baseball history, Hall of Fame, Uncategorized

Dodgers Win! Okay… and I Don’t Care

I became a baseball fan through being a Yankee fan.  You wouldn’t think a little boy in Fort Worth, Texas, would have a religious devotion to the Bronx Bombers; but after CBS became majority owner of the club in 1964, The Game of the Week naturally wasn’t going to cover the Cardinals or Cubs or Tigers on Saturday afternoon (unless Detroit was playing New York).  Dizzy Dean grew so livid over the monopoly that he couldn’t abstain from deprecating the whole arrangement over the air… which eventually cost him his job.  I can still hear Diz disclaiming, “It ain’t my fault, it ain’t Peewee’s fault, and it sure ain’t good ol’ Falstaff’s fault.”  (Is Falstaff Beer even brewed any more?)

So it came to pass, at any rate, that I knew the entire Yankee line-up by heart, and had photos of most of them yellowing away on my bedroom wall.  Mickey and Roger, Yogi and Whitey, Moose and Cletis and Bobby… Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, John Blanchard… tall Ralph Terry, diminutive Luis Arroyo, Bill Stafford and Hal Reniff and… well, I could have gone on and on.  My pride and joy was my Yankee cap.  I never forgave my parents for emptying my closet of a 1962 World Series program, given to me by my grandfather, when they moved from our old house as I was away at college.

Then the Sixties wore into the Seventies.  I lost track of baseball.  I lost track of childhood.  I got to worrying about being drafted into the Vietnam War; and, when that storm was weathered, I worried further about what I was going to do in life.  I didn’t seem to be very good at anything that would actually make a living wage.

About all I remember of baseball from the Seventies was a young Cesar Cedeño.  If my grandfather (the same one who had bought me the Yankee program) had the Astros going on TV as I wandered through his den, and if Cesar were at the plate, I stopped whatever I was doing.  It’s not every day that you see a future Hall of Famer just hitting his stride.  In retrospect, it wasn’t on any of those days, either.

In 1984, twenty years after the slimy Topping and Webb sold the Yankees, I was released from the University of Texas with a doctoral degree that would qualify me to teach any one of three or four dead languages to any one of the two or three colleges where they were taught.  Practically speaking, I could go back to teaching high school, or I could take a series of year’s-contract gigs teaching Collegiate Freshman Composition and mopping toilets.  I recall the 1981 Dodgers as a beam of light in my dismal grad-school years.  They had finally beaten the Yankees!  My grandparents now dead and gone, sitting in the lonely kitchen of an antebellum house that lingered quite a while on the market, I pumped my grandmother’s ancient rocker back and forth as the scrappy Lopes and Russell and the explosive Garvey and Cey redeemed themselves against—who else?—the Yankees!  Reggie and Willie Randolph and Bobby Murcer were, for once, not enough.  But… what had happened?  What had transformed me, a monastic misfit squirreled away under his papers in Austin, into a Yankee-hater?  Mickey, Yogi, Whitey… when had I abandoned you guys?

Of course, the answer was George Steinbrenner.  The team that the boy had once adored was now essentially the American League All-Star team bought by the fattest wallet in the game.  That was obscene, to my idealistic young mind.  Any player who was a difference-maker and on the market ended up on George’s squad; and if they didn’t win everything, then George wasn’t happy at all.  A turnstile of managers and scandals was always feeding the newspapers.  Nothing that might make that beloved old game resurface seemed to have survived.

I wanted so much for Steinbrenner‘s teams to lose!  I wanted them to lose every day—which, of course, they didn’t come close to doing.  They practically didn’t lose once a week.  I really wanted them to lose in the postseason.  It was a ethical issue now.

Looking back, I realize that free agency was long overdue and that baseball players didn’t deserve to be slaves, any more than any other human being.  But the game that I returned to as a young man had lost something of its charm, its magic.  When I was a boy, really stand-out players remained with one team throughout most or all of their career.  Norm Cash and Al Kaline were Tigers.  Ernie Banks and Ron Santo were Cubs.  Willie and Juan were the Giants.  Stan Musial inked a hundred-thousand-dollar contract with the Cardinals before the 1958 season, even though Augie Busch and everyone else knew that The Man’s best years were behind him.  Where was the new Ernie Banks now?   The occasional George Brett won my devotion to small-market teams like the Royals… the Bretts were fewer and fewer; and, frankly, because of the owner’s skinny wallet, such teams seldom cracked the first division.

I remained a Dodger fan for a few years after the 1981 glory days.  Once I got settled into my new professional life, however (or settled, I should say, into a degree of perpetual unsettlement), I discovered the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs through TBS and WGN.  Just as CBS’s Game of the Week had done for the Yanks, familiarity bred fondness.  The team you see regularly is the team you get to know and like.  So now I was a follower of Murphy, Zane Smith, Chris Chambliss, Bob Horner, and Jeff Treadway.  Yet especially because the Cubs were starting to become pretty good about now, I became a more enthusiastic fan of Dawson and Sandburg, Leon Durham and Keith Moreland, Shawon Dunstan and Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe and Les Lancaster.  I could have named practically that whole team, just as I could my beloved Yankees of twenty-five years earlier.  They darn near went to the World Series, those Cubs.  They should have gone; but the Giants discovered that Sandberg couldn’t hit anything but a fastball when he tried to carry the offense on his shoulders, and Dawson came within a breath of driving a pitch out of Candlestick that would have changed everything.

All of this is the long way around to making the admission that I just couldn’t get into the World Series this year.  I, one-time Dodger fan, was now rooting for the Rays.  From the start of this truncated season, I decided that I hated the Dodgers.  I liked a lot of individual players: Kershaw, Turner, Bellinger… I liked them as ballplayers, and as human beings.  But then, I’d liked a lot of Steinbrenner’s Yankees, too: yet taking them as a team, I found them detestable.  So for LA in the Year of the Plague.  I really wanted the Dodgers to lose last week.  Their money paved the way to ultimate success: three cheers, hip-hip-hooray!  Now we’re back to the fattest pocket book winning it all.

Unless you just happen to be linked geographically to the location where the richest owners are writing the fattest checks, it’s hard to cheer any one of the three or four bullies in the MLB.  I know I’m not alone in registering that sentiment.  Someone remarked to me the other day that baseball desperately needs a salary cap.  Maybe.  I won’t pretend to have the answer.  My personal preference, though, would be to see the trade deadline moved much farther forward.  It used to precede the All Star Game.  What about fixing it on June 30… or even June 1?  Seeing a radically transformed team take the field in September because a 55-year-old spoiled brat sold China a few islands to buy Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Max Scherzer… well, it isn’t sporting.  It just isn’t.

There are a lot of things in our society that will never be the same again.  I wonder if baseball is among the very few that might be revived?

baseball ethics, baseball history, Uncategorized

Why MLB’s Play-Offs Have Become Turn-Offs

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My son and I had a rather spirited debate last night about play-offs.  The essential problem seems to be that… well, I guess it’s that I’m old.  You see, I can remember when every team in both leagues played every other team in its league an equal number of times—and only such teams—during the regular season.  Then the winners of the two 154-game seasons went to the World Series and duked it out.  The championship meant something.  Nowadays… the one thing my son and I agreed about was that nowadays it’s all about money.  Draw as many teams into the post-season as you can, and keep it all going as long as you can.  More tickets, more ads sold on TV… and, of course, the players are also happy to have the extra revenue.  But it seems to me that our society is less and less preoccupied with matters of basic fairness, in baseball and everything else.  There are fewer and fewer clear winners: everything is always getting scuffed up, discredited, recounted, litigated.

Yeah, whatever my body’s telling me—and I’m in very good shape (thank God) for a sixty-five-year-old—I am indeed aging.  In spirit.  Times were better long ago, in some ways… or am I dreaming?

Consider: wild-card teams have been admitted to the play-offs since 1994.  That’s twenty-five years.  In that span, a wild-card entry has reached the Series thirteen times, cashing in on over fifty percent of opportunities.  And the second wild card has existed only since 2014.  What does that tell you?

It tells me this: teams that heat up in late August are reliably beating up on teams that have logged a hundred victories over a long season when both get to October.  I don’t see the fairness in allowing the former to have an almost equal shot at the latter (and if the Series this year taught us anything, it’s that home-field advantage doesn’t count for much).

My argument, based largely on reading the accounts of players who were active half a century ago and more, is that winning a hundred games is quite wearing.  Guys tend to stumble and stagger into October after posting successes at that exhaustive level.  (Not really such an outdated notion: Freddy Freeman, the heart and soul of the Braves’ offense, did nothing against the Cardinals in the divisional play-off—and then had elbow surgery within a week of his season’s close.)  Teams that have wallowed in mediocrity before striking gold at the trade deadline, however, or maybe recovering a star player who has been sidelined for months are able to come out of the gate in September looking like a wholly different squad from anything you’ve seen all year… and so they are.  Maybe it wasn’t “fair” that Star Player went down in June—and you could say, of course, that everyone had an equal shot at the Trade Deadline Sweepstakes.  But injury would have been considered a “luck” issue rather than a “fairness” question back before our brains forgot how to process words; and as for trades, when you’re on pace to rack up 107 wins, you don’t mess with your line-up.  That allows you to hit three digits… but, again, it also multiplies the wear and tear on your magnificent starters.

My son would come back with two points.  1) The Nationals had the best record in baseball since July; and 2) I just don’t like the Nationals.  Both of these claims are true.  (I hated the Nats from the start because the media complex shoved them down my throat as the game’s new Golden-Haired Child; I actually like them a lot better after reading an article last week that profiled many of their young men as humble people of faith and determination.)  Even conceding—as I do—that Washington would have been a division-winner if the season had dragged on another couple of weeks, I’m still looking at a winner of two-thirds of a season edging out teams that won the whole season, as things now stand.

My son ripostes with the fully valid observation that some divisions are much weaker than others.  Couldn’t agree more.  That’s why I would propose the following.

Two divisions per league.  Add one team to each league so that all divisions will have a total of eight (32 altogether).  Each team will play very other team in the league eight times, and will face teams within its division an additional three times (for a total of eleven).  Add an additional one game with every team in the other league.  These will essentially be exhibition games that count: fans can have a small but complete exposure to the other league, yet standings will not be compromised because the Braves play the Red Sox six times while the Phillies draw the Rangers.  (I’m from Fort Worth, so back off: I get to take that dig after growing up in utter misery.)  That tallies to 157 games: a nice compromise between the Old School 154 and the later 162.  The season is simply too long as it stands for teams that must continue into October.  Now they have a schedule trimmed by one week.

Play the winners of each division against one another in a seven-game series, and play the second-place teams of each division in a series of the same length.  Then… this is where it gets interesting.  The second-place winner plays the first-place winner in a five-game series, in which the former must win four games to move on.  Not only that… but three of the five will be played in the division-winner’s ball park, and that team’s brain trust can determine beforehand which three of the five are played at home.  After this round, we have our World Series contestants.

No, it’ll never happen.  I know that.  And as this world goes, there are things of much greater importance to worry about.  Much, much greater.  I’m only pointing out that there would indeed be ways to make victories count more as… say, victories.  As something that really mattered.  If we’re going to play a game by a set of rules, then prospering within the stated terms of competition should have real-world consequences.  Otherwise, why not just have the team that played best in May and July combined play the winner from June and September combined?  Why not have the home-run-leading team play the ERA leader?  Why not give an automatic slot to a poor franchise that hasn’t been to the dance in decades? Why not… oh, who cares? Who really cares any more?

baseball ethics, baseball history, Uncategorized

Bill Buckner, R.I.P.

Bill Buckner was a borderline Hall of Famer.  He collected over 2,700 hits in his career, which spanned a period of light hitting and low averages (if we factor out a few guys with names like Brett, Gwynn, and Madlock).  Thanks to knee problems, his chances of reaching the magical 3,000-hit mark, otherwise very good, were neutralized.  A batting champ in 1980 and twice a league-leader in doubles, he endured the somewhat seesaw vagaries in his stats that are typical of a man who perhaps presses too hard in an effort to carry a mediocre team on his shoulders.  Bill sometimes tried too hard.

As in the 1986 World Series.  His manager, John McNamara, ought to have removed him and opted for a first-baseman with two good knees (or even one) when the game went into extra innings.  Buckner insisted on staying in—and he was, after all, the Sox’ best hitter in most regards.  The drive he struck in his first at-bat that evening very nearly carried out of Shea.  Had it done so, everything about the game would have changed.

But the only game we can analyze is the one that took place… so let’s look at that one.  The Red Sox carried a 5-2 lead into the tenth.  Buckner’s error allowed the winning run to score.  Hmm.  So how did those other three get on the board?  I haven’t watched the tape for a few years, but I distinctly remember that several errors were made by people not named Bill Buckner.  Reliever Calvin Schiaraldi had a couple in there somewhere.  Other plays were less than inspiring.  I wondered that Jim Rice didn’t lay out for a foul ball that would have recorded a precious out in the tenth—the final out, as I recall.  I may be “Bucknering” Rice now; he couldn’t help it that he wasn’t Ken Griffey, Jr., or even Sandy Amoros.  But… if you’re not going to belly-flop into the stands making the last out out of the World Series, when are you ever going to do it?

Buckner would have done it, if he could.  For that matter, I don’t know that anyone—that Keith Hernandez—could have handled the wicked topspin hopper off the bat of Mookie Wilson.  After boring into the dirt around home plate, it blooped toward first… and then bolted away on impact like a squirrel who has decided to juke one way and take off another under your tires.  If Buckner had taken this steroidal screwball off his chest instead of letting it get past cleanly, the net result would have been no different.

And what was the result?  The home team won Game Six and evened the series.  If the play had been made somehow, then Boston bats in the top of the eleventh—with the winds of momentum sucked from its sails, no effective reliever left in the pen, and the home team awaiting another crack at the piñata.  Younger fans may think that the Series ended with the Bill Buckner miscue.  It didn’t.

In fact, Boston took a 3-0 lead in Game Seven before frittering that one away, too.  Why not portion out some blame to an exhausted and anemic relief corps?  Nope, that’s not the way baseball fandom writes its myths.  We need heroes and goats.  Bill Buckner has become Billy Goat for all baseball eternity.

I’m glad, in a way, that Buckner didn’t draw closer to 3,000 hits.  I’d hate to have seen him denied entry into the Hall for a small gaffe that occurred at the worst possible moment (or at what “fake history” has made the worst possible moment).  He was a damn good ballplayer… and a fine human being.  If we get to play ball in heaven, I hope he’s my first-baseman.