I even dream in baseball

I was supposed to go for a long run with a friend early this morning, but as it’s cold, wet and rainy where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and I stayed up late last night, writing, I called my friend five minutes prior, left a meek, apologetic voice mail and surrendered back to bed. From there, I proceeded to have one of the most vivid, odd dreams I’ve had in quite some time.

I dreamed it was 1945 and I was watching the pennant race, as baseball returned from World War II. That was the year where, leading up to the World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs, someone asked Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown who he thought would win and he replied, “I don’t think either of them can.” Baseball suffered from 1942-45, while the bulk of its stars went in the military. For some reason in my dream, I knew this; I caught a foul ball that, for reasons my dream didn’t explain, had quotes from sportswriters on it (this never happens in real life, ever.) I looked for Brown’s quip, but it wasn’t there. Someone sitting next to me in the stands instructed me to throw the ball back, so I kissed it and threw it back.

In early childhood I developed an ability to know when I was dreaming. It took awhile to hone the skill (most of first grade, if I remember correctly) but eventually, I could do fun things like ride my bicycle in the middle of an intersection and tell off people that irritated me. Had I been on my game this morning, I would have made myself one of the ballplayers in my dream, but in recent years, my brain has developed a sense of propriety. It rarely lets me dream in things I can’t do in real life.

What I have retained, for the most part, is this sense to know when I’m dreaming, or at least to be aware that something in it is not as it should be. This morning, it took the form of having Don Newcombe as an essential member of the Tiger pitching staff. It made sense at first (and the idea of letting blacks play prior to 1947 should have made sense to owners of that era, dream or no) but I later became aware that my dream was set before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

I awoke shortly thereafter.

Baseball cards

I’m not certain of the first time I ever got a pack of baseball cards, but it may have been Christmas of 1986. I would have been three. I received an assortment of cards, which I know were dated that year, as a holiday gift from a family member (I want to say my dad, who played third base in high school.) I got players like Jose Canseco, George Brett and Von Hayes, and the cards quickly became dog-eared, ridiculously bent up. If they had any value, it depleted almost instantaneously. Goes without saying, I was hard on toys as a kid.

The summer before kindergarten, I became friends with Devin, a kid my age who lived around the corner. Devin was raised by a single mom, Nancy who loved the San Francisco Giants and passed this love down to her son. As a result, Devin had cards, lots of them. I visited often in those early elementary school years and looking at cards was pretty much what we did. We got in trouble once, and Nancy took away the large cardboard box full of cards, so we hid a few under his bedroom carpet. Nancy found those too.

I was forever pushing Devin to let me sort his cards. As Devin remembered it years later, I would come over, dump out his cards all over his floor and then promptly fall asleep. I don’t have much recollection of doing this, but I remember being enthralled that Devin had players like Jesse Orosco and way more 1990 Topps than I did, maybe three times as many. I became someone who collected cards, almost obsessively, and in time I had something like 5,000.

At first, my friends and I had no concept of value. It was all about obtaining specific players: Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Canseco, among others. Guys like Omar Vizquel were righteously shunned, even before the episode of The Simpsons, where Bart tells Milhouse, distracted with a schoolyard crush, “I’ll trade your Carl Yastrzemski for my Omar Vizquel.” It seems funny now that Vizquel is probably bound for the Hall of Fame, unlike Clark, Mitchell or Canseco. That being said, I’d still take Clark’s card before Vizquel’s, if offered. My values haven’t changed all that much.

In time, Devin moved away, I learned of a magazine where I could look up the value of cards, and I stopped having as much fun with them. The minute I started calculating value, a part of my childhood ended. I also began to collect football and basketball cards, and my grandfather used to tell me I could make good money in the stock market if I studied it as hard as I studied cards. I would tell my friends that my large collection was how I intended to pay for college, though that never happened.

I quit collecting around the time I started high school, after realizing one day that I’d grown out of the hobby. Cards simply no longer held their spell over me. I’ve bought a couple packs in the past few years for the sake of nostalgia, though it feels a little strange since I’m in my twenties.

All of my heroes are mortal now.

Attack of the mediocre pitchers

ESPN is awash in news today of several pitchers changing teams.  In the past 24 hours or so, the following transactions have materialized:

  • The Milwaukee Brewers committed $37 million to Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins, which connected with a bigger news story: Michael Jackson is alive and he’s got a new job as their free-spending general manager.  I’m looking at the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways, his overpaying-for-aging-crappy-pitchers ways.
  • Not to be outdone, the St. Louis Cardinals gave a $7.5 million one-year deal to Brad Penny, which must have been left over from the Jeff Weaver Fund, after that signing crashed and burned.
  • In probably the smartest move, thus far, of the baseball off-season, the Texas Rangers paid the Baltimore Orioles to take Kevin Millwood off their hands.
  • In a less savvy move, the Rangers are said to be looking at Rich Harden as a replacement for Millwood.  Harden has always struck me as overrated.  If he were a basketball player, he’d be Kevin Martin of the Sacramento Kings, someone with definite talent but also a lock, pretty much every year to come down injured.
  • The Cubs, for their part, are looking at J.J. Putz who’s coming off an injury-beset, disappointing year with the New York Mets.  Putz.  The name says it all.
  • Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte quieted resigned with the New York Yankees.

Such an unfettered barrage of mediocrity can boggle a sports fan’s mind.  Somewhere, there’s a Washington Nationals uniform waiting for each of these guys.

A Grander vision for the Yankees

News out of New York this evening is that the Yankees are on the verge of a three-way trade for Detroit Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson. New York will apparently have to give up little beyond a small assortment of prospects and spare parts to obtain the 28-year-old All Star. This trade couldn’t have cost the Yankees less if it had been brokered in a Wal-Mart.

Such news comes as little surprise to me, as I had long heard rumors that Granderson could matriculate to New York. And while I would sooner ingest napalm or attend a Backstreet Boys reunion concert or endure a multi-level marketing seminar than cheer the Yankees to yet another pennant, I like this move. Granderson belongs in New York– the thought of him in pinstripes just seems to make sense to me, for some reason. Together with Nick Swisher and someone like Matt Holliday, who could easily wind up a Yankee this winter as well, Granderson could help comprise the most formidable outfield in baseball.

Granderson has many reasons to look forward to the move, starting with his batting average. The Tigers’ home field, Comerica Park, boasts spacious dimensions (420 feet to center, no shorter than 330 to any fence) that I figured would be perfect for Granderson’s blend of offense, allowing ample room for him to crank 20 triples a year. Granderson always struck me as a throwback player, someone who would have been perfect in the Major League of the early twentieth century when owners deliberately had 500-foot playing fields to encourage inside the park home runs. Not so, I found.

Looking over Granderson’s career splits, he generally hit about 20 points lower at Comerica than on the road. This past year, he hit .230 there, leading to just a .249 overall batting average. The new Yankee Stadium has shorter distances to the fences, and Granderson will also be in arguably the strongest lineup in baseball (I could probably hit .330 with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira guarding me.) Expect Granderson’s batting average to improve, markedly too. The Bronx could see the second coming of Alfonso Soriano with Granderson, not that’s necessarily a reason to get ecstatic.

The benefit for the reigning World Series champion Yankees is clear. Quite simply, it looks to be a case of the rich getting richer. While the aging Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon likely get their walking papers, the Yankees solidify their outfield for the next half decade, minimum. Yankee fans get a reason to cheer. Meanwhile, all us normal folk get yet another reason to hate the team.

The shame of Marvin Miller

The 2010 Hall of Fame picks for managers, umpires and executives were announced today, and while Whitey Herzog got the call (I told you so), Marvin Miller did not. The retired Major League Baseball Players Association executive director is 92 now and has come close a few times in the past decade, but never gets quite enough votes from the Veterans Committee for induction. He received seven votes this year from the 12-person committee, two shy of what he needed. Miller had the same number of votes as Jacob Ruppert, who can be remembered for employing Babe Ruth, and one less than a former Detroit Tigers executive named John Fetzer. Who exactly is John Fetzer?

In another few years, Miller could join Dom DiMaggio and Buck O’Neil, other baseball greats overlooked by Cooperstown in their lifetimes. Such an outcome would be a travesty.

Much has been written about Miller elsewhere, so I’ll simply repeat what I read today on ESPN.com. In his sixteen years heading baseball’s labor board, starting in 1966 when the minimum salary was $6,000 a year, Miller introduced collective bargaining, did away with the Reserve Clause and helped players win the right to free agency. Coming from a labor organizing background, not an athletic one, Miller probably did more to ensure the welfare of athletes than any other person. I’ve written before that I don’t think the end of the Reserve Clause is necessarily a good thing for baseball’s mid-level teams. I’m also not predisposed to electing baseball labor executives. Donald Fehr will never be in any Hall of Fame that I champion. All the same, I have to respect Miller’s contributions to the game and having visited Cooperstown once as a kid, isn’t that what the place is all about?

With all this said, it doesn’t look good for Miller. As I’ve written before, the Veterans Committee is notoriously conservative, preferring establishment-friendly candidates. And while what Miller did was great for players, it wreaked absolute havoc for owners, introducing never before things like player’s strikes and million dollar contracts to baseball. Just as Walter O’Malley reputedly fined Brooklyn Dodgers employees a dollar for mentioning Branch Rickey’s name after he left the team, what’s being done to Miller right now can be deemed payback, pure and simple.

Committee member and Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver put it well, to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com.

“I agree with the process, but I don’t agree with the result regarding Marvin,” said Seaver, who voted for Miller. “I think we probably have to have a couple more players [on the panel] to have a balance in that meeting. That’s the thing I’m going to suggest. This is not about your feeling on Marvin Miller. This is about the history of the game of baseball. It’s a no-brainer for me.”

It should be for everyone.

Pedro Martinez, Hall of Famer?

An Associated Press story on ESPN.com is reporting that Pedro Martinez is eager to pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies next season.

Martinez is no stranger to this space.  I wrote in July that any team considering signing the veteran three-time Cy Young award winner should proceed with caution. Martinez proved me wrong, going 5-1 with a 3.63 ERA in the regular season and pitching effectively in the National League Championship Series (though he went 0-2 in the World Series and helped the Phillies lose to the Yankees.)

Regardless of whether the Phillies want Martinez back — and I’m guessing they probably do — the question I’m wondering is whether Martinez has adequate credentials for the Hall of Fame.  It may be a close call, and if he does get in, I doubt it will come on the first ballot.  At 219-100 with 2.93 ERA lifetime, he has more career wins than Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax or Dizzy Dean, but then, so does David Wells (read: Not a Hall of Famer.  Sorry, Boomer.)  Most other Hall of Fame pitchers have more wins and stronger cases.

Martinez probably garners the strongest ammunition for his future candidacy with his seven-year run of dominance from 1997 to 2003.  Were I a general manager assembling a contender between those years, Martinez would be my first pitcher, if not the first player I would want.  In that span, he captured his three Cy Youngs and was pretty much a lock year in, year out to win 17-18 games, record 250 strikeouts or more and maintain a sub-2.50 ERA.  Few other pitchers in baseball history have been in a class all their own for such a stretch.  Not to mention Martinez probably accomplished everything he did at the height of the Steroid Era.

From there, Martinez’s bid gets a little murkier.  He left the Boston Red Sox after a back-to-earth year in 2004, when he went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA.  Since then, he has had just one full season and has looked mortal, broken down and just plain old.  It seemed as if no team would sign him last year, before the Phillies mercifully gave him a chance (the city of Philadelphia seems to take some kind of abject pity on unwanted veterans– look what’s happened for Allen Iverson, not to mention Michael Vick.)  Of course, Martinez is hardly the first great pitcher to follow this path.  Dean, Drysdale and Koufax were all effectively done around age 30, as was another Hall of Famer, Catfish Hunter. Even Juan Marichal did nothing special past 33.

If the 38-year-old Martinez succeeds in pitching for a couple more years and gets his career win total in the 230-250 range, he’ll probably have no problem getting inducted into Cooperstown.  That being said, I’d probably vote for him regardless, perhaps not first ballot, but at least at some point and definitely before guys like Bert Blyleven or Jack Morris.

A note on baseball movies

I finally got around today to watching Major League: Back to the Minors, a movie I put off for years.  The original Major League, from 1989 is one of my all-time favorites, and its 1994 follow-up stunk something fierce.  Major League II, along with Speed 2: Cruise Control taught me never to trust sequels to films I love.

Good baseball movies are usually corny, funny and moving, all at once.  Some of my favorites include Bull Durham, 61* and Field of Dreams, and I might like Major League the most.  I still watch it almost every year.  About a Cleveland Indians team designed by its owner to finish last, the film is built around oddball characters.  Ex-con Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn  (played by Charlie Sheen) informs teammates he last played in the California Penal League.  Another rookie Willie Mays Hayes (played by Wesley Snipes) shows up to spring training uninvited and is then kicked out in the middle of the night.  Security carries him out in his cot, sleeping, and he wakes up outside the next morning.  “I’ve been cut already?” a confused Hayes surmises, practice going on behind him.  He then charges into a sprinting drill, barefoot and in his nightgown, and blows past two other players.  He gets a uniform and the scene pretty much sums up the entire movie.  It builds to a climatic final game and I always feel elated after Hayes scores the winning run with a hook slide and the Indians celebrate.  I’m a man of simple pleasures.

Omar Epps replaced Snipes for the sequel and little else about that movie seems right.  The PG rating robs the sequel of the blue humor of its predecessor and the script isn’t nearly as sharp or biting.  The net result feels overly orchestrated, commercial and, moreover, cynical.  We learn in the sequel that after the Indians won their division in the first film, the Chicago White Sox swept them in the playoffs.  Accordingly, the sequel leaves off with the Indians topping the White Sox in the playoffs, leading one to surmise that the third installment would say the Indians lost the subsequent World Series and now needed redemption.  Had the sequel not flopped at the box office, we might have gotten this.  Instead, we have Major League: Back to the Minors.

When it arrived in 1998, it looked rank from a distance.  The team depicted had changed from the Indians to the Minnesota Twins, for no discernible reason.  Most of the original cast had departed, save for Dennis Haysbert, Corbin Bernsen, Bob Uecker and Steve Yeager.  And the movie was set in the minors.  A girl in my high school went to see the movie with some friends as a joke and she said that save for one family, they were the only people in the theater.  I stayed away.  However, I’ve had Netflix for a couple months now, and a man can only go so long waiting for The Hangover to become available until running out of picks for his queue.  Which brings me to today.

I watched the third entry in the Major League series and it wasn’t terrible.  The story of a struggling minor league team that takes on its parent, the Twins, the film moves at a smooth clip.  Granted, there is plenty to criticize.  It isn’t cheerfully vulgar, hilarious, or inspiring like the original.  In fact, it feels nothing like that movie, connected in name only.  I also didn’t feel any suspense in the story buildup and its plot points could be spotted coming from a neighboring county.  Additionally, it made no reference whatsoever to the Indians, no explanation as to why Bernsen’s character Roger Dorn left that organization to own the Twins, which seemed odd.  A little exposition never hurt anyone, particularly in a film series.  Still, I found the film pleasant, certainly easier to watch than the overblown sequel.  It wasn’t anything remarkable, but I’ve found worse ways to kill an hour and a half.

The Oakland Athletics: A team of firsts

I have been reading Bash Brothers, a book about Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco and came upon an interesting passage today.  It seems the A’s were the first baseball team to have a comprehensive weightlifting program.  A trainer for the team, Ted Polakowski is quoted on page 92, describing the reaction from the baseball world:

“We were very criticized.  In those years, that was our forte; no other teams were doing it.  While a lot of those practices are accepted now, weight training wasn’t accepted back then.  It was almost a taboo.”

The Athletics’ organization has long been a forerunner for innovative ideas.  Most every sports fan has heard of Moneyball, which A’s general manager Billy Beane popularized, as ubiquitous for a time as the West Coast Offense in football or the Pyramid of Success in basketball.  Long before that, the organization pioneered a few other concepts.  The A’s may not have been the first team to dismantle a contender with a fire sale, but they’ve done it at least five notable times in their history: Twice under Connie Mack, again with Charlie Finley in the 1970s, then after the Canseco-McGwire years in the ’90s and to a lesser extent, in the last decade.  Under Finley, they were also among the first teams to use promotional gimmicks to attract fans, though in fairness, Finley was probably no greater a showman than Bill Veeck.

Small-market clubs need every trick available to remain relevant.  Now that Moneyball has faded in significance, one has to wonder what Oakland will demo next.

Oakland sports fans and their websites

There are many sports websites campaigning for causes these days. Some are fine, a lot are forgettable and occasionally, they’re brilliant. Former pitcher Jim Deshaies got a Hall of Fame vote in 2001 after launching a website campaigning for it (Reason #7 on the Top 10 reasons he deserved a vote? Inspiration everywhere to slow-footed lefthanders with minimal bat speed.) More recently, three former Harvard Lampoon staffers, including a writer for “The Office” critiqued sports media with www.firejoemorgan.com. It’s been dormant for a year but is still online, for posterity, acerbically criticizing (lampooning?) Bill Plaschke, several ESPN faces and, yes, Morgan. Not everyone can be Vin Scully or Bob Costas, I guess.

In Oakland, www.MessageToAl.com made national news this week after its backers paid $5,500 for a billboard alongside Interstate 880, not far from the Oakland Coliseum, imploring Raiders owner Al Davis to hire a general manager.  Not a bad move and their website looks professionally done.  It claims over 30,000 people have signed a petition on it and according to Alexa, a web information site, its number of pageviews is up 140% this week.  That being said, I wish the site had a section offering Davis advice for the NFL Draft.

Then, while checking my email today, I saw an ad for www.letsgooakland.com.  After going to that website, I learned it is a not for profit 501(c)(4) organization in downtown Oakland, formed by fans and business executives devoted to keeping the A’s in town.  Its home page is geared around a petition visitors can sign addressing Major League Baseball.  The site suggests a waterfront ballpark which makes me wonder if something could feasibly get built in Jack London Square with the recent news that Barnes & Noble will be pulling out of there.  There still seems a strong possibility the A’s will wind up in Fremont or elsewhere

The site itself is a bit less detailed than its Raider counterpart and hasn’t been connected with any billboards yet, that I know of.  Nonetheless, I support organizations of this sort and even sent an email offering to do some volunteer work, since I’m unemployed and pursuing as many different avenues as I can.  I have to wonder if the Dodgers would have stayed in Brooklyn had the Internet existed in the ’50s.  (I’d volunteer for that non-profit in a heartbeat.)  Then again, one need not look far to find pages and pages devoted to bringing the team back there.

Only in America.

Coming attractions

I have wanted to make book reviews a more frequent part of this site and to that end, I have a few logs in the fire.

First, I received a review copy today of Chief Bender’s Burden, a book about the Philadelphia Athletics Hall of Fame pitcher written by Tom Swift, a freelance writer and member of the Society of American Baseball Research. I requested the copy a few weeks ago after seeing it as the sponsor for Bender’s page on www.baseball-reference.com. If I ever write a book, there’s probably a good chance it will be in a similar vein (I went to a S.A.B.R. meeting a few years ago and felt like I was home.)

Also, I have been reading Bash Brothers, a book about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire by a Bay Area writer named Dale Tafoya. I interviewed Tafoya and obtained a copy of his book leading up to my interview with Canseco in April 2008. I did not use my interview with Tafoya since it didn’t seem relevant to my story for the East Bay Express, and the San Francisco Chronicle passed on a book review (I know someone there, which is enough for periodic rejections.) I never read the book and always felt a little guilty. However, I picked it up again recently after finishing The Boys of Summer, and it’s not bad. Tafoya did commendable research in his four years compiling the book including dozens of interviews with former teammates and coaches of McGwire and Canseco.

I’ll be interested to read how both books come out. Expect reviews soon.