The most surprising part of my interview with Joe Torre tonight was his revelation – which he had first mentioned at his late afternoon news conference at Dodger Stadium – that he spoke to George Steinbrenner on July 4th to wish him a happy birthday. They had, evidently, a fairly long conversation, and that fact underscores a quality about Steinbrenner’s penultimate illness which lent it the makings of something akin to a Greek Tragedy.
With Mark Buehrle’s loss Monday, and Dallas Braden getting scratched from his start last night, the combined record since their achievements of the three active pitchers to have tossed Perfect Games has dropped to 8 wins and 18 losses.
Jim Hunter Before: 32-38, .457Jim Hunter After: 191-128, .599Jim Hunter Improvement: 142Sandy Koufax Before: 133-77, .633Sandy Koufax After: 31-10, .756Sandy Koufax Improvement: 123
Koufax is a bit of an aberration, since that 31-10 record, gaudy as it seems, represents only one season plus about a month, before his retirement in November, 1966.
David Wells Before: 110-86, .561David Wells After: 128-71, .643David Wells Improvement: 82Don Larsen Before: 30-40, .429Don Larsen After: 51-51, .500Don Larsen Improvement: 71Mike Witt Before: 37-40, .481Mike Witt After: 79-76, .510Mike Witt Improvement: 29Dennis Martinez Before: 173-140, .553Dennis Martinez After: 71-53, .573Dennis Martinez Improvement: 20
For everybody else, the Perfect Game has meant comparative disaster. We can again discern some unrelated factors: many pitchers threw their masterpieces late in their careers (Cone), late in life (Joss died about 30 months after he threw his), or not long before injuries (Robertson and Ward, the latter of whom would switch positions and become a Hall of Fame shortstop).
Dallas Braden Before: 17-23, .425Dallas Braden After: 0-5, .000Dallas Braden Dropoff: 425David Cone Before: 177-97, .646David Cone After: 16-29, .356David Cone Dropoff: 290Lee Richmond Before: 14-7, .667Lee Richmond After: 61-93, .396Lee Richmond Dropoff: 271Roy Halladay Before: 154-79, .661Roy Halladay After: 2-3, .400Roy Halladay Dropoff: 261Mark Buehrle Before: 132-90, .595Mark Buehrle After: 6-10, .375Mark Buehrle Dropoff: 220Jim Bunning Before: 143-89, .616Jim Bunning After: 80-95, .457Jim Bunning Dropoff: 159Len Barker Before: 33-25, .569Len Barker After: 40-51, .440Len Barker Dropoff: 129Charlie Robertson Before: 1-1 .500Charlie Robertson After: 47-79, .373Charlie Robertson Dropoff: 127Addie Joss Before: 140-79, .639Addie Joss After: 19-18, .514Addie Joss Dropoff: 125Cy Young Before: 382-216, .639Cy Young After: 128-116, .525Cy Young Dropoff: 114Randy Johnson Before: 233-118, .664Randy Johnson After: 69-48, .590Randy Johnson Dropoff: 74Johnny Ward Before: 80-43, .650Johnny Ward After: 81-60, .574Johnny Ward Dropoff: 46Tom Browning Before: 60-40, .600Tom Browning After: 62-50, .554Tom Browning Dropoff: 46Kenny Rogers Before: 52-36, .591Kenny Rogers After: 166-120, .580Kenny Rogers Dropoff: 9
Rogers’ fall off is not even what the typical decline of a pitcher would suggest, and Browning’s and Ward’s aren’t very spectacular. Then again, neither are the improvements of Witt or Martinez.
It was the (only sometimes) unspoken question always in the background for the first season of the new Yankee Stadium, and it increasingly became the undertone as the post-season accelerated.
Even this afternoon, as the minions of the nation’s media capital tried to out-do each other with more and more speculative coverage of the victory parade, a reporter who has been on the radio here for nearly half a century insisted that the highlight of the day would be the “emotional moment” when Steinbrenner accepted his key to the city. A less-senior and far more skeptical colleague asked if this was actually going to happen. The veteran’s answer: “It’s right here in the program for the ceremony!”
This is, of course, the impression the Yankees continue to give: that all is not necessarily well with their venerable owner, but that he’s still frequently involved. There was even a very sad effort just last Saturday by The New York Post to palm off a series of e-mailed answers from infamous mega-flak Howard Rubinstein as an “exclusive interview” with George Steinbrenner. To paraphrase Churchill, the answers contained every cliche except “prepare to meet thy maker,” and “employees must wash hands.”
I have seen The Boss, with whom I have had a surprisingly warm and even conspiratorial relationship since I was a teenager, only twice this year, and the information gleaned from each encounter was directly self-contradictory. In March, David Cone and I were leaving the press box at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa when the place was frozen by security – it was George on his way out and they cleared the route for him. He was in a wheelchair and looked just this side of robust – twinkly-eyed and neither gaunt nor puffy. Cone whispered that he just had to say hello, and hoped he’d get a hello back.
This is what I heard:
Cone: (mumbled greeting)
Steinbrenner: Of course I know it’s you, David. Jesus! We could’ve used you pitching out there today. Who were those kids? Are any of them ready?
So much for Cone’s fear (and mine – to this day I think of George less for the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s and more for the letter he wrote to ESPN management praising my work on the 1992 Expansion Draft, in which I roundly criticized how his team handled the non-protection of its younger prospects, or the day he spent twenty minutes recounting to Bill Clinton, of all people, virtually every encounter he and I had had since 1973, right down to the story of my mother getting hit by the Knoblauch ball and refusing to ever go back to Shea Stadium even though the Yanks were playing World Series games there).
But just weeks later, during another lockdown, I saw Steinbrenner carted through the bowels of the new ballpark in the Bronx and lifted – not helped, but moved by a guy at each end – into a wheelchair.
Over the last few years, as his health has gotten intermittent, the volume of even rumors and whispers around the Bronx about how he is has declined. When the Yankees traded for Jeff Weaver, Steinbrenner poked his head in to the press conference and asked me “What do you think? How clear-headed does he sound? Is he going to be able to handle this?” – prescient questions, as it proved. A year later I was told that everybody knew there were “awareness problems” but that to my source’s knowledge, nobody in the Yankee organization had ever heard a diagnosis, a prognosis, or even a vaguely medical-sounding term. A year after that, when he recited our history to Clinton, his memory was so sharp as to include some stories that I had forgotten – but each time he tried to say my name, all he could come up with was “uhh… this young man.” After the 2007 season, there is no question that, to some degree great or small, he was behind the nightmarish, take-it-or-leave-it dethroning of Joe Torre as manager.
There are fewer such reports these days, and not even that level of source information. There’s a lot to be said against George Steinbrenner and lord knows I’ve said much of it. But something made me feel very sad today at that Yankee ceremony: contrary to what it said “right here on the program for the ceremony!,” The Boss was indeed not there to accept the keys to the city.