June 26, 2007
The Meaning of the Milestone
Last night, the Astros started Chris Burke at second base, batting him sixth and using Mark Loretta as their leadoff man in their 6-1 loss to the Brewers. It is likely that Burke or Loretta will play second base in Wednesday's game as well. Phil Garner hasn't had a sudden change of heart about the best alignment of his available talent; no, he's sitting Craig Biggio in two of these three games to prevent Biggio from notching his 3,000th career hit on the road.
Set aside for the moment the issue of whether the Astros are better with Burke at second base and Loretta batting leadoff, which is certainly the case. That was also the case on Opening Day, but Garner has pencilled Biggio's name into the lineup 62 times, including 59 times in the leadoff spot. He decided at the beginning of the season that Biggio was his starting second baseman, and no amount of out-making was going to change that. Biggio's .279 OBP wasn't the reason he was on the bench last night.
Consider the context as well. The Astros, in no small part because of that .279 OBP from their leadoff hitter, were 32-43 heading into last night's game, 11 games behind the Brewers. I don't think the Astros are serious contenders any more than the next guy does, but if they were going to make a push, it would certainly help to go into Miller Park and win three games. Doing so would seem to require playing your starters. Garner elected to not do so last night. Consider that the Astros were dead and buried in both 2004 and 2005 before making runs to the NLCS and World Series, respectively. If any team can take itself seriously from 11 games out with nearly 90 to play, it's these Astros.
Pull that all together for a second. Astros manager Phil Garner went into a do-or-die series with a division leader and benched his starting second baseman not for any reason related to merit, but so that an individual achievement can be celebrated in a certain manner. He put a statistic, a person and a show ahead of the team's goals. He and the Astros have been doing this all year of course just by playing Biggio, but the naked manipulation of playing time in what should be a key series is galling.
Individual records in any form of competition only matter in that they are achieved in the pursuit of the goal of winning. We keep individual statistics, but even the most hardcore stathead will explain that the statistics themselves are only meaningful because they serve to measure an individual's contribution to winning. We rate players by the runs they produce and save, because those runs are the building blocks of wins, and wins matter. That a player might accumulate a significant number of hits, doubles, walks, stolen bases is something to be noted, and even perhaps celebrated, but only if that accumulation comes in the natural course of events. The pursuit of a championship is primary; there should be no pursuit of numbers.
This is what was so wrong about Pete Rose's chase of Ty Cobb's all-time record for hits in a career. Rose's performance had been so bad from 1982 through the middle of 1984 that he no longer was worthy of a roster spot. He could not contribute to the winning of a championship. (His 1983 was disgustingly bad--.245/.316/.286 as a mediocre defensive first baseman--and the Phillies' pennant came in spite of him.) The Reds signed him because the Reds weren't much about winning championships at that point, and wanted the sideshow. Rose wasn't quite as bad with the Reds--his .395 OBP helped them finish second in 1985, even paired with a .319 SLG--but it really didn't matter. The decision to sign a just-released 43-year-old first baseman who hadn't homered since 1982 was indefensible as a baseball decision, and moreso for a team whose system was about to cough up a lineup's worth of hitters.
Rose would have been considered a Hall of Famer and a great player even if he'd ended his career with 4,062 hits. His pursuit of a number, and the Reds' enabling of that pursuit, actually detracted from his setting of the mark.
Biggio's advance to his 3000th hit is exactly the same situation. Biggio shouldn't be a regular any longer, and since he can't really play anywhere but second base, he's got a minimal case for even having a roster spot. If he had started the season with 2,763 hits, or 3,112, he wouldn't be playing at all. The only reason he's been allowed to play is because he was close to a three-zero number in a high-visibility category.
This act, this glorifying of a statistic, a number, is supposed to be the thing that we do, that statheads do, that takes away from the beauty and spirit of the game. But I don't know a single stathead, not one, who would allow a player who so clearly doesn't deserve to play any longer into the lineup just because of a number. Numbers only matter when they're part of the pursuit of a championship. Separated from that, they're a sideshow, and they have little meaning.
What number of hits Craig Biggio finishes his career with has absolutely nothing to do with his value as a player, the greatness he showed at his peak, or his qualifications for the Hall of Fame. Biggio contributed mightily to good teams, and he had a long career during which he displayed a broad range of skills. We can measure those things, we can evaluate and analyze his performance, and our methods for doing so have meaning because the context in which we put them is helping a team win baseball games.
Biggio's last few hits have no such relevance. They are just hits garnered so that Craig Biggio can get hits. That was clear at the start of the season, but benching him for two of three games in a June series against the division leaders is the cherry on top. Craig Biggio isn't a baseball player now. He's a stat-generating robot.
There's nothing to be done of course. I wouldn't recommend that Bud Selig get involved--like he would, given his own relentless attacks on the integrity of the championship season--or suggest that Brewers fans get crazy over the fact that they're being denied a shot at seeing history.
It is interesting that this is happening in Milwaukee. In 1998, fans there complained when Tony La Russa benched Mark McGwire for a game in September, while McGwire was extending his record for home runs in a season. The difference, however, was that in '98, McGwire not playing in one of the three games of that series was consistent with how Tony La Russa had managed him throughout the year, resting him on occasion to keep him fresh. This isn't that. This is a lineup decision made to affect the statistics, and specifically to deny the Milwaukee fans a chance to see history, such as it is. They should feel cheated.
Craig Biggio is no less a man, no less a great baseball player, no less a Hall of Famer for his participation in this charade. The number, though, just doesn't mean very much. Reaching a statistical milestone is meaningless when the milestone becomes the goal. Anybody can play long enough to make a particular odometer turn over. It's deserving to do so that makes it a true achievement.