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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

 

Clearing the Bases -- Booked Edition

This week's Prospectus Hit List went up yesterday, with the Big Apple holding the top two spots. Fresh off a 6-1 week that included a four-game sweep of the Diamondbacks by a combined score of 37-9, the Mets top the list while the Yanks, who lost four straight from Thursday to Sunday, still had enough mojo to edge the Tigers for second.

The Diamondbacks are one of baseball's big stories right now, though not for on-field matters. Saving myself the trouble of rewording and relinking, I'll just pull from the Hit List:
Grim Reaper: a BALCO-related federal raid on the home of Jason Grimsley leads to the journeyman pitcher's admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs, highlighting loopholes in the current policy such as the lack of a test for Human Growth Hormone and setting the stage for a new phase in baseball's drug scandal. The news rocks the baseball world, particularly because Grimsley reportedly revealed to the feds names of other players who used (pdf); if the pattern holds, those names will soon be leaked to the public. Grimsley requests and receives his release as the Diamondbacks decide to withhold pay.
Grimsley, of course, is a former Yankee; he played on the 1999 and 2000 World Champions. But his time in New York is best remembered for a story he told New York Times beat writer Buster Olney about pilfering Albert Belle's corked bat from the umpires' dressing room while a member of the Cleveland Indians in 1994. At least superficially, the link between that incident and this is that it paints an image of Grimsley as a brazen journeyman willing to do just about anything to keep himself in the majors, whether or not the rule book allows it.

What's shocking isn't that Grimsley was using, however; of the 12 major leaguers who tested positive last year, six were pitchers and none of them stars. No, what's shocking is that he named names of other players he believed were using or supplied drugs. Those names were redacted in the affidavit that's circulating on the Internet, but given how consistently every other redacted name has been leaked to the media, it won't be long. Some big ones have already been bandied about, and I'm hearing even more jaw-dropping ones through the grapevine. You can bet that not only will Grimsley's names be out there, but also the names of the five to seven percent of players (60 to 84, by my math) who tested positive during the so-called anonymous survey testing from 2003. Those identities, which were supposed to be confidential, have long since been matched up with their samples.

Those names could come from all over the game; ESPN's Jayson Stark paints a chilling picture merely by retracing the pitcher's steps:
He connects the late 1980s, when steroid use was just getting trendy, to the post-testing age we now live in.

He played with the Phillies of the early 1990s, with a bunch of players who went on to become a major part of the worst-to-first saga of their 1993 World Series runner-up team.

He played with the Indians of the mid-'90s, on a team of mashers that eventually grew into the only club in the past 70 years to score 1,000 runs in a season.

He played with the Yankees of 1999 and 2000, teams that won back-to-back World Series.

And he played with the Orioles of 2004-05, with guys named Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa.

Not to mention the '96 Angels or the 2006 Diamondbacks, or the three teams (Astros, Tigers and Brewers) that dumped him without bringing him back to the big leagues.

So Grimsley's All-Teammate Team would go on longer than his federal affidavit. It would be a roster hundreds of names long -- many of them really famous names, players who have never been associated with any kind of drug use.
All in all, this is Bad News for baseball. Whatever the motivations of the media following the story, the rumors flying around indicate that the game is headed for another black eye and another public pummeling.

No matter where you stand on the issue of steroids within the game, you probably exhaled a sigh of relief when Barry Bonds hit his 715th home run, hoping that the soapboxes could be put away for awhile. Now, the issue will be with us right up through the negotiations of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement after the season. Any time that's brought up, we'll be reminded that the Players' Association will be pressed to make further concessions, to find a way to prove their members aren't using despite the fact that there's currently no reliable urine or blood test available. To prove the unprovable, in other words.

Congressmen and media will bloviate that Something Must Be Done. And they're right. If Congress wanted to do something about the issue rather than simply score points in the public while dodging the real needs of its constituency, they'd pour a reasonable amount of research money into the creation of a reliable test for HGH, and they'd force Major League Baseball to step up to the plate, too. Olney pointed out that MLB has committed only $450,000 over three years to finding such a test; relative to the industry's revenue, that's a pittance he likens to the price of a Happy Meal for someone making $30,000.

But no matter how much money is thrown at the issue, there won't be a test anytime soon, and holding the samples for later testing isn't going to edify anyone. Which means it's clear that the game is at something of a dead end when it comes to the issue. Some folks might downplay the problems in the sport and point to the steps that have been taken, but consider this: for whatever advances baseball can claim in the reduced number of positive tests (from that 5-7% of players in 2003 to 96 players in 2004 to 12 in 2005), the scandals that are rocking the sport center on the use of substances -- including designer steroids and HGH -- chosen to circumvent those tests. You can't count what you can't catch, and it's quite possible that there are dozens of players who've switched over to undetectables for every one who's been caught.

The unruly and often counterproductive noise that's emanating from so many fronts is in part a reflection of the frustration and powerlessness people feel as that likelihood dawns on them while they watch the sport take hit after hit. In the words of James Brown, "People it's bad."

• • •

Speaking of steroids, yesterday brought the news that Will Carroll's book, The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems, was one of three books to receive The Sporting News-SABR Baseball Research Award to honor "those whose outstanding research projects completed during the preceding calendar year have significantly expanded our knowledge or understanding of baseball." I contributed a chapter to the book, and I'm delighted to be associated, even tangentially, with such an honor.

Carroll was in town on Monday, and in between entries for the Hit List, I spent about 90 minutes catching up with him while on a barstool at Mesa Grill; he knows one of the restaurant's co-owners, and the three of us were gabbing about the Grimsley news, player injuries, food, business and gambling for a nice, well-liquified little late-afternoon spell. He didn't receive the SABR news until he returned to Indianapolis, so I didn't get a chance to raise a toast then. I'll hoist one at Yankee Stadium tonight if it doesn't rain.

• • •

Continuing the Page Six theme, Carroll wasn't the only writer I caught up with recently. On Saturday, Andra and I dropped by Coliseum Books on the Forty-Deuce to see this month's installment of the SABR Baseball Book Club Meeting. Up first was Alex Belth, discussing Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights. Alex gave a well-polished 20 minute presentation on the book, tracing the narrative arc of Flood's career and his legal battle to challenge baseball's reserve clause. He did a great job of bridging the gap between Flood's unsuccessful Supreme Court case (filed early in 1970 and decided in '72) and the landmark "Messersmith-McNally" arbitrator's decision which opened the door free agency in 1975. The key, as former Executive Director of the Players Association Marvin Miller pointed out to Belth a few years ago was the education of the players and the creation of that impartial arbitrator position in the 1970 Basic Agreement; prior to that, players had no avenue for their grievances to be heard.

Following 15 minutes of Q&A, Belth yielded the floor to ESPN's Rob Neyer, in town to promote his Big Book of Baseball Blunders. Neyer, whom I'd met in the moments prior to Belth's presentation, seemed somewhat nervous as he took the stage; unlike Alex, he didn't have a structured presentation planned, so he simply jumped to the Q&A, where he quickly gained comfort. I can relate to that; as somebody who has shown a tendency to overprepare when I'm giving a speech, responding to questions almost automatically enables me to simplify my answers in a way that an audience can connect with much easier. Anyway, Neyer did a very good job fielding the questions; he comes off as very intelligent and genuinely confident without being full of himself. I don't read Neyer as often as I used to (he doesn't write as often as he used to), but there's little doubt in my mind I wouldn't have started this blog without him. His work at ESPN back in the late '90s brought me back to my Bill James days and pointed me over to Baseball Prospectus, and I've got a massive amount of respect for the way he was able to educate a generation of Net-savvy baseball fans to go beyond the AVG-HR-RBI triumverate when it comes to evaluating baseball statistics.

The event drew several other writers, many of whom I had the pleasure of chatting with afterwards. Baseball Prospectus' Rany Jazayerli, who has had a long-running dialogue with Neyer on the state of the Kansas City Royals, just happened to be in town this past weekend and dropped by. This was my first chance to meet him, and we talked about the year-long series of studies he did regarding baseball's amateur draft. My BP cohort, Steven Goldman, was in the house, as was SportsIllustrated.com's Jacob Luft; carrying over a discussion from the night Hideki Matsui got hurt, we talked about a research idea he suggested on the recent futility of the Designated Hitter and the latest chapter in Josh Beckett's struggles (Luft linked my Beckett-related data for a recent SI.com piece; thanks, Jake!). Another participant in that ill-fated Matsui gathering, Yanksfan vs. Soxfan's Mark Lamster, was also in attendance, giving me the opportunity to congratulate him on a nice review in The New York Times for his book, the wonderful Spalding's World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe -- and Made It America's Game. Lamster and I pledged to bend elbows at the SABR convention in Seattle later this month.

Neyer introduced me to Josh Prager, who in a Wall Street Journal article five years ago set the baseball world on its ear when he revealed that the 1951 New York Giants' miraculous comeback which culminated in Bobby Thomson's famous home run was fueled by an elaborate system of stealing signs (Neyer covered the revelation back then for ESPN). Five years later, Prager finally has a book, The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World, due this fall. Prager, Neyer, Luft, Goldman and I were part of a group of ten people who went to John's Pizzeria after the event, where I sat next to Scott Gray, author of The Mind of Bill James, a book I've heard about but have yet to lay my hands on.

Anyway, it was a hell of a time talking to all of these writers, and it reminded me more than ever that I've got to get my act together and work on getting a book of my own out there. Once I clear my plate of the big design project I've been filling my days with, I may have to carve out a chunk of time even if it's at the expense of this blog. Because damn it, some day I want to be the guy on that stage at Coliseum Books; I've been there and done that as part of the BP team, but a book of my own is the next frontier.

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