Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Titans' #1 Draft Pick Griffin Breeds Pit Bulls: Does Bud Adams Know?

Austin Murphy has been a senior writer for Sports Illustrated since 1984. He's covered both pro and college football, but professes a stronger fondness for the latter. (Murphy sees the pro game as corporate, sterile, monolithic, and lacking heart; the college game's closer affiliation to amateur status—such as it is in its own billion-dollar way—apparently holds more charm.)

In September, keyed to the opening of the college football season, HarperCollins Publishers will release Murphy's new book, Saturday Rules: A Season with Trojans and Domers (and Gators and Buckeyes and Wolverines). The book is essentially an account of Murphy's travels through the 2006 football season. He hits the bigtime Division I venues, interviews the players and coaches, runs down the games, etc., etc. Murphy writes with style, humor, edginess and factual authority, and, based on my early look, his book appears to be a winner.

Tennessee Titans fans who also like college football will certainly appreciate Murphy's overview of the college game. They might also be intrigued to learn what Murphy uncovered about the Titans' #1 pick in the 2007 Pro Football Draft, Michael Griffin, a defensive back formerly of the University of Texas. From the book: "Griffin later tells me that he breeds pit bulls, and drives all over the Southwest attending American Kennel Club dog shows."

The implication here, as far as can be determined, is that Griffin (pictured, left, as a Longhorn) is an appreciator of pit bulls. I guess if you attend AKC shows, then you probably have a more genteel affinity for this controversial breed. Personally, I've never understood anyone's fondness for pitbulls. Seems like the only time you ever hear about them is when they've mangled some little kid's arm or chewed up some woman's formerly attractive face. Or, of course, when you hear that a certain high-profile pro football quarterback is under indictment for involvement in the ugly pastime of pitting pitbull versus pitbull in to-the-death dogfights.

We've assiduously avoided commenting on the Michael Vick affair, and we'll just happily sit by and watch it all unfold. Maybe someday we'll try to grapple with the mindset that likes to watch grisly dogfights. (Something along the lines of "Pro Athletes and the Barbarian Urge: What Happens When Big Money, Boredom and Ignorance Collide.") Meanwhile, so...Michael Griffin likes pitbulls. Why is that not a comforting thought in Nashville, especially on the heels of the Pacman Jones Follies?

Hope Griffin is just one of those devoted dog-lovers, of which there are many in Music City. He'll be right at home here if that's the case. For now, let's not even think about the alternative possibilities.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Greer Stadium: Reflections on the State of the Facility and the Future of Minor League Baseball in Nashville

[Original photography by Danny Murphy]

Bastille Day, July 14, was for some a day to celebrate French liberation. Opting out of a gracious invitation to the 35th Annual Bastille Day Party at the Belmont Boulevard home of hostess extraordinaire Jocelyne Bezzi-Batani, instead I took up another gracious invitation to head out to Greer Stadium with some friends to check out the Triple A minor league Nashville Sounds for the first time this year.

The team was wearing uniforms that said “Brewers” across the chest, a nod in the direction of the parent Milwaukee club’s nickname. As for the baseball itself, the first-place Sounds, behind pitcher Adam Pettyjohn (pictured, left) defeated the Memphis Redbirds and their starter Mike Smith (pictured, right), 5-2. Despite losing two big stars this year, Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, to earlier call-ups to Milwaukee, the Sounds have not broken stride, now standing at 59-38 and holding the lead in the Pacific Coast League’s American North Division.

Otherwise, it was, as far as anyone could perceive, just another typical summer Saturday night at the old ballpark. The attendance was impressive, with 9,327 fans on hand: Lots of regular folks dressed in Target casual wear, plenty of kids and family groups and grizzled ball fans, the usual pro scout or two hovering behind home plate with radar gun in hand checking the speed of the pitchers’ fastballs, and the Sounds’ characteristic string of inning-by-inning kiddie events, promotions and community hoopla that typify the minor-league baseball experience. (I like the race where the kids put on scuba-diving flippers, but they didn’t do that one, to my chagrin.) The postgame fireworks display to cap off the evening was simply spectacular.

At one point, I headed to the concession stand. As I turned the corner to enter the main concourse, my companion looked around at the run-down stadium walls, the chaotic randomness of the concession stands (with their long lines full of hot, sweaty regular Joes) and muttered, to no one in particular, “We need a new ballpark.”

That’s certainly been the refrain of various Nashvillians the past few years. It’s undoubtedly been the refrain of the Sounds, who spent the past year or so floating a plan for the building of a new downtown stadium, until sketchy organizational logistics on the team’s part, and lack of support from the city fathers, killed the deal shortly after the beginning of the 2007 season.

With a new stadium still in limbo, the Sounds soldier on at Greer, nearly 30 years old, with a capacity of 10,139, and clearly lacking the gloss and nouveau riche upscale appeal found in some other minor league baseball parks.

A tour through the Sounds’ 2007 media guide offers selected photos of other Pacific Coast League ballparks, places like PGE Park in Portland (cap. 19,810) or Salt Lake City’s Franklin Covey Field (cap. 15,500), which, if you didn’t know any better, might both be perceived as major league stadiums. Just three hours or so to the west, the Memphis team plays in the newer AutoZone Park, which seats 14,200 and serves as a model of how mid-size cities can partner with their minor league franchises to develop modern, amenities-conscious sports venues that “class up” the baseball experience for their fans. But to get projects such as these done right, it takes vision, planning and—if the sports franchise in question isn’t going to foot the entire bill—willingness from the local citizenry (and, by extension, the politicians) to help find the necessary money.

Let’s assume that the Sounds don’t churlishly and immediately skip town over their recent stadium disappointment. They still have a solid fan base, and, for the time being, remain an important local sports franchise (certainly the closest thing that Nashvillians have to the major leagues). So...do they REALLY need a new stadium? Let’s discuss amongst ourselves.

Proposition #1: Greer Stadium is not the worst place in the world to watch a baseball game. No, it’s not. In fact, it has a kind of charm about it that says, “We are here to play baseball, and that’s all.” Where hardcore baseball fans are concerned, this is an unassailable positive argument. Yes, it’s showing some age, but Greer remains a fine place to watch a baseball game, presuming that’s why you go there.

Proposition #2: Free parking is an overestimated perk. In fact, it’s one of the wonderful things about Greer Stadium. Where is there left in the world where you can park for free at a major sporting event? Other venues gouge their patrons on parking, yet the Sounds have never done it, and their devoted fans love them for it. You can be sure that if a downtown ballpark is eventually built, you can expect to pay an extra $5-10 for every game you attend. Once paid parking is in place, it never goes away—and it only increases in price over time.

Proposition #3: Nashvillians will gladly pay increased ticket prices in a new stadium. Will they? Currently, at Greer, you can pay $6 for a grandstand seat—affording you an excellent view—or if you want to splurge for a reserved seat, you spend $10 and get a slightly better view. In Memphis, there are seven levels of pricing, ranging from $6 to $20. The $6 ticket allows you only to sit on a hill in left field (the so-called “Bluff seating”—no chairs allowed!). To get a Greer-quality top seat in Memphis, you have to pay anywhere from $11.50-$18, but in fact the lower end of that range only buys you what you can still get for $6 at Greer. Memphis also has $20 club boxes, thus making their top ticket exactly twice as much as Greer’s. If you want a new stadium in Nashville, get ready to pay a lot more for tickets.

Proposition #4: It makes good business sense to build a beautiful new stadium. Well, it certainly does for those who will reap the benefits of parking fees, higher ticket prices, more costly food and drink, and more expensive souvenirs. Surely the builders of such a venue will make out well. Will the Sounds be giving raises to all the minimum-wage employees they hire every year? Let’s hope so. Presumably a new stadium will tap into corporate dollars in the way of business junkets and the like. And luxury boxes cater to groups and special events that can reap consistent new dollars that the team may not be getting currently. Perhaps more importantly, there is a PR value to a new stadium that supposedly will provide a ripple effect of new marketing possibilities and an expanded fan base. It’s like saying, “Look, we’ve got class! This is a quality experience. Sure, it’s about baseball, but it’s more about our civic pride and what a desirable place Nashville is in general. Here, we can have it all.” There is probably some truth in all of this. What is unclear is, at what cost?

Proposition #5: The people who currently make up the Sounds' most devoted fan base will continue to want to come once the team has moved and is ensconced in a state-of-the-art downtown facility. The people who attend the games at Greer—I first set foot there in 1990 on a visit to Music City—always seem to be, by and large, a blue-collar and/or countrified crowd. For middle- and lower-income families, it’s an exceedingly affordable night on the town, and in this superficial, money-grubbing modern world we live in, they’re certainly entitled to continue to enjoy that experience. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if the same folks will follow the team to a downtown venue where they will pay for parking and endure increased ticket and concession prices. For the Sounds, this aspect of a new stadium plan offers calculated risk. Do you lose your core constituency?

Proposition #6: Greer Stadium is a long-in-the-tooth old ballyard with no practical future, and refurbishing it is pointless. Funny, no one really speaks of refurbishing Greer, when possibly that would carry a cheaper price tag than building a brand-new facility. For those who aren’t really interested in going downtown to see baseball, the location of Greer remains excellent. So maybe a few hundred gallons of paint and some key structural enhancements and the addition of luxury boxes are worthwhile ideas. Yet it seems like Sounds management is more interested in a bigger-picture concept, where a new ballpark built from scratch can be tied into serious corporate dollars and the idea of drawing new demographic forces—read: tourists and wealthier locals—in as patrons. Thirty years doesn’t seem that old for a ballpark. Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston are each nearly 100 years old. The New York Yankees are finally replacing Yankee Stadium in two years after an 80-plus-years run. Greer may look a tad bedraggled, but you can’t necessarily blame that all on its age. Maybe it just needs a facelift. Something to ponder.

Proposition #7: A new stadium will enhance the baseball experience for all Nashvillians. Two years ago, I paid a visit to RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., to watch the Washington Nationals play. RFK, built in 1962, had not seen baseball on the major league level since 1971. At 43 years old, it looked remarkably fit (and right-field box seats were $40 apiece). But the concession lines were still as long as I remembered them as a kid, or as I remembered concession lines at Wrigley Field or old Comiskey Park in Chicago. New stadiums don’t necessarily curtail concession or bathroom lines. If there’s a large crowd and people are hungry and thirsty, that’s what happens. Still, what Greer Stadium lacks is broader resources, and more room, to make patronizing, and moving about, the concession and restroom areas worthwhile. Food selections are limited, for sure, and when they run out of stuff at one place, you can’t get it at another (and you don’t learn that till after standing in line for 10 minutes). Without question, a newly built stadium lends the aura of a re-energized experience in general, and it can be designed with more comfort in mind for patrons. (Wi-Fi might be cool.) It’s not that a new stadium wouldn’t be nice. It’s more about if it’s really necessary and if Nashville wants to foot its share of the bill to get an upgraded experience.

Proposition #8: Municipalities should pony up for new stadiums. Frankly, I’ve never understood this rationale. Sports teams readily turn young male athletes into millionaires, yet they don’t have the money (supposedly) to build their own stadiums. I would guess that if you took a healthy fraction of Michael Vick’s salary, you could be well on your way to building a football stadium. Why should a city float bonds to build a new stadium when team payrolls run upwards of one-fifth of a billion dollars? Okay, the Sounds are slightly different. They are a minor-league affiliate of a major-league team, owned independently, and they’re on their own where their facilities are concerned. Fair enough: In the Sounds’ situation, it behooves the city to listen to their needs and desires and then try to creatively address the issues. A real partnership, with the mutual goal of maintaining Sounds baseball for the pleasure and enjoyment of its fans—and the reasonable financial growth of the franchise—sounds good to me. If Nashville wants to have minor league baseball, then the city should play a role in its development.

Proposition #9: The Sounds need a new stadium to keep pace with the other teams in their league. This may seem true in theory, but in practice it’s not necessarily so. In fact, there are five other teams in the PCL—Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Round Rock and Tacoma—whose ballyards seat fewer patrons than Greer. The largest stadium in the league, Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium (cap. 24,000), is a venerable old place (built in 1948) that every year hosts the College World Series. Of course, size doesn’t really matter, either. The original plans for the Sounds new stadium called for 11,000 seats. And, in fact, Rosenblatt only fills its seats when the CWS is there; the hometown Omaha Royals draw typical minor league attendance—parking is free there also, by the way—and there’ve been rumblings about building a new stadium for the Royals and leaving Rosenblatt strictly to the CWS. There are certainly newer stadiums in the PCL—Sacramento’s Raley Field (2000), Memphis’ AutoZone Park (2000), Albuquerque’s Isotopes Park (2003)—and the latter two are considered models of modern-day minor league ball-park design and construction. Isotopes Park, for example, folds in the elements of the American Southwest quite nicely, and yes, things always look better when they’re new. But there are older ballparks than Greer in the PCL: Rosenblatt, PGE Park in Portland (originally built in 1926; reconstructed in 2001), Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium (1960). The idea that Greer Stadium represents the bottom of the barrel in minor league baseball doesn’t hold water. What the upgraded parks offer in ambience, they often don’t in economics or fan-friendliness. Some places charge seriously for parking, some charge nothing at all. Prices for concessions vary widely, but generally the newer parks are charging $6 for things you can get elsewhere for $2.50. Then there’s this from the online Ballpark Digest, which offers rundowns and evaluations of most every major and minor league park in the country: “Virtually every new ballpark built since 2000 runs the danger of feeling like a food court that happens to abut a baseball field: the new economics of minor-league baseball require the bills be paid somehow.” Sort of like going to the movies, where the popcorn costs more than the flick. Which is precisely what the cynics fear will happen in Nashville, which currently has an older—but not decrepit—stadium, where people get a great view of the game (presumably the main draw), and do okay with free parking and reasonably priced concessions. Plus, while Greer isn’t downtown, per se, its location is close enough to be justifiably labeled as “near downtown.” (Many minor league stadiums can’t boast even that.)

Proposition #10: Nashville doesn’t need minor league baseball. Well, probably not. Yet baseball has been here since 1978, and more than 12 million people have passed through the Greer Stadium portals. The top attendance was 1990 (605,122). It dropped to 269,682 in 2000, but since then has climbed steadily back up to 419,412 in 2005. The baseball legacy in Nashville is strong, and great ballplayers have enhanced Greer with their presence over the years. Nashville would certainly be diminished if the Sounds were to leave. So, if enough people want baseball, then it behooves the powers-that-be to find a way to make it work.

Final Analysis

For myself, I’m the kind of baseball fan that just loves to be at the ballpark. With its old-fashioned charm and excellent seating, Greer Stadium looks great to me, and the parking situation and reasonably priced concessions fit my budget. But I’m a realist too. It’s not the idea of a new ballpark that scares me. It’s the idea of what a new ballpark brings: higher prices, paid parking, the headache of downtown congestion, and a sense that the game itself will be short-shrifted for a new focus on corporate marketing and preppie-family dollars, ultimately leaving the longtime moderate-income fan in the wake of so-called progress.

No one will argue with the values of beautiful new architecture and spacious concourses and green family areas for the kiddies and well-stocked concession stands and sparkling new restrooms, or even luxury style boxes for the fatcats. Yet a balance has to be struck in the planning for a new facility, including promises not to price out the typical minor-league fans who have always supported the team.

If there’s a way to grab those tourist and new-demographic dollars without penalizing the locals, then a new Sounds Stadium could be a worthy thing, enhancing civic self-esteem and boosting the baseball experience for everyone.

This baseball fan is all for it. But I need to see a more detailed plan.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cubs Tantalize Their Faithful with Promising First Half, but the Batting Order Needs a Shakeup

Suffering along with the Chicago Cubs is not only a pastime; it’s almost an endeavor of art. Let’s see... How many creative ways can you try to convince yourself that this might be the year? In fact, there’s a distinct and different philosophical/spiritual tack for every individual who roots, or has ever rooted, for the Cubs. So okay, maybe it’s not art—more like religion.

I lived in Chicago for 20-some years. I know the drill. I was still relatively new to the city when I became enamored of the ‘84 squad—NL MVP Ryne Sandberg, Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe, Gary Matthews (Sr.), Keith Moreland, Lee Smith, Jody Davis, Ron Cey, Bob Dernier, Leon Durham. Even Dennis Eckersley, for Pete’s sake, acquired from Boston in an early-season trade for Bill Buckner. A very talented squad it was. But after taking the first two games of the NLCS from the Padres, they blew the final three in a row, thus depressing the heck out of Chicago’s North Side.

The Cubs teased the faithful again in 1989. Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, NL Rookie of the Year Jerome Walton, and a pitching staff that included a 23-year-old 19-game-winner named Greg Maddux, Sutcliffe again (16 wins) and another guy named Mike Bielecki, who posted 18 victories. The closer was Mitch (“Wild Thing”) Williams. The Cubs dropped the NLCS to the Giants in five really disappointing games.

The ‘98 club won a wild-card berth, with a house-afire Sammy Sosa, who won the MVP, even while finishing second to Mark McGwire (66 to 70) in the Roger Maris Home Run Chase. Grace was still very productive (.309, 17 HRs, 89 RBIs), and power came from the oddest places: Henry Rodriguez (31 HRs), Jose Hernandez (23 HRs), and a guy named Brant Brown (who?) kicking in 14 homers. The big hurlers were Kevin Tapani (19-9), Steve Trachsel (15-8) and 21-year-old NL Rookie of the Year Kerry Wood, who went 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings. The stopper was the late Rod Beck, who notched 51 saves. They lost the NLDS to the Braves, three games to none.

Then came the Year of the Bartman, 2003, which, really, we probably shouldn’t discuss in polite company at any length. Solid, fundamental club, led again by Sosa and four quality starters—Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. It was Dusty Baker’s first year as Cubs manager after he lost the World Series the previous season helming the Giants. Heckuva follow-up, Dusty.

Anyway, it’s not only that the Cubs haven’t been in a World Series since 1945—and haven’t won one since 1908—it’s that their clear self-destructive tendencies are absolutely transcendent. Even when it’s obvious they could or should win—and clearly have the talent to do so—they simply won’t. They are cursed, and only the supernatural will ever get them over the hump.

They look to be challenging their fans again in 2007. At the All-Star break, they trail the division-leading Brewers by four-and-a-half games, yet there’s excitement under new skipper Lou Piniella. While the Cubs have rather played up and down so far, they clearly have talent and a certain emotion that conjures hopeful seasons past. They have three great hitters in Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano. Veterans like Mark DeRosa and Cliff Floyd are producing at the plate. Little-knowns Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot are versatile fielders who’ve been getting key hits. Zambrano anchors the starting corps, which includes veterans Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly and up-and-coming Rich Hill.

So the Cubs could give the young and gifted Brewers a definite run in the season’s second half, and it should be fun to watch.

I do, however, have one major suggestion for Piniella: Shuffle the batting order. Now.

For some reason, people think that Soriano is a leadoff hitter. Yeah, he hits for average, and yeah, he can steal you bases. But here’s a stat that can’t be ignored: In his six full seasons previous to 2007, Soriano struck out 818 times, an average of 136 Ks per year. I’m sorry, but you won’t win enough with a leadoff hitter who is K-ing 130 times a year. Soriano’s got 70 of ‘em already—he’s right on pace. He also has averaged only 37 walks per season. Interestingly enough, probably the one player in modern history whom Soriano most resembles statistically is Bobby Bonds, Barry’s late dad.

Check the stats. Bonds the Elder (pictured, left, in his baseball prime) was a gifted and exciting player. He was a leadoff hitter who could run and hit homers. He also struck out at an alarming rate. And he never made it to a World Series.

In fact, conventional wisdom says your best player bats third. You can argue that, for the Cubs, it might be Lee. Then again, it might be Soriano. And talk about a waste of power: Soriano has 15 homers, tied for the team lead with Ramirez, but only 33 RBIs. Here’s a team desperate for some long-ball juice, and they let arguably their most prolific power guy sit at the top of the lineup driving in only himself.

Soriano hit 46 dingers last season (for Washington). Ramirez hit 38. Lee hit 46 in 2005, but since then, and fighting through injury, he has yet to regain much of a home-run stroke.

This Cubs lineup needs a smart tweak—to maximize its power potential, to move contact hitters up to the top to set the table for the big guns. Here’s thereabouts what it ought to look like, with the current stats:

1. Ryan Theriot, SS (.276, 14 SB)
2. Mike Fontenot, 2B (.356)
3. Alfonso Soriano, LF (.309, 15 HR, 33 RBI)
4. Derrek Lee, 1B (.330, 42 RBI)
5. Aramiz Ramirez, 3B (.312, 15 HR, 51 RBI)
6. Mark DeRosa, RF (.291, 49 RBI)
7. Angel Pagan, CF (.267)
8. Koyie Hill, C (.148)
9. Carlos Zambrano, P

The Cubs platoon a good deal, often between second base and the outfield. That’s easy enough. For games where DeRosa’s playing the infield, move him up to the #2 slot, and Floyd (or whoever) goes into #6.

The Cubs could sure use a bat at catcher, but since they parted with Michael Barrett for reasons of team harmony, they now can only hope for the best out of what they’ve got.

The relief pitching still looks sketchy but could yet surprise. As for the starters, only time will tell.

It could be interesting in Wrigley Field for the remainder of the summer. The usual psychic cautions remain in place, of course. Yet the lineup fix is a must to have any chance to entice the supernatural to the Friendly Confines.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and the Baseball Hall of Fame: When Being Great Isn’t Good Enough

Baseball broadcaster Tim McCarver’s syndicated Sunday TV program featured two very interesting guests last night: Bert Blyleven (left) and Jack Morris (right). While interviewing these two genial, articulate former pitching greats, McCarver also none too slyly inserted comments regarding his own belief that both fellows belonged in the Hall of Fame. So far, both have been snubbed by Cooperstown, despite their compelling statistics, their high-profile, lengthy careers and their World Series rings.

It’s a bummer being on the bubble. It’s also impossible to divine a formula whereby HOF admittance might be guaranteed. They talk of benchmark statistics—300 wins, 500 home runs, 3,000 hits—but there are so many examples of inductees without these numbers that it makes you wonder.

This is particularly true where pitchers are concerned. Sometimes benchmark stats get you in plain and simple (Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn). Sometimes they’re irrelevant simply because a player’s greatness can’t be disputed no matter what the raw numbers say (Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson). And sometimes the numbers appear to be simply the by-product of good health and a career based more on longevity than flat-out brilliance (Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton).

Alas, guys like Blyleven and Morris fall into that murky no-man’s land. Then there’s something to be said for playing in New York or Los Angeles. Talk about your media-skewing. There is no question that if Morris or Blyleven had played for the Yankees or the Dodgers, they’d have been voted in already. For example, no one disputes that the late Catfish Hunter was a great pitcher, but his 224 career wins place him 66th on the all-time list, well behind Blyleven and Morris. If Hunter had never put in those final years with the Yankees (1975-79), he might still be on the bubble despite his considerable earlier success with the Athletics. The reason? He didn’t have the numbers.

Ditto the late Don Drysdale. You tell me: With 209 career wins, a career winning percentage of .557, only two 20-win seasons, and other years with won-loss records of 12-13, 15-14, 18-16 and 13-16 (twice), would Drysdale be in the Hall if he had spent his career in, say, Seattle? Drysdale had talent for sure. But the high-profile L.A. exposure—he started six games in five World Series for the Dodgers—and his association with the comet-like Koufax boosted his public relations quotient way beyond what the raw data show.

It would be heresy, of course, to suggest that Ryan doesn’t belong in the Hall. The numbers are there: 324 wins, 5,714 strikeouts, seven no-hitters. Yet it might be argued that this is the resume of a gifted statistical freak, compiled over the course of a 27-year career. Look more closely at the numbers: a .526 winning percentage, including seasons of 7-11, 10-14, 19-16 (twice), 17-18, 10-13, 11-10, 12-11 (twice), 10-12, 8-16. Ryan won 20 games exactly twice (and he lost 16 games both of those seasons). He won only one World Series ring, as a middle-relief guy early in his career in 1969 with the Miracle Mets. We’re basically talking here about a .500 pitcher with virtually no impact at all on post-season play. Even in his peak years, Ryan was more Sam McDowell than Christy Mathewson. Morris’ greater impact in their own overlapping time far outstrips Ryan’s.

So let’s take a look at the career numbers of selected Hall of Fame pitchers inducted since 1973 and see how Blyleven and Morris stack up. We’ll include the benchmark stats and a few others that might tell a deeper story about where greatness lies. Hall of Famers are in bold. [This is a random sampling of inductees. Others from the period not included are Jim Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Juan Marichal. Relief pitchers are not included in the sample.]

Breakdown: Years / Wins / Win% / 20-Win Seasons / SO / ERA / SHO / WS Rings-Wins

Nolan Ryan—27 / 324 / .526 / 2 / 5,714 / 3.19 / 61 / 1-0

Gaylord Perry—22 / 314 / .542 / 5 / 3,534 / 3.11 / 53 / 0-0

Phil Niekro—24 / 318 / .537 / 3 / 3,342 / 3.35 / 45 / 0-0

Jim Bunning—17 / 224 / .549 / 1 / 2,855 / 3.27 / 40 / 0-0

Catfish Hunter—15 / 224 / .574 / 5 / 2,012 / 3.26 / 42 / 5-5

Whitey Ford—16 / 236 / .690 / 2 / 1,956 / 2.75 / 45 / 6-10

Don Drysdale—14 / 209 / .557 / 2 / 2,486 / 2.95 / 49 / 3-3

Sandy Koufax—12 / 165 / .655 / 3 / 2,396 / 2.76 / 40 / 3-4

Bob Gibson—17 / 251 / .591 / 5 / 3,117 / 2.91 / 56 / 2-7

Warren Spahn—21 / 363 / .597 / 13 / 2,583 / 3.09 / 63 / 1-4

Don Sutton—23 / 324 / .559 / 1 / 3,574 / 3.26 / 58 / 0-2

Jack Morris—18 / 254 / .577 / 3 / 2,478 / 3.90 / 28 / 3-4

Bert Blyleven—22 / 287 / .534 / 1 / 3,701 / 3.31 / 60 / 2-2

Statistics can tell different stories. Based on the pure benchmark of wins, Hunter, Ford, Drysdale, Gibson, Bunning and Koufax don’t make the Hall. Based on post-season impact, Ryan, Bunning, Perry and Niekro are virtual ciphers. Only Ryan has more strikeouts than Blyleven, and Blyleven has more World Series rings than Ryan, Perry, Niekro, Bunning and Sutton combined. Only Ford and Hunter have more World Series rings than Morris, and only Spahn, Koufax, Ford and Gibson have higher winning percentages.

These are the tough gray areas that form the boundary between immortality and mere greatness. Getting that bi-coastal media boost sure helps you when you’re on the bubble. Failing that, you’ve got to have the obvious numbers, and Blyleven and Morris may go begging for a long time at the Hall of Fame’s induction line.

With his wins, strikeouts and shutouts, Blyleven looks like the riper candidate based on pure talent, but Morris was a high-impact player in his time, and his performances in the 1984 and 1991 World Series are pretty legendary. Yet it remains to be seen if HOF voters would ever go for Morris with his 3.90 career ERA. No one’s been inducted in the modern era with anything higher than a 3.35.

It took Bunning 25 years to get inducted after his career closed in 1971, courtesy of a Veterans Committee that remembered him fondly. He had his moments of greatness, winning 100 games in each league and tossing two no-hitters (one a perfect game). Still, those 224 wins must’ve looked pretty “lite” when he originally came up for consideration. And he never once played in a post-season game, toiling mostly for also-ran Tigers and Phillies teams his entire career.

Things won’t get any easier for Blyleven and Morris if the Hall doesn’t come calling soon. The next decade promises that a bevy of huge pitching stars with unassailable credentials will start to be eligible for induction. Among that list are Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling.

Sometimes quality counts over quantity. And sometimes quantity’s all you need. But pitching in either New York or L.A. can never hurt a guy’s chance at immortality.

As for me, I'm on the bubble too. Morris and Blyleven were great talents. But impact on the game has to be a deciding factor where the Hall is concerned. Frankly, I don't think Drysdale deserves the honor. Nor Bunning, Niekro and Sutton. And maybe not Perry, either. There Koufax sits with his puny 165 wins, but you'd never think to exclude him. On that basis, Morris should go in. Blyleven remains a close call, which could mean a much longer wait.

Modern Era Hall of Fame Pitchers Who Have Thrown No-Hitters:

Nolan Ryan (7), Sandy Koufax (4), Jim Bunning (2), Warren Spahn (2), Juan Marichal, Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver

Note: Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven have also each pitched a no-hitter.