Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Houston's All-Time Baseball Team


South Texas -- including Houston with Rice University, and Austin with the main campus of the University of Texas -- has produced, either through indigenousness or collegiate production, a lot of very good baseball players.

In spite of this, the region remains football-centric. It is Texas, after all, where they thought God looked like Sammy Baugh, whose centennial just passed (born on March 17, 1914 in Temple, Texas), before they thought God looked like Tom Landry.

Also in spite of South Texas' baseball tradition, Houston has not been a great force for winning in the major leagues. Although the Houston Buffaloes won 18 Pennants in the various leagues they were in, including 8 as a farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1928 to 1957, the Astros have won just 1. They reached the National League Playoffs 9 times before switching over to the American League last year, but only in 2005 were they a League Champion -- and then they got swept by the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.

They finally won a Pennant after 44 seasons, and they got swept in the World Series by a Chicago team, when there hadn't been a Chicago team in the World Series in 46 years. As Chicago native Ferris Bueller would say, "How's that for being born under a bad sign?"

Even the Astrodome, the one-time Eighth Wonder of the World, turned out to be a disappointment. It was a contender for worst stadium in Major League Baseball, stylistically speaking. Then the NFL's Oilers abandoned it in 1996, then the Astros in 1999. With Reliant Stadium built next-door to house the expansion Texans, and larger, the Astrodome became a joke. Somebody said it looks like a relic from a future than never came to pass. A referendum to renovate it was rejected by voters last November, and its future remains unsettled.

In 2000, the Astros moved into Enron Field. Unlike the Astrodome, a great pitcher's park, the new stadium, downtown and with a retractable roof, was such a hitters' park that it was nicknamed Ten Run Field. When Enron spectacularly went bankrupt shortly thereafter, the naming rights were sold off, and Coca-Cola bought them, putting one of its brand names on it. When the Yankees played an Interleague series against the Astros at the old Yankee Stadium in June 2003 -- the one where 6 Astros combined to no-hit the Yanks but the Yanks took the next 2 games and the series -- John Sterling turned to his broadcast partner at the time, Charlie Steiner, and said, "You know, Charlie, I hear that, at Minute Maid Park, the balls are juiced." And Steiner said, "Ah, that's just pulp fiction."
Last year, the Astros' first in the AL, the Yankees closed their season at Minute Maid, enabling Andy Pettitte to make his last career appearance in his "hometown" ballpark. This season, the Yankees will open at Minute Maid, before going to Baltimore, and then playing their home opener.

25. Houston’s All-Time Baseball Team

For some reason, the Astros' regional team, featuring players from South Texas and Southern Louisiana, is far less stacked than the Dallas/North Texas/Rangers regional team. But they should be able to hold a few teams down with some incredibly accomplished pitching.

All of these players are from Texas, unless otherwise stated.

1B Will Clark of New Orleans, Louisiana. Will the Thrill was a 6-time All-Star, and finished 2nd to teammate Kevin Mitchell in the 1989 National League Most Valuable Player balloting, as they led the San Francisco Giants to their first Pennant in 27 years. He was the MVP of the NL Championship Series that season. He won a Gold Glove in 1991, but was best known for his hitting. He led the NL in games, plate appearances, RBIs and walks in 1988, in runs scored in 1989, and total bases and slugging percentage in 1991.

He reached the postseason with the Giants in 1987 and ’89, and nearly again in ’93; he did so with the Texas Rangers in 1996 and ’98, and was on track to do it in ’94 when the strike hit; and made it one more time with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000. He had 4 100-RBI seasons, and finished with a lifetime batting average of .303 and a mighty OPS+ of 137. And he was popular, liked by his teammates and loved by his fans.

So why is he not in the Hall of Fame, for which he’s been eligible since 2006? He is in the College Baseball and Mississippi Sports Halls of Fame, due to his heroics at Mississippi State University. But injuries dogged him from 1992 onwards, and he finished with just 2,176 hits, including 440 doubles and 284 home runs – very nice, but not Cooperstown numbers. He was only 34 when he had his last season of more than 507 plate appearances and 36 when he hung ‘em up. He now works in the Giants’ front office.

In a 1994 interview, when asked to sum up his experiences in the game, he wisely said, “Expect the unexpected in baseball. There ya go, buddy!” Legend has it that his answering-machine message was, "This is Will. The Thrill is gone. Leave a message."

Honorable Mention to Cecil Cooper of Brenham. Having traded 1st baseman George “the Boomer” Scott and outfielder Bernie Carbo to the Brewers, the Red Sox got them back for the 1977 season by sending Cooper to the Brewers, after 3 years of him platooning at first with Carl Yastrzemski (who, of course, is better known as a left fielder). Big mistake, as Scott’s weight and Carbo’s drug use ballooned, while the chant of “Coooooooop” could be heard at Milwaukee County Stadium for the next 11 seasons.

He remains the team’s all-time 1st baseman, in spite of Prince Fielder, having made 4 All-Star teams, won 2 Gold Gloves, and having 4 100-RBI seasons. He won Pennants with the 1975 Red Sox and the 1982 Brewers, and led the AL in doubles in 1979 and ’81 and in RBIs in 1980 and ’83, also in total bases in 1980. In a 1979 game against the Yankees, he hit 3 home runs, making a 9-year-old kid watching on TV in Central Jersey (me) wince in pain all 3 times. (The Yanks always had trouble with the Brewers until they were moved to the NL in 1998, and Coop especially hit well against them.) Lifetime batting average .298, OPS+ 121, 2,192 hits, 415 doubles, 241 homers.

He recently managed his hometown Astros, although was fired in 2009 and is currently out of baseball. He is a member of the Brewers' Walk of Fame and the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Lance Berkman of New Braunfels. Having just retired this past January, he put up some big seasons for his hometown Astros, joining Carlos Beltran to form a second set of "Killer B's" with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. (The first set was Bagwell, Biggio and Derek Bell.) "The Big Puma" -- also nicknamed "Fat Elvis," even though he's never been fat -- gave the Astros 5 All-Star seasons and 6 100-RBI seasons. He led the NL in doubles in 2001 with a whopping 55, in RBIs in 2002 with 128 (also 42 homers), and in doubles again in 2008 with 46.

Lifetime batting average is .293, OPS+ is 144, 1,905 hits, 422 doubles, and 366 home runs (peaking at 45 in 2006). He reached the postseason with the Astros in 2001, '04 and '05 (including the '05 Pennant), with the Yankees in 2010, and with the Cardinals in 2011.

So why do I not have him ahead of Clark and Cooper? Because Clark had to hit in Candlestick Park, and Cooper had to hit in Milwaukee County Stadium (and, before that, in Fenway Park as a lefty), while Berkman spent all but his first Astro season (that at the hitter-unfriendly Astrodome) at Minute Maid Park.

2B Chuck Knoblauch of Bellaire. What? The Knob-blockhead? The guy with the worst 2nd-base arm of all time? Surely, I can’t be serious!

I am serious, and don’t call me “Shirley.” Knobby was Rookie of the Year with the World Champion Minnesota Twins in 1991, a 3-time World Champion with the Yankees, a 4-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner (yes, in 1997), had a .289 lifetime batting average, hit 322 doubles and 64 triples despite his career ending at age 33 due to his psychosomatic throwing problems affecting his hitting too, and 407 stolen bases.

He’s been listed in the Mitchell Report, which provides only the word of Brian McNamee; and has pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault against his soon-to-be ex-wife. Despite his talent, he seems to have been unsuited to a life in the public eye.

Honorable Mention to Davey Johnson, born in Orlando, Florida, but went to high school in San Antonio. While he's known now as a manager, the only living person to manage the Mets to a World Championship (rest in peace, Gil Hodges), he was a pretty good player with the Baltimore Orioles' semi-dynasty of 1966-71, including making the last out in the only other World Series the Mets have won, in 1969. (Which means, along with '69 shortstop and '86 3rd base coach Bud Harrelson, he was also one of the only 2 men to have been in uniform for both clinchings.)

He was a 4-time All-Star, a 3-time Gold Glove, and had a little power. Only once did he hit more than 18 homers in a season, but in that year, 1973, with the Atlanta Braves, he hit 43 -- with “only” 99 RBIs. Those of you familiar with Brady Anderson must have an alarm going off in your head, but it wasn’t due to steroids, it was due to Fulton County Stadium being at the highest elevation in the majors in those pre-Coors Field days, and it became known as the Launching Pad; if the Braves had stayed in Milwaukee and Hank Aaron had stayed with them, he still might have hit 600 homers, but he wouldn’t have hit 755.

Davey finished with 136 homers, but with 2 World Series rings (1966 and 1970) -- and, of course, a 3rd as a manager (1986), although with all the talent he had to manage in Flushing, Cincinnati, Baltimore and L.A., he should have won more, which is why he’s not also the manager of this team.

SS Pete Runnels of Lufkin. I had to stretch this a bit, as he played more at 1st base and more at 2nd base, but he did play 463 games at short, mostly for the Washington Senators before becoming the starting 2nd baseman and then 1st baseman for the Red Sox. He won the AL batting title in 1960 and ’62, and made the All-Star Team in each year and also in ’61.

3B Max Alvis of Jasper. He wasn't an especially good player, but he was a 2-time All-Star -- as was 1970s California Angel Dave Chalk of Del Rio, but he wasn't even as good as Alvis. From 1963 to 1967, Alvis put up home run totals of 22, 18, 21, 17 and 21, despite playing his home games at cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium. But he stopped hitting, and played his last professional game at age 32.

LF Adam Dunn of New Caney. With 2,220 career strikeouts going into the 2014 season, and just 34 years old, he has an excellent shot of doing what Jim Thome didn't quite do: Surpassing Reggie Jackson as the all-time leader in being K'ed. His 222 strikeouts in 2012 were an NL record. He struck out in 36 straight games that season. In both cases, those were 1 off the established major league record. In 2011, he batted just .159. Had he made just 6 more plate appearances, he would had the lowest batting average in a full season since Bill Bergen batted .139 for the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas (Dodgers). And, since coming to the White Sox, he's been almost a full-time designated hitter, as his experience in left field and at 1st base has not been good.

So how can I, in good conscience, put him on this team? 440 career home runs, without any serious accusation of PED usage, that's how. He has hit at least 38 homers in 7 seasons. He has 6 100+ RBI seasons. He's made the All-Star Game twice -- 10 years apart, in 2002 and 2012. His lifetime batting average is just .238, but in spite of all his strikeouts, he's twice led the League in walks, and his career OPS+ is 124.

So why didn't I just make him the DH on this team? After all, the Astros are now an AL team. Because I have a better idea for DH.

Honorable Mention to Ron Gant of Victoria. He hit 321 homers in a 16-year career, starting out with the Atlanta Braves. He won Pennants with them in 1991 and ’92, and also reached the postseason with the Braves in ’93, the Cincinnati Reds in ’95, the St. Louis Cardinals in ’96 and the Oakland Athletics in 2001.

Honorable Mention to Carl Crawford of Houston. It’s too soon to put him ahead of Gant, but he’s already a 4-time All-Star, a .295 career hitter, a 3-time AL leader in triples, a 4-time AL leader in stole bases – 401 total – and has 1,427 hits, and has led the Tampa Bay Rays to the 2008 AL Pennant and has them tied for first in the AL East at the moment, and he’s only 28. He’s a free agent after this season, and if he signs with, say, the Yankees, it could take him from potential Hall-of-Famer to realizing that potential.

CF Clarence “Cito” Gaston of Corpus Christi. A rookie with the expansion San Diego Padres in 1969, he was an All-Star for them in 1970 with a .318 batting average, 29 homers and 93 RBIs. But he never approached those numbers again, struck out too much, and was last a regular at age 29 and last played in the bigs at 34. Still, he’s the best of a bad lot, and having won the World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and ’93, he’s also the manager of this team.

Honorable Mention to Juan Pierre of Alexandria, Louisiana. Now 36 and a free agent going into this season, he's the active leader in stolen bases with 614. Lifetime batting average .295, 2,217 hits (twice led the League), and a member of postseason teams for the Florida Marlins (2003 World Champions) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2008 and '09 NL West Champions).

RF Mel Ott of Gretna, Louisiana. From August 28, 1937, when he passed Rogers Hornsby with his 302nd career home run, to May 4, 1966, when later Giant Willie Mays hit his 512th, Ott was the NL’s all-time home run leader. Until May 19, 2001, he remained the all-time NL home run leader among lefthanded hitters, and that record was broken by another Giant – albeit Barry Bonds, so take that with a mine of salt. His 511 home runs led to the NL home run leadership trophy being named the Mel Ott Award.

Of course, due to the short right-field fence at the Polo Grounds, a lot of Ott’s 511 homers were cheap ones. He hit 323, or 63 percent of his total, at home. This also means that he has more home runs hit in New York City than any other player – ahead of Mickey Mantle with 270 and Babe Ruth with 266. But he wasn’t just a guy who had the gift of the Polo Grounds. He was a genuinely great hitter, making 12 All-Star Games (missing the first in 1933 but then making every one until 1945, although that one was cancelled).

Lifetime batting average .304, OPS+ 155 (so he wasn’t just a product of the homer-happy 1930s, either), 2,876 hits, 488 doubles (as well as the 511 homers), and 9 100-RBI seasons. That includes 8 in a row, a feat matched in the NL only by Mays, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols and, uh, Sammy Sosa. In the 1933 World Series, his top of the 10th-inning home run gave the Giants Game 5 and the title, against the Washington Senators. He also played for the Giants in the ’36 and ’37 World Series, losing to the Yankees.

He managed the Giants from 1942 to ’48, but the manager of the arch-rival Dodgers, Leo Durocher, didn’t like his style: “Look at Ott. He’s a nice guy, and they’ll finish 8th for him. All nice guys, and they’ll finish 8th.” With 8th place then being last, this got turned into the phrase most often identified with the bastard Durocher: “Nice guys finish last.” Durocher made his point when he was hired to replace Ott, and managed the Giants to the 1951 Pennant and the 1954 World Championship. But Durocher was despised, and Ott was popular. They're both in the Hall of Fame, but Ott got there in his first year of eligibility, and had his Number 4 retired by the Giants; while Durocher didn't get in until after he died, and neither the Dodgers nor the Giants have retired Number 2 for him (the Dodgers did so for Tommy Lasorda). When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, Ott came in at Number 42.

Honorable Mention to Ross Youngs of Shiner, whom Ott replaced as the Giants’ right fielder. He arrived in 1917, became the Giants’ starting right fielder in 1918, and it seemed like he would never stop hitting. He topped out at .356 in 1924, a season in which the Giants won their 4th straight Pennant, including winning the 1921 and 1922 World Series. He led the NL in doubles in 1919 and runs scored in 1923. Known as “Pep” for his hustle, manager John McGraw called him his favorite player – an honor he gave to only one other, his former pitcher Christy Mathewson.

Unfortunately, like Matty, Youngs would die, well, young. In 1925, he began to suffer from nephritis, a kidney disorder also known as Bright’s disease. He still managed to hit .306 in 1926, but played his last game on August 10 of that year, and died on September 25, 1927, just 30. “Lifetime” batting average .322, OPS+ 130, and in just 9 full seasons got 1,491 hits including 236 doubles. He could have been a member of the 3,000 Hit Club if he could've played until he was 40.

He played before uniform numbers were worn, but he is in the Hall of Fame despite playing just 10 seasons, the minimum barring special cases. (I wonder if one would have been made for him, as it was for Addie Joss, dead of meningitis on the eve of his 10th season?) The Giants were unlucky to lose Youngs, but they were lucky that Ott was about to arrive, and I wonder if either of them would have moved to left or center field, had Youngs lived? (After all, when the Giants signed Ott, they had no idea Youngs was sick.) Think what a lineup the Giants could have had with both of them, as well as with Bill Terry, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Fred Lindstrom, Emil “Irish” Meusel and George “Highpockets” Kelly.

Honorable Mention to Jay Bruce of Beaumont. Like Dunn, he started his career hitting the ball out of sight for the Cincinnati Reds. Unlike Dunn, who was only his teammate for a few weeks in 2008, he's still there, and in just 6 full seasons has hit 164 home runs. Last season, having helped the Reds reach the postseason for the 2nd time in 4 years, he had his first 100-RBI season. He's a 2-time All-Star, and he'll turn just 27 around Opening Day, so this could be one of the finest careers of the 2010s.

I could give an Honorable Mention to Jay Buhner of League City, what with his 310 career home runs, 124 career OPS+, and 4 trips to the postseason with the Seattle Mariners. (They've never reached it without him.) But he really, really fits the steroid profile: A so-so player until age 26, then one of the game's top sluggers from 26 to 32, then injuries curtailed his career and he was done at 36. Is this just bitterness because the Yankees traded him for Ken Phelps, and also bitterness for the 1995 ALDS? Hell no: If we hadn't gotten rid of Buhner, we never would've gotten Paul O'Neill. And Buhner never won a Pennant, with the Yanks getting in the way in 2000 and '01, his last 2 seasons.

DH Daniel Joseph “Rusty” Staub of New Orleans, Louisiana. He was known as Rusty for his hair, while playing for his “hometown” Colt .45’s/Astros (the team’s name was changed in 1965), and in 1969 became an original member of the Montreal Expos, whose Francophone fans loved him for his hitting, and his own French-Canadian ancestry (Quebecois who got forced into Louisiana were called Acadians or “Cajuns”), and called him “Le Grand Orange.”

He moved on to the Mets, helping them win the 1973 Pennant, but a shoulder injury while making a catch in the World Series may have cost them. The Mets foolishly traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 1976 for a washed-up Mickey Lolich, but wisely got him back in 1981, where he became the game’s top pinch-hitter. The only players to hit major league home runs before their 20th birthday and after their 40th are Staub, Ty Cobb and Gary Sheffield – curiously, all played for the Tigers, although only Cobb hit both as a Tiger.

Rusty is not in the Hall of Fame, but a case can be made for him. His lifetime batting average is just .279, and he has “only” 292 home runs. But he spent most of his career in pitchers’ parks such as the Astrodome, Montreal’s Jarry Park, and Shea Stadium, and only spent 3½ years at hitter-happy Tiger Stadium. His OPS+ is 124. He collected 2,716 hits, 499 of which were doubles. He is the only man to collect at least 500 hits with 4 different teams. He was a 6-time All-Star. His last really productive season was at age 34, but he was still capable of hitting .296 as a pinch-hitter at 39. According to Baseball-Reference.com, of his 10 Most Similar Batters, 2 are in the Hall (Tony Perez and Brooks Robinson), 3 more should be (Harold Baines, Al Oliver and Dwight Evans), and the other 4 are worth consideration (Dave Parker, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Garvey and Garret Anderson).

Rusty has been a Met broadcaster, and as a result of his connections to great food cities – French-influenced New Orleans and Montreal, barbecue-happy Houston and Detroit, and of course New York – he is perhaps the greatest cook ever to play in the majors. (If there's ever been a better one, I'm not aware of it. Certainly, if Roger Maris were still alive, I'd eat anything Rusty made before I'd eat Roger's infamous eggs.) For years, his restaurant Rusty’s, at 1271 3rd Avenue at East 73rd Street, was a mainstay for sports personalities and fans until it closed in 1991. The Expos retired the Number 10 for both him and Andre Dawson (though the franchise, now the Washington Nationals, has put it back into circulation), and the Mets elected him to their team Hall of Fame.

C Jerry Grote of San Antonio. From 1969 to 1977, both starting catchers in New York wore Number 15. Grote was not as good as Thurman Munson, but after a couple of cups of coffee with his hometown Colt .45's (Astros) in 1963 and ’64, he became a Met in 1966 and made 2 All-Star teams – not easy for an NL catcher in the era of Johnny Bench. He helped the Mets win the 1969 World Series and the 1973 Pennant, and then helped the Dodgers win Pennants in 1977 and 1978. He was never a great hitter, although he did bat .295 for the Mets in 1975. He’s the best of a bad bunch for South Texas catchers.

Honorable Mention to James Raleigh "Biz" Mackey of Eagle Pass. No, not the rapper Biz Markie. Biz Mackey was one of the stars of Negro League baseball, producing a lot of hits and handling pitchers for the Hilldale Daisies (no, I'm not making that name up) of Philadelphia in the 1920s and the Baltimore Elite Giants in the 1930s (and that's pronounced EE-light, not Eh-LEET). As player-manager of the Elite Giants, he turned a chubby, half-black/half-Italian teenager from the Nicetown neighborhood of Philadelphia into a Hall-of-Famer: Roy Campanella. In the 1940s, as player-manager of the Newark Eagles, he managed future Hall-of-Famers Leon Day, Ray Dandridge, Willie Wells, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin.

He was elected to the Hall himself in its making-up-for-lost-time election of Negro Leaguers in 2006, long after the elections of all the other players I mentioned in this paragraph -- and long after his own death in 1965. But he did get his due: In 1959, when the Dodgers held Roy Campanella night to raise money for Campy after his paralyzing car crash, Biz was introduced as Campy's mentor, and 93,103 people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- the largest crowd in baseball history -- gave him a standing ovation, even though most had never seen Roy play (he got hurt before the move to L.A. could be completed) and had probably never heard of Biz. Biz' grandson, Riley Odoms, was an All-Pro tight end for the Denver Broncos and a member of their 1977 AFC Championship team that lost Super Bowl XII.

SP Ted Lyons of Vinton, Louisiana. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy said that if he’d pitched for the Yankees, he would have won 400 games. Maybe he wouldn't have won that many, but pitching for a White Sox team that never once in all his 21 seasons got anywhere close to 1st place, he won 260 against 230 losses. He won 20 3 times, and had a 1.089 WHIP at age 38 and a 14-6 record and a 2.10 ERA at 41. He pitched a no-hitter in 1926, in just 1 hour and 7 minutes. Early in his career, his out pitch was what he called a “sailer” – an early version of the cut fastball. After a 1931 injury, he used a knuckleball and a variety of curves. Hall of Fame, Number 16 retired, statue in his honor at the White Sox' U.S. Cellular Field.

Legend has it that, while serving in the Army in World War II – despite already being over 40 – his Army baseball team faced an Army Air Force team that included Joe DiMaggio, and he said, “I joined the Army to get away from DiMaggio, and here he is!”

SP Nolan Ryan of Alvin. You could say that he pitched from 1970 to 1993 and did not win a single Pennant in all that time. And you could say that he choked in the 1980 and 1986 NLCS – both times, for his hometown team, no less. And you could say that he never won a Cy Young Award (just missing in 1973 and ‘74). And you could say that, despite being one of the fastest pitchers of all time, he is the all-time leader in walks with 2,795, and that his 292 losses (3rd all-time, and easily 1st among post-1920 Lively Ball Era pitchers), his .526 winning percentage, his 1.247 WHIP, his 3.19 ERA and 112 ERA+ are not especially impressive.

Or you could say that he helped the Mets win the 1969 World Series, as the winning pitcher in Game 3. And that he won 324 games. And that he is far and away the all-time leader with 5,714 strikeouts, 7 no-hitters, and 6.6 hits per 9 innings pitched. And that he also struck out 383 batters in 1973, still the single-season record. And that he struck out 19 batters in a game 4 times (although “only” 1 of those was without extra innings). And that he made 8 All-Star teams. And that he helped the Mets, Angels and Astros, all teams with spotty histories, reach the postseason. And that he did a lot of pitching for mediocre teams, but still pitched well; emblematic of this was 1987, when the Astros were under .500, so that, while he led the NL in both ERA and strikeouts at age 40, he went 8-16. And you could say that his arrival across the State with the Texas Rangers in 1989 led to the franchise building what’s now called Globe Life Park in Arlington, saving them from being moved. And you could say that he was still one of the best pitchers in the game at the age of 44, without being lefthanded or a knuckleballer, and that he was still pitching in the majors at age 46. And you could say that, after his bid to buy the team from bankrupt outgoing owner Tom Hicks was accepted, he saved the Rangers a second time.

And you could say that he has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. And that the Angels have retired his Number 30, and the Astros and Rangers his Number 34, and the Rangers have a statue of him outside the ballpark. And that a highway outside Houston and another adjacent to the Rangers' ballpark are both named the Nolan Ryan Expressway – a variation on his nickname “the Ryan Express,” itself a variation on the name of the film Von Ryan’s Express. And that when The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 41.

Ryan’s record is as big and as varied as the State of Texas itself, and he may be the State’s most celebrated living athlete – quite a feat for someone who didn’t play college or pro football.

SP Ron Guidry of Lafayette, Louisiana. As a rookie in 1977, he went 16-7 for the Yankees, also winning Game 4 of the World Series. In 1978, the Yankees made it back-to-back World Championships, for many reasons, none more than Guidry having maybe the best season any pitcher has ever had, considering that this was well into the Lively Ball Era. He went 25-3 – 27-3 counting the postseason, winning the clinching Game 4 of the ALCS and Game 3 of the World Series. He set a record for highest winning percentage for a 20-game winner, .893. He had a 1.74 ERA – an ERA+ of 208, a great figure for a reliever, an astounding one for a starter in any era. His WHIP was 0.946. He pitched 9 shutouts, including 3 2-hitters in September, 2 of those against the Red Sox in that classic season-long Yanks-Sox duel. He struck out 248 batters, still a Yankee record. This included 18 Angels on June 17, still a Yankee record and a record for AL lefties until Randy Johnson broke it. That night, fans began to stand and clap on 2 strikes, starting a New York baseball tradition that Met fans think was started in 1984 for Dwight Gooden.

Of his 25 wins, 16 came after a Yankee loss. If he had gone .500, 14-14, the Yankees would have finished 4th; with that 25-3, they won 100, the last being the Playoff to win the Division at Fenway Park, the Bucky Dent Game. And they gave the AL Most Valuable Player to Jim Rice of the Sox? No player has ever defined “Most Valuable” in a single season the way the Gator did in 1978. From August 10, 1977 to October 13, 1978, including the postseason, Ron Guidry went 37-4 -- and this was in the era of the lively ball, integration and coast-to-coast flights, and with Billy Martin, the king of wearing pitchers out, as his manager for most of that.

“Louisiana Lightning” (a nickname Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto gave him on the 18-K night, but one he didn’t like, preferring also-Louisiana-themed “Gator”) led the AL in ERA again in 1979, with 2.78, going 18-8 for a troubled Yankee team. He won 20 again for the Yanks in 1985, going 22-6 and leading the AL with a .786 winning percentage. But, at 34, that was his last good season, and he only won 16 more games.

He finished at 170-91, with a 3.29 ERA, a 119 ERA+, a 1.184 WHIP, 1,778 strikeouts, 4 All-Star berths and 5 Gold Gloves. Good enough for a Plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park and the retirement of his Number 49. Baseball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame Monitor has him at 106 of 100 (which should mean he gets in), but their Hall of Fame Standards has him at 38 of 50 (which means he shouldn’t). Their 10 Most Similar Pitchers to him include 2 HOFers, Sandy Koufax and Lefty Gomez, plus the still-active Johan Santana and Chris Carpenter, the recently-retired Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay, and such legends as Eddie Lopat, Bret Saberhagen, Jimmy Key, John Candelaria and Dave McNally. Until recently, it also included Don Newcombe. Those 11 include a lot of really good pitchers whose careers were cut short by injury. I’d love to say he belongs, but he doesn’t quite make it.

SP Roger Clemens of Spring Woods H.S. in Houston. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Vandalia, so he should be in with the Reds’ all-time regional team, but he did play high school ball in South Texas, and he does identify with that State, rather than with Ohio. I seriously debated not putting him on this team, because he truly has become a thoroughly unlikable person. Some, remembering him as a headhunter with both the Red Sox (beaning Derek Jeter) and the Yankees (beaning Mike Piazza), would say he always was a thoroughly unlikable person. But until we can get better evidence of his steroid use than just the word of Brian McNamee, he’s eligible, both for this list and for the Hall of Fame.

And what an eligibility: 354 wins, only 184 losses. 3.12 ERA, 143 ERA+, a 1.173 WHIP. 4,672 strikeouts, formerly 2nd on the all-time list behind his childhood hero, Ryan. Gained his 4,000th strikeout and his 300th win on the same night, June 13, 2003, against the Cardinals in an Interleague game at Yankee Stadium. Won 7 Cy Young Awards, in 1986, ’87, ’91, ’97, ’98, 2001 and ’04. Won the AL MVP in 1986 as he went 24-4 and the Red Sox won the Pennant. Finally got his ring with the Yankees in 1999, and again in 2000, plus Pennants in 2001 (starting the season 20-1 before finishing 20-3) and ’03, and with his hometown Astros in ’05.

Struck out a new major league record 20 batters in a 1986 game, then did it again in 1996. (The record has since been tied, but not broken.) Led a League in wins 4 times, winning percentage 3, ERA 7, shutouts 6 and strikeouts 5. Was already enough of an icon by 1993, at age 30, that his name was used as a standard for power pitching in the film Little Big League. And, lest any Red Sox fans still think of him as a traitor for going to the Yankees for the money, let the record show that Sox GM Dan Duquette let him go after the 1996 season, in which he went 10-13 at age 33, saying Clemens was “in the twilight of his career.” The change of scenery was first to Toronto, then to New York, and he wanted the rings as much as the money, and he got them. He went 18-4 at age 41 and had a 1.87 ERA at 42.

Whether any of that, especially his post-Boston renaissance, was due to performance-enhancing drugs, is as yet unproven. What is proven is that, until we have more than the word of a man who is, himself, a lying weasel desperate to stay out of legal liability, Roger Clemens was, by statistical measures, one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. You don’t have to like him. You don’t even have to respect him. But this is my choice for the all-time South Texas baseball team, and I’m putting him on. For now.

SP Andy Pettitte of Deer Park. Born in Louisiana (Baton Rouge) like Guidry, grew up in the suburbs of Houston like his idols Ryan and Clemens.  Counting his 3-year interlude with his hometown Astros, he went 256-153, a winning percentage of .626, an ERA of 3.85, an ERA+ of 117, a WHIP of 1.351, 14 postseason appearances, a record 19 postseason wins (against 9 losses), 8 Pennants and 5 rings. I wouldn't count on any future Yankee wearing his Number 46, and Monument Park is probably also in his future.

Of all pitchers with more wins, only these have a higher career winning percentage: Clemens, Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, John Clarkson, Randy Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mike Mussina and Jim Palmer. (It’s interesting that Clemens, Johnson and Mussina have been his teammates. CC Sabathia, whose percentage is slightly higher at the moment and who may end up with more wins, also became a teammate.)

Andy is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2019. Baseball-Reference.com has him at 128 on its HOF Monitor (in) and 44 on its HOF Standards (out). Of their 10 Most Similar Pitchers, 2 are in: Palmer and Carl Hubbell. That list also includes former teammates Mussina, David Wells and Kevin Brown.

Very Honorable Mention to Andrew "Rube" Foster of Calvert. Considered the best black pitcher of the 1900s and 1910s, and the top black manager of the 1920s, he was the founder of the Chicago American Giants (1911) and the Negro National League (1920). He was black baseball's Al Spalding, but exposure to a gas leak in 1925 left him physically and mentally ill, and he died in 1930, just 51 years old. He was the first "pioneer or executive" elected to the Hall of Fame based on service to black baseball.

Josh Beckett of Spring will turn 34 in May, and his career record is 132-100, plus 7-3 in postseason play including World Championships with the 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2007 Red Sox – though both of those are tainted due to steroid use by his teammates (although not, as far as we know, by him). His career ERA+ is 111, his WHIP 1.235, his strikeout total 1,794. He could end up on this team, but for now, I have to give “Super Punk” a Dishonorable Mention.

RP Keith Foulke of Huffman. He reached the postseason with the White Sox in 2000, the Oakland Athletics in 2003 (going 9-1 with a league-leading 43 saves), and the Red Sox in 2004 and ’05. In the 2004 World Series for the Sox, was the winning pitcher in Game 1, pitched 2 innings in a non-save situation in Game 2, 1 inning in a non-save situation in Game 3, and closed out Game 4 to get the save and the clincher. That Series is tainted, but don’t blame Foulke: As far as we know, he’s innocent. But knee and elbow injuries cut short his career, but he still saved 191 games and won 41 others.

Honorable Mention to Norm Charlton of Fort Polk, Louisiana and Houston’s Rice University. Formed the “Nasty Boys” bullpen with Randy Myers and Rob Dibble, leading the Reds to the 1990 World Championship. Also reached the postseason with the Mariners in 1995, 1997 and 2001, and the Braves in 1998. A career total of just 97 saves means he's not the closer on this team, although he did post a 112 career ERA+.

Honorable Mention to Huston Street of Austin. (You were thinking Houston?) A 2nd-generation sports star, his father, the late James Street, was the quarterback on the University of Texas' 1969 National Champions, and went 20-0 with 2 no-hitters as a Longhorns pitcher. He never played pro ball in either sport, but his son, now with the San Diego Padres, has a good chance to overtake Foulke as the closer on this team.

He's saved 234 games, won 34 others, has an ERA+ of 144, and a WHIP of 1.036. He was AL Rookie of the Year with the A's in 2005, and reached the postseason with the A's in 2006 and the Colorado Rockies in 2009. He was an All-Star in 2012. He's only 30.

No comments: