Ed Figueroa in . . . the Nagging QuestionMarch 15, 2009
Let’s sneak in a conversation about baseball before the yearly sickness descends upon me, changing me from a guy who does not care at all about college basketball into a fanatic whose entire existence depends upon it. This malady, which is not altogether unpleasant despite the overwhelming outward appearance of suffering in all its many subcategories, such as disappointment, frustration, anger, dyspepsia, insomnia, helplessness, self-loathing, and shame. Ah, March Madness! But more on this later in the week, when I throw myself onto the tines of that 24-hour-a-day bracket-shaped mania. For now, let’s talk some baseball. The sun is shining in my window as I write this, spring edging closer. You might think I’d want to celebrate that development with something other than a mustachioed crater-faced sourpuss in a Yankees uniform, but, firstly, I have to admit some grudging respect for the unsung achievements of this key figure in the Yankees dynasty that soured my childhood, and, secondly, he’s a good illustration for the Nagging Question that’s been on my mind.
Ed Figueroa epitomizes the prolonged dominance of my least favorite sports team. I didn’t realize this when I was a young kid, but as I studied the baseball encyclopedia I realized that the Yankees were always loaded with pitchers that were very good but not Immortal. Isn’t it odd that the Yankees, by far the most dominant team in baseball history if not in all of organized sports, do not have a single candidate to put forth in the discussion of the greatest pitcher of all time? Even their all-time best starter, Whitey Ford, despite his excellent career and postseason heroics, seems to be a cut below the titanic legends of the game, such as Grove and The Big Train and Seaver. But the Yankees always had an overflowing handful of guys who could rack up the innings and the wins, from Pennock and Shocker in the early days of the dynasty to Gomez and Ruffing a little later to Reynolds and Raschi in the very peak of the team’s dominance and all the way up to El Duque and Cone and Wells in the last of the pinstriped plagues to have descended upon us. In my childhood, Guidry was the ace of the Yankees staff, and for one season he actually seemed to be on the brink of ascending to the level of the legendary, but the true key to the Yankees’ success from 1976 through 1978 was that they had a battalion of worthy arms behind Guidry, and chief among them was Ed Figueroa, who went 55 and 30 in those three years, including what must have been one of the least celebrated 20-win seasons a pitcher has ever had, in 1978, in that it paled in comparison to Guidry’s otherworldly 25 and 3 mark.
Figueroa’s worth to the Yankees should have been underscored in 1979, when arm troubles reduced him to a virtual nonfactor and the team stumbled from its throne. It’s entirely possible, however, that as he had been taken for granted in good times, he was likewise forgotten in a litany of woe for the Yankees that year. They stumbled out of the gate without the services of Goose Gossage; by the time the relief ace had returned in July from an finger injury stemming from his April locker room fight with Cliff Johnson, the Yankees were nine games out of first place. Later that month, Figueroa, ineffective all season, was finally shut down for the rest of the year with an elbow injury. But if anyone wanted to reflect on how much Ed Figueroa’s injury-related dropoff hurt the team, they didn’t have much time to make those reflections—less than a week after Figueroa’s season ended, catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash.
Munson was the captain of the team and one of the most beloved Yankees in team history; however, thinking strictly in baseball terms, his death did not really ruin the team’s chances in 1979. They had already been ruined. The team ended up finishing 13.5 games out of first place, a half-game closer than they’d been on Munson’s last day. It’s certainly reasonable to think that Gossage’s early-season absence was the chief factor in the team’s 1979 failures, but in the end the injury only amounted to Gossage pitching 76 fewer innings for the team in 1979 than he had the year before; by contrast, the dropoff in innings pitched by Figueroa was nearly twice that. Moreover, focusing solely on wins, admittedly a very hazy statistic in terms of value, Figueroa went from 20 wins in 1978 to just 4 wins in 1979. Had he been able to duplicate his efforts from 1978, all other things being equal (and the team did score just one slim run less than they had in 1978, and took three fewer games to do so, so the offense was not the problem), the team would have finished with 105 wins and another AL East Division crown.
At the beginning of 1979, I doubt any Yankees fan would have thought that losing the services of Ed Figueroa would be as disastrous as it proved to be. I imagine, in fact, that they might have even been tempted to think that if Ed Figueroa ever faltered they’d just go out and get themselves another Ed Figueroa. They’d always been able to do so in the past. (In fact they did, in 1979, get a nice season from new acquisition Tommy John, but I think the 36-year-old John must have been seen going into the year as a replacement for the rapidly declining Catfish Hunter, and not for the still-young Figueroa, who had only left his 20s at the tail end of 1978.)
Anyway, I’ve been mulling over the following Figueroa-inspired Nagging Question in terms of my own team, and I’ll probably post my final answer later this week (until I change my mind, that is) over at Baseball Digest, my new dumping ground for all my Red Soxian thoughts. Ace Josh Beckett? Slugger David Ortiz? Reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia? Versatile gloveman and offensive lynchpin Kevin Youkilis? Those are some of the names I’m mulling, but I think I’ll be better able to choose after hearing some thoughts from other fans on the Nagging Question, so thanks in advance for the conversation and for any help you can give in offering thoughts on this pressing issue:
Who can your team least afford to lose in 2009?
(Love versus Hate update: Ed Figueroa’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)