Because the Iowa Cubs and the Peoria Chiefs were both rained out tonight and because I'm not in any better mood than any of you are, I'm going to take this time to say something that gives me no pleasure to say.
Bob Brenly is full of it.
Now I like Bob, but he is prone to "Old Ballplayers" disease from time to time. Tonight he was (justifiably) complaining about the fundamental mistakes made by Starlin Castro and Hanley Ramirez, but then he said something stupid. He said "It used to be that you were expected to play at least 500 games in the minors [before getting called up to the majors] to learn the fundamentals" or words very close to that. I was eating dinner at the time so I didn't write down the exact words, but that's what he said.
What he said was complete nonsense.
Besides the fact that Hanley Ramirez actually played 400 games in the minors, it's complete nonsense. That has never been the case.
Bob didn't give a time frame for this "old baseball rule," but I think from context it's pretty clear the era that Brenly was speaking of. It was the 1970s and 1980s, when ballplayers were men who played the game right and waited their turn to take the field. It also just happened to be the era that Bob himself toiled in the minor leagues. Frankly, it couldn't have been much earlier than that because the draft doesn't start until 1965 and before that any player who signed for a bonus was expected to go straight to the majors because of the "Bonus Baby" rule. Besides, I don't think Bob knows much about the minor leagues of the 1950s and 1960s. If you go back before that, you enter the era of the "Free Minors" when major league clubs didn't get to decide when a player went to the majors. They had to purchase the player from a minor league team willing to sell to them. (OK, there were rules in place that said minor league teams had to sell a player for a certain price, but let's not get too technical here)
So let's get back to the era when Bob Brenly was in the minors. The 1970s.
Sure enough, Mr. Brenly played almost 600 games in the minor leagues before he got the call. He spent one season in rookie ball, three years in A ball, one in AA and two in AAA. But as Bob likes to point out constantly, he wasn't much of a prospect. He was an undrafted free agent who was just signed to fill out a roster. Every once an a while, a guy like that turns himself into an All-Star. That was Bob. But those guys aren't just handed the keys to a major league locker room. They have to prove themselves at every level, often more than once, just to prove that the scouts who wrote them off as no prospect in the first place were wrong.
So good for Bob as he got called up to the majors when the players returned from the Great Strike of 1981. If you look at the roster of any team in the 1980s when Bob was playing, you'll see lots of players who played more than 500 games in the minors. His teammate on the Giants, "Hackman" Jeffrey Leonard, played over 500 games in the minors before getting the call and over 700 before he finally stuck. Of course, Leonard was also an undrafted free agent, and he was also still 17 when he started in the minors. His fellow rookie on the '82 Giants, Chili Davis, played 450 games in the minors. So not quite 500, but still a lot.
But while Brenly, Leonard and Davis all turned themselves into good players, Bob isn't talking about ordinary players. One of the players he's talking about is Hanley Ramirez, who's probably the second-best player in the National League. The other is Starlin Castro, whom we have no idea how he's going to turn out, but is certainly considered a much better player in the minors than Brenly, Leonard or Davis were. (Leonard was so highly regarded, he was traded twice.)
But Robby Thompson, who Bob also played with, played 287 games in the minors--two and a half years. Will "The Thrill" Clark was a huge star at Mississippi State and played a grand total of 74 games in the minors.
But we've only looked at one organization: the Giants. I think it's safe to say that the three biggest stars for the Cubs in the 1980s were Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson and Mark Grace. They're good examples because Sandberg came up with the Phillies, Dawson with the Expos and Grace with the Cubs. Sandberg played 450 games, but Dawson only played 186 minor league games and Gracie checks in at 270.
Look at any of the big stars of the 1980s, and you'll see that most of them played far fewer than 500 games in the minors. Dale Murphy played 434. Darryl Strawberry played 312. Mike Schmidt played 205. Fred Lynn played 174. Ricky Henderson played 252. Robin Yount played 64 games. So did Paul Molitor. Ozzie Smith played 68 games.
Even a guy like Ted Simmons played only 333 games in the minors. Andy Van Slyke played 395.
Dave WInfield and Bob Horner played zero games in the minor leagues. Remember that, Bob?
Now again, you can argue that all those guys (well, with maybe the exception of Horner) were exceptional players, at least Ray Lankford Hall of Famers if not actual guys in Cooperstown. (Lankford himself played 476 minor league games.) But we don't know how good Starlin Castro is going to get and the other guy he was complaining about was Hanley Ramirez. You want to compare Hanley to Johnnie LeMaster?
It's clear that Starlin Castro was nervous tonight. It's also clear that even in the minors, he made more errors than you'd like. It's also clear that Starlin Castro is very young and probably wouldn't be in the majors if the Cubs weren't in full panic mode right now.
But even so, Castro has played 264 games in the minors. Two-hundred and four if you don't count the Dominican Summer League. That's more than a lot of the stars on that list.
That's no reason for Bob Brenly to go off on him and Ramirez for not knowing the fundamentals like he did back in the day. We're all frustrated. Bob's frustrated. But in case Bob forgot, he spent over 600 games in the minors and that didn't stop him from making four errors in one inning which is a major league record. (OK, he was playing out of position.)
It's absolutely false that players in the past spent more time in the minors, just as the idea that players "back in my day" knew the fundamentals better than the players of today. That statement is also hilarious to those of us who can remember the 1980s and remember the players from the 1950's and 1960's go off on them and say how lacking they were in the fundamentals. Just like the guys in The Glory of their Times complained about the players of the fifties and sixties.
So Bob, next time you're frustrated with the Cubs, stop yelling at Castro to get off your lawn. The guy is a kid and he's going to make mistakes. I would have liked to see him play in the minors longer to work on things like his defensive consistency. But the players and organizations back in your era weren't any different. In fact, they were probably more likely to call up a big shot prospect early than we are today.