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BenFred: Baseball's biggest loss in 2020 will be the legends no longer with us

BenFred: Baseball's biggest loss in 2020 will be the legends no longer with us

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Considering that Lou Brock used to tell a story about how an angel only he could see helped him summon the courage for the Southern University baseball team tryout that launched his Hall of Fame career, it does not seem all that outlandish to imagine baseball games being played in heaven.

At the very least, it’s a comforting thought after America’s pastime has said goodbye to so many of its legends in such a short amount of time.

Al Kaline. Tom Seaver. Lou Brock. Bob Gibson. Whitey Ford. Joe Morgan.

Six without-a-doubt Hall of Famers. All gone in a span of less than six months, and five within the past seven weeks.

Cancer came for some. COVID-19 for at least one. All were 75 or older. Where did the time go?

Individually, they were titans of the game. Together? Transformational.

That makes their sudden departures so staggering.

These six men, all World Series champions, combined to produce a stunning list of accomplishments: 65 All-Star honors, 24 Gold Glove Awards, 14 World Series championship rings, six Cy Young Awards, six ERA titles, three MVPs, three World Series MVPs, one batting title, one rookie of the year award, one All-Star MVP and one Silver Slugger award, which was not started until after all but two were done playing.

That list, while amazing, doesn’t really do each individual justice.

The strong-armed and sure-gloved Kaline, 85, announced his arrival by hitting .340 to win a batting title as a 20-year-old All-Star in 1955, the first of his 13 consecutive All-Star seasons in Detroit. Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson once called the outfielder the best all-around player he played against. Quite the compliment.

Seaver, 75, struck out more than 200 batters in 10 different seasons and totaled 311 wins between four teams, but somehow managed to do something even more impressive than that. The man known as “The Franchise” led the Mets, previously lost in the wilderness, to the promised land in 1969. They had never had a winning season before then.

Brock, 81, became the winning end of what might go down as the most lopsided baseball trade ever, a big-moment ascender, leadoff catalyst and baserunning maestro who stole a National League record 938 bases along with every heart in Cardinal Nation.

Gibson, 84, pitched so dominantly in 1968 — a historic 1.12 ERA, 268 strikeouts, 28 complete games and 13 shutouts in 34 starts and 304.2 innings — that he became the primary reason the sport lowered the pitching mound and constricted the strike zone to give hitters a better chance. That’s the definition of a game-changer.

Ford, 91, was a six-time champion with more World Series wins than any other pitcher, and more regular-season pitching wins than any other pitcher to take the mound for baseball’s most successful team. If you are one of those who no longer value pitcher wins, here’s another note. Ford’s career ERA was 2.75 after 438 starts and more than 3,000 innings pitched.

Morgan, 77, was the 5-foot-7 giant who paired some of the best second-base defense ever with great baserunning, surprising power and a whopping .400 on-base percentage between his first All-Star season with Houston in 1966 and his 10th and final All-Star season with Cincinnati in 1979. During that span of 1,870 games, Morgan totaled 2,508 hits and walks compared to just 689 strikeouts. That’s almost impossible to imagine in today’s game.

If this feels like an especially hard year, it is.

It had been nearly five decades since the National Baseball Hall of Fame lost six members in one calendar year.

“To have this happen all at once is certainly difficult, for everybody,” Hall of Fame president Tim Mead told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s difficult for the organizations that are particularly close — where the players came from or where their loyalty and allegiance is — the fan bases and the (Hall) fraternity itself.”

This pandemic-altered season will be remembered for many reasons. The canceled spring training. The 60-game sprint. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s goofy rules. The COVID interruptions. The villainous Astros’ full-circle orbit from despised, to mostly forgotten, to despised all over again during their postseason push.

The legends baseball lost can’t get lost in the shuffle.

Their legacies must live.

Thankfully, the Hall of Fame and the keepers of the game will make sure of that.

An encouraging example recently arrived.

Dusty Baker, the veteran manager who is by far the most likeable part of an Astros team sullied by an electronic sign-stealing scandal that occurred before Baker was hired, explained to reporters why he sees some of Morgan in 5-foot-6 second baseman Jose Altuve.

Agree or disagree, it’s these kinds of conversations that make sure the next generation appreciates the legends lost this year.

Baker, for what it’s worth, believes there is baseball in the great beyond.

“They got a heck of a pitching staff and heck of an offense in heaven,” Baker said. “Who’s the Lord gonna start first in his rotation? Whitey Ford? Tom Seaver?”

I’d go Gibson, with Brock leading off.

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