You may have heard that the Kansas City Royals are planning to give out Tony Pena Jr. bobblehead dolls on Sept. 6. You, in fact, may have decided to beat the Labor Day rush and already started making jokes about the Kansas City Royals giving out bobblehead dolls of a player who is hitting .160 and has an OPS+ of 2 (yeah, 2) and has 13 plate appearances since July 8. You may even have started to plan your "They're really giving away Tony Pena bobblehead" party, complete with artifacts from other historically inappropriate decisions like:
1. The album cover from the Jerry Lewis Singers recording of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "If I Had a Hammer."
2. A Mike Jacobs T-shirt from that glorious day when the Florida Marlins gave it away on Jewish Heritage Day despite the somewhat inconvenient fact that Mike Jacobs is not actually Jewish*.
3. A recording of the job interview Matt Millen had with the Detroit Lions.
*OK, so by now you have certainly heard about the online headline they had last week in Haaretz, a big newspaper in Israel: "Two Jews and and a black man help Phelps fulfill Olympic dream." Many have talked about how it sounds like the beginning of a joke that, say, you would hear in a Shecky Greene act. We here in Beijing have been wondering for a while now what inspired the direction of that headline. The image I have had is of Michael Phelps up on the podium for his post-race press conference, behind the microphone, with his coach next to him, and he leans forward and says: "First off, before we get started here, I just want to say that I really want to thank the black man who helped me fulfill my Olympic dream." Then he sits back to take questions, but first his coach leans over and whispers something in his ear. Phelps then goes forward again and says: "And also the two Jewish guys."
In any case, back to Pena bobblehead, the Royals apparently are crying foul about the jokes: They don't really think it's fair to second guess the Pena bobblehead decision, which was made way back in February. They have a small point -- bobblehead days, because of the various intricate bobblehead logistics involved, have to been be planned way in advance. And so there's no way to guess what will happen. When the decision to have a Tony Pena bobblehead day was made, he was the Royals starting shortstop, he was viewed as an above average defender, and he's a very likable guy who seems a worthy representative for "Hispanic Heritage Day," which is on the same day. Plus, let's face it, these are the Royals and there are not too many slam-dunk bobblehead candidates.
Of course, it's only a small point because Pena also had a 66 OPS+ last year, which was the third-worst in baseball for anyone getting 500 or more at-bats. And there was every indication, based on his minor league numbers, that the 66 OPS+ was, in fact, a fluke year, a Norm-Cash-in-1961 kind of season*, and that he was very likely going to hit a lot worse in 2008. It really did not have take Nostradamus to see this year coming.
*I've written here before that Norm Cash was, in fact, a very good player in years other than 1961. He's underrated in that way. The guy played more than 2,000 games and he had a career 139 OPS+. I appreciate that OPS+ is not the end-all, but still Cash's OPS+ is higher than Ken Griffey, George Brett, Al Kaline, Billy Williams, Tony Gwynn, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Roberto Clemente, Dave Winfield, Rod Carew and Jim Rice, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame or will be shortly. Now, let me be quick to say that I am not suggesting that Cash was as good as any of these guys -- I'm not saying that at all -- I'm just saying Cash got on base, and he hit for power in a low-voltage era, and that 139 OPS+ is pretty damn impressive.
Still, while I think Cash's overall career is under-appreciated -- for a baseball fan, that 1961 season is impossible to take your eyes off of. The guy hit .361/.487/.662 with 8 triples, 41 homers, 124 walks, a 201 OPS+. Unreal stuff. And my favorite part of that season were two short stretches he had in June of that year.
The first stretch began with in the second game of a doubleheader against Cleveland on June 8.
-- June 8: In that game he got two walks (one intentional) and two hits, one of those a homer off Wynn Hawkins.
-- June 9: He went two for three with an RBI single and another intentional walk.
-- June 10: He managed one hit against Cleveland's Gary Bell, but it was a home run and the Tigers won 2-0.
-- June 11: In the first game of a doubleheader, he got two hits, both long home runs to right field off of Washington's Joe McClain.
-- June 11: in the second game of the doubleheader, he went four-for-five with another walk and another home run.
-- June 13: After a day off, he face Boston's Gene Conley and he had two more hits, two home home runs, another intentional wak.
So that's six games -- in those six games he hit .650, reached based 18 out of 25 times, and mashed seven homers. That's the kind of week a hitter dreams about. Thing is, after a few days, he had another week that was just about as good.
-- June 20: Norm cracked a triple and a homer off Dick Donovan in a Tigers victory.
-- June 22: After a rainout, he had two more hits, including a double, and a walk and he scored two runs.
-- June 23: He went two-for-two, got hit by a pitch, hit another triple, scored three times, as Tigers scored 13 runs in the first four innings. The Tigers, incidentally, were in first place now.
-- June 24: A hit, a walk, a homer off Mudcat Grant, two more runs scored as Tigers win in the ninth.
-- June 25: First game of a doubleheader, Norm hit two more home runs, both off the lamentable Wynn Hawkins, as Tigers won fifth game in a row.
-- June 25: Second game of the doubleheader, two more hits and another homer for Norm Cash, and it was another homer off Gary Bell. He also walked.
-- June 28: First game of a doubleheader, Norm doesn't hit any homers, but he cracks three singles against Chicago.
So that's seven games -- this time he hit .560, reached base 18 out of 29 times, and mashed five home runs. Norm Cash really was a good player for most of his career, but it had to be a lot of fun for him in '61.
Again, back to Pena, the reason this bothers me is not that the Royals were unduly optimistic about Pena's baseball future or that they did not anticipate the potential for extreme comedy built around a Pena bobblehead doll. No, what bugs me is a a more general thought about how we rush to make a player a fan favorite. We don't take our time anymore, wait for a player to succeed, it's all about potential and promise and young success.
I think Alex Gordon is an even better example of this ... I like Alex Gordon. I do. He's only 24 years old, he's shown signs of becoming a good defensive third baseman, he has flashed some power potential, he seems to be improving his plate discipline. If forced to bet -- something I do not like doing because I'm terrible at predicting the future -- I would bet that Alex Gordon will be an All-Star more than once in his career.
But ... I could lose that bet. Because Gordon is also hitting .256/.348/.418 in his second full season, he's on pace to strike out about 150 times*, his defensive numbers appear to be atrocious (only Jorge Cantu among third base qualifiers has a worse zone rating) and while he flashes power potential, he will probably not hit 20 actual homers this year.
*Gordon could become the 15th player in baseball history to strike out 150 times and not hit 20 home runs. Those include:
1. Delino DeShields, 1991, 10 homers, 151 Ks.2. Ben Grieve, 2001, 11 homers, 159 Ks.3. Juan Samuel, 1988, 12 homers, 151 Ks.4. Jhonny Peralta, 2006, 13 homers, 152 Ks.(tie) Jose Hernandez, 2003, 13 homers, 177 Ks.6. Brandon Inge, 2007, 14 homers, 150 Ks.7. Mickey Tettleton, 1990, 15 homers, 160 Ks.(tie) Sammy Sosa, 1990, 15 homers, 150 Ks.(tie) Juan Samuel, 1984, 15 homers, 168 Ks.10. Mark Belhorn, 2004, 17 homers, 177 Ks.(tie) Ron Gant, 1997, 17 homers, 162 Ks.(tie) Donn Clendenon, 1968, 17 homers, 163 Ks.13. Curtis Granderson, 2006, 19 homers, 17 4 Ks.(tie) Brad Wilkerson, 2003, 19 homers, 155 Ks.
Quick thoughts about the list: There are some young guys on the list who got better (Sosa, Granderson), some young guys who got worse (Grieve), a couple of guys who struck their way out of baseball (Bellhorn and Hernandez) and lotsa Juan Samuel. Nobody really compares all the well with Gordon.
And yet, there are many Kansas City fans who view Gordon as a star, embrace him like one. These are the times. If you're a Royals fan, you can't take your time, build a relationship with a player, get to know him. There's no time for courtship. Jermaine Dye was the first Royals player to start an All-Star Game in forever, and he was traded by July of the next year. Johnny Damon led the American League in runs and stolen bases and cracked 214 hits, and he was traded before Opening Day of the next season. Carlos Beltran played five full years in Kansas City, but there were some low moments in there, and the the last three years were clouded by trade rumors, and everyone knew how that was going to end.
So maybe there's no choice. Maybe the only way to deal with this stuff as a fan is to embrace Alex Gordon as a star early in the hopes that he will become a star. Maybe the only way to deal with this stuff is to take a likeable young player with a good glove like Tony Pena and make a bobblehead out of him and hope for the best.