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 " 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 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, 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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Billy Martin of Poker

The other night, while Tampa Bay was crushing the Red Sox in Game 4 at Fenway, my attention wandered and I started watching ESPN's coverage of the main event of the 2008 World Series of Poker. It didn't take long for me to recall why I happily divorced myself from the poker industry. All it took was the familiar spectacle of a Phil Hellmuth hissy-fit.

In a previous lifetime, I was a poker dealer, including five years at the World Series of Poker. In fact, I was the Curt Flood of tournament poker, challenging a too-long-tolerated system of inequities, and finding myself exiled from the scene before I could benefit from the newly installed system.

After I left the tournament scene, I dealt at the Bay 101 cardroom in San Jose, California. For several years during the late 1990s, I dealt to Phil Hellmuth more nights than not, having dealt to him at tournaments in the early 1990s. So I've seen more than enough of him from close range to know that he's still the same old Phil. He hasn't changed, and it is doubtful that he ever will now that the televised-poker boom allows him to promote his "poker brat" reputation. I will say that, unlike many high-limit players I dealt to, Phil rarely abuses dealers and never gave me a hard time. (Thus my views of him are not tinged by personal rancor.) In that sense he is not like Billy Martin, who harassed umpires as well as opponents.

It is in his deeper psyche that Phil Hellmuth resembles Billy Martin, simply using words instead of fists to exhibit his fears and needs. What I saw on ESPN last night is a perfect example, a moment that occurred late in the fifth day of play. The two-hour telecast featured on one table, and the action focused around three players: Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, a top pro I first encountered about twenty years ago when he was a Las Vegas neophyte playing $1-4 limit hold'em at Sam's Town; David Rheem, a blossoming star of current vintage; and Cristian Dragomir, an unknown Rumanian. Matusow played very few hands and was on his best behavior apart from gloating excessively when he got lucky to win an all-in hand. Rheem was talkative, analytical, and adept at figuring out what cards his opponents'. Dragomir, intense but affable, was one of the more aggressive players at the table and less choosy about the quality of his starting cards, winning a couple of large pots with 10-4, a hand even novices toss into the muck before the flop.

Other tables appeared on the telecast, including the one where Hellmuth held forth, marveling at how other players could call with weak cards, trying to run a bluff himself with J-4, calling out "honey!" to his wife whenever he made a big bet or went all-in (he was on "short money" most of the day), and eventually insulting just about every other player who passed his way (including fellow top pro Gus Hansen, who wandered just long enough to have Hellmuth inform him that "if you held the cards I've held, you'd have been broke an hour ago"). Then, just minutes before play ended for the day, Hellmuth was moved to the featured table, sitting down on Matusow's left at one end of the table, with Dragomir at the other end. Fireworks seemed imminent, and it took only a couple of minutes for Hellmuth to (as Vegas poker players like to say) "go off like the Fourth of July."

Dragomir picked up another 10-4 and pressed his luck by raising before the flop. Hellmuth held A-K, the king of hand that often prompts a short-stacked player to go all-in. Instead, Hellmuth engaged in his familiar smoke-screen, regaling the table with a pre-mortem, discussing what he thought Dragomir had, what he hoped Dragomir might have, and why he was going to play the hand much better than anyone else could imagine. Finally he announced that Dragomir probably had A-Q (the hand he hoped Dragomir had because he could win a big pot if an ace flopped), and re-raised another 175K. "Honey," Hellmuth called to his wife. "Everybody else would go all-in my hand, but I'm hoping he doesn't even call." That was enough to induce Dragomir to call with his 10-4. The flop was three small cards, one of them a 10 which gave Dragomir the best hand. He made a large bet, and Hellmuth reluctantly folded, showing his A-K. Savvy pros emphasize the folly of ever showing your hole cards. Why give anybody free information about how you've played your cards? You're just asking for trouble.

In this case, Hellmuth invited trouble by brandishing his hole cards to show everyone that he was brilliant enough to know when A-K was the worst hand. Dragomir, with a flourish, showed his hole-cards, much to the delight of the crowd, which had watched him win three pots with 10-4. Their applause sent Hellmuth into a rage caused entirely by his self-absorbed assumption that the crowd's response was directed at him. He jumped up, yelling "you're an idiot!" at Dragomir. He berated him for playing such bad cards, for having the audacity to play bad cards against a player of his stature, and for liking the bad cards so much to flaunt them. The tirade whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and that enraged Hellmuth even more. He called Dragomir an idiot at least a half-dozen times, even after Matusow tried to calm him down and told him he was out of line. Dragomir protested to tournament officials before fighting back, reminding Hellmuth that "yeah, I'm an idiot -- with stacks" that were several times more plentiful than Hellmuth's. They went back and forth for a moment, until another telling moment arrived. Another player tried to calm him by saying "that's poker, Phil," to which Hellmuth replied with poignant urgency, "to you it's poker--but it's my life!"

There it was, the naked admission that, like all hopelessly obsessed people, he lacks the ability to put anything into perspective. The poker world exists only to feed his need for perfection, the futile insistence on playing perfectly even though the very nature of the game dictates that even perfection will rarely be rewarded. The fact is that Hellmuth's arrogance, his seemingly boundless ego is actually the defense mechanism of a severely insecure person. In past telecasts, we've seen him cry at being eliminated from a tournament, seek the comfort of his mother when she was in the crowd, and moan over and over again about how brilliantly he played when he lost.

His inability to see beyond the moment, his refusal to acknowledge his ultimate powerlessness, and his insistence on putting that every inferior being in his place are what make him like Billy Martin. Think about Billy Martin sitting in a hotel bar in Minnesota and getting into a baseball argument with a marshmallow salesman. Was Martin able to say "I have better things to do with my time than this" or "this guy's an idiot, why waste my breath on him?" Nope. He had to prove he was superior at something, so he challenged the marshmallow salesman to a fight, saying "Here's $300 to your penny I can knock you down." The guy put up a penny, they walked toward the hotel lobby, and Martin suddenly turned and sucker-punched him. End of fight (and end of Martin's latest tenure as Yankees manager).

Now substitute Hellmuth and the unknown Rumanian. After losing a pot with A-K against 10-4, Hellmuth lacked the essential self-confidence to be content to tell only himself, "let him play bad cards, I'll win in the long run." He couldn't see beyond that moment, had to assert his superiority by identifying the "idiot," slamming him again and again with that word, like Billy Martin pummeling his victims with his fists. It's self-defeating, of course--the effort to overcome a fleeting instant of perceived ridicule only provided the ammunition for a deeper humiliation, including a 20-minute penalty from tournament officials.

That's the way it has always been with Phil, and the way it will always be. It's a sad obsession, this minute-by-minute, uninterrupted quest to assert superiority in a realm where it doesn't guarantee anything. Here's another story to illustrate that point. About ten years ago, I was dealing a $100-200 limit game in San Jose in which Phil was one of three players. They all got involved in a big pot with a lot of raises, most of them strategic maneuvering. At the end, it turned out that Phil had the second-best hand. He instantly lashed into the player with the worst hand: "I knew where you were at the whole can't beat me...." and much more. He spent a minute berating the only player he beat, finding comfort in that little morsel of passing superiority, while the player who beat both of them busily stacked his newly-won chips.

That's all you need to know about Phil Hellmuth. Don't be fooled by the man behind the curtain of insults and braggadocio. He isn't better than the rest of them, and he knows it. He's a scared little child looking for reassurance in all the wrong places.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hall of Famer Anagrams

My cohort Lenny DiFranza, who plowed through my recent selection of ballpark anagrams, suggested that I concoct a similar list for Hall of Famers. I've tried to call that bluff and then some, and I've come with a set of scrambled names which should present a much greater challenge than the ballparks did.

The trick is that I haven't used the popular names that the Hall of Famers are known by. I've used their real first names (and, in a couple of cases, actual last names), not their nicknames. So don't look for Arky Vaughan, whose first name was Floyd. Actually, don't look for Floyd either, because I couldn't come up with a decent anagram for Floyd Vaughan (if you can, I'd like to hear about it). Don't look for Nolan Ryan, whose first name is Lynn, making for another (for me) impossible anagram.

Here they are, 50 Hall of Famers as you've never seen them before. (HINT: There's a huge hint in the list itself.)



















































Have fun with these, and e-mail me if you need any answers.