Tag Archive | "baseball"

Joe Torre: The Yankee Years

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Joe Torre The Yankee Years

Wandering through my local library on a recent visit, I stumbled upon “The Yankee Years” by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci.  A lifelong Phillies’ fan with an anti-New York sports team bias, I am probably among the least likely candidates to read a book like this one.  Yet, as an enthusiastic baseball fan (it is my favorite sport) who has admired Joe Torre as well as Derek Jeter and some of the other Yankee players, I felt a strange compulsion to peruse it.

 

With Torre as their field manager, the Yankees won four World Series in his first five years with the club and made the playoffs 12 years in a row.  If this fate were to befall my beloved Phillies, I would certainly want to read any book written about such a golden era.   Taking the book from its shelf, I sat down to browse through the 704 pages (large print edition) and see if I considered it worthy of taking home with me.  Then, I spied these two paragraphs on Page 270:

 

“That’s why the role of research in baseball is not to get the pitcher to throw faster,”  Flesig said, ”but to lower the risk of injury.”

 

Said Beane (Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s), ”At some point what’s really going to happen is we are all going to employ actuaries, like insurance companies.  In some ways we have now become pseudo actuaries.  You may hire actuaries in your office to figure out the probability of injuries occurring, given the amount of money you’re putting in.  Biomechanics is certainly a fascinating area to explore.  One pitcher can be both the riskiest and the best investment we make.  It makes sense to explore why.” 

 

An actuary myself beginning my 36th year in the profession, I was now hooked and, even more intriguingly, experienced an epiphany:  Could the paragraph above be the reason Billy Beane was the Keynote Speaker at the Society of Actuaries Convention in October of 2008?  These thoughts and my borrowing of the book were the commencement of what turned out to be five enjoyable evenings of sports reading.

 

When this book was first published, controversy swirled about several items relating to Yankee players’ perceptions regarding the acquisition of superstar Alex Rodriguez.  Nicknamed A-Rod, Rodriguez was allegedly referred to in a mocking manner as “A-Fraud” by some of his new Yankee teammates.  Additionally, the book indicates that it was a widely reiterated clubhouse joke that A-Rod’s preoccupation with perennial Yankee team leader and fan favorite Derek Jeter was similar to the obsession of one female for her roommate in the movie “Single White Female.” 

 

With those exceptions, there is very little to foment controversy in the book.  It does, however, provide an interesting perspective on the Yankees organization during those years from Torre’s point of view.  Co-author Tom Verducci does a nice job expanding upon various subjects, including the use of steroids and human growth hormone in baseball.

 

Some of the highlights of this book were as follows:

 

The outstanding overview that Tom Verducci provides on the subject of steroids in baseball.  It begins with the courage of Texas Ranger pitcher and player representative Rick Helling.  At the 1998 winter meeting of the Executive Board of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Mr. Helling told the attendees that “steroid use by ballplayers had grown rampant and was corrupting the game.”  Unfortunately, Rick was “swimming against the tide” and he was basically ignored.  The blatant disregard by the Players Association of Helling’s claims, however, did not end the controversy, as it rages on to this day.

 

A well-publicized incident between David Wells and a fan.   On Saturday, September 7, 2002, at approximately 5:30 AM, a heckling fan punched Yankee pitcher David Wells in the mouth at a local diner, knocking out two front teeth.  When Torre asked Wells about the time of the incident Wells lied, apparently forgetting about the 911 call (the details of which are a matter of public record) he made at 5:49 AM.  Torre said, “I always want to believe my players, but he just out and out lied.”  Wells was a very good pitcher who continually pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a Yankee. 

 

The Yankees 2007 first round play-off series (best of five) with the Cleveland Indians.  Torre would usually give a motivational speech to the players before the start of a big series.  After a conversation with Bill Belichick, Super Bowl Championship Head Coach of the New England Patriots, Torre decided to heed Belichick’s advice and do something to loosen up his players instead.  He asked his good friend, Billy Crystal (a big Yankee fan) to put a bit together to show the team.  The DVD was played for the team on the workout day before Game One.  The players loved it, but General Manager Brian Cashman didn’t think it was funny.  Torre said, “Cash would have liked a motivational video.  I’ve been in the postseason so often that I can’t see the point in bringing up expectations.  You don’t have to remind guys.  I think I got to the point, whether it was because of my own situation and being criticized, or whether I felt there was a lot of tension in the playoffs anyway based on the expectations, we should keep it light and airy.”  The Yankees ended up losing this series and it was the end of the Torre era.

 

Torre’s accusation that Yankee officials secretly waged a media campaign against him.  Torre indicated that Yankee team officials were giving questions to Yes network reporter Kim Jones “designed to corner Torre or put him in an unfavorable light.” This is a claim that I personally find hard to believe.  Kim Jones is an excellent reporter who can clearly develop her own questions.  It is, moreover, a reporter’s job to ask probing questions.  In this instance, Torre’s accusations appear a bit paranoid to this reader.

 

All things considered, I think that this book, while not a classic, is good sports reading for any baseball fan, especially Yankee fans.  So, accept this as a strong recommendation to read this book from a Phillies’ fan who enjoyed both Joe Torre’s opinions and the excellent writing of Tom Verducci. 

It Used to Be a Game

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David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez

The top story in the sports world on July 31, 2009 was that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz tested positive for the use of performance enhancing drugs … in 2003!  Such a disclosure begs the question:  what was the second most significant sports “news” story of the day?

 

Following similar revelations regarding baseball superstars Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettit, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez to name a few, the news of Ortiz’s positive test results comes as no real surprise.  To all but the most naïve of onlookers, it has become apparent that the use of steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancers has been rampant in Major League Baseball for more than a decade … and not only by the sport’s highest profile players!

 

For those of us who grew up regarding baseball as our National Pastime, who romanticized the game and its participants, it is time to face the stark realization that Major League Baseball, as it has been constituted for quite some time now, is neither game nor sport – but business.  And in business, the participants will seek to gain an edge over their competitors by whatever means possible, regardless of its ethicality.

 

That some of the sport’s most accomplished, highly compensated players chose to seek a pharmacological performance edge demonstrates that whatever our vocation and level of competency, we are all basically insecure in our own abilities.  Rationalizing, as I’m sure many of them did, that “everyone was doing it” and they “needed to keep pace,” they have permanently tarnished the sport that brought them fame, glory, and wealth.

 

As a fan, I can never again, as I did in my youth, believe in the integrity of the sport or the purity of athletic competition.  I will not regard with reverence Major League Baseball’s “hallowed” career records, nor see its greatest athletes as anything more nor less than entertainers in “pinstripes.”  I will, however, always long for the day when baseball was just a game.

It’s Only a Game!

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sports-officials

I began officiating youth, high school, and competitive adult sporting events about five years ago.  And, I love it!  I love the interaction with the participants and the realization that the role that I play helps to maintain the integrity of the games and assures both sides that they are being treated fairly.  I’m not perfect, far from it, but the play of the participants and the decisions of the coaches in the games that I officiate are not either.

 

I especially enjoy a close, well-played contest between two evenly-matched teams.  In those games, I pay rapt attention to each play, since I know that, should I make a bad call, the outcome of the game may be affected.  And, although many officials do not, I also thoroughly enjoy officiating games for younger children.  In those games, I know that the participants are playing their hearts out and that I, as the official, have some small role in their enjoyment and perspective on the sport itself and life in general.

 

In games involving young children, I do my utmost to bring good humor and compassion to my decision-making.  Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I give a favorable call to that player who has never made a basket, caught a pass, or gotten a hit.  I have even arranged for the players on both teams in a youth basketball game to allow an emotionally-challenged player to score a basket, unbeknownst to their coaches and those viewing the game.  The thrill of seeing that child’s reaction was all the compensation I needed that day.

 

Most often, the demeanor and behavior of the players, coaches, and spectators at these games is tolerable and even commendable (I’ll speak about officiating competitive adult sports on another occasion).  Sometimes, however, it is deplorable.  Last evening was one such game.

 

I was assigned to umpire a softball game for young girls, most of whom were nine years old.  I have done these games in the past and know from experience that the level of play varies widely, but most often, is not very good.  My goal, in these types of situations, is to protect the girls from injury, make the game an enjoyable experience, and, if the situation arises, help to educate the girls about the sport.

 

Upon my arrival, there was one team, the Braves, on the field taking batting practice.  As I watched the coach gently toss ball after ball to batters and then go collect all the balls missed at the backstop to toss to the next batter, I knew that this game had all the makings of a “yawner.” 

 

At this point, I should tell you something about this league.  It is comprised primarily of teams from a North-Central New Jersey town (that will go unnamed) with some teams added from less populous towns in the general area.  It has several age groups and can be accurately described as non-competitive and instructional in nature.  They have rules to speed up the game including a rule that a maximum of six runs can be scored in an inning by any one team, unless it is the bottom of the final inning.

 

When the other team, the Yankees, arrived, I was struck by their level of organization and the number of coaches.  As I watched them warm up, they went through drills and appeared to be very well schooled.  They were clearly superior to the other team.

 

Before the game, I introduced myself to the apparent managers of both teams and informed them that I had previously done games at this age level and would be calling a very liberal strike zone (“nose to toes”) to avoid having the game turn into a “walk-a-thon.”  The representative from the Yankees told me that he was only the acting manager, but that the proposed strike zone was alright with him.  The Braves’ manager indicated that he would agree with anything I wanted to do.

 

With the game only in the top of the first inning, yet another coach appeared for the Yankees and from the way the other coaches deferred to him, I assumed that he must be the actual manager of the team.  Upon his arrival, he promptly informed me that league rules stated that the Braves’ outfielders must be positioned on the outfield grass (they were, at that time, positioned on the dirt portion of the infield but behind the infielders).  I looked to the Braves’ manager who angrily stated “They’re staying where they are!”  I looked back at the presumed Yankees’ manager and stated that I was not aware of that rule and would not enforce it.  But, if he wished, he could lodge a formal protest of the game and let the league commissioner settle it.  At this point, I surmised that the coaches of these teams had probably had an altercation earlier in the season and that there would likely be problems as the game continued.

 

My supposition turned out to be prescient.  Just a matter of pitches later, the Yankees’ third base coach, who I overheard their other coaches refer to as a “bulldog out there,” pushed one of their base-runners toward home plate when she did not respond to his verbal command to “go.”  I called the runner out as a result of being contacted by the coach and heard the presumed manager mutter “that rule he chose to enforce.”

 

As the game wore on, I heard the Yankees’ coaches continually complaining among themselves about the strike zone I was calling (about which I had informed them prior to the game).  All I heard from the Braves’ manager was that I was doing a good job.

 

A pivotal moment occurred in the game.  With the Yankees’ leading 17 to 2, the Braves scored a run.  Immediately, the Yankees’ manager called “time out” and trotted out to the mound; at which point, the Braves’ manager, in a voice loud enough for everyone present to hear, said “This is not the college softball World Series!”  The “bulldog” then responded “Hey, we’re trying to teach our girls something,” and added “You should keep your mouth shut.”  At that point, more comments were made by both sides, and I indicated that I would tolerate no more from either side.  That, however, merely muted the bickering which continued unabated.

 

In the bottom of the final inning, the Yankees brought in a new pitcher who couldn’t even reach the plate.  As the Braves tallied run after run, I heard the presumed manager of the Yankees say to his coaches that, when the score reached 17 to 11 in their favor, they would revert to their previous pitcher to save the game.  They did, but it didn’t help.  The girl who returned to pitch promptly hit the first batter she faced.  Several walks and two hits (or errors) later, the game was tied.  I point this out because of the fact that of everyone in attendance at the game – players, coaches, and spectators – the only people who realized that the game was tied were the Yankee’s manager and coaches.  The Braves’ coaches, all the players from both teams, and the spectators were completely oblivious.

 

The game ended as a tie and the players from both teams appeared to be happy to congratulate each other and move on to whatever was next in their individual lives.  The consternation on the faces of the Yankees’ coaches, however, was palpable.  Clearly, they were not thinking about anything other than the victory that slipped away.

 

As I walked off the field and headed home, I thought about the events of the game and the behavior of the men who were there presumably to teach the girls about softball and help them to enjoy the activity.  About what were they thinking?  When grown men nearly come to blows over a softball game played by nine year old girls who could care less about its outcome, it’s time to rethink the purpose of youth sports and the people who are charged with running them.

 

Sports are a wonderful way for children to learn about cooperation, sharing, winning, losing, and life in general.  To the coaches who selflessly instruct and encourage these young athletes, I applaud you.  To those coaches who live vicariously through their players and who glory in the victories of others (and, we can all be subject to these emotions) without regard to the integrity of the game and the true purposes of competition, look within yourselves and try to identify the reasons for your behaviors.  If you do, you, your players, and youth sports will be better for it.

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