Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tommy John surgery

Every year, several pitchers come back from what's called "Tommy John surgery." The Twin's young phenom Francisco Liriano is one of them.

If you don't know who Tommy John was or what the surgery is, let me explain.

Tommy John was a solid, if unspectacular, pitcher for the Indians, White Sox, and Dodgers who, in 1974, blew out his elbow and changed baseball. That season, the lefty John was cruising along with a 13-3 record, on track for the best season of his career at age 31. Then he permanently damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm and hit the disabled list.

In the past, such an injury would have meant premature retirement. But John had the good fortune of being close to a true pioneer in orthopedic surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe. Jobe’s radical idea was to replace the damaged ligament with the healthy ligament from John’s right elbow.

It was a risky surgery, and Jobe laid odds on John’s recovery to pitch in the majors again at 1 in 100. Rehabilitation was grueling and took a full 18 months, but it was all worth it when John returned to the majors in 1976 literally better than ever.

He went just 10-10 that year, but in 1977, at the age of 34, he won 20 games for the first time ever and finished second in Cy Young Award balloting. He followed that season with win totals of 17, 21, and 22. He continued pitching until the age of 46 and finished his career with 288 victories.

Today, Tommy John surgery, as it’s known, occurs frequently enough that the recovery rate is about 85 to 90 percent and rehabilitation requires only about a year for pitchers and six months for position players. In fact, many pitchers discover they can throw harder than they could before the surgery (most likely as a result of all the strength training during the rehabilitation period, not as a result of the new elbow ligament).

It is an understatement to say that Tommy John surgery has saved the careers of countless pitchers, making baseball today a better game.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ballplayer stuck in bathroom

On this day four years ago, one of the funniest moments in minor league baseball history occurred. You have to read about it to believe it. I'll let Jason Stark of ESPN tell the story:

He's a hitter with a rep for being streaky. So Jeff Liefer has heard that term, "locked in," before. But last week, he gave it a whole new meaning.

Liefer, who used to play for the White Sox and Expos, turned himself into a human rain delay for the Brewers' Triple-A farm team in Indianapolis last Thursday. How? By personally causing a 15-minute delay in a game with Louisville -- when he got locked in the dugout bathroom between innings.

"Now that," Brewers coach-witticist Rich Donnelly told Really Wild Pitches, "is what you call long relief."

When Liefer finally got to the field, the fans greeted him with a standing ovation and the opposing team presented him with a roll of toilet paper.

It's just a reminder that minor league baseball can be as fun as the bigs. They do all sorts of crazy stuff to bring in attendance. At the minor league park near where I live, home of the single-A San Jose Giants, one opposing batter every game is designated as the "Beer Batter." Whenever he comes to the plate, the music "Roll Out the Barrel" plays over the PA, and if he strikes out, beer is half price for the next 15 minutes. You can imagine the anticipation when he gets two strikes on him, with fans literally on the edge of their seats, and when he strikes out, it's bedlam. Fans SPRINT to the concession stands to get their $2 beers.

I don't know if the Beer Batter is a staple at minor league parks everywhere, but it should be.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bonds and cheating

So far, it looks like no team is willing to sign Barry Bonds for the 2008 season. Nobody wants to take the public-relations hit simply to win more games.

Whether you think this is a good thing depends on your perspective about cheating. There appears to be no doubt that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs beginning around 1998 or 1999. Since these drugs were not banned by baseball, he would appear to be acquitted of cheating on a technicality.

Anyway, these issues have been debated and discussed infinitely over the past half-decade or so. What I want to talk about today is, What can baseball do about his records?

The answer, quite clearly, is nothing. The numbers will--and should--stand. I recall the blowhard Republican U.S. Senator Jim Bunning arguing that *everything* should be wiped off the books. All due respect to Bunning, who was a very good pitcher during his time, but can you imagine anything more ridiculous than that? Saying that just makes Bunning sound even more out of touch than he is (which is already pretty far out of touch).

We can’t wipe Bonds's stats off the books, because where would you stop? Would you have to take away the Giants’ 2002 pennant?

We could put an “asterisk” next to them, but we don’t know who else was juicing, so it wouldn’t be fair to single out Bonds.

No, I think we as fans will simply have to realize that the 1990s and early 2000s were the “steroid era” and decide for ourselves how to deal with it. If you choose to believe that Bonds’s behavior constitutes cheating and his records shouldn’t count, that’s fine. But everything did happen—he did hit 73 home runs, he did draw 232 walks, the Giants did win the pennant—and wiping them off the books won’t change that.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The National Pastime?

Even though football has long surpassed baseball as the most popular team sport in America, some people still refer to baseball as "the national pastime." Have you ever wondered when that term was first applied to baseball? Here's what my research shows:

Although baseball evolved in the mid-19th century from the British games cricket and rounders, people almost immediately began to consider it a quintessentially American game. Probably the first journalist to call it "America's national pastime" was William Trotter Porter, who ran Spirit of the Times, a leading sports journal, in the mid-1800s. If it wasn't Porter, the next likely candidate is the famed writer Henry Chadwick, who wrote: "Undoubtedly, the most popular summer pastime of America is the now national game of base ball."

Chadwick is an important figure in the history of the game. A true baseball pioneer, Chadwick was the first reporter to cover the sport regularly for major newspapers. He developed the box score and the first scoring system, and he wrote the first books and guides on the sport. Many called him the “Father of Baseball,” and he had strong ideas about how the game should be played, preferring “scientific” baseball—spray hitting, aggressive baserunning—over slugging; these strategies dominated baseball until the 1920s.

Regardless of who first coined the term, it was poet Walt Whitman who cemented baseball's place in mid-century America with this famous phrase: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair losses and be a blessing to us.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

About Frank Thomas

The A's signed Frank Thomas to be their designated hitter today after Thomas was released last weekend by the Blue Jays.

Thomas has more than 500 home runs, and many consider him a lock for the Hall of Fame. But his best seasons were so long ago that I feel that we've forgotten what a special player he was in his prime.

In the first version of my book, The Book of Baseball Literacy (published in 1996), I called Thomas "baseball's best all-around hitter since Ted Williams." I still believe that. Before everyone's numbers were inflated (due to steroids, ballparks, the lively ball, or whatever), Thomas was posting on-base percentages in the .450s and slugging percentages in the .600s with regularity. His sabermetric stats (runs created, OPS+, batting runs, etc.) are off-the-charts dominant. You have to examine his baseball-reference page to see for yourself

Lately he came off as immature and petulant when he resisted his benching by the Blue Jays. I think it's too late for him to rehabilitate his image, but I think he can still contribute offensively to the A's. He has been in a serious slump, but it's worth noting that he has always been a slow starter. Over his career, April has always been his cruelest month, while May and June have been his best months. At age 40, it's not going to be easy for him, but the A's fan in me is rooting for him.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

John Smoltz: Hall of Famer?

Braves pitcher John Smoltz recorded his 3,000th strikeout yesterday, a milestone reached by only 15 other pitchers in baseball history. Since he's now 41 years old, it's fair to assess his career and ask the question: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?

Without checking the numbers, my immediate response would have been yes. He's been on of the league's top pitchers for almost 20 years... or so I thought. But let's look closer at his career.

As of today, Smoltz has notched 210 victories against 146 losses for a pretty good .590 winning percentage. Considering he played almost his entire career for winning teams in Atlanta, however, I would have expected a better record. For example, his teammate Greg Maddux spent 11 years with the Braves and posted a .688 winning percentage. In Tom Glavine's 15-year Braves career (before this season), his winning percentage was .628. So with Smoltz, we're talking about arguably the third best pitcher on his team.

But maybe it's not fair to compare Smoltz to two other Hall of Famers. How many years was Smoltz truly one of the five best pitchers in baseball?

By my count, Smoltz had only three years as a starter and two as a reliever where an objective observer could call him a truly great pitcher. His career is filled with seasons like 1993: 15 wins, 11 losses, 3.62 ERA, 208 Ks in 243 innings.

Where he truly shines, however, is in the post-season, where his record is sterling: 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 194 Ks in 207 IP.

Adding it all up, I think Smoltz deserves to be in the Hall and will be elected on the first or second ballot. He belongs in the second or third tier of Hall of Famers, not in the Bob Gibson/Lefty Grove/Greg Maddux stratosphere, but more in the Don Drysdale/Catfish Hunter/Bob Lemon category. Still very good company.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Maddux approaches Spahn

As of today, Greg Maddux is only 14 wins away from tying Warren Spahn for sixth place on the career victories list. Who was Warren Spahn?

You could call him the Hank Aaron of pitchers. Like Aaron, Spahn had only a few years in which he was considered baseball’s very best at his position. But, also like Aaron, his sheer number of excellent seasons is absolutely staggering.

Because of World War II, Spahn, a lefty, didn’t win his first game until the age of 25, but once he got on a roll, he was unstoppable. From 1947 through 1963 (17 seasons), he led the league in at least one major category (wins, ERA, strikeouts) in all but six seasons, and made 25 All-Star teams. His career totals are phenomenal: 363 victories, the most by any left-hander, and 13 20-win seasons, which ties the NL record held by Christy Mathewson and is the same number as Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Maddux combined.

During the Braves’ pennant-winning 1948 campaign, Spahn joined fellow 20-game winner Johnny Sain in an otherwise poor rotation, causing fans to cry, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” By 1957, when the Braves made it back to the World Series, Sain was retired and Spahn was 36, which meant he only had six more good years left in him. Three years after that, Spahn pitched a no-hitter, and a year later, at the age of 40, he tossed another one. When he retired from major league baseball after 1965, he pitched two more seasons in the minors. He finally sat still long enough for the Hall of Fame to induct him 1973.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Reading now: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends

Right now, the baseball book I'm reading for fun is Rob Neyer's new one: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends. He's a writer for ESPN, and this book is the third in his series of "Big Books." They're all very fun and interesting and full of great stories.

What he's done with "Baseball Legends" is investigate the truth behind dozens and dozens of the stories and tall tales that have appeared in books, articles, and broadcasts. If Bobo Newsome claims he faced Lefty Grove 18 or 20 times and never lost to him, Neyer checks it out. He usually discovers that the stories are exaggerated but almost always have a grain of truth. For example, it's true that Newsom never lost to Grove, but it wasn't 18 or 20 times; it was more like 5 or 6.

This is exactly the kind of book I love to read -- not because it debunks fun stories, but because it shows that the truth is often at least as interesting as the myth. I strongly recommend it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

This Day in Baseball... Yankee Stadium

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the opening of Yankee Stadium. In the opening game, none other than Babe Ruth hit a 2-run home run off the Red Sox's Howard Ehmke in a 4-1 Yankee victory. Here's a little background on the stadium, which will close after this year.

Today we take for granted the big concrete and steel, 60,000-seat sports facilities. We call them stadiums, of course. But in the 1920s, they didn’t exist. There were 30,000-seat ballparks, yes, but no gigantic stadiums as we know them today. Think of the old-time ballparks: Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, the Polo Grounds, and so on... not a stadium among them (back then, Tiger Stadium was known as Navin Field).

Yankee Stadium—the “House that Ruth Built”—changed all that. It was fitting that the nation’s largest city should serve as home for the most innovative entertainment facility of its time, and even more fitting that the country’s most larger-than-life sports figure should have something to do with it. For it was Ruth who put the Yankees on the baseball map by making them a good enough team to draw more fans than the rival Giants, to whom the Yankees had always played second fiddle. As a reward, the Yankees designed the Stadium for him, building a right field fence just 294 feet down the line so his clouts wouldn’t have to travel too far to go out of the park. Meanwhile, left-center and center field were cavernous—490 to dead center, 395 to left center—dimensions that cost the right-handed-hitting Joe DiMaggio countless home runs.

Yankee Stadium seated more than 70,000 fans when it opened, around twice as much as any other existing ballpark, and enabled the team to become the first club to draw more than two million fans. Like all great ballparks, the Stadium had some pretty amazing quirks. From the 1930s until the extensive remodeling in 1974–75, three marble monuments honoring Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and legendary manager Miller Huggins stood in deep center field—in play. Once, while watching a long fly bounce around out of reach of his fielders, an exasperated Casey Stengel is purported to have shouted, “Ruth, Gehrig, Huggins, someone throw that ball in here NOW!” During the $100 million renovation, builders placed an inner fence in front of the monuments, shortening the outfield distance but also removing one of baseball’s coolest quirks.

The new Yankee Stadium is set to open next year.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

When Robinson "made it"

The numbers show that Jackie Robinson had a successful rookie season in 1947 (.297 average, 29 steals, 125 runs), but it wasn't until the next year that he truly felt he'd arrived.

On August 24, 1948—sixteen months after becoming the first African-American ballplayer in modern major league history—Jackie Robinson finally “made” it in the big leagues when he became the first black player to be thrown out of a major league game. In the fourth inning of a 2-1 game between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, umpire Butch Henline warned Robinson and the rest of his Dodger teammates against yelling from the dugout. But Robinson and his distinctive high-pitched voice disobeyed, and the thumb came out quick. Robinson argued the ejection to no avail, as his Dodgers went on to lose 9-1.

“Well,” he said after the game, laughing, “I broke in tonight.”

The word around the league had been that umpires were afraid to toss Robinson. “I saw Robinson even throw his cap into the air on a decision by an umpire and nothing happened to him,” said one anonymous player. “I always thought that was an automatic ‘out’.”

Perhaps as much as his actual major league debut, the occasion of his ejection may have helped solidify the place of Robinson and other blacks in the majors. If nothing else, it sent a signal around the majors, where six other Negro league veterans had played since April 1947: We don’t want any special treatment. We are ballplayers, like you.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More Jackie Robinson

I've done a lot of research into Jackie Robinson's career, especially his first season. Somebody beat me to writing a book about it (Opening Day by Jonathan Eig). But I wanted to share with you the dramatic story of the signing of Robinson by Dodgers' GM Branch Rickey. This is an oft-told tale but some fans may not know it.

Imagine the scene. Robinson and Rickey are in the Dodgers' office in Brooklyn.  Rickey asks if Robinson knows why he's there. Robinson tells him what the scout who brought him there said: that Rickey is starting a new Negro league team.

“That’s what he was supposed to tell you,” Rickey says. “The truth is, I’ve sent for you because I’m interested in you as a candidate for the Brooklyn National League Club. I think you can play in the major leagues. How do you feel about it?”

Robinson is stunned speechless.

“Do you think you can play?” Rickey asks.

“Yes,” says Robinson, finally.

Rickey reveals that he had been investigating Robinson for a long time. He knew that Robinson had grown up poor near Los Angeles and had starred in four sports at UCLA. He knew that Robinson had been an officer in the U.S. Army at a time when few blacks were allowed to become officers. He probably even knew that Robinson had been wrongly accused of disrespecting a superior officer in an incident stemming from Jackie’s refusal to move to the back of an Army bus. And that Robinson had successfully fought all the charges against him and was honorably discharged from the Army.

Rickey seemed to know everything. And he admired Robinson for always standing up for himself. But now what he wanted to know was whether Robinson could withstand the pressure of breaking the color line.

Rickey warns Robinson about what he would face. Pitches thrown at his head. Racial insults from fans and opposing players. Base runners sliding with spikes high. Umpires calling close plays against him. Maybe even death threats.

To everything, Robinson says he can handle it.

Then Rickey insists on a commitment from Robinson: no fighting back. No matter what happens, no matter what names he is called, Robinson is supposed to respond with silence.

But Robinson was not known for turning the other cheek when confronted with a challenge. “Are you looking for someone who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” he asks, his voice rising.

“I’m looking for someone with guts enough not to fight back!” Rickey replies.

Rickey believed that if Robinson could remain quiet for three years, it would be long enough for the rest of the league to see that blacks and whites could play alongside each other without race getting in the way.

Just three years—that’s all Rickey is asking for.

Robinson thinks about it, then agrees to Rickey’s terms. He signs the contract with the Dodgers that day and begins preparing to enter a firestorm.

Monday, April 14, 2008

April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day

Tomorrow marks the 61st anniversary of Jackie Robinson's major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Most people know the basic story about Jackie, but I think it's worthwhile to remind people that most of the baseball establishment really opposed integration. 

When the signing was announced to the public, for example, some people accused Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' GM, of simply trying to sell more tickets to the growing African-American population in Brooklyn.

Others, including Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby, claimed integration would never work because black and white ballplayers could never get along on the road.

Still others voiced their belief that blacks simply didn’t have the skill to succeed. For example, the president of the New York Yankees, Larry MacPhail, declared, “There are few, if any, Negro players who could qualify for play in the major leagues at this time.”

And others predicted Jackie himself didn’t have the skills to make it. The Sporting News wrote an editorial in which they predicted that Jackie “conceivably will discover that as a 26-year-old shortstop just off the sandlots, the waters of competition in the International League will flood far over his head.” A writer for the New York Daily News called Jackie a “1000-1 shot to make the grade.”

Of course, Robinson did succeed, beyond anyone's expectations. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 and an MVP in 1949, and he led his Dodgers to six pennants in his 10-year career.