Monday, December 26, 2011

Hondo and Denny

When the kids grow up, Christmas isn't quite the same. At least it isn't until your kids have kids and then you can watch grandchildren open presents. This Fan isn't there yet for the latter, but yeah for the former. And since there were no toys opened this Christmas in the Tasker family, memories come flooding back to when the kids were little and toys from Santa were the bomb. Memories, of course, go back further than that to our own childhood. There weren't video games back then. There were much cruder things to play with. It's hard to say they were any less fun though.

Some of the favorite gifts from this Fan's childhood were things like the electric football game where a vibrating metal football field propelled little plastic players around the field. It was hard to find any of those suckers that would run straight up the field though. One year, us boys got an indoor golf game that featured felt greens and little cotton golf balls. It was something like this game here, but it wasn't an Arnold Palmer game. It was hard to get those little cotton projectiles to land on that patch of felt.

The best gift this Fan received as a kid wasn't a toy. It was a subscription to The Sporting News. To a kid of this Fan's era, there was nothing better for sports than The Sporting News. It was "TSN" before Ted Turner turned those initials into a television station. We didn't have highlight shows on television. We saw one team all season so we knew those players. We sort of knew other players from baseball cards. And we knew some as opponents of our favorite team we watched. But knowledge of players on other teams was nebulous. TSN changed that because all the teams were covered and each team was given a two page spread in each weekly issue which allowed feature stories on players for each team. It was those pages that brought other players from other teams to life. Plus, there were statistics in the back of each issue for each team. It was awesome.

Those columns usually were the best writers from around the country. And a nice, large picture of that week's featured player usually graced the article. This Fan used to cut out these pictures to make a scrapbook. The scrapbook had a section for each team. Naturally, there were extra pages for our favorite team. But each team was well represented. This writer filled up two scrapbooks during those young years and that interest fostered by TSN has endured to this day. Those two scrapbooks are still in this author's possession.

The scrapbooks covered the years from 1968 to 1972. A recent romp through those old relics made this author pause at the Washington Senators' section gathered mostly in 1970 and 1971. Staring up out of those pages were Frank Howard and Denny McClain. What a flood of memories those two individuals recall! 

They couldn't have been two more different people. There has never been anybody in baseball that has ever disliked Frank Howard. He was the lovable giant who stood six foot, eight inches tall and was built like Gronkowski. Every piece on his was painted as this loving portrait of a monster of a man. Denny McClain was just the opposite. By 1971, he was tarnished by a bookie scandal. And he was only a shell of the pitcher who had won 31 games in 1968. People blamed his demise on his lifestyle. But the truth was more likely that his arm was dead by then. He only lasted one more season after 1971 and fittingly, the last batter he ever faced was Pete Rose (verified by game logs).

The Washington Senators were the laughingstock of baseball in 1970 and 1971. They had the horrifically bad idea of hiring the great Ted Williams as their manager in 1970 and it didn't work. The situation was so dreadful that after those two misshapen seasons, the team moved to Texas and became the team that nearly fifty years later came within an out of winning the World Series.

Denny McClain lost twenty-two games in 1971 after winning 55 games combined in 1968 and 1969. That's a heck of a fall. Frank Howard was 34 that season and entered the decline phase of his career in 1971. He would only play two more seasons himself. This Fan was fascinated (thanks to TSN) by both players. McClain's interest was sort of like the fascination with a NASCAR car wreck. Howard was larger than life and crushed baseballs. 

The interesting thing about these two teammates in 1971 is that just two years earlier, they were the best in the American League. McClain was the Cy Young Award winning pitcher who got the Tigers to the World Series. Howard was the top slugger despite playing on the American League's worst team (the Senators) with no protection in the line up. The contrasts between the two men are endless. 

From 1967 to 1970, Frank Howard might have put together four of the most impressive slugging season runs in baseball history. He hit 172 homers in those four seasons and led the league in that category in twice. Sure, that isn't as impressive as the streak that Babe Ruth put together or Barry Bonds. But the timing of Howard's slugging is what makes it impressive. 1968 was the year of the pitcher. The American League homers per nine innings was 0.68. Compare that to today's game with its 1.00 homers per nine innings. Frank Howard hit 44 homers that season. Nobody was within eight homers of him. And, he played that season with a terrible cast of characters that came in next to last in batting average and slugging percentage. Those factors make his 44 homers incredible.

Howard's OPS+ for those four seasons was: 153, 170, 178 and 170. It was still 144 in 1971, but Howard declined to only 26 homers that season.

Nearly everyone remembers Denny McClain as baseball's last thirty game winner. His 31-6 season in 1968 was brilliant and earned him the Cy Young Award and the MVP. But few remember that the previous three seasons, he was 53-35 on some pretty bad teams and the year after his 31-win season, he went 24-9 and won a second straight Cy Young Award. Few also know that he began his great run at the age of 21 and it reached its pinnacle at the age of 24. In fact, his 1969 season is rated higher (in rWAR) than his 1968 season. 

McClain threw 661 innings in 1968 and 1969. His suspensions in 1970 due to the gambling case and a later incident with sports writers cost him almost the entire season. But the fact was, his career would probably have faded anyway. His strikeout rate plummeted in 1969 and never recovered. His right arm simply threw too many innings. He had 51 complete games in 1968 and 1969 (combined) out of 82 starts. He led the league in batters faced in both seasons. It's no wonder his arm died.

Yes, McClain has been in the news since his last season in 1972 for all the wrong reasons. The arrests, the weight gain have all painted him as baseball's John Daly. But like Daly, when McClain was young, he was something to behold. Most will say that McClain--like Daly--squandered his talent and threw away his career. It's much more likely that his career was used up anyway.

These two pictures staring at this writer in the old scrapbook represent two completely different players joined together by fate on one of the most abysmal teams in the early seventies. Both were on their way out of the game when their pictures were added to the scrapbook. But both had a four or five year period where few were better and more awe-inspiring in what they did in baseball. Joined together for one miserable season, they remain joined together in this writer's mind forever.


Thomas Slocum said...

Pretty sure it was in 1969 that I first discovered TSN (though not as a gift). What a find! Do you remember that each issue also had an entire page on each of the (then) three AAA leagues, complete with player stats? And thumbnails of lower leagues, including records and leaders? Don't remember when TSN underwent its first marked change (from a newspaper to a magazine) but think it was sometime in the late 1970's. That started a downward spiral that ultimately led me to abandon the publication - there was a long spell in between the demise of TSN and the introduction of USA Today's Baseball Weekly. Though it later expanded to include other sports (shades of TSN) and became USA Today's Sports Weekly, it's still the closest thing today to my once beloved TSN and I scarf it up every Wednesday (don't dare get a subscription as we have the world's worst mailman here).

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Yes, I remember. I also remember the dismay I felt when everything I loved about the publication started going out the TSN window. There was no choice after a while but to give it up.