Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: September 26, 2008
Who Needs the Postseason? Gene Carney Starts His Own Playoffs
SWEET SIXTEEN REVISITED
At the end of last March, in the wake of the annual hoopla over the NCAA brackets, I wrote this:
I’ve been thinking of merging my love of baseball history with my fondness for brackets and sweet sixteens. If I remember, maybe after I finish my series on baseball history — four decades down, six to go, I’m stopping at 2000 — I’ll wash them down with a sweet sixteen tournament. My APBA simulations, that is, in which I can play off the sixteen “original franchise” teams, each augmented by the best of the “expansion team” stars, as well as the best players from the Negro Leagues. I’ll seed them (somehow) and then let them go at it, best-of-sevens. Along the way, I can further comment on each franchise and its stars — because I’m sure that I’m skimming over many deserving folks as I move thru the decades in the history I’m serving up here.
Well, I have finally gotten around to setting this up, and if all goes according to plans, this issue and the next fourteen will feature the results of my all-time “sweet sixteen” playoffs.
I’ve seeded the teams — eight in each league — using their records from the two simulated seasons I’ve completed, plus the half-season in progress. Best records versus worst. This means that in the AL, the Yankees (.561 winning percentage) will face off with the Senators (.430); the Tigers (.560) with the White Sox (.446); the Indians (.516) with the Red Sox (.488); and the Athletics (.504) with the Orioles (.496).
I ought to note right up top that these sixteen teams really are sweet, without exception. The basic building blocks for each are the best fifty players in that franchise’s long history; any weaknesses have been erased by two drafts, first from the all-time stars from the “expansion” franchises; and then with a special draft from the Negro Leaguers (up to three players per team).
I believe every team has a pitching staff made up of all “Grade A” pitchers, with many A & B and A & C aces included. So pitching is a kind of constant. I use a system where pitchers “upgrade” a notch as a reward for three scoreless innings, for starters, or two innings, for relievers. I also use an “unusual plays” chart, with the wind a factor at times. And I’ve modified the APBA charts to eliminate some of the quirks (for example, at times a better fielder gets stuck with an error that a lower-rated fielder makes). OK, let the games begin.
The Yankee pitching is solid. For starters, it’s Jack Chesbro (his 41-win season), Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Ron Guidry, and hired gun David Cone; in the pen are Mariano Rivera, Dave Righetti, Spud Chandler, John Wetteland, and Sparky Lyle. All of these pitchers have Z’s (good control), in this league, you are dead without it.
The Yankee lineup is a Murderer’s Row — and then some. I lead off with a Negro Leaguer, Preston “Pete” Hill, who patrols center field. Then it’s Mantle, Ruth (DH), Gehrig, and DiMaggio; followed by 2B Tony Lazzeri, SS Derek Jeter, 3B Red Rolfe (or another Negro Leaguer, speedster Sam Bankhead), and C Yogi Berra. The bench is strong: Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Gil McDougald, Phil Rizzuto, and Earle Combs (remember his 1927?)
The Yankees overtook the A’s in my first simulated season, played mostly with the top 25 franchise stars, and then some late-season call-ups then the next-best shift arrived. Babe Ruth hit 73 HRs, sandwiched between Mantle & Gehrig. Next time around, they slid to 84 wins (down from 91), in a 154-game schedule, and finished second, ten behind the Tigers. In the third season, they were trailing the Indians by five at the end of June.
The Senators (Twins) won 63 and 67 games, finishing eighth (last) in the first two seasons; with the last infusion of talent, they were battling for fifth place. I want to stress again — none of these teams is actually bad. But someone has to lose, some team has to come in last, and they are all loaded with Hall of Famers or other players having peak seasons.
The Nats have Big Train Walter Johnson, who can toss a shutout any day of the week. And they drafted Big Unit Randy Johnson, for a terrific one-two punch. Then they can throw Bert Blyleven, Bret Saberhagen, or Frank Viola at you. They have a kind of no-name pen, but they are all A’s: Dave Goltz, Jim Shaw, Jim Kaat, Al “general” Crowder, and draftee Dan Quisenberry.
Deadball stars like Cobb and Wagner and Lajoie and Joe Jackson make good top-of-the-order men in this league. The Nats lead off with Sam Rice. His outfield partners may include Kirby Puckett, Goose Goslin, Tony Oliva, Junior Griffey, or Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, a Negro Leaguer — like many — whose APBA card makes me wish I’d have seen him play. Again, because I can only play three in the OF, one of these guys has to DH. The infield has Kent Hrbek at 1B; Rod Carew and 2B; draftee Alex Rodriguez at SS (A-Rod might be a Yankee if I sorted these teams out today, but when he joined the Senators, it was from the Mariners); and at 3B I can play Harmon Killebrew (Killer can play some 1B or DH, too) or gloveman Gary Gaetti. The Nats’ catchers are Lloyd “Pepper” Bassett, a Negro League find; and Earl Battey. On the bench is Joe Cronin, the best glove for SS; and Chuck Knoblauch, whose glove rating as a 2B seems ironically high.
GAME ONE, AT NEW YORK
The wind was gusting out to left when Walter Johnson squared off against Chesbro. The Nats got on the board quickly when Carew ripped a HR just inside the RF foul pole in the first. In the Yankee first, Ruth walked with two out, and Lou Gehrig buried a Johnson fast ball into the stands in right center, 2-1 Yanks.
But the Nats bounced back, Hrbek’s 2-run HR in the 4th put them on top, 3-2. Walter Johnson settled down, and although he walked six, he yielded just two singles the rest of the way. In the visitors’ 7th, Bassett and Rice singled with two out, and Kirby Puckett’s second double of the game made it 5-2. In the 8th, pinch-hitter Tony Oliva got a Spud Chandler curve into that gusting wind for a two-run HR, and the 7-2 win. Shocking? Not really — never bet against Walter Johnson.
GAME TWO, AT NEW YORK
As I watched Game Two play out, I kept thinking about October 1995, Randy Johnson (as a Mariner) shutting down the Yankees. “He’s doing it again.” It was as if the Senators drafted Randy just to pitch this game, this series. Because he held the Yanks to three hits, four walks, no runs. Whitey Ford was almost as tough, but in the fifth inning, Bassett doubled with two out, and Sam Rice singled him in. And that was it, a 1-0 win for the Senators. And they were beating the damn Yankees without Joe Hardy!
GAME THREE, AT WASHINGTON
Now it was Bert Blyleven’s turn, and the Yanks sent out Ron Guidry to turn it around on the road. Kirby Puckett put the Nats on top with a two-run single in the third, following a walk to Hrbek and Rice’s hit and steal of second. Blyleven gave up just three singles until DiMaggio led off the 7th with a long HR to make it 2-1. But the Nats came right back in their 7th: Gaetti doubled and Hrbek singled him home. After an out, Rice was hit by a pitch, then Puckett doubled, Kirby’s 3rd & 4th RBIs, and it was 5-1. Mantle’s HR got one back, but the Nats tacked on two more runs in their 8th, for the 7-2 win, and were one game away from taking the series.
GAME FOUR, AT WASHINGTON
Could Walter Johnson complete the sweep? He’d have to get the best of Chesbro again. Didn’t happen. The Big Train was derailed early. Ruth a 2-run HR in the first, then in the second, four straight walks and a sac fly made it 4-0. I’m not sure Walter Johnson ever walked four in a row, and it only happened in this game thanks to that “unusual plays” feature. “Anything is possible” in baseball.
The Yanks broke it open in the sixth, chasing Jim Kaat, HRs by Hill and Gehrig (with two on). Ruth smacked his second HR later and DiMaggio added another Bronxian bomb, and the Yanks won 14-6. Stearnes and Killebrew homered for the Nats. Anyone who thought this series was over, did not know this Yankee team.
GAME FIVE, WASHINGTON
Now it was Randy Johnson’s chance to close it out, taking on Whitey Ford again, and thru six innings, it looked like a re-run, but this time the Yanks were up 1-0, thanks to Hill’s RBI triple, ending Johnson’s shutout streak at 13+ innings. Then in the seventh, Elston Howard doubled, and Johnson walked Mantle and Ruth with two out. Lou Gehrig followed with a triple, making it 4-0, and that was it. The final was 6-1, Ford scattering seven hits in the complete game win. Without any help from the unusual plays chart, the Yanks wangled nine walks, added a HB and eight hits. Mantle was ejected for bench-jockeying (when the game was still close) and Pepper Bassett’s series was ended with an injury.
GAME SIX, NEW YORK
Bert Blyleven got the nod for the Senators, and Lefty Gomez for the Yanks. Lefty got off to a rugged start: Rice singled, stole second, moved to third on a Goslin grounder, and came in on a sac fly by Carew. And more: a walk to Griffey, a triple by Stearnes and a HR by A-Rod had the Nats up 4-0.
But not for long. Lazzeri tripled home a run in the 2nd, Griffey injuring himself trying to nab it at the wall. Lazzeri doubled home two more in the 4th, then scored the tying run after a bunt and sac fly. Puckett, who took over for Griffey, doubled home a run with two out in the fifth, making it 5-4 Nats.
Blyleven was on the ropes again in the fifth, as the Yanks loaded the bases, but DiMaggio grounded into a double play to end the inning. (Ruth had ended the third with a 1-6-3 DP with two on.) In the 7th, the Nats added a run on a two-out double by Goslin and a single by Carew. 6-4, with nine outs to go.
With one out in the Yankee 7th, Mantle and Ruth walked, and Knoblauch, in at 2B for his glove, bobbled a Gehrig grounder to load the bases for DiMaggio. Quisenberry entered the game, and the threat ended when Joe D. hit it hard, but right at Knoblauch, for another 4-6-3 killing DP. It was the Nats’ day. Kelly Gruber, who had joined the roster after Gaetti was injured in Game Three, poked a two-run HR in the 8th, Walter Johnson came in to nail down the last four outs, and the Nats won 8-4, taking the series in six.
Looking back, this series was won in those two first games. Walter Johnson’s three-hitter, followed by Randy Johnson’s shutout, both at the Stadium. The Yankee bats stayed cold for game three, too, and then it was just a matter of the Senators hitting with men on (and often with two out), and the Yankees not.
The Senators advance to play the winner of the Tigers-White Sox series. Any of these sixteen teams can “go all the way” — the seeding is misleading, it’s not at all like the NCAA thing, where a #1 is always expected to beat a #16 in the first round. All sixteen teams have been built up over a long time and have about 370 games under their belts. They are all deep, and can cope with injuries (altho the loss of Bassett will hurt the Nats; he’ll miss the next series and more; they’ll get Gaetti back in just a few more games).
All sixteen teams are fun to manage, and I humbly accept that in every game, I am both winner and loser. It is literally the roll of the dice, that determines the outcomes of each at bat. These teams are also easy to manage, you almost always have a Grade A pitcher (or better) on the mound, and often a Hall of Famer (in his peak year) at bat or on deck. I call for the hit and run, the bunt, play the infield back or close, but mostly I just sit back and watch the games unfold — no two alike, and not one is predictable. If I rooted in this series, it was for the thing to go to a seventh game. I love seventh games.