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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential - Postseason Edition - 10/7/2004

Playoff Primer

“The balls aren’t the same balls, the bats aren’t the same length, it’s further between the bases.” Reggie Jackson, All-Star right fielder for the Oakland A’s, in describing the difference between regular season and playoff baseball.

Playoff baseball is just different. Those strengths that help a team win during the regular season (a quality fourth starter, excellent middle relief, a deeper bench) might not be as helpful during a short best-of-five or a best-of-seven elimination series. Similarly, a team’s manager needs to take a different approach in putting together his 25-man roster for the playoffs. The players that he picks for a playoff run might not be the same ones that he would choose for the regular season—in fact, they shouldn’t be. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some basic “rules” (and some exceptions) for putting together a postseason roster.

No Need For Eleven: It’s always baffled me why managers grapple with the decision over whether to carry 10 or 11 pitchers on the playoff roster, especially for the opening round of the postseason. (The debate should really come down to NINE or 10 pitchers, but few of today’s managers seem to have that kind of courage.) Given the maximum of five games in the Division Series, there’s simply no need to carry 11 pitchers, especially when the quality of your 10th and 11th men rates about as highly as that of Triple-A journeymen. Let’s face it: if you have to use your 10th and 11th pitchers more than once in the five games, that probably means you’re getting blown out more than once in the series. And that probably means you’re going to lose… One exception to this rule might be the 2004 Yankees. With the status of Orlando Hernandez up in the air, the Yankees can make a good argument for carrying an 11th pitcher. (Now why that pitcher has to be Esteban Loiaza, well that’s another question.) Given how effective “El Duque” has been since being recalled just before the All-Star break, the Yankees have to take the gamble that Hernandez will be able to throw in Game Three or Game Four, even it means using a roster spot for someone who might not play. And if Hernandez can’t pitch, the extra pitcher may very well come in handy.

Two Catcher Maximum: A third catcher generally becomes a hood ornament during the regular season; during the postseason, when your No. 1 catcher doesn’t need any days off, it becomes an albatross. Since most backup catchers are lacking in hitting and baserunning skills, their presence can strangle a manager’s maneuverability during the postseason. (Similarly, there’s no need for a second utility infielder. One weak-hitting middle infielder will do.) Now, there are exceptions to the two-catcher rule. If you have a third catcher who can hit with power (a Cliff Johnson or Jim Leyritz type, for example) or a third catcher who has the versatility to play other positions (someone like a Joe Ferguson, whose could throw howitzers from right field, or the Braves’ Eli Marrero, who can play anywhere in the outfield), then his presence is more than justified… There’s another exception too, and it can be found in the example of the 2004 Dodgers. The Dodgers have the weakest catching of any playoff team, what with manager Jim Tracy forced to make do with limited journeyman Brent Mayne and light-hitting David Ross. Since Jim Tracy is apt to pinch-hit for both Mayne and Ross in critical situations, it actually makes sense to carry a third catcher. It makes even more sense when that third catcher is Tom Wilson, a better hitter than either Mayne or Ross and a man dangerous enough with the bat to do some pinch-hitting himself.

Pinch-Runners Please: Charlie Finley had the right idea; he just had the wrong man in Herb Washington. Every playoff team should have at least one bench player whose strength is his footspeed, whose legs will cause other teams to take note when he takes his place on the basepaths. The presence of such a player, one who can steal a base, or simply score from first on a double, can become a crucial element within the context of a tie game in the eighth or ninth inning. In this respect, no 2004 playoff team is better equipped than the Red Sox, who have one of the game’s top percentage basestealers in Dave Roberts. Unlike Washington, Roberts knows how to run the bases, and offers the added bonus of quality outfield defense in either left, center, or right. Don’t be surprised if Mr. Roberts plays a part in helping the Red Sox win at least one close game in the late innings.

The Lefty Pinch-Hitter: It’s not just National League teams that need pinch-hitters. There will come a time when every team will need a pinch-hitter in a crucial playoff situation, either because of injuries, matchups, or percentages. And since most bullpens are loaded with right-handers, the presence of a quality left-handed hitter on the bench becomes almost imperative. Even powerhouse offensive teams like the Red Sox and Yankees will need to turn to the bench in the late innings. For the Red Sox, it means lifting Gabe Kapler (or perhaps even Orlando Cabrera) in favor of the platooning Trot Nixon; for the Yankees, it means removing Miguel Cairo in exchange for Ruben Sierra, Tony Clark, or Kenny Lofton. Sometimes just the threat of a powerful left-handed bat off the bench can be helpful, especially when it forces an opposing manager to keep a weak left-handed reliever in the game for an extra batter or two.

Stoning The Cubs And Recalling Tony Taylor

The obsession that Dusty Baker and his Cubs players have had with allegedly negative analysis by team broadcaster Steve Stone brings to mind another ugly episode involving an overly sensitive manager. Back in the late 1980s, former major league infielder Tony Taylor, while serving as a minor league skipper in the Phillies’ organization, guided the Utica Blue Sox to an also-ran finish in the NY-Penn League standings. Toward the end of the season, the team’s broadcasters (who were colleagues of mine at WIBX Radio) were refused an interview by Taylor, who proceeded to berate them for critical comments they had made during a broadcast earlier in the week. (The announcers in question were hardly Howard Cosellian in their description of the sub-.500 team and were generally fair-minded when it came to passing judgment on managerial decisions and playoff performances.) Taylor’s behavior was unprofessional in the least, but what was more disturbing was how Taylor became aware of the comments in the first place. It seems that Taylor and his players were listening to the broadcast in the dugout during the game. It was absolutely mind-boggling to me then—and still is to this day—how a manager could allow a radio to be playing in the dugout, at a time when players, coaches, and managers should be communicating with each other, not listening intently for possible media criticism. Call me an old school baseball fogey, but wouldn’t the manager and the players be better served by paying attention to what happens on the field, rather than listening to a third-party discussion in the press box? Recollections of that Blue Sox incident have always served to remind me, perhaps too conveniently, why Tony Taylor has never managed in the major leagues. Card Corner—The Ax

There were no controversies in determining this year’s batting titles in both the American and National Leagues. In claiming the AL’s batting crown by a 32-point margin over the underpublicized Melvin Mora, Ichiro Suzuki also broke the longstanding single-season hits record held by George Sisler. In the meantime, Barry Bonds continued his amazing run of other-worldly hitting by stashing away the National League crown by 15 points over Todd Helton, a precursor to what likely will be another Most Valuable Player Award for Bonds’ growing museum of trophies, awards, and other honors.

Yet, races to determine the batting titles have not always been so clear-cut. Such was the case in 1970, when Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski and shooting star Alex Johnson engaged in a batting race that carried to the final day. Rather than take the Ted Williams approach (circa 1941) and fully play out the season schedule, Johnson decided to “protect” his batting title by coming out of the Angels’ finale in the fifth inning, when he gave way to pinch-runner Jay Johnstone. Such controversy was nothing new for Johnson, whose sometimes brilliant hitting was often smeared by his own penchant for trouble. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of the most colorful and mysterious batting champions of all-time.

This 1975 Topps card was one of the final cards issued for the talented but enigmatic Johnson, whose combative personality overshadowed his extraordinary abilities of hitting and speed. Airbrushed in this photograph with the Navy blue colors of the New York Yankees, Johnson didn’t last long in New York, just like his short terms with the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, California Angels, Texas Rangers, and Detroit Tigers. Built like a bronze statue, Johnson possessed the kind of physical strength that earned him the nickname, “The Bull.” Sadly, his repeated confrontations with teammates and the media also brought on such less complimentary names as “Awful Alex” and “Alex The Angry.”

Johnson didn’t like conversing with sportswriters, whom he didn’t trust. He nicknamed one particularly heavy-set writer “The Oblong Jerk.” He felt even more strongly about another writer, once pouring coffee grounds into the gentleman’s typewriter. Johnson also criticized official scorers for intentionally tabulating his statistics incorrectly, such as failing to give him proper credit for runs batted in or outfield assists. “One of them in particular is Dick Miller,” said Johnson, referring to a writer in Southern California. “I don’t think he can even count when it comes to scoring me.”

Johnson’s personality quirks carried over to the playing field. Since he believed that his body would become “stale” if he used excessive amounts of energy, he didn’t hustle to his position in the outfield, making him the anti-Pete Rose. He also paced himself by failing to run hard on routine infield grounders and pop-ups, a habit that became especially pernicious in 1971. That summer, “Awful Alex” was benched five times by manager Lefty Phillips for a failure to hustle. Johnson also refused to partake in one of baseball’s time-honored rituals, refusing to shake hands with his teammates after hitting a home run. “I don’t want to waste time running up and down the bench,” Johnson explained, “shaking hands for everything that happens.”

Still, there existed another side to Johnson’s character. He once donated $500 to a fund earmarked for his former Angels teammate Minnie Rojas, who had been paralyzed in a horrifying car crash. Not wanting to publicize his charitable effort, Johnson denied making the contribution. Johnson also took time to attend the funeral of his former friend, infielder Chico Ruiz, who lost his life in a spring training car accident in 1972. The two had become estranged, often arguing with each other during a tumultuous 1971 season. Putting hard feelings aside, Johnson was one of the few ballplayers to attend the service for Ruiz.

Based on the comments of friends and family, Johnson’s off-the-field persona was far different from the angry public image that he often portrayed. He could be generous, warm, and considerate. It’s too bad that Johnson didn’t show more of that side—his true character—in playing a game that’s supposed to be fun.

Mailbag Musings

As expected, the recent article about Derek Jeter has produced significant reaction at Baseball Primer.com and around the web. Here’s one of the most articulate responses, courtesy of Rich Lederer of All-Baseball.com.

“Derek Jeter can play for me anytime. I mean, he is so overrated by his fans that it has become fashionable to underrate him in the Sabermetric community. His highlight-reel fielding plays cause scorn among those who prefer to measure his defensive contribution with stats not easily understood by even the advanced fan.

He is what he is. A very good hitting shortstop whose fielding has ranged from below-average in most years to above-average this year. On offense, he does everything (BA, OBP, SLG, BB, SB, SB%) better than the league average except slugging HR and yet he does that at a much better rate than his fellow SS.

Like him or not, he has been a key player on four World Championship teams. He has led the league in runs, hits, and runs created. He has finished in the top five in batting average four times. Six years in a row of 190 or more hits with no fewer than 56 walks in any of those years. His 1999 season (.349/.438/.552 with 24 HR, 219 H, 91 BB, 134 R, and 102 RBI) was one for the ages. Give it a rest, critics.”

Well said, Rich. Reasoned analysis is one thing, irrational loathing is another. And yes, that Jeter does know how to run the bases.

Pastime Passings

John Cerutti (Died on October 3 in Toronto, Canada; age 44; natural causes): Formerly a major league pitcher before becoming a popular broadcaster with the Toronto Blue Jays, Cerutti was found dead in his hotel room the morning of the Jays’ final game in 2004. The Blue Jays and their broadcast crew became alarmed when Cerutti failed to attend a morning production meeting in anticipation of the final game. His absence prompted a search, which resulted in the discovery of his body in the hotel room.

In 1981, the Blue Jays selected Cerutti, a left-handed pitcher, with their first-round pick in the amateur draft. Four years later, he completed the climb to the majors, beginning a six-year stint with the Jays. Cerutti’s two finest seasons occurred in a Jays’ uniform; in 1987, he was 11 of 15 decisions while posting a 4.40 era, and in 1989, he went 11-11 with a 3.07 ERA. His success continued into the 1989 postseason, when he pitched two and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief against the Oakland A’s. After the 1990 season, Cerutti left the Jays, signing a free agent contract with the Detroit Tigers. He finished his career with a record of 49-43 and an ERA of 3.94. In 1997, he began a second career in baseball by joining Toronto’s broadcasting crew.

Gertrude “Gertie” Dunn (Died on September 29 in Avondale, Pennsylvania; age 72; plane crash): Dunn played for the South Bend Blue Sox of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1952, helping the team to the league’s championship that summer. After the AAGPBL folded in 1954, Dunn attended West Chester University, where she earned spots on the U.S. national field hockey and lacrosse teams. Her performance in field hockey resulted in her enshrinement in that sport’s hall of fame. At the time of her death, she maintained her involvement in field hockey as a referee for youth games.

Dunn was a certified pilot who was taking off from the New Garden Airport in Avondale on September 29 when she began to experience trouble with the single-engine plane. Shortly after takeoff, the plane unexpectedly crashed, killing Dunn. At this writing, the National Transportation Safety Board was continuing to conduct an investigation into the cause of the fatal crash.

Victor Cruz (Died on September 26 in the Dominican Republic; age 46; cause of death not reported): A journeyman reliever who often used a sidewinding motion, Cruz pitched for several clubs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After making a successful major league debut with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1978, winning seven of 10 decisions with nine saves and a tidy 1.71 ERA, the transient right-hander moved to the Cleveland Indians for two seasons, and then made pitstops with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers in 1981 and ’83, respectively. Cruz finished his career with a record of 18-23 and an ERA of 3.09.

Hal Reniff (Died on September 7 in Ontario, California; age 66): A onetime member of both the New York Yankees and New York Mets, Reniff made his major league debut during the Yankees’ World Championship season of 1961. A large right-hander who was nicknamed “Porky,” he later pitched in the 1963 and ’64 Fall Classics, compiling three and a third innings of scoreless relief. Reniff became an important part of the Yankee bullpen in 1963, earning a team-leading 18 saves. Four years later, he wrapped up his big league tenure by pitching for the cross-town rival Mets. In seven seasons, Reniff logged a respectable 3.27 ERA while pitching almost exclusively in relief.

Bernard “Frenchy” Uhalt (Died on September 3 in Rossmoor, California; age 93): Uhalt played briefly in the major leagues but gained most of his notoriety as a standout player in the Pacific Coast League. As an amateur, Uhalt turned down football scholarship offers to pursue professional baseball. During a long and legendary PCL career, Uhalt hit .298 with 2,798 hits, 401 stolen bases, and 130 triples in 2,499 games. The speedy outfielder made his major league debut with the Chicago White Sox on April 17, 1934. He hit .242 with 16 RBIs in 57 games that season, but never returned to the major leagues.

Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is the author of four books on baseball, including the newly-published Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), now available at www.greenwood.com and www.amazon.com. And for those interested in the realm of horror and vampires, Markusen’s other new book, Haunted House of the Vampire, will be available in October. For more information on the books or on Cooperstown Ghost Tours, send an e-mail to bmark@telenet.net.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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