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June 29, 2004
The Empire Strikes Last
Best Matchup (Best combined record with both teams being over .500): Boston @ New York Yankees
We seem to have reached a point in baseball history where it is--what is the word?--understood that the Yankees somehow deserve to get the best available player on the trading block. When they don't, their owner and fans appear shocked. With Freddy Garcia gone to Chicago and Carlos Beltran now in Houston, it will be interesting to see how firm Arizona's resolve to keep Randy Johnson will be. The Newark Star-Ledger has also been kicking up some Tom Glavine-to-the-Yankees talk. It stands to reason. Glavine has been the best pitcher in baseball so far in 2004 (39.3 VORP, besting runners-up Mark Mulder and Carl Pavano), so it only makes sense that he should be on the Yankees. Why? Because it's the Yankees' world and we're just the extras sent over by Central Casting to fill in their background.
I had always assumed the Red Sox owned the Yankees in the pre-"Curse" period. Such was not the case, though. In Babe Ruth's five full years with Boston (1915-1919), New York actually had the upper hand, 52 games to 50. In those five seasons, the Sox won three World Championships and finished ahead of the Yankees on every occasion except '19. Take away Ruth's pitching decisions, however, and the Sox were even worse off versus the Yanks. Babe the moundsman was 15-6 against New York (16-6 lifetime, including a victory in late 1914). In 1917, the one season in this period in which Boston played as one would have expected against the Yanks (a 13-9 record), Ruth went 5-0 versus New York. He shut the Yankees two times in his career, both instances coming in 1916. On June 22 he beat Ray Fisher 1-0 and on Sept. 29 he bested Bob Shawkey, 3-0.
Speaking of Ruth, I was just lucky enough to see John Candy's turn as the Bambino on the new SCTV DVD package. In the sketch, Babe (wearing number '4', you will be quick to note), visits a sick little boy in a hospital and promises to hit him a homer. The youth then makes a series of increasingly impossible demands as Candy/Ruth does a slow burn. Not enough people saw SCTV when it was on in the late '70s and early '80s. I am hoping the release of the DVD earns it a whole new legion of fans.
Worst Matchup (Worst combined record with both teams being below .500): Baltimore @ Kansas City
When the Designated Hitter was first proposed, it was assumed that it would be the safe harbor for older, slower men who could still put a charge into the ball but could not necessarily move too well anymore. Thirty years later, that is still not always the case. For many teams, it remains the Sargasso Sea of men looking for at-bats. The Orioles have been especially untrue to that original notion this year. Baltimore DHs have hit three home runs (two by slumming catcher Javy Lopez) and have an Isolated Power of .083--by far the worst in the league. Some of this is a function of putting older, slower players in there who simply haven't hit while taking on the DH chores. This group would include David Segui and B.J. Surhoff. The most active Oriole DH has been Jerry Hairston, Jr., a player who is the antithesis of the original DH concept. He's got three doubles in 64 at-bats in that role. I understand that the team cannot make up its mind between Hairston and Brian Roberts at second base, but using Hairston as the DH so that they both can be in the lineup is ignoring the position as the prime offensive pump it can be when properly staffed.
I was rummaging around my stuff and found a 1989 Hagerstown Suns scorecard, a souvenir from a game I attended there that year. At that time, the Suns were the Double-A affiliate of the Orioles. Nothing illustrates how difficult it is to make it to the major leagues quite like a 15-year-old minor league scorecard. Of the 22 men pictured in the team photo insert, only two would ever reach the big leagues.
The big stud on that team was Leo Gomez and he went on to play in 611 major league games for Baltimore and the Cubs. Gomez walked a good deal and had some pop but made quite a few errors at third base. He was out of the majors by 30. The other was Jeff Schwarz a tall right-hander who was released by Baltimore the following spring. Two teams later, he made the show with the White Sox in 1993 and pitched pretty well in 41 games--if you don't look too closely at his walk totals. The next year he got even wilder and was traded to California for current Mariners manager Bob Melvin within moments after Melvin was taken off the waiver wire from the Yankees. He was released by the Angels at the end of that year. I realize that not all Double-A teams are this bereft of major league futures, but it does give one pause.
Another interesting thing about the program is an ad for an upcoming appearance by the Hollywood Starlets, an "entertainment softball team" comprised of "actresses and models from California." The ad copy stated that the Starlets are to softball "what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball." There are color photos of the players and they all sport the big hair and headbands so popular in that time period. More importantly, they are wearing shorts that would make a Hooters waitress feel modest by comparison. I regret now never having seen them play. Like most of the players on the Suns that year, I am guessing that very few of the Starlets were able to use the team as a springboard to a career in the majors of their chosen field. (Although I would love to be disabused of this assumption.) An Internet search found only one person claiming to have been a member of the team. Her name is Sherry Leigh and she appeared in a movie as recently as 2002. It's called The R.M. What's that got to do with baseball? Dig this: former Angel/Royal/Padre/Brave Wally Joyner is also in it!
Biggest Mismatchup (Largest disparity in records with one team over .500 and the other under .500): St. Louis @ Pittsburgh
Sometimes, availability trumps all else when it comes to trade talk. There is no good reason why anyone should want Kris Benson, but he's out there, so folks are prone to talk about it.
Four Pirates who should have no shame as to where their team currently resides in the standings:
Jack Wilson: first among NL shortstops with a VORP of 31
This is the oldest, ongoing, direct rivalry in baseball. I define "direct" as one in which both teams are in the same league and the same division. If we leave that out of the equation--and not bother ourselves with city-shifting--the Cubs and Braves are the oldest rivalry in baseball. Both franchises were there at the creation in 1876. They have been in separate divisions since 1969, however.
Baseball's five longest-running, active direct rivalries:
As it is, it will eventually pass these moribund direct rivalries:
Closest Matchup (Teams with most identical records at press time): Anaheim @ Oakland
To this point in the year--using vastly different philosophies--the Angels and A's have managed to score just about the same number of runs. Anaheim has a tiny 5.01 to 4.96 lead in runs per game. Their team slugging averages and on-base percentages are pretty close as well. Both are within tolerances of .004. The difference though--other than Oakland playing in a tougher park for hitters--is that a greater percentage of the meat in those stats comes via batting average for Anaheim. They're currently out-hitting the A's .279 to .270, while drawing 67 fewer walks. In addition:
Let's chalk it that one up to the Angels' obvious advantage in team speed.