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The Editor in Chief of Baseball Prospectus, Steven Goldman has been with BP since 2003, writing the "You Could Look It Up" column which ties baseball history into current events, and now "The BP Broadside," a current events column. As an editor, Steven has supervised the creation of the BP books "Mind Game" and "It Ain't Over," as well as the last six editions of the New York Times bestselling Baseball Prospectus annual. As a solo author, he wrote Forging Genius about the professional education of Casey Stengel. He also writes the Pinstriped Bible for the YES Network and releases original songs at Casual Observer Music. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, two children, and a pair of cats named after famous Republicans.
A look back on Flint Rhem's 'kidnapping' in a time when America was very much like Venezuela is today
Wilson Ramos has been kidnapped in Venezuela, and I am, as I assume most baseball fans are, eagerly awaiting news and hoping that he will be released unharmed so that he can return to the United States and continue a promising career that saw him hit .288/.342/.471 in the second half. This is an unusual story for me to write about, because it’s not a baseball problem you can analyze. There are no statistics to point to, no Babe Ruth story for me to use by way of analogy. There is only waiting and the hope that the criminals make clear their demands, get what they want—or better, get caught—and Ramos gets away without a scratch.
The lawlessness of Venezuela is strange for us to contemplate, and yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Americans experienced a similar kind of uncertainty in their everyday lives. The Great Depression unleashed a wave of bank robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes in our own country. All of the criminals that we now make movies about—Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and the rest—were at large in the land because of the twin scourges of prohibition and economic deprivation. Kidnappings were not uncommon, the most prominent of them the 1932 abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. The heightened sense of danger that arose from this and other crimes helped spur the rise to prominence of the FBI.
It was this environment—when it was possible that one might encounter a gangland hit going off in the local drugstore on the way to work—on which Flint Rhem intended to blame his own failings. Charles Flint Rhem pitched for the Cardinals in the 1920s and ‘30s. He threw a powerful fastball, a curve, and used a knuckleball as a change of pace. He was a good pitcher at times—in 1926, he led the National League in victories (20) with a 3.21 ERA compiled in a hitter’s park against a league average ERA of 4.54. He was also a problem drinker and, therefore, often unreliable.
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After suffering through a miserable season that included a storm of injuries and poor roster construction, the Twins fired their GM.
As an aficionado of failure and perversity in ballclubs, I was greatly disappointed when the Minnesota Twins stalled out at 99 losses. The 100-loss mark is the traditional mark of abject failure in baseball. The Twins haven’t fallen so far since 1982, a transitional year in which the team first gave full-time jobs to several future stars, including Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Frank Viola. Given that the Twins were a very young team (average age of 25.2) sorting through their options, this last-place finish in the AL West was about as healthful as such seasons can be.
More often, though, an extreme losing season serves as a final wakeup call to a team that has been doing something wrong, except in the special case of teams like the Orioles, Pirates, and Royals, in which 90-plus losses are the equivalent of an airplane’s low-altitude warning alarm continuing to sound long after the pilot has ditched into the Hudson River. Having seen their record decline over four seasons from 97-64 and a playoff berth to 71-91 and not even a copy of the MLB home game, Cubs ownership finally got the hint and tore the nameplate off the general manager’s door for the first time since 2002. Similarly, the Astros, having endured a third straight losing season that saw them lose 106 games, a total surpassed only by 16 post-war teams, fired—oh, wait: The Astros didn’t do anything. Pretend I was talking about the Angels.
Theo Epstein can put an end to the Cubs' managerial merry-go-round.
Back in February, I wrote about how the Chicago Cubs had never had an iconic general manager. The dismissal of Mike Quade is an opportunity to ask a similar question of the Cubs. It’s not that they have never had a great manager—Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy got his start in the majors with Chicago, taking the team to the 1929 World Series, in the process becoming the first and last manager to get Hack Wilson focused on baseball, but McCarthy was forced out in a power struggle with Rogers Hornsby 71 years ago. That’s a lot of baseball under the bridge without a skipper putting his mark on the team in some way.
Some might point to another Hall of Fame skipper, Leo Durocher, who coached the team from 1966 to 1972, but despite the Lip’s helping the Cubs go from 50-103 in 1966 to 92-70 in 1969, he never did win anything with the Cubs, clashed with key players such as Ron Santo, and wasn’t exactly focused, wandering off on the team from time to time to deal with personal matters that somehow seemed more important than his job. Durocher is also, correctly, far more identified with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants than he is with the Cubbies.
You'd think Tony LaRussa would go right from the press conference podium to the Hall of Fame, but the way the process has been designed, he'll have to get in line.
Tony LaRussa’s retirement points out a real problem with the Hall of Fame’s current procedures on voting in managers. Current managers fall under the jurisdiction of the Expansion Era Committee, an appointed 16-member group. That committee is building up a massive backlog, and there is a real clock on their deliberations: the mortality of the candidates.
The Hall has quite sensibly decided that managerial candidates who are 65 years or older are eligible six months following their retirement rather than having to go through the standard five-year waiting period. All of the recently retired managers who will receive scrutiny—Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Lou Piniella, and Cito Gaston, all of whom hung ‘em up after the 2010 season, and now LaRussa—meet this criterion. This is a good thing; if they were forced to wait until 2016 or 2017 to receive their nod, they would all be in their early to mid-70s, and the actuarial tables argue that even if these gentlemen had lived long enough to see their names placed before the committee, they might not have gotten to enjoy the honor for very long. While putting a dead man into the Hall satisfies our sense of historical fealty and completeness, it doesn’t really do the enshrinee any good and makes for a rather dull and depressing induction ceremony to boot.
There is, however, an additional complication. The Hall, in its brilliance, has restricted the Expansion Committee (as well as the separate “Pre-Integration” and “Golden” committees) to holding a vote only every three years. It last met in December of 2010 and considered a ballot that included exactly one manager, Billy Martin (Pat Gillick was the only one of 12 former players, owners, and executives to get a nod). The Expansion Committee will next meet in the winter of 2013 to vote on candidates for 2014 induction.
We promised that if the Cardinals forced a seventh game we would be back for one more in-game roundtable. The Cardinals held up their end, so too will we hold up ours. Join the BP crew on Friday night at 8 PM for fun, frivolity, totally hypothetical snacks, and anything-goes commentary on winner-take-all final contest of 2011. Come one, come all, tell your friends and neighbors, kiss the cat, and we'll look forward to seeing you then.
After another rousingly esoteric chat during Game 2, we're back again. Join us here on Monday evening at 8 PM EST and watch the game along with the thoughtfully disputatious kids from Baseball Prospectus.
With the Cubs GM situation apparently coming to a resolution, we represent a piece from February on the Cubs' historic lack of a definitive executive.
I fear that today’s installment of Broadside is going to come off as an attack on Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, but that is not my intention. Rather, it's the observation that given a wait of more than a century, for the Cubs, the point is not the journey but the destination—over 100 years at sea is quite enough of a journey, thank you. And just as every team can point to their Babe Ruth or Ted Williams and say, “This is our iconic figure,” almost every organization has an executive who came along at a key moment and guided the team through a transitional period to greater heights of success, someone whose oil portrait in the office lobby bears a plaque that says, “Pathfinder.” The best the Cubs can do is hang an empty frame, or perhaps fill it with a sign: “This space for rent.”
This piece began as a look at the Cubs’ chances for this season, but as I later read back what I had written, I found that I had over a thousand words that boiled down to, “The last 102 years weren’t very good, were they?” before I even got to the 2011 team. You don’t need me to tell you that, even though there is a perverse pleasure in observing just how long it's been since the Cubs last got to celebrate a championship. The Pirates and the Royals come in for a lot of mockery, but at least you can refer to Kansas City's 1985 championship with a straight face, and bring up Bret Saberhagen, George Brett, and Dan Quisenberry as if they were contemporary humans instead of the alien subjects of 17th-century Dutch portraiture, strange, candlelit figures with ruff collars around their necks.
In which the manager's decision to yank Jason Motte in last night's ninth inning isn't questioned. No sir, not at all.
As those pundits who reflexively criticize we sabermetric types like to remind us, baseball is not a tabletop game. As Bill James pointed out on more than one occasion, you can actually learn a lot about baseball from running through a few hundred simulated games, but leave that aside for now. The key here is the one thing you cannot get out of two-dimensional player-cards: an insight into their current ability to perform, an instinct, a feeling. The card is always ready to go, but the actual player the card represents is not nearly so dependable. He might have a cold, or a mild groin strain, or a bitter divorce, or a hundred other things that aren’t visible from the press box or your living room sofa.
No baseball simulation that I know of has an option for randomized “not that into it today” diminishment of a player’s abilities, or “severely distracted,” or “slightly out of whack.” In games, they are what they are. In real life, they vary from day to day. We must concede this, as we always have conceded it. Further, we must concede that one of the people in a better position to know these things about St. Louis Cardinals players in particular is Tony LaRussa. His information is more complete than ours. That doesn’t mean he or any manager will always be correct or wise or even lucky, it just means that he’s operating on perhaps one more level than we are.
The foregoing is a preamble to a defense of LaRussa’s decision to yank Jason Motte in the top of the ninth inning of World Series Game Two, a move that was attacked as over-managing the moment that it happened. The difficult thing about being a manager is that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Back on September 23, I took LaRussa to task for being too passive with Jason Motte in a key game against the Mets. The Cardinals took a 6-2 lead into the top of the ninth at St. Louis, and LaRussa brought Motte in to finish things out:
The pitching depth of a champion is there, but the offensive firepower is not
Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade—whether in September (or before), the division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm system overview.