Tag Archives: baseball

Part-time Employment

Rizzuto and Berra, Suit Salesmen

The minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player is $480,000.

If you’re a corporate CEO or an investment banker that’s chump change, but the rest of us could probably manage to scrape by on a half-million bucks for 7 or 8 months’ work.  That’s the minimum, remember; the average MLB salary this year is $3,095,183.

It hasn’t always been this lucrative to be a ballplayer, of course.  Just to give you an idea of how things have changed, the Major League minimum in 1973 was $15,000, and the average salary was a little over twice that amount.  Only a relative handful of superstars made what was considered big money — over $100,000.

That meant that until fairly recently, most professional athletes have had other jobs during the off-season to supplement their incomes.  Even Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who is generally considered to be the first player to make a million dollars a season (1979), had a series of other jobs during his baseball career:  One year he worked as an air-conditioning installer (1968).

New York Yankee legends Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra, back-to-back American League Most Valuable Players in 1950 and 1951, were employed during the winter by a Newark department store, where they sold men’s suits.

Richie Hebner, a third baseman who spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a gravedigger at a cemetery operated by his father and brother.  Another third baseman of the same vintage (1970s) was a trumpet player.  Because Carmen Fanzone was with the Cubs before Wrigley Field had lights, he would occasionally take gigs at Chicago jazz clubs, performing at night after playing baseball during the day.

It wasn’t just baseball players who had other occupations.  Basketball’s Dave Bing was a seven-time NBA All-Star during a career that spanned the mid-’60s to the late-’70s.  He went to work as a teller in a Detroit bank, moving up the ladder there; following his retirement from basketball he established his own business.  Bing is currently the mayor of Detroit.

Professional football player Bill McColl studied medicine at the University of Chicago when he wasn’t playing defensive end and tight end for the Bears in the 1950s.  He eventually became an orthopedic surgeon.

Another football player who hit the books during the off-season was NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page.  While with the Vikings, he attended law school at the University of Minnesota.  Zoom forward a few decades:  Alan Page is now an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Then there was the unusual off-season job of baseball pitcher Gene Conley:  he played basketball.  Or maybe he was an NBA center and forward who played baseball in the off-season.  Either way, he’s still the only athlete to be a World Series champ (Milwaukee Braves, 1957) and an NBA champ (Boston Celtics, 1959-61).

For those who are now saying, “Hey, what about Bo Jackson?”, I didn’t forget him.  Bo was the first All-Star in two sports (football and baseball).  Of course, since he was a full-time athlete with no off-season, he never got the chance to rotate tires or stock shelves or wait tables.  So — secretly Bo probably envies us, don’t you think?

In Defense of Bill Buckner

Umpire John Kibler calls the ball "fair"; what happened after that wasn't fair.

Yes, he should have had it.  The little dribbler that Mookie Wilson hit toward first base should have resulted in an out.  Bill Buckner should have scooped it up and hustled to first, stepping on the bag just ahead of Wilson.  That would have ended game 6, making the Boston Red Sox World Series champions in 1986.

Of course, that’s not what happened.  Somehow the ball managed to get through Buckner’s legs, the New York Mets scored the winning run and ultimately went on to win the World Series in Game 7.  Buckner was villified in the Boston media and fans turned on him.  “To Buckner” became a verb meaning “to make a critical mistake”.

It’s my view that Bill Buckner doesn’t deserve the blame for losing the World Series — certainly not all of it, anyway.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.

To begin with, the Red Sox were extremely fortunate to even be in the World Series that year.  In the American League Championship Series, Boston was down 3 games to 1, and one out away from oblivion.  But lightning struck — Dave Henderson hit a home run off Donnie Moore in the 9th inning of game 5, reviving Boston’s chances.  (Buckner had started that miraculous rally with a single, by the way.)  Two innings later, Henderson’s sacrifice fly off Moore won the game.  The Sox subsequently won the next two games and made it into the World  Series.

Luck is fickle, though, and it turned against them on October 25, in game 6 of the Series.  So who, besides Buckner, deserves blame?  Well, almost all of the Red Sox hitters, who left a total of 14 runners on base that night; future Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice was 0-for-5, striking out twice.

There are some who blame manager John McNamara.  He often put in a defensive replacement in the late innings since Buckner was playing on two bad ankles, but he didn’t on that fateful night.  

Another guilty party was pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who had a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the 10th with 2 out… and then gave up 3 straight hits, the last on an 0-2 count.  The Sox were 1 strike away from expensive rings, but didn’t close the deal.

Bob Stanley came on in relief of Schiraldi, with the Sox still clinging to a one-run lead.  Mookie Wilson was the Mets’ hitter.  During that 10-pitch at-bat, Stanley threw one too far inside; maybe Catcher Rich Gedman should have caught it, but it was ruled a wild pitch.  Whatever — it sailed past Gedman, allowing Kevin Mitchell to score from third base, and moving Ray Knight into scoring position at second base.

The count on Wilson was 3-2 when he hit the grounder with which Buckner is forever associated.  Knight raced around to score, winning the game for the Mets and tying the series.

The Mets won game 7, giving them the opportunity to dump champagne on each other.  By the way, Bill Buckner managed a respectable 2-for-4 night at the plate in the finale.  Others were to blame for that loss, notably hapless pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, who yielded 3 runs in one-third of an inning.

My point is that on any team, responsibility for success or failure is shared.  And let’s face it, no one makes it through life error-free.  (Divorce statistics are but one example).  Buckner had a solid career — .289 average, over 2700 hits — so it doesn’t seem fair that he’s known for that one mistake.

And maybe that’s an important life lesson that we learn from the world of sports:  Make plenty of mistakes, so you won’t get blamed for just one.

The Mendoza Line

In baseball, the difference between a .300 batting average and a .200 batting average is one hit every ten at-bats.  The difference between .300 and .200 is also the difference between a multimillion-dollar contract and unemployment.  The low end of the scale — a .200 batting average — has come to be known as The Mendoza Line.

Mario Mendoza was a slick-fielding shortstop; his defensive skills were so good, in fact, that in his native Mexico he was known as Manos de Seda (Silk Hands).  He joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974 and was used primarily as a late-inning replacement for Frank Taveras, who was a better hitter, but whose hands invited comparison to madera (wood) or hierro (iron).

Since Mendoza didn’t get to the plate very often, it’s understandable that he didn’t hit very well.  With limited ABs, his batting average in 1975 was .180; it was .185 the year after that, and “surged” to .198 in 1977.

He was traded to Seattle before the 1979 season, and it was during his time with the Mariners that Mario Mendoza’s name became permanently associated with mediocre hitting.

At the beginning of the 1980 season, Kansas City’s George Brett was off to an uncharacteristically miserable start.  To give you an idea, on April 22 Brett was batting .209.  A couple of Mendoza’s teammates, Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, apparently were taunting Brett that he was going to fall below the Mendoza Line — meaning that Brett’s name would appear below Mendoza’s when newspapers listed all players’ batting averages.  (Bruce Bochte, by the way, is not the same person as Bruce Bochy, the current manager of the San Francisco Giants.)

There are slightly different versions of what happened next, but one way or another, that expression got from George Brett to Chris Berman of ESPN.  Berman used it on the air frequently, and The Mendoza Line got absorbed into baseball lingo.

No one seems to want to take credit for the term; Paciorek says it was Bochte’s idea, Berman says he got it from Brett, and so on.  They all say it was a joke, but Mario Mendoza didn’t find it very funny.  Over 30 years later, he’s still a little touchy about it.

Brett, as you may recall, rebounded from his bad start and wound up hitting a spectacular .390 in 1980, while Mendoza’s average was a semi-respectable .245 that year.

He was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1981, and was released by them in June of 1982.  Mendoza’s career batting average was not .200, as most baseball fans assume; it was actually .215.

In case you’re wondering about the guys who were involved in coining “The Mendoza Line”, Brett’s lifetime average was .305, part of the reason he’s in baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Tom Paciorek’s career average was .282, and strangely enough, so was Bruce Bochte’s.  As far as I know, Chris Berman does not refer to a .282 average as either The Paciorek Line or The Bochte Line.  (Bruce Bochy, who had nothing to do with any of this, had a career average of .239.)

Unbreakable Records

Hall of Famer Roy Campanella once said, “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.”  It seems to me that to be a baseball fan, you gotta have a lot of accountant in you.

For some reason, statistics and record-keeping are important to an appreciation of the game.  If you say “Roger Maris” to a diehard fan, the fan will instantly respond “Sixty-one”.  (In case you’ve forgotten, that was the number of home runs Maris hit when he broke Babe Ruth’s record — Maris did it in ’61, by the way.)

That record has been broken a couple of times since, and the current home run mark will be surpassed again someday.  There are a few baseball records, though, that I’m pretty sure will last forever…

Every fan is certain that pitcher Cy Young’s 511 career victories will never be topped, nor will his 749 career complete games.  Here’s a record that is more obscure, but no less remarkable.  In 1904, Jack Taylor of the St. Louis Cardinals set the mark for consecutive complete games: 39.  Yes –consecutive!  By comparison, baseball’s current best pitcher, Roy Halladay of Philadelphia, has a total of 58 complete games, spread across a 14-year career.

With today’s inflated salaries, pitchers’ arms are treated by management as if they are made of porcelain and held in place with cotton candy.  Can you imagine any current pitcher being allowed to stay in a game for 26 innings?  That’s the record for longest complete game; it is jointly held by Leon Cadore (Brooklyn) and Joe Oeschger (Boston Braves), who went the distance against each other on May 1, 1920.  Incidentally, the entire contest lasted only 3 hours and 50 minutes, which in modern-day games is around the time when fans rise for the traditional 7th-inning stretch.

The shortest nine-inning game was played on September 28, 1919, between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies.  It went 51 minutes.  Had it been played in Los Angeles, spectators would have been leaving after 45 minutes to beat the traffic.

 It doesn’t seem possible that Walter Johnson’s record of 110 career shutouts will fall — Halladay currently has 19 — but that isn’t even Johnson’s most remarkable record.  “Big Train” set the mark for highest batting average by a pitcher (season), hitting a cool .433 in 1925.  OK, that was only 42 hits in 98 at bats, but he was 38 years old when he did it.

Stealing home has become so rare that many avid baseball fans probably can’t tell you Ty Cobb holds the career record with 54.  No active player even has 10.  There was a brief eruption back in 1996, when there were 38 steals of home — by all major league teams combined.  Lou Brock, second on the all-time list for stolen bases had a total of 938, but not one of them was stealing home.  You get the idea:  Cobb’s record will not be broken.

Well, that’s what I think, but I’ve been wrong before — for over 60 consecutive years, in fact, and I’m going for the record!

Gibson’s Finest Moment

Happy Birthday to Me

Kirk Gibson hit a total of 262 home runs in his career (including postseason), but if you hear baseball fans talking about “Gibson’s home run”, you know exactly which one they mean.  It was among the most dramatic moments in baseball history, that shot that won Game One of the 1988 World Series.  You’ve seen replays of it a thousand times.

I saw it in person.

My wife had given me tickets to the game between the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers as a birthday present.  I didn’t want to ask too many questions about how Sally got them, or how much she had to pay.  Let’s just say they were very good seats, except for the fact that we were surrounded by the wives of the A’s players.  I’m sure they are all wonderful human beings, but that night they were the enemy.  One in particular had a voice like a power saw ripping through sheet metal.

Those Oakland wives had a lot to crow about with the A’s holding a 4-3 lead as the game went to the bottom of the ninth.  The inning began with Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers hitting a weak popup for the first out.  He was followed by Jeff Hamilton, who was overmatched against Dennis Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in baseball.  Hamilton struck out looking.  The A’s wives were positively screeching by now, with victory only one out away.

L.A. manager Tommy Lasorda sent Mike Davis to the plate to pinch hit for Alfredo Griffin.  Davis had been Eckersley’s teammate in Oakland the previous season and had put up respectable numbers there.  Maybe that’s why “Eck” pitched cautiously to Davis; whatever the reason, Davis was able to work a walk.

My head swiveled toward the Dodger dugout.  “Here he comes,” I yelled, and at the same time about 50,000 other fans also saw Kirk Gibson limping out of the dugout with a bat in hand.  It was pitcher Alejandro Peña’s spot in the batting order, although infielder Dave Anderson had been occupying the on-deck circle, ostensibly to pinch hit for Peña.

We all knew this situation called for Kirk Gibson, in spite of his injuries.  Gibson had a bad left hamstring and a gimpy right knee that had kept him out of the lineup.  Those of us who were still in Dodger Stadium were on our feet and screaming; however, beyond the center field fence I could see taillights of cars whose drivers had wanted to beat the traffic.  They heard what subsequently happened on their radios.

Gibson was quickly behind in the count, 0-2.  Eckersley tried to get him to bite on pitches off the plate.  Gibson took a couple, and fouled off a couple.  The count evened, and on a 2-2 pitch, Mike Davis got into scoring position by stealing second.

On the 3-2 pitch, Gibson hit the shot that sailed over Jose Canseco’s head into the right field pavilion, and into history.  The A’s wives suddenly got quiet and slumped into their seats, stunned.  The rest of us were hugging each other and ruining our vocal cords for what must have been fifteen minutes after the Dodgers had won, 5-4.

It was a thrill to be there on my birthday, and to see the career highlight of not one but TWO Gibsons.  It was Kirk who ended the game with his memorable home run, of course.  But how could you forget that the evening began with the National Anthem being sung by Debbie Gibson?  What a night.

Baseball’s Best

25 Main Street, Cooperstown, NY

There are some travel destinations that have to be intentional.  What I mean by that is that they are found in places that are not on the way to (or from) someplace else; you have to go there on purpose.  Let me illustrate:  If you’re in Paris, it’s no big deal to decide to go see Monet’s house in Giverny.  That’s easy enough to do; it’s a short train ride from Gare St-Lazare in Paris to Giverny.  If you’re in Uruguay, though, you’re not as liable to say, “Since we’re here, why don’t we pop over to Antarctica?”  It’s not exactly in the neighborhood — you have to intend to go to Antarctica.

As far as I’m concerned, the Baseball Hall of Fame is also in that category of not-on-the-way-to-anywhere-else.  In case you’re hazy on its location, Cooperstown, New York, is roughly ninety miles from Albany and a similar distance from Syracuse.  Why you would be in either of those cities is your own business, but they aren’t usually included in those lists of places you must see before you die.  For some of us, however, a visit to the Hall of Fame is not a side trip anyway — it’s a pilgrimage.

Baseball’s shrine is located in the remote village of Cooperstown for dubious reasons.  Supposedly a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday invented the game there.  He probably didn’t, but that story had gained some traction in the early years of the 20th century.  During the Great Depression, a local hotel owner hatched the idea of the Hall of Fame as a means of drawing tourists to the area.  Somehow he got Major League Baseball to go along, and the Hall was opened in 1939.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as it is officially known, currently houses hundreds of thousands of photographs and millions of documents pertaining to the sport, but its chief attraction is the collection of almost 300 bronze plaques honoring baseball’s best.  Below the bas-relief portrait of each immortal is a brief summary of his career accomplishments.  Babe Ruth’s, for example, reads “Greatest drawing card in history of baseball.  Holder of many home run and other batting records.  Gathered 714 home runs in addition to fifteen in World Series.”

Even though most us never saw Ruth play, we could recite more facts about him than that.  And many visitors do just that in the Hall — one generation shares with another the lore of a game they love.

The Hall of Fame also happens to be a terrific museum; it has multimedia presentations and interactive exhibits that are not dusty or permanently “out of order”.  It has an extensive collection of stuff baseball fans enjoy seeing, such as a display of baseballs used in every no-hitter since 1940, and old uniforms worn on historic occasions, and rare baseball cards.  In short, the Baseball Hall of Fame is well worth the $16.50 admission price for adults ($6.00 for kids).  It’s even worth that long drive into Cooperstown.

In the unlikely event that you should find yourself in Cooperstown and you are not a baseball fan, there are a couple of nearby attractions.  You could always pop over to the Fenimore Art Museum or the Farmers’ Museum.  They’re both right in the neighborhood.

Take Me Out To The Billboards

Yeah, but what's the score?

Yeah, but what's the score?

There was a time, my young friends, when people went to baseball stadiums to watch baseball.  Sadly, franchise owners no longer assume that is the ticket-buyer’s objective.  They believe the reason you come to the ol’ ballpark is to put your dainty butt in a $100 seat and drink $10 beers.  They also helpfully provide many distractions to keep you from noticing that a game is taking place on the field.

After all, if you’ve forked over that kind of money — not to mention what you paid for parking — why would you want to be annoyed by something as mundane as a game?  So what if it’s a 2-and1 count and the hit-and-run may be on — who cares?  “Look all around you, fans,” Major League Baseball now says, “there are many shiny signs all over this facility that will tell you when to clap and when to ‘make noise’.  We even have electronic pictures of the players’ faces that are fifty feet high!  That’s better than watching them from far away, isn’t it?”

I’ve been following baseball for many years, but it wasn’t until a recent visit to Yankee Stadium that I became aware for the first time that French’s is the official mustard of the New York Yankees.  But there it was, on multiple message boards — a dietary preference that any true fan should know.  As I bowed my head in shame at having been so ignorant of baseball lore, I missed seeing Mark Teixeira hit a three-run homer. 

Electronic cannons thundered and millions of light-emitting diodes flashed.  The runs were registered on the tiny part of the scoreboard that is actually devoted to keeping score.  Hidden in all the advertising for soft drinks and other chemicals, the numbers were posted — but in tiny print, as though management was merely complying with a legal requirement, like that tag on your mattress.

Amid all the visual clutter and the racket from the multi-megawatt sound system, I could hear my inner voice whimpering, “I just want to watch the game.”  These days, a stadium is a lousy place to do that.

Baseball’s Most Boring Game (Until the 7th)

My ticket to the game -- they were cheaper then

My ticket to the game -- they were cheaper then

In contrast to baseball games now, in which players have to spit several times and adjust their crotches and cross themselves before they do anything, the game on September 9, 1965 was played at a brisk pace.  It was over in less than two hours, and when it ended, history had been made.

Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitched a perfect game that night, and I was one of 29,000 fans in attendance.  For some, I suppose a perfect game would be Free Beer Night, but in baseball jargon, a perfect game means that the pitcher did not allow any opposition player to reach base by any means — no hits, no walks, no errors.  In other words, no action.

What was even more boring — for a while — about this game was that Bob Hendley of the Cubs was pretty much doing the same thing to the Dodgers.  A journeyman who was with his second team of the ’65 season, Hendley had yielded a base on balls to Dodgers outfielder “Sweet” Lou Johnson in the 5th inning; Johnson advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Ron Fairly.  He then attempted to steal third base, and Cubs catcher Chris Krug threw the ball into left field, allowing Johnson to get up and run home.  The Dodgers had scored without a hit — in fact, without an official at-bat.

That was pretty much the only action in the game to that point; those of us in the stands were reading the advertisements in the program just for something to do.  Along about the 7th inning, though, it began to occur to us that we were seeing something almost unprecedented:  both pitchers were throwing no-hitters!

With two out in the 7th, Lou Johnson broke up Hendley’s no-hitter with a bloop double just over the head of Cubs first baseman Ernie Banks, but Johnson was left stranded.  This proved to be the only hit in the game, and it had nothing to do with the scoring.

By now we were definitely not bored; from the 8th inning on, the crowd roared on every strike, and booed the umpire if he called one of Koufax’s pitches a ball.  Vin Scully’s voice wafted over the stadium, his call of the game being broadcast over thousands of transistor radios in the stands.

As Bob Hendley walked off the mound at the end of the 8th, he got a standing ovation from almost everyone in Dodger Stadium.  We wanted Koufax to prevail, of course, but we realized that Hendley had turned in an exceptional performance, even though it was in what we hoped would be a losing cause.

The last batter of the game was pinch-hitter Harvey Kuenn, batting for Hendley.  Kuenn was a lifetime .300 hitter, but he struck out on a 2-2 count; Koufax had completed a perfect game.

As you might imagine, at that point all 29,000 of us did not quietly file out to the parking lot.  Exultant fists were thrust into the air, seat cushions were flung onto the field, thousands of throats sustained significant damage to their vocal cords.  People jumped and hugged and proposed marriage to total strangers.  Koufax came out of the dugout and doffed his cap to the crowd; somehow the din grew even louder.

It was the best pitching performance by the best pitcher I ever saw:  Sandy Koufax struck out 14 batters that night, including the last six.  It was the best pitching performance of Bob Hendley’s career as well; his earned-run average for that season was just under 6.00.

What had been a boring game for the first hour or so turned into one of the most memorable in L.A. Dodgers history, right up there with Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series.  I was present for that one, too; remind me to tell you about it sometime.