Walking in a winter meetingland

Publish date:

Apparently not, though, because every time I am here I see people playing the airport slots. I guess the allure is too great. I can see the mind working. Hey, maybe airport slots are looser than regular slots! Maybe I can still get my big score! Maybe I can make up for all my losses with one lucky spin of "Wheel of Fortune!" In the end, I don't know. I suspect that the less time you spend thinking about how Vegas really works, the better off you will be. Don't even get me started on the whole cocktail waitress phenomenon.

ANYWAY, I've spent most of my time the last few days working on a big Sports Illustrated magazine piece about the baseball meetings and Las Vegas, so I haven't really had much time to write (or think) about some of the news of the week. Here are a few quick thoughts.*

*As usual, it turned out to be not-so-quick.

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People are wondering if the Yankees can REALLY buy a whole new starting pitching staff in one offseason. Answer: Sure, why not? They already have CC Sabathia, who I suspect will be dominant (though it is worth pointing out that he is 1-4 with an 8.61 ERA at Yankee Stadium. True, that was all against the YANKEES and in a stadium that they won't be playing in anymore, but hey, 1-4 with an 8.61 ERA speaks for itself). Then they agreed to a deal with A.J. Burnett. I'm not a particularly big Burnett fan but we all know he has dominant stuff -- and he will probably be the best strikeout starter the Yankees have had since David Cone was in his prime more than a decade ago. In fact, I would say he'd have an even shot at breaking the Yankees strikeout record which is held by ... we'll get you that answer the next half inning. AFLAC, ask about it at work.*

And then maybe the Yankees will add Ben Sheets, who I think could be the steal of the offseason. His big thing is health, and maybe he just can't stay healthy. Maybe that's just his curse. But when he is healthy, he can be an absolutely dominant force even if few people seem to notice. In his best year he was dominant and he went 12-14. That says a lot. And this says a lot too: On June 8, 2004, Sheets threw nine innings of one-hit ball against Anaheim. He struck out five, didn't walk anybody, threw only 103 pitches ... it is, in many ways the best game he has pitched in his career. And he got a no-decision.

Anyway, if the Yankees have those three to go along with Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes and whoever else -- yeah, that's a pretty powerful statement.

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I do not at all like the Kansas City Royals signing of reliever Kyle Farnsworth. I do not like it in a house. I do not like it with a mouse. I do not like it for two years, $9.25 million, but I would not like it if it was two years, 17 bucks and a box of Ho Hos. Royals general manager Dayton Moore asked me what I thought about it, and I told HIM I do not like it. Not that he should care about that.

But I do not like it, do ... not ... like ... it. I do not like it because Farnsworth hasn't even been league average the last three years. I do not like it because he throws a million miles an hour and can't get people out. I do not like it because he once slammed reliever Jeremy Affeldt to the turf during a brawl and later could not even explain why. I do not like it because I would NEVER go out and spend $4-plus million on a volatile seventh or eighth inning reliever. I'm hoping that I am making myself clear here -- I DO NOT LIKE THIS SIGNING.

To be fair, however, I do like Dayton Moore, and I believe he has a good feel for pitching and how to build a bullpen. And he was insistent that the Royals needed a hard-throwing righty to make it all work. There's no doubt that Dayton Moore is a lot smarter than I am, so I am willing to begin on the premise that I am wrong and he is right and that Farnsworth will indeed help the club and be a difference maker.

But I will also pass along what one longtime observer of Farnsworth said: "The good news is it'll reduce wear and tear on Joakim Soria's arm. Because now, he will never, ever be given a lead."


*The AFLAC Trivia Answer -- which Yankees pitcher has struck out the most players in a season? -- is, of course Ron Guidry with 248 strikeouts in 1978. If you think about it, that's pretty amazing -- no Yankees pitcher has ever struck out 250 batters in a season.


Through some kind of beautiful fate, I went to a lunch and sat next to Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, the guy I think is the best manager in baseball. It was great. He told some good stories. He was as down to earth and modest as you would expect. I love Gardy.

Now, I have admitted here before, and I will admit again, that if I had a closer view, if I watched Gardy manage every game, if I watched the way he handled the bullpen every day, if I watched every one of Nick Punto's hundreds of at-bats, I might feel differently about the guy and his managing skill. Gardy does not necessarily see baseball exactly the way I do. He's not a big numbers guy, I think he has a much deeper love for the game than I do. He puts a much greater emphasis on some of the intangible things that I think are generally overplayed and overwrought

But I'm not sure any of that matters in the end. There are a lot of ways to win baseball games. And I love watching his teams play, love the way his pitchers throw strikes, love the way his outfielders go get the ball, love the way they execute. More than anything though, I just like the guy, and I think his players generally like him, and I believe that matters. I know from my own experience that I have liked my sports editors for more than 20 years now, and because of that I wanted to work hard for them.

Joe Gordon was voted into the Hall of Fame last week. I was very happy for Gordon. He was a great player, I think, who had two prime years taken away by World War II (and he had by far his worst season in '46, the year he came back). I think like many baseball fans, I am especially devoted to those players who lost parts of their prime to war. There are so many "what ifs" in sports because of injuries and ballpark effects and the color barrier and various individual and group decisions that affect players career. But I do think there's a special category for those who went to war.

Here is a small list of players who were in their prime and already had good seasons before going off to World War II:

Sam Chapman (OPS+ of 143 in 1941)

-- He hit .322 with 25 homers and 106 RBIs for the Athletics in '41, and then he missed all of '42, '43 and '44 and most of 1945 -- almost four full years. He was a useful player after he returned, and actually drove in 100 runs again in '49. But he was never again as good as in '41.

Joe DiMaggio (OPS+ of 184 and 147 in 1941 and '42)

-- Joe D. missed three full seasons because of the war. And he was a right-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, which was a dead zone for righty power bats. As great as everyone thinks he was, the Great DiMag was probably greater.

Elbie Fletcher (OPS+ of 147, 135. 126 from 1941-43)

-- He was a good player who walked a lot and scored a lot of runs for the Pirates before going off to war after the '43 season. He missed two full seasons and only played as an everyday player for one full season after returning home.

Les Fleming (OPS+ of 144 in 1942).

-- He walked 106 times in '42 and also hit 14 homers for Cleveland with 82 RBIs. There's no telling if that was just an outlier season, but he missed all of '43 and '44, most of '45 and was never again a full-time player.

Joe Gordon (OPS+ of 117, 155, 126 from 1941-43)

Wally Judnich (OPS+ of 117 and 155 in 1941 and '42)

-- He was a star for the Browns in '42, hitting .313/.413/.499. He even received a little MVP consideration. He missed three full seasons after that, and he was only an OK player for a couple of years when he returned. Then he faded away, mostly forgotten.

Charlie Keller (OPS+ of 162, 163, 168 from 1941-43)

-- He was a truly great player going into his time at war. Then he missed all of '44 and most of '45. He had one more great year left in '46 (.275/.405/.533 with 10 triples, 30 homers and 113 walks) and then because of a balky back and other factors he never got 250 at-bats again in a season for the rest of his career. Maybe his career would have turned out similarly no matter what, but I think Keller has one of the great what-if careers in baseball history.

Johnny Mize (OPS+ of 156 and 161 in 1941 and '42)

-- He's a bit older than the others on this list -- he turned 30 before the '43 season. But he was clearly not on his way down. He missed three full seasons, played only 101 games in '46, but he hit 51 homers in '47 and 40 more in '48.

Pete Reiser (OPS+ of 143 and 122 in 1941 and '42)

-- Baseball's greatest What If -- well, right up there with Herb Score -- he had his first major crash into the wall in '42 and was badly hurt. Most people already know that. But fewer know that beginning in '43 he missed three years because of the war.

Cecil Travis (OPS+ of 150 in 1941)

-- He hit .359 with 19 triples in '41 -- he was 27 that year -- he went to war for three full seasons, and was never a full-time player again.

Enos Slaughter (OPS+ of 141 and 156 in 1941 and '42)

-- He was second in the MVP balloting in 1942 and then he missed the next three full seasons. Slaughter is a controversial figure because of his racial views -- just the other day I got an email from someone whose father had some very troubling stories about Slaughter -- but there's no question that he was a great player. And he missed three prime years.*

*I never can mention Slaughter without mentioning what Buck O'Neil said about him. Buck was pretty instrumental in getting Slaughter into the Hall of Fame when he was part of the veterans committee, and more than a few people wondered how he could be such an outspoken supporter of Slaughter, who was known by many as a pretty virulent racist in his playing days. Buck was led to believe that Slaughter was simply a man of his time and place and that he had grown out of many of his views. But more, he believed that Country Slaughter could play ball, an in the end that's all he could judge.

"People said to me, 'Naw, naw, you can't vote for Enos Slaughter, he was prejudiced.' ... I said, 'What's that's got do with anything?' If we think like that, we won't let anyone in the Hall of Fame. Look around: The Hall of Fame is filled with racists and drunks and all kinds of people. The world is filled with all kinds of people. You can't know what's happening in a man's heart. Could he play our couldn't he play? That's what matters.' "

That's one of my favorite quotes inThe Soul of Baseball, because it's a little bit raw, and it isn't politically correct, and in many ways it gets to the heart of Buck. He wasn't interested in judging people. He was interested in SCOUTING people. And there's a difference. And yes, all of that was a cheap way to get a Christmas plug in for my book. I mean, seriously, it's only $5.99 on Amazon now. And I think I made this offer before, but let's make it again: If you buy the book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever, I'll make you my Facebook friend, no strings attached. And really, let's be honest, what could be better than being my Facebook friend?

Ted Williams (OPS+ of 235 and 217 in 141 and '42).

-- Obviously the Splendid Splinter is the most celebrated of the baseball war heroes, in part because he would later lose more time while serving in Korea. It's always fun to predict what Williams' numbers might have looked like. It doesn't take a whole lot of creativity to come up with a scenario in which Williams would have hit more than 714 homers in his career.

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Speaking of Splendid Splinters, I'm sure you noticed that there are now new standards for the bats that major leaguers use. You need to be some kind of wood engineer to understand it all, but the basic point seems to be that the strongest bats have the wood cut EXACTLY parallel to the grain direction of the tree. I'm not much with artwork, but I guess that means the strongest bats would have grain lines that look like this:


Well, what has happened -- and I KNOW I could be getting this wrong -- is that there were no slope standards for the cut of wood on bats. So that means that bats would have something like a 1 in 5 inch SoG (Slope of Grain), which means that for every five inches the grain line would deviate one inch off of parallel. Apparently, that's really, really bad. And the theory seems to be that's the reason that so many bats were shattering with shards of wood flying everywhere.

So the new standard is now 1-in-20 SoG; the grain line cannot deviate more than an inch over 20 inches. I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about here, and I have no idea if this will make any difference at all. But, hey, we just report the news as we understand it.