The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, November 29, 2001


Remaking the Yankees, Part I: Introduction and First Base

Smokescreens and noxious fumes continue to emanate from the Hot Stove, thanks to Bud Selig's contraction gambit. But the team least concerned with revenue problems (theirs or anybody else's) is itching to begin the rebuilding process, still smarting from a ninth-inning rebuke of their quest for four straight World Championships. The Yankees have been applying the full-court press to A's slugger Jason Giambi, with owner George Steinbrenner recently proclaiming Giambi "our kind of player," and manager-without-contract Joe Torre phoning in to reassure the big lug that he won't be simply a DH if he signs on the dotted line.

Giambi is clearly at the top of the Yanks' shopping list, but he's far from the only gifted player Yankee fans can expect from the Boss this holiday season. George Steinbrenner may be a lot of things, many of them unprintable even in a self-edited web site, but Scrooge he ain't. This year's team, as close as they came to winning a World Championship, was a rebuilding effort waiting to happen, with Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, and Chuck Knoblauch all in the final year of their contracts. Those four players, despite their accomplishments, their populatity, and their big-game experience, were drags on the Yankee offense last season. Now that they've scattered to the four winds (O'Neill retired immediately after the World Series, Brosius on Monday), the Yanks are left with holes to fill and money to spend.

Before anyone gets too uppity and starts complaining that buying expensive free-agents is what the Yanks always do, consider that the only REGULARS on the Yanks' string of four straight Series teams who signed as free agents were designated hitters Darryl Strawberry and Chili Davis. The pitching has had a sprinkling of free agents; Mike Mussina was last winter's big signing, El Duque signed after defecting from Cuba in 1998, David Wells signed back in 1997, as did Mike Stanton, and David Cone re-upped a couple of times after being traded from Toronto in 1995. But the nucleus of this championship run was either homegrown (Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Ramiro Mendoza, and to lesser degrees Alfonso Soriano and Shane Spencer) or acquired via trade (the departed foursome, plus David Justice, Roger Clemens, and Jeff Nelson, to name a few). Some of those trades were contract-motivated, but that's not the same thing as buying off the rack. Unlike the bygone Steinbrenner years, the Yanks have been very cautious with their cash of late.

Before we get to the Yankees' options with regards to new faces and big dollars, it's important to examine the team as it stood. The Yankees, despite their four consecutive trips to the World Series, have been in decline since their lofty 1998 season. Their offense has declined from being the best in the league to being slightly above average, their pitching has declined from being the best in the league to being merely among the best (life is tough being a Yanks fan, I know). If you chart it out, the trend is apparent. The Yanks went from outscoring their opponents by an average of 1.91 runs per game in '98 to doing so by 0.56 runs per game in 2001--and that represented an improvement over their 2000 performance (the columns below represent the Yanks' runs scored and runs allowed per game and league rank, followed by the league average, the differential, their actual number of wins, their Pythagorean projection, and their performance against that projection).
       RS (rank)   RA        LG     Dif    W    PyW   Dif

1998 5.96 (1) 4.05 (1) 5.00 1.91 114 108 +6
1999 5.56 (3) 4.51 (2) 5.18 1.05 98 96 +2
2000 5.41 (6) 5.06 (6) 5.30 0.35 87 85 +2
2001 4.99 (5) 4.43 (3) 4.86 0.56 95 89 +6
total 5.48 4.51 5.09 0.97
Despite the general decline, the Yanks have consistently outpaced their Pythagorean projection for wins. This uncommon trend is a testament to their ability to win close games and to general good luck, and it's the reason (along with the rings) the Knoblauchs and the Martinezes have been allowed to stick around. The figures for 2000 are blurred a bit by their season-ending 3-15 swoon, which saw them get outscored 148-59; take that away and the Yanks averaged 5.64 runs per game and allowed 4.62, for a differential of 1.02 runs per game--right in line with 1999.

The Yanks' offensive makeup this past season was a unique one. Traditionally, teams get most of their run production from the corner positions--first and third base, left and right field. The Yanks's run production (I'm using Baseball Prospectus's Equivalent Runs here) at those postions was below average on the whole; only Scott Brosius (6.5 runs) was above. Tino Martinez, for all of his homers and ribbies, was 3.9 below average, Paul O'Neill -2.4, Chuck Knoblauch -15.7, Shane Spencer -7.7, and David Justice -9.6. On the other end of the defensive spectrum, catcher Jorge Posada (26.5), shortstop Derek Jeter (41.6), and centerfielder Bernie Williams (41.4) were all well above average. Thanks to those three (not coincidentally homegrown and locked up--or soon to be, in Posada's case--with long-term contracts), the offense was still relatively solid. The only Yankee regular not accounted for on this laundry list, Alfonso Soriano, was 2.2 runs above average.

The offense that the Yanks are "losing" to free agency and retirement should not be too difficult to replace, and they have a plethora of options, most of which hinge on a certain aforementioned Bay Area slugger. So let's start with the first base situation.

Tino Martinez was a popular ballplayer during his time in New York, a favorite among fans who was faced with the unenviable task of replacing Don Mattingly and who capably did so for a time. Unfortunately, that time long since passed. Despite Tino's solid Triple Crown stats (.280, 34 HR, 113 RBI) this season, he was merely a middle-of-the-pack hitter among first basemen, thanks mostly to his .329 On Base Percentage. Where the elite slugging first basemen are disciplined hitters who know how to take a walk, Tino falls dreadfully short in this category.

Here he is, along with the other regular AL first basemen, using numbers from Baseball Prospectus's Equivalent Runs chart and some other relevant stats. BP ranks players according to runs above a replacement-level at their position (RARP), not a league-average one. I prefer the latter measure, because it penalizes mediocrity (below average production spread out over longer periods of playing time), and so I've reordered them based on the Runs Above Position (RAP) column. Outs, OBP and SLG you are familiar with. SL*OB, Slugging Percentage times On Base Percentage, is a better measure of productivity than OPS (SLG + OBP), and approximates the number of runs produced per at bat. I've written about it before.
          EqR   RAP   Outs   OBP   SLG  SL*OB

Giambi 160.4 82.7 342 .477 .660 .315
Thome 130.1 45.1 374 .416 .624 .260
Delgado 123.9 29.8 414 .408 .540 .220
Palmeiro 124.0 24.6 437 .381 .563 .214
Olerud 115.4 24.5 400 .401 .472 .189
Sweeney 104.2 15.1 392 .374 .542 .203
Segui 57.9 11.3 205 .406 .473 .192
Conine 91.5 10.5 369 .386 .443 .171
Clark 76.5 6.9 306 .374 .481 .180
Daubach 70.7 2.9 300 .350 .509 .178
Mientkw 89.8 2.7 383 .387 .464 .180
Konerko 97.5 2.5 418 .349 .507 .177
Martinez 92.9 -3.9 426 .329 .501 .165
Cox 45.5 -12.4 256 .323 .427 .138
Spiezio 61.9 -12.9 335 .326 .438 .143
Martinez ranks 12th among the 14 regulars in RAP and SL*OB, roughly half as productive per at bat as Giambi, and a significant step below the rest of the league's good-hitting first basemen. Yes, Tino did have a strong second half of last season (a .190 SL*OB after the All-Star break, compared to .146 before), had numerous clutch hits, and played his usual excellent defense. But given his age, his cost, and the general decline in his play over the past four years, it simply makes no sense for the Yankees to hang onto him. Giambi, on the other hand, was hands-down, the best hitter in the league, leading in Equivalent Runs, OPS, and RARP (of better use than RAP when comparing across positions, say to Alex Rodriguez).

There is no doubt that Giambi would provide an immediate boost to the Yankee offense. But a long-term contract, on the level being discussed by G and the Yanks (six to eight years at $16-$17 million per year) makes me nervous. Giambi is a hulking player, not particularly mobile, and closer to the David Wells School of Fitness than he is to being a lean, mean hitting machine. It's been pointed out that players with his body type don't necessarily age well--look at beefy guys like Mo Vaughan and Frank Thomas, both of whom should be on the above list. They're roughly three years older than G, and have been battling injury and general decine since they were Giambi's age--averaging only 102 games a year in the three years since passing 30. To be truthful, they're both considerably bigger men--while G is listed as 200 lbs on, Vaughn weighs in at 230 (yeah, riiiight, is that without the piano?) and Thomas at a whopping but significantly better-chiselled 257. Still, it's not difficult to forsee Giambi struggling with injuries (he's proven vulnerable in the hamstrings and back) and dropping to a merely solid level of production in the near future. [A late note: lists Giambi at 235 now, whihc brings him into the heavyweight division. Vaughn and Thomas have been upgraded to zepplin-weights at 275 pounds. Somebody, please tell me that Cecil Fielder has NOT returned to Japan to take up sumo-wrestling.]

There's another monkey-wrench in the works. The Yanks have a highly-touted prospect, Nick Johnson, who they feel is ready to play regularly. Johnson, who just turned 23, is a 6'3", 224 lb lefty first baseman. At AA Norwich in 1999, he hit.345 with 14 HR and a .525 OBP--tops in the minors. After missing the entire 2000 season due to a mysterious wrist injury, Johnson hit only .256 at AAA Columbus in 2001. But he posted a .407 OBP and a .467 slugging percentage, with 18 HR in 359 ABs. He walks a ton (211 times over his last two seasons at all levels), strikes out a lot, and has a penchant for getting hit by pitches--14 this season. In a late-season cup of coffee with the big club, he hit .194/.308/.313, with 2 HR in 67 ABs. Clearly he has potential, though whether his power will develop is open to some debate. I see him as more of a Mark Grace/Sean Casey/John Olerud type--good average, good OBP, below-average power--than a true slugger. He's been tagged as Tino's heir-apparent for quite some time, and if the Yankees are committing to playing Giambi regularly at first base, they will be hindering the development of their top prospect. On the other hand, Johnson is now their most marketable commodity, who could be packaged with a pitching prospect or two to net a legitimate corner-outfield producer.

So is signing Giambi a good move? I'd be much more comfortable with a shorter deal at a higher annual salary than what's being discussed. I don't like the idea of a 35 year old league-average first-baseman making $17 million while battling injuries. But the Yankee brass seems less concerned, and if/when they sign Giambi, the rest of their offseason plans, including perhaps moving Johnson, will come into focus.

I'll have more on the Yanks' options at other positions in the coming days.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001


Farewell, Cal

My Bill James review threatens to grow as long as the book itself and remains incomplete, but I've written up my report of attending Cal Ripken Jr.'s final game on October 6.

Sunday, November 25, 2001


The Persistence of Memory and the Wonders of Data

One of my favorite things about the Internet when it comes to baseball is the ability to track down box scores and writeups of ballgames I remember seeing or hearing several years ago. Several months ago, I tracked down a page of past baseball action which enabled me to link to handful of Yankees-Mariners games I'd attended with my brother over the past five years. Sorting through the barrage of homers and shellings (these were all slugfests), I managed to document and preserve a unique little slice of our shared history.

Today I was alerted to another means of tracking down old ballgames. Retrosheet, an organization that has computerized play-by-play accounts of pre-1984 games, has a variety of means for tracking down old games, providing not only box scores, but play-by-plays and individual player game logs.

Thus I was able to connect with one of my oldest and fondest baseball memories. In the summer of 1979, my family was driving from Utah to somewhere in California. Night fell as we were driving, and as I lay in the way-back of our wood-panelled station wagon, my father tuned into a ballgame between the Dodgers and the Giants. It was the first time I'd ever heard the inimitable voice of Vin Scully, the Dodger broadcaster, and I listened with rapt attention as Scully called the game with a vividness that made me feel as if I were at the ballpark. In retrospect, I think it may have even been the first game I listened to on the radio.

The two details about the game that I remember to this day were that Don Sutton pitched his 50th career shutout, and that Mickey Hatcher hit his first major-league home run. Finding this game via Retrosheet was an amazingly simple task. By clicking on the link for Boxscores, Narratives, and Other Goodies I was given a page with links to dates organized by year, and players organized by the first two letters of last name. Clicking on "HA" took me to Mickey Hatcher, and the Game Log link next to his 1979 line took me to his game-by-game performance. From there it was only a matter of clicking on the date in which he hit his first homer. Voilà, Instant box score, complete with play-by-play!

The game took place on August 10, 1979. The Dodgers, playing in San Francisco, won 9-0 in front of 31,350 fans. Hatcher, batting 7th and playing right field, went 3-for-3 with a solo homer off of Tom Griffin in the fifth inning. Ron Cey, Derrell Thomas, and Davey Lopes roughed up Bob Knepper with three homers in the second inning, scoring 6 runs; Thomas's shot was a grand slam. Sutton scattered five hits and three walks, striking out seven, including Willie McCovey and Johnnie LeMaster in the ninth inning, in winning his 10th game of the season.

(Aside: what self-respecting manager lets Johnnie LeMaster, a career .222-hitting shortstop, make the last out of a ballgame, even in a blowout? Joe Altobelli was the manager. I'm not sure about his level of self-respect.)

If nothing else, this new toy has provided confirmation of a few other ballgames I remember from that long-gone summer of '79, including an incredible string of near no-hitters I watched at my late grandfather's knee in Walla Walla, Washington. June 18: the Angels' Nolan Ryan holds the Rangers hitless through 7.1 innings before Oscar Gamble singles. June 23: the Expos' Steve Rogers tosses a one-hitter at the Phillies, allowing only Dave Rader's single with two outs in the eighth. June 27: the Cardinals' Silvio Martinez one-hits the Expos, allowing only Duffy Dyer's single with two outs in the eighth. You could, as they say, look it up.

Man, am I going to have fun with this new toy...

Tuesday, November 20, 2001


Giving Thanks

Apologies to my loyal readers for the sporadic nature of my postings since the baseball season ended. Chalk it up to a combination of factors, including the need to take a breather after the hectic postseason, the lack of baseball news except for the really big stuff about contraction, and my desire to present some longer pieces both here and elsewhere on the site. Rest assured that you will have plenty of the Futility Infielder to get you through the winter months.

I am currently working on a lengthy review of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. While it would have been easy to dash off a quick piece about how great this 1000-page opus is, I decided it deserves both closer scrutiny and more background than my normal mode allows. I also thouht it would be interesting to integrate some of the criticisms voiced by others into my review. Anyway, I'd hoped to have it done over this past weekend, but it just keeps on growing and growing. It should be up sometime over the holiday weekend.

I am also working on an examination of the Yankees' options this offseason. The free-agent signing period begins on Tuesday, November 20. But with the ugly specter of contraction and the legal morass which (fortunately) will engulf it, it's likely that the free-agent signings will be sporadic until a clear direction on the Big C emerges. Then again, a 6-year, $100 million contract is a 6-year, $100 million contract, and by the time I get around to this, the Yanks may already have landed Jason Giambi, around whom their entire offseason plans are apparently built.

Also on tap are several new entries to my Wall of Fame, and reports of Cal Ripken's final game and Game 3 of the World Series--both of which were bowled over by my own desire to stay reasonably current with the playoffs, and the physical limitations of the 24-hour day.

The end of a baseball season brings the opportunity for reflection, and so does the impending Thanksgiving holiday. Given all that I have seen in these past two months in New York City, I would be remiss if I didn't stop at this time to count my own blessings. In that spirit, I present to you a partial list of the things that I am thankful for:

• I am thankful that I and all of my loved ones were only peripherally affected by the attacks on September 11, that we lost no one near and dear to us. I am thankful for the great group of friends with whom I shared that day and its aftermath; we bonded together and supported each other through some frightening times, and we've grown closer because of it. I am thankful for the love and concern that far-off friends and relatives have shown in checking up on me.

• I am thankful for the firefighters, policemen, and emergency services workers who gave their lives trying to assist others on that dreadful day. They have reminded us the true meaning of the word "hero" and in doing so have tempered our normally bombastic modes of discourse, particularly with regards to sports and entertainment.

• I am thankful for the people of New York who pulled together in this crisis, who put on their bravest faces to show the rest of the world that we have been wounded but not defeated. It is a unique privelege to live in this city. Reversing a long-running trend, I'm even thankful for Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

• I am thankful not only to have a job in these uncertain times, but to have a job that I enjoy immensely on its good days. In particular, I am thankful for the opportunity to art-direct the World Almanac for Kids 2002, the most fulfilling project I've ever been a part of.

• I am thankful that my close friends and family encouraged me, at the outset of this season, to channel my energy into creating a website devoted to my passion for baseball. It has been a most rewarding experience and it's become a staple of my life. I am thankful for the like-minded individuals I've met online through this, and the connection I've felt to those who have read my pages and offered encouragement or criticism.

• I am thankful for my girlfriend, Andra, who has given me the space within our relationship to spend countless hours in the service of building this site, and who trekked to no fewer than five different ballparks spread over three states this past season in my company. Needless to say, I'm thankful for a lot of other things about our relationship that I won't go into here. But suffice it to say that she's one of a kind.

• I am thankful for the nearly 31 years of life I shared with my grandfather, Bernard Jaffe. Pop passed away the day after last Thanksgiving. He, along with my father, nurtured my enthusiasm for baseball from a very young age by spending countless hours with me and my brother at the diamond, and regaling us with his stories of baseball in his day. A good enough player that he was once offered a professional contract, he was also an ardent fan who got to witness titans such as Ruth and Gehrig. At times I've found myself wishing he'd kept a memoir of the players and the games he saw. They would have provided me more insight into the man, as well as those times, and his keen eye and dry wit would have been preserved for posterity. As I record my own thoughts and descriptions, it is with the hope that my future grandchildren might someday take an interest in the Mendoza Line, Tim Raines, or the 1998 Yankees.

• I am thankful for a father who always found time to play catch with his sons, a mother who never remotely considered throwing away my baseball cards, and a brother who suffered my anal-retentive need to keep box scores and statistics for the board games we played while growing up. They have provided me with more love than I could have ever wished for.

• I am thankful for Bill James, whose books shed amazing new light on the game of baseball and provided me not only with countless hours of entertaining reading, but with tools that helped me to develop my own critical faculties. Math is never boring when you've got baseball statistics.

• I am thankful for Jim Bouton's Ball Four and Roger Angell's The Summer Game, two dog-eared paperbacks my grandfather salvaged from flea markets which I've probably read a dozen times combined. Bouton's autobiography, which I read in all of its four-letter-worded glory at the tender age of nine, introduced a self-awareness which shaped my powers of observation and eventually my writing. Re-reading his book over the years has yielded countless laughs and life lessons. Angell's book, and its succeeding volumes, set an example for observational skill that I still strive to emulate when I write about the game.

• I am thankful for the 1996-2001 New York Yankees, who have provided me the opportunity to witness first-hand the best baseball team I've ever seen. Not so much because they dominated the timespan, or because they thrillingly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat so many times, but because the cast of characters has rewarded the close attention I've paid with countless unforgettable moments both great and small.

• I am thankful for the opportunity to have seen Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul O'Neill, Eric Davis, Jay Buhner, Tony Fernandez, Brett Saberhagen, and even Luis Sojo play so many times. With the exception of Henderson and Raines, all of these players have recently retired--and those two may well do so; each of them leaves behind their own special mark on my baseball consciousness.

• I am thankful for the strange and wonderful things I see every season I watch baseball, from Derek Jeter rubbing Don Zimmer's misshapen bald head for good luck to Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendenon stealing first base in an argument, from Luis Sojo winning another game with an unlikely hit to Mike Mussina pitching to within one strike of a perfect game, from Mark McGwire's biceps to Rich Garces's gut, from Tim Raines taking the field with his son to Rickey Henderson tallying another record.

• I am thankful for pitching changes, batters stepping out of the box to re-velcro their gloves, ten-pitch at-bats, ten-run rallies, the multi-tiered playoff system, the Grapefruit League and the Hot Stove League, for prolonging the baseball season in the face of those dark days when we have no games to occupy us.

• I am thankful for the knowledge that no matter how hard Bud Selig and the powers that be try to screw things up with their contraction plans, sooner or later the time will come for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2001


Requiem for a Warrior

On the subject of retirements, the Yankees had one of their own who departed with typical understatement. With the end of the World Series, Paul O'Neill removed the pinstripes for the final time.

O'Neill, unlike the more famous departures of recent weeks, won't gain admission to Cooperstown without a ticket. But he belongs in the pantheon of great Yankees. The right fielder, as Bill James noted, was a worthy inheritor to the position held by Babe Ruth, Tommy Henrich, Hank Bauer, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, and Dave Winfield. Some pretty fair company, that list.

Unless you're a Yankee fan, it's simply impossible to understand how much O'Neill has meant to this team. The 1992 trade which brought O'Neill over from the Cinncinati Reds for Roberto Kelly turned out to be one of the best trades of the decade, and it was every bit as important to the reestablishment of the Yankee dynasty as the flourishing homegrown talent of Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera. O'Neill's perfectionism, intensity, and refusal to surrender even a single at-bat set the tone for the Yankee championship run. Fighting for every pitch, taking the extra base, playing through pain, and seemingly appearing out of nowhere to haul in yet another dangerous fly ball, he was a warrior who played the game the way it was meant to be played.

I've never been much for warriors, myself--not since New York sportswriters hung that tag around Patrick Ewing's neck to conflate his ugly, doomed style of play as valiant and warrior-like. Generally I prefer the cut-ups, the guys who bring a little levity to what is, after all, a game. But it takes all types to win a championship, and as warriors go, O'Neill was a good one to have on your side.

Famous for his helmet-throwing, water-cooler-maiming temper tantrums, O'Neill was routinely cited as the most hated Yankee by opposing fans. This was nothing but pure jealousy--the difference between O'Neill's tantrums and those of a low-class boob like Carl Everett was that O'Neill's were always directed at his own perceived failures, not at his teammates or his manager.

Though I admired O'Neill from the time I began rooting for New York, I never considered him to be anywhere near my favorite Yankee. But looking back at this great championship run--five trips to the World Series, and four championships in six years--it strikes me that the signature moments of the run, the vivid snapshots which fill my memory, invariably feature O'Neill in a starring role. So I present to you something of a slide show, complete with a bit of multimedia aid:

• October 24, 1996: O'Neill's thrilling catch of Luis Polonia's fly ball ends Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, preserving a 1-0 victory and allowing the Yanks to take a 3-2 lead in the series.

• October 26, 1996: O'Neill tumbles atop the celebration pile after the Yanks won Game 6 to take the series.

• October 6, 1997: O'Neill leads off the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 of the AL Divisional Series against the Cleveland Indians. Down by a run, O'Neill doubles, hustling into second with a head-first slide. His pinch-runner doesn't score, and the Yanks lose the game and the series.

The image of O'Neill defiantly clutching second, unwilling to surrender, was fresh in my mind when I passed a chalkboard in the window of an East Village bar a couple nights later. The board read: "Only 107 Days Until Pitchers and Catchers. Go Yankees!" Those two images, co-mingled--the refusal to surrender and the desire to get on with Not Surrendering as soon as possible--were enough to carry me through the winter in anticipation of a return to glory. It would appear as if several other Yankees felt that way as well...

• October 10, 1998: The Yanks are down 2-1 in the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians. In the most important game of the season, O'Neill clubs a first-inning homer off of Dwight Gooden and scores another run in the fourth, and the Yanks draw even in the series behind seven shutout innings by Orlando Hernandez, winning 4-0.

• October 18, 1998: O'Neill makes a 2-out, 2-on grab as he crashes into the wall in the first inning of Game 2 of the 1998 World Series against the San Diego Padres--the first World Series game I ever attended. The Yanks score three in the bottom of the first, three more in the second, and cruise to a 9-3 victory, a 2-0 series lead, and an eventual sweep.

• June 1, 1999: Two pitches after Derek Jeter is plunked in retaliation for Jason Grimsley hitting the Indians' Wil (Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife) Cordero, O'Neill blasts an emphatic 2-run homer and the Yanks roll to victory.

• October 27, 1999: A tearful O'Neill is consoled by Joe Torre and his teammates following the final out in Game 4 of the 1999 World Series. O'Neill's father had passed away that morning, and the Yanks, out of respect, celebrate their World Championship in subdued fashion.

• October 26, 2000: O'Neill fights Mets closer Armando Benitez through an epic 10-pitch at bat with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the Yanks trailing by a run. The gimpy O'Neill, who hasn't swung the bat well in weeks, draws a walk and scores the game-tying run. The Yanks win in 13 innings. The at-bat rejuvenates O'Neill, who goes on to hit .474 for the series as the Yanks win.

• April 22, 2001: In the tenth inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox, trailing by a run O'Neill slams his bat to the ground in disgust as he hits what he believes is a routine fly ball to right field. The fly ball clears the wall, tying the game, which the Yanks win in the next inning on a David Justice homer.

• October 14, 2001: O'Neill grounds out in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the AL Divisional Series against the A's. The cameras spend the rest of the inning cutting to shots of him in the dugout, cursing a blue streak at himself. The Yanks are up 7-2 at the time, and go on to win the game and the series.

• November 1, 2001: Fifty-six thousand fans chant "Paul O'Neill" in unison for the entire top half of the ninth inning in Game 5 of this year's World Series--O'Neill's last game at Yankee Stadium. O'Neill is visibly moved to tears, and after the game announces what every Yankees fan has known all along: he will retire at the end of the series.

• November 4, 2001: Two outs away from their fourth straight World Championship, the Yanks allow two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and lose the series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sad but without remorse, O'Neill's words in the moments after the loss exhibit the true class of the man, and the pride he--and Yankees fans everywhere--feel for the team: "We were world champions with three outs to go. And we had the best reliever in the history of the postseason on the mound. When you get beat under those circumstances, sure, you're disappointed but I'm also just happy to walk into this clubhouse with this group of guys. It's awesome."

All in all, a set of highlights even the most decorated Hall of Famer would be hard-pressed to match.

As I look back, I'm saddened that I'll never hear in the same context the signature song snippets which announced O'Neill's at-bats in Yankee Stadium--classic rock staples which announced his arrival at the plate, as predictable as a thrown helmet: "We're An American Band," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," even (God forbid) "Crumblin' Down." When Yankee fans heard the percolating synthesizer riffs to "Baba O'Reilly," which preceded his third at-bat of the game, or the monster fuzzed-out organ riff from "Spirit in the Sky," which just as surely announced his fourth, we salivated like Pavlov's dogs because we knew one thing: Paul O'Neill is at the plate and this rally is officially ON.

With a heavy heart, I realize that particular sensation is now a thing of the past. To those opposing fans who never understood, who hated O'Neill for his temper and his no-quarter-given approach to the game, I wish you as many amazing memories from your rightfielder, or any other star, for that matter--good luck, my friends.

Paul O'Neill may never make the Hall of Fame, not with "only" 2105 hits and 281 homers. But it's a pretty good bet his number will one day adorn the Yankee Stadium left-field wall among the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, Munson, and Jackson. Future generations of fans will point to the number 21 and ask who it stood for. "That was Paul O'Neill," we'll someday tell our children, "a warrior who wore the pinstripes as well as any Yankee who ever lived."

Tuesday, November 13, 2001


Big Mac Ain't Comin' Back

'Tis the season for departures. With Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken having already given up the baseball ghost in weeks past, Mark McGwire did the same, announcing his retirement on Sunday night. McGwire had struggled with injuries in each of the past two years, combining to play in only 186 games. By the end he was a grim shadow of his former self, lunging at fastballs and missing them by what seemed like minutes.

He hit only .187 this year, but as .187 hitters go, this was a helluva season--29 HRs and an OPS of 808--22 points lower than Tino Martinez, to be exact. During those final 186 games he still managed to hit 61 HRs. With a little bit of healing, the man could have stuck around another few years and perhaps padded his total of 583 HRs (already 5th all-time) past Willie Mays and trailing only two guys named George and Hank.

But McGwire's play didn't live up to his own high standards, and, citing physical and mental exhaustion, he walked away from a $30 million extension rather than play out the string. It was a class act, a way of giving back to the St. Louis Cardinals organization what they'd given him.

Barry Bonds has already surpassed McGwire's 1998 home run total of 70, but that shouldn't dim the magnitude of Big Mac's accomplishment. Like a climber of Mount Everest, he spent years training for the summit, waiting for the optimum conditions--health, contract security (52 homers in only 130 games in 1996, 58 in a season split between Oakland and St. Louis in 1997)--before making the final ascent. And once he began that ascent, he paused in the footsteps of those who'd climbed before to remember some truly Herculean feats. Hack Wilson's 56. Jimmie Foxx's 58. Hank Greenberg's 58. The Babe's 59, the Babe's 60. And finally, Roger Maris's 61. McGwire's public embrace of the Maris family did wonders to rekindle the star of a forgotten, misunderstood slugger who only wanted to be left alone to play the game he loved--a sentiment to which Big Mac, in the middle of a media circus, could truly relate.

The Home Run Chase of 1998 was a truly magical thing. Once McGwire passed 50, he began (with the aid of Sammy Sosa) to relax and enjoy his accomplishments and the joy they brought to the fans. Even thousands of miles removed from where McGwire was playing, fans cheered news of McGwire's homers. I have scorecards lying around from my summer at Yankee Stadium noting his shots as the scoreboard announced them to thunderous applause.

Yes, McGwire grew cranky in his old age, and the revelations about his use of androstenedione brought a slight taint to his accomplishments. Still, the man bore the harsh spotlight pretty well under the circumstances, and he brought a lot of fun back to the game for millions of fans. He deserved a sendoff as heroically overblown as Cal Ripken's, and it's to his credit that he bowed out before Bud Selig made another godawfully awkward speech.

For his career, Mark McGwire hit 50 HRs per 162 games played. Nobody, not even Babe Ruth, has matched that, and it might be a cold day in hell before anybody will. So long, Big Mac. Going, going, gone...

Thursday, November 08, 2001


Bad Rug Bud and the Contraction Faction

Amid the most exciting (and most watched) World Series in a decade, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig spent most of his time undermining his product's signature event. Selig announced that baseball's owners had come up with a plan to eliminate two of its least financially viable teams, effective for the 2002 season. On Tuesday, the owners ratified Bud's contraction plan, though they wouldn't reveal for which two teams the bell has tolled. The Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins are the two leading candidates, with the two Flordia expansion teams, the Florida Marlins and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, also in danger. Under the plan, the rest of the teams would buy out the two teams--at a very generous price--and the players would be dispersed, probably via a reverse-order draft.

There's an easy way to tell when Bud Selig is lying: his lips move. Bad Rug Bud has the negative charisma of either a flatulent leper or a used car salesman, which is what he was in his prior occupation before he became owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. He's the man who killed the World Series seven years ago, and he's poised to perpetrate the most harmful scam in Major League history. If he and his fellow owners succeed, they will have brought a bigger disgrace to baseball than the Black Sox scandal.

Contraction is a ham-fisted ploy by Bad Rug Bud & Co. to fire the opening shots in the latest showdown between the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association. The Collective Bargaining Agreement expired at midnight on Wednesday, and the owners seem to feel that coming to the table having already voted to contract, they will be able to--at the very least--extract major concessions out of the players in exchange for "preserving" major league jobs via roster expansion.

When Bad Rug Bud says that the markets they're contracting are those that aren't economically viable, what he means is that the teams in those markets have been unable to extort money from taxpayers to build publicly financed stadiums. This is why Minnesota, a team with the richest owner in baseball, a team with a metro population of 3 million, is not "economically viable," while Bud's own Brewers, with a metro population of 1.7 million but a shiny new ballpark, are. Don't think Bud himself doesn't have something to gain by the disappearance of another team in his geographic region, either.

Let's back up a bit. Selig and the other owners have long claimed that three-fourths (or more) of all major league teams are losing money. A so-called Blue Ribbon Panel--commissioned by MLB and including such luminaries as former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Senator George Mitchell, and political columnist George Will--reported last year that only three teams--the Yankees, Indians, and Rockies, showed an operating profit for the period of 1995-1999.

Can you say "bullshit," boys and girls? This is an outright lie fueled by public inaccountability and accounting trickery. The finances of major league teams are not fully disclosed to the public; figures are leaked only for PR purposes, and often strongly at odds with outside economic experts' estimates. In the case of the Blue-Ribbon Panel, the numbers came from the owners themselves, not from any independent audits.

Corporate ownership of teams allows profits in one area to be repositioned as debt through creative accounting. As MLB's current president, Paul Beeston put it a couple years ago, "Under generally acccepted acocunting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss, and I can get every national accounting firm to agree with me." Other completely legal accounting shenanigans take place as well. For example, media-owned teams play less-than-market value for the services of their partners. The Tribune Company owns both the Chicago Cubs and cable TV station WGN, which broadcasts the Cubs. WGN underpays the Cubs for broadcast rights "by $20 million or more" according to economist Andrew Zimbalist, the most prominent critic of MLB's financial chicanery. This allows the Cubs to report lower revenues. Another example is the St. Louis Cardinals. When they were owned by the brewing company Anheuser-Busch, all of the concessions for beer sales at the ballpark (Busch Stadium) went to the parent company, not the ballclub.

Don't get me wrong, baseball does have its share of financial ills. The revenue disparity between the richest and pooerest teams needs to be addressed. But contraction has very little chance of solving the financial woes. Between the high cost of buying out teams and the legal fees which will arise from the broken contracts, cheaper and more efficient solutions have to be found.

But contraction is far from a done deal just because the owners have voted. Suffice it to say that in the coming months, this is going to get capital-U Ugly, uglier than Bad Rug Bud himself. The owners are going to get hit on this from all sides:

1) For starters, there's the small matter of the players' union, the MLBPA, which trounces the owners every time the two sides go to battle. The owners seem to think, as one post on Baseball Primer put it, that "fans will blame the players for any lock-out/strike, no matter how transparent the owners' positions are, and that will be enough to prevail." The MLBPA, the strongest and most successful union in the history of organized labor, always hires the better lawyers and economists, cuts through the transparent bullshit perpetrated by the owners, and has the law firmly on their side. The owners always end up caving in because they're making too much money to put up with a work stoppage for very long.

2) Members of Congress will undoubtedly threaten to repeal baseball's anti-trust exemption. Baseball, unique to all sports, holds an anti-trust exemption which dates back to 1922; it basically allows baseball to be run as a monopoly. Because of it, franchise owners cannot sue for restraint of trade when the league won't allow them to move into a more profitable market. Moving a struggling team like the Expos to the D.C. area would make much more sense than folding them, but MLB actually putting them there means that no future team would be able to blackmail their taxpayers into the Field of Sceams scenario ("Unless you build it, they will go"). Threats to end the anti-trust exemption rear their head whenever the owners get too far out of line, and they're clearly out of line here. As soon as someone threatens a congressional hearing-- which would include opening teams' financial records to the public--to end the exemption, Bud's boys are probably going to start losing interest. Note that no franchise shift has occurred since the last version of the Washington Senators left D.C. for Texas.

3) The municipalities of the doomed teams will be able to sue for breach of contract on stadium leases.

4) The public is fed up with the the transparent bullshit of baseball owners and wants to hear none of this battle between billionaires during a time of economic hardship and national crisis.

For what it's worth, I do believe Bud and the other owners will lose this battle, and lose it badly. They're about to be stomped like a narc at a biker rally. The MLBPA outsmarts the owners every single time. Congress doesn't exactly have smarts on its side, but it does have serious power to make the owners lives miserable. When politiicans and lawyers are the good guys, you know this isn't going to be pretty. But when even the half-witted brother of the current President can see what's wrong with Bud's plan, you know the owners are grasping at straws.

I could go on, but instead I've compiled a reading list of some eloquent and informative voices regarding contraction and the finances of major league baseball. This is a complicated issue, and it certainly helps to read several differrent sources to gain a handle on things. My recommendations:

• The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell has written the best piece, for my money, on the topic. A longtime proponent of a D.C. franchise, Boswell points out the owners' flawed logic when it comes to contraction vs. relocation.

• Baseball Prospectus's Keith Law, writing for ESPN. See also BP's Gary Huckaby and Joe Sheehan.

• ESPN's Rob Neyer explores the possible consequences of expanding major league rosters, while Jim Caple calls this "ownership's most despicable act in sports history."

• An early criticism of the Blue Ribbon Panel, when its findings were made public last summer.

• Economist Andrew Zimbalist's essay on competitive imbalance and revenue disparity is required reading to understand where Bud is coming from on the general financial state of the game. This PDF file requires Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Forbes Magazine's Annual Baseball Franchise Valuations. Note that the Mets are the second most valuable franchise by virtue of being located in the largest media market. If another team desired to relocate to that market and increase its revenues (while presumably decreasing those of the two existing New York teams), they would be prevented from doing so by the anti-trust exemption.

A piece in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune explores what Bud Selig himself has to gain by the Twins' contraction. Selig is a partial owner of the Milwaukee Brewers; his share of the team is in a blind trust while he's commissioner. His daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb operates the team. Milwaukee is a smaller market than Minnesota, in the same general geographic region, but the Brewers recently received a new park, so by Bud's logic, the Brewers are more financially viable than the Twins. And they could certainly benefit with a larger market... say, one that included Minnesota, perhaps. You can see where this is going. Can you say "conflict of interest"?

*Sigh* It's going to be a long winter...

Monday, November 05, 2001


The Big Book of Bitter Defeats

OUCH! Put Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in the Big Book of Bitter Defeats. The Arizona Diamondbacks rallied from down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning against Mariano Rivera to dethrone the three-time defending World Champions and bring the title to a four-year old purple-wearing expansion team that's $50 million dollars in debt. In the words of the Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz in Jim Bouton's Ball Four, "Ah, shitfuck."

As confident as I was when Rivera came in the game in the eighth inning to protect the slim lead, as soon as he got into trouble in the ninth, when Mark Grace singled, I knew it could get ugly. It did, and Mariano's poor throw to second base on Damian Miller's bunt was the backbreaker. Everything else was just a formality.

What can you say? I'd still take Mariano out there with a 1-run lead and all the money on the table every day for the rest of my life, if I had the option. Hats off to the Diamondbacks. They beat our best, and after outplaying the Yanks for most of the World Series, the veteran cast of Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Mark Grace, Luis Gonzalez, Matt Williams, Steve Finley, Mike Morgan, Bobby Witt, Greg Swindell, et al--a veritable roll-call of the long-suffering--deserve their World Championship.

But they also beat a deeply flawed team that had been papering over the cracks for too long, a team with a gimpy starting rotation, a short bullpen, and subpar production at every corner power position. A team that went further than even the most ardent Yankees fan could have possibly hoped, and helped to provide a welcome diversion for this tragedy-wracked city. The thrills that Joe Torre's team has provided over the past three-and-a-half weeks, to say nothing of the past six years, are priceless--they'll be remembered as fondly as any I've ever experienced in 25 years as a baseball fan. Like the times I've watched my other nearest and dearest teams--the L.A Dodgers in the 1978 World Series, the Utah Jazz in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals, the University of Utah in the 1998 NCAA Basketball Finals--fall just short of the grand prize, all I can think is, "Wow. They gave us one hell of a ride." So, to be honest, it really doesn't matter to me that they came up short this time. There will be no tears on this pillow tonight.

I'm reminded of a lonely, chilly October night in 1997, the night after the Yanks had been eliminated by the Indians in the first round. I was walking down Avenue A in the East Village of Manhattan and I passed a bar called 2A, which had a chalkboard in the window. It read:

"Only 107 days until Pitchers and Catchers. GO YANKEES!"

I hadn't been a Yankee fan for very long at that time; I'd stowed myself away on the bandwagon late in '96, a year after moving to the city. But suddenly I understood. These are the New York Yankees. You can hate them all you want, you can even celebrate having pounded that wooden stake through their heart--this time. But know this: they will be back, and they will be stepping on necks and breaking hearts sooner than the headlines can read "Expansion Team Fire Sale." No Yankees fan takes this team and its successes for granted. No fans better understand the hair's breadth that separates a great pitch and a bad one, the World Championship trophy and the Thanks For Playing handshake that comes with the home board-game edition. And none of us has any doubt that someday soon the Yankees will be the World Champions once again.

Sunday, November 04, 2001


All the Marbles

Here it is. One game for all the marbles. There's no tomorrow. This is do or die. Championship or bust. All the money's on the table. This is it. This is the reason they play the.... Sorry. My cliché monkey got carried away while I was finishing my coffee. I could write a million words right now and not do justice to what's at stake here. This is Game 7 of the World Series, and anyone--player or fan--with an imagination has been there before. No further explanation needed.

There are four pieces of very good news for Yankee fans today:
1) Randy Johnson (2-0, 1.12 ERA, 18 K in 16 IP in the World Series) probably won't be pitching tonight.
2) Neither will Jay Witasick (54.00 ERA in 1.1 IP).
3) There will be no more Saturday games in this World Series. The Yanks have lost the two Saturday night games by a combined score of 24-3.
4) The Chow Mein group will be ordering Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops tonight. Like a manager apportioning his resources, last night we deferred our traditional good mojo-inducing meal to a Game 7, if necessary. Perhaps we erred in not going for the kill, perhaps we were selfishly preserving our stomachs. Cholesterol counts be damned, tonight is it.

Like most Yankee fans, I found it impossible to take my own advice about enjoying the game last night. Somewhere, anywhere, it certainly DOES get better than being down 15 runs in the fourth inning in a World Series game. By the time it was 12-0, my friends and I had sought relief in Pee Wee's Big Adventure on HBO and were considering our other Saturday night social obligations.

But, as we've reminded ourselves a few times during this postseason, it's still only one game. Once it became apparent that Andy Pettitte REALLY didn't have it, Joe Torre managed to preserve the better end of his bullpen for Game 7. Witasick and Randy Choate, who pitched 2+ innings, don't figure much in Torre's plans, and Mike Stanton, also with 2 innings, needed the work anyway.

That was last night, which is as gone as a Barry Bonds home run. Tonight's matchup features two 20-game winners in Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens--a marquee pairing if there ever was one. Neither pitcher is 100%, but all hands (except for the aforementioned) are on deck to pitch. Bob Brenly will probably have to pry the ball out of Schilling's cold, dead hand, while the Yanks will look for 6 innings from Clemens, one from Ramiro Mendoza and/or Stanton, and then two from Mariano Rivera (it's 11 AM and my heart just started pounding with an adrenaline surge as I typed that). Neither starter has ever pitched a game as big as this. Clemens has closed out a World Series before, in 1999, and his tightrope-walking performance on Tuesday in the face of a 2-0 deficit was as clutch as he's ever been. As for Schilling, I'm not going to review the soap opera that's played out between him and Bob Brenly over the past three days; I suspect it's equal parts bullshit, ego inflation, and gamesmanship directed at the Yankees.

Win or lose, this is undoubtedly the final hurrah in pinstripes for a significant portion of these Yankees. Paul O'Neill is retiring, as is Luis Sojo. Despite his home-run heroics in Game 5, Scott Brosius probably evaporated any chances of a contract renewal by opening the floodgates on a wide throw to Jorge Posada in the second inning last night. Chuck Knoblauch is likely on the first bus out of town. Tino Martinez might be gone as well. Orlando Hernandez's status is up in the air. David Justice may have played his way out of town... the list goes on. You could win some championships with that bunch.

But those potential departures are issues for tomorrow. Tonight these are still the New York Yankees, and they've got a dyansty to defend. If anyone thinks they're going down without a fight, they'd best think again. You never know what you're going to get with a Game 7--an 11-0 blowout like in 1985 or a tense 1-0 thriller like in 1991. My money's still on Rivera leaping into Jorge Posada's arms once again. GO YANKEES!

Saturday, November 03, 2001


The Biggest Hurdle

The Yankees are within one game of their fourth straight World Championship, but they may be facing their biggest hurdle of all. It stands six foot ten, has a wicked fastball, a mean slider, and a nasty scowl, and answers to the nickname The Big Unit. If you need to come up with one game to save your season, you could do a hell of a lot worse than having Randy Johnson on the mound.

Johnson has three Cy Young awards to his credit and deserves a fourth this year after winning 21 games and leading the league with a 2.49 ERA and 372 strikeouts. After taking a loss in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, the knock on him was that he wasn't a big-game pitcher--he'd lost seven straight postseason games. Of course, what few bothered to consider was that his team had scored eight runs for him in that span. And anybody who's forgotten his performance in the 1995 AL Division Series against the Yanks--after winning a one-game do-or-die against the California Angels to make the playoffs, Johnson won his start and then won the deciding Game 5 out of the bullpen--hasn't been paying attention long enough to gain entry into this argument.

Johnson took the loss in Game 1 of this year's Division Series against St. Louis. He allowed three runs, two in the first and one in the third. Not a terrible performance, by any stretch, but it was his worst outing of the post. Since that third inning, he's allowed two runs over a thirty-inning span. He won three straight starts, polishing off the Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS and the Yanks in Game 2 of the World Series. Two of those three games were complete-game 3-hitters. All told, his line for the postseason: 3-1. 1.36 ERA, 39 Ks and only 25 baserunners in 33 innings. Opponents are hitting a mere .165 against him in that span.

Johnson's a lefty, which complicates matters for the lefty-heavy Yankees. Tonight, only Tino Martinez will be in the lineup, while Paul O'Neill and David Justice will sit in favor of Chuck Knoblauch and Shane Spencer. Spencer joined Jorge Posada and Alfonso Soriano as the only Yanks to get hits off of Johnson in Game 2. Randy Velarde, who has hit Johnson well in the past (19-42 entering the series), started at first base in that game, but will be on the bench tonight--look for him to be the first pinch-hitter against Johnson.

The Yanks' best shot at winning this game is to outlast Johnson and hope that they can do damage against the Diamondbacks' soft bullpen. Whether it's twice-bitten Byung Hyun Kim, geezer Mike Morgan or the various other castoffs at Bob Brenly's mercy, the Yanks have to be feeling like they'll go through the bullpen like a hot knife through butter. Johnson threw 111 pitches--nowhere near his season high of 147, and five below his season average--five days ago, so fatigue shouldn't be an issue for him, the way it was with Curt Schilling's start on three days's rest.

The Yanks will once again depend on Andy Pettitte to keep them close. Pettitte gave up an early run in Game 2 but hung with the Big Unit almost pitch for pitch from there until he surrendered a three-run homer to Matt Williams in the 7th inning. He's pitched some amazingly clutch games in his career and he's as good a bet as the Yanks have going for them right now.

After the past two games, it would seem that nothing can top the drama we've witnessed. But either outcome tonight--the Yanks getting past the Big Unit to win #4, or Johnson forcing a Game 7 showdown between Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling--could make those key home runs by Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, and Scott Brosius seem like yesterday's news. This has already been the most thrilling three-and-a-half weeks of baseball I've ever witnessed, and the setup right now is as good as it gets, folks. Enjoy the game.

Friday, November 02, 2001


Déjà Vû All Over Again

On Wednesday night, Bob Brenly left his young closer in long enough to turn into a pumpkin, and the Yanks found some late treats in their Halloween bags. Last night the Diamondbacks' manager was still in the festive spirit; like Santa Claus, he delivered Byung Hyun Kim to the Yankees once again. It's like déjà vû all over again, or something.

Kim had thrown 61 pitches in Game 4 and yielded both the game-tying and game-winning home runs. Once again, the poor young closer allowed a two-out game-tying shot, this time to Scott Brosius. While Kim's combination of misfortune and bad timing has consigned him to the circle of Hell reserved for October goats--Mitch Williams, Bill Buckner, Mickey Owen, and Ralph Branca, please welcome your new roommate--the blame for all of this should fall squarely on the shoulders of Brenly. It's only slight hyperbole to call Brenly's decision to send Kim out there again "the single most stupid decision in the history of organized sport," as one post on Baseball Primer put it. The litany of Brenly's poor decisions in the World Series grows longer by the day--must we be subjected to more bunting? And just what the hell are you doing with a lineup that features a .307 OBP in the top spot and a .386 OBP in the eighth one?

The midnight madness of the past two nights has fried my brain, shredded my vocal cords, and probably shortened my life expectancy--those pork chops take a toll. So you'll have to forgive the piecemeal nature of the rest of this post as I point out a few things:

• Brenly's decisions fly in the face of rational analysis, but so does the Yanks' continued success in these situations. Since 1998, the Yanks have played 12 postseason games decided by 1 run. They've won all 12 (props to Rob Neyer, who pointed this out yesterday).

• ESPN ran this comparison of the Yanks bullpen and their opponents. It was late when I jotted these stats on a napkin; I think they go back to 1998, but it might be '96:
Yanks: 8-0, 2.30 ERA, 12 saves, 0 blown saves
Opponents: 1-7, 4.70 ERA, 1 save, 7 blown saves

Come playoff time there are two types of closers: Mariano Rivera, and Everybody Else.

• The Yanks have been outscored 19-10 in the series but are up 3-2. The Pythagorean Winning Percentage (one of Bill James' most trust formulas) of a team with that breakdown is .208, meaning their expected result over the five games is 1-4. Obviously, things haven't quite unfolded like that. They've been outscored 10-9 in the past four games but are 3-1 in that span.

• David Justice looks worse than any ballplayer I've ever seen right now. He has no business being in the Yankee lineup. A one-legged blind man wielding a toilet plunger during a tornado would have a better chance of getting a hit right now.

• Bernie Williams isn't winning any prizes either. He's been sleepwalking--three times this postseason he's gotten caught not running hard out of the batter's box. Last night, he hit a blooper which Tony Womack dropped in short left-centerfield, but only got a single out of it. Williams might not have made it into second safely, but he should have at least run hard and taken a wide turn at first base. Anything else, quite frankly, looks horseshit, given the high stakes.

• Alfonso Soriano has had some amazing highs and lows in this series. Brilliant, run-saving diving stops in two of the last three nights, and the game-winning hit last night. On the other hand, his "throw" home in the eighth inning of Game 4 could have been mistaken for a shot-put in the general vicinity of first base, and his ground out on a 3-0 pitch to snuff a potential rally in Game 3.

• I've been a big fan of Curt Schilling, but I've seen the ugly side of his gung-ho attitude over the past few days. Publicly lobbying his manager for the Game 4 start, second-guessing him after being removed, and the head-hiding in the dugout, as if to say, "The performance of my teammates is beneath me to watch." He clearly has no faith in his mates to get the job done, and as much as we admire those who want the ball in the crucial situations (think: Michael Jordan), that's a poisonous attitude on a baseball team. On the other hand, this is a man who watched Mitch Williams blow four saves in one postseason (including two of his own starts), so it's tough to blame him for his skepticism.

• Bill Simmons, the ESPN Page 2's Sports Guy, is hilarious today, with his piece on Red Sox fans considering conversion to being Yankee fans.

• My roommate, Issa Clubb, spends as much time combing the Mac user community online as I do the baseball one. He posted this to the Macintosh News Network board. It's too good not to share; the hyperbole is unfortunately not far from the truth. Here it is:

Nov 2, 2001 New York City -- Macintosh computer geek Macaddled suffered a fatal heart attack last night in apparent response to the New York Yankees' inability to win a normal game by scoring 3 runs in the 6th or something.

Witnesses say that he became particularly agitated when Yankee David Justice, who had one weak hit and 9 strikeouts in the Series, swung at a 3-0 pitch with a man on. Police are investigating a hole in the wall of Macaddled's apartment which appears to bear the outlines of his fist.

They add that he began hyperventilating when he saw Arizona closer Kim out to start the 9th after having thrown 62 pitches the night before, screaming in between breaths, "Has the world gone mad??" and "Up is down!! Black is white!!"

He was unconscious at the time of Scott Brosius' home run. He regained consciousness only to see that Mike Morgan, his great-grandcousin, was pitching in the 10th. He promptly fainted and was blissfully unaware of Mariano Rivera loading the bases in the bottom of the 10th. His family credit the grace of God with sparing him such unnecessary pain.

His last words were delirious: "Joe's got his earthly delights from that pact with the devil, now where's mine, dammit!!"

Thursday, November 01, 2001


Hat Trick

"Ugh. That half-inning may well be the series."

Those were my words on the in-game web log over at Mostly Baseball, where I've been involved in a running commentary of nearly every Yankee postseason game. The Arizona Diamondbacks had just scored two runs in the eighth inning of Game 4 to go up 3-1. Snakes' manager Bob Brenly, his decision to start Curt Schilling on three days' rest seemingly vindicated, sent out his closer, Byung Hyun Kim, to get the final six outs and put his team one win away from the World Championship. You could hear a pin drop over at Chow Mein Central, the Futility Infielder headquarters.

I'll admit it, I'd pretty much thrown in the towel. Neither my roommate nor my girlfriend could muster anything positive to say. Being a fan of these Yankees, one always expects the unexpected, but how often can you go to the well?

As I've said before, we tend to be a superstitious lot underneath the Chow Mein sign. When the ninth inning came, I retreated to my bedroom. "I'm going looking for talismans," I announced. I donned my navy-blue David Cone practice jersey. And then I had a stroke of genius.

Back in late April, I attended games on consecutive weekends where the giveaway was a Yankee cap of sorts. Now, I tend to prefer the genuine article, the fitted New Era 5950 cap which every major leaguer wears. But desperate times--say, looking down the barrel of a 3-1 World Series deficit--call for desperate measures. So I pulled out an adjustable cap which says "World Champions NY [logo] 1998-1999-2000". Never worn it before, but maybe that meant the cap still had a few hits left in it.

It did, to say the least. After Tino Martinez's 2-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning--as exciting as any I've seen since Jim Leyritz's game-tying 3-run shot in Game 4 of the 1996 Series, on The Short List--I ran into my room and got an identical cap for my roommate. The gang at Chow Mein jumped up and down. We screamed ourselves hoarse. The game wasn't over, but the Yanks suddenly had life. Stick that in your 3-1 graphic, Fox.

The hat thusly donned by my roomie made the ending a formality. For the life of me, I do not understand what Bob Brenly was thinking in sending Byun Hung Curveball back out for the 10th inning. Kim had already pitched two innings and surrendered the game-tying shot. A third inning rendered him useless for Game 5. He got two outs, but Derek Jeter, nearly invisible thus far in the series, poked one over the short porch ("Short porch! Short porch!" shouted the roomie as the ball left Jeter's bat) in right field to give the Yanks their second GOMP (Get Off My Property) home run of the postseason and tie the Series at two games apiece.

The list of reasons this game will forever be remembered is long. It was only the third time in World Series history (and the first in over 70 years) that a team came from down 2 runs in the 9th inning to win a game--a shocking stat, now that I think about it. It was the first time in a World Series that a team had tied the game with a home run in the 9th, then won it with another homer in extra innings. The two homers were hit by two players were a combined 1-for-23 in the Series up to that point. This was the first Major League Baseball game ever played on Halloween, and when the clock struck midnight, we had the first November baseball in ML history as well. Derek Jeter, the first batter after the clock struck 12, is now being hailed as "Mr. November." Byun Hung Curveball, on the other hand, turned into a pumpkin, thanks to the oh-so-second-guess-able way in which Bob Brenly handled his pitchers (preserving your ace for a potential Game 7 when you've still got to win Game 4 is ass-backwards. Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus picks apart this and several other lousy Brenly decisions). Brenly now has a haunting Halloween tale which should scare any manager. Yankee manager Joe Torre and General Manager Brian Cashman's contracts both expired at midnight, though the early line has them showing up for work today, anyway, with contract extensions to follow just as soon as George Steinbrenner gets his drawer full of turtleneck sweaters in order.

Of course, as Jeter noted in the postgame, Mike Mussina and the Yanks must beat the Diamondbacks (who send Miguel Batista to the mound) in order for their Game 4 win to mean much. Heading back to Arizona down 3-2 with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling lined up is a harrowing proposition, to say the least. Mussina should be more effective than he was in Game 1, when he lasted only three innings. Batista will likely need bullpen support, though of course he can thank Brenly when Mike Morgan or Greg Swindell has to pitch a key situation in the late innings because Kim is unavailable. Tonight is the season finale on baseball in the Bronx, and it probably marks Paul O'Neill's final appearance at Yankee Stadium, so look for some high drama there, not that there won't be enough already.

The Diamondback players, to a man, would probably refuse to admit that they believe in ghosts, even the kind that seem to inhabit Yankee Stadium come October. But don't think they're not spooked right now.


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