Top Five All-Time Baseball Giveaways

The news that the Toronto Blue Jays jettisoned right fielder Alex Rios in a waiver wire deal to the Chicago White Sox for – well – nothing, has prompted some thinking on my part.  In that the Blue Jays got, again, nothing for Rios, save for relief from his $60 million contract, I got to wondering about the other top giveaway trades in baseball history.

Behold:

5. The city of Montreal gives the Expos to the city of Washington D.C. D.C should have at least made Montreal take Marion Barry in return.

4. The Boston Red Sox sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Technically, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee got $120,000 when he sold Ruth to the Yankees in the winter of 1920, big money in those days.  But it went to finance a Broadway musical for Frazee and the Sox failed to win the World Series for 84 subsequent years.

Really though, this is a stupid transaction regardless of Ruth’s involvement, and it reinforces an important lesson Major League Baseball was forced to learn in the wake of the deal: Ballplayers should never be traded for musicals (or shitty ’80s sitcoms as the Expos realized after the disastrous Andre Dawson for “Who’s the Boss?” blockbuster.  Wait that never happened.)  From a simple business and marketing perspective, there’s rarely a good rate of return in these sorts of trades.  And in my book, even Matt Williams past his prime would be too high a price to pay for “Miss Saigon” or “Rent.”

3. Minor leaguer gets traded for 10 wood bats. This got a lot less funny when the player in question, John C. Odom, died of a drug overdose thereafter.

But on a lighter note…

2. George Costanza gets traded by George Steinbrenner for some fried chicken. Need I say more?

1. A Negro Leagues sports writer attempts to give Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1937.  And never hears back. Gotta love that racist old time baseball.  Imagine how much that Pirates squad would have cleaned up during World War II.

Dion James: Another ballplayer I knew

A few years ago, I worked at an elementary school in Sacramento.  As it was in an upper-middle class neighborhood, not far from the State Capitol, the school attracted the children of the well-to-do: Legislators, attorneys and also C-level local celebrities.  Among this latter crowd was a former Major League Baseball player who I got to know, Dion James.

I actually met James years before when he came to sign autographs for my Little League team.  A Sacramento product and 1980 graduate of C.K. McClatchy High School, where Nick Johnson and Larry Bowa also went, James played in the majors between 1983 and 1996 with four different teams.  His best year came in 1987 with the Atlanta Braves when he hit .312 with 154 hits, six triples, and 10 home runs.  James never became a star, though he was a key reserve in 1995 with the New York Yankees, even meriting a mention in Sports Illustrated.  He visited my Little League practice that year and signed a Japanese card for me from his days with the Chunichi Dragons.

By the time I met James again a decade later, he was a 40-something-year-old father, raising a few sons in Sacramento, including one prodigy.  We talked once or twice at the elementary school I worked at as a recreation aid.  While he waited to pick up his son one time, James told me about his playing days, including his stint in the Japanese League.  Like a lot of players, including Kevin Mitchell and Rob Deer, James went to play in Japan in the wake of the 1994 strike.  Apparently, the Japanese training regimen is no joke.  James told me about having to do exercises in gale-force winds, hunching down to show me how he and other Dragons players scooted into the wind.

Not surprisingly, James only lasted a year in Japan before returning to the majors.

Dontrelle Willis: The Crossroads

I feel for Dontrelle Willis.

The 2005 National League Cy Young award-winner has reached an impasse in his career, a crossroads. Having won only a single game over the past two seasons, the 27-year-old is currently in the minor leagues, after last pitching for the Detroit Tigers earlier this season. His hindrance? An anxiety disorder, finally diagnosed this year, after two seasons of futility.

Tigers brass, including manager Jim Leyland, have expressed guarded optimism in the press. But if history is any indication, Willis’ return to prominence, let alone the majors, is no sure thing.

Willis is the latest and most notable member of a sad subculture in baseball: Those players whose careers derailed for reasons mental, not physical. In recent years, Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel have been two high-profile cases of former top pitchers who mysteriously lost their control. Things got so bad for Ankiel that he had to become an outfielder. Baseball is something of a conservative establishment, not always as tolerant as it should be of affliction. One can only wonder how many other players suffer in silence, not eager to attract unwanted attention and make things worse.

Three decades ago, Pittsburgh Pirates staff ace Steve Blass experienced a similar career implosion on the mound. The hero of the 1971 World Series, Blass fell out of the majors within a few years, as he lost all pitching command. Roger Angell chronicled Blass’s downfall in a 1975 story in the New Yorker. The story depicted Blass attempting to save face.

“You know, this thing that’s happened has been painted so bad, so tragic,” Blass was quoted as saying in the piece. “Well, I don’t go along with that. I know what I’ve done in baseball, and I give myself all the credit in the world for it. I’m not bitter about this. I’ve had the greatest moments a person could ever want.”

Angell wasn’t sold, as he wrote in the story.

All this was said with an air of summing up, of finality, but at other times that evening I noticed that it seemed difficult for Blass to talk about his baseball career as a thing of the past; now and then he slipped in the present tense — as if it were still going on.

Blass never pitched another game. Just as Lou Gehrig has a disease named after him, Steve Blass Disease, according to Wikipedia, “is applied to talented players who inexplicably and permanently seem to lose their ability to accurately throw a baseball.”

Granted, there are occasional success stories. John Smoltz turned his career around after going to see a psychologist at the 1991 All-Star break. And Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn became a strikeout sensation with just a pair of glasses. But the latter is a character from the film “Major League.”

One of my favorite writers is the noted essayist Joan Didion, who went to the same high school I attended in Sacramento, albeit 50 years before me. In the preface to her classic 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion describes her own battle to overcome neurosis.

I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

Hopefully for Willis’ sake, he too can come to these terms.

Okay, Jose

Last week came the news that yet another standout baseball player, this time David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, had flunked a Performance Enhancing Drug test in 2003. Amidst the flurry of media attention that followed, my pal Jose Canseco (hey, I once interviewed the guy) stepped in with some typically audacious comments.

Canseco told Pedro Gomez of ESPN.com, “I’ll tell you this, Major League Baseball is going to have a big, big problem on their hands when they find out they have a Hall of Famer who’s used.”

It’s curious to consider who he may be talking about (probably not Lou Gehrig, I’m guessing.) References to Canseco’s quip have of course blown up around the Internet and blogosphere. One post, aptly titled Jose Canseco Just Ruined My Life (mine too) listed seven Hall-of-Fame members who played with the former Oakland Athletics slugger at different points. The copied list is as follows:

  • Nolan Ryan (Texas, 1992 – 1993)
  • Rickey Henderson (Oakland, 1989 – 1992)
  • Wade Boggs (Tampa Bay, 1999)
  • Reggie Jackson (Oakland, 1987)
  • Don Sutton (Oakland, 1985)
  • Rich Gossage (Oakland, 1992)
  • Dennis Eckersley (Oakland, 1987 – 1992)

If I had to bet, my money would be on Jackson, one of the early players to grasp the importance of weightlifting. A 1987 story from the New Yorker, entitled “The September Song of Mr. October,” paints a picture of the 40-year-old slugger over-the-hill and preparing for the final season of his storied career:

Jackson worked harder than anyone else in the gym. “When I quit I’ll become a body builder,” he said with a load of weights on his back. “Just for the hell of it.  For vanity.”  He worked his quadriceps, his calves, his triceps and biceps.  Between sets, he ran in place with the quick, short steps of a shadowboxer.  He wore a baseball cap, sweatpants, and a blue rubber shirt.  Sweat washed over his face and dripped off the point of his chin.  He had always looked more like a heavyweight fighter than a ballplayer.

I remember reading this a few years ago and even feeling a little suspicious then.

Jackson of course denounces steroid use on his official website. That’s fine. It doesn’t really mean anything in this day and age. Ortiz said similar things. So did Rafael Palmeiro.

With that said, I’m kind of surprised Canseco only claimed one Hall-of-Famer had used. Looking over the list, nearly every guy looks mildly suspect, with the exception of Don Sutton and Rickey Henderson, the latter of whom was recently quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying, “They kept that shit a secret from me.”  (Canseco also absolved Henderson of any steroid usage, saying he’d never seen anything to suggest it.)  However, Eckersley, Boggs and even Ryan wouldn’t be all that surprising of dopers, given their mid-to-late career struggles and resurgences.

This all may sound blasphemous but consider the following: A few years ago, news surfaced that an Atlanta Braves pitcher from the 1960s and ’70s Tom House had experimented with steroids during his career.  In the Associated Press story that broke, House said other players had used streroids as well.  I subsequently emailed Jim Bouton, another pitcher from this era, who wrote the classic diary of the 1969 season, Ball Four.  I asked Bouton if he thought House was telling the truth.  If I remember correctly, Bouton said he doubted it, but that if steroids had been prevalent in his era, guys like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would definitely have used them to gain an edge.

Special Holliday meal

My previous post in this space ranked the worst baseball trades of all-time, and I included a deal between the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals that netted Mark McGwire for three forgotten prospects. After hearing the news on Friday that the A’s and Cardinals had made another deal, this time sending Matt Holliday to St. Louis for three more minor leaguers, a thought occurred to me: In the baseball world, hindsight is 20-20.

As of right now, the talk surrounding this trade is that A’s general manager Billy Beane got three highly-rated prospects from the Cardinals for Holliday, including third baseman Brett Wallace, a possible successor for Eric Chavez (though that isn’t really saying much anymore– sorry, Eric.) Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports even suggested that Beane pulled off something of a coup in the deal. That statement may prove true two to three years from now. But it’s presumptuous at this point to call this a steal.

On paper, in fact, this trade doesn’t look all that different than the McGwire exchange, which proved a debacle. In that, the A’s also got three prospects, and because none of the three panned out and Big Mac went on to set the home run record in 1998, the deal is generally reviled. There’s something else worth considering, too. Because the A’s also had to give up three players to pry Holliday from the Colorado Rockies last November, this move essentially boils down to Huston Street, Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez for the three Cardinal prospects. That in itself isn’t even a great trade, in my book.

Generally, I like Billy Beane and he’s done a lot to keep the A’s relevant over the past decade. But his track record is uneven. For every one or two great transactions (Mark Mulder for Dan Haren, Billy Taylor for Jason Isringhausen, Barry Zito for nothing), there’s been a headscratcher (i.e. Tim Hudson for Juan Cruz and two prospects that haven’t panned out.) And the jury’s still out on most of the decisions Beane has made in the last two years in jettisoning guys like Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden.

It will be interesting to see where this latest big trade ultimately ranks.

On a side note, I predict that Holliday will be wearing Yankee pinstripes a year from now. Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote that everyone who can go to New York will and anyone who can’t winds up in Philadelphia.  While it wouldn’t be a bad move for Holliday to join Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the Phillies lineup– though of course Murray didn’t mean this– I don’t see Holliday passing up the annual $100 million windfall that the Steinbrenner family seems to roll out to its targets.

Why it’s a bad idea to name your son Delino

I just read an Associated Press story that quoted the ex-wife of Delino DeShields, a former outfielder and lead-off man from 1990-2001. After reading the story, I went on Wikipedia, as I often am apt to do, and checked out DeShields’ page. On it, I saw something I didn’t know: DeShields once got traded from the Montreal Expos to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young Pedro Martinez. The Wikipedia story said that it’s generally considered one of the worst trades of the Dodgers’ 50-year history in Los Angeles, which made sense, though that’s not to say it worked out that much worse as a trade than Ebbets Field for Chavez Ravine.

This all got me thinking about some of the other worst trades in baseball history. My friend Devin and I used to have this joke when we were growing up. As young San Francisco Giants fans, we for some reason hated the Houston Astros and their manager at the time, Art Howe. We used to pretend to call up Howe, get him to trade his entire team for Giants’ center fielder Brett Butler and then say, “Ha, ha, fooled ya!” Most general managers are not this stupid. However, I think Devin and I may have been able to put one over on a few guys. Witness their handiwork. The following are some of the worst trades that have ever been made in baseball history, listed in no particular order:

1) DeShields for Martinez: This is one time the hapless Expos got it right, unloading the mercurial DeShields for Martinez, who went on to win three Cy Young awards, including his first with Montreal in 1997.

2) Bartolo Colon for Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips: One of the many times the Expos got it gloriously wrong. Give them credit for being aggressive. In the midst of a rare pennant race, they traded for Cleveland Indians ace Colon, who was in the middle of a 20-win season. However, the Expos failed to make the post season and gave up three All-Star caliber players in the process. Done over, Colon for even one of these guys is probably still uneven.

3) Babe Ruth for “No, No, Nanette”: The Sultan of Swat was sold to the New York Yankees in the winter of 1920 so that Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee could finance a Broadway musical, “No, No, Nanette.” It was a hit, but Boston failed to win the World Series for another 84 years.

4) Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi: To be fair, no one had seen what Ryan could do when the New York Mets dealt him to the California Angels. And there’s a part of me that says Ryan was little more than a slightly above-average pitcher who simply had phenomenal longevity. Still, there’s really no justifying this deal.

5) Mark McGwire for TJ Matthews, Blake Ludwick and some other shitty player I can’t remember. I could go check Baseball Reference but it isn’t worth the time.

Signing Pedro? Five cautionary tales to consider

Amidst the All Star break came news that Pedro Martinez may have at last finally found a home. After an idle half season, ESPN is reporting that the former Cy Young pitcher is in talks for a one-year, $1 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.  It’s a far cry from the millions upon millions he earned in his heyday as the hard-throwing, top pitcher in baseball for the Boston Red Sox, and there had been reports in Sports Illustrated earlier this year that Martinez wanted $5 million this season.  Still, at this point, I’ll bet the 37-year-old Martinez is glad for the work.

If I were the Phillies, though, I would exercise some caution, some “You’re Allen Iverson, we’re the Clippers and you’re coming off the bench”-style caution. For every flamethrower like Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson who’s pitched into their mid-40s, a litany of starting pitchers have burnt out in their 30s.  Martinez’s chances of having a resurgence at this point, following a 5-6 2008 campaign are slim.

Take a look at some who have come before him:

Juan Marichal: The Dominican Dandy, Marichal epitomizes someone who fell off in a hurry.  After compiling an 18-11 record in 1971, he went 22-33 over his final four seasons before retiring at 37.

Don Drysdale: The Los Angeles Dodgers hurler had a 2.15 ERA with 12 complete games and eight shutouts in 1968.  The following season, Major League Baseball lowered the pitchers mound, Drysdale went 5-4 and reached the end of the line at 32.

David Cone: If any player on this list should make the Phillies especially leery of Martinez, it’s Cone.  Perhaps no aging pitcher ever had as dramatic of a season-to-season decline as Cone, as he followed a 12-9 year, at 36, by going 4-14.  More bafflingly, his ERA doubled.  His career was effectively done from that point.

Dizzy Dean and Dwight Gooden: Two hard-throwers who flamed out around their respective 30th birthdays, Dean fell apart for being injured, Gooden for being a cocaine-addled train wreck.

Wood Bats vs. Aluminum Bats: A Business Metaphor

A thought occurred to me on the BART ride home today.

As part of my job, I cold-call businesses.  It’s tough work, but gratifying, and I generally like the challenge.  I’ve been struggling lately, though, letting my nerves affect me and having a hard time focusing.

However, I turned a corner today, which lead to an epiphany.

We generally call two types of leads.  As we sell an Internet-based service, a good chunk of our calls are simply to companies listed in Google Maps– 10-box leads, as we call them.  A smaller percentage of our leads are people enrolled in Pay-Per-Click campaigns.  At first, I only called PPC leads, and I hit my stride somewhere around my fourth week, setting up nine trials.  Since then, I’ve mostly called 10-box leads and my numbers have been drastically lower.  My boss clued in on this this morning and instructed me to start calling the PPC leads again.  Right away, my numbers jumped.

Here’s what I learned: Calling on 10-Box leads is like trying to hit a baseball with a wood bat, while calling a PPC lead is like hitting with a metal one.  Pros may be able to hit with the wood bats, but I’m still learning on this job.  I can hit farther with aluminum.

The All Iconoclast Team: How They Did

In October 1992, Sports Illustrated published all-time Dream Teams. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were on the basketball team, alongside Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Vince Lombardi coached the football team. I don’t remember too much about the hockey team (who really remembers hockey?), except it featured Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. The baseball team had Dennis Eckersley and Mike Schmidt rubbing elbows with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

It was an interesting concept and it’s given me an idea. I imagined a team full of characters, those ballplayers who defied comparison and blazed their own trail. I call it the All Iconoclast Team. Included are legendary drunks, cheats and Casey Stengel.

At starting pitcher, we have Satchel Paige, who had his own rules for staying young, a good thing since he’d be at least 103 if he were still alive today (109 if some sources are to be believed.) Paige believed in avoiding fried foods, because they “angry up the blood” and also said, “Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society— the social ramble ain’t restful.”

Paige used to bring his infield in, say he would strike out the side and do it. Here he has help. His catcher is Mike “King” Kelly, who inspired a rule change after substituting himself in mid-play to catch a foul pop. At second and third, respectfully, are Billy Martin and Pete Rose, the team leaders in beers drank and bets placed. Rounding out the infield are Jackie Robinson at first base and Alex Rodriguez at shortstop. Robinson of course breaks the team’s color barrier, while Rodriguez is the first openly gay hitter. I’m kidding, of course. Paige already broke the color barrier.

Backing up the infield, we have outfielders Ruth, Cobb and Jose Canseco. Cobb and Robinson discover an immediate, mutual animosity toward one another, each vowing to kill the other before the season’s end. Meanwhile Ruth inquires about going drinking with Martin and offers to take care of any fried foods Paige can’t handle. For his part, Canseco shakes up spring training by giving his new manager Stengel steroids. “Jose Canseco is going to make you young,” the former Athletics slugger tells the aged Yankee skipper as he injects him in a locker room toilet stall.

The following is a time-line of the team’s only season:

April 1: The season begins. Much like 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Iconoclasts begin on a tear, knocking out their opponent 18-1. The Tampa Bay Rays vow never to take part in such an exhibition again.

April 18: After beginning 8-0, the Iconoclasts lose their first game. Owner George Steinbrenner makes the first of many overtures about firing Stengel and promoting Billy Martin to player-manager.

April 19: Stengel inquires with Canseco about how he can get more steroids.

May 7: Back winning consistently, the Iconoclasts are having difficulty finding teams willing to face them. They destroy a Japanese All-Star squad and request to face the winner of the upcoming Little League World Series. Paige announces that when that day comes, he will call in his entire field and strike out every batter. The request goes unanswered.

May 18: Mike “King” Kelly is distraught after learning he’s been dead for 115 years.

May 29: It’s Free Bat Night at the Iconoclast’s ballpark (Veteran Stadium.) Tensions flare when Cobb goes into the stands after a heckler and receives a brutal miniature bat beating. Further trouble strikes later when Cobb learns that his $10,000 annual salary is less than 1/1000th of what Rodriguez earns.

June 4: Stengel confuses Rodriguez by attempting to speak Spanish, telling him, “Oye como va, Jose?”  Rodriguez just glares.

June 21: In a special match-up against the All Hapless Team, Rose re-enacts the thrilling conclusion to the 1970 All-Star Game by barreling, once more, into catcher Ray Fosse. “Ah nuts, we lose again,” Hapless manager Don Zimmer says.

July 16: Ruth films his first beer commercial, with Martin standing by. “They didn’t have this back in the Thirties,” an ecstatic Bambino tells Martin.

July 31: Amidst the madness that is his team, Robinson has quietly put together an outstanding, albeit infuriating season. Hitting .330, Robinson fumes when the trade deadline passes without any takers, even after Steinbrenner explains that All-Time squads rarely make deals.

August 14: Paige decides the social ramble is restful and that he can handle a small amount of fried foods.

September 6: With the season winding down, Canseco announces he will be penning a tell-all book. “You write about me, I’ll kill you,” Cobb tells him. “You kill him, I’ll kill you,” Robinson replies.

September 25: The final game over, Stengel sits in a hotel bar with a sportswriter, nursing a Scotch. “Let me tell you something,” Stengel intones. “I got a shortstop, kid from Miami doesn’t speak a word of English. My catcher is 142 years old. Babe Ruth cares more about Pabst Blue Ribbon commercials than this team. Can’t anyone here play this game? How the hell did I get addicted to steroids?”

Catching the legends

I went to my first San Francisco Giants game in about six years yesterday.  My parents and I went to see Randy Johnson face Roy Oswalt and the Houston Astros.  It wasn’t the best day for the Big Unit– he gave up three solo home runs and left with an injured shoulder in the fourth inning.  Oswalt looked more like the Johnson of old, holding the Giants to one-run in eight innings. Houston prevailed 7-1, a far cry from the last Giants game I attended when Barry Bonds blasted a walk-off home run against some hapless reliever.  Still, it was cool to see 45-year-old living legend Johnson in action, maybe for the last time.

My dad asked me before the game who my favorite player was, while we sat in our seats halfway down the left-field foul line watching warmups.  It occurred to me that I don’t have too many guys I support these days.  I like Ken Griffey Jr. and Josh Hamilton, I follow American League pitchers Garrett Olson and Ricky Romero because I used to cover them in college, and Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson went to my high school.  Still, it’s not like when I was a kid and I idolized Will Clark.  Heck, even as a young Giants fan, I once ran around my front yard pretending to be Kirk Gibson doing his home run stagger in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.  The modern game just doesn’t fill me with the same wonder.

The argument could be made that my perspective has merely changed as an adult.  Still, I know that if I were offered the chance to see someone from the 1950’s or ’60s play, I could name a dozen guys off the top of my head who I would pay to see play in a heartbeat.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Jackie Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Pete Rose and Willie McCovey all come quickly to mind.  It’s like getting the chance to watch The Beatles, Michael Jackson or Elvis in concert.  Come to think of it, I should really catch the Rolling Stones while it’s still possible.

There just aren’t as many comtemporary players who compare.  I was glad to see Johnson do his thing, and I’ll probably catch Griffey one more time.  From there, who knows.