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09/24/2004 Archived Entry: "Cooperstown Confidential, September 23, 2004"
Cooperstown Confidential, September 23, 2004
by Bruce Markusen
Why They Hate Jeter
I’ve been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) since the mid-1990s and have actively followed Sabermetric writing on the web since the later stages of that decade. During that time, there has been no more fascinating phenomena for me to observe than the absolute loathing that many in the Sabermetric community seem to hold for one Derek Sanderson Jeter.
At first, I found the sheer dislike for Jeter a surprising development, given his status as one of the game’s three great shortstops at the time, along with Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez (the likes of Edgar Renteria and Miguel Tejada have since joined the lofty club). I mean, here’s a guy who hits for average, reaches base at a .380-400 clip, hits with more than occasional power, steals bases, and plays a sure-handed (if not particularly far-ranging) shortstop. Combined with his major contributions to a full-fledged dynasty and his enormous popularity with fans, Jeter seemed like a natural for any kind of baseball fan to like and admire.
Yet, as much as Jeter has always been adored by Yankee fans and respected by old school followers of the game, he has failed to curry favor with many involved in the most recent Sabermetric revolution. Taken a few steps further, it’s safe to say that many of the statistically minded have developed a downright healthy disdain (or perhaps even hatred) for Jeter, which has been manifested in some of the most scathingly vitriolic baseball writing on the internet.
So why is that? Why is such a fine player, and seemingly a model citizen, so scorned by what seems like the majority of Sabermetric analysts? Let’s consider a few reasons, some of which may be reasonable and some of which may border on the less logical:
He Has Lousy Range: This has been a valid criticism for the last three years, when Jeter’s range diminished at an alarming rate, but really didn’t hold true to his earliest seasons in the majors (1996 to 2000) and certainly doesn’t apply in 2004, with his defensive revival once again placing him above the league average at shortstop. Even when Jeter’s lack of quickness in the field made him an easy target for faultfinders, his critics failed to spend much time acknowledging his other defensive attributes: his arm strength, his positioning on cut-offs and other “after-the-play” situations, and his range on pop-ups to the outfield. Other than the 2003 World Series against the Marlins, Jeter’s defensive shortcomings have almost never cost the Yankees anything of substance; in contrast, he seems to upgrade his defensive play during the critical stages of the postseason. His hustle and smarts in making “The Play” against the A’s and his strong, accurate throw in nailing a Mets runner at the plate in the 2000 World Series have been far more characteristic of his playoff and World Series performances than his weakness in ranging to his left.
He’s Not A-Rod: When some Yankee fans dared to place Jeter in the same category as Alex Rodriguez, some analysts responded as if they themselves had been personally insulted. Well, of course Jeter is not as good a player as A-Rod; he never has been. That shouldn’t be considered an insult either, given that the same can be said for every player in the game not named Barry Bonds. Rodriguez is one of those rare breed athletes, providing a rare combination of power, speed, and quickness with soft hands and arm strength, one who has a chance to gain recognition as one of the ten greatest players in the game’s history. Jeter’s inability to match A-Rod doesn’t make him undeserving of claims of greatness, as if there were somehow an arbitrary limit of only one shortstop from the contemporary era deemed worthy of Hall of Fame status. Within the next 20 years, both Jeter and A-Rod will take their place in Cooperstown, likely to be joined by both Garciaparra and Tejada. They’re all great players, and there’s no reason why four shortstops from the same era can’t be represented with plaques in the Hall of Fame’s Gallery.
Jeter Is A Pretty Boy: On the surface this might sound silly, but I think there’s something to it. Jeter is generally regarded by the female population as handsome (my wife does not share this opinion, of course), a desirable catch, if you will. In contrast, the stereotype of a typical SABRite is that of a geek wearing oversized glasses and lacking, shall we say, in the manly charms. Is it possible that some Sabermetricians resent Jeter because of his good looks and Hollywood charisma? Could there be some jealousy at play here? I think so, and that only makes Jeter more of a target for any real flaws that he does have.
Jeter Is A Media Phony And A Phony Leader: Critics of Jeter say he plays to the media, spouting cliches and falsely emphasizing team values. It’s as if cooperating with the media has somehow become a baseball sin, while anti-social types like Albert Belle are praised as rebels against an unfair establishment media. In truth, Jeter is a professional. He may not have much to say of great insight, but he never ducks the media, doesn’t refuse to answer tough questions, and avoids being rude and confrontational. As a former radio journalist, I appreciate the availability and courtesy of someone like Jeter, in contrast to the mean-spiritedness and boorishness of a few of today’s prima donna athletes. And if Jeter were such a “phony” leader, why haven’t there been at least a few “unnamed Yankees” to have criticize him through the newspapers over the years. Other than Chad Curtis, I’m hard-pressed to find many Yankee teammates who have had serious disagreements or problems with Jeter. And those are the people who would truly know, wouldn’t they?
He’s Too Selfish To Give Up Shortstop: Along with the “phony” claims, this is one of the weakest arguments against Jeter. First of all, there’s no evidence that Jeter was asked by anyone—from Joe Torre to Brian Cashman to George Steinbrenner—to give up his position at shortstop in deference to Alex Rodriguez. There exists a myth that Jeter somehow refused to give up the position, yet no one can ever cite the conversation where this possibility was even discussed by Jeter and a member of Yankee management. Still, Jeter is somehow held to a different standard, expected to voluntarily walk over to the manager’s office and ask to be moved from his position, the only position he has played since becoming a professional. If that’s the case, where are all the Sabermetric critics asking for Barry Bonds to volunteer his services as a first baseman? After all, Bonds hasn’t been a good defensive left fielder for three years now (dating back at least as far to his defensive follies in the 2002 World Series) and has lost enough speed and arm strength to merit a position change. Yet, Bonds is somehow given a free pass and Jeter is saddled with the label of selfish player. Well, it’s unfair, contradictory, and illogical. In other words, bullbleep.
Now some degree of dislike toward Jeter is certainly understandable. He has a streak of arrogance, has become bulletproof through an overprotective New York media, and perhaps most importantly, he plays for the hated Yankees. Yet, his positive attributes far outweigh the criticisms, which makes the extreme dislike for him so irrational. He’s a talented player who responds well to pressure, plays the game hard and plays it smartly, treats the media with respect, and takes time to talk to fans during games. In many ways, he’s a role model for the way that a star athlete should behave, especially at the ballpark. And that, I believe, means a lot more than the periodic failure to reach a ground ball up the middle.
Washington’s Last Stand
Forfeits and possible franchise moves have dominated some of the off-the-field baseball news in recent weeks. With such controversies in mind, let’s recall the forfeit of an historic American League game in 1971—an event that coincided with the last time a franchise actually moved.
Thirty-three years have passed since a major league team relocated from one city to another. The last time it happened, it prompted one of the most surreal and bittersweet evenings in major league history. It was on September 30, 1971, when the Washington Senators prepared to play their final game before picking up the entire franchise and making a move to the state of Texas.
Only ten days earlier, Senators’ owner Bob Short had received permission from American League owners to move the franchise to the city of Arlington. For several years, Short had complained about declining profits caused by a lack of civic support. On several occasions, he had threatened to move the team, with the Dallas-Ft. Worth area often the rumored destination.
Senators fans responded to the impending move by criticizing Short for failing to improve the team during his tenure as owner. Writers pointed to the disastrous Denny McLain trade with the Tigers as a primary reason for the ballclub’s downfall in 1971 after a promising 86-76 campaign just two seasons earlier. In that deal, the Senators had surrendered two promising infielders, Aurelio Rodriguez and Eddie Brinkman (who comprised the left side of Washington’s starting infield) and productive young pitcher Joe Coleman in exchange for a washed-up McLain and three other players (Don Wert, Elliott Maddox, and Norm McRae), none of whom would contribute anything to Washington’s cause. Critics of Short would forever link the decline of the Senators with this dismal deal.
In anticipation of potential fan unruliness, and perhaps outright violence, the city of Washington paid for fifty extra police officers to patrol Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Stadium for the final game in franchise history. The city’s fears were justified. A crowd of 14,460 fans paid their way into RFK Stadium, but an additional 4,000 fans barged through the turnstiles without tickets in order to bear witness to the Senators’ final game. Fans carried large “anti-Short” banners, some of which contained profane language and were later removed by police officers. One particularly large banner, featuring the words, “Bob Short Stinks,” hung vertically from the outfield rafters. Shortly after security demanded the banner be taken down, a group of fans hastily prepared another handwritten banner that declared: “Bob Short Still Stinks.” The second banner drew roars of approval from the fans at RFK. Another group of fans went a step further, constructing a stuffed dummy that bore a likeness to Short. The angry Senators’ fans hung Short in effigy over a stadium railing.
Most of the Senators’ younger players expressed indifference over the forthcoming move to Arlington. One player, however, was particularly upset over the decision to shift the franchise. Frank “Hondo” Howard, the Senators’ most popular player at the time (in fact, the most popular player during the Senators’ second incarnation from 1961 to 1971), had told reporters in recent days that he did not want to leave Washington to play in Texas. Instead, Howard expressed a wish to be traded. “I’m sure Dallas deserves a team,” Howard said, “but I’m sorry it had to be ours.” Of all of the Senators’ players, the prospects of playing the final game at RFK Stadium hit Hondo the hardest.
Short, perhaps out of fear for his safety, did not attend the final game. Neither did team vice-president Joe Burke, who was busy conducting business in Texas. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and American League president Joe Cronin also decided against putting in appearances at RFK Stadium. One of the few notable baseball celebrities who did decide to attend the game was Hall of Famer Bucky Harris, a member of the Senators’ all-time team.
The early events of the game did not please Washington fans, whose periodic outbursts against Short threatened to halt the game prematurely. Home runs by outfielders Rusty Torres, Bobby Murcer, and Roy White gave the Yankees a 5-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth inning. Howard prepared to face Yankee left-hander Mike Kekich. Fans cheered wildly for Howard, who had earned the nickname “The Capitol Punisher” for the way he crushed fastballs that captured too much of the slugger’s strike zone. Kekich threw fastball after fastball during the confrontation, until the southpaw finally delivered an eminently hittable pitch, which Howard smashed on a line into the left field stands. As Howard circled the bases for his 26th home run of the season, the onlookers at RFK responded with a standing ovation that lasted several thundering minutes. Fans repeatedly called for Howard to make a curtain call, which he finally delivered at the behest of several of his teammates and his manager, Ted Williams. In his first curtain call, Hondo provided one fan with a lasting souvenir when he tossed his helmet liner into the stands. During his second curtain call, the six-foot, nine-inch gentle giant blew the Senator faithful an appreciative kiss. In one of the rarest on-field displays in the game’s history, Howard openly cried as he stepped back into the Senator dugout. The moments surrounding Hondo’s home run represented the high point of an evening otherwise filled with anger, disgust, and violence
“Utopia,” Howard exclaimed after the game, when asked to describe his feelings upon blasting the Kekich fastball into the left field stands. “It’s the biggest thrill I’ve ever had, and anything else I’ll ever do in baseball will be anticlimactic,” Howard declared. “I’ve hit a home run in the World Series, but nothing will ever top this. I’ll take it to my grave.”
According to some of the players who were there, the Yankees may have helped Howard hit the dramatic home run by altering Kekich’s pitching pattern. Yankee catcher Thurman Munson continually called for Kekich to throw fastballs during the sequence of pitches to Howard, instead of having him throw curve balls or change-ups. Throughout most of his career, such breaking pitches had troubled the big-swinging Howard. Hondo reportedly thanked Munson for the “favor,” to which Munson responded, “You still had to hit it.”
Whatever the case, Howard’s home run launched a four-run Senator rally, which tied the game at 5-5. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Dave Nelson and Tom Ragland reached on Yankee errors, and came around to score on a single by Howard’s replacement at first base, Tom McCraw, and a sac fly from Elliott Maddox.
Thanks to the two-run rally, the Senators carried a 7-5 lead into the ninth inning. With two outs, Washington left-hander Joe Grzenda prepared to face Yankee second baseman Horace Clarke. With the Senators seemingly moments away from a victory in their final game, hordes of fans began vaulting over the retaining walls and proceeded to swarm the playing field. As Yankee and Senator players ran for cover, some fans ran directly toward the bases, pulling them out of the ground, spikes and all. Others tore home plate from its sockets. Another group of fans climbed the bullpen roof and removed lights and letters from the scoreboard. Hundreds of fans ripped out sods of grass from the RFK playing field. Most of the intruders sought special mementos that would remind them of the final game in the history of Senator baseball.
The storming of the field by hundreds of fans came as no surprise to the Senators’ players. After the eighth inning, Washington’s relief corps had cleared the bullpen and made for the runway leading to the clubhouse. “I was in the clubhouse,” recalled Frank Howard, who had been replaced by McCraw in the eighth inning. “We could see it coming. It was an emotional moment...a great moment. We didn’t have a lot of fans, but the ones we did [have] were very faithful. To see those people pour their hearts out...” With the playing surface reduced to shambles, and players fearing for their safety, the umpires, headed up by crew chief Jim Honochick (a future star of Miller Lite commercials), decided to call the game a forfeit and awarded the Yankees a 9-0 victory. As part of baseball rules, all statistics from the game counted in the official day-by-day records, but neither a winning nor a losing pitcher was awarded.
Much to his credit, Yankees team president Michael Burke had decided make the trip to Washington and attend the final game at RFK. In one of the more sportsmanlike gestures ever made by a front office official, Burke asked the umpires to overturn the forfeit and award the Senators a win in their final game. Honochick asked Cronin to decide the matter, but the league president said the forfeit—and therefore the Yankees’ 9-0 win—would stand. The Senators’ last game, in all too typical fashion, had ended in a loss.
And what about the principal players in the Senators’ final game against the Yankees? Where are they now? From the Yankees, Mike Kekich, who served up Frank Howard’s home run pitch, became involved in a famous wife-swapping episode with teammate Fritz Peterson. In 1973, the two left-handers traded wives, children, and family dogs, but within a year, Kekich divorced from the former Mrs. Peterson. Kekich, now out of baseball, remains reluctant to talk about the episode. Thurman Munson, who allegedly aided Howard’s home run bid, went on to lead the Yankees to three American League pennants and two World Series titles. Munson, the captain of the Yankees throughout their glory years of the 1970’s, died in the crash of his private plane on August 2, 1979.
On the Washington side, Frank Howard moved with the franchise to Texas in 1972, but played only 95 games there before being traded to the Tigers. He finished up his major league career in the Motor City in 1973, before eventually returning to the big leagues as a manager and coach. Howard has served managerial stints with the Padres and Mets, and has also worked as a coach with numerous teams, including the Yankees, the team the Senators played on their final day of existence. Dick Bosman, the starting pitcher for the Senators in their final game, has toiled in recent years as a pitching coach for the Orioles and Rangers—the team that the Senators became in 1972.
And what of the disliked owner, the man responsible for taking professional baseball away from the shadows of the White House? Two years after moving the team to Texas, Bob Short sold the team to businessman Brad Corbett and removed himself completely from the baseball hierarchy. Short reportedly made attempts to buy the Twins and San Giants in the mid-1970s, but both deals fell through. In 1982, Short died of cancer, at the age of 65. While he lived, Short succeeded in making himself, by his own admission, “probably the most unpopular man in Washington.”
To this day, the Capitol City still feels the effects of Short’s move. Washington has not hosted a professional baseball franchise of any kind—minor league or major league—since September 30, 1971, when the Senators played for the final time. Perhaps that absence will stop in 2005, bringing what might be called “The Curse of Bob Short” to a happy ending.
Card Corner—Richie Scheinblum
During the recent celebration of Jewish American baseball players at the Hall of Fame, I had a chance to talk to former major league outfielder Richie Scheinblum. Known as a free spirit during his playing days, Scheinblum remains affable and outgoing in his retirement, but is a bit more diplomatic than he was during his playing days. On one occasion, his outspoken criticism of the Reds’ organization prompted the team’s publicity director to fire off an angry letter to the editor, which appeared in a subsequent issue of The Sporting News.
Scheinblum was probably best known for being taught to switch-hit by a woman. His Little League coach in Inglewood, New Jersey, a former amateur second baseman by the name of Janet Murk, felt that he could take advantage of right-handed pitchers by switching over to the left side, and helped him make a successful transition. Scheinblum blossomed as an amateur, eventually becoming a terrific minor league hitter. Yet, he failed to establish himself as an everyday major leaguer, in part because of his tendency to worry about his play. A notoriously slow starter, Scheinblum also struggled in making a good first impression. No better example could be found than in 1969, when he started the season in an abysmal 0-for-34 rut for the Cleveland Indians.
Three years later, Scheinblum’s minor league hitting numbers finally translated into big league stardom. As the starting right fielder for the Kansas City Royals, Scheinblum found himself hitting .341 in mid-July, which placed him in the lead in the American League batting race. Then in September, Scheinblum was hit in each foot by a pitched ball—one by Blue Moon Odom and another by Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Richie continued to play in pain, lost 18 points off his batting average, and settled for runner-up status in the AL batting chase.
Scheinblum never again came close to matching his career year of 1972. After the season, the Royals capitalized on his high trade value by dealing him to the Reds for future star Hal McRae, and a subsequent trade quickly placed him on the left coast with the California Angels. During his final major league pitstop, Scheinblum teamed with Mike Epstein to form what the creative southern California media dubbed the “Bagel Battalion.” (It’s not quite as memorable as “Murderers’ Row, but what a nickname!)
Off-the-field circumstances often tended to overshadow Scheinblum’s playing ability. The media sometimes played up his Jewish heritage, while also noting that he was an intriguing mix of Polish, Russian, and German descent. He also gained a bit of fame for filming a series of hair-transplant television commercials, making him a rather bizarre predecessor to the likes of Sy Sperling.
Scheinblum has fond memories of tracking his Topps cards, a yearly ritual that actually helped him determine whether he was going to make his team’s Opening Day roster. “It was the most fun situation [to see myself on a card]. But at the time, very nerve-wracking. A very good friend of mine named Sy Berger, who was with Topps Bubble Gum, would walk into the lockerroom, and all the fringe players, including myself, would wait for Sy to come back. He’d wink at me, so I knew I’d made the team. Topps knew who actually was going to make the 25-man roster before anybody else did. So guys would go by and they’d tug on Sy’s shirt, ‘Sy, did I make it this year? Are you doing a card for me?’ It was a very unique situation.”
Yet, Scheinblum didn’t always appreciate the final result of the photography that appeared on his cards. “There are two or three that I would like to burn. But on a couple of them, I look like a decent human being. Two of them look like I just got out of bed and someone snapped [a picture] in a dark room.”
Rosie Gacioch (Died on September 9 in Clinton Township, Michigan ; age 89): A three-time All-Star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Gacioch won 21 games during the 1951 season. She also pitched a no-hitter two years later. After making her debut for the South Bend Blue Sox in 1944, she spent the rest of her AAGPBL career with the Rockford Peaches, retiring after the 1954 season.
Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is the author of four books on baseball, including the newly-published Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), now available at www.greenwood.com and www.amazon.com. And for those interested in the realm of horror and vampires, Markusen’s other new book, Haunted House of the Vampire, will be available in October. Along with Bay Area broadcaster Marty Lurie, Markusen is co-host of “The Heart of the Order: Old School Baseball Talk,” which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on MLB.com Radio. For more information, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.