After the Hall of Fame inductees were announced a couple weeks ago I began strolling down memory lane in my mind about all the fantastic players and teams I saw play the great game of baseball. Position players layers like George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt to name but a few. These were hard nosed players that hated losing more than they loved winning.
Brett was a fierce competitor and one of the greatest all-around hitters ever. His name appears in the top 20 of more offensive categories than I care to list here. His 1980 season is still the closest anyone has come to batting .400 since Ted Williams in 1941. Brett ended the season batting .390. In his career Brett led the AL in Hits three times, Doubles twice, Triple three times, BA three times, Slugging % three times, OBP once, OPS three times, IBB twice, made 13 straight All-Star appearances, won one MVP and was runner up twice. His 98.2% vote total for the Hall of Fame is 2nd only to Tom Seaver’s 98.6%.
Reggie Jackson had a flair for the dramatic, being dubbed Mr. October for his World Series performances and 11 trips to the post season. For those of us old enough to remember seeing Jackson hit the longest ball in All-Star game history at Tiger Stadium in 1971, it was a sight to behold. Jackson hit the lights mounted on the stadium roof 100 feet above the ground and 380 feet from home plate. Through the science of physics it was determined the ball came off the bat at 122.4 mph at an angle of 31.5 degrees. Factoring in all the variables it was determined that HR would have traveled 532 feet if not for the light tower. This was before the days of PED enhanced hitting and cemented Jackson’s place as a big game player and the quintessential power hitter. When he retired he was 6th all-time in HR’s. Not counting the PED enhanced players that came after Jackson’s retirement, only Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome have surpassed the one and only Reggie Jackson in HR’s in the 26 years since he retired.
It’s a shame that when Pete Rose’s name is mentioned it’s usually in conjunction with gambling. There isn’t a player alive that wanted to win as much as Rose did. He wasn’t blessed with great strength or speed, but made the most out of the body he was given. He earned the nickname Charlie Hustle as a Rookie in 1963 and it stuck. The first of Rose’s many records you think of is his 4,256 hits. To break that record a player would have to average 200 hits per year for 21 straight years and still get another 57 hits. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see that record broken.
In 1978 Rose’s 44-game hitting streak captured the imagination of a nation. No one had come that close to DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak since it was set in 1941, but everyone was tuned in to the 11:00 news to see if Rose kept his streak alive. Among his many achievements on the field are Rose’s three Batting Titles, seven times leading the league in Hits, 10 seasons of 200 or more hits, Rookie of the Year, an MVP and the fact that he played four positions for many years, each in order to help his team win. When I was a kid, Rose was the guy my baseball coaches would point to as the player to emulate. His hustling made him legendary and he was a great example for kids all over America.
Mike Schmidt won eight HR titles in his day, more than anyone not named Babe Ruth. He also took home 10 Gold Gloves, second only to Brooks Robinson at third base. Schmitty was such a natural that at times it didn’t look like he was giving his all. It took many years, too many in my opinion for the city to embrace him for being the great player he was. Along with the HR titles Schmidt won three MVP’s, led the NL in RBI’s four times, BB’s four times, OBP three times, Slugging % five times, OPS+ six times, Total Bases three times, IBB twice and Runs Scored once. A complete ball player in just about every facet of the game.
Then there were the artists on the mound, endurance legends of the 4-man rotation…pitchers like Steve Carlton (254 CG), Tom Seaver (231 CG) and Jim Palmer (211 CG). Carlton had a 16-year run where he completed 10 or more games and averaged 15 CG per year. In 1972 Steve Carlton had one of the greatest years ever for a starting pitcher in the modern era. He went 27-10 on a team that only won 59 games – a record that stands to this day as a percentage of a team’s wins by one pitcher. Carlton pitched an amazing 346.1 innings, struck out 310 and had an ERA of 1.97. In his awesome career Carlton won four Cy Young Awards, led the league in K’s five times and in Wins 4 times.
Seaver averaged over 7.1 innings per start every 4th day for his entire career and ended up with a 2.86 ERA and 311 career wins. Along the way he won three Cy Young’s and led the league in K’s five times, Wins three times and ERA three times. No wonder they called him Tom Terrific. Seaver entered the Hall of Fame with 98.6% of the vote, the highest of any player in Hall of Fame history.
Palmer also won three Cy Young Awards and won 20 or more games eight times in nine seasons. He led the AL in Wins three times, ERA twice and also had a career 2.86 ERA. He finished his carer 268-152 for a .638 winning percentage, bettering both Seaver and Carlton in that category. Wins carried far more weight then as opposed to today, presumably because pitchers went much deeper into the games. For these three greats it was their game to win or lose when they took the mound.
Then there were closers who didn’t get 45-50 saves per year because they weren’t called on to nail down the 9th inning of a 4-1 game, but would often times go two full innings or more to slam the door shut on their opponents. It wasn’t uncommon for them to pitch over 100 innings per season. Colorful players like Rich “Goose” Gossage, whose only pitch was a fastball. Everyone knew it was coming and he dared the hitter to put wood on the ball. Twice in is career Gossage averaged over two innings per outing, in 1975 and 1978. His ERA in those two years was 1.84 and 2.01 respectively. There were others like Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle and perhaps the greatest reliever of his time, Bruce Sutter.
I remembered the great teams too. There was the Oakland A’s who won three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974, the Big Red Machine (the best team I ever saw) and the Yankees of the late 70’s highlighted by Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and the irrepressible Billy Martin. There was the ’84 Tiger team that started out 35-5 on their way to a 104 win season capped off by a 4-1 World Series defeat of the over-matched SanDiego Padres. It seemed like every World Series winner had a unique story and it was good for the game of baseball.
I started following baseball around 1967 or 68, just before the two leagues expanded from eight to 12 teams in each and began a playoff system to determine who the pennant winner would be. No longer was the team with the best record in their respective league automatically going to the World Series. After 162 games a team was now forced to win a best of five game series to advance to the Fall Classic. Thus the modern era of baseball began.
There was something magical about baseball in my youth. The regular season carried so much weight because a team had to have the best record to advance to the World Series. There was no inter-league play back then, so when the World Series came around the discussions about the better league were always interesting and fun. When Major League Baseball instituted the LCS in 1969 baseball added two more teams to the playoffs, watering down the 162 game season. From 1969-1994 a total of four teams made the playoffs. Two divisions were created, the East and the West, with the winner of each squaring off for the right to represent their league in the World Series.
In 1994 baseball realigned again and each league now had three divisions; the East, Central and West. In order to keep more teams alive and in the playoff hunt later in the season (keeping attendance higher in more cities in order to generate more revenue) baseball added a wild card to each league, similar to what the NFL was doing at the time. In the span of 15 years baseball increased the post season from two to four teams, and then four to eight teams. The wild card would be the team with the best record that didn’t win a division title.
Still, that wasn’t enough for the money hungry owners who rule the game along with their puppet (former Milwaukee Braves owner and current Commissioner, Bud Selig), so they added yet another wild card to each league. Now ten teams make the playoffs. The three division winners and two wild card teams from each league. The two wild card teams play 162 games and then play a one-game “playoff” to see who advances and who goes home. Is this really necessary or fair? Should one game determines a team’s fate after playing a 162 game season? Do these teams even belong in the discussion about who the best team was that year?
What made baseball so unique and different from leagues like the NBA and NHL, where they practically have a come one, call all mentality to making the playoffs, was the importance of the regular season. Now with 10 teams having a shot at winning the World Series once the regular season ends, far less emphasis is placed on the 162-game summer marathon. However, the flip side is more fans are interested late in the season because their team is still alive. Instead of saying we’ll get ’em next year once it became apparent their team couldn’t win a pennant, many more teams are still alive late into September…filling ballparks, buying merchandise, eating hot dogs, drinking beer and paying ridiculous parking fees.
I long for a simpler time. I remember reading the sports page as a kid and it was about wins, losses, home runs, RBI’s and great defensive plays that turned a game around. Now when I pick up the sports page I read about free agents, strikes, collective bargaining agreements, sports agents and PED suspensions. Gone are the good ole days when I’d lay in bed and listen to By Saam or Harry Kalas, along with Richie Asburn call a game on my $6 transistor radio. Change is inevitable, but it’s not always for the better.