One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation - George F. Will (2008)
Chapter 7. THE GAME
Chicago Cub fans, that numerous and inexplicable cohort, have a weird rallying cry: “Remember 1908!” Not one of them really does remember that season, the last time the Cubs won the World Series. That is all the more reason for them to join Cait Murphy on her jaunty walk through that tumultuous season. All other baseball fans should tag along. So should anyone interested in the rough texture of this bumptious nation in the early twentieth century, when twenty-five cents—not a piddling amount for a low-skilled factory worker making $7 a week—would get you into a ballpark where whiskey, waffles, and pigs’ knuckles were served.
Crazy ’08 is a walk on the wild side: Brooklyn fans on rooftops would hurl sharpened umbrella shafts at visiting players in the outfield. When only boxing and horse racing competed with baseball for the public’s attention, baseball stirred tribal feelings.
Baseball fans relish arguments about which was the greatest this or that—greatest game, team, left-handed right fielder, right-handed left fielder, whatever. Murphy will ignite a dandy rhubarb with her subtitle: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History. The author, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, makes a powerful case for those last six words.
In 1908—the year a play titled The Melting Pot put that phrase into the American lexicon—Americans were unmelted. When the best player in the game, Honus Wagner, came to bat, a band might break into “Wacht am Rhein.” When John McGraw’s Giants visited Springfield, Illinois, which had recently experienced a hideous race riot—the NAACP was born partly in response to it—McGraw was given, as a souvenir, a piece of the rope used to lynch a black man. Murphy reports that McGraw said the rope would replace a rabbit’s foot as the Giants’ good-luck emblem.
That year, construction began on the first fireproof (concrete and steel) ballpark, Shibe Park in Philadelphia. With its terra-cotta casts and copper-trimmed roof, it embodied the City Beautiful movement’s belief that attractive buildings would uplift the downtrodden. Furthermore, 1908 gave the world the greatest piece of music since Mozart (“Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” of course) and an audacious and successful bit of flapdoodle (the campaign to convince the gullible that Cooperstown was the birthplace, and Abner Doubleday the father, of baseball).
Between the white lines, baseball in 1908 also included:
✵ Two pennant races in which a total of six teams were in contention with two days left.
✵ The finest (Murphy says so; she does like laying down the law) pitching duel in baseball history. Ed Walsh, whose record in 1908 would be 40-15 with a 1.42 ERA, struck out fifteen—at that time a record for a nine-inning game—and allowed only one run, which was unearned. But he lost because Addie Joss used just seventy-four pitches to throw a perfect game.
✵ What was perhaps the best season any National League player would have in the twentieth century. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Honus Wagner led the league in almost everything—you can look it up. “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer,” he said, “if you’re a ballplayer.”
✵ The only doubleheader in which one pitcher pitched every inning and threw two shutouts.
✵ A steal of first base. (A runner on first stole second, hoping the runner on third would score on the throw to second. But the catcher did not throw. So on the next pitch the runner on second ran back to first. Then he stole second again.)
When crucial games were being played, tens of thousands around the nation packed concert halls and blocked streets to watch large electric scoreboards relaying telegraph information of the games’ progress, batter by batter. Murphy provides delightful samples of 1908 baseball writing for newspapers: “There was a sharp report as Tommy caught the pellet squarely on its proboscis and sent it screeching toward the distant middle.”
In 1908, Murphy writes, the average player’s salary was $2,500—three times as much as what Chicago paid a primary-school teacher with seven years’ experience. In 1910, almost a quarter of major leaguers had some college education, compared with 5 percent of the population. But it was not until the late eighties that Pennsylvania, with its history of mills and mines, was surpassed by sunny California as the incubator of the most big-league players. For many men—the kind who poured whiskey on spike wounds—baseball a century ago was a way to avoid life sentences of hard labor, so they played with grim intensity. In 1907, a player was “beaned so badly that he was given last rites on the field.” (He survived.)
The umpire—often there was only one—was given three balls at the beginning of the game. If these did not suffice, the home team was required to supply balls. If the home team was ahead, those supplied were apt to be old and lifeless. Murphy gives this example of how, in a pennant race decided by a one-game margin, the Cubs stole a game because the umpire Cy Rigler, working alone, was calling balls and strikes standing behind the pitcher:
“In the fifth inning, the Cubs attempt a double steal with men on first and third and two out; Rigler turns to call the runner out at second. The run scores if the runner on third, Johnny Kling, touches home before the out is recorded. Rigler has no way of knowing when or even if Kling crosses the plate in time. He simply flips a mental coin and admits the run—and the Cubs beat the Cardinals 4-3. Even the Chicago press admits that Kling was several steps short.”
Between the Cubs, who were then a dynasty (no other team has ever won 530 games in five years, as the Cubs did from 1906 to 1910), and the New York Giants, this was, as Murphy says, an “era of really bad feelings.” On September 23, with the Giants leading the Cubs by half a game, the Giants’ regular first baseman woke up with lumbago, so Fred Merkle, nineteen, got his first start of the season. After the tumultuous ninth inning, he would forever be known as Bonehead Merkle. Murphy’s reconstruction of the jaw-dropping confusion that effectively sent the Cubs to the World Series is lucid and hilarious, and justifies her assertion—baseball fans do love such judgments—that the game involved “perhaps the single most courageous act” ever by an umpire. He ruled that on an infield covered with fans and several balls more or less in play, Merkle never touched second. All baseball fans know something about this game; few know the astonishing details Murphy supplies, including a brazen attempt to bribe the umpires before the game was replayed, because the Merkle game had been declared a tie.
Murphy’s book is rich in trivia—not that anything associated with baseball is really trivial. Did you know, for example, that when the Yankees were still the Highlanders (they played at the highest point in Manhattan) they adopted their interlocking NY lettering “based on the Tiffany design for the Police Department’s Medal of Honor”?
Readers of Crazy ’08 can almost smell the whiskey and taste the pigs’ knuckles. This rollicking tour of that season will entertain readers interested in social history, will fascinate students of baseball, and will cause today’s Cub fans to experience an unaccustomed feeling—pride—as their team enters the 2007 season, the ninety-ninth season of its rebuilding effort.
[APRIL 1, 2007]
Jackie Robinson: The Possible and the Inevitable
Like many New Yorkers leaving home for work on April 15, 1947, he wore a suit, tie, and camel-hair overcoat as he headed for the subway. To his wife he said, “Just in case you have trouble picking me out, I’ll be wearing number 42.”
No one had trouble spotting the black man in the Dodgers’ white home uniform when he trotted out to play first base at Ebbets Field. Suddenly, only 399, not 400, major-league players were white. Which is why 42 is the only number permanently retired by every team.
Jackie Robinson’s high school teachers suggested a career in gardening. Robinson’s brother Mack had finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Whites who won medals found careers opened for them. Mack, writes Jonathan Eig in Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, wore his Olympic jacket as a Pasadena, California, street sweeper, while Owens found himself racing against horses at county fairs, “one small step removed from a circus act.”
To appreciate how far the nation has come, propelled by what began sixty years ago this Sunday, consider not the invectives that Robinson heard from opponents’ dugouts and fans, but the way he had been praised. “Dusky Jack Robinson,” as the Los Angeles Times called him, alerting readers to the race of UCLA’s four-sport star, ran with a football “like it was a watermelon and the guy who owned it was after him with a shotgun.”
That cringe-inducing fact is from Eig’s mind-opening book, an account of a twenty-eight-year-old man “filled with fear and fury,” and terribly alone. It includes unfamiliar details about familiar episodes. There is Lieutenant Robinson’s 1944 refusal, eleven years before Rosa Parks, to move to the back of a bus at Fort Hood, Texas. And shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian who until 1947 had never shaken hands with a black person, crossing the infield to put a hand on Robinson’s shoulder when Cincinnati fans were being abusive.
But Eig is especially informative about the dynamics among the Dodgers, who, like many teams, had a Southern tinge. The most popular player was nicknamed Dixie (Walker) and one of the best pitchers was the grandson of a Confederate soldier. The Dodgers’ radio broadcaster, Red Barber, a Mississippian, considered resigning, then thought better. Radio presented Robinson as television cameras could not have done—as, Eig shrewdly writes, “all action,” undifferentiated by visual differences from his teammates.
After the opening two games against the Boston Braves, the Dodgers played the Giants at the Polo Grounds in Harlem. The president of the National League, fearing excessive enthusiasm, suggested that Robinson should develop a sprained ankle. He did not, and the crowds were large, dressed as if for church—men in suits and hats, women in dresses—and decorous. Soon a commentator wrote, “Like plastics and penicillin, it seems like Jackie is here to stay.”
The Dodgers were not. Ebbets Field’s turnstiles clicked 1.8 million times in 1947, more than they ever had before or would again. But in 1947, in a Long Island potato field, Levittown was founded, offering mass-produced low-cost housing emblematic of postwar suburbanization. Dodger fans were moving east on the island. After the 1957 season, the Dodgers moved west.
Only 25,623 fans went to the game on April 15, 1947—4,000 fewer than on opening day 1946 and 6,000 fewer than the ballpark’s capacity. Perhaps some white fans were wary of being with so many blacks. Usually blacks were no more than 10 percent of Dodger crowds but on this day they may have been 60 percent.
By 1956, Robinson’s last season, he had lost his second base position to Jim Gilliam, a black man. Robinson died of diabetes-related illnesses in 1972, at fifty-three, the same age Babe Ruth was when he died. Ruth reshaped baseball; Robinson’s life still reverberates through all of American life. As Martin Luther King Jr., who was eighteen in 1947, was to say, Robinson was “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
“Robinson,” writes Eig, “showed black Americans what was possible. He showed white Americans what was inevitable.” By the end of the 1947 season, America’s future was unfolding by democracy’s dialectic of improvement. Robinson changed sensibilities, which led to changed laws, which in turn accelerated changes in sensibilities.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s middle name was homage to the president who said “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Robinson’s deeds spoke loudly. His stick weighed thirty-four ounces, which was enough.
[APRIL 15, 2007]
Ted Williams: “I Can’t Stand It, I’m So Good”
There is no joy in Red Sox nation, aka New England, or in any heart where baseball matters. When Ted Williams arrived in Boston at age twenty in 1939, a spindly six-foot-three, the Splendid Splinter said, “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.’” When he died Friday at age eighty-three, many people did say that, and no one said they were foolish.
When, as a twelve-year-old in San Diego in 1930, he heard that the Giants’ Bill Terry had batted .401, “I got my little bat, ran out to our little back yard, and began to swing.” His swing became baseball’s gold standard.
In 1939, a golden moment on the eve of dark years, Bob Feller, Williams, and Joe DiMaggio were twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-four respectively. “I can’t stand it, I’m so good,” Williams used to exclaim in his youthful ebullience.
In 1941, when DiMaggio mesmerized the nation with his still unmatched fifty-six-game hitting streak, Williams did what has not been done in six decades since—batted over .400. Batting .3995 going into the season’s last day, a doubleheader in Philadelphia against the Athletics, he went 6-for-8, finishing at .406.
There was no sacrifice fly rule in effect that year (today a batter is not charged with an at bat if he hits a fly that scores a runner). Had there been, his average would have been about 10 points higher. Biographer Ed Linn says that had Williams not lost the four and a half years he spent as an aviator in the Second World War and Korea, he probably would rank first or second in runs, runs batted in, total bases, extra-base hits, and perhaps home runs.
An alloy of innocence and arrogance, young Williams came to Boston when it had four morning and four evening local newspapers engaged in perpetual circulation wars. He became grist for their mills, and his wars with the sportswriters brought out the worst in him, and cost him. He won two Most Valuable Player Awards and finished second four times. Several of those times he would have won had he not had such poisonous relations with the voting press. A writer said that when Williams retired, Boston knew how Britain felt when it lost India—diminished, but relieved.
He is one of only two players (the other was Rogers Hornsby) to win a triple crown (highest batting average, most home runs and runs batted in) twice, and he would have won a third if the Tigers’ George Kell had not beaten him for the 1949 batting title .3429 to .34275. If the sacrifice fly rule had been in effect that year, Williams would have beaten Kell, who would have had one fewer sacrifice fly. Williams won six batting titles, including one hitting .388 in 1957, when his thirty-eight-year-old legs surely cost him five infield hits, enough to put him over .400 again.
He used a postal scale to check that humidity had not added an ounce to the weight of his bats. Challenged to find from among six bats the one that was half an ounce heavier than the others, he quickly did. He once returned to the maker a batch of his Louisville Sluggers because he sensed that the handles were not quite right. The handles were off by five-thousandths of an inch.
Like many great players, he remembered, obsessively. That grand slam home run in Minneapolis before coming to the big leagues? “Fifth inning, three-and-two count, low fastball.”
He hit a home run in his last time at bat—twice. He assumed his career was over—and he homered—when the Marine Corps called him to Korea (where No. 9 flew an F-9 jet as wingman for a squadron commander named John Glenn). And on September 26, 1960, in the final at bat of his final game, in Boston’s gray autumnal gloom, he homered. Among the only 10,454 fans was John Updike, who wrote “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”: “For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”
Never, not even after that farewell home run, did Williams tip his hat to the cheering fans. “Gods,” wrote Updike, “do not answer letters.”
Late in life, Williams said that often he fell asleep hearing in his head three songs—“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Marines’ Hymn,” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” An American life.
[JULY 7, 2002]
Roberto Clemente: “We Think He Can Hit”
Most biographies of great athletes are tinged with melancholy, for three reasons. Athletic greatness is often achieved by a narrowing, even infantilizing, monomania about physical things. Sport compresses life’s natural trajectory of ascent, apogee, and decline. And often an athlete’s life after sport is a long, dispiriting decrescendo. David Maraniss’s splendid Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero is different, for three reasons. Roberto Clemente was an unusually elegant, even noble, athlete. He was emblematic of a social transformation. And he had no life after baseball.
Maraniss’s biography of Bill Clinton is still the best of the first president formed by the 1960s. He is also the author of one of the best books on the 1960s, They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967. And now he has produced a baseball-savvy book sensitive to the social context that made Clemente, a black Puerto Rican, a leading indicator of baseball’s future. Clemente was not the first Latino player, but as the first Latino superstar—the National League’s first Latino batting champion and MVP—he propelled baseball’s “southern strategy” for finding talent.
Baseball has come a long way since the San Francisco Giants’ manager Alvin Dark, in 1964, banned Spanish in the clubhouse. In 1989 and 1990, five of the twenty-six major-league teams had a starting shortstop from the same Dominican town, San Pedro de Macorís. In 2005, 29 percent of the players on the thirty teams’ opening day rosters were born outside the United States—70 percent of them from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Puerto Rico. Among the nearly twelve hundred players on the forty-man rosters this spring, ten of the sixteen most common surnames were Hernandez, Gonzalez, Perez, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Cabrera, Guzman, Lopez, Pena, and Sanchez.
The emblematic Pirate of the 1960 World Series-winning team was, as Maraniss notes, “ethnic”—second baseman Bill Mazeroski, son of a coal miner from nearby West Virginia. Not until the late 1980s did California supplant Pennsylvania as the state that had produced the most major leaguers. California’s climate provides opportunities to develop baseball talent. Pennsylvania provided incentives—escape from the mines and dark satanic steel mills. Latin America has both the climate and the incentives.
The report on young Fred Astaire’s screen test said: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Clemente out of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system in 1954, they said, “He can run and throw—and we think he can hit.” Oh, yes. In his last at bat, in September 1972, he became the eleventh player—fifteen others have done it since—to get three thousand hits. A bad-ball hitter with a “nose to toes” strike zone, he was difficult to walk. But then, as the saying goes, you can’t walk off an island.
In eighteen seasons, all with the Pirates, Clemente used the whole field. Maraniss believes that two factors—Clemente used an unusually heavy bat, and had chronic back and neck discomfort from a 1954 automobile accident—kept Clemente from being a home-run-seeking pull hitter. Instead, he sprayed line drives into the left-and right-field power alleys.
Tim McCarver, the first catcher ever to lead either league in triples, once said hitting a triple is better than sex. Most of us are unable to make that comparison, but if Clemente, who hit 166 triples, agreed with McCarver, he played in two home ballparks built for ecstasy. The Pirates never led the league in home runs while playing in Forbes Field, but its spaciousness—365 feet to left, 416 to right-center, 457 to the deepest part of center field, where the batting cage was kept on the field of play—turned many Clemente drives into triples. So did the hard fake-grass surface of cavernous Three Rivers Stadium, to which the Pirates moved in 1970.
The first black Puerto Rican to play in the American League was Clemente’s friend Vic Power, a flashy-fielding first baseman. Like Clemente, he was incensed by the 1950s contrast between Puerto Rico’s easygoing race relations and America’s segregation. But unlike Clemente, Power responded with wit. When a waitress said her restaurant did not serve Negroes, he replied equably, “That’s OK, I don’t eat Negroes.”
Clemente, playing in a city with a minuscule Latino population, said he felt like a “double nigger.” As late as 1971—in one game that year, the Pirates became the first team ever to have nine black players in its starting lineup—some sportswriters still quoted him in phonetic English: “Eef I have my good arm thee ball gets there a leetle quicker.”
Arrestingly handsome, at five feet eleven inches and 185 pounds he was about the size of today’s smaller middle infielders. But the smoldering energy of his national and professional pride and resentments seemed transmuted into energy at bat and in the field. Right fielders need the strongest arms, to give runners second thoughts about going from first to third on singles. In the golden age of right fielders (Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline), Clemente’s arm was the best.
A Clemente line drive broke the leg of one Hall of Fame pitcher (the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson, who pitched to three more batters before collapsing) and, Maraniss believes, hastened the retirement of another, the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale. In August 1969, after a Clemente shot whistled into the outfield, Drysdale flicked what felt like an insect off his neck, but discovered blood on his fingers. Clemente’s drive had torn the skin off the top of Drysdale’s ear. Shaken, Drysdale walked Clemente the next time up and retired six days later.
The last act of Clemente’s life was in character. On December 23, 1972, a severe earthquake devastated Nicaragua. Clemente, making use of his heroic status, threw himself into organizing Puerto Rico’s charitable response. Incensed by reports that agents of Nicaragua’s dictatorship were diverting, and profiting from, the shipment of aid, he chartered an ancient DC-7. He did not know it was a ramshackle contraption operated by a shady pilot with an untrained crew. Hoping his presence could force the Nicaraguan officials to distribute his materials, he boarded the plane. Overloaded and unbalanced, it plunged into the sea a few thousand yards from the end of the San Juan airport. His body was not recovered.
“The mythic aspects of baseball,” Maraniss concludes, “usually draw on cliches of the innocent past, the nostalgia for how things were. Fields of green. Fathers and sons. But Clemente’s myth arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become. His memory is kept alive as a symbol of action and passion, not of reflection and longing. He broke racial and language barriers and achieved greatness and died a hero.”
In 2005, thirty-three years after Clemente’s death, Ozzie Guillen, the Venezuelan manager of the world champion Chicago White Sox, said his home has a shrine to the player he most reveres, Roberto Clemente. Now, thanks to Maraniss, Clemente’s legacy is suitably defined and explained.
[MAY 7, 2006]
Greg Maddux: “Watch This—the First-Base Coach May Be Going to the Hospital”
Baseball’s almost seamless history has had only one stark disjunction, the one about 1920, between the dead-ball and lively ball eras. But within the lively ball era there has been the steroids parenthesis—the era of some synthetically lively players—which now is closing.
Greg Maddux has thrived throughout it. Only three pitchers in the lively ball era have had four consecutive seasons with an earned run average under 2.40—Maddux, Pedro Martinez, and Sandy Koufax, who threw from a mound five inches higher than today’s. In Maddux’s four seasons (1992-1995) his ERA was an astonishing 1.98, two runs per game lower than the National League’s 3.99 over the same period. Today, as he prepares to win at least fifteen games for a record eighteenth consecutive year, he represents physical normality in baseball.
Just six feet tall and 180 pounds, Maddux is a reminder that, as Bill Veeck said, you do not need to be seven feet tall or seven feet wide to play baseball. When Maddux, now thirty-nine, enters the Hall of Fame five years after he retires, he will be the smallest major-league pitcher inducted since Whitey Ford (five feet ten, 181), who retired in 1967.
When baseball is cleansed of steroids there will be fewer lurid records, like those of Barry Bonds in 2001. But numerous factors, from the strength training of hitters to the proliferation of hitter-friendly ballparks, will keep home runs plentiful. Besides, pitchers, too, have probably used steroids. Maddux says steroids made some track stars’ legs move faster, so they probably increased some pitchers’ arm speeds. Steroid testing began in 2003. In 2004, only one-eighth as many players (twelve) tested positive as in 2003 (ninety-six). Yet home runs per game and slugging percentages increased.
In Maddux’s first full season, 1988, the major-league-leading home-run total was Jose Canseco’s forty-two. But of the fifty-homer seasons in baseball history—there have been thirty-six of them—nineteen have occurred since 1990. This power explosion has not perturbed Maddux, who last year methodically became the twenty-second three-hundred-game winner, and perhaps the last for a long time. This year, his eighty-fourth strikeout will be his three thousandth, making him the ninth pitcher with three thousand Ks and three hundred wins.
He is proof—redundant proof—that ballplayers can perform well late in their careers without performance-enhancing drugs. Ty Cobb, who batted .316 in 1906 at age nineteen, batted .323 at age forty-one in 1928. Warren Spahn, the winningest left-handed pitcher ever, got 158 of his 363 wins after turning thirty-six and was 23-7 at age forty-two. Henry Aaron—currently and, we may hope, for many years to come, baseball’s all-time home-run hitter—had his best year at age thirty-seven.
Maddux says laconically that when he came to the big leagues he threw between eighty and ninety miles per hour, and today he throws the same four pitches—fastball, change, slider, curve—seventy-five to eighty-five today. But he throws them with uncanny control: Among three-hundred-game winners since 1900, his walks-per-nine-innings ratio (1.87) is fourth best, behind only Cy Young (1.49), Christy Mathewson (1.59), and Grover Cleveland Alexander (1.65), who played all or most of their careers in the dead-ball era. And the key to his success has been less the speed of his arm than that of his mind.
One year in spring training, facing a Met who had hit him hard the previous season, Maddux told teammates he would throw dinky sliders to encourage the Met to hit a home run. Maddux figured that hitters remember, and subsequently look for, what they crush. The Met homered—then, always looking for the same pitch, went hitless against Maddux in the regular season.
Leading 8-0 in a regular-season game against the Astros, Maddux threw what he had said he would never throw to Jeff Bagwell—a fastball in. Bagwell did what Maddux wanted him to do: He homered. So two weeks later, when Maddux was facing Bagwell in a close game, Bagwell was looking for a fastball in, and Maddux fanned him on a changeup away.
Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci collects such stories demonstrating Maddux’s knowledge of hitters. Four times in one season, Maddux, while in the dugout, warned the man sitting next to him that the batter would line a foul into the dugout. Three times the batter did. Another time Maddux said on the bench: “Watch this—the first-base coach may be going to the hospital.” The batter lined the next pitch off the coach’s chest. Once with runners on second and third and two outs, Maddux’s manager suggested an intentional walk. “Don’t worry,” said Maddux, explaining that on the third of his next pitches the batter would pop out foul to third. Maddux was wrong: The pop was a few feet fair.
Maddux, who grew up in Las Vegas, is a formidable poker player. Amarillo Slim, former winner of the World Series of Poker, once said: “The results of one particular game doesn’t mean a damn thing, and that’s why one of my mantras has always been ‘decisions, not results.’ Do the right thing enough times and the results will take care of themselves in the long run.” Maddux has had a long run pitching the way Slim played. But all runs end, so this year pay particular attention to the most artistic pitcher of the lively-ball era.
[APRIL 25, 2005]
Take Me Out to the Metric
Michael Bourn needs to get out more. A database programmer in Nashua, New Hampshire, he created the website plunkbiggio. blogspot.com that tells everything—really, everything—about the 273 times that Craig Biggio of the Astros has been hit by a pitch, the modern major-league record.
On average, Biggio’s plunks have occurred 493 feet above sea level, up 36 feet after two plunkings last year in Denver. The shortest pitcher to hit him? Byung-Hyun Kim (five feet nine inches). The average age and weight of the plunking pitchers are 28.5 and 200.22. He has been hit most often by pitchers whose astrological sign is Sagittarius, but more Leos have hit him. He has been hit fifteen times while Tiger Woods was on Sports Illustrated’s cover. In 1997, the Dow rose an average of 28.63 on trading days after Biggio was hit. And on, and on.
Why does Bourn do this? “It is better than following Ruben Sierra’s approach to the sacrifice-fly record.” (Sierra is 9 short of Eddie Murray’s 128. Feel the excitement.) An obsessive-compulsive fascination with numbers is an occupational hazard of baseball fans. Baseball, unlike games of flow such as hockey, soccer and basketball, is a series of episodes that encourage quantification. This week, baseball resumes its prodigious production of numbers in another season of 2,430 games with 21,870 innings and approximately 700,000 pitches during 166,000 at bats. The rage to quantify—to reduce reality to measurable units—is an impulse in modern societies. In baseball, it produces illuminating metrics. For example:
The objective is to win, which means scoring runs while efficiently getting the other team to make twenty-seven outs. Every three outs, you must start over. Until recently, most people assumed that the key to runs was hits. Hence a misplaced emphasis on batting averages. But counting all hits alike is as foolish as counting different denominations of currency as identical. Nowadays, more emphasis is placed on not making outs. Hence the importance of on-base percentage, which is (hits + walks + hits by pitch)/(at bats + walks+ hits by pitch + sacrifice flies). That led to the statistic OPS, which is on-base percentage + slugging percentage (which is total bases/at bats).
But Bill James, a pioneer of novel metrics (see The Mind of Bill James, by Scott Gray), says OPS takes the elements of run creation and puts them together incorrectly. “They shouldn’t be added together, they should be multiplied. A team with a .400 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage would score more runs than a team with.350 and .450, although both add up to .800 OPS.” James suggests calculating “runs created”: (hits + walks+ caught stealing) + (total bases + .7 steals)/(at bats + walks + caught stealing).
Yikes. One reason we were so glad to get out of school was to get away from math homework. For fans more fond of John Kruk’s mind than Isaac Newton’s, here are some more accessible numbers, pertaining to baseball’s health as life resumes this week:
Competitive balance is getting better: Baseball has had six different World Series winners in the past six years. The NFL has not had six different winners of Super Bowls since 1968-1973. One moral of this story is that the Yankees, with their $202 million payroll, have learned the declining marginal utility of the last $80 million.
Major-league baseball’s long history is divided into just two eras—the dead ball and, beginning about 1920, the lively ball. But the latter contained a steroid parenthesis. It is closing because baseball now has the severest steroid penalties in professional sports. Last year there were 434 fewer home runs than in 2004—and the game became more interesting. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reports:
“Baseball captivates us so deeply that the anticipation of action is as compelling as action itself. The 20 seconds between pitches with the bases loaded, two outs, down a run in the eighth are Agatha Christie chapters unto themselves. With the powerball version of the game subsiding, fans are getting more of these worth-the-price-of-admission moments. For instance, 47.9 percent of games last season were decided by one or two runs, up 9 percent from the slugfest apex in 2001 and the highest such percentage since 1993.”
During the slugfest era, it was said, “Chicks dig the long ball.” Maybe. But as home runs fly away less frequently, ballpark turnstiles spin faster. Last year, baseball set an attendance record that it will break this year. Already, five teams—Angels, Cardinals, Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox—have essentially sold out their seasons. On February 24, the Cubs, who are in the ninety-eighth year of their rebuilding effort (they last won the World Series in 1908), put single-game tickets on sale. They set a major-league record, selling more than 597,000 tickets that day, just 38,000 fewer than they sold in the entire 1966 season.
This season will include more plunkings of Biggio, who is one of 1,563 players whose names begin with B who have been hit 8,601 times in 1,380,366 plate appearances. You can look it up. But if you do, you need to get out more.
[APRIL 10, 2006]
Elias Knows Everything
Last Monday, Nancy and Henry Kissinger arrived at a Manhattan restaurant at 8:10 p.m. and excitedly recounted what they had just listened to in their car: a Yankee rookie in his first major league at bat had hit a home run off a fearsome pitcher—the Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson, who is six feet ten and looks like a giant praying mantis with an attitude.
Before the Kissingers had time to examine their menus, some baseball commentators were reporting that this was the first time since 1986 that a player in his first major league at bat had homered against a likely future Hall of Famer (Will Clark off Nolan Ryan) and the first time ever that a player homered in his first at bat off a pitcher who the previous season won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in his league.
Who tells us such things lickety-split? The busy beavers at the Elias Sports Bureau.
On a Saturday evening last month the Devil Rays scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Orioles, 6-4, thereby snapping a fifteen-game losing streak. The game ended just after ESPN’s 10 p.m. Baseball Tonightwent on the air. Soon Elias sent a message to reporter Tim Kurkjian on the Baseball Tonight set: This was the first time ever that an American League team had snapped a double-digit losing streak by scoring more than two runs in the ninth.
How do such nuggets of baseball history get mined? Here is how. The Hirdt brothers, Steve, fifty-one, and Peter, forty-eight, both Fordham graduates, are the heart of Elias’s batting order, which never sleeps, at least not all at once. This is a twenty-four-hour-a-day business whose approximately thirty employees, when not in the office, are logged on and talking to one another at all hours from their homes. Elias, whose clients now include all the major professional sports leagues, was begun in 1961 by Seymour Siwoff, who is still a bundle of energy at an age he thinks is nobody’s business.
Elias’s business is to examine the statistical histories of the major professional sports using custom-written software that will retrieve the answers to the kind of questions Peter put to it when he returned home from dinner and saw what the Devil Rays had just done to the Orioles. Peter wondered: In baseball—sport of the long history and long seasons—has this ever happened before?
Learning from the Elias computer that it had not, Peter e-mailed the news to a researcher at the nation’s central cultural institution. No, silly, not to the Library of Congress. To ESPN, an Elias client. The researcher sitting on the set of Baseball Tonight instantly e-mailed back: “Tim will cry when he sees this.” Tim didn’t. There really are thoughts too deep for tears.
Steve Hirdt says that when he and Peter were growing up they were “the only boys in New York City who, when our mother said, ‘How many times do I have to ask you to clean up your room?’ would tell her.” A statistical literacy is part of being a fan of any sport, but is especially important to baseball fans. Big league baseball, now in its third century, produces a steadily thickening sediment of numbers, pitch by pitch, inning by inning. Elias sifts the sediment.
Today, Elias is located in a building overlooking an almost-as-impressive storehouse of knowledge, the New York Public Library. But just as there was a McDonald’s brothers restaurant in San Bernardino, California, before Ray Kroc came along and had a bright idea, there was something called Elias, a dormant sports-information bureau run by two brothers, before Siwoff had his brainstorm, while shaving one morning, about putting a (then) newfangled gadget, the computer, to work deepening our understanding and enjoyment of sports.
When Braves pitcher Tom Glavine recently went to 100 games over .500 in his career (as this is written, he is 101 over—235-134) he joined teammate Greg Maddux in that category, and it was the first time since 1908 that two teammates (the Giants’ Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity) were at least 100 wins over .500.
The top three American League home-run hitters in May were all Yankees (Jason Giambi, ten; Alfonso Soriano and Bernie Williams, nine each). This was the first time since September 1950 that three teammates had led either league in homers in a month (the Yankees’ Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and Johnny Mize, all now Hall of Famers).
It is incessantly said that pitchers do not pitch inside as aggressively as they did in the rough-and-tumble past. Elias says: Oh? In 1941, 1 in every 309 batters was hit by a pitch. In 1951, 1 in 214. In 1971, 1 in 179. In 2001, 1 in 99. Mickey Mantle, a power hitter, was hit 13 times in his career. The Astros’ Craig Biggio was hit 28 times last year. When asked if any pitcher faced both Babe Ruth and Mantle, Elias reported: Al Benton pitched against Ruth for the 1934 Philadelphia Athletics and against Mantle for the 1952 Red Sox.
Elias knows everything worth knowing.
[JUNE 24, 2002]
The Game’s Gifted Eccentrics
If you are the sort who wants to know how many doubles A-Rod hit on 2-1 counts in 2003 or Nolan Ryan’s ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in 1974, you are living at the right time. Advances in medicine, communication, transportation, and plumbing since the middle of the nineteenth century are all very well, but what really makes this a golden age to live in is the multiplication and refinement of baseball statistics.
And if you do not even know who A-Rod is, you will still enjoy the story of baseball’s progress to today’s information abundance as it is told by Alan Schwarz, a senior writer for Baseball America, in The Numbers Game. Its lessons extend beyond baseball to politics and much else. It is an Information Age story about how new abilities to measure things beget new behaviors. The evolution of that cornucopia of information from its birth in 1845 to today’s iterations is, in Schwarz’s lively telling, a history of the game’s path to the present.
That has been a path blazed by some gifted eccentrics whose apparently unslakable thirst for baseball numbers is shared by many millions of Americans, like Al Munro Elias and his brother Walter. A friend said of Al, there were only two ways to deal with him when he was talking baseball: “One was to listen to what he had to say. The other was to kill him.” Eighty years later, the Elias Sports Bureau is still the Spindletop of sports statistics—the great original gusher.
One of Schwarz’s subjects, Bill James, began his statistical assault on baseball’s conventional wisdom while working as a night watchman at the Stokely-Van Camp canning plant in Lawrence, Kansas. That plant is, in modern baseball lore, akin to the Swiss patent office where Einstein began revolutionizing physics. (James has recently risen to the glory of the Boston Red Sox front office.) Schwarz also bestows honors on lesser-known luminaries, like Dick Cramer, who was driving home in St. Louis one night listening to a Cardinals game. “Ozzie Smith,” Schwarz writes, “hit a ground ball that advanced a runner from second to third, to which announcer Mike Shannon reflexively commented, ‘You won’t see that in tomorrow’s box score.’ That’s all Cramer needed to hear. ‘I can fix that!’ he said to himself.” So now, in the blizzard of agate type that is part of a good sports section, you may see the result of Cramer’s eureka moment—a notation for “runners advanced.” But, then, we have not yet caught up to 1884, when some box scores listed each pitcher’s number of called strikes.
Baseball, unlike games of flow like hockey, soccer, and basketball, is a series of episodes—of what Schwarz calls “measurable states of combat.” Box scores illustrate the symmetry—what Schwarz calls baseball’s “double-entry personality”—that perhaps helps to explain baseball’s peculiar hold on its fans. Every hitting event is “part of a pitcher’s record and every pitching event part of a hitter’s record.” No other team sport leaves such a satisfying statistical residue of coherence. “A 10-yard run by a halfback or a point guard’s breakaway layup cannot be assigned against any particular defensive player…. Baseball, however, is the most individual of team sports: in perfectly discernible packets the game reduces to one batter versus one pitcher, with each assuming responsibility for the other.”
The arrival of statistical fluency has changed the way baseball is played. The arrival can be dated from Branch Rickey’s hiring of Allan Roth in 1947 to wield his pencil—baseball numeracy is not a gift recently conferred by computers—on behalf of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1947, the Dodgers’ Dixie Walker hit for a fancy average—.306—but was then traded. Why? Partly because he objected to playing with a rookie, Jackie Robinson. But also because Roth’s charts of the pattern of Walker’s hits showed that he was pulling the ball less, a leading indicator of aging. By 1950, Roth, whose nimbleness with numbers did not extend beyond baseball (he did not do his own taxes), sat at Ebbets Field in coat and tie, dispensing statistical tidbits to a twenty-two-year-old broadcaster, Vin Scully. Fifty-four years later, Scully’s voice fills the Los Angeles Basin with Dodgers’ numbers. During a 1987 National League Championship Series telecast, Scully cited a statistic showing the sort of thing managers now like to know: the Cardinals’ pitcher, Danny Cox, held opponents to a .268 batting average with his first seventy pitches in games, but opponents hit .345 against pitches number seventy-one and higher. Moments after Scully’s statistic was broadcast, the San Francisco Giants’ Kevin Mitchell doubled on Cox’s seventy-third pitch and Jeffrey Leonard homered on the seventy-fourth.
Baseball took a long and winding road to reach Allan Roth and to travel far beyond him to today’s sophisticated uses of the statistics generated by 2,430 games a year—by more than 11 million at bats in more than 150,000 games since the major leagues began. In 1938, the Cincinnati Reds’ Johnny Vander Meer pitched two consecutive no-hitters. In May, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson pitched just the seventeenth perfect game in major-league history. Statisticians, Schwarz writes, could not say when or by whom such things would be done, but they could predict that they would be done about as often as they have been.
In 1920, a Yankee outfielder hit more home runs (fifty-four) than fourteen of the fifteen other teams hit, ushering in the decade of ballyhoo—the interrelated births of broadcasting, public relations, and sports superstars like Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bill Tilden, Man o’ War, and, especially, that outfielder. His legacy includes an adjective, “Ruthian,” meaning prodigious. The new arithmetic of sports statistics was both a cause and an effect of superstardom. “Spotlighting players’ statistics in greater detail than ever began a tectonic shift in sports,” Schwarz writes, “as intrigue that once focused mostly on teams began to go to individual players and their statistics lines.”
Lately, much, but not inordinate, attention has been focused on baseball executives who know how to tickle marginal insights from numbers—insights like the fact that inexpensive players trapped in the high minor leagues are often satisfactory replacements for expensive but mediocre major leaguers. Because of the success of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, and of his epigones who run several teams’ front offices, their interest in on-base percentage has become, Schwarz says, “baseball’s version of rock ’n’ roll, scaring the old and galvanizing the young.” He explains that before there was Beane there was the man who hired him, Sandy Alderson. A graduate of Dartmouth, Harvard Law School, and a Vietnam tour as a Marine officer, Alderson was in a San Francisco bookstore when he came upon a volume by Eric Walker, the most important baseball thinker you have never heard of. Alderson reading Walker was, Schwarz says, like Martin Luther King Jr. reading Gandhi, sparking a revolution. Scoring runs has always been the point of baseball, but Walker’s epiphany was that when you make three outs you have to start over from scratch. Hitherto, the assumption was that runs—and wins—were achieved by hits. Nowadays the stress is on avoiding outs.
Baseball was a long time awakening from its dogmatic slumbers to the realization that not all hits are created equal. Hence a high batting average can be overrated. The difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter is, essentially, one hit every two weeks. Besides, as the baseball writer Ferdinand Cole Lane fulminated one hundred years ago, measuring a player’s value by his batting average, which ignores the difference between singles and extra-base hits, is akin to measuring a man’s financial worth by a system that treats different denominations of currency as identical.
Today the “übermeasure of hitting,” Schwarz writes, is OPS—on-base percentage added to slugging percentage. Someday baseball statistics may be so sophisticated that they will be what James Joyce said his work was, something we should devote our lives to mastering. But if human beings have, as Schwarz believes, a “compulsion to count, to quantify the world around them,” then they are hardwired to be baseball fans.
If so, that fact lifts a load of guilt off this Puritan nation’s shoulders. All those hours—years, actually—we have spent watching games when we should have been reading Finnegans Wake? Not our fault. Nature has made us do it. Which means that baseball is, as we chauvinists of the sport have long suspected, not merely the national pastime but the species’ pastime. So there.
[AUGUST 15, 2004]
Don’t Beat a Dead Horse in the Mouth
OPENING DAY QUIZ
(answers on Don’t Beat a Dead Horse in the Mouth)
a. Name the only player to get at least five hundred hits with four teams.
b. The first time a Brewer swung a bat in the game with the Rockies last June 29, the result was a sacrifice fly. How?
c. In a 1965 game in Yankee Stadium, with the score tied, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner on first and a 3-1 count on the batter, Yankee manager Johnny Keane ordered the batter to take the pitch—even though the pitcher was sure to throw a strike rather than walk the potential winning run into scoring position at second. Why did Keane do that?
The rule of thumb is that every team—we are talking baseball today, so if you really want to read about stuff like Social Security reform, look elsewhere on this page—will win 60 of its 162 games, will lose 60, and will play the season to settle the other 42. But the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks did not get the memo explaining this.
They were epochally awful, losing 111 of 162 games. Yet Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci notes that Diamondbacks attendance—2.5 million—was larger than the attendance of each of the Yankee teams that won twenty-one world championships between 1923 and 1977. Major League Baseball’s 2004 attendance was a record 73,022,969. Per game attendance was 30,075, compared to 14,106 in 1950, 16,110 in 1960, 14,788 in 1970, 20,434 in 1980, and 26,045 in 1990. All this indicates that the fans have not received the memo explaining that the game is going to hell in a handcart.
Well, you ask, what about steroids? According to ESPN, twenty years ago five NFL players weighed more than three hundred pounds. The number of three-hundred-pounders on teams’ current rosters? 433. Could chemistry as well as cheeseburgers be involved? Baseball is held to higher standards than other sports, and receives more intense and often unjust criticism, as it has regarding its supposed “inaction” regarding steroids. Testing for steroids began in the major leagues in 2003, and in 2004, 98.3 percent of players passed their tests. This is news to Congress but, then, what isn’t?
Baseball’s competitive balance is much improved and compares favorably with the NFL and NBA. Three of the last four Super Bowls were won by one team (the New England Patriots), but the last five World Series have been won by five different teams. The National League has sent seven different teams to the last seven World Series. The worst winning percentage in baseball last year (the Diamondbacks’ .315) was not as embarrassing as those (as of Thursday morning) of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks (.155), Charlotte Bobcats (.214) New Orleans Hornets (.229), and Utah Jazz (.310).
In the ten seasons since baseball included two wild-card teams in its postseason, twenty-two of baseball’s thirty teams have played into October. And as Verducci says, the three most storied franchises—the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs—have each won at least 88 games in two consecutive seasons for the first time ever.
Baseball also is thriving because it is a bargain (average MLB ticket, $19.82; average NBA ticket, $44.68; average NFL ticket, $54.75) and because of the flood of Spanish-speaking talent. The U.S. population (296 million) is more than thirty-three times that of the Dominican Republic (8.8 million), but bet on this all-Dominican lineup against the rest of the world:
C….…. . Miguel Olivo, Mariners
1B….…. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
2B….…. Alfonso Soriano, Rangers
3B….…. Aramis Ramirez, Cubs; Adrian Beltre, Mariners
SS….…. Miguel Tejada, Orioles
OF….…. Sammy Sosa, Orioles
OF….…. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels
OF….…. Manny Ramirez, Red Sox
DH….…. David Ortiz, Red Sox
SP….…. Pedro Martinez, Mets; Bartolo Colon, Angels
RP….…. Armando Benitez, Giants
MANAGER . . Felipe Alou, Giants
Conservatives are forever being lectured that “you can’t turn the clock back”—and shouldn’t want to. Oh? This season, for the first time since the Astrodome opened in 1965, every National League game will be played on real grass. What a concept. There are many other reasons why this is baseball’s golden age but, in the words of former Phillies manager Larry Bowa, “I don’t want to beat a dead horse in the mouth.”
a. Rusty Staub (Houston, Montreal, Detroit, New York Mets).
b. The first eighteen pitches from the Rockies’ pitcher were fourteen balls and four called strikes.
c. Because with a 3-2 count and two outs, the runner on first would be running with the pitch and could be almost certain to score on a double. Which he did.
[APRIL 4, 2005]
The Golden Age
Sins can be such fun. Of the seven supposedly deadly ones, only envy does not give the sinner at least momentary pleasure. And an eighth, schadenfreude—enjoyment of other persons’ misfortunes—is almost the national pastime.
Speaking of baseball, two Saturdays ago, old Dodger Stadium was reverberating with fans’ excitement. It might seem odd to call “old” a ballpark that opened in 1962, but it is tied with the Nationals’ RFK Stadium as the National League’s second oldest, behind only the Cubs’ Wrigley Field (1914). Anyway, shortly before their Dodgers were beaten by the Mets in the National League Division Series, Angelenos emitted animal roars of approval as they watched, on the giant screen in left-center field, the Tigers defeat the Yankees in the ALDS.
Some Dodgers fans still nurse a grudge they inherited from Brook-lynites when the Dodgers decamped for California after the 1957 season. But rooting against the Yankees is as American as a microwaved wedge of frozen apple pie topped with a slice of processed cheese. Such rooting often is the unlovely underside of the democratic ethos—envy of excellence. But there also is resentment of the Yankees’ financial advantage that has been inimical to baseball’s competitive balance.
That, however, is a diminishing problem, for two reasons: Major League Baseball has implemented more redistribution of resources, and a new breed of general managers (e.g., Oakland’s Billy Beane and Minnesota’s Terry Ryan) are using new player-evaluation metrics to wring more baseball value from fewer dollars.
The Yankees’ payroll of $206.4 million (not including the almost $30 million tax paid to MLB on the portion of the payroll over $136.5 million) is 2.4 times the Tigers’ payroll. The Yankees’ third baseman earns 68.7 times the salary of the Mets’ all-star third baseman (Alex Rodriguez, $25.7 million; David Wright, $374,000). The shortstop makes approximately what the Marlins’ team makes (Derek Jeter, $20.6 million; Marlins, $20.68 million). But the 2006 Yankees did baseball—and the rest of America, if it learns the larger social lesson of the story—the favor of demonstrating the steeply declining utility of the last $100 million of payroll.
New York, the world’s financial capital, takes money very seriously. And New York has been the intellectual epicenter of political liberalism, which has consistently preached, and has consistently disproved, the efficacy of pitching large sums of money at social problems. In the city where America’s welfare state was first imagined and implemented, the entitlement mentality bred by the welfare state includes the assumption that the Yankees are entitled to be in the World Series, which they have not been since—gasp—2003.
There still are revenue and spending disparities between baseball teams that are impossible between NFL and NBA teams because those leagues have salary caps and more centralized revenue sources. Nevertheless, when the Tigers dispatched the Yankees that Saturday, baseball was guaranteed its seventh different World Series winner in seven years. There never have been seven consecutive Super Bowls, or seven consecutive NBA championships, won by seven different teams.
Baseball’s supposed “golden age” of the 1940s and 1950s was not so golden outside New York. In 1947, the Yankees won the American League pennant and beat the Dodgers in the World Series. In 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1953 the Yankees were World Series winners over the Dodgers, Phillies, Giants, Dodgers and Dodgers, respectively. If the Phillies had not beaten the Dodgers in the tenth inning of the last game of the 1950 season, every World Series game for five years would have been played in New York. And if 103 wins, which usually are enough to win the pennant, had sufficed in 1954 (the Indians won 111, an American League record for a 154-game season), the Yankees would have won ten pennants in a row, because they also won in 1955, 1956, 1957, and 1958.
Great Yankee teams have been good for baseball. In the 1930s, one of every four tickets sold to an American League game was for a game involving the Yankees. And this year, when the Yankees were drawing 4,200,518 fans to Yankee Stadium, they also played in front of 3,080,290 million on the road. But improved competitive balance is one reason why, for the third consecutive year, MLB set an attendance record (76,043,902), and why today is MLB’s golden age, even west of the Hudson River.
[OCTOBER 15, 2006]
Pete Rose, Always Hustling
HUSTLE verb. to work or act rapidly or energetically.
—WEBSTER’S NEW WORLD DICTIONARY
But hustle also is a noun: “A way of making money, esp. a dishonest way.”
Pete Rose, who walked 1,566 times in his major league career but never walked to first base, always sprinting, was called Charlie Hustle. His new hustle is his book, for which he reportedly received a $1 million advance, in anticipation of sales generated by his coming clean about having bet on baseball, which no one seriously interested in the subject doubted. No one, that is, other than professional contrarians, or commentators emancipated from facts by not having read the 1989 report that caused Rose to accept “permanent” banishment from baseball.
Rose’s coming clean is the most soiled conversion of convenience since…well, August 17, 1998, when DNA evidence caused Bill Clinton to undergo a memory clarification. On the diamond, no one ever wrung more success from less natural talent than Rose did. But his second autobiography—which refutes the first—makes worse the mess he has made.
The supposedly truth-telling book contains this patent lie: “During the times I gambled as a manager, I never took an unfair advantage. I never bet more or less based on injuries or inside information.” But he also says—does he even read his autobiographies?—“I began betting regularly on the sport I knew best—baseball.” Managing the Reds, he knew—he decided—when a tired or injured star would be played or rested. And the network of bookies handling his bets knew that he knew.
While saying “it’s time to take responsibility,” he cunningly exploits the Zeitgeist of today’s therapeutic society. He is, he insists, a victim.
A victim of an addiction—gambling while managing the Reds substituted for the “high” he had gotten when competing as a player. And he is a victim of a double standard: He would have been treated more leniently—more therapeutically—had his problem been drugs rather than gambling. But baseball has especially severe sanctions about gambling because competitive integrity is baseball’s raison d’être.
Americans, a forgiving people, are forever refuting the proposition that there are no second acts in American life. Almost anyone can recover from almost anything by convincingly saying “I’m sorry.”
Rose lied—and charmed the gullible—for fourteen years. Now, with the clock running out on his eligibility to election by baseball writers to the Hall of Fame, he pugnaciously says: I lied but “I’m just not built” to “act all sorry or sad or guilty” about it. “Act”?
Rose’s critics have said that repentance is a necessary—not a sufficient—prerequisite for restoring his eligibility to the Hall of Fame. Many, probably most, of Rose’s critics are revolted by the moral obtuseness of his synthetic repentance.
His dwindling band of defenders responds that it is unfair to judge Rose not by what he does but by the way he does it. Yet regarding repentance, the way you do it is what you do.
Cooperstown primarily honors players for, in players’ parlance, the “numbers they put up.” Hence it is widely believed that selection to the Hall is exclusively about the statistical residue of players’ careers and should not involve a “morals clause”—consideration of character.
But the rules for election by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America include: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” The rules for voting by the Veterans Committee similarly mention “integrity, sportsmanship, character.”
Some will say that if admittance to the Hall were limited by a strict calculus of character, the Hall would be much smaller. Yes, Babe Ruth might have hit even more home runs if he had gone to bed earlier, and more often with Mrs. Ruth. But not all character issues are equally pertinent to the proper criteria for honoring athletes’ achievements. The crucial criteria concern the integrity of the competition.
Rose has said, “I was raised, but I never did grow up.” He is not the only ballplayer who will be forever a boy. But what distinguishes him is not mere boyish roguishness but a hard, calculating adult amorality. There is a constancy to it that goes beyond recidivism, which implies episodes of recovery between relapses.
On the evidence of his book, he should never be back in a major-league uniform as a manager or coach. And he should not be admitted to the Hall of Fame unless its character criterion is declared irrelevant, which is not what the nation needs from the national pastime.
[JANUARY 8, 2004]
The Precious, Precarious Equipoise
Chicago baseball fans, who are composites of scar tissue and mortifying memories, instantly drew upon one of those memories for their response—“Say it ain’t So-sa”—to Sammy Sosa’s ejection from Tuesday night’s game for the rule infraction of using a corked bat. Their words echoed the boy who supposedly exclaimed, “Say it ain’t so, Joe” to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series.
The Sox have been to only one Series since then, in 1959, which they lost. The Cubs have not been to a Series since 1945, which they lost, and have not won one since 1908, two years before Tolstoy died. But even Cub fans, although inured to pain, winced Tuesday night.
Sosa drove in a run with an infield out, but his bat shattered, revealing cork in the barrel. So the run was disallowed. Sosa says a corked bat he used to produce fan-pleasing fireworks during batting practice and home run hitting contests mistakenly got mixed in with his game bats. Corking a bat reduces its weight, enabling a batter to increase bat speed and to drive some pitches he might not otherwise be able to hit hard.
Before Tuesday’s game was over, Major League Baseball took possession of seventy-seven of Sosa’s bats. None of them is corked, which lends powerful support to Sosa’s explanation.
This is good news for baseball. The ebullient Sosa is the game’s most marketable star. His competition with Mark McGwire for the 1998 National League home-run title, which McGwire won seventy to sixty-six, was a crucial ingredient in baseball’s recovery from the fan-alienating strike that truncated the 1994 season on August 12 and canceled the World Series.
Furthermore, baseball produces—inning-by-inning, game-by-game, season-upon-season—a rich sediment of statistics that sustain the arguments that nourish interest in the game with the longest history. If Sosa’s slugging—he is the only player to hit sixty or more home runs in three seasons—was assisted by cheating, he will be diminished, as will the game’s ongoing narrative. And all other players will come under a lowering cloud of cynicism about the authenticity of their achievements.
Major League Baseball will decide the seriousness of what Sosa did Tuesday—whether it was an accident arising from injudicious showmanship (actually, fans deserve to know that Sosa’s prodigious achievements in home-run hitting exhibitions are unassisted by illegal bats) or whether he has repeatedly cheated in games. The stakes are high. Bart Giamatti knew why.
In 1987, pitcher Kevin Gross of the Philadelphia Phillies was caught with a small patch of sandpaper affixed to his glove, and a sticky substance on his glove. Sandpaper can be used to scuff a ball’s surface, changing its wind resistance and hence its movement when pitched. Foreign substances also can alter the movement of a thrown ball, and it is no defense to say, as a pitcher (a Cub, of course) said when indignantly denying that he put a foreign substance on the ball: “Everything I use on it is from the good ol’ USA!”
Gross was suspended for ten days by Giamatti, then National League president. A former president of Yale and a professor of Italian and comparative literature, Giamatti died in 1989 shortly into his five-month tenure as baseball commissioner, after imposing a lifetime suspension from baseball on Pete Rose for gambling on games. Giamatti knew exactly why “boys will be boys” is not a satisfactory response to paltering with the rules of the game.
Most of baseball’s punishable offenses involve fighting or other violence that arises from the heat of competition. While such acts cannot be tolerated, Giamatti wrote, “It must be recognized that they grow often out of impulse, and the aggressive, volatile nature of the game and of those who play it.”
Such offenses, he said, are less execrable than acts “of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind”—acts that have “no organic basis in the game and no origins in the act of playing.” They are acts of cheating that are “intended to alter the very conditions of play to favor one person.” Such acts “are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions.”
Giamatti understood that a team sport, like democratic society itself, involves a precious and precarious equipoise of individual striving and collective endeavor. In sport or society, break the rules that govern that equipoise and hark! what discord follows.
[JUNE 5, 2003]
Barry Bonds: Enhanced and Devalued
Would that Barry Bonds had retired after the 1998 season. He might be happier than he seems to be in his long trudge toward tainted glory. Certainly everyone who cares about baseball, and about the integrity of athletic competition generally, would be spared the disturbing spectacle of his unlovely approach to Henry Aaron’s career record of 755 home runs.
The numbers Bonds had put up before the 1999 season were luminous enough to have guaranteed him first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. He had 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases—he is now the only “500-500” player in history—eight All-Star selections, and eight Gold Glove awards. He had won three MVP awards and should have won a fourth that was given to a lesser, but less-obnoxious, player.
Since 1998, his gaudy numbers have earned him four more MVP awards. From his 1986 rookie season through 1998, he averaged a home run every 16.1 at bats (Babe Ruth averaged one every 11.8 at bats), and his season high was 46. Since 1999, when he turned thirty-five, an age by which most players are past their peak production, he has averaged one every 8.9 at bats, and in the 2001 season he hit 73. If Bonds, even as he aged, had continued to average one home run every 16.1 at bats, he would have entered this season at age 42 with 590 home runs, not 734, and Aaron’s record would have been beyond his reach.
Equally startling are these numbers: According to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who wrote Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports, Mike Murphy, equipment manager of the San Francisco Giants, testified that since Bonds became a Giant in 1993, the size of his uniform jersey has gone from 42 to 52. His cap size has expanded from 71/8 to 71/4, even though while it was expanding he shaved his head. (Bonds reportedly shaved his head because his hair was falling out as a result of steroid use.) And Fainaru-Wada and Williams also say Murphy testified that Bonds’s baseball shoe size has changed from 101/2 to 13.
Steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) can cause gradual enlargement of bones in the feet, hands, face, jaw, and skull. Bonds has never failed a steroid test, but there is no reliable test for HGH, and chemists concocting PEDs also devise masking ingredients to defeat tests.
Various PEDs can increase muscle mass (and the speed of hitters’ bats and pitchers’ arms). They can hasten recovery from the exertions of training or competing, and can reduce pain and increase the sort of concentration needed when a ninety-six-mile-per-hour fastball is coming at you during a day game after a night game. George Vecsey, in his short new history of baseball, quotes a player: “The funniest thing I ever saw in baseball was Pete Rose’s greenies kicking in during a rain delay.” Greenies—amphetamines, a booster fuel for a 162-game season that is played across four time zones—were for years as openly available as sunflower seeds in teams’ clubhouses.
The fascinating history of PEDs runs back into history’s mists, to potions concocted to increase soldiers’ aggressiveness in battle. This history is recounted in Will Carroll’s The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems,an indispensable guide to today’s controversies.
In 1898, a Welsh cyclist in a Paris-to-Bordeaux race died after drinking an alcohol-based product designed to increase stamina and control pain. In 1921, a University of Chicago chemist ground up tons of bulls’ testicles and used chemicals to isolate testosterone. By 1932, Carroll writes, sprinters were experimenting with nitroglycerine to dilate their coronary arteries. In 1936, at the Berlin Olympics, injectable testosterone, developed the year before by Nazi doctors for military use, probably helped propel German athletes to eighty-nine medals, more than any other team. In 1945, some German scientists involved in synthesizing testosterone moved to the Soviet Union, which soon became dominant in weight lifting. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, large East German women with deep voices, body hair on their torsos, and severe acne won eleven of thirteen possible gold medals in swimming.
Now, the caffeine in your coffee is a PED. Some major-league ballparks feature advertisements for another widely used PED—Viagra. Testosterone and HGH, which the body produces naturally, are components of some potent PEDs. Distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate enhancements, in the context of competition, is not always easy. One should begin by understanding the temptation.
Although dangerous, steroids and other PEDs can tempt two kinds of ballplayers. One is the superior athlete for whom mere superiority is insufficient when immortality might be injected from a syringe. The other is the marginal player, a category that includes most major leaguers at some point in their careers, and many throughout their careers. If such a player knows or suspects that competitors for his roster spot or playing time are getting illegal and hazardous chemical assistance, he must choose between jeopardizing his career or his health.
Aside from certain grossly anomalous achievements by a few individuals such as Bonds, it is difficult to measure the extent to which PEDs have distorted baseball. Carroll stresses that their increased use has coincided with other changes that have tended to increase offensive production. The changes have included more sophisticated strength training unrelated to ingested or injected substances; sixteen new, mostly hitter-friendly ballparks; contraction of the strike zone; expansion of the number of teams, which diluted the quality of pitching; and maple bats that are more durable than those made from ash and so can have thinner barrels that increase bat speed.
And PEDs are, of course, not a problem only in baseball. Track—it was a track coach who blew open the BALCO lab scandal that brought Bonds before a grand jury—might be the sport most distorted by PEDs. And it requires the willful suspension of disbelief to think that diet and strength training are the only reasons why the average NFL offensive lineman weighs 307 pounds. But baseball is held to higher standards, for several reasons.
One is that baseball, unlike football, has a statistical measure of players’ strength—the home run. For thirty-four years, sixty homers was the season record. Then, for thirty-seven years, the record was sixty-one. Then, in four seasons, 1998 to 2001, that total was surpassed six times. In football, Carroll writes, “the players most likely to use steroids are offensive and defensive linemen. If these players get stronger via steroids, their gains in strength will merely cancel each other out, and there will be no noticeable difference in the statistics.” Furthermore, Carroll says, football’s premier players—quarterbacks—achieve greatness by recognizing defenses and throwing accurately, not by the strength that steroids can augment.
Another reason baseball is held to higher standards than are other sports is that fans relate to baseball players differently. This is partly because, as Bill Veeck said, players do not need to be seven feet tall or seven feet wide. Players are generally much bigger than they used to be: Mickey Mantle (5 feet 111/2, 195 pounds) was smaller than most of today’s middle infielders. But last year’s World Series MVP, the Cardinals’ David Eckstein, is 5 feet 7 and 165 pounds.
Also, Tim Marchman, who writes about baseball for the New York Sun, notes that last year Shawne Merriman, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, was suspended for four games for steroid use—then was selected for the Pro Bowl. And few cared. Marchman detects a “soft bigotry of low expectations”: Most NFL and NBA players are black; most of the paying customers are white and, Marchman argues, do not expect better behavior. Baseball, however, is, Marchman says, “culturally white and middle class” and its players “are more widely expected to conform to ethical norms.”
Perhaps. Certainly those norms are under pharmacological attack, and the attack will be a protracted contest between the chemists who devise PEDs and the testers who try to detect the use of the substances. In any case, the norms need to be explained and affirmed, as follows.
Drugs enhance performance by devaluing it when they unfairly alter the conditions of competition. Lifting weights and eating spinach enhance the body’s normal functioning; many chemical intrusions into the body can jeopardize the health of the body and mind, while causing both to behave abnormally.
Athletes who are chemically propelled to victory do not merely overvalue winning, they misunderstand why winning is properly valued. Professional athletes stand at an apex of achievement, but their achievements are admirable primarily because they are the products of a lonely submission to a sustained discipline of exertion. Such submission is a manifestation of good character. The athlete’s proper goal is to perform unusually well, not unnaturally well. Drugs that make sport exotic, by radical intrusions into the body, drain sport of its exemplary power by making it a display of chemistry rather than character. In fact, it becomes a display of some chemists’ virtuosity and some athletes’ bad character.
Sport is play, but play has a serious side. It can elevate both competitors and spectators. But cold, covert attempts to alter unfairly the conditions of competition subvert the essence of sport, which is the principle that participants shall compete under identical rules and conditions.
Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard philosopher, says we need our athletes and their integrity because excellence is always endangered in democracies that often cherish equality indiscriminately. PEDs, he says, do not merely expand the limits of human nature, they erase those limits as a standard: “Perfection disappears as the upper limit, and is replaced by an indefinite, indefinable perfectibility.”
Mansfield’s colleague Michael Sandel, in his new book, The Case Against Perfection, acknowledges that “the line between cultivating natural gifts and corrupting them with artifice may not always be clear.” In 1999, Tiger Woods, whose eyesight was so poor he could not read the large E on the eye chart, had LASIK eye surgery—then won his next five tournaments. This was not a corrupting artifice. It enabled his eyes to do what normal eyes naturally do, not what unnatural eyes would do. But, Sandel says, when the role of chemical enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement decreases. An athlete who succumbs to the “Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature” ceases to be the agent of his achievements, which are drained of merit and moral responsibility.
It is a truism that baseball involves a lot of failure. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times—that is the equivalent of three seasons of at bats without ever putting the ball in play. Ty Cobb, whose .366 career batting average is the highest in history, failed more than 63 percent of the time. In a sense, most Americans are failed ballplayers. That is one reason for the sport’s unique grip on the nation’s imagination and affections.
PEDs make baseball less of a shared activity. Because of them, a few excel but everyone loses—everyone in the stands and on the field, and Bonds more than anyone.
[MAY 21, 2007]
The Methodical Mr. Aaron
MOBILE, ALABAMA—This city has belonged to five nations—France, Britain, Spain, the United States, and the Confederate States of America. Or four, if you think, as Lincoln did, that the Southern states never succeeded in seceding, so the CSA never existed. In any case, Mobile has done much for the national pastime of the country to which it currently belongs.
Mobile has incubated tremendous major-league talent. In a few games in 1969, the “Miracle Mets” had an all-Mobile outfield. Five Hall of Famers were raised here—Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith, Billy Williams, and the man whose achievements gain luster from the contrast between him and the man who may soon surpass one of those achievements. As Barry Bonds continues his gimpy, joyless pursuit of such glory as he is eligible for, consider the odyssey of Mobile’s greatest native son.
Henry Aaron’s parents had moved south from Selma, drawn by work in the shipyards during World War II. So many blacks came here that Davis Avenue—named for Jefferson Davis—became known as Little Harlem.
You think that is incongruous? Try this. Grip a bat as a right-hander—but with your left hand on top. That is how the man who would hit 755 home runs in twenty-three major-league seasons gripped his bat when, as an utterly uncoached seventeen-year-old, he signed his first professional contract, with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, who recognized an uncut diamond.
When he boarded the train to his future, he had $2 in his pocket. He had never had his own bed, and with the Clowns often slept six nights a week in a bus. He remembers sitting with teammates in a Washington restaurant “hearing them break all the plates in the kitchen after we were finished eating.”
Aaron’s signing bonus with the Milwaukee Braves was a cardboard suitcase. In his first spring training, during a game against the Red Sox, Ted Williams came running from the clubhouse to see whose bat was making that distinctive sound. The bat had a slender handle and was whipped by wrists developed hitting dipping and floating bottle caps, pitched by Aaron’s playmates when, as was usual, baseballs were scarce.
He was 0-for-5 in his first regular season game, which was the first day in which players were no longer allowed to toss their gloves on the field when coming in to bat. Soon, however, Time magazine was heralding “The Talented Shuffler” who “is not as dumb as he looks when he shuffles around the field.” Misperceiving, through the lens of race, economy of motion for lethargy, sportswriters called him “uncomplicated” and “a child of nature.” Lonnie Wheeler, who helped Aaron write his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, notes that Joe DiMaggio’s similar understated manner was characterized as dignified and graceful.
In 1973, as Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs—he would break it in April 1974—he received, according to the U.S. Postal Service, about 930,000 letters, more than any nonpolitician in America. Dinah Shore was second with 60,000. Much of his mail was hateful. He took out his anger on baseballs. The 1973 season was the last in which horsehide balls were used. Aaron’s 714th was the first home run ever hit with a cowhide ball.
When Aaron retired, he was Major League Baseball’s last link to the Negro Leagues. Today, he is baseball’s link to the era when home runs did not cause fans, suspecting steroids, to view sluggers with a moral squint. Aaron became baseball’s most methodical—and, properly measured by total bases, most effective—hitter after being raised in a household where, he remembers, “we almost never ate anything that was store-bought. I’ve gone many, many weeks with just cornbread, butter beans and collard greens.”
Mobile’s public library, writes Wheeler, “opened its doors to blacks before other Southern cities encouraged them to read.” Spring Hill College here, which integrated—by conscience, not coercion—in 1954, was praised by Martin Luther King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Today, if you turn onto Satchel Paige Drive, then onto Bolling Brothers Boulevard (Frank and Milt, nephews of a major leaguer, played a combined nineteen seasons), you reach Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Mobile BayBears.
When Bonds hits his 756th, real fans, who know how to read the record book, will yawn, confident that Aaron’s record will remain the real one until Alex Rodriguez, who has 175 more home runs than Bonds did when he was Rodriguez’s age, breaks it.
[MAY 6, 2007]
Realism Among the RiverDogs
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—Realism is overrated. Putting it aside makes possible some sweet things, such as the idea of Santa Claus. And the fact of minor-league baseball.
This city’s RiverDogs play at The Joe—the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park. Their rivals in the Sally—actually, South Atlantic—League include the Delmarva Shorebirds and Hagerstown Suns from Maryland; the Lake County Captains from Ohio; the Lakewood BlueClaws from New Jersey; the Greensboro Grasshoppers, Hickory Crawdads, Asheville Tourists, and Kannapolis Intimidators from North Carolina; the West Virginia Power from another Charleston; the Lexington Legends from Kentucky; the Columbus Catfish, Rome Braves, Augusta Green-Jackets, and Savannah Sand Gnats from Georgia; and the Greenville Bombers (reborn as the Greenville Drive in 2005) from just up the road. Such small cities and towns that are incubators of big dreams.
Talk to the players, most of them under age twenty-three, and you will find few, if any, who do not believe they are bound for glory—for Yankee Stadium, the RiverDogs being a Yankee Single-A affiliate. Actually, the RiverDogs are the Yankee’s low Single-A club, and by this point in the season, many of the best prospects have been promoted to the high-A club in Tampa, or up to Double-A Trenton.
The RiverDogs play 140 games in 151 days, traveling by bus, living at least two to a room in motels, some earning as little as $1,050 a month—and only during the season—with a $20 per diem for food. “Sometimes,” says a player touchingly grateful for life’s little blessings, “the motel is near an Outback.” A young man from West Texas says, “I had a brother working in the oil fields. So if I wake up tired one day, I think, ‘I could be doing that.’”
Most of today’s Sally Leaguers will be doing something like that sooner than they can bring themselves to imagine. But for now they are delighting some of the 40 million fans who will see minor-league baseball this summer. The RiverDogs, averaging about thirty-eight hundred fans a game, are one of five teams partly owned by Mike Veeck, a third-generation baseball man—his father put the ivy on Wrigley Field’s outfield walls—whose management doctrine is: “Treat people as if they’re coming into your home. Nothing is too much trouble.”
The minor leagues reflect the nation’s durable regional differences. South Carolinians, for example, are feisty—they fired on Fort Sumter from places not far from The Joe—so french fries are still called freedom fries at the ballyard. The real delicacies, however, are grilled turkey legs. A week’s worth of protein for $5, they are not much smaller than the players’ bats, and about as tender.
The Joe is almost in the backyard of The Citadel, a military school, and on game nights the patriotism is as warm as the beer is cold. Just before the first pitch on a recent evening, the teenager selling hot dogs and sodas at a concession stand out on the concourse behind the seats suddenly said, politely but firmly: “One moment, please.” Turning his back to the line of waiting customers, he took off his cap and faced the brick wall at the back of the stand, in the direction of the flagpole in center field. He stood ramrod straight with his hand over his heart while the National Anthem was sung. Even people in The Joe’s parking lot come to attention when they faintly hear the distant sound of “Oh, say can you see…”
About 40 percent of the players on the forty-man rosters of the thirty major-league clubs each spring are Sally League alumni, including, last April, Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, Ivan Rodriguez, Luis Gonzalez, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, and John Smoltz. But nowhere near 40 percent of Sally League players get to the majors. Most were the best on their high school teams and are slow—mercifully so—to understand the severity of professional baseball’s meritocracy.
The buses will not carry most of the RiverDogs to Trenton, let alone to Triple-A Columbus—never mind the big leagues. But don’t try to tell that to the pitcher who, when asked if his curve is as good as the Oakland A’s Barry Zito’s, confidently replies, “Not yet.” Says another, “I want to be the best center fielder that ever came out of the Yankees’ organization.” Better than Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle? “Sure.”
Such unrealism, and the reality of the oil fields, keeps young men getting on buses for late night rides to Motel 6s, which sometimes—a major benefit for minor leaguers—are near Outbacks.
[AUGUST 18, 2005]
Striving for Motel Years
KISSIMMEE, FLORIDA—It is past 10 p.m., dark, cold and damp. Traffic hisses on the highway in front of the nondescript motel that for five weeks is home to about 155 young adults. In back, in the gloom beneath the parking lot’s dim lights, a dozen of them seem to have lost their minds. Actually, they are finding their dream.
And doing their homework, far from home. Their choreography on the asphalt is simulating situations in baseball games—runners on first and second, single to left; runner on second, ground ball to the pitcher. And on and on. The participants are pretending to be infielders, outfielders, a batter, base runners and—this is the point of it all—two umpires.
They have come to Jim Evans’s Academy of Professional Umpiring. For six long days a week—on the manicured infields of the Houston Astros’ spring-training complex, and on the asphalt—they are learning the craft of baseball’s judicial branch.
For the few who will land jobs in the low rung of baseball’s ladder—say, Class A—starting pay will be $1,900 a month, six months a year, plus $22 per diem. The home team finds motel rooms. For umpires, there are no home games.
The process of becoming an umpire is as severely meritocratic as the process of becoming a player. In the lower minor leagues, where only two umpires work each game, umpiring is as physically strenuous and mentally stressful as playing.
On a recent morning, Evans, who was a big-league umpire for twenty-eight seasons, showed a rapid-fire tape of twenty-five pitcher’s moves with runners on base. His students had to instantly identify the balks. There were sixteen. Did the pitcher’s knee bend? Did his shoulder turn, his glove twitch, his heel land improperly?
There are thirteen criteria for the correct stance of the home-plate umpire calling a pitch. Get only twelve right and Evans’s instructors—mostly minor-league umpires—will correct you, vigorously. They reject the theory that a student’s self-esteem is indispensable to learning.
When umpiring the bases, the rule is “angle over distance”—having the correct angle to see the play is more important than being close to the play. Students practice umpiring first base blindfolded, distinguishing the sounds of the fielder’s foot hitting the bag and the ball hitting his glove. The final exam’s 200 questions are like these:
Two outs, bases loaded. The batter hits a home run. He rounds first base and passes the runner who was on first. The runner from third touched home plate before the batter passed the runner from first, but the runner from second had not touched the plate at that time. (a) Four runs count because the infraction occurred during a dead ball situation. (b) No runs score because the batter made the third out. (c) This is a time play. One run scores. (d) Because the runner from first did not advance one base, the third out is considered a force out. No run scores.” [The answer is c.]
No outs, runner on first. A hot grounder is hit up the middle. The shortstop fields the ball but throws wildly trying to retire the runner approaching second base. At the time the ball rolled into the first base dugout, the runner from first had just rounded second and the batter had touched first. Place the runners. (a) Both runners score. (b) Runner scores; batter is awarded third. (c) Runner scores; batter is awarded second. (d) Runner is awarded third; batter is awarded second.” [The answer is d.]
Baseball combines fame and failure. The best batters fail more than 60 percent of the time. But umpires, baseball’s designated grown-ups, aspire to anonymous perfection. For an umpire, success is not being noticed. A Randy Johnson slider slides across a corner of a seventeen-inch-wide plate at ninety-four miles an hour. Imagine trying to be perfect on 260 pitches a game.
Sport—strenuous competition structured and restrained by rules—replicates the challenge of freedom and satisfies the human hunger for coherence. If players are mediocre, the result is mediocre baseball. If umpires are mediocre, the result is chaos.
Baseball, national pastime of a litigious nation, allows arguments, within reason. So Evans’s students learn how to manage rhubarbs. He teaches that strong voices and vigorous gestures—body language is language—buttress authority. You especially need that if, like twenty-year-old Susan Reed, you are about the size of a bunt.
Petite and laconic and just now wrapped in the armor of a home-plate umpire, she was a college student until, she says blandly, “I forgot my major.” Say what? “My head broke open.” Six months ago in the Missouri Ozarks, she was given the last rites of her church after being thrown through the sunroof of her SUV as it rolled over about a dozen times. Her painfully unhealed ankle slows her slightly gimpy run ninety feet up the line to call the play on a runner reaching third.
What pulls her painfully down the third-base line? What pulls all of Evans’s pupils to central Florida for Spartan living in a quest, against steep odds, for jobs that will mean many motel years of an endless road trip? One student says what most of them feel: “I get chills every time I walk onto a ball field.” Do you, reader, feel that way when you go to work?
[FEBRUARY 16, 2004]
Seeking Anonymous Perfection
PHILADELPHIA—On a recent night here, as on most summer nights for thirty-seven years, Bruce Froemming went to work. He performed for about three hours in front of a large, attentive, and opinionated audience. His job involves about 290 snap judgments, any of which might infuriate thousands of people. He has done his job well if no one notices him doing it. His goal is anonymous perfection.
At less than five-foot-eight and more than 250 pounds, Froemming, sixty-seven, looks like he might have siblings at Stonehenge. But in this summer of dismal developments in sports—a left fielder suspected of better hitting through chemistry; an NFL quarterback accused of dog fighting; an NBA referee guilty in a betting scandal; the Tour de France ruined by failed drug tests—Froemming is a sight for sore eyes.
Now in his thirty-seventh and final major-league season—after thirteen in the minors—he holds the record for most consecutive seasons of big league umpiring. His 5,127 games, through Sunday, are second only to Bill Klem (5,374), who did not have in-season vacations, which umpires did not get until 1979. If Froemming had not had twenty-eight days off each of the last twenty-eight summers, by now he would have worked nearly 6,000 games. He has spent more than forty-six thousand innings and approximately one and a half years on baseball diamonds, a well-spent life.
Pitch by pitch, baseball produces a rich sediment of numbers, such as: Every fourth day, Froemming is behind the plate. Over his career, the average game has involved about 290 pitches, so he has been behind the plate for more than 370,000 pitches. Has he given strict scrutiny—a Supreme Court concept is apposite when discussing baseball’s judicial branch—to every one of them? Yes, he says.
Really? His attention never flags during, say, a late inning in an August game in front of a small crowd in Tampa Bay? Never, he insists. “Every pitch is important to someone.”
Baseball now has an electronic system for grading home plate umpires’ performances. Froemming says it shows that umpires are right 94 percent of the time, but “you get a lot of crap for the other 6 percent.”
Early in his career, working behind the plate in a game involving Bob Gibson, the Cardinals’ regal and ferocious Hall of Fame pitcher, Froemming made some calls that displeased Gibson. At the end of an inning, he walked past Froemming and quietly said, “You’re better than that.” Froemming says, “I remember that like it was yesterday.”
A story for Froemming: Rogers Hornsby, who averaged .400 over five years, was facing a rookie pitcher who threw three pitches that he thought were strikes but that the umpire called balls. The rookie shouted a complaint to the umpire, who replied: “Young man, when you throw a strike, Mr. Hornsby will let you know.”
So, a question for Froemming: Is it true, as is said, that umpires give great hitters and pitchers the benefit of the doubt on close pitches? “Not one bit,” he says.
OK, then, another question: Suppose it is the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of a World Series, two outs, the potential tying run on third, two strikes on a right-handed batter. He starts to swing, tries to stop his bat, and the home-plate umpire calls the pitch a ball. But the catcher asks the home-plate umpire to ask the first-base umpire, who has a better vantage point, to say if the batter swung. The home-plate umpire accedes to this request. You, Froemming, are at first. You think the batter did swing. But seriously: Are you going to end a seven-game World Series on a check-swing appeal call? “Yes.”
He might. Consider September 2, 1972, when Froemming was behind the plate and the Cubs’ Milt Pappas was one strike from doing what only fifteen pitchers have done—pitch a perfect game, twenty-seven up, twenty-seven down.
With two outs in the ninth, Pappas quickly got an 0-2 count on the twenty-seventh batter. Then Froemming called the next three pitches balls. An agitated Pappas started walking toward Froemming, who said to the Cubs’ catcher: “Tell him if he gets here, just keep walking”—to the showers.
Pappas’s next pitch was low and outside. Although he did get his no-hitter, the greater glory—a perfect game—was lost. Another kind of glory—the integrity of rules—was achieved.
The photographer Edward Steichen said that when God created his brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg, God didn’t do anything else that day. When the Intelligent Designer designed Froemming, He spent the rest of the day at a ballpark because He had done a good day’s work by producing an archetype: The Umpire.
[AUGUST 19, 2007]
On his first day of school after coming to Missouri from the Dominican Republic, Albert Pujols, then sixteen, went to the school office and in two words expressed everything on his mind: “Where baseball?” He found the field, and soon professional baseball found him.
Now twenty-four, Pujols, the only player ever to finish in the top four in MVP voting in each of his first three seasons, is tied with Ralph Kiner and Mark McGwire for the most home runs (114) in his first three years. Here, from ESPN’s Peter Gammons, are three players’ stats after three seasons:
Those are the numbers of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Pujols.
Pujols is one of the remarkable Hispanic players who are among the more than 25 percent of major leaguers (and almost 50 percent of all professional baseball players) from outside the United States. This geyser of talent is one reason why the answer to the question “Where baseball?” is: soaring. This, in spite of the steroid crisis.
In a nation committed to better living through chemistry—where Viagra-enabled men pursue silicone-contoured women—the national pastime has a problem of illicit chemical enhancement. Steroids threaten the health of the 5 percent to 7 percent of players proved, by a mild regime of scheduled tests, to be using them. Steroids also endanger emulative young people. Further, steroids subvert what baseball is selling—fair competition. And they strike at the pleasure of engagement with America’s team sport with the longest history.
That pleasure is the comparison of players across many generations. Until now, comparisons have been complicated by only one substantial discontinuity in the game’s nature—that between the dead-and lively ball eras. Steroids threaten to define a second discontinuity—a parenthesis—in baseball’s narrative.
The parenthesis opened in the 1990s. It must be closed to remove the cloud of suspicion that hovers over all players. Americans standing in stockings while their shoes and luggage are X-rayed at airports doubt that privacy considerations should prevent random, year-round testing, backed by serious sanctions, for illegal drugs that traduce baseball’s integrity. The Players Association is too democratic, and its head, Don Fehr, is too intelligent, to continue to countenance the damage the status quo is doing.
Meanwhile, fans are flocking to ballparks. Preseason ticket sales are at record levels—the Cubs and Red Sox are essentially sold out for the season. Attendance probably will top 73 million, a record. In 1950, average attendance was 14,105 per game—in 1970, just 15,130. Last year? 28,013.
Ninety-eight percent of NFL fans have never been to a game. Many, probably most, baseball fans are made by going to ballparks. But baseball this year probably will be played in front of 50 million empty seats. So baseball is working on giveaways—e.g., tickets to reward scholastic achievements—to start young people on the baseball habit.
Sixteen of the thirty clubs have opened new parks since 1991. Fourteen new parks, counting San Diego’s and Philadelphia’s coming this month, have opened since Bud Selig became baseball’s ninth commissioner in 1992. Aside from Wrigley Field (1914), Dodger Stadium (1962) is now the National League’s oldest park.
Selig has been—baseball is a game of inches, but this is not a close call—the greatest commissioner. His achievements include a quickened pace of games (in three seasons, twelve minutes have been shaved from the average game length), interleague play, the unbalanced schedule, three divisions, partial realignment, wild-card teams (the last two World Series winners were wild cards), increased revenue sharing ($250 million this year; $20 million in 1992) and the competitive balance tax on the highest payrolls. That tax and revenue sharing will cost the Yankees $81 million this year.
Competitive balance is improving: twenty-two different teams have made it to postseason play since 1995. In the last three years, eleven different teams (of a possible twelve) have played in League Championship Series. As late as September 7 last season, fourteen of fifteen games had play-off implications.
The special task force for the Commissioner’s Initiative: Major League Baseball in the 21st Century, on which this columnist serves, knows that the national pastime, like the nation, is prone to hypochondria. But as Sparky Anderson, a greater manager than grammarian, once said, “We try every way we can do to kill the game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”
Oh, it gets hurt, but its recuperative powers are Ruthian. That American adjective means: prodigious.
[APRIL 4, 2004]