The NLCS and ALCS did not disappoint. Both went the full seven games, and each ended with a tense and highlight-filled Game 7. Tonight, Game 1 of the World Series.
In the NLCS, the Atlanta Braves took a commanding lead of three games to one, but the Dodgers roared back to win three in a row to capture the NL pennant. On the American League side, the Astros entered the playoffs with a losing record (29-31), but upset the Twins and the A’s in the first two rounds. In the ALCS, Houston lost the first three games to Tampa Bay, but then kept it interesting by winning the next three. Tampa Bay then won Game 7 to take the AL pennant.
The playoff survivors are the teams with the best records in baseball this year, the Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17) and the Tampa Bay Rays (40-20).
The expansion Rays were established in 1998. They have never won a World Series. A 22-year drought.
The Dodgers, established long ago, have not won a World Series since 1988. A 32-year drought.
But the Dodgers have won the World Series six times, once in Brooklyn and five since moving to LA. So I’m rooting for the Rays to win their first championship.
I am also reflecting my small-market bias as a Royals fan. The top three payrolls for 2020: (1) Yankees, (2) Dodgers, and (3) Astros. The Rays have already beaten the Yankees and Astros in the playoffs. If they beat the Dodgers in the World Series, it will be a trifecta. The Rays’ payroll rank: 28th of the 30 MLB teams. [The Royals are 26th.]
Each team has a key player who was not on their roster last year. For LA, it is Mookie Betts. For the Rays, Randy Arozarena.
Playing for Boston from 2014 to 2019, Mookie Betts was one of the best players in the American League. But after the 2019 season, Boston decided to trade Mookie who had one year left on his contract. The Sox did not want to enter the bidding war when Mookie became a free agent in 2021. The Dodgers made the trade with Boston and did not wait for his free agency to ink a long-term contract – $365 million over 12 years. Mookie then helped lead the team to the 2020 World Series. He has been good at the plate in the playoffs, but even better in the field, making game-saving plays in each of the last three games of the NLCS (click here). Boston fans are incensed, some likening it to the loss of another player exactly 100 years ago – the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season. Below, Mookie’s 2019 card as a member of the Red Sox.
In 2015, 20-year-old Randy Arozarena defected from Cuba to Mexico. His intent was to play baseball in the states, but the law requires that a player establish residency in a third country to be eligible for a permit. After seeing Randy play for local teams in Mexico, the Cardinals signed him and he played in their minor league system from 2017 to 2019. He was called up to the majors late in 2019 and appeared in 19 games for the Cardinals. After the 2019 season, he was traded to the Rays. His 2020 season was delayed by a bout with COVID-19, and so he played in only 23 games for the Rays in the regular season. In the playoffs, he has been on fire, hitting seven home runs, a record for a rookie in the postseason. In the ALCS, he hit .321 with four home runs and was the MVP. Not bad for a guy with 42 games of prior major league experience. Below, Randy’s 2019 card as a Cardinal.
Below, Justin Turner is shown making a flying tag. But that’s only half of the story. In the 4th inning of Game 7, the Braves led the Dodgers 3-2 and had men on second and third with no one out. A big opportunity to pad their lead. The next batter hit a grounder to the right side. In a bizarre bit of base running, the Atlanta players on second and third ran themselves into outs – a double play like no other (5-2-5-2-5-6). See the video here.
Whitey Ford (1929-2020): Whitey Ford died earlier this month at the age of 91. It’s been a rough 2020 for losing Hall of Famers. Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan.
As regular Hot Stove readers know, I grew up a Yankee fan because the Kansas City Blues were a Yankee AAA farm team. One specific memory I have from those days is that my hero Phil Rizzuto was the American League MVP in 1950. I was 9 years old at the time. I also followed the Blues (Larry Ray on the radio), but don’t recall who was on the KC roster that year. With the help of the internet, I found that Whitey Ford opened the 1950 season in Kansas City. Another player who spent time with the Blues that summer was Billy Martin. In 1951, Mickey Mantle had a short stint with the Blues.
On July 30 of the 1950 season, Whitey was called up by the Yankees. He went 9-1 (ERA 2.81) and topped it off by winning the clinching game in the World Series. The 1950 season was a precursor of the rest of his career. To this day, he holds the records for (i) the highest percentage of wins for pitchers who won more than 200 games (236-106, .690); (ii) the lowest ERA in the live-ball era for pitchers starting over 200 games (2.75, with Koufax at 2.76); (iii) most World Series wins (10); and (iv) consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series (33.2, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 29.2).
Ford played 16 seasons for the Yankees from 1950 to 1967 (serving in the military in 1951 and 1952). In those 16 years, the Yankees won 11 pennants and 6 World Series. Mickey Mantle: “Line up all the pitchers in the world in front of me, and give me first choice, and I’d pick Whitey.” Manager Casey Stengel: “If you had one game to win and your life depended on it, you’d want Ford to pitch it.”
Because of Ford’s big-game prowess, Catcher Elston Howard nicknamed him “The Chairman of the Board.” This title was also fitting for his extracurricular activities that paralleled Frank Sinatra, Chairman of the Board of the Rat Pack. Ford and his two running mates Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin (the three are shown above) were famous for late nights on the town. Casey Stengel once called a team meeting to take them to task, “Some of you guys are Whiskey Slick.” So Mantle and Ford started calling each other “Slick” and Ford’s autobiography is titled Slick: My Life In and Around Baseball. The carousing by the three of them and fellow Yankees was an open secret to the press, but their antics were not highly publicized until Jim Bouton outed them years later in Ball Four.
In his autobiography, Ford admitted to doctoring the baseball while pitching late in his career, especially as he dealt with injuries. This included strategically applying mud to the ball and scuffing the ball with a wedding ring crafted by a local jeweler. Ford: “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive…I didn’t cheat when I won 25 games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little.”
[Baseball Card Trivia: The above card is from 1953, Whitey’s first season back after military service. I probably had this Topps card because I was actively collecting at age 12 and had almost all of the Yankees. I can’t prove this because my shoebox full of cards disappeared while I was away at college.]
Joe Morgan (1943-2020): From my perspective, Joe Morgan was the perfect height for a star baseball player. 5’7” – just like me. He of course was faster and stronger and had better hand-eye coordination. He was the best second baseman in the modern era. Joe died this month at the age of 77.
In 1962, a new expansion franchise, the Colt .45s, was established in Houston. Morgan was signed with Houston the following year and played mostly in the minors in 1963 and 1964. His first full season in the majors was in 1965, and his rookie card shows him sporting a Colt .45s hat. The printing of the card must have been early. By the time Morgan took the field in 1965, the team was playing in the newly-completed Astrodome under a new name, the Astros.
Morgan played solid baseball for 10 seasons with Houston, but after the 1971 season he was sent to Cincinnati in an eight-player trade. Going into the 1972 season, Topps issued a subset of cards of players who had been traded over the winter, depicting them in the uniform of their new team and stamping “TRADED” on the card.
Morgan was an immediate success and was instrumental in the Reds winning the 1972 NL pennant before losing the Series to Oakland. He was a vital cog in the Big Red Machine that propelled Cincinnati to World Series championships in 1975 and 1976. Joe Posnanski, in his 2009 book The Machine, concluded that those Reds were the greatest team in baseball history: “I do not believe any other team — not the 1927 Yankees, not the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers, not the Casey Stengel Yankees, not the Oakland A’s of the early 70’s or Derek Jeter’s Yankees of the late 1990s – could match those Reds for power, speed, defense, star power, innovation, and personality.”
The “Great Eight” position players on the 1975 and 1976 teams included three African Americans (Morgan, Ken Griffey, George Foster), three Latinos (Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo) and two whites (Pete Rose, Johnny Bench). Bench also had some Native American blood. Quite a diverse group. The Most Valuable Player in the National League in both seasons the Reds won the World Series: Joe Morgan!
Morgan is in any discussion of the best second baseman of all time. In Bill James’ New Historical Baseball Abstract (2001), Morgan was listed at #1, above early-era stars Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins. When Morgan heard about James making him #1, he griped that this was ridiculous, that Hornsby hit .358 in his career, and Morgan never hit .358 in a season. This was a perfect example of “old school” thinking versus the ascendant use of sabermetrics in baseball.
Bill James had pioneered (and coined the name) sabermetrics. Rather than relying so heavily on batting average, RBIs and home runs, sabermetrics analyzed the complete player. Morgan excelled in many phases of the game. For example, batting average ignores walks. When Joe Morgan retired, his career walk total trailed only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Fielding is not in those hitting numbers. Joe Morgan won five Gold Gloves. Base stealing efficiency? Morgan stole 689 bases and was caught stealing only 162 times. He was the complete ballplayer. Much better than he realized.
Morgan’s old school approach was often in evidence during his 21 years as a broadcaster on ESPN (1990-2010). He would not embrace the advanced statistics spawned by sabermetrics and highlighted in the Michael Lewis book Moneyball (2003). Joe Posnanski: “More than one person has pointed out the great irony that envelops Morgan’s baseball life: Joe Morgan the broadcaster never seemed to understand exactly what made Joe Morgan the ballplayer so electrifying and wonderful.”
I find it easy to agree with Bill James that Joe Morgan is the best second baseman of all time. As for Morgan the broadcaster…
Fire Joe Morgan: Although Morgan was resistant to sabermetrics, he was a popular face for baseball, especially in his many years broadcasting the ESPN national games. He was outspoken in his opposition to the use of statistics for game strategy, lineup decisions and defensive alignments. And he was not the only baseball figure who believed that tradition, scouting and instinct were being overshadowed by the numbers. It was a time of transition between the past and future of baseball. Bill James and Moneyball famously played major roles. As did a legendary website that added some laughs to the movement.
In April of 2005, three TV writers decided to “make each other laugh” and founded a website titled Fire Joe Morgan. Although they operated the blog under pseudonyms, they eventually revealed themselves as Michael Schur, Alan Yang and Dave King, three comedy writers who met in college as staff members of the Harvard Lampoon. The website championed sabermetrics, and the three bloggers wrote pieces taking on the broadcasters and sportswriters who they thought were missing the boat on analytics (“bad sports journalism”).
The site became very popular and was often referenced by other media sources. And there is a good chance that it played a prominent role in nudging the sports establishment to accept the modernization of baseball analysis. The bloggers ended their project in November of 2008, saying…
“Although we have not lost our borderline-sociopathic joy for meticulously criticizing bad sports journalism, the realities of our personal and professional lives make FJM a time/work luxury we can no longer afford….We never thought FJM would be for anyone but us. We are thrilled and kind of humbled to have been proven wrong.”
After Morgan died, Michael Schur was interviewed on ESPN to talk about the old website. As for naming the site after Morgan, he said, “We always regretted that we named the site ‘Fire Joe Morgan’ because we didn’t want the guy to be fired, really. It was a crass, sort of early internet version of making noise and banging on a pot and calling attention to yourself.” Schur said the frustration was based on Morgan (and others) misunderstanding a new way of analyzing baseball that compelled greater appreciation of players like Morgan.
Five months after the last post of Fire Joe Morgan, a TV sitcom co-created by Michael Schur aired its first episode – Parks and Recreation would end up running for seven seasons. He also co-created Brooklyn 99 (getting ready for its 8th season) and created The Good Place (a big favorite for Rita and me during its four seasons).
Schur is still a big baseball fan and can be heard on a regular basis as co-host with Joe Posnanski on the Poscast. As you might guess from his sitcom work, Schur is very funny – and quite knowledgeable about baseball. Schur and the other two writers from Fire Joe Morgan reunited this past July on the Poscast (click here). I also follow Schur on Twitter where he uses the same pseudonym that he used for Fire Joe Morgan (Ken Tremendous). Full disclosure: in addition to tweeting on sports, he is strongly pro-Biden.
New Yorker Cover: The cover for the New Yorker this week is by artist Kadir Nelson. Titled “The Centennial,” it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues. Nelson: “It still amazes me that this talented, ambitious group, which consisted primarily of African-American players and businesspeople, was able to create such successful enterprises, given all the systemic challenges that they faced.”
The 100-year celebration has special resonance in Kansas City where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has been active in Centennial events. Some have been delayed until next year because of the pandemic. In 2014, the NLBM established the “Hall of Game,” to honor MLB greats who competed with the same passion, determination, skill and flair exhibited by the heroes of the Negro Leagues. The Inaugural Class inducted that year: Joe Morgan, Dave Winfield, Lou Brock and Roberto Clemente. Below, Winfield and Morgan at the Hall of Game press conference in 2014.
Lonnie’s Jukebox (1) – “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”: In 1908, Jack Norworth wrote the lyrics to this baseball anthem after seeing a sign while on a subway ride in New York – “Baseball Today – Polo Grounds.” He did not attend his first baseball game until 1942. In 1958, fifty years after he wrote the song, Norworth appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Moose Skowron. They joined in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (click here).
Lonnie’s Jukebox (2) – “The Zoom Where it Happens”: Spoiler Alert! This section is pro-Biden. I promise this will be all over on November 3. With COVID-19, there has been a need to create virtual fundraising events. The Biden campaign has had some good ones. Last week, Rita and I streamed a reunion of the cast of This Is Spinal Tap. This coming week, we will stream two more: a VEEP mini-reunion (click here) and a Seinfeld mini-reunion (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Larry David and Jason Alexander; click here).
Last Friday was a special treat. Over 20 members of the original cast of Hamilton appeared together on a Zoom call that was streamed to donors. It was popular – over 100,000 donors bought tickets, some 50% of them first-time Biden donors. There was about an hour of a Q&A session, followed by a special Zoom version of “The Room Where It Happens.” Lin-Manuel Miranda has posted the song (click here).
Closing Remarks From Two Chiefs: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
And a sign of the times…