19 to 21
John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available.
Contact John at email@example.com
19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History
Volume 13, #25, December 30, 2015
My Opening Farewell
Some years ago Bonnie Raitt recorded a Jackson Browne song entitled, “My Opening Farewell.” The song doesn’t have anything to do with baseball, or even writing, but I always thought it was a good generic exit line. So, after 13 years of “19 to 21,” this is my opening farewell.
Having been a sportswriter off-and-on since 1968 or so, I can say I’ve enjoyed writing “19 to 21” as much as I’ve enjoyed writing anything; naturally, because it’s about baseball (and there haven’t been any editors around to mess with the prose – such is one of the joys of the Internet.) However, all good things must come to an end, and, with two sons approaching college in 2017, and a daughter returning to college that same year, the time has come to turn to other literary pursuits that, quite candidly, will pay better.
So, this will be the last installment of “19 to 21.” (Although I may from time-to-time have something to say on baseball, either in the form of another book or occasional comments that I will send out to my “19 to 21” list. To all who have already sent in their subscriptions for 2016, I will be returning your checks shortly.)
Since it’s my opening farewell, and my column, I’m entitled this one time to look back at my own history from the 2003 to the 2015 seasons. Without a doubt, my two favorite years during that time were the first “19 to 21,” the 2003 season that became my first book, “Baseball: 1862 to 2003,” and the 2008 version, which became my most recent book, “The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella.” Quite understandably, the 2008 book is a favorite since it also chronicled the season of the Phillies winning the World Series.
Let’s take a trip back to look at what I would consider the highlights off first the 2003 version of “19 to 21” and then the “2008” version.
I rather liked the very first “19 to 21,” actually dated Dec. 16, 2002, and recognizing the 24th anniversary of Pete Rose signing what was then the largest free agent contract in history, $3.2 million over four years. The “hook” was that, while Pete was (and still is, 13 years later) persona non gratia in MLB, he was a unique player. You could take his career offensive totals, divide them in half, and still be pretty close to having TWO Hall of Fame resumes.
In late March 2003, the 101st anniversary of the Chicago National League team being called the “Cubs” came up, and with it an interesting statistic; in the years since 1945 (their last appearance in the World Series) the Cubs at that point had played sub-.500 ball in September 41 times. Considering that’s a span of 57 years, their relative failures in the home stretch can’t be a statistical illusion. There’s got to be SOMETHING going on… maybe that the one thing all those teams had in common was that they played half of their games in Wrigley Field, and that as result, even now, they play a lot more day games than any other team. The heat? The odd scheduling? Who knows?
In June 2003, “everyone” was raving about the Rays’ new star, Rocco Baldelli. However, Rocco wasn’t nearly the star he was thought to be, and would, indeed, soon flame out. Why was that? Well, the concept of Isolated Power as a means of measuring a player’s extra base power by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage was the rage then in terms of a new metric for measuring offensive performance. But, what about a measurement of plate discipline? Why not subtract batting average from on base average and call that Isolated Discipline?” Since no one could tell me not to, I did.
Turns out that Baldelli never met a pitch he didn’t like, and his ID was a horrible .027, almost historically low, like Shawon Dunston low. In other words, he wasn’t exactly Max Bishop (.152), Gene Tenace (.150), Eddie Yost (.141) or Ferris Fain (.135). And, as a result, Rocco never became a great player. Of course, no one’s ever heard of ID since then, either.
The Red Sox going against what had become an entrenched strategy, using a single relief pitcher to invariably close out games, was the subject of a July 2003 column on “platoon closers.” Although a made-up term for a situation that was, by that time, passe, the idea of having a right-handed AND a left-handed closer available to make it easier to keep the platoon advantage late in the game would seem to make sense. Although the Single Closer Theory (not to be confused with the Single Bullet Theory) was set in stone by the end of the 1990s, if you just go back to the decade of the 1980s, there were no less than 41 teams who had both a lefty and a righty closing games.
An albatross that would hang around until 2007, when the good old Mets blew a seven game lead on the Phillies with 17 games to play, the denouement of the 1964 season needed to be revisited in September 2003. Without going into an argument that has been previously been made several times, suffice it to say that Gene Mauch DID NOT blow the 1964 National League pennant by pitching Jim Bunning and Chris Short on “short” rest.
Yes, they each did start twice on two days rest during the Phillies 10-game losing streak, but Mauch had no other options. His three and four starters, Dennis Bennett and Art Mahaffey, were both suffering from arm injuries. Number five starter Ray Culp was wilder than Ryne Duren on the sauce and had only made 19 starts all year, and the sixth starter, Rick Wise, was 18 years old. The real problem was, they didn’t have any starting pitching depth, something that should have been addressed long before mid-September.
Finally, for 2003, was an after-the-season look at great baseball books. Of course, everyone has their own opinion, but IMHO, the five greatest baseball books were (and are); “Ball Four,” the “Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia,” “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” “The Long Season,” and “The Great American Novel.” The first four rate because of the broader meaning of great – each of these broke new ground and/or changed the parameters for baseball books/reporting. The last is still the best baseball-themed novel, although “Calico Joe” has given it a run for the money, and there’s no denying the quality of “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.,” “Shoeless Joe” or “If I Never Get Back.”
On to 2008, a season that began with a suggestion from Bob Costas in regards to what to do with the mess PEDs (or rather, their users -- take a bow, Mr. Bonds) had made of the record book. Costas suggested that the best way to deal with the mess was to include a preface in the record books noting that baseball has had a far longer history than any other team sport in the U.S., and that there have been many changes in the game over the past 150 years, and that these changes have greatly affected the game’s records. This would be followed by a listing of said changes, everything from the advent of gloves to adjustments in the walk/strikeout counts, to the changes in the construction of the ball, to PEDs. And, finally, that said changes should be taken into account when reviewing the records.
In other words, provide a guide to baseball history along with the records, and a cavet emptor to all who would read the records. Of course, this made too much sense to ever be instituted. This was the Bud.com Era, after all.
Having begun with a whimper, the season picked up steam in Spring Training, when one fine comedian and baseball fan, Billy Crystal, made the news by pinch-hitting in a Spring Training game for the Yankees on the day before his 60th birthday. In living out the ultimate fantasy, Crystal brought to mind a few other instances of non-professionals doing, if not the exactly same thing, at least joining the ranks of major leaguers.
This sort of thing happened fairly often in the 19th Century, when rosters were much smaller and the player personnel rules were rather loosely followed. For instance, the 20-133 Cleveland Spiders recruited 19-year-old Eddie Koob to pitch their last game in 1899. Eddie worked in the cigar stand in the Spiders’ hotel, and pitched sort of like a Cigar Store Indian, losing 19-3.
Probably the most famous non-professional to appear in a major league game (expect for Bill Veeck’s midget Eddie Gaedel with the 1951 Browns) was Charles Victor Faust, who persuaded the superstitious John McGraw in 1911 that he was a good luck charm, as per a fortune teller’s prediction. As Fred Snodgrass told the tale to Larry Ritter in “The Glory of Their Times,” although Charlie couldn’t pitch to save his life, he stuck with the Giants for a couple of years, and, indeed, New York did win the NL pennant in both of those seasons. And, in fact, Faust actually did get into a couple of games at the end of the 1911 season.
In addition to Crystal, there have been several other cases of celebrities getting into spring games under similar circumstances – Bruce Hornsby, Tom Selleck, Charlie Pride, and Garth Brooks. Ah, the dreams…
Naturally, the 2008 season generated controversy in the form of the Hall of Fame elections. Why not, that’s happened every year from 2003 to 2015 (and did so before and will do so after.) To those of us who favor the Hall actually accurately representing baseball history, the biggest story in 2008 was one that had come up before, has come up since, and will come up yet again in 2017. Dick Allen. According to Adjusted OPS, and that’s a statistic, not an opinion, the 19th best hitter in the history of baseball. He wasn’t elected in 2008, he missed by one vote in 2015 and, rest assured my friends, with Mark “Frog” Carfagno leading a sophisticated PR campaign in Allen’s favor, this subject will come up again in a couple of years. Be ready.
As the 2008 season progressed, there were various other happenings with historical connections. Ken Griffey, Jr., hitting his 600th home run. Asdrubal Cabrera turning an unassisted triple play, notable because he was playing for the Indians, a team that unassisted triple plays seem to follow around. Two guys with 500+ homeruns getting traded on the same day (Junior and Manny). The incredible Jamie Moyer, 45 years old that season, leading a World Series-winning team in wins and tying Phil Niekro’s record for the most wins at the age of 45 (and he wasn’t done yet, Moyer would pitch until he was 49.) And then, finally the big story for all Phillies fans, or as, Chase Utley put it at the celebration on Halloween, “World’s F’ing Champions.”
From an historical standpoint, the most interesting thing about the 2008 Series wasn’t that the Rays, like most other Cinderella teams, were destined to turn into pumpkins. (Hence the second half of the title of the book.) It was that, although the Phillies had won only two of their six World Series appearances up to that point, they were more the victim of the breaks going against them in the 1915, 1950, 1983 and 1993 Series, wherein they lost no less than 10 one-run games.
As is commonly-known, the outcome of one-run games is often a matter of luck, or the breaks of the game, or the like. In fact, their four losses in 1915 were ALL one-run games. As break here or there in that Series, and the team’s entire history might well have been different, as in, maybe William Baker doesn’t give away Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1917, but instead turns the team over to someone who could actually try to win.
Well, such are the breaks, hence the first part of the book’s title.
In conclusion, I hark back to the greatest baseball book ever written, “Ball Four,” which also includes Jim Bouton’s summary of baseball, the greatest single line ever written about baseball, “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out it was the other way around all the time.” Yes, that’s it. Maybe I’ll still see you around this gripping game.