February 2011

The Ironies Of The Late Duke Snider

It is, as ever, summed up perfectly by Vin Scully:

“Although it’s ironic to say it, we have lost a giant.”

Beyond the sadness of the passing of The Duke of Flatbush, Edwin Donald Snider, is the reminder that his career was filled with irony. As the top Dodger prospect of the late ’40s he was considered a temperamental bust. By the time of his passing today he was considered one of the game’s most personally revered gentlemen, and long before, by the time the Dodgers left Brooklyn, he was considered one of the elder statesmen of the sport, his prematurely-silver hair and hint of sadness in the eyes seemingly reflecting the tragedy that was the move of the franchise.

Therein too lay an irony. Duke Snider was a Southern Californian through and through. Alone among the key Brooklyn Dodgers, he was going home to Los Angeles. And yet he expressed only sadness and regret about that, and during his brief coda season with the Mets in 1963, was welcomed home to New York more loudly than any other of the “exes” – Casey Stengel included.

There is also something tremendously ironic about the iconic status included in Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball” song. Despite the premise of “Willie, Mickey, and The Duke,” the Baseball Writers needed eleven tries to get his election to the Hall of Fame right. In his first year of eligibility, Snider got just 51 votes – a stunning 17 percent. As late as 1975 he was under 40%.

The writers dismissed Snider, as they did nearly all the Dodger offensive stars, because they felt Ebbets Field provided some kind of extraordinary advantage and because the Dodgers lost so many ultimate games. Gil Hodges is still – criminally – not in Cooperstown in part because of this prejudice. In point of fact, Snider hit just 37 more homers in Brooklyn than on the road in his Ebbets Field years (discounting partial seasons, that’s an average of four or at most five more a year – a meaningless statistical variable).

Hodges has still not gotten his due; Snider and Pee Wee Reese struggled for it; Carl Furillo has never been taken seriously. It is amazing to contemplate that Snider’s Dodgers were somehow penalized because between 1946 and 1956 they won only the one World Series, while losing five of them, and losing two special NL playoffs, and losing yet another year (1950) on the last day of the season. That was painful stuff to be sure, but what it meant was, that for every year for a decade (excepting 1948) the Dodgers gave their fans, at worst, a team that made it to “the final four” – and with key parts of the Brooklyn franchise still at work in Los Angeles, added World Championships in 1959, 1963, and 1965.

This is a time for condolence and mourning and I don’t mean to at all take away from that. It’s just that the passing of a great and good baseball man like Duke Snider reminds me that the injustice of the undeserved undermining of the reputation of a player, or a team, should also not be forgotten.

Aaron And Gibson Lefthanded, and The Wrong A-Rod (Revised)

Hank Aaron’s appearance this week on The Late Show With David Letterman not only brought as hearty a series of laughs from baseball’s real all-time homer champ as I’ve ever heard him produce, but it also added one of those delightful footnotes to history. Letterman claimed that the day Aaron homered off Jack Billingham of the Reds to tie Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 at Riverfront Stadium in 1974, he was in the crowd. There’s no reason to doubt it: that was the year between Letterman’s career as a tv weatherman and the start of his comedy writing and performing.

Hank was there to provide the briefest of plugs for Topps’ celebration of its 60th year in baseball cards (he presented Letterman with a one-of-a-kind card in the style of the 2011 set, complete with a diamond in it – 60th being the ‘Diamond Anniversary’). For the sake of disclosure, Topps is paying Mr. Aaron to do the publicity, and for the sake of further disclosure, I’m an unpaid consultant for Topps as well.

They did not discuss two of Aaron’s more interesting cards. Obviously the portrait on the 1956 card here is the young Henry. But who is that sliding into the plate, an “M” on his cap and nothing on his uniform?
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Correct. It’s Willie Mays sliding home, his uniform doctored to kind of look like a Braves’ jersey. There’s no special value to that mistake, because they never corrected it. In fact I don’t know if it’s considered a mistake – I think “fudge” is a better term.

The 1957 edition, meanwhile, is a beautiful thing and NBH (Nothing But Hank)…but as the old cliche goes: what’s wrong with this picture?
57Aaron.jpg

Yes, 1957 was Topps’ first year working with their own full color photographs, and when scanned the printing often leaves much to be desired. But of course the problem here is, Hank never hit lefthanded. This is not like the 1959 card of Aaron’s teammate righthanded pitcher Lew Burdette, who posed as a southpaw for a joke at the photographer’s expense, nor like later tricks attempted by Bob Uecker and Gene Freese (successful), and Jim Brewer, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver (caught in time). In the case of Aaron, Topps simply reversed the negative, as the backwards “4″ on the left side of the uniform confirms.

The “Lefty Gibson” card is seldom seen and thus reproduced here in full:
Thumbnail image for Proof1968Gibson.jpgIf you can imagine this, Topps prepped its first series of 1968 cards in the winter of ’67-68 and not only did Gibson succeed in this stunt, but so did Seaver, who had tried it while posing for his very first card.

Each got all the way to the printer’s proofs level – just a handful of sheets printed. Then the Topps Copy Editor had his apoplectic attack and replaced both the Gibson and Seaver lefthanded pitching poses with nice tight portraits.

1969ARod.jpg
One of Topps’ most famous photo goofs is shown at the left. This is the 1969 card of the “original” A-Rod, the late brilliant defensive third baseman, Aurelio Rodriguez. It’s a great photo, but it’s not Aurelio Rodriguez. It’s Leonard Garcia, a rather mature-looking Angels’ batboy from 1968.

For years Topps has taken the rap for the mistake – there have even been understandable suggestions of an ethnic slur implied by the screw-up. In fact, it wasn’t entirely the company’s fault. In the winter of 1967-68, the newly-powerful Baseball Players Association was squeezing Topps into dealing with it, rather than on a player-by-player basis. Topps, which theretofore had been able to sign guys for a down payment as low as a dollar, resisted. The MLBPA promptly forbade its members for posing for Topps during Spring Training, and in fact throughout the entire regular season, of 1968.

Thus, guys who changed teams in ’68 or the ’68-69 off-season are shown hatless in old photographs in the first few series of the 1969 set. But 1968′s rookies for whom Topps had no photo? It had to get them in the minor leagues (the Topps files were filled with photos of nearly every Triple-A player in 1968), or buy shots from outside suppliers. At least a dozen images in the ’69 set, including Reggie Jackson and Earl Weaver – and “Aurelio Rodriguez” – were purchased from the files of the famous Chicago photographer George Brace. Somebody at Topps should’ve known, but the original Rodriguez/Garcia goof appears to have been Brace’s.

Incidentally, eight years later Garcia got his own card under his own name, in the Cramer Sports Pacific Coast League Series. By this point he was the trainer of the Angels’ AAA team in Salt Lake City. The biography on the back makes reference to the 1969 Topps/Brace slipup.
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Pitchers Warmed Up…Where?

Veteran baseball people were barely done scratching their heads at the sudden rush to declare Opening Day starters in February – to tentatively hint at a violation of the mix of superstition and inchoate fear they call “tradition” – when injury claimed a pitcher who was merely scheduled to start the Spring Training opener.

Adam Wainwright may not only miss pitching in this Cardinals’ camp; he may not experience Spring Training again until 2013. The ligament damage near his elbow is profound enough to shelve him until sometime during the ’12 season, and could have as big an impact on a team and a franchise as any such injury in recent history, maybe since Sandy Koufax’s retirement put the Dodgers into a funk that lasted eight seasons. Not only does it neuter a Cardinal team that fell behind Cincinnati last season, and Milwaukee last off-season, but it could even impact the team’s ability and willingness to commit huge money to Albert Pujols next off-season.

The larger question pertains to the feeling that these injuries happen more now than they did ‘in the past.’ This question itself has been around long enough to become a baseball tradition of sorts. Surely they don’t happen that much more often. Koufax quit before his fragile elbow might have snapped like a twig. Don Drysdale retired in mid-season just three years later. 1958 Cy Young winner Bob Turley blew up a year later. And countless careers ended as did Mel Stottlemyre’s: with a run in, a man on, and nobody out in the top of the 4th at Shea Stadium on June 11, 1974 (he’d come back for two more innings two months later, then pitch a little the following March, but his rotator cuff was gone).

But the reality is that more pitchers today are warned in advance of these potentially career-ending events. Wainwright isn’t necessarily a victim of some awful turn in pitching mechanics, but rather the beneficiary of greater understanding of their impact, and far greater options in terms of repair. Given how little pain he reported, if this ligament issue had sprung up in Spring Training 1911, he would’ve tried to pitch through the pain, because contrary to today, his livelihood depended on not resting an injury. He might’ve struggled to an 11-12 record this year, had constant pain, started ’12 0-3 and wild as anything, and gone to the minors, never to be heard from again.

Still there is the nagging suspicion that we are doing something to our pitchers that makes Complete Games chimerical dreams, and the four-man rotation and the nine-man staff as comically antiquated as the horse-and-buggy. Denny McLain spent August 29, 1966 – as The Sporting News merrily noted – “struggling to a 6-3 decision over the Orioles…McLain allowed eight hits, walked nine, and struck out 11.” He threw 229 pitches. Two seasons later McLain started 41 games (and won 31 of them). Three years later, he started 41 games (and won 24 of them). The other stat – 51 Complete Games in the two seasons – was not repeated not because of arm problems but due to a suspension for associating with gamblers (the arm problems came a year later).

We know pitchers no longer “save” anything for the 9th Inning (that went out with Jack Morris; it used to be true of the top 25 starters in each league), and that without a fastball in the high 80′s you will now never get signed, and unless something else about you is spectacular, even that will only get you a career serving as the Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotter Prospects in the minors.

sc0014e7b6.jpgBut I have long wondered if one tiny change of rituals might have contributed just enough to the wear-and-tear on pitchers to have actually made a difference. The ritual is represented by the smiling fellow at the left, Galen Cisco, the long-time pitching coach who hurled for the Red Sox, Mets, and Royals from ’61 through ’69.

On August 7th, 1964, Al Jackson of the Mets gave up three runs in the first inning. The next day it was two off Cisco; a day later, one off Tracy Stallard in the first. Then came two consecutive scoreless firsts, followed by a doubleheader in which Jackson surrendered one in the first of the opener and Stallard three in the first of the nightcap. Finally on August 15th came the deluge: six first inning runs off Jack Fisher. So as they sent Cisco out to start on August 16, manager Casey Stengel and coach Mel Harder did something radical.

Cisco promptly retired Tony Gonzalez, Dick Allen, and Johnny Callison, and an ecstatic Lindsey Nelson told his Mets radio audience: “Galen Cisco, who warmed up in the bullpen, where there is a mound, in an effort to be better prepared in the top half of the first inning, gets them out in order!”

Your inference is correct. In 1964, starting pitchers did not automatically warm up in the bullpen. When I first heard this old tape I was flashed back to the summer of my tenth year, and the newfound joy of seeing a doubleheader from behind the screen at Yankee Stadium. There, in my mind’s eye, are the starters in the nightcap, Stan Bahnsen of the Yankees and Joe Coleman of the Washington Senators, warming up, on either side of the plate, throwing to catchers whose butts are pressed up against the backstop.

Years ago, Cisco, by then pitching coach of the Phils, insisted to me that he had been no trailblazer, and he had warmed up in the bullpen before August 16, 1964, and that other pitchers had, too. But I know I saw Elrod Hendricks, wearing a mask, warming somebody up long before a game at the new Yankee Stadium, dating it no later than 1976. I was on the field and I had to walk all the way around he and his pitcher. I photographed Goose Gossage throwing, and throwing hard, to somebody in front of the visitors’ dugout in New York that same summer, and it was four years later that I got trapped in a space beyond the third base camera well at Shea Stadium because Scott Sanderson and another Expo twirler were airing it out, pre-game.

Somewhere in the twenty year span of the ’60s and ’70s, the idea that relievers warmed up in the bullpen because they had to “get ready fast,” but starters should warm up from a rubber just on the foul side of either the first or third base foul line, changed into what we see today: everybody warms up in the pen, before, during, or after a game, and again between starts.

Ever had a workout with a trainer? Or just a well-led class at a gym? From yoga to weights, if the guy or gal wants to punish you, they’ll have you do whatever you’re doing, on an uneven surface. Incline or decline, it’s tougher if you’re not on flat ground. To really burn you, they’ll even have you stride downwards or upwards as you lift that weight or try to balance on one foot.

This is not offered as an explanation for all of the woes of the modern pitcher. But a warm-up pitch thrown from a mound is a distant cousin of a pitch to Pujols with two on and nobody out in the 5th. A warm-up pitch from the flat ground is a distant cousin of…playing catch. In short, if Denny McLain had 229 pitches in him on one day in August, 1966, he didn’t use up 20 or 30 or 50 of them before they played the Anthem.

Maybe that’s why Casey Coleman of the Cubs is really one percent likelier to get catastrophically hurt (and 90% likelier to not throw a Complete Game) than his dad Joe did that night in the Bronx (WP: Coleman, 7-7. CG. 11 K, 2 BB, 2 H, Time: 2:37).

Just a thought.

 

 

Ask Not For Whom The BP Tolls, It Tolls For Thee (Revised)

The good BP that is – Baseball Prospectus - the annual forecasting bible aptly blurbed on the back page: “If you’re a baseball fan and you don’t know what BP is, you’re working in a mine without one of those helmets with the light on it” (yes, I’m egotistically quoting my egotistical self).

sc0009881d.jpgIt’s basically 573 pages of the sports almanac Biff Tannen finds in “Back To The Future II” so the material to mine is practically endless, and you will find it as useful on September 30th as you will today. But the aficionado often goes first to find the collapses that time, tide, and the theories of statistical reduction insist will afflict players you are counting on for your team, real-life or fantasy.

In short: BP does not like Josh Hamilton’s chances this year. In the list of the biggest falloffs in WARP (“Wins Above Replacement Player” – basically a measurement of how much
better or worse a player is than the absolute average Schmoe you could
stick out there at his position), it sees Hamilton dropping from 6.9 last year to 2.7 this. Mind you, this does not envision Hamilton winding up as a player-coach at Round Rock; 2.7 still makes him the fifth most all-around useful leftfielder in the majors. The computers still suggest he’ll drop from 32-100-.359/.410/.633 to 22-77-.294/.356/.509.

While similar plummets are predicted for Aubrey Huff, Adrian Beltre, Carl Crawford, and Jose Bautista (try 25 homers, because “if teams are smart, it could be May before he sees an inside fastball”), the most intriguing of them belongs to Austin Jackson of Detroit. As BP’s write-up notes, Jackson led all of baseball with a .393 BABIP (Batting Average On Balls In Play – in other words, what you hit when you actually hit it). Jackson struck out 170 times last year and had a mediocre on-base percentage of .344, and unless those numbers alter positively and profoundly, if his “BABIP” just drops back from Ted Williamsy to kinda great, they see his WARP collapsing from 3.6 to 0.2.

The BP formulae always tend to under-promise for pitchers. Dan Haren, Felix Hernandez, and CC Sabathia are the only guys forecast to win as many as 15 games this year, and that’s obviously an absurdly conservative prediction. Nevertheless it is chilling to see the computer spit out the following seasons for some of the game’s “name” twirlers:

Chris Carpenter: 9-5, 94 SO, 3.21 ERA
Phil Hughes: 8-6, 109 SO, 3.74 ERA
Zack Greinke: 11-7, 166 SO, 3.52 ERA
David Price: 12-8, 147 SO, 3.46 ERA
Tim Lincecum: 12-6, 190 SO, 2.74 ERA

It also doesn’t look so hot for some of the game’s closers, listed by predicted saves: Jose Valverde, 20; Carlos Marmol, 17; David Aardsma, 17; Brandon Lyon, 15; Brad Lidge, 15.

Last year’s biggest predicted collapse was Derek Jeter, and in fact the BP boys and girls turned out to have been optimistic. This year, the accompanying biography makes me look like Jeter’s most hopeful fan:

“Jeter pushed for a contract of four years and up, which suggests at least one of the following: (A) while Jeter may be the closest thing the modern Yankees have to Joe DiMaggio, he lacks DiMaggio’s sense of dignity; (B) never mind winning, it’s money that matters; (C) the emperor has no clothes but doesn’t know; (D) the emperor has no clothes but doesn’t care.”

Ouch.

Still, the PECOTA equations don’t see Jeter getting appreciably worse than last year (9-66-.281-.348-.377 compared to 2010′s 10-67-.270/.340/,370) but does see the once mighty warrior’s WARP sinking to 1.0. For contrast, Jeter’s great 2009 season had a WARP of 4.2, the top two shortstop numbers for 2011 belong to Hanley Ramirez at 4.8 and Tulowitzki at 4.7, and J.J. Hardy is a 1.9.

Having pilfered so much of their hard work, I feel it’s imperative to throw out some teasers to get you to buy this essential tome. Granted, at the BP website, the computers refine and refine these numbers even as the season progresses, but right now they somehow see Ryan Rohlinger absolutely tearing up the pea patch for the Giants this year, adore Javy Vazquez in Florida and Lance Berkman in St. Louis, and see potential breakout years for Sam LeCure, Brad Emaus, and Robinson Chirinos that even those players probably don’t.

And I’ll confess right now I had no idea who Robinson Chirinos was. Another reason to secure Baseball Prospectus 2011. However much you think you know about baseball, they know more than you do.

Albert Pujols: Sign The Contract (Updated)

UPDATE:
Ken Rosenthal of MLB Net/Fox Sports now tweets that the Cardinals’ offer referenced below may average closer to $21 million, not $25 million a year, but hints the offer could be for ten years rather than eight. This makes that mountain of Do-What-Makes-You-Happy a little steeper of a climb. On the other hand, Albert Pujols is in pretty good shape.
I must confess to being amazed to have just heard a panel discussion among three of my favorite people in baseball – Jerry Manuel, Dan Plesac, and Harold Reynolds – in which they insisted Pujols was absolutely right and the Cardinals were absolutely wrong, and Pujols just could not keep his head up were he to have only the tenth highest salary in baseball. Jerry Manuel actually said other players might taunt Pujols by saying “you only got how much, Albert?”
If you cannot turn around and say “I got 21 million dollars, how much did you get?” you’d have to have the thin skin of a grape.

Seriously? Who’s going to taunt him? Joe Mauer? A-Rod?

ORIGINAL POST:
The first time the Major League Baseball Players Association went out on strike during the regular season, I was a gung-ho Yankees fan of 13, whose father had just stunned him with the announcement that there would be no vacation that year because he had spent the money on season tickets at Yankee Stadium.
The strike postponed the kind of triumph only a 13-year old can fully savor with breath-shortening joy: Walking in to The Stadium not as just a fan, but as one of the regulars. And I still supported that players’ strike, on the easy-to-digest premise that if my father had the right to change jobs when his contract was up, why shouldn’t Mel Stottlemyre? 
With rare exceptions, like its stance on testing for performance-enhancing drugs (in particular the 2002 strike-averting agreement), I have had few major disagreements with the union’s positions, even as I literally paid for my support with increased ticket prices. There are two simple truths at play here: a) this is America, and provided you do not break the law you are entitled to earn as much money as you conceivably can; and b) the idea that “player salaries alone caused ticket prices to go up” is nonsensical: it assumes that if salaries were still what they had been in 1972, the owners would never have raised prices, even though it has been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that fans at every level have willingly paid those prices, and have in fact bought more and more tickets, the more the prices have gone out. Average salaries were stagnant for half a century, and ticket prices still went up.
This long preamble is presented because I’m going to do something I have rarely done. I am going to suggest that a superstar player of extraordinary ability and consistency is completely in the wrong in his contract negotiations, and needs to make a decision based on common sense, and not one based on pressure to feed his agents, and not one designed to keep feeding a salary growth curve that is acceptable to the Players Association, and especially not one based on 21st Century America’s assumption that getting more money out of it is an acceptable explanation for any human conduct.
That player is, of course, Albert Pujols.
We do not have exact numbers here. We know that with today’s artificial deadline imposed, Pujols insists he will not negotiate with the Cardinals until the off-season and that he has set himself on a path towards free agency next winter. It is widely reported Pujols is seeking a ten-year deal worth an average of $30 million a year, and it is now reported he has been offered an eight-year deal worth an average of more than $25 million a year.
He should take it.
Period.
There is, in fact, a point past which you and your family and your descendants, and your agents and, if you wish, everybody in your neighborhood and your home town, can be rich forever unless they screw it up. There is, in fact, actually a point past which your employer can no longer make even $1.98 in profit by paying you $200,000,000, and will have to let you go elsewhere. And there is, in fact, actually a point in which going somewhere else jeopardizes everything you’ve done in your career, and indefensibly hurts the employers and fans who have helped you achieve this salary range, and – most importantly – risks your happiness and satisfaction in the career you feel privileged to have.
I don’t know where you think that point is, where the numbers blur and the low end of the deal and the high end of the deal are at such exalted levels that the difference they make becomes merely theoretical. I once changed jobs and saw my income jump to $42,000. Trust me: in context, it was all the money in the world. For others the figure might be $100,000. Or a million. Or ten. 
It is one thing to be paid at that figure and find your employers embittered at you, or somehow abusing you, or somehow undermining you, or somehow denying you whatever achievement you desire (in baseball, read “another World Series”). Then, one departs, whether the salary offer is $30,000,000 a year or $30,000. That’s a case of looking for friendlier pastures rather than merely financially greener ones.
But if $25,000,000 a year from people with whom you are happy seems like some kind of failure or risk or insult to you – if you are willing to trade away a place you like, and a team you like, and fans you like, and their loyalty and love that will only increase if you stay – you have divorced yourself from reality.
I am sure some people who have left good environments for more money have made the right choice. I would’ve thought CC Sabathia would have said so, and then suddenly he’s talking about taking the opportunity to opt-out of the rest of the deal he hesitatingly signed with the Yankees two winters ago. Sometimes the money is so much more that you have to go even if you are not going to be as happy. But anecdotally, every time I’ve changed jobs and money was even just the second most significant factor, it has led to unhappiness. 
If I asked you tomorrow to take a 20% pay cut but guaranteed that you would continue to be as happy with your job as you are now, and the money would cover you and your family practically forever, and that your action would make you more popular at work than you are now, you might very well say yes. You might very well say yes even if your pay is $30,000 and you only like the job a little bit. Logic would suggest that as the actual salary figure increases towards the $25,000,000-to-$30,000,000 range, it would be easier to bite the bullet on the 20% and invest it in happiness and satisfaction.
Reality suggests it’s quite the opposite. And we can debate for days how much of that is the result of the madness of modern society, or the inherent insecurity of mankind, or just greed. But it’s true nonetheless. And it will take an exceptional human being to rise above the pattern and stake a course for himself and say “You think I’m going to leave this? For 20 percent? Are you nuts? Just because you can make more money elsewhere doesn’t mean you should, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean you have to.”
I always had the impression Albert Pujols was an exceptional human being.
We’ll see.
AS A POSTSCRIPT:
Are the Cardinals a major market team?
MLB has never issued any guidance as to what it considers big or small.
Here is one I cobbled together for myself, based on the early information from the 2010 Census and other sources. The numbers represent “Metropolitan Areas” and that’s open to wild manipulation, but these are pretty conservative (Boston’s number had to be inflated to include Providence, 1.6 million, and Hartford, 1.2 million)
01 New York               19,171,091
02 New York               19,171,091
03 Los Angeles           12,981,199
04 Los Angeles           12,981,199
05 Chicago                   9,645,498
06 Chicago                   9,645,498
07 Boston                    7,432,655
08 Texas (D/FtW)         6,594,145
09 Houston                  6,008,273
10 Philadelphia             5,996,008
11 Florida (Miami)         5,592,350
12 Washington             5,574,546
13 Toronto                   5,623,450
14 Atlanta                    5,564,840
15 Arizona (Phx)          4,480,865
16 Detroit                    4,383,093
17 SF-Oakland            4,375,470
18 SF-Oakland            4,375,470
19 Seattle                   3,459,059
20 Minnesota              3,302,016
21 San Diego              3,088,312
22 St.Louis                  2,839,292
23 Tampa Bay             2,764,537
24 Baltimore                2,704,060
25 Colorado                 2,604,006
26 Pittsburgh               2,354,523
27 Cincinnati               2,185,149
28 Cleveland               2,091,286
29 Kansas City            2,067,585
30 Milwaukee              1,559,667
By almost any measure here – top 50% versus bottom 50%, sheer numbers, St. Louis is a small market. You will notice Houston is clearly not, even though for years it has pretended to be. Data involving cities not on this list is by itself fascinating. The two Texas markets have grown by more than a quarter since 2000, and neither of them includes the 2,000,000 people in and around San Antonio, and another 1.7 million around Austin and Round Rock. The San Antonio, Sacramento, and Orlando “markets” are now all just about the size of Cleveland. Portland would fit right between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. 
And if you could perfectly place a franchise somewhere in Virginia where people in Richmond and people in Newport News could all think of it as theirs, it would have a market to draw from of 2,912,685 – big enough that in theory the Cardinals could think about moving there.

   

False Spring In New York

Pitchers and Catchers report, New York temperatures clear 40 degrees, and somebody issues a forecast that references “55″ by the end of the week and it’s not the age of the latest pitcher the Yankees invited to camp.

These should all be good signs for baseball here in Big Town, and once again optimism balloons like CC Sabathia before his gallant off-season knee-saving conditioning program. And I’m not buying a word of it. In fact, 2011 is shaping up as one of those rare seasons in which neither of the local teams seriously contend, perhaps a year like 1967.
That was my first true season of baseball awareness, inspired by the events of a birthday party for a neighbor named Wolfgang (Wolf wasn’t originally from around here) at which each of us was given a pack of baseball cards and everybody else’s contained the bonus “miniature poster” and mine didn’t and I vowed to get one and I was hooked. This minor childhood trauma is recounted because my vague memory is that Wolf’s birthday was May 10th, which the record books will show you was the last 1967 day in which either the Mets or the Yankees were at .500 or better. Between them the ’67 New York clubs lost 191 games and had the 17th and 20th worst records in all of baseball in a time when all of baseball consisted of 20 teams.
I didn’t see it at the time. I was eight. But clearly, the missing “miniature poster” was a sign of things to come during that awful season.
It’s not going to be that bad, but I continue to get the impression that not one correspondent or fan or executive of either of the teams has any idea exactly how bad it is going to be. The telltale sign is the Mets and Yankees both ended 2010 in decided spirals, yet if the Yankees had not spent gaudy money on the largely unnecessary Rafael Soriano, identifying this city’s biggest off-season acquisition would require an argument over the relative merits of Russell Martin, Ronny Paulino, and Brad Emaus.
The Mets are bleeding at second base, dependent in the outfield on the comebacks of two mega-contract free agents who might not have been good ideas when they were healthy, and absolutely without hope if their closer doesn’t put both his problems with the law and his fastball behind him. The Yankees are facing a superstar’s existential crisis at shortstop, and a far greater drama behind the plate than anybody’s letting on. And barring the kind of luck you only find in Fantasy Leagues, neither team has the starting pitching to expect to compete in their divisions.
I don’t have to fully regurgitate my stance on Derek Jeter. I am as sentimental as any baseball fan, ever. But I get far more choked up about a team making the post-season every year than I do about whether one player performed for 17 seasons with one team or “only” 15. As near as I can figure it, instead of cutting the cord now (or at least keeping their obligations to a minimum), the Yankees have designed some sort of plan by which Jeter will be permitted to deteriorate further at shortstop this year and next, and then be moved to the outfield where he will squeeze out Nick Swisher while producing a quarter of Swisher’s offensive value. 
I get it. Everybody loves Jeter. I’d like to point out the Yankees released Babe Ruth, fired Yogi Berra, trashed Tino Martinez, demoted Bernie Williams, and traded Elston Howard to the Red Sox. Not every great player stays that way until he’s 40 and gets to go out on his own terms. The Yankees’ decision on Jeter will not only cost them playoff appearances, but it will still end in tears, and an even messier conclusion in which Jeter hits .217 and is benched or released or put on waivers or all of the above.
Something also has to give in this odd mish-mosh at Catcher. Jesus Montero is supposedly ready, despite wildly varying reports on his ability to hit or catch anything that isn’t straight down the middle. If there wasn’t already uncertainty about the youngster, it would have been supplied by the acquisition of Russell Martin, who clearly still has the capacity in him for a strong comeback. And then there is Jorge Posada, supposedly still a vibrant presence at bat if not behind the plate, and ready to slide in to the DH role much of the time. Where ever the truth lies here, there are still three guys going into two positions, along with some thought that the DH spot will be used as a parking place for Alex Rodriguez and an At Bats opportunity for Andruw Jones, Ronnie Belliard, and Eric Chavez.
By the by, did you know that Chavez – the new utility cornerman and presumptive emergency middle infielder – has played twelve years in the major leagues and has spent exactly 28 and two-thirds innings playing anywhere except third base? Not games – innings. 

I am also probably belaboring a point I’ve made here before about the Yankees’ starting rotation: They don’t have one. While Sabathia is, simply, one of the best free agent signings in the history of the sport, the questions that follow him do not begin with “who replaces Andy Pettitte?” or “what about A.J. Burnett?” They start with the presumed number two, Phil Hughes, who was a flaccid 7-6, 4.90 after the All-Star Break and was eviscerated twice in the ALCS by Texas. Assuming Hughes enters 2011 as an established front-line major league starter is itself a leap. Then comes the nightmarish implications of the Burnett mystery. Then come the Ivan Novas, Sergio Mitres, and the veritable Old-Timers’ Day grouping that greets new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Freddy Garcia? Mark Prior? Bartolo Colon? No wonder Kevin Millwood is generating enthusiasm by comparison. Why not Scott Sanderson? Dave LaPoint? Kevin Mmahat?
This team is going to compete with the Red Sox and Rays? This team is going to compete with the Blue Jays who off-loaded the Vernon Wells contract. This team is going to compete with the Orioles in their Buck Showalter Honeymoon Year.
And still the Yankees are in better shape than the Mets. From the middle of last summer onwards, what passed for buzz inside CitiField was some sort of vague sense of doom. It had to do with the jailed Ponzi Schemer Bernie Madoff, but no other details emerged. It didn’t seem to make much sense; the Wilpon family had insisted it had not suffered greatly at the hands of the ultimate financial snake oil salesman, and all evidence backed up their assertion. Now it becomes clear that the owners were in trouble not because Madoff had stolen their money, but because he hadn’t. They are the defendants in an extraordinary billion-dollar suit that claims they knowingly pocketed the profits from a kind of privatized Enron disaster. While the action is headed to mediation by former New York Governor (and former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand) Mario Cuomo, it has already paralyzed the team’s finances and threatens to continue to do so for an indefinite period.
Which explains why the Mets, when still vaguely competitive last June and July, added no payroll. Which explains why the bullets were not bitten on the statues that replaced Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez. Which explains why, when another bat was needed, the Mets could reach only for Mike Hessman. Which explains why men named Wilpon did not take the fall in October.
Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran are enigmas. Jose Reyes is at the critical step, forwards to greatness or backwards towards underachievement. Ike Davis and Josh Thole are dedicated and gifted players who may not bring enough power to their respective positions. The second baseman could be a Rule V draftee. There isn’t one starting pitcher who isn’t weighed down with a huge question mark (Mike Pelfrey’s head, Jon Niese’s endurance, Johan Santana’s shoulder, Dillon Gee’s inexperience, the overall health of Chri
sses Young and Capuano, and the likelihood that R.A. Dickey actually found himself last season at the age of 35). And the bullpen? You don’t want to know about the bullpen.
So as winter today loosened its grip just slightly after a mean-spirited winter, I am thinking not about the warm spring breezes in the Bronx and Queens. I am thinking again about Wolfgang’s birthday party and the prospect that this year, every New York fan’s pack of cards will be missing something he was counting on getting.

Chuck Tanner

I cannot convey to you how frightening it was to be a frequent presence on a major league baseball field at the age of 17. Every player seemed to be about 30 feet tall, and every club official and stadium security officer seemed to be within 30 seconds of chucking me back into the stands, no matter how many credentials I might have had. And the team managers? Ralph Houk? Billy Martin? Earl Weaver? 


To see them approach was to feel the fight-or-flight instinct surge in my veins. And not in that empowering, life-affirming “fight” way, sadly.
I was a photographer, nominally working for the hobby magazine Mike Aronstein had inexplicably put me in charge of the year before, Collectors Quarterly. Certainly we had need of our own images of big league ballplayers, but in fact I was on an illicit mission to snap them for an upcoming second set of the “SSPC Pure Card” baseball cards Mike had published earlier in that year of 1976. I had written the backs for the first set, and another fellow had taken most of the photos for them, only it turned out he didn’t really have any ballpark credentials and was only on the field because he’d been a batboy and knew all of the cops at Shea Stadium and they just let him sneak in. When the leagues and the clubs and Topps and the courts Topps sued us in found out about that, he wasn’t going to again get to be on any fields for a long, long time.
So Mike had written the obligatory letter to the Yankees supplying copies of the magazine and asking them to give me, usually no more than once or twice a homestand, pre-game access to the field to take photos of the players. My instructions were simple: get anybody you can, especially guys in new uniforms. Action shots, candid shots, whatever – but you’ll also have to get some portraits. You’ll have to ask the players to pose for you.
Gulp.

By the end of May I think I had screwed up the courage to ask a few guys to pose before each game. I remember Jim Colborn of the Brewers actually asking me what the magazine I claimed to represent was, and my promising him to send a copy to him, and then he kindly stood still for a few portraits. But by early June, I believe all my other conversations with the big leaguers consisted of “Pardon me, Mr. —-, may I get a couple of shots of you for Collectors Quarterly magazine?” followed by the answer “grunt” or “no” or “silence.”
Then the Oakland A’s came to town. It wasn’t official yet, but with Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman traded to Baltimore, Jim Hunter long since gone to New York, and Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, and Rollie Fingers on the block before the June 15 trade deadline, Oakland was already in its post-Championship Era. Still a forceful team that would nearly win the A.L. West that year, but truly in decline. They had their third manager in four years (and would, in fact, trade him that winter in one of owner Charles Finley’s desperate efforts to suck the value out of anybody who might want out of his rapidly collapsing club). We only had a photo of this manager in his previous uniform, and so of all the A’s, I approached him first to pose.
“Pardon me, Mr. Tanner, may I get a couple of shots of you for Collectors Quarterly magazine?”
Chuck Tanner beamed at me. “Of course you can, son.”
He stuck out his hand.
I had no idea what to do.
“I’m Chuck Tanner,” he said, both affably and sincerely. A faint bell dinged slowly in the back of my slow-moving mind. He’s shaking hands with you, dummy. I introduced myself.
“Very nice to meet you, Keith. What do you need me to do?”
I coughed out something about just standing there.
He laughed. “Can I smile?”
I laughed and snapped a few shots.
“I’m an amateur photographer,” he said, pleasantly.
I admitted I was too and suggested he could probably tell that.
He laughed again. “No, I wasn’t suggesting that. I’m just noticing you’re not using a flash but you’ve got me sort of side-saddle to the sun. If I move here it’ll probably come out better.”
This went on for several minutes. Not once did I get the impression that Chuck Tanner was trying to mock me or criticize me. He made it seem the most perfectly natural thing in the world for a major league baseball manager to take the time to give the most elemental of tips to a photographer, an hour or so before a ballgame. Then came something I couldn’t believe.
“Do you need me to get you any of my players so you can shoot them, Keith?”
You can guess how the rest of this went. Before I knew it, Dick Bosman and Paul Lindblad and Jim Todd were jogging in from shagging flies in the outfield to volunteer for my shaky camera lens. And as the old, beloved and lamented ritual of infield practice loomed and the media had to get off the field, Chuck Tanner walked back towards his dugout and stopped by and asked if I’d gotten everybody I needed. “Next time you’re back, find me first and I can get you anybody you want.”
I would meet Chuck Tanner again and again as the years went by. I was there as the reporter for UPI Radio as his Pirates won the 1979 National League Championship Series, and when I reminded him of how he had helped me at Yankee Stadium he either remembered it or did an amazing job pretending to, and then waved away security guards who tried to interrupt him while he gave a five-minute interview to the least important network radio reporter at the game. 
A year later, as I took the subway out to Shea Stadium to cover a Mets-Pirates game, I saw somebody who appeared to be Pittsburgh coach Alex Monchak sitting across from me, and then realized the guy to his left was clearly Kent Tekulve, and the fellow standing up holding on to the overhead bar sure looked like Tanner in a jacket and tie. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he suppressed a smile and brought his forefinger to his lips. 45 minutes later, on the field, he walked over and thanked me for not blowing their cover. “It’s so much faster to come out on the subway than the team bus,” he said. “The station is right next to our hotel and it’s really a nice ride, at least on the way out. Wait – you’re that radio photographer guy, aren’t you?”
Chuck Tanner, as you know, died yesterday at the age of 82. When he came back to the big leagues as manager of the White Sox in 1970 he was considered the best managing prospect in the minors. The Pirates thought enough of him to trade Manny Sanguillen to Oakland for him in the winter of 1976-77 (rendering those great shots I’d gotten of him – positioned per his excellent photographic advice – useless) and when the Pirates finally let him go, the Braves quickly snapped him up. He only made the post-season once, winning the World Series in 1979, so Pittsburgh will tell you he is a Hall of Famer anyway. 
And of course I would whole-heartedly agree. And I won’t even bother to address his credentials. May I have done once for somebody what he did for me, and countless others.
SPEAKING OF CARDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY:
Chuck Tanner would appreciate this, for the leavening of the sadness, and the continuity of the game, and the nostalgia – and the photography.
I have the privilege of showing you an uncut sheet of the 2011 Topps Heritage Baseball Refractors Series. The glossy metallic treatment causes the sheet to warp a little, but you should be able to live with it. Topps has done another superb job on recreat
ing the historical original, in this case the 1962 set: you’ll notice nearly all the Mets and Astros are capless (just as they were in ’62, for far different reasons) and the lettering and the posing is very precise. 
Of particular note, in Row 8, fourth from the left you’ll find a rather clunky airbrush job in which a Phillies’ cap is poorly painted onto Cliff Lee’s head. This is not a mistake, but more of a deliberate reference to a 1962 card of catcher Sammy White, who joined the Phils of that year just as those cards were going to press, and who appeared in a kind of reddish-pinkish artist’s charcoal colored hat in the same kind of purgatory-like blank environment Mr. Lee seems posed in.
There is one disturbing image – Row 3, third from the right. It’s the first Topps card, I believe, showing Don Mattingly in any uniform other than the Yankees. Not to say he doesn’t deserve it, it’s just that no matter how often I look at it, it doesn’t compute:
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