THE WISDOM OF INSECURITY
Once upon a timejust a month ago, reallyTwins fans had a song in their heart, a spring in their step, and were lost in dreams of another division championship. The local nine just finished one of the best months in their history, zooming from five games behind upstart Kansas City to capture first place. Then, suddenly, they dropped four straight games to the mighty Seattle Mariners and a momentary darkness fell upon our land. Local writers, including our pals in the blog set, urged their readers not to lose hope. You see, they said, we have before us a veritable feast of weak teams. After the Giants, you have San Diego, Colorado, the now-lousy Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City, and then the god-awful Milwaukee Brewers. The mountains have been crossed, friends, Cape Horn has been rounded. It's easy going all the way. What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. As we all know by now, the Twins dropped two of three to the Diamondbacks, three of four to the Royals, another two of three the lowly Brewers. While tornadoes gouged up the city, the White Sox beat the Twins again, to send them into second place, mere percentage points behind the Royals. After Thursday's matinee, the Twins ended up losing their fourth straight series in a row, and remain in second, a game behind the Royals, while the White Sox are creeping up from behind.
And this, fans and pundits, should be cause for rejoicing.
For this is now a race. The American League Central Division has finally decided to wake up, roll out of bed, slip on yesterday's clothing and join the rest of the league. Look about you: in the AL East, the Yanks, Red Sox and Blue Jays are duking it out, with the last being yet more proof of the success of the so-called Beane' formula. Casting your eye on the AL West, Seattle's lead has shrunk to six games over Oakland, and recent history tells us that is tissue-thin. In our sister division on the National side, you've got the Cubs, Cardinals, Astros and Reds clawing for first. The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is back on the hot seat, and don't forget that Arizona, now but five back, will be a much different squad with the likes of Johnson and Schilling at its helm. Only the Braves, who will should have their hats handed to them in the postseason, have a seemingly insurmountable lead, as no one in that division seems capable over overtaking them.
Problem is, a swami whispers in our ear late at night, and he keeps saying the same old thing: come August, the Twins will sit in the fabled catbird seat again, a good 5 to 6 to 8 games in first, coasting to another Central Division Title. Kansas City won't last. Chicago won't last. If swami is right, and July and August see the Twins breaking away, that should make for a more relaxed populace in the Minnesota.
But it is, dear friends, boring as hell.
Anxiety is half the fun in baseball. Now, we admit that, being expatriates from the great state of Michigan, our tension probably isn't as acute as those folks with a basement full of Twins memorabilia. In our troubled mind, a thrill-a-minute season beats the Twins-win-the-Pennant!-at-all-costs Season. Back in '84, when the Tigers breezed through the schedule, it was all fun for those of us who'd sat listening to Ernie Harwell recount multiple failures for eight long years. So when the youngsters like Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker caught fire, it was a real blast to see this team utterly destroy their opponents. And yet '87 was a better year. No one expected the Tigers to go as far as they did, no one could have seen them win so consistently, and come from behind so often, with one-hit wonders like Jim Walewander and Matt Nokes. With eight games left in the season, they sat three-and-a-half games out of first and no one thought they could win. In fact, no one had ever overcome that large a deficit in such short time before or since. But they did. And then, of course, the Twins beat the crap out of them in five games.
Our next best thrill was living in the San Francisco bay area in the summer of '93. The race between the Giants and Braves was a study in nail-biting perfection. These two teams matched win for win, loss for loss until the last game of the season, which the Braves won and the Giants lost. The 104 game winner went to the post-season leaving the 103 game winner in the dust. There wasn't a fan in the Bay area that wasn't listening or watching each and every game, all the while keeping an eye on the scoreboards to see how the Braves fared. No one was waiting until the morning paper to find out the results of yesterday's contest. And as it was in Detroit just six years earlier, the end result was heartbreak.
But heartbreak is a part of baseball. Last September, was anyone in Minnesota checking the scores to see how the White Sox were doing, heart racing, palms damp? If so, that's just a side effect of some pretty harsh medication. This season, it seems like everyone's happy as clams that we've got a supposed cakewalk ahead. The Twins are a better team than the Royals, and it seems as if the White Sox are content to stay put, which should leave our team far ahead come Labor Day. And that really sucks. Twins fans, you can raise the championship banner over Dullsville, but we're going home.
Of course, you can't ask the Twins to lose, but should our predictions bear out, and the Twins tear it up, the season could still have some zip to it if it weren't for the unbalanced schedule. Thanks to the cabal, the Twins have already finished playing the Yanks, Red Sox and Blue Jays, perhaps the hottest teams in the league, leaving us with 54 more games against our division rivals. This is where the problems occur: if a division is weak (and ours is the weakest in both leagues) then we get a whole lot of sandlot ball coming down the pike, and little else.
Compare the '99 schedule with today's. Today: six games against Boston and Toronto, seven against the Yanks, all of which are behind us. In '99 we played ten games each against those teamsand still had an unbalanced schedule, playing 15 games against Detroit and Chicago, 13 against KC, and 12 versus the Indians. Today, we play 19 games against our Central Division pals. Is anyone really thrilled to see thirteen more games against the Tigers? Sure, the seduction of 13 wins (possible) against the lowly Bengals might help your digestion, but we're guessing the seats at the Metrodome won't be filled, the television ratings low. Essentially, the new schedule takes four games from each of the East and gives them to the central. Four more games against the Yanks would be great, a chance to avenge the six losses they gave us earlier, a chance to see Clemens and Matsui again, and, if the Central Division was close, it might just be a chance to see Twins management sweat and make some moves at the trading deadline. As it stands, they'll probably do nothing. After all, it is the Central Division.
True, with the old schedule you get more games against the likes of Tampa Bay and Baltimore, but even that's an improvement. It's better to play a bunch of lousy teams as opposed to one lousy team, over and over and over (like Detroit). Some might argue that, if it stays close, wouldn't we want to play more games against our rivals? Not necessarily. For starters, the old schedule still closed against division rivals. Even better, games against the Yankees would be just as nerve-wracking as a set against the White Sox. But, as we said before, there probably won't be a race. And if winning's all that counts, theoretically, would Twins fans dig seeing the team play the Tigers the rest of the seasonif it would guarantee a playoff berth? Would it be better if the season were shortened to 100 games, with eight seeds in the postseason, similar to Hockey or Basketball? We don't think so, but maybe local fans disagree. This is the state where the North Stars made it to the Stanley Cup finals with a losing record; you don't hear anyone around here complaining about that.
If the unbalanced schedule disgusts you don't just read Rob Neyer (who also hates it), write to the Commissioner's office. Maybe if we all started putting in our two cents, old Bud might just listen.
Years ago, a friend of our Dad's passed away. He was a younger guy, kept to himself, but he did a lot of good things for a lot of people. As is typical in life, people sort of took him for granted, thought he was a nice guy, told themselves they'd call him later. Then he died, and a ton of people who felt bad had great things to say at his funeral. "It's a shame they didn't send him flowers when he was alive," Dad said. "They probably would made him a lot happier then."
So, too, goes the life and death of Larry Doby. Even Tony LaRussa, who was brought up as a coach under Doby, had Larry's phone number and told himself he'd call it someday. "I kick myself," LaRussa said, "I saw his son earlier this year and asked for his number and I didn't call it. And I regret it." Perhaps it was easy to overlook Doby, a quiet man in person, and by the numbers. Larry Doby probably doesn't rank in many people's list of players they'd wish to see if they could (he doesn't rank in ours), but his breaking the American League's color barrier certainly put him on a higher level. As Bill Veeck wrote (in Veeck as in Wreck), "if Jackie Robinson was the ideal man to break the color line, Brooklyn was the ideal place." Cleveland and Doby seem like two peas in the same podquiet, hardworking, not calling attention to themselves. Of both, you don't find many glowing reminiscences. Doby did his job with the quiet dependability we normally associate with Hank Aaron, and did it in a town that didn't exactly produce a bumper crop of great sportswriters. Unlike Robinson, whose number is retired league-wide, Larry Doby's influence is was quieter, less forceful, and sadly, less recognized. Now there are hundreds of articles about Doby's being overlooked, but maybe the lesson we can take from this is to give credit where credit is due
while they're still alive. Doby probably would have appreciated that.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING
It can be said with utter confidence that if there was one book we would take on that proverbial desert island, it would be the latest edition of Total Baseball (which is far superior to its counterpart, the now deceased Baseball Encyclopedia). For if there is any tome that is a triumph of the imagination, it is a baseball encyclopedia. What makes it so amazing is that the information on its onionskin triggers your imagination in limitless ways. There, fossilized in the numbers, is the whole of Major League Baseball, from beginning to end. Open any page and you'll find the basis for some story. For example, here's one on page 1,408 of the seventh edition of Total Baseball:
BARRETT, WILLIAM JOSEPH;
"Whispering Bill", b: 5/28/00, Cambridge, MA. D: 1/26/51 Cambridge, MA. BR/TR, 6' 175lbs. Deb. 5/13/21.
PHI-A W 1 L 0, G 4, No GS, CG, Sh, Sv; 5 IP, 2 hits, 9 bb, 2 so for a 7.20 ERA.
So Bill Barrett pitched four games in 1921, debuting on the 13th day of his birth month. Was that a Friday? The guy gave up only two hits in five innings, but nine walks. And that nickname! Whispering Bill? Can you imagine this poor guy, mumbling to himself for lack of confidence, so bad that a team that lost 100 games has no place for him on their roster?
Needless to say, baseball encyclopedias are full of stuff like this. Sadly, this spring was the first time since their inception in 1969 that not a single publisher had plans to release a new edition. At one point, three different publishers had encyclopedias: Macmillian, Total Sports Publishing, and STATS (who edition was two volumes and extravagantly priced). Now there's only one, and it's on weak footing.
Gary Gillette, who served both as a contributor and in an uncredited editorial capacity' at Total Baseball when it was published by the now-defunct Total Sports Publishing, pointed out the difficulties of printing a new edition, year after year. "The biggest problem is that virtually all of the book needs to be re-typeset for each edition. More than 200 new players need to be added each year, and more than 1000 players add to their stats every season. That means that the batter and pitcher registers, which comprise the bulk of the book have to be redone from scratch." He also pointed out that in today's world very few publishers are interested in producing a giant reference work that runs around $60.00, especially when most, if not all, of the information can be accessed on the internet.
To be honest, we imagined this article would close by being dark and pessimistic, lamenting the end of good, old-fashioned books, perishing like the dinosaurs at the hand of a comet called the internet. Fortunately, this was due to the fact that our last contact turned out to be the most important one to the story. For although Macmillan and STATS are not publishing new editions, Sports Classics Books, who bought the rights to Total Baseball, have plans to release a new edition next spring. Publisher Jim O'Leary stated that even though it's shrinking, there's still a market for baseball encyclopedias. Nonetheless, if this edition sells poorly, you had better believe that a baseball encyclopedia, the greatest book on the greatest sport, will vanish forever.
TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
Earlier this month we had an amazing night that captured the essence of summer like very few evenings could. First there was the drive through a summer storm to Minneapolis' Oak Street Cinema, to take in "Quai Des Orfevres", a lurid film from the late 40s. "Quai" is about murder and infidelity, starring Suzy Delair, a bizarre actress who was, by turns, both voluptuous and ugly (this was not intentional). Afterwards, still reeling from the beauty of the film, we stumbled outside to a clear sky, the air fresh and the sidewalks wet and clean from the rain. Driving home, windows down, we took the long way back, listening to the Twins play the Giants in the first game of their set. As we drove slowly around Lake Calhoun, the radio and the rushing air filled the car, and baseball became a part of that whole evening: of the crescent moon, of downtown glowing in the haze of sunset, of the trees still dripping in the background and finally, of a single rowboat with a green light on the flat surface the lake, night fishing.
Statistics were nowhere to be found. No on-base percentage, no OPS, no slugging percentage. In fact, we knew only the names of each batter since, as many know, Dan Gladden doesn't add much in the way of numbers to his color commentary. Which, at that moment, was just fine. Sometimes crunching the numbers gets rather old, and it was a joy to just listen to a game, to the murmur of the crowd and the crack of the bat.
Oddly enough, mediocre minds such as ours sometimes collide with greater minds, such as the City Pages' Brad Zellar. In one of the few "Yards" to make it into print, Brad argues basically the same thing. Most of the time, stats are wondrous things: it takes the numbers to make a book like Total Baseball so great (not to mention Moneyball). But really, baseball fans, don't you ever just want to sit and watch a game, enjoy the sounds and the sights it affords you? Zellar writes that "the players understand this better than the writers and the stats junkies do", but you could also say this for the old men who check out all those American Legion games down the street. They don't have Baseball Prospectus to analyze Jason Schmuck's OPS, batting fourth for the Discount Tire team. While we're not big on amateur ball, the blissful ignorance they and their fans enjoy sometimes seems more appealing than its intellectual alternative.
FACTS DON'T DO WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO
With the success of Moneyball, much more has been written about on-base percentage as a real indicator of a player's ability (and OPS, which is on-base plus slugging percentage). Although it's true that on-base percentage is the perhaps the most precise reflection of success, there's an argument to be made that the batting average statistic is the greatest indicator of a players aesthetic prowess. For batting average reflects a player's success putting the ball into play. Balls put into play turn the batter into a runner, force the fielders to react, and often times raise the fan from their seat. With a walk, no one is involved but the guy shuffling to first, maybe the catcher lobbing the ball back to the mound. Certainly it's true that a player who correctly utilizes the strike zone will have a better batting average, which is the strength of on-base percentage. But when you boil down the senior statistic, you're looking at a number that captures all the movement, the brief moments when offense and defense are engaged, the heart of the game, pure and simple.
One of the more alarming aspects of the so-called Beane system of player development is its reliance on College ballplayers. While there's no doubt that college baseball has better competition, and therefore better statistics, than high school, the last thing America's colleges and universities need is more student athletes. The minor league system pays its players fair and square, as opposed to those poor kids stuck in the NCAA fiefdom. Although this won't happen until the day we elect a cow for president, the best thing might be to go back to the old independent minor league system, and get rid of the affiliated farms. Someone at some time has to take a risk on the high school student, and we say let it be the independent operator. Then, and only then, would you have major league teams gleaning players from a fair system that has given a young player time to develop, has the numbers the scouts need, and is paying them fairly without clogging our nation's classrooms.
It looks as though the end might be nigh for Tiger Stadium. The Detroit News reports that the city is taking bids on having a Wal-Mart or Home Depot wreck the place and build on the site, a sad proposal considering all the empty space in Detroit (including the site of the old Hudson's building)
Roger Angell's new book Game Time (Harcourt, $25 bucks even) should get a larger review from us, for it contains the same God-Damn-I-hate-myself-that-I'll-never-write-that-well prose that's in all his books. From essays concerning geezers at spring training to a word on slumps by Pete Rose ("I don't there's anybody going to get me out for long. Nobody's got a book on me."), Game Time is a treat. Writing like the E. B. White of the baseball (fitting considering that White was his stepfather), Angell's prose is so sweet, so evocative, and so satisfying it makes us purr like a kitten
about the only thing the Sammy Sosa controversy did was expose just how shallowand how remarkablesome sportswriters can be. Click on Jayson Stark at ESPN or Kostya Kennedy at Sports Illustrated for the former, and Cubs Reporter for the latter (even including a report on what corking actually does to a bat's performance). CR is fast becoming one of the great blog sites out there
even though this doesn't belong in a baseball magazine, special thanks to Steve Monaco at Couch Pundit for making our week, maybe even our month. Rare are the times when someone introduces us to an old book or movie or record that throws us for an utter loop, and when that happens our gratitude has no depth. In this case it's the hilarious antics of Coyle and Sharpe, a comic duo of the 1960s whose work consists of meeting your man on the street and freaking him out. There's a wonderful website tribute where you can laugh yourself to tears listening to them torment some poor pharmacist for advice on do-it-yourself surgery. Thanks, Steve.