Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Last Baseball Bet

The other day, rummaging through cartons in advance of a yard sale, I found a ticket for the only golf bet I ever made. It was a bet on Tom Lehman to win the 1994 Masters. Three months earlier, I had never heard of Tom Lehman, who was making the jump from the minor-league tour to the big-time. I watched him play several holes at Spyglass during the Crosby Pro-Am and liked the way he hit the ball, so I invested $10 on him at 50-1 odds. I got a great run for my money, as Lehman contended all the way, had a chance to win late on Sunday, and fell just short as Jose-Maria Olazabal won.

It reminded me of the last baseball bet I made, in 1995, the last year I lived in Las Vegas. I was never a big sports bettor, was never willing to do the homework and legwork necessary to find the best prices and the little edges a bettor needs to stay ahead and survive. After my first few years there--the early 1980s--I pretty much gave up betting altogether. I did come out of the woodwork in 1990 when my Reds went to the World Series, and made a small score when they swept the A's. After that, I rested on my laurels. Until 1995.

It was around that time when I first heard about the notion of monitoring umpires and tracking how many runs were scored when they worked behind the plate. The theory was that with an increasing tendency of umpires to create "their own strike zones," some were becoming known as "pitchers' umpires" and some as "hitters' umpires". By identifying the most extreme strike zones, you could find good bets on the over/under numbers. Simply put, you could bet on the total number of runs scored in a game. It didn't matter who won, just how many runs scored.

Was it possible that some umpires always generated high scores or low scores? I thought it might be worth checking out. As a wise gambler once said, "they can take your bankroll, but they can't take your theory." As the 1995 season began (a few weeks late thanks to the lingering strike begun the previous August), I made a little chart of umpires and began compiling data. My plan was to take the first two months to get enough data to spot the tendencies, and then take the plunge.

This research would be a lot easier today with multiple internet sources and other computer applications. I know that sophisticated gamblers were using computer programs to aid sports betting as early as the 1970s, but I didn't travel in that crowd. All I did was get the morning newspaper, check the box scores, and note the home-plate umpire and the runs. I didn't bother to track the betting lines or the starting pitchers to see how those factored into the totals, as I would today if I were pursuing this research.

Sure enough, some patterns did emerge in the first few weeks. There were a few umpires in each league who were calling low-scoring games, and a few who just happened to be behind the plate for slugfests. I was more interested in the slugfests. Why? When you bet the "over," your bet is always live until the last out. Many games that have little scoring early on have an explosion of runs once the bullpens take over. Just the other day, I found a box score at http://www.retrosheet.org/ in which a 1-0 duel through seven innings wound up with a final score of 11-10. If you bet the "under," your bet could be over in the first few innings. Psychologically, it is less stressful if you always have a chance to win.

With at least five or six games' worth of data for each umpire (admittedly a small sample size, but it was June and time to get in action), I looked for a good spot. All I had to do was find one of my high-scoring umpires working at first base, and the next day, when he'd be behind the plate, find an over/under number that wasn't too high and a matchup of pitchers capable of giving up runs in a ballpark that didn't punish hitters.

It took a few days, but I found my spot. Jim Joyce seemed to be one of the standout purveyors of high-scoring games. So far in 1995, he had worked the plate five times; the run totals were 7, 19, 17, 18, and 18. Beautiful! Whatever he was doing, the scores were sailing over any line that would be posted (except for games in Denver, the highest over/under number would be 9 or 9 1/2.

On June 7, Joyce was at first base at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees played the A's. Both teams had good offenses, and the first three games of the series produced totals of 16, 14, and 7. On June 8, the scheduled starting pitchers were Mike Harkey and Jack McDowell, with a combined won-lost record of 2-7. They were ripe for ripping, and I was ready to capitalize. I think the over/under number was 9. I invested $40 on the over and grabbed a seat in the sports book to take in what I expected to be plenty of action.

The action began early, as Geronimo Berroa drilled a two-run home run off McDowell in the top of the first inning. The Yankees got one of those runs back, but the A's scored twice more in the second. Ruben Sierra added a pair of solo homers off McDowell, and by the fifth inning the A's were ahead 6-2 and I felt comfortable. Sort of. Nothing happened in the sixth or the seventh, and as they headed to the eighth inning my ticket was not yet a winner.

In came a forgettable lefty named Bob Macdonald, and the A's broke through with two outs. Rickey Henderson scored when a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter made a wild throw on a relay play, making it 7-2. A Mike Stanley passed ball let in another run, and I was a winner! The Yankees scored in their half, and the final tally was 8-3. Oh boy! Was I brilliant or what!

Or what, it turned out. I cashed my winner (a $36 profit) and looked forward to the next morning's box scores so I could find my next target. I glanced quickly at the box score of the game I had watched--and got a major shock. Jim Joyce was not listed as one of the umpires. Nope. He went on vacation after the June 7 game. For most of baseball history, umps never got a day off. In the early 1990s, their union negotiated a week or two off during the season for each umpire. But nobody told me about that.

Today, of course, you can check mlb.com or other sites a little while before a game starts and see who will be umpiring. Not then, not for me. I was stunned to see that Brian O'Nora worked the plate in that 8-3 game at Yankee Stadium. Who the hell was Brian O'Nora? He was a minor-league umpire who occasionally filled in for a major-league cohort on vacation. As of June 7, 1995, he had worked exactly 33 major-league games behind the plate.

I just checked his record on Retrosheet. In 20 games calling balls and strikes in 1994, the average runs per game was 9.2. In 1995, his three starts behind the plate had produced totals of 11, 9, and 3. Hardly the conclusive evidence I required to pinpoint a tendency.

In other words, if I knew then what I know now, I never would've invested $40 on that game. I didn't know then, so I won my bet. But when I saw O'Nora's name in the box score, I got spooked. Suppose it had been the other way around? I would've felt like an idiot losing a bet because somebody went on a damn vacation six weeks into the season. It was an existential epiphany for me. Betting baseball was as absurd as everything else in life, and if I wasn't willing to invest the time and effort necessary to find out who was umpiring every game before it started, then I shouldn't be doing this at all.

Besides, my landlady apparently needed the $76 more than I did. So I retired from baseball betting on the spot. I suppose I could've limited my expertise to Jim Joyce. If so, I would've done well. He called 21 more games in 1995. In 13 of them, the score totaled in double figures. Those would've been winners. Once the total was 8, and once it was 7; those could've gone either way. Six times the total was 6 or less; I would've lost. Overall, that would be at least 62% winners, a figure any serious bettor would die for. In 1996, Joyce again had more than twice as many totals in double figures as definite "under" games. Hindsight says I could've made another killing.

But no. I decided to go out a winner. Why press my luck? Since then, I've limited my gambling to betting on myself, and I've been much happier with the results than I could have been from relying on a bunch of strangers.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Cheney Ruled Washington

It was a cool September evening in 1962 when 4,098 citizens exercised their right to assemble, in anticipation of an appearance by the representatives of the nation's capital. Not surprisingly, John Kennedy was the first to take his turn, though he turned out to be a minor figure in the night's long drama. Later, a fellow named King held everyone's attention for a moment. Senators from all over the country were there, but nobody had any inkling of how things would turn out. Least of all did they suspect that before events concluded, it would be that darkhorse Cheney who reigned supreme and decided the fate of everyone in attendance.

Sorry, googlers, this wasn't a political rally. It was a ballgame, and it took place in Baltimore. Yes, John Kennedy was there--John Edward Kennedy, who had made his major-league debut just a week earlier as an infielder for the Washington Senators. So was Jim King, who had a pinch-hit single, also for the Senators. And Cheney? That was Tom Cheney, a 27-year-old righthanded pitcher whose chief claim to fame before September 12, 1962 was yielding a grand slam to Bobby Richardson in the 1960 World Series. That blast was surrendered when Cheney pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Midway through the 1961 season, he was traded to the Senators. When he took the mound that night, his major-league resume included just eight victories; after that, he recorded only ten more. What he did that night has been largely forgotten--but it shouldn't be.

The crowd was meager because neither team was going anywhere with two weeks left in the season. The Orioles would finish seventh, the Senators tenth and last. Maybe those few thousand diehards were there to see the Orioles' boy wonder, pitcher Milt Pappas (born with the magnificant monicker Miltiades Stergios Pappastediodis), who had already won 65 games for the Orioles at age 23. If so, they were disappointed in the top of the first inning, when the Senators scored on a single by Ron Stillwell (the third of his eight career hits), a double by Chuck Hinton, and an RBI groundout by the immortal Marion Sylvester "Bud" Zipfel, who career in the bigs ended that month. The fans didn't know it, but the Senators wouldn't score again for nearly four hours.

Cheney gave up hits to two of the first three batters he faced, but got out of the jam and then clamped down tightly on the Orioles offense. Over the next five innings he allowed only three hits and struck out nine, including striking out the side twice. The Orioles managed to tie the game in the seventh when Marv Breeding doubled and scored on a pinch-hit single by hitting-guru-to-be Charlie Lau, batting for Pappas.

With the score 1-1, Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock brought in Dick Hall to pitch. Hall and Cheney settled into a lengthy battle of dominant pitching. When Cheney fanned Russ Snyder to end the ninth and send the game into extra innings, it gave him 13 strikeouts on the night. He was far from done. In the tenth, he fanned future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson and Jim Gentile, the Orioles' two big offensive threats. He got two more Ks in the eleventh, giving him 17 on the night. He featured an array of pitches, including a fastball, curve, slider, screwball, and knuckleball, and had command of everything for the first time all year.

Still he pitched on, because the Senators couldn't touch Hall either. Entering in the eighth, the man they dubbed "Turkey" because of his herky-jerky deliver logged eight shutouts innings, giving up only a quartet of singles (two to Zipfel, one each to Kennedy and King). Senators manager Mickey Vernon asked Cheney in the twelfth inning if he was ready to come out. "I'm finishing," Cheney told his boss. "I'm going to win or lose."

In the fourteenth inning, Cheney whiffed Marv Breeding for #18 of the night, tying the record for most strikeouts in a game. He kept going. Hall batted next, and he had no chance on a night when Robinson admitted that "at times I never saw the ball." That set a record, but the game continued. In the fifteenth, Cheney got Snyder again for #20, the first time that mark was achieved in a major-league game. With two outs, he walked Robinson and threw a wild pitch, but got Gentile to fly out to extend the long night.

With the game nearly four hours old, the Senators broke through in the sixteenth when Zipfel homered off Hall (in his ninth inning of relief work), the last of ten in his career. Cheney had thrown over 200 pitches when he took the mound in the bottom of the sixteenth. Boog Powell grounded out, Dave Nicholson singled (the Orioles' tenth hit), and pinch-hitter Jackie Brandt flied out. That brought up another pinch-hitter, Dick Williams (later a Hall of Fame manager). On the 238th pitch of night, Cheney broke off one more wicked curve ball that froze Williams. Strike three, looking, #21 of the night. Game over, a 2-1 triumph, and a one-game strikeout record that hasn't been matched since.

After the game, Cheney enjoyed a cigarette, a beer, a rubdown and ice for his arm, and the amazed adulation of his teammates and both managers. It seemed to mark a turning point in his career, though he pitched only twice more in 1962. He began 1963 in blazing fashion, notching a 10-K one-hitter in his first start. At the end of April, he sported a 0.00 ERA with only eight hits and two walks allowed and 26 strikeouts in 27 innings. Suddenly he seemed like the most overpowering righthander since Bob Feller. In the space of 22 starts, he reached double figures in strikeouts eight times and tossed five shutouts.

He cooled off somewhat after that, but still had a 2.88 ERA and 8-9 record when he faced the Orioles again on July 11. Leading 3-0 in the sixth inning, he felt pain shoot through his arm and had to exit. It was an elbow injury for which there was no remedy at the time. He tried to come back, won exactly one more game, took a year off, tried again, and had to give up in 1966. That's how fragile a pitcher's career can be. Because his career consisted of a 19-29 record, people don't remember him. His gigantic night in Baltimore is an afterthought even to pitching aficionados. I'm one of them; I hope you are, too.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Instants Of Clueless Clarity

I had dinner last night with a couple of friends visiting from out of town, and told two of my favorite Hall of Fame library stories. They're dandies, so I may as well tell the rest of the world. The stories have two things in common. Both involved telephone inquiries from people who were entirely clueless. Yet each call had one moment of seeming clarity, when the callers were so certain of their knowledge that they felt compelled to enlighten me. The results were two brief instants--sadly fleeting--in which the brilliance of their misguided certitude left me speechless.

The first happened in 2003, my first year as a researcher at the Hall of Fame library. A woman called from Orlando, Florida, with a seemingly simple request. "My boss recently bought four baseballs at an auction," she explained. "Each one is signed by a Hall of Famer, and we're getting ready to mount them on the office wall. We're making plaques, and we're wondering if you can provide some text we could include about each player being in the Hall of Fame."

"Sure, we can do that," I replied. "Who are they?"
"Stan Musial."
"Okay."
"Bob Feller."
"Okay."
"Yogi Berra."
"Okay."
"Jose Alvarez."
"Excuse me?"
"Jose Alvarez."
"I'm sorry, but there's no Jose Alvarez in the Hall of Fame."
(Pause.)
"It says here on the certificate that he was inducted in 1992."
"I'm sorry, but I was here in 1992 [I attended the induction ceremony], and there's no Jose Alvarez in the Hall of Fame."
(Longer pause.)
"Well, maybe you're too young."

That one threw me for a loop. Too young to have heard of Cy Young? Too green to have heard of Danny Green? Too fresh to have heard of "The Freshest Man on Earth," Arlie Latham? What do you say to that? The truth, I guessed.

"Well, I'm the oldest one here, and there's still no Jose Alvarez in the Hall of Fame."
"Can you hold on a minute? The guy who's making the plaques is here, and he knows more about this than I do." I couldn't argue that. I could make out her voice in the distance, telling him "the guy from the Hall of Fame says. . . ." I waited a minute for her to return. She sounded relieved.

"I'm sorry," she purred. "It's Jesus Alvarez."

!!!! She was so glad to have solved the mystery for me. It was just a matter of jogging my memory, as if she had said "Marty Mantle" the first time and I simply hadn't made the connection. I can only report that she was very disappointed to learn that we don't have a Jesus Alvarez plaque here either. That was the last I heard from her. I'm willing to bet that those other three balls were signed by Stew Musial, Ben Feller, and Augie Berra.

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

The other memorable phone call came a couple of years ago from an elderly gentleman from Ontario. His inquiry was straightforward: "Do you still have Lincoln's chair on exhibit?"

"Excuse me?"
"Lincoln's chair from the Ford Theater that he was sitting in when he was shot. I saw it at your museum about thirty years ago."
"This is the Baseball Hall of Fame, sir. We wouldn't have Lincoln's chair."
"Oh, but you did. It was right out there in the museum. It was inside a glass case."
"But why would it be here?"
"Well, maybe you just had it until you got some other stuff."

Wow! What a moment of clarity! Of course, we were a fledgling museum then, baseball history was still brief and there simply weren't enough baseball artifacts to fill the space. So we dragged Lincoln's chair into the lobby to draw visitors. Maybe that wasn't so far-fetched, since Cooperstown is still the place where the "Cardiff Giant" (the great 19th-century hoax) is still on exhibit (at the Farmers Museum). Still. . .

"Are you sure you saw it here?"
"Oh yeah, right there in Cooperstown, right in the middle of the museum."
"Okay, I'll look into it and call you back."

It took just a few minutes for me to learn that Lincoln's chair has been housed in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan since the 1920s. That isn't far from Ontario, so he must have seen it there on the same trip where he visited Cooperstown. His confusion was clear--to me. I called him back to explain, but he wasn't buying it.

"It's in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan."
"That may be so, but I saw it at the Hall of Fame there in Cooperstown."
"I don't think so. They've had it since the 1920s."
"They must've let you have it for awhile, then, because that's where I saw it."
"There's no record here that we've ever had it."
"But you did have it. That's where I saw it." (At least he didn't tell me I was too young.)
"I don't know. The closest thing we have here is the chair that Whitey Ford was sitting in when he bought his first Lincoln."
"Well then, you got yourselves a mystery."

That I couldn't argue.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

That Night, They Were Men

Recently I was showing the photo album of my bar mitzvah to some long-lost cousins who only vaguely remembered attending it. Even with the help of the photos, I don't remember all that much about it myself. I do know that it was the last time I ever spoke--much less chanted--in Hebrew. I ate, danced, hung out with friends, saw some relatives I never saw again, and made a little money. Not a bad deal, but not that big a deal either. "Today I am a man," I said, following tradition, but I knew better.

That night--April 18, 1964--my parents hosted a party for their friends who hadn't had enough to drink during the afternoon. I hung around for awhile before retreating to my room to enjoy the event I'd been looking forward to all day: listening to my two favorite pitchers square off at Dodger Stadium. It was fitting that Sandy Koufax--already the star of a "Great Jewish Athletes" book I had after winning the 1963 Cy Young Award--pitched the night of my bar mitzvah. He was opposed by my other favorite childhood pitcher, Jim Maloney of the Reds, one of the few guys who threw as hard as Koufax, though not always with the same accuracy.

The game began sometime after 10PM New Jersey time and lasted just over two hours, during which I was glued to the radio except when summoned downstairs to say hello or goodbye to some friend of my parents. It was an extraordinary game in which the teams combined for just five hits as both of my guys were on their games. Neither one gave up a hit in the first three innings; Koufax retired nine Reds in a row, while Maloney walked two. That was business as usual for Koufax, who had opened the season (four days earlier, on my birthday) by shutting out the Cardinals.

That changed in the top of the fourth, when Pete Rose led off with a walk. He was thrown out trying to go to third on a Chico Ruiz single, but after Vada Pinson made the second out, Ruiz stole second. That prompted Dodgers manager Walter Alston to order Koufax to walk Frank Robinson intentionally to get to Deron Johnson. Johnson was just emerging as a big run-producer, though he was a year away from leading the league in RBI. Somehow he got hold of a Koufax curve and lofted it into the box seats in left field for a three-run home run.

Tommy Harper followed with a single, which I mention only because it was the last hit the Reds got off Koufax. Sandy lasted five more innings, surrendering only a walk to Pinson. It was up to Maloney to hold onto that 3-0 lead. He continued to mow down the Dodgers as I listened intently to that radio signal miraculously bringing me greatness from 3,000 miles away. In the fifth inning, Maloney walked John Werhas, and that was the only offense the Dodgers mustered through the sixth inning. But something happened to Maloney as he retired Tommy Davis to end the sixth. He strained a muscle above his right hip, and wasn't able to answer the bell for the seventh inning.

I remember my anguish when I returned from another farewell downstairs and heard Waite Hoyt say that John Tsitouris was pitching for the Reds. I didn't know until later that Maloney had been injured. In those days, announcers wouldn't jinx a no-hitter by mentioning it directly, and it took me awhile to figure out that even with the lesser Tsitouris on the mound, the Dodgers still hadn't gotten a hit. When I realized that, there was no prying me loose from the vicinity of the radio.

Tsitouris, forgotten today, was a decent pitcher for a few years. In 1963, he went 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA in 191 innings for the Reds, and he started 24 games in 1964. He had good stuff on this night. He walked the first hitter he faced but got mammoth Frank Howard to ground into a double play and retired John Roseboro. In the eighth, he walked one hitter but got a couple of strikeouts and preserved the no-hitter.

As the ninth inning unfolded, I could hardly believe it. "They're gonna no-hit the Dodgers on my bar mitzvah!" I kept thinking. Tsitouris got Willie Davis on a popup for the first out. Up came Tommy Davis, the two-time defending NL batting champion and the biggest threat to what was then a rarity, a no-hitter tossed by more than one pitcher. No problem. He lifted an easy fly ball to Robinson in right field for the second out.

Next up was Ron Fairly, and I held my breath on every pitch, waiting for Waite to tell me Tsitouris had recorded that final out. The at-bat went on forever, it seemed, going to a full count before Fairly drew a walk. I re-gathered myself as Howard came to bat and Hoyt coyly suggested that Tsitouris was still on the verge of something special.

Swing and a miss, strike one! Then a ball, and ball two. Swing and a miss, strike two! For the second batter in a row, Tsitouris was one strike away from a piece of immortality. What happened next was best described by Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times: "Howard sent a bouncer through the middle. Shortstop Leo Cardenas smothered the ball, but in doing so fell flat on his back and was unable to make a force play on Fairly." And that was that. Base hit, a no-no no more. Roseboro fanned to end the game, but it didn't matter. In an instant, I had gone from Tsitouris to tsouris.

My bankroll and ego may have been inflated in the afternoon, but that night my spirit was deflated by that infield hit. I didn't feel like a man yet, not compared to Maloney and Koufax and Tsitouris and the others who had given me my biggest thrill of the day. The gelt I got that day is long gone, but the thrill lives on.