Roberto Clemente: Hall of Fame Player, Great Person

On this day 44 years ago, the world lost a Hall of Fame baseball player and a great humanitarian.  Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto Clemente, revered as a national hero in Puerto Rico, was leading a relief aid team flying supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua when the small aircraft exploded and crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff.  

Clemente’s untimely death occurred just a few months after he recorded his 3,000th career hit and prompted a special election that made the Pittsburgh Pirates great baseball’s first Hispanic Hall of Famer.  At the time, Clemente was just the 11th man in baseball history to achieve 3,000 hits and his lifetime batting average of .317 was the highest among active players.

Clemente used a unique inside-out swing to produce four batting titles, a 1966 roberto_clemente_rcNational League MVP, and 15 All-Star invitations.  Quick, powerful — almost Hank Aaron-like — wrists allowed Clemente to stand away from the plate and drive the ball with ferocity to all fields.  He also lead t
he Pirates to World Series Championships in 1960 and 1971, when he was named the Series MVP.

He got the most from his 5’-11”, 180-pound frame offensively and defensively.  Most baseball experts and historians still regard Clemente as the best right fielder in baseball history.  He patrolled Pittsburgh’s spacious Forbes Field for most of his career with speed and grace, earning 12 Gold Gloves and comparisons to Willie Mays as a defensive player.  A strong and remarkably accurate arm kept base runners at bay.

Known for his charitable tireless charitable work, Clemente was recruited by relief organizations to organize relief efforts from Puerto Rico.  He not only organized the efforts, but played a large role in gathering the goods and loading the plane.  He was on aboard the plane because many people thought the relief supplies were falling in the hands of profiteers.  Clemente wanted to ensure that people in need were receiving the goods.  The plane carrying a crew of three and Clemente crashed in heavy seas just under two miles from shore.

Clemente’s roberto_clemente_1972professional career started on the West Coast and if the Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t so careless, history may have been different.  The Dodgers originally signed Clemente out of high school with a deal that included a $10,000 bonus.  In 1954, his first season as a professional baseball player, Clemente played for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal.

Per rule of professional baseball at the time, all players signed for more than $4,000 had to be placed on the major league roster after one year of minor league service.  Any player not added to the roster could be signed by any other club for $4,000.  Instead of adding him to the roster, the Dodgers tried to hide Clemente in Montreal by not playing him.  Obviously, a player of Clemente’s talent could not be hidden.  He was scooped up by the Pirates for $4,000, making him one of the best bargains in baseball history.

In 1955, Topps issued the first Roberto Clemente baseball card. The colorful horizontal cards featuring portrait and action photos along with the team logo in the upper right-hand corner are considered one of the best-looking  sets ever produced.  Kudos to Topps for producing a card of a top prospect with no major league experience — a rarity in those days.  The final card featuring Clemente as a player, was featured in the colorful 1972 Topps set.

The Joy Of Collecting 1970s Hostess Baseball Cards

Drab, ordinary, jurassic are terms that come to mind when describing the Hostess Baseball Cards of the the mid-late ‘70s.  The sets were nothing more than marketing ploys to sell more Twinkies, HoHos, Suzy-Q’s and King Dons (Ding Dons if you lived on the West Coast) .  Big on errors and small on creativity, the Hostess  sets featured  the game’s biggest stars with simple head shots displayed against uninspired spring training backdrhank_aaron_hostessops and white borders.   

Yes, the Hostess sets were dull, almost cheerless, but just about every 40-something to 50-something
baseball fan/collector (like the guy I see in the mirror every morning) has fond memories of Hostess’s lame attempt at manufacturing baseball cards.  After all, this was the set that we assembled piece by piece while waiting for Mom to rummage through the produce isle at the local grocery store.  This is also the set that got us hooked on The Sporting News, which played a huge role in the development of our baseball fandom.

Back in the day,Topps dominated the baseball card hobby.  If the single Topps set — there were no premium, platinum or chrome releases — didn’t satisfy your collecting needs, the Hostess sets produced from 1975-1979 gave you another option.  Dealers and collectors couldn’t buy Hostess cards directly from the company, so they had to work and spend to complete these sets.

Beginning in 1975 Hostess cards were produced in three-card panels on  the back of each multi-pack Hostess box.  The best part of this new wave of collecting was seeing what you  were buying, which encouraged set building.  Hostess panels — complete with an offer for a free issue of The Sporting News — kept in tact are more valuable and coveted today that cards cut from the box.  Some cards were printed on not-so-tasty products and are more difficult to find today.  Cards printed on the back of the smaller HoHos multi-pack boxes are often creased at the corners from haozzi_smith_hostess-panelndling.

Proofreading, editing and reading the  daily box scores were not priorities for Hostess baseball card editors.  The initial set was loaded with mistakes.  Slugger Bill Madlock was listed as a pitcher, Rangers catcher Jim Sandberg was named Mike and outfielder George Hendrick became George Hendricks.  Robin Yount, a teenage phenom at the time, is one  of the more popular players in the set.  Unfortunately, Hostess did not include a rookie card of future Hall of Famer George Brett.

Despite the quality-control issues, the debut Hostess set remains popular today with over 3,000 listings, including a handful of graded panels, currently on eBay.  The 1975 panel set is worth  as much as $400 depending on the  condition.  The single-card set varies widely because of stain issues — creamy cake fillings sometimes seeped through the packages — and cards being miscut.

Celebratingyaz_hostess the  nation’s bicentennial, the Hostess 1976 set includes red, white and blue stripes surrounding the  player’s name, team and position.  Collectors familiar with the 1976 Topps set will recognize some of the same photos in the Hostess series.  The set is loaded with stars, including Brett, Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, a Dennis Eckersley rookie and one of Hank Aaron’s final cards.

The 1977 Hostess set includes Hall-of-Famers-to-be Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Thurman Munson and Johnny Bench.  By this time, collectors learned to save the cards as complete panels.  The complete panel sets are valued as much as $300 with the single set selling for nearly three times as much due to scarcity.

Although Eddie Murray was considered just another player at the time, his rookie card in the 1978 Hostess sets remains highly coveted.  For the first time, a few action shots were used to liven up the product.  Unfortunately the cost of producing baseball cards out-weighed the marketing advantages.  As a result, the 1979 edition was the final Hostess set.  Hostess went out with a bang, featuring an Ozzie Smith rookie card on  the same panel as Nolan Ryan as well as Willie Montanez.

 

Curt Schilling Belongs In The Hall of Fame

Curt Schilling is a blowhard.  He talks and talks and talks and I’m not sure he always knows what he’s talking about, but he keeps talking.  I will never understand why he thinks people care about his views on politics, gender issues or anything else, but he keeps talking.

What I do understand is Curt Schilling was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His social media rants have grown tiresome, but should not block his path to Cooperstown.  He was never suspended, never linked to drugs, gaschillinrcmbling, or anything else harmful to the game.  Not being able to control himself on Facebook should not keep him out of the Hall.

Naysayers claim Schilling’s 216 career wins don’t pass muster.  But wins are not the sole measure of a pitcher’s value.  Schilling proved to be dominant in most essential categories, ranking 15th all-time in strikeouts.  More important in today’s advanced metrics, Schilling ranked third in strikeout-to-walk ratio all-time and 26th in career pitching WAR, tied with first ballot HOFers Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.  By not giving away bases or  allowing hitters to make consistent contact, Schilling put his teams in position to win as much or more than baseball’s all-time greats.

Doubters are also quick to point out the Cy Young Award missing from the mantle in the Schilling household. Schilling spent his best years in the shadows of teammates Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, but he was one of the best and arguably most dominating pitchers of his era, striking out three hundred batters in consecutive seasons (1997 and 1998 with the Phillies).

Schilling was also one of the best money pitchers in baseball history, leading three teams to World Series titles and winning some of the most memorable games in postseason history.  He finished with a 2.23 postseason ERA en route to an 11-2 record when the games counted most.  Schilling’s playoff heroics started in 1993, when he earned MVP honors in the National League Championship series by throwing a 147-pitch shutout, forcing a Game 6 in Toronto (when Joe Carter hit his memorable World Series walk-off homer).

Schilling was overpowering in the 2001 World Series, giving up just two runs in seven innings before Randy Johnson sealed the deal in the final two innings to end Yankees mini dynasty.  Three years later, he held off the Yankees — bloody sock and all — in Game 6 of the American League Championship, leading the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86  years. He closed out his career with another ring with the Red Sox in 2007.

It’s unfortunate that Schilling’s political and social rants cost him his job with ESPN.  He was thoughtful and insightful as a color commentator on the network’s Sunday night showcase. I’ve  heard more than enough of Schilling’s political views and will never vote for him for political office (he has threatened to run for senate), but he gets my Hall of Fame vote.


Schilling’s Topps 2005 World Series Game Worn Jersey card is a favorite among Red Sox fans.You can fine Schilling sporting his Baltimore Orioles uniform in his 1989 Donruss Rookie — a drab looking set with black and purple borders.

Tim Raines’s Last Chance For the Hall of Fame

There are two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the side of righteousness trailing by a run.  The Baseball Writers Association of America has one more chance to right one of the biggest wrongs in the Hall of Fame by electing Tim Raines.

Raines has steadily gained support, but is in his 10th and final year of eligibility. In his first five years on the ballot, the former Expos great, was nominated by 22-49% of the voters, with 75% needed for election.  Last year he jumped from 55% to 69.8%.  This year Raines is looking to become just the fourth  player to be elected in his final year of eligibility, joining Red Ruffing (1967), Joe Medwick (1968), Ralph Kiner (1975), and Jim Rice (2009).

Placed in a historical context, Raines’s resume is HOF worthy.  He was one of the game’s great leadoff hitters, top base stealers, and — believe it or not — an extra-base-hitting-machine during his 23-year major league career.  Raines wRainesas often lost in the shadow cast by Rickey Henderson, arguably the greatest leadoff hitter ever. But digging deeper into the numbers, Raines was every bit the player as Henderson and even rivaled the great Ty Cobb, arguably the best hitter in baseball history.

We all know Raines was one of the game’s great base stealers, but his consistency on the base paths was unparalleled.  He ranks fifth on the career stolen base list with 808 and is the career leader in stolen base percentage (84.7) among players with 400 attempts. Raines is the only player in baseball history to steal at least 70 bases in seven consecutive  seasons (1981-1986).  He stole 40 consecutive bases between July 1993 – August 1995, a major league record later broken by Ichiro Suzuki with 45 consecutive swipes.

Like Cobb, Raines will never be considered a home run hitter, but the former speedy outfielder combined extra base hits with stolen bases at an historic rate.  He was the only player in baseball
history with at least 100, triples, 150 homers and 600 stolen bases.  Raines finished his career with 113 triples and 170 homers.

Raines finished with 2,605 career hits — well below the imaginary 3,000-hit Hall of Fame threshold. But looking deeper, only nine of the 27 players with 3,000 hits can match Raines’s .385 career on-base percentage.  Raines reached base more times than three HOFers with 3,000 hits: Tony Gwynn, Lou Brock, and Roberto Clemente as well as the ageless and  still playing Ichiro.

Need more convincing?  Raines was the only player ever with four seasons of 50-plus extra base hits and 70-plus stolen bases.  Henderson and Cobb combined for four such seasons; every other HOFer combined for an additional four.

Raines is seldom mentioned with the all-time greats such as Cobb, but he should be and the evidence is in the numbers:  He is the only player in MLB history with five consecutive seasons with at least 30 doubles and 70 stolen bases, which he did from 1982-1986.  Before 1982, the last player to record 30 doubles
and 70 stolen bases in a season was Cobb in 1915.

For more head-spinning stats, be sure to check out the Ace of MLB Stats Twitter account.  Its creator, Ryan Spaeder, seems to be on a personal crusade to get Raines into the Hall of Fame.  Raines did the work and Spaeder has aligned the numbers in convincing fashion.

Just under 70 percent of the HOF electorate voted for Raines last January.  He’s on course to receive the 75 percent of the vote needed for enshrinement this year. Raines is looking to become the third player to go into the Hall of Fame as a Montreal Expo, joining Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.  Raines won two World Series rings (1996 and 1998) in New York as a role player with the Yankees.  Here’s hoping one of baseball’s great injustices is rectified.

The Raines Topps rookie card is one of the top rookies from the 1981 series.  Issued just before the mass-produced sets of the ‘80s, the Expos “Future Prospect” card also includes Roberto Ramos and Bobby Pate, two “future stars” that never panned out.  Be careful if you’re buying:  The “Future Prospect” cards are notorious for having gum-stained backs.  

Celebrating Nolan Ryan Trade To Angels; 1972 Topps Baseball

Forty-five years ago this month, one of the worst trades in baseball history was made, prompting one of the most hideous-looking baseball cards ever to be produced.  

On December 10, 1971, the New York Mets sent 24-year-old fireballer Nolan Ryan along with three prospects to the the California Angels for shortstop Jim Fregosi.  In hindsight, the deal was a disaster for the Mets, but the deal made sense for both clubs at the  time.  

The Angels obtained one of the liveliest — not to mention most erratic — young arms in baseball.  Ryan posted a 29-38 record with an impressive 493 strikeouts, but an alarming 344 walks over five seasons with the Mets.  

The Mets were adding an established big leaguer believed to be in the prime of his career.  Manager Gil Hodges immediately moved  Fregosi  to third base, where 45 players had come and gone in the nolanryan72toppsMets’ 10 years of existence.  The last of the original Angels of 1961, Fregosi battled numerous physical problems in his one season with the Angels, including a bad bout with the flu, a sore arm, a strained side muscle, and a tumor in his foot.  The six-time All-Star batted just .232 with five homers, and 32 RBI in 101 games for the Mets.

Ryan moved on to a Hall of Fame career that included a major league record seven no hitters, 61 shutouts (seventh all-time), 324 wins, and became all-time strikeout leader with 5,714.  This is just one of many trades of a big-armed, but erratic young pitcher dealt for a proven veteran.  Unfortunately for the Mets it will be remembered as one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history.

In the early ‘70s baseball card sets went to press in late-December or early-January to be ready for distribution by the start of the baseball season.  As a result, Ryan’s head shot for the 1972 Topps set was taken while he played for the New York Mets.  The wrong Angels logo (they went to a capital A in 1972) was poorly airbrushed over Ryan’s Mets cap.  For some unknown reason, the Topps production team failed to airbrush the pinstripes clearly visible from his Mets jersey.

To make matters worse, Ryan’s doctored image was printed inside the grotesque 1972 Topps tombstone design.  Keeping up with the times and looking to change the drab designs of 1970 (gray borders) and 1971 (black borders), the 1972 Topps design features a bright, almost psychedelic color scheme.   

One of the most controversial baseball card sets, the 1972 Topps series draws the ire of  long-time collectors for emphasizing the product and team rather than the player. The team name above the player image is energized with bright, bold lettering that creates a three-dimensional look.  The player name, however, is printed in a simple black font at the bottom of the card.  Going against tradition, there is no mention of the player’s position.

The 1972 Topps set is not without merit.  The series includes the rookie card of Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk, which he shares with Cecil Cooper (the featured player), and Mike Garman.  The series also features the last regular card issued during Roberto Clemente in addition to late cards of Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.  Other featured Hall of Famers include Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, and Fergie Jenkins.

Christmas Comes Early: Red Sox Acquire Chris Sale

Christmas comes early for Red Sox fans as the Old Towne Team acquires the best available pitcher for four prospects.  Never one to shy away from a blockbuster deal, Red Sox baseball cazr Dave Dombrowski has put the Red Sox in prime position to be  baseball’s best for the next several years.

WHAT DOES THE SALE TRADE MEAN TO THE RED SOX?

Chris Sale joins a rotation with Cy Young winners Rick Porcello (2016) and David Price (chrissale2012) not to mention 2016 All-Stars Steve Wright and Drew Pomeranz.  Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez provide depth and possible trade chips for roster flexibility and future improvements.

If all goes according to plan, the triple-headed monster atop the rotation will account for 50 or so wins and more the 600 mostly-quality innings.  Improving the pitching rotation was not a top priority for the 2017 Red Sox, but Sale is a big-time difference maker.  With a vastly improved rotation combined with a rebuilt bullpen and a dynamic offense, the Red Sox are clearly the team to beat in the American League.

HOW GOOD IS CHRIS SALE?

Sale had yet to win a Cy Young Award, but his resume is quite impressive:

  • Finished in the top six of the AL Cy Young voting each of the past five years with a high of third place in 2014 when he compiled a 2.17 ERA.
  • Had a league-leading 274 strikeouts in 208.2 innings in 2015.
  • In the past five years, just one major league pitcher has a lower ERA than Sale’s 3.04 and more strikeouts than his 1,133.  His name is Clayton Kershaw.
  • Has struck out 27.9% of the batters he’s faced in his major league career, which is best among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched.
  • Has produced more value by Wins Above Replacement than any other players from the 2010 draft class, ahead of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.  Read that last bullet point again … slowly … Yes, it’s true, Chris Sale has been that productive.
  • Has finished in the top 10 among AL pitchers in WAR four times, strikeouts five times, and ERA five times in just five seasons as a starter. That is a gigantic WOW!  
  • Ranks first among all active AL pitchers in career WHIP (1.01).  Partner in crime and fellow southpaw David Price ranks second (1.14).
  • Is 4-1 with an anemic 1.17 ERA in 10 career games against the Yankees.

Always a good sign when your newly-acquired, yet-to-reach-his-prime, 27-year-old-pitcher has a more accomplished career than his two Cy Young Award winning teammates.

AT WHAT COST DID THE RED SOX ACQUIRE CHRIS SALE?

A pitcheryoanmoncada of Sale’s caliber does not come cheap.  With an aim towards the World Series, the Red Sox paid a steep price to acquire one of the game’s best pitchers.  

The deal would not have happened without 21-year-old Cuban import Yoan Moncada changing his red sox for white.  The No. 1 prospect in Baseball America’s “Midseason Top 100”,  Moncada has compiled a .875 OPS with 94 stolen bases in 187 minor league games.  The switch-hitting, fielding-challenged Moncada was also named Baseball America’s 2016 Minor League Player of the Year.  He’s projected to be the White Sox second baseman of the future.  

Comparisons to Harper, Machado, and Mike Trout are a bit premature as Moncada strikes out at an alarming rate and is suspect defensively, but his raw potential is staggering.  He has big-time speed and major power potential built into a 6’2”, 205-pound frame.  With second base his likely landing place, Moncada reminds many baseball people of Robinson Cano.

The White Sox also receive flamethrowing prospect Michael Kopech, a potential ace with with a checkered past.  One of the game’s top pitching prospects, Kopech’s fastball consistently clocks at 101 mph and has reportedly topped out at 105 mph.  He also throws a plus curveball and is developing a change up.  Missed time due to a PED suspension and broken hand resulting from an altercation with a teammate have slowed his growth and caused reason for concern.  But Kopech has a big-time arm and the White Sox believe he is worth the gamble.

Luis Alexander Basabe, a speedy centerfielder with many tools, and Victor Diaz, a strong-armed reliever with command issues complete the deal.  Both have significant upside, but are several years away from cracking the majors.

Yes, the  bounty was high, but opportunities to acquire the Chris Sales of the world are few and far between.

IS THERE ANY RISK INVOLVED FOR THE RED SOX?

There is always some risk involved with blockbuster deals.  Sale’s low-slot, high-elbow pitching motion accounts for deceptive movement to his pitches, but also puts him at risk for declining velocity or potential injury.  Some scouts believe Sale’s pitching motion will cause acce2015-topps-chris-sale-213x300lerated wear and tear to his elbow.  The Red Sox are  using the past to project the future.  In his five year career, Sale has never made fewer than 26 starts and has qualified for an ERA title every year.  With the Red Sox pitching depth, an occasional skipped start to rest the arm should not be an issue.

The Red Sox are taking minimal risk financially as they control Sale for three years for $38 million — an absolute steal for an ace in today’s pitching market.  He will count just $6 million against the luxury tax next season.  The likely shedding of  Buchholz’s $13.5 million contract before the start of the season will keep the  Red Sox under the $195 million luxury tax threshold.

DID THE RED SOX MAKE A WISE DECISION IN TRADING FOR SALE?

Absolutely, positively yes.  Red Sox ownership brought Dombrowski to Boston to win a World Series, not to have the most players in Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list.  Sale in the starting rotation brings the Red Sox closer to the ultimate goal than Moncada, Kopech, et al developing in the minors.  The future is now.

Merry Christmas, Red Sox fans!

Japan’s Shohei Otani, The Next Babe Ruth?

Any comparisons to Babe Ruth are subject to hyperbole, but the recent exploits of 22-year-old Shohei Otani give us reason to believe the Japanese star could be the Major League’s next great two-way ball player.

The recently-named Most Valuable Player of the Pacific League of Nippon Professional Baseball became the first professional league Japanese player to hit 10 or more homers and win 10 or more games as a pitcher in the same season.  The only player in major league history  to score a double-double was Ruth, who stroked 11 home runs and won 13 games for the 1918 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.

Otani is coming ootaniff one of the greatest seasons in Japanese history, boasting a 10-4 record with a 1.86 ERA.  The right-handed flamethrower posted a 0.95 WHIP while averaging 11.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings.  Moonlighting as a left-handed-hitting DH, the 6-foot-4 Otani slugged 22 home runs while hitting .322 with a whopping 1.004 OPS in 104 games.  After four professional season, Otani is 39-13-2.49 as a pitcher while batting .275 with 40 homers and an .838 OPS.

Pacific Rim scouts have referred to Otani as the “modern-day Babe Ruth”.  A top-of-the rotation pitcher and a middle-of-the-order slugger all in one.  Otani throws a high-90s fastball that has reportedly topped out at 103 mph. He uses a  low-90s forkball to keep hitters off balance. His changeup, which he hasn’t needed to this point, still a work in progress.  

With natural power and a keen eye at the plate, Otani projects to be a legitimate major league hitter.  Otani played 62 games as a corner outfielder his first two years as a professional.  A sprained ankle early in the 2014 season quickly put an end to Otani’s outfield duties.  He has been used exclusively as a DH when not pitching over the last two years.

Otani yearns to pitch and hit in the majors, to compete against the best in the world as a pitcher and a hitter.  The questions ahead are complicated:  How does he walk away from Japan and gain entrance to the majors at such a young age?  Is there a major league team that will break the bank to sign Otani and allow him to hit between pitching assignments?

Otani cannot test the free agent waters until accumulating nine seasons in the Nippon Professional
League.  However, the Nippon Ham Fighters can — and reportedly will — allow Otani entrance into the majors via the posing system at the conclusion of the 2017 season.  The Fighters will surely receive the maximum $20 million posting fee from the major league team that would sign Otani.  With revenues on the rise for MLB and free agent contracts spiraling upward — not to mention the mystery surrounding the next potential international star — could mean a long-term contract breaking $200 million for Otani, according to published reports.

Several Major League teams — including the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rangers — expressed interest in Otani four years ago. As a high school two-way player, Otani led his team to the Koshien Championshipship.  The Fighters were able to convince Otani that his only chance to excel as a two way player would be in Japan.  

A year from now several teams will be will likely be willing to empty the vault for his services.  His decision may hinge on which team allows him to pitch and hit on a regular basis.  Will an American League team allow Otani to DH or play the outfield two or three times a week?  Is he better suited to pitch — and hit for himself — in the National League?  Will batting just every fifth day satisfy his appetite?  Will pitching every fifth day opposed to every sixth day (as he does in Japan) affect his workload as a pitcher or hitter?  Questions that possible suitors and Otani need to answer in what looks to be a fascinating 2017 off season.

Otani is expected to display his baseball skills globally in the World Baseball Classic next spring. Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo is planning to use him as a pitcher, DH, and pinch hitter.

Otani’s first baseball card was an insert in Japan’s Sports Card Magazine #97 released in January 2013. It was a promo card for the 2013 BBM Rookie Edition set.  Expect this card and other Otani rookies to gain significant interest during the WBC.