Saturday, April 17, 2004

The Oddball Events of 2003 by John Shiffert

Strange events in baseball come in many shapes and sizes. Some take place on the field. Others, off the field. Some evoke a feeling of déjà vu. Others leave you wondering, “How in the world did that happen,” or saying “That’ll never happen again in a million years.” (Want to bet? Oops, can’t say that...there’s no betting in baseball.) In that regard, the 2003 season was no different than the 150 or so odd campaigns that proceeded it. So, let’s take a look at the Oddball Events of 2003, and see if they’re any odder than some of baseball’s past strange occurrences.

The fun this past season actually started in Spring Training, when Padres pitcher Jay Witasick got hurt taking out the garbage. Although that escapade earned Witasick the Injury of the Year Award, it’s unlikely he’ll be seen singing “I Love Trash” anytime soon. Now, while there haven’t been many other trash-related injuries in baseball (unless they were the end result of trash talking), Witasick certainly isn't the first person to get hurt in an unusual manner—remember when Wade Boggs broke a rib falling on to a couch while trying to put on a pair of cowboy boots? Or, the day George Metkovich got his nickname, by getting speared in the foot by a catfish he had just landed on a fishing expedition? So, at least Witasick has company in the odd injury category.

However, there is simply no matching what has to stand as THE Oddball Event of 2003: On the Field Division. It took place on July 9, in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, proving, at least for one day, that the Brew Crew made headlines for something other than ineptitude on the field. Randall Simon of the Pirates became, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the first major leaguer to attack a seven-foot Italian Sausage with a baseball bat between innings. (Actually, it was during a smoked meat footrace...the daily highlight of Brewers’ home games, and a tribute to Miller Park’s fine knockwurst.) And, to get suspended for three games for same.

There has since been much speculation as to the possible reason for the Simon Sausage Slashing...some of which you may not have heard previously... 
  • He thought the offending link was mocking the Pittsburgh team’s former nickname. In 1887, when they first jumped from the American Association to the National League, the Pittsburgh team wore gaudy blue and black striped uniforms, leading some sportswriters to call them the “Smoked Italians.” (No, I’m not making this up.)
  • Simon thought that John Rocker had taken up a new career, dressing as a sausage and running through ballparks (he might as well, he certainly can't pitch anymore). In case you’ve forgotten, Rocker was thought to have been referring to Simon in his “fat monkey” comment in his infamous Off-the-Rocker Sports Illustrated interview.
  • Since he was dressed all in bright yellow (the Pirates’ hideous late ’70s retro unis), Simon was just trying to put some mustard on the hot dog in the race, and missed.
  • He knew the person in the Sausage outfit was a young woman, and, caveman-style, he was trying to get a date.
  • Since Simon is 6-0 and about 250 pounds, and the game was running long, he wanted to spear a snack with his bat.
  • Finally, since Simon’s career Strikeout/Walk ratio is 2:1, he’ll clearly swing at anything.
Now, that’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of other equally odd happenings in baseball over the years, even within in the Mascot Category. For instance, there was the time in 1978 when the San Diego Chicken almost caused a riot in Veterans Stadium by practically molesting the Phillies’ pin-up ballgirl, Mary Sue Styles, on the field before a game.

And while we’re speaking about assaults, the most famous event took place on May 15, 1912, when Ty Cobb went into the stands in Hilltop Park in New York and attacked Claude Lueker, a crippled Tammany Hall flunky (“He has no hands,” someone in the stands called out. “I don’t care if he has no feet,” answered Cobb) with a vile tongue. What’s not commonly known about this event, according to Ron Cobb—no, I don’t know if he’s a relative—is that the two protagonists knew each other, and there was already bad blood between them from earlier contretemps down South.

Here’s what Cobb (Ron, that is) had to say about the fracas: “Lueker and Cobb had a long running feud from down south, and Cobb selected Lueker to pounce on because he recognized him when he jumped into the stands.” Cobb (Ron again) even provides a quote from the February 27, 1913, Cincinnati Times-Star on the subject...

“Tyrus Cobb may have a rocky session or two when he visits New York this summer. The man he walloped that fateful day on the bleachers has not forgotten or forgiven—I know, because I know him and have talked with him. By the way... little attention...was paid to the fact that his famous fracas was only part of an old Southern feud, entirely disconnected with base ball. Long ago Cobb and Claude Lueker, who received the wallops, were Georgia boys, and never harmonized, having many fights and contracting a strong personal enmity.”

Actually, no direct quote of what Lueker said has survived, so we’ll speculate that maybe he was singing (to the tune of “Dixie”)...

“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton.
I smell you, and you smell rotten.
Get away, get away, get away...
you stink!”

Maybe... hey, this is a family magazine!

And then there’s June 30, 1959, a day that will go down in history for unintentional low comedy on the diamond. The Cardinals are playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Bob Anderson is on the mound, pitching to Stan Musial in the top of the fourth. A 3-1 pitch gets by catcher Sammy Taylor, who, instead of pursuing the ball (while Musial is heading to first, and subsequently second) stops to argue with umpire Vic Delmore, claiming the ball hit Musial’s bat. Meanwhile, despite the fact that no one has called “time,” the Cubs’ batboy gives the ball to famed PA announcer Pat Pieper (who sat right next to the field) just before Cubs’ third baseman Alvin Dark arrives on the scene to retrieve same in an attempt to prevent Musial from getting three bases on a walk (was Stan the Man great... going for a triple on a walk). He guns the ball down to Ernie Banks in the neighborhood of second base. With “time” still not having been called or granted, the harried Delmore, still at home plate, does the unthinkable... he pulls out ANOTHER ball, and plops it in Anderson’s glove, at just about the same time Dark makes his throw from way behind the plate. Anderson, seeing The Man on the basepaths, guns the new ball towards second base, only to have it go into center field. Stanley Frank, seeing this ball sail by him, lights out for third, only to run into future fellow Hall of Famer Banks, who is holding the original ball.

After a 10-minute argument featuring extended legal briefs from all parties involved (can you imagine what would have happened if this was 10 years later, and Leo Durocher was the Cubs’ manager?), Musial is called out. Well, Banks DID tag him with the original ball. Cards’ manager Solly Hemus (a notorious crybaby, anyway) protests the game, which turns out to be meaningless when the Cards win 4-1.

And you wonder why one of the Cards’ broadcasters of that game, Joe Garagiola, wrote a book called, Baseball is a Funny Game

There were, of course, other funny (or strange or oddball) events in 2003.

How can you explain the continuing complete loss of control by the Cardinals’ one-time top pitching prospect? Yes, Rick Ankiel still has Steve Blass Disease. In 54 innings of Double A ball in 2003 he walked 49, hit six batters and threw 10 wild pitches and ran up a 6.29 ERA.

Also in the Strange Pitching Feats category, were the happenings in the second week in April. Three of the best pitchers in baseball—Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez—all suffered historic shellings within three days of each other.

Pedro - 4 1/3 IP, 9 H, 10 R/ER, 4 BB, 5 SO
The Big Unit - 4 2/3 IP, 10 H, 10 R/ER, 2 BB, 4 SO
Mad Dog - 5 2/3 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 7 SO

At least Maddux had the excuse of pitching against a team that had Jim Thome in the lineup (the Phillies.) Pedro got blitzed by the Orioles and the Big Unit by the Brewers. One thing none of the three of them had was an injury excuse. However, that’s not to say 2003 didn’t have other interesting injury angles. For some reason, there was an epidemic of oblique muscle injuries early in the year—10 players sent to the DL in less than two months...
March 19 - Dan Wilson, C, Mariners
March 21 - Kevin Mench, OF, Rangers
March 21 - Carlos Beltran, OF, Royals
March 26 - Ben Broussard, 1B, Indians
April 1 - Jason Michaels, OF, Phillies

After the season started, there was a two-week hiatus before the oblique bug bit again (it’s worth noting that only nine players were disabled with oblique injuries during all of 2002)...
April 17 - Jeff Cirillo, 3B, Mariners
April 20 - Josh Fogg, P, Pirates
April 29 - Chad Fox, P, Red Sox
May 2 - Rodrigo Lopez, P, Orioles
May 5 - Stephen Randolph, P, Diamondbacks

Now, maybe you consider the Sammy Sosa corked bat incident a minor affair, or a major faux pas. In either case, it was hardly unique. For instance, in August 1923, Babe Ruth was caught using a bat that was actually four different pieces of wood glued together. And not only that, but when Dave Henderson had a chance to examine another Ruthian bat in 1983, he noticed that the round end of the bat didn't match the wood of the barrel of the bat. “That’s a plug,” said Hendu. “This bat is corked.” Actually, altering bats is an old and (dis?)honored baseball tradition. Here’s a very brief list of some of the other players who have been identified with souped-up bats: Albert Belle, Billy Hatcher (superballs), Ken Williams (maybe the first to cork a bat), George Sisler (he drove nails in his bat, and filed off the ends), Norm Cash (“I owe my 1961 batting title to my hollow bats,” he is supposed to have said), Graig Nettles (he also used superballs), Amos Otis and Wilton Guerrero.

And then came the post season... and we were treated to a seemingly unending parade of strange happenings. Now, I don’t believe in curses, whether at the behest of the greatest baseball player of all time or an aggrieved goat owner. And could almost see it coming on the evening of October 14, 2003. Almost 74 years to the day from the biggest disaster in World Series history, the 2003 Cubs saw history repeat itself...blowing a shutout, and a seemingly safe lead, late in a key postseason game. In 1929, in the bottom of the seventh, Charlie Root had the A’s just as much under control as Mark Prior had the Marlins, only then it was an 8-0 lead and just nine outs to go before the Cubbies would even the Series at two games apiece. As you probably know, the Athletics dropped a 10-spot on the Cubs. Even worse, both Cubs teams, in addition to giving up the two biggest innings in post season history, were absolutely squashed by a steamroller that was rolling mainly through improbable circumstances. (Of course, it doesn’t help to have Dusty Baker deciding when and when not to change pitchers.) In 1929, it was Hack Wilson misplaying two catchable balls into a single and a home run. In 2003, it was Steve Bartman getting his grubby paws on a foul ball, and Alex Gonzalez failing to get his paws on a fair ball.

And then, two nights later, things got really weird, when the Red Sox saw 1949 repeat itself. The Yankees had led the Sox all that year, holding a 12 game lead in July. However, Yankee injuries and the Sox’ two pitching aces, Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder, closed the gap and Boston actually had a one game lead going into the final two games of the year which, as fate would have it, were at Yankee Stadium. Game one, on October 1, put Allie Reynolds against Parnell. The Sox chased a wild Indian early in the game and took a 4-0 lead in the third inning. (When’s the last time the Sox had a 4-0 lead early in a key game? Gee, seems like just last October.) However, the Sox’ 25-game winner faltered a little in the middle innings, and manager Joe McCarthy (yes, the same Joe McCarthy who kept shuffling pitchers in and out for the Cubs on October 12, 1929... I told you this was going to be weird...) pulled him in the fifth for Joe Dobson (whose ERA was more than a run higher than Parnell’s) to get the platoon advantage... the Yankees promptly tied it at 4. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees’ fifth outfielder, Johnny Lindell, who would hit all of six dingers on the year, pulled a Dobson fastball down the left field line (where else?) for what would prove to be the game winner. At least it wasn’t a knuckleball. (In case you’re interested, Aaron Boone hit six home runs for the Yankees during the regular season.)

It gets better. Or worse, if you’re a Red Sox fan. The last game of 1949, on October 2, with the two teams tied, pitted the Yankees’ Vic Raschi (a pure power pitcher who liked to throw close to hitters... clearly, Roger Clemens was his stand-in) against the Sox’ Ellis Kinder (who, although he could throw hard, was an excellent and deceptive slider/change-up pitcher as well... and who liked to throw at hitters... hmmm, Pedro). Just two of the best pitchers in the AL going head-to-head with the season on the line, that's all. Kinder, trailing 1-0 in the top of the eighth, was lifted for a pinch hitter (by Joe McCarthy, of course), and the Yankees scored four times in the bottom half of the inning off of Parnell and Tex Hughson. The key blow? A bases-loaded pop fly double by Jerry Coleman that drove in three runs to make the score 5-0. (He had an extra RBI on Jorge Posada in the deal.) The Sox came back to score three times in the top of the ninth, but it was too late and the Yankees won 5-3.

As hard as it may be to believe, those weren’t the biggest flukes of the postseason...the biggest fluke was the Marlins (Marlins, fish, flukes... get it?) winning the World Series despite the Yankees leading them in every offensive and pitching category. And, of course, THAT had already happened to the Yankees once before as well, in 1960, when they absolutely slaughtered the Pirates, outscoring them 55-27, and still lost in seven games:

1960 Pirates 234 27 60 11 0 4 26 12 26 .256 .293 .355 .648
1960 Yankees 269 55 91 13 4 10 54 18 40 .338 .380 .528 .908

The Yankees managed to top the Pirates in every offensive category (except that they struck out more than the Pirates)...just like what happened in the just-past World Series:

2003 Marlins 203 17 47 8 0 2 17 14 48 .232 .281 .300 .581
2003 Yankees 207 21 54 10 1 6 21 22 49 .261 .332 .406 .738

Finally, a couple of statistical oddities. It was a bad year to be a pitcher named Franklin. Ryan of the Mariners led the American League in home runs allowed, with 34, and Wayne of the Brewers topped that, leading the National League in home runs allowed with 36. And then, there was Joe Kennedy, an otherwise innocuous 3-12 pitcher for Tampa Bay. Kennedy went out on May 2, 2003 and threw a one-hit, one-walk, six-strikeout shutout at the sorry Detroit Tigers. A fine game, running up a Game Score (Bill James’ method of ranking the quality of a pitcher’s start) of 90, a mark good enough to tie for the AL lead for the best Game Score of 2003.
However, that’s not what makes Kennedy so remarkable. His claim to fame is that, in his very next start, on May 7, he was pounded by the Minnesota Twins for 13 hits and 10 runs—all earned—in just four innings. Thus, in consecutive starts, we learn that Mr. Kennedy posted the best Game Score of the 2003 AL season (90) and then the WORST Game Score of the 2003 AL season (-5). Way to go, Joe.

John Shiffert is a member of the Society for Baseball Research (SABR), the former publisher of the Philadelphia Baseball File (1989-1991), the former Sports Information Director for Earlham College (1973-1974) and Drexel University (1975-1979) and a sportswriter of some 35 years experience, starting in high school in Philadelphia. Every week Shiffert (a baseball historian and Phillies fan living in exile outside of Atlanta) looks at a timely event from baseball's history and ties it into a event or news story from today's headlines in his free e-zine, 19 to 21 (

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