Steve Phillips Brings It
Tuesday morning, it was Doug Gottlieb’s turn to sub in for Mike Golic on Mike and Mike in the Morning. Tuesday is “Just Shut Up” day on that show, and the just shut up contestants were those who believe Sammy Sosa is a first-ballot Hall of Famer versus those who believe he is not. Gottlieb was adamant in his opinion that Sosa did not belong in the Hall of Fame based on three main points:
1) he obviously used steroids since his body changed dramatically and he went from being a pretty good player in 1997 to a monster player for the next several seasons.
2) he lamed out at the 2005 Congressional hearings, pretending he didn’t speak English and dodging the questions, just like McGwire.
3) he got a huge benefit from playing in Wrigley Field where, Gottlieb noted several times, he hit 350 of his career homeruns.
In an Outside the Lines piece on Sports Talk Radio a few weeks, former Boston Globe columnist and current WEEI radio man Michael Holley said that Sports Radio wasn’t about facts, it was about stating opinions loudly and exaggerating as much as possible. By that standard, Gottlieb did his job very well Tuesday. What’s unusual is that someone actually called Gottlieb on it. In this case, it was Steve Phillips, who subbed for Golic on Monday, but the following day was back in the more familiar role of baseball commentator.
First, what Phillips did not address: Gottlieb’s repeated claim that Sosa hit 350 homers at Wrigley. This is wrong. Sosa hit 293 homers at Wrigley. That’s a substantial difference. Sosa did gain a clear advantage from hitting in Wrigley Field. In thirteen seasons with the Cubs, he hit 41 more homers at home than on the road, about three per season. But, given that we know that Sosa just passed the 600 mark, the 350 figure makes it sound like he hit the substantial majority of his homers at the friendly confines, which is untrue. Again, on loud and exaggerated, Gottlieb did well here. On the facts, not so much.
But, Phillips really surprised me. As soon as he came on the air and he, Greenie and Gottlieb dispensed with the pleasantries, Phillips was emphatic that Sosa belonged in the Hall. I am less enthusiastic about Sosa’s candidacy than Phillips, though I would vote for Sosa if I had a ballot, as I commented last week. But, Phillips made several great points, including this one:
“He did go before the House subcommittee on government reform. And anybody can say that they want, ‘wel he had an interpreter there, he’s been on the stage for so long.’ If I were an American person playing in the Dominican Republic and went before their House committee on government reform, I don’t care how long I’d been there, I’d want an interpreter there as well, because it’s not about after a game, talking about a homerun you hit….but everything you say being parsed through. I’d want somewhere there to interpret. [And] he did answer the question that Mark McGwire didn’t answer.”
To piggyback on this observation, when I was writing the Sosa piece last week and looking into what he did and didn’t do at the hearing in 2005, I thought back to my time in Russia, where I lived for a year in the mid-1990s when I was doing research. Now, by the time I left, my Russian was pretty good. It wasn’t fluent, but it was fully conversational. I did dozens of interviews with government officials and human rights activists, most of which were in Russian. I lived with a woman who spoke no English, and we spoke all the time. I functioned fully, in other words, in the Russian language. And yet, during one especially stressful episode, when my passport and visa were stolen and I had to deal with the Russian bureaucracy over that mess, I made damn sure to bring a Russian friend with me to interpret because I knew, under the stress, that my language might escape me and I could not afford, in that circumstance, to speak the way I normally did let alone in the deteriorated state that the stress might have provoked. That Phillips could put himself into Sosa’s shoes about that hearing, and show a sensitivity to language issues that we Americans, on the whole, often fail to do, is a highly unusual display of empathy and awareness for sports radio. And, as Phillips noted, Sosa did, contrary to Gottlieb’s assertions, issue a direct denial that day.
Phillips also made an important point about the so-called steroid era: “I understand that, right now, the thing to do is to say that all the guys who hit homers, all those guys whose fastballs gained velocity, are all in the same group. But, within that group, there will be guys we’ll be wrong about.”
This is comment speaks to the basis on which we, and especially the Hall of Fame voters, are going to make their judgments. As Gottlieb finally had to admit, when Phillips challenged him in a subsequent exchange between the two, he had no evidence of Sosa’s use except that “it’s visual.” Sammy got bigger – therefore, he took steroids. Gottlieb did make one important point: this debate, over Hall of Fame voting, is not ultimately going to play out in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion, and in the court of public opinion, if relevant people (like voters) believe something it might as well be true. But, it is, on some leve,l the height of arrogance to believe that you know how a person changed their bodies merely by looking at them. And, I presume, in the case of Gottlieb and Sosa, not even in person, but on television.
During Phillips’ exchange with Gottlieb (Greenberg sat mutely through the entire conversation), the former Mets’ GM asked Gottlieb whether he would assume that a player who 39 homeruns one year and 61 the next was cheating. Almost before Philips could finish his sentence, Gottlieb said emphatically “yes.” And, demonstrating that baseball isn’t Gottlieb’s long suit, he didn’t realize that Phillips was, as he then informed Gottlieb, referring to Roger Maris, who hit 39 homers in 1960, 61 in 1961 and never hit more than 33 in a season after that. Phillips also noted that George Foster jumped from 29 to 52 in a season (from 1976 to 1977). Gottlieb did respond that Sosa got dramatically better for several seasons, but it would be an absurd standard of judgment to say that if a player improves dramatically in their late twenties and got bigger in the process, that is all we need to go on, to accuse someone of steroid use.
Phillips is not naive and he surely has his own suspicions about who was and who wasn’t using. We all do, however well we can or can’t substantiate those suspicions. But, on every key point Gottlieb made yesterday, he was either flat out wrong on the facts, or was using notably thin arguments. But, unusual for the medium, someone was actually there to call him on it, not with even more shrill hyperbole, but with a superior grasp of the facts and context of the situation.