Thursday, July 30, 2009

Baseball's Ultimate Hustler

The most unexpected news of the weekend from Cooperstown (apart from Rickey Henderson not referring to himself in the third person even once during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech) was the multitude of suggestions that Pete Rose's "lifetime" ban from baseball might be lifted. When Hank Aaron told reporters that he believed Rose should be in the Hall of Fame, the seismic shift rippled across town to Aaron's good friend, Commissioner Selig. Before the weekend was over, other Hall of Famers had spoken to Selig on Rose's behalf, and several Important People had visited the nook where Rose stations himself on Induction weekends signing autographs. The word is that they weren't there to see his signature.

Many columnists and bloggers are speculating on the loosening of the shackles of shame Rose has been carrying around since he agreed in 1989 to the lifetime ban. People ask me all the time how I feel about Rose, and I always tell them that "nobody has stronger mixed feelings about him than I do." Let me tell you why I say that. It will take two blogs--this one will cover the positive things, and I'll write another about the negatives.

I was raised to be a Cincinnati Reds fan by a baseball-loving father who was born in Cincinnati. That was good enough for me. In March, 1963, we were watching a spring training game between the Reds and Yankees, and the Yankees' announcers started talking about this kid on the Reds who was turning heads in Florida. The supposed conversation had one Yankee telling another, "this kid gets down to first base in 3.5 seconds." The reply was "so what--Mantle gets to first in 3.2." First guy: "On a walk?" The announcers believed the kid was going to take over the second base job from Don Blasingame, a solid veteran who didn't have much pop in his bat (only 41 extra-base hits in the previous two seasons, with over 900 at-bats), even though he wouldn't turn 22 until the second week of the season, on April 14.

After I heard this, I paid even closer attention. My birthday was April 14. I was a few weeks away from turning 12. This guy would be 22. I was born on his tenth birthday. I didn't need to know much else. If he earned a job on my favorite team, he was my new favorite player.

He remained my favorite player for the next 24 seasons, and I can't imagine anyone being a bigger fan of his except for Rose himself. He was obsessed with numbers and loved reciting his stats to teammates, reporters, and anyone else who couldn't help listening. I also kept a running total of all his achievements in my head. On any given day, I could tell you all of his stats for the current season and for his career, and I was constantly extrapolating to estimate what his numbers would be by the end of his career.

I still have an edition of the Neft-Cohen encyclopedia whose section on career statistical leaders is notched with marks showing my projections midway through Rose's career. Somehow, I only had him finishing fourth on the all-time hits list, trailing Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial. Of course I had him cracking the top half-dozen in runs and doubles; currently he ranks sixth in runs and second in doubles.

It was easy to make these projections because of Rose's consistency. Every year he'd hit somewhere over .300 with 200 or so hits, more than 100 runs scored, and 40+ doubles. That was his hallmark: consistency. He gave the same all-out effort every day, and he didn't "give away" any at-bats, as some players do late in a game that isn't close. They'll get up there, take a quick hack, pop out, get the game over with, and go home. Not Rose. Every turn at bat was sacred to him.

Roger Angell wrote about how baseball "defeats time" because there is no clock and as long as you keep getting hits, the game doesn't have to end. Rose played with joy every minute he was on the field; the more hits he got, the longer he could stay out there. If his career mission was to amass statistics--perhaps even the most coveted stat of all, the all-time hits title--it easily accommodated his day-by-day mission to make the most of every chance he had to play the game. A turn at bat was a chance for him to meet the challenge of outbattling the pitcher, to feel the sweet satisfaction of a base hit, to hustle his way around the bases with as much energy and determination as anyone ever expressed on the field, to score runs that would help his team win, to prolong the sheer fun of being in the game, and to advance one step closer to all of those coveted numerical goals.

I shared every one of those missions with him. Watching or listening to a Reds road game, I'd keep a running count of how many batters reached base, knowing that the Reds needed ten in the game for Rose (the leadoff man for much of his career) to get a fifth turn at bat. It mattered to me, for the same reasons it mattered to Rose. It would be one more chance to share the satisfaction of another hit which would enable me to revise my estimates to show that his current pace would now yield 208 hits and 43 doubles instead of a mere 207 hits and 42 doubles.
As Rose's career progressed with one 200-hit season after another, it became more obvious that I had latched onto one of the game's greats. In 1978, when he began to challenge the immortal 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio, I had to be part of it. I spent that summer with my parents in Pennsylvania, and made the three-hour drive to Shea Stadium on July 25 to see Rose break Tommy Holmes' modern National League record of 37 straight games with a hit. No visiting player was more reviled at Shea than Rose, thanks to his pummeling of Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson in the 1973 playoffs, but on this day even the Shea faithful were more eager to witness history than to harass Rose. Fans entering the park got "Go Pete!" banners which we waved when he led off the game. He flied out, but in the third inning he slapped a sharp single between the shortstop and the third baseman, his 38th straight game with a hit. The crowd roared. Tommy Holmes, who worked in the Mets front office, trotted out to first base to shake Rose's hand, and the ovation lasted several minutes. Rose added a double and another single that day, the Mets won 9-2, and everyone went home happy. He stretched the streak to 44 games, tying Willie Keeler for second place behind DiMaggio, before taking the collar in Atlanta.

That 1978 season was a highlight reel in itself for Rose. On April 29, he had the best game of his career, also at Shea Stadium, a game I watched on television from Montana. After striking out to start the game, he ripped three home runs along with a pair of singles, scoring four times in a 14-7 trouncing. That was quite a display for a leadoff batter who hit only 7 home runs that season and never more than 16 in one year. (He matched Ty Cobb with that lone three-homer game.) A week later, facing the Expos, he stroked a single for hit #3,000 in his career. He finished the year with 3,164 hits, an average of 198 for his 16 seasons with the Reds.

Then he did the unthinkable: he filed for free agency and sold himself to the highest bidder, the Phillies, leaving his hometown team for greener pastures (to the tune of $3.2 million for four years). But he was 37 years old, the Big Red Machine's glory years were past, and it was time to move on. When the 1979 season began, I was on an extended vacation in Europe, hoping to stay through the summer, and could only follow baseball via the International Herald Tribune, which published just the line scores and a sentence or two about each game. Rose got off to a sluggish start but got hot in May with a rash of multi-hit games which made those brief game accounts. On May 18, I saw the line score from the previous day's game at Wrigley Field between the Phillies and the Cubs. I couldn't believe it: Phillies 23, Cubs 22. Rose had three hits, scored four runs, drove in four, and raised his average to .351. I was back in the United States a week later; I couldn't bear to miss any more of his big games.

Rose hit .331 that year at age 38, with his usual output of 208 hits, and even stole 20 bases for the only time in his career. In 1980, he dropped to a .282 average, only his second year under .300 since 1964. In the postseason he hit .326, helping lead the Phillies to the first World Series title in franchise history and providing the team's signature moment when (playing first base) he was Johnny-on-the-spot to snag a bases-loaded popup that squirted out of the mitt of catcher Bob Boone. That hustling catch was pure Rose, and it left the Phillies one out from the championship they secured when Tug McGraw fanned Willie Wilson.

Rose turned 40 in 1981 but didn't slow down, batting .325 and leading the league in hits during the strike-shortened season. That was his last productive, "Pete Rose type" of season. It left him with 3,697 hits, not quite 500 shy of the record established by Cobb more than a half-century earlier. He played every game in 1982, lopping 172 hits off of Cobb's lead and passing Aaron to move into second place. But he batted only .271, and that fell to .245 in 1983, when he teamed with former Big Red Machine stalwarts Joe Morgan and Tony Perez to form the core of the "Wheeze Kids" who brought another pennant to Philadelphia. Again he excelled in the postseason, batting .344, but the Phillies fell short in the World Series against the Orioles.

Despite the gradually diminishing hit totals (just 121 in 1983), there were plenty of glorious moments for Rose during his five-year run with the Phillies, and it was still a joy to watch him play. He never stopped hustling, whether it was that dash to first base on a walk, even faster races to try to beat out any ground ball, feverish flights around the bases in the effort to score another run, and similar all-out efforts in the field. The hits piled up (albeit mostly singles by this stage), and when the Phillies released him after the 1983 World Series, his total stood at 3,990, just 200 behind Cobb. Shortly before my father died that winter, we discussed Rose's chances of signing with another team and resuming his chase of Cobb. "Someone will want to capitalize on it," I remember telling him. "With his determination, nothing will keep him from breaking Cobb's record."

A dozen days after my father died, Rose signed with the Expos, an incongruous destination for his march on Cobb. Indeed, despite passing the 4,000-hit milestone in an Expos uniform, he stayed in Montreal only until August, when another unthinkable thing happened: he was traded back to the Reds to become their player-manager. The Reds were mired in fifth place with a 51-70 record, but Rose's return sparked the team and its fans. In the Reds' previous home game, fewer than 18,000 fans paid to see them face Nolan Ryan. More than 35,000 attended Rose's return, and he responded by singling in a run in the first inning and driving in another run later as the Reds won 6-4. He followed with a pair of three-hit games, added four more three-hit efforts in a row in September, and to the delight of his hometown fans (and me) wound up hitting .365 after rejoining the Reds.

In 1985 he couldn't maintain that pace, but as manager was certain to pencil himself in the lineup often enough to catch Cobb. He picked his spots, starting about two-thirds of the time and getting on base nearly 40% of the time. On September 11, he stroked a single to left field for hit #4,192, passing Cobb and thrilling a crowd of over 47,000 at Riverfront Stadium. He finished the season at 4,204, then hung on through a mediocre 1986, surrendering his regular job and adding 52 more hits to finish at 4,256.

He remained as the Reds manager and did very well. He took pretty much the same roster that finished fifth in 1984 and led them to four straight second-place finishes. The consensus view at the time was that his teams weren't overly talented, but he motivated them to play as hard as he had, helping them to overachieve.

That was truly the Pete Rose mold. He himself wasn't blessed with huge talent. Adept at making contact with the ball, he provided the model for later hitters like Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki, trying for singles and doubles rather than home runs. Not a particularly fast runner, he made up for it with aggression, always trying for that extra base and keeping the pressure on the defense. He wasn't a notably graceful fielder either, but made himself valuable to his teams for two decades through his willingness and ability to play whatever position would make the team stronger. The only player to start the All-Star Game at five different positions, he moved from the outfield to third base to make room for George Foster, who became the RBI leader on the Big Red Machine. In the field, he was sure-handed, with an accurate if not strong throwing arm. He led the league in fielding position four times, at three different positions, and won two Gold Gloves.

Above all, he was the role model for a generation of players, the poster child for the value of hard work and hustle on the baseball diamond. Following his lead, I became a switch-hitter as a teenager, and when playing pickup softball games I always ran as hard as I could even on routine grounders. He maximized his talents and then some, and through perseverance broke a record that had been regarded as one of the most unbreakable. Even in exile, he is cited as a prime example of how the game should be played.

When he retired, I had a feeling that he would become the first unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame. The numbers were undeniable, probably beyond what even he projected when he was in his twenties: a .303 average, 4,256 hits (including 3,215 singles and 1,041 for extra bases), 2,165 runs, 1,314 RBI, 1,566 walks, 746 doubles, 198 stolen bases, 16 All-Star games, 6 pennants, 3 World Series titles, 3 batting titles, the 1973 NL Most Valuable Player Award, and so on.

I also thought that his popularity with the writers might garner a unanimous vote. He was always willing to talk (and brag), always there with a quote, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Nobody had more energy or flair (along with popularizing the head-first slide, he invented the "break-away" catch of fly balls that was emulated by Rickey Henderson and others), and nobody was happier to be playing baseball than he was. How could anybody not vote for him?

Well, he lost his way and created a way for nobody to vote for him. That situation might or might not change. But I agree with Hank Aaron. Based on the numbers, he should be in the Hall of Fame no matter what else he did.
[Next time: the flip side]

Baseball's Ultimate Hustler--Part 2

Last time I discussed the joys of being the biggest fan of baseball's most joyful player, Pete Rose. If only it were that simple. Sadly, the same internal forces which drove Rose to achieve more on the field than his natural talent would have suggested possible, also drove him in his personal life. So it is impossible to think about Rose without considering the dark side of his life and career.

Okay, let's talk about gambling, the addiction which led Rose to violate baseball's strictest rule, Rule 21 (d), which prohibits betting on games. Many people think this rule was put in by the first commissioner, Judge Landis, in the wake of the Black Sox scandal which got him his job. Surprisingly, Landis didn't get around to banning betting until 1927, after a little scandal involving something dubious that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker did back in 1919 came to light. The rule had two parts: betting on games would merit a one-year suspension, but betting on your own team's game meant you'd be declared "permanently ineligible". A big sign with the text of the rule is posted at the entrance to every professional baseball clubhouse, and has been since Rose's playing days. You can't miss it. Rose saw it every day of his playing and managing career. It must have taken some powerful force to make him commit baseball's one unforgiveable sin, don't you think?

Pete Rose has apparently been addicted to gambling his whole life (is it a coincidence that Don Zimmer, who has also been called on the carpet for gambling--betting the horses--attended the same high school in Cincinnati as Rose?), and it was a problem while he was still with the Reds. I've heard (read) that he piled up six-figure gambling debts by the mid-70s and that it was the reason the Reds were willing to let him hit the road when he filed for free agency in 1978. A conditioning nut who would never have let alcohol or drugs hinder his on-field performance, Rose didn't recognize that his gambling was a sickness. It didn't do anything, he felt, but occupy his time, stimulate his competitive instincts, and provide an entertaining way to spend money.

But gambling is a sickness whose psychological origins are the same as those which fuel alcoholism and drug addiction. I lived a long time in Las Vegas and saw the pervasive overlaps among the three addictions. Many people were what we called "triple threats," afflicted by all three. I was even married to one of them. Of the three, gambling was the most difficult to detect and overcome, because of the absence of physical signs and the relative ease of covering up the evidence. But the cure was the same. I worked with one guy who went through it--three times. Giving up drugs came first and was the easiest for him; not only did his health improve right away, but he could save all that drug money and use it to fuel his gambling instead. Then came drinking, and that cure went smoothly, too. Gambling was the toughest for him to give up. It wasn't killing his body, it was merely sucking up his bankroll and his soul. Finally he went back to the rehab center and went through the whole program again of examining his life and his need to escape into addictive behavior. He got cured.

As far as I know, Pete Rose has never considered "taking the cure" for gambling because he still doesn't think he has a problem. He continues his lifelong obsession with playing the horses, and thinks that just because he now does it legally at race books in Las Vegas, that means it isn't a problem. It seems pretty clear in hindsight that in 1989, if he had met the charges of betting on baseball by saying, "yes, I bet on baseball. I have a sickness, an addiction that I'm going to get taken care," then going to a clinic and getting cured, his suspension might well have been lifted years ago and he might be a member of the Hall of Fame today. Might be. It is certain that he'd be a happier human being.

Instead, he took the addict's instinctive course of denial, lying, and avoidance. It cost him his job, his reputation, and his legacy. But those seemed less important to him than his freedom to continue his profligate lifestyle and hustle a living through card shows, talk shows, and the memorabilia racket. Forbidden to make a living in the only business where he had any true ability, he moved to Las Vegas, where he could bet legally and escape into his addiction. Las Vegas is like the French Foreign Legion. No matter what you've done elsewhere, you can go there, start over, and be accepted for whatever you want people to think you are.

By most accounts, Pete Rose has always been a jerk. He was always obsessed with money, declaring early in his career that he wanted to be "the first $100,000 singles hitter" (he was). He became addicted to base hits as a way to gain fame, providing the means to make more money to fuel that gambling habit. His habit of parading his stats before reporters made good copy, but often seemed like simple bragging, the overstated pride of a man who was essentially insecure (have I mentioned that insecurity and a lack of true identity is the root cause of addiction?). He didn't treat other people well, including his own family. Self-centered and self-serving, he became more and more preoccupied with the all-encompassing lure of gambling as the years continued. When you're that self-destructive, you can't do much good for anybody else.

So Rose discovered as his house of cards crashed down upon him in 1989. What I've heard is that he began welshing on bets--stiffing his bookies. A welsher is the lowest of the low in the gambling sub-culture, and someone got revenge by ratting on him to MLB. Facing the loss of his job because of betting, and facing the loss of his freedom with the threat of jail time for tax evasion (he did eventually serve time), he spent the summer engaged in legal maneuvering which resulted in his now-infamous deal with commissioner Bart Giamatti.

Did anybody think that Rose would sign the deal, accepting permanent eligibility, if he hadn't bet on baseball? Forget what Rose thought he was getting in the deal or what he thought he could do about getting the suspension rescinded (what part of "permanent" did his lawyers fail to make him understand?). Never mind that the deal stated that his agreement was not a confession that he had bet on baseball. The simple logic is that if MLB hadn't shoved the evidence in his face, he wouldn't have signed the deal. That's why, at the press conference announcing the deal, Giamatti couldn't help himself when asked whether he himself believed that Rose had bet on baseball. Of course. He had seen the evidence. He said yes. It took Rose 15 years to say yes, 15 years of lying that did nothing but cement his reputation as a selfish jerk.

It didn't take Bill Madden, who broke the story about Aaron's support for Rose's Hall of Fame candidacy over the weekend, to write another story saying that Bud Selig really has no intention of reinstating Rose. I've said all along that if Rose does get into the Hall of Fame, it won't be in his lifetime. There are a couple of other examples of men who incurred the displeasure of the people who run the major leagues, and who weren't elected to the Hall of Fame until after they died and couldn't enjoy the honor. I've felt that would be the case with Rose, if he ever did make it.

I still feel that way, and I think it's because Bart Giamatti died less than ten days after telling the world that, despite what the agreement said, Rose did bet on baseball. A combination of his own bad habits (like chain-smoking) and the stress of spending the whole summer battling Rose's lawyers contributed to his fatal heart attack. I'm convinced that his friends in baseball--most notably his two successors as commissioner, Fay Vincent and Selig--felt that, in essence, Rose killed Giamatti (or at the very least, that if Rose had admitted his guilt on Day 1 instead of fighting tooth and nail for his baseball life, Giamatti's life would have been prolonged). How can they let him get away with it? How can they let Rose be reinstated and enjoy the privileges of a good baseball citizen, when according to the nation's average life expectancy, Giamatti should still be around? How can they even create the possibility that Rose could bask in the glory of Hall of Fame election, symbolically dancing on Giamatti's grave?

They can't, and they won't. And Pete Rose has nobody to blame but himself. He headed down a dangerous path decades ago, and when he got the wake-up call 20 years ago, the bottoming-out revelation that steers so many addicts toward the cure, he ignored it. He arrogantly chose the path of denial, the defiance of the addict who still thinks he can get away with it. That's where he is today. I hope he isn't holding his breath as he searches for that loophole to slide through. Whatever Hank Aaron or anyone else might think about Rose's chances of getting in the Hall of Fame, I for one am betting against it in his lifetime and mine.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

From the Small World Department

Two blogs I wrote earlier this month were quite different: a tribute to the late Gene Carney and tales about needle-in-a-haystack baseball connections. Today I'm here to synthesize those two themes as they merged in a truly remarkable connection made this week.

On Monday (July 20), I got an e-mail from the daughter-in-law of Paddy Livingston's grandson. Livingston was a catcher from a hundred years ago, batting .209 in 205 major league games. She discovered recently that Gene Carney wrote a play about Addie Joss in which a character was based on Paddy Livingston. Not long after that discovery, she learned that Gene passed away on July 5. Someone suggested that she get in touch with me, which she did. She wondered if I could help her locate a script of Gene's play, titled Mornings After.

Why did she want a script? Next week is the 80th birthday of Paddy Livingston's grandson, and she hoped to give him a copy of the play as a present. That sounded like a good idea. The problem was that the Hall of Fame library collection does not include the script of his play, which was unpublished though it was performed once (at a SABR convention). The library does, however, contain a nearly complete collection of Gene's Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. He began it as a newsletter in 1993, mailing it weekly to a small group of fans that gradually grew into an avid following. When the internet arrived, he found a home for his column at http://www.baseball1.com/, but the earlier issues are tough to find unless you were on his limited mailing list (as the Hall of Fame library was).

I checked the archive of Gene's columns on that website and found that he published Mornings After in nine issues of the "Notes" in late 1994. Why nine issues? Because the play was written in nine acts. He wrote it a year earlier, but in the winter of 1994, in the wake of that summer's disastrous strike, there wasn't much baseball news to comment on, so he published his play. I dug around, found the issues, photocopied the nine acts, sent a copy to the Livingston family, and kept a copy for myself. It seemed fitting that even after his death, Gene, who was a one-man baseball network constantly engaged in getting information and bits of baseball history to people who were happy to receive it, was able to connect with the family of a man he wrote about.

Today, while manning the Media Room during Induction weekend, I had time to read the play, which is about 50 pages. I can tell you that it's very good, and even though Addie Joss is a recurring theme, it is actually about the character based on Paddy Livingston. Gene called the character Paddy Sullivan, and most of the story reflected the facts of Livingston's career. When Joss, the ace of the Cleveland pitching staff, died of meningitis in 1911 two days after his 31st birthday, a benefit game was planned to raise money for his widow and children. That game, essentially an all-star game featuring the likes of Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, was played on July 24 (98 years ago yesterday). Paddy Livingston, though hardly an all-star, also played in the game, partly because he was a Cleveland native.

Gene used that connection to imagine that Paddy Sullivan was Addie Joss' biggest fan. The idolization is in every scene, from Paddy's admiration of Joss' noble character to his wish to be Joss' personal catcher to his obsession over box scores and headlines which formed the proof of Joss' pitching greatness. That is the play's central theme; Paddy, as a second-string catcher who doesn't get to play that much, is even more of a fan than a participant, and he finds joy daily in the spectacle of the game and the achievements of its stars. Joss embodies those joys.

Unlike Joss, Livingston got to live a long life, dying in 1977 at age 97. The play's last inning has Paddy Sullivan on his deathbed, talking baseball with his great-grandsons. That's another theme of the play, his desire to have a career worth sharing. He tells a teammate, "I got married 'cause I wanted grandkids." I got goosebumps reading that line today. There are numerous lines about how Paddy will be able to show this or that box score to his grandkids, and every one of them made me think about the real Paddy Livingston's grandson, who knew the grand old man and will now be able to read a whole play about a delightful baseball character created by another huge baseball fan, Gene Carney.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Intentional Invitation To Disaster

The other day, when Cubs manager Lou Piniella elected to walk Albert Pujols intentionally in the top of the 1st inning, it made me wonder why Piniella's grasp of arithmetic is so much less profound than his fear of one hitter. I have wondered the same thing often about managers who lean on the intentional walk the way some people lean on canes--more for effect than usefulness.

The pitcher has such a huge natural edge over the hitter that it is almost never wise to walk a hitter intentionally. I mean any pitcher facing any hitter. Albert Pujols is a lifetime .333 hitter. As great as that is, it means that if a pitcher throws strikes to him, two-thirds of the time he'll get an out. Think about the increasing importance baseball pundits give to on-base percentage. It's the fundamental statistic in baseball these days: either you get the batter out, or he gets on base. Walking a batter intentionally is surrendering this fundamental battle without firing a shot.

In 2004, Barry Bonds received a ridiculous 120 intentional walks, more than most good hitters got in their whole career. His on-base% that year was a record .609. Only 14 times since 1900 has a hitter surpassed a .500 on-base%; that is, only 14 times has the batter actually been the favorite to get on base if the pitcher tries to get him out. That's a little hazy, however. In 2004, Bonds also walked 112 times "unintentionally," but we know that many of those involved the pitcher throwing four pitches deliberately out of the strike zone. He also got hit by pitches nine times. If the pitcher threw strikes and got him to swing at the ball, his batting average was a mere .362. That's terrific, but roughly seven times out of every 11 at-bats, he made an out.

Of those 14 .500+ on-base% seasons, Bonds had four, Babe Ruth five, and Ted Williams two. All of them drew a ton of walks, and though intentional walks haven't always been tracked closely, we know that plenty of pitchers simply didn't give Ruth and Williams any pitches worth swinging at. So the question is: is the intentional walk a good strategy, or is it giving the offense something for nothing?

I've had strong feelings on this for a long time, and have steadfastly avoided issuing intentional walks in the various table-top games I've played over the years. I played in leagues with friends in Las Vegas for many years, and as the league statistician I spent some time going through every intentional walk to see whether it helped or hurt the defense. Without a doubt, intentional walks were a recipe for disaster. There seemed to be only one time when it was advisable: walking the #8 hitter with two outs when you were pretty darn sure that the pitcher would take his turn at the plate. The most dangerous times to walk people intentionally were with less than outs and in the middle of the batting order. In other words, just where Piniella walked Pujols, with one out and a runner on third, setting up that potential double play managers crave so much.

I've had this statistic evidence from my own experience plus a lot of intuitive ideas about why intentional walks don't work, but this morning I took some time to see what the serious number-crunchers say. In 2005, Bill Felber's excellent book The Book on the Book was published. In it, Felber takes on lots of baseball conventional wisdom and strategies, and examines whether the numbers justify what the people who run baseball teams think of as "The Book," the accepted wisdom from which you dare not stray lest the press second-guess you. "The Book" tells us, for instance, that you don't let Albert Pujols beat you, even in the 1st inning.

Felber has a section on intentional walks, and lo and behold, he echoes my views. In fact, he goes even further than I do. Citing earlier research by numerous statisticians and analysts who have been looking at the data since the 1960s, he says that there are only a handful of specific situations in which an intentional walk might increase the defensive team's chances of winning, and they all occur no earlier than the bottom of the 8th inning. Even walking the #8 hitter with two outs and a runner on second to get to the pitcher in an earlier inning doesn't make it more likely that you'll win the game. Yes, it slightly decreases the number of runs the offense will score in that inning. But it brings an even larger increase in the number of runs the offense will score (on average) in the following inning, because the leadoff hitter will lead off instead of the pitcher.

Just as my makeshift research of dice-game results showed, Felber concludes that the worst time to walk a batter intentionally is with less than two outs, even if it's Albert Pujols and you're setting up that (elusive) double play. Again, you might decrease the chance that the offense will score one run, but you're increasing the chance for what we call a "crooked number," a multi-run inning which will cost you much more than that single run would. It is simply skating on thin ice to put another runner on base with less than two outs and the middle of the batting order coming up. Those guys can hit, too, and when they do, they'll drive in more runs. So what if Lou Piniella is scared to death of a guy with a .430 on-base%. The next hitter has a .380 on-base%. All this means is that Pujols will get on base one extra time out of 20 (and intentional walks will account for part of that difference). Pitch to him! Two times out of three, he'll make an out.

No matter how you slice it, the intentional walk is counterproductive. (If you want the exact stats, e-mail me or get yourself a copy of Felber's book.) And sometimes it hurts more than other times.

I wonder how Greg Maddux felt back in 2001 when he set the National League record for consecutive innings without issuing a walk--72 1/3--only to have the streak end when manager Bobby Cox ordered him to issue and intentional walk. It was the 3rd inning, he was already losing 4-0, and there was a runner on second with one out. For some reason, in what was hardly a crucial spot in the game, Cox had Maddux throw four wide ones to the immortal Danny Bautista, a .272 lifetime hitter who drew exactly one intentional walk in 2001. It set up a double play, but when Maddux got the next batter to hit a ground ball, the only out was at first base. That left runners on second and third, and Cox ordered another intentional walk! This was one I might even have gone for, since it brought up pitcher Albie Lopez, who was 0-for-19 for his career when he went up to face Maddux. He grounded out; Maddux lost anyway, 9-1. Without the forced passes, he would have tied Bill Fischer's major-league record of 84 consecutive walkless innings. Sorry, Greg.

I recently experienced Exhibit A in the argument against intentional walks. I've been playing in another table-top league, this one based on Statis-Pro Baseball as reinvented and improved by Ty Waterman. Ty is the commissioner of the Great American Fantasy League (GAFL), and I'm managing the all-time Mets team. Last week my Mets played at St. Louis, and trailed 3-1 in the top of the 6th inning. I got runners to second and third base with nobody out, Jose Reyes up, and Mike Piazza (batting 3rd in the order) on-deck. The Cardinals manager decided to walk Reyes intentionally. I didn't say anything, not wanting to give him any reason to change his mind, and licked my chops at the thought of having the bases loaded with nobody out and the middle of my order coming up. He was hoping to get a double-play grounder from Piazza that would make the score 3-2 but kill my chances for doing much beyond tying the score.

Indeed, Piazza did hit a grounder, but Scott Rolen kicked it, and everybody was safe. Now the intentional walk changed from a calculated gamble to an invitation to disaster. David Wright singled in a run to tie it 3-3. Darryl Strawberry singled in a run to give the Mets the lead. After a pop-up for the first out, Lee Mazzilli walked, forcing in a run. By now we were up to the third Cardinals pitcher of the inning. It didn't matter. He walked Mookie Wilson (unintentionally) to force in the run that made it 6-3 Mets. And the carnage was just beginning. I sent up Kevin McReynolds to pinch-hit for Lenny Dykstra, who had pinch-run for Cleon Jones, whose pinch-hit single had led off the inning. McReynolds doubled in two runs, and it was 8-3.

That brought up Howard Johnson with runners again on second and third. Did the Cardinals manager learn from his not-so-long-ago intentional-walk disaster? Nope. Still with only one out, his craving for the double play somehow increased, and he walked Johnson intentionally to bring up Jose Reyes. Can you guess what happened next? Al Hrabosky hit Reyes with a pitch. 9-3. Piazza singled in a run, ending a futile five-hitter debacle for the "Maddened Hungarian". Jesse Haines came in and got Wright to pop up, but thanks to the two intentional walks (which according to every baseball percentage would have resulted in at least one out by the batters), the inning wasn't over. Nor was the carnage. Strawberry singled in two runs, another scored on an Edgardo Alfonzo single, and Mazzilli capped the outburst with a three-run homer.

The final tally: a 15-run explosion fueled by two intentional walks. Of course, this isn't going to happen to your favorite pitcher the next time his manager makes him walk someone intentionally. But it doesn't take a ridiculous number of runs to beat you. It might only take two or three, and the intentional walk only increases the chance of a crooked number. So unless it's one of the extreme situations cited by Felber and the analysts he cites (for instance, a tie score and a runner on second with one out in the bottom of the ninth), intentional walks will do nothing but produce more runs. The way they're overused by today's managers--and it's useless to point to what happened in this or that instance, because we're talking about the long haul, the overall real percentages--they are an open invitation to disaster.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Pair of Photo Opportunities

Working at the Hall of Fame library, we never know what the next phone call or the next person to come through the door will bring. It can range from the mundane ("Who has more Hall of Famers, the Yankees or the Dodgers?" A: Yankees) to the exotic ("What did Babe Ruth eat for breakfast?" My answer: relief pitchers). It could be an ex-player, a descendant of a Hall of Famer, or someone who doesn't even care much about baseball but wonders if we have any information on Grandpa Gus who played pro ball back in the 1920s.

Sometimes the connection we make is special, and I'm going to write about two of them here. One happened last Friday afternoon, when I got a phone call from Gary Brown, who lives on the New Jersey shore. He calls me a couple of times a month, and we talk about baseball, movies, theater, and a lot more. There's always a little piece of research he needs to help him complete his book on the 1954 New York Giants which will be published later this year. The research tidbit is just the excuse we have to share history and laughter for 15-20 minutes until one of our jobs beckons. He visited the library once a couple of years ago to do research, but otherwise our friendship has flourished just through these phone calls.

After we talked awhile on Friday, he said, "Hey, I have a needle-in-a-haystack thing for you, if you're interested and have the time." Sure, bring it on! "I have a friend, a guy I've interviewed for my book, who was a batboy at the Polo Grounds from late in 1953 through the middle of 1955," he explained. "The other day he asked me if maybe my guy at the Hall of Fame could find a photo of him." Quickly I thought about the likelihood of finding a photo of a Polo Grounds batboy. We have photo files on the stadium, another general file of Giants players, and other possibilities. Then he threw me a curve: "The catch is that he was the visiting team's batboy." Yikes! I thought. No looking through Giants files, now I have seven visiting teams to scour. That would be a pretty damn large haystack.

Good news came next. "I went through Retrosheet [www.retrosheet.org, which has batter-by-batter results of games back to 1954] and listed every home run hit by a visiting player when my friend was the batboy," Gary told me. "Maybe there's a photo of him shaking someone's hand when he crossed the plate. There were 164 home runs hit by 75 players." That didn't sound promising. "I've got the four who hit the most. If you could just check their files, maybe you'll get lucky and find something." That sounded reasonable. The four likeliest suspects were Roy Campanella, Stan Musial, Ted Kluszewski, and Rip Repulski. Two Hall of Famers and one other big slugger, and the haystack was now smaller and more manageable. I told Gary I'd have a look when I got a chance.

Curiosity got the better of me, and it wasn't long before I headed downstairs to our photo vault, where over 500,000 photos are stored in thousands of files. For Campanella, Musial, and Kluszewski, there are numerous files: batting, portraits, street clothes, groups, etc. I gathered up the files labeled "Action" (these show events on the field like running and crossing the plate, as opposed to the "Batting" file which would only show them wielding their bats) and went to work. There were two photos in the Campenalla file showing him crossing the plate and shaking the batboy's hand, but both were from Ebbets Field. Likewise with Musial: one such photo, also from Ebbets Field.

Next up was Ted Kluszewski, and there it was: Big Klu crossing the plate in a game played on June 1, 1955, and shaking the batboy's hand. A few minutes later I was on the phone to Gary. "What's your friend's name?" I asked. He told me. "Oh," I deadpanned. "Number 32." "I wouldn't know that," said Gary. I grinned. "Well, I do. I'm looking at him right now. A tall, skinny geek." "That's him!" Gary exclaimed. "You've got to be kidding me! You found it!"

Yes I did. The batboy, with his back to the camera, stood at home plate, a bat in his left hand and his right hand shaking that of Kluszewski as he stepped on the plate. I knew the date from the caption and other markings on the back of the photo. It was taken by a photographer from the New York Herald Tribune, whose photo morgues were given to the Hall of Fame decades ago when the newspaper folded. The funny thing about the caption was that it mentioned two other batters in the photo along with "the batboy shaking Klu's hand." Someone had circled "batboy" and added an arrow pointing to the batboy's name. Most likely it was someone at the Herald Tribune who happend to know his name. That's how I was able to spin Gary's head around. He was thrilled, of course, and couldn't wait to tell his friend that his photo is in the Hall of Fame and a copy of it is on the way to him.

It's a beautiful feeling to help someone make a baseball from more than a half-century ago, and I was reminded of the day five years ago when I was the one who got a thrill from a photograph. I was manning the desk in the public area of the library when a man walked in and asked whether we had photos from the 1955 World Series. Sure. He asked if he could see the file. Sure. While someone went to fetch the file, the man said, "Have you ever seen the famous photo of Sandy Amoros making his catch?" Sure, I told him. Amoros made a terrific running catch in Game 7, turning a potential game-tying double by Yogi Berra into a game-saving double play.

"I think I'm in that photo," the man told me. Oh really?

A few minutes later he located the photo in our file. It was taken with a zoom lens from above home plate, showing the left field corner as Amoros speared the ball just a few feet from the fence and the foul pole. He peered at the image. "Yep, there I am." He pointed at a face, just the face visible, of a boy in the second row, a few feet in fair territory, swallowed up in the crowd.

"I was eight years old," he explained. "My father took me to the game. That's him there, standing." He pointed at the cheering man around whose body his little face peered. "I can still see that fly ball. As soon as it came off the bat I knew it was headed right to me. I followed it all the way, knowing it was coming right into my lap, looking up at it--and at the last second there was a blur from the left. That was Amoros. He caught the ball, and the crowd went nuts. Absolutely nuts." He paused, gazing at the photo of his father and the other men in the corner jumping exultantly to their feet after Amoros' miracle catch. He smiled. "My father patted me on the shoulder and said, 'son, you've just seen history made.'"

Indeed. And there he was, fifty years later, sharing that moment, that connection, with me. That's why we go to games, to witness historic events, and that's what keeps me coming back here every day, the thrill and deep satisfaction of making those connections with the fans and participants who were present when history was made.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

This One Hurt

There have been a lot of celebrity deaths in the last couple of weeks, but I didn't become overcome by grief until Monday when I heard about the passing of my friend and fellow baseball nut Gene Carney. I last saw him a couple of weeks ago, just before he and his wife joined another couple for a trip to Alaska. He was excited about exploring a place he had never seen before, and the vacation was going splendidly until the morning he did not wake up. As our mutual friend Bill Deane put it, dying in your sleep "is the way to go but, gosh, not at 63 and so full of positive energy."

If you like baseball, do yourself a favor. Follow this link (http://www.baseball1.com/notes/?page_id=2) to explore Gene Carney's "Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown". Originally hand-printed and mailed to subscribers, his column has been on the baseball1.com website for the past dozen years. The site's description will give you an idea of what you'll find there: "'Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown' is an eclectic and ecumenical publication of anything and everything baseball. 'Notes' is typically a mix of current events and history, facts and fiction, prose and poetry, along with humor of all sorts, reviews of books, films, baseball on TV and radio, and ranges from the Little League field, thru the minors, to the majors. 'Notes' has been written and edited by Two Finger Carney since 1993."

The nickname is pure Gene, a whimsical comment on his typing style. Spend some time looking through his columns, several hundred of which are archived at the site. You'll learn about baseball, and you'll come to know the man as well: thoughtful, enthusiastic, probing, principled, lighthearted, inventive, and curious about everything.

Gene brought all of those qualities to the baseball work for which he will be long remembered: his 2006 book Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded. The book deservedly won the 2007 Larry Ritter Award given by SABR's Deadball Era Committee to the year's best book on the Deadball Era. Writing about a subject that has both enchanted and puzzled baseball historians for decades, he synthesized their work and went well beyond anything that had been written before. How? By questioning everything and pursuing every possible angle with tireless tenacity.

As he followed the various trails leading toward the truth of what really happened so long ago, he shared his findings in his columns. Week by week, he would tell us how his sleuthing was paying off in ways large and small. He would find a source that had been referred to by one of the many previous explorers of this murkiest episode in baseball history, and he would share that discovery. Or he would take a much closer look at a well-worn source and see something in its implications that nobody had thought of before. He picked up scents and followed them doggedly, and whatever he found would bring some enlightening mingled with the necessity of exploring further, pushing on to whatever nuggets of truth might lie ahead.

It was fascinating to share that trail vicariously with Gene through his columns, and exciting to work alongside him occasionally. You never know where connections are going to be made in the pursuit of history. Around 1985, a friend of a friend was clearing out some storage space and gave me something simply because I was the biggest baseball fan he knew of. It was a binder containing more than 200 pages of handouts from a history course he had taken at the University of Massachusetts--a course on the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Nearly two decades later, I gave the binder to Gene, who was floored by the wealth of newspaper clippings and other material originating from the time of the scandal. It provided numerous leads which he gleefully pursued. He even contacted the professor, though I don't think he learned anything new from him.

The point of Gene's book--suggested by the subtitle--is that the important thing is not necessarily what happened in the 1919 World Series. The web which ensnared the players was so tangled that it was and still is impossible to know who did what. Only the players really knew, despite what they said in public, and we cannot know. But Gene charted a vast new territory in focusing on the efforts to suppress the truth of what happened. The two men who had the most authority to uncover the truth--White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson--learned plenty about what had happened, but their self-interest caused them to cover things up. Despite the efforts of some journalists, notably Hugh Fullerton and the staff of a little-known-today magazine called Collyer's Eye (which Gene single-handedly put back on the historical map) to expose the fix, it took until nearly a year later for the scandal to break loose from the cover-up engineered by the powers-that-were.

Gene meticulously waded through the misdirection and the deceit to piece together a convincing account of how the cover-up reflected the desire to keep baseball's image unsullied. If the truth hurts, suppress it. Baseball's rulers had looked the other way for many years at the rampant gambling in the game by players and fans, and had swept under the carpet many accusations about players throwing games. Finally the scandal broke, and as ugly as it was, the game survived. Gene was particularly struck by the parallel between this long-ago scandal and our current steroids scandal. Once again, the people running the sport/business were undoubtedly aware of what the players were doing and did nothing to stop them--until they were dragged, kicking and screaming and denying, into facing reality and admitting there was a problem all along.

Burying the Black Sox will likely remain the benchmark book about the Black Sox for many years. However, Gene was not content to sit back and rest on his laurels. Writing about that scandal--like many events a century or more old--is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a box to give us the whole picture. Gene knew that there were many more pieces of the puzzle to be found, and he dedicated the last few years to tracking as many of those down as possible. He used grants from SABR to travel around the midwest, looking at documents which might shed more light on what happened. Just recently, he was one of the first to dive into recently released documents at the Chicago History Museum. As always, he shared his discoveries with the readers of his column. As always, gaining new ground only spurred him on to further exploration. It is hard to imagine continuing on the trail without his guidance.

I met Gene in 2002, when I moved back to Cooperstown. We had corresponded for a few years after I discovered his column, where he had reviewed my first two books. He lived in Utica, about 45 minutes from Cooperstown (in "the shadows" as he put it), and traveled here more often as his research intensified. He was the leader, "the heart and soul" (as Bill Deane has said)of SABR's Cooperstown-Utica chapter, lining up speakers, organizing events, and presiding at the regional group meetings held three or four times a year. I had lunch with him often and got to know him pretty well, and in the last few months spent more time than ever talking with him because he was part of a group doing an extensive research project here in the Hall of Fame library.

Gene was the type of person you hear about at times like this, someone nobody has anything bad to say about. He was a gentleman--and a gentle man. That doesn't mean soft or weak, just gentle. His instincts were kind and generous. In his detective work, he would often run into dead ends and places where the people who were there at the time should have acted differently, or be frustrated by another writer's failure to ask the right questions or pursue a trail that was clear then but which became obscured before the rest of us could venture upon it. Many of us have been known to refer to such people (famous or not) as assholes and idiots. I do it. Not Gene. He'd shrug his shoulders and say, "it's too bad _____ didn't ask _____ about it when he had the chance." He was reluctant to criticize or to judge, knowing that there must have been prevailing factors influencing them which we simply cannot know about. He used a lot of deductive reasoning in his book, made inferences about what might have been the case based on what people did or said after the fact, but even in the case of Shoeless Joe Jackson, he would not say authoritatively whether the man engaged in the fix or not. He wouldn't say because he knew the answer lay only in Jackson's heart. Jackson played pretty well. He tried to tell his bosses what was up. He knew what was going on. He tried to give the money back. He got bad advice from people he trusted (such as Comiskey's lawyer). He confessed. Gene stacked up the evidence, for and against, but left judgments up to his readers.

I've gone on at some length because I'm trying to convey what is best about people like Gene whom I have met through SABR and the realm of baseball historians. In his youth, he studied to be a priest, then wound up devoting his working life instead to social work and helping people in need. Eventually, he turned his lifelong passion for baseball into a hobby (his newsletter/column). Eventually that became a career of sorts, and after he retired two years ago he turned to baseball history full-time. I've heard from a number of people this week who never met him but were touched by his generosity in sharing his knowledge and helping other people with their research. I remember that last year there were similar outpourings after the too-early death of Dick Thompson, another relentless researcher who always found time to encourage others to get everything they could from examining this game they love. I met Dick Thompson once, and after his death I thought "it's my loss that I didn't know him better." So I feel very fortunate that I knew Gene Carney pretty well. We'll all miss his perspectives on baseball past and present, but I'll miss his friendship and his good company even more.