Wednesday, December 27, 2017

This year's Baseball Hall of Fame voting process needs investigating



This is my 20th year of voting for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and I have never been so confused. More conflicted than the Last Jedi I am.
It’s hard enough differentiating between the Steroid Era and the Golden Age of Baseball – I like to call it the “Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle Era” – but now we, fellow Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voting members, have one Hall of Famer essentially telling us who not to vote for and a bunch of other Hall of Famers basically telling us who we should have voted for years ago.
I used to simply rely on the Baseball Encyclopedia and my own eyes to decide which candidates to check on my HOF ballot, but now I feel Special Counsel Robert Mueller is needed to investigate and sort out this mess.
It started, of course, with a mysterious email from Joe Morgan that, in the eyes of some sportswriters and talking heads on TV, is as curious and controversial as any email Hilary Clinton produced. Or didn’t produce.
Morgan is royalty, a two-time National League MVP who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990. He is also Vice Chairman of the Hall of Fame. In his out-of-leftfield email the HOF second baseman pleaded that known or suspected steroid users should never be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, i.e. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Wink. Wink.
I had two questions when I received the email: 1) How did Joe Morgan get MY email address? and 2) why is he speaking out now when Bonds and Clemens have been on the HOF ballot for five years?
Well, 1) I have never met or ever spoken to Joe Morgan and from what I have been told he has long disparaged baseball writers and now he is appealing to them for logic and reason, i.e. help? I suspect he got my email from the Baseball Hall of Fame roledex, which made me wonder if his email is a rogue act against ‘roids or part of a wider Hall of Fame conspiracy to block Bonds and Clemens from having their plaques in Cooperstown? Like keeping Roy Moore and his horse out of shopping malls.
And 2) Because Bonds and Clemens are creeping closer to receiving the required 75 percent from the voting body of eligible BBWAA active and honorary members, Joe decided he needed to get his feelings off his chest and confess as if it was his last dying wish. I do not know if he has a serious illness because he has not consented to numerous interview requests since the email.
So what am I to make of this?
I have never voted for Bonds – by far the greatest, most amazing player I have ever watched -- and Clemens, though I am inching closer to it. The email did more to turn me off than tune me in. It stopped me dead in my track of thinking. I do not like being told who to vote for – or not – but it causes me to pause and reassess.
For example, Sammy Sosa hit 609 career home runs, 243 in an incredible four-year period, and wound up ninth on the all-time list. Would he be Hall of Fame worthy without the use of performance enhancing drugs? Mark McGwire is 11th on the all-time HR list and yet he’s already been banished from the ballot.
We could go on and on debating this. Like CNN and Fox debating who had a better year: Alec Baldwin or the President he impersonates?
I have previously stated my reasons for not checking Bonds and Clemens on my ballot for the fundamental reason of not respecting the game. But a column by Sport Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, another HOF voting member, touches on all the bases about I how I feel about not voting for steroid users.
Hence, I cannot yet vote for Bonds and Clemens – or other steroid users such as Manny Ramirez in his first year on the ballot -- with full conviction. I am not comfortable. Not yet. Game of Shadows, Greg Anderson, and Brian McNamee were not Fake News.
Of course, if Bonds and Clemens are not voted into the Hall of Fame after the maximum of 10 years on the ballot, they can get a mulligan. The Baseball Hall of Fame Modern Era Committee – a 16-member crew that includes Hall of Fame inductees George Brett, Rod Carew, Bobby Cox, Dennis Eckersley, John Schuerholz, Don Sutton, Dave Winfield, and Robin Yount – can vote them into Cooperstown.
That’s how pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammel will be inducted into the next Hall of Fame class. After failing for 15 years to receive the prerequisite number of votes from BBWAA HOF voters, Morris and Trammel were out of bounds, yet the new Modern Era panel gave them another shot from the tee on the other fairway.
So what I am I to make of this?
Do I lower the bar on my criteria for HOF induction? If Morris and Trammel are deemed Hall of Famers by Hall of Famers, then should I now vote for Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, who are the cusp of Cooperstown in my mind? Or Fred McGriff and Larry Walker? Or Billy Wagner? Or another shortstop Omar Vizquel, who is on the ballot for the first time this year? He won five more Gold Gloves than Trammel.
This is a time of the year -- when a no-trade clause has more veto power than Santa Claus – that I have come to dread. Time is running out again for me to make up my mind as my ballot needs to be postmarked by New Year’s Eve, which means I could slip past Ryan Thibodaux’s HOF tracking device and escape to the closest rebel base for the Resistance.
I wish I had more time. Or Robert Mueller.
I can vote for up to 10 players. I voted for eight – the most I have ever voted for on one Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 20 years:
Chipper Jones: One of only nine players in history with at least a .300 batting average, .400 on base percentage, a .500 slugging average, and 400 career homes. The others are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Frank Thomas, and Manny Ramirez.
Jim Thome: 607 career home runs in 22 seasons.  One of only five players in the history of the game – along with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Barry Bonds -- with at least 50 home runs, 1,500 runs scored, 1,600 RBIs, and 1,700 walks.
Vladimir Guerrero: I messed up and gave too much credence to his less than glowing career defensive analytics last year instead of going with my gut feeling about his offensive prowess. Only seven other players in history of the game have at least a .318 batting average and .553 slugging percentage. Their names are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby.
Trevor Hoffman: Seven-time All-Star as dominant relief pitcher. Second all-time in games saves (601). Finished top 10 in Cy Young Award voting four times, including second in 1998 and 2006 – eight years apart.
Edgar Martinez: If we are making room in the Hall of Fame for pitching specialists than we should save space for hitting specialists. Seven-time All-Star with Mariners and two-time AL batting champion. One of only nine players in history with 30 homers, 500 doubles, a career batting average better than .300, a career OBP higher than .400 and a career slugging percentage higher than .500.
Jeff Kent: MVP in 2000 and finished in Top 10 three other times. One of the greatest power hitting second baseman of all-time with 351 career homers, a rare feat among middle infielders. If he had been a corner infielder with those career numbers he would be off the ballot by now.
Mike Mussina: Though he finished in the top three of Cy Young Award voting once in 18 seasons, he is one of only six modern-era pitchers with at least 250 wins and a winning percentage of .638. The others are Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens.
Curt Schilling: Runner-up for Cy Young Award three times. One of only four pitchers with at least 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks. If only he had better control with his Twitter account.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

San Jose Sharks alumni bring goodwill to fire victims



The scene inside the arena in Santa Rosa was a fantasy come true.
It was part Charles Dickens’ novel, part Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and part Charlton Heston comes riding to the rescue.
There were San Jose Sharks’ legends, sitting on a bench next to a Christmas tree taller than Zdeno Chara, playing a benefit pick-up hockey game against an ordinary group of extraordinary policemen and firefighters on a small indoor rink with garland hanging from the rafters and a few hundred fans sitting in the stands with wide eyes and big smiles as if Christmas morning had arrived and their stockings and hearts had been filled.
You half expected Tiny Tim Ratchit to skate out and take a shift with Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, or Dan Boyle.
For the ex-Sharks, the giddy spectacle in the arena at least temporary erased the grim sight they had witnessed only a few blocks away a few hours earlier. En route to the rink, their bus took a detour through the Coffey Park neighborhood that had been wiped out by the North Bay wildfire in October, leaving more than 8,000 people homeless. It reminded the Sharks alums of their true mission of coming to Santa Rosa.
“I have been here before to see the destruction, but I wanted the other players to see it,” said Doug Murray, former Sharks defenseman who is now president of the newly-formed Sharks Alumni Foundation.
“It really hits home. Everybody knows what happened, but you really don’t know until you see it.”
What the Sharks Alumni Foundation saw in the end was an opportunity to go on a power play and help a community still reeling. The game was born out of a phone call from Sharks broadcaster and former player Jamie Baker to Redwood Empire Ice Arena general manager Kevin McCool offering assistance following the devastating fires. It coincided with the forming of the Sharks Alumni Foundation in November that led to a Bay Area Fire Relief Game and a bus trip to Santa Rosa on Dec. 8 that resulted in a Christmas miracle of sorts.
The event raised more than $40,000 for Mark West Youth Club Little League, Speedway Children’s Charities in Sonoma, Santa Rosa Firefighters Association -Toys for Kids Program, and Mill Valley Association of Volunteer Firefighters – Bikes for Firestorm 2017 Victims. However, the game at the center of it hopefully did more in the long term. It raised the collective spirits of first responders and their families and the local youth sports community. According to Dawnielle Chaney, general manager of the Sharks Alumni Foundation, 110 of the 435 Mark West Youth Club Little Leaguers in the Santa Rosa lost their homes in the North Bay wildfires.
“We’re not here for fundraising. This is a goodwill game,” Murray said. “The bigger thing is creating a fun event and having people come here and have a few laughs.”
In that case, the Sharks Alumni Foundation scored big time.  A few minutes into their game against the Guns N Hoses Hockey Club, the pros were dominating the skilled, albeit amateur, skaters comprised of law enforcement and fire fighting personnel. So much so that Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov pretended to nap. Nabby literally laid down in the goal mouth, resting one hand against his chin as his teammates possessed the puck on the other end of the ice.
All this was done in the name of fun and games.
Soon after, however, Nabby was called on to make a save against a Guns N Hoses player trying to execute a penalty shot. He was distracted when three Sharks players on the bench hurled their sticks in his path.
Players on both sides smiled. Good-natured kidding was welcomed after months of misfortune.
The Sharks’ contingent – led by former player and current general manager Doug Wilson – actually invited three local players to suit up with the alumni team. One of them was Robert Nappi, a Rancho Adobe Fire District firefighter who, on the horrific night of Oct. 8, was on the frontlines courageously helping people evacuate their homes. The next day he returned to his own home in Coffey Park to discover it had been burned to the ground.
Two months later, Nappi, like many others around him, were still in a need of a boost. The Sharks gave him an assist, two in fact. Nappi scored the third goal of the benefit pick-up game on assists from Ricci and Nabokov.
Ironically, Nappi’s jersey number on this special night was No. 9, playing in an arena where only one player has had his hockey jersey retired – also No. 9. No, not Gordie Howe. That number and honor belongs to the Charles Schulz, who created the comic strip Peanuts and owned the Redwood Empire Ice Arena – a.k.a. Snoopy’s Home Ice – that hosts annually the Senior World Hockey Tournament.
It was fitting that Schulz’s widow, Jean, was on hand for the ceremonial puck drop on this remarkable evening. Their hillside home in Santa Rosa was also destroyed by the wildfires.
You get the big picture. The North Bay wildfires impacted thousands of people, not just a few hundred inside the Snoopy’s Home Ice and the emotional toll is far reaching and still extends into this holiday season. The TV cameras may go away once the fires are extinguished, but the images of the catastrophic event that occurred in a matter of minutes overnight on Oct. 8 is forever ingrained in the minds of the people truly impacted.
What the San Jose Sharks Alumni Foundation did was deliver good deed like Santa Claus. The former players were reindeer and Doug Murray was their St. Nick and when they packed up their gear and departed the Redwood Empire Ice Arena on Dec. 8 they behind a trail of smiles and laughs with the gift of selfies and spirited play on the ice.
For those first responders who participated in the hockey game and the people in attendance who saw it, at least for one night it put the merry back in Merry Christmas.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A tribute to my first Hall of Famer




I remember the first time I saw Jere White: the Myth, the Legend, the Zeus-like Superstar Athlete.
For years as kids we used to play neighborhood pick-up tackle football games on Eric Annis’ lawn off Morton Avenue in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. It didn’t dawn on us that it was really creepy playing football right next to the embalming room of a funeral home. It only mattered that the lawn was the largest makeshift football field in town, and Eric already had the largest dog in town, a great dane that I swear must have been operated by remote control.
Jere was larger than life to me. I had heard about him for years but he lived on the Dover side of town, which seemed as far away as California or World Peace. And then one day he showed up unannounced at Eric Annis Field to play and I was in total awe. I remember being scared to tackle Jere because I had built him up in my mind over years of silly childhood imagination to be a demigod, quite capable of charging through me like a lightning bolt or leaping over me like Pegasus carrying pigskin. He was a chiseled statue in the making.
I never imagined at that time that Jere would one day become “Whitey,” my classmate, my teammate, and one of my best friends for life. He became my Ferris Buehler hero.
This weekend Whitey is being inducted into the Foxcroft Academy Athletic Hall of Fame. I am happy and proud of him for this. Although I regrettably am unable to be there for his honor, I am honored to have played football and basketball and baseball alongside him, not to mention being his buddy and co-pilot in the rusted, beat-up blue car we called “The Bomb” that he used to drive to school. It had a corroded hole on the passenger side floor that I figured I could use to power the car in Fred Flintstone fashion in the event we ran out of gas. I was Whitey’s Barney Rubble.
In baseball, Whitey was our catcher who was always in control. He was serious as a clutch-hitter, but I remember the fun he had behind the plate. How he would get into his crouch then spin his arms like a paddle wheel, a signal to me at second base that it was time to smile and play the game with joy.
In basketball, Whitey was what I always envisioned a point guard to be. He was a take-charge guy who could muscle-up and drive to the basket and score at will whenever he wanted to.
In football, Jere was our Joe Namath. He had Broadway Joe’s poster on his bedroom wall and when we as a team started wearing white cleats like Joe Willie our senior year it seemed like destiny. Those were the best years even though we didn’t have the best teams.
I remember the night we ran countless wind sprints all the way to the other side of the practice field in the dark to pick leaves as punishment after Whitey expressed our team’s frustration and lipped off at our legendary team trainer Lap Lary. It was the worst practice of our lives, but strangely it brought us closer together as a team and as naturists I suppose.
I was the starting safety and back-up quarterback behind Whitey. The highlight of my career was catching an arching perfectly-thrown 70-yard touchdown pass from Whitey in my first start at wide receiver on the very first play of the game in the final home game of our football careers – a 60-0 win over Greenville. I did my Elmo Wright high-kicking TD celebration in the end zone which I now regret. Shorthanded and low on morale, the game turned out to be Greenville’s final high school football game.
The next week, playing our first ever game under the lights in Bangor against John Bapst, our crack coaching staff decided to run the identical play for the first play of the game again to stun John Bapst as we did Greenville. I ran my precise double-move route downfield and looked back for the ball. Whitey already was flat on his back as John Bapst defense wisely anticipated the play, blitzed and sacked him.
So much for smart coaching and the element of surprise.

Yet my most vivid memory of Whitey came in a home game earlier that season against stinkin’ Lincoln. We were tired and irritated and struggling on defense and Whitey, our co-captain, suddenly stepped in, faced us, raised his voice and delivered a quick fire-and-brimstone speech that instantly refreshed our spirits and raised our intensity. We loudly clapped our hands and broke the huddle united as rejuvenated and fired up as I ever remember being in my life.
That spoke volumes to the leadership capabilities that Whitey possessed. He didn’t say much – like Joe Montana – but when he did it was instant inspiration.
It’s also a vivid example of how much my teammates and I looked up to Whitey. Since that day on Eric Annis’ field, I have idolized Whitey and, to be honest, some 50 years later I still do. And I’m still scared to tackle him.
So, speaking for the FA Class of 1972, I would like to congratulate Jere on his honor. He is our classmate, our teammate, our friend, and now our Hall of Famer.