Monday, May 27, 2002

It's Raining Mets

Much Ado

In the wake of last year’s claim by Out magazine editor Brendan Lemon that he was having an affair with a player on an East Coast club, and this week’s tabloid speculation about the possibility that a prominent New York Met might be gay, columnists have tripped all over themselves trying to figure out What Such a Thing Might Mean for the player and the game. Some have speculated about the hardships the first active, openly gay player might face. Others have talked about the potential for such a player to become an endorsement-rich cultural hero. Still others have made a huge deal over how little a deal this whole affair should be. I’m with the last group. Rarely (in baseball anyway) has so much been written by so many about so little.

The issue of homosexuality in team sports isn't worth all the hand-wringing. Yes, when a ballplayer finally gets outed the occasional Neanderthal will say that he’s afraid to shower with a swishy shortstop; but most players are pretty bright. At the very least, none of them want to end up the bad guy in the inevitable made-for-TV movie (if for no other reason than that they want to avoid being portrayed by a B-lister like Eric Roberts). Like L'Affaire O'Donnell, it will be a big deal for a week, and then it will go away, and we’ll all be left wondering why we wasted our time worrying about it.

It would be nice if the punditry showed some perspective. The impact of a gay player on a pro clubhouse is an interesting topic, but not nearly as interesting as some of the real-life-intersects-baseball stories the columnists ignore. At least one player has been revealed as a bigamist. Another tried to run down kids with his SUV. Teammates have taken swings at each other around the batting cage. Several players have beaten their wives. And, if recent reports are to be believed, a future Hall of Famer turned teenage batboys into drug mules. Am I alone in thinking that it would be tougher to work with sociopaths like that than to deal with a gay locker-mate? If not, why don't people write half as much about those guys as they do about hypothetical gay baseball players? Heck, I had to link the Village freakin’ Voice to find something other than a simple police blotter story about players’ domestic violence. Where the hell were all of ESPN's sociologists after Bobby Chouinard held a gun to his wife’s head? Oh yeah, fretting about what other ballplayers might think about a full-grown adult whose sexual orientation hasn’t been a scandal since Three’s Company was on prime time.

The Fall of Beane

Earlier this year I wrote about that group of baseball junkies who have (with good reason, really) lionized Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane for turning a low-revenue club into a consistent winner by stressing plate discipline and the promotion of cheap young talent, while simultaneously ripping off his fellow GMs in one-sided trade after one-sided trade.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In a move that sent the Cult of Beane reeling, the A’s traded leftfielder Jeremy Giambi to Philadelphia for the offal that is John Mabry. Casual fans may not know much about either of these players, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that this was not just a bad trade; it was bungling of the highest order. Giambi is young and cheap, gets on base more often than most, and hits for power. Mabry is, um, from Delaware. It’s so unbalanced a trade, coming from so unlikely a general manager that some are suggesting that Beane did it either under duress or as a way to intentionally sabotage his team.

I doubt Beane is consciously throwing a monkey wrench into the A’s works, but he does have some ‘splainin to do. At the press conference on Wednesday, Beane claimed that Giambi was eighty-sixed because he is "a one-dimensional player." That's an unusually boilerplate explanation coming from a general manager known for his candor. Besides, even if Giambi is a one-dimensional player, that dimension -- hitting the cover off the ball -- is supposedly what the A’s are built around.

Apart from simply getting snookered, there are two reasons a team accepts less than equal value in a trade. The first is that they’re dumping salary. That explanation, however, doesn’t really hold water here. Giambi makes a skosh over a million this year, bargain-basement for a player at his level. Even though Mabry only makes a half-million, the A’s could have gone cheaper than that simply by asking for a minor leaguer instead of Mabry (or nobody – ever heard of the "player to be named later"?). Indeed, getting a minor-leaguer with some upside is standard salary dump procedure -- a procedure that Beane himself has perfected over the years. Mabry’s a known quantity, and that quantity is zero. If it was a salary dump, it was a poor one.

The other time a team lets itself be gypped in a trade is when the departing player is carrying baggage the team wants to get rid of. A great example was when the St. Louis Cardinals sent recent MVP and perennial all-star Keith Hernandez to the New York Mets for nobody Neil Allen in 1983. Less than two years later -- when he was granted immunity to testify in the prosecution of Philadelphia caterer/cocaine dealer Curtis Strong -- it was revealed that Hernandez was deep into blow going back to the disco era. That might have been ok in New York City, but it was never going to fly on Whitey Herzog’s St. Louis Cardinals.

I’ve only got a search engine at my disposal, not a network of spies, so I can’t say whether Giambi was such a clubhouse cancer that Beane felt he needed to get rid him regardless of value received in return. Sure, Little G. was cited for marijuana possession in Las Vegas back in December, but that was misdemeanorville (my grandmother carries a half-ounce to Vegas), and it doesn’t explain why Giambi wasn’t traded back then. Others have reported that Giambi was involved in a "drunken, obnoxious performance" on the team flight back from Toronto last Sunday. Interesting, but it still doesn’t explain why Beane didn’t get more for him in return. Heck, even if Giambi was running guns to al-Qaida he should have brought more in return than John Mabry.

Well, that got us nowhere. For now, Billy Beane’s fan club remains in a tizzy. I have no idea what to make of this trade, though I do know that famous Beane-backer Rob Neyer’s defense -- "it's safe to assume that [Beane] knows what he's doing" -- is not an acceptable answer. (Rob, you’ve made your bones being critical! Don’t back down now!) I don’t know when the whole story will come out, but I’m guessing it will be a good one when it finally does.

Boycott Watch

As I predicted in an earlier piece, columnists who owe their salaries to the public’s interest in professional sports have began dressing up as populists and telling us to boycott baseball as a means of showing our dissatisfaction with the status of labor negotiations. (For a variation on the boycott theme, check out this hackwork.)

I have no problem with anyone who wants to ignore baseball because they find the labor wars distasteful, but the idea that these columnists are peddling -- that we have a civic duty to boycott baseball because players and owners have somehow failed in a duty allegedly owed fans -- is nonsense. Major League Baseball is a business that provides a product. If you think the product is worth the price, you should pay for it. If not, you shouldn’t. The owners and players don't "owe" you anything more than Georgia Pacific "owes" buyers of Angel Soft toilet tissue.

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Juice on the Loose

Jose Canseco announced his retirement last Monday, and the very next day announced his intention to write a tell-all book about his career. Assuming he hires a decent ghost writer, it’s a book I’d love to read. After all, in addition to hitting 462 home runs and becoming baseball’s first 40-40 man, Jose liked to live it up. He fooled around with Madonna. He drove and crashed the finest Italian sports cars. He was arrested for everything from gun possession to domestic violence to nightclub brawls. The man must have some stories to tell.

But what really has the baseball world atwitter is Canseco’s pledge to blow the lid off of steroid use in baseball, and name names in the process. Canseco, some may remember, was one of the first really muscular guys to make a mark in baseball and was famously accused by The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell of using the juice during the 1988 playoffs (Boswell subsequently retracted his accusation). Though he continues to be coy about his own drug use, he recently said that steroids "revolutionized baseball" during his era.

And they very well might have. While baseball’s lack of drug testing makes verification impossible, anecdotal evidence points to widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. In October 2000, The New York Times interviewed major league strength coaches, general managers, league officials, and players, and reported that there was a "general view that steroid abuse has become a problem in baseball," with insiders opining that anywhere from twenty-five to forty percent of all baseball players were juicing. Indeed, one look at the ever-increasing home run totals -- especially when posted by players who gained significant amounts of muscle mass over a single off season -- makes it hard to imagine that Canseco couldn’t names lots of names if he chose to.

To me, the more interesting question in all of this is should we care, and if so, why. We all know that steroid abuse causes impotence, acne, water retention, aggression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, palpitations, jaundice, and death. (by the way, I copied that list from a pamphlet aimed at high school athletes; notice how it leads with the side effects that are the least serious but the most likely to resonate with 17 year olds? One of the Great Moments in Rhetoric, I’d say). Obviously, anyone who uses the stuff is an idiot.

But though they may be idiots, it’s hard to believe that any major league player using steroids is unaware of these risks. If anything, they’re well aware of the risks but have chosen to take them nonetheless. The libertarian in me wants to say that anyone can do anything that is plainly bad for them as long as he isn’t hurting anyone else, and if the guys on Canseco’s list want to piss on this virtual electric fence, that’s their decision. Politics aside, if the players themselves don’t care enough about this sort of thing to insist that there be rules about it, why should I lie awake at night worrying whether some overgrown first baseman can’t get it up? Or dies?

Health aside, is there any other reason to care? Recently, the extremely smart readers of Baseball Primer (a site I frequent and you should too) discussed this in reference to Barry Bonds’s response to the steroid rumors that have dogged him in the past couple of years (Gary Hart, er, I mean Barry Bonds challenged his accusers to prove that he uses). Many of the Primer posters posited that because baseball doesn't test, all of its players operate under a "cloud of suspicion," tarnishing the accomplishments of all of those who don't use. While such arguments strike me as a bit Ashcroftesque ("I’m sorry to be interrogating you Mr. Abdullah, but I wish to remove the cloud of suspicion that hovers over your people"), I sympathize with the sentiment. Sure, I’ve argued in the past that differences across eras don't tarnish records, but when some athletes start playing by rules different from those of their own contemporaries, even my logic starts to unravel.

So here we are. Lots of players are probably using steroids. Everyone presumably knows the dangers. No one in the game itself appears to care, except to the extent that they're worried about being called out by Jose Canseco. Most fans probably care in abstract ways, but based on the continued popularity of the Olympics and professional wrestling, it isn’t as if allegations of drug use are going to cause them to make their displeasure felt in a way that will impact the game financially. I guess that means that until some slugger keels over on the field from a juice-induced heart attack, the issue of steroids in baseball is going to remain the bailiwick of sports ethicists like Bob Ley and Bryant Gumbel. At least when it doesn’t pop up as tabloid fodder.

Olde Tyme Baseball

My grandfather died before I was born, so I never had the privilege of having an old man sit me on his knee and tell me about the days of Liberty Cabbage, Hoovervilles, and Dusenbergs. On the one hand, this was regrettable because I missed out on the opportunity to learn about history from my own flesh and blood. On the other hand, I never had to argue with my grandpa about "good old days" that featured rampant racism, crippling global depression, and genocidal world wars. I would like to have known Garfield Calcaterra, but it’s much easier to criticize a whitewashed view of history when it comes from a stranger like Tom Brokaw.

Or Joe Falls. Falls is a baseball columnist for the Detroit News, who last week wrote a few hundred grandfatherly words about how the iron men of yore never missed games due to little things like broken bones, pulled muscles, and torn ligaments. Apparently these ailments were treated quickly and simply by applying a compress of boiled milkweed on a wad of cotton, Lister's Carbolic Unguent, and a curative galvanic belt. (wait, maybe that was for dropsy...oh, never mind). Falls’s point is that too many players spend too much time on the disabled list these days.

At least I think that was his point. Read the article yourself and let me know what Falls was talking about, because I can’t seem to figure it out. All I can see are self-aggrandizing anecdotes and tired clich├ęs about the softness and greed of today’s players. What Falls leaves out of his analysis is that because today’s players actually treat their injuries with medicine rather than voodoo, they have considerably longer careers and likely spend their retirement suffering considerably less chronic pain than the tough guys he seems to admire. I could continue attacking the benighted ramblings of Noachian columnists such as Falls’s, but it has already been done to perfection.

For the time being, I will content myself with wondering just how in the hell guys like Falls get paid by major newspapers for their nearly incoherent scribblings while much better writers are forced to sleep in their cars.

It’s Not the Size of the Sample That Matters. Oh, Wait, it is.

Most people have probably heard about the dustup that recently took place in Cincinnati. For those who haven’t, some local television station ran a phone-in poll asking which of the Reds’ outfielders should be benched when Ken Griffey Jr. comes off the disabled list this week. The majority of people who have little enough of a life to vote in this sort of thing decided that Griffey himself should ride the pine and that phenom Austin Kearns, second-year sensation Adam Dunn, and surprise of the year Juan Encarnacion should continue to start every day. Not surprisingly, the poll set the notoriously thin-skinned Griffey off.

Nearly everyone in baseball heaped scorn on the idea of benching a future Hall of Famer. Most correctly pointed out that the TV station’s poll wasn't random or representative. But while baseball people appear to appreciate that sample size is critical to opinion polls, many of them routinely discount it in the context of player evaluation. If you want to know who really understands the concept of sample size and who doesn’t, just take note of who Reds GM Jim Bowden manages to swindle when he gets around to addressing his outfield logjam.

Juan Encarnacion has been a life-saver in Griffey’s absence, but given that Dunn and Kearns represent The Future for the Reds, he is likely to be the odd man out in the outfield mix. Rather than keep him around as a caddy for Griffey, Bowden will probably try to trade him for some much-needed pitching. Attention GMs: if by the time Jim Bowden calls you shopping Encarnacion you don’t know who the sucker is, you’re the sucker. That’s because Encarnacion’s OPS in the first 40 games this season is nearly one hundred points higher than anything he’s ever posted in a full season and is likely to plummet back to the extremely ordinary baseline that he’s established over the course of his six year career once he’s been given a representative sample of at bats. Put simply, Encarnacion’s season is a fluke, and wise men don’t trade good pitchers for flukes.

Despite my warning, however, someone is going to blow it and give up a good young arm for Juan. My guess is that it will be a panicky George Steinbrenner, but it might just as easily be Baltimore’s fluke-loving Peter Angelos (see his signing of one-season-wonders Marty Cordova and David Segui). Neither of them seem all that hip to the concept of statistical significance.

Insanity Watch: Bud Selig’s Telephone Habit

Two weeks ago I reported Bud Selig’s strange habit of taking time out of his busy schedule to call and personally berate writers Rob Neyer and Doug Pappas after they wrote things the commish didn’t care for. Now reader Kevin Holmes informs me that Budzilla called Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski last December too.

While I have to admit that I’m a little irked that the local writer for one of baseball’s worst teams got the ring before a nationally known columnist like me, [Ed's note: I like your optimism, but perhaps you should change this to "nationally available"] I like Posnanski’s work, so I’ll cut Bud some slack. Besides, Bud’s apparent obsession with stamping out dissent is clearly a symptom of an unwell mind, and I’d hate to disturb him anymore than he already is. For now I’d just like to tell Bud that I’m in the book, and if he feels well enough to call me, I’d love to hear from him. If not, hey, the road to good mental health is a long one and I’ll wait as long as necessary.

Friday, May 10, 2002

Johnny Sportswriter and the Ottawa Lynx

It’s always the same. Every time the owners and players wage labor war, Johnny Sportswriter at the Daily Bugle rolls out a column lambasting the bigs and recommending that you take advantage of the affordable prices, motivated players, and small-town flavor of minor league ball.

Don't believe a word of it. Johnny Sportswriter doesn’t really want you to ditch the majors for the minor leagues. After all, he works the major league beat in a major league city. Johnny Sportswriter is just venting his frustration and inoculating himself against the pain of the forced hiatus that usually accompanies these owner-player dustups. Once he’s had time to clear his head, he’ll be back to stuffing himself at the press box buffet table and thanking his lucky stars he gets to watch the majors for a living.

But inevitably there will be people who take Johnny Sportswriter's advice more seriously than Johnny Sportswriter does himself. They boycott the big leagues, having convinced themselves that the minors are better than the real McCoy. Are they on to something? Do the bush leagues hold pleasures impossible to find at the big league level? Even though I live in a triple-A town, I had only been to one minor league game in the past ten years, and couldn’t answer with my usual brand of half-cocked certainty. So to find out whether the minors live up to their billing, I spent last Friday night watching the International League’s Columbus Clippers battle the Ottawa Lynx. I even took notes. What follows is the tale of the tape.

Cost:

One of the biggest complaints about major league baseball is how expensive it is. By the time you pay for tickets, parking, hot dogs, pennants, shirts, big foam fingers, and beers #1-7, you’re out a mint. At Columbus’s Cooper Stadium, parking was $2 and box seats $ 8.50 (though I could have paid $ 5.00 general admission and snuck past the geriatric ushers into the good section pretty easily). The beer and the foam fingers were more in line with big league prices, but if you really wanted to rough it and do without the foam finger, you’d still come out with enough money for a sack of post-game sliders. Mmmmmmmm, gastro-intestinal distress . . .

Verdict: the minors.

Location:

One of the fictions spun by big league boycotters is that the minor league game is somehow more accessible and "closer to home." This may be true for the 22% of the population that lives in rural America, close to the Carolina Mudcats and the Tennessee Smokies of the world. But most people live in big cities, and most big cities either have major league baseball or are near it. As for accessibility, tell me, if you had to choose, would you rather be dropped in the middle of San Francisco and have to find your way to PacBell, or would you rather be dropped in the tobacco fields of Zebulon, North Carolina and have to find your way to Five County Stadium out on Highway 39? Would it help if I told you that it was banjo night at Five County?

As for Columbus, Cooper Stadium is located in the part of town where the leukemia rates are high and the check cashing businesses outnumber banks. Something tells me that if Columbus ever got itself a major league team, it wouldn’t be playing in the Appalachian ghetto that some locals refer to as "pig town." I’m not necessarily a fan of gentrification, but if I’m leaving a ballpark at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night with a few Miller High Lifes in me, I’d prefer not to be in a part of town where cabbies fear to tread.

Verdict: the majors.

Fan Camaraderie:

On account of the increasing costs and corporate influence associated with the major league game, the chances of sitting next to an A-1 yuppie scumbag at a major league stadium are very good these days. I guess your feelings about this category will all come down to your tolerance for yuppie scumbags.

On Friday I sat next to a couple named John and Jamie. Both are students, with John holding down a full time job at the local Anheuser-Busch brewery to boot (did you know that employees are given two free cases each month as a part of their compensation package? I’m in the wrong line of work.). My intuition told me that Jamie would rather have spent her Friday night being wined and dined at Alana's than to be dragged out to a ballgame and listen to John sing the SportsCenter theme every time Drew Henson made a great stab at third. But she seemed like a good sport about it. In fact, the place seemed to be full of good people. Some borderline insane people like the lady behind who kept warning me that she’d "knock [my] ass over" if a foul ball came our way, but good people nonetheless. I liked it.

Verdict: the minors.

Fun! Fun! Fun!

As I’ve mentioned before, more and more major league teams have decided that the game on the field isn’t enough to hold the fans’ interest, so they've started turning the ballparks into carnivals, complete with merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, and sideshows. This phenomenon is still pretty new in the majors, however, and there are still places like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium where the game will always be king. The minors are a different story. Because they know that they're peddling second-rate talent, the minors have always been about showmanship and distraction.

Something other than baseball was happening every half-inning Friday night. There were pizza giveaways, shopping cart races, baseball bingo, scavenger hunts, winning seat numbers, and dash-for-cash events. Even worse, Friday night’s game had a theme: Animal House Night. In honor of this special occasion, the first pitch was thrown out by an apparently plastered member of some college’s Sigma Chi chapter. The pitch was high and outside, but I’ll cut him some slack considering he was wearing a toga.

Some would say that all this peripheral business is good because it encourages people who wouldn’t otherwise come – people with small children for example – to come out to the ballpark. I would say that it’s very bad because it encourages people who wouldn’t otherwise come – people with small children for example – to come out to the ballpark.

Verdict: the majors.

Seats:

There isn’t a bad seat at Cooper Stadium, or most minor league parks for that matter, and even though I arrived ticketless an hour before game time, I managed to get a seat right behind the home team dugout. The great seats had their drawbacks, however. Even though I’ve read Ball Four and ought to know better, I'd always hoped that ballplayers were generally decent guys you wouldn't mind hanging out with. But sitting so close to the action, I got the "pleasure" of overhearing two Clippers discuss all the fine "tail" in the crowd that night. Classy. Still, this is really no contest.

Verdict: the minors.

The Actual Ballgame:

Minor league aficionados will try to convince you that minor league games are somehow more refreshing or uplifting, and that the guys in Richmond, Rochester, Pawtucket, and Columbus are more enjoyable to watch because they’re playing the game for the love of it rather than a paycheck. Right. Maybe there are some players in it for the sheer love of the game, but everyone I saw on the field Friday night would give his right arm for the minimum salaries, per diems and charter flights of the show. Anyone who'd tell you otherwise is lying. Now that we've got that little romantic conceit out of the way, let’s turn to the actual quality of play.

Ok, let’s not. No one would seriously argue that you’re seeing a better ballgame at Triple-A than you are in the majors. I mean no disrespect to the Columbus and Ottawa players I saw last Friday night, but with a scant few exceptions, hardly any of them will have a legitimate gripe if they don’t make it to the big leagues. It may be cruel to say that Columbus’s backup catcher Creighton Gubanich will never play for the parent club Yankees, but it’s the truth. What’s more, it’s a truth that Gubanich himself seemed well aware of as he flailed his way to an 0-4 night against Ottawa, cussing at the umpire and yelling at himself each time he took the walk back to the dugout. This wasn’t uplifting; this was kind of sad. Perhaps it’s better at the lower levels where everybody still thinks they have a chance, but even if the major leaguers hit the picket lines tomorrow, I would have a hard time watching the not so quiet desperation that is Triple-A baseball day in and day out. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe Gubanich was the guy talking about all the tail at the ballpark that night and he gets his share of fulfillment from that and that alone. I just kind of doubt it.

Verdict: the majors.

So where does this all leave us? Tied 3-3 in my completely arbitrary categories. Perhaps there are a dozen better things about the minors that I’m not taking into account, and maybe watching millionaires argue with other millionaires in the majors is draining the life out of those of us who still care, but I’m the judge here and the judge has to make a decision. The majors get my nod in the tie-breaker. I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I would Friday night, but there’s no way I’d turn my back on the big leagues. The minors are called the minors for a reason. Johnny Sportswriter may flirt with abandoning the bigs for his small-town mistress when the news turns bleak, but he’ll be back. And with the exception of a few grudge-holding fans out there, so will the rest of us. We always have.