Friday, 24 July 2015

An Ode to the 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame Class

One of the greatest things about being a baseball fan for more than a decade is the opportunity to see your original heroes enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This has been a novel pleasure to me in recent years, as the superstars who illuminated my youth have enjoyed their day in the Cooperstown sun five years after melancholic retirement.

Last year, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, master pitchers both, were joined by Frank Thomas, one of the most prodigious sluggers of his generation, and legendary managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, in the marble halls of glory. Watching the induction ceremonies for these sterling men, I felt a deeper connection to the Hall than ever before. After all, these guys were dominant figures when I first encountered baseball in 2004, and they were an integral part of my initial respect for, and understanding of, this sweet and stunning game.


This year, that trend continues, as four of the greatest players I've ever had the pleasure of watching are cast in bronze alongside the immortal greats: Pedro Martinez, the slender ace with a giant will to win; Randy Johnson, the most intimidating pitcher of the modern realm; John Smoltz, the stately gentleman with inexhaustible inner strength; and Craig Biggio, the quintessential scrapper who triumphed through chronic adversity. It would be difficult to conjure a more deserving class.


By the time I began watching baseball, Johnson was 40 years old, past his absolute best, yet still a very good pitcher for the New York Yankees, gutting his way towards the sacred 300 wins plateau. Smoltz, meanwhile, was just transitioning back to the starting rotation from his successful cameo in the bullpen. He became more nuanced and eked out a few more years in the sun.


Likewise, I first experienced the glory of Pedro as he roamed the dwindling twilight with the Mets, never reaching his optimum level, but still pitching with a distinct majesty. And as for Biggio? Well, Craig was the heart and soul of the 2005 Astros, a totally compelling team that won the National League pennant in my first season as a diehard baseball fan.


Even in advancing age, each player had a profound and lasting effect on me. They were part of a generation of players with which I was totally fascinated.


Of course, as a dedicated reader and consumer of baseball history, I slowly came to appreciate the standing of Smoltz and the legacy of Martinez; the importance of Johnson and the impact of Biggio. Once each player finished his career, I was able to look back on a raft of sensational statistics, and feel a strong sense of satisfaction having been a witness to such greatness. Between them, these four players, these four immortals, won 3 World Series rings, claimed 9 Cy Young Awards, and made 33 All-Star Game appearances. But, more than that, they were heroes, and that's all I ever cared about as a kid.


King Pedro


In many ways, Pedro was an unlikely gladiator. He was small in stature, but giant in performance; a 5 foot 11, 170-pound warrior who never let anybody discourage him from embracing greatness. Pedro was totally and utterly fearless; a quintessential competitor who would do anything to win and defend his honour. That raging inferno, that bubbling intensity, often came to the fore against the rival New York Yankees when Martinez anchored the Red Sox rotation. He was a central protagonist in an absorbing chapter of the storied feud, perpetually fighting with Jorge Posada or Don Zimmer or the jeering New York public. Yet, above all the bravado and beyond all the drama, Pedro could also pitch like few we've ever seen, which made his story even more compelling.


Indeed, the spindly Martinez, who began his career with the Dodgers and Expos before making history in Boston, was a study in sweet contradiction. He was a flamethrower, striking out more batters than all but 12 pitchers in history, but also one of the most nimble and efficient hurlers of all-time, capable of honing a 1.054 career WHIP, bettered only by two pitchers since 1900. He was a control pitcher with a power pitcher's arsenal, artistically painting his way through a game with that compact, sharp, languid delivery. He arranged his brash and boisterous tools in a framework of subtle genius.


Pedro in his prime.

Pedro didn't win a historically great amount of games, but, whenever you absolutely needed a win with imperative urgency, he was the go-to guy. Statistics show he was the second best pitcher in the game's modern history at guaranteeing a victory; his .687 career winning percentage second only to Whitey Ford in the annals.


Furthermore, Martinez has the fourth-best opponents batting average of all-time (.214); the second-best strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio ever (10.04), behind only Walter Johnson; and the lowest single-season WHIP on record (0.737).


In his inimitable prime, Pedro Martinez simply reached heights of pitching excellence never attained before or since. Between 1997 and 2003, he produced the most spellbinding stretch of any moundsman in baseball history, averaging 251 strikeouts per season with a 2.21 ERA and 0.939 WHIP. In 1999 alone, Pedro went 23-4, pitched to a 2.07 ERA, and authored ineffable heroics in the postseason. He also lit up the All-Star Game at Fenway Park, striking out five of the six superstars he faced.


Quite simply, in the years surrounding the new millennium, Pedro Martinez was a baseball whirlwind, making history at every turn, with an effortless flick of the wrist. That legacy was enhanced in 2004, when he was part of the first Red Sox team to win a World Series championship in 86 years. Ultimately, Pedro was one of the most sensation pitchers and infectious personalities ever to stand on a diamond. And for that impact alone, his is a thoroughly deserved Cooperstown enshrinement.


The Big Unit


Though strikingly dissimilar in terms of appearance and style, Martinez and fellow inductee Randy Johnson were bred from the same stock of overwhelming pitching ability.


Nicknamed The Big Unit, Johnson stood at 6 foot 10 and, when perched atop a 10-inch mound, his was a looming and frightful presence. Once you factor in Randy's loose, three-quarters, southpaw delivery, and his high-octane fastball capable of reaching triple digits in miles-per-hour, it's not difficult to see why he struck out 4,875 batters and won 303 games in a remarkable career.


Only the great Nolan Ryan has ever whiffed more batters than Johnson in the long and exhaustive history of baseball. Indeed, Randy, perhaps the premier lefty of all-time, struck out more righty batters (4,277) alone than all but two other men have accomplished against hitters of any dexterity. For context to his greatness, it's worth knowing that Johnson yielded more strikeouts looking (1,261) than Mel Stottlemyre, himself a very good pitcher, produced in total (1,257).


The most imposing pitcher of modern times.

Randy struggled with something of an identity crisis early in his career with Montreal, Seattle and Houston, before morphing into a rocket-launching demigod with the Arizona between 1999 and 2004. He formed a lethal tandem with Curt Schilling in the desert; this two-headed monster hauling the unfashionable Diamondbacks past the mighty Yankees in the 2001 World Series. In fact, that year, Johnson and Schilling accounted for 34% of all innings pitched by the Diamondbacks; 46% of all wins; and 51% of all strikeouts. You could argue that no two players ever had a greater impact in leading their team to a world championship.


That ring was the centrepiece of Johnson's career, but the imposing tower of strength and menace also won five Cy Young Awards, including four straight, and made ten All-Star Game appearances. Moreover, he pitched a no-hitter, a perfect game, and won a fabled pitching Triple Crown. In every way, he simply dominated the landscape of contemporary baseball.


The most intimidating pitcher this side of Walter Johnson, Randy was huge both physically, on the field, and symbolically, in the realm of history. Including the postseason, he threw 68,781 pitches, for 43,993 strikes, and registered more strikeouts than Warren Spahn and Lefty Grove combined.


Johnson would fairly lash the ball towards the plate, as if unleashing it from a high-powered slingshot with minimal fuss. His heater would screech in to righty batters, burying them down and in, while his slider would burrow a dizzy course, leaving lefties with practically no chance.


Whenever you watched Randy Johnson pitch, there was a sense that history was being made right before your eyes. You could see his journey to glory developing in due course; a path to immortality unfurling at his feet. Now, as that road winds its way to Cooperstown, that sleepy village of legends, I'm proud and thankful. Proud that I was part of the trip, and thankful that I was able to witness one of the greatest pitchers ever to hold a baseball.


Smoltzy


John Smoltz was similarly inspirational to watch. A pitcher of remarkable longevity and versatility, he overcame devastating injuries to form the soul of an Atlanta Braves dynasty in the mid-1990s and early-2000s.


Smoltz formed a Holy triumvirate with fellow Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, which was responsible for 50% of all Braves wins and 46% of all Braves strikeouts between 1993 and 1999. Accordingly, between 1991 and 2005, Atlanta won fifteen division titles, including eleven straight; five National League pennants; and the '95 World Series, toppling Cleveland.


Smoltzy in motion.

A flexible hurler, Smoltz helped Bobby Cox' legendary teams as both a starter and reliever. In fact, he's the only pitcher in baseball history to record more than 200 wins and 150 saves. Likewise, Smoltz joins Dennis Eckersley as the only pitchers to log a 20-win and 50-save season during their career, a testament to his talent and character


John ranks 86th all-time in wins; 75th in saves; and 16th in strikeouts. An 8-time All-Star, he went 213-155 throughout a 21-year career, with a 3.33 ERA, 3,084 strikeouts, and a save conversion percentage of 91.


I most vividly remember hitters flailing helplessly at his fading, darting splitter, which often floated down into the dirt for a swinging strikeout of sumptuous beauty. And, while some will argue that Smoltz' numbers aren't particularly spectacular, we must remember that baseball is supposed to be a sensual pleasure. John Smoltz pitching epitomised that, so his moment in the Cooperstown sun is richly deserved.


The Hustler


In a human sense, perhaps nobody in recent times deserved enshrinement more than Craig Biggio, the quintessential grinder who overcame innumerable hurdles to carve out a spectacular career.


A lifetime Astro, Craig began as a catcher, before transitioning to the outfield, then eventually landing at second base. He proved all the doubters wrong; all the people who said he was too small, or that he wouldn't return from a horrendous knee injury in 2000. Ultimately, Biggio was defined by his resilience and determination to succeed. He was even hit by more pitches than any player in modern big league history, but still kept going, still refused to quit, still wrote his own gripping chapter in the baseball record books.


Biggio in action.

Scrappy and pesky, Craig played the game hard, with fire raging in his belly. But he was also just a terrific guy, especially active in the community. I never saw a player who got more dirt on his uniform. Biggio would routinely make tremendous diving stops at second base, or slide emphatically into third base stretching a double into a triple. He was a pure hustler, born with a love for baseball in his blood and an understanding of baseball in his mind.


Yet, beyond the admirable characteristics, lest we forget that Craig Biggio was also a phenomenally talented player. In his prime, there were few better five-tool threats in the game. During his career, Biggio hit as many as 26 home runs, stole as many as 50 bases, and hit as high as .325 in a season, while winning four Gold Gloves and providing exemplary leadership on those successful Astros teams of the mid-2000s.


Craig smacked 3,060 hits in his career, 668 of which were doubles, and 291 of which were home runs. He also drove in 1,175 runs, stole 414 bases, and honed a .281/.363/.433 slash line.


For perspective, it's worth noting that throughout his career, Biggio, a seven-time All-Star, had more extra base hits than Ernie Banks or Vladimir Guerrero; more hits than Rogers Hornsby or Roberto Clemente; and more doubles than Hank Aaron or Manny Ramirez.


No second baseman in history scored more runs, cracked more doubles or played more game than Biggio. Moreover, only seven National League players ever got more hits than him: Rose, Musial, Aaron, Wagner, Mays, Waner, Gwynn.


These are sacred names in baseball history. Craig Biggio belongs right there alongside them, in the gilded halls of Cooperstown.


Final Thoughts


Thus, we're all set for a poignant weekend. Many former inductees will gather in the sun of New York State to welcome their newest friends to baseball's most treasured club. For Pedro, John, Randy and Craig, it's bound to be an emotional experience, just as it will be for the fans who watched them honour this game so diligently for so many wonderful years.


Enjoy, boys. You've earned it.

Why I Love the Baseball Hall of Fame

To casual travellers, Cooperstown is just a sleepy village nestled in the extensive sprawl of New York State. But, to baseball diehards, its a metonym for greatness; a temple to the ultimate warriors of an enchanting game.

You see, Cooperstown is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a holy pantheon dedicated to the lives and legacies of the greatest players who ever lived. It's a sacred place, reserved for the boldest and bravest of heroes, that captures the imagination unlike anything else in sports. Cooperstown is where the childish innocence and lyrical romance of baseball survives, in the guided hallways of a cloudy, athletic heaven.

In quieter moments, I often close my eyes and daydream about what happens at night in the Hall of Fame, when those heavy doors are closed and the lights switched off, leaving the ghostly legends to linger. Do they spring to life and, with a wink and a whisper, arrange impromptu games on the polished marble floors? Do they line up and pick sides, squabbling over Ruth, Aaron and Mays? Does Cy Young pitch to Ted Williams and, if so, who wins?

Does Cobb sharpen his spikes and spit venom in the throes of another summer game? Do Clemente and Gehrig share a cold post-game beer? Does Joltin' Joe invite Marilyn to watch?

I want to believe this happens. I want to believe that our beloved heroes are reincarnated in Cooperstown, and allowed to continue playing their favourite game. I want to believe in the power of magic.

Fortunately, the Hall of Fame, this bulwark of all that is still pure in the world's greatest game, facilitates these fantasies and inspires these dreams, because it's the rare place that can preserves the giddy kid in all of us.

In this regard, the Hall of Fame connects one era to the next, like the soft, cashmere ripple of a wave at sea. Here, the history of baseball, richer and more stringently protected than that of any sport, is cherished and stored for eternity. Accordingly, Cooperstown, this tiny yet timeless outpost, stands as the beating heart of baseball in America, so commanding and expansive.

The Hall of Fame is enchanting and beguiling; a repository of memories and achievements. The Hall of Fame is the ultimate reward, the conclusive accolade; a qualification separating the very good from the decidedly great. The Hall of Fame is where the auras and glories and stories of bygone days, happier days, are safeguarded for all eternity; a cauldron where the famous voices echo and the sunny crowds cheer in perpetuity.

Cooperstown is where our cherished icons, our favoured boys of summer, go to rest, but never to die, because baseball deals only in immortality. Cooperstown is where you'll find the pride of a nation, and the essence of those who made it great. Cooperstown is the summit, the zenith, the peak.

I still love the Hall of Fame, because in baseball, unlike other sports, that distinction of historical greatness still actually means something. To be enshrined at Cooperstown, alongside The Clipper, The Bambino and the rest, is still the pinnacle of attainment in the game. Of course, other sports have Hall of Fames, but none so meaningful or important. Baseball's Hall opened in 1936, a trailblazing monument of exquisite majesty. Next came hockey in 1943, then basketball in 1959, then gridiron in 1963. All followed the lead, and copied the template, of baseball's Cooperstown. All failed to replicate its native mystique and allure.

Now that I've matured as a fan, to the point where my childhood heroes are eligible for enshrinement, the Hall of Fame holds even more fascination for me. The stars I grew up watching, such as Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio, have now been elected, while future ballots will be full of players I've had the pleasure of witnessing from day one of their careers.

Therefore, my connection to the Hall of Fame, and thus to the heartland of baseball history, is stronger than ever. And for a boy from England, far away from the bubble of hardball activity, that is incredibly satisfying.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Why I Love the All-Star Game

To most Brits, the concept of an All-Star Game is rather strange. At best, the majority views it as a wholly unnecessary waste of time; at worst, the hardline haters see it as a deeply stupid exercise in self-congratulation. Yet, as a diehard baseball fan, and an Englishman who has dedicated more than a decade to understanding and appreciating this fine game, I'm totally besotted by the All-Star Game. It's always been one of my favourite events on the sporting calendar.

The whole notion is just so romantic, as the greatest superstars take a break from the rigours of everyday play to converge on a designated city and perform in a grand showcase for the watching masses. I admire the goodnatured spirit in which the contest is played; the way everybody loosens the collar, relaxes for an evening, and just enjoyed the inherent spectacle that baseball provides.

On a personal level, the All-Star Game is an annual link back to my baseball-watching childhood. Each year, when watching the Midsummer Classic, I'm instantly transported back to my youth, watching in the dead of British night on a small, portable TV. It's a pertinent reminder of my original baseball heroes, and the stars who illuminated this beautiful game when it first captivated my fertile mind at the age of ten.

I used to record the All-Star Game as broadcasted by Channel Five here in the UK, then devour it whole when returning from school the following day. I still have a battered VHS tape somewhere containing grainy footage of the 2007 Game, delivered live from San Francisco by Jonny Gould and Josh Chetwynd, the legendary presenters of baseball coverage in our country. The jumpy footage of David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr, back when they were younger and brighter, is still something I cherish dearly. Of course, I could find it in crystal clear HD online easy enough, but there's still something magical about that original video tape, and that initial memory. It's somehow more authentic, and more descriptive of a joyous baseball epoch.

In this regard, my greatest All-Star Game memory is from 2008, when old Yankee Stadium staged the event in its final year before demolition. Josh Hamilton put on a sensational show in the accompanying Home Run Derby, etching his name into the cathedral's folklore by slamming 28 first round homers, then the American League proceeded to win a tense game before 55,632 enthralled fans in the Bronx. The whole showcase made the hairs stand on end, the spine tingle. For me, it was the last time it felt like the entire world was watching, engrossed in baseball from its most famous, twinkling citadel. Quite frankly, I still dream about being there in person.

Similarly, if ever a baseball time machine were invented, July 6th 1933 at Comiskey Park, Chicago would be pretty high on my list of favourable dates and destinations. That was the time and setting for the very first All-Star Game in the history of world professional sports, between Major League Baseball's American and National Leagues. With no inter-league play other than the World Series during that era, the All-Star Game was a novel showcase, offering a wonderful glimpse at the mingling heroes of a nation. Babe Ruth christened the event with the first home run in All-Star Game history, which, to me, imbues the event with an intoxicating heritage. The Ruthian seal of approval is extremely powerful, offering today's stars the rare opportunity to equal a feat authored by the greatest player who ever lived. I find that totally compelling.

Moreover, some of the finest moments in the baseball annals have been authored in the All-Star Game. Carl Hubbell, the New York Giants' pitcher, striking out Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin consecutively in 1934, for instance, or Ted Williams launching a game-winning, three-run homer in 1941. How about Pedro Martinez imitating Hubbell by striking out five of the six batters he faced in 1999? Or the final All-Star Game appearance of Mariano Rivera, so drenched in poetry.

In recent years, the event has lost some of its lustre. Even ardent traditionalists like myself would admit that. Between home field advantage for the World Series depending on the outcome, to players withdrawing or being selected due to ludicrous fan voting, and on to all thirty teams being represented, the Midsummer Classic has suffered something of an identity crisis of late. But I still admire its spirit, respect its concept and love its history.

This year, natives may not watch the All-Star Game from the bland environs of Cincinnati, and the British mainstream will still dismiss the event as typical American gluttony, but, as ever, my alarm will be set for 1am, ready for the annual feast of midsummer baseball heaven.