Tuesday, February 2, 2010

15 Days Until Spring Training: Thurman Munson

Aside from the natural ability to hit and play the position, Thurman Munson had plenty of characteristics that perfectly suited him to be the Yankees' catcher. He was pugnacious, rugged and passionate, willing to sacrifice his body on any given play. He was simultaneously proud and humble, holding the game of baseball in the highest regard. Furthermore, he had a mean-ass mustache and hated the Red Sox. Boy, did he hate the Red Sox. I'd like to think that if he was alive today, old Squatty Body would have rather liked the name of this blog.

The above sequence is from a game at Fenway, on August 1st, 1973. Stick Michael was up to bat in the top of the 9th with the score tied, and failed to make contact on a suicide squeeze, unleashing Munson down the third baseline towards Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. Munson led with a left forearm and Pudge went low, sending the two tumbling over home plate. Fisk held onto the ball, Munson was out, and they quickly got to their feet and began exchanging blows.

Munson and Pudge had a contentious rivalry which extended beyond your typical rival hatred. Although some elements of the feud may have been exaggerated in Munson's biography written by Christopher Devine, there was a legitimate dislike between the two that was exacerbated by the teams they played for.

Perhaps the seeds of Munson's hatred of Boston were planted, like mine, in the time he spent there as a young man. In the summer of 1967, Joe "Skippy" Lewis, manager of the Chatham A's of the Cape Cod Baseball League offered Munson a spot as their starting catcher, along with a side job with the Chatham Parks Department for $75 a week. In 39 games that summer, Munson hit .420 as a catcher, .65 higher than any other other player in the league and was named MVP of the league. Now, the winner of the CCBL batting title receives the Thurman Munson Award.

It was during his time on the Cape that he was discovered by the Yankees. They selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 1968 Amateur Draft, gave him a $75,000 signing bonus and a $500 per week salary.

Munson made his debut in 1969 but appeared in only 26 games. In 1970, he won Rookie of the Year, netting 96% of the vote after batting .302/.386/.415. While remaining solid behind the plate, Munson had two years in 1971 & '72 where he was above league average, but unspectacular offensively.

Although it was not recognized as such by the MVP voting, 1973 was Munson's finest year as a hitter. He raked 29 doubles, 20 homers and hit .301/.362/.487, good for a 141 OPS+. That season was also the beginning of Thurm's three year Gold Glove and six year All-Star appearance streaks. In each of those six years, Munson placed in the MVP voting and played 144 games or more behind the plate.

He was named Yankee captain in 1975, claiming a post that Lou Gehrig vacated with his farewell speech in 1939. In 1976, Munson clocked 17 homers, 27 doubles, drove in 105 runs and was rewarded with the AL MVP, receiving 18 out of a possible 24 first place votes. A testament to his hard-headed, competitive nature, that year he stole 14 bases but was caught 11 times. In fact, over his career, he was actually caught more than he was successful, stealing only 48 bases in 98 tries.

Munson was behind the plate for Ron Guidry's legendary 1978 season, where he went 25-3 with a 1.74ERA. Guidry later said about Munson, "I went through the whole year never shaking him off one time. He always knew when to say something, and when to shut up."

Munson had three children who lived with his wife in Canton, Ohio, where he grew up. He often grew homesick and decided to take flying lessons to make it easier to commute back and forth to see his family. On August 2nd, 1979, he was practicing take-offs and landings at Akron-Canton Regional Airport when he met his untimely end.

On the approach to the runway, Munson dropped the flaps on the wings of his Cessna Citation I/SP, but waited too long before giving the plane more power. As a result, the aircraft came up well short of the intended target. Munson had failed to fasten his shoulder strap, was paralyzed during the initial impact and trapped inside the cockpit when the plane finally came to a rest after rolling and sliding for over 500 feet. His flight instructor, David Hall and his friend Kenny Anderson attempted to free Munson, but the plane caught on fire and they were forced to retreat. His last words were "Get me out of here! Please get me out!" A tragic and powerless cry for help that in no way reflected the way he lived. He was 32 years old.

Munson's funeral was held four days later on August 6th in Canton, Ohio. Lou Pinella and other Yankees spoke while Bobby Murcer delivered the eulogy that morning. That same day, the team took the field back in the Bronx to face the Orioles. Ron Guidry started but through the top of the 7th, the Yanks were down 4-0. Then with two outs in the bottom half of the frame, Bucky Dent worked a walk. Willie Randolph followed with a double, bringing up Murcer. Facing Dennis Martinez, Murcer blasted a three run shot, bringing the Yanks within one.

Guidry remained in the game, holding the O's at 4 through the tops of the 8th and 9th. Just as it was in the 7th, Bucky Dent reached base on a walk in the 9th, putting the tying run on base. Next up, Willie Randolph laid down a bunt in an attempt to move Dent over but Tippy Martinez made a throwing error that allowed the runners to advance to second and third. This brought up Murcer once again and he poked a single to left which drove in the tying and winning runs. Guidry got a complete game win and Murcer drove in all five runs for the Yankees.

Despite it's brevity, Thurm's career was one of constant success. In each of his nine full seasons as a player, he captured either the Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, MVP, or a World Series Championship.

When someone dies young, they are enshrined in our minds in their youth. There is a different legacy left than when we watch a person decline with age, grow frail and forget people's names. We see the sad portrayal of modern day Muhammad Ali, but only remember the dynamic vibrance of a prime Jimi Hendrix.

Munson's number was retired immediately after his death and an empty locker with the number 15 was kept in the Yankees Clubhouse through the closing of the Old Stadium. Written by George Steinbrenner, his plaque in Monument Park reads:
Our captain and leader has not left us, today, tomorrow, this year, next ... Our endeavors will reflect our love and admiration for him.
The 30th annual Thurman Munson Awards dinner will be held tonight at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan and will honor Joba Chamberlain, Darryl Strawberry and Lou Pinella, among others. The foundation has raised over $10M for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities since its inception.

Reed Johnson Chooses Goatee Over The Yankees

Despite possessing some of the offensive and defensive skills that the Yankees were seeking to acquire with the last $2M they had to spend this offseason, the team was unable to come to terms with former Cub and Blue Jay Reed Johnson. The versatile outfielder instead chose to take less money from the Dodgers so that he could retain his trademark facial hair.

Johnson has been especially effective against left handed pitching over the course of his career, something that two of the three outfielders projected to start for the Yankees in 2010 are not. He also has the ability to defend all three outfield positions - and is particularly effective in the corners - a skill that the Yankees have placed increasing priority on in recent years. However, despite the fit from the Yankees' perspective, Johnson was unwilling to conform to the Yankees grooming policy which allows only well-trimmed mustaches and short sideburns and was introduced by George Steinbrenner shortly after his purchase of the team.

"Scrap these beautiful chin whiskers, brah?", Johnson rhetorically asked a female reporter for the AP. "I've been cultivating this righteous 'tee off and on since I came up with the Jays and I'm not about to shave it off to go play for the [expletive] Yankees".

This came as a surprise to Brain Cashman, who seemed flustered by Johnson's continued rebuffing of his advances. According to a source within the Yankee organization with knowledge of the negotiations, Cashman told Johnson that New York would be willing to offer him $1M with another $500K in incentives - significantly more than the other offers he had on the table. However, Johnson gave the Yankees an ultimatum that specified the team would need to double their offer or allow him to retain his goatee in order for him to sign. Cashman, along with Hal Steinbrenner, were neither willing to change the grooming policy nor offer Johnson twice as much in order to get him to shave.

Instead of signing Johnson, the Yankees were forced to make a $2M deal with Randy Winn, a switch hitter who struggled mightily against lefties last season and has a negligible platoon split over the course of his career. Winn sported a far neater goatee in San Francisco but was willing to part with it in order to become a member of the defending World Champions. Said Winn, "Chad Gaudin gave up that Amish-looking arrangement on his chin last year and look what it got him. A World Series ring, baby".

Brain Cashman refused to comment on Johnson's negotiating tactcs, saying only "We are happy with our deal with Randy [Winn] and we look forward to seeing him in Spring Training".

15 Days Until Spring Training: Tom Tresh

Just as we've seen with other numbers, there are many Yankees to have worn number fifteen who accomplished enough in Pinstripes to warrant a post in our countdown. Red Ruffing is a Hall of Famer who co-anchored the pitching staff on six World Series winning teams. Tommy Henrich wore it for much of his career; his outfield mate Charlie Keller wore it for a single season. Later Joe Collins wore it for several seasons while platooning at first base for the Stengel-era teams. But we're going to elect to focus on other players today.

As the 1962 season dawned, the Yankees found themselves in need of shortstop. The incumbent Tony Kubek, who manned the position for most of the five previous seasons, had been called up for active military with the Wisconsin National Guard. The team turned to a twenty four year old second generation Big Leaguer. Tom Tresh had made his Major League debut the previous September, appearing in nine games after spending four seasons in the minors. Tresh won the job and became the last Yankee rookie to be the Opening Day starter at shortstop until Derek Jeter in 1996.

Tresh impressed, hitting .286/.359/.441 (117 OPS+), was named to both All-Star teams, and earned Rookie of the Year honors. His twenty home runs were more than he had hit in any of his minor league seasons. When Kubek returned to the club in August that season, Tresh transitioned to left field, despite never having played the position in his professional career. The Yankees reached the World Series for the third consecutive year, and the rookie Tresh hit .321/.345/.464 with two stolen bases and a critical go-ahead three run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Five. But perhaps his biggest contribution came at his new defensive position.

Game Seven of the 1962 World Series is remembered for Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson snagging a screaming line drive off the bat of Willie McCovey, with the winning run on second base, to give the Yankees a 1-0 victory and back-to-back titles. Tresh however made a standout play of his own, one that was nearly as important. With the bases empty and one out in the seventh inning and the Yankees lead 1-0. Willie Mays stepped to the plate against Ralph Terry and The Say Hey Kid ripped a drive down the left field line, a sure extra base hit. But Tresh hauled it in, making a running snow cone catch. Instead of having the tying run in scoring position with one out for the dangerous tandem of McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, there were two outs and the bases were empty.

As a promising switch hitter who had been converted from shortstop to the outfield and who often spelled the hobbled or injured Mickey Mantle in center field, the inevitable Mantle comparisons followed Tresh. While he never quite reached those heights, Tresh was a valuable and productive player for the Yankees, playing on two more pennant winners and posting a 125 OPS+ from 1963 through 1966, with two top ten finishes in home runs, another All-Star Game, and a Gold Glove to his credit. When back problems forced Kubek's retirement after the 1965 season, the Yankees had a hole at shortstop. After shuffling players around for two years, Tresh returned to his original position as the Yankees primary shortstop in 1968 and 1969.

By that point though Tresh's numbers, and the Yankees as organization, had fallen from the heights they'd reached early in the decade. Tresh, along with Joe Pepitone, Jim Bouton, Al Downing, and Mel Stottlemyre, were the last wave of good players produced by the once fertile Yankee farm system. As the farm went fallow, Mantle, Ford, Maris, and Howard aged, and the Dan Topping and Del Webb ownership group sold the club to CBS, the Yankees no longer had the financial or human resources of their dynasty years. Tresh was betrayed by injuries, and his once promising career became pedestrian by the time he reached thirty.

In June of 1969 the Yankees dealt Tresh to his hometown Tigers, where he finished the final season of his career. Two months after the Tresh trade, a Yankee rookie made his Major League debut, inheriting Tresh's old number fifteen. That rookie's arrival was a critical event for the Yankees, as he would lead the team from the dark days of the late 1960s and back to the top in the mid to late seventies. We'll hear more about him later.

As for Tresh, he was a regular at Old Timers Day throughout his retirement. He passed away following a heart attack in October 2008.

Groundhog Day: Wintertime Blues

Good morning Fackers. We're coming to you a little earlier than usual this morning, with this publishing at 7:00 AM. Twenty six minutes from now, the sun will rise in western Pennsylvania, bringing daylight to the tiny town of Punxsutawney. Shortly thereafter, some quack wearing a tuxedo and top hat will hold a glorified rodent aloft, and it will magically determine whether or not winter will last for another six weeks.

If that furball sees his shadow, I'm gonna be pissed. I've had enough of winter and cannot wait for baseball to start. So I'm not putting my faith in any groundhog today. As we will remind you later on, it's just fifteen days until pitchers and catchers report. And you can't have Spring Training if it's still winter. So shadow or no shadow, winter ends in two weeks and one day. And I couldn't be happier about that.

And if Punxsutawney Phil doesn't tell us what we want to hear, perhaps Staten Island Chuck will have better news for us. At the very least, Chuck should have the decency not to bite the mayor this year; his company has developed some pretty sweet baseball analytics software. On the other hand, if Bloomberg doesn't eventually offer the general public some version of the pro software, I say chomp away Chuck.

Well, it's the same old drill,
About Punxsutawney Phil,
If he's sees his own shadow,
I'm shootin' to kill.

Come on over baby,
I stand accused,
There's a man going crazy up here,
With the wintertime blues.