Friday, April 28, 2017

The Maddux on a Baseball Card

If you've read much of my writing, you're likely aware that when I was a kid, baseball cards were a huge deal to me, really taking off when Topps released its classic 1987 set, the one with the wood paneling trim. I say they were a huge deal when I was a kid, but it's not as though I ever entirely let them go. Last summer in fact, I spent hours over the course of my weeks off from teaching loosely organizing the thousands and thousands of cards I had in a couple of large cardboard boxes in the basement. First I sorted them by sport (because I had a few football and basketball cards as well, along with some Star Wars and Marvel superhero cards too. Then I sorted the baseball cards by brand. There were Donruss and Fleer, Bowman and Score, Upper Deck and O-Pee-Chee. By far the largest pile was the Topps one though. My first love, and always to remain my greatest. And because of that, when I came upon something new today, I beamed with excitement the way I would have when I pulled a Kirby Puckett or a Bo Jackson from a pack as a kid.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #6: Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols was born the same year as me. Same month, in fact. On Opening Day in 2001, he became the first person younger than me to appear in the Major Leagues. He is by far the best player born in 1980, and while it's too early to know for sure, there's a strong chance he'll go down as the greatest player born at any point in the 80s. (Not that anyone actually keeps track of such a thingThat Pujols is now one of the league's elder statesmen is a reminder that I'm getting older too. I take some comfort in knowing that while 37 is old for baseball, it's only the early stages of middle age for the rest of the world. He was a star from the beginning, and I was aware of the proximity of our births from the beginning, so for his entire career, he's felt like something of an analog to me, if a somewhat more rich, famous, and successful one.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #7: Pedro Martinez

As a child, I was drawn to position players. Home runs, stolen bases, diving catches... those were the things that captured me, and those are things position players do. When I went to a game, or sat down to watch one on TV, I wanted a high-scoring slugfest. In my ideal scenario, the guys standing on the mound as baseballs were whacked all over the stadium hardly mattered. As an adult though, it's the opposite. I now want to a see a pitchers' duel, two guys matching each other, scoreless frame for scoreless frame. If I'm not watching the Indians, I'm watching whichever game offers me the best possible arms. Greg Maddux, who I consider my favorite player ever, played a big role in that, but when I think about planning my day around being able to watch a guy, it's Pedro Martinez who comes to mind. And if my life depending on a ballgame, and all I could control was who would pitch, it's Pedro Martinez I'd hand the ball to.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #8: Ken Griffey Jr.

This seems like a subjective thing, I know, but Ken Griffey Jr. was the ballplayer for my generation. The #1 overall pick in 1987, Griffey made his MLB debut on Opening Day in 1989, when he was still a teenager. He was a huge deal right from the start, popular enough that in just his second season, he was voted by fans to be a starter for the All-Star Game, making him the second-youngest position player ever to be so honored. (Only Al Kaline was voted in at a younger age, and by just one month.) By the end of his age-30 season, he'd hit 40+ home runs in seven different seasons. Before Griffey, no one so young had done that more than five times. He made breathtaking plays in center field, the kind every kid pretended to make when he was at Little League practice or alone in his backyard, and won ten consecutive Gold Gloves during the 90s. He finished in the top five of the AL MVP vote five times, winning the award in 1997, and having an excellent case for it in 1993, 1994, and 1996 as well. He was chosen for the All-Century team, despite not yet having turned 30. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016, having received a record 99.32% of the vote. Only a fool would leave Griffey off their ballot.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #9: Chipper Jones

Larry Jones Jr.'s father was a baseball coach, and when the boy took to baseball at a young age, his family saw it as a sign that he was a "chip off the old block," which is why they began to call him Chipper. Two players still to come in this countdown are the sons of former Major League players, and a number of others on the list had a father or other close family member who played college or semi-pro ball. I wonder how much more likely a child is to become a great player if they grow up with someone who was a great player. And whatever the difference is, how much of it is the actual genes, how much of it is having someone in your life who can teach you the skills, how much of it is the connections that family member may have, and how much of it is having someone who's trying to bend your life in that particular direction?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #10: Jeff Bagwell

Did Jeff Bagwell have too little power, or too much? Some believe his numbers just weren't impressive enough; he hit "only" 449 home runs, leaving him a couple solid seasons short of 500, which itself isn't even an automatic ticket to Cooperstown anymore. Not enough power for a first baseman. Others believe his prodigious blasts mean he must have been on steroids. Too much power, very suspicious. There's nothing that really links Bagwell to any banned substance; his name wasn't on any of the lists of reported users that have been released over the years. He was strong though, which is all it takes for some to think you were up to no good. His numbers weren't good enough! On the other hand... He must have been cheating! Bagwell has been stuck between a rock and a hard place; I can't think of another player whose status has been hit so hard by both sides. I don't know how to convince anyone who thinks Bagwell was cheating, except to say you could think that of anyone. As for the people who don't think Bagwell's numbers were quite good. Look again, and maybe look just a little closer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The past I am borne back ceaselessly into

The afternoon before Game 5 of the World Series, I went for a run. The weekend before I had skipped the Frank Lloyd Wright Race, my hometown's annual 10K, for the first time in years, because my right knee has been bothering me a little, and I didn't want to aggravate it. I'm not in race shape, but I always go for at least a short run on the weekend. My plan that day was to do four miles. The night before, the Indians had won Game 4, giving them a 3 to 1 lead over the Cubs. It was possible Sunday night would bring the Tribe its first crown since 1948. As my wife could tell you, I'm generally pretty optimistic, not prone to worrying, instead believing things will get done, things will work out. My favorite baseball team is my exception. When it comes to the Indians, I expect the worse. I wouldn't believe they'd win the World Series until it happened, not one pitch sooner, but they were as close as a team could be, needing to win just one more game, and with three chances to do it. They were on my mind when I set out that afternoon, and I found myself pulled towards the house I lived in when I first fell in love with the team, now more than 30 years gone by.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #11: Adrian Beltre

Why do we love the ones we love? Some of the people we love, they loved us first. Loving them back felt natural without us ever really thinking about it. I don't remember a time when I didn't love my parents and my sister. There may be ups and down, but love is the blackboard, whatever else goes on it only chalk dust. Some of the people we love, it's through the accumulation of shared experiences and survived battles. Most of my closest friends are people I've known for decades. Those relationships have had their share of tumult, but we've come out on the other side, and now it's hard to imagine those bonds ever being broken. Some of the people we love, almost immediately they're exactly the person we needed. I met my wife when I was seven years removed from really having my feet under me, at a moment when another relationship, one that had never been quite right, was in the process of disintegrating. It took some time for me to find the courage to ask her out, but within weeks of our first date I had the ineffable something I'd been missing.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #12: Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas was the best hitter the American League has had in the thirty years this project is focused on. He finished his career with a batting line of .301/.419/.555 and a wRC+ of 154, a figure which puts him among the top 20 in baseball history. He hit 521 home runs and 495 doubles. He scored 1494 runs and had 1704 RBI. He hit massive home runs, and he combined that awesome power with patience and plate discipline held by few players in history, which helped him draw 100+ walks in ten different seasons, a total topped by only Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams. In 1993 and 1994 Thomas became the first player since Roger Maris in 1960 an 1961 to win back-to-back American League MVP Awards. There should be no doubt about Thomas' excellence as a hitter. Having said that, allow me to also say this:

There's no player I've hated more than Frank Thomas.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #13: Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling started 19 postseason games in his career, with a 2.33 ERA in 133.1 innings. He went 7+ innings while allowing no more than two runs in 13 of those starts, including two shutouts. In the 2001 postseason he pitched a complete game in Game 1 and Game 5 of the NLDS, and then pitched another in the NLCS, striking out 12. He started three games in the World Series, going 7+ innings in each of them, and allowing a total of only four runs. In his six starts that postseason, Schilling had a record 56 strikeouts in 48.1 innings, with a 1.12 ERA. During the 2004 ALDS, a tendon in Schilling's ankle tore. He underwent a procedure to stabilize the ankle before Game 6 of the ALCS, then went out and won. The suture began to give way during the game, leading Schilling's sock to famously soak through with blood. He underwent the procedure again a few days later, so that he could help the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years.

If Schilling had done nothing else in his life, he'd still be rightly remembered as one of the greatest postseason players in baseball history.