On the day of the first game of the World Series, I spent part of my morning working on my healthy Giants hatred. I watched a well-made HBO documentary called "The Shot Heard 'Round The World", about the 1951 pennant race which climaxed with Bobby Thomson's home run. The hour-long doc was interesting for its variety of footage (some of it color), its lengthy interviews with the two principals of the event, Thomson and Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, and for incorporating the relatively recent revelations about the Giants' system of stealing signs. Without those revelations, which came to light via Giants bullpen catcher Sal Yvars last year, this is a tale I know all too well. But watching Thomson squirm in his seat as he denied being tipped off about the fateful pitch made for some entertaining viewing.
Mind you, I don't necessarily believe that Thomson *was* tipped off, but on the other hand, what the hell was he doing swinging at an 0-1 fastball that was high and inside? There's no question in my mind that the Giants' sign-stealing did help them, at least enough to aid the stretch drive which force the tie and necessitated that playoff series. Rob Neyer had a good column about the Giants' sign-stealing when it broke as news in early 2001, pointing out (thanks to statistics supplied by Dave Smith of Retrosheet, who appears in the documentary) that the Giants' hitting performance at home actually worsened after the sign-stealing started. In the doc, Smith points out that only three Giants hitters improved at home after the sign-stealing started, but that one of them was Thomson. That doesn't lessen his achievement, in my mind--he still had to hit the damn ball, and I've always shared the view as it pertains to baseball that it ain't cheating if you don't get caught. But it doesn't endear me to the Giants, either.
Other than that loathing, and my general appreciation for the World Series, I don't have a lot to latch onto in this matchup. I'm rooting for the Angels primarily because of who they aren't, and secondarily because of the impressive way they demolished everything in their path to the Series. Their contact-hitting philosopy is a different approach from what we've seen the past few years, and it seems to make solid but otherwise innocuous hitters into dangerous pests. Their two 10-hit innings--something done only one other time in postseason baseball history--have magnified their stature as a rally-making machine.
And speaking of rally-making, I have a sneaking suspicion that rookie pitcher Francisco Rodriguez is the real Rally Monkey. Not only have his first four major-league wins have all come in the postseason, but the Angels have scored an astounding 23 runs while he's occupied the pitcher's spot, including those two 10-hit innings. Meanwhile, Rodriguez has made hitters look foolish; scouts have compared him to a young Mariano Rivera with his nasty stuff. I look at Rodriguez and, despite a notable lack of girth. I see Fernando Valenzuela circa 1980. Valenzuela came up as a 19-year old in mid-September and became the secret weapon out of the Dodger bullpen as they came down the stretch, tossing 17.2 scoreless innings in the last two weeks of the season--his first two weeks in the bigs. Had Tommy Lasorda the courage to hand him the ball for their one-game playoff against the Houston Astros instead of free-agent failure Dave Goltz, they may well have won the NL West that year.
That digression brings me to the angle which interests me most about this World Series. Namely, both managers were key players on the Dodger teams I rooted for in my youth and teammates for four seasons, including their 1981 World Championship. Baker played eight of his 19 big league seasons for the Dodgers, and was their starting leftfielder for four division and three pennant winners. He also played on two All-Star teams during his Dodger tenure. After a miserable debut season in LA in 1976 (4 HR and a 605 OPS in 421 PA), Baker rebounded to become one of their record-setting quartet of 30-homer hitters in 1977, and was the MVP of the 1977 LCS against the Phillies. But on a team with Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Reggie Smith, and Davey Lopes, Dusty was a secondary weapon who often hit sixth and rarely had to carry the offense.
Baker had something of an acrimonious parting from the Dodgers. They tried to trade him to Oakland during the 1983 winter meetings, but as a 10-and-5 man, Baker vetoed the trade. The Dodgers unceremoniously waived him shortly afterwards, and he was signed by the Giants, the only season he ever played for the team he currently manages. Baker then found his way to the A's for the final two years of his career. I actually got his autograph in spring training 1986 in Arizona while he was with the A's, as well as a pretty decent photo of him, taken as I called out "Hey, Dusty!"
Mike Scioscia was one of only two regulars who played on both Dodger World Championship teams of the Eighties (the other being Steve Sax). A catcher for whom the term "solidly built" was an understatement, Scioscia's primary asset was his defense; simply put, he blocked the plate like no other player. Most famously, in 1985 he was knocked unconscious in a collision with the Cardinals' Jack Clark, but held onto the ball. Offensively, Scioscia biggest asset was a keen batting eye--he walked almost twice as often as he struck out, and had a lifetime OBP of .344. He didn't have much power (68 career homers over 13 seasons). But he'll always have a spot in the hearts of Dodger fans for the ninth-inning, game-tying home run he hit off of Dwight Gooden in Game Four of the 1988 NLCS--the game in which Orel Hershiser, who'd pitched the night before, came out of the bullpen in the 12th inning to get the save. In the annals of great Dodger homers of my era, Scioscia's bomb sits behind only Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit miracle in the 1988 World Series and Rick Monday's 9th inning homer in the 1981 NLCS which sunk Les Expos. On the Angels, Scioscia's bench includes two other players from that 1988 championship, hittting coach Mickey Hatcher and first base coach Alfredo Griffin.
Baker and Scioscia are the fourth set of former teammates to oppose each other as World Series managers, and the first to have played on a Series winner together. Tommy Lasorda, who's got a quote for all occasions, has weighed in, saying that he told both that they would become big-league managers. No word on which of his proteges he's pulling for to win the World Series, but if he's anything like me, he can't find it in him to pull for those hated Giants.
Oh, you want a prediction? Mine haven't fared so well this postseason, and neither have my rooting interests. If the Series is short, I'd say it favors the Angels. But unless Scioscia brings back Washburn to start Game Four, a Game Seven matchup would feature the excitable Ramon Ortiz against cucumber-cool Livan Hernandez. If I've learned anything over the past five years, it's never bet against los dos Hernandez in October. I wouldn't mind being wrong (hey, being wrong seems to be what I do whenever I make one of these whack-ass predictions), but I'm saying Giants in seven.
Keith Olbermann's gig as a columnist at Salon hasn't been much to write home about -- like the rest of his career since leaving ESPN, actually. Last week he penned a shit-stirring piece about Buck Showalter's turbulent history with the Yankees. In it, he posited that an enraged George Steinbrenner, fresh off his team's first-round playoff defeat, might be poised to bring Showalter in as GM, Executive Vice President, or perhaps field manager.
Olbemann's piece was weak and misinformed, far removed from the pulse of the Yankees. Showing exactly how in tune he was with the story, Showalter was hired to manage the Texas Rangers two days later. Close one, Keith. It was almost as if the former ESPN anchor were yearning for his old beat, a simpler day when the Yanks hadn't rediscovered their winning formula, and controversy in the Bronx was as easy to find as the Boss himself.
Wrote Olbermann, "Remember, at all times, that George Steinbrenner is not the kind of man to sit around and act rationally when a situation calls for panic." That description may have suited the Steinbrenner of old to a T, but it hardly does today, except in the imaginations of Yankee-haters. King George may be make his execs' Octobers a living hell; Brian Cashman has likely scrubbed every toilet in Tampa by now. But the Yanks didn't get to the point where losing in the first round is unacceptable by shooting themselves in the foot at every opportunity. Their braintrust's patience and vision, not to mention George's deep pockets, ensure that they'll be back without dramatic bloodletting.
Olbermann's offering this week may turn out no more accurate than his Showalter piece, but it's considerably more entertaining and historically credible. Writing about Giants manager Dusty Baker and his battles with owner Peter Magowan, Olbermann invokes the strange and sad tale of Johnny Keane.
The Keane saga a fascinating one of Machiavellian managerial machinations. Books have been written on the subject, most notably David Halberstam's October 1964 and a lengthy, entertaining chapter in Bill Veeck's The Hustler's Handbook (a shorter version of Veeck's piece appears in an obscure but wonderful Jim Bouton-edited anthology on managers, "I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad" ). For those unfamiliar with the story, Keane was the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964. As the Cards plodded along in the second division into August, a front-office coup led by Branch Rickey (then an advisor to owner Gussie Busch) ousted GM Bing Devine, who had hired Keane. Behind the scenes, the Cards made arrangements to replace Keane with Leo Durocher in 1965. The front office had written that year's team off. But suddenly, spurred by Lou Brock (Devine's last acquisition), the Redbirds got red-hot, and took the pennant while the Philadelphia Phillies collapsed.
Suddenly amazed at their own good fortune, the Cardinals made overtures to retain Keane, but he put them off until after the World Series. In a classic, the Cards suprised the Yanks in seven games. Just as they prepared to announce a new contract for their manager, Keane shocked the Cardinals by resigning -- to take a job managing the Yanks! Having spent the summer stumbling along under their own manager, Yogi Berra -- if spending weeks in third place, 15 games over .500 can be considered stumbling -- the Yankees had contacted Keane late in the season when both teams' fates appeared sealed, their field generals privately scapegoated. Quite a surprise then (not to mention an embarrassment to the brass of both ballclubs) to find them matched up in the Fall Classic.
Anyway, back to Olbermann, who speculates that though Dusty Baker has finally taken his team to the World Series, he may be bound for greener pastures. More specifically, the greener pastures of Safeco Field in Seattle, where Lou Piniella will kick hats and hurl bases no more. Writes Olbermann, referring to sources close to Baker, "[T]he Seattle Mariners would never have put their current manager Lou Piniella up for sale so quickly if they had not already exchanged yearning, knowing winks with his successor, and that -- unofficially and within the parameters of contractual monogamy -- those kisses were blown to, and by, Baker."
Baker's contract status is no secret, of course. A three-time Manager of the Year, Baker has long been regarded as one of the game's top leaders, more for his ability to connect with players than for his strategic acumen. Earlier this postseason, his name was linked with the New York Mets' managerial opening, a position for which Piniella now seems to be the candidate du jour.
Olbermann offers not only Keane but also Dick Williams (who quit the World Champion A's in 1973, ostensibly bound for the Yanks until Charlie O. Finley intervened) as cautionary tales for Baker. The former was canned 20 games into his second season -- the Yankees' long Dark Age had begun -- and dead of a heart attack the next year. The latter merely had to settle for managing the California Angels at the nadir (at least until he was arresed for indecent exposure a couple years ago) of his distinguished career. As Olbermann, not to mention Veeck (who titled his chapter "Which of Us Took the Greater Fall?") seem to be telling us, fate has a knack of making sure nobody wins in these dramas (except the 1974 A's, I suppose).
Olbermann goes on to catalog the litany of misery the Angels have endured; the smell of death's around them, in car crashes and gunshots. In addition to Donnie Moore, the one I remember vividly is Lyman Bostock, an star outfielder shot to death in late September 1978. Bostock was the first athlete I recall dying in mid-season (Thurman Munson followed less than a year later); at nine years old, I remember staring numbly at his baseball card, trying to comprehend the poor man's fate. "Was he wearing his uniform when he was shot?" seemed to be the most I could muster.
Suffice it to say, I enjoyed Olbermann's article, but I sincerely hope that Dusty and the Angels fare better than his unsettling examples.
One more thing: for taking four franchises into the postseason and three to the World Series (two winners), Dick Williams should be in the Hall of Fame.
Five words that strike an icy dagger to the heart. Five words that--in a particular cadence, repeated with a maniacal enthusiasm--describe what might rank as the game's signature moment. Five words that never fail to turn my stomach, though that signature moment happened 18 years before I was born, and though my faith in the Dodgers has waned in the face of geographic convenience.
Five words that I've only had to hear referring to the present tense once before this week. Five words that every Giants fan shouted aloud after Kenny Lofton blooped Steve Kline's pitch over second base on Monday night. Five words I could do without hearing again for a long time. It's been 48 years since the Giants last won the World Series, but that buys no sympathy here. Or in Boston, or in Cleveland, or on the North Side of Chicago, I'll bet. Not that the Giants fans spend a lot of time bemoaning that drought, or developing an entire catalog of neuroses around it. I can respect that, at least.
Giants fan "Ponderous" John Perricone of Only Baseball Matters is in a festive mood thanks to the Giants' berth in the Series, even going so far as to paint his weblog those lovely (cough, cough) team colors. He's got a little analysis of the two teams' offenses up today which is worth a mention. One thing John keys upon is the Angels ability to avoid strikeouts:
By being so tough to strikeout, the Angels really work over a pitcher and a team. They not only eat up a huge number of pitches, fouling off one after another; but they also put a lot of pressure on their opponents defense, because invariably they put the ball in play; often-times on a flair or a bloop or some other demoralizing, exhausting, frustrating way. Finishing off these hitters has undone two terrific rotations, and it's the main reason they are in the World Series. It's how they were able to put together those two innings of mayhem... Angels have hit an astonishing .310/.310/.552 with an 0-2 count in these playoffs. This is the key to their offensive success, and I believe it is the key to this series. Can they continue to produce in such obviously difficult counts."
John sees the Angels coming back to earth offensively, their breaks evening out to give the Giants a good shot.
I'll weigh in with my own take on the Series tomorrow, as I literally don't have the stomach to do so today. I'm under the weather, and the weather in NYC is miserable.
It took me exactly a week, but I've found a silver lining to these pinstripe-free playoffs. The ability to leap from a burning bandwagon just before it careens off the cliff may not be one of man's more noble traits. But it sure comes in handy these days.
I'm referring not to the Minnesota Twins, whose charmed season ended in a rather brutal massacre at the hands of the Anaheim Angels on Sunday. The Little Engine that Could Embarrass Bud and Carl simply ran out of steam, its bullpen imploding not once but twice in shocking fashion on consecutive days. I pulled for the Twins against the Angels--not enough to paint my face, but enough to feel a twinge of pain as their season slipped away one base hit after another. Their falling apart bore a striking resemblance to the rallies which buried the Yankees last week.
I didn't desert the Twins, to whom I'll return below. But Sunday night I formally ejected myself from the flaming chassis of the St. Louis Cardinals. Not that I'd jumped ON their bandwagon, exactly. Given that I'd sooner attack the headstone of Johnny Roseboro's grave with a baseball bat than root for the Giants, I found myself with a sudden stake in the Cardinals' fate. Now I'd just as soon drive that stake into their hearts myself. Despite a handful of engaging, gritty good-to-great ballplayers and an emotional back story, the Cardinals can officially rot.
The Cards' undoing in this series is primarily at the hands of manager Tony La Russa, who hamstrung his team in choosing his roster. Keeping the injured Scott Rolen active on the hopes that he might be available by Game Three or Game Five or whatever is one matter. Devoting two roster spots to non-hitting catchers named Mike is another, though in fairness the usually overmatched Matheny (630 OPS) has been solid with the bat lately. But carrying a dozen pitchers--an amount that sets off alarm bells in right-thinking adults for the number of mid-inning pitching changes it heralds, not to mention the number of eggs tossed into one basket it resembles--is a colossal blunder.
And failing to take advantage of the depth that creates (however dubiously) is a hanging offense. In Game One, La Russa allowed starter Matt Morris to languish long after he'd shown he lacked his best stuff. Down 5-1 after 2 innings, the Genius (in the Wile E. Coyote sense, apparently) kept Morris in for 2 1/3 more as the Giants tacked on two more runs en route to a 9-6 victory. On Sunday night, La Russa left in reliever Rick White into his third inning, long enough to face Benito Santiago a second time. Nearly corkscrewing himself into the ground, Santiago made contact with White's 41st pitch, sending it over the leftfield wall for a two-run game-breaking homer.
So when in the hell was La Russa plannng on using the other 17 men in his bullpen? Honestly, if he can't be bothered to find a way to work this idiotic choice to his advantage, then I shouldn't waste my breath worrying about whether the Cardinals can win one for the late Jack Buck or Little Timmy Kile.
I've got other misgivings about the Cards, mind you. Second baseman Fernando Viña is apparently more fastidious about facial hair than fielding or baserunning. First baseman Tino Martinez specializes in fighting off 0-2 pitch after 0-2 pitch until he can find the right one to pop up into shallow right center, for which he's sorely missed in Da Bronx. He's also adept enough at bunting to try once every six years, and hey, a fielder's choice is as good as a walk, right? God forbid La Russa should find a better option at first base than his 1-for-22 glove man.
And heaven help us if he gives the Giants any more ammo with his ninnying in the press either. Whether it's dispensing hitting advice to Barry Bonds or whining about Kenny Lofton, he's got me rooting for Dusty Baker to break out a can of Whoop Ass the next time the two are toe-to-toe. Screw the Cardinals, I refuse to suffer them another inning. I'll watch the remaining postseason in the hopes that the Giants lose, because I'd sooner have my fingernails pulled off and raked down a blackboard while Joe Morgan and Bobby Thomson conduct a symposium on Dodger-killing home runs than see them win.
But I don't care who offs them. Pass me my Mouseketeer ears and my stuffed Rally Monkey and my inflatable red dildoes. Go Angels!
Whew, enough bile for one week. Now, back to the Twins. Despite Baseball Prospectus' Chris Kahrl's rather prescient forecast for doom at the outset of the series, Joe Mays was not their undoing. Saddled with a shaky rotation, any manager offered two keep-'em-in-the-game starts from a guy who'd gone 4-8 (5.38 ERA) during the season would have gladly taken that. Of course, when your relievers can't find the plate, it doesn't matter much anyway.
What drove me crazy about the Twins was manager Ron Gardenhire's limiting outfielder Bobby Kielty to pinch-hitting duties. Kielty is a switch-hitter with a .405 OBP this season. He's good enough with the leather to be a backup centerfielder, and he kills righties (912 OPS). I know these things because he was on my fantasy team, the second-place Mendoza Line Drivers of the Homer Bush League IV. Gardenhire gave at bats to Mike Cuddyer and Dustan Mohr, two decent players with nowhere near the offensive capabilities of Kielty at this juncture. It was telling that Gardenhire sent Kielty to the plate for the Twins' most important at bat of the season--bases loaded, one out, down by a run in the seventh inning of potentially their final game, facing The Kid (Kielty walked, forcing in the tying run). But it was just as telling that Gardenhire hadn't found him a way to get four or five chances per game given the wealth of his talents and some of his teammates' weaknesses (e.g., Jaque Jones against lefies, or walk-phobic David Ortiz).
Still, Gardenhire and the Twins have nothing to hang their heads about. For them to survive long enough to play this season was a moral victory. For them to thrive long enough to win a playoff series and provide their long-suffering fans with a reason to wave their Homer Hankies was an even bigger one. With several budding stars, strong prospects, and a talented young manager, they have a bright future. My hat is off to them for a great season.
Postscript: the Giants beat the Cardinals 2-1 to advance to the World Series. New York has its Subway Series, will Californians call theirs the Battle of the Big Inflatable Dildoes?
Post-postscript: I did find one thing to like about the Giants. Benito Santiago's success reminded me of an obscure song by the acerbic Chicago post-punk band Big Black. Dedicated to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the song "Il Duce" has as its refrain, "I am Benito, and I like my job." It's given me great amusement to utter those words every time he steps to the plate. Simple pleasures, man.