Baseball postsSunday October 04, 2009
Straight Line to the Hall of Fame
It's the last day of the regular season, and possibly the last day we'll see Ken Griffey, Jr. playing Major League baseball, but just check out this photo, taken, I believe, Tuesday night, when Junior, who's 39, and an old 39, hit his 17th homerun of the season and 628th of his career:
It would be hard to draw a straighter line than the one you get following the angle of his head to his arms to his bat. It's beautiful.
Junior's put up amazing stats in his career—particularly if, as seems likely, he's one of the few guys who didn't take steroids all this time. Steroids help you heal faster and Junior's been nothing but injured this decade. Even so, he has 630 career homeruns, fifth all-time, after Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds*, so really fourth all-time. He's 16th in RBIs (14th). He's got 10 Gold Gloves—all with Seattle. But it's more than the numbers. Junior is just beautiful to watch. As an old man I'm gonna be the guy going, “Yeah yeah yeah. But you should've seen him play.”
EXTRA: Via MLB's site, here's the 630th, and possibly last, homerun of his career.
Peter Gammons Isn't Serious
Peter Gammons isn't serious. Ten baseball playoff teams? Because the pennant races aren't exciting this year he suggests adding two more teams and beginning the season earlier and lengthening the post-season further. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) isn't this stupid. At least they waited five years through a disconnect between popular pictures and nominated pictures before deciding to ruin 60 years of tradition by expanding the nominated pictures to 10—with the hope of somehow capturing a popular picture along the way. Gammons and others are suffering through one September without a legit pennant race (c'mon Twins!) and they want to mess with the whole works.
Or do they? Gammons writes:
I agree with Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who says, "Most general managers don't want it watered down like the NHL or NBA. Not many are wild about the idea."
Oh. So what's the column about then? The answer comes a short paragraph later:
But why not think about having two wild-card teams per league? For instance, in what might be an aberrational season, the Giants, Marlins, Braves and Cubs would be within 2½ games of that NL spot right now.
"I agree with those who aren't wild about the idea...but why not think about the idea?" Nice.
The AMPAS analogy is apt. The Academy is fixing something that isn't broken (the five slots) because of something that is (disconnect between nominated and popular pictures). Gammons wants to exacerbate an exisiting problem (too many playoff teams for a 162-game season), because of, and while ignoring, its biggest problem: the disparity between the "have" teams (the Yankees), the "have some" teams (BoSox, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs) and all of those "have not" teams (most everyone else, especially the Pirates, A's, Twins, Marlins).
You want to fix baseball, you need to fix this.
You can't fix this? Here's a suggestion to make September easier to remember: Move the trade deadline up to Opening Day. The disparity between teams deepens as the season progresses because contending teams trade for while non-contending teams trade away. The good (and rich) get better; the bad (and poor) get worse. And there go the pennant races.
But would the downside for this be too much of a downside? Sometimes I like that late-July interplay between short-term gain (for the haves) and long-term gain (for the have-nots). Except, of course, the haves keep on having while the Pirates and Royals keep on notting. I'd give it a shot.
In the meantime, to honor Major League Baseball, would you please rise for the playing of our Leonard Cohen anthem:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor while the rich get rich
Thats how it goes
As of last night, here's where the Seattle Mariners rank in the following batting categories among the 14 teams of the American League:
- Hits: 11th
- Doubles: 11th
- Triples: 12th-T
- Homeruns: 11th
- Total Bases: 13th
- Runs: Last
- RBIs: Last
- Batting Average: Last
- OBP: Last
- Slugging: 13th
- OPS: Last
It's been a fun summer. But we are first in the league in Sacrifice Hits with 53. Nothing like sacrificing.
Jeter's First HIt
I always thought I was at the game at the Kingdome (R.I.P.) when Derek Jeter made his major league debut. I thought I remembered some announcement or talk: The Yankees have this kid they just brought up... But then I read Jack Curry's piece on Jeter's debut—published on the day Jeter tied Lou Gehrig for most career hits by a Yankee—and this morning I checked the shoebox full of old ticket stubs I have from the '90s that I've never been able to throw away, and discovered I wasn't there for Jeter's first game.
I was there for Jeter's first hit. Tuesday, May 30, 1995. Aisle 313, row 1, seat 8. 7:05 PM. $8.00.
I used to write highlights on the back of the ticket stubs—that's part of why I kept them, I guess—and Jeter obviously wasn't on my mind in that May 30th game. The previous ticket stub, from May 27, simply says: “Balt 11, Seattle 4: First Griffey-less game.” The stub before that, May 26, reads: “Seattle 8, Balt 3; RJ 13 Ks; KGJr solo HR; Junior injures wrist, out for 3 months.” Yeah it was that game. That's what Mariners fans were thinking about when Jeter first showed up.
The May 30th ticket stub simply says: “Seattle 7, NY 3: 5-run 8th inning—all runs with two outs.” The beginning of “Refuse to Lose.”
There might have been talk about it when Jeter singled to lead off the top of the fifth—particularly when they retrieved the ball. “Hey, it's that kid's first hit.” Maybe that's why I remembered it. Or misremembered it.
Or maybe I remembered reading about it in The Seattle Times the next day (warning: clunky writing ahead):
The Mariners had jumped to a 2-0 first-inning lead off Yankee starter Melido Perez. But the Yankees led off five innings of starter Tim Belcher's seven innings with a hit.
They scored single runs in the fifth and seventh. Both rallies were started by rookie Derek Jeter.
Jeter opened the fifth with his first major-league hit, a single to left. He scored on Jim Leyritz's two-out double into the left-center gap. The Mariners nearly escaped without damage but second baseman Joey Cora mishandled a potential double-play ball.
Jeter started the seventh with a single to center. That would be Belcher's 92nd and final pitch.
The other night, the night Jeter tied Gehrig's mark with hit no. 2,721, there was a discussion among the talking heads on the MLB network about Jeter's placement among the all-time Yankees greats. In the background they showed the five players with the most hits in Yankees uniforms—Jeter, Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle and Bernie Williams—and Matt Vasgersian asked the others, Al Leiter and Dave Valle, if Jeter was as great, or greater, than these other guys. I expected laughter. But Al Leiter took the question seriously and said that, yes, Jeter was as great as these other guys. Dave Valle, bless him, looked at Leiter as if he were insane. Because outside of FOX-News, I can't imagine a more absurd conversation on television. Ruth is generally regarded as the greatest player in baseball history—and I wouldn't argue it—while Gehrig is usually ranked in the top 5 or 10. One of the best measures of a player's overall hitting performance is OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), and Ruth and Gehrig are first and third on this list, respectively, with only Ted Williams coming between them. Jeter? He's 181st and dropping. (2014 update: now 263rd.) That's damn good for a shortstop, but still...
Look, Jeter's fine. He's good. He seems clean in a dirty era. But he led the league in runs once, and hits once, and that's it. He's overrated as a defensive shortstop. Bill James talks about .300/.400/.500 guys and Jeter's not that. He's a .300/.300/.400 guy. Both Gehrig and Ruth are .300/.400/.600 guys. It's not even a discussion.
If you're insulted by this, if you're a huge Derek Jeter fan who thinks I'm dissing the man by saying he's not as good as the best players in baseball history, let me say one thing: I have a ticket stub from the game when Jeter got his first hit. Bidding starts at $10,000.
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.