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.
Monday, March 31, 2003
Why is this man smiling? Because Opening Day is finally here. After a winter of my discontent
, and some seriously nasty weather, the arrival of the baseball season feels completely refreshing. Perhaps especially so, since this season carries no imminent threat of labor strife. There'll be no strikes, just balls flying every which way for the next seven months.
Alas, all is not right with the world. This country's current war on Iraq
, an 800-lb gorilla (or is that guerilla?) of bad news, does dampen my enthusiasm a bit. As does the forced patriotism which apparently mandates crowds chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" after singing "God Bless America" during every seventh-inning stretch. While I don't intend to make this column a soapbox about my views on the war, suffice it to say that I look forward to the day when ballpark displays of zeal are connected merely to the two teams on the playing field.
So without further ado, and as my obligations as a Writer of Stuff dictate, I'll offer some predictions for the season. While I didn't do so hot
last season (that Yanks-Astros World Series never materialized), rest assured that the past year has increased my baseball wisdom sufficiently that desperate gamblers in Vegas are breathlessly awaiting the following:
Yanks, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays. Last year I figured the Rays might surpass the Orioles; this year, despite the presence of Lou Piniella, I harbor no such illusions. So these folks will finish in exactly the same order they have for the past five seasons, with the Sox giving the Yanks a better chase than recent years, falling short but stealing the Wild Card spot.
Twins, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Tigers. Despite their new Colon, the Sox won't catch the Twins, who have plenty of pitching and hitting depth to carry them. Both will have plenty of fun at the expense of the division's pretenders.
A's, Angels, Mariners, Rangers. The A's will continue their rise, the defending champion Angels will discover that "career year" means it only happens once, and the Mariners will keep fading. The Rangers should show some improvement, but nobody will give a Buck.
Phillies, Braves, Expos, Mets, Marlins. The Braves rotation which dominated the NL East has been scattered, not quite to the four winds but to a couple of the other teams within the division. Glavine won't be a great loss for them (or a great help for the Mets), but Millwood --with some help from Jim Thome -- will be the difference. The Mets will surprise nobody except Steve Phillips when they continue to look like last year's Mets.
Astros, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Pirates, Brewers. I should be done predicting anything for the Astros, but the Cards have too many injury questions for me to pick them here. Dusty Baker's magic won't withstand the harsh light of day, but their young pitchers will keep them competitive.
Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Padres. Randy Johnson looks like he could carry the Diamondbacks until he's 50. Jim Tracy has made his name managing his way around an injured pitching staff; with good health he can finally take the Dodgers to the postseason. Even if Bonds is Bonds, Felipe Alou will have a rough time filling Dusty Baker's shoes.
Red Sox, Dodgers
A's over Phillies. Pain me though it might, I'm pegging this to be the year the A's get over the hump. Just like every other monkey with a weblog, probably.
AL Cy Young:
Last year I said "Tim Hudson. Or Mark Mulder. Or maybe Barry Zito." That prediction served me well, so I'm sticking with it.
NL Cy Young:
AL "Rookie" of the Year:
Hideki Matsui. You were expecting maybe Rocco Baldelli?
NL Rookie of the Year:
First Manager Fired:
Lloyd McClendon. With so much of last year's deadwood swept out by slow starts and slow finishes, most of the easy targets are gone. The Orioles should put Mike Hargrove out of his misery, but I don't think he'll be so lucky.
First Manager Lynched:
Larry Bowa, which is why the Phillies will get to the World Series.
World Series (Wishful Thinking Department):
The last time I hunkered down to root for the Dodgers at the outset of a season, Billy Ashley
was still a prospect. Though they fell short last season, the Dodgers stirred enough old loyalties for me to start caring again. And though I've spent the better part of the past seven years cheering the home team here in NYC, a Dodger-Yankee matchup wouldn't give me a moment's hesitation in choosing sides. So for the first time since I was a kid, I'll dare to dream of the continuation of the greatest World Series rivalry.
It's tempting to say that 91-year-old Buck O'Neil has forgotten more about baseball than I'll ever know. But in his interview with Bronx Banter's Alex Belth (who after interviewing Marvin Miller and Ken Burns is, dare I say, en fuego
), it's abundantly clear that the Negro League legend hasn't forgotten much at all. Still with plenty on the ball, O'Neil recounts for Belth his days in the Negro Leagues, his scouting discoveries, and his take on players from bygone eras compared to those of today. What's always endeared me to O'Neil is that he never merely resorts to a things-were-better-in-my-day take on the game. Or the world, for that matter. I'm not sure how he manages to stay so positive, but it's clearly a good prescription for longevity.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Banters, Ranters, and Other Stuff I Missed
Since I wasn't online for a whole five days, I've missed plenty of interesting baseball articles, some of which I'd like to call to your attention...
• Bronx Banter's Alex Belth interviews Marvin Miller
. THAT Marvin Miller. In the name of a book proposal, Belth phoned the 86-year-old former Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and spoke to him for about an hour on Curt Flood and his landmark Supreme Court case. Wow, great stuff.
• Mike C.'s got the latest lengthy installment of his look at relief pitchers over at Mike's Baseball Rants
. This one covers the Nineties and the current decade (that would be the Aughts, wouldn't it?):
The saves numbers have changed so rapidly that the change has obscured the value of pitchers like Goose Gossage (13th), Bruce Sutter (16th), and Dan Quisenberry (21st), all of whom were arguably more valuable to their teams in the day than three of the top four in career saves (Lee Smith, John Franco, and Jeff Reardon) were to theirs.
This argument I feel is a stronger explanation for the current dearth of Hall of Fame relievers than the ubiquitous “The Hall voters don’t value saves” argument. They value saves, just not the relievers who have high totals in that statistic. I believe that there are voters who do not select the worthy candidates that I mentioned because they are over one hundred saves behind John Franco, a player who will not be regarded as a strong Hall candidate when he retires.
Good stuff, and lots and lots of data as well.
• Baseball Primer's Eric Enders
, taking a tack from Bill James, enumerates the successes of Dodger manager Jim Tracy in making regulars out of several players. Enders points out how Tracy's resourcefulness has allowed the Dodgers to overcome several boneheaded contracts, returning them to the ranks of the competitive -- something I've harped on this myself
recently. Continuing his examination of Tracy, Enders also has written a season preview of the Dodgers
with some good analysis.
• Forget previewing a team; Aaron Gleeman
, has lengthy previews of the entire AL & NL Easts. I'm guessing Aaron didn't spend much of his spring break outdoors.
• David Pinto's Baseball Musings
has a slick new look and a new, easy-to-remember URL.
• The Yankees pulled off a good trade
, sending outfielder Rondell White, who'd been rendered obsolete by the Hideki Matsui signing, to the Padres for outfielder Bubba Trammell and pitching prospect Mark Phillips. In the short term, the Yanks save $2.5 mil on this year's payroll, plus another $350 K on the luxury tax, and they get a lefty-masher well suited to coming off the bench (though admittedly not as good an outfielder as departed lefty-killer Shane Spencer). Long-term, they're on the hook for Trammell's $4.75 mil in 2004, but the acquisition of bona fide prospect Phillips should temper that.
Pinstriped Bible's Steven Goldman
notes that Baseball America rated Phillips as the #3 prospect in the Padres organization:
Phillips is your prototypical tall lefty flamethrower -- the 6-foot-3 Phillips has whiffed 273 batters in 266 professional innings -- who struggles with his mechanics and control but is dominant when he gets it right... the Yankees took an expensive spare part and converted him into a potentially dominant young pitcher. That happens very rarely. Keeping all the usual caveats in mind (young pitchers are frequently derailed by injuries; the Yankees don't have the greatest track record of translating minor league pitchers into major leaguers) this has the potential to be the kind of deal that people cite for years afterwards as a steal.
• In one of the spring's most interesting experiments, former Cubs phenom Brooks Kieschnick is slated to make the Milwaukee Brewers' roster
as a pitcher/outfielder. An outstanding hurler and in college at the University of Texas (2-time National Player of the Year), Kieschnick never stuck in the bigs as an outfielder, passing through eight organizations while racking up less than 200 major-league plate appearances. He made a couple of mop-up appearances here and there, but never gave pitching a serious shot again until last year. With the White Sox AAA affiliate in Charlotte, he pitched 25 games with a 2.75 ERA and 30 K's in 31.1 innings while also hitting .275 with 13 home runs and 40 runs batted in. New Brewers manager Ned Yost, who's got a long season ahead of him, is open-minded enough to try out this unique double threat, who bats lefty, throws righty, and can play both corner outfield positions and first base. And while spring-training stats don't mean much, it's worth noting that he's thrown 11 innings with a 4.77 ERA while going 4-for-10 with 2 dingers (tied for the team lead) and 7 RBI. Baseball Prospectus
has a worthwhile interview with Kieschnick. I'm definitely rooting for the guy.
Tuesday, March 25, 2003
Holiday During Wartime
War makes a very strange backdrop for a vacation, and I can't say the current situation didn't dampen my spirits a bit while down in Florida. I never did get my web access to work while I was down there. And I'll never refer to Tampa and culture in the same sentence again. But the baseball part of my Grapefruit League trip went off quite well, save for a rainout on Sunday. All told, I saw five games, eight teams, and four ballparks. It never felt like enough, even after four games in a 48-hour span.
At this point in spring training, the lineups are fairly recognizable, so I got to see several stars up close, especially at the Dodger games. With the exception of the Twins, all of the visiting teams obliged by sending out what could pass for an Opening Day lineup give or take a player or two. Which isn't exactly great news in some cases.
Perhaps my best stroke of luck, beyond the weather, was the array of pitchers I witnessed: Jose Contreras (striking out Indians left and right), David Cone (bobbing and weaving through four solid innings against the D-Rays), Rick Ankiel (falling behind hitters but keeping the ball in the vicinity of the plate), Guillermo Mota (throwing gas at the Marlins while being heckled by some random Mets fans at the Dodger game), and Hideo Nomo (that hypnotic three-part motion), to name a few.
So much to tell... I'm working on a lengthy writeup of my trip and will have photos to go with it. Hopefully it'll be up by the end of the week.
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Clearing the Bases Before I Skip Town
I'm packed for my six-day Spring Training trip, which begins on Wednesday. I counted about seven different baseball-themed shirts as I packed. Bought a new scorebook for the occasion (one of those softball-style vertical ones that can handle lots of substitions; hey, I'd keep score at a tee-ball league), and a brand new ball to toss around. I've already broken out the mitt and feel comfortable telling Joe Torre or Jim Tracy that I can give them a few innings on back-to-back days.
Joining me on this trip will be my girlfriend's brother Aaron, a Milwaukee resident and die-hard Brewers fan who has been dying hard for just about any other brand of baseball one could offer ("I'd settle for Mudville vs. the Indianapolis Clowns!" he wrote). If everything goes as planned, we'll be seeing six games over the next five days:
WED: Indians at Yanks, Tampa (night)
THU: Marlins at Dodgers, Vero Beach (day) & Devil Rays at Mets, Port St. Lucie (night)
FRI: Cardinals at Dodgers, Vero Beach
SAT: Twins at Yanks, Tampa
SUN: Yanks at Tigers, Lakeland
I planned this trip when there was three feet of snow on the ground, and I'm going to enjoy this as if it were the first sunshine I'd seen all spring.
• • •
I'm taking my laptop with me to Florida. With any luck I'll be posting the occasional update later this week. Here are a few links to point out before I go:
• The New York Times ran a timely piece
for my puposes on Sunday. Mark Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Race Together,
comes to terms with a modern view of the Dodgers move, one in which Walter O'Malley isn't the bad guy:
O'Malley was not just my villain. He was Brooklyn's. He was the man whom Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield famously placed in their own triumvirate of evil, along with Hitler and Stalin. But, as I began to learn more about O'Malley and about the circumstances of the Dodgers' departure, I began to discover that perhaps - forgive me, Pete and Jack - Brooklyn's hatred was misapplied. Could we all have been hating the wrong man all these years?
Shapiro, who as one might guess grew up in an abandoned Brooklyn, now sees O'Malley as fighting the losing end of a battle with Robert Moses, a much heavier hitter in city history. Moses was the master architecht of New York City for 40 years, building the bridges, highways, parks and other structures that have shaped this city. And he wouldn't give O'Malley the time of day. Writes Shapiro:
O'Malley pressed on. His letters to Moses suggest a little man in a boxing ring, dancing around a very big opponent. O'Malley used whatever leverage he could muster, all but begging for his support. Moses, it becomes ever more clear, could not abide him, nor did he have any intention of letting him build anyplace near the heart of Brooklyn.
Moses never wrote that he spurned O'Malley because he did not like him. But he made his disdain clear: as far back as 1954, he complained of O'Malley's "beefing, threatening, foxing and conniving." He had other plans for the Dodgers, or the New York Giants. He wanted them in Queens, in the stadium he was planning to build in Flushing Meadows. O'Malley took the best offer he had, which came from Los Angeles. That it also came at Brooklyn's great and enduring expense made him a villain, especially because the move made him rich.
Having grown up a Dodger fan west of the Mississippi River, long after the team left for L.A., I must admit that the extreme view of O'Malley as a villain never resonated with me. As far as my family's concerned, he brought the majors out west a time when it was long overdue, making it a hell of a lot easier to get Dodger games on the radio. That view survives even now that I live in New York. To indulge in some cloud talk, it would be nice if there were still Dodgers here and if Bill Veeck were a hero for taking the Browns westward, as he tried to before the Dodgers lit out. But what then of Fernandomania? And the rest of baseball history -- would Koufax have put it together in Brooklyn? What of the Miracle Mets? Or the Baltimore Oriole way?
I don't have any illusion that Walter O'Malley was a nice guy. But the baseball world he shaped has given me a pretty fair shake over the years, so I don't need to forgive him. Michael Shapiro feels that Brooklyn does. He writes: "...while Brooklyn may never love Walter O'Malley, it is time to forgive him. Nothing grand has ever risen on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, where his dream palace might have stood. It makes the mind dizzy, contemplating that phantom stadium as a gift to Brooklyn from the man we always believed had broken our hearts."
• Jonathan Leshanksi, who runs the site At Home Plate
and is the commissioner of my fantasy league, has a positive review of Shapiro's book
, which has just been published.
• Also on the subject of Dodger history, former GM Fred Claire
reflects on trading Pedro Martinez in 1993:
I will be the guy who traded a young Pedro Martinez. It was a major mistake on a couple of fronts. First of all, it wasn't difficult to recognize the talent of a young Pedro. Secondly, it was even easier to see that this was a very special young man who had a great personality and a great inner spirit to go with his talent.
It's the type of mistake a general manager can make when he gets too focused and tries too hard to fill a hole in his everyday lineup. Is that an excuse? No, there is no excuse for trading a Pedro Martinez.
Claire's soul-searching admission is offered up a sort of rambling open letter to the Boston Red Sox not to let him get away. Ssssssh, dummy, maybe the Dodgers can snag him back...
Yes, it was a stupid deal, trading Pedro to Montreal for Delino Freakin' Deshields in 1993. But in the grand scheme of Dodger history, Claire's got a pretty good entry on the positive side of the ledger as well: he signed Kirk Gibson in 1988. They still fly that Series flag and they still play the tape of Gibson's home run, so Fred's all squared with me. No further apology needed.
• Elephants in Oakland
has had a good back and forth with a reader about the Miguel Tejada Situation and owner Steve Schott's intentions. Our elephantine friend also has an entertaining rant
about the way the Internet has blown several recent baseball stories out of proportion.
Off to the Grapefruit League...
In the baseball website racket, keeping a fantasy team is as much obligation as hobby. Gotta have a side to wear the corporate colors, after all, and some poor middle infielder to jettison after a losing streak. And lest you get the idea that you're the smartest guy on the block, a sorry-assed roster full of slow first basemen with bad hammies, sore-armed third starters, and disgraced former closers will remind you otherwise in a big hurry. When all else fails you can spend a column bitching about it. Not that I've had to, of course. With a first-place and a second-place finish in the past two years, I am clearly MENSA material.
Or else the only one paying attention. I spent my recent years in the Homer Bush League (ESPN) competing against near-total strangers in almost deafening silence -- my Mendoza Line Drivers last completed a trade in 2000. So for some human interaction this season, I accepted an invite to join a league with the writers of several other sites (including At Home Plate
, Elephants in Oakland
, Historical Baseball
, Jim and Bob's Palatial Baseball Site
, and The Southpaw
). For ballast, we've got a couple of my long-lost college pals along as much for their trash-talking skills as for their ball-talking. Since they're both functionally illiterate moral degenerates, I can freely slander them in this space. But I'll hand it to those boys for bringing two of the league's better names into the fold: Rick Burleson's Army and Morgan's Porno Stash (the owner has it on good authority that Joe is a big fan of skin mags).
Before this year, I'd never done a live draft, and this is also the first time I've played with a full-MLB player pool (or with a full deck, for that matter). I'm well-versed in ranking all of the players at a single position in a single league until the Cal Pickerings come home, but ask me to estimate the value of a good closer relative to a good slugging third baseman and you might need a mirror to tell if I'm still breathing. I spent the weekend leading up to the draft arming myself with data, and I ignored most of it except when it supported my gut instincts. Forty-five mintues before the first pick, I was outside playing catch. Suffice it to say I didn't overthink the situation; it was like telling Shawon Dunston not to worry about the strike zone. I was hacktastic.
It didn't help that I drew the 12th draft spot, meaning I had two picks in a row (last of one round and first in the next). When you draft like that and then have to wait 23 picks until your next shot, you spend more time indulging in witty banter than serious research. How many snappy comebacks does a guy need for drafting C.C. Sabathia in the 13th round? And why should it burn a Sox fan's red ass (that would be Rooster Boy) if I pick Jose Contreras in the 19th? Jeff Kent -- now there's a porno 'stache.
When the smoke cleared late Monday, this was my roster:
C Jorge Posada
1B Jason Giambi (1st pick at #12)
2B Roberto Alomar (a relatively late pick)
3B Eric Chavez
SS Jose Hernandez (Cooooooooooors)
OF Gary Sheffield (hate the player, love his game)
OF Ken Griffey Jr. (another sleeper I couldn't bypass)
OF Jermaine Dye
CI Robin Ventura
MI Jerry Hairston Jr. (hate him, but I have the need for speed)
Util/Bench: Jose Cruz Jr., Bobby Kielty, Aubrey Huff, Kevin Mench
SP Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Javier Vasquez, Tomo Okha, C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Jose Contreras (Like Steinbrenner, I couldn't resist a 7-man rotation when I saw Contreras still available)
RP Troy Percival, Franklyn German
I'm short a second catcher, wagering on German to win the Detroit closer job, heavy on corner infielders, outfielders and Yankees, and light on speed. I've got a few big OLD question marks, particularly Alomar and Griffey, and Oswalt makes me more nervous than a #1 starter should (hence the stockpiling). But I feel good about my squad. I know they'd run through a wall for me just to kick some Rooster Ass. As the Futilitarians say: bring it on!
Sunday, March 16, 2003
In early January, a rumor surfaced
that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation might sell the Dodgers. To anyone capable of counting on their fingers, this hardly came as a surprise. Count five: having purchased the Dodgers in 1998, News Corp's five-year window to depreciate player contracts had just closed. The five-year rule (brainchild of Bud Selig
in his Seattle Pilot-jacking days) allows half of a franchise's purchase price to be allocated to player contracts and depreciated over that span, creating an artificial loss which reduces the owner's tax liability. Disney's move to sell the Angels
and the entire sordid succession of Florida Marlins owners (Huizenga to Henry to Loria, oh shit!) are prime examples of the corporate inclination to bail once that window closes. Why should the high-class folks who brought you quality entertainment such as Joe Millionaire
and Man vs. Beast
be any different?
On Rupert's watch, the Dodgers went from a solidly profitable marquee franchise to a spectacularly unprofitable cautionary tale. From 1990 to 1997, the Dodgers averaged a gain of $8 million a year in operating income, according to data from Financial World
. From 1998 to 2001, they averaged a loss of $20 million a year in operating income, according to Forbes Magazine
figures. Those losses were the largest in baseball in each of those seasons. Contributing to them, of course, was a massively inflated payroll which shot from $48.5 million pre-sale in 1997 to $94.2 million in 2000 and has kept pace as the game's third-highest ever since. Who
can't afford Mike Piazza?
Forget the money. What the Dodgers lost goes beyond dollars. Rupert and his henchmen destroyed a fifty-year trend in organizational continiuty and stability that had held place under the O'Malley family -- a stability that survived Walter O'Malley engineering the most controversial upheaval in the history of sports, the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn. Regardless of which coast they were on, or whether father Walt or son Peter was running the team, the O'Malleys built a franchise that was competitive year in and year out. The Dodgers rebounded after their rare down years without resorting to the histrionics of firing their manager. They had exactly two of those from 1955 to June 1996, from Walter Alston's first one-year contract to Tommy Lasorda's heart-attack-induced retirement, and in that same span they won six World Championships and eleven pennants, making fifteen postseason appearances.
From the get-go, the Foxies produced an organizational soap opera worthy of Melrose Place.
While the ink was barely dry on their purchase, they traded Mike Piazza rather than meet his $100 million contract demands. A month later, they used Lasorda to engineer a bloody coup which toppled his mild-mannered managerial successor, Bill Russell, and GM Fred Claire. They eventually hired GM Kevin Malone, a loudmouth who described himself as "the new sherrif in town" and proceeded to embarrass the Dodgers with his mouth and his personnel decisions. The Dodgers made Kevin Brown the richest player in the game with a ridiculous 7-year, $105 million contract, squandered millions on busts such as Carlos Perez, Darren Dreifort, Devon White, and Eric Karros, traded Charles Johnson for sore-armed Todd Hundley, and feuded with petulant superstar Gary Sheffield. Malone picked fights with manager Davey Johnson, Padres GM Kevin Towers, and finally, a Padres season-ticket holder
before being jettisoned into oblivion. Floundering around .500 and coming nowhere near the postseason, in three years the Dodgers burned through as many managers as they'd had over the previous 45.
They also drove away this fan of over 20 years. From the time I began to understand major-league baseball (c. 1977), the Dodgers had been my team. My family bled Dodger blue; ours was a rooting legacy passed down from my grandfather through my father, and as a youngster I delighted in hearing about Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax and others while watching my own Dodger heroes -- Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero. As I grew up, they rewarded my loyalty with contenders, championships, and continuity. The Murdoch era did away with all that, and proximity drove me into the arms of the team's most hated rival, the Yankees.
But even a blind squirrel trips over an acorn now and again. So it was with the Dodgers hiring Jim Tracy as their fourth manager since Lasorda. Passing over name-brand skippers such as Felipe Alou, they chose an unheralded, untested candidate whose persona resembled the man who'd held the job for 22 seasons before Lasorda, Walt Alston. Saddled with expensive mediocrities such as Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Marquis Grissom, and Tom Goodwin, and with pitching staffs decimated by injuries (Brown, Dreifort, Perez and Ashby were paid $38 million to make 38 starts in 2001), Tracy nevertheless has kept the Dodgers in contention up until the final week in each of his two campaigns. He's milked productive seasons out of the likes of Grissom and Alex Cora, found significant roles for journeymen Paul Lo Duca, Eric Gagne, and Dave Roberts, and instilled two of the most expensive clubs in baseball history with the plucky spirit of the underdog. Though his teams have come up even shorter than Bill Russell's, against the backdrop of the Foxies' ineptitude, Tracy's Dodgers have won moral victories and the respect of this disenfranchised fan.
Moral victories don't buy much these days, at least not enough for Rupert Murdoch. Though the team freed up significant payroll this offseason, they shunned big-name free-agents such as Jeff Kent and Cliff Floyd, content to cut losses and send Tracy into battle undermanned yet again. Now
they want to get fiscally responsible?
You'd think this fan might rejoice at the rumor that Rupe's ready to sell. But the news that the Dodgers' potential knight in shining armor is none other than Dave Checketts
is enough to make me recoil to embrace Rupert's regime. Checketts and I have a history.
In 1979, a woeful professional basketball team moved to my hometown of Salt Lake City. The Utah Jazz, on the lam from New Orleans, gave its fans four seasons of dreadful basketball as an excuse to watch the Dr. J's, Larry Birds, and Magic Johnsons of the NBA run rampant. But in 1983-84, they began turning things around, both on the court -- their first .500 season and first playoff appearance-- and in the front office, hiring a 27-year-old local, Checketts, as their Executive Vice President and General Manager. Through excellent scouting and drafting, including two relatively unheralded players in John Stockton and Karl Malone, the team became a perennial contender on Checketts' watch, though much of the credit is due to Scott Layden. Checketts left the Jazz in 1989 a much stronger franchise than he inherited, a legacy that endures today, The Jazz's string of postseason appearances has continued uninterrupted via the core of Stockton, Malone, and coach Jerry Sloan. Fifteen years and two thousand miles away from Utah, they've given me a team that remains near and dear to my heart.
Checketts made his way to the bright lights and big city. After two years of working for the NBA league office in Manhattan, he became president of the Knicks in 1991 and then of MSG Sports Group (parent company of the Knicks, the Rangers hockey team, the WNBA Liberty, and Madison Square Garden) in 1994. Inheriting two championship-caliber teams, he ran them into the ground, with horrible contracts, inflated payrolls and a distinct lack of imagination. His network maintained a third-rate look, skimpy on graphics, personality, and bulb wattage. He developed a reputation for corporate ruthlessness
as well, with such stunts as a bold power move to unseat the previous MSG president, a behind-the back pass at Phil Jackson while Jeff van Gundy was still coach, and a GM fired over dessert. Upon his resignation in May 2001
, the Garden lay empty, without either of its expensive, uninspiring teams in the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
Since leaving MSG, Checketts has tried to purchase the Boston Red Sox and the Orlando Magic, with no success. But now his bid for the Dodgers has gained the backing of two billionaires, George Soros and Eli Broad, and they are reportedly prepared to offer $600-650 million for the Dodgers, their stadium, and Fox Sports Net 2, the Dodgers' cable home. Murdoch purchased
the team and the stadium for $311 million in '97, plus $14 million in charities to the O'Malley family and another $25 million of assumed debt.
While the bid is reportedly "in the ballpark" of the assets' value, it's unclear whether Murdoch is willing to sell the cable network. Only recently has Fox's regional network strategy begun paying off. But the channel is obviously the apple of Checketts' eye, and it would be highly surprising to see him pursue the deal without it. He already owns SportsWest Productions
, a Utah-based network that carries Mountain West Conference basketball, and his appetite is apparently geared more towards a cable empire than a baseball dynasty.
So you'll forgive this deposed Dodger fan for hoping the regime which sent him into exile hangs tough until a more suitable suitor comes along. I want my Dodgers back, but I don't want Dave Checketts anywhere near them. I'll take my chances with the next S.O.B. who comes along instead.
Saturday, March 15, 2003
The Cub Reporter
, Christian Ruzich, turned me onto this site
, which uses something called RSS to collect recent links from several blogs. As I'm prone to, I spent a couple hours fumbling around trying to get things to work so my RSS feed could be picked up by the site. In doing so, I came pretty close to taking my whole weblog down; any time I open the cans of worms that are my Blogger template or my archives, I might as well save the time and pull out a fistful of hair instead. I guess it's the price of progress, but the Blogger technology has its bugs that keep things adventurous.
Anyway, the hope is that other bloggers will generate feeds as well, giving readers a great resource to view the recent work of several blogs at once. It's a great idea, in my opinion. If you're interested, drop a line to Christian's pal Mark McClusky
and he can help you get set up. And if anyone else out there has an RSS page to which they'd like to add my site, the link is here
Tuesday, March 11, 2003
A long-awaited piece of the Futility Infielder puzzle is now in place: my profile of 19th-century ballplayer Tony Suck
, a man who truly lived up to his name. If Suck hadn't existed, somebody would have made him up. This two-part piece looks at Suck's unlikely career, then asks two burning questions: is he the worst ballplayer ever? And is he the origin of the derogatory term? The investigation begins here
Thursday, March 06, 2003
As I stare out the window at the fallen snow and accumulated slush, my thoughts are of warm, sunny places where baseball is being played and feet are dry. One of my favorite bloggers, Cub Reporter Christian Ruzich, was lucky enough to spend some time one of those places: Maryvale, Arizona with the Cubs. Christian got up close to the Cubs' brass -- team president Andy MacPhail, GM Jim Hendry, manager Dusty Baker, coaches Gene Clines and Sonny Jackson -- as well as ballplayers like Kerry Wood, Corey Patterson, and Hee Sop Choi, and he's got the photos to prove it. It looks like A LOT of fun. I can hardly wait for my own trip, but it's two looooong weeks away.
Hot on the heels of my recent brush with fame
, I've created a Lenn Sakata page for my Wall of Fame
. A prototypical futilityman who was about my size (5'9" 160 lbs) in his playing days, Sakata caught my eye in a number of ways, and I've gotten a lot more mileage out of him than your typical futilityman. Suffice it to say, he's earned his spot up there. Now that I've got a bit of time on my hands, I'm hoping to add a few more entries to this portion of the site in the next few weeks.
Wednesday, March 05, 2003
Apparently I'm having trouble with messages to my futilityinfielder.com address bouncing. If any of you reading this have suffered this fate, please re-send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Baseball Primer is running a series previewing each team for the upcoming season, and they've started with the cellar-dwellars. Rather than face the music about how awful the Kansas City Royals could be in 2003, writer David Brazeal has turned to poetry. Or rather, Poe-try, for Brazeal has chosen to parody Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"
in assessing the Royals' outlook under manager Tony Peña. The results are breathtaking, lacking only James Earl Jones
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Peña, of the Pirates’ days of yore.
Not much of OPS knew he; loss of veteran pride did rue he;
Grounding to the right side knew he, was the perfect way to score.
Perched upon a bust of Dave Glass, just inside my office door,
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this manager beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By his bright and warm decorum made me want to scale a wall,
"Though thy attitude is sunny, we," I said, "don’t have no money,
Optimistic silly Peña, Michael Tucker can’t play ball.
Tell me what the lordly plan is ‘ere this team impact the wall."
Quoth the Peña, "Little ball."
Even Primer's Poet Laureate, the Score Bard
, was moved to give his props:
I once was our poet of lore,
But that I shall be nevermore.
I've been outmerited.
Now The Raven's been parroted,
So how to explore Baltimore?
Oh, and Primer's Dan Szymborski, he of the Transaction Oracle
, gives a partial explanation of his new ZiPS
projection system; DIPS meets CHiPS, if you will.
Sunday, March 02, 2003
In what's already been a momentous month, I reached another milestone of sorts on Sunday. I was quoted, and this website was mentioned, in a mainstream media outlet for the first time. The San Jose Mercury News published a column by San Francisco Giants beat writer Dan Brown about the odd careers of the Giants' minor league coaches. Sound obscure? Well, Brown starts his article with a mention of Mario Mendoza, and within a few lines has worked his way (up? down? three steps into the hole?) to Fred Stanley and Lenn Sakata. In other words, he's in the Futility Infielder's wheelhouse.
Brown had an idea for a lighthearted article on the coaches a couple of weeks ago, and hit this article of mine
while Googling Fred "Chicken" Stanley
. We exchanged a few emails on the likes of Stanley and Sakata (who's due for a Wall of Fame entry on the basis of this photo I took in 1986
and the story behind it) before he called me last Wednesday. We spoke on the phone for about 15 minutes, touching on Mendoza, Stanley, and Duane Kuiper (former second baseman and current Giants announcer who hit 1 homer in his 3600 career plate appearances) as well as players at the other end of the talent spectrum.
My site and I get two mentions in Brown's piece, the first a few paragraphs down in the article's introduction:
"I think people relate to players like that because they know how hard a game baseball can be,'' said fan Jay Jaffe, a 33-year-old New Yorker. "Most of us are more like the Mario Mendozas of the world. We can identify with a scrappy middle infielder more than we can with a superstar like Reggie Jackson.''
Jaffe, a graphic designer, put together a Web site two years ago called Futilityinfielder.com. It celebrates the little guys such as Stanley, Mendoza and Luis Sojo in a veritable Disneyland of overachievers. It's the scrappiest place on earth.
Further down, under Stanley's profile, Brown writes:
Jaffe, whose Web site salutes the offensively challenged, describes Stanley as "an exemplary member of the infielderus futilis classification.'' Stanley never hit better than .238 in any season in which he had at least 50 at-bats. He never drove in more than 20 runs in a season. (A's shortstop Miguel Tejada had 20 RBIs in a month five times in 2002).
Brown gets into the swing of things as well, referring to Stanley's defensive prowess ("a free-range Chicken, if you will...") and showing a general appreciation for niches these coaches occupy in baseball history.
Anyway, being interviewed by a real reporter was a lot of fun (Brown told me that our conversation took place between ones with Kuiper and Peter Gammons), and seeing my name pop up in front of several thousand unsuspecting readers might yield a few interesting replies from far-off places. "The scrappiest place on earth" has all the makings of a good slogan for this site. So thank you to Dan Brown, and thanks to any of you who stopped by this site after reading his article. And to Lenn Sakata and Chicken Stanley, on the infinitesimal chance that you're reading this, thank you for exemplifying the spirit in which this site was named.
You wouldn't -- or perhaps shouldn't -- expect stellar objective analysis to emanate from a team's cable-network website. And you shouldn't -- or perhaps couldn't -- expect such frank and entertaining writing to emerge from the domain of the mad King George. But a writer named Steven Goldman is turning those notions on their ear. Goldman writes a weekly column called The Pinstriped Bible for the Yankees' YESNetwork.com
website which only recently came to my attention.
I say "only recently" because in my thirst for intriguing reportage regarding the Yanks, a company mouthpiece which is the domain of more homers than the back of Barry Bonds' baseball card is the last place I ever considered looking. While I'll admit to having a higher tolerance for Michael Kay than most people, I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that non-Yankee fans have little use for him; he preaches to the choir. And outside of injury news or some first-hand perspective gleaned from their own playing careers, the web-based scribblings of announcers such as Jim Kaat and Ken Singleton offer little more than what one can find in any one of a dozen local newspapers.
So it was quite a surprise when Goldman popped onto my radar a few weeks ago, via a thoughtful post-State of the Union piece
expressing a wish for better stats for politicians, and a Bill James to collect them. Wrote Goldman:
We need the kind of numbers that announcers toss off casually in baseball and football games: "The congressman has made 28 misstatements and 12 deliberate falsehoods out of sixty statements in this address for a calumny percentage of .667. The all-time record of .812 was set by Senator Huey Long (D-LA) in his Jefferson Day address, 1933..."
Baseball has a Manichean transparency that politics lacks: the proof is in the standings. A team can claim a good faith effort at contention, but a 72-90 record is what it is. On the other hand, a president can propose a tax plan and say that it will give a break to everyone, but unless you're prepared to wade up to your elbows in the U.S. tax code, it's hard to know whether the plan will be good for some, all, or none -- and often that's just what the plan's proponents are counting on.
This would no longer be the case if James (now a consultant for the Red Sox) could be convinced to turn his attention away from the horsehide sphere for awhile and produce a new magnum opus, the Bill James Political Abstract. Your senator is running for reelection and says he's working 24 hours a day to pass legislation for you. Not sure? Pick up your copy of the BJPA and flip over to the attendance tables, then head to the back of the book for the all-time records and see where your guy ranks..."
Goldman offered several amusing charts to go along with the piece which won't reproduce here, so I invite you to check out the article in its entirety.
More recently, he's turned his attention to a position-by-position
rundown of the American League's teams, with player comments that would be the envy of Baseball Prospectus' crack squadron. On Mariners' 3B Jeff Cirillo: "Last season, Cirillo's bat made occasional references to baseball but more often was off conducting orchestras, twirling in parades, or tapping on the ground and turning Dr. Don Blake into the mighty Thor. Let's hope it regains its focus this year. Whosoever pulleth this bat from this stone shall be king of all Seattle." On Rangers CF Doug Glanville: "I might have been unfair to the Angels in the centerfield comment; you can count on one hand the number of positive seasons turned in by a Rangers CF. Ready? Al Oliver, 1979, Mickey Rivers, 1980, Gary Ward, 1984, Oddibe McDowell, 1986, Juan Gonzalez, 1991 and 1992. Maybe it's Antonio Alfonseca's hand, but you get the drift. Glanville is an intelligent guy and very dependable with a quip, but if he wins the CF job you won't need to add a finger." On Royals 2B Carlos Febles: "Like an endless series of sequels to a movie nobody watched in the first place, Febles keeps coming back. He's 27 now. A few names for you: Brent Gates. Ty Griffin. Jerry Hairston, Jr. Lance Blankenship. Tim Naehring. New acronym for you: S.P.O.D.E.: Second-base Prospects Often Don't Evolve."
Lest anybody think that this Stevie-come-lately is here merely to tweak the Yanks' competition, it should be pointed out that Goldman's been working this beat for several years via the Yankees' old website and MLB.com; according to his first YES column
this was "roughly the 150th time that I've opened these pages." In that column, Goldman put forth a bold statement of purpose: "This desktop companion to the adventures of the Yankees exists in the place where the myths meet the data and its purpose is to question both. Those old myths are designed to obscure the truth -- which is what is happening on the field."
Goldman spends a good amount of his time debunking those myths and the assumptions which many Yankee fans hold dear. He's no stranger to sabermetrics (check "The Cask of Soriano"
for his take on the Yankee second baseman and the AL MVP race), and he's not afraid to contradict his own hazy memory with an exhaustive romp through the Retrosheet archives
(as he did when checking Dave Righetti's alleged penchant
for wronging Tommy John and possibly keeping the venerable lefty from the 300 win club).
All in all, his is an admirable mission, and one with which I can identify, especially regarding the Bronx Bombers and their affectionately blind fans. You know them -- the ones who told us that Giambi couldn't carry Tino's jock, and that Jeter was better than Nomar and A-Rod because, well, "COUNT DA RINGS BABY!" So it was quite a pleasure when -- moments after I sang his praises to a Mets fan named Eric -- Goldman himself pulled into the empty seat at the end of my table at last Thursday's Baseball Prospectus Pizza Feed. Though I can't say much for the pizza (franchise-formula deep dish ain't my thang), the three and a half hours I spent talking baseball with Goldman, BP's Greg Spira and Doug Pappas, and several other knowledgeable fans were a blast. The down-to-earth Goldman humbly accepted our compliments and offered his perspective on several issues surrounding the Yanks. He was a lively participant in our discussions on several other stimulating topics -- on-base percentage, heckling, revenue sharing, relocation, contraction, marketing, and of course Bud Selig. I had a great time picking his brain, and I look forward to following his column through the coming season. Even if you're not a Yankee fan, this is a writer to whom it's worth saying "YES".
Saturday, March 01, 2003
Every baseball fan has his or her own favorite harbinger of spring, their own signal that a frigid winter without breaking balls, bunts, and box scores is on the wane. For Mike Carminati over at Mike's Baseball Rants, that harbinger arrived yesterday in the form of the year's first Joe Morgan Chat Day
on ESPN.com. In verse which could give the Score Bard
a run for his money (and which easily surpasses my own since-revoked poetic license
), Mike even waxed poetic
in anticipation of Morgan's return:
These are the gladdest of possible words:
"Joe Morgan Chat Day tomorrow."
Reductio ad absurdum, his facts fleetly blurred,
Joe Morgan Chat Day tomorrow
Ruthlessly promulgating gonfalon babble,
Making a giant hit with the ole rabble--
His words numb your brain like a bad game of Scrabble:
"Joe Morgan Chat Day tomorrow!"
With the blessed day finally arriving, Mike explains his glee in more detail:
We—I can't decide if that's the royal We or I'm schizophrenic, and so am I—here at Mike's Baseball Rants love the Joe Morgan and we love the Joe Morgan Chat Days even more. Joe was the greatest second baseman we've ever seen... But as a baseball analyst, Joe is the most infuriating in the business. He is not as execrable as the di-a-bo-lical sab-o-tag-E (to quote Bugs) that is being perpetrated during a Steve Lyons-Thom Brennaman broadcast. Joe is far more subtle and insidious. He can make a great point followed by one of the most inane and backward statements you will ever hear. Sometimes he does both at the same time. This is JMCD nirvana for the initiated.
As he always does, Carminati goes to great and often humorous lengths in analyzing Morgan's responses. This one finds him agreeing with Morgan more than usual, especially with regards to the recent Veterans Committee Hall of Fame vote. Still Morgan uncorks some wild ones, and Mike dutifully chases them to the backstop. Fun stuff.
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