Saturday, October 22, 2016

Moneyball 13 Years Later: What Have We Learned?

I learned a long time ago that in order to avoid arguments and lost friends, one should refrain from discussing three subjects: religion, politics and Moneyball. But since some very smart people I know recently brought up Moneyball as part of their baseball book club, I decided to read it again. And now that 13 years have elapsed since it's release, maybe this is a good time to look back and attempt to judge dispassionately whether or not it was correct in all it's establishment-shaking claims.

At this point I should disclose in all fairness that I did not particularly like Moneyball when I first read it. It made me mad. It challenged a lot of beliefs I had held dearly, number one being that I knew everything I needed to know about baseball and what was important in winning a baseball game. In general, people do not appreciate beliefs such as these being challenged; especially not by a bunch of smart-looking Ivy League nerds with computer printouts claiming to support their positions.

Yet, when I wanted to reread the book, I knew exactly where to find it. There is a small shelf at my house on which you will find Ball FourThe Boys of Summer, Leigh Montville's Ted Williams book, The Glory of Their Times and a few other books of similar stature. This is where I went to retrieve my copy of Moneyball; where it has rested undisturbed for 13 years. After reading it once more I realized why I had immediately recognized where it belonged and placed it there--it's that good of a book. Damn it. I didn't want it to be. I hoped it wouldn't be. But there's no denying; it was.

But conceding that the book is highly entertaining and well-written, several questions remain. Does Moneyball actually work? Is Billy Beane and his computer able to find quality, inexpensive future major league players in the draft better than the old scouts of the days of yore?  What became of the men and the ideas upon which the book was based? Were the basic tenets espoused in the book concerning which statistics are most important correct? Will computer-wielding nerds entirely replace baseball-savvy veterans who actually played the game? Is Billy Beane really a genius and, perhaps most importantly, does he still look like Brad Pitt? These are the sorts of questions we can now use 13 years of enlightenment to try to answer.

We can assess the first question fairly easily by looking at the good-old fashioned black-and-white numbers of wins and losses. Since Billy Beane took over the A's in 1998, they are 1621-1455 (52.70%), a very respectable number for any team. When compared to other small market teams, none of which have come close to breaking even, the results are stark. Over this period, the Twins are 1497-1580 (48.65%), the Reds 1489-1590 (48.36%), the Brewers 1442-1634 (46.88%), the Pirates 1394-1679 (45.36%) and the Royals 1369-1707 (44.51%).

Over this period the A's have had 8 seasons of 90 or more wins, the Twins 5, the Reds 4. Obviously something is working here. For nearly two decades, Billy Beane has helped the notoriously shallow-pocketed, penny-pinching A's outperform every other small market team, and also a lot of large market ones, by a considerable margin of regular-season wins.

More impressive about Beane's results is the fact that he has maintained his success for almost two decades--long after his secrets got out. The Moneyball of 2016 is not the Moneyball of 2002. Sports executives are some of the biggest sponges known to man. Other smart teams, teams with much deeper pockets, found out about Beane's methods (especially after the book spilled the beans) and so the things he prized were no longer undervalued, and many became so overvalued by the market that he could no longer afford them. He has been forced to continually look for other sources of market-undervalued traits with which to win ballgames. Yet he has consistently been able to stay ahead of the curve (and the slider, the fastball and the change up).

The Moneyball A's made the postseason 8 times in 19 seasons; far more than any other small market team (Twins 4, Reds and Pirates 3, Brewers and Royals 2). Unfortunately, this is where the wheels fall off  the Billy Beane Magic Show. The A's have ended their season with a loss in all 8 of those postseason forays and, in fact, have won only a solitary postseason series, sweeping the small-market Twins in 3 games in the LDS in 2006. In compiling a 1-8 record in postseason series, the A's have won a total of 15 games and lost 23. A maddening 6 times they have lost series 2-3--dropping the pivotal 5th game.

In the book Beane readily admits, "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs; my job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is . . .  luck." We should not allow Beane to cop a plea and get away with this generic blanket mea culpa for postseason failure, however.  Especially we should not be so quick to accept the excuse of being on the wrong side of pure luck. Once, twice, maybe. But 8 times? Someone is in serious need of a rabbit's foot. Beane's "shit" certainly has proven itself over the course of 19 major league seasons. What's different in the postseason? Apparently a lot.

There are hints in the book. A's half-season rental speedster Ray Durham says, "Cautious doesn't work in the playoffs." A's coach Thad Bosley states, "If you say base running isn't important, you forget how to run the bases." Many feel that in the playoffs, when faced with other playoff teams' aces, there is a need to manufacture runs, using speed and occasionally bunting--the small ball that Beane disdains so fervently as a counterproductive waste of important outs. As of 2002, Beane felt that speed and defense were particularly overvalued by the market and, thus, unavailable to his shallow pockets. The past two years we have watched as the small-market Royals continually use small ball tactics, along with superlative defense, to win game after game in the postseason.

The book admits that the trade-off for obtaining players cheaply is that each has a flaw. And anyone who has ever tried to manage a Little League team understands that if you have a flawed player on the field, eventually the flaw will show itself; and often at inopportune times. In a short series against a good team, flaws become magnified.

Perhaps the problem with the postseason for Moneyball teams is that inevitably they run into teams that do not have obviously flawed players. They run into great teams that were put together without an eye on money, who have retooled late in the year to repair deficiencies. In short, just the kind of team that Billy Beane has never been able to field. Besides the impressive runs by the Royals the past two years, the other small-market teams have been similarly man-handled in the postseason (the Twins, Reds, Brewers and Pirates are 17-37 overall in postseason games and 2-9 in series).

How about the draft? The book goes into great detail covering the excitement of the 2002 draft and makes many claims supporting the revolution Beane and his computer team were about to unleash by their ability to sniff out signable, undervalued specimens in the amateur baseball world. Their new methods were supposed to be particularly superior to that of traditional scouts who, invariably, allowed their past experiences and personal biases to interfere with what should be a cold, dispassionate evaluation. In short, scouts tended to rely more on the visual perception of a prospect's "tools" and their pipe-dream projection of what these tools may produce in the future rather than the indisputable truths of the numbers produced in amateur competition.

Every fantasy league player understands that professional sports drafts are a risk-laden endeavor. And the major league baseball draft is much less reliable than that of any other major sport. A man with Beane's budget cannot afford to pay above-market money for unpredictable talent in the draft. But has Beane and his computer actually enjoyed more success in the draft since 2002? In a word: nada, nien, nyet, nicht so gut. Or in plain English: not even close.

First, Beane's draft strategy. He was adamant in his belief that it was folly to draft high school players, particularly pitchers, because no one knew what they would become in four years. That may or may not be a valid strategy, but it does seem reasonable not to pay overpriced agent's wages to high school phenoms. Of course there are exceptions, such as Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Ken Griffey, Jr., Joe Mauer, Chipper Jones, A Rod. . .

In general, Beane has stuck to his guns on this thought, rarely taking high school players anywhere in the draft. Inexplicably in 2005 six of the first nine Oakland picks were high schoolers. As if to emphasize the craziness in this, only two ever made a major league roster, and neither had any impact. Thereafter, Beane has stayed with college players but his draft results have been uniformly dismal.

Since 2002, the only Beane draft picks who have gone on to quality major league careers have been Andre Ethier, a second rounder in 2003 (who Beane traded 2 years later for Milton Bradley), Kurt Suzuki, a second round pick in 2004, and Huston Street, a first-rounder in 2005. There have been a few others who went on to short mediocre major league stents, however none were impact players. In order from 2003 to 2010, the A's first picks were: Bradley Sullivan, Bryan Snyder, Richie Robnett, Landon Powell, Clifton Pennington, James Simmons, Jemile Weeks, Grant Green and Michael Choice. If you ask, "Who?" you're not alone.

In 2012, Beane did astutely pick a high school shortstop, Addison Russell, but apparently undervalued him and traded him to the Cubs for half-season rentals Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija in July, 2014. Russell appears to be a fixture for the Cubs now.

We should give Beane a little wiggle room with the reasoning that, due to very limited resources, he is probably not able to sign the first round studs who employ the likes of Scott Boras. He has to look for players who not only may make the majors some day, but have a flaw that makes them signable by his team. Unfortunately for Beane, modern agents are very good at identifying any kid with the potential to be a major leaguer and surrounding them with a Beane-proof protective shell of unreasonable salary demands. This has led Beane to getting essentially nothing in the draft for a decade. At the same time, from 2004-2011, the small market Pirates were able to select and sign Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole. The Reds got Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier and Mike Leake and the Royals copped Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar and Eric Hosmer. Quality major leaguers all.

We can conclude that Billy Beane has not proven to be able to use his stats and computers to select affordable future major league players any better than the old scouts with which he held so much disdain. Beane's draft picks appear to have been born more of buffalo chips than computer chips. Apparently there is still a place for the grizzled old, tobacco-spitting, cliche-spewing human scout.

The book discusses a number of players and executives. It is interesting to look back at some of the prominent personalities and see what became of them:

Jeremy Bonderman was a good-looking high school pitcher whose selection in the first round of the 2001 draft by the A's head of scouting Grady Fuson caused Beane to demolish a chair and spew obscenities and. since he couldn't order his summary execution, fire Fuson not long afterwards. Bonderman, not valued by Beane, was soon dumped to Detroit, but became a member of a major league starting rotation with the Tigers by age 20 in 2003, when he went 6-19 for a very bad Detroit team. He had a nine-year career as a major leaguer, finishing 69-81 with a 4.91 ERA. His best year was 14-8 in 2006. Not bad and certainly better than a lot of Beane's picks over the next decade

Nick Swisher, Beane's prize first pick of the 2002 draft had a very solid, 12-year major league career, retiring after 2015 with 245 home runs, 803 RBIs and a career on-base percentage of .351.

Jeremy Brown, the fat college catcher with the great on-base percentage stats that Beane took in the first round bonanza of the 2002 draft, played six seasons in the A's minor league system and produced pretty much as advertised: a career .268 batting average with 288 walks in the six years, and a .370 OBP. He made it to the show for five games in 2006, going 3-for-10 with a walk. Despite this he was never deemed appropriate for the bigs, possibly because the green A's uniform made him look like a bat-wielding avocado. He retired after the 2007 season.

Pitcher Joe Blanton, taken in the first round in 2002, is in his 12th major league season and has been a very reliable, if not spectacular pitcher over that time. When last seen, he was still flinging in the 2016 postseason for the Dodgers.

Mark Teahen, also taken in the prized 2002 draft, was soon traded by the A's but went on to a fair seven-year major league career, spending 5 as a starter on some bad Royals teams as a third baseman and outfielder. His best season produced a .290 average with 18 home runs and 69 RBIs.

Brant Colamarino, the University of Pittsburgh outfielder who Billy's computer said was the best hitter in the entire 2002 draft, fell to the A's in the late rounds, possibly due to  his less-than-svelte  appearance. When he showed up in the A's locker room, his full-figured bare chest prompted a discussion of whether a male brassiere should be called a "manzier" or a "bro." Colamarino had some good hitting years in the minors but never made it to the majors. He retired after 6 minor league seasons with a career .273 batting average and .350 OBP.

Chad Bradford, the retread submarine pitcher with confidence issues who Billy's computer said would do great if someone only gave him a chance, had four very good years for the A's as one of their top men out of the bullpen. When his performance and tenure caused the market price for his services to reach a million-and-a-half a year Billy did what he had to: he traded him for younger, less expensive talent. Bradford pitched well for several other teams and retired at 34 with a 12-year career ERA of 3.26 in 561 games.

Paul Depodesta, Beane's right-hand man with a computer, has had a mixed post-book career. In 2004 he parlayed his way-with-numbers into the general manager's job of the Dodgers and, using what he had learned, led them to the playoffs in his first season. In 2005 injuries and the loss of some high-priced talent caused them to fall to their worst record since 1992 and the impatient owner gave him the ax. Depodesta worked for the Padres from 2006-2008 and Mets from 2010-2016 with mild degrees of mediocre success and then, in a stunning crossover to the dark side, was hired by the football Cleveland Browns as chief strategy officer in January of 2016. Most amateurs realize that the chief strategy for the Browns should be something along the lines of getting a decent quarterback who is more mature than a 12-year-old and performs better on the football field than in sorority houses and, once they have found the guy, to maybe to stick with him for more than one season. Unfortunately, tradition and all human logic dictate that Depodesta is destined to fail spectacularly in Cleveland.

Kevin Youkilis (aka the Greek God of Walks), was the young player in the Red Sox system coveted so dearly by Billy Beane's computer. The A's were never able to pry him loose, mainly because a young nerd in the Boston office, Theo Epstein, was paying attention to what Beane was doing and continually parried his overtures. Youkilis had a very good major league career and helped to end the curse of the Bambino, playing a minor role in the Red Sox World Championship in 2004 and a major one in 2007.

Scott Hatteberg was the sore-armed ex-catcher whose tendency to draw walks made him so valued by Beane that he converted him into a first baseman. Hatteberg gave Beane four solid seasons of well-above average OBP as a first baseman with no power, then was released and signed with Cincinnati as a free agent. Playing until he was 38 years old, he had two more solid seasons for the Reds.

A's infield coach Ron Washington, whose patience and folksy wisdom helped Scott Hatteberg's psyche as he adjusted to the demands of first base, left to manage the Texas Rangers in 2007. He took them to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.

J.P. Ricciardi, A's director of player development, was hired away by the Blue Jays to work his Moneyball magic as their general manager in 2001. He remained in that post until 2009, having the modest success of a few .500 teams but never made the playoffs.

Theo Epstein, mentioned briefly in the book as a young Yale graduate recently hired by the Red Sox who aspired to be the next Billy Beane, was promoted to GM by the new Boston owner after the 2002 season and quickly proved to be a forward thinker. He indeed became a Billy Beane, albeit one with money--a scary thought. After leading the Red Sox to the promised land in 2004 and 2007, Epstein jumped to another well-endowed reclamation project, the Chicago Cubs, and immediately positioned them to break another longstanding curse, this one a bit more than a century.

A large part of Moneyball, dealt with numbers; mainly the use of numbers and formulas to try to find and exploit inefficiencies in the market and thus to help win ball games. Some of the claims attached to these numbers were the major source of emotional gnashing of teeth caused by the book: the ones that attacked several long-held beliefs by the baseball establishment. How do they look 13 years down the road?

The book  helped immensely to popularize the importance of two previously underappreciated offensive categories: on-base percentage and slugging percentage. While SABRites had been touting these for years, Moneyball helped move them in to everyday vernacular, alongside other more traditional stats. It was relatively controversial when the book advocated that OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, was one of the most accurate assessments of offensive performance, much more important than things like RBIs and batting average.

 I admit that I am never the first to embrace new formulas and stats. The old ones were popular for a reason. I have a simple test, a baseball litmus test if you will, that I apply anytime a new formula is proposed. I call it the Babe test. Simply explained, any method that does not result in Babe Ruth being ranked as the most devastatingly efficient baseball player of all time is completely flawed. And it turns out that OPS ranks the Bambino firmly atop all major league players in history. Test passed: that's enough for me. And apparently everyone else. Today, most baseball discussions include OBP and OPS.

Another concept the book asserts, that I strongly agree with, but apparently some general managers still do not, is that plate discipline can not be taught and a strike out is the most expensive thing a batter can do. For over a century, baseball scouts have looked for certain tools and rationalized that hitting can be taught. This explains to Reds fans who watched helplessly as Drew Stubbs, a former first round, five-tool player, was presented with the center field job, based solely on the appearance of those five tools. He proceeded to strike out as much as 205 times a year and had an OBP of .277, yet was allowed to continue to play everyday for 3 long years, much to the detriment of his team. The appearance of talent does not necessarily mean a guy will be a good ballplayer who will help his team win. And a guy with no plate discipline who strikes out a lot will most likely continue to do so. Millions of dollars and countless games continue to be lost for failure to realize this.

The middle of the book is almost as much about Bill James and his cohorts as Billy Beane. Bill James has certainly brought a large amount of information to the baseball world and is in a class of his own in this regard. But there are a few things I disagree with. One is the disparaging remarks about the box score and the assault on batting average as a measure of a hitter. I happen to think the box score, while admittedly containing minor flaws, was one of the great inventions of the 19th century. Thousands of kids like me grew up racing to the paper each morning to inhale the previous day's box scores.

The questioning of batting average is not a new thought. It's been more than a century since the Chalmer company stopped giving out cars to the batting leader. I recall an article in Baseball Digest from the 1970s about Rod Carew asking if leading the league in batting average was not overrated. I will concede that there are other more important factors, particularly OPS as mentioned above. But I maintain that batting average is still very important. And I totally disagree with the "luck" factor. The book quotes Bill James as saying "one absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275. The difference is one hit every two weeks." That to me is a gross oversimplification of numbers, the same argument put forth much more eloquently by Crash Davis in Bull Durham. There is a great difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter and it strains the mind to think someone would not intuitively understand that it is about much more than 13 extra hits every 500 at bats.

Mickey Mantle was a .300 hitter, Hank Aaron was a .300 hitter. Pete Rose and Willie Mays were .300 hitters. Rich Aurilla, Corey Kloskie, Shane Victorino and Marlon Byrd were .275 hitters. Can anyone tell me they can't tell the difference, just by watching, and by watching the reaction of others, when the first four walked to the plate compared to the latter four? Yes, this is a gut answer and other examples can be found to support the opposite opinion. Occasionally a lousy hitter will have one year in which the gods smile on him and every seeing eye bleeder leaks through, every off-the-handle-bloop falls in and at the end of the season his average is over .300. But hitting .300 remains one of the toughest things to do in sports and only a very few men can do it consistently; and these are almost uniformly very good hitters. So I can assure you, there is a big difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 one.

The book brings up luck as an important factor once a ball is put in play in determining whether an out, an error or a hit results. It definitely is for certain situations. And there are ballpark factors and defensive shifts and overall opponent-defensive skill involved as well. But the force of how hard and cleanly a ball is struck determines much more than luck and over 500 or 5000 at bats the difference due to luck becomes negligible.

And the mention of luck brings up another point of violent disagreement I have with the book: that clutch hitting is either a fantasy or an ancient religion that has no relevance to modern man. The book states this several times, backed by the opinion of various SABRites who espouse that luck, rather than clutch playing, is the only determinant in tight situations. This may feel true when someone who never looked out at a pitcher from 60 feet, six inches while everyone in the park was on their feet screaming stares at a computer simulation of a game or an unemotional sheet of stats. But I can't believe that anyone who ever played the game, even in Little League, can look back and not believe that certain guys just seem to perform better in tight situations.

Maybe the nerds don't like this because no one has found a way, despite numerous attempts, to completely take emotion, fans, situation and the need-to-produce-right-now-in-order-to-win and reduce it to a reproducible cold statistic for analysis. Each situation is different. Sometimes the most clutch situation occurs in the 5th inning, not the 9th. Sometimes a truly clutch situation doesn't pop up for weeks. Sometimes it inadvertently presents after an over-thrown cut-off as the ball is rolling innocently through the infield. Luck may describe one-time or short-term events, such as Brian Doyle, Gene Larkin, Rick Dempsey or even Bill Mazeroski. But anyone attempting to ascribe what Babe Ruth, Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson did all those Octobers to plain luck possesses a severe lack of understanding of human nature and the game of baseball.

I admit this is a completely irrational opinion with no proof to back it up. But I would like to state further that if, by chance, someone finally does come up with a true analysis disproving clutch, I don't want to know about it. Part of the magic of the game is that it is played by human beings, subject to the trials, triumphs and tragedies that humans go through. I want to continue to believe in the nebulous concept of great men, or even very rarely not-so-great men, rising to the occasion. What's next for these nerds: will they enter a kindergarden with a handful of computer stats to prove conclusively to the kids that Santa can't possibly get around the earth in one night? Do we really want to know that?

Um, excuse me. I apologize for the emotional digression--and this is exactly why we should refrain from discussing Moneyball in polite company. It is impossible to remain rational and composed.

Back to the realm of the concrete. To summarize:

Does Moneyball work? Remember it was proposed as a way for a financially-handicapped team to compete in an unfair world, not as the ultimate guide for winning. That being said, it is not the only way to win, but one way that has certainly proved its worth.

Are nerds taking over? They definitely have their place. Ignore them at your own peril. But there is still a place for the traditional old-timer as well.

Is Billy Beane a genius? Maybe--he has won many more games than anyone else leading a small-market team. And has done so repeatedly for almost two decades.

Does Billy Beane still look like Brad Pitt? No. He never did. Actually he looks more like a young, fit Billy Bob Thornton if anything. I wonder why they didn't get Billy Bob for the movie?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Where Do the Ducks Go in the Winter? Ode to a Little League Coach

"You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? . . . By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? . . . I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves – go south or something?"-----Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye

Everyone called him Duck. I never knew, and never thought to ask, what his real first or last name was. But for three summers he was the most important adult in the life of this almost-pathologically-shy, baseball-crazed runt. I don't recall ever saying a single word to Duck and I doubt that Duck ever appreciated the great power he held in his hands--to influence my playing time, experience and, most-importantly, my budding self-image. But he couldn't have been better.

I'm not sure how old Duck was when I first met him. The memory provided to me by my then-ten-year-old eyes is that he was ancient. And looking at the team picture from 1971, standing at the far right, he certainly had already seen considerable mileage.

Our league back then was peculiar; there were almost no dads coaching. In that regard, Duck was not unusual for the time. So we never thought it strange that an old guy like Duck was our coach even though he had no kids on the team. Looking back, I'm sure he was just someone who loved the game, enjoyed being around it and, maybe, wanted to pass on some of his knowledge.

Someone said that Duck had once played some minor league baseball but he never confirmed nor denied it. I don't recall him ever starting a sentence with, "Once I did . . . " There were no hoaky old war stories from the baseball fields of his past. He was content to leave his past exploits to mystery.

But there was no doubt in our minds that he had once played considerable baseball; and seriously. For one thing, he sounded like a ballplayer. He knew all the words of the arcane and important language of the dugout. He was forever talking about Texas Leaguers, cans of corn and the ever-elusive Baltimore Chop. He frequently reminded our pitchers to "Rock and fire, babe. Rock and fire," even though, alas, our pitchers could do nothing that resembled firing and probably had no idea how to rock. But we all knew that while pitching it was important to rock and fire because Duck said it.

When we showed up early to practice, Duck would always organize us to "play a little pepper" until the other kids showed up. Apparently, a fact known only to the most experienced baseball players, pepper was a magical game, but very potent; a little was all you needed. It was always "a little pepper." For some reason we couldn't understand, only an inexperienced fool would ever dare to try to play a lot of pepper.

While we were batting in games, Duck was always exhorting the hitter to "Pick you one out. How 'bout a little bingle." And that was another great thing about Duck. Other coaches may have badgered their players, demanding doubles or triples or even home runs. Not Duck. Duck was perfectly content with only a bingle. And a small one at that.

Duck seemingly always had a big chaw of tobacco in his jaw. Because, we reasoned, that's what real big leaguers did--we saw that much on the Saturday Game of the Week on our grainy black and white TVs. But this was a time in which tobacco was not second to only arsenic as a vehicle of instant death. I clearly recall watching other coaches hit infield grounders to their teams with a cigarette dangling expertly and casually from the side of their mouths (this was the early '70s remember).

But the biggest proof my memory provides that Duck had once played ball is the mammoth fly balls he would launch sometimes at the conclusion of practice, if we begged him enough. We often practiced on the high school football field adjacent to the worn Little League field, so that provides somewhat of a reference. I remember the balls traveling the entire 100 yards of the field, although the cloud of 45 years could obscure the exact distance slightly. What is not obscured in any way, however, is the jaw-slacking awe with which we watched those majestic--dare we say Ruthian--swats. I was proud to be one of the brave, and perhaps recklessly foolhardy, souls who tried to catch those lethal projectiles. 

I wasn't much to look at as far as an athletic specimen. I had always been the smallest kid in every class in school. But Duck saw something in me. I like to think that it was a little bit of talent and promise; but maybe it was just a kid who kept his mouth shut and tried to do what the coach told him in the midst of other half-crazed kids running in all directions. Whatever the reason, I have almost no recollection of any time spent on the bench, even as a 10-year old in the 10-12 league.

Sometimes Duck stayed after practice to throw me extra batting practice, which I lapped up like a starved pup. I would hit and hit until dark forced our sessions to end. And while doing so, I noticed that I could make a bat meet a thrown ball better than even most of the big kids.

I remember how proud I felt early that first year when I got one of our only hits against the Reds' Billy May. Billy was a hulking 12-year-old who was our town's closest imitation of Mickey Mantle. A mere two years later Billy would start in center field for the local high school varsity as a freshman. On this day, he was simply overpowering. After listening to the older kids returning to the dugout speaking in fear and awe of Billy's heater, I walked to the plate wielding my trusty wooden flame-tempered, 28-inch, Tony Oliva model bat and dribbled a double down the third base line.

Once when we at long last possessed a lead late in a game that first year, someone on the bench mentioned that it was tradition that Duck always sprung for milkshakes at the nearby Tasty Freeze after every victory. And when we held on to win and piled over to the Tasty Freeze in a mass of whooping excitement, he did.

Whether due to their relatively cheap cost in those days or due to the lack of overall talent on our teams, Duck never went broke paying for milkshakes. But, remarkably, he didn't seem to mind. I never remember Duck yelling at, or even questioning an umpire. And I'm pretty sure our umpires were not perfect. I don't remember Duck yelling at any of his players either, despite the fact that there were those on our team who were known to commit an error or two. Maybe it was because Duck was satisfied with what he had accomplished on a baseball field when he was young--he didn't need to prove anything to anybody by the proxy of Little League kids. Or maybe he really just didn't care about winning. But I like to think it was the former.

As I look back, I think Duck was the perfect coach for my personality and temperament at the time. He let us play the game, learn to win and lose, succeed and fail, and have fun, while providing guidance but not too much interference.

One of the proudest moments of my life, which provoked a completely surprising and unexplained lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, came when I answered the phone one day late in my last season and listened as Duck excitedly broke the news that I had been selected to the All-Star team.

That summer was perhaps one of the best I would ever have on any athletic field. Unfortunately for me, that would be my last year of relative equal competition. Very soon a testosterone-fueled arms-race would erupt and I would be the last to know. After the season, seemingly everyone else went home and hit puberty. And none of the sons-of-bitches bothered to tell me what they were up to.

The next year, a summer in which I was struggling with the impossible task of trying to compete with the behemoths of the 13-to-15-year-old Babe Ruth League, I was uplifted immeasurably when one of my former teammates told me that Duck had used me as an example while talking to the team one day. He had said, "We had this dude named Wilson last year. Never said a word. Just went out and did his thing . . ." Words cannot explain how proud I felt that Duck had not only remembered me, but held me up to his future players.

I never again saw Duck after that year. He had to have been at least sixty back then; you can do the math. I hope he had a long and happy life filled with countless little bingles.

Where have all the Ducks gone, in these past decades of winter? Kids don't have coaches like Duck anymore. That's sad. And unfortunate.

But I was lucky.

So here's to Duck.

 He was the best.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Vacuum Cleaner: 46 Years Ago This Week Brooks Robinson Treated the Nation to a Week of Great Plays

And it all started in the first game:

It was the bottom of the sixth inning of the first game of the 1970 World Series. The powerful Big Red Machine was tied with the Baltimore Orioles, 5-5. Lee May, the Cincinnati first baseman, took his place in the right-handed batter’s box. A strapping man known as a dead pull hitter, May had hit 73 home runs in the past two seasons. He focused intently on the pitcher, Jim Palmer, and paid no attention to the man standing roughly 100 feet to his left. That man, Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson, was studying him closely however. A thirty-three-year-old veteran with droopy shoulders, a doughy body and a rapidly receding hair line, Robinson did not look like a professional athlete when seen out of uniform; but looks could be deceiving.
Robinson held his hands close together in front of his chest and crouched, not unlike a cat before pouncing on a mouse. On his left hand he wore an ordinary-looking piece of leather that held the words “Rawlings Pro Model.” The glove was stained brown, stiff and cracked. The fur under the wrist strap was worn and frayed. This glove was not the only glove Robinson possessed. He had two other gloves in his locker that he used during pre-game practice to break in for future use. He also had some gold ones at home—he had been the winner of the past eleven Gold Gloves for American League third basemen. Brooks Robinson had been one of the best players in baseball over the previous decade and was appearing in his third World Series in five years but, in the days before daily television highlights, he was still somewhat underappreciated by casual fans outside Baltimore. That was about to change. As Palmer went into his long-armed windup, Robinson did not realize that the next pitch would be the start of a series of events over the next five days that would ensure that the unappealing piece of leather on his hand would wind up in the Baseball Hall of Fame a good ten years before its owner would.
            Palmer threw an off-speed pitch that hung a bit more than he would have liked. May kept his weight back, and then unleashed a vicious swing that met the ball squarely, sending it rocketing down the third base line. May, as all baseball players are taught on similarly hit balls, was thinking two bases as he left the batter’s box. The ball took two bounding hops off the artificial turf—1970 artificial turf that was little more than green carpet laid on concrete—and shot over third base like a golf ball skimming over an airport runway.
          From his original position ten feet off the line, on the back edge of the infield, Robinson took four quick steps and lunged to his right, reaching as far as possible with his gloved left hand. He back-handed the ball behind third base, spearing it just as the umpire on the edge of the outfield waved his hand indicating that it was a fair ball--a great snag that would hold May to a single. 

But Robinson wasn’t finished. He took one more step with his left foot and, with his back to the infield and his momentum carrying him well into foul ground, turned in midair and, throwing across his body, seemingly without looking, launched the ball in the general direction of the Ohio River.
Incredibly, the ball arrived to first base on one hop just before May did. The first base umpire jerked his closed fist into the air and fifty thousand fans watching the game in the stadium and millions more watching on television gasped at what they had just witnessed.

            This one play, which would come to be regarded as one of the top fielding plays in World Series history, was only a preview to the next four games. The Reds would be continually flummoxed in attempts to drive the ball through the left side of the Orioles’ infield, stopped by an endless series of unbelievable plays by Robinson.

By the end of the week, Brooks Robinson would be the most celebrated fielder in baseball history. He would be selected as the Most Valuable Player of the World Series, and the fact that he hit .429 with two home runs and six RBIs was almost superfluous.

It was more than just the most dominating performance of an entire World Series by a single player, it was transcendent; sublime. Even Reds fans, who hated what he did to their team, had to admire the sheer artistry of it all. 
            Amazingly, after the Series the Orioles players and coaches acted like they didn’t know what all the fuss was about. They said they had been watching the same thing for years and these weren’t even his best plays. And the thing about it was, they were telling the truth.          

            Brooks Robinson would go on to complete a 23-year major league baseball career, all with the Orioles, and would join his glove in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
He would participate in eighteen All-Star games, accumulate a record sixteen consecutive Gold Gloves, set records for fielding percentage and be selected to the All-Century Team.
          As great as he was on the baseball field, however, the singular way in which Brooks Robinson conducted himself off the field would be as important as anything he did on it. He was universally acknowledged as baseball’s nice guy; a man friendly to writers, fans and opposing players; a man who always demonstrated class and regard for others. Forty years after he played his last game, Brooks Robinson remains an unquestioned icon in Baltimore. His genuine, humble demeanor, friendliness, and above-all, ability to remain a great role model, has somehow grown in significance over the years as fans are continually disappointed by sports figures who are rude, selfish and inaccessible. Brooks Robinson exhibits the exact opposite of all the traits that modern fans hate in their sports idols. And, no matter how much fame and adoration he achieved, he never lost the sense of who he was: just a regular guy who loved the game of baseball. It was his great character, rather than his athletic ability, that prompted a writer to remark, “Brooks Robinson never had a candy bar named after him. In Baltimore, people name their children after him.”

Monday, October 3, 2016

When Larry Bird Played College Baseball

Quick, name the only man to ever win the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award, three NBA MVP Awards and have a college baseball batting average of .500.

If you answered "Larry Bird," congratulations, you read the title of this article.

While most people know Bird accomplished the first two, many find the third somewhat surprising.

It's true but, in all fairness, a bit of explanation is in order.

First, some housekeeping business. Look up "Larry Bird" in baseball-reference and it says that he played one double-header of college baseball in the spring of 1979 against Western Kentucky. While I frequently use baseball-reference to fact-check things and have great respect for those guys, in this case they have made a colossal mistake: the games were not against Western Kentucky, a division I school from Bowling Green, but Kentucky Wesleyan, a division II school from Owensboro. I know that's a seemingly insignificant factoid for our story but it bothers me because I went to Kentucky Wesleyan, arriving there in the fall of 1979. I'll admit few people probably care about that mistake, except for me and a few other Wesleyan grads.

Back to the story: a long time ago, in the Jurassic period of American sports, before year-round commitments to under-6 soccer travel programs and shoe company-sponsored AAU basketball teams for elite 6th graders, athletes frequently enjoyed playing all sports and it was not uncommon for the best athletes to participate in more than one sport in school. Larry Bird had been a pretty fair baseball player as a kid. He played baseball in high school and he continued to play softball during the summers after high school. Even as he became the most heralded college basketball player in the country, dropping north of 30 points a game as a sophomore and junior at Indiana State, he and his brother played on a several softball teams that dominated local leagues and traveled throughout the midwest for tournaments in the summer.

The 6'9 Bird played outfield and first base in softball and had a good home run stroke. One source said he hit 12 home runs in 20 Terre Haute city-league games before his senior year. Softball was not without peril for a man who hoped to make a future living shooting basketballs, however. Bird seriously injured a finger during a softball game, either before his senior season or during the summer before starting in the NBA. He was playing left field and charged a sinking line drive. Some say he got his right hand in the mitt too soon, some say he dove and the right hand twisted under his tumbling body. Afterwards, the index finger on his right hand, his shooting hand, was forever misshapen and unbendable. Bird never said anything about the injury publicly, but Boston fans noticed the peculiar angle of the finger when he shot free throws and he later admitted that he was forced to rework his shot.

 Check out the gnarly protrusion of the knuckle of his upraised index finger below:

Bird loved baseball and, at the relatively small school of Indiana State, he was friends with most of the baseball players as well as the coach and regularly attended baseball games. One day as he was working out in the fieldhouse, the baseball coach, Bob Warn, passed and the two exchanged insults and laughs. One thing led to another and Warn challenged him: "You'd better get a bat." Bird answered, "Hey, I'll do it." A plan was hatched for Bird to join the baseball team for an upcoming doubleheader. Warn later admitted that his motivation was to increase interest and attendance for his team but that he also enjoyed having Bird around.

This was the spring of 1979, Bird's senior year. Bird had been selected by the Boston Celtics as the sixth pick of the 1978 NBA draft, eligible for the draft under the rules of the time because his original class had graduated (he lost a year due to transferring from Indiana) but he had decided to return to finish his college career.

In the spring of 1979, Bird and the Celtics were working intensely at hammering out a deal. The negotiations had stalemated and were becoming tense. Bird's agent, Bob Woolf, was requesting a 6-year deal for $6 million. The Celtics remained adamant that they wanted to pay only about $500,000 a year. The Celtics were well aware, however, that if he remained unsigned their claim to Bird would expire the minute the 1979 NBA draft commenced on June 25.

At the time, Bird was on top of the sporting world. He had just led his Indiana State team to a 33-0 record and the NCAA championship game in Salt Lake City before losing to Magic Johnson's Michigan State team in a game that ushered in a new era of popularity for basketball.

And his popularity in Indiana in the spring of 1979 can not be overstated. This was still the "Hoosiers" era in the basketball-crazed state--Indiana citizens held their collective breath each spring while the all-comers single-class high school tournament played out, making eternal legends of high school heroes like John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Scott Skiles, Damon Bailey and, especially, Bobby Plump (the guy who made the last-second shot for the Milan Indians, aka Hickory Hoosiers, in 1954). It was also the hey-day of Bobby Knight at Indiana University. So when small-town Indiana star Larry Bird led Indiana State to the NCAA  finals, well, it just couldn't get any bigger than that.

The Indiana State baseball team had a 23-6 record going into the day. Kentucky Wesleyan's mark was somewhat less impressive. Since as much myth as truth usually grows out of such events, I consulted several contemporary newspaper accounts as well as talked to a college friend, Mike Hayes, who played for Wesleyan that day.

The games were played on a cold, damp Saturday afternoon on April 28, 1979. An unwelcome breeze blew in off the west-Indiana farmlands and added extra chill to the players and fans. It had rained the day before and there were puddles down the lines and in the on-deck areas. But Larry Bird was scheduled to play, brightening the spirits of all present. Bird's participation in the baseball game had been heavily advertised and, as hoped, it drew a large and boisterous crowd. More than 2,000 fans showed up; infinitely more than the usual crowd of a few girlfriends, a few parents and, if it was a nice, sunny day, a couple of coeds hoping to work on their tans. Fans spilled out of the grossly inadequate bleachers and into the grass surrounding the field. Despite the weather, a circus-like atmosphere prevailed. Bird had been honored the night before with a banquet and there was little doubt about who the crowd had come to see.

When they realized Bird was not starting the first game, many in the crowd booed. But he soon entered the game, and baseball lore. Bird had been given the biggest uniform they had, but the team had never suited up a 6'9 guy before. The pants stretched to just below his knees. The jersey, also the largest available, was number 24, not the 33 he made famous on the hardwood. His curly Big Bird hair spilled from under the cap.

Bird played first base and struck out in his only at bat in the opener. Possessing an enormous strike zone and determined to take his hacks, he was easy prey the first time up, taking  three technically-flawed swings and receiving a standing ovation while walking back to the dugout. In the Indiana State dugout, the regular first baseman turned to the coach and said, "I did that five times last week and nobody ever clapped for me."

"He definitely had a softball swing," Hayes remembers. "It looked almost like a straight uppercut."

The large media presence irritated Bird, who did not want to take anything away from his temporary teammates. Coach Warn later told reporters that Bird was definitely not interested in playing the game as a show. "He plays the game just as he does basketball, with every ounce he has. He's very intense. He was remarking to one of the players before the game that he just wanted to do well; he didn't want to let the team down."

"Bird would go behind the dugout to get away from the photographers," says Hayes. "He was trying to act like it was just a normal game, but they kept trying to get into the dugout to take pictures."

Any chance the Wesleyan pitchers were tempted to take it easy on the famous Mr. Bird? "No way," says Hayes. "This was a real game to us. There's no way anyone would have let up on him. Besides, we all knew it would be a great thing to be able to tell your grandkids that you once struck out Larry Bird. And I don't think he would have wanted that either. He was completely serious. This was a real game to him too."

While Bird and other players might have tried to view it like any regular game, it was impossible for fans and opposing players to ignore the elephant in the room, or rather, on first base. "Pat O'Neil [who later coached nearby Brownsburg to several state titles sporting guys like Tucker Barnhart, Drew Storen and Lance Lynn] got on first and shook his hand," says Hayes. "Somebody in our dugout said, 'Why don't you kiss his butt too?'"

"But Bird was nice about it. He acted like a regular guy. I got on in the second game and when I was leading off and he was holding me on, we talked. He was friendly. We talked about the weather and stuff you usually shoot the breeze with any first basemen about."

Bird started the second game at first base. Batting with men on second and third and the Sycamores trailing 1-0, he bounced a ball into center field that brought home two runs. "It was about a 55-hopper up the middle that snaked through," says Hayes. "Of course in the box score it looks just like a frozen rope."

Adding to the Hollywood-worthy legend, was a memorable--and scary--collision between Bird and his own catcher that Bird later wrote about in his 1990 autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life. On a foul popup to the right side, Bird and the catcher both gave chase. Neither heard or heeded the call of the other and they crashed into each other. Bird lay sprawled on the muddy turf as thousands of fans, including his horrified agent who was in the stands, gasped.

"Yeah, he did run into the catcher," says Hayes, "but it wasn't as dramatic as they made it out later. It was right in front of our dugout and we could tell that it wasn't serious. But he laid there for a minute on his back with his arms straight out and everybody held their breath waiting for him to get up. Finally, he looked over in our dugout and grinned. He might have even winked. Then he stood up and everybody in the stands started breathing again."

Indiana State won both games, 5-1 and 7-1. Larry Bird concluded the day 1-for-2, with 2 RBIs. According to the newspaper account, he recorded nine putouts at first base the second game.

"After the game he hung around signing autographs," says Hayes. "Some of our guys went over and got an autograph. That's something that didn't happen after any other games."

Despite the rousing success, it would be Larry Bird's only day of college baseball. A little later he inked his deal with the Celtics and the rest is basketball history.

And the .500 batting average was safe forever.