I thought I might begin today’s entry with a fancy introduction involving Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, General Crowder, Pete Rose, a rogue elephant, a malfunctioning burglar alarm, and Richard Nixon, but the appropriate anecdote that draws those elements together escapes me, and instead I will cut right to the chase: Today marks the end of my tenure at Baseball Prospectus.
My first column for Baseball Prospectus appeared on June 20, 2003. Today, almost nine years later, I present my last. With great sadness, but also great excitement for the future, I have resigned as Editor-in-Chief. On March 19, I will undertake a new challenge, joining Bleacher Report as one of two lead baseball writers, contributing both my usual long-form pieces as well as quicker bits in which I get to indulge my inner hit-and-run commentator.
There is so much I want to tell you about my time here, about the many adventures I have had and the people I have known, many of whom you have read and enjoyed, but it’s hard to single out any one story. This “inside” tale from early in my tenure keeps coming to mind. It was approximately July 2005. In those days, BP’s principals had a yearly meeting someplace fun, like Palm Springs, Las Vegas, or Monte Carlo. I believe we stopped doing those because given the lack of entertainment options available at these remote, arid locations, the guys just got too much work done and were overly fatigued from all of their productivity once they got home.
Don't play with sharp objects, don't lie down in traffic, and never assume that any player is blocked.
When, early on Sunday morning, it was revealed that Ryan Zimmerman had signed a contract extension that had the potential of keeping him in Washington until 2020, I predicted that Kevin Goldstein would spend his day answering questions about the future of Anthony Rendon, a fine third-base prospect to be sure, but not one who would seem likely to be dogging Zimmerman’s heels anytime soon given that he has yet to play a professional game.
Kevin’s predictable response to those easily-predictable questions was that a lot can change between now and 2020, or between now and next year, including our entire view of both Zimmerman and Rendon. In fact, the potentialities of either could be radically altered as soon as… now. Or now. And also now. Entering 1971, the syndicated columnist Jimmy Cannon asked Casey Stengel for his opinion on Johnny Bench, then entering his age-23 season and coming off an MVP-winning campaign in which he hit .293/.345/.587 with a National League-leading 45 home runs and 148 runs batted in.
“I’ve had Al Lopez and Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, which goes to show you,” the old man said. “But at his age, which is young, Johnny Bench is the greatest catcher I ever seen. But he could fall out of an airplane or his eyes could go bad, which could happen to a young catcher.”
Due process is a wonderful thing, even if the outcomes are sometimes a little hard to figure. Just ask Joe Jackson.
We have yet to hear much more about the rationale behind the Ryan Braun decision except rumors about irregularities in the handling of his urine sample, but if it is indeed the case that he was let off the hook because the chain of evidence was broken, his acquittal is a triumph for due process. Sorry, Baseball, but your minions screwed up, and therefore you did as well.
Our Constitution is an amazing living document that stretches and evolves with the times, surviving generations of politicians and Supreme Court justices who life to play taffy pull with its brittle old pages. As a result, sometimes we get a Constitution that’s very expansive in its grant of rights and at other times it’s a bit stingy. For a long time, due process was more about corporations than individuals—the Supreme Court spent decades saying you couldn’t have labor laws because they inhibited the free market, and any law that does that is messing with the right of due process.
The 1919 Black Sox had their case fall squarely during the period of time when due process was more concerned with protecting employers from labor than vice-versa. Had the case happened roughly 20 years later, Joe Jackson and friends might have kept on playing. In some cases (Jackson, Buck Weaver) that might have been a better outcome than what actually happened, whereas in others (Chick Gandil), the result would have been the continuance on the field of some players who were clearly guilty. Still, to the extent that “the verdict of juries,” as Commissioner Landis put it, is one of the keystone of our rights, the Sox clearly got a raw deal.
The A's say there is no risk to signing Manny, but there definitely is, especially if fruit cocktail is being served.
He’s a friend of a friend of a relative that I see at family gatherings sometimes, an ex-teacher who is excessively bitter about what seem to me to be his own failings. On holidays, he plays vulture at the table. With dirt caked under his nails, he digs at the serving bowls with his fingers. If he’s before you in the serving order, you will wind up going hungry because he’s fouled the horn of plenty.
When he’s not picking at the food, he picks at his former students. In the greatest statistical anomaly in the history of man, every student he ever had was a total moron. I don’t know where he was teaching—perhaps it was the Secret Kingdom Where Everyone is the Seventh-Generation Product of Inbreeding Between Siblings, in which case maybe he had a point. Otherwise, it seems to me that he suffers from a case of blaming one’s limitations on the supposed limitations of others. It’s not that you can’t teach, but that your students are too dumb to learn.
Knowing this guy, I’m willing to give the students the benefit of the doubt.
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Gary Carter's greatest moment in baseball was not any single hit or play, but just saying "Yes" at the right time.
By this morning you have no doubt read countless stories about Gary Carter, his playing career, and his character both on and off the field. The links came flying furiously yesterday, because his passing had been a foregone conclusion for quite awhile. Sadly, in our business that means not only sorrow and sympathy but getting a head start on writing the obituary.
There was extra incentive to start early on Carter, because in this case there are no crocodile tears; he was an important and beloved figure in at least two baseball towns and a legitimate Hall of Famer (for more on this aspect of Carter’s career, see Jay Jaffe’s piece elsewhere on the site). His career .262/.335/.439 rates don’t look like much in our offensively bloated era, but he played in a difficult park at a more austere time. At his peak, which lasted (roughly) from 1977 through 1985, Carter hit .276/.349/.478. Give that a park and era adjustment and maybe grant the Kid a few points of production for the wear and tear of catching, and you have a real star. His OPS+ for those years was 129, his TAv about .300. That is to say nothing of his strong defensive abilities.
I don’t want to focus on Carter’s on-field achievements today, but of the crucial moment of team-building in which he played a key role. That was the day he was traded from the Expos to the Mets. This far removed, it is difficult to remember that the Expos were once a legitimate baseball team, not the bastard stepchild of MLB, existing to make salary-dumping deals such as that which sent John Wetteland to the Yankees for the immortal Fernando Seguignol and bundles of greenback dollars.
New York is in a state of Linsanity, which brings to mind the craze of one particular rookie phenom.
I am embarrassed to confess that at one time I thought Tom Seaver deserved the 1981 Cy Young Award over Fernando Valenzuela. Seaver had lost one of the closest votes ever to the Dodgers rookie, tying him in first place votes 8-8, but lost on a second-place vote, 70-67. Perhaps it was my sympathy for a great pitcher against an upstart, or simply my natural cynicism about any fad, and Fernandomania! was definitely that, though a bandwagon his fans were right about. I don’t know enough about basketball and the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin to tell you if he’s going to be a flash in the pan or a lasting contributor like Valenzuela was, but the excitement greeting his unexpected rise has some of the same flavor to it.
Thirty-one years later, it’s easy to forget just what an incredible debut Valenzuela had. The chubby 20-year-old had pitched 17 2/3 scoreless innings in relief in 1980 after posting a 3.10 ERA at San Antonio of the Texas League, a circuit in which the average ERA was 4.25. Flash forward to Opening Day 1981, when Jerry Reuss had to pull out of his scheduled start at home against the Astros and Joe Niekro. Instead of substituting Burt Hooton, Bob Welch, Rick Sutcliffe, or any other pitcher hanging around the staff, manager Tommy Lasorda went with the kid. The results were instantaneous, the lefty screwballer pitching a complete game shutout.
From there, it would be about six weeks before Valenzuela didn’t pitch a complete game or even recorded a loss. In his first eight starts, Valenzuela went 8-0 with seven complete games, five of them shutouts. In those 72 innings, he allowed just four runs (0.50 ERA) on 43 hits while walking 17 and striking out 68. He was less fun after that, posting a 3.66 ERA—above the league average—in the 17 starts remaining in the strike-truncated season, albeit with another three shutouts.
In the early 1960s, Baseball feared the rising number of Latinos in the game, but in this area, at least, the game has been a positive example for tolerance.
Harry “Cookie” Lavagetto played second and third base for the Pirates and Dodgers in the 1930s and 40s and remains known for delivering one of the great moments in World Series history, the pinch-hit double that broke up Bill Bevens’ no-hitter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1947 World Series. Ironically, it was his last hit in the majors—not even Ted Williams got a police escort off the field after his last hit. After being cut by the Dodgers, Lavagetto played for some excellent Pacific Coast League teams with his hometown Oakland Oaks, including the 1948 league champions, then went on to a long career as a coach and manager.
Lavagetto was the last manager of the original Washington Senators and the first manager of the Minnesota Twins. It was in the latter capacity that he gave the 1961 interview, titled “The Challenge from Latin-America” in Baseball Digest. Author Dick Gordon wrote:
While there were only 45 Latins (or seven percent of the of the total) on major league rosters this spring, the number is steadily increasing. And the fact that there are an estimated 500 of them in organized ball already indicates the threat of a Castro etc. “invasion” not by soldiers armed with rifles but by athletes with rifle arms.
The makers and promoters of the patronizing "Baseball Boyfriends" app have an appreciation of women and baseball that apparently froze in the 1950s. Donna Reed is dead—long live the female stathead.
Baseball has always had an ambivalent relationship with its female audience, often assuming they had to be catered to or patronized to stoke their interest in the game. For those marketing the game, it often seems as if the idealized image of the distaff fan is not the modern woman, whose adherence to received, stereotypical notions of gender roles erodes by the day, but Ruth Ann Steinhagen, the schizophrenic who, obsessed with Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, lured him into a trap and tried to murder him in 1949. Women, in their view, see ballplayers as sex objects as much or more than they do as athletes involved in a competition that can hold their interest for its own sake. This seems to be the reasoning behind Baseball Boyfriends, a “fantasy” game aimed at women and girls in which participants “pick a new hottie or hang onto you hunk.” [sic]
Steinhagen, 19, had been fixated on Waitkus since seeing him play for the Cubs in 1947, making a shrine of his pictures and clippings and conducting an imaginary relationship with him. She had no interest in the game, she said, until she began to focus on Waitkus. “I just became nuttier and nuttier about the guy,” she later testified, “[I decided] if I can’t have him nobody can. And then I decided I would kill him.” On June 14, 1949, the Phillies were in Chicago. Steinhagen took a room in the Phillies’ hotel and had a note delivered to the first sacker: “Mr. Waitkus, It is extremely important that I see you as soon as possible. We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about.” After calling and being put off for half an hour, Waitkus appeared at Steinhagen’s room. According to her own testimony:
At the time I had a knife in my skirt pocket and was going to use that on him. When I opened the door he came rushing past me. I expected him to stand there and wait until I asked him to come in and during that time I was going to stab him with the knife. I was kind of mad that he came right in and sat down and didn’t give me a chance to stab him. He looked at me surprised and said, “What do you want to see me about?” I said, “Wait a minute. I have a surprise for you.”
Josh Hamilton may be his own worst enemy, but coming in a close second are those that would scourge him for weakness.
Having reached the age of 41, I can state honestly that I have never been drunk or high. I drink socially and consume the odd glass of wine at home but have never had more than I could handle and have never touched a joint or any medication that wasn’t prescribed by a doctor or available over the counter at a drug store. When I tell people this, they either don’t believe me or ask, in so many words, if I am some kind of abstemious, moralistic prude, a question that I always feel like answering by gesturing towards my exceedingly ample body and asking, “Does this suggests abstemiousness to you?”
In fact, I have nothing against tying one on (with whatever substance—our definitions of legal and illegal drugs are highly arbitrary) if that’s what you choose to do; it’s your body, and so long as you abuse it in such a way that you’re not hurting anyone else, I don’t see where I have any kick coming. My reasons for not overdoing it stem from one of my earliest memories. At a very young age, I was introduced to a man who was trying to put his life back together after a long period of drug abuse. He seemed very old to me at the time, the way all adults seem old to young children, but thinking back, I realize he was probably no older than 25. He simply looked much older. More frightening though, was his dissipated air and distracted way of talking. “He… left long spaces… between words… and tended to trail off… in the middle of what he was…” Most of his attempts at speaking ended with him staring off into space.
I was told that this young old man once had a brilliant mind, but years of habitual drug use (I was never told what kind) had left him a shell of what he once was. Somehow, despite my youth, a message got through to me that I never forgot: “Better not to start.” Over time, as I observed my own psychology and also watched friends and acquaintances in various states of inebriation and debauchery, I realized three things:
A litany of thwarted hopes, Livan Hernandez, Jack Quinn, and other mutterings.
It is Wednesday, One of My Seven Days of Nervous Baseball
On Mondays, I feel like it’s August 16, 1920 and I’m Ray Chapman, striding to the plate against Carl Mays at the Polo Grounds. I’m going to take that submarining busher’s next pitch and kill it—I just have to remember to crowd in so he doesn’t get me on the inside corner.
On Wednesdays, I feel like it’s June 18, 1977 and I’m Paul Blair. Reggie Jackson has just dawdled after a Jim Rice double and manager Billy Martin has sent me out to right field to replace him in the middle of the inning and on national television. I don’t know if Billy is right or if he’s wrong; I just know that this is the longest jog of my life because Reggie is going to kill me when I finally get there.
Team all-stars by WARP string-where would the pennants stop? Plus, some of the best and worst songs of 1987.
Jorge Posada and the Third-String Yankees
I was asked on the radio last week where Jorge Posada ranked as a Hall of Fame candidate. I responded that he was the third-best catcher in Yankees history in career value, which proved to be a good, not-quite-off-the-top-of-of-my head guess (when someone asks you to rank the presidents, you can play it lose as long as you start with George Washington and not Warren Harding, but when it comes to ballplayers you have to know your Berra-Dickey do-re-mi). I became curious as to just how good the third-best team in a team’s history might be. Part of the fun of following baseball is making lists, and this seemed to be a good excuse to make one.
If we ranked each position by career WARP, how far down would we have to go before we reached a team that wouldn’t win the pennant every year? Would Jorge still get his share of rings?