Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Minaya Reassures Mets Fans: "I'm Healthy!"

Addressing reporters yesterday in the wake of a vote of confidence by Mets owner Fred Wilpon, GM Omar Minaya announced, "I'm feeling great--I'm healthy! In fact, I've never felt better." Amid swirling rumors about his job security in light of the team's dismal performance this season, Minaya reported that "Mr. Wilpon has expressed confidence in the direction we're taking here. Despite my insistence on signing Oliver Perez and a few other disasters, I've blown off only about $73 million of his money, or roughly 10% of what Bernie Madoff cost him. So in the big picture, we're doing just fine."

"Most importantly," Minaya smiled, "my doctor tells me my health is tip-top. No, I won't tell you who he is. I'll only say that he isn't employed by the Mets. No way am I going to consult any medical person who's had anything to do with the health of my players." He said it helps that he's done nothing for the last three months but sit in a chair and make phone calls. "It's hard to strain a hammy or a quad sitting on your ass all day," he reminded reporters.

Minaya also disclosed that he has learned the cause of the rash of injuries that has decimated the 2009 Mets. "It has seemed like we've been cursed this year, so we've investigated all the rumors and considered all the possibilities," he said. "Even before the season began, we got a report that our new stadium had been built on ancient Indian burial grounds. A local tribe, the Brookataws, contacted us with some vague warnings, but we found out that they said the same thing to the Yankees, and nothing has gone wrong for them this year. So we dismissed that.

"Then we started to wonder whether we were being haunted by ghosts from Shea Stadium because, you know, we built this $800 million park that gave no indication that the franchise had ever existed before. Or the ghosts of departed Dodgers fans who wondered why we didn't open this tribute to Ebbets Field 45 years ago when they would've been around to enjoy it. Or even the ghost of Jackie Robinson getting back at us because the biggest thing in his rotunda is the gift shop. But we flew in Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis to do some tests, and the only ectoplasm they found was something left over from Mickey Lolich. So that was out.

"The answer actually turned up two months ago, but I didn't believe it. Until another letter arrived over the weekend which convinced me. I hesitate to publicize this because it's a pretty sordid tale, but in the interest of letting our fans what has really been going on this season, here it is.

"As you know, we do a lot of scouting in Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the winter, we got word of an outstanding pitching prospect in Haiti. They don't play a lot of baseball in Haiti, but it's just a short drive from our winter headquarters in the Dominican Republic, so we sent scouts over there to have a look. I could hardly believe their reports. This kid threw a four-seam fastball that topped out at 106 mph, a 77-mph change-up that made one batter swing twice before it got to the plate, and a drop-off-the-table curve. The scouts really liked that fastball.

"Naturally we were interested in signing him, and naturally we discovered that his agent was Scott Boras. This was about the time that we got that wonderful notebook Boras made up explaining why Oliver Perez was the equal of Sandy Koufax. Or at least he almost was for a half-dozen starts in a row last summer. Really. You could look it up. He wanted $10 million a year for four years, which seemed like a lot of money after we landed the best reliever in baseball for $12 million a year. It was a tough decision. We could get Bobby Abreu for a lot less, a guy who could hit .300 with power and speed and score 100 runs, but we felt good about putting Daniel Murphy in left field and of course Ryan Church would anchor our outfield in right.

"We were thinking this over when this pitcher from Haiti came along, and damned if Boras didn't want $15 million a year for him even though he had no experience in Organized Baseball. I don't mind telling you that Boras' notebook on this guy made Oliver Perez look like a chump. I mean, think Dwight Gooden but faster. So we sent Tony Bernazard down to Haiti to talk to him, and unfortunately that didn't go well. The kid insisted on speaking French, which Tony couldn't understand, and then when Tony finally snapped and started cursing at him it turned out the kid knew English after all. But not Spanish. Not a word. We didn't like that.

"Still, we liked that fastball, so we kept talking to Boras about him. Meanwhile, the closer we got to the season without a fifth starter, the higher the pricetag on Perez got, and finally we signed him for $12 million a year. But we were smart about it. We insisted on adding a clause that if we signed the kid from Haiti, Oliver had to teach him Spanish. We thought that would help cinch a deal for the prospect we were ready to call "The Haitian Hurricane". But things bogged down, Boras wouldn't lower his price, and we weren't willing to go higher than $14.5 million. We didn't sign him, and nobody else did either. So we forgot about him.

"That is, until I got a letter from Haiti in the middle of June. I'll hand out copies when I'm done, but here's the text:

Dear Omar Minaya:

You will regret not signing me. You think I am just a backward boy from Haiti with no power in the world, but you will see my power. I put the voodoo on you. Your team is doomed. I will cripple them, starting with the Latino players you think are so special. I drill a hole in my Carlos Delgado bobblehead and see--his hip is ruined. Goodbye, Carlos. Next I get that Jose Reyes, stick a pin in this doll and tweak his hamstring a little. Or so he thinks. It does not take much voodoo to put Reyes on the bench. A little tug on his hamstring, then it almost goes away and he thinks he can play soon, so I stick another pin in the doll and voila! Out three more weeks. I string him along like this all season, tease him like you tease me with your contract offer. You don't know it, but he is through playing baseball this season. And last week I get your Carlos Beltran, too. I twist the knee of his bobblehead, I don't break it off, just let it hang there so you don't know if it will ever be all right again. See how far you get without these three players. This is your last warning from me. If you don't sign me, it will only get worse. I am keeping myself in shape by twisting off the arms on the dolls of your pitchers. John Maine, J.J. Putz, even Oliver Perez, and more in the future if you do not pay my price. I am serious, Monsieur Minaya. I have all the power. This power can help you if you sign me, or it can ruin you if you don't. You think you own the Caribbean, but you ignore Haiti, and you will pay the price, one way or another.

(Signed) Sydney Pinson

"That was in June," Minaya told the puzzled group of reporters. "Sure, we'd been hit by injuries, but we never suspected that our three best hitters would miss the rest of the year, or that it would get worse. We still had David Wright hitting almost .400, Johan Santana was unhittable, K-Rod hadn't blown a save yet, and our bench was coming through. So we ignored the threat, went about our business, and forgot about him. Well, you've seen how it's gone the last two months, worse and worse and worse. It's as if there's a Bermuda Triangle right in the middle of our clubhouse. Even our replacements have gotten whacked. Alex Cora is solid and busts up his thumbs. Jonathan Niese makes a few good starts and blows out his leg. We bring in Jeff Francoeur and he does a great job, and now he tears a ligament in his thumb. And finally Johan--and I thought why oh why, Lord, must you take Johan from us. It's terrible. It's beyond any rational explanation. So I really wasn't surprised when another letter from Haiti arrived on Saturday. Here it is:

Dear Monsieur Le Doomed Minaya:

You did not listen to me. I warned you that the voodoo would get worse. Do you still doubt my power? I break off the thumbs of the Cora doll. I take a hammer and whack the helmet of the Wright doll. I talk to the Rodriguez doll, tell him to throw nothing but curves, and his ERA goes over 3 and he loses so many games for you. Sheffield's hamstring. Francoeur's thumb. Niese. Martinez. Putz. Pagan. Maine. Perez. Nieve. It does not matter whether they can play good or not. If they put on the Mets uniform and I do not, they will suffer. Oh yes, Santana too. Nobody can be spared. The voodoo cannot be stopped. I will not stop it until you sign me. For next season. This season does not matter any more. I have ruined it for you. Monsieur Boras timed me at 109mph yesterday. I am getting stronger. The more your Mets suffer, the stronger I get. Do not fight the power of the voodoo. Sign me and let the power work for you. This is my final warning. I can still make it worse. The decision is yours.

(Signed) Sydney Pinson

"So that's where we stand," Minaya told the open-mouthed reporters. "I don't see where we have a choice. I talked to Scott Boras yesterday, and the price is up to $21 million a year. He says it will go up $500,000 every time another Met goes on the disabled list. I have no choice except to believe him. But now that Mr. Wilpon has promised that I'll be around next year, I feel ready to go ahead. He's okay with the money. I'm still so far ahead of Madoff it isn't funny. The only question is: do we let it go for awhile longer, sacrifice a few more arms and legs and see if we can get the kid up to about 115mph before we sign him? I mean, it'll just make that change-up more effective. Right?"

Right, Omar. Whatever you say--apparently.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Woodstock 2009: Forty Years After

Let’s get right to the bottom line: the “Heroes of Woodstock” concert at Bethel Woods on August 15 was the best concert I’ve seen since. . .Woodstock in 1969. I’ve been to dozens over the past 40 years, but this one tops them all, for the quality as well as the quantity of music plus the celebratory atmosphere.

From the first sounds—15-year-old Conrad Oberg recreating (nearly) note-for-note Jimi Hendrix’s electrifying “Star Spangled Banner”—to the final song almost eight hours later, the event gave us everything we wanted, and then some. For many attendees, those who were there in 1969 but took the worst of it between the bad weather, the physical privations, and the brown acid, this concert was the smooth entertainment they wished had been provided the first time. I saw a few people overcome by the heat (it was the hottest day of the year, of course, with temperatures above 90), but there was no sign of rain, mud, or starvation. As far as I’m aware, the worst thing that happened was that they ran out of lettuce for the wraps late in the evening.

Linda and I benefited from the lessons I learned 40 years ago. This time I stopped in Monticello on purpose, parking at the racetrack and taking a shuttle bus which delivered us to the front of the museum where a line had already formed a half-hour before the gates opened. The first thing we saw was a group of two dozen people wearing matching tie-dyed shirts and posing for photos of a family reunion. The next thing we saw was hundreds of other people wearing tie-dyed clothing, more than I’ve seen in the past few decades combined. Since I can’t fit into my old tie-dyed shirt, I shelled out $25 for a new one, changed shirts in line, and felt much more in tune with the old times.

In line, and then sitting at a picnic table in the shade until the music began, we met a lot of people who had been there in 1969. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the roughly 17,000 people in attendance were returnees. One didn’t remember anything; he had a bad drug trip, passed out, and was carted away from the concert by friends, later becoming a drug counselor himself. Another knew he was there somewhere but couldn’t remember exactly where. A third admitted leaving after the Friday-night storm which turned the site into the “sea of mud” which greeted so many of us on Saturday. Then there was the guy who was in the Army in 1969 and became part of the convoy of Army vehicles bringing supplies to the concert site. He gave away the food he was carrying and was gladly stranded there for two days. The rule of the convoy was that you waited for the last truck, and then you went back. The last truck never made it through, so he was forced to stay and listen to the music.

We got a spot about halfway down the sloping lawn where tickets, fittingly, ran $19.69. Threw down a blanket and sat in the $5 rental lawn chairs, watching the crowd gradually fill the hillside. Other fans perched in the woods and on rocks behind the hill, but the music could be heard all the way back by the entrance, an invitation to explore the site’s well-tended grounds. A lot of people stayed in the shade until the sun went down. We endured the blistering sun, kept buying cold water (at $4 a bottle—the concessions made up for the cheap tickets), and savored a perfect evening for music, cool, still, a starry sky above, and sacred earth below that had been blessed by Native American Gary Duncan, the guitarist from Quicksilver Messenger Service, in his invocation.

From the start, the show channeled the spirits of Woodstock past. After Oberg’s scorching anthem, Sam Yasgur, the son of Max Yasgur, spoke to the gathering. He read the text of the wonderful speech his father delivered in 1969, blessing kids he really didn’t understand for achieving “three days of nothing but fun and music,” and added his own blessing for this celebration. He was followed by Country Joe McDonald, the only performer who did two shows in 1969 (a solo set on Saturday, and joined by The Fish as the first act Sunday night following the big storm), who acted as the MC this time. That was a great idea by the organizers. One of the toughest things in 1969 was waiting for the next act to come on. Most of the time it took 45 minutes to change and check equipment, which wasn’t good. This time it took about half that time, and Country Joe filled it with music of his own. He started by saying “Give me an ‘F’!” and we did. “Thank you,” he said, stopping there. Everyone laughed. He saved the “Fixin’ To Die Rag” and the full “FUCK!” cheer for his second segment, and during the course of the evening gave us Arlo Guthrie’s “Customs Man,” “Ring of Fire,” a haunting song about Janis Joplin, and many other treats. This time, the entertainment never ended.

I confess that I wasn’t expecting the music to be scintillating. Too many of the star performers would be missing. How great could Big Brother and the Holding Company be without Janis? How could the Jefferson Starship fly high without Grace Slick? And Canned Heat? Their two main performers died a long time ago (Alan Wilson in 1970 and Bob Hite in 1981). They couldn’t even be the same group without that duo. The survivors from the listed bands are in their 60s; would their music be lethargic, a listless echo of former brilliance? I wondered.

I can report that the music was scintillating from start to finish. The survivors rocked as only rockers can. It struck me that musicians are more like golfers than team sports athletes. A group of 60-year-olds cannot play baseball except in slow motion, but 60-year-old golfers can still compete. Classical musicians have often continued their careers into their 80s. The veteran performers at Bethel Woods (and on the rest of the summer-long “Heroes of Woodstock” tour) have gray hair and middle-aged paunches matching those of the people on the lawn who were dancing along with them, but their talents haven’t faded.

Each group had a core of its original lineup, and the young performers who filled the departed stars’ roles clearly performed in their spirit. It began with Big Brother, the leadoff group. A young Asian singer who calls herself “Superfly” launched the concert with “Down On Me” and “Piece of My Heart” before yielding to a veteran New York City performer, Sophia Ramos. She did five vintage Joplin songs (“Combination of the Two,” “Kozmic Blues,” “Summertime,” “Me & Bobby McGee,” and “Ball and Chain”) as if Janis herself were being channeled through a stronger voice. The virtuoso vocal tricks she threw into “Ball and Chain” wowed the audience and made us realize that nobody was going to be phoning in their performance. Ramos set the tone for a night of soulful re-workings, not pale imitations.

Canned Heat was next. Yesterday I read the band’s history on Wikipedia, and it was like reading the history of the 1960s Mets, there were so many continuous roster changes. Bass player Larry Taylor has been in and out of the group at least a half-dozen times, and the same is true of everyone except the indestructible Fito de la Parra, the drummer who kept the group going despite the tragic deaths and other calamities. I remember very well my disappointment in 1969 when they announced that their guitarist that night would be Harvey Mandel. It seems that only a week before, Henry Vestine, whose scorching guitar was (I felt) the most exciting thing about the band, had left the group after a beef with Taylor. Enter Mandel, who has also come and gone from the group many times since then (as did Vestine before his death in 1998). Both Mandel and Taylor were on hand last Saturday, and along with de la Parra, single/harpist Greg Kage (with the group a dozen years now) and guitarist Barry Levenson, they damn near made up for the absence of Wilson and Hite. Fito did the falsetto vocal for “Going Up the Country,” which got half the lawn crowd up and dancing. They did the vintage Canned Heat songs, starting with “Bullfrog Blues” and including “On the Road Again,” “Work Together,” “Time Was,” and a 16-minute version of “Refried Boogie” with its rotating solos. A great 70-minute set.

The biggest surprise of the night for me was the next group, Ten Years After. They were my favorites in 1969, and I saw them perform five or six times that summer. I saw them at Newport and Central Park, in a movie theater in Hackensack, New Jersey, and on a college campus in New York City where they played for almost three hours because the other scheduled group (Canned Heat) couldn’t make it. I was front and center for their Woodstock gig, capped by Alvin Lee carrying a watermelon off the stage after an exhausting performance of “I’m Going Home”. Ten Years After has always been about Alvin Lee, not the other three members of the group (even though bass player Leo Lyons is a long-time favorite). I saw Alvin in concert without the others 20 years after Woodstock, and he was as overwhelming as ever. Now, 40 years after, they were back.

Or were they? The band began with “Love Like a Man,” and it sounded like the real thing, but after a few minutes I trained my binoculars on the stage and saw what was clearly not Alvin Lee on vocals and lead guitar. Lee is a long-haired blond, slouching and haggard, and this was a much younger man with a dark crew-cut and a lean, hungry look. But he sounded and played like Alvin. It was a shock to me. The others were there: Lyons still bobbing his head on every note of his fast-paced bass lines, Chick Churchill on keyboards, and Ric Lee on drums. The songs were vintage TYA: “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain,” “I’d Love To Change the World,” “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” “I’m Going Home,” and a couple of others I can’t recall. The sound was the same, especially on “Schoolgirl,” the musical high point of my evening. That was always the big show-off song for Alvin and Leo, a lengthy dialogue that got faster and faster, boundless flurries of notes, and it was again at Bethel Woods. Eventually I learned the name of the young man channeling Alvin Lee (even his vocals were right on the money, totally garbled and unintelligible): Joe Gooch, who joined TYA six years ago at age 24. I don’t know what else he’s going to do with his life, but I’ll be happy to hear him perform Alvin Lee’s standards for the rest of my life. The only disappointment was that they played just less than an hour, skipping TYA treats like “Help Me” and “Woodchopper’s Ball.” Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Next up was the act billed at Jefferson Starship, which turned out to be a kitchen sink of musical classics. Original Airplane members Paul Kantner (still rocking at 68) and Marty Balin were there, and they were joined by Grateful Dead keyboard player Tom Constanten, Duncan and another Quicksilver musician, and people from the other groups as the set went on. Oh yeah, and Kathy Richardson on vocals. She was the night’s version of Grace Slick, and like the other channelers, she knocked the audience’s tie-dyed socks off. It wasn’t just that she tore through “White Rabbit” like fast-acting (purple) acid. The epiphany came midway through the set. She was singing a long, slow blues (I don’t know the title), and I was sitting there amidst the mellow crowd, thinking, “well, she’s just fine, but there are probably a thousand (or thousands) of others like her.” She was 30ish, a lovely blonde with a strong voice, rocking the night away singing Airplane songs in a Slick style, and now drifting through this blues. Then she launched into a deft harmonica solo, and the crowd gave her an ovation. They were thinking what I was thinking: pretty girl, nice voice, wait a second, she’s a musician! Typical of the whole concert, she gave us what we expected and hoped for, and then some more. The Starship set included many high points. The Quicksilver folks did a Dead medley that included “Saint Stephen” and “Love Light,” the ensemble did a great version of “Wooden Ships,” Sophia Ramos joined them in a rousing “Volunteers,” they threw in “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and everyone they could round up joined them for the big finale, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Indeed.

The crowd started to thin out a bit after this set, which ended at 10pm. Linda and I were sorry to witness the exit of a woman in her 70s, scrawny and wrinkled but wearing a stars-and-stripes fringe vest, who had danced up a storm to Canned Heat. Had to laugh at the guy who stood up and bellowed “goodbye, everybody, I’m leaving now!” We felt the evening chill now, but during the scorching afternoon Linda had promised not to complain if it got cold later. We went for a walk under the stars and wound up splitting a lettuce-less turkey-cranberry wrap (far better than the lukewarm hotdog that was my diet in 1969). Finding our spot again in the dark, stepping carefully around people stretched out on their blankets, inhaling the pungent aroma of pot, it all felt so right. Forty years later, there would’ve been no excuse for the concert promoters to fail to get it right. But the crowd got it right, too. Just let us sit there in peace, having our fun and music.

The music continued with Mountain, another big favorite of mine in 1969. Founder Felix Pappalardi was shot to death by his wife in the early 1980s, and the current version consisted of just three people: guitar/vocal giant Leslie West, original drummer Corky Laing, and a young bass player named Rev Jones who played up a storm, often spinning in circles and rotating his head to make his long ponytail whip around, as if trying to get dizzy to match the dizzying pace of the music. West was in fine form, outdoing the other guitarists in pounding out that rock, especially on the long “Nantucket Sleighride”. He sang “Theme For an Imaginary Western” as a tribute to Pappalardi (who wrote it and debuted it there in 1969), paid homage to Eric Clapton with a wicked “Crossroads,” did a clever riff on the theme from “Close Encounters,” and—oh yeah—took a brief time-out from the performance to get married. I thought that was especially fitting because it happened to be my parents’ anniversary. West looked rather bedraggled in the semi-tux he’d been performing in, but his bride looked radiant in a full wedding gown. Cheers rang out when the minister referred to the wedding being attested to “by this company,” and laughter during the vows when the minister recited the next statement to be repeated by the groom (“with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you”) and West turned to him and blurted “what?” A rock star moment. After the five-minute ceremony, the bride was whisked off-stage and West belted out “Mississippi Queen” to everyone’s delight. And that was that for Mountain.

That left only the headline group, the Levon Helm Band, a 12-piece ensemble including a five-man horn section, playing a mixture of songs by The Band, softer rock, and country. Thanks to the horns, the sound was much different from anything else in the show—funkier, mellower Helm, a survivor of throat cancer, was under doctor’s orders to rest his voice, so he stuck to the drums while everyone else took a turn at singing. A half-hour into their set, Linda started shivering and decided to head for the bus and wait for me there. I stuck it out another 45 minutes until the last number of the night (The Band’s “The Weight”), which ended a little after 1am. I packed up my pack, rolled up the blanket, and left the rental chairs behind along with a little trash in homage to 1969.

But leaving wasn’t the same this time. Instead of slogging through that vast landfill to get to a road that took forever to traverse, all I had to do was drift to the top of the hill and onto the bus for another carefree ride back to the Monticello track. By 4:30am, we were pulling into our driveway, three-quarters asleep and weary but still exhilarated. This was a great concert, pure and simple. I wonder how the guy who missed the music in 1969 because he took the brown acid enjoyed this one. What would have happened back then if if it hadn’t rained, if we hadn’t had Wavy Gravy promising “breakfast in bed for half a million people,” if we hadn’t simultaneously become the third-largest city in New York and a disaster area?

If everything had gone smoothly, hundreds of thousands of well-fed people would have enjoyed the hell out of the 32 groups who played, things would have ended on time, and everyone would have had smooth sailing getting back to their cars. It would have been a wonderful experience—but of course it would not have been the Woodstock we know and love. The point of Woodstock was not that it was an organized event which overcame some bad breaks. Rather, it was a spontaneous gathering of a huge number of people who wanted to be there, and who joined together and took care of each other. Everybody got wiped out—physically, materially, and logistically. We all had nothing, and we had nothing else to lose but our inhibitions. Deprived of property, sustenance, and assets, we lived through, in one weekend, the Great Depression many of our parents had survived. We did so without violence and contention, and with only two deaths out of a population that would keep a city’s funeral homes flourishing. We had no choice. During all that time between the music, we kept ourselves going.

I didn’t see any deprivation at Bethel Woods last Saturday, but I also didn’t see much sharing. People came to enjoy the music, and that’s what they did. For all the pot in our area, I didn’t anybody passing joints to the group or couple next to them. With our physical needs provided for, we were free to savor the entertainment. That’s what we deserve at a concert. It was a celebration—but it wasn’t the Woodstock festival.

I feel extremely lucky to have experienced it both ways. I can’t wait to see which one the 50th anniversary concert is like!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Woodstock: I Want My Tape Back!

Two days from today, my wife Linda and I will be heading a couple of hours south of here to relive (in a second-hand way) one of the great experiences of my life. It is billed as "The Heroes of Woodstock," a 40th anniversary concert on the site (well, on the next hill over) where the original concert took place over the weekend of August 15-17, 1969. It doesn't matter that most of the performers this time around have earned their "hero" status merely by surviving for another 40 years, while we all know that the true heroes in 1969 were the half-million (give or take 100,000) attendees. Of whom I was one.

I skipped the Friday night lineup of mostly folk singers plus Ravi Shankar, and drove the 90 minutes from New Jersey on Saturday morning. This was the summer after I graduated from high school, only two weeks before I escaped into college life. I'd been attending concerts all summer, including the Newport Jazz Festival (which had finally begun adding rock groups to the lineup, in this case Ten Years After and Jethro Tull) and eight or nine great two-band concerts at the Wollman skating rink in Central Park. The Woodstock lineup looked irresistible, so I purchased tickets for the Saturday and Sunday concerts (at $7 apiece). I was ready!

Well, not so ready as it turned out. I didn't bring anything with me. I figured I'd sleep in the back seat of my mother's Plymouth, and I didn't bring any food. Not even a backpack full of goodies. I didn't own a backpack; I'd never gone anywhere except for Newport, where I did sleep in the car. Apparently my parents had even less idea of what to expect than I did. They let me go.

At 9:30 AM, I reached exit 104 of I-17, the exit for the Monticello race track. The exit was closed. That was the first broad hint of things to come. I wasn't turning back, and there were dozens of cars parked on the shoulders and the highway median. I drove around a bend, found a parking spot on the shoulder, and headed west, joining a growing parade of marchers seeking Woodstock.

I had no idea how far I was from the concert site. Nobody else did either. We didn't know that the Friday concert had ended early because of a thunderstorm. There were hints along the way on what turned into the most surreal part of the weekend. There were thousands of people walking west on Highway 11-B, patiently making our way up and down hills and around curve after curve. There were also thousands of people walking east, away from the concert, though not as many as the westbound tide. Many of them told us, "don't even bother, man. There's no concert. They called it off. It's just a sea of mud out there." I don't know what stories these defectors have told their grandchildren, but we didn't believe them. Sure, it was hard to ignore the evidence that they were leaving--why would anyone leave if more music was on the way? After awhile, our parade had a tinge of morbid curiosity. Okay, there's nothing there but a sea of mud--but have you ever seen a sea of mud? Hey, let's go look at the sea of mud! You say the Hindenberg already burned to the ground? Well, I've never seen a huge pile of ashes before, and I've come this far. . .we kept walking.

The natives didn't quite know what to make of us. Some of them yelled at us that we were crazy (or worse), while others gave us water and snacks. And directions. Not exactly. I lost count of the number of people who said, "it's just over the next hill" or "go around a couple of curves and you'll be there." We got this information from natives and defectors, and they were all wrong! It was never over the next hill. I'll cut to the chase on this one. I wound up walking 11 (eleven) miles from Exit 104 to the concert site. When I visited the new (and terrific) museum at the old Yasgur farm in Bethel last year, I clocked the drive: 10.6 miles. There were just as many hills as I remembered. It's still quite rural, with farms, scattered clusters of houses, and summer camps and resorts. If you ever have five hours to kill, try walking it.

So we kept walking. I think some people did turn back, taking the advice of the defectors that there was not much to see and nothing at all to hear. As it turned out, I reached the concert site about 15 minutes before the Saturday concert began. And the rest was history.

I won't pretend that my Woodstock experience was typical. For one thing, I didn't do any drugs. In fact, that was the first time I even saw drugs, but when someone passed me acid or a joint, I passed it right along. No doubt I got a "contact high" along the way, but more of that later. I didn't have sex either. I didn't hang out with any particular group, nor did I make any friends for life. In 44 hours, I never strayed from the hillside where the music was. I spent some time on Saturday checking out the crafts fair on top of the hill (I think they billed it as an "Aquarian" fair), and walked around and around the site to take in the various views. Pretty soon I decided that I wanted to be down near the front, as close to the music as I could get, because after all that was what I had come for. I didn't go there to be part of a political or generational movement or statement. Going to Woodstock, for me, didn't represent anything else but a chance to see a lot of great rock groups perform.

The high point for me was the nearly two-hour set by The Who, who went on around 3:30 AM. "Tommy" was still relatively new, and it was a thrill to hear them perform the whole thing, sandwiched by their greatest hits. The most memorable event occurred midway through The Who. The excellent museum which opened at the site last year has a label which says that this event was "alleged" to have happened, but I can assure you, it did. You just had to be standing in front of the stage with your eyes wide open at 4:45 AM to witness it. It happened because of Abbie Hoffman, the rabid radical whose main cause at the time was rallying support for John Sinclair, the White Panther Party leader who had been busted in Michigan and given a 30-year prison sentence for possession of two joints. Hoffman, whose targets for derision and protest included materialism, got pissed at The Who because they refused to perform until they got their fee (around $8,000) in cash. This presented a problem for the promoters, who were cash-poor over the bankless weekend, and was the reason the band didn't hit the stage until 3:30 AM. Hoffman decided to protest by racing onto the stage to interrupt their performance. They say timing is everything, and his timing was dramatic. He chose a moment when Pete Townshend's microphone was unoccupied--Pete was back by the tall banks of Marshall amps, doing his solo on "Pinball Wizard". Hoffman grabbed the microphone and screamed "How you can people be listening to this fucking music when John Sin--" That's as far as he got. Townshend took a running start and speared Hoffman in the back with the neck of his guitar, literally sending him flying off the stage and into the photographers' well, right in front of me. Townshend muttered into the mike, "if you do that again, I'll fookin' kill you!" and went back to finish his solo. There were no more yelps of protest from Hoffman, who got his payback with a long rant about The Who in his book "Woodstock Nation". "Alleged" my ass!

The low point was the big storm Sunday afternoon, just as Joe Cocker was finishing his leadoff performance. Everyone saw the menacing black clouds moving in, but there was noplace to go. When the rain began, I joined a lot of other people seeking shelter beneath the counter of an abandoned food stall. The stall was covered but it didn't matter. The wind whipped the rain in driving sheets which soaked us to the bone for almost an hour. When it let up, we heard an annoucement saying that there would be more music, they just didn't know when. That was enough for us. People built fires in garbage cans, and we took turns standing close enough to the flames to dry off. It took a long, long time. But we had nothing but time. The storm began around 4 PM, and the concert didn't resume until after 9, when Country Joe and The Fish went on. I was not one of the people you've seen in the movie, merrily sliding on their bellies through the mud in defiance of the storm. You really didn't have to go out of your way to enjoy the mud.

You've heard about the youngsters who were so maniacal about the music that they slogged through the boggy hillside to stand ankle-deep in mud in front of the stage while the musicians performed. I was one of them. For most of the last two days, I was right there, in the first few rows of people standing within 25-30 feet of the performers. In front of the stage was a shallow photographers' well, then a short fence, and then us. That was my spot for the following groups (I can still name every group I saw there, pretty much in order): Mountain, Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and The Who on Saturday night, and Country Joe & The Fish, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on Sunday night.

After that, it wasn't Sunday night any more. Butterfield left the stage around 6am Monday morning, at which point the crowd was thinning out considerably. I hadn't gotten much sleep since my arrival. I rested a lot, but I doubt that I slept more than 5-6 hours the whole weekend. There was time for cat-naps between groups, as the stage crews took a long time to switch the equipment from one group to the next, and I'd find a spot to lie down and listen to Chip Monck or whoever it was reading announcements from the stage ("stay away from the brown acid" and "meet your friend at the medical tent--you have his insulin" were popular refrains). Eventually the next group would start tuning up, and when they were introduced, almost every time my reaction would be "jeez, I'd better get down there so I can see them!"

Have you ever slept on a wobbly plank suspended between two garbage cans? That's what I did Monday morning after Butterfield's set. It was too far to slog through the mud again to the little hill on the side where I'd gotten occasional rest on one of the hay bales brought in after the Sunday afternoon storm. So I found this foot-wide plank, sat on it, dropped my head, and nodded off. Then came an odd sound: "Tough! Tough! Tough!" almost spat into microphones. That was how Sha-Na-Na tested the mikes. I'm not sure how many people there had heard of Sha-Na-Na. I know I hadn't, and they remain the most incongruous performers at the festival, a campy doo-wop group singing 50s hits while racing around the stage. Coming out of a semi-sleep after two long nights of rock 'n roll, I thought I was dreaming while they performed.

Another long break followed, another shallow snooze on the plank, and another guitarist warming up. But not just any guitarist. This was Jimi Hendrix--alas, only a name to me at that moment. Two and a half hours later, he was much more than a name. If his performance the previous year at the Monterey festival put him on the map, his Woodstock marathon defined the sizable portion of the map that was his alone. Only weeks before, he had formed a new group with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They played everything they had rehearsed; that took about 45 minutes. Following that was another 45 minutes of old Hendrix songs that they all knew how to play. "That's all we know," Hendrix apologized at 9:30 AM to the thousands of stragglers like me. "If you wanna stick around. . ." We did, and they kept playing. That's when he unleashed the scorching version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" which remains the festival's anthem (along with Country Joe's "fish cheer" from late Saturday afternoon). They jammed for another hour, playing until 10:30 AM, a scintillating performance that topped and capped the near three dozen performances which preceded it.

And then it was over, and time to face reality. For me, that meant 11 miles back to Monticello, where I didn't expect to find my car because the word got around that they had towed all the vehicles parked along the interstate. I think it was at that point that I realized how poor my condition was. I hadn't eaten--all I had in the previous 30 hours was one lukewarm hotdog and a lukewarmer soda. Somehow I missed the "breakfast in bed for a half-million people" that Wavy Gravy trumpeted in the movie. I was weak, sleepless, and disoriented (as Blind Faith would put it a year later, "wasted and I can't find my way home"). I had called my parents Sunday morning to let them know I made it and was alive, but I didn't stop to call them Monday morning. I just tried to get to Monticello. That wasn't very easy. People with cars were giving rides, which meant hopping on the hood or roof elbow-to-elbow with other unfortunates, but there were a lot of cars abandoned along the road which prevented drivers from getting through. So the whole trip back involved long walks up and down those damn hills, interspersed with occasional, brief lifts from soon-stymied drivers.

It took more than three hours to get to Monticello, and sure enough, there wasn't a car in sight. I walked around the curve where I thought I'd parked the Plymouth, walked and walked until I was sure I'd gone much further than where I could possibly have parked. There was nothing to do but call home. By the time my father drove the 90 miles to rescue me, I learned that there were four big yards where the tow trucks might have taken the car. My father, who masked his dismay at my condition by expressing his relief that I was still alive, took us around to all four. No luck. If it wasn't the victim of a tow truck, what then? We took the back road to Ferndale and the regional highway patrol barracks, where we reported the car missing and/or stolen.

From there it was back on good old I-17, three exits west of Monticello. Three exits later, my father pointed. "What's that?" he chirped. Oh, just my mother's car--right where I had left it two mornings earlier. It was the only car we saw along the road, and I couldn't explain why it alone had apparently been spared by the tow trucks, just as I couldn't explain how I had failed to spot it in the first place. Trust me: my father busted my balls about that one the rest of his life.

No doubt I was physically exhausted and mentally disoriented from the wear and tear of the weekend, not to mention the contact high. My father was alarmed--and smart--enough to forbid me from driving home. So my mother's car stayed along the shoulder for another day while my father hurried me sullenly back to New Jersey.

I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder in my room, and since I was too exhilarated and wired to go to sleep, I grabbed my own microphone and started talking. And talking. I put on tape everything I could remember about Woodstock, and didn't stop talking for more than three hours, filling both sides of the tape. That winter I transcribed about two-thirds of it, and I still have that transcript somewhere. A lot of it is simply set lists; I tried to recall every song I'd heard by every group.

Unfortunately, I no longer have the tape. Two years later, while I was away at college, my parents had a garage sale and sold it (yeah, along with my baseball card collection and a few other treasures). Trust me: I busted his balls about that one for a long time, too. Somewhere out there, someone has three-plus hours of a wide-eyed adolescent's hour-by-hour account of Woodstock. So please do me a favor. Start asking everyone you meet if they've ever heard this tape. I want it back!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Some Amazing Pitching Seasons

Today I'm posting six more of my "A Closer Look" columns originally written for the Hall of Fame website. They cover fantastic feats by great pitchers, four of them Hall of Famers. I found these stories fascinating and hope you will, too. They are posted below and archived at "A Closer Look":
  1. John Hiller's incredible comeback from a heart attack
  2. Nolan Ryan's most heartbreaking season
  3. Gaylord Perry's extra-innings excellence
  4. Joe McGinnity's forgotten 35-8 season
  5. Jack Taylor's unbelievable complete-game streak
  6. Dizzy Dean: the last NL pitcher to win 30 games in a season

Enjoy these game-by-game accounts, and we'll resume our regularly scheduled programming next time around.

A Closer Look: John Hiller's Amazing Comeback

After his stellar 1973 season, John Hiller won so many awards that he can’t even count them all. The accolades included the Sporting News “Fireman of the Year,” the “Comeback Player of the Year,” the Hutch Award, and the Babe Didrikson Award. But the award that remains the most special to Hiller was the “Heart of the Year” Award from the American Heart Association, previously given to the likes of Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon. From 1972-1976, the recipients were Pearl Bailey, Nixon, Hiller, Henry Fonda, and astronaut “Deke” Slayton. That’s heady company, and Hiller remains the only athlete to receive the award.

John Hiller was three months shy of his 28th birthday when he suffered a heart attack in January of 1971. The left-hander from Toronto had a decent career going with the Detroit Tigers, with a 23-19 record and 2.98 ERA in just over 400 innings. In 1967, he had pitched shutouts in his first two starts in the majors. Used mostly in relief with occasional starts, he tied an American League record in 1970 with seven straight strikeouts, and concluded that season on a high note with a two-hit shutout of the Indians.

Then his life caved in. “Why me?” he wondered, but he didn’t have to look very far. Like a number of other pitchers who came up with the Tigers in the mid-70s – Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, and Fred Gladding – he had considered conditioning optional, especially in the off-season. A heavy smoker, he had watched his weight balloon to 220 on a 6’1” frame. By the time he got out of the hospital, he weighed 145. He quit smoking, curtailed his drinking, and had an intestinal bypass to facilitate weight loss. Placed on the Voluntarily Retired list, he got a job selling furniture, began running, and gradually worked himself into shape. His eventual playing weight stayed around 165-175.

Despite getting “in the best shape of my life” by the end of 1971, Hiller’s road back to the majors was a tough haul. The Tigers were leery of taking him back because a Detroit Lions player named Chuck Hughes had died that season of a heart attack. There was no precedent for a ballplayer coming back from a heart attack. The Tigers did agree to take him to spring training, but designated him a coach and left him in Florida when the 1972 season began. Nearly broke, stuck in Florida with his wife back home in Minnesota, he refused to give up, fighting for his baseball life with reluctant Tigers executives.

Finally his persistence wore them down, and he rejoined the Tigers in July. He pitched well, recording a 2.05 ERA in 25 games. His lone victory was an important one during the last weekend of the season with the division title on the line; he one-hit the Brewers through six innings and finished with a 5-hitter, winning 5-1. His hard work to come back had been validated, but the best was yet to come.

In 1973, Hiller put together one of the finest seasons ever by a relief pitcher. The major statistics give an idea of how superbly he pitched – he set a major-league record with 38 saves, pitched 125 1/3 innings in 65 appearances, struck out 124 while yielding only 89 hits, and had a 10-5 record with a sparkling 1.44 ERA. His performance deserves close examination, as it represents the workload faced by many top relievers of his generation. “When the manager told you to pitch, you pitched,” Hiller recalls. And his manager in 1973, Billy Martin, wanted him to pitch all the time. Hiller warmed up in 41 of the team’s first 44 games, appearing in 17 of them. From May 16 through July 8, he pitched 22 times, logging 34 2/3 innings, and allowed just one run. Only three times all season did he allow more than one run in a game, and he blew just three saves. Of the 84 baserunners he inherited, only 12 scored. With runners in scoring position, opponents batted a paltry .131 against him.

Several years ago, the folks at Rolaids, who give out the annual award for relief pitchers, created what they call the “Tough Save”. It answers critics who assert that there are too many “cheap” saves, such as when a reliever enters in the ninth inning with a three-run lead. (How many times did Hiller enter in that low-stress situation in 1973? Zero.) For a “tough save,” you have to face at least the tying run on base when you enter; starting the ninth inning with a one-run lead isn’t tough enough by this definition. I have researched dozens of individual relief seasons, and nobody had a higher percentage of tough saves than Hiller did in 1973. Exactly half of his 38 saves qualified. He believed that facing runners made him a better pitcher thanks to the rush of adrenalin and increased concentration. A closer look will show just how he responded to pressure.

April 26, at Texas, 3-2 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, tying run on 2nd – retired Dick Billings.

May 5, vs. Texas, 2-0 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 3rd -- retired all 5 batters.

May 18, vs. Boston, 5-4 lead, 9th inning, 1 out, tying run on 2nd – retired Carl
Yastrzemski, walked Orlando Cepeda intentionally, retired John Kennedy.

May 28, vs. Oakland, 4-3 lead, 8th inning, 2 outs, tying run on 1st – got Reggie Jackson, then retired side in 9th.

June 5, at California, 5-2 lead, 6th inning, bases loaded – fanned Winston Llenas, then pitched one-hit ball over final three innings.

June 27, vs. Milwaukee, 5-4 lead, 9th inning, 0 outs, tying run on 2nd – fanned first two batters, then intentional walk, retired final batter.

July 1, vs. Baltimore, 4-3 lead, 7th inning, 2 outs, tying run on 2nd – retired Don Baylor, then allowed one hit in final two innings.

July 2, at Cleveland, 4-3 lead, 8th inning, 2 outs, runners on 1st and 3rd – fanned John Lowenstein, retired side in 9th.

July 3, at Cleveland, 5-4 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd – retired all five batters.

July 10, vs. Texas, 4-3 lead, 7th inning, 0 outs, runners on 1st and 2nd – retired side while allowing just a walk, had 5-3 lead starting 9th and won 5-4.

July 30, at Baltimore, 4-3 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, runner on 1st – walked Bobby Grich, then fanned Paul Blair to end game.

August 7, vs. Oakland, 2-0 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd – got Billy Conigliaro to hit into double play, then struck out the side in the 9th (Bert Campaneris, Billy North, Sal Bando).

August 8, vs. Oakland, 3-2 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, runners on 1st and 2nd – got Mike Andrews on fly out to end game.

August 11, vs. Chicago, 4-2 lead, 8th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 3rd – fanned Jerry Hairston and Carlos May, then retired side in order in the 9th.

September 2, vs. Cleveland, 2-1 lead, 7th inning, 0 outs, runner on 1st – 3 innings of two- hit ball to win 2-1.

September 4, vs. New York, 2-1 lead, 9th inning, 2 outs, runner on 3rd – got Graig Nettles.

September 9, at Boston, 5-4 lead, 9th inning, 1 out, runner on 1st – walked Dwight Evans, then retired Tommy Harper and Luis Aparicio.

September 14, vs. Milwaukee, 2-0 lead, 8th inning, 0 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd – gave up run on sacrifice fly, then two scoreless innings to win 2-1.

September 21, vs. Boston, 3-1 lead, 6th inning, 1 out, runners on 1st and 2nd – walked Carl Yastrzemski but got Orlando Cepeda on inning-ending double play; allowed 1 hit over final three innings.

There you have John Hiller at his best, doing the job time and time again with no margin for error. By comparison, today’s average closer faces such peril only two or three times a season. Look at it this way: from 2000-2003, only five teams had a higher four-year total of tough saves than Hiller’s 19 in 1973, and the leading individual pitcher (Keith Foulke) had 15. From 2000-2003, Mariano Rivera recorded a mere 13 tough saves out of 154; that’s 8.4%, compared to Hiller’s 50%. Have no doubts about the man’s heart.

Today, most managers avoid making relievers pitch more than a couple of innings, fearful of giving the opposition a second look at any pitcher’s stuff. Not so with Billy Martin managing John Hiller in 1973. Hiller faced at least 10 batters 19 times; in those games, he pitched 74 2/3 innings (that’s right, averaging nearly 4 innings per outing) and yielded only 14 runs for a 1.69 ERA. His most remarkable effort came on July 22 at Texas, when Martin brought him in with nobody out in the 2nd inning, trailing 3-0. Hiller held the Rangers scoreless over the next eight innings, striking out 10. The Tigers tied the game and sent it into extra innings. In the 10th inning, Hiller allowed a single and walk and was relieved with one out; the reliever allowed a game-winning hit that pinned a tough loss on our man. Two weeks later he pitched more than five innings against the Yankees before losing on a Horace Clarke home run in the 14th, this time bested by New York reliever Lindy McDaniel, who pitched 13 innings in relief. Those were the days!

Hiller kept up his good work in 1974, going 17-14 with a 2.64 ERA for a team that finished last. He was still going strong in 1978 with a 9-4 record and 2.35 ERA when he received what he regarded as his highest compliment in baseball. Ralph Houk, his manager since 1974, was retiring after the season, and in his final game he phoned the bullpen and asked Hiller to get warm. “I’d like to see you pitch one more time,” Houk told his favorite pitcher. Hiller gave him what he wanted: a strikeout and a foul popup.

Hiller retired from pitching in 1980 with a lifetime 87-76 record and 2.84 ERA in 545 major league games. He is now enjoying retirement in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, participating in Tigers fantasy camps and wondering why today’s pitchers aren’t pushed to throw more innings. He looks back on his heart attack as a blessing. “It made me a better person and a better pitcher,” he says. In 1973, it made him one of the best relievers ever.

A Closer Look: Nolan Ryan's Perplexing 1987

Normally it is easy to tell whether a pitcher has had a great season. He has formidable numbers in the popular statistics: won-lost record, E.R.A., shutouts, strikeouts, and so on. Not only is he regarded as one of the toughest pitchers in the league that year, but you can prove it with the numbers.

So what do we do with Nolan Ryan’s perplexing 1987 season with the Houston Astros? Ryan, as a 40-year-old, led the National League with a 2.76 E.R.A., the only starting pitcher in the league under 3. He also led in strikeouts with 270, with only teammate Mike Scott over 200. He gave up fewer hits per nine innings than anyone in the majors, only 6.55. In his 34 starts, he allowed more than three earned runs only three times.

Sounds like a great season, doesn’t it? Only one statistic marred that impression, and unfortunately for Ryan it was the only number that really matters. His won-lost record was a dismal 8-16. By that measure, he had a very poor season. What happened? Was he great or horrible? Let’s take a closer look.

Although Ryan often pitched just well enough to lose, it is fair to pin much of the blame on his teammates. He received paltry offensive support and was frequently betrayed by the Houston bullpen corps. In his 16 losses, he pitched 88 innings and got only 14 runs of support while in the game. Six times the Astros scored no runs for him, and eight times they scored only one run while he was pitching.

Five times in 1987, Ryan left the game with a lead, only to see the bullpen blow the victory for him. After he left games, his teammates scored only 13 runs, while the bullpen allowed 41. He had two other tough no-decisions: in April, he pitched eight shutout innings against the Reds, whose Ted Power shut out the Astros before the Reds won 3-0 in extra innings; in September, he dueled with Ed Whitson of the Padres, each man allowing only one run in nine innings before the Padres won it in the 14th.

After starting the season 2-2, Ryan managed to win only three of his next 22 starts despite carrying a solid 3.07 E.R.A. through that stretch. Instead of going 3-12, he could have gone, at the very least, 10-8, which would’ve given him a 15-12 record for the year. A closer look will reveal just what this four-month nightmare was like for Ryan.

May 6: Ryan trailed 2-1 at Philadelphia before leaving for a pinch-hitter in the 7th inning. The Astros rallied to win, but he did not get the decision.

May 11: Ryan pitched seven innings of 4-hit ball and left with a 5-3 lead. Reliever Larry Andersen promptly gave up four runs and took the 7-6 loss.

May 16: Ryan held the Cubs to two runs in six innings, striking out nine. But he lost 2-1 as Jamie Moyer outpitched him and Ryne Sandberg hit the game-winning home run.

May 22: Ryan dueled Tim Conroy of the Cardinals in a game that was tied 1-1 after six innings. Ryan gave up two runs in the 7th and was relieved, with the bullpen contributing heavily to a 7-5 loss. It was the last of Conroy’s 18 victories in the majors.

May 27: Ryan allowed only two hits in six innings, but left for a pinch-hitter trailing 2-1. The Astros rallied to win 7-2, but he got a no-decision.

June 2: Ryan got knocked out in the 3rd inning at Wrigley Field, allowing five runs. Andre Dawson drove in seven runs as the Cubs won 13-2.

June 7: In one of his best outings of the year, Ryan shut out the Giants for seven innings, striking out 12 and walking nobody. The game was scoreless to the 6th inning, and the Astros won 3-0 as Ryan raised his record to 3-5.

June 12: At Dodger Stadium, it again took the Astros six innings to score a run behind Ryan, who led 1-0 after seven. The Astros got four more runs in the 8th, and Ryan exited after allowing an unearned run. He fanned 11 and didn’t walk anybody for the second start in a row, a rarity for him.

June 17: Ryan began a disastrous eight-game losing streak by losing to the Reds. He gave up three runs in five innings before the bullpen collapsed in a 9-1 drubbing.

June 23: Ryan allowed four runs, three earned, but it didn’t matter as the Astros got only two hits off Ed Whitson of the Padres in a 4-1 defeat.

June 28: Ryan fanned 11 Giants in five innings of work, but took the loss as the Giants broke a 4-4 tie with four runs in the 5th, three on a Harry Spilman home run.

July 3: In the first of two duels with Bruce Ruffin of the Phillies, Ryan held the Phillies to two runs in seven innings, striking out 10. It wasn’t good enough, as Ruffin and Cy Young Award-winner Steve Bedrosian combined to beat the Astros 2-1.

July 8: Ryan gave the Expos only one run in seven innings, but during that time the Astros couldn’t even get a hit off Floyd Youmans. Youmans, who won only 30 games in his major-league career, pitched a one-hitter to beat Ryan 1-0, Ryan’s fifth loss in a row.

July 19: Following the All-Star Game break, Ryan gave up single, a wild pitch, and a walk in the 3rd inning to the Phillies and then left the game. The bullpen did the rest, and the one run charged to Ryan made him a loser again to Bruce Ruffin, 4-1.

July 24: In New York, Ryan was tied 1-1 in the 5th inning when Lenny Dykstra singled in the go-ahead run. That was all it took for Ryan to lose again, as Sid Fernandez won 5-2.

July 29: Ryan allowed only two hits before leaving in the 6th inning, but the Astros committed four errors that led to three unearned runs as he lost in Atlanta 5-3.

August 3: Ryan struck out 12 Giants but left after seven innings with the game tied 3-3. The Astros won 5-3 in thirteen innings, the first of three straight extra-inning no-decisions for him.

August 8: At San Diego, Ryan led 3-0 after six innings and left after allowing a leadoff home run to John Kruk in the 7th. The bullpen gave up the tying runs in the bottom of the 9th and lost the game in the 10th.

August 13: Ryan led 5-3 in San Francisco, but walked the leadoff batter in the bottom of the 7th inning. After a strikeout, manager Hal Lanier replaced Ryan and soon regretted it. An error prolonged the inning, and Kevin Mitchell drilled a three-run home run. The Astros sent the game to extra innings before losing in the 11th.

August 18: Ryan finally broke his losing streak with seven innings of 3-hit shutout ball against the Cardinals. The Astros won 4-0, his first victory since June 12.

August 23: In another heartbreaker, Ryan took a 2-0 lead and a two-hitter to the bottom of the 6th inning at Wrigley Field. After a one-out walk, his first of the game, Lanier removed him. Reliever Rocky Childress allowed a two-run home run to Andre Dawson that cost Ryan his chance at a win.

August 29: Ryan left after six innings at Pittsburgh, trailing 2-0, and didn’t get much help as the Astros lost to Mike Bielecki 8-2, moving his record to 5-14.

At this point, Ryan rallied to win three starts in a row, including a 16-strikeout gem against the Giants. Then came his nine-inning no-decision against Ed Whitson, a game in Atlanta where the bullpen blew a 7-3 for him, and two more losses to end the season. Fittingly, his final start saw him pitch seven strong innings against the Reds, striking out 10, but running into another hot pitcher as Tom Browning beat him 2-1.

So there you have it. In his autobiography, Throwing Heat, Ryan revealed that Astros General Manager had put him on a 115-pitch limit for 1987 after he experienced elbow problems in 1986. He didn’t blame Lanier for following orders and removing him many times when he felt strong and could have kept pitching. “It was the strangest season I’ve ever spent,” Ryan wrote. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher having a stranger one, though in 1909 Walter Johnson had a 13-25 record for the last-place Senators despite a 2.21 E.R.A. But that’s another story.

A Closer Look: Baseball's Last Iron-Man Pitcher

With each passing baseball season, complete games by pitchers move closer to extinction. A half-century ago, in 1959, starting pitchers completed 60% of their starts. Last year, only 5.6% of all starts were complete games; only one National League team (the Brewers) had more than six. A mere three pitchers in the last 60 years have completed 300 starts in their careers. Two of those, Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts, retired in the 1960s. The third, and possibly the last, pitching iron-man began his career in the 1960s and lasted into the 1980s, making his 303 complete games even more remarkable.

That pitcher is Gaylord Perry, who outdistanced his contemporaries in another aspect of resolute pitching. Today you rarely see a starter remain in the game if it goes into extra innings, but Perry pitched at least 10 innings in a game a whopping 37 times. Compared to Bob Gibson (17 times), Tom Seaver (16), Phil Niekro (15), Steve Carlton (13), and Juan Marichal (12), he seems like Superman.

Yet Perry insists that it was no big deal. “That’s how we were trained in the Giants organization coming through the minor leagues,” Perry says. “We pitched every four days and you stayed in the game until it was over. It was just part of what we did.” Indeed, his first 10-inning effort—and his most famous—was a turning point in his major league career. On May 31, 1964, the 25-year-old right-hander, with his modest six career victories, was brought in to start the 13th inning of a 6-6 battle against the Mets at Shea Stadium. He pitched a scoreless inning, and raised his hopes when the Giants got the first two runners on base in the top of the 14th inning. But Orlando Cepeda lined into a triple play, and the game went on. And on. Perry wound up pitching 10 innings, allowing just seven hits and striking out nine, becoming the winning pitcher when the Giants broke through in the 23rd inning.

A month later, in his next start, Perry pitched a shutout. He joined the Giants’ starting rotation for good in August, and before the season was over pitched 10 innings three more times. Despite allowing just five runs in those 30 innings, he didn’t get the decision in any of those games. Once, his bullpen blew a potential win in the 11th inning. Another time, he was pinch-hit for with the winning run on third and one out, but the Giants couldn’t score the winning run for him. So it goes for marathon pitchers; in the record-setting 26-inning game in 1920, starters Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore both pitched all 26 innings but got only a 1-1 tie for their efforts.

Perry’s longest outing came on September 1, 1967 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. He dueled with Mel Queen for nine innings of shutout ball, then continued against the Reds bullpen for seven more. “After the 14th inning,” Perry remembers, “My favorite manager, Herman Franks, said: ‘How are you feeling?’ I said, ‘Herman, I have two more innings in me, then I’m going to the clubhouse.’” Perry breezed through the 16th inning, ending with his 12th strikeout. Having faced a staggering 59 batters, he made way for reliever Frank Linzy, who finished the battle with the Giants winning 1-0 in 21 innings.

Perry’s busiest extra-inning season was 1972, his first year in the American League, when he won the Cy Young Award with the Indians. He toiled at least 10 innings eight times, seven of them complete games. The exception was a hot July night at Texas when he faced 52 batters in 13 shutout innings, winning 2-0 with relief help in the 14th inning. That was the second of three 13-inning outings in his career—all with 52 batters faced. “I had many discussions with my managers about not letting the guys in the bullpen come in to take my place,” says Perry. “I was still strong on the mound and felt I could do the job. I wanted to stay in there.”

One time he was overruled occurred on April 17, 1974, his third start of the season. Facing the Brewers in Milwaukee, he logged 15 innings, retiring the last 12 of the 55 batters he faced. Yet Indians manager Ken Aspromonte chose to remove him. As Perry recalls, “I didn’t get up to the clubhouse before they beat us. I didn’t like that too much.” Reliever Ken Sanders allowed a leadoff home run to Bob Coluccio, and that was that. Perry responded to that frustration by tossing 15 complete games in his next 16 starts, including a 14-game winning streak. Later that season, he had a nine-game complete-game streak, losing the final one on an 11th-inning home run by Bobby Mitchell.

That was one of 17 times when Perry pitched at least 11 innings. Of his 37 extra-inning adventures, 22 were between 1969-1975, when he exceeded 300 innings pitched six times in seven seasons, averaging 321 innings and 25 complete games per season. Finally, in his late thirties, he slowed down a bit, managing a mere-mortal five complete games in 1978 when he won his second Cy Young Award (with the Padres). He pitched 10 innings in a game three more times after turning 40, including a no-decision against the Dodgers the night he recorded his 3000th career strikeout.

Here are some of Perry’s other noteworthy extra-inning adventures:

July 25, 1969: Perry and Cardinals ace Bob Gibson each allowed a 1st-inning run and then reeled off 11 shutout innings. Perry left for a pinch-hitter in the top of the 13th, and a reliever lost the game. Perry allowed seven hits in his 12 innings but was outdone by Gibson, who pitched all 13 innings and yielded just six hits.

August 8, 1971: Perry hit only six home runs in his career. One of them tied up this game in the 5th inning, and Perry wound up pitching 11 innings to outlast Bill Hands of the Cubs, winning 4-2.

September 9, 1972: Only an unearned run kept Perry from pitching a shutout, and he wound up going 10 innings to defeat the Red Sox 2-1 on a Graig Nettles home run, his 20th victory of the season.

October 1, 1972: In his final start of the season, Perry pitched an 11-inning four-hitter, striking out 11 and walking nobody. The Yankees got only one hit after the 4th inning as Perry won 2-1, raising his record to 24-16 and staking a claim to his first Cy Young Award.

May 26, 1973: Both Perry and White Sox started Stan Bahnsen worked 13 tough innings in this battle, one of six games in which Perry faced more than 50 batters. The White Sox wound up winning in the 21st inning.

August 22, 1973: Perry recorded the last 14 outs in a row in this six-hit, 12-inning gem, defeating the White Sox 1-0 on an unearned run.

April 9, 1976: Most pitchers take a little while to build up their stamina early in the season, but here Perry hurled 11 innings in his first start of the season. He dueled Bert Blyleven through nine innings, tied 1-1, before winning 2-1. How strong was this man coming out of the gate? He retired the last 22 batters he faced!

When asked whether throwing so many pitches to so many batters strained his arm, Perry explains, “I’d be out there as long as it takes. And it never affected my next start. Whatever it took, you did it. I thought it was my duty to do that for my team and my family and myself.” That’s the attitude—virtually absent in today’s game—that landed Perry in the #6 spot all-time in innings pitched with 5,350.

“Let me tell you about complete games,” Perry adds. “Robin Roberts, one of my favorite people, completed two more games than I did. But they didn’t let us know about records back then. If they had, I would have gotten three more just to beat him.” Would you have liked to be the manager who told him that he couldn’t?

A Closer Look: Joe McGinnity's Enduring Brilliance

Few Hall of Fame pitchers are as forgotten today as Joe McGinnity, nicknamed “Iron Man” because he worked during the off-season in a foundry but whose pitching exploits branded him as the endurance king of baseball. His career was so remarkable that it’s hard to know where to begin, but try this: he earned his Hall of Fame credentials in only 10 years in the major leagues, then nearly matched those statistics in a minor league career that lasted until he was 54 years old.

Born in 1871, Joseph Jerome McGinnity spent two unsuccessful years in the minors before getting married and quitting in 1894 to run a saloon. During the next three years, he worked and pitched sandlot ball, perfecting a slow, underhand delivery of a variety of curves (he dubbed his favorite curve “Old Sal”) with which he befuddled hitters for nearly three decades. In 1898, he returned to professional ball, and reached the major leagues in 1899 with Baltimore, leading the National League with 49 games and 28 wins. At age 27, his whirlwind run through the majors had begun.

During his first eight years in the majors, McGinnity averaged 370 innings pitched and 27 victories per season, completing 87% of his starts. His career peaked in 1903-04, when he won a combined 66 games, a total surpassed only by Walter Johnson (68 in 1912-13) since 1900. He gained national attention in 1903 by pitching and winning both games of a doubleheader three times – in one month! That amazing stretch began on August 1 with 4-1 and 5-2 wins over Boston, continued on August 8 when he defeated Brooklyn by scores of 6-1 and 4-3, and concluded on August 31 against Philadelphia, 4-1 and 9-2.

McGinnity, who had teamed with Christy Mathewson since 1902 to form the unsurpassed one-two punch on John McGraw’s New York Giants, slowed down a bit in 1907 when he failed to win 20 games for the first time in the majors, going 18-18. In 1908 he pitched a mere 186 innings and won only 11 games, prompting McGraw to decide he was washed up. McGraw released him before the 1909 season, whereupon McGinnity bought a partial interest in the Newark team of the International League, launching the second amazing phase of his unique career.

McGraw may have thought there was nothing useful left in McGinnity’s arm, but the “Iron Man” proved otherwise. In 1909-10, he won 59 games for Newark, topping 400 innings pitched in both seasons. He moved to Tacoma in 1913, pitching 436 innings and winning 22 games. He won 20 or more games six times in the minors between 1909-16, and in 1917, pitching for Butte in the Northwestern League, he once again pitched and won both games of a doubleheader, defeating Vancouver 3-1 and 6-2. He was 45 years old at the time.

Wherever he went in the minors, McGinnity owned a piece of the team and did the managing, so he was able to pitch whenever he felt the urge. He felt the urge often. After sitting out the seasons of 1919-21, he came back again to run the Dubuque team in the Mississippi Valley League, where he pitched 206 innings in 1923 at age 51. When he finally called it a career after six wins for Dubuque in 1925, he had totaled 235 wins in the minors in addition to his 246 in the majors.

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In the strike-shortened seasons of 1994-95, Greg Maddux had the two most dominating years of his career. If you combine his statistics for those two seasons, here’s what you get: 53 games started, 412 innings pitched, 297 hits allowed, a 35-8 record, and an ERA of 1.60. Joe McGinnity matched those numbers in one season, 1904: 51 games (44 starts), 408 innings pitched, 307 hits allowed, a 35-8 record, and an ERA of 1.61. Let’s take a closer look at how McGinnity excelled for the pennant-winning Giants of 1904.

He won 12 of his first 14 starts, and the other two were extra-inning tie games. In one of those, he pitched 15 innings of one-run ball. In the other, he escaped a 1-0 defeat when the Giants, hitless through eight innings, rallied in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings.

He also won two games in relief early in the season, running his record to 14-0 before losing on June 11 to Bob Wicker of the Cubs. Wicker held the Giants hitless through nine innings and gave them only one hit, outlasting McGinnity in a 12-inning, 1-0 duel.

In mid-May, he pitched three straight shutouts on the road in eight days, beating the Reds, Pirates, and Cubs, part of a streak of 31 consecutive shutout innings.

His tricky delivery resulted in a lot of ground balls and weak tappers. He had 10 assists in the 15-inning game, and I found 9-inning games he started in which the Giants recorded 20 assists (once), 19 (once), 18 (twice), 17 (four times), 16 (once), and 15 (eight times). In those extra-inning tie games, which went 15 and 12 innings, the Giants had 27 and 25 assists, respectively.

On July 9, he pitched in relief in both games of a doubleheader, winning the opener to raise his record to 20-2, and protecting a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth in the nightcap.

Starting on July 10, he “slumped” for the next month, splitting six decisions and getting no decision in two other starts. But he caught fire again as of August 12, winning 12 of his next 13 starts, all complete games.

Facing Pittsburg on August 18, he was struck by a line drive in the first inning. The ball “rebounded from McGinnity’s hands to his body,” said the New York Times, “and after throwing the runner out at first, the ‘Iron Man’ dropped to the ground.” After recovering, he held the Pirates to five hits, winning 6-0.

Five days later at Pittsburg, McGinnity and Pirates outfielder “Moose” McCormick crashed into each other on a play at first base. The newspaper account said that “for a moment it seemed that McGinnity was badly hurt, for he lay still and quiet. He was lifted and walked about, finally going back into the box loudly cheered.” But he lost 5-3 to Deacon Phillippe, the only defeat he suffered in a seven-week stretch.

Two days after the collision, he was back on the mound at Chicago. He dueled Jake Weimer into extra innings before the Giants won 4-1 in the tenth.

On August 28, he pitched a gem at St. Louis, a 5-0 five-hitter in which he stroked a triple and a single. This was his eighth shutout of the season; he led the National League that year with nine.

After two days of rest, he started his fourth game in nine days on the 31st at Cincinnati, facing their ace, Jack Harper (23-8 that season). This battle lasted 11 innings before the Giants prevailed 3-2.

Well-rested for a change and back home at the Polo Grounds, he beat Boston on September 6 for his 30th victory of the season, despite blowing an early 7-1 lead. It took a run in the tenth inning to give him the 8-7 decision.

He pitched the pennant-clinching game on September 22, beating Cincinnati to raise his record to 34-6.

In his next start, he stretched his winning streak to nine games. Pitching the second game of a doubleheader against the Pirates, he allowed only a sixth-inning single by Jack Gilbert, winning 1-0 on a one-hitter when the game was called after seven innings because of darkness.

McGinnity lost his final two starts of the season, dropping his final record to 35-8. The Giants, who won the National League pennant by 13 games over the runner-up Cubs, refused to participate in the proposed World Series because the owner, John T. Brush, and McGraw harbored deep resentment of the American League. Thus McGinnity was deprived of a chance to shine on the national baseball scene. That opportunity arrived in 1905, when the Giants repeated their NL title and consented to face the AL-champion Philadelphia Athletics in the second modern World Series. McGinnity, who won 22 games during the 1905 season, was upstaged in the Series by Mathewson, who tossed three shutouts in a six-day period. McGinnity lost Game 2 to Charles “Chief” Bender, 3-2, but enjoyed his most glorious moment in the spotlight in Game 4 by defeating fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Plank in a 1-0 thriller.

A Closer Look: Jack Taylor's Complete-Game Streak

August 13, 2006 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the most remarkable streak in major league history: Jack Taylor’s 185 consecutive complete games. Today, when starting pitchers go the distance less than 5% of the time and there were only 189 complete games in the majors last year, it is difficult to conceive of one pitcher completing 185 starts in a row. Jack Taylor did exactly that. But don’t think that means he went 185 starts without needing help. There were plenty of times when he could’ve used help; he just didn’t get any. A closer look at his streak will reveal that it was a product of the times as much as the man.

Taylor, a 5’10” righthander born in Straightville, Ohio, reached the majors in 1898, pitching and winning five games with the Chicago Orphans, later known as the Cubs. Over the next three seasons he had a losing record while completing all but two of his 96 starts. This was exceptional yet not ridiculous for that baseball era; during those three years, National League pitchers as a group completed 85.3% of their starts. They had to. Teams carried no more than six or seven pitchers, and they all worked hard. In 1901, five Chicago pitchers started 139 of the team’s 140 games, completing 131 of them.

Of the nine games that required relief, one was started by Taylor, on June 13, when he was knocked out by the New York Giants after four innings. He started again a week later at Boston, finishing that game along with his remaining 20 starts that season, the beginning of his streak. He won eight times and pitched well in several of the losses, but lost his last five outings to finish with a record of 14-19 for the sixth-place Orphans.

His low point came on September 22, when Pittsburgh drilled 22 hits off him in a 15-9 drubbing. Only six of those runs were earned, again not unusual for the times. In 1901, nearly 30% of all runs scored in the National League were unearned. For the duration of Taylor’s streak, roughly one-third of the runs he allowed were unearned. Frequent misplays made pitchers work harder and take more lumps than they should have, but they all knew how tough it was to catch the ball with the tiny, flimsy gloves players used then, and they endured.

Jack Taylor’s standout season was 1902, when he went 23-11 with a league best 1.33 ERA. He completed all 33 starts, tossed seven shutouts, and surrendered only two home runs all year. Twice he pitched 12 innings in a game, one a scoreless tie against Cincinnati. The Reds couldn’t touch him that year; he yielded only seven runs to them in seven starts, with an ERA of 0.68. His greatest effort came on June 22 against first-place Pittsburgh, when he outlasted Deacon Phillippe to win 3-2 in 19 innings. That feat included holding Honus Wagner hitless in eight at-bats.

If his pitching wasn’t enough, Taylor played in the field in his spare time. A lifetime .223 hitter, he played a dozen games at third base in 1902 and other games elsewhere, batting .237 with 17 runs batted in and six stolen bases. He had recorded 17 RBI in 1899, and did so again in 1903. No wonder rosters were small back then.

The 1903 season brought more of the same: 33 games started, 33 starts completed, 21 victories, and a 2.45 ERA. Six of his triumphs came against the pennant-winning Pirates, who beat him only once. His nemesis was New York’s 31-game winner Joe McGinnity, who defeated Taylor four times in five duels. Then there was the August game in Cincinnati when he was pounded for 15 hits and 13 runs, losing to Frank “Noodles” Hahn, himself midway through a four-year stretch in which he completed 143 starts out of 146.

Worse than the occasional trouncing was the loss of Taylor’s good standing in Chicago following the 1903 season. Playing in the “City Series” against the White Sox, Taylor won the first game but suffered three convincing losses later on as the White Sox took the series. Cubs president Jim Hart suspected Taylor of throwing those games and traded him to the last-place St. Louis Cardinals for a rookie pitcher who had won only nine games in 1903. That pitcher, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, launched a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs, notching 188 of his 239 career wins for them.

The fifth-place 1904 Cardinals were managed by future Hall of Famer Charles “Kid” Nichols, who completed all 35 of his starts and expected everyone else to match his effort. The starters got relieved in only nine games that season, and Jack Taylor contributed the most, going the distance 39 times to extend his complete-game streak to 126. His record was only 20-19 despite a 2.22 ERA, thanks to weak offensive support against the Cubs. After defeating them 9-3 in the opening week of the season, he lost to them by scores of 3-2, 5-1, 4-1, 3-1, and 4-3. His high points that season were a pair of victories over the pennant-winning Giants, the first by a 5-2 score over McGinnity, the second one 5-1 in ten innings. On September 24, he started both games of a doubleheader at Philadelphia, winning the opener 3-2 but losing the second game 2-0 in seven innings. Low points included a tough 1-0 loss in 13 innings to Togie Pittinger of Boston, and a 10-1 pasting by the Pirates.

Taylor also encountered more damage to his reputation during 1904. During his first trip to Chicago, hecklers razzed him about his 1903 City Series performance, and he responded by saying, “Why should I have won? I got $100 from Hart for winning and I got $500 for losing.” This ill-advised comment brought a public accusation from Hart, which was compounded in July when he was accused of throwing a game against the Pirates. After defeating them 4-3, 3-1, and 6-1, he lost 5-2 on July 30 and heard himself described as “not an honest ball player” by the chairman of the National Commission, August Herrmann.

After the season, Taylor faced two hearings on these charges. The first concerned the Pittsburgh game, and he defended himself by admitting that he and first baseman Jake Beckley had gone on a drinking and gambling spree the night before the game, leaving himself short of sleep and his usual pinpoint accuracy. He was acquitted of dishonesty and fined $300 for “bad conduct,” a sum he refused to pay. The second hearing, before the National Commission, concerned the 1903 City Series. The Commission held that Taylor’s statement about receiving $500 to lose the series didn’t prove that he had indeed thrown the games, and the statement itself wasn’t punishable. So Taylor escaped further trouble.

In 1905, Taylor’s ERA rose to 3.44 and he struggled to a 15-21 record with a mediocre St. Louis team which lost the pennant by 47½ games. Though he completed all 34 starts, those efforts included a 14-2 pummeling by the Giants, a 10-4 thrashing by the Pirates, and five other losses in which he allowed at least seven runs. As in 1904, the Cubs were his worst enemies, beating him four times in five games. The most brutal defeat occurred on June 24, when Taylor and Ed Reulbach toiled for 18 innings before the Cubs prevailed 2-1. That launched an eight-game losing streak for Taylor, whose teammates scored only 45 runs in his 21 losses that season.

The Cardinals played half-decent ball early in 1906 and were only one game under .500 late in May when they began a dismal 5-23 stretch which encouraged them to clean house in July. The first to go was Jack Taylor, despite a 2.15 ERA and a respectable 8-9 record. He was traded back to the Cubs on July 1. Hart no longer owned the team, and manager Frank Chance, who had taken over the reigns in 1905, was Taylor’s former roommate and a close friend of his. The “Sporting News” declared, “The trade for Taylor either is a broad act on the part of the Chicago Nationals to right a wrong done to Taylor and to President Comiskey of the White Stockings, and a total exoneration of Taylor from all charges of throwing games, or a confession that the West Side team is willing to take back a man it believed guilty in order to win a pennant.” On that date, the Cubs, with a 47-20 record, led the second-place Pirates by 2½ games.

While the Cardinals continued their free-fall into seventh place, Taylor found himself part of baseball’s best pitching staff, on a team destined to end the season with a sparkling 116-36 record. From the time Taylor returned to the franchise, their record was 69-16. Taylor contributed solid work to the Chicago cause, going 12-3. He completed his first eight starts, winning six while allowing only 23 runs. On August 9, he defeated Harry McIntire 5-3 at Brooklyn, his 185th consecutive complete game.

The streak ended four days later in the finale of a four-game series at Brooklyn. With one out in the third inning, trailing 3-1 with runners on base, Chance replaced Taylor with Orval Overall, who stifled Brooklyn the rest of the way as the Cubs swept the series. Taylor had logged 1,727 innings as a starter without being relieved. He finished his final seven starts of 1906, winning six of them to achieve his fourth 20-win season. He did not pitch in the World Series, in which the Cubs were upset in six games by the cross-town White Sox.

Taylor’s complete-game streak was not noted by the press of the time, which lacked the obsession with statistics of today’s writers and fans. Nor was it trumpeted when his pitching declined in 1907 and he found himself relegated to the minor leagues. He toiled in the minors for six more years, retiring shortly before his 40th birthday. He returned to Ohio, became a coal miner, and died when he was 64. He remained in obscurity until a later generation of baseball historians marveled at his career record of 278 complete games in 286 starts (97.2%, the highest percentage for any pitcher who pitched in the 20th century, followed by Nichols at 94.7%) and unearthed his record streak.

That streak is usually given as 187 consecutive complete games, but the correct number (compiled from the league-maintained day-by-day records housed at the Hall of Fame and confirmed by the team game logs at the Retrosheet website) is 185. The discrepancies occurred in 1902, including one game whose records were later wiped out after the league determined that the distance from the mound to the plate was less than the regulation 60’6”.

How inconceivable does that streak seem today? Watch the box scores in the upcoming seasons and see how long it takes for any pitcher to complete even five starts in a row. Don’t hold your breath, though. It hasn’t happened yet this century (the only two pitchers with four straight complete games since 1999 are Paul Byrd of the 2002 Royals and Roy Halladay of the 2003 Blue Jays). If anyone does get five in a row, simply multiple that feat by 37, and you’ll begin to appreciate what Jack Taylor did.

The following table shows Taylor’s record during the complete-game streak.

Opponent Record Innings Pitched Runs Allowed
New York 9-17 229 116
Chicago 3-10 124 46
Pittsburgh 15-17 294 147
Philadelphia 15-10 223 88
St. Louis 7-3 88 35
Brooklyn 15-10 219 80
Boston 17-10 244 1/3 62
Cincinnati 16-10-1 246 96

TOTALS 97-87-1 1,667 1/3 670

A Closer Look: Dizzy Dean Wins 30 in 1934

This year marks the 75th anniversary of a milestone we are unlikely to witness again in our lifetimes: the last 30-win season in the National League, authored by Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals. Living in an era when the 20-win season is becoming rare, we can learn a lot from a closer look at how Dean achieved his feat.

Here’s one important reason why winning 30 games is almost impossible today: only six pitchers in the past 15 seasons have started as many as 36 games in one season. Even if a pitcher completed all 36 starts, he would be hard-pressed to win 30, and with managers routinely removing starters after six or seven innings, their bullpens are going to blow at least a few potential wins every year. Winning 20 is an uphill climb today, much less 30.

How many games did Dizzy Dean start in 1934, when he went 30-7 for the pennant-winning Cardinals? Would you believe only 33? He was pretty much unbeatable as a starter, with a 26-5 record and 24 complete games. The big difference was that he pitched 17 times in relief, winning four times and losing twice. If the “save” had existed in 1934 (it didn’t until 1969), he would have been credited with seven.

You could argue that if he hadn’t been used so often in relief, he could have started more games and still won 30. That’s possible, but the way he was utilized was typical of his time. Take the pitcher from each National League team who started the most games in 1934, and those eight pitchers averaged more than 10 relief appearances apiece. The philosophy was simple: managers wanted their best pitcher on the mound with a close game on the line. If that meant pushing his next start back a day or two, fine.

Don’t think that these pitchers were ridiculously overworked. The overall pattern of games started wasn’t far from what we see today. Only five National Leaguers started as many as 35 games, and three of those were on the New York Giants. Only nine pitchers logged more than 260 innings, just over one per team, with three topping 300 innings pitched (including Dean’s 311 2/3). The majority of teams had what amounted to a five-man rotation. Managers simply recognized that since pitchers regularly throw between starts to keep sharp, they might as well do that throwing in games when they were needed. The same pattern existed in the American League, where the league leader in starts had 35 (the same as both league leaders in 2008).

Dean began 1934 with a ragged April, winning only one of his first four starts. In May he won all five of his starts and ended the month by saving a 9-6 victory for his brother Paul (known as “Daffy” though he wasn’t nearly as daffy as Dizzy). The Cardinals surrendered their grip on first place with a lackluster June, and between June 17 and July 1 Dizzy recorded five of their seven wins, including two in relief. The July 1 game was his greatest Herculean effort as he pitched 17 innings in Cincinnati, allowing 18 hits, 7 walks, and 6 runs before winning 8-6 with relief help in the 18th inning.

That stretch also included Dean’s most controversial victory of the season. He faced the Giants in St. Louis on June 27 and battled through eight innings of a 7-7 tie. Manager Frankie Frisch removed him with two outs in the top of the ninth, and reliever Jim Mooney recorded the final out. Thus Mooney was what we call today the “pitcher of record” when Bill DeLancey homered in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. According to Dean’s biographer, Robert Gregory, “official scorer Martin Haley of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat awarded the game to Diz and had no second thoughts about it, although the Giants, who had thus far been unable to beat either of the Deans, were said to be particularly indignant.” Official scorers did have more latitude then than they do now, and were prone to award the win to a starter who toiled nobly for most of the game. However, Dean’s pitching that day was on the ugly side, and without Haley’s ruling he would be known today merely as the National League’s last 29-game winner.

In July Dean stretched his winning streak to ten games before losing 5-4 at Pittsburgh in his last start of the month. At this point the Cardinals were stuck in third place, 5½ games behind the Giants. Though Dean notched his twentieth win of the season with a shutout at Cincinnati on August 7, things went downhill soon after. Both Deans lost in an August 12 doubleheader, and they didn’t take it well. They were no-shows for an exhibition game the next day, dared Frisch to try to collect the fines he imposed on them, and when Frisch suspended them, Dizzy ripped up his uniform and they went on strike. Two days later they gave in to management, but Dizzy served a ten-game suspension (making his remarkable road to 30 wins even rockier). The team treaded water all month, and on August 25 Dean lost in relief to the Giants, his only loss to them in 1934 against six victories. The Cards remained in third place, trailing the Giants by seven games.

Finally the Cardinals got hot, led by the stellar pitching of Dizzy and Daffy Dean. Beginning on August 28, the team went 24-7 on their pennant drive, with 14 wins by the brothers. Dizzy was particularly brilliant, a thoroughbred streaking down the home stretch. In seven September starts, he pitched six complete-game wins, including three shutouts.

He buttressed his starts with four relief outings in the final three weeks, twice preserving leads. But it was the final week that sealed the deal on his greatness. The Cardinals still trailed the Giants by two games when he took the mound against the Pirates on September 25. He had shut out the Dodgers four days earlier, and relieved in both games of a doubleheader two days earlier, but he was strong enough to take a shutout to the ninth inning and hold on to beat the Bucs 3-2.

The Cardinals pulled within a half-game of the Giants on September 27, and that night, all business, Dizzy turned down an offer to rope a calf at a local rodeo (he was prone to such sideshow antics throughout his career). The next day, working on two days’ rest, he shut out the Reds 4-0, and the Cardinals had finally caught up with the Giants. On September 29, Daffy picked up win #19 while the Giants lost, putting St. Louis into the lead with only one game left on the schedule.

There was no question who would pitch that game for the Cardinals. Despite only one day of rest, Dizzy was the man again, and he came through with another shutout, a 9-0 trouncing of the Reds to clinch the pennant. Win #30 was his league-leading seventh shutout, but the brothers weren’t done. Each won two World Series games against the Detroit Tigers, with Dizzy again pitching a shutout on one day of rest, winning the decisive seventh game 11-0.

“It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it” is the popular quote attributed to Dizzy Dean. No National League pitcher since 1934 could brag about doing what he did that year.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cue The Theme From "Jaws"

Last month (see July blog titled "A Message From the Secretary") I vowed not to watch any more Mets games because they were not only losing way too often, they were playing hideous baseball that was unappealing to behold. For the most part I have stuck to that vow, often monitoring the score on the computer so I'd know when I could watch without getting bummed out. Recently I've caught some of their winning efforts, though except for a late-inning grand slam by Fernando Tatis, their best isn't all that exciting. Face it--as competent as Alex Cora and Angel Pagan have been, they can't match the charisma (if that isn't stretching the compliment) of Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. When their lone active all-star, David Wright, has the same number of home runs at Post-Shea as visitor Mark Reynolds had in last weekend's series, it is not a case of waking up in the morning and thinking, "Oh gee, when is the Mets game on--I don't want to miss their next thrilling exploit!" It has been safer to dip my toes in the Mets ocean lately only after checking the radar reports and scouring the vicinity with binoculars.

So it was that last night I went back and forth between the game, the computer, and reality. The three-run rally in the 2nd inning was a lot of fun, especially Johan Santana's bases-loaded double. He made three fine fielding plays, too: an over-the-shoulder catch of a feeble pop behind the mound; a freakish heel-kick of a ground smash over to Wright, who made a fine barehand stab and throw to rob the batter; and a headlong dive where he failed to make the catch but got an out because this time it was an opposing player who made a brain-dead play, failing to run because he didn't see that he had hit the ball fair. Santana always gives you your money's worth, especially on cable. As a Mets announcer noted late in the game, "It isn't often that a pitcher who gives up five runs is still the best player on the field." Santana, despite getting roughed up, showed the tenacity of a pitcher determined to win 20 games a season no matter how bad the team plays behind him.

My wife and I took a break from the game in the 4th inning, with the Mets ahead 3-1. Next thing I knew, the computer told me it was 4-3 Cardinals, and I wondered whether that slim one-run deficit would kill the suspense, as it often has lately. A little while later, however, I saw that it was 6-4 Mets, so back to the television and TiVo it was, allowing me to watch the whole four-run Mets avalanche which gave them a 7-4 lead. Surely this was a game I'd have to keep watching!

Albert Pujols came up in the 7th inning, and my wife muttered, "he's an asshole." "Why?" I wondered. Pujols scares me at the plate, but I'm not aware that he's done anything distasteful. "Because he always does bad things to us," she explained. I couldn't disagree, but said, "That's true, but you shouldn't call him an asshole. He might take it personally and do even worse things to us." In retrospect, my caution was too late, but I didn't realize it at the time.

It was still 7-5 Mets heading to the 9th inning, and Santana, after yeoman work, yielded to the high-priced closer, Francisco Rodriguez. He's done a fine job for the most part, though his sharpness has suffered lately from a scarcity of the "save opportunities" which seem to bring out the best in a reliever. In he came with a bona-fide save chance gift-wrapped in his lap, and he proceeded to puke all over it. Rick Ankiel led off with a double. Julio Lugo followed with a double. "I can't watch," I growled at my wife, switching her over to the Food Network while I retreated to the computer to see if my other fantasy leaguers were doing any better (oh yeah, K-Rod was my 4th-round pick in the main league I'm in).

A moment later, I saw that K-Rod had fanned pinch-hitter Colby Rasmus for the first out. Okay, I thought, I'll give him a chance. I returned to the television, changed the channel, and saw K-Rod bent over and holding his head. That couldn't be good. It wasn't. Skip Schumaker had singled in the tying run, blowing the win that Santana so thoroughly deserved. He'll get over it. I'm not sure I'll get over the rest of the game. K-Rod proceeded the load the bases, then managed to retire Ryan Ludwick to keep things tied 7-7 and give the Mets a chance to salvage a victory in the bottom of the 9th. But no. The Mets squandered a couple of runners as well, and the game headed to extra innings. I headed back to the computer.

I'm sure Jerry Manuel discussed what happened next in his post-game press gathering, but I didn't have the stomach to watch. Brian Stokes replaced K-Rod and retired the first batter on an easy ground ball. No problem. That was enough for Manuel, who brought in Pedro Feliciano in Stokes' place. The general idea behind this move was that three of the next four Cardinals hitters bat left-handed, and "Perpetual Pedro" is tough on lefties. That logic is good if you're planning on facing four hitters after one man is already out. More to the point (or my point, at least) is that the next two hitters--Ankiel and Lugo--are a lefty and a righty. No matter which reliever was on the mound with one out, he would have to retire a righty and a lefty to get the side out in order. So what was the big hurry in bringing in a lefty? What was the difference? Why not leave Stokes in to pitch to that pair of hitters, and if he didn't get them both out, then bring in Feliciano with two straight lefties due up?

My point is that Stokes had already retired one hitter, and my extensive research on relief pitching tells me that it is better to stick with a pitcher who is doing well than to bring in a new guy who may or may not have anything on the ball. Manuel brought in Feliciano, and he quickly loaded the bases on two hits and a walk. Left in to face that final lefty, Schumaker, he fanned him for the second out, keeping the sharks at bay.

With Mark DeRosa, a tough righty, coming up and Pujols on deck, Manuel switched to Sean Green. Ah, Sean Green! The other guy in the trade with Seattle that brought the since-disabled J. J. Putz to Flushing Meadows but was primarily designed to send Aaron Heilman, the chief arsonist in the conflagration that was the 2007-2008 Mets bullpen, as far across the country as possible. From the start, it appeared that Green was channeling Heilman's deer-in-the-headlight approach to blowing games in the late innings. After allowing 15 runs in his first 15 innings, he was exiled to the mop-up role, where he relaxed and gradually whittled his ERA down to 4.72 before last night.

If Feliciano's efforts brought the disquieting whiff of a possible gas leak, Green was the unsuspecting homeowner entering the room with a lit match. BOOM!! His first pitch nailed DeRosa on the arm, allowing Ankiel to stroll across the plate with the go-ahead run. I was sitting at the computer when I saw what had happened. "Now he's screwed," I thought, "with Pujols coming up." Later, on the lowlights show, I saw that Green got two quick strikes on the big man, got a target from catcher Omir Santos for a slider low and a foot outside, and somehow hung the slider over the heart of the plate. BOOMBOOMBOOMBOOM!!!! Pujols' fifth grand slam of the season blew the game wide open, and there went the suspense.

Apart from the disaster of the last two innings, there was one other debacle last night which makes me more hesitant than ever about getting too close to the Mets. That was the 7th-inning disappearance of Luis Castillo into the Bermuda Triangle inside the Mets dugout. After a harmless groundout, Castillo lost his footing walking down the steps to the dugout, and the result is a sprained ankle which, in light of the little muscle tweak that has cost Reyes two months and counting, will probably spell the end of Castillo's season. He has been practically the only Met to exceed expectations (albeit modest) this season, if Mets fans can bring themselves to overlook that nightmarish dropped popup against the Yankees. Merely staying healthy all season has set him and Wright apart from the rest of the team's M.A.S.H. unit. Now, he's sidelined trying to walk down a few stairs, something even my drunken Uncle Mort managed to avoid doing until he was 83 years old.

What the hell is going on? What's next? I have to keep a safe distance. I'd be afraid to walk next to one of them on the street, lest that proverbial piano dropping from the 20th floor cream both of us. It's bad enough watching them lose. Now we get to watch them killing themselves. Look at what has happened while I was writing this blog. Good news: the Mets lead 7-0 in the 6th inning. Bad news: Jonathon Niese, who has pitched decently as a desperation starter, blew out his hamstring on a fielding play in the top of the 2nd inning. Well, they might hold onto the lead, but we won't be seeing Niese on the pitching mound soon. That's the story these days. They're not going to win enough games the rest of the season to go anywhere but home. And now even getting on and off the field is fraught with danger. Get away from me!