Monday, July 26, 2010

Unfortunately, I Was Right

In 2004, long-time Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons won the Ford Frick Award presented annually at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown. From that moment, Jon Miller, who idolized Simmons since childhood from listening to him broadcast Giants games, began referring to Simmons as a "Hall of Fame announcer". Miller, I was sure, knew better than to think Simmons was actually elected to the Hall of Fame. He had to know, as anyone does who has paid even a little attention to the matter, that the annual winners of the Frick Award (given to announcers) and the Spink Award (given to writers) are just that: award winners. Winning an award is not the same as getting elected to the Hall of Fame.

However, Miller chose to call his colleague a Hall of Famer, and I told people I knew why. "Miller says that because when he wins the Frick Award, he hopes people will make the same mistake and call him a Hall of Famer."

Unfortunately, I was right. Yesterday Miller received the Frick Award at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown. In his speech, he did not refer to himself as a Hall of Famer, as more than one recipient of the award has dared to do. However, fifteen minutes later, Bill Madden, this year's winner of the Spink Award, took a moment to congratulate Miller for being inducted "into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." Sure enough, I believe Miller's wish had come true. Right there on the same stage, in front of the 47 bona fide members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who had returned for the ceremony and in front of the three new inductees, an esteemed baseball writer, an award winner himself, told the baseball world that Miller is now in the "broadcasters wing," presumably located in the vicinity of the "writers wing" which Madden no doubt hopes his colleagues will tell people that he is now similarly honored.

We need to get one thing straight here. There is NO SUCH THING as the broadcasters wing or the writers wing of the Hall of Fame. If you have visited the Hall of Fame, I defy you to tell me where it is. If you haven't visited (and you should), and someone tells you he or she has seen the broadcasters or writers wing at the Hall of Fame, do us all a favor. Ask that person where it is, and let me know what the answer is.

The closest thing you'll get to an accurate answer is that Miller's name is on a display in an exhibit that can be reached from the Plaque Gallery (where the actual Hall of Famers' plaques are permanently displayed) by going up a curved walkway and making a turn to the right. I walk past there every day, on the way to and from my job in the Hall of Fame library. I see that exhibit--unless I blink. If my eyes close long enough to blink, I miss it. If the only thing there was the display of winners of the Frick and Spink Awards (say that ten times quickly!), I could generously describe it as the "broadcasters and writers nook," but there is more there. We have displays about the history of baseball on radio and television, in newspapers and cartoons, and in movies. In the middle of the room is a two-sided board devoted to the award winners. The Frick Award winners are on one side and the Spink Award winners on the other. For each winner, there is a photo, his name, and a short paragraph about his career. That is it. There is no plaque and no carved portrait, as there are for the Hall of Famers. For each new award winner, the award proclamation read at the ceremony is displayed for one year, until next year's new winner arrives.

And that's it. That's all, folks. Jon Miller, Lon Simmons, Bill Madden, and the rest, as revered as they are in their professions, are not members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are numerous associations of announcers and writers which designate electees as Hall of Famers. You can google them online and find many lists of inductees. The one I'm looking at now--the Radio Hall of Fame--includes 11 men who have also won the Frick Award. Red Barber, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, and Bob Uecker are a few of them. Lon Simmons and Jon Miller are not.

Then there's the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, an organization which began its Hall of Fame in 1962 with the election of Grantland Rice (also an early winner of the Spink Award). There is a sizable overlap between the NSSA's 49 years' worth of inductees and the Frick and Spink Award winners, even though all sports are represented. (So are John Wayne, Lou Gehrig, and Ronald Reagan. Don't ask me why.) This year's NSSA inductees, for instance, are Peter Gammons and John Madden. And Jon Miller, I'm happy to report, was elected in 1999.

My beef has nothing to do with Miller and Madden personally. Miller is more fun to listen to than any announcer I know; if you haven't heard him on the radio, you don't know how good he really is. Madden is from my hometown; we went to the same high school, and he's been a top-notch reporter for decades, not to mention a good guy. They're great, but they're not members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sorry, Virginia--there is no broadcasters or writers wing in Cooperstown.

I suggest that you do what I do when people within earshot refer to a Frick or Spink Award winner as a Hall of Famer. I ask, "which Hall of Fame?" If they say the one in Cooperstown, I correct them. Trust me, that's what they always say.

I also know what you might be saying now: "What difference does it make? Everybody thinks they're Hall of Famers, and it's a harmless mistake that makes people feel good for their favorite announcer."

Here's the problem. It isn't harmless. It's dangerous to think it's okay to regard something as the truth simply because ten or a hundred or a thousand people say it's so, or because one person says ten or a hundred or a thousand times that it's so. Can you say "weapons of mass destruction"? The people running our country said it so often that we believed it and our elected representatives believed it, resulting in a war that is still killing Americans nearly a decade later.

People are weak, helpless, and deluded when they agree to accept something as truth simply because others assert it. If you know what you're hearing is not true--whether it's about something as (probably) benign as sports or about something more vital to our well-being--you are obligated to point out what is the truth. If you let small untruths pass unchallenged, they can only grow larger, until the big untruths go unchallenged because they are well-buttressed and resting on that foundation of fibs.

In the world of baseball reporting, you wind up with a statement like this one, from a column about Jon Miller receiving the Frick Award posted last Thursday on mlb.com by a writer named Chris Haft. Wrote Haft, "Miller hasn't completely grasped that he'll essentially be joining baseball's immortals. Though he'll be represented in the shrine's broadcasters' wing, he'll forever be considered as much of a Hall of Famer as Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb."

That's what he wrote, sports fans. You and I can sit here and see how preposterous that claim is, but I can also see 200 years down the road and a time when 200 years of misrepresentation catches up with history, a time when nobody alive knows anybody who ever knew anybody who saw Ty Cobb play or read a Damon Runyon game account the day it was published or listened to Vin Scully or Jon Miller call a ballgame. We're already not far from lacking living witnesses to the first two, and the exploits of fantastic players like Tris Speaker and George Sisler are already largely forgotten. Two centuries hence, if the only listing on the intergalacticnet has the names of 900 people enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with Jim Rice following Grantland Rice and Dan Cobb (the 2137 winner of the Frick Award) following Ty Cobb, I honestly hope there's some nitpicky little pest like me going around telling people that "actually, Ty Cobb was one of the handful of greatest players of his generation, but Dan Cobb only won the Frick Award and wasn't much known outside of the Sea of Tranquility and its suburbs. He wasn't really elected to the Hall of Fame."

Are Jon Miller and Bill Madden in the Hall of Fame? Yes, they are. They are, in the same sense that Pete Rose and Joe Jackson are in the Hall of Fame. They are all included in exhibits in the museum. You can see their images in the museum, and you can examine their clipping and photo files in the library. Have any of them been elected to the Hall of Fame? The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, that is? No. Sorry about that.

You might as well say that "in 2000 Al Gore was elected President" or that he invented the internet or can save the planet whether we want him to or not. You can wish all you want to, and believe what you want. Some people will tell you that there really were all those weapons of mass destruction but we just didn't find them (yet). Some professional announcers still tell their listeners that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, in the same breath they use to inform us that today's starting pitcher has a 2.75 ERA in the first inning over the past three seasons. In the maelstrom of facts, myths, misconceptions, rumors, and lies that comes our way every day, it's difficult to figure out exactly what is true. When we do know something, we deceive and cheat ourselves if we don't assert that truth when it can un-deceive someone else.

People will tell you all kinds of things. It might be because they can gain something by having you believe it. It might be because they honestly feel it will help you to believe it. Or it might because they are flat-out wrong and keep saying it because they don't know any better. Does Jon Miller actually believe he has been elected to the Hall of Fame? I don't know. That absurd statement by Chris Haft at mlb.com was followed by a quote from Miller, ostensibly (because it's the next sentence) in response to Haft's claim. "I guess that part of it hasn't really sunk in yet," said Miller. I hope for his sake that it doesn't sink in so deeply that he believes it.

I'm curious to see what happens on ESPN next Sunday night, when Miller and Joe Morgan (who introduced him and read the proclamation at the induction ceremony without making any mention of Miller being a Hall of Famer) are back in the booth. They have been joined this season by Orel Hershiser, and is anybody out there prepared to bet that Hershiser won't say something along the lines of "what a privilege it is to share the booth with two Hall of Famers"? I don't think he'll be referring to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. Maybe he'll even phrase it to note that they're enshrined in Cooperstown.

What I'm waiting to see is whether Joe Morgan, who is not only an elected inductee in Cooperstown but also the Vice-Chairman of the Hall of Fame, will say, "Actually, Orel, I'm in the Hall of Fame. Jon won the Frick Award, but that's different." Or will he say, "Thank you, Orel. I'm just proud to be considered as much of a Hall of Famer as the man sitting next to me."

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

History Night At The Ballpark

I hope you didn't miss the historic battle on Tuesday night when the Pirates entertained the visiting Brewers. In dramatic fashion, the teams staged a parade of runs that could have been billed as "The Rise and Fall of the Republican Party". In the space of a couple of hours, the fans in the ballpark saw a succession of events emblematic of the GOP's early successes and more recent disasters.

When I saw the matchup of starting pitchers that afternoon, I knew the folks in Pittsburgh were in for a momentous evening. Yes, it was Lincoln vs. Bush--Lincoln, whose startling victory in the 1860 election put his party on the map, and Bush, whose maniacal campaign to avenge his father plunged his party into disarray. As the game's start drew near and I saw the advance box score posted online, it occurred to me that Lincoln might be in trouble. The home plate umpire was Derryl "Our American" Cousins. That didn't bode well.

True to form, however, Lincoln got off to a fine start, retiring the Brewers in order in the top of the first. Bush took the mound, and his competence lasted exactly one batter, who flied out. Apart from that, Bush's tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Two singles (one by a guy named Walker who, it turned out, really had his number) and a walk loaded the bases. That brought up Pedro Alvarez, a rookie with all of 12 RBI to his name and a Bush admirer (his favorite movie is "Dumb and Dumber"). Alvarez unloaded the bases with a grand slam.

After this quick explosion of runs, things only got worse for Bush, as he was thoroughly betrayed by his defensive alignment. The next batter singled and went to second when Bush uncorked a wild heave. That was followed by back-to-back miscues by the third baseman, allowing two more opponents to reach base, scoring one run and leaving runners on first and second.

Lincoln, of course, sacrificed.

At this point, Bush probably figured that he was going to escape with only a five-run deficit against his record. But no. A double scored two more runs. Boom--another double, another run. Boom-boom--another double, this one by that Walker guy, and yet another run.

When the smoke cleared, it was a nine-run first inning against the hapless Bush. Yet for some reason, his boss saw fit to let him keep trying to do the job. Somehow, he lasted three more innings, giving up one more run, before he was put out of his misery and sent to the sidelines. Ten runs in four innings--not a pretty showing, citizens. And Walker had five hits on the night.

With all this bounty, you'd think it would be smooth sailing for Lincoln. But no. Essentially, the war was over with that first heavy volley. But Lincoln wasn't around to enjoy the triumph or the spoils of victory. He was gone by the third inning, after being ambushed for seven runs. Oh, his team won all right (11-9), but he was long gone by then, just the memory of a man who had stood tall but fallen by the wayside.

I hope the swarm of 13,000+ fans who attended that game in Pittsburgh appreciated it. They saw 150 years of Republican history in a stark microcosm. It's a lesson we shouldn't forget.

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

Incidentally, you can put together a damn good starting nine made up of Hall of Famers with the same last name as a president:

C: Gary Carter
1B: Ben Taylor
2B: Frank Grant
SS: Travis Jackson
3B: Judy Johnson
LF: Jud Wilson (mostly a third baseman but not great on grounders, so I'm putting him in left)
CF: Hack Wilson
RF: Reggie Jackson
RHP: Walter Johnson
LHP: Whitey Ford
Honorary captain: (of course) Grover Cleveland Alexander

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Right On The Nose

My sainted father used to say that a pitcher should have the right to smack his fielders on the nose when they make errors that cost him runs or victories. I couldn't argue then, and still can't.

Of course, it should work the other way, too. A team should be entitled to pummel any starting pitcher who is so atrocious that he doesn't give his teammates a chance to win. That has been the case with Mike Pelfrey in his last four starts for the Mets. When he took the mound in Florida, he had a stellar 10-2 record and 2.71 ERA. That night, he squandered a 3-0 lead and exited in the 5th inning, having been slammed for a dozen hits. The Mets escaped with a late win, but for Pelfrey it marked the start of a descent into Pitching Hell.

Against the Reds on July 5, he survived several early threats before collapsing again in the 5th inning, when he got drilled for six runs. His next time out, he again dodged early threats and again met his comeuppance in the 5th inning, allowing all five runners to reach base. Four of them scored, and he took his second straight loss. A stiff neck postponed his scheduled start last weekend, and instead he opened the series at Arizona last night. It was a disaster from start to finish, and this finish occurred in the 2nd inning. He faced 13 batters and retired only four, and before the Mets could say "Oliver Perez" it was 6-0 Diamondbacks.

Actually I think Jerry Manuel has to take the blame for last night's debacle. A day after closer Francisco Rodriguez threw 47 pitches in vulturing a victory, I'm sure Manuel went to Pelfrey before the game and said, "Listen, I want you to make sure we don't have to use a closer tonight." Pelfrey took care of that, paving the way for a 13-2 drubbing that gave the Mets' more esteemed relievers the night off.

Pelfrey's four-start meltdown looks even worse on paper than it did on the field. In 14.2 innings, he has walked 10 batters and hit another--and that's the good news. Batters have pounded 40 hits off him--twice he has allowed a dozen hits, a difficult feat these days. That's nearly three hits an inning. His ERA has gone from 2.71 to 4.01 thanks to a four-game ERA of 12.89. The WHIP is even more impressive: 3.41. He has recorded 44 outs while 51 batters have reached base. It's enough to make Mets fans think, "jeez, even Oliver Perez wasn't that bad!"

But I digress. I started out to write about Johan Santana, who would have double-digit bloody knuckles if he followed my father's dictum about punching teammates for lack of support. Santana, as usual, pitched like a demon on Sunday; he left his heart in San Francisco, putting out fires in the early innings and getting stronger late in the game, leaving after eight innings with a 3-1 lead which Rodriguez quickly torched in the bottom of the 9th.

For Santana, unfortunately, it was business as usual in 2010. Here's the bottom line: in 20 starts this season, he has allowed zero earned runs seven times. His teammates have rewarded those gems with exactly three wins. Five other times, he has allowed just one earned run; two of those have also been wasted. He got another no-decision the one time he allowed two runs. Yes, he's had some bad starts, notably a 10-run disaster at Philadelphia and a stretch in June when he gave up at least four runs in four straight starts. His record when he gives up more than two runs is 1-5. When he gives up two runs or less, he is 6-0 with seven no-decisions.

Usually the problem has been a lack of run support, especially on the road. Throw out the Philadelphia debacle and Santana's road ERA is 1.69 in 64 innings, good for exactly one win. Remember that April game in St. Louis where the Mets and Cardinals were scoreless until the 19th inning? Santana started that one and allowed just four hits in seven innings, but the Mets didn't sniff a scoring opportunity while he was in there. They got him a run in Florida in mid-May, but an unearned run saw him leave after seven innings of a 1-1 tie.

It got more frustrating in his final May start, where he outdueled Milwaukee's ace, Yovani Gallardo, allowing only three hits in eight superb shutout innings. The Mets got eight hits off Gallardo but no runs thanks to three double plays, and Santana left a scoreless tie in his wake. The bullpen lost that one. His next start was at San Diego, and it was more of the same. The Mets actually got him a run this time, and he battled through seven innings, throwing 123 pitches but holding the Padres runless. It didn't matter. Frankie Rodriguez blew the lead in the bottom of the 9th, leaving Santana with a 4-2 record plus six no-decisions.

Perhaps frustrated by this paltry support, Santana gave up runs early in his next few starts, killing the suspense. Of course, the Mets got shut out twice along the way, so at least he was used to that. Then came July and four scintillating starts in a row. In those four outings he has given up just two runs in 31 innings. That included the 3-hit shutout of the hot Reds that I witnessed on July 6, when Santana had a ton of movement on the ball, threw strikes, and mowed down the highest-scoring offense in the National League. It also included two more no-decisions, the blown save by Rodriguez in San Francisco and an earlier game at Washington in which Santana wasted yet another run by his offense, leading 1-0 before the Nationals tied it 1-1 in the 7th inning and Manuel gave him the rest of the night off.

We've seen this before, of course, a succession of yeoman efforts by the stalwart starter who is getting far more bucks from the Mets (about $18 million a year) than runs (3.0 per start this season). The same thing happened in 2008, his first year with the Mets. Through June he had a 7-7 record and 3.01 ERA, including no-decisions for three starts in which he totalled three runs allowed in 18 2/3 innings with 25 strikeouts (in all three of those, the bullpen blew leads). That was frustrating enough, but the second half of the season was even stranger.

From July on, Santana went 9-0, pitching brilliantly to the tune of a 2.09 ERA. Smooth sailing, right? Try this out for size. His post-June log also included eight no-decisions:

1. July 4: 8 innings, 2 runs, left a 2-2 tie that the bullpen lost in the 9th

2. July 17: his only post-June start with more than 3 runs allowed, he left trailing 5-4 in the 5th inning of a game the Mets won 10-8

3. July 22: after 8 solid innings of work against the Phillies, he left with a 5-2 lead, which the bullpen blew by giving up 6 runs in the 9th

4. August 2: he outpitched Roy Oswalt in Houston, leaving in the 7th with a comfortable 4-1 lead, only to see Billy Wagner blow the save in the 9th and the Astros win in the 10th

5. August 7: he led 3-1 after seven innings, gave up one run while exiting in the 8th, and sat helplessly by as Scot Schoeneweis served up a home run to the immortal Jody Gerut in the 9th, the third time in his last four starts the bullpen blew a potential win for him

6. August 27: after three straight wins (3 runs allowed in 23 innings), he got bailed out this time, leaving after six innings trailing 3-2 and watching the Phillies bullpen blow a lead in the late innings instead

7. September 1: in another miracle, he left with a 2-0 deficit and his teammates came from behind to win 4-2, rescuing him from what would've been a tough loss

8. September 13: this was another tough one as he took a 2-0 lead to the 8th, gave up a pair of singles to start the inning, and was removed; two batters later, the score was tied, and there went another win

Santana finished strong in 2008, winning his last three starts and capping the campaign with a much-needed shutout on the season's penultimate day. So he ended with a 16-7 record, plus seven games in which he left with the lead and the bullpen did him in. In three of his losses he allowed only one earned run. You get the idea. He should've cruised past the 20-win plateau, and incidentally, if the bullpen hadn't screwed him, the Mets would've sailed into the postseason instead of falling by the wayside in their final game.

And here he sits in late July with a measly seven wins to show for his efforts in 2010. Yes, he had a rough stretch when he was apparently tipping his pitches, and he's had an alarming habit of giving up 1st-inning grand slams, but don't let that 7-5 record fool you. The guy is a stud who pitches his ass off every time out, and the Mets would be in the tank without him, especially recently. They've won just three of their last 11 games; those were the three games Santana started. My sidekick Freddy Berowski informs me that Santana currently ranks sixth in the National League in Wins Above Replacement (how much better he is than an average pitcher who would theoretically take his place). That's nice. The problem is that he's only a couple of wins ahead of the apparently below-average pitchers who keep replacing him in reality.

It isn't Santana's fault that he gets as little support as an upstate Democrat. I keep sensing my father rolling around in his grave, muttering "smack them, Johan, right on the nose!" I just hope that when he starts heeding that very sensible advice, he remembers to use only his right hand, so we can keep on having the pleasure of watching him pitch.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Surprising and Not-So-Surprising First Half

Now that we're on the verge of the National League's annual humiliation in the All-Star Game, it's time to review the first half of the 2010 season. For some teams and players it has been business as usual, with baseball's daily smorgasbord punctuated by a number of surprises, most recently the failure of the Evil Empire to land Cliff Lee. Here's a look at the half-season's biggest surprises and least surprising events.

FIVE BIGGEST SURPRISES

1. UBALDO JIMENEZ: Winning 15 games in Colorado last season was impressive for a 25-year-old, but Jimenez has been off the charts so far this season. Through his first 14 starts he looked like Bob Gibson in 1968 but with a better record (13-1, 1.15 ERA). He's gotten roughed up a little since then but still has startling numbers (15-1, 2.20 ERA). Mixing an upper-90s fastball with wicked breaking stuff, he's holding the opposition to a .198 batting average. How good is this start? In 1978, Ron Guidry was 13-1 at the All-Star break and wound up going 25-3. In 1986, Roger Clemens was 15-2 and finished at 24-4. Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, was 17-2 on July 13. The last one before him, Dizzy Dean, was 15-3. You have to go back to Walter Johnson's 1913, for my money the best season ever by a pitcher, to find someone with a decisive edge over Jimenez so far; Johnson won his 20th game on July 13 en route to a 36-7 record.

2. CINCINNATI REDS: Hats off (so far) to my Reds, who sit atop their division despite a nightmarish weekend in Philadelphia going into the break. Following a decade of sub-.500 seasons, the team looked good to me entering the season. I thought they had the best infield in the league, and three of them are at the All-Star Game: Scott Rolen, the stabilizing pro at third base; Brandon Phillips, the versatile threat at second; and Joey Votto, having an MVP-caliber season so far (.314, 22 HR, 60 RBI). The outfield seemed young and uncertain, but Johnny Gomes has sparkled with 60 RBI while Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs have been productive enough to make the Reds the highest-scoring team in the National League. I thought the team's fortunes would hinge on their young pitching, and they've been better than expected. Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto have combined to go 17-6, and rookie Mike Leake has been a pleasant surprise with a 6-1 record. Now Travis has arrived with eight perfect innings at Philadelphia, and the Reds might actually be in the race for the long haul.

3. SAN DIEGO PADRES: Another team that didn't figure to sit atop its division at the halfway point, the Padres have done it with pitching, mirrors, and super-glue. The rest of the league has underestimated them right into first place. I got a kick out of the Mets announcers spending the first two innings of their first game in San Diego harping about the Padres having absolutely no offense aside from Adrian Gonzalez, then shutting up as the Padres won 18-6. The fact is that even though Gonzalez is about a third of their offense (he has 18 HR and 56 RBI, and the next-highest totals on the team are 8 HR and 32 RBI), with their pitching and their spacious home park, they haven't needed to score a lot of runs to win. Mat Latos has anchored a solid rotation and Heath Bell is taking his dismay at being traded by the Mets out on the rest of the league. The injury to Luke Gregerson over the weekend will hurt, but unless The Big earthquake forces them to play their home games in a Little League park, their pitching will probably hold up and make things tough on the rest of their division.

4. VLADIMIR GUERRERO: After an injury-marred, unproductive 2009 season, Guerrero turned 35 years old over the winter, was exiled to Arlington, Texas, and saw his salary plummet from $15 million to a mere $5.5 million. Right now, he looks like the biggest bargain of the year. In 83 games he's driven in 75 runs (he projects to 142 for the season) and is batting .319 with 20 HR and only 30 strikeouts. Pretty much a full-time DH now, he has anchored a Rangers lineup that is third in the majors in runs scored, and with Cliff Lee added to a squad that already had a 4-game lead in its division, we can look forward to seeing more of Vlad in the postseason.

5. TWO PERFECT GAMES (marked down from three): It hasn't happened since 1880, a year when it took eight balls for a walk and pitching deliveries were restricted to what we would recognize today as fast-pitch softball. There's a reason why there have only been 20 of them in 130 years, so seeing three pitchers mow down 27 hitters in a row in the space of a couple of months is astonishing. If it weren't for that atrocious bit of umpiring by Jim Joyce, Armando Galarraga would have his name in the record books right there with Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay, instead of being back in the minor leagues.

FIVE LEAST SURPRISING THINGS

1. DAVID ORTIZ: His second-half resurrection last season might have been the only thing that kept the Red Sox from dumping him into the Atlantic after his horrible start this season (.143, 1 HR, 4 RBI in April), but is anybody really shocked that he bounced back to be the AL's Player of the Month in May (.363, 10 HR, 27 RBI)? Anybody who can hit 32 rockets in the Home Run Contest, as he did last night, isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

2. ORIOLES & PIRATES: They really, really stink. They've been outscored by a combined 336 runs. Do I need to elaborate?

3. CUBS: They're in turmoil. Carlos Zambrano has self-destructed; did anybody not see that coming? Their best pitcher, Carlos Silva, is pissed off, too. The only guy who doesn't seem angry is the one guy who should be: manager Lou Piniella, who seems strangely resigned to mediocrity. The offense is old (only four of the 13 non-pitchers on the roster are in their 20s) and slow, and unless they can figure out a way to let Tyler Colvin bat two or three times an inning, help does not appear to be on the way. Cubs fans: wait till next century!

4&5. MILTON BRADLEY & OLIVER PEREZ: They really, really stink, and are starting to build legacies as the worst investments in recent history. After a lackluster, teammates-alienating season with the Cubs which consisted of a .257 average and 40 RBI, Bradley was traded to Seattle and somehow got a raise from $7 to $11 million. What has he done so far to earn that bonanza? He's hitting .210 with 28 RBI--and 64 strikeouts--in 210 at-bats, sparking the Mariners to a strangle-hold on last place. As for Perez, after amassing all of ten (10) wins in 2008, his agent, Scott Boras, hypnotized the Mets into giving him a three-year deal at $12 million a year. In 2009, perhaps feeling guilty about that contract, he compiled a record of 3-4 with a 6.82 ERA. And so far, that's the good news! This season, once again fighting vague injuries that mask a basically inability to find the strike zone, Perez has contributed zero (0) wins and a 6.28 ERA to the Mets in exchange for his bi-weekly $1 million paycheck. Add up 2009-2010 and you get 21 starts, 104 2/3 innings, 91 walks, a 3-7 record, and an ERA of 6.62. And remember one thing: as Mets fans (apart from the team's general manager) do not need to be told, this is all under the heading of "least surprising". Nuf ced.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

We Urge You To Take Public Transport

My wife and I made our first trip to Citi Field on Tuesday. For some reason we didn't get there last season, when the reviews were mixed--favorable comments on the park itself, negative comments on the absence of suggestions that the Mets franchise existed before 2009. For that alone I'm grateful that we waited until this season, when the time spent in the Mets museum and Hall of Fame was quite enjoyable."

Part of that enjoyment, I must admit, was due to the air conditioning. We picked the hottest day in New York City in umpteen years for our visit, and any semblance of air conditioning was welcome. Somehow we have developed a knack for buying tickets to games on days with extreme weather. We had tickets for the game on Mother's Day, when illness prevented us from driving through snow to attend a day game with a wind-chill factor in the 20s. Some fans said it was almost as bad as a July game at Candlestick Park.

Instead, we drove down to the city (200 miles from home) in the heart of a heat wave. The highest temperature we saw on the car's thermometer was 108; the official high in NYC was 104. Close enough. The humidity was somewhat higher than that. At least the car didn't overheat, and we didn't either until the minute we had to step out of the vehicle. At that moment, we were also numb from learning that the Mets were zapping us for $19 for parking. I'm pretty sure I've never paid more than $10 to park for a ballgame before; last year I paid nothing to park a few blocks from Fenway Park. Back in the 70s I used to park on the slummy side-streets when I visited Shea Stadium, but on a 104-degree day that wasn't a good option.

I understand the parking fees are even higher at the new Yankee Stadium and other venues, but $19 it outrageous enough for me. I think of it as Grand Central Parkway robbery. I can see the meeting where they decided on that figure: $19. "Hey, it's not like we're bleeding them for a whole Jackson. We are giving them change." Besides, someone has to pay the $12 million yearly salary of Oliver Perez. No wonder all those ads urge fans to take public transport to the game. The next time we go to Citi Field, we'll make sure to do just that.

The Mets museum and Hall of Fame is a great addition to the ballpark, as are similar collections at other new ballparks. The HOF plaques resemble those I see every day in Cooperstown, starting with Joan Payson, the team's first owner. There are several video screens with continuous highlights of the team's two championship seasons, and a Tom Seaver display with footage that shows his devastating combination of fastball and slider. Plenty of artifacts fill the cases. The most popular is the "Buckner ball," signed by Mookie Wilson, but my favorite item was the handwritten evaluation by Casey Stengel of Mets infielders from 1964, including the likes of Ed Kranepool, Ron Hunt, Rod Kanehl, Roy McMillan, and Charlie Smith.

I was also delighted to see that I am represented in that museum. There are more than a few items on display that are on loan from the Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown. Also on loan are the labels, which I wrote. One of my assignments here is to write the labels for the Locker Room, which features artifacts from the past decade for each major league franchise. (For some reason, the curators chose not to use my favorite label: "Randy Johnson pitched no-hitters in both leagues, and we have the balls to prove it.") It's a modest feat, but I'm proud to know that a few sentences of my scintillating prose are on display at Citi Field.

Like most folks who reported back last year after first visits to the park, the Jackie Robinson Rotunda is less than impressive. The screens that show Robinson in action are way at the top where you can't see them well, and from most spots are blocked by beams and other structural items. There are Robinson quotes on the floor and walls, but they seem incidental to what is merely a large lobby with a couple of escalators. I did, however, take my favorite photo of the day: my wife, standing at a rail above the escalators, framed by two words writ large on the wall: DETERMINATION and PERSISTENCE. That's her.

We took the time to walk around the park's perimeter, and thanks to a brisk breeze blowing through the open-air walkways, it was very comfortable despite the heat. It's certainly an attractive park with great views of the field from every angle, though thanks to the odd angles of the fences in right and center field, people actually sitting out there during the game are blocked from seeing what's actually happening. There's a huge variety of food choices, albeit at uniformly high prices; every twenty feet or so is a different cuisine, and you can experience everything from Korean food to fried dough to steak tips to lobster rolls (for $17, and they don't last nearly as long as the $19 parking spot). The garlic parmesan fries were tempting even at $9.75, but we had taken the precaution of eating on the road. Maybe next time.

Then there was the ballgame and great seats, purchased from a friend with season tickets. We sat about six rows back in the upper deck, directly behind the plate, with panoramas of the park and environs and a clear view of all the action except for slivers in the outfield corners. Nobody checked our tickets; I would urge you to take that public transit, buy a cheap bleacher ticket, and find an open spot behind the plate. Take your savings and invest them in one of the two dozen or so imported beers available almost everywhere you look.

Fortunately for Mets fans, Johan Santana was just as sizzling as the hot, dead air that filled the stadium once the sun went down. He gave up a double to the first batter he faced, and he gave up a single in the 9th inning. In between he allowed only one more hit, but that wasn't what electrified the crowd of roughly 28,000 potential heat stroke victims. In the 3rd inning, after a challenging 12-pitch at-bat, Santana yanked a high-inside slider from lefty Matt Maloney and drilled it off the right-field foul pole for his first major league home run. The Mets announcers have boldly predicted this inevitable event for two years, and Gary Cohen repeated the prediction just two or three pitches before it happened. That blast probably meant more to him than the shutout.

Still, he was quite determined to get that shutout, after having four no-decisions already this season in games where he allowed no earned runs. With one out in the 9th and a 3-0 lead, a single and an error put two runners on. He had thrown 101 pitches on a night when the ballpark temperature at game-time was 99 degrees. Manager Jerry Manuel popped out of the dugout, and the crowd booed mightily. This was Johan's night, and nobody wanted to see it spoiled, especially a couple of days after Francisco Rodriguez detonated a two-run lead in the 9th inning. The visit to the mound lasted about three seconds. I'm not sure if Santana told Manuel "don't you dare give K-Rod a chance to blow this" or Manuel told Santana "you'd better not let me regret giving K-Rod a chance to blow this instead," but the manager headed quickly back to the dugout, now roundly cheered by the crowd. Santana didn't waste time. The next pitch was a line drive snared by Ike Davis, and the pitch after that was a bouncer to third that ended the game.

Santana was exultant, and so were the sweat-soaked fans. On the concourse, a group of 20-year-olds did a sing-song chant of "Jo-han San-tan-a" that soon changed to "R. A. Dick-ey" (to honor the newest Mets darling) punctuated by one group member's rousing "suck my Dick-ey". Yes, it was a time to celebrate, especially for those headed home on public transit.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bob Turley's Wild Ride

Red Ruffing is the poster child for major leaguers who got a huge break by going from a bad team to a good team. Ruffing debuted with the Red Sox in 1924 at the age of 20, and in the five full seasons he spent in their starting rotation, the team finished last every year. Early in 1930, his career record stood at a dismal 39-96, including 47 losses the previous two seasons. Not exactly the pedigree of a baseball immortal, was it? But a miracle happened when he was traded to the powerhouse New York Yankees in 1930. He came into his prime just in time to have Ruth, Gehrig, & Co. behind him. His record with the Yankees was 231-124. Voila! A Hall of Famer.

A miniature version of Ruffing's rise occurred on the 1950s edition of the Yankees dynasty. Like Ruffing, he was only 20 years old when he debuted in the majors, starting once for the last-place St. Louis Browns in 1951. He lost. After more than a year of military service, he returned to the Browns in 1953. He pitched decently in ten games but went 2-6 as the Browns finished last (one of the victories was a 12-inning three-hitter with 14 strikeouts). They moved to Baltimore, and he had to go with them. The inaugural Baltimore Orioles of 1954 had the same dismal record as the 1953 Browns, 54-100. They escaped the cellar only because the Philadelphia Athletics were somehow even worse, but they still finished 57 games out of first place.

When Bob Turley, now 23 years old, pitched, however, the Orioles were a different team. His 1954 record was a respectable 14-15, a .483 winning percentage. In other games, the Orioles were 40-85, a .320 percentage. The Yankees certainly saw something in him, making him a key figure in the mammoth 17-player trade after the season which brought them four more pennants. From 1955-58, Turley's record was 59-30, culminating in a Cy Young Award in 1958 as the best pitcher in the majors.

How about that 1954 season, in effect an audition for the franchise any self-respecting pitcher hoped to join. The first thing you should know is that his roller-coaster ride was wild in more ways than one. Turley the American League in strikeouts that year--and in walks. They didn't call him "Bullet Bob" for nothing. He struggled against the two great teams--the Indians and Yankees combined for 214 wins--losing nine of eleven decisions, but beat up on the rest of the league, going 12-6. He completed 40% of his 35 starts, pitched more than nine innings three times, notched double-figure strikeouts four times, and double-figure walks thrice. He had a six-start stretch during which he walked 52 batters in 49 innings--and only lost twice!

Let's take a closer look at Bullet Bob's Big Adventure. He completed all three of his April starts, allowing a total of just 14 hits. Start #2 was against the Indians and future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon. Turley started fast, fanning five of the first six hitters. He continued to mow down the Tribe, and through eight innings had a 1-0 lead, a no-hitter, and 13 strikeouts. He whiffed Dave Pope to begin the ninth, then saw his no-hitter vanish on an Al Rosen single. Larry Doby followed with a home run, and there went the game, a tough 2-1 loss.

Turley bounced back in his next outing, winning 2-1 by pitching around a leadoff triple in the eighth inning. On May 5, he pitched at Yankee Stadium and held the Yankees hitless until the fifth inning. The bad news was that he walked the bases loaded, yielded a squeeze bunt which tied the game 1-1, walked another man, and saw the inning blow up on a bases-clearing triple by Joe Collins.

He faced the Indians next, and this time took a one-hitter to the seventh inning (you get the idea this kid could pitch?), again leading 1-0. The Indians tied it on a hit, two passed balls, and a sacrifice fly. That was all they got off Turley, who contributed a sacrifice bunt to the winning rally--in the tenth inning.

After an 11-strikeout win over the Red Sox, Turley suffered another tough loss against the Indians. He took a 1-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth, having retired 11 straight batters, when Al Rosen tied the game with a home run. The Orioles couldn't score any more for him (maybe this is a good time to mention that his offensive support for the whole season was a mere 3.34 runs per start), and he lost in the 12th on an RBI by opposing starter Art Houtteman.

On June 5, Turley beat the Yankees in the Bronx. This time he took a two-hitter and a 2-0 lead to the eighth inning. The Yankees doubled their hit total in that frame, but Turley got Mickey Mantle to fly out to end the threat. Two more hits brought a run in the bottom of the ninth, but Turley got Gene Woodling to pop out with the tying run at third, and he squared his record at 5-5.

Then came his wild stretch, starting with a nine-walk no-decision at Boston. He defeated the Senators but got drilled at Yankee Stadium when he walked six Yankees in less than two innings. Another brutal loss followed. On June 22, he led 1-0 with a two-hitter going to the eighth inning (does this sound familiar?), when a walk and a Sammy White tripled tied it. They kept going until the 12th, when White doubled in the winning run. In a dozen innings, Turley allowed only six hits, but walked 11 (and struck out eight--how many pitches do you suppose he threw?).

Turley's wild streak continued with a nine-inning no-decision and a complete-game win during which he walked nine Tigers in the first four innings. The two-game tally was 20 walks, but he didn't lose! That little party ended when he failed to get past the second inning in his next two starts. Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde. On July 7, inning #2 against the Indians went walk-walk-single-walk-walk-double. It didn't get better next time out against the Tigers. He loaded the bases in the first inning on a single, hit batter, and walk, but got out of it. He began the second inning by walking the first three hitters. Adios, Bullet Bob.

Turley pitched better in his next outing but got exactly one hit of support and lost his third straight. A pair of no-decisions followed: he got knocked out in the first inning at Washington but his offense finally bailed him out of a loss; at Philadelphia, he survived a trio of three-walk innings (and a dozen walks total) and left in the seventh with a 4-2 lead which the bullpen blew. When he lost to the Yankees on July 31, his record dropped to 7-11.

But he bounced back to beat the Athletics 10-2 and followed with another gem. On August 7, he took a no-hitter to the sixth inning against the Red Sox, leading 2-0. Jimmy Piersall's single broke it up, but he got Ted Williams to bounce into a double play. An unearned run in the seventh made it 2-1, but he retired the last seven Red Sox to polish off his two-hit victory. But the roller coaster dived again when he got knocked out in the first inning at Cleveland and lost 1-0 to the White Sox. Another discouraging loss to the Indians followed, another game where he led 1-0 with a one-hitter to the sixth inning before Larry Doby's two-run triple did him in.

With a month left in the season, Turley's record was 9-13 and the Orioles trailed the Athletics in the fierce battle for last place (with a 30-70 record in non-Turley starts). It was a little different the next time out; this time he took a three-hitter and a 4-0 lead to the eighth inning, when Ted Williams homered. Turley held on to win 5-3. One more gem followed, at Washington. This time it was no-hitter (and 3-0 lead) to the sixth inning, when Jim Busby bunted for the Senators' first hit (try that today!). It was still a two-hitter to the ninth inning, when an unearned run made the final score 3-1.

After a no-decision, Turley fanned a dozen Yankees but lost chiefly due to a bases-loaded double by opposing starter Tommy Byrne. That was his last loss of the season. He finished strong with three straight wins. His outing against the Athletics was scoreless to the sixth inning before he prevailed 4-3. At Chicago, he scattered five hits to win 5-1. His 1953 finale was a complete-game 4-3 squeaker over the Tigers. He finished the season 14-15 with a 3.49 ERA. In 247 1/3 innings, he walked 181 batters and struck out 185, both totals higher than his hits allowed (178). American League hitters batted just .203 against him for the season, and he allowed a mere seven home runs.

No wonder the Yankees wanted him. He didn't exactly tame his wildness in the Bronx, walking another 177 batters in 1955 and even leading the league in walks when he won the Cy Young Award in 1958. But he was a winner in the Bronx, including a shutout and a Game 7 victory in the 1958 World Series.

Turley's baseball part ended after that. He came down with arm problems the next spring, won only 26 more games, and retired at the age of 33 with 101 career victories. Then came success in business, more success, and ultimately his own airplane that made his early-career roller-coaster ride just a distant memory.