Archive: September 26th, 2007

Meaning of the Asterisk

Barry Bonds homerun baseball stamped with asteriskThe public has spoken, and the majority has ruled that the ball Barry Bonds hit as his 756th homerun will be stamped with an asterisk and sent to the Baseball Hall of Shame … er, I mean “Fame”.

As a baseball purist, I’m loving the decision. The ball will go in not so much as a slap in the face to Barry Bonds as much as a symbol of the era in which he played.

Sure, there are the apologists who still run to Barry’s defense, with ridiculous arguments such as “he never failed a test” (no, but he admitted to taking “the clear”); that “it was legal” (no, it was not — MLB may be exempt from antitrust laws but their players are not exempt from US laws applying to its citizens); or “everyone else was cheating too” (no, we don’t know that, and in any case it doesn’t make it right). Whichever side of the fence you’re on in regard to Bonds — or on the steroid issue — is moot. In the end, the asterisk on the baseball will be a visual reminder of what happened to baseball between the debut of Jose Canseco to the initiation of steroid testing in 2006 — a 20-year period in which we can’t be sure who was on what, and whether any game was purely “on the level”.

Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, when a young boy walks up to the ball in the glass case with the asterisk on it, and asks his father “what’s that all about”, he’ll be given a history lesson on not just Barry Bonds, but the state of baseball from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s. The story of how fame-seeking, greedy ballplayers juiced. How even greedier owners turned their backs. How all of America was fleeced during the chase on 61 in 1998. How Sammy Sosa suddenly forgot the English language during a congressional hearing. How Rafael Palmeiro perjured himself. Hopefully, the story will end with, “you don’t want to be like those guys”.

Breakfast of Champions

There’s an additional twist to the asterisk on the ball, and fans of Kurt Vonnegut may know what I’m talking about (besides the ironic character flaws that Bonds shares with the novel’s hero Dwayne Hoover).

In one of the first few pages of Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Championss, is the drawing of an asterisk. The author, however, describes the sketch as something else — something I can’t re-state here (there are kids reading this blog, after all!). Looking at the asterisk from Vonnegut’s point of view, the stamp on the ball has another meaning — it’s representative of the description many people have for the man who hit it.

Oh, and if we want to play six degrees of separation, “Breakfast of Champions” is obviously the trademarked marketing slogan of Wheaties Cereal. You know, the one that once had Mark McGwire adorned on its front panel?

No doubt the Bonds apologists would argue that a ballplayer could gain 40+ pounds of lean muscle in his late thirties — effectively turn himself into a bodybuilder — through hard work in the gym and eating his Wheaties.


Fundamental Slump

The Mets have endured batting slumps, they’re enduring a pitching slump, and now they’re suffering from a fundamentals slump.

How is that possible?

Fundamentals are one of the two aspects of baseball that — supposedly — can’t go into a slump (the other is speed). Either you’re a fundamentally sound team or you’re not, it’s that simple. Doing the right things, and making the correct decisions are a habit — they become instinct, or second nature. Repetition and experience further ingrain the fundamentals into a ballplayer’s game. There’s almost no thinking involved — it’s all reaction. For example, you use two hands to catch the ball. You keep your head down on a grounder. You cover first on a groundball to the right side. You don’t make the first out nor third out at third base. These are just a few of things that a professional ballplayer does over and over and over, until it’s automatic.

And yet, many Mets have suddenly “lost” their fundamentals.

Last night’s debacle was the latest example, with perhaps the most glaring incident occurring in the top of the seventh, on the slow grounder off the bat of Tony Batista. First, Carlos Delgado doesn’t charge the ball, but kind of surrounds it. He seemed to adjust the speed of his body to the slowness of the ball — maybe he was counting the hops, and waiting for number fourteen, who knows? When the ball finally reaches his glove, he turns to second — and no one is there. Apparently, Jose Reyes got a call on his cell phone. So Delgado turns to first, and Jorge Sosa — who perhaps was the one making the call to Reyes — is late covering. And somehow in this mess, everyone is glazing over this fact: where was Luis Castillo? Staying out of the way of Delgado? Setting up for a cutoff, thinking Delgado couldn’t reach first? Trying to call Reyes or Sosa on his cell phone and getting a busy signal? Reyes, Delgado, Castillo, and Sosa — four guys all forgetting how to play baseball.

In the ninth, Endy Chavez is stealing third as Carlos Delgado is striking out. Out of an amazing stroke of luck, he isn’t thrown out for the third out of the inning to end the game. What is going through Endy’s mind at this point? Apparently, the exact same thing that was going on in the mind of Reyes a few games ago, and of Carlos Beltran in the same game as Reyes (but nobody noticed, because like Chavez, Beltran was safe). For Chavez to make such a gross misjudgment, only a few days after watching Reyes and Beltran make the same goofs, is unbelievable. What does Willie Randolph have to do to get through to these guys? Is Sandy Alomar screwing up something in the translation? Do the players need a ball and chain strapped to their ankle? More importantly, why do they need to be told? This is a basic, simple, logical fundamental of baseball.

While the Mets’ fundamentals can’t compare to, say, that of the Braves or Cardinals, they still have been pretty solid all year. You can’t win nearly 90 games in MLB without playing sound baseball. Yet suddenly, in these last few weeks, outfielders are missing cutoffs; infielders are out of position; pitchers aren’t covering first nor backing up bases; relievers are walking leadoff batters with three-run leads; batters aren’t executing bunts; runners are getting picked off and making bonehead decisions. What the heck is going on?

Fundamentals — the one part of the game that shouldn’t go into a slump. Yet for the Mets, it has — and if it continues, there will be no postseason games at Shea.


Number Four

Duke Snider was the best all-time player to wear #4 for the Mets. But his tenure in the orange and blue — a few months in 1963 — was too brief to consider honoring here.

Instead, we have four former Mets to honor with this magical number — Lenny Dykstra, Rusty Staub, Robin Ventura, and Ron Swoboda. Sure, I could have eliminated Swoboda — who other than a memorable catch in the 1969 World Series didn’t have a terribly significant career — but since the number is four, and we have four guys, what the hey?

Rusty Staub as a New York Met in the early 1970sRusty Staub

Though fans who began following the Mets in the 1980s knew him as the big, fat old guy who came in to pinch-hit for Randy Jones and Pat Zachry (and then headed over to Fifth Avenue to cook up “the best babyback ribs in New York City”), Rusty Staub’s “first” career with the New York Mets was much more memorable. Back when he wore number four, Rusty was the entire offense of the early 1970s Mets lineups. Looking at today’s standards, it’s hard to believe that his 15 HRs, 76 RBI, and .279 batting average in 1973 carried the Mets — but he did. In fact, he was easily the team’s most valuable player, as he was the most consistent batter and the one guy who the opposition pitched around (you must understand, the .239-hitting John Milner was often hitting either third or cleanup … these were tough times). After leading the team in RBI, batting average, and finishing second in HRs in 1975, he was inexplicably traded to the Tigers for an over-the-hill Mickey Lolich (why a team with Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, and zero hitting would trade their best hitter for another pitcher … bleh). Still, Rusty had endeared himself to the Shea faithful with his clutch hitting, and is honored here because without him, there’s no way the Mets enter the 1973 World Series.

Robin Ventura hitting for the New York Mets
Robin Ventura

After ten years of terrorizing American League pitchers with his bat — and winning five Gold Gloves in the process — Robin Ventura became a free-agent and signed with the New York Mets prior to the 1999 season. He was the final ingredient for a team on the cusp of greatness.

Ventura was part of the “Greatest Infield Ever”, and (with all apologies to Edgardo Alfonzo) easily the most-skilled all-around third baseman in Mets history — a position that had been something of a jinxed sore spot for the organization since 1962. Similar to the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of John Olerud two years before, there were whispers that Ventura’s best days were behind him, and perhaps his personality would not be ideal for New York. Like Olerud, Ventura proved the naysayers wrong, big time.

All Ventura did in his first season as a Met was have the best season of his life, assembling career highs of a .301 batting average, 32 HRs, 120 RBI, and 38 doubles. His production was ample protection for cleanup hitter Mike Piazza, and instigated late-season “MVP!” chants from the Shea Stadium fans (he finished 6th in the voting). In August, he suffered a serious knee injury that he played through down the stretch — unbeknownst to the fans until the last week of the regular season, when it was revealed that he had torn cartilage. Nonetheless, he came up huge with heroics at the end, stroking a game-winning, pinch-hit RBI single against the Pirates to help propel the Mets into the Wild Card, and later hitting the historic “Grand Slam Single” to force a Game Six in the NLCS.

Lenny Dykstra with the New York MetsLenny Dykstra

Before he turned into something resembling a WWF champion (roids? no, just a lot of work in the gym, cough cough), “Nails” was a scrappy little “smurf” who was an instant hit with the New York fans for his all-out, gritty style of play and flair for the dramatic. His 1986 rookie year was jam-packed with highlights, web gems, clutch hits, and tobacco juice — a storybook season if there ever was one. Diving catches, drag bunts, and ninth-inning homeruns were his forte, and we came to expect him to do something huge at just the right moment — and he rarely let us down. His walkoff two-run homer against Astros closer Dave Smith in Game Three of the ’86 NLCS goes down as one of the most memorable and important in Mets history. Why he was ever traded to NL East rivals the Philadelphia Phillies — with Roger McDowell and for Juan Samuel, no less — goes down as one of the worst trades in Mets history.

Ron Swoboda of the New York MetsRon Swoboda

The Mets had their own “Rocky” long before Sylvester Stallone came along with his Balboa character. Ron Swoboda was another fan favorite — and like Dykstra was a hit for his all-out hustle, lack of fear, perpetually dirty uniform, and clutch hitting prowess. After hitting 19 homeruns as a 21-year-old in his rookie season of 1965, big things were expected of “Rocky”. Unfortunately, he never quite built on that rookie year, and finished a nine-year career with a .243 batting average.

Ironically, Swoboda was known as an awful fielder, prompting Casey Stengel to once say, “He will be great, super, even wonderful. Now if he can only learn to catch a fly ball.” I say ironic because between “The Catch” made by Willie Mays and “The Catch” made by Endy Chavez, there was “The Catch” made by Swoboda in the 1969 World Series — a valiant, amazing, diving stab of a line drive in the ninth inning of Game Four that saved at least one run and helped the Mets win 2-1 (in extra innings) and defined his place in baseball history. He also had six hits in the Series — more than any other player on either team. What Swoboda lacked in skill, he made up in heart, and will forever be cherished as a hero by Mets fans who had the pleasure of seeing him play.