But he was just as SI‘s Tom Verducci described him in 2004, “a no-nonsense star who does it all.”

That’s practically what they said about legendary Tigers second baseman and Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, too. He was so no-nonsense he was nicknamed the Mechanical Man. Rolen was many things at the plate and in the field. Merely mechanical wasn’t among them.

“Rolen played with an all-out intensity,” wrote The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “sacrificing his body in the name of stopping balls from getting through the left side of the infield . . . and he more than held his own with the bat as well, routinely accompanying his 25–30 homers a year with strong on-base percentages.”

This son of Indiana schoolteachers did little more than let his preparation and his play do most of his talking. It’s worth repeating further that he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed, a play faltered, or a game was lost. He played to win, but he lived what most confer lip service upon: let’s get ’em tomorrow. I say it again: if Rolen was a fighter pilot, he’d have earned a reputation as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff.

He has the numbers to support it, too, at the plate and in the field, where he knew what he was doing with a bat in his hand and didn’t sacrifice his body at third base or on the bases for naught. Once, he dropped into a slide into second base that wasn’t aggressive or out of line but so forceful that he flipped Royals second baseman Tony Graffanino and knocked shortstop Gerónimo Berroa down. Observed Verducci, “[It was] like a bowling ball picking up a 2-5 combination for the spare.”

“Berroa had this look on his face,” said Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris to Verducci, “like, I didn’t even hear the train whistle!”

First, let’s review Rolen one more time according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. This table shows where he stands among all Hall of Fame third basemen who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:

HOF 3B PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mike Schmidt 10062 4404 1507 201 108 79 .626
Chipper Jones 10614 4755 1512 177 97 18 .618
Eddie Mathews 10100 4349 1444 142 58 26 .596
Scott Rolen 8518 3628 899 57 93 127 .564
George Brett 11625 5044 1096 229 120 33 .561
Ron Santo 9397 3779 1108 94 94 38 .544
Wade Boggs 10740 4064 1412 180 96 23 .538
Paul Molitor 12167 4854 1094 100 109 47 .510
Brooks Robinson 11782 4270 860 120 114 53 .458
HOF AVG .557

You see it right. RBA has Rolen as the number-four offensive third baseman of the group and seven points ahead of the average RBA for such Hall third basemen. You can do an awful lot worse than to say you weren’t quite as great a batter as Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, and Eddie Mathews. But you can’t exactly carp when you shook out slightly better at the plate than George Brett, Ron Santo, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, and Brooks Robinson.

Scott Rolen

. . . and an Electrolux at third base.

Now, let’s put Rolen at third base. Only one of those Hall of Famers has more defensive runs above his league average than Rolen does (+140) above his—Robinson (+293). And, only two of them join him among the top 24—Schmidt (+129) and Boggs (+95). The eye test told you that Rolen was willing to throw himself under a train to make a play at third. It also told you what the meds confirmed in due course, that injuries were going to grind him into a harsh decline phase, as happened after his last solid St. Louis season.

“[He’s] the perfect baseball player,” then-Brewers manager Ned Yost said of him not long after he reached the Cardinals in the first place. “It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”

Maybe the Phillies should have had Yost to lean upon instead of Larry Bowa (manager) and Dallas Green (advisor) during Rolen’s first six-and-a-half major league seasons. Green especially dismissed him in 2001 as “satisfied with being a so-so player. He’s not a great player. In his mind, he probably thinks he’s doing OK, but the fans in Philadelphia know otherwise. I think he can be greater, but his personality won’t let him.”

That was at a point when Rolen struggled at the plate though he was making plenty of plays at third base. Rolen finished that season with a splendid enough .876 OPS and the second of his eight Gold Gloves. His personality won’t let him. Again, the misinterpretation of Rolen’s even strain as indifference.

Call it a classic case of not knowing what you had until he and you were both gone, but Bowa offered a far different assessment upon Rolen’s Cooperstown election. “To be honest with you,” Bowa told MLB-TV, “I thought he should have gotten in a few years ago. I was very happy for him.”

This guy is the ultimate professional, played the game the right way. As a manager, as a coach, you looked at guys like that, very few mental mistakes, always on top of his game. Played the game as hard as you could play for nine innings. There was really nothing Scott couldn’t do on the baseball field. He was a hitting machine, he drove in runs, hit lots of doubles, unbelievable third baseman. He had a tremendous pair of hands, a great arm. If he didn’t play a game, it was because he had an injury or something like that. This guy posted every day. His work ethic, off the charts. This guy was a tremendous baseball player.

That’s the manager who ripped Rolen a few new ones and demanded then-Phillies GM Ed Wade trade him, after Rolen called out the Phillies’ penny-pinching anticipating the arrival of Citizens Bank Park. “Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them,” Rolen told then-ESPN writer Jayson Stark. “I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of waiting for a new stadium, for the sun to shine.”

In St. Louis, Rolen found a home and three postseason trips including a World Series ring, yet he ran afoul of manager Tony La Russa, who soured on him for—the horror!—injuries he incurred during honest competition on the field. Then-GM John Mozeliak eventually traded him to the Blue Jays, a deal Mozeliak came to regret by his own admission.

When former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty landed in Cincinnati and discovered Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he didn’t hesitate to wrest him from the Jays onto the Reds. He helped those Reds to a couple of postseasons while he was at it—even after a brain-scrambling concussion and lower back issues.

If you should happen to be traveling through Smithville, Indiana, you may come upon a facility known as Camp Emma Lou. It’s a retreat built by the Enis Furley Foundation, created by Rolen and his wife Niki in 1999, aimed at children and their families struggling with illness, hardship, and other issues and giving them expenses-paid weekend retreats. The foundation and the camp are named for two of Rolen’s dogs.

That’s also the current Indiana University director of baseball player development, who got the call from the Hall and granted a request from his son immediately following a call to his parents with the news. “[I]t’s about thirty degrees here, supposed to snow twelve inches,” he told a reporter, “but there we were, about fifteen minutes after the call, in the driveway having a catch. I’ll remember that forever.”

It’s not every son who gets to have a catch with a freshly-minted Hall of Fame father.

The Crime Dog gets the Cooperstown bite

Fred McGriff

Strange circumstances or no, Fred McGriff is now a Hall of Famer.

I have absolutely no complaint about Fred McGriff’s election to the Hall of Fame. I’d been on the fence about him for a long enough time, and said so in other places, but I knew one thing above all: the Crime Dog had a borderline Hall case, isn’t the worst first baseman or the worst player overall to get a Cooperstown plaque, and would be an honourable selection in his own right if he made it.

He made it Sunday, courtesy of the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee.

If you use my Real Batting Average metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), McGriff’s .594 falls smack dab in the middle of the pack of Hall of Fame first basemen who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. It also gives him a 28 point edge over the last first baseman elected to the hall by an Era Committee:

First Base PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Fred McGriff 10174 4458 1305 171 71 39 .594
Gil Hodges 8104 3422 943 109 90* 25 .566

Actually, I knew one other thing above all about McGriff. If he wasn’t part of the absolute worst trade in Yankee history, he was at least part of the worst trade they made in the 1980s. They traded McGriff (then a minor leaguer) plus infielder Dave Collins, relief pitcher Mike Morgan, and cash, to the Blue Jays, for infielder Tom Dodd and relief pitcher Dale Murray. The best days of a modest career were behind Collins; Morgan was on the way to a respectable 22-season career as a hard-luck starter turned valued reliever.

For McGriff, it was a case of hiding in plain sight. Steinbrenner made Tampa his home; McGriff hailed from Tampa. Yet Steinbrenner was absolutely unaware McGriff even existed. The Boss and the rest of the American League would learn soon enough. Once he became a Toronto regular, the Crime Dog bit the league for an average 35 homers per 162 games in Blue Jays silks—including the league’s home run championship in 1989.

Fair play requires us to acknowledge that, even if Steinbrenner was aware of McGriff, the Crime Dog-to-be (fabled nicknaming broadcaster Chris Berman hung that on him in due course) was blocked at first base by some guy named Mattingly. And it took McGriff a few more years to be fully major league ready, which would have been fine except that patience was never a Steinbrenner virtue.

Like his Hall of Famer contemporary Mike Schmidt, McGriff didn’t just hit home runs, he hit conversation pieces. He didn’t exactly look the part; he was movie-star handsome and not  musclebound, though his Blue Jays teammate Lloyd Moseby once said, “I wish I could get Freddie to lift weights. The only things he lifts are candy bars.” But he didn’t look like a man who needed multiple Milky Way fixes, either.

McGriff’s problem was that he became one of the game’s premier power hitters in an era when a lot of others actually or allegedly used actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. (Burning question still: if Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa—plus pitching great Roger Clemens—must remain persona non grata in Cooperstown, how do you justify electing their chief enabler, then-commissioner Bud Selig?)

If he’d played with the same skill set and statistics in a career beginning a decade sooner than it did, he’d have been a Hall slam dunk—regardless of not quite reaching the 500 home run plateau. In the age of the Bondses, McGwires, and Sosas, the Crime Dog didn’t look that ferocious. But even without that age’s taint, he didn’t look like the guy who did what he did, a guy who could hit a wet T-shirt and send it into the seats.

He merely had the second-most elegant home run swing I ever saw. (Darryl Strawberry’s was numero uno.) He really did look as I saw him described once, a man who looked as though conducting a symphony orchestra (as he was about to ring down the final crashes of The 1812 Overture) after he swung and a smooth neon dance figure during his swing.

The looks weren’t everything, of course. Had it not been for the 1994 owners-provoked players’ strike, McGriff probably would have finished his career with somewhere around 503 home runs. (He averaged 32 per 162 games lifetime and had 37 when the ’94 strike launched. It’s not unrealistic to think he might have had at least ten more in him.)

McGriff’s second problem was that, if he was an executioner at the plate, he was a sieve at first base. He finished his career -32 defensive runs below his league average. Like Gary Sheffield in the outfield, McGriff at first base torpedoed his own value with his defense. His 52.6 wins above replacement-level player (WAR) should have been better but his -17.2 defensive WAR put paid to that.

He also had a third problem, enunciated best by Cooperstown Cred writer Chris Bodig: “McGriff had an aw-shucks level of humility throughout his playing days. Because he played for six different teams, the Crime Dog never had a passionate following of one city’s fan base, which might have contributed to his lackluster results in the Hall of Fame voting.”

I suspect these factors played larger into McGriff finally being elected to the Hall than a lot of his partisans (he has more than you might think) might care to admit:

1) The election of Harold Baines by the 2019 Today’s Game Committee. Baines had no Hall case other than his career length. (He didn’t even have a single signature moment to hoist him above his contemporaries.) But he did have . . .

2) A Today’s Game Committee packed with men who played with, managed, or oversaw Baines on a few teams: Jerry Reinsdorf, who became the White Sox’s owner when Baines was first settling in with the team and re-acquired Baines twice more to come; Tony La Russa, the Hall of Fame manager who managed Baines with the White Sox and the Athletics; and, Pat Gillick, who was the Orioles’ general manager when Baines played there.

3) McGriff had the same benefit on this year’s Contemporary Baseball Era Committee: three Hall of Fame Braves teammates (Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, though Jones took ill and couldn’t be part of the vote); a Blue Jays executive (Paul Beeston) during McGriff’s years there; a brief Blue Jays teammate turned executive (Ken Williams).

That’s dangerously close to the kind of cronyism that sent the ancient Veterans Committee into disrepute over the years Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry oversaw the committee, hell bent on getting as many of their old cronies from the Giants and the Cardinals into Cooperstown as they could get away with, regardless of their actual Hall credentials.

“Baines’ election is simply not a great day for the institution, or for anyone bringing an analytical, merit-based approach to it while reckoning with its objective standards,” wrote The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe upon Baines’s election. “The precedent it sets is nearly unmanageable, if future committees are to take seriously candidates of his level. Why battle over Dale Murphy or Fred McGriff if Harold Baines is the standard?”

McGriff had fifty times the Hall case Baines lacked. Murphy’s Hall case was torpedoed by knee injuries that shifted what should have been a natural decline phase into sad overdrive. Don Mattingly’s was torpedoed by his back. If all you needed was character, those two would have been Hall locks otherwise, long before they arrived and departed on this Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot.

But another entrant on that ballot, Curt Schilling, torpedoed himself. He got seven out of the needed twelve committee votes despite being a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame-level  pitcher. His ability to miss bats (he has the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the game’s history), his dominance when the heat was truly on, and his postseason resume live up to his well-known thirst for wanting the ball in the highest heat. He was the very essence of a big-game pitcher, and he has three World Series rings to show for it.

But a guy who applauded lynching journalists and became too much of a disinformation retriever wasn’t exactly going to keep friends among the voting writers. A guy who fumed publicly when several such voters sought to rescind their votes for him was pretty much asking, as he did in a letter to the Hall, for just what he didn’t get from the Contemporary Committee, enough of whom couldn’t suffer that kind of fool gladly:

I will not participate in the final year of voting. I am requesting to be removed from the ballot. I’ll defer to the veterans committee and men whose opinions actually matter and who are in a position to actually judge a player.

Whoops.

But if the Committee had to elect only one man, it doesn’t sully the Hall further by electing McGriff. He was a genuinely great hitter. If I was on the fence about him on the borderline as long as I was, it won’t deny me pleasure in seeing him at the Cooperstown podium in due course. Maybe he’ll even wolf a candy bar down before he speaks.

Gaylord Perry, RIP: Grease was the word

Gaylord Perry

What was Gaylord Perry (shown here in his earlier seasons with the Giants) using to live rent-free in the minds of hitters, managers, umpires? Really?

A bit over forty years ago, I was in Air Force basic training on San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base. Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry helped me survive that hot June and July. I couldn’t watch baseball games but I could use something for which he was, shall we say, somewhat notorious.

The heat stress factors at that time of year inspired airmen basic in drill formations to develop their own relief when granted brief rest on the drill pads. Since those rests weren’t much more than two minutes, it seemed, I would brush the bill of my hat with each hand’s fingertips, then the sides of my shaven hair, then down the front of my fatigue uniform shirt.

It took my mind off both the metastasising humid heat and my fears that I was just about the worst airman basic ever to pass through the Lackland arterials. It was also noticed by my training flight colleagues asking me where I found such a nutty looking routine. I had nothing to hide. It was Perry’s routine between pitches whenever he wanted a batter to think he was loading, lubing, oiling, waxing, gelling up for the next pitch.

My Air Force career turned out to be eighteen percent as long as Perry’s major league pitching career. I was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal for work during an exercise by the ancient Strategic Air Command. Perry won a pair of Cy Young Awards—the second at age forty. I went from the Air Force to regional journalism. Perry went to the Hall of Fame.

Longtime manager Gene Mauch notwithstanding, there isn’t a tube of K-Y jelly next to Perry’s plaque. What’s inscribed, instead, is this: “Playing mind games with hitters through array of rituals on mound was part of his arsenal.”

Perry died this morning of natural causes at 84. Maybe the only thing he loved about baseball more than pitching itself was living rent free in the heads of opposing hitters, managers, umpires, and anyone else looking to dope him on the mound and maybe rope him off it.

What the hell was it that Perry got when he went through that once-famous routine—brushing the bill of his hat with his fingertips, then his hair (what remained of it), his jersey, tapping his belt, assorted other little brushes—intended to renew his in-those-heads leases?

Was it K-Y? Was it pine tar? Vaseline? Fishing line wax? Mustache wax? 3-in-1 oil? Pennzoil? Lard? Don’t laugh: according to Thomas Boswell, outfielder-turned-Yankee broadcaster Bobby Murcer once sent Perry a gallon of lard as a gift. Maybe someone going through Perry’s personal effects and family heirlooms will discover the Gunk & Wagnall’s that sent him to Cooperstown, a pitcher who threw back to the era when anything went on the mound as well as in the batter’s box or on the bases.

Perry was an ordinary pitcher with the Giants until they acquired pitcher Bob Shaw from the latter’s fourth team, the Braves. Once a solid World Series pitcher (for the 1959 White Sox), Shaw would leave another, ahem, mark upon Perry during their first spring training together as Giants. Perry admired the way Shaw’s pitches slithered up to the plate. Admired and acquired.

Shaw discovered he had a devoted student and, according to Perry himself, taught him how to lube, grip, and deliver the newly greased sphere, not to mention how to hide the subterfuge from such prying eyes as umpires and even opposing executives. But he waited until 31 May 1964 to try a few of his new toys, in one of the most fabled games of all, the 23-inning marathon in game two of a doubleheader against the Mets in New York.

Perry worked ten shutout innings in that game—in relief. He got credit for the win thanks to an RBI double (Del Crandall, who joined the Giants in the Shaw trade) and a followup RBI single (Jesus Alou, whose older brother Felipé went to the Braves in the deal)–in the top of the 23rd. In due course Perry would write, in his memoir Me and the Spitter, that on that unique day he became an outlaw “in the strictest sense of the word—a man who lives outside the law, in this case the law of baseball.”

The spitball and other loaded and doctored pitches were outlawed in 1920. Incumbent pitchers who lived by them were allowed to continue throwing them; pitchers joining the Show afterward were not. Officially. Unofficially, of course, there were those who continued to discover new and more creative ways to turn baseballs into carpentry experiments.

Few of those post-1920 scofflaws were as unapologetic as the husky righthander from North Carolina who came from solid farming stock and plowed his own baseball yield. The younger brother of a successful enough major league pitcher named Jim, Perry wouldn’t settle for mere success, even if he did become the first to win a Cy Young Award in each league including one on the threshold of his fortieth birthday.

He wasn’t strictly a spitballer. He was actually known for throwing a fine forkball, though my saying so might inspire a few snickers and a few temperatures running up the scales. After he struck thirteen Angels out in a 1982 game, en route his 300th credited pitching win, said Angels weren’t necessarily amused.

“I only saw two pitches all night that were legal,” said outfielder Fred Lynn, once a Red Sox Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season but compromised since by injuries. “I have it on tape. He calls that thing a forkball. There ain’t a forkball alive that does what that pitch does.”

Lynn’s teammate Don Baylor didn’t think it was that terrible a deal. “I don’t take one thing away from him for winning three hundred with the spitter,” the future major league manager said. “There are loopholes in the rules and you get away with what you can get away with.”

Spoken about a man whose little daughter was interviewed with the family on television while Perry pitched a game in 1971. Asked whether Daddy was throwing a naughty pitch, little Allison Perry piped up, without skipping a beat, and insisted, “It’s a hard slider.”

Whether or not you think Perry’s brand of chicanery was engaging or enraging, beyond that maybe the worst thing you could have thought of him was that he had a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer and a clubhouse scold. He’d grown up tough on the farm and by his own admission suffered few fools gladly, especially after defensive miscues that might cost him a game.

“I’m hard on my teammates,” he admitted to Boswell. “I need a lot out of them to win and I drive ’em.” Some said he drove them crazy. Other might have thought he drove them toward fleeting but profound thoughts of murder.

Until he began approaching that 300th win and considered a little image refinement might be a fine thing, Perry was traded five times, released outright once, had a resume of seven teams plus more than a few nasty feelings left behind, including butting heads with groundbreaking Indians manager (and fellow Hall of Famer) Frank Robinson over the latter’s spring training conditioning rules.

Gaylord Perry

Perry’s statue outside the Giants’ home ballpark, known now as Oracle Park. There’s no tube of K-Y there, either.

Robinson insisted on foul line-to-foul line sprints. Perry had spent his career using the foul line-to-dead-center sprint. He fumed, “I’m not training for a marathon race, and I’m not about to let some superstar who never pitched a game in his life tell me how to get ready to pitch.” For his part, Robinson blamed Perry as a primary instigator that led to his firing. Ouch.

By the time Perry joined the Mariners in 1982, he learned how to behave just enough to survive. He’d also been a career-long game student who went to considerable lengths to enhance his pitching mind. He tried new pitches off the mound for about two years’ worth before using them in games. Experience plus attentiveness taught him just as it had growing up on and then working the offseasons on the farm.

“I threw my first screwball to [Hall of Famer] Willie Stargell,” Perry told Boswell. “He hit it over the center field fence. I never threw another one. I learned that you always try out a new pitch to a little guy.” That’s one way to pitch 22 seasons and send yourself to Cooperstown, whether or not you’ve greased your way there.

Seeing Perry on the Hall of Fame induction stages in the years following his own induction, I was struck often by the once-familiar face expressing both pleasure and winking mischief shaded by a trace of sorrow. Perry’s post-baseball life wasn’t always smooth. His beloved peanut farm went bankrupt three years after he retired from pitching. The following year, his wife was killed in a road accident.

He rebounded well enough. He worked as a representative for a snack company and then as the creator of a baseball program at a South Carolina college, remarried to a woman on that college’s board of trustees, and kept close to his children. (Tragically, his only son died of leukemia in 2005.) In time, the memorabilia boom provided Perry with a very comfortable living, perhaps above and beyond his best earning years as a pitcher.

To the end, wherever he went, he’d be asked what he applied, where he hid it, and how often he threw it. To the end, Perry’s answers came from the usual coy non-denying denial. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’d mastered the dark art of doctoring, maybe what he really did was commit psychological warfare. (It took until he was pushing 44 before he was tossed from any game over a suspect pitch.)

“Just planting the idea in the hitter’s mind is almost as good as having an illegal pitch,” said longtime pitching coach Ray Miller, himself a confessed scofflaw after his minor league pitching career ended. “I was misquoted . . . as saying that [Royals pitcher] Dennis Leonard had a good spitter. He came up to me this spring to chew me out and I said, ‘Dennis, you should thank me. Nobody can do a pitcher a bigger favour than saying they’ve got a hell of a spitter’.”

That was a favour off which Perry made his living for over two decades on the mound and, in time, a decade or two just being himself on the autograph circuit. I’m reasonably sure that he didn’t lay a tube of K-Y in front of him at any signing table.

“When the Perry plaque is put up in Cooperstown,” Boswell concluded in that 1982 observation, “it should not, as Mauch needles, have a tube of grease next to it, nor should Perry’s record have a spitball asterisk beside it.”

However, it might be a good idea to place Perry in a wing of the Hall near those nineteenth-century old-timers who won 300, like Kid Nichols, Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Mickey Welch, Eddie Plank and Ol’ Hoss Radbourne.

Many of them came off the farm, doctored the ball as they wished, glared at any manager who dared to take them out of a game, chewed out their teammates and knocked down hitters who got too comfortable at the plate. The game was hard then, short on manners and long on sweat. And so were they.

Gaylord Perry, who has always looked like he should be pitching in dungarees, not double-knits, would grace their company.

Imagine Elysian Fields confabs of those gentlemen plus such other actual or suspected greasers as Bo Belinsky, Jim Brosnan, Lew Burdette (Belinsky swore Burdette was his teacher), Dean Chance, Tony Cloninger, Don Drysdale (“I watched him pull at the belt so much I was sure it wasn’t just habit,” Perry once said of him), Whitey (Lord of the Ring Ball) Ford, George Hildebrand, Carl Mays, Preacher (Beech-Nut) Roe, Schoolboy Rowe, and Bullet Bob Turley.

It might be worth all the sacrificial lambs on the farms to be invited to listen and learn at even one such Salivation Army briefing.

2023 BBWAA HOF Ballot: Three return with cases and controversies

Manny Ramírez

“A savant in the batter’s box . . . an idiot everywhere else.”—Jay Jaffe, on Manny Ramírez.

But wait . . . there’s more! Namely, the rest of the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot, the candidates returning for another go-round. They’re not going to Cooperstown. Three in particular have actual Hall cases but aren’t likely to go this time, and maybe not for a few more times—if at all—before their BBWAA ballot eligibility expires.

Two were murderers at the plate. One was a shortstop acrobat. Two were considered head cases while they played; the acrobat’s days since his career ended have fallen into deep enough disrepute. The murderers at the plate are Manny Ramírez (LF) and Gary Sheffield (RF); the acrobat at shortstop is Omar Vizquel.

There are ten left fielders, eleven right fielders, and ten shortstops in the Hall of Fame who played their careers all or mostly in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. The following table shows Ramírez, Sheffield, and Vizquel according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. The parenthetic numbers next to their names indicate their positioning among those Hall of Famers at their positions, if they do become Hall of Famers themselves:

Player PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Manny Ramírez (LF; 2) 9774 4826 1329 216 90 109 .672
Gary Sheffield (RF; 6) 10947 4737 1475 130 111 135 .602
Omar Vizquel (SS; 9) 12013 3727 1028 25 94 49 .409

Manny Being Manny

Manny Ramírez’s Hall of Fame case is entirely in his bat. He’s got the numbers at the plate for enshrinement. No questions asked. He also has the attitude history (Manny Being Manny) and issues that made him as big a pain in the butt to his own teams as he was to opposing pitchers.

First, we’ll address his defense. It all but didn’t exist. Ramírez wasn’t just below his league average for the traditional fielding percentage and range factors, his career finished with him being worth -109 defensive runs below his league average. He should have been a designated hitter. (And, was—for a mere fourteen percent of his 2,302 lifetime games.)

The best side of Ramírez was that, in Cleveland and Boston especially, he was known for a tremendous work ethic. He all but included that in his thinking when he said, so memorably, after winning the 2004 World Series MVP as those Red Sox swept the Cardinals to break the actual/alleged curse, “I don’t believe in curse, I believe you make your own destiny.”

That was the blessing. And, the big problem. Because Ramírez made his own destiny, all right, perhaps encapsulated best by The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe: “A savant in the batter’s box, Manny Ramírez could be an idiot just about everywhere else—sometimes amusingly, sometimes much less so.”

Any amusement factor in Manny Being Manny died long before his playing career finally did. You can hark back to all the times he seemed to want out of Boston, and the time the Red Sox put him on irrevocable waivers after the 2003 season only to find no takers—even knowing a claiming team would have to surrender no talent in return.

The Yankees could have had afforded the remaining five years/$104 million on his contract, Jaffe noted; they reached for Gary Sheffield, instead, and Sheffield was seen as his own kind of head case. The Angels could have had afforded him, too; they reached, instead, for Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero, who became an Anaheim fan favourite his entire time there.

As Jaffe reminds us:

There was the time in 1997 that [Ramírez] “stole” first base, returning to the bag after a successful steal of second because he thought [Hall of Famer] Jim Thome had fouled off a pitch . . . the time in 2004 that he inexplicably cut off center fielder Johnny Damon’s relay throw from about thirty feet away, leading to an inside-the-park home run . . . the time in 2005 when he disappeared mid-inning to relieve himself inside Fenway Park’s Green Monster… the time in 2008 that he high-fived a fan mid-play between catching a fly ball and doubling a runner off first . . . and so much more.

. . . But there was also a darker side, one that, particularly after he left the Indians, went beyond the litany of late arrivals to spring training, questionable absences due to injury (particularly for the All-Star Game), and near-annual trade requests. Most notably, there was his shoving match with 64-year-old Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick in 2008, which prefigured Ramirez’s trade to the Dodgers that summer, and a charge of misdemeanor domestic violence/battery in 2011 after his wife told an emergency operator that her husband had slapped her face, causing her to hit her head against the headboard of the bed. (That domestic violence charge was later dropped after his wife refused to testify.) Interspersed with those two incidents were a pair of suspensions for performance-enhancing drug use, the second of which ran him out of the majors.

Those suspensions for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances were handed down to him after the so-called Wild West Era during which the rules were that there were no rules. They may also have handed down the final portion of his blockage from the Hall of Fame in the end.

But if you were to establish a Hall of Their Own Worst Enemies, Ramírez would likely be first ballot, unanimous. More’s the pity.

Sheffield of Dreams

Gary Sheffield

Gary Sheffield, a study in destruction at the plate whose defense undermines his Hall of Fame case drastically.

Strictly by his counting statistics, Gary Sheffield has a Hall of Fame case. His talent was as outsized as his reputation for self-centricity. He was a study in pending destruction at the plate and he had a concurrent one-for-one-and-all-for-Gary reputation. He also found himself mistrustful of team management after his first team, the Brewers, absolutely mishandled him starting with an injury first mis-detected.

Sheffield also had a very strange problem for a guy whose career came largely in a high-offense era and who could invoke terror with one swing: he played too much in home parks that didn’t really favour righthanded hitters. (His time in Dodger Stadium was an exception; he hit very well there.) That plus the nagging injuries he battled for much of his career land Sheffield in a strange position.

For all his home runs (509), for all that he sits in the top 25 for walks and runs created, his offensive winning percentage (.687) puts him just inside the top one hundred. A player that talented with his kind of stats should have pulled up a lot higher. Especially since he was far enough more difficult to strike out than to walk—lifetime, Sheffield walked exactly 300 times more than he struck out.

If you look at him according to wins above replacement-level player (WAR), Sheffield’s defensive deficiences slaughter him, fat worse than Ramírez’s do him. Sheffield had a fine throwing arm but his -195 fielding runs below league average left him the second lowest of all time. It’s the reason why his peak and career WAR are well below the Hall of Fame standard for right fielders.

In some ways Sheffield was a wronged man. When the Brewers sent him down early in his career after accusing him of faking an injury, he wanted out and badly. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong. He was also accused falsely of tanking plays with the Brewers after a hard wild throw in the minors caused a rift with a manager who subsequently apologised to him.

He got dinged by the BALCO case when it turned out he really might have been tricked into using an actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance. It’s also important to know that that occurred before baseball finally faced the issue and implemented testings and penalties, and Sheffield didn’t exactly make it his life’s indulgence.

Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt, including and especially Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, a man not known to suffer actual or alleged PEDs and their users gladly:

Sheffield is the only star I know who, as an active player, without provocation admitted to using steroids; he did so in a 2004 SI story I wrote. Why would he make an admission? Because, he told me, he had testified under oath that he had been duped into using them.

Sheffield said he told the BALCO grand jury the previous year that [Barry] Bonds arranged for him to use “the cream,” “the clear” and “red beans,” which prosecutors identified as steroid pills from Mexico. Sheffield, however, said he was told the substances were legal arthritic balms or nutritional supplements . . . When he later learned that the BALCO products were steroids, he told me, “I was mad. I want everybody to be on an even playing field.”

That’s it; we have no evidence that ties Sheffield to steroids other than those several weeks before the 2002 season when Sheffield lived at Bonds’s home. Even during that 2002 season, when players were resisting the idea of steroid testing, Sheffield spoke out in favor of it [see here], saying, “I would like to see testing. I mean you see how much guys are using it. Unless you’ve got something to hide, you won’t mind testing, right?”

There are far more prickly men in the Hall of Fame than him. There are Hall of Famers who were their own worst enemies to a far greater extent. There are such players (see Ramírez, Manny, for one) who have been and will be kept out of Cooperstown. Sheffield may end up having to wait for the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee to send him there, but he wasn’t just a study in likely destruction at the plate. His terrible fielding undermines it far more, but he has a genuine Hall of Fame case.

If he makes it at last, Sheffield probably won’t be one hundredth as controversial a Hall of Famer as Harold Baines is (for his record, not his person) and Curt Schilling may yet become. (For his person, not his record, which is now before that Contemporary Era Committee.)

The Rubaiyat of Omar Vizquel

Omar Vizquel

Omar Vizquel, a Hall-worthy candidate as a defensive shortstop, but whose domestic abuse and sexual harassment issues may block his entry.

Even if I believe the Hall of Fame should pay a lot more attention to run prevention, and I do, I’m not settled firmly on either side of yes or no regarding Vizquel. But that’s taken strictly on field terms. The in-depth revelation of domestic violence accusations, plus subsequent sexual harassment accusations while he managed in the White Sox system, affected his Hall vote last year, may yet obstruct his path entirely, and leaves me with a taste in my mouth that’s comparable to a castor oil martini.

I once sketched a rather elaborate take on why you should vote for Vizquel if you’re going to vote for him. It hooked mostly around the impression a) that he wasn’t as close to being the second coming of Ozzie Smith as people remember him being, though he looked that way; but, b) that he was the outstanding defensive shortstop of the 1990s. If you’re talking about players whose major or sole selling point is defense and enough of it, and have the highlight reels to back them up, Vizquel in the ’90s certainly looks like The One.

His acrobatics happened often enough to convince lots of Gold Glove voters in those years. But the bad news is that Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was better with the glove in that decade . . . and he didn’t play the position past 1996 except for three games in 1998. Even playing less of that decade than Vizquel played at shortstop, Ripken was worth a lot more defensive runs above the league average.

Ripken wasn’t quite the acrobat Vizquel often was, but Ripken did the job in the field very well above league average. Vizquel was worth +128 fielding runs lifetime; Ripken was worth that just from 1990-96. If you want to put a defense-first lineup out there, take the shortstop worth +181 lifetime fielding runs (third in history behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith) over the one worth +128.

Now think of the two-way lineup, the lineup full of men who’d be Hall of Famers on both sides of the ball. Who are you really going to choose at shortstop—the guy with the 112 OPS+ (Ripken) or the guy with the 82 OPS+ (Vizquel)?

Vizquel turned up a few hits shy of 3,000 in 22 seasons. (He also walked only 58 fewer times than he struck out.) But it isn’t just milestones or totals that make a Hall of Famer. His real other apparent selling point is his longevity, and I’ve bumped into only too many people around the baseball forums who want to put him in on the Harold Baines factor: that the Hall of Fame won’t be soiled if it’s the Hall of the Gold Watch.

Well, yes it will. And, yes it is. That argument doesn’t fly. Just because one Era Committee was foolish enough to elect Baines it doesn’t mean he should be any sort of Hall of Fame standard. It’s rare enough for a player to get two decades in the big leagues, of course, but by itself that isn’t and shouldn’t be enough for the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not time in service, other than the ten-season minimum for eligibility. Greatness, not mere acrobatics. (Anyone who thinks Brooks Robinson or Ozzie Smith got to Cooperstown merely by being acrobats on the left side of the infield doesn’t know their actual run-prevention records.) Greatness, not merely showing up for work every day. (Once and for all: there was a lot more to Cal Ripken, Jr. than just breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak.)

Vizquel shakes out as the number 42 shortstop of all-time. Ripken, in case you wondered, shakes out as number three. Álex Rodríguez shakes out as number two, but he’s there strictly because of his hitting—he wasn’t anywhere near Vizquel or Ripken defensively. (A-Rod, of course, has his own controversies shadowing his Hall candidacy.)

You don’t have to compare Vizquel to Ripken exclusively to try making his Hall of Fame case. I’m not entirely convinced that being just inside the top fifty by eight equals a Hall of Famer, either. Just off that alone, I could be persuaded one way or another. But his  domestic violence/sexual harassment issues (before you think about feeling terrible for him, you should feel more terrible for his victims) make his Hall entry less likely than they might have been before those came to sad light.

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Some of the foregoing has been published previously.