Recent Baseball Feats Require Footnotes
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, June 5, 1998; Page C1
Editor's Note: Shirley Povich began writing for The Washington Post in 1924. While he retired "officially" in 1974 he continued to write columns for the newspaper. Although he had been feeling ill the past six weeks, Povich felt well enough Wednesday to write his final column. He died Thursday evening of a heart attack.
During my recent and enforced sabbatical, called for by the rewarded pursuit of better health, three things happened in baseball that evoked some ruminations plus the inevitable compulsive comment.
These happenings were the home run binge of Mark McGwire that catapulted him beyond Babe Ruth's record pace and aroused the chants of the King is Dead, Long Live the King; David Wells's perfectly pitched game for the Yankees and the startling strategy of Arizona Diamondbacks Manager Buck Showalter who, with two out and the bases full, opted to intentionally walk to Barry Bonds that forced in a run and cut the Arizona lead to 8-7.
Let us treat first McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals' big muscle Adonis who seems to specialize in three homer games and has won the belief of the Washington Post's Tom Boswell that McGwire is the game's new image as a royal nonesuch of home run hitters, not excluding even the fabled Babe Ruth.
Nobody writes baseball better, or as well as Boswell, a student and unmatched chronicler-philosopher of that game. Not to quibble, Boswell puts it bluntly: "Was Babe Ruth really a better home run hitter than this guy? In the past four years the correct answer has been clear. No."
Whoa there. Give McGwire the last four years, and he may be cast to hit more homers in a single season than Ruth did, but don't confuse him with the guy who inspired such sobriquets as Sultan of Swat and the King of Clout and made the name Bambino the recognized property of only one man in the entire world.
McGwire, weighs 245 pounds, stands 6 foot 5, and bulked up by strength coaches and Nautilus weightlifts, plus the new diet of "nutrition shakes" popular in the clubhouses may well hit the ball farther than the 215-pound Ruth, although there are stubborn non-believers. As Walter Johnson once said when asked to compare the Babe's swats with those hammer blows of Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg: "Lemme say this, those balls Ruth hit got smaller quicker than anybody else's."
To judge McGwire a better home run hitter than Ruth at a moment when McGwire is exactly 300 homers short of the Babe's career output is, well, a stretch.
It is not in the mind-set of nice guy McGwire to challenge the Babe's place as the No. 1 idol and most famed personality in the game. Too many truths forbid it. Before he started hitting home runs, did McGwire pitch three consecutive World Series shutouts? The Babe did. Does McGwire in the batter's box command the high excitement Ruth did with his head cocked back, a scowl on his face, his toes turned in, and his bat poised for that pirouetting swing that engaged all parts of his body. And if the Babe did whiff, it was with such gigantic gusto that the fans could still chortle.
One of McGwire's specialties has been the exciting three-homer game he's been producing as a special treat for his fans. But halt, Ruth was no stranger to the three-homer afternoon. Take for example, the high drama of the last big league game he ever played, in Pittsburgh in 1935. His farewell salute to himself was three home runs into the seats. And remember, Babe was doing this when he was 40 years old. It was the little things that set him a long way apart from the others in the game. Twas said of the Babe, "Put a camera on him and he performs."
The gem of the 1998 baseball season thus far is Wells's perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. There can be no demeaning the perfect game. It is far more rare than the no-hit game which can sometimes be a happening against all logic. No hitters pop up at the strangest times.
Walter Johnson got his no hitter in 1920 in the second worst season of a 21-year career, when he won only eight games. A contrast was the feat of another Washington Senator, Bobby Burke, who all of a sudden pitched a no-hitter against Boston at Griffith Stadium in 1934. In his entire career, Burke never won eight games in a season and I recall once characterizing him as "Bobby Burke, who had a nine-year tryout with the Senators." But the most startling no hitter of all was that by Bobo Hollomon of the Cardinals who brought it off in his first major league start. He was gone to the minors before the season ended, winning only one of his next eight decisions.
It is correct to say that Wells joins the fabled Don Larsen in perfect game glory. But at the risk of carping, let us recall that Larsen's feat occurred during a World Series against a pennant-winning National League club, the Dodgers, who with Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Furrillo, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese were second best in the NL in runs scored, second in home runs with Snider's 43 leading the league and second in doubles. Hardly to be confused with Wells's passive victims, the Twins. Minnesota was the 13th worst hitting club in their 14 team league, and who opted that day to bench their top hitter, Todd Walker because of left-handed pitching. It was very inviting for Wells and he performed.
This is not to rap David Wells, a helluva pitcher, and one of the enchanting personalities of the game, with his I do it my way attitude. His passion for baseball was known when he paid $20,000 for a Babe Ruth cap and wore it on the mound for two innings before the intrusive umpires made him replace it with Yankee head gear. They couldn't give Wells the No. 3 uniform that was retired in honor of Ruth, so he compromised by demanding No. 33.
If anybody were to reawaken the fans to the glory of baseball by pitching the perfect game, the scene could have no more appropriate protagonist than David Wells, individualist.
Baseball circles were abuzz last week when Showalter flung his new strategy into the teeth of the San Francisco Giants by signaling an intentional walk to the dangerous Bonds with two out, the bases full and Arizona with a two-run win. It worked, Arizona got the last out on Brent Mayne's liner to right field and Showalter basked in his self-created heroic vale.
Wait though, and let's play Can You Top This? I think we can. My hero and longtime friend in the cause was the late Paul Richards, former catcher, and later big league manager, and one of the acknowledged dreams of the game.
One night after dinner with Richards after a Griffith Stadium game, I said "Paul, in the last 50 years there hasn't been a new play in baseball."
And he said, "One, and I pulled it." He said this was in the minor leagues and Richards was managing Atlanta, which had a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth at Birmingham. And Richard said, "Now up comes the only Birmingham hitter who could ruin us.
"We worked it to 3-2 on this guy and now he was fouling off pitch after pitch. I was catching and I called time. Went out to the pitcher and called in the second baseman and shortstop to explain what I wanted.
"I told our pitcher to take a long windup and walk the guy on his next pitch, but give it me high and outside where I could wing it down to second base. What I had seen was that hotdog base runner on first base running wild on all those foul balls, always ending up between second and third before he had to go back.
"I got the pitch I wanted, the run forced in, but that hot dog on first base was caught between second and third when I threw to the shortstop who tagged him out. The rule worked for us. He was only entitled to one base on a balk and he was fair game for any more than that and sure enough we nailed him. Game over on an intentional walk. How do you like that?" The question is referred to Buck Showalter.
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