Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Coming Attractions

Rogers Hornsby is credited with saying “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”


Beginning on March 1, 2009 baseballbreaksyourheart.com will feature season previews for all 30 major league teams. 1 per day will appear throughout the month of March as we all count down to the start of games which count.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Thomas Paine and Jayson Stark

If the revolutionary era in America was a time which "tried men's souls," then early 2009 is a time which at least tugs at the soul of anyone with a love for the national pastime of the country founded, in part, by men like Thomas Paine.

Simply put, It's hard out here for a baseball fan.

Wanna know how the back half of your favorite team's starting rotation is likely to hold up this season? Don't read any national columnists. Wanna hear about the Phillies' chances for a repeat? or about the re-loaded Yankees? Stay away from big-time news sources.

The sensationalism and hyperbole in alot of recent online and tv reporting is enough to make even the yellow journalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries turn green with envy. Jayson Stark's most recent addition to the conflagration is exactly the kind of over-hyped incendiary writing that started the Spanish-American War. The United States picked up Guam in that splendid little war. I'm not sure what Mr. Stark hopes to accomplish by unleashing a storm of sorrow and woe upon his readers.

The A-Rod P.E.D. admission coupled with the ongoing Clemens, Tejada, and Bonds sagas is certainly disheartening. The A-Rod scandal, if we can call it a scandal, should give any baseball fan pause, but, contrary to claims put forth my Mr. Stark, the sky is not falling.

The Meaning of Numbers

According to Stark,

"Once, the numbers of baseball used to mean something special and magical. And the men who compiled those numbers were transcendent figures in American life. But not now. Not anymore"

Following the death in 1920 of Ray Chapman resulting from an errant Carl Mays fastball, the powers that ruled baseball decreed significant changes to the rules of the game. Doctored baseballs, a staple of pitching to that point were banned. Umpires were instructed to remove from play any ball which became darkened, scuffed, or misshapen. The result was a cataclysmic shift in the game's balance of power. Hitters gained the upper hand. An era of high batting averages, soaring home runs, and inflated run totals was ushered in. In the new "live ball era," Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby shattered slugging records. In the brave new world of high octane offense, Ruth slugged 714 home runs and became the game's greatest historical icon. The era of dominant pitchers prior to 1920 was relegated to distant memory.

Do we place an asterisk next to Cy Young's 511 wins because he pitched using a tattered and scuffed baseball? Do we question the legitimacy of Ruth's 714 home runs because he benefitted from rule changes which transferred power from the pitcher's mound to the batter's box?

Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak, Williams' .406 batting average, Cy Young's 511 wins, and every other statistic accumulated prior to 1947 were achieved in a tragically segregated game. Because of collusion among the baseball magnates, african american players were systematically excluded from Major League Baseball. Dimaggio never had to face a black pitcher. Never had to loop a single into center field which could have dropped in front of the likes of Cool Papa Bell. Ruth never had to face the Satchel Paiges of the world. Williams only faced the white-skinned competition of the American League in 1941.

Do we dismiss Dimaggio's achievement as an irrelevant relic of a bygone exclusionary era? Do we put an asterisk for segragation next to Williams' 1941 batting average? Next to Ruth's home run total?

Following the 1920 edict on clean baseballs, deliberately doctoring the ball became an offense punishable by ejection and suspension. That did not, however, completely rid the game of ball-defiling moundsmen. Gaylord Perry was a notorious spitballer. You can find his plaque on the wall in Cooperstown. He even wrote an autobiography titled The Spiiter and Me. Perry was cheating. He was breaking rules to win games and gain a competitive advantage. Its proven. And yet he has received no historical sanction. In fact, baseball people often laugh about it.
Do we differentiate between Perry’s cheating and Alex Rodriguez’s cheating?

After the offensive explosion of 1961, the comissioner's office ordered the strike zone and the height of the pitcher's mound raised. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, in turn, dominanted baseball until baseball realized its error and lowered the mound.

Do we mock Koufax as a fluke from a pitching-happy era? Do we dismiss Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968?

I'd like to think that we will treat the numbers accumulated during the "Steroids Era" with the same mixture of admiration and reservation with which we view all other "deviant" eras in baseball's past. If we really look at pretty much every baseball statistic in the game's long history, we can find a reason to question the validity of the number. 50 years from now, the 1990s and early part of this decade will be thought of as "oh, that was the era of big hitting and juiced players." Its no different from any of the myriad of historical "shocks" to the system of baseball records.

This Scandal Relative to Other Times of Trial

According to Stark,
"Can anyone recall any other sport that has ever committed such an insane act of self-destruction?
What compares to it? The Black Sox? This is worse. Game-fixing in college basketball? This is worse. Nominate any scandal in the history of sports. My vote is that this is worse."

Comparing the P.E.D. crisis to the 1919 World Series and game-fixing in other sports is absurd. When I sit down and watch a sporting event, I do so with the expectation that the players competing in the event are trying their best to win the game. I assume that everyone involved is putting forth a real, unscripted effort. This is what makes real sports different from "show" events such as WWF. Everyone involved is trying to achieve to their fullest. If we allow ourselves to root for one participant or another, we can know that they are trying to win with a will which exceeds or matches our desire for their success.

The steroid era did not rob baseball of this competitive legitimacy. Everyone was still trying. The games were not scripted or thrown. Players still wanted to win/succeed as badly as they ever did. We as fans could count on players matching our desire for their success.

After 1919 there was cause to worry that gamblers, and not the players, were determining the outcome of games. College Basketball was so worried about that reality of gambling influence that in the wake of scandals they cancelled the 3rd place game in the Final Four.

Steroids have given us no such reason to doubt the integirty of players' efforts.

A-Rod's Place in History

According to Stark,
"But those homers are now tarnished. And that's the crime here. That's the tragedy. That's what we've lost.
We've lost the opportunity for Alex Rodriguez to restore that: the meaning. The relevance. The power. The romance.He held that opportunity in his hands. And now it's gone.
He was the one man on the planet with the chance to resuscitate the greatest record in sports. He was the one man on the planet with the chance to rebuild his sport's sacred bridge to the glory days.
He was a special player, with a special gift -- and an even more special opportunity: He was the man with the opportunity to reconnect baseball's once-indelible dotted line between past and present, between great-grandsons and great-grandfathers, between his home plate and your hometown.
And now he's squandered that gift, squandered that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So weep not for what A-Rod has done to himself.
Weep for what he's done to his sport."

Hogwash. It is a shame to think that this player who i have seen play in person many times may not be worthy to ascend the Mt. Olympus of baseball. But, contrary to Mr. Stark's reasoning, Alex Rodriguez is not our last hope to rise to baseball's pantheon of heroes. The game will live on long after Alex Rodriguez has hung up his spikes. The game does not have a finite supply of potential heroes, nor a clear time limit to its existance.

There is no law which decrees that the young phenom on our favorite team may not become the greatest hitter or pitcher or defender of all time. There is always the possibility that a new superstar is just about to emerge. Buck O'Neil said it well, baseball may hit a rough patch, but "you can't kill it." There is always a new hero uniquely prepared to lift the game to new heights.
You can't kill it.

Might Evan Longoria become the greatest player of all time? Could David Price become the next Warren Spahn? What about Tim Lincecum? Is Dustin Pedroia going to be one of the alltime hit kings?

For each of our own petty partisan reasons we may not want them to. We may pray every night that they don't. But they might. And therein lies the optimism which is tragically lacking from Mr. Stark's piece. Every time we sit down and watch a game the possibility still exists that we will see something or someone who is going to be quite memorable. Baseball has not lost that magic.

To paraphrase Bill Veeck, Baseball must be a great game because the owners, scandal, and player stupidity have not been able to kill it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pitchers and Catchers Report This Week

Thats the good news. We can all forget about the many ways in which football season let us down, how basketball season is underwhelming us, and about the cold temperatures plaguing most folks not living in Hawaii. Pitchers and catchers in camp means the crisp Thwack of a horsehide ball pounding into a leather mitt. It will mean details of the first aches and pains of the season and first chances to worry about the health of our team. It means that our office pools concerning when AJ Burnett's season will end with an arm injury can officially begin! (I'll take May 3rd)

Donald Hall put it particularly well, "My heart starts to sing like a bird. I feel my wings stretch out and warm air coming. Spring is the hope of the earth. And baseball is that same hope."

Then theres the other news.

Miguel Tejada is being charged with lying to Congress and the expectation is that he will plead guilty.

The perjury trial of Barry Bonds, the all-time home run king, will soon begin.

Alex Rodriguez, the best hitter in baseball and the man we are counting on to wipe Bonds' name off of the top of the record books, told Peter Gammons yesterday that he did in fact use performance enhancing drugs from 2001 until 2003.

There was a great commercial for Upper Deck trading cards when I was a young kid. With this song playing the in the background a narrator speaks nostalgically of Montana finding Clark in the end zone, Gretzky breaking records, Ripken playing forever, and Griffey climbing a wall in centerfield. The commercial ends with something to the effect of "And you thought that maybe, for one moment, you could be that perfect too. Thats why you cheer for him. Thats why you believe in heroes."

Theres no mention anywhere in that commercial the time our heroes had a trainer/teammate stick a large needle filled with a banned substance into their backsides. Or the time they stealthily ordered human growth hormone through the mail.

I like many fans am very disappointed. I stood in line for an hour or two to have Rafael Palmeiro scribble his name in black sharpie on his glossy Donruss baseball card. It went in a protective display case right next to a Mike Mussina autograph on my shelf of prized possesions. I remember feeling an electric rush through my body when i watched Mark McGwire club his 62nd home run of the season in 1998. I remember all action at a large family gathering screeching to a halt because someone uttered the magic words, "McGwire is up!" I watched Barry Bonds swat homer after homer in the summer of 2001. After September 11th of that year, I remember thinking that it was nothing short of wonderful that he was making history at a time when America could use a pick-me-up. I watched Miguel Tejada while playing for a hapless 4th place team get plunked on the hand, shattering several bones, and then make a quick appearance the next day as a farewell to what had become an impressive consecutive games streak. I drove an hour each way on consecutive nights to sit behind the Orioles dugout to watch A-Rod swing for his 500th home run.

I thought McGwire was a one-dimensional player. Bonds a schmuck. Tejada a polarizing figure. And Rodriguez a prima donna. But I couldn't ever deny loving to watch them play.

The talking heads who proliferate America's all-digital television airwaves will have a field day with the A-Rod admission. "The era is tainted," they will proclaim. "Strip all the names from the record books," will cry another. "Hang Barry Bonds from a yardarm," screams one more.

Each player who took so-called performance enhancing drugs is 100% to blame for their actions. It was a choice, freely made, to do something that they knew was less than totally ethical. Bonds is responsible for what Bonds did. Ditto for Tejada and the rest of them.

The blame for the giant scarlet letters which now mar the recent history of our beloved game does not, however, fall on those players. What they did to themselves is tragic. But what the magnates of baseball, I'm looking at you Mr. Allen Selig, did is nothing short of criminal. Fearful that butts would no longer fill the seats of big league ballparks after the devastation of the 1994 players' strike the owners, executives, and administrators of Major League Baseball willfully turned a blind eye towards the nutritional habits of the game's superstars. As homerun balls skyed out of ballparks in unprecidented numbers, fans poured into stadiums as never before. Television revenues skyrocketed. New larger-than-life heroes emerged and pursued long-cherished records. We watched with baited breath and ready wallets.

The powers-that-be in baseball knew something was amiss. They had positive tests for illegal substances to prove it. Baseball maintained a woefully out-of-date list of banned substances which was far less inclusive than the list put out by the much more progressive National Football League. Human Growth Hormone somehow managed to remain legal in baseball, ditto for Andro, well after other pro sports had blacklisted it.

So, like mewling children hoping not to get caught misbehaving, the magnates of baseball tried very hard to wish their collective sins away. Hoping against hope that none of the doping would come to light and that everyone would live happily ever after.

But, quite the opposite has happened. Surely, I feel let down by alot of major leaguers. Its a shame that the game's finest players were not playing by the rules that we would have hoped they would obey. But its not A-Rod, Bonds, Palmeiro, and Tejada with whom I am mad. Its not their faces I want to see on TV right now, its not them that I want to see squirm during all-access interviews. I want to see every person who made a dime off of major league baseball in the last 20 years (General Managers, Owners, part-owners, team executives, and anyone else who had access to info that something was amiss) hauled in front of cameras, congress, and the American public to give a same sort of mea culpa that has had to come out of the mouths of our heroes.

The players did not do justice to themselves. The owners, execs, and the commissioner's office have not done justice to the greatest game ever invented.

Thats the real crime.