Saturday, February 25, 2006

February 25th, 1963

Paul O'Neill Born

Paul O'Neill is best (and most deservedly) remembered as a member of the Yankees; he manned right field for all four of the World Series wins under Joe Torre, and had his famous last game at Yankee Stadium when the fans chanted O'Neill's name as he walked back to the dugout for the final time. O'Neill, in response, tipped his cap, a fitting gesture from a player who was one of the best-loved by Yankee fans.

Today's subject however, isn't O'Neill but is rather a book recommendation. Like me, and a lot of others I assume, O'Neill's with relationship baseball began with his relationship with his father. Paul's Dad died before Game Four of the 1999 World Series, and after the Yankees clinched, O'Neill broke down on the field. After he retired, as a tribute, O'Neill wrote Me and My Dad. Many sports books, especially autobiographies are dime-a-dozen and virtually interchangeable but O'Neill's book is heartfelt and genuine. It comes highly recommended.

Friday, February 24, 2006

February 24th, 1977

Bronson Arroyo Born

Bronson Arroyo, well known as a member of the Red Sox these days, began his career as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I know it seems like I've been picking on the Pirates lately, Pat Meares and all, but the problem is that over the last five to eight years, the Pirates have just been one of the worst-run franchises in baseball.

Arroyo is just another example of that, and an example of how the Pirates are running things poorly not only in the big moves (like signing free agents) but also in little things like roster management. Arroyo has been nothing amazing during his Red Sox tenure, but has been a consistent arm who can start or relieve and give a team as many as two hundred league average innings. Plus, he's been cheap. In other words, just the kind of guy that a team like the Pirates--who've run out clowns like Josh Fogg and Ryan Vogelsong as regular members of their rotation the last couple of years--would need. It would be one thing if the Bucs had traded Arroyo, but here's where the bad roster management comes in. Arroyo was released by the Pirates, waived for any team in the league to grab so that the Pirates could hold on to Jim Mann, a mediocre journeyman who threw an inning and two-thirds for the Pirates in 2003 and nothing since.

It's not just Arroyo though. In the 2003 Rule 5 Draft (allowing teams to take players who have been in the minors for five years without being put on the Major League roster) the Pirates saw their players taken with five of the first six picks. Notable names taken include Chris Shelton, who slugged over .500 for the Tigers last season and Jose Bautista, who the Pirates ended up trading to get back in the Ty Wiggington/Kris Benson trade with the Mets. Even more baffling, these players weren't protected (i.e. placed on the forty man roster) despite the Pirates having room to do so. And compounding this problem is that the room on the forty man roster was created by having released even more names you'd know, Duaner Sanchez who has been a capable reliever for the Dodgers, Matt Guerrier who had a strong stretch in
Minnesota last year and my man Big Walter Young.

The Pirates' big moves have actually improved somewhat under (now former) General Manager Dave Littlefield, but their smaller ones continue to reflect a Keystone Kops-like approach to roster management. If they ever hope to give
PNC Park the kind of team it deserves, that's another on the long list of problems that need fixing.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

February 23rd, 1983

Edgar Gonzalez Born

This is inspired, in part, by a recent news story. Tony Womack claimed that, among other things, the Yankees "held [him] back" and the only thing about 2005 is that it "makes [him] mad, because "it messes up [his] baseball card." Now there's plenty of snide remarks that can be made there--2005 messes up Tony's card but 2003 didn't?-- but it raised a point I've always found remarkable about professional athletes. To wit, they have a level of self-delusion about their talent that is almost amazing. Womack, for example, claims that "people say I don't have a good on-base percentage. But when I get on, a lot of things happen. There's no stat for that." Tony is right about his on-base percentage--it's awful--and virtually every stat would tell you he has been a bad-to-awful ballplayer for years and years. 2004, Womack's career year, saw him post an OPS+ of just 93, and a career average of 73. Baseball Prospectus' equivalent average (a stat that takes a player's overall offense value and converts it onto the batting average scale so .300 is good, .400 is exceptional and so on) put Womack's 2004 at .264 and his career mark is just .243. And yet I have little doubt that Womack truly believes in his heart of hearts that he a valuable of a Major League team.

So what does any of this have to do with Edgar Gonzalez? Gonzalez is only slightly older than me, about a year, and his Major League career to this point has been nothing short of a disaster. Over the course of three years, Gonzalez has a record of 2-10 with an appalling 8.58 ERA, an ERA+ of 53. In 2004, when Gonzalez was twenty-one, the same "age-year" that I'm just now wrapping up, he went 1-9 with a 9.32 ERA. Gonzalez surrendered at least two runs in every appearance he made that year, including a nightmare start in
San Francisco when he gave up ten runs, eight hits, two walks and two homers in just one inning.

And here's the thing. If you were to corner Gonzalez this Spring Training, he would tell you he had some bad luck in 2004, or he wasn't quite ready but he's sure he'll be able to contribute to the D-Backs this year. And that's amazing. I'm21, and I get discouraged when the Job Fair at my college doesn't have positions I think are right for me, and yet Edgar Gonzalez was an absolute disaster at the highest level of his profession but he is probably still of full confidence. Earlier I call that self-delusion, and it may be, but there's something to be said for having that kind of confidence in oneself.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

February 22nd, 1889

Chicagos Defeat All-Americans

While this sounds like a battle out of a cheap movie--nothing like those generic team names--it actually has some significant history. The Chicagos won the game 3-2 and although I don't have access to a roster, the crowd is perhaps the most interesting part of the game. This was part of a world tour going around Italy at the time, and this game, which took place in the Villa Borghese outside of Rome, included in its audience King Humbert of Italy.

History has, sadly, not recorded the King's reaction. (Humbert, incidentally, is the WASPy translation of the far more Italian sounding Umberto, to answer a question that was bugging me.) Baseball has obviously never taken in Italy, something I've observed before despite the success of Italian-American players. Despite a roster that includes names like Mike Piazza, David Dellucci and Ron Villone, Italy figures not to have much of a chance in the World Baseball Classic as their initial grouping has them with two powerhouses: the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

But, who knows? Perhaps the WBC will help prompt a new renaissance in Italy, a baseball renaissance. And someday, just as American children long to go to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Italian children will long to go see the site of where Sire Umberto I watched one of the first baseball games every played in Italy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

February 21st, 1929

Red Sox Announce Game Location

Although it seems a wildly absurd concept these days, it was only a bit over seventy-five years ago that baseball games--and a good deal else--was prohibited on Sundays. That was (and is) the Sabbath so laws were in place to encourage players and fans to keep it holy, rather than head off to the ballpark. These laws were slowly relaxed around the country; the one in Boston finally removed prior to the 1929 season, granting both the Red Sox and Braves the chance to play there.

Despite being able to play on Sundays, all was not well in Red Sox nation. It was observed that
Fenway Park stood rather close to a church. (From what I can remember, these days it's only near a few bars and a McDonald's.) Fearing that the sort-of ruffians who might attend a baseball game on a Sunday would trouble the good, God-fearing people who had chosen to attend church on that day, the Sox announced that their Sunday games would instead be played at Braves' Field, which presumably was in a church-free area.

These days, of course, the Red Sox play their Sunday home games at Fenway--they have little choice; Braves' Field has been renamed and remodeled and now hosts Boston University's soccer games. But it is hardly ancient history that Sunday baseball was a new concept and one of baseball's most notable franchises was forced to play their home games elsewhere in deference to church goers.

Monday, February 20, 2006

February 20th, 1999

Pirates Sign Pat Meares

I've written before about Derek Bell, one of Cam Bonifay's more questionable signings, and today we reach another, Pat Meares. The quick-and-easy comparison for Meares at the moment is Christian Guzman, an ex-Twins shortstop who was underwhelming during his time in Minnesota but was nevertheless rewarded with a gigantic contract that became an albatross almost from the moment it was signed.

I'm a little unclear on exactly what happened with Meares' contract, but the short version of events is that at some point the Pirates--inexplicably--granted Meares a four-year, fifteen million dollar contract. As I mentioned, from the start it was a disaster; Meares injured his hand in 1999 and played only two hundred and forty games across three seasons for the Pirates, 1999-2001. In that time, he batted .308 the first year, but in just twenty-one games and proceeded to hit .240 and .211 the next two years. That's bad, but even worse because the Bucs were actually on the hook to pay Meares approximately three and a quarter million for both 2002 and 2003, time when he saw no Major League action.

As might be expected, the conflict between Meares and the team got a trifle nasty, as the Pirates tried to forcibly retire Meares after he refused to have a surgery performed on his hand, claiming he could not physically play at the Major League level without it. This would've put the team's insurance company on the hook for the deal (teams and players do sometimes agree to deals like this, Albert Belle and Mo Vaughn are recent examples) but Meares denied he was unable to play. I assume the pair eventually settled rather than go to an arbitrator--how would an arbitrator decide that anyway?--but I can't find any stories one way or the other. Either way, Meares' contract is a cautionary tale for teams everywhere, one Jim Bowden evidently hadn't learned.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

February 19th, 1978

Phil Paine Dies

Today's entry comes with a major assist from reader Joel Parshall who, apparently inspired by this entry, sent me an extensively researched history on a minor figure in that entry, Phil Paine. Nicknamed "Flip" for reasons I can't discern, Paine is today a wholly forgotten figure--I doubt even the most dedicated baseball historian would know his name off hand--but that's a shame, as he holds some interesting distinctions.

The first is what I discussed in the DeJean entry, that Paine had previously held the record for most appearances without a loss, a record that is impressive for a number of reasons. For one, unlike DeJean who set the record over the course of two seasons, it took Paine six seasons over an eight year span, 1951-1958 although Paine wasn't playing baseball in America for a couple of those years--more on that later. Furthermore, the streak represented more than ninety percent of Paine's career appearances. He only lost one game his entire career and although his peripheral statistics were underwhelming finished with a respectable 121 ERA+ in one hundred fifty career innings. He was effective in his last season as a full-time reliever with the Cards in 1958 but neither Parshall nor I could find out why he never pitched in the Majors after that, although arm trouble seems a logical cause.

In addition to the no-loss record, Paine is also an interesting footnote in the history of Japanese-American baseball. A lot of people know Masanori Murakami was the first Japanese player to come to the Major Leagues, but very few others know the reverse. While stationed in
Japan with the Air Force, Paine (along with Leo Kiely) became the first former Major Leaguers to ever play for a Japanese professional team. Ironically, given his future record holding, Paine actually went 4-3 during his time in Japan although he did post a sparkling 1.77 ERA.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't know why Paine's MLB career ended when it did and his death at a relatively young age--Paine was just forty-seven--is an equal mystery.

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