"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: December 2002

DAVE LA-WHO? I wanted

DAVE LA-WHO?

I wanted to post one of those “Year-in-Review” lists, and I still may later this week, but I’ve run out of time for today. There were a lot of memorable moments in baseball this past year, not all of them wunnerful. I can tell you what I thought was the funniest moment of the year: Alex Rodriguez squarshing one of El Duque’s horseshit eephus pitches for a homer at the Stadium.

It was late in the summer, and Duque had been tinkering with the old lob ball for a few games when he uncorked one to A Rod in the first inning of a day game. A Rod was caught off guard, and so was the ump: the pitch looked like a strike, but was called high. A Rod cracked up. Duque tried it again on the very next batter, Raffie Palmerio: the pitch was in the dirt and it skipped away from Posada. The next time Rodriguez came up, Duque threw him another floater, again for a ball. Not willing to let well enough alone, Duque thought he would fool A Rod by trying it again in the same at-bat. (You gotta love Duque’s chutzpah!) That was when Rodriguez popped one out of the park. Joe Torre shook his head and grumbled. It was the last Eephus of the day for Hernandez, who gave up a homer in the next at-bat to Palmerio (fastball).

Those were the only two times Texas scored all day, and the Yanks won the game.

But almost 6 months later, I’m still laughing.

Boy, I’m going to miss Duque when he’s gone. Friggin Screw job.

THAT’S A WRAP As

THAT’S A WRAP

As expected, the Yankees and Roger Clemens came to an agreement yesterday, which will bring the Rocket back to the Bronx for a last hurrah in 2003. Boss George gets the last headline of the year (across town the Mets introduced Rey Sanchez to the media), and barring a catastrophe, Clemens will win his 300th game in pinstripes.

The first thing that comes to mind is the sound of Billy Squire singing, “Stroke me”.

Meanwhile, Red Sox Nation welcomed ex-Yankee, Ramiro Mendoza to the fold, as detailed in this article in today’s Boston Globe.

DON’T CALL IT A

DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK

It didn’t take long for George Steinbrenner to start squawking. Boss George usually surfaces after taking a hit like Steinbrenner did last week from Larry Lucchino. The old man came to life in an exclusive interview with the Daily News on Sunday, and it’s exactly the kind of schtick we’ve come to expect out of Steinbrenner: insinuations, taunts, defensiveness, pride, envy, mean-spiritedness and paranoia. (There is a companion piece with some of George’s best pals in today’s paper.)

You didn’t think you were going to make through the holiday season without hearing from the fat man himself, did you? Hell, George is right on time.

In “Wait Until Next Year” (1988), Mike Lupica gave a name to this kind of Steinbrenner Outburst:

GEORGE (jogj), v., GEORGED, GEORGING. 1: To insult, verbally abuse, taunt members of the New York Yankees in the nespapers. 2: To threaten with demotion to the minor leagues, usually Columbus of the International League; or threaten with trade to another major league team. 3: To actually bully Yankees to the point where they are unable to perform at previous levels of baseball skill, specifically, levels exhibited before becoming Yankees. USAGE: Exclusively relating to the principal owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner; i.e./ to be Georged by Mr. Steinbrenner.”

Roger Angell, talking about the Bronx Zoo era, suggested that Steinbrenner, “didn’t really want to let his ballplayers play the games. He didn’t want to put them out on the field and wait and see what happens, which is what you have to do in the end. He wanted to impose his will and in doing that he got between us and the players. I always had the feeling at Yankee Stadium when he was there that he was standing up in front of me and I was looking at George Steinbrenner and I wanted to see the Yankees, instead.”

In Sunday’s interview, Joe Torre and Derek Jeter got Georged.

Daily News: Joe Torre has become a New York icon. Judging by some of your actions, such as the way his contract was dragged out last year, it sometimes seems that you think he gets too much credit and you don’t get enough.

GS: Joe is the greatest friend I’ve ever had as a manager. It’s a great relationship. I don’t want to destroy that, but I will tell you this: I want his whole staff to understand that they have got to do better this year. I will not see him drop back into the way he was before. Right now he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Before he came to the Yankees he didn’t even have a job. Three different times as manager he didn’t deliver, and was fired. Look how far he’s comes. He’s come that way because of an organization, and he’s got to remember that.

I’m glad Joe is an icon. He’s a hell of a guy, a tremendous manager and a tremendous figure for New York. I just want his coaches to understand that just being a friend of Joe Torre’s is not enough. They’ve got to produce for him. Joe Torre and his staff have heard the bugle.”

There it is: George at his finest. He insults Torre, then pats him on the back. Compliments him and turns around and makes a condescending remark.

Sure, it must be the coaches fault. That fat ass Zimmer couldn’t hit a fungo worth a half-a-shit last year.

No matter how succesful Torre has been for Steinbrenner, he still can’t let Joe get away clean. He’s got to stick a prick in him to remind him who the master is. It is a reminder of how much Steinbrenner had in common with Billy Martin. Both men used paranoia to fuel there success.

“Billy Martin proved what a powerful strategic tool paranoia is,” Tom Boswell commented in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary. “He believed that everyone was against him. And so he spent every waking moment figuring out how imaginary enemies could be defeated in their nefarious plots. And sometimes he not only created strategies to defend against things that would never be done against him. but he realized that those attacks were in themselves novel and he would then try those attacks that he had already dreamed up a defense for. That’s why he was so wonderful at suicide bunts and double steals and any way that you could humiliate or psychologically defeat the other team, he was sure that’s how the world reacted to him. He was sure the world hated him. And so he turned that really raw, frightened paranoia into wonderful strategic intelligence.”

The major differences between Martin and Steinbrenner is that Martin was a baseball man, and a thug, who grew up in the mean streets of Oakland. George is a football man, and was a rich kid. Billy Martin was something steely and ornery and deranged that could come from the mind of R. Crumb. A friend of mine mentioned the other day that Steinbrenner is more like Pee Wee Herman’s nemesis, Francis, from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

George isn’t a squeeze-play, double-steal guy; that is much too clever and smarmy. Steinbrenner is bigger and blunter: he’s a Gashouse Gorilla, a six-guns-a-blazing, bulldozer.

Here is what George said about Jeter:

Q: The Yankees haven’t had a captain since Don Mattingly. Do you see Derek Jeter as a strong candidate?

GS: Joe (Torre) would like that right now, but I don’t think now is the right time. I want to see Jetes truly focued. He wasn’t totally focused last year. He had the highest number of errors he’s had in some time. He wasn’t himself. [Jeter had 14 errors in 2002, his lowest total since 1999; his fielding percentage of .977 was 3 points higher than his career average. But who is counting?---A.B.]

As far as trying and being a warrior, I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of him. Being how much better wouldhe be if he didn’t have all his other activities? I tell him this all the time. I say, ‘Jetes, you can’t be everything to everybody. You’ve got to focus of what’s important.’ The charitable things he does are important. A certain amount (of his outside pursuits) are good for him and for the team, but there comes a point whe it isn’t, and I think we’re getting close to that point.

He makes enough money that de doesn’t need a lot of the commercials. I’m not going to stick my nose into this family’s business. They are very fine people, (but) if his dad doesn’t see that, he should see it. When I read in the paper that he’s out until 3 a.m. in New York City going to a birthday party, I won’t lie. That doesn’t sit well with me. That was a violation of Joe’s curfew. That’s the focus I’m talking about.

Jeter’s still a young man. He’ll be a very good candidate for the capaincy. But he’s got toshow me and the other players that that’s not the right way. He’s got to make sure his undivided, unfettered attention is given to baseball. I just wish he’d eliminate some of the less important things and he’d be right back where he was in the past.

This is a calculated move on George’s part to stir Jeter a bit, and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right on. But this is just a warning shot. George knows that Jeter is not the kind of guy like Winfield or Reggie who will take him on in the press. Who knows? He took a cheap shot at Jeter’s family, which is a familiar line of attack. It would be uncharacteristic of DJ to say anything provocative in response.

Reggie Jackson said in today’s News, “George knows what notes to play. Whenever he had trouble with me, he called my dad, and my dad would raise hell with me. That was the way to reach me—and George knew it.”

Steinbrenner uses the Father-card often, perhaps due to his rocky relationship with his old man. “You always try to please you father,” Steinbrenner told the News yesterday. “I don’t care who you are. If I was running a hurdles race and won three and lost one, he’d say. ‘How come you lost?’ That was the thing you should concentrate on. Spend no time concentrating on your victories. Concentrate on your defeats, so they don’t happen again.”

Is it any wonder why Steinbrenner cherished Paul O’Neil like he did?

Jeter got Georged alright, but the difference between the 80′s and now is that definition’s 2 and 3 of Lupica’s definition need not apply. Steinbrenner doesn’t thirst for spotlight like he did in the 70′s and 80′s, but he does need to express himself every once in a while. Ho-friggin-hum. Geoge is content playing a ‘supporting role’, but he’s like Harry Lime in “The Third Man”: His presence can be felt even when he isn’t there. It’s the ultimate cameo. You have to enjoy how scripted it all is; Steinbrenner is doing himself. It’s about as authentic as a William Shanter dramatic reading.

Truthfully, I think it’s kinda good for Jeter. He’s gotten as free a pass as any high salared player has ever had for George. What makes him so special?

George like to fire up the old engine every once in a while. The old Lion still needs to roar. Fortunately, both Joe Torre and Derek Jeter are shrewd, cool-calm-and-collected professionals; they know how to play George, especially George. Still Reggie Jackson, of all people, had this sage advice to offer: “I am a Yankee. I’m one of George’s guys. I take heat from him like the janitor, or Brian Cashman or Joe Torre or the secretary. You learn to deal with it or you move on. I’ve learned to stay mostly out of his gunsight. When called upon you show up. When you’re not, you stay out on the range and do your work.”

After all these years, the Hall of Famer is still walking on eggshells. Here is more from Lupica in “Wait Til Next Year”: “Once you took George Steinbrenner’s money, you opened yourself up to the Georging. It was part of the deal. There was a lot of money. You wore pinstripes at home. You play the home games at Yankee Stadium, the most famous sports arena in the United States. You had access to the endoresement potential of New York City, the media center of the frigging world.
And you knew that you would get punished, publicly and relentlessly and in the most common sort of language, for failures, great and small.
You would get your ass Georged.
Sometimes with a red-hot poker.”

But George wasn’t only taking shots at his own team this weekend. Larry Luchino and the Red Sox did manage to come up as well.

Daily News: John Henry, your former partner and owner of the Red Sox, was quoted as saying after you signed Contreras that he “was and is a big risk.” What’s your response?

GS: “That’s just ridiculous. It makes him look stupid because they did everything they could to get him, including offering more money than we did. They offered $10 million to get him away from us. I give credit to Mr. Contreras. He wanted to play for the Yankees.

John Henry put down $1 million to buy into the Yankees. He gets back $4.7 million. I hope he does as well for his partners.”

DN: Larry Lucchino, president of the Red Sox, called the Yankees “the evil empire” after the signing.

GS: “That’s B.S. That’s how a sick person thinks. I’ve learned this about Lucchino: he’s a baseball’s foremost chameleon of all time. He changes colors depending on where he’s standing. He’s been at Baltimore, and he deserted them there, and then he went out to San Diego, and look at what trouble they’re in out there. When he was in San Diego, he was a big man for the small markets. Now he’s in Boston and he’s for the big markets. He’s not the kind of guy you want to have in your foxhole. He’s running the team behind John Henry’s back. I warned John it would happen, told him, “Just be careful.” He talks out of both sides of his mouth. He has trouble talking out of the front of it.”

Steinbrenner’s history with Lucchino is delineated in an article that appeared in the Boston Globe on Saturday. Lucchino hasn’t backed off his comments either. “Let’s just say that on the list of top people with respect and affection for me, you will probably not find George’s name there…I think there’s a large set of people for whom George Steinbrenner has venom, “Lucchino told the Globe. “Perhaps it’s a badge of honor. If it’s true, I’ll wear it as a badge of honor.”

The Globe asked Lucchino how the Sox can compete with the Yankees if they have little chance to outspend them.

“The Force will be with us,” Lucchino replied.

Nice touch, huh? (And you wonder why Yankee fans are paranoid?) According to Gordon Edes’ Notes column on Sunday, “..the Red Sox CEO is being referred to as ‘Luccino Skywalker’ on some Internet message boards.’

A Star is Born.

Every fanbase has their own, individually carved, made-to-order cross to bear. Red Sox and Cub fans bear perhaps the most famous crosses (while the White Sox have one of the most underappreciated), but every team has a cross to bear. Yankee fans have to bear Steinbrenner, and accept the fact that they root for the most hated team in all of pro sports.

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen complained to Tony Roberts, “Don’t you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing Communist, Jewish, homosexual, pornographers. I think of us that way, somtimes, and I live here.”

That pretty much sums up how I feel about the Yankees. And even Yankee fans. The rest of the country looks at us like we’re right-wing, front-running, fascist bullies. That’s how I feel often, and I love em to tears. T

That’s the cross a Yankee fan has to bear. We are conditioned as New Yorkers to be defensive and paranoid anyhow; being a Yankee fan feels like an extention of that native tendency. It’s the icing on the gravy. Everybody vs. Us.
Here is George’s short-but-sweet reply to his 30 years owning the Yankees yesterday in the News:

“Overall, I did my best. If I did make serious mistakes I tried to rectify them. Nobody can tell you that everday that goes by in their lifetimes they don’t learn more. As long as you can say you did your best, I guess that’s enough.

I am a driver. I never let up on my guys. We have a pretty damn good organization, and they’re all working. We don’t take two or three weeks off at Christmas. We work, because they’re all gaining on us. They’re doing everything they can to gain on us”.

No doubt, Scrooge M. Nixon.

SOX GM CONTENT OPERTATING ON THE LOW

The Red Sox inked my old friend, Ramiro Mendoza last night, which after weeks of speculation, did not come as a shock. Here is an e-mail I recieved from my cousin Gabe this morning:

Hey,

I just wanted to note Mendoza signing with the BoSox,
and express my sympathies. I know he was one of your
favorites, and to have him sign with the enemy must be
painful. I’m not sure how it compares to Ventura
going to the Yanks for me; that trade felt so
deadening, even if, on paper, it made sense. (In
retrospect, though, last place would have been
slightly more tolerable with Robin than without. . .)

Does it make any difference that you’ll still get to
see him pitch a lot? Probably it makes it worse,
given whose uniform he’ll have on. I’m sorry all
players you can’t keep don’t go to the Padres. San
Diego’s like a retirement home anyway, so it’d be like
sending them out to pasture.

Talk to you soon.
Gabe

Mendoza could come back to haunt the Yanks; it would be hard for me to hold it against him. Jason Giambi may hit one 4 days long against him too, so I’m sure things will find a way of evening themselves out.

But inking Mendoza is another smart, if unspectacular move on the part of the Theo Epstein, who turned 29 over the weekend. The rookie GM is making a habit of these kind of deals. Peter Gammons praised the signing of right-hand reliever Chad Fox a few weeks back.

Gordon Edes has a good piece on Epstein in Sunday’s Globe (reports of all that broken furniture were refuted).

“We have a lot of respect for the way the Yankees go about their business in a lot of way,” Espstein said. “We’re trying to mimic the Yankees from the early ’90′s, when they built their dynasty focusing on scouting and player development.”

Murray Chass asked Epstein about his rookie campaign thus far, in yesterday’s New York Times.

“I think we learned a lesson,” he said. “We’re not going to beat the Yankees by throwing money around. We won’t necessarily beat them on the big-name players. We won’t beat them through quick fixes. We’re goint to beat them on smaller moves, maybe by outworking them, though they’re smart. They have unlimited resources. It’s clear we’re going to have to develop our own placyers and take a slightly different approach…Our practice is not to get into bidding wars for free agent. We do our research and cost analysis, and we establish parameters.”

Epstein told the Globe, “They [The Yankees] are our ultimate challange. They raise the bar and inspire us to work even harder. We have zero margin for error.”

The Sox have lost out on free agents Jeff Kent, Edgardo Alfonzo, as well as Contreras.

“The constant thread in all these situations is we’ve been less willing whan other clubs to guarantee longer contracts,” Epstein said in the Times. “In most cases, we’ve offered one or two years.” He said that four-year offer to Contreras was an exception to the team’s new practice.”

“Last December,” he said, “if you looked at the Angel’s club on paper and you looked at the Yankees’ club on paper, you’d have been happier being a Yankees fan than an Angels fan. But the game isn’t played on paper or in a payroll department.”

“We’re not going to be able to spend with the Yankees. Our approach is not to throw money around and not to go after big names for the sake of big names. It’s to have aroster, 1 to 25, that’a a competitive club. We need to be better in smaller areas. Pennants are won and lost in the details. That’s where we have to be better. Pennants are also won and lost with talent that is developed within.”

“The real commodity is low-service, high-impact players, ” Espstein said, referring to good young players who are relatively inexpensive. “They’re like gold chips. But they’re nearly impossible to acquire, so you have to develop your own.”

I feel most comfortable with the job. I’m accepting of the age humor. I think it will drift away.” But, he added, “I look forward to seven weeks from now when the focus shifts back to the players on the field.”

SABER-ENVY

In Rob Neyer’s letter box last week, the former Bill James protege wrote,

“Hey, did you see what Dan Shaughnessy wrote about the trade for Giambi?

‘Some of us find it a tad frightening that the Sox made a big deal of Giambi’s on-base percentage when announcing the deal. It’s easy to see Bill James’ fingerprints on this trade.’

I don’t have any idea if Bill James recommended Giambi, but it’s not like Theo Epstein’s not capable of noticing that Giambi can hit. To me, what should be frightening to readers of The Boston Globe is that 1) Shaughnessy apparently thinks that the Red Sox should not care about on-base percentage, and 2) he seems to be truly afraid of James’ very presence on the franchise payroll. When I appeared on a television show with Shaughnessy last month, he said he found the hiring of James “troubling.”

So he’s frightened and he’s troubled. I guess the obvious question is, why? What is it about Bill James that gives Shaughnessy the heebie-jeebies?

I don’t know. But if he doesn’t get over that particular fear, he’s going to get left in the dust. That’s not to say that one can’t make a fine living without listening to all those crazy kids and their kooky newfangled ideas. But you know, if you’ve got any self-awareness at all, being a dinasaur ain’t much fun.”

True, dat.

STEP BY STEP: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

What is Steve Phillips trying to do to me? Turn me into a Mets fan? As if landing slugger Cliff Floyd wasn’t enough, he continues to fill out his roster with lovable (ex-Yankee) role players like Rey Sanchez. Who is next? Randy Velarde? Regardless of whether Sanchez has been brought aboard to help mentor the young Jose Reyes (a role that would seem to fit him to a T), he should make Robbie Alomar a happier second baseman.

GODZILLA WATCH

With all the hoopla over Jose Contreras, Hideki Matsui’s name has slipped from the headlines momentarily. But there is some interesting information regarding the Yankees other international star.

John Sickels had this to say about Matsui in his column last Friday.

And here is an excerpt from Roy Neyer’s December 20th Mailbag:

“A bit before noon, a guy named Chris asked me what I thought of Hideki Matsui. Chris, a Yankees fan, said he’d be surprised if Matsui managed an OPS much better than 750. I asked him why, and at 12:13 he responded …

‘The combination of a smaller, harder baseball, smaller parks, and pitchers that throw 3-5 miles per hour faster seems like it will only have a negative impact on his stats. Everyone uses Ichiro as an example of a Japanese hitter being successful in the major leagues, however, I don’t feel this is a valid comparison to Matsui for a couple of reasons.

Ichiro has been well known for his contact ability, speed, fielding and throwing arm. In my opinion (and I could be wrong, it would not be the first time), speed is speed. If you are fast in Japan, you will be fast in the majors. The bases are the same distance apart in each place, so a fast time to first in Japan will be fast in the states. I think that fielding ability and throwing arm fall into the same arena. They are skills that translate well to the major leagues. Although, his throwing arm could have been affected by the bigger, heavier baseballs in the states.

Matsui is, by all accounts, an average fielder, with average speed and an average arm. I tend to think he will remain average in all three areas with the Yankees.

As for the offensive side of the game, I can’t really back up my beliefs with facts. I’m sure you hate that. Ichiro is a contact hitter. He has a short, level swing. I would think it is easier to adjust to pitches of higher velocities when you have that type of swing, opposed to a longer, uppercut-style swing like Matsui. Also, the park size has less of an effect on Ichiro since he is a slap hitter. If anything, smaller parks would hurt him, because the outfielders would play a few steps closer to the infield. Which would allow them to snare some of his line drives that may drop in. I doubt it makes an overall impact of any significance. I also think the heavier ball would be balanced by the fact that certain line drives that would be caught will drop in and some line drives that would be hits, may not make it through the infield.

All of this is difficult to back up with stats, given the few number of Japanese hitters to play in the U.S.

I thought I would get your opinion because you seem to have a better perspective than most fans and writers I know of.’

Chris
…Shortly after Matsui’s signing was announced, I wrote a short note for a sidebar in the story. A bit later, though, a few readers pointed me to Jim Albright’s article at BaseballGuru.com, wherein Albright makes a pretty good case for his own method for deriving “major league equivalent” statistics from Japanese baseball stats. His case, basically, is made by the fact that Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo have performed in MLB approximately as Albright’s method would have suggested.

And Mr. Matsui? Here’s what his translated numbers look like, prorated to 162 games, for the last three seasons:
HR OBP Slug
2000 30 .402 .531
2001 25 .412 .514
2002 35 .418 .551

Remember, those aren’t the numbers Matsui compiled in Japan; these are approximately (and, of course, theoretically) what his numbers would have looked like if he’d been playing on this side of the Pacific in those seasons. Considering the consistency of Matsui’s performance, there’s good reason to think that he’ll be the second- or third-best hitter on the team, behind Jason Giambi and perhaps Bernie Williams. It makes you wonder how the Yankees got Matsui for three years at just $7 million per season (average annual value). And it also serves to remind us that for all their money, the Yankees often spend it wisely.

Of course, we don’t really know that Albright’s method works generally, or that it will work specifically with Matsui. He’s only the fourth Japanese hitter to come over here, and while it’s true that it worked for the first three — Ichiro, Shinjo, and St. Louis’ So Taguchi (who spent the season in Triple-A, and fared poorly) — that’s not much of a sample size. But based on what we’ve got, there’s every reason to think that Matsui is going to be outstanding.

I’m not worried about his ability to hit the fastball, because great hitters generally don’t have a problem with the fastball, as long as it’s straight. And the ballparks in Japan aren’t as small as most of us think. If Matsui has a problem, I think it will be inside his head. But you know, baseball’s a pretty big deal over in Japan, so it’s not like the guy’s never faced any pressure before. And if he’s lucky, he doesn’t speak a lot of English.

Oh, and for you Mets fans wondering how Norihiro Nakamura may fare, here are his MLE’s for the last three seasons:

HR OBP Slug
2000 28 .347 .460
2001 32 .395 .505
2002 29 .360 .480″

That is all.

The Blogfather David Pinto’s

The Blogfather

David Pinto’s “Baseball Musings” should be required daily reading for all baseball fans. John Perricone calls Pinto his “blogfather”, and it’s no wonder why. Pinto is like the James Agee of bloggers: his prose is direct, concise, and illuminating. Pinto is passionate yet even-handed, and has a wry sense of humor to boot. Here is a nice supplement to the Yankee, Sox story.

Bob Klapisch has more on the He Said/She Said soap opera behind the scenes of the Contreras deal, including lots of sound and fury, and some more broken furniture.

Boston Herald columnist Tony Massarotti suggests the Sox could gain a measure of revenge if they signed Rocket Clemens, though I find it hard to believe that there are many Red Sox fans who share his sentiments.

SAME AS IT EVER

SAME AS IT EVER WAS

Christmas, 2002, and it’s the same as it ever was between the Yankees and the Red Sox. The Yankees signed Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras to a 4-year $32 million on Christmas Eve day, ousting their arch rivals yet again. Contreras had reportedly been Boston’s number 1 priority all winter. But when the bidding was allowed to begin last Monday, it didn’t take long for Boss George and the Yankees to swoop down and snatch the muscle-bound ace right from Boston’s clutches. The deal, was completed by Tuesday afternoon.

Once again, the Yanks beat the Sox. The Yanks get anything they want, while the Sox get bubkus. It’s the same old song. The Boston Globe accurately noted that the “Yankees…are making a mockery of their supposed mandate to cut the game’s fattest payroll.”

But are the Sox better off paying an accomplished amatuer pitching talent like Contreras, essentially the same money the could chose to give to Bartolo Colon? I don’t know that you can say “yes” with any sense of assurance, unless you think Colon is a chump. Peter Gammons citing a “club anaylst whom I deeply respect,” estimated that Contreras would fall in the middle of the pack of this winter’s available pitching crop—ahead of Clemens, Glavine, Ortiz, Dessens, and Hampton, but behind Millwood, Colon, Maddux and Vazquez. I have no true sense of how good Contreras can be; I do feel like Bartolo Colon still has a lot to prove as a bonafide ace, but he did get it together long enough to deliver a fine season last year. We know his stuff is dominant.

In Thursday’s New York Times, Murray Chass suggested that Sox may not be as burned as they may feel. “In fact, one general manager suggested yesterday that by losing out on Contreras, a Cuban defector, the Red Sox could come out ahead. If they aquire Colon instead, the general manager said, the Red Sox would probably have the best 1-2-3 starters in the game.”

That’s a straight up diss to Hudson, Mulder and Zito in Oakland, but the addition of Colon to the Sox sure would put them in the mix.

But for now, Boston’s Larry Lucchino appears content licking his wounds and stoaking the Yankee-Red Sox fire.

“Boston’s desire to at least keep pace with the Yankees, with players, if not expenditures, is fueled by its desire to supplant the Yankees at the top of the A.L. East but also by the bitter relationship between Larry Lucchino, the Boston president, and George Steinbrenner.

‘Steinbrenner has aimed all of his venom at Lucchino,’ a baseball offical said. ‘He told his people “Lose Contreras and you’re done.”‘
“When Lucchino was contacted after the Yankees won Contreras, he initially offered a brusque ‘no comment’ Then he changed his position.

“‘No, I’ll make a comment,’ he said. ‘The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.’ [Did you forget Japan?] Adding another comment, he called the Yankees’ acquisition of Contreras ludicrous, echoing the view of officials of just about every other team…”

There is little doubt that the Yankees are the bullies of baseball. Yo Larry, tell me something I don’t know. Isn’t this the way it’s been for the better part of 80 years? The Yanks used to be U.S. Steel, today they’re Microsoft. I understand the criticisms of the Yankees as a ruthlessly cold spending machine. It’s hard to begrudge anyone their sense of righteous indignation when it comes to the Yanks. For most baseball fans, hating the Yankees is an inalienable right.

Signing the Cuban pitcher Contreras just adds fuel to the Yankee-haters’ inferno. What makes it different in Boston is that it is personal. If not with the players, then at least with the fans, not to mention management. Lucchino is preaching to the choir when he calls the Yankees “The Evil Empire”. What, did the Contreras deal suddenly change somebody’s mind about the Yanks? No, but perhaps it gave voice to the anger that must have shot through Red Sox Nation Christmas Eve. Lucchino’s frustration is understandable, but he came across as second-rate, James Woods red ass calling the Yankees the “Evil Empire”. He looks like a whiner. If he were still in San Deigo, fine. But the Sox cursing out the Yanks amounts to Gimbels bitching about Macys.

Not that George doesn’t deserve it. George courts it. George Will wrote that “Steinbrenner is a bore and a buccaneer, overflowing with the animal spirits that fuel capitalism in its rawer forms.” Regardless of the new baseball climate, Steinbrenner has remained obstinate, no matter how many cavities may go unfilled in the lower ranks of the Yankee family tree. When the chips are down, he’s going to outspend everyone to put a winning team on the field. His fellow owners may gripe, MLB may cringe, but there it is, Boss George upholding a time honored tradition.

(The agents aren’t complaining however. “Steinbrenner is just unbelievable,” one agent told the Daily News the other day. “He just doesn’t give a damn. God bless him. He’s obviously gonna spend whatever he feels like he needs to win. He’s unbelievable.”)

“Are the Yankees good for baseball?” For me, the answer is simple because I’m a Yankee fan. For the average fan, I would most likely think the answer would be “no”. As much as the Yankees polarize fans, is the answer simply black and white?

In an article published on August 6, 1990, just prior to Steinbrenner’s second lengthy suspension from baseball, George Will wrote, “It is baseball’s double misfortune that Steinbrenner is not just an owner, but the owner of the Yankees. Damn them to your heart’s content, they have been important to the game’s health…[Competitive] balance is better for baseball than the sort of dominance the Yankees enjoyed [from 1926-64]…However, it was good for baseball when the most glamorous team, the Yankees, had glamour. To be blunt, Steinbrenner’s mismanagement of the Yankees matters much more than the mismanagement of the Braves. The Yankees, the source of so much of baseball’s most stirring history—Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle–are simply irreplaceable as carriers of a tradition that lends derivative glory to teams that compete against them.”

Without discounting the greatness of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Schilling, the Dimondbacks will be most famous for defeating the great Mariano Rivera and putting an end to the Yankees stranglehold on the Championship trophy, pure and simple.

Of course Will’s article was written at a time when Steinbrenner had all but wrecked the once-great Yankee franchise.

“Of course, nothing lasts. The ravages of time are lethal, especially when assisted by the ravages of a Steinbrenner. The Yankes were once, it seemed, one of those rare institutions that could not be ruined…The Yankees had a huge market, a vibrant farm system, a fat treasury, an inspiring tradition. And yet they were brought low by the ten-thumbed touch of their owner.”

My how times have changed.

Throughout the recent run of Yankee success (1994-present) it’s interesting to note just how strong a resemblance George Steinbrenner’s public reputation compares with that of his favorite president, Richard Nixon. After serving his second suspension, Geroge lucked his way into great fortune: the opportunity for redemption. Not just for the depressed Yankee organization, but for his own legacy.

Nixon seemed to have succesfully repaired much of the damage he brought on himself by the close of his life. He was an elder statesman, once-disgraced, but in the great American tradition, forgiven. If Nixon was not venerated he was begrudgingly respected. He wore his detractors out, or at least died trying.

George Steinbrenner will die out-spending his enemies. That hasn’t changed since he bought the team in 1973. I doubt whether George himself has actually changed that much either, but even George isn’t dumb enough to dick up Joe Torre’s restoration job of the Yankees. The George of 2002 is a more guarded, veiled ruler. Where he once battled his players and managers for the biggest headlines and photographs in the newpapers and on television, George has been relatively content to operate from the distance of Tampa, on the low.

Everything is relative though. George may not humiliate his employees in public much any more, but behind closed doors the monster still roars.

I’ll take today’s George over the old George, any day. It’s easier to swallow. At least most of George’s tumult is implied, reported second hand these days. While his lust for the personal gratification of celebrity may have waned, his lust for success at any cost is still ripe. When the papers report that everybody’s ass is on the line if Contreras doesn’t get signed, we take them at their word.

By this point, anyone who has followed the Yankees for more than 15 years, knows the script. We’ve practically memorized it. Only the names and dates have change. At this point Yankee fans can be thankful that George’s wrath is properly directed at the rest of the league, and not at itself.

Who knows how much George’s “baseball people” wanted Contreras? This clearly became a pissing contest with the Red Sox, and George doesn’t lose many of them.

As a Yankee fan, I’m resigned to George’s “star fucker” deals as a fact of life. Why fight it? Do I take great joy in beating out the Sox in December? Hardly. By nature, I’m too superstitious for that. At least the championship core is still intact. There is no telling how long this run will last before the downward cycle begins again. But with George in charge, there is always the possibility that it may come sooner than later. “[Steinbrenner] lacks an attribute essential for baseball (and, not coincidentally, for democracy): patience, ” concluded Will, 12 years ago. “One cause of Steinbrenner’s downfall is that at first he seemed able to buy success. His swashbuckling impatience seemed validated by spending (for Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, especially) that helped produced the 1977 and 1978 Series winners. But baseball is a great leveler, punishing the impatient who throw money rather than intelligence at problems.”

The Yankees have justly been praised for balancing the two since their return to glory. But that delicate balance is always threatened by the bully behind the curtain.

…What About the Mets?

The Mets were resoundingly bumped off the backpages this week, but Bob Klapisch reports on the impact Cliff Floyd may have out at Shea next year.

The Gift of Herb

The Gift of Herb Score

Book Review

This winter Jim Thome, the most popular Indian since Rocky Colavito, left Cleveland for the finer pastures of Philadelphia. Something sounds wrong with that statement, but it’s true. The Indians, who enjoyed a significant resurgence during the 1990′s, now find themselves hoping to be in Philadelphia’s situation 3 or 4 years down the line. Fortunes can change quickly. Losing Thome was the final straw in the dismantling of a contender in Cleveland. He is the now the prize jewel of the Philadelphia team.

Thome left Cleveland because the Phillies gave him close to $30 million reasons why, so it wasn’t exactly suprising when he accepted their offer. With the Indians in full rebuilding mode, Thome would have had to make like Mike Sweeney on the humble, and cut the home team an impressive discount to hang around. It behooved Thome to move on. But when Frank ‘trader’ Lane traded Rocky Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn in the spring of 1960, it appeared like the beginning of the end. Kuenn was a good hitter, but you just don’t trade Rocky Colavito when’s he’s 26 and he hits nothing but bombs for you.

The Rocky Colavito trade signaled the demise of an Indians team, which had enjoyed a period of great success; it also set forth a series of events that would cast the team into the baseball cellar for the better part of three decades.

That is the conceit of Terry Pluto’s breezy, informal, and affectionate history of the Tribe, “The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 30-year slump”*. Like it’s literary cousin, “The Curse of the Bambino” by Dan Shaugnessy, Pluto’s book takes a symbolic moment—the trading of a beloved player, and uses it as the unwitting catalyst for the team’s subsequent misfortunes.

The idea that one trade cursed a franchise may seem slippery, or contrived, but for the sake of an eye-catcher, it works just fine. Pluto’s book is not an academic, or definitive history of the Indians, it is an impressionable, anecdotal narrative, which covers a lifetime worth of unstable ownership, lousy trades, bizarre luck, incorrigible head-cases, flops, blunders and of course, the unconditionally, loyal fans.

Pluto, a sports writer from Cleveland, was born in 1955. The Indians he grew up watching were one of the game’s perennial losing propositions. It was the Indian team that was spiritually represented so tellingly in the movie “Major League”: an unmitigated hodge-podge of bottom-feeders, and rejects. (That the movie itself was cheap, shoddy and yet somehow popular is fitting.)

The Indians played in the cavernous Indians stadium, which according to Pluto, “wasn’t a ballpark, it was a mausoleum—too big, too damp, too old and too cold”. The weather tore up the grass so badly that longtime Indians GM, Gabe Paul had it painted green.

“I never thought it was any good for baseball,” said Gabe Paul. “It sits right on that damn Lake Erie, and the wind blows off there—it can chill you to the bone. A mile away, the weather wouldn’t be nearly as bad. But on the lake, we had games called for fog, snow, you name it. Also, it’s just too barny, too damn big. You can’t convince people to buy tickets in advance because they know they can wait until the last minute and still get good seats.”

That wasn’t worst of Paul’s problems. Keeping the Indians in Cleveland proved to be a full-time job in and of itself. “This much must be said for Paul: He busted his ass to keep the Tribe in Cleveland in the early 1960′s. If it hadn’t been for Paul, the Indians would have been some other city’s heartache.” Ultimately however, Paul’s greatest talent seemed to be keeping his job, regardless who owned the team.

According to Pete Franklin, the Cleveland talk show great, “That was Gabe’s true secret Gabe was a master at working the room, of getting to know everybody and knowing where all the bodies are. The thing about Gabe was that while he did work for an owner, he always found a way to get a piece of the team himself. Then it became damn near impossible to fire him because he was part-owner. Gabe’s greatest gift was the ability to take care of Gabe.”

True to form, Paul left Cleveland to run the Yankees for George Steinbrenner in 1973, after an attempt by Steinbrenner to purchase the Tribe fell through. With the resources at his command, Paul was the architect of the Yankees championship teams of the late 1970′s. Curiously, Pluto neglects to mention how Paul plucked away Craig Nettles, Chris Chambliss and Dirt Tidrow from the Tribe and brought them to New York.

It could finally be said, “See what happens when you give Gabe Paul some money to work with?” But after five years with the Yankees, with two league championships and one World Series under his belt, Paul, exhausted from the hysteria of the Bronx Zoo, would return to the comfort of Cleveland.
“Since 1959 and the Colavito trade, September may as well have been erased from the Cleveland baseball calendar. August, too. This team was usually out of sight in the American League by the Fourth of July. Since 1959, Cleveland has had eighteen managers and twelve ownership groups, and nothing has changed but the faces. The whole organization seems stuck in the dufus syndrome.”

Here are just some of the names who passed through the Cleveland organization over the years, on their way to bigger and better things elsewhere: Roger Maris, Norm Cash, Mudcat Grant, Gaylord Perry, Tommy Agee, Luis Tiant, Tommy John, Craig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, Bert Blyleven, and Rich Sutcliffe.

Some of these moves were due to poor management (Maris, Eckersley, Grant), others to chance (Agee and John who as youngsters were moved to bring Rocky Colavito back to the Tribe in 1965). If you were an Indians fan it ceased to matter. One way or another, the Indians were snake bit. Pluto covers each story with varying attentiveness, but he’s generally even-handed, and fair. The Frank Robinson vs. Gaylord Perry section is especially good, and so is the Eckersley, Rick Manning soap opera. Mudcat Grant and Andre Thorton have particularly impressive profiles, and the Sudden Sam McDowell story is one of the Indians’ most poignant and sorry.

Pluto’s affectionate look at the motley cast of characters that passed through Cleveland over a 30-year span is light, engaging reading. There is a little bit of everything: phenoms like Herb Score, and Sudden Sam McDowell, Rick Manning, and Super Joe Charboneau, malcontents like Wayne Garland and Rico Carty, trailblazers like Frank Robinson—who became the first black manager in the major leagues for the Indians in 1975, and even stand-up guys like Andre Thorton and Mike Hargrove.

My favorite character of the bunch is Herb Score, a blazing pitching talent of the mid-50′s, who along with Rocky Colavito was poised to keep the Indians powerhouse thriving. Colavito’s story is a good one as well. An Italian kid from the Bronx that hit bombs? What’s not to like? Gordon Cobbledick wrote in the Plain Dealer, “Many are aware of Rocky’s limitations. They know he is an indifferent outfielder. They know he is a slow and uninspired base runner. They know he is capable of long spells when his bat is a feeble instrument. But the love him because he’s Rocky Colavito No more than a half-dozen players in the history of Cleveland baseball have been accorded the hero worship he enjoys Rocky was our boy.”

How could Frank Lane have traded Colavito? Mudcat Grant may have had the best response. “You want to know why Lane traded Rocky? That’s easy. Lane was an idiot.”

The most amusing bit about Rocky was how powerful his arm was. He actually pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings over his career, allowing only one hit. “As a pitcher, Rocky could have been a twenty-game winner,”[manager Joe] Gordon was quoted as saying several times.

“Rocky had the strongest arm of anyone in the Cleveland farm system, and that includes the pitchers,” said Score. “In the minors, the players would make bets before the games. Then we’d make sure the manager was in the clubhouse so he couldn’t watch. Rocky would stand at home plate and try to throw a ball over the center field wall on a fly. He could do it—four hundred feet. I saw if myself several times.”

Score is most famous for being drilled in the face with a line drive off the bat of Yankee infielder Gil MacDougald. Before that incident, which occurred on May 7, 1957, Score, then 23-years old, had a lifetime record of 38-20 with a 2.63 ERA and 547 strikeouts in 512 innings. For the rest of Score’s career, his record was 1-26 with a 4.48 ERA.

Score did manage to come back, but arm trouble derailed what looked like a promising career. Score’s declined was blamed on the beaning, but Score shrugged it off. MacDouglad was equally as devastated by the beaning, if not more so. “I know it was an accident. It looked like the poor guy just couldn’t get his glove up in time The nicest thing was that Herb’s mother spent a long time on the phone with me. I’ll never forget that. But I never felt the same about baseball after that.”

Pluto continued, “[MacDougald] retired after the 1960 season at the age of thirty, even though there was plenty of life left in his career. He batted .289 in the seven years through 1957, and .253 in the final three seasons after Score’s injury.”

Score, a modest an unsentimental man, later became a television and then the radio broadcaster for the Tribe. His relaxed demeanor and dry sense of humor perfectly suited the sad sack team. Failure wasn’t the end of the world for Score, just another thing to deal with and move past.

“On the air, Score has an engaging, easygoing personality. He talks to you, not at you or down to you. He comes across as a man who would make friends quickly, a master of mall talk about such things as the weather—and the weather is one of Score’s favorite subjects Even when the Indians play in a dome. Score will tell you the temperature inside, then describe the weather outside the dome when he got off the team bus. This much is very true of Herb Score: He can talk for a long time about nothing much and do it in detail.”

A true baseball gift if there ever was one.

His partner in the booth for many years, Nev Chandler said, “Herb never talked much about his career. He did like to talk about Ted Williams, how great Williams was and how he could never get Williams out. The only time that Herb’s feelings about pitching came through strongly was a day I said on the air that this pitcher had a ‘respectable 3.55 ERA.’ During the commercial break, Herb turned to me and said, ‘Let me tell you something. Any pitcher with an ERA over 3.00 is not doing his job.’
“I said, ‘Herb, that’s a pretty harsh analysis.’
“He said, ‘It’s true. If they get more than three runs off you, you are not doing your job.’
“That’s because not many people got three runs off Herb Score when he was healthy. But Herb would never say anything like that on the air.”
What I appreciate most about Score is his unpretentious approach to baseball and broadcasting.
“The thing I believe in is that the players are the stars, not the broadcasters,” said Score. “I don’t try to be an expert on every play. I like to think that some guy is in the car with his son, and they are listening to the game. The guy will say, ‘This is a good time to bunt.’ Then the player bunts. In my head I know it’s a good time to bunt, but I don’t have to say it all the time. Why take that away from the father?”
Such sensitivity is rare in a medium where announcers act as if they get paid by the mouth full. Or by the opinion. Score’s hands off sensibility is not a modern one, but it is an admirable one because it takes the audience into such high consideration. It’s not In-Your-Face, but informative, and measured.
“I want to be objective as I can,” Score continued. “I hope you can’t tell who is winning the game by the tone of my voice. If the game is exciting, I’ll show it. If the other team makes a good play, that excites me, too. People tell me, ‘You’re not critical enough when a guy makes an error.’ Wait a minute. If a guy boots one, that’s obvious. I see the play. I mark down the error on my scorecard, and then I tell people it was an error. No one feels worse than the guy who dropped the ball or struck out with the bases loaded. He messed up and everyone knows it, including the fans. So why dwell on it? I want the broadcast to be even-handed and to sound like a couple of relaxed guys talking baseball. It’s not the opera or the White House.”
Rocky Colavito may have been the heart of Cleveland, but Score has been its soul. But you can’t say the “Curse of Herb Score” cause Score turned out to be such a blessing. Besides Herb Score isn’t as cool sounding for a curse as Rocky Colavito anyhow.

* I have the second edition of this book, which was published in 1995. It’s safe to say that Pluto’s conception of the Indians as the lowest of the losers is now outdated after Albert Belle, Manny, Omar and co., no matter how stripped down they’ve become in the past year and a half. I’m curious if he’ll do a significant re-working of his theory in his next edition of the book. The following will no longer apply to the Indians:
“Boston Red Sox fans whine about the curse of the Bambino, about losing in the World Series. Losing in the World Series? You call that suffering? What Indians fans would give for a repeat of 1954—the Indians last World Series—when they were swept in four games!”

Chicago Cubs fans gnash their teeth, go to the wailing wall, and compare themselves to Job because their team has not been to the World Series since 1945, But the Cubs almost got their a few times They’re often in first place until the heat of August.

Cubs fans at least have some almosts and September Swoons.”

And so forth. Since Pluto’s book was last printed, the Indians have been to two World Series and they’ve lost them both. Can you say Game 7? They’ve been the most impressive team the league has seen out of Cleveland since the late 40′s and 1950′s. So now the Indians have joined the ranks of Red Sox and Cubby “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda, Almosts”. And now of course, as if punished for their brief run of success, Cleveland fans are back in the familiar position of having to root for a loser again. Lovable as they may be. At least they’ve still got Omar Vizquel.

DECK US ALL CLIFF

DECK US ALL

CLIFF BANGER

The Mets continued to improve their team this weekend by signing big-time outfielder Cliff Floyd. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I’ve never been so happy to see a player come to Shea. Perhaps it’s because I feel less atagonistic towards the Mets than ever before. (Mostly, it’s cause Floyd isn’t a Red Sox any more. What can you chalk that up to: The Curse of Reggie Smith?) Sure, I hated the Mets when I was a kid, but feel less inclined to hate them each year. Of course it helps that the Yankees have been as good as they’ve been, so it’s been easy to feel kind-hearted, and curious. The only thing I truly hate about the Mets these days is the fact that their owner and general manager remind me too much of how horrible it is being a Knicks fan. But as hard as it is to refrain from taking shots at Slick Willie Phillips, he has to be given credit for once again, improving his team (on paper at least).

Most of the Mets fans I spoke with over the weekend felt cautiously optimistic about the deal. As Mike Lupica noted in his Saturday column, they’ve been down this road before.

The Mets essentially decided to give Cliff Floyd the money they could have used to sign Edgardo Alfonzo. Does Cliff Floyd help soften the blow of losing Fonzie? You bet. Fonzie may have been the soul of the team, but Floyd is good egg too. The New York Times scouting report said that Floyd is the best left-hander hitter the Mets have had since Mex Hernandez. Floyd is impressive for sure, but what about John Olerud?

(John Harper has a terrific piece on the machinations of the Edgardo Alfonzo deal in Sunday’s Daily News. It is one of the best newspaper articles I can remember reading in a long time. Illuminating and informative. With Brian Dennehy staring as Brian Sabean and Ben Affleck as Theo Epstein.)
Like most fans, I spend a reasonable amount of time dreaming about the chances of a favorite player winding up on my favorite team. Such was the case with Cliff Floyd. I’m a sucker for a tall lefty, with long arms and fat ass that’s got a sweeping, golf swing. Stylistically, Floyd falls somewhere between Dave Parker and Hard Hittin Mark Whitten; he’s got some Willie McCovey in him too. Floyd is a power hitter who hits a lot of doubles; he can steal bases and walk too. He’s suffered a lousy injury history, and is a neglible fielder, but is an enthusiastic and amiable character, and again, one hell of a hitter.

I’m not alone in my lust over Cliff Floyd; the Yankees have coveted him for several years. If it wasn’t for a burst of impatience last summer, there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t be a Yankee right now. But the Yankees had visions of Godzilla in their minds, so Floyd wasn’t an option. Kevin Kernan was quick to jump all over the Bronx Bombers in his Saturday column in the Post.

I also heard some general chiding on Steve Sommers radio show late Friday night, which is to be expected. But I didn’t feel anything but pleasure for Mets fans when I heard the news. I didn’t read it as Yankee loss, as much as I’ve coveted Floyd. Who knows? You could make a pretty good case that Floyd will make out better than Matsui. (For the latest on Godzilla, check out this article in Newsday.)

The funny thing is, the more I thought about it, the happier I was. For everyone—Floyd, Piazza, Mo, Art Howe, and most especialy, my friends who follow the Mets.

When the Mets traded for Robbie Alomar last winter I was excited but secretly envious. I don’t have any of those feelings about the Floyd signing, and I like him even better than I like Alomar. Maybe I’m just thankful that I don’t have to endure the thought of Floyd as a Red Sox any more.

It is interesting to note that Floyd echoed the sentiments of Tom Glavine and Mike Stanton when he said that he would not have considered the Mets if Bobby Valentine were still the manager. “It’s safe to say that I agree with Glavine and Stanton, that if there hadn’t been a manager change, the Mets wouldn’t have been an option for me.”

Must make Steve Phillips feel pretty good. You know what? He may end up working out an extention for himself before it’s all said and done. Just goes to show you how far perception can take you. For what it’s worth, Art Howe has done an admirable job in making the Mets an attractive consideration for free agents. Just by being himself. Could Lou Pinella or Dusty Baker have done better?

While the Mets announced that they had agreed with Floyd to a 4-year deal worth $26 million, they lost their bid to land Japanese free-agent third baseman Norihiro Nakamura. There was a deal in place which fell apart at the last minute. John Harper reports on the particulars. There is also a more detailed article today in Newsday. All considering, perhaps it’s best that the Mets didn’t take too great a gamble with Nakamura.

Mike Lupica shot from the lip: “I guess Nakamura didn’t hear about Valentine being fired.”

SHANE, SHANE GO AWAY

As happy as I am about Cliff Floyd, I could be even more pleased about the Yankees dropping back-up outfielder, Shane Spencer, trifling as it is. I think Spencer is an ingrate and a whiner, and I am happy he has an opportunity to get 450 at bats somewhere else. He’s going to get the chance to show the Yankees just how wrong they were letting him go, and I wish him all the luck in the world. But no matter what happens to Shane, I hope he’ll learn to appreciate the value of being even a minor contributor on a great team, instead of being a mediocre fish in a mediocre pond.

Shane Spencer will be best remembered for being the Icing on the Gravy of the 98 season. A seasoned minor league player, Spencer added the finishing touches to the historic Yankee campaign by hitting homers like he was the second-coming of Kevin Maas. But Spencer’s barrage was an aberation, and though he was a competent enough back-up player, he never showed the ability to stay healthy, and productive.

His second greatest claim to fame was his defensive incompentence on Jeter’s infamous “flip” play in the 2001 playoffs. Chicks liked him and he had his small following of supporters, but I never saw much in him. Quite frankly, it’s hard to believe that Shaniac the Maniac lasted as long as he did.

Shane wasn’t even the best of the nontenders who were let go on Friday: Jose Cruz Jr, Robert Fick, Brad Fullmer, Frankie Catalanotto, Brian Daubauch and Travis Lee were let go as well.

What’s the liklihood that Theo Epstein snatches one of these guys on the cheap? My guess is he nabs Catalanotto.

Speaking of the Red Sox, Baseball Prospectus has a good interview with John Henry. Well worth your perusal.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The Braves now know how the other half feels. First, they were the beneficiaries of baseball’s new economic climate, landing Mike Hampton for a reasonable contract, which will be paid in part by their division rival, the Florida Marlins. On Friday, they traded Kevin Millwood to another division foe, the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league catcher. This time they were the victims of the new economics. “We had no choice but to move payroll,” conceded Atlanta GM John Schuerholz.

“This was not a baseball trade,” Schueholz said, “it was an economic trade at its worst and, as such, it pretty much sums up what this game has come to . Believe me, do you think for a minute I would trade Kevin Millwood to my archrival without having called just about every other team in baseball?”

According to Bill Madden in the Sunday News, Schueholz called the Yankees (about Nick Johnson) and got nowhere fast. “It came down to this,” Schueholz said, “in Byrd and Ortiz I’m paying a combined $10 million—which, compared to what Millwood will make next year, I’ve got two pitchers for the price of one. After I made this trade I called both (Phillies GM) Ed Wade and Steve Phillips and said: ‘This is going to be a very interesting division race next year.’”

Ain’t it the truth.

Rob Neyer, who has been all over the Braves this off-season, blasted Schueholz for the move. Peter Gammons addressed the issue in his weekly column—which is particularly good, as did Gordon Edes in the Boston Globe.

MORE McCOVEY

I went to the Strand bookstore to finish my Christmas shopping this weekend, so how could I not make it down to the baseball books in the basement? I found a couple of great gifts, and was also lucky enough to spot an old copy of Bill James Historical Abstract. Cha-ching. As you can imagine, I’m having a great time digging though it. Here is James’ entry on Willie McCovey:

“McCovey is probably the only truly great player in history to have been platooned for several years at the start of his career. It was an unusual situation, when the Giants came up with Cepeda in 1958 and McCovey in 1959, and neither one of them, really, could even do a passable job in the outfield (they had also come up with Bill White in 1956). The 1962 Giants scored more runs than any other team between 1954 and 1981 anyway, even with McCovey on the bench most of the time. If the National League had had the Designated Hitter Rule in 1962 it is frightening to think how many they would have scored.”
This entry reminded me of Nick Johnson’s situation with the Yankees. Johnson would have to turn out to be awfully good in order to be considered in the same company with McCovey, but perhaps this explains why he has so many supporters in the Yankee organization.

BOO-GIE

The Texas Rangers signed free-agent reliever Ugie Urbina yesterday which at the very least keeps them in strong contention for most unlikable team in the majors.

INVASION… The Yankees signing

INVASION…

The Yankees signing of Godzilla Matsui is all over the backpages in New York today, just how George likes it. The Yankees got their Christmas present after all. The YES Network is sure to be a big hit in Japan next season; if only we could say the same for all of us Tiny Tim Calbevison shmucks in New York.

Bob Klapisch weighs in with his take here.

STOCKING STUFFERS The Yankees

STOCKING STUFFERS

The Yankees got their man today, inking Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui to a 3-year deal reportedly worth $21 million according to the AP. With Nick Johnson on the block, looks like Popeye Zimmer is first in line to win the “Godzookie” look-a-like contest.
At the very least Jeff Kent adds a healthy dose of shit-kicker charm to the Astros, if ornery-old Jimy Williams being the second-coming of Dick Williams left ass cheek wasn’t enough. Jeff Kent looks like one of those sturdy, good-looking California state troopers; aloof, and conceited in a rigid and humorless way. His sour disposition should be a good compliment to the incredibly likable trio of stars, Berkman, Bagwell and Biggio. So should his Hall of Fame stick. Especially when he’s going to be hitting in that horseshit ballpark. Kent’s addition to the Astros should at least garentee one bench clearing brawl against the Cardinals next summer.

Choosing between Rocket Clemens and Bartolo Colon is like asking yourself what cut of steak you are going to order at Peter Lugers. Which ever you choose, it amounts to a whole lot of meat. The big cut; with all the fat still on it. And just when it looked like these two were the only slabs left, Cuban defector Jose Contrera’s announced his free-agency yesterday, adding ox-tail to the menu. The Post reported this morning that Grege Maddux will accept salary arbitration from Atlanta later today, which may free up either Kevin Millwood or the recently aquired Russ Ortiz (Atlanta needs a first baseman; Nick Johnson, this is your life). More meat. Mmmm, more meat.

If the Yankees sign Clemens we will get the opportunity to enjoy a great pitcher reach one of the great career milestones. The problem is: just how many people are going to be able to enjoy watching Clemens do it? The Red Sox fans who saw him give their home nine the best years of his life; Toronto fans, where Clemens won two straight Cy Youngs before he bolted to the Yanks; or the Yankee fans who have seen him trudge through his four seasons in New York, collecting a 6th Cy Young and two World Series rings along the way?

I don’t mean to suggest that Clemens doesn’t have his supporters. There is a lot to admire about his game, even more about his career. But I would venture to guess that there hasn’t been a pitcher gunning for 300 who was more unpopular; who has been cast as the heavy, the villan. It’s funny but I think before Clemens came to the Yankees, they didn’t have a player that even a reasonable-minded Yankee-hater could really sink their teeth into. Rocket changed all of that. Clemens will be most remembered in pinstripes for his flair-ups with Mike Piazza, for being the guy that gave people an excuse to hate the Yankees (as if people need an excuse), rather than the Cy Young or the two rings. (I may remember him most as the man who made me dislike Andy Pettitte.)

If the Yankees sign Colon it’s cause George just got so hungry for that Filet Mignon that he didn’t care what he had to give up for that fat steak, he’s just damn sure he’s going to eat steak. Cause he’s fat ass George and he loves a fat ass steak. Mike Lupica ostensibly makes the same point in his column in today’s Daily News.

Colon can talk the talk these days, because he’s in the prime of his career and his stuff is nasty. For the past four winters, my friend Javier and I ask each other, “Is this the year that Colon is going to decide to stop putzing around and win the Cy Young?” He wasn’t good enough to win it last season, but it was his best effort to date. There is every reason for him to be grinning these days. He’s like Vin Diesel (with more than a touch of Ernest Borgnine), sitting back, enjoying all the fuss being made over him I’m sure.

The most interesting character in the Expos drama of course is general manager Omar Minaya. He’s been in the news constantly for two weeks and has yet to make a move, with the Yankees, Red Sox or anyone else. Minaya, a street-savvy, and engaging New Yorker has taken the only gm job ever offered to him, and run with it brilliantly. Minaya’s first year on the job should keep him employed in the field for some years to come regardless of what goes down with the Expos. He took an opportunity and was aggressive and creative from the get go. Minaya sought out the sport in the challenge, and comes across as a very confident operator. Certainly able to hold his own between his bosses at MLB, and his contemporaries like Billy Beane, Brain Cashman, Phillips, Riccardi and the like. He’s straight-forward, and unpretentious in his briefings with the press, but accesible, enthusiastic, and funny. Minaya has the energy of a jock, not a suit, and that’s refreshing. Not a dumb jock, but a competitor, a gamer.

Steve Phillips is like a Slick Willie version of Gabe Paul. No matter what happens on his watch, his greatest talent may be keeping a job. Of course Gabe Paul also kept the Indians in Cleveland, and he did help George Steinbrenner build (and buy) a championship in New York, but his primary achievement was how many owners he convinced to keep him employed. Phillips won’t have the shelf life that Gabe Paul did, but he does appear to have lasted longer than could be expected in Queens. Whether this is due to Fred Wilpon’s poor judgement or Phillip’s ability to create a positive impression (or a combination of the two), hardly matters.

Phillips is in the middle of another annual winter shopping spree. Ordonez is gone and so is Alfonzo. The union boys are in: veteran lefties Tom Glavine and Mike Stanton. But after practically being awarded Executive of the Year last winter, it’s hard to get too excited about anything the Mets will do on paper this off season. Phillips is in the position to win now, so there is little regard for the future. He probably won’t be around that long anyhow.

Phillips may look good getting rid of problems getting rid of mistakes (Ordonez, Burnitz, Cedeno), but they are his mistakes in the first place. My cousin Gabe has been depressed by all the Mets dealings in the free agent wilderness. (It’s nothing that signing Cliff Floyd wouldn’t help cure.) Where is the identity of this team? Where is the connective-tissue? Who is around from year to year to identify with? Johnny Franco? Oy veh.

“I wonder how long it’s going to take me to not instinctively root against Glavine when I see him on sportscenter,” Gabe told me over the phone. “I don’t only want players that I heavily associate with another team.”

Like who? Jack Clark, Danny Tartabull, and Don Baylor. It’s funny that the Yankees have as much stability with a core group of players as any team in the majors, because they’ve always fervently embraced free agency.

Here is part of an e-mail I got from cousin Gabe the other day

The Braves are going to end up with a rotation that
includes Mike Hampton, Kevin Millwood, Russ Ortiz, and
Paul Byrd. For those four starters, the Braves will
pay less than $10 million in 2003. If Maddux accepts
arbitration, they have the best rotation in the NL.
If Maddux departs, they might still have the best
rotation in the NL, depending on where Maddux winds
up. It’s brilliant how they assessed Maddux and
Glavine and said, You know what? We’re not going to
blow the bank on these two. Let’s figure out some
other way to have great pitching. Fuck that era.
It’s time for this era.

Meanwhile, the Mets live off of others’ dregs. Here’s
my imaginary line-up / roster du jour for 2003:

Roger Cedeno LF
Desi Relaford 2B
Mike Piazza C
Carlos Beltran CF
Mo Vaughn 1B
Joe Randa 3B
Tsyoshi Shinjo CF
Jose Reyes SS

Bench: Joe McEwing, Lenny Harris, Carlos Baerga, Brent
Mayne, Raul Gonzolez, Esix Snead

Starters: GLavine, Leiter, Trachsel, Neagle, Heilman
Bullpen: Benitez, Weathers, G. Roberts, Jaime Cerda,
Stanton, Kane Davis

Harris, Relaford, Shinjo, AND Baerga??? Yup. Can you
sense my longing for continuity? I can describe how
we got all the new guys, if need be–I’ve worked out
all the transactions. If I really had the energy, I’d
figure out a way to unload Benitez…

The Mets could field a fun team next year, and even a succesful one, but one thing for sure is once again, they will be different. Especially for the casual fan, it’s dizzying to keep up with all the changes.

Mike Stanton, bare-armed and grinning, is splashed across the back page of the Post today, in his newly-minted Mets uniform, tossing a baseball to himself. The headline reads “I’D PLUNK CLEMENS”. After playing for Atlanta and the Yanks, Stanton shows he’s got a little Sal Maglie in him, jumping across town to don the Mets home pinstripes. He may not look like the Barber, but Stanton does look as if he just got out of the barber’s chair. If he gets the chance to plunk Clemens, he’ll get to prove just how much like Maglie he can be.

Phillies or White Owls?

Phillies or White Owls? Colon’s Blunt Advice

There is an amusing bit in Jack Curry’s column today in New York Times today concerning Bartolo Colon’s state of mind, as trade rumors continue to swirl around the Expos’ 29-year old stud hurler.

“Colon was told that the Yankees and the Red Sox were among the teams that rejected proposals from the Expos for financial reasons. When Colon was informed that the Yankees were trying to decide whether they should sign the free agent Roger Clemens or obtain Colon for three players and cash, he offered his blunt assessment of that choice.

‘You got to take Bartolo,’ Colon said. ‘You got to take Bartolo.’”

Ah, the Emis according to Bartolo.

As in roll that shit, light that shit, smoke it, huh Gordo?

Hall of Fame Watch JOE,

Hall of Fame Watch

JOE, HO, HO

Joe Torre is on the list of 26 former ballplayers who are up for Hall of Fame consideration by the newly revamped Veterans Committee (Rob Neyer has a good article regarding the recent changes in his most recent column). In his book, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame” Bill James listed Joe Torre as one of the two most qualified catchers who are not in the Hall (Ted Simmons was the other). But even if Torre is not elected by the Veterans Committee for his accomplishments as a player, there is little doubt that his success as a manager will eventually place him in Cooperstown.

The following excerpt is from Pat Jordan’s acutely observed memoir, “A False Spring”. While it doesn’t necessarily prove that Torre should be in the Hall of Fame, it does provide a revealing portrait of a young man at the start of what has turned out to be quite an impressive baseball career.

It is spring training, 1960 and Pat Jordan is struggling to make an impression as a pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves organization…

‘I was determined to impress…There was no task too menial or unpleasant (carrying the bats to and from the diamond) for which I did not volunteer. And when I suffered a minor yet painful sore arm, I told no one. I knew it wasn’t serious, was just a spring training sore arm that would heal with a few day’s rest, and so, when Billy asked for a batting practice pitcer one day, I couldn’t resist offering myself. My arm was so sore my pitches barely reached the plate. The batters, thrown off their timing by my lobs, swung so far ahead as to hit them foul or miss them entirely. They complained to my catcther, Joe Torre. He fired the ball back to me and said, “Put something on the damn ball!”

“Mind your own business,” I replied. I lobbed another pitch, and the batter swung and missed. He said something to Torre. Joe stepped in front of the plate. He held the ball up in front of his eyes and said, “If you can’t put something on this,” and then he fired it back to me, “get the hell off the mound.” He turned around and I threw the ball at the back of his head. I missed and the ball bounced off the screen. Joe flung down his glove and his mask and started toward me. We’d certainly have come to blows if [skipper] Billy Smith had not come between us. With a hand against each of our chests, he told us to cool off, forget it. I remember being suprised by the look on Billy’s face as he separated us. His eyes were wide and there was a tremor in his voice.

I was glad Billy stopped us. I had no desire to fight Joe Torre, who at 19 already had the looks and attitude of a 30-year old veteran. Joe was fat then, over 220 pounds, and his unbelievably dark skin and black brows were frightening. He looked like a fierce Bedouin tribesman whose distrust for everything could be read in the shifting whites of his eyes. Like myself, he too, was earnest that spring. Joe’s earnestness was genuine, however, not recently picked off the rack like mine. He was unwavering in his dedication to baseball. He tolerated no lapses of desire or effort from either himself or his teammates. Billy Smith called him a “hard-nosed sunuvabitch.” It was a term of endearment. Joe viewed my feeble lobs during batting practice as “unprofessional.” He was right. I should have either confessed a sore arm and not pitched, or else ignored the pain and thrown at good speed. My weak compromise hurt my teammates.

Yet this was Torre’s first spring training, too. He had acquired his professionalism from his brother Frank, then a star with Milwaukee; from his desire to prove he expected no favors from the Braves because of Frank of his own $30,000 bonus; from his Roman Catholic, Italian working-class upbringing in Brooklyn; and from his own nature. At 19 Joe was simply a mature and serious youth. He took everythying seriously—his baseball, his family, his religion, his brother’s career and even the Playboy bunny he would one day marry.

The night of our dispute in Waycross, I lay on my cot thinking that Billy Smith would admire for standing up to Joe. At that moment the scouts and managers and executives were assembling to pick tomorrow’s teams. I could almost hear Billy’s high voice as he picked me: “That’s my kinda player. Won’t take shit from no one.” But the following morning when I passed the bulletin board my name was under that of Travis Jackson, managaer of Davenport of the Class D Midwest League. Later that afternoon, I discovereed that what Billy Smith had actually said the night before was, “I won’t have no red-ass guinea on my club.” Surely he meant Torre, I thought. But his name was still under Billy’s, while mine remained under Travis’s for the rest of the spring. Why? How had Billy decided that I was the red-ass geinea?’

WHAT’S ALL THE HUB

WHAT’S ALL THE HUB BUB, BUB?

Now that the winter meetings have concluded and everyone has left Nashville, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to write because the Yankees haven’t done dick. This may not be the worst thing that could have happened, especially considering how much Omar Minaya was trying to pry out of B.Cashman for either Bartolo Colon or Javey Vasquez; still, when the biggest local news is the signing of Todd Zeile, how thrilled can a Yankee fan be?

I have nothing against Todd Zeile, he seems like an intelligent, well-spoken, and friendly guy. Joe Torre likes him, and he’s one of Robin Ventura’s best friends. If the Yanks want him to be the new Luis Sojo, I suppose it’s a cosmetic upgrade. I personally prefer a super scrub to be fatter, and uglier (Ron Commer fit the bill nicely), but what can you do? If the Bombers expect much more out of Zeile, then they could be asking for trouble. Slow trouble.

As for Stanton inking a deal with the Mets, I have to admit it stuck in my craw a wee bit. A productive Yankee going to the Mets? Now I know how the other half feels. To be honest, I’d almost rather see Stanton on the Red Sox, cause then I could at least cry “Benedict Arnold” and root against him. What do I care about the Mets? All I know is a 3-year $9 million deal was not too much to ask. If the Yanks were somehow convinced he wasn’t worth it, I’m glad the Mets were sensible enough to pony up the dough.

Makes you wonder how Boss George will react this summer when Chris Hammond’s hits a rough patch. You suppose his “baseball people” will feel some heat then?

It’s hard to cry for the Yanks though. I’m sure if the bullpen stinks it up enough, George will order reinforcements, regardless of the expense.

Speaking of the Sox, the sabermetric-minded men in the front office made their first significant moves, trading for second baseman Todd Walker, and first baseman/dh Jeremy Giambi. Both may weaken the Sox defensively, but not enough to override their offensive value. While it may be easy to say that the Sox obtained the wrong Giambi, I don’t see how he won’t help them. Can’t you see Jeremy beating the Yankees in several games next season, adding some spice to the rivalry? He could be to the Sox what Scott Speizio was to the Angels last year, minus the leather.

I also like Alfonzo signing with the Giants. This may be childish, but on some level, I still respond to trades based on how cool I think a player will look in a given uniform. I’ve always felt that if El Duque didn’t pitch for the Yanks, he’d look great in a San Francisco uniform (maybe it’s the Maricial thing). If it took the Giants to keep Fonzie out of Boston, I’m happy for that and that alone. Still, he’s got enough winter fat on him to handle the chill by the bay.

But with Fonzie gone, and Rey Rey Ordonez shipped off to Sweet Lou’s fantasy camp in Tampa, the Mets are without a left side of the infield. It will be interesting to see how much damage Steve Phillips will be able to undo; there are rumors involving Jeromy Burnitz and Roger Cedeno, though it’s tough to think that anyone would give the Mets Jack-Boil-Scratch for wack-ass Cedeno. Still, moving Rey was an inevitability, even if they Mets essentially had to pick up the tab. (It was Phillips who was deluded enough to pay a chicken shit player like Ordonez over $6 million per in the first place.)

The beauty part is the Mets couldn’t initially find Ordonez to tell him about the trade. He was over at El Duque’s crib, playing dominoes.
Meanwhile, the Braves continue to focus on pitching. On Tuesday, Atlanta traded lefty Damian Moss and a minor-leaguer to the Giants for their number 1 starter Russ Ortiz; later, they announced the signing of free agent right-hander Paul Byrd. Looks like more fun for Leo Mazzone, and the same old story for the rest of the division.

GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Before it slips my mind, I just wanted to take a moment to note how much I’ll miss watching Edgardo Alfonzo play every day for the Mets. Like Bernie Williams across town, Alfonzo has been the quintessential quiet professional (minus the flakiness), on the field and in the clubhouse. While I was busy wringing my hands over the Yankees losing secondary players like Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza, Mets fans had to come to grips with losing a considerably more valuable player in Alfonzo. (Have the Mets had a better clutch hitter since Mex Hernandez?) While the press in New York has taken the Mets to task for letting Fonzie slip away, he certainly didn’t help his cause asking for a multi-year deal at around $8-9 million per.

Still, for a team that has experienced as much turnover as the Mets have in recent years, it is a shame to lose Alfonzo, a stable, humble, and reliable presence (who has been with the team since 1995). There is a calm, far-away look in Alfonzo’s eyes which suggests he would have been a perfect fit in one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. I always thought he should have one of those little cigars tucked in the side of his mouth at all times.

Word is that Oakland’s general manager Billy Beane likes Fonzie plenty. No suprise there. He’s not alone. Fonzie will have to settle for less money if he winds up in Oakland (and I don’t know how realistic that is), but that sure would be an interesting move.

One question: no matter where Fonzie signs, will he still keep his home in Whitestone, Queens?

I AIN’T GOT NUTHIN FOR

I AIN’T GOT NUTHIN FOR YOU MAN

I suppose I should have something to say about the latest developments in Pete Rose’s bid for reinstatement, but alas, I don’t. I don’t have the will power, or the stomach for it. I find the entire situation agonizingly depressing, not to mention one big, fat bore. However, I am decidedly in the minority here. For complete and exhausitve coverage, look no further than Only Baseball Matters.

‘Nuff said.

HALL OF FAME It’s about

HALL OF FAME

It’s about that time of year again. Time to consider the latest group of candidates for the Hall of Fame. This is an undeniable pleasure for baseball fans, one that allows us to rehash old arguments, make new discoveries, and perhaps even, drawn some new conclusions (however unlikely that sounds.). Both Tim Kurkjian and Rob Neyer at ESPN have weighed in on this year’s crop, which is highlighted by Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandburg, and there is a wonderfully detailed breakdown of the entire group on Aaron’s blog.

Eddie Murray seems like an obvious selection to me, while Sandburg appears to have all the credentials too. I have less of an absolute feeling about Sandburg though I don’t know what to attribute that to. It’s funny how some players seem greater as time passes, while others tend to fade a bit. Although I grew up in New York, there were several years in the mid-1980′s when WGN was available on local cable. So I watched Sandburg a good deal, and remember him as the outstanding player on the Cubbies (I don’t mean this as a diss either), a true team leader. I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t think Ryno should be elected to the Hall; there is ample evidence which supports him a viable pick (check out Bob Allen’s usefual analysis over at Baseball Primer ).

Here are my cousin Gabe’s thoughtful musings:

For me, Ryne Sandberg is inextricably linked with
Keith Hernandez. In a lot of ways, I consider 1984 to
be my first year as a functional baseball fan. I was
ten, so I wasn’t the seasoned iconoclast I am now, but
I was certainly in tune with what I thought about a
bunch of engrossing stuff: namely, conventional
offensive statistics, all star rosters, and MVP
awards.

No Mets player has ever been league MVP. In 1984,
Hernandez finished second behind Sandberg and the Mets
finished second behind the Cubs. Neither player had
what you would call traditional MVP numbers on
offense. Both were “tweeners”, guys who hit for a
strong average with extra-base power but not a ton of
home runs. (Sandberg would boost his homer totals
later in his career–in 1990, he hit 40.) Both were
great defensive players: Sandberg at a more demanding
position, Hernandez in perhaps a more revolutionary
manner. After the regular season, I was of the
opinion that the MVP race was dead heat; Sandberg won
by a ton, in fact, for a variety of reasons. (The Cubs
went to the playoffs, for one thing. Also, Sandberg
was a better defensive player than I could possibly
have understood at the time.)

Now that Sandberg is Hall of Fame eligible, I am
inclined to compare the two players once again. It’s
amazing to me how well they stack up over their
careers. Sandberg had about 1,000 more at bats, in
part due to the fact that Mex walked about four
hundred more times. Keith’s ten points ahead in
batting average (.296 to .285) and forty points ahead
in OBP (.388 to .347), while Ryno is up in slugging
(.452 to .436). Sandberg has a big lead in homers
(282 to 162), while Hernandez is up a little in
doubles (426 to 403) and, as I said, walks. Sandberg
struck out more, but scored more; Hernandez drove in
more. They’re not identical hitters–one had more
plate control, the other more pop–but their
differences are the sort that are borne out over long
careers rather than on a season-by-season basis; in a
given year, you could mistake one’s stats for another.
In the end, I think you could argue for Hernandez, in
spite of the homerun deficit, being the superior
hitter, albeit only slightly. They’re close.

As always, accounting for defense is less obvious. We
know what Mex meant to that team defensively and
spiritually. If Sandberg meant less to the soul of
the Cubs, I think it’s safe to say that he meant more
to their defense. I don’t think he reset the bar for
the position, as many think Hernandez did at first,
but I think he could be one of the top handful of
defensive second basemen of all time, which I guess
has to be more impressive than being the very best
first basemen ever (if indeed that’s what Mex was).

Nevertheless, if Ryne Sandberg goes into the Hall of
Fame, part of me that will feel slighted on Keith’s
behalf. In my mind, there’s a parity between the two
players. In a vaccuum, I don’t know that I really
think Hernandez is a Hall of Famer; in the context of
Sandberg’s election (should that occur), it will seem
more ambiguous. Anytime a player is elected based on
something other than total offensive
production–whether it’s offensive at a certain
position, defensive value, leadership–it opens the
door to debate in a way that a 300 win guy doesn’t.
Suddenly, we’re asking how this guy rates against a
whole lot of players with a whole variety of similarities:
If Sandberg makes us (or me, anyway) consider
Hernandez, then Hernandez certainly forces us to
consider Mattingly. And if you consider Mattingly–a
dynamic offensive player and leader with short
prime–how do we not talk about Albert Belle? (Not
that Joey’s eligible yet, but what do think the
chances are of him getting any serious support?)

And if Sandberg doesn’t make it in, should Kirby
Puckett have his membership revoked?

The Ryno/Mex comparison is intriguing. I agree with Gabe’s conclusion that one questionable candidate begats another. (And no, Albert Belle won’t stand a chance; if Jim Rice’s chances have been hurt by his sour relationship with the press, think about how hard it will be for Belle, deserving or not.)

So who is the standard? Willie Mays, or Frank Chance?

In his book, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?”, Bill James wrote:

“When you ask the question, what is a Hall of Famer, your natural tendency is to look for a written definition. What is it that makes a man a Hall of Famer? What does it mean to be a member of the Hall of Fame? What does the Hall of Fame look for?
There were no written standards in the beginning. An attempt to say what a Hall of Famer is was made by the Permanent Committee in the mid-1940′s, but that definition meets the standards of the rest of the Permanent Committee’s work, so for all practical purposes ther are no written standards.
So what then?
The Hall of Fame is what it makes of itself.
But since the Hall of Fame’s voting methods have been faulty over a long period of time, resulting in inconsistent if not arbitrary selections, that definition is very fuzzy.
The Hall of Fame resists definition. It is a museum, officially–but it is not certified by the American Association of Museums.
So, in a sense, the Hall of Fame isn’t really anything. It’s the highest honor in the American sports world, but it holds that position, to be honest, more by habit than by merit.”

Since there is no answer to the question, “What makes a Hall of Famer?” it allows us fans to do what we probably enjoy most: contemplate and debate.

Here is a follow up from Gabe:

I hope I didn’t come to any conclusions in the
Sandberg piece, because I don’t feel like I have any
on that topic! I think the crux of it is that there is
some discrepancy somewhere between who goes into the
Hall and who, in a given generation, we consider the
elite players to be–but I’m not sure in which
direction the discrepancy occurs. Probably both. In
some cases–like Puckett’s–I think the a player’s
positive aura and general winning ways make make
certain people feel like they have license to excuse
marginal credentials. In other cases, failure to
achieve certain exorbitant career benchmarks render a
less likable guy unqualified. I mean, there are
dozens of Mattingly’s–successful, popular players who
devotees feel have been egregiously overlooked. But
how about Dave Parker? That guy has no chance, and
let me tell you, he was a sick hitter and a great
outfielder.

Problems occur when you start basing future selections
on prior mistakes. Let’s say Puckett’s election is a
bit dubious, for argument’s sake. Or no, wait, let’s
take Ralph Kiner, who was received the minimum votes
needed, I think in his last year of eligibility. By a
number of accounts from people who have spent much
more time thinking about this than I have, Kiner’s
inclusion is a mistake. How horrific a mistake it is
I’m not sure, but I think you can safely say that
Kiner is one of the least deserving corner
outfielders/first basemen of the modern era to be
enshrined. But he’s in, there’s nothing to be done
about it, and there are no official tiers of Hall of
Famer to qualify how much of a Hall of Famer some one
is. To me, the question then becomes, do we use this
guy as a precedent? Because I think you and I could
come up with a long list of active and un-enshrined
retired players who have more impressive resumes than
Ralph. Even taking era into account, I think we can
safely say that Albert Belle is better (and had a
career cut short at about the same point); Dave
Parker’s better; Jim Rice is better; Jose Canseco,
Dale Murphy, Harold Baines. These are just guy’s
who’s offense is at least debatably better than
Kiner’s. When you start to consider defense, you get
into people like Alan Trammell, Ron Santo, and many
others–both those who played key positions (Lance
Parish, never mind Kid Carter) and those who were
actually good at less crucial positions (e.g. Dwight
Evans, whose defensive value alone must at least equal
Kiner’s offense). When you consider leadership, you
get into players like Gil Hodges. (Of the people I
just named, I think only Hodges has a real chance at
election, and that’s because of what his managerial
career added to his cache.) I think it’s safe to say
that there are 20-30 active position players who are
better hitters than was Kiner and who have achieved,
in one form or another, more than he did in career
stats–do they all go in? I can’t believe they all
will. If Dale Murphy didn’t go in, why would Juan
Gonzalez (unless he has a real revival)? But both are
better qualified than Kiner, who was elected late
enough (1975) for writers to know better, to have some
perspective.

But, as I said, he’s in, and you therefore have every
right to use him as a kind of standard if you want to.
Even though his real peers are George Foster and
Cecil Fielder. Darrell Evans was a more valuable
player than Kiner, and no talks about him going to
Cooperstown. It just goes to show that some
sportwriters aren’t informed enough to know what to
look for. Therefore, you end up with no real sense of
standards, players elected or excluded with an
insufficient sense of context.

HONEST TO GOD I wrote

HONEST TO GOD

I wrote to Travis from “Boy of Summer” yesterday to get his reaction to the loss of Mike Stanton, and R. Mendoza. Here is what he had to say:

Liked your writings on the losses of Mendoza and
Stanton. I liked them both too, though I can see why
the yanks cut them loose. Stanton’s getting old (will
be 36 in early June) and lost his ability to finish
batters off (only 44 K’s in 78 IP, down from about
1/IP throughout his career). His ERA stayed
relatively low, but he’s gonna have problems if he
doesn’t find whatever he used to use to strike batters
out. He might have been worth it if he’d accepted the
$2.5 mil/year contract, but definitely isn’t worth
risking more than that. Incidentally, as a Christian
myself, his “God Squad” membership actually made me
like him more, and certainly had to have some hand in
his willingness to be accountable when he blew one.

I think they’ll miss Mendoza more. There aren’t a lot
of guys out there who give you ~100 relief innings
with an ERA 20% better than league average and never
bitch about wanting a closers or starter’s job.
Someone will get themselves a nice reliever in Mendoza
next year, but again, if it costs them more than $3
mil/yr, they’re getting ripped off.

I’ll miss them too, but there are always guys out
there like Chris Hammond who can do what you want for
what you want to pay. I just wish for once we could
get one of these patented Leo Mazzone reclaimation
projects *before* his pricetag goes from sardines to
caviar.

So there’s my take

Travis

I’m usually leary of mixing Religion with, well, almost anything, so I was struck by Travis’ comment that Stanton’s faith “certainly had to have some hand in his willingness to be accountable when he blew one.” I like to believe that a ballplayer can be a man of integrity without neccesarily being devotely religious, but on second thought, Travis could be right. I don’t want my own prejudice to discount the fact that Travis may be on to something. Of course not knowing Stanton personally, I can’t say for sure, but it made me think of Andre Thorton, the Cleveland Indian slugger of the late 70′s and 1980′s.

In October, 1977, Thorton lost his wife and one of his children in a horrible car accident. Thorton had turned to Christ when he was still in high school, but after the accident he became more outgoing with his faith, and began leading a prayer group on the team. It wasn’t met with open arms by rest of his teammates, but Thorton wasn’t out to “shove religion down anyone’s throat.” According to Terry Pluto’s book, “The Curse of Rocky Colavito”, “Thorton’s ministry grew, not just with the Indians but in the entire community. He organized youth groups and worked with various churches.

‘Andy probably had as big an impact on my life as anyone I’ve ever met because of how he lives his faith,’ said Mike Hargrove. ‘They tell you that Christians are passive, but Andy is just the opposite. Andy would say that God gave you a special talent, and it was up to you to play as hard as you could. And how he continued to play after the tragedy—that was an inspiration to me.’

Those who know Thorton realize that he can be intimidating because he is so honest and has almost a spiritual presence.

‘When I introduced my wife to Andy for the first time, she told me that she wasn’t sure if she ever wanted to see him again,’ said [Duane] Kuiper. ‘I asked her why. She said, “It’s those eyes. He looked right through me.” That is how it is with Andy. When you meet him, he looks you right in the eye, almost as if he’s looking right into your soul.’

Again, I don’t know if this is the case with Mike Stanton. But perhaps his faith does account for his willingness to be a stand-up guy (does it also explain his reputation for being a class A bench jockey, I don’t know). Thanks to Travis for making me take a look at the limitations of my own preconcieved notions.

BYE, BYE BRUHO, BARKEEP

BYE, BYE BRUHO, BARKEEP

Clearing out his locker at the end of the season, Yankee reliever Ramiro Mendoza was asked about his future with the team. He said simply, “I want to die here”. Looks like the Yanks won’t be paying the funeral costs, after they declined to offer the soft-spoken pitcher arbitration this weekend. Along with Mike Stanton, another sturdy member of the Bronx bullpen during the past six seasons, Mendoza was given his walking papers this weekend, a direct result of the Yankees cost-cutting off-season strategy.

According to Peter Gammons, “The Yankees on Friday gave Mike Stanton 15 minutes to either accept a two year, $2.5 million per annum deal (the same offer they extended to Mark Guthrie and Chirs Hammond), and when he did not, told him thanks for compiling the best World Series and postseason ERAs of any lefthanded reliever in basebal history, take your gold watch and don’t let the door hit your derriere on the way out.”

I was disapointed that the Yanks didn’t offer arbitration to one of the two pitchers, but considering how dearly George wants to cut corners, it shouldn’t come as a suprise that the role players are the first in line. (Actually, the first would be the poor schmo’s in the organization whose dental plan is in jepoardy, but who is keepin score?) There was some unpleasentness in the way the Yankees cut their ties with Stanton, but I suppose it would be foolish or naive to expect anything less. (Tom Glavine didn’t exactly get the royal treatment from the suits at Aol, did he?) Bill Madden took the Yankees to task yesterday in the News, and I’m sure many Yankee fans share his sentiments.

Players like Mendoza and Stanton are the spoils of a championship team. But like Henry Higgens once sang about his protege E. Doolittle, I’ve grown accustomed to their face. For what it’s worth, I’ll miss them. I suspect much of my reaction is based on sentimentality rather than common sense, still here are some parting thoughts on two guys who made solid contributions to the Yankees recent success.

If Boomer Wells looks like a mook who was snatched off his barstool, given a uniform, and told he’s going to pitch in the major leagues, then Mike Stanton could very well have been the barkeep. Stanton’s face looks like a mug right out of one of Bill Gallo’s cartoons in the News. There is a timelessness to his doughy features which suggest that he could have pitched comfortably alongside Whitey Ford, and Allie Reynolds. What I always appreciated about Stanton is his accountability. Whenever he got his tits lit, he would stick around and deal with the press; a true stand-up guy. Ok, so he’s a card-carrying member of the God Squad too, but nobody is perfect. It never intruded on my image of him as an ordinary Joe from the neighborhood bar.

From what I gather, Stanton was one of the leaders in the Yankee clubhouse too (he also served as the team’s player rep). He sure looks like a ball-buster. When El Duque first joined the team in ’98, Stanton got in the Cuban hurler’s ass about his unorthodox warm-up routine. I guess he found out soon enough that Duque’s ass was red enough to begin with, and Jose Cardinal had to step in, in order to prevent the two from coming to blows.

I’m grateful for how well Stanton did his job in New York, but I don’t necessarily think he’s irreplaceable. The only pangs of bitterness I felt when I heard the news is a bit unfair, but here it is anyhow: playoff vet, Stanton gets low-balled while pretty boy Steve Karsay is making a king’s randsom, sitting pretty. When Karsay recovers from off-season surgery, he should be required to perform some sort of community service. He could start by donating some of his salary to fix up the fields just outside of the Stadium. (Actually, I like Karsay just fine: I think the entire organization, from the top on down should take more pride in fixing up the diamonds around the Stadium.)

Ramiro Mendoza has been one of my favorite Yankees in recent years. Along with Bernie Williams, he has a tranquil, shy presence and comes off as something of a dreamer. Known as “El Bruho” ( the witchdoctor), for his hard sinker, Mendoza’s soporific body language belies the effectiveness of his pitches (just ask the Red Sox, who were stymied twice by Mendoza in the 1999 playoffs). Dozie looks as if he is permanantly drugged. He doesn’t only look sleepy in the bullpen, it’s as if he barely wakes up when he’s on the mound.

When Mendoza is right, he is efficient and brisk; when the sinker ain’t sinking, it gets walloped a long way. Either way, Mendoza remains calm, even somewhat detached. Or maybe he is just resigned to the fact that sometimes you just don’t have it. There are few Yankee pitchers that have amused me as much when they were getting spanked (Hurricaine Hideki was funny too, but for different reasons). Mr. Piazza hit a couple of absolute bombs off Mendoza in 1999 and 2000. I remember being at the Stadium in August of 2001, when Juan Encarnacion, then playing with Detriot, crushed a Mendoza sinker in the left-field bleachers. It was late in the game, and the Yankees still held the lead. Torre came to get him, and Mendoza gave him the ball. He shrugged his shoulders and walked off the field with a sheepish grin, perhaps thinking, 1) at least we still have the lead, and 2) godamn, he hit that a long way.

In his own way, Mendoza is emblematic of the patience and trust the Yankee braintrust have impressed upon George Steinbrenner during the latest championship run. Back in the Bronx Zoo days, a guy like Mendoza would have been traded in the blink of an eye. (I immediately recall the fate of young Jim Beattie.) But throughout nagging injuries and being shifted from the rotation to long relief, and then to set-up man, Mendoza was one of Joe Torre’s guys and the manager always went to bat for him. That Mendoza is now expendable is not a failing of Joe Torre. If anything, the fact that he stayed around so long is a minor miracle in and of itself.

Funny how winning championships can create a degree of stability. Even when you are working for Boss George.

WHATTA YA HEAR, WHATTA YA

WHATTA YA HEAR, WHATTA YA SAY, WILPON WON’T LET GLAVINE SKATE AWAY

In the middle of the heaviest snow fall New York has seen in several years, the Mets dealt the gelt, and got their man, signing Tom Glavine to a 3-year deal reportedly worth $35 million (with an option for a fourth year, which could bump the money up to $42-44 million). The Mets outbid division rivals, Philadelphia and Atlanta for the veteran lefty, just when everyone had Glavine joining Jim Thome and David Bell with the Phillies. Nothing like a little winter suprise, huh?

This move may not put the Mets over the top, but as Bill Madden writes today in the Daily News, it does keep them competitive and respectable. Bob Klapisch has this to say in The Bergen Record.

I don’t have a strong initial gut feeling about how Glavine will do with the Mets, but I don’t see why he wouldn’t perform admirably. Now whether that results in 11 wins or 18, I can’t say. Will he help attract other free-agents to the Mets? I don’t know. But this much is certain: in a world where perception is as important as reality, Fred Wilpon has snatched the morning headlines away from the Yanks (who resigned Robin Ventura to a one-year deal worth $5 million yesterday), and restored a sense of credibility to his franchise.

What do you know, but

What do you know, but I found myself deep in the heart of Red Sox country over the Thanksgiving weekend. My girlfriend and I were visiting her parents, who live roughly twenty minutes outside of Burlington, Vermont, in a lovely farm house that overlooks Lake Champlain. It was my inaugural trip to their home, and we spent most of the time happily cooking, eating, and digesting.

As much as I was looking forward to meeting her family and spending time in their home, I was also eager to comb the area for used bookstores in the hopes that I would find some hidden treasures.

Several years ago, when collecting records—digging for beats, was my primary hobby, I found the college towns of New England to be terrific for good finds at reasonable prices. I assumed I could have some similar success in the bookshops as well.

There is nothing like the feeling of finding the book you’ve been hunting for, especially when it’s at a decent price. It makes all the dust-inhalation worth it. I usually rate bookstores in terms of selection and pricing. Ambiance and all that other good stuff is nice but strictly secondary. The sports section is often minimal in used bookshops; this can be vexing, but it also makes finding a choice book all the more satisfying. The suprise, and delight of finding a coveted book, or that rare record, is a small, but rich pleasure; one that is harder and harder to find in the world of instant access.
Last summer for instance, I bought “Beyond the 6th Game” by Peter Gammons via the internet. Although I ended up enjoying the book plenty, it was tough for me to shell out close to $20 including shipping and handling for an edition which should have cost me no more than $7. I’m by no means miserly by nature, but in certain instances, my grandmother, the bargain hunter, is alive and well in her grandson, thank you very much.

My first outing was not an overwhelming success. I braved the elements—snow, gusting winds, bitter cold, and headed to Burlington. Much to my dismay, two of the the town’s four bookshops were closed. As I trudged through the town mall, my mood soured considerably; it was not ideal browsing weather. (I was however smart enough not to have dragged my girlfriend along, so at least I was left to suffer on my own.) By the time I reached the two remaining stores I discovered precious little in the way of selection, but screw it, I was not leaving empty-handed.

Angry shopping is the worst state a bargain hunter can find themselves in, because you end up forgetting your principals in favor of the quick fix, the immediate gratification. So what if the gender studies department dwarfed the sports section, I was going to buy something, dammit. And I did. Terry Pluto’s “The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 30 Year Slump” for six bucks (a good buy), a hardcover edition of Arnold Rampersad’s formidable and elegant-looking Jackie Robinson biography for $12 (just about right, though more than I wanted to spend), and just for shits and giggles, a paperback copy of Louis Armstrong’s first autobiography, “Swing that Music” for $8. (Armstrong is a suprisingly deft writer; engaging, unpretentious and of course, funny.)

These books were fine in and of themselves, but since they weren’t books I was necessarily searching for, I left feeling empty and discouraged. (Sometimes I have a concrete list of titles in my head, or at the very least I’ll be on the look-out for specific authors. Currently I’m interested in almost anything written by Ray Robinson, Ed Linn, Leonard Koppett, or Fred Leib.) Fortunately, when I got back to the house, and sat my ass down in front of the fireplace and cracked open Pluto’s book on the Indians, my mood quickly brightened. Knowing next to little about the history of the Indians, it didn’t take long before I was gobbling up Pluto’s heartfelt, and humorous recollections of what it was like growing up an Indians fan.
The following day, my girlfriend and I got in the car and took a trip to Middlebury, which is about 40 minutes away from Burlington. I found Middlebury much more to my liking—quaint and personable: the quintessential charming New England town. There wasn’t a national chain in sight—no Borders books, no Eddie Bauer, no nuthin.

We parked just outside of a bookstore that would be the only shop we would need to visit all day. When we walked into the place, we were greeted by the impenetrable smell of dust and moth balls, along with the house cat—usually a good sign. The bookstore was downstairs, and it resembled a dusty-ass salvation army as much as it did somebody’s congested, wood-paneled rec room. I quickly found the sports section and was suprised at the size of the collection, which was larger than normal. I immediately spotted the garish yellow dust-cover of “Nice Guys Finish Last”, Leo the Lip’s biography, written with Ed Linn.

Eureka. I can cross that one off my list. A hardcover book, in very good condition, I opened it slowly to peek at the price: $5. Hey now.

Next, my eyes fell on another hardcover book in good shape: Roger Angell’s “Five Seasons”, which I already own. Again, $5. (For that kind of money, you know I couldn’t resist buying a second copy; hey, with the holidays upon us, you could do worse than getting a Roger Angell book from ol’ Saint Nick, am I right?) I put the books down and scurried off to find my girl, just so I could do a victory dance. She laughed and said, “You better get back there before someone snatches them up.”

Like who, the cat?

I ended up making off with a few more books on my list: “The New Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball” by Leonard Koppett, and Richard Ben Creamer’s definitive biography on the Bambino, “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life”. For the hell of it, I also snatched Tim McCarver’s first book (written with Ray Robinson) “Oh Baby, I Love It*”. But I couldn’t stop there, so I also picked up a second copy of David Halberstam’s book on the Trailblazers, “The Breaks of the Game”, and another hoopskaball book, “48 Minutes”, by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto, which is an in-depth study of a single game between the Cavs and the Celts in 1987.

I was on a roll, so I stocked up on doubles of some old favorites: Nat Hentoff’s “Jazz Is”, John Huston’s autobiography, “An Open Book”, Garson Kanin’s tinseltown memoir, “Hollywood”, and Woody Allen’s “Side Effects” and “Getting Even”. When hardcovers are going for five bucks a pop, and the paperbacks are no more than $2, I make like Cy Syms and was a very satisfied customer.

So while we sit on our hands and wait for slowly developing Hot Stove League to bear its winter fruit, I can’t say I don’t have anything to keep me occupied. I can, as Roger Angell suggested, learn by reconsidering and reflecting, and by “keeping [baseball] warm in a cold season…begin to make discoveries.”

If anyone has any thoughts or comments about any of the books or writers listed above, I’d sure appreciate hearing them.

Words to Live by… “There

Words to Live by…

“There is a game of baseball that is not to be found in the schedules or the record books. It has no season, but it is best played in the winter, without the distraction of box scores and standings. This is the inner game, baseball in the mind, and there is no real fan who does not know it. It is a game of recollections, recapturings, and visions Yet this is only the beginning, for baseball in the mind in not a mere yearning and returning. In time, this easy envisioning of restored players, winning hits, and famous rallies gives way to reconsiderations and reflections about the sport itself. By thinking about baseball like this, by playing it over and yet keeping it to ourselves, keeping it warm in a cold season, we begin to make discoveries. With luck, we may even penetrate some of its mysteries and learn once again how richly and variously the game can reward us.”

Roger Angell, from “Baseball in the Mind”

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver