Coach McGwire

Yesterday came the news that Mark McGwire will be joining the St. Louis Cardinals as their new hitting coach.  Much of the news centered around ongoing – and very probable – speculation that McGwire used performance enhancing drugs during his career.  But hey, as Big Mac would say to Congress, I’m not here to talk about the past.  That’s because I was more struck by a different aspect of this story.  What interested me is that McGwire is yet another great hitter gone on to coach. Based on what I know of baseball history, more times than not, this doesn’t seem to work out.

The feeling here is that the best coaches are generally not former star players.  For instance, the most-successful hitting coaches I can think of, Rudy Jaramillo of the Chicago Cubs and the late, great Charley Lau, who coached George Brett with the Kansas City Royals had only marginal professional careers.  Meanwhile, there’ve been a myriad number of former stars, who’ve tried and failed to coach.  Granted, there have been some isolated success stories.  Ted Williams turned the expansion Washington Senators into a brief contender in the late 1960s, Rod Carew did good work with the Angels, and Don Baylor parlayed a couple of coaching stints into a managerial career.  But I can compile a far lengthier list of failures.  They include:

Babe Ruth: Hired as a first base coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, Ruth’s job was more to hit home runs in batting practice.  He lasted one season.

Yogi Berra: The story I heard with Berra seems to be an issue common to lots of former stars: He could do the work himself better than he could teach it, and it frustrated him to stop and try explaining what came so natural to him.

Reggie Jackson: Jackson became a hitting coach for the Oakland Athletics, after he wrapped up his playing career with them.  The job went so well that Jackson chose to wear a Yankees hat for his Hall of Fame induction in 1993, two years after the A’s fired him.

–and–

Bobby Bonds: Bonds was hired more as a favor, after the San Francisco Giants signed Bonds’ son Barry prior to the 1993 season.  The elder Bonds did get some commendable results with Matt Williams, having the Giants slugger hitting at a .336 clip in 1995, before he went down injured.  But that was Bonds’ high-water mark as the Giants hitting coach.

I hope for McGwire’s sake that it goes well.  While he clearly did steroids, in my book, he seems like a nice enough guy who mearly got caught up in something that was endemic in the game at the time. Regardless, though, McGwire’s looking a challenging situation here.

Thoughts on the playoffs

Ah, the playoffs.  Baseball’s annual fall rite of passage. Typically, the postseason is something to look forward to.  This year’s been a little different, though.

Usually, there’s a team or two I like gunning for the World Series, but the offerings have been a little slim this fall.  Trying to choose a team to root for has somewhat like picking a favorite Backstreet Boys song or member of the Brady Bunch or McDonald’s Value Meal selection: No matter what, they’re all sort of off-putting. I guess if I had to say anyone, it might be the Philadelphia Phillies, but they’re little more than the best of a weak bunch.

As for the Anaheim Angels and New York Yankees, I wish there was a way they could both lose the American League Championship Series and we could be done with this thing now.  The Yankees spend more than the GDP of Estonia on salaries each year, and while the Angels can be admired for having a batting lineup that pretty much hits .300 to a man, they also have perhaps the most irritating, vacuous fan base in professional sports.  I remember hearing a story back in ’02 how a so-called Angel’s fanatic didn’t know who David Eckstein was.  And to think my Giants fell to Anaheim in the Series that year.

I suppose I’ll be curious to see who winds up winning this year, but I don’t think I’ll be waiting with baited breath.

Brett Favre: A few times this has been done in the baseball world

I’ve been watching with mild disgust these past few weeks as the latest iteration of the Brett Favre saga has unfolded.  The future Hall of Fame quarterback recently came out of retirement, for the second time in as many seasons to play for the Minnesota Vikings (he previously did this with the New York Jets.)  Twice now, Favre has finished a season, retired, said he’s 99% retired and then come back on the eve of the next season.  He’ll probably qualify for Medicare before he finally retires for good.

Favre is certainly not the first athlete to do this.  In baseball, the practice of retiring and then coming back is practically an art form.   Here are a few ballplayers who’ve had a hard time walking away:

Roger Clemens: The undisputed king of the un-retirement game.  Football has Favre.  Basketball has Michael Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Magic Johnson.  In baseball, there is Clemens.  At last count, he has retired three times, and only reason the 354-game-winner has stayed put this time is because of the ongoing rumors about his steroid use.  Somewhere, he and Barry Bonds are probably holed up in a bunker together, waiting for this thing to blow over.

Rickey Henderson: Henderson made more stops than the circus in his Hall of Fame career.  At the end, at age 44, he played independent league ball with the Newark Bears in hopes of making it back to the big leagues.  It worked.  He’d probably still be playing today if someone would give him a job.

Arky Vaughan: A lesser known name than Clemens or Henderson, Vaughan was a star in his own right during his prime in the 1930s and ’40s.  An All-Star shortstop, Vaughan walked away from baseball at 31, in the midst of a Hall of Fame career, due to a dispute with his manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Leo Durocher.  Vaughan spent time on his ranch in California and did not play ball for a total of three years, before returning for the 1947 season.  He played two final seasons as a reserve and then retired for good.

Jim Palmer: The Baltimore Orioles pitching great retired following the 1984 season and then attempted a comeback in the spring of 1990.  He didn’t make it out of spring training.

Jim Bouton: It was easy for Bouton to retire from baseball just past his 30th birthday, following the success of his bestselling 1970 book, Ball Four. However, he got the itch to play again a few years later and spent a couple seasons in the minors before returning with the Atlanta Braves in the fall of 1978.  He wrote about the experience in a postscript to Ball Four.

Bo Jackson: Give Bo credit for trying, though this was a sad sight to see.  A two-sport star with the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders, Jackson was never the same after blowing out his hip in a Raiders playoff game.  He played baseball again, but not as the star he was before.

Hello Mr. Penny, you’re in good company

Yesterday brought some good news for my San Francisco Giants: Two-time All Star pitcher Brad Penny cleared waivers Monday and is signing with the team.   The 31-year-old Penny has struggled with injuries the past two years, but won 32 games between 2006-07 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  As a Number 4 or 5 starter for the Giants, I think Penny could thrive.  At the very least, he should make an adequate fill-in for an injured Randy Johnson.

Penny is far from the first veteran pitcher rescued off the scrap heap by the Giants for the stretch run.  Off the top of my head, here are three experienced hurlers they’ve brought in July or later:

  • Steve Carlton, signed as a free agent, July 4, 1986: This one didn’t work out so great.  The Giants signed Carlton two weeks after his release from the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he’d won 241 games the preceding 15 years.  The 40-year-old Carlton went a meager 1-3 for the Giants with a 5.10 ERA and was released in early August.
  • Rick Reuschel, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, August 21, 1987: This, on the other hand, worked out brilliantly.  Reuschel went 5-3 in helping the Giants to the 1987 National League Championship Series, then went on to win 36 games the next two years and start the 1989 All-Star Game at age 40.
  • Danny Darwin, acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox, July 31, 1997: The bigger names in this trade were Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez and the Giants gave up a slew of prospects, including Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry to get them.  Nevertheless, the trade helped them to the ’97 divisional playoffs (where they promptly fell to the Florida Marlins.)  Darwin also started 25 games the following year for San Francisco at age 42.

An argument in favor of the Reserve Clause

I played golf with my dad yesterday and baseball’s Reserve Clause came up in conversation. We had two random men in our foursome, and I got to talking with one of them about sports. He mentioned about a football player he knew getting $75,000 many years ago as a first-round pick with the Pittsburgh Steelers and that seeming like a lot, even though athletes get tons more these days. I related how Tampa Bay Rays reliever J.P. Howell turned down an $850,000 signing bonus as a first round pick for the Atlanta Braves out of high school. He instead took his mother’s suggestion to go to college and wound up being drafted by the Kansas City Royals a few years later. That’s what happens when you listen to your mom.

This guy and I got to talking about all the money in sports, and I mentioned about the Reserve Clause and how I think what remains of it in baseball is a good thing. Allow me to explain. For many years, there was no free agency in baseball. Players remained the exclusive property of their teams for perpetuity under a so-called Reserve Clause, unless they were traded, sold or released. The constitutionality of this was naturally challenged, and in the 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court stunningly granted organized baseball an exemption to anti-trust laws. It took until the Seventies for the Players Union to finally win the right for free agency and for the Reserve Clause to be abolished. Now, the rule is that a player remains the exclusive property of the team he signs with for six years.

What’s happened of course is that in the last 30 years, baseball wages have skyrocketed. In 2008, the average annual salary topped $3 million. Teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers have assumed operating budgets higher than many third-world nations, I would guess, in throwing millions at stars like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramierez and Mark Teixeira. Meanwhile, small-market teams have become holding farms for up-and-coming players and the majority of owners have gotten screwed.

Interestingly, it’s the mid-level teams, the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays of baseball, and yes, even my beloved San Francisco Giants who seem to fare the worst in baseball’s current economic landscape. They have money, but never quite enough for the A-Rods or Mannys of the sport, and they instead wind up giving millions to second-tier veterans like Randy Winn and Milton Bradley. These teams’ payrolls often top $100 million annually, but it’s rarely enough to push them far beyond the middle of the standings. Fifteen years ago, it would have been like being a major film studio and trying to push a blockbuster with Jean Claude Van-Damme instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to save a few bucks. It’s not going to work. Everyone knows Timecop sucked.

What I find particularly interesting, though, is that in this current baseball climate the best teams remain home grown, maybe padded with experienced cast-offs, like the Philadelphia Phillies last year, the Colorado Rockies in 2007 and the Florida Marlins in 2003. Even the Yankees put together their strongest seasons back in the mid-Nineties when they adhered to this principle, bringing in under-the-radar veterans like Paul O’Neill to partner with Yankee farm products like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams. I don’t get the Yankee philosophy now of signing the most expensive three or four free agents each year and then demanding they win World Series. It’s completely inane and I feel good that they fail every year. Granted, the Red Sox pay through the nose and have won two championships in the past five years. Still, they rose to prominence by assembling a crew of discarded vets. I knew who David Ortiz was six years ago, but I doubt many others did.

What remains of the Reserve Clause has also helped teams like the Oakland Athletics stay competitive. For all of the team’s struggles with rebuilding in recent years, A’s general manager Billy Beane is still highly adept at finding young talent, milking it for a few years at low rates ahead of free agency and then trading for more young talent. Teams like the A’s, Marlins and Rays survive by successfully shooting these margins. And with the minimum salary currently at $400,000, it’s not like the players are getting screwed too badly, either.

So what am I suggesting? I’m not saying baseball’s old system of having its players be slaves for life was necessarily good. But the current allowance for teams like the Yankees to consistently inflate wages seems to widen the gap between rich and poor teams and make the field of competition less fair. It seems to hurt the game, not help it.

Anything to strike a better balance is good, in my book.

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.

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.