Friday, March 05, 2004

Trust Me, You'll Wanna Read This

Not that it has anything to do with sports, but this link does contain the sentence:

Harry Griffin, 92, was standing at the salad bar and cut his head when he was knocked to the ground.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Tryin' Real Hard to Be the Shepherd

When the Celtics opened the season against Miami, their starting lineup featured:

G Mike James
G Paul Pierce
F Kedrick Brown
F Vin Baker
C Mark Blount

That squad, with big minutes from Tony Battie and Eric Willaims, clobbered the Heat. It did contain however: a back-up shooting guard playing the point, a borderline NBA-talent at the three, and an overpaid power forward who drank too much. Battie and Williams helped, but both were tweeners and Eric was going to be gone at the end of the season anyway. On Monday, Boston took Orlando apart using the following starters:

G Chucky Atkins
G Paul Pierce
F Jiri Welsch
F Brandon Hunter
C Mark Blount

This time the major bench players were Ricky Davis and Walter McShootsTooMuch -- nothing to brag about -- but at least the first five have improved. That's right, I said improved. Look, right now Danny Ainge is about as popular as Tiger Woods at a Klan rally (heyooo), and has made more questionable decisions than George Bush filling out a multiplication table (heyooo heyooo), but things aren't all bad. Sure he overvalues draft picks, and yeah, he probably should've gotten more for Antoine, but this team has become watchable. There were a couple of months in there (including the end of the Jim O'Brien era) where it physically hurt to look at them. The offense was its typical OB atrocity, and the defense was just good enough to make it the team motto, but not ever able to actually take a game over. They were bad, and they had no hope of getting better.

This has not, in reality, changed much. These Celtics are pretty lousy, but there are a few good signs. They now have the youngest roster in basketball (not easy to do when you're untold millions over the cap). Brandon Hunter is going to have trouble scoring on anything other than offensive rebounds, but he can really board. The Charles Barkley comparison is inappropriate, but anyone think he won't frequently threaten a double-double? Jiri Welsch has a lot of exciting ability, and is the sort of kitchen-sink guy that championship teams seem to have around. Chucky Atkins is overpaid, but he plays the point. He is a legitimate, surefire, bona fide #1, something the Celtics haven't seen since Sherman Douglas (shocking but true). Is he great? No. Is he good? Ask again later. But he knows the position. He can push and he can slow it up, he passes when he ought to and he shoots when he should -- and frankly, at this point, I'll take it. They weren't going to be able to use the Chris Mills cap room anyway, so shouldn't Celtic fans applaud Ainge for putting it into a player? Maybe Chucky's not the ideal one, but at the very least, he can help Banks learn the position. Every time a major market team says they're going to rebuild, fans start out behind it. They insist they'll be patient and understanding, and then they freak out. "Wait, I didn't know the team was going to totally stink!" Well guess what Sully, they totally stink. And if Ainge were a bit more up front about his mystical "3 year plan", this might go a little easier. But I look at the starting five and I see players with upside and skill sets that the Celtics haven't had in a while. My brain tells me this isn't going as well as it could, but my heart saw Paul Pierce come off a double screen on Monday and started to swoon. Maybe with a coach that cares about offense and a little luck in the draft, Boston could make things fun again? I don't know the answer to that question, but at least I'm starting to ask it. Two months ago, I wouldn't have even bothered.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Fun at the MVP Awards

Loyal readers of The Ninth, you have been shameless. You have begged, pleaded, and cried out for the story. You have yelled from every hill, mountain, and hamlet: "Tell us of the MVP awards!." "You who hold great tales, please bestow upon us your grand fables!". But The Ninth held strong. The timing had to be right, the perfect moment had to be waited for. I needed free time at work. But fear not, sweet children. That day is finally here. Here is the story of the MVP awards. (Disinterested silence from reader.....)

At first, it looked like The Ninth itself would be at baseball's MVP awards in New York City, but that died a quick "not shelling out for a tuxedo" death. So instead, there was my buddy Mike. Mike is a stand-up comic, and was hired to provide some "entertainment" at the gala. They wanted a speech that bordered on a roast, but wasn't actually insulting. Of course, that is logically impossible - but they asked for it anyway. Everyone wants to see Don Rickles, they just don't want to be made fun of themselves. So Mike had a difficult job, be biting - but only in a general, "hate you, but boy do I really love you" sort of way. Not easy, especially when baseball humor isn't really a cornerstone of your act. But Mike is a fan, and thought it would be fun to tell jokes to famous ballplayers, so he took the gig.

Mike's expectation was, as seems reasonable, that he would sit somewhere in back, make a speech, get some laughs, maybe ask for an autograph or two, and head home. Imagine his surprise then when he was informed that he would, in fact, be sitting on the dais. With the honorees. Whicked famous ones. Mike steps up to his chair and, in order, it's Alex Rodriguez, Josh Beckett, Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley, Mike, and Dontrelle Willis. It's like one of those Friar's Roast tapes where you have Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. laughing it up by the podium and next to them is some dude you've never seen before -- that's my buddy Mike. Wondering where the water guy is and if it's weird to asks for more rolls. And Mike recognizes the absurdity of his placement, but at the same time, knows these players, and plans to enjoy it. Being a Red Sox fan, he immediately hits it off with Eck, chatting about Boston, golf, and the presidential election (believe it or not). Occasionally he throws Dontrelle a bone and asks about being new to this stuff and congratulating him for the great season. Let's be honest, there's only so much you can say about a quirky wind up. By all reports, Eckersley is a fantastic guy, very down-to-earth, and just as relaxed as he seems on NESN. The real prize here however is Roger. Any kid who grew up in Boston in the 80's has a potent feeling for Clemens. It might be love, it might be hate - but he was the face of the Red Sox for our childhood. You notice when you're sitting two seats away from him. So Mike wants to tread carefully, but at the same time, would love to talk a bit. All that "traitor who really was in the twilight of his mother-f'n..." stuff dies away when you're face to face with someone, and you kind of just want to make an impression. So Mike wades in slowly, but gets a very pleasant surprise. Turns out they randomly know someone in common (show biz, man). Very fortuitous. Anyone can handle a chat about a common acquaintance, even if it is with Turncoat Rog. Nothing earth-shattering, no "man, that Wade Boggs really was a jerk" stuff, but Mike has a nice, solid convo. With Roger Clemens. A nice thing to have done in your life. So far, this is a pretty good time. For a guy who expects to be sitting in the crowd somewhere, things have taken a very pleasant turn. And he hasn't even made his speech yet.

But this is part of the problem. Mike is an excellent comedian, and he has some great jokes sitting in his pocket, but this is a room of 1,000 people. And many of them are ballplayers he has admired or writers he has read. Plus, they've asked for roasty, but not too roasty. Hard to do -- especially when some of the people he's going to make fun of are sitting right next to him. So Mike is a little nervous. But it's his job and he's good at it, so with a pat on the back from Eckersley, Mike heads up to the podium....."I'm very happy to be here at the MVP awards," he begins "looking out and seeing fans, writers, and players. Baseball writers are funny," Mike winds up, "because most of them don't know how to play baseball, and some of them don't know how to write." He comes out swinging, and gets a good laugh from the crowd. (Editorial Note: The Ninth apologizes for destroying the wording of these jokes.) Mike's starting to feel the flow a little, so he turns to the dais and goes for some retirement humor. "Nice to see Roger Clemens here tonight. At first Roger said he definitely wasn't going to come, and then said maybe he would but he'd have to think about it, and then, at the very last second, Roger showed up." Clemens is displeased. "It's amazing being up here, because I grew up a Red Sox fan. I remember paying Roger eight dollars for an autograph at a card show when I was kid. And things have really changed, because just now he asked me for twenty five." A quality zinger, and the last moment Mike would be chatting with Roger Clemens for the rest of his life. "And here's Alex Rodriguez. Being from Boston, I'm either a really big fan of Alex's, or I don't care about him, or I kind of hate him. I'm not sure yet." Little did he realize. A timely joke that the audience was all over, and Mike was doing well. Pretty exciting to be lighting up the house at the MVP awards. So he's feeling confident, and he tells a few more baseball barbs and then goes into his regular material. Mike uses some of his staples, and they do well, as they should. As he's getting ready to finish, Mike feels like maybe he's losing the crowd a bit, so ends on topic. "Well that's pretty much my time," Mike says, "but I don't really have a closer. That's ok though, cause neither do the Mets." Big laugh, big applause, Mike heads to his seat. When in doubt, make fun of the Mets. Works at parties and funerals. The crowd is very pleased, and Mike can relax. It was a tough gig, but he nailed it, and now he can enjoy the rest of the night. So what if Roger refuses to make eye contact, he has done his job. All that was left was a speech by some old baseball writer. Nothing to worry about there.

Only thing was, this wasn't just some baseball writer. This was Murray Chass, the grandfather of baseball at the New York Times. Easily one of the highest regarded men in the business. Chass was receiving some kind of lifetime achievement award, and from the looks of him, he earned it. Ancient and beaten-down, he made his way to the microphone. A respectful silence overtook the room as he cleared his throat. Murray launched in to some classics; old harrowing tales of his early days in journalism, working his way up from nothing etc. The whole speech had sort of a Moses on the mountain feel to it. The crowd wasn't necessarily riveted, but the reverence was palpable. Sure the guy is old, but you listen to what he has to say. He spoke for about ten minutes, and by the end, everyone was pretty much in awe. Then, as he rambled toward his conclusion, Mike's ears perked up. "Let me just say in closing," Chass mumbled, "that while some baseball writers do not know how to write, some comedians do not know how to tell jokes." Uh oh. Not good. Clearly Mike had insulted the important old guy. Never smart. And now the entire room was staring at him. And Chass hadn't offered a funny little roast jab, it was more of a "I'm not taking any crap from some standing vaudevillian" punch. In about ten seconds Mike had gone from fun-loving comedy hero to obnoxious kid who pissed off grandad. Chass shuffled off the stage leaving Mike alone in the room's gaze. There's nothing really you can do here. If you laugh you look disrespectful, if you get angry you look like a jerk. Mike was on his own, and he was screwed. He considered standing up, heading to bathroom, hugging Dontrelle. Anything to cut the tension. Then, right as he was weighing the value of ducking under the table, he was saved by an expert. Dennis Eckersley, having been quietly seated next to him the whole time, leaned over and whispered "you know what, Fuck 'em."

That's right Eck, fuck 'em all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Kickin' It, Roster Style

Every year, just about this time (ok, it started two weeks ago) The Ninth begins contemplating the layout of the Red Sox 25 man roster. It's almost entirely pointless, as someone will get hurt in Spring Training, a bubble player will be better than anyone expected, and another will be worse. Note, for instance, Steve Woodard and Brandon Lyon on last season's opening day roster. Who could've called that? But nonetheless, it sure is fun to fill up empty notepads and unused Day Planner pages with names, so here's how it looks.

1. Pedro Martinez, SP
2. Curt Schilling, SP
3. Derek Lowe, SP
4. Tim Wakefield, SP
5. Byung-Hyun Kim, SP
6. Ramiro Mendoza, RP
7. Bronson Arroyo, RP
8. Mike Timlin, RP
9. Alan Embree, RP
10. Scott Williamson, RP
11. Keith Foulke, RP

13. Jason Varitek, C
14. Doug Mirabelli, C
15. David Ortiz, DH/1B
16. Kevin Millar, 1B/DH/OF
17. Pokey Reese, 2B
18. Mark Bellhorn, 2B/3B
19. Nomar Garciaparra, SS
20. Bill Mueller, 3B
21. Manny Ramirez, LF/DH
22. Johnny Damon, CF
23. Trot Nixon, RF
24. Gabe Kapler, OF
25. Ellis Burks, DH/OF/PH

Pretty nice squad, but as you hawkeyes may have noticed, we left out the 25th man. Except in this case, because that player may very well be the last arm in the bullpen, we made him #12. But they need a lot out of Mr. 12.

Firstly, the Red Sox could use a second lefty in the bullpen. Embree is there, but he doesn't pitch particularly well against lefties, and he will be used more in set-up than as a specialist. So someone from the Bierbrodt/Malaska/Dinardo/Seibel (get ready, Cooperstown) group has a shot. Get your bets in now.

But the team could also use a backup shortstop. Pokey can certainly field the position, but he's set as the starter on the other side of the bag. If Reese gets hit for late in the game (which of course, he will) and God forbid, Nomar gets hurt, the Sox will be in trouble. Mueller and perhaps Bellhorn are emergency options, but not particularly good ones. Also, Garciaparra's decline at the end of 2003 was not helped by his workload, so a legitimate back-up would be helpful. A rehabbing Tony Womack is in camp, and could provide pinch-running assistance, so he may be a fit.

But Boston could also use a left-handed bat off the bench. With Ellis back in Boston, Francona has some nice offensive choices on the pine, but they're primarily righties. Bellhorn can switch, but his OPS from the left side is under .725. A legitimate lefty will make opposing managers think a little harder when going to their bullpen, and will give Tito more late-inning flexibility. Now obviously there aren't many righties in the Sox starting nine that you would hit for, regardless of matchups, but balance is important. And Pokey is not really someone you want to see hit after the seventh inning. As everyone knows, Brian Daubach is back, and makes perfect sense in this role.

But there isn't room. There can be only one Mr. 12. A drawback to the stacked roster. One thing to consider: are both Mendoza and Arroyo necessary? They both fill the long man/swing role on a staff that doesn't expect to have many 5th inning exits. How many times did Schilling and Pedro leave a game before the sixth all of last season? Ten times, combined. And six of those were after going 5 complete. So it's hard to imagine the need of long relief more than once every time through the rotation. And if you have two guys in that role, someone isn't pitching for at least a week. That's not good roster management. A Mark Malaska or a Tony Womack could more useful than a redundant long reliever. Mendoza isn't going to Pawtucket, so, barring injuries, could Bronson be going back down? We'll see....

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Spin Control

Happy Valentine's Day Red Sox fans -- the Yankees have Alex Rodriguez. As Dan Shaughnessy sits down to write the long-awaited sequel to Curse of the Bambino, Sox fans everywhere are crying in their Kix. And how can you blame them? Frankly, this one hurts. This story is like an aneurysm, it comes out of nowhere, sends my body into shock, and almost makes my brain explode. Larry Lucchino is making the talk show rounds and sounds about as convincing as Dennis Kucinich using the phrase "When I become president...". This is a sad day indeed (doesn't help that the Ninth is at work on a Sunday). Silver linings are hard to find. Jennifer Garner just flirted with the Red Sox for two hours, insisted that she really liked us but wasn't ready for a relationship right now, and then started dating Enrique Iglesias. I mean Enrique Iglesias. Of all people. But here's something to look at. And The Ninth realizes it is the proverbial mole hill compared to the mountain (poor, sad moles), but it warrants mentioning. In Rob Neyer style, here are two player lines:


Player 1 606 104 185 34 45 140 .306 .388 .588 356

Player 2 607 124 181 30 47 118 .298 .396 .600 364

Ok, who is the greatest shortstop who ever lived, and who is the All-Star third baseman that will almost certainly be forgotten by history? Guesses? Stop raising your hand Mr. Kucinich. Player 1 is Phil Nevin, and 2 is ARod. Now this display is somewhat unfair, as we've used only one year from each player (Arod's most recent and Nevin's last injury-free one), and we had to multiply out Nevin a bit to give even at-bats. Also, Phil's last healthy season was by far his best, while Alex's 2003 campaign was somewhat subpar. But the numbers, even with these skews, are pretty revealing. They're pretty similar seasons, hu? ARod is a remarkable shortstop, and deserves every accolade he gets at that position. You move him ten steps to his right however, and things change a bit. The numbers he puts up are wonderful to have, and obviously make a great improvement over Mike Lamb, but he looks a lot more like top a 5 MVP candidate than a top 5 All-time candidate over there. Look, a HUGE part of Alex's value is gold glove ability at the most important position. You move him to the hot corner and not only are you losing the full impact of that glove, but you're moving his offensive production to a position that demands that type of excellence. To hit over 40 HR's as a shortstop is historic, but third baseman do it all the time. Tony Batista, Troy Glaus, Phil Nevin, Vinny Castilla. A nice cocktail party, but pardon me if I don't take a picture. That Polaroid film is expensive. Third baseman are supposed to knock the ball around, shortstops are supposed to pick it up. Because ARod could do both made him a marvel. But to do that at third gets you into the Mike Schmidt/Brooks Robinson debate, not the Willie Mays/Babe Ruth one. Now the Yankees have more money on the left side of their infield than the Pirates do on their entire roster, and they still don't have a guy who can play short. Don't get me wrong, it's emotionally devastating that New York could pull off in two days what it took Boston two months to fail at, but by putting Rodriguez at third, they've turned him into a different level of player. Phil Nevin ain't bad, but he's still Phil Nevin.

Monday, February 09, 2004

And Bill Never Even Threw a Pitch

Let's talk about baseball, because really, that's more fun. Admit it.

Bill James really got trashed last season. The Red Sox wanted to try something different with their bullpen, it failed miserably, and a lot of the blame went to poor Bill James. Make that rich Bill James. Around the All-Star break, Boston capitulated and acquired Byung-Hyun Kim, a "legitimate" closer, and their bullpen problems settled down quickly. Boston media types chortled, shook each other's hands, and smiled widely at the demise of the "bullpen by committee". For some reason, this experiment made them nervous, and they could relax now that it was deceased. The Red Sox would never attempt such a controversial game approach again in this, the toughest market in baseball. Right? Well get those pacemakers out of moth balls boys, because the Bill James Closer (BJC) might be making a return.

A lot of things were misunderstood in 2003. First and foremost, what the Red Sox attempted to do with their bullpen had really very little to do with Bill James. Theo Epstein was unwilling to pay top dollar for a mediocre closer (take a bow, Ugie), so he opted for multiple hard-throwing set-up relievers. The notion was that Grady Little would make a daily closer selection based on match-ups, hot hands, and availability. Hence the title: Closer By Committee (Not sure how "Bullpen By Committee" got coined -- aren't all bullpens committees?). It was not an inherently bad idea, but it wasn't one that belonged to Bill James. He had stated a few years back, with some fanfare, that teams ought not restrict their closers to only the ninth inning. The most important outs of the game, James argued, sometimes occurred in the seventh or eighth, and it only made sense to ask your best reliever to pitch them. Getting three outs with a three run lead in the ninth was not always the best use of your prime arm. James never said "don't bother to get the prime arm, because boy those guys are pricey", he only suggested that once you had Mariano Rivera, you let him pitch when it mattered most. Completely logical, surprisingly simple, and solidly intelligent. But it never really happened that way. Theo got the wrong pitchers, and Grady Little never figured out how to use them. Instead of identifying his best arm and using it in the game's biggest moment, he spent months figuring out who would pitch the ninth inning, and only the ninth inning. That's getting James about as wrong as you can. So things never gelled, and when the Sox gave up on the system that they weren't even using correctly, the media touted the BJC a failure. Since then, Epstein has come clean about his mistakes. He admits both that Boston is a tough place to try a daring makeover, and that he did not assemble the right pitchers for the job. Whether he had the right manager is another question entirely, but oddly, he didn't speak to that. What Theo was careful to point however, was that he hadn't given up on the idea. "The concept isn't wrong," he insisted. Let's look then, at what the Boston GM has put together for 2004.

By signing Keith Foulke and retaining Scott Williamson, Theo Epstein has added two pitchers who:

  • Have Closed and Set-Up in the Past

  • Can Go Multiple Innings

  • Are Not Concerned With High Save Totals

  • Pitch Several Days in a Row

  • Have Contrasting Stuff

  • Now Theo has said not word one suggesting that he and Francona will try the BJC in 2004. But if, for instance, The Ninth were trying to build a staff that could pull it off, Foulke and S-Willy would be at the top of the list. Because they have both filled many bullpen roles in their career, they would be comfortable pitching in a tight seventh, a breezy ninth, or a decisive eighth. How many pitchers can say that? Also, they're very durable, so a two inning stint to get through a tough order or into extra innings is not out of the question. A couple days in a row. Psychologically as well, these are fairly mature players. They won't gripe if they're out of the limelight of the ninth inning, or if their stats don't look as pretty as some of their peers. And Williamson is fastball/split compared to Foulke's fastball/change. One following the other would be fairly tough to handle. The problem with the BJC has always been that you still need someone to pitch the ninth. Sure it's a nice idea to bring your best guy in when the situation demands, but if that happens to be the sixth inning, what do you do at the end of the game? Consistently losing in the ninth takes its toll, and you need a high quality, confident arm there. The Red Sox would now be able to have that. It's like this: 3-2 in the sixth, Giambi on second, Foulke comes in to get Sheffield. He's pitched there before, he knows how to do it. Keith gets through the frame and shuts them down in the seventh. Then, if the game stays close, you can bring in Williamson for the two inning save. There is not a big drop off in quality, and Scott is more than comfortable in the role. Foulke is the better pitcher and could be used as the primary BJC, but having Williamson available to finish occasional games and set-up in non-decisive situations could really make this work. There would be one closer, but two players who might finish games. The way Bill James intended it.

    Why hasn't Theo mentioned it then, if he and Francona will lead bullpens into the 21st century? Well, after what happened last year, would you?