Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Exception Well Worth Making

In case you were wondering what it would take to get me to return to my baseball blog, the answer, it turns out, was simple:  honor Roger Angell, the best baseball writer I've ever encountered. This past week, the BBWAA, for the first time, bestowed its highest honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, on a journalist who is not a regular beat reporter. It is worth taking a little time to explain why this exception was made.

Since its inception in 1962, the Spink Award has gone to a reporter who spent a long time covering a major league team on a daily basis. Even illustrious writers so honored back in the 1960s who were more famous for non-baseball subjects, like Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, began their journalism careers by covering one team. Runyon covered the New York Giants and Lardner the Chicago White Sox. By the end of Runyon's first year in New York, he had ballplayers sounding like early versions of Nathan Detroit and the other Broadway characters he later brought to life in his short stories. Lardner witnessed so many colorful figures on the White Sox that he soon amalgamated them into the "You Know Me, Al" narrator who made him famous.

More recently, the Spink Award, like its counterpart, the Frick Award for broadcasting, has become more of a reward for longevity than for sustained brilliance. That is one reason why it seemed unlikely that the BBWAA would break away from that increasingly insular tradition and honor someone like Roger Angell, whose claim to baseball fame has been a sestet of collections of the essays written over the course of several decades for The New Yorker magazine, where he has been a long-time editor.

As any writer can tell you, if you survive to Angell's current age of 93, you are bound to accumulate a body of work that is massive in scope yet quite possibly uneven in quality. Angell may be the exception to this general truth as well. I've been reading him for several decades now and have never failed to be entertained and enlightened by his writing. Any time I open up a new edition of The New Yorker and see Angell's name in the table of contents, it's a good day.

In the same week when Marvin Miller was once again denied election to the Hall of Fame, it is heartening to see a nonagenarian receive some kind of award. Even after Miller obliged a lot of powerful people at the Hall of Fame by dying at age 95 so they wouldn't have to witness his induction, he didn't get elected. That makes me doubly happy for Roger Angell, and very happy for myself because I'll be able to attend the ceremony at which he receives the award and hear what he says about the honor and about the game he has loved and described so beautifully.

"Unafflicted by daily deadlines or the weight of objectivity," Angell wrote in the Foreword to his first collection, The Summer Game, "I have been free to write about whatever I found in the game that excited or absorbed or dismayed me." Over the course of several decades, he has covered nearly every aspect of baseball, even the business end of it, though for my money the one thing that has always set him apart is his sheer descriptive power, how he takes something that we fans all saw happen, and make us see it in a vivid and intriguing way.

One thing that marks great writers (of all subjects and styles) is that they make us see why this thing over here is remarkably like that thing over there which we thought was utterly unrelated. My favorite example is his description of the swing that Bernie Carbo took at a low-inside pitch from Rawley Eastwick. Carbo was lucky to touch the ball but it prolonged his at-bat, and he smacked the ball over the center field fence at Fenway Park, the famous home run which tied Game 6 of the 1975 World Series and set the stage for Carlton Fisk's even more famous home run.

Many of you have seen footage of Carbo's foul ball on what today's announcers might call an "emergency hack." Roger Angell described a "wholly overmatched" Carbo as "flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet." Has any other writer discerned the resemblance between the World Series and a lawn party? The simile came out of nowhere but Angell's vision, but I haven't seen the Carbo footage since then without seeing how perfectly apt the simile is.

I'm not the first observer to liken Angell's writing to prose poetry, and much of it fits Alexander Pope's definition of "true wit" as "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." Nothing shows this better than his descriptions of Luis Tiant, which I'm going to share at length here. It is from his essay on the 1975 World Series, titled "Agincourt and After" and appeared in his second collection, Five Seasons. If you have seen Tiant pitch but haven't read this before, you're in for a treat and some spectacular flashbacks. If you never saw Tiant pitch, you might think Angell made some of this up for effect. But no. This is what Tiant looked like:

"We were treated to the splendid full range of Tiantic mime. His repertoire begins with an exaggerated mid-windup pivot, during which he turns his back on the batter and seems to examine the infield directly behind the mound for signs of crabgrass. With men on bases, his stretch consists of a succession of minute downward waggles and pauses of the glove, and a menacing sidewise, slit-eyed, Valentino-like gaze over his shoulder at the base runner. The full flower of his art, however, comes during the actual delivery, which is executed with a perfect variety show of accompanying gestures and impersonations. I had begun to take notes during my recent observations of the Cuban Garrick, and now. . .I arrived at some tentative codifications. The basic Tiant repertoire seems to include:

"(1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch, the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

"(2) Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball, he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.

"(3) The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.

"(4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

"(5) The Slipper-Kick: In the midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.

"(6) The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4, above): While he is pivoting, an F-105 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eighty feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.

"All this, of course, was vastly appreciated by the Back Bay multitudes, including a nonpaying claque perched like seagulls atop three adjacent rooftop billboards."

If a writer can think in such terms, I as a reader am willing to follow him wherever he wants to go. And if he merely wants to sit still and tell stories, count me in. I think I'll go read his chapter "Stories for a Rainy Afternoon," also from Five Seasons, to my wife. The chapter contains seven gems, including the famous Richie Ashburn "Yo la tengo," the saga of two baseballs in play at the same time, Hack Wilson's greatest throw, Clint Courtney's rain-delayed at-bat, and Tommy Lasorda's cautionary tale about autographs. She'll love 'em. Do yourself a favor. Grab a copy of any Angell book and start reading.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"These Idiots Are Ruining Us!"


There are times when reality and imagination blur, times of wishful thinking. Today is one of those times, so enjoy the following upshot. GS
*   *   *
HALL OF FAME ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR NEW SCULPTURE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                              Aug. 20, 2013 

Hall of Fame Releases Official Stance on the PED Era and the Players Involved


-- Dedication set for new life-size sculpture to represent players of baseball’s PED era.


(COOPERSTOWN, NY) – Taking advantage of a timely burst of confusion caused by the simultaneous 211-game suspension and return to major league action of Alex Rodriguez, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson announced on August 16 that the Hall has commissioned a new sculpture for a symbolic location in the museum.

The life-size work, titled “The Unknown Juicer,” will be located literally inches away from the plaque gallery, immediately outside its entrance. “It will be bolted to the floor,” Idelson noted in his remarks to the press. “Once you’re in that spot, you’re not getting into that plaque gallery, no matter how tantalizingly close it is.”

“For years,” Idelson said, “People have been asking, ‘How does the Hall of Fame really feel about steroids? Do you wish it never happened? Don’t you wish that everyone could be considered for election baggage-free?’ The general answer is yes, it would be wonderful if we could go back and start over and find a way to get plaques for the all-time hits leader, the all-time home run leader, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, and others. But we can’t go back, we have to move forward, and this new sculpture will symbolize the Hall’s traditional emphasis on integrity as a prime criterion for enshrinement.”

Idelson added that many museum staff members have complained about the incessant inquiries by “those damn tourists” about steroids and the infinite number of possible results of future Hall of Fame elections. “Now our guides can simply tell them, ‘check out the statue and you’ll have your answer.’ Between the image and the text, there will be no mistaking our position.”

The winning design was submitted by sculptor Stanley Bleifeld, several of whose works are already on display at the Hall of Fame, most notably his triple study of Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, and Roberto Clemente. Other finalists whose designs were considered included high-profile artists like Christopher Lloyd Wright, Gus Rodinsky, Eve Tartar, and Washington Borglum.

“The Unknown Juicer” will be wearing an anonymous uniform and will have no identifying facial features. Above the neck will be only a traditional ballplayer’s smirk, a sweat-band around the forehead, and headphones covering the ears. Head tilted back, he is about to start chugging the contents of a bottle marked “good juice.” With his other hand he is doing a wrist-curl using a small weight, and cradled under that arm is a carton marked “even better juice.” A hypodermic needle protrudes from his right buttocks.

The over-developed juicer will have a neck wider than his brain; bulging biceps and loose skin under his arms; chest muscles popping his uniform buttons; an apparently dislocated hip; and untied shoelaces since he can’t bend over. Sticking out of his pocket is a barely visible check stub for $30 million.

“We’re excited about the artistic as well as the thematic properties of this new work,” wrote Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board Jane Forbes Clark in a statement read by Idelson. “Art has always been a motivating force in the Clark family, and we have tried to incorporate it in everything we own. The Hall of Fame museum is no exception. There are now five statues in the courtyard between the museum and CooperPark, and four other pieces in the museum—unless you count that silly ‘holy cow’ at the base of the staircase.”

Idelson announced that the new statue will be unveiled at a ceremony on Saturday, November 9, to be attended by Commissioner Bud Selig among many other indignitaries. At that time, the text accompanying “The Unknown Juicer” will be made public as well. Idelson promised his audience, “You’re going to love that text. We’re taking a stand here, folks. These idiots are ruining us! We didn’t even have a thousand people at our induction this year. And the election process is going to be a mess for a long time to come, unless some miracle consensus appears out of thin air.

“Thumbs up or thumbs down, either one is fine with us. Meanwhile, out here in limbo, the Hall of Fame is going ahead as if the thumbs down will continue. And we’re going to deal with it head-on. When we got the Barry Bonds ‘Asterisk Ball,’ we put it on display with a lengthy, sensible label which emphasized the historical context of the ball’s appearance. But you had to go out to the end of the second floor and find it inside the one locker devoted to the San Francisco Giants in a room with 30 lockers, in order to get the message. What were we thinking? By putting ‘The Unknown Juicer’ where you can’t miss it as you pause before entering the most hallowed room in baseball, we will get our message across.”
 

                                                                          -1-


For more information on the sculpture dedication, please contact Gabriel Schechter.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What If They Held an Induction and No One Came?

Back in January, when Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson announced that the BBWAA had resisted the temptation to elect the all-time home run champ, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, two guys with more than 3,000 hits, and other significant ballplayers to the Hall of Fame, I sent him an e-mail. It read: "For the first time since you've been at the Hall, you'll be able to give an accurate count of the attendance at the induction ceremony. All you have to do is count the legs and divide by two." To Jeff's credit, within an hour of facing the national cameras with his no-news-is-bad-news, he responded with this witty note: "Not if Bill Veeck shows up," since Veeck's wooden leg would screw up the arithmetic. I replied, "If you can get Bill Veeck here, you'll have a record crowd."

Alas, Veeck did not rise from the dead, though the three inductees did: umpire Hank O'Day (who died in 1935), Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert (who died in 1939, several months before the Hall of Fame's first induction ceremony), and 19th-century catching pioneer James "Deacon" White (who also died in 1939, 25 days after that initial ceremony). They were represented by descendants who weren't even alive in the 1930s, but all gave heartfelt, welcome speeches, most notably Jerry Watkins, White's great-grandson, who was one of roughly 50 family members to attend the ceremony.

That heavy turnout by the White clan may be what pushed the crowd over the magical 1,000 mark. About 20 minutes before the scheduled 1:30 starting time (which was pushed back about 50 minutes because of rain), I did my best to count the number of legs outside the fenced-in VIP seating sections and divide by two. I quit counting when I got to 658 people--because there was nobody else to count. Add to that a few hundred people in the seating sections (with far more empty seats than those with asses in them), and it was around 1,000. As my father (who saw O'Day umpire) would have said, "Look at all the people who aren't there!"  That was before the rain fell at 1:30. Once the ceremony began, the throng was considerably smaller. The Hall of Fame later announced a crowd of 2,500, which means that Jeff Idelson kept his streak intact of inflating the attendance figure. Sometimes he has done it to make a disappointing crowd (say 6,000) look respectable (10,000). In this case, it made a dreadful crowd sound merely less dreadful. But those of us who were there had come to see these particular men honored, and for us it was still a celebration even if the front-running fans of still-breathing immortals stayed away.

After the BBWAA pitched its shutout and the folks who run the Hall of Fame realized there would be no living inductees, they went all-out to find all the dead ones they could honor. They had been planning to give Lou Gehrig the formal induction he never got (elected by acclaim after the 1939 Induction, he was dead by the time there was another ceremony) in 2014, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Hall, but moved that up by a year to give some folks some kind of excuse to show up. While they were at it, they decided to honor all the other players who never got their own induction ceremony because of World War II travel restrictions.That included Rogers Hornsby, the only electee in 1942, and the ten men elected in 1945 by an earlier incarnation of the Veterans Committee.

With only 34 living Hall of Famers returning for this year's ceremony--the lowest number in many, many years, after a peak of more than 60 a few years ago--the ceremony was already going to be significantly shorter because of fewer introductions. With film tributes to the 12 overdue honorees, plus a current Hall of Famer reading the text of each of their plaques, the ceremony lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. It was a fine little ceremony, and we enjoyed it.

But it was not without some strange moments, some odd, discordant notes. My favorite involved the choice of current Hall of Famers to read the plaques. As much as possible, the Hall matched them up very well by position and/or team. Cal Ripken ended the afternoon by reading Gehrig's plaque; Tommy Lasorda read the plaque of earlier Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson; Wade Boggs read third baseman Jimmy Collins' text, and so on. Then came the Hornsby plaque, the last before Gehrig's. That "honor" went to Hall of Fame Vice Chairman Joe Morgan, presumably because both players were second basemen. But I couldn't help flinching when I learned that the Hall was asking an African American to honor an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan. I'm guessing that Morgan has no idea that Hornsby was in the Klan, or that anybody bothered to tell him. Maybe Jeff Idelson didn't know it either. One of the Hall's three missions is to "preserve history," but that doesn't mean its president has to preserve history in his own head. Suppose someone had told Morgan that Hornsby was in the KKK; would he still have read the plaque? Well, he did read it.

My second-favorite strange moment came during the filmed tributes to the 12 honorees. The guys in the Hall's video department--Bruce Broderson, Nate Owens, and Roger Lansing--did their usual fine job of highlighting the inductees' achievements, an assignment made tougher this year by the scarcity of filmed action of O'Day, Ruppert, and White. We don't have any footage of O'Day making the "Merkle's boner" call in 1908, of White mangling his hands while catching barehanded in the 1870s, or of Ruppert badmouthing Gehrig for daring to ask for a raise after hitting over .350 for the umpteenth season.

The films were fine, except for one startling gaffe in the voice-over to the Ed Delahanty tribute. That was the reference to the records Delahanty held "when he retired." When he retired? For the record, Delahanty did not retire, unless you count the likely utterance of something like "I'm a goner" as he tumbled over Niagara Falls in the middle of the night on July 2, 1903. Thrown off a train for being drunk and disorderly, he got into an argument and then a scuffle with the night watchman on the bridge over the falls. He was either pushed or fell on his own off the bridge, so he "retired" either when he landed in the water or when, a moment later, he went over the falls. They found his body two days later. If you know anything about Delahanty, you know he wasn't the retiring type.

Taking the bronze medal for awkward moments was the pre-ceremony favorite, Commissioner Bud Selig, who still insists that Abner Doubleday invented baseball (the equivalent of Pope Francis declaring that the Sun moves around the Earth). Pretty much his only duty on induction day is to read the plaques of the new inductees. As usual, he read them as if seeing them for the first time, although I've heard that ignoring your employees' drug abuse can impair reading ability.

All Hall of Famer plaques start with a listing of every team they played for, including years and leagues. The leagues are abbreviated on the plaques, so that, for instance, Babe Ruth's plaque says "Boston, A.L." and "Boston, N.L." Well, it happened that two of this year's three inductees finished their playing careers in the Players' League, which operated only during 1890. Deacon White played for Buffalo as a 42-year-old, and Hank O'Day won 22 games pitching for New York before he turned to umpiring.

So both plaques have a "P.L." at the end. Both times, Selig dutifully informed us that these men played in the "Pacific League." Never mind that there never was a "Pacific League" in the United States (there has been a Pacific League in Japan since 1980). Maybe Selig thought he was telling us that they played in the Pacific Coast League--though that wasn't created until 1903. Maybe he thought it was some pioneering league founded by Abner Doubleday.

I don't know what he was thinking, but I'd like to know what Jane Forbes Clark, Jeff Idelson, and the other powers-that-be were thinking when they let him get out there (twice, about fifteen minutes apart) and butcher the history of the sport he has run for the last two decades. Is the answer that they just don't care? Were they tip-toeing around history, pretending that Ed Delahanty really did retire, that it doesn't matter that Rogers Hornsby was in the KKK, and that the names of leagues aren't important?

There we were in idyllic Cooperstown, where locals walking down the street say "How are you?" to other locals and don't wait for an answer, where descendants giving acceptance speeches had to have those speeches vetted first by Hall of Fame officials, and where the sky was cloudy all day but it didn't rain too hard once the crowd was thinned out to a cozy few hundred. "Forgive him," MLB's official historian, John Thorn, said to me right after the ceremony when I asked if he knew anything about the Pacific League. Oh, I do forgive him. But first I had to mock him.

After the ceremony, I presided over the annual induction evening meeting of the local SABR chapter. This was the first time that someone has gone directly from delivering an acceptance speech to the SABR meeting. Jerry Watkins was joined by two sons and other family members at the meeting, which began with a terrific discussion with Tom Simon and Peter Morris. They are the first bona fide historians to participate in the Veterans Committee. By "bona fide historians" I mean that they have no official connection to MLB (as did the several beat writers and BBWAA members of the VC) and no excuse for being asked to serve on the committee other than their reputations as historians. Peter is a foremost scholar of 19th-century baseball and the origins of just about every aspect of the game, and Tom founded SABR's Deadball Era Committee a dozen years ago.

At the meeting, they discussed the process by which O'Day, Ruppert, and White were elected. They did plenty of homework in advance and were impressed by how much preparation the other 14 committee members did, especially Bert Blyleven, one of the four Hall of Fame players on the committee. They hoped to build a consensus on a few candidates they strongly supported, and they must have succeeded, because the math is stacked against electing as many as three men at once. The 16 committee members voted for a maximum of four candidates, there were 10 candidates, and 12 votes were needed for election. So if each member voted for four candidates, the average tally would be 6.4 votes per candidates. For this committee to reach such a strong consensus on three candidates (with a fourth, Bill Dahlen, missing election by only two votes) was pretty remarkable.

They took their time deciding, too. During the morning session, Tom Simon told the SABR gathering, each candidates was discussed for at least a half-hour, sometimes much longer. All the arguments for and against were made, and then they went to lunch. After lunch, they discussed each candidate again, summing up the main points. Then they voted. And agreed.

Our SABR discussion also included about ten minutes with Jerry Watkins. I asked him about the long wait for Deacon White's election, about the disappointment of earlier Veterans Committees neglecting to elect White ahead of five other pre-1900 figures who were elected in the late 1990s, and about White's legacy as a ballplayer. Watkins was still beaming from the ceremony, still basking in the glow of his family finally getting to share in their beloved ancestor's glory. As I noted before Watkins had to leave for the placing of Deacon White's plaque on the wall of the gallery in the Hall of Fame, his family has waited for several generations for this moment, but think of how many future generations will get to come here and see that plaque.

That's the point of having the Hall of Fame in the first place, of course. At any given point in history, we will visit that plaque gallery to celebrate baseball immortals. Some we saw in action ourselves, some we heard about all our lives, and some we only heard about because those plaques keep their memory alive. I've been to about a dozen induction ceremonies now, from the Ripken-Gwynn version of Woodstock when at least 70,000 people descended on a village of 1,800, to this year's intimate gathering. I'm always happy to have gone there to celebrate the game, its finest, and its history.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Save Was a Save Was a -- But No, It Wasn't

Don't ask me why, but this morning I was looking at the New York Times obituary of Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Jim Hughes, who died in 2001 at the age of 78. The headline identified Hughes as "Relief Pitcher Who Set Dodger Mark for Saves." Despite the title of this post, the headline contained not one but two misconceptions which continually piss me off, but I will discuss only one of them here.

Jim Hughes did not set a franchise record with 24 saves in 1954, though the obituary writer, the estimable Richard Goldstein, claimed that his total of 24 led the major leagues that year. Saves did not exist in 1954. Even Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, who created the "save," would have been stumped if you had said to him, following the 1954 season, "Hey Jerry, how about that Jim Hughes! He led the majors with 24 saves this season." It would have been as incomprehensible to Holtzman as informing him that Willie Mays had led the National League in BFW, WAR, and oRAR, not to mention Total Zone Runs, but was only third in Base-Out Runs Added. Those numbers were not calculated in 1954 either. The only difference is that Saves became an official stat in 1969, while the others are more recent sabermetric concoctions.

How can you lead the league in something that doesn't exist? This isn't a simple counting statistic like RBI, which was not an official statistic until 1920. It is reasonable enough to go back through pre-1920 games and calculate the number of runs each batter drove in, but when I write about pre-1920 players, I try to be careful to say "in 1918, Sherry Magee topped the National League by driving in 78 runs." He drove them in whether anybody was counting them or not. Later on, people came up with a stat they named "runs batted in" and figured out that Magee was the 1918 leader. But it isn't the same with saves. Nobody in 1954 was counting saves, because they weren't countable. You had to come up with criteria to measure what you wanted to measure, and devise a formula or rules to apply to those criteria, before you could have something called a save. It took more than two decades after Jim Hughes set a franchise record by pitching in 60 games in 1954 for the powers-that-be to determine what a "save" ought to be, at least to the satisfaction of statisticians measuring the past 39 seasons.

By coincidence, the year the save became official, 1969, also marked the publication of the first Macmillan encyclopedia, the first such tome to include comprehensive statistical data. One thing that the Macmillan editors did was go back and retroactively assign saves for all pre-1969 seasons, using the original criteria proposed by Holtzman and adopted by MLB. Those rules were more liberal than today's. They remained in force for four seasons, and in 1973-1974 a much stricter set of criteria were adopted. In 1975, a middle ground was found, and the 1975 criteria have remained unchanged since then. In other words, we are currently in the 45th season of the save as an official stat, and EVERYTHING you read about pre-1969 "saves" is based on criteria that existed for only four of those seasons.

That is the problem, and to me it's a huge one. The only accurate thing Richard Goldstein could have written about Jim Hughes' 1954 "save" total is that "according to rules in force in 1969 when saves were calculated retroactively, Jim Hughes had 24 in 1954, the highest total in the major leagues." That doesn't sound very convincing, does it? It doesn't have the force of declaring definitively that he led the majors. A compromise way of saying it would be that "Hughes saved more games in 1954 than any pitcher in the majors," the equivalent of my statement that Sherry Magee drove in more runs than anybody else in the National League in 1918.

The most accurate statement you can make--and the one I always make when I can say so with certainty--is "according to today's criteria, in 1954 Jim Hughes blah blah blah." As a matter of fact, according to today's criteria, Hughes would have had only 18 saves in 1954. Not only would that not have been the top total in the majors, it wouldn't even have led the National League. Further, Goldstein could not have written in the obituary that the "record" held up for 35 years, tied by Jim Brewer in 1970 and was finally broken in 1989 when Jay Howell had 28.

Most writers utilize the save stats available at retrosheet.org and baseball-reference.com, the latter website having imported the Retrosheet data. A year ago, I asked Dave Smith, who has done more for baseball historians than anyone I know of by posting box scores and play-by-play data for more than six decades of games, to post a caveat on the Retrosheet website advising visitors that the save data presented therein is based on the 1969 rules and not today's. I just looked around the site and couldn't find any such disclaimer. However, baseball-reference.com, using the same data, does present a history of saves and save rules, ending with this statement:

"It was possible, under both earlier versions of the save rule, to see boxscores in which pitchers were credited with saves in situations where they would not earn them under the current rule. See for example the game of April 25, 1970, where Claude Raymond entered the game with a four-run lead in the ninth but was awarded a save anyway. For games played before 1969, saves have been figured retroactively using the current definition, and there is no such discrepancy."

That statement is incorrect. The pre-1969 games have not been recalculated using the current criteria. Baseball-ref presents the same data as Retrosheet, based on the 1969 rules. The key difference in the rules is that in 1969, all a reliever had to do was enter with a lead and record the last out of a game without relinquishing the lead. Today we wink at a pitcher who slides in under the current rule's most lenient definition, namely pitching three innings with any kind of a lead; enter in the seventh inning with your team ahead, 15-0, and you can get a save. Well, in 1969 you could enter in the ninth inning with two outs and a 15-0 lead, get that last out, and be handed a save.

From a semantic standpoint, this made no sense at all, which was the reason it was eliminated in the 1973 rule change. To "save" something or someone, there must be peril involved. The award for relievers used to be called the "Fireman of the Year," implying that the game was truly in danger and might have been lost if the reliever hadn't "saved" the day. The weakest 1969 criterion lives on in the three-innings-no-matter-how-huge-the-lead loophole, and even the rule in force since 1975 applies a good deal of lenience. The key provision is that when a reliever enters, the tying run must be on base, at bat, or in the on-deck circle. So you can enter with two outs in the ninth inning with a two-run lead and nobody on base, a three-run lead and one runner, or a four-run lead with two runners. I can understand the reasoning. The most important batter a reliever faces is the first one. If that first runner gets on base in the above scenarios, the reliever is suddenly facing the tying run at the plate. That isn't much leeway for getting your feet (or the ball) wet out there on the mound with the game on the line. Incidentally, in the rule version in force in 1973-1974, a reliever had to enter with the tying run on base or at the plate; in other words, Mariano Rivera couldn't get a save by coming in to pitch the ninth inning with a two-run lead.

Let me use the example of Jim Hughes' 1954 season to illustrate what I mean about how what you read about pre-1969 "saves" is so misleading. Of the 24 saves assigned to him by Macmillan, Retrosheet, and Baseball-ref, six would not have been saves in 1975 or 2013. Here they are:

  1. June 5, Wrigley Field: Hughes entered in the eighth inning with the Dodgers ahead 8-3, two outs, and two runners on base. The potential tying run was somewhere in the dugout. He struck out Ernie Banks to end the inning and retired the Cubs in the ninth for the 8-3 win.
  2. June 19, Ebbets Field: Hughes entered in the ninth inning with the Dodgers ahead of the Cubs, 6-0, one out, and a runner on second. Ooooh, scary! The first batter he faced, Ralph Kiner, belted a two run homer, and Hughes still wouldn't have been in a "save situation" in 2013. He got the last two outs for an easy 6-2 win.
  3. June 27, Ebbets Field: Hughes entered in the eighth inning with the Dodgers ahead 8-3, nobody out, and two Cardinals on base. Once again he surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced, Ray Jablonski. He still coasted to an 8-6 victory.
  4. July 5, Forbes Field: Hughes entered in the ninth inning with no outs and the bases loaded. He gave up a two-run double to the first batter he faced, but don't worry. The Dodgers still led, 8-4. Hughes allowed two more runs to score before securing the final out of an 8-6 win.
  5. August 25, Crosley Field: I warned you this might happen. Hughes entered in the eighth inning with a 13-2 lead. Without the pressure of the potential tying run tying his shoelaces in the dugout, he retired six straight Redlegs to close out the romp.
  6. September 15, Ebbets Field: Hughes entered in the eighth inning with the Dodgers leading, 8-2, no outs, and two runners on base. The Dodgers won, 10-4. 
Those efforts were good enough to pad Hughes' retroactive total in 1969, but in reality he only "saved" 18 games.  That did not lead the National League. Cincinnati's Frank Smith, credited with 20 saves by the usual suspects, had only one which would be disqualified today, leaving him with 19, one more than Hughes. Both would be topped by Johnny Sain's 20 for the Yankees, marked down from 22. Hughes' 18 would still have been the franchise's top total until Jim Brewer's 24 in 1970. In case you're wondering, when I write about pitchers' save totals from 1969-1974, I do not recalculate them according to today's rules. The stat was official and those were the rules at the time, so I don't monkey with them. But it's open season on the pre-1969 saves, and I think it's far more legitimate to apply a 39-year-old (and counting) set of criteria than a set that was justifiably discarded after just four seasons. 

Dave Smith was right, I believe, to justify Retrosheet's data to me when I pressed him on it a year ago.  People went to a lot of trouble to accumulate that retroactive data for the 1969 encyclopedia, and it would take nearly as much effort to recalculate them now. The computer formula would be tricky to write and to apply uniformly to game data going back 100 years or more, but the computer could do it. I could do it myself, one box score at a time, for all the seasons for which Retrosheet provides play-by-play data--currently back into the 1940s, and maybe when I'm retired I will. I've gone through over 100,000 box scores on Retrosheet before for a little research project, and I could do it again. In the meantime, I wish Dave Smith would post a disclaimer at retrosheet.org and that Sean Forman would correct the disclaimer at baseball-reference.com. 

I also wish you would spread the word that all published statements regarding pre-1969 "saves" should be taken with an iceberg of salt. Do not believe it when someone writes that Ed Walsh led the American League in saves five times from 1907-1912. He didn't. How can you lead the league in a formulaic stat that did not exist during your long lifetime? Of course, everybody knows that Walsh led the league in "quality starts"--but "saves"? Give me a break.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Life Saved By a Beaning

During my travels through baseball history, I have joined many other historians in a fascination with so-called "cup of coffee" players who played just a game or two or a few in the major leagues, or sometimes only one inning. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham's one inning captivated Ray Kinsella enough to make him a major part of the novel "Shoeless Joe," and my first book was centered around the two-game "career" of Charles "Victory" Faust. How were these cup-of-coffee characters able to get to the majors in the first place? And what happened to make their stays so brief?

Inevitably, that isolated major league experience seems to be but a blip on the screen of a much more interesting life. Whether it's a long career in the minor leagues or the abandonment of baseball in favor of a more rewarding pursuit, there is something compelling about an athlete whose major league experience fits so precisely into the context of his "real" life. Often that cup of coffee intersected with a giant of the game, as with one of my favorites, Paul Hopkins, a fellow Colgate graduate who pitched 11 games in the majors. In his first inning, at the tail end of the 1927 season, he faced Babe Ruth with the bases loaded, and Ruth drilled a grand slam that happened to be #59 of the season. He kept his cool, striking out the next batter, Lou Gehrig, went on to a 1-1 lifetime record in the majors, and three-quarters of a century later was the oldest living major league when he passed away at age 99, having found much success in business.

Recently I discovered one of the most amazing stories I've ever seen involving a one-inning major leaguer. His name was Frank Verdi, whose one inning with the 1953 Yankees was amply sandwiched by four decades in the minor leagues (plus another decade as a scout). He's in the Hall of Fame--of the International League, where he played eight seasons and managed 15, winning pennants with four teams and copping the Little World Series in 1970 with the Syracuse Chiefs. An infielder who saw the most time at third base with a good deal of action at second base, he totaled 1,832 hits in 18 seasons on an odyssey that took him to 14 different franchises, including multiple stints with six of them.

Frank Michael Verdi was born in Brooklyn in 1926, graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn and briefly attended New York University. He was 18 when he joined the Navy in the heart of World War II, and he served until 1946, when he launched a professional baseball career that lasted through 1985. Signed by the Yankees, he spent nine years in their farm system, buried like so many other talented players beneath an array of talent which enabled the Yankees to win the title nearly every one of those years. Verdi wasn't going anywhere except on a merry-go-round circuit of the minors, though in 1952 his .313 batting average was third in the Eastern League and he made the league's All-Star team.

That may have persuaded the Yankees to give the 26-year-old a longer look in 1953, or at least some kind of a look. On May 10, in a game at Fenway Park, the Yankees were trailing the Red Sox in the sixth inning when Casey Stengel removed shortstop Phil Rizzuto for a pinch-hitter. Verdi went in to play short in the home half of the sixth, though the ball did not find him. In the top of the seventh, the Yankees rallied for three runs with two outs to take a 5-3 lead, and loaded the bases before Verdi's time at bat. He strolled to the plate, stepped into the batter's box--and saw Stengel waving him back to the dugout. Stengel put up a pinch-hitter, Bill Renna, whose major league resume at the time was all of 16 at-bats, and he made the third out. Verdi never appeared in another major league game, done after a half-inning and a few seconds in the batter's box.

He went back to the minors for another decade, with his three final seasons as a player-manager, launching his 22-year managing career at Syracuse in 1961. Along the way, he experienced his longest continuous tenure on a minor league team, playing for the International League's Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinals farm team, from 1957-1959. That's where the big drama of his life occurred.

It happened on July 25, 1959, during one of Verdi's better seasons, when he batted .295 as the Red Wings' regular third baseman (his career average was .270). A few weeks earlier, he had been beaned so severely that he was still suffering dizzy spells and was not on the active roster. But the Red Wings had a big weekend in Havana coming up, and nobody wanted to miss the trip to that alluring hot-spot. So he was enlisted as a bullpen catcher for the trip. That's where he was stationed on Saturday night when a capacity crowd gathered to watch Fidel Castro give a pre-game pitching demonstration. It was a wild crowd full of soldiers making a ton of noise and celebrating their leader's presence--or so the Rochester players thought.

The game was wild, too, with the Red Wings leading most of the way until things turned sour for them in the late innings. When manager Cot Deal was thrown out of the game, Verdi was asked to coach third base. In the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, a two-run home run pulled the Havana Sugar Kings into a 4-4 tie, and the game went into extra innings.

They were still playing at midnight when all hell broke loose. What the Rochester players didn't know was that midnight ushered in the first anniversary of Castro's revolution, and the celebration consisted of everyone--soldiers and citizens alike--shooting off their guns. Verdi and some other players took shelter under the Jeep used to drive pitchers in from the bullpen for five minutes or so, until the gunfire subsided and the game resumed.

Stationed in the third base coach's box, Verdi figured the worst was over, that the bad news was a ground out that ended a Red Wings threat. Before he could get off the field, however, the gunfire resumed, and the next thing he knew he was on the ground. "I felt this burning pain on the side of my head and thought I'd been beaned again," he told a New York Daily News reporter in 1999. "Then they found the .45-caliber bullet lying next to me." Havana shortstop Leo Cardenas had been struck in the shoulder by another bullet, but Verdi was struck in the head. He should have been killed--but because of that beaning, he was wearing a protective liner inside his cap. The bullet had bounced off the liner instead of penetrating his skull.

Verdi recovered and become a cause celebre as baseball officials put pressure on the Sugar Kings to abandon Havana. They stuck it out the rest of the season and half of 1960 until Castro started confiscating U.S. properties, and finally moved the franchise to Jersey City. By that time, Verdi had moved along to the Charleston (WV) Senators of the American Association, a Washington farm team. He wasn't even halfway through a life that could easily have been cut short when he was just 33 years old. Instead, he lived to 84, a good long life that ended in Florida amidst thousands of Cuban refugees who also felt lucky to have gotten out alive.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Essence of Self-Absorption

I want to start by apologizing to all the people who have been wondering where my blog went, or at least to the handful of friends who have mentioned it to me. I'm fine, but two things have kept me away from the blog for. . .holy crap, nearly three months! First, although a few things have caught my eye, nothing has gotten me excited enough to overcome the second reason:  I've been devoting most of my time to two writing projects and the rest to other freelance jobs. I do mean most of my time, thanks to being in The Void and not having ballgames to distract me. So I've resisted the temptation to write about the WBC, spring training, my latest fantasy team rosters, and the ongoing saga of Bud Selig's effort to convince us that he has dealt successfully with the latest PED glitches. Let's just say that I've been more self-absorbed than usual this winter. I've gotten a lot done, believe me. I just can't prove it by my blog.

It is the notion of self-absorption that has brought me out of hiding today to resume the blog. The other day, my friend Peter Morris posted the following on Facebook:  "Words cannot express how inspired I am by the news that Tiger Woods has overcome both the complete lack of a moral compass and a terminal case of self-absorption to regain the #1 golf ranking." That ticked me off, but not because of how I or anybody else feels about Tiger Woods. If Peter isn't inspired or glad about anything Tiger Woods does, that's fine with me. There are plenty of famous sports figures whose success has left me cold, wishing that they could have failed instead:  Bobby Knight, Roger Clemens, Lebron James, Alex Rodriguez, and Tony LaRussa, to name just a few. I don't like their style, personality, persona, principles, whatever. When we send that first spaceship to Alpha Centauri, I want them on it, and I can fill the rest of the seats, too. That's how Peter feels about Woods. We're all entitled to our tastes, quirks, and standards.

What ticks me off is Peter's sanctimonious, judgmental tone. He appears to be saying that immorality and self-absorption disqualify athletes from any form of admiration. That's a pretty odd stance for a baseball historian to take. I have a ton of admiration for Peter, a superb researcher whose books take unplumbed baseball topics and make them entertaining and enlightening. I don't know anyone besides Peter who could put together a compelling book about baseball groundskeepers. When the Hall of Fame deigned to include a couple of bona fide historians on this year's Veterans Committee, Peter was one of their choices. But if he is correct that we should dismiss athletes who care only about themselves, then he need only look at baseball history to see how tough it will be to find a lineup of diamond immortals to root for.

Let's start with the moral issue Peter raises. He is appalled by Woods' philandering, his wanton failure to consider the feelings and needs of his wife and children when indulging his favorite hobby:  sleeping around. As a baseball historian, Peter can identify the two baseball immortals who stood head and shoulders above all other 20th-century players in popularity. From coast to coast, two men were the most revered not only during their careers but after retirement, the most idolized by far:  Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Both spent a good deal of their time and energy sleeping around, philandering, and exhibiting a complete lack of a moral compass, while their wives and children waited at home. All of their whoring and drinking didn't diminish their popularity. One got syphilis, and the other got a new liver to replace the one his drinking ravaged, so they did pay a price, but not in popularity or posterity as ballplayers. As I noted in a comment below Peter's Facebook post, I was inspired when Mantle passed Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list, and if I had been alive in 1927 I would have felt inspired by Ruth breaking his own one-season home run record. If Peter wants to disregard Tiger Woods' accomplishments because he didn't honor his marriage vows, he has to kiss  off Ruth, Mantle, and a host of other baseball immorals, excuse me, immortals as well. If we're not allowed to be inspired by such athletes, I'll have to abandon my plans to teach my grandson how to take that outside pitch to the opposite field like Wade Boggs, simply because of that regrettable Margo Adams situation.

Many baseball historians have noted that if a pristine character were a prerequisite for election to the Hall of Fame, we would have to start over and would wind up with a small enough group of honorees to fit into the little museum nook that is so often mistaken for the non-existent "writers and broadcasters wing" of the Hall of Fame. Peter is right in the sense that the miscreants do have to overcome their immorality in executing their athletic feats. Ruth and Mantle were hung over for a lot of day games, and there's no doubt that their lifetime statistics were affected. Mantle regretted sticking around long enough to see his lifetime batting average drop below .300, but he still joked about the days when he crushed home runs on pitches he could barely see, or at least joked about them until his liver flat-lined..

We watch sports because we want to witness greatness on display and history being made. It's more exciting if we have a rooting interest--for or against--but I've discovered over the years that great plays and great games speak for themselves when we enjoy the sport and appreciate the work and skill that go into playing them well. I didn't have to know any of the players from the Netherlands team in the WBC to get a kick out of their upset of Cuba. Something about athletic competition compels us to watch, and even though the personal stories of the competitors can add to our appreciation of their feats, they are secondary to the feats themselves. We don't have to know that the guy coming to bat has a hangover or a hangnail or a girlfriend in every port or a secret bank account in the Cayman Islands or a stash of steroids or a case of syphilis.

If I tell you that a significant record was broken by a pitcher who spent three days at the bedside of his seriously ill, newborn son before flying to his next start and flying right back home again, it makes the achievement sound that much more impressive today, but it didn't matter to the people in the stands that night, who didn't know about the pitcher's personal drama. All they wanted to know was:  is he going to get the next guy out? Or will the batter drive in the tying run? That's why we watch. Later on, we can look at the bigger picture and decide how important--or how bogus--the events we watched were. But that didn't stop us from watching and enjoying it at the time. I've lost a good deal of respect for Mickey Mantle the man in the 45 years since he retired, but on Memorial Day in 1968 I saw him go 5-for-5 with two home runs at Yankee Stadium, and nothing will take away the thrill I experienced that day. I doubt that Peter Morris watched the weekend action at Bay Hill when Tiger Woods won the tournament and regained the #1 position. That's fine. As a fan of golf, I did watch, and without saying whether I rooted for or against Woods, I will say that it was exciting to witness history. That's why I watched.

Although I think Peter's moralizing was ill-advised, I find his comment about Woods' "terminal case of self-absorption" totally perplexing. "Self-absorption" can be applied to many aspects of human behavior and psychology, and Peter is defining it along the lines of "doesn't give a shit about anybody but himself." In the case of athletes, whose sense of self-worth is largely defined by statistics--the demonstrable product of talent times performance--this means a willingness to sacrifice everything, or damn near everything, for winning and/or compiling big numbers. It means investing the bulk of your time and energy to become the best athlete you can be, and if that means shortchanging other people and other interests, that's the price these people are willing to pay.

I take it that Peter is bothered by Woods' obsession with being regarded as the best golfer in history. My question is:  how does that make Woods different from every other athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his sport? I would maintain that self-absorption, far from being a detriment or an obstacle to athletic greatness, is a necessary component of being the best. More than that, it is essential for being the best at any form of competition, whether it's team sport, Olympic events, poker, chess, or even Scrabble, at which Peter happens to be a former world champion (the first one, in fact, in 1991). All those hours after hours, day after day, spent practicing, practicing, practicing. All the competitions, the travel, the training and preparation--it doesn't matter what your arena of competition is, being world-class is not for dilettantes. You don't do it in your spare time. It's a self-perpetuating kind of obsession, as the Woods case demonstrates:  you sacrifice something of your personal life to become the best, and then, if your personal life falls apart, you redouble your efforts to salvage your self-worth by remaining the best competitor in your field. Golf is particularly ripe for this pattern for two reasons:  it is an utterly solitary endeavor, and you can compete at it into old age (George Foreman and George Blanda notwithstanding).

I was going to put in a paragraph here about various best-in-their-sports athletes who have manifested self-absorption in their careers, starting with Muhammad Ali, but I think I'll just stick to baseball. Let's see. All-time hits leader: Pete Rose. Utterly self-absorbed. All-time home run leader: Barry Bonds. Disgustingly self-absorbed. Highest batting average: Ty Cobb. Infamously self-absorbed. Self-proclaimed "best hitter" ever: Ted Williams. So self-absorbed that he wouldn't even tip his cap to adoring hometown fans. Best right-handed hitter ever: Rogers Hornsby. So obsessed with hitting that he wouldn't read a newspaper or go to the movies lest his eyesight be harmed (ironically, he died of a heart attack following cataract surgery). Best baserunner and record-holder for runs scored: Rickey Henderson. The embodiment of self-absorption. Is it a coincidence that most of the players mentioned in this paragraph shed spouses like slumps along their path to breaking records? (And I haven't even mentioned Babe Ruth here.)

Of course there are exceptions, and all-time RBI leader Hank Aaron might appear to be one. Without putting too fine a point on it, however, I think there is a sub-group of world-class athletes who manifested self-absorption in a different way. I'm thinking of the African American athletes who rose to the top during the 1950s and 1960s, coming of age in the heart of the civil rights movement, and experienced racism in its most direct and virulent forms. Aaron is one example, Ali another, and I'd add Bill Russell and Jim Brown to the top of the list. Because mainstream (i.e. white) society rejected them personally and relegated them to second-class status, it multiplied their drive for athletic excellence. Winning was the best revenge; being the best accorded them a place in history, a permanent identity and status that could not be denied. Wary of the media, distanced from their fans, they drove themselves in competition. All four have acknowledged the power of this factor in their athletic psyches. Aaron has written about the pain and loneliness of his quest for Ruth's record in the face of death threats. Just because it didn't drive him to erratic behavior or wreck his marriage, doesn't make him an exception to the rule of self-absorption.

The importance of self-absorption in achieving great feats isn't limited to athletics or competition. It is even more essential in creative fields like writing and art, which are solitary disciplines. I'll just throw a few familiar names at you: Tolstoy, Hemingway, O'Neill, Joyce, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Michelangelo. They were among the most heartless, self-serving geniuses you'll ever find, but even if I know that the model for that Picasso painting was his mistress, or that Van Gogh's thick daubs of paint were paid for by his  brother's willingness to short-change his own family's welfare to subsidize Vincent's art, it does not and should not affect my appreciation of the work of art when I look at it, any more than I should've thought about how hung over Mickey Mantle might have been the day I saw him go 5-for-5, or even how juiced-up Barry Bonds might have been the day I witnessed his 715th home run. They still had to put the paint on the canvas or the baseball in the grandstand, just like the saintly souls who continue to inspire Peter Morris.

The person and the performance are two different things. Yes, we're entitled to judge the performer as a person, but that is ultimately a futile exercise. Mantle, Ruth, and Woods hit the ball solidly, and we can't possibly know everything about what went into their performance. The quest to be the best--to be your best--is a tightrope walk, a delicate balance between the effort needed to get the job done and the basic human needs that so often gum up the works. The lure of fame and fortune is only part of it. It is just as much about an individual's sense of his/her own destiny. That destiny is manifested in the performance, which is the only thing we spectators can truly know in its entirety.

So I think I understand what leaves Peter cold about Tiger Woods. Woods became so obsessed with emulating and surpassing the golfing records of Jack Nicklaus that he forgot to emulate Jack Nicklaus the man, who is the most relevant exception to the natural force I have tried to describe here. If Woods had devoted the time and energy to his family that he found to devote to infidelity, everybody would be happier. If he could find the time to be so rampantly unfaithful, he could have found plenty of ways to use that free time nobly. I agree.  But nobody should be surprised, outraged, or personally offended, to discover that a particular high achiever is a deeply flawed human being. It is, as Tiger Woods has proved, simply par for the course.



Sunday, January 13, 2013

Changing the Rules at the Hall of Fame

In the aftermath of the BBWAA pitching a shutout in the 2013 Hall of Fame election, I have immersed myself in the quasi-social media more than ever before (and, I hope, ever after), drinking in the views and opinions drifting in from various participants, historians, enthusiasts, bloggers, and everybody else who has ever watched a ballgame. A lot of people think the HOF election system is flawed and must be replaced. All sorts of blame has been thrown around, and not all of it can be ignored. Observers I respect have expressed seriously varying attitudes toward the varied aspects of the issue, and their expertise nearly cancels itself out. And at least a couple of very smart people I know have come up with specific solutions--presuming, of course, that we can agree on what exactly needs to be fixed. In short, it's a mess.

I have a few random observations about the situation I'll share with you here, along with a history lesson about how the 2013 election fits into the history of the Hall of Fame itself, pointing toward what I think might happen, or at least wouldn't be surprised to see happen.

I've seen this all before and worse, in my research for a pair of articles I wrote about the 1945 election while working at the Hall of Fame. That was the thorniest election between the first one and this year's, especially in terms of a substantial field of very qualified players causing the vote to be spread around just enough to keep any one of them from being elected. In 1945, there were thirty-three (33) future Hall of Famers who received at least 5% of the vote. Seven of them got at least 50%, topped by Frank Chance with 72.3% and Rube Waddell with 62.3.  Even the most conservative observers today who advocate Hall of Fame election only to "no-brainers" would find at least 12-15 worthies on that ballot--Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Three Finger Brown, and Kid Nichols, to name just a few. A whopping 94 players got votes, including 56 future Hall of Famers. No wonder nobody got elected.

Did the Hall of Fame take this statistical defeat lying down? No sirree. Since the 1939 inauguration of the museum, this was only the second election (Rogers Hornsby was elected in 1942), and too many good players had been jammed into a hopeless backlog. The Hall of Fame needed to get more players into their museum to attract more visitors once the war was in the past. A six-man "Committee on Old Timers" met that summer and changed the rules.  The BBWAA would now hold annual elections, initially using a two-tier run-off format that would make it easier to elect players. In addition, the writers' jurisdiction would extend only as far back as 1910, with a separate committee, appointed by the Hall's Board of Trustees, mandated to elect earlier players. Exercising this free privilege, they promptly elected ten people, including the likes of Jim O'Rourke and Roger Bresnahan. In 1946, after another BBWAA shutout, they elected eleven more, including Tinker, Evers and Chance, along with Rube Waddell and the man felt by today's historians to be the worst Hall of Famer ever elected solely as a player: Tommy McCarthy. As Bill James declared in The Politics of Glory, those last eleven choices, made in the same year that the BBWAA declined to elect Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, forever eliminated any elite, overblown premise of making super-excellence a prerequisite for getting a plaque in Cooperstown.

This year, when the electorate couldn't even find a consensus on a no-brainer like Craig Biggio, it is appropriate that in its desperation to create an excuse for tourists to come root for someone at the July induction ceremony, the Hall of Fame has decided to honor those ten 1945 electees. They didn't have their own ceremony that year, you see, because of the war, and when the Hall of Fame initiated its annual ceremony in 1946, none of them showed up to receive the honor in person. The only electee from 1945-46 who did travel to the ceremony was Ed Walsh. Anyway, if you're a major devotee of players like King Kelly and Ed Delahanty, or that vanished breed, the player-manager, like Fred Clarke and Jimmy Collins, this is your big chance to go to Cooperstown and get as close as you ever will to the stage to hear your favorite's name mentioned at an induction ceremony for the first time since the day they didn't show up.

What is the Hall of Fame going to do about a voting logjam that is not likely to unsnarl on its own? The eligibility of at least a few no-brainers in the next three ballots will make it certain that living players will be inducted every July, but everyone else will stand still, and the time will come again when the Hall--and the merchants of Cooperstown--will depend on the election of some of today's uncertainties. They depended on an election this year, and they were disappointed. The Hall of Fame doesn't have a history of letting other entities dictate its realities. They've redone the remnants of that original Committee on Old Timers many times, tinkering with several versions of the Veterans Committee just in the last decade. In 2012, they even put a couple of independent historians on the committee, which helped result in the election of Deacon White and Hank O'Day.

Clearly, the Hall of Fame has taken the high road so far concerning the "Steroids Era," that is, an extension of Bud Selig's head-in-the-sand avoidance of acknowledging any more than is absolutely inescapable. The Hall does tell the story of steroids in its label for the Barry Bonds "asterisk ball" in the Records Room on the third floor. There are also plenty of files of material on the subject in the library. As a museum, they have adhered to their responsibility to tell the story of what happened. But staff members have been advised not to speculate about which players may have used PEDs and how that affected their performance or their place in history. It has long been a policy to prohibit staff from advocating or rejecting the credentials of any candidate for election, and rightly so. A cruel fate awaits any employee who, acting as a de facto spokesman for the Hall of Fame, tells a visitor that the odds are against Roger Clemens ever being elected because too many people believe he cheated.

Thus the Hall itself has refrained from any public statement addressing the issue of whether PED use should disqualify anyone from election. The Hall has preferred to let the so-called "character clause" speak for itself, and this year it spoke to certain writers in a way that gave them an excuse to leave all the "steroid era" nominees off their ballots. That works against the Hall's long-term interest in getting plaques on the walls to get people into the gallery. So it wouldn't surprise me to see the Hall's Board of Trustees do something about it. They might, at some point, decide that they can add by subtracting, that by throwing a few people under the bus, they can keep the bus moving forward.

The Hall of Fame's Rule of Election #5 lists six criteria to be weighed by voters. Half relate to skills on the field; half do not. Voters don't have too much trouble evaluating a player's "record, playing ability. . .and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." To take Barry Bonds as an example, all three areas are no-brainers. He had one of the best careers ever statistically, he was extremely talented in batting, running, and fielding, and his record number of MVP Awards tells us how much he helped his team(s). The other three criteria seem just as clearly in the negative column when applied to the Bonds we have come to know:  integrity, sportsmanship, character.

It is difficult to make the case that any known user of PEDs has displayed basic integrity, a sense of fair play,  or strength of any kind. If they have failed to meet half of the criteria, how can they be honored? Of course the Hall's rules don't describe those criteria in detail or give the voters any guidance on which traits might carry more weight than others. The tendency over decades of voting has been to emphasize the player's ability over everything. It accounts for the election of players like Dizzy Dean, whose enormous talent was blunted by an injury that kept his career totals way below what we regard today as minimally qualified. This year it accounted in part for the failure to elect Craig Biggio, and before him the likes of Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Tommy John . The only bad thing some people have said about these careers is that the player didn't have many outstanding individual seasons, seldom led the league in a significant stat, and merely accumulated big numbers by lasting so long. In Biggio's case, more than 30% of the voters decided that he was somewhat lacking in the talent department, preventing his great stats from turning (yet) into immortal stats.

But suppose the Hall of Fame clarified Rule 5. Suppose they issued a statement that players who demonstrably used PEDs had violated key terms of that rule and therefore would not be eligible for the BBWAA ballot. How would you determine that? One simple way would be to say that all players who were named in the Mitchell Report--a process in which the players participated and which has already affected a couple of players' chances of election--would be ineligible for the BBWAA ballot. That would eliminate a lot of the troubling cases in the news this week: Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro were on the ballot and the report, which also named upcoming hopefuls like Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, and Kevin Brown.

With those players off the ballot, two things would happen. First, the less crowded field would narrow the spreading effect that helped louse things up this year. Second, writers would know where the line had been drawn and would not be able to exclude players who have nothing against them besides guilt by association. That would give Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, among others, a clearer path to the election they deserve. Other players who were not named in that report but have been caught--Manny Ramirez is the best example--could easily be added to that list.

The Hall might decide that this only applied to the BBWAA election, leaving the miscreants open to election by some Veterans Committee to be named at a later date; I can see the 87th version of the VC, patched together in 2113, deciding it was time to go back and find the Deacon White of their perspective, maybe someone like Bonds or Clemens whose record would finally be regarded as strong enough to overcome the negative factors. That was part of the Hall of Fame's approach to Pete Rose, acknowledging that if got reinstated by MLB after his period of eligibility for the BBWAA ballot had expired, he could be considered by the VC. Revising Rule 5 would take the current burden off the BBWAA and its individual members, who have twisted themselves into knots this winter trying to justify their widely varying points of view. It would also send a message to players considering steroids, letting them know of an additional penalty for getting caught. Would having to wait two decades after retirement to be eligible for the Hall of Fame have slowed down Barry Bonds? Maybe.

There is plenty of precedent for the BBWAA making worthy candidates wait for election, as if they exert some kind of group will rather than being the sum of individuals quirks and consciences. Roberto Alomar was the most recent example of a no-brainer talent who wasn't elected the first time because some writers punished him for spitting at an umpire. The umpire forgave him long before some of the writers did, but there is a recurring sentiment in some voters that "I know he's a Hall of Famer, and I don't mind if he's there someday, but I think he ought to wait and I'm not going to be part of the group that ignores his misdeed(s) and elects him the first time." We've heard that this year regarding Bonds and Clemens. Juan Marichal, a gentleman who experienced ten seconds of anger on the field and bopped a player over the head with a bat, didn't get in until his third year on the ballot. Gaylord Perry, an admitted cheater of the rules of play, also waited until his third election to make it. Even Yogi Berra, with his three MVP Awards and all those World Series rings, didn't make it until his second year, though what reason 118 writers found to justify not voting for him the first time is beyond me. My point is that if Juan Marichal could be punished for two years for whacking someone with a bat, Barry Bonds can be punished for awhile for whacking baseball's integrity over the head with his batting.

Incidentally, I used to maintain that Bonds and Clemens should be elected because they had established HOF credentials before the time when they started using steroids. But I no longer feel that way. They shouldn't be let off the hook for that. It would be like saying that Richard Nixon shouldn't have paid any price for authorizing and covering up the Watergate break-in because he was going to win the election anyway. It reveals an even deeper character weakness when a person in a superior position still resorts to dishonest methods to gain an even greater advantage. Nixon paid the price.

Should Bonds, Clemens & Company pay a price now for what they did then? Should exclusion from the Hall of Fame be that price? A lot of things we hear all the time about this issue are irrelevant. Some people say that there are so many cheaters, racists, felons, alcoholics, and all-around bad guys in the Hall of Fame already that nobody today should be judged. Some say that steroids and other PEDs weren't against baseball's rules back then, so it was okay that players used them. Some say that because the people running baseball, starting at the top with Bud Selig and moving don the ladder to team executives, managers, and teammates, condoned the methods of the "Steroid Era," we should condone it too. None of that matters. So what if electors, players and executives have made big mistakes in the past. It doesn't follow that we have to continue along the same path of condonement and glorification. Don't be suckered in by that false logic. It's the same explanation that child abusers give--their parents did it to them and they didn't know any better than to do it to their children. You can't simply point to an illegal spitball pitcher or a cocaine user's current presence in the Hall of Fame and say it permanently excuses any other candidate who used drugs. So yes, everyone should pay a price. We can't go back and change the games themselves or their results. But what we can do is refuse to heap honors on them. So I for one applaud the BBWAA electorate for voicing a strong, albeit belated, objection to glorifying steroids users.

The precedent for today's fiasco is the prevalence of gambling before the "Black Sox scandal" of 1920. There are key similarities:  betting on games was not against baseball's rules in until 1927, and while there was no specific clause in the rules covering punishment for throwing games, it was unwritten policy to sweep it under the carpet. As with steroids, everyone in baseball knew that certain players were throwing games, yet the most celebrated, transparent, and unrepentant game-thrower, Hal Chase, was not barred from the major leagues. Commissioner Landis kicked the Black Sox out, even guilt-only-by-association Buck Weaver, as a way of signaling that such dishonesty would not be tolerated. After more than two decades of letting it go, Landis came along and said that's enough. That's all the BBWAA has done this year. After two decades of nearly everyone involved in baseball turning their heads and letting it go, the BBWAA stood up and said "no, someone has to make them answerable for what they did." The Hall of Fame can make it easy for everybody. Instead of taking the chance that the BBWAA will never elect any of these guys, it can say "these guys aren't eligible, but those guys are," and grease the way for those guys to get in.

Would the Hall of Fame actually do this? There are a lot of factors involved, but I think they might. There certainly is precedent for the Hall telling the BBWAA whom it can and cannot consider on its ballot, and I don't mean just in 1945-46. I'm talking about the so-called "Pete Rose rule" of 1991. Rose had been added to the commissioner's "Ineligible List" in 1989, but he wasn't eligible for the BBWAA ballot until 1992. There was nothing in the election rules prohibiting ineligible players from getting votes on the ballot. In fact, Joe Jackson, banished since 1920, received votes in two elections, 1936 and 1946. There was a genuine fear at the Hall of Fame that the writers might elect Rose, who had been immensely popular with them and was as strong a candidate for unanimous election as there ever was before he screwed it up.

How real was this fear? Here is the text of a memo written on June 5, 1990, by Bill Guilfoile, the Hall of Fame's Associate Director at the time, their #2 man and PR spokesman. It was sent to his two bosses, HOF President Edward Stack and Director Howard Talbot. Here is what was on Guilfoile's mind:

"If we are considering changing the Rules for Election by the BBWAA to include adding the sentence, "No-one who is under suspension (or 'who has been banished') from baseball at the time of the election shall be included on the ballot", a revision which I strongly recommend. I believe there is some urgency about accomplishing this within the month for the following reasons:
  1. Rumors are that Pete Rose will be applying for reinstatement sometime this summer. It would be imperative that this revision be announced prior to his application.
  2. The annoucement should be made before the Hall of Fame ballot is announced for the 1991 election.
  3. We should not wait for the August Board of Directors' meeting. Action taken at that time would naturally result in wide-spread publicity which would detract from the media coverage due the inductees.
"I feel very strongly about the need for the Hall of Fame to clarify the situation regarding Rose. If he is reinstated by the Commissioner prior to the 1992 election, fine. If not, we should not leave the decision on his eligibility up to the baseball writers."

There you have it. There are four things that stand out to me here:
  1. After the rule change was implemented, some HOF apologists insisted that it wasn't a change but merely a clarification of long-standing policy. It had been an unwritten practice, but since Guilfoile didn't trust the writers, he wanted to put it in writing.
  2. He sure was eager to get that change passed before Rose applied for reinstatement. In other words, he wanted the person deciding Rose's fate--Fay Vincent, who in less than a year had established himself as something other than the knee-jerk owners' puppet like his predecessors--to be sure to realize that by reinstating Rose, he would also make it possible for the man who (in the owners' eyes) killed Vincent's mentor, Bart Giamatti, to be elected to the Hall of Fame, on whose Board of Trustees Vincent sat, as had all of his predecessors. That would stack the deck further against Rose.
  3. He wanted to keep the thing as hush-hush as possible. He said it was because he didn't want to detract from the inductees to announce the change during the Board's meeting that weekend. But they could have made the decision without announcing it right away. No, Guilfoile wanted it done before anybody who cared was anywhere near Cooperstown. He didn't get his wish.
  4. The last thing he wanted was to let the writers decide. He had time on his side, with the relevant election more than 18 months away. But he didn't want to take chances. If the Hall of Fame could put it in black and white that all players who meet this condition can't be on the ballot, the BBWAA wouldn't be able to do anything it. Actually, they could. In the 1992 ballot, 41 writers voted for Pete Rose (9.2%) even though his name was not on the ballot. He finished one vote behind Curt Flood and one ahead of Bobby Bonds. He got 14 and 19 symbolic votes in the next two elections, then vanished from completed ballots. 
Stack and Talbot didn't buy Guilfoile's urgency, but they did like his premise. They waited until the week after the announcement of the results from the 1991 election. At a meeting deep in the off-season, a select committee came up with the language for the new Rule, which was passed by the Board in early February. The rule (3-W) reads: "Any player on Baseball's ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate." That seems pretty clear-cut, excluding Rose, Joe Jackson, and others on a specific list. Excluding "Steroids Era" players based on the Mitchell Report or some other "official" list would make it easier for all of us. The more extreme remedy would be for the Hall to enact some kind of mechanism for expelling members already elected. More than a few writers this week have voiced the likelihood that there is already an unexposed steroids-user in the Hall of Fame. If it turns out that someone we have already immortalized was as guilty as those we have vilified and punished more recently, it undercuts any premise of giving the whole "Steroids Era" a pass. I hope that isn't true.

If it is true, it would force everyone to reconsider the future and the nature of the Hall of Fame. They might have to seal off the present gallery and start over with a second series of plaques. This second incarnation could emphasize fame--it is the name of the place, after all. Or it could emphasize strength of character. Or just the most elite players as rated by sacred sabermetric formulae. Or all of them. It could have six wings, each emphasizing a different baseball virtue as specified in the current list of criteria. Someone like Lou Gehrig or Stan Musial might be represented in all six. Dizzy Dean and Pete Rose might make two or three. Oh, and a wing for managers, one for executives, and isn't it about time that writers and broadcasters got their own wing? The more the merrier. And they could find a little corner somewhere for one last wing, the Despicable Commissioners Wing, where Bud Selig would be a no-brainer shoo-in for sanctioning the Steroid Era in the first place. Don't get me started on the plaques in that rogues' gallery!


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Anomaly, Or Not To Be

This inquiry began when my good friend Dan Heaton sent me an article from the New York Times about the game-winning patterns of World Series winners. The geekish article told us, for instance, that apart from sweeps, the most common pattern is for the winning team to win Games 1, 3, 4, and 5. That has happened ten times, compared to the three times that winner has won all four home games (1, 2, 6, 7). Only once has a team won Games 1, 2, 5, and 7, while no winner (surprisingly) has ever won Games 1, 4, 6 and 7. And so on. More relevant to the discussion here, no team has ever needed six or seven games to capture the title after winning the first three games. The Red Sox may have come back from a 3-0 deficit in the LCS, but in the World Series, no team has won even twice after going down 3-0.

Here's what Dan wrote that started a rather heated e-mail debate: "What I find stunning. . .is that teams that start 3-0 are 21-3 in game 4! Is this statistically significant--can we really say that teams that start 3-0 are typically that much better than their opponents? Clearly not--the best team in baseball isn't enough better than the worst to play .875 against them. So it's an anomaly--but what an anomaly!"

My instinctive response was that there was most likely a strong psychological factor making the trailing teams so hapless in Game 4. The weight of historical precedent would make the losing team realize that they had no chance, and at some level they would be more mentally prepared to get to the golf course a day sooner than to play ball. Dan dismissed this as nonsense, insisting that a team that had come that far already and had fought its way through two previous postseason series would not suddenly succumb to collective despair.

We didn't settle anything on that front, so I turned to the numbers themselves. My feeling was that even though 21-3 looked like an anomaly and sounded like an anomaly, it didn't smell to me like an anomaly. It didn't automatically have to be dumped into the "shit happens" file or dismissed because statistically speaking it is the kind of small sample where any result could occur. Maybe it wasn't inexplicable. Maybe there was a common factor or thread which might explain at least most of those results. In fact, I started thinking, maybe it wasn't even an unexpected result under those circumstances.

I decided to look at the other two professional sports which have a best-of-seven championship series. First I went through NBA final series going back to 1951. That year, the Rochester Royals led the New York Knicks in the finals by a 3-0 margin, but the Knicks fought back to take the next three games before the Royals won Game 7. Since then, there have been nine final series in which one team led, 3-0. In eight of the nine, that team has swept. So it's 8-2 overall in the NBA, not as extreme as baseball but still quite tilted toward sweeps.

Next up was the NHL, a quest that took me back to 1919, when Montreal led Ottawa 3-0 in the finals, lost Game 4, and wrapped up the series in five games. There were no other 3-0 leads until 1941 (in many of the intervening seasons, the finals were not best-of-7), which began a stretch of six straight years when one team took a 3-0 lead in the finals. Those teams split the Game 4 results; in 1942, as hockey nuts can tell you, the Toronto Maple Leafs came back from trailing the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup in seven games, while in 1945 the Maple Leafs almost blew a 3-0 lead, needing seven games to defeat the Red Wings.

Through 1960, teams leading 3-0 in the Stanley Cup finals were only 7-5 in Game 4. That didn't look good at all for my anti-anomaly theory, but a funny thing happened once the NHL doubled in size in 1967-1968 and added preliminary playoff series, as baseball did one year later. Since 1967, NHL teams leading 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Finals have gone 13-2 in Game 4. In the NBA, the figure since that time is 7-1, and in baseball, sports fans, it is 9-1.

If you look at the overall totals for the three sports, the record in Game 4 for teams ahead 3-0 is 49-12, a winning percentage of .803. From 1967 through 2012, however, it is 29-4, a winning percentage of .879. In that light, baseball's overall .875 seems to be right on the money in terms of what you would expect from a professional team. Of course, the three sports have very different formats, and the nature of the sports themselves are different enough that the reasons for each sport's result might be unique. The fact is, however, that when pro teams in a championship series find themselves down 3-0, they almost always lose. The 21-3 record in the World Series is not an anomaly. We should expect a sweep.

I emphasize "championship series" because I also looked at the various preliminary series for these sports, which historically are far more plentiful in hockey, where the deeper playoff field allows more mediocre teams to compete, thereby increasing the odds of a sweep in earlier series. Before I starting my research, I thought about what I might expect the Game 4 result to be between any two teams in any situation when one team has won the first three contests. Figuring that the majority of those winning teams would most likely be superior in talent, I guessed it would be upwards of two-thirds of the time. The numbers from preliminary series confirm that suspicion. In the NHL, the leading teams have gone 89-56 in Game 4 (.618), and in the NBA they are 54-35 (.607). In baseball, which has conducted far fewer best-of-7 playoff series, only nine times has one team in an LCS led, 3-0. They have gone 6-3, including of course the 2004 Yankees, the only baseball team ever to lose a post-season series after being ahead 3-0. Take the three sports together and the record is 149-94, a winning percentage of .613.

There's a very big difference between .613 and .803, especially when you consider (as Dan emphasized) that the team making the finals has already passed difficult tests in earlier series. They are presumably stronger, more talented, and more resilient than the teams that have fallen by the wayside, but that only increases my belief that there must be some rational way of accounting for the extreme results we see in final series. The much higher percentage since the advent of tiered playoffs suggests that playing all those extra games provides that many more chances for catastrophic injuries or cumulative fatigue. A team playing grueling preliminary series might simply run out of gas in the finals, especially if the penultimate series was a tough one.

In recent years, when the major league team with the best record during the regular season has hardly ever won the World Series, it has become clear that simply getting to the Series is an accomplishment, a matter of survival for even the best team. In fact, more than a few times I've heard players from the winning LCS series declare, in effect, that "I'm just happy to be playing in the Series. It's all gravy from here. It doesn't even matter if we win." With that prevailing sense of relief at merely making the Big Show, it doesn't seem inconceivable to me that a team falling behind 3-0 would feel, individually if not collectively, "Oh well, we're toast, but at least we made it this far." This isn't like flipping coins, where each event is an isolated, fresh opportunity. Post-season factors are cumulative, and nearly 20% of all World Series have been sweeps.

Let's take a closer look at the 24 times a team has gone up 3-0 in the World Series. How many times has it truly been a mismatch? Is there a pattern or a persistent factor that accounts for many of the results? I looked at a number of things which might have contributed, notably regular-season record, run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed), pitching matchup, playoff pathways, and Game 3 results. We can get six of the 24 out of the way at the outset.

 There have been three huge World Series upsets that were sweeps. In 1914, the "Miracle Braves" swept Connie Mack's first-dynasty Athletics, who won five more games during the season and had a big advantage in run differential. However, the Braves, after being in last place on the Fourth of July, got as hot as any team ever, going 68-19 after that and winning 25 of their last 30 games to build up huge momentum that not even the Athletics could withstand. In Game 4, the Braves started Dick Rudolph, a 26-game winner, and he won, 3-1.

The second huge upset occurred in 1954, when the New York Giants shocked the Cleveland Indians, whose 111-43 record that season is still the American League record for winning percentage. However, Indians manager Al Lopez overworked his starters during the final week, including letting Mike Garcia pitch 12 innings on the final day in a futile attempt to get him a 20th win. In the Series, Dusty Rhodes burned the Indians in the first two games with clutch pinch-hits, mainly a 10th-inning home run off Bob Lemon to win Game 1. Lopez brought Lemon back on two days' rest to start Game 4, and the Giants countered with a well-rested Don Liddle, whose only Series appearance before that was pitching to one batter in Game 1, inducing Vic Wertz to blast the ball on which Willie Mays made "The Catch." Lemon, clearly out of gas, gave up seven runs in four innings, and the Giants had their sweep.

The third big upset was the Reds sweeping the A's in 1990. During the season, the A's won 103 games to the Reds' 91, and Tony LaRussa's team swept the Red Sox in the LCS to head into its third straight World Series as a big favorite. What happened? Five days off after the LCS may have flattened their momentum, but their main fault was a failure to handle three five players: Jose Rijo, Billy Hatcher, and the "Nasty Boys" of the Cincinnati bullpen--Randy Myers, Rob Dibble, and Norm Charlton. Rijo and two of the relievers combined for a shutout in Game 1, while Hatcher went 7-for-7 and scored five runs in the first two games. Game 4 was a rematch between Rijo and Dave Stewart, who surrendered the home run to Eric Davis in Game 1 which seemed to erase the A's invincible aura. Rijo allowed a run on two hits in the first inning of Game 4, then held the A's hitless until leaving in the ninth inning with a 2-1 lead that Myers finished off with no sweat, leaving the Reds bullpen unscored-on in the Series.

Now let's look at the three times that the losing team managed to win Game 4. The first time was in 1910, when the pitching-dominant Athletics and Cubs seemed evenly matched going on until the Athletics stormed ahead by drilling Chicago pitching to win by scores of 4-1, 9-3, and 12-5. The Game 1 winner, Chief Bender, went for the sweep and took a 3-2 lead to the ninth inning before the Cubs tied the game on player-manager Frank Chance's RBI triple.That's how close the Athletics came to a sweep. The Cubs beat Bender in the tenth inning, but in Game 5, Jack Coombs, who won 31 games during the season, added his third Series win to wrap up the title.

The second Game 4 comeback happened in 1937 and was the only game that prevented the Yankees from sweeping three consecutive World Series. The pitching matchup was the key in this one. The desperate Giants started their ace, 22-game winner Carl Hubbell, on two days' while the Yankees went with Bump Hadley, a modest 11-game winner during the season, giving Game 1 winner Lefty Gomez his normal rest. The Giants drilled Hadley for five runs in the second inning, and Hubbell coasted to a 7-3 victory. Gomez took care of business in Game 5, and that was that.

The final Game 4 comeback marked the only time it has happened in the last 16 3-0 situations. It happened in 1970 when the Orioles also came very close to sweeping the Reds. Both teams were juggernauts that year, though the Orioles had a much better run differential. The Orioles won 108 games during the season while the Reds won 102, and both teams swept their LCS battles. In the Series, the Orioles exposed the relative weakness of the Reds' starting pitching, and in Game 4, 20-game winner Jim Palmer took a 5-3 lead to the eighth inning. A walk and a single started the inning and ended Palmer's day, and Lee May blasted an Eddie Watt pitch for a three-run home run that gave the Reds a 6-5 win. The teams returned to form the next day as the Orioles knocked out Reds starter Jim Merritt in the second inning and won, 9-3.

Next up, we have nine teams that swept the World Series against demonstrably outmanned opponents. While you might quibble about whether these were total mismatches, I don't think you can say that any of these sweeps was a surprise. In the interest of conserving space, I'll summarize each of these in a sentence; for each team, I'll give the regular-season games won and run differential in parentheses:

  1. 1907: The Cubs (107,+184) and the Tigers (92,+162) played a 12-inning tie in Game 1, after which the Cubs breezed to four straight wins by using superior starting pitching to limit the Tigers to three runs in the four games.
  2. 1927: The Yankees (110,+376) defeated the Pirates (94,+158) easily to cement the reputation of its formidable "Murderers Row" lineup.
  3. 1932: The Yankees (107,+278) destroyed the Cubs (90,+87) by scoring 37 runs in four games as Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Earle Combs combined to score 23 runs and drive in 18.
  4. 1938: The Yankees (99,+256) again trounced the Cubs (89,+116), outscoring them 22-9.
  5. 1939: The Yankees (106,+411!) embarrassed the Reds (97,+162) although they trailed by two runs going to the ninth inning of Game 4 and capitalized on Ernie Lombardi's "snooze" to win in the tenth.
  6. 1950: The Yankees (98,+223) had a tough time but still swept the Phillies (91,+98), winning 1-0 in Game 1 and scoring the winning run in their last at-bat in the next two games. 
  7. 1998: The Yankees (114,+309) finished off their winningest season in style against the Padres (98,+114) although the Padres did lead two of the games by three runs after six innings.
  8. 2005: The Yankees--no, wait, the White Sox (99,+96) swept the wild-card Astros (89,+84) even though it took 14 innings to win Game 2, with Game 4 a 1-0 thriller.
  9. 2007: The Red Sox (96,+210) cooled off the torrid Rockies (90,+102), bursting their bubble with a 13-1 drubbing at Fenway Park in Game 1 after the Rockies went from fourth place on September 15 to the World Series by winning 13 of their last 14 games, taking a one-game playoff to win the wild-card spot, then sweeping their first two playoff series. 
That leaves nine more, a lineup of diverse duels with the same outcome. We'll look at them chronologically, starting with the 1922 World Series, which like 1907 included a tie game. The Giants and Yankees were closely matched, winning 93 and 94 games respectively, and all five Series games were low-scoring and close. The key game was the first one, when Bullet Joe Bush blew a 2-0 lead in the eighth inning. Irish Meusel (136 RBI during the season) tied it with a bases-loaded single, and Ross Youngs' sacrifice fly won it. After a tie in the second game, wins of 3-0 and 4-3 put the Giants on the brink of a sweep. The Yankees had the pitching edge in Game 5, a reprise of the Game 1 pairing with the 26-7 Bush facing Art Nehf (19-13). In a case of deja vu, Bush again led in the eighth inning, 3-2, but another three-run rally did him in. The key factor in the sweep was that the Giants pitchers handled Babe Ruth, holding him to a .118 average and one RBI. The Giants had a deeper offense--they scored 95 more runs during the season--and by negating Ruth they gave themselves a better chance for the two come-from-behind victories.

The 1928 Yankees won six more games than their World Series opponents, the Cardinals, and had the same "Murderers Row" lineup that had swept the Pirates in 1927. So this was a borderline mismatch, and the first three games weren't close--4-1, 9-3, and 7-3. Game 4, at St. Louis, was a repeat of the Waite Hoyt-Bill Sherdel matchup of aces from Game 1. This brings up an interesting pattern in the 24 games studied here. In 15 of them, the team down 3-0 was at home in Game 4. In other words, after losing the first two games on the road, a team still returns home with high hopes, looking at three games with the home advantage. After all, ten times a team has gone down 2-0 in the World Series and come back to take the title. But when they lose Game 3, it seems to shatter what is left of their fragile confidence, and they have gone 2-13 in Game 4. So it was here, as the Cards led 2-1 after six innings before the roof caved in. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig homered in the seventh (Ruth's second of three in the game), and the final score was 5-2.

Jump ahead to 1963, when the Yankees had better credentials (104 wins,+167) than the Dodgers (99,+90). But the Dodgers had the big equalizer, Sandy Koufax, coming off his first Cy Young Award season and the pitching Triple Crown (25-5, 1.88 ERA, 306 Ks). He proved it was no fluke in Game 1, completely intimidating the Yankees by retiring the first 14 batters with nine strikeouts and only one fair ball. The Yankees didn't score a run before the seventh inning in any of the four games, and after Don Drysdale won Game 3, 1-0, it was Koufax again in Game 4, facing Whitey Ford, no slouch with a 24-7 record that season.  Ford outpitched Koufax the second time around, surrendering two hits to Koufax's six. One was a Frank Howard which was matched by Mickey Mantle in the seventh inning. In the home half, Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone lost a throw from third base in the white-shirted crowd at Dodger Stadium, and the Dodgers cashed in an unearned run to gain the sweep. Chalk this one up to Hall of Famers Koufax and Drysdale logging 27 innings compared to two-thirds of an inning of work by the L.A. bullpen, and it isn't that surprising that the Yankees offense suffered, scoring just four runs in the Series.

The shoe was on the other foot in 1966, when the Dodgers' offense literally vanished after the third inning of Game 1. The Dodgers were still built around pitching and speed, and their hitters became so discombobulated by Moe Drabowsky that they never recovered. Drabowsky relieved Dave McNally in the third inning at Dodger Stadium with the Orioles leading, 4-1, and the bases loaded with one out. He walked in a run but held the Dodgers to one hit the rest of the way, striking out 11, including six in a row. Game 2 was the sad finale of Koufax's career, as the Dodgers committed five errors behind him, but it didn't matter because Jim Palmer pitched the first of three consecutive shutouts by the Orioles. The last two were identical 1-0 thrillers won by home runs, Paul Blair supporting Wally Bunker in Game 3 and Frank Robinson's fourth-inning blast off  Don Drysdale providing all the help McNally needed to polish off the sweep. I'm going to go out on a limb here and surmise that heading into Game 4, the Dodgers were not overconfident about scoring, much less winning.

The 1976 Reds are the only team in the playoff era to sweep all their post-season games. In retrospect, this one was a clear mismatch, as the Reds led the major leagues in runs, batting average, home runs, hit, walks, and fielding percentage, and were second in stolen bases. The "Big Red Machine" acted invincible, too, though Yankees manager Billy Martin refused to concede their superiority even after being swept in the World Series and outscored 22-8. The Reds ran wild on the weak arms of the Yankees outfield, and their bullpen stifled the Yankees for nine shutout innings, allowing only two hits. After an easy 6-2 win in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium, Gary Nolan took on Yankees ace Ed Figueroa in Game 4. The Yankees took their only lead of the Series with a first-inning run, but Johnny Bench's two-run home run in the fourth inning gave the Reds the lead for good, and his three-run blast in the ninth inning capped the 7-2 finale.

What can you say about the "Earthquake Series" of 1989 except that both Bay Area teams were glad to survive it? On paper it was a borderline mismatch between the 99-63 A's and the 92-70 Giants. Dave Stewart and Mike Moore held the Giants to one run in two games at Oakland, and after eleven days off because of earthquake damage, the Giants were still as shaken as the Candlestick Park infrastructure. The final two games were blowouts, with the A's leading 8-3 and 7-0 after five innings. The aggregate score for the Series was 32-14, but it wasn't that close, and there wasn't much suspense about Game 4.

One sweep that is tough to explain occurred in 1999. The Braves (103 wins,+179) had a better season than the Yankees (98,+169), they had plenty of offense (five players with 20+ home runs, led by Chipper Jones with 45, and a starting rotation featuring three future Hall of Famers plus Kevin Millwood, who outpitched them all with an 18-7 record and a 2.68 ERA. The Yankees were deep and balanced, of course, and had lost only one game in two preliminary series in their quest for a third title in four years. It figured to be a close Series, and in fact the Braves led after seven innings in two of the first three games (the Yankees drilled Millwood in Game 2). But Greg Maddux let a 1-0 lead get away in the eighth inning of Game 1, and in Game 3 Glavine blew a 5-2 lead, allowing three home runs, and Chad Curtis won it in the tenth inning with his second homer of the game. In Game 4, Joe Torre played his ace in the hole, Roger Clemens, who held the Braves scoreless through seven innings, and the Yankees won easily, 4-1. Pitching turned out to be the key to this sweep, as the Braves scored only nine runs and, apart from Bret Boone and Chipper Jones, batted .154 as a team. Let's face it--when you trot Clemens out there against a team whose offense has already gone south for three games, is the resulting sweep a surprise?

Next up is another Series in which the team with the better regular season, the Cardinals (105 wins,+196) got swept. I doubt that Dan would accept karma as a tangible factor in a sports competition, but from this vantage point it's hard to argue that the Red Sox (98,+181) were not destined to win their first World Series since 1918 after their unprecedented, emotionally charged comeback from being down 3-0 to the Yankees in the LCS. But that in itself does not account for the sweep, especially since both teams had to go seven tough games to win the LCS. However, only the first game of the Series was close, a slugfest in which the Red Sox blew an early 7-2 lead by the sixth inning, lost another lead in the eighth, and prevailed, 11-9, on Mark Bellhorn's late home run. After that, they cruised thanks to terrific starting pitching, holding the Cardinals to 13 hits over the final three games. Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez didn't allow an earned run in Games 2 and 3, and suddenly the Cardinals were facing a sweep. Tony LaRussa gave the ball to Jason Marquis, 15-7 during the season but sporting a 7.36 ERA in two previous post-season starts. When Johnny Damon led off the game with a home run, it was all the support needed by Derek Lowe, whose charmed life already included clinching victories in the two earlier series. Trot Nixon doubled in two runs in the third inning, and Lowe duplicated Pedro's performance by scattering three hits in seven shutout innings. As with so many of the sweeps described here, this was a case of dominant starting pitching completely smothering the losing team's offense. After Game 1, the Cardinals batted a miserable .143. Game, set, and match.

Finally we come to 2012, when the Giants swept the Tigers. After the Giants dispatched Tigers ace Justin Verlander in four innings in Game 1 thanks to the first two of Pablo Sandoval's three home runs, the Tigers knew they were in trouble. They managed two hits off Madison Bumgarner in Game 2 and improved to five hits in Game 3, but couldn't score a run. So there they were, another team helpless at home and ready to put their offense on a milk carton. The pitching matchup looked close, with Matt Cain (16-5) facing Max Scherzer (16-7). The game was close, too, tied 3-3 in the seventh inning when both starters departed and still 3-3 into extra innings. This one could have gone either way, but Marco Scutaro singled in a run in the top of the tenth inning and Sergio Romo capped an outstanding post-season by striking out the side.

So there's your answer, Dan. Given where these World Series stood after three games, you might make a strong case for a handful of different results for Game 4, but not more. Even if we let a few teams avoid a sweep, that only brings the overall record to 18-6, still a fair distance from the 15-9 it would take to approach the .613 winning percentage I calculated for all teams up 3-0 in any post-season series in the three big pro team sports.

Is there a common denominator? Yes:  great starting pitching. In the 21 sweeps studied here, the winning teams' starting pitchers in Game 3 averaged 7 1/3 innings per start with a cumulative ERA of 2.26 (2.01 without Andy Pettitte's start in 1999). They allowed no runs five times, and more than three earned runs only three times. By proving to the losing team that the first two wins were no fluke, by further frustrating their offense, and by putting them in a position from which no World Series contender has ever extricated itself, they set the stage for even greater domination in Game 4. In those 21 games, the starters also averaged 7 1/3 innings pitched, with a cumulative ERA of 1.40. Seven allowed no earned runs, and seven others allowed only one earned run. Some combination of talented pitchers and demoralized hitters gave the trailing team virtually no chance of winning Game 4. (The three times the trailing team won Game 4, the opposing starters posted a 3.04 ERA in Game 3 and 7.00 in Game 4.)

There you have it. Thank you for bearing with me through this lengthy dissection. I hope I've convinced you that you ought to be shocked the next time a team down 3-0 in the World Series wins Game 4, something that hasn't happened in the last eight opportunities. Good. I'm glad you're with me, because I've been thinking about Dan's assertion that "the best team in baseball isn't enough better than the worst to play .875 against them." Somehow, I still can't detect the bittersweet stench of an anomaly. I wonder if he believes that if they couldn't play .875 ball against the worst team, we ought to give them credit for playing .875 ball against any other (presumably better-than-the-last-place-) team. For instance, the 1927 Yankees were a mere 18-4 against the last-place Red Sox (.818), but went 21-1 (.955) against the seventh-place St. Louis. Let's see. . .