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February 20, 2004
You Could Look It Up
1984 Part IV: Stop Making Sense
The old George Reeves "Superman" TV show (1952-1957) opened with a narrative declaiming the title character's "never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way." I can identify, because here at YCLIU (YOO-KEH-LOO) we fight a never-ending battle to finish this four-day 20th anniversary look at the 1984 season before it morphs into a five-day, eight-day, or lifetime commitment. There are so many other stories to tell, and we'll start telling 'em in this space next Friday. Your requests for future subjects of inquiry, questions, suggestions, and baseball-oriented pantoums welcomed at the address below.
In the first three installments, we covered the season's races, as well as a bunch of ancillary issues of the team-building variety. In today's episode, we'll talk of shortstops from the year when Alex Rodriguez was nine years old, Derek Jeter 10, and Nomar Garciaparra 11, visit with some of the season's bigger flukes, and make a case for some of the era's neglected stars. In the concluding chapter on Monday, we'll enumerate the controversies that would have boiled BP's blood vessels had BP even existed in the founders' eyes.
XI: MY GOD, IT'S FULL OF STARS
It was a transitional year for shortstops. The Tigers, Orioles, Brewers, and Cardinals were set with, respectively, Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken, Jr., Robin Yount, and Ozzie Smith. Everyone else was trying to get one. Of the 22 teams not blessed with a future Hall of Famer at the position, nine gave extensive playing time to rookie shortstops--Tony Fernandez, Bobby Meacham, Houston Jimenez, Jackie Gutierrez, Curtis Wilkerson, Dick Schofield, Rafael Santana, Angel Salazar, and Jeff Kunkel. Six sophomores also found extensive employment: Julio Franco, Spike Owen, Jose Oquendo, Tony Phillips, and Scott Fletcher.
Some of these players--Fernandez, Franco, and Phillips in particular--turned out to be downright useful, but their time was still in the future. The one young shortstop whose time was perceived to have come was Richard William Thon of the Houston Astros, "Dickie" from South Bend, Indiana. In spring training that year, The Sporting News surveyed the Astros on Thon. The shortstop's teammates could have been expected to be supportive, but the 'Stros were downright lavish:
"When I see Dickie Thon, I see a future Hall of Famer." - Astros GM Al Rosen.
"I think Dickie has a good chance to become the MVP in our league." - Craig Reynolds.
"Dickie is the backbone of our team." - Astros manager Bob Lillis.
"I'm afraid to predict how great Dickie can become. I know I'd love to play second base for Houston the next 20 years and have Dickie by my side." - Astros second baseman Bill Doran.
"When I see Dickie play, my heart flutters in my chest like a caged bluebird trying to get free so it can sing paeans, soprano hosannas to the sparkling greatness that is the Thonster Monster." - Phil Garner.
I made the last one up, but the rest are real. Thon had permanently secured the adulation of his peers with his breakthrough 1983 season. Batting third, he'd hit .286/.341/.457, including 20 home runs, 54 walks and 34 stolen bases. These numbers are superficially unimpressive by today's hyper-inflated standards, but it's important to remember two mitigating factors: National League OBP/SLG was only .322/.376 that year, and the Astrodome fences were so distant that the only way to reach them with a long drive was to steer your Chrysler Cordoba into the outfield. Thon had hit .292 with four home runs at home, .280 with 16 home runs on the road. Thon's neutral park slugging percentage, .494, was comparable to MVP Dale Murphy's non-Atlanta SLG of .503.
Thon had finished seventh in the 1983 NL MVP voting. There would be no encore. The 1984 season was not even five games old when Thon was hit just above the left eye by a pitch thrown by the Mets' Mike Torrez. Having been called out on an outside pitch his first time up, Thon was leaning out over the plate, trying to protect the outside corner. Torrez came inside; as with so many of these incidents, there was no way of knowing if it had been his intention to brush Thon back.
Thon suffered a tripod fracture and had severe swelling behind the eye. His vision was severely impaired, going from 20/20 to 20/150. He was lost for the remainder of the season, and although, after many years of trying, he was able to put together a semblance of a career, he never got to where he was going.
The introduction to this section refers to Alan Trammell as a "future Hall of Famer." Given Trammell's performance in BBWAA balloting for Cooperstown, the Tigers mainstay must be regarded as a longshot to gain induction anytime in the near future. In the most recent vote, the shortstop received just 70 votes, enough to remain on the ballot but a far cry from the 380 assents needed to secure a plaque.
Trammell failed to reach any of the big HOF milestones--3,000 hits, 500 home runs--so to perceive his place in history, voters must delve deeper. His percentages, .285/.352/.415, seem unimpressive in our time. But with the dearth of shortstops that persisted for most of Trammell's career, these numbers actually tower above the position. This is especially true of Trammell's core decade, 1981-1990, during which he hit .290/.357/.426 against a position that averaged .257/.311/.356.
Because Trammell lacks signature career counting totals, his HOF case suffers from two incorrect comparisons. First, he played in the same league as two other two-way shortstops, Cal Ripken and Robin Yount. Ripken is clearly the gold standard at the position, but the differences between Trammell and Yount are minute; Trammell played nearly 1,400 more games at short and was a better fielder, while very little separates the two as hitters.
Trammell is a clear third in one important category, hardware. Ripken won two MVP awards and two Gold Gloves. Yount won two MVP awards and a Gold Glove. Trammell won four Gold Gloves, but never won an MVP award.
Trammell's loss of the 1987 American League MVP to George Bell is already legendary in sabermetric circles, but his distant ninth-place showing in 1984 was as much of a travesty. As discussed in part one of this series, what made the Detroit Tigers great was their strength up the middle. Trammell, the best of these players, provided Detroit with a counterweight to the other strong shortstops in the AL East--Ripken, Yount, Franco, and Fernandez. He out-hit every shortstop in the game but Ripken (whose defending champion Orioles fell from 98-64 to 85-77). MVP voters apparently faulted Trammell for playing only 114 games in the field, a mid-season injury restricting him to DH for most of a month. That Trammell not only avoided the DL but hit .333/.398/.516 during that time apparently did not matter.
Two AL East teams were struggling to find a shortstop. The Red Sox were trying to get by with Jackie Gutierrez, whose utter lack of bat or glove (FRAA -32; EqA .224) was enough to make one's cult pray for a Don Buddin resurrection. Meanwhile, over in the Bronx, the Yankees might have had a shortstop, but were actively trying to destroy his confidence. In an incident that has become infamous, rookie Bobby Meacham entered the fourth game of the season, the April 6 game at Texas, as a pinch-runner in the top of the eighth, and stayed in the game to play shortstop. The score was tied 6-6. In the bottom of the inning, Pete O'Brien was on second with two outs when Meacham threw away Curtis Wilkerson's grounder. O'Brien scored, and the Rangers would hold the 7-6 lead for the win.
George Steinbrenner exploded. All Meacham saw was a flash of bright light. When his vision cleared, he had been demoted--not to Triple-A Columbus, but to Double-A Nashville of the Southern League. Manager Yogi Berra fought, screamed at The Boss, but was unable to stop the move. Meacham did not return until June. The rest of his brief career was plagued by random benchings, demotions, and position changes. The minor league records of the former first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals don't suggest that he would have evolved into an impact player had he worked in a more nurturing environment, but he certainly deserved a chance to try.
XII: F. MURRAY ABRAHAM
Every season contains some fluke performances, mostly due to small sample sizes; the smaller the number of chances a hitter has, the more luck or a random hot/cold streak can influence his statistics. Nineteen-Eighty-Four had more of its share of momentary Hall of Famers, players who channeled Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, but later lost their connection. These players were the unexpected stars of 1985 Strat-O-Matic leagues.
Catcher Chris Bando, younger brother of third baseman turned evil Brewers GM Sal Bando, had been drafted by Cleveland in the second round of the 1978 draft. Despite some good batting averages in the minors, the Indians never thought of Bando as more than a backup, despite their starting catcher being the less than imposing Ron Hassey. The switch-hitting Bando spent 1981-1983 as a platoon partner for the lefty Hassey, in which role he hit .227/.304/.327 in 401 plate appearances.
Bando finally got a crack at the starting job in July when Hassey was traded and his immediate replacement, rookie Jerry Willard, failed to hit. Showing heretofore unexpected power, Bando cracked 11 doubles and 12 home runs in just 220 at-bats, with overall percentages of .291/.377/.505. Bando then opened 1985 in a 5-for-76 (.066 average through June) slump and never regained his stroke.
Jeff Stone, a 23-year-old rookie outfielder with the Phillies, really did look like Tris Speaker for a while. In a 51-game season interrupted by a groin injury, Stone batted .362 with six triples in 185 at-bats. He also stole 27 bases and was caught just five times. Weak knowledge of the strike zone prevented him from approaching these numbers again.
Terry Francona of the Expos batted .348, albeit with one home run and only five walks in 223 plate appearances (Dave Campbell: "Terry Francona is going to hit a solid .300 or more every year"). Tim Corcoran of the Phillies hit .341 with 37 walks in 248 plate appearances, leading to a fine .440 OBP. It was just a trick of the light, as he never sniffed that level again.
The most spectacular fluke season of all belonged to Dan Gladden of the San Francisco Giants. A 26-year-old rookie outfielder (and non-drafted free agent) with an indifferent minor league record, Gladden was called up on June 26 after batting .397 at Triple-A Phoenix of the Pacific Coast League. Whatever mojo Gladden had discovered in Arizona carried over to California. He batted .351/.410/.447 and stole 31 bases in his next 86 games, scoring 71 runs despite working atop an offense that didn't have all that much going for it. Gladden played through 1993 and was a scrappy, fun player to root for, but he never came close to these numbers again. In fact, he was overmatched as a regular.
Then there was Dodgers rookie third baseman German Rive, who apparently channeled Germany Schaefer. The 1902 Cub played third base, batting .196 and making 40 errors while driving in just 14 runs, an RBI to E ratio (don't try this stat at home) of .43. Rivera drove in 17 runs while making 15 errors, a late-20th century equivalent of 1.13.
At the end of the season, Peter Ueberroth became commissioner. The age of collusion soon would begin. In an eerie precursor to the trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees, the new commissioner failed to block the Yankees from sending Steve Kemp, Tim Foli, and $800,000 to the Pirates in exchange for Dale Berra, Alfonso Pulido, and Jay Buhner. At the time, there was a $400,000 cap on cash-for-player swaps. "The deal later was approved as an exception to the $400,000 guideline," The Sporting News reported, but, "the commissioner made it clear, however, that the guideline remains in force and can be circumvented only at his discretion." Whatever you say. The so-called Bible of Baseball named outgoing commissioner Bowie Kuhn their "Man of the Year."
Baseball also battled the issue of superstations, with the Braves, Cubs, Mets, and Yankees being beamed into homes across the nation. At this writing, this issue has not been totally resolved, with baseball preferring that you see no game at all rather than watch your team on an out-of-market network. The concept that the presence of varied baseball options in a market enhances the appeal of baseball in general has yet to be regularly tested on network TV.
Pete Rose in a trade with the Padres. They're still working through the ramifications of that one. The Yankees acquired Rickey Henderson and Ed Whitson, both of whom, in their own unique ways, would be spectacular. The Mets acquired Howard Johnson and Gary Carter, giving up very little in return. The Carter trade was the first cracking of the Expos' legitimacy.
The collective bargaining agreement was up, and the possibility of a strike loomed over 1985. Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt had passed away on Aug. 25. Hoyt had counseled each succeeding generation of ballplayers to remember the origins of their prosperity: "Every big leaguer," he said, "should teach their children to pray: 'God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy, and God bless Babe Ruth.'" Nineteen-Eighty-Four was a complicated year, missing only Ruthian bonhomie. Since then, his power has been rediscovered, but his sense of fun still awaits the archaeologists.
Monday: The Baseball Prospectus of 1984