BULLY FOR BRONTOSAURUS
"I am naïve enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough." Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human
It seems as if the number of baseball fans is dwindling. Gone are the days when an entire community would eat, breathe and sleep its pennant-contending team, they way they used to in old New York back in the '50s. Here in Minneapolis, a town with a great baseball team, outside of the sports pages, you'd hardly know we were about to begin another season. Last fall, during our part-time job at the nation's largest orange-themed hardware center, few cared that the Twins were in the playoffs. All summer long we hungered to hear that worn cliché, "how 'bout those Twins?" Where are the casual hot stove leagues? Nowadays you need to be a dues paying member of SABR or belong to a long-established fantasy league to ruminate on the noble sport. Times have changed.
And so we read. We read to insulate ourselves against the lousy offseason news, usually concerning money or gossip. We read and slip into the fantasy that we lived in a time when baseball commanded the country's attention, read to pretend that we know others who are as passionate about the sport as we are. We're fortunatethere's a battalion of great writers and, consequently, whole libraries of fantastic baseball books. Unlike hockey buffs, we can sit back during the offseason, beneath the warm glow of the dining room light, beer in hand, and ponder baseball with great minds like Stephen Jay Gould.
Should you pick up Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion For Baseball (W. W. Norton, 24. 95, March release)and we recommend that you doyou'll notice that Stephen Jay Gould was a big man, both literally and figuratively. (According to illustrator Arnold Roth, who drew the cover, Gould even dwarfed the not diminutive Babe Ruth.) Gould was one of the preeminent paleontologists of the 20th Century, an authority on Darwinism, and one of those rare scientists (along with Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and the wonderful Richard P. Feynman) whose prose, when aimed at us layfolks, often found itself on the bestseller lists, read and understood and enjoyed by college students, high school science teachers, and anyone interested in good prose on a fascinating subject. But he was never prolific on baseball: Triumph is his one and only book on this subject.
Despite his scientific background, Gould was our kind of fan, for he enjoyed the myths of baseball as much as its numbers. Statistics have a special place in our sport, but it is sometimes alarming the degree to which they engulf certain fans and writers, and we admit fearing that Gould would fall prey to this temptation as well. You won't find another the typical Jamesian go at debunking or proving certain myths: tons of numbers and lackluster prose. "Mickey Mantlethe Man Versus the Myth", is a perfect example of the deceptive charm of this book. Gould admits that, at first, he hated Mantle: like many New Yorkers, he loathed the poor Okie for having displaced DiMaggio. But Gould soon grew to admire the Mick, and especially the amazing season of 1957, which was actually superior to his triple crown season of '56. The numbers are there: Gould would not shy from using the stats to prove a point. "Imagine getting on base more often than making an out," he wrote, referring to Mantle's .512 on-base percentage (Bonds, of course, broke this last year). Thing is, these numbers come in the midst of Gould's tale of warming up to the young Mantle. He didn't stun the reader with complex algorithms, choosing instead to allow these few stats to drop you headfirst into Yankee Stadium in '57: you almost feel the your sneakers sticking to the beer-stained concrete, smell the warm air. That's what statistics, used correctly, can give usthey help rekindle the special games, or whole seasons. In our world 19-9, 2.34, 24 boils down Mark Fidrych's 1976 rookie year (won-lost, ERA, complete games), and calls to mind not only that fabulous season, but that whole tumultuous yearof bicentennial license plates, "Rocky", Watership Down, Gerald Ford v. Jimmy Carter, and, more personally, starting third grade in a new town thanks to a divorce. Statistics are beautiful both as a method of enhancingor deflatingmyth, and as a form of strategy. No one can deny Billy Beane's success using hard data on building the modern Athletics.
But storiesmyth, if you willare as important to baseball as the numbers, and Stephen Jay Gould balanced the two well. Triumph's heart beats around three essays: "Why No One Hits .400 Any More"; "The Streak of Streaks", which, although a review of Michael Seidel's Streak, is more a reflection of what Gouldand othersanointed as the most difficult feat in all of sports; and, the best of the lot, "The H and Q of Baseball".
One of the most absurd tarpits baseball fans fall into is the arguments on how players compete against one another, past versus present. Perhaps because baseball has remained almost literally unchanged over the decades that we think we can stick our present day heroes in a bell jar with the latter day saints and let them duke it out. Statistical analysis seems to favor the old timers. Why is it that the players of the past appear so much better than those in the present? Who hasn't heard the ballyhoo that Babe Ruth, great in spite of the bottle, would have towered over everyone with today's training and exercise programs? Curmudgeons point to other facts: that no one has hit .400 since Ted Williams clocked in with .406 back in '41, and yet, in the fifty years prior, eight men hit better than .410. What gives?
We relish these arguments, and so did Gould. The scientist trained his sharp eye on the numbers to find what he thought were answers. What he discovered (probably crunching the numbers over a lunch break at Harvard) was that the system of baseball streamlines over the years, as all systems do. Education and technology make everything better. With this comes the narrowing of the gap between the top and bottom, making it more difficult for great players to capitalize on the mistakes of others, one of the reasons the top players were so much better. "Ironically," he wrote, "the disappearance of .400 hitting is a sign of improvement, not decline." We are reaching an equilibrium, a raising of the lower averages, a lowering of the higher. In addition, the quality of play has improved all around: back in the early days strategies like cutoff men, the hit-and-run, not to mention relievers, weren't used. Gloves were worthless and the tools of learning, like videos and hundred page scouting reports, were unheard of. "Wee Willie Keeler could hit 'em where they ain't," Gould argued, "because fielders didn't yet know where they should be." The modern players have to contend with pitchers like Curt Schilling, who obsessively pores over videos of every batter he's going to face, which certainly shaves something off the hitter's average. "No one soars above the commonplace any more," Gould lamented. "General advance brings declining variation in its wake; heroes are extinct."
Even Joe DiMaggio's great streak is not immune from Gould's eye. The professor made no bones about the fact that he was an unabashed Yankees fan, even going so far as to try to elicit our sympathyrepeatedlyfor the fact that he was terribly sad that his Yanks lost to Brooklyn in 1955. (Tigers fans have little sympathy for anyone, much less New Yorkers.) More than that, he loved the Clipper. And, he argued, the streak is the most difficult statistical feat in baseball, perhaps in any sport.
But, like Williams' triumph, Gould felt compelled to dismiss, ever so slightly, DiMaggio's accomplishment. He argued that only the great players can have long streaks as their ability to get more hits raises the probability of hitting in sequence. It makes perfect sense that a man like DiMaggio could hit safely in so many games while Rob Deer probably didn't hit in two consecutive games ever. What seems contradictory, however, is the fact that he suggested that there was little in Joe's character that helped the streak. "The statistics show something else, and something fascinating: there is no 'causality of circumstance,' no 'extra' that the great can draw from the soul of their valor to extend a streak beyond the ordinary expectation of coin-tossing models for a series of unconnected events, each occurring with the characteristic probability of that particular player. Good players have higher characteristic probabilities, hence longer streaks." DiMaggio, he argued, "cheated death, at least for awhile."
But DiMaggio, having weathered five years of scrutiny in the most scrutinous town in the world, handled the streak with relative ease. Probability is there, but so is psychology. Neglected is any mention of DiMaggio's hitting in 16 straight games after the streak was broken, and the fact that, earlier, as a 17 year-old playing with the San Francisco Seals (in the almost major-league caliber Pacific Coast League), he hit in 61 straight games. For that matter, Mr. Keeler (Wee-Willie), who owned the record prior to Joe (with 44 games), is the only player to have hit in 20 straight games eight times in his career. Statistics cannot measure whether or not these two men are more capable of a hitting streak or not, yet it seems odd to suggest that these repeats are mere coincidence, luck heightened by talent.
And neither DiMaggio's streak nor Williams' .406 incited Gould to raise the most important question: would these feats have been accomplished in an integrated league? Of the top twenty hitting streaks in history, only five have occurred since African-American's broke into baseball over fifty years ago, and, of course, there have been no .400 hitters. Now, while you may argue, as Gould did, that everything's averaging itself out, it also makes sense that, in the years following integration (and up until expansion got the best of everybody), baseball was played by the best players in America for the first time. Just three hits would have kept Williams from his magical number, and, of course, had DiMaggio met Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith or Dave Barnhill instead of Philadelphia's Chubby Dean (opponents BA: .294) in game 39, things would have been different.
Labor problems are the single most controversial subject in baseball today, and, in light of the recent agreements, probably the most misunderstood. That Gould did not skirt this subject is a testament to the value of Triumph; that he spoke honestly about it was a testament to Gould's integrity. Using Marvin Miller's autobiography A Whole New Ballgame as his leaping point, Gould examined the difference in our view of ballplayers and baseball in general, and how this viewpoint can affect the sport in sometimes disastrous ways. In his essay, "The H and Q of Baseball" (a review of Whole, among others) Gould disseminated our vision into two different groups: the hagiographical and quotidian (H-mode and Q-mode). Gould assumed his readers knew what these categories meant, but we'll share the definitions we found in our Merriam-Webster (and the fact that we obviously didn't know): hagiographical is the idealizing or idolizing biography; quotidian is "commonplace, ordinary" (e.g., Proud to Be a Yankee, is hagiographical; Ball Four quotidian). Where this becomes important is in one's view of the labor movement in baseball. In our hunger for a hagiographical worlda world in which humble players like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays coexist and make beautiful plays for the same team all their lives and earn about as much money as we do (or less)we forget that the players exist in the quotidian, a place where they have to pay bills and deal with the true bastards of the sport, the owners. Believing in the former at the expense of being grounded in the latter is what is hurting baseball today. The best example of this lies in passages of two different Mantle biographies, My Favorite Summer, in which Mantle was happy with the peanuts the Yanks threw at him ("I didn't even try to get the Yankees to give me more
I couldn't wait to go to spring training
) and The Mick, where the kid, just a year later, is having sleepless nights worrying about the failing bowling alley that was supposed to secure his economic future. No player today would have to worry about having to invest in a bowling alley to survive after baseball.
Gould didn't take the labor line completely: he lamented the end of a player's loyalty to one team, and we admit this leaves us sad as well. Never again will there be a seventeen year, Trammell-Whitaker double-play combo in Detroit, or elsewhere. But real life has a way of intruding on our wishful thinking, and baseball fans seem stuck in the clouds. Under Selig's powerful leadership (horrible though it is) owners have succeeded in convincing the populace that they're losing money without offering a shred of proof (as compared to players, whose salary is front-of-the-sports page news). This collective brainwash has led to publicly funded stadiums and the cry of small-market, a falsehood if ever there was one. Players make a ton of money, its true, but so do movie stars. As Bruce Bochte, former first baseman for the Oakland A's, is quoted in Triumph: "
we are members of the entertainment industry, a particularly crazy enterprise. What we do generates this money, primarily through TV and radio contracts. Either we get it or the owners get it; and since we are doing the playing, we might as well get our fair share." If we weren't privy to the players salaries, would fans squawk as much as they do? The equality of teams has actually improved; since the 'olden' days, teams other than those in New York win (even in today's Yankee market). But the old mythsof players walking home through the neighborhoods, Kaline and Musial giving back money for a bum yearcontinually threatens our psychological stability. Why can't we accept the fact that not only are those days over, but, for the most part, they never existed in the first place? No one, not even Gould, has the answer.
Despite the above, it's enjoyable to note that even Gould fell for a few yarns. In "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs", Gould, Yankee fan and Red Sox season-ticket holder, summarized the Curse of the Bambino: "
Boston owner Harry Frazee simply and cynically sold the team's greatest player for straight needed to finance a flutter on a Broadway show
Moreover, Frazee sold Boston's hero to the hated enemy, the New York Yankees."
Like any good myth, this is true and it's not true. Yes, Frazee sold the incredible Hulk to the Yanks for money to finance "No No Nanette". However, "Nanette" was no flutter, but a hugely popular musical still performed today. Frazee had visions of being a successful Broadway producerand was someone who'd already seen considerable success with baseball, his second loveand probably didn't think twice about selling off one of his best players, at a time when the team was floundering. (He was an owner, so calling him cynical is like calling cats selfish). We can't forget that Ruth essentially created the Yanks, who were not, at the time, anything more than perennial bottom dwellers and not much more of an enemy to Boston than Tampa Bay is today. But if the myth still sends chills down the spine of many a Red Sox fan, what's the problem with that?
Triumph succeeds because Gould was a great scientist who knew how to use data, and was a good writer who could give us this information in a way that didn't take you back to high school Algebra (Bill James take note). Reading Triumph gives us the deceptive sensation that we're there with Gould, that jolly fellow you saw on "Nova", only baseball is our subject. Even his reminiscences shine. Sweet to us was the essay "Streetball from a New York City Boyhood", which dispenses with the usual treacle, choosing instead to codify the codified the rules of New York City street- and stoop-ball, giving us something to compare our own experiences with. There are other surprises, including the claim that Jim Thorpe was the greatest, and perhaps most tragic, athlete of the Twentieth Century, and a look at umpire Babe Pinelli's called third strike during Don Larsen's perfect World Series game, which is both fascinating and poignant. At times Gould slipped into the need to wax rhapsodic, and the publishers felt it necessary to include everything he penned on the sport, which is a mistake when you get to the letter he wrote to Joe DiMaggio about the Clipper's appearance on a Nova program. And we wish he'd have taken George Will more to task more than he didno one beats Kurt Vonnegut's summation that Will is an "owlish nitwit".
The best baseball books are the most difficult to read, forcing us to stop, look up, and furrow our brow at some argument or claim. The margins are loaded with notes, always a good sign. Reading Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, one emerges with a deeper understanding of the sport, a few laughs, and even a half dozen recommendations for what to read next. When you finish a subtle feeling of sadness creeps over you, similar to saying good-bye. As we put the book on the shelf, we had to pause and wonder: baseball is not the same today as it was in Gould's day. Will anyone write of baseball today with as much passion?
In the olden days umpire-baiting and shouts of "Kill the umpire!" were as much a part of a spectator's experience at a baseball game as the National Anthem and hot dogs. Grumbling about poor umpiring is a time-honored tradition in itself. But in a sport suffering severe public relations problems, could improving the umpiring quell fan unrest?
Major League Baseball, it seems, has always had just as touchy a relationship with its umpires as it has with its players. But in recent years that relationship has changed drastically since the old umps' union was broken. Under the new union and the new rules, MLB has much greater oversight of umpires than ever before, and much more control. But fans have yet to see much in the way of change on the field. Why?
Think about the gripes you hearand undoubtedly say yourselffrom time to time. How about this one: the time when a single umpire's decision carries the most weightin the postseason or World Seriesis the time when we want the best umpires, not the ones with the most favors to call in with their boss. Baseball is a ruthless meritocracy in so many ways. It appeals to the fan sensibility of the cream rising to the top, and would mollify us to know that if an umpire blew a call in the seventh game of the World Series, well, at least he was one of the best umpires in the business. Why isn't there a merit system to choose who works these plum assignments?
And then there is ball/strike calling. This is by far the most widespread source of griping, especially among TV announcers and fans at home watching. ESPN went so far as to introduce a special technology (the "K-zone") for its Sunday night broadcasts, to definitively determine whether a pitch indeed touched any portion of the strike zone. Why hasn't Major League Baseball implemented a system like this to evaluate umpire accuracy?
Well, guess what? Major League Baseball does have an umpire oversight program that uses a technology that is even more advanced than the K-zone, at least according to Kevin O'Connor, an umpire evaluator who spoke at the 2002 SABR Convention in Boston. In ten of the thirty Major League parks, electronic equipment evaluates every pitch of the game. After each game, a compact disc of data is burned and given to the home plate ump to review his mistakes. The CD shows every pitch, the strike zone, and marks those that were called incorrectly. Also, according to O'Connor, most umps will only miss 5-6 ball/strike calls per game, which means an accuracy rate above 98%. Not only that, the results of these umpire evaluations are monitored by MLB and do influence who is chosen to work postseason games.
If every fan knew this, would there be less grumbling? Perhaps. We've now answered all my questions except for one: why haven't fans seen this change on the field? The real question is, why hasn't Major League Baseball made this system common knowledge? Why has MLB preferred to suffer the accusations like those of devoted fan Bob Williams (in Mudville's letter column) that "it is obvious that umpires do not obey the rules which state the strikes must be over the plate" and play-by-play announcers everywhere? I can only speculate as follows:
1) Maybe MLB is not interested in doing anything to antagonize Television, which is its Golden Goose. To announce that most of the ball/strike replays you see on television are inaccurate (and they are, because of camera angles and distances) would undermine the illusion that the networks carefully preserve that its better to watch the game on TV than to see it live (or listen on radio).
2) Maybe MLB would prefer that the ire of the masses about bad ball/strike calling continue to fall on the umpires, as it has done since time immemorial. If fans thought MLB might be responsible, we'd have yet one more reason to call for Selig's head.
3) Maybe MLB's "control" over the umpires is not quite as complete as they would like it to be, and if the use of umpire evaluation were common knowledge, this fact might be exposed.
4) Maybe Kevin O'Connor wasn't being truthful, and actually umpires are a lot worse than he stated. Maybe the gripers are right and MLB would be in a pickle if we really knew how bad things were. (I doubt this, though.)
5) Maybe MLB is just clueless about what makes fans happy and doesn't realize that fans would universally approve of objective evaluation of umpiring skills? We know umpires have to work their way through the minors, just as players do. Technically, that is supposed to make those who reach the majors the best at what they do. But we also know that there are other factors besides raw talent that can get one to the top. As with players, so it is with umpires--a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness, putting up with low pay and constant travel for years on end, conformity, toeing the line, and even nepotism can serve to advance one up the ladder. Knowing that to stay in the majors, umpires have to keep performing, just like players, at the top level, might set some fans' minds at ease.
6) Maybe MLB is trying to respect the umpire's prerogative, which is "he sees what he sees." We have never before been able to look inside an umpire's head to find out if he thought he got a call wrong, and the fact that an umpire's decision stands no matter what in baseball (no ridiculous "consulting the replays" as in football) is one of the few things that is still sacrosanct. If word of this system were widespread, how long would it be before writers started wanting to put a "box score" for the umpire in the paper? The best umpire is supposedly the one you don't notice is there. By bringing even closer scrutiny on umpires by the public and sportswriters, wouldn't MLB be violating this principle?
As I said, this is all speculation. Whatever the reason for MLB's seeming reticence to discuss or inform the public about umpire oversight, I hope the program is here to stay even if it stays in the background. I approve of MLB's human and electronic watchdogs but I, for one, do not want to see an umpire "box score" every day. No matter how good an umpire is, there will still be blown calls. Human umpires are a part of the game, they are part of its fabric. Some long for "pure" baseball, where there would never be a question, where the outcome of every game, of every play, would be determined purely on physical success. But that wouldn't be baseball, where we have so many influences on the richness of the game, from playing fields of different sizes to mounds of different shapes, not to mention sign-stealing and many other forms of sanctioned cheating. I'm not saying we should stop griping about umpires, far from it. But will you be able to pick out which are the five pitches missed on Opening Day? I can't wait to try.
THE BIG MONEY
Father used to say that, back in his day, Hollywood tried to pull a fast one on the nation's moviegoers, slipping advertisements at the start of the show. No one would put up with that! They were paying good money to see a movie, not some silly commercial! With that, the good citizens stormed out, demanded their money back, and the ads were quickly removed.
Oh, what a long time ago that was. Today, of course, we have ads in front of all the lousy flicks, (even many of the good ones, few though they are) but even worse (and dragging this little story to the world of baseball) are the Name Brand Stadiums. Qualcomm Stadium? With that kind of name, couldn't the Giants play in Windowpane Acid Park? For cry-eye!
What boggles our troubled mind is all the ruckus about Comiskey Park. For the last ten years bowl games and stadiums have all come under Madison Avenue's less-than-subtle thumb, so why is everyone so crazy about renaming Comiskey?
Of course, most of the din is coming from the pundits in the sports section, ringing that old cowbell "how could they mess with tradition?" Well, for starters, messing with tradition for filthy lucre shouldn't come as no surprise to anyone. What shocks us is that the profiteers didn't think to do kill Comiskey a long time ago. No, what's troubling is that, if anyone has the power to rekindle tradition, it's the very same sportswriters doing the complaining. No law exists that forces our nation's scribblers to use Brand Name Field when writing about where the Chisox play. When newspapers and magazines write "Greedco Field", that's free advertisement (after all, the money went to the Moguls, not the newspapers). If you don't like it, don't write it.
Even though we can't claim that Mudville has enough readers to start a trend, consider it done here: there is now only Comiskey Park, Astros Field, New Tiger Stadium, etc. You have power as well: write to your local scribes and demand the same. If you want to go even farther, write your legislator and demand that the money, for state-owned parks, should go back into the public coffers.