Thursday, February 19, 2009

What They Missed Out On In Old Saybrook

Of the many things that make my job as a researcher at the Hall of Fame so varied and rewarding, being interviewed is one of my favorites. Yesterday I was interviewed by two people: a reporter from Kansas City engaged me in a day-long e-mail exchange about relief pitching, and a student from Ontario interviewed me over the phone for 20 minutes about the "cultural importance" of home runs. Relief pitching is my chief research obsession, so I had plenty of ready opinions to share, but it is seldom that I pause to ponder the societal ramifications of the mystique of home runs.

The student and I agreed that one reason why seeing a home run fly over the outfield fence fills us with some degree of awe is that it is something most of us have never done and could never do. With a fair amount of practice--or even by accident--most people could throw a basketball in the basket from three-point range, or hit a golf ball a fair distance. But the difficulty of hitting a thrown baseball, plus the combination of strength and technique required to hit a home run, makes it a feat most of us can only experience vicariously through watching the pros do it.

It's tough enough to do in a batting cage, let alone in competition, and a batting cage is the only place where I've managed it. About 25 years ago in Las Vegas, I actually powered three straight pitches over the wall. That is, for maybe 20 seconds of my life, my body contorted itself into the perfect power-swing hip-pivot, leg-leverage, and arm sweep described by Ted Williams in "The Science of Hitting." Three majestic shots in a row, almost identical as they sailed over the wall--and then it was gone, the sweet feeling vanished, and I went back to my usual grounders and pop-ups. But even 25 years later, I can see those home-run shots sailing, and I can feel how my body moved to produce them. Hey, you have to take your muscle-memories where you can find them.

The Ontario student told me that he played baseball for 14 years and never hit more than a triple. My hardball career ended with Little League, where my one display of power was raking a non-breaking curveball on two hops to the warning track for a double. That was it. I was a mediocre hitter in Little League, for a couple of reasons. One was my eyesight, though I didn't realize it at the time. I was nearsighted but didn't get my first pair of glasses until I was 12, so I'm sure that seeing the ball imperfectly didn't help. The second big reason was my fear of being hit. I did get hit by a couple of pitches, I didn't like it at all, and my sense of self-preservation became more powerful than my desire to get on base. I've had a lifelong dread of broken bones and have gotten along so far with only three broken fingers on my resume (two of them playing softball).

The spring I turned 12 and played my final season of Little League ball, I discovered a rookie on my favorite team (the Reds) who was a hot-shot prospect and a switch-hitter. Since he and I shared the same birthday, I not only instantly anointed him as my new favorite player, I also started switch-hitting. I got a lot of mileage out of rooting for Pete Rose, and I discovered that I was a better hitter left-handed than I was as a natural right-hander. Hitting from a Rose crouch, I saw the ball better left-handed (with those glasses, too) and had a more controlled swing. Playing around the neighborhood--wiffleball along with games using tennis balls and spaldeens--I became much better left-handed. Probably I couldn't undo the bad habits I had developed as a righty, and by modeling my lefty swing after Rose I developed good habits. Those three homers in the batting cage were belted as a lefty, while I'm still on pace to go a lifetime without clearing a fence from the right side.

Despite my so-so hitting, I was a good ballplayer, and I had the distinction of making my Little League All-Star team because of my defense. That was a byproduct of being an only child. There was some kind of game every day, but in between those I practiced ceaselessly on my own, throwing and catching, throwing and catching--against the house, in my room, in the garage when the car was out, wherever I could. I'd practice fielding grounders in the lumpy yard, learning how to handle bad hops and turning double plays. I'd practice pitching, throw pop-ups to myself, whatever I could think of. I developed a very strong throwing arm. That earned me one start as a Little Leaguer, but I couldn't help projecting my fear of being hit onto the batters I faced. Instead of throwing as hard as I could, I babied the ball up to the plate, and only a lot of help from my teammates allowed me to win a 19-11 squeaker.

I became a solid fielder by practicing on my own, but I couldn't practice hitting. I played mostly first base and third base; later, playing competitive softball through my twenties, I was an outfielder who surprised more than a few runners trying to take an extra base. I won't bore you with stories of my fielding exploits--except for one, my greatest moment on a playing field.

When I was a teenager, my parents and I vacationed several summers at a central Connecticut resort called Banner Lodge. It was just a few hours from our home in New Jersey, a pastoral retreat featuring a variety of sports. I played plenty of golf on the course that is still there even though the resort is defunct, lots of tennis, and was a stalwart in the daily softball games. I usually played third base and always wanted the ball hit to me so I could show off my bullet throws to first. I was a decent softball hitter--without the fear of being beaned (and batting right-handed) I became adept at shifting my feet quickly to smack the ball to right field--but my chief skill was still fielding.

The highlight of the week at Banner Lodge was the Wednesday night barbecue and softball game between the guests and the staff. Hundreds of guests would fill the little grandstand to watch this fierce contest. It was 1966 when my golden moment occurred, a few weeks before I began my sophomore year in high school. It was one of two vivid memories from that week. One night I listened to a Reds game in which Art Shamsky pinch-hit in the 8th inning and smashed the first of three home runs (out of 10 hit in the game--what do you suppose those guys were on!), two of them tying the game in extra innings (the only time that's ever been done).

In the big staff-guests game, I was bumped from my usual post at third base by some grown-up who wasn't mobile enough to play anywhere else. I found myself instead in center field, a fairly deep center field with a "short" fielder roaming the shallow outfield area. The staff loaded the bases with two outs midway through the game, and the next batter drilled a shot into the left-center gap. I got a quick jump and speared the ball backhand on the first bounce, picking it off my sneaker-tops. I came up throwing and winged the ball homeward as the second runner rounded third. It would have been caught by the catcher right on the plate except the runner saw the throw and stopped halfway home, so the pitcher cut it off ten feet in front of the plate to start a rundown which nailed the runner. The crowd erupted in cheers and I fielded a lot of praise from my teammates for stopping the rally.

But the best moment occurred after the game, as my parents congratulated me. The coach of the guest team came over, introduced himself, and asked where we lived. "New Jersey," my father said. "Hmm," the man said. "Well, I'm the varsity baseball coach down in Old Saybrook [a town on the Connecticut coast], and I wish you'd consider moving up there so I can coach your kid. I've been watching him all week, and he can play for me any day." Wow!

He wanted to discuss it, but of course my father wasn't going to uproot us. As hugely flattering as the proposition was, I think the Old Saybrook coach would have regretted it if we had taken him up on it. I hadn't played hardball in three years, and in addition to my trepidation at the plate I also had a major phobia about sliding. That began in 1962, when Reds third baseman Gene Freese, coming off a 26-homerun season for the pennant-winning 1961 team and ready to blossom into a star at age 28, broke his ankle sliding in spring training, essentially wrecking his career. I remember thinking "jeez, if a major leaguer can break his ankle sliding, I don't want any part of it." I hadn't been on base often enough in Little League to slide, and I resolved to avoid it in the future (a vow I kept during my softball "career").

The Old Saybrook coach would have had his hands full trying to convince me that it would be in everybody's best interest to learn how to break up a double play, even if he could get his pitchers to throw me enough batting practice to develop the skill needed to get on base in the first place. Of course, I might have improved sufficiently to become the next Jack Reed or Ross Moschitto--the weak-hitting outfielders who had brief stints in the majors as Mickey Mantle's late-inning replacement in center field.

Ah, dreams! We'll never know what might have happened in Old Saybrook, though I have a pretty good idea. Still, nothing can tarnish the memory of that golden game in old Connecticut, or those 20 magical seconds in the batting cage in Las Vegas.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Prime 9" Is No Judge of Character

Although I ripped the MLB Network's "Prime 9" countdown of great pitching seasons because of the omission of Lefty Grove's incomparable 1931 season, I didn't have a quarrel with the presence of most of their choices on a top-9 list. It wasn't the worst list I've ever seen, or even the worst on this new network's new series. That negative nod has to go to their show about "Baseball's Greatest Characters," which more accurately would have been titled "The Nine Oddest Baseball People We Have Video Footage Of." There is no other way of accounting for how far they missed the boat in their list. Even if you exclude 19th-century baseball (which sported two of the game's all-time most colorful figures, Mike "King" Kelly and "Orator Jim" O'Rourke), even if you confine the list to post-1900 baseball figures (excluding owners, a choice of theirs I agree with), only half the people on their nine-man roster deserve any legitimate consideration.

Here is the "Prime 9" list:

  1. Casey Stengel

  2. Yogi Berra

  3. Tommy Lasorda

  4. Mark Fidrych

  5. Bill Lee

  6. Manny Ramirez

  7. Larry Andersen

  8. Dizzy Dean

  9. Kevin Millar

Give us a break. I have issues with most of these choices, starting with Kevin Millar, whose cheerful sense of humor in this agent-spokesman age makes him fun to listen to, but not one of the "greatest characters" in baseball history? That's a bigger joke than he's ever told. Larry Andersen gave forth a lot of clever quotes, but in the "Prime 9" show the main Andersen footage had him playing a practical joke that wasn't even his own idea. On my list, I'll give you the most original and distinctive practical joker in baseball history. Manny Ramirez? He got "Prime 9" points for going to the bathroom during a pitching change and for high-fiving a fan after a great catch. Being an enigma does not qualify as greatness. Just because Manny doesn't talk, let's not pump him up as the new Harpo Marx. Mark Fidrych was eccentric, original, and entertaining, but sadly for everyone, his major league career consisted of 58 games. He was a great distraction for a brief time, but that hardly qualifies him for all-time greatness. As for Tommy Lasorda, he'd be near the top of anybody list of "Baseball's Loudest Characters," but I see him as a cheerleader for "Dodger blue" and not much else. Finally, I was amazed to see Yogi Berra in the #2 spot. Yes, he said half of the quotes attributed to him, but he exhibited little personality on the playing field and has always been essentially a quiet, shy, humble person whose fame was spread mainly by other people (like his pal Joe Garagiola) quoting him.

I'll give you my own entirely different "Prime 9" list, and even leaving out their legitimately great characters like Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean, I defy you to tell me mine isn't better.

  1. Babe Ruth

  2. Satchel Paige

  3. Rube Waddell

  4. John McGraw

  5. Jimmy Piersall

  6. Moe Drabowsky

  7. Bob Uecker

  8. Germany Schaefer

  9. Ron Luciano/Emmett Ashford/Tim Hurst

Has baseball ever had a more charismatic, larger-than-life character than Babe Ruth? He played to the crowd on the field, and off the field blazed a trail of fast living that has never been equaled. He would do anything for publicity, embraced a generation of children, and came to represent the irrepressible spirit of his country. During World War II, Japanese soldiers trying to talk tough would yell "To hell with Babe Ruth!" Have you heard of any Iraqis yelling "To hell with Manny Ramirez!"? Shame on the MLB Network for dethroning "The Sultan of Swat."

Satchel Paige was probably the greatest showman in baseball history, a prima donna who earned that status by leading barnstorming tours which drew big crowds of people just to see him pitch. In addition to his vastly entertaining pitching style, Paige was a grass-roots philosopher who was just as quotable as Yogi Berra. Here are a few of my favorites, starting with a semi-Yogi-ism: "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you are?" Or try this: "Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter." Finally, perhaps his most-quoted line: "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."

No baseball player has ever been stranger than Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell. The hurling half-wit had a rambunctious personality, erratic habits, and an undisciplined life. Opposing coaches could distract him with wind-up toys, and more than once he abandoned the pitching mound to chase after a passing fire engine. A fierce competitor with the sensibilites of a six-year-old, he was unpredictable, eccentric, and entertaining every minute of his life.

John McGraw's colorful personality dominated an entire era of baseball. Can that be said of anyone else besides Babe Ruth? Irascible, profane, and outrageous, he frequently managed games from the third-base coaching box so he could harass the opposition and the umpires at close range. He was the darling of New York show-biz society and baseball's most rabble-rousing personality for three decades, with a style only faintly echoed decades later by Tommy Lasorda. His greatest protege was Casey Stengel, who in turn mentored Billy Martin, who in turn paved the way for Lou Piniella--all colorful guys who trailed after McGraw's legacy.

Few people have displayed more color on the field than Jimmy Piersall. Maybe he had an unfair advantage because he spent time in a mental hospital before arriving in the major leagues, and didn't have to work at being zany. He continued his career as a loose cannon in the broadcast booth, outraging listeners with his uncensored commentary. His greatest on-field stunt was running around the bases backward after his 100th career home run, which even Casey Stengel found so ridiculous that he soon jettisoned Piersall from the Mets.

Step aside, Larry Andersen, for the legitimate title-holder as the most colorful relief pitcher ever, Moe Drabowsky. This legendary prankster was a virtuoso on the bullpen telephone, ordering takeout food FROM CHINA and getting the opposing bullpen coach to start warming up relievers even though the starter was pitching a no-hitter. "Drabbo" was anything but drab, sprinkling the usual pranks like giving teammates hot-foots with original pranks that haven't been matched before or since.

Bob Uecker is, pound for pound, probably the funniest person in baseball history. His words have spoken much louder than his action, from his playing career as a third-string catcher (he credited himself with winning the 1964 pennant for the Cardinals by missing the last two months with hepatitis) to his long broadcasting career as the toast of Milwaukee. Throw in dozens of appearances on the "Tonight Show," several gut-bustingly funny books, the lead role on a successful sitcom, and his speech in Cooperstown while accepting the Ford Frick Award for broadcaster which left a podium full of Hall of Famers falling off their chairs, and few people in the public eye have been as consisting entertaining.

Germany Schaefer, like Rube Waddell, played a century ago and was regarded at the time as one of the game's wildest characters. Largely forgotten today, he was immortalized in print in the 1960s classic oral history "The Glory of Their Times," in which more than one player told the tale of Schaefer stealing FIRST base. That's right. He was on first, called for the hit-and-run, and stole second when the batter didn't hit the ball. But he really wanted to work the hit-and-run, so he raced back to first base on the next pitch to give the batter another chance. This stunt resulted in the rule change specifying that the bases must be run in only one direction. Case closed.

I'm splitting my ninth spot between the game's three wildest umpires. Ron Luciano was the biggest showboat of them all, giving a machine-gun motion to call runners out, making other calls with grandiose gestures, keeping up a steady stream of chatter, arguing with gusto, and generally violating every rule of proper umpire decorum. He also wrote very entertaining books like "The Fall of the Roman Umpire." Ashford, the first African-American umpire in the majors, shocked many observers with his exuberant hustle and grandstanding style which often overshadowed the action on the field. Hurst, a pioneering umpire from a century ago, combined wit and combativeness to handle the toughest generation of players ever, and wasn't above using his fists to make his point with recalcitrant competitors.

There you go--a solid list of bona fide characters. Now it's time to combine the lists into one definitive lineup of character who would leave you wondering just what they'd come up with next. Come on, "Prime 9" "pundits"--get a clue!

  1. Babe Ruth
  2. Casey Stengel
  3. Satchel Paige
  4. Dizzy Dean
  5. Rube Waddell
  6. John McGraw
  7. Jimmy Piersall
  8. Bill Lee
  9. Moe Drabowsky

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Games Can't Get Here Soon Enough

Most years, the biggest news in the off-season is players changing teams, but in the last few weeks there have been many distressing developments on the baseball front, culminating in yesterday's vague admission by Alex Rodriguez that he's pretty sure he did something he should be sorry for. I've made a list of a half-dozen items--mainly New York-related--I want to note here, but let's start with a laugh.

Recently I gave a talk to the local chapter of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research). I spoke on my favorite topic, relief pitching, updating some statistics on how the usage and effectiveness of relief pitching has changed (and not for the better) in the last 40 years. At one point, I asked the audience, "in what inning do the most blown saves occur?" Without hesitation, chapter chairman Richard Hunt (a Mets fan) piped up, "what inning does Aaron Heilman pitch?" "Correct," I said. (The answer is the 8th inning, one good argument against saving your best pitcher for the 9th inning.)
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I found a wonderful piece of arithmetic to do after reading an obituary of Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who died on January 5 at the age of 93. In 1984, he bought the Twins from Calvin Griffith, whose family had owned the franchise since World War I. In 2001, he earned the wrath of Twins fans by signing on to Commissioner Bud Selig's plan to eliminate two teams from the majors. Though Selig's scheme fell through, Pohlad clung to the notion that he would be better off without the team. In 2004, he was quoted thusly: "We were losing on the average of $15 to $17 million a year. How would you feel if you had a chance to get out of it with all your money?" That doesn't sound all that unreasonable--until you do the math. Pohlad was 88 years old at the time. His net worth when he died was $3.6 billion. That's BILLION. Losing money on the Twins at a rate of $16 million a year, Pohlad would have gone broke in a mere 225 years. Well, no wonder he thought the right thing to do was make the Twin Cities' major league franchise vanish. Multiply that attitude by 31, and you get an idea of how much the owners and their commissioner care about the fans.
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That brings us back to the Mets, who are embroiled in a controversy over the naming rights to their new stadium. Some congressmen are exerting pressure to cancel the deal (made in 2006) for Citigroup to pay $400 million over the next 20 years to have the ballpark called Citi Field. What's the problem? Citigroup is receiving $45 billion dollars (there we go with billions again, reminding me of a comparatively innocent time a few decade ago when Senator Everett Dirksen, complaining about government waste, said "A million here and a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money") from the government (translation: taxpayers) as a bailout after their institutional failure, plus pledges for another $300 billion in support. In November, the company laid of 50,000 employees (more than enough people to fill the new stadium), yet their name will be up there on the facade in big, proud letters. It's hard to force the Mets and Citigroup to break a written agreement, but the whole thing smells. I have always deplored the practice of selling naming rights to sports facilities ("Come on out to Your Name Here Park!"). The names ought to honor people (albeit many of them team owners like Griffith and Busch), as the Mets' previous home did. I'll even give the Yankees and Dodgers credit for putting the team's name on their ballparks; don't you think they'd lose some of their glamor if they were called Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs Stadium or Universal Studios Tours Field? The Mets would have seemed beloved if they had named this new venue--with its architectural homage to the old Brooklyn Dodgers--Jackie Robinson Field. Or honor someone who had something more to do with the Mets (as William Shea did, as the driving force behind bringing the National League back to New York), like Casey Stengel Field or Gil Hodges Park. Even Strawberry Field would sound better--after all, the only person Darryl ruined was himself, not a slew of investors and employees.
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Meanwhile, over in the Bronx, the Yankees declared war on Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who had the gaul to protest when the Yankees (the richest franchise in professional sports) requested an additional $370 million in tax-free bonds from the city to finance cost overrides in building the new Yankee Stadium. Team president Randy Levine attacked Brodsky, accusing him of trying "to destroy jobs and stop the revitalization of the poorest congressional district int he nation." You would think that the city hadn't already spent $942 million on the park, or that the Yankees didn't have a track record of reneging on a pledge to revitalize its neighborhood back in the 1970s when the city was fleeced on a similar deal for renovating the old stadium. When the San Francisco Giants built their new stadium a decade ago (a facility which, by the way, is on its third corporate naming sponsor so far), it was financed privately even though it was demonstrably in the endangered "small-market" category. The Yankees could have paid for both new New York ballparks without feeling the dent in their pocket, but choose to beg the city to foot the bill. As Brodsky said in the wake of Levine's attack, "[The Yankees] aren't used to being called to account." The neighborhood bully never is.
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Okay, now you've gotten me started on the Yankees. In all the furor over Joe Torre's book, nobody has mentioned what is my favorite passage in the little I've read of it so far. That is Torre's account of another neighborhood bully getting away with a heinous act of mayhem. I'm referring to Roger Clemens throwing Mike Piazza's broken bat at him as Piazza trotted down the first base line, nearly maiming him. I know that Mets fans aren't the only ones outraged that the umpires didn't eject Clemens on the spot. What he did was akin to Bert Campaneris hurling his bat at pitcher Lerrin LaGrow in the 1972 AL playoffs. Not only was Campaneris ejected, he was suspended for the rest of the series. You just don't throw bats at people. Well, the rest of the story is in Torre's book. At the end of the inning, Clemens raced through the dugout and into the clubhouse, where moments later coach Mel Stottlemyre found him sobbing uncontrollably and saying "I didn't mean to do it." Gee, that makes him seem almost human, this intimidating pitcher who, as Torre and co-author Tom Verducci note, "rubbed liniment on his balls," now filled with shame and remorse. Of course, by the time reporters reached him after the game, he had concocted one of the lamest excuses in sports history, telling them that he was only trying to clear debris from the mound area, getting the bat off the field (as quickly as possible, by heaving it with his fastball delivery), and it just happened that there was a human being in its path. Perhaps he had re-anointed his cojones in the meantime and was feeling righteously tough by the time he had to say anything, but the truth is that if he really had balls he would have admitted right then that what he did was dangerous and inexcusable. It would've been too much to ask him to claim that the mood swing from homicidal to remorseful was a fleeting case of "'roid rage," but we can't have everything. I'm just glad that we have the story from Torre/Verducci.
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Speaking of steroids, let's get back to A-Rod, or as he's becoming known around New York, "A-Fraud" or "A-Roid". I have another name for him. Considering that the Yankees have succeeded the Mariners and Rangers as franchises failing to win a championship with Rodriguez in the lineup, I'd say we're looking at "The Curse of the Roid-bino." I think it's charming that he "admitted" to Peter Gammons yesterday that he only used steroids while with the Rangers, because he felt such tremendous pressure to justify his large salary. This implies that he felt less pressure when he joined the Yankees, which is quite ridiculous. Does anybody outside of Texas even know where Arlington is? No, he tells us, once he got to New York he knew his natural talent would suffice to satisfy the fans who claim the entire universe as theirs, not to mention the media feeding frenzy which is now poised to devour him.

Buster Olney and other columnists have pinpointed a problem greater than whether this or that player took steroids (now that it appears that most of this generation's record-setters did enhance their performances artificially). That is the complicity of management, including officials of the Players Association and Commissioner Selig. I'm convinced that the people running baseball in the late 1990s, searching for a way to bring back baseball fans alienated by the 1994-95 strike, were so delighted by the 1998 McGwire-Sosa home run-record chase that they didn't care who did what to make it more exciting for the fans. Make no mistake--it did excite the fans and bring many people back, just as much as Cal Ripken did by breaking Lou Gehrig iron-man streak in 1996. Players did not use steroids in a vacuum or some lead-covered environment which couldn't be detected from the outside. All we had to do was look at changing body types to see that something wasn't kosher in their ballpark franks. But the people in charge willingly stuck their heads in the sand, and they are just as culpable.

For that reason, I was disturbed when Joe Torre, in his interiew with Bob Costas, claimed that he wasn't aware of Yankees using performance-enhancing drugs during his dozen years at the helm. At least a half-dozen of his players have been exposed as users, yet Torre feels justified in taking the high road. He protested to Costas, in essence, that "what was I supposed to do, go up to them and ask them if they were taking anything?" I say no, Joe. Here's what you should have done. You should have held a team meeting and told the players,"If anybody is taking any performance-enhancing drugs, stop now! I don't care who you are, and you don't have to tell me about it. Just stop! You're hurting yourself, and you're hurting the Yankees' legacy. This is supposed to be the proudest, most successful and talented franchise in sports history. We're supposed to win titles because we're better, not because we have to cheat and break the law to do it. So stop doing anything you're not supposed to be doing. Be men, and use your talent to win." But no. Just like everyone from Bud Selig to Donald Fehr, Torre opted for self-interest, choosing not to lead his team but instead of let them forge their own path down a road that is leading them only to disgrace.
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So a generation of record-setters (mostly home run records, but also the record for most Cy Young Awards) will wind up on the list of baseball pariahs, quite possibly paying the price of joining Pete Rose as a career record-holder not elected to the Hall of Fame. Is nobody sacred? The latest rumor is that Ichiro Suzuki injected ginseng into his hamstrings to help him beat out all those infield hits. Where will it end?