Thursday, December 30, 2004

On Again, Off Again, On Again?

As per the link above, the saga of Randy Johnson goes on, this time as Vazquez/Navarro/Halsey and $9MM directly to the D'Backs in exchange for the Big Unit.

One of the lessons of the past year is that "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over". We saw it with A-Rod and the Red Sox, the Red Sox falling 10+ games behind the Yanks in July, and finally the crushing loss in the ALCS. So until the Yanks give a press conference, with Randy wearing an XX Long Yankees jersey, there is no news, here.

Since I'm going away for the weekend, this will probably be my final post of 2004. We'll be back in 2005 with a year-in-review, and the anniversary of the Weblog That Derek Built. Thanks to everyone who's come by to read us this year, and may you all have a safe and Happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Tip Not Included

The Yanks got the bill for making (and dishing out) lots of money earlier this week. They're getting charged $25MM in luxury taxes (for having a total payroll over $120.5MM) and they're donating another $60MM to MLB's central fund as revenue sharing on their reported 2004 revenues of $315MM.

Given that there'll be another luxury tax uptick next year (it's almost physically impossible that the Yanks could get under the salary threshhold in 2005, given their long-term commitments) they'll probably give baseball $100MM or more next year.

I just hope that some of these teams start spending this bounty. I'm lookin' at you, Pittsburgh! Cincinnatti's doing their part, signing Eric Milton to three years, $25.5MM. Given that Cincy's stadium is a homerun derby heaven, and that Milton was extremely tateriffic in 2004, this could be dangerous to fans seating in the outfield bleachers.

Still, it's the willingness to spend, and not the wisdom of the expenditure, that we're looking at here. Carl Pohlad pockets the Twins' revenue sharing money, and the Royals ain't spending a dime, no matter how much in subsidies they get from New York, Boston, or Anaheim.

The Diamondbacks have a pleasant history of crying poverty, turning their pockets inside out, and then giving out big contracts like they were lollypops. They feel Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz are worth a combined $78MM over the next four years, and all I can say is, good for them!

Still, I hope that the next time we have the "the Yankees are ruining the game" conversation (given the Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran rumors, this'll probably be any minute now), people will remember the $85 Million the Yanks are giving baseball, and the $78 Million the maxed-out credit card folks in Arizona are doling out to free agents. Or the Reds passing out $33MM to two pitchers who didn't even pitch league average last season (Milton and Paul Wilson posted identical 92's in ERA+ last year).

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Halls Within a Hall

The problem of Hall of Fame voting is that there is only one Hall, and many candidates with widely varying qualifications. Because of this, I tend to think of the candidates in tiers rather than simply whether they are in or out. So here's how I see the baseball writer's ballot, which is due for submission on December 31.

The Broom Closet of the Immortals

2005 Inductee: Wade Boggs

This is based on my theory that, to combat the Hall's drooping standards of admission (while not breaking the hearts of anybody presently in the Hall) you could simply build a separate wing -- maybe a small room, or a large broom closet -- and put the extra-special guys in there. Y'know, so Ted Williams doesn't have to rub shoulders with Lloyd Waner and Babe Ruth doesn't have to keep the same company as Rube Marquard.

The one Immortal in this year's batch is Wade Boggs. How many HOF thirdbasemen would you pick over Boggs? My list is Schmidt and Brett, maybe Mathews. Whenever you're in the top three ever at your chosen spot, there's a good chance that you're someone special.

But it's even more basic. When you saw Boggs play, you knew you were watching a Hall of Famer. Check his list of comparables at bb-ref: seven Hall of Famers, and Tony Gwynn, who'll be in in a couple of years. You could eliminate the bottom 80% of the membership of the Hall, and Boggs would still make it. He's simply one of the very best players in Major League history.

The Hall of Well, Duh!

2005 Inductees: Bert Blyleven, Goose Gossage, Ryne Sandberg

These guys haven't quite gotten there with the voters, yet, but there's no good reason for it. Each would be an above-average Hall of Famer, and should be an easy choice for the writers, yet each has a flaw or counter-argument toward admission.

Blyleven to the Hall of Fame is such a cause celebre that I'm barely qualified to comment on it. Better to just point you to analysis by Rich Lederer, who is one of the curveballing Dutchman's most vocal advocates. The short version is that Bert's run-preventing skills were well above those of other HOF pitchers, and he was a valuable pitcher for almost all of his long career (ERA+ under 100 in only 5 of his 22 seasons). I would add that he pitched well in the postseason, too.

The counterpoint is a low winning percentage (from pitching on losing teams) , no Cy Young awards, only one 20 win season. Also, it seems like Mr. Blyleven was somewhat of a cad, particularly to the press. While it's easy to dismiss this view as small-minded, but it actually boils down to something that's a real detriment for someone wanting to be admitted to the Hall of Fame--in a sense, Blyleven wasn't famous.

I wasn't self-aware, much less aware of baseball, during the early part of Bert's career, but I never heard of him as one of the best pitchers in baseball, much less one of the best pitchers ever. People raved about Blyleven's amazing curveball, but as for the overall package, I never heard someone speaking with awe of him.

It's a problem, but not one that should keep him out of the Hall of Fame. He's currently in the Hall of Well, Duh! because the voters have had a few chances to do right by him, and haven't really put a proper effort into it.

Now, maybe it's just the fact that I'm a Yankee fan, but I was always aware of people being in awe of Goose Gossage. For nearly a decade, Goose was near the top of the list of pitchers you'd least like to bat against. He had a blazing fastball, was a scary guy, and was brought in to pitch the highest-leverage innings his teams had. Nine All-Star teams, four top 5 turns in the Cy Young voting, and two top 10 showings in the MVP voting all point to people agreeing that he was a damn impressive guy. Great, even.

The problem is, the Hall of Fame doesn't exactly know what to do with relievers. Almost intrinsically, it's impossible for a reliever to be as valuable as a starting pitcher throwing two or three times as many innings per year. In addition, pitchers like Gossage, who were relief aces before the current save fetish that's taken over major league managers, don't have the kind of numbers many writers associate with closers. Gossage's career high in saves--33 in 1980--would have ranked 14th in the majors in 2004.

Jay Jaffe has some good work over at BP (get that subscription, already!) that deals with the disparity between starters and relievers, putting the reliever threshhold around 70% of the standards for starters. By those standards, and the more visceral "I know greatness when I see it" standard, Goose should be in.

Ryne Sandberg's another one of those guys that, during his career, you figured was a lock for the Hall. He was a nine time gold glover at second base, with ten All Star appearances in his 15 full-time seasons. But the amazing thing about Ryno was his power--the kind of power you simply didn't see out of a middle infielder in the 80's and early 90's. So...power, defense, what was there not to like?

Sandberg's hurt somewhat by the modern awareness of park effects, as he did much better in the Friendly Confines than anywhere else during his career. He is also hurt by the year he lost to a premature retirement. All that still doesn't change the fact that he was the best second baseman in the National League, for most of his career. He should be in the Hall.

The Hall of Maybe

2005 Inductees: Tommy John, Bruce Sutter, Alan Trammel

With these guys, it wouldn't be a travesty if they got into the Hall of Fame. It also wouldn't be tragedy if they didn't.

Sutter and John come to this from opposite ends of the spectrum. John got far on his longetivity, while Sutter's career was cut short by arm problems. Both candicacies depend heavily on non-performance related "extra credit." Tommy John is better known for the ligament transplant surgery that bears his name than for his pitching. Sutter is credited with two "innovations": the popularization (or revival) of the split-finger fastball, and the implementation of the one-inning, only-with-a-lead closer.

Those are some significant achievements (although the value of that last one is somewhat dubious) but I think the careers of these two pitchers fall a bit short.

Trammel's not an extreme case, like Sutter and John, he's a tweener. His career falls right between the two definitive shortstops of his time. Ozzie Smith was the classic shortstop--thin, short and fast, with no power and a ton of leather; while Cal Ripken was the prototype for the A-Rod/Nomar/Jeter/Tejada junta that would follow--bigger, more powerful, not as dependent on glovework. Trammel had a medium build, and strong offense for a shortstop of his day, but easily overshadowed by the slugging shortstops of the present. His glovework was excellent (four gold gloves), but not as spectacular as Ozzie's.

The vote's been going against him the past few years, but on the merits, he really should be in the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Prematurely Bronzed Plaques

2005 Inductees: Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry

If you saw these guys play, at the right time, you were dead sure you were looking at a Hall of Famer. You might have daydreamed about induction ceremonies, and the wording of the inscription on their plaques. And in each case, you would have been a bit hasty.

From 1984 to 1987, Don Mattingly's batting average ran between .324 and .353. He scorched the ball with great extra-base power, and was the toast of New York City.

From 1982 to 1987, Dale Murphy averaged 36 homers per year. And this was at a time when 40 homers in a year was pretty rare.

From '77 to '79, Jim Rice led the league in homers twice, came in second once, and had a slugging percentage that hovered around .600.

Darryl Strawberry defined the word potential. In 1980 he was the first overall pick in the amateur draft. When he hit the major leagues, three years later, he was the Rookie of the year. Three years after that he was the best hitter on the best team in baseball. By the age of 28, Strawberry had 252 home runs, and it really seemed that the sky was the limit. He was the kind of player where you stopped what you were doing whenever he came to bat.

But for each one of these guys, something happened on the way to Cooperstown. A back injury in 1989 turned Mattingly from a superlative hitter to a below average one. Murphy inexplicably stopped hitting well in 1988. He never recovered his form. Rice's power fell off in his late 20's, and he later fell victim to a growing awareness of park effects. A number of smaller problems (alcohol, legal problems, injuries) and one huge problem (cocaine) scuttled Strawberry's career.

If you started bronzing those HOF plaques early for these guys, you're now left with useless hunks of metal--and memories of guys who, in their day, could give most of the men in the Hall of Fame a serious run for their money.

Hall of Pretty Darn Good

2005 Inductees: Dave Concepcion, Andre Dawson, Steve Garvey, Jack Morris, Dave Parker, Lee Smith

With these guys we're talking for the most part about long careers, winning teams, mystique and aura. There's no questioning that they were stars, or that they had periods of excellence. It's just that they weren't quite excellent enough for the Hall of Fame.

Concepcion and Garvey share in common Gold Gloves, All Star appearances, and connections to a dominant NL franchise of the 70's (the Reds and the Dodgers, respectively). They also shared a lack of OBP (both players ended their careers in the .320's) and power.

Dawson and Parker were slugging outfielders, both credited with great defensive prowess by the powers that be (a conclusion with which the defensive statistics of both men seem to disagree). The primary problem with these two is that outfielders tend to have to slug a whole lot to meet Hall of Fame standards. Dawson hit about 100 more homers over his career than Parker, but made up for it with 16 fewer points of OBP. Since Parker's OBP was .339, you can see that neither man was particularly gifted at getting on base. These two basically stand in the same limbo as Dwight Evans, who had better on base skills than either man.

Lee Smith and Jack Morris are united by meaningless statistics. For Smith, it's the All-Time Saves record, perhaps the least meaningful major record kept by MLB. It doesn't seem, at any point in his career, that Smith was the best reliever in baseball, or even in the top three. He was just really good, for a good long while. For Morris, it's the "most wins in the 80's" stat. Did that make Morris a better pitcher than Roger Clemens or Steve Carlton? Morris never posted an ERA under 3.00 in his entire career.

Although each player was an All-Star on multiple occasions, neither captured a Cy Young award. Neither really dominated the league. Smith winds up with too few innings to make it as a reliever, while Morris doesn't have enough wins to make it as a Don Sutton-type.

None of these guys would be the worst player in the Hall of Fame. Most could have arguments built for them, based upon comparison to some of the Hall's lesser lights. In my humble opinion, that shouldn't be how Hall of Famers are made.

The Hall of the Extremely Competent

2005 Inductees: Jim Abbott, Tom Candiotti, Chili Davis, Mark Langston, Jack McDowell, Willie McGee, Jeff Montgomery, Otis Nixon, Tony Phillips, Terry Steinbach

There's no shame being on this list. Everyone here put in 10 years in the bigs, most were, at one point or another, fan favorites. Everyone except Abbott and Montgomery saw the postseason, most played in at least one All Star game. These are some good careers:

Abbott pitched a no-hitter, and provided an inspiration for thousands of kids with disabilities. Candiotti was one of a line of Major League pitchers keeping the knuckleball alive, and had a nice cameo in the movie 61*. Chili Davis was a "professional hitter" from both sides of the plate, who retired with three World Series rings. Mark Langston was an ace strikeout artist, with a career that just wasn't quite long enough, or quite great enough, for the HOF. Jack McDowell got to live the life of a rockstar, based on being a star pitcher. He won a Cy Young award, and was a horse for the White Sox teams of the early 90's. Willie McGee was a league MVP, a terrific centerfielder, and one of the oddest-looking major leaguers of his time. Montgomery was an ace reliever right around the time that title began to lose its cachet, and also around the time Kansas City's first division run ended. He quietly had an excellent career. Otis Nixon was a pure speedster, perhaps the last of that breed that we'll see for quite some time. He shares the Major League record for most steals in a single game, with six. Tony Phillips was a great utility player, playing multiple positions in all but one of his 18 major league seasons. He exceeded 100 walks in a season five times, in a career marred by drug use. Terry Steinbach was one of the core players of the Alderson A's mini-dynasty; he was an All-Star MVP in 1988, and got a World Series ring the following year.

If this group gets five HOF votes, total, I'd be shocked. Barring a miracle, all of them will disappear from the ballot next year. Some will say they had no business being on the ballot in the first place. But I like the opportunity the HOF vote gives us, each year, to remember these competent veterans, and to look at their careers.

It reminds me of a line from an obscure cable movie, called "Lush Life." In the film, Jeff Goldblum and Forrest Whitaker play musicians, Jazz session players, and at one point Whitaker is lamenting that although the two played with plenty of Jazz greats, they weren't great musicians themselves.

Goldblum interrupts him. "You've got it all wrong. Those guys [the Jazz greats] need us. Without us, there wouldn't be enough music to go around."

Without these extremely competent players, there wouldn't be enough baseball to go around. You won't get a bronze plaque in Cooperstown, guys, but you'll have thousands of fans remember you fondly.

Monday, December 27, 2004

RIP: Eddie Layton

As 2004 rustles to a close in YankeeLand--amidst the gnashing of teeth over the non-trade of Randy Johnson--real sad news comes to the Bronx Faithful, with the passing of Eddie Layton.

Layton provided the soundtrack of Yankee Stadium--not the contrived "Cotton Eye Joe" stuff--for over 35 years. He retired in 2003, after the Marlins beat the Yankees in the World Series. It was always somewhat ethereal watching Eddie play at the stadium: he'd sometimes play the organ with a handful of World Series rings on his fingers, and because of the audio delay, his hands would seem to move out of time with the music. But the most memorable thing was the smile he had on whenever they put him on camera.

Either he really loved what he was doing all those years, or he missed a true calling as an Oscar-worthy actor. I, and many other Yankee fans, will hold him dear in our hearts and memories.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Still Alive!

This has probably been my longest absence from this space this year, and for that I apologize. Last time I went on vacation, I carefully arranged for guest-bloggers, and wrote practically until the day I left. This time, I left before dawn on the 17th, my one guest had technical difficulties, and I was unable to find--rather, unable to get an opportunity to search for--Internet access while abroad.

So, if you're one of the dozen or so people that still visit this site, I'm happy you're still checking in. It wasn't all fun and games while I was in the Dominican Republic--I did catch some Winter League baseball, and I'll be filling you in on what a crazy experience that was. I also worked on a few other items that have been pending far too long on this site.

For right now, I'll leave you with the last thing I did before the vacation, a Yankees piece that was published at Baseball Prospectus (yes, there's some Pirates and Marlins info mixed in, too). It's fun, and it's part of Prospectus' free content:

Prospectus Triple Play

Monday, December 13, 2004

Week in Review Part II: Beware the Loaiza

Read Part 1

Issue 2 -- PavaNO!!!

Looming even larger than the Jaret Wright deal is the rumored four year deal the Yanks are closing in on with Carl Pavano. The salary numbers I've heard range from $36 Million to $43 Million over that span.I've addressed the Pavano situation elsewhere, so let's just quote from last month's Prospectus Triple Play:

The big question for his off-season suitors is: was Pavano's performance this year a sign of greater acedom to come, or just a blip on the screen? Pavano is still relatively young (he'll be 29 in January), has demonstrated the ability to toss 200 innings per year over the past two seasons, and is a Proven Playoff Performer(tm) with a 2-0, 1.40 ERA postseason in 2003 and a high-profile World Series start. Sounds like "Show Me the Money!" time, right?

Not so fast.

[Stats Chart I don't know how to reproduce on my own web page snipped.]

Pavano doubled his previous high WARP1 value in 2004, while maintaining a flat strikeout rate in the mid-5's. Carl had an excellent 2004, but those don't look like the peripherals of an ace pitcher. Pavano may just have discovered a way to become the righthanded Jaime Moyer, but he's going to ask teams for a lot of money to prove that he can repeat this performance. Triple Play's advice: don't open the vault doors, guys, you might just wind up paying Curt Schilling money for Brian Lawrence performance.

Pavano's a prime candidate to "go Loaiza" on the team that signs him. Esteban Loaiza, as Yankee fans will remember from bitter first-hand experience, was a mediocre pitcher who showed promise and great "stuff" for a long time, and then settled in as a mid-rotation innings-eater from 2000-2002.

Then, in 2003, Loaiza had an improbable, near-Cy Young season: 20-9, 2.90 ERA for the White Sox. Unfortunately for Loaiza (and fortunately, for the White Sox) 2003 wasn't Esteban's walk year. In 2004, Loaiza fell flat on his face. At the end of the season, Loaiza could not best a gimpy Kevin Brown or an ineffective Javy Vazquez for a post-season rotation spot. What looked like a pitcher finally fulfilling his potential in 2003, turned out to be just another mediocre mid-rotation guy in 2004.

Maybe Carl Pavano really has turned a corner. Maybe he won't be bothered by moving to a stronger offensive league, having a worse defense behind him, and being in a more offense-friendly ballpark. I'm just saying there's no evidence to think he can repeat his 2004 performance, and nine or ten million dollars a year will be a bitter pill to swallow if we get the 2003 Carl Pavano, rather than the 2004 edition.

One of the emerging patterns from this off-season seems to be a propensity for picking up guys who have beaten the Yanks in the past, or have come from recent playoff teams -- Pavano pitched well for the 2003 Marlins, Womack was a 2001 Diamondback, Wright beat the Yanks as a Cleveland Indian. Since the mid 90's, the Yankees have benefitted from extreme advanced scouting of potential opponents come playoff time.

I wonder if all that advance scouting is skewing the Yankees selections in the off-season. The Yankees obviously scouted Pavano this way in 2003, and likely scouted both the Braves (Wright) and the Cardinals (Womack) this fall. Likely, all three of the free agents the Yanks have pursued so far have inch-thick dossiers in Tampa. Gene Michael, often mentioned behind the Womack signing, is the Yanks chief advance scout for the playoffs.

I would rather believe that there's a bias towards players that have been abundantly scouted by the Yankee advance machine than credit the other option: that the Yankees are out to get "proven winners" -- like Pavano, Wright, and Womack -- despite the fact that they haven't been terribly good over the past several years.

[By the way, in keeping with the subtitle of this section, other free agents I don't want the Yanks to pick up, such as TiNO! Martinez and Eric MiltOH, NO!]

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Week In Review Part I: Hate to See You In Pinstripes

Oh yeah, this was supposed to be a baseball blog, right?

Actually, there are a couple things in the pipeline -- some work for Baseball Prospectus, an article I'm doing for the blog on this year's Hall of Fame class, as well as the fact that I'm trying to clean things up at the office before I go on vacation next week. Still, this entry's been percolating for a while -- the Jaret Wright rollercoaster really bogged me down over the weekend.

Issue 1 -- Subject: Kill Me Now, Please

That was the subject line of an email I wrote to Brother Joe, after I learned -- all in a single blow bad enough to send me into a horrible case of the blues -- that at the arbitration deadline, the Yankees signed Jaret Wright and Tony Womack for a combined $27 Million.

No, I'm not over it yet. I may not be over until Wright's $21 Million deal expires in November, 2007.

It's as if the team got these guys only to spite me. I've spent a good deal of both men's careers detesting them. Why? With Wright, it's simple. He was a 21 year old kid in his rookie year of 1997, when he got a couple of postseason starts against the Yankees in the division series. He didn't pitch that well, but he won both his starts en route to sending the Yankees home early for their only postseason series loss between 1996 and 2000.

I didn't hate him for the fact that he won, so much as for his nasty, sneering attitude. From the smack young Jaret talked, you'd think he pitched a no-hitter in Game 2 of the ALDS, rather allowing 3 runs in six innings. And he also had a penchant for throwing inside, which was none too charming.

Wright turned out to be a plague we wouldn't have to bear for long. He performed around league average in 1998, and in 1999, his control -- never a strong suit -- went to pieces. He posted an ERA over six in 134 innings, hit the disabled list, and was gone. Bad shoulder. Over the next three years, combined, he pitched 99 innings. He was only 26 years old, but it looked like that was all she wrote.

We'll get back to Wright in a minute.

My antipathy for Womack is a different matter. Sure, the Yanks had a postseason run-in with him -- a little something in Arizona, around 2001, I think -- but even before his first at-bat against the Yanks, I disliked Tony beyond all reason.

You see, Womack also came up to the majors to stay in 1997. He was no 21 year old phenom, though, just a 27 year old marginal middle infielder with some speed. The comment on Womack in Baseball Prospectus '97 read simply, "A speedy, light-hitting shortstop who has somehow picked up three cups of coffee."

Then, in 1997, Womack became a regular lead-off hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His OPS that year was .700 -- roughly 18% below league average -- and his defense at second base was also well below average. But he stole 60 bases, so he was installed as a regular.

Now, it's easy to take for granted small advances that happen during one's lifetime -- to forget, for example, that most of America didn't have a cell phone or an Internet connection just ten years ago. In 1997, Prospectus was publishing just its second annual, and Moneyball wasn't even a gleam in Michael Lewis' eye. Although there were a hard core of people who were hip to the importance of on base percentage and park effects (not to mention the high break-even point for base stealing), it was a small, but vocal, minority.

It was at this point that Tony Womack became the centerpiece of an ideological battle. Conventional Wisdom said that if you had a fast guy that could steal a lot of bases on your team, you batted him leadoff, particularly if he had no power, like Womack. Sabermetric wisdom said that if you batted a guy like Womack leadoff, you'd just give him a whole bunch more opportunities to make outs (since the #1 batter comes to the plate more often than a #8 batter does), and the bases he'd steal wouldn't make up for his lack of power or plate discipline.

Back in 1997 and 1998, the Pirates were all too happy to hand Womack nearly 700 plate appearances, and watch him make nearly 500 outs. In 1999, Womack became a Diamondback, and they followed suit -- just they put Womack in right field, one of the big power positions in baseball, where Tony's lack of production would really stand out. And so -- through no fault of his own -- Womack became a whipping boy for people who embraced the new baseball thinking -- one of the Things That Were Wrong With Baseball.

Since I was one of those people, I always disliked Womack. It wasn't anything he'd said or done, just the way he played baseball, and the decisions of managers and GMs to write his name -- in ink -- onto the roster and the lineup card.

In 2001, Womack got a measure of revenge against me by hitting a double off of Mariano Rivera, extending the rally that ended game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But in 2003, it seemed that low performance would finally put Womack out of the league. He went through three teams that year, and finished the season posting a .190 batting average in Colorado.

But both of my hated foes made big comebacks in 2004. Womack, for the first time in his career, batted .300 with the Cardinals. He still didn't post a league-average OPS, but he did play in the World Series for the second time in his career. Womack earned his way in 2004 with a big April, and a very good first half overall -- .319/.364/.427 before the All-Star break. By the Stathead tools, the cracks in Tony's game showed up in the second half. Although Womack maintained a decent .298 batting average after the All-Star break, his plate discipline and particularly his power went missing -- Womack had 27 extra base hits pre-ASB, and only 9 after.

Wright, on the other hand, had a life-altering experience. Picked up by the Braves in late 2003, Jaret "Found Leo".

You all probably know by now how I feel about Leo Mazzone -- he's managed to pick up some pretty sketchy subjects from the garbage heap, and somehow make pitchers out of them. Among Leo's fixer-uppers, Jaret Wright will stand out as a bonafide, fit-for-cannonization miracle.

Wright, a pitcher who'd had an ERA under six just once in the past five years, went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA for Mazzone's Braves this past season. He struck out 159 batters in 186 innings, and had career highs in strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and home run ratio.

Great! If Wright's cured of his suckiness, why not back up a truckfull of money to make him a Yankee?

There are a couple of reasons to believe that Wright isn't someone you'd want to invest big money in. First of all, he's a guy with serious health issues -- there's a reason he only pitched 99 innings between 2001-2003. [UPDATE: This consideration became even more worrisome as we learned over the weekend that Wright failed his first Yankee physical. Sadly, it seems that the Yanks accepted the results of a second, presumably better physical examination, and the Wright contract is still a go. How comforting.]

Second of all, it there's the Mazzone effect. The Sabernomics weblog did a study of Leo's charges, before, during, and after being under the Master's tutelage. I found this particularly intriguing:

Also interesting is the fact that the effect [of Mazzone improving his pitchers' ERAs] seems to go away when pitchers leave. This may be because Mazzone imparts useful everyday help, not just new knowledge to fix an old problem, or maybe the Braves know when to dump guys.

Yankee fans might remember some anecdotal evidence of this effect, in the form of lefty reliever Chris Hammond. Hammond, you will recall, was the pitcher who answered the call when the Yanks did their "We've offered the same contract terms to Mike Stanton and two other lefties. Whoever responds first is a Yankee." negotiation ploy in 2002.

Chris'd seen a big career resurgence that year, under Mazzone in Atlanta. Prior to joining the Braves organization, Hammond had been out of the Majors since 1998, his career derailed by arm troubles. Under Mazzone, Hammond posted an ungodly 0.95 ERA, and looked like one of the better relievers in the league.

The Braves passed on giving Chris a big raise after his career resurrection -- that honor went to the Yankees, who got a serviceable, but unimpressive reliever who was eventually eclipsed by both Felix Heredia (in his pre-Run Fairy days) and Gabe White. The Yanks wound up unloading Hammond's contract on the A's after the 2003 season.

You'd think, after Hammond, the Yankees would be smart enough not to give top dollar to a pitcher the Braves passed on. But here we are, three guaranteed years at $7 Million per.

So that's a whole lot of caveat emptor for two players. One was overrrated for much of his career, the other injured for much of his, both are coming off the best years of their careers to be given big money by the Yankees.

It's kind of like learning that your spouse has spent your nest egg on lottery tickets. I hope the Yanks get lucky with these guys. I hope the brain trust -- the brainiest of which (Gene Michael) is said to have signed off on the Womack deal -- knows something I don't about these fellows.

I just don't like our chances.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Night at the Theater

Last weekend, my girlfriend's pal Anne was in town, so we all went to the Classic Stage Company's production of Death and the Ploughman -- as part of the typical you-are-in-New-York-you-must-do-cultural-stuff tourist situation. The production was pretty good (considering that Ploughman's a fifteenth century, three character play, with lots of didactic speechifying) with a spartan theater-in-the-square set and no props except two benches, a suitcase, and an umbrella.

As we were leaving, La Chiquita -- a onetime German major -- commented on the fact that Goethe's UrFaust was playing at the CSC on Monday, so I got tickets as kind of a surprise. UrFaust is basically the first draft version of Faust that Goethe made, a story he would rewrite over and over for the rest of his career. The performance we saw on Monday night wasn't a full staged production, but rather a reading with all the actors in their street clothes, reading from scripts they rested on a series of lecterns at the front of the stage.

The production featured two "name" actors: F. Murray Abraham and Michael Cumpsty. Abraham, who played the role of Mephisto, was a particular draw for me, since he was the lead in one of my favorite movies, Amadeus. Cumpsty, who played Faust, is a British stage actor with a deep, booming voice, who's had a number of small movie and TV roles.

[SIDE NOTE: I have a favorite embarassing resume item for each of the above actors. For Abraham, it's a 1991 fencing film called By The Sword, co-starring Eric Roberts, which is one of the great unintentional comedies of our time. For Cumpsty, it's the 1993 spoof movie Fatal Instinct, where he's the spoof version of the husband in Sleeping with the Enemy. I wish they'd had a Q&A after the reading, just so I could ask the guys about these films that they've probably forgotten ever having made.]

The reading was a gas. With the rich voices provided by Abraham and Cumpsty, at first it felt like watching a radio play. The young actors they had for the remaining parts did excellent work, also, and as they went along, the players seemed to get deeper into the spirit of the thing, acting their parts out more and more, rather than just reading them. Things remained somewhat informal, with Abraham at one point casting an aside to the audience at one of the more awkward line readings, "That's supposed to be a big laugh line. I don't get it, either."

Now, by itself, none of this is all that noteworthy (or blogworthy, as it were). Except that towards the end of the piece, in a scene where Gretchen (the young woman Faust seduces with the help of the Devil) is being tortured by evil spirits, a young man entered the theater by the main entrance, and stood just off-stage, as if waiting to make his appearance. The guy -- tall, blond, pretty fit -- was completely, full-monty naked, except for his shoes and socks.

It says a lot for my experience of off-Broadway theater that my only immediate reaction was "That's peculiar. No one else is in costume."

After a few seconds, F. Murray Abraham (and only F. Murray Abraham) gets up from his seat and says, in his stage voice, "Hey! We're doing a play, here!" And prodding Naked Guy with the edge of his script binder, Abraham pushes the guy back out the main entrance. Shortly, the Creative Director of the CSC follows Abraham out the door.

The actors keep on playing. The ones that are seated exchange looks between them. After a couple of beats, the actress playing Gretchen (who's on her knees because she's supposed to be praying in that scene) says, "Can we take this from the last line?" And everyone in the theater, actors and audience, broke up laughing.

After the laughing was over, the play went on. After everyone took their final bows, I kept expecting for someone to make an announcement about Naked Guy -- who he was, why he showed up, or even just apologizing for the disruption. Nothing. Naked Guy remains a total mystery.

As they say, only in New York.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Week In Review: Yankee Blue

To begin with, I owe an apology to Mike Lupica. And Lisa Olson. And Ray Ratto. And Bill Madden. And Phil Mushnik. Everyone who seemed to have a hate-on for Jason Giambi, and against steroids.


OK, I'm back from the bathroom after vomiting up all the crow I just ate. Couldn't keep it down. Filthy stuff, that.

I've been on the run a lot this week, and was on the run to a court in the depths of Long Island when I heard the news. I was in a cab, on a ride that cost about the price of my regular commute for the entire week, when the story led off the newscast. Jason Giambi admits steroid use. This was leading the news not on one of the local sports radio outfits, but on the all-news station, WINS (I know, sounds like sports radio call letters, don't it?). This was the story of the day.

Now I was stuck on this long-ass ride now with a driver that couldn't stop talking about it. What the hell was Giambi thinking, that damn loser? Didn't he ever hear of Lyle Alzado? Why didn't Jason realize that he already had all the money he needed? What about the children, the poor little ones that look up to Jason as a role model?!?

The driver didn't know this, but I've defended Giambi in the past, and I've written a thing or two about steroids. Still, I didn't really have much to say on that long ride -- I chatted with the driver about MLB's steroid testing policy, agreed that it would probably get tougher, now, talked to him about Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco. But I didn't have much to say about Giambi. I was kind of in shock.

The thing was, this news wasn't really a surprise. Giambi's weight loss last Spring was suspicious, and a writer I admire very much said once that looking at Giambi in the Yankee locker room, you could see where he'd gotten "more tatoos to cover up the acne" that steroid use can cause. Giambi had been called before the BALCO grand jury in 2003, and had developed a variety of illnesses and injuries during his time with the Yankees that raised eyebrows -- patella tendonitis, intestinal parasites, staph infections in his eyes, and ultimately a tumor, allegedly in his pituitary gland. So I thought it was possible, maybe even probable, that Giambi had been on the juice at some point in his career.

But knowing something is different than suspecting it. Knowing is different than admitting it's possible. That's what Giambi's grand jury testimony means to fans -- we can no longer plead ignorance, or give Jason the benefit of the doubt.

He's a cheat, a knowing cheat, and a liar.

Before we go on on that path, let's say a few things about grand jury testimony. Revealing grand jury testimony is a crime, the exceptions mainly being if the testimony becomes part of the public record at trial, or if the grand jury witness tells their own story. As we've seen before with the Sheffield leak right before the playoffs, the BALCO investigation is leaking like a sieve. Grand jury testimony is being quoted verbatim, and the San Francisco Chronicle claimed to have seen transcripts of Giambi's testimony.

I'd love to see some prosecutions of the cretins who are leaking grand jury minutes -- although, since the leaks might just come from the Justice Department, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Ironically, right before I got in the cab where I learned about Giambi, I'd been reading an Op-Ed column in the New York Times by Eugene Volokh, about creating a "journalist's priviledge" that would protect both mainstream journalists and bloggers from being forced to reveal their sources in court. One of Volokh's ideas had some resonance to this situation, at least a day before the story hit the written media:

Lawmakers could pass legislation that protects leakers who lawfully reveal information, like those who blow the whistle on governmental or corporate misconduct. But if a leaker tries to use a journalist as part of an illegal act - for example, by disclosing a tax return or the name of a C.I.A. agent so that it can be published - then the journalist may be ordered to testify.
In this case, under Volokh's rule, a judge would be able to compel the SF Chronicle reporters on the Giambi story to testify and reveal the source of the illegal grand jury leak. He's got my support...

Back to Giambi -- a lot of great work has already been done discussing the Giambi situation, and I don't want to rehash it. The best blog entry I've seen so far on the subject comes courtesy of Cliff's Big Red Blog. Cliff Corcoran's take on the situation is balanced and fairly comprehensive; other good angles have been examined by some of the usual suspects -- Jay Jaffe, Alex Belth, Brother Joe at BP, Sean McNally at Replacement Level Yankee.

In the mainstream media, Giambi's public flogging is being executed with no small measure of vindictiveness. After all, Giambi, aside from being a steroid-shooting cheater, is The Man Who Dared Lie to the Reporters.

Oddly, the mildest rebuke of all may have come from Mike Lupica, who went easy on Jason as a tradeoff toward hunting bigger game -- Barry Bonds:

Giambi gets no sympathy for being the kind of drug cheat that Barry Bonds and all the others have to be, even if he deserved better than he got from these prosecutors who promised him his grand jury testimony would be sealed and then gave him up in front of the world. So Giambi, who wanted to take drugs so he could hit more home runs and make more money, takes the fall for everybody. By telling the truth. You wonder if Bonds, the one they've been after all along, will ever do the same.

Lupica's Daily News colleague, Bill Madden, won't even give Giambi credit for honesty in front of the Grand Jury, insisting that instead, Giambi was too stupid to lie:

In the face of all the adversity these past two seasons in New York, Giambi crumbled. Apparently, things weren't much different on the witness stand where, unlike Bonds, he didn't have the capacity to cleverly answer the steroid questions without actually answering them. (By contrast, it matters not that Giambi lied to the media all spring about the same issues - we're easy to lie to.)
Things get even more breathless when you listen to Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post:

He thought he'd fooled the world, Giambi did. Thought nobody noticed how a skinny singles hitter blossomed into a powerful home-run freak overnight. Thought nobody heard the whispers that tailed him. He's been lying the whole time.
If Mike paid any attention to the grand jury testimony, or Giambi's career, he'd have noticed that Giambi "blossomed into a powerful home-run freak" before he started using steroids in 2001 (heck, he won the MVP the year before he started using), and maybe even realize that Giambi had never been a "singles hitter". Don't let the facts get in the way of the story, I guess.

Over at Newsday, John Heyman unloads on Jason with both barrels, talking about the first baseman's carousing ways, and demanding that Giambi "Ask that any statistic or trace of him be expunged from record books, right down to his date of birth". In today's Daily News, class act Lisa Olson puts the smackdown to Giambi's dad, presumably because she thinks it's a fun thing to do, or perhaps as a measure of revenge for causing her "to blush" with his off-color tales of nights on the town.

Personally, the feeling I have about Jason is closer to sadness than anger. Sure, I'm ticked that Giambi denied using 'roids for over a year after he came clean under oath. I'm upset that the Yanks have this sack of damaged goods on the roster, with no defensive value, possibly no bat anymore, nothing but a black hole, owed $80someodd Million dollars over the next four years.

But mainly, I'm sad for the Yanks. It had looked like 2004 was going to be a good year for the team, and in many ways it was. But the way the ALCS ended, paired with the major disappointments presented by Kevin Brown and Javy Vazquez, and now an off-season dominated by steroids and Giambi -- well, it's all pretty depressing.

The worst part about all of it is there's a scent of doom around the franchise at this moment. The so-called Fall of the Yankee Dynasty, retrospectively marked by Buster OIney as the end of the 2001 World Series, takes on more life each time this franchise suffers a black eye like the one Giambi has given it. When these things happen, we're reminded that the "legendary, sainted" 1996-2001 Yankees would never have done low-class stuff like shoot up Human Growth Hormone. Those Yankees, the Real Yankees, also would have found some way to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS, and of course, they wouldn't have lost to the Marlins last year, so they'd be on course for a three-peat in 2005. Sure.

Right now, rumors abound of these "Real Yankees" making returns to Yankee Stadium. Joe Girardi is the bench coach, now, but you get the feeling he could be told to suit up at any minute. Ditto Luis Sojo. Mike Stanton has already returned to the Bronx (more on this in a moment), and this Giambi news only makes it more likely that Tino Martinez will return to lead the team at first base.

This phenomenon requires a more substantial discussion than I can give now, but here's a summary of what I think about it: in baseball, you have to move forward, you have to continually improve. Those 1996-2001 teams didn't stand still, they always made changes -- David Wells, Chuck Knoblauch, Roger Clemens -- and added kids from the minors like Spencer, Ledee, and Soriano. You can't go backward, as much as nostalgia and a few seasons where you don't bring home World Series rings might tempt you.

Speaking of going backward, the big call around town has been for the Yanks to void Giambi's contract for juicing. Unless someone had some foresight of this when they made up Giambi's contract (and I think we'd have heard of that by now, if they had) I don't see how this is possible. Set aside the "illegal grand jury transcript" evidentiary problem, and the "what did the Yankees know, and when did they know it" problem. Even then, you have the most simple problem of them all: the Collective Bargaining Agreement has already set out what the punishments are for steroid use, and having your contract voided isn't among them.

This is the downside of having a steroid policy. In 2002, when steroid testing wasn't in place, maybe the Yankees could have tried to void Giambi's contract, maybe Bud Selig could have used his "best interests of the game" powers.

But the same agreement that imposed steroid testing on players also established a regime for disciplining them for steroid-related offenses. You can say that the disciplinary measures of the 2002 CBA are too soft, but the fact of the matter is, no matter what disciplinary system they chose, it wasn't going to be "one strike, you're out" an automatic ban for a first offense.

The Yankees can still try, and they have plenty of lawyers with more experience, and more knowledge of the situation, than I have. The Yankees can also try to bully Jason, remind him how nasty Yankee fans can be, and convince him that he doesn't want to play out the rest of his career in pinstripes. Heck, maybe they convince him that he just wants to hang up his spikes, period, and wouldn't he like a nice 60 cents on the dollar buyout as a parting gift?

I wish them the best of luck in this. They can't trade Giambi, couldn't trade him even before he came out as a liar and a cheat. They probably can't keep him on the DL for the next four years, like the Orioles did with Albert Belle, or the Mets with Mo Vaughn. But they have to do something, because I have a hard time imagining how I could ever cheer for the man again.

Don't get me wrong. I wish Jason the best of luck, particularly for his health, but also for his game. It's not impossible that he could come back next year, healthy and steroid-free, and slug 30-40 homers on the season. But for purely selfish reasons, I hope it's not with the Yankees. As a fan, I have to wonder, how can you revel in someone's accomplishments when you can't stand to look them in the eye? I know I can forgive the juicing and the lies, but how can I ever like this guy again?

So I apologize to the mean-spirited representatives of the Fourth Estate, who tried to warn us this day was coming. I'm sorry, damn you.

Uh oh. I just realized I forgot to apologize to Selena Roberts. Oh, man, I think I'm going to be sick again.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Movie Review: Bad Education

I've always enjoyed the work of Pedro Almodovar, but a few years ago he seemed to make a leap -- from intriguing foreign director to Great Filmmaker -- with the release of All About My Mother and Talk To Her. Prior to those two films, Almodovar was considered a filmmaker of great promise, whose work was often too absurd for anyone to take him seriously as an artist -- his sensibility was a mix of Fellini and Benny Hill. Often, he built films around gags that stumbled across the line of good taste -- most notoriously a "comical" rape scene in Kika.

(By the way, great date film, Kika. Laugh even once during that rape scene -- and Almodovar's really trying to make you laugh -- and the date's over. Kinda like the Deniro/Cybill Shepherd date in Taxi Driver.)

Since All About My Mother, bigger and better things have been expected from Almodovar, and his audience in the U.S. has grown. There was a lot of anticipation behind the newest Almodovar ouvre, La Mala Educacion ("Bad Education" in Ingles), starring the hot latin actor of the moment Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, The Crime of Father Amaro, Y Tu Mama Tambien). Sadly, the movie doesn't quite live up to expectations.

The story in a nutshell: Enrique, an up-and-coming director, is approached by Ignacio (Garcia Bernal), an actor claiming to be a childhood friend. Enrique doesn't recognize the actor, but does recognize a story Ignacio has written, about Ignacio's childhood abuse at the hands of a priest, and his love affair with another student at his all-boys Catholic school -- Enrique.

Naturally, Enrique wants to make a movie out of the story, and we watch this movie-within-a-movie unfold alongside flashbacks, and Enrique's present-day investigation of Ignacio's story. Ultimately, since this is Almodovar's take on film noir, the plot (or plots) turn to blackmail and murder.

To say that Bad Education is a disappointment doesn't mean it's a total failure. There are a few moments of classic Almodovar in the film. An early scene in which Bernal, as a lounge-singing drag queen that looks disturbingly like Julia Roberts, hustles a patron, shows some of the old Almodovar humor. Another haunting scene shows the first encounter between the young Ignacio and his molester, overlaid with shots of grade school age boys playing in a lake, while the Ignacio sings "Moon River" to the priest.

Still, Bad Education gives you relatively little in return for what it puts you through. While some claim that a homophobic MPAA's fear of some fairly graphic male-on-male sex scenes earned the film an NC-17 rating, I'd bet that the implied sexual contact between two children (the young Enrique and Ignacio) had more to do with it.

Still, sex isn't the problem with Bad Education. The real problem is a lack of substance. The film has an interesting premise -- a film noir based on recent church scandals, with a reinvention of the "femme fatale" thrown in for good measure -- a few decent plot twists, and good performances by Garcia Bernal, the child actors who play the young Enrique and Ignacio, and Lluis Homar (who is the spitting image of Kelsey Grammer) as a former priest with a secret.

Still, a noir crime will always leave you empty if you don't care about the victim, the criminal, or the investigator trying to get to the bottom of it all. The film falls apart around the central character of Enrique, Almodovar's filmic alter-ego. Although the text epilogue tells us that Enrique went on to continue making films with passion (and in case you don't get the point, the camera lingers on the word "passion"); the grown-up Enrique comes off as a callous, cynical, cold fish of a guy. You find yourself coming to the end of the movie wondering what, exactly, was the point.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Takes a Turkey to Know a Turkey

Sorry for the quiet week -- computer trouble on the home front and a late-scheduled Turkey Day (observed on Saturday because just about everyone was out of town on Thursday) have held things up a little bit.

The link up top is to one of Madden's columns in the Daily News, in which he elects -- in the true Thanksgiving Spirit -- to declare 10 Major Leaguers "Turkeys". Ain't that sweet? Here's his list:

1. Nomar Garciaparra
2. Sammy Sosa
3. Kevin Brown
4. Kevin Millwood
5. Jerry Colangelo
6. Jason Giambi
7. Jose Valentin
8. Brian Anderson
9. Jimy Williams
10. Alex Gonzalez (Marlins Edition)

The offseason lends itself to three kinds of baseball columns in the mainstream media. There are the gossip columns where our pals in the Fourth Estate tell us what "highly-placed" sources in such-and-such organization tell them are sure-fire deals, 95% of which never come to fruition. Lots of others mind the gossip column because of its abysmally low accuracy rate, but I think that rumors, so long as you take them with an appropriately large grain of salt, have value even if they're completely wrong. I mean, I'd rather hear an inaccurate baseball trade rumor than not have any baseball news at all.

Second type of story is the fluff-piece. These are human interest stories, reports of charity events the players or teams are throwing, whose parent survived cancer, that kind of thing. Fluff-pieces also cover profiles of obscure team personnel.

The third type of story, which gets delivered with much more gusto than the two others, is the hatchet job. This is where the columnist gets to even scores -- real or imagined -- by dissing those that have wronged them. Sometimes they're simple, mildly embarassing reproaches -- if you see an article where the columnist takes a player to task for not being the leader that the team needs, and then calls on the player to "make his voice heard", that's code for the player needs to do better post-game interviews. Often, they're nastier, like this "Turkey List."

Sammy Sosa, #2 on the Turkey list, is Madden's white whale. I doubt Madden has skipped an opportunity to to slam Sammy in three or four years. If I recall correctly, the feud goes back to Sosa snubbing the New York Baseball Writers dinner, which Madden organizes. Ever since, Madden has taken unusual pleasure in Sammy's drops in production, his corked bat scandal, the unsubstantiated rumors of steroid use.

Aside from Sosa, Madden picks on three players (Garciaparra, Brown, and Giambi) each of whose prime sin was getting injured. Aside from Brown's broken hand, none of those injuries was intentional -- unless you doubt that Giambi actually had parasites and a tumor, or that Nomar actually had a torn Achilles tendon.

Madden's slam of Jerry Colangelo, while accurate, seems an outgrowth of the Steinbrenner/Colangelo feud that dates back to 2001 or earlier. Kevin Millwood's place of honor is an oblique attack on universally-despised agent Scott Boras, who has apparently screwed his client by misreading last year's free agent market. No idea what sins, if any, Valentin, Anderson, Williams and Gonzalez committed against Madden -- heck, maybe they were just thrown in to round out the list.

I guess that's why I object to this kind of column. There's a lot of personal stuff that seems to go into these hatchet job pieces, of which the public is seldom made aware. Last year, after Madden changed his mind on the "Bert Blyleven to the Hall of Fame" issue, Madden related an anecdote in which Blyleven was extremely rude to Madden and another reporter back during Bert's playing days. Madden averred that Blyleven's rude act had absolutely nothing to do with Madden's refusal to give Bert his Hall of Fame vote for the first several years Blyleven was on the ballot. I'll take him at his word on that. But there's still the problem that all those years Madden wrote that Blyleven just wasn't great enough for the Hall of Fame, no one knew about this potential bias.

I guess I just wish that when Hatchet Job time comes, the columnists would come clean about any unreported bad business between themselves and the hatcheted ones. Next time Lisa Olson puts the smackdown to Jason Giambi, I'd like to know if he's been one of the long list of clubhouse sexists she's encountered in her career. I'd love to know why no one likes Jose Valentin (although, looking at his numbers, that .286 OBP last year is scary) and what on earth Brian Anderson has done to earn a reporters ire.

I'll tell you one thing, I doubt that any of this is just based on what's happening on the field.

[UPDATE: There's a lesson here about trusting yourself. About 10 minutes after first posting this article, I was re-reading the Madden article where he talks about Blyleven farting in his face. I noticed that Madden spelled Blyleven's first name "Burt" (like the guy that used to play Robin on the Batman TV Show) rather than "Bert" (as in "...and Ernie"). So I thought "Good heavens, I've been misspelling Blyleven's name for the past 17 years!" and immediately changed all my "Berts" to "Burts". Turns out I was right, Madden and the Daily News' editors were wrong. I correct myself, which just puts me right back where I started from.]

Monday, November 22, 2004

I See Paris, I See France...

So Sunday afternoon, after lunch with my friends Rich and Anne, and their 17 month-old, La Chiquita and I are strolling through SoHo. We stop on Prince Street at an eyeware place, something La Chiquita's been agitating for because a) I'm a four-eyed geek and b) my glasses tend to look like I've chained them to the back of a truck and allowed them to be dragged through a mile's worth of gravel.

The guy behind the counter falls into that category of near-perfect salesmen: focused, friendly, he made you feel like you're the only person in the store. His first suggestion looks great, the next few suggestions went on some interesting tangents, before he locks on what he and my girl agree is a good look.

Anyway, we have his undivided attention until someone steps to the counter right behind me. He quickly turns away and says "Oh, hi Paris!" in a tone of voice that's just a little too enthusiastic.

So I have a sneaking suspicion of what's going on behind me, but there are rules for celebrity-watching in New York. Kind of like the rules for going to the zoo, just slightly different.

Rule one is no gawking, at least not when you run into celebs in the wild. If they're working on a movie or doing a public appearance you can stare at them all you like, but if they're just buying groceries, it's creepy.

Rule two is no "Hey, aren't you that guy from that movie?" If you know who the celebrity is, you can say hello. Asking them who they are is bush-league.

Rule three is that the rules for talking to celebrities are no different than they are for talking to any other stranger. You probably wouldn't interrupt a stranger in public while they're talking on a cell phone, or in between bites of a meal, so it's probably not nice to do that to someone just because you've seen them in the newspaper.

So, rules properly remembered, I simply ignored the young lady behind me, who rattled off a half-dozen brand names at my sales guy, and continued trying on the frames we'd set aside and talking to my girlfriend. Eventually, a slim girl in a green sweatsuit walked into my eyeline, to look at herself in the mirror. She was attractive, but relatively non-descript except for two things 1) she was carrying a small dog in a pouch in her top, which made it look like she was pregnant and 2) she was Paris Hilton.

Not having anything to say really (what were the options? "You and Nicole Richie are some real spoiled broads?" or "I hear you showed some amazing technique in that video?"), we collected the names of the two "finalist" frames, for when I return with my eyeglass prescription, and left the store. On the way out, we passed Paris' bodyguard, a big guy who was perfectly positioned to flatten anyone coming into or out of the store.

NOTES/Week in Review

The baseball silence right now is deafening. The team that's making the biggest moves right now is the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals/Limbo Barnstormers, a team that's technically homeless, ownerless, and directionless. The big moves involve names like Jose Guillen, Cristian Guzman, and -- get this -- Vinny Castilla.

That's quality stuff.

Blogger reaction to this thin time is all over the place. Bronx Banter is talking Thai food, the Futility Infielder is talking torn labrums, and Will Carroll Presents is blinking on and off like the sign at Kenny Rodgers Roasters.

In local news, the Mets extended Kris Benson. The world sleeps more soundly knowing that the Mets have secured a third #4 starter.

In Yankeeland, the big news is more a low grumble about pitching. Pedro visited last week, and the ongoing he said/she said on whether the Yanks offered a contract is what passes for entertainment around these parts. Scott Boras is still on a napoleonic power trip with Carlos Beltran, so there's no news on that front.

I don't see a Curt Schilling Thanksgiving bonanza happening this week.

In the world of hoops, Ron Artest, with a little help from his friends, managed to one-up Frank Francisco in the sports punk Hall of Infamy. Doesn't look too good for Pistons fans, either.

Throughout the years, the fans have gotten farther and farther away from the action at sporting events. Compare Fenway Park to Yankee Stadium, or Shea. Some of it is bad design, a little more of it is safety concerns. Hard foul balls lead to the screens behind the plate, pucks into the stands lead to plexiglass barriers in hockey -- that is, when there is hockey.

Now crazy players are a hazard, on the same level as foul balls and hockey pucks. This Artest incident is just another element that's going to press venues to create more separation between the crowd and the game. I think it'll only be when we're all watching sporting events from behind a moat and a barbed wire fence that the idiots out there -- both on the field and in the stands -- will realize what's being lost, here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

It's Not Easy Being Sheff

Gary Sheffield's played with big-time pain this year, participated in the huge ALCS loss to the Red Sox, has been called in before a grand jury in the BALCO investigation, and has had to admit to "unknowing" steroid use back in the days when he used to hang with Barry Bonds.

That's a tough year. One thing you don't need to hear after a year like that is about things your wife supposedly did back when she was dating R. Kelly, much less be blackmailed by some jackass who has gotten a copy of one of Mr. Kelly's amateur films.

In a word, yuck!

The timing of this release, coming fast on the heels of Sheff's second-place finish in the AL MVP race, is fishy. Were Sheff's people holding the announcement, so it wouldn't detract from Gary's MVP hopes? Or were the tabloids holding the story, hoping to piggy-back this on an MVP award?

We'll probably never know.

Sheff's shown a lot of grace this year--in everything other than how he handled his relationship with former friend Barry Bonds, that is. But he played hurt, he produced on offense, he came clean with the grand jury, and now he's sticking up for his wife. Good job, all around.


Congrats to Vlad Guerrero, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Johan Santana for their MVP/Cy Young honors. Also congrats to former Yankee manager Buck Showalter on his AL Manager of the Year award.

Check out today's Prospectus Triple Play over at Baseball Prospectus. It's near and dear to our heart, and it gives some good explanations on why the Yanks shouldn't sign Carl Pavano, why dropping Jon Lieber's option was probably a good idea, and reveals at long last who was the Yank's ALCS LVP (that's Least Valuable Player).

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Hall of Fame Blogs

Less than a month after their teams met in the World Series, two of the most prominent bloggers covering the Red Sox and the Cardinals have shut down their storefronts. Ed Cossette, the proprietor of Bambino's Curse, shut down his site just after the Red Sox broke their championship-less streak, being able to claim, in a voice more confident than the President's, "Mission Accomplished". Brian Gunn, the super-prolific writer of the Redbird Nation blog, shut down this week for reasons that were less satisfying, but nonetheless understandable.

I've thought about this sort of thing a few times since Doug Pappas, whose blog has a place of honor on my blogroll for as long as I have one, passed away. Is there a Baseball Blog Hall of Fame for those on-line diaries that have passed into history? Ed's promised that the Bambino's website will never go dark, Greg Tamer and later SABR tooks steps to ensure that Doug's website would remain available to the world on-line, after his untimely passing. Gunn is now talking about editing and publishing his Redbird Nation writings.

Makes you wonder if there are plans afoot to make sure other surefire Hall-of-Fame blogs, like Bronx Banter, Aaron's Baseball Blog, Futility Infielder and Bat-Girl are never lost to the world, even if their proprietors should decide to pull up stakes on their domains and websites?

Anyway, if there is to be a BB Bloggers HOF, I'd nominate Cossette, Gunn, and Pappas for the first ballot. Will, for what it's worth, you ain't gettin' nominated, because Will Carroll Presents' retirement is about as permanent as the first two Michael Jordan retirements. C'mon, snap out of it! The way that things turned out means the world needs more of ya, not less.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Awards Time...

A little late in coming, but since the Awards Season is here, I thought I'd post my IBA ballot, with a few honorable mentions and a few comments:

NL Cy Young
HM Lidle, Zambrano

Yeah, I know, Clemens over Johnson is so not a stathead thing to do. Johnson had the better year, Clemens pitched in a tougher division. Roger's team was the wildcard, Randy's was in last place. VORP places Randy and Roger 8 runs apart, not quite a win's worth of difference. That's close enough for me.
[UPDATE: The BWAA has spoken, and Roger is the 2004 NL Cy Young. Congrats to the Rocket -- Are you sure you wanna retire?]

HM Helton Clemens Thome

There's one guy at the top, and about a dozen guys behind him who could go in any variety of orders. Discuss.

NL Rookie
HM Otsuka

We've already heard back from the BWAA on this one. Greene got jobbed -- I don't think the voters appreciated the Petco effect on Greene's stats -- but I have to feel good for the Pirates organization, which got its first Rookie of the Year. 'Bout time.

NL Manager
Forget Manager of the Year. After the Braves won the division (again) we needed Bobby in the White House. Damn primary rules...

A. Rodriguez
HM Pudge Rodriguez, Ortiz, Hafner, Jeter

The Impaler put up big numbers, and held together an Angels team that couldn't stay off the DL (Anderson, Glaus, Salmon, Erstad, Donnelly, Percival) or out of the doghouse (Jose Guillen). Not sure what else you need to do to be the MVP. Sheff gets jobbed on this ballot because I fear my own biases (yep, I'm a wuss).

AL Cy Young
HM K-Rod

Near-Bondsian dominance. In a year without a supernatural performance, Stigmata Ankle Guy would've taken home the trophy.

AL Rookie

Again, the writers have already spoken. I can see why they didn't vote for my guy -- bad won/loss, good-but-not-great ERA, not flashy. And the other hand, Crosby did smack 22 homers and flash some good leather. Crosby also hit .239 with a .316 OBP. It sucks that the Twins frittered away Lew Ford's and Justin Morneau's eligibility, since they would've finished 1-2 on my ballot.

AL Manager

Buck's an old favorite, who turned an ugly team around this summer. It was an amazing job, but he should enjoy this award while it lasts. If Buck doesn't know what I'm talking about, he can just ask Tony Pena.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Week In Review 11/07/04

A lot of ground to cover for this week, here are the headlines:

The Golden Child

A year ago, this would have been a Hell-Freezing-Over event: Derek Jeter, of "past a diving Jeter" fame, is the 2004 AL Gold Glove winner at shortstop.

Jeter's defense has been one of the most contentious issues of the past 10 years. Sabermetricians -- you might call them stat-heads, Moneyball-types, or reality-based baseball analysts -- have held that if you look at the number of plays Jeter doesn't make on the field, (rather than just looking at his errors, or his highlight-reel plays) Jeter sucks as a shortstop.

Some numbers. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) a stat that measures the number of balls hit into Jeter's defensive zone, and what he did with those balls, lists Jeter as worst among qualifying shortstops for the years 2000-2003. Bill James' stat, Win Shares, had Jeter at 1.36 Win Shares for 2003, 14th out of 14 players who had 600 innings played at short that year. Baseball Prospectus' Davenport translations put it this way:

Year/Rate(100 is average)/Runs Above Average

Looks bad, doesn't it? I can't do rankings for each year, but those negative numbers are pretty bad -- they mean he was allowing about 20 runs per year more than a regular shortstop. However, something interesting happens when you look at the numbers for this year:


Now, 102 isn't usually Gold Glove material, but it is a big improvement. The improvement could be seen in other figures. Jeter registered 7.2 defensive win shares in 2004, tied for 3rd in the league with Miguel Tejada, behind only Bobby Crosby (7.5 dWS) and Cristian Guzman (9.6 dWS). As reported by Aaron Gleeman and Brother Joe, UZR has Jeter as the 7th best shortstop in the league, at -4 UZR runs.

Part of the reason that defensive metrics don't get the respect they deserve is the type of disagreement we see here. One metric lists Jeter as the 7th best in the league and slightly below average in absolute terms; another lists him as the fifth best, and slightly above average; yet another has him as the league's third best shorstop, and well above-average defensively.

Yet all three measures agree on two things: 1) Jeter improved a lot from 2003 to 2004, and 2) Jeter was not, by any measure, the best defensive shortstop in the AL this year. My highly-unscientific eyeball perception of Jeter said the same thing -- you saw less "past a diving Jeter" this year than ever before. Jeter looked more comfortable working with Miguel Cairo than he had with his dance partners of the past few years -- Alfonso Soriano, Chuck Knowblauch, and Enrique Wilson.

But at the same time, you knew you weren't looking at Ozzie Smith, circa 1982 here. Except for one day, with one play that (I believe) won Jeter this Gold Glove. When they woke up the morning of July 2, 2004, just about everyone in America saw Jeter make an incredible running catch of a pop up down the line in left field, and then do a faceplant into the stands. Heck, if you're the one person in America that didn't see it, click the header -- MLB links to it in the article about Jetes winning the gold glove.

It is unfair that Jeter won the award when he wasn't the best fielder in the league, and when the voters probably placed inordinate weight in one hype-filled play.

Based upon the numbers, it looks like Miguel Tejada should have won the Gold Glove. Clay Davenport has Tejada as BP's gold glove vote, and Tejada tops the list in UZR. Other candidates with better or equal claims to Jeter's include Guzman, Crosby, Jose Valentin, Carlos Guillen, and Julio Lugo.

Still, I'm happy for Jeter, but somewhat sad for the Yankees. Defense tends to get worse as players age, and if Jeter continued on his career trend -- that is, if this year was just a fluke -- then Jeter will be a horrific shortstop in four or five years.

And no matter how horrible he is, he will remain a shortstop, because he now has "2004 Gold Glove Shortstop" on his resume. Even when he has all of the range of one of the monuments behind center field.

Flushing Willie

After years of being every organization's favorite diversity interviewee, Willie Randolph has finally put his hands to the helm of a major league club. Omar Minaya signed Willie on as Art Howe's replacement this week, meaning that not only does the Yankees' bench coach fulfill his dream of becoming a manager, he doesn't even have to move his family to take the new job.

Still, Mets' clubhouse can be a treaturous place, full of high expectations and low blows. Here's some unsolicited advice to Willie on how to survive in Flushing, by way of Mario Puzo:

1. Keep Your Friends Close, but Keep the Media Closer

The key to Torre's success as Yankees manager might not lie in his prior managing jobs with the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals, but in his experience as a broadcaster. The media can kill managers who they view as insufficiently forthright (Howe) or manipulative (Bobby Valentine).

2. Get Yourself a Wartime Consiglieri

Randolph's biggest perceived failing is his lack of actual managing experience. This is the kind of thing that's likely to bring his in-game strategy into question early and often this season.

One way to defuse this criticism is by hiring an old crusty baseball guy to be his bench coach. Requirements are big-league managing experience, a willingness to play second banana, and a guy personable enough you'd want to sit next to him every inning for the next 162 games. If you answered Don Zimmer, you're on the right track.

3. Make Sure John Franco Sleeps with the Fishes

The Mets are a veteran team, where many of the players might have better relationships with the media, and with ownership, than their manager. Finding and eliminating anyone who undermines his authority is a must for Willie's survival in Flushing.

Two of the biggest clubhouse lawyers on the Mets were in the news this week. John Franco, who has some unsavory friends to go with his poor performance, has been told he won't be pitching for the Mets in 2005. Good riddance, fromWillie's point of view. Junior GM Al Leiter is now a free agent, the Mets will likely buy out his 2005 $10 Million option this coming week. He might be back at a discount rate, but there's more hope of Al getting along with Randolph: after all, the two were teammates on the 1988 Yanks.

4. Be a Good Godfather to the Mets' Kids

The Mets stand to have a great left side of the infield with phenom thirdbaseman David Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes. While most reports on Wright's makeup are extremely positive, Reyes has frustrated many by failing to follow a running program that the team established in hopes of preventing further leg injuries to the fragile shortstop.

Reyes will likely be the key to the Mets hopes in 2005, and Willie's most important job will be to make major leaguers out of Reyes, Wright, Victor Diaz and Craig Brazell.

(And Willie, if you need some help keeping Reyes' legs healthy, I have a friend who swears he could fix Jose right up. So give Will a call. Maybe you'll help get him out of the post-election blues.)

5. Don't Be a Fool For Those Big Shots

Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the Lord of Met Manor and his heir, have an identity problem. They want to be hands-on with their ballclub, like Steinbrenner. They want to have a corps of "baseball guys" in the front office, like George has. They want a winning ball team.

But the way it's worked out, they're closer to the Dolans than to the Boss. Willie's going to have to earn their respect in order to be effective -- remind them that he knows a thing or two about winning, and that this is why they hired him. A bad, early sign: the Wilpons apparently want to hire the runner-up in their managerial search, Rudy Jaramillo, as Willie's hitting coach. That's a bright idea, along the lines of making the runner-up in the Presidential election the Vice President.

To Mel, or Not To Mel

Some say he's gone for sure, and that Neil Allen's on the way from Columbus to take over as Torre's pitching coach. Others say that Mel Stottlemyre still doesn't know whether he wants to retire or keep coaching.

Either way, the result will be somewhat disappointing. I wish that the Yanks would approach the hiring of coaches the same way they do other personnel decisions -- pay top dollar to recruit the best. If Mel's gone, you'd think it would be worthwhile to try to lure Larry Dierker out of retirement, or some other reknowned pitching coach, to try to get Javy Vazquez back on track.

Now, maybe Neil will be a great coach. As Jay Jaffe points out (2nd half of the post) he's had some success with the Clippers. Maybe Mel will return, in which case the 2005 season might be a wash for some pitchers. Either way, folks should make their decisions sooner, rather than later.

Random Play

Odd spectacle this week, with the Diamondbacks hiring, and then firing, Wally Backman. Backman's managing future seems permanently imperiled by his history of domestic abuse, alcohol-related arrests, and financial instability. Worse was that the team that hired him didn't think to do a thorough backround check before putting the man in charge of a multimillion dollar roster.

Jon Lieber's option was dropped this week. The Yanks hope to re-sign him for less dough.

Fred Hickman is the first casualty of budget cuts over at the YES Network. Suddenly, the Yanks' TV and radio broadcasts are taking the look of a soap opera.

Nomar at second? Pass, I think.

So far this off-season Rocco Baldelli and Lance Berkman have both blown out their knees playing backyard games. You'd think that people would learn, after Aaron Boone's contract was scotched...

Yes, I know that some non-baseball related stuff happened last week. Maybe I'll be ready to talk about it next week.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Rivalry Roundtables

Over the weekend, I participated in a roundtable over at Alex Belth's Bronx Banter website, on the Yankees/Red Sox Rivalry, the 2004 Edition, along with bloggers Jay Jaffe, Cliff Corcoran, Mike Carminati, and Patrick Sullivan (a/k/a "Sully") and columnists Rob Neyer and King Kaufman. Here are the links:
Also at the Bronx Banter website, there's a great guest-column by Christopher DeRosa, addressing "The Character Problem". Here's a great quote:

But writers’ observations about the Yankees’ alleged character problem lack credibility when you know from experience that they were perfectly ready to write it the other way. If Mariano Rivera, whom we generally agree is not a gutless loser, has a better inning in game 4, then the Yankees would have been gritty pros, and the Red Sox would have been underachievers who talk too much. The sports media present a world in which only one team in thirty has heart, and they’ll let you know which one it is right after the last out of the World Series.

In other news, the Yanks have already cut strings with Travis Lee, and elected not to pick up Paul Quantrill's option ... for 2006. A bunch of Yankee prospects are in the Arizona Fall League, where reliever Sam Marsonek, being used as a starter by the Grand Canyon Rafters, is among the league leaders in strikeouts (yes, we're desperate for baseball news here). This story also features a rare sighting of Cuban refugee Yobal Duenas, the national team second baseman the Yanks picked up last Spring. He's listed as a DH for the Rafters, and apparently he spent last season getting "some" Gulf Coast League action.
I guess that's one player to write off the depth chart.
Elsewhere on the web, YES editor Will Weiss does a good job telling us what the Red Sox and Inigo Montoya have in common in The Dread Pirate Red Sox.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Good-Bye Baseball, 2004

So, as I predicted the last time, the Red Sox did not suffer an all-time choke job to rival the Yanks' 4 straight losses in the ALCS. Indeed, they swept the Cardinals to end one of sports' most storied championship droughts and cause jubilation throughout the Red Sox Nation.

Yesterday was the parade, in which the Sox players were carried on amphibious vehicles up the Charles River. During this part of the procession, someone had the good aim to nail Pedro Martinez in the forehead with a baseball. That "good aim" part was a bit of sarcasm, as you shouldn't throw things at people, even if they're annoying folks running around with their own personal mini-me's.

As bad as Yankee fans sometimes are, I'm pretty sure that assaulting a Yankee (even a sucky one, like circa 1996 Kenny Rogers) at a World Series victory parade is a hanging offense. The cops would have easily located the offender from the "[insert profane reference to the rectum here]" chant, if mob justice had not already been done.

But someone nails Pedro on the noggin in the very heart of the Red Sox Nation? Pedro, the World Series Game 3 hero? None of the Sox fans in attendance saw anything. And there were no reports of men mysteriously hung from lampposts, either. Scandalous.

Seriously, there are a lot of deserving Red Sox fans out there, including my ex-roomie David R.; sometime reader and commenter, Alex H.; Brother T's significant other, Lauren; Ed Cossette, owner of the newly-retired Bambino's Curse weblog; David Pinto, of Baseball Musings; the guys over at Talking Baseball -- too many people to name. I'm really happy for you guys, and for your town and for your baseball team. I'm upset the whole thing came at the expense of my favorite team, but c'est la vie.

The worst thing right now isn't the fact that Yankee fans have to retire the "1918" chant; or the fact that the 105-win Cardinals got dropped like a sack of dirt in the most anticlimactic World Series in decades. It's that we've run out of baseball for the time being. All we've got is a bunch of substitutes -- Fall Leagues, Winter Leagues, Spring Training -- until April.

During the off-season, I hope to have some interesting items -- Yankee news, baseball news, as usual, but also some reviews, and maybe even a few appearances elsewhere on the Internet.

Thanks for hanging in there for a great season. Now let's get some wood together for that Hot Stove...

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Somebody Tryin' to Tell Me Something?

As some of you may know, aside from baseball my other great vice is pool. Recovering from the Yanks' big loss to the Red Sox, and bored while checking out the World Series (where the Sox now have a dominant (but not as dominant as it used to seem) 3-0 lead against the Cards) I found myself pulling Phil Capelle's "A Mind for Pool" off the bookshelf.
As is my tendency, I opened the book to a random page. This is what I got, under the chapter heading "Winners Learn From Losing":

After losing go shake hands with your opponent and congratulate him on his play. After all, he must have done something right to beat a good player like yourself. Once this formality is over, your pool personality kicks in. The recovery time after a loss varies for each individual.
Your reaction to a loss also depends on the nature of the contest. Among the toughest losses to swallow are those where you had it won in your mind, but not on the scoreboard. Blowing a big lead is painful, but completely understandeable once you analyze why it happens. Switching from an aggressive style of play to one where you are trying to protect your lead can backfire. A shift in momentum and/or the rolls could let your opponent back in the match.
No matter how or why you lost, once you've recovered from defeat, it's time to think objectively about the match. This will help you to gain something positive from what is an oftentimes painful experience.

Some things are universal in sports (yes, I know, most people don't consider pool a sport, but bear with me). The test for the Yankees and their fans will be how quickly we recover from this loss, and how honestly we're able to analyze that loss once we've recovered. Going back over those three games the Yankees won, there were even some warning signs in the early lead: the Sox scored 7 runs in Game 1 and 9 runs in Game 3. If I'd have told you before the ALCS that the Red Sox were going to score 7, 1, and 9 runs in the first three games (without telling you how many the Yanks would score), would you have picked the Yankees to be up 3-0? Would you have even picked 2-1?

I bring this up for two reasons. First, looking at the Red Sox' 3-0 lead in the World Series, I see no warning signs that would indicate St. Louis can win the series. It hasn't just been one element of the Sox' game making up for deficiencies in other areas -- the Red Sox have controlled this Series. So as much as I'd love for the Red Sox to join the Yanks on the list of "team(s) to lose best of 7 matchups, up 3-0," I'd have to say it ain't gonna happen.

The other thing is, we're going to have a lot of introspection over this offseason. The Yankees organization is holding meetings as I write this. Talking heads in the press and on the radio are chewing over the "Yankee collapse" on a near-daily basis, and will continue to do so until (and perhaps past) Opening Day, 2005. For all those people, Phil's book has a warning:

One of the most counterproductive ways that pool players use to deal with losing is to make excuses. They love to tell you how they would have won if they had: gotten a couple of rolls; weren't sharked; weren't stuffed from lunch; weren't this and weren't that; and so on and so on. The list of excuses goes on, limited only by the imagination of the player who has just lost.

By making excuses, a player is trying to say they won, but with an asterisk. Likewise, their opponent really lost once you factor in the excuses. It's almost as if each excuse is worth a game or two on the wire. The trouble is, they are not. The loser lost and the winner won, period.

We lost. No excuses. Congrats to the Red Sox, and their fans. Hopefully we'll learn something, and make you choke on it next year.