Thursday, December 16, 2010

Checking A Swing--And Checking It Twice

Baseball fans and historians received an early Christmas present last night from the MLB Network with its special telecast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Only a few months after a long-forgotten kinescope was found in the vault of Bing Crosby, part-owner of the Pirates in 1960, MLB Network staged a long-to-be-remembered event in Pittsburgh as participants in the Series watched complete-game footage of one of the most thrilling Series games ever. As the 9th inning began, Bobby Richardson--the lone member of the losing Yankees in attendance--said to Dick Groat, "this is exciting." Indeed it was.

A few things made a strong impression on me. One was the sparse commentary of the two announcers, Bob Prince and Mel Allen. We're so inundated today with the repetitious over-explanation by analysts of everything under the sun that it was refreshing to hear a solitary announcer simply describing the action. On the other hand, even though today's telecasts also overuse replays (do we really need six camera angles on every play?), it would've been helpful to have just a few judiciously added replays 50 years ago. Mel Allen, for instance, could only tell us that Tony Kubek had been hit "in the face" by Bill Virdon's bad-hop bouncer in the 8th inning. One brief slow-motion view would've showed that Kubek was hit in the Adam's Apple, making it clear why he had to leave the game. Two other plays would have been clearer with one or two extra views: Bob Prince was sure that Yogi Berra's 6th-inning blast was foul, but it was ruled a home run, and I would've liked a different angle showing how far inside the pole it was; in the top of the 9th there was the bizarre play on which the tying run scored while Mickey Mantle eluded Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson on a bang-bang play at first. SABR members have debated this play for a long time, trying to figure out whether Nelson was at fault, Mantle was brilliant, or the whole thing was just dumb luck. On last night's telecast, Richardson quoted Mantle as telling him that he "froze" on the play (making it dumb luck), but it appeared that Nelson took a step toward second base, giving Mantle just enough room to dive away from his tag. A view looking along the baseline between first and second would help us see exactly how the two players moved.

In the discussion after the telecast, Dick Groat noted how horrible the infield looked. I noticed it early in the game, too. Every footstep on the infield dirt seemed to leave a large imprint, and there were rough spots all over the place. It seemed to me that the infield was not "dragged" after the 5th inning, as is customary today. If so, that would account for the wicked hop that turned an easy double-play ball into the end of Kubek's season, setting the stage for the five-run rally that gave the Pirates the lead heading to the 9th inning.

Another thing I couldn't help noticing was that Roberto Clemente looked horrible. I know how great his career was, and it was touching to hear his widow Vera telling the crowd at the Pittsburgh theater how he loved Pittsburgh and how strong his presence remains. However, he looked sloppy while fumbling two base hits, and I'm at a loss to explain his batting style. From the first pitch he saw, he stepped in the bucket more than any player I've ever seen. In that first at-bat, I thought perhaps he was stepping away from the plate because he expected to be knocked down after the previous batter, Nelson, homered. But he continued with that surprising style the rest of the game. He started with a closed stance, his left foot close to the plate, and as the pitch was released he stepped way to his left, putting his foot down nearly on the batter's box line closest to the third-base dugout. Could Al Simmons, the earlier Hall of Famer dubbed "Bucketfoot," have stepped any further from the plate? I don't see how. Clemente hit the ball weakly every time up, and I wondered whether he was making an extreme adjustment because the Yankees were pitching him inside. Nope. In the 8th inning, he finally got a hit--on an outside pitch. He stepped way in the bucket, extended his long arms as far as he could, flailed at the pitch, caught it weakly on the end of his bat, and hit a chopper which went for a hit only because the pitcher failed to cover first base. I saw Clemente play a lot of games in the second half of his career, and I don't remember him stepping in the bucket like he did in 1960. Help me out, Pirates fans--did you see what I saw, and did he keep doing that for the rest of his career?

But that's not why I'm here today. I want to talk about check-swings. That's what I was looking for in the telecast, and that's what I found. Watching video of Game 7 of the 1965 World Series several years ago, I noticed back-to-back pitches by Sandy Koufax on which Don Mincher took mighty swings that stopped with the bat pointed (more or less) at the foul pole--in other words, about 80% of a full swing. Both pitches were called balls, and the announcer remarked matter-of-factly that Mincher had held up his swing. This was long before the home-plate umpire was willing to yield to a base umpire on this call, and it was accepted as a check-swing. Today, we see strikes called on swings that are maybe 20% of a full swing. So yes, I'm saying that Mincher went four times further past the "plane" that determines the call today than today's players go when their check-swings are called strikes. I wondered whether I'd find more evidence of what I see as just about the only rule of the 1960s that went against pitchers.

Boy, did I! Did you? Can you picture them before you read further? The two I saw happened to come on two key at-bats, and they made a material difference in the outcome of the game. Without them, the Pirates would still have been playing catch-up after Bill Mazeroski's home run.

The first one occurred in the top of the 6th inning. The Yankees trailed, 4-1, and Richardson led off with a single, bringing up Kubek. With two strikes, Kubek made a whip-like swing on a borderline pitch, swinging about as far as Mincher did, so that when the bat's motion stopped it was pointing somewhere between right fielder Clemente and the right-field foul line. "He checked it," said Mel Allen as home plate umpire Bill Jackowski called it a ball. We could hear some Pirates fans yelping, but that was the extent of the protest. Kubek eventually walked, putting two runners on base for the heart of the Yankees order. Mickey Mantle singled in a run, and Berra's three-run home run put the Yankees ahead 5-4. If Kubek had struck out--as he would have today on the check-swing--the score would have been 4-4 at most.

But that was nothing compared to what happened in the bottom of the 8th. Trailing 7-4, the Pirates rallied thanks to the bad hop which nailed Kubek in the throat. (Was that karma for his getting away with the swing in the 6th?) With two outs, Clemente's cheap hit got the Pirates close at 7-6, leaving two runners on for catcher Hal Smith. Did you see what happened next?

On a 1-1 pitch, Smith took a hellacious swing, trying to hit the ball a mile. He missed by a mile for strike two. On the next pitch, he started to do the same thing, breaking his wrists but snapping the bat back about the time it was pointed at the left-field foul pole. Another 80% swing. Ball two, according to Jackowski. Catcher John Blanchard said something to him and Casey Stengel paced the Yankees bench, but there was no argument. That's the way the check-swing rule (which has always been the vaguest rule in the book and still is, which is why today's umpires display no consistency in applying it) was interpreted then. If you didn't follow through completely on a swing, it was a check-swing and a ball.

On the 2-2 pitch, Smith took another hellacious swing, and this time he connected for a three-run home run. He should've been out on strikes, but no. Instead he came close to being one of the all-time World Series heroes. Only a two-run rally in the top of the 9th by the Yankees stole Smith's glory, leaving the game tied, 9-9, and setting the stage for Mazeroski to become the enduring hero.

If the swings by Kubek and Smith occurred today, they both would've been rung up by the home plate umpire, with not a murmur of protest. The Yankees would've led 6-4 instead of 7-4 going to the bottom of the 8th, and Smith's strikeout would've left the teams tied 6-6. The Yankees would've gone ahead 8-6 in the 9th, and Mazeroski's blast would've made it 8-7, with the Pirates still batting. Of course, as everyone agreed at the Pittsburgh event where the kinescope was played, the Pirates' destiny was to keep coming back in 1960, and they would've won anyway. Somehow. But not the way we know it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fraudulent History 101

So Marvin Miller got screwed again this week in the Hall of Fame balloting. Who didn't see that coming? Miller certainly saw it coming, undoubtedly the reason why he requested that his name be kept off future Veterans Committee ballots after being snubbed in 2008. That time around, the committee was heavily stacked against him, loaded with executives who had been bested by Miller in labor negotiations and exacted their revenge by shutting him out. This time, the new composition of the committee gave Miller a chance, but he still fell a tantalizing one vote short.

Miller issued a blistering statement that put a lot of things into focus. Here is part of what he said: "Many years ago those who control the Hall decided to rewrite history instead of recording it. The aim was to eradicate the history of the tremendous impact of the players' union on the progress and development of the game as a competitive sport, as entertainment, and as an industry. The union was the moving force in bringing Major League Baseball from the 19th century to the 21st century. . . .That is a difficult record to eradicate--and the Hall has failed to do it. A long time ago, it became apparent that the Hall sought to bury me long before my time, as a metaphor for burying the union and eradicating its real influence. Its failure is exemplified by the fact that I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity, and appreciation from countless fans, players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudent attempt to rewrite history."

There was more, but that's the gist of it. I'd like to bypass the personal issues here and focus on the history itself, starting with Miller's assertion about taking baseball from the 19th century to the 21st. I think he's understating it; I'd say he took baseball forward from the 17th century. That's when thousands of people moved to the United States as indentured servants, just a step or two above slavery. There was a time limit to the servitude of indentured servants, but the people who had contracted them could transfer their work obligation to someone else. It wasn't outright ownership like slavery, but the servant had no say in whom he would be working for from one day to the next.

That's what the reserve clause in baseball did. Created in 1879, by the mid-1880s the reserve clause was a tool the owners used to make money by selling players' services to other teams. The player had no choice but to report to his new team--or be blacklisted entirely from the professional sport. More than 80 years later, when Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, he was blasted by owners (and sympathetic writers) for daring to defy an owner who was paying him $90,000 a year. Flood replied that "a well-paid slave is a slave nonetheless." Actually, he was an exception--by being well-paid. Most of his teammates and fellow major leaguers were poorly paid slaves.

When Marvin Miller was hired to run the players' union in 1966, the minimum salary was $6,000, roughly what it had been for decades. Miller was vilified by owners and the press as a Communist or, worse, the pawn of "The Mob". They raised the specter of Jimmy Hoffa coming into clubhouses to dictate policy and strategy. The players hired Miller primarily because they had doubts about management's ability to administer the players' pension plan. But he realized right away that the players had been brainwashed for decades to believe that the owners were benevolent sportsmen who must love baseball because they weren't making any money from it. It took another 40 years for owners to admit that they've been making a fortune all along and to stop stonewalling the players' union during negotiations by poor-mouthing themselves.

I had the good fortune to interview Marvin Miller in 1992. He and his wife graciously hosted me at their Manhattan apartment, where Miller and I talked for two hours. I got a first-hand lesson in why owners thought he brainwashed the players. A union rabble-rou ser is generally portrayed as some combination of agitated, strident, angry, bullying, fast-talking, and overbearing. Miller was none of these things. He was calm, soft-spoken, and patient. As the players' representative, he was outraged at the conditions he discovered, indignant about how badly the players were treated, and confident in taking the moral high ground on their behalf. Those were the qualities that enabled him to outlast the owners every time. He knew he was right and knew that the owners' self-interest would prevent them from remaining unified in the long run.

Of course, Miller is best-known for overturning the reserve clause, which existed for nearly one century and was considered the backbone of the baseball business. Here's where his statement about "eradicating" history applies. Unless you were around at the time, you have no idea of how tenaciously management clung to the notion of the reserve clause as essential. Time and again, the owners and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared that if the reserve clause disappeared, baseball would go out of business. It was that simple. A milder statement of this conviction appeared in Kuhn's book Hardball: "There was no doubt in my mind that the game's integrity and public confidence were at stake in the potential destruction of the reserve system." The key argument advanced was that if players became free agents and could sign wherever they wanted, the "rich" clubs would buy up all the best players and destroy the notion of competitive balance (that's what Kuhn meant by "the game's integrity").

In fact, there was only a myth of competitive balance. From 1921-1968, a 48-year span leading up to the "playoff era," the Yankees won 29 American League pennants (60%). In the National League, the Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers combined to win 33 pennants (69%). What kind of competitive balance was that? In the last ten years, nine different franchises have won the World Series, and 14 franchises have made the World Series (with only the Yankees appearing more than twice). That is competitive balance, and it exists because there is no longer a reserve clause.

Miller's 15-year tenure as executive director of the MLBPA (and post-retirement advisor/guru status with subsequent union leaders) was not just about making the players rich or creating a lucrative pension plan well beyond the dreams of the men who hired him. No issue was too small for him when a principle or the welfare of players was involved. When I interviewed him, for instance, he told me that he continually had to remind the owners that "the players are your only assets". Take Royals Stadium, which opened in 1970 and was designated as the site for that year's All-Star Game. Miller learned that the "warning track" at the new park was not a cinder or dirt section but rather a part of the outfield Astroturf painted a different color! He brought this dangerous situation to the attention of Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, whose response was "well, outfielders pretty much know where the fences are." Miller had to point out that an outfielder chasing a long fly ball is looking up at the ball, not down to see where the Astroturf changes color. Kauffman refused to do anything about it--until Miller threatened to have the players boycott the All-Star Game. Only then did Kauffman put in a warning track that the players could feel as they ran toward the wall. Same thing with padded walls, an innovation he had to fight for. I would've thought that the first time Pete Reiser ran into a wall back in the 1940s and received last rites on the field, owners would've padded the walls. But no. It wasn't until Miller came along that players were protected from running into concrete walls and chain-link fences. It was the right thing to do, and he plugged away until it was done.

Let's cut to the chase: is it accurate to say that the Hall of Fame has embarked on a "futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history"? Yes. Has it done so by excluding Miller from the ranks of inductees? I don't think so. The first time Miller came up for election, the majority of voters were living Hall of Famers, and that was the most shocking failure of an electorate to enshrine Miller. If the players who benefited so greatly from his work didn't overwhelmingly elect him, that was strong evidence of Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson's statement after this week's election that this is a reminder of just how tough it is to get elected. Yes, the Hall of Fame stacked the deck against Miller in 2008. I don't think that was the case this year. Miller needed 12 votes out of 16. There were eight players and four writers on the committee. There is no rational reason why he shouldn't have gotten all 12 of those votes. The one person who (no doubt) joined the four executives in refusing to vote for Miller is the asshole who should be strung up. I don't think you can pin this one on the Hall of Fame.

However, I don't think Miller was simply referring to his own non-election as this "fraudulent attempt to rewrite history". I think he was referring to the 2008 election of Bowie Kuhn to the Hall of Fame (by the same management-loaded voting body that gave Miller his lowest percentage of votes), an election viewed by a large portion of the Hall of Fame staff as the biggest joke since Morgan Bulkeley was elected back in 1937 because he was a one-year figurehead president of the National League.

One of my duties as a Hall of Fame library researcher was to copy-edit and critique proposed plaque text for newly elected Hall of Famers. I pointed out several inaccuracies in the proposed text for Kuhn, who was apparently being immortalized for things he didn't do. I am chagrined to report that my suggested changes were not adopted, and the inaccuracies remain on the plaque that is hanging in the main gallery of the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown.

When the person who wrote the original text described Kuhn's administration as "proactive and inventive," I wrote a note in the margin asking for some clarification of what those adjectives meant when applied to Kuhn, and requested some specific examples of what was meant. I'm still waiting for a response apart from the fact that those vague adjectives made it onto the final plaque. If you read a book like John Helyar's Lords of the Realm, you get a portrait of Kuhn as a man who fought progress and innovation on almost every front. He led the battle against the reserve clause and kept his head firmly planted in the sand on nearly every issue involving the balance of power between the owners and players. This was perfectly understandable: he was hired by the owners and owed his power to Walter O'Malley and the other owners who actually ran the game.

Let's look at some of the other statements on Kuhn's plaque. The one I fought the hardest to delete was the claim that Kuhn "extended postseason with creation of the league championship series." That simply is not so. Kuhn's tenure as commissioner began in February, 1969. The expansion from 20 to 24 teams occurred in 1969, as did the institution of divisional play and the second tier of playoffs, the LCS, which preceded the World Series. The Hall of Fame would like us to believe that Kuhn created all of this in the two months between the date when he took office and the start of the 1969. That's bullshit. Expansion was okayed two years before that, the expansion draft occurred in 1968, and the playoff system was solidly in place before the owners turned to Kuhn as a one-year compromise commissioner when they couldn't elect anyone else. Kuhn had nothing to do with the creation of the LCS.

Another statement of purported fact which I protested was the assertion that Kuhn "tripled major league attendance" during his tenure (1969-1984). That simply isn't true. In 1962, the first year when there were 20 major league teams, MLB attendance totaled 22,519,278. That's a little over 1.1 million per team. Attendance in the 1960s peaked at a little over 25 million in 1966, and in 1968, the last year before Kuhn became commissioner, it was 23,102,745. That was still less than 1.2 million per team.

The highest attendance during Kuhn's tenure was 45,540,302, in 1983. In his final year, 1984, attendance was 44,742,863. These figures are less than twice the figures from 1968, so how this translates into tripling attendance is beyond me. Moreover, by the 1980s the majors had expanded from 20 to 26 teams. The average attendance in 1984 was roughly 1.7 million per team. That's barely a 50% increase over 1968. That's way further from tripling attendance (or 300%, for those of you keeping score at home) than the total figure. But that's what his plaque in Cooperstown says he did. Huh?

In fact, it was Kuhn's poor business record which caused owners to oust him in 1984. As Expos owner Charles Bronfman put it (quoted in Helyar's book), "the economics of the industry were in bad shape and Bowie wouldn't do anything to help. As salaries started to escalate, you had to improve revenue streams." Gee, it sounds as though MLB needed a commissioner who was "proactive and inventive" to come in and save the day, because Kuhn was neither of those things. So they hired Peter Ueberroth, who proved to be proactive and inventive by instituting the collusion policy which later cost MLB some $280 million in lawsuits. But that's another story.

I'm far from the first observer to point out that Bowie Kuhn being in the Hall of Fame while Marvin Miller is not, is the biggest travesty of recent baseball history. It's that simple, and it definitely constitutes fraudulent history. Nobody has had a bigger influence on the past 40 years of baseball than Miller. What Branch Rickey did for African-American ballplayers, Miller did for all ballplayers. He freed them. He liberated them over the strident protests of Kuhn and the owners that he would kill baseball by doing so. Say what you want about the balance of power possibly tipping too far in the players' favor in recent years. Maybe it's 60-40% in favor of the players today, and that might or might not be a good thing. Before Miller took over, it was 100-0% in favor of the owners, an evil only he was patient and shrewd enough to overcome. For that, he should've been elected 20 years ago.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

It Ain't So, But It Coulda Been

The "what if" game is a favorite with all baseball fans, though ultimately futile. As enjoyable as it is to imagine how one change in a single baseball event could have far-reaching ramifications, the reality of each baseball season is still more vivid, entertaining, and memorable.

A few years ago, I was one of a number of baseball quasi-historians who participated in a book edited by Jim Bresnahan titled Play It Again: Baseball Experts on What Might Have Been. It was lots of fun to field questions on dozens of possibilities--if this trade hadn't been made, if that pitcher had lasted longer, if rules had been changed at different times, and so on. I recently wrote an article on one of the most dramatic what-ifs: how good would Herb Score have been if that line drive off his face hadn't wrecked his career?

For nearly 100 years, the quintessential baseball what-if has been "Suppose the 1919 White Sox hadn't conspired to throw the World Series?" The quick and easy answer is that they probably would've won that Series. But what about the long-range picture? The "Black Sox" weren't exposed until late in the 1920 season, and their absence may well have cost the team another pennant. Is that all? If the team had stayed intact, could they have wrestled any more pennants away from Babe Ruth's Yankees? Would Joe Jackson have continued on the fast track to the Hall of Fame? What about his teammates--how would their careers have panned out?

Many writers have pondered these questions and posed generalized answers. But nobody has taken the subject as seriously as Michael T. Lynch, Jr., whose fascinating book on the subject, It Ain't So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, was published earlier this year (available at www.mcfarlandpub.com). If you have wondered whether there's a parallel universe where Joe Jackson and the others resisted temptation, look no further. Lynch looks at the issues from every conceivable angle and comes up with some convincing answers.

Lynch, who operates the popular baseball website www.seamheads.com, used computer simulations to "replay" the 1920s with the "Black Sox" unbanned and chasing more diamond glory. He chose the highly regarded "Out of the Park" as his operating program because it was more adaptable to the career profiles he hoped to create for the Black Sox. He tried to replicate the rosters and lineups for each season, applying trades as they happened in reality, with the aim of having everyone else in the league perform at levels close to what they really did. That would provide a more accurate picture of how the eight Black Sox (along with Dickie Kerr, honest in 1919 but screwed out of his career later on) would have performed in the same conditions and how their presence would have changed history. This wasn't no-brainer work, and he explains every nuance and factor. He made the decision to end one player's career early due to injury, kept one star in the lineup an extra year or two despite diminished production, and had persistent challenges in choosing starting pitchers, especially in the World Series.

The results aren't all that surprising when you consider how talented those White Sox were. They won the 1917 World Series, should have won again in 1919, and were battling for another pennant when the players were sidelined in 1920. Why wouldn't they have continued to win? Three of the "clean" Sox--Eddie Collins, Ray Schalk, and Red Faber--are in the Hall of Fame, and Lynch makes a good case that two or three of the others would've joined them in Cooperstown. Instead, the bannings decimated the lineup and the pitching corps, sending the franchise on a downhill spiral that lasted several decades. How much different would it have been?

Lynch makes a strong case for the White Sox joining the Yankees at the top of the American League heap for most of the 1920s. In his simulations, they still lose to the Reds in the 1919 World Series, bounce back to take the 1920 title, and remain in contention until late in the decade. The method in the book is to look at each season in several aspects: a thorough discussion of what really happened; details of how the real White Sox fared; month-by-month coverage of how the pennant race unfolded in the simulation; how players and teams fared in comparison to reality; and more thorough analysis of how the Black Sox's careers continued to unfold. The style is a mixture of statistical analysis and subject commentary, the latter bolstered by numerous wonderful quotes from the great baseball writers of the time.

It's exciting to follow the White Sox's fortune for a dozen years following their actual exile; Lynch carries us through 1932, when the last of the Black Sox--Lefty Williams and Swede Risberg--would have retired according to the simulation. The best part of the book, however, is the long final section in which Lynch analyzes each of the players' careers as fleshed out by "Out of the Park". Lynch brilliantly assesses them not only in terms of numbers but in comparison to similar players whose careers followed a certain pattern. That's the trickiest part of simulating baseball: every event affects every subsequent event, and it's impossible to know how injuries or other factors would have contributed to a career ending (Lynch uses a modified version of the "Brock2" formula originally devised by Bill James to determine the rate of a career's downward spiral). Even acknowledging these disclaimers, Lynch does a fascinating job of outlining these hypothetical careers.

Yes, of course Joe Jackson would continue as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. In these simulated games, Jackson accumulates 3,457 hits and a .351 career average, a no-brainer Hall of Famer. The biggest surprise is Lefty Williams, only 27 years old when banned from the majors. Just coming into his prime, with 82 victories under his belt, Williams becomes an elite pitcher in the simulation, winning another 227 games and securing a spot in the Hall of Fame. Three other Black Sox wind up with borderline Hall of Fame careers: Eddie Cicotte, despite being retired after 1921 with an injury; Happy Felsch (.312 average, 2, 743 hits); and Buck Weaver (2,924 hits).

Follow their careers as they might have been, and you'll be fascinated. Moreover, you'll learn a lot about how baseball evolved during the hitting-happy 1920s, and the simulations will serve to illuminate the reality. That's always the bottom line; reality trumps imagination. But as imaginary journeys go, Michael Lynch's is just a fine line away from the real thing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sparky Anderson Even Argued With Class

As a lifelong Reds fan, I was saddened to hear of the death of Sparky Anderson, the man who managed the team during the most glorious period in franchise history. In 1970, he took over a team that had led the National League in runs scored the previous two years, but had finished in the middle of the standings due to perennially mediocre pitching. He lifted them to the World Series in his first season managing in the majors, and if not for Brooks Robinson might have been an instant champion.

That took a few more years, and the reward was the back-to-back titles in 1975-1976, first overcoming a tough Red Sox team and Carlton Fisk's historic home run, then decimating the Yankees in a delightful sweep. It always seemed to me that Sparky did two things to turn those Reds into champions (three, if you give him credit for engineering the trade that brought Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham to Cincinnati). First, he put together a solid everyday lineup and let them play, not trying to micromanage, recognizing that the team was loaded with natural leaders who would make sure things were done right, and supporting them with his own energy and enthusiasm.

Second, he figured out how to overcome the so-so starting pitching that had plagued the team for a decade or two; he focused on the bullpen. In 1970 he had two established right-handed relievers, Clay Carroll and Wayne Granger, to carry most of the load (190 innings between them), plus 19-year-old rookie southpaw Don Gullett, who pitched even better. Within a few years, Sparky had acquired the nickname "Captain Hook" because of his willingness to remove pitchers from the game, yanking starters early and giving his relievers--the unsung gears of the "Big Red Machine"--a bigger responsibility.

By 1975, when the Reds won their first title after losing twice in the World Series behind Sparky, the bullpen corps was four-deep, all logging more than 90 innings as they were called on at all times and in all different situations, combining for 26 wins and 49 saves. Pedro Borbon worked the hardest, 125 innings in 67 appearances; he had the highest ERA of the bunch, 2.95. Rawly Eastwick led the staff with 22 saves and averaged just under five outs per appearance. Will McEnany, the only lefty of the quartet, and Clay Carroll, logged 90 innings apiece while keeping their ERAs under 2.5. No wonder the Reds won their division by 20 games and stormed to the Reds' first championship since 1940.

So it went through Sparky's tenure with the Reds--let Rose and company romp around the field, and keep those pitchers busy! Diehards became wary when Tony Perez was traded after the 1976 championship. We suspected that he was the heart of the team, and it turned out that we were right. The team's decline began with the exile of Perez to Canada, and it was cemented after a second-place finish in 1978 (with 92 wins) when Sparky was fired. That was shocking and offensive; the front office took away Perez, gave him a useless lump named Woody Fryman, and fired him for finishing second.

Sparky was quickly resurrected in Detroit and had a splendid second career there, including another title in 1984 when he piloted another of the best teams of his generation. His reputation grew not only because of his managing talents but because of the force of his personality and character. He emerged as "a man's man," tough when he had to be but fair, passionate, positive, and perpetually happy to be involved with the game he loved. Above all, he had class.

I saw his class displayed in an unusual way one day at Fenway Park. I may be one of the few people who even noticed, but the memory has stayed powerfully with me. On July 6, 1991, I sat in the first row right behind the Red Sox bullpen as they faced Sparky's Tigers. In the second inning, Pete Incaviglia blasted a Roger Clemens fastball over "The Monster" for a two-run homer. Rob Deer hit the next pitch, an angry Clemens fastball, even further over the wall in left. The next pitch from the steaming Clemens hit John Shelby in the back, right between the numbers.

Chaos ensued as Shelby charged the mound, tackled by catcher John Marzano just before he reached Clemens. The brawl was typical, a lot of pushing and shoving and screaming, with an actual skirmish or two along the way before the boys were finished being boys. When the dust settled, Shelby was ejected but Clemens was allowed to continue (part of Clemens' charmed aura--if he wasn't ejected for throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza, why punish him for nailing a batter in the back with a 95mph blazer?).

Sparky waited until the end of the inning (three more batters) before uttering his protest of Clemens' continued presence in the game. Or maybe he was okay at the time but stewed about it for three more batters before he was so pissed off that he had to say something. He walked slowly out to the plate, where home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether was standing alone, gazing peacefully out toward the center field bleachers. That's where I sat, and I trained my binoculars on the scene next to the plate. Sparky took up a position next to Meriwether, also facing the bleachers.

That was the key for Sparky. The fans seated behind the plate and even off to the side saw only two men--the tall black umpire, the short white manager--standing side by side, like two strangers waiting for a bus. You had to have binoculars trained on them to see how their discussion unfolded. It began calmly--those two commuters exchanging a few notes on the weather, then perhaps disagreeing on when that next bus might come along. Their heads never turned; they kept staring straight ahead as the conversation became more heated. For most of the fans, they seemed to be standing at attention, hands clasped behind their backs as they might be during the national anthem.

But I could see them getting mad, especially Sparky. I'd like to think that his sharpest comments were directed at Clemens, not Meriwether, at least until Meriwether resisted the logic behind them. The Detroit pitcher was warming up the whole time, the commercials concluding on the telecast, and it was time for the game to resume. Now Sparky was livid, but even the people around me were unaware of it. I stayed zoomed in as he unloaded on Meriwether, red-faced with outrage, spitting out the words as his head bobbed up and down a little. The tirade done, he didn't wait for a response but turned sharply to his left and marched back to his dugout.

He didn't get ejected. He had followed the first rule of staying in the game, and the first rule of class: don't show up the umpire. Can you imagine Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Lou Piniella or Bobby Cox having the presence of mind to give the fans the illusion that nothing in particular was going on over there by home plate apart from a discussion of the best place to catch some clam chowder after the game? No, I can't either.

That was Sparky. He treated everybody with decency, respect, and class--his players, the opposition, the press, and fans. Even the umpire who let a petulant Roger Clemens drill his player in the back.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bermuda Triangle Behind Home Plate

Something strange has been going on at home plate during the two LCS series. In the space of five games, we have seen five clearly blown calls on balls that never got past the plate. It's as if there's no umpire at all back there, or like a wrestling referee the assigned umpire is somehow averting his eyes just at the moment when the critical event occurs, preventing him from doing anything more than guess at what might have happened. What the hell is going on?

I've written before about the need to put in an instant replay system that recognizes the simple fact that any play can influence the outcome of a game and therefore a season. John Smoltz, on the ALCS telecasts, has been advocating a system which would authorize instant replay on any play which results in a run scoring. Apparently it's perfectly all right with him if a horribly butchered call results in putting a runner on third or loading the bases, absolving the umpires if there is no immediate run scored on the blown call. That's the same mentality that created the Hold, the most bogus statistic of all time. A relief pitcher can come in with a one-run lead and load the bases, but if he's relieved before the tying run scores, he is given a "hold," a stat which suggests that he held something. He might get the Loss if all those runs score, but he'll still get that Hold. Same thing with Smoltz's proposal; the umpires can miss calls all over the place but if the run doesn't score until the next batter, officially they did nothing wrong.

Another announcer--I forget which one--discussing a blown call earlier in a game which had just ended, declared that it still wasn't a reason to institute instant replay because taking a few minutes to review a play would slow the game down. The two teams had just played a nine-inning affair which lasted 3 hours and 52 minutes. But instant replay would've slowed the game down! "Neanderthal" is the word that comes to mind when accounting for that kind of logic.

When the Derek Jeter fake-hit-by-pitch occurred late in the season, it was a lesson for all of us on how easy it is to miss a call at the plate. You'd think it would be easier for the home plate umpire to make the correct call when everyone is standing there right in front of him and the ball is coming right at him. But it isn't. It's as tough to make the right call as it is for the batter to hit that ball. It's coming in at 90mph or so, is moving vertically, laterally, or diagonally, the batter is making some kind of move toward or away from the ball, and the catcher, who starts off directly in front of the umpire's eyes, is moving to make the catch and sometimes blocking the umpire's view of it.

In the NLDS, a critical missed call helped the Phillies defeat the Reds in the second game. Aroldis Chapman entered the game in the 7th inning with a 4-3 lead, firing heat, recording fastballs of 100+mph. His first two pitches to Chase Utley made a very good hitter look helpless. His next pitch was faster than the first two. It sailed high and inside as Utley tried to duck away and Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan's glove flailed at the ball as it went by. If someone still has the footage, take a look and correct me if I'm wrong, but the replay I saw showed that home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman was ducking, too, leaning to his left as the ball sailed to his right. I think he assumed--or guessed--that the pitch must have hit Utley because otherwise Hanigan would have caught it. Of course, the replay showed that the ball didn't hit Utley. But he was awarded first base, and three runs later the Phillies had their winning margin.

It has only gotten worse in the two LCS. The Yankees were trounced in Game 4, losing to the Rangers, 10-3. It might have been a close game when the Yankees rallied in the 8th inning, trailing 7-3. They loaded the bases with one out and Nick Swisher batting. A Darren Oliver sweeping curve darted inside as Swisher jack-knifed out of the way. It was called a ball, but the television replay showed clearly that the ball grazed Swisher's pants leg. A HBP would've made it 7-4 with the bases still loaded; the Yankees might well have rallied to tie the game, but Swisher popped out and the Rangers escaped with their 7-3 lead intact. This was a tough call for the home plate umpire because the contact with Swisher's uniform didn't make a sound (or at least not one audible above the raucous Yankee Stadium crowd) or cause the ball to change directions.

Swisher got revenge of a sort in Game 6 when he batted in the 5th inning with the Yankees trailing 1-0 and a runner on third base. Colby Lewis threw a sharp-breaking low and inside, and Swisher backed out of the way. Bengie Molina moved from his crouch to block the ball but succeeded only in blocking the umpire's view. When the ball ricocheted off Swisher's back shin and through Molina's legs, the umpire couldn't see it. He had to guess. He didn't hear anything and he knew that the ball can bounce any which way on a curve in the dirt, so he called it a wild pitch. Molina went nuts but managed to avoid getting ejected on a play that tied the game. John Smoltz coyly pointed out that under his proposed system, that play could have been reviewed.

Things were even stranger in Game 4 of the NLCS, in which the home plate umpire missed two similar calls in one at-bat--mind you, the final batter of the game with the game on the line. Bottom of the 9th, tie game, runners on first and third with one out, and Juan Uribe batting. Roy Oswalt threw a tailing fastball that hit Uribe's hand, but home plate umpire Wally Bell called it a foul ball. He thought it hit the knob of the bat, but as the announcers pointed out, Uribe grips the bat with his hands covering the knob, so it had to hit his hand and not wood. No matter. It was strike two instead of the bases being loaded. Wouldn't you know it--that was followed by another fastball boring in on Uribe. This one ticked the bat, hanging loosely by Uribe's right shoulder as he tried to back away, caromed two feet in the other direction, and nailed catcher Carlos Ruiz in the mask, knocking it off. "Ball two," said Wally Bell. I don't mean to pick on Bell, but. . .what the hell was he looking at? How did he think the ball got from nearly nailing the batter to hitting the catcher squarely in the mask? Or was there something else going on? Was this a "make-up" call for missing the earlier hit by pitch? If so, that was an awful time to make amends, with the game on the line. Or was there some kind of voodoo curse working in the vicinity, filling that snug area between the plate and the people standing behind it with some kind of invisibility cloak that prevented anybody from seeing anything? Very strange.

The invisible zone reached its peak in Game 5 in San Francisco on Roy Halladay's phantom sacrifice bunt. Obviously home plate umpire Jeff Nelson's view was blocked by Buster Posey as he jumped up to make a quick play on Halladay's bunt that dribbled over the plate and off to the side, inches into foul territory before Posey picked it up. Nelson was probably influenced by Posey's hasty throw to third base, reasoning that Posey wouldn't have made such an energetic play to third base on a foul ball. That's what you get for assuming, Mr. Nelson. Halladay had the best view of all. He stood there looking down at the ball, saw that it was clearly foul, and didn't run, made no move at all to leave the batter's box for at least five seconds, until the "safe" call at third base alerted him to the possibility that someone might have called it a fair ball.

The announcers were perplexed that none of the other infield umpires had a good enough view of the ball to overrule Nelson. But it isn't that surprising. Like so many other airborne objects over the years, the ball had dropped into the Bermuda Triangle, vanished from view and a mystery forever.

Bottom line: all five of these missed calls could have been corrected by instant replay. The one thing we have learned from the current limited use of instant replay is that, whether it takes one minute or five minutes, after the umpires review a call by using instant replay, THEY GET IT RIGHT!

There is no shame in guessing at a call and getting it wrong--or making what you think is a clear call and getting it wrong--and then using instant replay to get it right. I haven't heard an umpire yet complain after a game that he wished that his wrong call had been allowed to stand rather than being corrected through a replay. Every bad call that goes uncorrected is unfair to the players, unfair to the fans, and unfair to the umpires. It is their reputation that takes a hit when a bad call unfairly influences the outcome of a game. Isn't it about time that baseball comes to its senses?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Be Careful: What You Write Might Be Held Against You

All my life, people have been giving me things to read. Whether it is books, manuscripts, e-mail attachments, or essays scribbled in pencil, I've had a steady stream of published and unpublishable writing cross my path, with people seeking my feedback. At times I've gotten paid for it--starting with three years of teaching freshman composition at the University of Montana in the 1970s--and other times you couldn't pay me enough to endure what I see on the page. Usually I'm content to shake my head and make smart-ass comments. Sometimes, however, what I see simply makes my head spin. Let me tell you about some of these.

When I was in grad school and teaching one section of freshman comp, I had a student who was in danger of flunking. The day the final paper was due, he sat on the floor outside my office for two hours, furiously committing his thoughts to paper--in pencil. He didn't take the time to proofread; evidently that was my job. There were misspellings, missing words, and sloppiness in every paragraph. He tried to write "decisions, decisions," and misspelled it two different ways. But I left his fate straddling the fence as I plodded forward, looking for a reason to pass him or flunk him, trying to find the nugget of wisdom in the dustpan of fractured English. Finally I got the cosmic signal I sought. Apropos of nothing, he wrote, "You might even call me somewhat of a perfectionist." A noble sentiment, but he wrote "prefectionist". That's all I needed to see. A big laugh, a big "F," and I was able to move ahead with my life.

I have a list somewhere of the best gaffes of my Montana students. "All cheerleaders are Pre-Madonnas," wrote one, with more insight than she intended. Another informed me that "a football field is divided into two equal halves," making sure I got the picture. (That deadly precision was echoed in another sentence that crossed my path not long ago, about two baseball teams that played ten games: "They each won five games each, with an equal number of losses.") "Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sixteenth Chapel," I was told by another student, and it may have been true for all I know. How about this one: "Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifiction" (my comment in the margin was "if it really happened, wouldn't it be a crucifact?").

The one that gave me vertigo expressed the existential angst of all college students getting acquainted with critical thought: "Language is very important, but sometimes semantics gets in the way." Ain't it the truth! Communication is so vital, yet how often the words that are used just seem to make things worse. The beauty of this insight is that it can be applied to so many other things in life. Driving is very important, but sometimes roads get in the way. Freedom is important, but laws get in the way. Government is important, but politicians get in the way. God is important, but religion gets in the way. If only we could find the shortcuts past the annoying reality of substance, we could get somewhere! The kid was brilliant, and I shouldn't have been so surprised, since there's plenty of anti-semanticism in Montana.

In recent years, as a baseball historian, I get a lot of baseball material to read. Three examples from the last few months will show that even a benign subject like baseball is still full of semantic mine fields. One involves Hal Newhouser, a Hall of Fame pitcher whose greatest achievement was being the only pitcher to win back-to-back MVP titles. That's what this writer pointed out, noting regretfully that the MVPs occurred in 1944 and 1945, when the majority of the toughest hitters were preoccupied with fighting World War II. Because the opposition wasn't top-flight, some people think it wasn't that phenomenal an achievement--notably this writer, who insisted that we should "attach a psychic asterisk" to Newhouser's feat. What? What the hell does that mean? First of all, there are no asterisks in baseball; nope, not even attached to Roger Maris (there were separate records listed for Maris and Babe Ruth, no asterisk). Secondly, what would a "psychic asterisk" be? Is that anything like a mental note? Did he mean "psychological"? Or was it Newhouser who was psychic: "I predict that someday people won't give me the credit I deserve for winning back-to-back MVP awards." Yeah, that must be it.

I'm pretty tolerant of numbers in baseball writing, since I use them a lot myself. If they prove something, fine; if not, as a reader I can nudge them aside and see if there's some meaning without them. But my brain started to implode when I read this passage not long ago: "Hitting only .227 at the time, Johnston batted almost .286 through the end of the second western road trip." Does that seem benign? No, actually it's one of the most infuriating bits of non-information I've read in ages. Almost .286? Did he bat .285 or .283 or .281? Whatever it was, it was a precise number. Give us that number! It's like saying, "Mickey Mantle batted almost .300 for his career." Well, he batted .298. It's quicker and more accurate to say ".298" than "almost .300." I can't imagine why this writer couldn't give us the exact average. In addition, the math is misleading. Let's say that Johnston had 28 more at-bats during the western road trip. If he had eight hits, that would be a .286 average. Perhaps "almost" meant that he was one hit shy of .286. That would be seven hits, and in 28 at-bats that's a .250 average. Is seven hits almost eight? Yes. Is .250 almost .286? Nope. So what did Johnston do on the road? I have no idea.

The (recent) capper came in a short essay on Roberto Clemente, one of baseball's most beloved immortals. Here's the description that someone came up with for Clemente: "lightly educated but dark-skinned." Whoa! Somehow that just didn't work for me. When my eyes were able to focus again, I gazed at that disturbing depiction, which the writer was probably proud of because he had so cleverly manipulated "light" and "dark" into the same sentence. Uh-huh. Apart from being offended, I was puzzled most of all by the simple word "but," which suggested that there was some connection between the two phrases and hinted that they even balanced each other. But there is no connection at all. It would be like saying "George W. Bush is mentally deficient but nicely tanned," or "Charles Manson is criminally insane but colorfully tattooed." How about "Joan of Arc was burned at the stake but nineteen years old"? Or "Jesus Christ rose from the dead three days after his crucifiction but was a prefectionist." Okay, I'll stop. At least I didn't call him a Pre-Madonna.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Wing And A Player

Did you know that 153 of the 387 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame never played a game in the major leagues? That seems like a large percentage, doesn't it, nearly 40%? What are the folks in Cooperstown thinking, putting such a major emphasis on non-players? Does that seem right to you?

Well, it isn't right--unless you believe what today's writers and broadcasters tell you. They want you to think that the winners of the Spink Award (for writing) and the Frick Award (for broadcasting) are Hall of Famers. They congratulate the winners of those awards for getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. At his year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Spink Award winner Bill Madden congratulated Frick Award winner Jon Miller on his "election into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." In a video posted on the website of Madden's newspaper, the New York Daily News, Madden discussed being "elected to the Hall of Fame last December" (the day the Spink Award winner was announced). Madden didn't say he won an award; he said he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He is not alone in perpetuating this myth. The Detroit Tigers media guide--to name just one of the team publications that trumpet an award winner as a Hall of Famer--states that Ernie Harwell, by winning the Frick Award in 1981, became "the first active broadcaster to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Some of us know better. To date, there are 292 elected members of the Hall of Fame. Of those, 62 never played in the major leagues. The majority of those were Negro leagues stars; the rest include executives, eight of the nine enshrined umpires, and a handful of managers. That's about 21%, compared to the 39.5% we get if we count the Frick and Spink Award winners. Those number 95--61 writers plus 34 broadcasters (of whom four played in the majors). Some of those 95 believe they were elected, and they rarely waste a breath trying to disabuse others of the notion that it is otherwise.

A recent winner of the Spink Award visited here last week, and I asked him what he says when people call him a Hall of Famer. "I tell them I'm represented in the writers wing," he said matter-of-factly, as if that should clear up any confusion. But it doesn't.

It's time for a history lesson to clear up the matter of the mythological "writers wing" and "broacasters wing" at the Hall of Fame. Let's go back to 1971, when Satchel Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame, the first of the Negro leagues immortals elected. Paige had also played in the majors, but lacked the minimum ten years in the big leagues to quality for election by the BBWAA, which has always conducted the now-annual Hall of Fame elections (the BBWAA also selects the Spink Award winner).

The impetus for honoring Negro leaguers began in 1966, when Ted Williams used his induction speech as a platform for advocating the inclusion of Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro leagues greats in the Hall of Fame. A few years later, the Hall of Fame set up a special panel to select a set number of Negro leaguers (essentially a starting nine) during the coming years. Paige was first, and his election was announced early in February. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made the announcement, adding that "technically he's not in the Hall of Fame," Kuhn noted. Instead, Paige would win what was termed the Negro Baseball Leagues Award.

What? That's what Kuhn said. Paige and the other Negro leaguers to be selected would have their own display in another section of the museum, apart from the plaque gallery where the actual Hall of Famers were honored--as Kuhn phrased it, "as part of a new exhibit commemorating the contributions of the Negro leagues to baseball." He reminded reporters that "the rules for selection to the Hall of Fame are very strict, and I think those standards are correct. Thru no fault of their own, these stars of the Negro leagues didn't have major league exposure."

The reaction to this relegation of Paige to what amounted to a "separate but equal" status (to use the phrase from the 1895 Supreme Court decision which paved the way for decades of Jim Crow segregation) was swift and indignant. Jackie Robinson protested, "If they're going to start up with that old segregation stuff again, they might as well forget about the whole project. They have absolutely no right to put those black oldtimers in a different part of the building."

Legendary sportswriter (and future Spink Award winner) Jim Murray was outraged, writing, "Who in the world got the bright idea to put back the 'colored only' sign in this day and age?. . .What is this--1840? Either let him in the front of the hall--or move the damn thing to Mississippi."

Other writers joined the clamor, and the Hall of Fame was peppered with letters protesting the plan. The Satchel Paige file in the Hall of Fame library contains a letter written a month after the announcement, from the then-Treasurer of the Hall of Fame, Howard Talbot, to its President, Paul Kerr. It reads, in part, "You will notice that most of them [the protest letters] run along the same theme and seem to think that Satchel Page [sic] should become a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I think the award is a deserving one and it is too bad that the press misconstruded [sic] the facts and gave the public the wrong idea behind it."

Right. It was the writers' fault for suggesting that electing someone to the Hall of Fame actually meant that he would be in the Hall of Fame. Or suggesting that his being in the Hall of Fame, even in the back of the bus, er, museum, meant that he was a Hall of Famer. To their credit, the writers kept up the hue and cry, and by the time induction day rolled around that summer, Paige got a plaque right there in the main room with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and the rest of the Hall of Fame players.

The writers made certain that there was a clear distinction everyone could understand: having a separate display, an exhibit in a wing somewhere apart from the Hall of Fame plaque gallery, was unacceptable, because it would mean that the people honored in such a wing were obviously not enshrined as Hall of Famers. That distinction has apparently dissolved over the years, if today's writers believe that inclusion in a display out in the museum means that they're Hall of Famers, elected like everyone else but merely in "the writers wing."

Dick Young, the 1978 Spink Award winner, summed up the distinction very well in a column published in The Sporting News on June 28, 1982. The column revisited the Paige election and emphasized the key role of the BBWAA (of which he was president at the time) in making sure that Paige got the full honor he deserved. Young got the ball rolling in 1969, he reminded his readers, by pushing to get the Negro leaguers elected. "It was easier said than done," Young wrote in 1982. "As expected, there was resistance. Directors of the Hall of Fame, among them former Commissioner Ford Frick [in 1971, the Chairman of the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors], spoke of the 'flood' of black players."

Young and others assured Frick and the Board that there wouldn't be a "flood," that in fact only eight or nine men were deemed worthy of Hall of Fame election, and they'd only be elected one or two at a time. That was the first step of the compromise that got the deal done.

What Young wrote next is what interests me most now: "Frick suggested that a special wing be set up for the Negro league players. The BBWAA flatly turned down such a thought as repulsive segretation--something we were trying to correct, not perpetuate. When discussions reached an impasse, the BBWAA threatened to withdraw voting support from the Cooperstown museum and set up its own Hall of Fame. That did it. Bowie Kuhn [the newly elected Commissioner, a post which also gave him a spot on the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors] stepped in to help resolve the situation."

That's the story. Of course, part of the compromise (of 1969) which put the process in place to elect Paige (and others) meant that Kuhn was able to announce in February, 1971, that Paige would be honored in a separate wing. Again the writers stood up for what was right, and there never was a separate wing.

That's why I'm mystified and appalled by the assorted ironies of the current penchant of the BBWAA for letting its members be thought of as legitimate Hall of Famers. Ford Frick himself was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970. The man who wanted a separate wing for Negro leaguers, who didn't want anybody to be confused into thinking that they were real Hall of Famers like he was, now has an award named after him, and the winners of that award think that they're real Hall of Famers because they're in a separate wing.

Meanwhile, in the speech Bill Madden gave in accepting the award he believed earned him election into the Hall of Fame, cited Dick Young as his mentor and his idol as a sportswriter. Dick Young, who fought so hard to remind everyone that a "separate but equal" exhibit was repugnant, spawned a writer who thinks he now stands alongside Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle because his name is listed in a separate exhibit.

Here's an idea: lets give the next Spink Award to the first member of the BBWAA who has the integrity and the nerve to write a column saying "Sorry, my BBWAA brethren, the Spink Award may be the highest honor we can get, but it does not make us Hall of Famers. Stop fooling yourselves and letting your readers think that you got elected to the Hall of Fame. You're great writers, but you weren't elected to anything. You got an award. That's that."

That's the guy who deserves to be honored.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You Heard It Here First

Even though the Mets have entered the phone-it-in stage of the 2010 season, my wife and I found ourselves watching a couple of very good pitching duels between the Mets and Rockies the last two nights. First it was Mike Pelfrey outgunning Ubaldo Jimenez (17-2 coming into the game) to win 1-0. That game hinged on a dubious move by Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who apparently forgot to bring the scouting reports along on a Monday visit to the Hall of Fame. He didn't realize that Carlos Beltran (batting for Pelfrey in the 7th inning of a scoreless game) is the second-coldest hitter in the majors (second to teammate David Wright), gave him an intentional walk, and let the next batter win the game with a sacrifice fly.

It was a different story last night. Jonathan Niese pitched a beautiful game for seven innings, allowing a trio of harmless two-out hits and striking out seven over the first six innings. In the 7th, a couple of singles put him in trouble, two outs plated one run, and Niese finished off the inning with a 2-1 lead over Jeff Francis, who allowed just one hit after the 1st inning.

So we were surprised when Niese didn't come out to pitch the 8th inning. With the way the Mets "set-up" relievers have blown up lately, here was a pitcher who looked great out there on the mound, so why take him out? Did Jerry Manuel have a premonition that Niese might tell him later that his leg was a little sore? Did he think that just because two relievers had gotten the team safely through the final two innings the night before, it would automatically happen again?

Or was he simply subscribing to the supposedly un-second-guessable 21st-century manager's strategy of being satisfied with seven good innings and letting the bullpen handle it from there? Gee, he could say, Niese's pitch count was up to 106. He had given up a run in the 7th so maybe he was tiring. There were fresh arms ready in the bullpen. The new inhabitant of the 8th-inning role, Hisanori Takahashi, had breezed through the 8th inning the night before. How could you question the move?

Well, sports fans, I'm here to question it. I happen to have looked closely at this specific situation: 8th inning, your team is up by three runs or less, and your starting pitcher has gotten you through the first seven innings. Do you take him out? How far do you go with him? Does it matter? In the long run, which is the winning strategy?

How often does this situation come up? From 1950-2009, it occurred 35,809 times. That's a pretty good sample size. That's about 600 times a season, though it doesn't happen as often as it used to because more starters are being excused from class after the 6th inning. During the past decade, this situation has come up about 500 times a season. That's still enough to yield some conclusions that are--for my money--pretty damn conclusive.

The first key question is "how often does the manager let his starter continue into the 8th inning?" It used to be a no-brainer, in fact it was a no-brainer from 1950 all the way through the 1970s. If your starter was ahead after seven innings, he started the 8th inning more than 90% of the time. In the 1980s, that number dropped down to 80% or so. In the 1990s, the starter still got to work into the 8th inning two-thirds of the time. During the past decade, however, it has dropped below 50%, reaching a low of 40.7% in 2007.

More pitching changes are made in the 8th inning than in any other inning. Not surprisingly, more saves are blown in the 8th inning, too. In other words, by shoving their "best" reliever into the 9th-inning-only closer's slot, managers are trusting more games to their lesser relievers. Should they be shocked to discover that all that achieves is to blow more leads before the closer can get into the game and protect that save-worthy lead?

The second key question is: what happens when you let the starter work the 8th inning? Back in the old days (1950-1979), he finished the 8th inning more than 75% of the time. And guess what? If he finished the 8th, he got to start the 9th inning more than 90% of the time! Even as late as 1988, he started the 9th inning 83.2% of the time.

This figure has declined even more precipitously than the one about getting to start the 8th inning. That is, even if a manager lets his stud starter pitch the 8th inning, he is increasingly inclined to bring his closer in to get those last three outs. Only once in the last dozen years have these starters gone into the 9th inning more than half the time, and the overall percentage for the last decade is 42%.

Note that the 42% figure represents the number of starters who finish the 8th inning and get to start the 9th. But fewer and fewer are getting to start the 8th, much less the 9th. If you look at the number of starters who get through the 7th inning and are still out there in the 9th, the seismic shift in strategy becomes even more apparent. Through the 1970s, 69.1% of them lasted into the 9th inning. From 2000-2009, only 12.9% did so. We've gone from more than two-thirds to roughly one out of eight.

That brings up the third key question, and the most important: has this shift translated into more wins? Good question. When I started looking into this, I assumed that it must. After all, why would modern managers, who have an infinity of statistics available to them, universally adopt this strategy if it didn't produce more wins? Although it makes life easier for them to do things that produce plausible answers for the press, the bottom line is winning. If deploying an array of relievers didn't produce more wins, why were they all doing it?

That's what I thought. But no. It turns out that this universal strategy is producing fewer wins. The most accurate way of measuring this is to look at the number of wins recorded by the starting pitcher. I also tracked team wins, but that is less relevant. After all, when Jerry Manuel removed Niese last night, he wasn't thinking, "okay, even if my bullpen blows the lead we still have a chance to win." He had to be thinking, "my bullpen has a better chance of holding this lead than Niese does." Whether it was because the relievers were better pitchers or Niese was tired or the batters due up had good records against him or whatever, he had some compelling internal logic telling him that his relievers were more likely to hold the lead.

Too bad the numbers tell a different story. Let me attempt a simple chart to explain what I found. It is arranged by decade. First comes the number of times when the starting pitcher got through seven innings with a lead of three runs or less. Then I give you the number of times that starter got the win--whether he finished the game himself or had two or three or five or a busload of relievers hold that lead. Finally, there's the percentage.

1950-1959 4,825 3,746 77.6
1960-1969 6,108 4,784 78.3
1970-1979 7,401 5,749 77.7
1980-1989 6,420 4,896 76.3
1990-1999 5,816 4,408 75.8
2000-2009 5,239 3,988 76.1

For the first 30 years of this study, the starters won 77.9% of the time. For the past 30 years, they have won 76.1% of the time. That's a noticeable difference in a very large sample. In the world of formal statistical study, that is considered well within the range of normal deviation. In the world of baseball history, it is, I'll granted, slightly skewed by the pitcher-friendly decade of the 1960s. But since managers began reinventing pitching-staff deployment in the mid-1980s, the percentage has failed to improve. That's the bottom line.

Looking at team wins (including all the extra-inning games that wear down a pitching staff after a lead is blown), the percentage has stayed the same. From 1950-1952, when the starter in this situation got a complete-game win more than 60% of the time, the team winning percentages were 82.7, 84.4, and 83.5. From 2007-2009, when the complete-game figure plummeted to a mere 8%, team wins were 83.1, 84.7, and 82.8. The best percentage I found was during the 1970s, the worst during the 1990s; as with the starter wins, the numbers fell within a 2% range.

What's the point? Relying more and more on relief pitching is not a winning strategy for managers. Tying up your roster with 12 or 13 pitchers does not produce more wins. It doesn't produce more effective pitching, and it deprives the manager of extra options off the bench. The solution, in theory, is simple: train your starters to go further. They're your best pitchers, and getting them to carry more of the load will take the strain off your inferior pitchers, allow you to jettison the two or three worst arms, and give you that extra pinch-hitter when you really need one.

Of course, theory and reality are two different things. The modern managerial geniuses who have led their generation of leaders into this quagmire might protest that it is simply too hard for starters to work as many innings as they used to. If that's the case, it's because they aren't being trained to go further.

The discussion of pitch counts and innings restrictions, the coddling of young starters because of the delusion that arm injuries can somehow be prevented, and the myriad factors which caused baseball offenses to explode in the 1990s, will remain beyond the scope of this article. They will be covered in the book I'll eventually write, titled Why Today's Pitching Sucks. For now, just remember the bottom line: even though managers make way more pitching changes than they used to, all that maneuvering does not win more games. Treading water may help them survive and keep their jobs, but it won't get them to the shore where the championships lie.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Let's Re-Elect Dizzy!

Here we go, folks--sing along with me. . . .

As anyone knows who pays close attention
To America's favorite game,
The announcers and writers do not have a "wing"
In the Cooperstown Hall of Fame.

Despite all the protests of well-meaning fans
And colleagues of mikemen and scribes,
The announcers and writers do not have a "wing,"
So take note of my snide diatribes.

Jon Miller won a well-deserved Frick Award
And Bill Madden's time came for the Spink,
But Hall of Fame status is different
Though that's not what they'd like you to think.

Hall of Famers have plaques in the gallery,
Two hundred ninety-two in all,
While the mikemen and scribes have a little display
In a side-room just down the hall.

Yet Hall of Famer is what they called Miller
On ESPN Sunday night,
And Madden's newspaper quoted Madden detailing
Why his induction was such a delight.

They ought to know better, and maybe they do
But cannot resist extra glory.
It's a pretty delusion and pardon the confusion--
I'm just partial to the truth of the story.

While they say they're alongside Aaron and Ruth
I ask you to remember one thing:
They're great, but Frick 'n' Spink winners
Do not have a Hall of Fame wing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The responses to my diatribe last week were of two types. Some said "right on!" while others said "yeah, you're right, but since everyone thinks Miller and Madden were elected, either you should get over it or the Hall of Fame should just go ahead and make them Hall of Famers."

I was still curious about what would happen on the ESPN Sunday night game. Sure enough, it took less than an inning for Orel Hershiser to say something to Joe Morgan about "the Hall of Famer to our right." It took the rest of the game for Morgan to say nothing to dispel that misconception. I wasn't surprised, just disappointed.

Somehow I wasn't prepared for the link someone sent me to a 90-second tape of Madden talking about how "I was elected back in December" and how great it was "to be inducted in Cooperstown." I don't know why I expected the writer to know better than the broadcaster. Maybe it was the part of Madden's speech at the induction where he declared, "The printed word is forever, the ready reference to the game's rich history preserved forever." As Orwell wrote, "History is written by the winners." Madden won an award, and he's entitled to write whatever history he wants. The library at the Hall of Fame contains a sizable file labeled "Phantoms," full of accounts of people who claimed to have played major league baseball, but who didn't. Their histories have been written, too.

As Peter Morris noted, there is one writer in the Hall of Fame, one who was elected for being a writer. That was Henry Chadwick, elected in 1938 as a "pioneer" of the game. Born in England, Chadwick wrote annual guides before men were even paid to play the game, spent several decades writing columns and guides championing the game, and, oh yeah, invented the box score. Top that, Bill Madden! Also, as I pointed out last week, many Hall of Fame players have had long broadcasting careers, and it might be that remaining in the public eye for decades after their playing careers ended was a factor in the eventual elections of Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, and others to the Hall of Fame. But note: their plaques make no mention of their broacasting careers. They were elected as players. And Chadwick never received the Spink Award.

At this point, my fondest wish is for Dizzy Dean to win the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. Dean has been on the ballot for at least the last few years. Fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt has also been nominated in the past. Think about that for a minute. What do you suppose the meeting was like at which Dean was first nominated for the award?

"Uh, how about that Dizzy Dean? Sure he had this semi-literate style and he didn't always tell the folks at home what was happening, but he did 'The Game of the Week' and he was a huge factor in popularizing baseball on television for nearly two decades."

"Yeah, he's a good candidate and maybe he even deserves the award. But we can't nominate him."

"Why not?"

"Because he's already in the Hall of Fame."

"So?"

"Suppose he's elected. Writers and announcers will fall off the edge of the world. What kind of headline would they write: 'Dizzy Dean First To Be Elected Twice To Same Hall of Fame'?"

"They would know better than that, wouldn't they?"

"Apparently not. They keep saying that the Frick and Spink Award winners have been elected. If they keep saying it, either they believe it or they're deliberately perpetrating a hoax."

"Yes, but we know better. We can't let other people's ignorance prevent us from doing the right thing. If we think he deserves to be nominated, let's nominate him."

"Fine. I'm just warning you. If Dean wins the award, heads will spin. They won't know what to think. They'll wonder how we can induct someone who's already been inducted?"

I don't know if that's how the conversation went, but Dean and Hoyt have been on the ballot, and they might not be the last elected members of the Hall of Fame to be nominated. So whoever did the nominating experienced no confusion on the point. Hall of Fame election is one thing; winning a Frick or Spink Award is another. They are not the same thing, or there would be no reason to risk re-inducting someone.

That's why I hope Dean wins the Frick Award, and the sooner the better. I think that's what it will take to make people blink and think and realize the implications. I suppose, however, that the "knights of the keyboard" would find a way to explain that Dean was the first man to be enshrined in both wings. I suppose, in a nation which has already had a President who was never elected to federal office, anything is possible.

That's also, of course, while I still hold out the hope that people can be enlightened about the difference between winning an award and winning election to the Hall of Fame. Awards are great, and some are more significant than others, but you either won something or you didn't. Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio and Jim Carrey go around bragging to people about winning Oscars? I doubt it, because it's on the public record that they didn't, and they know better than to trumpet something that didn't happen. What they did win was the Golden Globe Award (DiCaprio for "The Aviator" and Carrey for "The Truman Show").

The year Carrey won the Golden Globe, he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar. So I'm going to give him credit for acknowledging the difference between winning one thing while not even being considered for another thing. That kind of distinction is apparently lost on Bill Madden, Jon Miller, and others. They should be justly proud of winning what they did win; they're both terrific at what they do. But neither has even been on a ballot for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Two different things, folks. Keep that in mind as you join me in rooting for Dizzy Dean to make history as the first Hall of Famer to be honored with the Frick Award.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let's finish off with a little more poetry to sum up the situation. If Grantland Rice wasn't already turning over in his grave from my opening effort, he might be soon.

O sports fans! It's time to get busy--
Screw your congressman: re-elect Dizzy!
Though he's already enshrined--or is he?
What's the diff--let's re-elect Dizzy!

Let the powers-that-be at the Hall of Fame
Decide where it's best to lay the blame
When people hear Bill Madden's name
And think that he achieved the same
Immortal status in this game
As Ruth, Mays, Aaron, or whoever you name.

Still, you know that this character Ruth
Was rowdy, sex-crazed, and uncouth,
While Madden breathes nothing but truth,
So maybe he's nobler than Ruth.

Just keep in mind that no writer or talker will ever mean as much to baseball as or be a true Hall of Famer like The Babe
No matter how many awards he wins, and you heard it here from Gabe.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unfortunately, I Was Right

In 2004, long-time Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons won the Ford Frick Award presented annually at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown. From that moment, Jon Miller, who idolized Simmons since childhood from listening to him broadcast Giants games, began referring to Simmons as a "Hall of Fame announcer". Miller, I was sure, knew better than to think Simmons was actually elected to the Hall of Fame. He had to know, as anyone does who has paid even a little attention to the matter, that the annual winners of the Frick Award (given to announcers) and the Spink Award (given to writers) are just that: award winners. Winning an award is not the same as getting elected to the Hall of Fame.

However, Miller chose to call his colleague a Hall of Famer, and I told people I knew why. "Miller says that because when he wins the Frick Award, he hopes people will make the same mistake and call him a Hall of Famer."

Unfortunately, I was right. Yesterday Miller received the Frick Award at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown. In his speech, he did not refer to himself as a Hall of Famer, as more than one recipient of the award has dared to do. However, fifteen minutes later, Bill Madden, this year's winner of the Spink Award, took a moment to congratulate Miller for being inducted "into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." Sure enough, I believe Miller's wish had come true. Right there on the same stage, in front of the 47 bona fide members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who had returned for the ceremony and in front of the three new inductees, an esteemed baseball writer, an award winner himself, told the baseball world that Miller is now in the "broadcasters wing," presumably located in the vicinity of the "writers wing" which Madden no doubt hopes his colleagues will tell people that he is now similarly honored.

We need to get one thing straight here. There is NO SUCH THING as the broadcasters wing or the writers wing of the Hall of Fame. If you have visited the Hall of Fame, I defy you to tell me where it is. If you haven't visited (and you should), and someone tells you he or she has seen the broadcasters or writers wing at the Hall of Fame, do us all a favor. Ask that person where it is, and let me know what the answer is.

The closest thing you'll get to an accurate answer is that Miller's name is on a display in an exhibit that can be reached from the Plaque Gallery (where the actual Hall of Famers' plaques are permanently displayed) by going up a curved walkway and making a turn to the right. I walk past there every day, on the way to and from my job in the Hall of Fame library. I see that exhibit--unless I blink. If my eyes close long enough to blink, I miss it. If the only thing there was the display of winners of the Frick and Spink Awards (say that ten times quickly!), I could generously describe it as the "broadcasters and writers nook," but there is more there. We have displays about the history of baseball on radio and television, in newspapers and cartoons, and in movies. In the middle of the room is a two-sided board devoted to the award winners. The Frick Award winners are on one side and the Spink Award winners on the other. For each winner, there is a photo, his name, and a short paragraph about his career. That is it. There is no plaque and no carved portrait, as there are for the Hall of Famers. For each new award winner, the award proclamation read at the ceremony is displayed for one year, until next year's new winner arrives.

And that's it. That's all, folks. Jon Miller, Lon Simmons, Bill Madden, and the rest, as revered as they are in their professions, are not members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are numerous associations of announcers and writers which designate electees as Hall of Famers. You can google them online and find many lists of inductees. The one I'm looking at now--the Radio Hall of Fame--includes 11 men who have also won the Frick Award. Red Barber, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, and Bob Uecker are a few of them. Lon Simmons and Jon Miller are not.

Then there's the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, an organization which began its Hall of Fame in 1962 with the election of Grantland Rice (also an early winner of the Spink Award). There is a sizable overlap between the NSSA's 49 years' worth of inductees and the Frick and Spink Award winners, even though all sports are represented. (So are John Wayne, Lou Gehrig, and Ronald Reagan. Don't ask me why.) This year's NSSA inductees, for instance, are Peter Gammons and John Madden. And Jon Miller, I'm happy to report, was elected in 1999.

My beef has nothing to do with Miller and Madden personally. Miller is more fun to listen to than any announcer I know; if you haven't heard him on the radio, you don't know how good he really is. Madden is from my hometown; we went to the same high school, and he's been a top-notch reporter for decades, not to mention a good guy. They're great, but they're not members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sorry, Virginia--there is no broadcasters or writers wing in Cooperstown.

I suggest that you do what I do when people within earshot refer to a Frick or Spink Award winner as a Hall of Famer. I ask, "which Hall of Fame?" If they say the one in Cooperstown, I correct them. Trust me, that's what they always say.

I also know what you might be saying now: "What difference does it make? Everybody thinks they're Hall of Famers, and it's a harmless mistake that makes people feel good for their favorite announcer."

Here's the problem. It isn't harmless. It's dangerous to think it's okay to regard something as the truth simply because ten or a hundred or a thousand people say it's so, or because one person says ten or a hundred or a thousand times that it's so. Can you say "weapons of mass destruction"? The people running our country said it so often that we believed it and our elected representatives believed it, resulting in a war that is still killing Americans nearly a decade later.

People are weak, helpless, and deluded when they agree to accept something as truth simply because others assert it. If you know what you're hearing is not true--whether it's about something as (probably) benign as sports or about something more vital to our well-being--you are obligated to point out what is the truth. If you let small untruths pass unchallenged, they can only grow larger, until the big untruths go unchallenged because they are well-buttressed and resting on that foundation of fibs.

In the world of baseball reporting, you wind up with a statement like this one, from a column about Jon Miller receiving the Frick Award posted last Thursday on mlb.com by a writer named Chris Haft. Wrote Haft, "Miller hasn't completely grasped that he'll essentially be joining baseball's immortals. Though he'll be represented in the shrine's broadcasters' wing, he'll forever be considered as much of a Hall of Famer as Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb."

That's what he wrote, sports fans. You and I can sit here and see how preposterous that claim is, but I can also see 200 years down the road and a time when 200 years of misrepresentation catches up with history, a time when nobody alive knows anybody who ever knew anybody who saw Ty Cobb play or read a Damon Runyon game account the day it was published or listened to Vin Scully or Jon Miller call a ballgame. We're already not far from lacking living witnesses to the first two, and the exploits of fantastic players like Tris Speaker and George Sisler are already largely forgotten. Two centuries hence, if the only listing on the intergalacticnet has the names of 900 people enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with Jim Rice following Grantland Rice and Dan Cobb (the 2137 winner of the Frick Award) following Ty Cobb, I honestly hope there's some nitpicky little pest like me going around telling people that "actually, Ty Cobb was one of the handful of greatest players of his generation, but Dan Cobb only won the Frick Award and wasn't much known outside of the Sea of Tranquility and its suburbs. He wasn't really elected to the Hall of Fame."

Are Jon Miller and Bill Madden in the Hall of Fame? Yes, they are. They are, in the same sense that Pete Rose and Joe Jackson are in the Hall of Fame. They are all included in exhibits in the museum. You can see their images in the museum, and you can examine their clipping and photo files in the library. Have any of them been elected to the Hall of Fame? The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, that is? No. Sorry about that.

You might as well say that "in 2000 Al Gore was elected President" or that he invented the internet or can save the planet whether we want him to or not. You can wish all you want to, and believe what you want. Some people will tell you that there really were all those weapons of mass destruction but we just didn't find them (yet). Some professional announcers still tell their listeners that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, in the same breath they use to inform us that today's starting pitcher has a 2.75 ERA in the first inning over the past three seasons. In the maelstrom of facts, myths, misconceptions, rumors, and lies that comes our way every day, it's difficult to figure out exactly what is true. When we do know something, we deceive and cheat ourselves if we don't assert that truth when it can un-deceive someone else.

People will tell you all kinds of things. It might be because they can gain something by having you believe it. It might be because they honestly feel it will help you to believe it. Or it might because they are flat-out wrong and keep saying it because they don't know any better. Does Jon Miller actually believe he has been elected to the Hall of Fame? I don't know. That absurd statement by Chris Haft at mlb.com was followed by a quote from Miller, ostensibly (because it's the next sentence) in response to Haft's claim. "I guess that part of it hasn't really sunk in yet," said Miller. I hope for his sake that it doesn't sink in so deeply that he believes it.

I'm curious to see what happens on ESPN next Sunday night, when Miller and Joe Morgan (who introduced him and read the proclamation at the induction ceremony without making any mention of Miller being a Hall of Famer) are back in the booth. They have been joined this season by Orel Hershiser, and is anybody out there prepared to bet that Hershiser won't say something along the lines of "what a privilege it is to share the booth with two Hall of Famers"? I don't think he'll be referring to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. Maybe he'll even phrase it to note that they're enshrined in Cooperstown.

What I'm waiting to see is whether Joe Morgan, who is not only an elected inductee in Cooperstown but also the Vice-Chairman of the Hall of Fame, will say, "Actually, Orel, I'm in the Hall of Fame. Jon won the Frick Award, but that's different." Or will he say, "Thank you, Orel. I'm just proud to be considered as much of a Hall of Famer as the man sitting next to me."

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

History Night At The Ballpark

I hope you didn't miss the historic battle on Tuesday night when the Pirates entertained the visiting Brewers. In dramatic fashion, the teams staged a parade of runs that could have been billed as "The Rise and Fall of the Republican Party". In the space of a couple of hours, the fans in the ballpark saw a succession of events emblematic of the GOP's early successes and more recent disasters.

When I saw the matchup of starting pitchers that afternoon, I knew the folks in Pittsburgh were in for a momentous evening. Yes, it was Lincoln vs. Bush--Lincoln, whose startling victory in the 1860 election put his party on the map, and Bush, whose maniacal campaign to avenge his father plunged his party into disarray. As the game's start drew near and I saw the advance box score posted online, it occurred to me that Lincoln might be in trouble. The home plate umpire was Derryl "Our American" Cousins. That didn't bode well.

True to form, however, Lincoln got off to a fine start, retiring the Brewers in order in the top of the first. Bush took the mound, and his competence lasted exactly one batter, who flied out. Apart from that, Bush's tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Two singles (one by a guy named Walker who, it turned out, really had his number) and a walk loaded the bases. That brought up Pedro Alvarez, a rookie with all of 12 RBI to his name and a Bush admirer (his favorite movie is "Dumb and Dumber"). Alvarez unloaded the bases with a grand slam.

After this quick explosion of runs, things only got worse for Bush, as he was thoroughly betrayed by his defensive alignment. The next batter singled and went to second when Bush uncorked a wild heave. That was followed by back-to-back miscues by the third baseman, allowing two more opponents to reach base, scoring one run and leaving runners on first and second.

Lincoln, of course, sacrificed.

At this point, Bush probably figured that he was going to escape with only a five-run deficit against his record. But no. A double scored two more runs. Boom--another double, another run. Boom-boom--another double, this one by that Walker guy, and yet another run.

When the smoke cleared, it was a nine-run first inning against the hapless Bush. Yet for some reason, his boss saw fit to let him keep trying to do the job. Somehow, he lasted three more innings, giving up one more run, before he was put out of his misery and sent to the sidelines. Ten runs in four innings--not a pretty showing, citizens. And Walker had five hits on the night.

With all this bounty, you'd think it would be smooth sailing for Lincoln. But no. Essentially, the war was over with that first heavy volley. But Lincoln wasn't around to enjoy the triumph or the spoils of victory. He was gone by the third inning, after being ambushed for seven runs. Oh, his team won all right (11-9), but he was long gone by then, just the memory of a man who had stood tall but fallen by the wayside.

I hope the swarm of 13,000+ fans who attended that game in Pittsburgh appreciated it. They saw 150 years of Republican history in a stark microcosm. It's a lesson we shouldn't forget.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Incidentally, you can put together a damn good starting nine made up of Hall of Famers with the same last name as a president:

C: Gary Carter
1B: Ben Taylor
2B: Frank Grant
SS: Travis Jackson
3B: Judy Johnson
LF: Jud Wilson (mostly a third baseman but not great on grounders, so I'm putting him in left)
CF: Hack Wilson
RF: Reggie Jackson
RHP: Walter Johnson
LHP: Whitey Ford
Honorary captain: (of course) Grover Cleveland Alexander

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Right On The Nose

My sainted father used to say that a pitcher should have the right to smack his fielders on the nose when they make errors that cost him runs or victories. I couldn't argue then, and still can't.

Of course, it should work the other way, too. A team should be entitled to pummel any starting pitcher who is so atrocious that he doesn't give his teammates a chance to win. That has been the case with Mike Pelfrey in his last four starts for the Mets. When he took the mound in Florida, he had a stellar 10-2 record and 2.71 ERA. That night, he squandered a 3-0 lead and exited in the 5th inning, having been slammed for a dozen hits. The Mets escaped with a late win, but for Pelfrey it marked the start of a descent into Pitching Hell.

Against the Reds on July 5, he survived several early threats before collapsing again in the 5th inning, when he got drilled for six runs. His next time out, he again dodged early threats and again met his comeuppance in the 5th inning, allowing all five runners to reach base. Four of them scored, and he took his second straight loss. A stiff neck postponed his scheduled start last weekend, and instead he opened the series at Arizona last night. It was a disaster from start to finish, and this finish occurred in the 2nd inning. He faced 13 batters and retired only four, and before the Mets could say "Oliver Perez" it was 6-0 Diamondbacks.

Actually I think Jerry Manuel has to take the blame for last night's debacle. A day after closer Francisco Rodriguez threw 47 pitches in vulturing a victory, I'm sure Manuel went to Pelfrey before the game and said, "Listen, I want you to make sure we don't have to use a closer tonight." Pelfrey took care of that, paving the way for a 13-2 drubbing that gave the Mets' more esteemed relievers the night off.

Pelfrey's four-start meltdown looks even worse on paper than it did on the field. In 14.2 innings, he has walked 10 batters and hit another--and that's the good news. Batters have pounded 40 hits off him--twice he has allowed a dozen hits, a difficult feat these days. That's nearly three hits an inning. His ERA has gone from 2.71 to 4.01 thanks to a four-game ERA of 12.89. The WHIP is even more impressive: 3.41. He has recorded 44 outs while 51 batters have reached base. It's enough to make Mets fans think, "jeez, even Oliver Perez wasn't that bad!"

But I digress. I started out to write about Johan Santana, who would have double-digit bloody knuckles if he followed my father's dictum about punching teammates for lack of support. Santana, as usual, pitched like a demon on Sunday; he left his heart in San Francisco, putting out fires in the early innings and getting stronger late in the game, leaving after eight innings with a 3-1 lead which Rodriguez quickly torched in the bottom of the 9th.

For Santana, unfortunately, it was business as usual in 2010. Here's the bottom line: in 20 starts this season, he has allowed zero earned runs seven times. His teammates have rewarded those gems with exactly three wins. Five other times, he has allowed just one earned run; two of those have also been wasted. He got another no-decision the one time he allowed two runs. Yes, he's had some bad starts, notably a 10-run disaster at Philadelphia and a stretch in June when he gave up at least four runs in four straight starts. His record when he gives up more than two runs is 1-5. When he gives up two runs or less, he is 6-0 with seven no-decisions.

Usually the problem has been a lack of run support, especially on the road. Throw out the Philadelphia debacle and Santana's road ERA is 1.69 in 64 innings, good for exactly one win. Remember that April game in St. Louis where the Mets and Cardinals were scoreless until the 19th inning? Santana started that one and allowed just four hits in seven innings, but the Mets didn't sniff a scoring opportunity while he was in there. They got him a run in Florida in mid-May, but an unearned run saw him leave after seven innings of a 1-1 tie.

It got more frustrating in his final May start, where he outdueled Milwaukee's ace, Yovani Gallardo, allowing only three hits in eight superb shutout innings. The Mets got eight hits off Gallardo but no runs thanks to three double plays, and Santana left a scoreless tie in his wake. The bullpen lost that one. His next start was at San Diego, and it was more of the same. The Mets actually got him a run this time, and he battled through seven innings, throwing 123 pitches but holding the Padres runless. It didn't matter. Frankie Rodriguez blew the lead in the bottom of the 9th, leaving Santana with a 4-2 record plus six no-decisions.

Perhaps frustrated by this paltry support, Santana gave up runs early in his next few starts, killing the suspense. Of course, the Mets got shut out twice along the way, so at least he was used to that. Then came July and four scintillating starts in a row. In those four outings he has given up just two runs in 31 innings. That included the 3-hit shutout of the hot Reds that I witnessed on July 6, when Santana had a ton of movement on the ball, threw strikes, and mowed down the highest-scoring offense in the National League. It also included two more no-decisions, the blown save by Rodriguez in San Francisco and an earlier game at Washington in which Santana wasted yet another run by his offense, leading 1-0 before the Nationals tied it 1-1 in the 7th inning and Manuel gave him the rest of the night off.

We've seen this before, of course, a succession of yeoman efforts by the stalwart starter who is getting far more bucks from the Mets (about $18 million a year) than runs (3.0 per start this season). The same thing happened in 2008, his first year with the Mets. Through June he had a 7-7 record and 3.01 ERA, including no-decisions for three starts in which he totalled three runs allowed in 18 2/3 innings with 25 strikeouts (in all three of those, the bullpen blew leads). That was frustrating enough, but the second half of the season was even stranger.

From July on, Santana went 9-0, pitching brilliantly to the tune of a 2.09 ERA. Smooth sailing, right? Try this out for size. His post-June log also included eight no-decisions:

1. July 4: 8 innings, 2 runs, left a 2-2 tie that the bullpen lost in the 9th

2. July 17: his only post-June start with more than 3 runs allowed, he left trailing 5-4 in the 5th inning of a game the Mets won 10-8

3. July 22: after 8 solid innings of work against the Phillies, he left with a 5-2 lead, which the bullpen blew by giving up 6 runs in the 9th

4. August 2: he outpitched Roy Oswalt in Houston, leaving in the 7th with a comfortable 4-1 lead, only to see Billy Wagner blow the save in the 9th and the Astros win in the 10th

5. August 7: he led 3-1 after seven innings, gave up one run while exiting in the 8th, and sat helplessly by as Scot Schoeneweis served up a home run to the immortal Jody Gerut in the 9th, the third time in his last four starts the bullpen blew a potential win for him

6. August 27: after three straight wins (3 runs allowed in 23 innings), he got bailed out this time, leaving after six innings trailing 3-2 and watching the Phillies bullpen blow a lead in the late innings instead

7. September 1: in another miracle, he left with a 2-0 deficit and his teammates came from behind to win 4-2, rescuing him from what would've been a tough loss

8. September 13: this was another tough one as he took a 2-0 lead to the 8th, gave up a pair of singles to start the inning, and was removed; two batters later, the score was tied, and there went another win

Santana finished strong in 2008, winning his last three starts and capping the campaign with a much-needed shutout on the season's penultimate day. So he ended with a 16-7 record, plus seven games in which he left with the lead and the bullpen did him in. In three of his losses he allowed only one earned run. You get the idea. He should've cruised past the 20-win plateau, and incidentally, if the bullpen hadn't screwed him, the Mets would've sailed into the postseason instead of falling by the wayside in their final game.

And here he sits in late July with a measly seven wins to show for his efforts in 2010. Yes, he had a rough stretch when he was apparently tipping his pitches, and he's had an alarming habit of giving up 1st-inning grand slams, but don't let that 7-5 record fool you. The guy is a stud who pitches his ass off every time out, and the Mets would be in the tank without him, especially recently. They've won just three of their last 11 games; those were the three games Santana started. My sidekick Freddy Berowski informs me that Santana currently ranks sixth in the National League in Wins Above Replacement (how much better he is than an average pitcher who would theoretically take his place). That's nice. The problem is that he's only a couple of wins ahead of the apparently below-average pitchers who keep replacing him in reality.

It isn't Santana's fault that he gets as little support as an upstate Democrat. I keep sensing my father rolling around in his grave, muttering "smack them, Johan, right on the nose!" I just hope that when he starts heeding that very sensible advice, he remembers to use only his right hand, so we can keep on having the pleasure of watching him pitch.