Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Yogi Berra, Willie Mays and Tug McGraw

Jim Rueda, the sports editor of the Free Press, grew up in the Queens borough of New York, and last night, talking about a different topic, he mentioned how painful it was to watch Willie Mays in 1973-- a 42-year-old Mays, a shell of himself, in his final major league season.

Which led me to something I've thought about off-and-on for a while: the proposition that Yogi Berra, who managed Mays and the Mets that year and got a massively flawed roster to the seventh game of the World Series, may have turned in the most underrated manageral  job ever.

Consider Mays, for example. He was, after all, Willie Mays, one of the handful of players with a legitimate claim to being the greatest player ever. He was playing, in 1973, because he needed the money, and he was never paid more than the Mets paid him that year ($165,000, according to Baseball Reference). The Giants traded Mays to the Mets, according to Mays biographer Charles Einstein, because Giants owner Horace Stomeham

  • loved Mays
  • knew he needed the payday
  • and couldn't afford to pay him that much.

The Mets traded for Mays because they figured he'd goose their attendance.

So here's Berra in 1973. He has to balance the financial imperatives from his bosses, who want Mays to play because he's supposed to draw fans, with the demands of a pennant race. An ancient centerfielder who hits .211 -- that ain't helping.

This may have been one case when having a great player as manager was a benefit. Mays was accustomed to deference from his managers. In Berra, Mays had a skipper who was a true peer, one of the great players in history. A scrub or busher might have been cowed by the task of actually managing Mays, and even if not cowed, may not have gotten the respect from Mays he would have needed.

Berra gave Mays enough time to show that he didn't deserve more time -- and did so without sabotaging his team in the standings and postseason.

Then there's Tug McGraw, the relief ace. In 1972, McGraw put up a 1.70 ERA. This matched his 1971 figure. That's consistency at a high level. But in 1973, McGraw was awful. His ERA after pitching on July 13: 5.85, and that's not even the worst it was that month.

Berra responded with something no current manager would dream of doing: He started his short reliever. McGraw, Berra reasoned, needed to throw a lot of pitches to figure out what he was doing wrong. So McGraw started on July 17, working six innings and giving up seven runs (And 10 hits, including four homers, and four walks, and a hit batter -- it was gruesome). Then he sat for almost two weeks, and started again on July 30: 5.2 innings, one run. Four days later, McGraw was back in his accustomed late-inning relief role -- and the rest of the way, his ERA was 1.65.

I think about that episode at least once a year as a manager wrestles with a relief pitchers' slump. No skipper today would prescribe a 120-pitch outing for a struggling bullpen ace. It was, as far as I know, a unique approach even then. But it worked. And Berra deserves credit for an innovative solution,

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff!! Thanks for a marvelous post.

    Doug S