Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Calling In Stuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

MLB Takes A Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shocking.

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