Slate eBook Club Editions March 2003 Suicide Squeeze Michael Schaffer Baseball's Con Game David Greenberg The Myth of the 500-Foot Home Run John Pastier Stop the Disco Demolition Michael Schaffer Shinguards for Batters?! Bryan Curtis Does April Winning Bring October Innings? Jeremy Derfner Battle Station Joel Achenbach The Anaheim Angels Chris Suellentrop The Saddest Sack Tom Scocca Cricket: It's Wicket Awesome Robert Lane Greene Suicide Squeeze Baseball needs a dose of reality TV. By Michael Schaffer Posted Thursday, May 31, 2001, at 6:00 PM PT Baseball is in trouble. TV ratings are down, labor strife is on the horizon, and the unequal distribution of wealth among teams all but ensures a permanent class of cellar-dwellers. America's least hurried sport needs a quick fix. And it may soon get one: Commissioner Bud Selig is considering "contraction," eliminating up to four of the league's impoverished teams. (Click here to read a "Sports Nut" on the subject.) It would be baseball's first contraction since the National League booted four of its 12 teams in 1899. Under the schemes being bandied about, the ax would fall on small-market clubs plagued by low attendance, low payrolls, and (usually) the concomitant low winning percentage. The question of which teams to disband would be a delicate matter, decided only after extensive consultations. Three-fourths of the owners would have to concur before any changes could take place. Unfortunately, by delegating the question of contraction to the standard array of committees, panels, and discussions, Selig is turning a potential ratings bonanza into something that's as exciting as a Nebraska legislative hearing. Baseball should throw out its prissy organizational rules and let contraction's victims be determined on the playing field. Instead of letting the guys who got baseball into its mess decide whom to kill, baseball should adopt an elimination system. It would be simple: The worst team--baseball's weakest link, if you will-- gets the boot at the end of every season. Goodbye, dull old Game of the Week. Hello, Major League Survivor. Elimination must be complete and thorough. Forget the love of the game. Baseball needs to mine America's lust for blood. The players wouldn't be allowed to re-sign elsewhere, the owners would lose their investment, and the fans would lose their heroes. The cozy local ballpark would become a local Colosseum. Is there a better way to connect with the reality-TV generation? Turning contraction into a survival-of-the-fittest contest could single-handedly solve baseball's attendance problems. These days, there's pretty much no reason for a fan in, say, Tampa Bay to go to a game after about June, because the Devil Rays are sure to be woefully behind. But if contraction meant that the players on baseball's losingest team faced the very real danger of being thrown out of their jobs, the home stretch would make last-place fans eager to show up. Ditto TV viewership. These days, fewer and fewer self-respecting couch potatoes will tune in to a distant game between two teams they don't know anything about. But when players face the danger of permanent, irrevocable elimination, even viewers who hate baseball could be sucked into the melodrama. Imagine the syrupy sequences between innings: Will an eliminated rookie have to go back to his teen-age job at the Stop 'N' Shop? Could Vladimir Guerrero be sent back to the Dominican Republic if his Expos stay true to their dismal tradition? Is aging superstar Fred McGriff resting on his millions, content to let his furious teammates face the knife? If America fell for a cast of sociopaths playing dull immunity challenges in the Australian Outback, they would fall for this, too. The real danger might be that contraction-by-elimination would become too popular after the four seasons necessary to shrink the league. But there's an easy fix for that. After paring down to the desired size, baseball's owners could start adding new expansion teams--and still kick out one club a year at season's end. That way, the sport could penetrate the nation's baseball-deprived areas without thinning baseball's limited talent pool or sacrificing drama. With elimination baseball, everybody wins. Owners--26 of them, at least--see their revenues go up thanks to the ratings boom that elimination will spark. Players--the ones on non-loser teams, at least--will profit from the even-more- lucrative free-agent system that the revenue increase would subsidize. Fans can watch the fear of God put into pampered free agents. It's a sure thing for almost everybody. And that's a lot more than the number of folks who like baseball as it is. Baseball's Con Game How did America's pastime get an antitrust exemption? By David Greenberg Posted Friday, July 19, 2002, at 7:36 AM PT Baseball is in trouble, again. Another player strike looms. The World Series may be canceled for the second time in a decade. Commissioner Bud Selig is threatening to eliminate teams. Fans are incensed over Selig's decision to declare last week's All-Star Game a tie after 11 innings. And just like every other time baseball has been in turmoil recently, sportswriters and politicians are making noises about revoking the sport's antitrust exemption. The antitrust exemption is an irony. Owners and players prove day after day that they consider baseball above all a business. But the exemption stems from the government's naive insistence that baseball is only a game. Alone among professional sports, baseball enjoys immunity from antitrust prosecution because neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has been willing to overturn an ancient decision that baseball is merely an amusement, not a commercial enterprise. The controversial antitrust exemption dates to the early years of organized ball. In January 1903, the American and National Leagues united to form Major League Baseball. They systematically included a "reserve clause" in their contracts (as had already been National League practice for 25 years), which bound athletes to the teams that first signed them. Players could be sold or traded, but they couldn't simply sign with new teams when their contracts expired. In 1914 the new Federal League tried to lure ballplayers with higher salaries and no reserve clauses. Only a few athletes jumped leagues, however, and in 1915 the Federal League sued MLB for cornering the players' market--a violation, it contended, of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The parties soon reached a settlement that terminated the upstart league while compensating its owners. But the owners of the Federal League's Baltimore Terrapins, who were offered only a sliver of the settlement money, rejected the pact and pursued their antitrust claims at the Supreme Court. In the 1922 decision in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League, the court ruled against the Terrapin owners. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "personal effort, not related to production, is not a subject of commerce" and that baseball therefore wasn't subject to federal regulation. Holmes' ruling was in keeping with other lower-court rulings from the era that stressed baseball's status as a game. (One judge who'd taken this position, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was tapped as the sport's commissioner.) Over time, however, the ruling came to be widely regarded as flawed, as the Constitution's "commerce clause" was increasingly used as grounds for the government to regulate a range of dealings that had once been deemed off-limits to the feds. The court itself decreed, in other contexts, that exhibitions that crossed state lines were subject to federal control. Yet it had in effect rendered Major League Baseball exempt from antitrust law. The Supreme Court had a chance to revisit its decision in 1953, when it heard arguments in Toolson v. New York Yankees. The case concerned George Toolson, whom the Yankees had reassigned from their minor-league Newark franchise to another team. Toolson sued, claiming that the reserve clause in his contract violated antitrust laws. But the high court stood by its 1922 decision. It stated that if Congress had disagreed with the earlier ruling, it would (or should) have introduced new laws in the interim. "We think," the court wrote in an unsigned 7-2 opinion, "that if there are evils in this field which now warrant application of it to the antitrust laws, it should be by legislation." Congress, however, again failed to act, and ballplayers remained bound to a system in which they had no say. Then, in 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals traded their star outfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies without his consent. Flood did not want to uproot his family, abandon his business interests in St. Louis, or move to a city with a notoriously racist mayor (Frank Rizzo). He appealed the trade to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, stating, "After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes." Kuhn sided with the Cardinals ownership and upheld the trade. Flood retired rather than play for the Phillies. Flood's case reached the Supreme Court in 1972. Harry Blackmun, a newcomer to the Court, wrote the opinion in Flood v. Kuhn, in which the court upheld Flood's trade by a vote of 5-3. The opinion--for which Blackmun would long be ridiculed-- included a juvenile, rhapsodic ode to the glories of the national pastime, sprinkled with comments about legendary ballplayers and references to the doggerel poem "Casey at the Bat." (As the justices were bartering over their positions, Thurgood Marshall objected that Blackmun's list of all-time greats included only whites, so Blackmun added Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Roy Campanella. Marshall dissented anyway.) Blackmun admitted that ever since the Federal Baseball decision, the court had consistently interpreted the commerce clause to expand the government's sphere of influence; he noted, too, that no other sport was immune from antitrust laws. And yet, in the face of his own accumulated evidence, he maintained that the Federal Baseball precedent should stand because of the judicial custom of stare decisis, or a respect for precedent. In dissent, William O. Douglas regretted that he had joined the majority in Toolson, noting that he now recognized baseball was "big business that is packaged with beer, with broadcasting, and with other industries." Ironically, shortly after Flood, baseball players won the right to free agency and ended the 100-year tyranny of the reserve clause. The avenue of redress wasn't litigation but collective bargaining, through which the players' union had recently secured the right to arbitration. In 1975, pitcher Andy Messersmith's contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers expired, and although the Dodgers and Major League Baseball insisted the Dodgers alone had the option to re-sign him, Messersmith claimed otherwise. The parties took the case before an arbitrator hired by the owners, Peter Seitz, who ruled for Messersmith. (Seitz was immediately fired.) The owners lost an appeal in federal court, and thereafter players enjoyed a limited right to free agency. In October 1998, in a belated effort to address the labor problem, President Clinton signed into law the so-called Curt Flood Act, which stipulated that baseball's antitrust exemption didn't apply to player employment issues after all. But with the players faring well through collective bargaining, and with free agency embedded in baseball's practices, the point was now moot. On the other hand, the 1998 act explicitly left untouched such issues as team relocation, minor-league play, the employment of umpires, broadcasting agreements, and league expansion--suggesting that the exemption did in fact apply in these areas. Some of these issues continue to grate on players, owners, and fans. Minor league players, unlike major leaguers, continue to be tied to the club that signs them. The antitrust exemption essentially gives the league veto power over team relocation. NFL teams move frequently, settling in to new homes with bigger, richer fan bases. But baseball can block any franchise relocation--no team has moved for 30 years--preventing small-market owners from finding baseball- friendlier cities. The antitrust exemption is also likely to let Selig and the owners get away with shrinking the league. Last year the Major Leagues suggested eliminating the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos in order to raise other owners' profits and competitive prospects. The idea met stiff resistance and provoked members of Congress (especially Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone) to make noises about further limiting the antitrust exemption. Under this pressure, the idea was tabled. But Selig and the owners are still urging contraction, and an arbitrator is supposed to rule soon whether the players' union--which opposes contraction and the loss of jobs it would entail--is entitled to a say in the decision. Abolishing the antitrust exemption wouldn't bring peace to baseball. Conflict is hardwired into the player-owner relationship, as it is in any labor-management arrangement where gross inequities persist. (Although lavishly paid, most ballplayers in their lifetimes earn a mere fraction of what the baseball CEOs reap.) But since 1922, baseball's ownership has treated its gift from Justice Holmes as license to act arrogantly. Curtailing the exemption might humble the owners and Commissioner Selig, and that would certainly please baseball's increasingly unhappy fans. The Myth of the 500-Foot Home Run Do men always exaggerate the length of their long balls? By John Pastier Posted Saturday, October 4, 1997, at 12:30 AM PT On June 24, fans at Seattle's Kingdome witnessed one of the most dramatic pitcher-hitter confrontations since Walter Johnson faced Babe Ruth. On the mound, the Mariner's Big Unit, 6'-10" Randy Johnson, the tallest man ever to play in the majors, and the most proficient strikeout pitcher in history. At the plate, Oakland's Mark McGwire, the best and strongest home-run hitter since Ruth. Although Johnson whiffed McGwire twice on the way to a record-breaking total of 19 strikeouts, McGwire hit what was estimated as the longest home run in at least a decade. He got all of a 97-mph fastball, and launched it at 105 mph in the general direction of Canada. On the radio, Mariner announcer Dave Niehaus marveled, "A high fly ball, belted, and I mean belted, deep to left field, into the upper deck! My, oh my, what a shot by Mark McGwire! That is probably the longest home run ever hit here. ... It will be interesting to see how far that ball will be guesstimated. ... We have often wondered if McGwire got ahold of a Randy Johnson fastball how far he could hit it, and I think we just saw it." Shortly after, Niehaus gave the estimated distance: "538 feet--unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. The longest home run ever hit here in Seattle ... the longest home run I think I have ever seen hit." Not only that, it seems to be the longest ball hit since 1988, when the distance of major-league home runs was first estimated on a wide scale. Sports pages and broadcasters across the country are still heralding McGwire's homer as one of the great feats in slugging history. But there's a catch: The 538-feet figure, announced by the Mariners about 40 seconds after the ball landed, was an overstatement worthy of P.T. Barnum. According to three physicists who have worked independently and have written extensively on the science of baseball, the human limit for hitting a baseball at sea level, under normal temperatures and with no wind, is somewhere between 450 feet and 470 feet. Curious that anyone could hit a ball 538 feet in an indoor park near sea level, I called the Mariners to see how they devised such a spectacular number. The team repeatedly refused to explain how they arrived at the figure or to allow me to speak to whoever made the estimate. Mariners PR Director Dave Aust stresses that the figure is "a guesstimate." "We don't really believe in the process," Aust says, distancing the team from the McGwire number. That "process" has evolved over time. In 1988, IBM established the "Tale of the Tape" program, devising a system by which home-run distances could be estimated. Sponsorship of the Major League Baseball-licensed program was assumed by telecom giant MCI in 1992 and redubbed the "MCI Home Run Program." The program's Web site lists the 10 longest home runs of the year and provides a searchable database of the home runs of the previous two years. "We do not measure the home runs," says MCI spokesman Cal Jackson. The distances are estimated by the individual clubs and then provided to MCI. "We act as a warehouse for the numbers that Major League Baseball sends us." Unsatisfied with the 538-feet number, I did my own figuring. I consulted the 1976 Kingdome blueprints, a more recent laser-survey diagram of the stadium, and the Seattle Times game story, and visited the park twice. Here are the facts: McGwire's homer landed in the eighth row of the left side of section 240 in the second deck--439 feet (measured horizontally) from home plate and 59 feet above the playing field. How much further could the ball have gone? Based on a review of the trajectory charts in The Physics of Baseball and Keep Your Eye on the Ball: The Science and Folklore of Baseball, conversations with University of Puget Sound physicist Andrew Rex, and correspondence with aerospace engineer and baseball researcher Roger Hawks, I determined that the McGwire home run would have traveled about 474 feet. A mighty home run, yes, but still 64 feet short of the length claimed. Rex and Hawks agree that any home run hit that far must approximate the "maximum-distance trajectory"--that is it can only be a high fly or a normal fly, not a line drive. McGwire's homer was a high fly, as Niehaus attested, and as was confirmed by his broadcast partner Rick Rizzs, who marveled at the ball's hang time. According to the Major League Baseball system, a high fly will descend at an angle whose cotangent is 0.6. In trigonometry-for-dummies terms, what that means is that for every foot the ball would have continued to drop vertically, it would have traveled another 0.6 feet horizontally. Here's the math: 439 feet + (59 feet x 0.6) = 474 feet. McGwire's "538-footer" isn't the only questionable long ball of the season. The MCI Web site claims six 500-footers in 1997, five by McGwire and one by Colorado Rockies star Andres Galarraga, hit in Miami. Galarraga's home run, originally announced as 573 feet, then revised at the park to 529 feet, is listed at 529 feet by MCI. By my calculations, it probably went about 479 feet. And yet another reason to doubt the 1997 numbers: Apparently, the IBM/MCI program recorded no 500-footers from 1988 to 1996. Don't get me wrong--all the homers listed on the MCI top-ten list were remarkable shots. And I'm not arguing that 500-footers are impossible. A few have been hit, but all were aided by altitude, the elements, or both. The best-known of these, Mickey Mantle's mythical 565-foot blast on a windy day at Washington's Griffith Stadium, probably traveled about 506 feet, according to The Physics of Baseball author Robert K. Adair. The MCI Web site spells out the intended method of measuring these home runs. "Distances are measured using a grid system matched to each ballpark's unique parameters and configuration. Each home run is estimated based on how far it would have traveled from home plate on a horizontal line had it not been obstructed by something (seats, fence, roof, foul pole, other stadium parts, etc.)." If every team worked according to the MCI plan, each stadium would be accurately diagramed with a fine-grained grid related to its seating sections, level by level. This would tell the estimator how far the ball was from home plate when it landed in the seats, bullpen, or other stadium area, and how high it was above field level when it landed. (In today's stadiums, very few home runs touch the ground before hitting something higher first.) Working with the distance and height, the estimator would assess the ball's trajectory--was it a liner? a normal fly? a high fly?--and use a formula to determine the ultimate distance the ball would have traveled. Click here for the formula. In theory this is not a bad system, but in practice it's not always fully observed. Some teams work from arcs rather than grids, making the estimators' jobs more difficult. Some teams measure only to the point of impact, rather than to the likely field-level landing point. The Rockies don't have height data, and must estimate that dimension. The Red Sox can't see where balls, hit beyond "The Monster" into the street, land. If McGwire had hit his home run in Baltimore, for example, it would have been measured at about 448 feet under the Orioles' point-of-impact house rules. Such departures make the various major-league home-run distances inconsistent, and usually make them less accurate as well. Major League spokesman Patrick Courtney acknowledges that there have been questions about the MCI program, and says that the measurement issue will be discussed at league PR meetings next month "so everyone will be on the same page for next year." Let's hope so. Baseball, a game of inches and meticulous record-keeping, deserves accurate and consistent data, and these awful numbers have already tainted one set of record books. Click here for the story. The pity is that the home-run-measurement program, as conceived by IBM in 1988, was never uniformly implemented. Now is the time for scientists to review and refine the system and for Major League Baseball to ensure compliance and train the estimators. After a period of adjustment, during which many long home runs will seem puny, we'll slowly reacclimate ourselves to reality. Weaned off the inflated estimates, numbers that add 60 feet to big home runs, we'll finally appreciate the majesty of a 440-footer. sidebar A line drive would extend the horizontal flight path by 1.2 times the landing height. A normal fly would extend it by 0.8 times that height, and a high fly would extend it by only 0.6 times that height. sidebar Even a respected baseball research operation such as STATS Inc., which independently scores games and records details, isn't immune to the bogus numbers. Each year, they tabulate the season's longest home runs, rounded off to 10-foot increments to emphasize their approximate nature. Thinking these were autonomous judgments by their scorers, I asked for STATS's data on 1997's five longest dingers. McGwire's shot came in at 540 feet, and the others were also within a few feet of MCI's figures. It turns out that they simply round off the MCI numbers, creating a second set of slightly different numbers that appear to confirm the first one. Occasionally, however, STATS comes up with an independent estimate, and when it does the disparities can be immense. The Colorado Rockies estimated an April 20, 1997, McGwire home run at 514 feet, while STATS deemed it to be only 440 feet. In 1995, STATS logged a Denver home run by visiting Dodger Raul Mondesi as 510 feet, while the home-park crew thought it went only 463 feet. Stop the Disco Demolition By Michael Schaffer Posted Friday, May 4, 2001, at 12:00 AM PT Another year, another new baseball stadium. This season, the major leagues inaugurated two new ballparks, the 13th and 14th since 1989. In Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Stadium--a concrete-and-carpet monstrosity dating from 1970--gave way to cozy PNC Park, which features the now-standard accoutrements of baseball's past: real grass, a panoramic view of downtown, old-fashioned lighting, zigzagging outfield dimensions, etc. In Milwaukee, the president himself was on hand as vintage-style Miller Park, replete with brick façade and manual scoreboards, replaced the unlamented County Stadium as the home of the Brewers. In both cities, local boosters are hard at work praising the nostalgic pleasures of ballparks that evoke the bunting-draped glory days of Cy Young, Walter Johnson, and William Howard Taft. And if they're anything like the folks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, and the umpteen other cities that have built themselves neo-retro baseball stadiums, the fans in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee will pack the faux-wooden seats, reaching attendance totals unimaginable in the age of Roger Maris--let alone the age of Babe Ruth. There are plenty of reasons why fans are eager to shell out for the higher-priced tickets of the new-old class of stadiums: better views, comfier seats, more bathrooms. Yet there's something odd about baseball's embrace of retro architecture and the nostalgic uniforms and vintage on-field ads that accompany it. Because there's a pesky thing about nostalgia: Even in baseball--a game that drips glory-days sentimentality like so much sweat off a protective cup--it's in the eye of the beholder. And for those of us born in the '60s and '70s, our glory days of baseball (which I translate to mean, roughly, fifth grade) meant fantasizing about a big-league future played out in facilities that boasted goofy artificial turf, outfield dimensions balanced with Germanic symmetry, and a sea of parking lots for miles around. In other words, everything baseball is determined to unconditionally waive. Once upon a time, the magical modern stadium represented the majesty of the pros. The 1979 World Series, the first that I remember my beloved Orioles participating in, was played in part on the sea-foam-green turf of Three Rivers. Four years later, when they finally won one, the O's clinched it on the carpeting in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Eddie Murray hit a homer to right, where there is a trash-bag tarp beyond the outfield wall. After the game, the players rushed to celebrate by the pitcher's mound, their uniforms eerily free of grass stains. Minor-leaguers might dirty their uniforms or blast a homer over the Jiffy Lube ad on the center field fence, but this was the majors. Only the real pros could play on the ineffable surface known as artificial turf. Alas, no more. The so-called "cookie-cutter" stadium is on its way out. Cincinnati will soon replace Cinergy Field, completed in 1970, with the Great American Ball Park. In the Missouri legislature, the St. Louis Cardinals are pushing for financial support to help them replace 1966 Busch Stadium with a baseball-only ballpark set to feature (you guessed it) a red-brick exterior, arched masonry windows and openings, and a panoramic view of old downtown. And the Montreal Expos' ever- changing owners flirt perpetually with schemes to leave Olympic Stadium, the Mies-ian king of the ultra-modern stadiums, built for the 1976 Olympics. Baseball's architectural revolution is so complete that a trip to Veterans Stadium, the high-modern 1971 facility that houses the Phillies and Eagles, already feels more anachronistic than a visit to Camden Yards, with its didactic architectural evocations of Charm City's prewar urban past. While Camden's antique touches now feel about as old-fashioned as the brass fixtures at your neighborhood T.G.I. Friday's, a visit to the Vet is like a trip back to the Space Age. Down on the field, the artificial-turf carpet shines in the spring sun. It's 330 to right and left, 371 to the power alleys, and no, there's not a single "quirky" turn in the outfield wall to be found. Neither is there any advertising--let alone any brick--on the wall. Go to the upper deck and scan the horizon beyond the outfield. Sure, Philly's got a cityscape, but you won't see it. You'll see more of the monotonous (and empty) seats that ring the entire stadium. You might as well be in Brasilia for all you can see. But if you're in a nostalgic mood, you'll love it. Hey, if this stuff was good enough for the legends of the '70s--Stargell and Schmidt and the whole gang--then it's good enough for you. Is that Richard Nixon down there, getting ready to throw out the first ball? The Phillies plan to move to a new ballpark in 2004. But already, they've made concessions to the retro vogue. The Vet's earth-tone seats have been painted blue. And a new layer of artificial turf is supposed to look more like real grass. This is a mistake. Visit a fashionable used-furniture store these days and you're as likely to find overpriced Eames chairs as you are to find Victorian chaise longues. Philly and Cincinnati and St. Louis and the other cookie-cutter holdouts should capitalize on this trend and woo a whole new cadre of nostalgic fans. Go on: Doll the players up in those pinstripe-free, Mr. Pibb-fonted polyester uniforms. Buy artificial turf that's blue. And then tell the fans to come look at what baseball was like back when the future was now. Shinguards for Batters?! The case for unilateral disarmorment. By Bryan Curtis Posted Friday, August 10, 2001, at 12:00 AM PT Barry Bonds' right elbow, shrouded in a giant foam elbow protector, is one of baseball's great mysteries. A nagging injury? Nope. As one columnist pointed out, Barry began wearing the gear on his right elbow immediately following surgery on his left. In fact, the protector serves a more devious purpose. When Bonds digs in, he snuggles up next to home plate, making it maddeningly difficult for a pitcher to throw inside. With any other hitter, such temerity would invite an inside fastball thrown to break his elbow. But inside pitches bounce harmlessly off Bonds' elbow protector, giving him a free pass to first base. Bonds isn't the only armored slugger. Over the last decade, Mo Vaughn, Gary Sheffield, Craig Biggio, and others have appeared at the plate as if dressed for hockey: forearm plates, shinguards, toe guards, even padded batting gloves. It's not just an aesthetic problem. The parade of overclothed batsmen has changed baseball from a sport where an inside pitch would spook a hitter off his feet to one in which batters are sessile, fearless, and almost unstoppable. Back in the day--that is, the system that persisted for the first 120 years of baseball--pitchers terrorized hitters who crept toward the plate. Even killed them. In the fifth inning of a tied 1920 game, New York Yankee spitballer Carl Mays faced Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, who was crowding the plate. Mays fired a submarine style pitch that caught Chapman in the skull. He collapsed and died the next morning. Although no pitcher threw murder again, big-league beanings persisted. Mickey Cochrane's brilliant career ended when a fastball cracked his noggin in 1937. Dusters felled Brooklyn teammates Pee Wee Reese and Ducky Medwick within three weeks of one another in 1940. Players who wore prototype batting helmets in the 1910s faced the ridicule of teammates and fans, but by the mid-1950s ballplayers finally donned plastic helmets for protection. Designed by a pair of engineers from Cleveland, the helmet quickly became an essential and justifiable part of the game. It minimized the threat of deathly injury but didn't prevent the pitcher from menacing the hitter. Quite the contrary: Hard throwers like Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson--guys you didn't dare crowd the plate against, helmet or not--dominated the sport for the next decade. The balance of intimidation held for almost three decades until the advent of modern armor--elbow protectors, et al.--which arrived in the late 1980s and early 1990s, much of it produced by Houston sporting goods entrepreneur Doug Douglas. Players who had injured an elbow, shin, hand, or other extremity were first to wear the early pads and plates, and all assumed that they would toss them after their injuries healed. But many hitters found that protectors afforded them increased access to the plate and wouldn't surrender that advantage after they mended. Soon, even uninjured players started strapping on armor in the name of prevention rather than protection. So, to compensate for the armor, pitchers hit batters more frequently, right? Actually, no. Around the same time, umpires started cracking down on hurlers who threw inside. Whereas Drysdale could plunk a handful of batters in a single 1960s game without fear of ejection, today's pitchers get the hook for throwing inside once. (Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, because of their reputations, are notable exceptions.) The confluence of these two trends has slowly drained the game of its most important element: terror. The fundamental battle in baseball is the one between the pitcher and the hitter, and the pitcher's best weapon is a tightly wound white spheroid that he throws at autobahn-plus speeds. If the batter doesn't fear the pitched ball--and the injuries that can result from it--then baseball will not only become too easy, it will become exceedingly dull to watch. Think about the most exhilarating snapshots of the last decade: Randy Johnson pitching to John Kruk at the 1993 All-Star Game. Terrified after nearly getting creamed by one of Johnson's inside fastballs, Kruk spent the rest of the at-bat on the far edge of the batter's box, meekly waving at the next two offerings. Just as pitchers claim their right to throw inside, batters will assert their right to protect themselves. Speaking in defense of armor, Florida Marlins outfielder Kevin Millar said, "No one has the right to tell Mo Vaughan or Sheffield or Biggio he can't protect himself at the plate. Those guys don't want to be out six weeks with a broken forearm." Of course they don't. But the fear of a broken forearm isn't what's wrong with baseball. It's what baseball's all about. Now, back to the practical: Can Major League Baseball force hitters to remove the armor? I don't see why not. For more than a century, baseball's overseers bent over backward to aid the hitter, increasing the distance between the pitcher's rubber and home plate in 1893, banning the spitball after Chapman's death in 1920, lowering the height of the mound in 1969, and instituting the designated hitter rule in the American League in 1973. (And that's not counting the sport's unofficial decision to begin manufacturing the tighter, juiced ball around the time of the 1994 players strike.) The standard was consistent: When the game became exceedingly difficult for hitters, baseball stepped in and changed the rules. It has now become so for pitchers. Until that time, today's hurlers should begin to think more like their forebears. In an article he wrote for the Aug. 26, 1939, issue of Liberty magazine, Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt reasoned that if you can't aim at the batter's head, why not shoot for the feet? Rich Billings, a catcher who played with Bob Gibson in St. Louis, says that if Gibson had encountered an elbow protector or shinguard on a hitter, "He would have started aiming at other parts of the body and said, 'Go get a pad for that.' " For purists and casual fans alike, unilateral disarmorment will return the true elegance of the batter-pitcher duel to the game. As Don Drysdale once told Sport, pitching inside "is like driving a car. Sometimes you get around a guy and see you have only an inch or two to make it. Sometimes you scratch a fender." Does April Winning Bring October Innings? By Jeremy Derfner Posted Tuesday, May 1, 2001, at 12:00 AM PT April records are the Ouija boards of baseball. They get you excited, but their predictions are bunk. Breathe a sigh of relief, third-place-Yankees fans and last- place-Mets fans. Since 1983, only half of the teams in first place on May 1 have finished the season in first place. Likewise, only half of the teams in last place have finished there. 50-50 odds are the equivalent of random chance: If your team is in first or last place at the end of April, it's a coin flip as to whether they'll stay there. The best team in recent memory, the 1998 Yankees (114 wins), compiled an impressive April record, but they hadn't pulled away by May 1. The Red Sox stalked them from just a half-game back. Who knew Boston would fade fast and finish 22 games out? In 1993, the NL West witnessed one of the great modern pennant races, as the Braves (104 wins) and the Giants (103) went down to the wire. But on May 1, the contest was nowhere in evidence. Atlanta sat in third, a few games below .500, and San Francisco was in second, behind a 13-9 Houston team that finished a distant third. Last year, the Giants were in last place, five games out, on May 1, but they closed the season 10 games ahead of the Dodgers. The awesome 1984 Tigers had a portentous April. They posted an 18-2 record and went on to win 104 games and the World Series. But the 1989 Rangers started out almost as impressively, at 17-5, and finished fourth, at 83-79. The 1987 Brewers opened the season 18-3 but went .500 the rest of the way to finish 91-71, good for third place. Why isn't April a more useful predictor of the rest of the baseball season? After all, you know how a sandwich tastes after you eat a sixth of it. You usually know if a book is good after you read a sixth of it. Why can't you know who's going to win the World Series after the season is one-sixth over? The Any Given Day Theory: In most sports, on any given day any given team can beat any other given team. But in baseball, with its interminable season, the cliché might as well say that in any given month any crappy team can win some games and any good team can lose a few. The difference between 15-10 and 10-15 could be blind luck, an injury, a slump, a streak, bad weather, or a zillion other anomalies that get ironed out over the very long course of a very long season. The Extended Spring Training Theory: The main reason fans aren't supposed to get nervous when their team underperforms in spring training is that reserves and rookies, not starters, get the bulk of the playing time. But there is a second reason: Many players aren't physically ready by March. And even by April they may still have a few kinks to work out. This is especially true of the veterans who play for winning teams and don't generally toil away in winter ball like the hungry first-place Phillies and Twins youngsters. The Flaky Baseball Player Theory: Baseball players are superstitious. They believe in jinxes. Turk Wendell eats licorice. The juggernaut Braves choke every year, and the Dodgers are usually inexplicably awful. In the early going, teams like the Cardinals, picked to dominate the National League, often fail to live up to their potential. And teams like the Twins self-actualize because they think they can play and hate being overlooked. It's overconfidence, nerves, and motivation, the stuff of sports psychology, and it usually wears off. In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles stood at 1-22 on May 1, having won their first game just the day before. They went 53-84 for the remainder of the season and finished in the cellar as one of the worst teams in history. So April can be a safe predictor. What does it mean this year? The Tampa Bay Devil Rays stink just as bad as their 8-17 record. No fluke. Battle Station The extreme sportsmen who play catcher. By Joel Achenbach Posted Saturday, August 30, 1997, at 12:30 AM PT Randy Johnson, ace of the Seattle Mariners, is the most thrilling, harrowing pitcher in baseball. He's a left-hander who puts the sinister back in "sinistral." He's 6 feet 10 inches tall, gaunt, with long scraggly hair, a rough complexion, humorless eyes--altogether a bit too much of that hitchhiker look. As if throwing the ball 98 miles per hour isn't wicked enough, he does it with a wild, whipping, sidearm motion, which makes left-handed batters want to dive out of the box and head back to the dugout even as the ball is crossing the plate. For many hitters, the best strategy for facing Johnson is simple: Stay on the bench. My brother and I watched Johnson one afternoon recently at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. We could barely take our eyes off him. We didn't notice the catcher. The catcher (I learned days later, when I decided to research the subject) was Dan Wilson. He is actually one of the better catchers in the game. But needless to say, he is not a star. He's no Johnny Bench. He's not even an Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez. It is hard to be a star when you are a catcher, especially when there's the real thing, the glamour boy, the icon, just 60 feet 6 inches away on the mound. The catcher has the least glamorous, most difficult, and most self-sacrificing job in the game. He has to do everything--call pitches, throw out base-stealers, reposition infielders, chase down foul balls, calm pitchers, doctor the ball, establish a rapport with the umpire so he calls a big strike zone, chase bunts, run down toward first base to back up the throw from shortstop and, worst of all, guard home plate even if it means getting bowled over by charging opponents. Ray Fosse never really recovered from the separated shoulder he got when Pete Rose decided to slam into him at home plate during the 1970 All-Star game. Rose set the all-time record for base hits while playing various infield positions, while Fosse became known only as the guy who got smashed. A catcher's life is Hobbesian. Bill Dickey, catcher on the great Yankee teams during the '30s, once got leveled by a base runner even though the guy could have slid into home far ahead of the ball. Dickey marched over to the dugout and punched the offender in the face, earning a month's suspension and a thousand- buck fine. Catching pioneer and Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan invented the shinguards and the helmet just after the turn of the century, when he got tired of getting whonked constantly--at one point some writers in New York City reported that Bresnahan had died after a particularly vicious fastball off his noggin. (According to Thomas Owens' Great Catchers, Bresnahan worked in the off- season as a private detective--a catcher's mind is never at rest, it seems.) A catcher is something of a baseball martyr. Catchers are almost invariably slow of foot simply from years of squatting, the leg muscles shortening with time. Statistically catchers rarely put up huge career totals in home runs or RBIs because no one can catch a season's worth of games (162). Catching 130 is the stuff of an iron man. Eventually, catchers who can still hit retire to first base, a position for the fat, the stiff, the lame, and the halt. The catcher sees everything--he's in the center of the action. Yet he is not really seen. The geometry of the game conspires to hide him. He must wear a mask. He must wear pads and shinguards. He is obscured by his posture--a squat--and the big mitt he must position in front of himself. He's more of a concept than an actual person. The catcher is merely implicit--a presumption of the game, like the scorekeeper or the grounds crew. The catcher is right there in the thick of the action, but no more interesting than the chalk lines that delineate the batter's box. The catcher is a blue-collar worker in a game of millionaires. He wears a steel mask over a helmet whose bill points backward, a style that invariably makes even the most hardened, mature catcher seem oddly juvenile, a man who failed to grow up. All that hard work and he just looks silly. A baseball catcher has a nickname: The backstop. He might as well be an inert mass. Yet of course it is he, not the pitcher, who is the field general. Because the pitcher stands tall, in full view, he cannot send a signal to the catcher as to what pitch will come next. It is the catcher, low to the ground, with that shadowy zone around his groin, who must call the pitch. The catcher also gives signals to the infielders, letting them know what to do in case of a double steal, or what to do if a runner at first tries to steal when there's also a runner at third. Because the catcher calls the game, he must know the hitting abilities and weaknesses of every opposing batter. The catcher is essentially the quarterback of baseball, only without the huge endorsement contracts. Chris Hoiles, starting catcher for the Orioles, told me one day in the locker room, "We're usually the dirtiest guys on the field and the sweatiest guys on the field. We stink all the time." He said his gear gets really raunchy. It's no fun to strap that stuff on when the thermometer hits the upper 90s. And that squatting he does--it's as uncomfortable as it looks. Meanwhile he says of the pitcher: "All the eyes are on him. All the recognition goes to him." There's no whine in his voice. This is just reality. He knows that when a pitcher throws a no-hitter the catcher is lucky to get in the photograph in the next day's paper. Hoiles is a big slab of a man, now 33, a veteran but not a star. The rap on him is that he can't throw out base runners. "The thing that impresses fans with catchers is arm strength," says Orioles bench coach Andy Etchebarren. Hoiles admits he never had a strong arm. He is otherwise steady on defense and can hit home runs. He became a catcher because he grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the era when Johnny Bench ruled the Reds down in Cincinnati. Meeting Bench was one of the greatest moments of his life. "I absolutely love the position," he says. "You're right in the middle of the action. You're the one that has to make a lot of decisions. There's a lot of prestige in the position." He means prestige in terms of the team. It doesn't carry that far beyond the dugout, though. The catcher has always been a somewhat overlooked position. Even Yogi Berra, a Hall of Famer, was never the great hero of the Yankees--he labored in the shadow of greater stars like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. In my lifetime Johnny Bench has been the singular superstar of the position (he was once on the cover of Time magazine). There have been plenty of worthy catchers--Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone--but the ones that became most famous are those who went into broadcasting, such as Tim McCarver, Joe Garagiola, and Bob Uecker. Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers is the snazziest young catcher and could be Cooperstown bound. (Lately I have been inexplicably tempted to use "Cooperstown bound" when talking about each and every baseball player--e.g., "Nice single there by Cooperstown-bound Aaron Ledesma.") In the Hall of Fame there are only 11 catchers, eight from this century--fewer than one catcher per decade. That compares with, for example, 21 right fielders and 56 pitchers. Every position in baseball has more representatives in the Hall, with the sole exception of third base. There is, in fact, a crisis of sorts in the catcher position. No one wants to play it anymore. Kids refuse to catch. "There's not a whole lot of them out there," says Etchebarren. Lenny Webster, the Orioles backup catcher, said he started playing the position because no one else would do it. "You get beat up a lot," he says. "There are times when you have to block balls and they're not always going to hit that chest protector." Many of the top catchers these days are immigrants--once again filling jobs that native-born Americans are reluctant to do. Baseball has never been allowed by the intelligentsia to be simply a game played with a ball--it must always be a metaphor for something grander, like democracy, the re-creation of the Garden of Eden, the rights of the individual vs. the needs of the collective, or whatever. In this annoying tradition, let me suggest that the plight of the catcher is symbolic of a dire trend in American society--call it the decatcherization of daily life. We just don't get dirty like we used to. We don't sweat. We finesse our way out of trouble, using the checkbook, rather than choose a brutal collision and trust that we will hang on to the ball. We refuse to live uncomfortably, and in so doing lose all sorts of knowledge that can only come with the grit of hands-on labor. The problem with so many jobs in today's economy is not that they pay poorly but that they are vaporous, the mere manipulation of words and symbols and concepts. Michael Pollan, the writer and magazine editor, writes in A Place of My Own about how he had become so disconnected with the physical world that he finally decided to hammer together a writing hut in his backyard, a desperate attempt to make contact with real objects. The affluent classes are more comfortable than ever--we can barely, dimly imagine the world, just two generations ago, when millions of Americans cherished the Sears Roebuck catalog for its utility as toilet paper. It is now considered normal to travel several blocks or even miles to find a place that charges more than a dollar for a cup of coffee. But what great coffee! We cherish our comfort, our good food, our friendly beverages. In summer we condition our air so that we will not sweat--except when we go to the gym, where we pay someone money so that we can use our muscles. We are outfielders now. We laze about in the grassy fields of life. We wonder if someone will hit us the ball. sidebar Third base, according to baseball-stat monger Bill James, is an "in-between" position, being sort of a glove man's job and sort of a hitter's position. Shortstop, for example, requires a great defensive player, and teams will keep a good- fielding shortstop who can't hit. First base is a fairly easy position to play, so teams will keep around a weak-fielding first baseman who can hit lots of home runs. Third base tends to have good, but not great, fielders and hitters, and thus few who shine enough in one category to make the Hall of Fame. But now I'm bored talking about that. The Anaheim Angels The worst team you've never heard of. By Chris Suellentrop Posted Friday, October 18, 2002, at 6:53 AM PT The Anaheim Angels aren't the worst franchise in baseball history, but they are the most pathetic. If you're a Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs fan, you can take pride in your team's futility, or you can be tortured by it. You can brag about it, or you can bemoan it. But you don't have to go around explaining it to everyone. That's the fate to which Angels fans are doomed. Historically, the Angels have been doubly cursed: Since the franchise's birth in 1961, it's been the most frustrating, most agonizing, most heartbreaking team to watch in baseball. And it's not even famous for it. Locally, of course, the team's plight is well-known. Here's how the Los Angeles Times' Mike Penner described this year's World Series squad, the first in the franchise's 42 seasons to win a playoff series: "The best thing you can say about this team is that it has failed, utterly and completely, in upholding the Angel Way to Play Baseball. Fundamental chapters--How to Fall Apart After a Questionable Managerial Decision, How to Fail to Get the Final Out, How to Choke--are being blithely ignored." To drive the point home, the Los Angeles Times launched its game coverage of the Angels' playoff series-clinching victory over the Minnesota Twins by citing the franchise's "four decades of humiliation," crowing that "At 5:04 p.m. Sunday, the Angels cast aside their image as bumblers and stumblers and losers." But nationally, the Angels don't have that image. The situation is actually somewhat worse: They're not known for anything. The Cubs are bumblers. The Red Sox are stumblers. The Montreal Expos are losers. But the Angels? They have no reputation at all. The Angels deserve to be famous. Since they entered the American League in 1961 as the first expansion team of the modern era (along with the Washington Senators, now the Texas Rangers), they have watched team after team after team beat them to the Fall Classic. Seven of the 12 teams created after 1961 made it to the World Series before the Angels, including two--the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks--that were born in the 1990s. Four younger expansion teams (the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres, and Toronto Blue Jays) have been to the World Series more than once, and the Mets and Blue Jays both have two championship flags waving over their stadiums. But the Angels' curse is defined by more than simple futility. After all, the Senators/Rangers, created the same year, haven't been in a World Series. (The Rangers, however, are one up on the Angels in another category.) Nor have the Expos or the Houston Astros, both created in the 1960s. Not to mention the much younger Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, or Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But none of those clubs shares the Angels' sad history of personal tragedies and late-season collapses. First, the collapses. The Angels' autumn flops equal the Boston Red Sox's, who are much more renowned for them. In 1982, the Angels became the first team to blow a 2-0 lead in a five-game League Championship Series, dropping the next three to the Milwaukee Brewers, who advanced to the World Series. Four years later, the Angels went up 3-1 on the Red Sox in a seven-game playoff and entered the ninth inning of Game 5 leading 5-2. But with two outs and a 2-2 count--one strike away from the World Series--Angels closer Donnie Moore surrendered a home run that put the BoSox up 6-5. The Angels lost 7-6 in 11 innings, then lost the next two games, blowing the entire series. The Angels accomplished something truly special: In two playoff series, the Angels had six chances to win a game to advance to the World Series. They lost all six. The 1986 team's feat in particular should rank among baseball's all-time collapses. But the Red Sox, the Angels' rivals in futility, did them one better and blew the World Series that year in a more famous fashion, beginning with that grounder through Bill Buckner's legs. As a result, baseball historians dismiss the Angels' claims to cursedness. "The Angels are not the Red Sox or the Cubs," one expert sniffed to the New York Times earlier this month. Even the Angels' hard-luck movie, Angels in the Outfield, isn't as well-known as Major League, starring the more famously hard-luck Cleveland Indians. It's not just the playoffs that haunt the Angels. For their fans, September has been the cruelest month. Of all the team's late-season collapses (and there are many), the most bitter took place in 1995, when the Angels led the Seattle Mariners by 11 games on Aug. 3. Over two months they frittered that lead away, ultimately losing a one-game playoff and the division title. As September 2002 began, the Orange County Register noted that since the Angels' creation, the team has played at a .492 clip before September; after Sept. 1, the team's winning percentage dropped to .455. Over that period, only the Cubs took a bigger nose dive during the season's final month. The Angels also have suffered a bizarre array of personal tragedies. Here's a sampling, not a complete list by any means: In 1965, a rookie pitcher died from a brain tumor. In 1968, a reliever was paralyzed in a car accident--his wife and two of their three children were killed. In 1972, a car accident killed an Angels infielder. In 1974, yet another car crash killed another reliever. In 1977, a shortstop died in a wreck. The next year, in a case of mistaken identity, an outfielder was shot to death. In 1992, the team bus crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike, nearly killing the manager. And three years earlier in 1989, Donnie Moore, reputedly tortured by that 1986 home run, shot and wounded his wife before killing himself. What's going on here? Local legend has it that the Angels' ballpark--formerly Anaheim Stadium, now christened Edison Field--was built on an Indian burial ground. (What is this, Poltergeist?) Earlier this month, the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif., reported straightforwardly, "City of Anaheim historians have said there is no evidence to indicate that it's true but nothing to prove it isn't, either." The paper added that, "convinced that their ancestors rest underneath the property," members of a local tribe "blessed the ballpark themselves before this season began." Maybe that lifted the Angels' curse. Or perhaps the totemic Rally Monkey has warded it off. Either way, the other half of the curse has stuck. The feel-good stories in this year's postseason were the Twins (those loveable Contraction Kids) and the St. Louis Cardinals, who received sympathy for the deaths of a starting pitcher, Darryl Kile, and their longtime broadcaster, Jack Buck. But the Twins' and Cards' adversity goes back only a season. The Angels have suffered for four decades. If they win the World Series, all that changes. Or rather, half of it does. The franchise will still be cursed because hardly anyone will realize what's happened. Once again, Angels fans will have to explain it to them. sidebar For most of the Angels' history, the team's roster has had a reputation as a retirement community for aging stars. As a result, the team has had an extraordinary seven Hall of Famers play for it--Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, and Dave Winfield--but none of them were inducted as an Angel. (An eighth, Eddie Murray, will likely be added to the list in 2003.) Ryan, the best player in the team's history, had great numbers for the Angels. He pitched four no-hitters, hurled a major-league record 383 strikeouts in 1973, and one season won 22 games for a last-place team that went 68-94, notching nearly a third of the team's wins. In another season, he tossed two no-hitters and nine shutouts. During his eight seasons with the Angels, Ryan went 138-121, a .533 winning percentage. As a team, the Angels were .481. But he pitched only 291 of his 777 games as an Angel. The team, unwilling to pay him a then-record $1 million salary, let him go as a free agent after the 1979 season, when he went 16-14. The Angels' general manager suggested that Ryan could be replaced with "two 8-7 pitchers." But Ryan achieved more as an ex-Angel than he had as an Angel. After winning 138 games in Anaheim, he won 157 with his next two teams (the Astros and the Rangers), and he threw three more no-hitters. As an Angel, he struck out 2,416 batters, but he struck out 2,805 after he left. In 1999, Ryan entered Cooperstown as a Texas Ranger. To add insult to the Angels' injury, his Hall of Fame plaque concludes, "A Texas legend whose widespread popularity extended far beyond his native state." The Saddest Sack Why third base is the worst position in baseball. By Tom Scocca Posted Tuesday, July 10, 2001, at 6:00 PM PT The closest race in this year's election of baseball All-Stars was also the most disheartening. Neck and neck in the balloting at third base in the American League, swapping the lead twice in the stretch run, was a pair of players batting under .250: 40-year-old legend Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles and David Bell, a 28-year-old mediocrity with the Seattle Mariners. In the end, tradition beat out ballot-stuffing, and Ripken--buoyed by his announcement that this would be his final season--squeaked out a win by 44,000-odd votes. In some sense, either Bell or Ripken would have been a perfect representative. For all the reputation that right field has as the Elba of Little League, it's the so- called Hot Corner where the big-league teams stash their odds and ends: superstars on the downside, surplus utility infielders, young guys who aren't good enough to play anywhere else. Historically, third base is the weakest position in the game. The Hall of Fame has fewer third basemen (nine) than any other position, and there's no Mays-versus- Mantle-versus-DiMaggio debate to be had. You've got your supreme third-base slugger, Mike Schmidt. You've got the supreme third-base fielder, Brooks Robinson. There are others, and giants among them: George Brett, Eddie Mathews, Pie Traynor. But what is a giant without a landscape to give him a sense of scale? In the American League--with the exception of Angels' star Troy Glaus--the landscape is barren. Consider this brief history: David Bell plays third base because the Mariners took second base away from him and gave it to Bret Boone (now an All-Star starter) last off-season. Ripken plays third base because the Orioles set it up for him as a sort of on-field retirement home, after 16 Hall of Fame-caliber seasons at shortstop. Yet as recently as 1999, Ripken was plausibly the best third baseman available for the All-Star game, batting .313 with 12 homers at the break. If anyone deserved starting honors more than Ripken that year, it was 37-year-old ex-shortstop Tony Fernandez of Toronto. In 2000, the Blue Jays dumped Fernandez and installed young utility man Tony Batista at third; Batista responded by making the All-Star team himself and hitting 41 home runs. Last month, with Batista batting just over .200, the Jays tried to demote him to the minors, which enabled the Orioles to grab him off waivers. So, last year's rising All-Star is now backing up Ripken. Things are a bit better in the National League, where the Braves' Chipper Jones, a perennial standout, is joined on the All-Star team by defensively inept Padres slugger Phil Nevin and eye-popping Cardinals rookie Albert Pujols. Maybe Pujols is for real, and he'll duel Jones for starting honors for the next five or 10 years. Or maybe not. Scott Rolen, the N.L.'s last hot youngster, slumped this year and missed the cut. Pujols has played nearly half his games at other positions and could easily end up playing right field or third base. They come and go, third basemen. This lack of sustained brilliance is sort of mystifying. Played well, the position calls for both a quick glove and a strong throwing arm. Third basemen are supposed to hit for both average and power. The prototype third baseman, in brief, should be a comprehensively well-rounded ballplayer. So, why are most third basemen such pellets? The answer, I suspect, is that player development is not Aristotelian. Young players tend to get noticed by being outstanding at something, not by being fairly good across the board. In the infield, they are either nimble fielders (i.e., the shortstop type) or prodigious power hitters (i.e., the first baseman type), but not both. So, third base is where the rejects land--the oafish guys who don't quite have the pop to play first (Nevin), or the banjo hitters who aren't quite sharp enough afield to play shortstop (Bell). Moving to third is usually a demotion, as when the Red Sox slid John Valentin over from shortstop to make room for Nomar Garciaparra. And leaving third looks a lot like a step up: When Jim Thome blossomed into a top-class slugger, the Indians moved him across the diamond to first. In part, too, today's third basemen look bad because the fielder directly to the left of them has gotten so much better. Shortstop was once something of a necessary evil; if a guy could meet the defensive demands, his team would overlook it if he couldn't hit at all (this blueprint fits even Hall of Famers like Phil Rizzuto). But the last two decades have brought waves of Latin American players to the United States, and Latin American baseball esteems the shortstop above all other positions. Thus, what used to be a dumping ground is now a glamour position, manned by the likes of Omar Vizquel, Miguel Tejada, and Rafael Furcal. And that trend is exacerbated by Ripken's own legacy as a big, slugging shortstop. When Earl Weaver moved his 6-foot-4-inch rookie from third base to short in 1982, he changed the blueprint for the position. Ripken's success--345 home runs as a shortstop, seven years leading the league in assists--led other teams to try keeping strapping young hitters at short, further constricting the supply of third basemen. Thus we have today's so-called Big Three shortstops, Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. A generation or two ago, they all might have played third base. In Rodriguez's and Garciaparra's cases, this means fans get to see greater offensive artistry at short than they would have in the past. Jeter, though, is a lackadaisical defender whose range is slipping further below average each year. He's a guy who belongs at third. But he's a superstar, and this generation of superstars plays short. When their skills start to fade with age, then they too can just slide over to third base. There will almost certainly be a vacancy. Cricket: It's Wicket Awesome By Robert Lane Greene Posted Thursday, February 15, 2001, at 12:00 AM PT Global sophisticates have tried mightily to force soccer on the American sports fan. But let's face it, that's a futile exercise. Despite years of trying, most Americans over the age of 12 have no interest in the world's most popular game. If we're going to inject a bit of internationalism into the U.S. sports scene, we're going to have to import a different sport. The obvious solution: Major League Cricket. Though usually associated with England, cricket is a global sport. Spread by colonialism, it's fair to say that the sun never sets on the cricketing world. Cricket has hundreds of millions of fans on the Indian subcontinent alone. It's played by posh Oxford undergraduates, dirt-poor Pakistanis, hard-drinking Aussies, black Jamaicans, and white South Africans. Cricket is the second-most-popular game in the world. The formerly colonized are still mad for it, decades after independence. Except here. True, cricket does not lend itself well to casual fans. The rules are extremely complex. The terminology is arcane. The game is played at a snail's pace. Fat and slow "athletes" can be the game's best. At a glance, it's hard to see why so many people are wild for it. Yet which of these things cannot be said of our national pastime, cricket's nearest cousin? Like baseball, cricket is a sport of timing and of fractions of an inch. It requires more hand-eye coordination than strength or speed. Normal- looking humans, not 7-foot freaks or 300-pound ogres, can be its legends. Then there's the terminology: take "googly" and "Chinaman" (two types of tricky bowled balls), "maiden" (an "over"--six balls bowled--without a run), "gully" (a fielding position), and "duck" (an at-bat with no runs scored). Only baseball ("balk," "bunt," "bloop," "beanball," and "bullpen," just to take the B's) can match cricket for color. Of course, the game is also fundamentally different from baseball. There are 11 players per side, not nine. There are two bases ("wickets," which consist of three stumps with two wooden dowels or "bails" on top) 20 yards apart in the center of a large oval field. Two batsmen are on the field at all times, one defending each wicket. Bowlers (similar to pitchers) bowl from one wicket to the other, bouncing the ball once rather than throwing it through the air. Batsmen can use all 360 degrees around them to hit the ball, not just the 90 degrees in front of them. When batsmen put the ball in play, they can try to score runs by running to the other wicket, but they don't have to--on a weakly batted ball they can stay put. If they do run, their partner must do the same, so they cross in midrun trying to reach the opposite end. If both runners reach safely, a run is scored. If the ball crosses the outer boundary, four runs are scored, and if it does so without hitting the ground, six. But if the bowler can knock the bails off the wickets, the batsman is out. Or, if the ball is fielded and returned to the wicket and used to knock off the bails before a running batsman has arrived, the batsman is out. A ball caught on the fly means an out. And if a batsman uses his leg to block a bowled ball that would have hit the stumps, he is out. When out, the batsman is gone for good. He is replaced by the next man in the lineup, and so on, until 10 outs (which are also called "wickets") have been registered, and only one batsman is left. At this point, the other team takes the field to bat, trying to outscore the first team. In one-day cricket, each team goes through the lineup once, in five-day "test" cricket, twice. (For a more thorough explanation of the rules, click here.) These rules make for a game that is fantastically complex. The oddly shaped bat and 360-degree field make for a huge variety of batting strategies. A dramatic smash may be good for four or six runs, but playing a ball off the edge of the bat, like a foul tip, can be just as effective. Placement, not raw power, is the most important thing. To get your head around this, imagine baseball's greatest bunter (can you name him? I can't) standing alongside Mark McGwire as one of the game's most effective weapons. Bowling is as nuanced as batting. Fast-bowlers get roughly the same velocity as a fastball pitcher, and they use the ball's seams to create midair movement. Spin- bowlers use a sharp wrist rotation to make the ball jump unexpectedly off the ground. Shane Warne, a pudgy, loud Australian and the world's finest spinner, embarrassed some of the world's best batsmen by making the ball do the seemingly impossible in Australia's victory in the most recent World Cup. Though similar in their technical aspects, baseball and cricket couldn't be more different in the culture surrounding them. Baseball is the game of the common American man, one unafraid to chew tobacco and fondle himself in plain view. Cricket, though played by many poor people in poor countries, carries an aspiration to respectability. There's even a midgame interval for tea and sandwiches. The official rule book, called "The Laws of Cricket" (click here to read it), contains an introduction to "The Spirit of Cricket." It's against the spirit of the game, for example, to dispute an umpire's decision. If the players on the bowling side think a batsman is out, they appeal to the umpire by shouting "How's that?" (actually "Howzat!"). But if the umpire refuses to change his call, that's that. (I discovered this to my embarrassment during one of my first games of cricket. After a rejected "Howzat!" I stormed up and began haranguing the umpire, because my baseball experience dictated this response. I was quietly informed by an English teammate, "Lane, we don't do this.") Not that it is all high-minded sportsmanship. Trash-talking (called "sledging") between the wicketkeeper (like a catcher) and batsman is not uncommon. Like other athletes, high-profile cricketers can make asses, and sometimes crooks, of themselves. The former South African captain, Hansje Cronje, recently admitted to a match-fixing scandal similar to point shaving. In the 1930s, English bowlers adopted a strategy of bowling directly at the bodies of Australian batsmen. Though not against the rules--there is no equivalent to the strike zone--it was such a violation of the game's spirit that it caused a diplomatic mini-crisis in which Australia nearly broke off relations with Britain. Could a cricket league thrive here? There's clearly room in the market--we've just gotten a second football league, after all. We even have a soccer league, despite the fact that Americans don't like sports where the final score is likely to be 1-1 or 0-0. By contrast, hundreds of runs are scored in a cricket match. So how about it? Children could covet cricket cards featuring players like Don Bradman, the sport's greatest player. (His career achievement, scoring almost 100 runs per innings in international matches from 1928-48, is equivalent to averaging .400 over a baseball career. There is no close second.) Deion Sanders could become a three-sport star. We'd get to hear Bob Costas say "wicket maiden." And Starbucks could serve the tea.