Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Tale of Two Ballgames

I haven't written about it much on this site, but my favorite subject for research and analysis is relief pitching. Thanks to David Smith of http://www.retrosheet.org/, I have extensive data for every major league relief appearance for the past 55 seasons, and when I get a chance I like to play with the numbers compile data, and try to figure things out. In particular, I try to track the trends in bullpen usage and success/failure in the "saves era," the now-four decades since the Save became an official statistic in 1969.

No aspect of baseball has changed as much in the last 40 years as relief pitching. In the 1960s, it was standard for a manager to hand the ball to his starting pitcher with the expectation that he would pitch well enough to complete the game. If he got in trouble, he was supposed to get out of it himself, unless it was very late in the game. The starter carried the load. Today it's just the opposite. When the game starts, the manager is hoping he'll be in a position to use his closer in the 9th inning to protect a lead. He also wants his main set-up guy to pitch the 8th inning, and he has two or three other relievers slotted for the 7th inning. He figures if his starter gives him six decent innings--the parlance is "keeps us in the game" and "gives us a chance to win," the bullpen will carry the load in the late innings. So instead of pushing the starter forward as long as possible, today's manager works from the end of the game backwards toward the start.

What my research has showed is that this ass-backward approach doesn't work. There are more blown leads than ever, and they don't occur in the 9th inning, when the team's best reliever is working. More leads are blown in the 8th inning than any other, followed by the 7th inning. That's because the inferior relievers are relied on to get through those "transition innings," the crucial innings between the starter and the closer. In the 1960s, the standard pitching staff had ten pitchers; today there are a dozen, and managers crow about how each pitcher "knows his role" and performs better because he comes to the ballpark every day knowing exactly what is expected of him.

In a word, that's bullshit, and I'll tell you why. It isn't because the pitchers don't know their roles today. It's because those roles are tailored for mediocrity. The less we expect of people, the less we'll get from them. By expecting less from each of the dozen pitchers on his staff, today's manager gets less--much less all the time. Two games that were played last week illustrate this point perfectly.

On April 21, the Giants hosted the Padres, and the Giants took a 6-2 lead after six innings. Their starter, Matt Cain, had thrown 102 pitches, about average for a starter these days, but with a four-run cushion could've gone another inning or two. Giants manager Bruce Bochy elected to replace him with Brandon Medders, a 29-year-old career reliever who has never started a game in the majors and has averaged a little over an inning a game. He's a typical "role" pitcher you see in all bullpens, good for getting you through the 6th or 7th inning. He got the first out and then allowed a single--and Bochy took him out! What message does this send to Medders? "I don't trust you to overcome one baserunner. Your role is to pitch until you put somebody on base, and then I'm getting you the hell out of there." I have news for Bruce Bochy: baserunners are not the enemy. Batters get on base all the time, but not that many score. Last year, just over one-third of all batters got on base. In the National League, there were 33,742 runners. Only one-third of them scored. It is rare to see a game where a team has more runs scored than runners left on base. Putting one runner on base with a four-run lead is not a red flag. The red flag is the manager yanking the pitcher, implicitly telling him that he isn't good enough to protect the lead.

Am I being too tough on Bruce Bochy? Stay with me as we go through the rest of the game. Bochy replaced Medders with Jeremy Affeldt, a more experienced reliever, albeit one who is now pitching for his fourth team in the last four seasons. Affeldt got through the 7th inning without allowing a run, reinforcing Bochy's belief that he had made the right decision, even though Medders might be wondering why he wasn't given a chance to do what Affeldt did, considering that he had only thrown eight pitches before exiting. The score was still 6-2 Giants when the 8th inning began, and Affeldt trotted out there to continue his work. He got the first batter, gave up a hit--and yes, there went Bochy with the hook. This wasn't as extreme as yanking Medders--Affeldt had retired three batters--but he had thrown only 20 pitches and still had a safe lead.

In came Bobby Howry, one of the most experienced and respected middle relievers in the majors. A 35-year-old in his twelfth season, Howry is approaching his 700th appearance, every one of them in relief, averaging a little over one inning per game. Sure enough, it took him only six pitches to get the two outs needed to polish off the 8th inning. In the bottom half, Bochy pinch-hit for Howry. I would say he didn't need to do that. One thing I've researched closely is what happens when a pitcher finishes the 8th inning without allowing a run, as Howry did. Until the mid-1980s, if a pitcher went unscathed in the 8th, he was permitted to start the 9th inning more than 90% of the time. That figure has plummeted steadily ever since, and in the last few years it happens only 10-15% of the time. Yet the number of leads blown in the 9th inning has remained constant. The message there is simple: when you bring in a pitcher who shows in the 8th inning that he has good stuff (as Howry surely did), there is no need to bring in a new pitcher (with uncertain stuff) to pitch the 9th. With a four-run lead, Bochy didn't need to do anything but let Howry finish the job.

Bochy no doubt considered himself a genius when the pinch-hitter doubled, igniting a two-run rally which made the score 8-2. My problem with this is simple: the fewer pitchers you use today, the more you'll have available tomorrow. If you let your pitchers finish the job, you might find that you need only ten pitchers on your staff, maybe eleven, giving yourself more bench depth with that extra player or two. Here's the relevant perspective from my research. We'll look just at the National League for a moment. From 1969-1974 (the first six seasons after saves became an official stat), there were 17,914 relief appearances. Today there are one-third more teams (16 rather than 12), so at the same rate there would be 23,885 appearances in the past six seasons. How many have there been? Well, 45,667. Nearly twice as many! Do you think every bit of that increase is due to more offensive firepower? Of course not. It's strategic, it's managers feeling that because they have more relievers in the bullpen, they have to keep giving them work to keep them sharp (even though their performance is not demonstrably improved by this system).

Here's another relevant stat. From 1969-1974, 25.4% of those relief appearances occurred when the pitcher's team was winning. It makes sense. If you're winning, your pitchers are doing well enough, and managers back then didn't panic unless there was an imminent crisis. They didn't pull a reliever who gave up one hit with a four-run lead. What is the figure from the past five seasons? Are you ready? It's 43.4%. More pitchers are being used today when the team is winning than when the team is losing; from 1969-1974, more than twice as many were used when the team was losing. The game in San Francisco is a perfect example of why this is so.

To start the 9th inning, Bochy put in Justin Miller, a 30-year-old with about the same major league resume as Medders. He had a six-run lead. Bear in mind how often teams score six runs in an inning: almost never! In ridiculous blowouts where some outfielder volunteers to pitch the 9th inning, even that non-pitcher doesn't give up six runs. I can't even measure how much confidence I'd have that a pitcher who had allowed an average of four runs in nine innings over the past two seasons could get me through the 9th inning with a six-run lead. But I can tell you this: I'd have a lot more than Bochy does.

Miller faced exactly four batters. He got two of them out, walked one, and gave up a hit, leaving two runners on base with one out remaining to end the game. You know what happened next, don't you? Yes, Bochy took him out! How would like to be Miller's family, or his agent, or anybody who cares that he's a human being with an ego and a fluid commodity like confidence at stake? What is Bochy telling you? Ohmygod--two runners on base! Get him out of there. Let's trot another pitcher out there, let's give someone else some work. So in came Alex Hinshaw, a 26-year-old lefty embarking on his second season in the majors. In other words, the pitcher who has staked a claim to the lowest rung of the Giants' bullpen ladder. Yes, let's build his confidence--that is, if you consider protecting a six-run lead for one out a spur to confidence. At that, it didn't happen. The first batter Hinshaw faced singled in a run, so in that sense he failed. He got the next guy, ending the game.

Was anything gained by using five relievers to log three innings with a four-run leadm (and two of them with a six-run lead)? You tell me. Does the phrase "using a howitzer to kill a squirrel" ring true? The next day, in a tie game, Howry came in to pitch the 8th inning, got one out, gave up a hit, and heard the thundering footsteps of Bruce Bochy approaching the mound to replace him. Affeldt got through the inning, and the Giants used one more reliever before winning the game. Then they had a day off, so Howry and Affeldt could have finished off both games with no trouble or overtaxing effort, meaning the presence of Miller and Hinshaw was superfluous.

Let's contrast this with another recebt game from April 20, with the Reds visiting the Astros. In this one, Reds starter Bronson Arroyo went seven innings before leaving for a pinch-hitter with a 4-3 lead. Manager Dusty Baker brought in Arthur Rhodes to work the bottom of the 8th. Rhodes has been in the majors since 1991 and is 39 years old, but he missed all of 2007 after arm surgery, and in 2008 found a new role (with the Mariners and then the Marlins) as a lefty-lefty specialist. Every team has one or two of these guys, lefties who are tough on lefties but seldom trusted to pitch to right-handed batters. In 2008, Rhodes pitched in 61 games, and in 21 of them faced only one batter. Only 14 times did he pitch a whole inning; for the season he recorded 106 outs, an average of 1.74 per game. It was a successful season in which his ERA was 2.08, the second-best of his career.

Now he's with the Reds, and he began the 8th inning by yielding a double to a pinch-hitter. I happened to be following this game on my computer, and I predicted what would happen next. The Astros' leadoff hitter, Kaz Matsui, would bunt the potential run over to third base, and that would be it for Rhodes with a succession of right-handed hitters due up. Not just any righty hitters, but a cluster of formidable hitters at the heart of the Houston lineup: Miguel Tejada, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee. Berkman and Lee had already homered in the game.

Sure enough, Matsui bunted the runner over, and I waited for the pitching change to show up on the screen. But no, Rhodes stayed in to face Tejada. I've been surveying people about this move, and the consensus is that out of 30 major league managers, about 25 of them would've brought in a righty to face Tejada. Not Dusty Baker. Note that Rhodes had pitched a full inning the day before, throwing 19 pitches, so he wasn't exactly well-rested. Not surprisingly, he walked Tejada, and now he had to come out. I was pretty shocked when Baker left him in to face Berkman. Granted, Berkman, a switch-hitter, has a better track record against right-handed pitchers. I didn't think Baker would press his luck with Rhodes, and he had one of those lefty specialists available in the bullpen. But he also had some faith in Rhodes, and it was justified when Berkman popped out.

That brought up Carlos Lee, a very tough righty looking at an invitingly short home-run porch in left field. No way would Dusty leave Rhodes in to face Lee. But he did! Another righty hitter, Hunter Pence, was on deck. A flock of righty relievers stood perched in the bullpen. They stayed there as Rhodes walked Lee to load the bases. Okay, now Rhodes had thrown 18 pitches, making 37 in two games, enough to sap the stamina of most relievers. We know that Bruce Bochy or Tony LaRussa would have been up to his second or third pitching change of the inning. Did Dusty Baker waver? Did he go out to the mound and tell Rhodes, "sorry, Arthur, I gave you a chance, but I'd better bring in a righty now"? Nope. He stayed with him. I was more than shocked and, as a Reds fan, fairly dismayed as well, with Rhodes now one hit away from being the losing pitcher.

Pence worked the count full, fouling off pitches and fouling off more pitches, taxing Rhodes' 39-year-old arm more and more and increasing his chance of getting a hit more with each pitch. On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Rhodes fanned him. Amazing! Forget about 25 out of 30 managers not letting him pitch to Tejada. Perhaps only with Dusty Baker would Rhodes have still been out there three batters later with the bases loaded.

It's important to emphasize that this happened only a couple of weeks into the season. This wasn't like Jerry Manuel last September, trying to plug the gaping holes in the dike known as the Mets bullpen, where everyone has proved unreliable. April is the time to build up a team's identity and each player's sense of contributing. The manager challenges his players and finds out who can and cannot perform. That's what Baker did with Rhodes. I don't know what Bochy achieved apart from finding out that he still doesn't know which one of his middle relievers can pitch an entire inning.

Rhodes came through for his manager, and the Reds closer, Francisco Cordero, pitched the 9th inning to close out the 4-3 victory. Baker wound up using two pitchers to hold a one-run lead, compared to Bochy using five pitchers to hold a four-run lead. Bochy convinced his pitchers that if they waver a bit, give up a baserunner, he doesn't have faith that they can continue effectively, while Baker convinced Arthur Rhodes that he can get anybody out at any time, no matter how dangerous the situation. No wonder Baker developed a reputation--while managing the Giants--as a manager players loved playing for. If I were Arthur Rhodes, I'd love to be pitching for Baker. Come to think of it, if I were Brandon Medders, Bobby Howry, and Justin Miller, I'd be wishing I could pitch for Baker, too.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Spring of Their Discontent

Ah, what a glorious time to be a Yankees fan at the new Yankee Stadium. No, wait, that isn't it. Here we go: ah, what a glorious time to be a Yankee-hater watching all the fans at the new Yankee Stadium getting frustrated, pissed off, and totally disillusioned. Yeah, that's the ticket!

The Yankees have won two of their first four games at their new venue, and that's about the only good thing that can be said on their behalf. The victories were ho-hum, while the defeats were as nightmarish as they could be from the Yankees' point of view. It all began on Thursday, April 16, when the Yankees and Indians were tied 1-1 through six innings. Enter Jose Veras, who faced only three Indians, allowing two doubles and a walk, putting the Yankees behind 3-1. Joe Girardi's next brilliant move was to bring in Damaso Marte, who had a 5.40 ERA with the Yankees last year. He poured gasoline on the fire, and by the time Girardi could send in a helicopter to remove Marte from the scene of the disaster, the score was 10-1 (thanks largely to a grand slam by Grady Sizemore), and the natives were restless. No, they were more than restless, they were booing loudly. This was the prelude to the 7th-inning stretch, that time when the Yankees like to trot out opera stars and overblown pomp to lift the fans in the stands to new heights of Yankee patriotism. Not this time, P.T. After witnessing that nine-run explosion, the fans loosed a hailstorm of boos and abuse on the hometown nine, as Yankees legends Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford watched the carnage and felt their blood curdling.

The Yankees rebounded on Friday, hitting five solo home runs to prevail 6-5 in what was already turning into batting practice in the Bronx. On Saturday, a paid crowd of 45,167 filed into the Stadium, suspecting they'd see more home runs but not knowing what they were in for. Already, in their third game, Yankees management could see the problem with the exorbitant prices being charged for the prime seats. People simply weren't buying them. The bleacher seats--many with obstructed views, but at least reasonably priced--were full, while there were plenty of empty seats down by the field and empty suites halfway up. Fans had complained on Thursday that late in the game, with the Yankees trailing 10-2 and the Stadium rapidly emptying, they were barred by security guards from drifting down to the seats near the field. How are the Yankees going to sell those seats if they refuse to let their customers have a look at the view? There isn't a ballpark in the majors where fans are prevented from sampling the good seats for the last inning of a blowout when the park is half-empty. Excuse me, there's one: Yankee Stadium, where those seats are going to remain unpolluted by the touch of a human ass until some sucker ponies up $375 or more to pay for the privilege.

So let me tell you how I experienced the historic Stadium blowout on Saturday. That afternoon, my wife and I headed for Albany and environs, for a little shopping, dinner with her daughter, and a Stephen Lynch concert in the evening. We listened to the end of the Mets game (a 1-0 thriller at Post-Shea Stadium--but that's another story) and then turned to the Yankees channel. It was the top of the 2nd inning, with the Yankees up 2-0 and Chien-Ming Wang trying to duplicate a 1-2-3 1st inning, his only unscathed inning of the season so far. He didn't duplicate anything except his disastrous previous outing, in which he allowed eight runs in one-plus innings of work. We listened as he gave up a handful of hits and the Yankees announced noting that he was throwing way too many pitches over the heart of the plate. The carnage began to mount, and as we made our first shopping stop, the score was 4-2 with a couple of runners on base. That was a quick stop, but it was long enough for Wang to be gone when we got back in the car. Instead, the Yankees were serving up Anthony Claggett, making his major league debut. He gave up a hit that made the score 9-2, with Wang saddled with his second straight eight-run debacle. Claggett wound up matching Wang with eight runs allowed, etching that debut in his subconscious for life. Welcome to the bigs!

We made another quick stop, and this time we hit the road again and heard the far-from-dulcet tones of John Sterling noting that "the roof has caved in." Nice! A moment later we heard that the score was 14-2, the 14-run inning representing the biggest single inning ever against the Yankees. That was some roof! It was still 14-2 when we got to the restaurant, and about 90 minutes later, when we got back in the car, I smirked to my wife, "I wonder if it's 22-3 yet." I was so close! It was 20-4, and moment later 21-4 on the Indians' sixth home run of the game. Over the traffic noise I could hear the boos cascading from the Stadium stands, and I knew the magical day in the Bronx was not over.

The final score was 22-4, not quite matching the 22-0 pasting delivered by the Indians to the Yankees in 2004, the worst shutout in their history. The Indians also scored the most runs against the Yankees in one game, in 1928 with a 24-6 drubbing. Something about the Indians brings humiliation to the Yankees. Indians may have given away Manhattan for $24, but they apparently still own the Bronx.

The Sunday New York Post summed the experience up with the back-page headline: STINKEES. Their coverage of the game focused not so much on the carnage on the field as on the disgust expressed by fans who had paid exorbitant prices to witness the massacre. Here's a sampling of fan sentiment from the Post coverage:

  • "You can't afford to buy anything at this Stadium, and the players are going to go out and have $50 steaks when it's over."
  • "I paid $10 a beer to see this chop-shop team? They suck!"
  • "I'm not going to pay twice as much for crappy seats."
  • "Families can't come together any more. Fuhgeddaboutit."

The article also quoted disgusted fans who were prevented by security from moving down in the 9th inning. "There were 2,600 unsold seats down by third base," complained one fan, "and they wouldn't let us sit in them. It sucked." Worse than that, during batting practice the security guards wouldn't let fans wandering the bleachers go down by the railing to have a chance to catch a BP home run. If you didn't have a ticket for that BLEACHER section, you couldn't stand there TWO HOURS before the game. Yep, the Yankees are going all-out to make their park fan-friendly, aren't they?

It gets more absurd than that. Sitting in the lobby before the Stephen Lynch concert, we overheard the complaint of a man who had been at the Stadium for the Friday game. He was telling friends about the surreal moment at the concession stand when he ordered nachos (we didn't catch the price, but you can bet it was exorbitant) without meat. It seems that they serve their nachos with meat, but he didn't want the meat. They wanted to charge him an extra $1 for meatless nachos. As the guy told his friends, "I couldn't believe it -- I turned around and said to the other people in line, 'somebody help me, this is crazy'. How can they charge me extra for getting less food? The guy said it was a 'special order,' so I said 'there's gotta be hundreds of people here who don't want meat on their nachos. Are you gonna gouge them for a buck apiece, on top of the ridiculous ticket prices and the $10 beers? You have to squeeze every dollar you can out of us? Somebody help me!'" Alas, there was no help for him, and he wasn't Jack Nicholson from "Five Easy Pieces," telling the waitress where she could stick the chicken.

So that's life in the Bronx these days. I was going to include a tribute to Wang, "The Taiwan Torch," but I think I'll save that one and close with the plight of Nacho Man, who actually saw the Yankees win but still came away from his New Yankee Stadium experienced pissed off and disillusioned. Apart from the fact that it's a long-standing Yankees tradition to assume that merely winning will suffice for keeping Stadium fans happy, why are they seemingly going out of their way to antagonize their fans? I think it's because the new Stadium was designed, priced, and marketed to an affluent society of business executives who regard the Stadium as a place not to watch baseball but to schmooze clients. Why let fans near the field when they're marketing the park to people who don't even care about the game or its history? Whatever the reasons, stay tuned for more discontent in the Bronx, win or lose.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Remembering the Way Things Really Were

There were a lot of feel-good moments yesterday on Jackie Robinson Day, such as seeing everyone on the field wearing JR's #42 and listening to the always gracious Rachel Robinson on the Mets telecast, showing how wonderfully she has carried on his legacy of public service. Then there was that awful moment later on "Baseball Tonight" when host Karl Ravech concluded a piece on Robinson by noting that "tragically he lost his life in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian supplies to Nicaragua." Huh?!? The ESPN talking head next to him said nothing, didn't even flinch at this egregious gaffe, and it took ten minutes for Ravech to admit his little "mistake". No problem, Karl, most people will let it slide, that slip of the tongue any ESPN announcer could have made, confusing Jackie Robinson with Roberto Clemente. It could've been worse. At least he didn't assert that Robinson led the Salt March, tended the destitute in Calcutta, or devoted himself to the lepers of Molokai.

It is vital to remember exactly what Jackie Robinson did and did not do. He did stand up for his rights and his dignity when facing discrimination during his time in the US Army, and did get exonerated when the Army tried to court martial him. He did stand up to racists in every city in the National League in order to break baseball's long-standing "color barrier," and he did inspire baseball fans (black and white) with his courage and his brilliant playing style. He did continue to fight the good fight after his baseball career ended, devoting a lot of his time and energy to civil rights causes and issues of empowerment for all Americans. He did die tragically in 1972, too young at age 53, ravaged by diabetes that robbed him of his health but could not diminish his dignity or his resolve.

Jackie Robinson did not do these things by himself. Larry Doby and many others overcame racism to eliminate the color barrier, and even then it took a dozen years before every major league team was integrated. His efforts on behalf of civil rights were one man's part of a much larger social movement which took decades to erase the prevalence of "Jim Crow" laws which had segregated American society for more than half a century. More than that, his legacy has been continued in the 37 years since his death by his widow and daughter and a large number of people who are still inspired by his selflessness and determination to make this country better for all of its citizens.

Thus it was apropos that yesterday, Jackie Robinson Day, was the day I finished reading The Plated City, a novel published in 1895, the year before the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court which sanctioned the Jim Crow segregation by endorsing the notion of "separate but equal" that prevailed until recent decades. Written by Bliss Perry, a professor, author, and essayist much esteemed in his own time though largely forgotten today, The Plated City has recently been re-published by Rvive Books (http://www.rvive.com/).

Though the novel is dated in some ways--the language is stilted in places, and the plot contrived in the fashion of Victorian fiction--it is relevant today because it is a time-capsule visit to an America whose values and assumptions endured into our own lifetimes. As Darryl Brock notes in his excellent and very helpful introduction, "you will come away feeling that you've paid a vivid visit to a bygone America. Best of all, you are in for an engrossing, satisfying read."

This is not a baseball novel, though a baseball player is pivotal to the plot. There are only two chapters about baseball: the opening chapter, which introduces the main characters in attendance at the town baseball game in a small Connecticut factory town called Bartonvale; and a later chapter set at the Polo Grounds in which Tom Beaulieu--modeled after Frank Grant, the Hall of Fame infielder widely regarded as the best black ballplayer of the 19th century--debuts as a major leaguer, masquerading as a Spaniard. Perry played ball with Grant as a youth in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and felt stung by the knowledge that Grant was a far superior player than the regional white stars who made their mark in the major leagues while Grant was denied the same opportunity after the de facto color barrier caused him to be banned from the minor leagues in which he had been playing.

Beaulieu's identity is unmasked at the Polo Grounds, and once again he is banished from the center stage of athletic competition. But the theme of racism is treated much more deeply in The Plated City than simply an athlete's fate. Central to the novel is the fact that Beaulieu's true identity is not definitively known. Nor is that of his half-sister, Esther, whose plight in Bartonvale propels the plot. Their mother may or may not have been white, Creole, or Negro, and their own skin is too light to decide the issue. Nobody seems to know for certain, yet a census-taker, a random clerk, decided at some point that Tom was a non-white, and when Esther moves to Bartonvale she becomes marked by the same uncertain misunderstanding. Another character expresses the surreal irony that was a fact of life in the 1890s: "A man having seven-eighths Indian blood and one-eighth white, is classed in the census as a white man, but let him be one-eighth negro and seven-eights white, and down he goes as a darky." On that arbitrary basis, Esther is hounded from her job at a Bartonvale factory, has difficulty finding a decent place to live, and is shunned by all but a handful of the town's citizens. That her "taint" is unjustified is not an exaggeration of the times. That was the way it was when a person's real identity was some house of cards that could topple with the slightest breeze of suspicion.

The thing that makes The Plated City engrossing is that it is packed with sympathetic characters. Despite a number of unseemly racial confrontations, there are no villains per se. There are no overt plot machinations aimed at ruining the characters for whom the reader wishes only good things. That's the point. The villain is bigotry itself--an invisible yet palpable force, an irrational social system whose very existence imperils Tom, Esther, and those who try to help them. This is how it differs from a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, in which the racism is incarnated in clearly evil characters. The Plated City is more subtle, its well-meaning characters undermined by a system that is too elusive to be wrenched toward reality.

So the many protagonists are all tainted by racism, breathing it in like the polluted air from the metallurgical factories which form the town's identity. At his most vivid, Perry describes the fire which rages through the town, destroying its economic foundation in a way that parallels the efforts by its finer citizens to strip the town of its underlying prejudice. It is emblematic of the fire of racism which burned through this nation for too many generations, until people like Jackie Robinson came along and stared it down through sheer force of will, pride, and determination. The novel is worth reading if only for its portrayal of the society that the Jackie Robinsons of this world had to overcome.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Most Bizarre Baseball Match-up Ever

That might seem like too big a claim for any game, but I dare you to find one that's more bizarre--not the game that was played, but the opponents. Baseball historians find many strange things along the route to whatever we're actually looking for, and that was the case during some research into baseball in Washington D. C. Here is the actual newspaper item from September 1, 1926.

How does that grab you? It's incredible on so many levels! For one thing, even though the 1920s were the heyday of the KKK, they were a secret society, so what were they doing playing an advertised ballgame? I guess you'd have to call them a barnstorming team -- sort of a "House of David Duke" squad. Did they wear hoods when they played? What did their uniforms look like? It's hard to imagine their ballfield presence against any team, but what on Earth compelled them to contact the Hebrew All-Stars to play a game? They were accustomed to hounding Jews in the dark of night, not partaking in the conviviality of an afternoon ballgame with them. And how about those Hebrew All-Stars accepting the invitation! Talk about being willing to oppose your enemies! Does this tell us that baseball is/was such a unifying social force that even sworn enemies will forget their hatred for a couple of hours just to play ball? Should W have invited the folks at Al Qaeda to a ballgame on the front lawn of the White House instead of driving them into hiding? The mind truly boggles.

They did play the game, and here's the box score (presumably with the actual names):

A few things stand out about the game, in which the KKK led 4-0 when rains put out their fire and ended the contest. The KKK pitcher was also Raines, and he hit two of the Hebrew All-Stars with pitches. I wonder how many other pitches were under their chin. The Hebrews pitcher, Sam Simon (who won easily in several other games I found box scores of from that summer), actually started the carnage by hitting the third KKK hitter with a pitch, but he got knocked out early. Later, he was hit by a Raines pitch. Was that payback? "Ikey" Dreyfus pitched well, but didn't hit anybody. So was there a beanball war or not? One other question: what was Flaherty doing on the Hebrews team? Was the cleanup hitter a ringer?

It's just hard to imagine those two teams side by side without open hostility, especially after the players were plunked. When I was a teenager, a group of us (all Jewish) were playing softball one Saturday when we were challenged by another group which included a couple of well-known anti-Semites from our high school. Sure enough, changing sides between innings, one of them deliberately walked into the path of one of our players, accused him of causing the collision, and punched him, breaking his nose. We wound up in court over that one, but he got away with it. Did anything like that happen in 1926? Were there repercussions after the game? We know who you are!

As a follow-up to that contest, I've put together my own Hebrew All-Stars team and an all-KKK team, and maybe someone out there can plug these rosters into a simulation game and see which team wins. Here's the team culled from Jewish major leaguers, with just a couple of players not in their primary positions:

1B: Kevin Youkilis
2B: Ian Kinsler
SS: Buddy Myer
3B: Al Rosen
LF: Hank Greenberg
CF: Shawn Green
RF: Sid Gordon
C: Steve Yeager
DH: Ron Blomberg
Bench: Ryan Braun, Art Shamsky, Richie Scheinblum, Mike Epstein, Elliott Maddox, Cal Abrams, Phil Weintraub, Harry Danning, Norm Sherry, Brad Ausmus, Gabe Kapler, Andy Cohen
Clown Prince: Al Schacht
Chief Spy: Moe Berg

SP: Sandy Koufax
SP: Ken Holtzman
SP: Barney Pelty ("The Yiddish Curver")
SP: Steve Stone
SP: Erskine Mayer
SP: Jason Marquis
RP: Scott Radinsky
RP: Scott Schoeneweis
RP: Larry Sherry

That's a pretty formidable squad. There's a lot of power, especially in the outfield, a solid bench, and very good starting pitching. Koufax would be the big difference against any opponent.

For the all-KKK team, I did not look for players who were actually members of the KKK. There are stories about a number of players, including a couple of Hall of Famers, being members, but identities of members were hard to determine (apart from this sandlot squad). Though it seems inevitable that some major leaguers were KKK members, I haven't seen the evidence, so for this team I went strictly by the circumstantial evidence of having names that fit the KKK profile. So here goes:

1B: George Burns
2B: Andy Sheets
SS: Monte Cross
3B: Ray Knight
LF: Whitey Lockman
CF: Whitey Witt
RF: Larry Sheets
C: Lave Cross
PH: Jerry Lynch
Bench: Whitey Kurowski, "The other" George Burns, Whitey Platt
Manager: Whitey Herzog

SP: Whitey Ford
SP: Ben Sheets
SP: Britt Burns
SP: Jack Lynch
SP: Ed Lynch
SP: Earl "Crossfire" Moore
RP: Don Hood
RP: Whitey Moore
RP: Brandon Knight

There you go. Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford did face each other in the first game of the 1963 World Series. Koufax retired the first 14 Yankees, including nine strikeouts and four foul pop-ups. By the time the Yankees got a baserunner, the Dodger had drilled Ford for five runs, and the Dodgers were on their way to a four-game sweep (including another Koufax victory over Ford in Game 4). More significantly for our purposes here, neither pitcher hit a batter in either game. Now that's the way to play ball!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Some Things Never Change; Others Should

As I write this, it is 36 hours until the start of the baseball season and it is snowing here in Cooperstown. You have to live here to appreciate how fitting that is. In 2002, the year I moved back to Cooperstown (having spent one year here in the early 1990s and having gone to college 50 miles to the west), it also snowed the first week of April. We have greeted the start of other baseball seasons with snow. Some things never change. I lived for many years in Las Vegas, where baseball season started in February with the UNLV team. What better way to spend a late "winter" afternoon than to stretch out on the hillside above the first-base dugout at Barnson Field and watch a ballgame? Now the major league season is about to start and I'm looking out the window at snow. It doesn't seem right. I keep telling the Hall of Fame folks to seek grant money to investigate the possibility that baseball was invented in San Luis Obispo or Rancho Cucamonga or someplace people could travel to and be comfortable in all year long. Maybe not, but it's worth a shot so I wouldn't have to wonder where I stowed my boots.

Last night I watched the telecasts of the exhibition games at the two New York ballparks. Citi Field (or "Taxpayers Field" as some have dubbed it) appears to be a vast improvement over Shea Stadium. The key word there might turn out to be "vast," as the outfield looks very spacious especially in the alleys. The announcers noted that the configuration is similar to the new park in San Francisco, a good place for triples and a tough place for home runs, especially in right-center field. In that sense, it might turn out to be a "pitchers' park" like Shea. In the bigger picture, the look and "feel" of the place seem much more inviting and engaging than Shea ever was. Shea may have hosted some exciting baseball events and a Beatles concert, but its inherent ambience would have served just as well for a checkers tournament or a cattle drive. Citi Field seems like a great place to be, whatever is happening. I hope to get there in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the new Yankee Stadium looks pretty much like the old one except for a massive scoreboard. Yankees personnel and visiting Cubs manager Lou Piniella commented on the many echoes of the old Stadium. Which raises the question: why the hell did they bother to build it? The easy answer is that when it was announced (last century) that the city was willing to finance a badly-needed new stadium for the Mets, the Yankees got a sniff that the public trough might be plentiful enough for them to pig out as well. Mayor Giuliani bought the notion that it would only be fair to buy the Yankees a shiny new venue so the Mets wouldn't upstage them, and Mayor Blomberg followed through on the record-shattering investment of roughly $2.5 billion for the twin wowers.

The tougher question to answer, in the middle of this economic meltdown is: they built it, but will we come?

The two teams have devised very different pricing schemes, but no matter how you slice it, tickets in New York are much more expensive than ever. It's easy to laugh at the price of Opening Day front-row seats at Yankee Stadium--many still unsold at $2,625 apiece. The more laughable thing is that to order one of these tickets, you also have to fork over a "convenience charge" of $59.70. I wonder how they came up with that $59.70 figure; what could that 70 cents possibly cover? One person I work with here notes that he's taking three friends to a game in Pittsburgh this season for less than the convenience charge for one New York ticket. I believe he could charter a private jet to take his quartet to the game and still spent less than he would to see the game in New York by himself.

A likely scenario this season is that the rafters will be full while the more expensive sections near the field are half-empty. My father had a great saying when television cameras panned a half-full stadium; he'd say, "look at all the people who aren't there." The word is that most of the "cheap" seats have already been sold, the limited number of bleacher and nosebleed seats whose price resembles what people in other cities pay to sit halfway closer to the field. At Yankee Stadium, the bleacher seats out in center field are going for $14, not a bad price to get into the ballpark. Sit there, and if you have a good pair of binoculars you can approximate the view you get on television from the center-field camera.

The Yankees' policy this year is to have the same price for each seat for each game, but to charge more if you buy it on the day of the game. For seats priced below $100, it will only cost an extra $5 to show up on game-day, while the more expensive seats will cost an extra $50. Bear in mind that the less expensive seats are already pretty much sold out. So the idea is that those business people who have customers they want to schmooze by making time to go out to the old ballpark will have to shell out an extra hundred bucks for the privilege.

The Mets have a much different scheme, but you'll need a post-graduate degree to figure it out. On their website, I count 38 different seating areas, ranging from the top-level "Delta Club Platinum" through designations like "Metropolitan Box Gold," "Empire Suites," "Baseline Box," "Left Field Landing Gold" and "Apple Reserved" all the way down to the bottom of the page, the "Promenade Reserved." But here's the kicker. The price for each category varies according to the day of the week and the opponent. Those "cheap" Promenade Reserved seats, for instance, cost a mere $11 for "Value" games all the way up to $27 for "Platinum" games. In between those extremes are "Gold," "Silver" and "Bronze" games. Still with me? Those $11 seats exist for only ten games all season, all weekday games against the Nationals and the Marlins. On the other hand, there are only four "Platinum" games, Opening Day and the three-game series against the Yankees in June. For the largest group of games, 30 games called "Gold," that $11 seat will run you $23. Similarly, the "Delta Club Platinum" seats cost only $295 for a Wednesday game against the Nationals, but $595 for a Wednesday game against the Dodgers or a Sunday game against the Brewers or the Diamondbacks. It's the same deal for each of the 38 categories. Take the lowest price, add one-third for the 18 "Bronze" games, two-thirds for the 19 "Silver" games, and double it for the more plentiful "Gold" games.

Yes, it will be interesting to see how large the New York crowds are for which games. Make no mistake about it, the taxpayers may have paid to build the stadiums, but it is the fans who will decide whether the seats are worth it. Oscar Hammerstein II, the vaudeville impresario, used to say that "the best seats are the ones with asses in them." Are you a big enough ass to pay those prices?

I'm not.