Mr Thursday and the Hatred of Baseball Players

 

The latest edition of Voodoo Sabermetrics is out; this time, the council takes aim at Barry Lamar Bonds.  It is, in some ways, my favorite issue in the series.  Probably not the funniest or goofiest, and almost certainly filled with the most bile.  There’s just something about it that I enjoy.  For those of you unfamiliar to the series, a brief explanation.  Voodoo Sabermetrics is the genius creation of one Mr The Extrapolater.  The idea behind it, is that baseball has a mountain of statistics to measure the quality of performance by a baseball player.  Almost everything done on the field can be measured and quantified and used to explain the degree to which a player helps his team win baseball games.  However, a .400 OBP or a 9.0 K/9 rate don’t tell us why we love a player.  Or loathe a player, for that matter.  Voodoo Sabermetrics is a modest attempt for a group of enthusiastic baseball obsessives to arbitrarily quantify the qualities that can earn a player the loyalty–or the contempt–of a fan. 

There are a number of categories–I handle Quotability and general Appearance–and Extrapolater handles an introduction and conclusion to the whole piece, tying in the efforts of the various writers to form an overarching statement about the player.  In this week’s intro, he writes: “TC, ever the contrarian, seems to actually like [Barry Bonds].”  Now, I’m not writing to defend or attack this particular statement.  He’s right: I do seem to like Barry, especially in contrast to most other fans.  I just want to see if it makes sense to anyone else why. 

I was, as a child, an enormous fan of the game of baseball.  My father would take my older brother and I to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and we’d sit in the 700 Level, high above home plate, staring down Mike Schmidt, as his career wound down.  Papa Thursday would tell us about winning the World Series in 1980, and about how the Phils should’ve won a couple more championships in the late 70s.  He’d tell us of the the brutally frustrating teams of the 1960s and the city’s pitching mantra: “Bunning or Short or pray for rain”; of Bunning’s perfect game on Father’s Day; of Richie Allen, swinging the biggest bat in baseball; of the grace and power of Johnny Callison as a young player; the dominance of Steve Carlton’s 1972, not to mention just about every other year, too.  There was so much heritage in baseball, so many stories to be told from days past, that baseball had an organic mythology.  These men who played it, some of them like giants, and some of them, like Schmidt, were very clearly more than a man, if not quite a god. 

In 1993, I was 9 years old, and the Phillies were wild and unbeatable.  The Phillies won their first game on a wonderful pitching performance from Terry Mulholland, putting them in a tie for first place, which they would not relinquish for the rest of the season.  Nearly every player on the team put in a career year.  Lenny Dykstra finally remained healthy for a full season, which lead to 19 homers, 44 doubles, and a league-pacing 143 runs scored.  The now insane Dutch Daulton smacked a couple dozen home runs.  John Kruk, who now sullies the once fine studio of Baseball Tonight, posted a .430 on-base percentage, even though back then, we just called him a “three-hundred hitter”.  Pete Incavliga and Jim Eisenreich patrolled the outfield corners, each with their own, unique brand of insane.  Mickey Morandini played like a second basemen in 1993 was supposed to–namely, he batted .247 and played good defense.  Kevin Stocker was a midseason callup to take over shortstop, and the guy batted well over .300 and, as the baseball writers still staffing the local papers like toe reminesce about, sparked the Phils as they began to lag in July.  Curt Schilling started to come in his own.  Tommy Greene pitched one of his 2 full seasons in the bigs before injuries finally overwhelmed him.  Terry Mulholland pitched well enough to make the all-star team.  Wild Thing Mitch Williams saved 43 games in 43 attempts. 

The team was a blast to watch, and, because I was 9, I didn’t know back then that almost everybody was staying freakishly healthy and performing way above expectations.  As devastating as the Joe Carter was to my not-quite-ten year old psyche, all winter I dreamed about how the Phils would be back next year for the rematch. 

Joe Posnanski, writer for the Kansas City Star, believes that a 10 years old, a baseball fan peaks.  The baseball season that took place when I was 10 years old was filled with the expecations of another brilliant season, playoff run, and, this time, a championship parade.  What, in fact, took place was a season that lasted 115 miserable games.  No one played as well in 1994 as they did in 1993 (except Mickey Morandini, who was in the middle of a career offensive year), and the team had dropped into 4th place when the entire season was finally euthanized in a players’ strike. 

My father, whose words helped make baseball into something magical, bluntly explained the strike to his weeping ten year-old, “The players want more money.”  At the time, of course, I didn’t conceptualize Millionaires vs Billionaires.  I only saw these titans were just greedy, ungrateful, jerks.  My perception of this game had shattered.  I quit little league the next year.  I didn’t watch baseball when it came back on.  I really do understand what people mean when they say that Cal Ripken “saved baseball”.  It’s a gross exaggeration, of course, but I know it was one of the few things I had any interest in over the intervening years. 

My interest returned in earnest in late 1998 and 1999, as I was a freshmen in high school, and one of my brothers closest friends, whom I idolized, was a big Phillies fan.  My fandom returned just in time to witness Chad Ogea produce one of the single worst pitching seasons in baseball history, allowing 52 doubles and 36 home runs in only 168 innings pitched. 

I’ve recaptured much of the enthusiasm I had as a youth.  It’s tempered, of course, by a better understanding of the game.  I adore watching good pitching.  I love watching players who can run and throw, seeing doubles and double plays, and all that wild stuff.  I also understand that, if next year’s Phillies team looks like that 1993 team, I won’t expect the entire season in first place.  On the field, baseball is the same it’s always been.  Sure, some of the players are bigger and faster now, and different things are emphasized than they were in 1967 or 1987.  Fewer stolen bases, I imagine, and more walks.  But the game is played largely the same way. 

Off the field, however, well, I don’t like thinking about it.  I honestly don’t know how players were off the field 40 years ago.  There are many (possibly apocryphal) rumors and stories about how Mickey Mantle was a womanizer, Ty Cobb killed people, and Babe Ruth was a terrible drunk and bootlegger.  The owners were worse cheapskates than they are now, etc, etc.  But I don’t know how much of the history is trustworthy.  Baseball’s history has been written by people who percieve things in what I consider an unreliable fashion.  What I do know, however, is that off-the-field activities of various baseball players and executives bother me quite a bit, today.  I despise many of the owners, and a number of the players, if I consider their non-baseball activities. 

I see Pete Rose, pitifully apologizing for gambling, and I see a pitiful human.  I see an old game where Rose played, and I marvel at the nature of batting stance, which lay in a deep crouch, until springing up at the last moment to attack the ball.  If I think about Barry’s off-the-field stuff, I think of a man who has, perhaps, done irreconciliable damage to my favorite game.  If I stick to his on-field actions, I see a man who has been more dominant than any player I’ve ever seen.  I find myself miserable to think about steroid abuse in sports.  How kids I knew in high school were notoriously on steroids, and how this is largely because it they believed they could better impress college recruiters if they were bigger-stronger-faster. 

So, no, I don’t really like Barry.  But Voodoo Sabermetrics involves writing in a confined space.  There’s no official wordcount, but no one wants to read a 1,500 word essay on the complexities on fandom.  My choice, each week, is to think of the aspects of a player that I enjoy and admire, or to think of the aspects that I despise and loathe.  Most of the time, the player will be enjoyable both on and off the field.  Sometimes the player is miserable on and off the field.  And sometimes, the player is fantastic to watch, and horrible to hear about.  And that’s certainly the case for Barry.  Everyone else writes scathing posts and columns about Barry.  I merely remind whoever bothers to read that Barry has been, throughout my life, and enjoyable baseball to watch play

Now, if someone were to wish to talk about Tony LaRussa, I have no hesitation to talk about how I believe Tony LaRussa is hurting the game of baseball.  I can do the same for Derek Jeter and Billy Wagner or Bud Selig.  I have no love for any of those three men. 

But Barry?  No, I don’t have any new bile to throw at Barry. 

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1 Comment

Filed under Baseball, Blogging

One response to “Mr Thursday and the Hatred of Baseball Players

  1. Did you know that I love, love, love Jim Eisenreich? I think it has some of the same quality you are talking about. I was a kid (not as young as you) and Eisenreich seemed to get a hit every time I watched him play. He also had a long nose like I do, so I liked that. After I found out what he went through with Tourette’s, it was locked in. If he were still playing today, I would insist on Sabermetricizing him.

    This was a great essay, by the way. Long story short.

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