My Heart Will Go On: Ken Griffey Jr. Retires from Baseball.

I wish I had something profound to say about Ken Griffey Jr.’s career, I really do…but I’m not ready to say goodbye.

To me Griffey will always be “the Kid”–but time doesn’t play favorites. As the season progressed, it became increasingly clear that Junior was no longer capable of performing in the Major Leagues, and the ever classy slugger humbly bowed out.

There’s no fountain of youth for Griffey; he can’t find his back to Neverland and rediscover the talent that made him one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. The Kid is all grown up and the fans that clung to his every picture perfect swing are in the process of going through Griffey’s midlife crisis for him.

It might seem silly to some that fans would get so upset about a player retiring, but Ken Griffey Jr. wasn’t just a baseball player, he was our baseball player. Griffey put Seattle baseball on the map and is the reason that Safeco Field was built and baseball still exists in the Emerald City. He brought hope to a long-suffering franchise and provided Seattle fans with a lifetime full of highlights each time he took the field. There was nothing on the baseball diamond that Ken Griffey Jr. couldn’t do, and we were lucky to have him for as long as we did.

In a perfect world Griffey would have left after last season, with the aging superstar being carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates as the lasting image of stellar career. Of course, in a perfect world, one of the game’s greats wouldn’t have to walk away without a World Series ring and years of his prime playing days wouldn’t have been lost to countless injuries and ailments.

But it’s not a perfect world, not even for a perfect player, and there won’t be a storybook ending to Griffey’s career.

Thanks for everything you did for Seattle and for baseball Ken. We’ll never forget you…

Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas’ Retirement Leaves a Big Hole In Baseball’s Heart.

At 6’5″ and 260 pounds, Frank Thomas was one of the most intimidating hitters in the history of baseball.

Perhaps no athlete in sports better embodied his nickname than Frank Thomas. Dubbed “the Big Hurt” by his teammates and the media, the gargantuan Thomas (a former tight-end at Auburn) towered over the baseball landscape as the best right-handed hitter for nearly a decade. The two-time MVP possessed a rare combination of prodigious power and plate discipline that made him one of the most feared sluggers of the 1990’s.

Along with Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez, Thomas was part of a group of young stars that led a revival of the home run during the early 90’s, peaking in the strike-shortened 1994 season in which he hit 39 longballs in only 399 at bats. Thomas finished his career with 521 home runs, good enough for 18th all-time, though the Big Hurt’s game was much more than just big flys.

A disciplined hitter who led the American League in walks four times, Thomas’ knowledge of the strike zone was nearly unparalleled among his peers. His 1,667 walks rank 9th all-time, and combined with his .301 batting average, result in a robust .419 career OBP (21st all-time, just behind Mickey Mantle and ahead of Stan Musial and Edgar Martinez).

Though the later part of his career was marred by injuries (joining Griffey Jr. in the “what if” club), the Big Hurt still finished 15th all-time in OPS, 25th in slugging, 22nd in RBI’s and 26th in extra-base hits. Sure he made David Ortiz look like John Olerud at first base, and yeah he ran with all the grace of a bewildered water buffalo, but Thomas owned home plate with a modern-day Thor’s hammer. Frank Thomas didn’t just hit baseballs…he destroyed them.

Even more impressive than all the numbers Thomas accumulated is the fact that he played baseball the right way, refusing to substitute shortcuts or supplements for hard work. Despite being a home run hitter in the scandal-filled steroids era, the Big Hurt has never been linked to PED’s and was one of baseball’s most outspoken players about steroids, calling for strict punishments of convicted cheaters.

Frank Thomas retired from baseball as one of the 15-20 greatest hitters of all-time. His numbers alone make him a Hall-of-Fame candidate, but it’s his integrity that ensures he will go in on the first ballot. Happy trails Big Hurt; baseball was a better sport because of you.

The Lasting Legacy of Randy Johnson

There will be no debate for voters when Randy Johnson's name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Unlike most sportswriters and columnists who feel the need to write about news the day or the day after it happens (boring), I like to stand above the fray and let the facts work themselves out before putting my thoughts to words. That way, I have the time to properly research the subject in question and I don’t let my emotions get the best of me. So after I heard that Randy Johnson was retiring from baseball, I spent most of the week pouring over his stats and crying until I was so dehydrated that my body could no longer produce tears. It was at the point that I was beginning to hallucinate from dehydration that I finally knew I was ready to put Johnson’s career in perspective, so here it goes:   

Randy Johnson is one of the three greatest left-handed pitchers all-time, along with Warren Spahn and Denny Neagle Lefty Grove. He was the most consistently dominant pitcher in an era ruled by hitters and is easily the best pitcher in the history of the Mariners franchise.  Though he finished second on the career strikeout list to Nolan Ryan, you could make a case that the Big Unit was a superior pitcher to the Ryan Express (Randy had a higher winning percentage, better adjusted ERA, better WHIP, better strikeout-to-walk ratio and killed more birds in his career than Ryan). A quick look at his career numbers; 303-166 record, 3.29 ERA, 100 complete games, 37 shutouts, 4,875 strikeouts and a 1.17 WHIP; reveals just how incredible Johnson’s career truly was. Statistically there is no doubt that the Big Unit is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, but numbers alone don’t do justice to how intimidating Johnson was, and how much opposing batters hated facing him in his prime. He put the fear of God in hitters with his high-90’s heat and made even the best players look silly (just ask John Kruk). Perhaps more important to society than any of the awards he won or no-hitters he pitched, Randy Johnson proved once and for all to the world that tall, ugly, mustachioed people can do great things, and for that he deserves our heartfelt thanks—and maybe a free haircut.

The Man. The Myth. The Mullet.

One particular four-year stretch of Johnson’s career shows just how otherworldly the Big Unit was. From 1999 through 2002, Johnson posted a 81-27 record with ERA’s of 2.48, 2.64, 2.49 and 2.32 and 1,117 total strikeouts. Randy won the Cy Young Award all four years and led the Diamondbacks to a World Series in just their fourth year in existence by winning three games in the Fall Classic (the first pitcher to do that since Mickey Lolich in 1968). Now, I don’t have the Elias Sports Bureau at my disposal like ESPN, but I can reasonably assume that Johnson’s 1999-2002 seasons were one of the best stretches by a pitcher in the history of baseball, especially considering the offensive records being set at the time (even 100% steroid free Luis Gonzalez hit 57 homeruns in 2001). Randy wasn’t just good, he was utterly ridiculous.

As a Mariners’ fan I was lucky enough to see Johnson go from a dangerously wild young pitcher to the ace of Seattle’s staff. Randy, along with Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr, was a major factor in turning around a moribund Mariners franchise and will likely best be remembered for closing the door on the Angels to clinch the AL West title for Seattle in 1995. Depending on what happens with Edgar over the next few years, Randy might be the first Mariner to enter the Hall-of-Fame (followed shortly afterwards by Junior) and will certainly be remembered as one of Seattle’s biggest stars in a golden age for sports in the Emerald City. 

Though the Big Unit may be gone from baseball, he won’t soon be forgotten. Because as I once read on a baseball card advertisement: great players never fade…they become classics.

Immortalized in Bronze? A Look At This Year’s Hall-of-Fame Ballot First Timers

Roberto Alomar has the numbers of a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.

Roberto Alomar: The best second baseman of the 90’s, Roberto Alomar was a model of consistency both offensively and defensively, winning 10 Gold Gloves (the most ever by a 2B) and capturing four Silver Sluggers during his illustrious career. The 12-time All-Star collected 2,724 hits, 504 doubles, 210 HR’s, 1,134 RBI’s, 474 stolen bases and hit an even .300 in his 17-year playing tenure with the Padres, Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians, Mets, White Sox and Diamondbacks. Delivering surprising pop and excellent speed for a middle infielder, Alomar is one of the most decorated second baseman in the history of the game and compares favorably to another recent Hall-of-Famer at his position, Ryne Sandberg. The native of Puerto Rico captured two World Series titles with Toronto in 1992 and 1993, hitting .480 in the ’93 Fall Classic and finishing with a .318 career postseason average. If there’s a knock against Alomar’s candidacy it would be an embarrassing incident in 1996 when he spat in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck, leading to a five game suspension. However, in an era of rampant steroid abuse and numerous other off-field transgressions, Alomar’s moment of stupidity probably won’t cost him that many votes. His numbers speak for themselves…Alomar is one of the game’s best second baseman ever. Verdict: First Ballot Hall-of-Famer

Barry Larkin: Barry Larkin was the preeminent shortstop of the National League in the 1990’s, making eight All-Star appearances in the decade. Born in Cincinnati, Larkin attended the same high school as Ken Griffey Jr and played the entirety of his 19-year career with the Reds after being selected fourth overall in 1985. Larkin’s tenure with Cincinnati was highlighted by his selection as the NL MVP in 1995 (.319-15 HR’s-66 RBI’s-51 SB’s), but he also thrived defensively, capturing three Gold Gloves at SS. Despite the fact that he won nine Silver Sluggers during his career, Larkin never led the league in a single offensive category, and his career numbers (.295-198 HR’s-960 RBI’s-379 SB’s) aren’t that overwhelming. He was a very good player for a long time, but the Hall-of-Fame was created for greatness. Verdict: Outside looking in

Edgar swung a mean stick, but will his lack of time in the field cost him a shot at the Hall?

Edgar Martinez: The only man who could legitimately challenge Ken Griffey Jr. as the most beloved player in Seattle Mariners’ history, Edgar Martinez helped to save a franchise on the brink with his steady presence and clutch hitting (his game winning double in the 1995 ALCS against New York is one of the best postseason moments of the past 20 years). Martinez was one of the game’s finest right-handed hitters, finishing his career with 2,247 hits, 514 doubles, 309 HR’s, 1,261 RBI’s and a .312 lifetime batting average. His career .418 OBP is 22nd all-time, placing him ahead of Hall-of-Famers Stan Musial, Mel Ott and Hank Greenberg, while his OPS is the 34th best in the history of baseball. “Gar” was a 7-time All-Star, 5-time Silver Slugger and 2-time AL Batting Champion (1992 and 1995) while playing his entire 18-year career in Seattle. The main argument against Martinez is that he accumulated the majority of his stats as a designated hitter, but he did so well enough that the award for the best DH is now named after him. The fact that he was never associated with steroids helps his cause, as does voters willingness to consider “newer” statistics like OBP and OPS in which Martinez excelled. Leaving a player out of the Hall-of-Fame simply because he didn’t play in the field seems like quite an injustice, especially if players who made their living almost solely defensively (Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio, etc.) or couldn’t field at all but hit well (Jim Rice, Paul Molitor, etc.), have been enshrined in Cooperstown. Verdict: Hall-of-Famer, but not in 2010

Fred McGriff: When he retired in the middle of the 2004 season, Fred McGriff fell just short of the mythical 500-HR plateau, finishing with 493 career longballs (although he could still pull a Bernie Mac and return for one last shot at glory ala Mr. 3000). Much like Larkin, McGriff was a good player for an extended period of time, making five All-Star teams and winning three Silver Sluggers. The Crime Dog was a consistent run producer with eight seasons of 100+ RBI’s and 10 seasons in which he hit 30 or more HR’s, although he never hit more than 36 in any one year. His career numbers (.284-493 HR’s-1,550 RBI’s-2,490 hits) are certainly impressive, but McGriff never finished in the top-3 of MVP voting, and is 8th all-time in strikeouts. There have been worse selections in the history of Cooperstown (Ted Lyons?), but McGriff isn’t quite worthy of joining baseball’s most exclusive fraternity. Verdict: Close but no cigar

Report Indicates That Sammy Sosa Tested Positive in 2003: Sosa’s Response “No Se”

Wait, this guy used steroids? Couldn't be!

Wait, this guy used steroids? Couldn't be!

Well, perhaps after yesterday’s news, it won’t be such a calm wait for induction into the Hall-of-Fame. The anonymous report, which proved what had long been suspected, indicated that Sammy Sosa tested positive for a banned substance in 2003, joining Alex Rodriguez as the two players whose identities have been leaked from the list of 104 names.

While the specific substance Sosa used wasn’t revealed, the indication is that it was some sort of performance enhancing drug (i.e. STEROIDS, STEROIDS, STEROIDS). Sosa’s legacy had already been tarnished from the corked bat incident and it certainly seemed to the naked eye that Sosa grew rather unnaturally throughout his time with the Chicago Cubs (see photo above).

Despite the fact that his career numbers are outstanding (609 HR, 1667 RBIs, 2306 Ks) this latest revelation destroyed any chance that Sosa had of being elected to the Hall-of-Fame. After all, Mark McGwire hasn’t been able to garner anywhere near the number of votes necessary for induction in the HOF, and there is nothing against McGwire but anecdotal evidence (and one very poor appearance in court).

Sosa rose to national prominence in 1998 when he and McGwire engaged in an epic assault on Roger Maris’ single season HR record. While McGwire eventually won the race to 61 and ended up hitting 70 longballs, Sosa smashed 66 HRs on his way to capturing the NL MVP and winning over the hearts of fans in both America and his native Dominican Republic. Between 1999 and 2002, Sosa continued his prodigious display of power hitting 63, 50, 64 and 49 HRs respectively.

In 2003, Sosa received immense scrutiny after he was caught using a corked bat in a game, but was quickly forgiven by his ardent fans and the Wrigley faithful (give the guy a break, he did say it was an accident, and he seems honest). Sosa spent one more year in Chicago before toiling in Baltimore and Texas during his final seasons. He didn’t play in the major leagues in 2008 and just recently had announced his retirement from baseball, ending his career sixth on the all-time HR list.

The Sosa allegations are just another sad chapter in baseball's steroid era.

The Sosa allegations are just another sad chapter in baseball's steroid era.

Sosa was part of the group of players including Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco and McGwire that testified before congress in 2005 about the use of steroids in baseball. During the hearing Sosa mysteriously lost the ability to speak English but through his lawyer issued the statement “to be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs.” This statement, so blatantly erroneous on the surface, actually has some truth to it. Sosa, a native of the Dominican Republic, could have easily acquired steroids in his home country where they’re not illegal. More than anything, Sosa was guilty of a lie of omission, and this report finally brought the truth to the surface.

In an interview about the allegations, Bud Selig seemed to ignore the past, and professed his affection for Sammy Sosa and repeatedly brought up the fact that baseball now has the toughest drug testing of any sport. Selig wasn’t exaggerating, baseball’s testing is extremely stringent and effective (just ask Manny Ramirez), but he can’t simply gloss over what has happened in baseball during his regime.

If the sport is to truly move forward and leave the Steroids Era, baseball will need to continue to purge itself of cheaters, past and present. Revealing the players on that list from 2003 is an act of carthasis for baseball, the only the way the sport will be able to regain its reputation. Exposing Sosa and A-Rod is a step in the right direction…now let’s bring those 102 other players forward.

Big Unit Joins Exclusive Fraternity: Will There Ever Be Another 300-Game Winner?

Will Randy Johnson be the last 300-game winner?

Will Randy Johnson be the last 300-game winner?

With a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories, Randy Johnson strode to the mound last night as defiantly as ever, zipping fastballs by hitters and glaring like he needed a new prescription. After six strong  innings of 2-hit ball, Johnson handed the game off to the Giants bullpen, and when Beach Boy closer Brian Wilson shut the door on the Washington Nationals in the 9th inning, the surly southpaw became only the 24th member of the 300-win club. At the grizzled age of 45, the Big Unit became the second oldest player to reach 300, coming in just a hair younger than the immortal Phil Niekro. Although he was already a sure fire Hall-of-Famer, win number 300 cemented Johnson among baseball’s all-time greatest pitchers. With 5 Cy Young awards and 6 seasons of 300+ Ks, it could be argued that Randy Johnson was the most dominant left-handed pitcher ever (and only the 6th to ever win 300 games).

As a young hurler for the Montreal Expos and Seattle Mariners, the Maestro of Mullets never looked destined for greatness; a late start to his career and erratic control lead to only 64 wins in Johnson’s twenties. But with perserverance and a face only a mother could love, he continued on unfettered, becoming nearly unhittable in his thirties (a decade in which he averaged 16.4 wins per year). Johnson has continued to defy father time this season at an age when most men struggle to do anything more athletic than change the channel to Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Incredibly enough, the Big Unit has won more games in his 40’s than in his 20’s, a mind boggling stat.

Halladay is on his way to 300 wins, but it won't be easy.

Halladay is on his way to 300 wins, but it won't be easy.

Yet while the night belonged to Randy Johnson, and rightfully so, much of the talk following the game centered around whether another pitcher would ever cross the vaunted 300-win threshold. Many baseball experts contend that it will never be done again, citing pitch counts and 5-man rotations as factors why today’s starting pitchers won’t be able to accumulate 300 wins.  Consider that a pitcher would need to win 15 games a year for 20 seasons in order to rack up 300 wins; that kind of consistency just isn’t found in baseball anymore (where are you Greg Maddux?). Throw in unpredictable bullpens and homerun friendly ballparks, and it’s easy to see why the odds are stacked against pitchers in this era.

So will any pitcher ever crack this elusive milestone, or did the door to 300-wins swing closed behind Randy Johnson? Let’s examine, in order or probability, the five current pitchers that have the best shot at joining the Big Unit in this exclusive fraternity:

1) Roy Halladay (32-years-old): One of the most consistent and durable pitchers in the game today, Doc Halladay has averaged just over 16 wins a season the past 7 years. Like Johnson, Halladay didn’t blossom until his mid-20’s, but he has been a workhorse ever since. He’s currently sitting at 140 wins and if he continues his year-to-year improvement, and can fight off the injury bug, Halladay has a reasonable shot at joining the 300-win club…in 2019.

2) CC Sabathia (28-years-old): The hefty lefty has been a mainstay in major league rotations since he was 21, giving him a head start on most MLB pitchers. Sabathia has averaged nearly 15 wins a year since his career began in 2001, and joining a potent Yankees team should add some wins to his total over the course of the next few seasons. C.C. has piled up a boatload of innings over the past few years (including 253 last season), and it will have to been seen if this leads to breakdowns/injuries later on, but with 122 wins before his 30th birthday Sabathia could join the Big Unit as the 7th lefty to 300 wins.

Sure he's less exciting than a box of rye crackers, but Buehrle has quietly been piling up the W's.

Sure he's less exciting than a box of rye crackers, but Buehrle has quietly been piling up the W's.

3) Mark Buehrle (30-years-old): The darkhorse of this group of starters, Buehrle has quietly plugged away in Chicago, winning between 10 and 19 games every season from 2001-2008. His career total of 128 doesn’t blow anyone away, but consider that Randy Johnson had just 64 wins at the same point in his career, and Hurley Buehrle’s shot at 300 doesn’t seem so far fetched. Plus he’s left handed, and thanks to the trailblazing efforts of dinosaurs like Johnson and Jamie Moyer, Buehrle will probably pitch into his 60’s.

4) Johan Santana (30-years-old): Johan has been one of the most dominating pitchers over the past 6-7 years, and shows no signs of slowing down this season thus far, with a 2.00 ERA and 89 Ks in 72 innings. Satana has already racked up 116 wins, a number that would surely be higher if he hadn’t been handing the ball off to Aaron Heilman and Co. last season. There were some concerns about the Voracious Venezuelan’s shoulder at the beginning of the year, but he has quited those doubts with his strong start. Santana definitely has the stuff, but it remains to be seen if he has the drive to pitch into his 40’s for a shot at 300.

5) Carlos Zambrano (28-years-old): Sure he’s crazy (just ask Michael Barrett), but he also knows how to pitch, and with 100 wins at the age of 28 Killer Z is already a third of the way to pitching immortality. Zambrano has an electric pitching repertoire, and should get even better if he can learn to control his emotions. He has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, and that should be a concern moving forward, but so far Zambrano has put himself in a good position to challenge for 300 wins.

What are your thoughts? Will there be another pitcher who wins 300 games? Who do you think has the best shot at the milestone? Will Steven Strasburg win 300 in his first season in the bigs? Should Jamie Moyer pitch into his 50’s for a shot at 300?

Jeff Kent: Hall of Fame Bound?

mets_dodgers_baseball_400What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Jeff Kent? Surly? Mustachioed? Overrated? Jerkwad? One of the greatest second baseman ever? Product of the steroid era? Clutch? 

Unfortunately, all of these things may be true and that’s what makes the debate about whether Kent should enter Cooperstown so difficult. When he retired last week public opinion about his credentials seemed to be split. Peter Gammons, one of the most respected minds in baseball, said that Kent was a first ballot Hall of Famer. After all, Kent was one of the greatest offensive second baseman of all-time, hitting 351 HRs at the position (a record), and winning the MVP award in 2000 with an outstanding .334-33-125 line. He finished his career with a .290 batting average, 377 HRs, 1518 RBIs, 2461 hits, 560 doubles and 1320 runs from a position that is not normally associated with power.

On the other hand, many would point out Kent’s defensive liabilities or the fact that he only made 5 All-Star teams and was never seen as a dominant player of the era. While he did win four Silver Sluggers, Kent never led the league in a major offensive category (he was second in the NL in hits in 1999) and never again finished in the top-5 in MVP voting. Additionally, his Oscar the Grouch like personality does little to help his case, as some members of the media vote for inclusion.

So, does Jeff Kent deserve to be in the Hall-of-Fame?