Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mr. October -- and the other "Mr. Months"

Can October really be only one week away? Yes: September 24 + 7 days = October 1.

Mr. October, Reginald Martinez Jackson, my guy, is in the headlines again, this time co-authoring a book with fellow Baseball Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson, titled Sixty Feet, Six Inches: A Hall of Fame Hitter & a Hall of Fame Pitcher Talk About How the Game Is Played.

They were assisted by Lonnie Wheeler, who also guided Gibson's autobiography, Stranger to the Game, and Hank Aaron's, I Had a Hammer; and also wrote Bleachers: A Summer in Wrigley Field, and Hard Stuff, and edited the memoir of the late longtime Mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young. Most people who love baseball would consider themselves lucky to have written just one good book about the sport. Wheeler has written and/or "ghostwritten" several, especially when you consider that Mayor Young's cover showed him wearing a Tigers cap and throwing out the first ball before a game at Tiger Stadium, which he managed to save for one more generation (though not for longer).

I'm also in the process of reading The Truth About Ruth, a book by Peter Handrinos, who seeks to establish what really happened in several Yankee myths. He does a pretty good job of sucking up to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and George Steinbrenner; but does a hatchet job on Roger Maris and fails, in my opinion, to properly "respect Derek Jeter's gangster." (Yes, that's a plug for another Yankee-themed blog.)

Handrinos shows that Reggie can very easily be called "Mister Late October." (Actually, considering when the World Series was played in his day, "Mister Mid-October" would be more appropriate.) And he shows that this was true in Oakland as well as in New York. But, and he's right about this, Reggie's ALCS appearances, for Oakland, New York and Anaheim (or whatever the Los Angeles Angels of Orange County, California were calling themselves at the time), weren't so good.

I guess he didn't see that home run off Al Hrabosky come down in Game 1 of the '78 ALCS. Come to think of it, did any of us ever see that ball come down? And the Mad Hungarian was not only a fresh relief pitcher, but a lefty, too.

Maybe it wasn't lefties that Reggie couldn't hit, or even Kansas City lefties. Maybe it was just Paul Splittorff and Larry Gura -- who, to be fair, were pretty good pitchers, or else the Royals wouldn't have won 4 AL West Titles in 5 years. But not great pitchers, or else the Royals would have won more than that one Pennant in 1980. Splittorff -- not the inventor of the split-fingered fastball -- had a 4.91 earned-run average in the '78 ALCS, and in the '80 WS his ERA ballooned to 5.40. Gura's ERA in the '80 WS was a sparkling 2.19, but aside from that his postseason ERA was, like Splittorff's in the '78 ALCS, 4.91. By the time the Royals finally won the World Series in 1985, Splittorff and Gura had both retired.


It got me thinking about George Steinbrenner's comment that if Reggie was Mr. October, then Dave Winfield, who infamously went 1-for-22 (6-for-27 if you count walks) in the 1981 World Series, was "Mr. May." But Dave did help the Toronto Blue Jays win the 1992 World Series, while George was, uh, put in a corner by Fay Vincent. (Dirty Dancing reference for you there, Tony Reali, if you're reading. Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze, and nobody cares whether you read Byron or not.)

I've often thought about putting down the other "Mr. Months." This is as good a time as any. I'll list my choices, and the reasons why, and nominate two runners-up for each month. Here goes:

Mr. January: Joe Montana. Since the 1965 season, the NFL has played postseason games in January, and until the 2001 season the Super Bowl was only played in that month. Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to 4 Super Bowls, won them all, was named Most Valuable Player in 3 of them, and in the one where he didn't receive the award (Jerry Rice did, no slouch he), Montana only led the first come-from-behind two-minute drill in Super Bowl history. "Joe Cool" indeed.
If Montana isn't the greatest quarterback ever -- some old-timers still say Johnny Unitas or Otto Graham, and some real fools say Dan Marino, John Elway or Brett Favre -- then he's clearly the greatest postseason quarterback ever.

Interesting tidbit: At Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village, California, on the Ventura Freeway west of Los Angeles, Joe's son, Nick Montana, has been throwing touchdown passes to Trey Smith, son of Will Smith. Wonder if they call Trey "the Fresher Prince"? Nick's backup is Trevor Gretzky. You might have heard of his father, too: He's the owner, and now former head coach, of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. I understand he played a little hockey, too. (In fact, his name will come up later.)

Runners-up: Terry Bradshaw (4 rings, 2 MVPs), Bart Starr (the only starting QB with 5 rings, plus 2 MVPs, although some of that was in December, and do you really think he was better than Montana?).

Ms. February: Bonnie Blair. This was a tough one. Paul Gallico had been one of the greatest sportswriters of the 1920s, but gave up writing sports. When asked why, he said, "February." This was before the extension of the NFL season -- in fact, it was before the NFL had a wide audience at all -- and long, long before anyone thought to stage a postseason tournament to decide a National Champion for college basketball.

But there is the Winter Olympics, and speed skater Blair, with 5 Gold Medals and a Bronze over 3 Olympiads, is the most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic history. So at least one of my "Misters" is a "Ms."
Runners-up: Eric Heiden (another speed skater, for not just sweeping all 5 races at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but world records in all 5), Herb Brooks (who coached the other U.S. Gold Medal at those homeland Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, the hockey team that beat the Soviets -- and the Finns for the Gold.) I had considered Richard Petty, whose record of 200 NASCAR victories includes a record 7 wins in the February-based Daytona 500, but auto racing is not a sport.

Mr. March: John Wooden. For his first 13 seasons as head coach of the basketball team at the University of California at Los Angeles, he didn't reach what we now call the NCAA Final Four. Then, in 14 seasons, from 1962 to 1975, he got UCLA to 12 Final Fours, 10 National Championship games, and won all 10 of those.
True, he won 3 with Lew Alcindor and 2 with Bill Walton. But he won in '64 when his biggest star was Walt Hazzard, in '65 with Gail Goodrich, in '70 and '71 with Sidney Wicks, and in '75 with Dave Meyers. These were good players (Goodrich has even been elected to the Hall of Fame and had his Number 25 retired by the Lakers), but they weren't Lew/Kareem or Walton. In fact, Meyers wasn't even the best UCLA baller in his own family: His sister is Ann Meyers. (At least Reggie Miller's sister Cheryl gave him the courtesy of going across town to USC.)

It is true that Wooden "only" had to win 4 games to get through the Tournament, whereas current coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and today's UCLA boss Ben Howland (who has at least gotten to the title game) need to win 6, playing in a field of 64 instead of 24. On the other hand, in Wooden's time, you had to win your conference to be invited to the tournament (unless you were an exceptional independent). So some very talented teams at USC, Oregon and Washington didn't get to go to what's now called the Big Dance.

Also, he had winning streaks of 88 and 47 games, the longest and 3rd-longest winning streaks in college basketball history. Need more? He coached 10 National Championship teams in a span of 12 seasons; in their entire histories, the next closest schools, never mind coaches, are Kentucky with 7, and North Carolina and Indiana with 5 each (and KU needed 4 coaches to do it, IU and UNC 2 each). You're a Dukie, a Coach K guy? Your guy would have to win 2 more National Championships, and then he'd be halfway to the Wizard of Westwood.

He'll be 99 years old next month, and he still inspires, to the point where, aside from his father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., Wooden is the only man since the name change that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has ever let call him "Lewis."

Runners-up: Bobby Knight (3 National Championships at Indiana, the first two when the entire tourney was still held in March, and the winningest men's coach ever), Pat Summitt (8 National Championships at Tennessee, and the winningest college basketball coach ever regardless of gender) -- and between the two of them, they just barely exceed Wooden's 10 titles!

Mr. April: Bill Russell. Not until his last season, 1969, did the NBA play a game in May, so this is an easy choice: 13 seasons, 12 trips to the NBA Finals, 11 World Championships. This is a total matched in North American sports only by Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens, but Henri was never the best player on his own team -- in fact, for the 1st 5 years of his career, he wasn't even the best player on his team in his own family (see below). Still, Russell and the Pocket Rocket are the only people with more championship rings than fingers. (Unless you want to count rings added as head coaches or executives.)
No, the Nehru jacket does not disqualify him.

Don't forget that, for the last two seasons of his career, Russell won titles as a player-coach -- the 1st black head coach in major league sports, unless you count Fritz Pollard in the early, ragtag days of the NFL.

To give you an idea, the last player-coaches to win in the other sports are: Baseball, Lou Boudreau, 1948 Cleveland Indians; Hockey, Ebbie Goodfellow, 1943 Detroit Red Wings (although he played in 11 games that season, he didn't insert himself for the Playoffs); Football, Curly Lambeau, 1929 Green Bay Packers. I suppose you could count Kenny Dalglish, who played 1 game for Liverpool FC while he was managing them to the 1989-90 Football League title. But Russell was still an All-Star quality player while coaching the Celtics to the '68 and '69 NBA Titles. (To be fair, Boudreau was named American League MVP in '48, and deservedly so.)

Runners-up: Maurice Richard (Henri's brother, the Rocket was the biggest star in hockey as the Montreal Canadiens reached 13 Stanley Cup Finals, winning 10, in his 18 seasons), Gordie Howe (the greatest player in hockey history, winning 4 Stanley Cups and 2 WHA titles).

I had considered Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 "majors" includes a record 6 of the April-based Masters, but golf is not a sport. If Tiger Woods surpasses either record (the former, he probably will, but the latter, probably not, and even if he does, I can't see him winning it at 40 like Jack did for his 5th, let alone 46 like Jack did for his 6th), it still won't make him sports' Mr. April.

Mr. May: Wayne Gretzky. As much as it pains me to honor this man who betrayed the NHL players in 2004, siding with the owners as they cancelled a season, what he did in the lusty month of May elevated the NHL to new heights in the 1980s.
Runners-up: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6 NBA Championships in 10 trips to the Finals), Eddie Arcaro (shares with Bill Hartack the record of 5 Kentucky Derby victories, solely holds the record of 6 Preakness Stakes wins, and while the Belmont Stakes is held in June, he shares with Jim McLaughlin the record of 6 of those, giving him 17 "majors," and he's the only jockey to win the Triple Crown twice, with Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in '48).

I had considered A.J. Foyt, the first man to win the Indianapolis 500 4 times, but auto racing is not a sport.

Mr. June: Michael Jordan. By the time he arrived in 1984, the NBA Finals being held in June had become a fact of life. He led the Chicago Bulls to 6 NBA Finals, and not only won them all, but was named MVP in all 6 -- whether you think he deserved them or not.
In fact, let's clear the air: Just as Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player of all time, not the literally defense-less Wayne Gretzky, the greatest basketball player of all time is Wilt Chamberlain. I'll guarantee you (just call me Broadway Mike) that if Wilt's '67 76ers (68-13) played Jordan's '96 Bulls (72-10), it wouldn't go 7. Face it, Hal Greer could hold Jordan to under 30 points, but how exactly is Luc Longley going to hold Wilt to under 40? And do you really think Scottie Pippen can take being guarded by Chet (the Jet) Walker? How about Dennis Rodman going up against Cool Hand Luke Jackson? Still, Air Jordan owns June.

Runners-up: Magic Johnson (6 NBA Finals, won 5), Joe Louis (of his record 25 fights for the heavyweight title, 7 were in June, including his epic defenses against Max Schmeling and Billy Conn), Joe DiMaggio (June was the month where he tended to pick up steam, including his 1941 hitting streak and his 1949 comeback from injury).

Ms. July: Martina Navratilova. No human being has won Wimbledon more. How many times, Ed Rooney? "Nine times!" Including 6 in a row, another record, which Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer approached with 5. Actually, Willie Renshaw did 6 straight, but that was 1881-86. I know nothing else about him, but I think if you brought him 100 years forward in a time machine, Martina would... how do you say, "Kick ass" in Czech?
Runners-up: The aforementioned Borg (for all the trophies the "Wimbledon beard" Swede assimilated, John McEnroe eventually proved that resistance was not futile), the aforementioned Federer (who now has 6 but isn't going to match Martina's 9), Willie Mays (who made baseball's All-Star Game his personal showcase for the better part of 20 years).

Mr. August: Carl Lewis. This was a tough one until I remembered the Olympics. A native of Willingboro, New Jersey, he won 9 Gold Medals and a Silver Medal over 4 Olympiads, including the long jump in all 4, matching a record of most consecutive Olympiads winning an event.
What Michael Phelps has done -- 14 Golds, 6 in 2004 and a record 8 in 2008 -- is astounding, and he says he will compete in the 2012 Games, but can he win Golds in 4 Olympiads? Lewis was 35 in his 4th. Phelps would be 29 if he makes it to 2016.

Runners-up: Mr. Phelps (who proved that going 8-for-8 in Olympic swimming events was not "Mission: Impossible"), Mark Spitz (9 Golds, 7 in 1972), Larissa Latynina (the Ukrainian/Soviet gymnast is the only woman with 9 Golds, over 3 Olympiads, 1956-64, and her 18 total Medals is still a record, regardless of gender, nation, event or era).

Mr. September: Jimmy Connors. A very close one. Like Connors, Federer has won 5 U.S. Opens, and so has Pete Sampras. Three men have won 7, but the last of these was won by Bill Tilden in 1929, with equipment Big Bill would surely reject if he could return and try his hand against today's players. Among modern women, Chris Evert has won 6, with Margaret Smith Court and Steffi Graf each winning 5.

So I decided to look at the competition: Who they beat in their Finals, and who beat them in Finals. Or, as Woody Paige of the Denver Post and ESPN's Pardon the Interruption might say, "Look at the sked-ja-wull!" Or strength of schedule, actually.

Connors: Beat Borg and Ivan Lendl twice each, and Ken Rosewall once. Lost 2 Finals, to Manuel Orantes and Guillermo Vilas.

Sampras: Beat Andre Agassi 3 times, Cedric Pilone (Who?) and Michael Chang. Lost 3 Finals, to Stefan Edberg, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt.

Federer: Beat Hewitt, Agassi, Andy Roddick Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Did not lose a Final until this month, to Juan Martin del Potro.

Evert: Beat Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Hana Mandlikova twice each, Wendy Turnbull and Pam Shriver once each. Lost 3 Finals, to Navratilova twice and Tracy Austin once.

A very tough call. Jimbo beat Borg, but not McEnroe. Chrissie beat Evonne, but not Martina. In the end, the competition slightly favored the ex-fiance, not the ex-fiancee. So Evert and Sampras are the runners-up, as Federer has already been a runner-up.
Mr. October: Babe Ruth. Actually, this was closer than I expected. It was a very tough call between the 2 original "Mister Octobers," Ruth and Lou Gehrig. What decided it for me, in the end, is that the Babe not only did it in a longer span, but in two different ways: He debuted in the World Series as a 20-year-old rookie in 1915, started a streak of 29 2/3 scoreless innings pitched at 21 in 1916, and hit 3 home runs in World Series games at ages 31 and 33 in 1926 and 1928, and at 37 in 1932 -- the age at which Gehrig died, and at which DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle retired -- hit a tremendous home run that has gone down in history as The Called Shot.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Show me another player who spent 4 years as a lefty pitcher as good as Randy Johnson, and then spent 16 years as a lefty hitter better than Barry Bonds and did that without steroids, and I'll say that player might be the greatest baseball player who ever lived; until then, I don't want to hear about how Bonds, or Mays, or anyone else was the greatest ever.

Runners-up: Of course, Lou, Joltin' Joe, the Mick, Reggie, Derek, and let's not forget Yogi Berra and his records of 14 World Series appearances and 10 wins.

And Muhammad Ali. How can you put Ali in any single month? How about this: His 2 most famous fights, the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in 1974, and the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier in 1975, were both in October, on the 30th and the 1st, respectively.

If his taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964 had been in October, instead of on February 25, he might be a serious challenger for this title, but in this case, the Babe is the greatest of all time.

Mr. November: Bear Bryant. This is a hard one, as the only significant championships decided in the 11th month -- at least, until Bud Selig started screwing up the baseball schedule -- were college football's conference titles. So I went with Paul William Bryant, the greatest college football coach of all time, and I don't want to hear about no Ratface out in Crappy Valley. The Bear's hat beats Paterno's shades any day, or do I have to break out the clip of the '79 Sugar Bowl again?
You want me to put aside bias? Fair enough, and while Paterno was never in a conference until Penn State joined the Big 10 in 1993, he has now won 3 titles in that league. But the Bear won 14 Southeastern Conference Championships -- the 1st of those at Kentucky. Kentucky? In football? Yes. Add on the 1956 Southwest Conference title with Texas A&M, and that's 15 league crowns for the Bear.

Runners-up: Bud Wilkinson (14 Big 8 titles with Oklahoma, including a record 47-game winning streak), Woody Hayes (13 Big 10 titles with Ohio State), Bo Schembechler (13 with Michigan, 5 of those shared with Woody), Tom Osbourne (13 Big 8/Big 12 titles with Nebraska), Darrell Royal (11 SWC titles with Texas, and was Wilkinson's first quarterback at Oklahoma), Bobby Bowden (10 with Florida State, and it would be more if they hadn't waited until 1992 to join the Atlantic Coast Conference).

Mr. December: Vince Lombardi. George Halas may have coached more NFL Championship teams, 8 to Lombardi's 5, but does anyone outside of Illinois really think that Papa Bear was a better coach than Saint Vincent of Lambeau? There's a reason the NFC Championship trophy is named for Halas, but there's also a reason the Super Bowl trophy is named for Lombardi.
Runners-up: Halas, Paul Brown (4 AAFC and 3 NFL titles), and if we're talking about the most influential people in the history of a sport, they are the top two in the history of pro football. But that's not what we're discussing here.

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