Getting Off Base While Pirates manager Lloyd McClendenon provided a highly entertaining exception
last year, the old adage "you can't steal first base" is as true as it ever was. If not even truer--for if sabermetrics has taught us anything, it's the importance of getting on base to make an offense go. It doesn't take a propellerhead to figure out that baseball is at its heart a very simple game: score more runs than your opponent, and make your allotted 27 outs last as long as possible in order to do so. A disciplined hitter drawing a walk beats a slap-hitter showing off his speed as he grounds out to short--every time.
As sabermetrics has brought the fruits of its labor to the public attention, the past few years have seen an emphasis on On Base Percentage in baseball management circles, most notably with the Yankees (prior to last year's model, at least) and the Oakland A's. And while evidence that those inside and outside the game are catching on abounds (though if it's "a fad," as this article states
, then so is gravity), the talk coming out of the mouths of some managers and players in recent days is surprisingly unenlightened.
Dodger manager Jim Tracy named Cesar Itzuris his new shortstop, a reasonable choice given his options (Alex Cora, the poor manager's Rey Ordoρez?). Itzuris is four years younger than Cora, and a better hitter, though not by that much (his minor league OBP
is a lousy .294). Whatever englightenment Tracy showed in choosing Itzuris, he threatened to undo it in one fell swoop in telling the LA Times
that his new shortstop will "bring some energy, some speed, and the potential to create more run-scoring opportunities to the top of the lineup." Tracy is apparently "tinkering with" the idea of batting Itzuris leadoff, though a more likely scenario has him hitting second--with one of the Dodgers appalling centerfield options, Dave Roberts (30 years old, career OBP .292 in 165 major league at-bats) leading off.
Tracy had a mixed track record in his first season at the Dodger helm. He kept a team with a decimated pitching staff in the pennant race until the final week of the season, but he bore a fair share of responsibility for a wheezing offense. He worked through leadoff options both unconventionally great
(Paul Lo Duca, .374 OPB) and unimaginably awful (the $8.4 million, two-headed, sub-.300 OBP vortex of suck that is Tom Goodwin and Marquis Grissom), and shot himself in the foot more often than not. If he refuses to learn from his mistakes, it's going to be a long season in Chavez Ravine. [Late breaking news: Rob Neyer writes about the Dodgers' on-base problems in his column today.]
Phillies manager Larry Bowa has come under fire in this space
for attempting to tinker with the approach of his nephew, Yankees DH/1B prospect Nick Johnson. In four minor league seasons, Johnson's OBP has ranged between a spended .398 and a jaw-dropping .525. The idea of the impatient slap hitter Bowa advising Johnson got this writer's eyes rolling.
On his own team, Bowa jettisoned Doug Glanville and his appalling .285 OBP from the leadofff spot late last season in favor of Jimmy Rollins's .323 OBP (though to be fair, Rollins was at .346 in the #1 spot, compared to .303 at #2). Still, Glanville remains undeterred by his lack of success. "I know it's important to get on base,'' says Glanville
. "But there's also what you do when you get on. There are a lot of intangibles. It's not about walking; I know that. You have to be disciplined within the strike zone. It' s not about knowing the strike zone, it's about knowing your strike zone. Why take a pitch you can handle because you're trying to walk?'' For an Ivy League graduate, Glanville could use refresher course.
None other than Joe Torre seems to have caught this here fever goin' 'round. Early this spring, Derek Jeter and his .392 career OBP seemed slated--and perfectly so--for the leadoff spot to replace the departed Chuck Knoblauch. But Torre told reporters the other day that Alfonso Soriano might get the nod
instead. "The way Soriano's swinging the bat right now, don't be surprised if he leads off," said Torre, admitting that he wasn't completely married to the idea: "That could change. I haven't totally made up my mind, but right now, it sure looks good with those two guys getting on base at the top of the order, with the guys we have in the middle."
As a rookie, Soriano showed flashes of brilliance from spring training through Game 7 of the World Series. Nonetheless, he demonstrated plate discipline which left much to be desired: he didn't draw his first walk until April 29, and finished with a .304 OBP and a strikeout to walk ratio of over 5 to 1. Compared to Jeter, Soriano gets on base roughly one fewer time per ten at bats--that's once every other game! While he's smoking the ball this spring to the tune of .310, he has a grand total of 2 walks in 84 at bats, for an OBP of .326. That simply won't cut it at the top of the Yankee lineup, not when Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Nick Johnson (if he lives up to his reputation) can provide OBPs in the neigborhood of .380-400.
Just what in the hell is going on here? I don't even pretend to know. Certainly, in the case of the Yankees, they are attempting to get more at bats for a hitter who may or may not be the next Vladimir Guerrero
. But the lesson of the way the Yank offense's struggles mirrored Chuck Knoblauch's declining OBP should be fresh in Joe Torre's mind, and no amount of base stealing will make up for that. Soriano set a Yankee rookie record with 43 steals; unfortunately, he was thown out 14 times, nettting the Yanks 3.26 according to the Extrapolated Runs
formula; Jeter's 27/30 running resulted in a net gain of 3.9 runs by comparison.
At least one team has it right. The Oakland A's, retooling their offense with their stud Jason Giambi's departure to the Yanks, have apparently settled on Jason's brother Jeremy as their leadoff hitter. Though Little G doesn't fit the classic profile of the speedy base-stealer we imagine when we think "leadoff hitter," he shares his brother's plate discipline--a .391 OBP, miles better than last year's leadoff, Johnny Damon (.324) or his most obvious replacement, Terrence Long (.335).
Oh well, the spring folly that this obviously is will make itself abundantly clear to Joe Torre in due time--I give it a few weeks, tops. I'm less optimistic about some of Torre's peers. Speed is a wonderful thing in a ballplayer, because it comes into play both offensively and defensively, but in this high-offense era, a stolen base simply isn't worth as much as it is when runs are scarce, and any manager with visions of stealing runs with an undisciplined hitter in the 1 spot is likely to be sorely disappointed.
A great deal of what any manager says to the press during spring training can be tossed out the window as soon as it hits the papers (most of the rest of it can be tossed by Opening Day). Lord knows, watching the skippers get their cliches in shape ("We're going to run more this year," "We're going to concentrate on the fundamentals," etc.) is half the fun of springtime. But sooner, rather than later, these theories will get played out on the ballfield, where the physics of baseball will take their hold. And the truth will be abundantly clear once again.
Last weekend, I paid a visit to the Baseball As America
exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History here in NYC. The just-opened exhibit is a traveling show featuring over 500 artifacts from the National Baseball Hall of Fame's collection. It's organized around seven themes which examine the game's symbolism and its connection to the broader American culture. Baseball as American history--if not quite as natural as the dinosaur bones elsewhere in the museum, then not quite as creepy as the ancient people dioramas, either.
This is the first time the Hall of Fame has sent its treasures on such a barnstorming tour, an effort designed to bring these relics to a wider audience. According to one report
, 12 million people have visited the Hall of Fame in its 63 years, but this exhibit, which will travel the country for the next three years, is expected to bring in 4 or 5 million people. As such, I went to the museum expecting Portable Hall of Fame Lite, a breezy but obvious parade of some famous gloves, bats, balls, and photos celebrating the Babe, the Mick, Connie Mack, and Big Mac. But I found a much different exhibit than I expected, and came away impressed on several counts.
Baseball As America offers as much a confrontation with baseball's myths and legends as it does a celebration of them. In displaying the Doubleday baseball (a crumbling four-piece ball whose stitching has long since given up the ghost), for example, the curators accurately locate General Doubleday's place in the game's creation myth rather than its actual origins. Evidence of the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of the game's history is all here in artifacts which run the gamut from the famous (FDR's Green Light Letter
) to the infamous (midget pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel's 1/8 uniform
), from the sublime (the Honus Wagner T-206 card
) to the mundane (a shoebox full of cards "not thrown away by someone's mother," as the display notes), from the shockingly racist (a cast-iron 19th century toy called "Darktown Battery") to the completely silly (the Reggie Bar).
Most impressive was the solid critical examination the exhibit gave to issues of race and gender. The "Ideals and Injustices" segment takes up the color line issue in a variety of ways beyond the expected Negro League photographs and memorabilia. An arrangement of baseball cards juxtaposes those of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Minnie Minoso with those of Elston Howard, the first black Yankee (1956, nine years after the Dodgers brought up Robinson), and Pumpsie Green, the first black on the last team to integrate, the Red Sox (1959). An installation features Robinson's uniform alongside the transcript of a speech he gave at the 1972 World Series, exclaiming that he'll be "more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball." The issue of blacks in management comes up again nearby, in a photo of Frank Robinson holding a newspaper announcing his hiring as manager of the Cleveland Indians.
As if to illustrate that even that event heralded only minor progress in the country's views on race, another installation contrasts two letters to Hank Aaron during his all-time home run record chase. One is from an admiring fan who had named his child Aaron Henry, the other is a crudely-written anonymous piece of hate mail calling him Aaron a "dirty OLD Niggerman". Not exactly the kind of memorabilia one can just vapidly cruise past.
And speaking of the Cleveland Indians, Native American issues get their space here as well. There's an installation highlighting the old practice of nicknaming "Chief" any player with Native American blood, such as Charles A. Bender and John T. Myers (not to mention Indian Bob Johnson), and a cartoon lampooning the use of Native American mascots. There's also a series of displays devoted to the female presence in the game, from shots of turn-of-the-century pitcher Alta Weiss to uniforms from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the basis of the movie A League of Their Own
), to photos of and artifacts from women players, umpires, broadcasters, and owners.
One of the recurring themes across several installations was the way that war-time baseball binds a community together in the face of adversity and uncertainty. There's a striking photo of a GI ballfield in Morocco, circa 1943, bearing a sign that says "Yankee Stadium". Another photo shows soldiers playing ball on a field in Europe, their rifles propped up in foul territory while explosions from military engineers detonating land mines blacken the sky overhead. As the exhibition recognizes, the war-time bond also extended to those in captivity. There's a Civil War-era lithograph showing Union POWs playing ball in a Confederate prison, an irregularly-shaped bat carved from a tree limb used by Americans confined in World War II Germany, and a wooden home plate from a Japanese internment camp in the U.S.--yet another illumnination of a darker corner of this country's history.
Not everything was quite so confrontational. The "Invention and Ingenuity" section was fascinating as well as interactive. Alongside an explication of the Navier-Stokes Equation (which explains, mathematically, why a curveball curves) are several baseballs mounted so as to allow visitors to try the grips for various pitches and see the way the ball rotates as it leaves their hands. The lumber also gets its fair shake--visitors can pick up various bats and feel for themselves the trend towards smaller, lighter sticks. Some of the game's more ingenious inventions (the first padded catcher's mitt, Steve Yeager's throat protector) are here, alongside the sillier ones (Charlie O. Finley's orange baseball and a drawing for a device that looks like a multiple-rodent trap affixed to a catcher's chest).
The "Enterprise and Opportunity" section is chock-full of colorful products endorsed by or depticting players--the ubiquitous Wheaties boxes, the aforementioned Reggie Bar, a can of BroccaPop (a soda endorsed by Lou Brock), Ted Williams fishing tackle, Babe Ruth underwear (ewww), and old-school bobblehead dolls. This portion of the exhibit also deals with the business side of baseball, showing old player contracts, a photo of early luxury boxes in Cincinnati's Palace of the Fans ballpark, Curt Flood's letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn (cc'ed to Marvin Miller) challenging the Reserve Clause, and a hardbound portfolio for the marketing of free-agent Alex Rodriguez.
Some of my other favorite pieces from around the exhibit:
a parlor baseball game with a spinner (c.1878) in which four different-colored rings, divided into 48 sections each, describe the outcomes for the batter and runners at each base.
a photo of barnstorming ballplayers, including Albert Spalding, climbing all over the Sphinx in Egypt (c. 1889).
the hand-written manuscript for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," by Jack Norworth (c. 1908).
an elaborate scrapbook put together by two fans named Alan and David Jackman, containing newspaper cutouts and drawings of players, dozens to a page (c. 1912).
a ball signed by 10 U.S. Presidents (Taft, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, F. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, L. Johnson, and Nixon).
the Presidential Box Seat from Washington, D.C.'s Griffith Stadium--though how it contained the enormous derriere of President Taft is left unexplained.
a giant scoreboard from a Pennsylvania hotel used to recreate the action--lineups, the count, runners on base, location of a hit ball--of a World Series game for the benefit of a gathered public (c. 1927).
a 1951 photo of rookie Willie Mays playing stickball with Harlem youth Dressed in street clothes, his forearm muscles taut as he strides into his swing, the young Mays already looks like a specimen to be carved into baseball's equivalent of Mount Rushmore.
a hot-dog basket from the Harry M. Stevens company (c. 1940s).
Harry Caray's enormous eyeglasses.
an Andy Warhol painting of Tom Seaver (1985)--it's tough to imagine the hip, enigmatic pop artist taking an interest in sports, let alone a player as square as Seaver (though I'll allow that New Yorkers in 1969 probably felt differently about Tom Terrific).
For all that I took in, I discovered later that there was one portion of the exhibit that I missed. The downstairs food court at the AMNH is serving a lineup of hot dogs from ballparks and cities around the country, from Dodger Dogs to Chicago Red Hots to Fenway Franks to Milwaukee Brats to a half-dozen other regional variations. Roll over, Harry Stevens, and tell Oscar Mayer the news.
Having paid a visit to the Hall of Fame about 18 months ago, I couldn't help but compare Baseball as America with its older stay-at-home sibling. To someone who's already seen the Hall, this offered a fresh perspective, one less rooted in the nuts and bolts of the game's development or its heroes (though they are here) than in the larger trends which shaped the game and were shaped by it. And while nothing can quite duplicate the sense of history one gets from being in the hallowed Hall--there are no plaques here, for one thing, and the sensory overload isn't nearly as great--this certainly will suffice for a large group of people who may never get to Cooperstown. More hopefully, it will entice them to make the effort to visit upstate New York. Any baseball fan in the New York City area owes him or herself a visit to this exhibit, and anyone lucky enough to find themselves in one of the tour's future cities
should do so as well when it passes through.