Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 28, 2003
BASEBALL: Baseball's Underappreciated Great Teams, 1970-99
Originally posted on Projo.com
The 1970s: 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodger infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey became household names in 1974, but for me at least, the team was long identified with the squad that lost consecutive World Serieses to the Yankees -- Tommy Lasorda's team, with Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker in the outfield. But the 1974 team was the best Dodger team in the franchise's tenure in Los Angeles, and would probably be remembered as such if they hadn't lost to the Mustache Gang in the World Series.
After a two-year collapse following the 1966 retirement of Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers of the late 60s and early 70s were mostly a good team; although perennially stuck behind the Big Red Machine, they finished second five times and third once between 1970 and 1976. The Dodgers tried a lot of different things -- for example, importing veteran sluggers Dick Allen and Frank Robinson. But at the core was the rebuilding of the infield. Garvey broke in as a third baseman, playing semiregularly after 1971, and moved to first base to make room for Cey (after Wes Parker's sudden retirement in 1972) in 1973. Russell replaced Maury Wills at short in 1972. In 1974, Garvey became an everyday fixture at first, moving Bill Buckner to the outfield and relegating Manny Mota to pinch hitting duties. The 1973 team was already a good one, winning 95 games. Garvey began a series of nearly identical productive seasons in 1974 -- .312 average, 21 HR, 111 RBI, 200 hits. He was named the NL MVP.
In addition, two acquisitions radically changed the face of the Dodgers in 1974, albeit only for a year. They traded long-time centerfielder Willie Davis to the Expos for workhorse reliever Mike Marshall, and brought in Jimmy Wynn from Houston to play center. The two acquisitions could hardly have worked better; in fact, they were probably the Dodgers' two best players, the MVP voters notwithstanding.
Marshall's season, netting him the Cy Young Award, was historic, and the records he set are among baseball's most impressive. I separate "impressive" records from "unbreakable" ones, since all the most unbreakable records are ones that were set under different playing conditions. Cy Young threw 751 complete games in his career, which at the modern league leader's pace would take 100 years; single-season records for starting pitchers, set by underhand throwers in the 1880s (when the mound was 50 feet and anywhere from 5 to 9 balls were needed for a walk) will never be approached. Marshall's records of throwing 106 games and 208.1 innings in relief in a season are likewise the product of vanished conditions, although we may will see a lefthanded specialist challenge the 100-games mark in the next decade or so, 1 or 2 batters at a time. But what makes the records impressive is how far they stand out even from his own time. There have been only seven 90-game seasons -- three by Marshall and three by Kent Tekulve -- and the nearest is 12 games off Marshall's pace. The innings record is more impressive - like Babe Ruth in 1920, Marshall not only shattered the previous record (179 innings), it was a record he himself had set the prior year. And he pitched well: a 2.42 ERA, just 9 home runs allowed in over 200 IP, an almost 3-to-1 K/BB ratio. (For good measure, Marshall added 12 appearances in the postseason, including 9 innings of relief in appearing in all 5 World Series games).
The impact of a quality reliever taking over such a gigantic workload -- the work of three men, really, at least by the standards of today's game -- is hard to measure comprehensively, given the number of ways this affects the pitching staff. But between Marshall and Charlie Hough (who tossed 96 innings in 49 relief appearances), the Dodgers were able to paper over some weak links in the rotation, notably Doug Rau, who posted a 3.72 ERA (a subpar performance in that pitcher's era and park) and completed just 3 of his 35 starts, averaging less than 6 innings a start -- an unheard-of ratio in those days. Sore-armed Tommy John also staggered to a 13-3 record in 22 starts before his season ended early, while finishing just 5 of them; John pitched well, but probably benefited from not finishing his own games. John's injury, of course, would make baseball history with the famous surgery; staff ace Andy Messersmith (20-6, 2.59 ERA in 1974) would make another kind of history when an arbitrator awarded him free agency following the 1975 season, and fifth starter Al Downing (later replaced in the rotation by Geoff Zahn) would enter the history books in April of 1974 when he surrendered Hank Aaron's 715th home run (if you look at the footage of the homer, you can see Dodger left fielder Bill Buckner, in one of the two most memorable moments of his career, scaling the fence to try to take it away).
As for Wynn, finally free of the Astrodome only to land in yet another pitcher's paradise, he proved to be the critical element of a truly fearsome offense. Looking at the numbers, they may not look like much by modern standards, but consider that the Dodgers outscored the average team in the league by 18%, and then factor in the fact that 25% fewer runs were scored in Dodger home games than Dodger road games in 1974; on the road, the Dodgers scored 5.47 runs/game, 31.8% above the league average. A typical league leading offense will outscore the league average by 15% or so; the 1927 Yankees outscored the average AL team by 28% (the 1976 Reds were over 30%). I don't really think the park was quite that hostile, but comparing this offense to some of the all-time great offensive teams is perfectly fair.
Wynn was the best of the bunch, hitting 32 homers and drawing 108 walks, leading to a .271/.497/.387 batting line and 108 RBI. Everyone in the lineup had an on base percentage of .334 or better (the league average was .325), including right fielder Willie Crawford at .376 and backup catcher Joe Ferguson at .380. Everyone but Russell also bested the league slugging average. Buckner, then young (24) and fleet-footed (his ankles hadn't given out yet) batted .314 and stole 31 bases in 44 tries; Lopes also added 59 steals.
The pennant race wasn't close for the season's first half; the Dodgers blasted out of the gate at a 37-14 (.725) clip, and led by 8 games on June 1. The Reds cut the margin to 2.5 games in mid-August, going 35-15 from July 7 to August 28, but dropped back a bit with an early September slump, including the Dodgers taking 2 of 3 in a series in Cincinnati in which Garvey went 6 for 13 with a double, homer and 3 RBI and Sutton pitched a key 3-1 victory. The Reds then won 7 of 8 to cut the lead to 1.5 games on September 14, including consecutive victories in LA, but Sutton pitched a six-hitter the next day, Garvey doubled and homered, and Wynn hit a grand slam off Pedro Borbon in the 7th (followed by Garvey's homer) to put the game away 7-1. A week later the Dodger lead was 4.5 games and the race was over.
The postseason started well enough, as the Dodgers rolled over the Pirates 3 games to 1, the sole loss the result of a 5-run first inning against Rau. Garvey batted .389 in the LCS, kicking off a career of spectacular postseason batting. But the World Series, with four 3-2 games and a 5-2 game in five matchups, just didn't break the Dodgers' way (except for the famous pickoff of A's pinch runner Herb Washington by Marshall). In the deciding Game 5, Joe Rudi homered off Marshall in the bottom of the 7th, and the series was effectively put to bed when Buckner, in a baserunning blunder that was much celebrated at the time, was thrown out at third base leading off the top of the 8th (the ball got past Bill North but was corralled by Reggie Jackson, who threw a strike to cutoff man Dick Green, who threw Buckner out at third). The Dodgers would be back a few years later after Walter Alston retired and Wynn and Marshall broke down, but this team never got the ultimate glory it deserved.
The 1980s: 1988 New York Mets
Like the 1974 Dodgers, these Mets are hardly forgotten, but rather have been persistently overshadowed -- overshadowed by the 1986 team, overshadowed in the regular season by the A's, overshadowed in the postseason and in the award voting by Hershiser's Dodgers. But this was a distinct team from the 1986 team, and a powerful one.
The Mets' rise from the obscurity of the 1977-83 period to the dominating force of the 1986 team needs no introduction. This was followed by 1987 . . . there's probably no season of baseball I remember better than the 1987 Mets; I was 15 and hanging on every single pitch. It was agony watching such a superior team have the same things continually unravel. To make a long story short, the Mets in 1987 had seven very good starting pitchers (Gooden, Darling, Fernandez, Ojeda, Aguilera, Cone and Leach), and it wasn't enough; they still wound up giving nearly 30 starts to pitchers who were ineffective, sometimes spectacularly so, and even tried to coax Tom Seaver out of retirement. The team scored a league-leading 5.08 R/G, a staggering figure for a team playing in Shea Stadium, and still they fell 3 games short of the division title.
The 1988 roster had turned over a good deal from 1986. World Series MVP Ray Knight was let go after 1986, giving Howard Johnson the full time third base job. The aging Jesse Orosco (so we thought at the time) was dealt to the Dodgers for prospects after 1987, handing over the lefthanded closer job to young fireballer Randy Myers. Kevin Mitchell was shipped to San Diego after 1986 for Kevin McReynolds. Weak-hitting shortstop Rafael Santana was let go, to be replaced in 1988 by rookie Kevin Elster. And in April 1987, the Mets traded two minor players -- backup catcher Ed Hearn and minor league veteran pitcher Rick Anderson -- to the Royals for a seven-year minor league vet named David Cone.
For the Mets, Cone's emergence was the biggest story of 1988. In 1987, Cone started 13 times, which included a visibly nervous Cone getting pounded in his first two outings (Davey Johnson then settled him down by starting Cone in the Jimmy Fund in-season exhibition against the Red Sox) and getting hammered again in his first start off the DL after getting his right pinky finger crushed against the bat by a pitch while bunting. In his other ten starts, Cone's ERA was below 3.00. In 1988, he lived up to that promise after sliding into the rotation when an April injury finished Rick Aguilera's season (the Mets would move Aguilera to the bullpen the following year before dealing him to Minnesota in the Frank Viola deal). At the time, I thought Cone had been robbed in the Cy Young voting by Hershiser, since Cone had a better W-L record (20-3 vs. 23-8) and a lower ERA (2.22 to 2.26), but Hershiser did throw 36 extra innings, had a lot less offensive support, and unlike Cone (who was tagged for 8 unearned runs in one inning that summer), and unlike Cone, Hershiser wasn't tagged for an unusual number of unearned runs (Cone allowed 10, including 5 in his last 3 starts while Hershiser was rolling up his consecutive shutout streak). It's still a close call, but the voters got it right.
Myers was another revelation, putting permanently aside his minor league reputation as a guy who couldn't find the plate. Myers' numbers look impressive enough -- 1.72 ERA, 69K and 62 baserunners in 68 IP. But during the season they looked even better; at the end of September, Myers' ERA was 1.35 and he had been taken deep only twice all year, but he got tagged for a pair of home runs in the next to last game of the season. Randall K would go on to an illustrious career in places like Cincinnati, Chicago and Baltimore, saving 347 major league games, although ironically enough, the two older pitchers he replaced in his first two stops -- Orosco and John Franco -- are still pitching five years after Myers threw his last pitch. Beyond Myers, the bullpen was as solid as the rotation, with Roger McDowell and Terry Leach combining with Myers to carry nearly the entire relief load and posting ERAs below 2.70. Leach, a 34-year-old minor league veteran submariner who'd been known to throw complete game shutouts for the Mets in games started on a half hour's notice, went 7-2 (all in relief this time), raising his record to 18-3 over a two year period and 24-9 for his career.
On offense, 1988 saw a changing of the guard. Gary Carter had cracked 20 home runs and driven in 83 runs in 1987, but it was his first real off year in a decade; in 1988, at age 34, Carter started hot in April to get to 299 career homers, then went homerless for three months waiting for number 300. He finished at .242/.358/301, a non-factor in the offense, and was mercifully removed from the cleanup slot as the season progressed. Keith Hernandez, also 34, also began an abrupt decline, missing almost 70 games with hamstring problems and dropping him to .276 with a .333 OBP. Like Carter, Hernandez would never regain the form that made him an MVP candidate just two years earlier. 25-year-old Lenny Dykstra had an off year, and 29-year-old platoon second baseman Tim Teufel came back to earth after slugging .545 in the lively ball air of 1987. Elster hit no better than Santana, batting .214. Pinch hitter Lee Mazzilli hit .147.
None of it mattered. The unquestioned star of this team was Darryl Strawberry, and Darryl had probably his best season in 1988 at age 26, scoring and driving in 101 runs apiece, slamming 39 homers, and finishing at .269/.545/.366, stealing 29 bases while grounding into just 6 double plays for good measure. The Straw Man led the league in homers by 9 and was one of just three NL players (along with Will Clark and Andy Van Slyke) to both drive in and score 100 runs. In Strawberry's case, it's obvious that he was robbed in the MVP voting; Kirk Gibson's 25 homers and 76 RBI don't stack up. Granted, Gibson was a better percentage base thief (4 CS to Straw's 14) and had a slightly higher OBP (.377 to .369), but Strawberry's 62-point advantage in slugging easily overcomes that, and if Strawberry was an underachieving fielder, at least he could throw, which Gibson couldn't.
Instead, the MVP voters focused on Gibson's intense emotional leadership -- notably a celebrated spring training incident when he blew up at Orosco for playing the kind of practical joke that had been common in the looser Mets clubhouse -- and probably held against Strawberry the perception that the Mets had sleepwalked through the summer, since Darryl was always the poster boy for sleepy ballplayers. The Mets buried the competition early, and then coasted for much of the summer. The Mets started 30-11 (.731); Gooden was 8-0 already, Cone was 6-0. By June 6, they stood 38-17 (.690), 7 games ahead of the revived Pirates and 8.5 ahead of the defending champion Cardinals. But from May 23 to August 21, this was a .500 team, 41-41. The Cardinals fell by the wayside, but the Pirates closed to just 3.5 games back. The Mets had backed their way into a close pennant race. Gooden had gone 6-6 in the interim, and Cone had also won just 6 games in the intervening 82. The two lefthanders, Ojeda and Fernandez, stood 15-22 through August 22.
Then they woke up, and proceeded to tear the division to ribbons with a 29-8 surge in which they allowed just 2.78 runs/game (while scoring 5 a game). Cone won his last 8 starts to improbably finish 20-3. Fernandez went 5-0 down the stretch, and Gooden won 4 straight decisions before dropping his last two starts (at the time I was indignant that Davey Johnson started a lineup full of scrubs behind Gooden on September 23, with Dr. K needing 2 wins in 2 starts for his second 20-win season; Johnson benched Strawberry, McReynolds, Hernandez and Carter and let Gooden lose a 2-1 complete game defeat).
Besides Darryl, the Mets got a big year from McReynolds, who set a record (since broken) by stealing 21 bases without being caught once, and slugged .496 on the way to 99 RBI; McReynolds (like Hernandez and Carter in 1986 and Gooden and Carter in 1985) split much of the MVP vote with Strawberry (there's a reason no Met has ever won the award). 25-year-old Dave Magadan stepped in seamlessly for Hernandez, posting his customary .393 on base percentage. And 32-year-old Mookie Wilson, the last holdover (other than the returning Mazzilli) from the dark days of the Joe Torre years, had his best season, batting .296/.431/.345 in a part-time role. Wally Backman also played well, to the tune of a .388 OBP.
Two events of September overshadowed the rest of the team. One was Bob Ojeda's accident. Ojeda has had an incredible array of freak accidents and injuries, ranging from a rare blood disease in his Red Sox years that caused fainting spells to head injuries suffered in the fatal 1993 boat crash that claimed the lives of Indians teammates Steve Olin and Tim Crews. In 1988, it was a gardening mishap; through September 11, Ojeda was pitching exceptionally well -- a 2.88 ERA and a 133-33 K/BB ratio, allowing about a baserunner an inning while surrendering just 6 home runs in nearly 200 innings, and having thrown shutouts in two of his last three starts -- when he cut the tip off the middle finger of his pitching hand with a hedge trimmer. Ojeda had recovered from arm trouble that limited him to 10 appearances in 1987, but the hedge trimming accident finished his season, and while he would pitch effectively again he never regained his pinpoint control.
The other September sensation was 20-year-old Gregg Jefferies. Jefferies had been Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year -- a highly prestigious award that usually led to major league stardom -- two years running as a teenager in 1986 and 1987, batting around .360 with power as a switch-hitting, base-stealing shortstop blessed with a compact, textbook-perfect swing from both sides of the plate. He was known for his father's extensive grooming efforts -- Jefferies had his own training regimen, which famously included swinging a bat underwater -- and his arrogance, such as his boast that he would break Pete Rose's hit record (he ultimately fell some 2,500 hits short).
Jefferies hit Shea in late August like a bomb going off. Arriving August 28, a week into the hot streak that would put paid to the division, Jefferies was immediately inserted in the starting lineup, batting second and playing third base (which forced Howard Johnson, now an established star after his 30/30 season in 1987, to play out of position at shortstop) with Dwight Gooden on the mound. Jefferies singled and doubled as the Mets lost 7-4. The next day, Davey Johnson asked Cone to take the mound with an appalling defensive infield of Jefferies at second, HoJo at short and Magadan at third; Cone somehow managed to toss a 1-hit shutout, and Jefferies doubled, tripled and homered. (Johnson wasn't totally oblivious to defense; two days later he pulled Jefferies for a defensive sub after Leach replaced no-ground-balls Sid Fernandez in the second inning). After a 4-hit game on September 12, Jefferies' line for his first 13 games on the roster looked like this: 12 games, 48 at bats, 24 hits, 7 doubles, 2 triples, 5 home runs, 13 runs, 10 RBI, one steal, .500 batting average, 1.042 slugging, .520 OBP. Jefferies cooled off after that, but finished at .321/.596/.364 in over 100 at bats.
Given the threat Jefferies posed to the team's incumbent infielders, particularly Backman, Teufel and Johnson, Jefferies' veteran teammates decided to alternately torture and ignore him, including repeatedly sawing his custom-made bats in half; the result was not good for team 'chemistry,' whatever the importance of that may be. Jefferies, like Jeff Kent after him, was uptight and humorless, and responded poorly to these slights and gags, and unlike Kirk Gibson, nobody gave him an award for the response. I do hold the Mets organization partly responsible for Jefferies' ultimate failure to develop as a hitter, though less due to the hazing than due to the failure to fix a position for him.
In the short run, sticking a 20-year-old rookie with a gigantic ego into the lineup had other problems. Davey asked him to bunt in one LCS game, only to discover -- on national television -- that a guy who had been his team's best hitter his entire life had no idea how to lay a bunt down (Johnson had made the same mistake with Strawberry in the heat of the pennant race three years earlier and gave up on asking him to bunt after that). Still, the Mets had manhandled the Dodgers in the regular season, winning 10 of 11 matchups, and after Carter broke Hershiser's scoreless innings streak in Game One of the LCS -- leading to a 3-run ninth and a thrilling 3-2 victory reminiscent of where the team had left off in the postseason two years earlier -- it looked like it would be easy.
Unfortunately, the Mets couldn't keep their mouths shut. Cone wrote a boastful piece in the NY papers and promptly got shelled in Game Two; Strawberry started griping about his contract; McReynolds said that if the Mets won, he'd go to the World Series and if they lost, he'd be back in Arkansas in time for duck hunting season, so as far as he was concerned he would win either way. The Mets won a rain-soaked Game Three 8-4; as in Game One, they'd bested Hershiser by tearing up Dodgers' closer Jay Howell. Gibson pulled up lame, and was hobbled for the rest of the LCS, although he'd hit two more home runs in the series.
Then, two things happened to turn the series. One was that Gooden, leading 4-2 in the ninth inning of Game 4 at home -- a situation where no manager, today, would have his starter on the mound, but it was a different era then -- was tagged by Mike Scioscia for a game-tying two-run homer. Second, Howell got suspended for putting pine tar on the brim of his cap, leading to suspicions of doctoring the ball. The Mets had been torturing Howell, but Tommy Lasorda now went to Hershiser to close out Game 4 (his third appearance in five days). The Dodgers won Game Five, Cone rebounded to shut them down in Game 6, and then in Game Seven the wheels came off: Ron Darling, the team's money pitcher the prior three years, came out with nothing, and errors by Backman and Jefferies contributed to a 6-0 hole after two. Gooden, Leach and Aguilera held the line valiantly after that -- both Leach and Myers were unscored-upon in that series -- but with Hershiser staked to a 6 run lead, it was over.
The Mets' fall, like their rise, is too long a tale for this column, but 1988 was the last time that a championship was this close for this team, and the promised showdown with the 104-win A's never materialized. (Oakland found the first of its own postseason nightmares against those Dodgers). You can pick a number of dates when the worm turned against the Mets, but most fans would pick 1988 NLCS Game Four and Scioscia's home run.
The 1990s: 1998 Houston Astros
It's hard for any team from five years ago to be forgotten yet -- the two biggest stars of this Astros team are still in Houston, as are the team's ace pitcher and its closer -- but the 1998 Astros are certainly not likely to be mentioned in any history books.
A consistently solid also-ran under Art Howe and Terry Collins, the Astros won their first division title in more than a decade when Larry Dierker took over the helm in 1997, led by a spectacular breakout season by Darryl Kile. Kile left as a free agent for an ill-fated tour in Colorado after the season, but the 1998 Astros would be the best of Dierker's four division champs in Houston.
Like the two teams above, this team was an offensive monster stuck in a pitcher's park. One of the oddities, for the slow-moving 1990s, was that everybody in the starting lineup had double figures in stolen bases, highlighted by 50 steals for Craig Biggio. Jeff Bagwell, then 30 and the team's best hitter, had his usual Bagwell season, .304/.557/.424, scoring 124 runs and driving in 111. Biggio, age 32, had one of his best years, batting .325/.503/.403; with 50 steals and 51 doubles, Biggio was constantly in scoring position (to day nothing of 20 home runs). Yet, with all that baserunning and over 740 plate appearances, Biggio grounded into just 10 double plays and was caught stealing only 8 times. The third of the "Killer Bs" had his third and final star-quality season at age 29; Derrek Bell scored 111 runs and drove in 108, loading a .314 batting average with 41 doubles and 22 home runs. All up and down the lineup, this team hit gobs and gobs of doubles, with 5 players hitting 33 or more, plus the Bill Spiers/Sean Berry platoon at third combining for 44 and fourth outfielder Richard Hidalgo -- a deadly hitter crowded out of the lineup -- chipping in 15. Besides Bell, Hidalgo was blocked by Moises Alou, fresh from the fire sales in Montreal and Florida, who had a career year, .312/.582/.399, with 38 homers and 124 RBI; and newly-arrived Carl Everett, taking a brief break from controversy to hit .296 with power. Of the ten Astros to bat more than 200 times, only shortstop Ricky Guitierrez (.337) had an on base percentage below .355. Besides Hidalgo, mashers like Mitch Meluskey and Daryle Ward were likewise unable to crack this lineup.
The pitching staff, until late July, was solid; with the departure of Kile, Shane Reynolds was surrounded with a maturing Mike Hampton, 25, and new arrivals Jose Lima (25) and Sean Bergman (28). Only fifth starter Pete Schourek, at 29 still trying to recapture his 18-7 season of three years earlier (the one time he lived up to his minor league promise), was a weak link. Billy Wagner and Doug Henry anchored a dependable (until the postseason) bullpen.
So the Astros went for broke at the trading deadline, dealing blue-chip prospects Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Carlos Guillen for a few months' rental of a struggling Randy Johnson, 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA while brooding over his contract in Seattle. It was a classic now-or-never move; the price was steep, as became clear when Garcia emerged as a star and the others became productive contributors in Seattle. And the benefit was short-lived, as Johnson packed his bags for Arizona after the season.
In one sense, the move paid off: Johnson pitched as well as a human being can pitch, 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts, striking out 116 while allowing just 57 hits and 4 home runs. In another sense, it didn't: the Astros were never really threatened in the regular season anyway, and Johnson lost both his starts (albeit well-pitched ones) in the NLDS against the Padres, in which nearly everything possible went wrong: Kevin Brown started a hot streak that carried into the World Series, Bagwell, Biggio and Billy Wagner continued their career-long futility in the postseason . . . it all fell apart.
But if there's one common theme in the history of all the teams I've looked at, it's this: those shots at the brass ring can fade awfully fast. I'd make the Johnson deal again.