So now Fernando Valenzuela has to get in. So now Gil Hodges has to get in. So now Orel Hershiser has to get in. So now Steve Garvey has to get in. So now …
The Hall of Nearly Great, a collection of essays about memorable major-league players who weren’t considered worth of the Hall of Fame, came out in 2012. I contributed the following chapter about Reggie Smith.
As an adult, maybe even as a teenager, you see the complete arc of a major-leaguer’s career. You’re there for the beginning – or, depending on your level of dedication, the pre-beginning: the minors, the run-up to the draft, college or high-school ball.
But when you’re a kid, you encounter ballplayers in media res. They arrive in your consciousness fully formed. Past is the opposite of prologue – past is epilogue.
Reggie Smith landed in my world in the middle of the 1976 season, the first full season that, at age 8, I became invested in the Los Angeles Dodgers as a fan. Speaking of fully formed: He joined a team that had that infield: Steve Garvey at first base, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at short, Ron Cey at third. These were the people in our neighborhood.
Smith dropped in out of nowhere, by way of St. Louis. What was supposed to happen? It couldn’t have been that he would become the favorite player in the lineup for a kid fan birthed on Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey. That he would be the gateway to a life of challenging the conventional wisdom of who was most valuable.
Slowly and unsurely, I am sharing some of the conversations I had while writing and researching Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition, on what I have christened the Word to the Weisman podcast. Having already posted my chat with Carl Erskine, we now move exorably but enthusiastically to Burt Hooton, whom I consider to be one of the two or three most underrated pitchers in Dodger history.
Whether or not you have already read about Hooton in Brothers in Arms, I think you’ll enjoy hearing him talk about his life in baseball in his own drawl. I recommend this both for older fans like myself who saw him pitch and younger fans who might not be aware of his talent, given that the way he was overshadowed in the public eye by the likes of Don Sutton and Fernando Valenzuela.
Listen below, or click here to listen on iTunes.
If you enjoyed this or would like to hear other interviews from me, please let me know in the comments below, or reach out to me @jonweisman on Twitter. Thanks!
It’s impossible for a baseball fan like myself to be blindsided by the news that a ballplayer staring at his 40th birthday, with 3,166 hits already in his back pocket, is retiring.
And yet, when I saw on Twitter at 7:15 a.m. today that the great Adrián Beltré has called it a career, my gut got punched in a way that I was totally unprepared for.
Clayton Kershaw is by far the most dominant pitcher for the Dodgers — if not all of Major League Baseball — in the 21st century. Not surprisingly, he has pitched the game of the year for the Dodgers more times than anyone else.
But using the tried and true Game Score formula as a barometer, Kershaw has topped the charts in only four of his 11 big-league seasons. During the Kershaw era, some unexpected names have stolen the spotlight from Kershaw, if only for a moment.
In fact, in the 13 seasons from 2001 through 2013, 13 different pitchers had the top Game Score for the Dodgers.
Here’s a year-by-year rundown of the Dodgers’ best Game Score performances each year, dating back to 2000.
Last week, Bill Shaikin of the Times reported on the existence of a private document, prepared nearly two years ago before the 2017 MLB season, proposing that the Dodgers would keep annual team payroll through 2022 below $200 million, a level that would avoid luxury tax penalties.
Coming off a 2018 season in which the Dodgers reined in their previous extravagance under the Guggenheim ownership in the process of losing their second straight World Series, Shaikin’s revelation was sure to anger many devoted fans.
Whether it actually comes to pass remains to be seen …
- The document was geared for potential investors, so it was designed to make future expenses seem modest.
- It is, no doubt, at least somewhat obsolete, given that it predated revenue from the past two World Series runs. (Shaikin cited a Dodger official who said he would be shocked if 2019 payroll didn’t surpass $200 million.)
… but nevertheless, it wasn’t the happiest piece of news to reach a hungry fan base.
Not surprisingly, Bill Plaschke of the Times was quick to write about the bad message it sent. But by Plaschke’s standards, his take was fairly measured, and frankly, I thought the uproar that followed would be more intense than it’s turned out to be. The story hasn’t had a great deal of shelf life. It simmers. Many fans seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach with the coming offseason.
That’s not to say distrust doesn’t remain, but the fans most likely to triggered by Shaikin’s story are already so hostile to the Dodger front office that his revelation had little room to move the needle. Like a Spinal Tap cover, their feelings toward the people running the franchise could be “none more black.”
Independent of that, I also think that for all the attention payroll gets, the money that the Dodgers spend is besides the point. They could go bonkers on bucks, and it won’t matter to those fans if the players don’t perform and the team doesn’t win.
We know this, because it happened as recently as 2017. The Dodgers had a payroll that was about 20 percent higher than any other MLB franchise, added Yu Darvish at the trade deadline, and still took a beating when they lost World Series Game 7.
To further verify, I tested a theory on Twitter.
1) Say Dodgers bump annual payroll to $250 million.
2) They sign Bryce Harper to a 10-year, $400 million contract.
3) They say, "It's extravagant. We don't care. Our fans deserve this."
4) Harper performs adequately but not at a superstar level.
Do fans complain?
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) November 9, 2018
In front of an emotionally eviscerated Dodger fan base, in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2018 World Series on October 27, Kiké Hernández came to the plate at Dodger Stadium.
Only an hour earlier, a thrilling glow suffused Chavez Ravine. Having survived an 18-inning Game 3 marathon, Los Angeles had taken a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox. The Dodgers were eight outs away from evening the Fall Classic at two games apiece.
Then their world collapsed around them like a dream in Inception. Nine Boston baserunners crossed the plate, the final four in the top of the ninth, obliterating a beautiful consciousness.
In that soul-darkening ninth inning, Hernández stood at the plate as a symbol of star-crossed Octobers. Coming off the most successful regular season of his major-league career, Hernández homered in his 2018 playoff debut, the Dodgers’ 6-0 trouncing of Atlanta in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. The multiposition master, baseball’s Swiss Army knife, then went 12 consecutive games without a single extra-base hit or RBI.
Hernández couldn’t hit right-handed pitching. He couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. He couldn’t hit, period. Entering the gloom of Game 4’s waning moments, Hernández had made 30 outs in his past 33 at-bats.
As another fallen hope stood on first base in the person of Brian Dozier, Hernández took two fastballs from Boston closer Craig Kimbrel, then let rip at a knuckle-curve and launched a fly ball to deep left-center for a two-run home run. Except for the fleeting sliver of hope it kindled in those who could conceive the greatest miracle postseason comeback in Dodger history, it was a footnote. The Dodgers lost the game by the score of 9-6 instead of 9-4.
The next day, in a game the Dodgers could not spare, Hernández was in the starting lineup against Boston lefty David Price, batting third.
Amid the flurry of warm, nurturing advice over the past week that followed the Dodgers’ World Series defeat, there was the Facebook commenter who had all the answers, perhaps most notably: “Sign FOUR no. 1 ace starters.”
Facebook commenter's advice for the Dodgers: "Sign FOUR no. 1 ace starters." pic.twitter.com/jgg7oVkjSo
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) November 1, 2018
That seemed like amazingly good counsel, but whether it’s feasible, I wasn’t quite sure. So I decided to check the lists of top 2018-19 MLB free agents and explore — not only in pitching but among position players as well — the top names that might help the Dodgers.
Keep in mind that the Dodgers will always be looking for under-the-radar gems, but that doesn’t mean they might not grab a headline ballplayer or two …
It’s one thing, if it’s your standard, to call the 2018 Dodgers failures for not winning the World Series. It’s another thing — and a counterproductive thing — to call the 2018 Dodgers a bad team.
Put another way …
Say your marching order for the Dodgers is “World Series or bust.” And now they’ve busted. Does it make sense to lump them with the other 28 teams who busted as well?
Yes, it’s true that if you don’t bluntly assess the weaknesses of a team, even one that won 92 regular-season games, eight playoff games and a National League title, you are at risk of underreacting. And that can be harmful toward the goal of winning the World Series next year.
Were the Dodgers miles behind the AL champs? Some think the Dodgers were a worthy opponent who played badly. Others think the Dodgers were overmatched from the get go. For my part, I am not under any illusion that the better team in the World Series lost. I want the Dodgers to get better.
But if you can’t, even in the throes of disappointment, understand that, while failing, the Dodgers had the ability and approach to win those 100 games and a pennant, you are at risk of overreacting. And that can be just as harmful.
I give the Dodgers about a 45 percent chance to win the 2018 World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
In the starkest, most objective terms, that makes me a pessimist. My glass isn’t quite half full. Perhaps, if you’re more cynical about the Dodgers, you think my 45 percent makes me an optimist. It doesn’t really matter. That’s not my point.