Monday, September 10, 2012

Zisk # 21

The Magic of Money by Johnny Tsaur

The BBWA's Hypocrisy by Jeff Herz

The King And I by Charlie Vascellaro

My Life as a Big League Minor League College Ball College Summer Ball Announcer by Rev. Norb

Rusty Staub: Heroism from Left to Right Field by Brian Cogan

Statutory Rate: Zisk Looks at Baseball Statues Bombarding Chicago by Jake Austen

The Magic of Money by Johnny Tsaur

We can talk about PR nightmares, and we can talk about the Los Angeles Dodgers. You can be certain things are bad when a vicious mugging is only the second worst news of the year for your club.

Major League Baseball seized control of the Dodgers from Frank McCourt on April 20, 2011. At the time, one of the few legacy franchises in the MLB had become a chip on the poker table of the divorce proceedings of the McCourts. Worse than the courtroom spectacle was the team’s play, as they were sneaking out a win a day after a 10-1 drumming from an unimpressive Atlanta Braves team. The Dodgers were 9-10 on the season, and continued to struggle to an 82-79 record, placing third in the NL West and a firm 11 ½ games out of the playoffs.

While this may all seem like a reasonable end for a mediocre team, a question had to be raised about the fact that the roster was anything but mediocre. Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young award. Matt Kemp led the league in home runs and RBI, was second place in NL MVP voting, and capped off the season with a Golden Glove and a Silver Slugger award. Not to mention Andre Either, who won a Gold Glove in his own right and was a reserve on the All-Star team.

So how does a team with essentially three of the best players in baseball miss the postseason entirely? The answer: no support. No support from ownership, no support from the fans, and simply put, the players and management were on their own. For the first time since 1997, the Dodgers failed to achieve their annual attendance of three million fans entering the park for the duration of the season. After fifteen consecutive years of loyal fan support, the support was gone.

The ownership debacle was worse to the fans than the mugging of the Giants fan in the parking lot. It was a message to the fans that there was no hope. Even with a talented roster, there would be no activity on the trade front. Even with obvious holes in the lineup, management was forced to sit on their hands in regards to adding salary leading to no realistic chance for a post-season appearance. With the season ending, there were still plenty of questions headed into the off-season about the ownership.

The rumors about who would step up to buy the storied franchise were plenty. It felt like the Los Angeles Times had a new name tied to the position every week, from Orel Hershiser and Peter O’Malley, Larry King to Mark Cuban, but in the end there was only one realistic choice. There was only one person who could lead the team out of the darkness of being abandoned to die for a year, to get people to come back again.

A local hero in every sense of the word: Magic Johnson.

While the actual ownership group, named the Guggenheim Partners and Stan Kasten remained faceless, there was one man involved that every soul in Los Angeles knew. Magic Johnson had been a figure in Los Angeles sports for decades since his “Showtime” days with the Lakers, and thus began the cleanup of one of the greatest disasters in sports history. What Johnson offered was something that no other owner could boast: he had a name with so much good will attached, it could actually turn things around after all the bad press.

Growing up I had watched Magic Johnson play and now looking back, I realize that he was everything a star player should be. An entertainer on and off the court, with his charismatic interviews and the aggressive “Showtime” style of the Lakers play, he was also fiercely loyal to the team that made him an icon. Drafted first overall in 1979, he played only for the Lakers through the duration of his career and after his retirement, his career cut short due to HIV, he opened a chain of theaters in the Los Angeles area and maintained a public presence in the city. When the time came for Staples Center to immortalize a player with a statue, Magic was the obvious choice.

The new ownership group proved to the players that they were not just looking for a cash grab, to capitalize on a wounded legend for profit. This proof came from the sum of money they bought the team for, which was in an excess of two billion dollars. While this number may seem high, the fact of the matter was, Forbes’ only valued the franchise at the time at $1.4 billion, and the Guggenheim bid was over 30% higher than any other bid made for the team. They not only came to buy the Dodgers, they put in the money to prove that they respected the name, even though it had been dragged through the mud, they were going to put the work in to clean it up.

With the Dodgers name tarnished, the ownership worked with what they had, and that was to shift the focus to the Los Angeles portion over the Dodgers name. Cross promotion with AEG, the parent company of the other Los Angeles teams was in heavy swing. The alliance between the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Kings and Galaxy was apparent in the media to rebuild the Dodger brand as part of an integrated effort in Los Angeles sports, to move away from the incidents involving ownership and the parking lot brawl to focus on the championship run for the Kings and the playoffs runs for the Lakers and Clippers. It was obvious early on that Magic had a major part in convincing his former employers, AEG, to invest in the rebuild in Los Angeles’ sporting scene. As a fan, I felt the team was safe in the hands of Magic Johnson. His appearances and constant PR work in the Los Angeles media showed how seriously he took the takeover of the Dodgers brand.

A season later and the culture of the team, not so much the parts that made the team, has completely changed. With their familiar core of Kemp, Ethier and Kershaw, as well as some impressive pitching from Chris Capuano, the team is in the thick of the playoff hunt.  Support is now here, as made obvious in the acquisition of Shane Victorino, immediately followed by the addition of 250 million dollars worth of veteran leadership from the Boston Red Sox. Confidence has begun with the management and trickled down to the players. As Don Mattingly put it in his first interview after adding Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett—“It’s clear we’re here to win.”

The BBWA’s Hypocrisy by Jeff Herz

I know the Baseball Hall of Fame election process is flawed.  It has been flawed since the Hall was created back in 1936.  Bill James wrote an entire book basically hypothesizing why Don Sutton should be elected to the Hall, even though we disagree on this particular player’s worthiness.   Who should be enshrined and who should not is a great argument.  I believe that Joe Jackson should be allowed to enter as his lifetime ban ended with his life in 1951.  I also believe the hit king, Pete Rose—Charlie Hustle, should be allowed to enter the hall if it is the last event he is ever allowed to have with Major League Baseball. 

So that brings us to the current and upcoming crop of players who are now eligible and are going to become eligible over the next 20 or so years.  Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Ken Caminiti, Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guererro, Miguel Tejeda, Andy Petitte, Jason Giambi, Juan Gonzalez, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, etc. Which ones are guilty?  Which ones are guilty by association? The only names I hear that people agree are clean are Greg Maddux, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter, but who knows for sure?

I don’t know a baseball fan that did not stand up and cheer in 1998 every time McGwire and Sosa crushed the balls out of the yard.   Remember, it was four short years after the devastating strike that caused temporary commissioner for life Bud Selig to cancel the World Series (when the Montreal Expos were in first place and flush with talent).   Many fans were disgusted and turned off from the game.  They were not coming to the parks. 

That all changed in ’98.  When Slammin’ Sammy and Mashing Mark came to town everyone came back.  They came early to watch batting practice, they brought their kids, and they bought shirts, and pennants and beer and balls and Cracker Jack, and baseball was back.  I went to a Mets/Cardinals game that year and watched McGwire go yard on #50 and #51.  It was great.  When a reporter found andro in McGwire’s locker, the reporter was chastised by other reporters for invading a player’s personal space.  Barry Bonds, who was perhaps the best player of that generation, did not need to jack up his home run totals, he was already a first ballot hall of famer, but he saw the adoration and the dollars, and wanted a taste of the clear.  Many other players did too.  Many other players did not.  Except for the Mitchell Report and Jose Canseco, we might never who is actually “guilty” of using a substance that was never actually prohibited by the sanctioning body (MLB) at the time they played.

It took years before they could agree to legislate steroids out of the game.  That leaves us with the steroid era from 1988 (I pick this as this was the beginning of the Bash Brothers, McGwire and Canseco in Oakland) to 2005.  How do we deal with this period as fans evaluating player greatness? If you believe Canseco a majority of players were using.  Others put the number closer to 50%.  Some might argue that only the superstars were juiced, but I don’t believe that.  What is the number?   I don’t think it matters. 

We need to look consistently across the eras and evaluate them for what they were.  We don’t compare anyone from the dead ball era to Babe Ruth.  We don’t compare today’s pitchers to Bob Gibson.  We just have to admit this is the steroid era and go from there.   Steroids in baseball were a fact and the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA) need to come to grips with it.  Their recent voting for the Hall of Fame is a joke. (Barry Larkin?  Don’t get me started).   They have anointed themselves the judge and jury and have single handedly determined any known user is not getting into the Hall. 

On one side that is fine, but what about Jeff Bagwell? You can argue his numbers until you are blue in the face and in my opinion he is a border line HOF candidate, but the writers have deemed him guilty with only anecdotal evidence.  He was not named anywhere in any report, not in anyone’s book, other than beating up a friend of mine in college, he had a very clean reputation while he played.  He played his whole career in Houston with Craig Biggio.  He played a few years with Clemens and Pettite.   Does that make him a known user?  I don’t think so, and I don’t like the precedent.

There is only one way to deal with this era and that is simply to compare them to other players who played at the same time.  Throw out the old adage 500 HR (bye-bye Fred McGriff), 3000 hits (bye-bye Palmiero) and other standards that guaranteed Hall of Fame stature.  When you consider your Hall of Fame batter, the writers should ask, was this player considered the best at his position, was he a true star who excelled in baseball during this era?  These players that lined the pockets of the owners, that filled the stands with fans, and sold newspapers with columns written by the BBWA are now being ostracized for simply trying to play the  game better faster and stronger, and like it or not, within the rules.  Buck O’Neil, the great advocate and spokesman for the Negro League could relate to the rationale of the players trying to get an edge.  No court of law that I am aware of, will allow a law to be applied to before it was enacted and that is exactly what the BBWA is doing, and it is not fair. 

Do I support steroid usage?  Absolutely not!   Do I think it is bad for the sport?  Absolutely!  What is baseball, and specifically the writers, trying to do by burying these baseball icons that personified the sport during this era?  Are we supposed to believe that those home runs never happened?  That Hank Aaron is still the home run king? That Roger Maris still holds the single season record with 61?  No.

We need the Baseball Writers of America to admit they are just as culpable in the steroid era, as MLB, the managers who turned the other way and the players who either did or did not juice, but turned the other way.  The BBWA needs to swallow their medicine and vote in the best players from this era.  If you want to add a statement on Barry Bonds plaque that says “steroid user” that is fine by me.  Let future generations know that these are the players that played during this era, they were the best, and they only did it to play the game they love, the same game we love.

Jeff Herz is a rabid baseball fan and baseball card collector. Realizing his dream of playing Major League Baseball died in a plane crash outside Canton OH in August 1979, he set his sights on becoming a nerd instead. immersing himself in statistics long before SABR came to reality. After SABR was formed, he realized he was not really as quantitative as he once thought, since he could not follow anything they were saying. He now lives in Suburban CT with his wife, 3 kids and dog, fighting the local board of education to make our schools more successful.