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March 29, 2000
AL Central Notebook
One Step Forward...
Whether or not progress is inevitable is one of those things that historians, cranks and the Census Bureau spend plenty of time kvetching about, usually all at the same place and at the same time. If you're someone who thinks things do get better, here are some reasons to believe it, and some reasons to doubt it, all courtesy of the AL Central.
Lets start with the Twins, because I'm still chuckling about a couple of news items involving them. First, my buddy Keith Scherer reports that the Vegas over/under for the Twins is 64 1/2 wins. Now, I don't want to condone gambling, because it has become a national problem. But I can't help wanting to plunk down some money on that. I can't help but think Guido, while he might be a distant cousin and a gourmand of no small repute, is taking both Sports Illustrated and CBS Sportsline far too seriously when they say the Twins will be the worst team in baseball. It's a trendy pick, but in a world that's giving us the Marlins, the Angels, the Brewers and the Cubs, none of us should believe it for a second.
The Twins have already made two correct choices where they had to exercise some discretion. They've made space for both David Ortiz at first base and Matt LeCroy at catcher. They made some other sensible decisions too, punting Chad Allen, Doug Mientkiewicz and Javy Valentin. Toss those choices into the same hopper that's spitting out Corey Koskie as a regular and a hopefully healthy Matt Lawton, and it means the Twins are going to score a lot more runs than they did last year. Add that to a rotation that might be the second-best in the division, courtesy of Terry Ryan's insistence than no matter how many times the media wants to hand Brad Radke to the Red Sox, he's going to keep the right-hander. To me, that looks like a team that should win at least 70 games, and might surprise everyone with 75.
Let's move over to the Tribe. I've heckled them in the past for moving Steve Karsay into the rotation, but if there's a guy better-suited to the Eck-style closer's role, I don't know who he is. Like Dennis Eckersley circa 1987, everyone knows there's only so much that Karsay's right elbow can stand. He has outstanding control, but far from dominating velocity. Although he doesn't have a bunch of wins, a no-hitter and several drinking binges under his belt like the Eck had by the time Tony LaRussa got hold of him, Karsay is generally credited with knowing what he's doing. So while most teams don't need to fiddle around with turning people into one-inning closers (guys like Keith Foulke and Derek Lowe are too valuable to use that way), this is the right kind of situation for a team to get maximum value out of an otherwise uncertain pitcher. A situation where the past can teach the right kind of lesson for the right kind of player. It isn't progress, but it is improvement.
But while the Indians have the chance to do something good, the decision to carry both Bobby Witt and Scott Kamieniecki hardly seems like progress over last year's antics with Tom Candiotti and Mark Langston. Who's next? Mark Gubicza? Randy Lerch? Rip Taylor?
There isn't much to say about the Tigers. Last year's master plan of solo home runs and...well, that's about as far as Randy Smith got...didn't work too well. This year's master plan of solo home runs in a bigger ballpark has been bolstered by a rotation made up of damned-fine well-meaning third starters. This might be an improvement over the previous plan, but if improvement is saving Randy Smith's job, then this is the Counter-Reformation, right down to the stultifying boredom every Sunday as we all laze in the cool breezes and quick innings their lineup will so generously provide.
The Royals? Every time you think Herk Robinson may have figured something out, he does something else that reminds you that progress has to be cumulative if it's going to amount to anything. He wised up just long enough to notice that Paul Sorrento wouldn't do him any good, then went back to plodding in the same circular rut by deciding that Sal Fasano isn't better than Jorge Fabregas despite several seasons' worth of evidence.
If the Royals are so strapped for cash, why toss more money at the A's for someone they could have signed as a minor-league free-agent themselves (in this case, "Rico" McCarty, the non-Bopper)? Because Billy Beane is a delightful conversationalist? Herk must think keeping his team in a few decades' worth of a self-inflicted Time of Troubles might be enough to keep the Mongols off the Great Plains.
At least the White Sox seem to have gotten the hang of progress. Maybe. While they have their fair share of good young hitters and potentially better young pitchers, progress can depend on an ability to apply the lessons the past provides. Do the Sox get it? Not when Jerry Manuel talks about the thunder Greg Norton might provide in the eighth slot, if he gets to play at all, and this after last year's success with Norton in the second slot, where his OBP does them some good.
The absence of progress that's chawing my hide right now is related to something William Gibson wrote in Wired over seven years ago, about how the media is always years behind the learning curve. A perfect illustration of this is Les Munson's sanctimoniously high-minded piece on Frank Thomas in Sports Illustrated, where cutting-edge journalism "proves" that Thomas hasn't hit for the last two years because of his business dealings, his personal life, screwing up his Reebok endorsements and not taking enough Vitamin E.
I know we've gone down this road before, but none of this adds up to anything close to direct evidence for why Thomas hasn't hit as well in the last two seasons as he did when he was drawing comparisons to Ted Williams. It makes for a neat story, which in the magazine business is good for the big bucks, except that Chicagoans and Sox fans have known about Thomas's off-field adventures for a couple of years now. You could just as easily crank out a half-dozen pages about why Jerry Manuel is the catalyst for Thomas's problems, and it would be no more true or false. All it takes is a few leading statements about how good Frank Thomas was when that nice man Terry Bevington ran the team, and how everything went sour when a bible-thumping preachy headline-grabber came to town. None of it has to be true or based on anything more than circumstantial evidence, but sports journalism isn't the business of fairness or proof. It's the business of getting a share of your entertainment dollar. And that hasn't changed since Gibson wrote why news isn't now, or since W. Randolph Hearst decided to start a war.
So progress is slippery. The things to take faith in are the teams and the players, and the ways in which they'll surprise all of us no matter how much information we have at our command. Some teams will blunder to glory, and others will be genuinely surprised and caught totally flat-footed when things don't work out the way they thought or claimed they would. Some teams will win, and that may get called progress. Some teams will lose, and will nonetheless claim they've made progress. But until teams demonstrate that they understand the things that win ballgames, simple things like OBP or sensible comparative talent evaluation or running a pitching staff, not everybody is going to make progress. Baseball isn't like Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average. For every Billy Beane, there's a Randy Smith, and that just means progress for the fortunate will come at somebody else's expense.