Thursday, March 18, 2010

Here's Your "Lineup," MSG Network

Starting next week, MSG Network will begin airing The Lineup: New York's Best All-Time Baseball Players.

I can save them the trouble. Here goes:

First Base: Lou Gehrig, Yankees, 1923-39 (but mostly 1925-38). Keith Hernandez, you hit .344 once (and it wasn't for the Mets); Gehrig hit .340 for a career. And he had almost 500 homers and almost 2,000 RBIs, and he would have had both if he hadn't gotten sick. And he didn't miss a game for 14 years. And he played in 7 World Series, winning 6.

And I don't want to hear about all of Mex's Gold Gloves: They weren't even awarded until 1958, and besides, they're kind of arbitrary, as when Rafael Palmeiro got one when he played 10 games at 1st and about 130 others as a DH.

Maybe Gehrig, whose last productive season was 72 years ago, and never faced a nonwhite pitcher in a game that counted, wouldn't have produced his astonishing batting numbers in the modern era, but you can't tell me he wouldn't have thrived in the post-expansion era with all those homer-happy new ballparks.

You'll notice I didn't mention a certain saint from Evansville. When he's not even the best at your position in your team's history -- and maybe not even the 2nd-best -- why mention him?

Second Base: Jackie Robinson, Dodgers, 1947-56. This is kind of close, as there are two other Hall-of-Fame second basemen who played significantly for New York teams, Frankie Frisch (Giants) and Tony Lazzeri (Yankees). None played there all that long: Robinson played only 5 full seasons at 2nd base (plus his 1st at 1st base and his last 4 at 3rd base), while Lazzeri was a Yankee only 12 seasons and Frisch a Giant for 9. Robinson was the most well-rounded player, though, and the only one who played in anything resembling a modern era.

It allows me to make this selection without mentioning the distinction for which Jackie is most famous -- because, when we're talking about his worthiness for this title, it's actually irrelevant, unless you consider that he put up the stats he did, and participated in the winning he did, while facing both pressure and (for want of a nobler word for such an ignoble occurrence) criticism that would have reduced a lot of the players who followed him (regardless of their race) to a teary, quivering mess.

Jackie Robinson wasn't just the most important player in the game's history (with the exceptions of the game's "founding fathers," without whom there wouldn't have been a game for him to play, and maybe also for Babe Ruth), he was a great player. He played so well, and by being the first person since the post-1920 home run explosion to emphasize baserunning to such a degree, he changed how the game was played, not just by whom.

Shortstop: Derek Jeter, Yankees, 1995-present. Before Jeter entered his prime, this was a tough choice, coming down to the 2 big (in importance if not in height) shortstops of 1941 to 1956, Philip Francis Rizzuto (the Scooter) and Harold Henry Reese (Pee Wee). You could have flipped a coin to decide it, and it would have been as fair as any other method. But Derek has rewritten the book, and even Rizzuto admitted it. (His last year in the booth, 1996, was Jeter's 1st full season.)

On the "Hall of Fame Career Standards Leaders" page of Baseball-Reference -- if this site was a woman, I would break one of my cardinal rules and take it on the infamous antiquing-in-Vermont trip that men dread -- a perfect score is 100; the all-time leader is Babe Ruth with 78; Jeter has a 62, which trails only Honus Wagner among shortstops (unless you still count A-Rod as a shortstop, but at 72 he also trails only Wagner); next-best after Derek is Cal Ripken with 58.

On the site's "Hall of Fame Monitor" list, which shows, based on past performances, which players are likely to make the Hall, Derek ranks 5th among players not yet eligible, behind A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson; thus 2nd behind A-Rod, and, if you count A-Rod as a 3rd baseman, Derek again ranks 2nd among shortstops behind Wagner. (Surprisingly, Ernie Banks was far beneath Derek on both lists. So was Robin Yount, who I figured would be much higher. Nomar Garciaparra wasn't even close.)

Now, if you ask most fans to rank the greatest shortstops ever, it might still be hard to rank Jeter higher than 3rd behind Wagner and Ripken. The great poet Carl Sandburg, himself a big baseball fan, said, "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure." Still, the fact that Jeter has statistical numbers that far exceed such greats as Ripken, Banks, Yount, and Luke Appling shows that he deserves serious consideration. (The name Ozzie Smith hasn't appeared until now. His fielding edge over Jeter... if there is one... does not erase the massive batting edge.)

It also makes anyone who ever, and I mean ever, thought that either Rey Ordonez or Jose Reyes was better than Derek Jeter look like the damn fools they are.

Third Base: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees, 2004 to present. He's now had 6 seasons, and a World Championship. He now not only "a true Yankee," but he's surpassed Graig Nettles as the all-time Pinstripe hot corner man.

There is no one else even close: Fred Lindstrom of the 1920s Giants would be among the castoffs if the Hall of Fame ever decided to drop its 10 least deserving honorees; Billy Cox of the 1950s Dodgers was like Ozzie Smith in that, whatever fielding merit he had, he can't be considered because he wasn't much of a hitter; Wade Boggs was only a Yankee for 5 seasons and only productive for maybe 4 of them; and the Mets' 3rd-base woes have been a running joke since the beginning of the franchise, with Howard Johnson and now David Wright the best of a bad bunch.

Left Field: Dave Winfield, Yankees, 1981-90. This one is tough. On the 1980s Yankees, Winfield went from left after just 2 years to center, and then to right; and then Rickey Henderson played both left and center. Well, Rickey's automatically out of this discussion, since he spent just 4 1/2 years as a Yankee and they didn't win anything. Big Dave at least won a Pennant.

Willie Keeler was an amazing hitter for both the Dodgers and the Yankees, but that was over 100 years ago, a very different game than the one played even a generation later -- in fact, they were called the Superbas and the Highlanders, respectively, at the time. Monte Irvin of the 1950s Giants played only 6 seasons in New York (4 of them full), and we can never truly know how good he was while playing, also in the Tri-State Area, for the Newark Eagles. Tim Raines, Chili Davis and David Justice were big contributors to the Joe Torre era Yankees, but none for very long.

Cleon Jones was a very important piece of the Mets that won the '69 Series and the '73 Pennant, but not particularly outstanding; a comparable player on the 1976-78 Yankees would have been Chris Chambliss or Lou Piniella, rather than Reggie Jackson or Thurman Munson. Ralph Kiner was a left fielder, a great power hitter, and a great contributor to New York baseball -- but never all at the same time.

Joe Medwick made his name in St. Louis, and might have built a superb second half of his career with the 1940s Dodgers (he was on pace for both 500 homers and 3,000 hits), but he got beaned right after he arrived and was never the same again, except for brief flashes of brilliance (including a great catch against the Yankees in the '41 Series). Charlie Keller of that era's Yankees, while not injured as badly as Medwick, hurt his back and fell out of HOF consideration, though he still poked a few big homers for the Yanks as late as 1949.

The really weird part is how often left field has been a weak point for great New York teams. The Dodgers never had a left fielder as good as Duke Snider in center or Carl Furillo in right, though when they finally won it all in 1955 it was the left fielder, Sandy Amoros, who made the key fielding play, but he didn't last all that long.

The '86 Mets had to drop the once-super George Foster in mid-season, and settled on Kevin Mitchell. How come they didn't just break up their center field platoon, moving either Mookie Wilson or Lenny Dykstra over?

For half a century, the Yanks went from near-great to near-great at the position: Bob Meusel, Ben Chapman (who would go on to infamy as the Phillies' race-baiting manager, leading his team in yelling sickening things at Robinson), Keller, Gene Woodling, Elston Howard, then Ellie switched positions with catcher Yogi Berra but both men were better as catchers, Tom Tresh, Roy White, Piniella.

I'm putting Winfield in, because, despite his move of positions, he was the best of these, and also because I don't want to cheat by moving Mickey Mantle over to left "to protect his legs." If we're making the all-time best lineup, then we want each man at his best, and Mickey was at his best in center, as you'll see in a moment.

Center Field: Mickey Mantle, Yankees, 1951-68. Actually, 1951-66, since, in his last 2 seasons, Mickey was switched with 1st baseman Joe Pepitone to ease the strain on his legs. Okay, let me get the 2 obvious other contenders out of the way.

Willie Mays: He had only 5 full seasons (1951 and 1954-57) as a center fielder in New York. You can call him the greatest player ever, or the greatest living player, and have a good case. But 5 seasons in New York, however great, do not outweigh Mickey's 16 seasons at the position in the City. Besides, Mickey was a better player anyway. Check out the difference in on-base percentage, slugging percentage; RBI per game. Fielding? Allen Barra, a big Met fan and a big Mays fan, crunched the numbers and decided that Willie got to 1 ball every three games that Mickey wouldn't have gotten to, thus saving the Giants a run every 10 games that the Yankees would have allowed, thus not even coming close to negating the offensive advantage that Mickey gave the Yankees over his 5 best, 10 best, 12 best, 15 best seasons. If Barra can admit it, so can you: Mickey Mantle was a better baseball player than Willie Mays.

Joe DiMaggio: Due to wartime service in the middle of his career and injuries toward the end, he played just 13 seasons, and in comparison with the statistical averages of his era, Mickey was a better hitter, and not that far behind Joe as a fielder.

The City has been lucky to also have Earle Combs of the 1920s Yankees and Duke Snider of the 1950s Dodgers reach the Hall, plus such luminaries as Pete Reiser of the 1940s Dodgers, Tommie Agee of the '69 Mets, Mickey Rivers of the '76-'78 Yanks, Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra of the 1980s Mets, and Bernie Williams of the 1990s-2000s Yanks. In New York, center field remains the glamour position, more so than in any other city at any other position -- more than left field in Boston, more than catcher in Cincinnati, more than pitcher in Los Angeles or Houston (or Flushing).

One more thing, before I move on to the most obvious choice in the lineup: Instead of thinking about Mickey as, "What could he have done if he hadn't gotten hurt and took care of himself?" think instead, "Look at what he did do." After all, the next guy didn't exactly "take care of himself" by today's standards, either.

Right Field: Babe Ruth, Yankees, 1920-34. You may be asking, "What about Dixie Walker? Carl Furillo? Don Mueller? Ron Swoboda? Rusty Staub? Reggie Jackson? Darryl Strawberry? Paul O'Neill?" My answer is Drew Rosenhaus' answer: "Next question."

Catcher: Yogi Berra, Yankees, 1946-63. Now, if you're counting only the years he was the Yanks' regular catcher, you're talking 1949-58. That might put Bill Dickey ahead of him. But there's only one other serious contender, and that's Roy Campanella of the 1950s Dodgers.

Gary Carter wasn't a Met all that long, and Mike Piazza's catching was a joke. There has never been a great hitter whose fielding was so bad as to negate his hitting (maybe Hack Wilson, but he wasn't a great hitter for very long), but, A, Piazza comes closer than most; and B, now that he's a steroids suspect, it puts his phony reputation as "the greatest hitting catcher ever" in serious doubt.

Starting Pitcher: Christy Mathewson, Giants, 1900-16. Note that I'm mentioning these starters in chronological order.

"Big Six" might have been the best pitcher ever. Unlike Walter Johnson, the other major contender from that era, he had more than just a great fastball, had several really good pitches including the game's 1st great screwball (he called it a "fadeaway"). So while Johnson probably would have been a terrific pitcher in the Lively Ball Era (the fact that he led the AL in most major categories in 1924 at age 36 suggests it), Mathewson probably would have been even better.

Starting Pitcher: Carl Hubbell, Giants, 1928-43. If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn, Sandy Koufax might have been the greatest lefty pitcher in New York history. But they didn't. Hubbell's screwgie was as devastating as Matty's, and it made him, along with Dizzy Dean (and probably Satchel Paige), one of the top 2 or 3 pitchers of the 1930s.

Starting Pitcher: Whitey Ford, Yankees, 1950-67. The winningest pitcher in Yankee history. The winningest pitcher in World Series history. The best winning percentage of any pitcher with at least 300 decisions. The best ERA of any starter in the Lively Ball Era. Like Frank Sinatra (of whom he remains a huge fan), the nickname "Chairman of the Board" suits Whitey so well, and not just because it rhymes with "Ford."

Starting Pitcher: Tom Seaver, Mets, 1967-77 and '83. They started calling him "The Franchise" after the '69 Series, and it still fits, as much as for any player on any baseball team. The kind of player who you really, really hope is a class act in real life, and he always has been -- unless you're M. Donald Grant or Dick Young, but who speaks kindly of them these days?

Starting Pitcher: David Cone, Mets, 1987-92 and 2001; Yankees, 1995-2000. He really is the only player who was ever great for both teams. Darryl Strawberry had his moments, and Dwight Gooden one or two, for the Yankees, but who's kidding who?

It's not easy to keep out of the all-time rotation people like Joe McGinnity, Jack Chesbro, Rube Marquard, Dazzy Vance, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing and Catfish Hunter -- and that's just the ones who are already in the Hall of Fame.

I should also mention Giants Hal Schumacher, Sal Maglie, Larry Jansen and Johnny Antonelli; Dodgers Whitlow Wyatt, Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe; Giant and Dodger Fred Fitzsimmons; Yankees Bob Shawkey, Urban Shocker, Spud Chandler, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Bob Turley, Mel Stottlemyre, Ron Guidry, Jimmy Key, Andy Pettitte, David Wells, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Mike Mussina; and Mets Jerry Koosman, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda and Al Leiter. There hasn't been enough time in New York to consider CC Sabathia or Johan Santana, and we can't consider anybody else from the 2006-present Mets.

Did I forget anybody? No. There is an obvious name I haven't mentioned, but choosing not to mention him is not "forgetting." Or maybe I'm "misremembering," if you know what I mean.

Lefthanded Relief Pitcher: Sparky Lyle, Yankees, 1972-78. A tough call over Tug McGraw of the 1965-74 Mets, but Sparky came through more times in big games. If the Mets had hung onto Tug longer, and gave them the first few years he gave the Phillies, I'd have picked him.

Righthanded Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera, Yankees, 1995-present. Not quite as easy a pick as the Babe in right or the Iron Horse at first, but the only other serious contender is Goose Gossage. Think about it, Met fans: Your three best closers, and it's not even close, have been Tug, Jesse Orosco, and Billy Wagner -- all lefties. Unless you want to go with Roger McDowell. Or Doug Sisk. Or Rick Aguilera (who needs to get down on his kness and thank God for Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley and Bill Buckner for saving him from being the goat of the '86 Series). Or... Armando Benitez. Francisco Rodriguez? Yes, K-Rod is a righty, but he's had one season in Flushing, and it wasn't that far above Benitez at his "best."

Manager: Joe Torre, Yankees, 1996-2007. Think about it: John McGraw and Miller Huggins each won 3 World Series, but they were the only postseason series they won. Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel share the record of 7 World Series won. Joe Torre won 17 postseason series: 7 Division Series, 6 League Championship Series, 4 World Series. We'll never know how the others would have fared if they had to go into the postseason only as Eastern Division Champions and then face a Western Division Champ, a Central Division Champ, a Wild Card Winner, or a combination thereof, and then have to face the Champion of the other League; but we know about Torre.

Go ahead: Challenge me on any one of these. Make your own lineup. Put it up against mine. See if you can extend mine to a Game 6, let alone 7.

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