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?

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