Breaking Down the Top 4 Quarterbacks in the 2018 Draft-Josh Allen

Wyoming’s signal caller has a cannon for an arm-but so did JaMarcus Russel. 

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(USA Today Sports)

Josh Allen has gained momentum as the next small school quarterback to be drafted early after the rapid ascension of Carson Wentz from unheralded prospect to Number 2 pick and MVP candidate in just two seasons.

Like Wentz, Allen fits the physical profile of a franchise QB a tall country boy with a rocket launcher attached to his right shoulder. But Allen comes with many of the same concerns Wentz did-and those concerns be warranted in Allen’s case.

As a small school quarterback, it’s tough to gauge how Allen will perform against NFL caliber athletes. Although the Mountain West is an FBS division and a clear step up from Wentz’s North Dakota State schedule, it can be difficult to differentiate between carving up the University of New Mexico’s secondary and throwing darts through tight windows against NFL caliber talent.

Watching Allen’s tape, his arm is uncanny. Every conversation begins around that arm strength-and it has to. Allen will sit in the pocket for a couple seconds, then meander outside of it to his right, with defenders closing in all the while. Then, a big shuffle step and Allen will uncork a throw with the flight pattern of a long fly ball, wobbling precipitously all the while. Miraculously, it’ll land in the hands of a jubilant wide receiver in the endzone, with the entirety of the state losing their collective minds as Allen grins like he knew it all along.

And so NFL scouts see that arm, consider the possibilities with some NFL coaching, and envision the country boy flinging shots into places no one else can in a conference championship game. They see Wentz and Brett Favre, small school QB’s with big time arms. They see gunslingers like Carson Palmer and Matt Stafford leading long downtrodden squads to the promised land.

But for every Wentz and Favre, there’s a Brandon Weeden and Jeff George. Arm strength is not everything in the NFL, and in his limited opportunities against Power 5 teams Allen has looked shaky and inconsistent against the ramped up pace of play.

The combine and pre-draft process is crucial for Allen. That’s where Wentz separated himself from a big arm with no pedigree to a legitimate contender for the first overall selection.

Allen is worth keeping an eye on-arms like that don’t grow on trees. But to draft him first overall, or even in the first round, would be a mistake based on the information currently available.

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Breaking Down the Top 4 Quarterbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft-Josh Rosen

Four signal callers are in contention to be first round selections. Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, and Baker Mayfield.

Josh Rosen, UCLA

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(Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports)

Josh Rosen has been the star of the show since high school-the former five star recruit won the starting quarterback job as a true freshman at UCLA, and has consistently produced whenever healthy.

Rosen’s signature moment was a thrilling comeback victory over Texas A&M early this season. Trailing 44-10 late in the third quarter, Rosen and the Bruins offense posted an unanswered 28 on the scoreboard in the fourth to lead UCLA to an improbable win. Time after time he sat in the pocket and zipped big time throws with pinpoint accuracy into narrow windows in critical moments. The magnitude of the moment didn’t faze him. With seconds remaining, Jordan Lasley dropped an easy catch on third down that would have resulted in a first down. Rosen didn’t blink an eye and converted on 4th and 6 with a precise wheel route to his running back. Then, conjuring shades of the legendary Dan Marino, Rosen faked a spike and lofted a perfect ball to Lasley in the back corner of the endzone, which Lasley snatched over a TAMU defender to redeem himself and win the game.

“The Rosen One” has got gumption, and the arm to match. He’s been the guy at every level since high school, and is sure to be in for a rude awakening of some sort in the NFL-all rookies are.

Rosen is terrific as a pure thrower-the accuracy, arm strength, poise, and spin of his throws are on par with elite NFL quarterbacks. He has the height coaches require, standing at 6’3, and most importantly, has shown the ability to progress through his reads and make smart decisions with the football. The combination of arm and brain talent makes him a favorite to be the first overall pick in the draft in April.

UCLA’s signal caller is not without his flaws, however. While tall, Rosen is slight of build relative to other top QB prospects, and his long term durability is in question. After an electrifying freshman year, Rosen was injured during a subpar sophomore campaign. Then, this season, despite being healthy and putting up numbers, Rosen led a Bruins team with college football playoff aspirations to a sub .500 record. Some pundits doubt his ability to carry his team, and worry that although he may possess the talent to be a franchise quarterback, his demeanor will hold him back.

Rosen’s ideal comparison would be a fellow Californian who plays across town-LA Rams QB Jared Goff. Goff and Rosen have similar builds are faced questions about their ability to lead, given that their college teams often under-performed. Goff struggled mightily in his rookie campaign, hamstrung by Jeff Fisher’s decrepit offense and bizzare play calling. This season, with Sean McVay’s innovative offensive system installed, Goff has thrived and even garnered MVP consideration.

The ball sure looks pretty coming out of Josh Rosen’s hand, and his motion and mechanics nearly mirror those of Goff, whose tall, slender frame and smooth motion makes for an easy comparison.

The concerning comparison, given what some perceive to be an arrogant (which I would argue you almost need to be a successful NFL QB) and lackadaisical attitude from Rosen, would be Jay Cutler, a guy who has all the arm talent in the world but struggles to be anything more than a mediocre QB.

Rosen’s proven in crunch time, and you can’t teach arm talent like that. It would be tough for anyone to thrive in Cleveland right now, but he might be the answer to the question of Eli Manning’s successor in New York. Bank on Rosen being gone in the first five picks of the draft.

The final evaluation of a QB, despite hand size, Wonderlic tests, and whatever other metrics they have to evaluate these days, is the age old question: “Can he sling it?”

Josh Rosen can most definitely sling it.

Up Next: Wyoming QB Josh Allen.

One Out Away-The Story of Baseball’s Greatest Dynasty that Never Was

October 11th, 2010. Atlanta, Georgia.

Rick Ankiel on second, Tim Hudson on first, both by way of the walk. Hudson pinch running for Eric Hinske. San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson and his obsidian bird’s nest that some referred to as a beard on the mound. And for what could be the last time, Bobby Cox in the Braves dugout.

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The eccentric Brian Wilson. (Photographer not Given)

Wilson was trying to preserve a masterful start by the Giants 20 year old rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner, one out away from the Giants first NLCS berth since 2002. In anti-climatic fashion, Melky Cabrera bounced a routine grounder to third. Uribe scoops it up, whips it across the diamond to first…got him!

And while it was jubilation for the Giants in a magical year that would cumulate in a World Series victory, it was just business as usual for Atlanta in Bobby Cox’s last game ever. In Cox’s 20 years at the helm, the Braves won 14 straight division titles, went to five World Series, had three Hall of Fame pitchers in their prime, produced the best center fielder in the National League, and developed the greatest switch hitter of all time.

And yet they won just a singular World Series. How, with all that talent, did they not create a dynasty that would be remembered forever? How is it that just twenty years later, the 1990’s Braves are mostly forgotten?

This is the legend of baseball’s greatest dynasty that never was.

Our story starts on June 23rd, 1990. As the world’s eyes were turned to the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the heat was on in the muggy summer days in northern Georgia. General Manager Bobby Cox decided he had seen enough out of Manager Russ Nixon, and, failing to find a suitable replacement, appointed himself Manager of the laughingstock Atlanta Braves.

The Braves hadn’t won a championship since Hank Aaron and the 1957 Milwaukee team beat the dynastic Mantle-Berra-Ford Yankees in the World Series, and the city of Atlanta had never experienced a championship at all.

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Aaron and company celebrate toppling the Evil Empire. (Photographer not given/www.sportsteamhistory.com)

The Braves were not completely without hope, however. A young David Justice was in the midst of a Rookie of the Year campaign that would be indicative of the All-Star career he was soon to embark upon, and 25 year old centerfielder Ron Gant was coming into his own with a 30 homer/.300 average season while also swiping 30 bags. Earlier that month, the Braves had used the first overall pick in the draft to nab a hotshot young shortstop from Florida named Chipper Jones.

Interestingly, the Braves were smitten with a high school right hander out of Texas with a big fastball and a bigger mouth named Todd Van Poppel, who told the Braves explicitly that he would not sign with them. The Braves then pivoted to select Jones. Van Poppel was drafted by the A’s with the 14th pick and had an ERA of 5.58 in the majors.

While Jones provided a spark of hope for the future, the immediate outlook was gloomy mid-1990. Chipper was a high school draft pick and a few years away. Young ace John Smoltz had regressed from his breakout 1989, but still turned in a decent performance. Tom Glavine, having made tremendous strides the previous season, backslid dramatically in a worrying development. A freshly anointed non-teenage Steve Avery was pummeled in his initial go-around with big league hitters. Their “closer”, Joe Boever, saved a grand total of eight games.

Atlanta legend Dale Murphy was washed up and traded mid-season to the Phillies, who took a flier to see if they could squeeze any last vestiges of talent from one of the NL’s premier sluggers in the 1980’s. Greg Olson hit .262 with seven homers and was somehow named an All-Star. Everyone else was either old (Charlie Leibrandt, Lonnie Smith) or not particularly good (Jim Presley, Pete Smith).

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It just doesn’t look right. (Dalemurphy.com)

As they stumbled to the finish line, optimistic fans clung to the notion that the young players would start to live up to their potential and the week-old-fish that was the 1990 Braves would improve to a mediocre 75 win squad that resembled stale bread, to stick with the food analogies.

Instead, they got Cordon Bleu prepared filet mignon. The Braves skipped the step where they were supposed to improve year by year and instead careened past a caravan of NL teams jostling to unseat the World Series Champion Cincinnati Reds to find themselves in the World Series facing a Minnesota Twins squad that had done much of the same in the juinor circuit.

Justice slid over to right field to replace Murphy, and turned in a solid, if unspectacular 21 homers and .275 average. Gant saw his average drop precipitously but slugged 32 more homers and was a terror on the basepaths once again. The real changes came from Jeff Treadway, who broke out to hit .320, and newcomers Terry Pendleton and Otis Nixon. Pendleton hit .319 and cracked 22 homers en route to the NL MVP award; a 32 year old Nixon swiped a double-take worthy seventy two stolen bases while batting nearly .300. They also featured a 23 year old left fielder who was speedy but struggled at the plate, though he would enjoy a nice season the following year. His name was Deion Sanders.

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Primetime was the center of attention wherever he went, even if it was next to two of the best outfielders in all of baseball. (Pinterest)

On the mound, Glavine grasped the pinpoint control that would eventually land him in Cooperstown, winning the Cy Young Award while stifling hitters with a 2.55 ERA. A 34 year old Leibrandt showed he had something left in the tank, as he twirled 230 quality innings with an ERA of 3.49. Smoltz and Avery rounded out a lunch pail rotation where every starter pumped out over 210 innings. The Braves rode their four horsemen throughout the majority of the season, neglecting a traditional fifth starter.  The bullpen, downright abysmal in 1990,  improved to become one of the league’s better units in ’91.

Nixon was suspended in mid-September for violating baseball’s drug policy, so they were forced to close out the stretch run without one of their primary weapons. They slid into the playoffs right ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers and battled through Barry Bonds’ Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS to set the stage for a matchup with the Minnesota Twins. The Twins were a mirror image of the Braves, having also finished last in their league in 1990 and now found themselves four games away from being World Champions.

After earning their keep in the sticky Georgia summer, the upstart Braves would cut their postseason teeth in frigid Minnesota, albeit in the enclosed Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

The 1991 World Series ended up being an All-Time classic. Veteran Jack Morris tossed seven solid innings in Game One for the Twins while fellow greybeard Leibrandt was roughed up in just four innings.

Glavine went the distance in Game Two but was victimized by unearned runs, as well as the infamous Kent Hbrek play as the Braves found themselves in a 0-2 hole facing a critical Game Three.

Gant was livid, and rightfully so. But he lost the argument, and the game. (MLB.com/Youtube)

Down 0-2, the Braves turned to Avery for game three. Avery had been lights out all postseason and won the NLCS MVP that year. He didn’t disappoint, stifling the Twins all game long before being lifted for closer Alejandro Pena. Pena picked a terrible time to blow his first save with the Braves-slugger Chili Davis crushed a long home run to left as the first batter he faced. The two teams were then deadlocked until the twelfth, where David Justice began scripting his legend by singling and swiping a bag to put himself in scoring position. Mark Lemke poked a single to left and Justice slid in just ahead of the tag, and the Braves were breathing. If they had gone down 0-3, the series would have been all but over, but the emotional victory in Game 3 gave the Braves life to cling to.

(MLB.com/Youtube)

Game Four was tight as well. This time Lemke scored the winning run rather than having the winning RBI, scoring on a sac fly from Jerry Willard. Game 5 was a blowout, as Atlanta smacked the Twins 14-5, and were now just one game away from flipping the script from last place to World Champions.

But the best laid plans of Mice and Men often go awry. Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett crushed a walk-off homer off of Leibrandt in the 11th in Game 6, deadlocking the series.

Both teams found themselves right back where they started in Game 7, with Smoltz and Morris once again facing each other with the series even in the Metrodome. The 36 year old Morris, a Minnesota native, scattered 7 hits over 9 shutout innings. The one real scare came in the 8th, where Lonnie Smith singled and Pendleton doubled, giving the Braves two men in scoring position with no outs. But Morris worked his way through the heavy hitters-getting Gant to bounce out to first, and intentionally walking David Justice-before inducing a double play grounder from the light-hitting Sid Bream to snuff out the threat.  Smoltz was lifted for Mike Stanton in the bottom of the 8th after the Twins threatened with runners at the corners and just one out. Stanton finagled his way through Puckett and Hbrek to keep the game scoreless.

The game-and the series-was still undecided after 9 innings. Morris, in his 15th season, came out for the tenth and tossed a clean half inning without missing a beat. Cox sent Alejandro Pena out to the rubber to try to counter the indefatigable Morris. Pena, however, had left his mojo on the mound after two clean innings in Game 6. Dan Gladden doubled, Knoblauch bunted him over, Puckett and Hbrek were walked intentionally, and Gene Larkin launched a long fly ball out of reach for the drawn in outfield, scoring Gladden and winning one of the greatest series ever.

History is written by the victors. (Getty Images)

Heartbreaking, to be sure. But the Braves would have considered a .500 season a success. Losing the World Series in such dramatic fashion stung, but the future was bright and the morale was high in the Peach State heading into the 1992 season.

1992 proved that the previous year wasn’t an abnormality. Smoltz, Glavine, and Avery all enjoyed brilliant seasons, and Charlie Leibrandt was solid again.

Offensively, Gant and Justice struggled in ’92. Pendleton and Nixon were huge once again-Pendleton turned in a season nearly identical to his MVP campaign in the year prior, and Nixon hit .294 and stole 41 bases. The offense got a huge boost from none other than Deion Sanders, who ripped 14 triples, stole 26 bags, and hit .304 before he departed for NFL training camp in August. Despite the struggles of their two headline players and a bullpen that was nothing to write home about, the dominance of the three headed Smoltz-Glavine-Avery monster carried them to 98 wins and back to the Fall Classic.

There, they faced a team north of the border, as the Toronto Blue Jays made their World Series debut.

The Jays were led by a medley of youngsters and vets-their best players were 24 year old Roberto Alomar, 23 year old John Olereud, 32 year old Joe Carter, and 40 year old “Mr. May” Dave Winfield.

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Roberto Alomar, not yet a quarter century old, was the leader of that team. (Michael Ponzini/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Game one must have felt like a nightmarish version of Groundhog day for the Braves-the starter for Toronto was none other than Jack Morris himself. This time, the Braves were able to exorcise the demons as Glavine went the distance and steadied the team, while Morris struggled with control and took the loss.

Though Smoltz pitched well in Game 2 matched up against Blue Jays ace David Cone, acquired from the Mets at the trade deadline, the bullpen couldn’t close the game out. Avery and Glavine each went 8 innings in Games 3 and 4, but the meager offense couldn’t muster much of anything against Jimmy Key or Juan Guzman. Ironically, Morris seemed to be the only pitcher they could figure out, as they roughed him up again in Game 5 to give themselves some semblance of hope, down 3-2.

Steve Avery-still just 22 years old-got the start with their backs to the wall. He didn’t have it that day, unfortunately, lasting just four innings while Cone stymied the Atlanta offense once more. Down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Otis Nixon singled home Jeff Blauser to send the game to extras and give them one last gasp. In a battle of veterans, Dave Winfield knocked in the winning run off Leibrandt, and a late rally in the bottom half of the inning fell just short for the Braves.

Gant and Justice struggled mightily in the series, both hitting in the .100’s.

Having lost back to back World Series, the pressure was now on with zero reservations. The 1993 Braves absolutely trounced the National League. Gant and Justice combined for 76 round-trippers, while Nixon continued to have success as a speed-reliant player at age 34. Midseason acquistion Fred McGriff was leaps and bounds better than Sid Bream at first. Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko were even on that team, though they were minor players that season. Chipper Jones made his debut and got 2 hits in three at bats.

Though the offense was improved, the franchise altering move made that off season was on the other side of the ball. Scott Boras felt that his client’s previous team, the Chicago Cubs, were lowballing his client. Frustrated with the direction of the negotiations, Boras pulled his client out and the Cubs ceased pursuing one of the greatest homegrown players they had ever produced.

And that’s how the best rotation in baseball ended up adding Greg Maddux, forming an unstoppable foursome that absolutely dominated the NL. The only cloud on an otherwise clear horizon was that Avery, in the midst of a brilliant year, suffered a strange arm injury in early September. Though he would return that season, he was never the same pitcher afterwards. After looking like a future ace, Avery was simply a mediocre pitcher over the remainder of his career. The 1993 season, sadly, at age 23, ended up being the peak of his career.

L to R: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery.

The knights of the starting rotation. From left: Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery. (Ronald C. Modra/Sports Illustrated)

The ’93 Braves cruised through the regular season but were stopped cold by the Phillies in the NLCS. Led by a cadre of high average hitters, a juiced-up Lenny “Nails” Dykstra playing with the energy and reckless abandon that only he could, and a young Curt Schilling, the Phillies shocked the world and took the series, four games to two.

This was now a trend that couldn’t be ignored. Why couldn’t the Braves succeed in the postseason? Why did they bow out every year? Either the pitchers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn or the hitters looked like they were swinging balsa wood. Dominant regular season players stumbled. Justice and Gant again disappeared in big moments, while McGriff, Pendleton, and Nixon vailantly tried to make up for the sluggers’ simultaneous vanishing act.

1994 offered no solutions. There was no World Series to be played because of a strike, but the Braves’ season was enough of a disaster as it was. Though the team wasn’t terrible, finishing second in the NL East behind a dominant Expos squad, who might still be around today if that season gets finished, injuries and poor performances ran rampant throughout the team. Star outfielder Ron Gant signed a huge contract, broke his leg in an ATV accident, was cut, and did not play at all in 1994. His paltry 1993 NLCS performance ended up being his last at bats in a Braves uniform. Otis Nixon signed with the Red Sox. Chipper Jones was denied his much anticipated rookie season when he suffered a torn ACL in spring training, casting doubt on his career future. Smoltz, Glavine, and Avery all backslid significantly to grade out as league average pitchers, rather than the co-aces they had become over the previous three years. There were a few bright spots: Maddux enjoyed a tremendous season, twirling a sterling 1.56 ERA. Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez both had encouraging rookie seasons, and Fred McGriff played at an MVP level.

The overall disappointment of 1994 for all of baseball overshadowed the Braves’ struggles. However, there was no more hiding-1995 was the make it or break it season for this core. This team was simply too talented to continue to get bounced early. One could argue they ran into some bad luck-the Hbrek play, the rally falling just short in ’92, but the bottom line was they were not getting it done in October, which is when the great ones are defined. As the Braves were falling short every year in the MLB, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL in the early 1990’s went to four straight Super Bowls-an incredible accomplishment. More shocking, however, was that they managed to lose every single time. The parallels were striking-and concerning. Buzz was spreading that this team was too mentally weak to finish the job.

Coming in to ’95, GM John Schuerholz engineered a trade for Marquis Grissom, a speedy centerfielder who brought stellar defense and pop in his bat to the top of the lineup. Just 28, Grissom was in the midst of his prime. Chipper Jones made his eagerly awaited debut and was a success, swatting 23 homers while batting a respectable .267. Klesko and Lopez were brilliant, easing the transition away from Gant and Pendleton. And while Avery struggled like an aging vet, despite being only 25, Maddux and Glavine were masterful control artists, and the flamethrowing Smoltz was dominant as well. The once melodramatic bullpen-long an Achilles heel of this team-was finally solid, with Mark Wohlers and his mullet serving as steady closer.

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Pitchers beware. (Getty Images)

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New kids on the block. That’s Marquis Grissom and Mark Lemke with Ryan Klesko. (Jeff Haynes/Getty Images)

The Braves steamrolled their way through a Rockies team that had made the playoffs in just their third year of existence and a slugging Reds team led by Barry Larkin, Reggie Sanders, and none other than Ron Gant to reach their third World Series of the decade.

The ’95 Series was set up to be a classic. The Braves, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, were led by one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled and had their fingers crossed that the third time would be the charm in their elusive quest for a championship. The Cleveland Indians, their AL counterparts, were polar opposites. The Indians had enough pitching to get by, led by a 41 year old Dennis Martinez, who had earned an All-Star berth in his 20th season, and a quality bullpen, but the breadwinner of this team was their historic offense. It wasn’t one of those much acclaimed “cerebral baseball” offenses built on timely hitting and sabermetrics-oh no, this offense was about as in-your-face 1990’s home run culture baseball as it gets. Dingers, dingers, and more dingers. Jacobs Field was a veritable launching pad in 1995. Paul Sorrento, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Albert Belle all smoked at least 25 homers en route to the team hitting 207 overall. Belle cracked an even 50 and a 39 year old Eddie Murray belted 21 more while hitting .323. Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton provided speed and brilliant defense to complement the barrage of long balls for the 100 win team.

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The epitome of 1990’s baseball culture. (Photographer not given/ http://www.didthetribewinlastnight.com)

Speedy Kenny Lofton jokingly staking his claim as the best power hitter on the Indians alongside a moody Albert Belle and a grinning Carlos Baerga. (AP Photo)

Initially, it looked as if this matchup of historic pitching versus historic offense was going to lean Atlanta’s way. Maddux and Glavine were the perfect foils to the free swinging Indians, mixing speeds and utilizing pinpoint command to neutralize the Cleveland’s big bats. As the old adage goes, “The art of hitting is timing. The art of pitching is disupting that timing.” Maddux and Glavine were uniquely situated as soft tossers to shut down an offense built on healthy cuts at triple digit fastballs, staking the Braves to a 2-0 lead with back to back brilliant performances. Smoltz, however, was exactly the type of power pitcher the Indians had feasted on all year, and he was lifted after just 2 1/3rd innings of work in Game 3.

The Braves turned to Avery in Game 4, whose ineffective season when he should have been entering his prime was one of the saddest stories of an otherwise positive season. Avery dug deep and rose the occasion, allowing just one run in 6 solid innings in a crucial start. The Braves needed Game 4 to stifle any momentum building in the Indians clubhouse, and he shut them down at Jacobs Field in Cleveland.

They were oh-so-close in Game 5 to sealing the deal. Maddux wasn’t as sharp as usual, and the Atlanta offense wasn’t able to muster much of anything against Orel Hershiser. Down 4-2 in the eighth, Cox replaced Maddux with Brad Clontz, who gave up what appeared to be an inconsequential homer to Thome. It ended up being costly, as Klesko hit a two run bomb in the top of the ninth to pull them within a run. However, Jose Mesa was able to get Lemke looking to end the threat and pull within a game of the Braves.

Game 6 was at home for the Braves, and the World Series victory that had eluded them for so long was within reach. Glavine got the nod for Atlanta, opposite Indians ace Dennis Martinez.

Martinez had managed to evade the clutches of Father Time to that point, having dished 187 innings with a 3.08 ERA in his 20th season, but he faltered in Game 6, walking 5 hitters before bowing out in the 5th. Despite issuing five free passes and surrendering 4 hits, the Braves were unable to translate those opportunities into runs, and the game was scoreless through 5.

Meanwhile, Glavine had his best stuff and was working on a no-hitter while his offense squandered multiple opportunities to give him any run support.  Backup catcher Tony Pena blooped a soft liner just out of reach of Lemke to shallow right center to lead off the 6th, ending Glavine’s no hit bid. Glavine didn’t blink, retiring three straight hitters to close out the inning.

In the bottom of the 6th, David Justice was set to lead off against Jim Poole. Justice had enjoyed his share of October magic moments early in his career, but his recent postseason performance had been much maligned, and rightfully so. Justice, arguably the heart and soul of this team since their first postseason foray in 1991, stepped up to the plate and socked a 1-1 pitch over the right field fence, igniting a stadium that had been waiting all night for something to cheer about and firmly cementing David Justice’s legacy as an All-Time great Atlanta Brave.

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See-Ya! (Photographer not given)

Tom Glavine grabbed the lead he had been given and put it in a stranglehold. After a half decade of heartbreak, no one could touch him on that day. Belle, Ramirez, and Thome, who combined to hit 1,548 homers over their careers, were vanquished time and time again. He finally yielded to Mark Wohlers for the ninth, having given up just one hit while walking three and striking out eight over eight immaculate innings.

Wohlers, and his mullet, had been a godsend for a team who had a history of bullpens that crumpled under pressure in the postseason. He got Kenny Lofton to pop out and then got Paul Sorrento to fly out to center. Carlos Baerga put a good swing on an 0-1 pitch, but it didn’t have any legs to it, and Grissom was under it.

Finally, the Braves had done it! The monkey was officially off their back as the years of heartbreak, near misses, and frustration were washed away with the jubilation of a World Series victory. Glavine was deservedly the MVP.

Vindication, at long last. (MLB/Youtube)

This is where the story would end for many teams. Forged by the trials and tribulations of early failures, the satisfaction of a championship would signify overall success after years of front office maneuvering, early days for the players, and long nights for the coaches. However, these Braves were a different breed. Their ascension had been so rapid, and their presence so consistent, that it was easily forgotten how young they all were.

Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine were all in the middle of their prime entering 1996, having mastering the intricacies of pitching without getting so old that their physical abilities were eroding. Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, and Chipper had already established themselves as All-Star caliber players before the age of 25.  McGriff was the oldest starter at 32, and showed no signs of that he was fading, have a resurgence of sorts after a relatively down year in 1995. Wohlers, too, who had been so calm and collected in securing the Series in ’95, was still just a kid-he was just 26 in 1996. With the pressure of the first one out of the way, this team still had major dynasty potential.

And that’s what made that team so unique. They were so good for so long, but they only managed to break through just once. A couple different bounces, the Kent Hbrek play, Avery’s injury and subsequent struggles, or any number of minute details that swung one way could have altered the course of baseball history forever.

The Braves made it back to the series in 1996, behind strong offensive performances from Klesko, Chipper, Javy Lopez, and a career year for Grissom. Justice separated his shoulder in May and was lost for the year. His replacement acquitted himself well in limited action-a 22 year old Jermaine Dye got his start with the 1990’s Braves. It was business as usual for Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine-excellency so consistent it was almost boring. Avery was simply an average pitcher at this point, a disappointing story of a young ace never living up to his potential. Their fifth starter was none other than Jason Schmidt, who occasionally gobbled up innings in meaningless games. Though his performance left much to be desired, he eventually became an All-Star years later. Towards the end of the season, the Braves called up a skinny teenager with gobs of talent for a quick cameo. He would patrol centerfield as one of the best players in baseball for the next decade-Andruw Jones.

There, they would encounter a young Yankees team seeking to create their own identity after the retirement of Don Mattingly. After teeing off on Andy Pettite in Game 1 and posting another shutout victory in Game 2, Atlanta was in the driver’s seat to become back to back champions, mirroring the Blue Jays who had done it just three years prior. But the wheels fell off as they lost four straight, including the last three by a hair’s breadth. Maddux was outdueled by old nemesis Jimmy Key and the Yankees bullpen in Game 6.

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Charlie Hayes secures the final out, ushering in a new dynasty. (Ron Frehm/AP Photo)

The Braves were officially choke artists, and Schuerholz knew drastic changes needed to be made. They let Avery walk in Free Agency, as their young ace had lost something when he was injured on that September day in 1993, and he never found it again. Then, shockingly, Schuerholz dealt Justice, a Braves legend, and Marquis Grissom, for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree. Jermaine Dye, who had impressed in his debut as a replacement for Justice while he was on the DL, was flipped to Kansas City as part of a package for Michael Tucker.

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Schuerholz. Ruthless. (Photographer not given)

And yet the Braves were good again 1997, winning over 100 games. It’s hard to be bad when three of the top five pitchers in the league are in your rotation. A 20 year old Jones impressed with his power and defense in a part time role. It wasn’t enough to get back to the Fall Classic, as they were unseated as the NL representative in the World Series by a young and inspired Florida Marlins team.

After 1997, McGriff, Lemke, and Blauser-three quarters of the infield-were gone. McGriff, a high profile acquisition who had delivered on all promises in Atlanta, was replaced by home run king Andres Galarraga. Neither Mark Lemke or Jeff Blauser had been the face of the franchise during their tenure as the traditional light-hitting, slick-fielding, middle infield duo. But they had both been there since the dark years, outlasting big names like Gant, Justice, Pendleton, and Avery as the model of consistency for the well oiled machine that was the 1990’s Braves. And while perhaps overlooked in context with the stars they were surrounded by, both were crucial to the Braves’ success. Lemke had his walkoff single way back in ’91, and Blauser made a couple All-Star teams during his tenure.

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You couldn’t have asked for more from this duo. (Doug Collier/Getty Images)

They were denied a chance to get revenge on the Yankees in ’98, losing to the Padres in the NLCS, though the Jones’s were starting to gain notoriety as legitimate MVP candidates around the league. Glavine won the Cy Young Award for a second time.

They would get one last shot in 1999, as their sweet swinging third basemen would win the MVP award and lead them back to the promised land. If the Braves won in 1999, they would have tied the Yankees and Jays with two wins a piece, and with the number of appearances they made, could have staked their claim as the team of the decade.

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The rookie had become the vet. This was his team now. (Photographer not given)

Instead, they got swept, and the Yankees established themselves as the team of the decade, despite spending the first few years of the ’90’s as an afterthought. Jeter, Petitte,  and Bernie Wiliams got more of the national spotlight than Chipper, Glavine, and David Justice.

The Braves didn’t just go quietly into the night. A team with that much talent is always going to be competitive. Cox won 14 straight divison titles on the backs of Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, and John Smoltz.

Smoltz-the original ace, and loyal son-blew out his elbow in 2000 and required Tommy John surgery. He came back to be one of the best closers in the baseball for four years, before switching back into the rotation and dominating late into his 30s. Glavine left for the rival New York Mets in free agency in 2002, finding success for many more years with his unique ability to place the ball wherever he wanted. Maddux, too, departed after the 2003 season, returning to his original team in the Chicago Cubs. Andruw Jones became an all time great centerfielder and menace at the plate, and looked to be a lock for the Hall, before leaving for the Dodgers in free agency in 2008. Age and lack of conditioning caught up to him quickly, and his career fell off a cliff once he left Atlanta, putting his candidacy in serious doubt. David Justice spent a few more good years with the Indians and the Yankees, before closing out his career with the Moneyball A’s. Ron Gant recovered well from his ATV accident, and finished his career with 321 homers. Fred McGriff’s Hall of Fame snub hasn’t been discussed enough-he went on to play quality baseball for another half decade, and hitting a clean 493 homers in the midst of the steroid era is no easy feat.

 

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They were something special. From left: Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux. (Doug Mills/AP Photo)

Chipper crushed NL pitching from both sides of the dish for another 12 years, before retiring in 2012 as a surefire Hall of Fame candidate. It was probably for the best that Todd Van Poppel told the Braves front office to get lost 22 years earlier.

And so those ’90’s braves leave a complicated legacy. The strongest iterations of that dynasty could make an argument to be among the greatest teams of all time. The rotation of Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, and Avery in mid 1993, when they were all still young and healthy, was arguably the best collection of pitching talent ever assembled on one team. Their ability to replace star players without missing a beat was uncanny-Chipper replacing Pendleton, Grissom and then Andruw Jones supplanting Ron Gant, Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez developing into stars to replace the offense of David Justice, and even turning the best cornerback in the NFL into an All-Star caliber leadoff hitter. The Braves were a model of how to sustainbly run an organization. They drafted well to give their team depth, and cultivated a culture of success that attracted star free agents and allowed them to resign the players they had developed into stars. Yet despite doing everything right, time and time again they appeared to be snakebitten in the game’s biggest moments, consistently under performing the sum of their parts or encountering tough luck at the most inopportune times.

How should we remember the 1990’s Braves? Were they an all time great team with rotten luck? Or were they pretenders who couldn’t handle the heat being turned up in October? That one championship saved them from being the infamous 1990’s Braves, in the same manner of those Buffalo Bills. But strangely, instead of staking their claim as an All-Time great dynasty, or gaining notoriety for their October failures, the ’90’s Braves are almost…forgotten.

Which is a real shame. Again, Bobby Cox managed to win fourteen straight division titles. They went to an incredible five World Series in a decade that only had nine (remember the ’94 strike). None of the teams that followed them as flag bearers of the National League had the staying power they did. First it was Randy Johnson and Curt Schiling’s Diamondbacks, then Barry Bonds and the Giants, another young Marlins team, the Pujols Cardinals, Triple B’s in Houston, an upstart Rockies team, and then the Phillies-none of them had the consistency of the Braves. None of them dominated the NL the way the Braves did for a decade.

And though the Braves had their iron grip on the National League wrestled out of their grasp in this millennium, they continued to be a consistent presence in the playoffs, as evidenced by Bobby Cox’s playoff streak, always searching for something to match the hardware from 1995.

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Atlanta legends. (Photographer not given)

And while some may call them disappointing, the iconic moments, the surgical precison, the raw emotion, and the unchecked joy they gave to the people of Georgia for the better part of a decade…should be considered nothing short of legendary.

All this leads to October 11th, 2010. Turner Field. Melky Cabrera at the plate, facing Brian Wilson, with one last chance to win the game and send the series to a decisive Game 5…

 

Week 11 Outlook for College Football Playoff Contenders

Alabama Crimson Tide (AP #1)

Business as usual in Tuscaloosa. There will be a point down the road where the Tide do not make the playoff, but it’s hard to see where that will be given the on field and recruiting consistency that Nick Saban has produced during his tenure as head ball coach. ‘Bama may be the best team in the country over the course of the season, but that’s mostly irrelevant once the final four teams are locked in. It’s all about who is riding the momentum wave from that point onward. Alabama is as close to a lock as you can get for the playoff in a sport where nothing is guaranteed. Nothing to see here, as they are unlikely to face real competition until they run into (likely) Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Prediction: IN

Georgia Bulldogs (AP #2)

UGA’s signature win came all the way back in Week One, and that is concerning. Teams evolve over the course of the season and it’s almost certain that Notre Dame is a better team now than they were way back in Week 2. Since then, Georgia has coasted by, easily handling numerous pushovers on their path to 9-0. The “Dawgs” have fed their bell cow in Nick Chubb and the senior has been reliable as ever, churning out 6.2 yards per carry as the memory of his gruesome knee injury sophomore year continues to fade out of sight. Georgia has done this all with true freshman QB Jake Fromm, who took over after an injury to Jacob Eason and never looked back. Kirby Smart has done a great job revitalizing this young team and finally giving the SEC a second team to hang their hat on, but this one feels like a fairy tale without the happy ending. The Bulldogs should have no issue escaping the regular season unscathed (though rivalry games can be tricky-Georgia Tech could surprise), but for as good as Fromm has been, the odds don’t look good for a true freshman facing the Crimson Tide defense in the SEC Championship Game. It would be unwise to put the cart before the horse-both teams need to lock up their spots-but at this point in the season, the undefeated Bulldogs have big goals in mind. The Bulldogs will have a tough time in the SEC Championship game, and recency bias may kill them here. Prediction: OUT

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (AP #3)

The Irish have the feel of a dangerous team-there are shades of 2014 Ohio State in Brian Kelly’s squad. The narrow early loss kickstarting a championship campaign is tried and true, and the ND offense looks unstoppable. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush has been adequate, but not exceptional-he hasn’t shown that he can win the team a game by himself. Running back Josh Adams isn’t a big name like Saquon Barkley or Baker Mayfield, but has produced the best offensive season in the country hands down thus far. Notre Dame is playing with confidence and composure-a dangerous combination for any opponent. The defense surrendered their first real hiccup last game. Bizarrely, it was against Wake Forest, while they shut down potential No. 1 overall pick Sam Darnold and the vaunted USC offense without blinking an eye. Next week’s matchup with Miami has massive implications for both teams. A victory there should lock up a spot in the playoff. Prediction: IN

Clemson Tigers (AP #4)

The Tigers have avoided the championship hangover to land themselves squarely in this year’s championship race. Credit to Dabo Swinney for replacing his three most important offensive players (DeShaun Watson, Mike Williams, and Wayne Gallman) and maintaining a spot in the top 5. The bread and butter of this Clemson team truly lies on the less heralded side of the ball, led by Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Dorian O’Daniel. Most championship teams are built on defense, but Clemson’s chances look iffy here. There is no sugarcoating the loss to Syracuse-it’s devastating no matter which way you try to slice it. To the committee, that will look worse than Oklahoma’s loss to an Iowa State team that has thrived off of upsets this year. There’s no margin of error left for Clemson, but name brand will help them here. Prediction: IN

As for the rest…

Oklahoma (AP #5) has a good shot at making the final four, but their uninspiring performance last time they made the playoff will hurt them. Big 12 defenses are nothing short of pathetic, and the likelihood that Oklahoma would advance to the championship game is slim. The committee may hold their weak conference against them, but they have the superstar QB and the name brand. They’re in but they will get bounced before getting the chance to make any real noise. Prediction: IN

It’s tough to see TCU (#8) beating Oklahoma in Norman. If that were to happen, they’re a lock to make the playoff and will be out for blood after getting squeezed out of the last spot back in the inaugural year of the CFB despite thrashing a solid Baylor team in their season finale. The lack of a championship game has hurt the Big 12 in the past, but the implementation of that game means there can be no excuses this time around. Prediction: OUT

Both Wisconsin (#9) and Miami (#7) have feasted on weak schedules to this point. Miami features a ferocious defense but has a humongous test this week with Notre Dame. Winning that almost guarantees them a spot as the ACC representative. Wisconsin beating a red hot Iowa team would give them nice transitive property win credit, but football doesn’t work like that. At this point, no team in either division of the Big 10 has been overly impressive, but it would be tough to leave out Wisco if they run the table in a premier conference. Prediction: OUT

The Ohio State Buckeyes (AP #11) were in the pole position to sew up one of the final spots of the playoff after a thrilling comeback win over Penn State. As the premier team in Ohio State could afford a loss to Iowa in a tough road environment. What they couldn’t afford was an absolute shellacking combined with a Penn State collapse taking the sheen off their signature win.

The image of a calm and composed Nate Stanley rifling a touchdown pass to the back right corner of the end zone with a 265 pound defensive lineman draped all over his leg will live on in fame for Iowa fans and in infamy for Buckeye fans. It’s curtains for the Bucks with two losses.

Washington’s loss to Arizona State, coupled with the limited media exposure that comes with being a small market team, may doom the Huskies to falling just outside the final four. It’s going to take them ripping off several consecutive impressive victories, plus a serious stumble by Notre Dame or Clemson, to get their foot in the door. They no longer control their own fate.

The ramifications are major in this weeks slate of games. It’s the best time of the year.

Previewing ALCS Game 6-Can the Cardiac Kids take down the class of the American League?

Strange times we live in where the Bronx Bombers are the up and coming youngbloods trying to knock the crown off the favored Houston Astros, but here we are with the Yankees needing just one more game to claim their 41st American League pennants.

The Yankees are tossing their young ace back into the fire, starting the 23 year old Luis Severino against potential Hall of Famer Justin Verlander. Severino has some of the most electric stuff in baseball, but can let it get away from him when he’s overthrowing. He started out the wild card game with an absolute clunker before mixing in a solid start at home against the Indians and getting pulled early in Game 4. The kid has been known to go on hot streaks where his stuff is unhittable and it feels like he’s due for a dominant performance.

Recent acquisition and lifetime Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander will toe the rubber for the ‘Stros tonight in Houston. The thirteen year veteran showed he’s got plenty left in the tank, notching an ERA of just over 1 since waiving his no trade clause to get the opportunity to pitch for a contender. Verlander’s bread and butter has always been his live fastball, and he had it on a string in Game Two, tossing a complete game shutout with 13 strikeouts. The Yankees as a team are good fastball hitters and their heavyweights should be able to take advantage of the short porch in left field, but turning on a mid nineties heater from Verlander on the inside half of the plate is no easy task.

The Yankees have been a different beast in the playoffs than they were in regular season, relying on pitching and timely hitting rather than outslugging opponents. The San Francisco Giants used this formula to the tune of three World Series championships earlier this decade so it’s tried and true. If Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez start heating up, as they did last game, watch out. The Yankees have been a streaky team, and they are hitting their stride when it matters most.

The Astros are no pushovers, however-let’s not forget they won ten more games than the Yankees this year. Jose Altuve should win the AL MVP this year and his quick bat and short stroke are the perfect antidote to Severino’s heater. Carlos Correa and George Springer are big time bashers than can turn a game around with one swing of the bat and have more postseason experience than the current group of Yanks. Objectively, they were the better team over the course of the entire season, but all bets are off come October.

This Astros team reminds me of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, with two pitchers carrying the pitching staff and the offense doing the heavy lifting. While that maybe a painful analogy for Yankees fans, that was a series that the Yankees could have and  should have won.

This one will be a bloodbath. Altuve is a fantastic player, but his play style brings so much more to his team than just statistics. He’s the sparkplug of one heck of an engine that is the Houston Astros, and you can bet your bottom dollar MinuteMaid will be bringing the noise. Altuve’s scrappy and energetic play style revs up a stadium in a way few can. Yankee Stadium has been rocking all postseason and has been the Yankees biggest advantage, but you’ve got to venture out and conquer on the road if you want to advance.

One guy to watch for is the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez. A holdover from the years in the NL Central dungeon, Gonzalez has enjoyed a breakout season while playing all over the diamond, batting over .300 and cracking 23 homers to boot. He could be the difference maker in a series that’s looking like it will come down to the wire.

If there’s one guy you want digging in a big moment for the Bronx Bombers, it’s an easy choice-Didi Gregorious. The Yankees’ slick-fielding shortstop has inherited the clutch gene from his predecessor and has been the most reliable hitter in a Yankee’s lineup that is boom-or-bust by nature.

The Yankees need to bounce Verlander in six innings or less, because AJ Hinch will have no reservations about using Ken Giles for a four or five out save if the Yankees are threatening late. Giles is a lockdown closer, but the rest of the Houston bullpen is nothing to write home about. If Verlander gets deep into the game and they are backed up against Giles, the Yankees will be backed into a corner that will be tough to escape from. Verlander is too experienced to be rattled by the nerves of an elimination game, so Yankee hitters will have to work the count and be selectively aggressive at the plate and avoid fishing for the soft stuff. On the flip side, the key to hitting Severino is a contact oriented approach-all you’ve got to do is barrel anything up that’s coming in at triple digits and it’ll disappear in a hurry. Trying to crush the ball will most likely end in hitting nothing but air. I wouldn’t be surprised to see high strikeout guys like Springer and former stud prospect Alex Bregman struggle, but Altuve is tailor made to neutralize power pitchers.

It’s important for the Yankees to close it out here and for Severino to go deep into this game. The Yankees lack a true horse-Sabbathia is reliable, but there’s a lot of miles on that arm. Tanaka has been filthy but his elbow has been tender for a couple years now and was the worst starting pitcher in the AL for a good chuck of 2017. Sonny Gray hasn’t been able to go as deep into games as a Yankee as he was when he was in Oakland. Severino was objectively the third best pitcher in the American League this year, but he is prone to get lit up at times. The Yanks have leaned heavily on their bullpen this postseason, and they need a break if the Yanks want to keep this run going.

The Yankees weren’t even supposed to be good this year. The Astros have suffered through years of terrible baseball to build this team and have one of the most compelling stories in sports.

I think Didi gets the big hit and the Yankees win a low scoring game, two nothing. 8:00 toinhgt we’ll find out for sure.

The Yankee Empire Was Built on the Bones of the Kansas City A’s-A Story of Collusion, Greed, and Championships

Ralph Terry wiped the sweat from his brow and let out a long, slow exhale.

There are very few times in life where one can claim to absolutely, positively, know what another man is thinking.

But if you had to pick one instance in the history of the world to guess what another man was thinking, Ralph Terry in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the 1962 World Series would be as good a pick as any.

After all, how could the man not be thinking of the last time he pitched in a pivotal Game Seven. Just two years prior, Terry had come on in relief and given up a walk off home run to light hitting Pirates second basemen Bill Mazeroski to lose the series. When you played for the Yankees during their heyday, losing the World Series was downright criminal. Despite the fact that he had won 23 games in 1962, he was still known as the pitcher on the receiving end of one of the most iconic moments in baseball history.

And now, on October 16th, 1962, Terry found himself in an eerily similar situation. Only this time, the hitter was the fearsome Willie McCovey, who would go on to crack 521 home runs during a Hall of Fame career. Felipe Alou was on third after a bunt single. Terry had managed to strike out the next two batters, but gave up a double to Willie Mays, and it was only the terrific defense of an old teammate from Kansas City, Roger Maris, that prevented Alou from scoring, preserving the shutout.

For now.

No one could blame Terry if he gave up a hit here. Unlike in 1960, when he came on in relief and recorded just one out before surrendering the historic blast, Terry had started this game and out-dueled Jack Sanford, surrendering just two hits through eight innings before encountering the jam he was currently entrenched in here in the ninth. He was just one out away from a complete game shutout in the seventh game of the World Series. But he had to go through McCovey-a far more fearsome hitter on his worst day than Mazeroski ever was on his best-to get there, no easy feat.

We all know what happened next. On an 0-1 fastball up and in, McCovey hit the liner-one he would later describe as “the hardest ball I ever hit”-right at Bobby Richardson, who snagged it to prevent it from taking his head off.

From scapegoat to hero. (AP Photo/Unaccredited)

For Ralph Terry, the vindication must have been sweet. Just two years prior, he was the scapegoat of a rare Yankees World Series loss and subject to brutal treatment from the insatiable Yankees fans. Now, he was World Series MVP, celebrating with his Hall of Fame teammates. Three in particular-Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, and Hector Lopez, all starters on  the 1962 team-were more vindicated than others, finally savoring success after beginning their career in the doldrums of an aimless and wandering Kansas City ballclub.

Speaking of Kansas City, 1,800 miles to the east of the celebration at Candlestick Park, the Kansas City Athletics had finished a poor 72-90, and watched four old teammates play key roles in yet another World Series victory-the Yankees’ fourth in six years. In fact, from 1955-the year the Athletics moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia-to 1964, the Yankees won an incredible nine pennants in a ten year span, largely due to the contributions of Hector Lopez, Art Ditman, Bobby Shantz, Ralph Terry, and most famously, the great Roger Maris. All six of those players were former Athletics. Yet despite the fact that the A’s had traded so much key talent to the Yankees and watched them enjoy enormous success, the A’s had no luck finding any success of their own, consistently finding themselves on the losing end on trades with the Yankees.

A casual observer might point to bad luck-after all, the once proud Athletics franchise hadn’t won a World Series in thirty two years at that point. A little more digging-and shockingly, not as much as you would think-leads to the hidden secret of the Kansas City Athletics, the New York Yankees, Arnold Johnson, and George Weiss.

The iconic 1960 and 1962 World Series, a Yankees dynasty, the incredible Maris-Mantle chase for 61-none of it happens without the Athletics’ otherwise forgotten thirteen year tenure in the Midwest.

The A’s were swindled, the Yankees built a dynasty, and Arnold Johnson profited. This is the incredible story of how Arnold Johnson cheated the A’s out of any talent for personal gain, and rigged baseball in favor of the Yankees for ten years.

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Seven years earlier, the Bronx Bombers found themselves in an unfamiliar (and uncomfortable) position. After winning six out of seven World Series and an incredible five in a row, the Yankees had missed the World Series in 1954 and then, incredibly, lost to the tag along little brother Brooklyn Dodgers  in 1955. The Yankees had beaten the Dodgers four times during their incredible run, but it looked as if the Boys in Blue from another borough might not cede the upper hand now that they had finally wrenched away from the Bronx Bombers. The Dodgers were young and talented-the Yankees were slipping.

Although superstar centerfielder Mickey Mantle was still young, the team around him was aging. Irv Noren in left had just turned 30 and had a sub-par year that suggested he might have seen his best days. Right fielder Hank Bauer was a star-but at age 32, his performance was slipping. Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto, eventual Hall of Famer, was 37 and on his last legs. Starters Tommy Byrne and Eddie Lopat were 35 and 36 respectively. The stranglehold they’d held on the MLB was starting to slip. They needed an infusion of young talent, but had no way to get it. Like every great team, their dominance was starting to wane.

One hundred miles south, there was a team who’s problems dwarfed the Yankees. The Philadelphia Athletics had dominated the American League before the Yankees, and were baseball’s first great dynasty in the World Series era. However, baseball legend Connie Mack had neglected to develop a farm system, and his behind-the-times approach ruined the A’s. Infighting began between his three sons-Roy, Earle, and Connie Jr. A bitter feud escalated and in order to end it, Roy and Earle bought out Connie Jr. The buyout, along with the dwindling attendance numbers, nearly bankrupted Earle and Roy. They had to sell the team.

The Yankees smelled an opportunity as early as mid 1954. Enter Arnold Johnson, longtime business partner of Yankees owners Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail. Johnson was a successful businessman who ventured into the real estate theater. He owned both Yankee Stadium in New York and Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, home of the Kansas City Blues, the Yankees’ top minor league affiliate. It’s safe to say he had a vested interest in one  particular franchise.

Compounding the problem was the rise of the Philadelphia Phillies. Longtime losers who had one winning season in thirty years, the Phillies had burst onto the scene with an influx of cash under new ownership. The ascent of the Phillies convinced American League President Will Harridge that there wasn’t enough room for two baseball teams in Philadelphia and the A’s needed to move.

Once Johnson agreed to move the team to Kansas City and gained the backing of Harridge, it was smooth sailing. Supported by the Yankees and their considerable influence as the driving revenue force in baseball, the other owners agreed to the sale. They did force Johnson to sell Yankee Stadium and Municipal Stadium in a feeble attempt to prevent a conflict of interest.

As the sale was nearing its completion date, Roy Mack shocked everybody by announcing that he was not going to sell the A’s to Johnson-instead, he was going to sell to Philadelphia native John Crisconi, who was  part of a group of loyal fans who intended to keep the A’s in Philadelphia.

The Yankees couldn’t believe it. They had stalked their prey for so long, hatched a plan only made possible by the most extreme circumstances-the Mack family feud, the rise of the Phillies, Johnson’s cooperation-only to see it snatched from them in front of their nose.

So once again, the Yankees pulled rank and put their considerable influence to work. They started rumors that Crisconi’s group didn’t really have the money to buy the A’s and it was just a desperate ploy to keep them in Philadelphia. Johnson managed to convince Roy Mack that he would never see the money he was promised. On October 28th, the Crisconi deal fell one vote short of approval-the deciding vote was cast by Roy Mack, who pivoted and sold to Arnold Johnson just a few days later-just short of a month after the Yankees’ World Series defeat, and just over two years after Johnson had made his initial offer.

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Officially official. Johnson second from the right.

 

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There you have it.

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Pitcher Ned Garver rocking the KC hat and the Athletics jersey, a new era for a Philadelphia staple. (www.kansascitybaseballhistoricalsociety.com) 

After Johnson was forced to sell Municipal Stadium, he took out a three year lease on it. Unbelievably, like a real life version of Major League, he intended for the A’s to draw so poorly that he would be able to move the team to sunny Los Angeles and enjoy his money in paradise while his team crashed and burned. His plans were foiled when the Dodgers moved to LA in 1958.

The Yankees’ plan had worked. They now had the resources, draft picks, and opportunities to develop players of two franchises and replace their aging stars. Arnold Johnson owned the soon-to-be Kansas City Athletics, and the Yankees owned Arnold Johnson’s loyalty.

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The Yankees may have had two franchises’ worth of resources, but the circumstances that allowed this situation to develop had the inseparable side effect of the Athletics being a terrible team. There wasn’t much of value on the Athletics roster.

They had two third basemen, Hector Lopez and Clete Boyer. Lopez had some pop in his bat but had hands of stone, and the eighteen year old Boyer was slick at the hot corner but his endeavors were rather fruitless at the plate.

Vic Power was the best hitter the A’s had, but Bill Skowron was younger and already one of the best first baseman in the league. Similarily, Harry Simpson had a good year in 1955 but wasn’t much use to the Yankees because he played centerfield and wasn’t going to unseat Mantle.

On the pitching front, the Yankees eyed a pair of young pitchers-Art Ditmar and Bobby Shantz to replace the aging pair of Byrne and Lopat. Ditmar was just 27 and had struggled thus far with run prevention, but he was an innings-eater and his ERA was trending in the positive direction. The diminutive Shantz had been a two time All-Star earlier in his career, but injuries and poor performance had led to a rough couple of years following his All Star years. Still, the control oriented Shantz was had only just turned 30, had a wicked curve and a unique sidearm delivery that baffled hitters, and was one of the best fielding pitchers the game had seen to that point.

The deals started small-the Yankees were the Yankees, but you had to be careful not to be too obvious with your collusion. Unprotected players were picked up in the Rule 5 draft by the A’s, just in case they turned out to be something special.  The Yankees tossed aside an expensive and aging Enos Slaughter-then reacquired him for pennies on the dollar when he revitalized his swing in the Midwest. The Yankees would usually throw in cash when acquiring a young player while dealing away an older player-cash that would go straight to lining the pockets of Arnold Johnson, because he sure as heck wasn’t using it to build a contender out of the A’s.

Then, about a year and a half after the controversial sale, enough time to determine which assets were worth acquiring, the Yankees and the Athletics made their first blockbuster move. Rip Coleman, Milt Graff, Billy Hunter, Micheal McDermott, Tom Morgan, Irv Noren, and Jack Urban of the Yankees for Wayne Belardi, Art Ditman, Jack McMahan, Bobby Shantz, Curt Roberts, and Clete Boyer of the Athletics.

The A’s got absolutely hosed. The hitters couldn’t hit and the pitchers couldn’t stop getting hit. Coleman never played for them and was eventually waived. Graff played one season and hit a paltry .181-after five games the following year with KC, he never played in the bigs again. McDermott pitched an ineffective 29 games for the A’s and to the tune of a 5.48 ERA. Tom Morgan actually managed to clock in 143 innings for the moribund Athletics in completely mediocre fashion. Irv Noren had been an All-Star just three years prior, but it appeared that he had left all of his talent in New York-he batted a meager .213 for the A’s.

Jack Urban was probably the best of the bunch. His first year in Kansas City, as a rookie, Urban impressed with a 3.34 ERA and it appeared that at least the A’s had gotten something from this ill-advised trade. Then, in his sophomore campaign, his ERA ballooned to over five.

He never pitched in the majors again.

Roberts, McMahan, and Belardi were useful as spring training bodies so the Yankees stars could rest, but had uneventful careers with the Yankees otherwise.

Ditmar, Shantz, and Boyer, however, were big hits in the Big Apple.

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Casey Stengel and his new weapons.

Ditmar, reliable and sturdy, pitched 127 innings in 1957 alternating between coming out of the pen and starting games. His ERA of 3.25 was the lowest of his career at the time and he instantly gave manager Casey Stengel the ability to turn any game into a two pitcher game, saving the rest of the bullpen. Ironically, once Ditmar was no longer the young player with potential being traded for the aging vet, he found himself on the other side of that transaction and he finished his career in KC. In five years with the Yankees, his ERA was 3.24. In the same amount of time with the A’s, it was 4.97.

Shantz turned in a sparkling 1957 season where he led an all time great Yankees rotation with an ERA of 2.45 and led the league with an ERA+ of 148. His career ERA with the Yankees was an impressive 2.73 as he participated in 3 World Series with the Bronx Bombers.

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The story of Clete Boyer is one of the most unbelievable parts of this parternship between the A’s and the Yankees. Commissioner Ford C. Frick (yes, that Ford C. Frick) was either completely oblivious, compliant, or just didn’t care that the Yankees and Arnold Johnson were manipulating the Athletics at the cost of the fans and the integrity of the sport.

Yankees GM George Weiss liked Boyer as a player in high school, but they had already signed the allotted limit of high school players. So, Weiss gave Athletic’s GM Parke Carroll a call and convinced him to draft Boyer, with the intent of trading for him down the road. It’s unlikely Carroll had much of a choice in the matter, given the contemporary state of affairs within the Kansas City front office. Boyer was then thrown in as part of the aforementioned deal.

He hit just enough to stick around-.265 and 18 homers was about what you would get in a good season from Boyer, but he was consistent and never slipped too hard. His real value laid in his defense. Boyer won just one Gold Glove award  playing in the shadow of Brooks Robinson and his more prolific bat, but Boyer often led the league in defensive statistics and manned the hot corner every day like a pro during four AL pennant runs. Modern day statisticians regard Boyer as one of the best defensive third basemen ever.

Though Boyer’s plate prowess wasn’t anything to write home about compared to the likes of Mantle and Berra, the Yankees cycled through dismal third basemen for another ten years, failing to reach the World Series, before striking gold with Graig Nettles.

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Remember Vic Power and Harry Simpson?

Power was originally drafted by the Yankees, but was traded away years before. After finding success with the A’s, they made an unusually savvy move, especially under Johnson’s time as an owner-the Puerto Rican slugger was traded to Cleveland for a package that included a young outfielder from the Upper Midwest named Roger Maris.

A young Ralph Terry was flipped from the Yankees for Harry Simpson with little thought-if he turned out to be good, they could always get him back. He did and they did.

1958 passed, and the Yankees won the World Series. As 1959 neared, enough time had passed for what young players remained for the A’s began to either show promise or wash out of baseball. It was time for another flurry of trades.

The Yankees waited two years after Johnson’s acquisition of the A’s to assess what players had any value. They then pulled the trigger on a trade to acquire what few players they determined could help them. Now, two years later with a pair of World Series appearances under their belt and the A’s careening off the rails towards yet another unsuccessful season, the Yankees pulled off another pair of trades, these ones with more than a hint of desperation. The Yankees had tumbled to a 79 and 75 record after four straight trips to the World Series. Heads were going to roll.

First, they decided they liked something in the way Terry was pitching (despite relatively poor numbers at the time) and decided to pursue an avenue to reacquire him. Then, seeking to improve the outfield situation, where Mantle was flanked by a young, talented left fielder named Norm Siebern who wasn’t much at the plate that year (he’ll be important later) and a washed up Hank Bauer, they acquired Hector Lopez, hoping that a switch to the outfield would alleviate some of his defensive woes and his bat would be productive enough to make up for it.

In return, they sent Johnny Kucks (two seasons of a whole lot of nothing on the mound), Tom Sturdivant (ditto), and Jerry Lumpe, who actually went on to be one of KC’s best players and enjoyed a nice career there as a high average infielder.

Lopez, meanwhile, came to the team and instantly swung the bat well, finishing third on the team in home runs despite only playing two thirds of the season with the Yankees.

Still, more needed to be done for the Yankees to reach the World Series again. They still needed more hitting, and they needed to get younger, with offensive cornerstone Yogi Berra starting to age.

So, blockbuster Round Three-Hank Bauer, Don Larsen, Norm Siebern, and Marv Throneberry of the Yankees for Joe Maestri, Kent Hadley, and one Roger Eugene Maris of the Kansas City Athletics.

Look, Bauer was an awesome ballplayer in his heyday but he was washed and everybody knew it. He went on to manage the A’s after his retirement and probably helped the ballclub more there than he did on the field. Larsen, forever immortalized for his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, had fallen off, and was ineffective for the A’s. Throneberry was more famous for his good humor and presence on the “Worst Team of All Time” 1962 Mets than his abilities on the diamond. Siebern was  actually an All-Star in each of his two years with the A’s, and three times overall. A well balanced player with a smooth stroke that enabled him to hit for both average and power, he was perhaps the best player the A’s ever received in a trade with the Yankees.

Not to be unkind, but there are reasons you’ve never heard of Joe Maestri and Kent Hadley. And then, there’s Maris.

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Two time MVP Maris. Sixty one in 61 Maris. Summer of 1998, the revitalization of the MLB Maris.

Maris is synonymous with baseball history. To find out his was traded to the Yankees as part of one of the most corrupt relationships in all of sports is shocking. It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than a Yankee breaking Ruth’s record. The “M&M Boys”, standing just a hundred feet away from each other during the top half of innings at Yankee Stadium, then trading dingers at the plate in the bottom half as they raced to beat out Ruth all summer. To think all of that may never have come to pass without Arnold Johnson ripping off the A’s for his own personal gain. It’s a little reassuring that Siebern ended up being a quality player for the A’s, but Maris won the MVP award in his first and second season in pinstripes and altered the course of history for America’s Pastime.

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The M&M Boys.

In a past where Mack sells to the Crisconi Group, or one where the Phillies never find success, or one where the A’s actually develop a farm system, what becomes of Maris? What becomes of baseball history?

The adverse effects of the home run chase on Roger Maris have been well documented. The New York media was none too kind to Maris, pitting him against the homegrown Mantle and labeling him as “not a true Yankee.” While Maris suffered (it’s been reported that the stress used to cause his hair to fall out in clumps), baseball and its fans benefited from the most exciting summer the sport had ever seen, canonized in movies and stories for years afterwards. But who knows how that summer would have played out had Maris donned a green and yellow jersey, roving the outfield free of Mantle’s enormous shadow? Would the impact of the home run race have been the same if Maris were halfway across the country from Mantle, playing on team going nowhere fast?

But would either of them have even approached the record with the protection they received from each other in the lineup? Maris and Mantle were the most fearsome power hitters to play on the same team since Ruth and Gehrig. You couldn’t pitch around them, knowing that the next guy was just as good, and you didn’t want to walk both of them and put someone in scoring position with a free pass. It speaks to the significance of the record that nobody even came close to the record for thirty five years without the help of performance enhancing drugs. Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Willie Stargell, Yaz, Reggie Jackson-none of them even threatened sixty one.

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The days when the sun is high and the days are long belong to baseball. It’s the only sport of the Big Four whose regular season continues throughout the sweltering days of the Midsummer heat. Baseball is at its purest during the summer. And in 1961, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle gave the sport the best summer of baseball anyone had ever seen. Thirty seven years later, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, though chemically aided as part of a scandal that would forever tarnish the sport, brought millions of fans back to baseball with their chase for the elusive 62 home runs.

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The Yankees received peak production from their Kansas City stars in 1960. Though they infamously lost the World Series in seven games, Maris, Lopez, Boyer, Ditmar, and Shantz were all key contributors on that team. After that season, Ditmar and Shantz began to fall off. Following that season, Ralph Terry bounced back to emerge as a two time All-Star and a World Series MVP. Maris turned in several more excellent season with the Bronx Bombers before injuries finished him off. Lopez played six more perfectly acceptable seasons for the Yankees.

In  March of that year, returning from Spring Training in Florida, Arnold Johnson suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at the age of fifty three. The A’s were sold to Charlie Finley, who moved the A’s from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968. While he certainly had his own issues as an owner, he built the one of the finest non-Yankee dynasties ever in the three-peat A’s of the early 70’s.

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The Kansas City A’s in their final season of their short lived tenure in the Midwest. Though it seems impossible to picture them any other way now, it was Charlie Finley who came up with the idea for green and gold uniforms. Prior to 1963, the Johnson era KC A’s and throughout their time in Philadelphia wore traditional red and blue themed uniforms, with traditional home whites and road grays. (SI.com)

 

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Back to back to back.

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A certain Oakland coach was less than thrilled about the new threads. He doesn’t look right out of pinstripes, but yes that is Joe Dimaggio. (MLB.com)

During Johnson’s 5 year ownership, the Yankees and A’s made an astounding fifteen transactions.

Following their victory in 1962, the Yankees went to the World Series in two consecutive years, but lost both. It would be another thirteen years before they would return to the Fall Classic-largely on the backs of former Athletics Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. Those players, however, were acquired without any under the table dealings.

Kansas City baseball fans were rewarded with a team of their own in 1969-the expansion Royals, who have a rich franchise history of high peaks (1976-1985) and dreadful lows (2004-2009) in their franchise history. There was one more baseball player from KC who would be involved in a very controversial mix-up with the Yankees-the great George Brett, whose infamous pine tar game remains as one of those strange moments that remind us why we love baseball.

There’s not question the Yankees still would have been dominant without their business dealings with Arnold Johnson. After all, they still had Mantle, Berra, Whitey Ford, and Elston Howard as homegrown stars. But it’s debatable as to whether they win in ’57 without Shantz and Ditmar, or in ’61 without Maris. They definitely don’t win in ’62 without Terry.

It’s been over 50 years since Johnson passed away, and most of the anger over this arrangement, from the few that still remember it firsthand, has faded away. Johnson and the Yankees made a sham of the idea of fair play, but they left us fans with one of the most intricate and entertaining backstories in the sport, as well as two of the most iconic summers ever.

Arnold Johnson’s story ended in 1960. The Kansas City A’s were gone before Jimmy Carter was President. But the A’s and the Yankees have a unique relationship to this day. It seems that small-market stars from Oakland always find one way or another to reach the Bronx.

That tradition carries on up to this very day.

Now pitching for the New York Yankees, Number 55, Sonny Gray.

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(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Sonny Gray

(AP Photo/David Dermer)

I hope you all enjoyed the post-it was certainly an arduous task. Baseball Reference was absolutely vital in providing me with the dates and details of each of the transactions, as well as the stats for each and every player.

These articles also provided useful information, as well as these pages. Thanks!

http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/attytood/Those-were-the-As-my-friend.html

http://sabr.org/research/departure-without-dignity-athletics-leave-philadelphia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Johnson

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Oakland_Athletics

How the Kansas City Athletics Built the Yankees Empire of the 1960’s…Stay Tuned

The recent Sonny Gray trade between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics inspired me to look at the history between these two ballclubs. As it seems yet another Oakland star is positioned to help the Yankees make a playoff run in the vein of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rickey Henderson, Scott Brosius, and Jason Giambi.

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All those players got their start in the green and gold and found glory in pinstripes. Coincidence? Sure. Oakland found a lot of success in the early 70’s, late 80’s, and early 2000’s, three time periods in baseball that preceded great Yankee dynasties. Oakland always has been, and perhaps always will be, a small market team. When their cost controlled young superstars hit free agency, the Yankees were able to offer a package that no other team in baseball could-the bright lights of New York City, a history light years ahead of any other franchise, and more cash than any other franchise could afford to offer. Logically, it follows that star players would head east to bask in the glory of NYC.

But before all of that, before the Core Four for the Yankees and MoneyBall for the Athletics, before the Bash Brothers and Donnie Baseball, before the A’s won three in a row and then watched those players win two more with the Bronx Zoo, there were the Kansas City Athletics and the New York Yankees.

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The A’s, just moved from Philadelphia, a once-proud franchise that saw the bottom completely fall out of their organization because they failed to ever try to develop a farm system, and the New York Yankees of the 1960’s, a dynasty of Hall of Famers with a legacy only matched by the Yankees of 1949-1953.

The Yankees had it all. The A’s had nothing.

And despite continuing to develop good young players, they invariably left Kansas City for greener pastures. One pasture in particular, and it was pinstriped.

The relationship between the Kansas City Athletics and the New York Yankees in the 1950’s and 60’s is one of the baseball’s shadiest stories.

It’s a project, and it requires research. Next week, I hope to have the full thrilling story on Pigskin and Pine Tar. Stay tuned!