Friday, August 11, 2006

Movie Review: "61*"

73* is the New 61*
by Matt Sandler

Many people are probably aware that at the time Roger Maris set the single-season home run mark with 61 in 1961, an asterisk was appended to the record to denote the eight extra games he played beyond Babe Ruth’s schedule. However, one of the facts that I learned in the movie “61*” (2001, originally aired on HBO) was that the keeping of the two records, Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927 and Maris’ mark, lasted until 1991. It was finally then, six years after Maris’ death at the age of 51, that Commissioner Fay Vincent did the dignified thing and made Maris’ record the sole one for posterity.

“61*” tells the story of the 1961 season, and how different it was for Maris and Mickey Mantle. What struck me was how similar the situations of Maris and Mantle in 1961 were to Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter this year. Maris won the MVP in 1960, his first year with the Yankees, just like A-Rod won the MVP last year, his second year with the team. Both Maris and A-Rod were accused of being wound too tight and never smiling, hounded by the media and fans for not being able to handle the pressure of playing in New York. Mantle and Jeter were both the golden boys of New York sports, with a decade of success behind them that would surely land them in the Hall of Fame.

However, there are some key differences. While Maris was certainly a terrific player in his prime (he would win the MVP again in 1961), he was never truly the better player than Mantle. A-Rod, on the other hand, is simply blessed with more talent than the supposedly infallible Jeter. Also, we see in the movie how the press was relentless in making Maris look bad, and framing him in the newspapers for things like infidelities and refusing to sign autographs that never happened. Nowadays, A-Rod is attacked on more general grounds—not being “clutch,” being joyless and robotic. In the movie, we see only one newspaper writer defending Maris. In these more statistically oriented times, where many people recognize Rodriguez’s tremendous value even if he is too sensitive, he has more supporters—the camps are more balanced than they were for Maris.

In the film, we see Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mantle (Thomas Jane) as friends who were never driven apart through all the turmoil of the 1961 season. Maris is the stressed-out chain smoker from North Dakota, who has a loving wife, Pat (Jennifer Crystal Foley, director Billy Crystal’s daughter). She stays behind in Kansas City (where Maris was traded from) with their three children, while he rents an apartment during the season with teammate Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer). Mantle is the good-looking farm boy from Oklahoma who has turned into a New York icon, and loves women (especially those who are not his wife) and booze.

Maris is simply never embraced in New York, and as both players heat up on the field, the fans and media are vicious in their disdain for Maris. He is criticized for only doing well because he bats third, protected in the order by Mantle. There are pictures of him frowning in all the newspapers (in those days, there were 15 local papers), with headlines like, “Smile, Roger, It’s Only a Game.” There are man-on-the-street interviews where the vast majority of fans want Mantle to break the record instead of Maris because Mantle is the “true Yankee.” Sound familiar? And worst of all, Commissioner Ford Frick (Donald Moffat) insists that two separate records will be maintained in the official books if the record is indeed broken.

While all of this is happening, an interesting bond develops between Maris and Mantle, with Cerv lightening the mood and dispelling any tension. Cerv and Maris invite Mantle to move in with them into their quiet apartment in Queens, which is a far cry from Mantle’s glamorous hotel suite in Manhattan. They are trying to protect the Mick from himself, from another affair or drunken stupor that may really damage his career. Mantle reluctantly agrees, because he sees the value in trying to keep a lower profile during the season. Throughout all the pressure of the 1961 season—the fans screaming obscenities at Maris in right field, the door being left open for him to break the record when Mantle has a season-ending hip injury, the cold shoulder from Ruth’s widow, Claire (Renee Taylor)—their friendship endures, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Of course, we know what happens. Maris breaks the record on the last day of the 1961 season, in a shockingly empty Yankee Stadium. The commissioner is shamefully “out of town,” and Claire Ruth is clearly less than pleased with the Babe’s record being broken. The fans finally shower Maris with the love he deserves, but as Buster Keaton said when his films were finally appreciated right before his death, “The applause is nice, but too late.”

The movie is book-ended with coverage of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Maris’ record in 1998. Of course, we didn’t know then what we know now about McGwire and Sosa, so we were able to enjoy one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The Commissioner cheerfully took part in all McGwire-related ceremonies that year, as he should have, and would again in 2001 when Barry Bonds broke McGwire’s record. What a shame that the only crime Roger Maris ever seemed to commit was that he wasn’t a good interview.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Not to sound smug, but I knew in spring training that...

by Scott Silversten

Not to sound smug, but I knew in spring training that:

* The Tigers would be baseball's best regular-season team. It was obvious that starting pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Justin Verlander were on the verge of breaking out, that Marcus Thames would become a household (at least in my household) name and that Jim Leyland was a managerial genius no matter how long he had been away from the dugout.

* Jim Thome and Nomar Garciaparra were clearly not finished as superstars. Currently the leading candidates for their respective league's Comeback Player of the Year awards, two of baseball's perceived gentlemen are having superb seasons and are big reasons while the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are in the playoff chase.

* Cincinnati's pitching was underrated. It was assumed the Reds would score runs, and while there isn't a lights-out starter on the team, newcomer Bronson Arroyo, Adam Harang and Eric Milton have done just enough to keep the team in the thick of the National League wild card race, and within shouting distance of NL Central leader St. Louis. What was considered by many the NL's worst staff was able to hang on until general manager Wayne Krivsky gave a downtrodden bullpen a summer revamping with the acquisitions of Gary Majewski, Bill Bray and Ryan Franklin.

* The Atlanta Braves would suffer after the departure of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who would not provide much help to the Baltimore Orioles staff. Atlanta's division title in 2005 was clearly accomplished with smoke and mirrors (not to mention a ridiculous amount of rookies), and the Baltimore pitchers just have too many games in the bandbox that is Camden Yards.

* Tony Pena was the best acquisition the New York Yankees made during the off-season. Those who only pay attention to numbers probably have not noticed how great a defensive catcher Posada has been this season, and the addition to the coaching staff of Pena, one of the great receivers of the last 25 years, is the reason. Posada is having a tremendous all-around season, and has become the Yankees' most indispensable player

* The weakest link on the New York Mets would be Billy Wagner. A dominant closer is much more valuable in October then they are over the course of 162 games, when even the best have their off nights. It is in the postseason where one loss can be devastating, and while Wagner's statistics are right where they should be, he is clearly shaky and seems to find himself allowing two baserunners each night. When Wagner comes in for that first big opportunity in the Division Series, there are bound to be plenty of sweaty palms in Flushing.

* Barry Bonds would be an afterthought by mid-August thanks to his aging body, the San Francisco Giants' pathetic 0-6 July road trip through Washington and Pittsburgh, and a pasty, bicycle-riding Mennonite who would knock the slugger off the front pages off newspapers from the Jersey Shore to the East Bay.

* Coors Field would be a pitcher's park. During their most recent 10-game home stand, the Rockies participated in games that averaged only 5.6 runs per contest, a number that would have be even lower if not for a 9-8 victory over San Diego. Question: Why do people constantly wonder if baseballs are juiced, but no one raises a stink that balls at Coors are stored in a humidor to take some of the juice out? Isn't it essentially the same thing?

* Cleveland designated hitter Travis Hafner would belt five grand slams (one shy of the major league record for a season), but the Indians would be eliminated from the AL Central race long before the Cleveland Browns suffered their first major injury of the season on July 27 (center Le Charles Bentley is out for the season with a torn knee ligament).

* The White Sox starting pitchers, so dominant last October, would be the team's biggest issue heading into the stretch drive. With Jose Contreras having suddenly lost four of his last five starts, the remainder of the rotation (Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez) have ERAs hovering around 5.00 and many are questioning the White Sox ability toreach the postseason, let alone defend their world championship.

If I knew all this, how come you didn't?

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears Thursdays

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Spit Happens

by Sarah (The Fanatic's Wife)

It is truly a phenomenon to me. I am happily watching a baseball game on T.V. and the camera slowly pans the dugout…and there they are, chewing huge wads of tobacco or gum, or munching on seeds. Whatever their poison, all of these guys are spitting. Now, the tobacco I understand because if you swallow that crap you’ll most likely throw up. Disgusting, but I’ll save that one for another time. Spitting?! Really? Is that absolutely necessary?

One guy that really spits a lot is Terry Francona. He devours whole packs of Big League Chew. They should give him an endorsement. The chews like he’s really pissed off at the gum. And every so often, he spits. Memo to Terry: I chew gum too. And every so often, the muscles in my throat contract and the saliva in my mouth stays in my body! Isn’t that amazing! I am pretty sure that swallowing is one of our most basic reflexes (for more information go here). Why fight it?

My new theory is that the spitting trend that baseball is famous for has to do with men and testosterone and the fact that you can’t pee on the field. If baseball was played by dogs, they would pee on the bases, on the mound, and in the dugout to mark their territory. Luckily for us, humans peeing in public are frowned upon, so being resourceful creatures, we choose the next best thing.

Once the whole steroids/cheating thing gets taken care of, the next big issue in baseball should be to ban spitting (and chewing tobacco while they’re at it…but I digress). Not only does spitting spread germs and gross me out, but it has to make the dugout floor so slick that it’s only a matter of time before someone slips and is hurt. Can you imagine a player being out on the DL because he slipped in a puddle of saliva?

If they can discourage it in other countries, why not here?

"Wild Card Wednesdays" appears every Wednesday

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pencil 'Em In: Mets 2006 NL East Champs

by Alan Eliot

"Well thank you, Captain Obvious," some will say.

"This sort of one-of-a-kind insight is why I come to Baseball For Thought in the first place," others add. "Talk about going out on a ledge! Mets win the division in 2006? Come on!"

Yes, yes. I hear the sarcasm. It's dripping in your voice. I get it. I say the Mets are winning the division, when there are 52 games to go and they are up by 12.5 over their nearest division rival. Not rocket science. This is true.

Others among you, most likely loyal Mets fans, might cringe at my statement. "Why tempt fate?", you bemoan. "The Mets haven't won a division title since 1988, and the Braves are playing better, and the Phillies look ready to go on a run..." You cite the fact that the Braves have won the NL East 11 seasons in a row, or maybe you even use the oft-misused stat of the Braves winning 14 in a row- when 3 were in the NL West (irrelevant to Mets fans) and 1994, the strike year where the Expos were in first, is conveniently left out.

Nonetheless, you shrewdly remind me that it's never over until it's over, and cite a few examples to read at my leisure:

1. 1964 Phillies, who through 150 games were 90-60, and up by 6 1/2 games with 12 games to go. They then had a giant collapse, lost 10 in a row, ended up the season 92-70, and watched the playoffs from home.

2. 1951 Dodgers, who, like the Mets, were up by an ungodly amount of games come August (13 1/2 games by mid-August), and who also collapsed, and lost the pennant to Bobby Thompson and the NY Giants in one of the most famous baseball games in history. You've heard it- "The Shot Heard 'Round the World", aka "The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!" For fans of columnist Doug Silversten, you should know that he played the audio file of this call and/or recited it by memory, out loud, with full enthusiasm, no less than 100 times during our freshman year in college. He is not a Giants fan.

3. 1969 Cubs , who around this time in August were ahead of the Cardinals by 8.5 games, and ahead of the 3rd place Mets by 9.5 games. The Mets went 39-11 (.780), and the Cubs went 18-27 (.400) the rest of the season, and the Amazin' Mets- loveable losers up to this point- handily won the division.

You also mention something about a near-collapse by the White Sox to the Indians in 2005. But I'm not listening anymore to your alarmist paranoia.

And here's why (stats current as of 11:45 PM August 7, 2006):

1. Mets Are Far and Away the Best Team in the NL: The Mets are currently 66-44 (.600), currently the top record in the NL. And it's not close. They are 5.5 ahead of the next closest team, the Cardinals, who are 61-50. The team with the third best record in the NL, the Padres, stands at 58-53, 8.5 games behind the Metsies. That is worth repeating: The third best record in the NL belongs to a team that is five games above .500. Yes, the Mets are that good this year. And the good news for the Mets is that the rest of the league is that bad in comparison this year.

2. Weak NL: Aside from the above, other notable facts include that the Wild-Card leader, the Reds, are 57-55, two games above .500. Fourth-best record in the NL. Amazing. The rest of the league is so weak (or evenly balanced, in optimistic terms) that nine teams are within 6 games of the wild-card lead. Yes, 13/16 NL teams are within 6 games of a playoff spot. The only teams not in on the party are Washington (7.5 back), Chicago (9.5 back) and Pittsburgh (15 back). Note Chicago being 9.5 back of a wild-card berth, with a record of 47-64. Ugly.

By comparison, the Wild-Card co-leaders in the AL, Boston and Chicago, are each 65-45 and 20 games above .500.

3. Laws of Probability: Baseball Prospectus has a neat little page that generates the odds that each team will make the postseason. It is called Postseason Odds, and it is here. Here are a few numbers you might find interesting:
Mets: 99.61% chance of winning division, 99.85% chance make playoffs
By comparison, the Tigers, with a 75-36 record technically 8.5 games ahead of the Mets, "only" have a 93.37% chance of winning their division, and a 98.63% chance of making the playoffs.

4. A Question of Schedules for the Mets: The great thing about playing in a weak league is that you play games that count against relatively easy to beat teams. The Mets have 52 games remaining, of which only 10 are against teams currently .500 and above. Three against the Padres. Three against the Cardinals. Four against the Dodgers. The Mets should like their chances at the postseason when they are 12.5 ahead and 81% of their remaining games are against sub-.500 teams. It goes without saying that with the NL's best record, all 52 games are against teams with worse records. Captain Obvious speaking, but good news for Mets fans nonetheless.

5. A Question of Schedules for the Braves/Phillies/Marlins:
Phillies, for example: With 51 games remaining, like the Mets, only 10 games are against .500+ teams. However, nine are against the Braves, nine against Washington, ten against the Marlins and seven against the Mets. If you're a Phillies fan, the seven games against the Mets may seem like a godsend, in that technically 7 games could be gained in the standings with sweeps. Most likely though, the teams will play to some attrition at best, and little to no ground will be made up. Remember, even if the Phillies go 5-2 against the Mets, all else being equal, they are still 9.5 back, and the Mets still have an easy schedule. The same can be said for the Braves and Marlins, respectively, in terms of schedules. The Marlins have seven games against the Mets, the Braves six. The Mets don't need to focus on winning series against their division rivals- picking up two wins out of six or seven will neutralize that team's chance of picking up enough ground. The Mets would love to play any NL East team to a relative attrition at this point- this is not unlike chess, where once there is a substantial piece advantage, trading one for one progressively gives one player more and more of a relative advantage. In fact, against any of these teams, the Mets can trade two losses for one win and still not be at risk for losing the division.

Additionally, considering the NL East's other four teams match up fairly well against one another, the 28 or so games they will each play the other three, should see them literally cancelling each other out. This is how the situation this year differs from those collapses from years past- all other teams in the NL East are in contention. There is no relatively more talented 2nd place team that can get hot and beat up on the rest of the weaker division. All are approximately at an equal playing level, and all play over 50% of their remaining games against one another. As a final note, should a team like the Phillies (54-57) theoretically decide to win every one of their 28 games against non-Mets NL East opponents, they still would be in second place, assuming Mets winning at their current rate. Even starting at 82-57, the Phillies would not be leading the division.

So relax as the season unfolds. No catastrophes await. And while you're at it, don't pencil the Mets into a division title. Use a pen.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, August 07, 2006

"...the Braves go to the World Series..."

by Doug Silversten

What’s your favorite baseball moment? Bill Buckner? Kirk Gibson? Bobby Thomson? Bucky Dent? Chris Chambliss? Luis Gonzalez?

All excellent choices. But for me, it is none of the above. There has always been one baseball moment that has risen above all else in my mind. It manages to encapsulate, in just a few seconds, so many reasons why I love baseball and why it is the best game of them all. Of course, baseball is the greatest for countless reasons and no one moment can illustrate them all. However, one moment does an awfully good job.

Francisco Cabrera.

As a die-hard Mets fan, it is ironic that my favorite moment occurred during a Braves game, but it isn’t a question of rooting interests for me. It was just the perfect baseball moment. While there are several reasons why it was so perfect, in this column I want to highlight four specifically. Not only do they help explain why it is my favorite baseball moment, but also goes a long way in demonstrating how great baseball is.

The Perfect Situation: You dreamt about it as a little kid. You’re standing at the plate. Game 7. Bottom of the 9th. Bases Loaded. 2 outs. I mean, come doesn’t get any better than that. Each pitch can end the favor of either team. In some sports, even that cannot happen. In hockey (or soccer, tennis, volleyball, etc., for that matter), you cannot go from losing to winning (or vice versa) in one moment. A team needs to tie the game first.

The Perfect Hit: Homeruns get all the attention, but what’s more pure than a perfectly placed hard-hit single. And perfectly placed it was. In fact, if you watch the replay, it was basically a ground ball to where the shortstop usually plays. And Barry Bonds’ throw was...nearly perfect. An inch, literally, to the right, and Lavalliere probably nails Bream at the plate. But what else is baseball if not a game of inches?

The Perfect Unknown Hero: Bob Costas always talks about this…and he is 100% right. In basketball, you can design the final play to make sure your superstar takes the final shot. In football, you can throw to your best receiver. In baseball…no such luck. You can criticize Bobby Cox for not managing his bench better, but in the most critical moment of the year, with his team’s season on the line, Bobby Cox couldn’t just have Terry Pendleton or David Justice bat. He called upon the last player on his bench, who had a total of the entire year. And with that, baseball history was made.

The Perfect Call: What other sport are announcers’ calls so intimately tied to the moments themselves? Actually, since I don’t really follow other sports too much, I can’t really back that claim up with any evidence. However, when I think of Scott Norwood’s miss in the 1991 SuperBowl or Jordan’s game winner in the 1998 Finals, no famous call comes to mind. In fact, the only non-baseball call that I can think of from the top of my head is the “Matteau! Matteau!” call when the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup in 1994. I have to say, that’s pretty impressive considering I couldn’t name you one more famous NHL moment, although I don’t even know who that announcer was.

Anyway, in baseball, moments and calls are interrelated. Bobby Thompson. Kirk Gibson. Bucky Dent. Joe Carter. At least for me, when I think of those moments, I immediately associate it with the call. And Sean McDonough’s call of the Francisco Cabrera moment was absolutely perfect. I sometimes recite it out loud at random moments for no reason whatsoever. You think I’m kidding? Ask my wife. It can be the middle of January and we can be shopping together and all of a sudden I blurt out, “Line drive and a base hit!”

So, what better way to end this column, then with the transcript from Sean McDonough’s perfect call of the perfect baseball moment:

He doesn’t walk much. He walked only 17 times in 300 at-bats in Triple-A this year. He hacked at the 2-0 and now the 2-1.

Line drive and a base hit. Justice will score the tying run, Bream to the plate...and he is...SAFE. SAFE AT THE PLATE. The Braves go the World Series.

(A long pause, as McDonough allows the viewer to take it all in. The Braves, the crowd, the city of Atlanta goes nuts. The stunned faces on the Pirate players… priceless)

The unlikeliest of heroes wins the National League Championship Series for the Atlanta Braves. Francisco Cabrera who had only 10 at-bats in the Major leagues during the regular season, singled through the left side, scoring Sid Bream from 2nd base with the winning run. Bream, who’s had 5 knee operations in his lifetime, just beat the tag from his ex-mate Mike Lavalliere, and Atlanta pulls out Game 7 with 3 runs in the bottom of the 9th inning.

This place is bedlam. There will be no 2nd nightmare for Bobby Cox. The final score in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series: the Braves 3 and the Pirates 2.

Doug Silversten's column, "The Big Picture", appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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