Continuing his fine coverage of the issue of gays in sports, ball talk's Alex Ciepley published his first-ever interview for his site this week, a two-partQ&A with Michael Muska. Muska's not a baseball player, but he's a man who has made some waves as the first openly gay male college coach (at my alma mater, Brown University) and athletic director (at Oberlin). Though his areas of specialty are track and cross-country, as one of the more visible gay men in the sports world, Muska's opinions on the matter of gays and homophobia in sports certainly bear watching.
Muska had coached track and cross country at prominent college and prep schools such as Auburn, Northwestern, and Andover, but it wasn't until he admitted that he was gay in his interview for the Oberlin post that his sexual orientiation became a public issue, making headlines on the Chronicle for Higher Education website, a news and job-info site aimed at college and university faculty and administrators. Essentially, he was professionally outed, an experience that Muska calls "mind-boggling." But he drew much support from the students at Oberlin, as well as the school's basketball coach, who compared the experience to his own encounting of racism while a student at the same school. Ultimately, Muska speaks positively of his own high-profile experience -- you won't find too many more liberal, accepting places than Brown or Oberlin.
But Muska's angle on professional athletes coming out isn't what you might expect. He says some pro athletes have come out to him, but he's reluctant to advise them to take it further:
BT: What advice do you give [the athletes who have come out to you]?
Muska: In many ways, I tell them to not come out. But I don't think there was ever a situation where any of them were thinking about coming out. It was more a conversation dealing with what it was like to be in sports and to be gay.
BT: So you would actually not advise a pro athlete to come out.
Muska: I just don't think it's worth going through. I wish it were.
It's kind of like a kid coming out. If the kid's going to come out to his family, it's a scary thing -- you're going to hope that you have a support network around you. Perhaps your parents or teachers at school. I think a pro athlete needs to know they've got that same support mechanism.
Until we see a general manager who brings in people to talk about homophobia in sports, until you see some leadership in pro teams do that, I think that a guy will say, "What's my support base, what's my safety net, what's in my contract to protect me?" Basically, there's nothing.
BT: But do you think that front offices will ever be ready, or do you think this is an issue that eventually will have to be forced?
Muska: I think it will eventually have to be forced. Just look at the hate that's coming up around the whole gay marriage issue. A lot of latent homophobia is really coming to the surface.
The leadership of most teams is smart enough to know where their fan base is, and if they lose those of us that are gay because they took a stand, I don't think they're going to care. Yankee Stadium is still going to fill up even if they don't support openly gay athletes.
Ouch. Muska's contrarian view of the situation seems pretty dark, especially to someone who'd like to believe the baseball world is ready for an openly gay player. But then again, what the hell do I know about coming out? It's all second-hand stuff from here.
Muska's words point to the fact that there's no uniformity of opinion even within the gay community about this issue. And the gay community's reaction is another area Muska has reservations about:
BT: How will the gay community react to an openly gay player in one of the big four sports?
Muska: For them to become the darling of the gay community might not be such a good thing. Think about the baseball player who finally comes out, and takes that huge risk, and all of the sudden there's a whole bunch of gay guys who aren't you and me, but are perhaps a bit more queeny, and decide that this is great that they have this guy. And they're in the stands, and they're yelling and waving and screaming.
BT: You potentially gain thousands and thousands of fans.
Muska: Yeah, but the ironic part is -- and this is a kind of sad thing to say -- people will jump on the bandwagon not because they're sports fans but because someone's gay.
Again, not necessarily what you'd expect from a man in his position, and perhaps not what those of us who like to consider ourselves open to the issue want to hear. But Muska's got real experience on the front lines of this situation, and his practical insights about gays in the locker room and in sports in general are certainly worth a read, as challenging as they are. Ciepley's done a good job of eliciting some interesting answers to tough questions. Check this stuff out.
Prolific blogger Aaron Gleeman, in conjunction with Bill James research assistant Matthew Namee, has launched a new baseball website called The Hardball Times. The duo has enlisted several familiar names to contribute to the site: Alex Belth, Craig Burley, Joe Dimino, Robert Dudek, Ben Jacobs, Vinay Kumar, Larry Mahnken, Bryan Smith, Dave Studenmund, and Steve Treder. Belth and Mahnken need no introduction to you Yankee fans reading this. Smith keeps the Wait Til Next Year blog, and Burley and Dudek are part of the fine Blue Jays-themed Batters Box. Jacobs runs the Universal Baseball Blog... no, check that, he's retiring the UBB. Dimino runs the Hall of Merit at Baseball Primer. Kumar and Treder are two of the more informative posters on Baseball Primer. Studenmund, or "Studes" runs the essential Baseball Graphs site. Pretty fair buncha writers there; I'm especially interested to see what some of the guys who I don't get to read regularly bring to the table.
The site offers a buffet of baseball content that is, dare I say, Gleemanesque. The Kid is currently running down his controversialTop 50 Prospect list, Jacobs and Mahnken, both of who live in Rochester, are covering the Sox-Yanks rivalry in a trash-talking column called "Rivals in Exile," and Jacobs is apparently covering the fantasy angle as well. The site's authors are previewing teams in a "Five Questions About" format, and they've also got a group blog. Whew! What there doesn't appear to be thus far is a links page or a comment mechanism, though I'm guessing that all those Primer connections will guarantee plenty of opportunity to chime in there.
One of the more interesting offerings from the site will be a Historical Win Shares database put together by Studes and Pete Simpson, which means I'll take great pleasure in kicking Bill James' unwieldy guide -- the most user-unfriendly baseball reference book ever -- to the furthest reaches of my closet. I'm not sure whether the Win Shares offered will be the old-school King James version or the refined version Studes and some other very smart folks have been working on over at Baseball Graphs, but either way, it beats trying to look things up in that goddamn book.
Anyway, I know that at least a few of the aforementioned writers read this site regularly, so let me wish them all a collective "best of luck" with the new site.
* * *
Speaking of groups of bloggers, my good pals at the All-Baseball site have been running a series of roundtables devoted to previewing each division. I'm a little late to actually reading these (yet another thing I'm behind in), but I've gone through and cherry-picked a few highlights...
I wouldn't put it past [Alex] Rodriguez to put his foot in his mouth, though. Rodriguez needs to be careful here. There is no way he can win a PR battle with [Derek] Jeter for the hearts of New York's fans. He'll never win. No matter how competitive Jeter is, he'll give the media the dull quote and move on. Rodriguez, on the other hand, loves the sound of his own voice. He also has something to prove -- which is incredible considering what he's already achieved.
In a man-bites-dog quip, Belth also predicted, as he apparently does every year, that the Red Sox would actually win the division. Reminds me of the time I was invited to bet on the Chicago Bulls against my Utah Jazz in the NBA finals -- "Either way you end up winning something," my "friend" tried to assure me. Um, no... Moving on the NL Central preview, Bryan Smith does a nice job crunching some numbers regarding the new starting pitchers of the contenders:
While Houston did improve their rotation, the degree to which they did is often overstated. Andy Pettitte may have been a fan-favorite in New York, but he has some bad indicators for the 2004 season. Pettite's road ERA was 4.24 last year, and he didn't deserve to win 21 games. In fact, Baseball Prospectus' SNWL report had Pettitte at 13-11, likely due to the fact that Pettitte had 6.58 runs scored by the Yankees every time he started. Compare that to the five main Houston starters last year, who received an average of 4.85 runs scored. Finally, Pettite and Clemens will in essence be replacing Ron Villone and Jeriome Robertson, who contributed 265.2 innings of 4.68 ERA.
On the other hand, Greg Maddux is being asked to replace Shawn Estes, the southpaw that had a 5.70 ERA in 151.2 innings. While Maddux also has some negative indicators, he's much more likely to improve a 5.70 ERA than the Houston duo improving a 4.68. Then when you factor in that Chicago has improved a bullpen, 1B, and 3B, it becomes no contest. The Cubs don't play the Brewers until early July, but then go on to play them more than twenty times the rest of the way. Chicago will also not have to worry about Houston in September, allowing the Astros and Cardinals to beat up on each other.
Here's Jon Wesiman on the Dodgers in the NL West preview:
Regarding the Dodgers (and by the way, I don't know that a good year from Jeff Weaver is the key to their success any more than a good year from Neifi Perez is for the Giants), here are the questions:
* If the Dodgers add one legitimate bat, do they not become a division contender?
* If the Dodgers add two legitimate bats, do they not become division favorites?
I say yes to both. Which leads to these questions:
* How likely is it that the Dodgers add a legitimate bat?
* How likely is it that the Dodgers add two legitimate bats?
I'd say the answer to the first question is, "More than likely." In his honeymoon year, even Frank McCourt is likely to accept a salary increase to improve the offense - and he's even more likely to accept a trade from the Dodger pitching depth to get the bat.
The Dodgers' offseason losses are somewhat neutralized by the lack of improvement elsewhere in the division. They are still a .500 team on paper. With the likely addition of at least one bat, you can put them back in the 85-win ballpark that people believe will make then contenders for the NL West title.
I still can't predict a title for Los Angeles, because I don't know that they'll make that big a leap. But there's a logic that I think forces you to keep them in mind.
Believe me, I want to like the Royals. But I've got to ask: "who is going to catch the ball for them in that bigger ballpark?" The Royals have a flyball type pitching staff but are they truly banking on Juan Gonzalez and Matt Stairs to chase down balls hit in the gap? I realize that Beltran is a great center fielder, but they may be asking a bit much of him out there this year.
Unlike the Twins and White Sox, the Royals at least tried to get better this winter. Detroit is the other team in the division where management seems bent on getting better. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, they don't give out an award for "trying".
There's a lot of talent sitting round those virtual tables, so check the series out when you get a chance.
Whether it's Virginia, Connecticut, Portland, Las Vegas, or points beyond, the Expos have no future in Montreal, and their present, with the losses of Vladimir Guerrero and Javier Vazquez over the winter, is no bed of roses. They need any excuse they can to draw fans to Olympic Stadium, where they averaged a paltry 13,537 per game last season. But it's tough to be cynical about the Expos' recent announcement that they will pay tribute to perhaps the greatest player from their past, Tim Raines, by retiring his number 30 this summer. Festivities are scheduled for June 19, when the Expos play the Chicago White Sox, the team for whom Raines played five years following his Montreal tenure. Since the retractable roof of Big Owe is long gone, there's no chance the game will be rained out.
This feel-good move gives whatever fans remain in the city one final chance to cheer for Raines, who made seven All-Star teams in parts of 13 seasons with the club. I note it not because I'll be there, but because Raines is one of my all-time favorite ballplayers as well. His 23-season career took me from the fever pitch of my early enthusiasm for the game to the semiprofessional obsession that my mid-30s has wrought. He was the National League's answer to Rickey Henderson in the early '80s, an electrifying ballplayer who set the baseball world on its ear by stealing 71 bases in only 88 games in the strike-torn 1981 season, and continued his base-stealing dominance with five more 70+ seasons.
But steals were only one facet of his game. He was a consummate leadoff hitter, getting on base well over 40 percent of the time at his peak and scoring 100 runs or more in a season six times. While we now know that stolen bases aren't as valuable as previously thought, any time you can lay an 84 percent success rate on top of a .400 OBP, you've got a guy who can get himself into scoring position a ton of times. Additonally, Raines had enough power to hit 170 homers, and his speed bought him a lot of doubles and triples as well. Late in his career, he was a handy bench player and clubhouse leader for two Yankee World Champion teams. He overcame both an early-career cocaine problem (reportedly he would slide headfirst to protect the vials in his back pocket) and a late-career bout with lupus that cost him the 2000 season. In late in 2001, he was traded to the Orioles for a chance to play on the same big-league team as his son, Tim Raines, Jr.
Two of my favorite Raines memories come from the 1987 season. A free agent the previous winter coming off a .334/.413/.476 season with 70 steals, Raines was a victim of the owners' collusion, receiving not a single offer for his services. As per league rules, he couldn't return to the Expos until May; his debut, on May 2 of that year was televised as NBC's Game of the Week. On that afternoon, Raines' gave a performance for the ages. Batting third, he tripled off of David Cone in his first at-bat, though was stranded at third. Next time up, he walked, stole second, and scored on a base hit. A groundout and a single followed. With the Expos trailing 6-4 in the 9th, he started a game-tying rally with a leadoff single then won the game in the 10th with a grand slam home run off of Jesse Orosco, his fourth hit on the day (apparently, I'm not the only fan of this performance). At the All-Star game that year, he came off the bench in the sixth inning, got three hits, the last of which, a two-run triple, broke a scoreless deadlock that had lasted to the 13th frame. For that, he took home the game's MVP award. On the season, Raines hit .330/.429/.526 with 18 homers and 50 steals (and was only caught five times). Had it not been for collusion, he might have won the MVP.
A couple of late-career highlights stand out in my mind as well. On April 30, 1998, I attended a Yankees-Mariners game with my brother, one that fit into our tradition of choosing epic slugfests between the two teams. That night, I saw something I'd never seen before -- two teams combining to score in every inning. With the Yanks down 8-7 in the bottom of the ninth and that every-inning status in jeopardy, Raines led off by smacking a game-tying homer off of Bobby (7.29 ERA) Ayala, and the Yanks scored in the 10th to win the game and preserve the strange streak.
On October 6, 2001, I was at Camden Yards for Cal Ripken Jr.'s final game. Raines was there as well, having recently been traded from the Expos to the O's so he could join his son for his promotion to the bigs. He didn't start, but in the eighth inning, he pinch-hit, stepping in to face David Cone for a moment that made my hair stand on end. Here's what I wrote at the time:
For my money, this was the best baseball moment of the night: two former teammates who set the tone for the legendary 1998 Yankees with their professionalism and class; two grizzled vets who knew the amazing peaks and harrowing valleys of baseball -- fighting injuries, poor health, and ineffectiveness in search of redemption. It was simply a delicious moment, especially with the possibility that both might be playing their own final games, albeit with considerably less fanfare than Ripken.
Having no genuine stake in the outcome, I found myself torn, hoping perhaps for a dramatic hit from Raines but reluctant to sully Cone's masterful performance. In the end, the crafty pitcher won out. Raines took a ball from Cone, then grounded sharply to shortstop for a fielder's choice to end the inning.
For what it's worth, both Raines and Cone did play again, the former spending 2002 as a pinch-hitter for the Florida Marlins, the latter with an aborted comeback attempt with the Mets last year. Oh well, you can't see them all off to retirement.
Is Raines a Hall of Famer? At first glance his 2,605 hits and .294/.385/.425 line suffer by comparison to Henderson, his exact contemporary (3,055 hits, .279/.401/.419). Unlike Rickey, he holds no major records; his 808 steals are good for fifth place, he's 29th in walks, and 44th in runs, while Rickey is numero uno in all three. He never won an MVP award or a Gold Glove, didn't make an All-Star team after that '87 game, and spent his post-35 years as a role player, getting a couple hundred plate appearances per season instead of padding his totals. The Bill James measures place him a bit below average on the Hall of Fame Standards scale (46.8, where 50 is an average HOFer), and short on the Hall of Fame Monitor Scale (90.5, where 100 is an average HOFer).
But from the advanced sabermetric point of view, Raines is a solid Hall of Famer. As I've discussed before, I created a system to analyze this year's Hall of Fame ballot for Baseball Prospectus based on BP's Wins Above Replacement Player numbers (WARP3, the historically adjusted version) in a weighted combination of career totals and five consecutive season peak. The idea behind it is to identify from an advanced statistical perspective what the standards are for the Hall of Famers ("How good are they really?") and then to measure similarly worthy candidates ("Who else meets them?"). By my measures, Raines is well above the standards for both leftfielders and outfielders.
BRAR, BRARP, and FRAA correspond to Batting Runs Above Replacement Player, Batting Runs Above Replacement Position, and Fielding Runs Above Average, three measures from within Clay Davenport's WARP system. WARP3 is the career total, PEAK is the best five-season stretch, and WPWT is the average of those two figures, which is what I used for ranking purposes. Here's where Raines would place as a leftfielder among the enshrinees; for the hell of it, I'll throw in a couple of mortal locks who are still active:
Among retirees he's the fourth-best leftfielder of all-time, and when Bonds and Henderson are factored in, he's still sixth. Only nine other Hall of Fame outfielders besides the ones above him can top that weighted score -- Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Aaron, Speaker, Ott, Mantle, Frank Robinson, and DiMaggio. A general rule of thumb: when you don't need to give the others in your class first names, you're in pretty select company.
One of the more interesting things about the above chart is that Raines' peak by this method is higher than Henderson's -- about half a win per year. Henderson is penalized by the five consecutive season method, as his highest WARP3 totals came in 1980, 1985, and 1990, diluting their impact for the purposes of these calculations. Henderson's five best seasons overall total 57.4 WARP3, while Raines' are the same ones shown above. But it's no stretch to say that at his peak he was as good a ballplayer as Henderson, and that he absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
Will Raines get in? I'm more optimistic after running these numbers than I was before. I think he'll benefit by being championed by statheads and what I'll call the alternative baseball media -- blogs and other outsiders, including Baseball Prospectus' team of analysts -- in a way that, say, Bert Blyeleven (who's every bit as worthy) has not for a couple of reasons. First, by the time he's even eligible, statistical analysis will have four more years of making inroads into the mainstream, whereas with Blyleven, the support has become more popular only as his clock has ticked. Blyleven's been though seven ballots and is inching upward, but ever so slowly; he's now at 35 percent, less than half of the votes required.
Second, unlike Blyleven, a large percentage of those arguing most vehemently on his behalf will be the ones who saw Raines play at his peak, a peak that almost certainly made an impression on voters in a way that Blyleven's may not have. The Expo version of Raines was electric, man, like a giant neon sign that flashed, "One Hell of a Ballplayer!" Pity those who missed him. I think we'll have work to do to convince many of the voters that Raines is a legitimate Hall of Famer, but I suspect more of them will be listening to what we have to say by that time.
Roberts manages a few slick turns-of-phrase in her effort -- "coloring outside the basepaths" wowed a couple pals of mine. But she's done in by her own hyperbole, trying way too hard to hang the geek mantle on Beane, who "didn't invent sabermetrics, a sci-fi word formed from S.A.B.R., the Society of American Baseball Research (a k a The No-Life Institute)..." Groan. I think there's supposed to be a rim-shot there, but it didn't make the online edition. Instead, Roberts writes that Beane "applies the tenets of numeric efficiency found in the stapled baseball abstracts of the 70's fringe writer Bill James."
Now, James may have been on the fringe in the '70s, but by the early '80s he was selling hundreds of thousands of copies of those Baseball Abstracts annually and gracing the New York Times Bestseller lists in the process. His thoughts may not have been accepted into the mainstream baseball establishment, but he wasn't exactly a nobody back then. And he's anything but a nobody now.
I honestly don't understand why this piece is wasting space in the Sunday Times. It isn't like they haven't covered Beane before -- after all, they excerptedMoneyball to tantalizing effect last March. And they've already shown that the can cover the story on both sides of the gender divide, with Janet Maslin reviewing the book; clearly, she got it in a way that clearly eluded Roberts. So why are they publishing this? Why is Roberts trying so hard to keep up with the Ringolsbys of the writing world? And just what the hell is Billy Beane's dog doing at the end of the story?
Beane's dog roams and sheds freely around the Oakland offices. Tag is a black-and-white border collie -- a breed known as one of the smartest and most precise. No, Tag is not replacing a scout, but what else would Beane own but a geek's best friend -- in character, as always.
Why? Because this is the epitome of a shaggy dog story -- that's why. Ba-dum-bum!
Another former Yankee coach who had done just that, Chris Chambliss, was held up as a counterexample. In addition to serving as a major-league hitting coach for over a decade for the Cardinals, Yanks (1996-2000) and Mets, Chambliss has managed in the minors for five seasons, from 1989-1992 and again in 2001. Like Randolph, he's been on his share of unsuccessful interviews for big league managing jobs, and in his case, his past experience hasn't elevated his candidacy.
We wondered aloud as to Chambliss' wherebouts, and as if on cue, the Management by Baseball blog called attention to a Cincinnati Enquirer piece about his new role as the Reds hitting coach. It seems Chambliss has been making waves in Sarasota (where the Reds train) for reviving the classic baseball drill of Pepper as a means of increasing hand-eye coordination. Writes Paul Daugherty in the Enquirer:
I've seen Pepper a few times, in grainy newsreels where Babe Ruth is mincing his way around the bases about 100 miles an hour and every player's hat looks like it comes with a propeller. Three guys in baggy flannels, fielding slaps from a fourth guy a few feet away, choking up on a fungo bat. Pepper was popular when Bonnie and Clyde were robbing the building and loan.
...Pepper is so out of fashion, most ballparks don't even bother with the NO PEPPER signs that once adorned backstop walls. It's just assumed nobody will play.
Reds batting coach Chris Chambliss brought it back this year. Pepper teaches bat control and enhances reaction skills. This is what the players say. At least some of them.
I have only the vaguest memories of playing Pepper myself in Little League or baseball camp, and from the omnipresence of those "No Pepper" signs in ballparks, it really has been de-emphasized for quite awhile. Like Daugherty, the first thing that pops into my mind is archival footage of old-timers fooling around; in my case it's the "Gashouse Gang," the St. Louis Cardinals of Leo Durocher and Pepper Martin stylishly doing so in the fantastic When It Was a Game DVD series.
Regarding the archaic drill, MBB blogger Jeff Angus elaborates:
The concept is the hitter is making contact with balls coming from a myriad of angles and spins, and using the wrists and arms to react quickly. The fielders and trying to snare balls hit at them from very close range and that requires not only quick hands and weight/balance changes, but hones the ability to predict the direction a ball will take. That's the way it's supposed to work.
Over the last twenty years, and especially since the ball was juiced for the 1994 season, the incremental value of fielding has inched down, and as the frequency of power hitting has gone up, the incremental value of putting a ball in play without a lot of mustard (that is, a ball you focus on hitting squarely at a specific angle rather than swinging through with power) has gone down too.
Whether this will actually help the Reds remains to be seen; their lousy defense (26th in Defensive Efficiency) and situational hitting (25th in OPS with runners in scoring position at .727) certainly left something to be desired. It's the definition of springtime optimism to suggest that this could make a huge difference in the Reds' fortunes, but should they show improvement which can be remotely traced to the drill, this might be a nice feather in Chambliss' cap the next time he interviews.