Questions and more questionsThe Bible shuffle
Yankees news has been slow as the wait for the World Series to end and the true postseason to begin. The coaching staff may experience some changes as Tony Peña explores opportunities in Washington and Joe Girardi boomerangs back into the picture (the latter has not been confirmed as of yet but seems likely). We don't need to discuss the implications of a Girardi return, be it to the coaching staff or YES, because no matter how many denials Girardi issues, every little writer in Punditville will be saying he's here to loom over the remains of Joe Torre's days like a pinstriped vulture. Such is life. Move along, nothing to see here, and...yawn.
We'll pick up this thread if the Yankees are 15-25 at the 40-game mark, or 40-40 as they near the All-Star break. That's when trigger fingers will get twitchy and managers in waiting will start feeling like nervous brides...
HAS ANYONE TOLD CARL PAVANO?
From the last Tigers-Cardinals World Series:
Mickey Lolich, whose status as the Game 2 starter was in doubt, decided the groin infection for which he received medication worked to his advantage. "I never did get nervous before the game," the Tigers' left-hander explained. "I was a little groggy because the doctor gave me a couple of capsules and I just never tightened up."
The Sporting News, October 19, 1968
THE A-ROD LIBEL
If you're among those who think Alex Rodríguez is to blame for all of the Yankees' problems, you're naïve and we probably can't help you except to point out that in a previous life you were probably among those screaming for Ted Williams' head in Boston. Apparently the karmic circle of reincarnation is real and you're going to keep reliving this particular scenario unless you change your ways. If you don't want to find yourself as a marmot next time around, or worse a marmot and a Devil Rays fan, straighten up and fly right.
The Yankees could be better without Alex Rodríguez, but only under very special circumstances. The Yankees would have to either replace his offense, make massively offsetting reductions in runs allowed, or both. That's what happened in Seattle in 2001, after A-Rod left for Texas.
You often see the Mariners' big jump in wins from 2000 to 2001 cited by Rodríguez haters as evidence that he was somehow holding the Mariners back, weighing them down and freed from his baleful influence, they took wing. This is a distortion of facts worthy of a seasoned political campaigner. It makes the classic logical error of "after therefore because," it overrates one of the great fluke seasons, it ignores their own postseason collapse (losing to the Yankees in five games) and it turns a blind eye to the many changes the Mariners made the winter of A-Rod's departure.
There were four keys to the Mariners' improvement after Rodriguez fled to Texas. First, they improved the defense without harming the offense. Ichiro Suzuki came over from Japan and replaced a fading Jay Buhner in right field. Ichiro hit as well, in his own way, played vastly better defense and was more durable, which meant less playing time for inferior substitutes. Mark McLemore was pushed off of second base for Gold Glover Bret Boone. Boone not only played better defense than McLemore, he had one of the great fluke seasons at the plate. A career .255/.312/.413 hitter to that point, Boone became an unlikely MVP candidate, hitting .331/.372/.578 with 37 home runs and 141 RBIs. McLemore had hit .245/.353/.316. That move alone was at least a five-win swing for the M's.
McLemore then went to left field, where he and Al Martin didn't exactly make anyone forget Tris Speaker, but they gave the club a better performance than the 41-year-old Rickey Henderson did the year before. They didn't hit like Speaker either, but they were more productive than Henderson, who had lost everything but his strike-zone judgment. McLemore improved to .286/.384/.406 and stole 39 bases in 46 attempts.
McLemore wasn't the only Mariner who improved from 2000 to 2001. Almost every holdover improved. John Olerud went from .285/.392/.439 to .302/.401/.472. Mike Cameron went from .267/.365/.438 to .267/.353/.480. Even harmless David Bell went from .247/.316/.381 to .260/.303/.415. Neither mark is good, but the latter is a little bit better.
Finally, the pitching staff was healthy. Both Jamie Moyer and Freddy Garcia were hurt in 2000. With health and improved defense, Moyer shaved more than two runs off of his ERA. If you want to throw in one last positive change, the M's subbed Jeff Nelson for José Mesa.
That the Mariners improvement by 25 wins from 2000 to 2001 is attributable to all the things described above, which adds up to enough positive changes to deflect the loss of Rodríguez's bat and glove. We should also mention Rodríguez's replacement, Carlos Guillén, who wasn't yet the great player he would be for the Tigers but was still far enough above replacement level that, combined with the other improvements, cushioned the blow.
There was also a healthy dose of luck. Clearly the Mariners didn't really take a great leap forward to the 116-win level. No team does. They were back at 93 wins a year later, just as the 1999 Yankees went from 114 to 98 wins and the 1954 Indians dropped from 111 wins to 93. Maybe the 1906-10 Cubs didn't need luck to stay at that level, but every team since then has.
To take all of these developments and reduce their cause to "A-Rod left" is, in a word, simple.
THE PINSTRIPED BIBLE INTERVIEW: ALEX BELTH
This is a long overdue spot. With three books released this year, Curt Flood, the Icarus who challenged the reserve clause, has been rediscovered. The man ahead of the bandwagon was SI's Alex Belth with his Stepping Up.
The Pinstriped Bible: It seems like Flood was almost a forgotten figure for awhile. Your book is just one example of renewed interest in him. Why was Flood ripe for rediscovery, and why did it happen now?
Alex Belth: Flood has been overdue for literary recognition so I think it was just a matter of time before his story was re-examined. Why now, I don't know. I think it may just be a happy coincidence, but after all these years of neglect, three books (including my own) were released on Flood this year. Neil Flynn's book is strictly about Flood's court case, while Brad Synder tackles Flood's entire legal ordeal while setting in the context of the sixties. Both are very useful I wish I had Flynn's book as I was doing my research and Synder's book is very well written. I discuss his legal struggle, of course, but also detail his career as a player. It's just a beginning, as I think there is room for more than one book about a figure as pivotal as Flood, but a good start at that.
PB: Flood lost his case and his fellow players largely failed to back him, so what is his real significance to the labor movement in baseball? In his book, Jim Kaat said he wouldn't want to go into the Hall of Fame before Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, Tony Oliva, and Bert Blyleven. What makes Flood a Hall of Famer? Is merely standing up to authority enough?
AB: I think Flood helped push the envelope whether Marvin Miller and the Players Association was ready or not. He took this patently unjust Reserve System and splashed it on the front pages of the newspapers, not just the sports section. His lasting contribution is helping raise awareness of the inequities of how baseball was run. Literally speaking, his case did not lead to the Messersmith/McNally decision which eventually overturned the Reserve System. But I think Flood's efforts were one more step in solidifying the player's resolve as they battled the owners.
It's a tricky thing, the Hall of Fame. I love talking about who should and should not be in the Hall as much as the next guy, but when it comes down to it, I think there are a lot of people who are in there that do not belong. Can you believe Tom Yawkey is in there? Anyhow, I believe that Marvin Miller deserves to be acknowledged before Flood. The argument for Flood is that he was a fine player whose career was cut short, thereby not giving him enough time to develop a potential Hall of Fame resume. I do not think he would have been a Hall of Famer had he continued to play out his career. Also, his sacrifice is held up as the reason why he should be elected. I would be really pleased if he was voted in, but I don't think it'll ever happen and am not sure I am convinced he should be.
PB: Because of the stand he took, Flood the player often gets lost. How good was he? Is there a similar player today?
AB: He was an outstanding player. One thing that is really special about him was that he was 5-8, 155. I mean, that is small for an outfielder but we've seen the likes of Freddie Patek or David Eckstein over the years. How many center fielders are that diminutive? How many good center fielders? I mean, Flood is one of the five, ten best fielding center fielders of all time. That's stunning. He won seven straight Gold Gloves and batted over .300 six times during his career, including a personal high of .335 in 1967 when the league average was just .249.
Flood had more than 200 hits in back-to-back seasons and led the NL with 211 in 1964. You could find Flood's name in the top 10 in hits and batting average five times, doubles four times, triples once, and hit by pitch twice. He ranked in the top 10 in times on base for three consecutive campaigns. Flood never whiffed more than 60 times, and excelled at putting the ball in play, and hitting behind the runner (which was key when Lou Brock became the Cardinals' leadoff hitter midway through 1964). He was the ultimate team player, more concerned in wins than he was in his stats. I'm not sure if there is a good comparison. Remember Doug Glanville a few years ago? If he could hit that wouldn't be a bad comparison.
PB: You describe Gussie Busch's motivation for greater integration of the Cardinals as primarily economic rather than moral. This is often an underappreciated aspect of Branch Rickey's motivation as well he had a moral disagreement with the color line but also saw the African-American population as a source of cheap talent. At what point did owners like Busch come around to Rickey's way of thinking and make the change from viewing integration as something with primarily negative consequences to something that could benefit them both on the field and at the gate?
AB: I don't think it took too long for Busch to come around. By the time he took over the team he was puzzled why the Cards didn't have more African-American players and in no time, he saw to it that that changed. After all, black people bought Budweiser beer too. I don't know so much about how Busch stood on race relations, but, after being prompted by Bill White in the early '60s, the team did integrate their spring training living facilities, something that would not have happened with the Tigers or Red Sox at the time.
PB: The Cardinals had a dysfunctional front office during the 1960s, with an aging Branch Rickey looking over the shoulder of GM Bing Devine and Leo Durocher waiting to be named manager at one point. Is it symptomatic of that dysfunction that they surrounded Flood's first manager, Solly Hemus, with coaches Eddie Stanky, Harry Walker, and Johnny Keane, all of whom were (or would prove to be) failed managers? Just how bad a manager was Hemus?
AB: Busch had little patience for managers. He had a pretty good one in Fred Hutchinson. I think he took a stab at Hemus, not really knowing how it would turn out. And yeah, he had Stanky over-seeing the operation, while Walker and Keane were there to take over in a pinch in case Solly failed. Which is eventually what happened Keane replaced Hemus in the middle of the 1961 season. The Cards overachieved during Hemus' second year, but he only managed for 2 1/2 seasons in the majors, all with St. Louis. That is probably as good (and polite) an answer I can come up with as to how good a skipper he was. Certainly his players, from the great Stan Musial, to Bob Gibson and Flood had no love for the man.
PB: Flood grew up in Oakland. How did Flood's Oakland upbringing compare to St. Louis in adjusting to the post-segregation era? Was Oakland important in forming his character?
AB: I think St. Louis was a much tougher town for African-Americans in the late '50s-early '60s, though it had a thriving black community. Flood encountered some racism during his childhood in Oakland but it was nothing like he would experience later in the South or even in St. Louis. Remember, in the '60s, Berkeley was a hotbed or left wing activism, and Oakland was the home of the Black Panthers. So I think it was a far more progressive area, though less so during the late '40s and early '50s when Flood was a kid.
PB: Why was he so inconsistent on the field? He was an excellent fielder year in, year out (with six consecutive Gold Gloves) but results at the plate varied.
AB: Well Flood wasn't really given a square shot at regular playing time until Keane took over in '61. So his first three years in St. Louis are tough to evaluate. However, he hit .322 in 61 and then from '62-69 he was really a productive singles hitter. 1966 was his only real poor season offensively and that was due to a horrible second half. One thing that he was never good at was stealing bases. For his career he swiped 88 and was caught 73 times. Yikes. For someone who was unnaturally fine as a fielder, he was a poor base stealer.
PB: It seems like Bill White was the real agitator for change on that Cardinals team. Did he back Flood? What players were for Flood and against him?
AB: White was just one of the Flood's former teammates who would not speak to me for the book. White evidently doesn't like talking about those days. Moreover, some of Flood's old teammates are loyal to his widow, Judy Pace. If she doesn't give the go-ahead, they just won't talk. I think many of them supported Flood but were afraid to do so publicly. Gibson said in an ESPN interview years later, "The reason nobody backed Curt up is because he was more or less expelled, blackballed from baseball and it would have happened to anybody else too." To which Dal Maxvill, a player rep, added: "I still had a few more years that I wanted to play without having the ownership of baseball not be happy with me, so I probably wouldn't have enough courage to do that." Carl Yastrzemski was the most vocal of Flood's opponents but there were others, most of whom just didn't understand what Flood was trying to do. They figured he was angling for more money, which wasn't the case at all.
PB: The Supreme Court has often passed the buck on baseball's anti-trust exemption, pushing the issue back to Congress. Is that what happened in Flood's case?
AB: Oh yeah. The Supreme Court essentially admitted that Federal Baseball the case that gave baseball an exemption from anti-trust legislation and allowed the Reserve Clause to exist was "an aberration" and "an anomaly." But they were not prepared to overturn a case ruled on by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a truly revered Justice. There was also a strong degree of sentimentality in regarding The National Pastime. The court said that Federal Baseball was wrong, but that they were not going to overturn it. They passed the buck to Congress. If Congress wanted to take action against the reserve system, they were free to. "This is the equivalent of an umpire admitting that he blew one, but refusing to change his decision," wrote Larry Merchant. Red Smith opined, "The 5-3 vote for the status quo was the most unappetizing cop-out yet." Shirley Povich agreed. "The court put a weak defense of baseball's antitrust exemption, and then tossed the ball to Congress which has consistently refused to mess with any baseball legislation, pro or con."
PB: Flood's rebellion seems to have destroyed him or is that too simple a reading? Did the drinking and the reclusiveness start before that? Were they always part of his character?
AB: It didn't help, that's for sure. But I think it is too simplistic to say that the case destroyed or ruined him. Flood had a history of heavy drinking. He was not a model father. He was a lousy husband. He chased skirts and was self-absorbed. Which doesn't necessarily make him different from a lot of ballplayers or entertainers. But I think he was disenchanted with the game before he was traded to the Phillies. Before the '69 season, an article that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which an anonymous member of the Cardinals' front office said, "The thing is, you can't say what Flood would do if you did trade him. He might retire. That art studio of his might be more appealing. And even if you didn't trade him this winter, you might find that come next spring, when you might want to cut him, he might just decide to call it quits."
Flood himself wasn't clear about what his intentions were. On one hand, he told Maury Allen of The New York Post, he didn't have any desire to quit just yet. "'I'm making $90,000 now...If I have a good year I can hit a $100,000. Three more years at that price and I'll be set financially for life. I won't have to work for money. I'll be able to do what I want." But, Flood continued, he was at the point in his career where the demands of the game were beginning to take a toll. "I want to get as far away from baseball as I can. I am just tired of the struggle, the pressures, the problems of making it, the problems of staying on top, the fighting with the umpires, the struggling for the base hits, the fears, the insecurities."
I think what is remarkable about Flood is that he was both incredibly tough and incredibly sensitive, and vulnerable. It was his toughness that made allowed him to thrive in the game, especially at a time that was horribly difficult for black and Latin players. But it was his vulnerability that prompted him to act on his conscience and take the game to court. Ironically, it was also that vulnerability that made dealing with the repercussions of his suit so devastating for him to deal with.
In the late '70s, Richard Reeves, a writer from Esquire magazine went looking for him to do a story. A friend of Flood's told him, "Maybe you should leave him alone...He took on something very big and it broke him." "He's like an exposed nerve," Richard Carter to the writer. When Reeves did contact him by phone, Flood said, "Please, please, don't come out here. Don't bring it all up again. Please. Do you know what I've been through? Do you know what it means to go against the grain in this country? Your neighbors hate you. Do you know what it's like to be called the little black son of a bitch who tried to destroy baseball, the American Pastime?"
PB: Finally, I often say that writing a biography is like having your subject share your brain for a year (or however long it takes to write the thing). What was it like sharing headspace with Curt Flood?
AB: It was fascinating. One of the reasons why I was drawn to Flood was because I wanted to know for sure why he did what he did. Was it really because he was standing up for his principles? The answer is, yes. But I also was attracted to Flood because he was a sensitive guy, a painter, a guy who thought about things outside of the world of sports. I grew up as a painter who also liked to play baseball. Not only that, but Curt was a natural people-pleaser, a trait that is familiar to me too. I didn't necessarily think about these similarities when I began the book, but when they emerged as I researched the book, I wasn't surprised. I only wish I would have gotten the chance to meet him, shake his hand and say, "What's up?" That would have been dope.