Stan Hochman | Stark's book provokes arguments & chuckles

Posted: June 20, 2007

MAJOR LEAGUE baseball players are like snowflakes. No two are identical. Some hit a big city sidewalk, go splat and vanish in a New York minute. Some land softly on a glacier and stick around in our memory for 962 years.

You can't compare them or contrast them. That's angels-fear-to-tread territory. Jayson Stark, who is nobody's fool, walks right in. Stark covered baseball like a warm, fuzzy blanket for the Inquirer for 21 years, and now works for ESPN.

He has written a terrific book called "The Stark Truth." It's funny, it's factual and it is one man's educated and controversial listing of the most underrated and most overrated players in major league history.

Take his choice for most overrated lefthanded pitcher in the history of the game. Please, take his choice. It's Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

"It's not like I'm saying he should have taken up the violin," Stark says plaintively. "I'm not saying I'd rather have Sidney Ponson."

Enough with the disclaimers. Stark calls the last 6 years of

Koufax's career "stupendous" acknowledging the 129-47 record, the 2.19 ERA, three Cy Young Awards, a perfect game, three other no-hitters, that 382-strikeout season, a World Series era of 0.95.

And then he reminds us of those first 6 years, the 36-40 record, the ERA of 4.10, the 5.3 walks every nine innings. Sure, he could throw a baseball through a brick wall. It's just that he couldn't hit the brick wall consistently.

"I know he had to stick on the Dodgers' roster for those first 2 years, because he'd gotten a $14,000 bonus," Stark concedes. "And that, the manager, Walt

Alston, often had the bullpen warming up in the first inning when he started. But the next 2 years don't look much different."

Later in the book, Stark cuts Jimmy Wynn (No. 3 underrated centerfielder) 48 yards of slack because he played all those years in the cavernous Astrodome. How about a little empathy for Koufax, trapped in the big leagues those first 2 years when he should have been in the minors learning to pitch? Meanwhile, pitching for a gloomy manager who didn't disguise his lack of faith in his Jewish lefthander.

In the book, Stark faults Koufax for "walking away" at 30.

How about something called Reynaud's Phenomena, a circulation problem that kept him from gripping the baseball so he could throw it 96 mph?

"Even my wife doesn't agree with the Koufax chapter," Stark says. "The tone of the book is not mean-spirited. I didn't set out to tarnish someone's heroes."

He need not worry. He brings wit and wisdom and a passion for the game to the inevitable debates. OK, so maybe he does have to worry about the occasional irate agent.

"Steve Boras has launched a national campaign to rip me," Stark says, chuckling. "Maybe it's because I rank [his client]

Andruw Jones as the most overrated centerfielder, and he's up for free agency.

"Boras was on a radio show the other day and he ripped me, can you believe it, of manipulating statistics for the purpose of profiteering."

Stark doesn't claim any magic formula for determining who's overrated and who's underrated. "When I first started the book," he said, "I googled 'overrated' and 'baseball' and Derek Jeter's name was the first name to appear. And then I googled 'underrated' and 'baseball' and here came Jeter's name again. It's a never-ending debate."

I had some problem with Stark rating Ernie Banks underrated as a shortstop. The man won two Most Valuable Player awards (1958 and '59) playing for a dreadful sixth-place Cubbies team. Would they have finished seventh without him? They wouldn't have finished eighth, because the Phillies had that slot wrapped up.

I think Vada Pinson belongs on the underrated-centerfielder list and Stark had him on his "also

eligible" roster. "Underrated centerfielders," Stark says with a sigh. "I had a whole buffet line of guys I wanted to include and Pinson was one of them.

"I rank Darryl Strawberry as overrated. The people in New York ask me how Strawberry is overrated. I say Strawberry was an underachiever his entire career. Did he ever come close to the expectations? What about the squandered talent?"

And when the arguments get too loud, too emotional, Stark says softly, "Hey, it's my book."

And that's the charm of it. You know that Johnny Callison and Dick Allen are in there as underrated because Stark grew up in this town rooting for the guys in the red pinstripes. And you know that Andy Van Slyke and Dan Quisenberry are in there as underrated because they could fill a reporter's notebook with

irreverent, funny commentary about the game and the people in it.

I think Stark makes too much of the voting for the All-Century team, without examining the demographics. And I wish they'd change the RCAP acronym of that contrived equation for Runs Created by an Average Player at his position to Created Runs by an Average Player.

Can you compare a molasses-slow leftfielder playing in a bandbox, hitting fifth for a mediocre team with a swift leftfielder playing in a huge ballpark for a contender? I don't think so. But if it has to be done, I want Jayson Stark doing the rankings, because I'll get some laughs along the way.

Laughter, now that's underrated in sports journalism. *

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