Sunday, March 16, 2014

Colorado's All-Time Baseball Team

Continuing with my updated version of this series. As I said, I'm going through the teams in ascending order of past success. Hence, the Colorado Rockies, having won a Pennant, are ahead of the Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners, who have not.

28. Colorado's All-Time Baseball Team

For these players, their hometowns are in the State of Colorado unless otherwise stated. But the Rockies' region also includes the entire States of Utah and Wyoming, most of Montana, and the westernmost parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

I had to cast such a wide net, over the Rockies' already vast, albeit sparsely-populated, territory, and make it a little wider, simply because, aside from the pitching, this team isn't nearly as talented as most of the others I'll be posting.

1B Chris Shelton of Salt Lake City, Utah. Picking a player for this position was tough. Out of the 86 men born in Colorado who reached the majors, only 1 played more 1st base than anything else: Buddy Gremp. No, I'd never heard of him, either. He played 113 games for the Boston Braves before World War II intervened, and aside from a year with Hartford he never appeared in pro ball again, done at 27.

There are 14 men born in Wyoming who've reached the majors, but, again, only one 1st baseman: Bucky Jacobsen, who played 42 games, all with the 2004 Mariners, and he grew up in Oregon anyway. So scratch him. There are 38 men born in Utah who've reached the majors, and 2 played more at 1st than anywhere else. Doug Howard was an early 1970s utility man, and then there was Shelton.

In 2005, Shelton hit .299 with 18 home runs and 59 RBIs for the Detroit Tigers. In 2006, he got off to a great start, hitting 9 home runs in his 1st 13 games. He looked like a star in the making. But he dropped off the planet after that: He only hit 7 the rest of the season, got sent down to the minors, was called up in September, did not appear on the postseason roster as the Tigers won the Pennant, spent all of 2007 in the minors, and then bounced around to the Texas Rangers, the Mariners, and the Mets, for whom he never reached the majors, getting cut before the 2011 season began.

Think about that: Only 30 years old, should have been in his prime, a man who had once hit 34 home runs in 2 years, and he wasn't good enough to make the Madoff-era Mets. He's been playing in "independent leagues" ever since.

But he's the best I've got for this position on this team. If I don't go with Shelton, my best choice would be Ed Bouchee, born in Livingston, Montana. But he's an unacceptable choice, because he grew up, and therefore was trained to play baseball, in Spokane, Washington, putting him in the Mariners' region.

And while he finished 2nd in the National League's Rookie of the Year voting in 1957, he soon did time in a psych facility after pleading guilty what would then have been quaintly called "morals charges." Apparently, he'd exposed himself to underage girls. After that, he was never the same player, and was so bad, he was cut in midseason. The 1962 season. By the Mets. That's right: At the age of 29, when he should have been in his prime, he was not good enough to play for the 1962 Mets.

2B Mike Lansing of Rawlins, Wyoming. Not that long ago, the Montreal Expos not only existed, but were a contending team playing to good crowds at that flying saucer they called Le Stade Olympique. Lansing was a good fielder who hit 165 doubles and drove in 265 runs for them in 5 seasons, before they decided they couldn't afford him anymore, and traded him to his "home" team, the Rockies.

But injuries took their toll, and he was out of the game at the age of 34. He last played in the majors for the 2001 Boston Red Sox. In 2007, he was one of the few past or present Red Sox to have appeared in the Mitchell Report, because his name appeared in Kirk Radomski's address book.

Nevertheless, I can't consider that enough evidence to disqualify him from this team. The ballpark of his hometown's minor league team, the Casper Ghosts (I don't know if they're friendly ghosts), is named Mike Lansing Field.

SS Herman Long of Denver. I had to go way back to find him (and cheat slightly, as he was born in Chicago, and I can't be sure he grew up in Denver, but he appears to have lived his entire off-season adult life there), but he is a find.

He was a star on the powerful Boston Beaneaters (forerunners of the Braves) of the 1890s, winning NL Pennants in 1891, '92, '93, '97 and '98. He was an original New York Highlander (Yankee) in 1903, although he was 37 and played only 22 games with them, and just 70 more before retiring. He had 4 .300 seasons and led the NL in runs scored in 1893 and in home runs in 1900.

He also holds a dubious record: Most career errors, 1,096, in 17 years -- 64 1/2 per season! However, considering the pathetic gloves and awful fields of the time, and the fact that he plays the most error-ridden position, I think he can be excused.

3B Roy Hartzell of Golden. I could also have put him at right field. Not a sensational player, but he did bat .296 for the 1911 New York Highlanders (Yankees) and appears to have been a pretty good player for them, and before that with the St. Louis Browns.

LF Dave Collins of Rapid City, South Dakota. Rapid City, the nearest city of any consequence to Mount Rushmore, is 600 miles from Minneapolis, less than 400 miles from Denver, so he qualifies here geographically.

In 1982, George Steinbrenner had suddenly become enamored of speed (and this without having had Billy Martin as manager for over 2 years), and Collins had stolen 209 bases in what amounted to 6 full seasons, including a whopping 79 for the Cincinnati Reds in 1980. So he showed Collins the money: $2.6 million over 3 years. It became one of his biggest mistakes: Collins batted only .253, and stole only 13 bases. The Yankee Stadium boo-birds ripped him mercilessly.

Then George compounded the mistake: After that 1 disastrous season, he traded Collins, Fred McGriff, Mike Morgan and cash to the Toronto Blue Jays for Dale Murray and Tom Dodd. Murray, formerly a good pitcher, was hurt, and won exactly 3 games for the Yankees; Dodd never made the big club, and his entire big-league experience was 2 weeks with the 1986 Baltimore Orioles.

McGriff? Well, you could argue he was only 19 and only in A-ball at the time, and that the Yanks had Don Mattingly coming up. But, as late as 2001, 19 years later, he was still belting out home runs, and Morgan helped the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the World Series. So getting Dave Collins was a big mistake, and getting rid of him may have been a bigger one.

Collins bounced around a bit after that, but in 1984, with the Jays, he led the AL with 15 triples. Three times, he batted over .300, and he stole 395 bases in his career, including 60 with the 1984 Jays, also hitting 15 triples to lead the American League.

CF Mike Devereaux of Casper, Wyoming. Called up to the Los Angeles Dodgers late in their 1988 World Championship season, he didn't play in the postseason, although he won a ring with the 1995 Atlanta Braves and reached the ALCS the next season with the Orioles. He had his best season in 1992 with the Orioles, batting .276 with 29 doubles, 11 triples, 24 homers and 107 runs batted in – the only time he topped .260, 19 homers or 75 ribbies.

RF Darnell McDonald of Greenwood Village. Another position where pickings are slim for this region. I considered moving Collins over to right and putting John Lowenstein in left, as Lowenstein was born in Montana, but he grew up in California, and I felt I'd already cheated too much on this list.

McDonald is currently active, under contract with the Chicago Cubs. The closest he's come to a full season was 2010 with the Red Sox, batting .270 with 9 homers and 34 RBIs. He played 4 games with the Yankees in 2012, coming to the plate 4 times without reaching base. He's 35, so don't expect a resurgence at Wrigley Field.

If I don't go with McDonald, and don't move Collins over, my next-best bet is Denver native Johnny Frederick, who would also be a cheat because he played more center field. He starred in the Pacific Coast League with the Salt Lake City Bees (today's Salt Lake Buzz are named after them) and the Hollywood Stars before reaching the Brooklyn Dodgers at the relatively advanced age of 27, and although the Dodgers were terrible then, he made up for lost time. 

He batted .328 with 24 homers, 75 RBIs and a league-leading 52 doubles in his rookie season of 1929, and was even better the next season with a .334, 44 doubles, 11 triples, 17 homers and 76 RBIs. He dropped off a bit by 1933, and after '34 the Dodgers traded him back to the PCL, where he played for the Sacramento Senators and Portland Beavers, still hitting .306 in 1940, his last season of organized ball at age 38. He is a member of the PCL's Hall of Fame. He died on June 18, 1977, the day of the Reggie-Billy shoutfest in the Fenway dugout.

C John Stearns of Denver. A 4-time All-Star with the Mets, not an easy thing to be between 1977 and 1982 when the NL also had Johnny Bench in Cincinnati, Ted Simmons in St. Louis and Gary Carter in Montreal.

Met broadcasters, including Hall-of-Famer Ralph Kiner, used the damning-with-faint-praise phrase "a good runner for a catcher" to describe Stearns, which drove their broadcast partner, former All-Star catcher Tim McCarver, up the wall. But 4 times, Stearns stole at least 12 bases in a season. He was also a very good defensive catcher with an accurate arm. Offensively, his best season was 1978 – not one of his All-Star seasons – when he batted .264 with 24 doubles, 15 homers, 73 RBIs and 25 steals.

Injuries cut short his career, but he went into coaching, including with the Yankees in 1989. He managed the Double-A Knoxville Blue Jays to the postseason in 1991, and both the Rookie League Princeton Reds of West Virginia and the Arizona Fall League’' Peoria Javelinas to Pennants in 1994. He went home to become part of the Rockies' 1st coaching staff in 1993, and was a Met coach in their Pennant season of 2000. Hooked up to a Fox microphone during Game 1 of the 2000 NLCS, he saw Mike Piazza hit a home run and yelled, "The monster is out of the cage!" He is currently a scout for the Mariners.

SP Howard Ellsworth "Smoky Joe" Wood of Ouray. In 1911, just 21 years old, he went 23-17 for the Red Sox. In 1912, 22, he went 34-5... 37-6 if you count the World Series. He had an ERA of 1.91 and 10 shutouts, including a much-hyped 1-0 victory over Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators on September 6 at then-brand-new Fenway Park. Asked who threw harder, the famously speedy (but equally famously gracious) Johnson said, "Mister, no man alive can throw a ball harder than Joe Wood." Johnson had just had a streak of 16 straight wins stopped, and this was the 14th of Wood's own 16 straight. He helped the Sox win the World Series, and seemed to have a limitless future.

But he was injured in spring training in 1913, and he went "just" 11-5, then 10-3, then 15-5 with a league-leading 1.49 ERA in 1915 as the Red Sox won another World Series. But that was it: Injury kept him from pitching at all in 1916, and in 1917, his former Boston teammate Tris Speaker bought him for the Cleveland Indians. He only pitched 7 games for Cleveland, but became an outfielder, and helped the Indians win a World Series in 1920. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .283. Still, in 1922, at age 32, he was done.

His son Joe Wood Jr. pitched in 3 games for the Red Sox in 1944 -- probably desperation for healthy bodies during World War II as much as a favor for an old friend of the team. Smoky Joe went on to be the head coach at Yale University, and in 1982, in celebration of Fenway's 70th Anniversary, he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day. He died in 1985 at age 95. He is enshrined in the Red Sox Hall of Fame, but there could have been so much more.

In 1981, baseball historians Lawrence S. Ritter, who'd interviewed Wood for his 1966 book The Glory of Their Times, and Donald Honig included him in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. They explained what they called "the Smoky Joe Wood Syndrome," where a player of truly exceptional talent but a career curtailed by injury should still, in spite of not having had career statistics that would quantitatively rank him with the all-time greats, be included on their list of the 100 greatest players.

They also included Pete Reiser and Herb Score for that reason -- but not Tony Conigliaro or Vida Blue. As another historian, Allen Barra, might put it, it wasn't about who had the 100 best careers, it's about who were the 100 greatest players. If such a book were to be done now (Ritter is dead but Honig is still alive), no doubt it would include Dwight Gooden, and possibly Kerry Wood.

SP Dave McNally of Billings, Montana. Without question, the best player ever to come from Big Sky Country thus far. The lefty was 184-119 lifetime, nearly all for the Orioles, but retired due to injury at age 32. Had he been able to pitch until 40, he could have had 300 wins and gone to the Hall of Fame.  He went the distance in shutting out the Dodgers in Game 4 to sweep the 1966 World Series. He won 87 games for the O's from 1968 to '71, winning Pennants the last 3 seasons. This included a 15-0 start in 1969 and going all the way in a 24-9 season in 1970, 26-9 counting the postseason. One of 3 pitchers to hit 2 home runs in World Series play, and the only one to hit a grand slam in the Series.

He played the 1975 season, his last, without a contract, as he and Andy Messersmith became the test cases to strike down the reserve clause. (He already knew he was in too much pain to pitch again in '76, so he had little to lose.) He's in the Orioles' Hall of Fame, but unfortunately developed cancer and died on his Montana ranch in 2002.

SP Bruce Hurst of St. George, Utah. He won 145 games, all but 2 for either the Red Sox or the San Diego Padres. In 1986, the scoreboard at Shea Stadium congratulated the Sox on winning the World Series and Hurst for being named Series MVP, for winning Games 2 and 5. You know what happened next, but a rain delay allowed Hurst to start Game 7, and he had the lead in the 5th...

He was 14-9 for the 1992 Padres, just 34 years old, but injuries struck him down and he pitched just 13 more games in the majors. He is now working in the Sox' front office, and, like Wood, is a member of their team Hall of Fame.

SP Tom Browning of Casper, Wyoming. This lefty was good. On September 16, 1988, he was perfect, pitching a perfect game for the Cincinnati Reds against the Dodgers. He was 18-5 that season. In 1990, he went 15-9 and won a game in both the NLCS and the World Series as the Reds became World Champions. On May 9, 1994, he broke his arm in mid-pitch. He was only 34, and only pitched 2 more games before realizing he couldn't go on. (I'm sensing a pattern here.) His 123 wins were, however, good enough to get him into the Reds' Hall of Fame.

SP Harry Leroy Halladay III of Arvada. This is what Roy -- or "Doc," a play on Wild West gunfighter and dentist John "Doc" Holliday, who lived much of his life in Colorado -- did for the Blue Jays: 148-76, 133 ERA+, 1.198 WHIP, had 2 20-win seasons and just missed a 3rd.

Can you imagine if the Jays had been any good, and could have backed him up with the kind of hitting that the Yankees and Red Sox had at the time? Only once during his time there did they manage to even come close to cracking the AL East's New York-Boston buzzsaw, finishing 2nd in 2006 -- and while they were ahead of the Sox, they were nowhere near the Yankees.

After the 2009 season, short on cash, the Jays traded him to the Phillies, where he went 40-17 for them the next 2 years, including a perfect game in the 2010 regular season and a no-hitter in the NL Division Series against the Reds -- only the 2nd postseason no-hitter ever.

But, like Wood, McNally, Hurst and Browning, the injury bug struck. He retired at the end of last season, only 36, and what could have been a Hall of Fame career ended with him having a record of 203-105, an ERA+ of 131, and a WHIP of 1.178. He was an 8-time All-Star, won a Cy Young Award in each league, and finished in the top 3 in the Cy voting 6 times.

Honorable Mention to Elden Auker of Norcatur, Kansas. Until Halladay started racking up achievements, he would have been a good choice for this rotation. He had a "submarine delivery" (think Kent Tekulve or Dan Quisenberry) that enabled him to win 130 games in just 10 seasons, including 33 for the Tiger Pennant-winners of 1934 and '35.

However, unlike Wood, McNally, Hurst, Browning and McNally, he didn't quit when he did due to injury: He "retired" at age 31 due to World War II, and found a better-paying civilian job in a defense-necessary industry. Today, that would never happen: Never mind that there's little chance of there being another World War anytime soon, but a civilian job that pays more than playing baseball?

As one of the last surviving players from the 1930s, he gave an interview for Major League Baseball Productions that was used for the official All-Century Team video, the American League 100th Anniversary TV special, and a few YES Network Yankeeographies. In 1999, he participated in the closing ceremonies of Tiger Stadium. In 2001, he published a memoir, Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms. He died in 2006, age 95, the same age as Smoky Joe, and like him he was sharp to the end.

RP Richard Michael Gossage of Colorado Springs. Of all the amazing things about the Goose, this might be the most amazing: When he reached the majors in April 1972, the MLB Players Association had just ended its 1st strike; when he last pitched in the majors in August 1994, the most recent strike was about to begin; so he is the only player to be involved in every MLB work stoppage. I hope there's never another one, with his involvement being the least of the reasons.

A 9-time All-Star, he had 310 saves, 3 times leading the AL. The Chicago White Sox tried to make him a starter in 1976, but he went 9-17 for a bad Pale Hose team. The White Sox traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he had a terrific season, leading the Yankees to sign him as a free agent for the 1978 season, and the rest is history. That season, he became the 1st man ever to nail down the final outs of a Division title clincher, an LCS and a World Series.

He returned to the Series with the Yankees in 1981 and the San Diego Padres in 1984, although he didn't win either time. After a bit of a wait, he has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, although the Yankees have not yet honored him with a Monument Park Plaque or the retirement of his Number 54. Another strange thing about the Goose: Although he pitched for 9 different teams, he never wore any other number.

The Rockies were not among the teams for whom he pitched. I hoped that they would pick him up in 1994, and let him pitch the final inning at Mile High Stadium, which, including its beginnings as Bears Stadium, was the home of professional baseball in Denver since 1948. Alas, the strike prevented that from happening. I did find a picture of him wearing a Rockies uniform -- not sure when, or in what role -- but I decided that he was the best player ever to come from Colorado, and that the best picture to post of him was a typical shot of him looking fearsome as he completed his delivery.

Honorable Mention to Felix "Tippy" Martinez of La Junta. The lefthander helped the Orioles win the 1979 Pennant and the 1983 World Series. He's best known for picking off 3 runners in one inning, and as far as I know he is the only man to do that.

He is no relation to his Oriole teammate, the Nicaraguan-born righthander Dennis Martinez, although they did both have typically annoying 1970s-style hair, and Dennis started and Tippy finished the Thurman Munson Memorial Game against the Yankees on August 6, 1979. That game was all the more poignant because the Orioles' catcher was Rick Dempsey, and he and Tippy were among the players the Yankees traded to the O's in 1976 to get the pitchers that ensured that year's Pennant: Ken Holtzman, Doyle Alexander and Grant Jackson.

MGR Herman Franks of Price, Utah. There's not a lot to choose from in the Rocky Mountain States-born managers, but Franks did guide the San Francisco Giants to 4 straight 2nd-place finishes from 1965 to '68 -- 2 games out in '65 and a game and a half out in '66. He even kept the Cubs in the race for most of the '77 season before tailing off and finishing at .500, and got them to 3rd in '78 although they finished below .500.

But, thanks to the publication of Josuha Prager's book The Echoing Green, he's probably best known as the Giants' coach who, in 1951, while still in New York, sat in the "blockhouse" that housed the Giants' offices and the clubhouses in center field of the Polo Grounds, and looked through a window and a telescope to steal opposing catchers' signs, and relayed them back to the hitter, thus helping the Jints "cheat" and "steal" the Pennant from the arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers.

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