My attempt to interview Bernie Carbo today

As faithful readers will know, I have been offered a chance to contribute to a Where Are They Now section on a Web site called Baseball Savvy. The section is made up of features catching up with former ballplayers, not Hall of Famers necessarily, but the Vida Blues and Bill Madlocks of the sport. I have been looking for a good first player to profile, and today, I almost interviewed Bernie Carbo. In fact, I spoke to him twice.

Fans may remember Carbo as the Boston Red Sox outfielder who hit a game-tying, three-run homer against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, paving the way for Carlton Fisk to hit a walk-off shot in the bottom of the 12th. It’s arguably the greatest baseball game ever (it gets my vote), and the home run gave Carbo his fifteen minutes of fame. Rather improbably, he now seems to be having a second fifteen minutes, albeit for different reasons. On April 1, the Boston Globe published a story where Carbo said, “I played every game high.”

In the article, Carbo detailed addictions to cocaine, marijuana and other drugs during his career and after, saying he’s been clean for fifteen years and that he now runs an evangelical Christian ministry. Needless to say, his words went viral, though I didn’t think to seek him out in my search for a suitable interview subject.

Instead, I put in a call this afternoon to Dave McCarthy, executive director of Ted Williams Museum, a past subject here, hoping he could pass my number on to Will Clark, who was inducted into the museum’s Hitters Hall of Fame in February. McCarthy declined, saying he enjoys good relationships with players because he doesn’t pester them. I said I understood and asked as a throwaway question if McCarthy knew of any good players for me to talk to. To my surprise, he threw out Carbo’s name and said he could get him for me. He said he needed Carbo’s okay and asked me to call back in an hour. When I did that, McCarthy gave me Carbo’s cell phone number.

I was given the number with the understanding Carbo wouldn’t be available to talk straightaway and that I could arrange to interview him at another time. I called and got a voice mail which offered two other numbers for Carbo. When those numbers led to voice mails as well, I called the cell again, intending to leave a message. This time, however, Carbo picked up. We spoke briefly and agreed to talk at 7 this evening.

I got permission to leave work a couple hours early and went home to read the Globe story, do some research and prepare questions. By 7, I had a couple of pages of questions prepared (such as: How did you manage a .387 career on-base percentage under the influence?) but the interview didn’t come off.

I called at the appointed time, Carbo picked up, and we exchanged pleasantries. Carbo seemed to get spooked, though, when I asked if I could use a recorder, a question I typically ask interview subjects. Carbo wanted to know who I was, what I was doing this for, and how I knew McCarthy, so I spelled it out. He wanted to know what I would be asking about, so I gave him an idea of my questions. Carbo then said ESPN and the 700 Club will be airing interviews of him in the next few weeks. In fact, he said he shot three hours of footage with ESPN today. He also told me he assured these outlets he wouldn’t give the story out ahead of time. He also said something to effect that he still wasn’t sure how this story was going to play out with the public.

Thus, Carbo asked for my name and number and said he would call me in mid-May. I fear either Carbo will get an adverse reaction to one of the big interviews or that the story will have been beaten to death by the time we talk. Still, he seems nice enough to not write off entirely. Upon hearing my last name, Carbo asked if I was related to a man he went to high school with; when I mentioned the Hitters Hall of Fame, he asked if Shoeless Joe was a member.

(Postscript: Actually, he didn’t want to talk to me.)

News on the baseball writing front

A couple of cool things happened for me baseball writing-wise this week.

First, as regular readers may know, I joined the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America on Wednesday. Since then, I have been talking with the head of the group, and he has invited me to write for a Where Are They Now section on his Web site. It sounds perfect for me, since I love talking to old ballplayers. I have a tentative first assignment to interview Gino Cimoli, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the first man to come to bat on the West Coast, after the Giants and Dodgers moved west.

While perusing the “Where Are They Now” section to see what the articles look like and who’s already been written about, I noticed a feature on one of the three former teammates of Joe Marty that are still living. As faithful readers here will know, I began research in January for a book on Marty, who played in the majors from 1937-41, and I interviewed another of the ex-teammates in February. I haven’t had any luck getting the other two men on the phone, but seeing the “Where Are They Now” feature gave me some hope to try again.

Thus, I called and spoke with this man’s son, asked about arranging a phone interview, and offered to send questions for preparation as I did with the other player. I wouldn’t normally do this as a journalist, but I’m willing to make exceptions if my interview subject is over 90, as all three of these players are. The son was fine with this and said he and his dad would do what they could for me. I put a list of 30 questions in the mail yesterday along with my callback number and am keeping my fingers crossed that this comes off.

I am deliberately not posting the names of these players for search engine purposes, but this particular player is somewhat well-known and is the last living person to have played in a game with a man who hit 714 home runs (again, I word it that way for search engine purposes, please don’t leave an “Aha” type comment.) Basically, it would be awesome if I get this interview.

As I’ve said before here, I feel like I’m getting to take part in something greater than myself with this project. I’m also starting to feel it has historical importance. I typically use a 90-minute digital recorder for interviews and wind up having to delete old interviews when I need space for new ones. It’s unfortunate– in the last couple of years, some of the interviews I’ve deleted include Oliver Stone and Jose Canseco (a full transcript of my Canseco interview, though, can be found here.) I want to keep a record of everyone I talk to for this project, especially if the book gets published. Thus, I bought a tape recorder, batteries and a ten-pack of tapes yesterday and spent over an hour in the evening getting the interview from February transferred over.

To say the least, I’m excited about what lies ahead.

Some baseball blogs I follow

As a baseball blogger, I’ve begun to make a point in the past several months of reading other baseball blogs. Besides building links to this site whenever I leave comments (where I can offer insight, of course– nobody likes a spammer), I also find some of the material I come across fairly entertaining. Plus, it seems only right that if I’m blindly asking people to read my work, the least I can do is take five or ten minutes a day to follow suit.

Thus, I’ve started to build up a list of baseball blogs that I follow. If I ever get a blogroll going on my home page, the following links will probably be included:

Baseball Musings: The number-one ranked baseball blog for Google. This guy occasionally links me up if I write a killer post, send him a link (don’t bother offering him hastily-written crap, it doesn’t work), and the stars align. The reward is generally 50-100 extra visitors to my site.

Only Baseball Matters: A blog mostly on the San Francisco Giants by an extremely dry observer.

Extra Baggs: Another Giants blog, this one by their beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

Dear (Tommy) John Letters: Kind of like the Paul Shirley of baseball bloggers, i.e. another entertaining writer/sometimes athlete.

Babes Love Baseball: I learned of these ladies on Twitter when I did a search on baseball blogs. My ideal woman loves baseball so I was drawn in. I found that the writing on the site is sharp and well-informed as well.

DMB Historic World Series Replay: This guy knows a lot about the early history of baseball, occasionally can be found in the comments section here and was kind enough to give me a shout out on his site. Hence, I am doing the same.

My First Cards: I mentioned this guy (one of my regular readers) and his blog on 1982 Topps baseball cards in my last post, so I won’t be too redundant, besides to say I find this site fun and informative.

SPORTSADVISOR: This guy, another regular here, clearly loves sports and claims to have struck out Albert Pujols twice back in high school.

Giants Galore: Plug for myself. The group blog on the San Francisco Giants that I was tapped to be a part of has started to take off. I would encourage people to keep an eye on it, especially if the Giants make a pennant run.

This is by no means a list of every blog that I follow. If you are a blogger and feel I missed you, please leave a comment, and I will try to say something nice.

Another week, another group: I join the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America

With less than a week having passed since I joined the Society for American Baseball Research, I signed up online today to be a member of another group I’ve been eying, the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America.

Launched July 4, 2009 in Los Angeles, the IBWAA is an alternative to the old-guard Baseball Writers Association of America. That group celebrated its 100-anniversary in 2008, votes each year on who gets into the Hall of Fame, and only recently started letting online writers be part of its member body. Before that, the group was restricted to newspaper and magazine sportswriters, and members still must pay dues for ten years before getting a Hall of Fame vote.

I may or may not eventually get into the BBWAA depending on if I attempt another foray into sportswriting (I briefly clerked on the sports desk of the Sacramento Bee a few years ago.) However, the IBWAA allows any baseball writer on the Internet to join for a yearly fee of $20 and accepts PayPal. As I mentioned in my entry about joining SABR, I have recovered financially in the past couple of months and I’m looking for ways to promote this blog and meet other baseball followers. Thus, it was an easy decision and simple two-minute process to join, no rigorous application or vetting process. It goes without saying that I know I joined the right group for me.

I first read of the IBWAA through a fellow blogger, Devon Young, when he wrote in late December about filling out his Hall of Fame ballot as a group member. Devon and I are both small, independent operations, near as I can tell (unless My First Cards is actually a ghost blog by Monsanto.) I enjoy Devon’s writing, as fun and informative as a blog about baseball cards should be, and I like to think I keep some people entertained. Still, neither of us commands vast legions of followers. The IBWAA is seemingly designed for guys like us. We get a symbolic voice in baseball awards, as well as great exposure and a chance to build credentials.

That being said, there are some names in the group. The founding IBWAA class included David Pinto of Baseball Musings, one of the most-read baseball blogs, as well as journalists from the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. A senior writer at Sports Illustrated and baseball author named Peter Golenbock also joined recently. And with the blogosphere continuing to evolve and become more legitimized, the IBWAA should only keep growing and attracting big names. As it stands, I think the IBWAA is already more to date with the times than the BBWAA.

I’m happy to be getting in early and look forward to the many benefits like getting to cast the symbolic Hall of Fame ballot in about eight months. The group’s stated purpose is to eventually get a real Hall of Fame vote. It’d be pretty awesome if that happens while I’m a member.

Why the baseball draft is worse than the NFL Draft or NBA Draft

Unlike football and basketball where I eagerly await the drafts each year, study mock drafts in the weeks and months before, and try to envision who my favorite teams will select, I don’t feel the same anticipation with baseball.

I can’t remember the last time I cared to read a mock First-Year Player Draft in baseball. Where the NFL Draft is a multiple-day affair on ESPN, and the NBA Draft is known for blockbuster trades and some truly hideous fashions (it’s the sports equivalent of the red carpet at the Oscars), the baseball draft only recently started being televised, having previously been conducted via conference call. In football or basketball, a Top-10 draft choice is almost a lock to become a veteran if not a regular All Star. In baseball, No. 1 overall picks occasionally don’t make it out of the minor leagues.

I’ve briefly compared the drafts before, but with the NFL Draft a week away, I decided to go deeper. With my day off work on Friday, I spent a few hours analyzing the top ten picks of every MLB, NFL and NBA draft from 1990 through 1999. My goal? Determine how many of these picks went on to play at least five years.

Here’s what I found:

Top-10 picks from 1990-1999 who played at least five years All Stars Never played in the league
NBA 96 (out of 100 men picked) 41 0
NFL 91 (out of 100 men picked) 52 0
MLB 70 (out of 99 men picked (J.D. Drew was a Top-10 pick two years)) 28 17

There are a few reasons baseball doesn’t draft as well. Baseball tends to draft younger players, and the minors, which don’t exist to the same degree in football or basketball, can be an abyss. Football and basketball teams usually select pro-ready players who debut months later, while baseball clubs draft for potential and have no problem keeping prospects in their farm system for two or three seasons, sometimes longer. One reason I capped my analysis at 1999 is that ballplayers occasionally spend five years or more in the minors before going on to long careers.

Almost any year in the Nineties shows abysmal baseball draft results. Alex Rodriguez was the top overall pick in 1993, as he should have been. The remainder of the top ten that year reads like an independent league roster: Darren Dreifort, Brian Anderson, Wayne Gomes, Jeff Granger, Steve Soderstrom, Trot Nixon, Kirk Presley, Matt Brunson and Brooks Kieschnick. None were All Stars and two men never played in the majors; Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, Chris Carpenter and Torii Hunter were among the next ten picks. In fact, good players often come much later. Albert Pujols was a 13th round pick his year, Matt Holliday was a 7th rounder and Ryan Howard was a 5th rounder.

In every baseball draft from 1990-1999, at least one player or two among the top ten picks never made the majors, including Brien Taylor, the No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft. In 1999, four of the top ten picks never played in the big leagues, and that number would have been five had the top pick from that year, Josh Hamilton not finally debuted in 2007 after battling drug addiction. As it stands, Hamilton won’t have five years of experience until next season.

Don’t get me wrong, the NBA and NFL drafts aren’t perfect either, far from it. I think basketball might have the worst draft lottery in sports, with the worst teams having a better chance of landing the fourth, fifth or sixth pick each year than one in the top three. In football, top draft picks often make more than established players, and teams tend to draft a player high and then trade him for a low-round pick a few years later, even if he’s performing decently. If I were a football team, I’d stockpile low-round draft picks and use them to ply proven players from guileless teams.

That being said, I still think the baseball draft sucks.

Related post: An argument in favor of the Reserve Clause

About five years overdue: I join the Society for American Baseball Research

I did something today that I have wanted to do for the past few years and joined the Society for American Baseball Research. For those who don’t know, it is a research society for people who like to read, write and talk about baseball (I like to do all three.) I attended a lunch meeting in Sacramento on my birthday in 2004 and was home. Never before have I been in a room with so many fellow baseball geeks, intimidating though it was when a trivia quiz was given early in the lunch, and I finished in the middle of the pack. I’m used to being the guy who amazes my friends and co-workers by knowing things like who won the World Series in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s career batting average. To a SABR member, such knowledge is equivalent to $100 questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Since attending the 2004 meeting, I’ve wanted to become a  SABR member, but for the most part, have been financially constrained or otherwise distracted. I’m starting to get above water with my new job, though, so I decided to take the plunge today. It took five minutes to fill in my credit card info on the SABR Web site, and I am now a SABR member through December 31 of this year. It only cost me $45, since it’s already April and I’m under 30, which qualifies me for some discounts.

The membership should get me connected with other baseball lovers, a good thing since I tend to isolate left to my own devices. I signed up to be in a research group on minor league baseball and elected to be in two chapters: the Lefty O’Doul one in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, as well as the Sacramento group, since I’ve begun research on a book about a player from there, Joe Marty. I will also have access to a wealth of SABR research materials online, which are restricted from non-members, and I’m hoping I might be able to get this blog indexed on the SABR site.

Anyhow, expect more SABR-related posts as I begin to attend meetings.

A Ricky Romero story that bears repeating

Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning tonight against the Chicago White Sox, losing it only after surrendering a home run to Alex Rios. It was the lone hit Romero surrendered of the night, and he earned the win, though I was hoping he would get the no-hitter. Not all that long ago, I used to cover Romero in college.

Romero played for Cal State Fullerton, and I studied journalism at his Big West Conference rival, Cal Poly. I saw Romero pitch at least twice during his collegiate career, and last June, early in the life of this site, I wrote about when Romero was a freshman in 2003 and on the mound for one of the strangest incidents I’ve ever seen at a ball game.

Part 2: Who would play in this new Continental League?

In the past 50 years, Major League Baseball has almost doubled in size, going from 16 teams to 30. At 25 players a team, there are now 750 men in the league, as opposed to 400 in 1960. In September, when rosters expand, the number gets as high as 1200. With so many more uniforms to fill, it would seem talent has diluted markedly. Still, I took a long look and between Triple-A, top-level independent leagues and various international circuits there are enough ex-big league players scattered about to form an expansion league.

The last time anyone tried to form a new pro baseball circuit was 1959, when a group led by Branch Rickey announced plans for a Continental League, with teams in Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Toronto. They never played a game, after the MLB announced plans to expand in a few of the markets, and today, all but Buffalo has a team. In Part 1 of this series, I looked at cities that could host a professional team. There are dozens of such cities, and I identified 12 of the best.

(For anyone who missed Part 1, go here.)

Today’s post is about identifying potential players for this new league. After spending more hours than I care to catalog on Wikipedia and various team Web sites, some in English, some not, I found over 100 ex-big leaguers in their 20s and 30s scattered between Triple-A, the independent leagues and international circuits, as well as the retired and inactive lists (and those were just the names I knew.) I should add that I find this general subject fascinating, regardless of whether we’re talking expansion leagues. A former established player grinding it out in some lower league in hopes of coming back is a great underdog story, at least to me.

The list that follows includes ex-starting players, All Stars and a past Cy Young award winner, Eric Gagne (currently playing in Canada.) The men are:

Mexico: Raul Casanova, Scott Chiasson, Jacob Cruz, Erubiel Durazo, Benji Gil, Alex Sanchez

Korea: Jose Capellan, Doug Clark, Karim Garcia, Gary Glover, Edgar Gonzalez, Brandon Knight, C.J. Nitkowski

Japan: Alex Cabrera, Jose Castillo, Casey Fossum, Seth Greisinger, Ben Kozlowski, Randy Messenger, Matt Murton, Andy Phillips, Terrmel Sledge, Jason Standridge

Taiwan: Pedro Liriano, Matt Perisho, Wilton Veras, Jerome Williams

Independent: Antonio Alfonseca, Edgardo Alfonzo, Carlos Almanzar, Lorenzo Barcelo, Larry Bigbie, Dewon Brazelton, Alberto Castillo, Juan Diaz, Ryan Drese, Carl Everett, Robert Fick, Keith Foulke, Wayne Franklin, Eric Gagne, Trey Hodges, Hideki Irabu, Jorge Julio, Jose Lima, Luis Lopez, Dustan Mohr, Sidney Ponson, Matt Riley, Felix Rodriguez, Bill Simas, Randall Simon, Jason Simontacchi, Scott Spiezio, Junior Spivey, Denny Stark, Matt Watson, Esteban Yan, Shane Youman

Minors: Eliezer Alfonzo, Luis Ayala, Josh Bard, Armando Benitez, Kris Benson, Joe Borchard, Raul Chavez, Alex Cintron, Chad Cordero, Shane Costa, Jack Cust, Lenny DiNardo, Brandon Duckworth, Chris George, Esteban German, Jay Gibbons, Brad Hennessey, Steve Holm, Paul Hoover, Kei Igawa, Jacque Jones, Brad Kilby, Jason Lane, Kameron Loe, Brandon McCarthy, Dallas McPherson, Mike MacDougal, John Mayberry Jr., Justin Miller, Damian Moss, Garrett Olson, Adam Pettyjohn, Horacio Ramirez, Cody Ransom, Michael Restovich, Clete Thomas, Joe Thurston, Josh Towers, Andy Tracy, DeWayne Wise

Not playing: Shawn Chacon, Roger Cedeno, Raul Mondesi, Tike Redman, Jose Vidro

Retired: Jose Cruz Jr., Nomar Garciaparra, Ben Grieve, Gary Knotts, Ramiro Mendoza, Matt Morris, Trot Nixon, John Rocker

Looking over the list, it’s hardly a collection of ex-superstars. I’m reminded of that scene in Major League where the new owner of the Cleveland Indians presents a list of players she intends to invite to spring training, in secret hopes of fielding the worst team in baseball so she can relocate it to Miami. Upon seeing the list, a member of her front office remarks, “I never heard of half of these guys, and the ones I do know are way past their primes.”

In reply, the Indians general manager quips, “Most of these men never had a prime.”

Still, as I said in Part 1, I think that over time, with sufficient financial backing, fan support and patience, a new league could become sustainable and competitive. And even to start, I think that 20 or so of the guys named above combined with a few blue chip prospects could form a team comparable to the Washington Nationals. It goes without saying that everything I’ve said over the past two posts would probably never legally work, for any number of different reasons, but I think it’s an interesting concept.

Part 1: Possible cities that could host teams

The Continental League: It could still happen

In 1959, a group led by Branch Rickey announced plans for a Continental League with teams in Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Toronto. Different than former rival circuits such as the American Association, Players’ League or Federal League, Rickey and his associates envisioned a complementary league. However, they folded August 2, 1960 before playing a game after the big leagues announced plans to field teams in a few of the markets.

Since then, Major League Baseball has almost doubled to 30 teams, from 16, spreading west like the Continental League proposed. What’s interesting, though, is that amidst the glut of expansion, a new baseball league could still work. Many cities besides Buffalo could accommodate a team and hundreds of ex-big leaguers in their 20s and 30s currently populate the minor leagues, independent ball and the international circuits.

Baseball could theoretically have a league at least like the XFL in football for talent and general interest. With good financial backing, fan support and patience, it could become sustainable. Here’s an idea of how it might look:

The Classic Division:

1. Brooklyn

Population: 2,465,326 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Brooklyn Cyclones (Mets, Short-Season A)

Notes: Why not bring big league baseball back to Brooklyn? New York supported three baseball teams for years, and this borough boasts over 2 million people, with no professional team as of this writing (just so long as the Nets remain in New Jersey.) As a bonus, a modernized replica of Ebbets Field could be built.

2. Buffalo

Population: 292,648 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Buffalo Bisons (Mets, Triple-A)

Notes: This is the only Continental League city lacking major league baseball 50 years later, perhaps because Buffalo’s population has fallen more than 50% in this time. Still, the rate of decrease is no longer as rapid, and Buffalo has the largest ballpark in the minors, Pilot Field, capable of enlarging to big league capacity.

3. Montreal

Population: 1,620,693 (2006 Canadian Census)

Current baseball team: None since 2004

Notes: I don’t think this was a bad baseball city. I just think the Expos sucked something fierce by the time they left for Washington D.C.

4. Louisville

Population: 256,231 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Louisville Bats (Reds, Triple-A)

Notes: A June 2008 article from RBI Magazine says it best: birthplace of the Louisville Slugger for god sakes. Give them an MLB Team!

5. Memphis

Population: 650,100 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals, Triple-A)

Notes: The 18th-largest city in the 2000 census, plus a geographical rival of Louisville. When the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis some years ago, they tried to rename themselves the Express, in honor of FedEx (headquartered there) but the NBA quashed it. In my league, there are no such restrictions.

6. Indianapolis

Population: 781,870 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Indianapolis Indians (Pirates, Triple-A)

Notes: The third-largest city in the US without a professional baseball team, after San Jose and San Antonio, Indianapolis is a former Negro League town and between the Pacers and Colts has traditionally treated teams well.

The Territorial Division:

1. San Antonio

Population: 1,144,646 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: San Antonio Missions (Padres, Double-A)

Notes: This is the largest American city without a big league team. Kind of surprising it doesn’t even have a Triple-A club (or an NFL team for that matter.)

2. Sacramento

Population: 407,018 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Sacramento River Cats (A’s, Triple-A)

Notes: Call me biased, since this is my hometown, but Sacramento is a great baseball city. The weather is sublime in the late spring and early fall, and the River Cats play in a jewel of a riverfront ballpark, Raley Field, which could be expanded from its current capacity of 14,000.

3. Las Vegas

Population: 478,434 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: Las Vegas 51s (Blue Jays, Triple-A)

Notes: This is again where my bias will show, as there’s been talk in recent years of my Sacramento Kings moving here, and I think putting a baseball team in Las Vegas could avert this. That being said, I think Sin City could well accommodate a ball club and that casinos would purchase many stadium luxury boxes for high rollers.

4. Honolulu

Population: 371,657 (2000 US Census)

Current baseball team: None since 1987

Notes: Honolulu has gorgeous weather and no professional teams currently, and modern technology eases travel there. This area is ripe for expansion and would make a perfect spot for All Star games.

5. Portland

Population: 529,121

Current baseball team: Portland Beavers (Padres, Triple-A)

Notes: Almost as large as its neighbor Seattle, Portland surprisingly only has one professional team, the Trail Blazers of the NBA.

6. Vancouver

Population: 578,041 (2006 Canadian Census)

Current baseball team: Vancouver Canadians (A’s, Short-Season A)

Notes: Vancouver is another beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest that could support a higher level of baseball than it does.

Part 2: The players