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ESPN baseball columnist Rob Neyer’s latest book, “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders: A Complete Guide to the Worst Decisions and Stupidest Moments in Baseball History,” is, as the title suggests, a celebration of dunderheadedness.
It doesn’t go all the way back in baseball history, starting with the Chicago White Sox replacing slumping young slugger Jack Fournier at first base in 1917 with all-field, no-hit Chick Gandil, who became a ringleader as the Sox threw the 1919 World Series for gamblers’ money.
Nice move. Which reminds me, the book’s 53 bite-size chapters, plus copious sidebars, some written by others, make it great bathroom reading. In my world, that’s a compliment.
Most of the familiar biggies are here, from the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth on through the Cubs’ College of Coaches experiment, and finishing with Joe Torre’s failure to use Mariano Rivera in extra innings in the pivotal Game 4 of the 2003 World Series.
The Red Sox and Cubs, as you might guess, are well represented.
A few famous blunders aren’t, such as Merkle’s Boner or Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike. That’s because, Neyer writes, “the blunder must be premeditated. Somebody has to have thought, ‘Hey, this would be a good idea.’” Other requirements: “A reasonable person might, at the time, have made a reasonable case for doing something else.” And the blunder must have had some meaningful effect.
In other words, Neyer doesn’t waste a lot of time picking and choosing a particular blunder from woebegotten franchises like the current Pirates and Royals, or the Depression-era Braves or Reds. What’s one blunder to the Pittsburgh Pirates?
Neyer also ignores segregation. “That’s not a blunder,” he writes in the introduction. “That’s a crime. I’ve left this crime out of the book because of its enormity.” He writes that he didn’t believe he could do the topic justice.
Full disclosure: I’ve never met Neyer, but we correspond from time to time by e-mail and we’re rivals in the — ahem — celebrity Scoresheet Baseball charity fantasy league being sponsored by Baseball Prospectus. I wouldn’t tell you his book was good if it wasn’t, but now you have all the information so you can trust me as much as you’d like.
I called Neyer at his home in Portland, Ore., earlier this week and we talked about, well, the Cubs and Red Sox a lot, and also the unfairness at the heart of any book about baseball blunders.
I want to start with one of your last chapters, “Cubs Hire Dusty Baker.” I know everybody wants him fired now, but he took them to within five outs of the World Series in his first year, and he’s had a record of success. How was that really a blunder?
Well, I happen to think Dusty Baker is a good manager in some situations but isn’t in others. He might have been perfect that first season, but he certainly hasn’t had any luck keeping his young pitchers healthy. Now, do I blame him for that? Not necessarily. I think Mark Prior might well have gotten hurt regardless. And it is true that the pitcher he’s worked the hardest, Carlos Zambrano, has been perfectly healthy.
But really what it comes down to is that if you look at the Cubs, leave aside for a second Prior and [Kerry] Wood, their pitching, look at their hitting. They finish near the bottom of the league in on-base percentage every season, and in part that’s because Dusty Baker, as you know, has this incredible affection for Neifi Perez and other players and has no patience for young players.
But “Cubs hire [general manager] Jim Hendry” then. He keeps making the deals, or do you think he’s just doing Dusty’s bidding?
Oh, I think Jim Hendry is more than a willing accomplice. No question. When you write about managers, it probably makes more sense to focus on the general managers, or even the owners. I mean, somebody hired Jim Hendry, right?
If you’re going to do a truly accurate book about great blunders and you want to talk about who really is responsible, you could just write about the owners. Write a whole book about stupid things the owners did, because the owners are ultimately the ones who are responsible for everything that happens. I just think it’s a lot more fun to write about Dusty Baker than about the Tribune Company.
Speaking of blunders by the owners, how about the 1994 strike? Was that not a blunder one way or the other? They killed the World Series.
Good question. I’m not sure who that gets pinned on. In the book there’s a chapter about collusion, which I think contributed to the strike in ’94. Most of the people involved will tell you that the distrust sowed by the owners during the three years of collusion [1985-87] was at least a contributing factor to the strike, because the players really didn’t trust the owners, as well they shouldn’t have.
But no, the strike could have been in the book. There could have been a lot of owner-player conflict in the book. I don’t have much stomach for that subject. I get bored with it pretty quickly, which is why most of the business stuff in the book was written by or co-written by other people.
What are the leading subjects of people writing and saying, “How could you have left out this?”
You know, it’s funny, I haven’t really gotten much of that. The most common reaction I’ve gotten is “Why isn’t Kazmir-Zambrano [the New York Mets trading top pitching prospect Scott Kazmir to Tampa Bay for journeyman hurler Victor Zambrano in 2004] in the book?” Of course the answer is obvious. Not enough time has elapsed since the deal to really say much about that.
A lot of people have written to say, “How could you miss this trade? Why isn’t this in your list?” And the answer is I left out far more lopsided trades than I put in.
You could do a whole book on bad trades.
Just on lopsided trades, that’s right. I think most of the famous ones are in there, but there are obviously a bunch that aren’t.
The other one that I imagine was too late that could probably go in some future edition is the A.J. Pierzynski Twins-to-Giants trade.
Right, exactly. That was way too late. That wasn’t even on my radar screen.
I understand your point about why you left out segregation. But within that, weren’t there some spectacular moves, even after integration? The one I always think of is the Red Sox; I think they gave Willie Mays a tryout, didn’t they? And they didn’t sign him.
Willie Mays comes into those stories; so does Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson supposedly had a tryout at Fenway Park.
The problem is, I think if you’re going to jump on the Red Sox, you have to jump on them for something bigger, which is waiting so long to take black players seriously. You could write an entire book about just that subject. I’m surprised nobody has yet. Actually, Howard Bryant wrote a book about blacks and the Red Sox, and I’m sure a big chunk of that is about that very subject.
I don’t think it’s fair to hold the Red Sox accountable for not signing Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays because a lot of teams could have had those guys. And I believe Jackie Robinson tried out for more than just the Red Sox and the Dodgers. To me, there were 16 teams that could have had Willie Mays, and only one of them did, and that team took probably too long, although he was very young when the Giants signed him [in 1950].
I think a lot of those stories are somewhat apocryphal about black players trying out for particular teams, but I think that there are enough of them that aren’t apocryphal that you can’t just hold one team accountable.
I mean, look, Willie Mays played for the Birmingham Black Barons. The South at that time was essentially Cardinals country. Well, the Cardinals weren’t exactly rushing in to sign Willie Mays, even though they could have gone down and done it.
Now, the Cardinals were essentially a Southern team, and they were going to be one of the last teams to sign a black player, as they were. But the St. Louis Browns. Why didn’t they do it? The St. Louis Browns actually integrated pretty early [in July 1947]. So, I just think it’s hard to know where to spread the blame around, exactly. So I left it alone.
I really like the “Missed It by That Much” chapters, where you go through teams that missed a pennant or a division by one game and found the little mistakes that they made that would have won them another game or two. I realize this makes work multiply algorithmically, but I wonder if you thought about looking at the first-place teams too. Maybe they made some screw-ups just as big and it all came out in the wash? Did you consider that?
[Laughs.] You know, I didn’t. But you’re exposing a flaw in my reasoning. You’re absolutely right. It does come out in the wash. By definition it must be true that teams that win pennants by one game make almost exactly the same number of mistakes as teams that lose by one game. You’re absolutely right.
It really gets down to the heart of the methodology, which is that I am focusing on the mistakes that were made. And you’re right, there’s a whole chapter about [Red Sox manager] Don Zimmer blowing the pennant in 1978, but I suspect — and this would have been a fantastic article for the book, or a sidebar or something, and I wish I had thought of it. You’re the first one who’s mentioned it to me. It’s brilliant.
What I should have done, in that chapter at least, was a sidebar about the mistakes the Yankees made in 1978. You’re absolutely right, that would have been a wonderful thing, and in fact it’s a good idea for a separate article on my Web site.
Yeah, there’s a flaw in the reasoning, but this is the fun way to look at it, because Yankees fans don’t sit around thinking about what might have been in ’78 — “We might have won by four games!” Red Sox fans are still chewing on it.
Exactly. When you win there are no regrets. I don’t remember a single mistake the ’85 Royals made, although I’m sure they made a number of them.
The thing I’m learning more and more as I learn more and more about baseball is the role of luck. I just think everybody underestimates it.
Well, I think you’re absolutely right. This goes back a long time, but in 1989, Bill James did a computer simulation where essentially he assigned values to teams. He assigned qualities to teams and then ran a computer simulation to see how many times the best team actually won. And the best team actually didn’t win all the time. Twenty or 25 percent of the time the best team in the division didn’t win the division.
Essentially what it simulates is the role of luck. I’ve written about this a number of times over the years. Fans don’t want to admit how much luck is involved. But it seems obvious to me when you look at how many games are settled by one run every season. And you know, or I know, I believe, there’s a great deal of luck involved in close games.
And when you actually watch the games, watch day in and day out, and you see how many home runs clear the fence by a foot, or how many singles just get through the infield, it’s clear that the luck factor is huge.
Whether it’s five games or eight games or 12 games per season on average, I don’t know. It’s true that the same teams typically win every year, or at least the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Cardinals do. But it’s true that luck plays a huge role, and it’s true that the great majority of fans and writers and broadcasters underestimate the role of luck.
That’s our big blunder. But getting back to the first question, you know, if Steve Bartman doesn’t get in Moisés Alou’s way or Alex Gonzalez doesn’t make an error on that particular ball, Dusty Baker could bring the Cubs to the World Series, and then there’s no way you can call hiring a guy a blunder if he brings you to the World Series for the first time in 58 years.
I think that’s true. That’s absolutely true. There’s no question that our perception of managers and teams do hinge upon luck all the time. I would say that Dusty Baker could have made better luck for himself in that game. In a different chapter in the book there’s a sidebar about Dusty Baker in that game, the fact that he didn’t have anybody warming up to replace Mark Prior. When Prior fell apart there was nobody ready to come in, and Baker should have at least had somebody ready, if not in the game at the exact moment.
But no, you’re absolutely right. There is an element of unfairness throughout the book because, in most cases, with a little bit of luck here and there, not just the Dusty Baker chapter, most of the chapters about managers in particular would not exist if the manager had just been 0.2 percent luckier than he was.
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