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Friday, March 1
March 2002 Archives

By Rob Neyer

I think you and I owe Derek Bell, and we owe him big. No, not $4.5 million big; fortunately for us, the Pittsburgh Pirates are on the hook for that tidy little sum. But we do owe Derek Bell something, because it's men like him who help make baseball the wonderful pursuit it is.

Derek Bell is "colorful." He is -- sorry about this, but let's be honest -- one of the ugliest men in the major leagues. He used to wear pants so baggy he looked like a clown. And now he's announced "Operation Shutdown," a brilliant plan that will supposedly be implemented if Pirates management comes to the conclusion that they're better off with Craig Wilson and/or Armando Rios in right field.

"Operation Shutdown" is now a part of the vernacular, like Garry Templeton's wonderful "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'." All of which is to say, someday we're all going to remember Derek Bell with great fondness. Without him and players like him, being a baseball fan wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

In the here and now, however, Derek Bell's existence raises a practical question, at least for the Pirates and their fans ...

What's better? Derek Bell sitting on his keister in the dugout, or Derek Bell sitting on his keister at home, waiting for the phone to ring? What makes this question more difficult for the Pirates to answer is that aforementioned tidy little sum: $4.5 million, otherwise known as "Bonifay's Folly." Or is that what we're calling the Pat Meares contract? I always forget ...

Paying Bell isn't throwing good money after bad, because the Pirates will probably have to throw $4.5 million in Derek Bell's direction no matter what they do. What they might be doing instead, if they keep Bell around all season, is throwing away a roster spot. Last year, Bell was a complete waste of space for the three-and-a-half months that he wasn't on the disabled list. This year, he's essentially the No. 3 option in right field, with Craig Wilson the No. 1 option, and Armando Rios, if he's healthy, the No. 2 option. And a discontented No. 3 option at that.

So why don't the Pirates simply release Bell? Because at this moment, there's very little reason for them to. At this moment, he's not wasting a roster spot. At this moment, there's still a chance the Pirates could dispose of his contract.

How? Well, I'm just speculating here, but for a moment let's imagine that somebody came to Pirates GM Dave Littlefield and knocked his socks off with an offer for Brian Giles. Say, a couple of young hitters and a 21-year-old pitcher with mid-90s cheese. "Fine," Littlefield says, "but ... oh, but I also need you to take Operation Shutdown off my hands." And if Littlefield is lucky -- OK, if he's really, really lucky, Powerball lucky -- his trading partner will agree.

Hey, it happened a couple of years ago. Dan Duquette wanted Rolando Arrojo for the Red Sox, but Dan O'Dowd supposedly would do the deal only if Duquette would also assume ownership of Mike Lansing ... and his $6.25 million contract for the following season. And Duquette, in one of his less thoughtful moments, agreed.

Granted, it's unlikely that Littlefield will find any takers for Bell and his silly contract, but today's the first day of spring and hope is in the air. But it's also unlikely that Dave Littlefield will simply release Derek Bell, at least not until the hope-filled spring turns into the sweat-soaked summer. Or until Bell says something else that seems specifically designed to get him released. In which case he'll get released.

In May of 2000, Frank Robinson, said, "I understand why Jeff Bagwell wears protection on his hand -- he's had it broken. But other guys with all that body armor from the wrist to the shoulder, they do not pay the price of being hit. That's something we'd like to look at, and talk to the Players Association about. Some of these things, they won't come overnight. But we'd like to get something done by next year."

Continuing in that vein, just before Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, said, "We'd like to eliminate the body armor, unless there's a legitimate reason for wearing it. ... We think it introduces an advantage to the hitter. When you add some of the other advantages, like the strike zone and so forth, I think you're taking some of the initiative away from the pitchers."

And the next spring, MLB did indeed announce a crackdown on the use of armored gauntlets. On February 27, 2001, the Philadelphia Daily News tersely reported, "Hitters will no longer be allowed to wear large body armor. All that will be allowed is a 10-inch pad issued by Major League Baseball. Any exceptions will be considered only with a physician's written request."

Sound familiar? It should, because last year Major League Baseball issued almost exactly the same policy.

As Bob Watson, MLB's new Discipline Czar said last week, "It's the same rule as last year. We will make sure that the rules are complied with."

As it turned out, of course, there wasn't a whole lot of compliance goin' on last year. This was due to a variety of reasons. For one thing, there was a feeling that the players didn't have enough advance warning. And for another, when the 2001 season opened, there was just one MLB-approved arm pad. And so while there was some compliance, nobody was fanatical about it. Not Frank Robinson, not the teams or the umpires, and certainly not the players. Barry Bonds opened the season with something less than he'd worn in the past, but by September there he was, wearing a gauntlet on his right arm that would put a medieval knight to shame.

This year, the players have plenty of advance warning, and by Opening Day there will be five MLB-approved pads available -- to be approved, the pad may not exceed 10 inches when pressed flat, and must have only a thin layer of hard plastic covered by nylon -- so there really aren't any excuses left to not enforce the rule.

All that said -- and pardon me for being skeptical -- but I think I'll wait until Opening Day before I believe anything is really going to change. Some of the game's biggest stars, including Bonds and Craig Biggio and Mo Vaughn, have been wearing armor for years, and I don't know if they'll give it up without a fight.

Mo Vaughn says, "I personally wear my elbow pad because if I get hit in the wrong place on my arm, it's going to break because it's been hit so many times."

And Mo Vaughn's arm has been hit so many times because ... Mo Vaughn has been hanging over the plate for his entire career. And hanging over the plate is what this "new" rule is supposed to prevent.

Andres Galarraga says, "In my case, I have to wear it because I've been hit by so many pitches. I know pitchers complain because guys dive over the plate and sometimes try to get hit. I just try to get out of the way."

And Andres Galarraga has been hit so many times because ... he's been hanging over the plate for his entire career.

As my colleague Jim Baker correctly notes, this is yet another problem that could be addressed by the umpires, if only the umpires would take the trouble. Quoting Rule 6.08(b): "The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when ... He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball ..."

Now, let me ask you, how many times have you seen a player do little but blink as a piece of low-90s cheese came whizzing toward him? And how many times have you seen an umpire say, "Son, I'm afraid you made no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball. Return to the batter's box and continue your efforts at reaching base."

One might reasonably ask, "What's the big deal? If a player wants protection, he should have it. And isn't baseball best served if the superstars are able to stay in the lineup?"

Absolutely. If I have tickets to see the Giants play, I sure as shootin' want to see Barry Bonds. But he doesn't have to stand on top of the plate, does he? That's a choice that Bonds makes, and he should have to suffer the consequences of that choice. As things stand now, however, the only consequences are positive. He can pull the outside pitch, he can still pull the inside pitch, and if the pitcher misses too far inside, Bonds gets a pain-free trip to first base (nine of them last year).

It's often said that body armor should be limited because it will help the pitchers. Well, that's true, it will help the pitchers a little bit, but it's also the wrong reason to limit body armor. Body armor should be limited for the simple reason that it's not fair. It upsets the balance between pitching and hitting, and it makes the game less interesting because the hitter doesn't have to make that tough choice between safety and risk.

As I said, I'm skeptical. In the owners/players equation, the players have most of the power, and they might well stymie Bob Watson's best efforts. But let's hope that he at least makes the serious effort that Frank Robinson didn't.

While looking in vain for an item in an old Baseball Weekly that I distinctly remember seeing, I found the following note in Bob Nightengale's column. It's from the February 22, 2000, issue, and the Mariners had just traded Ken Griffey to the Reds for Brett Tomko, Mike Cameron, and minor leaguers Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer. With that in mind, enjoy ...

So inquiring minds want to know: Any chance the Griffey trade could look decent given time?

"No, this was awful," one veteran scout said. "I think the real mistake they made was getting Tomko. The guy can't pitch. He's got a good arm, but that's where it ends. He's got no touch and he's always up in the strike zone. He's got a 93-mph fastball, a curveball, an occasional slider, but doesn't have a changeup. And least he won't throw it in a game.

"I would have taken (Steve) Parris, (Dennys) Reyes or (Scott) Williamson, any of those guys, over Tomko. Parris, believe it or not, can throw just as hard, and he's got a better breaking ball, better command and a better idea how to pitch."

And Cameron?

"He's just all right," said a National League scout. "The Mariners are fooling themselves if they think he can lead off or bat high in the order. He's not disciplined enough. He strikes out too much. He's really just an eighth or ninth hitter.

"Defensively, he's OK, but nothing exceptional."

Granted, Brett Tomko didn't exactly set the Pacific Northwest on fire after joining the Mariners. In parts of two seasons -- he spent the other parts in Triple-A -- Tomko won 10 games and posted a 4.82 ERA. There are still a lot of people who think he can pitch in the major leagues, and this season we'll find out if a lot of people are right, as Tomko was traded to San Diego, where he'll likely get the chance that Lou Piniella never really gave him.

But let's look at those other guys, who the M's should have acquired rather than Tomko.

After going 11-4 with a 3.50 ERA in 1999, Steve Parris dropped off 12-17 with a 4.81 ERA in 2000. And last year with the Blue Jays, Parris started 19 games and won four of them.

Dennys Reyes ... now there's a real prize. Pitching mostly in relief the last two seasons, Reyes totaled 97 innings and managed a brilliant 4.75 ERA over that span.

As for Scott Williamson, he's a wonderful pitcher who just happened to miss nearly all of the 2001 season with an elbow injury.

And then there's Mike Cameron, who's "really just an eighth or ninth hitter." Except in 2001, he posted a .359 on-base percentage and hit 25 home runs while batting second or in the middle of the lineup for a team that led the world in runs scored. In fact, here's what the Mariners' last two center fielders have done the last two seasons:

          G   Runs  RBI   OBP  Slug   $$$
Griffey  256   157  183  .378  .546  21.8M
Cameron  305   195  188  .359  .459   5.6M

Griffey's been very good when he's been healthy enough to play, but he hasn't been healthy enough to play as often as the Reds would have liked. And when you consider that Cameron's been paid about one-fourth as many millions as Griffey, who would you rather have for your team?

And finally, any scout who thinks that Mike Cameron's defense is "OK, but nothing exceptional" really ought to think about -- or be ordered to -- consider some other line of work. Mike Cameron won a Gold Glove in 2001, based on subjective judgments of his defense. And objectively (that is, statistically), he rates as one of the three or four best defensive center fielders in the game, well behind Andruw Jones but in a group with Chris Singleton, Torii Hunter and Doug Glanville.

Don't get me wrong here; I love scouts, I really do. One of the most delightful three hours of my life was spent sitting next to Padres scout Gary Roenicke at a game in Tacoma last summer. Most scouts have forgotten more about baseball players than I'll ever know, and when I'm around a scout I feel like a kid in a candy store.

That said, you see these quick-hitting comments from anonymous scouts all the time -- here at, and in Sports Illustrated, and Baseball Weekly and The Sporting News -- and heaven knows they're a lot of fun. But do they really tell us anything of substance? I would suggest that a single evaluation from an anonymous source should be taken with a salt lick big enough for a herd of ravenous deer.

Because scouts are sort of like doctors. There are good ones and there are bad ones. And if you don't like what one of them tells you, just try another, and another and another; eventually you'll find one who tells you what you want to hear.

There's an ancient anecdote, used to be a big hit on the rubber-chicken circuit ...

One day, Beelzebub approaches Joe McCarthy (or John McGraw, or Connie Mack, or some other legendary manager, depending on who's doing the telling) and challenges him to a baseball game, telling him he can have any of the immortal ballplayers that he likes.

McCarthy chuckles. "Sure, why not? I've got Ruth, Gehrig, Mathewson, Johnson ... I can't lose!"

"Ah," Beelzebub says, "but I've got the umpires."

Big laughs all around, gahr-un-teed. But everybody knew it was a joke. Sure, one might question the eyesight or the judgment of an umpire. But his integrity?

In Games, Asterisks, and People, former commissioner Ford Frick's memoirs, Frick wrote,

Years ago, an unknown writer commented, with some amazement, that "in the whole history of the major leagues there has never been a single case of umpire dishonesty!" So far as I can ascertain, that is still true. Certainly no umpire has ever faced public trial on a charge of dishonesty, and no umpire has ever graduated from the diamond to the penitentiary. That's a record the men of no other profession can match -- not politicians, lawyers, doctors, financiers, or even clergymen.

That wasn't precisely true; there had been a case of umpire dishonesty. According to a note in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, "The only known case of a dishonest umpire in professional baseball was that of Dick Higham, fired by the National League in June, 1882, after confessing to collusion with gamblers." Higham, it was claimed, told gamblers on which team to bet when he umpired.

Higham had been accused by W.G. Thompson, mayor of Detroit and also president of the National League's Detroit Wolverines. And as James Kahn wrote in The Umpire Story (published 20 years before Frick's book), "Mayor Thompson accused another arbiter, John Doscher, of dishonorable conduct, and he, too, was expelled, but was later readmitted to umpire in the National League again." Apparently Thompson wasn't above accusing umpires of perfidy if they committed the high crime of ruling against the team he owned.

That's pretty good; one crook in the last 120 years. Well, one that we know about. It's not unreasonable to suspect that another arbiter or two has strayed from the straight and narrow at some point in the last century.

I bring all this up because recently we learned that a couple of umpires were put on probation back in 1989, after it was discovered that they'd been "associating and doing business with gamblers and bookmakers," in violation of Major League Rule 21. There was no finding (or suspicion, one would hope) that Frank Pulli or Rich Garcia bet on baseball games, but we still might question whether two years of probation was punishment enough. And Pulli is still employed by Major League Baseball as an umpire supervisor.

It strikes me that some of you don't understand why nobody closely associated with baseball games should be placing bets with bookies on football games or basketball games.

"But they didn't bet on baseball games!"

That's good. But it's not good enough, and here's why ... Let's say that our friendly hypothetical umpire, Hillbilly Joe Smith, dropped a few too many large on last Sunday's NFL action. So many large, in fact, that he's now in serious arrears with his bookie of choice, a guy who knows somebody who knows somebody who made call-backs when The Sopranos was auditioning extras.

And when Hillbilly Joe tells his creditor that he can't come up with the dough in a timely fashion, then what? Probably nothing. But Joe's bookie might tell him that if he doesn't call balls and strikes a particular way in his next game behind the plate, then he'll never play golf again. Because it's hard to swing a Big Bertha if you don't have any kneecaps.

That's why umpires should be held to an incredibly high standard of integrity. They, more than anyone on the field aside from the starting pitchers, can have a huge influence on who wins or loses a game. Frank Pulli and Rich Garcia both knew what they were doing was a blatant violation of baseball's rules, and both should have been suspended for at least a year.

It's been some quite some time since I've responded to e-mail in the space, plus there's no particular subject that's sticking my craw. So ...

    Rob, I guess the fact that Jack Cust has had great success with plate discipline isn't enough to satisfy the “instincts” of manager Buddy Bell. Here is a quote from Bell: "He is as disciplined as any younger hitter I've seen. Personally, I'd like to see him be more aggressive." Uh-oh ... Why do these guys mess around with a good thing? Do they ever explain why being more aggressive is better or what that accomplishes? Maybe Buddy just wants to see Cust crack a few bombs so that he can remember fondly the days when he used to take money from Duane Kuiper during those Home Run Derby BP sessions in Cleveland ... Jason Walker
    Atlanta, GA

First of all, it's still pretty hard to believe that Jack Cust will be with the Rockies by the time Opening Day rolls around, because he's a train wreck in the field, whether he plays left field or first base. And anyway, the Rockies already have a pretty good first baseman. So in the not-distant future, it's not going to make a bit of difference what Buddy Bell thinks of Jack Cust, because Jack Cust will likely spend the great majority of his career playing the position that comes naturally to him: DH.

Most of the time, of course, I'd be more than happy to jump all over a manager for suggesting that a power hitter with great plate discipline should be more aggressive. Aggression is important for hitters, but the emphasis should be on situational aggression: wait for the right pitch on the right count, and swing real hard. And I'm not sure that's what Buddy Bell's got in mind.

All that said, it's possible that Colorado's hitters should, in general, be a bit more aggressive, at least when they're at home. As Joe Sheehan points out in the new Baseball Prospectus (which you should already own), the outcome of putting the ball in play at Coors Field is better than anywhere else. When players didn't strike out or walk last year, they batted .378 and slugged .649. Sheehan writes, "The extra boost given to batted balls also made walks relatively less valuable. The positive expectation of a ball in play ... takes away much of the incentive to work deep counts, because deep counts increase the odds of a costly strikeout ... on the margins, it's better for the Rockies to have a player who strikes out 50 times rather than 80, even if there's a slight loss in expected walks."

Fascinating. And if you're a Rockies fan who thinks that Buddy Bell is killing your team, maybe this will make you feel just a little bit better (though I think Bell's got other problems that can't be forgiven so easily).

    Rob, I've always been fascinated by the careers of players like Vada Pinson and Cesar Cedeno, whose futures seemed as bright as any who had ever played the game, and then they fizzled faster than it seemed they should have. In light of the recent age corrections, it seems that we have the solution. Pinson and Cedeno, and many others of their time, were probably two to five years older than everyone thought. Tim Lee

It's funny how many people think that Vada Pinson was born somewhere south of the 30th Parallel, and I only make light of this because I did, until relatively recently, labor under the same misconception.

In fact, Vada Edward Pinson Jr. was born in August 11, 1938, in Memphis, Tennessee. And that listed birthday hasn't changed once since Pinson first arrived in the majors with Cincinnati, in 1958. It's true that Pinson peaked early, and unfortunately he died early, too, just a couple of months after his 57th birthday.

Cedeno, on the other hand ... well, you might have a point there. According to all the record books, Cedeno was born on February 25, 1951, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. That hasn't changed in 30 years. It's true, though, that Cedeno:

1) played well in the major leagues when he was (supposedly) 21;

2) put together three MVP-caliber seasons, all before he (supposedly) turned 26; and

3) was just an adequate major leaguer after (supposedly) turning 30.

I'm not trying to turn this into some sort of witch hunt, but Cedeno's career would make quite a bit more sense if we moved his birth date back a few years.

There is another explanation for Cedeno's early peak. Following the 1973 season, Cedeno was convicted, in the Dominican Republic, of involuntary manslaughter in a tragedy involving his girlfriend and a .38-caliber revolver. The maximum sentence was three years, but Cedeno paid a 100-peso fine and walked out of jail.

He was forever after tormented by fans who called him "killer," and Cedeno's early decline is often blamed on the difficulty of dealing with his girlfriend's death and the attendant abuse from mean-spirited hecklers.

I'm not sure I buy that, though. As I said, the incident occurred after the 1973 season. But Cedeno actually played quite well in 1974. And 1975 and 1976 and 1977. After missing most of the '78 season with an injury and hitting poorly in '79, Cedeno bounced back with a fine season in 1980, when he was arguably one of the five best players in the National League. At that point, he was only 29 years old and still on a Hall of Fame career path.

  Years     Ages    HR  RBI   OBP  Slug
1970-1980   19-29  158  744  .356  .458 
1981-1986   30-35   41  232  .330  .401

The dividing line in Cedeno's career isn't 1973/1974, it's 1980/1981. And while I'm not at all convinced he was actually older than we think, it also seems we should at least consider the possibility.

    Rob, I've laid awake concocting games in which all-star teams from the Negro Leagues play their counterparts in the American and National leagues. I would subject my body to the rigors of time travel to see any game in which players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson got to play against barnstorming major leaguers.

    - John Yevuta

Gee, I wish I'd thought of that myself. Regrettably, very little film of the great pre-1947 black players exists. So No. 1 on my list of ancient baseball events to witness would have to be one of the East-West All-Star Games, featuring many of the world's greatest baseball players. And 1935 might be the best choice, because in that game alone, one could witness Martin Dihigo, Leon Day, Ray Dandridge, Luis Tiant Sr., Cool Papa Bell, Willie Wells, Josh Gibson, Mule Suttles, Oscar Charleston, Turkey Stearnes, and Buck Leonard. For a collection of baseball talent that's not been immortalized on celluloid, I think you'd have a tough time beating that game (which the West won, 11-8 with three runs in the bottom of the ninth).

As an adolescent, my fantasies often involved invisibility, because if I were invisible I could walk around in the girls' locker room. Eventually, though -- sometime after my 18th birthday, if I recall correctly -- the concrete joys of adulthood allowed me to focus on a different kind of magic: time travel. Like a lot of history buffs, I considered (and still consider) the past more interesting than the present, which of course leads to fantasies about traveling back and seeing things for myself.

The problem is, where in the past does one start? I'd love to see a game in every old ballpark, love to see every great pitcher work, love to see the players toss their gloves to the ground after each half-inning, love to see every World Series Game 7 (starting with 1960). But today I'll limit myself to three games on the wish list, all of them from at least 50 years ago and all of them in living color.

1. September 23, 1908: The Polo Grounds, New York
It's been described as "the most celebrated, most widely discussed, most controversial contest in the history of American sports," and it just might be.

As September 23 dawned in New York, the hometown Giants and the Chicago Cubs -- two teams who had won the previous four National League pennants -- were locked in a virtual tie for first place; both of them stood 37 games over the .500 mark, with the Giants technically leading by .006. The Cubs had swept a doubleheader the day before, leaving the clubs with critical games on the 23rd and 24th.

This game was a pitcher's duel, as both New York's Christy Mathewson and Chicago's Jack "The Giant Killer" Pfiester performed brilliantly. The Cubs scored first, on Joe Tinker's solo home run. The Giants tied the game in the sixth when Turkey Mike Donlin singled home Buck Herzog. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, it was still 1-1. But after the Giants' leadoff man made out, Art Devlin singled. He was forced at second base on Moose McCormick's grounder, but rookie first baseman Fred Merkle followed with a base hit that sent McCormick all the way to third. And then Al Bridwell rapped a clean single to center, chasing McCormick home with the winning run and giving the Giants undisputed possession of first place.

Or so everyone thought. Merkle, rather than touch second base, headed directly to the clubhouse beyond center field. Cubs second Johnny Evers had kept his eye on Merkle, and after Merkle peeled away from the baseline, Evers frantically called for the baseball. Eventually he touched second base while in the possession of a baseball -- which baseball, nobody knows -- then appealed to base umpire Bob Emslie. Emslie hadn't seen the play and asked his partner, Hank O'Day, and O'Day granted the appeal, thus declaring Merkle out and negating McCormick's run.

That should have forced the contest into extra innings. But the fans had overrun the field and the Giants had left the premises, so O'Day ruled the game a tie, a decision that would be upheld by National League president Harry Pulliam. And of course, it mattered because the Giants and Cubs finished the season in a tie, necessitating a replay of the "Merkle game" that's often (incorrectly) remembered as a one-game playoff. The Cubs won the make-up game, and went on to beat the Tigers in the World Series for the second straight year.

So why go back? To answer two questions.

Did Merkle actually touch second base at some point before making his way to the clubhouse? The New York Herald reported that he did, probably because Christy Mathewson said that he did. (Mathewson, by the way, supposedly promised to quit professional baseball if the Giants lost the pennant as a result of Chicago's "trick of argument." They did, but he didn't.)

Did the Cubs ever record the force at second base? There are half a dozen stories about what happened to the game ball. And though it'd be difficult to get a clear picture of the postgame events, what with fans and players milling about the field, I'd sure like to give it a shot.

And as an added bonus, I'd get to see Christy Mathewson pitch against the world's greatest baseball team.

2. October 1, 1932: Wrigley Field, Chicago
Did Babe Ruth call his shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, or didn't he? Nearly everybody who has studied the issue has concluded that Ruth did not, in fact, point to a distant spot beyond the center-field fence at Wrigley Field. Still, he did make a gesture of some sort, and accounts differ as to what that gesture actually was.

So I'd like to be deposited at the corner of Clark and Addison the morning of the game, where I'd hope to pay a scalper the going rate for a box seat between home plate and the third-base dugout. From there, I'd be well situated to contribute the most accurate eyewitness account of the famous events.

Aside from the obvious curiosity value, this game also featured another home run from Ruth and two from Lou Gehrig. Still, I had a tough time deciding between this one and a game in Pittsburgh on May 25, 1935, when Ruth, playing for the Boston Braves, hit three home runs in a single game. Those were the final three home runs of his career, and No. 714 was reportedly the longest blast ever hit at Forbes Field.

3. October 3, 1951: Polo Grounds, New York
The name is the same, but these Polo Grounds aren't the same Polo Grounds the Giants called home in 1908. These Polo Grounds sit below Coogan's Bluff, atop which I stood during the 2000 World Series, and looked across the East River toward Yankee Stadium in the distance. But the Polo Grounds are just a memory, a name given to the public-housing towers that now occupy the site.

So I want to see the real Polo Grounds, the Polo Grounds so vividly brought to life by Don DeLillo in his novel, Underworld. But I also want to know if Bobby Thomson knew that Ralph Branca was going to throw him that fastball that turned into The Shot Heard 'Round the World. Thomson claims that the Giants' sign-stealing system didn't help him on that particular pitch, but I'd like to see for myself. Did someone out in the bullpen give him the signal that a fastball was on the way? Or did Thomson simply see the pitch and hit it, fair and square?

Last November, I wrote a column listing my favorite baseball books published in 2001. Within hours, I received an e-mail from a furious reader. "How on earth can you write about the best baseball books of 2001 before 2001 is actually finished?" he asked, except at greater length and including a few unimaginative cuss words.

As it happened, no outstanding baseball book was published during the remainder of 2001, which made me feel very good about not only myself, but also mankind in general. Still, as a preface to what you're about to read, let me stress that today I'm writing about the best baseball books of 2002, so far. To this point, my favorite is Richard J. Tofel's A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939, which is about exactly what it sounds like.

Writing about A Legend in the Making is emblematic of the general difficulty that I experience writing about baseball books. Because, as is true of many, many baseball books, I know the author. No, I've never met Dick Tofel. But he was inspired to write his book after reading my book (Baseball Dynasties), and I did what little I could to help Tofel polish his manuscript. And there's even a quote from Rob Neyer on the back of the book jacket: "Hallelujah! Finally a great book about baseball's greatest team."

So what do I really think about the book? It's terrific. There aren't many baseball authors who write beautifully; Dick Tofel doesn't, nor do I, nor does almost everyone else who writes about baseball. What I look for in a baseball book is good writing and information. The mantra that pops into my head when I'm reading nearly anything is Give me something I can use. Tell me something I didn't already know. Make me smarter. And after reading A Legend in the Making, I felt a hell of a lot smarter. Tofel destroys a great number of myths (the nature of which I'll leave you to discover), and that's something I particularly appreciate.

(By the way, this Saturday night from 5:30 to 6:30, Tofel will speak about his book at the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble in New York City. If you make it down there, please tell him I said hello.)

Another current tome on my must-read list is the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, by's very own John Sickels. I certainly can't claim to be objective about John's book. After all, not only is he a friend and colleague, but I actually edited and co-designed John's first book, six years ago. It was a great book then and it's a better book now.

Unfortunately for John (and his publisher, STATS, Inc.), last year a serious competitor entered the field, as the good folks at Baseball America published their first Prospect Handbook. And this year there's a new edition, greatly expanded.

I find both books indispensable, but what if you can only afford one of them? It's generally believed that John gives more weight to performance than tools, while the Baseball Americans give more weight to tools than performance. But while general belief is accurate to a point, it's also simplistic. John sees a lot of games and can spot a major-league slider, and the guys at Baseball America, or at least most of them, have at least a passing acquaintance with objective analysis.

The Prospect Handbook is bigger and more detailed, with 478 pages and full-blown reports on 30 prospects per team; the Minor League Scouting Notebook runs 298 pages but actually includes more prospect reports, though they're not as long. The real difference between the books isn't in the players or the way the players are analyzed. The real difference is personality. The Handbook is co-authored by more than a dozen writers, and no single one of them is supposed to be identifiable; you won't find any first-person narrative here. The Notebook, on the other hand, is all about personality. If you like John Sickels, then it's highly likely that you'll like his book.

Picking the best book about prospects is tough (which is why I didn't do it). Fortunately, there are some easier choices.

If you need a single book for your Rotisserie/fantasy draft, there's only one right answer: Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster.

If you want to know why the 30 major-league teams did what they did last year, and what 1,500-some professional players will do this year, then you should pick up the 2002 edition of Baseball Prospectus, a book that I've been trumpeting for four or five years now. Yes, I once wrote a foreword for the book. Yes, my name used to appear on the cover every year (before they found some fans with bigger names). And yes, I number at least half of BP's co-authors among my friends. But I've never received a penny or any other favors from them; bottom line, they deliver an excellent book every year.

So that's my advice for today. Now you may go forth and support the publishing industry. And looking down the road, Bill James, Allen Barra and Richard Lally will have new baseball books out in the next month or so, so I suspect that we'll have something to discuss when we see them.

Well, at least now Deivi Cruz makes sense.

Recently we learned that Cruz didn't turn 26 last November; he turned 29.

Given this new knowledge, let us look at Cruz's career thus far:

    Year  Age  OPS 
    1997   24  577 
    1998   25  639 
    1999   26  729 
    2000   27  767 
    2001   28  670 

Instead of a 21-year-old rookie who showed a lot of promise in 1997, we see a 24-year-old rookie who might have a shot at a decent career. Instead of a 24-year-old showing "dramatic improvement as a hitter" (as one source put it) in 2000, we see a 27-year-old enjoying his career year, as 27-year-olds often do.

Does age matter? Well, here's one way of looking at that question ... Statistically, the 10 most similar players to Deivi Cruz through age 25 -- if Cruz were actually 25 -- would include Lou Boudreau, Leo Cardenas, Mark Koenig, Frankie Crosetti, Chris Speier, and Granny Hamner. Of those players, only Boudreau is in the Hall of Fame, but all of them are remembered today for one reason or another.

But the 10 most similar players to Cruz through age 28? The best of them are Johnny Logan, Pat Meares, Dickie Thon, Mark Grudzielanek, Gene Alley, and Rich Aurilia. A pretty good group (especially Aurilia), but not as good as the first one.

What about Rafael Furcal? The only player similar to Furcal, through both ages 19 and 20, is Hall of Famer Travis Jackson. Of course, now we know that Furcal wasn't actually in the majors at 19 and 20, which means that Travis Jackson's got nothing to do with Rafael Furcal.

And the most similar players to Furcal at ages 21 and 22?

Mike Caruso and Bill Knockerbocker. Neither of whom is in the Hall of Fame, or likely to even be in the Hall of Fame. Which is also true of Rafael Furcal.

That's not to say that Furcal doesn't have a bright future ahead of him, assuming of course that he can stay healthy. Through age 22, the list of 10 most-similar players to Furcal includes Hall of Famers Joe Cronin, Joe Tinker and Boudreau.

(The information on statistical similarities comes from the indescribable and indispensable

Aging Quickly
Since spring training opened, the following players' official birthdates have changed, with listed ages referring to Opening Day, 2002:
Player Was Is
Luis Pineda 23 27
Jose Cabrera 30 33
Deivi Cruz 26 29
Ramon Ortiz 26 29
Jesus Colome 21 24
Rey Ordonez 29 31
Manny Aybar 27 29
Bartolo Colon 26 28
Enrique Wilson 26 28
Octavio Dotel 26 28
Neifi Perez 25 27
Luis Vizcaino 24 26
Timo Perez 24 26
M. Encarnacion 24 26
Juan Cruz 21 23
Rafael Furcal 21 23
Felix Heredia 25 26
Juan Uribe 21 22

The sidebar lists the players whose official birthdays have changed to the worse in the last month, and that's just the major leaguers. There are 18 of them, at last count. As for the minor leaguers ... well, we know of nearly 30 already, with more certainly to come. (For the best list of all professional players who have recently been assigned new birthdays, see this page at Baseball America's web site.)

Our opinions of the players in the sidebar must change. I italicize "players" because I know that they're still the same people. Yes, it's regrettable that they lied, but the very pervasiveness of the phenomenon tells us something about the severity of the crime. While these men must all deal with the ramifications of their deceptions, it would be unfair to attach any sort of stigma to what they've done.

But the truth is that, the great majority of the time, we -- and I mean you and me -- don't really think about these men as men; we think about them as players. And in terms of our perceptions, they're simply not the same players that they were a month ago.

Deivi Cruz might be the most extreme example, but we have to look at all of them in different lights. The most obvious example is Angels pitcher Ramon Ortiz. As John Sickels notes, "This is a problem. Ortiz's main attraction has always been his projectability. He may be as good now as he'll ever get."

Another is Rockies outfielder Mario Encarnacion, who has always been considered a "tools guy." Well, now Encarnacion is 26 years old, he's played only 20 games in the major leagues, and he'll be lucky to get in a few years as a fourth outfielder.

Those are probably the most extreme examples of a player's new age changing the way we think about him, but again, it makes a difference for everybody. And speaking of everybody, it's been strange to see so many writers and managers and general managers acting like the new ages are nothing but a trifle.

In the Chicago newspapers, all the stories have focused first on top pitching prospect Juan Cruz's weight -- he arrived in camp carrying only 153 pounds on his 6-2 frame -- and mentioned his "new" birthday only secondarily.

According to The New York Times, "General Manager Steve Phillips told [Timo] Perez that he did not consider Perez's age ... a major issue."

"To me this is a complete non-issue," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro about Bartolo Colon. "It's a human interest story, but this doesn't affect the 2002 Cleveland Indians in any way." And Charlie Manuel said of Colon, "I don't care as long as he can play. As long as he can throw 100, I like him."

Art Howe on Luis Vizcaino: "It doesn't bother me. He still throws as fast."

Allard Baird on Neifi Perez: "As far as the value of the player, we don't look at it any differently. I would be concerned if he were 30, 32 years old."

There are many more like that. Of all the quotes I could find from managers and general managers, only Kevin Towers expressed any sort of negative feelings for the record.

"At least we know now," Towers said about Deivi Cruz. "It's unfortunate."

And Towers probably has the least to lose, because the Padres signed Cruz to a minor-league contract for $600,000, which these days is about what you pay for a funny bullpen catcher who's willing to share the latest issue of Bow Hunting Monthly. But if Towers had known how old Cruz really was, he probably wouldn't have bothered to sign him at all.

Speaking of Towers, though, he too can whistle in the dark with the best of them. In addition to the dozen or so major leaguers who've been exposed, there will be scores of minor leaguers who have new birthdays in next year's Super Register. And one of them is Bernie Castro, a second baseman in the Padres system.

A couple of months ago, the Padres traded a minor-league outfielder named Kevin Reese to the Yankees for Castro. Both played in Class A last year, and here's what they did:

         OBP  Slugging 
Reese   .402    .505 
Castro  .365    .345 

Which one of those guys looks like the better prospect to you? It might be close if, say, Castro was a strong defensive shortstop and Reese was a clumsy first baseman. But Castro's a second baseman, and Reese is a solid defensive outfielder. And it might be close if Castro was significantly younger than Reese ... which of course is exactly what we all thought, until a few days ago.

But now it turns out that they're close to the same age, which is why I don't quite believe Kevin Towers when he says, "Bernie Castro is a hell of a player. I still would do the deal."

So when trying to explain why so many baseball men seem so utterly unconcerned that some of their charges aren't the players they were supposed to be, I think we should avoid generalizing. There are some GM's who are, to be quite frank, simply not smart enough to understand that adding two years to Neifi Perez means that he's really not much of a major-league ballplayer. I did speak to a few baseball executives, and the impression I get is that most GM's do understand something so fundamental, but they also understand that at this late date, it doesn't do anyone any good to complain publicly. Right or wrong, Bernie Castro's a Padre, and now Kevin Towers has to make the best of a bad situation.

As a postscript, I'd like to address an issue raised by a number of readers, who wondered if all of these bonkers birthdays might have a significant effect on the aging patterns that have been previously discovered by sabermetricians. As you know, it's now generally held that players tend to enjoy their best seasons between the ages of 26 and 28, and that baseball players, as a group, decline after they turn 30. So what does all the new math mean?

Not much. I asked Bill James -- who originated most of this (now) Common Wisdom about ages -- and he replied, "It seems immensely unlikely that this 'deception practice' is going to change anything very much. Even assuming that 20 percent of the players are lying about their age and that the average discrepancy is two years, that only moves the players' primes by .40 seasons, which one would think would have hardly any effect on things like the degree to which a player having his best season at age 37 is surprising. But it's likely that the 20 percent figure is almost totally irrelevant, since the majority of those discrepancies were probably caught and fixed before they were entered into encyclopedias. I doubt that this is much of a factor."

Which is what I figured. When we conduct studies of aging patterns, we're generally dealing with retired players, and the correct birthdays for the great majority of those players are now known.

I hope Dan Duquette gets another job, because he deserves one.

Granted, Duquette's Red Sox didn't sport an impressive ratio of wins vs. performance the last couple of years, but at least they weren't the Dodgers, right?

Anyway, if you follow the Red Sox, you know that Duquette does have his weaknesses. I spent six months following the Red Sox, and the biggest weakness I noticed is that Duquette didn't seem to have much use for other human beings, aside from perhaps his immediate family and whoever happens to be signing his paychecks. He's an insecure man who enjoyed the power that comes with running a baseball team, but not the human relationships that can greatly facilitate running a baseball team. What's more, he often came across as arrogant, as more important than virtually everybody else connected with the team.

In Boston, that's a problem because everybody -- the fans, the writers, the superstar players, the star players, the part-time players -- consider themselves more important than the general manager. There may not be an i in team, but there are thousands of bosses in Boston. And while Duquette seemed quite accomplished at taking orders from those who outrank him, he didn't deal well with orders from the rest of us. So I think he's more suited to a city with fewer fans, fewer writers, and fewer superstars. Come to think of it, while I've written some horrible things about him in other places, if Dan Duquette replaces Allard Baird tomorrow, I will immediately become his biggest fan in the world, aside from perhaps his immediate family.

That won't happen, though. Duquette's not that stupid, and Royals owner David Glass isn't that smart. So (getting back to reality) what does all this mean for the Red Sox in 2002? Barring an unlikely collapse by the Yankees, it means the Red Sox will be fighting the Mariners or Athletics for the wild card, and that's only if Pedro Martinez is healthy enough to start 30 games.

There's plenty of talent in the lineup, of course; in fact, the more I think about it, the more I have to acknowledge the distinct possibility that the Red Sox could win 100 games this season. They've essentially stockpiled talent like the Mets have, the difference being that Johnny Damon (28) and Tony Clark (30) and Manny Ramirez (29) are all significantly younger than Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn (both of whom are 34) and Jeromy Burnitz, who will turn 33 two weeks into the season.

No, in the end I think it's the Red Sox front office that will hamstring the club. It's not that the front office doesn't contain plenty of talent. President Larry Lucchino was successful in Baltimore and San Diego, interim general manager Mike Port was successful (to a degree) in Anaheim, and minister without portfolio Doug Melvin was successful (to a degree) in Arlington.

But sometimes you can have too much talent. When a baseball writer asked Port if too many cooks might spoil the proverbial broth, he responded, "Yes ... but it's all about knowing when to separate the wheat from the chaff."

Misplaced metaphor aside (I think we know what he meant), Port should know better. When the Angels fired Port on April 30, 1991, they replaced him with Dan O'Brien. Four months later, the Angels hired Whitey Herzog to perform roughly the same duties as O'Brien ... but they didn't fire O'Brien, leaving virtually everyone to wonder who the hell was running the team. One Angels executive later described the arrangement as "an experiment in hell ... Both on their own probably could have succeeded, but together it was one and one equaled five."

O'Brien traded for an over-the-hill Alvin Davis, to the utter surprise of Herzog. According to then-manager Buck Rodgers, at one point the Angels were hoping to acquire Bob Patterson, but someone got their signals crossed and acquired Ken Patterson instead.

After two years of this silliness, O'Brien got fired. Four months later, Herzog, finally with the complete control that he presumably craved, resigned. And the experiment in hell was officially over.

It just doesn't work without one man at the top who's able to take decisive action. It's true that Yankees GM Brian Cashman doesn't have a great deal of authority -- that job is too big for any one man -- but George Steinbrenner keeps everybody on their toes. In Boston, you've got two owners used to getting their own way, a powerful team president, an interim GM and two or three GM's-in-waiting. So what's going to happen, I think, is that if Dan O'Dowd (for example) wants to talk to the Red Sox about a trade, he 1) won't be quite sure who to call, and 2) if he does figure out who to call and is able to agree on a deal, he'll have to wait for the various layers of management to approve the deal.

Actually, even when Duquette was the GM, that's the way things have been in Boston for the last few years. And that's not a good way to run a business, whether you're trying to win baseball games or sell industrial lubricants.

By the way, one of the interesting things about Mike Port is that people used to say the same things about him that they now say about Dan Duquette (which might explain why the two of them have been able to get along in Boston). As Ross Newhan wrote in The Anaheim Angels, Port "was quickly viewed -- by players, public and press -- as cold and calculating, an executive without heart ..."

Remind you of anyone you know and despise, Red Sox fans? Port was also accused of looking at players as if they were nothing more than their statistics in the Baseball Register, which of course is something else that's been said of Duquette. I don't know if either of those criticisms of Port are particularly fair -- come to think of it, if I were a GM, people would say the same sorts of things about me -- but my point is that Port is, at least in some ways, going to come across as the second coming of the Duke.

And I suspect that Port, just like the Duke before him, will discover that he and Beantown aren't a great fit. Not to worry, though; back in Fantasyland, there's soon going to be an opening for a fully-functioning GM in Kansas City ...


My apologies to those of you expecting a sequel to Wednesday's column about baseball ages today, as previously advertised. Sometimes current events take control of the content, but the promised column will appear in this space on Monday.

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