The Magic Bottle TheoryThe deadline deal that caused the deadline
The first 20 years of American League play were sufficient to establish the St. Louis Browns as permanent cellar dwellers. From 1901 to 1919, the club (which was the Milwaukee Brewers in 1901) had two first division finishes, five last-place finishes, and three seasons of over 100 losses. The team's record for those years was an inglorious 1195-1613 (.426).
In 1917, the Browns, owned by the tempestuous ice-making magnate Phillip deCatesby (do we still have ice-making magnates? Is there a Frosty Bill Gates out there?) dismissed GM Branch Rickey and hired J.A. Robert Quinn, general manager of the Columbus' American Association team, to run the club. This would begin a 28-year career for Quinn as an owner and executive, one which was markedly unsuccessful (though Quinn would bequeath three generations of baseball executives to the game) but for this one moment with the Browns.
Quinn inherited a team from Rickey that already had some good young players, including first baseman George Sisler and outfielders Jack Tobin and Baby Doll Jacobsen. Quinn focused on improving the team through scouting, signing slugging outfielder Ken Williams, who had failed in an early trial with the Reds, in 1918. He made only one trade of note and it was a very good one, though events forced his hand. One of the Browns' better players was second baseman Del Pratt, a Jeff Kent-style hitter with a better glove. In 1917, Ball accused Pratt and his double play partner Johnny Lavan of lying down to undermine manager Fielder Jones. The infielders responded by suing Ball for defamation. At that point it seemed like a good idea to trade them. The Yankees bit on Pratt, sending five players to St. Louis for Pratt and lefty Gettysburg Eddie Plank (the latter retired rather than report). Four of the five were of no lasting value, but right-hander Urban Shocker would become a four-time 20-game winner for the Browns, posting an ERA of 3.17 against a league mark of 3.90 in seven St. Louis seasons.
The Browns lost 97 games in 1917 but improved incrementally over the next four seasons before suddenly and momentarily jelling in 1922. In this they were largely driven by Shocker, who pitched 348 innings with an ERA below 3.00 in a league with an ERA above 4.00, Williams, who batted .332/.413/.627 and had histories first 30-30 season (39 home runs, 37 steals), and Sisler, who batted .420/.467/.594. Incredibly, Sisler was held back by a damaged shoulder in September.
The defending AL champion Yankees were having a difficult year because Babe Ruth seemed to be losing his mind. The problems began during the offseason, when Ruth played chicken with Commissioner Landis and lost. After the 1921 World Series, Ruth, Bob Meusel, Wally Schang, and Carl Mays had plans to go barnstorming as the "Babe Ruth All-Stars." Ruth personally stood to gain as much as $25,000 from the tour.
What Ruth and the other Yankees chose to disregard was that as members of a World Series team they were disqualified from barnstorming. The owners felt that barnstorming detracted from the prestige of the World Series and had forbidden members of the pennant winning team from touring.
It was an arbitrary rule. No one could explain precisely how barnstorming hurt the Series. Ruth's violation of it might have come to nothing but for the fact that 1921 was Judge Landis' first year in office as commissioner of baseball. He was still establishing his authority and felt he could not afford to let any rule go unenforced even one with which he did not agree and didn't understand. Landis made some polite noises suggesting that Ruth change his plans. Ruth said he was going anyway. The Judge took it as a challenge. "If you do, it will be the sorriest thing you've ever done in baseball," Landis thundered during a heated phone call. Schang and Mays dropped out, but Ruth and Meusel went anyway.
"This case resolves itself into a question of who is the biggest man in baseball," Landis said, "the Commissioner, or the player who makes the most home runs." Calling Ruth and Meusel "mutinous, " Landis fined them their complete World Series shares ($3,362.26) and suspended them for the first 40 days of the 1922 season (in light of the financial hardship imposed by this dual punishment, Landis later returned the Series shares). Though this would keep the Yankees' two best hitters out of the lineup for a quarter of the season, the Yankees were relieved: having banned the Black Sox just a few months before, some thought Landis might send Ruth into permanent exile as an encore.
On May 24, only a week after returning from his suspension and six days after being named team captain, Ruth was ejected after throwing dirt at the umpire while arguing a call on the base-paths. As Ruth left the field, a heckler got Ruth's attention. "You goddamned big bum," the heckler shouted, "Why don't you play ball?" Before anyone could stop him, Ruth climbed into the stands. The heckler fled before the enraged slugger. Furious, frustrated, Ruth stood on the dugout roof and dared the crowd to take a shot at him.
After the game, Ruth was still angry. "I didn't mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands. If I make a home run every time I bat, they'd think I'm all right. If I don't, they think they can call me anything they like... I'll probably be fined or suspended, but I don't see why I should get any punishment at all." American League President Ban Johnson suspended Ruth for one game, fined him $200, and stripped him of his captaincy. Johnson publicly doubted whether Ruth had the "mental strength and stability" to deal with adversity.
Less than a month later, Ruth came all the way in from left field to argue a call at second base. The language in which he couched his protest to umpire Bill Dinneen was later termed "vulgar and vicious" by Johnson. Result: suspension No. 3, for three days. The Yankees had just lost their eighth straight game. "Maybe with Ruth out," Ban Johnson smirked, "they'll turn around and win a few." (Johnson was no great fan of Yankees ownership, which had challenged him and won on several occasions.)
After Ruth learned of the suspension, he again confronted Dinneen, chasing him into the opposing dugout, shouting, "I'll fix you so you'll never umpire again, even if they put me out of baseball for life!" Johnson lengthened the suspension to six games. Johnson wrote Ruth, saying, "Your conduct... was shocking to every American mother who permits her boy to go to a game," and questioned whether it was "permissible to allow a man of your influence and breeding to continue in the game." To make sure that Ruth understood how Johnson really felt about him, he added, "It seems the period has arrived when you should allow some intelligence to creep into a mind that has plainly been warped."
Finally, on August 30, Ruth was put out of the game after arguing a called third strike. Johnson suspended him for three games. It was the fifth suspension of the year. With all the missed time, Ruth would cede his home run crown for the only time between 1918 and 1924. Ruth was still a very good player in 1922, batting .315/.434/.672, but this was still a huge comedown from the towering figure he had been in 1920 and 1921, with his .840s slugging percentages and .500 on-base percentages. With all the time out of the lineup, Ruth struggled to find consistency, plus the very fact of Ruth's combined absences 44 games in totalheld the Yankees back. The Browns and the Yankees paced each other throughout the summer with the Yankees trailing as late as July 27.
The Yankees couldn't do anything about Ruth's meltdown, but they had other problems that were more tractable. New York's starting third baseman was Home Run Baker. At 36, Baker didn't have much home run left in him, and even less range. It was time for a call to Boston and Harry Frazee. On July 23, New York sent a bag of hammers and some cash to Boston and Frazee sent back Joe Dugan, considered to be one of the best third base gloves in the league.
The deal provoked a storm of protest, particularly in St. Louis, where the Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution criticizing New York's lack of sportsmanship. The issue was not so much a mid-season trade but that New York was exploiting its special relationship with Boston to influence a pennant race during the season. Ban Johnson agreed that though the trade was legal, it felt wrong. He let the move go through anyway; he had learned through hard experience that the Yankees had better lawyers than he did.
In mid-September, the Yankees journeyed to St. Louis to decide the pennant race, in which they led the Browns by half a game, 86-55 to 86-56. The Yankees came in riding a tide of bad feeling over the Dugan deal, and this expressed itself violently. In the first game of the series, Bob Shawkey was on the mound for the Yanks, pitching against Shocker. The Yankees held a 2-1 lead going to the ninth. Mariano Rivera was unavailable that day, so manager Miller Huggins left Shawkey in to finish. In the ninth inning, Browns infielder Eddie Foster lofted a fly ball to right-center. Yankees outfielders Whitey Witt and Bob Meusel converged on the ball. As Muesel settled under the ball, a fan in the bleachers stood up, took careful aim, and fired a soda bottle at Witt. It struck him right between the eyes, hitting with enough force to knock the bottom out of the bottle. Witt crumpled, bleeding profusely from a gash that went down to the bone.
Witt lay unconscious in the grass. Players, fans, and police rushed to the spot. "It looked like the makings of a good riot," one writer said, but mounted police were able to beat back the crowd. Witt was carried off the field. He was able to return to the field the next day, receiving a nice hand from the saner Brownie fans. The Yankees held on for the 2-1 win.
Initially, Ban Johnson offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who would identify the perpetrator of the assault. The Browns added another $500. Ultimately, though, Johnson's official "investigation" lamely accepted the explanation that no one had thrown the bottle. It had been lying in the center field grass when Witt stepped on it, causing it to fly up and hit him, or perhaps the bottle, a Browns partisan, had jumped up of its own accord and attacked Witt. It was hoped that by winking at Witt's injury, the Browns fans might not try to maim or kill anyone else.
The Browns took game two of the series to once again close within half a game, but the Yankees took game three to ice St. Louis' pennant hopes. The two would have no more meetings and there were just nine games left to play. Two weeks later, New York had made the lead stand up; they won the pennant by precisely one game. After the season, the owners adopted a rule forbidding deals after June 15 for more than the waiver price. This evolved into the present-day trading deadline.
The trades have been made. Sunday-Monday was one of the most successful deadline periods in Yankees history. Though precisely how good the deals were will only be clear in retrospect, that the Yankees were able to add Bobby Abreu, Cory Lidle, and Craig Wilson without dealing a top prospect or a valued part from the major league team already puts them in the no-lose category (for more on the deals, see yesterday's Pinstriped Blog entries). Brian Cashman did a fantastic job, and there is every chance that these moves will be decisive. Tuesday night's game will be like a second Opening Day, with a new-look Bombers squad on the field.
The Yankees have put themselves in the position to win. Now they must make proper use of the players they've acquired. There's already some question about what the Yankees will do with Craig Wilson, and how often he'll play. "Andy's on this team," Brian Cashman said yesterday, putting himself in stark contrast with Tigers management, which didn't hesitate to send Chris Shelton, a far more productive player than Phillips, to the minors after acquiring Sean Casey.
Wilson has some flaws. He replaces Phillips as the Yankee most likely to strike out. He tends to blow hot and cold. His range at first is limited. Still, he's a .268/.360/.486 hitter in 634 games. He's a far better hitter against lefties, batting .302/.405/.556 against them, but hits well enough against righties to play, batting .255/.343/.460, albeit with a strikeout about once every three at bats.
This season, Phillips is batting .262/.292/.483 against right-handers and .195/.235/.247 against lefties, and of course lately all indicators have been pointing down. He has had an even harder time making contact against righties than Wilson has, striking out once every 2.8 at bats.
Using Phillips as the dominant partner in a platoon role in which he plays against right-handers, as has been suggested in some quarters, would restrict Wilson's playing time sufficiently to render his acquisition meaningless. Nor is the savings on defense provided by Phillips sufficient reason to give him the bulk of the playing time, or even to preserve his place on the roster given the way it twists the bench.
At this writing, a roster spot for Wilson hasn't been cleared. It appears that T.J. Beam will be demoted, shrinking the pitching staff to 11. Bubba Crosby has dodged a bullet, at least for now. Even with him staying, the Yankees are left with only Bernie Williams to bat left-handed off the bench, with Crosby not being much of a hitter. Aaron Guiel, the closest thing the Yankees have had to a pocket power hitter in ages, is gone to the minors. That leaves a reserve cadre of Sal Fasano, Nick Green (to be replaced with Miguel Cairo when/as/if Robinson Cano comes back), Phillips, and, most days, Williams. That's a short bench.
The Yankees now must also figure out how to get Williams the at bats against lefties. As promising as Melky Cabrera looks, as good as his defense in left has been, the team would be well-served to let Williams steal some time when a southpaw is in opposition. Jason Giambi has only batted .213 against lefties, but he retains his power and patience regardless of who's pitching. If Wilson and Giambi are to play when a lefty starts, that locks Williams out of the designated hitter spot. Bobby Abreu is hitting .300 against lefties this year and has never been hurt by them, so he's going to play as well. That closes right field. Left field is the only chance Williams will have.
It has also been suggested that Williams will see a good amount of time at DH against righties. That would mean Phillips doesn't play, with Giambi playing first, and would also send Wilson to the bench. Such a move would make very little sense given how little Williams has hit from the left side. Wilson is better. Guiel is better. Like maintaining playing time for Phillips, keeping Williams in the lineup against righties will undo some of the benefit of these deals.
What happens when Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield return, if they return in time and in shape to help out? The bench gets better, with Wilson and Cabrera making a useful left/right combo. There are an infinite number of possibilities at that point, with Matsui DHing to keep Cabrera's vastly superior glove in left, Cabrera and Wilson platooning in left, and other permutations. Once Sheffield returns, even those combinations become difficult and the postseason roster, if there is a postseason, will be difficult to assemble. Of course, there's no need for 12 pitchers in the postseason, so perhaps the Yankees will have room for everyone. These things do matter, particularly in the postseason. They also matter now, when the Yankees still have one regular, Cairo, who needs to be pinch-hit for in the late innings.
QUICK TAKES ON THE OTHER DEALS AND NON-DEALS
Miguel Tejada: In Baltimore today they're not complaining that possible deals for Tejada fell through, but that the club still has Kevin Millar and Javy Lopez. In fact, it would have been more shocking if they had been dealt. Just because the O's overvalued those players doesn't mean anyone else has to.
Ryan Shealy to the Royals: The Royals apparently don't believe in Justin Huber. Shealy was hitting .284/.351/.568 for Colorado Springs. That OBP is going to come down at sea level. He's a .300 career hitter in the minors, so there's hope he'll do better. Either way, he's about to turn 27, so what you see is what you get.
Sean Casey: Chris Shelton hasn't hit at all since his great April, but you wonder if he would have come back and been more productive than Casey, who has hit for average but otherwise isn't doing much to generate runs. There must be something more to Shelton's demotion; as I wrote yesterday, "You have to go with the guys who got you here" is usually the guiding principle for winning teams whether it makes sense or not. Perhaps Shelton got a Hillenbrand rap.
Greg Maddux: Gets a boost from the change of parks, takes a hit from the loss of the Cubs D; about the only thing the Cubs have done well this year is catch the ball. The Dodgers have had problems with the same. The Dodgers got him at the cost of giving up Cesar Izturis, who isn't all that useful, one of those multitudinous denizens of the Glove Tree.
Julio Lugo: The Rays got Joel Guzman, who may yet turn out to be something interesting. He's had a disappointing year at Las Vegas and he has no position. With this move and the injury to Ty Wigginton, the Rays get to play both B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist. The latter may actually outplay Upton in the short term. Lugo has had a very good year with the bat, showing more home run power than ever before. We'll see if he keeps it up in Dodger Stadium. If this moves Jeff Kent to first base once he's off the DL, the Dodgers will have completely restructured their infield in just a few days. One wonders if they expect Nomar Garciaparra back soon or ever.
Roberto Hernandez, Oliver Perez: Bad break for the Mets losing Duaner Sanchez to that taxi cab. Perhaps the accident could have been prevented if they still had those hectoring recordings of Rudy Giuliani telling you to put on your seatbelt. Giving up Xavier Nady isn't a big deal as Lastings Milledge should be able to produce at a similar level. Still, he wasn't without use. It's a high price to pay for an aged set-up man and a starter who is lost at sea.
Todd Walker: He's not a third baseman, but then neither were any of the other third basemen the Padres played this year. Walker doesn't do much more than hit for average, but that's more than the Pads have gotten from the hot corner this year. Their third baseman have hit .226/.276/.320 this year, so if Walker can do anything at all he'll give them a boost. Everything is relative.