Sunday, February 28, 2010

Solving the Case of George Strickland?

Last week, on the Sweetspot, Rob Neyer recounted the career of George “Bo” Strickland, a slick-fielding SS for the Indians in the 1950s who recently passed away. If you’ve read the column, you know by now that Strickland walked away from baseball for a year and that Neyer’s not sure why. All the New York Times wrote in 1958 was that Strickland was leaving for “personal reasons.” Rob writes,

“Maybe Strickland was so frustrated by the Indians' contract offer that he just threw up his hands and decided to work a real job for a while. Maybe Strickland wanted to spend time with the son that he and his wife were adopting around that time. At the moment, though, I think we're stuck with ‘personal reasons’ and I'm not sure that's a terrible thing. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that there are still a few mysteries left out there.”

Sorry, Rob, The Common Man can’t resist a good mystery, and really likes digging through baseball’s history, looking for connections between players and the eras in which they play and how relatively obscure players might help us understand baseball and its history better. So The Common Man began digging into Strickland’s mysterious retirement. While TCM didn’t find any first-hand account for Strickland’s decision, there are some breadcrumbs.

First, the weirdness: As Norris Anderson of the Miami News noted that year, the decision is strange particularly because Strickland was just two years shy of his full ten-year MLB pension. The MLB pension was started in 1947 by Happy Chandler out of the contracts baseball was getting for radio and TV rights to the World Series and All Star Games. By 1950, the pension fund was up around $11 million, and Strickland would have been entitled to a full share of that if he stuck it out for two more seasons. It would have taken a significant motivating factor to get Strickland off the diamond at that point.

But by the time he left the club, Strickland couldn’t have been having a lot of fun. He had lost a great deal of playing time, becoming the Indians’ utility man after the club acquired Chico Carrasquel in 1956. Carrasquel was a much better hitter than Strickland and would perform well in two seasons for the Tribe. Strickland wasn’t going to push 2B Bobby Avila for playing time, nor was he likely to get much action backing up Al Rosen or Al Smith at 3B. Two seasons later, when he walked away, Strickland was down to just a couple hundred plate appearances. Coupled with being away from his native New Orleans, where he died a few days ago, it’s likely that Strickland decided that either the playing time or the money wasn’t worth the trip North in 1958.

And what could have kept behind? The next year, Don Wolfe, the sports editor of the Toledo Blade, suggests that Strickland may have had significant plans for his new career that didn’t pan out. He writes, “Strickland has been the tremendous surprise of the Indians. Absent all last year, in a premature retirement, he hadn’t hit, fielded or thrown a ball. He gave up retirement plans, apparently because a political-type job didn’t materialize in his home city of New Orleans, and decided to try it again.” What job Strickland may have been courted for and what his qualifications might have been is not mentioned. Given the nature of New Orleans and Louisiana politics at that time, it’s entirely possible that the position in question was not on the up and up. Nevertheless, the opportunity dried up just as another was opening up for his old club.

During the ’58 season, however, things fell apart in the Cleveland infield. Slowing down at 34, Avila was shuttled to 3B to start the year while the Tribe expected young Billy Moran to take over at the keystone. While Avila plugged along, Moran struggled greatly, hitting .188/.218/.255 through the first half of the year. Moran lost his job by the middle of May, and Avila shifted back (though Moran would get 14 straight miserable starts in June when Avila went down with an injury). When Avila shifted, Chico Carrasquel (who was playing about at his career level) shifted to 3B. This led the Indians to put minor league veteran Billy Harrell at SS, where he tanked (.218/.271/.328).

Panicking, in mid-June the Indians made two separate deals with the Kansas City A’s that would further complicate their infield. First, Carrasquel was shipped out straight up for Billy Hunter. Hunter was a slick enough defensive SS to get over 2000 PAs despite a .219/.264/.294 career line (53 OPS+). As a rookie in 1953, Hunter made the AL All Star team despite the fact that his slash rates were abysmal (.219/.253/259) and his OPS+ for the season was 37. Since then, he had bounced between the Orioles, Yankees and A’s. Hunter, then 30 years old (and “hitting” .155/.222/.310), would get into 76 games for the Indians, hitting just .195/.263/.268. Three days later, the Tribe sent a young Roger Maris and two other players to the A’s for Vic Power and a struggling Woodie Held. Power was a rising star and a gold glove 1B already, but Cleveland made the strange decision to make him their everyday 3B (which, believe it or not, kind of worked). Power would hit .317/.336/.504 the rest of the way and play passable defense at the hot corner. 1958 worked itself out in the end, and the Indians finished just above .500 and in 4^th place in the AL.

The offseason, however, may have prompted the Indians to improve their offer regarding Bo Strickland and give him more incentive to come north with the club. Billy Hunter had lost his job by the end of the ’58 season and would spend all of 1959 at AAA before retiring. 40-year old 1B Mickey Vernon finally retired, allowing Power to transition to his natural position (where he immediately stopped hitting). Avila was traded to Baltimore and veteran Billy Martin was brought in. He was replaced by minor league veteran Mike Baxes, who performed adequately before he was replaced by (again) Vic Power. Held was installed at 3B, and Strickland was handed his old SS position. About 35 games in, the two would flip. Held would become the starting SS, where he would put up a .252/.342/.445 (116 OPS+) line and good defense for the club until being dealt in 1965. Strickland hit at around his career levels for the season. Cleveland excelled and won 89 games.

Fig. 1 Strickland on Opening Day, 1959

Strickland played sparingly in 1960, starting just 10 games all year. He may have been some kind of a player-coach hybrid at this point, as the club gave him the opportunity to meet reach the service time level necessary to get his pension.

Rob points out that we may never know exactly why Strickland retired in 1958, and he’s right. With the possibility that there were some backroom agreements made and broken, it’s not surprising that details are unavailable. But I think if we look at the dynamics of the Cleveland infield in the late 1950s, we can get a pretty good idea of what may have happened. With the club middling around .500, his playing time and (presumably) his salary waning, a frustrated Strickland walked away for a year for a chance to be a big wig in his hometown, where he presumably was well-known. When that fell through and his club realized just how much it needed him, it was able to entice him back, presumably with a higher salary and more playing time as an incentive, as well as an explicit or implied promise that he would be able to reach his full pension.

Without more evidence, of course, this is just a theory, and ultimately Rob can take comfort that it will remain somewhat of a mystery. But The Common Man thinks this is a good theory, and probably pretty close to the truth.

Update: Two more relevant quotes from 1959. Strickland got off to a great start in his comeback. Time magazine reports that, "Shortstop George Strickland, 33, who actually retired in disgust a year ago and returned only at the urging of Cleveland top brass, was hitting a whopping .360 in stark contrast to his lifetime average of .223. Says Strickland: "I don't want to analyze what I'm doing right. I'm just happy I'm doing it." Meanwhile, from the Toledo Blade article quoted above, Strickland was asked about his hot start: "Asked if he thought the year's layoff might have had some beneficial effect...Strickland observed, 'I wouldn't recommend it, especially for anyone who'd like a World Series share.'"

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Random Thursday: Farmer Vaughn

Today is Thursday, and The Common Man feels lucky today, and has decided to make it random. Using’s “random” button, TCM leapt from the 1964 White Sox to Farmer Vaughn, a part-time 19th century catcher and first baseman who started in the American Association before moving to the Players League, and eventually settling with the Cincinnati Reds. Despite his relative anonymity, Vaughn’s career is interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Vaughn is one of many American Association players who jumped to join the Players League in 1890, when it was founded by John Montgomery Ward, Buck Ewing, Tim Keefe. Vaughn had been playing (poorly) for Louisville for the previous two seasons, but took advantage of the shortage of ballplayers and rise in salaries created by the new league and signed on with Ewing and Keefe’s New York Giants. The three league organizers were three of the biggest stars from the 1889 Giants of the National League. In addition, to its starting SS, C, and the ace of its staff, the Giants lost slugging 1B Roger Connor, 2B Danny Richardson, 3B Art Whitney, and 2/3 of its OF (George Gore and Jim O’Roarke). The ’89 Giants also lost pitchers Ed Crane and Hank O’Day (the same Hank O’Day who would gain fame as an umpire and work the infamous Merkle game). Surprisingly, the NL Giants were owned by perhaps the best owner in baseball. John Day paid the highest salaries and was popular enough with his players that the Players League organizers warned him of their conspiracy in advance and attempted to persuade him to join them. The year after winning the NL Championship, almost completely bereft of its former players, the Giants fell to 6th. Vaughn would play poorly in 1890, getting into just 44 games and posting an OPS+ of just 63. For a great account of the Players League and the revolt of 1890, check out Bryan di Salvatore's excellent biography of John Montgomery Ward, A Clever Baseballist.

Despite apparently jumping twice in his career to teams outside of his regional home, Vaughn is also a terrific example of the parochial nature of baseball in the 19th Century. Except for his season in New York and a 25 game stint for Milwaukee (a team that folded after 36 games) in 1891, Vaughn spent his entire career in and around his hometown in Ruraldale, OH (located approximately 90 minutes east of Columbus; looking at Google Earth, trust TCM that his nickname fits). Vaughn played two seasons for Louisville at the start of his career, before making his big jump to the Players League, and after Milwaukee folded, he caught on close to home with the American Association’s Cincinnati club. Once the American Association folded, Vaughn was absorbed by the NL Reds, for whom he played until 1899. Regionalism played an enormous role in the composition of baseball teams during the 19th Century, as scouting as we know it today didn’t really exist. And the “minor leagues” mostly consisted of town and trade teams and semi-pro factory leagues. Young, promising players were often lured off of these teams to graduate to the professional ranks, but teams rarely ventured outside of their regional sphere.

Finally, Vaughn is a terrific example of how context-dependent RBI is as a statistic, and how meaningless it is in player evaluation. Vaughn was considered good enough to play 100 games just twice in his career, once in 1893 and again in 1896. In 1893, Vaughn got into 121 games and hit 521 times. Vaughn managed just 135 hits, just 30 of which went for extra bases. Indeed, Vaughn managed just a single home run. His batting average (.280) was exactly league average; however, his OBP (.332) and SLG (.371) were both well below the league’s mean. Vaughn’s OPS+ was a paltry 85. Nevertheless, Vaughn managed to drive in 108 runs that year.

While no batting order data is available for that year, it’s clear that Vaughn must have hit high enough in the lineup to benefit from ample RBI opportunities. Hall of Famer Bid McPhee and Bug Holliday both sported OBPs of .401. Artie “The Freshest Man on Earth” Latham had a .368 OBP. But the rest of the team was disappointing. Germany Smith managed just a .293 mark, and Jim Canavan got to just .305. And, horror of horrors, 1B Charlie Comiskey, at the tail end of his playing career, would sport just a .257 OBP and 40 OPS+. Cincinnati’s team OBP was 10th in a 12 team leagues, as was their R/G.

Holliday knocked home 89, but no one else on the squad had more than 68. From this, we can presumably conclude that Vaughn batted 3rd or 4th, behind McFee and Latham (each of whom scored more than 100 runs). Holliday’s depressed RBI numbers, despite superior slash stats, suggest that he may have been hitting behind a slower runner who got on base less often. Vaughn would certainly count as that. In an era of rampant thievery, Vaughn managed a career high of 16 in 1893. However, Holliday also managed to score 108 times with no one else of note hitting behind him, so the catcher with almost no extra-base punch could have been batting cleanup. Anyway, like Joe Carter from 1986 to 1997, it’s clear that Vaughn’s success in 1893 was a product of increased opportunities in the form of increased playing time and the performance of the players hitting in front of him. It’s not that Vaughn had a great season; it’s that he had more chances to not screw up. Appropriately, his employers were not impressed, and he was demoted back to part time status the next year. His second-highest total would be just 66.

Vaughn would fade into obscurity after his playing career, and didn’t seem to ever get back into organized ball. The Common Man could find nothing about his post-baseball life, except that he died in Cincinnati in 1914, just 49 year old.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Beer Leaguers: Sapporo and Hideki Matsui

Last weekend, The Common Man took The Boy to visit his grandparents and great-grandmother for a couple days, figuring he’d enjoy some home cooking. Of course, to The Common Man’s mother, “home cooking” usually involves either a) throwing a Costco-bought tri-tip roast on the grill or b) making reservations. On Saturday night, it was the latter, and the whole clan absconded to a new Japanese teppanyaki and sushi restaurant. The food was plentiful and delicious. The show put on by the chef was also impressive. The Boy especially loved seeing the fire and trying (unsuccessfully) to catch shrimp in his mouth (“I couldn’t catch it because I have a small mouth; when I get bigger my mouth will get bigger and I will catch it.”).

Along with his filet, scallops, and shrimp, The Common Man ordered a Sapporo. Sapporo is the most popular Japanese beer in the United States, and is considered an import, even though its North American bottles are just brewed in Canada. It's also still one of the more popular beers in Japan. The beer is clear and gold and has a clean and light taste that TCM would describe as brittle. What’s amazing to The Common Man is just how stereotypically “American” this beer seems. It’s like a slightly more flavorful Miller Lite, but its name and ancestry gives off the sense that it’s more special than it really is.

Essentially, this beer is Hideki Matsui. Now, The Common Man knows that it would be somewhat problematic to match up a Japanese beer with a Japanese player simply because they’re Japanese. Certainly, the common ancestry of both the Angels’ new designated hitter and this beer play a large role in this determination, but that’s not just because they are Japanese, per se. Rather, just as there are relatively few Japanese beers on the American market, there are very few Japanese ball players in the majors right now, particularly position players. So Taguchi got into 6 games last year for the Cubs, but he’s never gained any real popularity in the states, unlike Matsui. Similarly, Aki Iwamura and Kaz Matsui have never achieved mainstream popularity. Kosuke Fukudome is a huge source of frustration for Cubs fans. And Kenji Johjima has returned to Japan after a short, up-and-down career here.

Ichiro, of course, stars for the Mariners, but he has always been a singular force within the game, at once embodying excellence and otherness on the field. Forgive the expression, but everything about Ichiro informs the common acknowledgement of his Japanese-ness. His approach at the plate, the style of his game, his excellent defense, and his alleged aloofness and distance from his teammates. Indeed, Ichiro has always been held up as an enigma by the baseball press because of the communication barrier he uses and his disarming humor. Also, despite his enormous popularity both in the States and at home, he plays in Seattle, which is far outside the traditional scope of the mainstream media.

Hideki Matsui, meanwhile, has lived in a fishbowl as a member of the New York Yankees. His movements are constantly followed here and at home, sometimes to hilarious extremes. But unlike Ichiro, Matsui’s game is quintessentially American. Matsui is slow, hobbled by knee injuries that have limited him to the DH spot. He is patient, coaxing deep pitch counts from opposing hurlers; in fact, Matsui saw just shy of 4 pitches per plate appearance last year, rarely swung at balls outside of the strike zone, and coaxed 64 walks. And he hits for good power, sporting a .509 slugging percentage and 28 homers last year. His game has always been at clash with the stereotypical Japanese brand of baseball, which has emphasized defense, “fundamentals,” putting the ball in play, and one-run strategies.

Indeed, aside from the throng of Japanese reporters that follow Matsui wherever he goes, there is nothing really to discern him from Raul Ibanez, Pat Burrell, or Brad Hawpe, other defensively challenged outfielders who combine good power with decent on base skills. While there is no player like Ichiro, there are a dozen like Matsui scattered around Major League Baseball.

Like Sapporo, the only appeal that Matsui seems to have over these others is his marketability, stemming from his status as a prominent representative of another culture, living in our midst, and from his status in that home culture. But, like Sapporo, seemingly every other thing about him and his game is so damn pedestrian.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dumping Grounds

The Common Man has bigger posts he's working on for later this week. Otherwise, he's pretty swamped today. In the meantime, check out:

The Daily Something, where Bill names his teams of the half-decades. But who led the decades in wins and batting average, Bill? Ye gads, what about Saves?

Wezenball, where Lar posts a delightful picture of Mark McGwire and Oddibe McDowell (one of my all time favorite baseball names), includes a now-ironic quote about how big McGwire is, and also recounts the 1984 Olympic baseball team.

Via Craig at HardballTalk comes the awesome beard of Wild Man Jayson Werth.

Fig. 1 The official RF of The Common

As TCM tweeted earlier, it appears that Werth has forsaken the company of women, or at least wants to find a sturdy one with child-bearing hips to move into his small shack in the hills of Montana. Also, it gives me an excuse to link back to The Common Man's review of Jeremiah Johnson.

John Bonnes reminds us of the best four words in baseball, in verse.

Drew Silva caused a minor riot over at HardballTalk this weekend when he came down against guns in a major league locker room. The comments read like an NRA and Daily Kos propaganda-fest back and forth. The Common Man falls in the middle. Despite the fact that Ryan Franklin (the pitcher quoted in the story) is a steroid-using, mouth-breathing moron who can't find his chin with a razor (seriously Ryan, if you want a beard, look how Werth gets it done),
TCM thinks ballplayers are welcome to their legal personal firearms, but thinks that employers have a right to keep you from bringing those firearms into their place of business, as it affects their liability and the rights of other employees.

Fig. 2 Ryan Franklin, at his calmest.

Besides, why would any Cardinals fan want a firearm anywhere near Albert Pujols? Any risk to Prince Albert is too great. He should be wrapped head-to-toe in bubblewrap under a kevlar vest when he's not on the field.

This is about a week old, but you owe it to yourself to appreciate the digging done by Baseball Researcher in figuring out why in the hell the 1914 Braves had a swastika on their caps. This is archive researching at its finest and offers a great insight into the culture of baseball around the turn of the century.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Random Thursday: 1964 Chicago White Sox

Thanks to Brew Crew Ball, The Common Man desperately wanted to fill out Mad Libs for the first time in a long time this morning. However, it has been far too long since we let random chance dictate our content, so he fired up the random function at and it spat out the Defensive Lineup for the 1964 Chicago White Sox. Frankly, aside from their big pennant run in 1959, when Nellie Fox won the AL MVP, The Common Man knew almost nothing about the ChiSox from this era, and was surprised by how competitive they were. The Sox of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were led by Al Lopez, a Hall of Fame manager who never finished below .500 in any full season he managed (from 1951-1965) and an excellent tactician. The Sox of ’64 were also blessed with a talented pitching staff that had a team ERA of 2.72. The Sox allowed just 501 runs over the course of the season, fifty fewer than its closest competitor. Alas, the offense was nowhere near as successful. In a 10 team league, the Sox finished 7th in runs scored. On the strength of its pitching, however, the Sox won 98 games and finished just one game shy of the Yankees for the AL crown.

It’s not hard to see where the Sox went wrong in ’64. The pitching obviously wasn’t the problem. Gary Peters went 20-8 with a 2.50 ERA in 273 innings to lead the staff. But Juan Pizarro also contributed 19 wins and a 2.56 ERA in 239 innings (in his last big year). Joe Horlen threw 210 innings with a 1.88 ERA. And relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm, then 41 years old, threw 131 innings in relief, garnered 12 wins, 27 saves, and posted a 1.99 ERA. (Fun fact, TCM favorite Don Mossi also pitched 40 innings with a 2.92.) And the offense was actually above average at a number of positions. In particular, RF Floyd Robinson (.301/.388/.408, 125 OPS+), 3B Pete Ward (.282/.348/.473, 129 OPS+), and SS Ron Hansen (.261/.347/.419, 115 OPS+) led the offense, and each played more than 140 games. Utility players Don Buford (.262/.337/.348) also put up decent numbers in more than 500 PAs.

Unfortunately, the Sox were hamstrung by historically poor performances at a number of other spots. The Catcher position never worked itself out for the Sox, as JC Martin (.197/.241/.279, 47 OPS+ in 318 PAs) and Jerry McNertney (.215/.290/.290, 65 OPS+ in 217 PAs) made for a horribly unproductive platoon behind the plate. 2B also proved a difficult problematic. Opening day 2B Buford was shifted to 3B two games in when Pete Ward seems to have suffered a back injury, and was limited to pinch hitting for the next 15 games (Ward had had back problems in ’63 and sat out the last week of the season, and was sidelined during Spring Training in ‘64 with an unspecified back injury that was deemed “not serious” but resulted in Ward being “placed in traction in order to stretch the affected muscle”). While Ward sat out and Buford shifted over, Al Weis (of ‘69 Mets fame) took over at the keystone and managed to get almost half of the starting assignments despite hitting just .247/.299/.302 (70 OPS+). Finally, CF Jim Landis, who was still considered one of the great defensive outfielders in baseball, suffered through his worst season. Through 1963, Landis was an above average hitter, especially for a CF, but in ’64 the bottom dropped out, and he hit just .208/.305/.272 for a 65 OPS+. Landis was actually benched for a good part of 1964. In an interview, he claims that GM Ed Short ordered him benched after an argument related to Landis’ activities as the players’ temporary union representative. While that’s possible, it’s also very possible that Landis was sat down because of his struggles at the plate. Unfortunately, his replacement was no better. Mike Hershberger, normally a good 4th OFer, would get more than 500 PAs subbing for Landis in CF and Dave Nicholson in LF, and hit just .230/.308/.290, an OPS+ of 70. Essentailly, because of a lack of depth, the Sox punted three lineup spots in ’64, trusting them to players who performed at or below replacement level. It was too big an obstacle for the Sox to overcome, and is the central reason why the Yankees were able to clinch on the second to last day of the season. If even one of these positions had been stabilized by a 2 win player, the Sox would have won the AL pennant.

Frankly, the legacy of the 1960s White Sox should not be as also-rans to the New York Yankee juggernaut. Rather, the tragedy here is that general manager Ed Short was unable to address any of these needs and upgrade his team midseason, and give them a better chance to win in a tight pennant race. That Short did not leverage his pitching strength into some additional support for his offense is inexcusable. The best he could come up with that summer was an exchange of 1B, where Joe Cunningham was sent to the Senators for Moose Skowron, who managed just a 107 OPS+ in 73 games. If Short had done his job, rather than feud with his centerfielder, perhaps the Sox fans wouldn’t have had to wait until 2005 to know what a World Series win feels like.

Photo of Al Lopez used from here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Beer Leaguers: Capital Maibock (seasonal)

It’s long been a cliché that baseball is a team game. If The Untouchables taught us anything, it’s that Sean Connery is a hilarious bad cop. But if it taught us two things, it’s that you “get nowhere unless the team wins.” (Also, Robert DeNiro’s dinner parties always break up early for some reason.)

And you can’t win a World Series with just one championship caliber player. Believe The Common Man, Barry Bonds gave it a shot. But Babe Ruth needed his Lou Gehrig. Mickey Mantle needed his Roger Maris. And Kirby Puckett needed his Kent Hrbek. What a championship team needs, aside from its superstars, are complementary players, guys whose effectiveness will throw the performance of these stars into sharper focus. After all, Babe Ruth could have hit 80 homers a year, but if no one is on base in front of him, the Yankees aren’t going to score a lot of runs. Earle Combs on base skills at the top of the New York lineup magnifies Ruth’s performance, making it so that even the commonest fan can appreciate the effort.

All of which is to say, The Common Man went out to dinner last night at The Boy’s request (he wanted a hamburger) and enjoyed his Capitol Maibock with dinner last night. While the real star of the meal was the prodigious steak sandwich with mushrooms, onions, and provolone, and the beer-battered mushrooms he got for an appetizer, the Maibock was a perfect compliment to the meal. While stronger beers (such as The Uncommon’s Wife’s Scotch Ale) might have proved too powerful or too bitter so as to overshadow the dinner, TCM’s choice was potent, without being obtrusive. It tasted like a beer should, mind you; there was no danger of mistaking it for the water. But its understated flavor, and lack of an aftertaste, made it a refreshing choice. While The Common Man wouldn’t choose this beer to be the foundation of an evening or plan a meal around it, he would absolutely order it again with dinner.

Last year, when the Yankees won the World Series, they did so on the backs of their superstars: A-Rod, Teixeira, Jeter, Sabathia, etc. But setting the table for these players, allowing them to excel even further, was Johnny Damon.
Damon’s played at least 140 games per season since 1996, has had an OBP north of .345 every year since 2002, has scored at least 90 runs every year since 1998. Despite the relative hype he’s received over his career, Damon has never been an elite player. His high OPS+ was last season, at 126. He has had one season with a WAR over 5.0. He’s been a good, solid contributor to every team he’s been on, but he’s never been their best player. But Damon’s effective work at the top of the lineup, and solid defense, first in CF, now in LF, has propelled his team, making the production of his team’s heavy hitters all the more impressive.

By virtue of playing in Boston and New York, Damon’s garnered far more notoriety than a normal complementary player might, and certainly his struggles to find a job this offseason have certainly thrust him into the limelight. But if Johnny Damon was named Rajai Davis or Ryan Sweeney or Denard Span, he would be quietly and unobtrusively facilitating your offense, and playing good defense. Making those around him better (he would also cost a lot less, meaning he would have little trouble finding a team). And helping the team to win games, and enjoy their seasons, on the sly. Only afterward, when the champagne has finished flowing and the hardware has been handed out, will you look back and appreciate their effect on the team. As it should be for the Capital Maibock of baseball, the cog you never appreciate until you lose it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The All-Time All-Mustache Team

The last couple weekends, the MLB Network has been showing an awful lot of games from the ’91 World Series. Like an obedient Twins fan desperate for real baseball, The Common Man has sat down and watched a few innings at a time. Aside from some surprisingly decent commentary from Tim McCarver, the thing that surprised TCM the most was how mustachioed the Twins were in ’91. Indeed, The Common Man might go so far as to speculate that the ’91 Twins won in large part because of their insane mustache power. Brian Harper rocked a mustache and a mullet. Jack Morris had a terrific bushy mustache that looked like a plant that had outgrown its pot and needed to be transferred to a bigger face. Mike Pagliarulo was signed as much for his mustache as his defense and onbase skills. Chili Davis’s mustache typically got four ABs per night. Dan Gladden sported a ridiculous blonde ‘stache for his entire playing career (making him look even grittier and more trailer-parky than he was). Even Shane Mack allowed his usually thin mustache to grow to epic, Kevin-Bass-esque proportions. He played RF in 1991 like a black Groucho Marx. In fact, the Twins’ Game 7 lineup against John Smoltz featured six mustaches (seven if we count the mustache over Puckett’s goatee). Aside from the 1972-74 Oakland A’s, The Common Man would venture to say that the 1991 Twins featured the most mustachioed World Champion in baseball’s history.

So in honor of the Twins and their manly mustaches, The Common Man has created the All Mustache team (note: 19th Century players are, sadly, excluded. It’s not even a close contest. Cap Anson, King Kelly, Harry Wright, Old Hoss Radbourne, Deacon White, and John Montgomery Ward would dominate modern mustaches to such a degree that modern stars would barely sniff the list):

Catcher: Thurman Munson
As much as The Common Man wanted to go with Harper here, there really is no doubt that Thurman Munson’s mustache thoroughly dominated the Catcher position like no mustache before or since. It could hit for average, had decent power, played terrific defense, and was team leader. Apparently, all it couldn’t do is fly a plane. (Ooh, that joke didn't feel good. Too soon?)

First Base: Don Mattingly
This is a very tough position. Mattingly’s primary competition was Keith Hernandez, another sweet fielding 1B whose mustache wasn’t quite enough to put them in the Hall of Fame. But you could make a serious argument for Eddie Murray’s fuzzy, droopy mustache too. Sid Bream emerged as a dark horse candidate the more that The Common Man watched the replays of the ’91 Series, especially because of his resemblance to the guy who used to cut TCM’s hair. But Bream’s mustache won the ’91 NLCS all by itself, and Donnie Baseball needs some consolation after he had to shave off all his sideburns. Also, his mustache looks just a little trashier, which we can all agree is important. Who wants a ride in Donnie’s Camero?

Second Base: Bobby Grich
2B is kind of a barren position, as far as The Common Man can tell. Grich and Toby Harrah went at it for this coveted spot, especially since it allows TCM to link to this terrific story (h/t to Lar at, but Grich’s mustache has gone under-appreciated for far too long. Truly, among second basemen, Grich’s mustache stands out as one of the best of all time.

Third Base: Tom Brookens
The competition for 3B was fierce. Wade Boggs (above with Mattingly) and Mike Schmidt had really strong entries. But the length and dip of Brookens mustache proved too much to overcome. While Boggs and Schmidt will have to be content to simply be two of the greatest 3B in history, Brookens’ slick-fielding ‘stache should live on forever. Textbooks should be written on the subject (The Retirement of Tom Brookens’ Mustache and the Decline of the American Auto Industry springs to mind). Also, Brookens gets extra points for his huge ‘80s glasses.

Shortstop: Rey Quinones
This position probably just feels more empty than it is. The Common Man had a lot of trouble filling this spot, and went into the recesses of his memory to pull out Rey Quinones, a bad hitting and bad fielding shortstop for the all-around bad Mariners of the late ‘80s. It’s safe to say the only reason Quinones kept his job as long as he did was a) the mustache and b) these are the 1987-89 Mariners we are talking about here. This is the team that let Edgar Martinez (then even sporting a mustache!)rot at AAA in ’88 so it could keep running (plodding?) .230/.280/.355 hitting, clean-shaven Jim Presley out there. But hey, at least Presley was terrible on defense! The ’88 Mariners had 7 players who got 300 PAs or more with an OBP below .300. Not counted, Henry Cotto finished with a .302 OBP in 418 PAs. Fun fact, Rey Quinones’s mustache DHed four times that year, even though it hit just .248/.284/.393.

Left Field: John Titus
Titus sported the last handlebar mustache in the major leagues after the turn of the 20th Century. As you can tell, he wore it proudly. If anyone was The Walrus, it was John Titus. Titus also served in the Spanish-American War and World War I, and had a career OPS+ of 127, and a .373 OBP. All of which means he was way, way, way more manly than you. Titus was called “Silent John” during his playing days, primarily because he let his mustache do all the talking.

Center Field: Dwayne Murphy
The Common Man is cheating here, mostly because he likes Dwayne Murphy, whose defense and plate discipline made him unappreciated in his day. Plus, look at how much he looks like action superstar, acting coach, and stew-enthusiast Carl Weathers.

Both were incredibly productive from the late ‘70s to the mid-80s, before losing steam. Remember, the Transitory Mustache Principle allows us to multiply the awesomeness of Murphy’s mustache (which is fair) by the awesomeness of a famous similar mustache from a similar time period (which is tremendous; remember how Carl Weathers’ mustache just kept shooting at the Predator even after his arm had been blown off?) , which makes Murphy’s mustache one of the most valuable mustaches of the era.

Right Field: Kevin Bass
From 1985-1989, Kevin Bass hit .283/.336/.439 for a 117 OPS+. His best season, 1986, he finished 7th in the MVP voting, hitting .311 with 20 HR and 33 2B, and made the All Star team. True story, in 1990, Bass and Shane Mack traded mustaches. Bass would become a part-time outfielder for the rest of his career, providing just above league-average offense. Shane Mack would go from former Olympian/failed prospect/Rule 5 pick to a .309/.375/.479 and 130 OPS+ from 1990-1994. Kevin Bass and Shane Mack: Exhibits A and B of the power of the mustache.

Starting Pitchers: Luis Tiant, Randy Johnson, Jack Morris, John Candelaria
We’re picking a four man rotation, since mustaches only need three days off. Luis Tiant’s mustache deserves a column of its own. It dominates this rotation, and continues to be a force. If Luis Tiant’s mustache put on a uniform and pitched today, it would still go 14-6 with a 3.64 ERA in 175 innings. And that mustache is 70 years old! (Note: Yes, Luis Tiant was born with a mustache. It will also continue living for 37 months after Tiant’s body dies. You got a problem with that? Talk to the mustache.) Look at how bushy it is! And yet, so precise! Luis Tiant is a man who cares about his mustache.

Randy Johnson’s mustache started out as an amusing sideshow, then it got scraggly and wild, then Johnson managed to harness it to become one of the most intimidating and effective mustaches of all time. Eventually, like all wonderful things, it made a cameo in The Simpsons.

Even though it looks like Morris took a dead gerbil and glued it to his upper lip in 1991, the mustache must have been real. After all, without that mustache, Minnesota never would have won its second World Series and no one would be trying to induct Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame. While Morris’ mustache may not be the best mustache of all time, it is indeed one of the most powerful through its shrewd manipulations and political maneuverings.

John Candelaria’s mustache is in the rotation because, let’s face it, all the mustaches on this team are pretty damn serious. We need a ridiculous mustache to keep the clubhouse light and keep the other mustaches from fighting.

Relief Pitchers:
Frankly, relief pitchers have always had the best mustaches. It’s not even fair. Maybe mustaches just grow faster in the bullpen (do they get more sun out there?). So The Common Man isn’t going to bother to choose here. Simply enjoy the intimidation of the Goose, the precision of Rollie, and the awkwardness of the Quiz.

And we didn't even get to Al Hrabowsky.

As always, alternate suggestions are welcome. Some mustaches may be so powerful as to have, over time, concealed themselves from ordinary human perception. Feel free to suggest your favorites in the comments below.

Update: The Common Man is ashamed to have forgotten a Designated Hitter. And what better example of hulking mustachioed awesomeness than Steve "Bye-Bye" Balboni. TCM has been effusive in his praise for Steve Balboni in the past. But since Balboni has no hope of hitting RHP, perhaps a platoon is in order. Calling Ken Phelps!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nick Punto's Biggest Fan

So The Common Man has been alerted to Nick Punto Day, and encouraged to write about the wee-est little player that ever did play and don’t you just want to pinch him (note: Nick Punto is listed as two inches taller than The Common Man). There’s one problem with that. The Common Man is not a particularly big fan of Nick Punto. Oh, he’s all right, I guess. He is versatile and is an excellent fielder. Every couple of years he posts a league-average OBP. But his inconsistency on a year-to-year basis is particularly frustrating. And his willingness to take pitches (usually a good thing) often morphs into a hesitancy to swing at anything, which pumps up his strikeout totals. Given Punto’s .305 average on balls in play over the course of his career, The Common Man would like him to put the bat on the ball more often. Finally, The Common Man overturns furniture and throws a hissy fit at even the thought of Punto’s ridiculously misguided attempts to dive into first base, which serve only to slow him down and put him at risk for serious injury. So The Common Man’s feelings about Nick Punto are complicated at best. He’s a decent player, but one who seems to be constantly trying to frustrate TCM.

Fig. 1: At least LNP does us the courtesy of posing for amusing pictures.

But The Common Man does like one thing about Nick Punto Day. Every time The Common Man thinks about Nick Punto, he is reminded of Bat-Girl, Li’l Nicky’s biggest (and perhaps first) fan. Bat-Girl (for those of you new to the blogging game, was one of the Minnesota Twins first and foremost online voices, providing long recaps of games the night before, and choosing a new boyfriend after each win. Bat-Girl, under the banner of “less stats, more sass,” mixed Greek mythology (the adventures of Cordel Koskos were always fun, even if it turns out Koskie is kind of an asshat), Canada-worship, genuine enthusiasm, and Legos to create a terrific counter-point to Aaron Gleeman’s more analytical blog.

Bat-Girl’s greatest creation, however, may have been Lil Nicky Punto, a pint-sized superhero who could fit in your pocket (like The Atom, but with better range). Lil Nicky Punto had many adventures. There was the time he was eaten in the Northwoods by Johnny Damon and Corey Koskie.
He was almost ripped in half during a brawl. He saved Rondell White’s chinchilla (Mr. Fuzzles) from the evil clutches of CC Sabathia (sadly, Rondell never did stop sucking), he defeated the evil Mecha-Yankee that was terrorizing the Metrodome parking lots, and he even rescued an old lady’s quarter from a storm drain. Because he is Nicky Punto, he could get into places others could not.

Bat-Girl, sadly, had to give up writing in 2007 to focus on her new Bat-Baby Dash. It was undoubtedly a good trade to make, as The Common Man has had to make similar choices in the past, putting his family and career ahead of blogging because the stupid United Nations refuses to extend the length of the day by an extra two hours no matter how nicely he asked. But of all the bloggers that have come and gone, TCM misses Bat-Girl the most. Her enthusiasm, frankness, and sass made each morning more fun to wake up to, and her obvious love for the Twins was contagious.

In case you’re interested, Bat-Girl’s friend, Anne Ursu, is also a pretty terrific writer. A couple years back, The Common Man bought and read Spilling Clarence, a moving novel about the nature of memory, forgetting, and grief. The Common Man remembers walking away thinking more about what we choose to remember, and how we remember it. How memories change in our mind, and why we change them. How they inform who we are, and how we perceive the world. It’s definitely worth your time. Ursu also has another adult book out, The Disapparation of James, about what happens to an ordinary family when their youngest disappears during a magic trick and, oddly, does not reappear. She also has written a trilogy of adolescent books out called The Chronos Chronicles that explore and play with Greek mythology. At last check, Ursu was writing and teaching creative writing at a college in Ohio, but still seems to have faculty status at Hamline University. If you do happen to encounter Ms. Ursu, at a reading, lecture, or ballgame, tell her how much you like her friend Bat-Girl, and wish her a belated Nick Punto Day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

63 Years After Jackie, Baseball Still Working On It

The Common Man meant to be random today, but that darned Craig Calcaterra had to start the day off with a light topic: institutional racism. Craig wrote about a Moshe Mandel article at TYU about the phenomenon of ascribing stereotypical traits to different ethnicities within baseball, and then expressing those through code in media reports. Moshe explains,
“Baseball fans are commonly exposed to this sort of dichotomy, in which white players are often presented as gritty and do everything they can to maximize their talents, while minority players are ‘athletic’ and ‘smooth,’ and ‘make it look easy out there.’ The successes of white players are attributed to effort, while the successes of non-white players are explained by inherent ability. Failures by minorities players are often explained by pointing to a lack of effort. Failures by white players have a way of occasionally being rationalized away or even forgotten.”
Indeed, going further, Latino players are often referred to as “spacey” or “aloof.” African-Americans are “angry.” Meanwhile, white players tend to be “characters” or “intense.” analyst Keith Law confirms that this bias is still a force within the game,
“Black players are expected to be athletic, and they're downgraded if they're not. White players are more likely to be called "scrappy." Latino position players are a lot more likely to be left in the middle infield. And so on. It's ingrained in the industry - it's not a question of outright racism, or conscious racism, but stereotypes that have existed in the business (and the world) for fifty years and are still alive in the institutional memory that powers so much of the game.”

In particular, Moshe highlighted a recent article by ESPN’s Jayson Stark, where a scout choosing between the future careers of Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez (two elite, right-handed starting pitchers who each recently signed five-year extensions) said, “Now we’ll see what the contracts do to both guys. It won’t faze Verlander, but I guess it’s possible Felix could get a little complacent. His makeup doesn’t suggest it, but you never know.” As Moshe points out, there is no reason given why anyone would make that distinction. Neither players’ makeup has been particularly in question, and the only discernable difference between the two (aside from the fact that Felix is better) is their race.

The Common Man has been heavily engaged in the comments section over at HardballTalk, as this is the sort of thing that really gets him going. Given how much TCM has written over there, he hopes you don’t mind if he adapts it for this space.

It is unfortunate that there is not a better word than “racist” and “racism” that lead to these racially-tinged evaluations. Detractors of Moshe’s article are quick to denounce him for calling the writers, broadcasters, and scouts he quotes as “racists” and accusing him of trolling for traffic. The word “racist,” to me, when applied to a person denotes a level of malice and forethought (and enthusiasm). Rather, I think there are a) degrees of racist behavior and beliefs (kind of like how Babe Ruth and Bruce Sutter are Hall of Famers without being anything close to the same caliber) and b) we should be able to talk about a general racist cultural attitude that informs and influences our underlying assumptions and attitudes without indicting individuals. In addition, it's possible to argue that certain ingrained cultural assumptions lead more easily to evaluations that we can interpret as being racially biased without saying that someone is a capital "R" Racist. Race and racism is a touchy subject and it should be handled with care and subtlety. Broad brush strokes are not productive in the discussion.

So separating out the difference between calling someone a racist and discussing how a racist culture informs what they are saying becomes an absolute necessity. An analogy for BikeMonkey: I know how to ride a bike; in the past, I have ridden a bike; that does not mean, even if I'm currently riding, that I'm an avid bike rider. Moshe's article simply acknowledges that we all implicitly understand this coded language, and sometimes we use it. But if we really thought about it, we don't believe the assumptions behind them (or at least wouldn’t act on them openly). There are differences in degree, level of enthusiasm, and motivation that separate participants in a racist culture from capital "R" Racists. No one is accusing NY Post and writer Bob Klapisch of being in the Klan, but his assertion that “
Yes, we know the Yankees have the more talented second baseman in Robinson Cano. The Bronx incumbent is smooth, super-cool and has a hitting DNA to die for. But Pedroia plays harder and has a greater emotional investment in the day-to-day outcome of his team. In other words, he cares more than Cano,”
cries out to be unpacked and criticized, particularly because they are spoken from a place of privilege. These men and women are assumed to be knowledgeable about the game, and are trusted to impart their evaluations and interpretations to others.

What’s more, the standard cry to not impugn these writers, broadcasters, and scouts with a charge of racism is a disingenuous one. “You don’t know that they are racists;” these critics argue. “To imply otherwise is hurtful, irresponsible, and dishonest.” However, it would be impossible to talk about a racist cultural atmosphere without examples of that atmosphere, wouldn't it? Wouldn’t those critical of the argument scream for relevant examples of the phenomenon in question? If we cannot talk about relevant examples of a phenomenon because to do so would be to unfairly cast aspersions on the motives of others, then we cannot talk credibly about the phenomenon itself. That's not at all productive, because then we can never work on whatever racial baggage we have as a culture.

And make no mistake, this baggage exists. Even within the sports world, it’s regularly visible. Respectfully, that's because you either don't recognize it where you see it or simply aren't looking where it's happening. The Latino coach of the Kansas State men's basketball team is being portrayed as a gardener , there are countless websites questioning whether the President is a citizen, a Muslim, a terrorist, etc., Milton Bradley and his mom are accusing the whole city of Chicago of racism, and the Washington Redskins are still the RED-SKINS (and the Cleveland mascot is a caricature of a Native American man painted bright red). These are the fruits of this country's complicated and troubling history with race. They exist. To deny that our country still has countless issues with race that need to be addressed and worked through is to bury your head in the sand. Baseball is only one front (and a relatively minor one) in this battle, but it is highly visible and worth the effort.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

About The Platoon Advantage

The Platoon Advantage is a general baseball blog dedicated to the ideas that Bert Blyleven was better than Jack Morris, Dwight Evans was better than Jim Rice, and Pete Rose should never be allowed within 100 feet of the Hall of Fame with or without buying a ticket. The Common Man and Bill believe that steroids are bad, but not any worse than what Eddie Harris used to throw in Major League. They aren't math geeks, but they believe strongly in the power of the math geek, and they love their baseball history. They (reluctantly) moved out of their moms' basements years ago, and now live in the Upper Midwest.

Newer writers Jason and Cee probably believe more or less the same stuff, may or may not live in their moms' basements, and they live on the coasts, so when they hear "Upper Midwest" they think this.

The Common Man
The pinnacle of manliness, The Common Man is ageless, for he is timeless. He is here and has always been here. He is eternal. The Common Man is Platonic ideal of manhoood. Husband. Father. Artist. Scholar. Lover. Fighter. Pack mule. Square peg in a round world.

He lives in an undisclosed location in the Upper Midwest, with The Uncommon Wife and The Boy, is an unabashed Twins fan, and an otherwise productive member of society. He makes his living blowing your mind.

Bill Parker
Bill is a lifelong Twins fan who was born in Minnesota but has lived everywhere. Things he likes include: Kirby Puckett; Greg Maddux; Dave Stieb; Lou Gehrig; John Updike; Ben Folds; Christina Hendricks; Panda Express; Vin Scully; Frank Sinatra; the Mariners; Kurt Vonnegut; the Cubs; Charlottesville, Virginia; Jeopardy!; Shane Mack; Patton Oswalt; The Killers; Stephen Sondheim; Cherry Coke Zero; 30 Rock; and words such as "vapid," "salient" and "intuitively."

Bill lives in Minnesota with his beautiful wife and two five-tool future stars. He's an attorney, and you can hold that against him if you want to.

Jason Wojciechowski
Jason lives and works in Los Angeles, but he grew up in northern California and became an A's fan around the time that Damon Mashore was making his presence felt in the American League. He watches bordering-on-impossible amounts of television, has conflicted feelings about the frankly hipster music he likes, owns more Dover math texts than he really needs, and totally did not excitedly poke his wife in the arm repeatedly that time he was two seats away from Michael Schur in a theater.

He has also maintained Beaneball, an A's blog, since 2003. He is inordinately proud of writing the "software" that generates the site.

Cee Angi
Cee Angi is the best baseball writer on the Internet according to her mother. She is first and foremost a baseball person, who attends more games per season than she would like to admit, and won't pass up the opportunity for peanuts (in the shell) or beer (especially if you're paying). Cee is an avid scorekeeper, statistics fanatic, and prefers real ticket stubs to the ones you can print yourself. Cee lives in Washington, DC currently, but has lived dozens of places and has trouble staying put. Her comfort zone is Bleacher 41 at Fenway Park, she hates Sweet Caroline. Cee's favorite things besides baseball include: her cavalier king charles spaniel, dating, ice hockey, bourbon, sleeping with the windows open, and starting lineup figures. 

Chris St. John
Chris is stuck in New Mexico, six and a half hours away from the nearest MLB stadium. Consequently, he spends most of his time with his nose in a spreadsheet acting like he knows what he's talking about. He uses parentheses excessively (but who doesn't) and prefers his prepositions at the ends of his sentences. He is the proud owner of a Nick Markakis shirsey and looks forward to telling everyone "I told you so" after his 3,000th hit. Unfortunately, none of his friends appreciate baseball the way he does, so he appreciates any intelligent conversation about the sport he can find. 

Mark Smith (retired)
Mark Smith grew up and lives in the Louisville, Kentucky area of the world, but he became a Braves fan because the Reds suck and the Cardinals were his dad's team. The Braves then won a World Series, Mark began a bandwagon jumper, and he continues to cheer for them as though the string of division championships was still intact. He likes long walks on the beach, singing in the car, yelling at Fredi Gonzalez, and pretending he has any writing ability and analytical skills whatsoever. Aside from baseball, he spends his time watching football, slapping a golf ball around, listening to bands he's not ashamed of liking even though he should be, and cooking. All in all, he should be ashamed of himself, but he's not.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance Meme

A fun game has cropped up over at the former Circling the Bases, now HardballTalk, based on Lenny Dykstra (who recently lost all of his money, had his $17.5 million house foreclosed on, and is going through bankrupcy) starting a new company giving investment advice. The Common Man's contributions:

Fenster on getting away clean.
Charles Dickens on brevity.
Lear on family relations.
Othello on impulse control.
Johnny Damon on finding a job in a down economy.
Jim Bowden and Omar Minaya on choosing the right management team.
Captain Kirk and respecting the Prime Directive.

And some lesser examples:
Bert Blyleven on making the Hall of Fame.
Jim Rice on playing Hall of Fame quality baseball.
Al Pacino on subtlety.
Ron Artest on winning friends and influencing people.
Mickey Mantle on clean living.

Beer Leaguers: Natty Lite and Willie Bloomquist

Once upon a time, as astute reader and friend of the blog BikeMonkey has pointed out, The Common Man used to write about a lot of stuff man-related. Beer, politics, sports, film, TV. That has largely gone by the wayside in deference to the almighty baseball; but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to bring them back every now and again, particularly when TCM loves mix genres. So today marks the beginning of a new feature here The Common Beer Leaguers. What follows is the first in a series that will compare baseball players to beer, or beer to baseball players, depending on your perspective. It’s an opportunity to combine TCM’s favorite topics, and to praise (or deride) the deserving. Today, in light of some nasty weather, The Boy peeing (again) in The Common Man’s bed last night, and two-hour meetings that start at 8:00, The Common Man is in a nasty temper. So today, he’s afraid, you get the dregs.

The beer/The ball-player

Fig. 1: Natural Light (aka Natty Lite, The Natty, Swill) and Willie Bloomquist

Natty Lite is about the most piss poor excuse for beer The Common Man has ever had. In the can, sure, it looks like it might do the trick, but dig deeper and you’ll see the beer looks like diffused urine and tastes not much better. The Common Man could barely stomach it in college, before he knew what beer was supposed to taste like. Now, of course, discerning beer drinkers know to stay away. Yet, across college campuses, Natty Lite is plentiful. It flows like the Amazon in the rainy season, a torrent of frothy yellow filth that no one should be forced to take internally, lest they contract a horrible parasite. Of course, the reason for its popularity is clear, Natty Lite is the cheapest beer out there, and college students don’t know better. While they could be getting plastered on better tasting/higher ABV beers, they throw their pennies away weekend after weekend, sacrificing quality for quantity.

Like Natty Lite barely qualifies as beer, Willie Bloomquist barely qualifies as a baseball player. He may look the part, filling out his uniform and generally looking athletic, and he’s definitely got speed, but in watching him every day you will be frustrated by his general lack of skills. He lacks power, plate discipline, and the ability to hit for average (last year, Bloomquist had a line-drive rate of 20%, and still only hit .265). He has played all around the diamond, giving the appearance that he’s a jack of all trades, but really has been below average at every position except 2B. And he’s horribly miscast when his teams try to use him in the OF or at SS. He’s the kind of player that makes you regret trying to play him. In 1829 PAs across 7+ seasons, Bloomquist has accumulated a WAR of 1.9, his highest being a 1.2 win season in his rookie campaign (which was immediately wiped out by a -1.2 win season the next year.

Like Natty Lite, Bloomquist became popular and prevalent for terrible reasons. First, he came up with the Mariners and was a hometown prospect, growing up in a suburb of Seattle. He was never really supposed to be a good player, either. Bloomquist had a .294 OBP as a 23 year old at AA (in the offense-happy Texas League!) and put together just a .714 OPS in AAA the next year. Still, as the M’s entered a five-year drought that saw them below .500 four times, lose 90 games three, and 101 once. Bloomquist became one of the few marketable and popular players on the team, and seemed approachable (unlike Ichiro, who got hung with an “aloof” label). He was a local boy who made good, even if he wasn’t particularly good. And he was “scrappy” and “made the most of his talent” unlike perpetual whipping boys Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Lopez, Jeremy Reed, Richie Sexson, and Adrian Beltre. The fact that Bloomquist wasn’t very good simply didn’t matter much, and he developed an Ecksteinian reputation as a “gamer.”

Fig. 2 Gritty.

It’s not that Bloomquist is a bad resource to have around. Actually having a utility player who can handle, passably, six positions, and who you can give 100-150 PAs to is not a bad idea. It provides a team with flexibility and allows it to give its stars needed days off over the course of the season. Indeed, even Natty Lite fulfills a function, getting college kids to pull off ill-conceived stunts that end up on and have drunken hook-ups with their roommate’s ex-girlfriend’s roommate (which can lead to some fun and delicious awkwardness). But the reason Natty continues to fill this function and fill it well is because it is so cheap. Alas, as Bloomquist aged, he lost that cheapness that made him a good alternative. If Natty inexplicably raised its prices to $25 a case, the students would move on to another comparable brand (Keystone?). Like cheap beers, there are Bloomquist-esque utility-infielders-in-waiting all over the minor leagues, ready to be plucked from obscurity and given a chance to live the big league life for at or near the league minimum.

Which is why it is so strange that the Kansas City Royals, last year, just had to have Willie Bloomquist. They not only guaranteed him two years, but gave him $3.1 million for the privilege. It was like walking into a liquor store, finding Natty Lite for $14/case, and haggling with the clerk to give him an extra $5 for the trouble. Indeed, Bloomquist was probably overpaid by the M’s during his final season (he made $1 million), but at least he had some PR value. All he adds to the Royals is Tony Phillips’ versatility without the quality that made Tony Phillips so ridiculously valuable.

The year after they let Bloomquist walk, the Mariners used Ronny Cedeno and Josh Wilson as their backup infielders for the grand total of somewhere around $600,000, and even managed to make Cedeno part of the deal for new SS Jack Wilson. The M’s improved by 24 games last season (not because they got rid of Bloomquist, mind you, but their decision not to pursue him was indicative of a smart organization that knows how to find free or virtually free resources, and where to devote their energy and money). The Royals, on the other hand, snapped up Bloomquist. While agent Scott Boras has done client Johnny Damon a disservice this offseason, surely most of that negativity is balanced out by the ridiculous deal he got for Bloomquist. Not surprisingly, given their apparent lust for crappy middle-infielders,

Fig. 3 Exhibit B.

the Royals not only overpaid for Bloomquist, but gave him almost 40% more playing time than he’d ever had before. Indeed, Bloomquist got into 125 games in 2009, garnering 468 PAs. No wonder the lost 97 games. Nobody in their right mind would drink Natty Lite if they didn’t have to.

Fig. 4 Nobody in their right mind.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Super World Series

What a game, huh? The Common Man watched the game with a beer in hand, The Boy at his side, and The Uncommon Wife safely tucked away at another house watching reruns of Absolutely Fabulous. Aside from a strange call from The Uncommon Wife midway through the 2nd quarter (in which she asked The Common Man to come pick her up…yeah, that was really going to happen…then again, TCM hopes she gets home before breakfast), the manliness was in full effect. Pretzels were dipped in mustard. Hoppy beer was consumed. Pizza was made. And, of course, football was on the TV for the last time until September.

Fig. 1 The Common Man's ready for some football.

Fortunately, the game proved to be the best played Super Bowl The Common Man can remember watching. It was largely devoid of mistakes (except Peyton’s big pick) and well-executed by both squads. It was exciting and close the whole way. It was a fitting way to end the 2009-2010 NFL schedule, and the New Orleans win was the only thing soothing TCM’s bitterness over his Vikings’ horrifying loss two weeks ago. So the game went as well as could be expected.

As the game wore on, however, The Common Man began wondering whether there might be a natural parallel between today’s game and the far grander spectacle, the World Series. There have been 106 World Series thusfar, surely one would prove analogous, and put this Super Bowl in its proper perspective. First, because of how close the game was until the very end, and the back and forth nature of the contest, we need a series that went seven games (or eight or nine). That limits our pool to 38 possibilities. We also need a series where the losing team jumped out to an early lead. Certainly, the Colts’ 10 point lead doesn’t seem like much until we remember that only one other team had ever come back from that deficit in the past. Essentially, the Colts jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the Saints got going. Ideally, the winning team would be an underdog, and even more ideally, they would have a similar history as New Orleans (struggles, embarrassment, and eventual triumph that everyone feels good about).

If we use that as our criteria, really, the only real answer is that Super Bowl XLIV is the 1955 World Series. Going into the ’55 series, the Dodgers had never won a World Championship. Despite recent success, they were far more recognizable as Dem Bums than as anything positive. While the Colts’ success does not rival the Yankees extended run of excellence going into ’55, their recent history has been impeccable. With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Colts won the most games of the 00s, were a perennial playoff team, and won a Super Bowl.

Like the Saints, the Dodgers quickly went down to the powerhouse Yankees, two games to nothing. In Game 1, Yankees 1B Joe Collins slugged two homers off of Don Newcombe to lead the Bombers to a one game advantage. Game Two featured a five-hitter by Tommy Byrne and a four-run rally in the 4th inning that held up. Over the final four frames, Byrne got stronger, never allowing a runner past first base. In another eerie parallel to last night’s game, one of the Yanks’ great stars was battling injuries in ’55. Mickey Mantle missed the first two games with a leg injury, but that hardly seemed to affect the club. At the end of the first quarter, the Colts led 10-0 in spite of Dwight Freeney’s limited contributions.

Fig. 2 Ow.

But things turned quickly in Game 3 for the Dodgers. In the first inning, Roy Campanella homered off of Bob Turley to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead. Like Freeney ‘s sack in the 2nd quarter last night, Mickey tried to limit the damage, hitting a solo shot to lead off the 2nd. However, a single, HBP, a bunt single, and two walks chased Turley the next inning and gave the Dodgers a lead they would never relinquish. Johnny Podres pitched will for Brooklyn, tossing a complete game.

Game 4 was a slugfest, as both Carl Erskine and Don Larsen were chased early. Mantle continued to play but was clearly hobbled, going 1 for 5 with a single and moving to RF. The game turned in the 4th inning, when Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges each homered to turn a 1-3 deficit into a 4-3 lead. The next inning, Larsen walked Junior Gilliam and Pee Wee Reese singled off of Johnny Kucks to lead off the inning. Duke Snider followed with a three-run homer to break the game open. The series was tied at 2-2. Last night’s Super Bowl went into halftime with the Colts up 10-6, but given how thoroughly their offense had been shut down in the 2nd quarter, and the Saints’ last second field goal to tighten the game up, it’s hard to argue that the momentum seemed to have swung in the Saints’ favor, making it close to a draw. And given New Orleans’ brazen recovery of an onside kick to start the 3rd quarter, 2-2 seems about right.

But, of course, neither the Series nor the Super Bowl ended there. Just as the Saints would march down and score on a 16-yard strike from Brees to Pierre Thomas to take a 13-10 lead, the Dodgers also won Game 5 to take a slight edge. Duke Snider launched two solo homers off of Bob Grim, and Sandy Amoros added a two-run shot to lead Brooklyn, who got serviceable performances out of rookie Roger Craig and ace reliever Clem Labine to hold the Bombers in check. Mantle, like Freeney, stopped being a factor at this point, and was not able to play.

But like Peyton Manning, the Yankees could not be kept down for long. Game Six saw Whitey Ford absolutely handcuff the Dodgers, pitching a complete game four-hitter, with 8 strikeouts. Rookie Karl Spooner, who had battled arm trouble all year, lasted a third of an inning before being yanked, and was on the hook for 3 hits (one of which was a three-run Bill Skowron homer), two walks and five runs. Russ Meyer and Ed Roebuck held New York in check for the rest of the game, providing 8.2 innings of scoreless relief, but the damage was done. At the end of the third quarter, the game was 17-16 Indianapolis, Peyton and Joseph Addai had conspired to give the Colts momentum, and the game was anyone’s to win.

Like the Saints, the Dodgers would score twice in their fourth quarter. Gil Hodges singled with two outs off of Tommy Byrne in the top of the 4th to drive in Campanella, and then lofted a sacrifice fly in the 6th to drive in Reese. Johnny Podres made it stick, pitching a shutout over the bombers. Like Tracy Porter, Sandy Amoros made a game-saving play, turning what would have been a Yogi Berra double down the leftfield line into a double play to end a budding rally.

Fig. 3 Good defense.

Podres faced more trouble in the eighth. Like Manning driving down the field in the final two minutes, the Yankees put two on with one out, but Podres made Berra pop out to right and struck out Hank Bauer to end the threat and start the party.

Ultimately, The Common Man is sure that the celebration in Brooklyn, while just as passionate, was less wild than the pandemonium in the French Quarter last night.

Fig. 4 Alas, there was no room for the car and its lovable hooligans on Bourbon Street

However, otherwise, these two contests seem to match up well, and Super Bowl XLIV may go down as just as much a classic of its game as Brooklyn’s only World Series triumph.