Friday, September 27, 2002

The Rules of the Game

By the time the regular season ends this Sunday, the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will have shipped their MVP ballots off to whatever unindicted accounting house remains to tally them. For those unaware of or confused by the BBWAA's criteria for selecting the MVP, allow me to lay out what -- based on previous years’ voting -- seem to be the guiding rules:

Rule #1: Only the best players on playoff teams shall be considered for the MVP. Chipper Jones won the National League MVP in 1999, even though he was perhaps only the third-best player in the league that year. This was because the two players who arguably had better seasons than Jones -- Larry Walker and Mark McGwire -- played for teams that were well out of the race by the time September rolled around. Jones, meanwhile, shone as his Braves won a tightly-contested race for the division title. It’s very simple: carry your team to the playoffs, and you’re the MVP.

Rule #2: The carry-your-team-to-the-playoffs requirement will be set aside for players who give truly outstanding performances on non-playoff teams. Even though the 2001 Giants did not make the playoffs, Barry Bonds was named MVP after smashing most of the records for offensive performance, including the record for most home runs in a season.

Rule #3: Even an outstanding player will not be considered for MVP if his team finishes in last place. This is why Alex Rodriguez was denied the award in 2001, and will probably be denied again, even though he has made everyone reassess everything they thought they knew about the shortstop position.

Rule #4: Forget that Andre Dawson won the MVP in 1987 while playing for the last-place Chicago Cubs. If a guy who didn’t even break .900 OPS in "The Year of the Home Run" could win the MVP, surely Rodriguez would have won it last year, right?

Rule #5: If a pitcher delivers an MVP-worthy performance, ignore it, even though the official voting rules state that pitchers should be considered. Pitchers, you see, have their own award, so forward-thinking members of the BBWAA may feel justified in excluding them.

This explains why Pedro Martinez didn’t get the MVP in 1999, despite winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown (leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA) and carrying a seriously flawed Boston Red Sox team to the playoffs.

Rule #6: Forget that Roger Clemens won the MVP in 1986, after leading a talented Red Sox team to the playoffs and nearly winning the pitcher’s Triple Crown. After all, if a pitcher with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts in a low-offense year could win the MVP, surely Pedro Martinez would have won with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts in a banner offensive year.

Bonus points for those who remember that pitcher Lefty Grove was the first winner of the BBWAA’s MVP award in 1931. Now, for the sake of consistency, forget that too. Of course, if you can remember the 1931 season, you're probably old enough to forget that on your own.

Rule #7: Disregard Rule #5 if the pitcher in question is able to hold a three-run lead in the ninth inning of every third game or so. If he can do this, he is magically transformed into a "closer" and is rewarded with his very own statistic, the save. Do not, under any circumstances, keep in mind that saves are just a measure of opportunity, and that some relievers routinely hold one-run leads in the seventh or eighth innings. These relievers have no special stat like saves, and therefore must be worthless. This rule explains Dennis Eckersley in 1992, Willie Hernandez in 1984, and Rollie Fingers in 1981.

Rule #8: Simple logic dictates that under no circumstances should someone be given the MVP if he is not even the best player on his own team. But set logic aside when you don't care for the better player (as when Barry Bonds lost to Jeff Kent in 2000), or when giving the award to the inferior player would make for a feel-good story (as when Ichiro beat out Brett Boone in 2001).

Rule #9: Finally, voters should keep in mind the all-important "I hate that sonofabitch" rule which dictates that players who are cold and aloof to reporters should not get the award no matter how amazing a season they have. This rule explains the numerous slights to Ted Williams (particularly 1941) and the seeming gyp-job that robbed Albert Belle in 1995. The corollary to this rule is that when you're screwing an otherwise worthy candidate, the award should go to a loveable and/or chubby player who smiles a lot and gives great quotes, like Ivan Rodriguez in 1999, Mo Vaughn in 1995, or Terry Pendleton in 1991.

Now let’s see how the rules apply to this year’s MVP races:

National League

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you know how I feel about Barry Bonds. In my humble opinion, he’s the greatest player in baseball today, the greatest since Ted Williams retired, and except for The Babe and Williams, the greatest player of all time.

Not all the members of the BBWAA agree. Or if they do agree, they apparently have other reasons not to vote for Bonds.

But with Bonds having another phenomenal year, and with the Giants slowly but surely putting the Dodgers away, the writers may have no choice but to go with Rule #1 and give Barry his fifth MVP award (it should be his seventh, but that’s a subject for another rant).

Bonds is doing so well that even if the G-Men choke down the stretch, he should land the MVP according to Rule #2. But I don’t think Bonds is a lock unless the Giants win the division. The writers will blame any choke jobs on him. They'll criticize him for not hitting another 73 home runs, they'll say that he somehow failed to lead his team to victory, and they'll screw him out of the award even though San Francisco would never have sniffed 85 wins without his bat.

In that case, John Smoltz would get some consideration pursuant to Rule #7, Jeff Kent pursuant to Rule #8, and Shawn Green, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, and Sammy Sosa pursuant to Rule #9. Call it a gut feeling, but if the Dodgers pass the giants, it’s Shawn Green’s to lose.

Notably absent from most writers’ ballots, however, will be Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, who are perhaps the best Rule #6 Clemens-exception candidates in many a year, with the two of them carrying Arizona to the division title almost all by themselves. One or both of them will win the Cy Young Award this year, and most writers will consider that enough, according to Rule #5. For my part, I’d list them second and third on my ballot if I had one, and no, I don’t know which of them I would put second and which of them third.

American League

Based on things I’ve read, there appear to be only three serious Rule #1 candidates in the American League this year: Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi of the Yankees, and the A’s Miguel Tejada. Let’s break ‘em down:

Soriano: Pro: He’s having a breakout season on the league’s marquee team, and by season’s end will have joined the vaunted 40-40 club. (Digression: given that home runs are far more important than stolen bases, wouldn’t you rather have a player be in the 50-20 club, or the 45-30 club? 40-40 only gets play because it sounds cool. It’s really a junk stat. End of digression.)

Soriano is an exciting player whose non-traditional talents -- most notably power for a second baseman -- make him this year’s Ichiro to many voters. Con: Rule #8 issues. Not only is he not the best player on his team, he’s not even the second best player on his team, with Giambi and the MVP-buzzless Bernie Williams both playing better all year. Yeah, a lot of life is based on exceeding expectations rather than actual greatness, and Soriano has certainly exceeded expectations, but if he wins the MVP award this year you have my permission to ignore all future MVP awards the way you would any other beauty contest.

Giambi: Pro: Came to New York and handled the heat where many previous free agent acquisitions have melted. Con: Some writers probably still don’t like that he left Oakland for the greenbacks and may hold it against him as a form of quasi-Rule #9 protest. And though he has had a good year, it hasn’t been quite as good as his previous two. In other words, what the expectations game giveth in the case of Soriano, it taketh away in the case of Giambi. Indeed, both Yankees will be hamstrung by the perception that they aren’t true Rule #1 candidates. The Yankees are supposed to win their division every year; no single player seems to make a big difference. Number of Yankees’ playoff appearances since their mid-90s rise: 8; Number of MVPs in that time: 0. Sorry Jason and Alfonso, it ain’t gonna be you.

Tejada: The fashionable choice, with some high-profile hits in some important games. Sure, the A’s miraculous second-half comeback has more to do with the day-to-day brilliance of Oakland's pitchers. But during that 20-game win streak, all you heard about was Tejada’s late-inning heroics. If the writers pick a Rule #1 candidate this year, it’s going to be Tejada. Tejada has been the Big Story, never mind that he is currently ranked 20th -- 20th! – in OPS in the American League this year. Rule #1 has always allowed a little wriggle room if the winner happens to play for a playoff team, but Tejada is in Eric Hinske and Jacque Jones territory. If you had to think for a minute before you could remember which teams those guys play for, you shouldn’t seriously consider Tejada for the MVP.

With those three pretenders out of the way, we’re left with only one serious choice for MVP, and that’s Rule #2 candidate and the poster boy for abolishing Rule #3, Alex Rodriguez. Sure, he'll only see the playoffs this year if he buys a ticket, but that’s not his fault. A-Rod will hit close to 60 home runs. A-Rod has played the best shortstop in baseball. A-Rod has showed up and played every single game this season even though his teammates have been mailing it in since May, and he is the single biggest reason that the Rangers haven’t been a complete embarrassment in the phenomenally competitive AL West. In short, there is nobody better than A-Rod, and nobody nearly as valuable in the American League.

Gee, it's too bad the pre-2002 collective bargaining agreement was such a disaster; otherwise, justice would demand that A-Rod make more money than anyone else in the game.

Monday, September 16, 2002

West is Best

When last we met I was giving props to the Oakland A’s for going on a tear and seemingly putting the division title in their back pocket. Now, that 20-game winning streak and fifty cents only gets the A’s a bag of chips, because as we go to press, the Anaheim Angels have matched them at 91-55 atop the AL West, taking three of four from the East Bay Elephants, and sending a clear signal that against all odds and aesthetic considerations, this year the road to baseball heaven goes through Orange County.

Those of you who live back east and go to sleep before the late SportsCenter might be asking yourselves where in the hell the Angels came from. The quick and dirty is that while the A’s were getting all the press, the Angels were silently keeping pace, playing .800 ball and waiting for mid-September when they would play Oakland eight times in eleven days. In NASCAR parlance, they’ve been drafting, letting the A’s provide the aerodynamic wedge while they bided their time just behind, conserving fuel in an attempt to break away in the closing laps.

So why is this historically snake-bitten team winning? For one thing they’re hitting the ball pretty well. The Angels lead all of baseball in batting average, and by enough of a margin to place them fifth in the league in on-base percentage despite ranking a pathetic 26th in walks. What’s more, while the A’s red-hot pitching staff has gotten all the press in the past month, it's the Angels who lead the American League in ERA.

But while the numbers tell us a lot, the way the Angels have been winning games lately may tell us just as much. Two of their three wins against Oakland and close to a third of all of their wins since the beginning of August have come in one-run games. And as every good stat-head knows, winning one-run games has a lot to do with luck. Indeed, just looking at the Oakland series and seeing a bench warmer like Shawn Wooten get the game-winning hit on Wednesday, and watching the ice-cold Darrin Erstad -- a player having such a craptacular year that manager Mike Scioscia had him on the bench in Thursday night’s key game -- get a key ninth-inning pinch hit to set up the win, even the most objective baseball analyst might start thinking the Halos are charmed. Or blessed. Or whatever.

Does the Angels' luck take anything away from their success? Of course not. The A’s themselves had luck to thank for a good share of their amazing run.

Besides, luck is the residue of good planning. Even though no one in Anaheim is putting up an MVP or Cy Young season (nor should they have been expected to), management gave Scioscia a flexible roster with few if any black holes. Scioscia, for his part, has used his role players wisely and generally put guys in positions where they are most likely to succeed. It’s been a nice effort all around this year for the Angels, even if good fortune has smiled upon them a bit.

Now matter how they did it, the Angels have made things exciting in the AL West. Given the Mariners’ recent struggles and the Red Sox’ regularly-scheduled late-season swoon, both Oakland and Anaheim will make the playoffs. But the stakes are still high. The loser of their dogfight will fly 3,000 miles and take a bus to the Bronx for the privilege of facing the Yankees in the first round. You can bet that neither team will coast its way into October.

The Angels take their juju to Oakland on Monday night for a four-game series that could decide the division title. Adjust your baseball-watching schedule accordingly.

Perverse Incentives

Normally I would never wish a loss on my favorite team. But as Mac Thomason over at the excellent Braves Journal has pointed out, Braves fans may find themselves wanting their team to honk one at the end of the season.

As I noted a couple weeks ago, the San Francisco Giants blew their last game in Atlanta when Rob Nen failed to hold base runners in the ninth inning. The game eventually ended in a rain-induced tie. As a result, the Giants and the Braves will play only 161 official games this year.

That means the Giants and Dodgers may end the season a half-game apart in the wild card race. If that should happen, the Giants and Braves would be forced to make up L'Affaire Nen in Atlanta one day after finishing their regularly-scheduled tilts on Sunday, the 29th of September. The Giants (who finish the season with an odd Sunday evening game against the Astros) would take a cross-country flight and arrive in Atlanta around 5 AM Eastern time on the day of the makeup game.

If the makeup game becomes necessary (a distinct possibility, given that the Dodgers and Giants are in a battle every bit as tight as that between the A’s and the Angels), and if the Giants come to Atlanta a half-game ahead of the Dodgers, then the Braves would want to win, forcing the Giants to fly back to San Francisco the next day to play a one-game tiebreaker against the Dodgers. If the Giants won that game, they would have to hop right back on the damn plane and come back to Atlanta for the first round of the playoffs.

If, however, the Giants finish half a game behind Los Angeles, the only way for the Braves to ensure a jet-lagged opponent in the first round would be to lose the makeup game, sending the Giants back to San Francisco for the tie-breaker with LA.. If the Braves won, they would face a well-rested Dodger team in the first playoff game.

Of course all this assumes that the Braves would rather face a travel-weary Giants team than a fresh Dodger team. That might not be the case. Tired or not, in Barry Bonds the Giants have a five-time MVP batting third, and he’s always been tough on the Braves. What’s that? You say Barry has only won four MVPs? Well you’re wrong, because he’s got this year’s in the bag. If you don’t believe it, meet me back here next week and I’ll prove it.

Monday, September 9, 2002

An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

While it was still going on, major league baseball's recent labor drama was portrayed as a players vs. owners battle royale, with the fan's inalienable right to occasionally root for a winner allegedly at stake. In hindsight it looks more like a mob war.

Before the labor rhetoric heated up last year, baseball’s Capo Regimes like Jeffrey Loria and Carl Pohlad (led by Don Selig, sitting silently above the fray, petting a cat and watching his children run his empire) pushed competitive imbalance instead of narcotics and extorted new stadiums instead of cement contracts. Life was grand, and there was plenty of walking around money to shoot the players’ way, even if the bosses had to pretend to be poor olive oil salesmen when the press came snooping around.

But when George Steinbrenner broke with tradition and started his own television network, Selig and his cohorts reacted like Don Barzini and Bruno Tattaglia post-Solozzo: they all wanted to wet their beaks a little, and if Steinbrenner wouldn’t let them, it was going to mean war.

And war it was. What played out over the past few months was essentially an attempt by a certain faction of owners -- led by Selig -- to whack the old man in New York.

And whacked he was, at least financially.

Under the new agreement, well-run teams like the Yankees -- and to a lesser extent the Giants, Mariners, Indians, and Cardinals -- are forced to funnel even greater amounts of money than before to clueless organizations like the Phillies, Angels, and Tigers, who will in no way be required to spend their checks on improving their teams or otherwise investing in the growth of their organizations.

The competitive disincentives that caused the slashed-payroll train wrecks in Montreal, Florida, and Minnesota (low revenues = larger revenue sharing checks) still rule the day. With more Yankee dollars up for grabs, more teams are likely to see the benefit in putting a poor product on the field.

Clearly the owners who brokered this deal were not too worried about competitive balance. The single most important weapon of low-revenue teams trying to compete -- draft pick compensation for lost free-agents -- is eliminated under the new agreement.

But let’s give the owners their due. Unlike past negotiations that resulted in meritorious unfair labor practices lawsuits, this time the owners bargained more or less fairly for everything they got. Still, like Don Corleone’s rivals, the owners couldn't have gotten to the old man if it weren’t for the bumbling of those around him. In order to extract such a favorable deal, Selig and company needed help. In short, they needed a Fredo. Enter the players’ union.

Kind words (such as these) are routinely heaped upon the players’ union, but this time around Don Fehr and his clients were beaten badly, at least compared to past negotiations. The deal the players agreed to penalizes the teams most likely to spend their money on player contracts. It will lower players' salaries without doing anything to make the game more competitive.

True, the players averted contraction for the time being, but they willingly forfeited their right to contest it when it comes up again in 2007. That means that anywhere from 50 to 100 player jobs could be eliminated without negotiation. Most importantly, by agreeing with the owners that a luxury tax and increased revenue sharing were needed in the first place, the players abandoned their historical commitment to a system in which the free market dictates all.

The players will still make millions under the new agreement, free market or no. It is worth remembering, however, that the public sided with the players in previous labor struggles because the players were on the side of the free market. Everyone could sympathize with the players' desire to sell their talents to the highest bidder.

When the new agreement expires in 2007 and the owners demand more concessions (say, a hard salary cap?), the players may find that they have lost the moral high ground. If their only objection to the owners' demands is that they don't want to preserve their salaries, the drunken boobs holding up signs in the ballparks will (shudder) actually have a point.

Still, some agreement is better than losing another post-season in the name of philosophical consistency. Citizens living under the Five Families were guaranteed their booze, prostitution, and gambling once the mob wars ended. Similarly, now that the labor shooting is over, we are guaranteed baseball for the next four years. Are things perfect? Nah, but I’m willing to turn a blind eye to mostly victimless crimes if you are.

An Offer They Couldn't Refuse

While it was still going on, major league baseball's recent labor drama was portrayed as a players vs. owners battle royale, with the fan's inalienable right to occasionally root for a winner allegedly at stake. In hindsight it looks more like a mob war.

Before the labor rhetoric heated up last year, baseball’s Capo Regimes like Jeffrey Loria and Carl Pohlad (led by Don Selig, sitting silently above the fray, petting a cat and watching his children run his empire) pushed competitive imbalance instead of narcotics and extorted new stadiums instead of cement contracts. Life was grand, and there was plenty of walking around money to shoot the players’ way, even if the bosses had to pretend to be poor olive oil salesmen when the press came snooping around.

But when George Steinbrenner broke with tradition and started his own television network, Selig and his cohorts reacted like Don Barzini and Bruno Tattaglia post-Solozzo: they all wanted to wet their beaks a little, and if Steinbrenner wouldn’t let them, it was going to mean war.

And war it was. What played out over the past few months was essentially an attempt by a certain faction of owners -- led by Selig -- to whack the old man in New York.

And whacked he was, at least financially.

Under the new agreement, well-run teams like the Yankees -- and to a lesser extent the Giants, Mariners, Indians, and Cardinals -- are forced to funnel even greater amounts of money than before to clueless organizations like the Phillies, Angels, and Tigers, who will in no way be required to spend their checks on improving their teams or otherwise investing in the growth of their organizations.

The competitive disincentives that caused the slashed-payroll train wrecks in Montreal, Florida, and Minnesota (low revenues = larger revenue sharing checks) still rule the day. With more Yankee dollars up for grabs, more teams are likely to see the benefit in putting a poor product on the field.

Clearly the owners who brokered this deal were not too worried about competitive balance. The single most important weapon of low-revenue teams trying to compete -- draft pick compensation for lost free-agents -- is eliminated under the new agreement.

But let’s give the owners their due. Unlike past negotiations that resulted in meritorious unfair labor practices lawsuits, this time the owners bargained more or less fairly for everything they got. Still, like Don Corleone’s rivals, the owners couldn't have gotten to the old man if it weren’t for the bumbling of those around him. In order to extract such a favorable deal, Selig and company needed help. In short, they needed a Fredo. Enter the players’ union.

Kind words (such as these) are routinely heaped upon the players’ union, but this time around Don Fehr and his clients were beaten badly, at least compared to past negotiations. The deal the players agreed to penalizes the teams most likely to spend their money on player contracts. It will lower players' salaries without doing anything to make the game more competitive.

True, the players averted contraction for the time being, but they willingly forfeited their right to contest it when it comes up again in 2007. That means that anywhere from 50 to 100 player jobs could be eliminated without negotiation. Most importantly, by agreeing with the owners that a luxury tax and increased revenue sharing were needed in the first place, the players abandoned their historical commitment to a system in which the free market dictates all.

The players will still make millions under the new agreement, free market or no. It is worth remembering, however, that the public sided with the players in previous labor struggles because the players were on the side of the free market. Everyone could sympathize with the players' desire to sell their talents to the highest bidder.

When the new agreement expires in 2007 and the owners demand more concessions (say, a hard salary cap?), the players may find that they have lost the moral high ground. If their only objection to the owners' demands is that they don't want to preserve their salaries, the drunken boobs holding up signs in the ballparks will (shudder) actually have a point.

Still, some agreement is better than losing another post-season in the name of philosophical consistency. Citizens living under the Five Families were guaranteed their booze, prostitution, and gambling once the mob wars ended. Similarly, now that the labor shooting is over, we are guaranteed baseball for the next four years. Are things perfect? Nah, but I’m willing to turn a blind eye to mostly victimless crimes if you are.

Friday, September 6, 2002

Squeezing the Tube From the Bottom: Another Year, Another Miracle for the Oakland A's

Back in June, ESPN’s Rob Neyer wrote of the then-struggling Oakland A’s that, "all that's left to play for are pride and 2003." To his credit, Neyer ate his crow this week and was even good enough to remind us that he wrote off the A’s last year as well, only to see them mount a second-half surge similar, albeit less spectacular, than this year’s. You have to wonder if Neyer has sworn off making predictions about the A's. If so, you could hardly blame him. The A’s seem to have mastered the art of defying reasonable expectations.

In the first place, it defies expectations that they're winning at all. When Neyer made his prediction earlier this year, Oakland was eight games behind the first-place Mariners for the division lead, nine games behind the Yankees, and 11 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race. Since then they have won 61 of 89 games -- a record topped off by the current 20-game winning streak. This stretch is basically identical to their 2001 drive, which constituted one of the greatest second-halves of all time. You don't exactly make a living in sportswriting by predicting back-to-back miracles.

But it’s the more subtle improbabilities that really excite me. Last year’s surge was led by Jason Giambi, who put up a season that should have given him his second-straight MVP award. When Giambi walked, he left a massive hole in the lineup to be filled by stiffs like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice, and the non-stiff but certainly unproven Jeremy Giambi. Teams with MVPs can do amazing things; teams with journeymen tend to play at or below expectations. The A’s weren't supposed to have the personnel to pull off this historic run.

Adding to the improbability of it all is that in May the A’s seemed to have taken a mid-season downgrade in the journeyman department, trading a solidly performing Jeremy Giambi for one of the poster boys of stiffdom, John Mabry. Some of you might recall that the more enlightened members of the baseball punditry viewed this trade with extreme skepticism. One clever wag called the trade "bungling of the highest order." All John Freakin’ Mabry (as he has come to be known by critics of the trade) has done is put up a .938 OPS in part- time play -- and shut the mouths of the clever wags. A’s GM Billy Beane has always managed to squeeze the occasional good performance out of spare part players. With Mabry he has squeezed from the bottom and rolled the tube up.

Finally, let's not forget that the A’s now-annual second-half march to the sea has been accomplished with the third-lowest payroll in the majors. The only teams who spend less on payroll are the Montreal Expos, who are in receivership, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are on pace to lose 107 games. And to think we almost lost this season because the owners thought that teams with low payrolls couldn't compete against the big boys. Of course, if the A's win the World Series, history will probably give the new and inferior collective bargaining agreement all the credit.

But that’s the future. For now fans should just sit back and enjoy the A’s magnificently improbable run, and hope to Heaven above that the irresistible force from Oakland meets the immovable New York Yankees in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Given what we've been through this season, we've earned it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Great Moments in Rabble-Rousing

Quote of the Week

"For the good of baseball, we need to have cost-containment."

--Rangers' owner Tom Hicks, who, according to this article delivered these words while speaking from his yacht off San Diego. Sources close to Mr. Hicks, however, have stated that he got a good deal on the yacht.

Since I started writing this column, I've heard from a vocal minority of folks who like me enough to keep reading, but not so much that they feel they need to be nice. These good people have accused me of never actually watching baseball games. They claim that I’m all about steroids, labor negotiations, and big money contracts. They say that I and writers like me do baseball a great disservice by not reporting on the little things like bunts, shoestring catches, and triples to the gap.

They have a point. Looking back at the old archive, I’m shocked to see how little I write about the actual game, and to remedy this state of affairs, starting now, Chin Music promises to include Actual Baseball ContentTM. Say, every couple of weeks. That is, if something interesting occurs on the field and I don’t feel more like writing about whatever lurid scuttlebutt happens to be ruling the half-sheets.

For our first installment of Actual Baseball ContentTM, we turn to last Thursday night’s tilt between the Giants and the Braves. The Giants entered play that night well back of the Western Division-leading Diamondbacks, but only a half-game behind the Dodgers in the wild card race. The Braves are approximately 57 games ahead of their nearest competitor in the National League East, but since they will most likely play either the Giants or Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, this game had Serious Playoff Implications.

It was a close game, characterized by good pitching. With the Giants up by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, Dusty Baker called on the intimidating Rob Nen to close the deal. With one out, Nen allowed Braves’ speedster Rafael Furcal to reach second on a double. Nen then bore down on Matt Franco, striking him out. Next Nen walked Gary Sheffield, leaving runners on first and second with two down and Chipper Jones at the plate.

The Giants' situation still was not desperate. Jones hadn’t looked good that evening, and given the two-run lead, it would have taken an extra base hit from Chipper to make a difference (no way Sheffield scores from first on a single). Nen went right after Jones, putting him in an 0-2 hole, and the Giants one strike from victory.

Unfortunately for Giants fans, however, Nen got lazy and failed to keep an eye on the runners on base. He let them steal second and third without even a throw, putting the tying run in scoring position. Now instead of extra bases, Chipper only needed to poke a single through the infield to tie the game. And that he did, driving in both Furcal and Sheffield, and forcing into extra innings a game the Giants had all but won.

Only a torrential downpour in the top of the tenth kept the Giants from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. For now the game is booked as a tie. (Since the Braves and Giants aren’t scheduled to meet again this season, no makeup game has been scheduled; if the game turns out to have playoff implications, it will be replayed.) Even though Nen’s gaffe didn’t technically cost the Giants the game, it may have caused some psychological damage. Entering Thursday night, the Giants had won seven of ten; at this writing they’ve dropped three of four.

If the Giants are forced to fight tooth and nail for a playoff spot through September only to end up having to fly across the continent to play a one-game makeup against a rested Braves team at the end of the season, maybe then they will have learned that little things like holding runners on base make a difference, even on lazy, rainy weeknights in Atlanta in the middle of August.

Great Moments in Rabble-Rousing

Ten years ago Slate blogger and former New Republic editor Mickey Kaus wrote a book called The End of Equality. He claimed that the most serious threat to democracy is not so much the gap between rich and poor, but the decay of public institutions where citizens can meet as equals. In other words, our problem is not simply that the rich have too much money, but that their money insulates them more than it used to from the lives of their fellow citizens.

In his latest column the Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard has applied this same argument to the world of baseball. He blames the "coddled cocoon" of the pro baseballer's life for the current labor disputes. Players, he writes, are insulated from the fans who "squeal" and "clamor" to worship them, and from the media that goes "begging for a morsel of valuable thought." He claims that this detachment from the everyday concerns of Johnny Punchclock and Sally Housecoat is the reason why baseball "deteriorates by the dollar, by the threat, by the empty seat."

At least I think that’s what he means. Maybe he's just hungry:

Baby Ruth. Mars bars. Butterfingers. Twix. Mounds. Almond Joy. Hershey bars. Starburst. Snickers. Milky Way. Kit Kats. Blow Pops. Nerds. 3 Musketeers. Boxes and boxes are stacked atop one another in this lounge, all free, all you can eat. They live and work in a candy store, baseball players do, playing a game for a living in a little kid's fantasy world.

Yep, rather than the exorbitant salaries, the unimaginable pressure of competition, or the fame and adulation that come from being a Major League ballplayer, it turns out that access to free candy is really what separates ballplayers from the rest of us. Sure, Le Batard mentions in passing that ballplayers don’t fly coach or carry their own luggage. But he spends far more time talking about candy, chips and sodas. It’s the Butterfingers, stupid.

What’s going on here? Does Le Batard really think that free junk food is ruining the game? That the players will only give up their Snickers bars when they’re pried from their cold, dead fingers? Of course not. He's just trying to rile up the fans. Digging into the details of a labor negotiation is hard work. Making it interesting to a general readership is even harder. It's much simpler just to bang out 750 words about the unfairness of a system that distributes candy unequally. And of course it doesn't hurt that inflammatory columns tend to bring TV appearances, syndication deals, and more money.

Contrary to what most wags are saying these days, populism isn't a bad thing in and of itself. Cynical populism like Le Batard’s, however, is divisive and destructive. It’s the journalistic equivalent of junk food.

Monday, August 12, 2002

Lukewarm: HBO's Unconvincing A City on Fire

When I was a child my parents would take me to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Detroit. Except, of course, they didn’t really live in Detroit. They lived in the suburbs of Livonia, Oak Park, Dearborn, and Rochester Hills. In fact, none of my relatives had lived in Detroit since the late 1960's because, in the words of an uncle I have thankfully lost contact with, "that’s when the niggers took over." He was talking about the 1967 Detroit riots that left 46 dead, thousands injured, and over 2,500 businesses burned to the ground. The long-term effects were even more devastating. A good part of Detroit's population fled north of 8 Mile Road, leaving the city crippled by poverty, crime, and despair.

The Detroit riots provide the backdrop for the HBO Sports documentary A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers (airing on HBO throughout August, and again in early October), about a city divided and the championship baseball team that brought it together. It's a great concept: Americans at odds over race and class coming together over the national pastime. Too bad the facts don't cooperate. No matter how hard the filmmakers try, they never quite manage to show that the Tigers' World Series run had any healing effect on the city.

City on Fire does provide a terrific and chilling view of the Detroit riots themselves. The opening moments place viewers right at the epicenter of the coming earthquake: the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont, on July 23, 1967. We see the rioters' faces close-up as tensions boil over; we watch a car full of terrified people tentatively accelerating down Grand River Avenue; we witness the beginnings of what was essentially the military occupation of inner city Detroit. In these brief, early segments, City on Fire makes for gripping television.

It also provides a telling glimpse of race relations in Detroit. Even though baseball had been integrated for over two decades, in 1967 the Tigers still had only three black players on their major league roster. Black fans at Tiger Stadium would often root for the Tigers’ better-integrated competitors. And yet on the night all hell broke loose, Gates Brown -- the Tigers’ stocky and seemingly unassuming pinch hitter, and one of its three black players -- stood in the middle of 12th Street in his uniform and pled unsuccessfully for calm. I could have listened all day to Brown and teammates Willie Horton and Earl Wilson talking about day-to-day life in black Detroit. Unfortunately, Brown, Horton, and Wilson are relegated to bit-part status as soon as Dick McAuliffe grounds into the double play that ends the Tigers’ 1967 season.

At that point City on Fire loses focus and becomes essentially two different documentaries: one a tired account of the domestic turbulence of 1968, the other an occasionally engaging recap of the Tigers’ 1968 World Series run. The former seems an afterthought. 1968 is represented by an all-too-familiar montage of the Tet Offensive/MLK/RFK assassination/Democratic National Convention. Yes, the world was spinning out of control in 1968, but you'll learn more about it in the average U2 video than you will here.

The digressions on national politics get in the way of the real subject. The film would have done better to focus on what was going on in Detroit between July 1967 and Opening Day 1968. Instead we get little more than vague suggestions that the city feared another riot. No one discusses the tensions that gave rise to the previous violence. No one explains why another explosion might have been likely. We do, however, get to watch Detroit native Ted Nugent shock absolutely no one by telling how he carried a nine-millimeter pistol while walking the streets of Motown in those uncertain days. This is not exactly an illuminating detail. Given Nugent's well-known enthusiasm for firearms, he probably would have been packing heat even if the whole city had been dancing in rings and joyously proclaiming the eternal brotherhood of man.

City on Fire regains some momentum when it turns back to baseball. Tigers fans will already be familiar with the high points of the 1968 season, but others ought to find the rundown of major developments -- Denny McClain’s gonzo 31-win season, Al Kaline’s injury, and pitcher Mickey Lolich’s World Series heroism -- quite entertaining.

Ironically, the most enjoyable anecdote in the film has nothing to do with race at all. When Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson tells how when he broke the World Series strikeout record in Game 1, catcher Tim McCarver trotted up to the mound to offer congratulations. Gibson promptly told McCarver to shut up and get on with the game. Brilliant! I think I speak for all baseball fans when I beg Mr. Gibson to repeat that noble deed, and stop McCarver from ruining another post-season with his similarly intrusive and distracting brand of television commentary.

City on Fire has other enjoyable and informative moments like that one, but they aren't enough to salvage the whole. Specifically, the film’s central premise -- that the Tigers’ 1968 World Series "may not have saved the Motor City, but there's little doubt they helped it to heal" -- never really pans out.

For instance, it is implied that the Tigers’ race-blind esprit d'corps set a good example for the rest of Detroit. But that notion suffers a bit when we hear Lolich blame his slow start in Game 5 on Jose Feliciano’s bluesy, mournful interpretation of the National Anthem. Here Lolich is echoing the views of the (mostly white) establishment, which treated Feliciano's rendition as an assault on American values.

Likewise, when you hear that the Tigers won the World Series over a black and Latino-heavy St. Louis Cardinal squad, it’s hard not to think of those black Detroiters who were in the habit of rooting for more integrated teams. Might it have been predominately the white fans who rallied ‘round the Tigers? We never really find out.

Ultimately, the filmmakers’ argument that the Tigers "healed" Detroit rests upon reminiscences of how the entire city seemed to spend the summer of 1968 watching or listening to Tigers’ broadcasts in perfect harmony. But setting aside for a moment that such things are always said about a team mounting an improbably successful season (e.g. Boston during the Red Sox’ "Impossible Dream" season of 1967 and Seattle as the Mariners rode Ichiromania to 116 wins last season) it's worth noting that there's a significant difference between healing and distraction. Detroiters may have forgotten their troubles during the binge of 1968, but the city was in for the hangover of a century once the World Series ended.

Monday, July 22, 2002

RICO Suave

RICO Suave

Commissioner Bud Selig and Expos/Marlins owner Jeff Loria are being sued (link requires registration). Fourteen Canadian companies with an interest in the Montreal Expos have charged Selig and Loria with, among other things, racketeering. According to the New York Times, the complaint alleges that Loria conspired with Selig and MLB’s Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy to swindle the Expos’ minority partners out of much of their ownership interest. Allegedly, the aim was to facilitate the contraction of the Montreal franchise and award Loria the ownership of the Florida Marlins.

This is no gentlemanly, contractual dispute. To sue someone under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") is to go thermonuclear. And while you probably care just about as much as I do (i.e. not at all) about a bunch of obscenely wealthy Québécois getting deked out of their vanity investment, consider that a RICO suit will almost certainly involve gobs of invasive discovery. If nothing else, Selig's and Loria’s dirty laundry is sure to get a good airing. And if the suit isn't settled relatively quickly (which, given Selig’s demonstrated lack of foresight, it probably won't be), we should finally get the inside skinny on some of the league's more titillating misadventures in ownership.

For example, we'll get to see what the supposedly cash-strapped owners of small market teams do with their revenue-sharing money. On Loria’s watch, the Expos received massive amounts of money from the Yankees and Braves of the world, and plowed little if any of it into player salaries. Some have suggested that the money went directly into Loria’s pocket, but until now it seemed possible that the money was lost to bad management. If the suit’s allegations are borne out, it means that Loria kept the money for himself. Given that the owners are demanding vastly increased revenue sharing in the next collective bargaining agreement, this is an issue worth keeping an eye on.

As enticing as all that might sound, Selig-haters might get more entertainment out of seeing the case settled. I’ve not seen the complaint, nor do I know how much money the plaintiffs are demanding, but rough figuring and common sense places the figure well above $200 million. (The plaintiffs claim a dilution from a 76% to a 6% stake in a $120 million asset, and the RICO claims treble any liability.) If Selig and MLB try to settle this thing before it gets embarrassing, each team will likely have to kick in a couple million a piece, and that’s being conservative. The owners have been content to keep Bud Selig employed up until now because, despite their disapproving rhetoric, revenues remain high and Selig has really only managed to humiliate himself. If, however, his foolishness were to cost short-tempered fellows like George Steinbrenner and Rupert Murdoch serious money, I have no doubt that baseball would soon have a new commissioner. And that, as another disgraced mogul likes to say, would be a good thing.

By the way, now that baseball has been served with gnarly lawsuits relating to both Minnesota and Montreal, I think we can safely say that the grand contraction experiment is officially over.

There Goes the Coldest Hitter Who Ever Lived

I’m coming a little late to the whole Ted Williamsicle thing, but in doing some research I came across this fabulous quote from online encryption guru, molecular nanotechnology theorist, and self-proclaimed cryonics expert Ralph Merkle:

"A common misconception is that cryonics freezes the dead. As the definition of "death" is "a permanent cessation of all vital functions" the future ability to revive a patient preserved with today's technology implies the patient wasn't dead."

Clever! Perhaps, for his next project, Merkle will demonstrate that black is actually white.

If a mere redefinition of life and death doesn't hold your interest, read on. According to the website's fine print, Dr. Merkle is not just any old cryonics expert; he sits on the board of Alcor, the company now in possession of the Splendid Splinter’s allegedly undead body. Even better, Merkle is the great grand nephew of one Fred Merkle, the first baseman who cost the 1908 New York Giants the National League championship against the Cubs when he failed to run to second base on what would have been the game-winning hit. His mistake, which came to be known as "Merkle’s Boner," resulted in a general ruckus that prevented the game from continuing, causing it to end in a tie [Is Merkle related to Selig too? -- ed.]. Eventually a one-game playoff was held for the pennant, and the Cubs won.

Four years later, Merkle was involved in yet another boneheaded play. This one cost the Giants the 1912 World Series when, in the bottom of the tenth inning of the final game of the series, Merkle let an extremely catchable pop foul thud to the ground next to him. The batter then drove in the tying run, setting the stage for a winning sacrifice fly two batters later. The opposition: the Boston Red Sox, who would one day feature a splendid left fielder by the name of Ted Williams.

In other words, the son of arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived has entrusted his father’s immortality to the nephew of the guy whose incompetence cost his team two championship games. Is this a karmic mix-up or what?

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

The Yankees have made a couple of high-profile moves in the past few weeks. First they acquired Raul Mondesi from the Blue Jays, then traded for Tigers ace Jeff Weaver. Predictably, most fans and writers viewed these moves as further evidence of the Yankees' unfair financial advantage. The experts are saying that because of these deals, the World Series is New York’s to lose, and that baseball is the worse for it.

Don’t believe a word of it. Sure, the Yankees may win the World Series, but if they do, it will be in spite of these trades, not because of them. Let’s take a hard look at the alleged ringers Boss Steinbrenner stole from the poor sisters of the American League. The fabulously overpaid Mondesi is a career underachiever, currently enjoying his worst season in the majors. As we go to press, he’s sporting an execrable .307 On Base Percentage and a shortstop-like OPS of .733. Mondesi was brought in to replace the right-field platoon of Shane Spencer and John Vander Wal who between them have posted an OBP of .328 and an OPS of .722. In other words, the Yankees took on over $12 million in salary obligations in order to get a theoretical .011 bump in production. I say theoretical, because Mondesi has actually been worse than his .733 OPS since joining the Yankees.

The Weaver trade was equally meaningless. Unlike Mondesi, Weaver is a valuable and reasonably-priced commodity who has the potential to anchor a rotation for years to come. The problem, however, is that the Yankees didn’t need a rotation anchor, or even another starting pitcher. After all, they already had six solid guys on the squad. Besides, in order to get Weaver, the Yankees gave up promising starter Ted Lilly. Lilly serves virtually the same function as Weaver, and may be the better pitcher two or three years down the road. If the Yankees had been content to hold on to him they would have saved money. More importantly, they would have been able to keep two prospects -- John-Ford Griffin and Jason Arnold -- who many feel have bright futures. The trade was a three-way affair with the Oakland A’s (Billy Beane once again making out like a bandit, taking Lilly and prospects from both Detroit and New York), and the Tigers did make made out worse than the Yankees. But to suggest that acquiring Weaver makes the Yankees invincible is hooey. Heck, if the Yankees make the playoffs, Weaver won’t even be in the starting rotation.

Cries about "the rich getting richer" go up every time the Yankees issue a press release, but neither the Mondesi nor the Weaver trade constitutes evidence that the system is broken. To the contrary, there are only two conclusions to draw from these trades: first, that the Blue Jays’ new front office continues to do a good job reshaping the pathetic roster they inherited from the previous regime; second, that the Tigers’ new front office should take Billy Beane off its speed dial. Baseball has plenty of problems these days, but George Steinbrenner’s largesse isn’t one of them.

The Man Comes to His Senses

Since I slammed MLB and the Astros last week for trying to shut down Astrosdaily.com, It would be unfair of me if I failed to report that they seem to be sensible business people after all. Much to their credit, the ’Stros have reached a quick and reasonable settlement with Ray Kerbey. It’s good to see that sanity still has a place somewhere at baseball’s kitchen table.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Peril of the Yellow Journalist

Rosebud

In one of my favorite scenes from Citizen Kane, yellow newspaperman Charles Kane explains to one of his editors how to squeeze a juicy story out of the disappearance of one Mrs. Silverstone, whatever the facts may be:

KANE

(gently)

... Right now, I wish you’d send your best man up to see Mr. Silverstone. Have him tell Mr. Silverstone if he doesn’t produce his wife at once, the "Enquirer" will have him arrested. (he gets an idea) Have him tell Mr. Silverstone he’s a detective from the Central Office. If Mr. Silverstone asks to see his badge, your man is to get indignant and call Mr. Silverstone an anarchist. Loudly, so that the neighbors can hear.

I love that glimpse of a bygone era of rough and tumble journalism, the likes of which haven't been seen since Hearst's and Pulitzer’s penny paper wars raged in the streets of Gotham. Of course, yellow journalism is one of those things that's much more amusing in the movies than in real life. I certainly got no pleasure out of the almost identical ambush perpetrated by Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly just last week.

For those of you unaware, Reilly approached Sammy Sosa in the Cubs’ locker room, told him that the only way to for him to clear his name of steroid rumors was to piss in a cup, and then handed him the name and address of a nearby clinic that would test him. Sosa understandably took offense and asked Reilly if he was trying to set him up. Reilly’s response: "I asked how he could get in trouble if he wasn't doing anything wrong."

To his credit, Sosa refrained from pounding Reilly into a thick, pasty goo, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. Who the hell is Rick Reilly? When was he appointed baseball’s drug czar? What civics teacher dropped the ball at little Ricky’s junior high school during "Civil Liberties: Why They Count" week? More to the point, where does Reilly get off using Sosa’s demurral as the basis for a piece of character assassination like the one he wrote in SI, not to mention the post-publication radio interviews Reilly has given stating that Sosa’s reaction was an obvious symptom of "'roid rage?"

Contrary to Reilly’s ugly innuendo, there were several excellent reasons for Sosa to decline a starring role in Reilly’s witch trial -- reasons that have nothing to do with any juicing he may or may not be doing. For example, he may have refused because he has an obligation to the player's union (which is opposed to testing) not to break ranks until it devises a policy on steroids. Or maybe he was just trying to find a way out of serving on student council.

Or as fellow baseball junkie David Jones noted in a recent thread over at Baseballprimer.com, maybe he said no because Reilly’s proposal was simply preposterous from the start: "Here, Sammy, stop what you’re doing. Get in your car and drive 45 minutes to this address and see this guy that you've never seen before in your life. Pee into a cup once, and then whatever the guy tells me about the results I'll print in a nationwide publication." Who in their right mind would do that, and how on Earth can Reilly claim that he was surprised at Sosa’s reaction?

The truth, I suppose, is that Reilly wasn’t surprised. Reilly is a grandstanding hack who doesn’t care whether Sammy Sosa or any other ballplayer is taking steroids. He cares only about his own celebrity and the thrill of gotcha journalism. If Reilly is taking his cue from the "Mr. Silverstone" scene in Citizen Kane, I must applaud him on his good taste in film. Nevertheless, it would probably be a good idea for him to watch the rest of the movie as well. Set-ups, cheap shots and other forms of manipulation may have made Charles Foster Kane famous, but they also caused him to die a sad and lonely death.

The Man Comes Down on astrosdaily.com

People ask me why I spend my free time writing about baseball when I could be busting my hump to try and make partner at my law firm. I think this sort of thing has something to do with it (scroll to the bottom of the linked page to see the attorney’s letter). Note the soul-killing paradox of a threatening letter written in the passive voice. Note how the letter was sent the day before a federal holiday, thereby increasing the likelihood of cutting the recipients’ response time down by a day or so. Note the cc’s to no fewer than three other attorneys, demonstrating the corporate lawyer’s tendency to hunt in packs. Indeed, apart from the law firm’s way-cool domain name (mofo.com) there appears to be absolutely nothing fun or life-affirming about the letter itself or the place from whence it came.

My thinly-veiled career ennui notwithstanding, isn’t that one of the dumber things you’ve seen in a while? Sure, the Astros are legally justified in worrying about the unauthorized use of their trademarks, but the zealousness with which they appear to be pursuing this matter seems a bit much. Ray Kerby, the operator of astrosdaily.com obviously puts a lot of time and effort into promoting his favorite team (probably more time than the Astros do themselves, given MLB’s notorious record of poor-mouthing its own product), but rather than pick up the phone or drop an email in an attempt to work out some mutually beneficial deal over the use of their intellectual property, the Astros and Major League Baseball have their legal gladiators launch mindless cease-and-desist letters. How creative.

Looks like one of my favorite websites is about to get a new addition.

Goodbye, Teddy Ballgame

As we established last week, I’m not the person to come to for deep reflection when a ballplayer dies. Of course, if there were ever an appropriate time for a lengthy ballplayer obituary, the passing of Ted Williams is it. Williams was the best player of what, rightly or wrongly, is known as baseball’s golden age, bridging the gap between Gehrig and Mantle (outhitting them both) while still finding time to fly combat missions in two wars. If he had played tenor sax, he’d be three Ken Burns documentaries in one.

But to me, Williams’s battles with the reporters who covered him were every bit as interesting as those fought against opposing pitchers, the Empire of Japan, and North Korea. Why? Because they show that even in a sport that prides itself on the unassailable superiority of its alleged golden age, some things have always been pretty much the same. Williams was robbed of at least three MVP awards -- coming in second in two seasons in which he hit for the Triple Crown and one in which he hit .400 -- primarily because sportswriters hated him. Compare this to Barry Bonds, who was robbed of an MVP in 1991 because the baseball writers held his much-publicized confrontation with manager Jim Leyland that spring against him, or Albert Belle, who lost the 1995 MVP to Mo Vaughn simply because Johnny Sportswriter didn’t like the cut of Belle’s jib.

The animosity of the press towards Williams was even worse. As noted in ESPN’s excellent obituary, the sportswriters seemed to have it in personally for the Splendid Splinter, "always fishing for an exclusive or scrambling for a fresh angle . . .seiz[ing] on any scrap of gossip or conjecture and blow[ing] it up into a headline . . . and they had no qualms about investigating an athlete's private life if it sold newspapers. Turn this crew loose on a guy like Williams, who stubbornly insisted on his right to privacy, and you had all the elements of a political battle."

Knowing that Williams had to put up with that kind of abuse makes his accomplishments seem even more amazing. Knowing that Sammy Sosa has to put up with the same damn thing does the same for his.

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

The Collective Wisdom of Individual Ignorance

Mencken’s All-Stars

H.L. Mencken once said that democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the starting lineups of the 2002 All-Star teams, as voted by the unwashed masses:

National League: 1B Todd Helton; 2B Jose Vidro; 3B Scott Rolen; SS Jimmy
Rollins; C
Mike Piazza; OF Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero

American League: 1B Jason Giambi; 2B Alfonso Soriano; 3B Shea Hillenbrand; SS Alex Rodriguez; C Jorge Posada; OF, Ichiro, Manny Ramirez, Torii Hunter

Mencken might have been surprised. The fans did a pretty good job, picking the best player at just about every position. Ok, they probably blew it at third base -- Shea Hillenbrand and Rolen are maybe the fourth-best third basemen in their respective leagues this season -- but overall, those appear to be the only dud choices in the democratic portion of the All-Star roster.

How did the so-called experts do? Not so good. All-Star managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly each used their dictatorial powers to fill out the roster with their cronies. In addition to the three Yankees voted in by the fans, Torre took shortstop Derek Jeter, third baseman Robin Ventura, and closer Mariano Rivera. No Diamondbacks were voted in, but Brenly selected six pitchers and reserves from his own team: Catcher Damian Miller, second baseman Junior Spivey, outfielder Luis Gonzalez, and pitchers Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Byung-Hyun Kim.

Rivera, Johnson, Schilling, Spivey and Kim all deserve to be there, but the other choices are less compelling. Adding Derek Jeter means that the AL will have five shortstops on the thirty-man roster. If Torre took only four shortstops (which is still probably one too many), he could have selected Toronto’s deserving rookie third baseman Eric Hinske, the guy who should have gotten Hillenbrand’s slot. But instead of using his individual wisdom to correct the lone error of collective ignorance, Torre chose to play politics and mollify the big star with whom he has to share a clubhouse all season. Cowardly move, Joe.

Brenly’s roster choices are even worse than Torre’s. Luis Gonzalez (OPS .916) over Larry Walker (1.050) Jim Edmonds (1.045) and Brian Giles (1.031)? Benito Santiago (.776) over Michael Barrett (.824) and Paul Lo Duca (.823)? Sure, the managers’ hands are tied somewhat on account of the stupid rule that requires them to take at least one player from every team (What is this, tee ball? Does everyone get a trophy too?), but that consideration didn’t come into play with either Gonzalez (teammate of Randy Johnson) or Santiago (teammate of Barry Bonds). Brenly actually thought those guys were deserving on merit. Yikes.

So, as always, there are errors and omissions on the All-Star rosters. This time, however, it isn’t the fault of the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. Unless of course we’re talking about Bob Brenly’s individual ignorance.

M. Colon est un Expo!

Up is down. Black is white. Israelis and Palestinians are walking arm in arm singing a peace ballad by Limp Bizkit. Impossible you say? Well, no more unlikely than last week’s trade that sent Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos.

It was a deal riddled with seeming impossibilities. For starters, it marked the first time in, well, ever, that the sad-sack Expos acquired a star player in midseason to assist them in a playoff run. Usually its Montreal that gives up its good players in exchange for prospects, not vice-versa. The other improbable -- and far more shocking -- aspect to all of this is that it means that (gasp!) I was wrong about something.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: "But Craig, didn’t you say that the Indians would start selling off their big names a mere two weeks ago?" Well, yes and no. I did predict that the Indians would start shedding payroll and stars fairly soon, which they are certainly doing. On the other hand, I characterized the predicted purge as a fire sale, and no matter how loudly Indians’ players and fans bitch and moan about losing Colon, this trade was anything but a mere salary dump.

A fire sale is when a team gets rid of productive but expensive players for no real competitive reason and receives little more than reduced salary obligations in return. The Indians, however, have established by now that they’re going nowhere this year (though, admittedly, this was partly because they consciously avoided acquiring decent players to replace the ones they lost in the off-season). More importantly, as ESPN’s Peter Gammons correctly notes (another impossibility, I know), the players Cleveland received in return from Montreal -- Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore -- are all legitimate prospects who have an excellent chance of making the Indians competitive again fairly soon. This is especially true of Phillips, who could find himself Cleveland’s starting shortstop as early as next year.

Or later this year, if Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro is smart. Now that he has raised the white flag on the 2002 and 2003 seasons, Shapiro has to follow through on the rebuilding program, which means getting rid of any other high-priced veterans that (a) will still bring value in a trade and (b) will likely not be worth their paychecks come 2004. That means shopping current shortstop Omar Vizquel, who is both aging and having an unusually late career year, and attempting to move Ellis Burks, Jim Thome, and Chuck Finley. If they can get anything close to the talent for those players that they got for Colon (a tall order, I know), the Tribe should be sitting pretty in a couple of years.

Would I have preferred that the Indians have kept Colon? Absolutely. But after five years in which the Tribe got rooked on trade after trade involving their prospects (they have virtually nothing to show for trading away then-future stars like Jeremy Burnitz, Brian Giles, Richie Sexson and Sean Casey), it’s probably for the best that the Indians have started seriously rebuilding now rather than waiting until next year to bottom out.

Now, having said all that, allow me to raise a more cynical point about the Colon trade.

As a result of Major League Baseball’s seemingly doomed contraction gambit, MLB now owns the Montreal Expos. The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the owners originally decided to contract the Expos rather than move them to, say, Washington D.C., so that in a few years a brand spankin’ new expansion team could be started in the nation’s capital. Expansion, you see, is a cash cow. Anyone who wants to start a new team must first pay a gigantic fee to the existing owners.

But now that real and potential legal problems have made contraction (and hence later expansion) unlikely, the Expos have become an albatross around the owners' necks. Consequently, the owners have gone to Plan B, which involves selling the Expos to an investment group in the Washington area. Selling the Expos in their current state would likely bring the owners far less money than an expansion team would, but it would be better than keeping the team in Montreal.

So here's the paranoid scenario: the owners realize they have to sell the team, and likewise realize that they've diminished the value of their asset by poor-mouthing the Expos over the past five years. They know that if this D.C. plan is going to work, they need to boost the value of the Expos, and fast. One way to do that would be to create the illusion of a winning ball club in Montreal -- say, by getting a star like Colon on the team pronto. (I say "illusion" because I still don't think that Colon’s presence will be enough to put Montreal into serious contention this year.) In other words, the owners may be trying to drive the selling price of the Expos up by buying Colon's services -- even if it means buying them at a ludicrous price. If that is indeed the case, it would raise some obvious ethical questions, sticky wickets, and dilemmas of various sorts.

But no matter where the truth of the matter lies, it will be good for the game to have the Expos at least somewhat competitive this season. Baseball has always seemed to do the wrong things for the wrong reasons. If it now ends up doing the right things for the wrong reasons, well, that's a kind of step up.

Darryl Kile

As everybody knows by now, Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile died last Saturday. Kile’s death was both tragic and unexpected, and his passing has no doubt had a major impact on his Cardinal teammates. (They’re 2-5 since Kile’s death, and in the three games of theirs I’ve watched, they’ve all understandably looked like they’d rather be someplace else than on a baseball field.) Unlike most columnists, however, I am having trouble thinking of anything poignant to say.

I suppose I could haul out 400 trusty words to the effect of, "This sure is sad, my thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and kids," but it seems pointless. Kile’s wife and kids probably don’t care a lick about what some obscure columnist in Ohio has to say about the most devastating loss they’ve ever had and likely will ever have to contend with. Saying something like "Wow, this puts things in perspective," is a similarly hollow cliché. Kile’s death didn’t put anything in perspective. People have been dying young since the dawn of time without causing anyone to seriously take stock or lead more fulfilling lives. On the whole, we still work too much and see too little of our families. We still eat poorly. We still seem to have a collective hard-on for violence and negativity of every stripe.

When we wax philosophical or sentimental about the passing of a stranger -- even a celebrity -- we are really only doing it out of a sense of propriety and habit. In reality, we think for a few minutes, "Wow, that was surprising," and then go have a beer, and watch a movie, and generally get on with our lives, as I did when I heard that Kile had died. Maybe that makes us heartless and selfish. Maybe it means that we have serious denial issues for which we should all seek professional help. Then again, maybe it just means that for those of us who aren’t Darryl Kile’s family members, friends or teammates, his death is nothing more than a news item. An unexpected news item that brings fleeting sadness, to be sure, but still just a news item all the same.


Saturday, June 22, 2002

Rob Dibble's Dubious Code of Honor

Quote of the Week

"They didn't want to play. Instead they worked to prevent us from playing our game. It worked, but it was markedly different from Ecuador, Italy and Croatia, which played and competed."

-- Mexico coach Javier Aguirre, sharing his somewhat curious definition of "compete" after his boys’ elimination from the World Cup at the hands of the US of A last Monday. It would seem that in Aguirre’s bizarro universe, the only teams that "want to play" are those that have the decency to lose to or tie Mexico, as Ecuador, Croatia, and Italy did.

No, it’s not baseball, but then it’s not like last weekend’s matchup between Toronto and Montreal rated very high on the international drama scale.

A Question of Honor

Last Saturday, Mets’ pitcher Shawn Estes zipped one behind Yankees’ ace Roger Clemens, apparently trying to throw one up the Rocket’s wazoo in retaliation for Clemens’s multiple assaults on Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza in 2000. Clemens knew it was coming, danced like a fool when the pitch came, then tipped his hat to Estes as if to say "I deserved that, now let’s get on with our lives." The game resumed without incident, and Clemens’s was further put in his place when both Estes and Piazza homered off him, leading the Mets to an 8-0 victory. I don’t care for baseball’s "If you hit my guy, I’m hitting yours" brand of machismo, but if players are going to insist on taking revenge, a purpose pitch followed by an on-field humiliation like the one Clemens got on Saturday should just about close the deal.

Which it did for just about everyone except ESPN commentator/troglodyte Rob Dibble, who said that Estes’ pitch and subsequent drubbing of Clemens "showed me nothing." He went on to say that the Mets "sent a boy to do a man’s job," and in a subsequent column said that "had [Estes] knocked down Clemens or hit him in the numbers, I wouldn't have had to criticize him on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight."

That Rob Dibble is an idiot goes without saying. As a player, Dibble was a notorious hothead who once threw a ball into the stands, striking a first-grade teacher (don’t worry, she probably had it coming), and routinely threw at batters who had the audacity to hit off him. As such, he should excuse us if we tune out his babblings about baseball’s alleged code of honor. ESPN executives, on the other hand, should take note because Dibble’s antics are turning the once-essential "Baseball Tonight" broadcast into drive-time talk-radio.

Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Mets general manager Steve Phillips fired hitting coach Dave Engle last week in an attempt to shake up a club that ranks near the bottom of the league in runs and batting average despite the off-season addition of Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz. It’s fitting that Engle’s firing came a week before the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, because Phillips’ sacking of Engle looks like the first steps in a cover-up of Nixonian proportions.

It was Phillips, not Engle, who gambled eight figures on an aging and out of shape Mo Vaughn, a strikeout-prone Burnitz, and a leadoff hitter (Cedeno) who can neither get on base nor field his position at anything approaching an adequate level. It was also Phillips who spent the past few years gutting the Mets farm system in an effort to win it all now rather than build for the future. Phillips may think that canning Engle will take the heat off of him for the bad deals he made last winter, but then again, Nixon thought firing Archibald Cox was a good idea too. On the bright side for Mets fans, it won’t take a constitutional crisis to get rid of Phillips; Mets ownership is likely to take care of that themselves this coming off-season.

Great Moments in Symbolism

Boston pitcher John Burkett has said that he won’t play in the All-Star game if selected. His reason: the game is in Milwaukee this year, and a boycott would be his way of protesting Commissioner (and Milwaukee Brewers owner) Bud Selig's handling of labor negotiations.

Interesting, but if anti-Bud publicity is what Burkett wanted, he’s going about it the wrong way. In order to stage a meaningful boycott, you first have to participate in the thing you're boycotting. Now that Burkett has said that he won’t serve if drafted, he will almost assuredly be passed over for consideration by AL manager Joe Torre, rendering his pronouncement a non-issue ("No Burkett? Good, we didn’t want him anyway"). I hope for the players’ sake that their labor negotiators have a better understanding of leverage than Burkett does.

Of course, it might be fair to consider whether Burkett’s potential wildcat strike is truly meant to be an act of defiance. After all, it’s par for the course for players in all of the major sports to stage phantom injuries around All-Star time in an attempt to get a couple of days off. Perhaps Burkett is just taking the idea in a new direction. If that’s the case, I’ve gotta give him some extra points for style.

Great Moments in Symbolism II

While we’re on the subject of All-Star symbolism, some of you may have heard that there's a movement afoot to stuff the All-Star ballot boxes with the names of Twins and Expos players in order to protest Selig’s attempts to contract those teams out of existence. At this point the results are mixed. The Expos have placed one player in the top five of five out of the six positions for which fans have a vote. This looks less impressive, however, when you consider that three of those players (Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, and Michael Barrett) deserve to be there on merit anyway (Barrett may actually be getting hosed by only placing third among catchers). On the American League side, Twins have made the top five in all six positions, but it isn’t as if any of them are that far ahead of where they would be had there been no call for a protest vote to begin with.

Go here to level your blow against the empire.