Mutka: Buehrle, Plesac top my list for consistency
Random thoughts as another baseball season nears its climax:
Over the years I’ve covered the White Sox and the Cubs. That’s no longer the case, but the memories linger on.
Readers often ask if I have any personal favorites among players I’ve chased down in the locker rooms. So here goes nothing.
▪ Most consistent player? Hands down it has to be Mark Buehrle. The Sox made a major mistake in letting him escape two years ago. They compounded it by signing overrated, underachieving John Danks to a long-term contract for reasons that escaped me even before his major arm injury.
Generally, pitchers are fragile creatures who often break down. Iron workers like Buehrle, Dan Plesac and Greg Maddux are the exceptions.
Usually, arm stress leads to significant time on the disabled list. Cy Young winners Roy Halladay and Jake Peavy and 2005 NLCS MVP Roy Oswalt provide classic examples of arms gone awry.
Halladay enjoyed two great years with the Phillies after exiting from Toronto, but has gone only 15-13 in the last two seasons. He toiled just 62 innings this year because of his second prolonged trip to the disabled list which contributed to the demise of manager Charlie Manuel.
Major injuries have frustrated Peavy since he won the 2007 Cy Young in San Diego. He made it through a full season just once in four-plus years with the White Sox before being traded to Boston. He never won more than 11 games with the South Siders.
Oswalt, who fell apart after leaving Houston, was supposed to be part of the greatest rotation in major league history by writers with short memories when he was traded to the Phillies in 2010, but his best year was 13-13.
In 2005 he pitched the Astros into the World Series, but spent much of the last two seasons on the disabled list and stumbled to a 13-19 record.
Contrast them with Buehrle, who has piled up at least 200 innings and 30 starts for 13 consecutive seasons with double-figure victories. He ended one of baseball’s longest droughts in the 2005 World Series with a seven-inning no-decision in Game 2 and a save in Game 4 of the sweep.
The industrial-strength lefty led the American League in starts and innings twice and won four Gold Gloves. He also pitched two no-hitters, including a perfect game against Tampa Bay, which I was fortunate enough to cover on July 23, 2009.
Buehrle also set a major league record by retiring 45 batters in a row over a three-game stretch. Unfortunately, because he was never blessed with overpowering stuff he may never be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has often been considered a sentimental softy about his players — how else do you explain his odd decisions to retire Harold Baines’ number, then add him to the Sox coaching staff — unfortunately he didn’t intercede in Buehrle’s behalf.
▪ Go-to-guy in the locker room? Put your hands together for Plesac, who grew up in Northwest Indiana and pitched for nearly two decades in the major leagues.
The rubber-armed lefty set club records for saves with Milwaukee, where he spent the first seven years of his career. Gradually he morphed from setup man to specialist while pitching for five other clubs, including the Cubs. Considering his childhood passion for the White Sox, that was a a culture shock.
The three-time All-Star never turned me down for an interview request during his 18 years in the majors and always provided thoughtful insight into what makes baseball players tick. A natural in the booth, he now toils as an MLB analyst.
Plesac was recently elected into the North Carolina State Sports Hall of Fame.
▪ Go-to runner-up? Former Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon, who was fired in his fifth year with the penny-pinching franchise, helped me fill numerous columns in his eight years on Jim Leyland’s coaching staff in Detroit.
Mac never disappointed, dating back to his playing career for four division-winning clubs, including the 1989 Cubs and Leyland’s Pirates in 1990 and 1992.
Indirectly, Mac contributed to one of my favorite interviews. Because he often credited Pete Rose for jump-starting his major league career with Cincinnati in 1987, I sought Rose out at Wrigley Field for some comments about the Gary native.
Figuring it would be a short session, I tiptoed into the visitor’s locker room (the worst in the majors) to find Rose sitting alone in his cramped office. Though I wasn’t a regular beat writer he graciously spent nearly 20 minutes talking baseball.
▪ Class act? None other than Paul Konerko. The ultimate team player and a great role model for aspiring Little Leaguers. If “Paulie” moves on I hope the Sox can find a spot for him in their organization.
▪ Best baseball athlete? I’d have to make this a tie between Valparaiso’s Jeff Samardzija and East Chicago’s Kenny Lofton.
Being an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame, Samardzija kept writers guessing before choosing the Cubs over the violent world of the NFL. Unfortunately, the lovable losers still seem a century away from their next World Series. Sorry, die-hards.
His 8-13 record is deceptive, but maybe he’ll be lucky enough to be traded to a contender so he can experience postseason play.
That was never an issue with Lofton, who played basketball at Arizona, which made the Final Four in 1988, before choosing Cleveland.. In his 91/2 years with the Indians, they won six division titles and reached the 1995 World Series.
The Hall of Fame candidate owns numerous records for stolen bases, leading the American League five times in that category. He won four Gold Gloves and retired with a .299 lifetime average.
Lofton also played for Dusty Baker — his favorite manager — in the 2002 World Series for the Giants. The speedy outfielder — he had an 80 percent success rate in steals — was a six-time All-Star, but was less than a media darling.
He frequently snubbed writers, but recently made Cleveland’s Hall of Fame.
▪ Second-city blues: Windy City baseball fans are still suffering nightmares over their cellar-dwelling underachievers, but it could have been worse. Both sides of town barely escaped the stigma of 100 losses, something Chicagoans should be reminded of for future reference.
The White Sox were 49-102 in 1932, 51-101 in 1948 and 56-106 in 1970. The Cubs flopped to 59-103 in 1962 and 1966 and were 61-101 last year.