Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Not Yet The Year Of The Pitcher

Last week I was interviewed by a reporter for Bloomberg News who sought my views on whether 2010 is indeed the new "Year of the Pitcher". Apparently some analysts have declared that to be the case, though the news hadn't reached my neck of the woods until the reporter mentioned it. The reporter, a pleasant fellow named Mason, wondered how the pitching feats of 2010 stacked up against the acknowledged "Year of the Pitcher," 1968.

My initial response was that there is no comparison. What happened in 1968 was the culmination of a trend toward great pitching that grew gradually through the 1960s before exploding out of all reasonable proportion in 1968, when the batting average for the entire American League was .230, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, and 21% of all games in the major leagues were shutouts. The two greatest season-long pitching performances of my lifetime occurred in 1968: Bob Gibson compiled a ridiculous 1.12 ERA, and Denny McLain won 31 games. The worst team ERA in the majors was 3.64 (the last-place Senators), and Luis Tiant's spectacular season (21-9, 1.60 ERA, 9 shutouts, and more than one strikeout an inning) has been totally forgotten.

Have we seen anything like that in 2010? No. As I told Mason, we haven't even finished half a season, and it's too soon to concede this season to the pitchers. Yes, many of them have had the upper hand so far, and a few have compiled outstanding numbers, but we haven't gotten to those hot summer nights when the ball carries better and the home runs start flying, and the annual late-season meltdown of overtaxed arms. What we've seen in this half-season might look quite different by the end of September.

Indeed, look at the two pitchers Mason and his sources cited as evidence of 2010's pitching dominance: Ubaldo Jimenez and Stephen Strasburg. I did agree that if I were redoing my book Unhittable! Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons today, I'd have to add Jimenez, whose 13-1 start echoes two pitchers who did merit chapters in the book, Ron Guidry from 1978 (13-0 through July 2) and Roger Clemens from 1986 (14-0 through June 27). However, Jimenez has allowed nine runs in his last two starts, and though he raised his record to 14-1 last night, his ERA has already jumped from a Gibson-like 1.09 to 1.83. Check with me at the end of September to see if he reaches 25 wins and keeps his ERA under 2.5.

As for Strasburg, he has lost two games since Mason and I talked. Granted, his team hasn't scored a single run in support of him, and he pitched well, up to a point. He followed a tough 1-0 loss with six shutout innings last night before getting pounded for four runs in the seventh inning. His record is now 2-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 48 strikeouts in fewer than 30 innings. Yes, he has all the talent in the world, but he has only pitched five games in the majors. Look at Kerry Wood. Through his first seven starts as a rookie in 1998, he was 5-2 with a 2.90 ERA, plus 66 strikeouts in 40 innings (including a record 20 in his sixth start). We all know what happened to Wood. Just as it's too soon to declare 2010 the "year of the pitcher," it's simply too soon to anoint Strasburg as the next Hall of Fame ace.

All we can say is that Strasburg has tremendous talent and Hall of Fame potential, which is something that we can say about a lot of young pitchers currently putting up impressive early-career numbers. I observed in a blog a year ago that an unusually (for recent years) large crop of extremely talented young pitchers. In that sense, we're looking at something similar to what we had in 1968. It is accepted that pitchers mature a little later than hitters, and that a pitcher's prime begins in his late twenties. So here's a look at starting pitchers from 1968 and 2010 who were less than 27 years old on July 1st:

26 years old: Jimenez, Jon Lester, Zach Greinke, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum (plus the likes of Mike Pelfrey and Francisco Liriano, who seem to be coming into their own this season)
25 years old: Clay Buchholz, Chad Billingsley, Matt Cain
24 years old: Felix Hernandez, David Price, Phil Hughes, Yovani Gallardo, Johnny Cueto
22 years old: Clayton Kershaw
21 years old: Stephen Strasburg

26 years old: Mel Stottlemyre, Wilbur Wood
25 years old: Dave McNally, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman
24 years old: Ferguson Jenkins, Denny McLain
23 years old: Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Sutton
22 years old: Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman
21 years old: Nolan Ryan, Larry Dierker

We know how the 1968 group turned out. There are many more names that could be added to both lists, and it should be added that as of mid-1968, many of those pitchers hadn't assembled the resumes that have already been amassed by the current crop. But in terms of raw talent, the two generations are reasonably comparable. It will be fun to see how they develop.

Another thing I pointed out to Mason is that baseball's history is cyclical. It has alternated pitching-dominated and hitting-dominated periods for more than a century, and there's no reason to think that the cycle can't continue. There are already a few signs that we could be headed for another pitching-heavy phase, such as the opening of several newer, larger parks (Citi Field and Target Field, to name two). On the other hand, today's starting pitchers aren't being trained to work the number of games and innings necessary to compile large numbers. So while we might see a decade or two of declining offense, it still might not produce the no-brainer Hall of Fame pitchers that the 1960s did.

So 2010 isn't yet the "Year of the Pitcher," 21st-century style, but I would agree that it is the "Year of Pitching Potential". Those are two different things; just ask a quartet of hurlers who would have made a similar listing earlier this decade: Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Talent is the easy part. Success is much tougher.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Mudville Heritage

Two or three decades ago, I read a very enjoyable book titled The Old Ball Game, by the euphoniously named Tristram Potter Coffin. It turns out that Mr. Coffin was unhappy with the original publisher's choice of title. He wanted to call it The Mudville Heritage: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction. So he is no doubt delighted that his preferred title graces the cover of a new edition of his little gem of a book, recently published by Rvive Books (http://www.rvive.com/).

A now-retired English professor whose field was folklore, Coffin fashioned a disarming and thought-provoking examination of the game we love as an expression of American cultural preoccupations. Why is baseball important to us? How does it reflect our national identity and express the characteristics our society reveres? Why have certain baseball figures commanded more acclaim than others? And how have our storytellers helped us define what is obviously so vital about this game? These are some of the questions explored by Coffin, with very entertaining results.

Though he covers the whole range of baseball history, Coffin's writing is definitely a product of his time. Published in 1971, at a time when baseball's pre-eminence was first threatened by other sports, it asserts baseball's place as the national game. Moreover, written in the wake of the social and racial tensions of the 1960s, he assesses the increasing presence of non-whites in the game, including the remarkable prediction that "As the Blacks improve their situation, there will be fewer American Negroes, and eventually, perhaps, the game will be dominated by the Latins and the Japanese."

After several early chapters covering folklorish topics such as the infusion of baseball talk into the nation's popular language, the role of superstition, the significance of signs, and the differences between baseball players and traditional folklore figures like cowboys and seafarers, Coffin hits his stride in discussing how specific baseball people have exemplified vital American archetypes. He begins with the three types of legendary heroes of folklore. The prowess heroes, "like Ajax and Achilles in The Iliad. . .will rise from sheer brawn, and they will take advantage of their superior size, speed, and resistance to pain to accomplish their ends." The trickster "represents the principle of pure unbridled energy, directed into human shape and impelled by primal human needs." Thirdly, ethical heroes "arise in the secular parts of life, particularly in law and politics where they establish their codes of conduct." Do I have to tell you the baseball epitomes of these types? Coffin discusses them in fascinating detail: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Kenesaw Landis (whose parallels to "the hanging judge," Roy Bean, are alarming).

Coffin's discussion of American types extends well beyond those larger-than-life figures, and displays a savvy instinct for choosing the most telling examples. Thus we are treated to views outside the norm of what we usually read today about the likes of Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck, Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, and many others. Particularly illuminating is his treatment of Paige, the single African-American--as of the late 1960s, when Coffin was writing--to achieve the status of legend by overcoming the biases which relegated members of his race to secondary and stereotyped status. Paige did it largely through self-promotion, however, and Coffin wondered how long it might take society to allow a black player to be elevated to such status by the white press. Has it happened in the past forty years? Not necessarily. Hank Aaron became a legend long after his playing career ended. The only candidate for a larger-than-life image while active that I can think of is Rickey Henderson.

The last third of The Mudville Heritage is devoted to the rich history of baseball fiction. Coffin is both thorough and opinionated. There is a hefty section on the Frank Merriwell tales of Gilbert Patten (writing as Burt L. Standish), including a long, quoted passage showing Merriwell's baseball derring-do, which highlights Coffin's coverage of the gee-whiz literary tradition that prevailed until Ring Lardner broke the mold with stories that showed the weaknesses that make ballplayers as human as the rest of us. Coffin's extended portrait of Lardner is incisive and poignant: the man who brings joy to his readers but not to himself, the writer who is so adept at his own popular style that it inhibits him from pushing his talent into more rarefied realms of enduring literature.

There's an excellent discussion of why "Casey At the Bat" was an isolated example of a hero's failure. Coffin falters, however, by blasting Ernest Thayer for following up with "Casey's Revenge," in which the slugger comes through in trite Merriwell fashion. The latter poem does indeed counter the original, but it wasn't penned by Thayer and therefore need not have rankled Coffin so much.

Coffin is rather skeptical about the chances that more modern baseball novels (as of 1970) might be considered candidates for literary immortality. He admires the baseball passages written by Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell, but neither published a baseball novel per se. Mirroring the larger concerns of fiction writers, "an elusive dream has begun to take shape," Coffin notes, "a dream of using this national pastime to write the great national novel." He isn't impressed by the results, attesting that "it is tedious to sort through the literary heaps left from this pursuit." He has kind words for the Mark Harris novels and Heywood Broun's The Sun Field (also republished by Rvive), but gives Bernard Malamud a hard time for The Natural (bravo!--for my money it's the worst well-known baseball novel ever). He applauds the effort to fashion "the great American novel" from baseball (a few years later, Philip Roth published a baseball novel with that title but it didn't live up to its promise either).

I wonder how Coffin feels now, forty years later. Baseball fiction has flourished during these decades, both in and out of the mainstream. I would suggest Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back as a novel he might anoint as fulfilling both the promise of great literature and the role of baseball in determining the American character. In any case, I recommend The Mudville Heritage for its own deeply personal and highly readable exploration of the game that has captivated and defined this nation for the past century and a half.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Kids Were Alright

I can't say I loved every minute or every game of my brief umpiring experience, but I did love the idea of being out there on the field and close to the action of the game. I also can't say that I was noticeably above average at umpiring. To this day, I'm still hazy on what is or isn't a balk, and I recall compensating for this uncertainty by never calling one. I didn't develop a distinctive strike call, and once when I ejected a player, my signal lacked such drama that neither the player nor his coach realized he had been tossed. The best I can say is that I took the job seriously, hustled, and learned something from every game.

I told Doug Harvey that I learned more about how baseball is played from umpiring a few dozen games than I have from a lifetime of watching. That's true. Here are the main things I learned:
  1. The differences between good pitchers and bad ones. I didn't see that many good pitchers, which is why their skills stood out. The differences were control and keeping the ball low. Teenage pitchers often struggle just to find the strike zone, and I felt the umpire's urge to force them to find that zone before calling a strike. I hear announcers say all the time that a wild pitcher isn't going to get the benefit of the doubt from an umpire, while a Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine might get a strike on that pitch just off the plate simply because he throws on the black so much of the time. During training sessions, we new umpires were urged to call strikes; "make 'em swing, or you'll be out there all day." When I had a pitcher who threw a lot of strikes, I would think "these batters had better be ready to swing." It's simple psychology, for both the batter and umpire. I felt it at such close range.
  2. The tension between pitchers and baserunners. Umpiring on the bases, forming a triangle with the pitcher and a runner on first, the tension was quite palpable. Every movement of the pitcher, every look, was aimed at discouraging the runner from trying to steal. Every step away from the bag, every feint by the runner, was aimed at distracting the pitcher from his primary task of outdueling the batter. I had to be alert, too, ready to turn and make the call on an attempted steal or prepared to call a balk if the pitcher did something so egregiously wrong that even I could detect it. The uneasy battle of wills could burst into action at any time. You can sense it in a major league park or even on television when a notable speedster is on the bases. But it's nothing like being right there in the middle of it.
  3. The bond between the home-plate umpire and the catcher. Something about donning all that protective gear puts you in the same boat. You want to help each other out, and you sympathize when the other gets dinged. I don't recall any catcher being less than friendly with me behind the plate. It's part of their job; they have to butter up the umpire so he'll give them those close calls. The umpire depends on the catcher to block those bad pitches so he doesn't have to get something x-rayed. It's a symbiotic relationship, another one of those things you can sense somewhat as a spectator, but it exists on a greatly elevated level when you paw that dirt together between batters and lament the fact that the pitcher is so wild that a fastball is about to nail one of you in a place that isn't padded.
  4. Baseball involves a lot of waiting for sudden flurries of action. This was especially true when I umpired on the bases. Behind the plate, you have pitch after pitch to keep you making decisions. On the bases, you stand around a lot of the time doing nothing. On a ground ball, you move a few steps and make your call. On a fly ball, you move a few steps and make sure everyone touches bases. You observe the pas de deux between pitcher and runner. Then, suddenly, it all happens at once. There are a couple of runners, the ball is hit sharply, and you have to anticipate where the play might be. Fielders throw the ball, five or six key people are running in different directions, and shit starts happening, the ball is loose, you have to make sure that shortstop gets out of the way so he doesn't interfere with the runner, he's rounding a base and you have to see whether he touches it while also making sure that overthrow doesn't go out of play, the runner darts away from a tag and might or might not be out of the baseline, a quick throw takes you in another direction, and you have to remain calm enough to sort it all out and get it right. The instructors' first rule: call it quickly and decisively ("it's better to make the wrong call and look like you're sure about it than to let everybody know you're guessing, because even if you're right you'll get a beef"). Of course it was much different on the amateur level with two-man crews. That's why you have four umpires in the majors and six in the postseason. Once the ball starts flying, you really do need that many to be sure someone in the right position to call every play. With just two of you, some guessing is inevitable.

The best illustration of that last point is my first game as an umpire. That was actually in a high-level slow-pitch softball game in Eugene, Oregon, one summer when I was in grad school. I was part of the worst call you can imagine. I was on the bases, and the bases were loaded with one out. The batter hit a long blast to right field. The home-plate ump was responsible for calling it a caught fly or a safe hit; stationed on the third-base side of the mound, I had to watch the runners on third and second tag up. That was my sole task: make sure the runners didn't leave their bags before I heard my partner's "out" call. I didn't hear "out!" and knew the ball had landed safely. My runners started heading for the plate. . .and they kept coming. All four of them romped around the bases, each one slower than the one before. Before the batter got past second, there was a rhubarb well under way behind me. You won't believe what happened. The ball was hit so far that the right fielder turned his back on the ball as he headed toward the fence. The home-plate ump moved out toward the infield, and as the ball plummeted earthward, the running fielder blocked the ump's view. He saw the ball come down and disappear, and since it was over the fence, he called it a home run, a grand slam. In fact, he and I were the only two people there who didn't see that the ball bounced before going over the fence. It should've been a ground-rule double. But no. We called it a grand slam. Both of us were surrounded by the enraged defenders, who screamed at us that the ball bounced over the fence. I protested that I couldn't make a call I didn't see and that I was properly looking at the bases. My partner was the only one who could change the call, and he wouldn't. The spectators were screaming, and I could see the players who had just circled the bench laughing their asses off. Imagine getting a gift grand slam like that. It must have looked like a charade out of a pro wrestling scenario. But the call stood. Welcome to umpiring.

The best thing about umpiring was the kids. Some played well, others struggled at competence, but they were happy to be out there playing. It was fun to see good defensive plays and batters overcome tough pitching. I remember one game where a fierce wind was blowing straight in from center field. Someone hit a popup that seemed to be headed for short center, and by the time it came down, the pitcher nearly bowled me over after making a running catch in front of the plate. Between innings, my partner and I agreed that the only chance for a home run would be a rope into a corner. Still, we were astonished when it happened. A lefty hitter drilled a ball that never got more than eight or ten feet off the ground, hooking it just inside the pole in right field. You had to be standing there at the plate to appreciate the physics of that feat.

The worst thing was the parents. The most absurd thing I've ever seen on a baseball field (even more absurd than a grand slam on a bouncing ball) took place in a Little League game. I can see why some Little Leagues bar parents entirely from attending. I only had to do a few of those games, and they were all brutal. For one thing, the pitchers couldn't throw the ball over the plate; for another, the catchers couldn't catch it. The only time I took a shot to the cup was in a Little League game. The absurd moment came in a league where they had a ridiculous rule about substitution--a batter who batted out of turn was ejected. Apparently they had had a problem with some team sending its best hitter up to the plate every seventh or eighth batter, so they put in a rule that would get him kicked out if he did it again. But the rule applied to all batters, and sure enough it happened in the bottom of the first inning. Some poor kid hit out of turn, and when we tried to be reasonably by applying the big-boys rule instead (there would be an out, and the right batter would come up next), the visiting coach insisted on an ejection. That was the rule, so out he went.

That was absurd enough, kicking some poor ten-year-old out of the game in the first inning just because his coach told him it was his turn to hit. The situation got much worse in a hurry. In this Little League, the official scorer was the mother of one of the kids, sitting in the stands behind the dugout. She got pissed (or the coach got pissed) and made a change in the visiting team's lineup in her scorebook, so that in the top of the second one of their hitters apparently batted out of turn. She brought it to our attention, and before we knew it--are you ready for this?--both scorers, were toe-to-toe at home plate screaming at each other. The coaches stood in front of their dugouts, yelling at each other, but they knew better than to get near those two mothers shrieking at the plate. I don't even remember how we got things calmed down, but it took a few minutes. I do remember two things: the sad, bewildered faces of the little kids who had come out there to play ball and now had to wait for the grown-ups to grow up, and making the decision that both kids who had seemingly batted out of turn were going to stay in the game.

One more story, this one about my worst umpiring experience. It was a junior varsity game at one of the Las Vegas high schools, and I was behind the plate. After the first pitch of the game, I heard yelps and abuse from a man in the grandstand behind me, and he never let up. He wasn't cursing me or threatening me, just heckling loudly. In the bottom of the first, the third hitter swung and missed at strike three, turned, and flung his helmet as hard as he could--at his own bench! It clanged off the wall behind his coach, who knew it was coming and ducked. I tossed the kid out of the game--emphatically this time.

After the inning, as the teams changed sides, my partner came over and said, "That kid is sitting on the bench. We have to get him out of the dugout." Right. We called the coach out and told him that the kid had to leave. "Well," he sighed, "actually I think it's better if he stays in there." Why is that, coach? "That's his father back there yelling at you," he said. "It's better if we keep them apart." Why is that, coach? "Didn't you hear what happened last week?" he inquired. No, coach, we didn't. "Well, he was called out on a close play at first," he explained, "and his father ran out of the stands and chased the umpire around the outfield for a few minutes." Jeez!

"Jeez, coach, didn't anybody call the cops?"
"Nope. It wouldn't have helped. That guy is a cop."
"Great, coach. Okay, he can stay."

The yahoo in the stands never let up, not for a minute, not for a pitch. But he stayed where he was, even when my partner made a balk call that the team disputed. After the game, the kids surrounded us for a couple of minutes, and my partner said one of them offered to duke it out with him, but we managed to push our way through the horde of aspiring student-athletes and get to our cars safely. I drove all the way home at a law-abiding 25 miles an hour, figuring that cops all over Vegas had been urged to arrest us if we did anything wrong. Of course, I had that same feeling in other places at other times in Vegas: just let me out of here alive!

And don't make me umpire any more Little League games!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How To Be An Idol

I met a great man last month. Doug Harvey visited the Hall of Fame for the day-long orientation given new electees, including a tour of the museum and collections and a staff reception. At these receptions, the new Hall of Famer usually speaks briefly, lets his wife say a few words, and spends 20-30 minutes chatting with staff members and posing for photos. I've been to a dozen or so of these receptions, and always enjoy talking to these men, asking them about pitching and hitting. I've even cracked a couple of them up, like when I suggested to Rickey Henderson that he could go back to playing now that he was already elected. He said if he'd known that in the first place, he would've retired earlier so he could return after election when he could still play. This year, I told Andre Dawson, "it was a pleasure watching you play, except maybe when you were swinging at low-outside sliders." He laughed heartily and said that's what his wife used to tell him.

But Doug Harvey was different from the others. He stood in the center of the library atrium and addressed us for at least ten minutes, pivoting as he spoke so he could make eye contact with every one of us. He talked about the noble profession of umpiring and why he wouldn't trade any of his 32 seasons in the majors. He exuded the dedication and integrity that went into that long career and earned him a place as one of only nine umpires elected to the Hall of Fame. "The players needed us," he said of his fellow arbiters. "We had to take care of them." The umpire's mission is to keep the game flowing, enforce the rules, and make sure the competition is conducted fairly. Nobody knows that better than Doug Harvey, who spent his baseball off-seasons officiating football and basketball. The athletes in those sports needed him, too.

After his moving speech, a dress rehearsal for the speech he'll deliver at his induction next month, I was eager to speak to Harvey. I told him, "I'd like to shake your hand. You're my idol. I spent two years umpiring amateur ball, just enough to appreciate what went into a long career like yours." I meant that; he was my umpiring idol, the best I've ever seen. His reply astonished me. As we shook hands, he looked me in the eyes and said, "You're my idol, too. Anybody who gets out there is my idol." What a thing to say! He meant it, too. For a man who breathes officiating like oxygen, it is natural to feel that anybody who dons an umpire's gear must have that same dedication.

I've been thinking about my brief fling with umpiring and trying to recall moments when I felt like someone who could've been Doug Harvey's idol. I can think of a couple. My experience came in the mid-1980s, when I was living in Las Vegas. Does that statement make you wonder what it was like in the desert heat? Here's what it was like. I umpired an American Legion tournament held on Fourth of July weekend, and I did one late-afternoon game when the temperature was 114. I worked the bases and was glad not to be wearing the home plate umpire's heavier gear. On the other hand, he had his back to the sun, which was right in my eyes. I remember spending most of the game hunched over, hands on my knees, thinking "It's okay if you pass out. Nobody will think less of you if you pass out. You can go ahead and keel over now, people do it all the time out here, just go ahead and get it over with." But I remained upright. The kids in the first-base dugout got a treat that day; between innings, they got to spray water in the umpire's face. We were all in it together, and I got through the game without passing out.

The other challenge to my dedication came on a road trip to Overton, a little town on Lake Mead, about a one-hour drive from Las Vegas. My partner and I had a doubleheader, and I was behind the plate in the first game. Two batters into the first inning, the pitcher threw a fastball that bounced just in front of the plate. The catcher never touched it. The ball smacked off my left wrist, and I thought it was broken. It immediately swelled up about golf-ball size, and hurt like hell. My partner said he'd understand if I left, but we were out there in the middle of nowhere. I wasn't going to leave him on his own to do two games, and I wasn't going to tell the teams to go home because both umpires were leaving. I stayed, icing it between innings. I was happier to be on the bases for the second game because I didn't have to worry about getting hit again. The wrist was throbbing, but the ice helped, and we got through both games.

I was proud of myself for staying out there through that doubleheader. I felt what Doug Harvey must have felt on some of those tough days: it doesn't matter how I feel, those people on the field need me to help them have a good game. Back in Las Vegas, I got the wrist x-rayed and found there was no break, but it ached for a couple of weeks. That was what made me give up umpiring, however. This happened not long before the World Series of Poker, my biggest income opportunity of the year as a poker dealer, and I decided that I couldn't jeopardize that for a $16-a-game sidelight.

But I loved umpiring while I did it, despite the physical demands and the inevitable disputes. I learned more about the game from being on the field than I have in a lifetime of watching it from grandstands and couches. I did have some ugly moments on the field, and times when I wasn't anybody's idol. I was an average ump, nothing special, which is illustrated by the fact that the greatest compliment I received on the field was a left-handed one. At another American Legion tournament, I somehow got the plate assignment between two of the top teams in the region. One was coached by a man who had given me a lot of trouble as a high school junior varsity coach. I wasn't happy to see him there, and I guessed that he wasn't happy to see me either.

His pitcher was the best I ever saw from behind the plate. I can't remember his name, but his fastball was in the high 80s. He also had a much better curveball than I'd ever seen before from close range. It made me concentrate harder, as it would start out headed toward a right-handed batter's shoulder before angling sharply down and toward the plate. Those curves were beautiful to behold as they snapped in mid-flight, but a challenge to judge in terms of where the ball was as it passed across the plate. I thought I did a pretty good job, and didn't hear much jeering.

After the game, the coach who had been so hostile all spring came up to me and shook my hand. "When I saw you come out with the mask on," he told me, "I thought 'oh shit.' But you did a good job." I wonder if Doug Harvey ever heard a remark like that from Whitey Herzog.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Game That Changed Baseball History

I don't have to tell you what happened last night. Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game--according to the rules of baseball--but umpire Jim Joyce's failure to apply Rule 6.05(j) [a batter is out if "after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base"] on the 27th out cost Galarraga his rightful place in the record books. In a way, it was cosmically just; after a mere 18 perfect games in 139 seasons, it was ridiculous to have three in the space of one month. So Joyce's call literally changed history, turning immortality into just another one-hitter. Too bad he didn't rule that Galarraga juggled the throw or didn't touch the base, in which case an error could have been charged and a no-hitter preserved. But no--Galarraga got totally screwed.

In a larger sense, I believe this game will change baseball history by providing the impetus for implementing a more thorough instant-replay system than the one hastily introduced late in 2008 after a flurry of blown home-run calls. Everyone--including umpires--believes that the replay system, used only to decide home runs has worked well. The overriding concern is to get the calls right, and instant replay has achieved that goal when applied.

But Commissioner Selig's credo has been that limiting instant replay to home runs is sufficient because it keeps "the human element" in the game by allowing umpires to blow other calls. This is a popular view amongst journalists and fans. I happen to think that's hogwash. Look at the Galarraga game. Allowing "the human element" to prevail but drawing the line at home runs would yield this situation: Jim Joyce makes a bad call at first base in the ninth inning of a 3-0 game. Nobody has the power to change it. On the next batter, Joyce blows another call, and a second runner gets on base. Sorry about that, boys, just keep playing. The next batter blasts a ball that either hits the top of the fence (a double) or hits the railing just above that yellow line at the top of the fence (a home run). Now it's a matter worthy of spending the two or three minutes it will take for the umpires to look at the instant replay. NOW?!? The issue should have been settled ten minutes ago when Joyce blew the first call. No, that wasn't important enough. Let's put a couple of runners on base, make it a possible home run which will tie the game, and now we can go ahead and take a little break to make sure the umpires get one out of three calls correct.

As I said--hogwash.

In an ideal world, it would be perfectly fine with me if we continued to let the umpires work on their own, getting more than 99% of the calls right and taking our chances that the mistaken 1% wouldn't come at the worst times. But once MLB installed instant replay, that ideal world no longer existed. To me, the current version of instant replay is half-assed because it applies to plays that occur about once a week, while ignoring other plays that occur at least a few times a day in a full schedule. Here's my rationale in a nutshell: any wrong call in any game during the season can materially affect a team's ultimate chance for a championship, therefore every call is important enough to get right.

It is short-sighted to pretend that only a disputed home run is important enough to warrant using instant replay to get it right. Let the empirical facts of what truly happened determine the outcome of each game rather than the fleeting impression of an umpire who might either be out of position or in position but momentarily blocked or distracted from seeing the key part of the play. Or who, like Jim Joyce last night, simply gets it wrong.

A few decades ago, each umpire was on his own, adhering to the Bill Klem principle that the umpire is always right. That premise has been abandoned over the years, and it is a common sight to see the entire umpiring crew gathered around to discuss a play. This happens when a manager sincerely convinces the umpire who made the original call that one of his comrades might have had a better angle. The umpire, who is supposed to be unfailingly honest if nothing else, admits to himself that he might not have been 100% sure about the play, and accedes to the request. The umpires huddle, sometimes for several minutes, and issue their final group decision, which is much more likely to be the correct call than the original umpire's lone view. This is not instant replay per se, but it is based on the same principle: the first guy might have gotten it wrong, so let's do what we can to try to get it right. Sometimes the call is changed, sometimes not, but the managers and fans cannot complain that the umpires stubbornly refused to admit the possibility of needing more than one set of eyes to do the right thing.

I don't watch a lot of pro football, but when I do I pay a lot of attention to the calls which are challenged and go to instant replay, and I'm convinced that a similar system could work in baseball. I'd say there's about a two-thirds chance that the call will be reversed, basically because the challenging coach's cohorts up in the booth have already seen a replay and tell him that the call was probably wrong. As I outline my proposal for how instant replay should work in baseball, keep this principle in mind. While the manager is out there arguing the call in the first place, people in both teams' clubhouses are watching the replays, and someone will signal the manager that he's right or wrong to be protesting.

The football principle would hold: whatever call is made on the field, the replay official would have to see incontrovertible evidence on the film to overturn that call. Borderline calls would remain just that; if the person in the booth can't say with certitude that it happened one way or another, the umpire's call would stand. An example of this might be a fastball that tails into a batter trying to bunt. The ball hits either the bat or the batter's hand on the bat. Did it hit all hand? Did it hit the bat and just nick a nail? It's a tough call, and one where cameras might have as much trouble as the umpire in detecting the fraction of an inch which might make the difference in the call. So the instant replay official would be mandated to back up the umpire, whichever way he ruled it.

Here's how I see instant replay working--in an ideal world in which the umpires get 99% of the calls right the first time and we help them out with the other 1%. When a manager disputes a call, his first recourse is to discuss it with the umpire and request that he ask the other umpires for help. Once the final call has been made, by one umpire or four, the manager can request an instant-replay decision. As I noted earlier, by this time the manager will have input from the bench on whether he has a case or not. It won't always be the case, but my point is that we don't want to give a manager the right to pop out of the dugout after every call he doesn't like and point upstairs, demanding an instant overview.

There will be a protocol on the field, and as in football there will be a penalty for overstepping the privilege of requesting instant replay. I do not advocate putting a limit on the number of times a manager can request a replay call. If there's a horrible call in the 14th inning, he shouldn't be prevented from getting the right call just because he already caught a couple of mistakes earlier in the game. However, I would put a strict limit on the number of times the manager can be wrong. Give him one protest and request for a replay call that doesn't go his way. If the replay goes against him twice, he's ejected. Each team gets one failed protest. If the manager has been ejected and the acting manager's request for an instant replay results in the call going against him, he's ejected, too. And so on. We can't have the Billy Martins of the world bullying umpires into double-checking calls just for sport. In fact, I don't want either side abusing the other. Both sides will have an incentive to be right.

What sorts of calls should or should not be subject to instant replay? I believe that any call that can be objectively judged (i.e. empirically verified beyond any doubt) should be subject to change, but subjective calls shouldn't be. The latter list is short: balls and strikes, balks, and check swings. Those are true judgment calls, and even though there seems to be a lot of discrepancy between how various umpires view them (partly because the rules are written nebulously and therefore open to interpretation, especially check swings), the camera cannot see through the veil of judgment. However, here is why I believe the following calls can be decided definitively one way or another.

1. safe/out at first base: The Don Denkinger call from the 1985 World Series is the best example. Multiple cameras angles showed that Jack Clark held the ball with his foot on the bag at least a half-step before Jorge Orta arrived, just as Galarraga clearly possessed the ball and the bag while the runner was nearly a full stride away. This would be an easy call for the replay official to make. Others are not so clear-cut. Replays of bang-bang plays where stop-action often show the ball entering the glove a hair before or after the runner's foot is making its initial contact with the bag. But is the ball in the glove? Is the foot on the bag? In this case, I'd be less inclined to overturn whatever call the umpire made. The principle of having to be 100% certain in order to reverse a call is paramount. It's true that camera angles don't always reveal the truth. Fine. If the camera angle isn't definitive, don't change the call. But I find it hard to imagine a case in which the runner is clearly out or safe and the available camera angles all make it look the other way. Likewise with the following situations:

2. caught or trapped ball: An outfielder is in hot pursuit of a line drive or a bloop fly ball, makes a last-second stab or dive, and the ball ends up in his glove. Did he catch it or trap it? I know from my brief umpiring experience that this is one of the toughest plays to call. I've seen it called wrong both ways. The intersection of ball, glove, and ground lasts only a fraction of a second, and the ball looks pretty much the same in the glove whether it has been caught or trapped. Sometimes the fielder even gets the glove underneath the ball but face-up on top of the ground. It looks like the ball bounced, but actually the glove possessed it the whole time. Complicating things, the umpire is on the move, usually starting from his position near second base, and is subject to the same problem that outfielders have, namely that his head is bobbing from his running motion, making it tougher to pick up the precise movement of the ball. An umpire might make the most admirable dash into the outfield to get the best view, only to have a diving fielder's body or arm block his view of the ball contacting glove and ground. If there's a better, definitive angle on a camera, use it!

3. double play pivot: This is another very tough one because most second basemen have lightning-quick hands. It's a prerequisite for the job. So we have a grounder to third base and a throw to second, with the runner barreling down from first base trying to break up the double play. The second baseman's job is to "turn" the ball from catch to throw so quickly that his motion is no more than a blur. In the old days, umpires required the fielder to demonstrate a clear catch before transfering the ball to his throwing hand. Over the years, it has become more customary to give the call to the fielder when he so much as reaches into his glove to pull the ball out for the transfer. How many times have you seen the ball go flying or pop loose when the fielder grabs at it the instant it touches his glove, with the umpire giving him credit for the catch because he was "in the act of throwing"? My impression is that the fielder gets this call almost all the time, but I've seen a lot of replays which clearly show that the fielder never caught the ball, that in his haste to grab the ball he moved the glove toward his throwing hand just enough to allow the ball to clank off it. It's an optical illusion: the ball bounces off the glove, but because the throwing hand is moving to grab it and throw, the umpire believes he has caught it. The replay catches and reveals the illusion for what it is, namely an error, not an out.

4. the "neighborhood" play: While we're talking about double plays, let's use instant replay to clean up the "neighborhood" play on both sides. This is the one where the second base or shortstop making the double-play pivot fails to contact the base with his foot when catching the ball. He does it to make the pivot faster and/or avoid the runner crashing into him. Umpires call this one sometimes, especially in postseason games that matter more, but more often than not they allow the fielder that leeway in order to protect him from the runner. They also let the runners make a beeline for the fielder rather than the bag. This is a liberal rule, stating that as long as the runner can touch the bag with some part of his body, it's okay for the rest of him to ram into the fielder and hinder the double-play turn. Again, more often than not, umpires let runners get away with veering into the fielder, especially if he's also letting the fielder hop away from the base early to avoid the collision. As with most things in life, it's unfortunate that the people in charge are subjectively selective in making the correct call (either the runner out on interference for veering away from the bag and into the fielder, or the runner safe because the fielder caught the ball off the bag), letting something go 99% of the time and suddenly feeling the urge to call it. Ask Marlon Anderson, called out for veering into the fielder for the final out of a game late in 2007, on a play where there was no chance to get the batter running to first, negating the tying run crossing the plate and costing the Mets a crucial loss that may have kept them out of the playoffs. If the camera clearly reveals a violation of the "neighborhood play," make the call!

5. hit by pitch or not: This one is straightforward. The call is seldom missed, but it was missed on Jimmy Rollins in the 2008 World Series, and would come up once in awhile.

6. caught foul tip or not: This is another one where the home plate umpire can almost always make the right call, and can easily get help from a base ump if he needs it. But the camera would often provide a decisive view of whether that two-strike foul tip hit the dirt or the glove first.

7. fair/foul ball: This happens on home runs that wrap around the foul pole, a play so difficult to call that it is one of those covered by the present system for instant replays. I always think about Ron Luciano's tale of calling such a ball at Yankee Stadium, jumping in the air to make one of his showboat calls, pointing fair and starting to scream "fair!" when the rest of his consciousness kicked in and he realized that the ball was really foul. He was a mid-air and couldn't take anything back, but don't you think he would have been the first person to say, "yeah, let's look at that replay" when the inevitable protest occurred? There's also an occasional dispute when a curving drive down one of the foul lines kicks up a little bit of chalk. It is assumed that if chalk pops up, it must be because the ball hit the line, therefore it must be a fair ball. But sometimes a player's cleats have already kicked some of the chalk out of place, and the ball nails a clump lying in foul territory. Sometimes it isn't even close to the line, as with the play in the 2009 playoffs where the left-field umpire simply experienced a brain cramp and called a ball foul that bounced a foot or two inside the line. Let's get it right. Only in "Macbeth" is fair foul and foul fair.

There are undoubtedly other situations I haven't covered here (such as appeal plays and interference/obstruction) which would fall on one side or the other of my proposed system. Protocols would have to be worked out and the system refined. Do you think that the details of such a system could be worked out over the next 20 years? The next 50 years? Why not sooner, why not right away, soon enough to put a system in place for the 2011 season? Bud Selig & Company seem to think that just because many things in baseball history have evolved over a period of years or decades, it must always be so. Get it right now!

I've spent my whole baseball life believing that instant replay would be a Bad Thing, that human error is part of baseball and something we just have to accept. But we do have instant replay in baseball now, so we may as well be realistic about it. Is calling a ball over or under a home-run line on the outfield wall more or less of a judgment call than determining whether a sliding outfielder caught or trapped a ball, or figuring out whether the fielder's foot or the runner's foot touched first base first? I think they're all objective calls, both potentially confirmed or contradicted by convincing camera views. If those views are convincing, we should be willing to face the truth of what actually happened on this or that play, and make the right call. I did not open that door. The umpires have already allowed that door to be opened. Now that it is open, I think we're morally obligated to see everything that is inside, not merely to take a furtive peek through the crack, looking for only what we wish to see.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Memorial Day Tribute

Morrie Martin passed away last week at the age of 87, shortly before Memorial Day when the country pauses to remember men like him. I was proud to consider him a friend.

Late in 2003, I was looking through the history of Hall of Fame elections and noticed that Morrie Martin had gotten two votes in the 1966 election. "Who?" I thought. He was the only man to receive votes whom I hadn't heard of. I checked his statistics and discovered that he won exactly 38 games in the majors and pitched just 604 innings. "He must've been a helluva guy," I thought, "if two writers decided to give him votes."

Next I checked his file here at the library and found numerous articles about his exploits--or rather misadventures--in World War II. He was everywhere, it seemed, and got wounded everywhere, including a serious leg wound at the Battle of the Bulge. I phoned him and asked him whether these stories were true. "Most of 'em," he said, "but the writers didn't tell about the worst one." Holy shit! There was something worse? There was; he told me the story you'll read below, about being buried alive.

We talked a couple of times, and when I learned that he and his family were planning to visit Cooperstown the following autumn, I arranged to interview him at the museum. I met his wonderful wife Leona (they were married 64 years) and their three daughters. As a result of this meeting, they invited me to spend a few days with them at their home in Washington, Missouri, where we talked about baseball, war, and life, hoping to produce a book. Talking about his World War II experiences left him shaken and in tears. Sadly, the book has not happened, but I'll treasure those days spent with a tight-knit, loving family of good people.

After the public interview here, I wrote an article for the Hall of Fame publication "Memories and Dreams". Following is the text of that article from roughly six years ago. It's the best tribute I can deliver to a man who had as many lives as a cat and relished them all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Morrie Martin says he’s going to live to 100, and who are we to argue? He never should have lived to 25, and he literally rose from the rubble of World War II to fashion a major league career.

Morrie was drafted into the Army after the 1942 season, his second in the minor leagues. Over the next three years, he saw action in many of the key locations in the European theater of World War II. An engineer in the 49th Combat Engineers, he participated in the African campaign, the Normandy invasion, the building of the bridge at Remagen, the St. Lo Breakthrough, the Battle of the Bulge, and much more.

Wherever Morrie went, he got wounded, including twice by shrapnel. “Most of the time they just patched me up and sent me back out there,” he says now with a chuckle. In the German town of Elsdorf, engineers were meeting in a house. While he and two buddies were in the basement, a bomb leveled the house, killing everyone except the three soldiers buried alive in the rubble. They clawed their way out by the next day and caught up with their unit, which had left them behind. “They just figured we were dead,” he told an overflow audience at the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater during an October appearance. “They said we looked like ghosts walking to them, all white with plaster. It was pretty scary, I’ll tell you that.”

At the Battle of the Bulge, Morrie was lucky to survive intact. He caught machine gun fire and a bullet went clear through his left thigh. Stranded on the battlefield for hours, he was besieged by gangrene by the time he reached a hospital. Doctors wanted to amputate, but a nurse intervened. “God bless her soul, I wish I knew where she was now,” Morrie says. She convinced him that a new wonder drug, penicillin, might fight off the infection. He refused the amputation, endured over 150 shots of penicillin, and “it saved my leg. The little nurse saved it for me. Otherwise, I’d have no career in baseball at all.”

Among the many decorations Morrie received were two Purple Hearts, an Oak Leaf Cluster, a Bronze Arrowhead, and four Battle Stars. Though justifiably proud of his military service, he would much rather discuss his baseball career, which resumed in 1946 with no discernible after-effects from his war injuries. It just took him those three extra years to reach the major leagues, in 1949 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In 1950 came the first of several mishaps which made Morrie’s career seem like a roller-coaster ride. In spring training, Branch Rickey got his idea for a “six-man infield” to defend against sacrifice bunts. He put the Brooklyn pitchers through a drill against the overloaded infield, having them fake a bunt, then take a full swing, theorizing that even their hardest hit would be right at a fielder. Unfortunately, Morrie’s cleats stuck in the clay as his body pivoted around on the swing. The result was torn knee ligaments which ended his Brooklyn career.

Acquired by the Philadelphia Athletics, Morrie returned to the majors in 1951. Grateful for the chance to pitch regularly, he responded with his best season, a record of 11-4, beating every team in the American League. His season ended in early September, however, after a collision with Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan. His luck got worse in 1952. In his fifth start of the year, a line drive by Washington’s Mickey Vernon struck Morrie’s pitching hand, breaking the index finger. The injury did not heal properly, and he was out of action until May of 1953.

Again he bounced back, winning 10 games for the Athletics, including a pair of victories over the immortal Satchel Paige. In one game, both Morrie and Satchel pitched six scoreless innings in relief before the Athletics broke through in the fourteenth inning to give Morrie the thrilling win.

Morrie moved around following a 1954 trade to the White Sox, pitching for seven teams in a 10-year career. His record was 38-34 in 250 games, including seven victories against the Yankees and a 6-2 triumph over Bob Feller. He also performed the remarkable feat of leading his minor league in E.R.A. twice – 16 years apart! In 1941, the 18-year-old led the Northern League with a 2.05 mark, and in 1957, his 1.90 E.R.A. topped the Pacific Coast League.

A lefty whose sweeping curve was so tough that it took Ted Williams six years to hit a home run off him, Morrie retired in1959, eager to spend more time with his family. During the October visit to Cooperstown, he was accompanied by his three daughters and their husbands, along with his wife of 58 years, Leona. In 1966, he received two votes for the Hall of Fame, but he is certainly a Hall of Famer in the game of life.