Thursday, March 25, 2010

Post-season Schedule "Condensed"--By One Lousy Day

In a breakthrough that was hailed as the forerunner of even more seismic shifts down the road, a special 14-man committee put together by Commissioner Bud Selig has announced the elimination of exactly one off-day from a postseason schedule that turned last year's championship competition into a joke. Thus it remains a joke, a bad joke with a punch line just a word or two shorter than it was in 2009.

"It's an important first step," said committee member Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager whose outraged reaction to being screwed by excessive off-days in last year's playoffs led to the formation of the committee, "and could lead to a really good [postseason] format eventually." Key word there is "eventually," as in "perhaps in our lifetimes" or "possibly soon enough that Scioscia will still be managing." With television dictating the essence of the ridiculous postseason schedule, it's a sure bet that, eventually or not, the schedule's prime focus will be money and not fair competition.

That's because the big change of the past few years is unlikely to be altered, namely Television's insistence that the World Series begin on a Wednesday in order to minimize competition with football and (possibly) get a bigger audience. As long as that World Series starting date is set in stone, it matters little what alterations are made for the earlier postseason series. All that the committee did this week was eliminate one grievous glitch in the League Championship Series. They got rid of the extra off-day, added a few years ago, between games 4 and 5. That's it. One entire off-day gone. Teams will now be forced to play three days in a row in the same stadium, as they did during the first century or so of postseason play. Two rainouts during an LCS in 2006, which affected travel days and disrupted the television schedule, were the cause of the added off-day, a typical Bud Selig overreaction though not as extreme as giving the home-field advantage in the World Series to the All-Star Game-winning league just because two managers ran out of pitchers in his hometown ballpark.

Scioscia's complaint last year was chiefly that the excessive days off (the Yankees won the title by playing 15 games in 29 days) prevented teams with what qualifies these days as a "deep" pitching staff were penalized because all teams were able to get by quite nicely with three starting pitchers and a couple of relievers. For more than three weeks, the Yankees never had to play more than two straight days. Granted, they earned a bit of this privilege by sweeping their Division Series from the Twins--but even there they played the three games over a five-day period, with a day off after each game. As a result, the Yankees were able to use a strict three-man rotation throughout the postseason; CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and A.E. Pettitte each made five starts.

I think an even more important break the Yankees gained from the lazy schedule was getting more rest for Mariano Rivera. Thanks to the team playing essentially only every other day, Rivera was able to pitch in 12 of the 15 postseason games. Of course he was untouchable, as he has almost always been in the postseason; in 2009, he logged 16 innings and allowed only one run. Also typical of his postseason play, he was employed for more than one inning of work more than any other reliever of his generation, a whopping six times in a dozen appearances.

Could he have pitched in 12 of 15 games, going more than an inning in half of them, without all those days off? Nope. There is no evidence from the rest of his career that suggests such a possibility. In 2004, he pitched in 74 games, a career high, or fewer than one-half of his team's games. He had one stretch in June of 2004 where he pitched 7 times in 9 days, picking up 7 saves while allowing just one run, but he never pitched more than an inning in any of those games. There was a similar stretch in 2003, 7 games in 9 days, with 6 saves in 9 innings of work. Then he got five days off.

In 2009, at the overripe baseball age of 39, Rivera's toughest test during the regular came in July, when he pitched 5 times in 6 days. He got the save all 5 times but faced only 15 batters in 4 1/3 innings--and this followed seven days during which his only inning pitched was in the All-Star Game. So he was well-rested, and his final effort during this run was a one-batter save with nobody on base and a two-run lead.

When the 2009 postseason rolled around, Rivera got the call for the first six games played by the Yankees--over a 13-day period. Only once did he have to pitch two days in a row, and he did just fine, 2 1/3 scoreless innings en route to a 4-3 Yankees victory over the Angels in 13 innings in Game 2 of the ALCS. Following that hard labor, he pitched only three times in the next 11 days--of course, the Yankees only played 5 games (losing three) in those 11 days.

You get the idea. Cutting out the off-day following Game 4 of last year's ALCS wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference in the outcome. The postseason should be the most difficult challenge that teams face, a test of their talent, depth, versatility, and resilience. For the athletes, it shouldn't be the prelude to their November vacations it is now, allowing them to play golf half the time and get in some competition the other half. Make them work for those rings!

I hate to say it, but it's time that MLB took the lead from the NBA and the NHL. They have just as many tiers of postseason playoff rounds as baseball, and they use a simple formula for scheduling. Finish this series, take a day or two off, and start the next one. It doesn't matter what day of the week it is. The fans will figure out that the most important games of the year are being played, and they'll watch. Scioscia and Yankees manager Joe Girardi concurred yesterday that the current postseason schedule robs the players of a sense of "continuity". Baseball is an everyday sport from the start of spring training through the end of the regular season. That is, until we get to October (and now November, thanks to Commissioner Television). Then MLB takes its time, stepping daintily around the football behemoth and trying to wedge in a few games here and there when the turfheads might be distracted. But you know what? If hockey fans can find their games, baseball fans can find them, too--right where they should be, every day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Naming Wrongs

Shortly after I started working at the Hall of Fame library, I discovered a wonderful book published in the 1990s by Peter Filichia, titled Professional Baseball Franchises. It lists every minor-league team from the 1880s forward, including nicknames, league affiliations, classifications, renamings, and years of existence. It is indispensable for locating where people played, which we are often asked to do in the library.

It’s also a very entertaining book because of those nicknames, many of which are dandies. Today a big issue is “naming rights,” the policy of major-league franchises selling out to corporations who put their names on ballparks whose identities used to be linked with important people. For instance, Mets fans, instead of taking their kids to a stadium named for the man (William Shea) who brought the majors back to the National League, they can all go to a stadium named after a company that took $200 million in federal bailout money and used a good chunk of it to put a sign on a building.

I’m here to talk about something else, which I call “naming wrongs”. I have scoured Filichia’s book and some more recent sources to find the most ridiculous nicknames for minor-league teams. Most raise the question “what the hell were they thinking?” Ideally, a team’s nickname presents an image of stalwart, formidable competitors, or at least trumpets some aspect of the city’s civic pride. The name should be positive, strong, and somehow resonant with the players’ (presumed) desire to take on any opposition and fight for victory with all their energy.

However, Filichia’s book is replete with examples of teams that couldn’t conceive of the notion of trying to intimidate the opposition, and cities whose civic identity involved the self-absorbed myopia of modest aspirations. What am I saying? Their nicknames sucked. Many of them existed in the period from 1890-1920, when lots of leagues and teams came and went and were seemingly named by their owner’s whim, but there are plenty of recent examples. Sometimes a whole league was apparently populated by teams trying to outdo each other in strangeness. A recent example is the 1997 South Atlantic League and its odd menagerie of teams, including the Shorebirds, Sand Gnats, Boll Weevils, Alley Cats, Bats, Crocs, River Dogs, and Crawdads. Going way back, how would like to go on a road trip in the 1902 Missouri Valley League and face these teams: the Nevada Lunatics, the Jefferson City Convicts, and the Iola Gasbags?

In making my list of favorite nicknames, I chose only unique names. If more than one team used a nickname, it was disqualified, which eliminated a team that used to exist not far from Cooperstown, the Johnstown-Amsterdam-Gloversville Hyphens. Other dandies that had to be discarded included the Goobers, Gassers, Infants, Smoke Eaters, and Cannibals. I’ve divided my finds into groups, presented here in no particular order. As you read them, ask yourself “If this team came to my town, would I be scared of them or laugh at them?”

Lafayette Brahman Bulls
Pocomoke City Salamanders
Poughkeepsie Honey Bugs
Denison Katydids
Winston-Salem Warthogs
Batavia Muckdogs
Portland Sea Dogs
Piedmont Dry Bugs
Omaha Omahogs
Erie Sea Wolves

Sterling Rag Chewers
Akron Rubbernecks
Green Bay Duck Wallopers
Fort Dodge Gypsumeaters
Corsicana Gumbo Busters
Regina Bonepilers
St. Joseph Clay Eaters

LaCross Outcasts
Bridgeport Misfits
Jacksonville Lunatics
Iola Gasbags
Paterson Intruders
Rockford Indignants
Waycross Blowhards
York Yahoos

Troy Washerwomen
Bloomington Suckers
Bluffton Dregs
Hopewell Powder Puffs
Centralia Zeros
McAlester Sighs
Oakland Monday Models
Norwich Bonbons
Muncie Fruit Jars

Omaha Kidnappers
North Wilkesboro Flashers
Salina Insurgents
Asheville Moonshiners
Adrian Yeggs
Graham Hijackers

Canton Chinks
Tarboro Tarbabies
Lawton Medicine Men
Canon City Swastikas

Americus Pallbearers
Beatrice Milkskimmers
Nazareth Cement Dusters
Vancouver Horse Doctors
Kirksville Osteopaths

Kalamazoo Celery Eaters
Lebanon Pretzel Eaters
Bay City Rice Eaters
Sanford Celeryfeds

JUST PLAIN STRANGE (how did they even think of these as baseball teams?)
Hartford Wooden Nutmegs
Memphis Fever Germs
Lowell Bingling Pans
Waterloo Microbes
Albuquerque Isotopes
Freeport Comeons
Saginaw Wa-Was
Ottumwa Standpatters
Sacramento Gilt Edges
Worcester Riddles

I’ve saved my Top 10 favorites for last. Some of these names have specific stories behind them, like the 1891 outbreak of violence at a Pittsburgh steel mill owned by Andrew Carnegie (#3). Some are backed up by logic; you say “sure” but still wonder why someone tagged a ballclub with them (#7). Some just make you scratch your head (#4). Put yourself in the players’ places. Did they write home to their families and declare “I’m so proud to be a _______”? Here they are, counting down from #10 to my all-time favorite:

#10: Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (located on California’s earthquake fault-line, they do play in the park with the coolest name, the Epicenter)
#9: Lansing Lugnuts (oooh, scary!)
#8: Bonham Boogers (would you even want to tag them out?)
#7: Zanesville Flood Sufferers (an odd source of civic pride)
#6: Schenectady Frog Alley Bunch (enter at your own risk)
#5: Hoquiam Perfect Gentlemen (except for all that tobacco spit)
#4: Taylorville Taylored Commies (played in 1910, before The Revolution)
#3: Shenandoah Hungarian Rioters (some claim to fame!)
#2: Lincoln Missing Links (the opposition made monkeys out of them)
#1: Minot Why-Nots (why not indeed? North Dakota’s finest)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Game That Brought Me Home

Last night, I watched the first inning of the greatest baseball game I never saw. That's all, just the first inning. The rest of the game can wait, because it was the baseball equivalent of the proverbial 40-pound bag of Oreos. You wouldn't want to devour it as soon as you open it, and you couldn't handle the whole thing all at once anyway. It's on the TiVo, recorded from the MLB Network, and I'll savor it a little bit at a time over the next week. I've waited more than 30 years to see it, not even knowing the video still existed, and I'm going to take my time with it. 

Two weeks into 1979, I escaped snow-covered Pennsylvania and headed for Europe, where I'd spent a semester in college eight years earlier. This time I planned to take as long as I could to explore it. I began with five weeks in Rome (on $10 a day, just like the book said), then spent more than two months criss-crossing the continent on a Eurailpass (about $300 for unlimited first-class train travel). I saw everything and gathered a lifetime's worth of memories. In mid-April, I landed in London, where I planned to stay as far into the summer as I could. I was in no hurry to leave; when I got back, I'd help my parents run their store in a little resort town in the Poconos that hadn't offered me much in the last half of 1978. There was no lure for me there when I could linger in London and bask in Culture. 

When the baseball season began, I found the daily scores in the International Herald Tribune, though not much more. The Tribune carried the line scores, listing pitchers and home runs, plus a short paragraph on each game. It was just enough to keep me contented that I wasn't neglecting my game, that I was keeping up with the essential events despite spending my afternoons in Hyde Park rather than a ballpark. 

I knew my Reds were off to a slow start and that my favorite player, Pete Rose, was getting his share of hits--making his share of the newsy snippets of the Tribune--with his new team, the Phillies. In early May, while I filled in my schedule with plays to be named at a later date, Rose had a succession of multi-hit games which enabled me to follow his daily progress the way I had during his sixteen seasons with the Reds. I started thinking that maybe I should start thinking about perhaps getting back to the Poconos, where I could catch Rose and the first-place Phillies continuing their early-season run on radio and television. 

It was tempting, but I put the thought on hold as a couple of friends from Colorado joined me for a week of theater-filled fun. By the time they left, it was mid-May and I'd been in London for a month. I thought maybe another month or two would satisfy my wanderlust, despite persistent daydreams of a whole summer in Scandinavia with its cooler climate and hotter blondes. 

Then I picked up the Tribune on May 18 and saw the line score of The Game. The Phillies played at Wrigley Field the day before, and clearly the wind had been blowing out. I couldn't believe what I saw: the score was 7-6 after one inning, 15-6 Phillies by the third, 21-9 halfway through the game--and it went extra innings! 

I gawked at the score, 23-22, counted up the eleven home runs, and tried to imagine what the game looked like, found myself wishing I could at least have listened to it. Not just wishing. Soon it grew into regret. What was I missing? Everything! The baseball season was unfolding in my absence, and I couldn't bear to miss any more of it. That was the end of Europe for me. I was on a plane home three days later. 

About a dozen years down the road, I bought a radio broadcast of the game, on three cassettes. I was living in Las Vegas, and the four-hour broadcast was exactly the same length as the drive between Vegas and Los Angeles. I listened to it enough to know all the hits and runs by heart. It was the Phillies broadcast, featuring future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, who was absolutely beside himself as the onslaught went on and on and on. After the first inning, he predicted a 19-13 final score and probably thought he was being outlandish, though he underestimated the final carnage by 40%. His reactions were hilarious. 

Many things about the game were amazing, most of all the Phillies' inability to hold a 12-run lead. It evaporated quickly after they went ahead 21-9 in the top of the fifth inning. Tug McGraw came in and gave up seven runs in the blink of an eye. Somehow the Phillies' offense faltered, scoring only one run in four innings, while the Cubs kept pounding away and tied the game, 22-22, with a three-run eighth inning. Leading the way were Bill Buckner, who drove in seven runs, and Dave Kingman, who blasted three mammoth home runs, each one longer than the previous one. The third one came on the first pitch, and Ashburn was still gushing about the previous two when this one was launched. "Ooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" was Ashburn's prolonged cry after Kingman made contact, like a little kid at the circus witnessing some unimaginable aerial feat. 

In the first inning, Kingman batted with the Cubs trailing 7-1 and two men on base. The MBL Network video is from the Cubs broadcast, with Jack Brickhouse at the microphone. He went nuts when Kingman took a waist-high fastball over the outside corner and yanked it way over the left field fence and across the street, where it bounced off the building which subsequently became the home of makeshift bleachers on the roof. That day, two men stood there, and the astonished Brickhouse gasped, "that guy was ready to catch it!" I can't wait to hear what he says for Kingman's other two blasts, which needed no help from the 17mph wind to sail onto Waveland Avenue. 

Yes, it's going to be fun listening the Brickhouse, one of the most unabashed "homers" in broadcasting history, as the Cubs fight back from that 12-run deficit. "The game is four days old and the Cubs haven't even batted yet," he moaned as the Phillies went ahead, 7-0, in the top of the first. The mayhem had begun already. After three-run homers by Mike Schmidt and Bob Boone, Phillies starter Randy Lerch sliced a line drive to left-center that just cleared the wall. "Oh come on!" Brickhouse yelped, like a little kid whose older brother keeps pounding the Wiffle ball and not letting him get his turn to hit. 

Lerch didn't make it through the bottom of the first (the two starters--Dennis Lamp took his lumps for the Cubs--combined to record two outs while surrendering eleven runs), which was punctuated when reliever Donnie Moore crashed a triple which made the score 7-6. That's the kind of game it was. The eleven combined home runs still shares a piece of the National League record. The teams smashed 50 hits, only two shy of the record for an extra-inning game, and the 45 runs was the most in a game since the Cubs edged the Phillies, 26-23, in 1922. I'm really sorry I missed out on that one! 

Eleven pitchers marched to the mound that day at Wrigley Field (by the way, the folks at the MLB Network began the telecast with a graphic stating that the ballpark was originally built for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, but managed to bungle the name, calling it "Weegham" instead of "Weeghman"), no doubt feeling like Christians being led to the lions. Two of them survived without giving up a run. Ironically, it was the only future Hall of Fame pitcher in the game, Bruce Sutter, who gave up the game-winning hit, a 10th-inning home run by the game's other future Hall of Famer, Mike Schmidt. 

I think the first-place Phillies must have been worn out--or perhaps spoiled--by all that scoring, since they lost 16 of their next 21 games en route to a fourth-place finish. Then there was home plate umpire Dick Cavenaugh. The 1979 season began with the umpires on strike, and local sandlot umps were recruited for the first six weeks of the season. This game was the next-to-last of Cavenaugh's major league "career," and his third behind the plate. Watching the first inning, I noticed that he squeezed the plate on several pitches that looked like clear strikes. That no doubt contributed to the mayhem. In his previous game behind the plate, also at Wrigley Field, the score was 14-13 (the Cubs won that one). So he had a front-row seat for a parade of 72 runs across the plate in two games. One more game after this one, and off to the rocking chair for him. 

It might be the rocking chair for me, too, as I settle down this evening with my high-powered sack of Oreos. I know I'll get through at least the top of the third inning, in which the Phillies will score eight runs off Donnie Moore and Willie Hernandez to go ahead 15-6. I wonder whether Brickhouse will plummet into despair or whether he'll sense that his Cubbies still have marvelous circus feats of their own to perform. Like him, I know I'll be amazed to see what happens next, even though I've been replaying it in my mind ever since I saw that line score in the Tribune nearly 31 years ago.