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 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, 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.