During the Rob Manfred era of Major League Baseball, much of the charm of the sport has been eroded by the clueless commissioner.
This year alone, we’re seeing bigger bases, shift bans, rules regulating pickoffs and ghost balls and strikes due to pitch clock violations. Of course, the game always changes – and natural evolution is part of the rich history of the sport.
Just ten years ago, you could watch a Red Sox vs.Yankees game where you knew Andrew Miller was waiting for Robinson Cano in a big spot. And if Cano happened to come through, maybe Brett Gardner was going to blow up Jarrod Saltalamacchia at home to score that crucial run.
All of that is now gone, however.
Another drama-generating aspect of Major League Baseball that has been taken out of the sport is the bulldog ace pitcher. The starter who struck fear into a lineup for seven-plus innings, ripping through lineups even the fourth time through the order. Now, it’s fragile starters who walk on eggshells through five innings while fans hold their breath at every sore oblique or forearm strain.
The 1970s might very well have been the heyday of the workhorse starter. Just look at the names of the guys who took to the rubber that decade. We’re talking Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan.
Imagine telling any of those guys that they’re coming out of a game after five innings because some spreadsheet said they might struggle in the late innings? I don’t care what anonymous, interchangeable flamethrower is out in the bullpen, they weren’t better pitchers than those guys.
Although he never came close to the Hall of Fame, when you’re talking dominant starters of the 1970s, the name James Rodney Richard belongs on that list, even above some of those Hall of Famers.
Richard was at his peak over the final three seasons of his career before suffering a stroke while playing catch before a game in the Astrodome in 1980. Over the final 90 starts of his career leading up to that tragic event, Richard went 46-28 with a 2.73 ERA. He averaged 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings and averaged 7.5 innings per start. You know that big juiced-up righty who comes out of the pen chucking 100 MPH+ fastballs for an inning that fans born after 2000 think is the second coming? The 6’8” Richard did that into the eighth inning on average.
A physically imposing force and when he took the mound against your team, you damn well knew you were in for a headache of an experience for seven innings at a minimum –and breathed a sigh of relief when Richard was out of the game.
Richard’s peak came from 1976-1980, between the ages of 26-30. It’s a shame he didn’t figure things out earlier and suffered a stroke at the age of 30, because if he had the same health as Tom Seaver, you’d be talking about him as an all-time great.
Before we move on to this week’s edition of The Stud 400, here’s a look at the last five entries as we count down the 400 greatest moments in Major League Baseball history:
255. MLB Network Debuts (2009)
254. David Freese World Series Heroics (2011)
253. Alex Rodriguez Sets Grand Slam Record (2013)
252. Ichiro Records 4,000th Professional Hit (2013)
251. Moneyball A’s Win 20th Straight Game (2002)
And now, here’s Episode XXXI of The Stud 400, featuring artwork by Will O’Toole.
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Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey Grand Slams (2014)
The universal DH has put an end to the offensive exploits of pitchers, and in my opinion the game is worse off for it. Gone is the strategy of what managers would do when the pitcher’s spot came up in the order as well as those magical moments where a pitcher accomplished something on offense. Perhaps the best hitting pitcher at the close of this era was Madison Bumgarner. The lefty has 19 career home runs and has driven in 65 runs. He also made history on July 13, 2014 when he belted a first-pitch grand slam off Matt Stites of the Diamondbacks. The inning before, Buster Posey hit a grand slam of his own, so when MadBum connected, they became the first battery to each hit a grand slam in the same game. It was actually Bumgarner’s second grand slam of the season, having hit one earlier in the season against Jorge De La Rosa of the Rockies.
J.R. Richard Suffers Stroke (1980)
Ask any player who played in the National League in the late 1970s who the toughest pitcher they ever faced was and you might find yourself surprised. Sure, you may get some guys who mention inner-circle Hall of Famers Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton, but a name that won’t be far behind is J.R. Richard. An imposing 6’8” fireballer, Richard pitched just five full seasons and went 107-71 over his career. Richard really elevated his game in 1978 and ’79 when he struck out 300 batters in back-to-back seasons. He also captured the ERA title in 1979 and finished third and fourth in the Cy Young voting.
On July 3, 1980, Richard started the All-Star Game for the National League and struck out three batters in two scoreless innings. Not long after, he started complaining of arm weakness, which was met by doubt among the media and Astros. Richard started a game on July 14 and removed himself in the middle of the fourth inning, having allowed just one hit to that point. On July 30, the Astros were in Philadelphia and Richard hung behind in Houston to rehab in the Astrodome. While playing catch, Richard collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where it was determined he had three strokes. Richard had a blood clot in his neck and the resulting surgery and damage done by the strokes sapped Richard of his otherworldly ability. He attempted comebacks in 1982 and ’83, but just wasn’t the same pitcher and never made it out of AAA. Richard died in 2021 and will forever go down as one of the great “what if?” cases of his era.
Baseball Tonight Debuts (1990)
Today, baseball is available for fans to consume in so many ways, it’s actually probably overkill. Local TV, cable TV, national TV, streaming services, social media, virtual reality content, print media and other online sources allow fans to access the game in just about any way imaginable. It wasn’t that long ago that baseball broadcasts were much more limited. You’d get some quick highlights on SportsCenter or the local news and that was about it. That all changed when ESPN debuted Baseball Tonight in 1990. Not only did they show extended highlights from most games, there was also additional analysis on the games, better highlight packages, live look-ins and plenty of special segments, most notably Web Gems and Going, Going Gone! For kids who grew up on 1980s baseball, Baseball Tonight was This Week in Baseball on steroids and airing nightly.
Don Mattingly Homers in eight Straight Games (1987)
Mattingly’s four-year run between 1984-1987 captured the sport and had fans in near-unanimous agreement that they were watching a budding Hall of Famer. He had a legitimate argument as the best offensive and defensive player in the game at that time and he hadn’t yet even started his age 27 season. In 1987, Mattingly gave us one final healthy season before back problems submarined his Hall of Fame trajectory. In ’87, Mattingly had two notable power accomplishments. He set a Major League record with six grand slams and also went on a home run streak which landed him at this spot in The Stud 400. Mattingly tied Dale Long’s Major League record by homering in eight straight games between July 8 and July 18. In two games, he belted two home runs, giving him 10 home runs over an eight-game stretch. Long and Ken Griffey J.R.., who later matched the streak, both only had eight home runs during their streaks.
Armando Galarraga’s Imperfect Game (2010)
Galarraga had a modest career in which he appeared in 100 games on the mound mostly between 2008-2010, but he’ll always have a place in MLB history. Very few players have come as close to immortality as Galarraga, only to have it ripped away from him through no fault of his own. On June 10, 2010, Galaragga was on the cusp of baseball history, having retired the first 26 batters he faced. Josh Donald, a rookie playing just his 15th career game stood between Galarraga and perfection. Well, Josh Donald and Jim Joyce. Donald hit a roller to Miguel Cabrera who ranged far to his right to make the play. Cabrera tossed the ball to Galarraga, who arrived at first base clearly ahead of Donald to complete what looked to be just the 19th perfecto in Major League history. The only problem was that Jim Joyce called Donald safe. If that happened today, it would have taken a five-second replay to reverse the call. However, at the time, the only plays allowed to be reviewed were home runs.
As heartbreaking as it was, Galarraga and Joyce handled the situation impeccably. Galarraga didn’t hold any animosity towards Joyce and the tearful umpire admitted blame and was visibly distraught when he realized what he had cost Galarraga. The righty stayed in the game and retired the next batter, so essentially, Galarraga retired 28 straight batters but was left with a one-hit shutout instead of a perfect game. If the game ended as it should have, it would have taken just 83 pitches (67 strikes) for Galarraga to complete. The next day, Galarraga walked out for the ground rules and handed the game’s lineup card to Joyce, who was the home plate umpire that day. Joyce teared up again, patted Galarraga on the back and continued on what was a very fine career as one of the best in the business. Galarraga appeared in just 36 more games in his career and although he doesn’t get to join the short list of official perfect game, he will go down as the author of “The Imperfect Game.”
Stay tuned for the next episode of The Stud 400 as we break a drought in a big way with the Southsiders. We also find out what happens when labor negotiations don’t quite go as expected and learn that two Luis Tiants are better than one. Be heads up during next week’s Stud 400 – you don’t know what might be thrown your way.