This Annotated Week in Baseball History: April 22-28, 2007

Since I write a history column, people sometimes assume that I have little or no interest in the current game. This actually couldn’t be farther from the truth; it is possible that California broke off from the West Coast and started floating towards Japan this past weekend, but I wouldn’t know because I can’t bring myself to buy a newspaper on days when the Yankees lose.

That being said, when I attend games in person, I inevitably end up leaving with a variety of questions and thoughts about the players I was just watching. On Monday I watched the Mets defeat the Rockies 6-1 at Shea Stadium. Divided by game, but otherwise presented in no particular order, are some thoughts on the “current history” I witnessed at the game.

Todd Helton is batting clean-up for the Rockies tonight and playing first base. He appears to be taking facial hair advice from Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, possibly in the hope of surreptitiously switching places with the Red Sox’ first baseman later this year. You can hardly blame Helton, as he has played on exactly two winning teams his entire career, neither of which even reached eighty-four wins. Besides his late-season debut in 1997, Helton has never been on a team finishing higher than fourth.

None of that is Helton’s fault, of course, and someday he will make a very interesting Hall of Fame candidate. On the face of it, Helton would be an easy choice to elect. He’s a former batting champion, a five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glover.

Even if one uses a tool as simple (some might say crude) as the Favorite Toy, Helton projects to finish his career with more than 353 homers and nearly six hundred doubles. Taking another Jamesian invention, his Hall of Fame Monitor is well over the 100 of a “likely” Hall of Famer.

Helton has three key factors working against him. The first is the general black mark placed on all players, but power hitters especially, from the steroid era. Given it will be some time before Helton is even on the ballot it seems foolish to speculate as to what will become of voting patterns but it is something to keep in mind.

Another factor is Helton’s contract. In April of 2001 he signed a nine-year contract to begin in the 2003 season, paying $141.5 million. That’s an average of just under sixteen million a year, but because the contract was backloaded, the Rockies are on the hook for an average $17.1 million a year for the next four years, plus a $4.6 million buy out in 2012. By the end of Helton’s career, you can expect to see the phrase “Helton’s contract” in a lot of sentences with the word “albatross.”

Finally there’s Coors Field, the biggest question of all. Helton is the only player of note to spend his entire career there, and his numbers must be viewed through that lens. Park adjusted statistics are still favorable to Helton, his OPS+ is a 143, which compares to favorably to Hall of Famers like Eddie Mathews and Reggie Jackson. Personally, I think he’s a Hall of Famer, but I would not be surprised to see him on the outside looking in.

Helton had a nice day the plate, but the hitting star of the game was Jose Valentin. Valentin slugged a three-run home run in the second and hit a sacrifice fly in the fourth, giving him four RBIs in, technically speaking, just one at-bat. This is all part of the mustachioed second baseman’s career renaissance, one that seemed improbable after his disastrous 2005 with the Dodgers.

What interested me at this point wasn’t Valentin’s resurrection, but rather his RBIs. In the sixth Valentin came up with a runner o third and a chance at his fifth (and possible sixth) RBI. He was intentionally walked, however, robbing him of the opportunity. (A bit of strategy that worked out, incidentally, as John Maine and Jose Reyes made outs, keeping the Rockies’ then-deficit at three.) As it turned out, even if Valentin had launched another home run, he still would have been miles short of the goal I had mentally set for him the single-game RBI record.

That record is shared by Jim Bottomley and Mark Whiten, who both drove in twelve runs in a single day. Bottomley did it on September 16, 1924 as part of the Cards’ 17-3 drubbing of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bottomley, a Hall of Famer himself, is something of a connoisseur of obscure and slightly bizarre records. He also holds the single-season record for unassisted double-plays by a first baseman, with eight.

Whiten was nicknamed “Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten” and that sums him up pretty well. He was prone to mental lapses both at the plate and field but could crush the ball, driving his twelve runs in thanks to four home runs in September of 1993 in the second game of a double header. Thanks to his RBI in the first game, Whiten also holds the record for most RBI in a double header.

All said Jose Valentin had a fine day, 1-for-2 with four RBIs and a walk, but if he had driven in every run available to him he still would not have come close to the all-time highs for runs batted in.

A lot of people collect some sort of odd knick-knack, whether it be snow globes, or buttons, or what have you. My own personal collection is of little stadium miniatures. I have several of these which appear and disappear around my apartment depending on the level of mess at any given moment. I don’t know why I like these stadiums so much, but I think it might be because it is a large object writ small, a tiny thing which gives you a sense of the greater whole.

I also like it when players have single-game appearances that are like this, a small sample that demonstrates their entire inventory of talents and failures. Ambiorix Burgos accomplished this on Monday, showing in one inning exactly why he is in the Major Leagues and yet, why he has a career ERA closer to five than four and mostly appears in games with scores like 6-1.

Called upon to retire the Rockies in the ninth, Burgos did so but not before walking the bases loaded, forcing Mets’ skipper Willie Randolph to ready closer Billy Wagner in his bullpen. Burgos also recorded a strike-out in his appearance, as well as throwing several pitches in the upper 90s.

Of course, that’s basically Burgos’ entire career. He throws absolute bullets—sometimes reaching 100 MPH—and therefore accumulates a fair number of strikeouts. But Burgos often has absolutely no idea where the ball is going, which is about the only way you can strike out more than a man an inning and not be more than a marginal pitcher.

Luckily for Burgos, who blew twelve saves for the Royals in 2006, he held on without giving up a run on this day. That wrapped up not only an appearance wholly representative of the kind of pitcher Burgos is, but also a game filled with “current history.”

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