Sports

John McGrath: Brad Miller can learn something from McLemore, Tovar

After triple-crown winner Carl Yastrzemski led the Boston Red Sox to the 1967 American League pennant and their first World Series appearance in 21 years, the left fielder received 19 of 20 first-place votes for MVP.

The other first-place vote went to Minnesota Twins utility player Cesar Tovar, a .267 hitter whose offensive numbers, compared to those of Yaz, looked like bottom-of-the-cracker-bag crumbs.

There was much ado about the baseball writers’ association member who regarded Cesar Tovar as more valuable than Carl Yastrzemski, and the tempest intensified when the voter was identified as an employee of the Minneapolis Star, Max Nichols.

“We believe that the BBWAA, within its ranks, should take some action to penalize the writer for his unwise vote by banning him from ever serving again on a selection committee,” The Sporting News opined with an uncharacteristic edge. “The vote for Tovar was a black eye for the BBWAA.”

By either traditional statistics or advanced metric analysis applied in hindsight, a utility player didn’t deserve a first-place vote for MVP over the 1967 triple-crown winner. But the versatility Tovar provided his team was indisputable.

He played 164 games — two Twins games ended in ties, which counted on the stat sheet but not in the standings — including 70 at third base, 64 in center field, 36 at second base, 10 in left field, nine at shortstop and five in right field.

Tovar was a primary reason why Minnesota remained in contention until the season’s final weekend. Within a clubhouse fractured by racial and cultural conflicts — it was, after all, 1967 — Tovar, among Venezuela’s first exports to the majors, remained above the fray.

Cesar Tovar was the first player I thought about when Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon recently determined Brad Miller’s role would change from everyday shortstop to “a Ben Zobrist type,” referring to the Oakland A’s jack of all tradesman.

Miller, McClendon suggested, has the potential to play every position other than pitcher and catcher, and it’s a legitimate hunch. He has enough speed to track down line drives in center field, enough arm strength to make the long throw across the infield from third base, and enough hand-eye coordination to scoop one-hoppers out of the dirt at first.

The challenge of converting an everyday position player into an everywhere position player is psychological. Because the six-month season requires almost a daily commitment to the job, every player covets a routine. For starting pitchers, set-up relievers, closers, designated hitters, pinch hitters — whatever the task — a consistent role is essential.

There is also a slap-in-the-face ego factor. Most big-leaguers were the best player on their youth-league team and the best player on their high school team. Those who went on to attend a four-year school not only were best player on their college team, but among the best players in their conference.

Take Miller, a Clemson product named ACC Player of the Year in 2011, the same season he earned the Brooks Wallace Award as college baseball’s premier shortstop. When Miller was informed he no longer would play shortstop for the Mariners on a daily basis, the news had to sting. How could it not?

Former utility player Mark McLemore endured a similar “demotion” in 2001, when Seattle reacquired veteran second baseman Bret Boone as a free agent. McLemore had served as primary second baseman for the 2000 Mariners, a wild-card team that took its league championship series against the New York Yankees to six games, and he had reason to seethe about losing his everyday role to Boone.

McLemore didn’t seethe for long, once he realized manager Lou Piniella’s plan to use him at several different positions was genuine. McLemore ended up appearing in 63 games in left field, 36 at third base, 35 at shortstop, nine at second base, two in right field and two as designated hitter.

Last summer, upon returning to Safeco Field for his induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame, Piniella recalled McLemore as the underrated pillar of a team that won 116 games. McLemore’s ever-ready willingness to serve as needed, Piniella noted, couldn’t be overemphasized.

“I always thought Mark had a future as a manager,” Piniella said.

McLemore settled on a less stressful post-playing career — he’s a broadcast analyst for Texas Rangers home games — but has insisted that if there is a manager capable of convincing him to put on a uniform again for one final game, it is Piniella.

Piniella’s determination that McLemore offered more to the Mariners as a stand-by passenger than as occupant of a permanent first-class cabin seat could have caused a riff. To the contrary, it forged a bond of mutual admiration.

As for Cesar Tovar, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994, he’s mostly associated with an accomplishment that qualifies as baseball trivia: One of the four major leaguers to play all nine positions in the same game.

But Tovar was more than a late September, silly-season novelty act. Combining athletic versatility with emotional flexibility, he helped keep his team in a pennant race by playing everywhere and anywhere. And though no reasonable argument can be assembled for his case as the AL’s 1967 MVP, he still got a first-place vote.

A black eye?

Sometimes you’ve gotta stand up and take one, just on principle.

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