Leading Off …
The wait is over. Baseball season begins today, and MLB is coming out of the gate with a bang. The game’s most valuable franchise, the Yankees ($3.6 billion), opens in Tampa. Game 2 features an expected pitchers’ duel between Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke. The nightcap is the World Series champion Cubs — yes, it was real! — at St. Louis, the self-anointed epicenter of big-league ball.
Twenty years ago, these players made their MLB debut on April 2:
- Carlos Castillo
- Steve Kline
- Tom Martin
- Jamie Walker
Ten years ago, these players made their major-league debut:
- Travis Buck
- Alejandro De Aza
- Elijah Dukes
- Alex Gordon
- Josh Hamilton
- Akinori Iwamura
- Don Kelly
- Jay Marshall
- Gustavo Molina
- Hideki Okajima
- Levale Speigner
And it’s Sweet 16 season for Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki; their MLB debut was April 2, 2001. Ichiro was named the A.L. Rookie of the Year and MVP that season. 2001 also was the first of 10 All-Star Game appearances for both players.
Around the horn …
• In 1917, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson hit .301, his lowest full-season average. He played in only 17 games in 1918 but came back with a flourish in ’19 (.351) and ’20 (.382) before being banned as part of the Black Sox fallout.
• It was 90 years ago that New York’s “Murders’ Row” won a then-A.L. record 110 games and Babe Ruth set the big fly standard with 60. Lou Gehrig had 173 RBI, the first of 11 consecutive seasons with 120-plus.
• It’s been 80 years since a N.L. player won the Triple Crown. In 1937, Joe “Ducky” Medwick led the league with 31 home runs, 112 RBI, and a .374 average.
• In 1947, Joe DiMaggio won his third (and final) MVP award. The “Yankee Clipper” hit 20 HR with 97 RBI and hit .315. … It’s the same season Ted Williams captured the A.L. Triple Crown: 32/114/.343. (Truth is stranger than fiction: Williams also won the Triple Crown in ’42 — and was not selected MVP …)
• The baseball landscape changed in 1957. Sixty years ago, the N.Y. Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers announced the intention to move to the left coast. The Dodgers’ trek west was despite a plan from the New York parks department for a 50,000 seat stadium with a plastic dome (!) in Flushing Meadows.
• The Sixties were a time of upheaval, and baseball was not immune. In 1967, the A’s were eager to leave Kansas City for Oakland. Owners were not of the same mindset. After some give and take, it was agreed that the Athletics would move to the Bay Area for the ’68 season — and Kansas City and Seattle would have expansion teams no later than 1971. (The Royals and Pilots began play in ’69.)
• Remember the Pilots, Seattle’s 1969 expansion team? Well, the expansion Mariners first season was 40 years ago — yes, eight years after MLB’s first foray into the Great Northwest. Toronto’s inaugural season also was in 1977.
• Yes, it was 30 years ago that the Cubs’ Andre Dawson was tabbed N.L. MVP, the first to play for a last-place team. “Hawk” hit a league-high 49 HR and led the league with 137 RBI as the Cubs finished 76-85.
• Seems like yesterday, but it was 1997 when Interleague play became a thing. #ThanksBud (Did You Know: The Giants’ Glenallen Hill was the first designated hitter used in a regular-season game by a N.L. team.)
Short hops …
• Forty years ago, LeFlore was in the middle of three consecutive seasons of being among the top 10 in A.L. batting. In ’79, he hit .300 — his third .300-plus season in four years — but was traded to Montreal for Dan Schatzeder.
• In 1980, with the Expos, LeFlore stole a franchise-record 97 bases and was flanked in the outfield by Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine. Everything seemed to be falling into place for LeFlore and the cusp-of-greatness Expos.
• However, Montreal did not re-sign LeFlore after the ’80 season. Instead, the Expos went with 21-year-old Tim Raines. LeFlore spent two troubling seasons with the White Sox to end his career.
The Closer …
The early 1970s Oakland Athletics were a thing of beauty — pitching, defense, hitting … the mustachioed A’s were a complete team. Oakland won three consecutive championships — 1972-74 — and the makeup of the team was a combination of homegrown talent, deft signings, and good trades.
Among the key players during that three-year stretch, 13 were part of all championship seasons: fielders Bert Campaneris, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson, Angel Mangual, and Gene Tenace; pitchers Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, Dave Hamilton, Rollie Fingers, and Darold Knowles. (Larry Haney also played with the A’s in all three seasons.)
Nine other players had substantial roles in two of the World Series seasons: Ray Fosse, Dick Green, Bill North, Ted Kubiak, Jesus Alou, Mike Hegan, Paul Lindblad, and Glenn Abbott.
However, behind the plate, the A’s were a revolving door:
- In 1972, Dave Duncan started 109 games in the regular season. In the World Series, Tenace got the call in Games 1-6; Duncan in Game 7 (with Tenace at first base).
- In 1973, Fosse started 137 games in the regular season. In the World Series, Fosse started Games 1-5; Tenace called Games 6-7 (and took over behind the plate in the seventh inning of Game 3).
- In 1974, Fosse started 64 and Tenace was penciled in 58 times in the regular season. In the World Series, Fosse started all five games and was lifted for Haney in Games 2 and 4.
Tenace signed with San Diego after the 1976 season. He spent four seasons with the Padres before being traded to St. Louis. Tenace won his fourth championship ring with the Cardinals in 1982. (He also won two World Series as a coach with the Blue Jays in 1993-94.)
“It was a lot of fun to be a part of that Oakland team that I was on, the one that won three in a row,” Tenace told Press Pros Magazine. “I mean, really, how many teams have done that? No one, except the Yankees — and it took them 30 years to tie us. And it’s important to remember — they bought their players. Ours came up through the Oakland system.
“We had great talent and we had some real characters — Bando, Fingers, Catfish, Vida, and of course, [owner] Charlie Finley. You had to give him and our scouting department a lot of credit.”
Feel free to argue among yourselves after contemplating David Fleming’s take:
Gene Tenace did more to help his teams win baseball games than Jim Rice did. He was more important to the success of his teams than Rice was, and he offered more diverse skills than Rice did. Considering the whole of the player and the contexts that surrounded him, looking at it from a holistic, all-encompassing perspective, Gene Tenace was a better player than Jim Rice.