December 2011

REFLECTIONS ON 2011

First, thank you to those of you who read my blog and to the nice comments I have received. It’s fulfilling for me to be a part of MLB Network both on television and on the internet. Keeps me in touch with the game and those of you who love it like I do.

Some former players can walk away from it and not miss it. Some leave it and later wish they could get back in in some capacity. I have been fortunate to stay involved in some form as a player, coach, TV analyst and blogger, as well as making appearances for establishments like the Bob Feller Museum and other firms that ask me to appear at baseball functions for the past 55 years.

I am looking forward to my fourth season — hard to believe it’s MLB Network’s fourth year already — working with my partner and friend, Bob Costas, on several games, as well as appearing in the studio from time to time.

2011 was an exciting year for baseball, climaxed by that memorable final day of the season and then the surprises and drama of Postseason heroics by the Cardinals and David Freese.

It was interesting to anticipate and guess who some of the award winners would be. All very deserving and not totally unexpected. I wish with all my heart that Ryan Braun will be cleared of any wrongdoing. He is some player and had been a model of good behavior. I wish Prince Fielder could stay in Milwaukee. Those fans deserve another shot at having a championship team. Probably fantasy on my part.

The season, as all seasons do, had its sad moments. My friend and former teammate , Harmon Killebrew, passed away in May. It was an honor to speak at his memorial service in Minneapolis. Harm is probably the most admired and respected athlete in Midwest sports history, and the comments I got from friends and colleagues about him being the most humble and polite Hall of Famer are true. A gentle giant as a slugger, yet relatively small in physical stature. Just 5’10″, but powerful. Thanks to MLB.com for remembering all of those in the baseball family who passed away in 2011.

I wish all of you a safe New Year’s weekend and a healthy, happy 2012. I hope your team has a good year and keeps and holds your interest right to the end.

With the wild card (and eventually wild cards, plural) it giving more teams hope, my wish is that the decision-makers reward the division winners with home games, more rest for the pitchers, or whatever it takes to give them a decided advantage in Postseason play. It’s nice for fans to see what teams like the Cardinals did last year, but the most difficult thing to do in sports is to excel over an entire season. You have to overcome injuries, slumps by hitters and pitchers and grueling travel at times to win when you’re not at full strength. A lot of teams could win a World Series these days if they qualified by just having a streak like the Cardinals but you have to perform over six months — not just two weeks — to win a division.

It won’t be long until we hear or read those magic words: “Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow!” I hope I can hear it for many more years.

Happy New Year!

OUT BY A STEP

About 10 years ago, the Shalin brothers, Mike and Neil, wrote a book about 100 players that just missed getting elected for the Baseball Hall of Fame because their career accomplishments fell just short. Several of those have since been inducted. Gary Carter, Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and now, Ron Santo. Both Mike and Neil are writers. Mike has covered baseball for the Boston Herald and Neil is a freelance writer in Chicago. I am one of those 100 players they list and profile.

If you are a year around baseball fan you probably know that the Veterans Commmittee announced yesterday that Ron Santo has been selected for induction in 2012. I fell 2 votes short. The committee is comprised of 16 guys, former players, executives and writers that were involved in the game during what has been designated ‘The Golden Era”. Pretty cool to have been part of that era. The committee members were Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, fellow MLBlogger Tommy LaSorda, Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Don Sutton and Billy Williams from the players arena. Paul Beeston, Roland Hemond, Bill DeWitt, Gene Michael and Al Rosen from the executive branch. Dick Kaegel, Jack O’Connell and Dave Van Dyck from the media. You need 75% or 12 votes to earn election. You had to have played at least 10 seasons in Major League Baseball and been retired for at least 21 years.

Enough about specifics. I am honored to have been considered for election several times by the Veterans Committee after falling well short of election by the Baseball Writers Association of America voters during that eligibility period. I was more curious and somewhat optimistic this year than ever before. Why? Because I was being judged by my peers. I got a fair hearing. I fell 2 votes short. I am not disappointed. I would not have celebrated with a ‘whoopee’ or thrust a fist in the air if I were to have been chosen. Out of respect for so many whose careers are close to HOF caliber but ‘Out by a step” I would have felt humbled and grateful. Players like Dick Allen, Tony Oliva, Ken Boyer, Luis Tiant and many more too numerous to mention. It’s a very select fraternity to gain admission unlike being elected President of the United States where a little over 50% will be enough.

I am grateful for those 10 who supported me and I have a pretty good idea who they are. Many have told me personally that I belong and that is an honor in itself. When former players like Brooks, Sutton and Marichal tell you to your face that you belong that is very gratifying.

Shed no tears for me or feel no animosity toward the 6 who didn’t feel I belonged. When I think of the 460-plus teammates I played alongside of and the thousands of players who made it to the big leagues and thousands more who aspire to get there, missing election to the Hall of Fame by 2 votes doesn’t diminish my career or life one iota.

For fun, strictly tongue-in-cheek, I have told some people who ask me why I think I haven’t been elected yet that there are 2 possible reasons.

1. I played too long. If my career ended after 1975, my pitching numbers from 1961-1975 were exceeded only by Bob Gibson when you consider wins, era, innings, complete games, etc. My last 8 seasons were a combination of being less effective than the first 15 and I was a lefty relief specialist the last 5.

2. I was blessed with more athletic ability than most pitchers. I was used as a pinch runner on several occasions. In 1972, the last year before the DH, I was having a good season at the plate as well as on the mound. 10-2 nearing the All-Star break. Batting close to .300. Slid into 2nd base and broke my wrist. Cost me a half-season. Another baserunning injury occurred in 1976. I could never defy a manager’s authority, especially in the dugout in front of my teammates. But…when Danny Ozark called on me to pinch run for Greg Luzinski in St. Louis one day, I cringed. I was 37 years old. Late in the game, legs not loose or any forewarning that I might be used. Jay Johnstone hit one in the gap and I scampered, as fast as a 37-year-old without warming up can scamper, into third. Slid in hard and cracked my right kneecap. My pitching record at the time was 10-6 and I was on a pretty good roll. I finished the season 12-14 and was never considered a regular starting pitcher after that incident. To this day I wish I had politely said to Danny, “I’m not ready to pinch run.”

So,2 injuries that probably prevented me from reaching 300 wins which usually qualifies as automatic election to the Hall were not pitching-related but baserunning issues.

I tell you these stories not with an attitude of ‘Woe is me” or ‘sour grapes,’ just as unusual reasons for being compromised as a pitcher.

I think if Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts were alive and were on the Veterans Committee, I would be going to Cooperstown in July. There have only been a few starting pitchers inducted in the past 20 years — Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and my friend and teammate Bert Blyleven.

Life is good, baseball was good to me and for me and I feel relieved that this year’s process is over. It is by far the fairest way to decide who belongs and who doesn’t. I am happy for Ron Santo’s family. I know Billy Williams was pushing hard for Ronnie to be selected and I’m happy for him and Fergie Jenkins and Ernie Banks who, I’m sure, feel great about it as well. I’m also sad that this process wasn’t in place years ago so Ron would be alive to enjoy it. I was a teammate of Ronnie’s in 1975 when he finished his career with the White Sox. A frustrating time for him being on the South side of Chicago instead of in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.

I wish I could personally thank all of those who reached out to me to express their disappointment that I missed earning admission to the Hall of Fame. I have no regrets about being “Out by a step.” I enjoyed the game, I played the game and I continue to be involved in the game. I am a blessed man.

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