Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Editor's Note

Editor’s note: This issue we focus on our last visits to various ball parks. Hence the following...
Shea Stadium isn’t the best baseball stadium in New York City. It’s not even second best, trailing the more aesthetically pleasing parks in the Bronx and Coney Island. But Shea is my favorite.

Shea’s shortcomings are numerous and obvious. The stadium is located in Flushing. It’s removed from any sense of neighborhood. For those taking the subway there’s nothing to do in the area before or after games.

Hopefully the last game I saw at Shea will fade from memory but I’m still going to miss the place, even more than I’m going to miss Yankee Stadium.

Despite a rather pronounced disliking for the Bronx Bombers I never turned down a trip to Yankee Stadium. The narrow hallways. The low ceilings. Monument park. I’m far too much of a baseball sentimentalist to resist. The last time I went to Yankee Stadium my wife and I lucked into box seats. We also saw Guliani while waiting for the elevator and passed King George along the way. But despite that legendary aura and those brushes with fame I always preferred Shea.

The last game I saw at Shea was a forgettable late-August blowout against the Astros. My brother and I made a day trip out of it. On our way to Flushing we had lunch at Virgil’s Barbeque. We stopped for a beer at Jimmy’s. After the game we hit a midnight movie in Times Square. There wasn’t a moment all day when we forgot that we were in New York City. That’s why I always loved a day at Shea. No matter how good or bad the game I was watching—even that 1993 game lost when a ground ball squirted past an out-of-position Joe Orsalak—I was always getting a thoroughly warts-and-all NYC experience.

When you looked past the outfield fence and you got an eyeful of the Queens skyline—expressways, parking garages, car repair shops. And when you closed your eyes and the sounds of the game were periodically drown out by air traffic from nearby LaGuardia Airport. All of those things will be there to greet the completed Citi Field, which is going to look great, no doubt. But when I look at Citi Field I get a sense that its designers, consciously or otherwise, don’t care if I’m aware of New York when I’m there. It’s newer and shinier and it’s the model that will get better mileage, but it’ll always lack Shea’s scratch and dent charm.

Mike

The Zisk Classic Book Corner by Mark Hughson

Summer of ’49 by David HalberstamWhen you are writing a book solely about two teams (Yanks and Sox) during a single season of baseball, you can certainly afford to go in depth about the teams and go on at length about the players. But would you really want to? The book itself follows a fairly linear path, but isn’t all that captivating a story, since we already know the outcome. While Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams get the most pages and the most hero worship, Halberstam goes deep into the lineup, giving us the entire roster for both teams, and the forgotten (or just overshadowed) players like Bobby Doerr, Chuck Stobbs, Ellis Kinder, and Birdie Tebbetts get highlighted as solid teammates, exceptional athletes, or at least interesting characters. Ted and Joe were amazing men, but they didn’t make or maintain the old dynasties single-handedly. Overall there’s a lot to learn but Halberstam doesn’t give us a lot to ponder—he’s just relaying the facts (the book is indeed well researched) right off the timeline. Thankfully his style is warm and nostalgic, so the book definitely falls into the pleasure-read category. If you’re into Williams and DiMaggio this book is up your alley; personally my favorite parts were about the stingy bastard George Weiss, local restaurant owner and confidant, Toots Shor, and of course the voice of baseball, Mel Allen. Apparently it was Allen’s idea to put a camera in the outfield giving us the now standard perspective that’s seen in all ball games on TV.

Halberstam is a respected author and this book sold well when first published in 1989, but while the book “celebrates a simpler America” it’s also a relatively simple book. If you’re looking for a book with dirt in its cleats then move on.

White Rat by Whitey Herzog with Kevin Horrigan
Whoever thought using Herzog’s nickname for a book title should have been fired on the spot. Herzog casts a pretty favorable light on himself (the book was published in 1987, during his moment in the sun) in this autobiography, and while one may chuckle at his claims of being baseball’s best talent scout, manager, coach, or whatever position he once held during his tenure in baseball, the book does have some good qualities. The first comes right at the beginning, where Herzog breaks down a “day in the life” of a manager, the early start, the meetings with players and press, handing in the lineup card—everything. It’s a pretty neat look at all the work that’s done in a day, since all we see on TV is an old dude sitting in the dugout with his arms folded. The next best part of the book happens at the very end. Herzog decides to pull no punches and talks pretty frankly about cocaine use, inflated salaries, and the politics of baseball. He names some names, but it’s nothing that’s not common knowledge these days. Still, it’s cool to see someone rant about these things rather than try to sweep it under the America’s Pastime rug. Otherwise, White Rat goes through the motions of your typical baseball book (the bad years, the rebuild years, that one great year), and is neither impressive nor offensive to the typical baseball lit fan. That one great year the Cardinals had (1982) was cool though: with guys like Lonnie Smith, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Keith Hernandez, and Tom Herr becoming World Series champions, Herzog makes a pretty strong case for having one of, if not the best, small ball teams in baseball history. He tried to repeat the formula a few years later with some of the same guys as well as Vince Coleman and Andy Van Slyke, but alas fate had other plans. Final tally—pretty good read, horrible title!

Mark Hughson lives in Syracuse, NY and enjoys baseball. His knowledge of the game is comprised entirely from 1980s paperback books he purchases at the local library for 50 cents.

The Some Star Game by John Shiffert

In the words of Lee Sinins, the Mid-Summer Classic has become the “Some Star Game.” Not a bad moniker for a contest that, in 2008, featured a National League roster with (for some obscure reason) Carlos Marmol and his 2-3, 4.13 ERA record, but was not graced by the presence of Derek Lee, Magglio Ordonez, Mike Lowell, Ryan Howard (who only led the majors in home runs), Carlos Lee or Pat Burrell (among others). While there were a lot of stars who could have appeared at Yankee Stadium, the addition of Marmol was clearly the strangest inclusion, brought about only because he received the highest vote total among relief pitchers on the players’ ballot—just proving that the players aren’t any better than the fans in picking All-Stars.

The current Byzantine voting set-up, involving ballot box (or e-mail in box) stuffing from 30 locations, an on-line fan vote for the 32nd man, the players voting, allowing Clint Hurdle to choose extras, and requirements for all teams to have a representative, even if that representative has been reprehensible (remember Mike Williams appearing for the NL a few years back with an ERA over 6), regularly produces atrocities such as this. There are better (and a lot more fun) ways to choose All-Star teams, such as Theme Teams, a concept originally created and master-minded by that master of trivial pursuits, Bruce Brown. Like the Star Trek All-Star Team…

C – Dick Rand1B – George Scott2B – Benny McCoy
SS – Mark Koenig
3B – Jay KirkeOF – Bones Ely
OF – Rodney Scott
OF – Reid Nichols
PH – Tom KirkP – Ricky Bones
P – Mike ScottP – Jack ScottP – Kid NicholsP – Chet NicholsMGR – Kid Nichols
In case any of you aren’t Star Trek fans (can there exist such benighted souls), it can be pointed out that the real names, character names and nicknames of the stars of the starship Enterprise form the basis for the team and, of course, this is only for the true stars, the original cast. (Sadly, no one named Spock, Nimoy, Sulu or Takei has ever played MLB.) Most of these worthies are pretty familiar, with the exception of Tom Kirk, who appeared in a single game as a pinch-hitter for his hometown Philadelphia Athletics on June 24, 1947, and catcher Rand. Probably no relation to yeoman Janice, he caught 69 games in the National League in the 50s. Manager/pitcher Kid Nichols is a genuine gold-plated Hall of Famer.

Then there are those who write and vote for Hall of Famers. It seems only fitting that some of the top current baseball writers/authors should have their own Writers All-Star team.

C – Matt Stark (Jayson)
1B – Dusty Baker (Jim)
2B – Daff Gammons (Peter)
SS – Dolly Stark
3B – Home Run Baker
OF – David Newhan (Ross)
OF – Larry Rosenthal (Ken)
OF – Si Rosenthal
P – Dennis Stark
P – Big Bill James (Duh… Bill)
P – Seattle Bill James
P – Ken Holtzman (Jerome)
P – Kevin Hagen (Paul)
MGR – Dusty Baker
Yes, there really was a player named Daff Gammons, look him up on baseball-reference.com. Utilityman David Newhan has an inside advantage here, he’s the son of long-time LA sportswriter Ross Newhan. Sadly, no one named Neyer has ever played MLB.

Some of the most interesting All-Star teams are those that shuffle players around into unaccustomed positions. Like the All-Closer Team. This bunch is made up of players who, at one time or another, were used to finish (or close) a game from the mound.

C – Brent Mayne/Jamie Burke (platoon)
1B – Jack Bentley2B – Dick HallSS – Doc Crandall3B – Charles BenderOF – Ron GuidryOF – Hal JeffcoatOF – Gene Garber
PH – Terry ForsterSP – Dennis Eckersley
SP – John SmoltzMGR – Clark Griffith
Burke just made his way into a platoon with Mayne by taking the mound in July as an emergency reliever for the Mariners. Although he was tagged with the loss (the first time an erstwhile catcher picked up an “L” as a pitcher since Roger Breshnahan more than 100 years ago), Burke still received an ovation as he came off the mound. You may recall back in 2000 that Mayne highlighted an unexceptional career by getting the win in an extra-inning game for the Rockies.

As for the other team members, Bentley was a combination pitcher/first baseman, mostly for the New York Giants. Hall came up to the major leagues from Swarthmore College as an infielder/outfielder before becoming a very effective side-arming reliever. Crandall, another New York Giant, was one of the first relief pitchers, and an excellent hitter as well for John McGraw in the first decade of the 20th Century. He was a good enough athlete to play several positions, as was Bender, who Connie Mack used in the outfield and at third base more than once. Although Bender is better known as a Hall of Fame starter, he at one time shared the major league record for saves in a season, with 13. Guidry and Garber were both pitchers who had adventures in center field and, in case you’ve forgotten, Guidry came up as a reliever. Jeffcoat was an outfielder who couldn’t hit and who later became a pretty decent relief pitcher. Forster was a relief pitcher who could hit (a .397 career average). Eckersley and Smoltz are the two most notable starter/relievers, while Griffith had the most success among pitcher/managers.

Finally, in noting that baseball has become an international sport over the past 50 years, here’s the All-Foreign Team. As Bruce Brown (who also contributed to this team, as did Brian Englehardt) points out, this team shamelessly mixes nouns and adjectives, but, then again, as my father and daughter will tell you, I’ve never been an All-Star grammarian.

C – Dane Sardinha
1B – Frank Brazill
2B – Neal “Mickey” FinnSS – Swede Risberg
3B – Woody EnglishOF – Frenchy BordagaryOF – Irish MeuselOF – Brian JordanPH – Israel AlcantaraPH – Greek George
PH – Tim IrelandPR – Germany SchaferP – Larry French
P – Egyptian HealyP – Franklyn GermanP – Mike ScottP – Chris Welsh
Bench/Bullpen
Mark Portugal
Ossie France
Dick Pole
Joe Malay
Blas Monaco
Jim French
Chile Gomez
Dane Iorg
Dane Johnson
German Barranca
Esteban German
George Scott
(along with about 50 other Scotts)
Charlie English
Gil English
Israel Sanchez
Jimmy Welsh
Chad Curtis
Dutch Leonard
(both of them)
Dutch Ruether
Turkey Stearns


Now, as to how the 2008 game went…five hours? Fifteen innings? Twenty three pitchers? Three errors and three strikeouts by the same player? The prospect of outfielders or third basemen going to the mound to pitch? The possibility of calling the game due to a lack of players? Sounds more like the slow pitch softball game at the office picnic. Maybe that’s because the All-Star Game, the last professional contest of its type that actually was worth paying attention to, has hit rock bottom. Thanks to an overabundance of tacky promos, tacky players, tacky votes and voters, tacky administrators and tacky rules, the All-Star Game has gone in the tack. Well, give some credit to interleague play as well, but you get the picture. Even the artifice of playing for home field advantage in the World Series is really pretty meaningless, since the home field advantage in baseball is nowhere near as significant as it is in say, basketball.

Home Run Derby? A moderately interesting TV show set in Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field around 1960. So what does that have to do with the All-Star Game? Ditto Corey Hart, Carlos Marmol, Brian Wilson (when did he leave The Beach Boys?), Mark Redman and Mike Williams (among others)—what do they have to do with the All-Star Game? Think the fans won’t tune in to watch if they don’t have a hand in the vote? How many were still watching at 1:30 a.m., whether they voted or not? Bud.com? Enough said. Requiring a player from each team and not putting a ceiling on the number of players from a team? Welcome to a Spring Training game between the Cubs and the Red Sox (about the same level of relevance as the July 15 abomination). Fans, writers, sportscasters, executives, etc—you can buy into the hype that this was one of the great All-Star games (true only if you equate “long” with “great” and have no interest in Dan Uggla), or you can realize that the Commissioner has no clothes, and look for ways to fix this broken institution.

It didn’t used to be this way. All-Star games in baseball have been around since “Picked Nines” (the term used in the 1850s and 1860s) from New York and Brooklyn squared off in a three-game set at the Fashion Race Course in 1858. Various other all-star type contests were held sporadically over the ensuing 75 years, including two in one year—a fund-raiser during the 1911 season for Addie Joss’ widow and a series of post-season games to keep the Philadelphia Athletics sharp while waiting to begin the 1911 World Series against the New York Giants. So, when sportswriter Arch Ward suggested a mid-season exhibition game (for that is, in reality, what the All-Star Game is) in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, it was hardly a new idea. Maybe you recall that Connie Mack and the then-recently-retired John McGraw managed the teams for their respective leagues. Maybe you remember that Babe Ruth fittingly enough hit the first All-Starr home run. But what you probably don’t know is that there were just 18 players on each squad, and a half dozen of them didn’t even get into the game. Jimmie Foxx didn’t play. Bill Dickey didn’t play. Tony Lazzeri didn’t play. (And all three of them would eventually be voted into the Hall of Fame.) Why not? Maybe because Mack and McGraw, old World Series adversaries from way back, were actually trying to win the game. Mack only used 13 players—his eight starting position players, three pitchers, a pinch-hitter and pair of fresh legs (Sam West) as a defensive replacement for the aging Ruth. McGraw substituted more freely, as only pitcher Hal Schumacher, one of only four pitchers on the NL squad (the AL had just five), didn’t get into the game. Of course, putting Paul Waner, Pie Traynor and Gabby Hartnett (also three future Hall of Famers) into the game as subs was hardly conceding the contest to Mack.

The AL jumped on top 3-0 early off of a wild Wild Bill Hallahan, as Lefty Gomez, of all people, singled in Jimmy Dykes in the bottom of the second, and Ruth hit his home run in the bottom of the third. A sixth inning NL home run by Frank Frisch off General Crowder wasn’t enough, since Mack then brought in his ace, Lefty Grove, to pitch the last three (shutout) innings. It was, by all accounts, a good game and everyone had a good time. Not everyone in the game was destined to go to Cooperstown. Among the less-noteworthy players were Tony Cuccinello, Woody English, Jimmie Wilson and Oral Hildebrand. But there were a lot of great players. Future Hall of Famers not already mentioned included Earl Averill, Joe Cronin, Lou Gehrig (the reason Foxx didn’t play), Rick Ferrell, Charlie Gehringer, Al Simmons (all from the AL, Mack had 12 future Hall of Famers among his 18 players), Chick Hafey and Chuck Klein. While the Hall qualifications of some of these players can be (and have been) questioned, you better believe this was a game of stars.

The question is, how do we get back to making the All-Star Game a Midsummer Classic, instead of a Midsummer’s Nightmare? Doing away with interleague play would be a good start, but for now let’s stick to just the rules of the All-Star Game in terms of a fix. Here are six suggestions…

First – Take the vote away from the fans. Trust me on this, they’ll still come to the game and they’ll still watch on TV, especially if they’re guaranteed to see two true all-star teams in action. Give the vote to a panel of experts, including the BBWAA and the many and varied baseball writers who don’t belong to the BBWAA, but who in many cases know far more about baseball and player value than many of the establishment type—the Bill James, Rob Neyers, Jim Bakers, Bill Chucks, John Thorns, Pete Palmers, Dayn Perrys, Lee Sinins, Bruce Browns, SABR board of directors, Baseball Prospectus guys, some of the top internet moguls, etc., etc., etc., of the baseball-writing world. Maybe add in another panel of baseball execs—managers and GMs—who will vote by sealed ballot with the codicil that they are not allowed to vote for their own players.

Second – Establish new guidelines for voting. The voters are to take into consideration not just the first three months of the current season (which is the basic problem that produces a Some-Star Game), but the body of each players’ work over his entire career, and especially his play in the second half of the just-concluded season. This last rule is designed to end the all-too-common practice of someone who has a great second half not getting all-star recognition. All three factors – the first half of the current year, the second half of the previous year, and the career, are to be balanced equally in consideration in voting. Three separate ballots are to be cast for position players (16), starting pitchers (three) and relief pitchers (five). That’s two players per position. The pitchers are designated the All-Star Game starter, an emergency starter in case someone comes down with flu-like symptoms or the erstwhile starter starts a regular game on Sunday, and a long man. Five relievers, even in this age of specialization, is plenty. That’s a squad of 24, and that, too, is plenty. How many regular season games have you seen wherein a manager used more than 20 players?

Third – Throw out the rule that every team has to have an all-star, and put a limit on the number of players that can be selected from each team. Although every team was represented in the 1933 game, there were only eight teams in each league at that time. With either 14 or 16 teams in a league, you get Grant Jackson, Mark Redman and Mike Williams on the roster too often. On the other hand, the Yankees had six of the 18 AL players in the 1933 game, and the New York Giants had four of the NL’s 18, and that’s not right, either. Limit each team to a maximum of four All-Stars. It’s absurd to have eight players from one team as All-Stars, although that in part is a function of ballot box stuffing, which would go away with a more rational system of voting.

Fourth – Eliminate the restrictions on the number of innings a pitcher can pitch. Similarly, ditch the unwritten rule that everyone should, if at all possible, get into the game. Not pulling your starting position players after three innings will help ensure that you won’t run out of position players. Being able to throw your starter for five or six or seven innings, or being able to use your long man for four innings, will also cut way down on the likelihood that you’ll run out of pitchers in an extra inning game. As part of this change, and although the DH is an abomination in the sight of all true baseball fans, let’s indeed use it for all All-Star games, to keep pitchers in the game longer.

Fifth – Ditch the sideshows, especially the Home Run Derby, which reeks of the stupid skills contests they used to have before games in the first half of the 20th Century. (It was in such an event that Rube Waddell broke both the hind legs of an enormous pig…but that’s another story.) The game should be enough of a draw to stand on its own, and it will, if changes like these are instituted.

Sixth – It’s an exhibition game, for goodness sake. Forget about the stupid World Series home field advantage rule and allow the game to end in a tie if need be. Regular season major league games used to end in ties all the time in the days of curfews, and before lights. And this is an exhibition game. It doesn’t count in the standings.

But it should be closer to a real game, played by the real stars. And these are six ways to do just that. Under the present system, Arch Ward is rolling in his grave.

John Shiffert is the author of Baseball: 1862-2003, Baseball… Then and Now, and Base Ball in Philadelphia. He also publishes a weekly baseball zine called Baseball...19 to 21. You can read it at http://tedsilary.com/johnshiffert.htm.

The Comedy of Baseball by Steve Reynolds

September 19th, 2008 will be a day that lives in baseball infamy. No, not because the Mets bullpen held a lead, it’s because of a three minute piece of video that popped up on You Tube. This video from 2003 shows Royals Hall of Fame third basemen George Brett at spring training talking to a player about how he shit his pants the night before. It’s quite possibly the funniest video I’ve ever seen (besides that monkey washing the cat). I knew that that some media company would have it taken down quickly because it was obviously a pro shot video. So I took matters into my own hands by recording the audio portion. So here, in all its glory, is the genius of George Brett.

(WARNING: If you are offended by shitloads of foul language, you might want to stop reading right here)
GB: I farted. I shit my pants last night

Unidentified player: (Laughs) You did?

GB: I did. Went out and had a great meal, just a great fucking meal, and I had to go to the bathroom so bad in the car I’m going “Trammel, hurry up man I gotta shit.” Got home and I had fucking shit in my pants. I’m good twice a year for that. When is the last time you shit your pants?

UP: Me?

GB: Yeah. Been a while?

UP: Um, yeah, it’s been a long time.

GB: I was in Vegas a couple years ago—this is an honest to God true story. Staying at the Bellagio, I went over to the Mirage for dinner and met some friends of mine over there. Went to Kokomo’s, a great little steakhouse. The guy brings out some fresh crab legs. He says, “These things just came in, I gotta give them to you guys.” So I’m eating them, then we go gamble a little bit. I had a tee time early in the morning, so I said, “Look, I’m gonna get going.” I’m walking back to the hotel, I get three quarters of the way out of the lobby and all of a sudden I go, “Oh, fuck!” And standing there like this—I got my butt pinched so fucking tight. I’m fucked. I can’t move. All of a sudden I felt all right, and then I went just like this—(makes explosion sound) water.

UP: No way.

GB: Yeah, I had food poisoning from the crabs. Take off my leather jacket, tied it around my waist, and I’m standing there and it’s just running down my leg.

UP: (Laughs)

GB: I got jeans on, black bucks, no socks. And I just start fucking walking. Every time I’m walking, something’s coming out. It’s water. Straight fucking water. And then, to tell you how sick I was, I’m standing outside and I get my cell phone and this guy (scratchy noise cuts in). I say “Larry, you won’t believe this. I’m standing outside the fucking Bellagio—I can’t move. I got shit everywhere. I shit all over myself.” And Larry’s about a 48 waist. So he brings me over a pair of pants and some towels. And so he comes over and meets me—I tell him where I’m standing. He finds the closest bathroom when you go up the escalator—I can’t get in the elevator.

UP: (Laughs)

GB: So he goes in, finds the closest bathroom in the lobby of the hotel. And then I get on the escalator, and he kind of pretends like he dropped something so no one gets behind me. Tells me where it is. I go in there. He goes and gets the towel all wet for me, throws it over the fucking stall. I take off all my fucking clothes. [I] just wipe off—leave my shoes, left my shoes, my pants, everything, right there. The towels, right there in the stall. And I’m walking barefoot with my shirt and his pants that are 48 waist through the lobby like this at midnight. Got up in the morning, took the most perfect double-tapered shit I’ve ever had in my life. True story. Who’s the pitchers in this game?

Friday, October 10, 2008

An Important Issue # 17 Update

Greetings from the Manhattan offices of Zisk. Many of you have probably gotten issue # 17 in your mailboxes by now (the rest will be all out in the mail by Tuesday). I wanted to give you all an update on the Stadium Memories story that starts on page 3. My friend Jonah, who I write about in my memories of Shea piece, has unfortunately had a recurrence of his cancer in a another lymph node. You can get a full update at his own blog, Groinstrong. If you've ever enjoyed Zisk at all over the past nine years, I'd like to ask a favor--please go to the Groinstrong site and buy yourself a wrist band or simply donate money. The donated funds go to help Jonah's medical expenses, The NYU Melanoma Research Program and The Melanoma Research Foundation.

My hope for my first memory of CitiField? Jonah and I and a bunch of other people are there, celebrating the fact that he's beaten cancer for good.