Monday, June 3, 2002

The Nature of the Game

"I think over the last year I've learned a lot. I've learned about how to get guys out."

-- Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, explaining his dominant performance against the Montreal Expos last Monday night, confusing the hell out of the roughly 3,200 batters he’s managed to get out over the course of his 15+ year, 2 Cy Young Award career. Yeah Tom, glad you finally figured out what you were doing out there.

The Nature of the Game

Last week, ESPN’s Peter Gammons wrote about the putatively surprising struggles of the Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians (the A’s struggles really are surprising, but smart people expected the Indians to stink). He claimed that "What it demonstrates should be obvious. In both cases, unless one is in the revenue upper class, it is practically impossible to compete for a prolonged time period."

Applesauce. If the A’s and Indians’ example demonstrates anything, it's (1) that even good teams can hit rough patches once in a while, and (2) when you strip your roster of talent in the interest of making money, you're likely to lose a lot of games. Gammons’ bogeyman of economic disparity has little to do with how well the A’s and Indians are doing this year.

There is no question that the A’s suffer from revenue problems. Even though the A's have fielded an excellent squad for the past three seasons, hardly anyone goes to Network Associates Mausoleum to watch them play. Despite competing in one of baseball’s larger and more affluent markets, the A’s also have a pretty piddling media deal (they can thank cross-bay competition from the more popular Giants for both problems). But while finances are important to, say, the A’s ability to sign Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez when they become free agents in a few years, they explain little to nothing about why the A's are in last place this year. Everyone thought the current roster looked pretty damn good last off-season, when the A’s were coming off of a 102-win season.

The A’s slide in 2002 is all about underachieving, not about having the financial deck stacked against them. Gammons says, "[F]ew general managers have received more praise for creativity, work ethic and evaluation skills than Beane, but at a $40 million payroll, there is no escape for a two-month slide when the starters’ ERA is over 5.00." Sorry Peter, but even a $100 million payroll team "has no escape" when its entire rotation has an ERA north of a finsky. Having had a bunch of good players hit a funk at the same time is just part of the game. The A’s will either bounce back to respectability this season, or they’ll get 'em next year.

Gammons doesn't come right out and say it, but you get the sense that he wants to blame the A’s woes mainly on the loss of Jason Giambi, and the loss of Jason Giambi on revenue disparity. After all, the A’s lost Giambi in a bidding war with the Yankees, and isn’t losing all one’s good players to New York the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics or something? The only problem, of course, is that it didn't happen that way.

The A’s never could have matched Steinbrenner’s offer, but they didn’t have to because the A’s and Giambi had done a deal before the Yankees were even on the scene, which involved far less money than he eventually took from New York. Oakland’s ownership chickened out when Giambi asked for a no-trade clause that, practically speaking, wouldn’t have hindered the A’s a bit. If Giambi continued to play well, they wouldn’t have wanted to trade him; if they became losers and felt the need to unload him, Giambi would probably have waived the clause in order to get himself onto a winning team). It was only when the A’s vetoed the no-trade clause that Giambi felt the need to begin his flirtation with New York in the first place. Yes, the A’s would be doing much better with Giambi, but they lost him because of their own shortsightedness, not Force Majure.

Gammons’ comments about the Indians strike me as even more preposterous:

"Cleveland is coping with the evolutionary reality that ballpark revenues alone do not make a rich franchise, and as the Indians -- remember, they haven’t won a postseason series since 1998 and with the exception of the 2000 White Sox had been playing in the league’s weakest division since they rose to power -- got old, had to be reconstructed and had to downsize and the luster came off The Jake."

Excuse me, but weak or not, the Indians won their division last year by a comfortable margin. They had more wins than Atlanta, only one fewer than the world champion Diamondbacks, and only four fewer than the all-powerful Yankees. When you consider that the Tribe’s interleague opponents (the Astros, Cardinals, and Cubs) were much tougher than the Yankees (the Mets, Expos, Marlins), the difference between the two teams doesn't amount to much. Given their success, why did the Indians "have to be reconstructed?"

And what does Gammons mean by the comment about the strength of the division? One of the reasons the division has traditionally been "weak" is that the Indians themselves have been beating the living crap out of the AL Central for the past seven years (and in any event, their win totals would have been enough to win several of the other divisions in nearly every year of their run). Even if the division’s strength is an issue, why leave out the 2000 White Sox? In effect, what Gammons is saying is that the Indians’ competition has been bad, except of course when it’s been good, which means he’s not really saying anything.

As I predicted in my season preview, the Indians have struggled because they got rid of good players like Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzales while bringing in bad players like Milton Bradley, Ricky Gutierrez, and Brady Anderson, not to mention keeping a guy with no cartilage in his elbow in the bullpen (Charles Nagy). Teams that trade good players for bad ones are likely to lose. Again, this is the nature of the game.

The real question here is why the Indians got rid of their good players in the first place. Is it, as Gammons suggests, because "the luster has come off" the Indians’ new stadium and falling attendance has required cutting payroll? No chance. The Indians’ attendance didn’t start going downhill until this season -- after the Indians made their cost-cutting moves -- so blaming their problems on fickle fans is a cheap shot of the lowest order.

Call it a hunch, but I think the real reason for the evisceration of the Indians’ roster was simple greed. Last year Dick Jacobs sold the Indians to Larry Dolan. I suspect Dolan was attracted by the perpetually sold-out stadiums under the Jacobs regime which allowed the Indians to be profitable despite having one of the larger payrolls in the game. Dolan probably figured that Indians fans would continue to show up in droves no matter what he put on the field, and unloaded the large salaries hoping to jack up the profits even higher. But Indians’ fans aren't stupid; they're just a little spoiled. After growing accustomed to winning for the better part of a decade, they weren't about to shell out money to see a losing team play. A few masochists like me will go to the ballpark no matter how good our teams are, but having fans fail to turn out for a loser is -- you guessed it -- part of the game, and something Dolan should have expected. There should be no crying for the Tribe.

Gammons is a smart guy, and I suspect he knows he’s peddling bunk when he blames the problems of the A’s and the Indians on economic disparity. But let's not forget that Gammons is essentially a gossip columnist (his real claim to fame is being ESPN's "Mr. Inside"), and the first rule of gossip is that you don't alienate your sources. When Gammons passes along front office canards about revenue disparities dictating results, just remember that it’s not news, it’s just old Pete ensuring the continued access that puts food on his table.

Fire Sale Watch: The Cleveland Indians

While we’re on the subject of the Indians, the hot rumor coming out of the Western Reserve is that Tribe GM Mark Shapiro is shopping his two best players, Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon, for prospects. If that's the case, it validates my hunch that the Indians are selling off good players in order to pocket the cash. Colon and Thome are certified studs whose talents fully justify their price tag, and who would be very hard to replace. Ship them out, and Cleveland is going to be partying like it’s 1969 (record: 62-99). If Gammons thinks the luster has come off The Jake now, just wait until the Indians sell off their franchise pitcher and slugger.

Jose Canseco is Chopped Liver

Two weeks ago I spouted off about steroids in baseball after Jose Canseco threatened to write a book naming names of players on the juice. As it turns out, I was pretty much the only taking Canseco seriously. Most writers seemed to think that Canseco was nothing more than a vengeance-seeking publicity hound. That changed last week when Ken Caminiti came out to Sports Illustrated about his steroid use and -- making claims nearly identical to Canseco’s -- said that a large percentage of major leaguers are using performance-enhancing drugs. Since then scores of sports writers have weighed in on what a significant problem this is all for pro baseball.

Which is all well and good, but I don't know why Canseco’s claims were treated as a non-story while Caminiti's were taken so seriously. It couldn’t be the relative fame of the players, because Canseco was every bit as big a name (probably bigger) than Caminiti. It couldn’t be that Caminiti was owning up to using himself, because only the most naive sports writer could assume that Canseco was excluding himself from his allegations. It couldn’t have been the credibility of the source; after all, Caminiti is the only one of the two who is a convicted felon.

So why was Canseco laughed off while Caminiti became the whistle-blower? I dunno, but any writer looking to get an exclusive would probably do well to follow big Jose around, because nobody else seems to be listening.