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Showing posts with label Cooperstown. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cooperstown. Show all posts

Friday, January 11, 2013

Roger Clemens: A cardboard God comes into focus

The picture stands today as the symbol of an era -- and innocence -- lost.

In it, Roger Clemens and Ted Williams share confident, youthful smiles. Williams is, quite literally, a bronzed God, staring out at the photographer in his tanned, All-American glory. Clemens, wearing a fresh, clean Red Sox uniform, also has the look of a man who knows exactly what he wants out of life.

Williams yearned to be the world's greatest hitter; Clemens the top pitcher. At the time of the picture, in 1988, both had reached their goal.

I took the photo in Cooperstown, after driving from Boston to baseball's Mayberry with three buddies for my first look at the game's red-bricked shrine. When we entered the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery, just off the museum's lobby, I instinctively knew which of the immortals I wanted to visit first. Walking through the years to the 1966 induction class, I found him on the wall right alongside Casey Stengel: 

BOSTON RED SOX A.L. 1939 - 1960

Reaching into my pocket, I grabbed the '87 Topps Roger Clemens card I had taken on my journey. Quickly placing it atop the upper-right corner of Ted's plaque, I jwhipped out my camera, took a single shot, and then pulled the card down before I could be caught and thrown out for legend-tampering.
Ted the bronze God

There was no digital screen on my little Kodak to tell me whether I had muffed the picture, but I wasn't going to take a chance at a second one. I just hoped for the best and went on my way.

Clemens was coming off back-to-back Cy Young seasons for the Red Sox, and appeared poised to become the Tom Seaver of his generation. Williams was the real John Wayne, the last man to hit .400 and a war hero whose #9 I always looked for first in the right-field corner upon entering Fenway Park. Both had iconic nicknames that suited them and stuck; Ted was "The Kid" and the "Splendid Splinter," Clemens the "Rocket."

When I bought this scorebook, Clemens was 14-0.

I had only seen Williams hit live in an Old-Timer's Game, but I had been watching Clemens up close since his rookie year. He was 25, I was 20, and I looked forward to many more Rocket sightings in my Fenway future.

As an aspiring sportswriter, I even had visions of seeing some of them from the press box. Then, when Clemens made the Hall of Fame, I'd show him the old picture I'd taken way back when and we'd share a laugh. Maybe I'd have him sign it for my kid.

Things didn't turn out quite as expected. By 1996 Clemens had amassed a list of achievements for the Red Sox that had him comfortably headed for his own Cooperstown plaque, but had slumped in recent years.

He still had the gas and skill to strike out 20 (with no walks) at Tiger Stadium that September, however, and few weeks later I saw him pitch another strong game at home against the Yankees. Rumors were he would be ditching the Sox as a free agent that winter, and I  joined in a long standing ovation when he left the game and tipped his cap.
My ticket from Clemens' last game with Boston.

We knew it might be the last time he pitched for the Red Sox, and it was -- Clemens heading to Toronto to prove Sox GM Dan Duquette he was not past his prime at 34. He accomplished the task with back-to-back Cy Young, Triple Crown seasons, and when the first whispers of steroids started I tried to shut them out. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire could be juicers, sure, but the Rocket? He had always seemed like the real deal, a throwback to another era.

Later, when I traded in my sportswriter's cap for a writing job at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I learned Clemens had even made a ritual of jogging over to the Institute's pediatric Jimmy Fund Clinic in uniform to visit sick kids. It was something that would have made Ted Williams -- the king of Jimmy Fund heroes -- happy as all hell. 

How could Clemens risk a chance to join the Splendid Splinter among Boston's greatest all-time icons?

They still never proved anything in court, of course, but Clemens now sits right alongside Bonds as the poster boys for the steroid era. The fact the Rocket denied any juicing doesn't seem to make a difference; the damning testimony of his former trainer in the perjury trial brought against Clemens has made him guilty in the court of public opinion -- and the minds of many Hall of Fame voters.
Without a glove and ball, Clemens looks lost.

The man whose 354 wins and record seven Cy Young Awards places him statistically in the pantheon of Seaver, Walter Johnson, and the other greatest pitchers in baseball history received just 36.2 percent of the vote in his first crack at Cooperstown. Although 75 percent is needed for admission, the general consensus is that Clemens will eventually make it. Still, he'll forever be tainted by the evidence and the era.

Certainly I've come around to accepting his probable guilt, tempered only by the likelihood that he first started juicing after he left Boston -- meaning those games I saw him pitch from '84 to '96 were the result of nasty stuff and not needles.

As for the picture, I did flub it after all. In my frenzy to capture the moment it had turned out blurry and a bit over-exposed. You could still tell who Clemens and Williams were, you could still see their smiles, but everything was out of focus. I didn't realize when I opened the envelope from CVS and saw the fuzzy photo just how prophetic it would be. 

My search for the picture proved futile.

Wednesday, after the Hall of Fame voting became public, I went looking for it in a shoe box of old high school and college-era pictures. I found a bunch from my second Cooperstown visit, but none from the first -- including the Williams-Clemens shot. It was just as well.

By now, everything was in clear view. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Roger Clemens a Hall of Famer? Try the Tom Seaver Test

Young, strong, and Cooperstown bound

Since the list of Hall of Fame nominees was announced last week, I've been pondering whether first-time candidate Roger Clemens would be earn my vote if I had one to give.

The Rocket has undeniable Cooperstown credentials, topped by a record seven Cy Young Awards, the 1986 AL MVP, and 354 victories. He struck out 4,672 batters during his long career, a total topped only by Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, and twice had 20-K games in which he didn't walk a single batter. That combination of power and control also helped Clemens lead his league in ERA seven times.

In my memory bank of Red Sox pitchers, which dates to the mid-'70s, only Pedro Martinez resonates as more dominant over a sustained period of time. But while Pedro was a delicate thoroughbred rarely allowed to reach past the seventh inning, Clemens was a good-old-fashioned workhorse who regularly finished what he started.

For more than a decade the Rocket delighted Boston fans with overpowering performances. One of the first came his rookie year of 1984, when he topped the Royals at Fenway with a 15-strikeout, zero-walk effort a few weeks after turning 22. 

Clemens was Topps in '86. 

Five years his junior, and about to enter my final year of high school, I followed the action that sweltering August evening through Ken Coleman's radio account while downing beers and looking out for cops in a concert parking lot. I've long since forgotten the venue and the band my buddies and I were seeing, but can still recall the excitement in Coleman's voice. He knew he was seeing the start of something special.   

In 1986, fully matured and free of the injuries that hampered his first two seasons, the Rocket went full throttle – going 24-4 and nearly pitching the Red Sox to a World Series title. I watched most of the series from a dormitory lounge at Syracuse, surrounded by Mets fans, but with Clemens on the hill their taunts grew quiet. Even the enemy respected him then.

That was the year the “K” cards started popping up at Fenway, and, as with Pedro later on, Yawkey Way had a special electricity when Clemens was scheduled to start. He stayed a winner through the team's myriad ups and downs, and in the days before and smart phones, scanning the morning paper for his pitching line was one of my favorite collegiate pastimes (along with summer pilgrimages to see the Rocket live).

Did Canseco (at right) give Clemens any ideas?

Later, while working late into the night at the Sports desk of The Washington Post, I went high-tech -- scanning for Clemens' name amid the Associated Press game accounts that came across in glowing green on my smoke-stained monitor. By the time I moved back to Boston in 1995, however, the Rocket appeared to be on the descent, his gut expanding along with his ERA.

Pitching for mostly mediocre teams, Clemens was 40-39 from 1993-96. I was at Fenway for his last start of '96, a 4-2 loss to the Yankees in which the pending free agent received a standing ovation when taken out midway through the eighth inning. Even thought it was a meaningless game, we knew based on the acrimonious relationship between Red Sox GM Dan Duquette and his ace that it might be the Rocket's final hurrah for Boston.  

It was. Although Clemens still led the league in strikeouts in 1996 – including his second 20-K gem -- management allowed him to depart to Toronto for what Duquette famously predicted would be “the twilight of his career.”

This is where things get more complicated. A visibly slimmer Clemens rebounded to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards for the Blue Jays, and went on to enjoy several more outstanding seasons for the Yankees and Astros – pitching effectively into his mid-40s and climbing the all-time leader boards in various categories.
Yankee Roger: public enemy No. 1.

But when the steroid scandal rocked baseball around the time of his 2007 retirement, the Rocket's surprising late-career resurgence made him a prime suspect. Thinking back to when I'd don my “Klemens” tee-shirt, buy a standing-room only ticket, and climb atop the railings behind Fenway's upper grandstand seats to see No. 21 perform, I desperately wanted to believe Clemens when he denied any involvement with PEDs during the 2008 Congressional hearings.

Then Clemens' former strength coach Brian McNamee came forward with claims he had injected the pitcher with steroids in 1998, 2000 and 2001, and with human growth hormone in 2000. A perjury case against the Rocket was quickly deemed a mistrial after the prosecution showed jurors inadmissible evidence, but not before one of the needles McNamee had saved for years was found to contain DNA matching that of Clemens. 
Clemens in court: the mighty have fallen

Now back to my mythical vote. Let's assume, given the large pile of damning information, that Clemens did indeed juice it up starting at age 34 in 1997. Since the player he is deemed most statistically comparable to on from ages 34-41 is Tom Seaver – whose career, ironically, ended with Boston in the pre-Juice days of 1986 – I thought swapping in Seaver's statistics for Clemens' from 34-41 would be a good way to gauge how the Rocket's career might have gone had he kept on the straight and narrow.

And, since Seaver retired at 41, it's a safe bet that a “clean” Clemens would likely have also hung 'em up rather than continue at less than his best. The real Clemens kept hurling until he was 45, longevity that allowed him to pad his stats and his wallet.

Given Seaver's late-career numbers in place of his own, the Rocket's record drops from 354-184 to a less glittering 279-112, and he winds up with three rather than seven Cy Young Awards. He still strikes out a lot of guys, but ends with closer to 3,800 lifetime whiffs than 4,700. And, like Seaver, he retires at 41.

For half a season, they were teammates.

Is a Clemens with these numbers a Hall of Famer? Probably, especially when you look at his "real" pre-1997 career. Playing exclusively for the Red Sox from 1984-96, the Rocket went 192-111 with 100 complete games, a WHIP of 1.158, and 38 shutouts. Those victory and shutout totals, incidentally, leave him tied atop the all-time Boston leader boards in both categories with Cy Young – the same guy whose name is on all those plaques Clemens earned for pitching excellence.

Whether a 279-win Clemens with no PED rumors is a first-ballot Hall of Famer is up for debate. I don't think so. His peak years may be as good as anyone's, but less lifetime victories than Cooperstown outsiders Jim Kaat and Tommy John should deny him a slam-dunk selection like those afforded Seaver and Ryan.

This might be for the best. Perhaps sweating it out for a few years with low vote totals will help Clemens to recall facts he may have “misremembered” about those needles, and lead to an admission that earns him a clear conscience and a Cooperstown plaque.

A last wave of the cap in '96.

I'll never feel quite the same about the Rocket as I did back in the '80s, but he'll have gained back some of my respect.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Johnny Pesky: 'Mr. Red Sox' is at rest – and in Cooperstown

Here's to you, Johnny.

The word came over the car radio as I was somewhere between Springfield and Albany last night. Once the initial shock set in, I couldn't help but think how fitting it was that I was enroute to Cooperstown when I heard Johnny Pesky had died.

If the Hall of Fame is the heart of baseball history, Pesky was the heart of Red Sox history.

Those of us born in the mid-1960s don't remember Pesky as an All-Star shortstop who could get 200 hits in his sleep or the manager who couldn't win with the “Country Club” Sox of 1963-64. Although we heard all the stories and saw all the old photos of Johnny alongside legendary teammates Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio, for us he was more like a grandfatherly figure who made every day Old Timers Day at Fenway.

Four generations of Red Sox loved Pesky.

He was the guy we saw praising the club on TV as a member of the broadcast crew in the early '70s, and then strolling the field in those hilarious softball-style 1975-80 uniforms as a coach. If you got to Fenway early enough from grade school through college, you might see Pesky hitting balls off the Green Monster to help Jim Rice master left field, or spraying them to Wade Boggs at third. Boggs, asked today to reflect on Pesky, credited his old mentor for making him into a Gold Glove winner.

Just like our kids hear the “1-800-54-GIANT” jingle so often on Red Sox TV and radio today that it feels like “Happy Birthday,” we grew up on “The Window Boys” of J.B. Sash and Door Company – which of course included a gravel-voiced Pesky making such quips as “We've been doing this for 40 years, and we're still trying to get it right.” The ads were so corny they were laughable, but Johnny brought a touch of class to them.

As I got older I was lucky enough to get to know Johnny pretty well. When I helped Ken Coleman and later Joe Morgan emcee Boston Braves reunions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Pesky was one of the guys from Boston's “other” baseball team that Braves fans welcomed with open arms. He'd spin tales of talking hitting with Williams and captivate the crowd, then sign autographs and shake hands as long as the line kept coming.

Pesky was a high-flying infielder for Boston.

Williams gets credit for being the most successful “celebrity” fundraiser in the history of the Jimmy Fund, but Pesky quietly did his part for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – often right alongside Ted. And when Williams could no longer make the trips to the Jimmy Fund Clinic to meet with kids in treatment, Pesky kept on coming, including a wonderful 2005 visit when he let dozens of pediatric patients try on his '04 World Series ring – then asked where the adult patients were so they could see it too.

In recent years, with the death of his beloved wife, Ruthie, Johnny finally started to look his age. He was still often around Fenway, most memorably for his annual birthday salutes and the retirement of his No. 6. When the Red Sox finally broke through and won the World Series, Pesky did the honors (along with Carl Yastrzemski) of raising the championship banner up the flagpole on Opening Day of 2005. Nobody deserved the honor more.

And, of course, there was the poignant scene of Pesky and Doerr, both in wheelchairs, being wheeled onto the field by David Ortiz, Tim Wakefield, and Jason Varitek during Fenway's 100th anniversary celebration this year. How wonderful that both these legendary nonagenarians were able to enjoy that day.

Pesky and Doerr: A high point of the 100th. 

Pesky was never selected for enshrinement in Cooperstown like Williams, Doerr, Yaz, Rice, Boggs, and so many others he played with or coached, but when I got into town last night and hurried over to a near-empty Hall of Fame just before its 9 p.m. closing, I was happy to see that a photo of the “Pesky Pole” had made it into a 100th anniversary exhibit on Fenway Park.

Does it matter whether Johnny ever actually hit a home run that wrapped around Fenway's right-field foul pole for a 302-foot homer? Nope. The guy was part of the fabric of the ballpark for more than half a century, so Pesky's Pole (and his retired number nearby) deserve to remain part of Fenway's physical plant as long as its standing.

Pesky's Pole and retired number -- forever at Fenway.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fan seeks to get Dewey his due

The way right field has become somewhat of a revolving door for the Red Sox in recent years, it should be remembered that for nearly two decades and many heartbreaks, one man ruled the position with grace and class. 
Dewey takes a curtain call.

When the Sox announced that Dwight "Dewey" Evans would be one of two team representatives at Boston's table responsible for calling in the team's picks at next month's amateur draft, the memories came flooding back for those of us old enough to distinguish Bob Montgomery from Bob Bailey.

Each year from 1973-89, Evans reached double figures in home runs while guarding what most considered the toughest patch of right-field real estate in the American League at Fenway Park. (His last year in Boston, 1990, he was strictly a DH.)

And while even casual Boston fans know that Manny Ramirez wore number 24 while with the Red Sox from 2001-2008, one fan is focused on getting another #24 -- Evans -- the recognition he deserves.

Dewey was a much more low-key but far better all-around ballplayer than Ramirez. He didn’t quite have Manny’s power, but Evans was an outstanding defensive player who developed into an excellent hitter – so good, in fact, that fan-turned-lobbyist Patrick Languzzi believes he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
By 1982 Evans was a complete ballplayer.

Languzzi has amassed plenty of stats to back up his Cooperstown claim. During the 1980s, for instance, Evans led the majors in extra-base hits and collected more home runs (256) than any other American Leaguer. 

Evans was also the premier right fielder in baseball for most of two decades, and is the only player in history to accomplish both the aforementioned slugging feats and also win eight Gold Gloves.

When it comes to combining offensive and defensive prowess in the Gold Glove era (post-1955), Languzzi attests, nobody is close to Evans. Henry Aaron is the only other player to both lead the ML in extra-base hits over the course of a decade (the ‘60s) and win multiple Gold Gloves in his career, and he “only” won three of them.

Take Evans’ spectacular defense out of the equation, and he’s still a viable Cooperstown candidate with higher lifetime numbers than the average Hall of Famer in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, walks, slugging, and OPS. He was good in the clutch too; playing in two of the all-time classic World Series (1975 and ’86), Evans hit .300 with 3 homers and 14 RBI in 14 games. 

During the 11th inning of the infamous  Game Six of '75 Fall Classic vs the Reds, he nearly made my 8-year-old eyes pop out by making one of the greatest catches in postseason history just a few feet in front of me. 

His half-leap, half-lunge against the short right-field fence robbed Joe Morgan of a home run, but knowing it was only the second out of the inning, Evans had the presence of mind to whip the ball in to first base to complete the double play. (See the play and Dewey's recollection of it here:
Dewey robs Morgan.

It’s all right there on Languzzi’s website (www.call2thehall), which the rookie webmaster has created to honor Evans and garner support for his Cooperstown candidacy. Dewey faces an uphill battle for sure, since he never collected more than 10.4 percent of the votes when initially appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot from 1997-1999. 

A player needs votes from 75 percent of the electorate (primarily sportswriters) to make it via this route; if he can’t crack that mark after 15 years, he is removed from the ballot and can only make it if nominated and then selected by the Veteran’s Committee.

More than mere idol worship compelled a self-proclaimed “average Joe” to create the website and an online petition (at that is quickly picking up steam. 

Growing up just outside Boston in Waltham, Mass, Languzzi was a huge Red Sox fan who like myself “came of age” with the 1975 pennant-winners and loved watching the quiet, classy, and clutch way Evans played the game. Jim Rice was another of his favorite players, and he felt that both belonged in the Hall of Fame – Rice for his prodigious power hitting, Evans for his all-around play.

After Rice was elected to Cooperstown in 2009, Languzzi told his wife Ezzy that he felt Evans deserved the same honor. “She put her finger on my chest, and said, ‘If you feel that way, then do the research and prove it.” Languzzi recalls with a laugh. “I’m always up for a good challenge, so I started researching. And the more I uncovered, the more convinced I became that Evans belonged in the Hall of Fame.”
This "Super Outfield" hit 885 homers for Boston.

Figuring that the Veteran’s Committee (made up of senior media members, baseball executives, and Hall of Fame players) would agree if given the facts, Languzzi contacted Red Sox Vice President and Team Historian Dick Bresciani and shared his findings. Since it was “Bresch” who had compiled the rich statistical analysis that helped make the case for Rice’s election, his getting behind the project would be a huge endorsement.

Bresciani was so impressed that he put Languzzi in touch with Tom Catlin, who had been creating a documentary about Evans for the New England Sports Network (NESN), and Languzzi’s stats were worked into the program. Viewers saw just how valid an argument could be made for Dewey, especially when his numbers were put beside those of his longtime teammate Rice.

Although Rice had more “big” years, their core lifetime stats are very similar:  382 home runs, 1451 RBI, and a .854 OPS for Jim Ed; and 385 homers, 1384 RBI, and an .840 OPS for Evans. Rice had 2,452 hits; Evans 2,446. 

Yes, Rice had the higher lifetime batting and slugging averages, but Evans walked more and hit into far fewer double plays. And while Rice was a better defensive left fielder than he usually got credit for, Evans was among the best right fielders to ever play the position.

No less an authority than sabermetrics pioneer Bill James, a longtime senior advisor for the Red Sox, is also in agreement with Languzzi. According to James, the biggest problem voters have with Evans and his offense is that they recall his first several seasons as a good 20-homer, 70-RBI ballplayer, and not the second half of his career when he was a great 30-homer, 100-RBI one. Nobody denies his defense is of Cooperstown caliber.
Looking determined on his '75 Topps card

“Dwight Evans is the very unusual baseball player who had all of his best years in his thirties,” James wrote in an essay entitled “An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans.” “Less than 5 percent [of players] have all of their best [offensive] years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case.”

It was another challenge from his wife – “Why don’t you come up with a website?” – that prompted Languzzi to gather together all his statistical analysis and stories in cyberspace. Although he had never designed a website before, he came up with a very attractive, readable and easy-to-navigate portal into all things Dewey.

Through the process of his appeals for hardball justice, Languzzi has gotten friendly with Evans. He’s found his boyhood hero to be a quiet, classy guy, and learning that the three-time All-Star accomplished all he did on the field while caring for two seriously ill young sons has only further hardened Languzzi’s resolve.

“Not many knew about his sons being so sick when he played,” says Languzzi. “One of the things that drives me is that he’s so humble. You want to see somebody like that get into the Hall of Fame.”
From left: Tiant, Evans, Rice, and Yaz take a stroll at Fenway's 100th birthday.

Each three years, the Veteran’s Committee of the Hall of Fame meets to consider the credentials of players from the Expansion Era (1973 to present). To be elected, a candidate must receive votes from at least 75 percent or 12 of 16 votes cast. Evans was not on the ballot during the last such vote in 2010, because a player must be retired at least 21 years to be eligible. He last played in 1991 (with Baltimore), so Dewey will be up for discussion in fall 2013.

That gives Languzzi more than a year to keep building his case. Like a long Evans-to-Fisk peg trying to nab a runner at the plate, don’t bet against him.