Monday, July 28, 2014

Hall Call: My memories of Big Hurt, Maddux, Cox, La Russa and Torre

A year ago, here's who was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame: early 20th century umpire Hank O'Day, 19th century ballplayer Deacon White and Jacob Ruppert, who owned the Yankees from 1915-39.

Yep, it was quite a day filled with baseball memories for all those whose average age was deceased.

The 2014 class more than made up for it, thank goodness.

What a group: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox

I had pretty good conversations over the years with five of the six - all but Glavine, who rarely pitched in games I covered.

Here are my impressions and memories of baseball's newest Hall of Famers ...


When I was a 30-something sportswriter in Minnesota, I remember watching The Big Hurt put a big hurtin' on the Twinkies, turning to the guy in the press box next to me and saying: "Frank Thomas might be the best hitter I've ever seen."

I had that thought many other times over the next several years. I'm pretty old, but not quite old enough to have seen the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in their primes. And I wasn't even born when many of the greats of the game were long retired. So Thomas looked pretty damn good to me.

If you think I'm exaggerating, here was The Big Hurt's stat line his first 10 full seasons in the big leagues (1991-2000): .320 BA, 1.020 OPS, 34 HR per year, 115 RBI per year. He won two MVPs and finished in the top three 3 more times. What a stud.

He got old and injuries started biting him, but he still had some great seasons. When he was 38 with Oakland and 39 with Toronto, he totaled 65 HR and 209 RBI.

I also will remember Thomas as a sensitive guy who sometimes claimed he didn't care what others thought but who obviously cared very much about how he was perceived. So it wasn't surprising that he had to fight back tears during his induction speech.

Big Frank was a me-first guy, as many superstars are, and could be quite a whiner and excuse-maker. But he mellowed as he grew older. I remember how outwardly happy he was in the clubhouse when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Still, I could tell he was disappointed that an injury prevented him from really being part of that team.

Thomas also was a central figure in one of my favorite Karma's A Bitch incidents:

The Sox won the division in 2000 but got off to a poor start in 2001. Making matters worse, Thomas got hurt in early May. Tub of goo pitcher David Wells, who was brought in to give the team "an edge," opined on his radio show that Thomas was a baby who refused to play with pain. When Thomas ultimately was diagnosed with a torn triceps that required season-ending surgery, Wells refused to apologize. Fittingly, the corpulent Wells sustained a back injury that ruined his season. I guess the big baby couldn't pitch with pain.


As instant replay gets used more and more frequently, occasionally somebody brings up the possibility that cameras and computers might one day replace the home-plate umpire. The next Greg Maddux had better hope that never happens.

Maddux lived just outside the strike zone. Because he had such pinpoint control, he was given calls that few other pitchers got. He was smart enough to take advantage of it, working that outside corner for all it was worth.

And it was worth a lot, including 355 wins and 3,371 strikeouts. 

The myth is that Maddux was a lobber for the entirety of his career, making those 3,000-plus K's even more incredible. The fact is that for more than half of his career, Maddux could pop the catcher's mitt pretty darn good - I'm talking 92, 93 mph with regularity. His control and speed changes made his fastball seem ever faster, too.

Maddux made the majors in 1986, one year after I became a full-time sportswriter. However, I was only an observer from afar until the Cubs brought him back in 2004.

Fanfare? Hype? Please! Those words don't come close to the all-out giddiness Cubbieland was going through when the team added Maddux to a pitching staff that carried the team to the NLCS the previous year. Sports Illustrated put 'em on the cover and predicted an end to the 95-year championship drought.

The question wasn't if the Cubs would have the best starting rotation in baseball. It was: Where does this staff rank in the history of baseball? Heck, some even argued that the Cubs had the best-hitting and best-fielding rotation of all time. What? Not the best-looking, too?

After the Cubs signed Maddux, I wrote that it obviously was a great move but it guaranteed nothing because they still had shortcomings at catcher, shortstop, in the bullpen and at the top of the order. Wow ... did I get a lot of angry email over that one - including one from the managing editor of the newspaper we owned in Peoria. He wanted to know why I couldn't be more "positive."

My response was that I was positive ... that the Cubs were still the Cubs, and no living person had ever lost a dime betting against the Cubs winning a championship.

The Cubs didn't have the kind of postseason choke job that they had the previous year ... because they choked down the stretch in 2004 and missed the playoffs entirely. The Cubs lost 7 of 8, and Maddux was rocked in his start during that span.

Over the next few years, I interviewed Maddux many times. He was bright and had a very dry wit, but he was extremely guarded around most of the media. I often would finish a 10-minute interview and think I had something interesting to write, only to listen to the recording and realize he had said mostly 10 minutes of nothing.

Having said all of that, Maddux was an amazing pitcher for most of his 23 years and casting a Hall of Fame vote for him was an absolute no-brainer.

Finally, something positive!


I never particularly liked La Russa. He is buddies with Bobby Knight, Bill Parcells and others in the Bully Your Way To Success Club. It pained me to watch the talented and dedicated St. Louis press corps have to tiptoe around him, carefully asking questions lest they tick off King Tony.

The man could manage a ballclub, though. He sometimes tried to reinvent the wheel - as when he insisted upon batting the pitcher eighth for about a year and a half - but he usually had fantastic instincts. He definitely commanded respect from his players, including those who didn't particularly care for him.

I was several years from arriving in Chicago when he was a young White Sox manager and I rarely crossed paths with him during his time in Oakland, but I covered a lot of Cardinals games with him at the helm, including numerous dust-ups with the Cubs when the Cubbies actually were contenders.

He never backed down, trading barbs with Dusty Baker and even with Lou Piniella, whom he considered a friend.

Sadly, he turned a blind eye to the rampant steroid use that took place right under his nose in Oakland and he got in the face of anybody who dared mention that Mark McGwire was juicing. McGwire lied to La Russa's repeatedly and totally hung his manager out to dry - truly one of the worst parts of McGwire's stained legacy.

La Russa could hold a grudge with the best of them, so it was interesting and admirable that he hired McGwire as his hitting coach near the end of La Russa's run in St. Louis.


I used to like when the Braves would come to Wrigley Field and I had the opportunity to sit near Cox in the visitor's dugout a couple hours before the game. He would talk baseball with anybody who happened by, and I always felt like I learned something.

Otherwise, I didn't know him very well, but I am glad he won a World Series and I am surprised he didn't win more than one. 

In his Hall of Fame induction speech, he looked at Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz - who was in Cooperstown as a TV commentator and who should join that Braves trio in the Hall next year - and said: "I can honestly say I would not be standing here if it weren't for you guys." 

That's true, of course, but it also demonstrated the humility that many say characterize Cox.


Including spring training and the inevitable postseason run, Joe Torre sat down 200-plus times per year with the massive New York media mob. Every time, he had something to give. 

An astute observation. An explanation of strategy. A diffusing of a touchy situation. A level-headed remark despite the furor swirling around him.

As much as Torre won with the Yankees, I'm sure many folks - especially younger fans - might not realize how much losing he did in his first 14 years as a manager with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. Some criticized George Steinbrenner for hiring a thrice-fired "retread" to manage the Yankees. It turned out to be perhaps the best baseball decision the bombastic owner ever made.

Torre knew baseball plenty well, but what he really knew was how to deal with people. In that way, he was baseball's Phil Jackson - as much psychologist as strategist. Rarely has a manager or coach fit his team's personality better than Torre did the Yankees' of 1996-2007.

My favorite memory of Torre is this one:

On Sept. 11, 2001, the White Sox were in New York, where they were supposed to play the Yankees that night. The game obviously was never played and many White Sox were shaken up by being so close to the tragedy. When baseball resumed its season a week later - this time with the Yankees visiting Chicago - Sox manager Jerry Manuel sounded absolutely despondent. He wondered out loud if baseball even mattered anymore. I wanted to hug him.

Then I walked over to the other dugout to hear Torre, who recently had survived prostate cancer and whose brother had made it through a heart transplant.

"One thing I learned a few years ago is to enjoy things more. Don't worry about life. Let's live it right now, folks, take it as it comes and deal with it.

"Our lives have been changed forever, things we have taken for granted, things that happen on foreign soil that we say, 'How lucky we are that those things don't happen here.' Well, they can happen here. I told my team, 'We really don't know how to deal with this because we've never had to before.'"

He was asked what if baseball is interrupted again by another terrorist attack or even by World War III.

"I can't worry about what's behind the door. That's no way to live. That's like sitting around waiting for an earthquake. You simply can't allow that to happen. That would only add to the tragedy.

"We've been through so much. I think we're ready for baseball."

How good is this guy? If I were a ballplayer these last three decades and could choose my manager, I would have chosen Joe Torre, a Hall of Famer in ever sense of the word.

Friday, July 11, 2014

I would have paid to see Cavs owner grovel at The King's feet!

Good for Cleveland.

And good for LeBron.

When we last saw King James on a decision-making day, he was the lead actor in "The Decision," the ridiculous, narcissistic 2010 ESPN show on which he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

On Friday, he couldn't have been classier, penning an article for in which he explained his emotional ties to Northeast Ohio and said the draw to return home was just too great for him to resist. He complimented the Heat organization, called Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade his "brothers" and came out looking so much bigger than Dan Gilbert.

You remember Gilbert, right? He's the ass-hat of a Cavs owner who four years ago posted an infamous and infantile rant on the team's Web site in which he questioned LeBron's courage and character. Laughingly, he also predicted that he would would win a championship in Cleveland before LeBron did for Miami.

That LeBron returned to Cleveland anyway - for less money than he would have gotten from the Heat - practically suggests he should change his moniker from King James to Saint James.

Gilbert supposedly threw himself on the mercy of King James' court a few days ago, begging forgiveness and apologizing relentlessly. It must have been quite a scene, Gilbert groveling at the feet of the man he ripped four years earlier.

Of course, Gilbert wasn't sincere. He had four years to remove that tripe from the Web site and to apologize like a man, but he left it up there until just a few days ago - when, much to his surprise, James started sending out signals that he would return to Cleveland despite Gilbert.

Almost as funny as Gilbert's pathetic pleas for forgiveness: the conspiracy theorists who think that this was all an NBA plant. Not only did the Cavs win some draft lotteries lately, they now also have LeBron.

Oh, absolutely. Forget having viable teams in New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami, Philly and Boston. The one thing the NBA desperately wants is a winner in Cleveland.

As for what's left of the Heat, reports started surfacing Friday afternoon that Bosh would spurn the Rockets to stay in Miami (for more money, of course) and that maybe Wade would stay with him (though the Bulls also want Wade, and why wouldn't they?). The East is so weak that a Bosh-Wade pairing, surrounded by decent role players, probably would win 45-50 games next season.

Bosh and Wade come out of this smelling like roses, too. Both were willing to wait for James to finalize his decision before they did anything, and both apparently were willing to take major pay cuts had LeBron opted to stay in Miami.

The focus now is on Carmelo Anthony. He supposedly favors going to Chicago because the Bulls are so much better than the Knicks, but he'd be leaving some $50 million on the table to do so.

Fifty-million bucks! I mean, we're talkin' Nadel Money there!!

Now, I never begrudge anybody for going for the money; just don't take the money and then try to claim it's all about winning. Because if it's all about winning, he'd go play with Joakim Noah and a healthy (?) Derrick Rose instead of with a bunch of stiffs in New York.

It's been a fun week of speculation, and with Carmelo still a free agent it isn't done yet.

I genuinely am happy for my friends in Cleveland, who deserve to watch the greatest player in the world again. I only wish Dan Gilbert wouldn't be a major beneficiary, as well, because he deserves nothing but scorn.