Friday, April 11, 2008
I do not like how his site is now more about HIM and his musings on life than it is Twins baseball. Hearing him blather on about Elisha Cuthbert is pretty nauseating and enough to keep me from visiting his site anymore. Frankly I don't think he's any better than I am.Obviously he makes some excellent points, particularly regarding my poor hand-to-hand combat skills.
She's "nice" and "pleasant"! Oh, and her least-favorite part of 24 was my favorite part of 24.
I used to think that all I ever wanted to do was be a baseball beat writer but I've begun to think about branching off into other areas. Radio? TV? Not sure. The newspaper industry being in transition (loss of revenue to on-line, etc.) doesn't help either.Luckily for LEN3, MinnPost media columnist David Brauer reports that the Minneapolis Star Tribune is interested in "branching off into other areas" too:
Waiting with bated breath to see your favorite scribe amble across your computer screen? Strib management hopes so, since in these days of shrinking staffs and slumping revenues, there's always room for ... klieg lights! According to a memo from Editor Nancy Barnes, the company is building a "standup TV studio" for a project dubbed, in classic 425 Portland style, "Strib TV."As a "doughy sports columnist" who has somehow regularly appeared on videos for NBCSports.com over the past two years despite having a face for radio (if that) and basically dreading being on camera, I can assure you that LEN3 would thrive if given a chance to have his own "Strib TV" show because he's likable and loves to gab. Of course, my hope is that Joe Christensen would be his co-star, because the self-proclaimed "Felix and Oscar of Twins reporters" should stick together.
(And yes, I realize that sounds absurd from someone who "blathers on about Elisha Cutbert" and has an "Official Fantasy Girl" for his blog. To quote the great Adam Carolla: "Yeah, but still.")
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
E-mailing With ... Rob Neyer
This blog has never been much for interviews, but I've been reconsidering that of late and if nothing else making an exception was an obvious move once Rob Neyer agreed to answer some questions via e-mail. As a follow-up to my review of Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends that ran yesterday in this space, one of my heroes and all-time favorite writers talks about his new book, the unique path that he took to ESPN.com, the world of online baseball writing, and his Minnesota connections. Enjoy ...
AG: The book's opening line is something that I've often said to people who complain about my blog being too critical of the Twins: "This book isn't for everybody. Seriously." Do you feel like the same thing that drives the style of your ESPN.com column and blog is also what makes you inclined to investigate the accuracy of baseball lore?
RN: Sure. At some point in my life I stopped believing anything. What does Billy Beane say? "In God we trust. All others must provide evidence." I feel sorry for my wife, because she's the only person--well, her and my readers, I guess--who get the full brunt of my skepticism.
AG: Maybe I've just gotten used to the attack-style "fisking" of articles and stories that populates blogs, but it seemed like your book was more skeptical than cynical and was a lot more about investigating than attacking.
RN: I'm not sure if I'm clear about this in the book, but I'm full of affection for the stories in the book and the men who tell them. I do believe that anything is fair game, but I also believe in treating a "story" somewhat differently than "analysis." Maybe I'm more sympathetic toward storytellers because I'm a lousy storyteller. Analysts, though? I believe they should be held to the highest of standards, because we don't ask them to entertain us; first we ask them to be right.
AG: In the foreword Bill James makes the observation that increased availability of information and a focus on accurary has robbed baseball stories of their intrigue. I tend to think that's true to an extent, but applies every bit as much to movie stars, musicians, politicians, and writers as it does to baseball. If someone today was as dominant as Babe Ruth or as spectacular an all-around player as Mickey Mantle, it still seems impossible that they'd be able to build up the same sort of aura around them.
RN: Yeah, I think that's right. One of the reasons there are so many stories about the old-timers is that there was so much we didn't know about them. About today's stars we know a lot, and some would argue too much. Fifty years ago, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds might well have been considered "characters"; today they're just perpetually adolescent jerks.
AG: After looking into the history and accuracy of so many stories, would you say that for the most part the cliche is right? If a story seems too good to be true it probably is?
RN: Yeah, definitely. Usually, when a story seems perfect it's because somebody did a lot of work, adding and rearranging details, inserting famous players, etc.
AG: I'm sure 99 percent of people would rather be telling these stories than fact-checking or debunking them. Do you feel differently or was it one of those "it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it" things?
RN: More the latter than the former. I mean, we know that I enjoy poking a hole in conventional wisdom (who doesn't?). But I do love baseball stories, and this book simply gave me a decent excuse for collecting and studying them.
The other day I ran across this quote from Aristotle. The difference between history and poetry, he said, is that "one tells what has happened, the other the kind of things that can happen. And in fact that is why the writing of poetry is a more philosophical activity, and one to be taken more seriously, than the writing of history."
I'm not going to argue with Aristotle. Maybe poetry is more important--and most of the stories in the book do qualify as poetry--but I think there's a small place for history, too. And since I'm no poet, I'm happy to fill that small place when I can.
AG: Did investigating all of these stories shed any light on human nature and the way information originates and spreads?
RN: I would say that's one of the through-lines in the book. I'm not smart enough to put it all together, but someone reading the book from cover to cover will probably gain at least a few notions about memory and exaggeration, notions that certainly are applicable to anybody telling stories (i.e. not just baseball stories).
AG: One thing that amazed me was how many stories contained details that were clearly false. Jim Palmer tells a story about Mike Cuellar pitching against the Twins, where he says that the next three batters were Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Harmon Killebrew. Except that trio never batted in that order when Cuellar was in the league. Palmer also got the specific details of the inning in question wrong and there's no way that Cuellar could have thrown 135 pitches in that game, as he claimed.
The story was about Earl Weaver and pitch counts, so that was basically the whole point. In situations like that, do you think it's more about the limitations of memory or the temptation to punch up a story?
RN: Hard to say. One thing I wish I’d done better in the book is address this sort of question, whether implicitly or explicitly. But memories certainly are faulty, often within just a few years of the events in question. And players certainly do purposely change details to make the story more entertaining. Which, as I mention at the very end of the book, is exactly what we want them to do. So we can hardly fault them for it.
AG: Your "Big Book of Baseball ..." series now includes Lineups, Blunders, and Legends, so is there a fourth installment coming?
RN: Nothing is in the works. I'd like to revise, update, and expand the Lineups book at some point, but that would be in 2010 at the earliest. I have a couple of other books in mind. But at the moment, all my professional energies are devoted to being a better blogger before all you kids zip right past me (if you haven't already).
AG: OK, let's talk about your ESPN.com blog. As someone who works from home and writes every day, I'm always curious about this: What's your average day of work like?
RN: I have a regular job now! When I was writing columns--basically, the summer of 1996 through the winter of 2007--I didn't have any sort of real routine. Don't let anyone fool you: writing columns for a living is one of the easiest gigs around; I mean, assuming you've got the requisite discipline and talent. That's why so many columnists write books: they've got plenty of time on their hands and figure they should be doing something with their off days.
Blogging, though? It's like a real job. I get up early every morning and start scouring the Web looking for stuff I can use. And of course the process never really ends; I'm always worried about the guy who's smarter than me, more committed than me, funnier than me.
AG: On that subject, how has the dynamic of internet writing and baseball writing in general changed in the decade-plus that you've been at ESPN.com?
RN: Oh, I don't know. The big players on the Web are roughly what they were 10 years ago, and really we're not doing anything all that different than we did then, except now we're doing everything bigger. The big change is elsewhere. Ten years ago, the only independent site offering analysis was Baseball Prospectus, but now there are many others, and then of course you've got all the blogs. In a sense it's still the Wild West, and for every blog that gets gobbled up by a big player, five spring up to take its place. Seems like a great time to be a young, ambitious writer with time on your hands.
AG: Do you feel like you've created a monster in all the people like me who grew up reading your column and then sort of adopted your style as their own, and along the way removed much of the uniqueness from your work?
RN: That's flattering, but I didn't know I had a style anyone would want to adopt. If so, please be my guest.
AG: Who will the Baseball Writers Association of America vote in first, steroids-tainted players or online-based writers?
RN: You left out steroids-tainted writers. Anyway, Keith Law will make it next year.
AG: Having worked for James in the 1990s, does it seem surreal that he's become such a big celebrity and within that become sort of the buzzword for people looking to pick fights with sabermetrics? He was featured on 60 Minutes last week and not a week goes by where he's not included in some horrible newspaper column taking "people like Bill James" to task for some random thing.
RN: Not surreal, exactly. Partly because it's been a fairly gradual process over the last five years. Partly because once he went to work for the Red Sox, it seemed apparent to me that the Sox would finally win a World Series--though I didn't guess they would win two in four years--and that Bill's profile would grow as a result. I couldn't be happier for him, even while I wish he had more time for writing.
AG: While the 60 Minutes piece was certainly very complimentary, it bothered me that they essentially painted him as a mathematician without really getting into the thing that's made him who he is today, which is an extraordinary writing ability. He's certainly heavy on numbers, but the great writing is what drives the whole thing. It's like doing a story on Willie Mays and focusing on his home runs.
RN: Yeah, well, it's not easy to describe how well someone writes. I suspect that 60 Minutes has done segments over the years about Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, and I'll bet they had a tough time explaining what made them great writers.
AG: As a college dropout myself I'm fascinated by other non-graduates who go on to find success doing something they love. So while you'll probably cringe hearing this, you were one of the ways I rationalized my decision. I've written about my dropout-to-doing-something-I-love story several billion times here and I'm sure everyone is beyond sick of hearing it, but can you give me your version?
RN: There's not much to tell. My last semester was a disaster, and while I might have been able to salvage a couple of passing grades, it was clear that my college career was about to end, so I didn't even bother showing up for my finals, having already started a job roofing houses.
AG: What was it about college that didn't work for you? For me it was being forced to take biology labs and foreign languages as much as writing classes, even though it was clear to me that I wanted to write about sports since I can remember.
RN: Honestly, I don't know. Sometimes it was due to general apathy, which resulted in long stretches during which I skipped classes and didn't study. But there were other stretches during which I attended classes religiously, took notes copiously ... and still could barely survive. After my freshman year, my head just wasn't in the game. At all. I've sometimes wondered if I simply wasn't smart enough, but college isn't that hard, is it?
AG: I know you're a big Royals fan and until recently blogged about them on RobNeyer.com alongside Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus, but I remember you saying somewhere that Rod Carew was your favorite player at one point and I'm pretty sure you've made your Vikings fandom known before at ESPN.com. You lived in Minnesota for a brief time as a kid, right?
RN: My family moved to St. Paul when I was three, and later we lived in Mankato, Rochester, and Fargo before moving to Michigan when I was eight. So when it comes to sports, all my early childhood experiences were tied to the Minnesota teams. Aside from Carew, the Twins didn't stick with me. But as a kid I was obsessed with the Vikings, and to this day they're the only NFL team in which I have even the slightest of interest.
AG: True or false: You're a little bit scared to hang out too closely with the group of drunken idiots I'm typically with at the SABR conventions?
RN: It's not that I'm scared, precisely. I'm just worried that I won’t be able to keep up with you guys.
Read my review of Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends here or buy the book on Amazon.com.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Review: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends
I'm naturally skeptical in all facets of life, so my initial reaction to hearing a juicy baseball story--whether it's Joe Morgan bragging about his glory days on "The Big Red Machine" or Bert Blyleven poking fun at himself for serving up tons of homers--is to wonder whether or not the events in question actually took place. That aspect of my personality is also one of the driving forces behind this blog and my Twins fandom in general.
It's not always easy being a skeptic or a cynic or whatever it is in my personality that allows me to write critical things about my favorite team when a huge segment of my fellow fans would never dream of doing the same. But for better or worse that's simply who I am and who many other baseball fans are, and that's why I devoured Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends in one sitting over the weekend while enjoying it immensely.
Rob Neyer begins his sixth book--and the third installment of his "Big Book Of Baseball ..." series--with a disclaimer that I've often used when people claim that this blog is too negative about the Twins: "This book isn't for everybody. Seriously." Just as not everyone will enjoy a blog about the Twins that's written by someone who views the team with a critical eye, not everyone will enjoy a book about fact-checking some of the most interesting stories in baseball history. Or as Neyer puts it in his introduction:
Some poor guy is going to get this book, probably as a Father's Day gift, and despise every word before giving up in disgust. Because I've done something in this book that some will find sacrilegious. I've checked. I've checked the stories.The book is nowhere near as heavy as that warning suggests, but the point is that not everyone wants their favorite bubbles to burst. And that's essentially what Neyer's book is about, at least on the surface. Legends is a collection of brief chapters and even shorter sidebars, each examining the accuracy of a juicy baseball story. Neyer first began doing this sort of thing back in the early 1990s, when he worked as Bill James' research assistant prior to joining ESPN.com.
Back then James called the fact-checked stories "tracers" and Neyer's work on them was included in several of his books, so it's fitting that James provides the foreword to Neyer's collection of tracers. In the foreword James makes an interesting observation that the recent emergence of dogged pursuits of accuracy has robbed stories of their fiction-like aura. My sense is that he's generally right, although the observation applies to politicians, writers, movie stars, and musicians in addition to baseball players.
People often lament that today's athletes don't have the same sort of mystique that athletes had in the past, which is why guys like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, and Joe DiMaggio seem so much bigger and more interesting than guys like Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. Babe Ruth is the biggest legend in baseball history mostly because he's the greatest player in baseball history, but also because nearly every major story about him contains something extra, a little padding or poetic license.
It's like the difference between golfing with a few buddies on the weekend and golfing on the PGA tour. You might be the same golfer, but miraculously when you're at a public course on a Saturday afternoon kicking balls out of tough lies and taking "gimme" putts from 10 feet your scores are going to be a little bit better. That's sort of how old baseball stories work and that's why something from 1920 or 1950 has an advantage over something from 1990 or 2008 when it comes to mystique and intrigue.
James then takes that a step further, suggesting that it's difficult to be completely factual and extremely interesting. However, in the 300 or so pages that follow Neyer makes a convincing case for that being incorrect, because Legends is filled with facts and is anything but uninteresting. While the abundance of available information these days might lessen the potential for intriguing, semi-truthful stories, it also makes it a whole lot easier to research past stories and debunk old myths.
In discussing an amusing story that longtime umpire Tom Gormon once told about Willie Mays hitting a homer off Sal Maglie after being knocked down by a pitch earlier in the at-bat, Neyer writes about how he found his old notes from previous attempts to research the same story back when he was working for James. Back then he had trouble simply narrowing down the list of possible games to examine and the overall lack of available resources made things difficult.
Between Retrosheet and online newspaper archives doing that research today is a relative piece of cake and Neyer determined that the story simply couldn't have happened as Gormon told it: "Gormon's story is a good one. I'd love to know who told it to him." Why? Well, Mays never homered off Maglie in a game that Gormon umpired. It seems simple, but that sort of conclusion was nearly impossible to draw just a decade ago and the journey that Neyer takes to get there even today is plenty interesting.
In a different chapter--there are a total of about 90 to pick from--Neyer quotes the Yankees' television broadcast team of Michael Kay and Ken Singleton telling an on-air story about former Cy Young winner Ron Guidry. It basically boiled down to Guidry supposedly not having thrown a single changeup for the first nine years of his career and then throwing his first ever changeup to Willie Wilson on a 3-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning.
The story goes that Wilson struck out for the third time that game and got upset about whiffing on a new pitch, so Guidry told him to shut up because he hadn't hit anything else either. The problem, as Neyer found out, is that Guidry never struck Wilson out three times in a game and never struck Wilson out to end a game. The book is filled with small, fun stories like that one and Neyer also digs into meatier stories, like Ty Cobb supposedly killing a man during a street fight or Ruth's famous "called shot."
The book certainly isn't all about debunking myths or fact-checking stories. It's also about Neyer having an excuse to simply talk about baseball. He weaves in other stories, hopping from player to player and anecdote to anecdote, and that's the beauty of this series of books. They provide a sort of jumping-off point for discussion, a way to incorporate stories that might otherwise be homeless, and a way to organize information that allows Neyer to delve into all kinds of interesting stuff throughout each book.
Neyer doesn't merely point out if something is wrong, he shows his work in an interesting way. He incorporates old quotes from the parties involved, wondering aloud how a story came to be false and where it may have originated. Yes, he fact-checks the stories and ultimately many of them prove to be inaccurate, but along the way he allows the stories to be told and gives an interesting glimpse into the process that enables a story to get passed off as truth.
The book is all about the momentum behind legends and puts human nature, exaggeration, and the telephone-game effect that blurs reality over time on full display while still managing to celebrate the stories, rather than attack them. Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends is definitely worth reading whether you're a skeptic, a cynic, or someone who simply enjoys interesting baseball stories. And despite Neyer's disclaimer, I'd even recommend it for "some poor guy ... as a Father's Day gift."
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Monday, April 07, 2008
The Cuddyer Dominos
Don't want to discuss it, I think it's time for a change
- Van Morrison, "Domino"Michael Cuddyer's dislocated right index finger has had a domino effect on both the roster and batting order, as the Twins replaced him by calling up Denard Span from Triple-A and shifting Joe Mauer into his lineup spot. Span is likely to carve out a career as a reserve outfielder because of his speed and glove, but the fact that he's the first call-up when a corner outfielder gets hurt in early April shows why the decisions to give away prospects Alex Romero and Garrett Guzman for nothing were mistakes.
Span made his MLB debut Sunday, starting in right field against the Royals, which is only marginally less ridiculous than the Twins giving Jason Tyner regular starts at designated hitter during the past two seasons (prior to debuting he said: "I haven't played right field since 11th grade"). Span came into this season as a career .283/.348/.348 hitter in nearly 2,200 minor-league plate appearances, so he has little business starting games in the big leagues and zero business starting them in right field.
There are likely two major factors behind Span getting the call to replace Cuddyer. One is that he was already on the 40-man roster and has minor-league options remaining, so unlike Randy Ruiz, Garrett Jones, or Jon Knott can be shuttled back and forth from Minnesota to Rochester whenever needed. Beyond that, Span was among the final cuts in spring training and because of that the Twins surely felt like rewarding him rather than turning to Jason Pridie or Brian Buscher.
As the best hitters at Triple-A, Buscher or Ruiz would have been my choice to replace Cuddyer. Neither is capable of literally replacing him defensively, but either could have spent time at designated hitter while Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe manned right field. The last thing a team that finished 12th in the AL offensively last season and is averaging 2.7 runs per game this year needs is a slap-hitting rookie with a .348 slugging percentage in the minors playing right field. Here's how their 2007 stats compare:
LEVEL G AVG OBP SLG OPSBoth Buscher and Ruiz beat Span by about 200 points of OPS last year, yet they're stuck at Rochester while Span starts games in the majors at the same position where other AL teams trot out guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios, Jermaine Dye, and Bobby Abreu. Last season AL right fielders as a whole batted .280/.353/.450 and their combined .803 OPS ranked behind only first basemen (.827) as the second highest of any position. It's a spot for guys who can hit.
Meanwhile, Cuddyer heading to the 15-day disabled list also means that Ron Gardenhire's smart decision to bat Mauer second in the lineup apparently lasted less than one week. Mauer was a perfect fit in the No. 2 spot, as his patience at the plate gave Carlos Gomez ample opportunity to run and his on-base skills gave the middle of the lineup plenty of RBI chances. He hit .375/.389/.500 in second spot, driving in four runs and scoring two more in just four games there.
The other nice thing about Mauer batting second was that it put the Twins' top hitters in position to accumulate the most plate appearances. That seems like an obvious decision to make, but it's not something that the Twins have typically done in the past. Gardenhire has generally liked a light-hitting middle infielder to bat between the leadoff man and No. 3 hitter, going with Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo, Luis Rodriguez, Cristian Guzman, Luis Rivas, and now Matt Tolbert in the role.
Looking back on Gardenhire's lineup choices, it's amazing how often a light-hitting middle infielder has batted second for the Twins over the years and it's amazing how infrequently that light-hitting middle infielder has actually been among the team's best bats. Tolbert is off to a nice start in the majors, but he's no exception, batting just .293/.353/.427 in 121 games at Triple-A last season and .280/.345/.405 in over 1,500 career plate appearances in the minors.
Tolbert batted second in both games over the weekend and it's possible that Gardenhire will continue to give him starts over Brendan Harris or Adam Everett, but it's more likely that Harris will assume the No. 2 spot quite a bit while Cuddyer is sidelined. Harris is better than most of the middle infielders who've manned that spot in the lineup over the years, but he's still not among the team's best hitters and is much better suited to hit in the bottom third of the batting order.
UPDATE: It turns out that I gave Gardenhire too much credit. He has Span batting second (and playing right field) today against the White Sox. Lovely.
The absence of Cuddyer hitting third also means that Mauer and Justin Morneau will see an awful lot of left-handed relievers in key late-game spots if Gardenhire continues to bat them back-to-back in the lineup. Like nearly all left-handed hitters both Mauer and Morneau are significantly worse against southpaws, so not having a solid right-handed bat in between them encourages opposing managers to bring in a lefty specialist to face them in the late innings and puts the Twins at a big disadvantage.
Sliding Delmon Young between Mauer and Morneau seems like an obvious move, but his OPS against lefties was 112 points lower than Cuddyer's last year and so far this season he doesn't look capable of forcing opposing managers to do much of anything. While he's likely to become a good player, Young's long-term potential has been vastly overstated by optimistic Twins fans, old prospect rankings that now take a backseat to his unspectacular recent production, and RBI-obsessed Rookie of the Year voters.
Judging from his performance in the minors and majors over the past couple seasons the two primary weaknesses that figured to hold Young back from reaching his supposed sky-high ceiling were a lack of plate discipline and tendency to hit the ball on the ground. Both traits have been in full effect so far this year, as he's drawn zero walks in 27 trips to the plate while seeing just 2.96 pitches per plate appearance and has hit 65 percent of his balls in play on the ground.
To put those numbers in some context, last season no AL hitter saw fewer than 3.15 pitches per plate appearance or hit more than 56.5 percent of their balls in play on the ground. Young has swung at just about everything thus far and he's hit a tremendous number of weak grounders to second base without pulling a single ball in the air, which is why his on-base percentage matches his batting average and he has just one extra-base hit in seven games. If the big-time power is coming, it won't be like this:
Cuddyer is certainly far from a superstar, but his importance right now is magnified by the handedness of Mauer and Morneau, the organization's lack of quality outfield depth, Young's uninspiring start to the season, the offense's overall lack of punch, and Gardenhire's preferred lineup construction. The good news is that Cuddyer sounds likely to be back from the DL after the minimum 15 days and his absence may finally give Kubel a chance to play nearly every day. The bad news is just about everything else.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.