The news came to me earlier this week, washed up debris within the daily flood of Internet information. Eric Chavez, plagued by injuries in recent years, could be on the verge of retiring. I was momentarily stunned, recalling the brilliant young third-baseman who the A’s preferred keeping over Miguel Tejada, a silky smooth fielder who could slide to stop a line drive with detached ease. Chavez tantalized with Hall of Fame talent, combining thunderous power at the plate with a keen eye. He was delivering, before being derailed. Luck plays a part in the formation of long lasting stars, and Chavez faded far too quickly. My mind considered the similar fate of Mark Mulder, a supremely gifted left-handed ace. Mulder possessed the icy mound presence of Tom Glavine, could make his pitches dart with precision. After being dealt by the A’s to the Cardinals, Mulder was devastated by arm woes, intermittently appearing in recent seasons, he too a burnt bulb.
Fans have grown colder. America’s ultimate trivial pursuit, fantasy sports, increases snap judgments and fosters an attitude of desperate immediacy. It’s easiest to notice in football, where quarterbacks, praised vociferously in one season, are derided and ridiculed upon falling fortunes. Check the analysis of David Garrard from 2007 to 2008. Middle ground doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Even handed analysis? What’s that? The fact is, many sportswriters are too busy being comedians to provide their readers with intelligent, well thought out content. It would ruin the punch line… In this age of stupidity and insensitivity, Eric Chavez represents a complex case. It forces us to recognize the constant winds of change that rule the sports atmosphere. The easiest option is to forget, and believe me, that is next on Sportscenter. [Eric who?] But in pondering the unfair destiny of this one individual player, an entire decade came more clearly into focus. Indeed, it is the year 2009, and baseball will have bypassed the 00’s by the time pitchers and catchers report for light throwing and stretching next spring. The vibrant Oakland A’s of yesterday have faded into the stale recesses of history… the big three… Tejada at short, Chavez at third, Giambi at first… they were young then. What else has time revealed? What defined this decade in baseball?
It was impossible for any chronicler baseball to avoid tackling this subject. Only a completely delusional sentimentalist, escaped from a mental hospital wearing a ball cap with a little propeller attached, could possibly pretend that steroids weren’t a shadow hanging over the game, a dust cloud that may linger for the duration of our lifetimes. It was a challenging subject, sporting razor pointed edges that delightfully pierced the simplifiers, the tired storytellers of a bygone era who confuse innocence and ignorance. Unfortunately, the gate-keeping drone squad still refuses to acknowledge the gashes in their logic. They will persist, maintaining their shock and outrage when the next player is nabbed by the program.
An athlete’s motives for usage can be traced straight into our disintegrating culture, as a nation breeds a generation obsessed with results instead of the process producing it. Most rappers sing about getting money these days, not fighting the power, and those listening are willing to do whatever it takes to attain a most shallow definition of success. It’s fine capitalism, cold and logical, the furthest from a Babe Ruth fairytale. The results have been fascinating, a true science experiment, beginning with the “sacred” homerun record being broken by Barry Bonds, whose leaked Balco testimony set him up for a nice Super Villain run. [I give the show three stars. Bonds’ supporting cast let him down, robbing us of a fascinating playoff appearance during the “controversy”]
Indeed, the scapegoat mechanism is in full gear, but the slightly, and I do mean slightly, measured response to Manny Ramirez’s transgression is cause for hope. Until we realize these sad stories have been manufactured by a broken system, that the obscene level of negligence exhibited by both Bud Selig and the player’s union is far more responsible for this mess than any one particular individual, there can be no real acceptance. The current drug policy, despite being unfathomably late in arrival, does represent a positive step. And, the past being inaccessible, positive steps forward are all the sport has left.
2. Statistical Analysis
I remember my first baseball game fondly. It was an afternoon tilt between the Yankees and Angels in ‘93, at the better Stadium. [I prefer this designation to “old”] The game was a mystery to me. The ball was fascinating, a static shade of white contrasting the lush green grass and bright brown infield. I watched these grown men, hitting and throwing this mysterious sphere, diving after it with great zeal, as if the fate of the universe depended on me standing up to cheer. They were positively obsessed, and it amused me. I thought grown people were supposed to be serious, but here were these guys, wearing matching uniforms for heaven’s sake, wasting a perfectly good afternoon chasing after a snowball with seams. It was then I realized the most beautiful things in life are inexplicable, perhaps even pointless from distance, and have nothing to do with the highway, which took us back home, away from fantasy land.
Artists harbor enmity toward the mainstream, and it is understandable. But, if one is out to alter perceptions on a grand scale, this is an avenue that must be pursued. Analytical advancement, as it concerned baseball, was on the rise before “Moneyball”, an informative, and often abstractly hilarious book, burst into the public consciousness. The New York Yankees built a dynasty by shifting their focus toward the Holy Grail, on base percentage. Fans on message boards were coming together, exchanging thoughts and ideas. Statistical companies were pushing their concepts to Major League teams. But, if the majority preferred to ignore advancements, they could certainly succeed. The Yankees kept their strategies private, at least until “Moneyball” was a hit and they saw another organization getting credit. And the keepers of message boards could be derided as geeks reporting live from their mother’s basement.
In “Moneyball”, Michael Lewis presented a study on how the Oakland A’s were managing to win baseball games with a limited payroll. The book’s success should have bought legitimacy to its ideas, especially within the baseball community. The truth was being shoved in their face. Instead, the knowledge was brushed aside, often with fundamentalist verve. Most disappointing was the journalistic reception. After all, it’s never a surprise when baseball is behind the curve; it’s resistance to change a practical motif. Sportswriters were held to a higher standard, and perhaps that is a mistake. Because they work so hard to cultivate sources within the game, they sink into the fabric, their vision blurred. It’s both a gift and a curse. The beat writer provides valuable insight through this close proximity, but can also become a party to the ignorance that has driven the collective perception of baseball far too long.
Simply put, statistics are not inherently good or evil. They are just numbers. Numbers are less flexible than words. The meaning of a word can be manipulated, or become useless with time. Numbers are less flexible. And when they present uncompromising truths that can’t be explained away by that trickster language, there is a human tendency to lash out.
If defensive metrics say Derek Jeter isn’t a very good defensive shortstop, then he isn’t a very good defensive shortstop. There are two ways to react here. If one believes Derek Jeter to be a good defensive shortstop, he can research the numbers, find out why they have presented these most disagreeable facts, and, at the least, learn something. Even if the evidence is discarded, the research alone makes for better baseball conversation. The second method is to ignore the numbers, and, if that weren’t bad enough, deride them from your column or broadcast booth, and insinuate facts remove “joy” from baseball.
And that is the ultimate play, here. Those resisting the use of advanced statistics to properly analyze baseball really have nothing to lean on in their argument, except the illogical. And the illogical is very meaningful, when put in proper context. It is an absolutely essential aspect of the human experience. As aforementioned, it is why I fell in love with baseball in the first place.
But baseballs as snowballs and innocence and a random, late night out in the city where you meet the love of your life and Derek Jeter’s gold gloves, while all powerful and very real, have no place in reasoned analysis. Would you even want to analyze that stuff anyway? [Well, besides Jeter’s gold glove] The memory of my first baseball game is wonderful, but I’m not going to sit around analyzing it. I’m not going to break into the better Stadium under the cover of darkness and measure my distance from home plate in the upper deck and compute how that could have mathematically corresponded to the Yankees rallying in the ninth inning.
All the same, appreciating .OPS and VORP doesn’t taint that memory. It doesn’t dissolve the strange satisfaction I deride from my hometown baseball team winning games. I knew Alfonso Soriano had a terrible on base percentage, and that only made me appreciate him more. How could a player with such an abysmal eye and impatient approach still contribute so mightily to the Yankees’ success? Same for Jeter… why is such a terrible defensive shortstop still a total lock for the Hall of Fame and one of my favorite players ever? Joy has nothing to do with numbers, but who said the two couldn’t coexist?
Inning by inning, progression will continue to take place. This improvement will take root in the mainstream.
3. The Internet
Shall we establish this irrefutable fact straight away? Just as football was perfectly tailored to television, baseball is a perfect match for the Internet. No other sport provides as much material for daily discussion. People can gather in online communities to talk about the game going on, trades which should occur, coaches and general managers who should be fired, and they can do it everyday. Seems a bit fanatical… but oh yeah… fans… right. This new frontier represents a market that baseball should be exploiting. And, to its credit, the notoriously slow moving enterprise was actually all over this developing situation. Major League Baseball has the best, and most profitable website, in the sporting galaxy. The Internet represents a point of synthesis where the daily machinations occurring within the game can be digested. Massive threads dedicated to the steroids controversy float through cyberspace. Statistics are analyzed and applied to players. The Internet has changed the American lifestyle. Was it possible twenty years ago for two fans in different cities to seamlessly blog about a game as it occurs? Perhaps the future has arrived.
4. Broken Curses
This has been a baseball era forcing its followers to expand their horizons. Simplistic ideas have quite appropriately fallen, time and tide demanding more from us than one-dimensional heroes. The summer of ’98 represented the final curtain for hopeless romantics, whose ideas, and indignation, must be cast aside in this increasingly complicated world. And considering these turbulent times, it was perfect for a pair of overwrought hexes to be overcome by excellence.
For every decade, there is a champion who stands above all. These ten years will float through the cosmos wearing Red Sox. The 2004 edition overcame. Their franchise player, Nomar Garciaparra, lost the desire to ply his trade in Boston. Nomar had turned down a lucrative contract extension during the previous winter, but was still shocked to see his name being bandied about in trade talks. After an ill-fated agreement with the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox fell through, in which Garciaparra would have landed in Chicago, and fellow mercurial slugger Manny Ramirez in Texas, the two malcontents remained in Boston, and the player who the Red Sox had sought through the laborious process, Alex Rodriguez, was eventually traded to the hated Yankees, a stunning turn of events worthy of a soap opera. That July, after due sulking, Garciaparra would be dumped on the Cubs, replaced by a player perceived as his lesser in Orlando Cabrera. Shockingly, these Sox rallied from a 3-0 Championship Series hole, defeating their archrival in seven, ace pitcher Curt Schilling manning the mound on one leg. It seemed an impossible prophecy had been fulfilled. Ironically, the ALCS had been saved by a diving Cabrera stop in Extra Innings of game 5.
Boston would sweep St. Louis in the World Series, in totally overwhelming fashion.
The Chicago White Sox hadn’t won a Championship since throwing the World Series in 1919. Those “Black Sox” became the symbol for a dry spell that ran longer than the Red Sox’s alleged curse, but was less far less publicized.
The 2005 White Sox were a surprise, tabbed as a contender before the year began, but not a real threat. They dominated through superb pitching, deft fielding, and timely power. Jon Garland, stolen from the Cubs as they made a futile drive for a title in 1998, had a career campaign. So did Jose Contreras, dubbed a bust with the Yankees, revitalized upon lowering his arm angle. Freddy Garcia, another imported hurler, lined up as the fourth starter in the playoffs, proof of the club’s amazing depth. Garcia had been acquired in a trade maligned at the time, many in Chicago bemoaning the loss of Jeremy Reed, Miguel Olivio, and Mike Morse for his services. Hindsight’s a hell of a thing. Mark Buehrle, the ever reliable and homegrown left-hander, was the ace.
The White Sox tore through the summer months with such ease that their slump in September, which nearly cost them the Division title and a playoff berth, seemed to foretell a correction. After all, Chicago had somehow excelled without their best hitter, Frank Thomas, injured for a majority of the season. Their Pythagorean record was eight wins lower than their actual output, another ominous sign as the playoffs began. But the White Sox would leave no doubt. They laid waste to their critics, and baseball’s elite, losing once in the playoffs on their way to a World Title. More progress. Their General Manager, aggressive trader extraordinaire Kenny Williams, just happened to be black, and their manager, the explosive Ozzie Guillen, just happened to be Venezuelan. It was a baseball first. The guards are changing.
They had to.
Team of the Decade:
C: Jorge Posada [!]
1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Jeff Kent
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Alex Rodriguez
LF: Barry Bonds
CF: Carlos Beltran
RF: Vladimir Guerrero
SP: Randy Johnson
SP: Pedro Martinez
SP: Johan Santana
SP: Roy Oswalt
SP: Mike Mussina/Curt Schilling
RP: Mariano Rivera
RP: Trevor Hoffman
RP: Eric Gagne
– Matt Waters