April 23, 2007
A Game Story and a Great Story
I spent a damp and cool Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, no mean feat when you consider just how hard you have to work to find damp, cool afternoons in L.A. during the baseball season. Despite the weather, and some very sloppy baseball-not weather-induced-it was a solid day at the ballpark.
I chose this particular game to attend because I wanted to see Tom Gorzelanny pitch. For all the #1 picks that the Pirates have invested in pitching in the last decade, it's starting to look like the two best starters they have are a 26th-round pick (Ian Snell) and Gorzelanny, a second-round selection in 2003. The well-built lefty made steady progress through the Pirates system and made 11 starts for the team in 2006, wrapped around a brief DL stint. He throws hard, reportedly in the mid-90s, although he worked in the 87-90 range yesterday as far as I could tell. What was most impressive about watching him in person was seeing how effectively he changed speeds, dropping into the high 70s with a curve and sometimes even lower with an occasional change, and mixing all his pitches effectively.
Gorzelanny retired the first nine men he faced before allowing a leadoff single to Rafael Furcal in the fourth. At this point, the game slowed dramatically, as Gorzelanny had considerably less command when working from the stretch than he did from the windup. After nearly working his way out of trouble, he mishandled a Luis Gonzalez comebacker to allow a run, and then appeared to let that affect his concentration. Gorzelanny walked the next two batters before recovering to retire Wilson Valdez and escape the inning still holding a 3-2 lead. The pattern repeated itself for him in the sixth, when a leadoff walk led to a 22-pitch inning spent largely throwing from the stretch.
The problems out of the stretch aside, Gorzelanny was worth the price of admission. Noting that…wait for it…I am not a scout, he did everything you like to see in a pitcher, pounding the strike zone with multiple pitches, getting ahead in the count, and showing the ability to put hitters away with both his fastball and his breaking stuff. I like his delivery-a compact motion without a lot of wasted effort, and with some good leg drive and arm action. He doesn't appear to be an injury risk from a mechanical standpoint, and he doesn't have a track record of high workloads. I'm not sure whether I prefer him or Snell at this point, but I know that the two have separated themselves from the high-bonus, low-performance pitchers like Paul Maholm, John Van Benschoten, and their ilk in the Pirates system.
On this day, Gorzelanny benefited from some wretched play by the Dodgers. The Pirates got their first three runs almost entirely due to errors and other misplays by the Blue Crew defense. In the first, Chris Duffy reached on a drag bunt thanks in part to Olmedo Saenz's immobility. Duffy then stole second and went to third on Russell Martin's throwing error, scoring on a groundout. In the third inning, Duffy was able to advance to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a Jack Wilson infield single on which Jeff Kent gave up a base on a throwing error. Two batters later, Wilson scored when Juan Pierre dropped a shallow fly ball, giving Gorzelanny a 3-0 lead.
The Pierre error, while a fielding miscue, was a direct result of his having such a poor arm. Jason Bay's shallow fly would not have been enough to score Wilson from third, but because Pierre can't throw and is often run on in situations where other outfielders wouldn't have to worry about it, he played the ball as if Wilson would try to tag up. He dropped the ball because he was trying to make a quick transfer from his glove to his throwing hand, to compensate for his inability to make strong throws.
Pierre's arm led to an additional Pirates run in the sixth as well. After Adam LaRoche's two-out, opposite-field homer stretched the Bucs' lead to 4-2, Jose Bautista hit a fly ball to left-center field that Pierre pulled up on, presumably to avoid allowing extra bases. However, because Pierre can't throw, Bautista challenged his arm and turned the hit into a double anyway. Nate McLouth then followed with a single to center field that scored the run, with no play on the runner in part-you guessed it-because Pierre can't throw. I'm looking forward to what Dan Fox tallies up at the end of this year, because it appears that Pierre is going to cost the Dodgers not just at the plate with his low OBP, or on the bases with his low stolen-base percentage, but with his weak arm out in center field as well.
Brett Tomko pitched much better yesterday than his line indicated. He pounded the strike zone, taking advantage of a mildly generous inside corner to right-handers to stay ahead of the Pirates for most of the day. Other than the LaRoche homer-a bomb-he wasn't hit terribly hard. Four of the five runs he allowed can be pinned on his defense and not on his pitching. What was noticeable was Tomko's pace; he worked very quickly, wasting no time between pitches and staying in a good rhythm. Doing so didn't net him better defensive play-one of the theoretical benefits to keeping a good pace-but it did seem to keep him in the strike zone. The "L" next to his name in the box score is simply misinformation; Tomko wasn't one of the five biggest reasons the Dodgers lost this game.
The artwork in front of the dugouts commemorating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut was still visible in outline. The fading paint served as something of a metaphor for the way everyone, with April 15th behind us, turned their attention to other matters in the game. We had a long discussion about race and baseball and the commemoration on BP's internal mailing list last week, and the only salient point I made was that there could have been more done to educate people, proactively, about Robinson's career, life and impact. As I put it:
What would I have done? I would have left the announced game times unchanged, but at 1:05 (or whatever), run a ten- or fifteen-minute biography on Robinson in advance of the game. The video would have made every telecast-strong-arm the broadcast partners-including the national one tonight on ESPN.
Watching the chaos on the field in the half-hour before the ballgame yesterday brought this back for me. The Dodgers, who may not be alone in this, have all kinds of community outreach and sponsor-driven stuff going on before a game, with multiple first pitches and Little Leaguers ringing the field and Ronald McDonald traipsing about. None of these things is bad, per se, but if honoring Jackie Robinson is about more than a day and a number-as it should be-wouldn't using that time, perhaps even just on Sundays, to replay that video be a better use of it?
Some of my fellow BPers made the point that by making a big deal out of the day and the number, it may have inspired people to ask questions and learn about Robinson on their own. I don't doubt that this occurred, but when the tribute meanders down the road towards unintentional comedy-as it did in the Brewers/Cardinals game, with everyone wearing the number-I wonder if there wouldn't have been an approach that would have focused less on the symbolic, and more on the substantial.
Jackie Robinson's legacy cannot and should not be reduced to a number or a day. It's so much more than either of those things, and we need to remember that on April 23rd, and May 17th, and all of the other days on the calendar.
In that same vein, I found the two-news-cycle controversy over the dwindling number of African-Americans in baseball missed the point. Yesterday, at the game, I got to noticing how many darker-skinned players were on the field. I honestly don't usually notice these things-viewing the players as stat-generating robots has its advantages-but just in the starting lineups, you had Jose Bautista and Humberto Cota for the Pirates, along with Pierre, Rafael Furcal, and Olmedo Saenz for the Dodgers. It may be hard for anyone younger than 60 to grasp this, but the color line in baseball was, quite literally, a color line. Not only did it keep out African-Americans, but it served as a barrier for Latin Americans of darker hue as well.
Robinson's legacy, critically important to the history of African-Americans, stretches beyond one race. He opened the door not just for Jimmy Rollins and Carl Crawford, but also for Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Contreras. The impact that players from the Dominican Republic have had in my lifetime is due to what Jackie Robinson did, how he played the game, and how he handled himself while doing so. I get to watch Manny Ramirez bat, and Yuniesky Betancourt field, and Jose Reyes run, thanks to Jackie Robinson's grace.
More critically, Robinson's success in integrating MLB shows up across all American professional sports. It's not enough to say that African-American players only make up X percent of MLB players, while they used to make up X+Y percent, and therefore there is a problem. MLB looks more like America than does any other American professional sports league, for starters. Robinson's impact stretches beyond baseball; what he did paved the way for African-Americans to make an impact in the NBA and the NFL, for Walter Payton and Michael Jordan. If Robinson didn't literally integrate those leagues, he did help to set a tone in this country, one where a black man could not only play with white men, but could play better than all of them, and be cheered not only by black men and women, but by all men and women.
It's not enough to say that Jackie Robinson made it possible for blacks to succeed in baseball. It also has to be that he made it possible for them to reject baseball, not because baseball is racist, but because some prefer other sports, whether that's because of opportunities to play professionally or to achieve a college education or maybe even just because they like the games more. Baseball can undertake efforts to develop a love for the game among young African-Americans, with an eye towards growing a fan base and a talent pool, as long as the success of those efforts isn't defined solely by the number of American-born blacks who appear on major-league rosters.
I'll admit that on April 15, the commemoration of Robinson's debut left me a bit cold. Yesterday, however, watching his team play, enjoying a baseball game featuring stars with so many different backgrounds, amongst a crowd that could only be described as "diverse," I felt his impact.
Thanks to you, Mr. Robinson.