July 2012

FBI: “The” Honus Wagner Was Trimmed

In 1991, I got a call from my friend Matt Federgreen, the proprietor of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop and my co-host for a little segment I did on each of my half-hour-long Sunday night sportscasts on KCBS-Channel 2 in L.A.

Matt had been approached by Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and at that time the rising figure in hockey ownership and L.A. sports moguldom. McNall had made his millions buying and selling (and as the jury later agreed, often selling and re-selling and re-re-selling) antique coins, and he was fascinated by the upcoming auction of the Jim Copeland sports memorabilia. Big-money auctions were nothing new to the baseball card world, but this one was being handled by Sotheby’s, meaning the hobby was being mainstreamed into investment-grade collectibles.

“The” Wagner, inside its “authenticity” plastic case that guarantees it hasn’t been altered or improved, except for the fact that it was altered AND improved. The photo is by Linda Cataffo.

The centerpiece of the Sotheby’s Auction was an unbelievably pristine copy of the 1909 American Tobacco Company card of Honus Wagner, hardly the scarcest, but handily the most famous, card in the landmark series we collectors call by its catalogue number “T-206.” McNall and a then-unidentified partner (who proved to be his star player, Wayne Gretzky) wanted the card and they wanted Federgreen’s expertise. The card looked brand new. It bore no earmarks of being a clever counterfeit. But it also bore no signs of nearly 92 years of aging. Unless somebody was standing at the printing press when the card was finished drying, and stuffed it between the pages of a book, and kept the book in a climate-controlled room from the opening days of the Presidential administration of William Howard Taft, and had only taken it out after the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, something seemed wrong.

Something was very wrong. I couldn’t go with Matt to the inspection of the Wagner that McNall had arranged for him. But Matt took a bunch of pictures, and the next time he came in to the studios he brought them.

Matt has a sly smile that usually gives him away. “Whaddya think?”

I took one look at the photos and said “It’s been trimmed.”

Matt laughed. “That’s what I told Bruce. He said thanks very much, he said he thought so too, he said he’d probably buy it any way, and he walked me to the door, and he paid me a very generous fee, and I left.”

I asked him to show me the photos again. They had rung too loud a bell. “I’ve seen this card before.”

Matt’s eyes lit up. By the following Sunday I had found in my rabbit’s warren of card-related stuff, photos of a Wagner that had been offered for sale in the early ’80s by a fellow who owned a baseball card store on Long Island outside New York City. I had no doubt and neither did Matt. Between his photos and mine we were looking at before-and-after shots of the same card.

Before and after somebody with the guts of a burglar and the skills of a circumcision specialist had trimmed the thing.

In its previous state the Wagner was an anomaly. It had very large white borders, and the card was thus perhaps 10% bigger than the average T-206. It looked like it had been hand-cut from a sheet of cards, and not done by a machine. Some of the corners were stubbed and worn from age. But the “face” of the card, the player’s image, the bright yellow background, the lettering, were shiny and virtually perfect. It had been handled, and handled an appropriate amount, since 1909. But whoever had done the handling had been very, very careful not to touch the face.

And then somebody bought it and actually cut away all the damage on the sides and sold it to Jim Copeland who had turned it over to Sotheby’s which would shortly sell it to Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky for $451,000. When McNall was exposed as a crook who would sell the same priceless coin to several different collectors (throwing in secure storage of it for a small additional fee – so that it was always around for him to show it and re-sell it to another collector even though he didn’t own it any more) Gretzky got full possession of the treasure and sold it off to Walmart as a publicity thing, basically at a break-even figure. The price has gone up and up and up, and “the” Wagner was finally sold to Conservative political figure and Arizona Diamondbacks’ owner Ken Kendrick, who five years ago paid $2,800,000 for it.

It’s not a fake. But it’s also not an original.

And for years, collectors and experts have murmured about the process by which a really nice Wagner had been altered, and the alterations hidden from the public (even receiving the stamp of approval by the presumptive “final word” of a card authenticating company which got enormous publicity – and undeserved credibility – for encasing the card in the first of its plastic “slabs”), and the card became the image of the sports memorabilia hobby.

But who was behind this? And, Heavens, who cut the card?

Now we have the answer, courtesy the FBI…

According to the indictment, in advertising portraying Mastro Auctions as the premier seller of valuable items, including the world’s most expensive baseball trading card, a Honus Wagner T-206 card, Mastro allegedly failed to disclose that he had altered the Wagner T-206 card by cutting the sides in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.

The “Mastro” in question is Bill Mastro, who I have known since we were both teenagers. At age 19, he had bought a Wagner for $1,500 and thus completed his T-206 set. Those of us whose own massive collections might have been worth a total of $1,500 were aghast. My friend and mentor Mike Aronstein told me that some of Mastro’s relatives had actually gathered together to consider what we would now call an “intervention” or forcing him to seek psychological help. It was believed that no Wagner had previously sold for more than around $250. At the left is how this startling development was contemporaneously covered by a monthly publication I used to write for called The Trader Speaks.

Mastro was already buying and selling cards that were not intended for his own collection. By the ’80s he had gone from card dealer to the founder of one of the first sports memorabilia auction houses, Mastro Auctions, and would regularly work the phones to try to drum up publicity for his auctions.

It eventually became a $50,000,000 business. And now it’s gotten Mastro and some of his colleagues indicted. And not just for the deception regarding the Wagner.

More from the Department of Justice’s press release:

CHICAGO — Online and live auctions of sports memorabilia and other collectibles conducted during the 2000s by the former Mastro Auctions, which was based in  suburban Chicago, routinely defrauded customers, according to a federal indictment unsealed today. William Mastro, who owned the former business that once billed itself as the “world’s leading sports and Americana auction house,” together with Doug Allen and Mark Theotikos, both former executives of Mastro Auctions, were indicted on fraud charges for allegedly rigging auctions through a series of deceptive practices, including so-called “shill-bidding,” designed to inflate prices paid by bidders and to protect the interests of consignors and sellers at the expense of unwitting bidders.

In short, if you bought from Mastro, you stood an excellent chance of bidding against people who were there only to drive up the price.

For that part of the story, I refer you to the whole press release at the Sports Collectors Digest website. The New York Daily News has even more detail on the extraordinary tale of “the” Wagner, which after two decades of whispering, we can now shout: has been deceptively altered.

Just for fun, I should note here that the entire story of what originally made the Wagner card scarce in the first place also doesn’t add up. The timeline is so messy that it has the card being withdrawn at Wagner’s behest (supposedly because he didn’t want to be involved in selling cigarettes to kids) after he saw an advertisement for it in a national sports magazine. But the ad didn’t appear until July, 1909 and the card was supposed to have been withdrawn in March, 1909. But I’ll save that tale of what might’ve been the first card made deliberately scarce, for another time.

Also, this isn’t the scarcest card of all time, nor even in this set (there are at least 75 of them; there may not be as many examples of the T-206 card of an A’s pitcher named Eddie Plank, and there are only three or four copies of a rare T-206 variation of a Yankees’ pitcher Joe Doyle, and there are unique examples of eight minor league T-206 ‘proof’ cards featuring players who never got into the issued set, and based on recent developments there may yet be a 525th card to add to the checklist). More on that some other time.

Lastly, if you’re ever actually talking about Honus Wagner – the immortal shortstop or the card or now the FBI Fraud Case – the name doesn’t rhyme with “bonus.” Honus was short for the Germanic version of John, Johannes. So he answered to “Honnis,” not “Ho-nus.”

Bye, Hanley. Bye, Marlins. Bye, Rays.

The Miami Marlins have dumped all of Hanley Ramirez’s contract (“an original Eovaldi – how lovely”). They have traded Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez for a Detroit Tigers’ can’t-miss pitching prospect (how well did that work out when they offloaded Miguel Cabrera for Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin?). They threw Randy Choate overboard and might flip Carlos Lee. They are begging somebody to take Heath Bell off their hands. They might still deal Josh Johnson (update: there’s now even a rumor-let today about trading Jose Reyes).

But unlike when Wayne Huizenga did it in 1998 and 2004, owner Jeffrey Loria claims with a straight face that this is not a fire sale.

“It’s no secret I love [Ramirez],” Loria told Fox Sports and MLB Network reporter Ken Rosenthal. “He needs to have a fresh beginning, a new beginning … This is a very painful moment for me. But we had to do something.”

Uh-huh. The people who are having the “very painful moment” and who “need the fresh beginning” are Florida baseball fans. If any.

In the new stadium, the Marlins have averaged 28,397 fans per game, which is 12th in MLB in terms of percentage of capacity (that’s about three-quarters full). But a) it’s not as big as it seems (the Brewers have averaged 83% of capacity) and the raw numbers are below need, not growing, and disturbingly static during the most marketable moments. Since June 3rd, Miami has hosted 10 marquee games against divisional rivals Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, and three more against the Red Sox. They’ve only drawn even 30,000 fans on four of those dates.

Check, please.

The Marlins’ billion-dollar bet – that people would go to an area with no parking and little public transportation to go see a sparkly new ballpark and an all-star team – was failing even before the team began to stumble on the field. The sadness here is that I don’t know what you do with a great new ballpark that can’t draw enough customers to permit you to make money off it. Crate it and ship it to San Jose for the A’s? Airlift it to Montreal and try that again?

Of course the Marlins’ failure will kill the Tampa Bay Rays, too. Only a miracle would’ve given the state of Florida or the local governments the kind of political cover necessary to even chip in to a new baseball stadium (well, baseball stadium) in St. Pete or Tampa. The Rays have excited an initially ambivalent fan base with a superior job of planning and growth and innovation. And their new loyal fans can’t figure out the equation. They’re a little hurt that the team expects them to pay to get into the park.

So Florida baseball, 20 years old, isn’t going to get much older – at least not as we know it now. The Marlins are stuck there, doomed to live forever in a mansion with no furniture. The Rays aren’t. They’re almost certainly going to have to move. It’s a shame, too, because in those two decades the two clubs have produced three World Series trips, which is exactly one less than the five California franchises have produced in the same span.

The other shame here is, it’s not as if some of us didn’t see this coming. This is the blog entry from last November 15th (and that was before they’d actually signed Reyes or Bell, and before Guillen’s Castro gaffe):

Miami In A Vice

They have gone out and spent the money on what looks like a fabulous and distinctive new ballpark.

They have gone out and spent the money on what is an often fabulous and alwaysdistinctive new manager.

They are evidently willing to go out and spend the money (“in the range of five years, $18-$20 million a year,” per Buster Olney on ESPN) on Jose Reyes and might be able to snare Albert Pujols as well.

They even went out and spent the money on rebranding themselves as a city, not a state, and on some decent looking new uniforms (although the basic premise of the attire struck me as an adaptation of the original 1977 Toronto Blue Jays’ unis, with orange substituted for powder blue).

And I think it will all end in disaster.

As the 20th season of Marlins baseball looms, there is still almost no evidence that South Florida is a major league baseball community, or that it wants or needs big league ball. The entire dynamic could be changed by the new roofed stadium, but the certitude about that – and the willingness to wager literally hundreds of millions of dollars on that certitude – is, to me, unjustified. With the caveat that I know from sopping-wet experience that Joe Robbie/ProPlayer/Whatever Stadium was a miserable place to watch a ballgame, I still think that it’s mortifying that the Fish averaged 37,838 fans per game in their inaugural season of 1993, and 33,695 in 1994 – and never came close to that figure again.

I mean, not close. The World Champions of 1997 played before an average house of 29,190. Otherwise they have had just five seasons of more than 19,007 paid admissions per game, and four that were below 15,766 a year.

Team president David Samson thinks some improvement on the squad and the ballpark will convert a city that has for two decades been saying ‘you fill me with inertia’ will suddenly convert into producing “30 to 35,000 every single game.”

This was a city that could not support AAA baseball in the ’50s, and never again tried higher than A-ball. And I don’t buy the idea that a high-priced indoor facility in Miami proper rather than it a remarkably hard-to-get-to corner of Fort Lauderdale is now going to entice 37,000 fans away from everything else the city offers, especially at night. Pujols and Reyes would be hard to resist. Then again the Marlins fans of nine seasons ago resisted the 2003 World Champions (except for 16,290 of them each game). I’m not even sure how a $95,000,000 investment in Reyes and lord knows how much in Pujols would translate into profitability or even break-even status.

Reyes alone will not do it – ask the Mets.

As if these doubts were not enough, late last night the impeccable Clark Spencer of The Miami Herald tweeted something to make Miami fans shiver:

Source: H. Ramirez is not at all pleased at prospect of changing positions if #Marlins sign Reyes; the two aren’t the friends many portray.

When the Reyes rumors first started, Spencer had quoted Hanley Ramirez with words that bring honor to the role of wet blanket: “I’m the shortstop right now and I consider myself a shortstop.”

One can easily see where all this will go if a) Ramirez and Reyes squabble; b) Reyes gets hurts again; c) the Marlins don’t sign enough new talent to compete in a daunting division; d) the fans don’t show up; or e) all of the above, in any order you choose. When the ’97 Marlin World Champs did not yield a new stadium, 17 of the 25 men on the World Series roster were gone by mid-season 1998 and three more by mid-season 1999.

Imagine Jose Reyes being traded in a fire sale in the middle of 2013. Or Albert Pujols.

So: What Does Bryce Harper’s Hitting Coach DO?

Hadn’t visited with my friend Rick Eckstein since he worked with the kids on the anachronistically named Vermont Expos of the New York-Penn League in 2006. Tonight, as for all this year and in spring training of 2011,  Eckstein now works with Bryce Harper with the Washington Nationals.

Well what exactly can you DO with Bryce Harper?

“His swing gets a little big sometimes. I point that out to him,” Rick said with a smile, not long after Harper hit a seemingly low line drive that appeared to just clear the batting practice pitcher and then wound up around 440 feet away, and 30 feet up, on Shea Bridge in right-center here at CitiField. “He’s great about it. He constantly asks. He constantly wants to know if I’m seeing any little things he’s not.

“And of course I work with him with his prep for each night’s pitcher. Talking knuckle balls in advance of R.A. Dickey tonight, for instance,” added Eckstein, who is whipsaw smart and has a kind of directed version of his brother David’s frenetic energy. “But your implication is correct. I don’t have to fix a lot with him. And,” he interrupted himself with a chuckle, “obviously I don’t have to motivate him.”

There is, however, one fascinating component to The Care And Feeding Of Bryce Harper that figures to keep Eckstein busy, at least as long as the Nats continue to rank somewhere near their current fifth in NL team slugging and fourth in NL team OPS and he remains content to be their hitting guru: “People forget he’s still growing. I mean, he’s nineteen. He’s likely to grow another inch at least, and with that he’ll fill out and when he fills out he’ll add power. There will be adjustments to make.”

Which leaves Rick Eckstein trying to come to grasp with the intimidating realization that the 19-year old who has opened his career with 75 games of 9 homers, 29 RBI, and a .272/.343/.449 and as fast a pair of hands as anybody in the bigs is actually just the compact version of Bryce Harper.

Jose Bautista’s Injury: The View From 25 Feet Away

I haven’t witnessed something like this before. I haven’t even seen something like it live on television since Moises Alou cracked his ankle doing nothing more risky than rounding the bag at first.

Jose Bautista of the Jays took a mammoth swing and put a ball – foul – into the furthest reaches of left field at Yankee Stadium tonight, 400 feet away, easily. And then he crumpled over in pain.

At first this looked to be a hamate bone break in the wrist. The Jays have since indicated there is no fracture and the injury seems to be a tendon. It isn’t necessarily that much better news for the battered Jays but psychologically it’s better than a break. We’ll see what the MRI says tomorrow

It does, however, bring invoke anew the endless accusations that Bautista is/was on Performance Enhancing Drugs. I’ve addressed this twice before with some first-hand recollections of the day a really knowledgable baseball man forecast all of Joey Bats’ success.

I’d like to re-post here what I wrote in May of last year, with a slight update on the whereabouts of the source. There are a lot of reasons a guy’s tendon might be strained or stretched or torn, but I think there’s something akin to “provenance” for Bautista that merits re-telling.

And while pausing only to thank you for again making this blog Top 10 in the MLB.Com “pro” division despite its spotty schedule, here’s what I wrote a season ago:

MICKEY MANTO FORESAW BAUTISTA’S SUCCESS:

I first told this story in the fall of 2010 as Jose Bautista crossed the 50-home run plateau and was victimized by assumptions about PED’s or corked bats or, I don’t know, deals with the devils. With the Jays’ slugger now having crossed the 20-home run plateau before the first of June (2011) I think I should tell it again.

I used to run into Jeff “Mickey” Manto all the time when he was the journeyman infielder (he played in 11 major league seasons and changed teams 10 times; he once went from Boston to Seattle and back to Boston in one season; he played for 15 minor league teams). Manto averaged 26 games per stint in his big league career, so whenever I’d see him on a field somewhere one of us would say “uh-oh – about to change uniforms again.”

So on March 3, 2007, I stepped off a flight from New York and went directly to the Pirates-Yankees exhibition game in Tampa and who’s the first person I see? Pirates batting coach Jeff Manto (naturally, it was his last year on the job). I asked him what he could tell me about his Pirate hitters that I didn’t know; who I should watch for; who might surprise me.

He pointed at the guy in the batting cage. “If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year. In fact, I think he could hit 40. He is just so easily frustrated when it doesn’t go right that he blames himself and forgets what he’s learned. Or ignores it. But of all these guys I have, if you want one of them who will eventually do something special in this game, I’d pick him. I wouldn’t be very surprised.”

With Jeff Manto, White Sox hitting coach and Bautista Prognosticator, last month at Yankee Stadium

Bautista had 569 at bats last year in Toronto and ended at 54-124-.260. If you took his rates of production during his first four full seasons and gave him 569 at bats each year, he’d have averaged 20-73-.238 – so the power was there; this was not Brady Anderson coming out of nowhere. As I noted last year, until George Foster suddenly hit 52 homers for the 1977 Reds, his career high for blasts was 29 – and he was already in his seventh season in the National League. Cecil Fielder spent four years unable to crack the line-up of the Blue Jays, topped out at 14 homers, went to Japan for one year, and came back to hit 51 for the 1990 Tigers.

It is a rare thing to see a slugger grow from good to great – but it’s not impossible. So lay off Bautista. And if you see Jeff Manto (the 2011 minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox) say hi for me, and congratulate him on his prescience (oh and the other kid he really liked back when he was his first manager in the minors, some guy named Ryan Howard), and tell him the Pirates shouldn’t have dumped him as battng coach, nor should they have dealt Bautista for catcher Robinzon Diaz.

Update: Manto was promoted, this year, to batting coach for the White Sox. You may have noticed he helped Adam Dunn re-find his mojo. The man knows his batters.

Of Hype And Baseball Cards In The Attic (Updated)

Sometimes – whether you merit it or not – you seed the Publicity Storm Cloud just right with the chemicals and you get eight inches of rain.

Such it was yesterday when a respected memorabilia auction house put out a story about the discovery of some hundred-year old baseball cards in an attic in Ohio. I have a little less than 400,000 followers on Twitter and it feels like half of them sent me a link, wondering if I would be buying what each and every article described as three million dollars worth of cards. As near as I can tell, the story was picked up by ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox, AP, Forbes Agence France Presse, TASS, and Pravda. As I washed my face before bed last night and flipped on the radio, the story was on the CBS hourly newscast.

I’ve dealt with the auctioneers – Heritage – for years with nothing but professional results, and I’m accusing them of nothing but professional success here, but boy oh boy oh boy did they hype this thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Finding 1909-10 baseball cards in pristine condition in an attic at Defiance, Ohio, is a wonderful story and the cards are worth a lot of money. But comparisons to unique artwork (“It’s like finding the Mona Lisa in the attic,” said the finder) and the three-million dollar pricetag are ludicrous.

Here are some of the cards, and then I’ll explain why the pricetag is nonsensical:

There are 30 cards in the set, issued by an anonymous candy manufacturer during the baseball card craze of 1909-11. Labeled within our hobby for cataloging purposes as “E-98″ (the “E” is for “Early Candy and Gum”) the cards are scarce compared to other more plentiful issues of the time (yet there are 15 of them available right now, in lesser shape, on eBay). They also just aren’t that popular. In an era in which the candy companies produced extraordinarily beautiful lithographs of players stylized to look like Greek Gods with blazing sunsets behind them, E-98’s are pretty bland colorized black-and-white images set against one-color backgrounds. The set is also full of careless errors (if you look at the card of “Cy” Young, lower left, you’ll notice it shows a lefthanded pitcher. Cy, who only won 511 career games, was a righthander. The photo actually depicts a very obscure contemporary named Irv Young).

Here’s what I mean about relative attractiveness. The Mathewson and the Wagner below are from the E-95 set issued by Philadelphia Caramel in 1909. Find me 700 copies of them in superb condition and we’re talking.

:Nevertheless, baseball card price guides agree that a full set of all 30 E-98 cards should be valued at about $125,000 in near perfect condition. The 37 cards that the auction house, Heritage, plans to sell next month, are the best of the bunch, real beauties with sharp corners, the kind investors love.

The problem is that there’s only one thing that investors react to more than beautifully conditioned old cards. That would be the sudden “find” of a large lot of previously hard-to-find cards.

From the time it came out in 1953 or 1954, a Dormand Postcards issue of Gil Hodges of the Brooklyn Dodgers was wildly scarce. In the days when regular cards from the series fetched a dollar or two and even a Mickey Mantle cost only $5 or $10, Hodges was “worth” $400. Then a few years ago somebody found a stack of them. I mean, like 750 of them. Like, however many they made and didn’t distribute for whatever reason back in the ’50s. Right now on eBay you can get your average Dormand postcard for $25 to $45. Hodges? Well, you can buy-it-now for $750. That’s $750 for 42 copies of the Hodges card (some poor guy, meanwhile, is still trying to sell his one pristine-looking Hodges for $2,000).

If you read the entire story of the “attic find” in Ohio you’ll notice that what they discovered wasn’t just 37 old cards, but 700 of them. The family and the auction house aren’t saying specifically what the rest of them are, but the way these things work, if there weren’t a lot more of the E-98 cards (presumably in lesser condition) than they’d be auctioning them off, too. If they were more valuable, or more intriguing, or just from a more collected or beloved set of cards, they’d be publicizing them.

So, congrats to the owners of the “find.” The estimate for what an auction next month at the national collectors’ gathering in Baltimore – $500,000 – might be a little high, but it’s probably in range. Investors will invest in anything, especially if they’ve read about it in the news. But even some of the news articles indicate that there are less than 700 of these E-98’s registered and encased in plastic (as in the illustration) with an unknown larger supply in “raw” (that is, not encapsulated) condition. If you introduce 700 new ones into the market, the price will initially go up, and then way, way down.

The family and the auction house have a stack of 700+ cards from a set nobody really collects and which investors might begin to doubt.

Don’t forget to wave to the Gil Hodges Dormand Postcard when you pass it.

UPDATE 5 PM EDT: A tweeter raises an important point. Javier Cepero writes: “Doesn’t the guy have a Honus Wagner 10 rated card?”

Yes. But not the Honus Wagner. The Honus Wagner – from the American Tobacco Company 1909 set called “T-206″ has been sold for $3,000,000 by itself (in perfect, albeit altered condition) down to the $300,000-$400,000 range for the crappier ones.

“The” Wagner is on the right. “My” Wagner meets baseball historian/Braves pitcher Tim Hudson last year, in the middle. The E-98 Wagner is on the right.

Why Does MLB Put Players In This Position?

As Kansas City fans boo Robinson Cano during his live interview, sitting next to Derek Jeter, on MLB Network, this question:

Why does MLB put the onus of who doesn’t participate in the All-Star Game Home Run Derby on one of its players each year? Then-NL Captain Prince Fielder got booed in Phoenix last year for leaving Justin Upton off his four-man team, and now Cano has earned the eternal enmity of Kansas City for not picking Billy Butler.

I’m not talking about the merits of the Butler decision here.

I’m talking about the merits of the Captaincy decision.

One player does not select the All-Stars, and one player does not hand out the awards, and one player does not vote in the Hall of Famers. Why does one player pick the Derby participants? Or, if the novelty and even nostalgia are worth it (remember, in the 19th Century the team captain picked the line-ups and often made the trades), why not make this really easy on him?

The Home Run Derby is necessarily a hometown event. It makes perfect sense to have a home team player in it. I mean David Ortiz just said he hoped to take just one at bat tonight and then let Butler take over as DH. Further, in these days of universal slugging it’s not like you could name a team whose candidate for the role would be an embarrassment in the contest. Why not simply say that each year, the captain of the home league team has to select a player from the host club?

Not difficult, not unfair, and not a player’s fault. I know Robinson Cano is a grown-up and can take the booing. But why in a day when fan sportsmanship is draining away, is the game encouraging people to act with frenzy towards a visiting star?

The Epic Battle For World Series Home Field Adv…zzzzzz

In the nine years since baseball’s Think-of-Something-Anything response to the embarrassing 2002 All-Star Game tie, the gimmick – deciding which league would secure World Series home field advantage for its playoff champion – has been annually hammered into our heads as not just Rationalization for a decreasingly relevant concept, but The Rationalization. It’s personal, it’s for pride, it’s for home field advantage, it’s not a break, a diamond is forever, promise her anything but give her Arpege. The sad part is, some people have now heard it so often, they believe it.

In point of fact, in those nine years The Rationalization has directly and personally impacted only seven players.

Only All-Stars Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina, and Albert Pujols of the 2011 World Champion Cardinals, and All-Stars Josh Hamilton, Alexi Ogando, C.J. Wilson, and Michael Young of the defeated Rangers, were even winged by what happened in an All-Star Game. When the N.L. won last summer, the Cards got Game 7 and the Rangers didn’t. But one can argue convincingly that a team blowing a three-run lead and then a two-run lead in Game 6 could’ve done just as badly at home as they did on the road (and we don’t even need to address the possibility that the Cards might’ve won the Series in Game 6 if Tony LaRussa hadn’t forgotten how to phone his own bullpen in a noisy stadium).

The simple fact is that since the Butt-Covering Home Field plan was instituted in 2003, we’ve only had one seventh game, and thus we’ve only had one seventh game whose venue was decided by what happened in the All-Star Game. Other than last year, we haven’t gotten close. Only two other Series even reached Game Six.

There is absolutely no recent evidence that home field advantage is even keenly influential, let alone decisive. Twice the American League All-Stars gave “their” winner home field advantage only to see the National League teams (the 2006 Cardinals and 2008 Phillies) still wind up playing more home games than their A.L. rivals, and prevailing in the Classic. The 2010 Giants had home field, and didn’t need it. They won even though they played more games on the road than at home. In all the other Series (save for last year, of course) winner and loser played the same number of home games.

There’s no measuring for the psychological impact of knowing you have that 7th Game in your yard, and there’s an obvious advantage to the front end of the equation in which you are in strong position to win the first two at home (as did the ’04 and ’07 Red Sox, ’05 White Sox, and ’10 Giants). But did the Red Sox and White Sox pull off their three sweeps because they started in their own ballparks, or because they were decisively stronger clubs than the ’04 Cardinals, ’05 Astros, and ’07 Rockies?

Besides which, although they’ve been on a great run since the 1979 Pirates won at Baltimore, last year’s Cardinals victory only improved the home team’s record to 19-and-17 in the sundry Games 7 of the modern World Series. Whichever method gives you that decider – All-Star Stunt, Alternating Year Rotation, or something new – it just isn’t a guarantee you’re going to win it.

The All-Star Game was doing just as well (or just as badly) as that of any other sport until the Tie Disaster Of 2002, and that could’ve been remedied by keeping a small reserve of emergency pitchers for each team. It didn’t require a decade of selling as an ultimately decisive advantage, a not-at-all decisive advantage, decided by players making cameos under rules designed to insure they’re still just playing an exhibition, that has only come in to play once in all that time.

Let’s end this “Home Field” farce, now.

Steinbrenners Rob Reggie To Allay A-Rod

These are not your father’s Steinbrenners. For that matter, do they appear to be their father’s Steinbrenners.

In four days it will have been two years since George Steinbrenner died, and in that time his sons Hank and Hal have run their inheritance like a private vehicle for the only thing they seemed to have inherited from him: knee-jerk petulance. Their Dad grew out of its most virulent form by the time he was 60. The sons don’t seem to be moving that quickly.

Christian Red of The New York Daily News reports this afternoon that the Yankees have told their Hall of Famer and Special Advisor Reggie Jackson to “stay away” from the team, from Yankee Stadium, and from other club-related activities after his inarguable comment to Sports Illustrated that Alex Rodriguez’s admission of past steroid use “does cloud some of his records.”

It’s about the mildest form of the truth: that when combined with Rodriguez’s tone-deaf personal conduct at every stage of his career and his track record of getting smaller as the stage gets bigger, his admission of PED use – at minimum while with Texas – might be enough to give the voters the excuse they almost to a man dream of, of denying him a spot in Cooperstown.

Reggie Jackson, who said none of that and referred only to the aforementioned “cloud” and some “real questions about his numbers,” has now been banished, till further notice:

…according to two sources familiar with the team.

“Reggie is under punishment,” said one of the sources. “He’s upset.”

The comments were published at an inopportune time, when the Yankees were in Boston for a pivotal four-game series against the rival Red Sox. The punishment is not an outright ban, one of the sources said, but the Bombers felt that Jackson took a shot at A-Rod that was below the belt when he said that Rodriguez’s admitted performance-enhancing drug use “does cloud” A-Rod’s records.

“The team doesn’t need any negative publicity or aggravation, especially playing in a big market like Boston, and at Fenway,” one of the sources said. “A-Rod doesn’t need the aggravation.”

The name Steinbrenner appears nowhere in the piece. Nor does it show up in Marc Carig’s summary in The Newark Star-Ledger which adds the term “in effect suspended” and  just a dollop of context:

…club officials deemed the outspoken slugger as too “high maintenance.”

Of course the absence of a Steinbrennerian reference simply serves as circumstantial evidence that it originates from one of them (the bet is Hal – Hank had the presence of mind to step slowly away when he sensed he was slightly overmatched trying to do his father’s job). The next best reason for conclusion-jumping here is reached by asking yourself who else would’ve had the power to ban the Yanks’ last, best, living connection to the days George Steinbrenner resurrected the moribund franchise in the late ’70s. You think General Manager Brian Cashman did this? The gnomish Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost?

Of course it could’ve been Trost’s idea. The latter source quote noted above (“The team doesn’t need any negative publicity or aggravation…”) is just dense enough to be something from him. What on earth did the Yankees just get themselves besides negative publicity and aggravation by banning Reggie Jackson just as the storm-in-a-teapot over his comments to SI had faded completely from consciousness? Who on earth would have let this wet blanket land on the eve of the All-Star Game?

But even if he did dream up this chicken spit and convince Hal Steinbrenner it was salad, Trost is not likely to have given the story to The Daily News. Just two months ago he demanded that Major League Baseball actually investigate the newspaper for another story, co-authored by the impeccable Bill Madden, that the Steinbrenners were exploring selling out.

The key to the saga is the necessity of protecting Rodriguez, even at the cost of alienating and publicly humiliating Jackson, who spent only five of his 21 major league seasons in New York but is now high on the list of retired stars identified solely with the Yankees. Mr. Red of The Daily News refers to Rodriguez as the “star third baseman” and while that’s what the Yankees desperately need people to think this year, and next year, and the year after that, and all the way until 2017 when his noose of a contract finally runs out, it is hardly still the case. This is a player, healthy enough to have appeared in 82 of the Yankees’ first 85 games, whose On Base Plus Slugging Percentage number falls below the likes of Ryan Doumit, Adam LaRoche, and Jed Lowrie – and just ahead of Chris Davis, thought to be in danger of being relegated to a platoon at first base for Baltimore.

Other than structurally I am not comparing the two cases – throwing me out and throwing Reggie Jackson out aren’t in the same universe – but we are beginning to see the outlines of a pattern of the Yankees ham-handedly overreacting in defense of their rapidly rusting former star. On Opening Day last year I finally got a clear photo from my seats of a Yankee “Coaches’ Assistant” named Brett Weber. Throughout 2010 he had given hand signals from his own seat right back of home plate to Yankee players in the on-deck circle. Nearly always, this was Rodriguez, who often looked inquiringly towards Weber for some kind of data. Gradually it had dawned on me that Weber was providing Rodriguez with details about the preceding pitch: speed, location, type.

But at the opener on a frigid March day in 2011 Weber had elevated his game. He was signaling everything except time, temperature, and traffic conditions on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

The pictures were so inconsequential that I didn’t even blog about them here. I tweeted one shot and explained that Rodriguez was just getting confirmation of what he’d seen. What I thought but didn’t (bother to) write, was that he’s so tense that he needed confirmation from a kid in the stands with a radar gun what pitch he had just seen thrown even though he was closer to the pitch than the kid was.

But a newspaper – The Daily News, natch – published the photo two days later and I arrived at Yankee Stadium that morning as the center of attention. Major League Baseball had already instructed the Yanks to not sit Weber or anybody else in the stands. The team had already issued an explanation: namely that the Radar Gun attached to the Yankee Stadium scoreboard wasn’t working that day and so Weber was telling the players something they would have ordinarily known but for a mechanical failure.

In the middle of an ad hoc “news conference” in which I insisted that it might be bizarre for a team employee to be giving an active player a kind of hand-signal play-by-play but it didn’t strike me as cheating, who walks over but General Manager Cashman. I’ve only known him fifteen years or more and he decided to make a joke about Weber signaling for beers, and then to explain that it had all been cleared up and Weber would be back in his seat for the next day’s game, and that certainly the Yankees weren’t upset with me for tweeting the photo.

The hell they weren’t.

Since 2001 I had served as the assistant to, and “color man” for, Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff as he did the play-by-play of Old Timers’ Day over the Yankee Stadium public address system. I had occasional jokes and even less occasional insight to drop in, but mostly I was there to help out Bob, who is universally revered in my industry for his skill and moreover his generosity. Just before Old Timers’ Day 2011 Bob phoned me to say he had just been told by the Yankees that while he was invited back to “announce” the game, I wasn’t. “They said they were going in a different direction.”

I wasn’t happy about it – mostly because Bob wasn’t happy about it – but good grief, the Yankees once fired Babe Ruth, it’s their ballclub and they can do what they want. Even as I chafed at the idea that a ten-year run was over without so much as a phone call or email from them, it still never dawned on me that there was an ulterior motive.

Then The New York Post ran a story leaked to them by the Yankees that there certainly was one. The Yankees, the ‘paper’ reported, were avenging themselves against me for having tweeted the Weber/Rodriguez photo.

For the last several years, political commentator Keith Olbermann has served as an in-stadium play-by-play man for the Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day. But the Yankees are making a change, The Post has learned. The Yankees were not happy with Olbermann posting a photo on Twitter earlier this season of a coach signaling pitches to their batters in the on-deck circle. So they decided to bounce the liberal loudmouth and will have Bob Wolff and Suzyn Waldman provide the commentary for today’s game instead.

The factual errors in the item (I had never done the play-by-play; the implication that Bob Wolff was somehow replacing me was made by somebody who knew nothing of the mechanics of Old Timers’ Day) suggested this was not Cashman cashiering me, nor the exec in charge of the event, Debbie Tymon. This was further up the chain. Even President Randy Levine insisted to me that the events were unconnected, and that I was a “candidate” to return to help Bob in 2012, and that I’d hear from the club directly next time.

Not exactly. Old Timers’ Day 2012 came and went without even a post-it stuck on my seat in the ballpark reading ‘drop dead.’

And in retrospect this petty little exercise seems like a minor note before the publicity fiasco crescendo of the move against Reggie Jackson. Note that in both cases nothing was announced, just leaked. In both cases there is executive-level action by people who don’t really know what’s going on, and who wind up exacerbating a forgotten story by resurrecting it and publicly blaming on somebody else.

And in both cases the motive is to somehow defend Alex Rodriguez.

Clearly Rodriguez needs it. After the tweeted photo story broke, an American League manager took me aside to thank me for stirring up the hornet’s nest. “They’ve been doing that for years, even in the old park,” he said. “I’ve complained and complained and complained – nothing. And it was always done for A-Rod.” The skipper added some texture to this by suggesting that the real need for a guy in the stands in a Yankee jacket giving pitch details to Rodriguez and other Yankees was that the team was notorious for flashing the wrong pitch and the wrong speed on the scoreboard (they would hardly be the only team accused of that crime and/or gamesmanship).

The sad part about all of this is that in both cases these are amazing over-reactions. The “signal” story went away within 24 hours and Brett Weber returned to his seat (although Rodriguez never again got the benefit of his technically-illegal wig-wagging). Reggie Jackson’s gentle honesty about the fact that Rodriguez is a freakin’ admitted steroid user resonated here in New York with all the impact of a snowball thrown into a pond and ruffled far fewer feathers than his comments about the Cooperstown worthiness of the late fan favorites Gary Carter and Kirby Puckett.

Under Steinbrenners: The Next Generation, the Yankees’ front office looks like a bunch of hand-wringing clerks wearing green eyeshades, rushing to defend Alex Rodriguez. You know what George would have done? Nothing. He might’ve updated his infamous derision of Dave Winfield and call Rodriguez “the new Mr. May,” but he would’ve taken the heat – not applied it to others unnecessarily.

Instead the Yankees: get another publicity nightmare; underscore the fragility of their third baseman’s ego and the insanity of his five-years-to-go contract; and pull the rug out from under one of their top ambassadors (and one of their guys who actually hit his 500+ home runs without any juice).

If Hal Steinbrenner – with or without Lonn Trost – is going to run this hallowed team like a Roller Derby franchise, that other Daily News story had better be true. The Steinbrenners need to sell the club. The Yankees need to be run by some grown-ups with skin of merely ordinary thickness.

Ryan Howard – Saturday?

On the record the Phillies say that first baseman Ryan Howard, still recovering from his brutal Achilles injury on the last play of the team’s 2011 season, will be attempting to play back-to-back rehab games for the first time tonight and tomorrow.

Off the record (in what is admittedly perhaps the least impressive advancement of a story ever) a Phillies’ source told me tonight here at Citifield that the hope is to activate the slugger in time to play Saturday in a nationally televised game against the Braves in Philly.

Phils’ General Manager Ruben Amaro tonight said of Howard to reporters “he’s getting close” but wouldn’t even go as far as the source as identifying Saturday as the soft target for the return. In his rehab work at Lakewood (Class A) and Lehigh Valley (Class AAA) Howard had gotten 8 hits in seventeen at bats with two doubles, one home run, and nine Runs Batted In through Wednesday night. As of this posting Howard is 2-for-3 tonight (both singles) with another RBI, all off Adam Warren, who a week ago tomorrow was making his big league debut for the Yankees against the White Sox.

The Phillies’ source said overall Howard seemed to be at 85 percent but was still significantly limited in his running – but with all other aspects of his game looking surprisingly up to speed.

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