More from me next week.
Written by Joe Hamrahi
Friday, 24 March 2006
Today we are privileged, and I mean that in every sense of the word, to talk to a real innovator and pioneer in the field of baseball statistics. John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) sits down with us today to talk about his new book, The Fielding Bible. Most of you know John from his years of work at Project Scoresheet and Stats, Inc. He is also a good friend and colleague of Bill James.
Joe Hamrahi (JH): Hi John.
John Dewan (JD): Hi, how are you doing?
JH: Great, thanks. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us about your new book.
JD: Sure, no problem.
JH: Just to start things off, how long have you been working on the revised fielding zone ratings and the plus/minus system before they were actually published?
JD: Actually, I began working on this during the 2003 season. BIS started in the 2002 season. I was looking at data from the 2002 season and the beginning of 2003, trying to come up with something new. Fielding has always been a special interest of mine. Back when I was with Project Scoresheet, I immediately starting using data to try to digest fielding. In particular I was trying to eliminate the lefty-righty bias. A team that throws a lot of lefties tends to face a lot of righties. Those righties, in turn, will hit two-thirds of their grounders to the left side of the infield. And vice versa. Lefties will hit about two-thirds of their ground balls to the right side.
So when you have a lefty predominant pitching staff, you have a lot of balls hit to the shortstop, and in particular, third base, which tends to inflate their numbers. So when I was at Project Scoresheet that was something we worked on. I actually gave a presentation at SABR regarding the work that we did on that.
Then when I got involved with Stats, I came up with zone ratings. At Stats we kept track of the location of batted balls, and I came up with a system that evaluated that.
Then, at BIS, we concentrated on getting even better hit location information. A pixel on a computer screen was used. We’re now measuring distance from home plate within a foot. We have like 260 vectors along which we measure so we get very good hit location data.
JH: Do you use film and transpose it onto a computer screen?
JD: Yeah, we chart every game off of videotape. And during that charting, we can really pinpoint the hit location and review every play to make sure we’re getting the location right. We can also do that for pitch location.
So for fielding, we’re looking not only at the location, but the velocity of the batted ball…not radar gun velocity. We’re not quite there yet, but you know…slow, medium, hard hit, line drive, pop ups.
JH: It’s eyeballed I guess, correct? And it’s somewhat subjective?
JD: Right. There is a subjective element to it. But I feel so good about it because the results are consistent with what you’d expect. For the players you know are good, the results are consistent. There are some players that fall outside the (constraints) and you can find the problems.
You can look at a guy like Mike Lowell, a Gold Glove third baseman who looks tremendous at third base. And he is tremendous. He is the only “A” rated fielder on bunts in each of the last three seasons on our system. So he’s great at handling bunts, and he is great on fielding balls down the line. But it turns out he is substantially below average on balls hit straight on and balls hit to his left. And he’s so much below average that it really makes him a fairly average third baseman overall in my eyes. I don’t consider him one of the top third baseman, let alone the Gold Glover. It could be all positioning, but I also think it’s a bit more than that.
JH: You bring up a good point. How much does positioning matter in the end? Does it all equal out in the end after 162 games? Or pretty close?
JD: I think positioning is important, but if a guy makes a play or doesn’t make a play, what we’re trying to measure is whether he made the play or not. That’s really what it comes down to. Either they are making the plays or not making the plays. Whether he makes the play because he can run the play down, or he makes the play because he gets a tremendous jump, or whether he makes the play because he is smart enough regarding positioning or his coaching staff is smart enough regarding positioning, or if he has a great arm…whatever the reason they’re making the play, they’re making the play!
If we were able to figure out where each player started out at his position, we could then figure out how much range he had to get to the ball. But that’s just breaking it down further.
JH: And I’m sure this is just one of several steps you will take over the years.
JD: Right, and that’s a good comment you make. This is a process, but we have not hit nirvana. We have advanced the study of fielding and taken some big steps, but there’s more that can be done. We’re thinking about it every day.
JH: Is there a team of people who make the decision on the subjective data…like how hard a ball is hit? Is it one person? And what does BIS do to ensure that there is consistency in judgment across the team?
JD: Yeah, we have a limited number of scouts or charters, whatever you want to call them, that are doing the videotape analysis. They have gone through extensive training on how to chart everything. So, it’s a limited number of people who have received extensive training, and because of that, we think there’s great consistency in the information. It’s not perfect, but we feel the results we are getting are meaningful.
JH: How much of a role did Bill James have with the formulas and the book? Indirectly or directly?
JD: Well, the relative range system is Bill James. He developed that from scratch, and it’s a very good system because it not only allows you to evaluate current players, it lets you go back in history and evaluate, say, all the Gold Glove shortstops. His results are very accurate and what you would expect to see based upon subjective information. For example, Ozzie Smith rates number 1 among shortstops. Everybody knows and everybody feels, and I’m certain everybody is right, that Ozzie Smith is the best shortstop who ever played the game.
So, you like to see a subjective rating system that comes out that way. That’s 100% Bill James.
The plus/minus system is something I invented. What Bill helped with was making it a plus/minus. I had it as a fraction…a lot like my zone ratings. He suggested that I convert it to a plus/minus system. I was like, “Yeah!” So that was his addition to it.
Bill and I had a lot of discussions about fielding. On the zone system, he didn’t like some of the things, and in the book, we changed those things to come up with revised zone ratings.
One of the missions of the book was to look at fielding from as many angles as we could. The revised zone ratings were one way, Bill’s system was another, and then there was the plus/minus system. We also looked at double plays for infielders, handling bunts for corner infielders, and outfielder throwing arms. We wanted to look at from as many ways we could and just advance where we’re at.
JH: Obviously Bill did the analysis on the shortstops so let’s talk a little bit about the Derek Jeter – Adam Everett analysis for a minute. Obviously Derek Jeter’s fielding is a heavily debated topic. I’m in New York (but not a Yankees fan!) so I hear quite often how great a fielder Derek Jeter is. The statistics in the book don’t support the fact that Derek Jeter is such a great shortstop. What do you think the reason is that we hear that Derek Jeter is so good? Are we missing something here? Are the plays he does make just flashier than others?
JD: I do think there is an element that makes him flashier than others. When he comes in on a slow roller and makes a throw on the run, that really looks good. In fact, according to the data, he does alright on softly hit ground balls. I think overall he was a +2 or something on slowly hit ground balls. But the fact is, he doesn’t get to as many ground balls as other shortstops. It’s a combination of his positioning…he plays shallow…and his throwing arm. He has learned to make the most of that weakness. But he doesn’t get to medium or hard hit balls to his left or right. And he’s not getting to those balls because he does play shallow.
He does do a lot well though. As Bill says in his article, you can’t be that great a ballplayer and play as much as he does and contribute as much as he does. But, a lot of great players have flaws. And he has a defensive flaw. You know, he’s smart. He does smart things on the field that aren’t involved with ground balls. That’s to his credit. I don’t evaluate him as one of the worst shortstops, but I don’t consider him one of the best either. But he does do a lot of good things, and he is a leader. That’s very important to a team.
He is also very good on balls hit in the air. Over the last three years he has the highest rating of all shortstops on balls hit in the air. So there is a defensive element where he’s the best! Not just good, but the best!
Bill and I have been studying pop ups, and we think we may be understating the contribution infielders make on balls hit in the air. We’re researching that as we speak. So as we develop this system ever further, we may find that (Jeter) is actually better than what his (+/-) number is right now.
JH: Again, we go back to the evolution process and as time goes by, we can see changes…
JD: Right. We’re not just concerned with if a player is good or bad. We want to know why. And are there factors that we need to consider…
JH: While we’re on the topic of shortstops, there was a bit of an uproar in the Strat-O-Matic community this year about whether Jhonny Peralta should be a “4” or not in the field.
The scouting report on Peralta in the book is not exactly glowing, but it’s not exactly unfavorable either. What is your general opinion on Jhonny Peralta?
JD: We found out a few key things about Jhonny Peralta when we did the book. The first thing was that he was a -14 while playing shortstop. But the other key thing was that he had the highest double play percentage of any shortstop in baseball. So he did a very nice job of turning the double play. Now, I have to be honest with you. I have not personally seen many games with Jhonny Peralta playing shortstop. And that has to be weighed in.
We asked people’s opinions about what they thought about Jhonny and they mostly felt he started out poorly, but settled in as the season went on. If it were purely based on numbers, I’d factor in the -14 with the great double play, and I might have given him a 3. But I don’t have a real problem with the 4 either. It remains to be seen how he does. Can he improve and can he remain consistent on the double play? That statistic has shown both consistency and inconsistency with players over the years.
JH: I know that Hal Richman of Strat-O-Matic has had a big influence on you over the years. Do you guys do any work with Hal Richman on any of these ratings?
JD: Hal is my good friend! Hal is a good man who is passionate about what he does. He wants to make that game the absolute best it can be. There’s no one who does more fielding analysis than Hal Richman. So when I was going to do this book, I contacted him. I said, “Hal, there is nobody that does as much fielding research as you do. Can I get some assistance?”
Hal said there was nothing personally he could do, but he offered the assistance of his number one person who works on fielding for him, and that’s Len Schwartz. Len worked on all the player comments. I got the benefit of all the work that they did to supplement the numbers…all the subjective work. They have their own reading that they do, but they solicit help from various people throughout the industry and various parts of the industry. There are broadcasters involved, scouts involved, former players involved…
They do more research on fielding than anyone I could possibly think of. I wanted to make sure I got their assistance.
JH: To switch gears a little…there’s been a little criticism of your comment that each extra play made is about equal to one-half a run. A lot has been written recently that, in actuality, each extra play is worth three-quarters of a run. Is it that important really? What would you say to the critics who disagree with you?
JD: I would say we still have more research to do with what these numbers can do to measure defense. To get a real good runs prevented number, a lot more has to go into the analysis.
I’m not convinced that the linear weights system (which is where the .75 number comes from) can be used in a one game environment. I’m not convinced it can’t be! I’m open to discussing it. Is it .5? Is it .75? Is it something in between?
For now I am comfortable with the .5. We have a rule of thumb to work with as a starting point until we do more research. In fact, I put in an email to Tom Tango (Author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball) about that very thing.
He put together a great book. I read it, and he did a great job. For 20 years I wanted to do a book like that, and these guys did it. In all these years, I wanted to write that book, but never got to do it.
JH: You we’re pretty busy though!
JD: That’s true. It’s so funny. They finally did this work that I wanted to see done, and it’s great.
JH: You obviously are very familiar with Dave Pinto’s fielding system as well. If you had to pinpoint a few things, what would be the main differences between Dave’s system and the plus/minus system?
JD: When I came up with the concept of doing this book, I said I was going to talk to all the people who have fielding systems and research all the different systems out there, and if I had time, put them into the book or relate to them.
I started with UZR by doing research on the web. I invented zone ratings, and someone (Michel Lichtman) came up with ultimate zone ratings. I thought that would be interesting. But honestly, I couldn’t find anything to figure out what it was. I have no idea how he does that system. So I decided to put that on the side burner.
JH: I’ve had a hard time finding that information again recently as well.
JD: Right and Michel Lichtman now works for the Cardinals.
JH: And all that information is proprietary…
JD: Right. So I said ok. David (Pinto) has something. Let me talk to David. So David and I had some back and forth email discussions. Then we had some phone conversations. I discovered the basic premise of his system is very similar to the plus/minus system. There are some things I am doing that he doesn’t do, but the premise is consistent, and I would expect that a lot of his results are similar. Of course there will always be some differences.
JH: One last thing…looking toward the future, are there any things that have come up since the book was published that you may want to look at more closely…positioning was one thing, maybe ballparks…
JD: Ballparks is definitely one thing I’d like to look at. Ballpark adjustments were something I wanted to do, but just didn’t have the time to do it.
JH: Were there any other things that may have cropped up that you thought you really need to include?
JD: Having the corners in was one thing. Oh, the big thing we’re doing this year is “flyners.” Making the distinction between a fly ball and a liner was difficult so we came up with something in between. There will be more things like that.
Our mission is to keep improving the system to make it the best it can be.
JH: Well the book is already a great one, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Thanks again for taking the time today John.
JD: I really appreciate it.
Wondering what young players are topping the charts at each position? I was, so I did a short study to see what players are truly brimming with youth and promise.
My parameters were this— 25 years or younger at the writing of this piece, and listed by position. Close races are decided by OPS.
My original creation, the Baby Boomer Award, is handed out for every position. This would be a great tool for drafting a keeper team from scratch, or settling a barroom argument. And since I am not actually shipping out award statuettes to anyone, that’s probably all it is good for—but still, it’s a semi-clever name, and I feel a need to write a column that isn’t full of the WBC or Barry Bonds.
While many of the names are no surprise, it did amaze me at the total lack of young talent at right field in the majors. Nick Swisher barely topped out Alex Rios, who was basically the only other eligible player.
While I normally would not like putting a .236 hitter at the top of a list, Swisher’s power numbers deserved the nod—and I did see his dad, Steve, play at Ohio University, so brownie points for the old alma mater won out.
Interesting enough, no regular DH qualified. Travis Hafner is the youngest of the bunch, but he was born in 1977, so no DH was awarded a spot on the team.
Also, a special mention should go out about Miguel Cabrera. He won left field this year, but is moving to third. The race between he and David Wright should be special, as both will qualify for this list next year, too.
We’ll look at the top young pitchers in a later piece. If you have ideas or comments on who should make that list, send me an email. Feel free to predict who will win each position next year, too.
And so, let me introduce the BDD first year winners of The Baby Boomer Awards:
Mark Texeira: 4/11/1980
.301, 41 doubles, 3 triples, 43 homers
.954 OPS, 144 RBIs, Gold Glove
Jorge Cantu: 1/30/1982
.286, 40 doubles, 1 triple, 28 homers
.808 OPS, 117 RBIs
Jhonny Peralta: 5/28/1982
.292, 35 doubles, 4 triples, 24 homers
.886 OPS, 78 RBIs
David Wright: 12/20/1982
.306, 42 doubles, 1 triple, 27 homers
.911 OPS, 102 RBIs
Miguel Cabrera: 4/18/1983
.323, 43 doubles, 2 triples, 33 homers
.946 OPS, 116 RBIs
Grady Sizemore: 8/2/1982
.289, 37 doubles, 11 triples, 22 homers
.832 OPS, 81 RBIs, 22 steals
Nick Swisher: 11/25/1980
.236, 32 doubles, 1 triple, 21 homers
.768 OPS, 74 RBIs
Be sure and drop an email about who you think will perform well enough to be considered next year. Write in with your favorite Baby Boomer, and we’ll print some of the responses in a future column.
This one will be called “Game of Shadows”, and it’s written by two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. According to an article on USAToday.com, the book will detail how Bonds has used Winstrol, The Cream, The Clear, Human Growth Hormone, Insulin, and “other performance enhancers” since 1998.
What’s the matter, can’t anyone figure out how to fit the kitchen sink into a syringe?
I suppose this is all newsworthy—in a sick, perverted kind of way—but it’s just Too Much Information. You know, TMI—like when someone starts detailing the latest surgery they’ve had, or tells you what really happens at the colon doctor’s.
Too Much Information.
The source’s listed include “court documents, affidavits filed by BALCO investigators, documents written by federal agents, grand jury testimony”….
Wait a second! I thought that stuff was supposed to be private. And I don’t mean private like ‘what’s in your Aunt Matilda’s underwear drawer’—I mean private like ‘you will not reveal these things, under penalty of law’.
How come I can’t find out what the government really knows about the Roswell alien spacecraft crash, or who shot JFK— but I can find out stuff on Barry Bonds whenever the grand jury takes a bathroom break?
And why is it that these reporters have done such a bang-up job of investigating Bonds—but no one has done the same to Mark McGwire? Did he quit before he came close enough to Ruth and Aaron, just for that reason? To avoid being the fodder for some journalist’s literary ticket into a higher income bracket?
No one has even researched Jose Canseco’s claims for fact or fiction like this—and he has admitted to not only being a steroid user, but also a pusher!
Would the reporters have been so diligent if Barry had been nice, like McGwire? Accommodating for interviews, and quotes, like McGwire?
And yes, I’ll ask it: would they have searched wide and low for data, had Bonds been WHITE, like McGwire?
I know that cultures can clash, and that one culture’s acceptable personality is another’s jerk. Heck, it took me ten years to get used to Bonds’ dangling gold earrings! So I can understand why people are offended by Bonds. But you don’t let that affect your reporting.
And even more, you don’t let your personal opinions ruin other people’s favorite pastimes. But this is exactly what is happening.
Why can’t anyone let me enjoy baseball? If you want to tell someone that Barry Bonds does all this stuff, tell Bud Selig, so he can suspend him.
Oh, but that would require a lot more proof than the average publisher needs, when there’s automatic publicity involved for a book. Publicity like, oh I don’t know…. The breaking of Babe Ruth’s second place total for home runs?
Would the reporters have cared so much if Ruth wasn’t there, and it was just Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Willie Mays with records to be broken? Is it a coincidence that this comes right before the white man’s record falls?
In case any of you are wondering, I was born Caucasian. And I may go to a tanning booth twice a week, but I have no racial guilt complex, or issues of any kind. Except with racists.
I find it hard to believe that these reporters would have treated a Mark McGwire the same way that they have treated Barry Bonds. Because no one else has treated McGwire like this.
So please— don’t tell me what is in any more ballplayers’ blood. Or their urine. I don’t want to know why some of them have muscles like the Michelin Man, and others look like teenagers.
I don’t want to know what steroids do to their manhood. As far as that goes, I’m still coming to grips with some of them having super balls…
In their bats.
There’s so much to offer, I don’t really know where to
start. My favorite part is the stat-tracking feature, under My Digest. I can
enter all of my Strat-O-Matic players, and have one easy reference place to
check on their stats. Each day’s performances are automatically added. Now, I
don’t have to look on 15 different teams for my players’ stats and splits. I
don’t have to type in 30 names on MLB.com. I can just open one page, and have
complete statistical heaven, updated every day of the season. It’s a Fantasy
I don’t want to miss anything about the new website, so I am
going to finish this post with the official press release. Thanks for waiting—I
think you’ll see, it was worth it!!!
| OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE: MARCH 3, 2006
NEW YORK CITY, NY
We are once again ALIVE and well! The site and staff have been completely overhauled, but the quality of baseball coverage is back and better than ever! Interviews, news, stories, and stats…(and do we have stats!) are all back for another spectacular baseball season. We will take you behind the scenes and into the minds of the players, coaches, and general managers. Track your favorite players with the one and only My Digest stats tracker. And follow the pennant chase every step of the way on our leader board!
The biggest news of all this season is that each and every Baseball Digest Daily feature is free!
So head on over to www.BaseballDigestDaily.com and get a head start on the 2006 season right now!
Here is a quick primer on what you will find in each of the main sections of Baseball Digest Daily:
About Us: Self-explanatory. Includes company history, staff bios, press, and contact information.
The Bullpen: Articles, interviews, and polls!
The Dugout: RSS news feeds from major baseball sites around the web!
The Skybox: Information on advertising, sponsorships, and event branding.
My Baseball League: Current home of My Digest! Eventual home of BDD’s own version of fantasy baseball!
Team Tracker: Historical stats, team stats, league leaders, and standings. Our own baseball encyclopedia!
CHECK IT OUT NOW!
Here’s some wild info: in an article on USAToday.com, it is mentioned that Ozzie Guillen is a follower of Santeria, which the article describes as “a religion that combines Roman Catholicism with West Africa spiritual traditions”.
That’s a pretty nice description. In truth, it is widely considered a form of witchcraft. As described on http://www.sparta.rice.edu, it is “a tradition of possession trance for communicating with the ancestors and deities, the use of animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance”.
Wikipedia.com says “Known practices include animal offering, ecstatic dance, and sung invocations to the Orishas (a spirit that reflects one of the manifestations of Olodumare (God) in the Yoruba spiritual or religious system). Chickens are the most common sacrifice; the chicken’s blood is offered to the Orisha. Fruit is also offered to the Orisha. Drum music and dancing are used to induce a trance state in specific participants, who may become possessed by an Orisha who then speaks through them”.
In the following link, you’ll find an article detailing human sacrifice ascribed to Santeria practitioners: CLICK HERE .
WWW.history.pdx.edu says “The Yoruba people of Nigeria had a complex social and political cultural order. They were farmers that incorporated specialized labor practices. In the colonial period, these people were taken against their will from their homeland and brought to the Caribbean as slaves around four hundred years ago.” “The Yoruba people worshipped approximately round six hundred deities know as Orishas.” “When the slaves reached their destinations in the Caribbean, they were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. The Yoruba people were stripped of their lives and their religion. Not wanting to give up their traditional religious beliefs and convert to Catholicism, they hid their beliefs by incorporating them into the Catholic religion. They kept their traditional beliefs alive by equating an Orisha with a Catholic Saint. For example, Babalz Ayi became St. Lazarus, patron of the sick. They passed on their religion through oral tradition and kept it camouflaged under the semblance of Catholicism.”
The animal sacrifice theme is also mentioned: "Animal sacrifice is practiced by Santerians, and can cause much disagreement between Santerians and animal rights activists. Santerians ritually sacrifice chickens and other small animals to aid in sickness or misfortune. The blood is offered to the Orisha to please them, to bring good luck, and for forgiveness of sins.”
In my humorous column “Theo Epstein’s deal with the devil” , I wrote purely in the spirit of a good farce. But now, I begin to wonder…..
Perhaps this is truly how you break a curse in baseball. You have to appeal to the dark side. Perhaps this is what the Indians or the Cubs need to do. Who knew all it took was to dance wildly around a campfire, and kill some chickens?
Unfortunately, all anyone in the Cleveland organization has done is dance at a disco after eating Colonel Sanders.
OK, I am trying to lighten up the mood. But really, admitting you are a practitioner of Santeria is like wearing a pentagram t-shirt to the first press conference of spring training. In other words, not the best of PR moves.
Personally, I preferred the good old days, when a White Sox World Series just meant a few good old fashioned bribes, and Shoeless Joe Jackson getting banned for life.
Next, a moment of silence—just a suggestion, to one of our readers’ favorite discussion points, Alex Rodriguez. And about three hundred moments of silence, as a suggestion, to White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen. I’m not saying that I am totally sick of hearing these guys whine in the press. I am just saying it’s time for the inevitable next step—a pay-per-view mud-wrestling match. After all, mud wrestling is the logical progression—from mud slinging.
I wonder what Ozzie Guillen’s take on Alfonso Soriano is, considering the player’s moaning about moving to left for the Nationals. I think Jim Bowden should trade Soriano to the White Sox. Ozzie and Alfonso can appear on Dr. Phil together, and get some tough love answers to their mouth-running problems.
Bengie Molina could make a guest appearance.
Will Barry Bonds retire? This year, next year, or ever? Hats off to Barry for staying, as he puts it, “fat”. Sure, as many people think that Barry did steroids as thought O.J. was guilty. But that doesn’t mean he did them.
There hasn’t been one test yet that indicated Bonds did steroids. If anyone would be fun for major league baseball to bust, and prove that they were serious about drug testing, it would be Barry. Since when hasn’t any possible accusation or “hate-in-general” been thrown Bonds way? But still he marches on towards the all time homer record. OK, he doesn’t march—it’s a much more painful shuffle. But the point is the same—if he was guilty, they would have busted him.
If baseball had a designated runner, like in some beer-drinking softball leagues, Bonds would hit 1200 homers. We should be appreciating the stellar player he has always been—and not sticking microphones in his face where he and the press can get a chance to ruin the romantic image we could have had of the finest ball player of our generation.
And while there is a fair buzz about Bonds beating Ruth and Aaron, there’s hardly a whisper about Jimmy Rollins being 20 games shy of Joe Dimaggio’s 64 game hit streak. Should it even count, being split into two seasons’ play? Isn’t the idea that the long grind of the season makes this impossible? It will be interesting to see if this becomes an issue.
Finally, a nod to one of my Strat players, Barry Zito. He’s 26, has never missed a start, won a Cy Young, and in his free agent year. He had a streak last year where he went 8-0 with a 2.33 ERA.
If he has a whole year like that, rumor is that Toronto will give him a five year contract for a ga-jillion dollars a year.
And Barry is just spacey enough to think that a ga-jillion is a real number.
Word to Toronto: throw in a ten pack of incense and a new guitar, and you’ve got a deal.
A true baseball slugger can demand loyalty like no other player. To this day, older baseball fans might convey their emotions for a Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle with a passion normally reserved only for family members or war buddies.
In Cleveland in the 1990’s, we had two such sluggers. They have gone their separate ways, and both are in the news today, for very different reasons.
These sluggers are Albert Belle and Jim Thome.
Albert was the first—a monster of a man, who struck terror into opposing pitchers hearts, long before it was also revealed that he struck terror into the hearts of reporters and clubhouse attendants.
He was a dominating bully. Stories of him in the locker room, smashing a thermostat because he didn’t like the clubhouse temperature, or a boom box because someone’s pre-game jams would ruin his concentration, became legend over the years in C-Town.
But in the beginning—the very beginning, the first year or two after Jacobs Field was built—that same bully attitude was very welcome. The Indians were a laughingstock—the joke of the American League, just as the town was a national joke with late night talk show hosts, for our burning river.
Belle was the bully who broke the smile on the jokers’ faces. Whether or not his 381 career homers belong in Cooperstown, in an injury shortened career, is beside the point. His 50 homer-50 double year was historic. And his pointing to his bulging biceps as a reply to in-game accusations of bat corking? Legendary.
Alas, Belle left, first to the White Sox, and then the Orioles. He was never the same, but the Indians continue winning.
One major reason for this was the other slugger in the news today, Jim Thome.
Jim was as far, temperament wise, from Belle as night is from day. He was a good old country boy, with an “aw shucks” written on his face, before you even asked him a question. He, too, was a physically dominant presence- at 6’4” and 245 pounds, he was all muscle, and you could see that when he hit the ball.
To this day, I believe he is still the record holder for longest homerun at Jacobs Field—a notable achievement, since Mark McGwire once hit a homer so long and far that he blew out a section of the giant scoreboard above the bleachers in left field.
In this post-steroids era, both men have faced rumors of steroid abuse. I believe it’s quite possible in Belle’s case, though there is no actual proof. His temperament was classic rage, as indicated by medical experts as a symptom for players ‘on the juice’.
And today, Belle is in the news for allegedly stalking a former girlfriend in his new home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
I hope he doesn’t read this column. Scottsdale is just a few hours away from where I live. Remember, this is a man who chased kids around the block, trying to hit them with his car after they had egged his house, one Halloween night.
Thome, however, is a different story. The phrase that best describes this man is “corn-fed”. He looks like he has lifted cows since he was three. He is simply a big boned, brawny country boy.
I hated Belle for going to the White Sox. And I tried to hate Thome for going to the Phillies, and then the Sox this year. But when you see that big ol’ grin on that crew-cut topped face, it’s hard to not remember the great years he had for your team, and the great affection he inspired.
Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams fans—you were lucky. Free agency had not been invented in your day.
It’s a lot harder to love your slugger than it used to be.