Thursday, November 22, 2018

Card #150: Ted Simmons

Who Can It Be Now?
Ted Lyle Simmons was born on August 9, 1949, in Highland Park, Michigan. Simmons spent his youth in Southfield, Michigan, where he was a star in both football and baseball at Southfield High School. He was well known to major league scouts as a high school player, and his draft status in 1967 supported that. He was selected tenth overall in the 1967 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. 

He held out for a short while to ensure that he could get sufficient money out of the Cardinals as a signing bonus. He used the threat of attending college over the Cardinals, saying in The Sporting News shortly after the draft that, "The contract will have to be big enough to make it worthwhile for me to pass up college. I'd have to say that I'd want about $50,000 -- although some people have told me it should be $75,000 and some say $100,000." 

He got his $50,000 that he asked for (which he told Daniel Okrent in Nine Innings was "more money than my family had ever seen"). As a result, despite having signed on the dotted line to do so, he did not go to college to play football for the University of Michigan. 

Instead, he used his baseball signing bonus to attend Michigan and, later, Wayne State, in the offseason. As Okrent mentions, being at the University of Michigan from September through April every year from 1968 through 1970 had a distinct effect on Simmons, creating in him a determination not to be seen "as merely a jock." UM in that turbulent time was greatly affected by the anti-Vietnam War activities, as these photos show, and it had an impact.

Still, he signed soon enough in 1967 to play 53 games in rookie level and low-level Single-A baseball. It was enough to earn a promotion in 1968 to Modesto in the Advanced-A California League. Despite being 3.5 years younger than the average player in the league, Simmons dominated offensively -- hitting 28 HR, driving in 117, and slashing .331/.415/.570 and winning the California League MVP. That earned him his first call-up to the big leagues at the age of 19 in 1968, where he got a 4 plate-appearance cup-of coffee.

So, at the age of 19 in 1969, he found himself amongst the grown men at Triple-A Tusla in the American Association. Different league but similar results -- 16 HR, 88 RBI, .317/.365/.495. He got another look in the big leagues as a result -- a 16 plate appearance stint. 

He'd made a mark on ownership with his play in the minor leagues and his short stints in the big leagues that circumstances in 1970 led to his being called up for good. Cardinals third-baseman Mike Shannon was forced to retire at age 30 due to glomerulonephritis (a condition that prevents the kidneys from filtering waste properly). Lacking a good internal replacement at third base, the Cards instead moved their multiple-time All-Star Joe Torre to third base (even though Torre had not played there in the majors before) and called up the 20-year-old Simmons. 

Simmons and St. Louis in the 1970s were synonymous. Simmons became well known for his unique interests in the arts and antiques -- even being featured in a 1978 Sports Illustrated article about him. That article mentioned that he was named a trustee for the St. Louis Art Museum in 1978 thanks in part to his knowledge on 18th century antiques and his position with the Cardinals. 

Something else that article mentioned is Simmons's defensive reputation. Despite it being a human interest puff piece in most regards, it states that Simmons was aware of the misconception that he was "no more than a mediocre catcher," citing to his huge passed ball totals in 1974 and 1975 (he had 28 passed balls, falling one short of tying the league's record in passed balls since 1900). Tim McCarver said Simmons was concentrating on his hitting while catching, which sounds like something Tim McCarver would say. 

That defensive reputation/ability is what led to his trade to Milwaukee. Whitey Herzog came to St. Louis before the 1980 season and came to the conclusion that the thirty-year-old Simmons -- who, by then, had caught in excess of 11,000 innings in his career -- was simply not going to be the catcher for his team in 1981. Herzog, who was also the Cardinals GM, signed his former Kansas City catcher (and former Brewer) Darrell Porter to catch and told Simmons that Simmons would shift to first base (with Keith Hernandez moving to the outfield). 

Simmons did not like that idea all that much, so he asked for a trade. That led to the blockbuster deal of the 1980 offseason. Herzog traded Simmons with the recently acquired Rollie Fingers (who was surplus to requirements in St. Louis thanks to Bruce Sutter's signing) along with Pete Vuckovich to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Sixto Lezcano, Lary Sorensen, Dave LaPoint, and David Green. While the Brewers gave away Lezcano (whom many thought was a rising star) and Green (whom many thought was the best prospect in the minor leagues), they received in return two Cy Youngs (Fingers in 1981 and Vuckovich in 1982) and a soon-to-be two-time Brewers All-Star (Simmons in 1981 and 1983).

Simmons's stay in Milwaukee was a fruitful yet frustrating one. Yes, he got to the postseason twice in his five seasons as a Brewer, but both trips ended in losses and the 1982 trip ended in a loss in his adopted hometown of St. Louis. In many respects, a lot of the issues in 1982 could be placed at Simmons's feet, as he batted a poor .174/.321/.435 in the World Series (4-23 with 5 walks and two homers). Still, watching his former team win both in 1982 and in 1985 had to be somewhat hurtful.

The Brewers decided to move on from Simmons after the 1985 season, and Simba moved to Atlanta as a pinch-hitter who could catch or play first or third in a pinch. Moving back to the NL gave him the opportunity to see the Cards more frequently, and it led to his post-retirement career as well. In August of 1988, Simmons knew he would retire after the season. Before a game with the Cardinals in St. Louis, Simmons spoke with his old pal Whitey Herzog about what was next. Whitey immediately asked Simmons if he would be interested in becoming the Cardinals farm director. That is what Simmons did after the 1988 season and his retirement.

It's not an exact fit for this category, but the story needs to be put somewhere in Simmons's biography. During the 1970s, Simmons's son John had a baseball-crazy best friend named Jon Hamm. Yes, the Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" fame. Thanks to that tie, Jon Hamm's first catcher's mitt was given to him by Simmons -- a Rawlings mitt shipped direct from the factory. Hamm recognized the irony of the 1982 Series as well, saying, "My favorite baseball memory is my best friend's baseball disaster."

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Simmons's entire life has been spent in baseball. Simmons moved from the Cardinals front office to become the GM, but he stepped aside in 1993 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 44. That led him to stop smoking, start exercising, and eat better so, as he put it, he would not be "dead by the time you are 50." He then worked in scouting and/or in the front office for Cleveland, San Diego, Seattle and Atlanta. In addition, he was the bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers for the 2008 season -- their first trip back to the postseason since 1982.

Of course Simmons was one of the guys who played a major role for my 1982 Milwaukee Brewers team. As a catcher as a kid, Simmons was a personal favorite of mine -- he and Gary Carter. But, overall, Simmons probably does not rank much higher than 7th or 8th in terms of the favorite players on that team behind at least Cecil Cooper, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Ben Oglivie, Jim Gantner, and Gorman Thomas (and maybe Rollie Fingers too). 

The major question that gets asked these days is if Ted Simmons belongs in the Hall of Fame. My answer is a resounding yes. Looking to the "JAWS" scores from Baseball Reference, Simmons is the highest ranked catcher who is eligible for induction but has not yet been inducted. He's listed as the 10th best catcher overall, and only the recently-retired Joe Mauer ranks higher without being inducted. 

Simmons's main problem is similar to what Tim Raines went through. Simmons played at the same time as the 1st, 2nd, and 4th best catchers in baseball history -- Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Carlton Fisk. Bench debuted in 1967, Simmons in 1968, Fisk in 1969, and Carter in 1974. Even if Simmons was the poorest defensively amongst those four, there is a good argument that he is the best or at worst second best offensive catcher of the four. The fact that Simmons played at a time when the game's best ever catchers played, however, should not be a reason to keep him out. 

Simmons is a Hall of Famer, and the voters made a mistake (and continue to make a mistake) in keeping him out.

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