Well, 7,000 plus words and 32 great Sports Illustrated covers are up on my SI Blog. Hope you enjoy. I’m very tired.
I might need to change the subtitle of this site to “Posts Never Longer Than 300 Words!”
Well, 7,000 plus words and 32 great Sports Illustrated covers are up on my SI Blog. Hope you enjoy. I’m very tired.
I might need to change the subtitle of this site to “Posts Never Longer Than 300 Words!”
This list goes along with the piece I did about Jose Bautista and the meaning of 50 homers.
* * *
So, I came up with a formula to determine the 32 flukiest home run season. I would tell you the formula except I kind of forgot how I did it. I know I incorporated the player’s average homers per 162 games and the player’s second highest home run season and things like that. I would give a hat tip to my friend Bill James, who helped me come up with the formula, but I suspect Bill would not want to be considered an accomplice to this mathematical crime.
Anyway, here’s the list:
32. Duane Kuiper, 1977 (1 homer)
Comment: Kuiper, my favorite player ever, has never come out and explained his power surge of 1977. He, hit 0 homers the year before, and 0 homers the year after and, frankly, 0 homers in the other 3,753 plate appearances of his career. So what happened in 1977? I prefer to believe he was clean.
31. Willie Montanez, 1971 (30 homers)
Comment: This is the way to do it: Get your fluke season out of the way early so that everybody keeps waiting for you to do it again. Montanez hit 30 home runs as a rookie — he was runner up in the Rookie of the Year balloting to Earl Williams — and he never again hit more than 20. While most players start by hitting line drives and then developing power, Montanez was the other way around. As a rookie he hit .255 with those 30 homers, and the next year he hit .247 and led the league in doubles. But the next three years he hit .300 and his home run power plunged — he hit 28 homers COMBINED from 1974-76.
Then again, was there ever a cooler defensive first baseman than Willie Montanez? Those behind-the-back moves? Awesome. It was like the Globetrotters Meets The Mets.*
*Though, Montanez only played with the Mets for 268 games … that’s strange. I always pictured him with the Mets.
30. Wally Joyner, 1987 (34 homers)
Comment: Joyner had the fortune — and odd misfortune — of coming into his own in that crazy home run season of 1987. That was his second year, he mashed 34 homers for the Angels, built up his Wally World legend, it was a lot of fun. But it also gave the impression that Joyner was a home run hitter, and he wasn’t. He was a good player, defensively solid, got on base, hit a lot of doubles, but he only once more hit 20 homers in a season and the rest of his career had a whiff of underachiever, which probably wasn’t fair. The 34-home run season was out of character.
29. Felix Mantilla, 1964 (30 homers)
Comment: Fenway Park was good to Mantilla. He had never hit more than 11 homers in a season when in ’64 he mashed 30 — 19 of them at home. The next year he hit 18, which was still out of character, and then he was traded to Houston for Eddie Kasko. He hit six home runs for the Astros and his career was over.
28. Bill Hall, 2006 (35 homers)
Comment: The career is still going, and so he could fall off the list. But I sense that 35 homer season in 2006 will always stand out. Hall has power; this year he has hit 17 home runs in part-time duty for the Boston Red Sox. The question is will he ever again get 600 plate appearances in a season?
27. Cy Williams, 1923 (41 homers)
Comment: Sometimes the fluke has less to do with the player and more to do with the conditions. Cy Williams was a legitimately great home run hitter. He led his league in home runs four times. But it was a different era. In 1915, during Deadball, he led the league with 12. And in 1920, as the league was emerging from Deadball, he led with 20. So while his 41 homers in 1923 stands out — he never hit more than 30 in any other season — and while a big part of that season was the home run heaven that was the Baker Bowl (he hit 26 of his 41 homers there), there was nothing fluky about Cy Williams himself. He was a legit power hitter for his era.
26. Andre Dawson, 1987 (49 homers)
Comment: Everything about the 1987 season felt fluky, including the MVP Award. That was basically the one year over the last 50 years when National League MVP voters decided to ignore the guidelines as they had long followed them and choose an MVP from a losing team.* Much has already been written and said about how overrated in some ways Dawson’s 1987 season was — he had a .328 on-base percentage just as a starting point — but the larger point is that it was very much out of character for the Hawk. He was a vicious line drive hitter whose second highest home run total was 32. That season was a combination of Wrigley Field (where he hit 27 home runs), the juiced ball and a compelling story line (Dawson famously signed a blank contract after being unfairly blackballed by owner collusion).
*Best I can tell, the last NL MVP from a losing team was ALSO a Cubs player — Ernie Banks in 1959.
25. Rich Aurilia, 2001 (37 homers)
Comment: That remarkable 2001 season — .324/.369/.572, a 146 OPS+ — came out of nowhere. It wasn’t only the spike in home runs. His Wins Above Replacement that year was 6.5 — that’s MVP territory. His WAR the rest of his career combined was 3.7.
24. George Foster, 1977 (52 homers)
Comment: Nobody is entirely sure why home runs jumped so absurdly in the National League in 1977. The league as a whole hit 500 more homers in ’77 than ’76, and the total would drop by more than 300 in 1978. Strange. Foster was a very good power hitter who finished second in the MVP voting to Joe Morgan in 1976, but his 29 homers in 1976 was a career high. Then, suddenly, he hit 52 — the only player between 1966 and 1989 to hit 50 homers.
When Foster hit the 52 homers, it did not feel like a fluke. It felt like we were seeing the emergence of a truly great home run hitter, a modern day Killebrew. In retrospect, we were not, at least not over a long stretch. The next year, Foster hit 40 homers to lead the league, and the next year he hit 30 in only 121 games. He was, for those four years — 1976-79 — the best power hitter in baseball, I think. After that, though he was still a very good hitter for Cincinnati, his home run power began diminished. And that, of course, is when the Mets gave him a lot of money to spend the decline phase of his career with them.
23. Barry Larkin, 1996 (33 homers)
Comment: This isn’t scientific, but I covered Barry at that time … and I’ll tell you that Larkin in the early to mid-1990s gave the distinct impression that he could do anything. Absolutely anything. I’m not saying he’s the BEST player I’ve seen because he’s not Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds or a few others. But I think there’s a difference between being the best and being the most adaptable. With Barry, like I say, you got the feeling that if he wanted to just start flying, he would take off. The only other player I covered on a regular basis who gave that impression was the young Carlos Beltran.
Larkin, because he played shortstop, was probably even more amazing. Whatever he wanted. Make amazing defensive plays? Check. Make every routine play? Check. Steal bases? Check. Draw walks? Check. Be a clubhouse leader? Check. Be a great interview? Check (if he felt like it). Whatever he wanted, he could do, if he was healthy, if the mood struck him. So, though I appreciate the absurdity of the premise, it just felt to me that in 1996 Barry Larkin decided he wanted to hit home runs. And he hit 33 of them, stole 36 bases, won the Gold Glove, had an even better year than he did the year before when he won the MVP. And once that was proven, he moved on and never hit more than 17 homers in a season again.
22. Ival Goodman, 1938 (30 homers)
Comment: Another Cincinnati Reds player, our third in a row. Goodman’s specialty was triples — he led the league with 18 as a rookie, then led the league with 14 his second year, then hit 12 his third year. Then, suddenly, he hit 30 home runs for the Reds — he had never hit more than 17 in a season. He would never hit more than 12 after that.
21. Brook Jacoby, 1987 (32 homers)
Comment: That was some year, 1987. It seemed to me — a semi-young Cleveland Indians fan — that Jacoby arrived in 1987. He hit .300, banged those 32 homers, walked 75 times, all as a third baseman. I was psyched. I thought the Indians had themselves an every-year All-Star. Didn’t happen, of course. Jacoby would have a couple more pretty good years, but he never hit more than 14 home runs in a season after ’87.
20. Tommy Harper, 1970 (31 homers)
Comment: Here were Harper’s home run totals in the four years leading up to 1970: 5, 7, 6, 9. Of course, those four years were smack dab in the heart of the pitcher’s era, and things did loosen up a big in 1970. Harper as player was not a big man — 5-foot-9, 165 — and his game was built around speed (he stole 73 bases in 1969). But he did have some strength, and did hit double digit homers in five other seasons. In 1970, he became only the fifth man to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases.
19. Joe Kuhel, 1940 (27 homers)
Comment: Conditions again … Kuhel had decent power, but he spent the early part of his career in the hitter’s dungeon of Griffith Stadium. He never hit more than 16 homers in a season. He came to Chicago, though, and Comiskey Field suited him better. He still hit most of his home runs on the road (15 of the 27) but at least he could hit SOME homers at home. From 1930-37, he hit a total — a TOTAL — of 13 homers at Griffith Stadium.
18. Terry Steinbach, 1996 (35 homers)
Comment: OK, this one’s strange. If someone had asked me “Was Terry Steinbach a home run hitter?” I would have said “Yeah.” I would have just instinctively put him in that catchers-with-power group, you know, Lance Parrish, Mickey Tettleton, that group. But you know what? He really wasn’t in that group. He had the huge home run season in 1996, but he never hit more than 16 home runs in any other year.
17. Adrian Beltre, 2005 (48 homers)
Comment: I’m actually a bit surprised this season didn’t rank higher on the system. Beltre has shown again this year that he does have quite a lot of power — he leads the league this year with 45 doubles and he has 28 homers — but for him to hit 48 home runs while playing half his games in Dodger Stadium, well, it’s just absurd. Only Shawn Green among Dodgers has hit more. And the 23 home runs Beltre hit at home that year ties him with Gary Sheffield in 2000 for the most any player has hit in Dodger Stadium in a season.
16. Wade Boggs, 1987 (24 homers)
Comment: Boggs hit .363/.461/.588 with 24 homers in 1987. Boggs hit .366/.476/.490 with five homers in 1988. Which was the better offensive year? According to oWAR — offensive WAR — it was extremely close but it was 1988. He led the league in runs, doubles and walks that year, and each run was worth more because scoring was down more than 1,000 runs across the American League. … Boggs only hit double digit homers in one other season, and that was with the Yankees in 1994, when he was 36 years old.
15. Willard Marshall, 1947 (36 homers)
Comment: The ball just flew out of the park for Marshall that year — especially at the Polo Grounds where he hit 25 of his 36 homers. He hit homers in three consecutive at-bats against Cincinnati in a July game, which at the time tied a National League record. He hit two homers against Pittsburgh in a June game. It was a good year. He never before and never again hit even half as many home runs in a season.
14. Tommy Holmes, 1945 (28 homers)
Comment: An easier one to explain — Holmes was a good big league player, who was playing in a war-torn league where most of the regulars were fighting in World War II. Holmes simply outclassed the league. That year he set the NL hitting streak record by hitting in 37 consecutive games, a record that would not be broken until Pete Rose did it more than 40 years later. He led the league in doubles, home runs, slugging and OPS+. He had 224 hits. And — this is almost unbelievable — he only struck out NINE TIMES all year. His 28-to-9 homer-to-strikeout ratio is by far the best in baseball history. By far. By a million miles. Nobody else in baseball history who struck out less than 10 times managed to hit 10 or more homers.
13. Hack Wilson, 1930 (56 homers)
Comment: Wilson was a terrific power hitter who led the league in homers four out of five years ending in 1930. The one year in that he did not lead the league, he hit 39 home runs which was his career high up to 1930. So that power, once he went to Chicago and played for Joe McCarthy (who he credited for rescuing his career), was very real.
Still: That 56-homer year was still shocking and out of character (as was the 191 RBIs, still the record). Wrigley Field was very good to him; he hit 33 of his homers at home. As a comparison, that is more home runs at home than Roger Maris hit in 1961.
12. Chico Fernandez, 1962 (20 homers)
Comment: Sometimes, things are hard to explain. Chico Fernandez, a light hitting shortstop from Cuba, had never hit more than six home runs in a season. And after 1962, he hit a total of two home runs. But that one year, he banged 20.
11. Tillie Walker, 1922 (37 homers)
Comment: Another context-based fluke. Tillie Walker had real power. He led the league in homers in 1918 — it just happened to be that you could lead the league in homers with 11 in 1918. He was not a big man, but he had pop, and as the game came out of Deadball, his home run totals rose. His 37 homers in 1922 was by far the most of his career (he hit 23 the year before) but he did not lead the American League in home runs (even though Ruth was injured that year and only played in 110 games). That’s because the endlessly fascinating Ken Williams hit HIS career high with 39 home runs. That was the year Williams became the first man to have 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season — nobody else would do it until Willie Mays did in 1956.
10. Barry Bonds, 2001(73 homers)
Comment: I have little doubt that if managers had actually pitched to Bonds in 2002, 2003 and 2004 he would have had more 60-plus homer seasons. As it turns out, except for 2001, Bonds never had even a 50-homer season.
In 2004, Bonds’ absurd dominance — however it was achieved — really did make a mockery of the game. He was intentionally walked 120 times. I’m willing to bet we will never see anything like that again in our lifetimes. Bonds’ at-bat-per-homer in 2001 was a comical 6.5 — and nobody, not even Bonds himself, has ever been close to that. Nobody else has even managed a homer every 7.0 at-bats. The only players in baseball history to have a homer even every 9.0 at-bats are: Bonds (four times), Mark McGwire (four times) and Babe Ruth (once).
9. Jay Bell, 1999 (38 homers)
Comment: Bell had made his bones as a perfectly fine hitting shortstop who played solid defense and played the game hard in Pittsburgh. From 1990-96, he averaged 11 homers a season, and it was pretty clear that was exactly who he was — a good-fielding shortstop who would play smart and give you 11 home runs a season. He came to Kansas City and though he pretty clearly was unhappy about it, he had his best offensive year. He mashed 21 home runs in what was then a kind of absurd home run ballpark (they had moved in the fences). It was very good for him. He signed a big money deal to play in Arizona and he muscled up and he had his massive 38 home run season in ’99. To give you an idea about the time, those 38 home runs tied him for 16th in baseball.
8. Roger Maris, 1961 (61 homers)
Comment: It has been well-reported that many Yankees fans treated Maris abominably during his home run chase in 1961. Their feeling was that Maris was having a fluke season, and a fluke season should not force the great Babe Ruth from the record books. It’s awful that Maris — a good man and a good player — had to deal with that, but ask yourself this: Would we really be any different now? The truth is that Maris WAS having a fluke season. He never hit 40 homers in any other season, and he only twice hit 30. He was a good player who had a charmed home run season (he was at least as good in 1960, but without the home runs). What if, a good player in the midst of a fluke season had broken Maris’ record? What if Jay Buhner or Ben Oglivie or Dwight Evans or Kevin McReynolds had been the one to hit 62 home runs in a completely out-of-character season? I don’t think they would have been treated quite like Maris — the Ruth connection in New York made it much more emotional in 1961 — but I also don’t think people would have liked it much.
Now, of course, it has changed. The whole home run record has changed. People despise Bonds enough that if someone like Jose Bautista or Dan Uggla came along and hit 74 homers, well, there would be ugly suspicions because that’s the time we live in. But, in the end, most people probably would be happy to get Bonds out of there.
7. Wally Moses, 1937 (25 homers)
Comment: Moses was a small and fast outfielder (he stole 56 bases at age 32) and he stung the ball for extra bases — he led the league in doubles and triples in two separate years during World War II. But the 25 homers was one of the all-time flukes. He never before and never again again hit double digit homers.
6. Bert Campaneris, 1970 (22 homers)
Comment: He hit two homers in 1969. He hit five homers in 1971. That more or less describes his career. Where that 22 homer season in the middle came from … nobody knows. And you have to understand that up that before Campy, only 12 shortstops in baseball history had hit more than 20 home runs in a season.* So it was quite the thing, and still inexplicable. His next-best home run season was eight.
*In case you are wondering: 33 different shortstops have done it since. Cal Ripken did it 12 times.
5. Jose Bautista, 2010 (49 homers and counting)
Comment: The system actually ranks Bautista’s season No. 1, but for reasons I explain in my other story, I don’t think it’s fair to put him at No. 1 just yet. We have to see how his career progresses from here. I think it IS fair to say that no home run season — not even the Top 4 flukes — has ever come from out of the blue quite like this one.
4. Ned Williamson, 1884 (27 homers)
Comment: Well, 1884 is undoubtedly the flukiest home run season ever. Or anyway, it is in Chicago. Bill James sent me his own list of the 10 flukiest home run seasons, and four of the Top 10 played on the Chicago Cubs in 1884 (Fred Pfeiffer, Cap Anson and Abner Dalrymple joined Williamson). I left the other three off for reasons that will become clear, but I’ll include Williamson because — you probably know this — his 27 home runs was the official record in baseball until Babe Ruth broke it by hitting 29 for the Red Sox in 1919. Ruth then obliterated the record with 54 in 1920.
Williamson became the first player to hit three homers in a game in 1884 — and three other players on his team did it that same year. But it was all a farce. Williamson (along with Pfeiffer, Anson and Dalrymple) all played for the Chicago Cubs, who played that year in Lakefront Park. Right field was only 200 or so feet away. It was so close that up to 1884, any ball hit over that fence was called a ground rule double. But that year, Anson decided that everything hit over the fence would be considered a home run. And Anson, as we know, had the power to make up his own rules then — hell, he was as responsible as anyone for keeping African Americans out of professional baseball.* So, for that one year, balls that went over the fence were home runs. The Cubs hit three times more home runs than any other team in the league, and Williamson set a record that would take 35 years to break. The Cubs moved to West Side Park the next year.
*Though, in some ways, I think Anson has gotten too much blame for the banning of black players. Yes, Anson was a virulent racist who spoke loudest. But America at that time was unlikely to accept black players in the Major Leagues. If it hadn’t been Anson, it almost certainly would have been someone else.
3. Luis Gonzalez, 2001 (57 homers)
Comment: Of the 25 players who have hit 50 homers in a season, only four did not hit at least 40 in another year. Two have already been mentioned — Roger Maris and Hack Wilson, who topped out at 39 in their next-best season.
Then there’s Luis Gonzalez. Before he turned 30, his career high was 15. Then, he hit 23 for the Tigers in 1998 and he was traded to Arizona for Karim Garcia. Yes, Karim Garcia. His next three years, he would hit 26 homers, 31 homers (his second highest total) and finally 57 homers in that remarkable 2001 season when the Diamondbacks won the World Series. After that, it’s like he went into the cool down pool — he hit 28 homers, 26 homers, 17 homers, his super powers were wearing down. People have for some time now whispered about Gonzalez and a connection to steroids — whispers that Gonzalez has angrily denied. There’s no stopping people from believing what they will believe*, but Gonzalez was a class act as a player, and while this is a hackneyed phrase that has lost its meaning, well, there is no proof that he used performance enhancing drugs.
*On Twitter, someone sent me a message about Jim Thome saying something along the lines of: “I cannot wait for the day when this fraud is exposed as a steroid user.” I can’t help but feel sad for that kind of person. I don’t know, can’t know, if Thome or anyone else used steroids. I’ve never seen a steroid needle. But to root for one of the game’s great people to be exposed — to basically want to throw a party for a wonderful player’s downfall — well, I don’t see what joy sports can bring to you if you think like that.
2. Brady Anderson, 1995 (50 homers)
Comment: The Luis Gonzalez comment is even more true here. Anderson never hit more than 24 homers in any other season. It should be said, though, that Anderson had legitimate power. He hit double digit home runs for nine straight years, and averaged more than 30 doubles a season over that time. He hit the ball hard. But the 50 homers, yeah, that does stand out.
Here’s an odd thing I didn’t know about that season: Brady Anderson actually hit 31 of those 50 home runs AWAY from home. He hit 10 of those homers in 12 games in Kansas City and Texas.
1. Davey Johnson, 1973 (43 homers)
Comment: Put it this way — in 1973, Johnson hit 26 of his 43 home runs in Atlanta, the launching pad, that probably doesn’t surprise you. That year, the Braves became the first team to have three players hit 40 home runs in a season — Johnson (43), Darrell Evans (41) and Hank Aaron (40). The Braves hit 118 home runs at home.
But this might surprise you: Those 17 home runs he hit on the road were more home runs than he hit in any other FULL SEASON, excepting 1971 when he hit 18.
Johnson’s 43 homers were the most ever hit by a second baseman, and believe it or not that is still true. Only three second basemen have ever hit 40 homers. Ryne Sandberg hit exactly 40. Rogers Hornsby hit 42. Johnson hit 43. For some reason, I just always thought Jeff Kent had done it — but he topped out at 37. Johnson’s 1973 is is the most bizarre home run season in baseball history, I think.
But then everything about Davey’s baseball career is kind of bizarre. Look at his managing career. He managed one of the best teams in baseball history, the 1986 Mets, led them to 100 wins against in 1988, and he was shoved out just a little more than a year after that. He went to Cincinnati where I covered him — he was very kind to me — and led the Reds to back-to-back first places (one of those was in the strike year of ’94) and the NL Championship Series. He was shoved out. He went to Baltimore and guided the Orioles to a 98 win season. He was shoved out — resigned the day he was named A.L. Manager of the Year. He went to Los Angeles, the Dodgers had a losing season (the first for Davey) and then he guided the Dodgers to rebound year where they won 86 games. And he was shoved out again.
With the awesome SI cover this week. I’m taking nominations for the best SI cover ever. We’ll post the winners. It will be great!
Drop your nominations in the comments section below.
(I should have said this at the top — swimsuit covers are not eligible).
OK, so, by now I hope you have found this blog. I’m not entirely sure yet how this thing will differ from the old blog … or if it will differ at all. We’ll have to see how it plays out.
For those of you who didn’t know or read about it in the last post, I had to take down the old blog because it apparently got hacked and it would redirect certain readers into Spam Hell. I have not heard yet of it doing any damage to anybody’s computer, and I hope it didn’t. My own computer seemed to bypass the redirect; I don’t know if it’s where I have my spam settings or what. Maybe you never even noticed it. Anyway, I took the site down. And I started this simpler to operate blog here at Blogspot. I think it was something I was going to have to do eventually anyway.
Everything should work about the same. You should be able to easily get the RSS feed to the right. There are polls there too. If you would like to print the posts, I’ve tried to make that fairly easy*.
*And you can use “Readability.” If you have not been using Readability (or the similar “Reader” Option available on Safari) I would definitely recommend checking it out. It turns Internet stories into print-read and easy-to-read documents. It’s pretty great.
If you’re interested in the archives of the old blog, they are all available here at Sports Illustrated. I will try to get a search engine set up there as well. And, of course, that blog will continue to run just like the old blog.
And what will we do here? Other than the Web’s finest collection of typos and duplicate words, I’m not entirely sure just yet. I’m not sure about the value of just reprinting the blog posts in two places — we might do some of that. I also might use this to link to new SI posts, to tease stuff coming up, to write about some non-sports things, to put up polls, to do some live blogs and so on. We’ll see how it progresses.
In the meantime, you are welcome to join in. I’m not sure how we’ll handle the comments section. For now, anyone can comment but at some point I might make it so it’s for registered users. That’s a pain and some might rebel, but it also might keep our community somewhat intact. We can talk about it.
Here are some posts coming up. And, before going on, if you are so inclined — or have a family member that might be inclined — it would be great if you would join my wife Margo’s blog here. She’s got a bold 50-state plan in the works. Should be fun for the whole family.
Thanks everyone for coming on over.
Coming up (tentative):
— The meaning of 50 home runs.
— The 32 flukiest home run seasons ever (with help from Bill
— The long awaited, sick-of-hearing-about-it iPad review.
— The 32 best sports books.
— The 32 greatest radio calls ever (with — I hope — some incredibly cool video/audio).
— The poet.
— The Favre In Winter
— The meaning of horror movies.
— Why Jon Miller rules.
— A review of “Death to the BCS.”
— The mesmerizing tweets of an old boss.
— Darkness on the Edge of Town: An Essay.
So, you may or may not have noticed … but it appears my last blog got hacked. After spending way too much time trying to clean all that up I, well, I started wondering very seriously why I was working so hard to get that cleaned up.
Folks, I love this blog. I love you Brilliant Readers. But this thing has become a bear. You may have noticed that I already write quite a lot. And I simply do not have time to deal with blog maintenance, spam elimination, comment monitoring and all that. Especially when everything is already going up here at my Sports Illustrated Blog.
So here’s what I’m going to do. I’ve started this blogspot blog. Here is the direct link. I’m hoping to get the old address to redirect. And what I hope to do is still write here, link to my Sports Illustrated posts so that we can keep the conversation going, and I can use this for goofy posts that don’t belong anywhere else, for interactive stuff, for polls, for naked self promotion and so on and so forth. I’m sure this thing will build up as we go.
I appreciate that this may not be the perfect solution … but it’s the best I have right now.
OK, so, it’s happening again … every year I feel more and more certain that there has to be something I’m missing. I had a long talk with someone close to the Minnesota Twins … this someone is the latest in a long series of people who want me to understand just how wrong I am about Ron Gardenhire.
A little history: In 2008, I wrote a series of columns stating what I believe — that Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball. This led more than a few people to believe that I was completely off my rocker and many of those people were Minnesota Twins fans who watched the man manage every single day and, as such, could recite hundreds and hundreds of reasons why Gardenhire was, in fact, a dreadful manager.
That’s a wide gap — best in the game (me) to dreadful (most of the people writing in). The 2008 Twins, despite hitting the fewest home runs in the league (and having the 10th best slugging percentage) and having a mediocre pitching staff somehow won 88 games and forced a one-game playoff with Chicago, which they lost 1-0. I thought it was another pretty impressive managerial run for a guy who had led his Twins to the playoffs in four of his first six years as manager. Others thought it was another lousy managing job.
And … the anti-Gardy crowd was overpowering. They bludgeoned me with stories of crazy lineup moves and bizarre bullpen maneuvers and folksy Gardy quotes that suggested he was at least Cardinal in the Roman Church of Grit. OK, I conceded the points, at least somewhat. I conceded that if Gardy was my team’s manager and I had to watch him every day, that I might not be the world’s No. 1 Gardy fan … but I don’t watch him every day, and I am the world’s No. 1 Gardy fan, and I still didn’t get why people did not give Gardy more credit for the Twins success.
Then came 2009. The Twins were without MVP Joe Mauer for the first month. They were without the 2006 MVP Justin Morneau for the last month. Their starting pitching was brutal, they were unsettled at numerous positions, they were six games under .500 in mid-August. And I heard from the Gardy people, doing their Billy Crystal as Edward G. Robinson impressions (“Where’s your Messiah now!”). Only then, the Twins won 21 of their last 35 (and 17 of their last 21) and they chased down the fading Tigers and the won the division again, Gardenhire’s fifth division championship.
And I again wrote the Gardenhire is a genius thing because, dammit, I’m nothing if not predictable. And again I got hit with the anti-Gardy denials — he didn’t do anything, the Tigers folded, anyone could manage the Twins, the UNDERachieved, he cost his team a dozen games with stupid maneuvers on and on and on. It’s amazing. The guy could build Hoover Dam and people would say he should have built it bigger. The Twins did lose three straight to the Yankees in the playoffs, which if I was reading the response correctly demonstrated again the point of Gardy’s incompetence (and apparently did not demonstrate the the point that the Yankees had a payroll three times larger). And once again I found myself just shaking my head and wondering why it seemed so lonely on “Gardy is Awesome” Island.
Then came 2010. Now I should point out here that part of the reason I’ve been so enthralled with Gardy is that I don’t think the Twins have been all that talented. Payroll isn’t everything, but it’s probably telling that in the first eight years that Ron Gardenhire managed the Twins, they never had a payroll in the top half of baseball. Not once. They have only once had the highest payroll in their own relatively low-spending division. Here is a look at the Twins payroll rankings:
2009: 24th (lowest in AL Central)
2008: 25th (lowest in AL Central)
2007: 18th (3rd in AL Central)
2006: 19th (3rd in AL Central)
2005: 20th (3rd in AL Central)
2004: 19th (2nd in AL Central)
2003: 18th (1st in AL Central)
2002: 27th (lowest in AL Central)
OK, so with those payrolls, the guy took his team to the playoffs five times. I mean, that’s SOMETHING isn’t it? Well, this year, something changed. The Twins payroll took a huge jump — they are actually 10th in the league in payroll (though still only third in the AL Central, behind Chicago and Detroit — yes three of this year’s top 10 payrolls are in the American League Central). And the payroll should go up quite a bit next year when Joe Mauer’s $23 million per year deal kicks in.
OK, so where did that extra money go for the Twins?
1. Mauer’s salary jumped $2 million.
2. Justin Morneau’s salary jumped $3.5 million.
3. Michael Cuddyer’s salary jumped almost $2 million.
4. They signed Carl Pavano for $7 million.
5. They signed J.J. Hardy for $5.1 million.
6. They signed Orlando Hudson for $5 million.
7. They signed Jim Thome for $1.5 million plus incentives.
8. Various raises to players like Jason Kubel, Franscisco Liriano, etc.
9. They are paying Joe Nathan $11.25 million — this is the same as last year, so that’s not why the payroll went up. But the point is I believe only the Yankees in the American League pay more for their closer.
I go through all that to show you that this year — for the first time in a very long time, I think — the Twins put some financial backing behind their efforts to win. They have a new stadium now, so I’m sure that helped. They also have perhaps the single most valuable property in baseball in Joe Mauer, and they re-signed him. For the first time in my mind they gave Gardy a team that is NOT small market, a team that has been given the balance sheet talent to win games and playoff series. Of the American League playoff teams only the Yankees (or, in a miracle finish, the Red Sox) have a higher payroll than Minnesota.
So this year’s different. Only then, it wasn’t so different. During spring training Nathan was lost for the season. How valuable is a closer? It’s a topic we’ve discussed here more than once … and I don’t know if we came to a consensus. But it’s fair to say that $11.25 million of that payroll was worthless for 2010, and a lot of people around the game thought that Nathan’s injury could be a death blow to the Twins chances.
And as if to prove the point, the Twins were a blah 45-42 on July 10. And it was right around then (July 7 to be precise) that they lost Justin Morneau, who had a strong argument as American League MVP when he suffered a concussion. He has not played a single game since then.
And where are the Twins right now? Exactly: First place, the American League Central is all sewn up, the Twins are only a half game behind Tampa Bay for the best record in all of baseball. They are 43-16 since hitting that low point — staggeringly awesome baseball. Gardenhire is about to take the Twins to the playoffs for the sixth time.
And, no, I don’t know if the Twins will do any better this time around — the Twins under Gardy have lost their last nine playoff games and have only won one playoff series — but on paper, to me, they at least seem in better playoff shape. They have the ace — Francisco Liriano has pitched as well this year as any pitcher in the league. They get on-base (second in OBP) and are fourth in the league in runs. Their bullpen, even without Nathan and with a couple of closers through the season, has been strong. We’ll see.
But I guess my point remains … I think Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball. I think that not based on what we see but what we can’t see. I base this not on what I think a manager should do but on success. I base this not on individual moves but on the basis that the Twins are there on top one more time.
That someone close to the Twins — he would know more about this than I do. And I respect his opinion. And he insists that the Twins win DESPITE Gardy not BECAUSE of Gardy. And you know what? It could be true.
But you know what else? They sure do keep on winning despite him. So if nothing else, Gardy is the best I’ve ever seen at minimizing the damage he can cause and keeping his own deficiencies from ruining the story. It’s a lesson all of us could probably learn.
There are two absolutely remarkable things happening in baseball this year … or anyway, I think they are remarkable.
1. The Seattle Mariners might be having the worst offensive season in baseball history … certainly in recent baseball history.
2. The Arizona Diamondbacks are definitely having the most fan-tastic season in baseball history.
Both of these things are so awesome, that I really don’t know where to begin. I’ll start with Seattle because, well, I have to start somewhere. It’s pretty hard not to notice that the Mariners are having just a wee problem this year scoring runs. I mean, they are last in baseball in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs (naturally). They don’t just have the fewest runs in baseball, they have the title by a Tony Esposito (35). Their batting splits are a smorgasbord of goodies (or baddies) such as these treats:
— Mariners’ No. 3 hitters are hitting .227 … which is actually BETTER than their No. 5 hitters (.209).
— Mariners second basemen, shortstops and catchers combined are slugging .301.
— The Mariners as a team are hitting .234. The Mariners as a team minus Ichiro are 10 points worse.
And so on. It has been a preposterously awful offensive season for Seattle, I think everybody understands that. And yet … I didn’t realize just how awful. I had this idea to go back and see when was the last time a team scored this little over a full season. The Mariners are on pace to score 518 runs this year, so I went to trusty Baseball Reference and started to go back year by year to see what was the last team to score fewer than 518 runs. I figured it would take three minutes or so, I figured I’d have to go back as far as 2003 and those awful Detroit Tigers (who, I did not realize, actually did not score the fewest runs in baseball; the Los Angeles Dodgers did). If it wasn’t the Tigers, I figured one of those National League teams in pitchers parks without the DH (like the Dodgers) would emerge in the early part of the decade. Maybe, I thought, I even would have to go back to the 1990s.
Well, it’s a bit more involved than that. No team in the 2000s was within 50 runs of the Mariners projection. OK. Of course, that might not mean a whole lot. The 2000s have been high scoring as we all know. So I went through the mid-to-late 1990s, when, yes, a lot of runs were being scored, and found that there wasn’t a team from 1996-2000 that was within 100 runs of the Mariners projection. Then there were the strike shortened years (even in 1995, that shortened season, no team scored anywhere near 518 runs) and finally I got to the pre-strike years before the offensive explosion and I figured I’d find a team there pretty quickly.
Only … no. The worst offense of the early 1990s was the 1992 Dodgers, but they scored 548 runs, still not especially close.
OK … to the 1980s. A low-scoring decade (except 1987). All those terrible low-scoring Seattle teams and Cleveland teams and Giants teams … there was no way I was going to get through the 1980s. Well …
The 1988 Orioles were ludicrously bad (lost their first 21 games) but they scored 550 runs.
The 1985 Giants, who lost 100 and were led in home runs by Bob Brenly and had a team on-base percentage of .299? They scored 556 runs.
The 1982 Reds, who had two players hit more than 10 home runs (Dan Driessen led with 17)? They scored 545 runs.
And still, I could not find a team, either league, that scored as few runs as the Mariners figure to score in 2010.
OK, fine, so we have to go into the 1970s, a decade so offensively lame that they finally just added a designated hitter in the American League to wake up some fans. Finally, this project that was supposed to take three minutes would end. And I thought I had it in 1978 — ah, those 1978 Oakland Athletics. What a team. Not a single player on the team drove in more than 70 RBIs, and not a single player scored more than 62 runs. Mitchell Page … Dave Revering … that’s it, I just named the only two even remotely decent offensive players on the 1978 Oakland A’s. They would finish dead last in runs scored in 1979 too.
But even that 1978 Oakland Athletics scored 532 runs … more than the Mariners projection (though with a hot finish, the Mariners could catch the A’s).
Back another couple of years — the 1976 Montreal Expos were a special offensive team. Larry Parrish led the team with 11 home runs. I’ll repeat that — LARRY PARRISH LED THE TEAM WITH 11 HOME RUNS. And that home run race wasn’t close, nobody had 10. Forty-six different players got at-bats for that Expos team, a list that includes Hall of Famers (Gary Carter, Andre Dawson), good players in the future (Andre Thornton, Ellis Valentine, Parrish), and a bunch of kids. A BUNCH of kids. Eleven different players on the team that year were 22 or younger. And you know what? That 1976 Expos team, with all those kids, with no power or ability to get on base (.291 OBP for the team), with no designated hitter, in a very low-scoring era, they scored 531 runs.
That’s STILL more than the Mariners are on pace to score.
And if I didn’t realize it before, this is when I fully appreciated just how remarkable this Mariners team really is. In today’s era, with today’s technologies, with the home run ball still flying (though not as much as the last decade or so), the Seattle Mariners will probably score fewer runs than any time in almost 40 years. I think, depending on how far back your memory goes, this Mariners offense is the worst you have ever seen.
The last team to score fewer than them? WELL, As it turns out, it was several teams from 1972*. In 1972, California, Texas, Cleveland and Milwaukee from the AL and San Diego from the NL all scored fewer than 500 runs.
*Great point by Brilliant Reader Paco — 1972 was strike shortened so the teams played seven or eight fewer games that year. The last team to score fewer than the Mariners projection in a FULL season was the 1971 San Diego Padres who only scored 486 runs.
What makes 1972 so special? Well, you already know: It was the absurd lack of scoring in 1972 that finally propelled the American League to add the designated hitter.
Which leads to the question: Will the American League take away the DH from every team except Seattle? And will that even help considering Seattle DHs are hitting .190/.267/.348?
* * *
Maybe you know off the top of your head what team has the record for most strikeouts in a season. I did not know … it was the 2001 Milwaukee Brewers with 1,399. That team was something else. Their strikeouts mostly came from five men:
1. Jose Hernandez, 185
2. Richie Sexson, 178
3. Jeromy Burnitz, 150
4. Geoff Jenkins, 120
5. Devon White, 95
That makes up slightly more than half the team’s strikeouts and inspires the eternal question: What, Devon White was playing in 2001? I don’t remember that at all.
Jose Hernandez was a strikeout genius — everyone felt sure that he would be the one to break Bobby Bonds unbreakable record of 189 strikeouts in a season. Let’s take a moment to talk about that because the Bonds record was something to behold. Before 1960, no player in baseball history had struck out even 140 times in a season. The record of 138 belonged to Jim Lemon, and THAT was more or less unthinkable. He had broken Vince DiMaggio’s record of 134, and yes many, many, many people have wondered how Joe DiMaggio could have been so hard to strike out while his brother Vince was a swing-and-miss machine.
Anyway in 1961, Jake Wood struck out 141 times to set the record, and in 1962 Harmon Killebrew struck out 142 to set it again. The record was creeping up one by one. Then 23-year-old Dave Nicholson in the only year he would get more than 300 at-bats, managed to strike out 175 times. You could argue that Nicholson was the Jim Ryun of strikeouts — the one who showed everyone what was possible. As you know, nobody had struck out 150 times in a year before Nicholson. Over the next 10 years though, 11 other players would do it.
Nicholson’s 175 Ks in a season looked like it would be the standard for quite a while, that is until Bobby Bonds exploded on the scene. There had never been anything quite like Bobby Bonds. He was fast. He was strong. He was electric. And he struck out like he was going for a Christmas bonus. In his first full year, 1969. He hit 32 homers, stole 45 bases, led the league in runs scored … and struck out 187 times. This didn’t only set the record, it set a precedent — you could strike out that much and STILL be a great player.
The next year, Bonds’s overall numbers were even better, he hit .302, with 10 triples, 26 homers, 48 stolen bases, 134 runs scored. And that year he struck out 189 times, which would be the record for the next 30-plus years.
Oh, some strikeout heroes came along and tried to break the record. Rob Deer struck out 187 times. Pete Incaviglia struck out 185. The young Mike Schmidt struck out 180 in 1975. Jose Canseco showed a lot of promise, striking out 175 times when he was only 21. And there was Bo, larger than life Bo, swing for the county line Bo, there never seemed a doubt that if Bo Jackson could get enough plate appearances, he had the stuff to break the record. But he never got more than 561 PAs in a season (Bonds had 745 PAs the year he set the record). Bo did strike out 172 times that year, but it wasn’t enough.
Jose Hernandez seemed like our best shot to break the record. He hit with some power, he could play several positions, and he was really good at striking out. But in that magical Milwaukee year of 2001, despite a big finish when he struck out 28 times in his last 78 at-bats, he could not quite get there. And then in 2002, he seemed to have the record all but clinched, but his manager Jerry Royster kept him out of the lineup at the end, and he finished with 188 Ks, which, like the word havoc, is one K short.
Richie Sexson and Jeromy Burnitz just missed being teammates in Cleveland in 1996 (Sexson did not play for Cleveland until 1997), which is a shame because THAT would have been an epick kollection of Ks — with Jim Thome (2nd all-time in strikeouts), Manny Ramirez (100-plus strikeouts 11 times, only 11 players have done it more) and Jeff Kent (1,522 Ks is second most among second basemen).
Anyway, that Brewers team was the first team to strike out 1,300 times and almost the first team to strike out 1,400 times. A list of firsts by 100:
First team to 800 Ks: 1914 St. Louis Browns (863).
First team to 900 Ks: 1957 Chicago Cubs (989)
First team to 1000 Ks: 1960 Philadelphia Phillies (1054 — Pancho Herrera key with 136 Ks)
First team to 1,100 Ks: 1963 Cleveland Indians (1,102)
First team to 1,200 Ks: 1968 Mets (1203)
Team strikeouts, interestingly enough, dropped off in the 1970s, which is interesting because we tend to think that as a great strikeout era with Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and the other big strikeout pitchers. Still: Only one team, the 1978 Padres, struck out even 1,000 times times between 1972 and 1982. And no team would strike out 1,200 times again until after the strike — that would be the 1996 Tigers.
First to 1,300 Ks: 2001 Brewers (1399)
And our first team to 1,400 Ks? No doubt it will be this year’s Arizona Diamondbacks. They are only 27 short now. In fact, assuming they keep going like they do, they will set the record on Sunday in Pittsburgh (boy will THAT be thrilling). If they shorten up, they could save it and set the record at home on Tuesday against Colorado. If they can just keep up this pace, they will also become the first team to get to 1,500 strikeouts. Parade plans have not been made public yet.
We all know that strikeouts are great for pitchers, but how bad are they for hitters? People have different views about that. Nobody LIKES strikeouts, obviously, because they are unproductive outs. But many people around the game are not that bothered by them, they believe that, more often than not, strikeouts are no less valuable other kinds of outs (and, of course, they are better than double play grounders), and, look the Diamondbacks have struck out 300 or so more times than Seattle, but they have also scored 200 more runs. I had an extended conversation about this with Jim Thome*, and he was saying that while he doesn’t like striking out, while it really bothers him, he knows that this is simply the kind of player he is. If a pitcher throws to one of the blind spots in his swing, the pitcher will get the K. If the pitchers misses the spot by just a little, there’s a chance that Thome will hit the ball 900 feet. And the spot will move slightly too. That is classic baseball in the 21st century. The 1999 Cleveland Indians (with Thome featured prominently) struck out 1,099 times, second most in baseball and way more than those teams in the low scoring 1970s. But they also scored 1,009 runs, because they walked a bunch and hit with power and stole bases at a high percentage and so on.
*Look for my big piece on Thome very soon.
This year’s Diamondbacks are not a good offensive team. But they’re also not a bad one. They’re actually above league average in scoring runs. They are third in the league in homers, fourth in slugging. Their batting average is low — a direct consequence of those strikeouts, I would assume — but their on-base percentage is actually middle of the pack because they walk a lot.
The Diamondbacks have a pretty good chance — depending on how Stephen Drew finishes out the season — to have six different players with 100-plus strikeouts. But that’s actually not especially unusual in today’s baseball. That WAS unusual before 2006, in fact it had never happened before then. But since then, the 2006 Marlins, the 2007 Rays and Marlins and the 2008 Brewers and Marlins all had six 100K players.
What separates this Diamondbacks team is the high end strikeout guys. No team before this one has had five 125 strikeout guys. The five in the club?
1. Mark Reynolds (197). The Gretzky of Strikeouts, he already has the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on the season strikeout list, and he will pick up the No. 3 spot in the next day or two. No other player has struck out 200 times in a season, Reynolds will do it for the third straight year. Reynolds misses 38 percent of the pitches he swings at, which is otherworldly. Strikeout machines Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard swing and miss 32% of the time. Joe Mauer swings and misses 10% of the time.
2. Justin Upton (152). Expect more than 300 strikeouts this year for the Upton Brothers.
3. Adam LaRoche (148). Expect only about 200 strikeouts this year for the LaRoche Brother. Adam will whiff, of course, but Andy never has been a big strikeout guy.
4. Kelly Johnson (130). No second baseman before 1960 ever struck out 100 times in a season. Since then? Forty seven second baseman have done it — led by Bret Boone who did it eight times. Juan Samuel did it seven. Kelly Johnson has done it three.
5. Chis Young (120). Young is eighth in strikeouts since 2007 — and he is the only player in the Top 10 with an OPS+ of less than 100. In fact, he’s one of only two players in the Top 24 with an OPS+ of less than 100.*
*The other? I was shocked: Brandon Inge. He’s 12th on the list. I never fully appreciated just how much Inge strikes out.
Strikeouts around the league are up, pretty much like always. In fact, this really has been the Season of K — it is the first year in baseball history that teams average more than 7 strikeouts per game. The average was about six strikeouts per game in 1994, about five strikeouts per game in 1982, about four strikeouts per game in 1953, about three strikeouts per game in 1933, and about two strikeouts per game in 1912. We have a trend.
There are a million reasons for it; I think the game just keeps shifting, more and more and more, to a battle between pitcher and hitter. I find it absolutely fascinating that batting averages have remained fairly constant over the last 60 or 70 years when you consider how much the game has changed. In 2010, hitters are hitting .258 — pretty much what they hit in 1990, 1986, 1978, 1975, 1962, 1961, 1958, 1957, 1956 and 1913. How is that possible when you consider the increase of strikeouts?
Well, let’s take a look, let’s pick 1978. This year, teams are striking out 7.03 times per game, in 1978 they struck out 4.77 times. So that’s a little bit more than two extra outs per game as strikeouts.
In 2010, the batting average on balls hit in play is .298.
In 1978, the batting average on balls hit in play was .280.
This is big. And you see that pretty much in those other years as well.
Batting average on balls hit in play:
So, that’s a big difference — yes guys are putting the ball in play less often, but when they do put it in play they’re hitting the ball harder in 2010 than they did in 1978 or 1962 or whatever (either that or, if you were prefer, they’re not playing defense as well in 2010 as they did then). The game has shifted much more, I think, into a battle of wills between pitcher and hitter, neither side giving in, pitchers less willing to induce contact, hitters less willing to choke up and put the ball in play. Anyway, that’s one difference.
The second difference, of course, is home runs. BABIP does not include home runs. If it did, you would see an even more dramatic difference
Batting average on balls hit (homers included):
So that’s how that works. It’s just remarkable to me that as the game changes pretty wildly, a big number like batting average can stay reasonably constant.* Batters hit the ball harder, but strikeouts go up to even it out. That’s how I view the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks, not as a team about to set a great record but as a counterbalance in this great game.
*Batting average does fluctuate, of course. Since 1950, players have hit as high as .271 (in 1999) and as low as .237 (in the real year of the pitcher, 1968). But mostly since the DH is has stayed somewhere reasonably close to .260.
I’ve been after a good friend of mine to finally write a book he’s been thinking about for a long time: A book about sportsmanship. There are, of course, a lot of books about sportsmanship, many of them good ones. But my friend has a view I haven’t read much, a fascinating view. It isn’t a “tsk tsk” kind of view. His feeling is that we have so blurred the lines of sportsmanship that it’s hard to know the rules. We have become so divided on what is acceptable and justified and admirable when it comes to winning and losing that we are not entirely sure what to teach our kids. It isn’t that we have lost our moral compass or anything that severe … it’s more that the lines of fair play, like umpire strike zones, are ever shifting and uniquely individual. It changes sport to sport, level to level, year to year. There isn’t a clear line of thinking to follow anymore. I think it would be a good book.
And I think the Derek Jeter play on Wednesday would be a pretty good place to start. You know what happened — the Yankees were playing Tampa Bay, seventh inning, and the Rays were winning 2-1. There was one out, and Chad Qualls was pitching, Derek Jeter was batting, and Qualls threw the ball way inside where it hit something and bounced back into fair play. The thing that was unusual about the play was that even on television you could hear the ball hit something — it sounded like a very loud ping. “You could hear that from up here!” they said on the YES Network. That sound, you know, might indicate that the ball hit the bat. Ball hitting hand doesn’t sound like that. Instead, the umpire said it hit Jeter and awarded him first base. Jeter came around to score on Curtis Granderson’s home run, which gave the Yankees the lead.
Here was what made the play interesting — Jeter acted like the ball hit him.* He REALLY acted like the ball hit him. He held his forearm like he was in great pain, he hopped around a little bit. He held his left forearm close. Then the trainer came out and checked to make sure nothing was broken. It was quite a production. And it was all a farce. The ball didn’t hit him. The ball didn’t come close to hitting where he claimed it hit him (it came close to the elbow, but not the hand or forearm). On the YES replay (which was better than the replay they had in Tampa) it was clear that the ball hit the knob of the bat and indeed bounced into fair play.
*I’ve actually heard from a couple of people who say that Jeter wasn’t acting — he was reacting to the vibration of the bat hitting ball. Let’s just put that lunacy to rest right now. Jeter’s left hand (the one he would claim got hit) WASN’T EVEN ON THE BAT when the ball hit — he had already pulled it away. Our discussion here is built on the premise that Jeter was acting, it was all a performance, not unlike a soccer player diving. As the guy on the YES Network said, with a hint of chuckle in his voice, “Wow, Derek is some actor.”
Here’s what followed: Rays manager Joe Maddon came out to argue — he absolutely knew the ball hit the bat — and he stayed out there long enough to get tossed out of the game. The Yankees took the lead. The Rays came back and won the game. And life goes on. This sort of thing happens a lot in baseball, as we will discuss in a second.
But, what about Jeter’s acting? What do we make of that? Is it cheating? Gamesmanship? Is it simply playing within the accepted rules of baseball and society? Or, more, is it exactly what he SHOULD have done considering the structure and demands of baseball?
“My job is to get on base,” Jeter said plainly when it ended, and I think a pretty fair majority of people would agree. A fair majority would say that what he did was, as I put it in my poll, “shaky but part of the game” (at last check 61% checked that option). Even Maddon said that he would have applauded a player of for doing what Jeter did. Applause — now that seems a bit much. Part of me wonders if Maddon’s reaction (and the reaction of many) is built around that fact that it was Jeter did it … somehow if A-Rod had done the same thing or A.J. Pierzynski or Milton Bradley, I suspect that the word “applaud” would not have emerged from Joe Maddon.
Well, hey, Jeter has earned that. He has reached that point of his great career where he doesn’t follow standards, he sets them. When Hanley Ramirez loafs after a ball, Derek Jeter’s name is invoked. When A-Rod steps on the mound, Derek Jeter’s name is invoked. If Derek Jeter hops around and pretends the ball hit him when it did not, well, it’s a play even the opposing manager can admire.
But … please listen. I’m not saying what Derek Jeter did was wrong. I have an entirely different reaction. Because to me … what he did isn’t wrong, not in the baseball game I know. Isn’t a big part of baseball selling the umpire on stuff that didn’t happen? Isn’t that what a catcher does when he tries to bring back strike three? Isn’t that what an infielder does by holding up the glove even when he misses a tag at second base? Isn’t that what an outfielder does when he lifts up HIS glove after he traps a ball? Isn’t that what a batter does when he tries to act like he checked his swing? Doesn’t a base runner pretend to have touched home plate even if he knows that he missed it?
The old line about how if you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying — who said that, anyway? — is tied up in baseball’s rhythms. Golf prides itself on its rules; I don’t even need to ask Tom Watson what he thought about Derek Jeter’s play, I know he hated it. But golf is different. Baseball prides itself on its spirit. It began as a game of scofflaws, a cast of hard-core men who created the modern rule book by stretching the very limits of the game. Pitching as we know it grew out of pitchers refusing to just pitch the ball underhand to the batter as the original rules stated. The foul-bunt-on-two-strikes-is-a-strikeout rule came into effect because guys would just keep bunting the ball foul otherwise. The dirt-ball was outlawed. The spitball was outlawed. The corked bat was outlawed. The infield fly rule was introduced to keep people from dropping balls on purpose to get double plays. A rule was added that fielders were not allowed to stand in the batter’s sight-line and try to distract. The pitcher’s mound was lowered and more closely measured. Steroid testing began. Baseball is a sport in constant flux because the game itself encourages pushing the framework of sportsmanship, and the rulebook attempts to bring back some semblance of order.
Take stealing signs in baseball. There is no official rule in the rulebook against stealing signs. There was a directive from the commissioner’s office against using electronic equipment or various other kinds of unspecified technology for stealing signs, but that’s a different thing. The feeling in baseball seems to be that if you want to steal signs — and you are willing to have your best player plunked in the back in retaliation if you are caught — well, that’s your business. Baseball defines its own morality. Players and managers police their own game. And in that world, I think, stealing signs, faking tags, playing a ball you know went over the fence, pretending a ball hit you when it didn’t … these things are very much a part of baseball’s code of ethics.
In other words, if Derek Jeter had dropped the bat and started running to first base, it’s very possible that the umpire would not have said the ball hit him. It’s possible he would have been called out. And, inside the game, would that have been seen as the noble thing to do? I don’t think so. You take what you are given. You push for the advantage (because, as Jeter himself says, sometimes you DO get hit with the ball and the umpire misses it). No, Derek Jeter is not Leo Durocher, not at all, but I would argue that what Durocher said on the first page of his autobiography — a paragraph sent in by my friend Alex Belth — cuts closer to the heart of the game than anything in the rulebook.
“If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what’s the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he cant get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don’t, what have you lost? I don’t call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.”
I don’t think what Jeter did was wrong, not at all, not in baseball terms. So what was my reaction? Well, I think what Jeter did was kind of … sad. Has he become so impotent as a hitter — do you realize the guy now has an 86 OPS+? — that now he’s willing to hop around and have trainers look at his forearm when the ball clearly did not hit him? That’s what Derek Jeter has become? And then afterward, he’s sheepishly defending the move by saying it’s his job to get on base, well, is that what’s behind the Derek Jeter aura? Is that what he has stood for all these years?
I think of the immortal words of Whitey Ford, who was well known in his later days for cutting the baseball: “I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive.” I think that’s exactly right. There are very, very, very few people who bend the rules, push the limits, stray from good sportsmanship when they don’t have to do it. My favorite exchange in the movie Major League is a touching little scene where the old pitcher, Harris, talks about how sometimes he will put snot on the ball. Ricky Vaughn, the hard-throwing kid just out of prison, is disgusted.
Vaughn: “You put snot on the ball?”
Harris: “I haven’t got an arm like you kid. I have to put anything on it I can find. Someday you will too.”
And that was what I thought about watching Jeter on that play. I thought someday has arrived. The morality of the play? Right? Wrong? Part of the game? That’s for you to decide. I have my own view; I hope to teach my own daughters to always play by the rules, and I would be furious if one of them did something like what Jeter did. That would lead to a DFL — one of Daddy’s Famous Lectures. But I also understand Major League Baseball is a lot different from kid soccer or tee-ball, it’s a competitive and furious game, played at a ludicrously high level with suffocating pressures and intensity, and winning is at the heart of it.
I guess in the end, what I take from it is this: I save my deep admiration for people who choose fair play over a momentary advantage. But that’s not how most people play big league baseball. That’s not how managers want people to play big league baseball. That’s not how most fans WANT people to play big league baseball. Rising above that, finding a higher sense of fair play in today’s era of sports, well, it’s a hard thing to do. It’s especially hard when you’re a great player hitting .260 for the New York Yankees.