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This is getting ridiculous. A few weeks ago, as many of you may remember, I wrote lovely things about Tony La Russa when he made clear his intention to limit Rick Ankiel to around 100 pitches per start. On April 26, Ankiel threw 99 pitches, after which La Russa said, "His body is still developing ...You saw the max today. He might go five or 10 pitches more than that sometime, but not too often." I took La Russa at his word, or very nearly. Stupid of me, that. A week later, Ankiel threw 116 pitches in a game. An anomaly? Hardly. He threw 95 in his next start (good), then 118 on Saturday (bad). I strongly believe that it's far better to execute a decent plan than to have no plan at all, and it's now become apparent that La Russa and the Cardinals don't have a plan. One month he's going to be limited to 100 pitches, or maybe "five or 10 pitches more," and the next month he's getting close to 120 in every other start. Aside from the injury risk, there's another reason to be fairly strict with Ankiel's pitch counts. Maybe, just maybe, he'll throw more strikes if he knows that somebody is counting his pitches. The kid's been great, 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA, but he's also walked 33 batters and struck out 38 in 43 innings. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to find pitchers who were successful over the long term with a strikeout-to-walk ratio like that. The Importance of Batting Average
If you haven't already, you should check out the American League team batting stats here at ESPN.com. Our new format is still a work in progress, but among the major improvements are (1) teams are ranked according to runs scored rather than batting average; and (2) OPS is listed. Looking at the AL stats, then, we see the first-place Oakland Athletics atop the list, by virtue of their league-leading 243 runs. And they've done it with a .267 batting average that ranks 12th in the loop, and would place the A's 12th down the line in a traditional table of batting stats. But what's really interesting is that the Athletics rank just fifth in OPS. Here are the top seven OPS clubs, along with run production:
Runs Runs/Gm OPS Rangers 224 6.1 864 Blue Jays 214 6.1 859 Angels 210 5.4 851 White Sox 229 6.2 844 Athletics 243 6.4 825Are we missing something here? Well, they A's certainly aren't running wild on the basepaths. I think they've been a little lucky to be leading the league in runs scored, and they're unlikely to finish the year atop the runs list, or for that matter the standings, unless they bump that OPS up a bit, to perhaps third or fourth in the league. The Angels are an interesting club this year. As I'm sure you remember, their 1999 season was a train wreck from beginning to end, thanks in large part to a series of injuries to key players. Most observers (including this one) picked them for last place in 2000, but at the same time you had to figure they'd score a lot more runs this year even with the loss of Jim Edmonds. And wouldn't you know it, the Angels' team OPS ranks third in the AL (they were 13th last year). But all that on-base and slugging isn't quite reaching the scoreboard, as the Angels rank ninth in run production, at 5.4 per game. The Red Sox, by the way, point out the problem with ranking clubs merely by runs, rather than runs per game. Nine teams have scored more runs than the Red Sox, but that's because the Sox have played only 34 games. They're sixth in runs per game. And then there's the second-place Yankees, who still rank 13th in run production. Jeez, I could write about this stuff all day long, and maybe tomorrow we'll zip through the NL stats. In the meantime, feel free to augment or argue with my observations. Phillies pull a phast one
With all due respect, Chris Pritchett is, in no sense of the term, a legitimate major league ballplayer. We're talking about a first baseman here. A 30-year-old first baseman. He's spent the better part of the last five years in Triple-A. Throw in this season's stats, and here's his Triple-A career numbers, per 162 games:
Games HR Runs RBI OBP Slug OPS 162 14 87 75 .362 .427 789Anybody want to guess what happens when you take a .427 Triple-A slugging percentage and stick it in the National League? Right, you're talking about a first baseman who hits like a shortstop. The OBP doesn't look bad, but that's going to go down against big-league pitchers, too. Yet when Rico Brogna went down, who did the Phillies summon from Scranton? Chris Pritchett. Why? Presumably because Pritchett leads the club with a .309 batting average. And why not Pat Burrell? Well, he's just seventh ... with a .281 average. Sure, he's one of the best hitters in the minor leagues, and he's got a better OBP (.425-.373) and slugging percentage (.479-.412) than Pritchett. But why let those silly little numbers get in the way? There's only one way you can rationalize this move. If the Phillies have already given up on the season -- and they're 13-23 right now -- then perhaps it makes sense to give Burrell another month or two down on the farm. But if the Phillies still entertain hopes of going somewhere this season, then Burrell should be wearing the uniform. And Chris Pritchett should still be carrying his own bags. TUESDAY, MAY 16
First off, I want to thank the readers who, mostly in good humor, clarified the situation with Pat Burrell and Chris Pritchett in Philadelphia. It seems that Burrell, who has been playing left field in the minors this season, will now play a week or two at first base, rather than go straight to first base in the majors. Of course, the real problem with the Phillies runs deeper than whether Pat Burrell debuts in May or June. The real problem is that the Phillies are locked into contracts with two mediocre ballplayers in Ron Gant and Rico Brogna. Burrell played third base in college, but the Phillies had Scott Rolen, and anyway Burrell wasn't exactly a defensive wiz so they shifted him to first base. After a bit of that, the club decided that Rico Brogna was the second coming of Keith Hernandez, so they signed him to a one-year extension through the 1999 season and then another one through 2000 ... and moved Burrell again, this time to left field. Sure, Ron Gant was also signed to a long-term deal (which also takes him through the 2000 season), but the Phils would just trade him! Except they couldn't find any takers, and Gant makes too much money to sit on the bench or get released. Oh, and by all accounts Burrell is not exactly the second coming of Barry Bonds in left field. More like Lou Brock without the wheels (and for those of you too young to remember, Brock was not a good outfielder). So now, with Brogna out for two or three months, Burrell's back at first base, where he probably should have been all along. And let history remember that through all this silliness, Burrell kept pounding the ball. The A's and OPS
In response to the burning question of how the Athletics can lead the American League in scoring despite posting "only" the league's fifth-best OPS, one reader submits the following:
Oops, I did it again, wrote something stupid right here in front of God and everybody. Without further ado ...
Avg HR OBP Slug OPS Runs Group A .254 168 .290 .398 687 726 Group B .268 111 .294 .394 688 700In the comparisons, the teams in Group A outscored their "partners" in Group B 15 out of 17 times. So it seems that Tom Wylie was correct in his hypothesis that homers seem to be more "efficient" in plating runs, all other things being equal. Recriminations fester ... Snell As if this weren't enough, Craig Wright sent me a package of data that more than verifies Bill's conclusion. In my weak but spirited defense, let me tell you that this week I'm a continent away from my baseball books. Of course, the prosecution would like to point out that I never would have thought to look at my copy of STATS Diamond Chronicles for something like that. But I refuse to incriminate myself, so let's consider this a hung jury and move to other matters.
Yes, another column on pitch counts. Many of you may think this subject has already been beaten to within an inch of its life. Indeed, perhaps I should devote today's column to violence in the stands, Don Baylor's ineptitude, or the difference -- "Egads! It's not cork-centered any more!" -- between the 1999 and 2000 baseballs. Fear not, for I'm sure we'll get to all of those eventually. But I believe that the "abuse" of young pitchers is one of the most important issues in the game, and last night a reader forwarded me a relevant column written by Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The subject is Rick Ankiel's workload this season, which of course has been a frequent subject in this space. After a few introductory paragraphs, Miklasz writes:
Ankiel has made seven starts this year. His pitch counts were: 102, 91, 112, 99, 116, 95 and 118. Twice in recent weeks -- when Ankiel clocked 116 and 118 pitches -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was criticized by baseball analyst Rob Neyer on ESPN.com. I want to say this about Neyer: I respect him and enjoy his work. Yeah, he's a little nervous about pitch counts, but he's no Chicken Little. Still, when Neyer sounds off about La Russa's supervision of Ankiel, my e-mail box runneth over. The thoughts are usually along the lines of, "What is Tony doing? He's going to wreck Ankiel. Make him stop before it's too late." But then the Oldtime baseballers check in, irritated at La Russa for pulling Ankiel after seven shutout innings. "Let him finish the game," they say. "Warren Spahn never had a pitch count."I want to say this about Miklasz: I've been a fan for years. People write me all the time and ask, "Hey Rob, aside from the guys at ESPN.com, which columnists do you read?" The answer, I have to admit, is "Not many." I rarely find the time to surf around and read other columnists. But there are a few guys I do enjoy, among them Miklasz in St. Louis, and Art Martone, who writes for the Providence Journal-Bulletin and is, in some respects, the columnist I wish I were. (And of course I love David Rawnsley's stuff, but he works for a competitor now, so I'm not sure if I'm allowed to mention him. If not, please forget you read that last sentence.) The point being, Miklasz is a guy that I truly respect (and I'm not just saying that because he reads my column). I also have an immense amount of respect for Tony La Russa. I think you have to like a guy who can serve as an eloquent spokesman for animal rights and effectively manage 25 baseball players, roughly 23 of whom subscribe to both "Guns and Ammo" and "Bow-Hunting Monthly." But La Russa's "plan" for keeping Ankiel healthy strikes me as something less than enlightened. "The best answer is to watch the game that Ankiel is pitching," La Russa said, "and see how consistent and how smooth his delivery looks. When he has a good delivery ... 115 to 120 pitches will be less taxing on his arm than if he throws 90 pitches, and his delivery is out of whack." "He's still learning his delivery. On some nights, he's nice and easy. You can let him throw more ... But then there are days when he's fighting himself and making a lot of weird-looking throws, then that's trouble. You don't push him." This is an old theory, the idea that as long as a pitcher looks good, why then he must not be doing any harm to himself. In fact, it's quite consistent with much baseball "thinking," which runs along the lines of, "I don't need to know anything, I'll just watch the players and figure it all out. I'm a baseball man." Uh-huh. Anyway, here's one last piece of Miklasz's column ... "The Oldtime baseball people scoff. They'll point out how it never bothered Bob Gibson to throw 140 pitches in a game, back in the days when pitchers were really pitchers ..." Would you like to guess how old Bob Gibson was when he first pitched more than a hundred innings in a major league season? Gibson broke in with the Cardinals in 1959, when he was 23, and pitched 76 innings. The next year, when he was 24, he pitched the grand total of 87 innings in the majors. It wasn't until 1961, when Gibson was 25 years old, that he topped 100 innings in a season. Ankiel doesn't turn 25 until July. In the year 2004. So in a discussion of the proper care and feeding of Rick Ankiel, the name Bob Gibson shouldn't even come up. Oh, and Warren Spahn, who "never had a pitch count"? Like Gibson, Spahn also didn't top 100 innings until he was 25. Don Drysdale's another one they always talk about. Yeah, he threw 221 innings when he was 20 ... and at 32, he was washed up. How would you like to suffer a debilitating injury that costs you your job when you're 32? That's what happened to Drysdale. If you'll pardon a brief foray into simplistic philosophy, I believe that every living creature deserves the chance to fulfill its natural potential. I know that's a fantasy in this cold universe, yet the fact remains that for those of us lucky enough to live in this land of plenty, approaching our natural potential is actually a realistic goal. That's why it makes me sick to my stomach when young pitchers like Rick Ankiel, and Kerry Wood and Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen before him, are delivered to the surgeon's table by managers who refuse to try something different. Do I know what's best for Rick Ankiel? Absolutely not. Is it possible that throwing 118 pitches is not only beneficial to Rick Ankiel's team in the short run, but perhaps beneficial to Rick Ankiel's career in the long run? Absolutely. There is much research to be done, as any sabermetrician worth his slide rule will happily admit. But does Tony La Russa know what's best for Rick Ankiel? La Russa's been managing in the major leagues forever. When he took over the White Sox in 1979, I was 13 years old and some of you reading this were just a gleam in your mother's eyes. Tony La Russa knows more about managing a baseball team than all but a handful of men on this planet. But let me ask you, how many young pitchers has Tony La Russa developed? That is, how many pitchers in their early 20s came to one of La Russa's teams and wound up enjoying a long, productive career, unmarred by a serious arm injury? I asked myself this same question last fall, and I couldn't find anybody. Now, my standards might be stricter than yours, but I will assert with some confidence that La Russa has no history of developing young pitchers (see Alan Benes and Matt Morris for recent examples). So when it comes to giving him the benefit of the doubt with Ankiel, I'm more than a little reluctant. Ask yourself this: Philosophy aside, if we could somehow cut the injury risk to young pitchers by 25 percent, wouldn't that be a wonderful thing? Wouldn't some of this offensive explosion in recent years have been blunted if incredibly talented young pitchers (like, say, Alan Benes and Matt Morris) didn't wind up spending weeks or months or years on the disabled list? Look, I know that throwing a baseball 90 miles per hour is not a natural act. And I know that injuries will always be a part of the game. But I also know that baseball hasn't made as much progress in preventing those injuries as it should have. And frankly, I don't think that a couple of guys sitting in a dugout and saying to each other, "Hey, his delivery is smooth tonight" or "Gee, his delivery is inconsistent tonight" is a big step in the right direction. FRIDAY, MAY 19
The top story last night was, of course, Mark McGwire's three home runs. The No. 2 story was the Florida Marlins, who stole 10 bases ... and scored two runs and lost. The Marlins have now swiped 47 bases and been caught only 13 times, which makes for an excellent 78 percent success rate. They ain't got nothin' on the Kansas City Royals, though. The Royals have stolen 48 bases and been nabbed five times, for a 91 percent success rate. How good is 91 percent? Well, the major league record is 82 percent, set by the fantastical 1975 Cincinnati Reds, who stole 168 and were caught just 36 times. So what might account for this? Might we see rising success rates, as (1) teams worry less about their catchers' throwing arms and more about their offense; and (2) pitchers worry less about holding runners and more about avoiding walks and home runs? An interesting hypothesis, or at least I thought so ... but not borne out by the facts. Even with Florida's big night, major leaguers have been successful in 67 percent of their steal attempts this season. That 67 percent figure is fascinating, or at least it's fascinating to someone who is easily fascinated by such things. Me, for example. Why is that 67 fascinating? Two reasons. One, it's essentially the same as we see ever year. And two, it's close to the "break-even point." That is, if you're successful on more than two-thirds of your steal attempts, you're helping the team; if you're successful on fewer than two-thirds of your steal attempts, you're costing the team. One thing that sticks out if you look at league stolen-base data over the years is how consistent it's been. For example, the National League success rate was 60 percent in 1966 ... and in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The American League success rate was 61 percent in 1970 ... and in 1971 and 1972. In 1973, the AL success rate shot all the way to 62 percent ... where it remained in 1974 and 1975. In 1974, National Leaguers stole bases at a 67 percent success rate, thus becoming the first league since CS were counted to succeed at least two-thirds of the time. The NL has hovered around that level ever since, never doing worse than 65 (1977) or better than 72 percent (1996). It took the American Leaguers a while to catch up -- they didn't reach 67 percent for the first time until 1983, but since then they've been right in there with the NLers. Here are the figures for the last five years:
MLB SB% 1995 70.0 1996 70.1 1997 67.9 1998 68.6 1999 69.3 Totals 69.2So this year's percentage is actually slightly lower than recent seasons. And if I had taken the chart back a few years, you'd see that it's the lowest since 1993, when major leaguers were successful 66.3 percent of the time. But the numbers are generally the same every year. While the raw number of steals goes up and down, depending on various factors, the success rates are consistent. It's almost as if the managers and players somehow instinctively know the break-even point. So how do we explain the Kansas City Royals? Well, a year ago, the Royals led the American League with a 77 percent success rate. They've got a lot of good basestealers on the roster, chief among them Johnny Damon and "Dos Carlos" (Febles and Beltran). This year, those three have combined for 33 steals and been caught only three times. You know what the difference is between the Royals having a 91 percent success rate right now and a 77 percent success rate (as they did last year)? Seven caught stealing. Seven. If seven catchers had made seven better throws on seven runners, the Royals might have exactly the same success rate this year as last year. So yeah, it's a fun number, that 91 percent. But it means absolutely nothing, aside from, of course, adding a couple of extra runs to the scoreboard. MONDAY, MAY 22
A number of readers asked about the figure of 67 (or so) percent as the "break-even point" for stealing bases that I mentioned last Friday. That was the empirically derived figure in the 1980s, but of course we might expect the number to be higher in this era of increased run production.
Good ol' Dusty Baker, you gotta love him. He horribly abused Russ Ortiz last year, so I wasn't particularly surprised that Ortiz entered yesterday's start against the Brewers with a 2-5 record and a 6.00 ERA. The Brewers got to Ortiz for four runs in the bottom of the fifth, tying the game at five apiece. No worries, as Ortiz's pals in the lineup scored 11 times in the top of the sixth to seriously un-tie the score. Good time to get Ortiz out of the game, right? An 11-run lead, and a day off tomorrow ... why not get the bullpen going? Not Dusty Baker. Ortiz allowed a run in the sixth, then four more in the seventh before getting lifted. Thus, Ortiz became the first major leaguer to allow 10 earned runs and get the win since 1954, when Pittsburgh's Bob Friend did it in an 18-10 victory over the Cubs. According to the Associated Press recap, " ... Baker tried to force Ortiz to finish off the seventh inning." Just wondering, why on earth would Baker want to do that? I know that Ortiz is 25, so perhaps a Draconian pitch limit is out of the question. But what, exactly, is gained from letting the supposed ace of your staff allow 10 runs? His ERA jumped to 6.97.
He threw 132 pitches. As I've written before, Dusty Baker is conducting a lovely little test out there in San Francisco. His latest subjects are Russ Ortiz (3-5, 6.97) and Livan Hernandez (2-5, 4.62). Shawn Estes already flunked. Baker does some things well. But like Tony La Russa, another manager with a great reputation, Baker probably shouldn't be entrusted with starting pitchers younger than 29 or 30. Those of us who enjoy good pitching need the kids to stay healthy. TUESDAY, MAY 23
Call it the columnist's crutch if you like, but if you keep sending me e-mail that I can use, then by gosh I'll use it.
A year ago, I could not have commented with any particular intelligence on the plight of Fenway Park. A year ago, I lived eight miles from Safeco Field, and I used my Mariners season tickets semi-nightly. That was a year ago. Today, I live four blocks from Fenway Park, and you can find me somewhere inside Fenway Park during each Red Sox home game. (For those of you who don't know, I'm in Boston working on a book.) So I've seen 23 games at Fenway (including three last season), and in the last seven weeks I've talked to scores of baseball fans who grew up loving their Sox. And with the exception of one courageous holdout, every one of those Sox lovers is ready for a new ballpark. Most people will talk about the uncomfortable seats, and if you spend much time in the grandstand, you'll know exactly what they mean. But do the Red Sox, as so many claim, "need" a new ballpark? Of course they don't. In my mind, to suggest such a thing is fairly preposterous. This season, thanks to the highest ticket prices in all the land and a rabid fan base, the Red Sox boast the seventh-highest payroll in baseball, and the third-highest in the American League. They don't have a particularly lucrative TV deal, but given that Boston is the sixth-biggest media market in the country, I suspect they'll do quite well with their next deal. True, the Red Sox might fall behind as other new ballparks are built, but it's also true that, at least to this point, Sox fans have shown a limitless ability to pony up for tickets. (And by the way, don't think ticket prices will be stabilized by a new ballpark. It doesn't work that way, despite what John Harrington might tell you.) The Red Sox ranked sixth in American League attendance last year, and will likely do a bit better this year. There are, to be sure, some lousy seats in the place ... but it's funny, there are fannies in those lousy seats, more often than not. Why? Because Fenway Park is Fenway Park, and that's not something you can duplicate with a new building. Still, the Red Sox and most of their fans are sure that they need a new ballpark. The supposed reasons run to the double digits, but what it always comes down to is, "We can't compete without a new ballpark." That's code for, "We can't compete with the Yankees without a new ballpark." Yes, even this debate revolves around the Bronx Bombers. Fenway Park holds 33,455 baseball fans; Yankee Stadium holds 57,546. Metropolitan Boston ranks as the sixth-biggest media market; New York is the biggest. Boston is the educational capital of this country, if not the world; New York is the financial capital of this country, if not the world. (And you know which of those comes first in the hearts and minds of most Americans.) We could continue on in this vein, but you get the point. When it comes to New York, nearly everybody east of the Sierra Mountains has an inferiority complex, but New Englanders got it bad. The truth is that if it meant beating the damn Yankees, most Red Sox fans would happily fork over Old Ironsides to the British, give up their funny accents for a year, and welcome a decade's worth of Nor'easters all in one brutal winter. But at the risk of sounding like an arrogant carpet-bagger, I would argue that sometimes the fate of local environments shouldn't be left in the hands of the locals. Ask people who live in the Cascades about old-growth forests, and they'll try to hug you with a chain saw in one hand and a toy logging truck in the other. Ask Alaskans about off-shore oil drilling on the North Slope, and they'll present you with a framed photograph of James Watt shaking hands with Ronald Reagan. Which is to say that sometimes those closest to the situation have little in mind but self-interest. And short-term self-interest, at that. Sad to say, it's probably just human nature. Am I suggesting that the good people of Massachusetts can't be trusted with the decision on the ballpark? Nope. I'm just saying that Fenway Park is bigger than Boston or Massachusetts or New England. Fenway Park belongs to every baseball fan who thinks the game on the field is more important than a nice view of the city skyline. I guess what frustrates me about all the "information" churned out by the propaganda machine, not to mention the columns written by Boston sportswriters, is that it contains so much noise. When you're writing about the deficiencies of Fenway Park, don't mention the bathrooms; you wouldn't want to eat supper in one of them, but they're better than what you'll find in most gas stations. Don't complain about the concession lines; they're shorter than what you'll find in some of the gleaming new mallparks. Don't worry about the dugouts and locker rooms; last I checked, the Red Sox weren't having all that much trouble signing players. Don't tell us it's about economic development; any economist not in the employ of a baseball team will tell you that a new baseball stadium adds little or nothing to the local economy. And please, do not curse the neighborhood around Fenway Park, my neighborhood. I walk the streets of that neighborhood every day, and I can tell you that they're not so bad at all. And on a game night, those streets are alive with all kinds of wonderful sights and sounds, sights and sounds unique to a neighborhood ballpark in a big city. This is, in the end, about one thing: making enough money from rich people to keep up with the Joneses. Or, more specifically, the Yankeeses and Orioleses. And you make money from rich people by building them luxury suites and field-level seats, while squeezing out the little guy and the medium guy. For better or worse, that's baseball in the 21st century. So yes, Fenway Park will be gone sometime soon. After a few days or months or years of their usual shenanigans, the politicians will make it happen. In the meantime, I strongly suggest that you walk, run or fly to Boston sometime in the next four or six years. Because once it's gone, it's gone forever. THURSDAY, MAY 25
It's been a goal of mine, this season, to avoid allowing this column to become Fenway-centric. And given that I've now seen 24 games at Fenway this season, yet not reported on a single one of them, I think that I've achieved that goal. So I hope you'll indulge me, as I devote today's column to yesterday's column, which of course was about the "need" for a new ballpark in Boston. The column resulted in a great amount of e-mail, e-mail marked by an immense amount of passion. I took a little poll, and here are the results: Red Sox fans who want to destroy Fenway: 45
Red Sox fans who want to save Fenway: 31
Baseball fans who want to save Fenway: 26 These weren't actual votes, of course. I read the messages, and made educated guesses about the votes. Below, are a few of the more interesting comments from those messages. I thought about composing some silly little responses to each of them, always good for a chuckle, but it's four in the morning -- the Sox and the rain kept me up late -- so I'll let everyone speak for themselves, absent any editorial comment.
Are you on crack??? If you have been to Fenway then you know it's a classic ... a classic dump. [And in a similar vein, originality apparently is not a hallmark of angry Sox fans ...] I read your column about Fenway. Being a native Bostonian living in Cambridge, I must ask this question: Can you give me the number of your crack dealer? Mine just got busted. Excuse me for being rude, you pompous arrogant blowhard. You live in Boston for four months and you think you can speak intelligently about what motivates Bostonians? The simple fact is that any fan of the Red Sox who has seen Camden Yards in Baltimore knows that Fenway needs to be replaced. I have always believed that everyone is entitled to his opinion ... until now. Your article is based on no fact, lacks logic and is riddled with lies. Anyone who has attended a game at both Fenway Park and Camden Yards absolutely cannot make the argument that Fenway Park is an adequate ballpark. In response to your recent column on ESPN's web site:And now, the minority opinion, Sox fans who still love Fenway Park and think the old girl's got a few good years left in her ...
Fenway MAKES fans. Ask a five-year-old at his first Fenway game if he thinks there is anything wrong with it. I STILL remember the first time I walked up from underneath, and there was that expanse of green grass, almost glowing brightly in the twilight of game-time. I think you're pretty much of a moron when it comes to your analysis of players and teams ... but when it comes to Fenway Park, you get a huge AMEN from me. I'm marking today down in my calendar: May 24, 2000. The first time I've agreed with your column. I wrote a 40-page paper on stadium economics during my senior year in college and the one thing that I can convey to people is that for every point they can think of that makes financial sense to build a new ballpark -- there's at least one rebuttal that dismisses the initial point. I'm just starting to love you more and more. I'm a 14-year-old girl living in Virginia. However, my dad and all his family are from Boston, and I am very proud to say that I highly oppose a new park ... I realize that sometime or another a new park will be needed, but right now I think the idea sucks.That's a fairly representative sample, though of course I selected those words that made me laugh or cry, or laugh and cry. What amused me most about the mail was that a bunch of people essentially wrote, "If only you were really from Boston, you would know that we need a new ballpark." Yet, strangely enough, a number of people who are really from Boston do think that Fenway should be saved. I do suspect that some people missed the point of the column, which I suppose is a reflection on my writing skills more than anything else. I am not saying that Fenway Park should live forever. Frankly, I don't have any idea if the interior structure will survive another decade. And I don't know if it's possible for the Red Sox to survive, financially, in the long run if they don't move. No, my point is that we're not getting good information on these issues. The Red Sox are churning out propaganda, which is nothing less than you'd expect. Unfortunately, a hefty percentage of the media in Boston is parroting the same propaganda, and that disturbs me. (I should say, too, that the Save Fenway Park people aren't above a little propaganda of their own.) Frankly, I consider myself smack-dab in the middle of this debate. I just want good information, and I fear that I'm not getting much of that these days. I would like to make another point about this. As I wrote yesterday, Fenway Park is going to be with us for at least a few more years. So it's too early for eulogies or elegies or any other gies. I'm in the middle of writing a book about this season, from the perspective of a guy who loves the game. And I promise you, I will devote no more than a few pages in the book to the old vs. new debate. Nothing lasts forever, much as we might wish otherwise. I'm going to focus most of my attentions this season on the things that make me happy, and the thought of losing the American League's last great ballpark isn't one of them. I shall always treasure the sight of Brian Daubach's walk-off home run last night, the white sphere describing its arc across the night sky before just clearing the Green Monster, and settling into the netting. Say what you want, but that moment would not have been the same in a mallpark. (By the way, if anyone would like to discuss this or anything else, tonight I'll be in Field Box 9, Row M, Seat 7. Feel free to stop by during the half-hour or so before Pete Schourek's first pitch. But please, if you have any anger toward me stored up, check it at the turnstiles. Fenway Park is too lovely a place for invective, unless it's between the guys on the field.) Late Note: For a balanced look, finally, at the issues relating to Fenway, check out Art Martone's latest column in the Providence Journal. FRIDAY, MAY 26
Can anyone remember three baseball games in late May that meant as much as this weekend's Red Sox-Yankees series? The Yankees won the World Series last fall. This spring, Sports Illustrated predicted a World Series victory for the Red Sox. There's a book titled "Baseball's Greatest Rivalry": it's about the Yankees and Red Sox. Oh, and one more little thing ... they're tied for first place. Of course, the might end up meaning nothing. If one team finishes the season eight games behind the other, the series will be meaningless to anyone who doesn't believe in momentum and "setting a tone." Aside from all of the above, these teams are fascinating in their similarities:
Lance Berkman You can talk about Sammy Sosa and Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou all you want, but it would take a substantial package of talented young players to get any one of those guys. And the truth is that neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox have the talented young players to spare. Now, Stairs is a different story. I suspect that Stairs might be shaken loose of the Athletics for perhaps one top prospect and one mid-range guy who could help out. Now, before you start pummeling me about the head and shoulders, I do know that Matty Stairs is hitting but .208, hardly what the Bombers or Bosox ordered. But if Stairs is healthy -- and that's something that any suitors must decide for themselves -- then he's going to hit. In fact, he's drawing a ton of walks and his power's fair. He's just not hitting for the average. And I think that's going to come. And what would it take to get Lance Berkman from the Astros? I don't know, maybe a bucket of sunflower seeds and a cupful of warm spit? Or maybe more. I don't have any idea what's going on inside Astro GM Gerry Hunsicker's head, but if Jeff Bagwell cuts out after the season, then Berkman would make a dandy replacement at first base. Oh, and for those of you new to this column, here are Berkman's minor-league stats the last few seasons:
Level Games OBP Slug OPS 1998 AA 122 .424 .555 979 AAA 17 .411 .644 1055 1999 AAA 64 .419 .518 937 2000 AAA 30 .486 .579 1065If this guy's not a major league hitter, then I'm a potted plant. The switch-hitting Berkman is 24, and it's time for the Astros to give him either a job or a plane ticket to another major league city. He'd look great in a Red Sox uniform. Not as good as Bagwell, but great enough. He could play first base, leaving Daubach and Stanley to platoon at DH. He could play left field against left-handed pitchers (instead of O'Leary), and DH against right-handed pitchers (instead of Stanley). A switch-hitter who can play first base and the corner outfield positions is, in fact, exactly what the Red Sox need. That, and a healthy Bret Saberhagen. Can the Yankees and Red Sox contend with what they've got on hand? Of course they can. They did it last year, and they can do it this year. But they might end up like two evenly-matched horses, straining down the home stretch, neck and neck. The race might go to whichever jockey is smarter with the crop. And the tricky thing is, sometimes it's better to avoid using the whip at all. MONDAY, MAY 29
Some great works of art, like the Mona Lisa, "The Seven Samurai," and last night's baseball game in the Bronx, speak for themselves. But art historians and movie critics have to make a living, and so do I. So today, let me tell you what it was like to watch the biggest game of the season (so far) not from my living room or even from the press box, but from a seat in the third row behind the Yankees' dugout. Before we get to the game, though, I should admit that I almost missed it. Or at least, I almost missed the beginning of it. My plan was to reach Yankee Stadium approximately half an hour before the game, the better to soak up the pre-game atmosphere. Unfortunately, I ... Got on the 6 Train in lower Manhattan.
Didn't know the 6 doesn't go to Yankee Stadium.
Didn't know I needed to get off at 125th Street and transfer to the 4 Train. I realized my error about three stops too late, and detrained at the Cypress Avenue stop, intending to simply hop a train going back to 125th. I suppose a lot of people will tell you that jumping the subway at any ol' stop in the Bronx isn't the wisest move in the world, but hey, we're talking about Pedro and the Rocket here. Took the stairs two at a time up to street level -- and frankly, it looked like a mean street -- spent maybe three seconds hoping for a taxi, and then I hustled across the street and back down below, to the opposite side of the tracks. So at 7:30, there I sat, with a great ticket for the biggest game of the season in my pocket, waiting on a nearly-deserted platform for a train, a train without a brain that hadn't a care in the world for my evening plans. I waited and I waited, and I waited some more, all the while with visions of the Rocket pitching in my head. Of course, the train did show up. I didn't do anything else stupid. And I was sitting in my wonderful seat, courtesy of a kind reader, with 10 minutes to spare. Through the first eight innings, how many runners reached third base? One. With one out in the seventh, Trot Nixon tripled to left-center. The Yankee infield converged on the plate -- a single run might be quite precious -- but Clemens didn't need them, striking out Brian Daubach (looking) and Nomar Garciaparra (swinging). That top of the seventh aside, there was little sustained drama involving the hitters in more than a bystanding way. But then, the ninth. Oh, the ninth ... What happened in the ninth inning could almost as easily happened in the seventh, even more easily in the eighth. But it happened in the ninth, thus lifting tonight's proceedings from good game to great game, man. John Valentin led off for the Sox, and tapped a grounder to Chuck Knoblauch. As you all know, Knoblauch has been suffering the yips lately (yes, again), and he didn't play the first two games of the series. They said he was injured, and maybe he was. Anyway, Knoblauch completed this play in fine fashion, and was rewarded with not only an assist, but also a fairly rousing show of appreciation from his friends (for today, at least) in the stands. Jason Varitek tried to bunt his way on, but he didn't get the ball close enough to the third-base line, Clemens retiring him with ease. Two outs, and at this point we're all beginning to wonder if we'll be here past midnight. But then Clemens ran a pitch high and inside to Jeff Frye, who trotted toward first place after getting plunked ... But no! Plate umpire Brian Runge is waving off the HBP, and pointing madly at Frye's bat, telling all of us that before the ball struck Frye, it struck his bat. Foul ball. Frye argued and Jimy Williams argued (Siddown, Jimy!), but there was nothing to be done about it. Were this game scripted by some hack TV writers, Frye would have either followed up with a home run, or Clemens, granted the reprieve, would have registered his 14th strikeout. Fortunately, real baseball games aren't scripted, and Frye meted out the best kind of justice, smashing a hot grounder right back to the box. Clemens could have made the play, perhaps should have made the play. But he did not make the play, and it is on such matters of fractions of inches that games often hinge. As this one did. Because Trot Nixon, he of the seventh-inning triple, batted next. And Nixon creamed one of Rocket's fastballs well into the right-field stands. Two-zip, Red Sox. (Just a few seconds after Nixon's blast touched down, I turned around to look at the crowd. It seemed to me as if perhaps 20 percent of the people were cheering. This was, I suspect, due to a couple of things. One, a lot of people from Boston live in New York. And two, a lot of people from the Dominican Republic live in New York, and they'll pull for the Sox when Pedro is pitching.) Knoblauch led off the bottom of the ninth, and Pedro nailed him. Was it a coincidence that, just a few minutes earlier, Clemens had come inside on Jeff Frye? Does Pedro have so much confidence that he'd happily award the Yankees a baserunner in the ninth inning of a 2-0 game? Nah, I don't think so. I think the ball just got away from him. And Knoblauch's a tough character, he probably enjoyed the experience. That brought up Jeter, who promptly singled to right field, Knoblauch stopping at second. Out of the Red Sox dugout popped Jimy Williams, and I was so sure about what would happen next that, on my scorecard, I drew the line that denotes a pitching change. I had no good idea of Pedro's pitch count, but I estimated somewhere around 100, given that he'd run very few deep counts, and had faced only 28 hitters to that point. He'd been a bit shaky lately, though, if Tino Martinez's long fly in the seventh and Ricky Ledee's longer fly in the eighth were any indication. What the Sox really needed was a double play, and Derek Lowe -- ready to come in at a moment's notice -- throws a heavy sinker that results in a lot of double plays. Say what you want about him, but Jimy Williams is his own man. After a lengthy consultation with his battery, Williams shuffled back to his subterranean lair, never having unsheathed his right hand in the direction of the bullpen. It would be Pedro's game, and he responded by striking out Paul O'Neill with high heat. Then, Bernie Williams, and he shot a fly ball into the right-field corner. Initially, I thought it was gone, and part of me wanted it to be gone. Yeah, I was pulling for the Red Sox, but what a thing to see. Nixon flagged down the ball near the warning track, however, with Knoblauch tagging up and advancing to third. That brought up Jorge Posada, and he missed Pedro's first two pitches by a couple of feet. One changeup, and it's over, right? Ah, but this game wasn't pre-scripted. Posada took a ball. And then, impossibly, Martinez plunked him, too. Thus, here comes Tino Martinez with the bases loaded. A single probably ties the game, a double probably wins it, and a home run gets you the biggest celebration in the Bronx since last October. By this point, I was hoping for an out, or a homer. This game, it seemed to me, should be decided by the two starting pitchers. Plus, I was drained. After being on edge for eight-plus innings, Bernie's drive to the track had grabbed most of what energy remained. I'll be honest with you, after three games at Yankee Stadium, I'm not in love with the place. Take away the history, and you've got yourself Shea Stadium West. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Yankee Stadium has its charms. But The House That Ruth Built is long gone, replaced by a 1970s-style ballpark built in, yes, the 1970s. There is one thing that I do love about Yankee Stadium, though, and it's probably not something that you would guess. I love the clock. At the top of the scoreboard that's just to the left of straightaway center field, you may always find the time. And not just any old time, but the OFFICIAL TIME. I guess I'm a sucker, but I'm so much more impressed by something labeled "Official" than I would otherwise be. The time of my life runs according to the baseball season, especially this particular baseball season. So there's the OFFICIAL TIME in big block letters, my official time, always available in one's field of vision, just like the pitcher and the hitter. And at 11:08 last night, a game I'll never forget officially ended when Tino Martinez chopped a routine grounder to second baseman Jeff Frye, who -- after waiting for Mike Stanley to find the bag -- made the routine throw to first base. At 11:08, I was as happy to love this sport as I ever have been. TUESDAY, MAY 30
News, notes and natterings while wondering when Vince Naimoli will wise up and offer Chuck LaMar another contract extension ...
This is probably but a trifle; nevertheless, a number of readers, after seeing the list of players to turn an unassisted triple play includes two first basemen, wondered just how that might come about. It's simple, really. Runners on first and second, and they're off with the pitch. Batter shoots a liner to the first baseman's right. He makes the catch, and simply runs toward second base. On his way, he tags the runner who had alit from first base, and then he tags second before the lead runner can return. Bingo bango, you've got yourself a triple play. It's happened twice, both times as described above. On September 14, 1923, Red Sox first baseman George Burns grabbed a liner from Cleveland's Frank Brower, tagged Rube Lutzke off first base, then out-raced Riggs Stephenson to second base. The other time ... first, a bit of background. On May 30, 1927, Cubs shortstop Jimmy Cooney turned an unassisted triple play against the Pirates. The next morning, Tigers first baseman Johnny Neun read about Cooney's feat in the newspaper. That afternoon in Detroit, the Indians (again) had men on first and second when Homer Summa lined a ball into Neun's glove. Neun tagged Charlie Jamieson for the second out, and then he sprinted to second base while (supposedly) shouting, "I'm running into the Hall of Fame!" That was, of course, something of an exaggeration, but Neun did beat Glenn Myatt to the bag, thus completing the triple play all by his lonesome. (And no, there was no Hall of Fame in 1927. But the concept was well established, and writers often discussed a theoretical "Hall of Fame.") And that was the last time a first baseman recorded three outs by himself. Those two UTPs in 1927, by the way, aren't the only "cluster." There were two in 1923, one in 1925, the two in '27 ... and then none until 1968. Then another 24 years until Mickey Morandini's in 1992, followed closely by John Valentin's in 1994. And now Velarde in 2000. By the way, like Velarde, Valentin homered in the half-inning immediately after turning the UTP. Speaking of John Valentin, I just might have seen his season end last night. In the top of the second, Carlos Beltran chopped an easy grounder toward third base. Valentin set up to make the play ... and collapsed, as if he'd been shot. Initially, I thought he'd merely tripped over his own feet, video blooper-style, and I cheered a little as the ball rolled into left field and Beltran trotted to first base with a gift single. My joy ended quickly, though, when I realized that Valentin wasn't getting up, and must be badly hurt. He lay on the ground in obvious pain, quickly surrounded by teammates and trainers before being carried off the field atop a groundskeeper's cart. I don't think I've ever seen an infielder just drop like that, while waiting for a ground ball. And I wish I hadn't seen it last night, wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. If I had one. According to Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, "Valentin was placed on the golf cart and driven through the garage door in the left-field corner. Then he was wheeled through the public concourse under the stands en route to the Sox clubhouse. It had to be a shocking and unpleasant sight for fans buying beer and hot dogs." "I guess that shows we need a new stadium," said Sox spokesman Kevin Shea.