Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Close the book on McGwire

OK, I'm just going to write this now to get it out of the way, then hopefully the world can let the subject rest...or at least the 5 people reading this.

Fact: Mark McGwire did steroids
Fact: Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' single-season HR record while on steroids
Fact: Mark McGwire's admission of and apology for these facts stopped somewhere short of full contrition (OK, this might not technically be a "fact")
Fact: Major League Baseball did not have regulations restricting steroid use while McGwire was juicing

Opinion: Mark McGwire deserves to be in the Hall of Fame
Near Fact: Mark McGwire will not get into the Hall of Fame

There were definitely a couple things that didn't add up about Mark McGwire's steroid confession yesterday. He still claims he only did them to help speed recovery from injuries. Pretty much everyone alive believes that's a load of horsepucky. And it doesn't address why he started taking them in '93, before his body began to break down in a major way. Also, he said that he didn't fess up during the Congressional hearings because they wouldn't grant him immunity. Immunity from what? Has any baseball player named in the Mitchell Report been indicted? Would he really have been subject to criminal prosecution? Sounds a little fishy. That having been said, I believe the emotion that McGwire showed during his interview with Bob Costas was genuine. I believe he's sorry. Now all that's left is to decide what his legacy should be.

If you don't think Mark McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame, that's fine. As long as your reasoning is that his stats don't warrant it. I can see an argument there. Despite being 8th all-time in home runs, he's only 66th all-time in RBI. Only 191st in runs scored. And as I've argued before, those two categories should be considered the most telling aspect of an offensive player's long-term value - the entire objective of the game being to score runs. His shortcomings in those areas are due to his abbreviated number at bats stemming from constant injury. I still happen to believe that he belongs in the Hall of Fame on the back of being 8th all-time in home runs, and one of the most feared hitters of his time. But if you disagree based on stats alone, I wouldn't put up much of an argument.

If, however, you're going to cite the "character clause" in the voting guidelines for the Hall of Fame, that's where I would have an issue. I don't see where the argument is here. Steroids were not banned from baseball at the time McGwire was using. That's it. Bottom line. End of argument. I don't see why there is a discussion about this. It's baseball's error, not McGwire's. MLB knew full well what was going on; anyone who tells you otherwise is either a fool or a liar. It's just one of the reasons that "Commissioner" Bud Selig is one of the worst things ever to happen to the game. If they had cut this thing off at the head, we wouldn't be having this conversation today, and players like McGwire may or may not have ended up with the numbers they did. But baseball WANTED the home runs; it NEEDED the home runs. So it stood idly by while who knows how many players juiced up. So now we're going to penalize the guys who saw the most successful results from taking steroids? A Hall of Fame without Bonds, Palmeiro, Sosa, Clemens, Rodriguez, Ramirez? If any of these guys used AFTER the drug policy was intact, then the punishment is justified. If not, forget it. It wasn't cheating. No one will nominate these guys for any integrity awards, but it wasn't cheating. It was a level playing field, and everyone had access to the same ALLOWABLE substances. There is simply no way to measure how much of an advantage it gave these players. So in absence of that, there is no way to tell what portion of their stats they earned, and what portion was inflated. Hence, you have to take the numbers at face value.

It is possible that one day, one player who has used PED's will get voted in, and that may open the floodgates for the others. But, as it stands right now, it looks like the Hall will be missing many of the game's purported legendary players. The whole thing is sad. A blight on a great game.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Baseball Hall of Fame

My apologies for boring the non-baseball fans among you.

The next inductees into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced this week. One player whose name will not be called is Harold Baines. I don't know whether Baines deserves to be there or not, but his resume shows that numbers can be deceiving. Baines was still early in his career when I started following baseball, and I dare say the guy wasn't necessarily the most feared hitter in baseball. If you examine his year-by-year stats, they don't look very imposing in hindsight...I was actually surprised they weren't better. However, somehow, when you look at the totals, a slightly different story emerges. Sure, that could be due to how long he played, so let's compare to others with a similar number of lifetime at-bats.

In my mind, the crux of a baseball offense is built around one thing - scoring runs. You can look at all the crazy categories of stats and analyze them until the cows come home, but, at the end of the day, hitters are paid to elevate their teams' scores - either by driving runs in, or by scoring them. So logically, shouldn't RBI and Runs be considered the two most critical categories? Hits, Home Runs, Stolen Bases - those are all critical pieces of the game, but they're just a means to an end - scoring runs. RBI and Runs are the only two categories that illustrate the end result.


RUNS SCORED: Harold Baines - 1,299 - "only" good for 118th-best all-time, but when you consider how many players have stepped on the diamond...not too bad. Other players who scored fewer runs without having more than 600 fewer at-bats than Baines (approx. 1 full season) - Ozzie Smith, Tony Perez, & Brooks Robinson...all in the HOF.

RBI: Harold Baines - 1,628 - Here's where it gets really surprising...that's good for 29th all-time! Out of all the players who have marched through the game of baseball in over 100 years, only 28 of them sent more runners home than Baines; remarkable considering he only had three 100-RBI seasons (oddly enough, the last one at age 40). George Brett, Andre Dawson, Al Kaline, and Tris Speaker all had more at-bats than Baines, but fewer RBI. Only Dawson is not in the HOF, and that may change as of Wednesday, as his name is a lot more likely to be called than Baines'.

HITS: Harold Baines - 2,866 - Still a very important category, for obvious reasons. Here, Baines is 40th all-time. Brooks Robinson, Andre Dawson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Perez - all fewer hits in a similar number of at-bats.

Incidentally, the player over whom everyone seems to be drooling over for this year's induction is Roberto Alomar. Baines' career numbers outdo Alomar's in Hits, HR, RBI, Walks, and Slugging %. Alomar had just over 800 fewer at-bats, but benefits from being compared to other 2B, a historically light-hitting position. Why we compare players by position when analyzing their merits for the HOF, I simply have no clue. The 10 Gold Gloves also help Alomar.

So, what does this all mean? No idea. Just food for thought.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Under the Dome and All Things King

I just completed reading Stephen King's latest epic novel, the 1,000-page+, Under the Dome. Always a risk, embarking upon a literary undertaking of this magnitude, because if it doesn't live up to expectations, well...you can't get those bazillion hours back. Overall, I would give this one a grade of B, and that might be generous. Stephen King is a one-of-a-kind talent - let's get that straight. The guy was blessed with an imagination, and an uncanny ability to create and manipulate unique and realistic dialogue, like no other human being has been. I am not what you would call a die-hard fan; I haven't read a lot of his earlier and more acclaimed works (The Stand, It, etc.). But I've followed some of his more recent writings, which have been hit and miss (Bag of Bones, Cell, The Green Mile on the "hit" side - Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8 - utterly unreadable). I'd say that Dome starts out on the road to rivaling anything I've ever read by him, but collapses under its own considerable weight by the last couple hundred pages.

Without giving too much away, Dome is a tale of a small Maine town (as are most of his works) that is spontaneously cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious, transparent, and seemingly infinite dome-shaped barrier. The phenomenon soon draws the dumbfounded attention of the military, the world news media, and even the President of the U.S. As the days wear on, a Lord of the Flies-like power struggle ensues, and we get a glimpse of how society might rapidly descend into chaos if such an occurrence ever took place. The narrative, character development, and dialogue are all stunning; King again works his unique magic. You definitely come to care about each of the central characters, and actually, many of the supporting ones as well - and there are boatloads of people interwoven into this story. It's surprisingly easy to follow, as King skates just around the edges of fantasy and sci-fi...most of it reads like a straight-forward psychological narrative. It's a page-turner, with the action moving along at a steady pace. King falls shy of including many thunderous "shockers" or "reveals" and instead, elects to let the human relationships drive the readers' interest. This works well...until the last fifth or so of the book. From reading his musings in Entertainment Weekly, I know that Stephen King is a huge fan of the TV show, Lost. At this very moment, all fans of Lost are on pins and needles anticipating the drama's final season. And what we're all nervous about, is that the writers won't be able to wrap everything up in such a way that the crazy sci-fi weavings of seasons past will finally make sense. Similarly, Dome is unable to find its footing in bringing the mythology surrounding the town's unexplained barrier to a head. In fact, I'd say it fails to even coherently establish what that mythology is supposed to represent in the first place. There is one other major thing that bothers me about the "wrap-up," but mentioning it would be too much of a spoiler for those who want to read for themselves. In short, the payoff is really weak. As with films, that is an incredible pet peeve of mine with novels. The sheer fact that the majority of the novel is so strong, is what keeps me from giving it an overall grade of less than a B.

If you've never read King before, most people would probably recommend starting with The Stand. Having never read it, I can't comment. I can, instead, point you in the direction of The Talisman. This 1984 tome, co-written with Peter Straub, is a sci-fi/fantasy mind-fuck of the highest order. To say King takes his readers on an adventure is a gross understatement. I hadn't before, nor have I since, seen an author fabricate a fictitious world with such nuance and finesse. My eyes were glued to every page when I finally discovered this one about six years ago. One of my favorite books by anyone. It may be overdue for a re-read. King and Straub reteamed in 2001 for the sequel, Black House, which understandably falls short of the supreme majesty imposed by its predecessor - but it's a gripping read in its own right.

King's son Joseph, who writes under the pen name, Joe Hill, has one full novel to his credit, Heart-Shaped Box, which is a worthy horror/thriller in its own right.

If you're more of a movie person, be sure to check out The Shawshank Redemption, based on King's short story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Simply one of the most incredible accomplishments in film history.