Monday, August 31, 2009

Thou Shalt Not McCovet Thy Neighbor's First Baseman

Willie McCovey was the most fearsome left-handed power hitter of his generation, smashing 521 home runs, which, at the time of his retirement, was the National League record for lefties. He achieved this despite playing much of his career in cold and windy Candlestick Park, as well as during the 1960s, when pitchers usurped the balance of power and batting averages plummeted. "Stretch"—as the 6-foot-four, rail-thin McCovey was known—was a classy and gentle giant who won the 1959 Rookie of the Year Award though he played in only 52 games, commencing a career that saw him collect three home-run titles, twice lead the Senior Circuit in RBI, and earn the National League MVP in 1969.

A San Francisco mainstay for fifteen years, McCovey was traded to the San Diego Padres after the 1973 season. He hit well in southern California for two years, but after a miserable, injury-plagued summer of 1976, McCovey was purchased by the Oakland Athletics on August 30. He played 11 games for the A's during the remainder of that abortive season.

Or so say official records.

As a long-time baseball aficionado, historian, and collector, I know my stuff when it comes to the history of the sport. I can recite every World Series participant since 1903, I have a disturbing penchant for statistics, and I'm familiar with players of whom the casual baseball fan has never heard. But in all my years of watching, reading about, and collecting all things baseball, I have never once seen a photograph of Willie McCovey as a member of the Oakland Athletics. Their dynasty of the early 70s crumbling, the 1976 A's, sans Reggie, Catfish, and Ken Holtzman, still had enough left to nearly win the AL West. One would think that a team in the pennant race right up to the last week of the season might garner a little more attention from shutterbugs, especially for a newly acquired star who had belted 465 home runs, which, at that time, ranked second only to Hank Aaron among active players. But I've searched high and low, Googled until my fingers turned blue, and leafed through page after page—there seems to be no proof beyond statistical entries that McCovey ever donned an Oakland uniform. Sure, after the season, he rejoined the Giants as a free agent, so, if indeed McCovey had been in Oakland at the end of the 1976 campaign, he need only have walked over the Bay Bridge to neighboring San Francisco. But I question whether McCovey ever was an Oakland Athletic. What do 24 measly at-bats in the record book really prove? It's baseball hearsay. I need tangible evidence.

As in the case of Dave Kingman. Perhaps the most one-dimensional—and most jettisonable—player in baseball history, Kingman experienced a season unique in the annals of the Major Leagues: In 1977, Kingman played for no fewer than four teams. The New York Mets traded him in mid-June to San Diego, yet the Padres put Kingman on waivers in September, upon which the California Angels claimed him. But Kingman hit a putrid .194 in Anaheim, and the Halos traded him nine days later to the Yankees, where he finished out the regular season (never appearing in New York's World Series run). Kingman's stopovers with the Angels and Yankees were even briefer than McCovey's alleged cup of coffee in Oakland, but there's plenty of proof he suited up for them, as you can see.

Even Norm Cash, who was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Cleveland Indians after the 1959 season and then traded by Cleveland to the Detroit Tigers before he could even get into a regular-season game for the Tribe, bears proof of his brief encounter in the Forest City.

So where is the incontrovertible proof that Willie McCovey wore kelly green and Finley gold? His plaque in Cooperstown denotes his stay in Oakland, but why did McCovey make no mention of those 11 games in his Hall of Fame induction speech—not even the three walks he supposedly coaxed out of opposing hurlers? The record book shows that second-place Oakland parlayed McCovey's five RBI-less singles in those 24 at-bats into picking up 5½ games on Kansas City, only to fall 2½ games short at the wire. Why do middle-aged A's fans never lament that McCovey wasn't acquired a week earlier, since another week of .200 hitting could have provided the wins needed to eventually overtake the Royals? And why is there no "McCovey Cove" equivalent in Oakland Coliseum?

I've a hunch the McCovey acquisition was the concoction of A's owner, Charlie Finley. Even as Oakland was winning three consecutive World Series from 1972-74, the team never drew well. Oakland's highest finish in attendance during its dynastic run was only fifth in the league, and, pathetically, during its championship 1974 season, only the thoroughly mediocre Minnesota Twins fared worse at the American League gate. It's no secret that Finley was desperate for attendance—and who could blame him? Fielding a juggernaut that few came to see certainly hit him in his wallet and his pride. And with free agency about to turn baseball upside-down—ultimately forcing Charlie O. to break up his dynasty—the temptation to heighten appeal for his club must have been irresistable. So why not pretend to have acquired a superstar for your franchise, one who could bring in paying customers with his tape-measure blasts? After all, by 1976, the A's had sent their own superstars packing—Reggie traded to the Baltimore Orioles, and free-agent bucks reeling Catfish into New York. A fan favorite for 15 years in neighboring San Francisco, Willie McCovey possessed built-in star power that could get people into the seats. Clever enough—but the shrewd Finley may well have taken it a step further: Oakland announces it has purchased McCovey's contract from San flock to see the great slugger...but it never actually happens, allowing Finley to reap the proceeds while not having to pay McCovey, or pay for him.*

*Not to mention that same 1976 Athletics team that supposedly purchased McCovey also allegedly enjoyed six plate appearances from burnt-out Padres slugger Nate Colbert—again, no photographic evidence exists.

This is not unprecedented in Oakland. The official record book shows that, in 1972, the A's acquired fading slugger Orlando Cepeda from the Atlanta Braves. Cepeda—another popular, long-time San Francisco Giant who would be instantly welcome in Oakland—supposedly played three games for the A's that season. Yet, as with McCovey, I have never seen, nor can I locate, a single photograph of Cepeda in green and gold. Furthermore, Cepeda was traded to Oakland even-up for Denny McLain...yet, even though McLain had been washed up longer than Cepeda, Topps produced a baseball card of McLain's transaction without printing a counterpart card for Cepeda—further evidence that Cepeda, a big-time player as late as 1970, came to Oakland only in the twisted mental machinations of Charlie Finley.

After all, this was the mind that installed Harvey the mechanical rabbit, which popped up from a hole behind home plate and delivered fresh baseballs to the umpire.

Not to mention the mind that proposed orange baseballs...

So until someone produces visual proof of Willie McCovey in an Oakland Athletics uniform, I ain't buyin' that he ever played for them.

(Baseball cards copyright Topps Inc.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Yo! Pedro! Philly's What Your Plaque Should Show

With three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles, and the highest winning percentage of any 200-game winner of the modern era, Pedro Martinez is a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame. He dominated batters in a Koufaxian run from 1997 to 2003 with a combination of power and finesse that decimated opponents' batting averages. And after a decade of mediocrity, the Boston Red Sox finally began their ascendancy when they acquired Pedro in 1998, culminating in the 2004 World Series championship, the franchise's first in 86 years.

Sure, Martinez's greatest years were spent in Beantown, where he tossed more than half of his career victories and won a bewildering 76% of his decisions. A Red Sox cap is the logical choice for Pedro's Hall of Fame plaque. And yes, Pedro initially achieved superstardom in Montreal, where he snared his first Cy Young Award, set numerous franchise records, and pitched a perfect game for nine innings before surrendering a hit in the 10th. Hence, perhaps a sentimental case can be made for immortalizing him as an Expo. So, although the Baseball Hall of Fame selects the induction plaque's logo "based on where that player makes his most indelible mark," I urge Martinez to choose—and the Hall of Fame to permit—Pedro's plaque to feature a Philadelphia Phillies cap.

After all, for a pitcher whose lowest career winning percentage with a franchise is .582, Martinez now sports a perfect 1.000 for the Fightin' Phils. But more than mere statistics, Martinez should go into the Hall of Fame as a Phillie—even if he never wins another game—because baseball needs to ensure the continuation of scandal and controversy. Our national pastime has seen plenty of ignominy in the last few decades—from the Pete Rose imbroglio to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series to the continuing steroid fiasco. Major League baseball has taken a bigger black eye than Tony Conigliaro thanks to the sordid doings of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Raphael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco, Kirk Radomski, Brian McNamee, Bud Selig, and many others.

But these disgraces won't last forever. Baseball has taken steps that have virtually rid the sport of current steroid use, and although steroids has irrevocably distorted the record book, fans seem to have forgiven and forgotten. Baseball needs scandal and controversy—each successive generation thrives on its layer of sludge that sullies baseball's history: the Black Sox, Steve Bartman and Jeffrey Maier, Hall of Fame cronyism, cocaine and amphetamines, the designated hitter, the spitter, interleague play, the 1951 Giants' sign-stealing, 1992's The Babe, and on and on...

What would we fans do without scandal? Take scandal out of baseball and what have you got? A bunch of guys running after a ball hit with a stick—an act dangerously close to that borefest known as golf. So if Pedro Martinez's plaque is mounted in the Hall of Fame Gallery displaying a Phillies cap, a juicy brouhaha is guaranteed circa 2016. And it won't come a moment too soon, sandwiched between the inevitable uproar over robot pinch-runners and the discovery that 600-HR slugger Manny Ramirez had been corking his dreadlocks.

I further suggest that the official language of Pedro's plaque read:

Los Angeles, N.L., 1992-1993
Montreal, N.L., 1994-1997
Boston, A.L., 1998-2004
New York, N.L., 2005-2008
Philadelphia, N.L., 2009

A promising pitcher who reached peak late in career, winning a seven-run blowout in Phillies debut. Debut victory for Philadelphia saw him achieve ERA 0.07 less than 46-year-old teammate he replaced. Garnered several major awards and a World Series title earlier in career, but most of the opposing batters had stayed out late the night before or had flu. Brilliant tenure with Phils vaulted team from 1st place to 1st place and made him one of the most beloved figures in Phillies history to wear No. 45. Made as many hits in first game with Philadelphia as he had in seven years with Boston. Debut victory gave Philadelphia 63rd win of season, enabling team to later achieve 64th—a feat impossible without his victory.

(Graphics wizardry courtesy of Mount Drinkmore's Dave.)