It's that time of year when Hall of Fame ballot articles start popping up on Baseball Primer and demanding our attention as people vote for all manner of undeserving players while promoting a maybe-someday approach for Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, et al. And the current trend in Hall-ballot-piss-offery regards Jack Morris, who is going to become a Hall of Famer because it was cool that one time when he pitched 10 innings.
The major statistical underpinning for Morris fans who aren't willing to give that Chris Farley Show explanation is that he won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s. Morris dominated his era—he had 22 wins more than Dave Stieb did in the 80s, and 117 more than Greg Maddux. He instilled fear in his opponents by dominating the 10-year era with which they exclusively identified more than any of the great pitchers of the 90s. A player who stepped into the batter's box in 1989 expecting to take advantage of old Jack's slow start had to reckon with the fact that, between 1980 and 1988, no player had been awarded more pitching wins.
That's what the Viva El Birdos Jack Morris Award is about: rewarding players who define a generation, strictly defined. And I'm proud, and humbled, to be able to award the first Jack Morris award to Edgar Renteria, the greatest base-stealer in St. Louis Cardinals history.
Base stealing in St. Louis has a proud and illustrious history, from the infamous hijinks of Arlie Latham to the free-wheeling Don Blasingame and the 10s-defining baserunning of Albert Pujols. But few players have ever dominated an era like Edgar Renteria, who stole an astounding 111 bases for the Cardinals in the aughts, rewriting the record book and leaving agape the comedians starring in VH1's upcoming nostalgia-TV series, I Love Cardinals Baseball In the New Millennium.
Between 2000 and 2009 Renteria stole more bases for the Cardinals than the second and third most prolific base-stealers combined, something Vince Coleman could only dream of doing. In fact, Renteria is only the second Cardinal ever to manage the feat.
Some in the sabermetric community have suggested that I'm slighting Lou Brock, the first player in Cardinals history to accomplish this feat, but I'm reluctant to give Brock this Jack Morris Award until the cloud surrounding his era begins to lift. Brock played at the height of the AstroTurf era, a shameful time in our national pastime's history where the game was artificially sped up and made bouncier to appeal to its fans' lowest common denominator.
I blame myself, as a journalist. We knew that something was strange about that grass, but we did nothing about it. Looking back at footage now it's incredible that none of us stood up and said something about that bright green color, or wondered, even for a moment, where all that dirt went. Perhaps we were caught up in the infield-hit fever ourselves, ready to further the collective delusion about our heroes. We wanted to think they were like us; we wanted to believe they played little-ball on a surface that needed to be mowed and watered, and we allowed ourselves to be naive.
I can't confirm that Lou Brock played on astroturf, because my guy in the research department hasn't gotten back to me yet. But nobody's safe from suspicion when we know just how freely players were taking advantage of our trust. Preliminary reports from the Moore commission suggest that some baseball fields didn't have any grass on them at all in those days. Everyone's a suspect—even Lou Brock.
In that climate it's more important than ever to recognize the real heroes—the ones who run on natural grass, even when it's kind of wet outside, but not too wet. Emerging at the end of the Astroturf Era, Renteria arrived in St. Louis ready to teach a city to love stolen bases again, and the show he put on between 2000 and 2004, specifically, is something I'll never forget.