Friday, January 22, 2016

And Then Pudge Said to Spaceman: Conversations From Major League Mounds

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Bull Durham occurs on the pitcher's mound. The manager sends the coach out to break up an abnormally long conference involving the entire infield. When the dutiful coach arrives, he finds out that the long list of problems being discussed includes the fact that the pitcher is "scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man's here." Also, they need a live rooster to take the curse off Jose's glove and "nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present. . . .we're dealing with a lot of shit."

The coach nods thoughtfully and then suggests, "Well, uh, candlesticks always make a nice gift, and, uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or a nice silverware pattern.Okay, let's get two. Go get 'em."

Surprisingly, a lot of major league pitching mound conferences are not that different.

Carlton Fisk was known as a steely commander behind the plate. Part of his job description included being a psychologist to struggling pitchers as well as occasionally kicking some butt. He received a quick lesson on what veteran pitchers expected during a late-season call up in 1971. Tough lefty Gary Peters was on the mound for the Sox and appeared to be struggling. The rookie catcher thought, "Well, I'm supposed to take charge here," and walked out to talk to his pitcher.

Peters, greatly annoyed at having given up a couple of weak ground ball hits, was in no mood to be bothered. He turned his back and stood behind the mound. Fisk, not knowing what else to do in front of fans and teammates, patiently waited. Finally, Peters turned around and was not happy to find the rookie still there. "What the F*** do you want?" he snapped.

Fisk, surprised at the assault, just shrugged. "The next time you come out here, you better have a pretty good idea how we're going to get out of this situation," snarled Peters. "Get your ass back behind the plate." It was Fisk's Welcome to the Big Leagues moment. He dutifully walked back behind the plate, but it was the last time a pitcher would ever chase Carlton Fisk off a mound.

Fisk and outspoken teammate Bill Lee had some memorable confrontations on the mound. Temporary roommates in their first stop in the minors, in Waterloo, Iowa in low A ball in 1968, they were friends and each held respect for the competitiveness and ability of the other. This friendship and respect vanished completely, however, when Fisk began one of his slow, studied walks to the mound during an inning.

Lee liked to work fast and often threw pitch sequences which defied any explanation other than by his own convoluted thought process that few human beings could follow. Even though these pitches were successful more often than not, they drove the conservative catcher absolutely nuts. And Fisk drove Lee nuts by taking his time during the game. Confrontations were inevitable.

Lee later said that he immediately became irritated by the slow, deliberate way Fisk called a game. "He was . . .slow at putting down signs. I used to think, 'Jesus, what's taking him so long? I've only got two pitches.'

Lee wrote, "Fisk demanded your total concentration during a game. If you shook him off and then threw a bad pitch that got hit out, he had a very obvious way of expressing his displeasure. After receiving a new ball from the umpire, he would bring it out to you . . . There would be an expression on his face that said, 'If you throw another half-ass pitch like that, I'm going to stuff this ball down your throat.'"

By the mid-70s Lee and Fisk provided public entertainment on the mound. They were known to have shouting matches in the middle of the infield. Lee would shake him off just for the fun of it. Sometimes when Fisk would start out to the mound, Lee would turn and walk toward second base, making Fisk follow him.

One game Lee shook Fisk off six consecutive times. Fisk came out to the mound and yelled, "How the hell can you shake me off six times! I've only got five fingers!"
Lee: "My point exactly."

Lee: "Who knows better than I do what kind of stuff I have."
Fisk "Your catcher."

Lee, admittedly sometimes excitable on the mound, said Fisk would help by calming him down--"By screaming at me. 'Cut the shit, bear down, and we'll get two.'"

Bill Lee was far from the only pitcher who enjoyed Fisk's brand of motherly love. Sometimes Fisk would come out and fire, "What the hell are you doing out here?" Often, he would purposely goad the pitcher, like when he used to ask Marty Pattin, "When are you going to put the ball over the plate, Martha?" Sometimes Pattin would respond as planned, sometimes not. Once when Fisk stalked to the mound after Pattin gave up a couple of long fouls to a hitter, Pattin shouted, "You do the catching and I'll do the pitching," and the pitching coach had to rush to the mound to separate them.

Once, young pitcher Don Aase was laboring and told Fisk he was tired. The catcher snapped, "Bear down, you've got all winter to rest."

Pitcher Jim Wright, a rookie in 1978, said in a spring training game, after he gave up a monstrous line-drive home run to Johnny Bench, Fisk strolled out to give him a new ball and said, "Don't worry, that wouldn't have gone over the Green Monster. It might have gone through it . . ."

But it wasn't all sarcasm and growls. Wright said, "He was different with everybody. Some guys he really got on, others he was more of a cheerleader. He learned what worked best with each pitcher. . .  One game I had given up a few runs and my curveball was hanging. He came out and told me, 'You don't have your curveball today, it's getting you in trouble. So we're going to do it with your fastball. We'll show them a few sliders, but it's going to be the fastball mostly. The rest of the game that's what we did. I just threw wherever he put his glove and I made it into the ninth inning."

The Orioles Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, both of whom felt they needed no help whatsoever with anything, had some memorable mound exhibitions. Palmer, who frequently said that the only thing Weaver knew about pitching was that he couldn't hit it, would purposely stand on the very top of the mound, taking the high ground, to further emphasize the difference in their heights and to force the diminutive Weaver to look up at him.

Weaver frequently resorted to reverse psychology. Once when a spent Palmer asked him to take him out in the ninth inning of a close game, Weaver said, "Look down there at the bullpen. Do you think we've got anybody down there who's as good as you?"

Big Red Machine manager Sparky Anderson, known as Captain Hook for his proclivity to yank pitchers, by rule brooked no conversation with a pitcher on the mound. He simply held out his hand and expected the ball to be placed there. Once when a rookie, Pat Darcy, in the excitement of the moment, asked to stay in the game, and told him, "I feel good, Skip." Anderson didn't miss a beat. He answered, "Yeah, but you'll feel a lot better in the shower."

With no outs and a man on third in the ninth inning of a tied Game Six of the 1975 World Series, young reliever Will McEnaney, a left-hander in every sense of the word, crossed up catcher Johnny Bench on a two-strike pitch to dangerous Fred Lynn, throwing a fastball instead of a breaking pitch. Lynn lifted a fly ball down the left field line that was caught by George Foster, whose throw home to get the tagging runner was in time but took a high hop off the grass. Bench made a great play to hold his position, blocking the plate while reaching up to get the ball and then making the tag--narrowly avoiding disaster. After the play, an angry Bench went to the mound to confront McEnaney, "Will, what the hell? You crossed me up. I gave you the slider sign. You know the sequence."

Bench was surprised to find the pitcher ecstatic and unapologetic. "Yeah, I guess I did. But heck, John, those things work out, don't they?" For one of the only times in his career, Bench was speechless.

When the umpire walked out to keep the game moving and asked, "What's going on?" Bench could only shake his head. "You wouldn't believe it if I told you."

John McNamara was obviously feeling a little nervous about the start of the 1979 season as the new manager of the Reds. After all, the man he was replacing, Sparky Anderson, had only won five division titles, four pennants and two World Series in the past nine years. He felt a little better on Opening Day with his ace Tom Seaver on the mound, giving the Reds the top Hall of Fame vote-getting battery in baseball history (Seaver was elected in 1992 with 98.84% and Bench in 1989 with 98.4% , the first and eleventh highest in history before this year). Seaver wasn't sharp, however, and the Reds were quickly trailing. When the dyspeptic manager went to the mound in the fourth inning, already trailing by five runs in the new season, a smiling Bench greeted him with, "Enjoying your new job so far, John?"

So the next time you see players and coaches congregating on the mound just remember, they might be seriously discussing very important issues--or they might be talking about the game.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Jackie Brandt: Baseball's Original Flake

Every era has certain players that teammates, opponents and writers love to talk about; the kind of guys who make playing, watching and covering the game fun. In the early 1960s, Jackie Brandt was such a man.

And for etymologists in the crowd (there is always at least one etymologist in every crowd), it's interesting to note that Brandt may have been the inspiration for the word "flakey" entering the modern lexicon. The term is commonly used now, but until the mid-1950s, it was used only by criminals and the drug culture, specifically for someone addicted to cocaine. Wally Moon and Rip Ripulski hung the moniker on Brandt soon after he showed up to the Cardinals' St. Petersburg camp in 1956 because, as Moon later explained, they felt the young Brandt was so wild that his brains were falling out--flaking out of his head. Whether or not Brandt was actually the first to be called that, it is unlikely anyone else earned or appreciated the handle as much as he did. He happily answered to "Flakey" the rest of his career.

Jackie Brandt was a gifted athlete with great speed, a strong arm, a solid bat and the type of physical ability that made everything he did look graceful. He had a fairly good major league career playing for 5 teams over 11 seasons, with his best years coming in Baltimore from 1960-65. He won a Gold Glove in 1959 and was named to the All-Star team in 1961 when he had his best season, hitting .297 with 16 home runs and 72 RBIs.

Brandt's curse was that, although he was a solid player,  his natural ability made everyone always expect more. The fact that he glided smoothly across the outfield, eating up yardage while appearing disinterested--without his eyes bulging, head bobbing and hat flying off--made people assume that he wasn't trying, even though he in fact covered much more ground in a shorter period of time than the bulging, bobbing, hatless crowd.

Unrealized potential weighs heavily on athletes and those who attempt to manage them. It was Brandt's bad luck that sports people often compared his tools with those of guys named Kaline, Mantle and Mays. "The trouble is that people have said and other guys have written, that I am supposed to be half of each of them," he explained in a 1964 Sport magazine article. "In the first place, that adds up to one-and-a-half people. In the second, I don't want to be any of them. I would rather be me."

And there was nothing wrong with being Jackie Brandt. It's just that he made certain conservative types a bit nervous. You see, Brandt was, to put it politely, different. He did not conform to normal behavioral patterns. Some said he was a nut. True, he was not like anyone else, but is that necessarily bad? Brandt's mind was as agile as his body. There was always something extra going on between those ears and sometimes he didn't seem to bother with the details. Fans and teammates were never quite sure what he might do next, like the time when, hopelessly caught in a rundown, Brandt did a backflip to attempt to avoid a tag, earning great applause from the crowd but an unsympathetic thumbs up from the umpire.

"You gotta have fun," Brandt frequently told inquiring writers.

A new decade was dawning and attitudes were changing; conformity was on it's way out. No more would it be okay just to be another crew cut, button-downed, cliche-spewing man in a little box. Unfortunately for Jackie Brandt, he arrived just a few years too early. "The Sixties" hadn't really taken hold yet. He was ahead of his time. But he didn't know it. Or care.

Brandt didn't seem to care too much about anything and that was part of his charm. He was perpetually happy; impossible to make mad and as loosey-goosey as they came. His laid-back attitude and general contentment with life were sometimes mistaken for laziness. Writers complained that he played too nonchalantly. Aware of this, one spring he vowed to improve his image: "This year I'm going to play with harder nonchalance."

This was another of Brandt's charms. He was full of witticisms and odd views of the world and he was happy to share them. No writer ever walked away from Brandt with an empty notebook. "The most consistent thing about me is my inconsistency," he once explained to a reporter.

But managers, those stodgy slaves to win-loss records and nonlovers of anything different, often didn't appreciate Brandt's schtick. He was noted to have a special talent for driving managers crazy. This was especially acute when he plied his trade for serious-minded, leather-skinned, old-school hard-liners such as Fred Hutchinson, Paul Richards and Hank Bauer. One afternoon, Brandt wore out batting practice pitcher Charlie Lau, hitting 7 or 8 balls over the left field wall. Bauer, standing at the edge of the cage, growled, "Why don't you do that in a game?"

Brandt smiled and replied, "Put Lau out there in the game and I will." While his teammates broke up around the batting cage, the dour manager did his best imitation of a cigar store wooden Indian. Brandt's name was missing from the line-up card that day.

Brandt was never bothered by incidentals like facts and he had an excuse for everything. Once when he came back to the bench after taking a called third strike with the bases loaded, Richards asked, "What pitch were you guessing? Fastball or curve?"

"Neither," came the answer. "I was guessing ball."

In reply to a Bauer query as to what happened on a misplayed a fly ball, Brandt answered without hesitation, "I lost it in the jet stream."

When confronted by writers that one of his excuses didn't hold water, Brandt unabashedly pleaded innocence: "I said that? My lips must have been sunburned."

Brandt was equally quick-witted among teammates. Once as the team boarded a plane that was late due to bad weather, Brandt asked loudly, "What time is this plane scheduled to crash?" Standing nearby, catcher Clint Courtney, who was deathly afraid of flying anyway, was so unnerved by the comment that he left the airport and took a bus.

Many former teammates recall an expedition organized by Brandt. Tired of the minimal ice cream choices in the team's hotel, he gathered his buddies for a 20-mile drive to a place that offered multiple flavors. Once there, he was apparently overwhelmed with the possibilities and ended up ordering vanilla, causing the angry teammates to threaten to make him walk back.

Even being traded didn't seem to bother Brandt too much. In December of 1965, Brandt and young pitcher Darold Knowles were traded from Baltimore to Philadelphia for pitcher Jack Baldschun. Baldschun was then packaged with Milt Pappas and Harry Simpson to the Reds for an "old-thirty" Frank Robinson. For years, Brandt happily told anyone who would listen that if it weren't for him, the Orioles would have never gotten Robinson and won all those pennants that followed.

After the last game one year, Oriole general manager Lee MacPhail wished Brandt a nice winter. "I always have a nice winter," Flakey replied, "It's the damn summers that kill me."

The 81-year-old Brandt retired to Florida long ago. Here's hoping he has many more nice winters. He certainly made our summers more fun.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Philistine Commish Expected to Give Ruling on Goliath Hall of Fame Eligibility Soon

Fans of the former Philistine champion Goliath are anxiously awaiting the promised before-the-end-of-the-year ruling by the new Philistine commissioner on his eligibility for inclusion in the Philistine Hall of Fame. In the past, each new commissioner has steadfastly refused to revisit the case, blindly following the view of the previous regime.

The subject has long been a public relations nightmare for the Hall. Goliath, of course, was once considered to be the mightiest Philistine warrior of all time and many fans remember his enthusiastic pillaging and plundering as the very embodiment of all that Philistia stood for. He was famously quoted as saying that he would walk through Israel in a manna suit just to get on the battlefield. Indeed, if any man deserved to be enshrined on the hallowed walls of the Philistine Hall of Fame it is Goliath of Gath.

It was apparent from the earliest age that Goliath was something special. Inhabitants of his home town recalled that his father, Beelzubub the Belligerent, mercilessly stacked his youth warrior squad and they literally slaughtered all comers. Later, when local officials tried to make more equitable teams, his father pulled him out, aligned him with local youth stars Ashkelon the Big For His Age and Uliat the Held Back For an Extra Year and formed a travel gang that marauded far and wide.

Goliath shot to national prominence in his late teens when a unprecedented growth spurt caused him to swell to giant-sized proportions, gaining two cubits and a span over a period of only three months. Thereafter, he reigned as the undefeated champ until he was upset by the Israelite David in one of the biggest, well, David and Goliath upsets in history.

The fact that Goliath has not been included in the Hall of Fame until this point has long sparked debate and has been extremely disappointing to those who invested heavily in his Topps rookie papyrus, once the most prized piece of memorabilia this side of the Holy Grail. [On a side note, archaeologists have determined that the same batch of bubble gum put in those packs was still being used as late as 1971]. It was originally thought that the crushing defeat to David played the major role in Goliath's exclusion from the Hall, however, recently discovered archaeological documents have shed new light on the subject.

It has become apparent that scribes of the time speculated that Goliath's phenomenal growth spurt did not occur, shall we say, just by living clean and eating unleavened bread. There were wide-spread rumors that his father had arranged for a series of injections which were originally passed off as vitamin B-12, but actually contained anabolic steroids. The suspicion became especially acute when Goliath showed up one spring needing a helmet nearly twice the size of that used the previous fall. And, indeed, one of the problems he had against David was the fact that his head was so large that none of the helmets fit him, leaving his massive forehead exposed as an easy target.

Other scholars point to a more sinister accusation--that of illegal gambling. It had long been suspected that the infamous David match was fixed. Many eyewitness accounts claimed that they did not even see the stone--giving rise to what became known as the "phantom stone theory." It was speculated by some that Goliath was not killed by David at all, but merely took a dive and then was trampled in the ensuing melee as the Israelites stormed the field.

Adding credence to this theory is the discovery of ancient documents which reveal that although Goliath was a prohibitive favorite, local scroll-makers were taking a surprising amount of action on David just before the fight.

Newly damning evidence against Goliath shows up in the recent translation of parchments found among the holdings of Shlomo the Greek, ancient Israel's most notorious gambling kingpin.

Numerous references are found to a "Big G" who placed copious wagers--often on some of the biggest upsets of the time, such as "Big G wants a dime on the Israelites plus 2 and a half over Jerico Sunday" and "One thousand sheckels for Big G on Samsom over Philistines."

One particular inscription states that "Big G may not be good against WLSB this weekend." Biblical scholars now feel that WLSB stands for wimpy little shepherd boy and Big G is indeed Goliath. It is now thought that, despite the fact that gambling on matches by participants was expressly forbidden under Philistine law, "Big G" not only gambled regularly but did so with the other side and ultimately met with a losing streak and found himself heavily in debt to underworld figures, leaving him little recourse but to arrange to throw the fight.

Several ancient Philistine Hall of Famers were quoted in scrolls on the matter. "He should have helped us win the Ark a couple of times but just didn't get it done, now you have to wonder," said one former running mate.

"Everyone knows the rules," said another. "He knew the rules and did it anyway. I hope he never gets in."

As so with these recent findings, Goliath, despite his continued popularity among fans, may have trouble ever getting into the Hall of Fame without a ticket.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Giving Back, Bird Style: Mark Fidrych's Post-Baseball Years

One of the things that attracted me to the Mark Fidrych story was the way he lived his life after baseball--essentially the same way he lived it before. I found this rather remarkable given the circumstances of his career and how it ended.

Here was a guy who, improbably, became the most famous person in the country in 1976, who lit up baseball stadiums like no one ever had before. His youthful enthusiasm, electric talent and unparalleled natural charisma made him irresistible. He was on the cover of seemingly every magazine that year.  For one incredible summer he was on top of the world, loved by fans everywhere.

And then it was over. An injury his second season set off an an agonizing 6-year journey of failed attempted comebacks--done in by a torn rotator cuff.

If anyone ever had cause to be bitter and wallow in self pity, maybe even descend into substance abuse and live a sad, tortured existence after baseball, it was Mark The Bird Fidrych. Since his first season was at the beginning of the free agent era, he never made big money--a year or two later and he could have named his price. Also he played in the days before medical advances that could have diagnosed and maybe even treated his injured arm--a few years later and he could have maybe pitched another 15 years. It should have been enough to drive him mad.

And yet from numerous sources, I learned first hand that he went back to his tiny Massachusetts home town and resumed his life. He remained the same upbeat, incredibly spontaneous, fun-loving, out-going, friendly guy he had always been. He bought a farm and a dump truck and worked for a living. He got married and raised a daughter.

He clearly understood how great his fame had been, yet he remained humble enough that once while working in his mother-in-law's diner--a few feet from a framed cover of Rolling Stone bearing his own smiling mug--in answer to a stranger's inquiry that he looked familiar, he answered, "Well, I used to work at the garage on Main Street."

And he never forgot those who helped him along the way. While busy working for a living, he still found time to lend his fame out for good causes.He regularly showed up on opening day of the local Little League to sign autographs and give inspirational talks to kids. He was active in the nearby Jimmy Fund and Dan Farber Clinic and could always be counted on to show up for charity golf and fishing events. The majority of his charity work involved children, especially those with special needs. "It's called giving back," he told a reporter in 2001. "If I can help a younger kid out that is a great thing to have because people helped me out."

Mark's biggest charitable activity became the Wertz Warriors of Michigan. Baseball fans will recognize the name--before he launched the 1954 World Series drive that made Willie Mays famous, Vic Wertz had been a popular member of the Detroit Tigers and he made the Detroit area his home after baseball. Wertz helped organize the Wertz Warriors in 1982 as a way to fund Michigan Special Olympics. The group uses an annual seven-day, 900-mile cross-country snowmobile ride across the state to provide complete funding for the Michigan State Special Olympics Winter Games.

After Wertz passed away, the group used other former Michigan-area athletes as front men for the fund-raising. Mark Fidrych, through a chance meeting with one of the members, signed on enthusiastically in 1992 and made it for the next 17 straight years. He was the drawing card, giving talks and signing autographs at each stop. Although he was the one everyone showed up to see, he didn't act like a big star. He was one of the guys. He blasted his way through the snow of Northern Michigan with the same enthusiastic abandon he showed on major league mounds. "For me it's the athletes, It's another thing to help out where you can," Mark said.

In talking to members of the Wertz Warriors, it was obvious that they loved the guy.
I recently found some pictures they had given me of Mark on their trips. Unfortunately, there wasn't room in the book to print them all.

Here's wishing every major league baseball player could remain as grounded and happy in retirement as the one and only Bird.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Joe, You Shoulda Made Us Proud: The Disappointing Baseball Career of Joe Shlabotnik

In the annals of baseball history, one name stands tall and resolute when it comes to futility: Joe Shlabotnik. But surprisingly the Joe Shlabotnik story is not one of failure, but of hope, loyalty and endless optimism as seen through the rosy lens of childhood. Shlabotnik's career was saved from the eternal scorn it so richly deserved thanks to the steadfast devotion of his greatest--and possibly only--fan, America's favorite round-headed juvenile baseball aficionado, Charlie Brown.

If idols are, as psychologists would have us believe, a form of identification attachment, Charlie Brown could not have picked a more perfect one. Remarkably fitting for the good-hearted born loser Charlie Brown, Shlabotnik failed spectacularly, and not just on the field. He let Charlie Brown down continually and consistently. But as spectators to the carnage, we somehow understood that no hero is ever as unequivocally infallible as the hero of our youth and Shlabotnik's foibles only made us love him more.

Little is known about Shlabotnik's early years. His last name hints a Slovenian ancestry. He was apparently blessed with enough athletic skill and opportunity that someone (no doubt later driven out of the sporting profession by shame, derision or both) felt that he was deserving of a professional baseball contract. He was signed during the 1950s, before the major league draft; maybe he was courted by numerous scouts and received a bonus, or maybe he was signed as a favor because his uncle was a former player or scout. Whatever the reason, he surely became part of the cautionary tale repeated for years on the perils of scouting and signing young baseball players: "Sometimes your guy turns out to be a Sandy Koufax, sometimes he becomes a Joe Shlabotnik."

In his initial years as a professional Shlabotnik, in the glory of his youthful strength, impressed the front office brass enough with his minor league play that he was eventually promoted to the major leagues. Alas, this is where his story turns sour. For all the promise and potential, Joe Shlabotnik failed to produce at the big league level. It didn't take long for Shlabotnik to establish the fact that he was, in the parlance of baseball men, a no-hit, no-field player.

Shlabotnik was first mentioned as the object of Charlie Brown's idolatry in 1963. He had apparently been in the major leagues for some time because Brown remarked that he had been trying for five years to get a Shlabotnik bubble gum card. Like Shlabotnik's play on the field, Charlie Brown's attempts to obtain memorabilia of his idol--no matter the effort and planning--are doomed to miserable, gut-wrenching failure. In typical Charlie Brown fashion, he spends five dollars on baseball cards (which came in 1 cent packs containing one card and one piece of gum at the time) trying to get a card of his hero. Alas, not one of the 500 packs contained a Shlabotnik. Charlie Brown's female nemesis, Lucy, who couldn't care less about baseball, spends one penny on bubble gum and, naturally, discovers a Joe Shlabotnik card in her pack. Determined to get the card, Charlie Brown offers to trade every card he has for it, offering Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax and others. Lucy steadfastly refuses because she thinks Shlabotnik is "kind of cute." After Charlie Brown leaves in dismay, Lucy tosses the card in the trash and admits, "He's not as cute as I thought he was." This sets the trend for several decades of torture and disappointment, for both Brown and Shlabotnik.

As a baseball player and as an idol Joe Shlabotnik was remarkably consistent. He possessed, as they say, a unique ability to take a good situation and make it impossibly worse. But Charlie Brown was certainly no fair weather fan. He, of all people, understood the frustration and addictive nature of the game of baseball. Charlie Brown never lets reality cause disillusionment with his hero. He is all in, for better or worse. After a game in which Shlabotnik goes 0-for-5 and commits three errors, Brown explains to a friend, "When he suffers, I suffer."

Unfortunately, after too many such games team management finally decides to stick a fork in Joe Shlabotnik's major league career. Brown is incredulous and saddened when he learns of the demotion. "Other kids baseball heroes hit home runs, mine gets sent to the minors," he moans.

Offering much-needed moral support, in a letter to Shlabotnik, Brown writes, "I think it was unfair of them to send you to the minors just because you only got one hit in two hundred and forty times at bat."

Refusing to believe anything but the best for Shlabotnik, when a friend attempts to add psychological analysis and asks if his hero had feet of clay, Brown replies pragmatically, "No, he had a low batting average."

It should be noted that the batting average of .004 still stands as the mark in post-1900 baseball for the lowest batting average in a major league season for a player with more than 200 at bats. And, consistent to the end, the one hit Shlabotnik got that miserable year was a bloop single in the ninth inning with his team leading fifteen to three.

Perhaps because he can understand the struggles of Shlabotnik more than anyone else, Charlie Brown remains faithful. He even starts a Joe Shlabotnik fan club and produces the fan club newsletter which appraised the members of the exploits of their hero: playing for Hillcrest in the Green Grass League, Shlabotnik "batted .143 and made some spectacular catches of routine fly balls. He also threw out a runner who had fallen down between first and second." [Unfortunately the newsletter is stopped after one issue because, as Lucy remarked when asked for comment, "Who needs it?"]

Shlabotnik then threatened to become a Green Grass League lifer. He was traded to Stumptown, where his play continued to stink:

When it finally becomes apparent to management that Joe's playing days are woefully behind him, he is offered the chance to begin on the managerial track. He takes over the reins of the Waffeltown Syrups, a team so deep in the bush leagues that they play their home games in a field near a corner so they can play night games under the street lights.

Alas, Shlabotnik's minor league managing career is short-lived. He finishes with a record of 0-1, fired after the first game because he signaled for a squeeze play with no one on base. Despite the failure, he is touched by the continued devotion of his fan.

Shlabotnik's post-baseball career was similarly disappointing. Unfortunately, Shlabotnik played in the years before players made big bucks. As a guy who was sent down around 1963, he probably never made more than $25,000 a year, maybe even less. He was noted to be working for a time in a car wash.

In later years he tried to cash in on the memorabilia craze but had very little success. While some former major league players were able to command large speaking fees, Shlabotnik's stated going rate was only $100 but, as an old softy, he settled for 50 cents to appear at a Charlie Brown testimonial dinner because that was all the dough the committee could muster (unfortunately, Shlabotnik got lost and never made it to the dinner).

Another time Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy paid for tickets to sit at a table with Joe at a sports celebrity dinner, forgoing the opportunity to sit with other sports icons like Willie Mays and Muhammed Ali. Once again, Joe was a no-show as he mistakenly wrote down the wrong event, the wrong day and the wrong city on his planning calendar.

Even though his miserable professional baseball career ended almost fifty years ago, Joe Shlabotnik has not been forgotten. Indeed, the mere mention of the name usually evokes a smile among baseball faithful. Maybe it's because we can all relate to what he went through. Maybe, like us, despite effort, he sometimes couldn't avoid failure. But the failures made his triumphs--like the bloop single--so much sweeter. And he never gave up. Charlie Brown's blind devotion and optimism, tinged with doubts and frustration, are a heart-warming reminder that love should not be based on mere box scores and win-loss records. 

So here's to you Joe Shlabotnik, where ever you are. You King of Catastrophe, Pharoah of Failure, Sultan of Snafu, Dauphin of Disappointment. You did your best. To paraphrase the immortal words of Casey Stengel: "We would have given you an award, but we wuz afraid you'd drop it."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Jump-starting a Baseball Team: Nobody Did it Better Than Billy Martin

As the baseball season recedes and focus turns to next year, a large number of teams will be changing managers, hoping to hit the jackpot. In the past, owners usually resorted to a time-honored formula of following a laid-back player's manager with a fire-breathing tyrant and vice-versa. Often there was a very sad, short list of retread managers who were undoubtedly members of the old-boy network and they simply moved about the league, invariably producing the same results over time. In short, few managerial changes made drastic improvements in a team.

It has often been stated that good players make any manager look good, and there is little a man can do without talent. But there have been a few guys who demonstrated a consistent ability to immediately shake things up. No one did it any better than Billy Martin. Discounting the too-numerous-to-count mid-season dramatics with his buddy George, Billy took over six teams between 1969 and 1983. All of them made predictable jumps in performance. In fact, he never failed.

Below are his results with these teams, with the season immediately preceding Billy followed by his first year:

                                Record             B.A      .      Runs            Steals           Sac              ERA
Twins      1968        79-83              .237              562                 98               69               2,89
                1969        97-65              .268              790                115              65               2.95
Tigers      1970        79-83              .238               666                29               83              4.09
                1971         91-71             .254               701                35               62               3.63
Rangers   1973*       57-105           .255               619                91               45               4.64
                1974         84-76             .272               640               113              81               3.82

Yankees  1975*       83-77             .264               681               102              54               3.29
                1976         97-62             .269               730               163              50               3.19

A's           1979         54-108           .239               573               104              75               4.75
                1980         83-79             .259               686               175              99               3.46

Yankees  1982         79-83             .256               709                 69              55               3.99
                1983         91-71             .273               770                 84              37               3.86

* Martin managed the last part of these seasons

Looking closely at the numbers, one is struck by the remarkable predictability of the results. An owner who replaced his manager with Billy Martin could be absolutely certain about several things, virtually without exception: the team would have an increase in batting average, runs, steals, a lower ERA, and, most importantly, an increase in wins (between 12 and 29 games)

And the numbers aren't even close. His new teams averaged an increase in batting average of .017, an increase in stolen bases of 30 (and this includes the lead-footed, veteran-laden Tiger team in which Billy wisely settled for only an increase in 6), a decrease in ERA of 0.48 and an average increase in wins of 18.67. 

Surprisingly, while some consider bunting to be a staple of the small-ball Billy preferred, sacrifice bunts only went up an average of 2.2--statistically negligible. 

While Billy's long-time pitching coach sidekick, Art Fowler, was sometimes derided as little more than a drinking buddy, it is obvious that the team of Martin-Fowler resulted in dramatic increases in pitching production. Every staff lowered it's ERA (some by as much as 1.29) under Martin except the 1969 Twins, but this must be examined with the understanding that virtually every team had a higher ERA in 1969 compared to the pitching-orgy year of 1968. This is balanced by the fact that modern pitch-count aficionados have criticized Martin for overusing his starters, particularly the young arms on the Oakland staff which turned in the curious stat in 1980 of  94 complete games and only 13 saves and were all out of baseball within a few year (by comparison, in 2015 American League teams averaged 4 complete games and 43 saves).

Some of Billy's reclamation projects were startling, particularly in Texas and Oakland where he took over moribund bottom-feeders and turned them into contenders. 

Unfortunately, for both Billy and baseball owners, there was one more thing that everyone could be absolutely certain of; one slightly annoying quid pro quo to the use of his managerial brilliance; a downside to the whole Billy Martin-as-a-team-savior thing. Invariably within two years he would do or say something that would injure or embarrass--or both--a player, an owner, a coach or a marshmallow salesman. That would render all of his on-field heroics moot and he would be shown the door. Such was the Greek tragedy that was the managing legacy of one Alfred M. Pesano, aka Billy "The Kid" Martin.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Adam's Rib: The First Surgery

Editor's note: Now that the baseball postseason has concluded I thought it would be good to take a very short respite from baseball and throw up a non-baseball post before the hot-stove campaign begins.

            In church recently, mention was made of God removing one of Adam’s ribs to create Eve. It struck me that this was actually the first recorded medical operation. With the recent national debate over health care, I thought it would be interesting to examine the case a little closer. Luckily, biblical scholars have recently finished decoding a lesser known archaeological discovery, the Dead Sea Twitters, and they reveal new information on this.
            By all accounts, the procedure went very well. The surgeon was perfect, obviously, and the patient lived to the ripe old age of 930 years. Also, it set the precedent for all future surgeons to think they are God. 
            What is not commonly known, however, is that there were a few minor problems. First, the procedure had to be moved a number of miles to the east, to the land of Nod, because the hospital in Eden did not participate with Adam’s insurance plan. Although the Nod Community Hospital accepted Adam’s plan, the anesthesia group there did not. This is the reason God placed Adam into a deep sleep instead of using general anesthesia. 

            Initially the insurance company refused to reimburse God for the surgery, claiming it was a pre-existing condition. After numerous phone calls, letters and burning bushes, God was able to convince them that since the Earth was only a few weeks old, it could not have been pre-existing. Then the insurance company denied the claim because the appropriate ICD-1 diagnosis code for "needs a mate" was not used. In God's defense, at the time ICD-1 only consisted of one medical diagnosis: "loss of immortality due to eating forbidden fruit," and that diagnosis had never even been used. The claim was eventually paid—but not without great gnashing of teeth.
            Unfortunately, God was hit with a hefty fine from OSHA for merely covering the wound with skin and not following accepted guidelines for aseptic technique. And when details of the procedure were printed in the Bible, God was fined again for violating Adam’s HIPAA rights as Adam had not signed a specific waiver consenting to the release of his personal health information.

            Later, Adam filed a malpractice lawsuit against God claiming that the preoperative informed consent document should have warned him about the potential risk of his new partner tricking him into eating the forbidden fruit and all the complications which resulted from that. God countered that even He could not have anticipated all the remote complications which were possible. The suit was settled out of court, but God’s malpractice premiums sky-rocketed.

            The family practice doctors of Eden were outraged when it was reported that God was reimbursed 30,000 shekels for the case.  Actually, He received only 567 (this included a 5% reduction because He didn’t demonstrate meaningful use of electronic health records for the year). In addition, Adam did not pay his portion of the deductible and God was forced to send him to a collection agency.

            God was further frustrated when the new Holy of Holies HMO plan restricted direct patient access to Him. When declining reimbursements along with rising overhead and small business taxes made it impossible to continue, God retired from the practice of medicine, even though he was universally regarded as a Great Healer—actually a genuine miracle worker.

            It was many years before He came out of retirement for the famous Lazarus case. By then, thing’s were much smoother as the Israelites were covered under Rome’s National Health Plan. Of course, the backlog of cases and rationing of care required Him to wait four days before bringing Lazarus back to life, but that’s another story.