Harmon Killebrew through a 32-year-old’s eyes

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Unfortunately, none of us 20- and 30-something bloggers at HardballTalk ever got to see Harmon Killebrew play.  I just remember his all-time name near the top of the all-time home run leaderboard.  Killebrew.

As an avid collector as a youngster in the late-80s, I recall being excited to get his 1975 Topps card.  That colorful set was my favorite of the old-time cards, and while I was in no position to buy the 50s and 60s cards of Hall of Famers, those 70s cards were usually within reason.   

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was Killebrew’s last baseball card.  Although he played for the Royals in 1975 — the only one of his 22 seasons not spent with the Senators/Twins — Topps didn’t include him in the 1976 set.  I’m guessing he wouldn’t have looked right in the Kansas City uniform anyway.

I’d always imagined Killebrew as the original Mark McGwire: a right-handed-hitting first baseman with huge power and modest averages.  Killebrew led the AL in homers six times and in RBI three times.  He won the MVP award in 1969 for hitting .276 with 49 homers and 140 RBI.

Of course, their builds weren’t at all similar.  But Killebrew also shared another trait in common with McGwire: he walked a ton.  He led the AL four times and he was seventh on the all-time list with 1,559 walks when he retired.  Similar to how he’s fallen from fifth to 11th all-time in homers, he’s now 15th all-time in walks.

His batting average, apparently, was an issue.  Killebrew never hit higher than .288 in a season, and he finished his career at .256.  That, plus the fact that he was viewed as a subpar defender whereever the Twins stashed him, resulted in him waiting four ballots to be elected into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

That fact seems bizarre now.  Killebrew wasn’t an all-or-nothing slugger: he finished in the top 10 in the AL in on-base percentage nine times.  He was incredibly consistent: from 1959-1972, he had an OPS+ of 130 or better every years.   He finished in the top five (but never first or second) in the AL in OPS+ 10 times in a 12-year span (he was right in that same range the other two years, but he was limited to 113 games in 1965 and 100 in 1968).

Killebrew was an 11-time All-Star.  He finished in the top five in MVP balloting six times.  In 1971, he was honored with the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award given to players for integrity on and off the field.

I just wish I had more to offer than the numbers.  By every account, Killebrew is one of the greats off the field as well.  It’s going to be a very sad day when he passes.

Derek Jeter calls Bryant Gumbel “mentally weak”

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Derek Jeter has not covered himself in glory since taking over the Miami Marlins. His reign atop the team’s baseball operations department has been characterized by the slashing of payroll in order to help his new ownership group make more money amid some pretty crushing debt service by virtue of what was, in effect, the leveraged buyout of the club. A club which is now 5-16 and seems destined for five months more and change of some pretty miserable baseball.

Jeter has nonetheless cast the moves the Marlins have made as good for fans in the long run. And, yes, I suppose it’s likely that things will be better in the long run, if for no other reason than they cannot be much worse. Still, such reasoning, while often accepted when a lesser light like, say, White Sox GM Rick Hahn employs it, isn’t accepted as easily when a guy who has been defined by his hand full of championship rings offers it. How can Derek Jeter, of all people, accept losing?

That’s the question HBO’s Bryant Gumbel asked of Jeter in an interview that aired over the weekend (see the video at the end of the post). How can he accept — and why should fans accept — a subpar baseball product which is not intended to win? Jeter’s response? To claim that the 2018 Marlins are totally expected to win and that Gumbel himself is “mentally weak” for not understanding it:

JETER: “We’re trying to win ball games every day.”

GUMBEL: “If you trade your best players in exchange for prospects it’s unlikely you’re going to win more games in the immediate future–”

JETER: “When you take the field, you have an opportunity to win each and every day. Each and every day. You never tell your team that they’re expected to lose. Never.”

GUMBEL: “Not in so–”

JETER: “Now, you can think — now– now, I can’t tell you how you think. Like, I see your mind. I see that’s how you think. I don’t think like that. That’s your mind working like that.”

. . .

DEREK JETER: “You don’t. We have two different mi– I can’t wait to get you on the golf course, man. We got– I mean, I can’t wait for this one.”

BRYANT GUMBEL: “No, I mean–”

DEREK JETER: “You’re mentally weak.”

I sort of get what Jeter was trying to do here. He was trying to take this out the realm of second guessing among people who know some stuff about sports and subtly make it an appeal to authority, implying that he was an athlete and that only he, unlike Gumbel, can understand that mindset and competitiveness of the athlete. That’s what the “get you on the golf course” jazz was about. Probably worth noting at this point that that tack has never worked for Michael Jordan as a basketball executive, even if his singular competitiveness made him the legend he was on the court. An executive makes decisions which can and should be second-guessed, and it seems Jeter cannot handle that.

That being said, Gumbel did sort of open the door for Jeter to do that. Suggesting that baseball players on the 2018 Marlins don’t expect to win is not the best angle for him here because, I am certain, if you ask those players, they would say much the same thing Jeter said. That’s what makes them athletes.

No, what Gumbel should have asked Jeter was “of COURSE you tell your players to win and of COURSE they try their hardest and think they can win every night. My question to you is this: did YOU try YOUR hardest to get the BEST players? And if not, why not?”

Question him like you’d question Rick Hahn. Not like you’d question Future Hall of Fame Shortstop, Derek Jeter.