Cooperstown Confidential: The World Series, Oscar Gamble revisited, and Fred Brocklander

On the heels of a tense, hard-fought six-game World Series between the Yankees and Phillies, I’m more convinced than ever that managers in today’s game just can’t win. During the first half of the Series, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel heard an unceasing line of questioning about his refusal to use staff ace Cliff Lee on three days’ rest. The questioning eased slightly after Joe Blanton earned a no-decision in Game Four and after Lee handled the Yankees for six innings of a Game Five victory in Philadelphia.

Just as the criticism of Manuel died down, his Yankees counterpart, Joe Girardi, heard a fair share of whispers over the opposite strategy: a continuing reliance on the three-man rotation (and a corresponding three days’ rest for his pitchers) in the latter stages of the Series. Writers such as the farcical Mike Lupica, whose analysis of postseason baseball always leaves us confounded, warned Girardi that he would be saddled with goat horns if the pitching strategy resulted in three straight losses to end the Series.

So which is it, three days’ rest or four days’ rest? In actuality, both Manuel and Girardi were probably right. The decision on how to use your starters rests with the composition of the pitching staff as a whole and the composition of your pitchers as individuals. In the case of Manuel, he had a No. 1 starter in Lee who had absolutely no experience pitching on short rest. Additionally, he had a deeper rotation of starters from which to choose, making the four-man rotation the sensible option. In fact, he actually possessed a good fifth option in rookie J.A. Happ. (If I’ll criticize Manuel on anything, it might be his minimal usage of Happ, a Rookie of the Year candidate who became an afterthought in the Phillies’ undermanned bullpen. In my mind, Happ would have been a better alternative to Blanton.)

In contrast, Girardi had better top-end starters than Manuel, but a much thinner rotation overall. Given the dropoff from No. 3 starter Andy Pettitte to journeyman right-hander Chad Gaudin, the reliance on the three-man rotation became a near necessity. It made even more sense considering that Pettitte, A.J. Burnett, and C.C Sabathia all owned experience pitching on three days’ rest, with Burnett and Sabathia both having yielded positive results in such situations in the past.

The obsession with postseason dissection of managerial moves has become a bit tiring. While it’s fun to first-guess and second-guess managers occasionally, let’s remember that players ultimately decide the results of the World Series. Manuel could have managed a better Series, but even more importantly, Jimmy Rollins could have hit better, Ryan Howard could have hit far better, and Cole Hamels could have acted as if he actually wanted to be in the World Series. If those three 2008 postseason heroes had come close to repeating their performances in 2009, the merits of Manuel’s four-man rotation would have been rendered moot.

More on Oscar Gamble

As a follow-up to last week’s story about the irrepressible Oscar Gamble, insightful reader Larry Rubin posted an intriguing note about the reasoning behind the 1969 trade that sent Gamble from the Cubs to the Phillies for an aging Johnny Callison. As Rubin points out, rumors have swirled—both at the time and in retrospect—that the Cubs parted ways with Gamble because of his preference for dating white women. Given the conservative ways of the organization and team ownership, the Cubs supposedly wanted their players to conform to strict racial lines when it came to dating and socializing. Gamble has always questioned this theory, perhaps in part because no one from the Cubs organization ever told him of the unspoken ban on racial “intermingling.”

For the sake of common decency, let’s hope that Gamble is right. If he’s not, the Cubs are only one of several franchises that have allegedly steered clear of players because of their dating preferences. The most famous example involves the Yankees of the 1950s, and their shabby treatment of Vic Power, a top prospect in their organization. An extraordinarily slick defensive first baseman, Power also hit for high averages throughout his minor league stops in New York’s system. His on-field talents prompted some writers to predict that he would become the first black player in the history of the Yankees franchise.

Well, that never happened. As Power rose through the system, he was deemed a bit too radical by the team’s front office, headed up by conservative general manager George Weiss. Weiss preferred a black player with a more reserved personality, someone who would fit in with a franchise that prided itself on old traditions. As a native of integrated Puerto Rico, Power was clearly not that man. Shocked by the segregationist practices here in the states, Power challenged the status quo. He tried to buck convention by staying in segregated hotels and eating in restaurants designated for whites only, and when he couldn’t, he spoke out about the injustices of the American system.

Still, the Yankees would have overlooked Power’s outspoken ways if not for his dating white women. Power was often seen in restaurants and nightclubs with his dates, which further infuriated Weiss. In the eyes of Weiss, this was an intolerable habit that would not be permitted by the organization. Weiss kept Power buried at Triple-A Kansas City in 1953 before trading him to the Philadelphia Athletics as part of an 11-man deal. The trade insured that Power would never don pinstripes under Weiss’ watch. Shamefully, the Yankees missed out on the talents of Power, arguably the finest fielding first baseman in history.

In similar fashion, the cross-town rival Mets might have lost the considerable talents of a future Hall of Famer. In 1966, the Mets owned the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft. They faced a choice of drafting a power-hitting catcher named Steve Chilcott or a young African-American outfielder named Reggie Jackson. With Jackson destined to make the major leagues within two seasons, the Mets would have formulated one of the game’s best and most athletic outfields: smooth-swinging Cleon Jones in left, Gold Glover Tommie Agee in center, and the rifle-armed Jackson in right field. I can’t think of any outfield in that era that would have combined such speed, defensive range, and power, with the exception of the early 1970s Giants outfield that featured Willie Mays in center flanked by a young Ken Henderson in left field and a budding Bobby Bonds in right field.

The dream outfield of Jones-Agee-Jackson would never materialize. Instead of taking Jackson, the Mets chose Chilcott, who would never play a game in the major leagues. As with Gamble, rumors have swirled periodically that the Mets opted not to take Jackson because of his tendency to date white women. The Mets general manager at the time was none other than George Weiss…

Remembering Brocklander

I completely missed the news over the summer, but the passing of former major league umpire Fred Brocklander deserves more than a momentary mention. Brocklander’s death at the age of 69, which occurred in August after a series of debilitating strokes, brings to mind one of the greatest League Championship Series in history. Those who are old enough to remember the 1986 playoff extravaganza between the Mets and Astros will probably recall the role Brocklander played in determining the outcome of that fall’s National League pennant.

A onetime replacement umpire who made his major league debut during the umpires strike of 1979, Brocklander made two calls that old-time Astros fans will certainly not forget. With the NLCS tied at two games apiece, Houston’s Craig Reynolds came to bat in the second inning with runners on first and third and only one out. Reynolds bounced to Wally Backman, resulting in a force-out at second base and a relay throw to first base. The first base umpire in the game, Brocklander called Reynolds out at first place. Replays clearly showed that he was safe. The double play call wiped out a potential run for the Astros, who would end up losing a one-run affair. After the game, Brocklander refused to acknowledge that he had missed the call on Reynolds at first base; the stubborn denial only enraged Astros fans further.

Then came Brocklander’s work behind the plate in Game Six, one of the classics in postseason history. During the Mets’ three-run ninth-inning rally, Ray Knight took what appeared to be an obvious third strike. Except that it wasn’t an obvious strike to Brocklander, who called the pitch a ball, which allowed Knight to prolong the at-bat and deliver a key sacrifice fly during a dramatic game-tying rally. Five innings later, the Mets walked off the Astrodome field with a clinching sixth game victory, thereby avoiding a dreaded match-up with Mets killer Mike Scott in Game Seven.

Astros fans probably won’t want to hear this, but Brocklander’s career amounted to more than just two blown calls in the ’86 playoffs. He umpired for 11 years in the major leagues, capping an officiating career that included time as a referee in Division 1 college basketball. In spite of 13 knee operations and a broken hand suffered over the course of his officiating career, Brocklander never missed a day of work due to injury.

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Comments

  1. Paul Moehringer said...

    I did not agree with the decision of going with Blanton for game four, and was actually kind of surprised they did so.

    To me game four was a must win for Philadelphia.  There was no way in my mind they could go down 3-1 in the series and have any chance at winning.

    My view on anything like that is that if I’m gonna lose, I’m going down with the best guy I’ve got on the mound.  Not my number five starter, which is exactly what Blanton was if you consider Happ their number four.

    Then again the Phillies were also clearly in control going into the ninth, and let it slip away.  But that’s baseball.  Many different things could be argued for the deciding outcome in the game, with no right or wrong answers really.  That’s one of the things that makes it such a great game.

  2. Perry Barber said...

    Thank you, Bruce, for remembering Fred Brocklander. A nicer man there never was, nor one more devoted to officiating. I saw him work soccer games when his knees ached so badly he could hardly walk, much less run and sprint, but he loved what he did and he carved out a fine eleven-year career for himself in the National League.

    Freddie was a on a crew with Ed Montague, Lee Weyer, and Dutch Rennert when I was a neophyte umpire just graduated from Harry Wendelstedt’s umpire school, and he was always unfailingly kind and considerate to me. I’ll miss him.

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