Thursday, March 27, 2014

Minnesota's All-Time Baseball Team

One of the reasons the Milwaukee Braves did so well in terms of attendance from their 1953 arrival until 1960 was that they had a huge, untapped area from which to take fans: An area that had done well with minor league baseball, but was starving for the major leagues.

But in 1961, the "old" Washington Senators moved to the not-quite-aptly-named "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul -- specifically, to Metropolitan Stadium in suburban Bloomington, roughly equidistant from the downtowns of both cities but definitely on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River -- and took the vast majority of the area, and a majority of the population, away from the Braves' fan base. After 5 years, the Braves headed south for Atlanta.

The Twins' "market" includes the entire States of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. I thought of including the westernmost sliver of Wisconsin and the northern tier of Iowa, but decided to leave those to the Brewers and the two Chicago teams, respectively.
This will complete the first half of the updating of my All-Time Regional Teams Project.

16. Minnesota's All-Time Baseball Team
Each of this players is from Minnesota, unless otherwise stated. It's good at the corners, but, except for catcher, not so good up the middle. The pitching should keep them in most games, though.

1B Kent Hrbek of Bloomington. A local boy made good, he lived within walking distance of the Met. He just barely made it to the team before they moved into the Metrodome. (The Mall of America stands on the Met's site now.) He had a career OPS+ of 128, 293 home runs, and starred on the Twins' only 2 World Series winners, 1987 and 1991. Number 14 retired by the Twins.

Honorable Mention to Darin Erstad of Jamestown, North Dakota, easily the best of the 15 players born in that State. (Roger Maris grew up in it, but wasn't born there). He was a 2-time All-Star, a 3-time Gold Glove, and in 2000, he batted .355, led the American League in hits with 240, and had career highs of 25 homers and 100 RBIs. He helped the Angels (having played for them under 3 different names) win the 2002 World Series, and win the AL Western Division in 2004 and '05.

Oddly enough, the 2nd-best North Dakotan-born ballplayer is also a 1st baseman, Travis Hafner of Sykeston. He's been hired as a college coach, so it looks like his awful .202 season (though with 12 homers and 37 RBIs in what amounted to half a season, at age 36) might be his farewell to the majors. But his career OPS+ is 134, he hit 213 homers, and he had a pair of 100-RBI seasons. He led the AL in slugging in 2006, and the next year he helped the Cleveland Indians get to within 1 win of a Pennant.

2B Mark Ellis of Rapid City, South Dakota. Now with the St. Louis Cardinals, his 105 home runs makes him 2nd to Jason Kubel among the 37 MLB players born in South Dakota. (Kubel, though born in Belle Fourche, grew up in California.) He helped the Oakland Athetics reach the postseason in 2002, '03 and '06, and the Los Angeles Dodgers last year.

SS Dave Bancroft of Sioux City, Iowa. I almost had to cheat here, as Sioux City is 272 miles from Minneapolis, but 277 miles from Kansas City. But shortstops were slim pickings in the North Plains.

Even so, if the Hall of Fame ever had to drop 10 members, “Beauty” Bancroft might be one of them. But he was the best shortstop in the NL in the late 1910s and the 1920s, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Giants and Boston Braves. He appeared in the World Series with the ’15 Phils and the ’21, ’22 and ’23 Giants.

3B Paul Molitor of St. Paul. He had one of the best nicknames ever, "the Ignitor." Despite having all kinds of injuries that kept him from a full season in 7 different years, he got 3,319 hits -- that's 9th all-time. Among players who debuted in the Lively Ball Era (1920 to the present), he's 5th behind Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski. Among players who debuted after 1963, he's 1st -- although Derek Jeter enters the 2014 season only 3 behind him. (Put it this way: Fellow St. Paulite Dave Winfield has 3,110 hits, and he's over 200 behind Molitor.)

His lifetime batting average is .306; OPS+, 122. He hit only 234 home runs, but 605 doubles and 114 triples, and Milwaukee County Stadium, where he played most of his home games, was not a great hitters' park, no matter how many homers Aaron and Eddie Mathews hit there. He helped the Brewers win their only Pennant in 1982. He hit .353 in 1987 (and still finished .010 behind Wade Boggs for the batting title), and had the longest AL hitting streak since Joe DiMaggio's 1941 record of 56: 39.

He moved to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993, and helped them win the World Series, getting him his only ring. He closed his career with his hometown Twins, batting .341 at age 39, .305 at 40 and .281 at 41 in 1998. Along with Frank Robinson, this Hall-of-Famer is one of the most underappreciated great players ever. Number 4 retired by the Brewers. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 99.

LF Dave Winfield of St. Paul. It could have been easy to predict he'd become a Hall-of-Famer, as he was born on a great day in baseball history: October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thomson hit the You Know What. (Then again, Willie Mays Aikens was born the day Willie Mays made The Catch, and he underachieved.)

Big Dave is a member of the 3,000 Hit Club, and those 3,110 hits include 465 homers and 540 doubles. In 8 seasons, he had 100 or more RBIs, and just missed 2 others. He had a career OPS+ of 130. Think about that: He was, roughly, 30 percent better than the average player in his league for twenty-two freaking years). He won 7 Gold Gloves, was renowned for having one of the best arms of his era (albeit mainly from right field, but played plenty of left), and in the 1981 AL Championship Series, he reached 2 rows deep into the left-field stands at the old Yankee Stadium to rob Wayne Gross of a home run.

The first great player for the San Diego Padres, he should have been the next great player for the New York Yankees, but after an awful 1981 World Series, it seemed as though neither George Steinbrenner (who called him "Mr. May") nor the Yankee Fans (who preferred the Pennantless Don Mattingly) ever gave him a fair shake. Even today, long after his election to Cooperstown, his Number 31 has not been retired by the Yankees, having been given to great players like Tim Raines and Ichiro Suzuki, but also to lesser lights like Dan Naulty and Javier Vazquez. (The Padres have retired 31 for him.) No Monument Park Plaque for him, either. Hank and Hal, if your father wasn't willing to honor him this way, what are you waiting for?

Dave finally won a World Series with the Blue Jays in 1992, hitting the 10th-inning double that won the clinching Game 6, before going home to the Twins. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 94.

Honorable Mention to Walt "Moose" Moryn, also of St. Paul. He briefly played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (including 1955, but not enough to be included on the World Series roster) before becoming a good hitter and a one-time All-Star with the Chicago Cubs.

CF Rip Repulski of Sauk Rapids. He played all 3 outfield positions, but since I've got Big Dave in left and Mr. 61 in '61 in right, I'm putting Rip in center. He had the nearly-musical real name of Eldon John Repulski, and hit pretty well for the 1950s St. Louis Cardinals, before an injury made him turn out to be just a candle in the wind.

Honorable Mention to Dave Collins, a speedster who also played all 3 outfield positions, and might have been the best player ever from South Dakota -- Rapid City. And yet another outfielder ripped by Yankee Fans during his stay in The Bronx, which was briefer than that of Winfield and Maris.

RF Roger Maris of Fargo, North Dakota. Lived the first 7 years of his life in Hibbing, Minnesota, also the hometown of Basketball Hall-of-Famer Kevin McHale and (as long as we're talking about musical legends) Robert Allen Zimmerman, who became Bob Dylan.

He's yet another right fielder for the Yankees who was not fully appreciated, and indeed ridiculed, in his time. Roger won the AL's Most Valuable Player award in 1960, hitting 39 home runs. He somehow managed, through all the nonsense hurled at him, to hit 61 in '61, which teammate Mickey Mantle -- himself having hit 54 that season -- called "the greatest feat I ever saw." It broke the record of 60 by Babe Ruth, and it still stands today. Shut up, Mark, Sammy and Barry: You had your chance to do it the right way, and you chose not to.

He was also a great glove man (although they only awarded him 1 Gold Glove) and a tough baserunner. Injuries limited him to 275 home runs and 4 All-Star Games, and he retired at age 34, but played on 7 Pennant winners, 5 in New York and 2 in St. Louis with the Cardinals, winning World Series in 1961, '62 and '67.

The Yankees retired his Number 9 and gave him a Monument Park Plaque in 1984, and it's good that they did, because he died a little more than a year later. There is a Roger Maris Museum in Fargo, at the West Acres Shopping Center. When told of the plans for it, he said, "Put it where people will see it, and where they won’t have to pay for it." His wishes have been respected, far more than they were in 1961.

C Joe Mauer of St. Paul. I don't know what it is about St. Paul that produces great players, for the Twins and otherwise, but the "little brother" of the "Twin Cities" keeps cranking them out. Mauer has done some cranking of his own, having won 3 AL batting titles already (he hit .365 with a 170 OPS+ in 2009 -- as a catcher!).

He currently has 1,414 hits, a career OPS+ of 136, 3 Gold Gloves, 6 All-Star berths, and the 2009 AL MVP award, and he's only turning 31 shortly after Opening Day. At this rate, barring a medical or ethical calamity, he will have his Number 7 mounted at Target Field and his plaque mounted at Cooperstown by the year 2026 or so.

Honorable Mention to Wes Westrum of Clearbrook, the catcher of the New York Giants' 1951 NL Champions and 1954 World Champions, and who also briefly managed the Mets. Also to Terry Steinbach of New Ulm, who backstopped the Oakland Athletics postseason teams of 1988-92, before closing his career with, you guessed it, the Twins. Jason Varitek was born in Rochester, Minnesota, but grew up (for want of a better choice of words) in Altamonte Springs, Florida. And I wouldn't give him an Honorable Mention anyway. He is not honorable, unlike Mauer, Westrum and Steinbach.

SP Charles Albert "Chief" Bender of Crow Wing County. A Hall-of-Famer from the Ojibwa tribe, and like Jim Thorpe a graduate of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, he would hear fans yell "Indian war whoops" at him, and yell back, "You lousy bunch of foreigners! Why don't you go back where you came from?"

He had a fantastic career won-lost record of 212-127, and an ERA of 2.46, good even for the Dead Ball Era. He helped Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics win 5 Pennants and 3 World Series from 1903 to 1914, and is credited with words that are still true, a century after his prime: "A pitcher who hasn't control hasn't anything."

SP Bullet Joe Bush of Brainerd. Briefly a teammate of Bender's, he helped the A's win the World Series in 1913 and the Boston Red Sox in '18, before being one of several players Sox owner Harry Frazee sold to the Yankees, where he won the Series in 1923. He also won Pennants with the A's in '14 and the Yanks in '22, going 26-7 as an easy choice for the Cy Young Award -- if there had been one at the time. He played for some bad teams, too, but still won 196 games.

SP Jerry Koosman of Morris. Although overshadowed on the Mets by Tom Seaver, he won Games 2 and 5 (the clincher) of the 1969 World Series, and helped them win the 1973 NL Pennant as well. In 1976, he became the first Met lefty to win 20 games in a season. But in just 2 seasons, went from 21-10 to 8-20 to 3-15. It was painful to watch.

Then the Mets got rid of him, and for his home-State Twins he went 20-13 and 16-13 for a not-very-good team. The trade wasn't a total disaster for the Mets, though: They got Jesse Orosco. How's that for an amazing turn of events: The Mets have won 2 World Series, and they traded the man who got the final out in the 1st for the man who got the final out in the 2nd. Koos won 222 games, 140 of them for the Mets. He's in the Mets' team Hall of Fame, but not the one in Cooperstown.

SP Jack Morris of St. Paul. He won 254 games, including 161 in the 1980s, the most in the decade. He helped not 1, not 2, but 3 teams win World Series. He started the 1984 season by pitching a no-hitter on April 7 (tying him with Ken Forsch of the 1979 Houston Astros for earliest in the calendar year), and ended it with the Detroit Tigers as World Champions.

The Tigers let him go after 1990, and he went to his hometown Twins, and pitched and won Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Going 10 innings. At age 36. Pitching a shutout. At the damn Metrodome. Against a good Atlanta Braves team. The Twins let him go anyway, despite 18 wins -- 22 if you count the postseason -- and he went 21-6 for the Blue Jays as they won the 1992 World Series. I don't care if his career ERA is 3.90: He pitched most of his home games at Tiger Stadium. Like Bullet Joe and Koos, there are lesser pitchers in the Hall of Fame.

SP Rick Helling of Fargo, North Dakota. The best pitcher born in North Dakota, he graduated, as did Maris, from Bishop Shanley High School. He went 20-7 for the Texas Rangers in 1998, and won 93 before injuries ended his career. He won a World Series ring with the 2003 Florida Marlins.

RP Tom Burgmeier of St. Cloud. He was one of several relievers tried by the Red Sox before they settled on Bob Stanley. Maybe they should have settled on Burgmeier, a tough lefty who saved 24 games with a 2.00 ERA for the Sox in 1980. The relief ace the Sox finally needed, Keith Foulke, was born at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, in the Twins' region, but grew up in Texas.
Honorable Mention to Glen Perkins of Stillwater. Another home-Stater playing for the Twins, he made his first All-Star Game last year, saving 36 games.

MGR Tom Kelly of Graceville. He actually moved to New Jersey when young, graduating from St. Mary's High School (now Cardinal McCarrick) of South Amboy, but went back to Minnesota and managed the Twins to their World Series wins. Terry Francona was born in South Dakota, but he grew up in Pennsylvania, so he doesn't make this team as either a player or a manager.

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