Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Braves Fans Take Heart

The Atlanta Braves lost a 3-2 heart breaker Tuesday night. As most readers will know, they lost their first nine of the year. Then they won four straight before dropping another eight in a row. Their Tuesday loss was their fifth straight. But the club can take solace from the fact that they could be worse. They could be a lot worse. They could be the 2003 Tigers.

After selling out their home opener with rookie manager Alan Trammel at the helm the Bengals lost it and their next eight as well. This year's Braves were outscored 55-24 in their first nine. The 2003 Tigers were outscored 50-14!

The club's woes had begun during the cruel Detroit winter. Their new GM, David Dombrowski, who had begun work by trading away Jeff Weaver the previous July, watched in horror as the Tigers' closer Juan Acevedo signed with the Yankees, second baseman Damion Easley signed with the Devil Rays, right fielder Robert Flick left for Atlanta, and DH Randall Simon penned a deal with the Pirates. Dombrowski must have been tempted to borrow a line from Everett - George Clooney's character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? - "We're in a tight spot."

The Tigers' staff had a pretty rough year in 2003, reminding a lot of baseball fans of the '62 Mets' hurlers. After being fired by the Yankees for turning sixty (he said he'd never make that mistake again) Casey Stengel didn't have Whitey Ford to tap on the shoulder anymore. Instead, Ole Case trotted out Roger Craig (10-24), Al Jackson (8-20), Jay Hook (8-19), Craig Anderson (3-17), and Bob Miller (1-12).

Tiger ace? Mike Maroth (9-21)
The 2003 Tigers featured Mike Maroth (9 -21, 5.73), Nate Cornejo (6 -17, 4.67), Jeremy Bonderman (6 -19, 5.56), Adam Bernero (1-12), and Matt Roney (1-9). Remarkably, the staff finished second-last in E.R.A. ahead of the woeful Texas pitchers. Detroit did manage to finish last in runs scored, hits, errors, OPS, and strikeouts both batted and pitched, however. "Good job!" as my grandson Wyatt, a.k.a. Spud would say.

Side Note: One article I read about the 2003 Tigers stated that "their former top prospect Eric Munson was one of the worst defensive third basemen the game has ever seen over a full season." Really? Munson committed nineteen errors. Granted that Billy Shindle's glove was a lot smaller, but the ball was nowhere near as lively back in the late 1880's and early 1890's when Billy racked up the following numbers of misplays at the hot corner.
1888 Orioles - 47; '89 Orioles - 88; '90 Quakers - 119; '91 Phillies - 58; '92 Orioles - 78
(I guess the Orioles had been fooled by his great '91 season.)

Really, Alan? It's the umps' fault? 
The 2003 Tigers finished 47 games back and 52 games out of the Wild Card. They were a depressing twenty games behind second worst Tampa. With six games left on their schedule things looked bleak for the Bengals. They had already lost 118 games. The modern record for losses belonged to the aforementioned '62 Mets - 120. The Tigers could reasonably be expected to lose four, or five, or perhaps all six of those games. Worse, after having lost 12-6 in the opener of their second last series with the Royals against whom they were now 3-14 they would finish the year with four at home to the Twins. Their record versus Minnesota was a chilling 1-14.

But on Tuesday, September 23 at Kauffman Stadium Detroit pummeled the Royals 15-6. The next night they scored four in the first and then miraculously held on for a 4-3 win. Still 118 losses but for more against the Twins.

More than 9,000 fans poured into Comerica Park on Thursday night for the final series opener. They watched in amazement as Nate Robertson held the Twins to one run over six innings. They were even more shocked when the Tigers scored three in the bottom of the seventh. But, when Minnesota answered with three of their own in the top of the eighth the universe seemed to have returned to its rightful order. Then Craig Munroe homered to tie things up. "What's our record in extra-inning games?" one Tiger fan asked another nervously. "One and ten," came the answer. "What d'ya expect?"

Super Shane Halter
But no one had taken into account the brilliant strategy of Alan Trammell, who had quietly inserted Shane Halter into the lineup in the eighth. Halter was batting only .212, but he had one home run in his last twelve games. With two out in the bottom of the eleventh Halter smacked another one.

Friday night. Almost twice as big a crowd. The Tigers rocket to a 2-0 lead. The Twins tie it. Detroit jumps ahead 3-2. The Twins tie it again. Extra innings! Minnesota scores a run in the top of the tenth. Now MVP candidate Shane Halter singles in a run and the Bengals tie it again! Trammell calls for Franklyn German, 2-4 with an E.R.A. under 6.00 (5.98). Micheal Cuddyer puts one in the seats and the Twins win. Two left, 119 losses.

Saturday afternoon. A smaller crowd was on the edge of their seats after four and a half. Many of the fans were on the edge of their seats at McDonald's. They'd left - the Twins led 8-0. "There's number 120," a broken-hearted rooter groaned as he joined the throng heading for the exits.

No one looked back as the Tigers scored once in the bottom of the fifth. Faint hope at best. Then Detroit added three in the seventh. Then another four in the eighth. In a comeback for the ages they had tied the game.

In came 46-year old veteran Jesse Orosco to put an end to the insanity in the eleventh. He got Ramon Santiago to fly out and then walked Alex Sanchez. Sanchez stole second. Sanchez stole third. Orosco struck out Warren Morris. Groans from the Tiger faithful, but wait.

After Minnesota had piled up their 8-0 lead Ron Gardenhire, his thoughts on the upcoming playoffs, had pulled catcher A.J. Pierzynski and sent rookie Rob Bowen behind the plate. Strike three was in the dirt. It skipped by Bowen. Morris raced to first. Sanchez raced home for the win. The hundreds of fans still left were bloated with bliss. The Tigers had their fourth win in five games!

Sunday afternoon for all the marbles. Trammell sends his ace, Mike Maroth (8-21) to the hill. Remarkably, he shuts out the Twins for four innings and leads 1-0. Then the Twins get two. The Tigers fight back with one of their own in the bottom of the fifth. In the sixth, eight hits and seven runs. FOR THE TIGERS! They cruise to a 9-2 win and extend their record to 43-119. You just can't make this stuff up, folks.

Better still. With the second pick in the MLB Draft (the NL bottom feeders picked first that year) David Dombrowski selected 20-year old Justin Verlander. After two more years in which he master- minded ninety and then ninety-one losses Trammell was cut loose.

Dombrowski hired Jim Leyland. That worked out rather well. The Tigers, as you may remember, won the pennant in 2006. So Braves fans, take heart. You just never know.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Another Thing We Just take for Granted

When you go to a ball game you take for granted that the leftie pitchers are going to throw with their left hand and the righties will pitch with their right. But Toronto's Pat Venditte might use either. In my last post I wrote about the first time that had happened in the big leagues. Another thing we take for granted is that the home team will bat last. Well it hasn't always been that way.

As part of my research for my third baseball novel (working title Big Ed Delahanty: Goliath of Baseball's Gilded Age) I am reading Napoleon Lajoie: King of Ballplayers. The author writes that in one of Nap's (they called him Larry) first games, September 1st, 1896 the home team Phillies batted first against the visiting Reds in the early game of a doubleheader.

Not quite true. Further research revealed that it was really September 2, but that's not the point. The point is that, as is often the case, it sent me scurrying to find out how often that happened in those days.

For the record, it was not until 1950 that The Official Rules of Baseball set out in Rule 4.02 that "The players of the home team will take their defensive positions, the first batter of the visiting team shall take his position in the batter's box, the umpire shall call "Play" (not "Play Ball" for all you amateur umpires out there) and the game shall start."

After a loss to the Anaheim Angels in 2002 Yankee skipper Joe Torre told reporters, "It's tough to lose an extra-inning game at home because you have the advantage of batting last, but we didn't get the hits when we needed them." Conventional wisdom I think you would agree. But not always.

Twirler John Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs pitched baseball's first perfect game in 1880. Note below that while Worcester was the home team, they batted first.

Henry Chadwick
In describing a game played by the Brooklyn club at Louisville in 1888, Henry Chadwick, the leading baseball writer of the nineteenth century wrote, "The Brooklyn team won the first game of their Western tour today after a close and exciting contest, in which the rule of being the last at bat was again shown to be of conspicuous advantage. The home team had but one inning left to play while Brooklyn - owing to be last at the bat - had two, and the confidence the knowledge this fact gave them was inspiring, and on this occasion, as on others, it gave them the victory."

Originally - as on the sandlot - the first team to bat was decided by a coin toss. But as of 1887 the National League permitted the home team manager to decide who would hit first. As late as 1894 the home team batted first 41 per cent of the time.

Cap Anson's Chicago Colts
Art Irwin opted to have his Phillies bat first fifty-nine times that year and Cap Anson's had his Chicago Colts lead things off fifty-two times. By the turn of the century both managers had left the game and, though Frank Chance had his Cubs bat first at home on July 16, 1908, the practice of the home team choosing to bat last was commonly accepted. When Connie Mack's A's hosted the Senators for a double header in late June 1913 and the A's batted first in the first and second in the second that was already a rarity.

A February 3, 1911 piece in the Milwaukee Sentinel explained why things had been different back in the day. Managers believed that if they could get first crack at the new ball (only one would be used - if a ball went into the stands it was retrieved) before it had been blackened and softened and "harder to see and land upon" they could grab the lead and demoralize the visitors.

An article in the Detroit News three years later agreed. "Right now all the clubs go to the field first when on their home grounds, the custom has become firmly rooted and no manager thinks of  changing. Yet many years ago it was equally the rule for the home team to bat first and the argument on which the managers maintained the system was the supposed advantage of getting first crack at the new ball."

So, is the now accepted wisdom correct? The most scholarly piece I could find on the subject was a 2008 dissertation called "Last-Ups Advantage in Baseball: A Game-Theoretic Approach" for the Texas A &M Department of Economics by Theodore L. Turocy. After revealing the results of calculations I couldn't fathom in a month of no ball games allowed Sundays he concludes, "There is a way in which an errant belief in an advantage to batting last might have a negative effect on a team's chances of winning. The quantitative results of the model suggest that a manager would do well in ignoring whether it is the top half or the bottom half of the inning and basing tactical results on the inning, configuration of baserunners, and number of outs. If a manager believed in an advantage to batting last he might not behave in that way; in fact a common saying is to play for the tie at home, and the win on the road. If in fact batting last is not an advantage, this would be poor advice." So there.

Back to a world most of us can understand. Has there been any recent game in which the home team batted first? Well, it turns out there was. Due to a large number of rainouts in 2007 a Cleveland Indians home game scheduled for April was played later in Seattle and - as a result of mutual agreement and a recent rule that allowed it - the visiting Indians were given the option of batting last, which they did. And now you have "the rest of the story."

Big Ed Delahanty
A footnote and the obligatory happy ending: Most readers will know that ball games used to take less than two hours to play partly because batters were not allowed to step out of the batter's box as they annoyingly do today. But, as you would discover in Goliath of Baseball's Gilded Age, during a dramatic extra inning at bat, with two out, two on, and two strikes on him, Big Ed Delahanty was actually allowed to go to the bench to get a drink of ice water! Refreshed, he returned to the bat, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, grinned, and slugged a home run to win the game.