Monday, January 23, 2017

Mondays With Murray: He's the Best You Never Heard Of

John Edwin Pope
April 11, 1928 — January 19, 2017

Last week we lost another Great One from the ever shrinking group of ink-stained wretches that called themselves "The Geezers"
Edwin Pope covered sports and was the sports editor for the Miami Herald from 1956 until his passing last week. A true scribe whose work will forever be remembered as some of the best, he was also a good friend of both Jim's and the JMMF after Jim's death. We'll miss you, Edwin. Tell the rest of the Geezers we sure do miss them.
Our panel of experts who answer to the inelegant club name of ‘Geezers IV’ are some of the ablest historians of our day. The Geezers enjoyed their informal seminars over the years during Super Bowls, World Series, heavyweight fights, The Masters, U.S. Opens and ,British Opens, among other events, to consider what lay ahead for the games people play or pay to see played in the new century.
To consider these cosmic issues we brought together a panel consisting of Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald, Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Dan Foster of the Greenville (S.C.) News, Dan Cook of the San Antonio Express-News and Bill Millsaps of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. About a century of sporting experience.
You have to remember that, as the 20th century dawned, there was no World Series, no Super Bowl, no Masters. The 20th century will be defined by its craze for sports. More people can tell you the year the Mets won the pennant than can tell you the year the first atomic bomb was dropped. People who don't know who the Secretary of State is can tell you who plays center field for the Yankees. People who couldn't find Kansas on a map can tell you where the high post is on a basketball court.
Here is an excerpt from Jim Murray's April 19, 1998 column, Gen-X-ers Need Not Apply, quoting Edwin Pope:
"Will the new millennium be more of the same? Our panel of experts who answer to the inelegant club name of Geezers IV are divided on their answers.
Baseball is in a suicide pact with itself, Pope believes. "It's taken leave of its senses. Someone should put a net over them when they pay $60 million to a Gary Sheffield. There is no way they can recoup that kind of outlay.”
Sports needs saviours, larger-than-life performers, glamour figures, the panel feels. Babe Ruth took baseball out of the low-rent district when he began to hit almost one-quarter of all the home runs hit in the league.
Will Mark McGwire bring the game back to that level? Well, it was pointed out, Roger Maris couldn't. Neither could Henry Aaron. They both broke Ruth's records. But they never could fill seats the way the Babe could. Or sell products.
Baseball is too slow to last, Pope thinks. "Its even slower on television. They had 47½ minutes of commercials in World Series broadcasts."
Sports franchises offer confused allegiances, double-parked franchises, free-agent players who have to call the front desk to see what town they're playing for.
The camaraderie of the Geezers we hope will inspire our Murray Scholars in the years to come!
"For reasons forever a mystery, Murray practically adopted me when I met him at my first World Series, between Los Angeles and Minnesota in 1965. He took me everywhere, introduced me to everyone. I felt like an art student perched on Michelangelo's palette.” — Edwin Pope, Miami Herald.


He's The Best You Never Heard Of

The subject for today is "So you think you know baseball?" Only, it's not one of those magazine quizzes. ("If three men hit third base at the same time, one returning to the bag, one arriving from second and one from first, who, if anybody, is out?") 
No, this is on the practical level. I would like to ask the quizee to identify the player who is certifiably one of the four or five best in the game, certainly one of the best hitters, and he probably couldn't cash a small personal check out of state. 
I'll give you a hint: His last name begins with a B. No, not Barry Bonds! You think Bonds would have trouble cashing a check anywhere?
Are you ready? OK, his name is Jeff Bagwell. There'll be a short pause now while you all say "Who?" and begin scratching at your ears to be sure you heard right. 
"Jeff Bagwell is one of the best players in the game today?" you sneer. "Get outta here!" 
You heard me. Jeff Bloody Bagwell.
Yes, I know you've never heard of him. He plays for Houston. Nobody ever heard of anybody who ever played for Houston except for Nolan Ryan. It's kind of baseball's foreign legion. They play the game indoors and for years their outfield was just smaller than Rhode Island. There were eight no-hit games pitched in their ballpark in its 30-year history and more than 30 one-hitters. There were 34 inside-the-park home runs hit there. Babe Ruth might have been a contact hitter there. 
They've moved the fences in (by moving home plate out) but the Astrodome is still a long way from a band box. 
Usually, when a guy makes the big leagues after only parts of two years in the minors (where he easily batted more than .300) he comes up to the big show with flags flying, horns blaring, and can't-miss written all over his dossier. 
Jeff Bagwell looks so little like the part, pitchers think there should be a law against it. He should carry a warning from the surgeon general or somebody. Might be injurious to your health. 
First of all, he's average-sized for baseball, only six feet, 195 pounds. You look at his statistics and you picture a 6-foot-5 giant with a blue-black beard, a chaw of tobacco in his cheek and a perpetual snarl. Jeff Bagwell looks as if he's going to sell you a vacuum cleaner. He's almost baby-faced. You imagine Billy the Kid looked like this. 
Until he drew. 
Willie Mays batted .274 his first full season in the major leagues. Henry Aaron hit .280, Mickey Mantle, .267-and Barry Bonds, .223, if it comes to that.
Jeff Bagwell hit .294 his first year. In his "sophomore jinx" year, he hit .273. But he drove in 96 runs and hit 18 home runs. Last year, he hit .320, sixth in the league.
But do the pitchers fear him? Pitch around him? Well, they walked Bonds 126 times last year and 43 of them were intentional. They walked Bagwell six times intentionally, only 62 overall. 
Well, maybe he has this piercing Ted Williams eyesight that can calibrate the spin even as it leaves the pitcher's hand? 
He wears contact lenses. 
He is like the choirboy who turns out to be a serial killer. He makes pitchers overconfident. They bear down on the Tony Gwynns, the Barry Bondses, Ryne Sandbergs and David Justices. They treat Bagwell as if he came to drag the infield or rake the batter's box. 
You get ballplayers from California, Texas, Florida or one or all of the Caribbean islands. You don't get them from Connecticut. You don't get them from places where the season is six weeks long and you have to make do with a batting cage the rest of the year. 
That was a mistake the Boston Red Sox made. As a New England boy, Bagwell would have been made to order for the "Sawks." They drafted him out of college (University of Hartford), where he had batted .413. His favorite ballplayer was Carl Yastrzemski, and they probably should have given him his shot at that left-field wall in Fenway on that alone. But sentiment ranks low in the grand old game, and the Red Sox schlepped him away to Houston for a 38-year-old right-handed relief pitcher in 1990. 
If he played in New York, he might not be a candy bar by now, but he could cash a check and get asked for his autograph. He would probably have his own tabloid headline name "Bags Tags Dodgers With Homer in 11th." 
In Houston, he doesn't get to swagger. He's batting .331 (78 points higher than Bonds). He leads the league in runs batted in. 
He was rookie of the year in 1991, thus joining a pretty distinguished cast of characters (Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Jackie Robinson, to name a few). 
He bats cleanup for the Houston Astros, but he might as well play in a mask. He's as anonymous as a Swiss bank. He is modest. "I'm not a No. 4 hitter," he complains. "I'm probably a No. 3 hitter. Bonds is a No. 4 hitter. Joe Carter." 
The other night, with a 1-0 lead, Dodgers pitcher Tom Candiotti forgot who was batting and started Bagwell with a fastball you throw to a No. 8 hitter. A moment later, it was in the left-field pavilion. A fan in a food line was startled. "Who was that?" he wondered. "Houston first baseman," he was told. "What's his name — Birdwell?” the fan wanted to know. "Bagwell," he was told. "Bagwell? Is he new?" "No," he was told. 
"That's his eighth homer this year already. That's his 61st home run in four years." The fan grumbled. "Who does he think he is, Barry Bonds?" 
By the end of the season, Bonds might wish he was Jeff Bagwell.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116
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  The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation's efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.

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