December 2010

Even Big Market Fans Have A Right To Kvetch, Too

I wonder sometimes if I am still living in the baseball city in which I was born.

At almost any point from my teen years to several months ago, the New York newspapers would by now have been calling for the dismissal of Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, and the public shaming and court-martialing of the Wilpon family.

Instead I am reading a lot about how the Yankees will be “better balanced” without Cliff Lee; that they can get the bullpen depth they need instead, and a righty bat off the bench. Yes, having Sergio Mitre as your third starter and thus sinking to a record around .500 is about as balanced as you can get.

When the city isn’t making excuses for the Yanks’ impenetrable player acquisition strategy, it is commending new Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson as a great baseball man. So’s John McGraw, and what’s more, McGraw’s made just as many big moves this winter as Alderson has.

Seriously, I’m a baseball fan who happens to be a Yankee customer, and I did not have an irrational rooting interest in whether or not Lee ended up in the Bronx. But between the Yanks’ two failures to get him, and the sudden signing of Russell Martin, I’m very dubious about the chain of logic in the front office – if any.

As I recall, the trade with Seattle for Lee fell through last summer because Brian Cashman refused to part with both catching prospect Jesus Montero and shortstop prospect Eduardo Nunez. Nunez, of course, later came up to New York and showed he might survive as a utilityman but right now doesn’t come close to being even a reliable .250 hitter. I have heard two completely conflicting sets of information about Montero: the first that he is the Super Prospect: an influential catcher in all aspects of the job, and a potent bat. The second is that he has not grown either as a defender, handler of pitchers, or check on baserunners, and that his swing has more than one hole.

In 25 years of carefully watching scouting reports, when they conflict this much, I’ve never seen the positive ones prove correct. More over, it is clear that the real catching prospect in the Yankee system is young Gary Sanchez, who cut across rookie ball and at Staten Island like lightning this summer.

And now mix Russell Martin into the recipe. And the re-signed Derek Jeter, with the loose plan that he’ll play shortstop for another two years, by which time Jorge Posada will have presumably retired and Jeter can slide over to become a 39-year old DH without any measurable power.

So Montero has no role in 2010 and Nunez won’t be thought of for a job (one he probably can’t handle anyway) until 2012? And they are in New York and Cliff Lee is not? And even assuming the statistics, the history, the precedent, and the hands of time are wrong about Jeter and Cashman is right – nobody is yelling at Yankee management? Even though there are no prominent pitchers to trade for (and don’t say “Felix Hernandez” – he has a no-trade deal and the Yankees are reportedly on the no-way list)?

And the Mets of this winter make the Yankees of this winter look like the Red Sox of this winter. When you are operating in the nation’s largest community, and your team is without a single nearly-ready position prospect, and you still haven’t bitten the bullet on Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez, and you insist there are no economic restrictions on your personnel budget, and your top free agent signees are two guys dropped by the Pirates, surely some member of the Enraged Fourth Estate that has made this city the cuss-filled territory it is today should be demanding that the team either get on the stick or let the fans in for free.

It would be nice to dismiss this as the ranting of a big market fan with a sense of entitlement and a terrible fear he is finally facing his comeuppance. But face it, in the smaller markets, when the ownership misleads you and puts an inferior product on the field, they do not have the further gall to charge you $100 a ticket in the upper deck. 

Off A Cliff

With Carl Crawford already under the Red Sox Christmas Tree, Jayson Werth inexplicably paid as if he’d had the durability of a lesser Albert Pujols, the Yankees having tied themselves to an aging shortstop well on his way to batting 7th, and the Mets having deftly acknowledged without admitting that their biggest free agent signing this winter will probably be D.J. Carrasco, nearly all the baseball questions I’m getting are about Cliff Lee.

What I am hearing is not very specific and not very highly-sourced, but it is consistent: I get the impression that the Yankees are not optimistic that they are going to sign him. 
Even before Lee went into his self-imposed exile of no fixed length, the answers the Yankees were getting from him directly and indirectly, in Arkansas and merely from it, were not encouraging. Lee just isn’t a New York guy. This is not said insultingly, and is in fact part of the reason the vibe seems so strong: He just doesn’t seem capable of giving the generic incomplete truths required of a guy trying to leverage a team he doesn’t really want to play for. 
You can imagine the drill: the Yankees come calling and they say it’d be great to have you on our side and you say “Wow, the New York Yankees. Every kid dreams of what it must be like to pitch for the New York Yankees!” This sounds, at worst, noncommittal. You can say it and mean you’re interested, or you can say it and mean that you dreamt of it when you were a kid and then you grew up and started playing baseball for a living and you realized it would never work for you in a million years. I mean, only once in my three decades in my business have I had to fire an intern and I told the guy just because it didn’t work out that was no reason for him to get screwed out of his college credit. I answered every question of his school evaluation form honestly. I remember writing something like “he now understands exactly what is required of somebody seeking a career in broadcasting.” By this I meant “he understands this because he completely failed at it,” but I didn’t write that. The school advised me the guy got a B+.
The “Not A New York Guy” thing is an essential test. Ed Whitson didn’t listen to the voice telling him not to come here. Mike Hampton heard it from the Missus and got out after a year. It’s very possible A.J. Burnett just began to hear it in Year Two. It’s obvious that Greg Maddux heard it from the beginning and listened and will go to the Hall of Fame as a result. It just isn’t for everybody, and I say this having been born here lived all but about ten years of my life here or nearby. I still mutter under my breath at New Yorkers and contemplate evacuating to higher ground, on average about once a week.
Anyway, back to Lee. Jack Curry of YES Network tweeted yesterday that he’d heard of Yankee “skepticism” about signing the lefthander. This morning, the New York Daily News reported that the Yanks’ offer had been driven up, at least in terms of years, by a previously unreported seven-year bid by the Red Sox, which would explain the constant rumors of the last few weeks that there was a third “mystery” team in the hunt besides New York and Texas.
Put all this together and it would seem this in fact might be a one-team race, and that the month might end the way it began, with the Yankees’ nominal third starter being a choice between Ivan Nova and Burnett, and the team getting a very nice school evaluation and a B+.

110 Years Of Buying The Best – Updated

After Carl Crawford signed with the Red Sox tonight, I got a tweet reading “damn u Sox and Yanks trying to buy all the best players!!”

I felt compelled to reply that yeah, it was bad, and it had just started. In fact it had suddenly dawned on me that this has been going on in twelve different decades. Consider: in the winter of 1900-01 the Boston club of the brand new American League signed away future Hall of Famers Cy Young and Jimmy Collins (along with practically everybody else on the team) from National League clubs as – in effect – Free Agents. The next winter it would be Bill Dinneen, signed away from the crosstown N.L. club and paying off with three consecutive 20-win seasons.
In 1908, the newly-christened Red Sox would buy pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Smoky Joe Wood (34 wins in 1912) and Hall of Fame outfielder Tris Speaker from minor league teams. A year later they got another Famer, Harry Hooper, the same way. In 1914 they bought a first-year professional pitcher named George Herman Ruth from the minor league Baltimore Orioles. In 1934 it would be Lefty Grove from the A’s for $125,000. That winter, $225,000 to Washington for their player-manager Joe Cronin. For 1936, another $150,000 to Philadelphia for Jimmie Foxx. After that it was Ted Williams ($20,000) and Bobby Doerr from the minor league San Diego Padres. In the winter of 1947 they bought slugging shortstop Bobby Doerr and soon-to-be 18-game winner Jack Kramer from the St. Louis Browns for $310,000.
The Yankees, of course, owe their existence to “buying all the best players.” Owners Big Bill Devery and Frank Ferrell bought the bankrupt Baltimore franchise from the American League in January, 1903, for $18,000, and then went out and signed away Hall of Famers Wee Willie Keeler and Jack Chesbro from the National League. It was the last spending spree until the era of owners Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston. Carl Mays from the Red Sox in 1919 ($40,000). Babe Ruth a year later ($125,000 and a mortgage), shortstop Everett Scott ($100,000) for 1922, and Hall of Fame pitchers Herb Pennock ($50,000) in 1923, and Red Ruffing ($50,000) in 1930. Second baseman Tony Lazzeri was purchased from the PCL for $50,000 in 1926 and Joe DiMaggio for $25,000 and a peck of players a decade later. Thereafter they largely confined their money-showers to getting role-players like Johnny Mize ($40,000 from the Giants in 1949), and reliever Johnny Sain ($50,000 from the Braves in 1951).
And those are just the ones I can remember – before the days of free agency, and before buying players began to be “frowned upon.”
Welcome to the club, Carl Crawford. It’s a very large one.
UPDATE 12/9: A great note by commenter RRHersh:
Yeah, well, in 1875 the Chicago club (which would eventually come to be known as the Cubs) hired away four stars from the perennial champion Boston club (which would eventually come to be known as the Braves) for the 1876 season. This was before the reserve clause, so that wasn’t a problem, but the negotiations occurred, and went public, before the end of the 1875 season, which wasn’t kosher. 
Ah, but the hiring away stuff with the Boston stars (Al Spalding, Ross Barnes, foremost among them), actually goes back further still. Most of the original Boston dynasty of the National Association era (1871-1875) had in fact been hired away from the original Cincinnati Red Stockings (1869-1870), baseball’s first professional team, unbeaten until the middle of its second season. Harry Wright, and his brother George, came in to run the show, and hired away stars from other clubs, too – like Spalding.
But of course none of those guys had started in Cincinnati. The Wrights, and players like second baseman Charlie Sweasy, were originally the stars of top semi-pro clubs… in New York!
This also reminds me that the Boston team actually did rebound from the wholesale defection of its talent to Chicago in 1876. By 1887, the Red Stockings began to buy Chicago’s stars, most notably Hall of Famers John Clarkson and Mike “King” Kelly, who instantly became known as “$10,000 Kelly” because that was the phenomenal price Boston paid for him (the equivalent of only about $235,000 today – which gives you a real picture of just how much baseball has grown in 123 years).

I’ll Come Back From 1894 In A Moment. But First…

…just mentioning in passing. Nothing against Pat Gillick, but he was the General Manager most deserving of election to the Hall of Fame? Hogwash. Charlie Finley served as his own GM and built three straight A’s World Champions of the ’70s himself, lost them all to Free Agency, then rebuilt a contender by 1980. How about John Schuerholz? General Manager of the Royals, 1981-90 (that would include a World Series win in 1985 and the AL West in 1984), General Manager of the Braves, 1991-2007 (something about 14 straight division titles?). What about Al Rosen with the Yankees?

Buzzie Bavasi, perhaps? Seven NL pennants as General Manager of the Dodgers. Got the Padres started from scratch. Two division titles with the Angels (and a third with basically the same team, two years after he retired). 
Gillick’s selection – combined with the embarrassing ignoring of George Steinbrenner and Marvin Miller, to say nothing of Ron Santo, to say nothing of the BBWAA’s incompetent annual voting – proves the voting has devolved into a popularity contest. It also underscores the necessity of scrapping the Hall of Fame election process in its entirety. I’d sooner have Bill James individually pick the members of the Hall than stick with the current system.

LAST ABOUT 1894:
Until something new pops up, of course. If you’ve been following Baseball Nerd’s Crack Coverage of the 1894 Temple Cup (2nd Place New York Giants upend Pennant-Winning Baltimore Orioles, 4-0, for NL Crown), you might enjoy this:1894GIANTS.jpg
Back Row: C Parke Wilson, C Duke Farrell, CF George Van Haltren, 1B Roger Connor (HOF), P Jouett Meekin, P Huyler Westervelt, P Amos Rusie (HOF). Middle Row: P Dad Clark, P Les German, IF Jack Doyle, 2B-MGR John Montgomery Ward (HOF), OF Mike Tiernan, 3B George Stacey Davis (HOF), SS Shorty Fuller, LF Eddie Burke. In Front: IF-OF General Stafford, IF Yale Murphy
The copyright is attributed to “Prince, Fotographer” – yep, spelled that way.

Ron Santo And Baseball’s Shame

It should go without saying that the true tragedy is the death of Ron Santo at the age of 70 after a brave and inspirational fight against diabetes and the amputations of both legs it necessitated.

But beyond the mourning of this day, is the shame of this day. The Cubs’ great third baseman is not in the Hall of Fame, and symbolizes that all-too-large group of players ranging from 19th Century stars to Gil Hodges to Buck O’Neil to Dale Murphy who are, by any means, considerably better than a huge percentage of those already in Cooperstown, but who are still excluded due to the enduringly searing reality that the Hall has never gone more than two years without one of its groups of electors screwing something up.
In “his” era, from his debut in June of 1960 through his rump year with the White Sox in 1974, Ron Santo led all major leaguers who didn’t play first base or the outfield with 342 Homers and 1331 RBI. The RBI total is by itself fifth among all players in that fifteen-year stretch. Santo also won five Gold Gloves in just thirteen full seasons as a third baseman, and he did so despite facing the formidable opposition of the brilliant Boyer brothers. Ken was at his peak with the Cardinals when Santo broke in with the Cubs, and as he faded, Clete arrived in Atlanta in 1967 to challenge Santo for four more seasons.
Santo isn’t just qualified for the Hall, he’s a shoo-in at one of the most underrepresented positions in Cooperstown. Yet when he was first eligible on the Writers’ ballot in 1980, he was named on less than four percent of ballots cast. Frankly, the 96 percent who did not vote for him should have been barred from voting for life, so obvious was their ignorance of the game. He dropped off the ballot, but was restored in 1985 in one of the constant corrections of the writers’ laziness and incompetence. These writers eventually achieved a kind of dim understanding, and, by 1998, he was up to 43 percent.
This underscores the fatal flaw of the BBWAA participation in the vote, especially in the days before inter-league play. Something approaching 50 percent of those who voted on Santo, and all his peers, would never have seen him play except on television or at All-Star Games. After 1998, Santo was placed in the tender hands of the Veterans’ Committee, which has only had to be reconstituted three times since then, including late last summer in order to give Marvin Miller and the late George Steinbrenner a chance. Things were shuffled so that the “Expansion Era” will be considered this winter, which naturally leaves Santo out.
The BBWAA system doesn’t work, the Special Negro Leagues Committee didn’t work, and any of the Veterans’ Committees hasn’t worked. It’s time for baseball to take back control of the election process and model it on something the NFL has long done: convene a miniature college of experts to advocate and debate the merits of each candidate and then announce its consensus. The current system, in which voters simply send in their opinions without any indication that they’ve done any research, has all the validity of mailing in box tops from cornflakes.
I mean, seriously: The statistic I quoted above – that between 1960 and 1974 Ron Santo led all major leaguers who didn’t play first base or the outfield with 342 Homers and 1331 RBI – how many people who ever voted for or against him, even knew that?

Performance Enhancing Drugs – In 1894?

What’s fun about turning over baseball’s rocks is that it often turns out that beneath them there are…other rocks.

The rediscovery here of photographs of the preparations of the New York Giants before the final game of the 1894 Temple Cup inside the pages of The Illustrated American magazine led the Hall of Fame’s Senior Curator Tom Shieber to an unexpected and startling conclusion: as they swept the Orioles in the closest thing that era had to the World Series, two members of the Giants thought they were using PED’s:

Two of the Giants
made the telling plays in the Temple Cup games, just as they did two weeks ago
in Chicago. …  “You wish to know why these two particular men, and
how they did it? This is the solution.” The speaker held between his
finger and thumb a diminutive three-cornered blue phial. He continued:
“May be, you all do not know that R—- … is a pretty good doctor.
… When we got to Washington he asked W—- and myself to go with him one morning
to call on a doctor who is supposed to be thoroughly up in Isopathy. The visit
was most interesting, and when we left, R—- and W—- had promised to test the
virtue of the elixir contained in these little bottles. The opportunity
occurred in Chicago September 18th. The score was 1 to 1, each team having
tallied in the sixth. R—- was now up, but before taking the bat I saw him pass
something to his mouth and then look up for quite two minutes. His eyes
brightened and the veins across his temples and the arteries down his neck
knotted like cords as he stood at the plate. … R—- met the ball … and he put
his 230 pounds in the lunge he made; … the ball was bound for the outer world,
and would not have stopped if the fence had been twice as high. Three runs were
tallied, and, as it proved, they were just about the number needed…They used
the Washington physician’s elixir in every Temple Cup game, and I tell you that
is the secret of the Giants holding that trophy to-day. R—- and W—- will both
tell you so.”


Shieber goes on to source what the miracle “Isopathy” elixir was supposed to do (provide accelerated heartbeats and thus an instantaneous surge of strength), what it was supposed to be made of (mashed up ox brains), what it actually was (nitroglycerine), and who apparently used it (Amos Rusie and John Montgomery Ward).

A cardiac specialist friend of mine says it must’ve been 100% placebo, or, maybe even pure luck that it didn’t kill either of the 1894 Giants. Patients given nitroglycerine for heart-related chest pain are urged to lie down immediately because blood pressure drops.

Still, psychology tells us that placebos often work – and in the 1880’s and 1890’s when “glandular extracts” from animals were supposedly the cutting age of medicine, this might’ve been more true than at other times. Ironically, while Rusie and Ward were very-forward thinking in terms of supplements, they should’ve looked backwards. In 1889, future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin openly enrolled in “medical experiments” in Pittsburgh testing the efficacy of testosterone drawn from monkeys.

A good moment to pause for illustrations:1895Temple.jpg

That’s the cover of the scorecard from Game Four of the 1895 Series, supposedly the one owned by Orioles’ right fielder Wee Willie Keeler. One thing you’ll notice right away, that helped doom the Series. Baltimore finished first in the regular seasons of 1894 and 1895, but were upended in the Temple Cup by the second-place Giants in ’94 and the second-place Cleveland Spiders in ’95. Yet the Orioles, and their fans, still considered themselves the NL champions – and put it on the front cover of the scorecard for the series that was supposed to determine the champions!
This would be the only game the O’s would win in either the ’94 or the ’95 Series (they would win in ’96 and ’97). Here’s the scorecard itself:1895TempleScorecard.jpg
The hero for Baltimore was their third starter – the equivalent of a fifth starter today – Duke Esper. He threw a no-hitter for four and ended up with a five-hit shutout, winning 5-0 while the faithful Orioles fans pelted the Spiders with projectiles ranging from rocks to eggs. There were no fewer than seven Hall of Famers in this game, including the O’s first four hitters (John McGraw, Keeler, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley, plus catcher Wilbert Robinson, Cleveland left fielder Jesse Burkett, and home plate umpire Tim Keefe). An eighth, Cy Young, had one of his few days off. There were five games in the 1895 Temple Cup, and Young pitched and won three of them!
Much of the program is devoted to very formal, very professional photographs of the Baltimore players. Most pictures of the great McGraw show him as the aged, even pudgy manager of the Giants. He’s only 21 or 22 here…1895TempleMcGraw.jpg
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