Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 3

I probably should have done this part of the story last time. It's the part about how Russball became much more than a table-top ballgame, as various such games have taken on great significance to aficionados who enjoy extended competition. I thought the origins needed to come first, and then I got sidetracked in the second blog about which players would get drafted. If anything, I should have posted the entire 117-player list and invited readers to do their own mock four-team drafts.

It would be interesting to see which players would be chosen without knowing what their cards looked like or what past performance suggested they might do this season. For one thing, Mickey Mantle would almost certainly be drafted third. The cards were based more on peak value than most board-game games are, which would make Sandy Koufax a good choice for the fourth first-round draft choice. As things are, Mantle's mediocre track record--a few good Russball seasons, mostly bad--will make him about a third-round pick for us, with Koufax going a round or two later.

See how easy it is to digress? Back to my subject. A Russball season generally took a couple of months. We met almost always on Friday, after work, gathering by 5:30-6PM. The goal was to play a three-game series with each other guy in each session. Most series were done in two hours, and we took a pizza break after the first series. The intoxicant of choice was pot, not alcohol (and half the managers gave even that up along the way). Playing Russball until 1AM was a perfect way to unwind after a long day (or week) at work. Over the years, we became more flexible, more prone to playing two series a night instead of three, or playing different numbers of games with the other two managers left to catch up when they could.

As much fun as it was to play each game in the roller-coaster ride of a 36-game season, it turned out that the simple existence of the league was more important. It was the excuse for much-needed group therapy. I won't go into the details, but the four of us have married a total of ten times (we're all married now and appear happier than ever). From 1989-1995, I was the only one with a harmonious home life. That's because I took the precaution of having no life. I was happily divorced and not seriously involved with anybody. That's why I hosted the league wherever I was living, which for most of that time was my ex-wife's place (another story I'll spare you here).

George and Stew had a very tough time with the collapse of their marriages. Children were involved, as was much acrimony. The break-ups happened gradually and the breakdowns all at once. The final fact of note was that in the divorce settlements, both fathers got custody of the children. With all this turmoil on the home front, George and Stew needed more and more time to unwind before they were ready to disappear into Russball's haven. "You think that's bad? Listen to this!" And the brainstorming would begin as we tried to figure out how to help these two bastards get through all the mayhem. Meanwhile, Tim engaged in a whirlwind romance that quickly turned into a mistake which he undid before the rest of us could blink.

I sailed through it all, dispensing perspectives and laughter, glad to help and glad it wasn't me in those pickles. In 1989, I was George's boss at the Sam's Town poker room, my one fling with management. Sometime in 1990, we switched jobs. In 1991 I went to Cooperstown for a year, launching my second career as a baseball historian, and while I was gone, George took over as the cardroom manager. Oh, I had my moments of existential despair during the Russball years, but mainly I was like the blithe Jackie Gleason tending bar and listening to his customers' troubles. Or maybe like a smart-ass Jewish confessor.

As time went by, there was more talking and less playing, and that was fine. Nine games in one evening is pushing it (in May, we'll take more than half a day to play 15). It felt more relaxing to give everyone a chance to debrief and unwind, play a series, attack a pizza, play another series, and whoever finished first would kibbitz over the final game of the night. More talk, maybe the key perspective that had been brewing in the back of someone's mind all evening after some seed was planted in the pre-game talk.

Some of those problems were quite urgent, and I also got a couple of middle-of-the-night calls to help out during severe crises. A lot of support was needed. That's why it helped everyone to know that Friday evening was coming up, when they could let off some steam, maybe get some help, and marvel at the games. Of course, we might all be shaking our heads the whole time at the latest development, helpless in the face of stark reality.

That six-hour slice of time, five or six or seven times over a two-month period, was a guaranteed escape if it was desired, a support group if needed, and a mental challenge as soon as you picked up those dice. In 1990, we played five seasons, our busiest year, and Tim won four of them. Two years later saw four seasons, with the first one played before my return from Cooperstown. In every other year, we played three series, taking a month or two between seasons. There were also more nights when someone couldn't make it or would be late, dealing with something awful.

The constant became that the gathering itself had a power beyond the fun of the games. It certainly bonded the friendships. Of course there were some contentious moments, most memorably (to me) our last shotgun season in 1998. Midway through the weekend, I got pissed enough at Stew and George to storm out of Stew's house and drive off somewhere for an hour or so to blow off steam before resuming the season. It has taken us a mere 16 years to gather again.

I talked to Stew on the phone last night, a half-hour psyche-up discussion about the upcoming season. He persuaded me to add four more starting pitchers, to give us more than five in the "minor leagues" (we'll draft four starters apiece, and I had 21 starters in the set of 117). We can make roster changes through the halfway point of the season; trades are allowed in the first nine games, and there have been some blockbuster deals. When George and I talked recently, he reminded me of the worst trade he ever made, back in the old Diceball days, when he got so disenchanted early on that he dealt the two players after whom he had named his team. Away went Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey of the Iron Dicks.

So I'm going to post this and make cards for a few more pitchers: Luis Tiant, Jack Morris, John Candelaria, and Mike Cuellar. All but Cuellar had cards in the original set made back in 1986, as did many pitchers whose Russball fates have fallen by the wayside--Orel Hershiser, Mel Stottlemyre, J. R. Richard, Mickey Lolich, Frank Viola, Jerry Reuss, Sam McDowell, and Dave McNally. The set I made in 1998 included a few more contemporary starters like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson, but we voted to play this next season with the more "traditional" Russball stars.

Someday I'll make the definitive set of Russball cards. Thanks to the website, I now have complete breakdowns vs. right-handed and left-handed pitching for the batting cards. I didn't have those when I made the current cards, and a quick sampling of a few players tells me that there will be some big changes made. For instance, Billy Williams mainly platoons in Russball against right-handed pitching, but I see from Retrosheet that he batted exactly .290 against both righties and lefties.

Those cards to be named at a later date will be quite different, but the game will remain the same. So will its importance in our lives.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 2

Thank you for joining me for part 2 of four or five concerning Russball, the greatest table-top baseball game ever. The last part will cover the big reunion season in Las Vegas to bring in May with a bang. But I want to go through the players who make Russball so vivid for those of us who came of baseball age in the 1960s and 1970s.

I mentioned last time that it is near-death to draft third in the four-team league. It took 23 seasons for a team to win after drafting third, and as George Steedle pointed out when we talked yesterday, his team won the 24th season (after I moved to California) after drafting third in a three-team league. That hadn't happened before either.

Partly it's because third is generally the worst position in the kind of "snake" draft we use, with the order 1 2 3 4 4 3 2 1 1, etc. Those double picks seem to be a big natural advantage (they've won 16 of 24 pennants), but especially so because the top two Russball players--Willie Mays and Hank Aaron--are a notch above everybody else. The next dozen players are great, but they're lumped together a notch below Mays and Aaron, who are almost always the first two draft choices. If one of the Pittsburgh guys drafts third he'll almost certainly take Roberto Clemente. Tim and I have actually been known to skip Roberto in the third spot.

Those double picks are effective for jumping the gun early in the draft on a single position.Often in Russball, the first three or even four rounds are all hitters, and the first manager to pull the trigger on starting or relief pitchers tends to produce other picks in his wake. If you have the balls to leave more great hitters unclaimed and hang your hopes on Sandy Koufax and Tom Seaver, it's a good bet that three or four of the next half-dozen picks before your next turn will be starting pitchers. Likewise with the top relievers. There are plenty go around, enough for each manager to have at least two stud starters and top relievers. How do I define that? An average Russball (four-man) rotation would consist of Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, and Jim Palmer, with Rollie Fingers and Sparky Lyle anchoring the bullpen.

There's a lot of platooning in Russball, where there's much depth at nearly every position. First base and the outfield are the deepest of all, so a common first-base platoon might involve Orlando Cepeda and Keith Hernandez, or Carl Yastrzemski and Al Kaline. Since we have few restrictions on pitchers, we generally make do with an eight-man staff, nine at the most, leaving more spots on the bench for platoon starters and pinch-runners. There are three runners with the top stealing rating of 5: Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, and Maury Wills. The very-dangerous 4 rating belongs to four players: Tim Raines, Joe Morgan, and two shortstops who are used mainly as pinch-runners: Bert Campaneris and Luis Aparicio.

Three of the four top catchers--Johnny Bench, Joe Torre, and Ted Simmons--play just about every game, while Yogi Berra is often platooned with someone like Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, or Thurman Munson. The top third baseman seldom miss an at-bat in Russball. That would be Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Wade Boggs, and Paul Molitor, though Molitor spends a lot of time at other positions. Likewise the top second basemen: Morgan, Pete Rose, Rod Carew, and Ryne Sandberg. Shortstop is probably the weakest overall position, yet it still features Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, and Alan Trammell.

I can tell you more or less the top dozen outfielders who make up the four teams' starting trios, but from season to season their draft order changes. Mickey Mantle should be the third outfielder drafted, but he has been not so fine in Russball, possibly because all those walks take away too many hit numbers. Here are the top dozen: Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Mantle, Frank Robinson, Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Raines, Yaz, Jim Rice, Willie Stargell, and Henderson.

Seven starting pitchers appear to be a notch about the others, or about two per team. That formidable list has four righties and three southpaws: Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Koufax, Carlton, and Warren Spahn. Nine other Hall of Fame starters are available in Russball, but not a long-time Russball regular (though I wouldn't draft him) who was voted out of this year's league: Roger Clemens.

The relief corps also features seven long-timers who are clearly superior, but no two managers would agree about putting them in order. Take your pick from Fingers, Lyle, Hoyt Wilhelm, Tug McGraw, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Dan Quisenberry.

So we'll get to Stew's around 9pm on May 1st and conduct our draft. It will take about two hours and will be full of hilarity and high drama. We roll the dice to determine the drafting order, with the highest number going first. Sometimes, a manager will announce his team name before drafting, and when he drafts the team captain he has in mind, he'll announce that, too. Quite often, we don't decide on a team name until after the draft. This time around, a couple of the guys have sent out e-mails in which they thought out loud about what they might name their teams.

The team name is a big deal--usually personal and with some connection to recent life events. So we have a lot of catching-up to do not only in our conversations but also in naming our teams.I have a name in mind for my team, but I'm not advertising it. It depends largely on whether I'm able to draft according to my master plan. I've targeted two dozen or so players I want on my team, and if I'm able to draft enough of them to fill more than half my roster, I'll go ahead with the team name. My captain is targeted for the second round. Once the season begins, most of us come up with a clever name for our ballpark, befitting the team name. My favorite goes back to Diceball days, when Pittsburgh native George called his team the Arrows and had them play at Three Quivers Stadium.

A list of our two dozen pennant winners will give you an idea of the cross-section of team names: Dirt Sox, Painters, Carson Show, Badgers, Gothams, Heepers, Bandits, Timberwolves, Gabe Sox, Heroes, Dead Cowboys, Moody Stews, Alexanders, Baskin A's, Thumpers, Goodfellows, Cards, Reds, Snowmen, Sharks, Strangers, Canos, Blasters, and Snakes. I hadn't made the connection before that three of us have won pennants with teams named after ourselves. Favorite names of non-winners include my "Grizzly Berras" and "29ers" (I had just learned that my father was in the Class of 1929 at the University of Cincinnati), Stew's "Great Ones" (with team captain Roberto Clemente), Tim's "Say 'Ahey' Kids" (he had just moved and his new street name was "Ahey") and "Bull Shotz," and George's "999 Wildcats" and "Sharp Teeth" (his baby's first ones had just arrived).

Often, the playing area will be festooned with some object of symbolic importance to the home team. It could be a Topps card of the team captain, a bunch of cards for the whole team, or some family-related charm. In one of our early seasons, Tim decided to name Earl Averill, a Diceball bench-warmer, his honorary team captain. For home games, he tucked Averill's Diceball card under the big game board, in deep center field. Late in the game, when Stew finally got the tying run to the plate, he rolled the dice wildly. One was about to sail off the table--making it a foul ball--but it landed on Averill's card, which was hanging well over the edge of the table. So the result counted: an outfield fly out that saved the game, the Russball equivalent of "The Catch" made by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series.

The draft will be full of surprises and other expected events. We each have our favorites, our "lucky" players who always seem to show up on our best teams. When in doubt, we'll take one of those guys. For me, it's Yaz, Ripken, and Drysdale. Stew can usually be counted on to draft Banks, Goose Gossage, and Fred Lynn. George favors Willie McCovey and the speedsters. Tim seems to like Raines, Keith Hernandez, and Ozzie. There will be a lot of cursing, too, when the guy in front of you takes the guy you were about to nab. You always have a chance to return the favor after the wrap-around, and the draft isn't complete without a few "fuck you"s.

Then there's the money. We started out putting $20 or $25 on a season, winner take all. But over the years we started investing more per season and dividing the money more widely. The last time we played, we put up $55 apiece, with second place getting something back and $10 apiece for ten individual stats. The hitters competed for home runs, RBI, stolen bases, hits, and batting average (72 at-bat minimum). The pitchers go for wins (separate category for starters and relievers), ERA, (36 innings minimum), strikeouts, and winning percentage (four win minimum). It looks like we'll pony up $50 each this time, with $100 for first, $40 for second, and $10 each for six stats. We'll be too pressed for time for me to do the full-scale stats that I used to do in between our weekly sessions. I'll just track the six easiest: home runs, RBI, hits, wins, strikeouts, and ERA. One betting tradition should remain intact: unless I win the pennant (which I did just three times in 23 seasons), I will lose money.

In a 36-game season, we find that Russball allows for more extreme short-term aberrations in the dice results than Diceball. So the one-season records are quite impressive. The highest batting average belongs to Ted Simmons, who hit .425 in 80 at-bats for George's Campers. The other three batters to top .400 also did it in fewer than 90 at-bats: Ozzie Smith .422, Tony Oliva .407, and Kirby Puckett .402. Roberto Clemente and Rod Carew share the hits title with 59, while Hank Aaron is the only man to reach 16 home runs, followed by Ernie Banks' 15. The RBI title belongs to Willie Mays with 39; he also drove in 38 runs twice, as did Mickey Mantle. As for stolen bases, they're pretty important in Russball and there are no limits on attempts, so Joe Morgan holds the record with 41.

Only two starting pitchers have won seven games in a season (we do have a maximum of nine starts per season, with no more than three against any single team): Nolan Ryan with Stew's Heepers, and Warren Spahn with George's Chiefs. Bruce Sutter won eight games in relief twice, for my R-Acles and Stew's Yesmen. (Goose Gossage bottomed out at nine losses for George's Buccos. The lowest ERA figure of 1.45 was matched by two relievers: Dennis Eckersley for George's 999 Wildcats, and Tug McGraw, also for George's Strangers. The best for a starter with Nolan Ryan's 1.46 for the Buccos, another team managed by George. But the strikeout record belongs to Bob Gibson, with 102 for my Red Fox, a season in which he logged 88 2/3 innings in his nine starts, completing all but one start.

One final thing before I put a lid on this blog. To get an idea of the season-to-season fluctuations in Russball success, peruse this career summary for the most consistent run-producer, Hank Aaron. A two-time Russball MVP, Aaron won the award with the Gabe Sox (sharing it with Frank Robinson) and the Goodfellows. He has reached double figures in home runs in half the seasons, no mean feat with 36-game seasons. In nine seasons, he drove in at least 30 runs, and 13 times he maintained an RBI pace equivalent to 120+ in a major league season. That's what Hank Aaron ought to be doing.

Bull Shotz Tim 134 19 43 5 3 8 31 .321 .397 .582
Outfielders  Stew 144 25 35 5 1 16 37 .242 .278 .625
Uncles (48G) Stew 194 21 48 10 2 5 18 .247 .295 .397
Masters George 146 22 41 1 2 10 28 .281 .331 .521
Yesmen Stew 157 31 54 3 3 11 32 .344 .398 .611
DieHards Tim 134 21 33 4 3 10 29 .246 .336 .545
Deacons Stew 158 28 57 8 3 2 19 .361 .392 .487
Grizzly Berras Gabe 149 22 42 7 1 10 22 .282 .305 .544
Gabe Sox Gabe 151 28 42 11 1 11 35 .278 .335 .583
Storm Tim 152 23 38 8 1 8 31 .250 .296 .474
Parrotheads Tim 141 19 44 8 2 13 31 .312 .366 .674
Moody Stews Stew 150 21 38 4 1 6 18 .253 .313 .413
Sundogs Tim 154 21 38 6 1 12 34 .247 .261 .532
Sharp Teeth George 152 19 45 5 1 10 20 .296 .344 .539
29ers Gabe 151 26 52 7 3 7 18 .344 .373 .569
Goodfellows George 150 29 52 6 2 14 35 .346 .388 .693
Cards Gabe 147 25 42 7 0 7 14 .286 .331 .476
Chameleons Tim 144 17 40 8 3 5 19 .278 .342 .479
Twins Gabe 146 25 46 8 1 13 27 .315 .363 .651
Apples Gabe 146 18 31 2 0 8 18 .212 .258 .390
Hermits  Gabe 146 15 33 3 1 7 20 .226 .261 .404
Ducks Gabe 149 27 45 7 2 14 37 .302 .342 .658
Rocks  George 144 18 39 4 2 8 15 .271 .300 .493
Chiefs Tim 150 18 39 5 0 6 22 .260 .293 .413
TOTALS 3589 538 1017 142 39 221 610 .283 .329 .529

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Brief History of Russball: Part 1

On May 1, I will be flying to Las Vegas for the first Russball season since 1998. That makes it a very big deal to me, and I'd like you to understand why. Over the next three weeks, as I prepare for the three-day Russball marathon, I'll write about the origins and history of the game. It should take three or four posts, and by the time we're done you'll know about the Lefty Grove Rule, the Drafting-Third Jinx, and why long-retired Earl Averill made the greatest catch in Russball history. More importantly, you'll see why the game has meant so much for so long to its participants.

I was introduced to this game more than 30 years ago, a year or two after I moved to Las Vegas. My first friend there, George Steedle, played the game along with his pal and fellow Pittsburgh native Stew Baskin. All three of us were born in 1951, and they moved to Las Vegas as soon as they graduated from Penn State in 1973. I first set foot in Sin City the day after the 1979 World Series ended.

They called the game Diceball. The table-top game was officially named "Superstar Baseball," an Avalon Hill  product originally marketed by "Sports Illustrated" in the 1970s. I had never seen it before they showed me how to play. I was an APBA freak during childhood, memorized the eight game boards and everything, played with friends and by myself (an only child), and had dabbled with other games. But from the first, Diceball was the most interesting version of indoor baseball I ever played.

Like Statis Pro, but unlike APBA, it gives the pitcher the first chance to decide a batter's outcome. If the pitcher doesn't hit one of his "out numbers," then the batter gets to swing. It was fun to put together lineups of all-time greats, to send the likes of Honus Wagner, George Sisler and Hank Aaron up to bat against Walter Johnson in the first inning and go from there. We played occasionally and informally, usually joined by John Jurewicz, who had first introduced the game to George years earlier. John was from the Chicago area, a star pitcher in high school, and liked to spit tobacco juice into a paper cup between innings. George and Stew didn't play high school ball, and their chief baseball-related joy was idolizing Roberto Clemente. Like me, they had begun their Las Vegas lives as poker dealers, but Stew had soon switched to a career as an investment broker. I had met George in 1980 when we both worked in the poker room at a little casino called the Bingo Palace. John worked for a company that leased slot machines.

Inevitably, we evolved from one-night showdowns into leagues that took much longer to finish. That meant drafting teams, getting more organized, and playing a lot more often. We settled on a four-team season of 36 games, consisting of four three-game series--two home, two away--against each team. More extensive play revealed the essential flaw in the game's design. We noticed first that a lot of very good pitchers didn't have a lot of "out numbers," leaving them chronically vulnerable. Only a few starters--Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Sandy Koufax--seemed consistently capable of dominating the opposition. It didn't seem right that Cy Young and Bob Feller did well to get through five or six innings.

One reason they didn't log that many innings was that relievers had better cards, most notably some old-time starters who pitched a lot in relief. By far the best card belonged to Lefty Grove--as a reliever. So the favored strategy was to draft Grove in the first round and use him in every game. It never occurred to us to put a limit on how often a pitcher could be used. We did eventually create the Lefty Grove Rule, which limited any pitcher to 108 innings per season, or three innings per game. In addition, the starting pitcher had to give up a run before he could be replaced, or log three scoreless innings. Grover Cleveland Alexander wasn't far behind Grove in out numbers, and we played a lot of games in which they entered in the first or second inning and went the distance. Carl Hubbell and Ed Walsh were two others who worked chiefly out of the bullpen during the old Diceball days.

We could live with that aberrant deployment of a pitching staff, but more troubling was the discovery, over time, that a lot of great hitters were steadily poor performers. Even though they had plenty of chances to swing off their own cads, there seemed to be a scarcity of high-occurrence good rolls. If Willie Mays, Eddie Collins, Hank Greenberg and others had trouble hitting over .230, something was out of whack.

The result was a lot of low-scoring games, not in itself a bad thing because in a 2-1 or 3-2 game, every baserunner is crucial and exciting. Diceball turned into the Deadball Era, with only occasional three-run home runs and .300 hitters. But we wanted more hitters to do well. When Duke Snider went 1-for-39 one season and Jimmie Foxx couldn't buy a hit against right-handed pitching, it was time to take a closer look at how those cards were made.

I played with the numbers and soon figured out the basic flaw in the card-making formula. "Superstar Baseball" uses three dice, giving 216 possible results (6x6x6). Automatic outs by the pitcher occurred roughly 25% of the time. But the hit numbers on the batters' cards didn't take that into account. They were calculated as if every result came from the batter's card. There were different results against righty and lefty pitching, which was fine, but hit numbers landed only 30-40% of the time. In effect, Ty Cobb would barely hit over .300 against right-handed pitching, and it was tougher for everyone else. The most extreme case was Jackie Robinson, whose card I remember well; he had 46 hit numbers against righties. But they would get him out on an automatic number 54 times out of 216, so his card came into play on 162 of every 216 at-bats. That determined the actual probability of his getting a hit. Taking away 25% of his hit numbers meant just 34.5 hits per 216 at-bats, or a .160 average. That's why Jackie Robinson didn't play much in Diceball.

Once I figured out the arithmetic, I knew I had to do something about it. The catalyst for change was the birth, in 1986, of George's son Russ, his first child. I decided to produce a new set of cards which would provide a baseball legacy for Russ--hence, Russball. The Diceball cards didn't have any players later than the 1970s, of course, so I decided to go in the other direction. I would make a set of cards consisting only of players that George and I could describe to Russ from having seen them play. That meant going back only as far as the late 1950s, giving me a three-decade period from which to draw. That was plenty. I had no trouble putting together a set of 125 players.

Of course, my key aim in making the new cards was to give every player a chance to excel, not merely get by. The pitchers had to have more out numbers. When Koufax or Bob Gibson or Tom Seaver was "on" in reality, nobody could hit them, so I had to design cards that would enable them to get hot. Conversely, if they were cold--if they couldn't roll their out numbers--they should get pummeled, as even the Hall of Famers did on occasion. So batters had to have a lot more hit numbers. (For instance, the highest number of hits on a Diceball card was Al Simmons vs. left-handed pitching, 92 numbers out of 216, hence his Diceball nickname "Death To Lefties". The highest number of hits in Russball is Rod Carew's 107 vs. right-handed pitching.) Russball batters are victims of automatic hits more often (roughly one-third of the time), but when they do get to swing, they're much more dangerous.

Over the years, some new players have been added, others dropped, and the numbers have been revised and refined more than once. The result is just what we wanted: Diceball was a very fine game, but Russball is terrific. The proof is in the pudding. Every game is hotly contested. An early big lead is no guarantee of victory; no matter how far behind you are, you'll almost always get the tying run to the plate before you're done. There are more high-scoring games, but there are plenty of strong pitching performances.

Our favorite Russball saying (coined by Stew) will tell you how suspenseful the games are:  "Every win a miracle, every loss a blow." Each game--lasting 20 to 40 minutes, with a three-game series played in two hours--is a roller-coaster ride with the same intense build-up of anticipation and strong emotion at the event itself that we experience in the best games in the real major leagues.

By the time I debuted that new set of cards in 1987, John had largely dropped out of the picture. He had three little kids and started his own business, and it became tougher for him to spare the time needed to play a full season. He did, however, introduce us to a younger (a decade or so younger than the rest of us) co-worker named Tim Carson, who became the d'Artagnan to our Three Diceketeers. By the end of the decade, Tim was the cage/credit manager for a downtown casino and a formidable foe in Russball.

George lived in Hawaii for awhile after Russ was born and didn't return to Las Vegas until 1988. It was the start of 1989 when we played our first formal season of four teams and 36 games. Later that year, John did join us for one final season of five teams and 48 games apiece. He disdained the new cards and took us on with a team of old Diceball cards. His squad, the Mad Pigeons, went 21-27 to finish fourth, and he hasn't played since. He has talked about flying from Chicago to Las Vegas to kibbitz during our season if he can get away that weekend. We all hope he does. I haven't seen him since 1991.

From 1989 until I moved to central California late in 1995, we played 23 Russball seasons, including the five-man season. That included a trio of three-team seasons in 1991-1992, the first when family woes sidelined George for a couple of months and the last two after I moved to Cooperstown for a year. I returned in time to get in two seasons that year. After I moved to California, the other guys did play one more three-team season.

Since the move, we have done a "shotgun" season three teams, all in the late 1990s. We found that we could comfortably play a 36-game season in less than three full days, and they were great weekends.The first time I drove to Las Vegas (with a kidney stone) to play; they joined me in Los Gatos the second time (George and Stew took time out on Saturday to go to a sports bar for the Penn State game), and the final gathering was in Las Vegas in 1998. That's when I brought out the new set of cards with a lot of great hitters in particular: Frank Thomas, Mike Piazza, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., and many others. George objected to including so many contemporary players who were too good to be true, with Piazza and Thomas his two big thumbs-downs as we prepared for the season. He spent two months complaining about Piazza and Thomas being in the league, then drafted both of them and won the pennant. Need I add that George has survived four decades in Las Vegas?

Why no seasons since 1998? I haven't lived in Las Vegas since 1995, hung out in a redwood forest until 2002 and have lived in upstate New York since then. In 2000, Tim, having married an Australian woman on Babe Ruth's birthday, moved to Australia, where his computer expertise made him a much sought-after Microsoft instructor and systems administrator. For many years, he worked the computers for the Australian Air Force academy, understandably fell in love with the country, and became a dual citizen. But he and Julie returned to the U.S. last summer, settling near Boulder, Colorado. Linda and I visited them there last summer for a great weekend.

And now we're heading for Las Vegas for the first four days of May. Tim and I will fly in Thursday, arriving mid-evening. We're staying at Stew's house for the weekend of play; his wife is wisely visiting other friends somewhere else for the duration. We'll do a lot of catching-up that night, as Tim hasn't seen Stew and George since 2000 (I saw them two years ago), but we'll also hold the draft. That is always a special event and a lot of fun. I have the audio of an old draft on a cassette in a carton in some dark room. George and I at least are already doing "mock" drafts, taking each of the four drafting spots to see how we might build our rosters of All-Stars.

We don't want to draft third and fall prey to the Drafting-Third Jinx:  no team drafted third and won a pennant until the 23rd season, when my Blasters defeated Tim's Outsiders in the final game, a thrilling Russball finale. The teams went into the game with impressive 23-12 records, with Warren Spahn facing the Outsiders' Tom Seaver. Seaver led 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, and I tied it each time, the last on Tim Raines' home run in the ninth inning. Seaver left after ten, and in the 11th, Dale Murphy homered off Goose Gossage for the run that won the pennant. But I digress. Trust me. You don't want to draft third.

We'll play all day Friday and Saturday, aiming to get in 15 games a day. At two hours for a three-game series, five series in a day is a leisurely pace. That will leave the final six pivotal games for Sunday. Tim has a flight home late in the afternoon, but we're not worried about getting things done. As always, money will be wagered. But I'll tell you about that next time, when I give you a better idea of who these 125 All-Stars were.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Two Very Different Pitchers: Two Very Different Books

You would be hard-pressed to find two pitchers more dissimilar than Robin Roberts and R.A. Dickey. Though Dickey is the only one of the pair to win a Cy Young Award, he will never approach the Hall of Fame status of Roberts, who was elected in 1976. Roberts pitched his final major league game at age 39 and finished with 286 victories. Dickey, the same age today, has won 75 games in the majors.

Roberts had a "natural" motion that allowed him to pitch over 300 innings each season from 1950-55, a delivery known familiarly as the "drop and drive" and later used by Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Dickey, of course, struggled for many years as a conventional pitcher before adopting the freaky knuckleball that has brought him success in his late thirties. Thanks to pinpoint control, Roberts' fastball was so effective that he seldom used his "second" pitch, a looping curve he wasn't fond of himself. Dickey also relies on his main pitch most of the time, occasionally mixing in a fastball on a corner in the mid-80 mph range.

Recently I read the memoirs of these two remarkable pitchers--and men--and both books are enlightening though in very different ways. The Roberts book, fittingly titled Throwing Hard Easy to reflect his easy pitching motion, was originally published in 2002, written with help from Paul Rogers (also Roberts' collaborator on a fine book about the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies "Whiz Kids"), and was recently re-issued by the University of Nebraska Press with a new foreword by Roberts' son James. Dickey's book, titled Wherever I Wind Up and written with help from Wayne Coffey, was first published just before the 2012 season by Plume Books, but I read the paperback edition with an epilogue written after he followed up the book with his Cy Young Award season.

Dickey's book received a ton of attention mainly because of his revelation of sexual abuse during his childhood, while Roberts' book seems to have slipped under the radar. Both are well worth reading. The Dickey tale is much more than a lurid account of his traumatic childhood. It is a powerful self-examination in which the difficult process of discovering his true calling as a knuckleball pitcher parallels his struggle to define and accept himself as a flawed human being. Gut-wrenching at times and steadily compelling, his climb to recent success is credited to his wife's patience, his religious faith, his therapist's wisdom, his own stubborn perseverance, and pitching mechanics honed by other members of the knuckleball fraternity (Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, and Phil Niekro). This may be the most intimate baseball memoir ever penned. If you can handle it, don't miss it.

Robin Roberts enjoyed a fairly smooth path to athletic success, yet he also gives plenty of credit in his book. His primary booster was Cy Perkins, a former catcher for Connie Mack who coached Roberts on the Phillies from 1948-54 and continued to provide moral support after that whenever Roberts' confidence flagged. However, Roberts confesses that he had more than one manager with whom he hardly ever spoke, and he was also reticent about passing on advice to younger players. In the twilight of his career, pitching for the Orioles, he roomed with 19-year-old Jim Palmer. One night, Palmer said to him, "Old man, why don't you tell me about pitching." Roberts' reply was "Throw the hell out of the ball and go to sleep."

Don't get the idea that Roberts was aloof or incapable of helping younger players. After his playing days, he spent many years as the coach at the University of South Florida. Four of his players made it to the majors: pitchers Tony Fossas and Chris Welsh, and infielders Tim Hulett, and Scott Hemond. But while he was a player, Roberts kept his wisdom to himself because he didn't want to override or contradict what the coaches (who were being paid for the responsibility) wanted the other players to do.

In addition, Roberts was absolutely single-minded about pitching. He was paid to pitch and didn't think about much else. When the manager handed him the ball, he pitched, whether it meant going into extra innings--he won a dozen games with 10+ innings pitched, including a 17-inning victory in 1952, when he went 28-7 record and would have breezed to the Cy Young Award if it had existed--or pitching in relief between starting assignments--21 relief appearances from 1950-55 when he averaged 39 starts per season.

On the mound, Roberts was the epitome of concentration. Here is his description of how focused he was on the mound: "I just stood out there in total isolation, focused on throwing the ball as well as I could. Nothing bothered me, and I was oblivious to even the batter. When I was throwing well, I would see the bat only when he swung, my concentration was so centered on the catcher. As far as I was concerned, the ball was going to the catcher, not the batter." 

The main strengths of Roberts' book are his marvelous stories and his frank opinions. He claims to be blessed with total recall about every one of his athletic exploits, and I have no reason to dispute him. Most baseball memoirs are rife with factual errors--particularly in game accounts--because after playing in hundreds of games and witnessing thousands more, players emerge with inevitably flawed memories, and their collaborators choose to leave stories alone rather than tell famous people "half the stories you told me never happened, you schmuck!" I checked more than a few of Roberts' game accounts before giving up, having found only one place where he said someone walked when he actually reached base on an error. 

The stories are great, especially those about Phillies teammates like Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, Andy Seminick, and Curt Simmons. Sometimes, however, I wish he had said more. For instance, he tells about starting a fight with Frank Robinson of the Reds by calling him "a black so and so." He got a black eye for his trouble and admits that it wasn't one of his "proudest moments," but considering that decades later, he and Robinson wound up serving for many years together on the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame, I would like to know how that 1950s fracas affected their association. Still, that's the part-empty part of the glass; most of it is full of entertaining stories sprinkled throughout the "how I did it" tale.

Roberts saves his strongest opinions for Marvin Miller's tenure as head of the Players' Association. As a prime mover behind the creation of the position and Miller's greatest supporter during the hiring process, he notes wryly that every time there was a problem, people told him what "your guy" Miller was up to, but when things went well nobody thanked him. 

His main problem with Miller stemmed from Miller's promise in 1966 that he would "never" lead the players in a strike. Of course, Roberts admits that his own priority was straightening out the players' pension plan and he never thought about fighting the reserve clause while he was still playing. He doesn't mention that Miller was also over-optimistic in 1966 and quickly discovered, after assuming the job, the necessity of undoing the reserve clause which turned players into slaves. When the 1972 strike began, Miller told Roberts "the players forced me to do it," which Roberts regarded as "ridiculous." He felt betrayed. 

Though Roberts admits being naive enough as a player to believe that commissioners were truly impartial figures acting "in the best interests" of baseball, he eventually came to see that the owners and commissioners had created an "adversarial" system. However, he remained critical of Miller for apparently relishing the adversarial aspects of his job. He believed Miller became more interested in fighting the owners and Bowie Kuhn than in considering the impact of those disputes on the game and its fans. Still, Miller was regarded as his "boy," and that connection cost him a job with the anti-union Phillies after his playing days were done.

I give credit to Roberts for being sincere in his insistence on how important baseball is to the fans (though he also concedes that he didn't pay enough attention to them when he was playing). During the disastrous 1994-95 strike, he ran up a phone bill in excess of $500 one month while calling every owner, player rep, and involved party to implore them to accept binding arbitration. "When they refused," he writes, "I called [again] to tell them how arrogant and stupid they all were. I still cannot believe how the owners and the Players' Association hurt the game of baseball in 1994. But fortunately the game is so much a part of the fabric of American life that it is very resilient."

One more thing about Robin Roberts needs to be said. As his son notes in the Foreword, Roberts "was as fine a person as has ever walked on the earth. . . .If you are fortunate enough to have met [him], you know of what I speak." I did have the good fortune to meet him once and speak with him for a few minutes, while working at the Hall of Fame. We talked mainly about pitching, and he was the rare "old-time" pitcher who admitted that it would have been fine with him to leave a few more games after the eighth inning and let a "closer" finish up for him (he completed exactly half of his career starts, including 92 of 116 from 1952-54, when he averaged 338 innings per season and totaled 74 wins). 

I came away with the strong impression that Roberts was one of the nicest athletes I had ever met. That view was shared by most of the staff at the Hall of Fame, and they're in an ideal position to separate the good guys from the bad guys. A couple of years later, the Hall threw him an 80th birthday party, and he gave a most gracious speech, an uplifting talk despite his obvious sadness at the recent death of his beloved Mary, to whom he was married for more than half a century.

Those two contacts made me wish I could have spent more time getting to know Roberts better. That wish was granted this past week when I read his book. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Simple Proposal For Instant Replay

Like most baseball fans, I'm quite intrigued by the possibilities of expanded instant replay starting this season. I wrote a long blog several years ago about the need for it, and I'm not going to go through all of those arguments again.

I'm very happy to see that John Schuerholz, the chairman of the committee that put together the current proposal, embraced a notion I pushed for strongly in my earlier post, namely that even in an early inning of a game early in the season, a missed call can potentially cost a team a spot in the post-season. The notion that any missed call is important enough to correct is crucial to increased instant replay making an impact in the future.

However, I am disturbed by the other key component of the proposed new which I keep hearing about, namely that managers might be allowed to challenge only one call per game. This is modeled on the NFL system in a way and is designed, I gather, to prevent an inordinate number of delays during the game while officials review the replays of disputed calls. This makes more sense in a continuous-clock game like football than in baseball, where there is already a discernible pause between each pitch and each batter.

If MLB limits managers to one challenge per game, or even to two challenges, it will be the most asinine, self-defeating policy possible. It will completely negate the principle stated by Schuerholz that any call can be the difference between winning and losing a game that might ultimately determine a team's fate in a given season.

Why? Because it would force a manager into a guessing game that involves the impossible challenge to be prescient about the rest of the game. The example cited in the latest article I read (written by Paul Hagen and posted at was a second-inning home run by Chase Utley which was called a foul ball even though replay revealed that it touched the foul pole. Manager Charlie Manuel would have had to decide that this was important enough to challenge, even though the game might later turn into a blowout. By challenging it then, he would forfeit the right to challenge and even more egregious mistake later in the game in a situation that clearly might determine the game's outcome.

But why should a manager be forced to let any bad call stand? Teams will have replays available right away which will tell the manager that a call was missed. If it is true that "90 percent" of all plays will qualify as "reviewable," why put limits on how many a manager can challenge. If an umpiring crew has a bad day--and they all do at some point, just as they have many games with no bad calls--why should any team be penalized late in the game simply because that call in the second inning was so horrible that it had to be challenged?

Here's my simple solution, so elegant in its simplicity that I'm astonished that nobody else has proposed it. A manager can challenge any call at any time involving any of the situations deemed reviewable according to the present proposal. If the call is wrong, it is changed. If umpires make two bad calls in a game, or four or ten or twenty, any of them can affect the outcome, so they should all be changed. If the idea is to get the calls right and let games be determined by what actually happened and not by what an umpire thought happened, then let's get them all right.

But here's the catch. If MLB is worried about a manager "abusing" the privilege of challenging calls, here's how to prevent it. If a manager challenges a call which turns out to be the correct call, he is ejected from the game and the subsequent acting manager loses the privilege. The calls will be reviewed not by the umpires on the field but by officials off the field who have no stake in the rest of the game. So the manager had better be right.

Simple, right? The bottom line is all that matters. Get the calls right. If they're not right when made, correct them. Give the manager one minute to argue case on the field while the folks back in the clubhouse look at the replays and signal him that he either does or doesn't have a case. If he has a case, he'll ask for the replay. If he doesn't, he'll get his ass back in the dugout and not waste any more time.

Telling a manager that 90 percent of all plays are reviewable and then saying he can only ask for one replay a game is like turning a gourmand loose in the biggest and best buffet in the world and telling him he can only have one salad plate full of food. Or sending me to Woodstock and saying I could only watch one performer. Who would be able to skip The Who or Janis Joplin, who performed on Saturday, in the hopes that it would be worth sticking around for Jimi Hendrix, who didn't hit the stage until 8AM on Monday morning?

If you want to get the calls right, let the replay system work. Don't turn it into a guessing game and a baseball version of Catch-22.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Hall of Fame Stands By Neutrality on Steroid Era

On December 26, the esteemed writer Joe Posnanski posted a thought-provoking blog titled "Time for a Hall of Fame Stand," in which he urged the Hall of Fame to take a firm position either for or against giving steroid users a chance to be elected. I suggest you read it either before or after reading my response to him, so here's the link:

The first half of Posnanski's blog is a fine summary of the most noteworthy stand ever taken by the Hall of Fame:  its 1971 decision to elect Negro Leagues stars even though they did not literally meet the Hall's election criterion of playing at least ten seasons in the majors. After Ted Williams strongly advocated admitting Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in his own induction speech in 1966, it took a few years for the Hall to come around, but since 1971 roughly three dozen Negro Leaguers have swelled the ranks of baseball immortals. As Posnanski puts is, "Over time, the Hall of Fame became a leader in celebrating Negro Leagues baseball. . . .The Hall of Fame, though it was not easy, took the lead."

The second half of the blog is Posnanski's rationale for the Hall of Fame taking the lead again, this time on defining the so-called "Steroid Era." "The BBWAA craves leadership," he writes. "The Hall of Fame is supposed to provide it." If the Hall would declare steroid users IN or OUT rather than letting hundreds of writers apply their own standards and biases, the current confusion could be cleared up. He hints  at which direction he would prefer, but is more adamant about the Hall simply doing something.

The Hall's silence on the issue is "kind of disgraceful," he concludes. "The Hall of Fame is meant to celebrate the game, but their silence on this issue leaves baseball and the Hall open to this annual flogging of the game and some of its greatest players. . . .It's time to stop sitting back while baseball writers (including yours truly) scattershoot their own particular ethical standards and argue about Barry Bonds. This is THEIR museum. It's time for them to tell everybody what it stands for."

I agree with him in theory about how to go about it, namely for the Hall to appoint a committee that would study the issue from all angles and make a definitive policy decision that would move history forward. I agree that doing nothing will continue the logjam of strong candidates not gaining election because the votes are spread too thin. And I concur with his view that it's THEIR museum and that when they do take a proactive role in determining both the criteria for election and the format to be used, they get the results they desire. Just look at how quickly they acted in 1991 to prevent Pete Rose from being elected the following year, or how they've gerrymandered several Veterans Committees to stack the deck against electing Marvin Miller.

However, I'm not so sure about his assumption that the Hall "is supposed to" provide leadership. There isn't much in Hall of Fame history to suggest an ongoing leadership role. Their mission statement uses three verbs: honor, preserve, and connect. None of those implies a leadership role; they reflect a desire to be the place where people who visit and make up their own minds about baseball history. The inclusion of Negro Leaguers in 1971 was a matter of correcting a long-standing practice of segregation in baseball, and the Hall did it over the lingering racist sentiments of its own president and the retired commissioner who headed the Board of Directors. That is, they were dragged into this remedy kicking and screaming, following the lead of others. The election of 17 Negro Leaguers in 2006 showed far more leadership than the Hall displayed in 1971.

No matter what proactive course of action the Hall might take in regards to the Steroid Era, I see insurmountable obstacles. That's what I want to examine here. The current situation is a gigantic gray area. BBWAA members can vote for people who were 100% prolonged steroid users, for players who may have done steroids for awhile or merely thought about using them, or tried them once and never more, or were merely suspected of using them. Or they can decide NOT to vote for any player for any of those reasons, although even some confirmed users were breaking no official MLB rules in existence at the time.

For the Hall of Fame to take a stand, the Board of Directors would have to accept whatever report was generated by whatever committee was set up to establish a posteriori criteria for judging currently eligible players, and some way of continuing those criteria for players who become eligible later. Such a report might advocate continuing the current gray area, since as many others have observed, it is almost impossible to know who did what when, and what tangible effect it had on the field. If the gray area continued, only the Board of Directors would be happy. They're staunchly conservative and genetically resistant to change, much less a change that might enlighten the public about their own ethical standards. That's a big reason why the Hall is content to let the BBWAA muddle its way through the process, and let the chips fall where they may.

To make a difference, the Hall either has to declare that: (1) nothing that happened off the field of play makes a difference, and any player with Hall-worthy statistics is eligible; or (2) that nobody who ever used steroids or PEDs in any form, whether legal or illegal, prescribed or designer drugs, for the purpose of gaining an advantage on the field will be eligible for election.

Right off the bat, there's a problem. The first alternative bypasses the so-called "Integrity clause" that has existed for decades as a key criterion for election. It contains loaded words like "integrity, sportsmanship, and character." Even if you believe, as Tony LaRussa--thinking like a lawyer--does, that Mark McGwire did nothing wrong because he displayed his steroids in his locker and didn't break the MLB rules of the time, improving his performance artifically does not constitute sportsmanship or character. Of course, pitchers who scuffed the ball and spit on it have been condoned and elected, including Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton. Still, to issue a broad permit for voters to look only at Barry Bonds' stats would require some reworking of an "integrity clause" which has existed for more than half a century.                    

Let's say that the Hall of Fame told the BBWAA members to disregard any speculation on steroid use--if only because MLB had dragged its feet so long on testing and bans that many known users didn't break any actual rules--and stick strictly to the numbers. What would be the result? Sooner or later, the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and other controversial figures might gain election.

What would be the practical effect in this event? Three strong constituencies would be offended. First, there would be all the fans who resent PED users for perverting the competitive balance of the game and breaking records held by long-revered immortals. (Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record is the most glaring example, but there are others.) Would these fans come to see Bonds inducted? No. Would they boycott the Hall of Fame for letting in people like that? Yes, they would. I don't claim to know what the consensus is, but my impression is that the majority of fans would be happier if Bonds and company never gain Hall of Fame election. Giants fans loved him, but they're not likely to travel 3,000 miles to see the rest of the crowd boo his induction.

The second offended group would be the writers. The current voters have made it quite clear where they stand on steroids and the players who used them. They're roughly two to one against electing Bonds and Clemens, four to one against Mark McGwire, and so on. Of course, even if the Hall of Fame told them not to consider steroids, nobody can force them to write this or that name on the ballot. I believe the writers would continue to refuse to elect those players, some of them out of resentment at being told what to think. I don't think there are a lot of BBWAA members sitting around today and thinking, "Oh, if only the Hall of Fame would tell me it's okay to vote for Barry Bonds, I would do it, but I'm afraid to do it on my own." A mandate would only make the present confusion worse.

The third group, and probably the one that matters the most to the Hall's Board of Directors, is the living members of the Hall of Fame. Posnanski notes that "Too often people who get into the Hall of Fame want to lock the door behind them." This tendency was confirmed in the three elections in which living Hall of Famers constituted most of the Veterans Committee electorate. They elected nobody. Why? Partly it was because the Hall of Fame has turned its living membership into a huge cottage industry. The Hall pays members a lot of money (in five figures) to come back and participate in many events, not just the induction ceremony. During the big weekend, members make a fortune signing autographs, and for some this Hall of Fame largesse is their chief source of income. In addition, living Hall of Famers receive 30% of revenues from items merchandised by the Hall, split evenly. Having 60 people dividing the pie and cashing in on their immortality rather than 50 would spread the windfall that much thinner.

Nevertheless, many Hall of Famers have declared their intention to boycott the induction ceremony and/or the Hall of Fame itself if Bonds, Clemens, et al are elected. This would be a PR disaster for the Hall, and at this point the Hall of Fame induction weekend is mainly a giant PR event. If the Hall of Famers turn their back on the Hall, who's left? For the Hall's Board of Directors, letting people feel offended by their inaction is the lesser of two evils compared to seeming to go out of their way to offend people.

Going in the other direction by banning anyone even suspected of using PEDs, or even banning just the "proven" users, would be an even bigger disaster. Here's why.

When Jose Canseco started this snowball rolling downhill in his book Juiced, he declared that 80% of active players had used or were using steroids. Even taking the exaggeration-for-publicity and what-a-jerk factors into consideration, it seems likely that 30-40% of the players had at least tried steroids. That's 8-10 players per team. That's a huge aggregation to receive a "never mind" from the Hall of Fame.

A number of baseball historians I respect a lot believe that there are already steroid users in the Hall of Fame, anywhere from a few to perhaps a dozen. If you agree with my reduction of Canseco's estimate of 20 users per team to 8-10 per team, it is impossible to imagine that none of those users made it into the Hall of Fame. The "E" in PED stands for "enhancing," and even though it is impossible to know how much this or that player's performance and numbers were enhanced, the steroids did contribute. It would be naive to think that only borderline or mediocre players used steroids. Many of them did, and there are still minor leaguers being caught using banned substances merely in an effort to make it to the majors.

If the Hall of Fame issued a ban on steroid users from eligibility, the whole premise would be shot to hell as soon as proof emerged that someone already enshrined was a user. I count five players on the 2014 ballot who were named in the Mitchell Report, plus Bonds. Suppose one gets elected? How can the Hall ban the eligibility of users when it has already admitted users?

The only way to do that would be to break with precedent and institute a system for ejecting current members who are subsequently revealed to be users. Of course that would be preposterous. It would open up a can of worms that would be the historical equivalent of "snakes on a plane." If you started kicking out steroid users, what about the druggies, the scuffers, the felons, the sign stealers, the spitball artists, the game-throwers, the crooks, the racists, and a couple--including the top vote-getter in the original election--who killed people?

It won't happen. It would be the only way to avoid the hypocrisy of barring some people for reasons that didn't apply to others, though the Hall has never been uncomfortable about having its hypocrisies revealed. Perhaps the last word should belong to the Chairman of the Board of the Hall of Fame, Jane Forbes Clark.

In his 2009 book Cooperstown Confidential, Zev Chafets included a chapter on the Mitchell Report. He described asking Clark about the report and how the Hall of Fame would deal with it. He wrote, "She seemed surprised by the question. 'I like to think of us as neutral,' she said. 'Like Switzerland.'" Well, the Swiss succeeded in not being invaded by the Nazis, but as Orson Welles put it so beautifully in "The Third Man," "In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."  

Under Jane Clark's cuckoo-clock leadership, the Hall is likely to keep its neutral head firmly buried in the snowbank. The Hall will be content to let folks like Craig Biggio and his fans dangle in the wind until the BBWAA can focus enough votes to elect him. It will be content to let others carry the debate, to let the writers agonize over their responsibility, and to let its current members cash in on their status as "immortals" even while that status becomes murkier with the confusion over who really "belongs" and who doesn't. As Posnanski knows all too well, it's THEIR museum, and even though attendance there has dropped by nearly 30% over the past decade, even though the 2013 induction ceremony drew fewer than 1,000 spectators, they don't have to a damn thing if they don't want to. I don't think they want to.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Exception Well Worth Making

In case you were wondering what it would take to get me to return to my baseball blog, the answer, it turns out, was simple:  honor Roger Angell, the best baseball writer I've ever encountered. This past week, the BBWAA, for the first time, bestowed its highest honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, on a journalist who is not a regular beat reporter. It is worth taking a little time to explain why this exception was made.

Since its inception in 1962, the Spink Award has gone to a reporter who spent a long time covering a major league team on a daily basis. Even illustrious writers so honored back in the 1960s who were more famous for non-baseball subjects, like Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, began their journalism careers by covering one team. Runyon covered the New York Giants and Lardner the Chicago White Sox. By the end of Runyon's first year in New York, he had ballplayers sounding like early versions of Nathan Detroit and the other Broadway characters he later brought to life in his short stories. Lardner witnessed so many colorful figures on the White Sox that he soon amalgamated them into the "You Know Me, Al" narrator who made him famous.

More recently, the Spink Award, like its counterpart, the Frick Award for broadcasting, has become more of a reward for longevity than for sustained brilliance. That is one reason why it seemed unlikely that the BBWAA would break away from that increasingly insular tradition and honor someone like Roger Angell, whose claim to baseball fame has been a sestet of collections of the essays written over the course of several decades for The New Yorker magazine, where he has been a long-time editor.

As any writer can tell you, if you survive to Angell's current age of 93, you are bound to accumulate a body of work that is massive in scope yet quite possibly uneven in quality. Angell may be the exception to this general truth as well. I've been reading him for several decades now and have never failed to be entertained and enlightened by his writing. Any time I open up a new edition of The New Yorker and see Angell's name in the table of contents, it's a good day.

In the same week when Marvin Miller was once again denied election to the Hall of Fame, it is heartening to see a nonagenarian receive some kind of award. Even after Miller obliged a lot of powerful people at the Hall of Fame by dying at age 95 so they wouldn't have to witness his induction, he didn't get elected. That makes me doubly happy for Roger Angell, and very happy for myself because I'll be able to attend the ceremony at which he receives the award and hear what he says about the honor and about the game he has loved and described so beautifully.

"Unafflicted by daily deadlines or the weight of objectivity," Angell wrote in the Foreword to his first collection, The Summer Game, "I have been free to write about whatever I found in the game that excited or absorbed or dismayed me." Over the course of several decades, he has covered nearly every aspect of baseball, even the business end of it, though for my money the one thing that has always set him apart is his sheer descriptive power, how he takes something that we fans all saw happen, and make us see it in a vivid and intriguing way.

One thing that marks great writers (of all subjects and styles) is that they make us see why this thing over here is remarkably like that thing over there which we thought was utterly unrelated. My favorite example is his description of the swing that Bernie Carbo took at a low-inside pitch from Rawley Eastwick. Carbo was lucky to touch the ball but it prolonged his at-bat, and he smacked the ball over the center field fence at Fenway Park, the famous home run which tied Game 6 of the 1975 World Series and set the stage for Carlton Fisk's even more famous home run.

Many of you have seen footage of Carbo's foul ball on what today's announcers might call an "emergency hack." Roger Angell described a "wholly overmatched" Carbo as "flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet." Has any other writer discerned the resemblance between the World Series and a lawn party? The simile came out of nowhere but Angell's vision, but I haven't seen the Carbo footage since then without seeing how perfectly apt the simile is.

I'm not the first observer to liken Angell's writing to prose poetry, and much of it fits Alexander Pope's definition of "true wit" as "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." Nothing shows this better than his descriptions of Luis Tiant, which I'm going to share at length here. It is from his essay on the 1975 World Series, titled "Agincourt and After" and appeared in his second collection, Five Seasons. If you have seen Tiant pitch but haven't read this before, you're in for a treat and some spectacular flashbacks. If you never saw Tiant pitch, you might think Angell made some of this up for effect. But no. This is what Tiant looked like:

"We were treated to the splendid full range of Tiantic mime. His repertoire begins with an exaggerated mid-windup pivot, during which he turns his back on the batter and seems to examine the infield directly behind the mound for signs of crabgrass. With men on bases, his stretch consists of a succession of minute downward waggles and pauses of the glove, and a menacing sidewise, slit-eyed, Valentino-like gaze over his shoulder at the base runner. The full flower of his art, however, comes during the actual delivery, which is executed with a perfect variety show of accompanying gestures and impersonations. I had begun to take notes during my recent observations of the Cuban Garrick, and now. . .I arrived at some tentative codifications. The basic Tiant repertoire seems to include:

"(1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch, the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

"(2) Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball, he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.

"(3) The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.

"(4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

"(5) The Slipper-Kick: In the midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.

"(6) The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4, above): While he is pivoting, an F-105 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eighty feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.

"All this, of course, was vastly appreciated by the Back Bay multitudes, including a nonpaying claque perched like seagulls atop three adjacent rooftop billboards."

If a writer can think in such terms, I as a reader am willing to follow him wherever he wants to go. And if he merely wants to sit still and tell stories, count me in. I think I'll go read his chapter "Stories for a Rainy Afternoon," also from Five Seasons, to my wife. The chapter contains seven gems, including the famous Richie Ashburn "Yo la tengo," the saga of two baseballs in play at the same time, Hack Wilson's greatest throw, Clint Courtney's rain-delayed at-bat, and Tommy Lasorda's cautionary tale about autographs. She'll love 'em. Do yourself a favor. Grab a copy of any Angell book and start reading.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"These Idiots Are Ruining Us!"

There are times when reality and imagination blur, times of wishful thinking. Today is one of those times, so enjoy the following upshot. GS
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                              Aug. 20, 2013 

Hall of Fame Releases Official Stance on the PED Era and the Players Involved

-- Dedication set for new life-size sculpture to represent players of baseball’s PED era.

(COOPERSTOWN, NY) – Taking advantage of a timely burst of confusion caused by the simultaneous 211-game suspension and return to major league action of Alex Rodriguez, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson announced on August 16 that the Hall has commissioned a new sculpture for a symbolic location in the museum.

The life-size work, titled “The Unknown Juicer,” will be located literally inches away from the plaque gallery, immediately outside its entrance. “It will be bolted to the floor,” Idelson noted in his remarks to the press. “Once you’re in that spot, you’re not getting into that plaque gallery, no matter how tantalizingly close it is.”

“For years,” Idelson said, “People have been asking, ‘How does the Hall of Fame really feel about steroids? Do you wish it never happened? Don’t you wish that everyone could be considered for election baggage-free?’ The general answer is yes, it would be wonderful if we could go back and start over and find a way to get plaques for the all-time hits leader, the all-time home run leader, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, and others. But we can’t go back, we have to move forward, and this new sculpture will symbolize the Hall’s traditional emphasis on integrity as a prime criterion for enshrinement.”

Idelson added that many museum staff members have complained about the incessant inquiries by “those damn tourists” about steroids and the infinite number of possible results of future Hall of Fame elections. “Now our guides can simply tell them, ‘check out the statue and you’ll have your answer.’ Between the image and the text, there will be no mistaking our position.”

The winning design was submitted by sculptor Stanley Bleifeld, several of whose works are already on display at the Hall of Fame, most notably his triple study of Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, and Roberto Clemente. Other finalists whose designs were considered included high-profile artists like Christopher Lloyd Wright, Gus Rodinsky, Eve Tartar, and Washington Borglum.

“The Unknown Juicer” will be wearing an anonymous uniform and will have no identifying facial features. Above the neck will be only a traditional ballplayer’s smirk, a sweat-band around the forehead, and headphones covering the ears. Head tilted back, he is about to start chugging the contents of a bottle marked “good juice.” With his other hand he is doing a wrist-curl using a small weight, and cradled under that arm is a carton marked “even better juice.” A hypodermic needle protrudes from his right buttocks.

The over-developed juicer will have a neck wider than his brain; bulging biceps and loose skin under his arms; chest muscles popping his uniform buttons; an apparently dislocated hip; and untied shoelaces since he can’t bend over. Sticking out of his pocket is a barely visible check stub for $30 million.

“We’re excited about the artistic as well as the thematic properties of this new work,” wrote Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board Jane Forbes Clark in a statement read by Idelson. “Art has always been a motivating force in the Clark family, and we have tried to incorporate it in everything we own. The Hall of Fame museum is no exception. There are now five statues in the courtyard between the museum and CooperPark, and four other pieces in the museum—unless you count that silly ‘holy cow’ at the base of the staircase.”

Idelson announced that the new statue will be unveiled at a ceremony on Saturday, November 9, to be attended by Commissioner Bud Selig among many other indignitaries. At that time, the text accompanying “The Unknown Juicer” will be made public as well. Idelson promised his audience, “You’re going to love that text. We’re taking a stand here, folks. These idiots are ruining us! We didn’t even have a thousand people at our induction this year. And the election process is going to be a mess for a long time to come, unless some miracle consensus appears out of thin air.

“Thumbs up or thumbs down, either one is fine with us. Meanwhile, out here in limbo, the Hall of Fame is going ahead as if the thumbs down will continue. And we’re going to deal with it head-on. When we got the Barry Bonds ‘Asterisk Ball,’ we put it on display with a lengthy, sensible label which emphasized the historical context of the ball’s appearance. But you had to go out to the end of the second floor and find it inside the one locker devoted to the San Francisco Giants in a room with 30 lockers, in order to get the message. What were we thinking? By putting ‘The Unknown Juicer’ where you can’t miss it as you pause before entering the most hallowed room in baseball, we will get our message across.”


For more information on the sculpture dedication, please contact Gabriel Schechter.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What If They Held an Induction and No One Came?

Back in January, when Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson announced that the BBWAA had resisted the temptation to elect the all-time home run champ, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, two guys with more than 3,000 hits, and other significant ballplayers to the Hall of Fame, I sent him an e-mail. It read: "For the first time since you've been at the Hall, you'll be able to give an accurate count of the attendance at the induction ceremony. All you have to do is count the legs and divide by two." To Jeff's credit, within an hour of facing the national cameras with his no-news-is-bad-news, he responded with this witty note: "Not if Bill Veeck shows up," since Veeck's wooden leg would screw up the arithmetic. I replied, "If you can get Bill Veeck here, you'll have a record crowd."

Alas, Veeck did not rise from the dead, though the three inductees did: umpire Hank O'Day (who died in 1935), Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert (who died in 1939, several months before the Hall of Fame's first induction ceremony), and 19th-century catching pioneer James "Deacon" White (who also died in 1939, 25 days after that initial ceremony). They were represented by descendants who weren't even alive in the 1930s, but all gave heartfelt, welcome speeches, most notably Jerry Watkins, White's great-grandson, who was one of roughly 50 family members to attend the ceremony.

That heavy turnout by the White clan may be what pushed the crowd over the magical 1,000 mark. About 20 minutes before the scheduled 1:30 starting time (which was pushed back about 50 minutes because of rain), I did my best to count the number of legs outside the fenced-in VIP seating sections and divide by two. I quit counting when I got to 658 people--because there was nobody else to count. Add to that a few hundred people in the seating sections (with far more empty seats than those with asses in them), and it was around 1,000. As my father (who saw O'Day umpire) would have said, "Look at all the people who aren't there!"  That was before the rain fell at 1:30. Once the ceremony began, the throng was considerably smaller. The Hall of Fame later announced a crowd of 2,500, which means that Jeff Idelson kept his streak intact of inflating the attendance figure. Sometimes he has done it to make a disappointing crowd (say 6,000) look respectable (10,000). In this case, it made a dreadful crowd sound merely less dreadful. But those of us who were there had come to see these particular men honored, and for us it was still a celebration even if the front-running fans of still-breathing immortals stayed away.

After the BBWAA pitched its shutout and the folks who run the Hall of Fame realized there would be no living inductees, they went all-out to find all the dead ones they could honor. They had been planning to give Lou Gehrig the formal induction he never got (elected by acclaim after the 1939 Induction, he was dead by the time there was another ceremony) in 2014, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Hall, but moved that up by a year to give some folks some kind of excuse to show up. While they were at it, they decided to honor all the other players who never got their own induction ceremony because of World War II travel restrictions.That included Rogers Hornsby, the only electee in 1942, and the ten men elected in 1945 by an earlier incarnation of the Veterans Committee.

With only 34 living Hall of Famers returning for this year's ceremony--the lowest number in many, many years, after a peak of more than 60 a few years ago--the ceremony was already going to be significantly shorter because of fewer introductions. With film tributes to the 12 overdue honorees, plus a current Hall of Famer reading the text of each of their plaques, the ceremony lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. It was a fine little ceremony, and we enjoyed it.

But it was not without some strange moments, some odd, discordant notes. My favorite involved the choice of current Hall of Famers to read the plaques. As much as possible, the Hall matched them up very well by position and/or team. Cal Ripken ended the afternoon by reading Gehrig's plaque; Tommy Lasorda read the plaque of earlier Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson; Wade Boggs read third baseman Jimmy Collins' text, and so on. Then came the Hornsby plaque, the last before Gehrig's. That "honor" went to Hall of Fame Vice Chairman Joe Morgan, presumably because both players were second basemen. But I couldn't help flinching when I learned that the Hall was asking an African American to honor an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan. I'm guessing that Morgan has no idea that Hornsby was in the Klan, or that anybody bothered to tell him. Maybe Jeff Idelson didn't know it either. One of the Hall's three missions is to "preserve history," but that doesn't mean its president has to preserve history in his own head. Suppose someone had told Morgan that Hornsby was in the KKK; would he still have read the plaque? Well, he did read it.

My second-favorite strange moment came during the filmed tributes to the 12 honorees. The guys in the Hall's video department--Bruce Broderson, Nate Owens, and Roger Lansing--did their usual fine job of highlighting the inductees' achievements, an assignment made tougher this year by the scarcity of filmed action of O'Day, Ruppert, and White. We don't have any footage of O'Day making the "Merkle's boner" call in 1908, of White mangling his hands while catching barehanded in the 1870s, or of Ruppert badmouthing Gehrig for daring to ask for a raise after hitting over .350 for the umpteenth season.

The films were fine, except for one startling gaffe in the voice-over to the Ed Delahanty tribute. That was the reference to the records Delahanty held "when he retired." When he retired? For the record, Delahanty did not retire, unless you count the likely utterance of something like "I'm a goner" as he tumbled over Niagara Falls in the middle of the night on July 2, 1903. Thrown off a train for being drunk and disorderly, he got into an argument and then a scuffle with the night watchman on the bridge over the falls. He was either pushed or fell on his own off the bridge, so he "retired" either when he landed in the water or when, a moment later, he went over the falls. They found his body two days later. If you know anything about Delahanty, you know he wasn't the retiring type.

Taking the bronze medal for awkward moments was the pre-ceremony favorite, Commissioner Bud Selig, who still insists that Abner Doubleday invented baseball (the equivalent of Pope Francis declaring that the Sun moves around the Earth). Pretty much his only duty on induction day is to read the plaques of the new inductees. As usual, he read them as if seeing them for the first time, although I've heard that ignoring your employees' drug abuse can impair reading ability.

All Hall of Famer plaques start with a listing of every team they played for, including years and leagues. The leagues are abbreviated on the plaques, so that, for instance, Babe Ruth's plaque says "Boston, A.L." and "Boston, N.L." Well, it happened that two of this year's three inductees finished their playing careers in the Players' League, which operated only during 1890. Deacon White played for Buffalo as a 42-year-old, and Hank O'Day won 22 games pitching for New York before he turned to umpiring.

So both plaques have a "P.L." at the end. Both times, Selig dutifully informed us that these men played in the "Pacific League." Never mind that there never was a "Pacific League" in the United States (there has been a Pacific League in Japan since 1980). Maybe Selig thought he was telling us that they played in the Pacific Coast League--though that wasn't created until 1903. Maybe he thought it was some pioneering league founded by Abner Doubleday.

I don't know what he was thinking, but I'd like to know what Jane Forbes Clark, Jeff Idelson, and the other powers-that-be were thinking when they let him get out there (twice, about fifteen minutes apart) and butcher the history of the sport he has run for the last two decades. Is the answer that they just don't care? Were they tip-toeing around history, pretending that Ed Delahanty really did retire, that it doesn't matter that Rogers Hornsby was in the KKK, and that the names of leagues aren't important?

There we were in idyllic Cooperstown, where locals walking down the street say "How are you?" to other locals and don't wait for an answer, where descendants giving acceptance speeches had to have those speeches vetted first by Hall of Fame officials, and where the sky was cloudy all day but it didn't rain too hard once the crowd was thinned out to a cozy few hundred. "Forgive him," MLB's official historian, John Thorn, said to me right after the ceremony when I asked if he knew anything about the Pacific League. Oh, I do forgive him. But first I had to mock him.

After the ceremony, I presided over the annual induction evening meeting of the local SABR chapter. This was the first time that someone has gone directly from delivering an acceptance speech to the SABR meeting. Jerry Watkins was joined by two sons and other family members at the meeting, which began with a terrific discussion with Tom Simon and Peter Morris. They are the first bona fide historians to participate in the Veterans Committee. By "bona fide historians" I mean that they have no official connection to MLB (as did the several beat writers and BBWAA members of the VC) and no excuse for being asked to serve on the committee other than their reputations as historians. Peter is a foremost scholar of 19th-century baseball and the origins of just about every aspect of the game, and Tom founded SABR's Deadball Era Committee a dozen years ago.

At the meeting, they discussed the process by which O'Day, Ruppert, and White were elected. They did plenty of homework in advance and were impressed by how much preparation the other 14 committee members did, especially Bert Blyleven, one of the four Hall of Fame players on the committee. They hoped to build a consensus on a few candidates they strongly supported, and they must have succeeded, because the math is stacked against electing as many as three men at once. The 16 committee members voted for a maximum of four candidates, there were 10 candidates, and 12 votes were needed for election. So if each member voted for four candidates, the average tally would be 6.4 votes per candidates. For this committee to reach such a strong consensus on three candidates (with a fourth, Bill Dahlen, missing election by only two votes) was pretty remarkable.

They took their time deciding, too. During the morning session, Tom Simon told the SABR gathering, each candidates was discussed for at least a half-hour, sometimes much longer. All the arguments for and against were made, and then they went to lunch. After lunch, they discussed each candidate again, summing up the main points. Then they voted. And agreed.

Our SABR discussion also included about ten minutes with Jerry Watkins. I asked him about the long wait for Deacon White's election, about the disappointment of earlier Veterans Committees neglecting to elect White ahead of five other pre-1900 figures who were elected in the late 1990s, and about White's legacy as a ballplayer. Watkins was still beaming from the ceremony, still basking in the glow of his family finally getting to share in their beloved ancestor's glory. As I noted before Watkins had to leave for the placing of Deacon White's plaque on the wall of the gallery in the Hall of Fame, his family has waited for several generations for this moment, but think of how many future generations will get to come here and see that plaque.

That's the point of having the Hall of Fame in the first place, of course. At any given point in history, we will visit that plaque gallery to celebrate baseball immortals. Some we saw in action ourselves, some we heard about all our lives, and some we only heard about because those plaques keep their memory alive. I've been to about a dozen induction ceremonies now, from the Ripken-Gwynn version of Woodstock when at least 70,000 people descended on a village of 1,800, to this year's intimate gathering. I'm always happy to have gone there to celebrate the game, its finest, and its history.