Saturday, May 07, 2005


May 7th, 1903

New York Plays at Boston

Given the Yankees and Red Sox recent battles in the AL East and ALCS the past two years, reporters, television commentators and their ilk have spent much time describing the rivalry--most of which favored the Yankees--the 1999 ALCS, the 1978 AL East race and Bucky Dent Game and, it is inevitably said, all the way back to Babe Ruth. That is, however not strictly speaking true. The Yankees-Sox rivalry actually goes back all the way to this date in 1903. On that day, the Boston Pilgrims visited the New York Highlanders at Hilltop Park. The Pilgrims, who would go on to win the World Series that year, were wearing their road grays which featured, you'll notice, blue socks. The Highlanders were sporting their home whites, which featured collars, but nary a pinstripe to be seen. The Pilgrims would not adopt their better known name until 1907, although it would take until 1908 for the uniforms to match the name. The Highlanders meanwhile, would not become the Yankees until 1913.

Just as the Sox have gotten the better of the Yankees in their last prominent meeting (one which, given the way the two squads are playing, figures to be the last for a while), they also managed to gain the upper hand in the first meeting of the two, winning 6-2 behind the pitching efforts of Bill Dineen who was the Pilgrims' second best pitcher that year behind thirty-six year old Cy Young. The Highlanders would come back to take the second game of the season but the Pilgrims came back with a 12-5 blowout behind Young in the final game of the season.

Babe Ruth, Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, "The Steal" and "The Comeback" are all part of the lore of baseball's greatest rivalry. That lore stretches through baseball history but begins on this date more than a century ago.

Friday, May 06, 2005


May 6th, 1971

Israel Alcantara Born

More commonly known as "Izzy" Alcantara, he was a corner OF/1B in the Red Sox system for several years, and despite being a pretty good minor league hitter, never really got a chance in the majors for a number of reasons. A prominent one was internal politics of the Red Sox in the Dan Duquette/Jimy Williams era. To wit, in the 2000 season Duquette called Alcantara up, and after Williams used him as a pinch-runner, only to have him be picked off, Williams refused to ever use him again, but Duquette refused to send him back down so Alcantara spent a couple of weeks wasting away on the Sox bench, effectively forcing the team into playing with a twenty-four man roster. Small wonder that team didn't win anything.

Alcantara also never hung on in the Major Leagues for an incident that took place in the minors, which although damaging to his career, endeared me to him forever. Feeling himself the victim of a disproportionate number of brushback pitches, Alcantara charged the mound after another pitch sailed too close to him. Alcantara decided he didn't want the catcher messing with his efforts to get at the pitcher, so in an innovation previously unseen, he superkicked him, knocking the catcher over before heading out to the mound. I can't imagine what it must've been like for the pitcher, here was a guy--listed at 6'2", 210--who is plainly insane (he just did a Jean Claude van Damme on your catcher) charging out to have a piece of you next. The pitcher responded by throwing his glove (which never, ever, works) and then looking for back-up, which lead to the comical site of Alcantara spinning around, fists up, looking to fight the entire opposing infield. This may sound rather violent and unpleasant, but when you watch the video (it can be found here) it really is high comedy.

Unsurprisingly, the league office found it less than high comedy and Alcantara received a seven day suspension and was dropped from the International League All-Star team. Despite this, he was called back up to the Sox in September and played in a few games, but was released after the season. He played a handful of games with the Brewers in 2002 and is, to the best of my knowledge, now in
Japan, where I suppose his martial arts skills are more appreciated.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


May 5th, 1862

Cinco de Mayo

That's the first Cinco de Mayo (which translates of course, as "Fifth of May") when Mexican forces defeated a French expeditionary force to temporarily halt the invasion of Mexico by the French. It remains today a national holiday in Mexico, and in its honor, I thought I would give Mexico the same treatment I gave Italy a couple of weeks back.

Italy, which produced just six native-born Major Leaguers, Mexico has had nearly a hundred, a boundary it will probably cross with September call-ups this year. Interestingly, the two best Mexican hitters of all time are both active at this moment. The younger is Oakland's Erubiel Durazo, who at age thirty is currently hitting .258/.339/.412 for the Oakland A's. The A's are obviously hoping that Durazo can come closer to his career form of .283/.384/.492, which included an impressive 136 OPS+ (good for ninth in the league) last year. Mexico's other best hitter is thirty-seven year old Vinny Castilla. Castilla has a career .280/.324/.489 line, obviously boosted by his years at Coors Field. Castilla and Durazo make an interesting example of park effects, in that Castilla's 1998 (.319/.362/.589) was actually a lower OPS+ (which adjusts for park) than Durazo's 2004 (.321/.396/.523). Castilla actually has an OPS+ of below league average for his career, but was a valuable player during his time in Colorado and does offer exceptional defense at the hot corner. Whether he or Durazo will ultimately be remembered as the best Mexican hitter is largely a matter of how much weight one gives Castilla's defensive advantage and how much one deducts from Castilla for playing in the Colorado launching pad. At the moment, I give the nod to Durazo, but we'll see how he handles being on the wrong side of thirty.

When it comes to Mexican pitchers, there have been lots. Some of whom look like they might turn out pretty good (Oliver Perez), some who've had up-and-down careers (Esteban Loaiza), some good relievers (Aurelio Lopez) but ultimately, when it comes to Mexican pitchers, if you don’t discuss Fernando! you're just wasting your breath. Fernando Valenzuela debuted for the Dodgers as a nineteen year-old in September of 1980. He appeared in ten games--all in relief--and didn't allow a run. The next season, the Dodgers put him in the rotation and Fernandomania was born. He won his first ten starts, including shutouts in five of his first seven. Valenzuela's screwball--which he could throw at two different speeds--was devastating and his eight shutouts tied the rookie record, despite pitching in a season just 110 games long on account of the strike, and for good measure was the first rookie to win the Cy Young award. (Obviously, he won the Rookie of the Year too.) He pitched brilliantly in LA's victories over
Houston and Montreal in the NLDS and NLCS, allowing just six runs in thirty one and two-thirds innings, good for a 1.70 ERA. He was slightly more mortal against the Yankees in the World Series, but threw a four-run complete game in Game 3, a crucial win for a Dodgers team down 0-2.

His performance on the field was only half the story however; Valenzuela's starts became an event in southern
California. Dodger Stadium became a virtual Cinco de Mayo celebration every time he took the hill. He would continue to be exceptional for several years until the combination of his weight and the multitude of innings on his arm at a young age took their toll. Despite that, he managed to hang around until age thirty-seven and although his final numbers (173-153, 3.54) are relatively unimpressive, his Cy Young and Rookie of the Year award, not to mention six All-Star appearances in the first six years of his career testify to the talent he possessed.

So, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, Erubiel Durazo, Vinny Castilla and Fernando Valenzuela, sit back, have some chips and salsa and raise your margarita in a toast to Mexican ballplayers.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


May 4rd, 1973

Atlanta Plays at Philadelphia

This game between the 7-16 Braves and the 9-11 Phillies was seemingly an unremarkable one, and in fact just 10,158 bothered to show up to watch it, despite being on a Friday night. It is also an example of why whenever you have a chance to go to a game, you should.

The starting pitcher for the Braves was Ron Reed and the Phillies countered with Dick Ruthven. The Braves struck first; in the third inning after Johnny Oates grounded out to shortstop Larry Bowa, Reed reached on an error by Mike Schmidt. After leadoff hitter Ralph Garr flew out to center, Sonny Jackson singled, moving Reed to second. Ruthven then balked each forward a base and walked Hank Aaron. Reed and Jackson then scored--both unearned--on a Darrell Evans double. Ruthven escaped without further damage when Mike Lum grounded out to Bowa.

The Phillies would strike back in the eighth; Mike Anderson led off with a double and came around to score on a Denny Doyle single. Reed was lifted and Danny Frisella came in to face pinch-hitter Mike Rogodzinski, who sacrificed Doyle to second. Larry Bowa then reached on an error by centerfielder Dusty Baker which allowed Doyle to score the tying run, but Frisella escaped the inning when Cesar Tovar made out to left and Del Unser popped out to second.

Neither team threatened in the ninth and the game moved on to extra innings. The Braves started the tenth against Mac Scarce with a Darrell Evans single. Lum bunted him to second and the Phillies intentionally walked Baker giving the Braves runners on first and second with just one out but Davey Johnson popped out and Oates grounded out to the first baseman. (If you'll allow me an aside here, it’s amazing how many future managers played in this game, Johnson, Bowa, Baker and Oates.)

The Phillies got a runner to second with two outs in the eleventh and the Braves loaded the bases on a single, an intentional walk and a non-intentional walk but with two outs pinch-hitter Jack Pierce lined out to center. The thirteenth on the other hand, saw the Braves finally break through. Oscar Brown, who had come in as a defensive replacement for Hank Aaron in the seventh, singled and Darrell Evans clubbed a home run putting the Braves up 4-2.

The Phillies weren't dead however,
Anderson led off with a single, prompting Braves' skipper Eddie Mathews to replace Tom House with Ron Schueler. Doyle flew out to left but pinch hitter Tom Hutton singled, moving Anderson to second. Larry Bowa singled, loading the bases and when Schueler uncorked a wild pitch, the Phillies were within one run of tying the game, and two of winning it outright. Schueler filled the base he had left empty by walking Tovar and the Phillies tied the game with a sacrifice fly by Unser. Willie Montanez was walked intentionally to load the bases with two outs and a single or walk would have won the game but Bob Boone (another future manager) made out to center.

In the fourteenth, the Braves had two baserunners but the first was erased when Johnson was caught stealing after being hit by a pitch and the second--a two-out single by pitcher Schueler--was wasted when Garr was caught looking. The game continuing along, marked only by the ejection of Phills' manager Danny Ozark in the seventeenth during an argument over a double play that ended the inning. Finally, as the game enter its twentieth inning (and fifth hour), Doyle led off with a triple, forcing the Braves to intentionally walk Greg Luzinski and Larry Bowa (a novel experience for Bowa, who had it happen just forty-five times in more than 9100 trips to the plate). With a force at every base, the Phillies sent up pinch-hitter Jose Pagan. Pagan was a thirty-eight year old infielder playing out the string in Philly, but he had at least one more dramatic moment left in him, as he lofted a fly ball to left. Oscar Brown caught it, but his throw was not enough to catch Doyle, who scampered home with the winning run ending the game after twenty innings and five hours, sixteen minutes.

A seemingly ordinary game on a Friday in Philly turned into a five hour, twenty inning marathon. If you ever wonder if you should take advantage of that ticket you have for tonight's game, go. You never know what you might see.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


May 3rd, 1972

Darren Dreifort Born

Although the popular answer these days would surely be Jason Giambi, I will go to my grave believing Darren Dreifort was signed to the worst contract of all time. This isn't simply a matter of performance during the contract, although we'll get to that in a moment, but also a matter of the context in which the contract was signed.

Leaving aside all the steroid stuff for the moment--since shouting about it won't add anything here--when the Yankees signed Giambi, he was coming off a monster 2001 season: .342/.477/.660, good for an OPS+ of 202 with thirty-eight home runs. He was the MVP the season before in 2000 when he posted a 188 OPS+, and although he was on the wrong side of thirty, the Yankees required an offensive overhaul and adding Giambi gave them a powerful bat in the middle of the order. In contrast, when "New Sheriff" Kevin Malone signed Darren Dreifort to a five-year, fifty-five million dollar contract, he was coming off a season in which had posted a 4.16 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 104 at Chavez Ravine. Malone couldn't claim Dreifort was an innings eater; he hadn't pitched two hundred innings that season, nor had he done so in the three seasons since he became a starter. Malone also couldn't claim that other two seasons starting gave reason for optimism, Dreifort was unable to even top the league average ERA those years, nor throw two hundred innings. Before the signing, Dreifort had only featured the "favorable" leader boards three times, once in 1998 when his strike outs per nine innings ranked sixth and in 1999 and 2000 when he was finished eighth and ninth in shutouts, with one. Despite all these, Malone still gave Dreifort fifty-five million over five years.

Getting into performance during the contract, Giambi actually served as an extremely useful hitter for two seasons with the Yankees, posting OPS+ of 174 and 151 before slipping to injuries and ineffectiveness in 2004. In contrast, Darren Dreifort managed the trick of being both ineffective and injured for the entirety of the contract. I'll spare you the complete run down of Dreifort's medical woes--we don't have all day--but he failed to pitch at all in 2002 (and so far in 2005) and has averaged less than sixty innings in the three years he has been healthy. The Dodgers attempted to move Dreifort to the bullpen in the hope that would keep him healthy in 2004, but it didn't work and he went under the knife again in mid-season last year. When Dreifort was pitching, he was ineffective, his healthiest year was in 2001 but it was also his worse when he managed an ERA+ of just 78.

Jason Giambi is a lousy contract, and may yet prove worse, but when you consider the circumstances of its signing, compared with that of Dreifort, and what value the team has gotten out of the contract, Darren Dreifort's contract reigns with the dubious honor of worst contract in history.

Monday, May 02, 2005


May 2nd, 1939

Lou Gehrig Ends Streak

By asking out of the line-up on this date, Lou Gehrig ended his streak that had begun on June 1st, 1925. Gehrig's streak is interesting in that it encompassed nearly his entire career; all but thirty-four games of it took place during the streak, whereas Cal Ripken, for comparison's sake, played nearly three hundred seventy games before and after his own streak. The tragic circumstances around Gehrig's death have helped him be remembered; while it’s unlikely he would have slipped into a Stan Musial like obscurity, Gehrig did spend the bulk of his career overshadowed, first by Babe Ruth, then by Joe DiMaggio. Gehrig deserves to be remembered for more than his streak and his death--he's arguably the greatest first baseman in history--but I suppose we cannot choose what we are remembered for.

On a related note, I have written in the past about Gehrig's predecessor and successor at first base for the Yankees.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


May 1st, 2002

Trevor Hoffman Records Save

I've written about closers before, mostly unkindly. I stand by that assessment, but it is worth taking the time to praise the truly great ones. Trevor Hoffman's save on this date was his 321st, giving him the all-time Padres record, and more importantly, the record for saves with a single team, surpassing the 320 Dennis Eckerlsey recorded for the Oakland A's. All-time team saves are a funny category, in part because of how the statistic came into existence, the list is virtually always dominated by modern players, and furthermore, one only needs a handful of saves to rank fairly high on some lists. On the Padres list for example, Hoffman rank first, having boosted his total to (as of today) 395. Second is Rollie Fingers, with 108, a total which by the end of this season will likely not represent a fifth of Hoffman's total. But as you go farther down the list, it becomes clear what I meant about low totals representing high spots. Rod Beck, who pitched just one year for the Padres, filling in when Hoffman was injured, has just twenty saves and is eleventh all time. Jesse Orosco spent three years in Milwaukee plying his unique trade and racked up just nine saves, but is nevertheless in the Brewer all-time top 25 for saves. The Brewers' all-time save leader is the terribly unremarkable Dan Plesac, who hasn't pitched for them since 1992, which tells you more about the Brewers and their victory totals than it does about closers.

Plesac actually represents an exception; excluding the recently relocated Nationals, only the Indians (Doug Jones), Pirates (Roy Face) and Tigers (Mike Henneman) have a saves leader who would prompt their fans to say "Really? Him?" although the Braves were only saved from this fate by John Smoltz's closing days, which knocked Gene Garber off the top spot.

Closers are overvalued, but the really good ones--and not every team leader necessarily qualifies for that--are often worth their value, a point I fear I wasn't sufficiently clear about in the past.

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