Remembering 11 September 2001

I was on my way to work when they said on the radio something was wrong. The details were scarce, but an airplane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Then the other. And as I was pulling into the parking lot, the news came that one of the towers had collapsed.

The day didn’t get any better as it wore on. I remember it well. Looking back at what I wrote on that day, some details faded over the decade, but my recollection of most of the day is vivid. I can tell you more about that day than I can most of the days of the past week.

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Salary cap? Baseball needs something

Funny how now that the New York Yankees have added the most expensive sports contract in history, Alex Rodriguez, to their already outrageously priced roster, suddenly the freespending Boston Red Sox, owner of the second-most expensive sports contract in history and the second-highest payroll in baseball, are calling for a salary cap.

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Phillies’ signing of Thome is about confidence, not wins

The Phillies just signed the most popular slugger in Cleveland Indians’ history, inking a 6-year, $87 million deal.
Analysts note that with Thome in the lineup instead of Travis Lee, the Phillies would have scored about 70 more runs last season. They still would have been fourth in the league, even with those extra 70 runs. That’s not enough to guarantee you’ll be the fourth team in the playoffs.

Analysts also noted that for the past few years, Thome has spent a good deal of time as the DH rather than playing in the field, and they doubt Thome will be capable of playing first base for the last year or even two years of his contract.

Also, last week, Philadelphia signed David Bell to play third base, replacing Placido Polanco. Bell’s a better hitter than Polanco, but not by much. Bell’s a better fielder than Polanco (at least at third), but not by very much.

But this trend isn’t about fielding. It’s not so much even about scoring runs. I’m not even convinced it’s about winning ball games. This is about confidence.

You see, a year ago, the Phillies had the best third baseman in baseball and the second-best third baseman in their team’s history (second only to Mike Schmidt, who is one of the three best third basemen who ever lived). The Phillies offered Scott Rolen a pile of money to sign a long-term contract. But Scott Rolen wasn’t convinced the Phillies wanted to win badly enough. He refused a couple of offers, slumped, got into some arguments with manager Larry Bowa, and eventually was traded to the Cardinals for whatever they could manage to get for him, preferring that to losing him to free agency.

It wasn’t that long ago that Philadelphia lost Curt Schilling, one of the best pitchers in the game today, pretty much the same way.

Rolen rediscovered his swing, and helped the Cardinals get to the postseason. Schilling dueled Randy Johnson for the Cy Young Award two years straight, and along with Johnson was the hero of the 2001 World Series, and was practically unbeatable up until the 2002 postseason.

Meanwhile, the Phillies looked like they’d given up and entered a rebuilding phase as they got ready to open an expensive new ballpark. And Philadelphia fans are notoriously unforgiving. We’re talking fans who’ll boo Santa Claus.

And the Phillies have lots of young, exciting players whose contracts are running out.

Signing David Bell and Jim Thome proves the Phillies are willing to spend some money. This will make unhappy players play better (witness Scott Rolen’s performance after coming to St. Louis versus his so-so performance in Philadelphia last year). Bell has become one of those players who always seems to find himself playing for a winner. Young players need that influence. Bell, at least theoretically, brings value beyond the numbers he puts up. If it were about numbers, the Phillies would have acquired Joe Randa, who makes much less money, and the Phillies could have had Joe Randa for a bag of baseballs and a vial of dirt scraped off one of Mike Schmidt’s spikes. But Joe Randa’s never played for a winner.

And Jim Thome’s a big, burly, buff guy who hits monsterous home runs by the truckload and excites fans. The Phillies haven’t had a truly great power hitter since Mike Schmidt. In his best year, Schmidt hit 48 home runs and batted .286. Jim Thome hit 52 home runs and batted .304 last year.

In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals were missing something. They had the opportunity to trade for Mark McGwire. McGwire hit a bunch of towering home runs and captured the fans’ imagination and helped the Cardinals lure some other great players, most notably center fielder Jim Edmonds, to St. Louis.

The Phillies want Jim Thome to come in and be Mark McGwire.

The Phillies covet former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. Glavine’s been one of the best left-handed pitchers in the National League for the past decade. The Braves and Mets are also interested in Glavine. But the Braves made him a half-hearted offer and seem to be more interested in unloading salary than in making another playoff run. The Mets are coming off a last-place finish and they’re trying to find someone willing to take Jeromy Burnitz and Mo Vaughn’s contracts. Meanwhile, the Phillies have just signed two of the most coveted players in the free agent market. The Phillies’ offer is comparable to the Mets’ offer. Glavine wants money, of course, but he also wants to win another World Series before he retires. Who do you think he’s most interested in pitching for now?

David Bell alone doesn’t make the Phillies a better team. Jim Thome alone makes the Phillies a marginally better team. David Bell plus Jim Thome plus Tom Glavine signal a commitment to win, at least for the next few years, which will draw out the best in the players they have and make other players interested, as well as draw fans, which creates revenue, which can be used to pursue other quality players.

Those are the ingredients of a dynasty.

Now the Phillies just have to figure out how to mix them properly.

How to reinvigorate the Royals

Please indulge me one last time this season to write about my beloved, who have currently lost 99 games and are going to make one last valiant attempt to avoid losing 100 this year.
The Royals are a small market. Small-market teams have a rough go of it, yes. But the Minnesota Twins have been doing OK. The Twins have some vision and a plan and they stick with their plan, and that’s part of it. So here’s what we need to do to duplicate that success.

1. Build a superstar. Back in George Brett’s heyday, the Royals had no payroll problems. The fans came out to see Brett, the Royals spent that money to get more players, and since the Royals had winning records, the fans kept coming. In the late 1980s, a bad season meant the Royals didn’t win any championships. But they had winning records. The Royals nearly have that superstar. His name is Mike Sweeney. He’s got a sweet swing like Brett. He’s got plate discipline like Brett. And he’s even more likeable than Brett. When Brett was Sween’s age, he partied as hard as he played. Sween takes care of himself and he takes care of his fiancee and he takes care of his community. The only people who don’t like Mike Sweeney are opposing pitchers.

But Mike Sweeney’s protection in the order is The Mighty Raul Ibanez. Now, The Mighty Ibanez has turned into a good hitter, but he’s not an All-Star. He’s a better hitter than a 50-year-old George Brett. That’s saying something. But to build a superstar, what the Royals really need to do it

And Mike Sweeney needs to get together with Dave Dravecky to put together a project talking about the Christian symbolism in baseball. (Pitchers can’t hit but it’s part of their job. Designated hitters come in and do that part of their job for them. Sound kinda like Christianity? I think so. I think God’s in favor of the DH.)

2. Sign Jim Thome. Jim Thome doesn’t fit into Cleveland’s plans anymore. Blame it on mass insanity. Blame it on tightfistedness. Blame it on whatever. But the Indians don’t want Jim Thome. And guess what? Jim Thome likes Kansas City. I don’t blame him. In Kansas City, if you’re on the highway and you want to change lanes, you use your turn signal and someone lets you. In Kansas City, strangers smile at you for no reason. When the now-departed Miguel Batista arrived in Kansas City at the airport after a trade, some little old lady walked up to him and said, “You’re our new pitcher. Let me get one of your bags.” People are just nice.

Yes, Jim Thome’s going to cost buckets of money. But guess what? He won’t cost more than Roberto Hernandez and Neifi Perez cost combined. So here’s what you do. Rotate Jim Thome and Mike Sweeney between first base and designated hitter. Then try out this lineup:

Michael Tucker, 2b
Carlos Beltran, cf
Mike Sweeney, 1b
Jim Thome, dh
Raul Ibanez, rf
Joe Randa, 3b
Mark Quinn/Dee Brown lf
Angel Berroa, ss
Brent Mayne, c

We’ll talk about the Michael Tucker insanity in a second. Jim Thome’s .300 average and 52 home runs will make Mike Sweeney look a whole lot better to pitch to. It virtually guarantees he’ll hit .340 again, because pitchers will look forward to the half of the time he makes an out. Jim Thome will see good pitches because Mike Sweeney’s on base. Or someone else is. The Royals will score lots more runs. Meanwhile, Mark Quinn and Dee Brown have Jim Thome to learn from. The Royals’ lineup suddenly starts to look like the great Cardinals teams of the 1980s that had lots of jackrabbits who could hit doubles and one really big bat in the middle. Except Mike Sweeney and Raul Ibanez offer better protection than Jack Clark ever had in a Cardinal uniform.

3. Try Michael Tucker at second base. The Royals need a second baseman who can hit. Tucker’s not a great hitter for an outfielder, but he’s a really good hitter for a second baseman. He won’t be a great fielder. But the 1984 Padres solved two problems by moving Alan Wiggins from left field to second base. They got a good hitter at the position, and they freed left field for another bat. The Padres kept Jerry Royster around to play second in the late innings. The Royals can keep Carlos Febles for defense late in the game.

4. If the Tucker experiment fails, move Carlos Beltran to leadoff and Joe Randa to the #2 spot in the batting order. The Royals don’t score any runs because Mike Sweeney doesn’t have enough people on base in front of him. The Royals often give away their first out by having people like Chuck Knoblauch and Neifi Perez and Carlos Febles hitting leadoff. Joe Randa’s no speed demon anymore, but he gets on base. And he’s got enough power that a lot of times, when he gets on base, he gets on second base. Carlos Beltran gets on base. Mike Sweeney needs to hit with people on base. If the Royals were to sign Jim Thome, he’d be worthless without people on base. So disregard the traditional idea that your first two hitters should be your fastest runners, and just get some people on base. Carlos Beltran is your leadoff hitter anyway with him hitting second. Might as well accept reality and work with it.

5. Develop young pitchers. In 1985, the Royals brought in Jim Sundberg, a veteran catcher who couldn’t hit to handle their young pitchers. The formula of young pitchers with lots of good stuff and a catcher who knew how to guide them brought them to the World Series, and, ultimately, to a World Championship. Time will tell if any of today’s young pitchers will turn into Bret Saberhagen or even Mark Gubicza. Since the Royals can’t afford to go sign Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux (and since they wouldn’t score any runs for them anyway), they don’t have much choice but to take the chance. But since the Royals have been throwing their young pitchers’ arms out (witness Jose Rosado, Chad Durbin, and Dan Reichert) they need to re-think the way they develop their young pitchers. Throw fewer innings and watch more videotape.

And be patient. Greg Maddux spent two years as a so-so relief pitcher and sometime starter before he blossomed into the greatest pitcher of his generation.

Hmm. I’m already looking forward to April 2003.

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