Baseball postsThursday September 10, 2009
About six years ago a friend gave me an uncorrected proof of Jane Leavy's "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," which was getting a lot of attention at the time, and I finally got around to it this past weekend. Something about September makes me want to read baseball books, I guess. Temperatures are cooling down and pennant races are heating up. Post-season is just around the corner. Or maybe it's the fact that baseball is dying (for the year) and everyone appreciates things more when they're dying. Baseball books are almost always pubished in spring, which is the one time of year I get to take baseball for granted. It's also the season I'm least likely to be inside, reading.
I like the structure of Leavy's book—every other chapter is an inning in his perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965—while the subsequent chapters give us his life and career: How a wild, afterthought lefty, with an ERA hovering near 4.00, became, for five years, the best pitcher in baseball. Levy would say "the best pitcher in basebal history" and that's part of the problem. She's a little hagiographic. She's a little too close to her subject. So was Aviva Kempner in that "Hank Greenberg" doc, but for some reason I found Kempner's love letter charming, Leavy's less so. Maybe it's the medium. Maybe it's the messenger.
Some of the best stuff is in the intro, when Leavy interviewed the players, many of them Hall of Famers, who faced Koufax. It's been said that his fastball rose when it got to the plate, which, according to science, is impossible. Of course 19th century scientists claimed no ball could curve, either; that the so-called "curve ball" was merely an optical illusion. The players here collectively give science a Bronx cheer:
Stan Musial: "Rose up just before it got to the plate."
Willie Mays: "I don't know how much it rose, it just rose. Ain't got time to try and sit there and count how high it goes. You just know it went up—very quickly."
Hank Aaron: "It did something, you know?"
Carl Erskine: "It re-accelerated. It came again."
Dave Wallace: "Fifteen feet from home plate, where the grass ends and the dirt begins, it got an afterburner on its ass."
Love Hank Aaron's line.
Ken Burns' "Baseball" doc argued, in passing, that Koufax went from mediocre mop-up man (with great stuff) to the best pitcher in baseball when someone told him he didn't have to throw so hard, but Leavy argues that the Dodgers in general, and manager Walter Alston in particular, just didn't give him the chance to find his rhythm during the 1950s. Koufax was a "bonus baby." Because he signed for over $10,000 in 1954, MLB rules stipulated that he had to stay on the 25-man roster. So not only did his signing piss off the other, veteran players, most of whom weren't even earning what this kid had just been given, but it pissed off the manager, who was suddenly saddled with a player he couldn't get rid of. If the kid wasn't any good he couldn't send him down to the minors; he had to keep him in the bigs. Alston, Leavy implies, dealt with this fait accompli by not taking advantage of Koufax's god-given talent.
That's certainly the case during his first two years: Koufax pitched 41 innings in 1955, 58 in 1956. In 1957, though, he seemed to find his rhythm, or at least a rhythm: 5-4, 3.88 ERA, with, most importantly, a 122-51 strikeout-walk ratio in only 104 innings. You'd think a manager would take notice. Maybe Alston did. Because the next year Koufax started twice as many games. But he got wild again: a 131-105 strikeout-walk ratio in 158 innings. His WHIP soared. The following year, too. So maybe he just wasn't good enough yet. Or maybe, as Leavy implies, Alston never let him settle into a rhythm. Who knows? Koufax probably doesn't even know.
Leavy also gives us the Ken Burns scene. Scenes. "Stop throwing so hard." Everyone told him this. Don Newcombe told him this. In a bar the night before a spring training game in 1961, Kenny Myers, an old scout, supposedly told him to keep his head level, don't rear it back. And in that spring training game, Norm Sherry, his catcher, came to the mound after Koufax walked the first three batters and told him, according to Koufax's autobiography, to "take the grunt out of the ball." According to Sherry, via Leavy, what he actually said was "Let 'em hit it." Take something off and let them hit it. Koufax, pissed off, did just that, in part to show Sherry how wrong he was.
And he struck out the side.
Back in the dugout, Sherry told him: "Sandy, I'm not blowing smoke up your rear end. But you just now threw harder trying not to than you did when you were trying to."
Something zen in that. Something zen about Koufax. The book attempts to probe his inscrutability. It lauds both his quest for perfection and his dislike of fame and celebrity—positing both against our sorry times—but, to me, the key to his success, and thus his meaning, is in this spring training game. The key is in finding the balance. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. Between wanting it too much and not wanting it at all. Maybe that's true of all things.
Chapter 12 is my favorite. The '63 World Series. When Koufax entered the national stage and ushered the Yankees off it. By '63 the Yankees were as common an autumnal sight as yellow leaves. From 1949 to 1964, they were in the World Series every year but two—1954 (Indians) and 1959 (White Sox)—and they won most of them, including the two most-recent Series. And there they were again. And what does Koufax do? He strikes out the first five guys he faces: Kubek, Richardson, Tresh, Mantle and Maris. He sets a Series record (that lasted all of five years) by striking out 15, and the Yankees went down in four games. How often had this happened before? Never. Not to the Yankees. John McGraw's New York Giants had beaten them once 4-0-1 way back in 1922, and the Yankees themselves had swept their Series' opponents six times (1927, 1928, 1932, 1938, 1939 and 1950), but they themselves had never been swept. Until the '63 Dodgers. In that first, 15-strikeout game, the Yanks lost 5-2 and the remarkable thing is they never scored that much again, losing the next games: 4-1 (vs. Podres), 1-0 (vs. Drysdale) and 2-1 (vs. Koufax). Koufax's 1.50 ERA for the Series was actually the worst on the Dodgers' pitching staff. That's from me, not Leavy.
"Sandy Koufax" is a good book but not a great book. It's the Johnny Podres of books. You could say Leavy never finds the balance Koufax found. Between force and not-force, pressure and not-pressure. She commits the most forgivable of writerly sins: She wants it too much.
Jeter Sucks! (On the Yankees Anyway)
Quick baseball trivia question for you. Derek Jeter's name has been bandied about for the American League MVP award. But where does he place among qualifying Yankees in terms of OPS—On-Base Plus Slugging—which is generally regarded as one of the best indicators of a player's hitting prowess?
Seventh. As of this morning, he has the seventh-best OPS on the Yankees.
What's more remarkable? Jeter is still 24th among the 74 American League players who have the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Meaning seven of the Yankees' nine hitters are among the top 24 hitters in the league. Ouch! Here they are:
No other team is close. Among the top 24 players in OPS, the Rays have four (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena), Boston has three (Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew), the Twins have three (Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau), Texas has two (Nelson Cruz, Michael Young), and the Tigers, Angels, Blue Jays, Mariners and Indians all settle for one a piece (Miguel Cabrera, Kendry Morales, Adam Lind, Russell Branyan and Shin-Soo Choo). White Sox, Royals, Orioles and A's get zilch. Especially the A's.
The Yankees, again, have seven. That's gotta be worrisome for anyone playing them in the post-season.
New Yankee Stadium—so nice you get to homer twice—has, I'm sure, helped the Yankees accrue the best team OPS in the Majors, .842, 40 points higher than second-place Boston (.802). At the same time, didn't it destroy their pitching staff? Their pitching OPS must suck.
Not really. Here's how the 30 teams in the Majors stand when you add their batting OPS ranking and their pitching OPS ranking. Current division and wild-card leaders in bold:
|Rank||Team||OPS bat. rank||OPS pit. rank||Total|
|Chicago White Sox||16||8||24|
What is this measurement worth? Not much. For one, teams have reconfigured for the season. The good and the rich are better, the mediocre and middle-class are worse. No way, for example, that the Marlins and White Sox are equal to the Phillies, who are my gut pick for NL champs. No way the Angels are that bad. Even so, I was surprised that the only other team in slngle digits in both categories—besides the Yankees—is the Colorado Rockies. Ninth in the majors in opposition OPS? Wow.
Yes, as an avowed Yankees hater, none of this is exactly good news, but stats are stats. Put it this way: the Yankees are overbudget, filled with lousy actors, get too much attention...but they're good. “Transformers 2” is all of those things and it sucked. That's how bad that movie was. It makes the Yankees look good.
The Boston Red Sox got the big bat they were looking for, acquiring All-Star slugger Victor Martinez from the Cleveland Indians on Friday...
Martinez, who had spent his whole career with Cleveland, fought back tears after being told he'd been traded. He sat in front of his locker, hugging son Victor Jr. -- earlier in the day, the young boy asked his dad, "Are we still an Indian?"
"It's tough," Martinez said. "This is my house. This is my home."
Martinez leaves Cleveland a day before the Indians were to hold Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night at Progressive Field in their game against Detroit.
Anatomy of a Catch: DeWayne Wise
Seriously, if you haven’t seen DeWayne Wise’s catch with nobody out in the top of the ninth inning to preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game yesterday—only the 18th perfect game (including the postseason) in Major League Baseball history—you’ve gotta see it.
As I said before, I may have seen better homerun-robbing catches but never in that kind of situation, never to preserve that kind of baseball history. Not even close. It’s the catch of the year.
Watch where he starts from. I mean he’s dead centerfield and not particularly deep. He has to run a long way to get to that thing. He has to run at a sprint to be exactly where the ball is heading.
He runs so fast, in fact, that it allows him to slow down at the warning track. That’s key. If he’d been running faster when he made his leap, the ball probably would’ve jarred loose from his glove when he hit the wall. Or he might’ve injured himself. Instead, because of his earlier speed, he’s able to slow down and go into the wall relatively softly.
OK, over the wall. Because it’s obviously a homerun. Kapler hit a homerun. Until Wise brought it back.
But even going over the wall relatively softly, the ball is still jarred loose from his glove. So, coming off the wall, falling down, he is able to re-glove and bare-hand the ball (both hands, kids), roll over on his back, and stand and raise the ball in his bare hand. I mean...goddamn.
Then he does a very baseball thing. With his gloved hand he points at Buehrle. I love that. I’ve written articles about “the point” in baseball and how it compares favorably to the antics in other sports, particularly the solipsistic celebrations of football, which are all me me me. Pointing in baseball means: “Good job, you. Good work. We’re a good team.” But why does Wise point at Buehrle here? Because Buehrle kept Kapler from hitting it deeper? Because Buehrle’s pitch, and Kapler’s hit, have just made DeWayne Wise a household name? Of course not. He’s just on automatic. I’m sure he’s pumped. But in baseball, particularly in the field, you maintain cool while the game is going on. You maintain nonchalance. Wise does. You can see his adrenaline almost overwhelming his nonchalance but he keeps it tamped down. After all, there are two outs to go.
Then he taps gloves with the left fielder and goes back and retrieves his sunglasses. Unsmiling. He’s serious. After all, there are two outs to go.
It’s beautiful. Everything I love about baseball is in this moment.
I arrived in Seattle in May 1991 after spending most of the 1980s pursuing a degree and a girl—I got the degree and lost the girl—and after having spent a significant amount of time abroad in baseball-less Taiwan. Hell, even in Minneapolis, where I lived most of the 1980s, baseball didn't feel the same as when I was growing up. My childhood stadium, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. (now the Mall of America), saw its last professional baseball game played on September 30, 1981 (I was there), and it was replaced, the spring of my freshman year of college, with a domed stadium downtown. Grass became turf, the sky became roof, the distinctive “TC” on the caps of the players became a fat, generic “M” (because, literalists proclaimed, it was the Minnesota Twins, not the Twin Cities’ Twins), and I drifted elsewhere. Yes, this kid Hrbek was better than most in a long line of “next Harmon Killebrews,” and, yes, this kid Puckett coming up in ’84 was fun to watch, but overall I stopped going. I lost track. Hell, when the Twins finally won it all in 1987 I was on the other side of the world. I still considered myself a fan but I was, at best, fair-weather.
In Seattle in ’91 and ’92 I went to a few games in the Kingdome—which was, impossibly, even uglier than the Metrodome—and things improved in ’92 when I got glasses and could finally follow the ball again, but I didn’t become a true fan until ’93, when two friends from University Book Store, Tim and Mike, and I, would often, spur of the moment, take in a game. “Who’s pitching? Randy? Let’s go.”
Here’s an entry in my diary, from when I wrote a diary, from April 21, 1993:
I got rained on three times today: biking to work in the morning; as Parker and I were waiting for the bus to take us to the Mariners game; and finally returning from the Mariners game. The game, by the way, went well: Mariners: 5 Red Sox: 0. Randy Johnson with a 4-hit complete game shutout; Ken Griffey Jr. with two homeruns. This is his second two-homerun game in the last three days.
The next night Chris Bosio pitched a no-hitter and I wasn’t there, and I always lamented the fact that I went to the first two games in that series with Boston and it was the third game that was a no-hitter. But this second game wasn’t bad, either. It was career victory no. 51 for Randy (no. 51). That’s 249 victories ago. And counting.
God, he was fun to watch. He’s fun to watch now, but then? In his prime? For your team? Unbelievable. That year I saw him strike out 15 Kansas City Royals—twice. I watched him give John Kruk a heart attack at the All-Star game. Jerry Crasnick has a list of the top 9 Randy Johnson moments and I was only at the park for one of them—no. 9, the McGwire homerun—but, possibly because it’s too similar to his no. 4, Crasnick left out the most indelible moment for most Mariners’ fans, and I was there for that.
In 1998, along with Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Jamie Moyer, the M’s had three superstars on the team—RJ, Junior and A-Rod—and thus three huge contracts to fill in the near future, and in attempting to juggle this dilemma they wound up losing all three. RJ went first, mid-season 1998, and I covered his return to Seattle, and to new Safeco Field, on July 20, 1999 for The Grand Salami, an alternative program sold at the stadium. His return, by the way, wasn't the most indelible RJ moment for most Mariners' fans. That came three years earlier. Here's the piece. I called it “Unitless in Seattle”:
M’s fans have grown bitter these past few seasons, witnessing, at they have, so many late-inning losses, so many bewildering trades, so much opportunity and talent gone for naught. Worse, RJ’s departure was acrimonious. He pitched poorly with the M’s in the first half of ’98, and then cut a swath through the National League in the second half, so some feel he tanked it here.
“I listen to sport radio quite a bit,” Artie Kelly, 41, of Seattle, said outside Safeco, “and (fan reaction) is pretty mixed.”
Kelly, known as “Ironworker Artie,” bears a slight resemblance to the Unit—tall, lanky, and long-haired. He wore a t-shirt with Johnson’s name and number on the back, and stuck posters on the outside of Safeco, which he helped build. “Gone But Not Forgotten,” read one. “The House That Randy Built,” read another. “I’m out here to enlighten fans who are being brainwashed by M’s management,” he said. “You don’t lead the league in strikeouts by tanking it.”
Indeed, Johnson’s 329 strikeouts last year, a number lost in the hubbub over the McGwire-Sosa homerun parade, were the seventh-most in modern major league history.
“The question back then was whether Randy deserved Maddux money,” Kelly continued. “Well, now the question is whether Maddux deserves Johnson money.“
Inside Safeco it became apparent that the anti-Randy talk on sports radio was mostly a vocal minority.
“I like Randy, he didn’t do nothing wrong,” said Ed Claxton, 34, of Bothell.
“Cheer?” asked Brian Conrad, 31, of Kenmore, who basked in the sun along the first base line. “Hell yeah. He’s responsible for us having this stadium.”
When asked about favorite RJ moments, the response was surprisingly widespread. Some mentioned the no-hitter against Detroit in 1990, and the one-game playoff against California that gave Seattle its first division title in 1995. What came to Darren Arends’ mind was the 1993 All-Star game when Randy sailed a pitch over the head of the Phillies’ John Kruk. Kruk stepped out, an amazed, dazed smile on his face, fluttered a hand near his heart, then promptly struck out on three pitches—his last swing hardly catching homeplate he was so far back in the bucket.
But by far the favorite Randy moment—in this admittedly unscientific survey—was Randy striding in from the bullpen to the strains of “Welcome to the Jungle,” in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series against the Yankees.
“The best sports moment of my life,” said Brian Conrad.
“That was a pretty imposing sight,” remembered Sean Linville, 28, of Bellingham.
And I was there. Six years later—during which the national sports press, forgetting '95, kept implying that Randy ”choked" in the postseason—I watched on TV as Randy, now with the Diamondbacks, did the same against the Yankees in the 7th game of the 2001 World Series. He was the true Yankees killer—though both games required comebacks from his teammates.
Getting that comeback, getting that team support, was kind of a rarity for Randy—at least in his Seattle days. That’s what I kept thinking during this long, drawn-out pursuit for 300. If it wasn’t for that lousy, mid-1990s M’s bullpen, how much sooner would he have gotten there? I recall tons of blown ballgames—the worst, the most laughable, coming in April 1998, when RJ dominated the Red Sox (again) through 8 innings at Fenway, and left with a five-run lead. The M’s bullpen—horrible in ’97, disastrous in ‘98—promptly gave it all back, and more, as Mo Vaughn ended the game with a walk-off grand slam. The four or five pitchers Lou trotted out that inning didn’t even record an out.
So make no mistake. Randy deserves that 300. He’s the best, most dominating pitcher I’ve ever seen. And—with Junior, Edgar, Omar and Jay, as well as Mike and Tim—he helped bring me back to baseball.