B After The Fact

Saturday, August 13, 2005

When Two Center Fielders Chase After The Same Ball

When I saw the replay of Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron's head-on collision (I was listening to the game in my office), I had two thoughts

First, of course, was Dennis Byrd and that awful hit he took during that Jets game (1992 -- wow)

The other one -- the alternative reality was, if it was the Center Fielder's ball, why didn't the right fielder pull up, and if it was the Right Fielder's ball, why did the center fielder have to be such an alpha male?

The following is reprinted from The Sporting News. I haven't heard anyone mention this parallel scenario in the last 2 days. Maybe I've been somewhere else. But it keeps running through my head.

"Because of a fifth-inning play involving past and future stars, the game had repercussions far beyond 1951. The 20-year-old Mays, who had slugged 20 homers for the Giants after being brought up in late May from Minneapolis (where he was batting .477), led off the Giants' fifth by flying out to DiMaggio in right-center. On the play, right fielder Mantle also went after the ball, only to catch his foot on the wooden cover of a drainage outlet. Mantle's knee buckled, forcing the 19-year-old speedster out of the game and the Series. More than that, the injury signaled the start of leg problems that hounded Mantle during his 18-season career, which began in '51 with two stints with the Yankees totaling 96 games, in which the Oklahoman had hit 13 homers."

Mantle caught his foot because he was trying to pull up to avoid colliding into Dimaggio, who had, it seemed when you look at the film today, the much harder angle. Nevertheless, Dimaggio exercised his perogative as the center fielder to make the catch.

Mantle, by then the better center-fielder, was playing out of position to accommodate the acknowledged leader of the team.

At the end of the 1951 season, Dimaggio retired.

We are reminded (again)that baseball is harder than that. You just can't stick anyone anywhere.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Home Run Hitter As Hero -- An Insomniac's Special

On ESPN and on the ESPN web site Jayson Stark decries the double standard -- Gaylord Perry , for example, openly cheated for about 20 years, all to the tune of 2 Cy Youngs, and a trip to the Hall of Fame.

Jayson cites other examples, and reaches the conclusion that our obsession with home run hitters cheating comes from our desire to keep Babe Ruth's record -- or at least the notion that his record is the real record -- safe.

Me -- I think it is both simpler and more complicated than that.

I think the issue of why we don't care if pitchers cheat has to do with issues of self-identity better explained by movie westerns.

Somewhere in the recesses of our mind, the pitcher, even our own guy, is already advertised as the bad guy. He who throws --- the curveball.

Even our own pitcher, most of the time, is our bully beating up their bully. Often he is an outsider or an outlaw -- harassed by the law (they don't understand). If our pitcher has to resort to any means necessary, scuff the ball, knock down the other guys batter ---(sometimes even the second baseman who is someone small like us) --- we understand. Maybe, we could do what the pitcher does ourselves, but we can't bring ourselves to live like that. Fortunately, thanks to our pitcher, we don't have to.

The craftiest of the craftiest earn our respect and our rewards -- they called Whitey Ford "The Chairman of the Board" -- and paid him accordingly. But it was never Whitey's team -- at least not on the field.

The other fielders and hitters are like the townpeople.

Good fielding is appreciated -- even highly praised as a virtue -- but never enough. Good fielding can only prevent losses. It can not create wins.

We need to score runs to win.

The townspeople can score runs and even win on our own now and then. Three singles score a run. That and other common schemes to score runs are collaborative. The townspeople scrape by anyway we can. We have to bunt, or "steal", or slide in cleats up (it's OK when we do it, but their second baseman did it and our pitcher knocked him down). We'd rather do it some other way, but resources are scarce, and we have to make do. There has to be an easier way. We know there is. If only we had the requisite talent.

But sometimes someone comes along who has the talent. The home run hitter. The home run hitter is the hero -- he is the lone gunman. The sheriff riding into town to handle the mess in the most simple way possible.

Our fair haired boy. He alone is above all the petty struggles of every day life. He alone can get by without device or artifice. On sheer talent alone. A talent that is first God-given, and then usually polished to a pure sheen. Sometimes, that talent has been spent unwisely, or has been dimmed by age and hard living, but never, we believe, spent completely. There still might be something left for us.

Sometimes the home run hitter swings too hard and misses. We don't get to swing too hard and miss. Our job is to put the bat on the ball any way we can. Who would trust us to hit the ball so hard and so far that we could risk a strike-out?

Only our home-run hitter can come in, all alone, and make short work of a long afternoon. The townsfolk can't get on base. One swing and the home run hitter gets the job done.

Or the townsfolk scramble to get on base, if another three of us hit singles -- we already did three in a row, and we still need another three in a row, how is that possible? -- we might win, but certainly not in time for dinner. Can our home run hitter -- the repository of our hopes and dreams -- save the day?

Sometimes our hero tries mightily and fails. Sometimes it seems, not only is the job too much for us, but it is too much for heroes.

But sometimes, sometimes, the hero, due to his very talent, his very purity, of body, mind and purpose (he only wants to save the day -- for us!), can reach down deep into inner places we cannot understand -- and do more than we could do -- either alone or together.

Mighty Casey did not strike out! Mighty Casey saved the day!

How many Mighty Caseys are there? How many could there ever be?

But no. That's wrong. Came a time where it seemed that anyone could be a home run hitter. Everyone was entitled to swing for the fences.

Suddenly, every town had a hero. Every town, it seemed, had many heroes.

Had the world really changed?

All these many heroes, we were told, are just like the heroes of old. It was just that we hadn't recognized them before -- due to old-fashioned media and transportation techniques, I suppose.

Some scratched our heads. We said that these new heroes looked a lot like the villains and physical freaks we had seen on television in those other, newer, sports. We were laughed at, and told to get with the times.

Something was wrong, we said.

What's with the geezer? They laughed. Get some glasses, grandpa, so you can really see what's going on.

Nothing has changed, they roared. The home run hitters today are like the home run hitters of yesterday. Nothing has changed. Feel free to treat your home run hitter with the same innocent love with which you have always treated him. Feel free to allow him to strike out at will. Don't be surprised to find that where some teams were lucky to have one home run hitter, now they have seven. Feel free to allow them all to strike out at will.

But no. Our hero is no hero at all -- he's just another cheater. He's like an evil wizard -- taking special cheating potions -- mixed in special cheating cauldrons -- something that can only be done in dark places.

We have been invaded by a band of evil wizards. How did evil wizards get into our western?

Say It Ain't So.

How can you tell the real heroes from the evil wizards?

That's life, grandpa.

But if baseball is life, then who needs baseball?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Rafael Palmeiro -- and the Importance of Keeping It Up

I keep calling Rafael Palmeiro a mere “compiler.” But until last week, I had no problem letting him in the Hall of Fame.

What does it mean to say that someone who is admittedly just a mere compiler is also worthy of the Hall of Fame?

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, and do not include 2005 stats. As of the end of the 2004 season, Palmeiro had 2,922 hits (33rd on the All-Time List at the time) and 551 home runs (10th on the All-Time list at the time).

Forget 3,000 hits. The threshold is 2,800 hits .

Every eligible person with more than 2,800 hits is in the Hall of Fame. Every eligible ballplayer with 2600-2700 hits is in the Hall of Fame (except for one 19th century guy I never heard of until I tried to write this sentence).

Interestingly enough, that 2700-2800 mark seems to trip up a whole lot of wanna-be Hall of Famers. Some of my all-time favorites – Andre Dawson, Vada Pinson, Al Oliver, Rusty Staub, Bill Buckner and Dave Parker -- have 2700-2800 hits. (Maybe not incidentally, Barry Bonds has 2,711 hits)

Rafael Palmeiro only had 200 hits once (1991), and has only lead the league in hits once (1990). Another two times he finished 3rd.

He has 551 home runs – and hit over 40 home runs four times. He never lead the league in Home Runs – finishing 2nd once and 3rd twice.

I don’t want to give too much weight to subjective awards, but Palmeiro finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting once. In 1999. He has been to the all-star game 4 times in 17 full seasons.

Baltimore lost the ALCS in 1996 and 1997. He was an important player on both those teams.

The only impressive stat Palmeiro has is the compiler’s stat. From 1988-2004, 17 seasons, Palmeiro has played over 150 games in 15 of them. 162 games once, 160 games twice, 159 games twice, 158 games three times, 156 games once, 155 games once, 154 games three times. The only seasons where Palmeiro played less than 150 games were the two strike shortened seasons of 1994-1995. In 1994 he missed one game, and in 1995 he missed one game.

And that stat is impressive. It tells you that for 17 seasons, baseball professionals thought enough of him to pencil Raffi in the line up, and that for 17 straight seasons, he never lost the edge that allowed him to be the best possible choice for his manager. 17 straight seasons! That tells you that Palmeiro had some quality in him that maybe can be missed in a box score, missed on an All-Star team. Missed in an MVP vote.

A platinum career that may not be as visible as the lightning careers of other who put together gaudier stats for a few years at a stretch. Whatever was going on around him, what ever caused other ballplayers to sag, Palmeiro kept it up -- for 17 straight seasons.

And Palmeiro made good use of that time, in order to compile all those impressive numbers.

To me that is Hall of Fame worthy, in and of itself.

And if you relented, and opened the Hall of Fame up to all the ballplayers with similar careers, you might find a dozen batters. Maybe some of the 2,700 club. A handful of pitchers. Blyleven, Kaat, Morris, maybe Tommy John. 20 more Hall of Famers for 100 years of baseball. I’ve been to Cooperstown. It is a pretty big building. There's room.

However, even if you have bought my argument, that keeping yourself on the field for all those years is a criteria of greatness that must be considered, you have to ask yourself.

Did he Palmeiro himself on the field – or did the steroids?

If I had to say today, I would say keep Palmeiro out of the Hall.

I think that by the time he is actually up for election, 5 years after he retires, the decision will be more grey.

By then, we may know more about the steroids war between pitchers and catchers that I would bet my eye teeth has been going on for 15 years.

[Oh yeah. My eye teeth have been capped.]