Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Box Score Of The Month

It has been a few weeks since I wrote a blog, and I hope you've enjoyed my absence. I've been doing research lately on pitching, my favorite subject, and doing the research in my favorite way, which is to look at box scores on Retrosheet. This site, http://www.retrosheet.org/, has every box score and (for 99% of the games) batter-by-batter results from the present to 1953 (with more seasons added every year) invites long visits. It's like a chocolate factory without the demented proprietor, since David Smith, who created the site, has the altruistic motive of making the result of every batter in baseball history available free of charge.

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? In the case of Retrosheet, no. I've spent more hours than I can count perusing the box scores (and other copious material) there, and it never ceases to fascinate me. There's a pattern to game scores, line scores, and box scores [that is, the final score, the inning-by-inning scoring of runs (or not scoring), and the details of which batters were responsible for the scoring (and the non-scoring). Even though I'm focusing mostly on pitching, I also notice and marvel at the offensive feats, the big scores and big comebacks.

Last week I found a box score which seems to be Exhibit A in the case against modern managers for overusing their bullpens. One of the truisms of baseball is that substitutions are risky. Even though there may be a perfectly logical reason for making a substitution, it does not follow that every supportable substitution should be made. Unless the player being replaced has been injured or performed so horribly that his continued presence on the field could produce only disaster, the new player is an unknown quantity. The best historical example is the 1951 National League playoff, where the Giants were rallying in the bottom of the ninth inning of the decisive game. Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen called down to the bullpen to ask which of two pitchers looked better warming up. Just then, the bullpen coach saw Carl Erskine bounce a curve to the bullpen catcher. He advised Dressen to put in the other guy, Ralph Branca. In came Branca, and two pitches later out went the rocket off Bobby Thomson's bat which made both himself and Branca famous. Who knows if Erskine would have done better. Maybe Thomson would've hit his first pitch into immortality.

A few years ago, I did a presentation at the SABR convention on some changes in recent decades in how bullpens are used. Here's one important thing my research uncovered: from the 1950s all the way through the mid-1980s, if a reliever entered the game in the eighth inning and got out of the inning without allowing any runs to score, he came back to start the ninth inning more than 90% of the time. That's just how it was done, and it explains why Hall of Fame relievers Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage got all those two-inning saves. The two-inning save is a rare event today, because managers choose to divide the duty, using one pitcher for the eighth inning and, no matter how great he pitches, bringing in another guy to pitch the ninth. This strategy has become so widespread that the roles have coined new terms: "set-up man" for the eighth-inning specialist and "closer" for the ninth-inning finisher.

Let me repeat that main point. As recently as 25 years ago, if you got through the eighth inning looking strong, you stayed out there for the ninth inning. Period. If you got in trouble then, someone else would come in. But the manager saw enough of your stuff in the eighth inning to like your chance in the ninth. Did this strategy work better than today's specialization? No, not better. But the same. The percentage of saves and blown saves has remained roughly the same. It doesn't matter whether you use one or two pitchers to hold a lead in those last two innings. So why take up a roster spot for a pitcher whose role is redundant and unnecessary?

To put it another way: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

It's time to present Exhibit A, a game played on May 25, 2001. The Tigers took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first and expanded the lead to 4-0 after four innings. Their pitcher, a 29-year-old righty named Chris Holt, had a no-hitter going. He took the no-no to the top of the sixth, when he allowed a pair of runs on a triple, walk, single, and sacrifice fly. Through six innings, he had a two-hitter with seven strikeouts, and a 4-2 lead.

His manager, Phil Garner, took him out. Of course, since we weren't there, we don't know whether there were special circumstances which compelled Garner to remove him. Maybe he was developing a blister or had twisted his knee or had a touch of the flu. Perhaps Garner looked at Holt's track record, a decidedly losing record in four seasons with Houston before joining the Tigers in 2001, gaudy ERAs, and only two starting efforts longer than six innings so far this season. The interesting thing is that Holt was in exactly the same position a month earlier, on April 26. Also at home, he took a 4-0 lead to the sixth inning and promptly gave up two runs on a single, a triple, and a passed ball followed by a single. What did Garner do that time? He let Holt start the seventh inning. No runs. He pitched the eighth inning, too. Three up, three down. By this time, the lead was 8-2, and out he went for the ninth inning as well. A pair of one-out might have alarmed Garner, but he left Holt in and was rewarded with two outs to finish off the complete game, the last of Holt's four complete games in 112 career starts.

With that performance fresh in Garner's mind, there might well have been some extenuating circumstance which made him not even think twice before removing Holt on May 25. He brought in lefty Heath Murray to face lefty Jeff Liefer--and struck him out. Despite that auspicious beginning, Garner lifted Murray from the game. Does this mean that Murray had precisely enough stuff to retire a seldom-used outfielder with a forgettable career, but the strikeout didn't suggest that he had enough stuff to retire the next batter just because he was a decent platoon player who happened to bat righty?

In came Matt Anderson, a righty, who quickly fanned Herbert Perry and disposed of Sandy Alomar, Jr. on a ground out. That was impressive, getting those two hitters with little effort. You'd think that would qualify him to start the eighth inning--remember this is the American League, where a manager can use his pitchers exactly how he wishes because he doesn't face the dilemma National League managers when they might have to take out a hot pitcher for a pinch hitter. Can you think of any reason why Anderson didn't deserve to continue after getting a strikeout and a little ground ball? I can't.

Phil Garner could. Two of the next three White Sox due up were switch-hitters, but the middle batter was a lefty, and that was all the excuse Garner needed to bring in a fresh lefty, C. J. Nitkowski. Never mind seeing if Anderson could continue his good work. There's one lefty in the next three hitters, so let's bring in the lefty. Well, Garner's move worked, sort of. The first switch-hitter, Jose Valentin, batted right-handed and struck out. The lefty, Chris Singleton, worked Nitkowski for a walk, but he came back to whiff the other switch-hitter, Ray Durham. That brought up Magglio Ordonez, the cleanup hitter, a righty. Here we've got Nitkowski, a lefty who just struck out the two right-handed hitters he faced. And here we've got Phil Garner making another walk to the mound and wave to the bullpen.

He brought in a righty, Danny Patterson, to face Ordonez. I don't understand it. Nitkowski just fanned two righties--oh, but they weren't real righties, they were switch-hitters, while Ordonez was a real righty. That's much, much different. In came Patterson, and he got Ordonez to ground out.

Let's review the situation heading to the ninth inning, with the Tigers still ahead 4-2. In the past two innings, they have used four pitchers who collectively faced seven batters, striking out four, walking one, and getting two ground outs. Garner had to feel pretty proud of himself, navigating his staff through those two tricky innings which formed the bridge from his starter to his closer. Eight innings worked by five pitchers who allowed two hits. All had pitched well, and he had dodged those bullets of uncertainty, found four relievers who came right in and did the job without any fuss.

Now it was the ninth inning and time for his closer, Todd Jones, who had blown a save in the ninth inning two days earlier, but was now--to use a favorite announcers' phrase--being asked to get right back up on the horse. Sure enough, Jones started like his teammates had, striking out the first batter he faced, the toughest out in the lineup, Harold Baines. The next two hitters singled, but Jones got Perry to fly to center and get the White Sox down to their final out.

Jones never got that out. Carlos Lee pinch-hit for Alomar and singled in a run to make it 4-3. Valentin singled in the tying run, landing Garner in a true predicament. After squandering four relievers who showed that they had the stuff to get people out, now his presumably best reliever, his closer, was proving that he couldn't get anybody out. But there was nobody to replace him except the two pitchers at the bottom of the barrel. So Jones stayed in.

The next batter was safe on an error--by Jones. I wasn't there, but I'm sure it was a hideous miscue, one so inexplicable that it rocked Jones off what was left of his moorings. With the bases loaded, two outs, and the score still tied, Jones served up a fat pitch to Ray Durham, who drilled a double to score all three runners. What more did Garner need to see? Well, he needed to see one more double, by Ordonez, before he got Jones out of there in favor of Kevin Tolar, whose major league career consisted of 20 games and a 6.62 ERA. Tolar got Baines to foul out, and the nightmare inning was over. So were the Tigers' chances. They went meekly in the bottom of the ninth and lost 8-4.

There you have it. Phil Garner found five pitchers who pitched well, and found reasons to take them out before they got in trouble. He kept taking pitchers out until he found one who got in trouble, stayed in trouble, and made things worse. That's the guy he left in. His first four relievers faced seven batters and got six out. Jones faced nine batters and gave up six hits. But he was the "closer" so there he remained to take his drubbing. If it's any consolation, he kept giving up runs over the next few weeks until Garner saw the light and replaced him in the "closer" role--with Anderson, the pitcher who retired the only two batters he faced in this game before being sent to the sidelines to watch his good work undone.

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with the way managers use their bullpens today. They do not trust their own eyes when they see a reliever pitch effectively. They place their trust in the "splits" which show the statistical tendencies of hitters against certain types of pitchers. As long as they have a good statistical reason to use this guy instead of that guy, they feel justified. My point is that if Garner had gotten another inning out of Holt, or had used just two relievers on the bridge to his closer, he would have had the other two (effective-on-this-night) relievers available to bail out Jones when he got in trouble and save the game instead of throwing it away.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review of COWBOYS FULL

My review of the new James McManus book, Cowboys Full, was published this past week in the Washington Times. Here is the text of the review:

COWBOYS FULL: THE STORY OF POKER, By James McManus: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30, 528 pages, REVIEWED BY GABRIEL SCHECHTER

Poker is our national pastime. Baseball, football and racing have at various times been the dominant spectator sport, but more people have always played poker than any other form of competition, and their numbers are growing exponentially. The boom in televised poker this decade has elevated its status as a spectator sport, and Internet poker sites have enabled the game to spread globally, making it the international pastime as well.

How and why did this become so? In "Cowboys Full," a comprehensive account of humanity's fascination with games of chance, James McManus aims "to show how the story of poker helps to explain who we are." He succeeds by using a born storyteller's gifts to trace the qualities needed to win at poker from prehistoric origins through endless societal and psychological permutations.
Risk has always been part of life, a delicate balance of courage and caution, and the spoils go to those — Mr. McManus parades before us an array of generals, politicians, entrepreneurs and gamblers — who combine ambitious aggression with a cool-headed ability to read and outmaneuver the opposition.

Mr. McManus rose to poker prominence in 2000 as an amateur player who somehow finished fifth in the main event of the World Series of Poker, an improbable adventure detailed in the best-selling "Positively Fifth Street" (2003). That blow-by-blow treatment had the immediacy of confession and the roller-coaster urgency of the tournament's maelstrom of strategy buffeted by fortune. "Cowboys Full" is no less fascinating, though its impersonal tone and scholarly approach may make some readers yearn for the riveting suspense of his earlier classic.

"Nothing is more natural," Mr. McManus writes, "or more essential to human achievement, than gambling." Prehistoric man sought portents to optimize hunting prospects. Rolling bones gave way to dice, which were mentioned in "The Iliad." The first "cards" were produced in Korea and China roughly 1,500 years ago, and card games have evolved steadily since then. The ancestors of poker were "bluffing games" played in Europe in Renaissance times. Each country had its own variant, some using 20-card decks, others 36 or 52, with cards of assorted rank, number and likelihood. The common features were deception, bluffing, odds, judgment, and, above all, luck. Anybody could play, and anybody could win, as we've seen again in this year's World Series of Poker, when a raw 21-year-old became the youngest champion in the event's 40-year history, breaking the record set last year by another 21-year-old.

It seems inevitable that a specific place and time would allow these second-cousin games to congeal into one form that would capture everyone's devotion. That place was New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, when a polyglot swarm of immigrants brought their games with them. The new American amalgam — draw poker — moved up the Mississippi River on steamboats and into the American West. Mr. McManus excels in showing how the daring and resourcefulness that sent settlers westward into a wilderness fraught with danger and opportunity also brought an affinity for this new game.

A poker player could not only assert his manhood but also accumulate the wealth that would measure his social prominence. As the 19th century progressed, the game grew with the nation; like baseball, it got a big boost during the Civil War from the interchange of games between soldiers of both sides. New forms of poker evolved. Stud replaced draw as the game of choice, just as hold 'em has become the game of the past half-century.

Mr. McManus demonstrates how each chain in poker's evolution served the needs and penchants of the people who popularized them. His cast of characters is plentiful and engaging, and all get their due: Girolamo Cardano, the 16th-century Milanese pioneer of probabilities; Jonathan Harrington Green, the riverboat cardsharp; the legendary Wild Bill Hickok; Herbert O. Yardley, the cryptographer whose book "The Education of a Poker Player" remains a classic; and many more.

Diligently researched (enough for 40 pages of notes), this is the most entertaining collection of poker tales ever published, stories that illustrate Mr. McManus' main thesis, namely that poker principles are applied every day in vital areas of life, notably warfare and politics. There is a lengthy section on the Civil War, during which the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest repeatedly bluffed and deceived his Union counterparts until the Union prevailed due to the superior skills of Ulysses S. Grant.

"Like any good poker player," Mr. McManus writes, "Grant had a knack for capitalizing on the overly passive or aggressive tendencies of rebel generals," many of whom he knew from West Point. "He could tell bluff and bluster from real courage." A more recent parallel was the Cuban missile crisis, where President Kennedy called Premier Khrushchev's world-risking bluff.
Kennedy was one of the few presidents who wasn't an avid poker player. Richard Nixon financed his first congressional campaign with poker winnings. Dwight Eisenhower was an even better player. Franklin Roosevelt hosted late-night low-stakes games at the White House to relieve the stress of guiding the nation through the Depression and war.

Many future presidents have used poker as a networking tool, self-perceived outsiders joining backroom games to gain acceptance as one of the boys. They include Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and, yes, Barack Obama, who used the game to become a player in Illinois politics and in 2007 answered a campaign reporter's question about his hidden talents by admitting that "I'm a pretty good poker player."

Mr. McManus also emphasizes poker's long history as "the cheating game." Stacked decks and crooked schemes have always existed, and he details the current investigation of a former World Series of Poker champion whose Internet cheating netted him more than a million dollars. In that light, it is surprising that Mr. McManus doesn't discuss the role of professional dealers in making poker a legitimate, thriving industry in Las Vegas and elsewhere. He also betrays his player's bias by failing to mention dealer abuse in his discussion of objectionable poker behavior. Aside from that glaring omission, "Cowboys Full" should remain the definitive study of poker history long after the next 21-year-old wins the game's biggest prize.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Poker Story Not For the Squeamish

Now that one of the least satisfying baseball seasons in memory is over, I have vanished into The Void that will exist in my soul at least until the start of spring training. Even the hot stove provides only so much warmth here in the wilds of upstate New York. In my job at the Hall of Fame, I get to disappear all winter into baseball's past, and that's fine, but it isn't the same without the daily smorgasbord of games being played.

I've also had a chance to focus more on poker lately, my second-favorite game and a significant part of my pre-Cooperstown life. I landed a gig writing a newspaper book review which I'll post here as soon as it is published. The review was of the new book by James McManus, who wowed everyone five years ago with his best-selling Positively Fifth Street, his riveting blow-by-blow account of finishing fifth in the main event of the 2000 World Series of Poker. Now he has written a history of poker titled Cowboys Full, a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in the game.

One point McManus hammers home is that poker is the ultimate American game because it reflects the melting-pot growth and strength of the nation. In poker, anyone can play and anyone can win; you don't have to be the best player at the table to win the next pot, and you don't even have to have the best hand if you can out-maneuver your opponents. Poker is also the most international of games, as I discovered when I worked in a poker emporium in San Jose ten years ago. In that setting, Caucasians were very much a minority. A ten-handed game would usually include players from five or six countries; Vietnamese and Filipinos were the most plentiful, but there were natives of Japan, Cambodia, Korea, Thailand, and Mexico, along with assorted Arabs and African-Americans. You can't have more of a melting pot than that, or a more democratic game in which they could compete on an equal footing.

McManus discusses the importance of poker in politics, another realm in which bluffing, intimidation, and intuition are key virtues. Most presidents of the past hundred years were avid poker players, with Eisenhower and Nixon showing the most skill. Several future presidents used poker as a means to become part of the prevailing political power network. Their common link was a sense of being outsiders who needed a way to become "one of the boys" and found that getting invited to play the power-brokers' games worked very well. This strategy was used by Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and most recently Barack Obama. He used low-limit poker games to become a cog in the Illinois political machine, and the rest was history.

I experienced the same thing (without the political overtones) back in the mid-1970s when I got a job teaching at the University of Montana in Missoula. Montana still maintained a Wild West image, and I wondered how I might fit in, a little Jewish kid from New York in the wilds of cowboy country. Poker turned out to be the vehicle for my acceptance there. This was my first experience with legal poker, played in the back rooms of bars. I remember the first time a friend showed me one of the games, filled with rough-hewn faces and a vigilant dealer. My friend pointed to a cabinet behind the dealer. "Know what's in there?" he asked. Nope. "A gun. In case there's trouble." Thanks, Wild Bill. I sat down to play anyway.

The place to play in Missoula was the Oxford Cafe, a two-room cross-section of America if ever there was one. Open 24 hours a day, it had a counter where you could eat, a bar, a keno nook, a blackboard with sports action you could bet on, a pool table, and a poker room in the back. The clientele included cowboys and Indians, professors and lowlifes, Senator Mike Mansfield when he was in town, businessmen and drunks, and a colorful array of poker players. Some of the players were seasoned pros, some rank amateurs like the guy who would follow his weekly visit to his shrink by doing penance in the form of blowing off $500 or so at cards. There was an exile from North Carolina who called himself Shot, a guy who chain-smoked while hooked up to an oxygen tank, a guy known as Dick the Lawyer, and many more. The little Jewish kid fit it as well as anybody.

And then there was Art Wall. Art was in his mid-80s when I knew him, and in his youth had been part of a Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Talk about the Wild West! Art was still tough in his eighties. One night he was jumped by three youths behind the bus station, but subdued them and held them down until the police arrived. He was stooped but powerfully built, with huge gnarled hands. He would play poker for two or three days at a time, disdaining sleep but drinking steadily. Because he hadn't bothered to get his cataracts fixed, he had a hard time seeing his cards, and would take a long time to play. Though he could be ornery after a certain amount of drinking, he was a popular figure in the game, though that was maybe because he was a steady loser who never seemed to run out of money. Only one thing about him bothered anybody at all: he always had chewing tobacco in his mouth, and was always spitting into a big bucket stationed next to his chair, which would get pretty disgusting by the second or third day of one of his binges.

It was on one of those nights when four or five of us got involved in a pretty good pot. It was Art's turn, and it was $20 to call. He brought his hold cards up to his eyes for a closer reading, then peered at the cards on the table, then reached toward his tall stack of yellow $5 chips. He missed his aim and sent the whole stack flying off the table--and into his bucket, where the accumulated spit swallowed them up. We all flinched and tried to keep our chicken fried steaks from coming back up as Art put his cards down and plunged one of his big paws into the bucket.

"Jesus, Art!" we gulped while he focused all his attention on finding his chips amid the sludge. "Are you gonna call?" "Just tell us what you're gonna do, Art." "Come on, Art, let us know," we pleaded, but nobody could distract him from his rummaging. This went on for a couple of minutes, while our disgust multiplied. "Are you calling or folding, Art?" "For chrissake, Art, what are you gonna do?" Nothing we said seemed to penetrate his glazed-eyes semi-consciousness. Time stopped as he peered down at the bucket and swirled his hand around the slop.

Finally that big arm came up, and with it a large handful of chips--we couldn't see much of the yellow beneath the brown slime. He swung his arm around and slammed his hand on the middle of the table. "I raise!" he growled. Well, I've never seen a bunch of guys fold their cards faster. We couldn't get out of that pot fast enough. I know I couldn't get out of the room fast enough. I fled outside to the Montana night chill to calm down my innards.

I'd like to think that Art was bluffing. It would be a hell of a move, wouldn't it, knocking over the chips on purpose and making everyone wait for him to gross us right out of the pot. That was poker in the Wild West of the 1970s.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

IBWAA Announces 2009 Awards

This summer I signed up for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, a group formed by Howard Cole of baseballsavvy.com. As the community of internet columnists and bloggers continues to expand rapidly, it is clear that these dedicated writers are just as keen about observing and analyzing the baseball scene as the mainstream members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The main difference is that the BBWAA members get to vote on the annual awards and the annual Hall of Fame election. The IWBAA was created in part to allow its members to partake in the fun of voting, providing an alternate voice (maybe even a consensus) to the BBWAA voters.

The IWBAA vote was conducted in the same fashion as the BBWAA vote, concluding on the final day of the regular season. Our winners are being announced this week, as outlined in the press release put out yesterday by Howard Cole, excerpts of which are included below. Our choices look right on the money, and I say this not just because the four major award winners happen to be the four I picked (I did have different choices for the Rookies of the Year).

I urge you to contact your favorite internet writers and get them to check out the IBWAA (contact information is at the bottom of the page). Being part of this group can benefit all of us, linking disparate voices in the wilderness to confirm that we really are paying close attention to the game we love.


IBWAA ANNOUNCES 2009 CY YOUNG AND MVP AWARDS

IBWAA American League (AL) CY:

Winner: Zack Greinke (Kansas City Royals)
2nd Place: Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners)
3rd Place: CC Sabathia (New York Yankees)
4th Place: Justin Verlander (Detroit Tigers)
5th Place: Roy Halladay (Toronto Blue Jays)

IBWAA National League (NL) CY:

Winner: Chris Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals)
2nd Place: Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals)
3rd Place: Tim Lincecum (San Francisco Giants)
4th Place: Josh Johnson (Florida Marlins)
5th Place: Javier Vazquez (Atlanta Braves)

IBWAA AL MVP:

Winner: Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins)
2nd Place: Mark Teixeira (New York Yankees)
3rd Place: Derek Jeter (New York Yankees)
4th Place: Kendry Morales (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
5th Place: Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers)
6th Place: Zack Greinke (Kansas City Royals)
7th Place: Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay Rays)
8th Place: Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners)
9th Tie Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay Rays)
9th Tie: Kevin Youkilis (Boston Red Sox)

IBWAA NL MVP:

Winner: Albert Pujols (St. Louis Cardinals)
2nd Place: Ryan Howard (Philadelphia Phillies)
3rd Place: Hanley Ramirez (Florida Marlins)
4th Tie: Prince Fielder (Milwaukee Brewers)
4th Tie: Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado Rockies)
6th Place: Tim Lincecum (San Francisco Giants)
7th Place: Chase Utley (Philadelphia Phillies)
8th Place: Andre Ethier (Los Angeles Dodgers)
9th Place: Chris Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals)
10th Pl: Ryan Braun (Milwaukee Brewers)

The association's Rookie of the Year (ROY), Manager of the Year (MOY), Comeback of the Year (COY) and Executive of the Year (EOY) awards were announced Monday, November 9, 2009 and Tuesday, November 10, 2009. Winners are as follows:

IBWAA AL ROY: Elvis Andrus (Texas Rangers)

IBWAA NL ROY: Tommy Hanson (Atlanta Braves)

IBWAA AL MOY: Ron Gardenhire (Minnesota Twins)

IBWAA NL MOY: Jim Tracy (Colorado Rockies)

IBWAA AL COY: Aaron Hill (Toronto Blue Jays)

IBWAA NL COY: Chris Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals)

IBWAA AL EOY: Brian Cashman (New York Yankees)

IBWAA NL EOY: Dan O'Dowd (Colorado Rockies)

The IBWAA was created in July 4, 2009 by Howard Cole, editor of BaseballSavvy.com, to organize and promote the growing online baseball media, and to serve as an alternative voice to the Base Ball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

Association memberships are open to any and all Internet baseball writers, with a yearly fee of $20. Discounts for groups and scholarships are available.

For more information on the IBWAA, please visit the temporary webpage here, http://www.baseballsavvy.com/internetbaseballwriters.html. In the coming months, the IBWAA can be found at www.InternetBaseballWriters.com.

Contact:
Howard Cole, Acting Director, IBWAAbaseballsavvy@aol.com

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees Announce Plans For New Stadiums

In the wake of their first World Series title in a faith-shaking nine years, the Yankees announced plans to construct a succession of new ballparks which will allow them to play in a new stadium every year.

"It's clear to everyone," said team owner Hank Steinbrenner, "that all we needed to do to get off the schneid was move to a new park. It worked in 1923, and it worked again this year. Even Chris Berman made the connection. So the solution is simple."

Club officials unveiled plans to tear down the original Yankee Stadium next week, bulldoze the site, and begin construction on a new Stadium which will be ready for use in 2010. Meanwhile, sufficient room will be cleared in the same neighborhood for a third ballpark site, with a fresh facility on that site erected by the 2011 season. As that construction continues, the current Yankee Stadium will give way to wrecking crews so the new park there can open in 2012.

"It's going to take a lot of work to have the first one done by next April," said Steinbrenner. "However, once we get the hang of it, we expect to churn one out on each site every three years like clockwork."

The same design will be used for all the facilities, though some amenities will be sacrificed for the sake of the continuous turnover. For instance, most of the outfield seating between the foul poles will be on benches, not chairs. "Partial view, partial seat" will be the operative principle, but as Steinbrenner noted, "Once we can guarantee that every year's team will win the title, people will flock there no matter how uncomfortable it is."

Financing for the multiple venues will come from a variety of sources, but primarily from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Despite winning election to his third term as major, gazillionaire Bloomberg was considerably sobered by his narrow margin of victory. "Thank God I had Mariano Rivera come on board the last couple of days to secure those final votes," said Bloomberg. "However, it's clear that my plummeting support from voters means that my political legacy will be totally down the drain by the next election. Therefore I'm turning to the Bronx for a more lasting legacy."

Bloomberg will put up $1 billion per year for the first three new ballparks, with financing for further construction coming from a complex formula whose details are being negotiated. "The essence of it," said Bloomberg, "is that the Yankees will pay me back a certain amount, perhaps $4-5 million, for each game they lose. I'll also get a certain percentage of ticket sales, and then of course there's the protection money. In addition, the city will levy a $5 surcharge per ticket for all fans traveling to Citifield to see those losers play. If that's how they want to waste their money, we may as well get a piece of it."

One special feature of the new Yankee Stadiums will be a private box for former mayor Rudy Giuliani to be located midway between the on-deck circle and home plate. "I'll have a better view of the opposing pitchers," said Giuliani, "and can tell the next Yankee hitter what to expect. Plus, my throat gets too sore from having to yell at the umpires all the way from the dugout."

In a related development, Steinbrenner revealed that he has filed papers to formally adopt Pedro Martinez and will pay his new son $1 million a year to pitch batting practice.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword of Three Days' Rest

I was prepared to write a post-World Series blog today, but Cliff Lee and Chase Utley changed my mind, sending the Series back to Yankee Stadium for a nifty Game 6 matchup between Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte. So I'll hold most of my thoughts on the Series and focus today on what is looming as the key factor in who winds up winning the title.

Columnists and bloggers have been going nuts the last few days over the different approaches taken by the two managers in deciding who will start which game this week. The consensus is that Charlie Manuel blundered in holding Cliff Lee back until Game 5, while Joe Girardi showed fortitude in bringing back C.C. Sabathia for Game 4. This may have been fueled in part by the perception that Sabathia is the kind of pitcher who'd go out there every day if he could, while Lee is a laid-back guy who could take today's start or leave it with equal enthusiasm.

Perhaps just as significant was the fact that Lee has never started a game on three days' rest, while Sabathia did so over and over again in 2008 and, at 290 pounds, is a "horse" in every sense of the word. Then there's the overall tendency of World Series managers to lose games in which they trot a starter out there on "short" rest. But as some writers have noted this week, starters working on three days' rest have pitched effectively most of the time even if they haven't actually won the game.

Like chess players determining when to deploy their most powerful pieces, Manuel and Joe Girardi faced different dilemmas after the Yankees took a 2-1 lead in games. The Phillies had a more urgent need to win Game 4, and Lee seemed to be the obvious choice. The defending AL Cy Young Award winner had allowed only two earned runs in 33 innings in this post-season and completely stifled the Yankees in winning Game 1. For purposes of logical decision-making, Manuel had to assume that Lee would win his game (if Lee couldn't beat the Yankees again, his team was toast). Winning Game 4 with Lee would not only square the Series, it would make him available to start Game 7 if it came to that, again on three days' rest but still wearing the cloak of invincibility. Holding him back for Game 5 would risk not only going behind 3-1 but also removing him from the rotation for Game 7.

It seemed like a no-brainer, and Manuel has indeed been accused of having no brain for deciding to give Lee that extra day of rest. Sure enough, Joe Blanton--who won Game 4 for him last year--was ineffective, and the Phillies did fall behind 3-1. Sure enough, Lee won his start last night, pitching strong ball for seven innings before weakening. Now we're told that he'll be available for relief work if there is a Game 7. Fine. It worked for Arizona in 2001 when Randy Johnson came back (with no day of rest) to close out the title game in relief. But Phillies fans can't help thinking that if Lee had won Game 4 instead of Game 5, there was a good chance for that momentum to carry that to a Game 5 victory and a lead going back to New York.

In chess terms, Manuel let his queen--his most powerful piece--get stuck in a defensive mode instead of using it aggressively. That's the opposite of what Girardi did with Sabathia, his big weapon. Sabathia wasn't great on three days' rest in Game 4, but he was good enough to win--until his bullpen blew the lead and forced the team to rally in the ninth inning against Brad Lidge. Not that that was so tough to do. Not only did Girardi gain a 3-1 lead in the Series, he could give Sabathia another three days of rest in case he needed to bring him back again for Game 7.

The trick is that starting Sabathia on short rest triggered a chain reaction in the rest of the Yankees rotation. Girardi also committed himself to using his other two starters on shorter rest. Last night, A.J. Burnett got drilled early and often, allowing six runs in two-plus innings. Whether that was because his stuff was missing due to the short rest or because the Phillies made smart adjustments at the plate doesn't matter. "We didn't pitch," said Girardi after the game, explaining the loss. In essence, the Series is where it probably would've been if Girardi had sent Chad Gaudin or some other sacrificial lamb out to pitch Game 4 against Lee and brought back Sabathia in Game 5. The games were split, and the Yankees secured the lead that gives them two chances to win the title at home.

But the chain reaction is still in effect for tomorrow night's game. The starters are both old in baseball years. Pedro Martinez turned 38 last week; Andy Pettitte turned 37 in June. One will be pitching Game 6 on five days of rest, the other on three. That sounds like a big advantage to me. That was Girardi's big gamble. He felt that winning Game 4 to take a 3-1 edge would not only put his team in a spot from which 26 of 31 World Series contenders have gone on to win the title, it would also demoralize the opposition.

Not so soon. Apparently the only person it demoralized was Cole Hamels, who said--after getting hammered in a Game 3 loss--"I can't wait for the season to be over." Hamels' teammates understandably got in his face about this self-centered, defeatist attitude, making it fascinating to see whether Manuel trusts him with a Game 7 start if it comes to that. Meanwhile, those teammates had no trouble with Burnett, and they're prepared to pick on another short-rest pitcher when the battle is rejoined at Yankee Stadium. Will Girardi regret committing himself to four straight games with a short-rest starter, or will Manuel regret limiting Lee to two starts? Either way, the writers will have plenty to say about it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bad Ideas Even If They Work

There have been a lot of things to second-guess in the playoffs already this year, but I want to focus on two of them here. In the aftermath of Joe Girardi's disastrous decision last night to bring in a reliever--with two outs and nobody on base--who subsequently gave up two straight hits to lose the game, Girardi's defenders (starting with the manager himself in his post-game remarks) simply state that "it was the right move, but it just didn't work out." His critics note that the pitcher Girardi removed, David Robertson, had just retired two batters with ease and appeared to be throwing very well, so with no crisis looming there was no reason to think that he needed to be replaced by another right-hander.

I'd like to take the criticism one step further. I've done a ton of research on relief pitching, and one conclusion that keeps jumping out from the data is that it is pointless to remove a pitcher who is effective. One study I've done looks at relievers who enter in the 8th inning and don't give up any runs (either their own or inherited runners). In other words, they have worked successfully. Until the mid-1980s, such a pitcher was allowed to start the 9th inning more than 90% of the time. Today, that figure is down around 12%. Managers have developed a mind-set that certain pitchers are to be used in certain roles and situations regardless of what has come before. But my study shows that the success (i.e. save) rate was a little better for the pre-1990s relievers who pitched the 8th and 9th innings than it is for the bullpen committees so popular today.

The logic behind this is simple. Pitcher A demonstrates that he is throwing well by getting batters out--in last night's case, the first two batters Robertson faced. Pitcher B is an unknown quantity. He might or might not have his good stuff. If he does, he is likely to be as effective as the pitcher he replaced. If he doesn't, he is likely to blow the game, as Alfredo Aceves did last night, surrendering two sharp hits and the ballgame.

This is hardly the first time this month that a manager has jettisoned an effective pitcher and subsequently lost the game. In Game 2 between the Dodgers and Cardinals, the Cardinals led 2-1 heading to the bottom of the 9th inning. Adam Wainwright pitched a terrific game, allowing only one run on three hits in eight innings. In the 8th, he loaded the bases with two outs but Tony LaRussa left him in, and he responded by sawing off Matt Kemp and getting an easy out to end the threat. Somewhere between being sharp enough to retire Kemp and walking to the dugout, Wainwright evidently ran out of gas, because LaRussa replaced him to start the bottom of the 9th. Trever Miller retired one batter and hit the pines in favor of a slumping Ryan Franklin. Minutes later, the Dodgers scored two runs off Franklin to win the game, helping send the Cardinals home early and leaving Wainwright to think he could have done better if given the chance.

Watching last night's game, I marveled at how announcer Tim McCarver continues to live up to the worst expectations of baseball fans who soured on his over-analysis years ago. He made a big deal of Girardi's visit to the mound with two outs and two strikes, trying very hard to figure out what Girardi was telling Andy Pettitte. His conclusion, stated several times initially and repeated a couple of innings later when he revisited his point, was that Girardi was reminding Pettitte that he should "expand the strike zone" against the batter, Vlad Guerrero. This is the same Vlad Guerrero they made sure to show footage of when he hit a pitch on one hop. It's hard to think of a batter from the past 20 years who swings at more pitches outside the strike zone than Guerrero does, with quite a bit of success. Did McCarver really think that Pettitte (a borderline Hall of Fame candidate) needed to be reminded that it wasn't essential to throw the ball in the strike zone in order to get Guerrero to swing?

Andy Pettitte has been in this kind of situation more times than Girardi has. Whatever Girardi said to him, I can't believe he made a trip to the mound (with his pitcher one strike from being out of the inning) to point out Guerrero's habits. Whatever Girardi said, I think all the visit amounted to was a big distraction of Pettitte's concentration. He was focused on getting that last strike. Here came Girardi to complicate things. A moment later, Guerrero took a fastball just off (or just on) the inside corner and drilled it into the stands for a game-tying two-run home run.

On the other hand, when Girardi brought Aceves in to replace Robertson, both McCarver and Joe Buck criticized the move. As I did at home. It isn't second-guessing when you criticize the move before you see the result. McCarver echoed my logic above: why remove a pitcher who's working effectively? But I have a bigger problem with the move: even if it worked, it was pointless. This was the 11th inning of a game following a 13-inning battle. Girardi had only two pitchers left in the bullpen, Aceves and Chad Gaudin, primarily a starter this season. Because of an earlier maneuver, the Yankees had no designated hitter, meaning their pitchers would have to bat. He had already used one pinch-hitter to bat for Mariano Rivera.

My point is that even if Aceves had retired Howie Kendrick instead of giving up a single, Girardi would still have been in worse shape than if he had let Robertson pitch to him. He needed to conserve his pitchers in that spot. Giving himself one less pitcher gave him one less option as the game went on and put him that much closer to using his last pitcher and having no flexibility at all. It's one thing to match up pitchers (lefties against lefties, as in the Trever Miller move discussed above) in a crucial situation. But two outs and nobody on base is not a crucial situation, and neither reliever had a significant enough history against either of the Angels hitters due up to make a clear case for thinking Robertson was a liability. There was going to be a more dangerous spot further on, when Robertson was either tiring or due to face a batter who could win the game with a hit, when Aceves (or Gaudin) was an obvious upgrade on the mound. Or the innings would pass smoothly, Robertson would need to come out for a pinch-hitter, Aceves would push as far as he could, and then Gaudin could come in.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Last night's game in Anaheim was far from broke when Girardi decided to fix it. Then it broke into little pieces. But even if Girardi's fix had worked at the moment, it still would've left his team in a weaker position in the game.

Another kind of ill-advised decision occurred in Game 2 between the Yankees and Angels, and it probably cost the Angels the game. Situation: bottom of the 13th, tie game, one out, Yankees on first and second. Melky Cabrera hit a sharp grounder in the hole between first and second. Angels second baseman Maicer Izturis raced to his left and made a nice grab of the grounder, then pivoted quickly to throw to second for the force. The throw sailed wide, rolled away, and the runner scooted around from second with the winning run.

The throw stank, but not as much as the decision to make it. Suppose Izturis had gotten the force at second. What would've happened. With runners on first and third and two outs, the Angels would not have held Cabrera on first. His run didn't matter, and the defense would have let him take second base. It happens all the time. In other words, the Yankees would have had runners on second and third within a pitch or two--exactly what they would have had if Izturis had been sensible enough to throw to first.

There was absolutely no reason for Izturis to attempt the force play. That might be important in the early innings of a game, when you want to keep runners out of scoring position. That might also be more acceptable if there were no outs instead of one, because the force would keep open the possibility of a double play. But Izturis was moving toward first base when he fielded the grounder. It would have taken little effort to get the out at first. Instead, he made a pivoting (wild) throw to second--when there was nothing at all to be gained by a force play.

My inclination is to say that Izturis hadn't thought things out in advance and that it was a bad decision in the heat of a panicky moment. On the other hand, thinking things out in advance didn't do Girardi any good. Of course we don't know what would've happened if Izturis had gotten the out at first or if Robertson had stayed in the game. The outcomes might have been the same. But that won't change my view: the wisdom of a decision sometimes hangs on the issue of whether a successful short-term result actually gives you a better chance of winning.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Slice Of Life

Apart from my blogs on Woodstock, I haven't used this site to interject real life into my ongoing discussion of various games. Today I feel compelled to share a tale of two strangers. When I aspired to be a fiction writer, I had a great title for a collection of stories: Strangers I Have Known. It's still a great title, I just never wrote the stories. I certainly lived them, especially in Las Vegas where tourists were quickly sized up, swarmed, digested, and spit out.

This is a recent story, in fact from the past two weeks. It's about two men I met, one day and one universe apart.

The first was part of a "heart partner" program set up earlier this year at the local hospital. It's a good program in which an upcoming heart bypass patient is paired with a former bypass patient. Last week my wife celebrated the first anniversary of her bypass, and a day before that milestone we had lunch with her latest heart partner. In this meetings, the program pays for the two patients and their spouses to have lunch. We spend the hour answering questions and sharing our experiences. Ours was all positive: a terrific surgeon and hospital staff, rapid progress, less pain and incapacitation than expected, less assistance required, a sunny attitude and plenty of support, and a minimal recovery time. We convey the importance of trusting the ICU nurses who have seen it all and are anticipating everything that cd go wrong; the need for patience and satisfaction with small daily progress; the value of having a spouse give lots of physical and emotional support, and so on. We've done five of these lunches, and four of them have been fine. The couples have communicated well, both their fears and hopes, we've answered their questions and put them at ease, and everyone has felt positive about the surgery.

Then there was the couple I'll call Ed and Edna, both about 70 years old. She's having the surgery, reluctantly but ready to get it over with. We got our food, sat down, and started by telling her that the surgery wouldn't be awful as she expected and telling him that he wouldn't have to help her as much as he thinks he will. "Oh, I ain't helping her!" he exclaimed with finality. "She wasn't there to help me when I needed it. I ain't helpin' her! I'll drive her to the hospital and drive her home, but that's it. I don't know how she's gonna eat."

That was for openers, and the next 45 minutes didn't get any more promising. My wife lost her appetite; I was speechless. "I got my own problems," he went on. He clearly had Parkinson's and showed us the patient bracelet that confirmed that he had surgery earlier in the week. He also had the surliest attitude I've ever seen a man display toward his wife. We gathered that they had been separated for awhile, while she tended her dying sister, their closest relative. The sister died a month earlier. "I couldn't see her on the street," he conceded, "Plus she owns half the house, so she's back." Isn't that precious? His sneering hostility made Archie Bunker seem like Gomer Pyle.

He got to the heart of his beef soon enough, telling us about the time in the not-too-distant past when she was so sick that a priest gave her absolution. "You'd think getting absolution would make you think you're getting a fresh start," he told us. "But not her. She just kept eating and drinking the things she's not supposed to." He turned to her. "You brought this on yourself. You want me to tell them more? They won't like it."

We already didn't like it. He pointed to a stain on her sweater and bragged about how she was eating something and wouldn't shut up, just kept yapping and yaddaing until he bopped her (or the food) lightly enough to send the food flying onto her clothing. Nice. We tried for awhile to give them something positive to take into the surgery. She was scared of the whole thing but knew she had to have it done and was ready. He was adamantly opposed to her and anything she wanted to do. He had his own problems. My wife and I gave each other WTF looks but decided to hold our tongues, first because it wouldn't change anything and second because we have better things to do with our energy. We left there shaking our heads, having met our match in that obstinate bastard.

Here's the kicker. It came midway through lunch, after he did the absolution riff and quizzed my wife on her attendance record at Mass. Ed turned to me and asked, "are you Jewish?" "Yes," I replied. He turned to Edna and nudged her shoulder. "I told ya!" he said.

Good luck, Edna.

The next day at work, I got a phone call while playing with some research. It was the Hall of Fame museum bookstore, located just outside the Giamatti Research Center entrance. The nice lady there calls me when someone buys one of my books, so I can inscribe it personally. I scooted downstairs quickly and entered the bookstore with a "who's the person with impeccable taste?" In this case it was a 70ish gentleman I'll Bob. He had a still shrink-wrapped copy of This BAD Day In Yankees History which I was happy to sign for him. "I'm actually a Yankees fan," said Bob, "though I got pretty disenchanted with Steinbrenner in the 90s and I've lived in Houston since 1980." I signed the book and we stood in the bookstore talking. He was a distant relative of Hall of Famer Mel Ott, so we talked about going to games at the Polo Grounds. Also talked about NY Giants history, and when I noted that I wrote a book about the 1911-1912 Giants, he got himself a signed copy of that one, too. I bring this up not because it proves how easily my books sell themselves, but for a reason that will become clear later.

Bob and I moved into the more spacious atrium in the library lobby to continue our conversation, about the old-time Yankees (he grew up watching them in the 1940s) and his favorite player, Joe DiMaggio. I took him out to a photo that's part of the museum's media exhibit, and told him a good DiMaggio story related to the photo. He laughed robustly and told me what a great time he was having in Cooperstown. He was on his way to Albany to pick up a brother or sister who'd be traveling with him. They were going to see a bunch of the sports Halls of Fame, starting with Canton before coming to Cooperstown, then heading east to Springfield and finally the tennis HOF in Newport. There was some leaf-peeping planned elsewhere in New England, all in all quite a trip. "Good for you," I said.

"Well," he smiled. "I have bone cancer and lung cancer, so I have to have my fun while I can." Indeed.

There you go. Who knows how long Bob has. He doesn't know. But get him someone to drive him around New England in October, give him a couple of books to read, and turn him loose. That's the kind of person I want to be around, people like Bob and my wife who extract everything they can out of each day. Let's not take that last phrase for granted. Did we manage to extract something positive from lunch with Ed and Edna? Sure. We learned that once in awhile there is a free lunch, even if you do pay for it in other ways.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Hurrah

About a year and a half ago, I wrote my first blog on this site. It was about the start of the new baseball--make that the new fantasy baseball season. Since then, I've managed to refrain from pretending that anybody else would care about my fantasy teams. But as my fling with fantasy baseball approaches its final weekend, I want to pause here to discuss some of the things that have made it so much fun and a few of the reasons why I'm giving it up.

The last few years I've been in several fantasy leagues, but the only one which really matters is the "big league," a 16-team Yahoo.com league whose managers are mostly current and former Hall of Fame comrades. It's highly competitive and would be even if money weren't involved. The fact that the winner can make a couple of hundred bucks just makes us try even harder. In three seasons, my Gabe Sox have finished second, first, and fourth (just out of the money--3rd place gets your money back), all of them by a point or half-point. The league is that close. As of yesterday, I'm in 3rd place, a half-point ahead of the 4th-place team. It would be satisfying to finish in the money one more time.

There are two great things about managing a fantasy team in a competitive league. One is that it keeps you in close touch with what is happening in the majors. You follow not only your players but all those prospective free agents and guys you might trade for. Is Adam LaRoche having his usual awful first two months? Maybe he can be acquired cheaply before he begins his usual second-half surge. Keep an eye on who's being used in which relief role. Holds, a worthless stat in reality, counts as much as home runs in our league. Find out who's being used when the team is ahead, and stay away from the relievers who aren't. Rookies coming up always draw a lot of attention, because fantasy managers know that it usually isn't the guys you draft who make the difference, but rather those mid-season call-ups who catch fire. Look at this year's fine crop of rookies in the National League; every one of them has made a difference, and none were drafted before the season started. So you're forced to pay close attention to all teams and players, more than you would if you weren't being paid to.

The other great thing is the education you get from running a team during the roller-coaster ride of a major league season. Choosing starting lineups, figuring out who might do the best against today's opponents, riding hot players, benching cold one, wheeling and dealing, contending with injuries and the disabled list, abandoning favorites who aren't producing, juggling the roster, and getting involved in the daily nitty-gritty of keeping your team at the top of the standings--it's all as close as we'll get to understanding how tough it is for the professionals.

This season, the Gabe Sox have had huge problems with injuries. Two of the first three hitters I drafted--Josh Hamilton and Carlos Delgado--spent the majority of the season sidelined. Delgado may never be heard from again, and I missed his run production. I picked up Todd Helton as a free-agent first baseman and he's had a pretty good season, though without the big run production Delgado would have provided. As it turned out, the infield has provided the bulk of my team's offense, led by Mark Reynolds, a big bargain as a 12th-round pick. In a league where strikeouts don't count against your team, Reynolds is a superstar, providing power and stolen bases. Up the middle, I've had two very solid performers, Dustin Pedroia (my 3rd-round draft choice) and Michael Young. Along with catcher Brandon Inge, they formed the nucleus of my offense, which has been one of the best in the league all year. Two outfielders also contributed a lot: Jayson Werth and Ichiro (though his runs scored and stolen bases haven't been what I expected).

My offense hasn't been a problem, but my pitching was horrible the first half of the season, especially my starters. Adam Wainwright has been a worthy ace all along, but Jon Lester and Ryan Dempster got lit up regularly until July. That trio was supposed to dominate the league, but midway through the season my team ERA was the fourth-worst in the league and I wasn't winning much either. So when Hamilton came off the DL, I traded him for Matt Cain. Though Cain stopped winning games and took a few poundings, overall he has pitched well for me, especially early on, and with Lester and Dempster pitching much better, my ERA and WHIP have climbed into the league's top half.

I never did find a satisfactory fifth starter this season. Drafted Randy Johnson but he was done after a few weeks. I tried a "starter du jour" rotation for awhile, isolating one free agent starter each day I thought most likely to pitch well and/or win, but they invariably got bombed. Later in the season I picked up Tommy Hunter of Texas, who gave me a few good starts before faltering and getting torched. Then he pitched a complete game as a free agent and I grabbed him again, just in time for him to get pounded for six runs by the Angels in his last start. Ouch!

The last two months have been the reverse of the season's first two months for the Gabe Sox. As my starting pitching came around and my team ERA dropped from 4.6 to 3.9, my offense disappeared. Inge banged up his knees and has been helpless at the plate. Reynolds hasn't recovered from a bout with the flu, and his production has tailed off. In July, I traded Werth for Joe Nathan, who arrived just in time (as part of a plan to get to the top of the league in saves) for my previous #2 closer, Chad Qualls, to bite the dust. So Nathan, who's been fine, has only kept my bullpen where it was with Qualls, in the middle of the pack. Michael Young's injury really hurt, as his production was steady in many categories. Even Ichiro missed a week down the stretch. I've had a few hitters--Jose Lopez, Felipe Lopez, and Cody Ross--fill in adequately but without doing anything special. So the offense has been a real struggle the last two months, fighting close battles in home runs, runs, and RBI, and eventually giving up on stolen bases.

Despite the injuries and the pitching woes, the Gabe Sox actually held first place for a few weeks midway through the season. In August things went sour, and with teams named Sonic Death Monkey and The Spider Monkeys taking over the top two spots in the standings, I felt the need for dramatic action. So I changed my team name to the Monkey Sox, reasoning that "you have to fight monkeys with monkeys." Within days, other managers had followed suit; the Haymakers and Frisco Discos became the Haymonkeys and the Frisco Monkeys, respectively. I've treaded water as the Monkey Sox, while the Haymonkeys are now just a half-point behind Sonic Death Monkey for 1st place. Yesterday, I changed back to the Gabe Sox. In my last hurrah, I'm going down fighting under my own name. You're done making a monkey out of me!

So there has been plenty of excitement mixed in with the frustration and the agonizing over personnel decisions (but at least you don't have to deal with agents). I've enjoyed being one of the few people to linger over the amazing accomplishment of Milwaukee reliever Mitch Stetter, who was picked up by the Gabe Sox the day before he launched a record-setting streak of 15 straight outs recorded by strikeouts. I've enjoyed following games on the computer in the evenings, visualizing how it will look in the box score if this or that Gabe Sox stalwart hits a home run next time up and occasionally having that very sequence of numbers appear on the screen when I check the box score again.

Then there are the negatives, including the perverse rooting interests it creates, so often conflicting with your real-baseball concerns. I'm a Reds fan and try to have at least a couple of them on my team (for the same reason that I refuse to have any Yankees or Dodgers on my teams). This season, the Gabe Sox backup catcher was Ramon Hernandez until he got hurt, and then I didn't have a Reds hitter on my team, only bullpen stud Arthur Rhodes. But a few weeks ago I picked up Johnny Gomes because he kept hitting home runs. He hit a couple for me, too, and then came the day in September when I benched him. The Reds played a day game, which I took in on my computer at work. In the 1st inning, Gomes came up with the bases loaded. Great! Well, not so great. Great for my team (the Reds), but I found myself rooting against Gomes. If he hit a grand slam, I'd be pissed at myself for benching him on the Gabe Sox. He popped up, and I felt elated. That elation bothered me. My natural rooting instinct was perverted by this artificial competition. Later in the game, Gomes hit a three-run home run. And I was pissed, doubly this time because of my guilt about rooting against him in the 1st inning.

The issue there is whether I really would've cared about Johnny Gomes if he hadn't been on the Gabe Sox at the time (I've since dropped him). Yes, I would've cared, perhaps not as strongly but certainly more purely. I realized that last night during the 9th inning of the Mets-Nationals game. In the fantasy league, I'm fighting for points in the saves category. In the final week, I'm one ahead of someone and two behind someone else, a potential 1 1/2-point swing. My big closer all season has been Francisco Rodriguez, who saved his first 20 attempts with the Mets but has struggled hugely ever since. The Mets haven't gotten him many chances for saves, and he's blown some in spectacular fashion. So last night he entered the bottom of the 9th with a 4-2 lead. I really needed that save. The first batter hit a sharp grounder to short which was bobbled, and the throw to first was late. Although Mets announcer Gary Cohen recorded an error in his scoreboard, it was officially ruled a hit. A very cheap single. Pretty soon, the bases were loaded on another hit and a walk. K-Rod got a couple of outs, then walked Adam Dunn to force in a run. I couldn't watch any more. I abandoned the television and went back to the computer. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I saw the result on the small screen: a game-ending grand slam. Not only did the key save vanish, but because of that awful scoring decision on the first batter, all five runs were earned. If it had been properly scored an error on the shortstop, all the runs would've been unearned, and it wouldn't have put a couple of ERA points in jeopardy.

So that's what pissed me off--not that the closer for a team I root for blew one more game in a season that has long since been irrelevant, but that he got nailed for five earned runs at a time when my staff is struggling to hold onto a couple of vital points. I should've been able to laugh off K-Rod's latest explosion, but instead I took it personally. Instead of shaking my head at the shortstop for screwing up the play, I wound up pissed off at the official scorer for a home-town hit call that might deliver a fatal blow to my pitching staff.

I've lost count of the number of times I've added a pitcher to my roster when he was pitching against the two teams I root for the most in reality. Or I've had a pitcher starting for one of my teams against a pitcher from another one of my teams. The fantasy has gained priority over the reality, and while that might be appealing in some respects, ultimately it creates conflicts that aren't that much fun.

Next year, I'm going to try to regain a healthy perspective by discarding the fantasy leagues and once again becoming a productive member of society. This decision was made easier by a policy adopted in August by the place where I work. The filtering system they've installed in our computers to limit access to Dangerous Internet Sites has targeted the Yahoo page used for two of the three fantasy leagues I play in. Several of us have protested, arguing first that any site with baseball content should be okay at an institution supposedly devoted to baseball, and second that we are collectively more tuned into baseball history as it is being made because of our devotion to the league. Our arguments were made to no avail. We were told that there is no game-playing on work computers and that we will have to confine our league activities to home. God forbid we should have a little fun while keeping pace with current baseball events!

I think this is a short-sighted, Draconian [look it up!] policy. Two mornings a week, I get to my office at 6 AM, and you'd think it would be okay for me to spend a little pre-work time taking care of my fantasy teams. Or a few minutes during my lunch hour. But no. It's home or bust. The problem is that this policy has already cost my team. I know of four instances where Gabe Sox players who were in my starting lineup wound up not playing during afternoon games, and there was nothing I could do about it. Instead of substituting another starter, I was stuck with a non-playing performer. So far, this has cost me production in runs, runs batted in, and strikeouts. I might finish 4th, out of the money, because this policy prevented me from getting those three RBI which subsequently cost me the deciding point. Don't you think that would be frustrating? Wouldn't it be foolish to invest the kind the time and effort, study and rooting, that I've put into this season, only to have it crash and burn because someone thinks I might tarnish the sanctity and reputation of a hallowed American institution by checking fantasy-league standings in my office at 6 AM?

Here's to the Gabe Sox and a fast finish this weekend, enough to get back an investment I will not make again. Next season, instead of grinding out all those evening results, I'll read some good books, or maybe write one. When someone calls me at work to ask me about that hot new rookie, I'll just have to say that I never heard of him. And then I'll forward the caller to one of my colleagues who has.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Calling In Stuck

Someone suggested to me the other day that I could write the equivalent of This Bad Day in Yankees History for the Mets, and I could fill the whole volume just with events from 2009, with the 1977 Tom Seaver exile thrown in (as the worst day in franchise history).

That's one way of describing how disastrous this season has been for the Mets. Their big stars and most exciting players have been on the shelf for large chunks of the season, with subpar substitutes filling the lineup most days. It's as if Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, and the others have been off playing in a parallel universe, stuck in some space-time continuum warp in which they must keep playing, but far from the eyes of the fans on their home planet.

It reminds me of a concept from my poker-industry years, something I believe is unique to poker: calling in stuck. I have to explain a couple of things about how Las Vegas poker rooms did business back in the 1980s. Because a poker room is the only place in the casino where gamblers are not trying to win house money, it fosters procedures and habits you won't find anywhere else in the casino. In poker, you might see eight players at a table but they're playing against each other, trying to win each other's money. The dealer is there only to regulate the game and take the "rake," the percentage of the pot taken by the casino (generally a few dollars per pot).

In most poker rooms in the 1980s, you would be hard-pressed to find a game in which no dealers were playing. Usually this meant off-duty dealers, or dealers from other poker rooms. The fact was that most poker dealers only had their jobs to feed their own playing addiction. Let them make enough dealing to buy into a game where they might win more money, and they were happy. I once worked in a room with 50+ dealers in which only a handful never had trouble paying the rent at the end of the month,. The rest might occasionally have the strength of will to deal five days in a row, but that would only give them a buy-in to a higher-limit game when their weekend arrived. Most dealers played every day--somewhere.

Almost every poker room (and there were 40 or so in the 1980s) allowed their dealers to play. Let me rephrase that. Almost every poker room encouraged their dealers to play, and some even required it. That's right. As part of your five-day work-week, you might be required to play one entire shift. One room where I worked briefly required dealers to play on their Wednesday. Let them deal two days, then make them play (and usually blow off what they made the first two days), then two more dealing days to pump them up for their weekend action.

There are all kinds of insidious implications of this policy (the equivalent of telling a bartender that he has to sit there one day a week and drink for eight hours, paying full prices), but the net effect was to feed the poker room's bottom line. As in show biz, the only good seats in a poker room are those with asses in them, and the casino execs don't care whose asses they are. If it's one of our dealers on a two-day around-the-clock binge, that's fine. Just keep people at the table, because every hand dealt keeps that inexorable flow of a few dollars per pot to the house flowing.

This is what makes poker the most predatory industry in America. It was even more so in the 1980s because of all the pressure on dealers to play. Which brings me back to the notion of calling in stuck. I learned about it at a place called the Bingo Palace (now the Palace Station), which had a dealing crew renowned around town for being the best dealers and the sickest gamblers. That's why only a few could pay the rent. They didn't care. They were in action, every day in every way.

So you'd get a dealer who managed to put in a full shift of work, making $100 or so. After his shift, he might grab a few drinks or smoke some pot, regroup, and find a poker game somewhere. In this case, the game would not be in the cardroom where he worked. He'd get stuck right away, losing half of his $100 buy-in in the first hour. Then it would get worse. Eventually he would go "on tilt," a beautiful phrase describing what happens when a gambler's self-discipline abandons him. Common sense hits the door, bad emotions take over, and no matter how much he loses, his only desire is to stay there stubbornly and try to get even.

After awhile the dealer is stuck a few hundred bucks, but the game is good, with enough live action to give him a mathematical chance to get even. Then he reaches the fail-safe point, at which he needs to get hot in a hurry if he wants to get even before it's time to go back to work. However, luck is not a light switch he can turn on and off, and he stays cold. Suddenly he's due at work in 30 minutes and he's still losing $350. But why would he want to go to work? If he dealt eight hours, he could make that $100 or so--or he could win that much in one or two pots where his ass is currently glued to a chair.

What would he do if he worked at a place like the Bingo Palace? He'd call the shift boss and say, "Listen, I'm over at the Nugget and I'm buried. I can't leave--I haven't slept and I can't work. Do you have somebody who can work for me?" Like most poker rooms, the Bingo Palace had an "extra board," a small corps of reserve dealers who didn't work regular shifts but were available to replace dealers on vacation or out sick. Or calling in stuck. If an extra board dealer could cover your shift, you were free and clear.

Think about that. By being truthful about your degenerate gambling, you had a legitimate excuse for not working. Why did the Bingo Palace--and other poker rooms--foster this system? For one thing, they knew that for every Bingo Palace dealer who got buried in someone else's game, there were several dealers from elsewhere who were stuck and pumping up the games in our room. Dealers playing abroad were good advertising. Our ambassador, by providing hours and hours of lively action and overtipping dealers, would encourage them to come to our place to overplay and overtip. Poker industry money went around and around and around, the same money won and lost and tipped back and forth--except for that three or four bucks per hand going to the house. The Bingo Palace poker proprietors knew that we'd get more than our share of that money. Our main hold'em game went continuously for several years! In the middle of the night, when action in some rooms ground to a halt, people knew there'd be a game going at the Bingo Palace. So having one of our stalwarts throw a party somewhere else once in awhile was no big deal. Just call in stuck, and get someone else to work for you.

That's what the Mets have done this year. The players who were supposed to do the bulk of the heavy lifting--Reyes, Delgado, Beltran, Santana, Maine, Perez--have been elsewhere most of the time, too buried to do anything but huddle against the dark forces where they are. Only a few have even managed to put in token late-season appearances in the Flushing Meadows. Instead, the extra board crew--Angel Pagan, Alex Cora, Anderson Hernandez, Wilson Valdez, Pat Misch, Nelson Figueroa, and way too many others--have been carrying the heavy work load. The results have been ugly. The fans have been stuck, too, watching the wrong players. Many of us have cashed out, reconciling ourselves to this lost season. It's too late to get even. All we can do is call in stuck ourselves, hit the sidelines, wait out the barren winter, and hope the A-team shows up to play next season. What else can we do?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Priorities

Those of us who work at the Hall of Fame are constantly being asked about the impact of steroids on baseball. People want to know how to evaluate the records that were set in the past 15 years, how to estimate the exact effect steroids had on this or that player's statistics, and how to judge the players who played under the influence. Should Rafael Palmeiro be elected to the Hall of Fame? How about Mark McGwire? How the hell should I know? Do we give extra credit to players we're pretty sure didn't use steroids?

How do you find a satisfying historical perspective for something you're living through at the moment? This is a difficult task in life, not to mention baseball, but the magnitude of the steroids mess is such that people want an answer. I don't think there is a satisfying answer. We will never know: A) the identity of every player who did steroids; B) when and for how long they used various substances which were or were not illegal/banned at the time; or C) the precise effect these substances had on performance, one at-bat at a time. We just won't know.

Some people want to obliterate the results of the last 15-20 years, simply because we can't know who cheated and how much it helped them. That is short-sighted and self-defeating, of course, unless these people simply eliminate baseball from their lives. If you're still watching the games, you have to accept the fact that whether it's steroids or sign-stealing or scuffing the baseball, cheating has always been part of baseball's history. If you want to take some number of home runs away from Barry Bonds because you think he wouldn't have hit so many if he hadn't taken steroids, go ahead and pick a number. 20? 50? 100? But while you're at it, you have to figure out how many times steroid-stuffed pitchers got him out because of that extra oomph on their fastballs. How many would that be? 100? 500? 1,000? Take away all the steroids, give Bonds all those at-bats back, and his home run totals would likely be pretty close to where they are now.

That's why it is a fallacy to point to steroids as the cause of the decade-long spurt in home runs that has leveled off the last couple of years. There are many reasons why home runs increased; I could list about a dozen factors that have contributed. But one important factor is usually overlooked in the discussion: batters hit a lot more home runs when they're trying to.

Fifty years ago, there was a stigma attached to batters who struck out too much. The mantra was "with two strikes, cut down on your swing and put the ball in play." That's what they taught us in Little League, and that's what the major leaguers did, even the sluggers. In 1959, Hank Aaron hit 39 home runs and Willie Mays hit 34. Their strikeout totals, respectively (in a total of 1,204 at-bats), were 54 and 58. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961 with 61 blasts, he struck out 67 times.

Striking out, after all, does nothing for your team's offense. Put the ball in play and it might find a spot where the fielders ain't, the fielder might kick it, a throw might get away, and runners can advance even on an out. Whatever you do, don't strike out! The mantra guided hitters for decades, but that mantra has largely vanished from today's game. Think about the implications for a moment.

Fifty years ago, batters changed their approach with two strikes. Of course sometimes they hit home runs, but they weren't consciously trying to. If they got a fat pitch they'd drive it, but they were just as happy to slap an outside pitch for an opposite-field single. The idea was to single; a home run was an occasional by-product of a solid swing.

Today it's just the opposite. Even with two strikes, powerful hitters are swinging all-out and trying to clear those fences. Screw shortening the swing. If the manager isn't going to bust his balls about over-swinging, if the fans don't care about anything besides those mammoth blasts, if only the homers are going to show up on the highlight shows, and--most importantly--if his salary negotiation is going to be based on his positive stats, there is absolutely no reason for a batter to shorten his swing. That's what we see now.

Exhibit A for this all-out approach is Mark Reynolds. The other day he surpassed his ridiculous strikeout record set last year, zooming past 204 whiffs with almost two weeks left in the season. If he maintains his pace--and is anyone out there prepared to bet that he won't?--he has a chance to strike out more times in 2009 than the two league-leaders from 1959 combined (Mickey Mantle fanned 126 times to lead the AL, and Wally Post topped the NL with 101).

And nobody cares! Certainly not Reynolds, who after breaking his own record said, "I don't care about the strikeouts. . .I know I do things to help this team win." Indeed, Reynolds is second in the majors with 43 home runs, has 100 RBI and will surpass 100 runs scored, and has stolen 24 bases. He also has about the same number of singles that Maris had in 1961, but the singles are incidental the way two-strike home runs used to be.

The fact is that Reynolds and hitters like him are taking their full cuts even with two strikes. The strikeout stigma is long gone. As long as the production is there, nobody cares. If you can keep hacking away with two strikes, trying for the long ball, you're going to launch more shots than the 1950s guy who choked up on the bat with two strikes and looked for a ball to nudge through the infield for a hit. Do the math. At most, you get two swings before reaching a two-strike count. With two strikes, you can foul off a lot of pitches before putting one in play. So if Player A is taking two full cuts and then choking up, and Player B is adding a few two-strike full cuts to those first two, it is automatic that he's going to hit more home runs. He's trying to! He can't help but hit more.

So we've grown a whole generation of sluggers whose agents know how to shine off the negative stats and trumpet the positives. We have Mark Reynolds, now completing his second full season in the majors, with 541 strikeouts in 1,450 at-bats, or one whiff every 2.7 AB. Yet his power and stolen bases will put him in the top 10 in the MVP balloting. The irony is that it is his futility at the plate which also gives him more chances to hit home runs. Opposing pitchers (and managers) are willing to throw more strikes to him because it's much more likely that he'll miss the ball than get a hit (in fact, nearly 50% more likely). Instead of pitching around him, they go after him. In Mark Reynolds' world, it's "Home Run Derby" all the time.

He's not alone, not by a long shot. Of the top 20 in career strikeouts, half played in this decade and six are still active. Mickey Mantle stands at #20, Willie Mays is #40, and Hank Aaron is #75. Jim Thome is #2 and has struck out four times as often as he hits a home run. He can't run, can't field, and doesn't hit for average, but people will want to put him in the Hall of Fame strictly on the basis of his 564 career homers. Nobody cares that he averaged 170 strikeouts a season over a five-year stretch.

But look at it this way. Reynolds strikes out roughly 1.4 times per game. This year, there might be one player in the whole majors who averages 2 home runs per week. It has become acceptable, even desirable, to sacrifice one or two at-bats every game in order to do something exceptional once or twice a week. I'm not saying that we should go back to the way baseball was played 100 years ago, when bunts, steals, hit-and-runs, and building a run at a time were the vogue. I'm just asking you to keep in mind that this one factor might account for more of the recent home-run madness than any other factor.

Here's a comment about Reynolds from Dodgers manager Joe Torre which puts the current mania in sharp focus. "He's dangerous," said Torre after Reynolds set a new standard for striking out. "You know he strikes out a lot, but don't miss your spot because he can do some damage. If you put up 40 home runs, strikeouts are the price you pay."

Joe Torre hit 252 home runs in his career. He peaked at 36 in 1966; that season he struck out 61 times. So he paid a bargain price for his power compared to Reynolds. Jeez, Joe, just because it is so doesn't mean it has to be so, or that it's okay to strike out four or five times as often as you go deep. Don't tell Albert Pujols that he should be willing to strike out more often if it means more home runs. From 2003-2006, he hit over 40 home runs each season without striking out more than 65 times. In 2006, he fanned only 50 times while blasting 49 home runs, almost adding his name to the short list of players who surpassed 40 home runs in a season but didn't strike out as often. Here's the list:

Name Season HR SO
Mel Ott 1929 42 38
Lou Gehrig 1934 49 31
Lou Gehrig 1936 49 46
Joe DiMaggio 1937 46 37
Johnny Mize 1947 51 42
Johnny Mize 1948 40 37
Ted Kluszewski 1953 40 34
Ted Kluszewski 1954 49 35
Ted Kluszewski 1955 47 40
Barry Bonds 2004 45 41

That's a nice group of hitters. Add up the strikeouts for those 10 seasons and you get 381, which is fewer than Mark Reynolds and Ryan Howard have combined for already this season, or 160 fewer than Reynolds has in less than three seasons in the majors. Is that really an acceptable price to pay--day after day, game after game--for something that might happen a couple of times a week? Just because it is condoned by fans, agents, managers, general managers, et al, it is not necessarily the way things should or have to be.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

MLB Takes A Holiday

I'm old enough to remember when major league baseball actually scheduled doubleheaders in advance. I don't go back to the beginning of this practice, which flourished in the 1930s when the Great Depression threatened to derail professional sports. With the notion of a capacity crowd only a daydream outside of New York, owners figured that giving customers two games for the price of one would lure more people to the parks.

They were right. If you could draw a paying crowd of 20,000 for a Sunday doubleheader, you'd be better off than you would be with a Sunday single-game crowd of 12,000 and a Monday afternoon sprinkling of a few thousand stalwarts. It's different today. Not only are doubleheaders absent from the schedule, if a rainout forces a doubleheader, more often than not it's a day-night affair with separate admissions. This happens when the home team plays to near-capacity crowds and there wouldn't be enough available seats to accommodate the rain-check leftovers. Make no mistake--if you go to a day game that ends at 4pm and have to vacate the building and kill a few hours before attending the second game scheduled that day, it isn't a doubleheader. It's a pair of single games, and a lot of people attend only one of them

There was no such problem in the good old days. You made up rainouts with doubleheaders, sometimes twi-nighters. I attended more than a few doubleheaders as a kid, some of them quite memorable. I was at the Polo Grounds the day that Lou Brock hit one of the handful of home runs into the center field bleachers. That was in the second game; the first game featured the famous incident where Marv Throneberry tripled into an out because he neglected to touch first and second base. Another twin-bill between the Mets and Reds featured Frank Robinson getting ejected from the opener in the top of the first inning for arguing a check-swing strike, and a nightcap where Pete Rose began the game with a home run into the second deck that held up as the game's only run.

Time was when there was a doubleheader every Sunday as well as the three summer holidays: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. I can understand why these have bitten the dust in the current era when owners want 81 separate home dates for hawking the newest logo on their souvenir caps and shirts. But MLB has gone way overboard in the last few seasons by not even playing a full slate of games on Memorial Day and Labor Day. This policy is so self-defeating and blighted that even Bud Selig should be able to figure it out. The schedule used to be made by human beings who understood what a holiday is. Today it's done by computers, which never take a day off and don't understand the concept.

Do I need to explain why this is stupid? Memorial Day and Labor Day are holidays, days of celebration. Kids have the day off from school; Labor Day is often their last day of freedom before the new school year. Many workers have the day off, especially on Labor Day. Offices and government services have the day off. There's nothing to do but get together with friends and family to celebrate. Hey, they could even go to a game! There's nothing stopping people from going to the ballpark for the big holiday. Even if you can't get to a game, everybody's free, and a ballgame on the radio was--and still could be--the perfect accompaniment to that family or neighborhood barbecue or party. Baseball has a massive audience on these extra free days, and in these marketing-laden times, you'd think MLB would seize this opportunity to wring every bit of attention it can get by providing day-long entertainment.

But no. Yesterday, on Labor Day, if you lived in Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore, Seattle, Detroit, and Oakland, your local team had the day off. The Mets also didn't play, leaving the New York market to the Yankees. That's eight teams out of thirty playing no baseball on a national holiday. Why? Because it was a Monday, and the computer program that generates the schedule flags Mondays and Thursdays as the two days of the week when some teams travel and/or rest. It's that simple. Holidays, schmolidays, it's Monday so some teams are off. Screw the fans of these teams who have the extra leisure time to enjoy a game.

Is there any rationale for the "national pastime" depriving more than 25% of its fans of home-town baseball on one of the two weekdays when few of them have to work?

It would have taken Bud Selig about two minutes to look at this year's schedule, see the flaw, and tell someone to fix it. It took me only a couple of minutes to figure out the simple changes in the schedule that would've put all thirty major-league teams on the field yesterday. The Mets and Marlins start a three-game series tonight. They play on Thursday. All you had to do was start the series yesterday and give them Thursday off. The Mets were at home Sunday and the Marlins played in Washington, so they didn't exactly need a travel day on Monday. Likewise, the Braves start a series in Houston tonight, and could've traveled easily from Atlanta to Houston to play yesterday. Instead, Houston hosted the Phillies in the finale of a four-game series that began on Friday. They could've opened that series last Thursday instead, moving the Phillies-Giants series to Monday-Wednesday to free up Thursday for the Phillies. The necessary changes in the American League wouldn't have been any more complicated than that.

All it would've taken was someone--say, the Commissioner, the man whose mandate is to act "for the good of the game"--to say "wait a second, we can't have teams idle on the holidays." Failing that, why didn't the owners of those idle teams protest? Is attendance in Washington DC so tremendous that they couldn't use the boost of having a home game on a national holiday? I suppose there's some greedily self-serving reason why the owners haven't agitated to fix this oversight, but it escapes me. Whatever their motives, the bottom line is that the fans of these teams get the short end of the straw.

It happens that all the major-league teams played on Memorial Day this season, but that hasn't been the case in recent years. In 2008, eight teams were scheduled off on Memorial Day and ten were omitted from the Labor Day schedule. In 2007, six teams got Memorial Day off and two were excused from laboring on Labor Day. And so on. It's one travesty that the person who programs the computer to create the schedule can't bother to make sure that all teams are scheduled on the national holidays. It's a bigger travesty that the people who actually run the game let this self-defeating oversight stand. Does this make any sense to anybody?

A few years ago, a romantic French restaurant opened in what passes for the heart of Cooperstown. They served gourmet food at tables adorned with roses. Late in January, a few weeks after they opened, my wife and I stopped in there to make reservations for Valentine's Day. "I'm sorry," we were told, "but we're not open on Tuesdays." That's true. It said right on the door that they were closed Monday and Tuesday. Do you think they would make an exception for Valentine's Day, which fell on a Tuesday that year? Gee, romantic restaurant, romantic holiday--do you think they would've done some business that night? We'll never know. They were out of business before Valentine's Day rolled around on Wednesday the following year.

Shocking.

Well, some teams get Monday off, which seems to be a law of nature so immutable that even the gazillionaires who run baseball can't do anything about it. It's an old adage that baseball is such a great game that it survives the people who run it. But does that have to be proven so insultingly and so often?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Minaya Reassures Mets Fans: "I'm Healthy!"

Addressing reporters yesterday in the wake of a vote of confidence by Mets owner Fred Wilpon, GM Omar Minaya announced, "I'm feeling great--I'm healthy! In fact, I've never felt better." Amid swirling rumors about his job security in light of the team's dismal performance this season, Minaya reported that "Mr. Wilpon has expressed confidence in the direction we're taking here. Despite my insistence on signing Oliver Perez and a few other disasters, I've blown off only about $73 million of his money, or roughly 10% of what Bernie Madoff cost him. So in the big picture, we're doing just fine."

"Most importantly," Minaya smiled, "my doctor tells me my health is tip-top. No, I won't tell you who he is. I'll only say that he isn't employed by the Mets. No way am I going to consult any medical person who's had anything to do with the health of my players." He said it helps that he's done nothing for the last three months but sit in a chair and make phone calls. "It's hard to strain a hammy or a quad sitting on your ass all day," he reminded reporters.

Minaya also disclosed that he has learned the cause of the rash of injuries that has decimated the 2009 Mets. "It has seemed like we've been cursed this year, so we've investigated all the rumors and considered all the possibilities," he said. "Even before the season began, we got a report that our new stadium had been built on ancient Indian burial grounds. A local tribe, the Brookataws, contacted us with some vague warnings, but we found out that they said the same thing to the Yankees, and nothing has gone wrong for them this year. So we dismissed that.

"Then we started to wonder whether we were being haunted by ghosts from Shea Stadium because, you know, we built this $800 million park that gave no indication that the franchise had ever existed before. Or the ghosts of departed Dodgers fans who wondered why we didn't open this tribute to Ebbets Field 45 years ago when they would've been around to enjoy it. Or even the ghost of Jackie Robinson getting back at us because the biggest thing in his rotunda is the gift shop. But we flew in Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis to do some tests, and the only ectoplasm they found was something left over from Mickey Lolich. So that was out.

"The answer actually turned up two months ago, but I didn't believe it. Until another letter arrived over the weekend which convinced me. I hesitate to publicize this because it's a pretty sordid tale, but in the interest of letting our fans what has really been going on this season, here it is.

"As you know, we do a lot of scouting in Latin America and the Caribbean. Over the winter, we got word of an outstanding pitching prospect in Haiti. They don't play a lot of baseball in Haiti, but it's just a short drive from our winter headquarters in the Dominican Republic, so we sent scouts over there to have a look. I could hardly believe their reports. This kid threw a four-seam fastball that topped out at 106 mph, a 77-mph change-up that made one batter swing twice before it got to the plate, and a drop-off-the-table curve. The scouts really liked that fastball.

"Naturally we were interested in signing him, and naturally we discovered that his agent was Scott Boras. This was about the time that we got that wonderful notebook Boras made up explaining why Oliver Perez was the equal of Sandy Koufax. Or at least he almost was for a half-dozen starts in a row last summer. Really. You could look it up. He wanted $10 million a year for four years, which seemed like a lot of money after we landed the best reliever in baseball for $12 million a year. It was a tough decision. We could get Bobby Abreu for a lot less, a guy who could hit .300 with power and speed and score 100 runs, but we felt good about putting Daniel Murphy in left field and of course Ryan Church would anchor our outfield in right.

"We were thinking this over when this pitcher from Haiti came along, and damned if Boras didn't want $15 million a year for him even though he had no experience in Organized Baseball. I don't mind telling you that Boras' notebook on this guy made Oliver Perez look like a chump. I mean, think Dwight Gooden but faster. So we sent Tony Bernazard down to Haiti to talk to him, and unfortunately that didn't go well. The kid insisted on speaking French, which Tony couldn't understand, and then when Tony finally snapped and started cursing at him it turned out the kid knew English after all. But not Spanish. Not a word. We didn't like that.

"Still, we liked that fastball, so we kept talking to Boras about him. Meanwhile, the closer we got to the season without a fifth starter, the higher the pricetag on Perez got, and finally we signed him for $12 million a year. But we were smart about it. We insisted on adding a clause that if we signed the kid from Haiti, Oliver had to teach him Spanish. We thought that would help cinch a deal for the prospect we were ready to call "The Haitian Hurricane". But things bogged down, Boras wouldn't lower his price, and we weren't willing to go higher than $14.5 million. We didn't sign him, and nobody else did either. So we forgot about him.

"That is, until I got a letter from Haiti in the middle of June. I'll hand out copies when I'm done, but here's the text:

Dear Omar Minaya:

You will regret not signing me. You think I am just a backward boy from Haiti with no power in the world, but you will see my power. I put the voodoo on you. Your team is doomed. I will cripple them, starting with the Latino players you think are so special. I drill a hole in my Carlos Delgado bobblehead and see--his hip is ruined. Goodbye, Carlos. Next I get that Jose Reyes, stick a pin in this doll and tweak his hamstring a little. Or so he thinks. It does not take much voodoo to put Reyes on the bench. A little tug on his hamstring, then it almost goes away and he thinks he can play soon, so I stick another pin in the doll and voila! Out three more weeks. I string him along like this all season, tease him like you tease me with your contract offer. You don't know it, but he is through playing baseball this season. And last week I get your Carlos Beltran, too. I twist the knee of his bobblehead, I don't break it off, just let it hang there so you don't know if it will ever be all right again. See how far you get without these three players. This is your last warning from me. If you don't sign me, it will only get worse. I am keeping myself in shape by twisting off the arms on the dolls of your pitchers. John Maine, J.J. Putz, even Oliver Perez, and more in the future if you do not pay my price. I am serious, Monsieur Minaya. I have all the power. This power can help you if you sign me, or it can ruin you if you don't. You think you own the Caribbean, but you ignore Haiti, and you will pay the price, one way or another.

(Signed) Sydney Pinson

"That was in June," Minaya told the puzzled group of reporters. "Sure, we'd been hit by injuries, but we never suspected that our three best hitters would miss the rest of the year, or that it would get worse. We still had David Wright hitting almost .400, Johan Santana was unhittable, K-Rod hadn't blown a save yet, and our bench was coming through. So we ignored the threat, went about our business, and forgot about him. Well, you've seen how it's gone the last two months, worse and worse and worse. It's as if there's a Bermuda Triangle right in the middle of our clubhouse. Even our replacements have gotten whacked. Alex Cora is solid and busts up his thumbs. Jonathan Niese makes a few good starts and blows out his leg. We bring in Jeff Francoeur and he does a great job, and now he tears a ligament in his thumb. And finally Johan--and I thought why oh why, Lord, must you take Johan from us. It's terrible. It's beyond any rational explanation. So I really wasn't surprised when another letter from Haiti arrived on Saturday. Here it is:

Dear Monsieur Le Doomed Minaya:

You did not listen to me. I warned you that the voodoo would get worse. Do you still doubt my power? I break off the thumbs of the Cora doll. I take a hammer and whack the helmet of the Wright doll. I talk to the Rodriguez doll, tell him to throw nothing but curves, and his ERA goes over 3 and he loses so many games for you. Sheffield's hamstring. Francoeur's thumb. Niese. Martinez. Putz. Pagan. Maine. Perez. Nieve. It does not matter whether they can play good or not. If they put on the Mets uniform and I do not, they will suffer. Oh yes, Santana too. Nobody can be spared. The voodoo cannot be stopped. I will not stop it until you sign me. For next season. This season does not matter any more. I have ruined it for you. Monsieur Boras timed me at 109mph yesterday. I am getting stronger. The more your Mets suffer, the stronger I get. Do not fight the power of the voodoo. Sign me and let the power work for you. This is my final warning. I can still make it worse. The decision is yours.

(Signed) Sydney Pinson

"So that's where we stand," Minaya told the open-mouthed reporters. "I don't see where we have a choice. I talked to Scott Boras yesterday, and the price is up to $21 million a year. He says it will go up $500,000 every time another Met goes on the disabled list. I have no choice except to believe him. But now that Mr. Wilpon has promised that I'll be around next year, I feel ready to go ahead. He's okay with the money. I'm still so far ahead of Madoff it isn't funny. The only question is: do we let it go for awhile longer, sacrifice a few more arms and legs and see if we can get the kid up to about 115mph before we sign him? I mean, it'll just make that change-up more effective. Right?"

Right, Omar. Whatever you say--apparently.