Sunday, September 1, 2002

I'm not sure if we in the blog community are encouraged to endorse print media, but the cover article of today's New York Times Magazine is all about Bonds and his makeup as a professional athlete. It's pretty good. That's all.

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Bud's Reign and Rockies' Rain all washed out

I cannot believe this. On the air, on KNBR 680 AM radio in the Bay Area, I'm hearing the horrible weather looming over the ballpark in Denver this afternoon. The lights at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, have just gone out, a tornado has sprung up in the vicinity and lightning has struck quite near the game, which is now in its ninth inning.

Broadcaster Jon Miller astutely chimed in that the perilous meteorological conditions may symbolize the labor struggle leading to the looming player strike tomorrow, August 30, the strike date posted by Donald Fehr and the players' union reps. Will the players strike? Some say they will. has publicized clever signs brandished by fans nationwide at recent games; one message — "You strike, we're out!" — sums up the sentiments nicely.

More optimistic followers of the labor negotiations point to upbeat comments made by this or that player for this or that ball club. Tom Manager leaves one of his starters in for a certain number of pitches. Dick General Manager shuffles a few non-prospects for a 35-year-old starter and cash. Harry Ballplayer (not in the Wade Boggs way) sells the union line, something like caring about the fans. Many fans point to these as signs of progress. Others hold more skepticism.

Baseball thinkers and writers who understand the labor struggle better than I do cover the process with more insight and clarity than I could ever aspire to, so I'll just stick to the weather in Colorado in this space. But it strikes me that the Rockies, more than any other franchise, exemplify the disastrous path baseball has taken since '94.

The expansion to the Rocky Mountains — strictly Bronco territory until then — seemed to work, initially. Starting with the team's inception in '93, the Rockies outdrew beyond expectation. They were the first team (I may be wrong on this) to draw four million tickets in a season. In only their third season they reached the playoffs, losing to Atlanta in the National League Division Series. The highly-touted Blake St. Bombers tandem of Castilla, Bichette, Galarraga and Walker rang in brand-new Coors in style, mashing home run after home run into the jam-packed stands.

Recently, however, the Rockies have struggled in their personnel decisions, and have also failed to maintain a fruitful farm system. Darryl Kile never settled into the thin Rocky Mountain air. The unloading of aging cash vacuums like Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla proved to be smart moves by the Colorado front office, but current GM Dan O'Dowd has misspent those Benjamins on Mike "Gosh, the schools are great here" Hampton and Denny "I look like the young John Lithgow but I pitch like the old John Lithgow" Neagle. The current roster features two legitimate stars (Molson Man Walker and Tennessee Helton), and more so-called "tools" outfielders-turned late-bloomers (Kapler, Payton, Cust) than Clint Hurdle can cram into a lineup card.

Attendance, while healthy by, say, Tampa Bay standards, has declined noticeably since the The Year That Ellis Burks Was God (1996), and who could blame the fans? Would you show up to see Shawn Chacon cough up seven in four and watch as the Rockies come back to win 13-8? With the NFL season gearing up for kickoff? With the Avs putting up such a great fight in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs? With the Colorado State football team riding last year's thrilling campaign? With Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe keeping basketball interesting in the post-LaFrentz/Van Exel/McDyess era?

The Colorado Rockies, an organization that thrived as a fan-friendly product through the mid-to-late-nineties, have failed despite playing into all the scams of its generation. Expansion. New ballpark. Money. Fans. Homers. Money. Contracts. Losses. Failure. Lightning. Thunder. Rain. Wind. Destruction.

As the baseball world awaits word from New York — be it good news or bad — the ballclub in Denver is feeling the harsh effects of 1990s baseball already. They threw money at top-name players, and those contracts backfired. Now, their team is lousy, stuck with the lowly-but-hopeful Padres, behind three good-but-beatable teams. Hey, the days of Kevin Ritz and Jody Reed may not sound very exciting in retrospect, but fans were excited then.

The game has been called by now, and hopefully residents in the Denver area are protected during the storms. We all know by now that more imoprtant things than baseball command our attention at times. However, in the coming hours, we will discover whether Miller's comment, which sparked this train of thought for me, is timely prescient, or merely an inspiration for this rant.

But I digress.

Monday, August 12, 2002

I have a friend (yes, the rumors are true) with whom I talk baseball every time I see him. We take turns bemoaning the plight of our teams (Oakland and the Mets) and argue about who has the better players, etc. When we're going back and forth, nothing ignites passionate disagreement between us more than a good ol' Hall of Fame debate — the merits of this player vs. that one, did so-and-so peak too early...

Vladimir Guerrero hit his 200th home run a few nights ago against Milwaukee, and the brightest star his side of Niagara said that he has his sights set on 600. With so many young players (A-Rod, Helton, Andruw, Vlad) climbing higher up the all-time lists with each crack of the bat, my thoughts return to my friend and the player central to one of our most hotly-contested Hall of Fame debates: Sammy Sosa.

Now, I don't mean to offend anybody here. To some of you, Sammy Sosa may be a first-ballot Hall of Famer if you ever saw one. And I can see your point. He's been an incredible force the last four and a half seasons, finishing with more than 60 home runs in three of four full years. He's slugged over .600 and improved his walk total each of the past four seasons, and he has a chance to finish his 2002 campaign as a member of the 500 club. Despite turning 33 just this summer, Sosa's gaudy numbers over the last five years have generated discussion about Sosa's place in history, and with another productive season almost in the books, it's hard to deny that Sosa has been one of the greatest hitters of the last decade.

As is the case with everyone who's been a Mets fan the past two seasons, however, I've learned that to deny something that seems obvious to everyone else — like, I dunno, a certain team's postseason chances — is altogether very possible, no matter how difficult it may seem. To follow that thought: Sammy Sosa is not a Hall of Famer. Not yet, at least. Why not? Well, it doesn't take a ton of research to realize this, but without his home runs totals, Sosa doesn't really have anything special to support his candidacy. Let's stroll through the record books, shall we?

To gain a better understanding of his achievements, it's important to compare Sosa to two groups of players — his contemporaries, and everyone else. Sosa has hit 39 homers so far this season, sending him past Ken Griffey, Jr., for the second-highest active total. Among active players, Sosa also places inside the top 25 in slugging, runs, hits, total bases, RBI and steals. Such an elementary examination of the facts certainly supports the notion that Sammy is a very good hitter, one of the best playing today, which is an assertion I'm comfortable agreeing with.

But Sosa's numbers fall apart somewhat when viewed in a more historical light. His 489 career home runs still hold up, yes; 19th all-time is something to be proud of. However, strikeouts aside (he's closing in on Dave Kingman for seventh), Sammy doesn't place among the top 25 in any other main category. His .548 career slugging mark is close, and he'll finish 2002 ranking someplace around 60th in RBI, but nothing besides the homers really stands out as exceptional.

"Okay, Misha, that's fine, but what would you say about Mark McGwire? What did he ever contribute other than a healthy dosage of bombs? I suppose you're telling me McGwire doesn't belong in the Hall?" This argument is interesting, and by "interesting," I don't mean anything sarcastic like "flawed" or "misleading." I mean, it's those things too, but that's not what I'm saying. Big Mac struck out a ton and will be remembered only because he hit homers, and without his four-year surge of dominance from '96 through '99, there's no way he reaches Cooperstown, either.

Still, there's a hell of a difference between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. In fact, there are many differences. McGwire had a much better OBP (.394 to .348) despite batting 15 points worse over his career. He takes Sammy in slugging (.588 to .548), and his 162-game averages are superior in homers (50 to 43) and nearly double in walks (114 to 63). McGwire also had a better strikeout rate and slightly more RBI over 162 games, while nearly matching Sosa in runs. In runs created, McGwire blows Sosa out of the water. Essentially, McGwire was quite a bit better than Sosa at a few things, and I think the difference means McGwire's inclusion in the Hall.

So maybe comparing Sosa to the great McGwire isn't fair; after all, a slugger of McGwire's talent comes along once a generation. And this really is the heart of what I'm saying: except for his home runs, players with Sosa's numbers (or better) are abundant in today's game. Here's a chart showing the career 162-game averages for Sosa and other hitters of his generation with a shot at the Hall:

S. Sosa11.34105264311763158.348.548.896.279

J. Gonzalez9.71102384213645122.344.563.907.296

R. Palmeiro14.629735331067678.376.521.894.293

M. Ramirez7.31111394013592134.407.562.999.312

L. Walker10.07113403311070100.398.576.974.318

F. Thomas10.25111383612312391.432.5681.000.314

M. Piazza8.4010029401246693.390.576.966.322

E. Martinez10.66102432510110392.425.530.955.315

B. Bonds14.80121344110912689.425.5921.017.294

K. Griffey, Jr.11.31109324111980106.379.563.942.295

F. McGriff14.2791293310488124.380.514.894.286

J. Thome8.241073138108116163.412.560.972.285

B. Williams9.2311337241058898.411.487.889.306

J. Bagwell10.801173934120109116.414.550.964.302

As you can see, there are a dozen guys with numbers like Sosa's, and most of them have serious chances at Cooperstown. This list doesn't even include players who aren't eligible yet but who also have good numbers, like Jason Giambi, A-Rod, Vlad, Giles, Helton and Chipper. Sosa's numbers are very good, but even his only outstanding mark, his home run average, fails to clearly elevate him above the rest. A glance at the all-time career homer leaderboard shows that at least twenty of the top fifty home run-hitters played most of their careers in the past 25 years. Twenty-one active players are inside the top 100. Because of this, whenever somebody asks me questions like, "Would you keep Sosa out if he hit 500? How many would it take?" I have to explain that I don't know how many he (or anyone else) would have to hit. As far as I'm concerned, no number of home runs thrown into discussion is safe, certainly not the Hall yardstick of old, 500. Four players — Sosa, Griffey, McGriff and Palmeiro — will probably reach the milestone this or next year. It is not out of question to speculate that, ten years from now, a dozen more could lay claim to the same feat.

Look, it's impossible to ignore what Sosa has accomplished over the last five or six seasons. If you hit sixty home runs three times, you're going to get attention, and you probably deserve it. But Sammy Sosa is a perfect example of why fans should avoid measuring players by their milestones. Three and a half seasons ago, Sosa wouldn't have even made today's top-100 list. Does a player really go from outside the top 100 — in his only statistical category of dominance, no less — to a Hall of Fame plateau in three and a half seasons? Home runs and saves are the only categories I can think of that allow someone to bypass so much history in such a short period of time, and there isn't really much history in the all-time saves list, anyhow.

Sammy Sosa will pass Lou Gehrig on the home run leaderboard by the end of the month, and pretty soon will start drawing comparisons to the all-time greats. And somewhere, a lonely, dissenting baseball fan will wonder how so much praise is showered on a player who's not even a great among his peers.