Random Reflections On A Changing Game
Today, one of our writers ponders a variety of topics about the game he loves while he waits for winter to pass and baseball to return.
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Look What They've Done to My Game, Ma
By Bill Pruden
With full credit to, and in honor of Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, the 2016 recipient of the Hall of Fame’s J. G. Taylor Spink Award (now known as the BBWAA Career Excellence Award), what follows are some random thoughts, wistful recollections, and curious observations on baseball culled from 60 years as a fan and offered at a time when the Major League game - its management, players, and owners - seems intent on driving its fans away while leaving me wondering if it is even worth caring anymore…
Whatever happened to complete games?
The American League leaders in complete games in 2021 were Gerrit Cole and Sean Manaea – with two.
Johnny Vander Meer had two complete-game no-hitters in the space of less than one week on June 11 and June 15, 1938.
And in seven of the eight seasons from 1965-1972 Bob Gibson had at least 20 complete games. Only in 1967, when he missed almost two months after a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente broke his leg, did Gibson not hit the 20 mark. But he made up for it in the World Series tossing three complete-game victories as the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in seven games.
The last time there were 100 or more complete games pitched across the major leagues was in 2012.
Quick Quiz: Only one major league pitcher has had as many as 10 complete games in a twenty-first-century season. Who is he? The answer is at the end of this article.
The magic of the All-Star Game used to be based on seeing how the two leagues matched up—and it also was a big fundraiser for the player’s pension funds. But with the advent of interleague play and million-dollar salaries, does the game still matter?
Why, for the often-well-traveled players of the free agency era, do the Hall of Fame plaques still include an identifiable team cap?
What does it say about the modern game that so many observers and sportswriters, beyond commenting on his incredibly thin skin, wonder whether Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred even likes baseball? Nobody ever asked that about Bart Giamatti!
When did relievers or maybe sportswriters trade in the term “fireman” for “closer” in describing the relief pitchers who saved the game? I suppose they are arguably different, but the idea of “putting out the fire” seems more akin to saving the day if not the game, than does the often robotic ninth inning, pitch count dictated relief appearance, one that too often has all the drama of a parent tucking a child into bed at night.
As someone who grew up in an era when complete games and an ERA below 3.00 were the hallmarks of good pitching, few things bring out the curmudgeon in me more than the idea of a “quality start” - six innings and no more than three earned runs. And for this, they get how much money? And hope to do it on how many days’ rest?
Indeed, whatever happened to pitching on two days rest?
On July 2, 1963, Milwaukee Braves southpaw Warren Spahn and San Francisco Giants righthander Juan Marichal hooked up in a 16-inning pitcher’s duel for the ages. Scoring the game’s only run on a Willie Mays home run with one out in the bottom of the 16th the Giants and Marichal escaped with the win. Marichal threw 227 pitches, while Spahn tossed 201. Five days later, Marichal pitched seven innings, giving up two runs in a 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, while the 42-year-old Spahn pitched a five-hit, complete-game shutout against the Houston Colt .45s.
It is often said that Cal Ripken’s 1995 pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record saved baseball in the aftermath of the devastating, season-ending, World Series-canceling 1994 strike. Be that as it may, who will ride to the rescue this time around?
One of the news stories about Gil Hodges finally being elected to the Hall of Fame noted that years before Hodges had the necessary support of three-fourths of the Committee members, but the clinching vote of his former teammate, wheelchair-bound Roy Campanella, was not counted because Campanella had been unable to attend the meeting in person. Consequently, Hodges fell short. It sounds like last year’s voters were all in attendance, but given the wide range of modern virtual meetings and ballot castings--the U.S. House of Representatives calls its version proxy voting--it seems terribly ironic, if not downright cruel, that Hodges’ selection was delayed for years by virtue of Campanella’s inability to be physically present.
Thrilled to see the New York Mets will be retiring Keith Hernandez’s #17 this summer. A leader, a clutch hitter, and a man who fielded first base like no one before or since, my all-time favorite Met, Hernandez was a joy to watch!
How many current fans not eligible to collect Social Security have attended a real major league doubleheader, the kind where you bought one ticket to see both games?
Jim Kaat, in the course of an interview following his election last month to the Hall of Fame, when asked about his many Gold Gloves observed that as a player he “took a lot of pride in being an infielder once the ball left my hand.” He said all pitchers did, adding, “We wanted to be baseball players that just happened to be pitchers. We pinch hit, we ran the bases, fielded our positions and that’s just the way we were trained.”
I have long had trouble imagining Bob Gibson as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. While the ever-competitive and combative Gibson would probably have enjoyed having a pitching win-loss record as good as the Globetrotters, it is hard to imagine that the team’s signature hijinks would have appealed to him.
Stolen bases, too, seem to have gone the way of the complete game. The last player to steal 100 bases in a season was St. Louis Cardinal speedster Vince Coleman whose 109 in 1987 represented the third year in a row that he had exceeded the century mark, having swiped 110 in 1985 and 107 in 1986.
The well-traveled Rickey Henderson also topped 100 steals three times, swiping his record high of 130 in 1982.
Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills was the first to break triple-digit barrier when he stole 104 in 1962 on the way to winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Not only did Wills break Ty Cobb’s record of 96, but he exceeded the total of every single team in the Major Leagues that season.
For all baseball’s many ills, the increased presence of women in the game is a major plus. Indeed, the only problem with the Florida Marlins appointment of Kim Ng as general manager in late 2020 was that it was long overdue. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees naming Rachel Balkovec the manager of their Tampa Tarpons minor league team is a major step forward for the game. Happily, others are also being given the opportunity to make their marks as coaches, in the media, and on the administrative career ladder. And for good reason—they can do it—and the game is better for their efforts.
Indeed, while there was much ado when Melanie Newman, Sarah Langs, Alanna Rizzo, Heidi Watney, and Lauren Gardner served as the first all-female announcing crew for an MLB game for the July 21 Baltimore Orioles-Tampa Bay Rays game, what was seemingly overlooked was the simple fact that when it was all over they had done a first-rate job, performing in a professional manner that their experience had prepared them for, but for which the opportunities were too slow in coming.
These latest bits of “women in baseball” news had me recalling a time early in my teaching career. Back in the early 1980s, the boarding school where I taught the varsity baseball team’s scorebook was kept by one of the female students, not something one ordinarily saw. But apparently, she had asked the head coach, who was also the athletic director, for the chance, and the subsequent “interview” revealed that young Annie Gammons was very much her uncle Peter’s niece, making her more than qualified for the job. Last I heard, the very bright and very talented Ms. Gammons - who I had been lucky enough to coach in JV basketball - had gone into teaching, remaining an avid baseball fan.
Finally, baseball is a sport with some great songs and musical references associated with it. There is the classic “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as well as John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” while Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey, and ‘The Duke’)” is credited by many with easing the pain inflicted by the 1981 strike. And among pop music’s heaviest of hitters there are Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” and Simon and Garfunkel’s ode to Joe DiMaggio in “Mrs. Robinson,” as well as Billy Joel’s numerous baseball references in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
But in this deadest of winters, as I have reflected on a game that has been a consistent and important part of my life for over 60 years, those are not the songs that have come to mind. Instead, I am unable to shake the melody of the 1971 hit by singer Melanie, but the version that keeps floating through my head features a sadly changed lyric:
Look what they've done to my game, ma.
Look what they’ve done to my game.
Well, it's the only thing that always seemed all right
But it’s turning out all wrong, ma.
Look what they’ve done to my game.
Quiz Answer: With 11 complete games in 2011, James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays is the only man to post a double-digit complete game single-season total in the 21st century.
Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email address is: email@example.com.