Growing up around Atlanta in the 1990’s there was plenty of great baseball games and players to watch. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Chipper Jones were all Hall of Fame players. Andruw Jones, Otis Nixon, Javy Lopez, and so many more were great players to watch. These riches on the diamond were amazing, but as time has gone by the realization of how great it was to watch these players night after night has set in. Fans across the country might only have a few chances each season to see these players and they understood that you should take the time to slow down and appreciate them.
The understanding that I need to slow down and watch when a great player passes through town has sunk in more as I get older. Appreciating the greatest of a player goes beyond the highlight reel plays. It is watching how they approach each pitch throughout a game, both at the plate and in the field. There are only a select few players in baseball that can capture my attention even when they are not making great plays. Players who make me stop and watch just in case they do something amazing.
These stop what you are doing and watch players are the elite few. Some I have had the pleasure of watching in person, others I missed my opportunity to watch their greatness. When I was living in New York for graduate school and the few years after, I was lucky enough to see Derek Jeter play on a few occasions. Jeter was never the best hitter, but he was good one. He did not have the most power, the biggest arm, or greatest fielding range, but he commanded everything inside Yankee Stadium. While only getting to see Jeter in the later part of his career, it was still special to see one of the few players who was respected across baseball without exception. It takes a special player to be respected by Red Sox fans even though he was a lifelong Yankee that broke Boston’s heart on so many occasions. Watching Jeter play consumed a majority of my time at Yankee Stadium. I watched how he moved with every pitch and how he was the man on the field and yet everyone knew in their heart that he was never the most talented. Derek Jeter could do everything on a baseball diamond, but it was what did not show up in the box score, which set him apart from everyone else.
I usually went to Mets games simply because the tickets were cheaper, however when I did venture up to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium it was special. Even inside the new Yankee Stadium the history of the Yankees resonates. Watching two players who will and should be first ballot Hall of Famers, Jeter and Ichiro, plus my favorite player in Andruw Jones meant the 2012 Yankees were the best for me. Watching Jones patrol the outfield with the Braves growing up spoiled me. If it was catchable, he seemed to always catch it. The 2012 Yankees meant I got to relieve a bit of my childhood with Andruw Jones, watch the coolest man in baseball in Derek Jeter, and watch one of the greatest pure hitters of all time in Ichiro.
The beauty of Ichiro’s swing and his athleticism at the plate are what always caught my eye. He seemed, and still seems, like a magician at the plate. He never seems to be fooled on a pitch; he might swing and miss but never look awful in doing it. Ichiro is to me what a baseball player ought to be. He can beat you with power, though he rarely displays it. He can put the ball in play and then beat you with his speed. Then on defense, he can chase down fly balls with the best of them. If runners are on base they advance at their own risk, as Ichiro is blessed with a cannon for an arm. Ichiro has all five tools, though he keeps his power hidden until it is absolutely necessary. Watching Ichiro hit is the closest I will ever come to watching a hitter on the same level like a Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, or Honus Wagner. Watching Ichiro and Jeter play were and are a return to my childhood. A return to when baseball was simple and the players were larger than life; the baseball that was and forever will be my first love.
I have not gotten to see every player I wanted to see play in person, though I did on television. The two biggest players that I did not get to see play in person that I will forever be sad about are Ken Griffey Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero. Yes, I saw both players on television, but not in person. There is a big difference in appreciating how great a player is when you see them not through a camera lens, but with your own eyes.
The two most obvious reasons I never saw Ken Griffey Jr. play in person are that he played in Seattle and Cincinnati and I lived in Atlanta. This meant at best his team would come to Atlanta once a year. Interleague play did not start until 1997. This meant seven seasons of Griffey’s 22-year career were already gone. Then there were the last three years in Seattle before he moved on to the Cincinnati Reds. There were some opportunities to see Griffey play in Atlanta during interleague at some point with the Mariners, but I went to only two or three games a year growing up. So not great odds, plus we usually went to the less popular games with the slightly cheaper tickets and the smaller crowds. I loved going to games, but looking back, I wish I had seen Griffey. His time with the Reds meant he only came to town one time a season, and sadly there were several lost seasons in Cincinnati due to injuries. Griffey was, and remains, the prototype for what it means to be cool on a baseball field. Jeter was New York cool, suave. Griffey was fun, exciting, and electric. His wiggling batting stance is still mimicked by people today, though admittedly no one else, even in softball leagues can ever hope to hit a ball like he did. Griffey could amaze you and do things that just did not make sense for a player his size. You expected Frank Thomas and Albert Belle to hit the ball a mile, but Griffey at worst hit the ball as far as they did, plus he could run like the wind. Ken Griffey Jr. was a once every few generations type player and I missed him. As great as his highlight reel is, I can only imagine how great it would have been to see him play in person.
Missing several opportunities to see Ken Griffey Jr. makes sense, not seeing Vladimir Guerrero play does not. Guerrero spent 8 of his 16 seasons with the Montreal Expos. Playing in the National League East with the Braves meant I had plenty of opportunities to watch him play, but for whatever reason I never did. It was not from a lack of interest, I just never seemed to go to Turner Field when the Expos were in town. Not sure why, just the way it worked out. Guerrero was a lot like Andruw Jones, great power and speed and a howitzer for an arm. The main difference between Guerrero and Jones was that Guerrero was a more complete hitter and Jones played for Atlanta, not against them. Vladimir Guerrero never met a pitch he could not hit. It reminded me of playing baseball in the street with my brother and friends. If it was within reach, you swung, partly so you did not have to go pick it up and partly because it may be the best pitch you will see. Guerrero never seemed to care if the pitch was a foot outside and head high, he could serve it into the outfield. He could also bloop a ball into short left field after the pitch bounced in front of the plate. Ichiro is a magician in the batter’s box in the sense that he can almost place where he hits the ball. Guerrero is a difference sort of magician as he can hit nearly everything thrown towards the plate, and hit it well. The other thing I missed was seeing Guerrero unleash his arm. There are few players with arms that stop the opponent from even attempting to take an extra base; Rick Ankiel and Jeff Francoeur are the players in recent years that come to mind regarding the fear their arms put into the minds of opposing base runners. Perhaps Vladimir Guerrero was not the best player in terms of doing the conventional things on a diamond the best, though he did them extremely well. What I missed the most in not seeing Guerrero play in person is his ability to leave fans speechless. He could hit or throw a baseball a mile, or single on a pitch that most players could not even reach. Vladimir Guerrero took the sort of baseball that I grew up playing to the Major Leagues and still made it look as amazing as it felt.
The opportunity to see something unique and amazing at a baseball game exists every time the gates open. You could see Matt Cain throw a Perfect Game (as Jesse did in San Francisco), watch the final game at old Yankee Stadium (as John, Jesse, and I did in 2008), or just see a fun game like I have on so many occasions. Baseball is a team sport played by individuals. These individuals are what make the game great. Players of all size can find success on a baseball diamond, whether they are Jose Altuve at 5’6”, Randy Johnson at 6’10”, or Jonathan Broxton at 300 lbs. Great players come in every physical form possible and they are all capable to doing something amazing. Most of us do not have the financial ability to go to every game, but we should all make the time when these elite, once in a generation type players come to town. Continuing to put off going to see Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Aroldis Chapman, and others will be a sad memory. There is no guarantee they will do something amazing at the game you attend, but you will still be able to say you saw them play. No one cares if the one game you saw Sandy Koufax pitch he did not win the game, you still got to see Koufax pitch. Do not miss your opportunity to see great players in person. We can all watch highlight reels, but watching in person is always special and you will remember it better than any video.
The Unforgettable Season by G.H. Fleming
1908 was a great year for baseball. It was more than just the most recent World Series title for the Chicago Cubs. The season was one of the most exciting pennant races in baseball history. The Chicago Cubs, the New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Pirates fought each other from Opening Day throughout the season until the final day of the season. Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, (Joe) Tinker-to-(Johnny) Evers-to-(Frank) Chance, John McGraw played prominent roles throughout the season.
The excitement of the pennant race is retold through newspaper articles that were published during the great 1908 season in The Unforgettable Season by G.H. Fleming. This approach to the retelling of the pennant race allows the reader to be transported back in time. The use of the newspaper articles prevents the book from taking on too much of an academic tone, but rather it exudes the storytelling of every man. Fleming only inserts necessary background information, which helps to bridge the gap over the years and prevents any information from going by without understood. The daily notes regarding the previous day’s action show the dominance of the Pirates, Cubs, and Giants over the rest of the National League. The ebb and flow of these three great teams only built the tension and excitement of the season the closer it drew to October.
The most infamous play of the 1908 season surrounded the actions of Fred Merkle. While I knew the story of Merkle prior to reading The Unforgettable Season, Fleming allows the newspapers to paint a much clearer picture of the man prior to his gaining infamy. This clearer picture of what he could have become as a player before the newspapers and fans used him as a scapegoat for why the Giants did not reach the World Series. (Keith Olbermann of ESPN recounts Merkle’s story well).
Fleming does an excellent job of stay out of the way of history. He allows the story to tell itself. This is a refreshing approach, as it would be easy for any author to unintentionally get into the middle of the story. Modern day analysis of the season could shed more light on the details of the 1908 season. However, I believe Fleming was smart to simply stay out of the way of the history. The Unforgettable Season provides a glimpse of how great a pennant race can be, however the pennant race is not the same as it once was as the playoffs have expanded beyond just the World Series. The expanded playoffs are not better or worse, just different. The expanded playoffs allow more teams and fans to stay engaged in the baseball season later in the season than they might otherwise. Fleming provides an excellent read for anyone who wants to gain a greater understanding of baseball and its history.
More from The Winning Run library.
Long winters without baseball are awful. However, one of the best ways to keep your love of the game alive and well is by reading baseball. My library has plenty and I wanted to share a few with you.
One of Mickey Mantle’s many biographies. In The Mick you get a view of his life during his career but not so much on the field. He talks about teammates, parties, his family, and career moments. You get a feel for his love of the game, but also the hatred of things that occurred in his career. It is an enjoyable and quick read.
Yes this one is about the Red Sox and their championship season in 2004. Yes it was painful to read (as the resident Yankee fan). Despite this, authors Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King make you keep reading as they chronicle the Red Sox through email and blog posts and their knowledge. They are true friends and true fans of baseball. They remind me of my two partners in this blog and their knowledge and passion. This is a great read and a great part of history.
A chronicling of Joe DiMaggio’s record 56 game hitting streak. This is a great book about DiMaggio’s life to that point and what he went through during that time. It looks into what pressures and stress, and how DiMaggio dealt with them, his family, and teammates. Books like 56 help to show the personal side to these legends we will never be able to meet in real life.
Why haven’t you read this? The movie is great, and the book is amazing. I didn’t want to even put it here but figured it deserved recognition. Read this or you will never get on base.
The most exciting play in baseball is the triple. Rarely is a triple a forgone conclusion. Usually it is a crazy dash around the bases, while the fans and teammates yell for the batter to run faster and to either stop at second base or to slide into third. A triple suddenly changes the complexion of an inning and of a game. The pitcher can be sailing along and with one pitch can go from relaxed and pitching from the wind up to having a distraction on third who makes you shorten your windup from the stretch. The triple is a game changer.
The way that baseball is played and how fields are laid out has reduced the triple to an rarity. The home run has replaced the triple as the means of pushing across multiple runners with one swing and changing the fortunes of a team. The triple has become a lost art. The game changes as time passes, different strategies and approaches are adopted. Pitchers no longer are expected to pitch complete games nearly ever time they take the mound. Instead pitching into the 7th inning is considered a good outing. Batters no longer content to hit singles and then rely on stolen bases or the hit and run to get them around the bases. Baseball changes and different aspects of the game change. Unfortunately the triple has become less of a weapon used by teams, and it has reduced the prevalence of the most exciting play in baseball.
Understanding how baseball has changed and how the triple has become less and less utilized you simply need to look at how modern players stack up against players from baseball’s past. Sam Crawford holds the record for most career triples with 309. The remaining of the top 5 in career triples are Ty Cobb with 295, Honus Wagner with 252, Jake Beckley with 244, and Roger Connor with 233. The active leader in triples in Carl Crawford with 117 triples, this is good enough for 103rd all time. Crawford is at best on the back side of his prime, and at worst he is on the back side of his career as a whole. Rounding out the top 5 among the active leaders for career triples are Jose Reyes with 111 triples, he ranks 123rd all time. Jimmy Rollins has 107 triples which is good enough for 138th all time. Juan Pierre is fourth among active players with 94 triples, he is 189th all time. Rounding out the top 5 of active players with career triples is Ichiro Suzuki with 83, which has him with the 256th most career triples. None of these players have much of a chance to threaten the career record. Age and time will eventually catch up to all of them, thus protecting Sam Crawford and his record. It is easy to argue the career triples record is safer than nearly every baseball record, including Joe DiMaggio‘s 56 game hit streak.
The difficulty of the career record may be out of reach due to the changing of how baseball is played. However reaching the top 5 for most triples in a season is more attainable, although breaking the single season record maybe completely out of reach. Chief Wilson holds the single season triple record with 36 in 1912. David Orr is tied for second with 31 triples in 1886, which was tied by Heine Reitz in 1894. Perry Werden hit 29 triples in 1893. Rounding out the top 5 for most triples in a single season are Harry Davis in 1897 and Sam Thompson in 1894 with 28 triples. The heyday of the triple was during the dead ball era, and there have been only a few players who have had even a single season with a high number of triples. They have become more and more rare as time has passed. Since 1994 only four players have had a single single where they hit 20 or more triples: Curtis Granderson with 23 triples in 2007, Lance Johnson with 21 triples in 1996, Christian Guzman with 20 triples in 2000, and Jimmy Rollins with 20 triples in 2007.
Baseball fans should appreciate the players who can round the bases at top speed to go from batter to 90 feet away from scoring. The triple has become a rare event in baseball and it should be treasured when it does happen. The changing of the game has protected Sam Crawford’s and Chief Wilson’s records from being broken. While I personally love seeing triples, the evolution of baseball is good for the game as it continually reinvents itself. The premium placed on power in today’s game will mean the triple will become less common. Players are bigger and stronger, which usually means they are not nearly as fast. This reduction of speed means there will be plenty of doubles and home runs, but the triple and stolen base will be a little less common and when they are used they should excite fans and players even more.
The triple is becoming a lost art. While it is unfortunate that part of baseball’s history is becoming more and more rare, it is just part of the evolution of the game. The triple may be a thing of the past, it still has a place in the modern game. Playing small ball will never go out of style, and because of that the triple will remain an exciting part of baseball forever. The triple is not completely lost, it is just in the background and shows itself on occasion, and when it does it will ignite baseball fans everywhere.
Born on September 11, 1886 in Narrows, Georgia, Ty Cobb would become one of the greatest players in baseball history. During his 24 year playing career, 22 with the Detroit Tigers and two with the Philadelphia Athletics, Cobb hit over .300 23 times. His rookie year in 1905, Cobb hit .240 in 150 at bats, however he would never hit below .316 (his second season) again for the rest of his career. His .367 career batting average remains a Major League record, which is unlikely to be surpassed. He hit over .400 three times during his career (1911-.420, 1912-.409, and 1922-.401). Remarkably Cobb did not win the batting title in 1922, as George Sisler hit .420 for the St. Louis Browns. In 1909, Cobb won the Triple Crown leading the American League with a .377 batting average, 9 home runs, and 107 RBI. The 1911 season was one of Cobb’s best seasons, and arguably one of the greatest of all time. Cobb hit .420, collected 248 hits, 47 doubles, 24 triples, 127 RBI, scored 147 runs, 83 stolen bases, SLG .621, and OPS 1.088; all of which led the American League. Cobb’s efforts earned him the Chalmers Award, the precursor to the MVP.
The legendary tales of Cobb sharpening his spikes to intimidate others shows how intense of a competitor Cobb was on the field. Cobb knew the strike zone as well as any hitter to have ever played the game. He had only 680 strikeouts during his career, striking out over 50 times in a season only once. His incredible plate discipline along with his speed on the base path presented a major problem to opposing teams. Cobb was almost sure to make contact with any pitch, which made the hit and run play possible any time a runner was on base. If the defense tried to prevent the runner from advancing, Cobb could hit the ball to foil the defenses plans. Once he was on base, Cobb could distract the pitcher from the hitter. Few, if any, infielders wanted to get in his way as he advanced around the bases for fear of injury from his spikes. Cobb had 898 stolen bases during his career. It was nearly impossible to keep Cobb off the bases and once he was there between his speed and intelligence opponents were unlikely to get him out.
Cobb’s fierce nature on the field was unsurpassed during his playing career, most notably with his high spikes. However, Cobb’s intensity extended beyond the field, as in 1912 he went into the stands in New York while playing the Highlanders and beat a man after the fan hurled insults at Cobb during a game.
Away from the baseball field Cobb was a shrewd investor, investing heavily in Coca Cola during its early years. He was also a generous man, and his generosity off the field continues to be felt today. Cobb founded the Ty Cobb Educational foundation, which has helped thousands of Georgia students to attend college by awarding scholarships. To date, more than thirteen million dollars have been awarded to students. Cobb also established the Cobb Memorial Hospital in 1950. This hospital has become the Ty Cobb Healthcare System which continues to serve rural areas of Northwest Georgia.
Cobb was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. He received 222 out of 226 votes. He received more votes than the other members of the 1936 class: Honus Wagner (215), Babe Ruth (215), Christy Mathewson (205), and Walter Johnson (189). Cobb earned the honor of being the first inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This honor was bestowed upon him as he received the highest vote total among those in the first class in 1936. Cobb’s 98.23% of the Voting for the Hall of Fame remains the fourth best all time, behind only Tom Seaver (98.84%), Nolan Ryan (98.79%), and Cal Ripken Jr. (98.53%).