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Meet the new Park Factors - Part I

“It’s a park that could make you a hero or a bum.”

– Stan Musial on the Polo Grounds, 1957

stan_musial

Stan Musial was truly one of the most consistently great hitters baseball has ever seen. With a lifetime average of .331, his slumps were like comets—showing up every few years, then disappearing in a flash.

Yet, the numbers show that Stan the Man was wildly inconsistent from one year to the next. Seven times, Musial’s home and road batting averages differed by more than 70 points. Musial was at his unpredictable best between the ’52 and ’53 seasons, when his road batting average dropped 77 points at the same time his home average jumped 84 points.

musial_stats

His roller-coaster ride didn’t stop there. As if it was in his DNA, Musial’s Jekyll and Hyde act can be seen from his days at the Polo Grounds. In ’56, a 35-year-old Musial batted a pathetic .146 at the home of the New York Giants, which helped drag his overall average down to a career low .310. That same year, Musial smacked those same New York Giant pitchers all over Sportsman’s Park—his home field in St. Louis—to the tune of a .385 average while batting .348 at home overall…so it was truly the Polo Grounds that haunted him. Then the very next season, Musial went from misery to paradise at the Polo Grounds, blistering baseballs all over the park like it was batting practice, batting a lusty .439 on his way to his seventh(!) and final batting title.

polo_grounds

Polo Grounds

Musial said the Polo Grounds was “a park that could put you into a batting slump by persuading you to change your normal swing to go for the fences.”

He spoke of his love-hate relationship with the stadium’s odd, bathtub-shaped dimensions of the outfield fences (279 feet to left, 258 feet to right, and 480 feet to straightaway center) saying, “It could break your heart on those long outs to center and give you a cheap home run down the lines. I’ve had good days and seasons at the Polo Grounds and poor ones, too, though overall I’d say it was very good to me.” He was right. His lifetime average of .342 there was 11 points above his career average.

For a player who was always hitting, there’s no rationale that explains the twists and turns in Stan Musial’s career. But despite his flip-flopping at different ballparks from one year to the next, Musial was amazingly able to finish his career with exactly the same number of base hits at home as on the road, 1,815*. Somehow, the “Donora Greyhound” evened things out in the end.

It’s not far-fetched to call Musial’s career symbolic of the typical ebb and flow for a major league ballplayer. You might even say Musial is Exhibit A in the case against using Park Factors, as they are calculated today, to measure what its name seems to imply—ballpark impact.

***

The Metrodome in Minnesota, the largest pinball machine in the world, is now closed for business—as far as major league baseball is concerned.

metrodome2

The Metrodome

In its 28 seasons, the domed home of the Twins gave the game more than its share of unusual ballpark effects. The coloring of the Teflon-coated ceiling had a way of turning fly balls into Stealth mode projectiles, leaving countless fielders squinting at aerial drain pipes trying to pick up a baseball gone AWOL. Supported only by air pressure, the roof was also known to swat at a ball or two, rudely interrupting sure home runs and sending them back to the field into a waiting glove or to green empty space.

The field’s slick turf made choppers squirt between fielders like runaway super balls down a city street. And talk about a home-field advantage. The fully-enclosed facility made its 50,000+ fans sound more like 500,000. Come playoff time, the 115-decibel sonic assault on the opposition played such a dooming role for Twin opponents during their two championship seasons in ’87 and ’91, the names of each ticket-holding fan should have been listed in the credits of the World Series videos. The proof was in the box scores: both series went seven games, with the home team winning each and every time.

target_field

Target Field

As the Twins head outdoors to Target Field for the 2010 season, baseball speculators—a group that includes about 21.5 million baseball fans—have been taking their best shots in predicting whether the Twins’ new digs will be more of a pitcher’s park or a hitter’s haven. Of course the chilly Minneapolis weather seems to be getting most of the attention.

By October, we’ll have a better idea how Target Field plays. But looking back, where did the Metrodome sit in the spectrum of how it influenced the statistics? With the skewed foul line dimensions (343 feet down left, 327 to right), the fixed indoor temperatures, moderate elevation (it played to about 840 feet above sea level), and lack of wind (at least not natural), how conducive was the Metrodome to homers when compared to other major league ballparks?

Therein lies the problem. Despite 28 years of performance data to chew on and a generation of modern sabermetrics on our side, we’re still not quite sure. Baseball experts have dazzled us with enough number-crunching muscle to convince us that they could probably figure out a Park Factor for the moon. Unfortunately, when it comes to quantifying a ballpark’s influence on baseball offense, those Park Factors are as much help as a weather vane is to a meteorologist.

Statistical baseball analysis has come a long way. In previous generations, fans got by with a basic set of numbers like runs, doubles, and batting average—pretty much anything you’d find in the back of a baseball card. We collected those cards and played our Strat-O-Matic and fell in love with the sport without the need for any massaging of the stats.

Over time, the idea that raw baseball data could be misleading if it wasn’t put into its proper context gathered some serious steam. At first, it was about comparing performances from different time periods, like trying to equate Carl Yastrzemski’s measly AL-leading .301 batting average in a run-starved ’68-season to George Sisler’s .420 mark in the exploding offensive era of 1922. Then the tripping point came when saber-righteous folks realized that a player’s true value could be better understood if his numbers were adjusted according to the environment in which he produced those numbers. Today, with sabermetricians using their own home-brewed techniques for compensating, manipulating, and normalizing the figures, the baseball world is now full of interpretative player analysis and projections that give the hard-core fan, fantasy GM, and even major league execs a convincing nudge into thinking how a player’s performance should be recognized.

Park Factors were created specifically for these type of adjustments. The concept was the brainchild of legendary baseball analyst Pete Palmer, who recently joined nine other esteemed baseball researchers and historians to become the inaugural recipients of the Henry Chadwick Award, an honor that has spawned a virtual “Hall of Fame” for the SABR organization. Palmer’s amazing career includes introducing OBP as an official stat and co-authoring the impressively thorough Total Baseball encyclopedia series. He is probably most famous for uncovering a scorekeeping mistake that was made during the 1910 season when two of Ty Cobb’s hits were counted twice—a controversial finding that was made public about the same time Pete Rose was homing in on Cobb’s career hit title.

sabr_cobb

Palmer recognized that performance numbers can be squashed by hard-luck home fields, such as what Jack Murphy Stadium seemed to do to Dave Winfield in the 1970s. He also knew that certain players were able to adapt their skills to a ballpark’s nuances, like the way Fenway’s Green Monster helped turn Wade Boggs into a doubles machine. He wanted to create a “statistical balancer,” with the intent to separate the ballpark influence from a player’s performance numbers, leaving only his true ability. Using OBP+SLG as a production yardstick, Palmer created PRO+, which adjusted a player’s production to the ballpark and league averages. (Later, OBP+SLG became more commonly known as OPS, and PRO+ became OPS+.)

Park Factors not only gave Palmer a way to adjust a player’s park-influenced numbers to league norms, they hinted at a ballpark’s impact on offense. Expressed as a simple integer (no decimal points!), any Park Factor value above 100 steers toward a hitter’s park, and any value below 100 becomes more friendly to pitchers, with 100 representing a perfectly neutral park.

Not only were Park Factors easy to figure out (they had to be—Palmer needed to apply them to seasons dating back to 1871), they could isolate on one statistic. For instance, a Park Factor based just on home runs—a.k.a. the “Home Run Park Factor” (HRPF)—would be useful for gauging a ballpark’s allowance for the long ball. These Park Factor components show how certain home fields have selective influences. A recent mlb.com article talked about how Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia can be “homer happy” while at the same time make doubles and triples harder to come by.

Of course, when it comes to the ballpark effect, no playing field has ever had more of an impact on jacking up offense than Coors Field. During its pre-humidor hey days of the 1990s, the home of the Rockies became the greatest environmental influence on the long ball in the history of the game (that is, aside from anything that might fit into a syringe). Despite having the longest fences in the majors to counter Denver’s thin air, the Coors impact showed up in its outrageous HRPFs that soared well past 150 for some of those “enhanced” seasons.

But we’ve got some issues with these Park Factors. The calculation itself should clue us in on why these often-quoted numbers waver more than Brett Favre. Focusing on home runs, here’s the basic form of a HRPF calculation:

basic park factor

ESPN.com has been publishing Park Factors using this same formula since the early 2000s. In essence, the Park Factor compares all statistical performances at a particular ballpark to the performances of the home team’s road games, with the premise that a park’s influence will become exposed by the differences.

Palmer made a few compensations on top of this calculation to tweak for some inaccuracies, such as the fact that a victorious home team never plays a full bottom half of the last inning, making the “per game” numbers inconsistent. I won’t expand on these compensations here. The important point I want to bring out is that the Park Factor is geared totally on the performance out on the field, not on any particular characteristic of the ballpark itself. There is no atmospheric element to reflect the higher altitudes, no compensation for a huge foul territory, and no acknowledgement of a short right-field porch. It’s all performance.

It’s also called inference, because the ballpark’s vulnerability to offense is inferred through the those same offensive numbers.

The inference works for Palmer, who wasn’t particularly interested in how charitable a ballpark was to offense; he was searching for true performance value within a specific context. But if you want to judge a ballpark’s effects numerically by quoting Park Factors, you have to realize that these numbers are bleeding with biases involving the schedule, team makeup, matchups, the fickleness of weather, as well as with players who get injured, go on hot streaks, and are burdened with personal issues.

So was the Metrodome a hitter’s park or a pitcher’s park? Well, it depends on who you ask, and which season you are talking about. When the Twins started playing there in 1982, they didn’t tag it as the “homerdome” because of fan patriotism—HRPFs peaked as high as 129 in 1986. Then the home runs faded, and the park more or less lost the nickname.

In 2007, the Metrodome HRPF measured just 75, the lowest in the American League. Two years later it jumped to 111, good enough for 8th place out of 30 major league teams. Remember, we’re talking about a domed stadium with a controlled atmospheric environment. What could have changed between those two seasons? Did they bring the fences in? Did they start pumping lighter air through the ventilation system? None of this happened. Only the performances on the field changed.

Take a closer look. The chart below breaks down the HRPF calculation for the Metrodome from 2007 through 2009.

metrodome_HRPF_2007_2009_only

What stands out is how Twins hitters doubled their home runs from ’07 to ’09, going from a 48/70 (home/road) differential in 2007 to 96/76 two years later. From just this home team hitters perspective, which accounts for half of the HRPF calculation, the Metrodome went from an extreme pitcher’s park to an extreme hitter’s park in just two seasons.

Sure, this is a poor sampling of statistics to make any reasonable conclusions. Call 2009 a spike season for the Metrodome if you’d like. But then, what’s the point of even calling it a “Park Factor”? We know it wasn’t the Metrodome that went schizophrenic.

The longer-term HRPFs are just as puzzling. Over the past seven seasons the Metrodome’s average HRPF of 90, certainly a “pitcher’s park” number, conflicts with its first seven seasons—those “homerdome” days—when it recorded an average HRPF of 106. This difference highlights an important characteristic of Park Factors that’s both good and bad: The calculation relies as much on performances at its own park as the performances and tendencies of other ballparks. Translation: The Metrodome numbers tells us that the other AL ballparks had “caught up” to the Metrodome’s home run tendencies, causing the Metrodome’s HRPF to drop.

This “relative” nature of Park Factors works well for what Palmer was trying to do. By making adjustments according to a player’s environment—which includes his team’s makeup and his home ballpark—the relative value of the run within that environment can be determined. Knowing how to measure whether runs were cheap or hard to come by is the basic formula for determining a player’s true value. Quantifying a player’s contribution to creating runs and wins for his team is the motivation behind such sabermetric staples as “Runs Created” and “Win Shares,” two of Bill James’ creations. (Like Palmer, James was one of ten who received the Henry Chadwick award this past month).

But this methodology doesn’t work for someone trying to truly isolate the ballpark effect. Think about it this way. In an imaginary world, we can build a league with all hitter’s parks—bring all the fences in, build every site at 1,000 feet above sea level, and play only when the wind is blowing out. But by the end of that imaginary season, our Park Factor calculations are still going to cough up at least a handful of “pitcher’s parks” because of the collection of different teams, offenses, and pitching staffs, not to mention the funky player biorhythms; doesn’t matter that we built the league entirely with hitter’s parks. The Park Factor is a relative measurement.

For me, the final nail in the coffin for using Park Factors to gauge ballpark effects came with the 2009 HRPFs of Citi Field in New York and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Citi Field’s score of 106 beat the Bank by five points, which came in at 101. Are we really supposed to believe that hitting a home run at the canyon-esque home site of the Mets which single-handedly turned David Wright into a singles hitter is five percent easier than knocking one out at the generous, sometimes wind-friendly, flower-beds-in-your-face park of the Phillies? Really?

Of course not. Anyone who followed baseball games at those sites last year would have expected Citi Field’s HRPF to fall somewhere below 100—at least below that of Citizens Bank Park. The only way I could believe someone’s claim that Citi Field was easier to hit home runs than Citizens Bank Park is if we were able to take an inventory of every fly ball that had a chance to leave those ballparks and figure out which homers at Citi Field would not have been homers at Citizens Bank Park (and vice versa), and which fly balls that stayed in the park at Citi Field would have been homers at Citizens Bank Park (and vice versa). Only then could we even begin to quantify with a decent level of accuracy how much easier or harder it would be to hit a home run in one park versus another.

Great news. This type of information is available to us. It’s not yet in the form of how I just described here, but we’re getting really close.

A better way to compare the relative difficulty of hitting home runs at different ballparks comes courtesy of Hit Tracker, an analytical mechanism created by Greg Rybarczyk which is featured on his site hittrackeronline.com. It’s one of the most revolutionary sabermetric tools today, with a cool factor that’s through the roof.

Hit Tracker mixes the principles of physics with observation clues to analyze as many relevant characteristics of a major league fly ball as one could possibly track and draw conclusions about its trajectory. Let me skip the technical details for now and demonstrate how this analysis gives the park-by-park comparisons we’ve been looking for.

For every home run hit in a given ballpark, Hit Tracker attaches a ranking that ranges from 0 to 30. The number represents how many major league parks that particular trajectory would have been a home run in if it was hit under “average weather conditions.”

An example. On May 7th of last season, David Wright smacked a 1-2 pitch from the Phils’ Jamie Moyer that traveled 434 feet toward just left of dead center at Citi Field, easily clearing the deepest part of the park. If we mapped the trajectory of that Wright home run using the same speed of the ball off the bat (105.2 mph), the same vertical launch angle (26.9 degrees) of the ball off the bat, and the same direction of the ball’s path out on the field, it would have been a homer in every major league park. Hit Tracker tells us this by assigning its maximum ranking of 30 to that Wright home run.

DWright_HR_05072009

David Wright HR on MLB.com and Hit Tracker

On the flip side, Chase Utley took advantage of a 50-mph wind on April 18th of the same season when he launched a towering fly to right that traveled 351 feet, good enough to clear the 330-foot fence in right at Citizens Bank Park. Under normal conditions—average wind, etc.—the trajectory on Utley’s home run would have traveled just 302 feet, and, considering the direction he hit it, would have failed to clear the fence anywhere in the majors, including Citizens Bank Park, earning it a ranking of 0.

CUtley_HR_04182009

Chase Utley HR on MLB.com and Hit Tracker

Let’s see how this helps us. I created a “HR Legit” rating system for judging a home run according to its Hit Tracker ranking:

legit_tags_hittracker_numparks_ranges

We’re essentially judging how much of a player’s home run was earned. On one end of the scale you’ve got the “no doubt about it” jobs that were tanked; they would have been four-baggers just about anywhere. On the other end lies the “pure luck” homers that practically needed a special alignment of the stars to get the batter a free jog around the bases. I considered any home run with a ranking of greater than 15 as “still legit” because it would have been a home run in more than half the ML parks. Home runs start to become “cheap” with rankings under 15.

Next, I graded each home run hit at Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park during the 2009 season according to these “HR Legit” ratings and came up with the following distributions for those two parks:

citi_vs_cbp_2009

Suddenly, the 2009 HR Park Factors for Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park seem about as genuine as Milli Vanilli. Our rating system shows that 97% of home runs hit at Citi Field were legitimate shots, much higher than the Bank’s 75%. Only two home runs at Citi Field were considered “pure luck” or “cheap” in 2009, while there were 28 such home runs hit at the Bank. This data suggests that out of the 77 more homers hit at the Bank (207) than at Citi (130), a good chunk came courtesy of the philanthropic ballpark conditions in Philly.

Our little investigation here doesn’t include those fly balls that weren’t home runs in these parks but would have been home runs in other parks. So we’re not going as far as we can here. But this is enough to convince this baseball fan that there’s a better way to track the impact of a team’s home field to baseball performance than the traditional Park Factor system now in place.

The issue of building a “better” Park Factor has been tossed around by several accomplished baseball researchers in recent years. In part II of this post, I’ll talk about some of the tools and analysis being used at baseball games today that will help clean out the irrelevant data noise from Park Factors. The technology for finding a true measure of ballpark impact has arrived.

***

*Thanks to Lee Allen and Bill Deane for discovering and confirming this fun baseball fact. Allen, who died in 1969, was one of the ten inaugural recipients of the Henry Chadwick award. Deane, who helped me dig up the splits on Stan Musial, will surely follow in these footsteps someday.

**To Pete Palmer: Thank you for helping me stay in-line with actual history.

Baker Street

In this winter of two-foot snowstorms, I was definitely looking forward to some hot stove baseball chatter at SABR’s local Connie Mack chapter meeting in Philadelphia. But, man, did I underestimate the lineup of guest speakers.

SABR members love to dig into the nuances of the game with their fellow researchers and learn something new, whether in a historical or statistical sense. It’s all about feeding the ravenous seamhead inside you, if you’ve got such a beast.

To outsiders, well, let’s just say breaking down the sabermetric value of baseball numbers isn’t exactly Cirque Du Soleil for some people. But this particular gathering was memorable, thanks to the presence of Phillies public address announcer Dan Baker and major league umpire Phil Cuzzi.

There was a time about three decades back when Philadelphia had the greatest collection of play-by-play announcers at any one time. Harry Kalas. Gene Hart. Merrill Reese. Bill Campbell. If these artists of the microphone were singers, each would have earned a Grammy for lifetime achievement. Lurking in the background of these greats has been dynamic Dan Baker, whose unsung voice has been heard over the loudspeakers at Phillies home games for the past 38 seasons. With Harry gone, Baker is the only common denominator left with Phillies baseball in all the years I’ve been following the team since the early ’70s. So it was awesome to sit a few rows back from the man as he spoke to the local SABR crowd.

Dan_Baker_at_SABR

Baker told us chunks of his life story, how he got the Phillies PA job, and who his inspirations were. It wasn’t too surprising to learn that he used to mimic the great Sixers PA announcer Dave Zinkoff.

His anecdotes constantly put us behind the scenes of some of his more intriguing moments. There was the time Von Hayes, recently named the manager of the Camden Riversharks of the Atlantic League, came up behind Baker in the clubhouse tunnel yapping “That’s bulls***!” because he had a problem with how Baker was introducing his name. (That’s funny, I remember making the same remark in ’86 when Hayes turned a few triples into doubles to secure his league lead in that department.)

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Von wasn’t a fan of the way Baker seemed to pump up his name after hitting a home run, then use a gloomy tone after he struck out. Baker explained to Hayes that it was “the moment” that dictated his enthusiasm, not anything the player did. If it was the late innings of a tie game, it didn’t matter what the batter did previously—Baker was going to turn up the dial to get the crowd to rally behind the team. On the other hand, in a 15 to 4 rout going into the ninth, Baker was going to keep things on the low down, even if the player hit like Ted Williams. Hayes’ reaction to Baker’s explanation?

“That’s bulls***!”

Wow, and you thought sportswriters knew how to get beneath the skin of athletes. Apparently, PA announcing is a little more than just background noise. Rob Ducey wasn’t feeling the love from Baker when he griped that his intro reflected his back-up status—too humdrum. ESPN once accused Baker of trying to incite the crowd with his J.D. Drew introduction the first time Drew appeared as a visitor after dissing the Phils in the ’97 draft.

Even Dallas Green gave Baker some heat. “Stop the Rolen [crap], will ya,” Green growled to Baker at a time when Scott Rolen was allegedly bad-mouthing the organization behind closed doors. Green wasn’t too happy to hear his PA man sprinkle audio confetti for his rebellious star who was in the midst of campaigning his way out of town.dallas_green

Of course, it’s rarely written how Baker sets the tone, both figuratively and literally, for getting the crowd roaring with anticipation of a great ballpark moment, such as a walk-off knock opportunity. I can still hear his shrilling “Jimmyyyy Rollinssss” just before J-Roll heroically stroked a Jonathan Broxton heater into the gap to win game 4 of last year’s NLCS.

The cool part about Baker’s presentation was the way he gave a fist pump whenever he slid into a familiar, goose bumps-inspiring intro, showing us how much his emotions factor in what he does. Despite not actually being at Citizens Bank Park, I felt that special adrenaline (you Phillie fans know what I mean) each time that famous voice of his boomed out from that smallish frame.

Aside from his general PA duties, Baker was proud of his fast and accurate work updating the scoreboard’s balls, strikes, and outs—though he hasn’t done this since the Phils called Veterans Stadium home. It reminded me of when I was a kid sitting in the Vet, racing my eyes to the scoreboard after the pitch to try and beat the changing numbers. It was hard. Well, no wonder…Dan Baker was racing me!

The guy sure loves to talk. I found that out first hand. During the Q&A, I raised my hand and told him I had a comment followed by a question. My comment was that although Harry Kalas was the #1 target of impressions for my friends and me growing up, Dan Baker was a very close second. Baker acted very modest in being mentioned in the same breath as Harry the Legend, and he joked of pulling money from his pocket to hand me for saying those words. He then followed up with, “You know, that reminds me…” and went on with another 40 minutes of Phillie treasures, starting with how he felt about Kalas. He never got to my question, or anyone else’s. But everyone was definitely okay with that because he was bringing back great memories.

I already knew of Baker’s generosity because of the way he handled a letter from a good friend of mine Czj (pronounced “Sij”), who wrote Baker about his dream of one day announcing the line-ups for a Phillies game. Czj does an incredible Dan Baker voice, especially with some of those off-the-wall Phillie names like Kevin Sefcik. (He is also one of the early pioneers of wearing wrist bands in Little League.) Four months after sending the letter, Czj found himself at Citizens Bank Park with his son Darren getting a personal tour from the man himself, Dan Baker, immediately after a Phillies night game. The courtesy Baker showed Czj and his son made it a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Not to minimize the honor and excitement of having Dan Baker in the house, it was our guest speaker for the afternoon who brought the house down. When I saw that major league umpire Phil Cuzzi was on the docket for the day’s meeting, I was like, okay, cool, I’m sure he has some interesting stories to tell from the front lines of major league baseball.

Surprise, surprise. Cuzzi was awesome. Aside from his fascinating viewpoint of the game, he told the most unlikely story of how he made it to the major leagues at an age when most ballplayers had already retired. It was entertaining, and at times, hilarious.

phil_cuzzi

Cuzzi’s story should be published. An entire chapter could be dedicated to the freak encounter he had with National League president Len Coleman. The unlikely scenario involved Cuzzi working as a bellhop at a hotel casino with a hand-written letter asking baseball for another chance, while Coleman—the man who controlled his fate—splashed around in his hotel room bathtub. I’ll leave the rest of the details for his book, although when I told him about the book idea, he gave me a kind of “I’m flattered, but I just don’t have the time right now” reaction.

Unless you hadn’t connected the dots, Cuzzi was the ump who infamously botched that call out in left field on a Joe Mauer double-turned-foul during last year’s ALDS between the Yanks and Twins. He admitted that it was the lowest point of his life, leaving him sleepless for quite a while. Not that he showed up at the SABR meeting looking ragged and worn. In fact, for his 54 years of age, he looked great. Unfortunately, if you google him, you’re going to have to weed through a ton of pics of Melky Cabrera extending his glove near the left-field foul line—the moment that cemented Phil Cuzzi’s place among the worst umpire calls in playoff history.

phil-cuzzi-twins-yankees

Write that book, Phil.

We now return to our regularly scheduled snow storm. Phillies pitchers and catchers report February 17th.

Mark McGwire's Jacuzzi Moment

Unless you’ve been glued to the TV watching Monk marathons the past week, you heard that Mark McGwire, once the greatest show in baseball, finally made it official: he cheated.

McGwire’s admission to using steroids throughout the 1990s couldn’t have been much of a surprise to anyone, although it was strange he claimed to have kept it a secret from his closest friends and family. (Psst, Mark…I think they knew.)

Almost five years after his infamous “I’m not here to talk about the past” routine at the 2005 congressional hearings, McGwire was granted yet another forum to give us the juice on the juice, to finally bring the fans into the closet of one of the Steroid Era’s greatest violators. Before his interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to hear it straight up from one of the good guys of the game.

Then, just like 2005, he blew it again. This was Mark McGwire: Crash and Burn II.

McGwire_eyesclosed

What an opportunity this was supposed to be. To pick the brain of an admitted steroid user who had such a huge impact on baseball’s record book was unprecedented. Costas tossed McGwire several lob balls trying to get him to explain how much his use of steroids had to do with any increases in his size, strength, numbers, or the distance of his homers. You could see Bob begging for Big Mac to take a rip.

Nothing. McGwire left the bat on his shoulder, killing the entire investigative process before it ever got to first base. He downplayed the role of steroids on his game, saying he used “very, very low dosages,” and insisted he could have done the same damage with his bat—such as the 70 homers and the cluster of 530-foot bombs—with or without steroids.

In commenting on Big Mac’s confession, Howard Bryant said that “being able to move forward is only possible when the past is confronted.” That’s cool in theory, if we could actually learn something from that past…such as with these types of confessions:

steroid_quotes

Big Mac? He told us “there’s not a pill or an injection that’s gonna get me the hand-eye or give any athlete the hand-eye coordination to hit a baseball.” I respect his courage for coming forth about his steroid use to the nation. But how could he really believe what he’s saying here? Is he just keeping his cards close to his vest?

It was almost a year ago that Alex Rodriguez left us hanging as well. In his own admission, A-Rod said he wasn’t sure how he benefited from using steroids—after telling us he injected himself for three years.

There’s a reason for those first two letters in the word “PEDs,” right? The only way this starts to make sense is that their sense of pride—which McGwire and A-Rod have enough of to fill an entire ballpark—somehow creates some form of denial in their own minds as to how they think they achieved what they did. Deep down, they don’t want their fans to think even for a millisecond that their virtuoso performances came from a chem lab.

This is hugely disappointing for those hoping to one day get the record straight on baseball’s Steroid Era legacy before it disappears into an abyss of uncertainty. If players continue to take the same stance as McGwire and Rodriguez, the fog of the 1990s may never clear up.

In lieu of Big Mac slipping us any meaningful nuggets about his steroid use on his way to the Cardinals training camp next month, the next best thing is to remind ourselves of the story of how Big Mac became a legend. Sometimes there’s enough detail to finish out most of the puzzle and get a really good picture of what went on, even with a few pieces missing.

So I give you an excerpt from my soon-to-be-released book Stealing Greatness. Here is “Mark McGwire’s Jacuzzi Moment.”

***

“I rededicated myself to baseball.”

—28-year-old Mark McGwire, October 1991, still digesting the throes of his worst season

With those words, Mark McGwire resolved to do something about a career that was slipping away. The revelational moment came for him while sitting in a Las Vegas casino Jacuzzi after the 1991 season. It was October, and Mark was bummed about watching the baseball playoffs on television for the first time in four years. After three consecutive World Series appearances, his dynastic Oakland A’s fell through a trap door and landed in fourth place. But that wasn’t the worst part for McGwire. The A’s empire was starting to crumble, and Big Mac was a big reason why.

After finishing that season with a pitiful .201 batting average and a career-low 22 home runs, McGwire had never felt so inept at hitting a baseball. In fact, his hitting woes stretched all the way back to May of 1989. McGwire hit just .220 over almost three seasons. His career had officially reached chronic-alert status.

Slumps in baseball are like colds. Every player gets them from time to time, and they usually last several days to a few weeks. Once in a while, even the best players hit a funk for a month or two. But there is no such thing as a three-year slump. If a player performs at a certain level for that length of time, then that is his normal playing level. According to those who have studied statistical analysis, slumps and hot streaks are mere illusions of numbers bunching together according to the baseball winds of fate; it all eventually evens out to what they are meant to be. At that point in time, Mark McGwire was truly a .220 hitter.

Although he was at the lowest point he could possibly be without losing his place as a starter, McGwire did have a few things going for him. He was still on the young side, having just turned 28. He hit at least 30 homers in his first four seasons, becoming the first player to ever do so. Then there was that supernova rookie season in ’87 that let everyone know what the big guy was capable of doing in the majors. That year, McGwire exploded into the baseball world at 23 years old by slamming a rookie-record 49 home runs while knocking in 118 runs and batting .289. And as if to foreshadow what was yet to come, McGwire’s 33 home runs in his first 79 games that year stirred up talk of Roger Maris and the single-season home run record of 61 for the first of many times in his career. But like so many Maris chasers before him, McGwire slowed during the second half, making the chase a non-issue by Labor Day.

Let’s put some perspective on McGwire’s phenomenal rookie season. With 1987 regarded as one of the greatest home run “spike” seasons ever, McGwire had plenty of company posting an exorbitant home run number. Whether due to an exceptionally-juiced baseball or unusual weather patterns, the impact on the home run was felt across the league, with many players beating their next highest career home run totals by at least 25%, such as Wade Boggs (24/11), Andre Dawson (49/32), and George Bell (47/31).

There was one other omen from 1987: Mac was already pumping the iron. “Six days a week in the off-season, I lift weights,” McGwire admitted that year.

McGwire’s numbers came back to earth his second season with 32 home runs, 99 RBIs, and a .260 batting average. It was good enough to co-lead the A’s, with Jose Canseco and Dave Stewart, to the World Series for the first time in 14 years, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers and a limping Kirk Gibson. The Oakland enterprise was starting to roll, and McGwire’s potential was still sky high.

Enter the three-year slide. From 1989 through 1991, McGwire batted .231, .235, and .201. The A’s won it all in 1989, and would make it back to the World Series in 1990. But by ’91, Oakland’s ship was sinking, and Big Mac’s once-voluminous flame was flickering like a candle in a gusty wind.

While sitting in that Jacuzzi and watching the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves battle for the 1991 championship, McGwire suddenly realized what it meant to be in the World Series, and how quickly opportunities like that can dry up. He said that watching those games got him “pumped up,” waking a spirit within. He realized he had to do something about the direction his career was going, to control his own destiny.

Cue in the Rocky music. That winter McGwire hit the weights like a man possessed. By most accounts, he gained an additional 20 to 25 pounds of muscle within a surprisingly short period of time. And to inject a little nasty-boy persona into his nice-guy image, McGwire unveiled his goatee for the first time in his career, which made him bear a slight resemblance to heavy-metal rocker James Hetfield, lead singer for Metallica. The next year, Big Mac’s bat started jamming like Kirk Hammett’s guitar—loud and with plenty of punch.

Cover of Sports Illustrated, June 1992

Sports Illustrated, June 1992

The 1992 season couldn’t have started better. New hitting coach Doug Rader brought a philosophy to the A’s that was very Mac-compatible. With some new adjustments at the plate, McGwire had a swing without hitches and was now lightning quick. And what better way to announce his resurgence then to invite the ghost of Roger Maris back to the party? With a .313 batting average and 17 home runs in his first 38 games, McGwire restored his place as a premier power threat, and was once again on a Maris pace. But just like in ’87, the Maris talks faded as McGwire hit only 14 home runs in the second half. Unfortunately, McGwire was also felled by a rib cage injury, causing him to miss 20 games from August to September. It was an ominous sign of things to come.

Foot and back injuries severely stifled McGwire’s progress over the next two seasons. He appeared in only 27 games in 1993 and 47 games in 1994. There were whispers that the newly developed muscles of his upper torso had grown too large too fast for his legs and feet. Even Tony LaRussa, McGwire’s manager at Oakland for nine seasons, thought that McGwire “got too strong for his frame.” Some comeback. Turn off the Rocky music. Three years after his “Jacuzzi moment,” McGwire’s career was spiraling southward once again. Although he seemed to have it all together mentally and with his swing, he just couldn’t stay healthy.

Going into the 1995 season, the 31-year-old McGwire was heading into his 10th major league season. It’s a good checkpoint on his career, considering that baseball history is filled with stars, even Hall of Famers, who were done producing by that age. With all that McGwire would eventually accomplish, it’s not a flattering comparison to look at the numbers he’d put up so far and see Dave “Kong” Kingman, another king of the tape-measure shot. Nine years into each of their respective careers, McGwire and Kingman had much more in common than just being USC alums. Some of the stats these two put up were almost clone-like. Projecting McGwire’s statistics of his first nine years upward to Kingman’s total of 1,062 games (McGwire had played 72 fewer games at that point), the numbers would fall like this:

McGwire_vs_Kingman

Their batting and slugging percentages were separated by mere percentage points. Their home run rates were practically identical. Scaled to a typical 550 at-bat season, McGwire edged Kingman by just half a home run, 39.3 to 38.7.

Like McGwire, Kingman’s power binges often teased fans into thinking that one day he would challenge the Maris record. With his gangly 6’6″, 210-lb. frame, Kingman stood like a praying mantis in the box. Once he took his hack, Kingman’s large, looping uppercut was designed for one thing: sending the baseball as far away as possible, preferably to another planet. Sometimes his blasts did reach a different zip code. But Kingman was about as one-dimensional as a shoehorn. His home runs and strikeouts were plentiful, while everything else—such as singles, doubles, walks, and even moments of clubhouse cheer—were few and far between. On offense, he was either trotting around the bases after a four-bagger or walking back to the dugout after strike three. On defense, his glove might as well have been an oven mitt. And his difficulty as a teammate was considered so detrimental that he was once shipped out of town by four different teams in one year. Aside from Jose Canseco’s 462 career home runs, Kingman’s 442 bombs were the most ever by someone who was never seriously considered for the Hall of Fame.

Big Mac had a little more going on than Kingman. McGwire’s defense at first base was good enough to earn him a Gold Glove in 1990. He was willing to take a walk, which gave him much more value from an offensive standpoint. But in terms of power, McGwire was Dave Kingman during the first nine years of their respective careers.

Then at 31 years old, Big Mac drove off Kingman Lane and down a fork in the road toward a small town called Legendville.

In 1995 McGwire somehow hit a season’s worth of home runs and RBIs—39 and 90—in just 104 games, a little more than half a season of playing time. Despite a beaning that kept him out for a week plus a couple of visits to the disabled list because of back issues, McGwire put up an eye-opening AB/HR ratio of 8.1—far better than he had ever done before. Bob Alejo, McGwire’s off-season conditioning coach who prepared him for the ’95 season, chalked up the big guy’s new power efficiency to a matter of getting his legs in better shape to handle the added muscle mass he put on after his miserable ’91 season.

Previously, whenever McGwire went on a Maris-threatening streak like he did during the ’87 and ’92 seasons, he cooled off well before reaching any serious stage of the record chase. McGwire never really threatened Maris in ’95, but he put up numbers that started fans and statisticians cranking on their calculators, trying to project what was humanly possible for the big redhead if he could just stay on the field.

McGwire missed Oakland’s first 18 games of the 1996 season with yet another foot injury, but he made up for it big time. Amazingly, he reached 38 home runs by the end of July, once again on target for immortality. He came up short again, but continued to hit homers at an unearthly pace. With 52 home runs in just 423 at-bats that season, McGwire matched the ridiculous home run rate of the previous year, 8.1. It was clear that he was no longer just on a hot streak—he was now this good all the time. Fans pleaded for Big Mac to get in 150 games just to see what type of damage he could do. Strat-O-Matic nuts couldn’t wait for his card to arrive in the mail.

Like the Amazing Colossal Man, McGwire also grew physically larger before our very eyes—as vouched for by the changing sizes of his jersey, going from a size 44 in his minor league days to a Hulk-like size 52. “Looking at McGwire in ’87, he was simply a skeleton compared to his physique today,” observed Ray Fosse, long-time member of the A’s organization.

McGwire was always able to hit long home runs, but by ’96, his greatest bombs were reaching unimaginable distances. “The strength is unbelievable. He’s hit balls where other guys need cabs to get to,” A’s manager Art Howe said that year. “Every town we go into it seems he hits the longest ball hit in that ballpark.” McGwire-mania was gathering steam. His batting practice sessions suddenly became must-see events. Nobody, not fans, teammates, or opponents, would dare turn the other way when he was in the cage, because they truly believed there was a chance they could miss the longest home run they would ever see in their lives.

Continuing his date with destiny, McGwire conjured Maris’ ghost once again in 1997, hitting 24 home runs in his first 61 games. This time he came within sniffing distance of Maris. Knowing that his expiring contract and enormously growing stature in the game would demand a salary far out of range for Oakland’s traditionally thrifty ways, the A’s traded McGwire mid-season to the St. Louis Cardinals. His 58 total home runs between the A’s and the Cards fell just three short of the record, the closest anyone has been since Maris set it in ’61.

mcgwire

McGwire’s much larger physical presence and unfathomable home run trajectories had fans convinced that beating Maris’ record was now just a matter of time. As long as he could stay healthy and put in a full season, most believed the odds were longer for McGwire not to eclipse Maris.

The 1998 season was that time. It was a year for the record books and the story books; for the historians and for the fans. The Maris record fell to McGwire and Sammy Sosa that year, as fans and sportswriters knighted the dynamic duo as saviors to a game still suffering from the emotionally crushing blows of the strike-aborted 1994 season. More love flowed through the baseball world that year than a steamy romance novel. Prominent sportswriter Mike Lupica was inspired enough to capture the season’s poetic moments in his book Summer of ’98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. Broadcaster and former player Tim McCarver didn’t waste any superlatives in his own gush book, The Perfect Season: Why 1998 Was Baseball’s Greatest Year.

Not only did McGwire smash Maris’ magical 61 by hitting 70 that year, he was turning ballparks into his own video arcade. He swatted 135 home runs over the ’98 and ’99 seasons, a two-year stretch that leapfrogged Ruth’s (and baseball’s) best of 114 home runs over the ’27 and ’28 seasons. By the end of the decade, it was impossible to over-exaggerate the impact Mark McGwire had in the baseball universe. He was legendary, prolific, and completely dominant. What is especially stunning is that McGwire was already a premier long-baller prior to his transformation, yet he still blew those numbers away.

McGwire_career_stats

From 1995 to 2001, the last seven years of his career, McGwire almost doubled his own home run rate as he blew past the mighty Ruth. Over that time, McGwire averaged 49 home runs a year, sending baseballs over the fence at an unprecedented rate of once every 8.2 at-bats. Not only was this crazy seven-year pace 9% faster than Babe Ruth’s best season—when he hit 60 home runs in 1927—it was 70% faster than McGwire himself for the first nine seasons of his career!

At the end of the 2001 season, McGwire’s reign of greatness and glory reached an abrupt end. Knee problems forced him to retire, just two years removed from a 65-homer season. At that time, McGwire was considered first ballot material for the Hall of Fame by most fans and baseball experts, with his 583 career home runs ranking fifth all time behind Hank Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. It’s hard to imagine that Babe Ruth was any more revered in his day than Mark McGwire was at the turn of the 21st century.

McGwire’s reservations for immortality were canceled four years later on a May afternoon in 2005. While facing a room full of probing politicians urging baseball to get its act together against steroids, McGwire transformed again—this time from epic baseball hero to speechless pariah—because he chose not to answer what was fundamentally a very simple question: “Did you take steroids?”

McGwire’s refusal to “talk about the past” with a direct answer was symbolic of an entire generation of ballplayers muted by their desire to keep their secrets hidden. Unfortunately for McGwire, the spotlight was extra bright that day, and he had nowhere to hide. To the media and to the fans, McGwire’s silence was so implicating, he might as well have had a syringe sticking out of his back pocket.

Not too long ago, Babe Ruth’s frequency of parking balls in the seats was at least 20% faster than anyone else, and it was that way for almost 80 years. Today, Mark McGwire ranks as the fastest home run hitter who ever lived. Unfortunately, now that he has admitted using steroids, Big Mac’s career AB/HR mark of 10.6 is a line in the record book that might as well have been written in invisible ink.

***

Jacuzzi® is a registered trademark of Jacuzzi, Inc.

THE SOURCES

  • www.baseball-reference.com
  • www.retrosheet.org
  • Callahan, Tom and Lawrence Mondi. “It’s A Routine…Home Run,” TIME.com, July 13, 1987
  • Wilstein, Steve. “McGwire Bulks Up With ‘Andro’: Testosterone Builder Isn’t Illegal In Baseball,” Rocky Mountain News, August 22, 1998
  • “McGwire responds to muscle drug story,” Associated Press, August 23, 1998
  • Nightengale, Bob. “Big Mac retires on his terms,” USA Today Baseball Weekly, November 21, 2001
  • Kurkjian, Tim. “A’s O.k.: If you counted the Oakland Athletics out, count again. They’re flying high once more,” Sports Illustrated, April 27, 1992
  • Murphy, Austin. “In Sight: Mark McGwire of the A’s could smash the game’s most storied record, Maris’s 61 homers,” Sports Illustrated, August 26, 1996
  • Kroichick, Ron. “A.L. “West: Oakland Athletics,” The Sporting News, May 29, 1995
  • Wulf, Steve. “Most Happy Fella: Oakland’s Mark McGwire is smiling again, now that he’s hitting homers at a record pace,” Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1992
  • Anderson, Dave. “Comfy (Dave Kingman),” The New York Times (as appeared in Pacific Stars and Stripes), March 28, 1978
  • Boyle, Robert H. “Scorecard: Figuring Sky King,” Sports Illustrated, December 12, 1977
  • Pastier, John. “The Myth of the 500-Foot Home Run,” Slate Magazine, October 4, 1997
  • Lang, Jack. “Sky King’s Dive Lets Air From Met Balloon,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1976
  • Barrett, Ted. “McGwire mum on steroids in hearing: Sosa, Palmeiro deny use in front of House panel,” CNN.com, March 17, 2005

Going Baerga

Until next season unfolds, Phillies fans are going to gripe that GM Ruben Amaro lost his mind sending Cliff Lee out of town just four and a half months after he acquired him in the genius transaction of the 2009 season.

But before getting too hung up on this “Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay” debate, remember that the Phils won the World Series in ’08 without either pitching stud. The guy we really should be paying attention to is that “other” starting pitcher, Cole Hamels.

hamels

After leading the Phils to the title as their undeniable ace, Hamels laid a stink bomb in ’09. His performance—a 10-11 record with a 4.32 ERA during the regular season followed by 16 earned runs in 19 post-season innings—wasn’t just a valley point…it was self-inflicted. His elbow started aching during spring training before he had a chance to get in shape, and he never got his ace material on track.

If Hamels even sniffs the high standard he set previously, maybe the Phils take the Yanks. So the real burning question for the Phillies in 2010 has to be, “Will Cole Hamels return to form?

We’ve heard the stories about Cole being more of a party animal last winter than someone who was supposed to get his arsenal in gear for the coming season. “I pretty much didn’t fulfill my end of the bargain,” he admitted last April, “and get ready the way I should have.” If anything, he proved there’s no rest when it comes to sustaining success in the big leagues.

But Phillie fans should cross their fingers and hope that 2009 was his mulligan, because there’s a precedent in baseball for greatness being taken for granted, then suddenly disappearing forever. It’s happened over and over.eric_davis

Sometimes it’s due to the fate of injury. Eric Davis was baseball’s next superstar of superstars in the late ’80s, capable of hitting the long ball (37 bombs in ’87), stealing bases (80! in ’86), and catching fly balls (Gold Gloves in 1987, ’88, and ’89) with the best in the game. But it all crumbled quickly for Davis with a string of misfortune that started with the lacerated kidney he suffered while diving for a ball in the 1990 World Series.

Sometimes a player dooms himself with the lifestyle choices he makes. One young star from the early ’90s had a future so bright, he was called “baseball’s best-kept secret.” After batting .312 with 205 hits and 20 home runs as a 23-year-old second baseman, the Sporting News said Carlos Baerga was “close to being baseball’s best player.”

The next year, Baerga followed up with a .321/200/21 season, causing Hall of Famer Joe Morgan to chirp how rare it was for such a talent to come along at the second base position. At the time, the only other second baseman to put up that combination of numbers in a season was Rogers Hornsby.

baerga2

While experts had Baerga tagged as a future member of the 3,000-hit club, Indians GM John Hart shot up a warning flare, noting Baerga’s weight gain of 15 pounds. “I think Carlos is playing heavy right now,” Hart said. “He has the kind of body type that is going to make it difficult for him, unless he pays more attention to his conditioning.”

Unfortunately for Baerga and the Indians, Hart’s prophesy came true sooner than anyone could have imagined. The very next season, Baerga’s batting mechanics were shattered. The rocketing line drives off his bat turned into a smattering of pop-ups and weak groundouts. The Indians believed the 27-year-old Baerga, now a good 25 pounds overweight, lost it all—his desire, his skills, everything—and shipped him to the New York Mets.

Baerga’s career took an immediate dive into the sea of mediocrity, never to return to the promise of his early 20s. He played his last full season at 29 years old, and after touring the independent leagues trying to hook on to a major league roster, he played his last game at 36, one-thousand four-hundred and seventeen hits shy of 3,000.

courtesy of Pinnacle baseball cards

courtesy of Pinnacle baseball cards

According to ex-teammates and managers, Baerga fell too much in love with the celebrity of being a million-dollar athlete, becoming practically narcissistic in a whirlwind life of entourages, late-night bar hopping, and dancing the night away. “I think that, for whatever reason,” explained Indians manager Mike Hargrove, “Carlos just forgot how hard he had to work to become the player he was.”

It’s not like Hamels went Baerga on us last winter trying to live up to his “Hollywood” nickname. His ‘partying’ was more about the usual business that follows a world championship, with his time constantly beckoned with talk shows, commercial gigs, and mag shoots. He rarely said no.

But don’t hand him that comeback player of the year award just yet. If Cole were a consumer product, you’d definitely want to pay the extra bucks for the extended warranty. Not that he has a body structure that’s vulnerable to an early decline like the burgeoning Baerga. But with his fragile back, joints, and psyche, Hamels seems to require as much maintenance as a puddle jumper with 200,000 miles.

Can he dominate again? With age still on his side, I like his chances, but only if he learned from the most important lesson of his awful ’09 season: Talent can take a ballplayer only so far. It’s up to the athlete to sweat out the rest.

The Smell of Resin

It’s a quote that was supposed to be cleverly relevant to the “aging in baseball” chapter of my first book Stealing Greatness.

“We play the game because of the smell of the resin, or the horsehide the ball was made of, or the click of the bat, or running down a fly, throwing as far as you could, just the sheer pleasure of the game. I could still smell all that.”

I wrote this quote down in early 2009 and noted—for reasons that are now very mysterious to me—that they were spoken by pitcher Steve Carlton sometime during the weekend of his Hall of Fame induction in 1994. For me, Carlton uttering these words was a perfect explanation as to how this baseball legend hung around the game at least a year and a half too long, performing like a Triple-A pitcher as he searched for a fastball that had long left the ballpark. I was so cozy with it that I didn’t even think to wonder how peculiar it was for Carlton to utter something so verbose and eloquent after spending most of his career known as “Silent Steve.”

001233891

With my manuscript deep into the editing stage, I was just finishing up my bibliography when I realized I couldn’t locate the source of the quote anywhere! I was like that guy who couldn’t find his winning lottery ticket. I searched in vain through the hundreds of articles I had gathered throughout my book research. I paged through my entire bookshelf. Googling even parts of the phrase came up empty. I listened to Carlton’s HOF speech at baseballhalloffame.org, as well as several other induction-related interviews. No smell of resin anywhere.

I sent out a flare to the SABR crew (Society for American Baseball Research), relying on their email forum that’s used for exchanging research ideas and information. I was banking that the words might ring a bell with some of the game’s most respected historians. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Phil Collins, there was no reply at all. (Sorry, but this whole ‘citing sources’ issue has me paranoid.)

I found Carlton’s own website, with an “E-Mail Steve” link at the top. So I did, asking him, “Did you say this?”

“I may have,” he replied. He said it sounded familiar. I paid no attention to the part of my brain that reasoned that for all I knew, the email could have come from a four-and-a-half-foot-tall Peruvian woman sitting on a donkey with an iPhone in her hand.

Then, being the rookie book writer that I am, I got a little anxious to put this matter to bed: I asked Super Steve if I could use the quote in his name.

“No, you may not,” he responded, reminding me that it was hardly an exact recollection on his part.

Ouch. The terseness of his electronically-generated words made me feel like I just got rapped on the knuckles with a yardstick by Sister Carmel Rose. What was I thinking? I can’t just tag someone’s name onto a quote if I wasn’t completely sure how it came about. Embarrassingly, it took a four-time Cy Young award winner (or a Peruvian woman, one or the other) to hammer home one of the first rules of publishing: verify your source!

Next, I pinged Philly sportswriter Bill Conlin. Surely the man most responsible for journalistically removing Carlton’s vocal cords back in the mid-’70s would remember such a sentimental, 49-word sound bite if it indeed came from the most dominant pitcher he had ever covered. He didn’t. Conlin was surprised to hear that Carlton answered my email. “Of course,” he reminded me, “For all you know the email could have come from a four-and-a-half-foot-tall Peruvian woman sitting on a donkey with an iPhone in her hand.” I know Mr. Conlin, I know.

I thought I hit pay dirt after approaching the don of baseball statistics, Bill James. I posed my question on his “Hey Bill” Q&A forum. “It sounds like Field of Dreams,” he answered. It sure does! It’s got that sense of baseball nostalgia; I thought he nailed it. I immediately went to IMDB.com, dialed up the movie, clicked on “memorable quotes,” and found morsels like this one from the Shoeless Joe Jackson character: “I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet…Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game…The sounds, the smells. Did you ever hold a ball or a glove to your face?”

Shoeless_Joe_Field_of_Dreams

But there was no match for my orphan passage. So I cut it from the book, and stitched the remaining words back together. I’m happy with my ‘fix,’ but sure would like to find out the quote’s rightful owner.

If you have any inkling as to who might have said it—and I don’t care if it was Steven Norman Carlton or some Peruvian woman on a donkey—I’d be happy to hear from you.

Peruvian Woman Donkey

- John Cappello