Ode from an Apologist

A while back, I alluded to a future column on Dusty Baker. This is it.

Ol’ Dusty was ousted at the end of the 2017 postseason, when his Nationals team failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time since the 2012 season. Over the past two seasons, Baker has guided the Nats to 192 regular season wins, but lost back-to-back five-game series in the NLDS. This year was particularly painful, as the Nats hit, pitched and fielded better than the Cubs, but were unable to turn that into a series win.

There’s a good chance this was Dusty’s last turn as a manager. He’s almost 69, which is well past the point when most guys have lost a few miles off their managerial fastball (though in Dusty’s defense, his teams have averaged more than 94 wins per year in his last four seasons, so there’s no sign he’s losing it).

Perhaps more than his age, what might keep Dusty from ever perching himself atop the dugout steps again is the modern general manager. Today’s front offices increasingly want a manager who is going to unquestionably adapt the GM’s ideas and strategies, which is why so many neophytes are getting jobs. We saw that play out in late November, when Yankees GM Brian Cashman opted to let one of the game’s best managers walk so he could bring in Aaron Fucking Boone, a trade that is not likely to help the Yankees but will be appreciated by Sunday Night Baseball viewers.

So Dusty’s likely done. And if he is, it ends a damn fine managerial career, even if the conventional wisdom (at least among my crowd) doesn’t always recognize it that way.

Despite leading four separate teams to the postseason, chalking up 1,863 victories (all-time) against 1636 losses, earning three MoY honors and getting votes another nine times, and most often getting better results than both his managerial  predecessors and his successors, Dusty’s skills have often been downplayed by baseball’s fans. That’s because Dusty had the misfortune of turning in his worst effort when he piloted one of the game’s loudest franchises.

Baker’s Chicago run was undoubtedly his worst. From my vantage point in the Chicago suburbs, Dusty seemed to be going through the motions over the final two-plus seasons on the Northside, all the while crafting sad excuses for his team’s sad play. He struck me as a guy who needed a break, which Jim Hendry ultimately provided for him. And that break did him a world of good, as there were no more 2005-06 seasons on his resume.

But because Cubs fans have an out-sized voice in baseball discourse, Dusty’s Chicago term, rather than his more successful stints with his other three franchises, have continued to define him. What’s worse, the definition isn’t terribly accurate.

Baker earned a reputation in Chicago as the game’s preeminent arm shredder. He also got tagged as a guy who wouldn’t work with young players. The first trait isn’t any more true of Dusty than anyone else, and the second simply doesn’t have any evidence to support it.

Yes, Baker never should have rode Mark Prior as hard as he did during the 2003 season. And yes, it’s possible that workload contributed to Prior’s injury-racked career. Baker deserves to get dinged for that, even if it’s quite possible Prior’s shoulder was destined for the operating table regardless how babied he was.

And the rest of the Baker CV isn’t littered with tattered shoulders and torn UCLs brought on by Baker’s indifference to arm health. He’s got a few Tommy Johns and some other assorted ailments, but no more than you’d expect out of any manager who was around for 22 big league seasons. He may have worked his starters a little harder than seems prudent to us wing preservation speculators, but the track record on the injury front is comparable with his managerial peers.

That leaves Dusty as Kiddie Hater, the game’s anti-Roy Moore. It’s accepted fact that Dusty will never give time to a promising youngster when a grizzled vet can do the same job at half the productivity. Again, the facts don’t support that contention.

Baker made his bones with the Giants, a team run by an executive with a legitimate (if expired) reluctance to build with homegrown kids. Brian Sabean once gave up a first-round draft pick for the right to sign the perpetually mediocre Michael Tucker, which he could have done a few days later at no cost to the Giants. That’s how little he valued the draft at the time. But that time was a full year after Baker was gone from SF, showing the Giants’ aversion to kids always began at the top.

The simple truth is, Dusty wasn’t given much in the way of young position player talent to work with in either of his first two stops. The Giants organization preferred vets to kids, and acted accordingly on the team-building front. And the Cubs were in a decades-long stretch where the organization was unable to produce any position-player talent from the farm. But those teams had some young arms, and Dusty wasn’t afraid of putting them on the hill.

Moveover, when Dusty got to Cincinnati and Washington, he had no trouble turning over at bats to his kids, and was rewarded with various Vottos and Bruces and Turners and Difos during his final eight seasons.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of how the Dusty narrative differs from the Dusty record is with one Matthew Henry Murton. Cubs wisdom claims that Baker buried the promising Murton, short-circuiting his career. Not only is this wisdom inaccurate, it’s about the exact opposite of what happened. Over the course of his five-year career, Murton played more games for Baker (195 games over 2005- 2006) than he did any of his other managers. He also performed much better under Dusty (105 OPS+, 2.9 of his 3.3 career WAR) than he did under any other skipper. The truth is, Dusty extracted more out of the marginal Murton than anyone else came close to doing.

And a look at the guys he never gave real looks to reveals something else. They couldn’t play. There’s not a single young player that he buried who was able to unleash his talent elsewhere when freed from Dusty’s clutches. Not one. A couple of guys blossomed later, but they were guys that Baker found playing time for (Rich Aurilia and Edwin Encarnacion), who just took more time to develop. The more logical conclusion to draw from this was that Dusty had a pretty keen eye for spotting big league talent. Unfortuntately, that will never do for the Baker bashers.

If this is indeed it, Dusty Baker exits the game as an excellent baseball manager, of his history’s best. I don’t think he’s Hall of Fame good, at least not until the Hall starts inducting combo platter candidates based on the sum of a player’s entire baseball career, where Baker’s productive 18-year playing career can supplement his managerial case. But with or without Cooperstown’s call, I hope the future story of Baker’s managerial tenure better reflects his record and abilities, rather than the lingering bitter feelings of some misguided fans.

TBtB: Seattle Mariners

Part 8: Seattle Mariners
As mentioned in the opening thread to the series, the Mariners’ pending name change was the final push for this entire project. Among the first of the wave of new parks in the ’90s, the House that Edgar Built has been called Safeco since it’s opening. It’s a name that’s served the facility quite well, has a common baseball term jammed in there, and surely everyone in the Pacific Northwest has the name ingrained in his head as the home of the M’s.
Now it won’t be, (Officially. Fans of the club will undoubtedly be calling it Safeco for years to come). Still, the home team announcers and local papers, TV and radio folk will refer to it by the new moniker, flummoxing many casual fans. Above all, that’s the kind of nonsense this endeavor was designed to prevent. Names are meant to help identify, not confuse.
Based on previous competitions, my guess is that our voters will be overwhelmingly in favor of just keeping the current name on the joint. No argument there, but we can still get adventurous and come up with some decent possibilities if we were opening the place tomorrow before we vote to keep Safeco, can’t we?
Ahh, a boy can dream.

Ballpark History

Built:  1999
Capacity: 47,943
Name:  Safeco Field (1999-2018), Something Crappy (2018-)
Other ballparks used by club in its current city:  Kingdome 1977-1999. Pilots played one season at Sick’s Stadium in 1969.
Distinctive Features:  Safeco’s retractable roof leaves open air, the only of its type in the big leagues; Baseball Museum of the Pacific Northwest and Mariners Hall of Fame located there; Extensive public art space.
Ballpark Highlights:
In the first game after the all-star break, Seattle dropped a 3-2 decision to traditional interleague geographical rival San Diego in the first game played at Safeco Field. The Mariners entered the ninth leading 2-1 before Jose Mesa yielded two in the top of the frame, allowing M’s fans to instantly reminisce about the Kingdome days.

On April 2, 2001, in the M’s first game since Alex Rodriguez left to sign a record FA deal with Texas, new Mariner Ichiro Suzuki went 2-5 with a run scored in a 5-4 win over Oakland. It was the first of a team-record 116 wins, and the first two of Suzuki’s 242 hits in his MVP season.

During the 72nd MLB All-Star Game, Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park took requests.

In 2009, Alexei Ramirez reached on a single to third on a play that sent Adrian Beltre to the disabled list with a “severely contused right testicle.” It was a play that still didn’t convince the future Hall of Famer to wear a protective cup, a very Beltrean decision.

In the span of less than five months in 2012, Chicago’s Philip Humber threw a perfect game against the home team, a sextet of M’s hurlers no-hit the Dodgers (exciting catcher Jesus Montero and no one else), and Felix Hernandez tossed a perfect game against the Rays.

A Friend Passes on Without Fanfare

Now that it’s the offseason, I thought I’d sprinkle the blog with some recycled content. You know, for the planet.

This ran in 1993. Its origins trace to a conversation I had with my editor and fellow baseball fan John Harmon, when we were old man lamenting the absence of kids playing outdoors, primarily baseball. I started writing this column in my head shortly after that conversation, planning it for my week off in June.

Then, about two weeks before my column was about to run, John wrote his own column based on that discussion. Initially I panicked, but I soon decided I could work his effort into mine. This was the result.

=

It’s hard to believe a man of such stature could pass away in obscurity.

The Republic has learned of the death of an American legend, Sandlot Baseball.

In ill health for the past 20 years, Sandlot, 155, was pronounced dead Saturday in a park outside Ogden, Utah.

Officials investigating the death said he was supposed to meet 12 boys, but they suddenly abandoned him when a 13th arrived to announce he had acquired the new video game, “Desensitizing Violence.”

Foul play has not been ruled out.

The exact whereabouts of Sandlot’s birth is unclear, but one commonly accepted theory says he was born June 12, 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Still, Sandlot was never confined to one address, moving frequently and gracefully from large city to small burg.

Like Johnny Appleseed, Sandlot traveled the country by foot, entrenching the roots of the national pastime.

The seeds of the game took hold in more than a few local residents. Among those he befriended were the city’s hardball skippers, Columbus North’s Joe Preda and Columbus East’s Lou Giovanini.

“It seemed like everybody knew him,” Preda said. “But I can’t remember the last time I saw him.”

Giovanini also had difficulty pinpointing his most recent encounter with the legend. But the veteran manager had a theory on the demise of Sandlot and two of his buddies.
“(Sandlot) Baseball, (Backyard) Football and (Pickup) Basketball were all we knew. Maybe today there are too many others,” the coach said, pointing to younger kids Tele Vision and Play Station as prime suspects.

Both coaches said Sandlot’s ill health in recent years left its mark on the diamond, where today’s ballplayers aren’t as knowledgeable of the game’s nuances as they once were.”

From Sandlot, “you learned the game a little better,” Giovanini said.

Sandlot taught kids the strategy of the game, Preda said. “We knew where to hit the ball and when to squeeze bunt.”

The impact of Sandlot’s death is not just felt by those who made a career on the diamond. The Republic Editor John Harmon, who recently embarked on a fruitless mid-afternoon search for Sandlot, was also dismayed to learn of his passing.

“Sandlot Baseball played a large part in my life and other kids in the neighborhood. I hope we can at least keep his memory alive for future generations,” Harmon said.
“But you know, you’ll never really know him unless you were lucky enough to meet him.”
Sandlot is survived by one brother, Stick Ball, in critical condition at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., and one half-brother, Little League, living comfortably at his estate in Williamsburg, Pa.

In lieu of flowers or memorials, Sandlot’s last will and testament requested one gesture.

The deceased has asked for 10-12 boys and girls to gather on a nondescript piece of property, with a ball (preferably in shoddy condition), a bat (most definitely wooden) and shareable gloves in tow. The will states that no uniforms be worn, no rule books carried and, most importantly, no adults present.

Sandlot was a firm believer in reincarnation.

 

 

 

 

TBtB: Philadelphia Phillies

Part 7: Philadelphia Phillies

And so we resume. We’re back in the National League East, visiting one of the oldest franchises in the sport.

Citizens Bank has been the sole title sponsor of the Phils’ home park since its opening in 2004. I never hear much about this one, so I’m guessing it’s just a generic new-style park, an improvement on the Vet but, ironically, somewhat indistinguishable from the other parks of its era.

The Vet, of course, was almost entirely indistinguishable from many of the digs of fellow original NL franchises – the Pirates’ Three Rivers on the other side of the state, the Reds’ Riverfront along the Ohio River and the Cards in Busch 1.0. The most memorable characteristic of Vet was its turf, a surface employed to cut diamonds in the offseason, and the legendary, let’s call it passion, of its home fans.

The Phillies have a long history, though most of it is pretty pathetic. But it’s in Philly, so finding a nice replacement name should be simple. On the other hand, the club has called Philadelphia home and itself the Phillies longer than any other North American sports franchise, so resistance to change runs deep.

We can subtitle this one The Gang Renames a Stadium.

Ballpark History

Built: 2004

Capacity:  43,651

Name:  Citizen’s Bank Park 2004-present.

Other ballparks used by club in its current city: Veteran’s Stadium, 1971-2003; Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium* 1938-1970; Baker Bowl/National League Park/Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds 1887-1938; Recreation Park 1883-1886.

Distinctive Features: Ashburn Alley, a pathway named in honor of Phils’ great and former broadcaster Richie Ashburn; a view of the downtown skyline; statues of Ashburn and other all-time Phils Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt and Robin Roberts; Home Team Success.

Ballpark Highlights: In 2007, St. Louis handed the Phils a 10-2 loss, marking the 10,000th loss in franchise history. The setback made the Phillies the first pro sports team to reach quintuple digits in Ls.

In happier home team news, on the season’s final day the Phils knocked off the Washington Nationals 6-1. Coupled with a Mets loss moments earlier, it capped off a furious late-season charge to the division title, helping dim memories of their own collapse 43 years earlier.

Two days after the first pitch was thrown, Brad Lidge struck out World Series fixture Eric Hinske to wrap up the club’s second World Series title in 2008. The game had been suspended by rain two nights earlier in the top of the sixth with the score tied 2-2, though the Rays had entered the inning trailing 2-1. In the wake of the suspension, Bud Selig determined that postseason contests could not be stopped before nine innings had been played, an entirely sensible ruling.

In 2010, in his first playoff appearance in his 13th big league season, Roy Halladay (RIP Doc) became the second pitcher to throw a postseason no-hitter when he blanked the Reds 4-0, fanning eight and walking just one. Earlier in the season, the future Hall of Famer tossed a perfect game in Miami.

*Shibe Park opened in 1909, though it was used exclusively by the Athletics until the clubs began a time-share arrangement from 1938-54.

 

 

Smoking some kind of pipe

 

On the off day between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series, the New York Yankees joined the other cool kids in the playoff loser bunch and parted ways with their manager. Cutting-edge decision making like this is what keeps the Nationals, Red Sox and Yankees ahead of their loser brethren in Denver, Phoenix and Minneapolis.

Though initially sold as a mutual parting of the ways, it was later revealed that Yankee GM Brian Cashman wanted Girardi gone. So he’s gone.

While I like Dusty Baker (more to come on him later), and John Farrell did win a WS in Boston, I think the Yankees are making the biggest mistake. In my view, Girardi has consistently gotten better than expected results from the Yankees in his 10 seasons there, just as he did in his one season in Miami.

And as for the concern that he’s not the right guy to lead this next crop of young Yankees, I can’t fathom how that’s a reasonable conclusion. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino were not expected to be this good, just as longstanding outfielder Brett Gardner before them was not seen as a 30-WAR player when he was coming up in the New York system. The Yankees have a terrible habit of getting better than anticipated play at the big-league level up and down the roster. If that’s not on Girardi, then who is responsible?

For many Yankee fans, it must be Brian Cashman. While I think Cashman is a pretty solid GM, it’s remarkable that he’s managed to survive almost 20 seasons in charge of the Yanks without a whiff of criticism. Essentially, he’s managed this by getting credit for everything that goes right, while the poor decisions are blamed on any of the Steinbrenner boys, dead or alive. Hell, a recent commenter at BTF, in reaction to the Girardi firing, noted he’d done a good job in hiring Joe Torre and Girardi, so he was worth trusting. That must be the next evolution on the Cashman Love Story, giving Cashman credit for things that happened before he even became GM.

But what the hell, I’m game. Herewith, the Top 10 greatest moves made by Brian  Cashman.

10.* Drafted Aaron Judge

9. Grabbed Aaron Small off the scrap heap.

8. Considered, but ultimately turned down, deal with Senators for Aaron Burr following his solid 1803 campaign.

7. Traded domestically reprehensible closer to Cubs for hot prospect Gleyber Torres.

6. Shrewdly signed free agent closer who had just won Game 7 of the World Series

5. Snookered Derek Jeter, trading 35-year-old middle reliever for AL MVP from 2029-2033, inclusive.

4. Integrated baseball

3. Traded for Babe Ruth, the key move in creating Yankee dynasty.

2. In deadline deal with Indians, acquired Manhattan for $24.

1. Obviously, extended contract of Yankees GM Brian Cashman.

 

World Series Game 1: HR-heavy diet is bad for MLB’s health

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the proud owners of a 1-0 lead in the 2017 World Series behind a dominating outing from Clayton Kershaw and his bullpen pals Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jensen. The game turned in the bottom of the sixth, during the most magnificently bearded confrontation in World Series history.

With Chris Taylor on first and two outs, Justin Turner took a swing at 1-2 Dallas Keuchel offering and deposited in the left field seats on what looked like a harmless, if deep, flyball off his bat.

Turner’s homer followed matching solo shots from Taylor leading off the bottom of the first, and Alex Bregman’s equalizer in the fourth. Thus, all four runs scored on dingers.

This is nothing new for the 2017 playoffs. Through 32 games of postseason play, there have been 262 runs scored. Exactly half have been plated by a homer. This followed a season when MLB easily set a new record for long balls in a single season.

Homers are fine, in moderation. And MLB has tipped way beyond balanced diet into dinger gluttony.

Baseball is better when the ball is in play. And we only need look back at a few recent postseasons to see evidence of this.

In Game 7 of the ALCS, the turning point was not Evan Gattis’ homer to open the scoring, or Jose Altuve’s opposite field shot to double the ‘Stros lead. No, the most memorable play was Todd Frazier’s grounder to third in the top of the fifth, where Alex Bregman was able to nail Greg Bird with the potential tying run.

Bregman’s play was magnificent. His throw to catcher Brian McCann, the former Yank, needed to be perfect to nab Bird. And it was, with McCann barely needing to move his mitt to get the out. Repeated viewings allowed us to marvel how McCann managed to hold on to the ball, and his glove, and avoid injury. And we could see what kind of chance Bregman had at a double play had he opted to go to second (none, by the way. If he’d try to get the lead runner, he’d have gotten nobody out). If Bird is safe, the Yankees have tied the score, with runners at first and second and just one out. We might have been looking at an entirely different result if the gamble hadn’t paid off.

A poorly struck ball gave us the game’s best, most interesting play.

Two years earlier, we had a similar situation in Game 5 of the World Series. With his Royals trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth, Eric Hosmer raced home on a one-out bouncer to third, scoring when Lucas Duda’s throw to the plate sailed wide of catcher Travis d’Arnaud. The Royals won the series three innings later. Hosmer’s mad dash was another fascinating gamble, and was again worth watching over and over to gauge just how the play unfolded, and how it might have unfolded differently.

Of course, the best play of this type happened a year earlier, in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the World Series, when Alex Gordon’s two-out single was misplayed into two extra bases by left fielder Juan Perez, and the world wondered whether the Royals would have been better served had Gordon tried to turn Perez’s miscue into the proverbial Little League homer. The subject was the source of debate for not just days afterward, but was even re-run by a Kansas City college team to test whether Gordon should have gone (their conclusion matched mine from the night it happened. Gordon’s chances of scoring were extraordinarily slim) the following spring. You can have Joe Carter going deep off Mitch Williams – give me the bottom of the ninth of the 2014 Fall Classic any day for intrigue.

I hope the 2017 World Series has a play like this for us. But as more runs are being scored by the homer, and more outs are being recorded by strikeout (Dodger pitchers fanned a dozen Astros last night), the chances of such an occurrence aren’t great. And that’s not a good thing for baseball.

Baseball is at its best when the ball is in play, when runners are moving on the paths. A homer is a moment of drama, but it’s over soon and any mystery is gone. But a single to center with a runner on second, well, that gets us wondering and watching.

Wrong rant, buster.

Major League Baseball is four years into the Buster Posey Rule. As Saturday Night’s Opener of the National League Championship Series demonstrated, the implementation of the rule is still capable of creating controversy.

During the seventh inning of the Cubs’ 5-2 loss for arguing the application of the rule, turning an out at the plate into the Dodgers’ final run. Cubs manager Joe Maddon* was ejected arguing the use of the rule on the field, then continued to rant about the rule’s very existence in his post-game press conference, comparing it to a revoked soda tax in a strained analogy.

The rule was correctly applied. Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras stuck his left leg out to block the plate before he caught the ball, and in a way that wasn’t necessary to complete the catch. He did it to block Charlie Culberson’s lane to the plate, and he did it quite well, giving the sliding Culberson no access to the dish.

Maddon’s chief complaint, at least in the postgame press conference, was with the rule itself. He said he’s disagreed with it from the beginning. To be fair, Maddon is a former catcher, so you can understand why he might be opposed to the rule – he’s taken way too many blows to the head.

Because there’s one thing that hasn’t happened in baseball since the Buster Posey Rule went into effect. Baseball hasn’t created any more Buster Poseys. Runners approaching home plate no longer have to make the choice between sliding and attempted manslaughter. They just slide. And taking this choice away from the Scott Cousins** of the world, the marginal ballplayer who is always going to choose the felony when the alternative is to be considered soft (which usually comes complete with a one-way ticket to Triple A), has resulted in a much safer game around the plate.

Allowing baserunners to attempt to dislodge the baseball from the grasp of the catcher through any means necessary never made sense, particularly given it was pretty much limited to just one base (though in Hal McRae’s day, it also extended to middle infielders engaged in the nefarous act of trying to turn two).

Moreover, it’s not the way the game is played at any level below the major leagues, save a few rogue associations run by sociopaths. Games played at Little League up through the NCAA do not permit catcher assault. Professional baseball was alone in that regard, until MLB finally wised up.

The Buster Posey Rule is a good thing. Joe needs to shut the hell up.

*This is the second time Maddon has railed over the correct implementation of an MLB rule that went against his team, following his 2016 diatribe when the Chase Utley Rule went against his club. Dressing up your team in cute outfits doesn’t give you a free pass to go all Tony LaRussa on us.

**The Buster Mangler.