Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Batter Chatter Book Review: BIG HAIR AND PLASTIC GRASS

I recently finished reading Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Dan Epstein's fun account of our national pastime (uh, baseball, that is) during the 1970s. Hair, in fact, plays a large role in the book, from Oscar Gamble's prodigious afro to Mark "The Bird" Fidrych's flowing blond mane; both are featured on the cover.

Joe Pepitone's hairpiece, meanwhile, qualifies both as big hair and plastic grass.

Epstein is an accomplished music writer--his author bio mentions his work appearing in Rolling Stone and Revolver, among other music publications--and he frequently works the music of the times into his writing of a certain period. He notes the clash between disco and classic rock (then known simply as "rock") in the mid '70s, and has an interesting bit on Bill Veeck's ill-conceived Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, which attracted a reported 92,000 to the ballpark for a bonfire fueled by disco records to be held in between games of a double header.

A riot occurred on the field, resulting in 39 arrests and the cancellation of the second game of the 'header, which was declared a 9-0 forfeit win for visiting Detroit.

The book, published by Thomas Dunne books, is full of moments where you realize something that occurred in the '70s would simply never happen now, such as Ted Turner's wet t-shirt promotions at Braves games, the 10-cent beer night at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium (65,000 cups of Stroh's were sold), a pair of Yankee pitchers trading wives, and Billy Martin's bottomless bad behavior.

But fans of the game will probably have heard of most of the old stories that Epstein trots out. He offers an endless list of baseball books that informed his reporting in Big Hair, but one might wish that Epstein had spent more time talking with the great characters from the '70s, such as Dock Ellis and Bill "Spaceman" Lee, to dig up great stories, instead of retelling the old ones.

Each year in the '70s gets its own chapter, and each chapter ends with a workmanlike account of how the National and American League playoffs played out, a play by play of the World Series, and an accounting of whose individual performance stood out that year. You may find yourself breezing through those parts, in search of more fun stories.

And there are lots of fun stories, such as the genesis of the '73 Mets' "Ya Gotta Believe" rallying cry (it came from Tug McGraw making fun of Mets chairman Donald Grant's cliche-filled team pep talk, and a teen named Stanley Burrell who used to dance in the A's parking lot for change, but ended up being the team's bat boy and later, "executive vice president" and unofficial clubhouse spy for owner Charley Finley. The players called the boy "Hammer", as he looked like Henry Aaron. Years later, the world would know Stanley Burrell as "MC Hammer."

Epstein, whose author photo shows some big hair too, also has some fun with '70s uniforms, such as the garish all-red get-ups in Cleveland, the "pupil-gouging horror" of the Astros' "tequila sunrise" jerseys, and of course the White Sox' short lived short-pants uni's.

Fun anecdotes, well told. Big Hair and Plastic Grass will help shorten the time between now and when pitchers and catchers first turn up for spring training.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reynolds, Pena Claim Super 'Mario' Award

Forget about all this talk about whether or not Derek Jeter deserves his Gold Glove and if so and so deserves MVP or Cy Young or Rookie of the Year.

Let's get down to the truly unique honors stemming from the 2010 season: Who finished below the storied Mendoza Line?

The Mendoza Line, as most fans know, is the .200 batting average, named for Mario Mendoza. Mendoza was a slick-fielding shortstop who hit for a lifetime .215 average with the Pirates, Mariners and Rangers. If you're hitting below .200, you are below the ignominious Mendoza Line, and your teammates--and history--will mock you for the rest of your life.

The term was reportedly hatched out of Kansas City, pertaining to George Brett (George was certainly no slouch in the batter's box). As is the case with most newish sports catchphrases, it was the mighty trumpet of ESPN's SportsCenter that send the phrase national.

From Wikipedia:

"My teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte used it to make fun of me," Mendoza said in 2010. "Then they were giving George Brett a hard time because he had a slow start that year, so they told him, 'Hey, man, you're going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you're not careful.' And then Brett mentioned it to Chris Berman from ESPN, and eventually it spread and became a part of the game."

Berman deflects credit back to Brett in popularizing the term. "Mario Mendoza — it's all George Brett," Berman said. "We used it all the time in those 1980s 'SportsCenters.' It was just a humorous way to describe how someone was hitting."

So who finished below the Mendoza Line this year? Among players with 350-plus at-bats, Arizona third-sacker Mark Reynolds finished at .198 after 596 plate appearances--lowest in the National League.
Other bottom feeders from the Senior League: Reynolds' D-Backs teammate Chris Snynder at .207, and Cardinal Pedro Feliz at .218.

Over in the American League, Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena hit .196. If we expand the paltry pool to include those with 300-plus at-bats, then Cleveland second baseman Luis Valbuena wins the Withered Wiffle (opposite of the Silver Slugger) with a .193 clip.

So how the heck to Reynolds and Pena continue to compel their managers to send them to the batter's box? Surprise, surprise, they hit for prodigious power. Reynolds clocked 32 homers and delivered 85 rib-eye steaks in 2010.

For his part, Pena was good for 28 taters and 84 RBIs.

Of all the significant accomplishments reached in 2010--Bautista's 54 homers, Halladay/Sabathia's 21 wins--hitting below the Mendoza Line continues to be one of the most difficult things to do in baseball.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Aubrey in a Huff, Gets Panties into a Twist, Covers His A** With Correction

The goofy--and ultimately very successful--San Francisco Giants thrived on a loose clubhouse culture that included Brian Wilson's peculiar performance art and Aubrey Huff's famed "rally thong."

Huff famously donned the thong to bust out of a slump in September, and kept it in place as the Giants rolled through the autumn en route to the World North American Championship. Huff waved his proverbial freak flag, a bright red number, during the Giants' victory parade two weeks ago.

But just to be clear, it's technically men's lingerie.

In fact, here's the greatest New York Times correction you'll read all week:

An article on Nov. 4 about the San Francisco Giants’ victory parade referred incorrectly to the type of underwear shown to the crowd by first baseman Aubrey Huff. His “rally thong,” which he said he wore for luck during the Giants’ run to the World Series title, was designed for men, not for women.

So, if I'm reading this correctly, Huff and his Giants are freaky, but they're not that freaky.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recalling the 'Designated Runner'

I tend to read a baseball book each November, in an effort to stretch the season out just a little more. Currently I'm reading the ode to 1970s baseball and all its odd cultural trappings, Big Hair and Plastic Grass. It's fun. I'll provide a full-on review when I finished it in the next week or so.

One thing of note: the "designated runner" was a real thing in the '70s. Teams would keep a speedster on the roster--one who often could not hit and would never be put in a position to hit--for the sole purpose of pinch-running and stealing a key base now and then.

So established was the practice that the A's (and I swear, half of Big Hair and Plastic Grass is about the A's, between their excellence on the field and their crazy owner, Charley Finley) had a skinny sprinter named Herb Washington whose Topps baseball card listed his position on the front as "Pinch Run.".

It's like a hockey goon having his position listed as "Fighter."

Washington was a college sprinter who appeared in 92 games in 1974--yet did not hit or play the field once. A designated runner, indeed. A's management figured Washington's speed would help the team win an extra 10 games per season.

Alas, Washington wasn't much of a baserunner, caught stealing 16 times in 45 attempts and picked off in a crucial spot in the World Series. "Hurricane Herb's" ineptitude on the paths proved what every baseball fan knows--running the bases well isn't simply a matter of being fast.

The A's may have given up on Washington, but they stuck with the philosophy. In 1976, Larry Lintz was the designated runner. Lintz had just three plate appearances all season.

These days, a player has to do more than run to earn a roster spot. But the basic philosophy hasn't disappeared--who can forget Dave Roberts coming into the game for the Red Sox in the 9th inning to steal second in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yanks? (Roberts of course came around to score the tying run, keeping the Sox alive. The rest is, of course, history. The swipe was named #2 all time stolen base by SI.com.)

Roberts was listed as an outfielder in the 2004 post-season, but his role was clearly designated runner.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Three True Outcomes a 'Dunn' Deal

I'm not much of a fan of the so-called sabremetric movement--the new school of baseball thinking that involves weird metrics like VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm). It's interesting to look at the timeless game of baseball in a fresh way, but outside of Moneyball, saber-speak doesn't usually make for fun baseball reading.

But here's a fun little taste of baseball research analysis lingo: Three True Outcomes. Today's NY Times, talking about who's dancing around on the hot stove along with Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, mentions big Will Ferrell lookalike Adam Dunn as being the ultimate practicioner of the Three True Outcomes (TTO).
A groundout? Don't bet on it!

The NY Times describes the TTOs as the three batter events that do not involve the defense at all: strikeouts (Dunn had 199 last year. 199! That's even more than David Wright and his Golden Sombrero!), walks (he had 77), and home runs (Dunn walloped 38).

Those three potential outcomes accounted for a whopping 48.5% of Dunn's at bats last year.

The coming weeks will reveal which team grabs Dunn--and his knack for true outcomes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What to Call the 2010 Fall Classic

The World Series could be over in 12 hours, and I still haven't heard a good nickname depicting the two teams in the 2010 Series.

A decade ago--and 13 times before 2000, in fact--we had the Subway Series. In 1989, we had the Bay Bridge Series between the A's and the Giants (also known as the BART Series and, sadly, the Earthquake Series). In 1985, we had the Show Me Series, which pitted the Royals against the Cardinals. (Missouri is of course the Show Me State, for reasons I don't understand and don't care to dig up on Wikipedia. I vaguely remember, as a teen at the time, Newsday asking readers to suggest a name for the '85 set, and someone suggesting "World Beeries."  I liked that better than Show Me Series.)

Even last year's affair, between the Yankees and the Phillies, was dubbed the Liberty Series (Philly's got the bell, New York's got the belle) and the Turnpike Series (the Jersey Turnpike of course links New York and Philly, though the Snooki State did not technically have a team in the Series).

But what about Rangers-Giants? I'm sure Archie Bunker is yelling "Steers vs. Queers!" from the grave out in Queens, but we're not going to dignify that slur.

But it being Election Day and all tomorrow (surely you've noticed a few political ads on the telly?), you truly couldn't have a better case of Red State vs. Blue State in Rangers-Giants--a point only reinforced by a pair of ex-president George Bush's rolling onto the Arlington field in a golf cart, before Bush the Younger fired a pretty nifty strike to Nolan Ryan.

I hate to throw a stereotyping blanket over an entire region--after all, some Germans are funny, and some New Yorkers move slowly--but surely lots of people out there see the 2010 Series as the right-leaning cowpokes versus the tree-hugging, pot smoking (and pot voting!) libs from Berkeley. An otherwise intelligent friend with a habit of turning everything into a culture war battle posted this on Facebook after the Yankees were offed in Arlington:

...would rather be in nyc than be a redneck guntotin' ranger fan scarfing down nachos in a bright red gabe kapler jersey.

Of course, Gabe Kapler is Jewish, which just reminds us of the folly in broad geographical stereotypes.  
As coincidence would have it, I played company softball a few times against that same Facebook friend who disapproves of guntotin' ranger fans and Gabe Kapler. He worked/played for a book publisher, and I for the Bad News Bunnies of Playboy (Yes, I'm serious).
The nickname of our annual softball showdown? Bookies vs. Nookies, of course.