Posted tagged ‘Pittsburgh Pirates’

Loving the Twins and Tim Wakefield


My favorite players are Twins.  My all-time favorite was Kirby Puckett, followed ever so slightly by Roy Smalley.  My next favorite players include Brad Radke, Torii Hunter, and Joe Mauer.  I’m a Twins fan to the core, and unsurprisingly all of my favorite players have spent significant chunks of their career with the franchise.  But if you move into that benighted circle of those who have never been graced by a Twins uniform, all is not darkness and despair.  And in this realm full of non-Twins, written about extensively by such famous sports journalists as Dante Alighieri, my favorite player, for years, has been Tim Wakefield.

Last night, Wakefield pursued his elusive 200th victory against God’s elect, getting a lead in the eight on an error by the aforementioned Joe Mauer.  In a year in which the Twins are disastrously bad, it was easy, for a single night, to hope for Wakefield’s triumph, and I would be thrilled to welcome him to the 200-win club.  Unfortunately, his bullpen blew it in the bottom of the eighth, delaying his quest for 200 for another start.

What’s not to like about Wakefield?  He had the misfortune of joining the Pirates just as the franchise collapsed, and he did not start his career until age 25.  He lost part of his best season to the strike in 1995.  In that season, he went 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA (165 ERA+).  He finished third in AL Cy Young voting, behind his polar opposite, Randy Johnson.  Without the strike he would already have 200 wins.  His best playoff run was in the ALCS in 2003, when he went 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings.   But the 5.65 ERA of Pedro Martinez, the 6.43 ERA of Derek Lowe, and the 7.36 ERA of John Burkett kept the Yankees in the series, leading to Wakefield’s one bad pitch to Aaron Boone.

Through it all, Wakefield kept pitching.  He is now 45, and he has pitched for 19 seasons despite his late call-up.  He is now third on the Red Sox all-time wins list, second in games pitched, first in innings, second in strikeouts, and as any good knuckleballer should be, first in wild pitches by nearly 50.  He has been a model of class and skill.  He will never touch the Hall of Fame and shouldn’t.  But I hope that people will remember one of my all-time favorites, even if he never was a Twin.  May God have mercy on his soul despite that.


These Men Changed Baseball: Curt Roberts


Returning to our long-paused series, it is time to turn to Curt Roberts, integrator of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Roberts fits into a trend that is hidden in the players already discussed.  Certain teams jumped into integration:  first the Dodgers, then the Indians, then the Giants and Braves.  Everyone else trailed this group.  Though the Browns were actually the third team to integrate, they quickly pulled back, and their team suffered accordingly.  These four, though, did more than just integrate for themselves.  The Dodgers, for example, signed Sam Jethroe originally, before trading him to the Braves where he would integrate that team.  Similarly, the Braves jumped on a young amateur second baseman named Curt Roberts, later trading him to the Pirates.  Roberts, then, and the Pirates as an organization, followed in the footsteps of those teams that had already blazed the trail.

Roberts was born on August 16, 1929 in Pineland, Texas. Like most African-American baseball players from that part of the world, his career started with the Kansas City Monarchs. He came up in 1947 and played with the team through the 1950 season. After that year, he was signed by the Braves and assigned to Denver of the Western League. He was traded to the Pirates in 1952 and broke in with the big club in 1954. On April 13, 1954, the Pirates broke in their new second basemen against the still lily-white Phillies. In his first at-bat, Roberts tripled off future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts. For the game he went 1-for-3. It was the highlight of his major league career.

From that game on, Roberts appears to be a fairly standard poor hitting middle infielder. In his rookie year, he hit .232 with 1 home run and a 62 OPS+. In the next two seasons, he played in 37 total games, being replaced in 1956 by a new rookie second baseman named Bill Mazeroski. After the year, the Pirates traded him to the New York Yankees’ farm team, the Kansas City A’s. The A’s sent him to the minors, then traded him to the big league club after the 1957 season. He could not break in with the Yankees either, and he disappeared to the Pacific Coast League for the rest of his career. He died at age 40, getting hit by a car.

Why does Roberts matter? Three reasons: First, he came first. Surely other people could have integrated the Pirates, but they did not. Roberts did, and he deserves to be remembered for that point alone. Second, Roberts, like Bob Trice with the A’s, helped proved that marginal major leaguers come in all shapes and colors. The superstars were important in showing that blacks could play with whites; marginal players were important in showing that blacks were not supermen. In the end integration only works when two groups of humans come together. Roberts inability to hit, when paired with the spectacular talent of fellow second baseman Jackie Robinson, gave African-Americans the full range of humanity. Third, Roberts was a fluent Spanish speaker. This, in and of itself, seems unremarkable. But in 1955, the Pirates were breaking in a rookie right fielder from Puerto Rico named Roberto Clemente. Roberts was considered instrumental in his transition to the major leagues.

Put all of that last paragraph together and you have a player deserving of remembrance. Sadly, Roberts, like the other non-Hall of Famers of the integrators has been forgotten. Hopefully, people can notice this series and remember the important trail-blazing done by Curt Roberts.

Money and Competitiveness


As a Twins fan, it appears to be my duty, decreed from the baseball gods themselves, to decry the influence of money on the game of baseball. In particular, I must complain about the distinct financial advantage the Yankees have over the Twins. It is difficult to listen to a man with $3.1 Billion in 2008 complain about his inability to spend on his team. (Of course, current owner Jim Pohlad does not have as much money as his father, but he is surely still rather wealthy.) Nevertheless complaints about lack of competitiveness is part and parcel of baseball throughout the years.

Let’s look at a stretch of the early American League. From 1901-1919, four teams won the American League, the White Sox, Red Sox, A’s, and Tigers. (The Tigers won from 1907-09 then again dropped off the face of the earth.) The Yankees were competitive in 1904, the Indians in 1908, the Orioles and Senators were jokes. Half of baseball was completely uncompetitive. The National League was worse, for a slightly shorter stretch. From 1901-1913, three teams, the Pirates, Giants, and Cubs, won the pennant every season. They were never pushed by anyone outside of that triumvirate. 62% of the National League were irrelevant. By Bill James’ Index of Competitiveness, discussed in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the 1900s were the least competitive decade of the 20th Century.

This season, 5 of the top 9 payrolls in baseball made the postseason. Stop here; the flipside must be noticed. Five of the top 10 payrolls in baseball did not make the playoffs. Money clearly helps, but it is not dispositive. Money does not guarantee anything. To think more globally, baseball is the most competitive of the major sports. As Rob Neyer noted, 8 different franchises have won the World Series in the last 10 years, 14 in the last 20 years. No other sport can match that balance.

What advantage does money confer? Money makes it safer to make a mistake. Carl Pavano was a disastrous signing by the Yankees, but it did not matter. They could afford to replace him with another expensive player. Teams with less resources cannot afford to make similar mistakes. Regardless, money does not explain the Pirates or the Royals. They are poorly run franchises.

Your thoughts? Is griping over money just complaints of the jealous? Are there serious issues that undermine the game of baseball?