Sunday January 22, 2023
Sal Bando (1944-2023)
Coming your way, Bob.
The only foul ball caught during my childhood by someone I know was hit by Sal Bando, the captain of the world champion Oakland A's, in the early to mid-1970s.
Our family and family friends were sitting in the wood-bench section along the third-base/right-field side of Metropolitan Stadium, as was our wont, and my father and older brother left to go to the bathroom. For some reason not many foul balls came our way, at least not in my memory, but I do remember Sal's. I think my stomach dropped a bit. Yeah, I was more afraid than excited. But it fell short of us, dropping into the concourse area between the box seats and the bench seats. A few minutes later, my father was walking back up to our row, grinning wide, holding the ball triumphantly aloft. He'd been waiting for Chris outside the men's room, which was in the concourse area, when Bando's foul ball caromed off a wall and back toward him. I think he had to fight a teenaged kid for it. “I played it off the wall like Clemente,” Dad said later.
I wonder if baseball players realize that almost every foul ball they hit is a piece of immortality. You catch one, you don't forget. For me, it's Tino Martinez and Chili Davis; for Tim, it's Felix Fermin and Ken Griffey Jr.; for Mike, it's ... OK, someday, Mr. B.
That A's team was glorious: long-haired and moustachioed by design—owner Charlie Finley gave them bonuses to grow them out—they were kelly green-wearing bad asses, stomping all over both leagues. They had the most exciting pitcher in the game, Vida Blue, and maybe the most exciting player—Reggie Jackson, baseball's first superduperstar, per a 1974 Sports Illustrated cover story—plus great role players all around. I remember the talk at the time was how left fielder Joe Rudi might be the most underrated player in baseball, but if you look at advanced metrics like bWAR it's gotta be Bando. He got MVP votes from 1969 to 1974 but never won—he came in second in '71 when it went to Vida Blue—but during that period, per a recent SABR quiz, he had the highest bWAR is baseball. Yep, higher than Johnny Bench, Dick Allen, Rod Carew, or Joe Morgan. His career slash line isn't superdupery (.254/.352/.408), but he did everything well enough that his career bWAR (61.5) is near Hall of Fame level.
Which means, of course, that during his first year of eligibility, 1987, he got exactly three votes, 0.7%, and fell off the ballot. Meanwhile, that same year, his former teammate, Jim “Catfish” Hunter, marched in with 315 votes and a 40.9 bWAR.
And yet ... you gotta wonder about bWAR. Other measures, like leading the league in various important stats, or appearing in the top 10, Hunter is through the roof and Bando is nowhere. Even so, Bando's case is much better than it appeared in the '80s—certainly worth more than a one-and-done. Plus he was captain of the only team besides the Yankees to win three straight World Series championships. Plus my family will never forget him.
He was 78. Five-year battle with cancer.