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Friday, May 7, 2010

"Ode To A Gopher"

by Christopher C. Wuensch
Bleacher Report

Today is Groundhog Day, the glorious time of year when we celebrate the most notorious gopher this side of Caddyshack.

Men such as "Punxsutawney" Phil Norton , who, in one tragic inning on Aug. 8, 2000, joined a litany of infamous gopher ballers to yield a Major League record four home runs in one inning.

Today we rejoice the pitchers who brought inclement weather to the bleachers of ball parks in the form of hailing home runs—many of whom lost their own silhouettes in the shadows created by the likes of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa.

The irony being that Western Pennsylvania’s famous marmot, Punxsutawney Phil , is said to have lived to the ripe old age of 123 by ingesting an “elixir of life—a mysterious “Groundhog Punch.”

So by all accounts, Phil Norton is not fuzzy, nor lives in an underground burrow. In fact, the lefty grew up 1,100 miles south of Punxsutawney in Texarkana, Texas. But his place in baseball history is concrete—that is, until another gopher-ball pitcher coughs up five dingers in a single inning.

When he does, you’ll hear the collective sighs emanating from Norton, a former Chicago Cub and Cincinnati Red, and the other 25 pitchers with whom he shares the dubious mark.

Among them will be future and current hall-of-famers Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Catfish Hunter.

Those enshrined in Cooperstown certainly aren’t immune from playing the role of the gopher.

Warren Spahn served up 71 more homers than he got wins in his 21 year career. His National League record 434 home runs given up didn’t keep him out of the hall. Perhaps personally slugging 35 homers (third-best all-time for a pitcher) helped Spahn gain access among the game’s greats.

Other notable pitchers going down in gopher lore with Johnson, Smoltz and Catfish include:

Bert Blyleven
His 50 homers given up in 1986 is a single-season record.

Fergie Jenkins
He led the Majors in homers-yielded a record seven times.

Frank Tanana
Allowed 448 career home runs at a clip of one dinger per every six strikeouts, tops all-time in the American League.

As far as legends go, however, no one topped Robin Roberts when it came to doling out free souvenirs to the paying customers in the cheap seats.

Roberts surrendered a Major League-best 505 home runs in his career. Even more remarkable is that the Springfield, Ill., native still managed to carve out a Hall of Fame career behind six 20-win campaigns. He twice struck out more batters in a season than anyone else and made seven all-star squads.

The state of Vermont was so enamored with the pitcher, they officially dubbed July 21 as “Robin Roberts Day ."

Roberts is 83-years old now. There are no reports of a man in a top hat yanking him from a serene slumber this morning to predict the weather.

Had he been so rudely awakened, his prognosis would have been simple to forecast.

Pitchers and catchers report in 16 days.

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