Al Pedrique: RBI Baseball mystery man

Al Pedrique: RBI Baseball mystery man

RBI Baseball was the first hugely popular baseball game to appear on the Nintendo NES. It featured real baseball teams who’d done well in 1986 and 1987 with actual player names, so kids could replay the 1986 and 1987 postseasons. It also featured two All-Star teams. The National League All Star team included a mystery man: Pedrique, a shortstop. His real life counterpart was Al Pedrique, who briefly played shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Today, if people remember Al Pedrique, it’s probably for his appearance in RBI Baseball.

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OPS in baseball statistics

OPS in baseball statistics

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, attempts to quantify how good or bad a player is with statistics. Most baseball statistics only measure a small part of a player’s ability. One statistic that gained popularity in recent decades is On-base Plus Slugging, or OPS. Here’s an explanation of OPS in baseball and what it means.

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Most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s

Most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s

In the 1980s, almost everyone I knew collected baseball cards, at least briefly. When we think of the 1980s today, baseball cards aren’t what comes to mind but they probably deserve to be up there with video games, Rubik’s cubes, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars. With so many of us buying and preserving cards during that decade’s baseball card bubble, there aren’t a lot of super-valuable cards from the 1980s. But that doesn’t mean all 1980s baseball cards are worthless. So let’s take a look at the most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s.

If you’re like me and thought you’d fund your retirement with baseball cards someday, this could be depressing. More depressing than 1970s baseball card values. Possibly more depressing than 1990s baseball card values, even. But there’s a flip side too. If you didn’t have all of these cards back then, you probably can afford all of them now. None of the most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s are worth what we thought they’d someday be worth.

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Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?

“Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?” someone asked me recently. The answer is that it depends. Not all cards were valuable in the first place.

Part of the problem is there was a time when 90% of boys collected cards. Now they don’t. Prices dropped due to simple supply and demand.

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Beware “graded value” baseball cards on Ebay

There are a few hucksters on Ebay, whom I don’t care to give free advertising by mentioning by name, who hawk “graded” cards on Ebay and claim them to be especially valuable. One even puts supposed appraised values in his listings in parenthesis, then invites you to visit his page for an explanation of “graded” value, where he cites an example of a run-of-the-mill 1970s star card, normally worth $60, being worth $2,500 once graded.

The thing is, that’s an edge case. It’s important to understand those edge cases to avoid a ripoff.

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Dave switches to Office 2007

I switched to Office 2007 on Friday.

The reason given was that updates to Office 2003 were failing to install, so the remedy was to install 2007. The change happened Wednesday night. I was out of the office Thursday, so I had a nice surprise waiting for me when I returned on Friday.First impression: What’s that blinky thing in the upper left hand corner and how do I make it stop? I hate blinky things. I thought Microsoft understood that blinky things are bad. First order of business: Search Google for "turn off office 2007 blinky thing." No relevant results.

In desperation I clicked on the blinky thing to find out what it is. Ah, it’s a File menu replacement. Mercifully, it quit blinking after I clicked on it. If it hadn’t, that part of the screen was going to get covered, possibly by a sticky note, but just as likely with blood or a bullet hole.

Second impression: This is Office For Morons. The old Word and Excel menus, aside from the blinky thing, are gone. They’re replaced with tabs, and clicking tabs brings up a series of oversized, Barry Bonds-esque toolbars that contain a bunch of related functions. The result is that it wastes a lot of screen space, and while maybe I’ll use 50% of the functionality in there, now it takes extra mouse clicks to get to it.

Most of the ctrl-key shortcuts still work. Unfortunately after a day of using it I don’t know which ones do and don’t, and I don’t know which ctrl-key shortcut unconditionally formats the hard drive so you can make a note not to hit that one.

Out of habit, I hit alt-i in Excel to bring up the insert menu. If you can fly blind, that works.

Mercifully, the overhaul is unfinished. Outlook and Publisher still retain an old-style menu structure for the most part. I can’t speak for Access because I don’t think I’ve launched Access since July 2001.

I really don’t like Office 2007. The desktop support person says I’m being stubborn. Part of that may be true–I’ve been using Word and Excel since at least 1993, and I learned those easily because every other graphical word processor, spreadsheet, and indeed, every other graphical application I’d used since about 1989 used a very similar structure for its menus and toolbars. In effect, I’ve been doing things one way more than half my life now, and all of a sudden I have to do them differently.

The other irritating thing is that under the old system, I could live in Word and Excel for weeks at a time without taking my hands off the keyboard. I had the ctrl-key shortcuts for most of the things I do memorized, and for the things I didn’t have memorized, I could hit alt to bring up the menus and usually I could find what I needed in less time than it would take to grab the mouse–especially in Office 2000 and 2003, where the menus initially come up in abbreviated fashion, showing only the last few functions used. Office 2007 is going to force the mouse and me to get reacquainted, and that’s going to slow me down.

Arguably the new interface is easier for a beginner to learn. There are two problems with that. One, this user interface treats you like a beginner forever. And two, that dumbing-down is for no good reason because there are very few beginners out there anymore, and the few beginners who are left are teenagers, who didn’t really have any problem learning the old interface.

The nicest thing I can say about Office 2007 is that some Microsoft executive took a dump in a box and decided to shrink-wrap it. This isn’t going to compel people to upgrade. If the idea is to sell new versions of Office, this might work though. If Office 2009 includes an option to use the old menus, it’ll sell like crazy to the fools who blindly bought this. Especially if it comes out sometime this year.

Taking one for the team

The press is divided: Alfonso Soriano is Terrell Owens. Alfonso Soriano isn’t Terrell Owens. No matter. There is one thing that matters.

Alfonso Soriano is an employee of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club and is under contract until the end of next year. Alfonso Soriano wants to play second base. His employer wants him to play left field.

If you aren’t a professional athlete, the case is clear: You do what your employer tells you. Period. Why is it different if you make $10 million a year?The argument against the move goes like this: Once a player reaches a certain level of accomplishment, there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t ask him to change positions. The argument is that Soriano has reached that level of accomplishment.

It’s true that Soriano is a very accomplished hitter. In five full seasons, he’s hit 30 homers and stolen 30 bases three times. Only Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonds have done it more times. It’s rare for someone to do it once. In his second full season in the majors, he fell one home run short of 40/40, which is something only men have done: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. Looking at that list, it’s hard to do without steroids. For that matter, it’s hard to do with steroids.

But those are Soriano’s offensive accomplishments. On the field, he’s anything but an accomplished gloveman. His career fielding percentage at second base is .971. Soriano is no Ryne Sandberg. Since the Nationals have a capable gloveman at second base in Jose Vidro, they want to hide Soriano’s glove in left field to get his bat into the lineup.

Soriano’s objection is that next year is his free agent year, and there’s a better market for second basemen with 30-homer power than there is for left fielders with 30-homer power.

So let’s get this straight: He wants the Nationals to play him at second base this year so another team will potentially pay him more money next year.

I’m not surprised the Nationals aren’t sympathetic.

Besides, there’s a predecent for moving back to second base if another team wants him there. Craig Biggio moved from catcher to second base when the Astros needed a second baseman. A decade later, he moved to center field so the Astros could sign Jeff Kent, a power hitter who can’t play any other position well. A few months later, Biggio moved from center field to left so his team could trade for Carlos Beltran, arguably the best center fielder in the game. The next season, Biggio moved back to second base.

Nomar Garciaparra signed with the Dodgers as a first baseman despite never having played the position in his life. But the Dodgers already had two shortstops so Garciaparra signed as a first baseman. He wanted to be in LA, and the Dodgers wanted his bat. Problem solved. In theory at least.

So if any team is interested in Soriano’s oven mitt-like glovework at second base–and there are a few teams who have the money to pay him, and no better options at the position–nothing stops them from asking Soriano to move back there. And there’s little question that there’ll be teams interested in Soriano as a designated hitter too.

There would have been, anyway. Certainly there’s still a market for Soriano, since anybody can use someone who can hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. But you want someone who’s interested in winning ballgames, not just in collecting a paycheck.

Some years ago, the New York Yankees were looking for a left fielder with a lot of power. They set their sights on Jim Edmonds, who was the center fielder for the Anaheim Angels at the time. There was some question whether Edmonds would be willing to play left field, since most people considered him a better center fielder than the Yankees’ Bernie Williams.

Edmonds said he’d rather play center. But he said what was most important to him was winning a World Series. "I’ll play third base for them if that’s what it takes to win a Series," he said.

Well, the Yankees and Angels couldn’t work out a deal, and Edmonds ended up playing center field in St. Louis instead. But that’s the attitude you want to see.

Some people argue that the Nationals should have discussed all this with Soriano before they traded for him. The Texas Rangers wouldn’t allow the Nationals to talk to him. For good reason–the Rangers wanted to move him to the outfield, and he wouldn’t move. The Yankees had wanted to move him to the outfield too, and his refusal to move was part of the reason the Yankees traded him to Texas. The only worse-kept secret in baseball was Barry Bonds and his steroids.

So the Nationals made a bad trade. Shame on them.

But shame on Soriano even more.

Barry Bonds is no Kirby Puckett

In case you’ve been on another planet this week, two things rocked the Baseball world. Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett died of a massive stroke at age 45. He was younger than Julio Franco, who is still playing in the major leagues, and Puckett is only the second youngest Hall of Famer to die. Lou Gehrig died of ALS at age 37.

The other news is the publication of a book detailing Barry Bonds’ use of performance-enhancing substances such as steroids since 1998.Both men had a dark side. According to the book, Bonds’ jealousy of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa caused him to start using steroids and a bizarre mix of other substances to bulk up. It’s clear to anyone who remembers the skinny kid in the Pittsburgh Pirates uniform from 1988 that Bonds has been doing something to transform himself. Bonds said it was Flaxseed Oil. Guess what? I take Flaxseed Oil. I take a lot of it. I’m 5’9" and on a good day I weigh 145 pounds. Barry Bonds used to be built like me. Now he’s built like a professional wrestler, and he got that way practically overnight. I don’t think it was the Flaxseed Oil…

Puckett had something else going on beneath his always-smiling exterior. Kirby Puckett was the kind of guy who would go out of his way to help anyone, and the kind of guy who could keep a positive attitude throughout absolutely anything. If Kirby Puckett said the team was going to win, everyone believed it, and Kirby Puckett always found some way to win. But the home life wasn’t as good. Puckett’s first wife divorced him because of domestic abuse.

But it should be noted that even after the divorce, the abuse, and the other things that came out afterward, Puckett’s ex-wife thought highly of him. It takes a lot of good to cover domestic abuse. But Puckett had it.

Puckett was born and grew up in the projects in Chicago and dreamed of one day being the next Ernie Banks. Well, he played a different position (Banks was a shortstop, Puckett played mostly center field) and he didn’t play for the Cubs, but other than that, he did a pretty good job of emulating his hero’s attitude and his statistics. I haven’t seen a public statement yet, but I suspect Ernie Banks has told more than one person he was flattered to be Kirby Puckett’s hero.

It all ended tragically. Puckett’s career, that is. In 1996, Puckett woke up one morning and couldn’t see out of one eye. Glaucoma. Without depth perception, you can’t play baseball, so Puckett just walked away. Well, that and he told us not to feel sorry for him. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. His career was very short, but so spectacular that he made it on his first ballot.

In his later years, Puckett secluded himself, and his friends started worrying about him. One account said Puckett nearly weighed 400 pounds at one point. I’m not sure if that was a typo. But Puckett was trying to straighten himself out. He’d started training again, trying to get his weight down, and was engaged to be married. He hoped to start coaching baseball, maybe as soon as next year.

It’s sad. We’ll miss Kirby Puckett. And we can’t wait for Barry Bonds to just go away.

Can the Royals be saved?

So the Royals managed yesterday to avoid losing their 100th game this season. They have to win 14 games in a row to avoid their third 100-loss season in four years. While a 14-game winning streak to stave off that 100th loss isn’t impossible, it’s unlikely. This is a team that dropped 19 straight last month, after all.

Keep in mind that the cross-state Cardinals, the winningest team in baseball, haven’t won their 99th game yet.

So what do you do with a team that’s had a worse run than the 1962-1966 Mets, who at least had the excuse of being an expansion team?Get some average players. The problem with the Royals since, well, about 1990, is that they don’t have enough average players. Let’s face it, the addition of Barry Bonds to this team wouldn’t result in very many more wins because big hitters need people to get on base ahead of them if they’re going to produce runs, and they need some protection behind him. The Royals’ two best hitters are David DeJesus and Mike Sweeney. DeJesus isn’t a power threat. The Royals’ biggest power threats behind Mike Sweeney are Matt Stairs and Emil Brown, neither of whom have ever been able to hold down a regular job anywhere else, primarily because they’re average hitters and below-average fielders.

Get two hitters and one pitcher. Whenever I’ve run computer simulations, I’ve been able to turn the Royals into a .500 team with the addition of one good pitcher and one good hitter. Of course, the last time I ran that simulation, the Royals had Carlos Beltran, so now they’d need two hitters to accomplish the same thing. Since David Glass has expressed a willingness to raise the payroll to about $50 million and they’re about to shed more than $10 million in dead-weight salaries, it’s possible for the Royals to pay three $8 million salaries. The question is whether the Royals can manage to attract three $8 million players.

Even though San Diego has been trying for years to unload Phil Nevin, the Royals have never bitten. Nevin wouldn’t be happy in Kansas City, primarily because Nevin wouldn’t be happy anywhere. He’d be bad in the clubhouse, but the Royals only have a few guys who are good in the clubhouse. At least the guy can hit.

Maybe the Royals should take a chance on Rafael Palmeiro. Clearly nobody else wants him, and the steroids are a big question mark. Maybe he’ll never hit more than 14 homers again. Maybe he’ll never play baseball again once Congress gets hold of him. The Royals already have too many 1B/DH types but if Palmeiro can deliver a cheap 25 home runs from the left-hand side of the plate, he’s an upgrade. A slimmed-down Palmeiro would still be the second-best hitter on this team.

Do one thing well. The Royals are at or near the bottom of both leagues in fielding, hitting, pitching, and stolen bases. Doing just one of those things well would make a big difference. Defense is the cheapest of those problems to address. The Royals have been criticized for moving slick-fielding shortstop Andres Blanco to second base and handing him the job. But he’s hitting above .200, which Royals second basemen have struggled to do this year, and he’s making the plays at second, which Royals second basemen haven’t done at all this year. His bat won’t win any games, but arguably his glove won at least one game this past week against the White Sox. Yes, the White Sox made two bad baserunning mistakes and Blanco gunned them down, but with Donnie Murphy or Ruben Gotay playing second, you get away with those mistakes.

A team of seven Andres Blancos plus Mike Sweeney (whose glove can’t hurt you when he’s DHing) and David DeJesus (who wields a good glove in center field) would get about seven fewer hits a week than what it gets now, but it wouldn’t give away runs. The Royals would win a lot more 1-0 games.

Stolen bases are the second-cheapest problem to address. You can draft guys with good speed and/or trade for them, and then coach them. The Royals won a lot of games in the 1970s and early 1980s by relying on guys who could beat out an infield single and steal second or stretch singles to the outfield into doubles, then get driven in by a 3-4-5 combination of George Brett, Hal McRae, and John Mayberry/Willie Aikens/Steve Balboni (in other words, any affordable first baseman who could hit .250 with 25-30 home runs). And for that matter, Brett could steal bases and stretch singles into doubles, and until about 1982 when age caught up with him, so could McRae.

Since the Royals don’t seem to have anyone in the organization who is succeeding in teaching guys how to steal bases, why not find out what Davey Lopes is doing? Lopes has always been one of the best teachers around at the art of the stolen base, even going back to his days as a player.

Scout better. One reason last-place teams usually don’t stay there long is because they get the best draft picks. But from 1997 to 2002, the Royals have managed to draft exactly one #1 who is still in the big leagues. The one they drafted in 2002, Zack Greinke, is 4-16 with a 5.95 ERA. The kid clearly should have been in Omaha this year. A lot of people are giving up on him–he’s been touted as the next Greg Maddux–but critics forget that Maddux went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA when he was 21.

Part of the difference is that Maddux had veteran pitchers to learn from at 21. I’m not sure that Jose Lima is the best example for young Greinke.

But I digress. The Royals need to start scouting better and drafting better. In 1999 the Royals drafted Kyle Snyder. The Cardinals drafted some kid who was attending college in Kansas City named Albert Pujols. Which one have you heard of?

And yes, I’ve run the numbers. Albert Pujols doesn’t drive in quite as many runs in a Royals lineup and he doesn’t hit for quite as much average with only Mike Sweeney to protect him, but he turns the Royals into a winning team. And for some reason Sweeney hits better with Pujols in the lineup. Imagine that.

The way you get good players when you can’t trade for them and you can’t sign them is to draft and develop them. The way you do that is to scout well. If the Royals aren’t willing to pay their draft picks (Alex Gordon is still holding out for more money), they need to use that money to lure the best scouts in the game. Find the scouts with the best track records and pay them double what anyone else is willing to pay. The result will be a team that drafts smarter and trades smarter.

Is there a bright side? In Mike MacDougal, Ambiorix Burgos, Andy Sisco and Jeremy Affeldt, the Royals have four lights-out relievers. If the Royals can get a lead after the sixth inning, their chances of nailing down the win are pretty good with those four pitchers, assuming good defense behind them. I happen to believe that either Sisco or Affeldt should go back into the starting rotation, but strong bullpens make good starters out of mediocre ones so I can see keeping them where they are. Affeldt’s been roughed up of late, but that’s more of a reflection on his fielding ability than on his ability to pitch.

Greinke has demonstrated that he has the ability to pitch, but he needs to turn that promise into results. Runelvys Hernandez and Denny Bautista have demonstrated an ability to pitch, but both have been injury-prone. A seasoned Greinke along with a healthy Hernandez and Bautista give a solid basis to build from. Given a couple of veterans to anchor the staff and teach them, it could go somewhere. I was too young to know at the time, but I wonder now if the reason the Royals kept Paul Splitorff and Larry Gura around in 1984 when both had ceased to be useful pitchers was to teach their young pitchers how to survive in the majors.

So I think the Royals’ poor pitching is temporary. Now if only I could say the same thing for the management…

It’s hard to know what to make of Jose Canseco’s steroid allegations

I remember back when the words "Jose Canseco money" meant something, even among people who weren’t really all that interested in baseball.

You see, Jose Canseco was a huge name. He hit long home runs in large quantities, and people paid him huge amounts of money to do it. For a time, he was the most popular and highest-paid player in the game.

Today, the money’s gone and he can’t get a job, and reading about his tell-all book is pretty sad.Terry Steinbach, a former teammate of Canseco, summed it up pretty well. Canseco worked pretty hard his first couple of years, and he actually got better during those first few years in Oakland. He worked on improving his outfield defense and got promoted from left field to right field. He worked on improving his speed and became the first man to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season.

But something happened. Steinbach says he stopped taking extra outfield practice, and it showed. The player who once was lauded for his defense became a full-time designated hitter. In one notorious incident after the Athletics had traded him to the Texas Rangers, a catchable fly ball bounced off Canseco’s head and into the stands, turning a long flyout into a home run.

And if you look at Canseco’s numbers, it’s almost like you can tell what years he was trying. Take 1998 for instance. That year, he stole 28 bases. But he stole 8 bases the year before and 3 bases the year after. He was out of baseball after 2001. He made some comeback attempts but to no avail. He complained about a conspiracy. Conspiracy? By 2001, he was good for a .250 batting average and 15 home runs per year. Why should anyone break out the Jose Canseco money a guy who can’t field and who puts up Steve Balboni-esque numbers at the plate?

So I think part of it is jealousy. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro came up about the same time Canseco did, and they played longer and put up better numbers. Both seem destined for the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to believe now that in 1987, Canseco was by far the most complete player of the trio. But both McGwire and Palmeiro worked on improving their defense, and Palmeiro worked on improving his power numbers and McGwire worked on his contact.

Meanwhile, Canseco was plagued by legal troubles. Speeding tickets (like 120 in a 55), allegations of spousal abuse, financial troubles… Seems he may have learned a thing or two from Pete Rose.

So, he’s likely a bit short on good character references.

But who better to recognize steroid users than another steroid user? And while much has been made of Barry Bonds’ transformation from a lanky guy into something that resembles a professional wrestler, a look at Mark McGwire’s 1987 Topps rookie card shows he made a similar transformation in the years between his 49-homer rookie season and his 70-homer binge. Was it just the andro?

It’s been said so many times that it’s cliche that taking steroids won’t help you keep up with Randy Johnson’s fastball and it certainly won’t make you able to hit a curveball. Whether you’re juiced or not, it’s a lot of work to stay in the big leagues. That’s why Canseco played his last game at age 37 while Julio Franco is still in the big leagues at age 45.

But the steroids will change long fly balls into homers. They may turn a hooking foul ball into a fair ball, or a broken-bat grounder to short into a broken-bat single.

And while the conspiracy that Canseco alleges may very well not exist, there’s no question that owners and the players’ union like the effects that steroids have. Fans like home runs, so more home runs means more fans, which means more money in the owners’ coffers. And the players’ union loves home runs, because nothing drives a player’s salary more than his ability to hit a long one. Ozzie Smith may have saved two runs a game with his glove, but he never made as much money as the guys who averaged a homer every 3-4 games.

Like it or not, regardless of how much truth there is in Canseco’s book, there’s a problem in baseball, and Canseco’s loud mouth is only a symptom. The bigger problem is that a drug that’s illegal for you and me to use is getting used by these professional athletes. The risk to their health is enormous, but worse yet, these men are idolized by millions of boys. Most of them are anything but good role models for children anyway, even without the steroids, but the steroids make it even worse.

In 1983, the Kansas City Royals realized they had a problem. A good half-dozen of their players had massive cocaine habits, including nearly every core player aside from George Brett. One by one, the Royals traded or released every last one of those players except for leadoff hitter Willie Wilson, who spent the first couple of months of the 1984 season in rehab. The Royals knew they were decimating their team–which had finished second the year before, and the same basic team had been in place since 1976 and been a contender every year–but they did it anyway. Surprisingly, the team of castoffs and rookies did well that year, winning its division.

Will any team have the guts today to purge itself of its steroid abusers?

I doubt it. But I guess I can hope.

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