January 2010

Oops, Bengie did it again

Bengie Molina is trapped in his personal “Groundhog Day.” On screen, Bill Murray doesn’t get the girl. On the free-agency trail, Bengie doesn’t get … it.
Yes, that’s it, he just doesn’t seem to get it. Bengie navigates free agency as if it was a cobblestone street strewn with banana peels.
Coming off his finest offensive season for the Angels back in 2005, the two-time American League Gold Glove catcher hit the market selling hard, looking for a three-year deal commensurate with his established reputation. Molina has that quiet confidence easy to mistake for humility. The big demands hidden behind that veneer turned off a lot of suitors.
Molina remained on that market until February, when he signed a one-year deal with Toronto — for $4.5 million.
Yes, the exact figure he just accepted, four years later, from the Giants. He also took a similar path back to the Bay, having hit the market looking for a three-year contract, then gradually easing up on his expectations. He had been primarily locked in with the Mets who — doubtless recalling the 2006 experience — waited for Molina to come around to taking one year with an option.
Bengie’s new at-bat music in AT&T Park has to be “Oops, I Did It Again.” That would replace Springsteen’s “Born To Run.”

In Cooperstown, there are no slam dunks

Some people never learn.
Referring to Chipper Jones, a lead writer for a respected national Web site this morning throws away the line that the Braves third baseman is “likely headed to Cooperstown when his career ends.”
That comment appeared less than 24 hours after baseball writers had again proven to be unblinking sentries in front of the Hall of Fame. Daily journalism is littered with future-Hall-of-Famer-this and headed-to-Cooperstown-that, but time and again we see that it ain’t easy sneaking through baseball’s pearly gates.
In the myopic prism of his era, Jones is a terrific player.
His career card entering the 2010 season, which will be his 16th:
.307 average with 426 homers, 1,145 RBIs, 7-time All-Star.
Here are some other sets of numbers:
(a) .312-309-1,261 and 7-time All=Star.
(b) .290-339-1,493 and 7-time All-Star.
(c) .288-399-1,425 and 5-time All-Star.
(d) .284-493-1,550 and 5-time All-Star.
(e) .265-398-1,266 and 7-time All-Star.
Pretty comparable, huh? The point? None of the five belonging to those numbers made the Hall of Fame on the most recent ballot. None even came close.
In order, they were (a) Edgar Martinez, (b) Dave Parker), (c) Andres Galarraga, (d) Fred McGriff and (e) Dale Murphy. Combined, they received 478 votes — or slightly more than the 420 which made Andre Dawson the year’s lone selectee.
In fact, Galarraga, didn’t even make the 5 percent cut required to remain on the ballot for next winter’s election.
This is not to pass judgment on Chipper or his future chances, only on those who too lightly wield Cooperstown-knighting swords. 

Been there, seen that – Unit edition

Randy Johnson’s retirement again hits the reset button on my personal perspective machine. Iconic athletes retire, you feel older, your appreciation grows for the life you’ve led.
That’s one of the wonderful things about the privilege of being a chronicler of sports and its personalities. There is no shortage of milestones on this yellow brick road.
The Big Unit and I spun in parallel orbits for nearly a quarter century, crossing paths only occasionally. This held true down to the finish.
On Sept. 22, I got to witness the last time Johnson struck out the side. It came in a one-inning relief appearance against the Diamondbacks in Chase Field, three subsequent relief outings from the end of his line.
Pretty significant, considering how many times the fearsome lefty fanned the side in his 4,135 innings. But it falls way short of other occasions where history and I happened to intersect — Johnson’s retirement is just another excuse for reflecting on them.
For instance, I am positive to have been the only person to have been on site for — not to mention the only reporter to have covered — each of these:
  • Nolan Ryan’s last five strikeouts. 

Came in seven four-hit innings against the Angels on Sept. 17, 1993 — five days before he tore an elbow ligament and walked off the Kingdome mound without having retired any Mariners, never to return. This was four years after the end of my newspaper career and into my decade as a magazine freelancer, but I was covering the game for The Associated Press.

  • Hank Aaron’s last home run.

Came on July 20, 1976 in Milwaukee’s County Stadium, in the seventh inning off Dick Drago. I just happened to be there, making a trip in relief of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner’s Angels beat writer, Dick Miller. Then Aaron just happened to play his next, and last, 24 games without again going deep, leaving the new magic number at 755.

  • Aaron’s 715th home run.
The one that broke Babe Ruth’s record. April 8, 1974 … Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium … fourth inning, off Al Downing. In my first full year on the Herald staff, beloved sports editor Bud Furillo assigned me to accompany legendary baseball writer Bob Hunter on the Dodgers’ first roadtrip of the season, with the expectancy of history in the air.
  • Barry Bonds’ 756th homer.
 The one that broke the record I’d seen Aaron set 33 years earlier. August 7, 2007 … AT&T Park … fifth inning, off Mike Bacsik. I was assigned there by MLB.com earlier in the week, with instructions to hang until BB slew the record. My vigil was a lot briefer than that of the other BB in this equation — Barry Bloom.
Not a bad confluence of a forgettable man and unforgettable moments.