Monday, October 15, 2012


Tennessee Williams had a brother named Dakin, a witty man who spent most of his life lawyering in Collinsville in southern Illinois. Dakin was a perennial candidate for this or that public office, a quest attributable more to his fondness for being clever in public than to any chance of winning.  He’ll be remembered mostly for getting  off one of the best political zingers ever, delivered in a 1970s Democratic senatorial primary in which he called his opponent, Adlai Stevenson III,  “the potato candidate, because the best part of him [dad Adlai II] is in the ground.”
That image also fits baseball, although the statistical pile it bestrides is above ground, not below. It’s a veritable mountain, and the opportunities for comparisons it provides fuels most of the game’s conversations.  In baseball the past lives vividly through stats, making every trip to the ballpark a journey down memory lane, the game’s and one’s own. That alone is worth the price of admission. 

The trouble is that, in this computer age, the mountain may be growing too fast. Writers and broadcasters seem to crank out new distinctions daily, telling us, for example, that player X may be better than we thought because he’s the only guy ever to get 10 triples, 20 stolen bases and 75 walks in a season.  It’s enough to make one’s eyes cross.
  Further, the deluge may obscure the occasional statistical achievement that’s really worth celebrating.   I refer to Miguel Cabrera’s hitter’s Triple Crown in a season in which he led the American League in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs batted in (139). No one had accomplished such a feat in 45 years, since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.  Major League baseball was smaller then, with 20 teams instead of the present 30, and not every pitcher stood 6-feet-5 and could throw a strawberry through a battleship. Cabrera is some hitter, and should be recognized as such.
Since 1901, Year One for most modern baseball records (changes in the game make previous numbers less than comparable), the Triple Crown had been won only 13 times by 11 players. They are Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1909), Rogers Hornsby (1922 and ‘25), Jimmy Foxx (1933), Chuck Klein (1933), Lou Gehrig (1934), Joe Medwick (1937), Ted Williams (1942 and ’47), Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966), Yaz and, now, Cabrera.  Considering that more than 16,000 players have worn Major League uniforms in that span, it’s an exclusive group.

It’s a Who’s Who list made more notable by who isn’t on it. That includes Babe Ruth, the game’s all-time greatest hitter (and player). Six times he led the American League in both homers and RBI (in 1919, ’20, 21, ’23, ’26 and ’28) but never pulled off  the triple even though his batting average topped .370 in four of those years and was .393 in one (’23), when Harry Heilmann hit .403. 

Other near misses have been closer.  The mighty Foxx missed a TC in 1932 by finishing second in the batting race by three points to a player (Dale Alexander) whose 392 official at-bats wouldn’t qualify for the title under today’s rules. Williams could have won in ’49 but went hitless in his last game and lost the batting title to George Kell, .3427 to .3429. Al Rosen led the AL in homers and RBIs in 1953 but finished second in batting average by one point to Mickey Vernon; Rosen almost beat out a chopper to third base in his final at bat when a hit would have given him the award.

More recently, individuals have led their league in two of the three TC categories lots of times since Yaz swept the board in 1967, but few have come close in the third. The main rub most often has been the batting-average race; two of the award’s three categories favor heavy-legged power hitters, but some speed afoot usually is necessary to get the eight or 10 “leg” hits that put valuable points on an average. Additionally, big hitters usually also are big whiffers, and you can’t get a hit if you don’t hit the ball.

It’s curious that Cabrera is the man to break the long TC drought. He’s been an excellent hitter since he broke in with the Florida Marlins in 2003 at age 20, with at least 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in annually since he became a full timer in 2004, and a lifetime BA of .318 through this season. But, playing in Miami or Detroit, he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Albert Pujols, who’s more physically imposing than he is, ARod, who’s richer,  and Manny Ramirez, who’s nutsier.

Cabrera is Venezuelan and doesn’t speak English well, so he doesn’t cut much of a media figure. He’s had problems with alcohol and has a DUI, a rehab stint, a bar brawl or two and a domestic dustup on his rap sheet. His jiggly middle makes him something less than a model of athleticism. He is sometimes confused with another Cabrera—Melky—who was leading the National League in hitting this year before being benched for flunking a drugs test.

Cabrera spent the season at a stressful fielding position (third base) that wasn’t his natural station (he’s a first baseman). He played the latter part of the campaign with ankle problems that reduced his never-dazzling speed. Still, he maintained his batting average while boosting his power numbers in August and September as his Detroit Tigers overtook the Chicago White Sox to win in the AL Central Division.  All things considered, his was a brilliant performance that deserves to be remembered.  I hope you enjoyed it because it may be another 45 years before we’ll see something like it again.


Monday, October 1, 2012


                The lockout of the National Football League refs has ended, and the sigh of relief at the announcement swayed large trees nationwide.  Now we can get back to watching football and drinking beer without tangential concerns. Who could ask for more?
                 But if the unpleasantness is over, the malady lingers on. If you were paying attention you knew that the NFL owners, who run the game, think so little of us fans that they believed we’d swallow a sub-par product without gagging.  You’ll recall that they did that once before in a more-direct way, by fielding so-called replacement-player teams when the players’ union went on strike in 1987. It took a long time for the smell of that rotten fish to dissipate, and it will take a while for this one, too.  The longer the better, I hope.

                 The treatment of the public by the owners is hard to fathom:  in what other business would a manufacturer befoul its product yet continue to offer it at full price? It would be like Mercedes-Benz losing a key engine part but fashioning a new one out of duct tape and popsicle sticks and sending the result to its dealers to peddle as though nothing had changed. I guess the concept of shame is foreign to those guys.
                 In true NFL spirit, let’s go to the replay to figure out what happened. What the lockout wasn’t about was money.  According to most reports the difference in the positions on salary and pensions of the league and the refs’ association when the lockout was declared last June amounted to about $3 million, an infinitesimal fraction of 1% of the league’s $9 billion annual take. The teams spend that much on Ace bandages, for heaven’s sake.
                To plumb what it was about will take some sociologizing, which I’m qualified to do because I have a degree in the subject (honest).  I think it’s about the chasm that separates the rich and rest in America these days, and about how little regard the former have for the latter.
                When I went to work as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Co., actually) in 1963, the boss (president) was Bernard “Barney” Kilgore. He knew what I did because he used to do it himself, before holding various editorships with the paper. He made more money than I did but not by an enormous multiple; once I was driven past his home in Princeton, N.J., and it looked like one I realistically could aspire to own.
               Today Dow Jones is headed by Rupert Murdoch. He’s richer than the gods and probably lives better.  Currently he’s busy feeding the employees of his British newspapers to the wolves for carrying out policies adopted under his stewardship.  If he were called to account he’d probably make some remark about crumbling cookies.
                 The NFL owners obviously had no appreciation of the referees’ skills or the difficulty of their jobs. They probably felt it beneath their dignity to have to negotiate with such pipsqueaks, the sort of ordinary-looking people they see walking around, antlike, below their tower-office windows. The moguls may tolerate making seven- or eight-figure deals with their players because the players’ arrogance of talent matches their own arrogance of wealth, but game officials lack such cachet. Easily overlooked, they seemed as easy to replace as call-center workers. So they were, and if they didn’t like it they could lump it. 
              What the owners did in hiring “replacement” refs was the equivalent of going to the local municipal pool, plucking out a bunch of middle-aged lap swimmers and convincing them to jump into a river full of piranhas. Anyone who’s watched an NFL game from the field knows that analogy isn’t farfetched.

                It was only a matter of time until the owners’ blindness was exposed. Week 1 of the season wasn’t so bad because football’s return was welcomed and the idea of “everyman” officials seemed cute, but by Week 2 their gaffes had become glaring and by Week 3 they were intolerable. It wasn’t so much that they blew moving violations, which the real refs also sometimes do (the main trouble is that so much extracurricular banging around is tolerated that penalizing it often seems arbitrary), but that they couldn’t get the easy stuff right, like the downs, ball spots or the number of permitted challenges or timeouts.

                Further, it was apparent that the newbies didn’t know what they saw even after they’d seen it. Play was repeatedly halted so the game officials could consult with unseen NFL types stationed in the press box areas. Trouble was, those meetings usually resulted in bad decisions being upheld, like that of the “Fail Mary” pass call in last Monday’s Packers-Seahawks game that broke the camel’s back. Coaches and players were wantonly ignoring league edicts for silence on the subject, and just about every sports columnist or blogger in the land was describing the situation with “f” words like “farce,” “fraud” or “fiasco.” The owners had no alternative but to capitulate.

                The truth is that few people on any of our top-level fields of play are more dedicated, competent or honorable than the game officials.  To get where they are they’ve served long apprenticeships that earned them little money or celebrity (my friend the ex-ref Jerry Markbreit started by calling intramural touch-football games at the University of Illinois). Most fully understand that they succeed best when they are noticed least, a difficult posture to maintain in a me-centered era.

                That they are being noticed now is a good thing, even though the reason isn’t. I don’t expect the owners to remember this for long, but the rest of us should.