Saturday, August 27, 2011

PNC=Panoramic Nonpareil Cityscape

After hearing for many years about the splendors of PNC Park in Pittsburgh, I finally got there last weekend. My friend and former Hall of Fame colleague Russell Wolinsky wanted to make the pilgrimage, which was enough to persuade me to join him there on one of the three days I visited the ballpark I'd been told was even more beautiful than whatever they're calling that place in San Francisco these days.

Russell and I managed to buy tickets separately online in the same row for Monday's twi-night doubleheader between the Pirates and the Brewers. As a bonus, I went to the Saturday and Sunday games with my Reds, stayed with a college friend I hadn't seen since last century, and planned an encore visit to the remnants of the left-center field wall from Forbes Field, which ought to have a statue in front of it of Yogi Berra gazing helplessly up at the spot where Bill Mazeroski's Series-ending home run sailed into immortality on October 13, 1960.

Let me cut to the bottom line: if you haven't been to PNC Park, get there! Don't wait for the Pirates to be contenders; though all four games I attended were close and mostly well-played, the ballgame is not the chief attraction. Simply sitting in any seat in the park and taking in the spectacular views beyond the outfield walls is a breathtaking experience you cannot get anywhere else. I lived in the Bay Area when the park first known as Pacific Bell Park opened in 2000. I went to twenty or so games there before moving to Cooperstown in 2002, and it's fantastic. No major league park, including PNC, has a more attractive perimeter. Take the walkway past McCovey Cove to the McCovey statue, stroll along the concourse past right field where you can duck into an enclosure and watch part of the game for free, circle around past the marina and the looming Bay Bridge, and complete the circuit by admiring the statue of Willie Mays in front of the main entrance and the statues of Orlando Cepeda and high-kicking Juan Marichal near the Lefty O'Doul Bridge in the right-field corner.

As terrific as the views were at Pac Bell, I found that the best views from inside the park were in the worst seats for watching the game, out in the upper deck in right field, where you could look down at the fans in boats waiting for a Barry Bonds blast into the cove, and enjoy the best angle on the marina and the bridge. But you didn't have that great a view of the game. That's the best thing about PNC: you can get similar views from out in right field of the bridges on the Allegheny River, but the most spectacular views are from the seats that are also closest to the baseball action. And they're about as cheap as you can find for prime seats these days; Russell and I sat in the grandstand one section over from home plate for $27. For my first game, I splurged on a box seat seven rows up from the first-base dugout. It cost a mere $35; the same seat at Fenway Park would cost $135, and it would be at least twice that sum at Yankee Stadium.

Let's talk about the views at PNC. Better yet, let's look at them. Here are some of the photos I took:

Notice how the colors of the buildings change depending on the amount of sunlight. The top photo was taken at twilight, the middle one on a cloudy early afternoon, and the bottom one around 5 PM. They appear to be right beyond the outfield fences, though the yellow bridge reminds us that the Allegheny River lies in between. That's the Roberto Clemente Bridge, a footbridge leading to a downtown area that has undergone decades of renewal. A century ago this city was dubbed "Smoketown," but that is thankfully just a factoid from the distance past now. Here's a better image of the Clemente Bridge, with The Great One's statue and yours truly:

I saw four close games in three days on this trip, all decided in the late innings, the Pirates splitting two games over the weekend with the Reds, and dividing a pair with the Brewers in a rare twinight doubleheader. One player I particularly wanted to see was the Reds' flamethrowing lefty, Aroldis Chapman. He entered a tie game on Saturday and gave up two runs, taking the loss, but not before I got this striking image of a 98mph pitch that for him is almost a change-up:

I saw a lot of good baseball in Pittsburgh, except for one recurring theme. Since it's one hobby horse I haven't carried on about in my blog before, this is the time. It concerns sacrifice bunts by position players. I thought Bill James proved back in the 1980s that the sacrifice bunt was a self-defeating strategy, and the explanation seems pretty simple. If you have a runner at first base with nobody out, you have a better chance of scoring (and of scoring more runs when you do score) than you do with a runner at second base and one out. The same is true with any combination of runners; if you give up an out, you reduce your odds of scoring, even if you've advanced the runner(s). The obvious conclusion is that you should only ask your weak-hitting pitcher to sacrifice, not your professional hitters.

Apparently Clint Hurdle and Dusty Baker haven't gotten the message, because I watched them demonstrate the futility of asking hitters to bunt. Two instances occurred in the first game I went to, and a third in the doubleheader, which made me think that these managers would have been more comfortable in 1911 than in 2011. In the bottom of the fourth inning, trailing 1-0, the Pirates had runners on first and second with nobody out. Up came Neil Walker, one of the two best hitters in the lineup. He bunted. Let's say the bunt works and moves the runners to second and third. The next hitter was Brandon Wood, hitting about .210, and following him was Ronnie Cedeno, another weak hitter. So the guy who was on pace for 90+ RBI tried to bunt over two runners. Does that make any kind of sense? In the fourth inning of a 1-0 game?

Walker popped up the bunt and the pitcher caught it easily. Wood struck out, but Cedeno singled in one run before the rally fizzled. In the next inning, Walker came up with runners on first and second with one out, and he singled in a run. In fact, the failed sacrifice attempt was the only out he made in the game; he went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles. But Clint Hurdle felt it was more important in the fourth inning of a 1-0 game to take the bat out of Walker's hands. No wonder the Pirates are near the bottom of the barrel in runs scored this season.

What happened in the seventh inning turned my stomach. Trailing 3-2, the Reds started the inning with a single and an RBI double, tying the game. Up came Paul Janish, like Brandon Wood a player for whom the term "professional hitter" might be a stretch, sporting a .220 career average. So I could almost see why Dusty Baker asked him to bunt the first pitch. He bunted foul. On deck was a pinch-hitter for the pitcher, so give Janish a chance to bunt the runner to third. When Baker had him bunt the second pitch, I had to wonder. Janish isn't a pull hitter, and the least he should be able to do is tap a little ground ball to the right side that would move the runner to third. He might even get a base hit.

Two things should be mentioned at this point, two things about baseball in recent years that most observers (especially the ex-players doing commentary) have concluded: bunting "skill" has deteriorated, and pitchers keep getting worse at fielding bunts. So a bunt in fair territory isn't automatically conceding an out. Just as a .200 hitter's little ground ball to the right side might find the hole and become a base hit, so might the bunt halfway to the mound get misplayed into runners on first and third. So I could almost see why Baker asked Janish to bunt twice. Of course, Janish merely proved that he wasn't up to that task.

So what happened on the 0-2 pitch? Janish tried to bunt again! And he popped it up right to the pitcher. I almost chewed up my scorecard when I saw that. Did Baker think Janish was no better than a pitcher with a .115 batting average? Did he have so little faith that Janish could make enough contact by swinging to move the runner over? He had managed a double and a single the night before. Way to stoke his confidence, Dusty! Bunting on an 0-2 pitch with nobody out! Baker got what he deserved. The Reds didn't score that inning, and the Pirates got the winning runs off Chapman in the bottom of the inning when that guy Walker came up with runners on first and second and one out, and singled in the deciding run.

Skip ahead to Monday and the second game of the doubleheader with the Brewers. The Brewers stormed to an 8-1 victory in the opener (it was 2-0 after seven innings), giving them a 9-0 record against the Pirates this season. When Corey Hart opened the nightcap with a home run, I'm sure the hometown fans thought, "here we go again." But the Pirates held tough, and it was a 2-2 game going to the bottom of the seventh inning. The Pirates got the first two men on base, and here came rookie third baseman Josh Harrison, who had tripled and singled in the first game and was hitting about .260. You know Hurdle asked him to bunt the first pitch, and you also know that he fouled it off. The pitcher was Zack Greinke, a tough righty with a wicked curve, so let's give Harrison a chance to sacrifice.

You probably know what happened on the second pitch. Another signal to sacrifice, and another foul ball. At some point, doesn't the manager have to say, "okay, kid, let's see what you can do," and give him a chance to hit? Isn't that what a young team like the Pirates is about--giving young players a chance to do something right? Is playing for one run even the best option for the home team in a tie game in the seventh inning against a high-powered offense? Well, Hurdle, possibly having learned a lesson about the futility of asking a hitter in 2011 to lay down a sacrifice, decided to let Harrison swing away.

Greinke threw a wicked curve that broke low and away out of the strike zone. Harrison chased it with a flailing hack--and sent a dying quail into short left field that went for a double, scoring the go-ahead run. From that point, the Pirates proceeded to put together their biggest rally of the season, a seven-run outburst that allowed them to cruise to the victory. That's all it took. Give a "professional" hitter (no matter how raw or helpless he looks, he's still getting paid $300,000+ to swing the bat in the major leagues) a chance to hit. Something good might happen. Imagine asking your shortstop to bunt an 0-2 pitch with nobody out in the seventh inning of a tie game!

That was the only ugly thing I saw in three days at spectacular PNC Park.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Once More--With Feeling

One year ago today I posted the third part of a series on the myth of the "writers and broadcasters wing" at the Hall of Fame (titled "A Wing and a Player"). The confusion over whether such "wings" exist has existed since the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing was created in 1962. That award was handed out at the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which has been the main cause of the misconception that the award's winners had been elected to the Hall of Fame. The misconception was multiplied after the creation of the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasters in 1978. Since then, in addition to writers being able to perpetuate the self-serving myth that their brethren were being elected to the Hall of Fame, broadcasters have congratulated their fellow award-winners on being "elected to the broadcasting wing" of the Hall of Fame.

There is no such "wing". There's an exhibit in what I described as a nook, and the award winners are honored there. The misconception continued unabated at the start of this year's baseball season. On the initial telecast on ESPN, the new crack "Monday Night Baseball" team of Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser, and Bobby Valentine took all the way until the second inning to note that they were in the presence of "three Hall of Fame broadcasters"--Vin Scully, Jon Miller, and Jaime Jarrin. I cringed when I heard that, knowing people like me who care about accuracy were in for a long season. Midway through the season I got another jolting reminder of how pervasive the myth is. After Reds announcer (and 2000 Frick Award winner) Marty Brennaman accused the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans of being "whiners," he was taken to task as someone "who should know better, as a Hall of Fame announcer," by none other than Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, the smartest man in baseball (as acknowledged by everyone between LaRussa's right ear and left ear).

My trio of blogs a year ago had a couple of consequences. Because I sent a link to about 20 prominent members of the BBWAA, I was fired, a liberation that has led to one of the most enjoyable years of my life. More importantly to the baseball world, the Hall of Fame decided that--after nearly a half-century of handing out the awards at the induction ceremony--they would forthwith give out the Frick and Spink Awards at a separate ceremony the day before the inductions of the actual Hall of Famers.

As a result, there is no longer any illusion that the award winners are being "inducted" into the Hall of Fame. A google search yields no claims since the ceremony that this year's Frick Award winner, Dave Van Horne, or the Spink Award winner, Bill Conlin, were inducted. Conlin's newspaper reported late last year, when the award was announced, that he had been elected, but that premise has been dropped. As for Van Horne, here's the lead of the column written by Brad Wilson of his hometown newspaper, the Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) Express-Times:

"The nook where Easton native Dave Van Horne will live forever with baseball's other immortals at the National Baseball Hall of Fame here in Cooperstown, N.Y. takes some dedication to find.

"Tucked above the main gallery whose famous bronze plaques eloquently tell the story of America's national pastime, the display dedicated to the game's storytellers takes a bit of patience and perhaps directions from a staff member to find, but the effort brings rich rewards."

Bravo! I attended the Saturday ceremony at Doubleday Field (the birthplace of baseball's greatest myth, that Abner Doubleday invented the sport) to see if anyone harbored the illusion that the award winners were now Hall of Famers. I asked half a dozen Hall of Fame staff members, "who's being inducted today?" and they all gave the correct answer: nobody. The ceremony itself was terrific, featuring a typically acerbic speech by Conlin (who took several digs at Bud Selig, warming my heart), a heartfelt speech by Van Horne, and a moving speech by baseball executive Roland Hemond, the second winner of the Buck O'Neil Award for lifetime achievement. The best thing about having a separate ceremony was that, for the first time, the award winners were the center of attention. With just a few exceptions (most notably Bob Uecker), they have been largely ignored by the crowds at the induction ceremony all these years; the spectators have come to see their favorite players inducted, and that's all they care about. When weather has looked threatening, Hall of Fame officials would move the award winners from the start of the program to the end, resulting in a large-scale exodus during their presentations. This year, even though only about 2,500 spectators were admitted (free) to Doubleday Field, they all wanted to be there to honor the winners, and they all paid attention to the speeches.

So there might be a happy ending to all of this controversy. Nobody can stop Marty Brennaman from claiming repeatedly that he's a Hall of Famer, and nobody can stop the Tony LaRussas and Dan Shulmans of the world from believing it. But in the coming years, as the tradition of the separate ceremony becomes entrenched, there's a chance that the myth will disappear. People believe what they're used to hearing and seeing over and over again, and after sufficient time passes, the future generations won't even be award that there was ever confusion over who was and wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame.

To illustrate this trick of the mind, I want to go back and take a final, revealing look at how this misconception grew over the past half-century. It didn't appear out of thin air; it occurred because the people who had the loudest voice--the people hosting the induction ceremony and introducing the winners--either ignorantly or intentionally perpetuated the notion that the award winners were being inducted. I have gone through every induction ceremony transcript to see who made these misstatements and when. I found about two dozen--some vague, some egregious--not counting last year's ceremony, which I wrote about in last year's blogs.

Here are those references (I call the file "Frickinspink"). I'll give you the year, the quote, who was being introduced, and who said it. In some cases it was the award winner--and by the way, I found exactly ONE award winner who went to the trouble of reminding the audience that he knew he wasn't being inducted, he was merely winning an award. That was St. Louis writer Bob Broeg, winner of the Spink Award in 1979. Most of the time, the confused person was the MC of the ceremony, the current head of the BBWAA (if I don't identify the speaker, it was the BBWAA representative). After the quotes, I will add comments, especially when the quote falls into a gray area. Here you go:

1967: BOB ADDIE (intro of Grantland Rice): “It’s altogether fitting that he should be in the HOF where he helped put so many of these ballplayers.”

1968: WATSON SPOELSTRA (intro of Damon Runyon): “It’s wonderful to know that writers get into the HOF too for their ability and not their extracurricular affairs.”

1973: FRED LIEB (accepting Spink Award): “I want to give thanks to Ford Frick, who originally suggested this idea of putting some living members into the HOF.” A decade into the Spink Award, it was pretty clear that the writers felt they were being elected. In those early years, the BBWAA went back to honor its earliest heavyweights, as the Hall of Fame itself did in its first decade.

1978: BILL LISTON (intro of Gordon Cobbledick & Edgar Munzel): “. . .The presentations of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for 1977, which in case you don’t realize is the induction of great baseball writers into this great hall.” No mincing words there, as Liston made sure everyone knew what was what--even though he was 100% wrong.

1979: BLAKE CULLEN (PR director for National League, intro of Bob Elson): “What finer reward could baseball give than having a plaque hung here in baseball’s HOF. . .to see Bob join that very special family, the Baseball HOF.” So two years in a row, there was an explicit statement of the untruth. You can see how the snowball was growing.

1988: JIM MURRAY (accepting Spink Award): “Putting me in a HOF, a baseball HOF, is ridiculous.” Technically, you could consider this a way of saying that Murray knew he wasn't being put in the HOF. I'd like to give him credit for knowing better--but I know better.

1991: JOE GARAGIOLA (accepting Frick Award): [To Yogi Berra] “We’re in different buildings, but here in Cooperstown together.” This is where I have to explain another big factor in the confusion. From the opening of the Hall of Fame's library in 1969 until the 1994 renovation, the library and the museum were in separate buildings, and the display of Frick and Spink Award winners was in the lobby of the library. If the library could be thought of as a "wing" of the museum, then the award winners were indeed honored in a separate "wing". That's what Garagiola acknowledged here. He knew he wasn't a Hall of Famer like his pal Yogi. He knew his plaque would be in another building and not in the museum's plaque gallery.

1992: MILO HAMILTON (accepting Frick Award): “I congratulate my fellow inductees today.” Hamilton must not have heard Garagiola's speech. He bought into the delusion with glowing self-satisfaction.

1992: TRACY RINGOLSBY (intro of Ritter Collett): “. . .One of 43 writers to have been inducted.” Here's another case of the BBWAA president making a blatant misstatement, showing that the myth was firmly entrenched and not going anywhere.

1995: BOB WOLFF (accepting Frick Award): “There’s something else that all of my distinguished HOF broadcast colleagues have. . .” Also: “. . .the historic news that I had been selected for the broadcast wing of the HOF.” He also referred to Garagiola, Jack Brickhouse, Chuck Thompson and Lindsey Nelson as “HOFers”. I was surprised that it took until 1995 for someone to use the word "wing" and wonder if it was related to the fact that the display was now in the museum itself. A year ago, I noted the scalding irony that the award was named for Ford Frick, the chairman of the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors in 1971 and the man who adamantly wanted the plaque of Satchel Paige, the first Negro Leaguer elected to the Hall of Fame, hung in a new museum display on the Negro Leagues. That is, Frick wanted a "separate but equal" wing so that nobody would be confused into thinking that Paige was actually a Hall of Famer (when his election was announced, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made a point of reminding people that Paige was not actually a Hall of Famer). By the 1990s, the truth had gotten so twisted that winners of the Frick Award believed they were Hall of Famers BECAUSE they were displayed in a separate wing.

1996: JEROME HOLTZMAN (MC of ceremony): “It is now my distinct pleasure to introduce the first new HOFer. He is Mr. Joseph Durso.” Holtzman, just three years away from being named MLB's first "official historian," should have known better, but this is a measure of how rampant the myth had become.

1997: HAL McCOY (intro of Charley Feeney): “Let me read what will be on Charlie’s plaque. . .our newest inductee.” McCoy was one of several people to perpetuate the myth who was later the beneficiary of it. In my first blog, I noted that when Lon Simmons won the Frick Award, fellow broadcaster (and Simmons protege) Jon Miller eagerly called him a Hall of Famer, making me realize that many people like Miller willingly spread the untruth in the hope that people would call them Hall of Famers if/when they won the award, which was exactly what happened last year, prompting my blogs (that first one was titled "Unfortunately, I Was Right").

1998: JIM STREET (intro of Sam Lacy): “The plaque that will be placed on the wall of the writers’ wing inside the HOF. . .”

1998: SAM LACY (accepting): “I’m thankful to Larry Whiteside who sponsored my entry into this HOF. I’m thankful to Larry Doby for going in along with me.”

1998: JAIME JARRIN (accepting Frick Award): “. . .the first Latin American announcer that received during his life enshrinement in the Baseball HOF.” From these last three statements in 1998, you see how deluded the winners had become, regarding the "wing" and election as interchangeable.

2000: CHARLIE SCOGGINS (intro of Hal Lebovitz): “This award will hang in the writers’ wing at the HOF.”

2000: HAL LEBOVITZ (accepting Spink Award): “I can’t stop thanking my peers for voting me into the writers’ wing of the Hall. . .If I have a secret to pass on to make the Hall of Fame, it’s just to live long enough.”

2002: HARRY KALAS (accepting Frick Award): “It’s very special to be inducted with. . .Ozzie Smith.” The strange notion of a "separate but equal" Hall of Fame status was unshakeable at this point.

2003: JOHNNY BENCH referred to Harry Caray as “a HOF announcer”.

2003: HAL McCOY (accepting): “. . .Andy Furman, who was calling me a HOFer on the radio years before I ever thought anything like this could possibly happen.” McCoy was reportedly quite upset at the Hall of Fame staff member who broke the news to him that he wasn't actually a Hall of Famer. Another award winner pestered a staff member a year after the award, demanding to know why his plaque wasn't in the gallery yet. This is when the misconception stopped being harmless and became downright sad. In e-mail exchanges I've had with several award winners, the common note they sound is weariness at constantly having to correct people who call them Hall of Famers, a weariness that apparently can only be overcome by letting the misconception stand unchallenged.

2004: LON SIMMONS (accepting): “I do not now consider myself the quality of being a HOF announcer.” Well, I don't either. I consider him definitely the quality of an award winner, however.

2009: BOB DuPUY (MLB’s CEO, and HOF Board of Directors member, intro of Tony Kubek): “This man is now a HOFer.” Honestly, don't you think the situation was completely out of hand when a Board member didn't even know the difference? Joe Morgan, the Vice President of the Hall of Fame and Miller's broadcast partner on ESPN when Miller won the award, made no attempt on the air to correct the statement that Miller had been elected.

I have saved the best for last, though it's out of sequence. Here are the immortal words of Mets announcer Bob Murphy, accepting the Frick Award in 1994:

“My special thanks to the members of the Ford C. Frick committee, the gentlemen who cast the votes. I remember so vividly back in ’78. It was the late Chub Feeney who had the idea of a special wing at the HOF for baseball broadcasters, and I was fortunate to sit on that very first committee and I had the privilege of voting for Mel Allen and Red Barber, and stayed on the committee for a number of years. I remember the late Bart Giamatti said to me, 'Bob, would you enjoy being considered for the HOF?' I said, 'Are you kidding?’ He said, 'Well, you’d have to get off the committee. We don’t elect people that are sitting on the committee.’ I said, 'Consider my resignation.’”

Isn't that a happy ending? It isn't about elections or qualifications or where your name is going to be displayed. It's about being part of the good-ol'-boy network, and who cares what they know? If Bart Giamatti said you could be elected to the Hall of Fame, who wouldn't bail out of the silly committee? He was the chairman of the board, after all. But someone must have had another idea. Between Giamatti's death in 1989 and Murphy's "election" in 1994, four other broadcasters won the Frick Award. At least one of them knew he wasn't a Hall of Famer; at leastone knew that he was.

It just proves that for decades, the people who have been most directly involved in the award and what it means have been careless with their understanding and their words. Bart Giamatti probably did think he was electing Bob Murphy to the Hall of Fame. What does it matter, you ask? Well, truth is truth, and that matters to me and to others who have steadfastly corrected misstatements. People will believe all kinds of things. They used to believe the Earth was flat and that cancer was always fatal, and there are still those who insist that the Holocaust never happened or that men never actually walked on the moon. Some people won't believe in global warming until they start choking in the streets. People will believe what they want to believe, and Marty Brennaman will keep telling everyone that he's a Hall of Famer. You can't stop that. But when you do know the truth, your head is less clouded by confusion and you have more immunity from the annoying effects of untruth. The Hall of Fame finally saw it my way and decided this year and removed the chief circumstance that had forced their award winners to hem and haw when strangers identified them as Hall of Famers. I hope the award winners from now on will be able to sleep better and go out in public more comfortably than their predecessors. I know I will.