The baseball postseason is a myth-making enterprise, both in the sense of the legends that sustain the game and the showbiz and blather that turn the national pastime into a Very Special Episode every year about this time.
Without the World Series, the myth of Babe Ruth would be the story of a real good baseball player, not the Bunyanesque legend of a man who transcended sports. Willie Mays has always said he made better catches than the one he made in the 1954 World Series, but the idea of Willie Mays, Greatest Center Fielder of All Time, is built around that one moment. Everything else he ever did is supporting evidence.
There's one such myth at play in the 2002 World Series between the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants, which opens Saturday night at Edison Field in Anaheim. Barry Bonds, who has turned a stellar career into one for the ages with his last two eye-popping seasons, and who until this season had a history of failure in the playoffs, gets a chance to write a crucial chapter in his myth by playing in the World Series for the first time. With a few big hits, he'll make people forget forever his earlier failures. If he bombs, he'll magnify those earlier shortcomings.
There are more myths of the other stripe, and this year features an old war horse, the Cinderella team, coming out of nowhere. That would be the Anaheim Angels, who are a Cinderella because their win over the New York Yankees was an upset.
Only it wasn't an upset. After they stumbled out of the gate by going 6-14, the Angels were the best team in baseball over the next 142 games, or 88 percent of the season, and they did this while playing in the toughest division, the American League West, with the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners, good teams they had to play a total of 39 times. The Yankees played 19 games against the Boston Red Sox, who had the same record as the Mariners, but they also played 18 against the hideous Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whom the Angels got to play only nine times.
So I know what you're saying: You picked the Yanks to win in four, genius. Yes, but that's because I figured the Yankees would work their postseason mojo on the Angels -- that they would get better in the playoffs than they had been in the season, as they've done every year of their current championship run except 1998, when they were a juggernaut from Opening Day on. I was wrong. That didn't happen. But that doesn't mean the Angels are some sort of out-of-nowhere club, just because most of the typing classes, yours truly included, underestimated their ability to make the series go according to form.
On paper, the Angels were better than the Yankees this year. A lot of teams better than the Yankees go into playoff series against them and lose. The Angels avoided that fate.
MYTH: David Eckstein, Great Player!
Eckstein is a singles-hitting utility infielder type, a pesky leadoff guy who, despite having little range and a weak arm, is the Angels' shortstop. He's also 5-foot-8 and a classic overachiever. You know, they said he was too small in high school, they said he was too small in college ... But little David showed 'em!
TV people love people like Eckstein, especially when they're energetic and bright-eyed, which plays well on the tube, and kind of self-effacing and humble, all true of our Davey, who, as Fox's announcers have pointed out, has a very appropriate front name, as in "and Goliath."
Fox is so invested in the myth of David Eckstein, Great Player! that its announcers are willing to say things that are patently untrue to defend it. In Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins, Eckstein took a relay throw in shallow left field and fired toward home to try to stop Dustan Mohr from scoring the tying run. The throw dribbled along the infield and was cut off. Watching the replay, Fox's Steve Lyons said something like, "There's one of the rare occasions where Eckstein's weak arm actually hurts you."
Right, Steve. Having a weak arm at shortstop is usually no problem. It's only the most important defensive position on the field, and how often does a shortstop have to make a long throw in a hurry from, say, the hole to, oh, first base? Maybe twice a game? For Eckstein it's probably only once because he has such little range, he won't reach that other grounder. Still, that's the equivalent of 54 innings' worth of outs, or about as many as your closer is responsible for.
There's apparently no room for nuance on TV. It's not possible to say: "That Eckstein doesn't hit much, doesn't field much, but the Angels sure do like him. They think he gives them a big lift, that he's their spark plug. It's a debatable point, but boy, he's fun to watch and likable as hell."
I wonder why that is, but then that question will have to wait for a "questions about the World Series" article.
MYTH: The Angels' long history of postseason frustration will motivate them.
This is sometimes stated as: The Giants' long history of postseason frustration will motivate them.
First of all, none of the Angels were around in 1986, the last time the team blew a playoff series. The oldest player, Kevin Appier, was 18. The longest-tenured Angel, Tim Salmon, was six years away from his big-league debut. These Angels have mostly played for mediocre Angels teams for a few years, and sometimes for other teams for a few years. They haven't been living and dying with the Halos' fortunes over the team's brutal four-decade history. Angels fans and sports reporters remember the pain of Dave Henderson's heroics for the Red Sox in '86. The players don't.
Second, the Giants were beaten in the National League Championship Series in 1987, swept in the World Series in '89, and bounced in the first round in '97 and 2000. Some of the current Giants were around for those last two, so you could make a better argument on this score for the Giants than for the Angels. But that leads us to:
Third, this motivation business is mostly bunk. Listen, if you couldn't get motivated for the World Series because it's the World Series, you probably wouldn't have made it to the World Series in the first place.
This isn't the big game against State. The team that's going to win is going to win because it hits and pitches better, not because it's really reeling with the feeling, or whatever. All that stuff about motivation and team chemistry is way overrated in baseball. Remember how the A's were supposed to fall apart because they lost their heart and soul, Jason Giambi? They won 103 games this year.
MYTH: In-game strategy is the most important thing about managing.
A close watching, or even a not-so-close watching, of the two League Championship Series ought to disprove this one. St. Louis Cardinals fans are in an uproar over Tony La Russa's incomprehensible moves in the Cards' five-game loss to the Giants. Why did he stay with Rick White so long in Game 4? Why didn't he hit for Matt Morris in the ninth inning of Game 5? Why was he, the master of the quick hook, so reluctant to use his bullpen, which he had stocked with eight relief pitchers? Why did he keep writing Tino Martinez's name in the lineup? And so on.
And guess what: None of it mattered. The Cardinals got spanked, and they got spanked because they didn't hit. Their best offensive weapon, Albert Pujols, kept striking out with a man on third and less than two outs. They went 3-for-39 with runners in scoring position. That's .077 folks, and keep in mind that batting averages with runners in scoring position are normally inflated because that's when sacrifice flies happen. So just in case .077 doesn't seem really bad to you, it's actually even worse than it seems.
La Russa could have managed perfectly, made every right move, and the Cardinals still would have gotten spanked. The players have to execute.
You can say the same thing about Ron Gardenhire, manager of the Twins. He made some funky moves, too, most notably forgetting to play his best right fielder, Bobby Kielty, in favor of Mohr and Michael Cuddyer. Kielty got all of seven at-bats in 10 games. And guess what: He didn't give up any of the runs in that 10-run Angels seventh in Game 5.
Conversely, Dusty Baker of the Giants and Mike Scioscia of the Angels both made their own strange moves in winning efforts. Why does Baker insist on using Shawon Dunston as a pinch hitter? Russ Ortiz, a pitcher, is a better hitter. Why did he hit Tom Goodwin in the middle of the order in Game 5? Why didn't he bat for Kirk Rueter in the fifth inning of that game, an echo of a mistake from the 2000 playoffs? Why didn't Scioscia bring in Troy Percival in the eighth inning of Game 1 against the Yankees? Why do they both give up valuable outs so willingly with ill-advised sacrifice bunts?
Fans love to debate this sort of thing, but it's all small potatoes in terms of whether a team will be successful. The most important aspect of being a successful baseball manager is the same as the most important aspect of being a successful manager in any other business: being a good manager. That is, being a good leader, a good boss.
Baker, Scioscia, La Russa and Gardenhire, each in his own way, are very good at being a boss, leading a baseball team, which is akin to being in charge of the most important department in a business. Think of the jobs you've had. Which of your bosses were the most successful, the ones who were great at the nuts and bolts of their own job, or the ones who were good at managing people?
The most unanimously respected baseball strategist of the latter half of the 20th century was Gene Mauch, who managed the Angels, Twins, Montreal Expos and Philadelphia Phillies between 1960 and 1987. Brilliant baseball mind. He managed nearly 4,000 games. And guess how many pennants his teams won. Zero. I have no idea if Mauch was a lousy boss. My point is only that his brilliant strategy didn't win any pennants. He did have the talent at times.
Think about how baseball works. A manager can make the perfect move, bring in just the right pinch hitter to face just the right pitcher in just the right situation, and that hitter's still going to make an out about 65 percent of the time. The odds are 2-1 in favor of the manager looking like an idiot. Or the manager can have a horrible hitter at the plate in a key situation -- Dunston batting for the Giants in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5, for example -- and even that guy's going to get a hit 20 percent of the time. If he gets that hit at the right time -- Dunston in Game 5 -- the manager looks like a damn genius.
You can strategize till the cows come home, but if your players don't get the job done, you get to go right home with them come October.
La Russa's ability to win with different teams over the course of two decades and Baker's consistent success over the years with teams that are almost always thought to be undermanned show that their leadership skills over the long haul of a season are far more important than any strategic moves they might make. Without La Russa's masterful job of guiding the Cardinals through a painful season this year, they would never have been around to make his playoff moves look bad.
When Alan Trammell was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers this week, he called his old boss, Sparky Anderson, who won five pennants and three World Series in 26 years of managing the Tigers and Cincinnati Reds, asking him to come down to spring training next year to help out. Anderson demurred, telling the Detroit Free Press that he'd told Trammell he'd come down if Trammell really wanted him to, "but I will not be a part of taking anything from you." He then publicly invited Trammell to withdraw the invitation.
Trammell had said he valued Anderson's opinions. "Somebody else's voice is an opinion," Anderson said he told his former shortstop. "Your voice has got to be a fact."
The message from this most successful of managers was clear: Trammell doesn't need Anderson around to help him decide which situational lefty to hang on to or when to use the hit-and-run. Given a minimal level of strategic competence and sanity (see "pitching to Barry Bonds," below), the most important part of Trammell's job is being a good boss, and having the legendary Anderson around too much might hamper his ability to establish himself properly.
MYTH: The guy behind a big hitter "protects" him.
The latest proof of this idea is the Giants, where Jeff Kent's season took off when he moved from the fourth spot in the order, behind Bonds, to the third spot, in front of him. All of a sudden, seeing better pitches with Bonds to protect him, Kent's slumbering bat awakened. You'll see the evidence for this presented on-screen during the World Series. To wit, Jeff Kent hitting fourth: .297, 15 home runs, 53 RBIs in 84 games. Jeff Kent hitting third: .333, 22 home runs, 55 RBIs in 67 games.
Except the evidence supporting the myth is a myth too.
Kent had already started hitting before he switched places in the order with Bonds. In June, he hit .414 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 26 games, hitting cleanup in all but the last four. In July, hitting third, he hit .379 with six homers and 12 RBIs in 25 games. The reason his hitting-third numbers are so much better than his cleanup numbers is that he was hitting cleanup in April and May, when he wasn't hitting at all.
It's true that Kent walked only five times in July after walking nine times in each of the season's first three months. So he was presumably seeing more strikes. But instead of walking, he made outs. His on-base percentage fell from .463 in June to .413 in July. It continued to fall the rest of the year, especially in September, when he slumped badly, despite the mighty Bonds still hitting right after him. Kent hit .232 in September, and he hit .263 with one RBI in 10 playoff games. Nice protection. Oh, and by the way, Kent's walk totals returned to normal in August and September.
Bonds, meanwhile, did hit slightly better out of the third spot than out of the cleanup spot. I'll spare you the numbers. But do you really think opposing pitchers are more willing to pitch to Bonds with Kent following him than with the far less dangerous Benito Santiago coming up? They're nuts if they are, because Bonds is so much more dangerous than either of them. Bonds walked 1.43 times per game in the cleanup spot, 1.40 times per game in the third spot. Over 162 games, that's about four walks a year. Doesn't look to me like pitchers avoided him more with the lesser hitter behind him.
This week I heard a St. Louis radio personality mention that Cardinals cleanup hitter Albert Pujols sees better pitches when Tino Martinez is hitting well behind him. Nonsense. What pitcher, other than in a bases-loaded situation, would give Pujols a fat pitch if he knows Martinez, even at his best, is next?
And speaking of pitching around Bonds ...
MYTH: Intentional walks are "chicken." They're for wusses.
If intentional walks are for wusses, what else is? Double-teaming Randy Moss? Triple-teaming Shaquille O'Neal? Or fouling him? Positioning your outfielders correctly? Sticking and moving against a plodding knockout puncher? Throwing the bomb when the defense stacks up on the line to take away the run? Stopping at second on a single to right when Vladimir Guerrero is the right fielder?
Intentionally walking a batter is just regular old strategy. There's a phrase for managers who shy away from it for reasons of machismo and not wanting to look like a weenie. That phrase is: not managing in the World Series. I just can't imagine a manager looking in the mirror, or addressing the fans, and feeling good about himself by saying, "Yeah, we got swept because Bonds hit six home runs in four games, but at least I'm not a punk. We pitched to him." It makes no sense. It's misguided loyalty to some weird macho ideal. Why is refusing to pitch to Barry Bonds a wuss move, but refusing to run into an out at third base on Vlad Guerrero isn't?
Take my word for it. The Angels will not feel abashed if they win the World Series by pitching around Bonds, which is in fact the only way they're going to win it. And despite their fans with their chicken outfits and their taunts, no member of the Giants, Bonds included, would begrudge them the strategy. In fact, if the Angels pitch to Bonds and the Giants win, watch the Giants shake their heads in the aftermath. "I can't believe they pitched to him. We're thrilled, but what were they thinking?"
MYTH: The World Series can be used to predict the stock market, or vice versa.
This is kind of a silly one, and it comes up with lots of different sports events. When a Big Ten team wins the Rose Bowl by three touchdowns, a Democrat is elected president. Stuff like that. (I just made that one up. Don't waste your time checking the record and telling me it's wrong.) The New York Times ran a tongue-in-cheek piece saying that all-California World Series seem to happen every 14 years (1974, 1988, 2002), and always at a time when the market has taken a beating. Only in order for this theory to work, the article points out, you have to ignore the 1989 Series, which is 25 percent of all California-only World Series, including the current one.
While it isn't true that you can predict the market by what happens in the World Series, or vice versa, the Series does have a spooky way of tying in to the outside world. For example:
OK, I made that one up too.