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Good Things Happen To Those Who Wait: Ted Simmons Makes The Hall of Fame + David Lamb's "Stolen Season" Sheds Light on Importance of Minor League Baseball

I never get deeply involved in arguments about the Hall of Fame because the voting always comes down to a popularity contest.  Ted Simmons even admitted as much when he spoke publicly on Monday Dec 9 after his somewhat surprising election to baseball's Cooperstown shrine.

 
"I knew everybody on the [14-man veterans] committee and they knew me so I thought

I had a chance," he said on MLB TV.  It is actually more surprising that Simmons got less than 5% when he was first eligible on the regular ballot in the 1990s.  Because his vote total was so low, he was removed from the ballot until some veterans committees gave him extra chances.

 
Certainly Simmons's numbers are impressive:  21 seasons, 13 with Cardinals, 5 with Brewers (where he made his only World Series appearance in 1982), and 3 with Braves.

Lifetime stats:  248 HR, 483 doubles (indicating that he had significant power in the gaps), 1,389 RBI.

 

And for someone at times maligned for his defense, he threw out 34% of runners attempting to steal. On ESPN.com's list of best catchers in MLB history, he is tied for 10th place with Hall of Famer Gary Carter.  And everyone above them is enshrined in Cooperstown except for still-active Buster Posey of the Giants.

 
Ted Simmons will be one of the most original and intelligent members of the Hall of Fame. I had some memorable encounters with him in the 1980s.   


He liked my first book, co-authored with former major leaguer Tony Lupien,  "The Imperfect Diamond: The Story of Baseball's Reserve System and The Men Who Fought To Change It."  I was flattered when I learned that Simmons had told his Brewers teammate Paul Molitor to read it.

 
Simmons is part of my book because in 1972 he almost became Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally three years before impartial arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled they were free agents because they had not signed their contracts in 1975 and thus the reserve or renewal clause was no longer valid.   

 
Simmons did sign a rare two-year contract in the middle of the 1972 season, becoming probably the first player in MLB history to start a season without signing a contract. 

The dispute was about money, not a principle, Simmons refreshingly told future Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Broeg in an incisive June 1973 "Baseball Digest" article.


The piece was called "Losing Drives Me Crazy" and Ted declared, "Everyone strives to win, but it's 10,000 times easier to lose."  He also cited the wisdom of one of the great Cardinal minor league instructors George Kissell: "When things go wrong, check your own closet first."

 
Congrats again to Ted Simmons, the onetime University of Michigan speech major who never played for the Wolverines because he started his MLB career as a teenager. Not surprisingly, Simmons said that he is honored to go into Cooperstown with players union leader Marvin Miller who he served vigorously and effectively as a player rep.

 
A CLOSING NOTE ON THE MLB-MILB IMPASSE

As of this post goes up at the winter solstice of Dec. 21, the dispute continues between MLB and the officials of Minor League Baseball.  The majors are proposing the elimination of 42 minor league teams including some entire rookie leagues.

 

If the snafu is not straightened out, there will likely be law suits from some of the municipalities who have invested millions in improved facilities. As J. J. Cooper suggested in the Dec. 14 "Baseball America" post on line, MLB's master plan may well be that by the 2021 season, a whole new landscape will be in place with MLB controlling the teams in almost every lower league. 

 
Compromise has never been MLB's strong suit, but as someone who loves baseball on the lower levels, I sure hope some reconcilation happens early in the new year. For a body that endlessly intones the phrase "growing the game," cutting forty-plus teams seems very odd.

 

Coincidentally, I recently re-read a wonderful 1991 book, David Lamb, "STOLEN SEASON: A Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues." It is a lovely paean to the importance of a special American institution.  The book may be technically out of print, but I think an internet search can find a copy or I sure hope public libraries have it.


The late David Lamb was a foreign correspondent for the "LA Times" who needed a break from covering the wars in the Middle East.  The opening sentence of the book drew me in immediately:  "This baseball journey was born in the rubble of Beirut while some maniacs were blowing away my hotel with tanks, chunk by chunk."

 
So at the age of 49 Lamb decided to re-connect with his baseball-loving youth when he was such an ardent Boston and Milwaukee Braves fan that he wrote for their fan publications.  The Wisconsin team liked his work so much that he was invited to spend a week covering the team as a fully-credentialed teenager. 

 
Lamb's wife endorsed his mid-life crisis trip as long as he didn't come home chewing tobacco.  Hilarious and prescient insights like this one fill the book. He captures the joy of seeing baseball in small towns and meeting the local characters that make the game so unique.

 
Names of future major leaguers dot the pages of the book such as infielder Ron Washington who wound up managing the Texas Rangers to a World Series and told Lamb that every AB is an opportunity. We discover that the double play combination in Stockton California was Charlie Montoyo (now Blue Jays manager) and Pat Listach, who made The Show with the Brewers.

 
Lamb's visits to the Milwaukee heroes of his youth are revealing - among them: frank Eddie Mathews, thoughtful Warren Spahn, analytical Del Crandall, utility man Chuck Tanner who found far greater success as a MLB manager, and Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, the unheralded minor leaguer who rallied the Braves to their 1957 pennant but only received a 2/3 World Series-winners' share.  Now just "a backwoods whiskey salesman," he's more philosophical than embittered about life. 

 

I wish the prestigious Random House publisher had included an index and that Bill Bruton's and minor league flame-thrower Steve Dalkowski's name had been spelled correctly. But STOLEN SEASON is a most worthy read.  

 
Keep the faith, dear readers, in both baseball and the USA though both are certainly going through difficult times these days.  And always remember:  Take it easy but take it.

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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.

The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.

The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.

In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.

Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.

A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.

When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.

The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.

Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.

I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.

I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.

I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.

Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.

Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.

The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.

It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.

Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.

Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.

After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)

Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.

But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”

Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.

From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.

It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.

Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.

It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.

Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?

So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.

That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
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