Pictured Above: The Chicago Cubs have been a story all year. Here, they are dressed for a successful road trip.
A number of people in Major League Baseball had significant accomplishments in 2016 that deserve mention. Here are stories of 4 such individuals.
DAVID ORTIZ. Before the 2016 baseball season began, he announced the year would be his last. Then, and during the season as he continued to hit well, fans pleaded: “Don’t go, Big Papi.” But he did. He had to. His feet and ankles would permit only pain, not performance. Doctors later said his injuries (which had started in 2012) were so severe “it was like playing on stumps.”
Many fine athletes want to leave while still able to play their best. They find it hard to leave an area of their life in which they excel. They stay too long. Their performance suffers. Fans’ memories of the last season turn into unpleasant ones. At the end, Mays and Mantle were shadows of their former selves and it was to watch them.
Ortiz gauged it perfectly. After his announcement, he produced the FINEST FAREWELL SEASON EVER. No one, at age 40, left while hitting so many home runs (38), or having so many RBIs (127), or so high a Slg (.620) or OPS (1.021), or leading the AL in doubles (48) and EBH (87). Everyone wants to go out with a bang. He left in a blaze of Fourth of July fireworks.
Plus, his career totals were astounding: 541 home runs, 1,768 RBIs, top 10 all-time totals in EBH and doubles. More than any other player, he was responsible for the Red Sox ending a Championship drought of 86 years with titles in 2004, 2007, and 2013. In those seasons, he was always one of the top 10 most valuable players in the AL. In the three World Series, he batted .455. He hit his best at the time it was most important.
VIN SCULLY became the Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster in 1950. He began on radio and moved to television when the Dodgers moved to LA. He was the team’s broadcaster for 67 years –retiring at the end of this season, just as he planned.
On April 18, 1950, at one of his broadcasts, a ballpark hotdog and coke cost a total of 40 cents. No joke. Many things have happened since he entered his profession. The United States fought 3 wars; an Interstate Highway system was built; Medicare was created; the Berlin Wall was constructed –and, eventually, torn down; the Women’s movement was born; men landed on the moon; Title IX gave women access to college athletics; a President was assassinated, another was brought down, and one was Black; and computers shrank from the size of a warehouse floor to the size of your wrist.
Through it all, Vin Scully began every broadcast saying: “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” His style combined a description of the game with information about players’ backgrounds and performance, plus stories of baseball history into a seamless monologue that gave his audience a memorable experience. Every day, all Summer.
Fans attending a game at Dodger Stadium took their transistor radios with them. They wanted to hear his broadcast while they watched the game live. His colorful descriptions and informative commentary completed their experience. One fan, singer Ray Charles, said: “You know who I’d really like to meet? Vin Scully. Because I love baseball. But you have to understand, the picture means nothing. It’s all the sound. And Vin Scully’s broadcasts are almost musical, so I enjoy baseball so much more listening to him.”
For 67 years, he saw everything and described it for Dodger fans: all 6 Dodger Championships, Fernandomania and Kirk Gibson’s impossible World Series home run, and Dodgers’ stars from Jackie Robinson and the other “Boys of Summer,” to Sandy Koufax to Clayton Kershaw.
In his final season, before every home game, an endless stream of players (including a visiting team’s) and coaches and managers made their pilgrimage to his press box for the opportunity to meet him and ask for HIS autograph.
Bob Costas, another broadcaster, using baseball terminology, referred to Scully as the G.O.A.T. –THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME.
ICHIRO SUZUKI. Before coming to the United States, he played baseball in Japan for 9 years. He is in that country’s Hall f Fame because he won 7 batting titles, 3 MVP awards, and was a 7 time All-Star and Gold Glove winner. He did not come here to fail or be an average player.
In his first season, he led the AL in batting, hits, stolen bases, and was Rookie of the Year and MVP. In his first decade in MLB, he hit .300 and had 200+ hits every season (the only player ever to do so), made 10 All-Star teams, and earned 10 Gold Gloves. His lifetime BA is .313. In 2016, he became the 30th player to reach 3,000 hits in a career –and he was 27 years old when he began play in the USA, 3 years older than anyone who reached that mark.
Those are his factual accomplishments, but they do not explain why he is such A UNIQUE BALLPLAYER. Here are some reasons for that:
–His preparation for every game requires 4 hours: Stretching, throwing, hitting.
–He carries his own bats (8 at a time) in a “foam-lined, moisture-controlled case, tending to them like a concert violinist cares for their musical instrument.”
–In 2004, after he broke George Sisler’s single season hits record (262), he placed flowers on Sisler’s grave and “apologized because he felt horrible he broke a great man’s record.”
–He met Buck O’Neil, a former Negro League player and manager, who helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. They became friends. When O’Neil died, Suzuki made the largest donation to the museum of any active player.
–He has visited our baseball Hall of Fame 6 times to learn about the people honored there. The HOF’s President: “There is no current player I’ve encountered who has as deep an appreciation of baseball as Ichiro.”
For Ichiro, hitting is an art form. His elaborate and time-consuming daily pre-game routine: a necessity. Playing baseball in the United State: an honor and a responsibility.
JOE MADDON. He was a successful manager in Tampa Bay, but nothing like this: 2 YEARS, 200 WINS. Granted, Theo Epstein helped him –after signing him as the Cubs’ manager. Young players were developed (eg, Bryant, Baez) and veterans brought on board (eg, Lester, Lackey, Zobrist). But Maddon’s creativity made the mixture effective.
Maddon believes in keeping players relaxed off the field and putting them in the best situation to succeed on it. With pre-season expectations so high, how did he keep people loose? He requires dressing for themed road trips (eg, short shorts and painted toe nails if sandals are worn; adult onesies; a belief that “if you look hot in something –wear it.”). He brought in Bill Murray (a Cub fan) to work out with the team. A mariachi band visited the clubhouse for Cinco de Mayo. In 2015, when a rookie asked Maddon what to do to increase his chances to stay in the majors, the reply was: “Try not to suck.”
The saying became a team favorite and everyone wore T-shirts with those words printed on them. To break the monotony of Spring Training, Maddon had a karate expert break a block of cement on the manager’s chest with a sledgehammer. He brought in two bear cubs to amuse the players. The pictures for the day? Cubs playing with cubs.
On offense, like the ex-AL manager he is, Maddon wants hitters to work the count. The Cubs take a lot of pitches. In Game 2 of the World Series, they saw 196 of them. And drew 8 walks. And won the game. Often, the lineup begins with 4 batters who had OBPs of .385 or higher. The strategy: get a lot of runners on base and enough of them will be driven in to win. In 2016, 9 hitters had double digit home runs. Three players had 95-109 RBIs. Four others (plus the combination of 3 catchers) had 48-76 RBIs. The Cubs scored 808 runs.
On defense, Maddon utilizes his team’s youthful ability and openness to new ideas. Youngsters can turn into young stars if they’re flexible. This season, 17 players took the field at 2 or more positions. Zobrist (although 35, he played for years with Maddon at Tampa Bay) and Baez saw duty at 5 positions. Bryant played in 6 spots, plus DH. Pitchers, if necessary, moved to the outfield for a hitter or two, and returned to the mound to continue their work.
To avoid anxiety and confusion, players were notified by text the day before a game where they would bat and pay in the field. Last minute dilemmas were avoided.
For pitching, Maddon is blessed with 5 quality starters –courtesy of Epstein’s dealings. He can fous on the most effective use of the relievers. He spreads the workload around so no one is over used. 10 men in the bullpen worked 21-65 innings this season.
The results of all this strategy: the most wins in MLB (103), the best pitching staff (fewest runs surrendered), and the third most runs scored in either league.
Playing for Joe Maddon has brought success and enjoyment to Chicago in 2016.
End of “Baseball 2016: An Appreciation.” Next time, my opinion of who should receive “Awards” for their achievements in baseball, 2016.