ESPN host misses the mark on legendary Astro in latest book

ESPN host misses the mark on legendary Astro in latest book
The Rocket would like a word. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

ESPN host Mike Greenberg has a new book out today called Got Your Number – the Greatest Sports Legends and the Numbers They Own. He’s talking about uniform numbers, the best who wore the numbers one through 100 on the back of their jerseys.

It’s a fun topic sure to start many friendly debates, for example, Number 32. Among the candidates: Jim Brown, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Sandy Koufax, Karl Malone, Steve Carlton, O.J. Simpson, Bill Walton and more. Who ya got? I’ll take Magic over the long haul, Koufax for the snapshot.

Number 34 is a whole lot of trouble, too. Who’s the greatest? Nolan Ryan? Hakeem Olajuwon? Shaq (again)? Charles Barkley? Big Papi? Walter Payton? Let’s hear it for Earl Campbell. It might wind up being Giannis Antetokounmpo, though.

Greenberg said he had the most difficulty picking the greatest player to wear Number 21. He and his stat helper narrowed it down to Roberto Clemente, Deion Sanders and Tim Duncan. Their qualifications:

Roberto Clemente: 15 time All-Star, 3,000 hits, Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tim Duncan: five time NBA champion, “the Big Fundamental,” 19 years all with the San Antonio Spurs.

Deion Sanders: two-time Super Bowl champ, 1994 Defensive Player of the Year, also played big league baseball.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Clemente was a great right fielder, but there was a better one in the same era, a guy named Henry Aaron. Duncan was terrific, but the Spurs’ titles were a team effort. Sanders was an amazing defensive back, but just a slightly above average baseball player (.263 career batting average). Also, a bit of a jerk.

Of course it’s unfair – and slightly ridiculous – to compare athletes of different eras because sports are constantly changing and evolving. For example, who was the more dangerous home run hitter: Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds? When the Babe played, it was pre-Jackie Robinson and 1947 so he never faced African-American pitchers. He also didn’t have to deal with late-night flights across three time zones. The westernmost city in baseball was St. Louis.

Of course, Bonds had his advantages, better equipment, better facilities, better nutrition, better coaching during his youth and, well, the obvious.

So in their own ways, Ruth and Bonds are close, undoubtedly the greatest of their time, but hardly comparable.

The best way to measure greatness, and ultimately who’s the greatest, is how a player compared to his contemporaries.

For my money, and I don’t think there’s any question, the greatest athlete to wear Number 21, in any sport, any era, happens to be from Houston.

Roger Clemens.

I know, he wore Number 22 while he pitched for the Astros and Yankees, but he was Number 21 for the bulk of his career with the Red Sox and Blue Jays and that’s when he racked up most of his spectacular numbers.

You want to crunch some numbers? The Rocket won 354 games and lost only 184 for a career winning percentage of .658. He struck out 4,672 batters (most ever in the American League and third most all-time). His career earned run average was 3.14. He led all of baseball in wins four times and earned run average seven times. He is tied for the most strikeouts in a nine-inning game with 20, but he’s the only pitcher to do it twice.

Most important, how did Clemens compare to other performers during his era? He won seven (!) Cy Young Awards given to the best pitcher in his league. That’s the all-time record and it’s two more than anybody else (Randy Johnson).

Let’s dig deeper. Clemens won the Cy Young Award for four different teams. He won his first Cy Young in 1986. He also won the American League’s Most Valuable Player that year. He won back-to-back Cy Youngs … twice. He did it with the Red Sox in 1986-87 and with the Blue Jays in 1997-98, both times wearing Number 21. Twice he won the Triple Crown of pitching, leading the league in wins, earned run average and strikeouts. He won his first Cy Young at age 23, his last at age 41.

That’s the winning number – 21 – and Roger Clemens owns it.

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It's not time to panic, yet. Composite Getty Image.

This is not a column for fanboys or sugarcoating. To this point in the season the Astros stink like rotten eggs. They stink like Angel Hernandez’s umpiring. They stink like Bill O'Brien's general manager skills. The Astros are a bad team right now. That’s notably different from being a bad team. Their 4-10 record is well-earned and it is definitely possible that the Astros’ run of high quality and annual playoff appearances crashes and burns this season. But it’s laughable to declare so after just 14 games of the 162 scheduled have been played.

Last June the Astros had a lousy window in which they went 3-10. In August they had a 4-8 funk. In September it was a 3-9 stretch of collapse. The 2022 World Series Champions had a 3-8 hiccup in April, and a 2-6 blotch overlapping July and August that included getting swept in a three-game series by the then and now awful Oakland A’s.

Now the Astros are back home (Oh No!) for six games, three vs. the Rangers then three with the Braves. The Rangers lead the American League West but are just 7-6, so despite their cellar-dwelling status, the Astros are just three and a half games out of first. A winning homestand is obviously the goal. No, really. 3-3 would be ok, even though that would just about clinch a losing record heading into May.

Mandatory aside: spectacular weather is the Friday night forecast. Stop being stubborn and lame, Astros. Open the roof! I don’t mean just for the postgame fireworks.

On the mend?

The Astros’ track record of downplaying pitching injuries that turned out to be major certainly causes angst as we await Framber Valdez’s return from a sore elbow. If Valdez ultimately winds up out for months, the Astros’ starting rotation is in deep trouble. Even more so if upon the approaching delayed start to his season, 41-year-old Justin Verlander pitches to his age in terms of results and/or durability. However, if Valdez is ok within a month and JV is solid, those two, and Cristian Javier can stabilize the rotation quite nicely.

The Astros started three guys in the last four games who belong in the minor leagues. It was a sad sign of the times that the Astros were reduced to calling up Blair Henley to make the start Monday in Arlington. Except for Rangers fans and Astros haters, it grew uncomfortable watching Henley give up four hits, walk three, record just one out, and wind up charged with seven earned runs. But it’s not Henley’s fault that he was thrust into a role for which he was utterly unqualified.

Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi, Henley’s earned run average was 5.06. Because of the crummy state of the Astros’ farm system, Henley failed up to Triple-A Sugar Land to start this season. After one not good start for the Space Cowboys, “Hey, go get out big leaguers Blair!” Henley turns 27 next month, he is not a prospect of any note. If he never again pitches in the majors Henley forever carries a 135.00 ERA.

But you know what? It was still a great day for the guy. Even if undeserved, Henley made “The Show.” For one day on the Astros’ 26-man roster, Henley made over four thousand dollars. To make him eligible for call up, the Astros first had to put Henley on their 40-man roster and sign him to a split contract. That means that until/unless the Astros release him, Henley’s AAA salary jumps from approximately $36,000 for the season to over 60K.

Lastly, while Henley’s ERA could remain 135.00 in perpetuity, at least he’s no Fred Bruckbauer. In 1961 Bruckbauer made his big league debut and bade his big league farewell in the same game. He faced four batters, giving up three earned runs on three hits and one walk. Career ERA: Infinity! Bruckbauer is the most recent of the more than a dozen pitchers to retire with the infinity ERA.

Spencer Arrighetti’s debut start went much better. For two innings, before it unraveled in a seven run Royals third. Arrighetti has good stuff, but not great stuff. Control has been an issue for him in the minor leagues. Without better command Arrighetti cannot be a plus starter in the majors.

Then there’s Hunter Brown. We could go decades without seeing another pitcher give up nine runs and 11 hits in two-thirds of an inning as Brown did Thursday. It had never happened in MLB history! To this point, Brown is an overhyped hope. ERA last July: 5.92, August: 6.23, September 1 on: 8.74. Three starts into 2024: 16.43.

Jose Abreu watch

It's still early enough in the season that even just a couple of big games can markedly improve a stat line but Jose Abreu continues to look washed up at the plate. Three hits in 37 at bats (.081 batting average), with the most recent hit a questionable official scoring decision. Manager Joe Espada has already dropped Abreu from fifth in the lineup to sixth, then seventh, then eighth. Two more slots down to go, Joe! Continuing to act like Jon Singleton could be a competent bat in the lineup is just silly though.

Catch the weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week now generally goes up after Sunday’s game (second part released Tuesday, sometimes a third part Wednesday) via YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTubewith the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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