the race

I was going to call this “breathing space,” with the Twins 5 and a half ahead of the Spiders today, but thought better of it. Breathing space can disappear in the space of four or five games, and there are plenty of games yet to play. Every game is playoff baseball now, everything counts, and everybody feels post-season drawing closer, and closer, and closer. (Cue: music from Jaws.)

Looking over to the National League, I see the Braves, Cards, and Dodgers all on top in their respective divisions. Coincidentally, the three teams that the Twins have already played in the World Series. So: rematch time?

Credit goes to the NY Times for this lovely representation of the Yanquis.

But first, of course, the Twins will need to overcome los Yanquis de Nuevo York.

Which is a tall task for anybody, but particularly for the Twins, who seem to be allergic to all New York teams, past, present, and probably future. Perhaps if we refer to them as the Phillies or the [insert Florida’s NL team name here] or the Diamondbacks… perhaps then we will do better.

With pennant fever raging, the Twins have gotten a few bits of bad news:

First, they lose one of their key starters, Michael Pineda, for the rest of the season, due to PED rule violation. This hurts, as Berrios and Gibson have been struggling of late, while Pinada has been getting stronger. Apparently Pinada took some over-the-counter medication, given to him by a friend, to help control weight issues? I guess that could happen. This must be awful for Pineda. After all, post-season is THE BIG SHOW, everyone plays all year trying to get into post season, and here’s his shot and suddenly, no, he’s out. How many chances do you get to go to the playoffs?

Which makes me wonder what players have gone a lot, and I suppose there are players out there who rarely get the chance. Who are the active players with fewest post-season games in their career? Are there any players out there who have played a long time and never gone to the playoffs? Which baseball team has the longest post-season drought?

Mariners fans; how do you stand it? It’s been 17 seasons since the Mariners have seen playoff ball. Seventeen long seasons. There are young Seattle baseball fans who have no memory of Seattle in the playoffs, and may not even know that playoffs exist. Perhaps they see the Mariners as the baseball equivalent of the Washington Generals? I think that’s the team that goes around the world losing to the Harlem Globetrotters. Anyway. Seventeen seasons. And the Seattle record so far, in 2019: 58-85. And yesterday they lost to the Astronats by the score of, uh… looks like…  21 – 1.

It may be some time before those Mariners get back to the big show.

Ernie Banks, sad to say, holds the record for most games played without seeing the post season: 2528 games, 19 seasons. Ouch. I have not yet found a source that tracks active players in this regard. I might examine the Mariner roster, for starters.

Anyway, besides Pineda, the Twins also may have to do without Byron Buxton, who’s injured his shoulder. There’s some talk of surgery. Byron has been a tough luck player.

And then, finally, the Twins also may have to do without Max Kepler, who also seems to be injured. That would be another tough loss, if he can’t come back. He’s having a heckuva year.

Oh, well. I suppose the Mariners would love to have these problems. There’s lot’s of baseball left to play, let’s just try to win the next one, tomorrow, in Washington. (Almost like a home game!) And let’s try to stay healthy too.

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Pennant Fever!

Pennant races are a lot of fun.

Gone are the days when the Twins were winning every game and building a 12-game lead in the Division. Looking at the sports pages this morning, what do we find? Those scuttling Spiders from Cleveland have come back up from the depths. With the Twins loss yesterday (5-1 vs the Pale Hose) and the Spider’s win (9-1 over the Royals. Do the Royals have a nick-name? Do they have the worst club name in baseball?) we find the home town boys at 63-41, and those Spiders at 62-42, just a game back. A single game. And August beckons. While the Twins have meandered to a 5-5 record over the last ten, the Spiders have gone 8-2. And over July, while the Twins compiled a lackadaisical 10-11 mark, the Spiders went, uh… 17-4. That’s right. 17-4.

Ouch.

That’s some good ball they’ve been playing over there in Cleveland. And some falling-out-of-first-place ball by the home town boys.

Pennant races are slow motion excitement. (Reminds me of the guy who said that baseball was 3 minutes of excitement crammed into 2 and a half hours.) Pennant races are methodical, clockwork, tumblers falling into place, day after day after day, incremental changes, subtle shifts. Home games vs. road games, off days, double headers, head-to-head play. Injuries and juggling rotations. Prospects up from the minors. Pitchers who are tired and laboring. Maybe a bit of a sore arm here and there. The late summer nights can be steamy. The darkness is approaching. The fans are growing surly and argumentative. Trades are made of promising youth, the organization’s future, for aging mercenaries of the bullpen who will maybe be able to help you today. Desperation is in the air. The pennant race is early playoff baseball. Every day is must win, and you can’t be lulled into thinking that there’s always tomorrow. That’s the peculiar danger of the pennant race. “Still plenty of time.” There’s only time if you win. Every loss kills you a bit. Every win by the other guys is a stab in the back. Tick tick tick tick tick. Time is suddenly gone. Time is ephemeral, fleeting, an illusion. Suddenly, there, the finish line! It’s right in front of you! Watch out!

That’s right. Welcome to the Twilight Zone of the baseball season.

Pennant races can be a little nerve-wracking.

Especially when your team has just gone 10-11, and the other guys don’t ever seem to lose.

Yesterday the Twins traded a promising young first baseman for some aging bullpen help, along with some prospects. Generally, fans here are considering this a win, though there is a lot of doubt expressed on the street about how much bullpen help Sergio Romo will provide. Which seems odd, given that he has 17 saves in 18 save attempts this season for the Marlins, and our bullpen has an ERA of about 4.41, which leaves a good deal of room for improvement. (Our bullpen has somehow created the illusion that it is better than 4.41. Maybe all the guys with 8 and 9 run ERAs have been sent down, and only guys with 2.72 ERAs are left?) I heard a few people say that Romo’s a “soft-thrower” who may very well have prospered over there in the Senior Circuit, where apparently the hitters can be fooled by that soft-throwing shit. That’s not gonna fly here in the American League, they say.

Well, we shall see, we shall see.

To acquire Mr. Romo, 36, and young pitching prospect Chris Vallimont, and a player to be named later, the Twins parted with young first baseman Lewin Diaz, who’s been pounding the ball in 90 games of A and AA ball: .294, 19 home runs, 27 doubles and 62 rbis. The story on him is that he’s having a “bounce-back” season this year, and the Twins would probably not protect him in the off-season by giving him a roster spot, given the Twin’s depth at first base. Given that detail, maybe this was an okay trade. Vallimont, 22, has speed and control and a 3.16 era in 22 starts in A ball.

Still, I hate to see Diaz leave. He’s having a heckuva season, and I have a feeling we’ll miss him in the future, when he’s pounding those soft-throwers over in the National League.

I wouldn’t be a very good baseball GM. I kind of hate trades. In my major leagues, you sign the best guys you can and then you develop them and then you play the game. Would I ever pull the trigger? Well, you can bet I would not trade Brunansky for Herr. That’s for sure.

Today:

Twins 11, White Sox 1
Royals 9, Spiders 6.

Good ol’ Royals.

They should have stuck with the Katz name. What were they thinking?

Kansas City Katz? Kansas City Royals?

You make the call.

 

 

What could be better than the baseball hall of fame???

Well, I’ll tell you.

How’s about getting into the archives at the library of congress? Yes. Better than the “so-called Hall of Fame,” as some might say.

And who’s JUST entered the hallowed halls of the Great Library?

Yes.

It’s the bulldog, Jim Bouton. I received notice today that Jim’s personal papers — all 37,000 items! —  have been acquired by the Library of Congress.

Faithful readers know that Jim is a personal favorite (and isn’t it time for me to re-read Ball Four for the umpteenth time?) and a helluva ball player and a great pitcher and a world-class human being. (Not to say he’s perfect. But he’s 110% human being.) His sense of humor and perspective on the game, and the game of life, resonates with me.

Faithful readers also know that Jim has been dealing with health issues lately. We wish him the best.

Today inaugurates the Jim Bouton category on this blog. Congratulations, Jim. You’re the only player so honored.

And now, I think…. now it’s time to pound some Budweiser.

101 years ago…

Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox looks to be a self-published book by Allen Wood, through iUniverse Star, in 2000. The book provides a well-researched and entertaining account of the 1918 baseball season, with a focus on Babe Ruth’s penultimate season with the Red Sox.

One of the reasons I picked this up was that it follows a club through a season a long long time ago, in the same way I have been following the 1904 Millers, (reportedly,) and I wanted to see how this writer approached it. Of course I also picked it up because of Babe Ruth, who was such a stand-out character, and the book looks at a particularly interesting time in his career. And, plus, it was only $3 on the discount shelf at Half-Price Books. So how could I go wrong? I could not, and I did not.

Anyone with an interest in baseball history would enjoy this book and probably also learn a thing or two. The author has used multiple sources and interviews to piece together a nice snapshot of the game in 1918. The U.S. had entered the First World War in April of 1917, and so by 1918 a lot of players were in the army or joining the army, and there was some discussion about canceling baseball for the duration. There were a lot of people who looked down on ballplayers for not being in the army, and that, along with so many men being in the military, led to a steep drop in attendance. Players also were dropping-out throughout the season, either being drafted into the military, or volunteering, or leaving to join some war-related industry, often steel-mills and shipyards, it seems, where they could work and also (and mostly) play ball on the company baseball teams while at the same time avoiding the draft. Owners and managers were constantly juggling their rosters throughout the season, looking for older players in the minors who could come up to the big time.

(By the way, there’s a nice piece on the Delaware River Shipbuilding League 1918 on the SABR website.)

Still, the game continued, and Babe Ruth was simply the biggest star in the game. I don’t know what made the Babe so good, how that happened. It’s really pretty inexplicable, and kind of magical, how his game was at such a higher level than everyone else’s. 1918 was the season where Babe transitioned from pitcher to outfielder, and he juggled the two roles with difficulty throughout the season, at one point even going awol because he wasn’t playing in the field as much as he wanted. In 1917 he pitched in 41 games, starting 38, and ending up 24-13, with a 2.01 ERA, while in 1918 he only pitched in 20 games, starting 19, and went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. Meanwhile his at-bats went up  from 123 to 317, and he hit 11 home runs and drove in 61, as compared to 2 home runs and 14 rbis in 1917. Several times during the season he made mention of having a sore arm, and I wonder if that might not have been true. But he went back and forth about that, and so he wasn’t exactly a trustworthy source of information. And he loved hitting the ball, and so maybe the “sore arm” was only an attempt to get more time in the field.

It had to have been an odd experience, being Babe Ruth; coming from a poor background, the rough side of town, then raised by the catholic brothers at the boys school, and so much more talented, at every level, than the players around him. Hard to think of a comparison. He was like the Shakespeare of baseball, the Beethoven, the Beatles, the Picasso. How can experiences like that be understood? Maybe the Beatles come closest, in terms of general public popularity and also financial success. I don’t think Picasso was ever particularly popular with the masses. Shakespeare, maybe. Who else is has had that experience? How would it change you, if it happened to you?

I don’t get the sense that it changed Babe Ruth much. There’s a lot of references in this book, and others, to Ruth’s immaturity and appetites. Perhaps that was magnified by his immense talent and easy money. Ruth had a difficult and deprived childhood, and then, in a few short years, he had everything, money, success, fame. He was free to indulge for the first time in his life, and at that age there’s quite a lot to indulge in. Beethoven was probably the same way. I imagine there’s a lot of stories about young Beethoven, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Shakespeare too, I suppose. Einstein? Well, anyway. Babe Ruth for sure.

The 1918 season was, frankly, a somewhat bizarre season. With the war going on, the owners cut the season down to 140 games, and with players coming and going, team fortunes rose and fell with player availability. Attendance was dropping, and there were continuing questions as to whether the season should be cancelled or finished early. At that time the game was run by the National Commission, made up of three club owners. These are guys who probably would do well today in Trumpmerica. The players had no power and no say in things, and when the owners changed the pay structure for the World Series, they didn’t really bother to ask or explain this to the players. The championship money that formerly went to the players was to be divided up among the top four clubs in each league, which, coupled with the large drop in attendance, led to a lot less money for the players in the Series. And this led to both the Red Sox and Cubs nearly walking out of the Series in an effort to get a fairer deal and more money. In the war climate, with injured vets sitting in the stands, it was a tough stand to take. Maybe too tough.

This was a particularly interesting part of the book. A World Series walk-out seemed imminent. There were player-commission and player-owner meetings that went nowhere, and it seemed like the Series would be over. And then, suddenly, the players agreed to play, without obviously winning any concessions other than vague promises. The turnaround by the players is surprising, and the author considers the possibility that the gambling interests in play at the time had something to do with it. Was some under-the-table money changing hands, some subterfuge, some dark money? Gambling would seem to be a quick solution to the players’ money problem, and gambling on ball games was rife back then, culminating, of course, with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The author explores the history of some of the players who were shown later to be involved in gambling. There is one definite clue that the series was fixed — a scrap of paper from an individual who may have been in a position to know — but no firm conclusions can be drawn, and there’s nothing obvious in the games to raise suspicions. I suppose that it’s possible, with all the money riding on the games, that it’s also possible that the players were coerced or threatened into playing by gambling interests. But again, no one knows.

Still.

Maybe?

Another possibility is that the players realized that they had no  leverage, and that walking out of the series would have long term implications for their careers. Maybe they just thought that there’s a war on, and that now is not a good time to be complaining about money. The author’s research does not come up with any answers to this riddle. But the games go on, and the Red Sox win their championship. The Babe pitches in the Series, and sets a record for consecutive scoreless innings in the series. He goes 2-0, while hitting only .200 with no home runs. The Red Sox take the series 4 games to 2, with a lot of good pitching and tight games in the series.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read, and a nice window into baseball of 100 years ago. Everything has changed in 100 years. We all get around with our jet-packs now, instead of automobiles, and world government has made war and jingoistic patriotism a thing of the far distant past. And yet, a home run is still a home run, a game is still 9 innings, and there won’t ever be another guy like Babe Ruth.

Good game, Allen Wood. Nice job with this book.

Pure Baseball

Pounded.

There was something of a build-up to yesterday’s Twins – Rays game. A little bit of small-market buzz. Two of the hottest clubs in baseball, facing off. Yankees – Red Sox? Forget ’em! The Twins are playing the Rays! Hang onto your hats, sportsfans, this is going to be good!

Instead, the Twins were mercilessly pounded by the Rays, 14-3. Which brings to mind a couple of famous sayings, one by Catfish Hunter, “The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day,” and one by Joe Schultz, famous manager of the Seattle Pilots, which readers of Ball Four will likely recall.

Martin Perez started, and he gave up 6 (runs) in two and two thirds. 6-0. Zack Littell came in, and gave up 8 (runs) in four and a third. Just one of those games, I guess. Even the best team in baseball is going to lose a lot of games during the course of the long season. This was one of those. Goodbye. Game over. Round two tonight.

On a brighter note, I also finished reading my latest baseball book last night. But before I can talk about that, I need to talk about this one, that I read last year, and never got on the blog. Odd, that, because it was really a really good book. But I remember it got buried on the book stack on the desk, and then later it was moved back into the baseball library, and was just plain forgotten. Until now.

I was never much of a Keith Hernandez fan. Probably mostly because he was over there in the senior circuit, and I just didn’t see much of him. Plus, -10 points for being a Cardinal at one point in his career.

But I always new that he was a good ball player. Excellent fielder, excellent hitter. Maybe not a big threat to steal. But big deal. I’d have him on my club.

I noted a reference to Hernandez baseball smarts somewhere. Perhaps it was in the book I read with all the World Series stories. Anyway, it made me curious, and so I picked up a copy of Pure Baseball. And I learned a lot from Mr. Hernandez about the game. Turns out, I wasn’t such an advanced fan after all. There was (is) a lot I don’t know about the game. I suspected that was the case. As my friend Ghost once told me, “It’s a goddamn chess match out there!”

Reading this book is a lot like sitting in your man-cave, in your man-chair, having a few man-beers and watching baseball on your man-TV with Hernandez sitting next to you and with him explaining everything that’s happening. Except that would be pretty annoying, sitting with Mr. Know-it-all, listening to him pontificate on every play. So reading this book is actually better than having him there in person. And, in the book, he is actually sitting in his palatial NY penthouse apartment, watching baseball on his huge projection TV, and analyzing what’s going on. He watches two games, one in each league, and he covers them inning by inning, sometimes pitch by pitch, when it matters. And he’s got a lot of good stories and insights that he shares with you, and he’s annoying hardly at all.

For example, I learned about the intricacies of deciding who covers second base when you think a runner might go. If you’ve got a left-handed batter up and a guy on first, but the batter often takes the ball to left field, would it be smart to have the second baseman move to cover second? It’s a bit risky, Hernandez says – with the first baseman holding the runner and the second baseman moving to cover, it leaves a big hole on the right side of the field.

Hernandez, it turns out, was a student of the game, always watching and learning. Some players struggle with the game, the pitching part or the hitting part, and they need to focus on the inner game, the strategy and smarts, in order to keep up and stay in the show. I guess Hernandez was one of those other guys, though. He didn’t need to worry quite so much about the hitting and fielding, and was just naturally curious and attentive. He was so game-smart that his managers would sometimes let him set the defense when he was out there on the field.

Readers who are not serious baseball fans may possibly be bored (and annoyed) by this book. Maybe you’d rather not see baseball as a kind of chess match. Maybe you hate chess. Maybe you are writing a book that explains baseball as sort of like a game of checkers.

The serious baseball fan, though, the curious and attentive student of the game, is probably going to learn a few things from this book. And will probably end up thinking better of Keith Hernandez for having written it. Even if he did have to play for the Cardinals for awhile. He was really mostly a Met.

Good game, Keith.

20 Over

36 wins, 16 losses.

20 games over .500.

When was the last time the Twins were 20 games over .500?

Well, I can’t say for sure, but looking back at the Twins records over the years, I notice that in 2010 the Twins finished the season at 94-68, 26 games over. And they were 92-60 on September 22nd. 32 games over. So. Not so very long ago, really, in baseball time. Just nine years ago. That was the season when Morneau was hitting .345, with 18 HR and 56 RBIs and then he got the concussion on July 7th that changed his life. Damn. That was the season when Delmon Young hit .298 with 21 hr and 112 rbi. Orlando Hundson played second base, seriously, hit .268 with 133 hits. Who remembers Orlando Hudson? Anybody? Buhler?

Anyway, Joe Mauer hit .327 (pre-concussion days as well,) JJ Hardy played shortstop, Jason Kubel was in the outfield, Danny Valencia was at third, and Cuddyer was at first (post-Morneau). Pavano won 17 games, Liriano 14, Kevin Slowey, 13. Brian Duensing won 10 in relief. Scott Baker won a dozen. Jon Rauch was our closer, got 21 saves. Wow, this seems like ancient history, and it’s just nine seasons ago. Matt Capps also had 16 saves that year. Matt Capps! I think Rauch must have got hurt, there.

Then, in 2011 the Twins turned it around and went 63-99. Morneau hit .227, and probably shouldn’t have been out there playing. Nishioka hit .226 at shortstop, till he got hurt. Yes, Nishioka, that was his season in the sun. Drew Butera played 93 games at catcher and hit .167. Yes, that’s right. Not a typo. .167. Butera was really known more for his defense than his bat. I guess Mauer must have got hurt. Concussion? Mauer played 82 games and hit .287. Delmon Young, .266, 4 hr. Jim Thome came on board and hit a dozen. Cuddyer hit .284 with 20 hr and 71 rbi. Chris Parmalee came up for a cup of coffee and hit .355 in 76 at bats. Pavano, 9-13, Duensing 9-14, Liriano, 9-10. Capps went 4-7, with 15 saves. Well, need I go on? 2011 was not a good season. And following on the heels of 2010, it was particularly brutal. And the sudden demise of Morneau and Mauer, that was just brutal. Ouch.

It’s remarkable, really, how quickly things can go south.

2010: scored 781, allowed 671
2011: scored 619, allowed 804

But.

2019, so far: scored 315, allowed 204.

That’s correct, folks. It’s still May, and the Twins have scored 315 runs.

It’s been a pretty good month.

Good enough, in fact, for the Twins to capture the number 4 spot on the MLB power rankings. Yes. That’s right. Number 4. That’s how good we are right now, according to the MLB power rankings. Right behind the Astros, the Dodgers, and the Yankees.

Number 4 is ours. All ours. We are 4th!