Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Historic homers

The Chicago White Sox have recently contributed a few choice nuggets to that beloved chapter of the baseball record book covering home run trivia.

On Monday, the Sox played Detroit in a rain-delayed 162nd and final regular season game. It was a must-win as they trailed the Minnesota Twins by a half game in the division standings with a playoff spot at stake. All-world rookie Alexei Ramirez delivered yet again, breaking a tense 2-2 tie with a grand slam that put the Sox into a first-place tie as the season ended.

Not only did the blast ensure that Ramirez won't have to pick up a dinner check in Chicago for the next few years, it made a little history. Ramirez (endearingly nicknamed the "Cuban Missile") set the major league record for grand slams by a rookie, with four. Four! It also tied the club record for individual grand slams in a season (Albert Belle, 1997) and set a new club record for team grand slams in a season (12).

The four grand slams put an exclamation point on Alexei's outstanding rookie year (.290, 21 HR, 77 RBI), plus the kid can field his position like a rock star, specifically a rock star who is an excellent baseball player. Skinny, fast, slick fielder, quick wrists, home run power, Caribbean, he's pretty much a young Alfonso Soriano with better leather and speed. I don't know who's the favorite in the American League rookie of the year race, but you could do a lot worse than Alexei Ramirez.

Back to home runs. By beating the Tigers, the White Sox finished the season tied for their division lead, earning a one-game playoff with Minnesota. Teams contending for playoff spots and titles will often informally pick a respected veteran or two who've never won a championship, and dedicate their playoff campaigns to those senior members.

This year's Sox have two such guys, and they know a thing or two about home runs with 1152 between them. Jim Thome and the recently acquired Ken Griffey Jr. are future Hall of Famers who can afford to buy out Tiffany & Co.'s jewelry case, but World Series rings must be earned. They've both played on good teams but never won it all, and as they enter their late 30s this could be their last chance.

Two of the 2008 White Sox who are playing for Thome and Griffey, are Thome and Griffey. It was Thome who put the team on his enormous back in the one-game tiebreaker and clubbed a mammoth solo home run to straightaway center field; Griffey followed with a near miss off the outfield wall. Thome's cannon shot broke a scoreless tie for the game's only run, winning the pitchers' duel and putting the Sox into the playoffs. Veteran sluggers are doing it for themselves.

I was really happy for Thome, a guy who's given everything to good teams and bad, but despite many individual accolades, a player still looking for something more career-defining than his 500th home run. He's just missed winning a ring a few times, signing with these White Sox a few weeks after they won the 2005 World Series. His Cleveland teams of the 1990s were de facto All-Star teams that deserved a title or two, but let the World Series slip away in 1997 against the upstart expansion Florida Marlins.

As Thome strode to the plate in the seventh for his fateful home run, it occurred to me for the first time all day that it would be nice to see him hit one out. His shot was gratifying; you can't help but admire and pull for a guy like that. He's a somewhat local kid made good (raised in Peoria, college at Illinois Central) and by all accounts one of the most humble, considerate people ever to put on a uniform. A few years ago the Tribune Company surveyed all major leaguers to determine the game's Best Teammate. Thome not only won, he earned nearly three times as many votes as the second-place finisher.

Alexei Ramirez and Jim Thome recently hit memorable home runs when the White Sox became just the sixth team in major league history to hit four consecutive home runs in one game. Thome, Paul Konerko, Ramirez and Juan Uribe went deep back-to-back-to-back-to-back on August 14 against the Kansas City Royals.

Singular events like this occur infrequently but regularly in baseball, and for casual observers like me they're a big part of the enjoyment of being a fan. They capture the imagination, invoke the sport's history, make for compelling reading and cement the bond between fellow enthusiasts.

Take this one record, for consecutive home runs by a team. As interesting as the remarkable feat itself is the fact that six teams have done it, but no team has hit five straight homers. Why is that? Who knows?

What we do know is that certain records seem to have a threshold that can be matched more easily than exceeded. Off the top of my head I can recite the players who have homered in a record eight straight games (Dale Long, Don Mattingly, Griffey Jr.) and those who have thrown a record 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game (Roger Clemens twice and Kerry Wood; Randy Johnson did it in an extra-inning game). To this day, no one's homered in nine straight games or fanned 21 batters in nine innings. That these records keep getting tied but not broken is fascinating to me.

There are other interesting minutiae strewn around these records. For example, here are the six teams to pull off the home run fourpeat:

Braves, June 8, 1961
(Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Frank Thomas)

Indians, July 31, 1963
(Woodie Held, Pedro Ramos, Tito Francona, Larry Brown)

Twins, May 2, 1964
(Tony Oliva, Bob Allison, Jimmie Hall, Harmon Killebrew)

Dodgers, Sept. 18, 2006
(Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin, Marlon Anderson)

Red Sox, April 22, 2007
(Manny Ramirez, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek)

White Sox, August 14, 2008
(Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez, Juan Uribe)

Aside from all the current and future Hall of Famers among these hitters, plus Terry Francona's dad, note that J.D. Drew appeared in two of these six quartets, playing for two different teams in consecutive months of regular season play. Admittedly, Drew has played on some stacked lineups, but the odds of his repeating in consecutive-homer foursomes have to be minuscule. He did it though.

Note also the erratic timing of the rare feat ("homer quads," as my poker buddies might call it). It didn't happen once in the first four decades after the dead ball era. Then it happened three times in three years. Then it went dormant again like some statistical cicada for four more decades, even sleeping through the steroid era. And now it's happened three more times in two years. That is so weird.

Parenthetically, horse racing's Triple Crown has a similarly uneven distribution, with seven Triple Crown winners in the 1930s and 1940s, then a 25-year lull, then three more between 1973 and 1978, then none for the last 30 years.

Other baseball records look unbeatable for reasons having to do with the structure of the sport itself. Take, for example, one of the all-time baseball trivia questions, the two grand slams that St. Louis Cardinal Fernando Tatis hit in one inning on April 23, 1999 at Dodger Stadium.

How many players even get to bat twice in an inning with the bases loaded both times? That alone is exceedingly rare. Tatis not only got that chance, he caught lightning in a bottle by homering in both such at-bats, a feat that may never be duplicated and is a virtual certainty never to be bested.

More Tatisiana from this handy source:
  • Tatis also set the big-league record for RBI in an inning, with eight (big surprise).
  • Incredibly, he hit both his grand slams off the same pitcher, Chan Ho Park. How do you leave that guy on the mound after he gives up a grand slam and lets the opposition bat around? And let him face the guy who hit the first one out? I could see it maybe if you were trying to save your bullpen during a pennant race, but it happened in April. Apparently the Dodgers' pen was already worn out a few weeks into the season.
  • Tatis became the second National League player to hit two grand slams in one game; Tony Cloninger did it for the Atlanta Braves. And he was a pitcher! Carlos Zambrano, eat your heart out.
  • Park became the second pitcher to give up two grand slams in the same inning. Pittsburgh's Bill Phillips also earned the dubious distinction 109 years earlier, on August 16, 1890. But Phillips gave them up to different batters.
  • Guess who else homered for the Cardinals on the day Tatis made history? Yep, the omnipresent J.D. Drew.


BG said...

Alexei Ramirez is my favorite player to watch. The Sox have a true gem.

Funny how the Cubs lost their first playoff game to the Dodgers on a Grand Slam homerun by James Loney in the fifth inning, it took the belief out of the fans and team last night. Shell shocked. This Cubs team is resilient and I believe they can come back. With the track record they have had this season I bet they score 12 runs tonight.

Global Baseball Company said...

That Thome home run went an estimated 461 feet. That ball was absolutely crushed. Maybe the farthest I've seen hit at the Cell.

That '61 Braves team was stacked by the way. Geesh!

Ben said...

I know, right? Incidentally, I never thought I'd have a chance to blog-reference the "other" Frank Thomas.