Out here in LA, where beach weather has a tendency to lull, a couple of members of the Rip Van Dodgers brigade have finally awakened. First owner Frank McCourt, then GM Paul De Podesta, have gone public with something everyone else has known for ages: that the game as played between the lines is somewhat at odds with fantasy baseball.
In other words, while putting Jeff Kent and Milton Bradley on the same roster may work on paper — or in De Podesta’s case, on computer printouts — on the field, and even in the clubhouse, personalities come into play.
Moral of the story: character matters.
Sadly, nearly all the players with character — including a couple who were on top of that legitimate characters — were sent packing for two reasons: so that McCourt’s payroll could be trimmed, and De Podesta’s neo-"Moneyball" theories could reign. Thus it was bye-bye Lo Duca, Cora, Dave Roberts, Jose Lima, Beltre, Sean Green, etc.
In the process, what was arguably baseball’s best defensive infield, was crippled.
More significantly, the chemistry that had taken Jim Tracy three years to develop, was suddenly gone, gone, gone.
And while some teams both in baseball and in other sports have been successful despite a lack of kinship among the players, those clubs have been based on mutual respect.
But who’s ever called J.D. Drew a gamer? Or heard Jeff Weaver’s teammates in Detroit or New York refer to him as a big-game player?
As to Milton, whose teammates have usually liked him, there is a bit of history that might have been considered. People out here remember him dogging it on a fly ball way back when he was playing Area Code. And a good friend of mine named Coco Crisp, who’s having an excellent season, owes his job in part to the fact that Milton wore out his welcome in Cleveland.
While it’s true that this year’s Dodgers have been hit by injuries, I wonder if theirs have been as impactful as those suffered by, say, the Cardinals. Yet last I checked, St. Louis was somehow managing to be competitive without any whining.
Yet the irony of the club playing at Chavez Ravine is that, thanks to the division they play in, they could still make the playoffs.
That begs a question. Should that happen, will ticket prices go up?
Now that another draft is history, one key question must be asked yet again: Is it better for a player to sign out of high school or to go to college?
As someone who teaches at the graduate school level, far be it for me to cast aspersions on higher education. College can be a life-altering experience, as well as a passport into new realms, new languages, even new ways of thinking.
But for ballplayers, it can be both positive and negative.
For some it’s a chance to experience play at a higher level without the do or die of pro ball. Further, it’s a way to make a break from home cooking, both literally and figuratively, without being out on one’s own.
Yet it can also be a way to defer or destroy a dream.
Why? Despite the lip-service given to amateur athletics being a higher pursuit, the fact is that college coaches at virtually every school are judged first and foremost by one thing: their won-loss records.
With that in mind, what priority is the development of student-athletes? Even more troubling, what priority is their well-being?
Is it worth over-pitching a player — prospect or not — to win a game, or maybe even a conference race? Is it worth having a collegian play hurt?
The plain hard fact is that while for some the college experience is a chance to grow as both a player and a person, for others is an opportunity to be misused, underused, overused, or just plain abused.
For many years now, I’ve been watching players where I live in Southern California. Some of the ones who benefited most from college are those who had no choice. By that I mean that guys like Dave Roberts, Kevin Millar, Eric Byrnes, Randy Flores, and Morgan Ensberg were not considered particularly desirable coming out of high school, which made their collegiate experience crucial.
Then there are others who were high picks coming out of high school, and even higher picks after their junior year in college — guys like Mark Prior, Troy Glaus, and Chase Utley.
And there are those like Horacio Ramirez who were hardly pursued by universities.
But what’s undeniable is that there are some for whom college, at least in so far as baseball goes, was a false turn. Consider, for instance, Alberto Concepcion, who was a 2nd round pick out of El Segundo High due to what seemed like spectacular power. Though it’s true that he got to be a better “catch & throw” guy during his college career… and even became the Pac 10 Player of the Year… his one great tool –power — was eroded thanks to college tutelage.
Or consider Chad Cislak, a pitcher whose velocity are confidence were taken away from him.
Or Nelson Caraballo, a four-year Area Code guy whose pre-draft demands coming out of high school were such that he was pretty much forced to go to college, where he finished his career as a bench warmer.
Then there are guys like Jason Saenz, who had an electic arm, and Rick Currier, who had a big league fastball until he was forced to pitch college style, i.e. “backwards.
Or Josh Karp, who wound up a 1st Round pick despite the fact that he never fulfilled the promise he showed at Area Code.
The truth is that there is no answer. But what’s clear is that what’s become the conventional wisdom — that it’s better to go to college than to sign right out of high school — is far from the certainty it not too long ago seemed to be.
Not surprisingly, the most intelligent voice I’ve heard on the issue of steroids belongs to pitching guru Tom House.
Indeed, he’s the only one I’ve encountered who not only makes sense, but alos ahs first-hand experience, having taking steroids for a period of time during his playing days.
His motivation — which probably makes him the anti-Jose Conseco — has nothing at all to do with self-promotion. Nor has he sunk to the level of naming names.
Tom’s reasons for speaking up are the same as why he recently addressed the California legislature — and is currently producing a video on the subject: he cares about the greater good.
So let’s examine some of the points he’s raised.
In defense of baseball — or at least the powers-that-be within the game — Tom is the first person to point out that there is nothing disingenuous about the assertion that no one saw steroids coming. His reasoning has to do with frame of reference, in that up through the 70’s, weightlifting was discouraged… to the point where few teams even had weight rooms. And when at last lifting began to be accepted, the feeling remained that pitchers needed suppleness rather than bulk.
So Tom, in the hope of improving his fastball, became what we would now call a “closet” lifter — going to a private gym, where he became aware of the steroid culture. And when he began to experiment with substances including steroids, DMSO, and cortisone, his fear of exposure owed not to the supplements, which in those days were not illegal, but rather to weightlifting itself, which was frowned on by his team, the Braves.
Thus began a two-year stint of secrecy, which made him twenty-five pounds heavier, but with no gain in velocity.
Further, because steroids build muscle at the expense of connective tissue and joints, his experimentation left him with two bum knees.
Yet that costly wrong turn had one important benefit, in that it led Tom to the discovery of what he terms Functional Strength.
That concept, together with what he’s gleaned from his studies of kinesiology and mechanics, has made
Tom House a visionary regarding both pitching and baseball itself.
As someone who works with players of all ages — from Mark Prior to kids with dreams — Tom House has a credo makes perfect sense. “The only even playing field,” he states, “is a legal playing field.”
Hopefully, many will listen.
Baseball lends itself eternally to a game of "What if?"
What if, for instance, the Red Sox had not let go of Babe Ruth, thereby engendering far too many years of "The Curse Of The Bambino?"
What if that same Boston team had been willing to break their own color line by signing a kid who tried out for them named Willie Mays? Is it possible they would have avoided that other longtime hex, "The Curse Of Pumpsie Green?"
And what if the Dodgers once upon a time had not let go of Branch Rickey, who promptly signed with the Pirates, then outfoxed his erstwhile employers by stealing away a bonus baby named Roberto Clemente?
Moving to more recent times, what if the Dodgers last year had accepted a better offer for Dave Roberts — one which they turned down for fear the speedy outfielder might have led the National League in steals… a stat that "Money-Ballers" frown on?
What if Terry Ryan, my idea of what a General Manager should be, had not spotted a lefty named Johan Santana?
What if Milton Bradley had not worn out his welcome in Cleveland? Would there be a spot for one of the most promising guys on their club: Coco Crisp?
And what if the A’s were ever to give the multi-talented Eric Byrnes not merely a guaranteed spot in the lineup, but also the greenlight to steal? My sense is that one-dimensional "Money Ball" would be consigned to history as the guy the Dominicans call "Captain America" stole forty, fifty, or who-knows-how-many bases.
Guess all we can do is speculate…
While doing interviews for a documentary about Latin baseball, there was a question I always encountered, not merely in this country, but also in places ranging from Venezuela to Panama, from the Dominican to Cuba:
Why are there so few Latinos in the Hall of Fame?
Obviously that’s a situation that’s bound to change once Pedro Martinez, Edgar Martinez, and so many others move toward eligibility.
But it’s a question that merits examination.
For instance, with so many members of Cincinnati’s Big Red Red Machine now enshrined in Cooperstown (plus Pete Rose selling autographs nearby), where is the guy called by manager Sparky Anderson "the key to our success?" By that I mean Davy Concepcion. Though his numbers on their own are not stellar, he was a shortstop in an era where that was not primarily an offensive position. Most importantly, he was the one, as Sparky once told me, "Who got us every key hit." And how many shortstops are there with championship rings like Concepcion’s?
The sad truth is that a lot of the Latin players on the margins of the Hall Of Fame have what I would call "asterisks" next to their names — something or other that keeps them from being first-ballot inductees.
Consider Tony Oliva. Aside from being arguably the best natural hitter of all time, he’s someone who went, thanks to hard work, from being a defensive liability to a Gold-Glover. Plus he and Ted Williams are the only two players in the history of the American League to make the All-Star team each of their first four seasons. But his career was foreshortened by knee injuries that make Cooperstown a question mark since he does not have the World Series rings that have propelled others.
In some cases, we can only imagine what might have happened if history had been different in one way or another. With Camilo Pascual, who’s considered by oldtimers to have had the best righty curve ball ever, what if it had been a contender — the Dodgers, say, or the Giants — who signed him rather than the Washington Senators. We can only imagine what kind of record a guy who once won twenty-one games for a last place club might have had.
Or think about the stats a guy like Vic Power might have put up had he been signed by a club other than the Yankees, who chose to break their team’s color line with self-effacing Elston Howard rather than with a flashy first baseman who ultimately won seven Gold Gloves. Had Power been promoted to the Bigs in a timely fashion rather than being forced to lose what could have been his most productive years in the minors, chances are he, too, would have been enshrined.
Then there’s Roberto Alomar, who was on the fast-track to Cooperstown until he was sidetracked by injuries and the incident with John Hirschbeck.
I could talk, too, about other Caribbean stars whose only problems was timing and race — in other words, playing before Jackie Robinson broke the color line — men like Poncho Coimbre, Perucho Cepeda, and the legendary Martin Dihigo.
Similarly, I could mention Luis Olmo, who was so mistreated by Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher that he bolted to the ill-fated Mexican League.
But we’ll save that for another time.
With the draft a matter of weeks away, it’s fun to consider the mayhem that’s taking place within front offices.
The biggest change in scouting in recent years comes from the attempt to quantify everything. That leads to the tyranny of technology, from radar guns to stop watches — as though talent can be judged by numbers alone.
Then there’s the "Who’s-Who" factor, which means in effect that if someone’s not being discussed in airports, he can’t really be "a guy."
Out my way in California, that’s led to all sorts of blunders. While certain "can’t miss" guys have certainly delivered — Mark Prior, Barry Zito, and Troy Glaus — come to mind, there are others who have found ways to miss by a mile.
Meanwhile, other guys who were deemed deficient have made it to the big leagues.
I can remember when UCLA’s Michael Moore was deemed a four-tool future all-star, while his teammate Dave Roberts was passed over as a junior, then drafted on the second day as a senior. Need I ask which one’s sporting a World Series ring?
Then there was the Inglewood High team that was not termed a "must see" for most area scouts despite the presence of Horacio Ramirez and Coco Crisp, now contributing to the success of the Braves and Indians respectively.
I can remember scouts watching rhapsodic over a three-sport high school star named Pat Manning, despite the fact that he never seemed to be enjoying himself on the baseball field. Similarly I can recall scouts oohing and ahhing over a big, hard-throwing lefty named Scott Rice, despite his difficulties in throwing strikes.
I guess the problem with falling in love with things like tools and size is that, as a great baseball man named George Genovese says, "There are plenty of guys who can do everything imaginable… except win."
Not that there aren’t some scouts who manage to think for themselves instead of following what I call a "Pack mentality." Out my way Doug Deutsch of the Astros comes to mind, especially for his success with college seniors like Kirk Saarloos, Morgan Ensberg, and Jason Lane. So does Bill Mele, who recently segued from the Twins to the Yankees after watching Jason Kubel make it to the Bigs. Then there’s Artie Harris of the Dodgers, as well as Joe Butler of the White Sox.
Sometimes it comes down to something other than mere numbers. In other words, would you want the guy on the mound or at the plate with a game on the line? After all, no matter how hard a guy’s throwing, who’s not going to hit a 2-0 fastball? And no matter how fast a guy may be, can he possibly steal first base?
So the question becomes even simpler: Can a guy play?