Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
That remains to be seen. But here are five things I think will happen with Boston's pitching staff this year.
1. Jon Lester emerges as the staff ace. Some people would argue this happened last year. But what made 2009 a great year for Lester is that he avoided "The Verducci Effect." SI's premier baseball writer, as most of you know, compiled a ton of data that showed the following (from BaseballProspectus.com):
...pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform. Will Carroll independently found that pitchers who break the "Rule of 30" tend to get injured. Carroll renamed this 'rule' the Verducci Effect in honor of the man who initially found the evidence.
Lester threw 63 innings in 2007 and 210.1 innings in 2008. According to the Verducci Effect, Lester should have fallen off noticeably in 2009.
Here are Lester's 2008 numbers: 16-6 | 210.1 IP | 3.21 ERA | 152 K | 66 BB | 202 H | 1.27 WHIP
Here are Lester's 2009 numbers: 15-8 | 203.1 IP | 3.41 ERA | 225 K | 64 BB | 186 H | 1.23 WHIP
In short, Lester essentially maintained his level of production and improved in one critical area: strikeouts. He threw seven less innings and registered 73 more strikeouts, which speaks to improved control and strength even in the later innings of his outings. You could argue Lester is the best left-handed starter in the majors under the age of 28, and one of the top 5 overall. This is the year he establishes himself as Boston's premier starter.
2. Clay Buchholz breaks double-digit wins. This isn't exactly a risky prediction. After spending the second half of 2008 and the first half of 2009 in the minors, Clay apparently figured out how to pitch again. He went 7-4 in 16 starts with a 4.21 ERA (ERA+ 111) and pitched well in his post-season appearance. There is a big question about whether he will ever be a front-of-the-rotation pitcher or if a #4 is where he settles. But considering Buchholz feasted on the AL East (sans New York) and AL Central, there is no reason he can't get at least 10 wins in 2010.
3. Matsuzaka returns to his 2008 form. Honor and "face" are a big deal in Japanese culture. And in every respect, Daisuke Matsuzaka embarrassed himself in the first half of 2009. Quarrelsome, out-of-shape and pitching like Carlos Silva after a four-day bender, Matsuzaka looked like he wanted out of Boston. And management looked ready to help him along.
Then cooler heads prevailed, Daisuke realized he was acting like a class-A jerk and started to straighten himself out. The result was a solid September where he went 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA. His only loss was a 3-0 defeat in the Bronx, and he pitched well in it (7 IP, 1 ER, 6 H)
So yes, Daisuke will always be a pitcher who walks a ton of batters and puts runners on base. He's also a pitcher who can get out of those jams. Deride that 2008 season all you want. The bottom line is that you don't run up an 18-3 record with a 2.90 ERA on blind luck. And while that won't happen in 2010, with Boston's superior defense the idea of Daisuke going 16-9 with a 3.50 ERA is not out of line.
4. Papelbon pitches his last year in Boston. Papelbon is one of the best relievers in the majors. He has gone to four straight All-Star games. Last year he posted a 1.85 ERA and saved 38 games, becoming the first pitcher to ever record 35+ saves in his first four years in the majors*.
Papelbon also posted a career high in WHIP (1.147), walks (24 - three times as many as he had in 2008) and homers (5). His strikeouts declined for the third straight year and he collapsed in the post-season.
It is undeniable that Paps is one of the best closers in the game and the best one the Sox have ever had. It is also undeniable that Boston's brass considers signing Papelbon to a long-term deal slightly less palatable than catching the Ebola virus. He becomes a free agent after the 2011 season. And Boston has his successor in young fireballer Daniel Bard. So when is Papelbon's value the highest? After the 2010 season.
Papelbon will not sign a long-term deal. So holding him into the 2011 season results in diminishing returns for the Sox. But trading him between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, giving their potential partner a full year of his services, maximizes Papelbon's value. And a top-flight closer is worth their weight in gold on the trade block. This also gives the Sox another year to let Bard settle down and prove he can close big games in the majors.
I'm not saying I want this to happen. But Theo isn't one to let a valuable player simple walk without getting anything back. Yes, there would be draft picks if Paps made it to market after 2011. But wouldn't you rather have some proven prospects/players instead of unknown picks, if you could get them? So would Theo.
5. Boston has three starters with 15+ wins. If this happened, it would be the first time for Boston since 2007. That year Beckett went 20-7, Wakes was 17-12, Daisuke posted a 15-12 record and the Sox won the World Series. The time before that was 1998. That year Pedro went 19-7, Saberhagen found his youth with a 15-8 record and Wakefield rolled to a 17-8 season.** So it isn't easy. But in Lester, Beckett and Lackey the Sox have three #1 pitchers who can definitely put up 15+ wins. If Daisuke returns to form, the Sox could possibly have four pitchers with 15+ wins. The last time that happened in Boston? 1916:
Babe Ruth: 23-12
Dutch Leonard: 18-12
Carl Mays: 18-13
Ernie Shore: 16-10
This is also the answer to the question "Can you name four guys Harry Frazee handed to the Yankees for next-to-nothing?"*** And in case you were curious, in 1915 the Sox had all five starters post 15+ wins. But post-1920s, the closest the Sox have come to four starters with 15+ wins was 1975. Rick Wise, Bill Lee and Luis Tiant all had 17+ wins while Roger Moret went 14-3.
* Aviv, please don't start this argument up again. Let's just acknowledge this is the case and move on. I didn't even mention The Goose. Until now.
** How awesome is it that Wakefield was on both staffs? This is why he is one of my all-time favorites: longevity combined with solid contributions.
*** Little-known fact: Frazee was un-officially limited to dealing Ruth to either the Yankees or the White Sox (he was butting heads with the Commissioner at the time). The White Sox offered Boston 60K and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Of course, Frazee took the hundred grand from the Yankees. And while Jackson would have still been banned after the 1920 season, the Sox would have gotten one hellacious season out of him (12 HR, 121 RBI, .382 BA, 1.033 OPS). Instead, Boston's third outfielder (after Harry Hooper and Ruth) was the immortal Braggo Roth. How many wins would Jackson have been worth? Would he have been suspended for life if he was on a different team in 1920? Who knows, but I'd take that one assured season of greatness over an extra 40K if I was the owner.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
To figure the overall top three, it's simply a matter of assigning three point for a third-place score, two for second and one for third. Really easy stuff. So here we go:
2005: 3. Jason Varitek 2. Manny Ramirez 1. David Ortiz
2006: 3. Jonathan Papelbon 2. Manny Ramirez 1. David Ortiz
2007: 3. Mike Lowell 2. Jonathan Papelbon 1. Josh Beckett
2008: 3. Jon Lester 2. Kevin Youkilis 1. Dustin Pedroia
2009: 3. Jacoby Ellsbury 2. Jon Lester 1. Jason Bay
There may be some controversy here. No Manny or Ortiz after 2006 could be debated. But I think that these choices are definitely defensible.
Going with these choices, that would make the following players the three best players for the Sox between 2000-2009:
3. David Ortiz: In his seven years in Boston, Big Papi has hit 259 home runs and is hitting .288 with a .967 OPS (OPS+ 145). He has 830 RBI and 1065 hits. He currently ranks sixth in homers, fourth in OPS and seventh in RBI all-time in Boston history. He is widely considered one of the most clutch hitters in Red Sox history and was a key to Boston winning their first title since 1918. Despite his off-season in 2009, over the last seven years in Boston Ortiz has become one of the most feared designated hitters in the AL.
2. Pedro Martinez: In the first half of the decade, Pedro led the AL in win percentage twice, ERA three times, WHIP three times (including the lowest mark of the modern era with .737 in 2000), and strikeouts twice. He was The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year in 2000, won the Cy Young in 2000 and finished in the Top Four 2002-04. He is one of the best pitchers in Boston's history and was the most feared pitcher in the AL during his time with the Sox. If you were fortunate enough to see him pitch in person, you saw greatness.
1. Manny Ramirez: You could easily make the argument that Manny Ramirez is the best right-handed hitter in Boston's history*. A combination of power and average, Manny was a constant threat every single time he stepped to the plate. And he did it all with such ease that he almost looked lazy as he did it.
In eight years in Boston, Manny hit .312 with a .999 OPS (OPS+ 155). He had 274 homers, 868 RBI and 1232 hits. He went to seven straight All-Star games and was the World Series MVP in 2004. Between 2001 and 2006, Manny never had less that 33 homers, 100 RBI and 140 hits. He was the one constant in a lineup that saw massive change over his eight years in Boston; Manny was the only player still in the starting lineup in 2008 that was there in 2001. But will he be remembered for all this, or for the "Manny being Manny" stories? The PED suspension that came after his tenure in Boston? That's the question.
* The only other real choice here is Jimmy Foxx. That's not a dig on Dewey, Doerr or Rice. It's just the reality; from the right side of the plate it's Manny, Jimmy and everyone else.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Best Players For Boston: 2003
3. Trot Nixon: I said it before and I'll say it again; Trot doesn't get enough credit for what he brought to the table when healthy. In 2003 Trot had the single best season of his career. He hit .306 with a .975 OPS (OPS+ 149: best among right fielders in the AL) and tallied 28 homers to go with 87 RBI. He also led all AL right fielders with an ISO of .272** and was routinely among the top five in most other offensive categories. His glove was a little off; his fielding percentage was slightly lower than the league average. But Trot was a huge part of Boston's success in 2003. The highlight was his 11th-inning pinch-hit homer to win Game Three of the ALDS against the A's, staving off elimination and setting the stage for a three-win comeback.
2. Pedro Martinez : This wasn't Pedro's best year. He didn't go to the All-Star game or win 20 games. All he did was go 14-4 in 29 starts with a 2.22 ERA. He led the AL in win percentage, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, H/9 and K/9. Yup, this was an off year for Pedro. He was one of four starters for the Sox to win 11+ games in 2003 (Lowe led the team with 17 wins). Pedro, however, led the team in tossing insane bald men who have no business being in a brawl during the post-season.***
1. Manny Ramirez: After an injury-riddled 2002 (where he still hit like a monster), Manny kept up the pace in 2003. He hit .325 (2nd best in the AL behind teammate Bill Mueller) with 37 homers and 104 RBI. He had a 1.014 OPS (OPS+ 160) and led the AL with a .427 OBP. He racked up 185 hits (a career high) and 117 runs scored (also a career high). His glove that year wasn't atrocious, just a little beneath the league average for left field. But he more than made up for that with his bat. And this was the first year we saw the Ramirez/Ortiz tandem in action. They combined for 68 homers and 205 RBI that year. It would have been more but Papi was platooning at DH at the beginning of the season until management realized this was incredibly stupid.
This was also the year that "Manny being Manny" kicked into gear. Remember how he was "sick" but spotted in a bar with Enrique Wilson? The result was Theo putting Ramirez on irrevocable waivers after the ALCS. And no one took the deal. In retrospect, not a smart move on the part of the 29 other teams as far as keeping the Sox from winning titles. But the drama factor ratcheted up 1000% over the next few years in Boston.
*This is the greatest prediction I ever made in my life and I still brag about it whenever the opportunity comes up. Of course, nailing something this huge rarely happens for me. I'm also the guy who said earlier that year that no one would want to watch a movie made on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. So there you go.
** Isolated Power, abbreviated as ISO, is a measure of a hitter's raw power, in terms of extra bases per AB. Trot had some pop.
*** That is still the craziest post-season game I have ever seen. Not only did you have the brawl and Zimmer getting planted like a deranged garden gnome, but you had Jeff Nelson and Karim Garcia attacking a Sox groundskeeper for having the audacity to cheer for the Red Sox. And please don't say they didn't do it. One year later Garcia and Shane Spencer (then both with the Mets) were in an altercation with a pizzy delivery guy. As Pedro famously said, "Who are you, Karim Garcia?" The answer is "a guy with major control issues".
Monday, December 28, 2009
Best Players For Boston: 2002
3. Derek Lowe: This was the year Lowe transitioned back into a starting role. To say it was a success would be an understatement. Lowe went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA over 32 starts. He pitched 219.2 innings and had a WHIP of 0.974. His ERA+ was 177, good for second in the AL behind Pedro. Lowe made his second All-Star game that year and finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Pedro and the 2002 winner...Barry Zito.*
2. Manny Ramirez: Manny's name will appear often on these lists for the simple reason that he is one of the greatest hitters in the history of the sport. He makes batting look like anyone could do it and that is how you know he is one of the greats. In 2002 Manny put up decent numbers for Manny...the kind of numbers any other hitter would kill for. Manny hit .349 with 33 homers and 107 RBI and lead the AL in batting average. He had an OPS of 1.097 and an OPS+ of 184. And he did all this despite playing in just 120 games that year; Manny injured his hammy and missed most of May and all of June. He still made his 6th All-Star game that year and finished ninth in the MVP voting.
In a lot of ways, I think of this as Manny's most impressive year. He put up a full season's worth of hitting in 3/4 of a season. He was a pain in the ass and I do think he had to move on, but that shouldn't stop us from recognizing his massive talent or what he did for the team.
1. Pedro Martinez: I cannot emphasize enough what a unique experience it was to watch Pedro Martinez in his prime. Rarely do you ever get to see someone so dominant in his profession play for your team. Pedro had another amazing year in 2002 after an injury-plagued 2001. He went 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA. He struck out 239 batters and walked just 40 for a K/BB ratio of 5.98. His K/9 ratio was 10.8 and he had a WHIP of 0.923. His ERA+ was 202, the third time in four years that his ERA+ was over 200. And all those stats I just mentioned – except for wins – led all pitchers in the AL. He went to his sixth All-Star game in seven years and finished second in the Cy voting behind Barry Zito.** It was also the last time Pedro would win 20 games in a season.
*That's not a misprint, folks. Has a pitcher from the AL ever gone to the NL and gotten worse?
** For the record, Pedro got screwed. Everyone looked at Zito's 23 wins and 200+ innings and ignored the fact that Pedro led the AL in WHIP, ERA, winning percentage and strikeouts. He was the first pitcher to lead a league in all four categories and not win the Cy Young. And Zito was racking up those wins against weak sisters like Texas, Tampa, KC and Seattle. Meanwhile, Pedro beat the Yankees twice, Cleveland twice and Anaheim twice.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Best Players For Boston: 2001
3. Brian Daubach: Referred to at the time by my wife as "the ugliest man in baseball"*, Daubach had a solid year for the Sox at first base. He hit .263 but had an OPS of .859, which translated into a OPS+ of 122, a better number than Tino Martinez put up in New York that year. He hit 22 homers and racked up 71 RBI, both third-best on the team. And he had a good glove at first, along with that "Dirt Dog" mentality that made him a crowd favorite during his time in Boston.
2. Trot Nixon: Speaking of "Dirt Dogs"...Nixon could still walk into any bar in Boston and not pay for a single drink. He gave 100% on the field all the time, which was why he found it so hard to stay healthy in his last few years in Boston (he never played more than 152 games in any season and averaged 105 games played over his last four years in Boston). But 2001 was one of Trot's two best years in Boston. He played 148 games and hit .280 with and .881 OPS. His OPS+ of 128 was fifth-best among outfielders in the AL that year.** Trot's 27 homers and 88 RBI were both second-best on the team and he set career-highs for himself in hits (150), runs scored (100), walks (79) and total bases (270). Was his glove the best? No...but you'll never get me to say a bad word about Nixon. If everyone played the game with his level of dedication, it would transform the sport.
1. Manny Ramirez: The inaugural year of Manny-mania. After spending the off-season watching Duquette prostate himself on ESPN in a desperate bid to bring Manny to Boston, we all found out his effort was worthwhile. Manny stepped in primarily as a DH in 2001*** and promptly began beating the hell out of the ball. His 41 homers and 125 RBI were the most by any Boston batter since Mo Vaughn put up 44 and 143 in 1996. He hit .306 and posted a 1.014 OPS (OPS+ 161), best among all DHs that year. Manny did play 55 games in left in 2001, and he had a fielding percentage of 1.000...yes, Manny was perfect in left.
What was stunning about Manny for fans in that first year (at least for me) was how he made hitting look easy. When Mo was crushing the ball in the 90s, there was visible effort. When Manny smacked one over the Monster, it looked like he was barely trying. All his other foibles aside (and they are legion), he is one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen.
*I don't know if that's 100% true ... but do you remember when Dauber had that Abe Lincoln beard going? Upped the ugly factor about five times. Shaving that thing was the best thing he ever did.
** That's not a misprint. Better than Ichiro, Beltran, Shannon Stewart and Paul O'Neill. If Nixon had been able to stay healthy, he'd have put up some decent career numbers.
*** Left-field was primarily divided between three players: Manny got his 55 games, Troy O'leary started 45 and Dante Bichette started 37. Remember Bichette? We paid him $7M that year for 12 homers, 49 RBI and some of the worst fielding performances ever in right field. He played 16 games there (started 15) and had a fielding percentage of .909. Thanks, Dan!****
**** Yes, I know Duquette made some great trades, especially the Slocumb for Varitek/Lowe deal that stands as one of the all-time greats. But he also saddled the Sox with a lot of deadwood. Bichette, Kevin Mitchell, Jose Canseco, Jim Leyritz...you get the idea.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Best Players For Boston: 2000
3. Carl Everett: What? Jurassic Carl? The man who decided dinosaurs didn't exist but graciously conceded that we may have landed on the moon? Yup. People remember the controversy (most memorably his dustup with Ron Kulpa on national television**) and the quotes ("curly-headed boyfriend" may be the best thing Everett gave Boston), but in 2000 Everett also had a monster season. He hit .300 for the season and posted a .959 OPS, which translated into an OPS+ of 135. He hit 37 homers and collected 108 RBI, leading the Sox in both categories. He was also a deadly clutch hitter that year, breaking up scoreless games late with a frightening regularity. And his fielding was good enough that the Sox didn't lose anything with him patrolling center. The result was that Carl went to his first All-Star game in 2000.
2. Nomar Garciaparra: This was Nomah! at the height of his powers. He hit a hellacious .372 for the year, the best season in Boston by anyone not carrying the surname of Williams or Speaker. He also posted a 1.033 OPS (OPS+ 155) while racking up 197 hits, 21 homers and 96 RBI. He led the AL in batting average and the Sox in hits, OPS and total bases (317). He was voted into his third All-Star Game in 2000 and finished ninth in the MVP voting. It's almost impossible to remember now that at this point in his career, we all thought he'd be a lifer for the Sox and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. How times change...
1. Pedro Martinez: Speaking of first-ballot Hall of Famers... In 1999, Pedro had one of the greatest single seasons by any pitcher in the history of the game. That year he won the Cy, went to the All-Star game and came within a whisker of the MVP***. In 2000, Pedro actually topped himself. He went 18-6 in 29 starts with a ridiculous 1.74 ERA. And no, that is not a misprint. The only pitchers since the end of WWI that posted a better seasonal ERA have names like Gibson, Maddux, Koufax, Chance, Hubbell and Tiant.**** Most impressive was Pedro's WHIP, which was a minuscule 0.737 and the best season for WHIP by a starting pitcher in the history of the game. Pedro racked up 284 strikeouts and walked just 32 batters for a K/BB ratio of 8.88, the sixth-best season for K/BB in MLB history. His K/9 number of 11.77 was ninth-best in MLB history. Pedro's H/9 ratio of 5.33? Fourth best in MLB history. Pedro's ERA+ for 2000 was 291, the best number of the modern era. Only Tim Keefe had a better number (294), and he set that mark in 1880.
If you were lucky enough to watch Pedro in 1999-2000, you saw one of the best pitchers in the history of the game put together two monster seasons back-to-back. It was like getting to watch Gibson pitch in 1968, Koufax in his jaw-dropping final two years (1965-66) or Bob Feller from 1939-41. Pedro owned the mound, the crowd and the opposition.
* Look, the first year was the year 1, not 0. Therefore the decade begins in 2001 and ends in 2010. But since the cultural zeitgeist demands we simplify everything down, I'll bow to the erroneous standard for the purposes of writing these posts. But the Yankees still aren't the Team of the Decade. We have one more year to go.
** If you remember, the argument was over the line for the interior of the batter's box. Everett said he could have his foot on the line, Kulpa said it had to be inside the line. On a 2-2 count in the second inning, Kulpa called Everett on his stance and then drew a line with his foot. Everett though Kulpa was showing him up (which he was), threw his helmet down and...head-butted Kulpa. Well, supposedly head-butted Kulpa. If you look at the film, Everett's seems to knock Kulpa back 10 feet with his nose, not his forehead. But it looked bad and it was a national game, so Everett got a 10-game suspension and that began his slow decline in Boston.
*** That Pedro didn't win the MVP that year still infuriates me. He was the entire reason the Sox reached the post-season. He got more first-place votes than anyone else. He won the pitching Triple Crown (wins, Ks, ERA). But two knuckleheads (LaVelle Neal of the Minneapolis's Star-Tribune and George King of the New York Post) decided that they could ignore the rules for MVP voting and left Martinez off their ballots completely. And then they gave that lame "he plays every fifth day" bullshit excuse even though that isn't in the rules for voting! Just a travesty all the way around.
**** Let it be noted, however, that the lowest seasonal ERA posted by any pitcher since 1968, and the second-lowest since 1919, belongs to Doc Gooden. He posted a 1.53 ERA during his amazing 1985 season for the Mets. See Mets fans, I can say something nice about your team. Of course, you have to go to the history books to do it...
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Dock Ellis was a pitcher in the 60s and 70s who is best known for his years with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1968-75). He played for four other teams (including the Yankees in 76-77) before finishing with the Pirates in 1979. He appeared in the 1971 All-Star game and won a title with the Pirates that same year.
Dock Ellis was also one of the most "colorful" players in the modern era. He hit Reggie Jackson in the face with a pitch in retaliation for a homer Jackson hit off Ellis in the 1971 All-Star game. In one game in 1974 he attempted to hit every batter in the Cincinnati lineup and was pulled in the first inning after hitting three guys in a row and throwing two pitches at Johnny Bench's head. Ellis was also a heavy user of "recreational" drugs, including LSD, and that is what brings us to this particular story.
In 1970, Dock Ellis threw the first no-hitter of the season in a game against the Padres in San Diego. What came out years later was that Dock Ellis was high on LSD when he pitched. That story came from Dock Ellis himself. He apparently had issues with seeing the ball and the batters. But don't take it from me. Here is James Blagden animating the story told by Dock Ellis himself. Enjoy.
For the record, after baseball Ellis went on to do many admirable things. Among these was becomig an anti-drug counselor in Los Angeles and starting the Black Athletes Foundation for Sickle Cell Research. Ellis passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
The Yankees entered the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks trailing 3-1 at the old Yankee Stadium and down 2-1 in the series, when Ghosts spun their magic and Tino Martinez stroked a two-run homer off Byung-Hyun Kim, who was in his second inning of work.
The game stretched on from Halloween past midnight as the World Series stretch into November for the first time because of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Then, with Kim still on the mound and two outs in the 10th, the score still tied at 3, a legend was created as Derek Jeter added to his amazing postseason resume, launching a Jeterian shot into the stands in right to give the Yankees the dramatic, mind-blowing 4-3 walkoff victory.
The moniker "Mr. November" was quickly affixed to Jeter.
The next night in Game 5, the Ghosts struck again as the Yankees trailed 2-0 entering the ninth before Scott Brosius hit a stunning two-out, two-strike homer of Kim to right to tie it before Alfonso Soriano won it in the 12th with a single for a second-consecutive amazing, mind-blowing walkoff victory.
Of course the Yankees went on to lose that series in 7 on Luis Gonzalez's flair over short off Mariano Rivera
The World Series hasn't been back in November, until this year.
If we were to get as much drama as we did in 2001, that would be great.
What is more important is that the outcome of this Series turns out better, with the Yankees beating the Phillies for World Series championship No. 27.
Friday, September 18, 2009
He knew the story about Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series for the Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur. What he didn't know about was Hank Greenberg.
Most people don't know about Greenberg's story and it's a shame. It's one of the more important stories in baseball history, one filled with courage and heroism.
It's also one that many would say helped set the stage for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947.
No, Greenberg was not the first Jewish ballplayer. There had been dozens of Jewish players long before him. But Greenberg was the sport's first Jewish superstar -- though that may not be an apt-enough description.
Within baseball, there are Hall of Famers and then there is the Pantheon of Immortals: Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio, Cy Young, Mays, etc.
Greenberg is part of that latter, exclusive group.
Greenberg played from 1933 to 1947, losing four years to World War II when he enlisted for military service even though he was exempt under U.S. Government guidelines.
His career numbers for that short span are amazing: .313 batting average, 331 homers, 1,276 RBI, .412 on-base percentage and .605 slugging percentage.
His best seasons rank among the greatest in the history of the game.
He hit 58 homers in 1938, which stood as the highest home run total between Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927 and Roger Maris' 61 in 1961.
He drove in 183 runs in 1937, one shy of Lou Gehrig's record set in 1931.
He won the AL MVP in 1935 and '40 and led the Detroit Tigers to World Series titles in 1935 and '45 and AL pennants in '34 and '40.
He was one of the game's greats.
But it wasn't easy, not by a longshot.
Greenberg grew up in an Orthodox home in the Bronx, N.Y., the son of Jewish immigrants. Like many Jewish kids, including those growing up today, he struggled assimilating into U.S. culture, but ultimately found his comfort zone through sports.
Through hard work, he overcame some clumsiness to become a good first baseman -- good enough to draw attention from several major league teams.
Greenberg received a contract offer from the Yankees, but turned it down because of some guy named Gehrig who played first. The Senators also wanted him, but Greenberg said no -- you know what they said about Washington: "First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League."
Greenberg tried out for the Giants, but Jon McGraw, who was desperate to find a Jewish superstar to boost sagging attendance, declined. Oops!
Ultimately Greenberg signed with the Tigers in 1929 for $9,000.
But it was not easy to be a Jewish ballplayer at that time. Anti-Semitism was rampant both in the game in the world as a whole.
While playing in the Texas League in 1932, teammate Jo-Jo White slowly walked around Greenberg, just staring at him. Greenberg asked White what he was looking at. White responded that he had never seen a Jew before. Greenberg let White look a while longer before asking if he saw anything interesting. White, who was looking for horns, responded, "You're just like everyone else."
But that wasn't the worst of it. Not even close.
Bench jockeying in the majors at that time was vicious with players uttering the most vile, racist and degrading comments in a crude and unsportsmanlike effort to unnerve their opponents.
The catcalls were brutal and the Cardinals were particularly merciless in the 1934 World Series.
But Greenberg wasn't necessarily one to just turn the other cheek.
According to one story, Greenberg eventually became so fed up with the razzing he was taking from the Chicago White Sox that he took on the entire team himself, challenging anyone who dared to yell an epithet, “If you got a gut in your body, you’ll stand up.”
No one did. Greenberg, afterall, was 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and a large man.
Teammate Birdie Tebbetts once suggested no one in the history of baseball other than Jackie Robinson was ever more abused than Greenberg. But I'd be remiss if I did not mention the abuse Lary Doby suffered through, which was no less brutal that what Robinson had to endure.
But it wasn't just on the field where things were difficult for Greenberg. It was the 1930s and the world was a dangerous place for Jews.
By 1933, Adolph Hitler had assumed power as Germany's chancellor and had begun to systematically strip Jews of their citizenship and rights, eventually leading to Krystallnact in 1938 and the start of the Holocaust.
But even in the U.S., anti-Semitism was growing, especially in the Detroit area, where Father Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford were powerful personalities, blaming Jews for everything from the Great Depression to the Russian Revolution, while singing the praises of Hitler, Nazism and fascism.
At first Greenberg struggled with being known as a Jewish ballplayer, wanting instead to be known simply as a great player.
Eventually Greenberg's heritage became as strength as he realized that with every homer he struck, every game he won, every championship he captured, he also struck a blow against the stereotypes and garbage being spewed by the Hitlers, Fords, and Coughlins of the world -- much as Jesse Owens stuck a blow against Der Fuhrer's racial theories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
But early in his career, Greenberg faced a difficult decision. It was 1934 and the Tigers were in the heat of a pennant race as September rolled around -- and along with it came the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
In secular parlance, these are the holiest days of the Jewish year -- though every rabbi will say that title belongs to the Sabbath. Traditionally Jews spend those days in synagogue praying during a period that is marked with reflection, repentance and reconciliation of sins committed throughout the previous year.
So Greenberg, who had long drifted from his parents' orthodoxy, was faced with a difficult choice: honor his faith or fulfill his commitment to his team.
There was no easy answer. There was no clearcut choice.
The topic was debated in papers throughout the country and Greenberg consulted rabbis, friends and his team.
Manager Mickey Cochrane told Greenberg that the issue was a personal matter that he must decide for himself. That Cochrane was a wise man.
Rabbis offered three rulings:
- One allowed Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah, citing a passage from the Talmud that the holiday was happy day and children played in the streets of Jerusalem. Yom Kippur, though, was off limits.
- The second allowed Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah on the condition that only Kosher food be sold and no Orthodox Jews attend the game.
- The third said no rabbi was in position to tell Greenberg what he should do. This was a decision he had to make for himself.
It's not clear how much influence the rabbis had, but ultimately Greenberg struck his own compromise: He'd play on Rosh Hashanah, but not on Yom Kippur.
But it wasn't an easy compromise. He was not at all at peace with the decision.
"Finally I decided I would play," Greenberg recalled. "But I don't mind telling you I was upset mentally and at heart when I went into that game. Some divine influence must have caught hold of me that day."
Greenberg hit two homers on Rosh Hashanah and the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 2-1.
Ten days later was Yom Kippur, but by that time the Tigers had seized control of the American League. Greenberg missed the game and went to synagogue, where he received a standing ovation from the congregation.
The Tigers lost to the Yankees that day, 5-3.
The next day Greenberg returned and homered as the Tigers locked up the pennant.
And in the process, he won over his critics and inspired Edgar Guest to pen the poem, "Speaking of Greenberg:"
The Irish didn't like it when they heard of Greenberg's fame
For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;
And the Murphys and Mulrooneys said they never dreamed they'd see
A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat
Or prayed to see a "double" when Hank Greenberg came to bat.
In July the Irish wondered where he'd ever learned to play.
"He makes me think of Casey!" Old Man Murphy dared to say;
And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made
The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.
But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat
And made two home runs off Pitcher Rhodes—they cheered like mad for that.
Came Yom Kippur—holy fast day world-wide over to the Jew—
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, "We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion—and I honor him for that!"
Greenberg never faced the dilemma again in his career. He played in nine Rosh Hashanah games, going 11-for-33 with six homers and 13 RBI, and sat on seven Yom Kippurs, including Game 6 of the 1935 World Series, though he did have an injured wrist.
Greenberg, in the process, set an example for generations of Jews who followed, including Koufax, on how to balance faith and assimilation. That doesn't mean Jews no longer struggle with that balance. It's a constant battle with no right answers except that which feels right to the individual making it.
Greenberg also laid down the blueprint for staring down, overcoming and defeating those who would spew hate, racism and ignorance.
He was a great ballplayer who should not only be remembered for his accomplishments on the field, but for all he had to endure as well.
Tonight is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. To everyone celebrating: Shana Tovah -- Happy New Year.
Friday, July 31, 2009
In a story in the Boston Herald, Cincinnati pitcher Bronson Arroyo, a member of the 2004 Red Sox, said he wouldn't be surprised if he were on the list as well. And why? You guessed it...
Arroyo, who pitched for the Red Sox from 2003 to 2005, said he took androstenedione, which was banned in 2004, as well as amphetamines, which were banned in 2006, according to the Herald report. He said he gave up taking andro, a steroid precursor, when a rumor spread through baseball that due to lax production standards, some of it was laced with steroids.
Mandatory testing for performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball began in 2004.
"Before 2004, none of us paid any attention to anything we took," he said, according to the Herald. "Now they don't want us to take anything unless it's approved. But back then, who knows what was in stuff? The FDA wasn't regulating stuff, not unless it was killing people or people were dying from it."
Even after the storm that arose from McGwire's use of andro, players used it for six more years before MLB finally grew a pair and banned the stuff. And Arroyo's claim that the andro was tainted is not some pie-in-the-sky claim. Hell, just last week in the New York Times there was an article on two dietary supplements that contained illegal steroids.
The supplements, Tren Xtreme and Mass Xtreme, are manufactured by American Cellular Labs and marketed as a “potent legal alternative to” steroids. But authorities alleged in search warrants executed on Thursday that the supplements contain illegal man-made steroids, also known as designer steroids. One of the substances is Madol, which was first identified six years ago during the investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative.
Six years ago...that would be 2003, right?
And these charges come at a time of enhanced scrutiny when it comes to health supplements. Compared to now, the time period between 1998-2003 was akin to the Wild West.
None of this, none of it, is to make excuses for David Ortiz, A-Rod or any other athlete who tested positive. It is your responsibility to know what goes into your body. And if Ortiz's source of a positive test was tainted andro, then shame on him. After the McGwire flap, every ballplayer should have known better than to mess with that crap. And should have known taking andro was cheating, plain and simple.
I guess what is stunning to me in all of this is how cavalier all the players sound about taking these things. Arroyo is completely unapologetic for taking Andro. Ortiz theorizes his positive test was linked to a protein drink he had in the Dominican Republic. A-Rod concocted that fairy tale about his cousin getting him "boli" and not knowing what it was.
I said yesterday that ballplayers aren't - and shouldn't be - heroes. But the hard truth is that they are to a lot of kids. My son idolizes Ortiz. Aviv's son likes Jeter (who, thank god, appears to be clean so far). Other kids idolize other players. And the players have a responsibility to recognize that. It comes part and parcel with the uniform, the glove and the big, fat check.
I'm glad that Arroyo is being honest and Papi is facing the music...but would a little damn contrition hurt? You cheated. Parse it any way you want but that is still the bottom line. Do kids really need to hear that "I took it. I loved it. I stopped because I heard it contained something that would get me in trouble."? The implication is that if it wasn't for the rumor of steroids, Arroyo would have merrily continued taking Andro.
The entire period of 1997-2007 should be a wash. I don't know what should be done about it. Maybe a special room needs to be built in the Hall of Fame. In the basement. With only one bare light bulb illuminating the room.
And in the room lining the walls will be the plaques of every player tainted with PEDs who was voted into the HoF. But they get no ceremony and no speech. They just get a plaque hung in a dingy room in the basement.
It's more than they deserve.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Watching this happen makes one wonder when the next number will go up, or even if it will. There are a couple of big numbers that are still not in circulation: Clemens' "21" and Wade Boggs' "26". Considering that Clemens is going to have steroid issues to deal with for years to come, I can't see his number going up. But Boggs meets the requirements of 10 years with the Sox and reaching the HoF (that "retired with the team" clause came to an end with Fisk). I think he should go up, but we'll see what happens.
But for now, the focus is rightly on Rice. I'm not going to argue about whether he belongs in the HoF or not. That issue has been settled. Personally, I think he deserved to be voted in. Regardless, he met the criteria and more than earned the right to have his number retired.
He is also the first African-American to wear a Red Sox cap into Cooperstown. And when you consider that, you also have to think about the long history of the Red Sox. And how much of it was tainted by institutional racism.
I'm not breaking any new ground here; Howard Bryant covered it brilliantly in his 2002 book Shut Out. The simple truth is that while Tom Yawkey owned the Red Sox, they were run with a racist mentality. And Yawkey perpetuated that racism by hiring managers and general managers who held the same benighted views that he held himself. Men like Eddie Collins, who was GM of the Sox from 1933-47. Men like Herb Pennock, who ran scouting from 1935-44.
And men like Joe Cronin, who was manager from 1935-47 and GM from 1947-58.
Joe Cronin was Yawkey's right hand man. His close friend and a soul mate when it came to the idea that a black man had no business being on any baseball diamond, let alone the one in Fenway Park. And those reprehensible views had more to do with Boston not winning a championship between 1918 and 2004 than the mythical "Curse of the Bambino" ever did.
Cronin and Yawkey's racism was responsible for Boston missing out on two of the greatest African-American ballplayers to ever strap on the spikes. Jackie Robinson came to Fenway for a tryout in 1945 where he was humiliated by Cronin and Yawkey, an experience that led to Robinson loathing the Red Sox for the rest of his life.
Then in 1949 the Sox scouted a young player by the name of Willie Mays. But thanks to the racism that permeated the upper echelons of the team, Boston passed on one of the all-time greats in the game because he had the audacity to be black.
And here is one you may not know about. In the mid-1950s, the Sox passed on signing Billy Williams, aka "Sweet Swingin' Billy", also known today as the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for the Chicago Cubs from 1959-1974. And why? Well, we all know that by now, don't we?
And for each one, for each ignorant decision, there were two constants: Tom Yawkey and Joe Cronin.
Imagine a Boston team in 1946 that, instead of having a reprobate like Pinky Higgins at third, had a young Jackie Robinson.
Imagine a Boston team in 1951 that had Robinson, Doerr and Vern Stephens in the infield with Williams and Mays and Dom DiMaggio in the outfield.
Imagine a Boston team in 1967 that had the iconic Mays in the outfield along with the exciting, in-their-prime duo of Billy Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, and Reggie Smith coming off the bench.
All of this was possible...no, probable. There was no reason all of this couldn't have happened, except for the fact that Cronin and Yawkey didn't like black people.
So why do we honor two men that did more damage to this team than Harry Frazee ever did? Why is a street named after Yawkey while Cronin's "4" hangs in a place of honor? They combined to mismanage and hold back this franchise for over 40 years. Yawkey finally gave in on African-American players because he had no choice in the matter. Not that he didn't still try to move them along now and again.* Rice's best move ever was joining the Sox when Yawkey was only a year away from kicking the bucket.
Solving the Yawkey issue is easy; just say the street is named after his wife. Jean Yawkey was a committed philanthropist to many charities and organizations, including the Jackie Robinson Scholarship Program.
But Cronin...I know we get into a dicey area here. You could look at a racist like Ty Cobb who is honored in Detroit and say "Well, should they pull him down?" But the difference there is that Cobb's racism, abhorrent as it is, didn't affect the team. Perhaps it may have if Cobb had played in the 40s and 50s. But it didn't. But Cronin's racism did affect the team in many negative ways. Hell, the Sox didn't employ a single African-American in any capacity in the late 1950s!
I know that the HoF is based on the numbers you put up and that something like your views on race doesn't play a role (again, look at Cobb). But to retire someone's number...if they were a manager and GM as well, shouldn't their decisions in that arena count as well? I think they should.
And with that in mind, I think the Red Sox should revoke the retirement of Cronin's number. His racist views were a negative impact on this team for almost two decades. He cost the Red Sox some of the greatest men to ever play the game. How can you honor a man like that by retiring his number?
This isn't a rant to just single out the Sox. Other teams suffered from the taint of racism as well. Bryant's book points out the negative effect racism played in the Yankees organization, in particular the effect George Weiss had on the team. It was only their deep farm system that mitigated the effects until 1964, at which point the Yankees wouldn't see the playoffs again until 1976.
But that is for Yankee fans to deal with. My concern is that the Red Sox honor a man who has no right to be honored. If there is justice in this world, then the day will come when Cronin's number is no longer on the wall.
* Yes, I am referring to Reggie Smith getting traded in 1973. Because why else would you move a two-time All-Star who just came off a season where he hit .303 and belted 21 homers?
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I'm in what feels like, to me, is the minority these days; I think the players proven to have used PEDs should be banned from the Hall. Period. End of discussion. I don't care if this creates a huge gap in who enters when or a whole generation of players get wiped out as a result. If you used PEDs, you should be gone.
The arguments against this drive me crazy:
What these geniuses forget is what Bouton actually said about greenies in the book. He derided their overall effectiveness, saying they made players jittery. Look at it this way; Do you remember No-Doz? Did you ever pop four of five to study for a final? How well did you actually do studying? Welcome to greenies.
More recently, Bouton has also made the necessary distinction that greenies were performance enablers, not enhancers. In other words, greenies didn't help your bat speed or your eyesight or give you more muscles. It helped keep a hangover at bay so a player could scrape by come gametime.
All this said, greenies are dangerous as hell and were rightfully banned. And they did set the stage for actual PEDs. But to compare the two and call them equal is just ridiculous.
Baseball's rules in 1991 banned the use of steroids, rules that are still in effect today. From Fay Vincent's memo of that year:
The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited...This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids...
So yes, it was illegal by the time Bonds, Clemens and the rest of the gang started getting funky with the PEDs.
A line must be drawn here and a penalty must be paid. No other sport reveres it's records and history as much as professional baseball. And the rampant use of PEDs threatens the integrity of both. The very fact that Barry Bonds is considered the all-time home run leader by MLB is disgusting. The fact that Roger Clemens is officially ahead of guys like Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver is repugnant.
The rule should be simple: You use and you are out. But the odds of that ever happening are remote because too many people who could make that happen are feckless, spineless or both. So here's another idea; guesstimate where they started using and base their candidacy on their prior stats.
A lobotomized ferret could look at Barry Bonds' stats and see he started using between the 1998 and 1999 seasons. So vote on him based on everything prior to 1999. Guess what...he'd get in and get in clean. He was a phenomenal player before all this crap and the fact he decided to use is pathetic.
Roger Clemens would be limited to what he did in Boston. Trust me; if you saw his fat gut in 1996 you'd also know he was clean at that point. He'd be more borderline than Bonds, but he'd get in as well. So I think this system could work.
Of course, this likely will never happen either. I'd settle for just marking their plaques with big asterisks and placing them in a new wing in Cooperstown dedicated to PED cheats. But since the baseball writers want to make this go away as well (since they ignored the evidence for so long until it smacked them in the face and they couldn't any longer**) the day will come when Bonds and Clemens and the rest go in as if nothing ever happened.
And the day that happens, baseball's history will be tainted forever.
* Which, by the way, should be required reading if you are any kind of baseball fan. My copy is practically falling apart.
**You think I am kidding? Anyone remember Steve Wilstein, the AP reporter who saw Andro in Mark McGwire's locker in 1998? Baseball writers everywhere tore Wilstein a new one because he had the audacity to write about what he saw while everyone else turned their heads. Wilstein made them look bad and the longer that PEDs continue to be an issue in sports, the longer everyone will remember that baseball writers are as responsible for this disaster as the players and the owners. So the sooner this goes away, the better it is for them.
During his 26 years as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Fehr, 61, helped to bring players an unprecedented level of financial security, raising the average salary from $289,000 in 1983 to $3.24 million this season.
But for all his success, for all the positives he did for players, Fehr's legacy -- like commissioner Bud Selig's -- will forever be stained by his role in baseball's steroid scandal.
Of course Selig and the owners share and equal amount of blame for this black mark in baseball history. They gained financially in the Steroid Era and for a long time, owners didn't want to know or care if their players were on the juice.
But this is a day to focus on the union and Fehr.
For years, the union was on the wrong side of the debate, arguing that drug testing was an invasion of the players' privacy. It was a wrong decision for baseball and it was horrendous decision for the players.
The primary responsibility of any union is to protect its members. That includes making sure they are compensated adequately, have a strong pension and benefits, have safe conditions in the workplace and are protected from criminal activities.
And by fighting against steroid testing, the union allowed its members' health to be put at risk.
Still, Fehr fought tooth and nail to prevent any form of drug test before agreeing to the now infamous 2003 anonymous survey test and weak program that ensued.
Only public outrage and pressure from Congress was able to get Fehr and the union to accept a legit program.
And even with that strong program finally in place, the reality is that not only is the steroids issue not going away any time soon, Fehr and the union are in an untenable situation because of that anonymous 2003 test.
The fate of that list of 104 players who failed that test is in the hands of a federal judge, who is trying to determine if the government can use it in its perjury case against Barry Bonds or if baseball's collective bargaining agreement prevents that list from becoming public.
Already two names -- Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa -- have been leaked, and surely more will come out slowly.
But it's the revelation about Sosa that illustrates just how bad the situation is for the union.
Last week, The New York Times, citing anonymous sources reported Sosa was indeed on the list, and Congress saw fit to review Sosa's testimony to a House committee on performance-enhancing drugs during which he denied ever using PEDs.
To me, it was at that point that union's stand on not releasing the List of 104 no longer had anything do with keeping its players from being embarrassed. The good of the game isn't even a consideration for the union here.
That's because that list is a smoking gun. If made public, that list would be all the government needs to put some of those players in jail for perjury.
In addition to Sosa, Bonds claims he never knowingly used steroids or failed at test. Gary Sheffield told prosecutors a similar story.
Rafael Palmeiro also was at that Congressional hearing in 2004. Shortly after he was busted for steroids, but claimed to have mistakenly taken what he thought were supplements from a teammate's locker.
Roger Clemens is still denying he ever used PEDs, despite a Congressional investigation.
If any of those players tested positive in 2003 and that list becomes public, well, their freedom will be in short supply and I don't think prosecutors will be inclined to show much leniency.
No, this issue is not going to vanish any time soon, but it's not going to be Fehr's problem any more. The Union's general counsel Michael Weiner is expect to succeed Fehr and it will be Weiner's problem to clean up now.
Fehr will just sail off and avoid the limelight as his once sterling legacy grows tarnished.
A History Lesson
After The New York Times story was published, White Sox first baseman dismissed the story because of its use of anonymous sources.
"If the guy actually didn't do anything, he already has been crucified in
public and that's not fair," Konerko said. "I just don't like when stories come
out and really all it is is a rumor. It's just trying to force someone to come
out and say something. I think it's not very American.
"You would think if you were going to run a story, you would have to
say this is who said this so that person could talk. I guess that's lost
The use of anonymous sources is a tricky for newspapers. Most -- and certainly the Times is among them -- have strict standards when it comes to granting anonymity to a source, often getting confirmation of facts from two or three more sources.
They understand the stakes are high because if they are wrong, people get hurt -- as Konerko correctly points out -- and the paper opens itself to a libel suit. And we have seen cases where papers have been wrong -- they are not infallible.
But here's the thing Konerko doesn't understand. The use of anonymous sources goes back decades and is an accepted and legitimate tool in American journalism. To say that it's use is "not very American" reveals Konerko to be rather uneducated in history.
I suggest he read "All The President's Men" -- or if reading is beyond Konerko's capabilities, he can watch the movie (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford were tremendous). Clearly Konerko has never heard of Watergate and he needs to learn how Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down Richard Nixon's presidency using anonymous sources.