Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend

Recently I was contacted by a publisher and asked if I would read and review James S. Hirsch’s authorized biography of Willie Mays.  Jumping at the prospect of not just a free book but a sensational read, I of course accepted the request.

The man, the legend, the Say Hey Kid

As a fairly young Giants fan, the legends of my time have been of the Barry Bonds mold–amazing ballplayer, surly, and universally hated by everyone outside of San Francisco (the same mold applies to Jeff Kent).  That being so, it would be no bold statement to say that Willie Mays played in the golden era of Giants history, alongside Hall-of-Famers such as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda.  Try naming a team today that can boast four players bound for the Hall and I’m willing to bet you’d come up short.

Reading a book recounting the intimate details of the Say Hey Kid’s life further cemented in my mind the shear magnitude of the Mays legacy.  In an interview I did with the author last Friday, an interesting point came up, namely that no other player’s career had “overlapped as many eras, cultures, and communities.”  His professional baseball career began “at the height of the Negro Leagues,” and continued on in New York in the mid-50’s, an era considered to be the height of baseball’s popularity.  After New York, the Giants moved out to California where the age of West Coast baseball began, with Willie Mays as the poster child.  You’d be hard-pressed to find another ballplayer who transcended so many eras over the course of a career, making this all the more impressive.

As a fan of the game today, my point of reference for a “Mays-esque” ballplayer is in seeing Andruw Jones patrol centerfield in the early 00’s.  Or seeing Barry Bonds hit a ball off a wall over the fence in straightaway center with a label stating that “It’s 491 feet to this sign.”  The term “5-tool player” is commonly used to describe the greats of today.  James Hirsch makes the observation though that Willie Mays was “the first 5-tool player.”  Hirsch goes on to say that Willie “became the benchmark for all future players who would presume to be complete players.”  In that way, it’s hard not to see the massive effect he has on the modern came we know today.  Coming out of the bulked-up “Steroids Era” where the bodybuilder-sized Jose Canseco’s of baseball reigned supreme, we’re seeing a resurgence of the focus on the elusive complete package for a ballplayer.

From his childhood days playing for his father Cat Mays’ company team, to his days in the Negro Leagues, to his eventual call-up to the New York Giants, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend is about as comprehensive as a biography can get.  As a reader you get a unique perspective of the Mays that no one really knows.  Beneath the “Say Hey Kid” persona that he projected, Willie was largely a shy, private figure loved the spotlight that his stardom brought, but hated the scrutiny that seemed to come hand-in-hand with being a national icon. Hirsch summed it up by stating simply that “Willie doesn’t trust people.”

Mays, moved to tears during the '07 All-Star game tribute

My own personal experience of Mays, while contemporary, is still significant.  My most prominent memory of him is at the 2007 All-Star Game.  Having been lucky enough to be in attendance, I was able to watch firsthand as the Giants held a moving tribute to Willie accompanied by a scoreboard-sized picture of his famous catch in the 1954 World Series against Vic Wertz of the Cleveland Indians.  Even having not watched Mays in his playing days, it was hard not to feel an enduring sense of reverence.  What’s amazing about Mays is that even to those who didn’t see him play, he still possesses a cultural resonance that seems to transcend the generation gap.  This is something James Hirsch, as his officially biographer, got to experience firsthand.

From cover to cover, this is a book that will offer up a point of view never before seen of an iconic figure in baseball lore and Giants history.  Hirsch sums it up perfectly in his author’s note:

“When I went back outside, I saw that there were now twenty people waiting to have their photos taken next to the Mays statue.  I realized then that it was my job to tell those people what was inside that bronze sculpture.  It was worth the wait.”

And indeed it was worth the wait.  If you’re a Giants fan or a simply a baseball fan, this biography is a must-read if you want to begin to understand how one man completely shaped America’s past-time.

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Happy Pitchers and Catchers Day!

The day has finally come: pitcher’s and catchers report today, along with a smattering of other position players reporting early.  The long wait for the beginning of baseball season is over, and now we can start overhyping Spring Training in anticipation of Opening Day, which is a mere month and a half away.

Pablo feels the same way you do

It’s hard not to be excited about today, even if it technically doesn’t mean much.  Spring Training games don’t start until March, but blogs like Giants Jottings keep us updated on the daily happenings in Arizona.  The guy who runs the site does a fantastic job, posting full size photos of players in camp, while writing about news from camp.  It’s basically the equivalent of checking MLB Trade Rumors every five minutes during the Winter Meetings, only so much more fulfilling.

With baseball set to begin, the obligatory preseason predictions are imminent.  Jonathan Sanchez is rumored to have put on twelve pounds of muscle, while Travis Ishikawa could be out for as long as three months after “slipping while descending a staircase.”  Freddy Sanchez’ rehab is ahead of schedule, with estimates having him back in the lineup anytime between Opening Day and June.

Now if Ishikawa is indeed out for as long as predicted, that could possibly open up a practically guaranteed roster spot for Buster Posey, who is supposed to be learning first base anyways.  It’s hard to root for someone to stay injured, especially someone like Travis Ishikawa, but this does give Posey the chance to possibly get some playing time.  This is of course taking into account the vendetta Bruce Bochy seems to have against the young catcher that limited him to just a handful of at-bats last September.

But I digress.  Today is supposed to be a happy day, full of joy and anticipation.  Baseball-related activities resume after a long 5-6 months of rosterbation and Giants withdrawal.  It’s hard to judge how this team will do next year namely because the roster is full of questions more than answers.  Can Mark DeRosa avoid regression into his mid-30’s?  Can Aubrey Huff bounce back after a miserable 2009 campaign?  Is there any chance at all that Buster Posey will be allowed to catch this season?  And for the love of God, will somebody not named Pablo Sandoval please put up an OBP over .340? 

Soon these questions will be answered.  In a few short weeks, Spring Training games will commence, and baseball junkies everywhere will be able to get their daily fix without having to watch Bull Durham on repeat.  These opening months of the baseball season embody everything we love about the sport: the building suspense, the excitement of a season full of possibilities, and the heart-wrenching pain of the reality that good things seldom happen to the Giants.  Welcome to baseball season everyone–I hope you’re ready for a long year.

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Timmy and Arbitration

Before anything is said, it should be known: Tim Lincecum is a very good pitcher.  Like once-in-a-generation good.  He’s a 5’10” anomaly of a pitcher with the funkiest delivery this side of Juan Marichal, while his solid gold arm has quickly made him the premier pitcher in all of baseball.  So why can’t the Giants and Timmy come to an agreement on his salary for next season?

Pay the man!

Arbitration is a funny process.  Both sides submit a figure dictating how much a player should be paid.  The team presents an argument for why a player doesn’t deserve the money that they want.  The player then makes his argument for why deserves a big fat pile of cash.  An arbitrator then picks either the team’s or the player’s submitted salary figure, nothing in between.  In the end, it’s a process that leads to more hurt feelings than anything, making for a difficult process of drafting a long term contract when the time comes.

Timmy had the opportunity to submit a figure up around $19-20 million, which would equal the highest paid pitcher in the Majors, C.C. Sabathia.  Instead he filed for $13 million, $3 million more the record for arbitration set by Ryan Howard in 2008.  The Giants filed for $8 million, a far cry from Lincecum’s request.  Looking at the whole situation, Timmy had a chance to make things really freakin’ difficult for the Giants’ front office by demanding Sabathia money.  But he didn’t.  Instead he’s asking for $6 million less than the highest paid pitcher in baseball to be the best pitcher in the game.

Talks to settle on a contract before arbitration have broken down, with the latest offer from the Giants at $37 million over three years (Lincecum countered with an offer “north of $40 million”).  To be fair to the Giants, offering an average of about $12.3 million a year over three seasons isn’t chump change.  It shows a clear commitment from the front office to avoid an arbitration hearing.  That said, it’s also under the average annual value of both Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander’s multi-year deals ($15.6 million and $16 million respectively).  After looking at both those deals, $13 million doesn’t seem that bad after all.

Personally I say pay the man.  Submitting $2 million less than Ryan Howard’s record arbitration money is borderline insulting to a guy with Lincecum’s pedigree.  What could the Giants possibly say in a hearing to justify their $8 million figure?  The man has just about no downside as a pitcher.  Sure he could use a haircut.  And yes he’s a young pitcher coming off of a couple of 200+ inning seasons, but that’s hardly a strong case.  If this goes to arbitration, Timmy will win.  It’s as simple as that.  So why not avoid the long drawn-out process and give him the money he clearly deserves?

UPDATE:  Giants give him 2 years/$23 million with a $2 million signing bonus, $8 million in 2010, and $13 million in 2011 (along with a ton of other performance-based bonuses).

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The Building Anticipation

Surfing through my usual lineup of Giants-based news sites today, I came across something that had completely slipped my mind.  On the homepage of SFGiants.com is a countdown to the report date for pitchers and catchers.  Up until that point, I had forgotten that the report date is looming.  In a weeks time, baseball season will have sort of unofficially begun.  For those of you who have gotten their baseball-fixes in the offseason by freebasing MLB Trade Rumors on an hourly basis, this is welcomed news.

"People will come Ray"

It’s easy to lose sight of this preseason excitement after an October full of playoff teams you have no emotional investment in.  The frustration is compounded by what feels like an endless offseason.  Combine this with the fact that none of the people you hang out with care or want to hear about the Giants’ chances to win the West, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  The depressed baseball fan who hasn’t gotten their fix in too long will oftentimes result to drastic measures (think Sunday afternoons spent watching Major League 11 times in a row).

For the casual fan, the offseason means basketball and football season.  For the diehard, it means so much more.  It’s six months without the game that takes emotional precedence from April through October.  If your teams is fortunate enough to make it to the World Series, its baseball until November.  After the Series though, you’re cut off cold turkey.  No more screaming at the TV set between the hours of 7 and 10pm.  No more debating the designated hitter with your American League friend who clearly doesn’t understand that nine players, not ten, make a lineup.  No more giving up on your team in July only to jubilantly celebrate a pennant race in September.

With Spring Training fast approaching, the pain of the offseason is coming to a close.  Whether or not you think the Giants will do well in 2010, you’re still going to watch.  You’ll still curse the heavens when Bengie Molina sneaks his way back into the cleanup spot.  The same rage will be there when Aaron Rowand strikes out on another slider in the dirt.  It’s not all pain though.  There’s the joy of watching Jonathan Sanchez throw a no-hitter.  Or the hilarity of Pablo Sandoval lumbering around the bases to leg out a triple.

Spring Training represents the gateway into the season we laugh and cry over.  The beauty and uniqueness of baseball is in that for six months out of the year, it’s there every day.  In a cruel twist of fate, it disappears without a trace after the final pitch of the World Series.  In just seven days though, the long wait will come to a close, and you can start reminding your friends that Opening Day is in x amount of days (even if they don’t want to hear it).

With all this in mind, I’ll end with a quote from one of my favorite baseball movies.  If this doesn’t make you yearn for April then I don’t know what will:

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.” –Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

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Buster Posey Part Deux

If you’ll remember, back in early December I made the case for uber-prospect Buster Posey to start the season in the Majors, catching a majority of games with a temporary veteran stopgap spelling him once or twice per week.  Since then, my foolproof house of cards strategy has come crashing down with the signing of Bengie Molina.

Time to turn in that catching gear Buster

Upon Molina’s signing, I became resigned to the fact that Posey would spend a majority of the season in Fresno refining his craft and playing every day.  The big news of the day though is that Buster may actually make the big team over backup Eli Whiteside; only not as a catcher.

According to Bruce Bochy, he’ll be taking grounders at first base while making the occasional start behind the plate.  From there, the good news keeps on rolling, as Bochy admitted that last season he “overworked” Molina, and that the 120 starts he made in 2009 were “too many.”  If Posey makes the roster as a first-baseman and spells Bengie for say, 40% of games, we’re a better team.  If Posey plays at first when a lefty is on the mound, then we’re a better team.  If Posey plays catcher on the days he’s not playing first, we’re a better team.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s absolutely essential to the success of this team in 2009 for Buster Posey to make the 25-man roster out of camp and to play on at least a semi-consistent basis.

No matter what way you swing it, Buster Posey is a better baseball player than Bengie Molina.  Hell, if he played every day he’d probably be our second-best hitter, probably followed by John Bowker, who would also play on a regular basis in my fantasy world (a discussion for another post perhaps?).  Given the circumstances, the plan to have Buster take grounders as an infielder is really the best possible scenario.  Of course in a perfect world things would be different, but that’s just not the world we live in.

Harsh realities of the universe being the way they are, Bengie Molina is the Opening Day catcher.  This is something I’ve come to terms with.  So by having Buster Posey, a guy who played all over the place in college, learn first-base, our offense is better by default.  It’s a step in the right direction in terms of competent roster management, even if it isn’t perfect.

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Why we shouldn’t worry about Madison Bumgarner

In addition to having the funniest name of any player this side of Boof Bonser, Madison Bumgarner is widely considered to be the next big thing in the Giants rotation alongside Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.  Drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2007 June Draft, he came out of high school with a great fastball and not a lot else.  The scouting reports back then noted that his breaking pitches lagged well behind his electric fastball, “clocked anywhere from 89-95 mph.”

Dear Mad-Bum, throw hard again. Sincerely, Nick

That same scouting report predicted that once he fills out his velocity could potentially top out around 97-98 mph.  Needless to say, when he toed the rubber in September last season for his first Major League start, expectations were that we’d see some heat.  Instead, his fastball stayed around 88-90, leaving many of us scratching our heads.  This loss of velocity may seem alarming, especially for a guy who the organization has put so much stock into as an ace of the future.  It’s easy to go around screaming “the sky is falling” when something like this occurs.

But then you have to realize that it was September for a 20 year-old who wasn’t accustomed to the grind of a long season.  To put it in perspective, even Tim Lincecum lost velocity at the end of the season, going from averaging around 94 mph on his fastball in the first two months, to 91 mph in the final two.  When you consider that the human arm evolutionarily isn’t even designed to throw a baseball, it’s an easy connection to make: lots of pitching makes for a tired arm.

Because of this, I’m officially not worried about Madison Bumgarner as our 5th starter this next season.  A little concerned about him breaking down from the inevitable innings jump he’ll have to face, but not worried about his performance.  Remember his stint back in September that had us all pulling our hair out?  He also struck out 10 in 10 innings.  What does that tell you about the guy drafted out of high school who had nothing but a fastball and a pocket full of dreams?  It shows us that he’s learned how to be more of a pitcher and less of a thrower (albeit in a miniscule sample size of innings).

Bumgarner will of course be closely watched next season to see if he does indeed regain that illusive velocity we heard so much about on Draft Day.  Regardless, this team is out of money and better options, so why not let the kid try his hand at Big League hitters?  My one caveat is that if the typical signs of fatigue start showing up, shut him down, shut him down, for the love of God shut him down.  There’s nothing to be gained from Mark Prior-ing Bumgarner’s arm into oblivion.  Let him learn at the Major League level, but keep him healthy enough to stay there for years to come.

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Homage to the Mariners Offseason

The Seattle Mariners hold a special place in my heart, even as a Giants fan.  They may not have the history we have, but they sure do have the heartbreak.  Living in Seattle and talking with their fans, it’s easy to see similarities in the pain we mutually suffer through on a daily basis.  Before 2008, it could be argued that their GM Bill Bavasi was one of the worst of the last two decades, namely when he shipped out Adam Jones, George Sherrill, and Chris Tillman to the Orioles for Erik Bedard.  And then something interesting happened.

He looks like Goldfinger, probably because he has the golden touch

The powers that be had enough of Bavasi’s front office shenanigans and cut him loose after the 2008 season.  As a replacement, they brought in a guy with a long track record of successful talent evaluation, Jack Zduriencik (pronounced Zer-ren-sik in case you were wondering).  Quickly he got to work completely reshaping the organization from the top down.  He unloaded popular but oft-injured closer J.J. Putz in a deal that landed them Franklin Gutierrez (who incidentally was locked up to a long term deal after this last season).  Then he went to the reliever scrap-heap and traded a spare part for David Aardsma, who became one of the top closers in the AL.

After a tumultuous 2009 season that saw definite improvements, Jack Z got to work again this last offseason.  First he signed Chone Figgins, which is largely accepted as a steal for the Mariners.  Then he managed to trade three B-grade prospects for uber-ace Cliff Lee, and then locked up Felix Hernandez for lots of years and lots of money.  After this, it was hard to imagine how he would top himself.  Then he topped himself, unloading the hellish contract of Carlos Silva on the unsuspecting Cubs for the much more useful Milton Bradley.  Admittedly, trading Brandon Morrow for Brandon League was a curious move, but at this point it’s hard to doubt Zduriencik’s ability to scout out talent.

After these major moves, a series of minor but equally as important ones followed.  The M’s picked up Eric Byrnes for the league minimum.  Then they signed Ryan Garko for a shade over the minimum after the Giants inexplicably cut him loose on the basis of 130 isolated at-bats.

If your head’s not spinning right now trying to keep track of all this, it should be.  The M’s front office spent a whole offseason dictating the terms of the market.  Brian Sabean spent it reacting to smarter GM’s like Jack Zduriencik.  That said, the aftermath of the 2009-10 offseason has seen a stark contrast in competent front office management between the Giants and Mariners.  The Mariners are ready to compete now, but still managed to keep their farm system’s prized gems intact.  The Giants are blocking younger, better players with veterans who will break down midway through the season but still receive playing time.

So to you pained Mariner fans, I say congratulations; you have a smart GM calling the shots who likely has vaulted your club into AL West contention in a few short months.  To Giants fans, I say stay strong; Brian Sabean can’t be around forever.  Can he?

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