Sunday, December 24, 2017

Joe Biden's "American Promise" Book Tour at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis

Marquee of the Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis, Minnesota, December 9, 2017. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Vice President Joe Biden in conversation with author John Green, December 9, 2017. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)
On December 9th, my wife and I heard Joe Biden speak at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis as part of his “American Promise” book tour. Author John Green moderated the evening, which basically meant that he asked Biden about five questions, and Joe just ran with them. Biden has been speaking to promote his new book, Promise Me, Dad, a memoir about the last year of his son Beau’s life, as he lost his battle with brain cancer. The book also examines Biden’s decision not to run for President in 2016. 

I found it fascinating to hear Biden speak about his early days in the Senate. Shortly after his election in 1972, Biden’s family was in a car crash, and his wife and young daughter were killed. Biden seriously considered resigning, but was ultimately persuaded to take his Senate seat. While in the Senate, Biden had weekly meetings with majority leader Mike Mansfield, who would give Biden an assignment for the week. Biden said “It was a long time before I realized that nobody else in the Senate had weekly assignments,” meaning that Mansfield was using these meetings to mentor Biden and making sure that he was getting through these difficult days of grieving. One of Mansfield’s pieces of advice to Biden was, “You can question someone else’s judgement, but not their motive.” Politics in the United States would be more civil if people could follow that rule. 

Hearing Biden speak in person was powerful, as he touched on many big issuesfamily, work and life balance, and government. Biden’s honesty and authenticity came across powerfully on stage. It’s clear that Biden’s beliefs come from deeply held core values that Biden has worked hard to maintain all his life. I came away even more impressed by Joe Biden. And one of my favorite moments was when he said of the Biden/Obama memes, "They're basically all true."

Friday, December 15, 2017

Reflections on the Modern Baseball Era Hall of Fame Voting

Jack Morris on the road in the 1980's.

Alan Trammell, about to throw a runner out at first.

Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, December 2017.
Last week Jack Morris and Alan Trammell were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Modern Baseball Era Veteran’s Committee. I shared my thoughts about the eligible candidates in this post. While I argued that Jack Morris doesn’t truly deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, I can understand why he was elected. Morris received 67.7% of the vote in 2013, his second to the last year on the BBWAA ballot, and every player who has received more than 60% of the vote has eventually been elected, with the exception of Gil Hodges. And while the committee wasn’t packed with sabermetrically minded stats geeks, it was packed with guys like George Brett, Rod Carew, Robin Yount, and Dave Winfield, who all faced Morris for years during his prime. And it says something that Morris was inducted by a group that included a number of hitters who had extensive experience playing against him. Even though I argued against Morris’ induction, I’m not going to rain on his parade. He got in, good for him. Morris certainly didn’t ask to become a lightning rod in the Hall of Fame debate. He seems like a really nice guy, and obviously, this is a highlight of his career. 

While Morris’ induction might lead to the inevitable arguments of “He’s in, so now these other guys should all be in,” realistically, I don’t think it will lead to a surge of say, Frank Tanana and Dennis Martinez getting into the Hall of Fame. There simply aren’t many pitchers with more than 250 wins and as many complete games as Morris had who aren’t worthy of the Hall of Fame. 

Alan Trammell, on the other hand, was a fantastic selection, and I was very excited that he was chosen. One of the best shortstops ever, Trammell’s stats may have been overshadowed by the shortstops of the steroid era, but he clearly deserves his place in the Hall of Fame. Now we just need to get Lou Whitaker inducted.

Unfortunately, Ted Simmons fell one vote short of induction, which is pretty impressive for a player who dropped off the BBWAA ballot after just one season. Maybe he’ll make it in a future election.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thoughts on the Modern Baseball Era Hall of Fame Ballot

Steve Garvey and his massive forearms.

Dale Murphy was such a big star that he was on the box of 1988 Donruss and Leaf baseball cards!

Dave Parker, with a hat full of stars.

Ted Simmons launching a ball at Busch Stadium.
The Modern Baseball Era committee will meet tomorrow and debate the Hall of Fame candidacies of nine players and one union leader. I’m doubtful anyone will be elected, as the Hall of Fame used a similar system in 2014 that also didn’t elected anyone. (I covered that election in this post.) The Modern Baseball Era covers players who made their most significant contributions between 1970 and 1987.

There are a number of excellent players who aren’t on this ballot that I think would be deserving of more consideration for the Hall of Fame like Keith Hernandez, Buddy Bell, Dwight Evans, Darrell Evans, Al Oliver, and Lou Whitaker. Hopefully they will wind up on a future Modern Baseball Era ballot. 

Here are my thoughts about the candidates:

Let’s get Marvin Miller out of the way first. I think it’s a little unfair to put non-players on the same ballot as players, since they’re obviously judged by totally different criteria. That being said, I feel strongly that Marvin Miller should be in the Hall of Fame. As the leader of baseball’s players union from 1966 to 1982, Miller helped usher in the end of the reserve clause, and the beginning of free agency. Of course, Miller was no favorite of the owners, but he did his job very well and deserves a spot in Cooperstown.

Steve Garvey: During his career, Garvey seemed like a lock for the Hall of Fame. In 1981 he was included in Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig’s book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. Granted, the authors took some risks by including active players like Garvey, Fred Lynn, Dave Parker, and George Foster, but it’s a good example of how Garvey was viewed during his heyday. While Garvey was overrated during his career, he’s now taken so much flak from the sabermetrically minded baseball crowd that he’s probably underrated. 

As a player Garvey was known for his durability, he had a consecutive game streak of 1,207, his massive forearms, and his ability to hit in the clutch. Over 55 postseason games, Garvey batted .338 with 11 home runs, and he was the MVP in the 1978 and 1984 NLCS. Garvey put up excellent old school stats, ending his career with 2,599 hits, 1,308 RBIs, and a .294 batting average. However, Garvey didn’t walk much, only 479 times, leading to an OBP of just .329. Advanced batting statistics haven’t helped Garvey’s Hall of Fame case. He has an OPS+ of 117, which is pretty solid, but Baseball Reference lists Garvey’s WAR at just 37.7, far below the average Hall of Fame first baseman at 66.4. 

Garvey definitely had the “fame” part covered, as he was a 10-time All-Star. He’s one of the few players to make the All-Star team as a write-in candidate, which he did in 1974. Garvey even had a middle school named after him! In 1980, when he was an active player! (Steve Garvey Junior High never changed its name and closed in 2011.) Fun fact: Garvey was drafted by the Twins in 1966, but he didn’t sign. That’s a tantalizing what if for Twins fans like myself. 

And while Garvey’s advanced stats haven’t helped his case much, his traditional stats have been overshadowed by the inflated numbers put up in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Garvey started out strong on the Hall of Fame ballot, getting 41.6% of the vote his first time in 1993, which would make it seem as though he was on an easy path to induction. However, he simply never gained ground, his peak being 42.6% in 1995. 

Does Garvey belong in the Hall of Fame? I think he was an excellent hitter, but for me Garvey falls short of being a Hall of Famer. 

Tommy John: John was able to pitch for an amazing 26 seasons, and while he was never a truly elite pitcher, he was an excellent one for many years. John finished his career with 288 wins, just 12 away from the magic number of 300. What if John had won 12 more games? Would he have been in the Hall of Fame long ago? My guess is yes. So then why isn’t John a Hall of Famer with 288 wins? 

John stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for the full 15 years, but his highest percentage of the vote was 31.7% in 2009, his last year on the ballot. John is of course widely known for being the first person to undergo the ligament replacement surgery that now bears his name. That surgery enabled him to continue pitching until he was 46. I think John deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame isn’t always about being the absolute best at your position, it’s also about continued excellence, and that was the hallmark of Tommy John’s pitching career. He wasn’t flashy, he never won a Cy Young award, although he finished second twice. John’s statistics aren’t going to overwhelm you: he won 20 games three times, and he was a 4-time All-Star. But I think his career record of 288-231, with a 3.34 ERA over 700 games started is worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Don Mattingly: A Hall of Fame caliber player during the early years of his career, Mattingly saw his numbers dip due to several back injuries. From 1984 through 1989 Mattingly was one of the best players in the game, leading the American League in hits, doubles, RBIs, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases, and winning the batting title in 1984. Even with the dip in his numbers after 1990, Mattingly’s career batting average is still .307. Mattingly’s career numbers are similar to Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett’s. 

I think Mattingly was a great player, and while there are certainly worse players in the Hall of Fame, I don’t think electing him would set a good precedent. There are lots of excellent players who have 5 great years and then tail off-too many to put them all in the Hall of Fame.

Jack Morris: Let the controversy begin! Sharpen up those pens! Write some more and add to the most ink that’s even been spilled over a single baseball player’s Hall of Fame case!

For whatever reason, Jack Morris has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about the Hall of Fame. Old school writers have touted him as being a workhorse who had the mysterious “will to win,” which no one can ever define, but they know it when they see it! (Sounds a lot like “the right stuff,” doesn’t it?) The sabermetric crowd has pointed to Morris as the poster boy for why pitcher wins are overrated, and they’ve basically said Morris’ whole career was overrated. 

As someone who is from the Twin Cities, and as a 10-year-old Twins fan in 1991, I will forever hold a fond spot in my heart for Jack Morris’ terrific 1991 season with the Twins. However, that being said, I don’t think Morris is a Hall of Famer. 

One of the reasons that Morris’ case has been so hotly debated is that he’s one of the only really good starting pitchers of his generation. He's after what I call the "Greatest Generation" of pitchers, an amazing group that debuted in the majors from 1960-1970, including Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, and Nolan Ryan. But Morris was well established before the next amazing group of pitchers came along in the mid to late 1980's-a group that includes Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. Morris's exact contemporaries are pitchers like Frank Tanana and Dennis Martinez-not very impressive Hall of Fame candidates. Because Morris has more wins than those guys, he looks like the best pitcher of his generation. And while that might be true, he's still nowhere near as good as the guys that went before him and came after him. For many years, the only starting pitchers who were on the ballot who weren't shoo-ins were Blyleven and Morris. So the traditionalists worked Morris' case and the sabermetrics guys worked Blyleven's case. Through the years, Morris' case has been inflated so that he seems like the best clutch pitcher of all time. Which he wasn't. He had a 6.57 ERA in the 1992 ALCS, and an 8.44 ERA in the 1992 World Series. He was even left off of the Blue Jays postseason roster in 1993.

Was Jack Morris a great competitor? Yes, of course he was. You don't pitch in the majors for 18 years without being a great competitor. Was he a "better" competitor than Bert Blyleven, or Tom Seaver, or Steve Carlton, or Don Sutton? No, of course not. Morris didn't win more games than Frank Tanana because he tried harder than Tanana. That's not how things work. All the nonsense about his "will to win" is just a distraction from his actual pitching record.
And there's been WAY too much attention given to Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. (As a Twins fan, I never thought I would write that sentence!) Yes, Morris pitched an amazing game that night. It's a great performance. Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Larsen's career record was 81-91. Does that one game make him a Hall of Famer? Of course not. The Hall of Fame is not about single-game accomplishments, or even single-season accomplishments. It's about excellence over a career. If we put so much weight on Morris' Game 7, should we then penalize pitchers like Fergie Jenkins and Phil Niekro, who never pitched in a World Series? Mickey Lolich pitched 3 complete game victories over the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. Should be he a Hall of Famer because of that?
Morris was a really good pitcher who threw a lot of innings-and a ton of complete games-and he's gotten so much attention because his generation of pitchers was so mediocre. He's most similar to Dennis Martinez-who is no one's idea of a Hall of Famer. Here's Morris, compared to Martinez and Frank Tanana:
Morris: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.296 WHIP
Martinez: 245-193, 3.70 ERA, 106 ERA+, 1.266 WHIP
Tanana: 240-236, 3.66 ERA, 106 ERA+, 1.270 WHIP

Here’s how Morris compares to Tommy John and Luis Tiant, the other pitchers on the ballot (keep in mind John threw 800 more innings than Morris): 

Morris: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.296 WHIP
John: 288-231, 3.34 ERA, 111 ERA+, 1.283 WHIP
Tiant: 229-172, 3.30 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.199 WHIP

Dale Murphy: One of the nicest guys to ever put on a baseball uniform, Murphy had a superb peak from 1982 to 1987, when he was one of the best players in baseball. Murphy could hit for power, a good average, was an excellent defensive center fielder, and even had some nice stolen base totals during those years. Unfortunately, after 1987 his career just fizzled out, and he never had another great, or even very good season.

Dale Murphy is somebody I’d love to see in the Hall of Fame, because he was such a nice guy, and a really great player, but realistically I don’t think he should be in. He needed a few more great seasons. In 2013 Murphy’s family launched a campaign to try to get him elected to the Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility. Part of their reasoning was that Murphy belonged because he’s such a great example of integrity, sportsmanship, and character, which are listed in the Hall of Fame voting guidelines. The guidelines say, “Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” I really liked the idea that for once, someone’s sportsmanship was actually brought up as a key quality of what made them great, and I applaud Murphy’s children for their efforts.

Dave Parker: Like other players on this list, Dave Parker was one of the best players in baseball for several years. From 1975 to 1979, Parker was one of the most feared hitters in the National League. A large and imposing presence at the plate, the 6’5” Parker won back to back batting titles in 1977 and 1978. After 1979 Parker had several off years, but in Cincinnati in 1985 he found his stroke again, slamming 34 home runs and leading the league with 125 RBIs. Even late in his career Parker remained an RBI machine, driving in 92 in 1990 at age 39 for the Milwaukee Brewers. 

Parker is one of my favorite players from the 1970’s and 1980’s, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt the Hall of Fame if he were elected. But does he really belong? I don’t know, my gut tells me that he falls just short. But he was still a hell of a player. 

Ted Simmons: One of the most overlooked players on the Hall of Fame ballot; Simmons received just 3.7% of the vote in his initial appearance in 1994 and was dropped. He’s been considered several times since by various incarnations of the Veterans Committee. In my opinion, Simmons deserves to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Simmons was one of the best hitting catchers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, but he was overshadowed first by Johnny Bench and then Gary Carter. 

The rap on Simmons was that he wasn’t a great defensive catcher. However, Baseball Reference lists him at 4.7 defensive WAR for his career, which is decent; especially since in all of his seasons after 1983 he put up negative defensive WAR. 

Simmons was a rock star for the Cardinals during the 1970’s, and his OPS+ for his years with the Cardinals was 127, which would be great for any position player, but is outstanding for a catcher. Unfortunately, Simmons spent three unsatisfying years with the Braves at the end of his career, mainly pinch-hitting. He still ended up with 2,472 hits, 483 doubles, 248 home runs, 1,389 RBIs, and a .285 batting average. Hopefully Simmons will get in the Hall of Fame.

Luis Tiant: I’ll repeat what I said in my 2014 post about the Hall of Fame. Tiant was a superb pitcher in the 1960’s, winning 21 games and leading the American League in ERA in 1968. After injuries sidelined him for much of 1970 and 1971, Tiant returned with an array of different windups and deliveries, and he was able to rejuvenate his career. Tiant went on to win 20 games for the Red Sox in 1973, 1974, and 1976. Unfortunately, Tiant did a number on my Minnesota Twins both coming and going, as the Twins gave up a young third baseman named Graig Nettles as part of the trade with the Cleveland Indians to acquire Tiant. Tiant dealt with injuries during 1970, his only season with the Twins, and the Twins released him at the end of spring training in 1971, just before he started his resurgence. Oops! I think Tiant should be in the Hall of Fame, he was a great pitcher who was overshadowed on the Hall of Fame ballot by the other great pitchers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Tiant wasn’t quite at the same level as all-time greats like Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan, but he was pretty darn good. 

Alan Trammell: One of the best shortstops of all time, Trammell should be in the Hall of Fame. The gaudy numbers that shortstops were putting up in the 1990’s and 2000’s may have overshadowed Trammell, and been one reason why he never got the support he deserved on the ballot. Advanced statistics have helped Trammell’s case, as he put up 22 points of defensive WAR, to make his career WAR an impressive 70.4, several points above the average Hall of Fame shortstop at 66.7. (That number is a little skewed by Honus Wagner and his ungodly 131 points of WAR.) 

That concludes my thoughts about the candidates, we’ll see if anyone gets elected.

Concert Review: Rufus Wainwright with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall

Promotional card for Rufus Wainwright with the Minnesota Orchestra. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Last Saturday night my wife and I went to see Rufus Wainwright with the Minnesota Orchestra. We’ve seen him several times before, at Orchestra Hall in 2010, at the Minnesota Zoo in 2012, and at the Fitzgerald Theater in 2013. Wainwright always puts on a good show, and last week’s concert was no exception, as he performed some of his best songs in front of a deeply appreciative audience. 

Wainwright is a difficult performer to try to categorize, as his music mixes pop, classical, Broadway, and opera in a style that is distinctively his own. His beautiful, soaring voice adds greatly to the flavor of his music-there is simply no one else that sounds like him. Wainwright’s songs sounded great with the Minnesota Orchestra, under the baton of Sarah Hicks, behind him. 

The program was made up of many Wainwright’s most well-known songs, including “The Art Teacher,” “Vibrate,” “Who Are You, New York?” “Poses,” “Grey Gardens,” “Going to a Town,” “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” and “Oh What a World.” Wainwright actually restarted “The Art Teacher” after a verse or two, saying that something felt off, and since they were recording, he wanted to get it right. 

One of the highlights of the night was Wainwright’s version of “O Holy Night,” sung in the original French. Rufus was a little unsure, but of course he hit the high notes with style. I also really enjoyed the song “Montauk,” which came after a song from Rufus’ opera Prima Donna. Rufus called those two songs “the Philip Glass section of the evening.”

Rufus received a rapturous standing ovation after “Going to a Town.” Before he started playing the song, he talked briefly about politics, saying how disappointed he was in the Republican-led tax bill that had passed the night before. During this speech, principal trumpeter player Manny Laureano got up from his seat and walked off the stage as a protest. I noticed this, and I thought to myself for a second, “Did he leave because of what Rufus just said?” And then I didn’t think any more about it until there was a piece in the Star Tribune about the incident, making it clear that Laureano’s action was a reaction to what Rufus was saying. 

Another highlight of the night was the encore, comprised of “Oh What a World,” which sounded beautiful accompanied by the orchestra, who could do justice to the quotes from Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. Rufus also sang “Over the Rainbow” and the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” to end the night, which hit me right in the feels. 

If you have the opportunity to see Rufus Wainwright in concert, do it. He’s an excellent live performer who will keep you entertained and amazed at his songs and voice.