Saturday, June 22, 2002

Rob Dibble's Dubious Code of Honor

Quote of the Week

"They didn't want to play. Instead they worked to prevent us from playing our game. It worked, but it was markedly different from Ecuador, Italy and Croatia, which played and competed."

-- Mexico coach Javier Aguirre, sharing his somewhat curious definition of "compete" after his boys’ elimination from the World Cup at the hands of the US of A last Monday. It would seem that in Aguirre’s bizarro universe, the only teams that "want to play" are those that have the decency to lose to or tie Mexico, as Ecuador, Croatia, and Italy did.

No, it’s not baseball, but then it’s not like last weekend’s matchup between Toronto and Montreal rated very high on the international drama scale.

A Question of Honor

Last Saturday, Mets’ pitcher Shawn Estes zipped one behind Yankees’ ace Roger Clemens, apparently trying to throw one up the Rocket’s wazoo in retaliation for Clemens’s multiple assaults on Mets’ catcher Mike Piazza in 2000. Clemens knew it was coming, danced like a fool when the pitch came, then tipped his hat to Estes as if to say "I deserved that, now let’s get on with our lives." The game resumed without incident, and Clemens’s was further put in his place when both Estes and Piazza homered off him, leading the Mets to an 8-0 victory. I don’t care for baseball’s "If you hit my guy, I’m hitting yours" brand of machismo, but if players are going to insist on taking revenge, a purpose pitch followed by an on-field humiliation like the one Clemens got on Saturday should just about close the deal.

Which it did for just about everyone except ESPN commentator/troglodyte Rob Dibble, who said that Estes’ pitch and subsequent drubbing of Clemens "showed me nothing." He went on to say that the Mets "sent a boy to do a man’s job," and in a subsequent column said that "had [Estes] knocked down Clemens or hit him in the numbers, I wouldn't have had to criticize him on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight."

That Rob Dibble is an idiot goes without saying. As a player, Dibble was a notorious hothead who once threw a ball into the stands, striking a first-grade teacher (don’t worry, she probably had it coming), and routinely threw at batters who had the audacity to hit off him. As such, he should excuse us if we tune out his babblings about baseball’s alleged code of honor. ESPN executives, on the other hand, should take note because Dibble’s antics are turning the once-essential "Baseball Tonight" broadcast into drive-time talk-radio.

Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Mets general manager Steve Phillips fired hitting coach Dave Engle last week in an attempt to shake up a club that ranks near the bottom of the league in runs and batting average despite the off-season addition of Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz. It’s fitting that Engle’s firing came a week before the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, because Phillips’ sacking of Engle looks like the first steps in a cover-up of Nixonian proportions.

It was Phillips, not Engle, who gambled eight figures on an aging and out of shape Mo Vaughn, a strikeout-prone Burnitz, and a leadoff hitter (Cedeno) who can neither get on base nor field his position at anything approaching an adequate level. It was also Phillips who spent the past few years gutting the Mets farm system in an effort to win it all now rather than build for the future. Phillips may think that canning Engle will take the heat off of him for the bad deals he made last winter, but then again, Nixon thought firing Archibald Cox was a good idea too. On the bright side for Mets fans, it won’t take a constitutional crisis to get rid of Phillips; Mets ownership is likely to take care of that themselves this coming off-season.

Great Moments in Symbolism

Boston pitcher John Burkett has said that he won’t play in the All-Star game if selected. His reason: the game is in Milwaukee this year, and a boycott would be his way of protesting Commissioner (and Milwaukee Brewers owner) Bud Selig's handling of labor negotiations.

Interesting, but if anti-Bud publicity is what Burkett wanted, he’s going about it the wrong way. In order to stage a meaningful boycott, you first have to participate in the thing you're boycotting. Now that Burkett has said that he won’t serve if drafted, he will almost assuredly be passed over for consideration by AL manager Joe Torre, rendering his pronouncement a non-issue ("No Burkett? Good, we didn’t want him anyway"). I hope for the players’ sake that their labor negotiators have a better understanding of leverage than Burkett does.

Of course, it might be fair to consider whether Burkett’s potential wildcat strike is truly meant to be an act of defiance. After all, it’s par for the course for players in all of the major sports to stage phantom injuries around All-Star time in an attempt to get a couple of days off. Perhaps Burkett is just taking the idea in a new direction. If that’s the case, I’ve gotta give him some extra points for style.

Great Moments in Symbolism II

While we’re on the subject of All-Star symbolism, some of you may have heard that there's a movement afoot to stuff the All-Star ballot boxes with the names of Twins and Expos players in order to protest Selig’s attempts to contract those teams out of existence. At this point the results are mixed. The Expos have placed one player in the top five of five out of the six positions for which fans have a vote. This looks less impressive, however, when you consider that three of those players (Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, and Michael Barrett) deserve to be there on merit anyway (Barrett may actually be getting hosed by only placing third among catchers). On the American League side, Twins have made the top five in all six positions, but it isn’t as if any of them are that far ahead of where they would be had there been no call for a protest vote to begin with.

Go here to level your blow against the empire.

Thursday, June 13, 2002


Two years ago The New York Times published an article by sportswriter Steve Kettmann which anticipated the "everybody and their brother is juicing" articles that have become all the rage (you can read the original here, but it will cost you twenty bits). Even though Kettmann didn’t name names, in its day the article created quite a firestorm. Until Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti got into the act last month, it was the go-to reference piece on steroids in major-league baseball. Apparently unhappy with the prospect of losing his title as whistle-blower in-chief, Kettmann decided to reassert his dominance last week by writing a borderline libelous article for the online edition of The New Republic in which he out-sensationalizes even Canseco and Caminiti. This time Kettmann is naming names, and evidence be damned!

But before getting to the alleged juicers, Kettmann has some scores to settle. First he dredges up the old controversy over his New York Times piece by (1) reminding us about how important it was at the time ("My article in the Times inspired a flurry of sports columns and radio talk show discussions on the subject, much as the recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Ken Caminiti and steroids has lately."), and (2) sneering at baseball insider writer-wannabes who think they have something to add to the conversation ("A Yankee strength coach named Brian McNamee even roused himself to write a response in the Times. His column tried to refute my assertions on widespread steroid use in baseball by arguing, "My mother always said, 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.'").

But Kettmann has bigger fish to fry. He calls Caminiti a "weasel" for backing off his allegation that 50 percent of all players use steroids. No matter that Caminiti says he was misquoted in the original piece. Anyone who refutes the 50 percent figure that Kettmann says "many of us had been hearing for years" must be a pawn of "the players' so-called union, which never met an intractable position it didn't like."

Seeing Kettmann lay into the increasingly cautious Caminiti, you might think that the way to get into Kettmann’s good graces would be to make unsubstantiated accusations about steroid use in the major leagues. That is, unless you’re Jose Canseco, whom Kettmann labels a cynical money-grubber and irredeemable traitor if he goes ahead with his plan to out the infamous 50 percent. But then, having it both ways, Kettman suggests that Canseco's probably too damn lazy to do it in the first place. And if Canseco decides to steer clear entirely of what Kettmann calls the "unsavory debates" about steroid use, look for him to be handed honorary membership in Caminiti’s weasel club.

Canseco can rest easy on one score, however, because Kettmann has volunteered to do all the unsavory work himself. He comes right out and accuses Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens of juicing, despite acknowledging that both McGwire and Bonds have repeatedly denied steroid use, and that Clemens has never been accused of taking steroids at all. (For extra measure, Kettmann suggests that Clemens was taking amphetamines and steroids during the 2000 World Series. Attaboy, Steve; in for a penny, in for a pound!) Kettmann’s evidence: the scuttlebutt he’s heard in the press box over the years.

But Kettmann's litany of abuse doesn't end with baseball’s greatest active hitter, greatest active pitcher, and most storied home run hitter of the past twenty-five years. According to Kettmann, "[i]f baseball fans are determined to point fingers, they'd better be prepared to point one at themselves," because they don’t believe that "the beauty of a hit-and-run single poked through the right side of the infield easily matches that of many home runs." Setting aside for a moment that Kettmann is the only one pointing fingers, what makes him think that if baseball once again found itself in an era where hit-and-run singles were the order of the day that cheating wouldn’t be a problem? Has he never heard of the spitball? Spiking? The Black Sox scandal? Were fans to blame for those things too?

After reaming the players and fans, Kettmann moves on to the rotogeeks and sabermetricians, stating that "[a] lot of the blame for [steroid abuse] goes to the Bill James school of sports analysis..." It would be nice if Kettmann offered some evidence to support this charge, but in its absence, I can only wonder what, exactly, James’s use of objective methodology to analyze baseball has to do with steroid abuse. Yes, James and his disciples have concluded that home runs are more valuable than hit-and-run singles, but to suggest that such an obvious observation encourages steroid abuse is like saying a criminologist encourages crime.

Look, I’m not saying that McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens don’t take steroids, because I have no idea whether they do or not. Still, I would think that Kettmann would likewise hold his fire, given that his claims that they do appear to be supported by nothing other than gossip. That said, Kettmann has leavened his baseless accusations, unfounded conclusions, and out-and-out insults with enough Caminitiesque language to allow him and The New Republic to weasel their way out of any libel lawsuits stemming from his irresponsible bomb-throwing. But then I suspect that libel is a risk Kettmann is willing to take if it ensures his place as the doyen of the anti-steroid brigade.

Competitive Balance Fallacy of the Week

While I’m picking on the media, I should point out that Salon’s usually reliable King Kaufman got suckered by some erroneous conventional wisdom last week. In seeking an expert opinion about why there have been so many managerial firings this season, Kaufman spoke to current Reds’ hitting coach and former major league manager Jim Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s explanation -- which Kaufman appears to buy hook, line, and sinker -- is that because of players’ high salaries, some teams simply can’t "stay up with the Joneses," forcing them to fire managers more quickly in order to placate grumpy fans. As evidence that economic disparity causes competitive disparity, Kaufman points out that "[t]hrough Tuesday's games, a little past the one-third mark of the season, eight of the 30 teams were [ten games or more out of first place]."

I guess that’s one way to look at it. Another is that through last Thursday’s games, there were sixteen teams either in first place or within four games (i.e. one long weekend series) of being in first. And while we’re talking about competitive balance or the seeming lack thereof, it’s probably a pretty good time to point out that since baseball went to divisional play in 1969, sixteen different teams have won 32 World Series. When you consider that only thirteen NBA teams have won championships over that same span of time, and only 16 teams have won the 36 Super Bowls dating back to 1967, it seems pretty clear that even though there is economic disparity in baseball, there really isn’t a competitive balance problem at all.

Nepotism Watch: The Atlanta Braves

Baseball’s amateur draft took place last Tuesday, and Atlanta Braves’ General Manager John Schuerholz made a bold pick in selecting his own son, Auburn University shortstop Jonathan Schuerholz, in the eighth round.

Now, before you go accusing Schuerholz of nepotism, you should know that Roy Clark, the Braves’ director of scouting, said that Schuerholz-the-younger "has outstanding talent. It doesn't really matter what his last name is." See? Family had nothing to do with it. The kid is preternaturally talented, and the mere fact that the Braves took him in the eighth round when every other team in the game had him scouted as a 15th rounder merely speaks to the keen eyes in the Braves’ scouting department. "I would have recommended that we take the kid even if my employment did not depend on staying in the good graces of his father," Clark did not add.

Signs and Portents

I can’t get too worked up about nepotism in baseball. After all, unlike law firms, advertising agencies, and various other family businesses, it’s difficult to hide incompetence on the diamond, and just because your dad’s the boss doesn’t mean you won’t get benched. Just ask Cincinnati Reds’ third baseman Aaron Boone (son of manager Bob Boone) who, on Friday, found out that his father’s team traded first base prospect Ben Broussard to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman/outfielder Russell Branyan. Sure, Branyan has been something of a disappointment in his first season as an everyday player for the Indians, but, if he ever manages to lower his strikeout rate from horrific to merely wretched, he stands a very good chance of displacing Boone and his sub-.650 OPS in the Reds’ starting lineup.

But while this trade is mildly interesting when viewed in the context of Boone family harmony, it’s more interesting as it relates to what I believe to be Cleveland’s impending fire sale. The Indians’ booty in this trade -- Broussard -- is a ready-to-go first base prospect who could start for lots of teams. He is not, however, anything near as good as current Tribe first baseman Jim Thome, nor will he ever hope to be. While I would like to think that the Indians acquired Broussard in order to flip him to someone else for someone they actually need, my gut tells me that he’s being kept around until the Indians fall a few more games out of first place, declare the season a loss, trade Thome for spare parts and insert him into the starting lineup at a fraction of Thome’s cost.

I caught some flak last week for suggesting that the Indians were unnecessarily paring payroll. Upon reflection I have to concede that yes, some of the Indians’ offseason moves were at least marginally defensible (Roberto Alomar isn’t doing anything special this year, though there was no reason for the Tribe to expect that when they dumped him). That said, even a team that is rebuilding needs to keep one or two of its superstars, and Jim Thome is The Man in Cleveland. If the Indians trade him or Bartolo Colon (who, by the way, was AL’s Pitcher of the Month for May), you can take it as proof that Indians’ management is far more interested in the bottom line than in putting the best product on the field.

Monday, June 3, 2002

The Nature of the Game

"I think over the last year I've learned a lot. I've learned about how to get guys out."

-- Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, explaining his dominant performance against the Montreal Expos last Monday night, confusing the hell out of the roughly 3,200 batters he’s managed to get out over the course of his 15+ year, 2 Cy Young Award career. Yeah Tom, glad you finally figured out what you were doing out there.

The Nature of the Game

Last week, ESPN’s Peter Gammons wrote about the putatively surprising struggles of the Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians (the A’s struggles really are surprising, but smart people expected the Indians to stink). He claimed that "What it demonstrates should be obvious. In both cases, unless one is in the revenue upper class, it is practically impossible to compete for a prolonged time period."

Applesauce. If the A’s and Indians’ example demonstrates anything, it's (1) that even good teams can hit rough patches once in a while, and (2) when you strip your roster of talent in the interest of making money, you're likely to lose a lot of games. Gammons’ bogeyman of economic disparity has little to do with how well the A’s and Indians are doing this year.

There is no question that the A’s suffer from revenue problems. Even though the A's have fielded an excellent squad for the past three seasons, hardly anyone goes to Network Associates Mausoleum to watch them play. Despite competing in one of baseball’s larger and more affluent markets, the A’s also have a pretty piddling media deal (they can thank cross-bay competition from the more popular Giants for both problems). But while finances are important to, say, the A’s ability to sign Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez when they become free agents in a few years, they explain little to nothing about why the A's are in last place this year. Everyone thought the current roster looked pretty damn good last off-season, when the A’s were coming off of a 102-win season.

The A’s slide in 2002 is all about underachieving, not about having the financial deck stacked against them. Gammons says, "[F]ew general managers have received more praise for creativity, work ethic and evaluation skills than Beane, but at a $40 million payroll, there is no escape for a two-month slide when the starters’ ERA is over 5.00." Sorry Peter, but even a $100 million payroll team "has no escape" when its entire rotation has an ERA north of a finsky. Having had a bunch of good players hit a funk at the same time is just part of the game. The A’s will either bounce back to respectability this season, or they’ll get 'em next year.

Gammons doesn't come right out and say it, but you get the sense that he wants to blame the A’s woes mainly on the loss of Jason Giambi, and the loss of Jason Giambi on revenue disparity. After all, the A’s lost Giambi in a bidding war with the Yankees, and isn’t losing all one’s good players to New York the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics or something? The only problem, of course, is that it didn't happen that way.

The A’s never could have matched Steinbrenner’s offer, but they didn’t have to because the A’s and Giambi had done a deal before the Yankees were even on the scene, which involved far less money than he eventually took from New York. Oakland’s ownership chickened out when Giambi asked for a no-trade clause that, practically speaking, wouldn’t have hindered the A’s a bit. If Giambi continued to play well, they wouldn’t have wanted to trade him; if they became losers and felt the need to unload him, Giambi would probably have waived the clause in order to get himself onto a winning team). It was only when the A’s vetoed the no-trade clause that Giambi felt the need to begin his flirtation with New York in the first place. Yes, the A’s would be doing much better with Giambi, but they lost him because of their own shortsightedness, not Force Majure.

Gammons’ comments about the Indians strike me as even more preposterous:

"Cleveland is coping with the evolutionary reality that ballpark revenues alone do not make a rich franchise, and as the Indians -- remember, they haven’t won a postseason series since 1998 and with the exception of the 2000 White Sox had been playing in the league’s weakest division since they rose to power -- got old, had to be reconstructed and had to downsize and the luster came off The Jake."

Excuse me, but weak or not, the Indians won their division last year by a comfortable margin. They had more wins than Atlanta, only one fewer than the world champion Diamondbacks, and only four fewer than the all-powerful Yankees. When you consider that the Tribe’s interleague opponents (the Astros, Cardinals, and Cubs) were much tougher than the Yankees (the Mets, Expos, Marlins), the difference between the two teams doesn't amount to much. Given their success, why did the Indians "have to be reconstructed?"

And what does Gammons mean by the comment about the strength of the division? One of the reasons the division has traditionally been "weak" is that the Indians themselves have been beating the living crap out of the AL Central for the past seven years (and in any event, their win totals would have been enough to win several of the other divisions in nearly every year of their run). Even if the division’s strength is an issue, why leave out the 2000 White Sox? In effect, what Gammons is saying is that the Indians’ competition has been bad, except of course when it’s been good, which means he’s not really saying anything.

As I predicted in my season preview, the Indians have struggled because they got rid of good players like Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzales while bringing in bad players like Milton Bradley, Ricky Gutierrez, and Brady Anderson, not to mention keeping a guy with no cartilage in his elbow in the bullpen (Charles Nagy). Teams that trade good players for bad ones are likely to lose. Again, this is the nature of the game.

The real question here is why the Indians got rid of their good players in the first place. Is it, as Gammons suggests, because "the luster has come off" the Indians’ new stadium and falling attendance has required cutting payroll? No chance. The Indians’ attendance didn’t start going downhill until this season -- after the Indians made their cost-cutting moves -- so blaming their problems on fickle fans is a cheap shot of the lowest order.

Call it a hunch, but I think the real reason for the evisceration of the Indians’ roster was simple greed. Last year Dick Jacobs sold the Indians to Larry Dolan. I suspect Dolan was attracted by the perpetually sold-out stadiums under the Jacobs regime which allowed the Indians to be profitable despite having one of the larger payrolls in the game. Dolan probably figured that Indians fans would continue to show up in droves no matter what he put on the field, and unloaded the large salaries hoping to jack up the profits even higher. But Indians’ fans aren't stupid; they're just a little spoiled. After growing accustomed to winning for the better part of a decade, they weren't about to shell out money to see a losing team play. A few masochists like me will go to the ballpark no matter how good our teams are, but having fans fail to turn out for a loser is -- you guessed it -- part of the game, and something Dolan should have expected. There should be no crying for the Tribe.

Gammons is a smart guy, and I suspect he knows he’s peddling bunk when he blames the problems of the A’s and the Indians on economic disparity. But let's not forget that Gammons is essentially a gossip columnist (his real claim to fame is being ESPN's "Mr. Inside"), and the first rule of gossip is that you don't alienate your sources. When Gammons passes along front office canards about revenue disparities dictating results, just remember that it’s not news, it’s just old Pete ensuring the continued access that puts food on his table.

Fire Sale Watch: The Cleveland Indians

While we’re on the subject of the Indians, the hot rumor coming out of the Western Reserve is that Tribe GM Mark Shapiro is shopping his two best players, Jim Thome and Bartolo Colon, for prospects. If that's the case, it validates my hunch that the Indians are selling off good players in order to pocket the cash. Colon and Thome are certified studs whose talents fully justify their price tag, and who would be very hard to replace. Ship them out, and Cleveland is going to be partying like it’s 1969 (record: 62-99). If Gammons thinks the luster has come off The Jake now, just wait until the Indians sell off their franchise pitcher and slugger.

Jose Canseco is Chopped Liver

Two weeks ago I spouted off about steroids in baseball after Jose Canseco threatened to write a book naming names of players on the juice. As it turns out, I was pretty much the only taking Canseco seriously. Most writers seemed to think that Canseco was nothing more than a vengeance-seeking publicity hound. That changed last week when Ken Caminiti came out to Sports Illustrated about his steroid use and -- making claims nearly identical to Canseco’s -- said that a large percentage of major leaguers are using performance-enhancing drugs. Since then scores of sports writers have weighed in on what a significant problem this is all for pro baseball.

Which is all well and good, but I don't know why Canseco’s claims were treated as a non-story while Caminiti's were taken so seriously. It couldn’t be the relative fame of the players, because Canseco was every bit as big a name (probably bigger) than Caminiti. It couldn’t be that Caminiti was owning up to using himself, because only the most naive sports writer could assume that Canseco was excluding himself from his allegations. It couldn’t have been the credibility of the source; after all, Caminiti is the only one of the two who is a convicted felon.

So why was Canseco laughed off while Caminiti became the whistle-blower? I dunno, but any writer looking to get an exclusive would probably do well to follow big Jose around, because nobody else seems to be listening.