LONGSHOTS: A great experience came in the Knick of time
by Dave Long
I’ve had several great experiences following teams during a particular era. My two favorite here are Larry Bird’s Celtics in the 1980s and the Brady and Coach B Patriots since 2001. And I’ll throw in the KG Cs as well. I love the way they all play/played and how they delivered when it counted most. And then there were the Yanks from right before the dynasty’s collapse into the mid-’80s when I checked out after some pretty bad behavior by the owner.
But my all-time favorite is the New York Knicks from 1964 until they won the title in 1970. They were in a stretch of finishing in last place eight straight years when I discovered them and had just blown the first overall pick in the draft on Jim Bad News Barnes. Though they managed to flip him a year later for Walter Bellamy and they did get Willis Reed in round two. They finished last again that year and the one after that. But they were accumulating good young players and after Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier arrived they finally got out of last place and made the 1968 playoffs. The next year after trading Bellamy for Dave Debusschere they won a playoff series and then lost to the Celtics in Russell’s final season.
But the next year Russell was gone and the young talent, including young Phil Jackson, was coming of age. Everyone knew THIS was the year. The won their first five, lost one and reeled off a record 18 straight and cruised home. It was the same in the playoffs until Reed went down in Game Five of the Finals. They managed to win anyway, but got smoked in Game Six to set up the memorable Reed Game Seven entrance following two days of fretting if he would play. He hit the game’s first two shots and it was over, as an inspired Frazier dominated in going for 36 and 19 assists.
It was like watching your kids grow up as they gradually went from horrible to great. For me that’s better than seeing the Yankees lay out half a billion on three players to re-load and why I enjoy what Theo Epstein has done with the farm system — which has been spitting out one good player after another since Kevin Youkilis arrived. It brings to mind the potent system that turned out hitter after hitter beginning with Tony C in 1964 in a group that produced two MVPs and two Hall of Famers. It got me to wondering how this group, which already has one MVP, will turn out. So I went to section at the bottom of each player page on the great baseball Web site baseball-reference.com that compares the statistics of a player to who he’s most like at a certain age. Like with Jim Rice, who at age 24 was most similar to Duke Snider, at 25 was most similar to Willie Mays, and at 31 most similar to Orlando Cepada, all of whom are waiting in the Hall for Rice when he’s inducted in July.
So I did that with the current crop of young players who’ve come through the system and here’s who they compare to historically:
Jon Lester: With the best winning percentage in baseball at .711 I thought he’d compare to Whitey Ford, who has the best one of all time. But at 24 he compares to another Yankee lefty, Andy Pettite, who needs no introduction. After that it’s Tim Hudson, whose 142 wins and 77 losses at 32 compares closely to Hall of Famer Jim Bunning when he was 32 — so that’s not too bad.
Dustin Pedroia: It’s weird that five of the 10 players he statistically compares most closely to are catchers. But since Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane are in the Hall and Joe Mauer has a shot to get there I guess that’s not bad. Plus Rod Carew was really good so Pedroia’s in good company.
Jonathan Papelbon: Given the historic start to his career I thought the company would be better. Only two in the group had long-term success — Billy Wagner and Troy Percival and maybe Todd Worrell. Others like Bryan Harvey and crazy Rob Dibble started fast but burned out.
Kevin Youkilis: He’s actually a Duquette administration draftee. And since he didn’t become a starter until 27, his lifetime numbers for a 30-year-old player aren’t real impressive. The best guy in his group is the decent but nothing special Phillie John Kruk.
Jacoby Ellsbury: He’s a year and change in at 24 and after a .280 he’s also in with a nothing-to-write-home-about crowd — besides maybe Magglio Ordonez. There’s the ex-Yankees center fielder Roberto Kelly, who lasted a 1surprising 14 years when he hit .290. There’s aslo speedster Shannon Stewart and the former Red Sox CF Reid Nichols.
Manny Delcarmen: Also a Duquette draftee. His top 10 includes four Red Sox relievers: Mike Timlin, Bryce Florie, David Riske and current teammate Ramon Ramirez.
Clay Buchholz: I thought last year’s disaster might put him with somebody good to give all a little optimism, but the sampling is too small to rank. So the optimism will have to come from the fact that triple-A hitters are batting .111 against him this year.
Justin Masterson: He got the Buchholz treatment, as did Jed Lowrie.
Dice-K: He’s not home grown, but since we’re having so much fun, why stop now? Since he got here at 25 his numbers are also skewed. The best two on his list are Lamar (where does it) Hoyt, who won a Cy Young before being derailed by drug use, and Ray Washburn, a workman-like ’60s righty who won an unspectacular 72 games. He also once no-hit the Giants the day after Gaylord Perry no-hit his Cardinals. And there’s wild Joe Cowley, who once pitched a no-hitter and lost, which is something I can see Dice-K doing at least once.
Hanley Ramirez: Since he’s been in town all week and was once the top player in Theo’s system, why not? His group has got some really good players and familiar faces. The player he’s rated most like at 24 is none other than Nomar Garciaparra — who at 24 looked on his way to the Hall. There’s Verne Stephens, who knocked in 159 and 144 in back-to-back years for the Sox — which ain’t bad for a shortstop. Derek Jeter’s there, as are his former manager Joe Torre and double play partner Robinson Cano. And there’s Dick Allen, who came up as Richie with the Phillies and left as Dick after hitting 351 homers and winning the 1972 AL MVP. We’ll call this entry the “what might have been” section.
There you have it — not quite as good as I’d have thought, but still interesting. I’ll check back in five years or so with another update when hopefully they’ll be on track with my great Knicks team that placed five guys on the NBA Top 50 list a few years back.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.