Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Stage 1: Denial. A few months ago, at the first suggestions that Dickey might not pitch for the Mets next season, the notion seemed incomprehensible. If the Mets wanted to sign the best starting pitcher available in the free-agent market, it would cost them far more than the $5 million they'd have to pay Dickey in 2013. He was already under contract. They didn't have to negotiate with him, they just had to leave him alone. When he won the Cy Young Award and the response in some quarters was "This just enhances his trade value," it seemed like screwy logic. All it did was enhance the desirability of keeping him at that bargain salary. They already had the best pitcher in the National League! When they threw $17 million a year at David Wright in a long-term contract, that seemed like one more reason to keep Dickey. If they were willing to make that kind of financial commitment, it meant they weren't going to break up their current strengths, didn't it? Why commit to your best everyday player and not to your best pitcher? Every way I tried to apply logic to the situation, the answer came up the same: there's no reason to trade Dickey. Yes, there was the theoretical notion that "The Mets aren't going to win next year with or without Dickey, so why not get value that will enhance their chance of winning a few years from now?" My answer to that led me to the next phase of the process.
Stage 2: Anger. Why keep Dickey even if you're not going to win the pennant? Accepting that assumption made it even more imperative that they keep him--for the fans. A year ago, they let Jose Reyes, the most popular player on the team and the one player fans would go to Citi Field to see perform, walk away without an offer or a protest. I think I'm an average life-long Mets fan, and a year ago I wondered whether I'd even want to watch the team without him. But the season began, baseball returned, and I started watching. For half a season the team stayed in the pennant chase, for one reason only. Their starting pitching was very good, and specifically R. A. Dickey was terrific. Starting pitching is the great equalizer, and for a fair chunk of the season it kept teams with weak offenses like the Mets and Pirates in the chase. Dickey emerged as the new most popular player on the team. He was the one guy whose turn on the mound I didn't want to miss. It was fascinating and exhilarating to watch him flummox opposing lineups with a pitching style unique in baseball history. He was one of a kind, not only aesthetically but personally as well. There was the wonderful confluence of events in his life--climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in the off-season, writing a well-received book, revealing a character of strength and persistence that endeared him to all Mets fans. Here was one guy we could root for not only because he was pitching spectacularly but also because he was a good guy who wanted only to excel. We had seen him pitch nearly as well in 2011 while getting virtually no support from his teammates and enduring an undeserved losing record with grace and determination.
So my anger grew at the notion that Mets management would be so indifferent to their own fans' enjoyment of the team that they would get rid of the player we most wanted to root for. Over the past few years, Mets fans have watched the Wilpons abandon the team's interests while crying poverty because they were ripped off by Bernie Madoff. The $138 million contract they gave David Wright put the official lie to that notion long after the fans stopped believing it. The Wilpons have turned the Mets into a franchise with a small-market mentality at the same time that they reaped the benefits of an extravagant new ballpark. Then they somehow latched onto one player their fans could celebrate no matter how bad the rest of the team was, and all we heard was how his unprecedented performance in 2012 simply made him better trade bait. Who the hell could the Mets get for him that would give their fans more pleasure than watching him pitch 30 more times in 2013? It became infuriating to think that the Wilpons, hatchet man Sandy Alderson, and the other people making the decisions would deny their fans the pleasure of seeing what Dickey does next. Of course, it didn't have to happen, I kept telling myself as I entered the third stage.
Stage 3: Bargaining. Even the pundits were weighing the possibilities without calling it a no-brainer that the Mets would trade Dickey. Alderson declared that they'd be happy to have Dickey return in 2013, and Dickey said that he wanted to return. The Mets were the franchise that had stuck their necks out and given him a chance, and he wanted to stay. The Wright contract seemed encouraging on that score. There was plenty of time to extend the contract. It didn't even have to happen this winter. The Mets could start 2013 with Dickey on hand, see how the first half went, and unload him at the trading deadline if need be. Dickey himself could declare that he wouldn't sign an extension and would take a chance on having a good enough season to bring a much bigger price on the free market after 2013 than he could get from the Mets now. The biggest element of risk seemed to involve his age--38. That was a red herring, folks. Even though he throws the hardest knuckler in history, and sneaks in an occasional fastball in the 82-84mph range, it's still the knuckleball, and its masters have historically defied the normal laws of baseball longevity. As I write this, would anybody be surprised if he keeps up current his performance level for five more years? Or longer?
So bargaining seemed like a good proposition. As long as the Mets and Dickey kept bargaining, hope remained that he might spend those next five--or ten--productive seasons in a Mets uniform. The team unveiled new uniforms in November, and I joked that what they really needed was not a new design but different names on the backs. But as a selfish Mets fan, I found myself thinking that my only concern was being able to watch Dickey pitch all of his games next season. That was my own bargaining with the growing prospect of losing that opportunity. Screw the pennant chase. Screw the contract terms. Just let me watch Dickey for one more season. See what happens. Maybe he'd anchor a starting rotation that would keep the team in the race. Maybe he'd wind up like he did this past season, a lone shining star in a Mets firmament of futility. Maybe it would all turn sour and the pressure of putting up big pre-free agency stats would crumble his numbers. But at least we'd know, at least we'd be able to watch and root and see for ourselves, instead of being left to wonder what if. What kind of legacy could he have established by joining Wright as "a Met for life"? I retained every vanishing shred of hope that we'd fine out, but bargaining, it turns out, is nearly as unrealistic as denial.
Stage 4: Depression. "The damp drizzly November in my soul" soon turned to depression as December dawned on the Dickey trade-watch front. Not even alliteration helped. The carping in the press began, always a bad sign. The Mets reportedly offered him $10 million a season and became publicly upset when he told the press that he didn't think that was a fair offer considering his 2012 performance. The figure he reportedly wanted--$15 million--didn't seem out of line to me, though I have to admit that I do my best to tune out contract offers and details. Everyone in baseball makes an obscene amount of money--apparently except the Wilpons--and the details don't matter. If you want someone, you sign him. So it was depressing to think that the Mets, who lavished a $36 million, three-year investment on freakin' Oliver Perez's high-outside fastballs and 55-foot sliders, couldn't come up a paltry $25-30 million to secure three years' worth of Dickey's enchanting knuckler. Yeah, the Perez deal was Omar Minaya's folly and he had ultimately taken the fall for it, but it didn't automatically follow that Alderson shouldn't take a chance on Dickey. If Alderson was "upset" with Dickey for taking his case to the public, it could only mean that: (A) the parties were truly so far apart that the gap couldn't be bridged (which still could mean that they would bring him back as a "cheap" $5 million starter); and/or (B) Alderson was laying the groundwork for deeming him ungrateful and expendable.
That brought back the memories of Seaver in '77, when team spokesman M. Donald Grant encouraged Dick Young's scurrilous campaign against Seaver's character and added his own disappointment about the pitcher's greed at wanting to earn whatever a three-time Cy Young Award winner could make in those days. That had been the ultimate gruesome death-watch for Mets fans, one that I hadn't recovered from for years. Losing Dickey couldn't be as bad as losing Seaver, but that was then and this was now--and right now it offended, disturbed, and depressed me to think that the Mets, after experiencing a 4.7% drop in attendance in 2012, would so cavalierly dismiss their biggest drawing card (for the record, home attendance was 8.3% higher when Dickey started). Despite Alderson's spreading smokescreen of needing to build for the future and feeling compelled to make a trade if it would address long-term issues, it remains the case that for a team's fans to believe in that future, they must feel that whoever is running the team now cares about the fans' desires. It has been several years since the Wilpons gave Mets fans any indication that they cared for much else besides their own net worth. Despite Wright's windfall, nothing in the Dickey negotiations made us feel that that had changed, and it was simply depressing when the trade happened. Suddenly we were asked to celebrate the promise of a catcher coming off knee surgery for a torn ligament and a 20-year-old who pitched at the Single-A level in 2012. That's like trading a freezer full of filet mignon for a couple of calves. But it happened, and we have no choice but to accept it.
Stage 5: Acceptance. R. A. Dickey is no longer a Met. A year ago I mourned for the departure of Jose Reyes, yet I got enjoyment from the Mets in 2012, and the 2013 will be played (barring the cosmic last laugh by the Mayans later this week). Matt Harvey proved eminently watchable over the last two months this season, at times reminding Mets fans of the early Tom Seaver. Maybe he'll lead the new edition of the starting rotation, joined by a rejuvenated Johan Santana, a maturing Jonathon Niese, and other promising young arms. Maybe it could be 1969 all over again, with a young but suddenly invincible group of pitchers supporting a lineup consisting of a couple of guys having career years and platoon combinations providing decent production from half the lineup. Maybe Travis d'Arnaud will blossom instantly and make us forget the what's-his-name who caught the majority of Dickey's floaters in 2012.
The acceptance, for me, is helped by having two fallback plans. One is that the Mets have always been my #2 team, behind the Cincinnati Reds. My father was from Cincinnati, so it's a congenital defect, but the Reds are in ascendance these days and figure to contend for awhile in a weak division. My policy over the years has been to root harder for whichever team had the best chance of making the post-season, and it worked pretty well last year right up until the minute the Reds failed to sweep the Giants in the playoffs. It certainly came in handy in 1977, when they were the lucky team that landed Seaver. When that trade happened, I abandoned the Mets completely, refusing to put any energy into rooting for them and not returning to the fold for seven years, until the arrival of Dwight Gooden. I'll have no qualms this time around about letting them fend for themselves without my daily devoted rooting. I'll wish them well and watch them at least at the start of the season, but not with all my heart. That belongs to the Reds for the foreseeable future. Fallback plan #2 is that I can, and will, still root with all my heart for R. A. Dickey. He has earned the loyalty of any good baseball fan. During the last couple of months, I've read a lot of the articles and blogs about the Dickey situation, but sometimes just the headline was enough. One headline read "Dickey Deserves Better From Mets," and I thought yes, that's certainly true, and I don't need to read any further. But now I've decided that the Mets have done him a favor. He'll spend at least the next three years with a team that clearly wants to win and to restore its status as a big-attendance franchise. Maybe he'll love it there; I hope so. He's enough of a free spirit and his own man to wind up spending the rest of his life there and becoming a Canadian citizen. The team that gave him the opportunity of a lifetime might now have given him a lifetime of opportunity. I want him to thrive. I want him to win another Cy Young Award and to win a World Series MVP, too, so I can watch him pitch all the way to late October. Of course, he should be the Series MVP despite his team losing to the Reds or the Mets. That I will gladly accept.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
PLAYER SAFETY: "I remember having to pry out of the players. . .that there were health and safety issues on the field and in the locker rooms. 'Tell me about the conditions of such-and-such a dressing room. I picked up rumors that the visitors' room in Detroit is atrocious. Tell me what it is.' And I would have to pry it out of the players. There'd be an accident of a player running into a fence in the outfield. I'd have to say, 'What kind of a fence was that?' Even when the reporters wrote about it the next day, you'd never get any details. You'd find out--that's a concrete fence and it didn't have any padding."
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Deane divides his book into five sections--Baseball's Infancy, The Truth About Ruth, The Lively Ball Era, Timeless Myths, and The Expansion Era--covering 91 issues, starting with the biggest myth of all, that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, a piece of hokum long since discredited, though announcers occasionally slip up and Commissioner Selig stubbornly clings to it. The final myth here is the current wisdom that shorter fences have aided current home run hitters, a notion he refutes by showing that home run distances have hardly changed since the 1960s. In between, he tackles everything you ever thought might be questionable, and plenty of things you thought were etched in stone.
In countless hours spent digging through microfilm and primary sources, Deane has compiled mountains of evidence both statistical and anecdotal, which he filters through a common sense approach to history. Is 90 feet between bases the "perfection" Red Smith and others claim it is? No, he says. Softball players do just fine with 65 feet to traverse, and if the bases were 85 feet apart it wouldn't result in every ground ball being a base hit because infielders would play in closer and have shorter throws. Was Joe DiMaggio one of the best center fielders ever? How could he be, Deane claims, when he wasn't even the best fielder in his own family? That's what the numbers tell us. Did Sandy Koufax suddenly learn how to pitch in time to put together as dominant a five-year stretch as any pitcher? No, what happened was that his team moved to the most pitcher-friendly ballpark of his era at the same time that the strike zone was expanded, turning the same stuff he'd been throwing all along from borderline effective to unhittable.
Many of Deane's puncturings are simple matters of whether something happened or didn't. Here are some of the ones that didn't: Ty Cobb didn't psyche Joe Jackson out of a batting title; Charles Comiskey didn't gyp Eddie Cicotte out of a bonus for a 30-win season; Harry Frazee didn't sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance "No, No, Nanette"; Enos Slaughter did not score from first base on a single to win the 1946 World Series; and Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs never had an asterisk attached to it.
Other suppositions take more analysis to dissect, for instance the popular belief that "The Catch" made by Willie Mays in the 1954 was on a 480-foot drive by Vic Wertz in the Polo Grounds. Deane makes a persuasive case that the ball traveled no more than 425 feet, quite a discrepancy. Was Ted Simmons, whose record for career hits by a catcher was only recently surpassed by Ivan Rodriguez, quickly eliminated from the Hall of Fame ballot because he was a lousy defender? Take a look at the evidence presented here and you'll be hard-pressed to think that he hasn't been screwed. How about today's controversy about the dangers of headfirst slides? I'm not sure that Deane needed to detail every one of the dozens of serious injuries suffered by runners attempting conventional slides, but it's impossible to argue with his conclusion. In fact, it's difficult to challenge any of his conclusions; that's the point of this definitive book. For the record, I only dispute one out of 91 (his assertion that the Yankees really didn't get the best of the Kansas City Athletics in their numerous trades in the 1950s).
Do you think the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball cards is worth millions because of Wagner's opposition to tobacco? Do you buy the accepted scenario that umpires devised hand signals to accommodate Dummy Hoy, the deaf-dumb star of the 1890s? Do you accept that Curt Flood "pioneered" free agency by filing a lawsuit challenging the reserve clause? Was Fidel Castro a major league prospect? Was Jackie Robinson the first black player in the major leagues? Think twice. Not one of those popular beliefs is true.
One of Deane's favorite subjects will serve here as the rationale for why this book is so necessary. Most of these subjects are of interest to all baseball fans--casual, impassioned, biased, and expert alike. There are things we want to believe about baseball that simply are not true, no matter how many people tell us otherwise. Isn't it great that writers and broadcasters are in the Hall of Fame? Or aren't they? They add so much to our enjoyment and appreciation of baseball and its history, surely they must be Hall of Famers. Why else would there be the writers' and broadcasters' wings at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown? We've all heard announcers call each other Hall of Famers for winning the annual Frick Award, and writers do the same thing, so it must be true, right? Well, it isn't. There are no such wings and there never have been. This myth is perpetuated by announcers who hope that they might be call Hall of Famers someday if they win that award. But it's just an award, not enshrinement. Deane tackles this myth head-on here, as he has been doing in person for many years. He recounts one Spink Award winner asking him where his plaque was. He even notes my experience with fighting this myth on pages 112-113. Once and for all, there are no wings, and nobody has ever been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for being a broadcaster. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of Bill Deane, who has gone to the trouble of determining the inventor of the hotdog, the originator of the designated hitter, the driver in Billy Martin's fatal car crash, and so much more. His new book has something for everyone--if you can handle the truth.
Monday, October 29, 2012
So here's the thing that made the strongest impression on me this post-season: the Washington Nationals lost. Despite posting the best record in the National League during the season, they lost early, they lost decisively, and they lost chiefly because their starting pitching was mediocre. The five starters against the Cardinals had a 5.25 ERA, and both Nationals victories were picked up by the bullpen. Meanwhile, their best pitcher--and arguably one of the top handful of pitchers in the majors--sat on the bench, quarantined since making his last start on September 7. Stephen Strasburg, with his 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA in 28 starts, rode the pines for the Nationals' final 24 games of the season, while the rest of us sat there shaking our heads, wondering if the Nationals would make good on the most self-defeating stratagem in baseball history. They did.
Many things were written about Strasburg's supposedly unique case during the season, and lots of rumors muddied the issue of how the decision was reached to put Strasburg on an innings limit for 2012 no matter what. At first, it seemed like some abstract concept, as in "In a perfect world we'll be able to shut him down after 160-180 innings with no adverse effects and protect his arm so he'll be able to help us win a title someday." Apart from the yearly springtime burst of optimism which infects most major league teams, the Nationals had no particular reason to think they would contend for a title in 2012. In 2011, they finished third, one game under .500, and while they had a lot of promising young talent, so did every other team in the division, including the Marlins, who had spent a ton of money on established free agents as well. So adopting a special policy regarding Strasburg seemed, on the surface, to concern nobody but Strasburg.
But a strange thing happened. The Nationals jumped into the lead in the division and, except for an eight-day stretch in mid-May, they held first place all season. Only the Braves threatened them during the season's second half, and the day Strasburg made his final start, they held a 7 1/2-game lead. After a certain point long before that day, their winning the division or, at minimum, securing a wild-card spot was a foregone conclusion. Yet it was only at that point that the Nationals seemed to begin to consider the possibility that this circumstance might somehow affect their vaguely stated policy concerning Strasburg.
The rest of us were way ahead of them, and the consensus among fans was simply stated: "If the Nationals go through with their plan, they're nuts!" At the very least, I figured that they might shut Strasburg down for a couple of weeks at the age of September to give him extra rest, then turn him loose during the post-season. What a great weapon he would be in a deciding game! I never imagined that the Nationals would extend their restrictions on Strasburg to the post-season. Simple: any team that didn't take its best roster to the post-season didn't expect to win or even care about winning. And so it was. The Nationals left Strasburg on the bench, and they lost. The fact that they came close without him is irrelevant. They lost without him.
It's almost as if the Nationals didn't believe their own hype and somehow decided they had boxed themselves into a corner. By declaring before the season that Strasburg wouldn't pitch more than "X" innings, they left themselves no wiggle. But there was plenty of wiggle room all along, plenty of times to give him extra rest, turn him into a "Sunday pitcher" like Hall of Famer Ted Lyons, or otherwise preserve his allotted innings enough to let him start two or three games in October.
But no. They did the baseball equivalent of a motorist setting out to cross the desert on a full tank of gas, with a gas station just past halfway to the destination. A sane driver will stop at the gas station and replenish his fuel for the rest of the trip. The Nationals breezed right past the gas station, determined to run out of gas in the middle of the desert, at which point some other driver might come and give them a ride. Now they get to spend the whole winter out there in the desert, wondering might have been.
I've seen reports that the other players on the Nationals didn't care whether Strasburg was there or not, and other reports that they were pissed about his enforced benching possibly hurting their chances at a World Series ring. I've heard that Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, had a strong influence over the decision, hoping to keep his client's arm intact long enough to cash in on a big free-agent contract once he becomes eligible. The logic there is that Boras could not only preserve Strasburg's arm, he could also get Strasburg pissed enough at the Nationals to leave them at the first opportunity. Countering that logic is the likelihood that Boras can extort more on behalf of Strasburg as a free agent if his resume includes a couple of World Series titles and the kind of performance in Cy Young Award balloting that only comes from pitching a full season.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has stuck by his guns since the team's demise in the first round of the playoffs. He maintained the party line that even sacrificing Strasburg's presence this October was a reasonable price to pay for increasing the chances of Strasburg producing great results in some other October. In fact, he angered some other GMs by declaring blithely that the Nationals would have many more chances in the post-season during which Strasburg would get his chance and then some.
I have news for Rizzo: it ain't necessarily so. There is no immutable baseball law saying that any team will have a chance at the title. Look at it this way. With 30 major league teams in existence and only two making the World Series in a given year, your team on average should only get into the World Series once every 15 years. That's true even for the Yankees, whose sense of entitlement stems way out of proportion. Some writers have evoked the recent memory of the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won a record-tying 116 games and, despite a surprise knockout in the playoffs, seemed destined to contend for a long. Well, they finished third in their division the next season and they're still waiting for their next appearance in the playoffs. Ichiro, a rookie in 2001, spent another decade there falling deeper into the doldrums of mediocrity, until a late-season trade to the Yankees this season got him back into the October action.
Proof exists throughout baseball history that one year's success does not guarantee a rosy future. Let me give you four examples of teams that paralleled this year's Nationals, and players on that team whose situations paralleled Strasburg's, and we'll see how history's twists are more fickle than Mike Rizzo suspects. I'll start with the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates, who won 110 games and the NL pennant. Their fifth starter, Babe Adams, was 27 years old and in his first full season in the majors. In 25 games, he went 12-3 with a 1.11 ERA. Let's suppose that the Pirates had "strasburged" him, made him sit down during the World Series. It would have made things a lot tougher for them, since Adams wound up winning three complete games during the Series, including the opener and the clincher. Of course, the Pirates might have won without him. Two of the other starting pitchers struggled, but they might have won anyone. But he was given a chance for October greatness, and he seized it. With a strong pitching staff and a lineup anchored by Honus Wagner, Adams might have believed it had he been told, "Don't worry, you'll have plenty of chances to pitch in a World Series." In reality, he continued to pitch for the Pirates without getting a sniff of the World Series--until 1925, when he a 43-years-old winner of six games during the season and got to pitch inning in the World Series.
Next up is the 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won an American League-record 111 games to unseat the five-time champion Yankees. This team was loaded with starting pitching, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon, but also included a rookie reliever named Don Mossi. The 25-year-old southpaw went 6-1 with a 1.94 ERA, completing two of five starts. He pitched four innings of shutout ball in the World Series as the Indians were swept by the Giants, but he had to figure that he'd get his chance as a Series starter someday. Uh, no. Mossi did become a starter but mainly with the Tigers, and though he won 101 games as a major leaguer in a career that lasted through 1965, he never got back to the World Series. More significantly, the Indians didn't return to the World Series for several more decades, and still haven't won a title. Do you think that possibility would have occurred to anybody on a team good enough to post a record of 111-43?
One of the greatest teams I ever saw in person was the 1984 Tigers. I attended a three-game series they played in Anaheim in mid-May which they swept, raising their record to 35-5. They cruised to the pennant and blew through the opposition to win the World Series. Their pitching was deep, their manager a future Hall of Famer, and their lineup was solid, anchored up the middle by the combo of 26-year-old Alan Trammell at shortstop and 27-year-old Lou Whitaker at second base. The Tigers won 104 games during the season, and there was no reason to imagine a future without more time in the October spotlight. Trammell and Whitaker maintained their posts at the heart of the Detroit lineup for another dozen years--but they never played in another World Series. They did make the playoffs in 1987 but lost, and that was it. With a different karma, the pair would have nabbed two or three additional titles and been viewed as shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame. But they didn't and they aren't. You can't assume a thing about future greatness.
Finally, I present the 1986 Mets, managed by Davey Johnson, who publicly bought into the save-Strasburg policy but didn't always sound convinced by it. The best all-around team in Mets history, they stormed to 108 victories during the season and prevailed in a pair of dramatic post-season series to take the title. Their greatest strength was young starting pitching; four of the five members of the rotation were 25 or younger, led by 21-year-old Dwight Gooden. Sid Fernandez was 23, while Rick Aguilera was 24, Ron Darling 25, and Bobby Ojeda 28. Gooden, Fernandez, and Darling posted win-loss records of 17-6, 16-6, and 15-6. Put yourself in Johnson's spot. Suppose Mets GM Frank Cashen had told him, "Listen, Gooden has pitched too much the last two seasons, so we're cutting him off at 180 innings this year. I don't care if it's the middle of August. We're going to win a pennant here someday, and I want him healthy to contribute when that day comes." The 21-year-old Gooden pitched 250 innings that season (Strasburg pitched 159). Considering that that was the year when he began to abuse cocaine, he probably would have appreciated the extra free time.
But one thing would not have changed. Even though Gooden pitched into the late 1990s, he never again pitched in the World Series. Neither did Darling or Fernandez, or Ojeda for that matter. None of them. They all pitched for many more seasons and on varied teams, but the big quartet for a team that won 108 games took a large goose-egg in the futures market. They never would've believed you if you had told them that in mid-August. If you had said, "Listen, we're winning this thing easily, so we're going to shut Dwight down the rest of the year. You guys are good enough to win it without him, and we'll have plenty more times when we'll need him healthy." The Mets lost a tough LCS to the Dodgers in 1988 but didn't make it back to the World Series until 2000. Their fans can tell you how shocking that is, and it's always shocking when a supposedly top-notch team doesn't perform.
But it should never be surprising. That's what happens in baseball, the most unpredictable sport. The Nationals' loss to the Cardinals in the playoffs was shocking (best team in the league vs. wild-card team) in a way, but not surprising, at least to those of us who were hoping that Rizzo and his bosses would get their comeuppance for the self-defeating presumption that shots at the World Series come along every year. (How many titles does Bobby Cox have? One.) I believe we'll continue to hope that the Nationals do not win a post-season series until Strasburg is pitching elsewhere. That would provide a satisfying symmetry to things. If you think that's an uncharitable attitude, consider an alternate wish, that Strasburg blows out his arm anyway despite the coddling, making it clear even to Rizzo that he made a fool's gamble. Hey, it already worked with Joba Chamberlain, the poster child for the futility of coddling young pitchers and ignoring the fact that arm trouble is virtually inevitable no matter how a pitcher is used. No, that's being a little harsh on Strasburg. No, let him escape to some team which will allow him to become the best pitcher he can be, and let Mike Rizzo continue to learn every baseball lesson the hard way.
Saturday, September 1, 2012
Saturday, August 4, 2012
It brings back great memories of a more innocent baseball time, the 1970s, when the Reds and Pirates were joined by the Dodgers as the dominant National League teams, representing the league in nine of the decade's ten seasons (only the 1973 Mets sneaked in, by upsetting the Reds in the NLCS). How long ago was it? The damn reserve clause still existed for more than half the decade. The designated hitter was still regarded as a reversible experiment. Night games at the World Series were a novelty. The decade ended with a title for "The Family," a far cry from today's teams with their "nations" and the Yankees with their own universe.
Though the cities are less than 300 miles apart, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh found themselves in different divisions starting in 1969, and over the following ten years met in the NLCS four times. In 1970, the Reds swept the best-of-five series despite being held to three runs in each game. Two years later, in a thrilling series, the teams went down to the final at-bat, with the Pirates taking a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5. Johnny Bench led off with a game-tying home run, and moments later the Reds won it on Bob Moose's infamous wild pitch. In 1975 the Reds pulled off another three-game sweep, but the Pirates finally had their turn in 1979, with "The Family" sweeping away the remnants of the disbanded "Big Red Machine."
It was in late August 1979 that my best friends in Las Vegas, George and Stew, made their most memorable trip--to San Diego to see the Pirates play. Pittsburgh natives and lifelong Pirates fans, they had met at Penn State, headed for Vegas as soon as they graduated, and are still there. On this weekend jaunt, they missed the Friday night game, in which the Bucs blew a lead in the eighth inning and lost. That reduced their division lead over the Expos to two games, while the Padres were fifth in the west. They were there for the amazing Saturday night game, which lasted 19 innings and took more than six hours to play. "Play all night!" they shouted when the game went to extras, and they loved every bit of it. They had nowhere to go, nowhere to be except back at the ballpark for the Sunday afternoon game. The guys did play almost all night, not finishing until nearly 2 AM.
And what a game they saw! For the first two hours or so, it was a great piching duel between two future Hall of Famers, Bert Blyleven of the Pirates and Gaylord Perry of the Padres. The home team scored two runs in the third inning, aided by two errors and a wild pitch, and Perry slid through to the ninth inning and still led 2-0 with two outs. But he couldn't finish it off, and with another future Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers, on in relief, the PIrates tied the game on a passed ball. On they went.
Both teams scored in the 12th inning. Phil Garner doubled for the Pirates and scored on Omar Moreno's single, but the Padres tied it again on a two-out RBI single by Dan Briggs. It was after midnight by this point, but the bullpens gained a toehold, and while George and Stew earnestly did wish the teams would play till dawn, they were satisfied with the result. In the 19th inning, after the first two Bucs were retired, Bill Robinson doubled, Moreno was walked intentionally, and Tim Foli knocked in Robinson with a single. Dave Roberts, finishing off four scoreless innings, left the tying run at third in the bottom of the 19th, and the Bucs had a 4-3 victory.
The managers, Chuck Tanner and Roger Craig, managed the hell out of that game, using 42 players, including a dozen pitchers and ten pinch-hitters, issuing nine intentional walks, and calling for seven successful sacrifice bunts. The teams totaled 28 hits and 24 walks, and 40 runners were left on base, including an embarrassing 26 by the Padres. My vote for "player of the game" was San Diego's Ozzie Smith, who had three hits, one a double off Blyleven, walked once, scored a run, and turned six rally-busting double plays. No wonder George and Stew remember this game so well after so many years.
They slept on a hillside overlooking the stadium parking lot and rolled out in time for the park to open on Sunday. The Saturday extravaganza had drawn a modest crowd of 14,607, and the Sunday crowd was appreciably smaller. They bought cheap tickets and drifted down to the good seats, eventually winding up, it turned out, in a section assigned to the wives of the visiting team. So they sat with the families of their beloved Bucs and had a great time as the team steamrolled the weary Padres, 9-2, breaking it open in the second inning on a grand slam by pitcher Bruce Kison. Stew still savors the friendship he struck up with Cristal Haak, the wife of superscout Howie Haak, the man who helped bring Roberto Clemente to Pittsburgh. After the game, they hung around and got to meet Willie Stargell and pitching coach Harvey Haddix.
It was a golden weekend on the way to the Pirates' last championship. So George and Stew are hoping to rekindle some of the 1979 magic when they return to San Diego in a couple of weeks, this time for a midweek three-game series on August 20-22. I hope they have a great time and even hope the Pirates win for them, as long as my Reds prevail over the long haul.
* * * * *
Speaking of wearing the team cap, in the winter of 1990-1991 I found myself in Monterey, California, one day, walking along Cannery Row and proudly wearing the cap of the Reds, who were fresh off their stunning sweep of the A's in the 1990 World Series. It was also not long after Reds owner Marge Schott had reportedly referred to star outfielder Eric Davis as "my three million dollar nigger," a gaffe which appalled the outside world but didn't shock the citizens of Cincinnati, who have always regarded Schott primarily as a dedicated philanthropist. No doubt I was daydreaming about Davis' first-game home run off Dave Stewart which had set the tone for the sweep, when a delivery truck ground to a brake-screeching halt in the middle of the road, and the driver, a young African-American who had spotted the cap, yelled at me, "You a Reds fan?"
"You from Cincinnati?"
"Well, if you get there, tell Marge Schott if she gives me a million bucks, she can call me anything she wants!" With that, he gave a quick laugh and the truck lurched down The Row. No further discussion was needed.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Indeed. Calico Joe falls into that literary limbo between short story and novel, a simple tale stretched and padded to the length of a short novel without the depth and detail needed to sustain a full work of fiction. The plot revolves around the relationship between the narrator, Paul Tracey, and his father, Warren, a relationship that is prickly because Warren is a total prick. Warren pitched for the 1973 Mets, a journeyman starter who slapped 11-year-old Paul around for failing to knock down a batter in Little League. Late that summer, he faced the Cubs, freshly energized by the most phenomenal rookie in baseball history, first baseman Joe Castle. Joining the Cubs in mid-July, Castle homered in his first three at-bats and smacked 15 consecutive hits before making an out. He hardly slowed down, belted 18 home runs in his first 31 games, and led the Cubs to a big lead in their division before his average even dropped below .500.
Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Arkansas, is the batting equivalent of Damon Rutherford, Jr. in Robert Coover's wonderful novel, The Universal Baseball Association. Having read that novel, and noting on page 19 of Calico Joe that the only time Warren Tracey led the league in anything was in hitting batters, I felt suspense only from wondering whether Joe Castle would be killed or maimed when Warren beaned him. It turned out to be a maiming along the lines of Tony Conigliaro, abruptly ending Joe's career and ruining his promise and hopes. The rest of the novel, set in 2003, covers Paul's attempt to get his dying father to apologize to Joe. That effort is moving because of the emotions evoked, but even though Warren is such a hard-nosed bastard that I never found myself rooting for him to experience any redemption, there could never be any doubt on the reader's part that some reconciliation would occur. Having spent half a novel telegraphing the obvious ending, Grisham had nowhere else to go. The unspoken truth at the end--that while Warren and Joe were softened by their meeting, Paul's heart was too scarred by his father's abuse to yield to sentiment--only illuminates the path Grisham could have followed if he had wanted to make Calico Joe a truly moving novel instead of an extended short story.
But I digress, because that isn't my main complaint about Calico Joe. My big problem involves arithmetic. Grisham devotes great attention to every detail of Joe Castle's meteoric 38-game major league career. He goes to the trouble of telling us the specific inning in which each of those first 15 consecutive hits occurred, along with runners on base and other game details. He repeatedly updates Joe's incredible stats, which are more reminiscent of a slow-pitch softball star's. All of this fiction is squeezed alongside the general sweep of the actual 1973 pennant race, in which the Cubs did--oh so predictably--blow a midsummer lead and let the Mets sneak into the postseason. Grisham's research is solid and his references to real players and events are realistically done.
The problem is that the invented numbers and circumstances don't add up. I don't mean that it happens once or twice. I mean that in almost every place where Grisham creates details and numbers, they either contradict each other or are implausible. In an author's note following the text, he offers a disclaimer of sorts: "The mixing of real people, places, and events into a novel is tricky business. This is a story about the Cubs and Mets and the 1973 season, but, please, all you die-hard fans, don't read this with any expectation of accuracy. I have completely rearranged schedules, rosters, rotations, records, batting orders, and I've even thrown in some fictional players to mix it up with the real ones. This is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction."
Grisham is asking us not to mind that the Cubs return from a road trip and begin a homestand on a Saturday, which would never happen. He's asking us not to mind that Warren Tracey starts on three days' rest because that's the day when he needs him to pitch. Or that Ron Santo bats too early in the lineup. Or that the shape of the 1973 National League is different in the novel from its progress in reality. That's fine with me. I don't object to any of those bendings of history for the purposes of fiction.
However, any novel must remain true to its own conception, and the details of what is invented must conform to its internal apparatus. I'll give Grisham credit for following this principle in his novels about the law, his area of expertise. It is all too clear in Calico Joe that Grisham studied the intricacies of baseball only enough to concoct what he felt would be a sufficient scenario for his tale of Joe Castle and Warren Tracey. It isn't. Even if you're willing to accept Joe's incredible stats as possible--which I am--the numbers still don't add up according to the way Grisham designed the story. Let me explain what I mean.
In Joe's first game, he bats seventh for the Cubs. He homers in the second inning and again in the fifth. We're told that the Cubs "chased" the starting pitcher in the sixth inning, and Joe comes up again in the seventh, with the score 4-4. He homers for the third straight time, and in the ninth inning he comes up for the fourth time, with a chance to begin his career with a four-homer game. Does it bother me that he bunts instead? No. If Grisham wants to let him bunt to indicate his unselfish character, fine. What bothers me is that Joe comes up in a 6-6 game with two outs and a runner on 3rd. He bats seventh in the order. If he makes an out, that would mean that the Cubs scored six runs and left a runner on base in the ninth--but had no other runners left on base in the whole game. They didn't even leave runners on base in the inning when they chased the starter. But Grisham needed him to come to bat exactly four times in this game, so he stretched things a bit to do it. It's possible to leave nobody on base while scoring six runs. So hold that thought.
Joe comes up five times in his second game, batting third in the lineup. He doubles in the first inning, smacks a two-run single with the bases loaded in the third, bunts for a hit with two outs and nobody on in the fifth, homers in the seventh, and comes up for the final time in the ninth inning. There are two outs and the Cubs are leading 12-2. If he makes an out, that will mean--yeah, right--that the Cubs had zero runners left on base. It might be possible to leave one runner on base while scoring six runs, but I can't imagine scoring a dozen runs without leaving someone stranded. But that's how Grisham designed it. Oh yeah, Joe homers in the ninth to reach nine straight hits in two games.
The bad arithmetic in Joe's third game is a bit trickier. Batting third, he homers in the first inning and leads off in the third, meaning at least four runners left on base in the first two innings. He singles then and again in the sixth inning, with the Cubs leading, 3-2. When he comes up again in the eighth inning, the Cubs trail, 5-3, so he didn't score in the sixth inning. Even if he was eliminated in a double play and the Cubs didn't leave anyone else on base after the second inning, it would mean that in the eighth inning, the first batter was the #8 hitter in the order. Four men would have to bat before Joe's turn, yet Grisham has two outs and the bases loaded for Joe. That's impossible. That's what it took for Grisham to let Joe hit a game-changing three-run double, but it's impossible according to the game details he has so meticulously provided.
After Joe's startling debut, he does start making some outs after those 15 consecutive hits. We're told that at one point he's batting .725 with 29 hits in 40 at-bats. In the following series, he goes a mere 8-for-16, dropping his average to .661 through 16 games. We aren't given as many details about the ensuing three-game series at Pittsburgh, though Grisham does note that in the second game, a 14-inning battle, Joe goes 5-for-7. But by the end of the series, we're told, his average has dropped to .601. Guess what? That's impossible. That 5-for-7 game made him 42-for-63 (.667) with two games unaccounted for, and there is no combination of hits and at-bats that would result in a .601 average. If he went 2-for-10 in that pair of games (something you'd think Grisham might mention for its contrast to his other performances), that would make him 44-for-73, a .603 average. That's as close as you can get, and sheer carelessness on Grisham's part for not double-checking his arithmetic.
On page 80 is the best example of Grisham's fragile grasp of baseball. Joe singles, doubles, and triples, giving him a shot at hitting for the cycle. We all want him to hit for the cycle, though not as much as Grisham does. He has Joe bloop a ball down the right-field line that rolls to the corner. The race is on, and soon Joe is charging around third base and heading for the inside-the-park home run that can complete his cycle. In his way is Dodgers catcher Joe Ferguson--yeah, the real one--who is already holding the ball and waiting for him. Grisham assures us that Joe Castle "would've been out by three feet," but he collides with Ferguson and the ball rolls loose as our hero touches the plate. That's when Grisham tells us it was an inside-the-park home run--but it wasn't. The rules of baseball tell us that this is an error on the catcher for dropping the ball, and therefore it's a triple for Joe Castle. Sorry, but Calico Joe did not hit for the cycle, and the proof is in the specific details provided by the author.
After this game, Joe has played 31 games, and Grisham parades a bunch of stats before us. Joe is batting .521 with 62 hits in 119 at-bats, including 18 home runs (along with 25 stolen bases, six strikeouts, and one error in the field). There's nothing wrong with those numbers, as extreme as they are. Rogers Hornsby hit over .500 in a month, to give just one example, and sluggers occasionally get hot and smack 18 home runs in 31 games. If that's what Grisham wants Joe to do, that's fine with me.
The problem comes after the beaning which ends Joe's career. Grisham provides his final career totals, covering 38 games. So the differences between the final totals and the 31-game totals cover seven games, including the one in which he is beaned in his second plate-appearance, after homering his first time up.
Here's where Grisham's arithmetic collapses. For 38 games, Grisham gives Joe 78 hits in 160 at-bats, good for a .488 batting average (plus 21 home runs, 41 RBI, and 31 stolen bases). Subtract the 31-game numbers, and it means that he went 16-for-41 in the final seven games. Apart from that last game, we're given numbers from only one of those final games. Not surprisingly, Joe went 4-for-4 in that one. Subtract that one and the 1-for-1 finale, and it leave 11 hits in 36 at-bats--in five games!
You see the problem. To bat 36 times in five games, you would need a succession of marathons ranging from roughly 12 to 20 innings. I'm not saying it couldn't happen. I'm saying that it had to happen, and if so, no self-respecting novelist would fail to note the implicit drama. How many times did Joe come up with a chance to win those games? How many of those 11 hits helped win games? How many of those 25 outs failed to do so? Those might have been the most dramatic games of all, but I'm betting that Grisham didn't even realize what opportunities he missed, because he probably never thought twice about the baseball implications of those eye-popping stats. It is the novelist's job to ponder implications and account for them, and Grisham failed spectacularly. You can't just make up numbers on the run without considering the truth that follows from them.
Another egregiously missed opportunity involves the pennant race. Grisham gives the Cubs a ten-game lead in the race on the day when Joe Castle is beaned on August 24. By the time the Cubs and Mets meet again on September 15, the teams are tied. So the Mets have made up ten games in 21 days. So far, so good. We also learn that the Cubs had a 9-12 record during that time. That means the Mets would've had to go 19-2 to catch up (or 20-3). Well, teams have gotten that hot before, though you'd think Grisham might mention such an extraordinary three-week comeback. He doesn't say a word about it.
What he does tell us about is the quick demise of Warren Tracey following the beaning. In his next start, the Pirates score seven runs against him while he fails to record even one out. Facing the Cardinals a few days later, he lasts only two innings, surrendering five runs. In his third post-beaning start, against the Padres, he is losing by five runs when the manager yanks him from the game. We're told that the Mets have won eight of their last ten games, so to reach 19-2 over a 21-day span, they would've had to win this game plus the next ten in a row. By my calculation, that would make at least a 14-game winning streak by the time they faced the Cubs on September 15, right after releasing Warren Tracey. What about it, Mr. Grisham? Nothing worth mentioning there, I suppose.
My wife says that none of the statistical contradictions mattered while I was reading it to her, that only "baseball nuts" like me would notice or care. (I'm just glad she seconds my literary criticisms of this novel.) She has read a lot of Grisham; I haven't, and I'm not likely to after seeing how careless he is with his "facts" here. Robert Coover, Darryl Brock, and Philip Roth, to name just three, have authored baseball novels with hundreds of baseball details without violating basic principles of internal logic or shredding credibility. I don't think it's unfair to expect Grisham to do the same. Nobody told him he had to write a baseball novel. But somebody should have told him to double-check his numbers or hire someone who could catch his baseball mistakes. It wouldn't have taken a baseball nut to do the job, and then he wouldn't have had a baseball pit-bull like me snapping at his Achilles heels.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
The wait for a Mets no-hitter began officially on July 9, 1969, the night Tom Seaver was untouchable until the Cubs' Jimmy Qualls sliced a single to left-center field at Shea Stadium to spoil Seaver's perfect game with one out in the ninth inning. From that moment, Mets fans expected a no-hitter every time Tom Terrific pitched; it seemed inevitable, and though it never happened, it is fitting that before Johan Santana's gem Friday night, no Mets pitcher had even entered the ninth inning with a no-hitter since Seaver's third such occasion, in 1975.
But I'm not here to talk about the perpetual waiting or to rehash the unrequited yearning of the past half-century. I want to talk about how I have experienced three particular no-hitters. I have never witnessed one in person unless you count a Little League game I umpired as a teenager. I don't count that one, though I still have a photocopy of the scorebook page. I've watched plenty of them on television, but none as satisfying as Santana's--at least the part I watched.
One of the staples of our daily routine is reading together. Over the years I've read dozens of books to my wife, Linda, and usually we read early in the evening. That was the plan last night, to read until the game started and then settle in to watch Santana try to follow up his four-hit shutout of the Padres last weekend. Instead, the phone rang, a long-distance call that lasted about 40 minutes. By the time the call ended, the game was under way, but we were eager to continue the classic we had started earlier in the week, Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
So we put the Mets game on with the sound off, and I started to read. We were near the end of Part One and built up enough momentum in the reading that I decided to finish the section. Every minute or two I peeked at the screen, where not much was happening. Santana seemed to be walking people, while Kerouac's Sal Paradise hitchhiked his way back to New York from his first road trip to California. The Mets put together some hits in the fourth inning so I paused the reading and backed up the DVR to see exactly how they scored two runs before finishing off the night's rollicking reading, 30 pages in a little over an hour. Sal had reached New York back in 1948, and it was time to turn our full attention to New York in 2012.
Santana polished off the fifth inning as I set Kerouac aside, and only then did I see that he hadn't allowed a hit. The rest is history. We agonized along with Terry Collins over Santana's soaring pitch count, and figured that the dilemma would resolve itself. If his arm got tired enough he'd simply make a fat pitch, give up a hit, and get safely out of there without ruining his valuable arm. But he kept throwing pitches and getting outs, though Linda felt compelled to remind me that I have a knack of jinxing no-hitters. She was afraid to watch; for most of the ninth inning, she mimicked R. A. Dickey in the Mets dugout, who wrapped a towel around his head, leaving a tiny opening through which he peered at his teammates' efforts. She listened while I whooped it up after each out. After the no-hitter was history, we watched the post-game interviews, exhilarated by the moment, the man, and the memories. The next morning I watched the earlier innings on the DVR, and I'll save it for future viewings.
I thought it was a cool piece of synchronicity that I spent the first half of the game reading about Kerouac's alter ego returning home to New York, but that was nothing compared to what my friend Dan Heaton experienced. The proprietor of a fine film-review site (cheeseblab.blogspot.com/), Dan's Friday night routine is to watch a classic film and write about whether it was worth revisiting, then catch up with the baseball action. So he watched "Key Largo," a fine drama starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, and Edward G. Robinson, though the only Oscar was won by Claire Trevor for Best Supporting Actress. By the time it ended, the Mets were starting the eighth inning, but he already had his synchronicity in place. What is the name of the boat in "Key Largo"? Yep, it's the Santana.
I've been thinking today about two other no-hitters I experienced while literally "on the road." One happened on Friday, September 16, 1988. I was working in the poker room at Sam's Town casino in Las Vegas and got off work around 6pm. I grabbed a quick dinner and took off for the middle of nowhere. My friend Stew Baskin belonged to an astronomy club which was having a weekend gathering in a state park in central Nevada, nearly a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. You don't have to go far from that neon oasis to get a clear view of the night sky, but these folks were taking no chances. About a dozen of them hauled their telescopes and high-powered binoculars out to a pitch-black wilderness, each instrument trained on a different celestial wonder. They'd been at it for awhile before I arrived, and I spent several hours out there before heading back to Vegas for my Saturday morning shift. It was surreal out there in the blackness, listening to disembodied voices identifying planetary moons, stars, and nebulae, the only light an occasional pencil flashlight beam keeping someone from tripping on tripods. One of the voices belonged to the magician Jonathan Pendragon, but I didn't know what he looked like until I saw him on television a couple of years later. That was a strange and wonderful evening.
But I digress. There was ballgame, too, that night, but I shouldn't have been able to listen to it. The Dodgers spent the weekend in Cincinnati, so the Friday game was scheduled to start at 4:30 PM Nevada time. It should've been almost over by the time I climbed into my Dodge van for the drive. But there was a rain delay before the game of nearly two-and-a-half hours, so it didn't start until I was already northbound. Perfect. I had the mellifluous baritone of Vin Scully to accompany me on the drive; when he described an outfielder catching a fly ball by saying "he reaches up into the night and picks it off," I saw a sky full of stars ahead, ready to be captured.
The bad news was that Scully kept me company for less than two hours. The good news was the reason: a mere 54 batters appeared in the game. The Dodgers' Tim Belcher gave up just three hits and an unearned run, but he was topped by Tom Browning, who pitched a perfect game! Scully, always attuned to each game's unique drama, rose to the occasion even though his team was on the short end of the gem. And I relished every pitch as I wound my way along the ribbon of road toward my own rendezvous with infinity.
I had quite a different experience in mid-June of 1978. Having concluded a three-year contract to teach at the University of Montana, I packed everything I owned into my mother's old Plymouth Satellite and a ten-foot-long U-Haul trailer, and headed east. The journey lasted 2,460 miles, ending at my parents' place in the Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania, and every mile was brutal. Less than a dozen miles into the trip, while crossing the Continental Divide, the Plymouth overheated, and I drove the rest of the way with a balky radiator. I couldn't go more than 40 miles an hour without the temperature gauge flirting with the "H," and I couldn't use the air conditioner. I was miserable for the entire four days, during which I discovered that nearly the entire United States is uphill east-bound. (I suspect that if I had been driving from Pennsylvania to Montana it would've seemed all uphill west-bound as well.)
Four days of misery as I traversed the sweltering midwest summer was bad enough, but that wasn't all. I was lucky to get across South Dakota alive. Not long after I entered the state on I-90, my U-Haul trailer was rammed from behind. And again, and a third time. The perpetrator pulled around me and alongside, staying even with me. I could feel his eyes glaring at me, but I didn't glance sideways, playing it cool as if everyone should drive 35mph on an interstate. He zoomed way ahead of me, pulled onto the shoulder, and when I toodled on by he quickly got behind me again and rammed the trailer five or six times. Once more he made as if to pass, lingered by my side for a moment, then veered in front of me and onto an exit ramp. When I stopped for lunch a short time later in Rapid City, I called the state police, told them what had happened, and gave them his license plate number.
Ten hours later, near the eastern edge of South Dakota, a trooper's flashing lights brought me to a halt. I figured I was getting a ticket for dangerously slow driving, but no. He wanted me to write an affidavit about what had happened that morning. It seems that after the maniac exited the highway, he was arrested for firing several gunshots at the local populace. That shook me; for all I knew, he'd been pointing the gun at me, waiting for me to turn my head so I could watch him shoot me. So there I was, chatting with the trooper, when my cat, who had spent those first two days of the ordeal hiding under the seat, decided to make a run for it. She jumped out the window and disappeared on the hillside below the highway. Twenty minutes later, thanks to the trooper's high-powered flashlight and our chorus of "here, kitty!" we captured the terrified tabby and I was free to continue my all-time Trip From Hell.
There was more. In Minnesota, a torrential downpour caused flooding on I-90 that forced me into a three-hour detour. In Illinois, road construction north of Chicago resulted in a single lane of traffic with nowhere to pull over; this 20-mile stretch took me well over an hour, and eventually I turned my side mirror sideways so I wouldn't have to see how long a parade I was leading as they serenaded me with honking horns. In Ohio, backed up on the highway at just a few miles an hour, my trailer was rear-ended by an inattentive, apologetic fellow who said he'd pay for anything damaged inside the trailer. But we couldn't get into the trailer because the collision jammed the padlock shut. It remained off-limits until I got "home" and someone used an acetylene torch to open it.
Finally, on the fourth day, June 16, I reached Pennsylvania, a state consisting primarily of trees and a gradual uphill slope from west to east. I crawled along all day, but the evening brought a treat. I picked up the Cincinnati Reds broadcast, with Tom Seaver facing the Cardinals. He didn't have his overpowering stuff that night, fanning only three hitters, but he got 13 ground-ball outs en route to that long-awaited no-hitter. Sometimes you don't even realize you're getting a break. If I had been able to drive the speed limit, I would have arrived in the Poconos sooner and missed the treat of listening to my favorite pitcher toss his only no-hitter. When I joined my parents later that night, I felt mainly relief. But I was also ecstatic at catching the radio gem that had helped me survive my four-day nightmare on the road.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
I did feel compelled, however, to add my two cents' worth that Ruppert is the most despicable owner in Yankees history. Not that that in itself disqualifies him from Hall of Fame election. Despite the presence of a "character clause" in the Hall's criteria for voters of the past half-century or more, more than a few deplorable human beings have been elected over the years. If you were starting the Hall of Fame over and could only elect marvelous specimens of human character, you could fit all the plaques into my old office there, which trust me wasn't very big.
When I was doing radio interviews to promote my book This BAD Day in Yankees History, more than one person asked me, "What was your biggest surprise while researching and writing this book?" My answer was, "Going in, I assumed that George Steinbrenner was the most despicable owner in Yankees history, but I wound up realizing that Jacob Ruppert deserves that distinction." Through my research, I had discovered what they had in common: an aptitude for hiring people who would help the Yankees win pennants, and a penchant for bad-mouthing and belittling players to their faces and to the press.
The key difference, I decided, was that Steinbrenner paid for the privilege. By overpaying players, he earned the right to be critical of their play. If he made Dave Winfield the highest-paid player in the majors, he could demand that Winfield produce more than he did in important games. As a product of the age of free agency, he embraced the notion of overspending to win titles--as long as the players kept winning titles. Ruppert, on the other hand, was a product of the age when the reserve clause gave players virtually no leverage in contract negotiations. He begrudged every dollar he spent on every player's salary and went all-out to convince the public that any player who demanded a raise was the most ungrateful creature imaginable.
Consider his treatment of the three pre-1950 immortals who epitomized Yankees greatness and are most beloved today: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Here are a few examples culled from the pages of This BAD Day in Yankees History.
1931-32: Ruppert showed his skill in playing two stars off against each other, swatting Ruth and Gehrig back and forth like a shuttlecock. He started with a blustery declaration to the press that Ruth would never get another $80,000 salary, even though the Babe hit .373 in 1931 with 149 runs scored and 163 RBI, not to mention leading the league with 46 home runs, a .495 on-base percentage, and a .700 slugging percentage. I take that back. He tied for the league lead in home runs--with Gehrig. Maybe that's why Ruppert felt entitled to treat them equally, that is, as whiny peons. He insisted to reporters that Ruth "isn't the big drawing power" he used to be and snorted, "I suppose Gehrig didn't help draw all those big crowds last summer?" That's fair enough, on the surface, but you don't have to scratch far beneath the surface to find the fetid underbelly of a rich man's greed. From his statement about Ruth, you would infer that he was prepared to reward Gehrig for making a contribution to the team's coffers that apparently outweighed Ruth's. After all, in 1931 Gehrig set an American League record which still stands with 184 RBI. Along the way, he hit .341 and, in addition to homers and RBI, led the league with 211 hits and 163 runs scored. His salary in 1931 was $25,000. Okay, that makes it pretty simple to see what Ruppert's viewpoint--as expressed to reporters--dictated he do next: rectify the disparity between Ruth's $80,000 and Gehrig's $25,000. He went part of the way by dropping Ruth's 1932 salary $5,000 to $75,000. How big a raise did Gehrig get? Zippo. Nothing. That's right. He got the same $25,000 in 1932 that he did the year he drove in an AL-reord 184 runs. You can imagine what Ruppert told him behind closed doors: "A raise? What for, Lou? Sure you drove in a bunch of runs, but you don't think fans come to the ballpark to see you, do you? They come to see the big ape." And so it went with one of the minority of Americans who actually got much richer during the Depression. Not only did Ruppert have a lot of ready cash when the stock market crashed in 1929, which enabled him to gobble up a lot of New York real estate at reduced prices, but once Prohibition ended in 1933, he made fresh fortunes with his breweries. Besides all that, he was shrewd enough to save $5,000 in the salaries he paid the most formidable one-two punch in baseball history, who had just combined for 92 home runs and 347 RBI.
1932-33: In 1932, Ruth made $75,000, and he earned it and then some. He hit .341 with 41 home runs and 137 RBI, and led the league on walks and on-base percentage as the Yankees won their first pennant since 1928. In the World Series, he hit .333 to join Gehrig in leading the Yankees to a sweep over the Cubs. In four games, he scored six runs and drove in six, most notably with a pair of round-trippers in Game 3 including his famous "Called Shot." Do you think Ruppert felt joyful enough at his first title in four years and reward the stars who achieved it for him? Please. Of course not! Instead, he offered Ruth a contract for 1933 at a salary of $50,000. That's right--screw the "Called Shot" and cut the Bambino's salary by one-third! An appalled Ruth marveled, "I can understand getting a cut, but this is more of an amputation." He had thought that with the imminent repeal of Prohibition, Ruppert the brewer would be coming into flush times and therefore easier to negotiate with, but he was wrong. He asked for $60,000, but Ruppert rebuked him, telling the press, "He asked me if I was going to let a matter of $10,000 stand between him and the club. I told him I had no alternative, pointing out that it was not a matter of $10,000 but one of $60,000, involving a club that lost money last year. . . .Do you think I would be going through this situation if it was not necessary?" In the heart of the Depression, what newspaper reader could fail to sympathize with this indignant poor-mouthing? What fan in a time of unprecedented employment wouldn't wonder why Babe Ruth, a big lunk who had never done anything but play ball for a living, seemed ungrateful at the prospect of making $50,000? Ruppert knew he could count on that sentiment, and he wore his star down until Ruth settled for a $52,000 deal. But here's the thing: yes, the Yankees did lose money in 1932, on paper. How much? Exactly $4,703.04. That is the figure provided by economics professor Mike Haupert, who has looked into every nook and cranny of the Yankees' financial ledgers from Ruppert's tenure. That was the only year when Ruppert suffered a loss, and at the time his net worth was roughly $30 million. Let me wrap that in a neat package for you: this multi-millionaire used the country's economic woes as a wedge between sport's biggest star and his adoring fans, who only needed to hear the word "loss" to justify Ruppert forcing that star to take a 30 percent pay cut after a championship season.
1936-37: Ruth was gone and the Yankees were Gehrig's team. He led them to yet another title in 1936, batting .354 with 152 RBI and leading both leagues with 49 home runs, 167 runs scored, 130 walks, and a .478 on-base percentage. He made $31,000 in 1936, so what do you think Ruppert offered him for 1937? He offered him $31,000. That's right, it's a rhetorical question at this point. Why would you give a guy a raise you didn't have to, even after a season like that, which was capped by the Yankees' first World Series title since 1932? Gehrig had the temerity to ask for a raise to $50,000--in itself only 60 percent off Ruth's highest salary--but Ruppert was appalled and incensed. He blasted Gehrig to the press, saying, "Gehrig comes into my office and says he should get more than $31,000. But he does not mention that he also got $31,000 in 1935 when he had a poor season. So I remind him of it. I also reminded him that. . .he and [Lefty] Gomez ruined our pennant chances in 1935 by their Japan trip." Let's take a closer look at that bitter assertion by a man who had known "The Iron Horse" for a decade. What exactly could a postseason barnstorming tour in November 1934, have to do with the 1935 pennant race? That would be a hard proposition to demonstrate unless a major injury suffered during the trip sidelined a player for a significant part of the following season. No such injury occurred, and if you want to postulate that the mere fact of the trip wore players out in 1935, consider that Charlie Gehringer also made that trip, and he contributed his usual .330 average and 108 RBI to the Tigers' 1935 pennant. As for what Ruppert termed Gehrig's "poor season" in 1935, all Gehrig did that year was bat .329, lead the league in runs scored, finish second in RBI, and rank third in home runs and slugging percentage. What a brutal performance! That isn't exactly in the same territory as Albert Pujols' current "poor season" after an off-season trip from St. Louis to Anaheim, is it? As for Gomez, after winning the pitching Triple Crown in 1934, he did struggle in 1935. His ERA jumped from 2.33 all the way to 3.18. Combined with run support that dropped from 5.8 runs per game in 1934 to 4.5 in 1935, the result was a 12-15 record. You can imagine how "The Gay Castillian" fared in contract negotiations that winter, but Ruppert's attack on Gehrig was petty, unwarranted, and harshly personal. He counted on Gehrig's non-confrontational character; indeed, Gehrig's only counter-punch was pure arithmetic, nothing personal. He said, "Has it occurred to the Yankees that in twelve years they have not had to employ a reserve first baseman? Only last year the Yankees, through their farming system, sold three first basemen for the reported price of $105,000." Good point, but it didn't matter; Gehrig had no tangible leverage and signed for $36,000.
1937-38: The final exhibit for the prosecution is the infamously bitter Joe DiMaggio holdout which lasted into the start of the 1938 season. As a second-year player in 1937, DiMaggio made $15,000. Did he earn it? I'd say so. He hit .346 with 167 RBI, leading the league with 46 home runs, 151 runs scored, and a .673 slugging percentage. Of his 215 hits, 96 went for extra bases. That's all. When the Yankees offered him a $25,000 contract, he quickly rejected it and asked for $40,000. In January, an indignant Ruppert, referring to the $25,000 offer, told a reporter, "I think you'd be satisfied with it." Of course, the reporter hadn't driven in 167 runs and helped the Yankees win their second straight title. By March, with DiMaggio not budging and the season approaching, Ruppert began playing hardball, threatening to fine DiMaggio for every game missed and describing his new star as "an ungrateful young man. . . .I've offered him $25,000 and he won't get a button over that amount. Why, how many men his age earn that much? As far as I'm concerned that's all he's worth to the ball club and if he doesn't sign we'll win the pennant without him." That was the flip side of Branch Rickey's later admonition to a raise-seeking Ralph Kiner, telling him the Pirates "can finish last [again] without you." Of course, Ruppert held all the cards, all the wild cards, and had stacked the deck. The war of words continued until DiMaggio, after missing a week of action, caved and signed for $25,000.
That's what I knew when I wrote my book, and it was enough to convince me that while George Steinbrenner might have been the most obnoxious Yankees owner, and while the franchise's original owners, Frank Farrell and William Devery, were well-documented as the most overtly criminal owners, nobody could top Ruppert as the most gratuitously boorish and despicable man who ever happened to own the team. I couldn't shake my image of him as a cheap millionaire who hoarded his money, a lifelong bachelor whose estate, valued at $40 million when he died in January 1939, was bequeathed to two nieces and a showgirl with whom he had dallied over the years.
Two weeks ago, while going through some microfilm at the Hall of Fame library, I found an article from 1946 which changed my image of Ruppert--somehow, it worsened it exponentially. The article was penned by Virginia Irwin, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who had made her mark in April 1945, as one of three Americans who sneaked into Berlin in advance of the American Military Forces and reported on the Russian invasion. The Post-Dispatch article carried the headline "Tossed Away Millions of Dollars" and the sub-headline "Col. Jacob Ruppert, Beer Baron, Was One of Country's Leading Spenders." The article is too long to quote here in full, but I'll share with you the first two Runyonesque paragraphs and assorted other tidbits, as follows: [Caution: do not proceed on an empty stomach.]
"The life of the late Col. Jacob Ruppert, New York beer baron, baseball magnate and collector of everything from Barbizon landscapes to Boston bulldogs, is the perfect blueprint for anybody confronted with the problem of pitching away $40,000,000 in one lifetime.
"The Colonel inherited his father's great suds factory and fortune and was at one time reportedly possessor of more than 40 millions in actual negotiable wood pulp. An appraisal of his estate the other day for federal and state taxes revealed that the Colonel had shaved that sum down to $10,000,000 at the time of his death.
"When it was found that the fastidious old bachelor sportsman was worth only about one-tenth the expected amount, it was recalled that at one time or another in his lifetime Col. Ruppert had bought just about everything but the Brooklyn Bridge. . . .He bought the right to have the flagship of Byrd's expedition to the South Pole named after him by donating a large sum toward the expenses of the trip. He bought a mess of St. Bernard dogs that cost him $5,000 each year in meat alone. . . .In 1932 he bought a 35-story New York skyscraper for $3,500,000. He bought motor yachts and Chinese porcelains, collected first editions and long-tailed monkeys and once paid a fabulous price for a blue macaw.
"In between big deals, Col. Ruppert apparently could be depended on to buy stock in anything from a farm for raising silkworms to a scheme to grow eidelweiss [sic] on top of the Empire State Building. The inventory of his estate listed 45 issues of valueless stock.
"After coming into command of his father's fabulous fortune, he built up a fine stable of thoroughbreds, but abandoned this expensive hobby when his pious mother objected on the grounds that horse-racing was a form of gambling. To replace his interest in horses, he started buying art treasures, took to book collecting and built himself a private zoo to which he retired his Percheron brewery horses in their old age. In his 12-room apartment on Fifth Avenue he kept his collection of English portraits, Barbizon landscapes, animal bronzes by Mene and Barye, his Chinese porcelains of the Ming and Kang Chi dynasties, his Elizabethan furniture and sixteenth century tapestries."
Heard enough? Let's finish off this squanderer's smorgasbord with Virginia Irwin's final paragraph:
"As the snow fell on his beloved Yankee Stadium in January of 1939, Col. Jacob Ruppert, 'The Million Dollar Touch,' was dead. He had just lost a tax refund suit, claiming $637,291 as losses on bad debts owed to him. Now even his beloved ball club has been sold against his wishes. His paintings, sculpture, collection of Far Eastern art and silver are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; his parakeets, cockatoos and assortment of long-tailed monkeys are in the Bronx Zoo, and his dogs, brewery horses and rooms full of Indian relics [are] scattered about the country. Out of the vast fortune built on beer, the septuagenarian spendthrift who thought nothing of paying $1,250,000 for half a ball team and probably passed up buying the Brooklyn bridge [only] because nobody ever thought of trying to sell it to him, had comparatively little left."
Conspicuously absent from Irwin's reckoning of Ruppert chronic expenditures is the word "charity." That was the real Jacob Ruppert, the man who spent $3.5 million on a skyscraper in 1932 at the same time that he bullied Babe Ruth into taking a $23,000 pay cut because an accountant figured out that the Yankees lost $4,703.04 on paper that year. That was the spoiled rich kid who grew into a cold-hearted dilettante who spent $5,000 a year just to feed one species in his menagerie at the same time he told the press (regarding Lou Gehrig), "I can understand how a man and his club can be a few thousand dollars apart, but when a player asks $19,000 a year more than he received the previous season, that is another matter. . . .I've taken a definite stand on this matter, and I'm ready to put a ball club on the field this Spring no matter what happens."
Don't tell me that he shouldn't be criticized in this regard because he paid Ruth more than any player before him had been paid, or that in his final season of ownership he paid Gehrig more than anyone else was making at the time [albeit less than half of what Ruth ever made], or that ballplayers made more money, even from Ruppert, than they would have made in the general work-force. Don't tell me it was his money and his right to do what he wanted to do with it. The numbers aren't the point; the important thing was the man's philosophy and style. The laws of baseball permitted him to treat his employees as chattel, and that suited him just fine. He didn't even call Babe Ruth "Babe" until he was on his deathbed. Before that Ruth was simply "George," another peon on the payroll, a pest who needed to be put in his place because Ruppert endorsed General Manager Ed Barrow's disapproval of Ruth's profligate lifestyle and determined to support it financially as little as possible. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!
So go ahead and put him in the Hall of Fame. They can have him, and he won't be the first asshole to find a permanent haven in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. But he might be the biggest, if my two cents' worth stacks up against the squandered millions he was more willing to share with art dealers, animal breeders, and fly-by-night investors than with the baseball immortals who filled Yankee Stadium the last sixteen years of his life.