Friday, August 31, 2012

Y'all Gonna Be an American (League, That Is)

Today's heaping helping of deathless prose goes out to the worst team in baseball, the team whom the Giants just swept on their home field, who play in the ballpark Barry Bonds called "Arena Baseball," whose uniforms once upon a time resembled a Fruit Whirl popsicle... yes, those zany, unpredictable, thoroughly transferable Houston Astros, who, after 51 seasons in the National League, have agreed to, or anyway have been obliged to, move to the American League next year in order to balance everything out and restore justice to the universe.

With interleague play now firmly entrenched in the schedule, the leagues now will contain fifteen teams each, five teams in each division, eliminating that unsightly six-team NL Central and its equally tawdry four-team cousin, the AL West.  Though we remain immune to the charms of regular-season interleague play, we actually applaud the idea behind this move.  If you're gonna have it, have a little bit of it spread out all year long, and by all means do balance the divisions to give every team an equal shot. It's not as inspired as the second wild-card team (yes, we love that, too, and we'll explain why in a future screed)  but it's a good idea-- at least in theory.

It's not so good in practice. Why the Astros, f'revvinsakes? Why not the Arizona Diamondbacks?

Although on the face of it the move could create a lively intrastate division rivalry between the 'Stros and the Texas Rangers, it also cedes the entire Lone Star State to the AL, which is a bit wacky (they went to some trouble to prevent the same thing from happening in Florida back in '92, after all), and it places the Astros some 1500, 1900, and 2300 miles-- not to mention two time zones-- away from their other division rivals. No other team will play so many division games which the bulk of their fans will be unable to watch live. Well, except the Rangers, that is. Okay, it's kind of like the old NFC West in football, when the 49ers and Rams were constantly traveling across the country to play the Falcons and Saints, and vice versa.

Evidently the Diamondbacks still have some pull with the MLB HQ. We remember Jerry Colangelo, the team's original owner (is he still? We're too lazy to check) paying a premium to play in the National League from the start. The Astros have 36 years of NL seniority on the 'Snakes', and in our opinion it would have been the better move, in terms of justice as well as practicality, to shift Arizona to the AL West and Houston to the NL West.  But what's done is done.

What will Giants fans remember about the Astros? Here are a few blasts-from-the-past kicking around in the cobwebbed recesses of our mind this morning:

  • The Astros were originally called the Houston Colt .45s. The name was changed in 1965 not out of some cowardly politically-correct hoplophobia, but because the American space program's Mission Control had just relocated to Houston, as had the original Mercury astronauts. Presumably "Astros" was short for "Astronauts", though taken by itself the Latin translation scans better as "Stars."  

  • September 14, 1965 in the Astrodome. Willie Mays comes up in the top of the ninth with one on, two out, and the Giants trailing by two runs. Battling against Houston relief ace Claude Raymond, Willie fouls off six straight 99-MPH fastballs, then belts his 501st career home run to tie the game (the Giants eventually won in ten innings.) Nobody who heard it will forget Russ Hodges' call of that titanic moment. "It was the greatest at-bat and batter-pitcher confrontation I have ever seen," recalled Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan, second baseman for Houston at the time.

  • June 6, 1980, also in the 'Dome. The legendary James Rodney Richard, 6-foot-8-inch ace pitcher on Houston's first division champion, strikes out 13 Giants in a dazzling complete-game three-hit shutout. Every single Giant bats the breeze at least once. It's the last time "J.R." will face the Giants. Less than two months later he will collapse during a workout after suffering a stroke, his career over at age 30.

  • September 8, 1987, once again in the Astrodome. Roger Craig has a regular conniption fit as Houston ace Mike Scott shakes off a bad start and retires 26 Giants in a row, thanks to the "scuffball" he made famous (or infamous). Craig claims he actually saw the sandpaper in Scott's hand, but the umpires by rule aren't allowed to search a player on the field. The Giants dugout is still simmering over Scott's scuffball-induced no-hitter at Candlestick the previous year, which cinched the pennant for the 'Stros; Craig's repeated play stoppages and protests rile up the fans but have little effect on the game. (Winning is the best revenge; the Giants clnch the pennant exactly three weeks later.)

  • October 4, 2001, at "Enron Field" (remember?). Houston manager Larry Dierker has his pitchers walk Barry Bonds eight times in three games rather than risk giving up a home run. The strategy is questionable as Bonds scores six runs in the three games anyway and the Giants sweep the series. Finally, in the ninth inning of the third game, a 9-2 rout, the Astros challenge Barry-- and there it goes, homer number 70 to tie Mark McGwire's record. It was on or about this date that Bonds reviewed Houston's new, picturesque park with its colorful features and short dimensions, and said hitting there was like playing "Arena Baseball."   

  • September 23, 2004, at Pacific Bell Park. With ace Jason Schmidt on the mound, the Giants go for a three-game sweep that will all but eliminate the Astros from contention. Schmidt does his part and leaves with a 3-2 lead after eight... only to see Houston explode for five runs in the ninth after Jeff Bagwell beats out a twenty-foot dribbler down the third-base line. The Giants never recover. Ten days later, Steve Finley destroys their season and the Astros clinch the wild-card spot.

So it's goodbye and Godspeed to the Houston Astros, who will become the second team in the last fifteen years to switch from one league to another, after the AL and NL had enjoyed 97 years of relative stability. What's next?


Friday, August 17, 2012

StuPED Is as StuPED Does

Well, let's get the basics out of the way first. Melky Cabrera deserves his 50-game suspension. He broke the rules, he admitted he broke the rules, he got caught breaking the rules, and he knew the punishment for breaking the rules. No need to feel especially sorry for him.

As for the Giants, well, they certainly can recover from this. The best estimates show that losing a star player is worth perhaps five or six games over the course of a full season. So losing Melky might cost the club two or three games down the stretch. Given that the Giants have spent much of the season only one or two games ahead of or behind L.A., of course, means this still could cost them the division pennant. And what can't be quantified is the psychological factor. If a team starts to believe that an incident like this proves they are snakebit, it's awfully hard to stop that train once it gets rolling.  Under Bruce Bochy, the Giants have shown tremendous resiliency in the past. A year ago, they held first place for six weeks after Buster Posey's injury. Six weeks from today, where will the Giants be?

Anyway, given the title of this screed, you all knew that today's installment of deathless prose wasn't going to be about Melky Cabrera or the Giants' pennant chances. Here we give you fair warning: in our "Word About Content" intro page, we mentioned that we "don't discuss off-field stuff." Today, we do. There simply is so much thoughtless, destructive, mean-spirited, wasteful behavior and commentary regarding the whole subject of "performance-enhancing drugs" going around these days that we now are obliged, in our contrarian manner, to post and defend a series of statements which many of you will find outrageous and offensive. Here we go, in no particular order:

The collective public response to baseball players' use of so-called PEDs is more of a threat to the game than is the use of PEDs themselves.

It's not a novel concept.... "the cure is worse than the disease."  Some of the proposed "remedies" to what is perceived as the "on-going" problem of PED use are so wrong, so evil, so indicative of a warped and vindictive mentality, that it makes us wonder whether the people suggesting them have ever opened a history book, managed even a small group of people, or, heaven forbid, actually played the game themselves even at the amateur level.

First, precisely what did people expect the new, or recent, rules and penalties regarding PED use to accomplish? Did they really expect no one would continue to break, bend, or otherwise try to evade the rules? Did anyone honestly expect that because certain drugs are now officially outlawed, that no player ever would get caught again? The point of rules and laws is to establish boundaries, and to punish those who break those boundaries. There is a word for those who believe laws and rules will completely eliminate all rule-breaking. That word is "Fool."

Yet that's what we hear: "Further change is needed.... a harsher penalty.... this cheating must end..." Folks, what color is the sky in your world? Murder is against the law, and has been for millennia. The death penalty has been in, then out, then in again. Yet murders still occur. What do we do? We punish the offenders harshly, just as we've been doing for decades, even centuries. Do we keep trying newer and more exotic punishments in the hope that one day, by doing so, we'll eliminate all murders?  Do we consider executing the murderer's family, too, as a deterrent?  Do we erase his name from the public record and make his children nameless wards of the state? Think about what you're suggesting, people.

We'll have more specific indictments of this twisted mentality a little farther along. Now consider:

There is no evidence whatsoever that so-called performance-enhancing drugs actually enhance performance.  

This should be obvious to anyone who has ever played baseball in a competitive situation. Anabolic steroids, which promote the rapid growth of muscle mass and may speed the healing of damaged tissue, cannot possibly improve hand-eye coordination, eyesight, mental concentration, or focus, which are the most essential components for hitting a pitched ball successfully.

If there is a benefit to PEDs in baseball, it may be that they enable a player to recover more quickly from injury and thus stay in the lineup longer. Such a conclusion would at least proceed from the available evidence. But there is also the real possibility that excessively rapid muscle growth might lead to stress-related injury to tendons and ligaments which are not yet capable of supporting the additional mass. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence-- which is the only type of evidence the PED fanatics understand, so we'll play in their ballpark for a moment-- about football players who bulk up on steroids but can't seem to stay on the field without pulling or straining something.      

Why, then, do athletes use the PEDs? The stark truth may be that 'bulking up' gets you noticed. Consider two prospects in any team sport: same age, same position, similar game stats. Both run the 40-yard dash in 4.8.  One is 6-2, 245, the other is 6-2, 290. What scout wouldn't, at least subconsciously, look at the bigger kid first? "Wow, I've never seen a kid his size with that kind of speed!"  Of course, the cat is out of the bag these days, and a savvy scout might say, "Hmmmmm... bet that big boy's on the 'roids."  But if you've got a stat sheet with 100 similar athletes on it and little time to cut it down to say, 20 prospects-- well, all else being equal, the bigger kid will likely get the longer look.

So, it's a sports-culture thing. "Bigger is better." It's like a confidence game: it may not help you perform, but it may get you noticed. It's a peer-pressure thing: they say it worked for so-and-so, it'll work for me.

Look, people, we ourselves struggled with drug abuse for 20 years. There's no way anyone is going to twist our words to claim we're laissez-faire about the whole thing. The plague of PEDs has reached the high-school level and that's a national scandal and a national shame. But the tragedy of PEDs is what they do to the people who take them--  the rage, the injuries, the side effects, the long-term issues which remain unknown-- and to those they encounter in real life. What they do to the game itself  is, in a word, unknown. We don't know, and you don't know either.

The first lesson of logic is, "correlation is not causation." There is absolutely no evidence-- none!-- that anyone has ever hit a home run, struck out a batter, stolen a base, or made a catch because of PEDs. You show me guys who 'bulked up' and increased their home run totals, and I'll show you guys who lost weight and got lean, and increased their home run totals.

This leads us to the topic of "cheating". The truth is:

Ballplayers have always tried to bend the rules to their advantage, and they always will. 

Ecclesiastes tells us, "There is nothing new under the sun." How true this is when it comes to ballplayers trying to get an advantage, legal or otherwise. It's been part of the game since there was a game.

"When I broke in the big leagues  we only had one umpire in a game... and you know that umpire can't see everything at once... Say, a man on second base and the batter would get a hit out to right field. Well, the umpire would be watching the ball and the batter... Meanwhile, the guy who was on second would cut third base wide by fifteen feet on his way home... We'd run with one eye on the ball and the other on the umpire!"
-- Hall of Famer Sam Crawford in The Glory of Their Times

Okay, how many of Sam Crawford's 1,391 runs shall we take away because he cheated? Who wants to put an asterisk next to his name in the record book?

How many of Gaylord Perry's 314 wins shall we "vacate" because he threw an illegal pitch? He identifies 1966 as the season he turned to the spitter as his "out" pitch. He won 21 games that year.  Shall we adjust the Giants' 93-68 mark to 72-60, as if Gaylord had never existed? Or do we compute a win-shares adjustment at replacement level? C'mon, all you self-righteous geniuses, what shall we do?

For we must do something, right?  We can't let these guys get away with it! Even if the PEDs don't actually enhance performance, those cheaters thought they did! And intentions are what counts, since we're too stupid to quantify results!

Okay, we'll admit, the anger is boiling over a bit. Deep breath, and next guaranteed-to-offend claim:

Neither Roger Maris nor Maury Wills ever had an asterisk next to their record in the record book.

We suppose it's baseball's most enduring urban legend. Usually the reference is to Maris, and people forget about Wills. The home-run record was more iconic, of course, and Babe Ruth was a lot more popular than Ty Cobb, too.

Anyway, the legend has been repeated enough now that for most people it's become fact. It was repeated on the USA Network drama "Suits" last night. A fine movie ("61*") was made about it. The term "asterisk" gets thrown around so much now it's become part of baseball jargon; we guarantee you that when Melky Cabrera gets his first hit of 2013, whether for the Giants or for someone else, at least one wise guy will turn to his buddies and say, "Get out the asterisk," and everyone will know what he's talking about.

Too bad it never happened.

What did happen is that in 1961, when Maris was closing in on Ruth's record, baseball commissioner Ford Frick (who just happened to be Babe Ruth's former publicist) wondered aloud, and publicly, about the 154-game versus 162-game season, and suggested that perhaps Maris' record, if he tied or broke Ruth's, be noted with an asterisk and footnote ("162-game season").  To be fair, it's clear Frick was simply thinking out loud, and hardly making an official pronouncement. To be honest, he had no authority to make any official pronouncement because, for one thing, there was no Official Record of Major-League Baseball (TM). In fact, there was no Major League Baseball (TM), at least not as a recognized corporate entity. There were the two leagues, American and National, and there was The Sporting News ("The Bible of Baseball") which claimed to have the authoritative record of major-league baseball, but there was no "MLB" and there was no Baseball Encyclopedia and there were other guys, like the Hall of Fame's Joe Reichler, who kept their own records, and nobody could claim those weren't just as official as TSN's.

No asterisk. Never happened. We have a fine baseball book from 1964 which lists some records in the back. There, both Ruth ("154-game season") and Maris ("162-game season") are listed side by side. It's interesting, and indicative of the times and the fact that there was a controversy, but it's no more "official" than is this blog. When "MLB Inc." was organized in 1968 and the first official record book (the 1969 Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia) published, there was Maris, asterisk-free, atop the list.

No asterisk. Never happened. Case closed. On to the heart of the matter:

Those who advocate placing asterisks next to records, erasing records, or vacating team wins or accomplishments, are all Communists who ought to be deported and put on the next boat to Castro's Cuba. 

Back in the day, the Soviet Union's Central Committee, known as the "Politburo", regularly edited out people and events from history when those people and events conflicted with or contradicted the latest official Party line.

Today we see their spiritual brethren making comments like these on the Giants' website:

"The players union and all GM's need to agree on a harsher penalty...How about an 80 game suspension, annul their contract and vacate 25 wins. Maybe if there is more at stake not only for the player but also for the team they play for this cheating will end sooner than later."

"Maybe the next thing that should be done is chop 10-20 wins off their team's record and see how that sits."

What kind of person actually believes that you can un-do something that has been done?

Evidently the scurrilous example of the NCAA ("National Communists Against Athletics," Brian Bosworth called them, and while 'The Boz' was annoying, he was also right) has caught on among the more rabidly self-righteous among us.

Not content with having ruined college football, perhaps forever, these modern Bolsheviks have set their sights on baseball.

You know... we're a wordy sort, as evidenced by this blog. Words are the local currency. And, yet, right now, words simply fail us.

If you have to have it explained to you why it is morally wrong to go into the past and erase events and people as if they never happened, then you will never understand.

But if that's you, please check your American card at the door. You're a Communist. The leaky boat to Cuba awaits. No, we're not speaking figuratively. No, we're not exaggerating. No, we're not kidding. Take a hike. It's not about baseball. It's about you, and your deep-seated need to get even with everyone who ever done ya wrong. That's what Communism is, the ultimate get-even game, and that's what you are.


Now, to wrap it all up, we'll take out the old crystal ball and gaze into the near future:

What constitutes an unfair advantage? (Whatcha gonna do when the Bionic Man suits up?)  

Usually the heart of the "cheater" argument falls back on the old "unnatural" claim: "He didn't use the natural ability God gave him! No! He had to go and put a bunch of artificial stuff into his body! Off with his head, and put an asterisk next to it!"

We'll confess right now: in our last few years of semi-pro baseball, we too used an artificial enhancement to keep us in the game after our God-given physical abilities had declined. We still use it today. We're not sure of the technical term, but colloquially it's called a "pair of eyeglasses," and it enabled us to see the ball better than we would have otherwise, and thus stay in the game longer. Yes! It feels so good to come clean after all these years!

Spare us the ridicule ("Can you believe that freakin' idiot! He's comparing glasses and contact lenses to effin' steroids! Somebody should lock that guy up in a rubber room! With an asterisk!")-- and tell us the difference.

Now consider.

It is likely to happen within the next decade. A player will take the field with an artificially-enhanced body part. Not "Tommy John surgery", although by some of y'all's standards, that is "cheating", too, but more like a pitching arm, say, which has been artificially enhanced to where the pitcher can throw, say, 110 miles per hour, game after game, without undue risk of injury.

As Karl Malden used to say, "What will you do? What will you do?"

O ye self-righteous self-appointed guardians of baseball purity, will you let Steve Austin play?

Why, or why not?