During the latter stages of my Magazine Period — hey, Picasso had his Blue Period; my career has had Newspaper, Magazine and Dot.Com Periods — I merged into the press junket for a glitzy football movie.
Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” didn’t become a mega hit, but it wasn’t for lack of star power. Al Pacino, James Woods, Ann-Margret, Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J. Jim Brown (yeah, that one) and Lawrence Taylor. A driving, hip-hop soundtrack.
As I sat around tables rubbing elbows with the glitterati, the lifelong baseball fan in me would come out in one recurring envious impression: “Man, these people are kicking back and talking football, and are about to ingrain it deeper into American culture with the big-screen treatment.”
It was 1999. McGwire-Sosa notwithstanding, baseball was still in its post-1994 strike funk. The game hadn’t changed, but perception of it certainly had. Bland, stodgy, arcane, languid, out-of-touch, obsolete — everything football, as seen through the lenses of “Any Given Sunday,” wasn’t.
NFL was Dr. Dre. MLB was Lawrence Welk.
And I remember thinking, “Baseball would kill to have an image like this.” I believe I even used that line in my published review of the movie.
Well, no body has ever been found. But the makeover was swift and dramatic and in 2016, baseball is firm on the cutting edges of sport and technology — hip, global, social, 24/7, accessible, urban AND urbane.
The plot to reclaim America began with the advent of MLB.com in 2001 — only two years after “Any Given Sunday” was pulling cultural rank.
Bud Selig, Bob Bowman, Dinn Mann, all 30 club owners brilliantly masterminded the caper … and I, along with all the charter staffers of MLB.com, were accessories to the crime.
Guilty, as charged.
… A lot of something else …
- Their most outrageous gambit yet.
Neal Huntington gets ’em. Ray Searage fixes ’em.
They signed a pitcher with a broken arm (okay, it was the right arm and he is a lefty, but still …) and have gotten 35 wins out of Francisco Liriano. They brought back A.J. Burnett after he led the world in losses and turned him into a first-time All-Star. They dealt for a reliever with 6.20 ERA and turned him into a 51-save closer.
Now they’ve gone so unconventional, the GM should launch his own fast-food franchise and call it Neal out of the Box.
They’ve essentially swapped Neil Walker and Charlie Morton, who was 9-9 with a 1.38 WHIP, for Jonathan Niese, who was 9-10 with a 1.40 WHIP. Ryan Vogelsong is this year’s boomerang Buccos righty, trying to pull a Burnett. The 40-man teems with projects.
Jim Benedict had always gotten a lot of the credit for past pitching makeovers. But he is now the Marlins’ vice president for pitching development, so we’ll find out if Searage is the real Dr. Frankenstein. …
- I think record labels should distribute free turntables to stimulate sales of their LPs — the early cell phone model, when all the profits were in usage (35 cents a minute?!). Have you seen the price of vinyl? …
- Gotta assume Bill Mazeroski doesn’t share the problem most of us have with writing a new year on our checks; the one-and-only finished his career with 2,016 hits. …
- Market analysts are always pointing out that vinyl is “enjoying” a revival. No one is enjoying it as much as the labels pressing those $25 discs. …
- I suddenly get the feeling Justin and Melvin Upton Jr. are becoming the Hank and Tommie Aaron of their generation. …
- Yeah, I’m getting back into vinyl. It’s still a more emotional way of listening to music. I especially get emotional when I rummage through a record shop and see LPs
I threw away at the dawn of the digital age selling for $25 a pop. …
- Get ready for a barrage of preseason “expert” predictions. But don’t build your fantasy team around any of it. From the bulletin board, here’s one guy’s pre-2015 take on the Royals:
“I want to see whether the Royals can make an adequate defense of their pennant or whether they’re as bad as they look on paper …”
- Given: LPs have become the baseball cards of yesteryear. You trashed boxes full of both way back then … and wish you could have them back now.
Back when we were just entering the stretch drive for Christmas shopping — Dec. 2 — I came up with a different sort of shopping list for the Pirates, one their Santa Claus (Neal Huntington? Bob Nutting?) only had to check once: Top Ten bounceback starting pitcher candidates.
Seven weeks later, four remain on that list of free agents, guys searching for the proverbial pillow contract to prop up their market value. If Huntington goes Rock Hudson, who could be his Doris Day?
- Mat Latos
- Doug Fister
- Chad Billingsley
- Justin Masterson
Fister, his 5-7 slide of 2015 notwithstanding, still holds out for a two-year deal, and the Bucs wouldn’t be opposed to that (remember, Francisco Liriano started with them on a two-year contract off his 6-12 record in 2012).
Latos, at 28 and in definite I’ll-show-you mode, has his choice of several teams interested in tossing him a pillow — the Pirates definitely among them.
I would add Cliff Lee to that list, because the graybeard lefty is in definite bounceback mode after missing the entire ’15 season with elbow issues. But Lee doesn’t appear to be in make-good-contract mode. He seems more intent on big bucks than on a big opportunity, and that isn’t how the Pirates roll in these matters.
Another veteran lefty on the periphery (please try not to snicker): Wandy Rodriguez. Yeah, I’d shrug him off, too, except for three points (No. 3 totally blew my mind):
- His first Pittsburgh tenure ended abysmally in mid-2014 because he tried to pitch on a bum knee on which he finally had surgery three weeks after his release.
- He would come really cheaply, on an incentive-loaded contract.
- Who do you suppose had MLB’s best 2015 streak of 32 straight batters retired (the equivalent of 10 2/3 perfect innings)? Jake Arrieta? Max (Double No-Hit) Scherzer? Zack Greinke? Clayton Kershaw? No, no, no, no. Wandy Rodriguez — during his brief fling with the Rangers.
Bartolo Colon once went 0-for-43. Soon after that one ended, he took off on another 1-for-50 “streak.” None of that stopped the Mets from including a fat bonus in his new contract for winning a Silver Slugger Award.
This is called the Pipedream Clause. What’s Bartolo supposed to do, say, “No thanks?” And if a guy can learn to hit at 43 and do it better than anyone else at his position … claim your reward, dude.
But for every Pipedream Clause, shouldn’t there be a Lead Pipe Clause? It calls for a deduction if you miss playing time after getting hit by a plumbing vessel, or for other equally sensible injuries.
Pulled oblique muscle, left (Mat Latos) or right (Kevin Pillar), or back spasms (Sammy Sosa), from sneezing.
Bruising your tailbone by falling off a beanbag chair (A’s reliever Fernando Abad did it this season).
Getting your face scorched by (oxymoron alert) chillin’ on a tanning bed (Marty Cordova).
Suffering a chest burn while ironing your shirt … while wearing it (John Smoltz).
Straining your back while yanking on boots (Wade Boggs).
Dislocating your shoulder ripping apart a phone book (Steve Sparks, the 1994 Brewers version).
Dislocating a thumb while pulling on socks (Randy Johnson; no, not that one — the Braves’ 1982-84 third baseman).
Hand lacerations while buttering a dinner roll (Oddibe McDowell, 1985-88 Rangers), washing dishes (Ian Kennedy) or cleaning a blender (Brett Cecil).
Dislocating your ankle while showing your 5-year-old son how to use a trampoline (Joba Chamberlain).
A swollen wrist by over-jamming on Guitar Hero (Joel Zumaya, during the 2006 postseason).
Frostbite … in August … by falling asleep with an ice pack on your foot (Rickey Henderson).
A stomach stab, when taking on a DVD box with a knife and losing (Adam Eaton).
Biting YOURSELF in the butt.
Okay, that last one requires an in-depth explanation. Clarence Blethen was a ’20s pitcher, forgettable except for one thing: He’d try to spook out hitters by moving his false teeth from his mouth to his back pocket while pitching. Well, one day he slides into second and the dentures chomp into his butt bad enough to force his removal from the game with excessive bleeding.
Yes, a century before cell-phone “butt calls,” we had a “butt call-out.”
Time for the obligatory list of presents for some of the men who have everything, MLB’s finest.
- Jason Heyward: Earplugs, for his return visits to Busch Stadium.
- Neil Walker: Directions to the visiting clubhouse in PNC Park.
- David Price: A copy of “The Idiot’s Guide to Boston,” by Carl Crawford.
- Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez: A phone call from BBWAA secretary Jack O’Connell.
- Andrew McCutchen: Strong, healthy left knee.
- Yasiel Puig: 2013, again.
- Shelby Miller: Runs; guy went 1-16 with a 3.63 ERA after May 27.
- Brandon Phillips: A cushion (to sit comfortably on Reds’ bench).
- Jonathan Papelbon: 23 other guys who put out like Bryce Harper.
- Ruben Amaro: A nickname for last season’s Phillies GM, this season’s Boston first base coach; got it — The Benjamin Button of MLB.
- Jose Bautista: A boxed set of the 1964-67 TV series, “Flipper.”
- Don Mattingly: Healthy Giancarlo Stanton, unleashed.
- Clint Hurdle: Deck of cards, none of them wild.
I suspect Neal Huntington has been shaking his head a lot lately.
Pittsburgh’s GM has the well-earned reputation of being MLB’s most tight-lipped executive. Off-the-record is not in his vocabulary. He will never be that mysterious “baseball source” leaking news.
Huntington simply will not comment on developing transactions until they are done. Media get word on moves when 245 Park Avenue has signed off on them. Huntington also believes in the sanctity of mutual-risk long-term contracts.
We’ve seen both of those principles violated time and again this offseason.
Once, at the 2014 Winter Meetings, Huntington took time to actually explain his refusal to talk about in-the-works transactions. Digest version: To do so could make the club prematurely accountable for the welfare of the player, and can also lead to embarrassment.
Twice in the last two weeks, the Dodgers had “deals” that, for different reasons, fell through. They’ll survive, but you don’t think Dodger Red — as in embarrassed — has temporarily supplanted Dodger Blue as the team color after Aroldis Chapman and Hisashi Iwakuma?
And premium free agents keep signing win-win long-term deals with midpoint opt-out clauses: David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jason Heyward … they all have the option of again being free agents in a few years if their performances rate raises on the open market. Underperformers have the protection of the back-end of their pacts.
These one-sided deals must really chafe Huntington. He scored over Andrew McCutchen (two years to go on his six-year, $51.5M deal), Charlie Morton (three-year, $21M) scored over him. But at least they were all sitting at the same table.
Opt-out deals are nothing new (Alex Rodriguez famously exercised his during the 2007 World Series, Zack Greinke just used his as a bridge to the D-backs) but are becoming more frequent.
They have the attention of Commissioner Rob Manfred, who the other day seemed to take the words right out of Huntington’s mouth when he told FOX Sports:
“The logic of opt-out clauses for the club escapes me. You make an eight-year agreement with a player. He plays well, and he opts out after three. You either pay the player again or you lose him. Conversely, if the player performs poorly, he doesn’t opt out and gets the benefit of the eight-year agreement. That doesn’t strike me as a very good deal. Personally, I don’t see the logic of it. But clubs do what they do.”
Hmmm … doesn’t that sound like the next Geico commercial?
Voting for the Hall of Fame has always been an honor and a privilege — and it has become a slightly bigger privilege with the museum having weeded out unqualified voters to trim the electorate.
The Hall — or, more accurately, its BBWAA guardians — gets ripped a lot. I’ve been known to join that chorus (I still need an explanation for how Tommy John and his 288 wins weren’t good enough).
Us writers seem to like picking our own fights. We resent being sworn into the Steroids Era jury. Yet we want to preside over the Closer Era and Designated Hitter trials and insist Lee Smith and Edgar Martinez aren’t worthy.
Hall of Fame voters are like America. What a melting pot. How can you not like the diversity in a group which is likely this year to elect Jeff Bagwell (449 homers and 1,529 RBIs) but last year did not cast enough votes for Carlos Delgado (473 homers and 1,512 RBIs) to even remain on the ballot?
With all that said, Ballot #415 is in the mail:
- Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza: Very short version — I climbed off the PED soapbox a couple of years ago, and swore to stay off it. And you can’t argue their numbers.
- Trevor Hoffman: How’s this for a change of pace (his signature pitch)? “Closer is a first-ballot Hall of Fame.”
- Smith: C’mon. He’s the guy who set the trail for all these Cooperstown guys (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Hoffman maybe now, Mo Rivera definitely to come) to follow.
- Martinez: The Lee Smith of DHs; good heavens, David Ortiz’s platform for likely future induction is built on having won seven Edgar Martinez Awards.
- Bagwell: He came within two RBIs in 2002 of having eight straight 30-100 seasons. Dominating an era? Check.
- Jeff Kent: Much of Piazza’s candidacy is based on how he stood out among all-time players at his position; well, this is the Piazza of second basemen.
- Gary Sheffield: He could be this year’s Carlos Delgado, but his 509 homers have to be seen through this prism — Sheff was the last power hitter with a controlled, not an all-or-nothing, swing. Do you realize he had 12 seasons with 500-plus plate appearances and fewer than 75 Ks? In 2003, he went to the plate 678 times and fanned 55 times.
- Ken Griffey Jr.: No testimonials required, I know, but it must be pointed out he dominated the ’90s (382 homers and 1,091 RBIs) perhaps unlike any player has ever stood over a decade.
No, not that one. Not to you, Clinton Merrick Hurdle, Pirates manager.
To Clinton Edwards Hurdle, your father.
Getting to spend four years in Pittsburgh covering the Bucs was a pleasure. Getting to know you even a little bit was a privilege.
The days around the ballpark in this 24/7 world tend to drag, and spirits and eyebrows both tend to sag. Entering the PNC Park clubhouse and running into your wide-grin greeting never failed to perk me up.
But it absolutely floored me to ever hear that you were actually looking for me, wanting to catch up. Just as I cowered with humility to be able to count you as a regular reader — and editor. Clint, who has neither the time nor the inclination to read about his team himself, would periodically point out mistakes I’d made and were reported to him by you.
Sharing stories or small-talk, the highlight of any day. Listening to you, watching that mischievous twinkle in your eye, it was easy to picture you and the tyke Clint playing backyard catch under a fading sun, or hear you laying down the law years later to the rambunctious Clint.
I never took for granted those fleeting minutes, a connection forged by our mutual love of the game. I got to see the world through your words, and I enjoyed the view. I don’t think we ever had to explain ourselves to each other. So, now, I probably don’t have to explain why I so much enjoyed your company.
I think a big part of it was the affection and pride in what your son had become. You looked upon Clint, in other words, pretty much the way I looked upon Pittsburgh.
Both relationships began about the same time. You and Louise “met” Clint in July 1957. I first arrived in Pittsburgh in July 1959. We both hence traveled a winding, traps-filled road only to arrive at the same destination, at the flagpole flying the Jolly Roger full-staff.
Sorry for the rant. But as Pittsburgh readies for a rite of winter, a PirateFest I will not be attending, my mind wandered to what I’ll miss about not covering the Pirates. And I thought of you.
I wish you a very happy holiday season. And many more happy summer afternoons at your son’s side on the North Side.
One of baseball’s age-old hypothetical questions — “If you had to win one game, who would you pitch?” — has become very real in the Wild Card age.
That was certainly my lead takeaway from the last two seasons of covering the Pirates, having watched Madison Bumgarner then Jake Arrieta throttle the Bucs in the last two NL Wild Card games.
MLB execs have been saying “Amen” to that with the frenzy in a free agent market that now is a sprint and not a marathon, in contrast to what we usually say about the season itself.
The Winter Meetings used to green-light the offseason action. Now it’s just a pit stop. Even before the symbolic gavel drops tomorrow morning in Nashville, clubs have spent a whopping $814 million in multi-year deals to 13 free agents (that compares to $307 million on six multi-year deals prior to the start of the ’14 Winter Meetings).
And most of that investment has been made in 10 pitchers — two setup relievers and eight starters: David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Mike Pelfrey.
In a sense, I consider this demand for starters oxymoronic, given the game’s ongoing de-emphasizing of starting pitchers. Two-hundred-inning workhorses in 2015 (28) were the fewest in a full seasons since 1947 (25), when there were only 16 teams compared to today’s 30.
How many complete games do you suppose that elite eight had? Seven; Zimmerman, Happ, Estrada and Pelfrey had zero.
So, obviously, all starters are being paid exponentially more per inning than ever before. One example (I’ll let economists weigh in with the dollar-value factor):
At the height of his earnings ($4.2 million in 1992), Nolan Ryan made $26,752 for each of his 157 innings.
Pelfrey is the low man among our elite eight. If his workload matches his career average (124 innings), he would make $64,516 for each inning based on his two-year, $16 million deal with Detroit.
At the other end of the scale, Greinke will earn $149,782 per inning if he matches his single-season max of 229 innings (in 2009), based on the Annual Average Value of his six-year, $206 million deal.
And you know what? He’ll be worth every penny to the D-backs if they have a must-win game and Zack on the hill.
To borrow from an insurer’s inescapable advertising campaign, if you are a pitcher looking to jack up your market value, you go to Pittsburgh. That’s just what you do.
It’s been a successful formula for both the Pirates and for hurlers laying down their heads on pillow contracts, as Scott Boras calls them. Edinson Volquez came for $5 million and left for two years and $20 million (and a World Series ring with the Royals). A.J. Burnett came on the Yankees’ dime and left for $15 million (before his ’15 return). J.A. Happ came with a 4.64 ERA and left for three years and $36 million.
You don’t even have to leave to cash in. Francisco Liriano came for $1 million in 2013 and remained for three years at $39 million. Mark Melancon checked in at a minimum in 2013 and has become an $8 million closer.
Word gets around. When the Pirates were contractually obligated to deal Clayton Richard to the Cubs in July, GM Neal Huntington was surprisingly OK with the time and effort spent in vain on the lefty’s rehab because “our success with him will attract others in a similar situation.”
Huntington now is counting on that to restock a rotation after Burnett’s retirement and Happ’s departure. There is a mob of free agent pitchers in bounce-back modes elbowing each other to get into Ray Searage’s lab (although Jim Benedict doubtless took some of the fix-it draw with him to Miami).
With that in mind, look for the Pirates’ 2016 rotation to include one, maybe two, of these (ages in parenthesis):
- Mat Latos (28): 28-11 in 2012-13; 4-10 last season.
- Brandon Morrow (31): 10-7, 2.96 in 2012; 5-6 since.
- Mike Pelfrey (32): Sinkerballer — Bucs love those — who went 6-11 in ’15.
- Jeff Samardzija (31): Big arm, went small (18-26) last two seasons.
- Kyle Kendrick (31): 31 wins in 2012-14, 7-13, 6.32 last season.
- Dillon Gee (30): 12-11, 3.62 in 2013; 0-3, 5.90 last season.
- Doug Fister (32): 6-foot-8 righty — Bucs also love tall downhill-throwers — who went from 16-6, 2.41 in ’14 to 5-7, 4.19 last year.
- Chad Billingsley (31): 3-3 in 49 innings since 2012.
- Gavin Floyd (33): 12-11 in 2012; 2-6 since.
- Justin Masterson (30): All-Star in 2013; 11-11 since.