Friday, January 28, 2011

Galarraga Takes His Befuddling Act to Arizona

It was one of the most famous newspaper leads in sports history.

It came the day after Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

"The imperfect man," New York columnist Dick Young wrote, "pitched the perfect game."

It was true, for sure; Larsen was an average pitcher who had the day of his life.

But so was it true for many of the pitchers in MLB history who, for one game, were unblemished.

The roster of men who've pitched perfect games would not bowl you over with its largesse for talent. Few of them were anything remotely close to stars.

Armando Galarraga is not on that roster. But we know better, of course.

Yet Galarraga's status, that of the Imperfect Man Who Met the Imperfect Umpire, doesn't change the fact that Armando, too, is a blind squirrel who (almost) found his nut.

Galarraga, after his unofficial perfect game last June 2, went the next 21 starts for the Tigers garnering only two wins.

That, more than anything, is why he's no longer a Tiger.

Galarraga has been dispatched to the Arizona Diamondbacks, safely out of the American League and in one of the farthest reaches of the country, where he can do the Tigers little harm.

Let's see what AZ manager Kirk Gibson does with Armando.

Replacing Galarraga in the Tigers' rotation is veteran righty Brad Penny, whose body has been imperfect. If Penny can stay healthy, the Tigers have made an excellent swap in their starting five.

Galarraga has been a frustrating, confusing pitcher for the Tigers since 2008, when he exploded onto the scene in Detroit and went 13-7 with a 3.73 ERA. He was, as a rookie, one of the few bright spots on a Tigers team that was a huge disappointment.

But since then, Galarraga has, alternately, pitched himself out of and back into the rotation---several times. He's shown those flashes of his '08 brilliance---and then some---but has withered back into just another mediocre pitcher. And he's sometimes done this from start to start.

The last nail in the coffin for him in Detroit, I believe, was that 21-start streak last summer that lasted through the remainder of the season, when he produced just the two wins.

I highly doubt you'd throw Penny out there for 21 starts and get two wins in return.

Yeah, you can crab about run support and all that, but two wins in 21 starts is what it is. Somewhere in there a pitcher has to suck it up and pitch so good he can't help but win the game.

Galarraga never got his footing back since his rookie year. Until the Penny signing, Galarraga was penciled in to be the fifth starter. But it was hardly a guarantee. You always had the feeling that if the Tigers could find someone better, Galarraga would be usurped. You also got the feeling that the team was shopping for an upgrade, even as they spoke of him as the no. 5 starter.

The Tigers found their upgrade in Penny, a Cy Young candidate several years ago and someone with post-season experience. If he stays off the DL, of course.

Galarraga is gone, and he leaves behind memories that this baseball town will never forget. He was thrown into a blender with umpire Jim Joyce and the two of them have been pureed ever since, combining to form an inseparable mixture of triumph over tragedy.

Another imperfect man who, for one game, was perfect---almost.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Morris a Hall of Famer, If You Look at the Right Numbers

You want the Cliff’s Notes to Jack Morris’s pitching career? I’ll give them to you, boiled down to two games. And that’s out of 562—it doesn’t get more pared down than that.

It’s a cool Saturday in early April, 1984 in Chicago. The Tigers are off to a 3-0 start to their season. Maybe they could keep it up and get out of the gate fast; who knows?

Morris is on the mound at Comiskey Park, and he’s off to a rousing start—the first nine White Sox are up and down in order, and already Jack has registered four strikeouts.

Then Morris gets erratic in the fourth inning, walking the bases loaded with nobody out. His brilliance has suddenly vanished. The White Sox fans are bundled up and ready to burst out, sensing a big inning.

Chicago’s cleanup hitter, Greg “Baby Bull” Luzinski, is at the plate. The Tigers’ measly 2-0 lead looks about as safe as a drunk’s wallet in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

But Morris throws a split-fingered fastball—his specialty—and gets Luzinski to tap the baseball back to the mound. Morris, a.k.a. The Cat, pounces on it and starts a nifty pitcher-to-catcher-to-first base double play.

The next batter, Ron Kittle, strikes out. Threat over, inning over.

The White Sox fans suddenly are gagging on their Chicago dogs.

Except for one leather-lunged buffoon.

Morris gets through the fifth, and the sixth, and the White Sox still don’t have a hit. Jack walks four batters through six innings, but is being a cheapskate with the base hits.

The leather-lunged fan situated behind the Tigers’ dugout begins taunting Morris, trying to jinx his no-hitter.

“You’ll never get your no-hitter, Jack!” the fan bellows, among other things unfit to print here.

Morris takes note, his eyes narrowing at the fan every time he walks back to the dugout, having registered another hitless frame.

In the seventh, Morris walks another. That’s five free passes, but still no hits.

Also in the seventh, Dave Bergman, a slick-fielding first baseman, enters the game for, of course, defensive purposes. Makes sense.

Right on cue in the seventh, Bergman sprawls to his left, snaring a hard ground ball apparently destined to prove the leather-lunged fan correct. But Bergman, on his back, flips the ball to Morris, covering first base.

The no-hitter is saved, but the blowhard behind the Tigers’ dugout doesn’t quit.

“Two more innings, Jack! Think you can do it? I don’t think so!”

Morris narrows his eyes some more at the dude.

In the ninth inning, the Tigers safely ahead, 4-0, Morris walks Luzinski with two outs, the sixth base on balls. But still no White Sox hits.

Finally, Morris finishes his gem. He strikes out Kittle again—on a split-finger, of course—and within moments he’s engulfed inside the Paul Bunyan arms and barrel chest of catcher Lance Parrish.

A no-hitter! The first by a Tigers pitcher in nearly 30 years.

But there’s still some unfinished business.

After the mob gets off him, Morris makes his way back to the dugout. He sees the blowhard fan.

“I GOT YOUR TWO MORE INNINGS, YOU $#!@!” Morris screams at the screamer.

NOW Jack can celebrate his no-hitter in the clubhouse.

Fast forward seven years and six months later.

Morris is on the mound for his home state Minnesota Twins against the Atlanta Braves. It’s Game 7 of the World Series—that’s all.

The Twins are playing Game 7 thanks to a Kirby Puckett home run in the bottom of the 11th of Game 6 the night before—they call it a “walk-off homer” these days.

So here comes Morris, working on three days’ rest, which is one day less than his norm during the regular season. Twins manager Tom Kelly hopes he can get six or seven innings out of his ace before turning matters over to his bullpen.

A pitching duel breaks out between Morris and the Braves’ John Smoltz. The game is scoreless headed into the eighth inning.

Suddenly, Morris is in a jam—big time. A leadoff single and a double put runners on second and third with nobody out. The Braves’ runner at third, Lonnie Smith, inexplicably hesitates rounding second base, costing his team a run.

But a rally with runners on second and third with no outs ought to produce at least one run, right?

Wrong, for this is Jack Morris, one of the best clutch pitchers in our lifetime.

Morris induces a weak grounder to first. Then he intentionally walks David Justice, filling the bases, setting the stage for an inning-ending double play.

Which Morris gets, when Sid Bream grounds into an unusual first-to-catcher-to-first DP. Threat over, inning over. World Series, far from over.

Smoltz is replaced in the bottom of the eighth, but the Twins fail to score.

Morris sets down the side in order in the ninth inning. It’ll go down as a complete game in the record books, but the game is hardly complete in the truest sense.

The Twins put a goose egg on the board in the ninth. Would Morris return to the mound in the 10th inning? Of Game 7 of the World Freaking Series?

Would he!

Manager Kelly tries to pull him, but Morris would have none of it. Jack is ready to meet Kelly in the runway and go bare-fisted with his manager in order to pitch the 10th.

Morris takes the hill in the 10th, and the three Braves at-bat don’t even get the ball out of the infield. They go down: pop up, strikeout, ground out.

The Twins scratch out a run in the bottom of the 10th to win the World Series. Morris pitches 10 shutout innings on three days’ rest, is 2-0 in the series and wins the MVP Award. His ERA in the series is 1.17.

Those two games capsulate Jack Morris—the man and the pitcher: snarling, defiant, brilliant, fearless. And cocky.

They didn’t let Morris into the Hall of Fame again this week. That makes 12 years in a row. Of the needed 75 percent, Morris was named on a little more than half the ballots. He’s still not all that close.

You want to play numbers? You want to come at me with your 3.90 ERA—the number that the anti-Morris folks love to throw out there?

OK, let’s play some numbers.

Morris won 254 games and had a winning percentage of .577, which for a baseball team equals a 93-win season. He walked an average of 3.3 batters per nine innings, while striking out nearly six per nine. He won 163 games in the 1980s, including 20 or more twice in the decade. In another year, he won 19.

He won seven postseason games and lost only four. Twice he was 2-0 in a World Series (1984 Tigers, 1991 Twins).

They used to say that Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr might not have the prettiest goals-against average around, but when the marbles were on the line, Fuhr would make the big stop.

You say you don’t like Morris’ 3.90 ERA, which would be the highest for any pitcher in the Hall of Fame if he was inducted?

I’ll take the wins—an untold number of which came when there were a lot of marbles on the table.

Hang in there, Jack. Sooner or later those voting folks are bound to come to their senses.