Tag:MLB
Posted on: March 1, 2013 12:25 am
  •  
 

Mr. Smith Goes to Palookaville

“Babe Ruth is the biggest runner-up in history.”

That’s what the man said, Babe Ruth, a runner-up.

Words from the mouth of sport opinionator Stephen A. Smith last Monday co-hosting with Skip Bayless on ESPN’s hip-hoppin’ morning show “First Take.”

I don’t take-in “First Take” but rarely these days, having been a regular until producers decided the popular show needed fixing and pulled in the welcome-mat for anyone over 35. Then there’s bombastic Stephen, your morning cup of arrogance whose shtick can only be taken in small doses, otherwise PVCs, BP spike and the migraine all set in.

Don’t know if it was chance, old habit or just gluttony for punishment, but I dropped in briefly on FT and Steve was on his soapbox about Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, a man many still consider the career home run champ, now with the dark cloud of PEDs hanging heavy over Bud Selig’s official title-holder, Barry Bonds.

But calling Ruth a “runner-up” to Hank Aaron is like calling Charles Lindbergh “runner-up” to Chuck Yeager or Vincent Van Gogh “runner-up“ to Pablo Picasso. Pure goofball histrionics, or at least, putting too fine a point on Hank‘s accomplishment.

Having fewer career home runs does not a “runner-up” make, any more than Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax are “runner-up” to Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry.

Dead for well over 60 years, Babe Ruth’s name recognition stays strong while other stars like Thorpe, Howe, Unitas and Wilt understandably fad a little more with each passing generation. And here’s why the Babe still resonates:

Babe Ruth is holder of the best non-PED enhanced season in MLB batting history (‘21);

The man who when asked why he believed he should make more money than the President (Hoover), answered back: “Because I had a better year than he did.” I wonder how the Bambino and Rosanne would’ve gotten along?

Is credited with saving baseball after the ‘19 Black Sox and A. Rothstein nearly killed it;

Once described as “a parade all by himself (J. Cannon),“ the multi-talented George H. was fast becoming a HOF caliber pitcher with Boston when Ed Barrow and Col. Ruppert put him in pinstripes (‘20) where he single-handedly ushered in the modern era of baseball with his persona, ravenous appetite for all things tasty and his Ruthian clouts;

Head-to-head with Hank in HR-related stats: career HRs (Aaron / 755 (2) - Ruth / 714 (3)); AB per HR (A / 16.38 (38) - R / 11.76 (2)); career AB (A / 12,363 - R / 8,399); SLG% (A / .554 (23) - R / .689 (1)); BA (A / .305 (T147) - R / .342 (T9)); OB% (A / .373 (T222) - R / .473 (2));

The player who, yes Bob Costas, called his home run shot in the ‘32 Series (Cubs);

And the man whose accomplishments on the field of play, and play on the field of pop culture, gave him a such an immense stature worldwide that it’s never been surpassed and debatably been equaled only twice in persons of The Beatles and boxer Muhammad Ali.

Henry Aaron was a tremendous ball-player, arguably top-ten all-time. But had Ruth had a figure at which he could’ve taken aim and hung-on as did Hank, the Babe just might’ve put the homer, RBI and run marks beyond the reach of everyone, Aaron and Bonds included. God knows he still had pop in his bat with the show he put on at Forbes field in farewell (3 HR / ‘35). He just lost the zeal, holding most marks and nothing left to prove.

Why me so sensitive to SAS remarks? Ruth and other old-timers get kicked around pretty good these days by people claiming to be baseball fans. The pre-WW2 era was a different time (segregation), but the challenges faced by way of equipment, medicine, travel, the reserve clause, were incomparable to Barry’s and to some degree, even Hank’s easier time, though he and others (J. Robinson) bore a burden unlike any other class in breaking the color barrier.

Greats like Ruth, Aaron, Josh Gibson, “Three FingerBrown, all transcend time and serve as “runner(s)-up” to nobody. Such talk fills time on First Take but also puts a “one-way ticket to Palookaville” in hand of the speaker. That’s a place for losers in case you missed On the Waterfront (‘54).

Stephen’s a fan of Henry Aaron and has reasonable basis in ranking him greatest home run man. I too am a fan of Hank's, cheering him on as a Brewer at wide-open County Stadium in the mid-70s and feel no less so because I recognize instead Babe Ruth to be the best slugger in MLB history.

Tell me who's the greatest, okay.  Tell me who ain't and we've got a problem, Mr. Senator. 

Steven Keys
Can o’ Corn
Posted on: December 11, 2012 12:10 am
 

MLB 2013 Wish List

Dear Santa,

I know December’s a crazy time for you, especially with new super-shops in Costa Rica, Estonia and Dandong (China) churning out the goodies at record pace, but it won’t take a minute to read my list. Besides, these wishes are for the good of the game, so do what you can, Santa my man.

Old Time Baseball

Wish # 1: More Mike Trouts

In the aftermath of one of the most hotly debated MVP races in recent memory, some in the Mike Trout Fan Club staggered into the absurd by claiming their man lost the vote because Miguel Cabrera voters had wrongly applied an old-school standard: the triple crown.

But old-school, throwback, traditional, take your pick, all are pretty fair description of the manner in which Trout conducted his rookie season. The guy knows fundamentals. His round-tripper total (30) would be Ruthian in dead-ball days but near everything else he does would’ve made him one of the guys in 1920, sans stirrups & tobacco juice.

Fielding his position like it mattered (4E / 347-CH / .988), crafting a nifty bat average (.326 / 139G), always aware that an extra-base could be had for free (39-SB) and a run-production that’d make Billy Hamilton (1888-01) nod in approval (129), all showed a player who understood the nuances of baseball. And fans ate it up with a spoon.

Mike’s not the only well-rounded ball-player in the game today, he’s just the first in a long time to make it cool again. That represents a big change in baseball, a sport still dominated by the dinger and whose biggest event is sadly, not its championship series, but a corporate kiddie show and vestige of the PED era, the home run derby. Ugh.

The 2012 AL-ROY has got some work to do in the contact department (139 SO). But if he can avoid the sophomore slump and stay healthy, his zestful play might inspire enough young ball-players to where baseball could be embarking on a whole new era.

Just Say Yes, MLBPA

Wish # 2: Mid-season blood draw

While most were focusing on the wheeling & non-dealing at MLB’s winter meeting in Nashville last week, I was thinking about the 10,000 lbs elephant lumbering down the Convention Center hallways. He’s the PED pachyderm and represents baseball’s half-measured attempt to rid the national pastime of banned substances.

With test samples still coming back queer, I’m guessing many players don’t think too much of us fans. When recent toppers (Braun / B. Colon) and a 2012 league-leading batsman (Melky) are testing dirty, you’ve still got trouble. The good news, spring blood-draws are spotting cheaters; the bad news, by caving to MLBPA’s refusal to a mid-season blood test a window of opportunity has been left wide open for cheaters to crawl through un-deterred.

A drug-free game? I wouldn’t waste the wish. It’s like a kid asking Santa for a Corvette. Not gonna happen. Sadly, the sport-druggie is here to stay. The pro-game has always had a seamy-side or at least a competitive crudeness, but the muscle-bound PED user speaks to kids in a persuasive voice that the game-fixer and sign-stealer never could.

It‘s safe to say, “Just Say No” didn’t percolate too deep into young minds, but then the PED plague and its cheater-mentality never has been confined within USA borders.

What I do wish, Santa, is that players finally face the inevitable and ‘just say yes’ to a sincere, full-testing program, closing the window that keeps inviting in the bad guys.

Outgrowing Your Toys

Wish # 3: Ditch the DH, Inter-League, pie-in-the-face and bunny-hop celebration

April 6, 2013 will mark the 30th anniversary of Major League Baseball’s adoption of the American League designated hitter. Yankees’ Ron Blomberg did the honors, drawing a walk from the Red Sox’ Luis Tiant (Wikipedia). And inter-league, that started in ‘97.

Fans of both would call me a purist. I never saw it like that. I just don’t like gimmicks that fans didn’t ask for and that change my game and the game of my ancestors, purely for profit ($). It was AL founder Ban Johnson (1901) who first permitted fans in the stands to keep foul-balls. Look how that’s turned out. Now the chuckleheads think they have some kind of entitlement and disrupt the action to claim their believed booty.

I don’t expect the DH to get the heave-ho, ever. It’s become part of the AL fabric, a distinguishing trait of the Junior Circuit. And that’s okay in today‘s monopolized, over-homogenized America. Just keep it out of our National.

But inter-league play, that’s a different matter. A curiosity in the beginning, that wore-off quick as we all knew it would. Now it’s become hackneyed, a deviation from regular scheduling, disruptive to intra-league competition and is best returned to its original and rare World Series state. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, you could say Mr. Selig.

And the post-game shave-cream-in-the-face routine? The only people laughing are the pie-pushers and assorted ESPN anchors. As for MLB’s embarrassing walk-off bunny-hop celebrations: thank god for the New York Yankees.

Steven Keys
Can o’ Corn
Posted on: September 26, 2012 12:30 am
 

DayGame World Series, Sir Selig?

If you’re reading this you’re a sports fan and know all about ESPN’s college “GameDay.” It’s not my cup o’ tea (that outdoor-set, with its screaming fans, really red-lines my annoying-meter), but the name, that works just fine.

So, for purposes of this baseball piece, just flip that title and make it DayGame World Series 2013. That’s my dream, anyway.

It’s been over a quarter-century since baseball fans were treated to a World Series game in the sun. It was 1984. Sparky Anderson’s terrific Tigers club took on the network-favored Padres in San Diego’s first fall classic (DET 4-1).

That was also the year Chicago’s Northsiders were re-born. Ryne Sandberg (MVP), Rick Sutcliffe (CY) and Harry Caray (WGN) led the parade at Wrigleyville as the Cubs cruised to their first crown (division) and post-season appearance in nearly 40 years.

Those were the days before expanded playoffs as the Padres & Cubs would decide the NL flag in a best-of-five series. The problem, as MLB and the network saw it, was that the Bruins didn’t play night games in 1984. That year wouldn’t come until ‘88. Chicago’s presence in the PS may’ve been a national thrill for everyone outside St. Louis but threw a big monkey-wrench into baseball’s trend toward night broadcasts. So what would any self-respecting greedmeister do but pull the old switch-a-roo and give night-suited San Diego home-field advantage (Chicago had the NL’s best record).

The Cubs took the first two in the Chicago sunshine by lopsided margins as the visitors looked over-matched. When the series shifted to California, the plucky Padres, led by superman Steve Garvey, overcame deficits in all three night contests and got their ticket punched to the fall classic.

The day-time World Series game is a mystery to younger fans. Older fans might recall, not just the games themselves, but the celebratory mood that began to build quickly after rising in the morning in anticipation of a typical 2:00 pm (?) opening pitch.

To put it in terms for those unfamiliar with a World Series day-game, let’s say, it’s not as great as having a date with a real looker (who actually likes you back), but more fun than, say, leading your fantasy league for the week.

The World Series day-game I remember best was the one I attended with my brother Kev in 1982 at old, wide-open Milwaukee County Stadium between the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. It was game 5 and Milwaukee owner Bud Selig must’ve over-sold seats because we were packed into those bleachers like sardines. We didn’t care. It was a chilly but gloriously sunny October day, we drank beer, ate dogs, smoked a few cigs back then and the Brew Crew pulled it out late to take a 3-2 lead in the Series. The peerless Bruce Sutter would prove the difference-maker as the Cards took the classic match in seven.

You don’t need an MBA to understand why the League made the World Series an exclusively nighttime affair: more viewers, higher ratings, bigger fees, more sales, lots o’ loot for the Suits.

But I wonder. I wonder if MLB turned just one game outta’ the Series into a day-game, during a weekday, if it might be so unusual, such good an excuse to skip school and cut work early, so red, white & blue Americana that it might start a new (or revive an old) tradition and actually make some healthy mullah for the cufflink crowd.

And not to worry, night owls. MLB can still keep airing most games after dinner, when they run until midnight or later, when many fans are snoozing on the couch or have hit-the-hay before the last out is called and commercial is aired.  Whoopee!

The way it stands, MLB needs something new, something fresh that’s not just aimed at kids (home run derby), something to give it an edge, a boost over our national obsession with everything football. It’s an obsession that fuels Favre fanaticism, Tebowmania, replacement-ref rage and needs a good swift kick in those shiny Nike pants.

It’s a dream I have.

Steven Keys
Posted on: September 14, 2012 12:25 am
 

Pick ya' Poison: MLB vs NFL

Summer’s on the wane and there’s a nip in the nighttime air. That means three things: school is back in session, baseball is heating-up and the pigskins are flying.

It’s a heady time for fans of America’s two favorite sports. Richard Kimble (The Fugitive) knew the score: “So, what are you, a football player, baseball player?,” asked the good doctor / janitor as he tweaked the orders and wheeled young “Joel” to life-saving surgery.

While one sport is in the home stretch as contenders separate from pretenders and try to finish in the money (playoffs), the other is just outta’ the gate where gridiron gladiators look to hit their stride and jockey for the inside rail to build an early lead.

It’s a daunting choice come Sunday afternoon. Which sport do you watch on TV?

Do you get vested in the pennant races or dive into the game you’ve been yearning for ever since Eli hoisted his second Lombardi trophy last February? Life’s tough decisions.

5 Reasons to Choose Baseball

Reason #1: MLB’s smokin’ hot!

All three American divisions are in play with late-bloomers Baltimore and Tampa Bay joining the chase while the Swingin’ As of Oakland are doing their damndest to make sure those highfalutin Texans don’t go popping any corks anytime soon.

Ever since writer / ESPN commentator Skip Bayless publicly speculated on Derek Jeter’s supplement regime back in August, the Yanks got defensive and lost focus at the worst time (no player’s above suspicion until testing is tightened with an in-season blood draw).

And if you can’t get energized about the rise of the Nationals and the terrific seasons of rookie Mike Trout (LAA), slugger supreme Miguel Cabrera (DET), comeback kid Buster Posey (SF), re-invented R.A. Dickey (NYM), Mr. consistency Derek Jeter (NYY) or moundsmen David Price (TB) and Jered Weaver (LAA), you’ve got the heartbeat of a hibernating bear.

Reason #2: Baseball’s clean’in‘ up

No big Nielsens booster but still nice to know at least one of the pro-sports you watch is trying to put game back into the business. Rather than cause for cynicism, recent busts (Braun / Melky / Colon) are sign the PED-prevention program is working. Whereas, kid brother football keeps twiddling its thumbs, hoping cries for PED testing are drowned-out by a diverting media while their rippling-membership are given ample time to make the necessary adjustments before the inevitable blood-draw comes knocking.

Reason #3: Fewer TV commercials

Baseball does its share of shill during a telecast, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t compare to the commercial tidal wave to which NFL fans are subjected during a turf-battle broadcast.

Holy cow! Change of possession, TV time-out; injured or embarrassed player, TV time-out; coach’s challenge, TV-TO; official review, TV-TO; quarter-change, TV-TO; studio update, TV-TO. You get the idea. If you like commercials, football is your thing.

Reason #4: Baseball’s tougher than football

How could I make such a ludicrous statement, you ask? I’ll tell you how in two words: sticky-gloves, otherwise known as sissy-gloves. This ain’t your father’s football.

The handy-work of NFL entrepreneurs and glove manufacturers, this foray into cozy is nothing more than a nationwide money-grab (covering high school hands coast-to-coast) and an offense-enhancer to assist the catch-challenged in the same way the 5-foot wedge-putter and cantaloupe-sized driver head give welfare to the golfing community while making cash registers ring.

And spare me the safety claim. I’ll concede their worth in sub-zero temps (Lombardi & Bud Grant were cool customers), but if anything, they may reduce safety by the increased friction they create for hand, wrist and neck movement in tackling. And 9 outta’ 10 of those so-called miraculous grabs ESPN anchors go ga-ga over are directly attributable to the sticky-gloves. It ain’t rocket science and it ain‘t spectacular.

MLB has it’s own gear, sure, but it’s protective (sometimes TOO much) for players as well as fans in the seats (flying bats). Stand in a batter’s box someday and you’ll know what I‘m writing about. Suffice to say, baseball gear has a purpose beyond coinage.

Reason #5: One last look at Greatness?

Faux-sport fans will often bring up John Unitas when they hate on the aged. John stayed a year too long in the NFL (Chargers). But those who love on the game, whether baseball or football, take great pleasure in catching one last glimpse (or ear-shot) of greatness.

Everyone knows future HOF’ers Chipper Jones (ATL) and Omar Vizquel (TOR) are on goodbye-tours, but there are other players with the glow of greatness who have yet to decide or declare their future plans but might be giving their final curtain call.

Jamie Moyer (COL / cut) and Mariano Rivera (DL) were out early, Jim Thome found a spot (on DL) with the upstart Orioles, Jason Giambi still has fire (COL) and injuries have caught up with sweet-swingin’ Lance Berkman (STL). To those who ultimately pack it in, Vaya con Dios, mis amigos. Thanks for the memories.

And don’t forget the veteran voices of baseball, the men who paint pictures with words. Guys like Milo Hamilton (HOU), Ken Harrelson (CWS), Dick Enberg (SD), Bob Uecker (MIL), Mike Shannon (STL), Marty Brennaman (CIN) and Vin Scully (LAD), who announced his plan to return to Chavez Ravine for 2013.

There you have it, sport fans. All the reasons you need to pass on September football come Sunday and turn on the National pastime instead, daring to catch a few laps of NASCAR or Formula One between innings.

So stock-up on beverages, pay that satellite bill, treat your wife with respect (she suffers the supermarket getting those snacks you’ll pound-down) forego the network’s pre-game drivel and plant yourself in that favorite chair for some good, hard-hitting…football! Heck, you can watch rounders all week long, but come Sunday in September, the NFL is just what the doctor ordered.

Steven Keys
Posted on: August 20, 2012 4:55 pm
 

Barry, JoePa & Record Books

It’s not everyday you read something good about the NCAA.

Mind you, I’ve got no major gripe with the landlord of college sport. Not too happy about their cozy relationship with profiteers (Nike) and relaxation of player-standards in recent decades, but other than those two, most of what they do flies above my radar.

The NCAA is like your high school VP, a dirty job but someone’s gotta’ do it. Roaming the hallways, keeping order and quick to judge. No gray area with this guy. And he’ll probably turn gray fast, given the thankless nature of the job, policing the big-hearted youths of today, or as Joe Pesci would call ‘em, “utes” (My Cousin Vinny).

Last month the enforcers of collegiate merriment did something rarely done in today’s sporting world: they altered a record book. Not as shocking as Brett Favre hitting the Twin Cities’ tarmac and donning purple & gold (2009), but still, pretty big doings.

As part of the penalties levied against Penn St. per the Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, 111 of the Lions’ football wins from the years 1998-11 were “vacated” from NCAA rolls, knocking coach Joe Paterno from atop the D1 victories list (409 / 298) and moving the recently retired Bobby Bowden into the top spot with his tally of 377 (“Bobby” / CBS / 7-23).

Of all the sanctions handed down, that one’s gotta’ hurt the most. The others, including the 4-year bowl ban, scholarship cutback and fine ($60 XL) will all be absorbed easily enough over time. Some at PSU may welcome the shake-up as a means of penance to cleanse the soul. And the hefty fine, that’ll just get passed on to the students, like the insurance company that jacks their rates when the hurricane claims start blowing in.

It wasn’t the substance of their action that got my stamp of approval. While I appreciate the awkwardness of leaving JoePa’s name atop the wins-list, sadly, in striking 100+ from his total you hurt those people most who had nothing to do with the wrong-doing, the players & fans. Add-up the shame that will linger for decades at Penn State, the criminal course and other penalties, all together seemed punitive and deterrent plenty.

Instead, it was the NCAA’s deviation from SOP that has me nodding in agreement.

Changing a record book typically requires something just short of an Act of Congress. That’s a good thing. Records are sacred stuff. Whether they’re category leaders, personal or team titles, individual stats or holders of top marks, all will, in theory, stand the test of time. The number & name will change but the record itself will resonate long.

Can’t say the same for the Halls of Fame. Like today’s bloated Olympic field, HOFs are becoming so diluted with a steady-stream of marginal inductees that they’re fast losing that special flavor. Caught up in the enablement age, voters are turning what used to be a days-long walk amongst immortals into a three-day trek through Halls of Good ‘n Plenty.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. Just imagine in the not-to-distant future, when those collectible crazed kids who put their Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds rookie cards under glass, hold sway over the BBWA and become guardians of the Hall. “Uh-oh!” ("Mr. Gopher" / Caddyshack). The flood-gates are gonna’ open wide.

There are two battles raging over baseball’s Hall of Fame.

One is over quality control. Is the candidate’s stature such that it separates him from his peers, like say, Warren Spahn and Bob Clemente, or, is he a ballot choice that develops a patina of greatness over time, building support for election like…well, you can fill in the names yourself. If you need help, give Reggie Jackson a jingle. His timing is tacky but his standard is right on point (SI / “Reggie / Taylor / 7-5).

The other is about PEDs, where one emerging standard goes like this: ‘He gets my vote because he was a Hall of Famer before he started juicing.’ Oh, brother. Assuming you have the powers of Carnac the Magnificent and can accurately pick the first year a PED suspect ‘Got needles,’ if you apply that standard, Pete Rose and Joe Jackson get in because both were Hall-worthy before they messed-up big time.

So, while the pride & joy of Cooperstown grows fat and a niche of players keep playing fans for fools (Ryan Braun / Melky Cabrera), the official record book must become the safe harbor for greatness, buffered from the winds of changing mores & personal extremes.

Long before Halls of Fame were doing a splendid job of preserving & displaying the rich history of sport, a myriad of record books & statistical surveys were telling the tale.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Officially maintained by Elias Sports Bureau, baseball’s rolls are tainted, filling-up fast with performance-enhanced pretenders of excellence. Some of the most cherished records are topped by seriously-suspected or proven PED-men.

Enter the NCAA. They’ve set a precedent, of sorts, in re-writing a small part of their own college football record book. It was a tough call that created some collateral damage (See above), but they had good cause, acted with all due speed and didn’t blink.

Now Bud Selig has a template, an impetus to finally move to fix baseball’s record book.

Sure, he’s got other fish to fry. Cheating, being the biggest flounder on his plate.

Victor Conti (BALCO) may actually believe “as many as half” of all players are juicing today (“Victor” / USAT / BN / 8-15). But anyone with any sense knows that recent test-troubles are par for the course when trying to change a culture of drug-use that’s international in its reach and as deeply imbedded into baseball as is performance-enhancement.

The PED problem will resolve in time. The clean-up effort has the backing of the nation, most players and the independent media. Patience & persistence are the watch-words.

But the foul odor that’s rising up from MLB’s record book is not going away on its own.

Naysayers will argue, ‘How can you fiddle with a record book when some of the marquee names never tested positive?’ Two-part answer: 1) An evolving test-policy that was way-late in coming can’t be the sole standard for finding a record-holder to have a PED pedigree, and 2) If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

Go back in time to August of 1921. The Cleveland Indians are the reigning champs and Babe Ruth is in pinstripes, but the biggest story in baseball is the Black Sox scandal. When the implicated Pale Hosers are acquitted in a dubious Cook County trial after crucial evidence disappears, the newly appointed baseball Czar Kenesaw Mountain Landis is undeterred. Making reasonable inferences from available evidence, the next day he bans the lot of ‘em from pro-ball for life and adds a toxicity-tag.

Bud Selig has seen the evidence of proven & suspected PED users. As Commissioner and having no power to deny liberty (jail) or award civil damages, he’s not bound by the same standard of proof required in a judicial setting. Maybe that’s a good thing. As such, he can do, within certain parameters, as he pleases with the record book.

It won’t be easy. This ain’t 1921. Classifying the proven users vs. strongly suspected, removing names vs. asterisking (*), and then whether or not consideration should be given those few men who decided, for whatever reason, to come clean (Brothers Bash, Canseco & McGwire), will all make for one big sticky wicket.

And the media will have a field day. Some with their own form of collectible to protect, they’ll do their damndest to make sure it’s as thankless an undertaking as policing the high school hallways. It’s an action that’s likely to raise challenges by those players directly affected, claiming a right (intellectual property?) to a place in the hallowed book.

Set to retire after 2014, Selig certainly has the stature these days to afford the boldness that a record book revision requires, with rounder’s popularity and a drug prevention program that seems to be working, if not deterring some pompous players.

There’s no money to be made in re-working the record rolls. But it would be a big step in restoring to baseball some of what was lost when PED users and their enablers started disrespecting themselves, the fans, the game and its history.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?” (JFK).  Doing nothing is no answer, Bud.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 23, 2012 4:07 pm
 

No-Hitters, No Wonder

Everybody’s talkin’ (Nilsson), ‘bout LeBron, R.A. Dickey and no-hitters. While Kevin Durant’s Finals fade is fodder for debate, not much more worthwhile to write about His Magnitude, Mr. James until the leaves start to turn.

As for the plethora of pitching gems, theories abound.

Next time you go to the ballpark, better hold on to that ticket stub for you could be in possession of a little piece of profitable history. In MLB 2012, no-hitters are happening with the frequency of an Oregon Ducks’ uniform change: weekly.

Some worry MLB is on a fast-track to becoming the “Hitless Wonder” League (’06 Sox), even turning as barren of scoring as the flop-fest that is soccer. I shudder to think.

But keep off that panic button, Biff. This has happened before. The early 90s saw back-to-back seasons of seven no-hitters each (‘90 & ‘91). You can call what’s happening today a ‘variant of normal,’ even if the final tally does hit double-digits. Maybe no.

The wealth of no-hitters this year shouldn‘t come as a shock to baseball observers.

Reason # 1 happens to be the elephant in the room: PEDs, or as we like to think, their demise. Though, with all the legal maneuvering from MLB and the Union, I’m not clear as to whether or not baseball’s even drawing blood for HGH testing this season as planned. A real shell game.

Suffice to say, the glory days of PED use should be over. Consider this present period to be one of adjustment for players and managers both.

Most think the big benefit from PEDs is power, the long-distance, as in home runs. Yes, that’s part of the payoff.

But the biggest advantage from juicing is bat-speed. Power doesn’t mean diddly if you can’t make contact. And putting bat-on-ball is a learned behavior, demonstrated so sweetly by laureates of the art, Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn.

Ever try hitting a 70-mph pitch? For us non-professionals it’s a 1-in-20 chance (Billy Crystal should be proud he even fouled-off a few in Yankees’ spring-camp a few years back). Then try hitting the real heat: 90 plus. Forget about it, Frank.

Reason # 2 for the surge in no-nos and low-lows (1-hitters): today’s home-run mind-set.

The round-tripper has been a fan favorite since the Bambino and the hot dog hit the scene. But when juicing became common-place in the 80s, most batters began swinging for the stands with reckless abandon. And more than a few managers (Leyland / La Russa) seemed pleased as punch, converts of the Earl Weaver school of thought: “Pitching, defense and the 3-run homer.”

Today, principles of hitting like on-base % and having ‘command of the strike zone’ get the snub: ‘Who cares with these biceps,’ still seems the overriding outlook of many a ballplayer in 2012.

It’s why the ‘Bud Selig Home Run Derby & Family Fun Show all-star Extravaganza’ has sadly become MLB’s biggest showcase of the season, bigger than even the fall classic.

Next time you watch a ball-game on TV take notice how non-selective, indiscriminate batters can be in the box, how many bad pitches they’ll flail at. I’m talking really bad.

Batters seem less patient-at-the-plate than their forefathers, though King Kelly and Larry Doby might just laugh at that observation. I’m picking up a trend where, if the batter doesn’t like first-call strike, he pouts, tanks the at-bat and then fumes when the umpire calls strike three. Makes you wonder how they ever made it to the Majors.

And it’s not like most hurlers in 2012 are wowing batters with their own command of the zone.

Sure, we have our masters of the mound (Verlander / Santana), but plenty of pitchers need Mapquest to find the plate these days. With today’s free-swinging, disco-dancing batsman, it doesn’t really matter. Throw the heat high and he’ll chase it.

And before we start talking about replacing the ‘men in black’ with machines (Valentine / Loney), players & managers should re-acquaint themselves with something called home plate and the strike zone it represents. Then get back to us on that robot thing, Bob.

It all makes contact hitters like Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Al Pujols that much more special. These guys still remember the baseball adage they were taught as youngsters: A walk is as good as a hit. It’s not deep psychology, but the more selective you are, the better pitches you get. What do know, Turbo?

Playing baseball is a highly skilled profession. And it’s not without its dangers. But it ain’t rocket science, though, the knuckleball of Mets’ renaissance-man R.A. Dickey comes pretty darn close.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 16, 2012 8:27 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2012 11:52 pm
 

Hack's 191: MLB's New 61

It wasn’t exactly the information age but then no one was complaining. Business ran on the Bell System and postage, while newspapers, radio and TV kept consumers current.

And though barely a blip on most people’s radar, a certain sports item was making headlines in the Big Apple that spring of 1961: Maris & Mantle and their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s hallowed single-season home run mark of 60.

Everyone loves a good race and as it heated-up it began to play in Peoria. The fact it involved a record held by the much loved Bambino made it all the more captivating. The emotions ran the gamut from petty resentment, to hopeful, to simply, ‘Can he do it!?’

Mickey would succumb to injuries (54), Roger achieved the unthinkable (61) and the debate ensued. As quaint as an asterisk seems today it nonetheless does show just how seriously everyone took the sport back in ‘61.

Even at the time, Roger’s milestone may not have been the greatest single-season feat in the annals of Major League Baseball. Likewise, extended streaks that were subject to official scoring (Joe D's 56) or personal discretion (Ripken) will often, upon close inspection, reveal a weak-link in their chains of greatness.

The game’s long, storied history is chock full of special achievements that can keep baseball aficionados debating for hours and even years.

A short list of some other notables:

· Boston Beaneater Hugh Duffy bats .440 and wins the NL Triple Crown in 1894;
· In the same season Billy Hamilton crosses home plate 196 times;
· Christy Mathewson wins 31, posts 1.27 ERA and throws 3 CG-SOs in 1905 WS;
· Ed Walsh wins 40 in 1908 (1.42 / 464 IN / 42 CG) on a White Sox team that batted just .224;
· Ruth’s 1921: .378 BA, 177 R, 16 3B, .846 SLG, 17 SB, 145 BB, 59 HR, 171 RBI, 457 TB;
· Cleveland Indian Joe Sewell strikes out a mere four times in 608 ABs in 1925;
· Rogers Hornsby wins his 2nd Triple Crown in 1925 batting .403 (.401 in 1922);
· AL Leader in HR, BB, R, SLG and OBP, Ted Williams hits .406 with style in 1941;
· Jackie Robinson joins Brooklyn to break baseball’s color barrier and wins ROY in 1947;
· In ‘62, KC Athletics’ Bill Fischer pitches 84.1 consecutive innings without walking a batter;
· Bob Gibson (22-9 / 1.12 / 13 SHO) & Denny McLain (31-6 / 28 CG) go pitch crazy in ‘68.
· Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser pitches 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988 in leading his team to a World Series title over the heavily-favored Athletics in five.

Nevertheless, Roger’s 61 became the crown jewel of baseball exploits. Like Ruth’s 60 it too became the holy grail for every big bopper in the game.

Ever since Yankee GM Ed Barrow snatched the Babe away from Boston in 1919, fans have thrilled at power-ball: goodbye spitters, dead-ball hitters and “Hit ‘em where they ain‘t” (Keeler),..hello lively ball, home run call and “Holy cow, he did it!” (Rizzuto).

If the stars aligned, both marks did invite some serious challenges: Foxx (58 / ‘32); Wilson (56 / ‘30); Greenberg (58 / ’38); Kiner (54 / ‘49); Griffey (56 / ‘97).

But it was that possibility which made the 61 enticing (and easy prey) for PED users. Juicers blew by the iconic record like it didn‘t even exist as fans and media went ga-ga over the Mark & Sammy show. The hypocrites could fill every stadium on the continent.

Baseball’s governors have themselves a real sticky-wicket: what to do about the Elias record book and Mr. Bonds’ tainted tally of 73?

Not generally known as bold-decision makers, Mr. Selig & friends will likely go on with the do-nothing approach. Regardless, Roger’s fabled 61 will never regain its former luster.

As such, Cub Hack Wilson’s mind-boggling RBI total of 191 (1930) has now become the new standard for single-season prowess, the new benchmark for baseball immortality.

Funny thing is, nobody knows it’s the new standard: not players, not fans, not the press.

Had he painted his masterpiece with the Yanks or John McGraw’s Giants, Gotham City scribes would’ve immortalized the fantastic feat in poetry and prose. As it stands, the media mecca of America will never pay homage to a record set by a Second City sultan.

Another reason Hack‘s mark is anonymous: so few have ever come close to matching it: Gehrig (184 / ‘31); Greenberg (183 / ‘37); Foxx (175 / ‘38). Even with advantages like DH (AL), body armor, night sky, 162 games, cortisone and lower mound, 153 (Davis / ’62) and 165 (Ramirez / ’99) are the closest anyone’s managed to get to the 191 in 50 years.

RBIs need two things: base-runners and a team-mentality.

Ruth ushered in homer-ball in the 1920s but those guys never forgot the real purpose of batting: score runs! Today’s Home Run Derby mindset sneers at on-base %. And then when the table is set, most batters and too many managers are fixated on going yard.

There is one more advantage the current player has over his ancestors that may help him best Hack’s 191: their single-minded, ambition to break records and join milestone clubs.

Given today’s ravenous appetite for home runs, Hacks outrageous RBI mark should remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. That’s a good thing. Though, if Texas’ Josh Hamilton could ever stay healthy an entire season he might make it interesting.

Wilson’s record is a fitting reminder of a long lost era: before there was walk-off bunny-hop hysteria; before nighttime World Series put fans to sleep and a when the only records players cared about were the ones spinning on the RCA Victrola.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 15, 2012 1:23 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2012 12:15 pm
 

Best Hot Dog Isn't Chic

Some people like ‘em piled high with pickle relish, onions or chili.

Others will top it off with sauerkraut for some Old World flavor.

Cheddar cheese & bacon are just the ticket for the Midwestern palate.

In the Southwest desert, eateries serve it up with a selection of hot sauces & peppers.

Me, I keep it simple: a bun, the star attraction, ketchup & mustard, yellow, to be exact. That highbrow stuff ain’t bad but it ain’t welcome on this entrée. Oh yeah, and a paper napkin. Mustard stains are murder.

Three, maybe four bites and I’m ready to roll.

It’s the great American hot dog. The nation’s favorite hand-held meal.

It says Uncle Sam like tortillas say Mexico and lutefisk says Norway.

Sorry, McDonalds, you set the standard in fast food but the hot dog still reigns supreme.

Though I’ve gotta’ say, that classic barbecue battle between the hamburger and hot dog may never be settled in the minds of backyard connoisseurs. Sometimes a burger (or burrito) can‘t be beat: a bit of pink in the middle, slice of raw onion, cheese melted on toasted bun, chips on the side (no kettle or home-style, please) and you’re in business.

So why such high praise for the hot dog?

Convenience, for starters. Is there anything easier on which to heap a helping of what you hanker than a frankfurter-on-bun?

Price: For home, an 8-pack of all-beef wieners will run you under five bucks. On the street, the smart vender lets you eat for around $3. And at the stadium, it’s the best buy on the menu where a 10-spot gets you a kiddie Coke and a plain hot dog.

Tradition: Making the scene at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the dog’s popularity quickly spread. It proved the perfect fit for a burgeoning, on-the-move America and found a home at ball-parks & fairs from coast to coast. Demand grew so fast for the new staple it out-paced an embryonic federal regulatory scheme on mass-produced meat products, a safety gap soon exposed in Upton Sinclair’s watershed work The Jungle (‘06).

Today’s tube steak is a marvel of modern food processing. It easily meets a standard of high quality that makes it worthy of the consumer confidence shown by the millions of wieners devoured daily across the land.

But with fame comes attention, some of it good, some not so good.

Case in point: Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

That icon of American cuisine could not meet with a more demeaning demise than it does in this promotional sideshow conducted in Brooklyn every 4th of July. Putting aside the worldwide hunger issue that every gorge-contest scorns, washing down bread & meat with streams of water makes a disgusting mockery of the real hot dog eating experience.

Something else you never do with this culinary classic: turn it into a star. A clue is when the traveling food critic covers the subject dog with complimentary-condiments like “famous,” “extraordinary” and “unique“ (A Hot Dog Program / PBS / 3-12).”

The hot dog’s beauty, its essence lies in its succulent simplicity.

Pile it too high, get too creative or too persnickety (some hot dog havens won’t provide ketchup, chips, etcetera) and the dog becomes a status symbol in a culinary clique. Tasty enough, to be sure, but too highfalutin for this fan.

And like they say, location is everything.  Where you eat your red hot can make all the difference.

The baseball grounds is a hot dog lovers’ dreamland. There’s something special about the confluence of sights, spirits, sounds & smells at the ball-park that all combine to work a serious flavor enhancement where every bite becomes a savory delight.

But the best hot dog won’t be had at the game or that famous restaurant you’ve seen on TV. It’s where tubular treats come with all your favorite fixings like bean soup and dill pickles (Milwaukee’s Midgets). That’s right, the best frankfurter is in your own home.

So drive on by the Taco Bell tonight and leave the veggie-burger in the freezer. Reach in the back of the fridge and you’ll find ’em, always there and always good. The great American hot dog.

Bon appetit!

Steven Keys
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com