Thursday, November 10, 2011

Putting on the Fritz

Memories are the soul of a baseball fan. Images of our baseball past always float consciously and subconsciously wherever we are and through whatever we are doing. The baseball present is as good as it gets because the action is right in front of us in a visceral way. We are cheering as hard as we can for our teams and players. But always just beneath the surface are little jolts of things we've witnessed before. There is a lot of similarity with music as current songs and melodies remind us of melodies of the past and how those made us feel.

For this writer, the past was the Yankees beginning from around age six in New Jersey. That's not really the truth. Dad took us to a game and watched them on television but they were usually Mets games. It doesn't seem as if the Yankees became the entire baseball reality until about 1967 and after Dad died. Those were Police Athletic League years when the coach would take us to Yankee Stadium or days when Mom had to work on Saturday and gave us two young boys five dollars each to take mass transit to Yankee Stadium rather than sitting home with no one to take care of us. 

The faith of a child is unlike that of being an adult. There was always hope during Yankee games despite the teams being mediocre at best and awful at worst. At that age, we didn't really have a big world view of the standings. Each game was an event in and of itself, whether at the ballpark or watching on the old black and white television in our bedroom. Each of these events was hosted by Phil Rizzuto on the television or by Bob Sheppard at the stadium. Rizzuto was our uncle and Sheppard was God.

Since each game was an event, it was baseball fandom at its purest. We didn't really care that Horace Clarke or Tom Tresh were awful in their entirety. All we cared about is that their double or single happened to win the event we were watching at the time. The love of statistics takes away some of that purity. Now, we don't really swoon at a single by Ramiro Pena because we know he is awful. If he hits a single and wins the game, we are flush for the team and not by Pena. It was the reverse in the early life of this Fan. 

Oh perhaps we had a peripheral idea that Horace Clarke wasn't a very good baseball player. After all, we watched him every day and he failed far more often than he succeeded. Most Yankee hitters during that time stunk. Heck, the 1968 team had a slash line of .214/.292/.318. Yup, that was the 1968 Yankees. The year before that, they hit .225 and in 1969, the team hit .232. It was kind of hard to find hitting heroes back in those days. It was the pitchers that stood the tallest. Mel Stottlemyre, Fritz Peterson, Stan Bahnson, Lindy McDaniel and others. They were very good pitchers. And they kept their team in the game often enough to keep us young fans interested.

For years, the top two were Stottlemyre and Peterson. Sure, the former was always the favorite with his clean, All-American looks. He looked like what a ball player and a dad should look like. But the latter was our second favorite and why not? He was out there 35 to 37 times a year and we didn't miss watching very many of them. Between 1966 and 1972 (seven seasons), the pair combined for 491 starts and 3,551 innings. Combined, they threw 180 complete games over that time span and induced (combined) 48 double plays a season. When a pair of pitchers averaged 70 combined starts a season, 507 innings and 26 complete games a season, they were going to be a big part of your fan life. And they were very good on teams that did not field very well or hit very well. And you know what? They were pretty good hitters too.

Stottlemyre got more accolades. He was a part of five All Star teams. Fritz Peterson only pitched in one. Stottlemyre won twenty games three times. Peterson only once. But you really can't pick one over the other. Stottlemyre finished his career with a 2.97 ERA and Peterson at 3.22. But Peterson really fell off the table (he must have had a bad arm) after 1972. Stottlemyre had almost double the career rWAR. But between 1966 and 1972, they were equally terrific. And some of Peterson's numbers are eye-popping.

Fritz Peterson pitched over 2200 innings in his career and finished with a career walks per nine inning rate of 1.7. He is the only left-handed pitcher since 1900 that can say that. He led the league in WHIP twice in a row in 1969 and 1970. He was the last pitcher to throw more than 270 innings in a season and finish with a WHIP under one (1969 - 0.996). He led the league in fewest walks per nine innings five straight seasons. All of them were under 2. In 1968 he walked only 29 batters in 212.1 innings.

Mel and Fritz were our heroes. Between 1966 and 1972, they combined for 214 wins (a combined 31 per season). For fans who lived in the moment when each game was an event, these two pitchers always made it an entertaining and close game. And despite the team being mediocre to terrible for most of those years, they gave us plenty to cheer about. The cool thing is that all these years later, their stats live on and they were as good as they are remembered to be.

P.S. For a great interview recorded with Fritz Peterson two years ago, click this link and enjoy.


Thomas Slocum said...

So you are old enough! Wonder about two things: First, did my brief mention of Fritz Peterson in my comment earlier this week inspire you to post this excellent article (and enjoyable trip down memory lane)? Second, how did a lifelong baseball fan end up in Caribou ME, which might just be as far as one can get from a major league team as one can get, at least in the Eastern US (and certainly in the Northeast)?

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Yes, you're comment did result in this post. As for the Caribou thing, right now sickness has taken hold of this house in a big way. Didn't even write today for the first time in two years. Perhaps some other time.

Fritz Peterson said...

Take care of yourself.
Fritz Peterson