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.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Gee, Thanks Brooks: Robinson to Give Away Fortune in Memorabilia

In 1971 Brooks Robinson, fresh off the greatest individual World Series domination in baseball history, visited the Massachusetts studio of Norman Rockwell. It was a classic pairing: the man who chronicled mid-twentieth century Americana on canvas and the man who embodied mid-twentieth century Americana on turf. The setting was commissioned by the ATO corporation, a conglomerate that owned the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company. Brooks had put on a fairly good advertisement for one of their products, a leather glove. The resulting painting by Rockwell was named, "Gee Thanks Brooks" and pictured the Orioles star signing an autograph (left-handed of course) for a star-struck youngster.

When the book Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson came out a few years ago, an occasional complaint was that it overemphasized his legendary niceness. I'll admit that perhaps I should have edited out a few more of the redundant quotes to that effect, but in my defense, I did edit out about a third of them. The problem was that virtually everyone I talked to immediately launched into a story about what a thoughtful/kind/congenial/charitable/big-hearted/down-to-Earth  (pick one or more) guy he was and almost all of them mentioned, usually within the first five minutes, that he was the nicest person they ever met or the best teammate they ever had. Also, and quite unusually, almost no one turned down a request to talk about him. They all eagerly contributed their memories--they all wanted to have their say about how much they loved the guy. I'll admit, I was blown away. After a while I felt like interrupting and reminding them, "I didn't ask about Mother Teresa, I asked about Brooks Robinson."

I don't write bubble gum books. My goal is not to make my subject look perfect; it is to explain the personality of the guy, what makes him tick and what makes him unique. And for Brooks Robinson, for better or for worse, that is it in a nutshell--he was a uniquely good guy. It's a totally unusual attribute for a highly successful professional athlete, many of whom have been pampered and given too much leeway throughout their lives because of their extraordinary talent.

Now comes the announcement that Brooks Robinson is unloading almost all the memorabilia from his 20-plus year career for auction. He is not doing this because he needs the dough; doesn't need to divide up the loot to make it easier to split up for ravenous heirs; isn't in any kind of dire financial straits. He and his wife of 55 years are doing quite nicely and they are donating 100% of the proceeds to their charitable foundation.

This is not just a few old broken bats or a mangled jersey. He is giving away almost everything, including the 1964 American League MVP award, the 1970 World Series MVP award and 16 Gold Gloves. The only thing he is keeping is his Hall of Fame ring--call him selfish. It is estimated that the haul will bring over one million dollars. The original print of the Norman Rockwell, which Brooks purchased at auction for $200,000 in the 1990s and has been loaned out to museums over the years, will be offered in a separate auction and should bring more than the rest of the stuff combined.

Sixteen Gold Gloves? Yeah, with so many of the things laying around, they did get to be a bother, constantly taking up space. Actually this is the second time he's tried giving them away. Over the years he gave Gold Gloves to his brother, his parents, the Boys Club in his hometown of Little Rock and a lawyer who helped him out, among others. As part of his farewell from baseball ceremonies, in 1977 the Rawlings company had 16 new ones recast and presented them to him. He probably thought, "What's a guy gotta do to get rid of these things?"

In recent years we have seen quite a few aging athletes auction off items. But never before has anyone given up his entire collection and donated the whole amount for charity. This is the sort of thing that immediately provokes questions. You know, the "What kind of a . . ." type questions. As in "What kind of a guy just gives away over a million dollars worth of precious pieces of his career?" And also, just as baffling,  "What kind of kids did he raise that are okay with him giving it all away and not bestowing it on them?"

One of the very sad things in reading about former sports greats is the fact that frequently the only emotion provoked from so-called loved ones in their declining years is unspeakable avarice. The only thought is in how to exploit the old guy for all they can get. Apparently Brooks Robinson's children do not feel the need to plunder his memorabilia for their own means. Imagine that.

Of course, this doesn't surprise me and I already know the answers to the above questions. You see, in researching my book, I talked to nearly a hundred people. I heard people who went to high school with him tell how he seemed to know everyone in the largest high school in the south, and called them out by name in the halls, from the lowliest freshman to the captain of the football team. I was taken out to dinner in Little Rock by some of his childhood friends and listened as they recounted stories and told how close they have remained over the years and how highly he is still regarded by their classmates after 60 years--as a friend, not as a celebrity. I heard more than one former batboy discuss how Brooks treated them as equals and made them feel as if they were his friends. And I listened to a crusty former manager--once the scourge of umpires all over the league--almost break down and sob as he described an act of kindness from Brooks.

So I'm not surprised at all by this totally unselfish and memorable gesture by Brooks Robinson. As Earl Weaver told me, "Only Brooksie would do that."

Baltimore fans will never realize how lucky they are that their icon has been one of the best guys off the field in sports history. They have never had to worry about scandals distorting their opinion of their idol. He is truly unique among great athletes and is the kind of guy they would be proud to have their children emulate. So they should just smile and say, "Gee, thanks Brooks."