Saturday, July 23, 2011


You will read that headline, and think that we have ingested some mind-altering (make that mind-destroying) substance.

Ron Swoboda, post-baseball, pulling a "Cal Worthington" at one of
Bud Selig's used car lots...
Ron Swoboda. A star? Clearly some kind of in-poor-taste joke served up by someone named Shirley. Ron Swoboda? The guy nicknamed "Rocky" (and this was well before Sly Stallone gave that name some cachet--"Rocky" was a nickname for the state of Ron's career). He was up there, shining in the firmament?

Clearly, booby-hatch time for Ye Olde Kinge of Vitriol.

But consider this chart of the best hitters in baseball (compiled via David Pinto's Day by Day Database). It captures about five-eighths of a season, across the time frame that spans from July 15, 1967 to May 10, 1968. It lists all the hitters in both leagues in descending order of OPS. We've color-coded the OPS ranges because...well, because that's what we do here.

There, on that list, sitting in the seventeenth position, is Ron Swoboda.

Yes, it's one of those small sample-size wonders. Yes, Rocky is the only real "mystery guest" (in retrospect) to be found in the top twenty hitters here.

But it was this period of time, and this performance, that caused a number of folks to think that the 23-year old Swoboda had a chance to be a solid major league slugger.

It's an interesting list for a few other reasons. We are dipping into the Valley of Death for hitters in the time frame represented here, so the stars in the game are putting up OPS values (and counting-stat totals) that look shockingly modest. Only one guy (Carl Yastrzemski) over 1.000 during the time frame: only four guys over .900; just four guys with more than 20 HR.

It was still possible to be a great hitter with an OPS driven by a high batting average (look at Curt Flood's performance: yes, it's a fluke for him, but the point is that someone could hit like that and be an elite hitter). That hasn't been possible in baseball for nearly twenty years.

There are also some guys here who are hitting a lot of triples. Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock, Vada Pinson. Of course they're not going to be putting up Chief Wilson-type triples totals, but the totals here indicate that the three-bagger was plentiful and possible enough to produce a solid swatch of hitters whose totals were at least in the teens.

So, now, you too can remember when Ron Swoboda was a star. 'Twas a Warholian moment, maybe an Andy-esque parsec, in fact. But there it was--a glimmer in the gloaming.