Thursday, December 18, 2008

Great What-If Matchups

One of most baseball historians' favorite things to speculate about is how certain players would have done if their careers had happened in different times and places and against different opponents. How spectacular would Ozzie Smith have been on a dirt infield with a small glove instead of on Astroturf? Suppose Ted Williams had been traded for Joe DiMaggio and both hitters could have performed in much friendlier home-field configurations? Would Willie Mays have beaten Hank Aaron to 715 home runs if the Giants had stayed in the Polo Grounds? Suppose Gaylord Perry had been allowed to throw a spitball?

I'm particularly interested in how great hitters and pitchers perform against each other. Thanks to Retrosheet, we can view those breakdowns from the last 50+ seasons. Take my two favorite pitchers from the last 20 years, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. I remember that at one point in Maddux's career, Tony Gwynn had a lifetime .500 batting average against him. Gwynn wound up going 39-for-91 agaisnt Maddux, an impressive .429 average. Even more eyepopping is the fact that Maddux never struck him out! Gwynn drew 10 walks against him, leading to a career on-base percentage of .485. On the other hand, Barry Bonds had only a .370 on-base percentage against Maddux, and batted just .262 (34-for-130). On the other hand, eight of those hits were home runs. For a hitter Maddux "owned," try Dale Murphy, a pitiful 2-for-34 (.059 average) with 12 strikeouts.

Pedro Martinez has owned a lot of great hitters. Frank Thomas was a mere 2-for-24 against him (.083), with 11 strikeouts and only one home run. Manny Ramirez isn't much better, just 5-for-30 (.167) with no home runs and 13 Ks. Other batting studs who have struggled against him include Albert Pujols (2-for 13, .154), Sammy Sosa (4-25, .160, with 15 Ks), and Ken Griffey (1-for-15, .067). But don't tell Mike Piazza that Pedro is unhittable. Piazza drilled 6 home runs in only 26 at-bats against him, for a slugging% of 1.115 to go with a .385 batting average.

How would they have done against the greatest hitters of the past? I often think about possible duels between players I know well and players I never saw. Here is a lineup full of intriguing pitcher-batter matchups I wish I could have seen. In each case, I've pitted a living player against a long-gone adversary. Which one do you think would have gotten the better of the other?

1. Greg Maddux vs. Ted Williams: It's tempting to throw a tough lefty like Steve Carlton at Williams, but I think Williams would handle him. Carlton's best pitch was a slider which started at the belt and dived low-and-inside to righty hitters, who would twist themselves into pretzels trying to hit it. Williams would recognize and lay off that pitch, which would be outside the strike zone crossing the plate. So I'll go with Maddux instead. We'd have the hitter with the best knowledge of the strike zone against the pitcher with the most precise command of the strike zone. Much of the time, Williams would work the count full, and Maddux would throw him his bread-and-butter 3-2 pitch, a change-up breaking low and away from lefties, into the area where Williams felt he was most vulnerable. I think Williams would fare about the way Barry Bonds did against Maddux, working him for his share of walks and belting some home runs, but losing the overall battle.

2. Randy Johnson vs. Babe Ruth: Wouldn't you love to see these two behemoths square off about a hundred times? It would depend on which Johnson showed up, the wild hurler of his early years or the low-walk pitcher of his Cy Young Award seasons. I actually think Ruth would do better against the later Johnson. He'd feel more comfortable, would have to guess less often, and wouldn't strike out as much. A few lefties have done well against "The Big Unit," including Bonds and Larry Walker, who hit .393 in 28 at-bats despite famously turning around to bat right-handed in an All-Star Game.

3. Pedro Martinez vs. Rogers Hornsby: This one could go either way, the best right-handed hitter of all time (.358 career average) tangling with a pitcher who has held righties to a .204 average. Hornsby stood well away from the plate and stepped into the ball, spraying line drives all over the field. Pedro wouldn't be able to intimidate him with high-inside heat; Hornsby would simply back up. The key would be how well he could paint the outside corner, and how well Hornsby could reach those pitches. I think the result would be similar to Roberto Clemente facing Juan Marichal. Clemente hit .288 in 125 at-bats, with a solid .488 slugging%.

4. Bob Gibson vs. Ty Cobb: I can see it now. Gibson would start by low-bridging Cobb, who would glare at him. The second pitch would be under Cobb's chin, and down he'd go. Same thing on the next pitch. The 3-0 pitch would be in the strike zone, and Cobb would drag a bunt down the first-base line. Somewhere between home and first, the two would meet and tangle, punching and kicking each other until they both were bloodied. Next time up, they'd start in all over again. Cobb used to brag that he took advantage of Walter Johnson, like Gibson a hard thrower with a crossfire motion, because he knew Johnson didn't want to hit batters. He wouldn't have that luxury against Gibson.

5. Sandy Koufax vs. Lou Gehrig: Let's put these two New Yorkers in a neutral park, taking away the raised mound of Dodger Stadium and the short right-field porch of Yankee Stadium, and see who prevails. I don't think Koufax would overpower Gehrig, but that off-the-table curve would keep him off-balance. Stan Musial, a comparable hitter, batted .342 in 38 at-bats against Koufax, though he was spared Sandy's last three dominating seasons. Gehrig would have sacrificed some power to find the gaps in this matchup.

6. Nolan Ryan vs. Willie Keeler: These two are polar opposites, "hit 'em where they ain't" facing the guy who threw 'em where the bats weren't more often than anybody. Keeler rarely walked (one walk per 17 at-bats for his career) and almost never struck out, while Ryan either walked or fanned nearly 40% of the hitters he faced in his career. So what would happen? The outfield would play about 50 feet behind the infield dirt against the ultimate slap-hitter, and Keeler would stand in astonishment as fastballs whizzed past his head. Eventually he'd get his bat on the ball and steer it safely between Ryan and the second-base bag.

7. Christy Mathewson vs. Ichiro Suzuki: I was tempted to give Lefty Grove a shot at Ichiro, but he hasn't had a problem with hard-throwing lefties, batting a combined 27-for-66 (.409) against Randy Johnson and CC Sabathia. Of course, he was also 4-for-6 against Greg Maddux, the pitcher most similar to Mathewson, but only 5-for-23 against Pedro Martinez. Matty would throw a steady stream of strikes and dare Ichiro to try to go deep, but he'd also be well-practiced in handling all those bunts and choppers. We haven't seen anybody who can stop Ichiro, but this one could go either way.

8. Lefty Grove vs. Tony Gwynn: Grove was the hardest thrower of his generation and, for my money, the best left-hander ever, while Gwynn was the best pure hitter and the toughest to strike out in his generation (roughly once every 25 plate appearances). I think Tony might be in trouble on this one. He hit only .156 (7-for-45) against three hard-throwing lefties (Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Mitch Williams), albeit in limited action. Against Grove, he'd just try to make contact and slice something to left field, where the fielder would be stacked to stifle him

9. Juan Marichal vs. Mel Ott: This battle of great Giants would be fun for aesthetics as much as any other factor. The high-stepping "Dominican Dandy" had the highest leg kick ever by a pitcher; if you never witnessed it, that's too bad. He'd rear back with his front leg almost straight overhead, and somehow fire a dazzling array of pitches with pinpoint control. Meanwhile, Ott had the highest leg kick of any hitter. About the time that Marichal dropped his left leg, Ott would be raising his right knee to his chest. He had an eagle eye that would challenge Marichal's control, a power hitter who drew a ton of walks (over 100 in ten seasons) and seldom struck out (in 1929, he hit 42 home runs and whiffed only 38 times).

Those are my nine dream matchups. Computer simulations are fine for estimating how these duel might have gone, but I really wish I could see them. Who would you like to see?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Same Dog, Old Tricks

The New York Yankees are at it again. In the middle of a national financial crisis, the richest franchise in sports is leaning on taxpayers to foot more of the bill for a new stadium that has already cost $1.3 billion. I still haven't figured out why--at the same time the Boston Red Sox have found ways to make Fenway Park last a few more decades--the Yankees found it so imperative to tear down the shrine-like Yankee Stadium, unless it was sheer jealousy that New York City might finance a replacement for the Mets' unshrine-like Shea Stadium.

Yankee Stadium underwent a major renovation and face-lift a mere three decades ago, which in itself should have been a cautionary tale heeded by city officials when the Yankees came begging this time around. Here's the item reported today by the Associated Press:

"The Yankees and Mets are asking the city for $450 million more in public bonds to finance their new ballparks, on top of nearly $1.5 billion they were already granted, according to the city's Economic Development Corp.

The teams requested the additional financing in applications filed with the city ahead of a public hearing on the funding next month. The applications have not yet been made public, but the city shared details in response to questions from The Associated Press.

In the Yankees' application, the team is asking for another $259 million in tax-exempt bonds and $111 million in taxable bonds, on top of $940 million in tax-exempt bonds and $25 million in taxable bonds already granted for its $1.3 billion stadium. The Mets are requesting an additional $83 million, on top of $615 million already approved for their $800 million park.

The city's Industrial Development Agency must hold a hearing before granting any additional public support for the ballparks, which are expected to be completed next year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have long insisted that the city reaps economic and other benefits from having the private stadiums."

A few things are worth noting there. First, the new Yankees stadium was already slated to cost twice as much as the new Mets stadium, while more than 80% of the requested increase in funds would go to the Yankees. No wonder they could only afford to offer C. C. Sabathia a contract for $140 million. The entire Tampa Bay Rays roster made less last year than Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez combined, but it's business as usual in New York as long as the taxpayers can be suckered into paying the bill. It is telling that the mayor cites "other benefits" as a key justification for allocating public money to subsidize one of the city's most affluent tenants. It is an old trick, in fact the same trick pulled by Major John Lindsey back in the 1970s when the city conned its citizens into paying four times what they thought they were going to pay for the renovation of Yankee Stadium.

That story is told, in bits and pieces, in my book "This BAD Day in Yankees History." Here are the relevant items as detailed in the book:

APRIL 5, 1973: WARNING SIGNS: The renovation costs for Yankee Stadium have risen to $27.9 million. This is just the first of many announcements which ultimately raise the original estimate of $24 million to nearly $100 million by the time the job is done.

Quote of the Day: City Council President Sanford Garelik, after Mayor Lindsey says the cost increase is "routine": "The Mayor's casual admission defies belief. . .The total stadium cost may well come in at twice the $24-million cost of Shea Stadium." Make that four times as much.

NOVEMBER 9, 1973: FUZZY THINKING: The Yankees, exiled to Shea Stadium for two years while Yankee Stadium is renovated, request that they be charged only $1 per year in rent. The city is already undertaking the $24 million renovation that will ultimately cost four times that, and the Yankees will pocket parking revenues at Shea, but they still don't want to pay rent.

NOVEMBER 14, 1973: URBAN SHOCKER: The City Planning Commissioner approves an additional $15.9 million funding of the Yankee Stadium renovation, bringing the current cost for the project to $49.9 million. That’s already more than twice the figure announced by mayor John Lindsay when he approved the project. Of course, when Lindsay made the deal he already knew it was going to cost over $30 million, but he said $24 million because that was what the city spent on Shea Stadium. When today’s funding is announced, there’s a report on Lindsay’s desk from the Economic Development Administration saying that the cost will rise to $80 million. Confused? Join the crowd, as New Yorkers wonder why school repairs are being neglected while all this money is poured into a project to benefit CBS, the huge corporation which owns the Yankees. Mayor-elect Abraham Beame’s figure is $53 million. You can double that figure, too, as the renovation’s price-tag ultimately skyrockets to over $100 million. In other words, the whole project was a scam and a mess. By the time the refurbished stadium opened in 1976, New York City was broke. But at least the Yankees didn’t move to New Jersey.
Quote of the Day: Mayor Lindsay’s callous and prophetic statement when the deal was announced: “By the time I retire, the stadium will be gutted and the project so far down the road it will be impossible to reverse it.”

NOVEMBER 16, 1973: Quote of the Day: Brooklyn Borough President Sebastian Leone, after New York City's Board of Estimate approves $15.9 million in additional funding for the Yankee Stadium renovation: "We are caught in a sucker's game." No kidding.

DECEMBER 3, 1975: RED SMITH EXPLAINS IT ALL: Incomparable columnist Red Smith explains the skyrocketing cost of the Yankee Stadium renovation (current estimated cost of $75 million, marked up from the original figure of $24 million): “You [the Yankees] figure the Board of Estimate wouldn’t hold still for an expenditure of more than, say, $25 million so you call in an expert and tell him: ‘Give us an estimate of about $20 million or so. We’ll add $3 million as the purchase price and stay under the limit easily.’ The Board of Estimate gives the O.K. . .Now the city is committed. You let a decent interval elapse and then say, ‘By the way, the figure is $46 million now.’ After that it’s a million here and a million there and it just sort of piles up.” He suggests that while they’re at it, the city ought to start paying Catfish Hunter’s salary, too.

APRIL 14, 1976: NO USE PRETENDING ANY MORE: City Officials finally concede that the cost of renovating Yankee Stadium might reach $100 million, a scandalous figure considering that the 80,000-seat stadium just opened in Pontiac, Michigan took only $55 million to build from the ground up.

MARCH 18, 1978: A LOOPHOLE THEY DROVE A BUS THROUGH: The Yankees take advantage of a clause in their lease agreement with New York City to avoid paying their rent. Their revenue the past two years was over $20 million, and the lease calls for their rent to rise in proportion to revenue. However, another clause allows them to deduct “maintenance” costs from the rent rather than from the pre-rent revenue, and reported costs of more than $1.6 million over those two years negate nearly every dollar of rent due. City Comptroller Harrison Goldin calls the lease “a disgraceful deal for the city.”

DECEMBER 12, 1980: THEY BROKE IT--WE BOUGHT IT: New York City releases a report on the $100 million 1974-1976 renovation of Yankee Stadium charging that faulty design and hasty work have already caused water leaks and cracked concrete in the Stadium. It will cost at least another $2 million to fix the problems, though the immediate priority is pointing fingers. Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis says, “The city paid an awful lot of money for the Stadium work and we shouldn’t have gotten a broken Stadium.”
Quote of the Day: Edward Simpson, president of the company that did the Stadium's construction work: "The design engineers recommended a change and the city didn't accept it because theyw ere concerned about cost and time. They got what they paid for."

That's the legacy of that sham, "a broken stadium" that cost $100 million and lasted less than one-third as long as a Boston stadium that was once regarded as decrepit. It makes you wonder what those dummies over in Detroit were doing, forgetting to fleece the electorate while building a new stadium for just over half as much. Of course, the Pontiac Silverdome hasn't hosted professional football since 2001, about the same time that new New York mayor Michael Blomberg (who by the way could pay for both new ballparks out of his own pocket without feeling the pinch) okayed the public financing of two new ballparks after his predecessor, fellow Yankees fanatic Rudy Giuliani, balked at the massive project in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy.

Bloomberg will get what the rest of us are paying for, and then some, having insisted on a free luxury suite at the new Stadium. Here's the disclosure reported a week ago:

"In his ongoing investigation into the Yankees' new baseball stadium, New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky uncovered e-mail messages sent by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's top aides that show an aggressive bid for a free luxury suite at taxpayer expense, the New York Daily News reported. E-mail requested under the New York Freedom of Information Law show the aides spent months demanding the luxury skybox and free food before finally reaching a compromise with Yankee leadership in which the city would give the team 250 free parking spaces. The $820,000 value of the spaces could hurt taxpayers if the Yankees' garage owner cannot make his $3.2 million annual rent, according to the Daily News. The Yankees asked the city to request tax-exempt funding from the Internal Revenue Service in an effort to save $247 million in borrowing costs, the Daily News reported. The city agreed, but in exchange wanted the skybox and 180 of the best seats to be bought at cost. When the Yankees scoffed at the suggestion, city lawyer Joseph Gunn reportedly threatened to withhold the city's tax-exempt backing if the suite was denied."

Good luck, Mr. Brodsky. If the non-gazillionaire Rays could do it, maybe you can, too.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Closer Look: Intimations of Immortality

I do not get along well with machines, with the notable exception of microfilm readers. These windows into the past always bring delight in some way, either in finding the piece of history I seek or yielding some unexpected treasure along the way. That’s what happened the other day. On the way to finding information about a game played on June 16, 1929, I couldn’t help noticing a gaudy box score from a game played the previous day. Let me tell you about that incredible game.

The New York Giants finished a four-game series at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field that day, and it took 4 hours and 17 minutes to wage a 14-inning battle. The final score was 20-15 in what William E. Brandt of the New York Times called “a fearful and wonder spectacle” ending in a “relay carnival” of 11 runs scored in the final inning. The Giants seemed to have it wrapped up when they took a 9-1 lead in the 5th inning, but it wasn’t that easy. The Pirates fought back and tied it at 11-11 with three runs in the bottom of the 9th. They even had the winning run at third base with one out, but Giants reliever Bill Walker retired Paul Waner and got the third out to send the game into extra innings.

That’s where the real fireworks occurred. The Giants scored a run in the 11th, and when Carl Mays used his famed submarine delivery to get the first two outs in the bottom half, it looked like a New York victory. Not so soon, thanks to future Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor. As Brandt described it, Traynor “simply changed one of the subway pitches into an elevated. The ball came down in the boulevard beyond the left-field fence.”

The game went merrily on after Traynor’s blast until things exploded in the 14th inning. Edd Roush of the Giants led off with a triple, and when Pirates manager Donie Bush protested the safe call at third base, he was ejected. A near-riot ensued, with fans tossing pop bottles onto the field and trying to rush the umpires, only to be held back by police. After the mayhem subsided, Larry French came in to pitch for the Pirates, and the Giants roughed him up for seven hits and eight runs. The Pirates could only get three of those back in their half, and the Giants escaped with their 20-15 triumph.

All that was wild enough, but what truly sets this game apart was the performance of eight players who are now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. This octet combined for an astonishing 31 hits in 57 at bats, 14 of them for extra bases, scored 18 runs, and drove in 20. (Dave Smith of www.retrosheet.org, who generously provided the play-by-play account of the first ten innings, says he cannot find another game in which future Hall of Famers accumulated such prodigious numbers.)

In the 5th inning alone, they were perfect with seven hits and a walk. In the top half, Roush began a four-run rally with a triple. Lindstrom, Ott, and Terry added singles, and Jackson capped the scoring with a triple. The Pirates sandwiched singles by Lloyd Waner and Traynor around a walk to Paul Waner for their run.

When we watch a game, we know who the stars are. We can look at the lineups and anticipate a cluster of likely Hall of Famers putting on a great show for us. That was not the case on June 15, 1929. Apart from the fact that the Hall of Fame did not yet exist, only half of the eight future immortals who excelled that day were established stars. The others were youngsters who gave intimations of what lay ahead. Let’s take a closer look at who impressed the 25,000 fans in attendance at Forbes Field.

EDD ROUSH (36 years old) was in his next-to-last season. Leading off for the Giants, the center fielder went 5-for-9 and scored three runs. His hits included two triples and three singles, and he had two hits in the 14th-inning rally. 1929 average: .324.

FRED LINDSTROM (23), the third baseman, batted third for the Giants. He went 4-for-8, including a double and a triple, scored three runs, and drove in three. 1929 average: .319.

MEL OTT (20) played right field and batted cleanup for the Giants. He went 3-for-7 with two doubles, driving in four runs and scoring twice. He was in just his second full season in the majors. 1929 average: .328 with 151 RBI.

BILL TERRY (30) was in his prime, anchoring the lineup at first base. He went 4-for-5 plus three walks, scoring twice. 1929 average: .372, followed by a .401 average in 1930, the last National Leaguer to hit .400.

TRAVIS JACKSON (25) batted seventh and had a better day than anybody. The Giants shortstop went 4-for 7, all extra-base hits--two home runs, a triple, and a double. He drove in seven runs and scored four. 1929 average: .294.

LLOYD WANER (23) batted second for the Pirates. He went 6-for-8 with four singles, a double, a triple, and a walk. His triple in the bottom of the 9th tied the game. In his third season in 1929, the 150-pound center fielder hit .353 for the season.

PAUL WANER, (26) Lloyd’s older brother, batted third and had a slow day, only 2-for-6 with a double and one run batted in. 1929 average: .336.

PIE TRAYNOR (29) batted cleanup. He went 3-for-7, including that key 11th-inning home run, and drove in three runs. In his prime in 1929, he hit .356 and struck out a mere seven times in 540 at bats.

Eleven pitchers, a record at the time, paraded to the mound, and only a couple of them escaped the carnage that added up to 35 runs, 52 hits, 21 extra-base hits, and 14 walks. No doubt this was one of the games that made Giants manager John McGraw think it might be time for him to retire. McGraw, who had helped pioneer the brand of ball that featured bunts, steals, hit-and-run plays, and a quick-thinking style, wrote after his 1932 retirement that “this was no longer my game—the game in which a manager could ‘mastermind’ his club into a championship.” Instead, “the players win ‘em now by the crude and primitive method of striding up to the plate and slamming the ball out of the park—and there is no better method under existing conditions.” At least on June 15, 1929, McGraw was grateful to get the best of it in one of the more “primitive” slugfests in baseball history.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Baseball and Poker: The Same Approach

Tonight is the telecast of the final table of the 2008 World Series of Poker, and mine will be among the estimated 3-4 million households tuned in to the action. Advertised as "live," the final table action was actually filmed yesterday, so an edited version will be televised tonight, culminating two months of weekly telecasts of the main event in which the champion will win $9,152,416.

The main event began way back on July 3 with 6,844 contestants entered at $10,000 a pop. On July 14, the field was narrowed to the final nine players. Before this year, the final table would have been played the next day, but the WSOP has followed in the footsteps of major league baseball and other big-time sports by letting television dictate its schedule. The folks at ESPN, dismayed by a drop in ratings during the 2007 WSOP, persuaded tournament officials to delay the final table until November, letting the intervening telecasts build suspense and an audience for the eventual showdown amongst the so-called "November Nine." Apparently the strategy worked, as ratings for the last two October telecasts exceeded the audience for the 2007 final table.

When the decision to delay the final table was announced, my gut reaction was that it did the players a disservice, and I still feel that way. There are two factors involved. First, I'm sure all of the players who made the final table said at the time that "I've been on the rush of my life." Over the course of a dozen days in July, they had to catch a lot of cards not merely to survive but to build their chip counts to a point where they could endure some tough losses and still have enough ammunition to contend. From what the telecasts show us, recent champions have caught lots and lots of big hands; the last two winners, Jerry Yang and Jamie Gold, even admitted on camera that they were what the players call "cardracks" over the course of the tournament, hot beyond reason and expectation.

How would like to be one of the "November Nine," on the rush of your life, and have to wait four months for the showdown and a shot at $9 million? You know what happens to poker players over an average four-month period? They blow hot and cold. Rushes come and rushes go. The adrenalin surge of holding hot cards in July dissipates, and anything could happen in November. It might be that all nine finalists went through the usual whirlwind of poker fortune over the past four months and landed in a positive cycle as this week's action rolled around, but I wouldn't bet on it. At least a couple of these guys have cooled off, and the loss of continuity caused by the WSOP selling out to ESPN will be responsible for their bad showing with the money on the line.

Look at it this way. Suppose you took baseball's World Series, did things the way they're done now, with two earlier rounds of playoffs narrowing the field, then jumping right in to the Series action (even though we don't exactly "jump right in" now with several days of inactivity dictated by television) -- onto to stop play when one team wins three games. Tell the players that the fourth World Series win, the clincher, will take place during the week between Christmas and New Year's, a slow week for sports competition during which baseball will gain its biggest possible audience for the last game of the Series. It won't matter if one team is ahead 3-0 or 3-2 in the Series; we might get as many as four games between Christmas and New Year's (played in a domed stadium, of course, making it weather-proof), each one building the suspense. It's ridiculous, isn't it? Don't hold your breath. ESPN has done it this year with poker.

My other objection is related to what happens during the delay between reaching the final table and playing it. The better poker players are those who learn quickly in the heat of the battle just what their opponents are thinking and doing. During the course of the tournament, those who made the final table had to make constant adjustments to the changing lineups at their table, studying new and unfamiliar players to detect their strengths and weaknesses, devising strategies to conquer them, and taking advantage of their sharper instincts. Many of those nine finalists did battle against each other during the tournament, but some did not face each other. Somewhere at the final table, there was a pairing of players who did not play against each other, and back in July they would have faced the challenge of learning about each through direct contact, with the better player gaining an advantage.

Instead, they've spent the last four months doing what the rest of us have been doing -- watching the telecasts and studying their opponents. They've had the advantage, while watching, of knowing which eight players to study, and the benefit of seeing their hole cards during the hand. Let's say I'm Dennis Phillips, ending the July action with the chip lead. I have a very good read on every other final table player, because I played against them, studied them, and have confidence that I know when they're strong and when they're bluffing. I know that Player A likes to ask questions when he's facing an all-in bet, and that when he gets a certain kind of answer he's more likely to call or to fold. I can use that knowledge. Player B did not face Player A in July, but in September and October he watched Player A on the telecasts, and he picked up the same "verbal tell" that I gained on my own. There goes my advantage. Everybody at the final table should know everything they need to know about the other players, from having studied the same televised hands. Yes, I might know something extra from a hand that wasn't televised, but my advantage won't be nearly as extensive as it should be over anybody who didn't face Player A in July.

In 1993, when I was dealing at the World Series of Poker, a group of players asked me to introduce them to baseball. Three Irish players and two British players had heard a lot about the game while playing with the Yanks, and they wanted to see for themselves. The minor-league Las Vegas Stars were at home, so we went to a game. On the drive to Cashman Field, I explained to them why the game they'd be seeing closely resembled the no-limit hold'em games they had just left back at the Horseshoe. Here's what I told them:

"The key to baseball is the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter, just like the showdowns you face in a no-limit game. When you sit down to play and look at the other nine players facing you, it's the same as the pitcher looking over the other team's nine-man lineup. You determine who the most dangerous players are, the ones with the most talent, the ones who are on the hottest streak, and you make up your mind to avoid letting those players beat you. That's exactly what the pitcher does: he thinks, 'that's the guy I won't let beat me, the one I won't challenge with the game on the line.'

"You see who the weak players are, the ones you can run over and intimidate, the ones you can deceive and fool. Every time a pitcher and batter face each other, they build upon the past history of their showdowns and way you build on pots you've played against that player. You guys remember sequences of bets you made against each other many years ago, and baseball players--the top ones--can remember sequences of pitches ten or twenty years later. Within each game, a pitcher faces a particular batter every thirty or forty minutes, about as often as you might play a pot against a certain player. These confrontations escalate during a game. A pitch the pitcher throws in the first inning might be designed to set up a different pitch he intends to throw to that batter in the late innings when the game is on the line, just as you might bet a hand the first pot you play with someone today so that when you play a key pot later on, you can check-raise him instead and win a bigger pot.

"A pitcher has a repertoire of pitches--fastball, curve, slider, change-of-pace, and so on. You have the bet, raise, re-raise, and check-raise. These are weapons you use to maximize your opportunities to win. It's the same game, the same psychological battle. And the outcome also depends on luck. The pitcher can make that perfect pitch in the key spot and get the batter to hit a weak fly ball, but if a gust of wind blows it away from the fielder, the batter will get a hit anyway. You can make a brilliant play and get your opponent drawing to one card in the deck, but that card will sometimes come up and you'll still lose that pot. It's a mixture of skill, strategy, and chance.

"They're the same game: hold'em has four betting rounds, and an at-bat has an average of four pitches. You elevate it by studying every tendency of your opponent. You know that a certain player is more likely to fold if you bet the first chance you have. A pitcher knows a hitter doesn't like to swing at the first pitch, and he acts accordingly. When you face someone you've never seen before, you size him up as quickly as you can, try strategies that have worked against players of that type, and if you don't succeed you make adjustments the next time you face him. Those adjustments are constant, building on your experience and analysis. That's why the game is always fascinating. It's infinite variety within set parameters."

My five hold'em aces grasped these principles before we arrived at the park. Once there, I took them down to the bullpen to watch the starting pitcher warm up. They saw the difference between a fastball (a big bet on the flop), a curveball (a check-raise on the turn), and a change-up (slow-playing the best hand until the river). During the game, I pointed out how the pitcher and batter might adjust depending on what the batter did in his first at-bat. They relished every battle between pitchers and hitters. On the other hand, they had no clue what running bases was all about, and I had no ready analogy to help them on that. In poker terms, they were drawing dead to understand the infield fly rule. But they knew what mattered in baseball.

That's what bothers me about waiting four months to play the final table. The hot players lose their momentum, the sharper players lose the advantage of what they've figured out on their own, and everybody loses the continuity of uninterrupted competition. Do you think the Tampa Bay Rays would have fared better against Cole Hamels in Game 5 of this year's World Series if they had had four months to park themselves in front of videotape machines to study every single pitch he threw during the regular season? I do. Do you think Shane Victorino would have had a chance to cool off in the interim? I do. Do you think the rest of us would be outraged at having to wait two more months to see the final game, just because the television moguls predicted a bigger audience? I do.

That's why you have to be sure not to send any television executive the link to this blog, lest they get any more bright ideas.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Just One To a Customer

My co-conspirator here at the Hall of Fame's research center, Freddy Berowski, came up with a terrific challenge last week. The basic idea is to fashion a 25-man roster of current players, plus a 5-man management team, using exactly one person from each major league franchise. Here's his explanation of how he got the idea:

"I was sitting watching Game 5 on two different nights without a rooting interest and I just got to thinking about who the single best players were on the Rays and Phillies. Then I started thinking about the best players on other teams and how it was just too hard to pick one player. I then started wondering about players and how valuable they were in their role to their team and whose role was most valuable (Santana-Mets, Linebrink-White Sox, Ramirez-Marlins, etc.) and I thought, what if I put togther a 25-man roster using no more than one player from each team. So the list grew just out of daydreaming. Within the first hour I had 10--Santana, Soto, Martin, V. Martinez, Utley, H. Ramirez, Hunter, Lincecum, Linebrink and Sherrill and I figured what the heck, let's spend some time putting it to paper, taking into account all facets of the game and see what happens. Fun little exercise."

I agree. I suggested that instead of leaving out five teams, we include an owner, GM, manager, pitching coach, and batting/bench coach. That made it a little tougher, and led to the irony that both of us picked Billy Beane of Oakland to be our GM, essentially because he has assembled a roster of players we don't want on our teams. Players were chosen from the rosters at the end of the 2008 season, and rosters were chosen with balance in mind, based on who we'd want playing for us next year. Freddy put one restriction on the bullpen: only one reliever who has spent the last two seasons as a closer could be chosen. He picked his team first, so we'll start there:

Starting batting order:
Ramirez, SS (Marlins)
Ichiro, RF (Mariners)
Cabrera, 3B (Tigers)
Morneau, 1B (Twins)
Holliday, LF (Rockies)
Utley, 2B (Phillies)
Soto, C (Cubs)
Hunter, CF (Angels)

Bench:
Martin, C/3B (Dodgers)
V.Martinez, C/1B (Indians)
Berkman, 1B/OF (Astros)
Pedroia, IF (Red Sox)
Phillips, IF (Reds)
McLouth, OF (Pirates)

Starting pitchers:
J. Santana (Mets)
Lincecum (Giants)
Sabathia (Brewers)
Webb (Diamondbacks)
Peavy (Padres)

Bullpen:
Soria (Closer) (Royals)
Linebrink (White Sox)
Downs (Blue Jays)
Wheeler (Rays)
Franklin (Cardinals)
Sherrill (Orioles)

Management:
Owner: Steinbrenner (Yankees)
GM: Beane (A's)
Manager: Acta (Nationals)
Pitching Coach: McDowell (Braves)
Hitting Coach: Jaramillo (Rangers)

Here is Freddy's commentary on his roster:
"My taking of Hanley Ramirez--best offensive shorstop in bb, might be the worst defensive and clearly the best player on the Marlins. Took Steinbrenner as the owner simply because of his unlimited pocketbook and his desire to win at all costs (plus I was able to justify not taking A-Rod). In taking Morneau at first instead of Pujols it really came down to a few things--firstly, for me, Mauer was not an option--simply not a fan and I've never really thought he was that good--and then it came down to Morenau or Nathan. The problem is based on the way we set this up I could only take one closer, which removed Nathan from the table because if I didn't take Soria from the Royals, who else would I take? Almost took Okajima, actually I originally had, but in an effort to have a deeper, more balanced bench I took Pedroia and thus replaced him with Wheeler from TB, which I really don't look at as a down grade. I took Acta by default, although I know for a time he was a top managerial prospect and he really doesn't have much to work with in DC. I've read some scuttlebut that the Mets really wanted him back. Texas has a monster offense, and Rudy Jaramillo is one of the most respected batting coaches in the game. The Mets tried to woo him away from Texas a few seasons ago. I wonder how much of an influence Rudy had on Hamilton's first half surge. It seems they get monster numbers out of every position. I'm certain he has an influence on that. I like Roger McDowell. He's done alot with so little to work with (3 aging brittle starters, 4 if you count Hampton) and the eggshell bullpen committee. I like my catchers--very strong for every aspect--defense, offense, some speed, multiple position eligibility (3b and 1b). And the rotation, arguably the best 5 starters in baseball today including THE BEST. I took Torii Hunter because he really has the total package and has been doing it for some time--all the tools--speed, power, ability to hit for average, defense, I really like him--the only centerfielder in the bigs that I think is better than him is Beltran, but going with Santana, that wasn't an option. I like the balance in my line-up, bullpen and rotation as far as mixing up righties and lefties. That was important to me."

Looking at Freddy's roster, I couldn't see much room for improvement. Dynamite lineup, strong bench, powerful rotation, and a solid bullpen. I liked the notion of getting Steinbrenner to pay for them, and agreed that Manny Acta would manage to win with them. But I tried to meet the challenge of coming up with a better team. There were a few different players I wanted for my roster, and I wound up choosing 12 of the 30 people Freddy did. The trick was finding the best people from the weaker franchises and choosing from the multiple options on the stronger teams. As Mets fans, Freddy and I both wrestled with which Met to choose. It was tough not to take David Wright, their most productive hitter the last four seasons, but Freddy went with Santana and I decided to put Jose Reyes on my team. That meant not taking Hanley Ramirez, and I quickly learned that each choice could set in motion a chain-reaction. If not Ramirez from the Marlins, who then? Who would take Santana's spot in the rotation? And so on. Here's how my roster turned out:

Starting batting order:
Reyes, SS (Mets)
Ichiro, RF (Mariners)
Pujols, 1B (Cardinals)
Hamilton, CF (Rangers)
M. Ramirez, LF (Dodgers)
Utley, 2B (Phillies)
Cabrera, 3B (Tigers)
Mauer, C (Twins)

Bench:
C. Jones, 3B (Braves)
Phillips, IF (Reds)
Berkman, 1B/OF (Astros)
Quentin, OF (White Sox)
Doumit, C/OF (Pirates)
Iannetta, C (Rockies)

Starting pitchers:
Halladay (Blue Jays)
Lincecum (Giants)
Webb (Diamondbacks)
Sabathia (Brewers)
C. Lee (Indians)

Bullpen:
Soria (Closer) (Royals)
Chamberlain (Yankees)
Marmol (Cubs)
Balfour (Rays)
Okajima (Red Sox)
Sherrill (Orioles)

Management:
Owner: Moreno (Angels)
GM: Beane (A's)
Manager: Acta (Nationals)
Pitching coach: Balsley (Padres)
Hitting coach: Presley (Marlins)

Overall, I think my team has a stronger starting lineup. Starting Pujols is a big boost. Freddy doesn't like Mauer, but I do. He's only 25, has two batting titles, a .400 on-base percentage, and has thrown out more than 40% of runners trying to steal. Freddy is skeptical about Hamilton because he's only had one full season, but I feel the same way about his catcher, Geovany Soto. I like Hamilton's chances of continuing to put up big numbers in Texas. We both molded our batting orders to alternate righty and lefty hitters. Otherwise, I'd say that Manny Ramirez should bat cleanup, Hamilton 5th, Cabrera 6th, and Utley 7th.

I like Freddy's bench better, with his versatile catchers plus Pedroia. His starting rotation has a slight edge, too, thanks to Santana, though Halladay isn't far behind. He doesn't think Cliff Lee will be very strong next year, but I think 2007 was the aberration for Lee, not 2008. From 2004-2006, Lee was 46-24, then dropped to 5 wins during an injury-riddled 2007 before emerging with his ridiculous 22-3 record this season. I'll take him. My bullpen is stronger, too. A year from now, five of my six guys could be closers. As for the front office, I think Artie Moreno would be just as willing as Steinbrenner to pay for this team. Beane and Acta are on both teams. My pitching coach, Darren Balsley, has been with the Padres for five years, and even though the big ballpark there contributes to their pitching success, he has developed a number of good young pitchers, notably Chris Young. As for Jim Presley in Florida, his hitters are a lot like he was as a player. They strike out too much, but they hit a lot of homers (2nd in the NL this season) and produce a lot of runs (5th in the NL despite a so-so team batting average) in a pitcher-friendly park.

There they are--two damn good teams. We might find a computer simulation game this winter and pit the two squads against each for a few hundred games and see who prevails. Even better, we hope that enough readers of this blog will respond with their own rosters that we'll be able to compete in a full league. So here's your invitation to take the challenge. Do you think an infield of A-Rod, Jimmy Rollins, Brian Roberts, and Mark Texeira would outperform our infields? Maybe you're right, but you'll have to deal with the chain reaction caused by having nobody else from those teams available. If you want Joe Nathan as your closer, you'll have to pick someone else from the Royals. I wanted Dave Duncan as my pitching coach, then decided Pujols was a must and had to look elsewhere for a coach. Give it a try--we promise it'll be fun.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How Instant Replay Should Work

I have always considered myself a mass of contradictions. I'm both generous and selfish, sentimental and dismissive, thoughtful and tactless. I'm a sloppy perfectionist, a reclusive extrovert, and a courteous smart-ass. I'm devoutly agnostic and staunchly apolitical (though I'll be voting today), and I have an overwhelming conviction that all opinions are useless.

I'm also a pragmatic idealist. I've gotten several responses to what I posted last week about expanding instant replay in baseball, and the gist of those responses is "let the umpires do their job -- human error has always been part of the game." I felt the same way until a few months ago. I had some experience as an umpire in the 1980s and learned a lot about the game and the job, most of all acquiring an awed respect for how well umpires perform in an extremely difficult job. I have always been opposed to instant replay in baseball; as an idealist, I have always advocated letting human beings rather than machines decide the course of a game.

In an ideal world, it would be perfectly fine with me if we continued to let the umpires work on their own, getting more than 99% of the calls right and taking our chances that the mistaken 1% wouldn't come at the worst times. But once MLB installed instant replay in August, that ideal world no longer existed, and I have become a pragmatist. The gist of what I wrote last week was: "now that we've opened the door and let instant replay in, let's at least do it in a way that makes the most sense." To me, the current version of instant replay is what I called "half-assed" because it applies to plays that occur about once a week, while ignoring other plays that occur at least a few times a day in a full schedule. Since any wrong call in any game during the season can materially affect a team's ultimate chance for a championship, every call is important enough to get right.

I believe it is short-sighted to pretend that only a disputed home run is important enough to warrant using instant replay to get it right. That's the point, to make the right call, to let the empirical facts of what truly happened determine the outcome of each game rather than the fleeting impression of an umpire who might either be out of position or in position but momentarily blocked or distracted from seeing the key part of the play. A few decades ago, each umpire was on his own, adhering to the Bill Klem principle that the umpire is always right. That premise has been abandoned over the years, and it is a common sight to see the entire umpiring crew gathered around to discuss a play. This happens when a manager sincerely convinces the umpire who made the original call that one of his comrades might have had a better angle. The umpire, who is supposed to be unfailingly honest if nothing else, admits to himself that he might not have been 100% sure about the play, and accedes to the request. The umpires huddle, sometimes for several minutes, and issue their final group decision, which to this observer is much more likely to be the correct call than the original umpire's lone view. This is not instant replay per se, but it is based on the same principle: the first guy might have gotten it wrong, so let's do what we can to try to get it right. Sometimes the call is changed, sometimes not, but the managers and fans cannot complain that the umpires stubbornly refused to admit the possibility of needing more than one set of eyes to do the right thing.

I don't watch a lot of pro football, but when I do I pay a lot of attention to the calls which are challenged and go to instant replay, and I think the same system could work in baseball. I'd say there's about a two-thirds chance that the call is going to be reversed, basically because the challenging coach's cohorts up in the booth have already seen a replay and tell him that the call was probably wrong. As I outline my proposal for how instant replay should work in baseball, keep this principle in mind. While the manager is out there arguing the call in the first place, people in both teams' clubhouses are going to look at the replays, and someone will signal the manager that he's right or wrong to be protesting. The football principle would hold: whatever call is made on the field, the replay official would have to see incontrovertible evidence on the film to overturn that call. Borderline calls would remain just that; if the person in the booth can't say with certitude that it happened one way or another, the umpire's call would stand. An example of this might be fastball that tails into a batter trying to bunt. The ball hits either the bat or the batter's hand on the bat. Did it hit all hand? Did it hit the bat and just nick a nail? It's a tough call, and one where cameras might have as much trouble as the umpire in detecting the fraction of an inch which might make the difference in the call. So the instant replay official would be mandated to back up the umpire, whichever way he ruled it.

One of my correspondents wrote: "We don't ask for do-overs when an infielder kicks an easy ground ball. . .Why should we tamper with umpires' mistakes if we don't do the same with the players?" That's how I felt--a few months ago. But now that the umpires union has acceded to a system of instant replay, now that umpires officially accept that there are circumstances under which they might need and will accept help from above, let's be pragmatic about it. Here's how I see instant replay working--in an ideal world in which the umpires get 99% of the calls right the first time and we help them out with the other 1%.

When a manager disputes a call, his first recourse is to discuss it with the umpire and request that he ask the other umpires for help. The umpire will either grant or refuse that request. The umpires should always have the first chance to make the right call. I suspect that the request will be granted more often than it is now, because the umpire would rather be overruled by his teammates than by the "eye in the sky". In either case, once the final call has been made, by one umpire or four, the manager can request an instant-replay decision. As I noted earlier, by this time the manager will have input from the clubhouse on whether he has a case or not. It won't always be the case, but my point is that we don't want to give a manager the right to pop out of the dugout after every call he doesn't like and point upstairs, demanding an instant overview. There will be a protocol on the field, and as in football there will be a penalty for overstepping the privilege of requesting instant replay. I do not advocate putting a limit on the number of times a manager can request a replay call. If it happens that a call in the 14th inning looks horrible to him, he shouldn't be prevented from getting the right call just because he already caught a couple of mistakes earlier in the game. However, I would put a strict limit on the number of times the manager can be wrong. Give him one protest and request for a replay call that doesn't go his way. If the replay official rules against him twice, he's ejected. Each team gets one failed protest. If the manager has been ejected and the acting manager's request for an instant replay results in the call going against him, he's ejected, too. And so on. We don't want either side abusing the other. Both sides will have an incentive to be right.

What sorts of calls should or should not be subject to instant replay? I believe that any call that can be objectively judged (i.e. empirically verified beyond any doubt) should be subject to change, but subjective calls shouldn't be. The latter list is much shorter: balls and strikes, balks, and check swings. Those are true judgment calls, and even though there seems to be a lot of discrepancy between how various umpires view them (partly because the rules are written nebulously and therefore open to interpretation), the camera cannot see through the veil of judgment. However, here is why I believe the following calls can be decided definitively one way or another.

1. safe/out at first base: The Don Denkinger call from the 1985 World Series is the best example. Multiple cameras angles showed that Jack Clark held the ball with his foot on the bag at least a half-step before Jorge Orta arrived. This would be an easy call for the replay official to make. Others are not so clear-cut. I've seen a lot of replays of bang-bang plays where stop-action shows the ball entering the glove a hair before or after the runner's foot is making its initial contact with the bag. But is the ball in the glove? Is the foot on the bag? If I'm up in the booth, I'd be less inclined to overturn whatever call the umpire made. The principle of having to be 100% certain in order to reverse a call is paramount. A comment on last week's post, made by umpire Perry Barber, notes that "camera angles don't always reveal the truth." That's true. If the camera angle isn't definitive, don't change the call. But I find it hard to imagine a case in which the runner is clearly out or safe and the available camera angles all make it look the other way. Likewise with the following situations:

2. caught or trapped ball: An outfielder is in hot pursuit of a line drive or a bloop fly ball, makes a last-second stab or dive, and the ball ends up in his glove. Did he catch it or trap it? I know from my brief umpiring experience that this is one of the toughest plays to call. I've seen it called wrong both ways. The intersection of ball, glove, and ground lasts only a fraction of a second, and the ball looks pretty much the same in the glove whether it has been caught or trapped. Sometimes the fielder even gets the glove underneath the ball but face-up on top of the ground. It looks like the ball bounced, but actually the glove possessed it the whole time. Complicating things, the umpire is on the move, usually starting from his position near second base, and is subject to the same problem that outfielders have, namely that his head is bobbing from his running motion, making it tougher to pick up the precise movement of the ball. An umpire might make the most admirable dash into the outfield to get the best view, only to have a diving fielder's body or arm block his view of the ball contacting glove and ground. If there's a better, definitive angle on a camera, use it!

3. double play pivot: This is another really tough one because most second baseman have lightning-quick hands. It's a prerequisite for the job. So we have a grounder to third base and a throw to second, with the runner barreling down from first base trying to break up the double play. The second baseman's job is to "turn" the ball from catch to throw so quickly that their motion is no more than a blur. In the old days, umpires required the fielder to demonstrate a clear catch before transfering the ball to his throwing hand. Over the years, it has become more customary to give the call to the fielder when he so much as reaches into his glove to pull the ball out for the transfer. How many times have you seen the ball go flying or pop loose when the fielder grabs at it the instant it touches his glove, with the umpire giving him credit for the catch because he was "in the act of throwing"? My impression is that the fielder gets this call almost all the time, but I've seen a lot of replays which clearly show that the fielder never caught the ball, that in his haste to grab the ball he moved the glove toward his throwing hand just enough to allow the ball to clank off it. It's an optical illusion: the ball bounces off the glove, but because the throwing hand is moving to grab it and throw, the umpire believe he has caught it. The replay catches and reveals the illusion for what it is, namely an error, not an out.

4. the "neighborhood" play: While we're talking about double plays, let's use instant replay to clean up the "neighborhood" play on both sides. This is the one where the second base or shortstop making the double-play pivot fails to keep his foot on the base when catching the ball. They do it to make the pivot faster and/or avoid the runner crashing into him. Umpires call this one sometimes, especially in postseason games that matter more, but more often than not they allow the fielder that leeway in order to protect him from the runner. They also let the runners make a beeline for the fielder rather than the bag. This is a liberal rule, stating that as long as the runner can touch the bag with some part of his body, it's okay for the rest of him to ram into the fielder and hinder the double-play turn. Again, more often than not, umpires let runners get away with veering into the fielder, especially if he's also letting the fielder hop away from the base early to avoid the collision. As with most things in life, it's unfortunate that the people in charge are subjectively selective in choosing the occasional occasion to make the correct call (either the runner out on interference for veering away from the bag and into the fielder, or the runner safe because the fielder caught the ball off the bag), letting something go 90% of the time and suddenly feeling the urge to call it. Ask Marlon Anderson, called out for veering into the fielder for the final out of a game late in 2007, on a play where there was no chance to get the batter running to first, negating the tying run crossing the plate, and costing the Mets a crucial loss that may have kept them out of the playoffs. If the camera clearly reveals a violation of the "neighborhood watch," make the call!

5. hit by pitch or not: This one is straightforward. The call is seldom missed, but it was missed on Jimmy Rollins in the World Series, and would come up once in awhile.

6. caught foul tip or not: This is another one where the home plate umpire can almost always make the right call, and can easily get help from a base ump if he needs it. But the camera would often provide a decisive view of whether that two-strike foul tip hit the dirt or the glove first.

7. tag/no tag: This is a tricky one, and if I were the replay official I would want at least two angles showing a decisive view, not just one. The Longoria/Rollins play from Game 4 is a good example. The replay from the 3rd-base stands appears to show Longoria's glove touching Rollins' backside, but it's possible that the glove is really in front of or over Rollins. So I'd want to verify it by looking at the view from down the left-field line. In general, the more views the better, and if two views flat-out contradict each other, I would consider that enough to warrant not reversing the call made on the field.

8. fair/foul ball: This happens on home runs that wrap around the foul pole, a play so difficult to call that is one of those covered by the present system for instant replays. I always think about Ron Luciano's tale of calling such a ball at Yankee Stadium, jumping in the air to make one of his showboat calls, pointing fair and starting to scream "fair!" when the rest of his consciousness kicked in and he realized that the ball was really foul. He was a mid-air and couldn't take anything back, but don't you think he would have been the first person to say, "yeah, let's look at that replay" when the inevitable protest occurred? There's also an occasional dispute when a curving drive down one of the foul lines kicks up a little bit of chalk. It is assumed that if chalk pops up, it must be because the ball hit the line, therefore it must be a fair ball. But sometimes a player's cleats have already kicked some of the chalk out of place, and the ball nails a clump lying in foul territory. Let's get it right. Only in "Macbeth" is fair foul and foul fair.

There are undoubtedly other situations I haven't covered here (such as appeal plays and interference/obstruction which would fall on one side or the other of my proposed system. Let me clear up a few matters of protocol here. Players would not be able to ask for replays, only managers. MLB and the umpires union would have to work out some of the procedures, as they did this summer to get instant replay accepted in the first place. Some issues would include: mandating a consultation by the umpires on the field before issuing a call that might subsequently be challenged; having a time limit for that consultation and/or the ensuing review by the replay official; how to fill the job of replay official (ex-umpires, league officials, independent contractors for each city/team as is done with official scorers, etc.); where to station that official; whether to permit or even require that the replay official and the crew chief consult during the review of a play; whether that replay official could initiate the review of a play even without an official protest; who would announce the final decision and how much information would be provided to the fans and/or the media; and so on. Do you think that the details of such a system could be worked out over the next 20 years? The next 50 years? Why not the next five months, so it could be in place for the 2009 season?

Let me finish where I began. I've spent my whole baseball life believing that instant replay would be a Bad Thing, that human error is part of baseball and something we just have to accept. I've had a couple of people this week tell me that "you can't open that door" and allow judgment plays to be appealed. My answer is this: Is calling a ball over or under a home-run line on the outfield wall more or less of a judgment call than determining whether a sliding outfielder caught or trapped a ball? I think they're both judgment calls, both potentially confirmed or contradicted by potentially convincing camera views. If those views are convincing, we should be willing to face the truth of what actually happened on this or that play, and make the right call. I did not open that door. The umpires have already allowed that door to be opened. Now that it is open, I think we're morally obligated to see everything that is inside, not merely to take a furtive peek through the crack, looking for only what we wish to see.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Once More (Reluctantly) Into The Void

These are the saddest of possible words: baseball season is over. Once again, we baseball fanatics are severed from our daily fix of games, statistics, and stories, and we enter The Void--that dark, cold, dismal state of hibernation from which we won't emerge until the other side of winter. Make no mistake--it is already winter here in Cooperstown, with six inches of snow two days ago and snowflakes filling the morning sky as I write this.

Luckily, working at the Hall of Fame, I get my fill of baseball numbers and lore twelve months a year, whether games are being played or not. It's a great job, but it does not fully compensate for the wintry hiatus without games. The baseball season is like having a daily visit from a great neighbor who brings a smorgasbord of treats. Abruptly, the season ends, and the neighbor turns into a snowbird, climbing into an RV and heading south, leaving the rest of us warmed only by the memories of treats gone by.

Before the 2008 snowbird hits the road, I'm taking a moment for a post mortem on the World Series, consisting of a few passing comments and one serious proposal. First, the appetizers:

1) Yesterday a colleague here claimed that Joe Blanton was the reason the Phillies were in the World Series. I presume this was because the Phillies were something like 13-4 in games Blanton started, not because his pitching was outstanding. "Do you agree?" I was asked. My reply was "No, I don't. The Phillies are in the World Series because of Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoeneweis, and the rest of the Mets bullpen." There's a little truth in that, but actually I think Brad Lidge was the one player most responsible for where the Phillies are today. Here was a guy who had developed some kind of mental block in Houston, serving up fat fastballs and hanging sliders in so many postseason debacles that he was run out of town. In Philadelphia, he was perfect, statistically and stylistically. If the Mets had gotten Lidge, they'd be the champions today. The Phillies got him, and he made all the difference for them.

2) The only thing worse than the umpiring in this World Series was the national anthems, with the slight exception of John Oates, who screwed up some of the words but at least got the notes right. The others were horrible. You'd think they were getting paid by the note. A word of advice to all future singers of the national anthem at sporting events: stop treating it like an audition for a Broadway show and just sing the song.

3) I had a hard time picking a team to root for, but in the end I'm happy for the folks in Philadelphia, who have been starved for champions the last century or so. They'll have chances enough in the near future to go back to booing people. Meanwhile, the core base of 142 rabid Rays fans will just have to wait awhile longer for a title.

4) As often happens in Real Life, the outcome was a perfect example of the merging of triumph and tragedy. So here's a tip of the cap to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whose mother passed away earlier this month just as he began his climb to the peak of his career.

Now the main course, a word about the umpiring: atrocious. Collectively, this umpiring crew made more egregious errors than any in history, so many that we've seen articles all week about how they admitted blowing this or that call. Tim Welke and Kerwin Danley deserve special mention for going beneath and below the call of duty in failing to see what was happening right in front of them. They combined to miss the balk call in Game 1 that cost the Rays a decent shot at the tying run in a one-run loss, but that play took place dozens of feet away from them. In Game 2, Danley missed seeing Jimmy Rollins, standing just a few feet in front of him, get nicked by a pitch in the ninth inning, and in the first inning of Game 4, Welke didn't see Evan Longoria tag Rollins just a few feet away. Welke explained later that it was a swipe tag, and he didn't notice any pause in Longoria's motion such as would occur if he made the tag. Yeah, it was Longoria's fault. The replay showed his glove making contact in a spot suggesting that he could have shoved the ball up Rollins' ass, so I guess he should have paused long enough to do that. Game 5 featured Jeff Kellogg's magically mobile strike zone, which may have cost Scott Kazmir the two 1st-inning runs which made the difference in the game.

For sheer "Twilight Zone" bizarreness, nothing will top the non-strike strike call Danley made in Game 2. On a 3-2 pitch, Rocco Baldelli either swung at an outside slider or checked his swing. We can't be sure because, despite the insistence of Fox announcers Tim McCarver and Joe Buck that it was unequivocally a swing, the folks at Fox never provided the camera angle seen on even the most insignificant regular-season telecast, the side-angle view that would let the viewers form an opinion about whether it was a swing. Danley raised his arm overhead in a motion that means nothing but "strike!" 100% of the time. Then Rod Serling clicked a stopwatch somewhere, time skipped a beat, and the next thing we saw was Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz pointing toward first-base umpire Fieldin Culbreth for an appeal play, and Danley pausing on the follow-through of his strike call to gesture toward first base. My guess--and it's only a guess because I haven't heard Ruiz's comments--is that Danley was saying "ball" even while his arm was going up in the strike motion. It does happen to umpires once in awhile, motioning one thing while calling another. If he had said "strike," why would Ruiz ask for an appeal? Culbreth called it a no-swing (take that, Joe Buck!) As with all the other strange calls by the umpires in the series, this one met with surprisingly little protest from the manager. Buck and McCarver seemed more upset about it than Manuel. In the end, this call/non-call didn't lead to a run or cause the damage that the blatantly blown calls did, but the image of Danley's confusion was emblematic of the affliction that beset the umpires throughout the series. His body language told us, "Wow, something just happened right in front of me! Part of me wants to make the right call, but part of me has no idea, and maybe that guy over there has a better idea."

That brings me to the serious proposal. Let's just go ahead and introduce full-blown instant replay to baseball. Commissioner Selig and the other powers-that-be seemed to be in a big hurry to introduce the limited version of instant replay that began in August and produced several reversed (i.e. ultimately correct) calls. After lifetimes of insisting that taking the power to make mistakes (excuse me, to make final calls) away from umpires would reduce "the human element" in baseball, Selig et al chose to open the door a crack and admit that certain situations were important enough to get calls right. So we now have instant replay, or rather a half-assed version of instant replay.

Does anybody out there think that this will still be the extent of instant replay 50 years from now? Baseball is a game of inches. One umpire missing a tag play or a balk or even a swing with a two-strike count--any one of those calls can make the difference of one base-runner, one base, one run, and one game. Every game counts in the standings. The Mets and Twins both missed the playoffs by one game. Do you think those teams can point to one game during the season when a missed call cost them a crucial run and therefore made all the difference in their fate for the year? Of course they can. Every team in the majors can point to one game or three or five where a missed call made the difference. The cliche is that umpires make the right decision 99% of the time. Do the math. That means that every umpire in the majors missed at least a handful of calls during the season. Some of those are bound to make a difference in the outcomes of games.

Decades ago, umpires were on their own in making calls. Even check-swings were the exclusive call of one umpire. Only in recent years have we seen umpires confer on calls, taking a moment or two on a disputed play to get a consensus and make what is almost always (that is, 99% of the time) the correct call. Now we have instant replays for home runs. It is ironic that less than two months after opening the door to off-the-field rulings on occasional plays, the World Series umpiring crew made the strongest statement yet in favor of expanding this system to all calls. I'm not talking about judgment calls, which would include the balk in Game 1 and the Baldelli check-swing in Game 2. Those are subjective calls, like the strike zone, and we'll just have to allow for human error on those. But it would include the Longoria-Rollins tag play in Game 4, the Rollins HBP in Game 2, and the Carl Crawford bunt in Game 3 where Jamie Moyer made that fantastic dive and glove-flip to Ryan Howard, whose barehand stab meant that Crawford was out by a half-step, except that Tom Hallion was staring at the base to watch Crawford's foot hit it while listening for the sound of ball hitting the glove, the usual way a first-base ump decides who got to the bag first, and because he never heard the ball hit Howard's hand he called Crawford safe.

Those calls didn't have to happen. All you needed was someone like Bruce Froemming sitting upstairs next to the official scorer, looking at the replays, and he would have waived a red flag or pressed a button, and the home-plate umpire would hear Froemming's voice in his earpiece saying "uh, that guy was out." And he'd be out. The whole principle behind having umpire conferences and for having instant replay (in its present form) is the bottom-line preference for getting the call right. It took baseball a long, long time to recognize the fairness of making the players win the games on their own, without accidental help from umpires' missed calls.

Here are two words that sum up the rationale behind introducing instant replay for all empirically verifiable plays (fair/foul, tag/no tag, held or dropped ball, out/safe at first base, etc.): Don Denkinger. The headline on his obituary is going to read: "Don Denkinger, Umpire, Missed Call in 1985 World Series." That isn't fair, and with instant replay it wouldn't have to be. Face it--lots and lots of umpires make the wrong call. They're human, and even Bill Klem, whose reputation for infallibility was legendary, added the words "in my heart" when he claimed never to have missed a call. It happens. They're human. But if instant replay existed, if baseball truly acted on its desire to get the calls right (when they're either/or situations and not gray areas like check swings), then Don Denkinger would be deservedly forgotten today and not eternally vilified by the fans of the St. Louis Cardinals for making a clearly wrong call which contributed to their losing the 1985 World Series. Denkinger would merely be another umpire whose instinctive response to a play was to make a call which was overturned 30 seconds later by the umpire upstairs looking at the replay. It would have been as simple as that. This travesty ranks #1 on the "ESPN.com page 2" staff's list of the worst calls in sports history. It didn't have to be.

Here are two more words for those of you still perched on the fence: Jeffrey Maier. Even loyal Yankees fan admit that the opposition got hosed by this call. Orioles fans still wake up in the middle of the night screaming at the vision of Maier, a pre-pubescent nose-picker, reaching over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium to deflect a Derek Jeter fly ball into the stands while Tony Tarasco waited on the warning track to make an easy catch. The umpire, Rich Garcia, actually hustled to get a close view of the play, but was apparently distracted by an enormous hologram of a scowling George Steinbrenner projected over the Stadium's facade, failed to see Maier flail at the ball, and called it a home run instead of an out for interference. The Yankees won that game (Game 1 in the 1996 ALCS) in extra innings, and without the call would have trailed the Orioles 2-0 in the series. Instead, they went on to the title. Maier became a New York hero, with television appearances and box seats for the next game. As Oriole Bobby Bonilla put it, "If one of the Orioles had hit it, the kid would have been strung up on the Throgs Neck Bridge." Or, if instant replay had been in effect, Jeter would have been out and the game would have proceeded in a fair manner resembled what is instead only an imaginary parallel universe.

It used to be that the umpires in the World Series (and other post-season series) were chosen on merit. That's why guys like Doug Harvey kept showing up at games in October. Now, thanks to the umpires' union, the October umpires are assigned on a rotating basis. No matter how good they are, when their turn comes up, there they are. This system carries an inherent guarantee that the World Series umpires will not be the best. Indeed, there's less than a 10% chance that even one of the six umpires in the Series will be one of the six best (however you might define or determine that) umpires in the majors. It seems unlikely that the rotation system is going to go away, but it's time to accept that whoever is out there from year to year, they need all the help they can get. Certainly they needed plenty of help this time, and it was available. It was clear to everybody looking at a television screen that human beings cannot necessarily be counted on to make the right call even if they're only a few feet away from the play. Yogi Berra is right that "you can observe a lot just by watching," but you can't observe everything. Cameras can observe a lot of things that the human eye cannot, things like whether an outfielder trapped that sinking line drive or caught it, or whether a second baseman trying to make a quick pivot on a double play really did drop the ball during the transfer from glove to throwing hand or actually never caught the ball.

The result of a play should be based on what truly happened, if we can determine it, and not just on an umpire's fleeing impression on what he thinks might have happened. What Tim Welke said about that tag play applies to a lot of the calls umpires make. Generally speaking, when a fielder makes a sweep tag, the instant of contact with the runner causes some kind of pause in the motion. That's physics. So Welke, failing to discern a pause, assumed that the play fell into his perceived 90+% of such plays. But he was wrong, as the camera plainly showed. Up in the press box and thereabouts, where Bruce Froemming or some other instant replay official would have been stationed, no assumptions would have been necessary. The right call would have been made, and there would have been a greater chance for the outcome of the game to be decided by truth rather than speculation

So wake up, Baseball, whoever is in charge. You've admitted that human error need not prevail on home run calls. Why be half-assed about it? Don't be afraid that machines are going to replace people. When technology overtakes us, we'll deal with it then. Today we should do what we can, get things right--now--and let tomorrow take care of itself. Don't make Orioles fans sit around asking "what the hell was Garcia looking at?" We wouldn't care what Garcia looked at, as long as there was a guy in a booth somewhere with more than a split-second to see what really happened. Just don't make us wait until--God forbid--a World Series call goes against the Yankees before making the commitment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Take Me To Your Leader?

When I called it a night last night--about twenty seconds after I saw the tarp on the field in Philadelphia midway through the sixth inning of Game 5--I had a good title for this blog. I was going to call it "The Night Carlos Pena Saved Baseball," celebrating his RBI hit which tied the game and spared Baseball the awkwardness of letting a title-clinching game end in the sixth inning. But I got here this morning--with more than an inch of snow on the roads outside Cooperstown, our version of the storm which curtailed the action in Philly last night--and discovered on mlb.com that Commissioner Bud Selig had let the teams know before the game even started that it would be played to its full nine innings no matter how long it took.

Thanks for letting us know, Bud!

He says he "reluctantly" ordered the game to be started, based on weather forecasts which said things wouldn't get worse. They did get worse, much worse, and by the fourth or fifth inning it became clear that they couldn't play much longer. I was watching the game on Fox, whose announcers dutifully reported what they understood to be the truth, namely that this game was like any other game, where it was "official" after five innings and if it couldn't be finished the team with the lead would win. A friend of mine listening to the Phillies broadcast tells me that their announcers were going nuts, predicting that the umpires would wait until Tampa Bay tied the game before halting play, implying that the teams would stay out there for nine innings even if the field became a lake rather than let their team win a shortened game.

All of those fears and conjectures were moot, as it turns out. Even though it was umpire-in-chief Tim Welke's call to order the tarp put on the field when he did (a few minutes after Pena's single tied the game), it was Selig's call about when the game would be official. He is quoted this morning as saying that if the Phillies had been leading, the game would have gone into "an indefinite rain delay" lasting days if necessary. He cited certain rules, and though his interpretation of those rules is liberal, I don't think anyone can argue the logic of his decision. This is the World Series. All games should go the requisite nine innings. It's only fair to both teams and the fans to give both teams the chance to play regulation games in determining a champion. If the game had to be delayed with the Phillies leading 2-1 after five innings, and it took a few days for the weather to clear enough to continue, that would be the fair way to proceed. According to Welke's statements, the groundskeepers were able to keep the field adequately playable for the first few innings, but from the fifth inning on they began losing the battle against the elements. Indeed, B.J. Upton scoring from second base on Pena's single strongly resembled regular baseball. His stride was a bit cautious but he didn't hydroplane the last 40 feet, and Pat Burrell's throw didn't slip out of his hands and fly into the grandstand. Jimmy Rollins flailed helplessly at a wind-blown pop-up in the fifth inning, but the play looked like dozens I've seen at Candlestick Park on dry days, so it had nothing to do with the rain. No pitches had sailed wildly and maimed batters. So they were justified in continuing until the puddles formed on the infield and the wind increased in the sixth inning.

Still, wouldn't it have been nice for Commissioner Selig to order an announcement made to the crowd at the start of the game, simply saying, "Play will continue tonight as long as it is feasible. If nine innings cannot be completed tonight, play will be halted and resumed on the next night when weather permits. No matter who is winning, the game will not be considered complete until nine innings have been played. Do not panic if your team is losing in the fifth inning and the sky is falling." Would that have been so tough? We're told today that the teams knew this was the case. The crowd didn't know. The announcers didn't know, which means nobody watching or listening to the game at home knew.

To put it another way, way more than 99% of baseball's constituency had no idea of the conditions under which the potential title-clinching game was being played. Can anybody think of a reason why Selig chose not to inform baseball fans around the world that an extreme interpretation of a new rule (enacted just two years ago) might be in effect? I can't. Why was he afraid of appearing decisive enough to claim responsibility for the conduct of this crucial game? This morning he said of the decision, "It was difficult, but that's why I'm here." Yes, it was difficult to bend the rules, and I give him credit for making the decision that serves "the best interests of baseball."

That's the problem, though. He was thinking of Baseball, MLB, the corporate entity which employs him and which defines his role in making policy and overseeing history. He wasn't thinking of the fans. If he had been, he would have told the fans what he had in mind. We would have been able to watch the game with a clear notion of what we were watching--a portion of a game that might not be decided on this night. We would not have minded. It would have been like a President of the United States, say, telling us, "it really doesn't matter whether we find weapons of mass destruction tonight or not, we're going to war with Iraq." It would have spared us the illusion of thinking that what we were watching meant one thing when it actually meant something else. It would have given us the impression that the man in charge was truly in charge, that he had the courage to tell us what was what rather than waiting until he could no longer keep his policy a secret from us.

Aren't leaders supposed to have the strength to lead and the conviction to trust us to understand policy before it becomes unavoidable? Human beings tend to think more highly of people in power who communicate clearly to us that they have acted decisively, than we do of people in power who avoid communicating to us until circumstances are beyond anyone's control. So, Mr. Selig, next time you change horses in mid-stream, have the common courtesy to bring the rest of us along for the ride. Stop acting like a car salesman who will say anything to get you to buy the product, wait until the deal is signed, and then let you know what the fine print really says. No wonder we don't trust car salesmen--whatever they're selling.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Memories of Ballparks Past

With the two New York ballparks closing their doors this week, many fans are reminiscing about games they saw at Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium, so I'm going to take a turn as well. I should say first that even though I'm a Mets fan, and even though my new book, This BAD Day in Yankees History, has an image of Yankee Stadium crumbling to the ground on the front cover, I will miss the ballpark in the Bronx more than the one in Flushing Meadow. It seems almost sacrilegious to tear down what I call "The House That John Lindsey Renovated" and what a recent correspondent calls "The House That Booze Built" (referring to the fact that the park was constructed in the middle of Prohibition by Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees owner who built his fortune--before, during, and after Prohibition--as a brewery owner). I spent my youth within 10 miles of New York City and went to at least 50 games at Yankee Stadium, as many games as I attended at Shea Stadium. I also went to a couple of dozen games at the Polo Grounds, and I have vivid memories of those games as well.


As other writers are doing, I have made a list of my most memorable games at those three venues which will very soon all be extinct. The list covers a dozen days. Only a few of my most memorable games were important in the standings, and in some cases I remember them for odd events or single images. Here they are, in chronological order:

1. late 1950s, Yankee Stadium: It was probably in 1958 or 1959, after the National League moved out of New York, that my parents took me to an Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium. I was too young to appreciate everyone who was there that day, but I can still hear the mammoth roar that filled the stadium when Joe DiMaggio was introduced. It was matched during the brief contest by the roar when the "Yankee Clipper" belted a ball into the left-field stands. We were sitting behind third base, and I remember how quickly the ball jumped off DiMaggio's bat, and the eruption of cheers around me. I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

2. April 27, 1962, Polo Grounds: The brand-new Mets were already a dismal 1-11 when they met the Phillies in an afternoon game. I went with my mother, her best friend, and her friend's son Gary. He and I are still friends. We sat in box seats not far from the first-base dugout, and when a pop fly headed in our direction, both mothers cowered, covering their heads and screaming their sons' names. The ball landed harmlessly a few rows behind us. When I've told the story of this game over the years, I've had the Phillies taking a 10-3 lead to the bottom of the 9th inning, when the Mets scored six runs and had the bases loaded with two outs when Don Zimmer took a called strike to end a 10-9 heartbreaker. Thanks to www.retrosheet.org, I now know exactly how that disheartening loss unfolded, and it wasn't quite that bad. The Phillies did lead 11-1 by the 6th inning, and the Mets did fight back, making it 11-8 in the 8th on an Ed Bouchee pinch-hit three-run homer. They scored again in the 9th, but only had a runner on first base when Zimmer had a close look at strike three zipping past him to end the game. I remember that sense of deflation -- perhaps the fans were reacting only to the momentary disappointment of the tantalizing comeback, or maybe they realized that, with a 1-12 record, it was going to be a long season at the Polo Grounds. It certainly didn't bode well for Zimmer, who was an atrocious 4-for-52 during his fling with the Mets, for a batting average of .077. Ouch!

3. June 17, 1962, Polo Grounds: Two legendary events--incredibly, both in the first inning of a doubleheader--stand out from that day, two ultra-rare baseball events. In the top half, after Ron Santo tripled in two runs for the visiting Cubs, rookie centerfielder Lou Brock drilled a long, high fly ball. From our perch in the second deck behind third base, we watched the ball climb higher than our seats, keep going, and seemingly never come down. It kept on carrying, over a 2o-foot-high screen and into the right-centerfield bleachers, an estimated 470 feet from home plate. Brock was the first batter to slug one into that section; Babe Ruth and Joe Adcock had reached the stands in left-center. Perhaps it was at this moment that the people running the Cubs at the time (who knows who, since they were operating under their "college of coaches" system) decided, "nice hit -- okay, we'll give him a couple of years, and if he doesn't turn out to be Babe Ruth we'll unload him." In the home half, with the Mets trailing 4-1 and two runners on base, Marv Throneberry (already famous for his initials: MET) drilled a shot into the gap which rolled to the wall, easily scoring both runners and allowing Marvelous Marv to lumber all the way around to third base. Maybe you've heard of this one. Throneberry was called out for failing to touch first base. Casey Stengel started to argue, but was informed that he had no case, since Throneberry had also missed second. It went into the books as an out at first and two RBI. Yes, it made a difference, as the next batter homered and the Mets lost 8-7. That's the way it was on the way to a 40-120 record in their inaugural season. You never knew what you'd see when you went to see the Mets, except that it would probably cost them the game.

4. July 15, 1963, Polo Grounds: You don't see too many pitchers hit grand slams, except in Little League. There were two in 2008 at Shea Stadium, both hit by the visiting team--Felix Hernandez of the Mariners during interleague play, and Jason Marquis of the Cubs in the fatal final week of the season. I can see right now the flight of the ball hit by Carlton Willey of the Mets on this date in 1963, in the first game of a twilight-night doubleheader. Willey wasn't much of a hitter, with a career batting average of .099 and exactly two home runs in the majors. This was one of them. It was in the 2nd inning when, trailing 2-1 with runners at second and third, Willey watched with amazement as the visiting Houston Colt '45s elected to walk lifetime .205 hitter Larry Burright, loading the bases in the faint hope that Willey would hit the ball (he struck out in more than half his major league at-bats) and they could turn a double play. They must have been more shocked than we were to see the right-handed Willey loft a twisting fly ball toward the right-field corner. In most ballparks it would have faded foul, but the foul pole in the Polo Grounds was 75 feet closer to home plate than the average park's. Willey's curving clout reached the stands a few feet in fair territory, and the Mets suddenly had a 5-2 lead, en route to a 14-5 drubbing of the dummies who walked a .205 hitter to load the bases for Carlton "The Hulk" Willey.

5. September 2, 1963, Polo Grounds: This was another doubleheader with a pair of memorable occurrences. In the top of the 1st inning of the opener, Frank Robinson took a half-swing at a two-strike pitch. From where we sat between the plate and third base, it looked like he held up (I should note that in 1963, home plate umpires did not consult with the third-base umpire on check swings, and a swing had to be almost a full cut to be called a strike) in time. "Strike three!" yelled the umpire, Mel Steiner. Robinson went ballistic. It didn't matter whether Steiner thought he swung or thought the ball was in the strike zone, Robinson was out and irate about it. He wouldn't stop arguing, and Steiner tossed him out of the game. For Reds fans who had fought the traffic coming in from New Jersey, seeing the Reds' best player kicked out so soon made us as upset as Robinson. Without him, the Reds lost the opener to Al Jackson and the Mets, 5-3. The nightcap saw my favorite Reds pitcher, Jim Maloney, trying for his 20th win of the season. Rookie Pete Rose led off the game with a blast that sailed into the second deck in right-center, and Maloney made that lone run stand up, beating Jay Hook 1-0. It was vintage Maloney, a 3-hitter with 13 strikeouts and 6 walks. So the Reds went from a disastrous 1st-inning ejection to a game-winning first-batter home run. What a difference a game made!

6. July 7, 1964, Shea Stadium: All-Star Game: I've attended two All-Star Games, but this one was far more historical and memorable than the one in 1998 (at which Jim Thome won the home run contest by repeatedly launching rockets into the upper-deck at Coors Field). It was a great game from start to finish, which my father and I witnessed from the narrow fair-territory section of the loge just inside the left-field foul pole. Don Drysdale and Dean Chance sparkled at the start, allowing only an unearned one in the first three innings. The NL went ahead in the 4th innings on home runs by Ken Boyer and Billy Williams, and the AL tied it 3-3 in the 6th on a two-run triple by Brooks Robinson. Jim Fregosi's sacrifice fly gave the AL a 4-3 lead in the 7th, and in came Dick Radatz, poised to pitch his usual three innings and wrap up the victory. Radatz was and is my favorite all-time relief pitcher [see my "Closer Look" article on him], which made me deeply conflicted that day at Shea. I wanted the NL to win, but I didn't want them to beat "The Monster". I hoped he'd pitch a couple of great innings and then leave so someone else could blow the lead and let the NL win, and my plan almost worked. Radatz steamrolled the NL in the 7th and 8th innings, striking out four of the six batters he faced. The AL still led 4-3 to the bottom of the 9th, when Willie Mays led off by drawing a walk. I can hear the chant--"Steal! Steal!"--which filled Shea, as everyone in the park knew that Mays, the hero of New York fans and the NL's best hope, would swipe second (he was 33 years old and en route to 19 stolen bases on the season to complement his league-leading 47 homers). Sure enough, he stole on the first or second pitch to Orlando Cepeda, who followed with a bloop fly to short right field. Joe Pepitone drifted out from first base as Rocky Colavito charged in from right, but the ball dropped between them. I remember my shock when Pepitone, facing away from the infield, grabbed the ball instead of letting Colavito (who had the strongest outfield arm in the league) field it. Mays had just rounded third when Pepitone spun and tossed the ball home. It landed in front of the catcher, Elston Howard, took a goofy hop over his head, and Mays dashed home with the tying run. That was the key gaffe in the game. If Colavito had fielded the ball, his throw home would have held Mays at third. As it was, Cepeda advanced to second on Pepitone's error. After an intentional walk, pinch-hitter Hank Aaron struck out against the still-humming Radatz. Without the error, Aaron might have been the third out of the inning. Instead, Johnny Callison came up. I can see that last pitch right now--the 6'7" monster, Radatz, with that sweeping submarine motion, seeming to stride halfway to the plate before releasing the wicked low fastball that had already notched five strikeouts in seven outs--Callison starting his swing almost before the ball left Radatz's hand, somehow divining where the pitch would wind up, a nasty knee-knocker, swinging his bat in the low arc necessary to meet it solidly. The wicked low line drive hooked a little toward the right-field foul pole but was traveling too fast to go foul, smacking off the second-deck facing for the game-winning three-run home run. That swing was one of two baseball moments which I've always felt were totally psychic--that could not be accounted for by skill or even reflexes, but by deciding before the play even began that some magical spot had to be reached. The other was Ron Swoboda's miracle catch of Brooks Robinson's line drive in the 1969 World Series.

7. May 16, 1965, Shea Stadium: My parents and I were in almost the same seats this day as we had for the All-Star Game, hoping to watch our Reds take a doubleheader from the Mets. But no. The opener belonged to Jack Fisher, who pitched shutout ball into the 9th inning and beat the Reds 6-2. Not to worry, we told ourselves between games. In the nightcap, the Reds starter would be Sammy Ellis, a rookie relief-pitching phenom in 1964. He had been converted into a starter in 1965 and sported a 5-0 record, en route to a standout 22-10 season. We had no reason to think he'd have any problem with the Mets. We were very, very wrong. After a leadoff walk and a ground out, the Mets went single-double-single-walk-single to go ahead 3-0. Ron Swoboda capped the startling deluge with a three-run homer, a lofty drive which headed right at us before landing just two rows behind us. That made it 6-0 Mets: game, set, and match. The final score was 8-5, career victory #359 for Warren Spahn, the beneficiary of that 1st-inning explosion.

8. June 13, 1967, Shea Stadium: We have a recurring theme here, folks--the Schechter family going to see the Mets and Reds play doubleheaders. This one was the best, with both games living up to their billing as showcases for a pair of much-heralded rookie pitchers. We were hoping they'd face each other, but had to settle for separate gems rather than a single duel. Game 1 of the twi-nighter belonged to the Reds' Gary Nolan, a baby-faced 19-year-old with a blazing fastball who had struck out 12 and 15 in his previous two starts and who sported a 4-1 record and 2.60 ERA when he arrived at Shea. After the Reds rocked Bill Denehy for four runs in the top of the 1st inning, Nolan had smooth sailing. He gave the Mets only one hit in the first five innings and finished with a 5-hitter and 9 strikeouts, a 6-0 exercise in pitching domination. In Game 2, the Mets countered with their own phenom, 22-year-old Tom Seaver who was 4-3 with a 2.43 ERA in his first dozen major-league starts. Like Nolan, his burden was eased by four 1st-inning runs. Like Nolan, he didn't give up a run through eight innings, but he faltered in the 9th, allowing a 3-run homer by future Mets favorite Art Shamsky. Seaver went the distance to win 7-3, one of 16 wins (compared to 14 for Nolan) he notched as the NL Rookie of the Year. Those two performances had the crowd at Shea buzzing all night.

9. May 30, 1968, Yankee Stadium: This Memorial Day doubleheader was noteworthy for one of the best games of Mickey Mantle's career. He was embarrassingly over the hill, midway through a final season during which he batted a puny .237, dropping his career average from .302 to .298, a plunge below .300 which he regretted forever. One more game like this one and he would have wound up right at .300. Mantle, currently saddled with a .223 average, began Game 1 against the Senators by slugging a Joe Coleman fastball into the right-field bleachers for a two-run homer. In the 3rd inning, he singled and scored a run to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. He led off the 5th with another homer, this one a rocket into the bullpen off Bob Humphreys, making the score 5-1. He faced Humphreys again in the 6th inning and ripped a shot just past the first-base bag that went for an RBI double. He capped his glorious day against Jim Hannan in the 8th inning with an RBI single, giving him 5 RBI for the game. The Stadium crowd, long accustomed to Mantle's fading glory, was ecstatic at this outburst. As New York Times writer Leonard Koppett put it, "a fading star flared up to peak luminosity for one game and made Memorial Day memorable." I know I'll never forget it.

10. May 29, 1970, Shea Stadium: Maybe this shouldn't be on the list since it wasn't a great day at the park, but it was definitely memorable. It was a week after I finished my freshman year of college, and I needed a summer job. My mother knew someone who knew someone who knew the guy who ran the concessions, so I showed up a couple of hours before this Friday night game to get in the lineup of potential vendors. With the Astros in town, I guess they didn't expect a huge crowd (the attendance wound up around 35,000), because a lot of people weren't chosen for several hours of hustling hard labor, including me. Spared from the illusion that I might show up again, I figured that if I couldn't sell the crowd, I'd join them, especially since Tom Seaver was going to pitch. I got a seat way up in the upper deck, behind the plate, where I could the proceedings with proper aloofness. Seaver was great for four innings, allowing only 2 hits and fanning 6 Astros, but they broke through in the 5th. Doug Rader homered, Jimmy Wynn doubled in a couple of runs, and that was all it took for Seaver to lose. He never did have a lot of luck against Houston (he was 2-5 against them in 1969-70), and on this night his teammates failed to score a run against Tom Griffin and Jack Billingham. The 5-0 defeat was one of my least satisfying visits to Shea, but I vividly recall having driven in with a notion of being so actively and intimately involved with the crowd at a big-league ballgame, and winding up feeling so immensely detached from the whole scene. There's an old New York saying that goes "I shoulda stood in bed." This was one time when I definitely shoulda stood in New Jersey.

11. July 25, 1978, Shea Stadium: This, on the other hand, was a splendid day to be at Shea. I headed west after college and lived in the Pacific time zone for most of the next 30 years, which is why my post-1970 ballpark memories are few. In 1978, I spent the summer with my parents in the Poconos, and made the nearly three-hour drive to Flushing Meadows to see Pete Rose try to set a new NL batting-streak record. The day before, he tied Tommy Holmes at 37 straight games with a 7th-inning single off Pat Zachry, the doomed pitcher who had come to the Mets in the infamous Tom Seaver trade. Zachry was so pissed at letting Rose tie the record that he later kicked the dugout steps, breaking a toe and missing the rest of the season. I was rather surprised when I entered Shea Stadium and was handed a pennant that said "Go Pete!!" No opposing player was more reviled at Shea than Rose, mainly because he pummeled undersized shortstop Bud Harrelson in the 1973 playoffs. Mets fans had hurled debris and curses at him ever since, so it perked me up to see and hear the crowd supporting his quest just a few years later. He flied out in his first at-bat against Mets ace Craig Swan, but in his second trip he smacked a sharp single between short and third for the record-setting hit. The crowd went nuts and gave him an extended ovation as he stood at first base. Tommy Holmes himself, a Mets employee, ran out to first to congratulate the man who had erased his record which had stood for 30 years. That was probably the first and last time that Rose was cheered at Shea. He added another single and a double to his day's work, and the Shea fans were rewarded for their generosity of spirit as the Mets trounced the Reds 9-2. In the early days of the franchise, it was said that the ideal home game would have Willie Mays hitting 5 home runs and the Mets winning 6-5. This wasn't exactly that ideal, but it was the same principle. The fans came to see history being made and to see the Mets win, and they got both treats, in spades.

12. September 28, 2008: Yes, I was there for the Shea finale. The special program on sale that day said "final game," and they weren't kidding. Would things have gone better if the program had read "final regular-season game"? I have never been to a sporting event where a crowd was more psyched up before the game (and that includes a Rose Bowl and two NCAA Final Fours). Even a one-hour rain delay didn't diminish the excitement, and every pitch raised the fever pitch of the crowd. Oliver Perez responded with a solid performance that piggy-backed on Johan Santana's all-time clutch shutout the day before. But the Mets, for the third straight game, couldn't put a dent in the starting pitching of the third-place Marlins. Once the Mets bullpen took over in the 6th inning, however, it seemed like an implosion was inevitable. Carlos Beltran's game-tying homer in the 6th electrified the crowd even further, and Endy Chavez's latest miracle catch in the 7th was the last magical game-related moment in the history of the stadium. Once the 8th inning struck, or should I say once the Marlins struck for back-to-back homers in the 8th, the party was over, and soon the news arrived from Milwaukee that the Brewers had come through when the Mets hadn't. The Shea elation turned quickly to desolation, and the folks I was with didn't have the heart to stick around for the post-game farewell to Shea, which I watched the next day at home on TiVo.

It was a sad ending to an era, and we could only hope that the ghosts of September failures won't follow the Mets on that 100-yard journey to their new home. Ballparks fade, new ballparks arrive with the opportunity for a new raft of memories. I just hope I have the chance to match some of the ones I've detailed above, days and nights at the ballparks I'll never forget.