Friday, October 28, 2011

"Twilight Zone" At The World Series

I was going to write about Tony LaRussa's "Twilight Zone" experience in Game 5 ("I keep calling for Motte. Where's Motte? When I tell Derek Lilliquist he's fired, will he think I said 'your fly is open'?") and decided to wait until the World Series ended, but after last night's bizarre Game 6 I'd like to get this on record before we see what the final game throws at us.

As someone with a low opinion of LaRussa, I was delighted on Monday to see the ultimate micro-manager done in by breakdowns in the most basic communication. His embarrassment and the changing stories he and his troops gave about the game's gaffes have been hashed over by others, though I have one question about his strategy that gnaws at me: why was Allen Craig running on those 3-2 pitches to Albert Pujols with nobody out in the ninth inning? The fact that the FOX announcers had no problem with it makes me doubly certain that LaRussa was misguided.

I can't recall the last time I saw a runner on the move in the ninth inning when his team trailed by two runs. The Cards had their three big power hitters lined up (Pujols, Holliday, Berkman), and with a home run needed to tie the game, it was imperative to keep that runner on base. I know the rationale behind running him was that LaRussa wanted to stay out of the double play. But just how likely was a double play in that spot. In 162 innings in the major leagues, Neftali Perez has thrown 11 double-play balls, and has struck out 164 batters. The guy is not Dan Quisenberry, throwing everything at the knees. He's a strikeout pitcher, and it was far, far more likely that he would strike the next batter out than that he would get a double-play ball. Yes, Pujols did lead the league in grounding into double plays this year for the second time. But he still struck out twice as often, and over his career has struck out three times as often as he has hit into a double play.

The proof that he was much more likely to strike out in that spot is that he DID strike out, on a waist-high pitch at least 6-8" outside. Two innings earlier, Craig had already demonstrated his ability to get thrown out by a mile trying to steal, so I thought at the time (when he ran on the first 3-2 pitch, a foul ball) that the risk of losing the baserunner on a K-CS double play was too great. In a one-run game it would be a different story, but with the Cards down two runs, there was no actual benefit from the other possible positive result, a base hit on which he could have advanced an extra base. That didn't matter. What mattered was keeping him on base so that even with two outs, Berkman would have a chance to tie the game. But LaRussa decided that it was vital to avoid an event that has occurred once every 7.3 games (Pujols' rate for grounding into double plays) while leaving himself virtually helpless against an event that has occurred once per inning (Feliz striking out a batter). He paid the price, and I was happy to see it.

Now, about Game 6, which was a "Twilight Zone" experience for me as I watched it. I'm thinking of the episode titled "Stopover in a Quiet Town," in which a couple wanders around a place where nothing is what it seems to be, until they discover they are merely the playthings of an alien child who just wants to mess with them. I think there was some voodoo involved, too, especially on those errors. Can't you see some impish kid watching from above the game--flailing at the Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal dolls on the missed fly ball, flicking a fingernail at David Freese's doll as he tried to catch a routine popup, and giving Michael Young's doll a vigorous shake every time he tried to handle a ground ball? Things happened, and you couldn't figure out how. The Cards had an inning in which they didn't hit the ball out of infield, yet they not only scored a run, they left the bases loaded and had another runner picked off.

Watching home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom's strike zone move around, I thought I was looking at some kind of fun-house mirror. Great-looking pitches were called balls, and so-so pitches were strikes, creating an unusually large number of funny and dirty looks from players (and some major-league yapping from Pujols when he was called out on strikes in the sixth inning. Even the pitchers were laughing at the Invisible Shrinking Strike Zone.

It was all part of a thrilling game in which 42 players were used (including 15 pitchers) and 44 batters reached base, which featured seven lead changes and five ties, and you could picture Nolan Ryan's cardiologist waiting for the phone to ring every time the Rangers failed to get that coveted final out. We saw a "prevent-doubles" defense prevent a double--by playing the double into a game-tying triple in the bottom of the ninth. We saw American League pitchers fail three times to lay down a bunt good enough to advance a runner--except for the time when the National League pitcher threw the ball into center field (someone check the Fernando Salas voodoo doll for a fresh puncture). We saw one star nearly break an ankle from being so surprised by that wild throw that he forgot how to touch second base, and saw another star leave a World Series game because of a bruised pinkie after he suddenly found someone foot between his hand and the base it was trying to reach.

We saw all that and a lot more--a little bit of everything--and we can only hope to see some semblance of it tonight in the finale of the most surprisingly great Series I've ever seen. I can do without the voodoo and the "Twilight Zone" effects, however, and hope to see something more along the lines of "The Best Games of Our Lives".

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hall of Fame Honors Selig With Locked Door

When the press release was distributed by the Hall of Fame on August 18, it seemed like a cool thing--dedicating a library space to the archives of baseball's nine commissioners. As the release put it, "Cooperstown will also now be forever celebrated as the archival home for the Office of the Commissioner following the Wednesday night unveiling of the Allan H. 'Bud' Selig Center for the Archives of Major League Baseball Commissioners at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, during the Owners' Meetings."

Upon further review, however, it turns out that this unveiling was mostly for show, a symbolic gesture to Herr Commissioner near the conclusion of the Winter Owners' meetings, held in Cooperstown for only the second time, giving each party a chance to suck up to the other. The Hall of Fame, having finally shed the Doubleday Myth, managed to create another one with the dedication of an empty, inaccessible space in honor of Selig.

Here's how Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board of Directors Jane Forbes Clark described the "Center," located off the library atrium in what was formerly offices for the Education Department: "The Selig Center for the Archives of Major League Baseball Commissioners will ensure a permanent home for the documentation and preservation of the Office of the Commissioner's contributions to baseball history. This archive will provide a central location for the study and research of the importance of the Office of the Commissioner, and its role in shaping and advancing the National Pastime for nearly a century."

What did she tell us here? In this place, this "center," we can study and research the preserved documentation of the contributions made by the commissioners. Go in there, American public, make yourself comfortable, and read all about it. Sounds great, and it would be if it were true. But none of it is true. First of all, you can't go in there. I can't go there. Even Hall of Fame staff can't go in there without tracking down one of the handful of people with a key. If you want to trek across the country to do research on that book about one of the commissioners, you won't be allowed in there either. But it doesn't matter, because there won't be anything in there anyway.

The Hall of Fame has a fair quantity of archival material related to baseball's commissioners--more than a dozen, I'm told. The largest collection is the papers of Bowie Kuhn, sent by Kuhn a year or two before he died, when he was afraid that legal problems might result in those papers being seized. But he stipulated that the papers can't be accessed until twenty years after his death. So nobody gets to see those dozens of cartons.

But the other archives won't be in the "Center for the Archives" either. Read that a couple of times to let it sink in. Let's open up a center for the archives, even though we can't put the archives in there. Why not? Because archives need to be preserved in a climate-controlled environment. Every item in the Hall of Fame's collections,apart from the library files containing newspaper clippings, is stored in climate-controlled areas in the museum basement. Temperatures are cooler in those rooms, especially where they keep the photos (at 52 degrees). The Hall of Fame is not about to install climate control in a little office off the atrium so that archives can actually be stored there. Why should they? It isn't as if anyone is going to be allowed in that room!

The procedure for looking at Commissioner-related material remains unchanged from what it has been for many years. You make an appointment to visit the Giamatti Research Center, tell them the archives you'd like to examine, and they bring the material to you in the main research center. The presence of this space--named after an actual commissioner--is irrelevant to library staff and visiting researchers alike. It is a non sequitur, a myth, a fraud.

Yet somehow it is perfectly fitting for this occasion and for this commissioner. The largest of the vacated offices will be available for meetings and conferences--but only involving VIPs. Even though the press released mentions photos (of the nine commissioners) and other items on display, it won't be open to the public, nor will it be part of tours (except for VIPs). There is a skeletal collection of books in the "Center," duplicates of Hall of Famer bios and so on. There's nothing to do in there but sit and thumb through stuff not related to commissioners, which reportedly was exactly how Selig enjoyed himself for awhile after the unveiling. Maybe he was reading the secret documentation that Abner Doubleday really did invent baseball, as Selig still believes was the case. If he believes the Doubleday myth, no wonder he thinks that people will be able to see archives in this archival center.

So even though the place isn't what Jane Clark pretended it was at the unveiling, it is what it is--empty, presumptuous, useless, and inaccessible--and therefore the most fitting tribute to Bud Selig's legacy that I can imagine.