Observations From Cooperstown--Pudge, Hall of Fame Weekend, and Old-Timers' Day
by Bruce Markusen
Who would have thought that the Yankees would ever have a catcher named Pudge? For those who remember the rivalry between Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson, that would have been blasphemy. Yet, it almost happened in 1984, when the Yankees worked out a multi-player deal that sent Don Baylor to the White Sox for Fisk. With all of the pieces in place, Baylor invoked his no-trade clause, canceling the deal.
Twenty-four years later, Pudge has finally arrived in the Bronx, but in the form of Ivan Rodriguez. Now that a few hours have passed since Brian Cashman’s trade for I-Rod came to reality, I haven’t changed my mind about it. It’s an absolute steal, with the Yankees acquiring a quality all-around catcher at a time when such a commodity is difficult to find. When I think of Rodriguez, I have flashbacks to the late Thurman Munson. First and foremost, they both were (or are) supreme defensive catchers who move well, block pitches, and throw out baserunners with alacrity (Munson with the quick sidearm release, Pudge with the power overhand delivery). Munson was the better handler of pitchers; Rodriguez, especially during his days in Texas, has tended to call for too many fastballs as an aid in throwing out baserunners. Offensively, they’re very similar players. Rodriguez is a line-drive hitter with a terrific opposite-field stroke; Munson hit with an exceedingly similar style. Neither made a living drawing walks or hitting with considerable power (except for 1999, when I-Rod hit 35 home runs), which is why they tend to be underrated by Sabermetric types. They’re the kinds of players you appreciate the more you see them, putting the ball in play, running the bases well, and controlling the area around the plate defensively.
None of this is meant to indicate that the 36-year-old Rodriguez is in his prime. He isn’t. His home run totals have fallen off every year since he hit 19 in 2004, he no longer has a rocket launcher for an arm (let’s call it a cannon now), and can no longer catch 130-plus games. None of that matters. He’s still Jose Molina’s equal defensively (with superior mobility making up for Molina’s stronger arm) and is light years better than Molina with a bat in hand. His on-base percentage is 60 points better than Molina’s and his slugging number is more than 100 points better. Given that the cost was only Kyle Farnsworth, who never made anyone feel entirely comfortable in the eighth inning, this ranks as another in a continuing series of heists by Cashman…
While the trading deadline has occupied most of our time of late, let’s not forget that a memorable Hall of Fame Weekend took place last week in Cooperstown, wrapping up with Sunday’s emotional induction ceremony. I was glad to hear Goose Gossage, who nearly broke down at several points during his 17-minute speech, take extra measures to credit Chuck Tanner, his first major league manager. Tanner certainly has his critics as a manager—Bill James among them—but on balance has had a distinguished career, achieving success with both the White Sox and the Pirates, including a world championship in 1979. To me, that matters a lot more than his late-career failures in Atlanta. And his "nice guy" persona is no act; he’s one of the sincerely good people in the game.
I was also thrilled to hear Gossage pay tribute to his Yankee teammates who are no longer with us. He not only mentioned Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Jim "Catfish" Hunter, but also remembered Jim Spencer and Aurelio Rodriguez, who played important complementary roles on some World Series teams in New York.
Dick Williams almost became part of those great Yankee teams of the seventies, but instead managed the Angels and Expos after eluding the clutches of Charlie Finley. Williams deserved credit for skillfully working Finley into his speech on Sunday, as he jokingly mentioned the "friendship" between his former owner and Bowie Kuhn, another member of the 2008 induction class. I would have liked to have seen a few more of Williams’ former players in the Cooperstown crowd—Joe Rudi and Steve Garvey were two of the few in attendance—but perhaps that’s only fitting. Williams never set about to win friends; he was always far more interested in extracting the best from his players. He certainly did that during his managerial stops in Boston, Oakland, and San Diego.
On Saturday, former Yankees Mickey Rivers and Bobby Shantz provided one of the nicest highlights of Hall of Fame Weekend when they signed at CVS Pharmacy as part of a fund-raising effort to fight autism. (Shantz was so nervous before his signing that he woke up at three in the morning, walked the streets of Cooperstown, and then rested in his car until it was time to report to the store.) My spies tell me both Mickey and Bobby were especially friendly and accommodating, as they graciously dealt with long lines of signature seekers. Rivers, dressed in a slick red and white sweatsuit and sporting a tooth with a gold star, made new friends out of a number of fans, including my nephew (who was absolutely thrilled at meeting a former Yankee). Rivers was both engaging and funny, willing to pose for photographs, and only too happy to sign autographs in any way they were requested. Though I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Mickey personally because of prior commitments at the Fenimore Art Museum, my friends at CVS did help me secure a 1973 Topps card inscribed with the words, "Mick ‘The Quick’ Rivers #17." Even though I didn’t get to meet Mick, I’ll cherish his signed rookie card, mostly because of how good he was to friends and family.
Rivers and Shantz were just two of many former Yankees who made it town for induction weekend. Excluding Hall of Famers, here’s a complete listing of Yankee players who graced Cooperstown during the final weekend in July:
Jim Beattie: A teammate of the Goose, he pitched for the Yankees in 1978 and ’79. At one time, he was the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, but was part of the haul the Yankees sent to Seattle for Ruppert Jones.
Paul "Motormouth" Blair: Another teammate of Gossage, Blair has become a Cooperstown regular. He likes to talk, and he likes to sign autographs on Main Street.
David Cone: I have no idea why he was in Cooperstown, considering that he never played with Goose or for Williams, but perhaps he wanted to prepare for his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot.
Dwight Gooden: The onetime author of a Yankee no-hitter, "Doc" took part in some autograph shows at the Tunnicliff Inn, one of the hot spots in Cooperstown.
Ron Guidry: He was Goose’s teammate from 1978 to 1983, spanning Gossage’s entire tenure in New York.
Pat Kelly: The starting second baseman during the inglorious years of the early 1990s, Kelly served as one of the instructors at the youth skills clinic sponsored by the Major League Alumni.
Gene "Stick" Michael: One of Gossage’s many Yankee managers, Stick also represented the current Yankee front office at the induction, along with GM Brian Cashman.
Graig Nettles: Now a Cooperstown regular, "Puff" played with Gossage in both New York and San Diego.
Mickey Rivers: "Gozzlehead" played with Goose in 1978 and ’79 before being sent to the Rangers for Oscar Gamble.
Bobby Shantz: He won the 1952 American League MVP as a member of the Philadelphia A’s, and later pitched in a World Series for the Yankees. An eight-time Gold Glover, Shantz might have been the greatest fielding pitcher of all time.
Lee Smith: He and Vida Blue signed in tandem at a local establishment. It’s easy to forget that "The Terminator" once pitched for the Yankees. Smith appeared in eight late-season games for the ’93 Yankees, saving three games without giving up a single run in eight frames.
Roy White: He played with Gossage in 1978 and ’79 before prolonging his career in the Japanese Leagues. Over the weekend, White announced that he won’t participate in this Saturday’s Old-Timers’ Day, mostly because he’s been fired by the Yankees three different times…
Speaking of Old-Timers’ Day, it will be the final one at Yankee Stadium. More than 60 former Yankees are expected to attend, including first-time participants Don Baylor, Dave Eiland, Tony Fernandez, Rickey Henderson, Pat Kelly, Jimmy Key, Al Leiter, Graeme Lloyd, Tino Martinez, Ramiro Mendoza, Jeff Nelson, Tim "Rock" Raines, Buck Showalter, Wayne Tolleson, and Jeff Torborg. Perhaps Henderson will practice his Hall of Fame induction speech; he’ll almost certainly receive over 90 per cent of the vote in January, when the Hall announces its Class of 2009.
Some of my favorites will also be at the Stadium on Saturday: Blair, Nettles, Rivers, Ron Blomberg, Horace "Hoss" Clarke, Ron Davis, and Oscar Gamble. With the "Big O" in attendance, and this being the last Old-Timers’ day at the old ballpark, I might just have to tape this one.
Bruce Markusen, the author of eight books on baseball, writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com.