Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cold Weather Games

A record has already been set in MLB for the most postponements in April, and the northeast quadrant of the country seems in the grip of some weird global cooling. Griping, sarcasm, and panic have ensued, but one suggestion seems at least practical to me. That is to schedule as many April games as possible within each team's division, so that there will be series later on when postponed games can be made up. There are already several instances when teams making their only trip to a city will have to make a detour on a road trip to fill in a game on a much-needed off-day.

For a long time, I thought that the simplest thing would be to schedule the first ten days' or two weeks' worth of games in the warmer cities and domed ballparks. I have come around to the notion that this might put some decent teams in a hole if they go 4-8 before their home opener. It probably doesn't help the home teams either, glutting their home schedules before school lets out and the big summer crowds assemble.

I do think that there are enough teams with sunshine or domes to host games for the first week. This season, the Marlins opened with six home games, but the Rays, after four games at home to start the season, went on the road for eleven days. Their seasons so far tell us a lot, however.

Both Florida teams have played a dozen home games. Weather has not been a discernible factor in how baseball fans in Florida decide whether to attend games. On Opening Day, the paid attendance in Miami was 32,151, while in Tampa it was 31,042. That was Opening Day. The weather has been fine, but it turns out that when the baseball is awful, the proverbial fan stays away in droves.

In eleven home games each since Opening Day, the Rays' average attendance is 13,848, and that's the good news. In Miami, the average is 11,446. A recent three-game series with the Mets drew 19,669 -- for the whole series! It was more like a boycott as the word spread, with the Monday night throng of 7,003 thinning out to 6,516 the next night and 6,150 for the thrilling conclusion of the series.

Counting games of April 21, Tampa Bay's record is 7-13. Again, the good news. Miami is 5-15 in the wake of new owner Derek Jeter's eagerness to dismantle the game's greatest young outfield. He thought he was imitating Wayne Huizenga, who also got rid of his young stars all at once. But Jeter skipped the important first step -- winning a World Series title first, as Huizenga did in 1997. When Magic Johnson signed on as a Dodgers owner, he brought people with him who were ready to spend money to make him the face of a great team. What was Jeter thinking?

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I had to laugh at the headline the other day: "Yankees Will Drop Stanton". I knew they were sending him to Scranton-Wilkes Barre. No, they were demoting him from proximity to Aaron Judge in the lineup, his status plummeting to the midtown cleanup spot. Will he get over it? The way Didi Gregorius has been pounding the ball, it makes more sense to put him between the two right-handed boppers, no matter who's hot. 

Before the season, I played with some Judge and Stanton numbers to see which one is the more formidable, or perhaps the more exciting or productive or something of a pairing that makes old-time Yankees fans drool over memories of the 1961 Mantle-Maris chase of Babe Ruth's hallowed record of 60 home runs. That was the year I was first aware of the shape of a baseball season, and since I lived about ten miles from Yankee Stadium, that race was big news every day that summer. Nobody rooted for Maris, either. It was all Mickey back then. What about now?

These numbers are from 2017. If you take strikeouts, walks, and hit by pitches (i.e. plate appearances when the batter didn't put the ball in play), they took up 50.1% of Judge's PA but only 36.8% of Stanton's. That means that in every eight trips to the plate, Stanton hit the ball once more than Judge. Given the damage they do when they hit it, that tilts in Stanton's favor. 

Judge struck out in 38.4% of his at-bats, Stanton in 27.3%. Combined, they had a .399 on-base percentage and .629 slugging percentage. That'll get it done. But going on form, there's more reason to think that Stanton will be the big gun this season in the Bronx. He's a more experienced hitter, he doesn't strike out as often, and even left field is bigger than right field at Yankee Stadium, it will still look inviting to him compared to what he faced in Miami. 

So, going by form, 43.4% of the time they go to the plate, they'll reach their next destination by walking, not running. I haven't looked at the numbers so far this year, but clearly Judge has been a stud so far, while Stanton has -- well, the man was dropped just the other day. What do the numbers say?

In 19 games, Judge has 6 home runs and 15 RBI. In 89 PA, he has put the ball in play 49 times, up from 50% to 55%, and his strikeout rate is lower at 31%. That explains why his average today is 54 points higher than last year's. Stanton, meanwhile, has been awful, with two five-strikeout disasters at Yankee Stadium which have endeared him to the Bronx faithful in a very special way. Stanton has 4 home runs and 12 RBI -- "on a pace" for 32 and 103 for the season, which would be respectable for anyone except a giant getting a gazillion dollars to drive in Aaron Judge every time he walks. 

It's only 19 games, of course, and players tend to regress to their own normal performance, and once Stanton recovers from the shame of batting fourth, he'll hit the ball more often. That .194 average won't last, and I don't think he'll keep striking out in 40% of his at-bats all season. At that, he has put the ball into play almost as often as Judge, 52.3%. The difference is that when he doesn't, Stanton is striking out instead of taking walks. Only people willing to watch all the Yankees games can say how many times the opposition pitched around Judge to get to Stanton, and how often it worked. I can tell you that Judge was walked intentionally once to get to Stanton, in the 11th inning with the potential winning run at second base. Stanton grounded out to end the inning.

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Like many of you, I have strong jinxing powers. When I was a little kid listening to games on the radio, I felt strongly that the degree of fervency I put into rooting for my team had a tangible effect on the outcome. Long after I outgrew that childish notion, long after I realized that my fervor was chiefly for my own benefit and not the team's, I became aware of a strong jinxing power, but only after its effect had occurred.

This power manifests itself most often in the matter of no-hitters. This would not have been possible in the old days, when a fan could follow only one or two games at a time. It is a byproduct of the mega-network, internet era, when you can be closely following a couple of games, get an alert that a no-hitter has progressed to the late stages, and switch over to watch history happen. 

Except that, in my case, almost every time, my sudden vigilance is enough to bring a quick base hit. Usually, it's the next batter. Last week, it was the first pitch I watched after switching networks. So I was pretty wary last night when the alert came that Seth Manaea had a no-hitter through seven innings. I was watching Bartolo Colon, which was quite entertaining in itself. In one inning, the corpulent 44-year-old had to race to first to take a throw after the leadoff batter grounded a ball behind the bag. He made the out and puffed his way nonchalantly back to the mound, suggesting a beer executive at the company picnic.

Dee Gordon batted next, and he also hit a bounder behind the first base bag. Colon raced off the mound, taking the shortcut while Gordon dashed down the line. He took the throw and pounced on the bag a split-second ahead of Gordon. This time, he had a little grin as he trudged back to the mound. I wondered how the wind-sprints would affect him; he got the last batter on the second pitch.

Meanwhile, there went Seth Manaea to the mound for the 8th inning, facing a Red Sox lineup which had battered the opposition to a 17-2 record. He had thrown only 85 pitches and thus wasn't a candidate for arbitrary removal by his manager. He might actually pitch that no-no! On, I went to Gameday and turned on the Oakland broadcast. Manaea already had two outs by the time I caught the announcer, and that inning ending quickly. The A's didn't dawdle in their half of the 8th inning, and now came the 9th.

I knew that MLB Network's "Quick Pitch" would show the 9th inning. Just press one more button, and I could watch history unfold. Or, more likely, jinx the man. So I stuck with the Mariners-Rangers game on tv and listened to Manaea polish off the Red Sox with only a two-out walk delaying his moment of glory. As soon as I heard the final out, I pressed that button in time to see the celebration and a replay of the final out. I was very happy to watch that replay after sparing Manaea. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Et Tu, Roger?

As part of my week-long celebration of self-indulgence to mark my birthday, I reread two of my favorite books. One is Madame Bovary, with its devastating exploration of the gap between daydreams and reality and its exquisite sentences. Here is my favorite: "The human voice is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars." Read that ten times quickly!

The second is Roger Angell's second baseball collection, Five Seasons. This anthology of Angell's superb "New Yorker" pieces covers the seasons from 1972-1976. Apart from the spellbinding accounts of memorable World Series during that period, Angell delighted me doubly this time around with his profiles of baseball people with whom he spent time: scout Ray Scarborough; a trio of lifelong Tigers fans/friends; Steve Blass during the dark days of his "syndrome; Giants owner Horace Stoneham, and more.

This volume also contains the incomparable "Stories for a Rainy Afternoon," brief tales suitable for rain-delay telling, and which have been among my favorites to share again and again over the years with baseball fanatics who need a good laugh: Richie Ashburn and "yo la tengo"; Hack Wilson and Boom-Boom Beck; Clint Courtney's full count; Stan Musial and two baseballs on the field; the rundown between home plate and a dugout; and why Tommy Lasorda always gave autographs. I'm cracking up just thinking about those stories. What a delight!

Among baseball writers, Roger Angell is the king of similes and metaphors. His essay on the 1975 World Series, titled "Agincourt and After," contains my favorite one-liner simile and my favorite extended metaphor. First the one-liner: do you remember the emergency hack that Bernie Carbo took at the pitch before his famous home run in Game 6? He barely fouled off the pitch to stay alive; Angell described Carbo's swing as "flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet." Unlike any other sports writer I've encountered, Angell writes sentences that show you how a movement on the field resembles something you might encounter in the real world.

Is there any better extended metaphor in baseball literature than Angell's catalogue of Luis Tiant deliveries? Whether you saw Tiant pitch or not (and it's much better if you did), take a few minutes to picture the man in action as described by Angell.

"I had begun to take note during my recent observations of the Cuban Garrick, and now, as he set down the Reds with only minimal interruptions. . .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."
Do yourself a favor. Find a volume of Angell and start reading. 

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Suppose you're the kind of reader who can't help noticing inconsistencies in usage. Same words, same order, but the author finds some reason for spelling something differently. It bugs you. Over time, one common inconsistency comes to aggravate you more than the others, eventually giving you that chalk-on-the-blackboard reflex every time you see it. You can't get away from it.

Given that ever-expanding annoyance and the reflex revulsion that grows in vehemence -- what would you do if your favorite writer fell into the trap of inconsistency? In my case, I guess the answer is that you blog about it.

My special aversion is to writers referring to major league teams in the singular rather than the plural. A team's identity should be a simple matter, its name a no-brainer. Yet I have seen Walter O'Malley referred to as "the Dodger owner". What could that possibly mean? It can't mean he owned the franchise. That would make him the "Dodgers owner," that is, the owner of the franchise. He owned the whole damn team called the Dodgers. The only time to use the singular form of a team name is when referring to an individual player. Jackie Robinson was a great Dodger. But he was not the Dodger first baseman in 1947. He was the first baseman on the Dodgers. He was "the Dodgers' first baseman," the apostrophe indicating that he was the first baseman who belonged to the Dodgers (hence the possessive '). I've seen O'Malley also called "the Dodgers' owner," both a physical and a semantic impossibility, as O'Malley could not have been a possession of the team he also owned.

That's why the correct usage is so simple. It's plural unless you're talking about a single member of the franchise. Most annoying are the writers who favor one  usage some of the time and the other usage the rest of the time. If they can get it right, what detour is being taken that leads their minds to get it wrong so often? So imagine my dismay to find the following usages in one section of Five Seasons:

  • A grand-slam homer by Dodger outfielder Jimmy Wynn.
  • As the Dodgers' starter, Don Sutton.
  • A pair of walks off Pirate starter Jerry Reuss.
  • In addition to the costly Dodger error.
  • Topped a pitch by Dodger starter Al Downing.
  • In Dodger retrospect [This phrase began a sentence, and I couldn't help wondering what prompted Angell's failure to refer to the entire franchise by its correct name]
  • Met manager Yogi Berra. [Didn't he manage the whole team?]
  • Tom Seaver, the Mets' champion.
  • He hopes to play second base with the Pirates' Class A club. [This is the correct usage, since the minor league club belonged to the parent franchise]
  • Garvey, the young Dodger first baseman. [These last two were on the same page. This is a good one to use as an example. The best way of stating this would be "Garvey, the Dodgers' young first baseman." You could also called Garvey "the young Dodger". But you could not call him "the young Dodgers' first baseman," which would make him the first baseman for some sub-group identified as the young Dodgers, but Angell wasn't trying to say that. He had a simple fact to convey--Garvey was the first baseman for the team called the Dodgers. So he had to find a way to acknowledge the whole franchise.]
  • Rube Walker, the Mets' pitching coach. [Now we can see the apparent method to his usage: if he puts "the" before it, he uses the correct plural possessive; no "the," no plural. Probably.
  • An appearance by a good-looking Mets sprout. [Though Angell prefers the singular, here is an inconsistency where he eschewed his usual "Met" to veer into the correct usage.]
  • Ken Reitz, the Cardinal third baseman. [Oh well, he used "the" and the singular. Just when I thought I saw into his brain, he fooled both of us.]
  • The Giants' park, Phoenix Municipal Stadium. [Please make up your mind, Roger.]
  • And finally, two offerings from page 253:
    • The most consistent starter on the Pirate staff.
    • Who is now the Yankees' pilot.
I'm done. If Roger Angell, writing for the publication that has traditionally been the most squeamish about usage, could sneak such inconsistencies past the editors, my reaction can be one of only two things: I should be more tolerant of lesser writers who can't get it straight either, or I should be twice as vigilant about a trap that ensnared even the best of us. 

If you know me at all, you know that's a no-brainer. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Staking a Claim To Failure

Any baseball person concedes that you can't tell much from the first ten days of the season. You do spot some things, like the starting lineups and pitching rotations, a few notable debuts, some happy returns, but nothing terribly conclusive. Every player is "on a pace" to do something miraculously spectacular or spectacularly horrible, and since performance tends to regress toward the mean, it's tempting to downplay ten-day trends.

However, I have identified one such trend that is likely to have a permanent place in the 2018 season. In four of the six divisions, the consensus worst team has already staked a claim to failure. Look at the three tail-enders in the National League: my Reds are 2-5, the Marlins are 2-6, and the Padres are 2-7. Does anybody want to bet on the chances that any of those three disasters-in-waiting escapes the cellar by October? Ditto for Tampa Bay in the AL East, already trailing the Red Sox by 6 games. In the other AL divisions, teams are tied for last, leaving plenty of candidates for the inevitable tumbles.

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One team doing better than expected is the 6-3 Angels, thanks to Shohei Ohtani, who so far looks like the second coming of Babe Ruth. I started this paragraph before he took to the mound today in Anaheim to face Oakland. He struck out the side in the first inning and again in the fifth. He retired the first 19 A's before allowing a hit, and he wound up logging seven innings of one-hit ball--with a dozen strikeouts. Okay, that makes him Yu Darvish. Meanwhile, as a designated hitter, he homered in three straight games, driving in seven runs, and starting play today had the fourth-highest OPS in the majors, trailing only Didi Gregorius, Bryce Harper, and Adam Eaton. That makes him not quite Harper--plus a 2-0 pitching record and a 2.08 ERA. All that, and he uses up only one roster spot! Already, I have found myself switching channels to watch him bat, and it's going to be fun to watch him engage in the tug-of-war by which pitchers and hitters figure each other out.

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Another player I'm going to keep an eye on this season is Bartolo Colon. Last week I mentioned the aged wonder, Ichiro Suzuki, but the fact is that when Ichiro was a little baby. . .Bartolo Colon was already a baby. He's almost five months older than Ichiro and will turn 45 next month. In his first start for the Rangers, he allowed just one run in six innings. He struggled to a 7-14 record last season after being jettisoned by the Mets, for whom he won 44 games in three seasons and became one of the most popular Mets ever. The fans were taken with his nonchalance, his good-humored flailings at the plate, and his flair, epitomized the day when he fielded a roller near the first-base line and flipped the ball 40 feet behind his back to nip the runner. When he belted his first career home run in 2016, he cemented his grip on Mets fans' hearts. Here was a man clearly happy to be in the major leagues at his age, and the home run represented any 43-year-old connecting with a softball at a company picnic. We were disappointed when the Mets let him go after 2016, and we'd take him back in a heartbeat.

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Despite the increasing rash of home runs, there have been plenty of low-scoring games already this season. In fact, we've already seen nine 1-0 finals, including two remarkable ones to start the season between the Giants and Dodgers. Joe Panik won both games with home runs, first off Clayton Kershaw, then Kenley Jansen. Pretty snazzy! In fact, midway through their fifth game of the season, the Giants had scored a measly three runs on the season, all Panik homers. Diversify that offense! In the nine 1-0 games, no winning starter has gone more than seven innings, and on average, the winning managers have used 24 relievers to secure those shutouts.

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I haven't seen enough to know for certain, but my impression so far is that the restriction on mound visits is helping the pace of play quite a bit. It had become my pet peeve in recent years, the constant chats between catchers and pitchers. I've seen catchers go out there with an 0-2 count, on consecutive pitches, and three times in one at-bat. Shortening the time between innings is fine, but I found that the repeated delays in the middle of an inning were dissipating my anticipation of what might happen next. Too often, I wasn't thinking that I might be about to see a double play or an extra-base hit, but rather about the simple desire to see another pitch in my lifetime. I've noticed quite a few games going less than three hours. Just for fun, I'm going to check the time of game for those nine 1-0 finals.

When I was a kid, shortly (as my friend Freddy Berowski likes to remind me) after the invention of fire, a 1-0 game would seldom take much more than two hours. These days, I'll put the over-under at 2:45, and I'll cautiously bet the under. . . .And the winner is: the fans. Average time for the nine games is 2:40. Only one lasted over three hours, a ten-inning, 3:27 game in Houston the other night that included eight pitching changes. Six of the nine games took less than 2:40, and three less than 2:30. This is a good sign. Let me press my luck. I'm going to look at 1-0 games from last season, and we'll see about those times. The over-under? 2:50. I'll bet the over.

Remember when Yogi said "You can observe a lot by watching"? You also see a lot if you look. I just looked, and I saw that there were 28 final scores of 1-0 in the major leagues in 2017, just over one per week. We're already one-third of the way there in a week and a half this season. So this bears watching. As for the average time from 2017, I'll omit the three duels which lasted an aggregate 37 innings and averaged a whopping 3:50 (it took 4:27 to complete a 13-inning 1-0 game). For the other 25 gems, the average time was 2:48. So 1-0 games have been ten minutes faster so far this year.

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Those are a few of the things that have caught my attention so far. I had more in my notes, but it's time to watch the Mets trying to sweep the Nats on ESPN. Stop by next Sunday and see what's up. Will Shohei Ohtani pitch that no-hitter with four home runs? Or will we have to wait another week? 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Seasons Worth Savoring

I can't recall when I've looked forward to a baseball as much as this one. Four days into the season, I'm savoring it already, and will celebrate by resuming the blog I have neglected for too long to mention. I have in mind a weekly round-up of the things that strike me as I experience baseball in 2018.

Another season I savored was the one just past, the one that the folks here in Oregon call winter. A year ago I lived 15 miles from Cooperstown in central New York, where on March 14, we got 43 inches of snow. That's the day I started packing for Oregon. I got out of Dodge just before the marshal, I mean winter, struck again, and by mid-November I had landed here in Salem, Oregon. I wore my old winter coat once all "winter" here, and I'm not even sure where my snow-shoveling boots are. I left the shovel behind when I moved.

I've already been to one ballgame, a one-hour drive down to Eugene to see the University of Oregon Ducks defeat UC-Davis, 4-1. The game featured a half-dozen great fielding plays, a half-dozen hit batters, not many strikeouts, and no home runs, a fine ballgame to start my season. I expect to see baseball in Eugene, Corvallis, Salem, and Portland at the very least over the next six months. Seattle? Maybe.

More than that, I've been looking forward to enjoying the major leagues from the West Coast. Unless you have lived in the Pacific time zone, you can't appreciate the difference from the East Coast. I lived in the West for nearly 30 years, so this is going back home for me in a way that moving to Cooperstown wasn't. It is a move from limited to unlimited baseball.

Take today. A little after 10am, the Mets-Cardinals game came on the radio. Yesterday, I got to watch the Mets and Cardinals on the MLB Network. I'm a Reds and Mets fan, and I'll catch as many of their games as I can on the radio. It was a pleasure to listen to Howie Rose and Josh Lewin call two of the games at Citi Field to start the season. This afternoon, I had one game (Angels-A's) on the TV and another (Mariners-Indians) on the radio. The Mariners are my "local" team this season, so I'll watch a ton of their games.

That's the biggest difference. It's tough to catch that late-night action in the East. There's a narrow slot for most people to watch a game--7 or 7:30 until 10 or 11. That's it. The viewing window is twice as wide on the West Coast (I get my radio coverage on on weekdays and all day long on the weekends. It's a feast, and I'm going to enjoy every bit of it.

People of my generation grew up listening to baseball on radio. When I was a kid, I could catch the broadcasts of ten of the 16 major league teams at night, and during the day, a game was often the background accompaniment to whatever else we were doing. I got away from listening to games in New York except in the car. Since I'll be doing more writing this year, I expect to have a game to listen to much of the time, more than one to watch.

So here's what caught my attention over the first four days:

  1. Things We Haven't Seen Since the Deadball Era: In 1915, third baseman Joe Schultz Sr. of Brooklyn batted cleanup on Opening Day and leadoff in their second game. Schultz is better known as the father of Joe Schultz Jr., famous for advocating the pounding of Budweiser after each game played by the team he managed, the 1969 Seattle Pilots, immortalized in Ball Four. It didn't happen again until this year, when Mets second baseman Asdrubel Cabrera, whose normal position in the lineup is second, batted cleanup on Opening Day (going hitless) and leadoff in their second game (with two doubles and a single). 
  2. The other thing we hadn't seen in our lifetimes was echoed today in Oakland, where Shohei Ohtani became the first player since Babe Ruth in 1919 to start in the "field" on Opening Day and be a starting pitcher within ten days, 85 pitches, or 142 visits to the mound, whichever comes first. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Ohtani lived up to expectations? In his debut as a designated hitter, he singled on the first pitch he saw, and he began even more impressively today. He fanned two A's and got a foul popup in the first inning, but met reality in the second inning when a fat pitch resulted in a three-run home run. I thought he might be quickly going to way of Clint Hartung and other two-way bombs, but he regrouped quickly and 14 of the final 15 batters he faced. He left with only three hits allowed in six innings, and he got the win in his debut. He'll be worth watching some more.
  3. Things We Haven't Seen Before at All: We saw the highest strikeout in one day in MLB history on Opening, as baseball's free swingers whiff their way toward a 10K/game pace. . .In the first three days of the season, we saw two starting pitchers go six hitless innings before granting their managers' requests to park their asses on the bench the rest of the game, leaving the relievers to blow both no-nos. . .We also saw the first bullpen overdose of the season, but this wasn't an overdose just for the relievers, who are weeks away from being overworked. No, the culprit was new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler. It wasn't that he made 18 pitching changes in three games -- but it dizzied him more than the rest of us, to the point where he popped out of the dugout and signaled for a reliever who wasn't even warming up. Welcome back to the dugout, Gabe. Captain Hook you aren't.
  4. Things We'd Better Get Used To: All kinds of home runs. Lots of two-homer games, plus Matt Davidson, who last year struck out in 40% of his at-bats and whose 26 home runs were balanced by a .260 on-base percentage, becoming just the fourth player to belt three home runs on Opening Day. And one more thing that is a sure sign of the times: the Opening Day, tenth-inning walk-off hit that wasn't, when a safe call on an eyelash-close play was overturned by a replay committee a thousand miles away, the Tigers didn't win just yet, and finally they didn't win at all as the Pirates prevailed, 13-10, in 13 innings. 
  5. And finally, Things We'd Better Enjoy While They Last: Ichiro's return to Seattle brought joy to the hometown fans, who gave him a mammoth ovation on Opening Day. I had thought that the Mariners should simply advertise that Ichiro will bat at least once in every home game, like the daily pinch-hitter he became in Miami last season. But no, he played left field in their opening series, had a two-hit game yesterday, and made a highlight-reel catch, leaping high to rob someone of a home run, a feat somehow made to seem nearly impossible for a 44-year-old, judging from the media hyperbole. It isn't anything he hasn't done before, folks. Let's just enjoy him while he lasts. 
That's a useful mantra for any new baseball season, of course. Let's enjoy this season while it lasts. It's only 180 days plus playoffs. Wondrous things will happen every day, every week. Perplexing things too. I expect to relish every day of it. I'll let you know how that goes. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

My Pen Pal, George Avakian

I've written before about my favorite thing to do when I worked at the Hall of Fame library: helping fans find the box score of the first major league game they remembered attending. Most such requests came with several details--score, date, teams, stars--that would be close but not necessarily correct. So each request became a search, a puzzle to be solved through semi-clues. Thanks to, I was almost always able to find that baseball grail.

Of the dozens of box score requests I fielded, one stood out for the highest percentage of correctly remembered details. It was all the remarkable because the game occurred a ridiculously long time before its details were recounted to me. It crossed my mind at the time that this fellow must be quite sharp. I hadn't heard of him until our phone conversation in March 2007.

That thought occurred to me again a few weeks again when the gentleman died. He was indeed quite a sharp fellow. He was George Avakian, the man who put Columbia Records on the map starting in the 1940s. He introduced Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and a generation of jazz greats to the world and preserved the work of many earlier musicians. He did much more than that (he discovered Bob Newhart, for instance). This giant of the recording industry was honored often, including by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010, 70 years after he went to work at Columbia.

George Avakian was 98 years old when he died. Born in Russian in 1919 of Armenian parents who moved shortly thereafter to New York City, he didn't see baseball played until he was ten. This he detailed to me in an e-mail written on March 30, 2007, two weeks after he turned 88. He had called the Hall of Fame with his query, and I had the pleasure of handling it. Over the next month, we talked several times and exchanged a flurry of e-mails, some of which I copied and saved.

Avakian initially asked me about two games he remembered, both played at Yankee Stadium. In one, which he didn't attend but which he saw heralded in a newspaper headline, Babe Ruth hit two home runs (that didn't narrow it down much!). In the other, which he remembered much more vividly as his first ballpark memory, Willie Kamm of the White Sox hit a ninth-inning home run off Waite Hoyt but the Yankees won, 5-3. He described the home run, its trajectory, the reaction of the fielder, and numerous other details of the game. Kamm hit just 29 home runs in his career, so it wasn't tough to track down the date. Every detail he told me was right on the money except one. He thought it happened in 1929, but in fact it was 1930. He was 100% correct in small details of a game played nearly 77 years earlier! No wonder he was able to write to me with amusement about being introduced thusly at an international conference: "If anyone asks you for a definition of a 'pop standard,' tell them they're the songs George Avakian remembered in high school."

I want to share some excerpts from George Avakian's e-mails to me, for three reasons:
  1. They illustrate the process of reconciling baseball memories with actual events. It's a tricky business when a long-held memory turns out to be flawed simply because we've seen so many games in our lives that isolated events merge in memory. One of the best things about the process is all the side-trails explored along the way. 
  2. They show why this kind of question was my favorite thing to tackle at the Hall of Fame. I relished making connections with people through baseball. Through these e-mails, you'll learn about Avakian and what it was like for him to discover baseball in New York City in the 1920s.
  3. They demonstrate that George Avakian was indeed quite a fellow. Think about the effort he put into this puzzle and exchange at age 88 regarding what he called a hobby, and you can picture why he was such a moving force in his prime, in his own field, for so long.
Here goes, from March 30, 2007:
Dear Mr. Schechter:

I should have sent this to you yesterday, but I wanted to finish coordinating my two earliest baseball memories with the information you so kindly looked up for me.

I'm enormously eager to see the report of the Yankee-White Sox game of May 3, 1930. My memory of Kamm's homer, which just cleared the railing near the foul line, is crystal clear. So are the Sox road uniforms (navy blue, from head to the bottom of the knee cap) with, of course, white stockings. What surprised me was that the year turns out to be 1930, but as you will see, it all fits together with the 2-homer newspaper headline and intervening memories. Here is what I believe is an accurate melding of your information and my memories:

Ruth's "May 3 homer" (which now merits either quotation marks around it or an Avakian asterisk) was never as clear in my mind's eye as Kamm's, so I am now certain that as time passed my memory of seeing Ruth and then reading about his actual homer on May 4, compressed both into the 5-3 game [on May 3]. 

About the two Ruth homers in one game, this is how I have finally decided that it must have happened on June 22, 1927, despite the fact that in our conversations I said that my summer vacations began around the first week of June, which does not fit in with walking home from school--but I had forgotten that I had changed schools in September 1929. 

When I checked the four dates you gave me against a perpetual calendar, I ruled out June 10, 1928 (it was a Sunday) and June 23, 1928 (Saturday). The memory of the headline and passing a newsstand with two classmates was as clear as Kamm's homer, so it had to be on a school day. June 22, 1927 was a Wednesday, and although September 28, 1925 was a Monday, so both were possibilities. I ruled out the latter--it was only when I reviewed the chronology of when I learned enough about baseball to start remembering specific games (even though I had not seen any yet), I realized that 1925 was too early (age 6), and it had to be June 22, 1927. The 23rd and 24th homers also fit in with my recollection of the headline. 

I don't recall when I learned what the game itself was like; certainly I did not even see kids playing while we lived at 129 East 76th Street, and the first time I remember anything about the nature of the game was when we had moved to Washington Heights (summer of 1929, age 10). This also meant that unlike the cheek-to-jowl geography of downtown, I could play in an empty lot behind our apartment building, where my mother could call to me from the sixth floor window that dinner would be on in ten minutes. That was the year my father bought me my first glove (an oversized puffy pillow which did not separate the pinky and the finger next to it). 

And so my next very clear memory was what I believe is the first time that regular-season games were broadcast in New York: a series between the Cubs and the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The games were broadcast because in late August 1929 the Cubs were in a pennant race with the Giants and the Cardinals. In the two invening years I had learned enough about the game so that I could envision the action as I listened. 

Hack Wilson was an intriguing Ruthian figure, so I followed the Cubs into the World Series against the Athletics. The 10-run seventh made me an instant A's fan. They became the first team I followed, albeit only via the pages of the morning Times or Tribune box scores. I remember vividly Lefty Grove losing the last game of the season to finish 31-4 in 1931, and George Earnshaw getting 4 hits in 5 at bats in consecutive games (the following summer?). But the curtain started to drop when in 1933 I saw a rookie shortstop named Ed Cihocki drop a pop fly at the Stadium, and then Mr. Mack sold off the heart of the team. (It was a thrill years later to share an elevator with the old gentleman in a St. Louis hotel.)

Of course, like so many of your phone and email contacts, I could go on and on, but as Frenchy Bordegaray possibly said to the waitress who brought him two eggs for breakfast, "Un oeuf is enough."

Thank you.
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I had mailed him the box score and a New York Times account of the Kamm game. The description of Kamm's home run matched Avakian's mental image. In response to his comment about Grove, I sent him a chapter from my book Unhittable! about Grove's 1931 season, when he could have gone unbeaten with just a few small alterations in his karma. Avakian's response: "I am saddened to learn that he could have gone unbeaten." Our discussion moved on to other mysteries.

On April 6, I received this e-mail:

Dear Gabriel:

This morning's NY Times has a front page story on Pat Venditte, a pitcher at Creighton College, who pitches effectively both right- and left-handed. It is a fascinating story, but I think it errs in stating that "the major leagues have had only one [switch-pitcher] since the 19th century: Greg Harris, primarily a right-handed reliever for many clubs from 1981 through 1995, pitched one inning using both arms for the Montreal Expos in his final season. That outing was considered more stunt than strategy."

But I am sure that I remember an American League pitcher who pitched effectively a few times from both sides in the late thirties. Could it have been Mike Ryba? I seem to recall that Ryba, who like Ruffing and Wes Ferrell occasionally pinch-hit, once played all nine positions in a game. . . .Jimmie Foxx did the same, and somebody else did it again about 15 years ago. . .

In 1937, my senior year at the high school (Horace Mann School for Boys, right here in Riverdale), we had an unbeaten baseball season. Johnny Metz was both a left-handed pitcher and occasional catcher. In my freshman year, we lost a game to Peddie, whose pitcher hit two doubles and a home run. His middle name was Washington, which he did not use when he went on to play the outfield for the Senators. (You guessed it--George Case.) He was the second pre-major leaguer I saw play in high school--the first was Hank Greenberg, shortstop for James Madison vs. George Washington (four blocks from our apartment in Washington Heights). Both, especially Greenberg, towered over everybody else on the field.

Greenberg played without a cap--now there's one the Hall of Fame never knew about, I'll bet!

End of Memory Lane for today.

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The last e-mail I still have from George Avakian arrived four days later. In it, typically, we cleared up one mystery and moved to another like two true fans:

One thing I have learned in our recent exchanges is that my memories are not always as accurate as I have believed them to be. I see now that something I once read about Mike Ryba (playing all positions in the minors) got interpolated in my head as a report of a major league feat. But where did I get the idea about his being ambidextrous? Similarly, the Jimmie Foxx bit puzzles me. I can still see a newspaper report in my mind's eye, with a box score that had an asterisk next to his name. Thank goodness I have you to clear up my memory!

After we discussed Lefty Grove, I tried to find the uniform numbers of the 1929 Athletics, but apparently they did not wear numbers until 1931, at which time they used scorecard designations (omitting 1, but using 2 for Cochrane through 9 for Bing Miller). I have always been intrigued by players' numbers. The NY Giants upset me when they changed to a system of single digits for catchers (Ray Noble, 5), teens for infielder (Hank Thompson, 16), twenties for outfielders (Bobby Thomson, 23) and over thirties for pitchers. 

Speaking of traditional number blocks for positions, I saw Ray Scarborough pitch for Washington at the Stadium in a late season game--possible the last day of one season--wearing 7, instead of his usual 10. Did many other pitchers wear a single digit in a game?

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There you go. We started with Babe Ruth and Willie Kamm, and ten days later drifted off in search of Mike Ryba and uniform numbers. To answer his queries, I sent him the following:

Dear George:

Don't worry about imprecise memories. When you think about how many games you've seen, the remarkable thing is that you remember so much.

The AL required all teams to wear numbers on their ROAD uniforms starting in 1931. The Athletics were the last team to add numbers to their home uniforms, not doing so until 1937. The original numbers were determined by batting order (back then, as you know, teams rarely platooned, and the regular lineup was pretty regular). That's why Ruth wore #3, Gehrig #4, and so on. The number system you describe for the Giants the norm at least in the NL in the 1950s and was still used at least through the 1960s. I grew up as a Reds fan, with outfielders Frank Robinson (#20) and Vada Pinson (#28), infielder Pete Rose (#14), and pitchers starting in the 30s. I haven't been able to find out whether this was a league rule at some point; I think it must have been, if all teams went to such a system. It wasn't changed until the 1970s, when players began having some say in their numbers.

As for Ray Scarborough, our book on uniform numbers doesn't list him wearing #7. . .Scarborough wore #10 for the Senators during 1948-49, and on September 10, 1949, he beat Vic Raschi at the Stadium, 4-3, in the first game of a doubleheader. Maybe that's the game you saw. No, it is very rare for a pitcher to wear a single-digit number.

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I do wish I had kept in touch with George Avakian, but I treasure the correspondence I saved and I vividly recall the youthful enthusiasm in his voice when we discussed baseball memories. That's what baseball does best--take any combination and origins, generations, and affinities, and a connection can always be found through baseball. You get a pretty good picture of George Avakian just from a handful of e-mails about events from his childhood, memories of youth still cherished by a man hurtling happily toward one hundred. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The All-Waugh Hall of Fame Team

Writing is seldom out-and-out fun, especially writing for publication, and doubly especially writing fiction. It is many wonderful things, a constant challenge that brings moments of exhilaration and a lingering, deep satisfaction, but not fun.

There's one well-known baseball novel that strikes me as an exception to this rule: Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Published in 1968, it concerns an accountant, Henry Waugh, who becomes so obsessed with a dice baseball game he has created that chronicling the history of the league becomes more important than the game itself. It gets worse after that for Henry Waugh. Why do I choose to think that Coover actually had fun writing it? One of the reasons is the characters' names. Clearly, Coover found joy in matching names to the characters' qualities as players and people.

Early in the book, he tells us why:

Henry was always careful about names, for they were what gave
the league its sense of fulfillment and failure, its emotion. . .Names
 had to be chosen, therefore, that could bear the whole weight of
perpetuity. . .Now, it was funny about names. All right, you bring a
player up from the minors, call him A. . .You roll [the dice], 
Player A gets a hit or he doesn't, gets his man out or doesn't. 
Sounds simple. But call Player A "Sycamore Flynn" or
"Melbourne Trench" and something starts to happen. He shrinks
or grows, stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to
all fields or belts them over the wall. Throws mostly fast balls
like Swanee Law or curves like Mickey Halifax. Choleric like
Rag Rooney or slow and smooth like his old first-base rival
Mose Stanford. 

You get the idea. Coover assembled a rich roster of characters including: Hatrack Hines, Grammercy Locke, Witness York, Scat Batkin, Old Fennimore McCaffree, Goodman James, McAllister Weeks, Toothbrush Terrigan, and more. Many, many dozens more. Coover preferred quirky nicknames and alliteration when possible, but they were all euphonious and made the characters come alive.

I'm trying to get in on the fun not by reading the novel for the fourth or fifth time, but by putting together a roster of players who would pass muster with their names and fit easily in Henry Waugh's league. The players are Hall of Famers, who tend to have dramatic names and vivid nicknames. As Coover put it, their names can "bear the whole weight of perpetuity," as they do in the plaque gallery at the HOF museum. Believe me, I had to narrow it down quite a bit to come up with a 25-man roster of two immortals at each position plus nine pitchers. Here they are:

C: Yogi Berra and Gabby Hartnett
1B: Harmon "Killer" Killebrew and Frank Chance
2B: Nellie Fox and Bid McPhee
SS: Pee Wee Reese and Rabbit Maranville
3B: Pie Traynor and Wade Boggs
RF: Babe Ruth and Kiki Cuyler
CF: Oscar Charleston and Cool Papa Bell
LF: Goose Goslin and Zack Wheat
P: Three Finger Brown, Dazzy Vance, Dizzy Dean, Waite Hoyt, Satchel Paige, Early Wynn, Red Ruffing, Burleigh Grimes, and Rollie Fingers

Honorable mention goes to Jimmie Foxx, Judy Johnson, Enos Slaughter, Elmer Flick, Mule Suttles, and Harry Hooper. I could also add non-players like Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Cumberland Posey, Effa Manley, Branch Rickey, and Hank O'Day.

You can see how many of those names evoke personal traits and baseball talents. Some are simply suggestive of other vocations--I see Wade Boggs as a cranberry farmer, Pie Traynor as a dedicated baker, and Burleigh Grimes as a truck mechanic. I've been crazy about one pitcher's name since I was a kid; it was still the 1950s when I imagined a sentence that didn't come to fruition until 1999, when the baseball world mourned the loss of the late Early Wynn, who I imagined pitched best in day games and first games of doubleheaders.

I'm a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, a congenital syndrome inherited from my father, a Cincinnati native. After I compiled that Hall of Famers roster, I thought today about his tales of the champion 1919 Reds; he said he attended that World Series (at age 12), and I believe him. Two of his favorites from that team were Waugh-worthy: Ivey Wingo and Slim Sallee. So I spent a little time putting together a 25-man roster of Cooverish names from franchise history, sorted only generally by position. Here they are:

Catchers: Ivey Wingo, Bubbles Hargrave

Infielders: Bid McPhee, Deacon White, Dave Concepcion, Heinie Groh, Wally Pipp, Woody Woodward, and Virgil Stallcup

Outfielders: Cesar Geronimo, Greasy Neale, Jim Greengrass, Wily Mo Pena, Estel Crabtree, and Angel Bravo

Pitchers: Slim Sallee, Noodles Hahn, Orval Overall, Billy McCool, Icebox Chamberlain, Elmer Riddle, Ewell Blackwell, Rawley Eastwick, Eppa Rixey, and Bubba Church

Manager: Birdie Tebbetts

I included only those who played in at least two seasons for Cincinnati, knocking out cups of coffee and brief stops on the way elsewhere. Drawing that line eliminated some players with wonderful names: Cannonball Crane, Earl Yingling, Steve Christmas, Marcus McBeth, Homer Smoot, Twink Twining, Rebel Oakes, Huck Betts, Jim Bluejacket, Ezra Midkiff, and so many more.

I invite you to contribute such a squad from your favorite franchise. Revel in their splendor. You can't make up names like these, folks. Only God and Robert Coover could. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ron Darling's Biggest Game

I was a big fan of Ron Darling the pitcher, but something about his style always bothered me. He had terrific stuff but didn't seem to trust it. He was a nibbler, the kind of pitcher who fusses on the mound as if gathering the nerve just to throw the ball, then directs his pitches a bit off the strike zone, hoping the hitter will go fishing and give him an easy out. He walked way more batters than he should have (nearly 3.5 per nine innings for his career, leading the league in 1985), got in trouble too often, and seemed to lack the aggressiveness to overpower the opposition. As he puts it, "I fretted instead of fumed."

I have much the same feeling about Darling's new book, Game 7 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life (St. Martin's Press, written with Daniel Paisner). There's a lot of good stuff, plenty of candor and analysis, but his writing nibbles around the edges of his subject while only occasionally digging his heels in and facing things head-on. The result resembles his pitching career--the work is solid, it makes you root for the guy, but it isn't nearly as good as it could have been.

I'll start with the best things about Darling's account of his personal failure and his team's triumph in the final game of the 1986 World Series. At the top of the list is his unflinching view of how poorly he pitched that night at Shea Stadium, getting rocked for back-to-back home runs by Dwight Evans and Rich Gedman in the second inning and getting yanked by Davey Johnson with two outs in the fourth, trailing 3-0.

It took him nearly 30 years to watch film of that game, in order to analyze his performance pitch by pitch. The reader learns a ton from this analysis, and not just about Darling, who despite completing his third full season in the majors with a 15-6 record and a 2.81 ERA, lacked a deep confidence in his ability. Most vivid is his sharing of the emotional roller-coaster of the starting pitcher--how one missed call in the first inning can topple his game plan, how a lucky bounce or a great defensive play can restore his resolve. The pitcher--the loneliest figure in a team sport--can talk himself onto and off the ledge and back and forth, and we feel Darling's anguish as this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity falls apart early.

The measure of Darling's sense of aloneness was his admitted estrangement from his team's success. It began in an odd way during Game 6, when pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre told him to go home in the ninth inning. Stottlemyre, confident the Mets would win, wanted Darling to avoid the post-game traffic jam, get home early, and get sufficient rest before Game 7. Darling started homeward in his 1966 Mercedes, which had no radio, but he soon sensed that something was going on back at Shea Stadium. He hurried back to the ballpark, sneaked into the clubhouse, heard the television going in clubhouse attendant Charles Samuels' office, and watched on the tiny screen as the Mets rallied to win. While the packed stadium went nuts during the rally, he remained glued to his seat, following the player's tradition of not moving as long as things are going well.

Of course, if Stottlemyre had known that rain would delay Game 7 for a day, he wouldn't have sent Darling anywhere, and that sense of estrangement would not have been triggered. By the time Game 7 rolled around two nights later, Darling was deep in his "game-day" mode, the insular, surly mood a starting pitcher has to get himself into after waiting around and doing little between starts. His routine disrupted by family members staying at his home and by sharing the drive to Shea with reporter Ira Berkow, Darling felt his delicate self-image out of kilter before he even took the mound.

Once he was derricked, Darling remained in a remote corner of the dugout, stewing in his sense of failure and letting down his teammates. When the Mets, still down 3-0, rallied in the sixth inning, Darling tells us, "This was my one thought just then, to get back to even. To get me off the hook. The thought of actually winning the game was still paramount, but I was prioritizing here. The one would follow from the other, so as the crowd went crazy I offered up a silent prayer: give me one more run--please, please, please." He got the run and no longer could be the losing pitcher.

Still, he was unable to join in his teammates' excitement at taking the lead in the seventh inning. "Oh, how I wished I could have turned my cap in on itself and joined in the rally cap silliness, in the jumping around. . .but I was still yoked to those dismal early innings and ever-mindful that it was me who'd made these late-inning runs so damn meaningful. It wouldn't do for me to be whooping it up and celebrating at these twists and turns." Thirty years later, and he still feels guilty about that performance. It has taken him this long to accept his temporary insanity on that historic night.

I wish that Darling had been able to avoid overusing cliches in this otherwise gripping account. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the sustained erudition of a Yale man--certainly his capsule portraits of his teammate are vivid and shrewd--but there are too many sentences and paragraphs with strings of cliches, baseball and otherwise. It's like a "waste pitch" on an 0-2 count, when the pitcher feels obligated to throw the ball so far from the heart of the matter that no batter would pay attention.

Even with the portraits of teammates, Darling nibbles around the edges of the truth. Several times he assures us that he's not going to throw his teammates "under the bus" even when they have gone public with their own accounts of their excesses and addictions. Only once, when discussing Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, does he offer what he calls a "mini-swipe" at Strawberry, explaining why Strawberry wasn't a good teammate while Gooden remained popular: "The further away I am from my playing days, the more I resent how they squandered their gifts--but hey, they were their gifts to squander, not mine; their choices to make, not mine. At the time, I suppose I resented it a little more in Darryl, because Doc had that sweetness about him. Doc was like a lost kid. Darryl, at times, didn't seem to give a shit."

Although Darling is candid about drinking and gives a lively account of punching out a policeman in Texas, he dances around the subject of cocaine and steroids and gives the impression that he has never seen them. He's more forthcoming about amphetamines; though he doesn't tell us  who used them, he provides plenty of details about how they were used. Still, he's reluctant to come in with the high hard one, assuring us that "if you weren't 'in the jar' [taking amphetamines], some of the language and some of the routines were elusive."

The most perplexing thing about Darling's account of Game 7 is that even though he admits overthinking things, his thinking did not go deep enough. Mainly, he says, he decided that even though he hadn't allowed the Red Sox an earned run in his first two starts in the Series, he needed to do something different in Game 7. He assumed that the Red Sox would be expected the same stuff that had stymied them twice. But he didn't take that logic one step further by realizing that Boston's Bruce Hurst, having won two Series games already, would face the same over-exposure in Game 7. He conceded that the Mets would continue to have trouble with Hurst, while assuming that the Red Sox would see through him. That's how he accounts for getting rocked early, while it took the Mets six innings to get to Hurst.

Yet in his final analysis of his failure, he declares, "In the first two games, I probably got them out on a lot of balls down in the strike zone, a lot of fastballs, and I stupidly, haughtily assumed I could do the same in this Game 7." Well, which was it, Ronnie? That revelation comes on Page 139, after we've spent more than half the book listening to him assert that his lack of confidence made him believe he had to do something different. Now I don't know what he did wrong. I know it was something awful because he's still indulging in self-laceration three decades later, admitting that he couldn't even enjoy the post-Series celebrations because he hadn't contributed enough to the victory. But he has left me back where he started with his analysis. Either he tried to do things differently from what had worked, or he didn't get away with doing things the same way. Take your pick.

It might be unfair of me, but my biggest disappointment concerns something that isn't in the book. Experience is the best teacher, and certainly an intelligent man like Darling must have learned something from this flawed approach to the biggest game of his life. He had a chance to apply that lesson just two years later, when he got the call to pitch Game 7 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium. He had pitched well in Game 3, facing super-hot Orel Hershiser and battling him to a 3-3 tie before leaving after six innings. Now they squared off again in Game 7.

Darling's final chapter here is a general summation of his post-1986 career, but he doesn't say a word about how he fared in nearly the same situation two years later. It wouldn't have taken much space, since it lasted just ten batters. The first two Dodgers smacked a single and a double, and Kirk Gibson's sacrifice fly scored a run. Darling struck out the next two batters, and that was the end of the good news. His second inning went: single, single, single (on a bunt to Darling), error, single. That was it; the inherited runners scored, Darling was saddled with six runs (four earned) in one-plus innings, and this time his teammates didn't get him off the hook.

I witnessed that debacle first-hand. It's still painful to me, and it's surely painful to Darling. If it took him thirty years to write about the time the team bailed him out, will he live long enough to tell us how he screwed up that one? I hope he does tell us; I look forward to reading all about it. I enjoy his analysis on television, and for the most part I enjoy his writing voice, especially when he's willing to zoom in on the truths underlying what we fans see only on the surface.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Everything You Never Imagined You'd Know About the Hidden-Ball Trick

I met Bill Deane at the Baseball Hall of Fame library in 1991, when he was the Senior Researcher there, and I've been marveling at his research expertise ever since. He's in the handful of top researchers (by that I mean dogged, tireless, and ingenious) I've ever watched in action, along with Tom Shieber, Peter Morris, and Herman Krabbenhoft. So when Deane comes out with a book that reflects searches over a three-decade period, I pay attention.

Finding the Hidden-Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball's Oldest Ruse (published by Rowman & Littlefield, available at began as one of a legion of odd-incident lists Deane compiled while poring over microfilm game accounts and box scores. For instance, a list published in the Home Run Encyclopedia covered incidents when a player's final career at-bat was a home run. As the compilation of hidden-ball tricks grew, in part thanks to the arrival of and a greater availability of batter-by-batter game accounts, even more possible successful ruses cropped up. Enlisting the aid of SABR brethren who tracked down documentation of this or that possibility, Deane found enough published coverage confirming 264 of them to create a whole book about this unique and controversial sports stratagem. I for one am very glad he did.

One of the delightful things about reading this book is the discovery that the hidden-ball trick (HBT henceforth, following Deane's example) has always been controversial. It involves a degree of deception that preys on the unwary. Like a three-card-monte artist, the perpetrator of the HBT uses both visual and verbal distractions; Deane titles the chapter about 1950s HBTs "Step Off the Base a Minute, Will Ya?" The ball has to be hidden somewhere, and the cooperation of the pitcher is vital, as he must stall in the vicinity of the mound until the runner can be induced to leave the safety of his base. Rules have been enacted to charge a balk to a pitcher who takes the mound with a ball, which means that to execute the HBT, the man without the ball often works harder than the man who has it. In addition, the umpire has to call it! We also learn that in recent decades, more of the blame for being caught has fallen on base coaches than on the runners.

Because it can be seen as crossing the lines of sportsmanship, the HBT has faced opposition, notably from Ban Johnson, who tried to outlaw from his precious American League. The Sporting News editorialized against the play as late as 1945. The National League took the longer view that if a runner is stupid enough to get caught, that's his lookout. Despite all the arguments, ejections, and even fights resulting from HBTs, that view has prevailed. The earliest HBT documented by Deane occurred in 1872--in the major leagues. It occurred many times in baseball's even more primitive days, which is why it was first called "an old trick" as early as 1876. It has been an old trick ever since, but one that spikes excitement in the ballpark. It still endures, though only five successful attempts have been made since 2000.

We learn about the controversies and the excitement mainly through Deane's decision to include nearly every newspaper account of the 264 successes as well as chapter about near-misses. This is a double-edged sword. The good news is that it allows us to hear over 125 years' worth of reporters' voices. As anyone knows who has read newspapers of a century ago, the styles were highly entertaining, and they are all of that here. As a sample, here is I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune in 1910: "J. Evers was made the victim of the moth-ball-scented trick by none other than Fred 'Bone' Merkle. . . .Merkle stabbed him, and the umpire saw it. There was great joy among the bugs who love the Trojan, we don't think so."

The bad news is that we get less of Deane's own voice. Apart from the introductory chapters and brief comments before the decade-by-decade discussions, Deane is satisfied most of the time to provide the "according to" for the next HBT account and to add a smidgen or two of color to summarize the event. I miss the authoritative, wryly humorous narratives and patient, judicious explanations of his previous book, Baseball Myths. Not that this tone is absent from the parade of HBTs--it just isn't there often enough.

As always, Deane is meticulous about presenting his research. He has identified the greatest perpetrators of the HBT--Bill Coughlin, a third baseman with Washington and Detroit in the early years of the American League, was the leader with nine and likely the target of Ban Johnson's indignant abhorrence of the play. He also pulled off the only HBT in the World Series, playing for the 1907 Tigers when he tagged out Jimmy Slagle of the Cubs in a play labeled by the Spalding Guide  as "ancient and decrepit."

Second all-time was the wily Miller Huggins, a Cardinals second baseman whose brain power propelled him to a Hall of Fame managing career. The only other Hall of Famer to turn the trick at least three times was 19th-century first baseman Dan Brouthers. On the other hand, plenty of Hall of Famers have been victimized by the HBT, 32 to be exact. Notable names on the roster of dunderheads include the quick-witted trio of Tinker, Evers and Chance, Willie Mays (though, regrettably, no details are provided), John Montgomery Ward (twice in one season), Jimmie Foxx, Orlando Cepeda, Gary Carter and, most recently, Rickey Henderson (victimized by first baseman Rafael Palmeiro in 1998).

This treasure-trove of baseball tales makes for a fast, entertaining read. My own reading of it was somewhat marred by alarms going off in several Pet Peeves areas of my baseball-editor antennae. It grates on me to read about "a Cub victory" or a "Brown shortstop," but it grates more when an author is inconsistent in usage, as when Deane, in the space of half a page, refers to a "Robin rookie," a "Reds first baseman," and "the Giants' Jim Hamby." They can't all be right; two of them are, which is why the third grates on me. Deane is also inconsistent about verb tenses. Though his own text is in present tense, applying the present tense to quoted passages written a hundred years ago can get tricky. When a present-tense quote is followed by Deane informing us that someone else "recalled" it years later, I find it disconcerting. Finally, he keeps telling us that The Sporting News or another publication "writes" the quote that follows. Newspapers do a lot of things that people do; they report, note, declare, assert, explain, suggest, and even say things, but the one thing the papers do not do is write. Only people write.

Despite those fleeting annoyances, I recommend Deane's book for many reasons: the sheer wealth of lore he excavated; the shrewd way he organized it; his compelling quest for documentation, and the sometimes glowing, sometimes grumbling accounts by generations of reporters.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

Everything You Know Is Wrong: Pedro Martinez Edition

There are many fine baseball discussion groups on Facebook, and naturally I keep an eye on the Hall of Fame group. With the BBWAA election of new Hall of Fame members coming up tomorrow, the discussion has been hot and heavy. Today, I found myself in a strenuous debate with one of my closest baseball friends, Bill Deane. During our separate tenures as researchers at the Hall of Fame library, Bill and I were often besieged by people lobbying for against this or that player's rightful place in the Hall of Fame. Usually we're on the same page, but not this time.

Bill's contention was that Pedro Martinez was a "thug" on the mound, based primarily on his high frequency of hitting batters with pitchers. I disputed this contention, and the debate took off from there. Bill came up with a wonderful statistic. He cited Martinez's career ratio of HBP to walks as empirical evidence that when a pitcher with pinpoint control like Martinez--the only pitcher with more than 3,000 strikeouts and fewer than 1,000 walks--hits a batter, it isn't merely a pitch that "got away" from the hurler. There must have been something purposeful about it, and if Martinez chose to hit that many batters, it must be because he is, at heart, a thug.

Here's the exact stat that Bill cited: Martinez has a HBP:W ratio of .185, or nearly one hit batter for every five walked batters. Bill also noted that Bob Gibson, probably the most mean-spirited pitcher of our time, had a far lower ratio of .076 and said "see if you can find someone higher. I got on, checked the all-time HBP list, and within a few minutes found that Joe McGinnity had a ratio of .220, quite a bit higher than Martinez. Eddie Plank was not far behind Martinez at .177. When I posted this response to Bill's challenge, he answered, "If you had to go back to Joe McGinnity, I rest my case."

I have no idea why he thought that my finding someone higher proved his case, but there you go. I tried a different tack I pointed out that Greg Maddux's ratio was .137, or 80 percent higher. By Bill's logic, that would mean that Maddux was nearly twice the "thug" that Bob Gibson was, which is ridiculous, as anybody who watched them pitch knows. Any stat that makes Maddux look so much thuggier than Gibson cannot have any significance.

At this point, I googled Martinez and HBP and found several references to a remarkable 2013 article in the New York Daily News, in which Martinez declared that "probably 90 percent" of the batters he hit were on purpose. “You have to actually make (batters) feel uncomfortable all the time if you want to have success," he said, echoing a basic truth of major league baseball.

The article included a dandy story by Martinez's former Boston teammate, Kevin Millar, about a game Martinez pitched against Roger Clemens. After Clemens drilled Millar with a pitch, Martinez asked Millar whom he wanted to be drilled in retaliation. As Millar told it, “First pitch to (Alfonso) Soriano — wham! Up near the neck. Next batter, (Derek) Jeter — wham! Up near the neck. Pedro later told me, ‘You tell Clemens, he hits one of mine, I take two of his.’”

That does sound like the Pedro Martinez we know, taking his retaliatory responsibilities quite seriously. Does that kind of action constitute thuggery? Perhaps. I decided to take a closer look at all those hit batters. has an entry for each player titled "Top Performances," which lists the games on which a player compiled the highest stats in an array of categories.

For Martinez and HBP, 16 games are listed, one in which he hit three batters and 15 in which he hit two batters--including Game 5 of the ALCS, in which he plunked two Yankees--Miguel Cairo and Alex Rodriguez. Clemens did not pitch that day, and no Red Sox were hit by pitches. So Millar wasn't referring to that game. I determined to find out when this happened.

The 3-HBP game came in 2006 when he pitched for the Mets against the Nationals, plunking Jose Guillen twice and former Yankee Nick Johnson once. Later that season, he got two Phillies in a game he left after one inning with a leg injury. Four of the other instances occurred when he pitched for the Expos. So that left ten games with the Red Sox in which he hit two batters.

Although I went through all ten of those before taking the next step, I'm going to jump ahead here and note that while Martinez pitched for Boston from 1998-2004, Kevin Millar played for Boston from 2003-2006. So the Clemens game would have had to take place in 2003 or 2004. Martinez hit two batters in a game three times in those two seasons, including the 2004 ALCS game mentioned earlier. That left the games of March 31, 2003 and August 28, 2004.

On August 28, 2004, they played Detroit, and the HBPs occurred three innings apart. No Red Sox were hit in that game. On March 31, 2003, the Red Sox played Tampa Bay. Kevin Millar was hit by a pitch in that game, so maybe that was the event that got confused in his memory. But no. Martinez hit Al Martin in the fourth inning, Millar was hit by Joe Kennedy in the following inning, and the last HBP came in the seventh inning. So that wasn't it either.

I still hoped to track down the game Millar might have referred to, having seen enough tales based on faulty memories to suspect that was the case here. In 2003, he was hit by five pitches, including once by Roger Clemens at Yankee Stadium. It happened in the second inning, and it's true that Alfonso Soriano was also hit by a pitch in that game. However, it was Ramiro Mendoza who nailed him, and it happened three innings later. Jeter followed the HBP with a single. That doesn't fit Millar's story either.

In 2004, Millar led the American League by getting hit with a pitch 17 times. In late April,. he was hit at Yankee Stadium in back-to-back games. The first time it was by Paul Quantrill in the 12th inning, and Martinez didn't pitch that day. The next day, Javier Vazquez got him in the second inning. Pedro was the pitcher--maybe this was it! But no. Not only did Pedro not hit anybody, Soriano had been trading away to Texas. That disqualified Millar's 2004 season, though it was fun to see that he was hit three more times by Yankees pitchers that season. Even Mariano Rivera found him. But Martinez didn't pitch in any of those games.

I had one more thing to check. Both Soriano and Jeter were hit exactly once in their careers by Martinez. This took more digging, but maybe I'd find that they happened back-to-back and that Millar was only hoping it was because Martinez came to his defense. In 2002, Martinez hit two Yankees in a game twice, and both times it was same player--Jason Giambi the first time and Robin Ventura the second.

On July 7, 2003, at Yankee Stadium, Martinez plunked Jeter for the only time in his career. It happened in the bottom of the first inning. The Retrosheet box score tells us that Soriano led off by striking out, but he left the game after that inning. Perhaps Martinez didn't hit him, but merely brushed him in a way that caused Soriano to pull a muscle ducking out of the way. Jeter also left the game after two innings, possibly with a sore neck if that's where he was hit. On the other hand, Millar did not bat in the top of that inning, and the Yankees' pitcher that day was Mike Mussina, who didn't hit anybody.

Well, maybe Millar was hit the previous day by Clemens and Martinez was exacting justice the first chance he got. That theory went out the window when I saw that Andy Pettitte pitched the previous day and did not hit Millar or anybody else. Jeter, however, was hit by John Burkett.What was Millar thinking about when he told that story a decade after it supposedly happened? I have no idea.

So where does that leave me? Bill Deane did get around to answering my point about Greg Maddux, saying, "Maybe hitters didn't mind getting hit by Maddux's 85 mph stuff, as it seemed the only way they could get on base." That might have some validity. Over the course of Maddux's career, opposing batters had a .250 lifetime average and a .291 on-base percentage. So taking a cutter off the elbow pad would seem to be an acceptable way to get on base against the winningest pitcher of his generation.

But what about Pedro Martinez? In his career, opposing batters had a .214 average and a .276 on-base percentage. That shows that Martinez was a much tougher pitcher to hit than Maddux, and even though his fastball measured 5-8mph more than Maddux's, it still seems like a better percentage for them to take that heater off the elbow pad. Just because I ducked a high-inside heater from Bill Deane and scratched out an infield single, it doesn't follow that a major league hitter would be above taking a free base from the hardest-to-hit pitcher since Nolan Ryan took his total of 158 hit batters and retired.