A Visit From Mudcat
Who was the A’s No. 1 reliever prior to the emergence of Rollie Fingers on the scene? Although he’s best remembered for his fine work as a starting pitcher, Jim "Mudcat" Grant capably filled the role of Oakland closer in 1970, one year before Fingers made his successful conversion to the bullpen. Grant, who saved 24 games in 1970 before being traded to the Pirates, was in Cooperstown this Wednesday and Thursday as part of a benefit auction and golf tournament that raised money for the Catskill Area Hospice. Although Grant’s time in Oakland was relatively brief, he enjoyed playing for owner Charlie Finley. "It was a good relationship," says Mudcat. "Every now and then it was fiery a little bit, but it was generally a good relationship." Finley liked Grant enough to bring him back to Oakland for the latter part of the 1971 season, re-acquiring him from the Pirates in a cash deal. Grant pitched well in 15 late-season games, compiling a 1.98 ERA and helping Fingers complete the transition from starter to ace reliever… Grant credits Finley for having the vision to champion ideas that were ahead of their time. "He was a good promotional person," says Grant. "Charlie advocated some things that baseball was against but found out a little bit later on that they were actually good ideas. For example, the uniforms. Finley came up with the idea of having the A’s wear two or three uniforms (instead of standard white at home and gray on the road), and little things like the rabbit delivering the ball to the umpires."… Grant also became a part of one of Finley’s favorite pet projects: having players wear their nicknames on their uniforms. At Finley’s urging, Grant became the first A’s player to do so, with the placing of the word "MUDCAT" in large block letters on the back of his jersey.
Fear Doesn’t Always Strike Out
Cruel broadcasters and wise-guy newspaper columnists—some of whom have never picked up a ball in their life or have never encountered the terror caused by a phobia—make jokes about it. Unfeeling fans at Fenway Park—the ones who don’t know any better—bring ‘target’ and ‘bulls-eye’ signs to the ballpark and hold them up in mock derision. Those are just some of the kinds of ill-advised words and actions that Chuck Knoblauch will have to live with, at least for awhile, until he can overcome the mental block that has made the routine throw from second to first a recurring nightmare. If there’s any consolation for Knoblauch as he battles his throwing demons, it’s that he’s not alone. There are probably at least a few amateur ballplayers who are undergoing similar struggles in making the most basic of plays. And while it hasn’t happened that often at the major league level, it seems to have become a periodic occurrence over the past 30 years. Here are a few of the players (not including pitchers) who have struggled with the simple task of throwing a baseball, in some cases the mere practice of lobbing the ball back to the pitcher. Mike Ivie: As the No. 1 pick in the 1970 amateur draft, the Padres immediately brought the 17-year-old Ivie in to catch batting practice for the benefit of a large media contingent. Ivie made several accurate throws to the batting practice pitcher, but then threw one a bit wildly, hitting the protective screen in front of the pitcher. Veteran catcher Chris Cannizzaro, looking on from the side, offered up a wisecrack. "That rook," commented Cannizzaro, "is why they’re sending you to Tri-Cities." Although the good-natured Cannizzaro intended no maliciousness, the comment seemed to have affected Ivie. A few days later, the rookie made his debut for the Tri-Cities Padres of the Class A Northwest League and immediately encountered difficulty throwing the ball back to the pitcher. He had become fearful of one of the game’s most basic and ritualistic acts. As a result, Ivie left the Padres’ organization on two separate occasions. He once turned down a promotion to the major leagues because he didn’t want to catch. The Padres eventually moved Ivie to first base—he would catch only nine games in his major league career—but he never fulfilled the promise that came with being the first overall pick in the draft.
Dale Murphy: Like Ivie, Murphy started out his professional career as a catcher and soon developed a phobia about throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Unlike Ivie and the Padres, Murphy and the Braves found a happy ending to what might have been a career-killing mental block. The Braves moved the athletic Murphy to the outfield, where he eventually found comfort as one of the game’s top players of the 1980s. With his early-career throwing problems becoming a non-issue, Murphy established himself as an excellent center fielder with a strong—and accurate—throwing arm.
Steve Sax: In 1983, just one year after winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award, Sax started having trouble making routine throws to first base. Several of his throws ended up in the seats behind first base. Insisting that his health and mechanics were fine, Sax seemed mystified over what he called a "mental block." The Dodgers tried to help Sax by having him make throws while blindfolded during a mid-afternoon workout. Sax made 10 accurate throws to first base with the blindfold on, but when the next game started, his problems continued. When Sax committed his 22nd throwing error of the season, the Dodgers benched him for a brief spell. At one point, Sax considered quitting the game he loved to play. He appeared to reach rock-bottom when he committed a throwing error in the All-Star Game, in front of a national television audience. Then, Sax underwent a transformation. After the All-Star mishap, he settled down, improved his throwing, and finished the season with 38 consecutive errorless games. The problem flared up briefly the following year, but Sax quickly recovered. The throwing woes never returned.
Mackey Sasser: A talented hitter with a strong throwing arm, Sasser found himself unable to return the ball back to the pitcher off and on for several years. The phobia apparently originated in the minor leagues when Sasser hurt his shoulder, causing him to develop bad habits when returning the ball to the mound. By 1991, Sasser’s problem became so acute that he lost his starting catching position with the Mets. Sasser would pound the ball into his mitt repeatedly and then lift and pump his arm, sometimes three or four times, before weakly lobbing the ball back to the pitcher. The Mets decided to try Sasser in the outfield in an effort to make him a utilityman, but then cut him loose after the 1992 season. He signed on with the Mariners, but continued to struggle. With his defensive game deteriorating, Sasser also seemed to lose his batting stroke and saw his career come to an end in 1995.
What will the outcome be for Knoblauch? If he doesn’t overcome his throwing yips, it will be tough for the Yankees to find him another position to play. The other interior infield positions (shortstop, third base) would offer similar throwing challenges. And he’s too short to play first base. He could try the outfield, but probably doesn’t have the arm strength to play there on a regular basis. The only option appears to be as a DH, a role that Knoblauch could capably fill with his combination of line-drive hitting, occasional power, ability to draw walks, and base-stealing speed. But first Joe Torre and the Yankees will give Knoblauch every chance to regain his form at second base. They know that their best lineup would feature a rejuvenated Knoblauch playing second base, with someone like Sammy Sosa or Juan Gonzalez stepping in—via a blockbuster trade—as the DH.
Pride Of The Red Sox
While Knoblauch has been fighting a mental block for the past two seasons, Curtis Pride has been overcoming other obstacles throughout his entire life. Although Pride has already played parts of five seasons in the major leagues and is no longer considered a prospect at the age of 31, he is a remarkable athlete who has courageously dealt with deafness in pursuing a professional career as a ballplayer. And he’s no sympathy case, either. If the Red Sox give him a chance to play, they will find out that he can contribute as a fourth or fifth outfielder. In his last extended big league stay, Pride batted an even .300 for the Tigers, before struggling in shorter stints with the Red Sox and Braves. Pride also has above-average speed and power, making him a versatile option off the bench for the Red Sox… Pride is not the first deaf player to perform in the majors. In the 1800s, a pitcher named Ed Dundon, who was both deaf and mute, toiled for Columbus of the old American Association. Thomas Lynch played for Chicago of the National League in 1884. Paul Hines, an outfielder with the old Washington Senators, played for five seasons after losing his hearing in a beanball incident. Luther Taylor, who was a deaf-mute, pitched for the New York Giants from 1900 to 1908, and won 27 games during the 1904 season. Yet, Taylor wasn’t the best deaf player in the game’s history. That honor belongs to William Ellsworth Hoy (who was deaf but not completely mute), a speedy outfielder who played for 14 seasons near the turn of the century. Nicknamed "Dummy" (an unfortunately common name for deaf players in baseball’s early days), Hoy twice led his league in walks (in part because of the tiny strike zone created by his 5’4" frame), compiled a lifetime batting average of .287, and stole 594 bases. Some historians have even called for Hoy’s election to the Hall of Fame, citing him as one of the 19th century’s premier baserunners and defensive center fielders.
Thirty Years Ago
It’s an anniversary that will probably receive little attention, but it’s especially worth noting in the year 2000, given the offensive explosion that today’s game continues to undergo. Thirty years ago, an obscure utility infielder insured himself a permanent place in baseball history by compiling one of the most unexpected batting lines ever. Playing in the second game of a doubleheader on June 21, 1970, little-known Cesar "Cocoa" Gutierrez of the Tigers became the first player in modern day major league history to collect seven consecutive hits in one game. Gutierrez went 7-for-7, scored three runs, and drove in another run, keying Detroit to a 9-8 win in 12 innings against the Indians (Gutierrez’ effort also matched the 19th century record established by Wilbert Robinson, who went 7-for-7 in a game in 1892.)… A lifetime .215 hitter who had been struggling through a recent slump, Gutierrez banged out a double and six singles—three of the infield variety—in helping Detroit sweep a doubleheader at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Ironically, Gutierrez had been struggling so badly that Tigers manager Mayo Smith had kept him out of the lineup for nearly a week. "I was lucky," admitted the 27-year old Gutierrez, who coincidentally wore the No. 7 on his uniform. "But I tell them on radio I am a good hitter. Strong, man, strong."…The unexpected hitting exhibition by the five-foot, nine-inch Venezuelan lifted his batting average 31 points to .249 and overshadowed the home-run hitting exploits of several other players. Detroit’s Jim Northrup blasted a pair of home runs, while teammates Al Kaline and Mickey Stanley each reached the seats once. Chuck Hinton, Tony Horton, and Ted Uhlaender of the Indians also hit home runs in the four-hour game… Unfortunately for Gutierrez, his offensive outburst against the Indians was not a sign of things to come. Gutierrez would finish the 1970 season with a subpar .243 batting average, which prompted the Tigers to acquire veteran shortstop Eddie Brinkman from the Washington Senators after the season (as part of the Denny McLain blockbuster). In 1971, Gutierrez would once again pick up seven hits—this time over the course of the entire season!… The 1971 season would represent Gutierrez’ last in a major league uniform. After his playing days came to an end, Gutierrez managed briefly in the Mexican Pacific League. Now completely out of baseball, Gutierrez lives in Caracas in his native Venezuela.
SABR And NYC A Good Fit
Hats off to Evelyn Begley, a devoted member of SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research), who did a wonderful job in arranging and hosting my recent book signing in New York City. The signing was held as part of an-going "Baseball Book Reading Group" that Evelyn organizes in the Big Apple. On the second Saturday of each month, the New York City chapter of SABR gathers at the Union Square Barnes and Noble to hear a guest speaker and then discuss his or her baseball book. On July 8, the guest author will be Bill Ryczek, who authored When Johnny Comes Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom: 1865-70. For more information on the SABR get-togethers in New York City, call 212-477-8809.