Monday, March 31, 2008

MLB Season Opens (Ho Hum)

The Major League Baseball season is underway, and, perhaps for the first time since the 1994 strike, I'm not particularly excited. I will follow the Saint Louis Cardinals' (and a few other teams on the semi-ups, like the Yankees, Mets, Tigers, etc.) play throughout the season. They look to be as middling as they were in the 1970s and 1990s. I'll probably try to go to some baseball games in Chicago, since I'll be teaching through June, and, if I can get my act together, set foot in either Yankee or Shea Stadium when I'm back in the New York area. But my interest has, to put it mildly, dimmed substantially. Maybe it's just that I'm getting older and increasingly feel I don't have the mental or emotional space to devote to retrograde, monopolistic, social, secular opiates like professional baseball (or even college sports--I hadn't realized the NCAA and NIT basketball playoffs had begun until friends on a sports list started posting about and C asked me about the "brackets"). But I do think another part of my disaffection comes from the lingering steroid/performance enhancement scandal, which hasn't been fully addressed, by any of baseball's major players. MLB, including its administration and the owners, and the Players Union have bandied about punitive Band-Aids, when not demonstrating that they're in denial, and Congress's entry into the debacle was just a lot of bad spectacle. So what did we learn? That lots of players were using performance enhancers, but only a few, like Barry Bonds, have been pilloried. That some high profile players like Roger Clemens probably also were doping, but have lied about it, or maybe they haven't. That José Canseco, of all people, is turning out to be one of the most honest people in this whole mess, and he's even fingered the gazillionaire Adonis himself, A-Rod (A-Roid?). The reality seems to be that countless other players from the late 1980s onwards were probably using steroids and performance enhancers, that MLB and the union probably knew, and looked the other way, and that they want to condemn and punish players who got caught, without taking any responsibility for their action in abetting the situation, or admitting that it was beneficial for their bank accounts, which is what it all comes down to in the end, no? With 28 million people just getting by on food stamps these days, who has time for truculent, whining, lying multimillionaires? Well, maybe a few, if they're named Albert Pujols (at top), or José Reyes (at right), or Derek Jeter, or Johan Santana....


And now, for a little nostalgia. 40 years ago, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball player turned in a season-long performance that is unlikely ever to be challenged. I'm talking about Hall of Famer Bob Gibson's astonishing season, when he registered a modern era-record low ERA of 1.12. The league ERA was 2.90. The 32-year-old Gibson's overall numbers were equally remarkable. He threw 28 complete games, 13 shutouts, surrendered only 198 hits in 304 2/3rds innings, and struck out 268 batters. Perhaps his weakest stat was his win-loss total: 22-9, which presses the question, how on earth did this eventual Most Valuable Player award and Cy Young winner lose 9 games?

Derrick Goold offers some answers in his recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article: Gibson's teammates weren't getting a lot of hits against his pitching opponents, who included some of the other great pitchers of that era: Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale (who pitched 58 2/3rds consecutive scoreless innings, a record that stood for decades), Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins, and Gaylord Perry. To quote Goold:

In his first 10 starts that season, Gibson was 3-5 despite a 1.52 ERA, mainly because opposing starting pitchers had a 1.34 ERA against the Cardinals.

His teammates scored two or fewer runs in eight of Gibson's losses that season and twice he lost 1-0, once when Gaylord Perry twirled a no-hitter.

Eleven of Gibson's 34 starts that summer were opposite another Hall of Fame-bound pitcher. He went 5-5 with a 1.45 ERA in those games.

"We wish we could have done more on his behalf," Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock said. "Not just the ERA, but the victories. He could have won 30. ... As a hitter, you make it a goal to destroy the pitch before it destroys you.

"You could not do that with Bob. You could not destroy his pitch. You don't have a lot of time to come up with a plan to destroy something you can't see."

One of the results of that season was that Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher's mound, shrank the strike zone, and clamped down on trick and illegal pitches. Gibson's record in 1969? 20-13, with a 2.18 ERA, and 269 strikeouts. Only 4 of his 28 complete games that season were shutouts. These days few leading pitchers, who throw fewer games and fewer innings because of the 5-man starting rotations and ample relief corps, ever approach 10 complete games, let alone 4 shutouts or ERAs under 2.00; last year's ERA titlist, Padre Jake Peavy, came in at 2.54; last year's shutout leader, Arizona's Brandon Webb, posted 3; and last year's complete game top finisher, Roy Halliday, only posted 7. The AL Cy Young winner C. C. Sabathia, managed only 4 complete games, 1 shutout, and a 3.21 ERA, while the NL Cy Young winner, Peavy, had no complete games and no shutouts. Both pitchers also only won 19 games. A different game indeed.

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