Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Greatest Cardinal NOT in Cooperstown

He played eleven seasons for the St Louis Cardinals, was an All-Star seven times, won five Gold Gloves, and was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1964, leading his team to its first World Championship in eighteen years.

He was such a revered player in St Louis, the Cardinals hierarchy retired his number (14), along with seven other Cardinal greats - Ozzie Smith (1), Red Schoendienst (2), Stan Musial (6), Enos Slaughter (9), Dizzy Dean (17), Lou Brock (20), and Bob Gibson (45).  All have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York - except number (14) - Ken Boyer.

Boyer has been dead now for nearly thirty years, passing away a little more than a month before the Cardinals would win the 1982 World Series.  Boyer never received more than a handful of votes in his early years of Hall of Fame eligibility.  Sadly, dying seems to work in favor of induction, tugging at the heart-strings of those otherwise callous voters; still, Boyer peaked out with only 25% of the vote in 1988 - a year in which the Cardinals made it to the World Series in three of the previous six years. 

As the Cardinals faded from the national sports scene in the late '80s - early '90s, so too did the memory of Boyer's on-field accomplishments fade from the minds of the Hall of Fame voters.

Now, Boyer has another shot at Cooperstown, thanks to the Veteran's Committee selection process.  Boyer is one of nine former players on the ballot, along with one former baseball executive - Bob Howsam - a general manager for both the St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds of the '60's and '70's - helping both teams reach elite status during his tenure.

The other former players on the ballot include:  Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Billy Pierce and Maury Wills.

 The Veteran's Committe vote is how another great third baseman - Ron Santo - finally made it to Cooperstown three years ago.

Boyer's career numbers were similar to Santo's:  .287 lifetime batting average - 282 home runs - 2143 hits - 1104 runs scored - 1142 runs batted in - however, Boyer trumps Santo in two categories:  (1) He was a major contributor to a World Series championship and (2) he has a National League Most Valuable Player Award to his credit.  All that happened fifty years ago - in 1964.

Santo, of course, played for the Chicago Cubs, so he never had a chance to play in a World Series, and winning an MVP Award on a losing team requires Ernie Banks-type numbers, which Ron Santo never quite achieved.

On the other hand, Boyer led the NL with 119 RBI in '64, while leading the Cardinals to a pennant and world championship - and being the main cog to a pennant-winning team did the trick, as far as the voters were concerned.

The Beginning:

After losing two years to military service, Boyer broke in with the Cardinals in 1955, as a slick fielding third baseman, hitting a respectable .264 with 18 home runs in 147 games.  He improved to .306 with 26 home runs and 98 RBIs in his sophomore season.  Only an aging Stan Musial posted better offensive numbers for the Cardinals, but not by much.

Meanwhile, the team itself wasn't very good, finishing well below .500 in each of Boyer's first two major league seasons.  Then, some genius decided to convert the fleet-footed, uncomplaining Boyer into a center fielder in 1957.  Although he fielded his position brilliantly, the transition clearly detracted from his offensive production, as Boyer regressed to hit .265 with only 19 home runs.  Ironically, the Cardinals played well in '57, finishing in second place behind the Milwaukee Braves.

Luckily, the Cardinals acquired another player to patrol center field, beginning in 1958 - Curt Flood (who also belongs in the Hall of Fame) - allowing Boyer to return to third base - where he belonged.  Over the next seven seasons, Boyer played brilliantly, with remarkable consistency, as the Cardinals gradually developed into a championship-caliber team. 

After another second place finish in 1963, paced by Ken Boyer's then career-high 111 RBI the Cardinals were hopeful that 1964 was going to be "their year".  Of course, the '64 Cardinals completed a dramatic late-season comeback to surge past the fading Phillies to capture their first NL pennant since 1946.

The remarkable Ken Boyer, playing in every inning of all 162 regular season games, received the NL Most Valuable Player Award for his efforts.  The Cardinals would have finished in the second-division without his contributions in 1964.

World Series Performance:

Boyer's heroics didn't stop with the conclusion of the regular season.  In the World Series against the New York Yankees, the Cardinals had their backs up against the wall early in the Series.  Down two games to one, and losing 3-0 in the fifth inning of Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, Ken Boyer belted a grand slam home run down the left field line, giving the Redbirds a thrilling 4-3 win over the stunned Bronx Bombers.

It was the turning point of the World Series - instead of being down three games to one, the Cards had evened things up at two games apiece.  Bob Gibson eventually won Game 7 for the Cardinals, 7-5.  Boyer hit his second home run of the World Series, and wound up with a team-leading six RBI in the seven games. 

Boyer was now 33 years of age; mentally and physically exhausted.  The following season, he was unable to muster the energy and concentration necessary to continue producing as he had during the first ten years of his career.  In 1965, his batting average dropped to a career low .260, with only 13 home runs and 75 RBIs.  Shortly after the end of that dismal season, Ken Boyer was traded to the Mets for a third baseman by the name of Charley Smith.

Just like that, the Ken Boyer Era in St Louis Cardinals baseball was over.  In time, his number would be retired by an appreciative Cardinals franchise.  His legacy:  The greatest Cardinal player not in Cooperstown.

Hopefully, that will change when the committee casts its votes by December 8.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Exclusive! Fake Interview with Hanley Ramirez

Contrary to popular belief,  Miami Marlins star Hanley Ramirez is not a self-absorbed, unmotivated, immature, prima donna.  In this exclusive fake interview, Hanley opens up about his desire to be a "team player" and make room for newly acquired free-agent Jose Reyes to take over at shortstop.

CR:  Your thoughts about the free-agent acquisition of Jose Reyes to play shortstop for the Marlins next season?

Hanley:  I think it's great.  Shortstop is a very demanding position and Jose has a proven track record of durability.  I think he's capable of playing at least 50 games before breaking down with another pulled hamstring.  Actually, I'll go out on a limb and say he might even play 60 games for us in 2012.

CR:  How do you feel about moving over to third base to make room for Jose at your former position - shortstop?

Hanley:  Hey, I'm looking forward to the challenge.  I'm a ballplayer; I'll play wherever the team needs me.  I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm excited about getting the chance to break some records at third base.  What is the record for most errors by a third baseman, anyway?

CR:  Do you think the Marlins can be competitive in the tough NL East next season?

Hanley:  Hey, we're looking forward to the challenge.  With any luck at all, we can finish ahead of the Mets in 2012. 

CR:  How long do you think it will take before the Marlins win another World Series?

Hanley:  Well, it's been over 100 years since the Cubs did it; right?  I think we can easily do it before the end of the millenium.

CR:  How would you describe your attitude right now?

Hanley:  I couldn't be happier.  I get paid to play baseball for a living.  That sure beats working 60 hours a week as some management trainee at Enterprise Rent-a-Car.  Give me a break!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can Reshuffled Cards Do It Again?

After pulling off that improbable - actually, impossible - World Series triumph over the Texas Rangers a couple of months ago, the St Louis Cardinals will enter the 2012 season with a new manager - Mike Matheny - whose biggest challenge will be taking over a team that no longer has the Game's Greatest Player on its roster.  The good news for the Cardinals' front office:  The Game's Greatest Player is no longer on the payroll.

Certainly, losing a guy who usually drives in well over 100 runs each year is going to put pressure on the new lineup; but the Cards just signed 34-year old outfielder Carlos Beltran to a two-year-$26 million deal; an amount roughly one-tenth as much as the ten-year contract the Angels negotiated with King Albert Pujols - The Game's Greatest Player.  Maybe Angels owner Artie Moreno can afford to shell out over a quarter of a billion bucks to a player who will more than likely be a DH or bench player in another five years or so.

The Cardinals offered a measley $210 million-10-year deal to the former Cardinals icon.  What an insult.  What were they thinking?  Hmm.  Maybe they were thinking/hoping  he'd turn it down, figuring they could spend the money on other items, such as moderately-priced free-agents like Carlos Beltran.  Or contract extensions on guys like David Freese and Adam Wainwright, among others.  There are lots of possibilities for the frugal front office to keep the roster stocked with good, young ballplayers, in lieu of overpriced aging icons.

Obviously, with Pujols no longer a part of the Cardinals' lineup heading into the 2012 season, the challenge of repeating as World Champions becomes all the more difficult.  Although the Redbirds have now won eleven titles - the most of any NL team - the franchise has never won back-to-back Fall Classics.  In fact, the last NL team to accomplish the feat was the fabled Big Red Machine - the Cincinnati Reds, in 1975 and 1976.  Prior to that, the New York Giants defeated Babe Ruth's Yankees in 1921 and 1922, before the Bambino and Company took care of business in 1923.  Strangely enough, those lovable losers - the Chicago Cubs - were at one time hard-core winners, with back-to-back World Championships in 1907 and 1908.  Great memories, eh Cubs fans?  Sorry.

So, what are the chances of repeating for the Redbirds?  Past history suggests it's unlikely.  Losing the services of Albert Pujols suggests it's even more unlikely.  Although the current roster is loaded with talent, it has also been injury-prone.  Gambling on an aging player's ability to stay injury-free for an entire season is a risky proposition; but let's face it, not gambling on oft-injured free-agents like Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran has no upside potential.  If they manage to stay healthy and play in 140 or more games in '12, that would bode well for the Redbirds' chances of winning back-to-back World Series titles.  It wouldn't hurt if the Cards could also have the services of David Freese for an entire, injury-free season.  Wow.

Every time I think of Freese, I think of Game 6 - the most miraculous victory in World Series history.  The great sportswriter, Jason Stark, supplied us with some fascinating tid-bits of information about Game 6, in case anyone doubted the extent of the miracles that happened in that contest:

* The Cardinals trailed in that game five different times before finally winning it.  No team in World Series history had ever done that.  The Cardinals - in 19,387 regular season games - had never won a game after trailing five different times.  Never.

* In the previous 1327 post season games played, no team had ever scored in the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th innings.  Of course, in the 9th inning, St Louis was down to its last strike before extending the game with Freese's two-run game-tying triple.  Likewise, they were down to their last strike in the 10th inning before Lance Berkman's game-tying single plated a jubilant, skipping Jon Jay.  The last time any team was in that same situation was in the '86 World Series - the Miracle Mets in Game 6 - when the Red Sox managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to perpetuate the Curse of the Bambino.

Of course, the Redbirds' unlikely post season berth resulted from an amazing stretch run, combined with the total collapse of the team they were pursuing - the Atlanta Braves.  With just five games left to play, the Cards still trailed the Braves by three games.  Incredibly, the Braves lost all five of those games while the Cards won four out of five.  How often is that sort of thing going to happen?

It's interesting to note, the 1985 Cardinals won 101 regular season games, and never lost a game entering the 9th inning with a lead; that is, until Game 6 of the World Series.  The 2011 Cardinals won just 90 regular season games, losing eleven games when they held a 9th inning or later lead.  In other words, they should have won 101 games last season.

Had the Cardinals actually won 101 games last season, perhaps their five-game NLDS conquest of the Phillies wouldn't have been so shocking.  Actually, the way they won Game 2 was quite shocking.  Staked to a 4 - 0 lead, Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee wound up on the losing end of a 5 - 4 decision.  In his career, Cliff Lee is now 94 - 2 whenever he's ahead by four or more runs.  Strangely enough, the winning pitcher on both occasions was Octavial Dotel.

I don't know if all those miracles that happened for the Cardinals in 2011 will somehow balance out against them in some sort of weird cosmic-way in 2012.  I always feel slightly uncomfortable whenever so-called experts predict St Louis to fare well in anything; they're usually wrong.  As luck would have it, three analysts on the MLB Network - Larry Bowa, Dave Valle, and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams unanimously picked the reshuffled Cards to win the NL Central in 2012. 

It may be unrealistic to expect another trip to the World Series for the Cardinals in 2012, but after last year's non-stop barrage of miracles, it actually may be unrealistic for Cards' fans to expect anything less than another World Series championship.  For those keeping score at home, that would be 12 in '12...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Will World Series MVP Freese Stay Hot in 2012?

Recently, MLB Network's analytics-enamored guru, Brian Kenny proclaimed on his "Clubhouse Confidential" program that being named the World Series MVP does not necessarily mean that player will go on to have a stellar follow-up season.  As an example, he cited the 2011 campaign which 2010 World Series MVP, Edgar Renteria suffered through - hitting just .251 in an injury-riddled 96 games.

Ironically, David Freese - 2011's World Series MVP - has yet to play an entire season without getting banged up himself.  Will 2012 be the year Freese stays hot for a full 162 games?  If he can stay healthy, I like his odds, regardless of how other World Series MVPs fared in their follow-up seasons.

Curiosity got the better of me, so I thought I'd dig deeper - all the way back to 1982, when Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter led St Louis to its first World Series title since 1967.  Porter was one of three catchers since his '82 heroics to take home the MVP honors - Rick Dempsey (1983) and Pat Borders (1992) were the other two.  None of the three backstops set the world on fire in their follow-up seasons, although Porter's .262 batting average in '83 was his highest mark in his five seasons with the Redbirds.

Pitching has dominated the MVP selections over the years since '82 - 14 hurlers were chosen - and all but four had stellar performances the following seasons.  The 2001 co-MVPs for the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks - Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling - won 24 and 23 games, respectively, in 2002.  They were in good company - Frank Viola, Orel Hershiser, Dave Stewart, Jose Rijo, Jack Morris, Tom Glavine, John Wetteland, and Mariano Rivera - proved their World Series domination was no fluke; all had tremendous seasons the very next year.  Three had "so-so" seasons as a follow-up - Livan Hernandez, Josh Beckett, and Cole Hamels - and just one pitcher had what could be termed "awful" in his next season - Bret Saberhagen, who went 7-12 in 1986 for the World Champion Kansas City Royals.

Third basemen have taken the World Series MVP honors five times since '82 - shortstops four times -  outfielders three times - along with one DH - future Hall of Famer, Paul Molitor.  Strangely enough, there haven't been any first basemen selected, although Joe Carter's 1993 World Series decisive Game Six home run ended things in dramatic fashion, giving Toronto its second straight championship.

Of the position players who were World Series MVPs, four were bitten by the injury bug the next season - Renteria, David Eckstein, Troy Glaus, and Mike Lowell - and four had sensational seasons as an encore - Jermaine Dye (.315-44-120), Manny Ramirez (.292-45-144), Derek Jeter (.311-110 runs scored), and Molitor, who hit .341 in the strike-shortened '94 season.

Getting back to David Freese, who had the greatest overall post season in history - featuring his record-setting 21 RBIs in 18 games - I think it's safe to say he'll prove that performance was no fluke.  It's also safe to say - with Albert Pujols' departure - the Cardinals will be counting on their third baseman to stay healthy and pick up where he left off in October.  If they're planning a return engagement to the Fall Classic, the Redbirds will absolutely need a healthy David Freese to help lead them back to the Promised Land.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

God: "Glitch" Sends Pujols to Angels

A source close to God has informed the MLB Network early Tuesday morning that devout slugger Albert Pujols' decision to move to the Los Angeles/Anaheim/California Angels resulted from a "communication mixup" between the Lord and the former 11 year St Louis Cardinals icon.

Attempting to explain the series of events that led King Albert to the Halos, the source set the record straight:  "Albert Pujols has been asking God for a lot of guidance lately, and the increased volume of prayers has put a strain on the Lord's ability to give His usual top-notch advice.  God decided to delegate the responsibilites to a special task force committee comprised of several former major league players who could offer the best possible guidance."

The exact identity of the committee members was not disclosed, although the source confirmed they were all dead and residing in Heaven.

"Unfortunately, when God relayed the plan to Mr Pujols, a communications glitch occurred."

Apparently, when God told Pujols he would be getting "help from the angels", Albert thought He was referring to the AL West franchise, who had coincidentally contacted the slugger about moving out west anyway.

Reportedly, God was embarrassed by the mixup, saying he had "completely forgotten" about the franchise he had helped win the World Series in 2002. 

"God wants to let everyone know He usually doesn't resort to Divine Intervention in deciding sporting events," then adding with a chuckle, "He never really liked Barry Bonds."