Sunday, December 15, 2013


                Electors for the Baseball Hall of Fame can choose up to 10 recently active players for induction out of the 35 or so on our ballots, but in my 17 years of voting I can’t recall choosing more than seven in any one year. Keeping in mind that the Hall is for the greats, not the very goods, helps me focus in that regard.

This year, though, I’ll be picking 10, and my problem hasn’t been who to add but whom not to. It’s the richest candidate list in memory and could yield as many as four inductees, although the requirement that a player be named by 75% of the voters is a steep one.

It’s been a while—since 1991—that as many as three players were elected in the same year by the current or ex sportswriters, and in some years the number has been zero. That happened last year, and we scribes were castigated for spoiling the July induction party in Cooperstown, New York, where the Hall is situated.

 The affair went on as scheduled, and hung three new plaques by vote of one of the veterans’ committees that also decide such things, but the fact that the inductees (umpire Hank O’Day, team owner Jacob Ruppert and 19th-century catcher James “Deacon” White) had been dead a total of 226 years put a bit of a damper on the proceedings. Why the Hall continues to induct players no living person has seen perform is something I can’t understand.

We’ve all seen this year’s ballot first timers, and a great group it is. Heading it are two-thirds of the best baseball-playing golf threesome ever—Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. (The third was John Smoltz, who’ll be up for election next year.) Another newcomer is Frank Thomas, the Chicago White Sox’s all-time best hitter save for Shoeless Joe. I’ll be voting enthusiastically for all three.

Maddux and Glavine anchored the pitching staff that made the Atlanta Braves the National League’s best team in the 1990s, albeit one that won only a single World Series, in 1995. Pitching these days is dominated by 6-foot-6 types who can throw a strawberry through a battleship, but Maddux and Glavine are especially praiseworthy in my book because they’re ordinary-sized guys who got by on skill and guile. Maddux is a sure bet to get in—his 355 career wins are eighth-most all-time and his 3,371 strikeouts rank 10th—but Glavine’s 305 wins weren’t far behind in that most-important category. Between them they won six Cy Young Awards (Maddux had four, Glavine two) and further distinguished themselves with bat (Glavine) and glove (Maddux). Both also are (or were) near-scratch golfers, and I hope they’ll be playing a celebratory round in Cooperstown on induction weekend.

Thomas is a longer shot to win election, partly because some voters are sniffy about designated hitters, which he was for part of his career, but his numbers are of Hall quality. His 521 home runs rank 18th all-time, his 1,704 RBIs are 22nd and his 1,667 walks are 10th, and he won two American League MVP awards, in 1993 and ’94. His star would be brighter if his best year (1994) hadn’t been cut short by the strike that cancelled that year’s last six weeks and World Series and left the White Sox in first place in their division. The big fella was batting .353 with 38 home runs and 101 ribbies in that one, and his figures might have been monumental if the last 50 or so games had been played.

The other seven players I’m naming I’ve named before and see no reason not to again.  I’m rooting hardest for Jack Morris to win election because he’s in his 15th and last year on the sportswriters’ ballot. Last year he fell just short with a 67.7% vote, and it wouldn’t take much more to put him over the top this time.

  It’s beyond me why Morris doesn’t have a plaque already. He was a horse of a starting pitcher, with 254 career victories and 175 complete games, and a big-game performer with few peers. He threw two complete-game World Series wins for the 1984 champion Detroit Tigers and went 2-0 for the Minnesota Twins in the 1991 event. His seventh-game, 10-inning shutout in that one, versus the Braves, capped the best Series I covered.

I’ll be voting for Craig Biggio, the former Houston Astros’ hero who topped the “magical” 3,000-hit mark (with 3,060) in 20 seasons, during which he played catcher and second base. I can’t think of another player who manned both those demanding positions ably. He got a 68.2% vote last year and also needs just a small boost to prevail.

I’m not sniffy about DHs and I’ll be voting for Edgar Martinez, the best ever in the slot. Baseball’s annual Outstanding Designated Hitter Award is named for him. I’ll check the box for Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of his era; the relief pitcher Lee Smith, who ranks third in all-time saves; Alan Trammell, a fine shortstop over a 20-year career; and the pitcher Curt Schilling, who topped the career 3,000-strikeouts mark and whose post-season record (11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 19 starts) is second to none. That’s 10, isn’t it?

The ballot is so full I didn’t have room for a couple of players I otherwise might have favored. First-time nominee Mike Mussina had 270 pitching victories and a .638 winning percentage that’s sixth among starters with at least 250 victories. Tim Raines was a whirling Dervish on the bases and hit very well, too. Another time, maybe.

Once again I didn’t vote for three players whose otherwise-Hall-worthy careers have a chemical odor. Evidence shows that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa tainted their feats with steroids use, and while nobody is erasing their records, or demanding a refund of their enormous salaries, the Hall properly remains out of their reach, as their poor showings in their first ballot appearances last year showed (Clemens topped the three at 37.6%).

As I noted last year, in baseball there are two kinds of cheating. It’s one thing for a fielder who traps a fly ball to raise it in triumph as though he’d caught it, but quite another to cold-bloodedly ponder risks and rewards and choose to break the rules by juicing up, as Bonds, Clemens and Sosa apparently did. They’ve had their rewards and their bill is now due.


Sunday, December 1, 2013


             Every so often I read something that stops me cold. One such occasion occurred a week ago last Sunday when I was reading the Arizona Republic’s account of Arizona State U.’s football victory over UCLA the previous day. The paper noted, matter-of-factly, that the win earned ASU head coach Todd Graham $330,000 in bonuses-- $100,000 because it was his team’s ninth of the season and $230,000 more because it clinched a spot in the PAC-12 title game. If ASU wins that game the $230,000 bonus would double to $460,000, or 20% of his $2.3 million annual salary, the paper reported.
             I had to read that twice before it sunk in. A guy making $2.3M per gets a $330,000 bonus for doing what he was hired to do?  And in a state that has cut education funding during the term of its present, severely conservative governor?

 I can summarize my first thought thusly: teeeesh.
                My second thought was of Woody Hayes. Somewhere in my memory file was the fact that the most he ever earned in a season during his 28 years as head football coach at Ohio State U. was $43,000, and even though that tenure ended 30-plus years ago—in 1978—it isn’t exactly ancient history. Moreover, while Graham’s rep and credentials are modest, Hayes was a giant in his field, with multiple national titles to his credit and mythic status on his home campus.

                Woody was offered raises but turned them down on ground that his pay was OK for a college faculty member. When he got bonuses for signal victories he’d divide them among his staff.  If you’d have told him that in 2013 big-time college football coaches would become lordly CEOs routinely being paid in the $2 million-$5 million annual range, he’d have said you were nuts.

                It’s interesting even to me that I’m citing Hayes favorably here, because I didn’t like him much when he coached.  That was partly because his teams usually beat mine (Illinois), but also because I never cared for the way he compared football to war, a much more serious enterprise.  Further, he was the sort of man who demanded discipline from his troops (oops, players)  but couldn’t exercise it himself,  aiming his frequent sideline tantrums at photographers, game officials and inanimate objects such as first-down markers.  He got the gate at OSU when he finally went too far in that department, punching an opposing player who’d strayed into the Buckeye bench area during a game.

                My negative impression of Woody had its origin with my first encounter with him. I was in the press box during the OSU-Illinois game in 1958, making myself useful in various ways, when Bert Bertine, my boss at the Champaign-Urbana Courier, dispatched me to shag a few post-game Buckeye quotes for his story.  With a few minutes remaining I went down to the field, and when the Ohio State players streamed into their locker room at the gun, I streamed with them, as I’d done before with other teams after other games. Notebook and pencil in hand, I was talking to a player when I was confronted by Woody, red-faced angry even in victory.

                “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

                “Er, I’m press,” gulped the 20-year-old me.

                “Well get the hell out of here until I let you guys in,”   the great man barked.

                Woody was reputed to be a man of parts, however, and years later, as a grown-up columnist (sort of), I thought it might be worthwhile to check in on the old lion in his winter of retirement. I visited him the Friday before the 1984 Ohio State-Michigan game. We spent more than an hour talking in his office in the ROTC Building on the Columbus campus; a longtime student of military history, he was given a faculty appointment in the department after he was bounced as a coach. Then we had lunch in the university’s faculty club, where he seemed to know most of the other diners.

 After that we walked over to the football stadium, where he gave a talk at the Senior Tackle, an OSU ritual in which graduating-senior players take a last, ceremonial whack at a tackling dummy. About 2,000 people showed up to watch in very cold weather, and they gave him ovations coming and going.

At age 71 Woody’s fire still burned, albeit a bit lower than when he was coaching. In his office he told me he was up for the Michigan game as much as in days of yore. “Us versus Michigan! Best doggone rivalry there is!” he said. “Competition is what makes you go, you know? You beat nobody, what have you got? You beat somebody and you’ve done something. Yessir!”

He mused that teaching history to ROTC cadets meant that his life had come full circle from his younger days. The son of a school superintendent in small-town Ohio, he’d grown up thinking of becoming a classroom teacher before football sidetracked him. As far as he was concerned, coaching was more teaching than anything else. “I spent more time with my players in a week than most professors do with their students in a year,” he noted.

He went on: “Football teaches things you don’t learn elsewhere. A player learns to get up after he’s been knocked down. He learns to run the play that’s called, whether he’s carrying the ball or not. And he learns that nothing in life comes easy.”

He left his desk to get a book from a case on a wall. It was a volume that contained the Irwin Shaw short story, “The 80-Yard Run.”  Said he: “Some people think it’s a sad story because that run he made in school was the best thing that fella ever did, but I look at it differently. If he hadn’t made the run he’d have had damned little to look back on with pride.”

That afternoon he expanded on that theme in his talk at the Senior Tackle. “This morning I got a call from Fred Bruney,” he told the players. “He said ‘Coach, remember what I did 32 years ago today?’ I said I sure did. He intercepted three passes that helped us beat Michigan. He’ll smile about that on his deathbed. You do the same thing and you’ll have something to smile about, too”