Baseball postsTuesday June 10, 2008
So he’s finally done it.
“Finally,” I suppose, is a measure of exasperation that a feat like hitting 600 homeruns doesn’t deserve. Only five players in baseball history have ever done it (Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Sosa) — and only three if you remove the players tainted by steroids (leaving Aaron, Ruth and Mays) — so the fact that it was done at all should be applauded rather than recounted with an impatient sigh. And I am applauding it. As a Ken Griffey, Jr., fan, who saw him hit his eighth homerun in eight consecutive games in ’93, who saw him break his wrist in ’95 and bounce back to homer five times in the ’95 ALDS against the New York Yankees, who saw him homer 25-30 times in person at the Kingdome, I’m excited. I’m also a little bummed.
When he left Seattle he had 398 homeruns. At the time, he was hitting 50+ per year (in his previous four years, actually averaging 52+ per year), and he’d only just turned 30. Even with the usual slowdown of age, one assumed he might reach 600 in five years. Six at the top. Which would leave him a few more years to go after Mays and Ruth and Aaron. He’d pissed us off, certainly, the way he left, but he’d given us too many good memories for us to wish him anything but the best.
Instead, over 8 seasons, he’s averaged 24 homeruns. Injuries upon injuries. Too much weight. Not enough training. In the beginning of his career he might have been too much of a natural to take seriously the training necessary to prosper at the end of his career.
He won a Gold Glove every year in the American League; not once in the National. He was an All-Star every year in the American League; only three times in the National. He was good, or good enough, in the National League, but he’d once been the best: the only active player to make the All-Century Team in 1999.
And yet, please, another round of applause for Junior as he rounds the bases. It’s too late for him to catch Ruth and Aaron, and probably Mays, but Sammy Sosa’s only 8 homeruns away. Let’s get him out of the way this year, Junior. Then, of the top five career homerun hitters, only one will be tainted.
Time flies. Seems like only yesterday I was saying it was a great day to hate the New York Yankees and now it's five days later and they've won five in a row. They won close games and blow outs. They came from behind. Their record is now even (.500) and their run differential is now even (222-223). They're only five games back of the leader of the AL East, which is Tampa Bay, the feel-good story in baseball this year.
But I wouldn't feel too smug if I were a Yankees fan because most of this was accomplished on the backs of the Seattle Mariners, tthe worst team in the American League. By far. The Yankees have faced the M's six times this year and are 6-0 against them. They've scored 50 runs and given up 17. What success they appear to have is partially due to these six games. Without them, the Yankees would look pretty crappy. And, sure, you have to beat the bad teams with the good ones but if I were a Yankees fan here's what I'd worry about: The Yanks only have three more games against the M's this year. After that, they're on their own.
And if I were a Mariners fan — which I kind of am — what would I be worried about? That the firings will stop in the dugout and won't reach the front office: specifically Billy Bavasi and/or Howard Lincoln.
I don’t know about the rest of the season but this day anyway is a great day to hate the New York Yankees. Yeah, sure, everyday is a great day to hate the Yankees, but it’s been awhile since their woes have been so numerous: a 20-25 record, last place in their division by two games, out of first by 7 ½, and without the positive run differential they had last season that indicated they’d probably turn things around. (They did.) After yesterday’s 12-2 drubbing by the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees have now given up almost 30 more runs than they’ve scored.
I don’t know what’s better: that Mike Mussina got chased with only two outs in the first inning by a team who’s best hitter (Luke Scott) is batting .278, or that Mussina would’ve gotten out of the inning fairly unscathed — only one run — but for a Derek Jeter throwing error that set up a bases-loaded walk, a bases-clearing double, a run-scoring single and then a run-scoring triple. Highlights please.
That bases-clearing double, by the way, came from former Mariners prospect Adam Jones, who’s having a pretty good season with the O’s. Meanwhile, several publciations have run articles on Jason Veritek, the Red Sox catcher, who just caught his record-breaking fourth no-hitter on Monday, and who, once upon a time, had been a Mariners prospect as well. In other words, it may be a good day to hate the Yankees, but it's still not a good day to be a Mariners fan.
Quick Quiz: Baseball
Name the five active pitchers with the most career wins.
I was checking out the numbers recently at baseball-reference.com. Greg Maddux just got his 350th career victory, so there’s been a lot of talk lately about his place in history, and, indeed, if you look at the guys ahead of him, it’s rarefied company:
- Cy Young: 511
- Walter Johnson: 417
- Christy Mathewson: 373
- Grover Cleveland Alexander: 373
- Pud Gavin: 364
- Warren Spahn: 363
- Kid Nichols: 361
- Roger Clemens:
- Greg Maddux: 350
Once Maddux passes Clemens, the only pitchers ahead of him, chronologically, are two from the 19th century (Nichols and Galvin), a pitcher who straddled the centuries (Young), the three greatest pitchers from the early days of modern baseball (Johnson, Mathewson and Alexander), and one, from the middle of the century, who kept pitching and pitching and pitching (Spahn), and who, lest we forget, still retired over 40 years ago.
So I wondered “After Maddux, who?” and scrolled down.
I found the usual suspects: Tom Glavine at 304, Randy Johnson at 288, Mike Mussina at 256. Mussina, at 39, is having a good year. Could he make it to 300?
The next guy on the list is the name that blew me away: Jamie Moyer at 233.
Moyer pitched for the Seattle Mariners most of his career, and, back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, I wrote the player profiles for The Grand Salami, an alternative fan publication in Seattle. Here’s something I wrote about Jamie in June 2001:
When Jamie Moyer wins his 10th game this season he'll pass Mark Langston for second on the all-time Mariner win list with 75. If there's one thing Jamie Moyer knows how to do, it's win games. Since he arrived in our evergreen state in the middle of the 1996 season he's gone 6-2, 17-5, 15-9, 14-8, and 13-10. Even this season, with his strikeout-walk ratio a not-so-hot 23-14, and his ERA an unhealthy 5.28, and the ball flying out of the yard at an alarming rate (11 dingers in 44+ innings pitched), he's still standing tall at 6-1. Which is fine, but we fear some of the other numbers might catch up to him. Has he healed completely from his shoulder injury last April? Is it age? He still worries us. As for becoming the winningest pitcher in Mariner history, well, that'll take some work yet: Randy Johnson holds the mark with 130.
Sure, I may have written that Moyer knows how to win games, but, you can tell, I didn’t think he had a chance at RJ’s mark. Yet, in 2005, when I was living in Minneapolis, he passed it. Halfway through the 2006 season he was traded to the Phillies. He’s still there. He's still winning games with his smarts and that tantalizing change-up.
But fifth on the active list? Here's what's so incredible. By the time Jamie turned 30, which is generally midpoint in a pitcher's career, he’d notched only 34 career wins and was being groomed for a coaching job. Only he thought he still had something left.
Apparently he did: 200 more wins.
On the NY Times Op-Ed page this morning, Samuel Arbesman, a grad student at Cornell, and Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell, test, through 10,000 computer simulations of the entire history of Major League Baseball, the likelihood of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Other scientists, notably Stephen Jay Gould, as well as sports fans everywhere, have declared the streak so improbable as to be nearly impossible. Certainly no one’s come close to it. The next-longest streak is 44 games, shared by Wee Willie Keeler in 1897 and Pete Rose in 1978.
So was it impossible? Not according to the mathematicians. “More than half the time, or in 5,296 baseball universes, the record for the longest hitting streak exceeded 53 games. Two-thirds of the time, the best streak was between 50 and 64 games.”
The real unlikelihood, they add, is that Joe D’s streak occurred in 1941. That’s one of the least likely years. The most likely? 1894. In more than a tenth (or 1,290) of their baseball universes, the longest streak landed there.
DiMaggio is also an unlikely record-holder. Percentage-wise, both Hugh Duffy and Wee Willie Keeler were better shots.
It’s a fun article to read at the start of baseball season, but I would’ve liked a little something, maybe a paragraph, on the human aspect of the streak. Arbesman and Strogatz are merely asserting that it’s mathematically possible for DiMaggio to do what he did. But, for me, part of the reason no one’s come close, certainly since, is that the closer one comes, the greater the pressure.
People begin to notice after 20 games. People begin to comment on it. Everyone becomes aware of it. Then the player becomes aware of it. A certain kind of awareness is harmful in any endeavor, particularly in sports where you have to live in the moment, and I think this would be one of those times. An awareness of what you’re doing would get in the way of you actually doing it. You’d be too much outside yourself, as you are in a slump, rather than inside yourself, where you need to be to succeed. The very success of the streak, in other words, would breed the mentality that would inevitably cut it short.
I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it would require the mental discipline of a computer. Or a computer simulation.