Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Selig, Owners Announce Re-Invention Of Sport

In a surprise announcement following the winter meetings attended by owners and generals managers, "Commissioner" Bud Selig declared his intention of re-inventing the sport known as baseball. "Let's face it," Selig told the press. "We've screwed this game up so thoroughly that it has almost no meaning for anyone any more. Fans don't know what to think about statistics, about the character of players, about the validity of pennants, about records, about anything. It's time to stop pretending that the remedies we've come up with have straightened things out. So our only course is to start over from scratch."

With his tenure as the game's czar expected to end after the 2012 season, Selig stated that the new version of baseball will begin with the 2013 season, giving franchises and players time to prepare for the drastic changes ahead. "We're going to change the way the game is played on the field," Selig declared. "The rules will be different, and so will the way they are enforced. We can freeze everything that has happened in baseball history up to that time, and let people spend the rest of their lives sorting it out if they wish. Meanwhile, the rest of us--owners, players, and fans--can move on to the new version which will create its own history and records."

At the winter meetings, Selig and company hashed out sweeping changes in the game, starting with its organization. The current two-league, six-division system will be replaced by four eight-team leagues, arranged along geographical lines. The four league winners will participate in the playoffs; in the first round, the team with the best record will face the team with the worst record.

The new season will consist of 160 games. Each team will play 16 games against each league rival. The remaining 48 games games will be played against the eight teams from another league, with the pairings rotating from year to year. Doubleheaders will be scheduled for nine Sundays plus the three national holidays, cutting the regular season by two weeks. The first two weeks of the season will be played in the warm-climate cities, even if it means starting the season with some inter-league series.

"The new streamlined schedule, plus limiting the post-season to two best-of-seven series, should please the fans," Selig said. "Starting in warmer climates will mean fewer April postponements, and ending the World Series by mid-October should make it more likely that the most meaningful games of the season will be played in what we think of as baseball weather, not hockey weather."

The changes also addressed one of baseball's perennial problems, namely the owners' inability to avoid overspending. "There will be no salary cap," Selig announced, "but we will limit all contracts to two years. That's right. Teams will no longer be saddled with ridiculous long-term contracts for players who can't play any more. We are also doing away with the practice of one team paying the contract for a player who has been traded to another team. How that conflict of interest has existed for so long is a travesty. Players can be signed for one year or two years, that's it. If every season, or every other season, is a 'contract year,' players won't be able to loaf."
Marvin Miller, who runs the players' union, endorsed the new system on several counts. Yearly bidding wars will keep salaries relatively high, and players--especially younger players who are currently tied to their team for several years with no resource besides salary arbitration--will have more flexibility in playing where they want to play. In addition to new jobs being created by expansion, rosters will be increased to 26 players, another boost to the work force and a trade-off for the long-overdue elimination of the designated hitter.

All of these organizational changes, however, pale in comparison to the new look for the game on the field envisioned by Selig and the owners. "We're making major changes in the basic game of baseball," Selig beamed, "trying to maintain a reasonable balance between offense and defense while making sure nobody confuses this game with the old one. Some things won't change--nine men on a side, nine innings--but we're going to build even more on the game's sacred number: nine."

Indeed, "9" will impact the basic dimensions of the game. "Budball" will now feature a distance of 89 feet between bases and 59 feet from the pitcher's rubber to home plate. In addition, each team will get 29 outs in a nine-inning game. The "extra" two outs will be at the discretion of the manager of the team at bat. Do you use an extra batter in the early innings with the bases loaded, or do you wait until the late innings if the game is on the line? Those extra two outs aren't sacred. If the defensive team turns a double play with two outs, it can take away one of the extra outs. Losing an out will also be also a penalty for a manager getting ejected. More on that later.

"We'll be making a lot of changes, some of which favor the defense and some the offense. Obviously the key change is shortening the pitching distance," Selig conceded. "This is going to give the pitcher an advantage, especially with his fastball, though it will cut down a little on the room for a curveball to break. They'll need a faster pitch with a break, which means the spitball. Ford Frick tried to bring back the spitball fifty years ago, and we're going to do it. The truth is that pitchers have been throwing spitballs all along, and we've been allowing it, so it's time to rid ourselves of the charade that we're stopping it."

Selig pinpointed the current rule prohibiting pitchers from "going to their mouths" while standing on the pitching mound as the silliest farce in the game. "All it means is that they have to walk onto the infield grass to moisten their fingers. It's just a waste of time. Not only that, a pitcher can stand on the mound and wipe the sweat off his forehead or his neck to achieve the same effect without breaking the rule. So why pretend? Let 'em throw a wet ball. Of course, they'd better be able to control it."

That brought Selig to the next rule change: batters hit by a pitch get two bases. Hit a batter with a runner on second, and now you have runners on second and third. Hit him above the shoulders and it's three bases. Break a bone and it will bring a two-week suspension. However, a batter who leans into a pitch and "allows" himself to get hit by it will be out, and no padding on elbows and arms will be allowed except for a limited number of games when a player is returning from a specific injury.

Other new rules relating to pitchers are:

  1. No more intentional walks. Pitchers must pitch to all batters.
  2. Relief pitchers have to face at least two batters, unless they record two outs during the first batter's at-bat. This will reduce the parade of relievers which slows so many games down, and will encourage managers to encourage their pitchers to retire both right- and left-handed batters.
  3. No more fake pickoffs. If a pitcher steps off the rubber, he has to throw to a base. This policy alone should speed up games by several minutes.
  4. Only three warmup pitches between innings. This will move the game along faster and hel pitchers save their arms for pitches that count. Currently, a starting pitcher who throws 80 pitches in six innings has also thrown 48 warmup tosses. Cut out 30 warmups, and more starters will be able to pitch into the 7th and 8th innings.
  5. Only the catcher will be able to visit the pitcher on the mound, and only once per inning.

Only a couple of things will be different regarding baserunners. Strategies for stealing bases should remain stable, with the shorter distance the runner has to cover compensated for by the reduced distances of the pitch to home and the catcher's throw to a base. "We'll see how that goes," Selig said. "If the balance shifts dramatically one way or the other, we'll do something. We can put limits on the number of pickoff attempts, or we can limit the size of a runner's lead. Stealing should remain an important part of this game."

The biggest change for runners will involve double-play attempts. "We have to close up the loopholes at second base," Selig declared, "if only because the shorter distance is going to mean that the runner from first will arrive there sooner." The "phantom play" will be eliminated, with the rule requiring the fielder to have his foot on the base when catching the ball strictly enforced. The runner trying to break up the double play, however, will have to slide with at least one foot crossing the bag. "In other words," Selig explained, "no more flinging yourself four feet wide of the base to take out the fielder while stretching a finger out to graze the bag. If you can get yourself to second base in time to take out the fielder with a good, hard slide across the bag, good for you. We don't want to discourage hustling. But if the fielder receives the throw in time to move away from the bag, he deserves to make that throw without a runner who's already out exposing him to injury. It's going to be tougher to turn two anyway. Give 'em a chance."

Some of the biggest changes in the game will involve officiating. Balls and strikes will be called automatically by Questec or whatever the state-of-the-art machine is at the time. This will eliminate the need for pitchers and batters to adjust every day to each umpire's version of the strike zone. A pitch in a certain spot will be called the same way in the first inning and the ninth inning. "Consistency and fairness are the goals," said Selig, adding that "relieving the umpire of the burden of making a split-second decision on whether a 96mph fastball is on the black or three inches outside will allow him to focus more on his other duties, like judging check swings and whether batters are trying to avoid getting hit by the pitch."

More importantly, all calls will be subject to instant replay. However, managers will not be allowed to argue. In fact, they won't be allowed to leave the dugout at all. To make a pitching change, a manager will simply call time and wave his pitcher off the mound. To challenge a call, he will call time before the next pitch and throw a red flag out of the dugout. "Most of the time," said Selig, "it will be obvious what the issue is. If not, the home plate umpire will go over and ask. There won't be any arguments. Players on the field won't have to argue. If they disagree with a call, they merely have to indicate it to the manager in the dugout, who will already have someone watching replays somewhere who will let him know whether he has a legitimate beef."

There will be no limit on the number of challenges a manager can make. However, if he loses two challenges, he is automatically ejected from the game, and his team loses one of its extra outs. If a coach is subsequently put in charge, he doesn't get a free ride. One lost challenge and he's gone too. "The idea is to get the calls right," Selig insisted. "If the umps make five mistakes that go against the same team, they shouldn't be penalized for having to make five challenges. But they can't abuse it or they're gone."

Another wrinkle in the instant replay rule will counter critics who insist that the process slows the game down, especially for fans at the ballpark who are forced to sit around while someone in a booth somewhere figures out what just happened. To make up for that, for each minute taken up in reviewing plays, the protesting team's entire roster must remain on the field after the game signing autographs for the same period of time.

"All in all," Selig beamed, "we think it will be a faster, more streamlined game if we can stop all the time-wasting and get more action on the field." He admitted that the key unknown is how the 59-foot pitching distance might affect the game's balance. "We think that the pitcher's advantage will be balanced first of all by the shorter distance for the batter to run to first base, and by the infielders being stationed closer to the plate, making it easier to hit the ball past them. But we'll see. The important thing is that we're trying."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Minaya Relents, Gives Beltran Permission To Scratch Himself

After lengthy negotiations with Carlos Beltran and his agent, Mets GM Omar Minaya has reluctantly granted the outfielder official permission to scratch himself on the field during the 2010 season.

"The key thing was that we followed protocol and did not veer away from the established process for handling such matters," maintained Minaya, fearing a repeat of the recent awkwardness following Beltran's knee surgery. In that instance, Minaya became so distracted by his winter-meetings quest for a #2 starter, a #3 starter, a #4 starter, a #5 starter, and three set-up relievers that he allowed assistants and doctors to handle the matter, thereby achieving the near-impossible feat of making Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, look like the good guy.

"The thing is," Minaya explained, "that Mets team policy for at least 15-20 years has been to prohibit our players from scratching themselves while in view of the fans. It's okay for them to adjust their cups, but scratching has been off-limits. So we had to be careful in this case to look after the interests of the fans and of Beltran, without establishing a precedent that other people can take advantage of."

Speaking through his agent, Beltran--who suffers from a chronic case of tinea cruris--said, "The Mets have known about this since I came here in 2005. And it really hasn't been a problem because, frankly, with all the other crap going on around here, it isn't that big a deal. But after that little misunderstanding about my knee surgery, we all felt it would be best to go through the process carefully to get it right." That process involved examinations by the Mets team physician in New York as well as Beltran's personal dermatologist in Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, meetings with public relations personnel and marketing firms, and surveys of Mets fans, of whom 62.4% declared that if Beltran hits 25 home runs and drives in 100 runs they won't mind if he moons them as he circles the bases.

Under terms of the agreement, Minaya said that Beltran will be permitted to scratch himself in center field any time the ball is hit to the first baseman or third baseman, or while at bat any time there is a two-ball count.

*******************************
New baseball term, defined as "acting in the style of Mets management". The term: "minayacal."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

McGwire Admits Using Weapons Of Mass Destruction

Yes, Mark McGwire admitted yesterday that he used steroids. Sort of. His version of events was the equivalent of Saddam Hussein conceding that he had weapons of mass destruction--but used them only to excavate a swimming pool in the backyard. Or like O.J. Simpson saying that yeah, he did hide behind the bushes to ambush Nicole and Ron, but all he did was yell "booga-booga!" and watch them somehow impale themselves on a knife.

In his interview last night with Bob Costas, McGwire talked a lot about "God-given talent," but the only God-given ability he displayed was a gift for telling convenient half-truths. He said he experimented a little bit with them in 1989-1990, when they were readily available in the gym where he worked out. Skip ahead, he said, to 1993-1994, dark seasons during which a series of heel injuries limited him to 74 games and 18 home runs. In an effort to break the cycle of injury and semi-recovery, he turned to steroids for their recuperative power. He did recover and spent the next few seasons launching home runs at an unprecendented rate, until time caught up with his knees and forced him into retirement at age 38.

McGwire insisted that he used steroids purely for health and recovery purposes, not to enhance his performance. In fact, when asked more than once by Costas whether steroids could have contributed to his record-setting home run feats, he denied any connection between the two. "Could you have hit 70 home runs in 1998 without steroids?" Costas asked, and the answer was a firm yes. The home runs came from studying the science of hitting while he was sidelined, retooling his swing, and his "God-given" talent for eye-hand coordination and strength. It was that simple, he declared more than once. I wish Costas had asked him about home run #62, the one that broke Roger Maris' record. That line drive cleared the wall by about three feet. Would McGwire concede that steroids might have made the difference of an extra few feet?

Actually I'm sure he would have disagreed. He spent the whole interview laboring to convince us that there were two things going on in his life throughout the late 1990s that were totally unrelated: he was using steroids and he was hitting lots of tape-measure home runs. When Costas asked him about the ridiculous proliferation in home runs in all of major league baseball during this period, McGwire refused to speculate, citing only his own ability to hit a baseball long distances ever since childhood. It was as if he has never heard the phrase "performance-enhancing drug". He doesn't know why everyone else used the stuff. He only used it to recover from injuries.

But that scenario doesn't add up. In his earlier statement to the press, he admitted using steroids during the 70-homer season of 1998. Okay, let's say he did get into steroid use in 1993-1994 to overcome those injuries. By 1997, he was back to playing full-time--156 games in 1997, 155 games in 1998, and 153 games in 1999, three seasons during which he averaged 64 home runs a season. Three years during which he was not injured. So why was he using steroids during those seasons? He told Costas they made his body feel better coming off injuries. But he wasn't injured during his three big seasons. Why didn't Costas ask him why he continued to use the stuff even after he had recovered from his heel problems?

When asked which steroids he used, McGwire said he couldn't remember. In explaining his refusal to "talk about the past" in front of Congress five years ago, he insisted that his reluctance was the result of a failure to be granted immunity. That was an admission that the substances he used were illegal. Whatever they were called, using them could have put him in jail. However, during his career, they were not outlawed by the rules of major league baseball. He said he wished that drug testing had existed during his career. I wish Costas had asked him exactly what he meant by that. Did he mean that he would never have dared to use a substance that was banned by baseball in the first place? Or that he would have been caught, punished, and sufficiently sobered up to the reality of the situation to give them up in 1995 so he could proceed to break the Maris record using only his God-given talents?

In any case, he said he couldn't admit anything to Congress in 2005 because it might have resulted in prosecution, and his family and teammates would have been dragged into the situation to testify. Of course, his family couldn't have testified to anything, because last night McGwire declared that nobody in his family knew anything about his steroid use until he told them yesterday. His parents didn't know. His son didn't know. Tony LaRussa and his teammates didn't know. The Maris family didn't know. All the people he called yesterday didn't suspect a thing, and somehow, he told Costas, not one of them ever asked him point-blank if he did steroids. Does that sound plausible? All these people who were so close to him, who cared about him--not one of them cared enough to ask if he was doing something that could threaten his long-term health?

The gist of McGwire's pitch to Costas was that he profoundly regretted using steroids, but not because they made him hit more home runs. Because they didn't make him hit more home runs. They merely made him healthy enough to display that God-given talent. Yet he said that after talking to Roger Maris' widow, he understood why she was disappointed and why she (and others) will maintain that Maris was the true home run champion, not him (well, for three years). Let's add that up, from his point of view. He told us, in effect, "I hit 70 home runs because I'm naturally strong and have good eye-hand coordination, and because I was smart enough to study pitchers and figure out how to be a better hitter. It's a shame that I was also doing low doses steroids at the same time, because people are going to misunderstand the situation and deduce, incorrectly, that the steroids were the reason I hit the home runs. So I can see why Mrs. Maris is skeptical about my record. The coincidence of the steroid use is going to confuse people into forgetting that it was really my God-given talent."

If you watched the Costas interview, that's exactly how things played out in McGwire's mind. I have one question: if Barry Bonds had said the same things, would anybody believe him?

I moved to the Bay Area in time for the 1996 season, during which I saw Bonds and McGwire play about 20 games each in person. After McGwire headed to St. Louis in 1997, I continued to watch Bonds until I moved away in 2002. One thing I've been saying to people ever since is that "I don't care what you put in your body, you still have to hit the damn ball." That was part of McGwire's pitch last night, and I agree. I've also talked about ten or twelve separate factors that increased home run production in general since the mid-1990s. It was not as simple as juicing up and smacking home runs. I've always said that the proof that steroids alone do not produce home runs is that Ozzie Canseco, Jose's identical twin, was a mediocre hitter. Same genes, same physique, same access as Jose, but 462 fewer home runs in the majors. Bonds didn't become merely a long-ball maestro the way McGwire did. Bonds hit everything hard, winning two batting titles along the way. He figured out how to control the strike zone--something McGwire didn't do, striking out way more often during his most productive seasons than he had before--and how to make solid contact most of the time. It isn't that simple.

The popular consensus is that steroids are "performance-enhancing" not by making it easier to hit the ball, but by adding distance when a batter connects solidly. There is one McGwire statistic which reflects this phenomenon. Take his pre-injury seasons (1986-1992), and he hit 220 home runs compared to 128 doubles. Now look at his post-injury season (1995-2001), and you find 385 home runs compared to 115 doubles. One reason why a player hits fewer doubles later in his career is that he doesn't run as fast, and sometimes has to stop at first base instead of legging out a two-bagger. Does that apply to McGwire? I don't think so. He was never a fast runner, and never legged out a lot of doubles (or triples--only 6 in his career). All along, his doubles came on long hits which didn't make it over the fence. Starting in 1995, those long hits starting the clearing the fence for home runs instead of banging off them for doubles. After joining the Cardinals, his HR:2B ratio was nearly 4:1. That ball in St. Louis which became #62 should have been no more than a double, but for McGwire, his biceps flabby from steroid use, the ball sailed just over the fence. Not to worry--he hit eight more after that. Come to think of it, he should have called Barry Bonds and apologized to him as well; after all, if McGwire hadn't set the bar so high with those 70 home runs, Bonds wouldn't have been tempted to follow his steroid-laden path in his quest for the record.

Perhaps McGwire had another role model in mind--Andy Pettitte, who admitted taking steroids exactly twice, also in an attempt to rebound more quickly from an injury. Pettitte's neat little spin-control silenced the world, and nobody has heard a peep since then disparaging whatever Pettitte achieved through his God-given talent. Maybe that's why, when Costas asked him about HGH (human growth hormone), McGwire said he tried them, "once, maybe twice." Well, which was it? I'll confess right here that I used LSD once in my life, more than 30 years ago. I guarantee that if I used it twice, I'd remember it. I wouldn't be confused about whether I used it once or twice. But McGwire, giving a rough estimate of once or twice and insisting that his use of steroids was "occasional" and involved "low doses," wants us to think it was just incidental and for health purposes only. Tell a small truth, and the world won't clamor for the big truth. Shed some tears, apologize, act contrite, and it will go away. Put it in the past. I don't think it's that easy.

Just as self-serving was Commissioner Bud Selig's response. "I am pleased that Mark McGwire has confronted his use of performance-enhancing substances," Selig said in a statement before McGwire explained to Costas that they didn't actually enhance his performance. Selig added that usage of steroids and amphetamines "is virtually non-existent as our testing results have shown," citing the fact that out of 8,995 tests conducted on minor leaguers last year, "less than eight-tenths of one percent was positive." Let me do the math for you. That means that roughly 70 minor leaguers tested positive last year. I don't know how you interpret that, but to me it means that lots of minor leaguers still believe that steroids enhance performance enough to risk their major league careers even before they reach the majors. Don't forget that since the people who create steroids are at least one steps ahead of the people who create tests to detect steroids, there were far more than 70 minor leaguers using PEDs last year. To claim that such usage is "virtually non-existent" tells me that Selig's head is planted just as firmly in the sand as it has been for the past dozen years.

In a separate news conference held early this morning, God declared that "I sincerely apologize for giving Mark McGwire so much talent that it blinds him to the fact that he really needed a lot of help to hit all those home runs."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Hang In There, Bert

Yesterday's announcement of the BBWAA's Hall of Fame election brought a few surprises in a field full of "borderline" candidates. There were probably eight or nine very fine players on this year's ballot who will eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown, but only one made it past the daunting 75% mark to win election.

One tricky thing about the BBWAA balloting is that some writers focus on negative stats, as if seeking reasons not to vote for a particular player. So the critics of Andre Dawson point to his not-so-special .279 career batting average and his mediocre on-base percentage as indications of how short he fell of immortality. In the long run, the positive stats won out, and Dawson won recognition as an all-around player. Look at it this way: Dawson had over 400 career home runs and over 300 stolen bases, something only Willie Mays and Barry Bonds also accomplished, and he won eight Gold Gloves. What more do you want from the guy? Put him in the Hall of Fame!

The voting was significant for the two players who just missed election. One was first-year candidate Roberto Alomar, whose stats place him in the top handful of second basemen in baseball history. However, just enough writers decided to punish him for one ugly incident--spitting in the face of umpire Mark Hirschbeck--to keep him from first-ballot election with just 73.7% of the votes. That must be a relief to Doug Harvey, elected to the Hall of Fame this year by the Veterans Committee. Harvey, the consummate umpire who demanded respect from everyone on the field, is going to share the podium at the July induction ceremony with Whitey Herzog, a manager who disliked him so much that he once requested the league office not to assign Harvey's crew to any more of his team's games. To be sandwiched between Herzog and the player who spat in an umpire's face would have been a severe test of Harvey's dignity. Alomar, who has long since made peace with Hirschbeck, will get elected, but Harvey will be able to witness his induction from a safer distance.

Then there is Bert Blyleven, who should have been elected years ago but fell agonizingly short this time with 74.2%, five votes shy of election. His comments yesterday were very gracious, and his time will also come. Nobody has received that high a percentage of votes without subsequently getting elected, and Blyleven has two more years on the BBWAA ballot. There has been growing support for Blyleven in recent years; as recently as 2007, he was named on fewer than half of the ballots, but he jumped from around 62% last year to near-election this year.

The skeptics still point to Blyleven's negative stats as reasons for keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, and perhaps the most telling of these is that he only made the All-Star team twice (Dawson was an eight-time All-Star). He received Cy Young Award votes in only four seasons, and was never higher than third (Dawson won the Rookie of the Year Award and later a Most Valuable Player Award). So how could a pitcher who was rarely recognized as one of the top pitchers in his own league be immortalized as one of the all-time greats? He lost 250 games, only 16 fewer than Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez combined. How can that qualify you for the Hall of Fame?

Here's how. For one thing, Blyleven's positive stats are far more impressive than his negative stats are damning. He currently stands fifth on the all-time strikeout list. When he retired in 1992, he was third, trailing only Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. Since 1992, strikeouts have proliferated as more hitters swing for the fences and increasingly accept strikeouts as a reasonable price to pay for the occasional home run. Despite this, only Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens have passed Blyleven's 3,701 total. As starting pitchers continue to work fewer innings, it becomes more likely that Blyleven will remain in the top five.

Even more remarkable is Blyleven's 60 career shutouts, ninth all-time. He is one shutout behind Ryan and Tom Seaver and three behind Warren Spahn; the top five all pitched before 1930. That's very exclusive company, and he won't be losing his standing any time soon. Take the top four starting pitchers likely to be active in 2010--Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Roy Halladay, and Chris Carpenter--and their aggregate shutout total is 61. Twenty years from now, maybe even a hundred years from now, Blyleven will still be in the top ten in two marquee pitching categories--strikeouts and shutouts. Is there a player eligible for the Hall of Fame with that much going for him who hasn't been elected? Nope.

The positive stats don't stop there. Blyleven is 14th in career innings pitched--more than Seaver, Clemens, and Christy Mathewson, to name a few. He is 11th in games starter, and though his 242 complete games is only 91st all-time, it is still more than all but four of the post-1960 Hall of Fame pitchers (Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro). He was a workhorse who topped 275 innings in seven seasons while finishing in the top five in ERA seven times.

I did a study of the 20 winningest pitchers since 1960, and Blyleven had the most complete-game losses--72. What does this mean? It means his team could count on him to pitch well even if he didn't get a lot of support. In those 72 losses, his team was shut out 21 times and gave him only one run 19 times. He lost 1-0 nine times when going the distance, 2-1 nine times, and 3-2 fourteen times. Throw in non-complete games, and his teams scored one or no runs in 87 of his 250 losses. Blyleven's boosters often point to the fact that he pitched for a lot of mediocre teams, much like Ryan, whose career winning percentage is slightly lower than Blyleven's.

Another measure of weak support is the main reason why Blyleven wasn't elected years ago. There were 47 times when he was leading when he was removed from the game, only to see his bullpen blow the victory. If his relievers had saved even one-third of those blown wins, Blyleven would have over 300 wins instead of his actual 287, and the voters would not have denied him this long. Critics note that he won 20 games only once, 19 games once, and never more than 17 in any other season. But look at it this way. In 1984, when he went 19-7 for the Indians after a four-season mid-career lull, the bullpen blew two wins. One of those would've made a big difference in his career profile. In 1986, at age 35, he led the AL in innings and went 17-14 for the Twins, whose bullpen blew three leads that would've gotten to 20 wins again. Same thing in 1989, when the 38-year-old had his last great season, a 17-5 record for the Angels with a 2.73 ERA and a league-leading five shutouts, but lost three potential wins when his bullpen failed.

The 1974 season is a good illlustration of why Blyleven's career record isn't gaudy. He was second in the AL in strikeouts and fourth in ERA (with a career-low 2.66), completed more than half his starts, but put together a so-so 17-17 record for a Twins team that finished 82-80. The bullpen blew two potential wins; moreover, in both cases Blyleven left runners on base who subsequently scored, pinning the loss on him. Reverse those two outcomes and he'd go 19-15, much more respectable. Among his other losses were a pair of 1-0 games, three 2-1 ordeals, and three other complete-game losses. You get the idea. A mediocre 17-17 season should have been more like 21-13.

So it was for a number of Bert Blyleven's seasons. Sure he got lit up plenty of times and is also in the top dozen all-time in losses, earned runs, and home runs allowed. But he was a horse who threw hard and long and featured the most wicked curveball of his generation. I sat behind the plate in Anaheim when he pitched there late in his career (1987), and the curve was marvelous to behold at close range, starting out above the batter's head and plummeting below his knees. There was no doubt I was in the presence of greatness. He went the distance that day--and lost 2-1.

When he was on--remember, 60 shutouts!--nobody was tougher. It has taken the members of the BBWAA more than a dozen elections to bring him to the precipice of election. Soon he'll have his deserved place on the plaque-gallery wall about fifty yards from where I sit.

Hang in there, Bert! See you next year.