October 2, 2022

Walter Mitty On the Mound

September 23, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

1899 Cleveland Spiders

1899 Cleveland Spiders

In many MLB cities, these are good days for attending games if your team is hopelessly out of the pennant race. Out of the pennant race?  Yep, that’s right. Tickets are easy to procure, there’s more room to spread out around your seats, the post-game traffic is less, and the lines at the concession stands are shorter.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is definitely an upside to mediocrity!  Dwindling attendance in September, however, translates to lost revenue, but what’s an also-ran team to do?

Well, in professional sports, as in any other entertainment enterprise, you have to give fans something they want to see. Better yet, give them something to see that they didn’t know they wanted to see, maybe something they’ve never seen before.

On a September weekend, however, going out to the ballpark to witness a match-up between a couple of sub-.500 baseball teams just can’t compete with the opening of football season. But hyping attendance at the ballpark is not impossible. As is often the case, the best ideas are ones you borrow, not ones you come up with on your own. In this case, our thought-starter goes back to the 19th century. It was an idea borne not of mediocrity but of futility.

The 1899 Cleveland Spiders were indubitably the worst major league team ever. Then a National League franchise (the NL was the only major league back then), the Spiders were owned by the brothers Robison, Frank and Stanley, who also owned the St. Louis Perfectos (later known as the Cardinals).

For whatever reason, the Robisons decided that the Perfectos had more potential and shipped the Spiders’ best players (including Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, and Bobby Wallace, all now in the Hall of Fame) to St. Louis. The results were predictable. The Spiders, for all practical purposes, were a minor league team. By August 30 their record was an abysmal 19-99.

Then it got worse.

Finishing the season with a 35-game road trip, the Spiders earned just one victory (a 5-4 win over the Senators on September 18) and finished the season with a 20-134 record. In the 1899 season, last place meant 12th place. The Spiders finished 35 games behind the 11th place Senators. (For the record, the Perfectos finished in fifth place with a record of 84-67.)

As you might expect, the Spiders’ team stats left a lot to be desired. Offensively, they were last in the league in runs scored (529); they were not just the only team with less than 600 runs, they were the only team with less than 700 runs. The team batting average of .253 wouldn’t look too bad today, but this was a time when the league average was .282. And even though home runs were not a big deal back then, the Spiders were last in the league with 12.

The Spiders’ league-worst team ERA was 6.37 while the league as a whole logged in at 3.85 (of course, if the Spiders were not factored in, it would have been even less). As for fielding, the Spiders were not a lost cause, as five teams logged more errors than their total of 388. Pardon the pathetic play on words, but the Spiders might have had a few web gems that season.

On the last day of the season, the Spiders were scheduled to play a double-header in Cincinnati. The Reds (beginning the day at 81-67-6) were vastly superior to the Spiders, but they would finish in sixth place, 19 games behind the first place Brooklyn Superbas .

It was obvious to any baseball fan paying attention in Cincinnati that neither team had anything to play for. Among those Cincinnatians was 18-year-old Eddie Kolb, who worked at the Gibson House Hotel where the Spiders were staying. Though his experience was limited to local amateur ball, he somehow managed to convince Spiders manager Joe Quinn to allow him to pitch the last day of the season (the gift of a box of cigars probably helped).  So Kolb took the mound for the second game of the double-header on October 15. The results were predictable.

Kolb gave up 19 runs (final score 19-3), to this day the most runs ever allowed by a pitcher in a single appearance. In truth, it was not as bad as it sounds, as nine of the runs were unearned. The Spiders lost the first game of the twin bill by a 16-1 score, so Kolb’s appearance was not as egregious as it might appear at first glance.

In his first (and only) major league appearance he was also the last man to hurl for the Cleveland National League franchise, and the last man to pitch for a Cleveland professional team in the 19th century. So Kolb earned a distinctive footnote in MLB history. So what’s the lesson here for MLB teams in the 21st century?

In 2022 no team approaches the depths of the Cleveland Spiders, but there are teams just playing out the schedule. Their position in the pecking order is all but secured and a post-season appearance is out of the question. It is a situation tailor-made for a modern-day Eddie Kolb.

It’s not as though this sort of thing is entirely unheard of in the modern era. Note that all the instances of one man playing all nine positions in one game have occurred after Labor Day: Bert Campaneris, Kansas City (A’s) September 8, 1965; Cesar Tovar, Minnesota, September 22, 1968; Scott Sheldon, Rangers, September 6, 2000; Shane Halter, Tigers, October 1, 2000; and Andrew Romine, Tigers, September 30, 2017). If this publicity stunt can be performed with no threat to the integrity of the game, then why not a rank amateur as a starting pitcher one day a year?

To be sure, there would be problems. Consider liability insurance. Suppose the king of the hill for a day is injured by a line drive through the box, or gets spiked covering first base, or ruins his arm.

Then there would be the problem of players involved in quests to pad their statistics. Given the reality of incentive clauses, money as well as status is involved. A player in tight race for, say, a batting title might be delighted to face an amateur while his competitors are up against bona fide MLB pitchers.

But let’s consider the pluses. At a time of the year when baseball fans of non-contending teams lose interest, Walter Mitty on the mound would create some buzz. Many teams hold fan appreciation day on the last home game of the season. So why not have a fan toe the rubber that day?  Let’s leave it to the Commissioner to select the most meaningless match-up on the schedule. No doubt the two teams selected would be insulted to be chosen; if so, let it goad them to new heights the following season.

The trickiest part would be selecting the pitcher. Clearly, a lottery would not work. We would not want some arthritic octogenarian out there. On the other hand, we wouldn’t want someone too young. It didn’t work for Joe Nuxhall, who made his MLB debut at age 15 in 1944, and it wouldn’t work today. And we surely don’t want someone with absolutely zero experience; let’s call it the George Plimpton syndrome (see Out of My League published in 1961).

So the audition for the honor of starting the game would have to be limited to people like Kolb: a non-professional but with some amateur experience. Clearly, it would have to be someone who could find the strike zone and not just walk the batters around the bases. Perhaps a convocation of pitching coaches could audition the candidates via video and vote on them. There are surely enough MLB wannabes out there to make for a decent pool of candidates. Hey, remember 1995, when major league teams had no trouble filling out their rosters with replacement players when MLB players went on strike?

Of course, our one-shot pitcher would have to be someone who was not worried about what the appearance would do to his amateur status. Assuming he would be signed to a contract, he would be paid $4,320.98 (the major league minimum of $700,000 divided by 162). So active college players would be out of the question, unless the NCAA were willing to grant a variance on the issue.

The selection process would surely excite fan interest and the game itself would surely juice the home team’s attendance, even though the game was otherwise meaningless.

Of course, it would be unrealistic for a pitcher so selected to emerge victorious, but if his opponent’s staff were having an off day, there would always be a remote possibility of that. I’m sure the number-crunchers in Las Vegas could come up with the odds of that happening. Yes, Goliath usually wins but every now and then a David prevails. Yes, the long shot is at least as old as the First Book of Samuel!  Hell, if not a victory, maybe the pitcher could at least come away with a quality start!  That was not a thing in David’s day.

More realistically, a great deal of credit would accrue to any participant who follows the Rocky script. In the first film (1976) in the series (eight to date), Rocky Balboa, a so-so club fighter, is selected to fight the heavyweight champ in an obvious mismatch. Rocky the realist realizes that he cannot defeat the champ but if he can make it through all 15 rounds, he will be adjudged a winner. Much the same would be true of a pitcher who hurls a complete game – as Eddie Kolb did – no matter how badly he gets hammered. Hell, his achievement might even be commemorated by a statute on the steps of the local art museum.

Of course, we need not be limited to just one pitcher. In the interest of equity, we could double down and select two pitchers, one for each team, just to even the playing field.

Admittedly, the logistics of such a promotion would be daunting. On the other hand, the same could be said of the Field of Dreams game, and MLB pulled that off twice. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see MLB getting behind an annual Walter Mitty Game. And the same is true for their minor league affiliates. Yet it doesn’t sound too far-fetched for some of the independent minor leagues. Are you listening, American Association, Atlantic League, Frontier League, et al?

An essential component of the promotion would be someone in a position of influence to spearhead the effort. Bill Veeck, thou shouldst be alive at this hour.

Walter Mitty Day would be a walk in the park for the man who gave us Eddie Gaedel.

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