June 22, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Hate List, Part III
Six weeks ago, when I accepted an offer to start a new blog at Sports Illustrated's website, I was delighted to find that my new employers were willing to allow me to retain some involvement with Baseball Prospectus. Not only did I wish to continue working with this fine staff and its readers in some capacity, but I also really wanted to finish something I'd started—namely, my multi-installment Hate List.
When you've been in the business a long time—I've been writing about baseball for 11 years, eight as a regular columnist here—you're bound to hear the occasional accusation of bias, particularly if you bring a little extra vitriol to analyze somebody else's favorite team, and let's face it, even the homeliest of franchises is somebody's favorite team. I started this project a couple months ago as a way of taking stock and making light of the grudges great and small that I hold against every team, including the ones I cheer for when I'm kicking back on the couch or at the ballpark.
I'm working alphabetically by franchise, so if you missed the first two installments, they're here (Arizona - Chicago Cubs) and here (Chicago White Sox - Kansas City Royals), though in the latter, the Cincinnati Reds slipped through the cracks, probably because of my deep-seated hatred of them. Please, remember to take this all in good fun.
No, my first beef with the Reds came a couple years later, when I became friends with a Cincy fan two grades ahead of me, whose identity I'll protect by calling Bobby. Like me, Bobby was a sports omnivore who collected cards—baseball, football, and basketball—and read profusely. His Bill James Baseball Abstract 1982 was the first one that I got my hands on, and I kept possession of it for the better part of a year. That's because Bobby got a bit hyperactive playing ball with my brother and me in his front yard one day. We were imagining some kind of playoff between the Dodgers and Reds, using a tennis ball and a wooden bat, and Bobby, as was his wont, got carried away (honest to God, he had a bit of a bladder control problem—I only wish I was kidding). I pitched a ball that Bobby hit into the street. My brother quickly relayed it to me at second base where I tagged Bobby out, but he not only refused to recognize the out, he continued his play-by-play narration of the event: "Davey Concepcion keeps running around the bases for an inside-the-park home run! And the Reds beat the Dodgers to win the game! Oh, I don't believe how badly he missed the tag…"
To hell with that. My brother and I took our mitts and went home, and it was several months before Bobby and I patched things up, whereupon I returned the Abstract. The Reds, who were actually en route to a 61-101 season, went onto my personal shitlist.
They've never really left, in large part thanks to the ownership tenure of Marge Schott, a dustbag who during her 15-year tenure (1984-1999) managed to offend just about everybody. Most notably, she owned a Nazi swastika armband, which she said was "not a symbol of evil to me," and spoke favorably of Adolf Hitler, "He was O.K. at the beginning… He just went too far." Elsewhere, her record also included a cornucopia of racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic slurs, some combination of which caused her to be suspended from baseball for the 1993 season. In 1996, she groused about the Reds' Opening Day game being postponed after home plate umpire John McSherry dropped dead of a heart attack on the field of play. The combination of that and her statements about Hitler led her to be banned from involvement in the team's day-to-day operations through the end of the 1998 season. She sold the team in 1999, and kicked the bucket in 2004, but my distaste for the Reds lingers on, far outstripped by Dusty Baker's ongoing inability to fill out the top of a lineup card.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
I'm getting ahead of myself, though. My sympathies for the Angels—to the extent that I have any—actually go back much further. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, which played host to the Halos' Triple-A affiliate from 1971-1981. I started watching in the late 1970s, and cheered for future major leaguers like Willie Aikens, Dickie Thon, and Brian Harper. Alas that trio and several of the other good players I saw were quickly traded in exchange for veterans by general manager Buzzie Bavasi, a strategy that helped the big club in the short term—particularly at the gate—but cost them down the line, and did nothing to encourage any allegiance from somebody living in their Triple-A city.
After I took to the Yankees upon moving to New York in 1995, the Angels emerged as the pinstripes' toughest foes. During the Joe Torre era (1996-2007), they were the only AL club with a winning record against the Yankees (61-55), and that didn't even include eliminating them in the 2002 and 2005 Division Series, the first of which ended a run of four straight pennants and keyed their own world championship. They were a bona fide pain in the ass for the hometown nine, dealing some of the most bitter defeats the Yankees suffered on Torre's watch, and with the Rally Monkey, the thundersticks, and the fake rocks in the outfield, their ersatz flourishes were as appalling as their Erstads.
Which brings me to their style of play. For years, the prevailing wisdom among critics of Baseball Prospectus was that the organization gave the Angels short shrift because they didn't follow the wait-walk-wallop model of the rival A's, the one that has become conflated with the term Moneyball by people too lazy to understand the concept. There may have been some truth to that when it came to pre-season prognostications, but as somebody who covered the Angels in my first annual contribution, Baseball Prospectus 2006, I've always appreciated—if not endorsed—the fact that they've had success they've had with their contrasting style. From that annual essay:
On the field, the 2005 Angels served as a reminder that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Sabermetric gospel may preach the importance of working the count and the value of each and every out, but the Angel offense is built making contact and putting the ball in play. The Angels put the ball in play more often than any team in the majors, a whopping 74.9 percent of the time, and they saw fewer pitches per plate appearance (3.66) than all but two AL teams. They led the majors in steals (161) and stolen base attempts (218), succeeding at an acceptable 74 percent clip. Their 43 sacrifice bunts ranked fourth in the league, and their four squeeze attempts tied for the league lead. For all of its frantic activity, the offense proved mediocre…
In recent years, the Angels have provided me with some good laughs. Whole chapters can be written about Jeff Mathis' ability to have an impact on 27 outs per game, or the foolishness of the Mike Napoli/Vernon Wells trade. Suffice it to say that the Halos have kept me more entertained than most teams have over the years. If I have a soft spot for anything in relation to them, it is that.
Los Angeles Dodgers
But even my favorite team comes in for criticism in this forum. First and foremost, one can't be a Dodger fan without reckoning with the legacy of longtime owner Walter O'Malley. After serving as the team's attorney for eight years, O'Malley gained control in a 1950 ownership battle in which he ousted general manager and part-owner Branch Rickey—the man who had signed Jackie Robinson, broken the color barrier, and given the Dodgers a huge competitive advantage that would carry them well into the next decade just three years earlier. While the team flourished on his watch, winning four pennants and their first world championship, O'Malley is most widely remembered for moving the Dodgers out of Brooklyn after the 1957 season, an act for which some have placed him in the company of Hitler and Stalin.
The reality is more complicated. O'Malley wanted to build a new ballpark to replace the aging, cramped Ebbets Field, and set his sights on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, the same intersection (but not the same plot) where the new Barclay Center arena will house the NBA's Brooklyn Nets. O'Malley's intention was for a privately-funded ballpark—a domed stadium designed by Buckminster Fuller, even—but he needed New York's master architect, Robert Moses, to help him parcel all of the land into one package that he could purchase.
Moses, a much heavier hitter in the city's hierarchy than O'Malley, didn't care for the Dodgers owner—or for sports in general—nor did he understand the extent to which the Dodgers derived their identity from the ethnic mix of Brooklyn. Instead, he wanted the Dodgers to move to Flushing Meadows, in Queens, the site of Shea Stadium and now Citi Field, and "his power was so absolute that he could do that," wrote Moses biographer Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker.
O'Malley wasn't having it; such a team would no longer be the Brooklyn Dodgers. Eventually he received a sweetheart deal from the city of Los Angeles, which used eminent domain to claim 160 acres of Chavez Ravine, forcibly evicting many Mexican Americans in the process of creating the gleaming palace of baseball that became Dodger Stadium. Not pretty.
Not that the more recent owners of the Dodgers—Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and then Frank and Jamie McCourt—have been much to write home about, either. The Foxies overturned nearly half a century of Dodger tradition and continuity after purchasing the franchise from O'Malley's son, Peter, in 1998, trading franchise superstar Mike Piazza rather than negotiating a contract extension, toppling longtime general manager Fred Claire, and firing manager Bill Russell, Tommy Lasorda's handpicked successor—and that was just their first three months. During their six seasons of ownership, the News Corp. Dodgers spent more on payroll than all but the Yankees and Red Sox without netting a single post-season appearance.
If the Foxies were awful in their facelessly corporate way, the McCourts were the nadir of a mom-and-pop operation. Their highly-leveraged purchase of the franchise, its ballpark, and the adjoining real estate instantly called into question the Dodgers' ability to spend with the big boys, particularly when the team bypassed an opportunity to sign free agent Vlad Guerrero just as the sale was being completed in 2004. The McCourts reaped the benefits of scouting director Logan White's drafting prowess, which produced a handful of talent that helped the team reach back-to-back NL Championship Series in 2008-2009, but they ultimately bled the franchise for every dollar they could. Their divorce revealed all manner of tawdry details—affairs with limo drivers, tax dodging, lavish spending that included seven country club memberships, $150,000 for a five-day-a-week hairstylist, $600,000 paid through the team to two sons who did not have titles, and a six-figure bonus to a 71-year-old Russian physicist and spiritual healer named Vladimir Shpunt, whose job it was to send positive vibes from his Boston base by "tapping into the V energy." You could look it up.
Worse, once the franchise was ruled the sole property of Frank McCourt—and oh, what a bloody mess it was to get to that point—he ran short of funds and was ultimately forced to take the team into bankruptcy after various attempts to negotiate a below-market television deal were rejected by commissioner Bud Selig. When he finally sold the team for a record $2.1 billion to a group headed by Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Partners back in April, he walked away with over $800 million.
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? How can a fan of a team not hate a scumbag like that, or not feel a bit of self-loathing for putting up with such nonsense. And that's without getting into the roster antics of McCourt's general manager, whose legacy of free-agent signings includes expensive busts such as Jason Schmidt, Andruw Jones, Bill Mueller, Juan Pierre, and Juan Uribe. Don't even get me started.
To be continued...