Jim Northrup: 1939-2011

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My folks weren’t really baseball fans, but they both grew up in Detroit, and the bandwagony, city-coming-together effect of the World Series champion Tigers of 1968 rubbed off on them enough to where players on that team were well-known names to me even before I really got my brain around baseball as a kid.  As late as the early 80s, if my parents needed to reference a good baseball player for some reason, they’d mention one of those guys because those are the names they remembered.

Jim Northrup was one of the names that came up often. Northrup died yesterday at the age of 71 after several years of declining health.

Why did Northrup’s name stick out to non-baseball fans? The World Series heroics, most definitely. Northrup hit a grand slam in the blowout Game Six, which put it in everyone’s minds that, hey, maybe the Cardinals weren’t invincible after all. In Game Seven he came up even bigger, though: a triple to center field off Bob Gibson with two on to break up a scoreless tie in the top of the seventh. Curt Flood gets a lot of crap for making a bad play on that ball, but many believe that Flood wouldn’t have gotten to it with a good break anyway. Either way, it was the biggest moment Northrup would ever have on a baseball field.

But not the only big moment. Earlier in 1968 he became something of a grand slam artist, hitting four in the regular season. Two of them came in consecutive at bats in a game against the Indians (Northrup was the first ever to do that). Five days later he hit another against the White Sox.  Coming in the deadest offensive year since the Dead Ball Era, those were some serious fireworks.

Overall, though, Northrup’s calling card was less about heroics and more about solid production and versatility. For a good eight years in the late 60s and early 70s, Northrup was a dependable presence in the Tiger outfield, playing all three positions.

Northrup’s career wound down as Billy Martin took over the Tigers. The two of them never saw eye-to-eye, and if you believe what every single person who has ever spoken about Billy Martin has said, that personal disagreement between the two of them probably speaks pretty well of Jim Northrup’s character and demeanor.

Following short stints in Montreal and Baltimore, Northrup retired following the 1975 season. Over 12 major league seasons he hit .267/.333/.429 with 153 homers and 610 RBI.

Free agents who sign with new teams are not disloyal

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Most mornings my local newspaper is pretty predictable.

I know, when I navigate to its home page, that I’ll find about eleventeen stories about Ohio State football, even if it is not football season (especially if it’s not football season, actually), part 6 of an amazingly detailed 8-part investigation into a thing that is super important but which no one reads because it has nothing to do with Ohio State football and, perhaps, a handful of write-ups of stories that went viral online six days previously and have nothing to do with anything that matters.

Local print news is doing great, everyone.

I did, however, get a surprise this morning. A story about baseball! A baseball story that was not buried seven clicks into the sports section, but one that was surfaced onto the front page of the website!  The story was about Michael Brantley signing with the Astros.

Normally I’d be dead chuffed! But then I saw something which kinda irked me. Check out the headline:

Is Michael Brantley “leaving” the Indians? I don’t think so. He’s a free agent signing with a baseball team. He’s no more “leaving” the Indians than you are “leaving” an employer who laid you off to take a job at one of its competitors. This is especially true given that the Indians made no effort whatsoever to sign him. Indeed, they didn’t even give him a qualifying offer, making it very clear as of November 2 that they had no intention of bringing him back. Yet, there’s the headline: “Michael Brantley leaves Indians.”

To be clear, apart from the headline, the article is unobjectionable in any way. It merely recounts Ken Rosenthal’s report about Brantley signing with the Astros and does not make any claim or implication that Brantley was somehow disloyal or that Indians fans should be upset at him.

I do wish, though, that editors would not use this kind of construction, even in headlines, because even in today’s far more savvy and enlightened age, it encourages some bad and outmoded views of how players are expected to interact with teams.

Since the advent of free agency players have often been criticized as greedy or self-centered for signing contracts with new teams. Indeed, they are often cast as disloyal in some way for leaving the team which drafted or developed them. It’s less the case now than it used to be, but there are still a lot of fans who view a player leaving via free agency as some kind of a slap in the face, especially if he joins a rival. Meanwhile, when a team decides to move on from a player, either releasing him or, as was the case with the Indians and Brantley, making no effort to bring him back, it’s viewed as a perfectly defensible business decision. There was no comparable headline, back in early November, that said “Indians dump Brantley.”

Make no mistake: it may very well turn out to be a quite reasonable business decision for Cleveland to move on from Brantley. Maybe they know things about him we don’t. Maybe they simply know better about how he’ll do over the next year than the Astros do. I in no way intend for this little rant to imply that the Indians owed Brantley any more than he owed the Indians once their business arrangement came to an end. They don’t.

But I do suspect that there are still a decent number fans out there who view a free agent leaving his former team as some sort of betrayal. Maybe not Brantley, but what if Bryce Harper signs with the Phillies? What if Kris Bryant walks and joins the Cardinals when he reaches free agency? Fans may, in general, be more enlightened now than they used to be, but even a little time on talk radio or in comments sections reveals that a number of them view ballplayers exercising their bargained-for rights as “traitors.” Or, as it’s often written, “traders.” I don’t care for that whole dynamic.

Maybe this little Michael Brantley headline in a local paper that doesn’t cover all that much baseball is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an example of how pervasive that unfortunate dynamic is. It gives fans, however tacitly, license to continue to think of players as bad people for exercising their rights. I don’t think that belief will ever completely disappear — sports and irrationality go hand-in-hand — but I’d prefer it if, like teams, athletes are likewise given an understanding nod when they make a business decision. The best way to ensure that is to make sure that such decisions are not misrepresented.