Tidbits – August 14
Breaking: Hall of Fame shortstop and announcing great Phil Rizzuto has passed away. The Scooter was a character – one of a kind. Who else would regale his audiences with tales of his wife’s (Cora) lasagna, or read birthday announcements during pivotal moments of games, or insult people by calling them “huckleberry?” Condolences to his family.
I was in Mexico City for a few days, so I am catching up on some stuff from late last week. Hence, more Bonds stuff – including an ill-informed rant from Christine Brennan and a worthwhile read from Baseball Prospectus.
Also, that paragon of journalistic virtue and great baseball insight, Mike Barnicle, becomes a favorite of Mike Francesa. Unethical behavior, or the appearance of such, is cause for endless hand-wringing and moralizing by the media when it comes to everybody…but the media.
Finally, a paean to Jorge Posada.
1) In Thursday’s USAToday, Christine Brennan’s mis-titled column, Bonds Era Isn’t Noteworthy (mistitled because, clearly, Brennan’s fulminations about Bonds and the indulgent and immoral culture that has enabled him, suggest that she believes the era is significant), begins thusly:
“Our long national nightmare is over. Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants and their sycophantic fans can now stop demanding our attention like restless children…”
I was going to do a point-by-point dissection of her column – it’s illogical and ill-informed enough to fill a lengthy post – but it’s not worth it. So, a couple of quick points instead.
First, nothing drives me crazier than the media whining about what gets covered and what doesn’t. Remember last Fall when T.O. supposedly deliberately over-dosed, setting off an unbelievable media feeding frenzy? Among the amazing things about that spectacle was the number of media talking heads whining about how they were being “held hostage” by T.O., as if they have no discretion over what they cover, or as if anyone would have given a shit about that non-story had the press not gone crazy over it. In fact, Brennan herself joined that self-parodying parade:
“It’s hard not to look at Wednesday’s unrelenting media saga as just another publicity stunt in the life and times of our T.O. nation. It’s mind-boggling, really, how this man and his story held the news media hostage for most of the work day.”
The media isn’t forced to do anything. In fact, its editorial discretion – what it chooses to report and what it chooses to ignore – is its single most powerful weapon. But, too often, media cry in their collective beer as if they have no control over a story that they themselves have created. Barry Bonds, as the antagonist of a great moral drama, is largely a media creation. Dr, Frankenstein doesn’t get to complain about his progeny.
Brennan repeats other foolishness, such as that Barry was once a “skinny speedster” as if he weren’t already a great home run hitter before the Game of Shadows timeline kicks in. And, like almost every Bonds detractor, conveniently ignores the fact that Hank Aaron had, arguably, his two best seasons at ages 37 and 39, respectively.
There’s plenty more nonsense in the column before Brennan leaves us with this DEEP THOUGHT:
Fans 20, 30, even 40 years into the future…will look at the images out of that ballpark by the bay and wonder what we as a sports culture could possibly have been thinking.
Twenty, thirty or forty years from now, if I am fortunate enough to be around, I suspect I’ll be spending a lot more time trying to explain how we as a culture enabled a lawless president as he and his followers tried to drive us over a cliff. But, that’s just me. And, just because Brennan happens to share the view of the overwhelming majority of sports media when it comes to Bonds doesn’t make her wrong. But, it is especially grating when someone who does parrot conventional wisdom still wraps herself in the cloak of lone defender of truth and sole voice of courage.
2) Baseball Prospectus has been one of the most reasoned and measured voices in the whole Bonds debate. Joe Sheehan, as I have noted before, has saved more of his ire for Selig than for Bonds. And Will Carroll, whose expertise is in medical issues and PEDs, has repeatedly argued that we know far less than we think we do about steroids (both their effects on performance and on long-term health), and that the focus on steroids over say, amphetamines, is arbitrary and not based on the realities of how the latter affects performance compared to the former.
In a roundtable discussion last Thursday on BP’s website, a variety of perspectives were aired.
Derek Jacques argued that “It’s a strange, post-756 world we’re living in. After four months of rabid editorializing from every person with a soapbox to stand on, it feels like, for a moment, the world has run out of venom for Barry Lamar Bonds. Part of this is human nature–the public has always been less interested in the steroids story than the media has been…”
I have often thought of the Clinton impeachment saga during the Bonds coverage in the sense that the political media then was clearly much more agitated by Clinton’s apparent indiscretions than was the public at large. In fact, I can recall media types like Joe Klein and Candy Crowley shaking their heads in disbelief that the public wasn’t more concerned about the mortal threat to the Republic posed by Clinton having an affair with an intern. The high moralizing, the focus on the trivial at the expense of larger, and more profound, institutional realities of power, the insularity and naivete – all stock features of the political punditocracy (and with catastrophic consequences in an era when we need our media to hold leaders accountable about things that really matter) – are all fully on display in (much of) the Bonds coverage.
BP regular Christina Kahrl came especially heavy during the roundtable:
…for me, steroids is like cocaine was in the early ’80s. It’s a spectacular issue, which is to say, it is a spectacle. I don’t think we can say with absolute confidence what either substance (or amphetamines) do to player performance. I don’t think we can prove that any of these things perverted the game, or that they reflect anything more than that the game is played by our fellow men, prone to the same temptations, the same errors of judgment and the same mistakes. Perhaps my view is overly broad, but if the game had a problem, however large or small, it has long since been identified and fixed. Would that all social ills were so readily addressed, however belatedly, tentatively or imperfectly.
Bonds was then and is now caught in a bind: he’ll never overcome reasonable doubt, so instead of being presumed innocent, he will always be condemned by a large number of people, for reasons as varied as reasonable doubt to conditioned dislike to overt racism, to name a few of what might be an unlimited range of possible responses to Bonds setting the record. My problem is that I will never escape this doubt: the extent to which Barry Bonds was condemned from the start, and how too-ready the media was to go for a rope, and ratings.
If Bonds is guilty–if–then he joins a long list of tainted men in the game’s pantheon. If he’s guilty, he’s a great player and a reflection of his time. And lest we make too much of contemporary wrongs relative to someone like, say, Cap Anson, he would be merely guilty of a stupid little thing, the full measure of which we’ll never know, and not something fundamentally evil (the full measure of which we’ll also never know). But that’s me: beyond a certain curiosity for trivia, I could care less about the record book. It is already a product of an injustice, one from before your birth or mine.
I don’t share Kahrl’s confidence that baseball has adequately addressed the issue, but the tone of this strikes me as just right. Compare her sense of historical (and moral) perspective to Bob Costas’, for instance.
3)Mike Barnicle. long-time columnist for the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and in syndication, is Mike Francesa’s new buddy. Francesa’s had Barnicle on Mike and the mad Dog several times this season, as Barnicle is an avid Red Sox fan.
Barnicle is a professional cynic – a guy who thinks he’s the only one in the room who isn’t playing an angle. He’s a card-carrying member of the journalistic club of general disdain, constantly agitated by the decline in American culture, the demise of “old school” values and all that goes with that. Whatever.
But, his ever more frequent appearances on Mike and the Mad Dog are irritating. He’s a fan – fine. But, he’s got no insight into the game, despite sitting next to the dugout for most Red Sox games and getting to be buddy-buddy with people in and around the organization – just a lot of platitudes about psychology and chemistry and snarky references to the “boy genius,” Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.
Oh, and did I mention that Barnicle committed plagiarism, which ultimately cost him his job with the Boston Globe a decade ago? Hey, nobody’s perfect. I just wish people who’ve been so publicly called out on their improprieties wouldn’t be so sneeringly self-righteous.
Anyway, Barnicle was on with Francesa yesterday to talk about the (sort of) faltering Red Sox. Among their topics was to attack Theo Epstein, especially for the trade that brought Eric Gagne to the Red Sox two weeks ago. In case you haven’t heard, Gagne has not, so far, worked out well.
I don’t consider Gagne a mistake, mind you. Pitchers, after all, have been known to have a couple of bad games from time to time, even back-to-back. But, more to the point – show me the commentator who argued, at the time of the trade, that getting Gagne was a mistake and that it would disrupt the team’s and bullpen’s chemistry? In fact, every single analysis of the trade (with one exception), in print, on radio, television or the internet, fell over itself to rave about what a great trade that was for the Sox. The exception: Jayson Stark, who didn’t criticize the trade, but reported at the time of the trade that an exec on another AL team told Stark that Gagne was not nearly as good as his numbers, and that his weaker arm would catch up with him.
Francesa was all over Epstein yesterday. And Barnicle’s joined Francesa’s attack with a bizarre argument about a deadline trade that the Red Sox did not make, for Jermaine Dye. The White Sox apparently wanted Red Sox reliever Manny Del Carmen, and the Bosox said no. Barnicle’s criticism of this non-deal was as follows:
1) an older school executive would have made this trade
2) Epstein didn’t because he wanted to hold on to Del Carmen, which is, apparently, pointy-headed new school, thinking.
3) This was especially dumb, according to Barnicle, because Del Carmen will never be more than a middle reliever.
One of the absurdities of the ideology of “old school” is that that label gets affixed to anything the speaker likes, no matter how obviously, objectively un old school that preference might be. Jermaine Dye is an outfielder with a .244 batting average and an even worse .308 on base percentage. He’s 33, so not getting younger, and is making $7 million this season. How’s it “old school” to want to trade for an under-performing, overpaid outfielder? Or a rejection of hallowed old school principles to turn down such a trade? Beats the shit out of me.
Del Carmen, by the way, is 25, throws in the high 90s, has an ERA of 2.25 this season and has, by all accounts, an extremely promising future.
I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but one of the things that bothers me so much about the culture of commentary is how anointed media stars mouth off about any and all subjects, with no effort to actually inform themselves of the subject matter of which they are speaking, and with no accountability for spewing the crap they so often do.
So now, because Francesa likes hob-nobbing with a crusty “old school” guy, who’s also a celebrity columnist, the ethically-challenged, uninsightful and ill-informed Mike Barnicle is now a semi-regular on the show.
I know, I know – no one’s making me listen.
(quick aside: To his credit, Jeff Pearlman called himself out for having bashed Joe Torre earlier this season. He’s over-compensating in his praise of Torre now, but since I am complaining about journalistic accountability, I appreciate Pearlman holding himself accountable for something he wrote four months ago).
4) For all the attention that the Yankees and their players get, there have been two strange anomalies in the past decade – Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. Williams spent nearly a decade as one of the best centerfielders in baseball during the heart of a Yankee dynasty and, yet, largely flew below the radar. Now, Posada is getting the same treatment. Since the beginning of the 2000 season, Posada has, unquestionably, been the best catcher in baseball. Looking at win shares, between 2000-2006, Posada amassed 166. Ivan Rodriguez, from 2000-2006, is second with 127. Mike Piazza has 114. Victor Martinez is one of the best young catchers in baseball. In the three years – 2004-2006 – that he’s been a regular, Posada edges him 64-60. Jason Varitek has 80 since 2000, and since he’s been more or less the regular, in 2003, Posada’s got him beat 92-60. (The great Joe Mauer has Posada beat 52-43 in the two seasons since Mauer’s been a regular, but obviously he’s not in the conversation about best catchers in the decade.) None of which accounts for this season, Posada’s best so far, when he’s putting more distance between himself and his peers. According to BP’s Value Over Replacment Player (VORP), Posada is the fifth best player in baseball in 2007. The next catcher on the list is Martinez, down at No. 21, and then no catcher appears until the Dodgers’ Russell Martin, at Np. 38.
Why do I mention all this? Last night, ESPN showed a graphic of four Yankees who struggled early in the season, and have been on fire since the end of May – Bobby Abreu, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and Hideki Matsui. Scott Van Pelt noted, in referring to the graphic, that you expect the big Yankee hitters – Arod and Jeter – to produce, but these guys have made a major contribution to the Yankees’ resurgence. No mention of Posada anywhere, despite his hitting .340, with a .423 on base percentage and .543 slugging percentage, absurd numbers for a catcher. That Posada is working on a full decade as the best catcher in baseball and still gets so little attention is remarkable.